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Archive for the ‘Country’ Category

We tell ghost stories on the way home.  It’s dark; Port Meadow is black, the river is silver and still.  We have bike lights and a parafin lantern.  A mist covers the ground, as if we’re wading through it.  I can see my breath, feel the tingle of my fingers. 

Earlier we walked the other direction.  It was early afternoon, light, grey, the trees bent over the water.  The dog picked up impractical sticks and we sipped from a small bottle of whiskey.  Amazing how quickly we could be palpably outside the city.  Smelling woodsmoke from narrowboats and surrounded by green and brown; the golden stones of Oxford had dissolved, the spires dissapeared behind a puffy cloud.  My wellies rubbed raw a spot on my foot, the same spot on the same foot that had been rubbed raw so many times before.  We came to a crumbling nunnery; now just a field walled in, the outline of a church.  We ate apples at the pub and drank wine waiting for our lunch. 

Now we tell ghost stories but there’s nothing eerie about this stillness.  The eerie part is re-entering the city, coming suddenly to a well-lit bridge, passing parked cars, pubs, restaurants, cashpoints, closed shops, kebab vans.  It’s crowded, though there aren’t many people out tonight. 

Meanwhile, I’ll get back into blogging, but my time seems to be consumed at the moment by a thousand little things–working, writing, eating, sleeping, cleaning, running, planning.  Strolling along the river.  Stay tuned.

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Strolling the busy streets of Musbury.  Ben looking tipsy and Xander looking authoritative.  Neither was either.

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Did I mention the band that opened for Ben was called “Itchy and Scratchy”?

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Ben Walker vs. the River Cottage Chickens

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A real, live, authentic River Cottage Chicken.

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Geeks.

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The man himself, Mr. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall.

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Down time with Xander and Ben.

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He was a big hit with the kids.

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Oh you know.  Just hanging out.

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This handsome fennel-seed salami caused Ben a great deal of distress, and Xander and me a great deal of amusement.

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Heading back to the cabin.

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We’ve seen some fairly spectacular sunsets.

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Notes from a trip to River Cottage with Xander and Ben…part three.

Sunday

10.05            In the car.  My legs encased in heavy denier black stockings.  I say, “like sausages”; Xander says, “not like sausages.”  Again the day cannot decide if it’s hot or cold, and I will, as the hours pass, often remove and then replace these heavy denier black stockings.

10.39            Xander consumes an enormous, delicious, dripping bacon-and-egg bap.  I salivate and steal bites, and feel my own breakfast of sugary cereal to have been woefully inadequate.

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11.07            Hugh rolls through the fair in his red truck, closely followed by that chip-shop smell which inevitably says, “I’m saving the world.”  Hi Ben, he says.  Hi Hugh, Ben says, mid-song.  Everybody watches him glide down the hill, and then the toddlers re-commence their dancing, the babies their smiling and shouting, the adults their various whiling-away-the-hours-till-cider-time activities.  The more hardcore, of course, already have a pint in hand.

12.56            A spider-bite.  An idle thought of serpents and adders.  A bluebottle on my blue dress.  I read British Poetry Sine 1945, my legs gathering warmth from the sun.  Half-seen smiles unmet like mist/maybe the touch of a hand/resembles dew.  The hungry insects have turned a leaf to lace.  Thin mums with McClaren prams promenade back and forth on the grass and girls bare their shoulders, their skinny bra straps showing, and children swing their hips to the music.  A brother and sister wrestle in a pool of shade.  If they were any older it would be inappropriate.

13.41            I hum to myself.  Is singing merely an act of vanity?  Well, if it is, then long live vanity!  I also sit in a field above the festival site.  It’s part of the extended nature walk; this is clever of them (that magic “them” who organized it all), for there is nothing one needs more at a festival, even a pleasant and tame one like this, than the chance, occasionally, to escape from the masses and lie in an open meadow with no one else about.

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13.52            I return to the festival site.  Xander and I share a scone, with jam and cream.  God bless strawberry jam and all the different varieties…A wasp tries to commit suicide in the jam, but fails and flies away.

14.15            We watch the ferret races.  Which really means this: we watch one ferret make its lazy way to the end of a very short course while the other two sniff around at the starting gate and refuse to move.

