Thursday, 1 August 2013

Signing off

And so I come to my last blog from Our Village.

I had hoped to write the blog once a week, for a year, but I’m finding that writing about the village is taking too much time away from living in it.

While the blog has attracted one or two complimentary comments over the last seven months, I don’t believe it is reaching many people on any kind of a regular basis, so I don’t think it will be missed. It is, after all, such a tiny grain of sand amongst so many others swept up by that vast ocean of an internet.

I have enjoyed the experience and I hope it has improved my command of language – which I can now apply to other writing projects.

Farewell! And thanks for reading!

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Heat of the summer sun

Like the rest of the country, our village has been enjoying the long, hot summer days, with temperatures soaring consistently higher and higher to break all known records. Perhaps ‘sweltering’ is a better word for it, as far as humans are concerned; or maybe it depends whether you can relax and soak up the sun, or whether you have to work under its relentless glare.

Animals perhaps have to ‘endure’ rather than ‘enjoy’ the extremes of weather; and I’m afraid owners are often blissfully unaware of their suffering. I have cut back some of Tramp’s fur to help keep him cooler (but wouldn’t last any employment as a hairdresser). I didn’t have him shorn to expose his skin, as I have seen with other dogs, even those professionally groomed -- I would worry he would be burned by the sun.

Ignorance is one thing; uncaring cruelty another. A white Shetland pony is kept in a dusty paddock near the Old School House. I say ‘kept’ when really it has been abandoned there, forgotten by the little girl who, I suspect, is no longer gripped by ‘My little pony’’, nor any longer a victim of the marketing around it. Or maybe she just grew. When Tramp and I past it on our walk yesterday, the pony trotted across to greet us, as usual, swishing its tail to rid itself of flies and tossing its dirty, unkempt mane from its eyes.

As I stroked its nose and chatted to the pony, while Tramp sniffed around the grass verge, a large tractor and trailer lumbered up and drew to a rattling halt alongside us. I saw Young Sally was driving, with almost her whole upper body stretched to span the enormous black steering wheel, arms spread to their limit across the diameter. She had thundered through the village several times a day over the last week, and I knew she had some summer work helping to bring in the hay. She would wave joyously as she sailed by, high off the ground above our heads. She was in her element.

As she climbed down from the cab and said ‘hello,’ I saw Sally was carrying two large bottles of water. These she proceeded to empty into a plastic bucket on the ground just inside the gate to the paddock.

          ‘There’s no shade here for this little horse,’ she said, ‘and no-one’s bringing it water - even in this heat!’

          ‘Horses need a lot of water, don’t they?’ I don’t know a great deal about horses, and I'm not that keen on them.

          ‘They certainly do. A regular-sized horse can drink 10 litres a day. And this little thing has been drinking nearly that much every day this last week.’

          ‘But you shouldn’t have to bring it water. Why aren’t its owners looking after it? It’s so cruel!’

          ‘Yes it is. It could die without water.’

          ‘Should we tell the RSPCA do you think?’

          ‘Best to keep it among ourselves. I don’t want the owners to suspect me of reporting them, which they probably would once they heard I had been bringing water. Don’t worry, it’s all in hand. Old Norm is going to have a quiet word in the right ear.’

          I wasn’t so sure any word from Old Norm in any ear could be quiet, but I was happy to learn something was being done to address the problem, and hopefully shame the owners to either sell the pony or look after it properly.

          I learned some time ago that while country people in our village might appear to have a fairly cold relationship with animals, both domestic and wild, they can’t abide suffering. And so, smallholdings might raise pigs and sheep almost as pets, in relatively luxurious conditions and even giving them names – but once they are big enough they are led away to the slaughterhouse without any hesitation. Deer, rabbits and squirrels might be shot as pests, or to be eaten, but no-one from the village would admit to leaving any creature half alive to die slowly of their wounds. At the same time, our village is proud to help with the preservation of owl, butterfly and bat colonies, and outside experts are frequent visitors, especially those involved in plotting the habitats of adders and grass snakes inhabiting rough land.

          Young Sally climbed back up into the cab of the tractor. She called down to me, ‘See you in the pub later? One more load of bales should do it. Should have it all in by tonight.’ She suddenly sounded rather despondent at the prospect of the work finishing for another year.

          ‘Ok,’ I said. ‘I’m buying!’ It was the least I could do, given how she was looking after someone else’s horse. One good turn deserves another, after all.



Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The School Fete

If swarms of cyclists, cream teas at the shop and house sale signs aren't enough to signal the advent of summer in our village, you can be sure it has arrived once all the local event notices go up.

Throughout the summer months, these little signs mushroom at T-junctions, sharp bends in the road and in front of the Church and the village shop; the landlady even permits a select few on the pub’s grass verge. They urge you to attend all manner of summer events – steam fairs, gardens open for charity, summer fetes, mediaeval jousts, and fun dog shows - to mention but a few variations on a theme. For the more highbrow there are string quartets with Pimms, and Shakespeare in pub gardens; then open air evening performances of operas, or the 1812 complete with canons. You could fill every weekend with these events, and still be spoilt for choice.

Tramp and I went to our first summer fete last weekend, held on our village green in aid of the local school. The hot weather had brought everyone out, and we chatted to friends and neighbours we met as we took a leisurely stroll around stalls. The beer tent in the far corner acted like a magnet to the thirsty, a useful half-way point to cool down. Indeed, so popular was it that they ran out of beer later in the afternoon, and after a frantic ring-around, Brian volunteered to drive to the fete being held a couple of villages away to buy one of their surplus barrels (at a huge profit to them).

Each event followed fast on the heels of the one before throughout the afternoon. I felt for the children performing their country dances and sports displays in the central arena where there was no shade; and similarly, because of the heat, I couldn’t put Tramp, or myself as his escort, through the ordeal of the ‘fun’ dog show (and surely these shows are really for children with their pets?) Permeating all arena activities, and filling the brief gaps in between, were booming announcements given by someone who had evidently always longed to hold a microphone to his mouth, and who should never have been allowed within arm’s length of one.

