Monday, 28 January 2013

The best of all possible worlds

(With apologies to Voltaire!)

The thaw has truly set in, and most of the snow has vanished. As Tramp and I reached the fields on our walk today, we had the worst of both worlds - underfoot at least, with slushy, melting snow giving way to a boggy quagmire beneath. Whereas white poodle-bobbles of snow stuck to Tramp’s fur last week, today it was soon coated in thick, black, mud.

But it’s good news for the ducks on our village pond. Today as we passed, I saw they were afloat. They were no longer stranded on the ice, perplexed that the element that usually nurtured them had turned so hostile and impenetrable.

Today, Tramp and I called at a friend’s. Marianne spotted me from the kitchen window as I skirted the old well in her garden, which I recalled is adorned with rambling yellow roses in summer. She came out to greet me. In an attempt to clean off the worst of the mud, I baled water over Tramp from the half barrel under the disused, but attractively rustic, pump. Marianne handed me an old towel for him.

          ‘Come in, come in! Don’t worry about the mud. Tramp’s fine on the flag floor!’

Marianne’s is a snug, stone cottage. It was originally built for farm workers, like the one next door, and they date back to the early 1800s. It has a small lounge with exposed beams and an open, log fire, which Marianne is proud to ‘keep in’ throughout these cold days, even if she spends most of her time in the kitchen. Everywhere there are throws and cushions; then there are watercolours and old prints on the walls, and brass lamps and knickknacks on the side tables. The kitchen has a large pine dresser holding crockery, pots and jars, along with a long farmhouse table and mismatching chairs. Along the end wall of the kitchen, like a battleship in dock, is, of course, The Aga.

For this is Aga Country – where the Aga showroom features prominently in the High Street of our nearby town, right next door to the Farrow and Ball paint shop.

As usual, our Aga conversation went something like this:         ‘It's lovely and warm in here, Marianne.’
          ‘Well of course. I have The Aga.’ (True Aga converts always use the definite article.) ‘It heats the whole kitchen.’
          ‘But you do swelter in here having it on through the summer… Wouldn't a radiator do the job, and be more efficient? And yours runs on oil, doesn't it? Oil is so expensive now, and it’s so hard to control, surely?’

          ‘It did take a bit if getting used to as you know. But I do all my cooking on it now. It’s so wonderful for scones... and slow roasts and casseroles are perfect in here.’

She was opening and closing flaps and doors as she spoke, and as her missionary zeal accumulated. ‘AND, I dry all my clothes on the ceiling rack… so I don’t need a dryer!’ She lets it down on the pulley a little way to demonstrate, and to finish in triumph.

Marianne’s conversion is complete. She has all the accoutrements of Aga living… the Aga oven gloves, the Aga tea towels and an Aga kettle. She also has the Aga rail alongside the ceiling rack, from which dangles her collection of Aga kitchen utensils.

Until I got to know her, I thought Marianne was born and brought up in our village – instead, she has adapted to country life like a duck to water. She retired here shortly after her beloved Jack died of a stroke, at far too young an age. Until then they had shared a life under the bright lights of the city, financed by their respectively pressurised careers in IT, with Marianne working for an investment bank.

Despite the Aga – which, to be fair, came with the house, I would never accuse Marianne of any shallow affectation in adopting her new lifestyle. Rather than the constraints of the city's glass and steel, Marianne’s country cottage seems a natural progression for someone whose original element was the excess of fabrics, flowers and beads that characterised the new freedoms of the 1960s.

But, and again despite the Aga, she is not keen to turn back the clock altogether; instead she has the best of both worlds. When she is not texting and skyping her grandchildren, a light often shines from her spare bedroom window, announcing that Marianne is at her computer. Here she dabbles in stocks and shares ‘to bring in a little pocket money.’

After tea, and consuming what I have to confess were simply delicious Aga scones, Marianne walked Tramp and me to the back gate. At the foot of the gate post, we spotted a new colony of snowdrops – so inappropriately frail and trembling as heralds of Spring, yet fully acclimatized to the winter cold.


Monday, 21 January 2013

No change at the pub

The snow came to our village on Friday and has been here ever since. Every horizontal surface is highlighted by a remarkably even, plump whiteness, bringing into relief every tree branch, roof top and fence post. 

This is the third year in a row that we have had substantial snow falls, following years of merely watery winters, and perhaps to some this time it’s not so much of a novelty. Schools finished early, and we’ve had a whole weekend since, but sadly, I’ve yet to encounter a snowball fight in full swing, or so much as a mishapen snowman.

When Tramp and I returned home from our trudge through the thick of it on Friday – slowed by his insistence on stopping at regular intervals to eat as much snow as he possibly could, several text messages and emails were waiting for me. The call had already gone out: who was going to the pub that night? It is reassuring to find that the centuries old pub in our village is still a meeting place that brings locals together – if only because adverse weather prevents people driving elsewhere. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, or just of our pub, that a virtual, electronic meeting is required beforehand to check if anyone’s going.