15.19            A nap in the grass.  Sun, wind, and the occasional smell of sulfur, which I later learn is actually sewage being filtered through nearby reeds.

17.02            They’re taking down the festival now.

17.08            A twelve-year-old girl wearing muddy white socks tells Ben he smells, and can I borrow your guitar?  Her friend takes Ben’s business card.  “Why do you hate mornings?” she wants to know.  We can’t think of a decent answer, though “Em’s homemade cider” comes to mind.

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18.33            In Axminster and environs, we come across no fewer than six banks and no open shops.  One restaurant also sells DVDs; it’s called Route 66: True American Spirit.  We see almost no one else about, and the shelves of the petrol station we dip into are bare.  The Chinese takeout gives off a sickly glow and the pubs with their heavy lidded eyes yawn, dispel a lonely customer, take an even lonelier one in.  Ah, these half-dead English towns.

18.49            We stop for a pair of very fat turkeys, who cross the lane at a pace somewhere between glacial and leisurely.  Through a gap in the hedge I see a rope swing, a rusty fence.  We pass a blacksmith’s cabin.  I stare at the pink of my own fingers as they squeeze the pen and concentrate.

18.51             Now a horseback rider on her phone passes us by.  (I mean that she is both on her phone and on her horse).  And the hedges open up to reveal a sky ripe for stars.  I feel the cardboard blue of my notebook under my thumb.

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Notes from a trip to River Cottage with Xander and Ben…part two.

Saturday

I wake and sit on the swing in the garden.  Apples drop from branches behind me, and there is a curious braying in the distance, like children or cows.  Then, gradually, the sound of hooves, and a bugle.  The hunt glides past.  Over the hedge we see bowler hats.  We hear a man shouting “Wendy!  Wendy!  Come HERE, Wendy!”  Is Wendy his wife or his hound, we wonder?  Ultimately we decide that Wendy is probably the name of both his wife and his hound.

We set off for the Autumn Fair with two guitars and me in the back seat.  The day is still deciding how Autumnal it wants to be—is it enjoying the crispness of the wind, or does it feel already nostalgic for summer’s gentle breath?—so I wear a jumper and a sunhat.  We park in a field and take the Nature Walk down to the festival site.  Nature is thin on the ground (trees, trampled DSC03182grass) but the views are spectacular, and it’s like descending into an enchanted valley.  I expect fairies with little sparkly wings to greet us at the gate.  Devon, we sing.  I’m in De-von…

Instead of fairies we’re greeted by a cider tent and a queue about six miles long.  We join the queue, which doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, and, more interestingly, doesn’t appear to have any purpose (my instinct, as always, is to see if I can ignore the queue, but I’m flanked today by two well-bred English men, so I have no choice).  From our vantage point halfway up a hill, we can see that the line of humans simply peters out somewhere near the stage.

“What are we queuing for?” someone deigns to ask.

“I don’t know,” someone else says cheerily.  And that’s the end of the conversation.  Nobody moves.  We stand for some time, feet planted in the field, eyes squinting in the sunshine (definitely still summer, the day has decided).  It isn’t entirely unpleasant—just a little odd.

Presently we decide we’ve queued pointlessly for long enough, so we stroll down into the festival site.  And it’s like, as Ben has subsequently written, “the best Village Féte ever” (I’m using my imagination here—I’ve never been to a Village Féte, but it would be hard to imagine a better one than the River Cottage Autumn Fair).  At the centre of everything is a red-and-white striped tea tent, with cream teas and complimentary cordial.  People are already sucking on their cups of cider, and infants are doing that amazing things infants do which is constantly moving.  One particularly excited little girl simply runs around in circles like a puppy chasing her own tail.

(The queue, it turns out, is a premature book-signing line; a handwritten notice at the end of it promises that Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall himself will soon make an appearance.)

My attention is arrested by the “Border Collie and Duck Display” near the tea tent; we stand and watch for awhile as a lithe young border collie attempts to guide a gaggle of very upright black ducks into a wooden cage.

We join another queue for lunch (this is the great English pastime!).  This one actually does have a purpose, but it moves just as slowly as if it didn’t.  “No, you can’t just push to the front darling…” one mother is overheard telling her infant.  “…we’re British.”