We did our part, though, to help replenish the school’s coffers for the year, although I’m not sure what the money is needed for. I seriously doubt any child in the school’s entire catchment area is in dire need of books, pencils or crayons, or even an iPhone or iPad, or two. Besides buying tickets for every raffle we came across, we bought cakes at the cake stall and an ice cream at the ice-cream stand; we bought cold drinks and yes, a beer or two from the beer tent. We had a cream tea later in the tea tent. We bought sweets and plants; second hand books I shall probably never read; and a selection of cheeses – to go with the bottle of red I won on the bottle stall.

All good things must come to an end, and once I felt we had thoroughly investigated everything every stall had to offer, Tramp and I took our leave. As I wandered past the shop and the pub I noticed how eerily quiet they were – although the pub may not have opened yet for the evening, of course. It occurred to me that there were probably ten times as many people at the fete than would normally frequent both premises combined, on a single day – and that like me, they were all buying what both the shop and the pub sold every day of the week.

So rather than raising funds, the school fete really re-distributed what could otherwise be local business income – and then some. I wondered if the cheese had come from the shop in the first place.

Monday, 1 July 2013

The Church Hall AGM

Last week we had the AGM for the Church Hall committee in our village. Tramp and I went along, to lend our support. Along with Marianne, we were the only residents to represent the ‘interested public’.

The Church Hall has had a fairly good year financially it seems, especially from being hired out for children’s parties and local club meetings. These were interspersed with the usual crop of the latest exercise classes that mushroom through the winter - yoga, Pilates and Zumba each enjoyed a predictably short run in our village despite the initial bouncy enthusiasm of the organiser.

Brian, as treasurer, soon turned to the Hall’s fund-raising events held through the year, and again, the news was of unparalleled profit. He distributed copies of the Profit and Loss statement and Balance Sheet to all those present as he spoke, delivering his report with a professional ease.

In our village, there is also a certain predictability to which fundraisers are held each year, and who holds each one. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say the assumed ‘rights’ to a particular event are jealously guarded. A few years ago, the youth club committee even threatened to sue the football club for threatening to run a second Easter egg hunt that year, a week before the youth club’s regular hunt. The football club backed down, and contented themselves with the fireworks display and bonfire in November which they always lay claim to.

Similarly, every year the local school runs the summer fete on the green, while the gardening club organises its late summer BBQ (this year they are ringing the changes, slightly, with a hog roast, but no-one is sure if this is a wise move). The cricket team tried a winter 'barn' dance last year in their pavilion, but with little success – just as they have been unable to rally enough men to field a team this summer, they found it difficult to encourage men to come to a dance, even one where a caller shouts the moves.

To raise money for the church, and to tap into the more moneyed classes whose social calendar spares little room for lowbrow village events, Judith and Donald have always arranged a summer opera evening, with Pimms, on the lawns of The Manor (or in their real barn if it is raining). Once the Manor is sold, if it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if a covenant wasn’t written into the contract binding the new owners to continue to arrange the opera night.

All these competing events through the year make it difficult to come up with new ideas for how the Church Hall might raise funds for itself. And so, at the AGM the fall back position was re-assumed - the quiz night, the autumn ‘party’ (avoiding the gender-divisive word, ‘dance’ at all costs), and the Christmas murder-mystery were all scheduled.

          ‘These events all brought a tidy profit last year,’ said Brian, ‘so there’s no reason why they shouldn’t do so again this year.’      

That said, a vote of thanks was proposed and seconded to the outgoing committee, and duly minuted. The same committee members were then re-elected with unsmiling formality. Like our village’s social calendar, no real changes were made; but there would need to be a fairly drastic set of circumstances to justify any alteration to what has become the status quo. In any case, it meant that proceedings were over fairly quickly and we could all adjourn to the pub – having ‘phoned ahead, as usual, to make sure the landlady had opened up.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

First of the season

With the warmer weather the tell-tale signs of summer start to appear…

On our walks recently, Tramp and I have found the bluebells have all but faded in the woods, while nettles and brambles have fast gained ground. The bracken has started to stir, with new fronds unfurling almost every day. Along the lane, the hedge is alive with birds and the cow parsley sends up a heady scent.

And in our village pub, although the welcoming fire is still burning in the inglenook, drinkers have been spotted sitting in the pub garden. Outside the shop, June and George have put up the awning over the picnic table to shield cream tea customers from harsh sunlight. The drone of mowers can be heard most evenings, and isolated swarms of silent cyclists glide and swerve as one body, negotiating our winding, twisting roads at break-neck speeds. The cricket pitch has been mowed even though we don’t have enough players to form a team this season. And at the weekend, Tramp and I went to our first BBQ of the year – this one at Lawrence and Geraldine’s next door.

There’s nothing like a casual BBQ for catching up with several neighbours in one fell swoop. Like our roads, the conversation twisted and turned in its route from topic to topic just as it always does at any gathering in our village. First off the mark was a discussion of houses currently up for sale – the number is growing – and of course everyone had carried out in advance (as soon as a board went up) sufficient internet research to support firmly held opinions on respective asking prices, and whether the property in question could possibly fetch theirs. Geraldine even knew how many toilets each house has, as a valuable benchmarking criteria. No sellers had a whisper of an offer, though, so asking prices remained fairly academic.

The pub as a topic also had its usual airing. There had been a few changes to the list of those currently banned or recently reinstated after a banning. We all worried about the lack of customers and how easily people gave up going to the pub altogether, simply because of the landlady’s cavalier approach to consistent opening hours, or opening up at all. And as usual we all pondered the unanswerable question of what would happen should the landlady give up running the pub, for whatever reason. We came up with no answers.

The recent postings on the village Face book page also came up for discussion. Mothers still seem intent on divesting their children of their toys and ‘hardly worn’ clothing – some seem to be in a constant state of flux, ceaselessly ‘clearing out’ and, presumably, replenishing stocks at the same time. It’s mind-boggling, the amount of toys and equipment children in our village have to be disposed of. Then the hobby farmers always have weird and wonderful items to sell, or which are urgently needed. Lately it seems there has been a run on castration rings. None of us really wanted to consider how these worked.

