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.


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