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.