About half way through proceedings, with the first round of charred burgers out of the way, Tramp disgraced himself slightly by relieving himself in Lawrence’s rose bed. (But at least he removed himself to a discreet distance.) This prompted a turn in the discussion to the contentious issue of ‘dog poo’ in the village, even on the green, and the reluctance of certain people (who remained unnamed, but who we all silently identified) to clear up after their hounds. The matter had been raised at the recent meeting of the parish council, it seemed, but no appropriate action had been determined upon.

The talk of dogs must have put Janet in mind of the recent conversation she had overheard in the shop last week.

          “Carol from New Cottage (which isn’t) said she saw a black puma, chasing around the football pitch!”

We were all struck dumb as we tried to absorb this news, while picturing a puma streaming past the goal posts.

          “A puma?” queried Lawrence, playing for time. “Are they the same as jaguars?”

          “That’s what she said it was. A puma! But it was getting dark at the time, apparently.”

          “Maybe it’s escaped from a zoo… or a private owner?” suggested Geraldine.

          “People really will certainly worry about their chickens and lambs now!” said Lawrence, ignoring the potential danger to human life.

We all then tried to think what Carol from New Cottage (which isn’t) might have actually seen. After much conversational to-ing and fro-ing, the most likely contender to emerge was a young, shiny-coated black lab, possibly chasing a rabbit. But we couldn’t be sure.

While the black lab idea was reassuring, this did bring the conversation down to the mundane. The topic turned to the seemingly heartfelt one of laundry, and starching and ironing sheets at that (even fitted ones)! I felt out of my depth and took this as my cue to leave.

Tramp and I wandered home, calling goodbyes as we left and ready to dodge bicycle swarms; happy in the knowledge of having helped resolve so many issues pressing on people’s minds, and to have caught up with our neighbours’ news. Or had we?

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Youth of Today

Now that the longer evenings are well and truly with us, Tramp and I generally set off for our main walk of the day at around 6.00 p.m. Last night we came back past the Church Hall where young teenagers were lining up for Youth Club in a rather disorderly fashion.

The noise of course was astonishing, but it was driven by excitement and anticipation I believe, rather than any desire to misbehave. Two or three of the girls at the end of the queue spotted Tramp and two came over to stroke him, overpowering us both in their effusiveness.

          ‘Oh, he’s so lovely… so cute!’

          ‘Isn’t his fur soft! I just sooooo  love dogs!’

          They were playing to the gallery, of course. They were full-on, but hardly threatening. Eventually I managed to peel their arms from around his neck, and Tramp and I carried on our way.

          There is a lot of grumbling about young people in our village, as I’m sure there is in many others. At the last Church Hall meeting, scuffed paintwork looked like it might become a major issue, but Youth Club members had already volunteered to organise a working-bee to clean all the paintwork, which of course batted away any further objections.

Another recent complaints non-runner was the matter of the lad who had managed to break a window pane at the hall during a rather too boisterous game of table tennis. His father made him buy a new pane of glass from his pocket money, ready-cut to size, then he had to fit it. Finally he had to come back again and touch up the surrounding paintwork. He made an awful mess of it, and neither glazing nor interior design should probably feature in his career development plan, but that wasn’t the point.

This is really our village’s pathetic level of vandalism, if you can even call it that. Personally, I'd like to see a little more rebellion. Sam, the Youth Club worker employed by our Parish Council, often says that the worst he has to contend with is getting the kids to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ And then only sometimes.

He adds, “Yet parents are always saying they won’t send their children to Youth Club because it’s too rough. Here, in this village! Too rough!!” Sam has worked in much harsher environments.

We did have a case of outright theft in the village, though, last year. The shop often sells the tickets for local fund-raisers – this time it was for a quiz night and fish and chip supper (from the mobile van that was booked especially – normally it parks up in the village every week, much like the mobile library). Walking home from the shop one night, Mrs Purton noticed a plastic container and a number of ‘Quiz Nite + Fish ‘n’ chip Supper’ tickets strewn in the ditch near her house. She immediately turned around and took them back to the shop – but the money for the tickets sold, of course, was not there.

I was in the shop myself at the time and it was easy to narrow-down the list of suspects - given Mrs Purton had not spotted the discarded tickets when she left home, and that there had only been one other customer in the shop within the critical time-frame.

“I bet you it was that young Douglas from up the lane,” pronounced June at the shop. “He’s been skulking around the shelves a lot lately, and today he had me go out the back for a packet of Cheese and Onion, which somehow we’d run out of. He must have taken the ticket box then.”

“He would have been casing the joint,” said Mrs Purton, obviously affected by an over-indulgence in crime thrillers since her retirement.

But the matter was easily resolved. June rang Douglas’ father then and there, and within twenty minutes he had extracted a confession and dragged him down to the shop to apologise. He still had the money, and he handed it over, right down to the last penny. Furthermore, he agreed to help clear tables at the Church Hall after the fish ‘n’ chip supper.

No more was said, but I suspect that a life of crime will not feature too prominently on Douglas’ future career path.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Missing Home

This week as I write, I am away from my village – and away from Tramp, while I stay with friends in a big city. I’ve savoured the sights, and the cuisine. I’ve worked diligently through the guidebook to leave no corner unexplored, no historical fact unacknowledged. I’ve felt the pace, loaded with anticipation. Now I’m ready to return home.

          I’ve walked along hard streets and now find I miss soft clay beneath my feet (even where it means dodging the quagmire churned by horses’ hooves). I’ve felt the texture of smooth granite and polished brass handles and I miss the roughness of a splintering fencepost and the cold, wet rust of a gate’s chain. I’ve wandered through department stores and clothes’ rails, and now I miss the brush of a stray leafy branch against my face.