Our pub attracts little or no passing trade, and if you don’t have a roll call of potential attendees you can find yourself the only soul sat in the bar all night. The landlady is even likely to stay out the back if there’s something gripping on TV, or if she has family staying, leaving you to serve yourself – that is, if she hears you knocking and lets you in, in the first place. Anyone new to the village who ventures inside has to be prepared to persevere, by attending regularly for several weeks, before their silent vigil at the corner table may be broken, and they are finally rewarded by the welcome behind the words, ‘Are you local?’ Understandably, not everyone lasts the distance.

Our pub landlady certainly has her own approach to running a business, and it is not one that is driven by the profit motive. This of course absolves her of any sense of responsibility to provide a consistent, reliable service, since she would just as soon not attract customers, or not too many. She has kept numbers (and income) down by banning a good many people over the years, and by turning away summer cycling groups and the odd passing A-list celebrity – the former if they arrive en masse without warning, expecting a roast lunch, and the latter for looking scruffy. This customer-facing attitude keeps us locals on our toes of course, and it is with something of a misplaced sense of privilege that regulars like me are left feeling grateful that we are allowed in.

When it comes to food, our village pub has not gone the way of so many in the countryside that strive to become ‘gastro pubs’. No ‘bed of cous cous’, or ‘jus’ of anything, grace the menu, and the food comes on ordinary plates and not the oh so fashionable, old-fashioned, chopping boards. We do have a ‘backboard menu’, but usually only main courses are available. Even then the description is not always indicative of what might actually be served up – for ‘ham, eggs and chips’, for instance, read ‘ham, boiled potatoes and possibly an egg;’ for we all know the landlady rarely cooks chips, and egg frequency depends on whether the hens are laying. A local shoot predicts pheasant on the menu that week, since the landlady cooks the ‘shoot dinner’ and is paid in kind… and we’ve learned to watch our teeth on the lead shot.

On Friday we all congregated in the small bar, as always. There is another, much larger bar, but no local uses it, and if you sit out there your only companion is likely to be the landlady’s washing, drying on the clothes horse. The small bar is almost engulfed by the inglenook fireplace, which has logs the size of a small child burning winter and summer. When it's wet, stand too close and if you don't get soaked by the rain falling down the chimney, you'll find yourself jumping every time the fire spits and splutters.

Coming in from freezing temperatures outside, as we did on Friday, everyone is initially drawn to, and then circulates around, the fire -- or, imperceptibly, the fire circulates us regulars like convected air, for it burns far too hot for anyone to stand nearby for more than a few minutes at a time. Our numbers slowly thin, and the flames reduce, so those remaining draw up stools in the glow of the embers. With the landlady out the back, but in hushed tones nevertheless, the usual question arises, ‘What will happen to the pub if she retires? What if she really can’t afford to run it any more?’

We run through the usual list of villagers’ complaints. Because of the landlady’s whimsical attitude to opening hours, everyone has a story to tell of the time they were turned away, or found the pub closed by 9.00 p.m. For the more service-oriented people in our village, though, these are reasons enough to stop them going to the pub ever again.

With the prospect of venturing out into the icy cold to make our way home, we reluctantly we push back our stools, just as the usual consensus is reached. But as is often the case after a few glasses of wine with friends by a fire, it seems like an entirely fresh and historic conclusion: the pub should stay just the way it is!

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Where have all the children (and livestock) gone?

Our walk today took Tramp and I along the footpath between the church and the pond, as we headed towards the football pitch, which is really little more than a famer’s field mowed and marked out for a game when the occasion arises. Even though school had finished for the day, no cries of country urchins playing an impromptu match greeted us here, with school bags and hats taking the place of goal posts, as might have been the case in days gone by. Instead, the pitch was deserted and shutters were bolted down on the shabby wooden pavilion, blanking out the windows.

Idly wondering why we didn’t meet children playing out after school any more, Tramp and I wandered into the lane; then, VROOM!... VROOM!... VROOM! - a convoy of four-by-fours barrelled past us, first one, then another, and still another, forcing us to jump up onto the verge, sharpish. Through each windscreen that passed I could make out the blur of a mother craning forward as she gripped the wheel, a frantic look in the eye, while her offspring bounced along on the back seat. They were on their way to their weekly horse-riding lesson at the stables at the far end of the lane.

Tramp and I peeled ourselves away from where we had been flattened against the hedge, and I was struck by the irony of children being ferried by probably one of the most advanced forms of land transport to take exercise on one of the oldest.

Just as children no longer run about in the open spaces, the fields surrounding or village are no longer dotted with cows. Indeed, when I first moved to the village, the news on people’s lips was the sale of the local dairy farm, and everyone I met seemed most concerned to inform me of what I’d missed out on, rather than what I could look forward to as a new resident. It seemed the village’s greatest loss was the dairy shop, where the creamy ice-cream had been nothing short of heavenly.

As I walked Tramp one afternoon during that first week in the village, I actually saw what must have been the last truckload of cows pull up at the end of the lane. Leaving the engine to tick over, the driver dropped down from the cab to unhook the Dairy Shop sign hanging from a wooden pointing finger. He left the pointing finger behind: an admonishment, I like to think, to all those who didn’t eat enough heavenly ice cream for the dairy farm and its shop to remain.