DSC03205After Itchy and Scratchy, a two-man band, finish their set, Ben plays “Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall” to Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall himself, who spends at least an hour meticulously signing cookbooks and never looks weary of it.  Ben is a particularly big hit with the children, who form a group at the base of the stage and run around in more circles.  One girl, aged four, or maybe five, stands and simply gyrates her hips like some sort of zombie-R&B music video backup dancer.  “It gets increasingly sexual, doesn’t it?” her mother says to me, half nervous, half drunk with giggles.

We make the mistake of indulging in ‘Em’s Homemade Cider’, and half a pint down, we’re living in a hazy world.  Ben sings “We are the village green preservation societyGod save Donald duck, vaudeville and variety”. God save Indian summers and strong cider, too; and the salted snack salamis from the food tent, and the couple, beaming with sunburn and cider, who dance to every song.  Ben plays “Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall” again, and the crowd, loosened a little by Em’s cider, is persuaded to shout Hugh’s name during the chorus.

After the gates shut we linger for awhile on the grass, finishing our pints and trying to get the football scores from a wind-up radio.  Xander helps James the Butcher shift heavy boxes of meat, and we unpack the Sunday delivery of local Stinger Ale for the tea tent.  It is green and peaceful here, with the sun hovering over the fields and the smell of manure, fresh cut grass, beer, untainted air.DSC03244

Later, we stroll down the hill into Musbury for dinner.  We eat dry fish and chips in the pub and read the local paper, which is full of headlines like “Nymphos’ float built in just a week!” and “Nutters clean up!”  On the walk back, the sky is black and the wind rustles the hedges and invisible bats swoop over our heads.

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A River Cottage Adventure

Notes from a trip to River Cottage with Xander and Ben…part one.

Friday

DSC03087Past Stonehenge, into Wiltshire, then Devon.  If Withnail and I had headed south, with slightly less booze, and a girl in the back seat, and two guitars, and several laptops, maybe this is what it would have looked like.  Unlike the unlucky film duo, we get sunshine all the way; it’s slow going near the strange standing stones but otherwise we make good time and by late afternoon we’ve started to move through villages with funny names.  “When you get out of Sea, make a left”; “when we get out of what?” “Sea–”; “oh, look, Lower Sea fields”.  We decide we’re lucky not to live in Chard, which is as bland as its vegetable equivalent, though the sunlight renders it almost poignant.  We pass car dealerships and pubs, a petrol station simply called “POWER”, a street called “The Street”.

Then Musbury.  I express disappointment that it is not spelled with a “z”; wouldn’t it be funnier, I say, if it were?  Maybe.  Past the Golden Hind we turn up into the hills, onto a single-track road lined with hedges and gates.  We’re met by Jo, wearing shorts and stockings, who tells us she’s celebrating 35 years of marriage tonight and shows us how to turn the hot water on.  A sign near the toilet warns us not to dye our hair, or bleach it, or to smoke, or flush anything untoward down the loo, or to deep-fat fry things.  She goes out into the garden, to take down some of the DSC03094laundry, and brings us a handful of blackberries.  Her husband of 35 years gives us a bag of homegrown tomatoes.  Have a nice time, they say.

We buy pasta and red wine at the village shop, which is also a post office, and then that honing device buried within the heart of every British male switches on and we’re heading towards the pub.  How do you know the pub is that way? I want to know.  It just is, you both say.

And it is.  Inside is 1956, minus the fog of cigarette smoke, and the bartender expresses mild and genial surprise at seeing three young people enter; more surprise still that the woman is the one to order and pay for the drinks.  We sit outside in the sun watching the pub sign swing on an evening wind.  “It’s Slumdog Millionaire tomorrow!” one of the patrons declares, and we all want to say, but, no, that’s a modern film, and you can’t possibly exist in the modern world.  The funny thing about the modern world, of course, is that they do, and so do we.

DSC03102We head back towards the car, following a man walking a dog, passing a cat lying in a lane, watching with intense concentration what appears to be an enormous pile of horse shit.  We take a photo of the cat watching the horse shit.

We drive up to River Cottage.  Well, we drive past the shop-post office, where the man with his dog is chatting to a thick-ankled old lady with a fluff of white hair and an Italian style housedress.