          I miss the hammering of woodpeckers that you never see, the hedgerows alive with chirruping birdsong and the pad of Tramp’s soft footfall at my side. I miss the blanket of silence as night falls, broken by an owl’s cry or the impossible trill of a nightingale. Instead I’ve settled into the continuous growl and rumble of traffic, mingled with a screech of brakes or a distant call of car horns.

          And the bitter odour of engines rising from the street is no substitute for the freshness of clean Spring leaves after rain, its sharp greenness lingering above where the air is earthy and still, deep in the woods.
          Of course I’ve met some friendly people here, but I miss those I know in my village, and the time they take to greet and to talk about nothing of consequence, when considered at a city level. I’m looking forward to being among them with Tramp, enjoying the familiarity of home – something I could not feel it so intensely had I not been away.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Harmonious Diversity

I suppose our village is little different from any other in the ultra conservative South East when it comes to what I call ‘tributary racism.’

          By this I mean the kind of racism that trickles often unnoticeably, yet persistently, as an undercurrent to social exchange. It can take you unaware, though, shifting what you assumed was solid ground under your feet, as it surfaces to join the mainstream.

Most often, tributary racism is manifested through the odd, passing remark.

          ‘And then, I was put through to somewhere in India and of course I couldn’t understand a word they said!’ – this from peg-toothed Jill in the pub the other night, as she built to a crescendo in an account of her recent foray into telephone banking. She splutters as the ice from her G&T hits her gums.

          ‘Then, when I telephoned my mum, she’d got some dodgy Poles there that she’d let in the house to fit insulation in the loft!’ – this I overheard in the shop, yesterday.

          Quite apart from the assumptions held here – that Indians and Poles by turns are incomprehensible in their speech and a race prone to illegal working practices – this tributary racism gathers pace by resting on the belief that I am of the same mind as the speaker. This was all too evident in the pub last Friday night, when Janet and Brian called in for a drink. They had recently been up to London to the theatre, and witnessed a knife fight between two youths, right in front of them, there in Leicester Square.

          ‘They would have been black, I suppose,’ interrupted Old Norm.

          ‘Of course,’ acknowledged Brian, with scarcely a pause in the story.

          It is often difficult to perceive tributary racism before it surfaces. Lawrence caught me as Tramp and I walked past the end of his drive today, as he was wheeling one of his bins around. He has recently started using the internet and receives circular emails of jokes from his friends at the golf club; he was keen to tell me one that he’d read that day. The gist of it was, a teacher is reading the class register that comprises Indian and Asian sounding names – all pronounced with gusto by Lawrence as he adopts what he considers to be the appropriate accent each time, to hilarious effect, in his mind. The punch line comes when the teacher gets to the English name, ‘Alison’ but pronounces it as if it were Indian. I didn’t laugh; but I found myself consoling Lawrence for this, saying how it probably needed to be read to get the impact of the spellings. By saying nothing I felt complicit, but Lawrence is my neighbour and I didn’t want to offend him by taking the moral high ground.

          One of the Doctors at the local GPs’ surgery in the next village is Black, and of course Lawrence had no hesitation in calling her out to Geraldine when she was ill, just before Christmas. But he would not see any trace of hypocrisy in this. Still, to be fair, a lot of older folk find it difficult to know when they are being racist, especially when it comes to tributary racism. Lawrence, for instance, cannot bring himself to describe the Doctor as Black, and might describe everything else about her to identify her to you, to avoid mentioning the most obvious distinguishing feature.

‘It was the lady doctor that came. You know the one: she is tall, dark haired. Very friendly. Smiles a lot; quite outgoing. Wears smart suits…’

Only if pushed does Lawrence mention the fact that the Doctor is Black, and even then he uses the outmoded term, ‘coloured.’ Maybe this is because ‘coloured’ is less definite and so carries less certainty. Or maybe he cannot bring himself to acknowledge that Black people might have the right to decide on their own descriptor, themselves.

After the exchange with Lawrence, Tramp and I continued up the lane and into the woods on our walk. The ground was firm underfoot; no sloshing through mud today! Once in the trees, the intensity of blue from the soaring haze of bluebells made me catch my breath. They are now in full flower, nodding above a leaf mat of uninterrupted dark green glossiness that covers all remnants of brown, winter earth below. I wonder if the impact would be so strong, though, without the frail white anemones scattered though, the whole forming a vision of harmonious diversity.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Village Shopping