Where once dairy cows slowly grazed, the fields are criss-crossed with electric ribbon fences and littered winter and summer with frisky, long-legged thoroughbreds. The milking sheds, once steaming flank to flank with jostling cows, are now crammed with neatly-tied hay bales, if they haven’t been divided into rows of stables for horses to nod their heads from. The premises are given over to all things horse – the owners breed their own and stable other people’s; they give children riding lessons, and negotiate the maze of bridleways on rides out through the woods; they train show jumpers and supervise dressage in their custom-built, indoor sand school. They have now opened a shop to sell horsey goods where the Dairy Shop used to be.

Tramp and I walk on to pass the snug cottage at the end of the lane, with its two top floor windows peeping out like lidded eyes from under the softly curved, blanket of a roof. The current owners don’t keep cattle, pigs or carthorses as their predecessors once did, but they must be desperately keen on eggs, given the number of hens scratching under the three old, twisted apple trees at the side of the house. Their little henhouse is painted sky-blue and has white shutters at the windows. The hens’ entire area is surrounded by an electrified mesh, sufficient to fortify a small arms dump.

Suddenly, a velvety Weimaraner bounded out from the cottage, ready for a game with Tramp. Almost immediately, though, a shrill voice sang out some such name as ‘Meralla! Meralla!’ to summon her back inside, and back under control.


Monday, 7 January 2013

Out with the old; in with the new...

…or so the New Year saying goes. But such a sentiment surely runs counter to today’s preoccupation with recycling.


When Tramp and I set off on our walk this morning, we reached no further than my front gate (not far; a few steps) before spotting my elderly neighbour, Lawrence, dragging his recycling bin behind him down their long gravel drive. In fact I heard him before I saw him as he was still some way off, and was expending all the effort of pulling a ship single-handedly across a pebbly beach. The bin was dutifully brimming over with Christmas wrapping paper and cardboard packaging, and I could hear the chink of empty New Year’s Eve bottles.

With 12th Night just gone, of course, recycling comes into its own, and ecological gurus at the council urge us to recycle Christmas cards and packaging, while skips at the tip are empty and waiting for the seasonal surge in real Christmas trees –cut down in their prime little more than a month ago.

“You do realise you’re slightly early for collection? It’s only Monday!” I couldn’t help mocking a little. It wasn’t that he didn’t know what day of the week it was, but Lawrence was renowned at our end of the village for putting out their bins so early, people sometimes doubted if he’d taken them in at all (which was, of course, unthinkable).

Recycling activity is now so pervasive, it cuts across all socio-economic strata, or at least across strata that put out their own bins. I would go so far as to say that as a topic of conversation, household recycling ranks as highly as even the motorway conversation (“The M25 was a car park!”); the contact lens conversation (“Daily disposables or still on monthlies?”); and the giving-up smoking conversation (“Patches or cold turkey?”).

And so, with outsiders we compare bin colours (ours are blue – or “cobalt” in official correspondence), determine whether (like us) they have an all inclusive wheelie bin or still self-segregate plastics from papers and tins into the too-small baskets; and we discuss collection frequencies (ours are fortnightly, on a Thursday).

“Oh, it’s so heavy from Christmas rubbish I have to bring it down the drive in stages – otherwise Gerry would only try to do it,” Lawrence explained.

“I wish you’d say! I can come round and bring out your bins for you anytime.”

“No need. No need. Thank you. We can manage.” I found myself up against Lawrence’s fierce independence.

Lawrence’s independence stems, I believe, from being a self-made man. Or maybe it's the other way around. His modest wealth was acquired from working his way up through the management structure of a city firm, following a distinguished career as a pilot in the RAF. He married his childhood sweetheart, Geraldine, and they moved to the village when Lawrence retired some 12 years ago. In so doing they downsized to a chocolate box cottage (with a long drive) that dates back in places to the 16th Century.

I actually fear for Lawrence’s and Geraldine’s health – not because of the bins or the drive, but because rather than slip into a life of relaxation interspersed by rounds of golf, they have found themselves recycled as parents to young children. Over the last five or six years, first one then another grandchild has taken up semi-permanent residence, allowing their parents to work full-time to pay of the largely uninhabited family home. At last count, they were cramming three children under ten into their quaint two-bedroom cottage.

“It’s the only way young married couples can afford to buy a house large enough to bring up a family these days,’ Geraldine often says, with no apparent trace of irony. She is resigned to a renewed life of plaiting hair and changing nappies, of dashing from pre-school to primary, then on to dance classes and swimming lessons, still giving the children their tea and a story before bedtime.

          “It’s a shame they don’t come around the house anymore to collect the bins,” I called out to Lawrence. I didn’t really mean it, but harking back to the past usually worked as a way of getting him back onside.

“Hmmm. Don’t know about that. They’d only spill everything down the drive like they used to.” Lawrence had taken to the new, recycled order of things like a somewhat miserable duck to water.

“Must get on! Tramp wants his walk!”

We made our escape up the lane and into the woods. And as I sloshed and slithered through wet, decaying leaves underfoot, hoping already for signs of Spring, I couldn’t help but smile to think how there really was nothing new under the sun.