I needed to buy a loaf of bread today, so Tramp and I called at the village shop on the way back from our walk – one that took us through glorious sun-filled woods and fields.
The shop has recently started selling a range of breads supplied by a local bakery, branching out from the previous stock of white sliced, brown sliced and, on a good day, Hovis. And the new breads are a veritable feast for the eyes, ranging through rosemary and sundried tomato ciabattas and paninis, to walnut wholemeals, seeded granaries and dusty white bloomers – all displayed on rough wooden shelves covered in gingham-checked paper.
But it’s not just the dedicated bakery section that’s undergone the rustic revamp – if that’s not a contradiction in terms. June and George, who own and run the shop, have recently gone for the whole Mary Portas ‘country shopping’ experience – it’s not quite as ‘bleached pine’ as the new ‘farm shops’ that are springing up everywhere, but it’s getting that way. So a delicatessen counter now runs along one side of the shop, serving sliced meats and cheeses, along with mysterious marinating delicacies featuring goats cheese and various oils. Sandwiches and rolls can now be made to order from this counter. Meanwhile, home-baked -looking cakes and luxury pates and olives, oils, jams (sorry: conserves) and continental-looking thin biscuits, are all attractively presented in select groupings on little tables to rummage through around the rest of the shop. Fake straw and baskets feature a lot. The effect is not one of a bring-and-buy stall at a fete, I hasn’t to add; but a tasteful discovery experience.
Apparently there was a touch of ‘panic buying’ at our village shop when the snow first fell and people were reluctant to use their four-wheel-drive vehicles in the inclement weather. The artistically arranged displays were forgotten for a while and we were back to normal as far as layout was concerned, as June and George couldn’t keep up with demand. I couldn’t help laughing when I mentioned this panic shopping to my neighbour, Lawrence, as he cleared a track down his drive for his bins.
‘I can’t understand why people have to buy so much just as soon as the weather turns,’ he said. ‘I don’t panic-buy. I just bought extra bread today, and a couple of spare pints of milk, in case the milkman can’t get through. That’s all.’
June’s father was enlisted to help with the rush at the time.
‘I expect you’ve found things you didn’t know you had,’ I joked with him, as I looked round at the shelves almost stripped bare of goods.
‘Don’t know what we’ll do if we don’t get a veg. delivery this week, though,’ he glowered pessimistically, and characteristically, despite the evidence before us of a remarkable set of monthly turnover figures building up.
At this time of year, though, the main rush is after school, when there is almost gridlock in the village centre from 4x4s parked up, while mothers take their offspring into the shop for treats, and maybe a bottle of wine for themselves for later, as they consider the prospect of tackling Miss Craig’s Maths homework.
Anyone who knows the workings of the shop will be aware of how slow it can be to get served at this time of day, as the children try to decide on their sweets, and the hubbub grows as mothers are diverted into chatting. Certainly no-one would attempt to order from the delicatessen section any ham that needs to be sliced, or cheese that needs to be unwrapped, unless one has time on one’s hands. An egg salad roll is out of the question.
But people don’t visit the village shop only for what they can buy. In amongst the throngs of mothers and children there is always a Mrs Purton, or someone like my friend Marianne – people who live alone and who occasionally come into the shop for something other than a painstakingly-made cheese panini or a bottle of balsamic vinegar, and which you can’t arrange in a display or account for in turnover figures. I’m sure though, I don’t have to tell you what that something is.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Signs of Spring

Despite the warmer temperatures, and less bite to the wind, I’m not sure anyone yet truly believes that Spring has secured a firm foothold – but the signs are there.

As Tramp and I slid along the muddy footpaths through the woods off the lane on our walk today, I took heart that Spring might be upon us, though, since the anemones were well and truly in command of their ground. Their white flower heads nodded confidently above the thickening bluebell leaves, while I saw primroses were but scattered indiscriminately among it all, wherever they could find a space. With such a blanket of wild flowers and foliage, the woodland floor certainly looks at its tidiest at this time of year, I thought.

In the lane itself, buds were about to burst in the hedgerows, and some had sneaked open already. Birds flitted everywhere, wearing themselves out with nest building, and all the while setting up a cacophony of song to mingle with the sound of distant lawn mowers and DIY-Jim’s electric sander. I made a mental note to put out more wild birdseed when I got home – I find this is enough to sustain the feathered visitors to my garden, rather than the extensive smorgasbord of nuts, seeds and fruits available in garden centres now, and all manner of specialised containers to hold them.

Because of the birds nesting, all woodland clearing work has been suspended, and I had heard dreadlock-James has moved on, proving that his horsebox home did have an engine in it after all. Similarly, someone announced on the facebook page that they had spotted a moorhen’s nest under construction on the village pond, so the annual pond-clearing work scheduled for last weekend was postponed. It also meant we were deprived of the sight of lead volunteer, Old Norm, striving to tackle overgrown reeds, leaf litter and fallen branches, while stirring-up abandoned pet goldfish and terrapins in his armpit-high waders.

Tramp and I walked on to the fields beyond the stream, where a smattering of ‘hobby sheep’ moved away from the fence alongside the footpath. Their lambs are growing fast; still long-legged, long-tailed, and curious, but now sure-footed as they came to greet us, ignoring the bleated warnings of their mothers.

We skirted around behind Miss Purton’s cottage, with Charles, her cat, in his usual position on the window sill. As we then walked back into the centre of the village, I finally encountered the confirmation I sought that Spring is really upon us, and from what will be the subject of many a conversation in the village pub over coming weeks and months: along the roadside not one, but a crop of three, new, ‘Property For Sale’ signs had sprouted from posts rising from the ground.

Monday, 8 April 2013


People in our village tend to be of two distinct types: the joiners-in and those who stand aside. I choose my words carefully, here, since members of the ‘standing aside’ group are not, as is often claimed, necessarily apathetic. On the contrary, very often they are among the most vociferous in favour of village life. They just don’t actually do anything to promote it or support it, except live here and talk about it. The joiners-in, on the other hand, do just that. They join every committee that’s going, start up any that aren’t, and support the activities of any others they’ve missed.
While I try to do my fair share of committee work, I can’t profess to be the most dedicated joiner-in. That dubious honour must go to Janet and Brian, aka ‘Mr and Mrs Committee’. Between them they chair various Parish Council committees, along with being Brown Owl and Akela (respectively). They both belong to the Church Hall committee, where Brian is treasurer. They each head up the village pond committee and the gardening club committee, while participating actively as members of the cricket club committee (in summer) and the football club committee (in winter). In their spare time they throw in a spot of handbell ringing.
I joined the gardening club myself when I moved to the village. They are dog friendly, and so Tramp and I trot along to each meeting in the Church Hall on the first Thursday of every month, at 7.30 pm sharp. Speakers are advised not to dim the lights too far during their slide shows, or they will face strong competition from snoring from the audience. The talks are well attended on the whole – especially on the tried and tested topics of pests and diseases in the garden, or pruning of any kind. None of us, it seems, has succeeded in conquering the demands of either.
Janet times her announcements for just before the inevitable raffle, for no-one leaves until it is drawn. When it comes time for the raffle, you could cut the tension in the room with a sharp spade, with prizes like packets of seeds, donated tomato plants or a box of Milk Tray up for grabs. You have to buy five tickets at a time, as each strip of five is laminated for re-use next time, saving costs of course. Woe betide anyone who fails to return their strips at the end of the evening – as it is, we are missing several runs of numbers from the draw.
When Janet took to the floor last Thursday, clutching her handwritten list of announcements, I could see she was more than usually determined in what she had to say. Brian moved to stand beside her. Even Tramp stood up and gave a little wag of his tail, by way of encouragement.
Janet ran through the arrangements for the forthcoming Spring show, emphasising that entries for all classes had to be submitted by 12.35 p.m. as judging would commence at 12.40. She explained in vivid detail the difference between a daffodil and a narcissus, and gave us the acceptable dimensions for the round bowl and the tall vase arrangements, respectively.
All this was well and good. But when it came to the final announcement about the regular, annual fundraiser for the club, reading between the lines I could see Janet and the committee had not finished up fully in accord at their last meeting.
Every year, the club holds a summer BBQ, and this year is to be no exception. Club members usually pitch in with providing sausages and home-made burgers, along with salads, coleslaw, jellies and trifles. They are dished up, school dinner fashion, by the committee behind long trestle tables, as everyone passes along the line. We all bring along our own drink. Janet and Brian organise quizzes and games to while away the afternoon, many of which former cubs and brownies have played before. But, given fine weather, it is a friendly, sociable event and usually well attended.
But there has been an influx of new joiners-in to the committee this year. They are hell-bent on making this a village-wide event, and on raising real money for the club through ticket sales and takings from a cash bar. Through visibly clenched teeth, Janet announced that “the committee had decided” we are to have a hog roast, provided at cost by a local caterer known to one of the new committee members. There will be no quizzes or obstacle races; instead a live band will play throughout the afternoon and evening.
“It could be a rather loud affair,” she added, her sole diversion from the party line.
“Will there still be a raffle?” someone asked, behind me.
“Yes,” Janet said, “but I expect that will change, as well”.
“I suppose more books will need laminating”, said the voice behind me, in all seriousness.

Monday, 25 March 2013

No more dancing at The Manor

This morning, Tramp and I walked up towards The Manor and into Fiddler’s Copse on our walk. This way we passed probably the most expensive properties in our village, in stark contrast to the ‘affordable housing’ and social housing at The Meadows on the opposite side. But I was surprised to pass an estate agent’s ‘For Sale’ sign at the foot of the drive to The Manor, with a little arrow stapled to the post, no doubt in case you did not notice the vast sprawl of buildings before you, crowning the hill ahead.

As we drew close, I could see the owners, Judith and Donald, were serious about selling. The potholes in the drive had been filled and the surface re-dressed in new shingle that sparkled in the drizzling rain; fences had been repaired and the lawns looked unnaturally groomed.

Judith is a staunch supporter of all things church, from organising the flower roster, to taking bible classes, and from running local coffee mornings to packing parcels for the poor overseas. In our village, she is the visiting vicar’s right-hand person; without her drumming-up business, he probably wouldn’t bother to come at all and the Church would be turned into a country tea room, no doubt.

Although The Manor is rumoured to be owned by Judith, inherited from an old aunt who died many years ago, over the years Donald has assumed the role of ‘Lord of the Manor’ with some dedication. He can be seen most days, strolling through the village wearing heavy green corduroy trousers with a loose silk cravat at the neck, while two floppy brown spaniels meander in his wake. His unkempt, bushy white hair and the ornate walking stick he carries, with its polished brass handle, add the desired air of slight eccentricity.

Donald is not an elected Parish Councillor – he’s about as far as you could get from being ‘a man of the people’; but he can be found at every open village meeting, ready to pass comment in measured tones, weighted with gravitas. He operates as an unelected leader of the wealthy, ‘landed gentry’ types in our village, who speak as one against any suggestions for development in general, and for more social, or ‘affordable’, housing in particular.

‘We must preserve the look and character of the village at all costs, or it will be lost forever to our children!’ so-says Donald regularly, finishing with a tap of his walking stick for emphasis.

Of course, most young people born and raised in the village are forced to move away -- they cannot afford to live here, in the rare event that a property does come on the market.

So I was more than surprised, then, to notice Judith and Donald’s power base was up for sale. I made a slight detour to call on my friend Marianne on the way home. While the kettle struggled to boil on the Aga hotplate, and Tramp settled on the floor to warm by the ovens, Marianne looked up the details on her laptop.

We were astounded to see the asking price: close to £3.5 millions, but it includes several acres of farmland and woods – including Fiddler’s Copse, home to lucrative pheasant shoots. Even more interesting to us were the interior photos, of course, giving glimpses of rooms and a lifestyle that most of us in the village can only wonder about. The webpage showed us room after room with beamed ceilings and lead-light windows, each sumptuously furnished with sofas, rugs and polished antique furniture; polished silver gleamed while an open fire blazed in the inglenook fireplace.

          ‘Sad, really, for them to give up such a lovely old building. It must be 16th Century in places… as old as the village, almost. And in Judith’s family for years.’

          ‘I heard ages ago they were looking to move,’ said Marianne, ‘but I didn’t quite believe it. They have most of these rooms closed off, though. They just live in a few rooms at the back.’

          ‘Well, who could use - what does it say? - eleven bedrooms?’ Or afford to heat it all!’

I hadn’t realised the main house was quite as large as it was. It even had a ballroom and a library. Then there were all the converted outbuildings – one housed a swimming pool; others accommodated the gardener, the gamekeeper, along with their families. So, although Donald so strongly opposed any housing development, and the ‘drain on resources’ it would bring, it seemed he had quietly developed his own satellite hamlet, looking down on our village below.

‘Do you know where they are moving to?’ I asked.

          ‘Well, I did hear a rumour some time ago that they were buying a barn in a field right up the other end of the lane.’ Marianne finally poured the tea as she spoke. ‘Of course it’ll have planning convert it,’ she added, sarcastically, raising her eyebrows.

          ‘Oh, so they’re down-sizing, then! No room for a ballroom this time!’

          ‘No. Dancing days up there are over, that’s for sure.’ In Judith’s aunt’s time, The Manor had been renowned for the village dances it held, by all accounts. ‘I wonder what will happen to the old place; who will buy it?’

          ‘Maybe it will be turned into flats!’ We laughed at the prospect.

          ‘Luxury apartments, more like,’ added Marianne, knowingly.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Village News

Tramp and I stopped at the village shop today, as we sloshed home from our waterlogged walk through the pouring rain. The latest edition of the Church News was out and I wanted to buy a copy… not, I should explain, because I wanted to be informed of forthcoming church services, but because I needed a plumber.

The Church News is a locally printed magazine produced by Church organisers. Like the shared vicar, it covers our village and two others in the area. It has to be said, though, that the editorial section has shrunk over the years – and even then, while it contains news of a variety of local events, increasingly few are to do with the Church. With every edition, it seems more and more pages are devoted to small, paid-for, ads., which largely offer the services of local businesses run from people’s rural homes.

There are ads. for the personal services that are available in most communities of course – hairdressers and beauticians, hypnotherapists, chiropractors and ear candling experts. And there are teachers to educate us in all manner of musical instruments, languages, and computing, in between our exercise classes and golf lessons.

With so much building renovation go on in the villages (if you can get planning approval), we’ve plenty of work for the home-based architects and builders who advertise, along with the  carpenters and joiners, painters and decorators, electricians and plumbers. Then we can use the interior designers and those with a flare for home furnishings to run us up some curtains. Of course we need the caterers and cake bakers and decorators for the party at the end of it all.

You really know you are in the country, though, when you see so many ads. for horse livery and the two (yes, two!) nearby forges; and tree surgeons – alongside logs for sale; and landscapers, gardeners, and fencers.

And so, while local Church activities diminish and congregations dwindle, the Church’s monthly magazine has been a commercial success.
More recently, though a media rival has been gaining ground on the Church News … For, our village now has a local facebook page. And so modern technology is drawing rural people together in a way that the printed, monthly magazine can never hope to... and perhaps in a way that the Church itself no longer can.

Anyone and everyone, with access to the world wide internet, can advertise their very local services or upcoming village charity events and fundraisers – instantaneously. No-one has to worry about publication dates or print runs.

More than this, communication is two-way - so much so, the administrator has admonished us for ‘chatting’ and taking up people's valuable in-box space. But if we wake up in a panic over overdue library books, we can ask our neighbours en masse when the mobile library will next visit. The local police liaison officer can tell us about recent ride-on mower thefts, or filching from oil tanks, and ask for posts on anyone suspicious lurking around back gardens.

          Increasingly though, of late, – and herein may lie its demise – the facebook page has been taken over by ‘sales and wants’ type ads. So much so, they are crowding out the events notices and police information. Again, the administrator is not happy about this trend and has threatened to create a separate advertising page.
It is through the sales and wants posts, though, that we get the most rounded understanding of the lives and concerns of people in our village. We know when a neighbour is turning out their wardrobe, advertising designer clothes they can no longer fit into, or crippling shoes they can no longer persevere with in the name of fashion. We learn when they’ve given up learning the cello or the harp, and when they’ve abandonned the struggle with Greek grammar or Spanish vocabulary. We realise how fast their children are growing, too, as we see successive posts devoted to toys they have lost interest in, or when they need a bigger bike; and clothes they have grown out of. And as the family life proves demanding on resources and energy, we know when people can no-longer enjoy the pursuits of their previous, footloose and fancy-free existance – with windsurfers, wetsuits ('hardly worn'), skis and boats all appearing for sale as they clear out their garage.

Animals make a strong showing, of course - there's more room for them in the country. There are countless posts for homes needed for motherless lambs, or for horses, and pets – especially guinea pigs and rabbits that have bred unexpectedly, along with all the paraphernalia that goes with them: hutches and runs, saddles and bridles, food, straw and hay. In this priviledged area of the country, more exotic creatures also drum up all manner of associated trade – donkeys, deer, emus and llamas, miniature goats and potbelly pigs. We know when any have sadly died, too, as half-eaten bags of food are offered for sale.

But if the facebook page is anything to go by, I would say the local industry showing the most rapid growth, is that surrounding the most common domestic pet – the dog. And so, we no longer have to contemplate finding a boarding kennels for when we go away to escape the winter weather… we can have someone live-in and dog-sit, so that the dog's life suffers minimum disruption. Or we can organise a holiday fot the dog at someone else’s house, where they are treated as one of the family, and enjoy probably more luxury than they have at home.

And on days like today, I can’t say I wasn’t tempted to employ a local dog walker, to slurp through the mud and rain with Tramp – while I contemplated buying some Jimmie Choo’s to totter about in, perhaps, instead of wellingtons. Or maybe I should try walking him in that wetsuit ('hardly worn').


Monday, 11 March 2013

Names and Numbers

 Our village woke this morning to a white surprise of snow, and there have been showers and flurries throughout the day as the forecast arctic blast has taken hold.

Our trusty milkman, Martin, had visited before breakfast, though. He had left a form for a ‘milkman of the year’ nomination under the pint on the step, and I am tempted to put him forward for it. He has definitely delivered above and beyond the call of duty this winter on his round; I don’t think he’s missed a pint, even when it meant sliding his milk float across roads of sheet ice in sub-zero temperatures.

But today, the snow hasn’t really settled on the roads or pavements. Rather, when I ventured out with Tramp for our walk, I realised that it was probably the biting, arctic wind that has kept everyone indoors. Even Tramp gulped and choked a couple of times, as he inadvertently swallowed the chill air.

As we turned up the lane, a car pulled up in front of me. The driver wound down his window and called, ‘Can you tell me where 'The Old Schoolhouse’ is, please?’

          ‘Ah,’ I said, ‘you need to turn around. It’s back past the Church Hall, on the left. Keep the Pub on your right, and the Church on your left, and you won’t miss it.’

          I couldn’t help but think about this conversation, as I carried on up The Lane, battling through the cold. For it occurred to me that in our village, no-one goes by street names to locate a property. We all go by house names, instead. If someone asks you where so-and-so lives, you might direct them by saying, ‘They live in Old Elm Cottage; past The Hollies… next door to Pond House…’

          The exception to this is the cluster of ‘affordable housing’ known collectively as ‘The Meadows’ where houses are arranged along a grid of named streets, terraces and closes. The development was constructed just after the War, originally as Council houses, but now they are mostly privately owned as a result of the ‘right to buy’ scheme brought in some years ago. Maybe it serves as a social comment of the time, but The Meadows is set at a discreet distance from the centre, on the outer fringes of the village past the shop, and the houses are numbered rather than named.

          But it’s not just a matter of identifying houses by their names, but a matter of using the house names to identify the people that inhabit them -- again with the exception of The Meadows. And so, if a newcomer ventures into the pub, after a respectable number of visits cloaked in silence, they might be asked, ‘Where do you live?’ – not ‘What do you do for a living?’ or, ‘Where do you come from?’ And when they say ‘New Cottage’ (which isn’t), everyone will reply as one, ‘Oh – Carol and Fred’s house!’

Similarly, in the pub the other night, I overheard Peg-toothed Jill talking about Jim, and the noise of his incessant hammering that day as he worked on yet another modification to Corner Cottage. ‘You know,’ she explained to young Sally, ‘he lives in Mary’s old house.’

For we will always think of Corner House as Mary’s, long after Jim has finished his home improvements (but which show no sign of abating for the foreseeable future), and even after he has died, or left the property in corporal form. In this way, the connections between previous owners of a property preserve its history, and perhaps the history of the village.

Of course, like any delivery driver who doesn’t know the area, any new milkman taking on this village as their round surely has their work cut out marrying up orders to such a discrete address system. As Tramp and I rounded the pond and headed for the warmth of home, this seemed like another commendable reason for nominating Martin for the award – such a facility of mind must put him head and shoulders above the rest.


Monday, 4 March 2013

For want of suitable shoes

Birdsong enveloped Tramp and I, as we made our way up the lane towards the woods on our walk this morning – and if it wasn’t for still having to wear wellingtons to navigate the mud to come, I would have said it brought a spring to my step. As we passed people’s front gardens, I noticed crocuses were open to the warm sunshine, bringing jazzy colour into view; so loudly bright when our eyes are used to grey, lightless days. Such a glorious, early Spring day cannot fail to lift the spirits.

I noticed one of the houses in the lane was up for sale as we went by. It has been empty for a while. Last winter, though, it was rented out to a couple in their fifties, Dawn and Bill. They were second-time-arounders, both with children grown-up and married, but who had only just met. They were with us only a few months. While I suspect they probably weren’t right for each other from the start, it seemed that living in our village did little to cement their union.

Village life can seem remote, even in the crowded South East, so it does take a little getting used to. This much was certainly evident when I spoke with Dawn in the Church Hall during the interval of the Christmas show that year.

          ‘It’s so dark everywhere,’ she complained. ‘How do you manage without streetlights?’

          ‘Yes, I suppose it is quite dark at times,’ I said. ‘I am just used to taking a torch with me wherever I go now. I don’t really think about it.’

          She went on, ‘But what about driving?! And you have to drive because there’s nothing here, is there? I can’t bear driving along these winding roads in the dark. I feel such a prisoner by the time it gets to around 4.30! Don’t you?’

‘Well, it doesn’t worry me so much probably, because I am used to the roads…’ I faltered, realising that she was completely missing the point and didn’t see the bigger picture of what village life had to offer. I tried a more positive tack: ‘You know, the stars are so bright here on a clear night. The sky is a real canopy of lights! You don’t see the stars nearly so well with street lights, of course.’

Dawn moved away, no doubt hoping for a more sympathetic ear. Meanwhile, I overheard Bill enthusing to my neighbour, Lawrence, about the barn owls he had seen. I often see them myself, fluttering over the fields like airborne white handkerchiefs, before they swoop down to collect their prey. Bill had started taking evening strolls to watch them. Dawn, it appeared, was not interested in accompanying him, for want of suitable shoes. They broke up soon after -- Dawn and Bill that is; not the shoes.

Today, I continued deeper into the woods and passed where the wild daffodils grow. No sign of them yet, but I would be ready to find them when the time came, as well as keeping a sharp look out for the wild orchids that grow nearby. As we circled back past the stream, while Tramp paddled I checked the sunny bank I knew would soon display primroses and violets better than any stand at Chelsea. The primroses were in position; violets are yet to make their appearance. Still, it is only March!

It was in these woods that I saw my first badgers – alive, that is, for sadly, there is no shortage of badgers killed on the roads around our village. Actually, I saw not one, but a family troop of badgers that day, trotting along a ridge in single file through the shimmering sunlight that filtered through the trees. Tramp, like me, stopped in his tracks and watched them, filled with wonder at the sight. They have spoiled me now, though, for seeing deer skipping lightly away from our path ahead, or foxes whose eyes shine like jewels in the undergrowth, especially at dusk.

          There are woodsmen at work in several areas of woodland around the village, and it is clearly evident where they have been: the ground in the woods looks vulnerably bald where trees have been thinned, and brushwood heaps line the edges of the footpaths. But I console myself it is for the best, and it won’t be long before the undergrowth is rejuvenated.

Soon after passing their makeshift day camp and charcoal burner, I spotted James, who lives in an old horsebox parked in the grounds of a house on the outskirts of the village, where something of a ‘commune’ has collected. He usually works with the woodsmen. Now he was kneeling, hunched over a log in a boggy patch alongside the path.

          ‘Hello James,’ I said. ‘What are you doing?’

          He straightened on hearing my voice and tossed his long dreadlocks back over his shoulders. I could then see that he held a camera in his hands, with a smart, technical-looking lens attached.

          ‘I’m photographing this,’ he said, and pointed at the log. ‘It’s an early, Spring fungi. Such a wonderful shape and texture.’
I knelt and looked at the perfectly-formed, soft fungi, pristine against the dark, rotting wood. But what I found more astonishing was that someone who works so closely with trees in the woods could be so captivated by such detail. It really was like looking at the world through a different lens - compared to Dawn’s; and not just a matter of appropriate footwear.