“Do you know the way to River Cottage?” we ask.  They ponder.

“Wot, the one in Dorset?” they say, as if naming some faraway city, like Kathmandu, foreign on the tongue.  We shrug, and name a street.  The man shakes his head—this is out of his realm of expertise, he seems to say, why, he’s only programmed to make it to the pub and back—but something clicks in the mind of the old lady, who has years of experience on him and perhaps in some distant and dusty memory took a train journey through the countryside.  With a lover, perhaps.  In 1956.  Escaping the pub, the village shop, the milk deliveries and the cider making.

“I think it’s up thataway somewhere,” she says, so we go thataway, and thirty seconds later we reach the street, and two minutes after that we reach River Cottage, and down there in the village, we think, is a man with a dog who thinks we’re somewhere in the depths of Dorset, a million miles away.

We’re looking for a girl called Cat, we say to a pair of men constructing what appears to be a small trebouchet (it may not actually be a trebouchet).  It may as well be the circus—canvas tents, a red-and-white striped dome, a gaggle of rusty tractors, a gypsy caravan.  They say they haven’t seen her, and go back to building their trebuchet, so we wander down past the pumpkin patch and the chicken coop and find a woman hanging scarves at a booth.  Have you seen Cat? we ask.  No, she says, but have you?  I’m looking for her, too.

We don’t see Cat, but we do see a white cat, which has followed us down and now weaves hungrily between our legs.  Are you Cat? we joke, and the cat, offended, scampers off into the trees.  We pass a painted sign saying “Butchery Boy Wanted.  Apply Here At 15:30!”  We find Cat behind the clay ovens, erecting a tent near the knitting and jam-making yurt.  She looks flushed and excited.  Have a look around, she says.  So we go and watch some chickens.  Then we stay for a long time, photographing the sunset and smelling the opposite of city.DSC03108

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(This is not a post about beer, by the way.  This is a post about a village.)

The sunlight has been disappearing and reappearing all day.  We arrive under a blaze of blue sky and I’m tempted by the ale.  A whole tableful of ales, £3 each.  We go outside and stand in a pool of the sort of warmth that is too rare this summer.  It takes about ten minutes for it to start raining–raining hard.  Time for another pint.  I’ve reached my ale-maximum, one pint, so I try the Hereford perry.  Smooth,DSC00309_2 sweet, and dangerous.  At a certain point it gets dark and then it gets a little cold, so I go inside to warm up.  I sit with my feet up in a corner of the pub.  Maybe it’s the perry, but I can’t get this silly grin off my face.  There’s a live band playing music.  I’ve lost track of my tasting sheet but I wasn’t doing much with it anyway.  We decide to dance, for a bit, and then Joe, who’s a bit of a local celebrity, with his red face and his Oxfordshire accent and his penchant for skirts and heels, reveals the denim mini-skirt and fishnet tights he’s been wearing under his trousers, paired with a dirty t-shirt and a pair of slip-0n trainers.  “If I’d known it was gonna be this kind of night,” he says, “I’d’ve put me heels on.”

Before bed the Man and I lie down in the wet grass to admire the stars.  The next morning my trousers are still wet and my blazer is stained, and I can’t for the life of me remember which ale I tried and what I thought of it, other than that it tasted ale-y and made my mouth warm, but it’s okay, because I can go to the shop next door and get a croissant and the papers and spend the day reading outside.  My choice?  The Idler #42, with an article, conveniently enough, on the very village I’m in.

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DSC02688Yesterday the clouds spread like ink across the summer sky and then dried and disappeared, and I took a long, lazy run around Christ Church Meadow half-hoping to catch a glimpse of Alice’s Day, and when I came home I crawled back into bed and we had a nap with the window wide open to let in an almost-autumnal wind.

In the evening we watched the sun setting over the Oxfordshire countryside amidst the tea lights and elderflower champagne of a midsummer wedding.

It occurred to me sometime between then and now that even when I am not working, I am.  I’m always working.  Isn’t that frightening?  And a little exciting?

I’ve been reading and re-reading Louis MacNeice’s Selected Poems.  Here’s one for you on this sunny, windy, green July Sunday:

Coda

Maybe we knew each other better
When the night was young and unrepeated
And the moon stood still over Jericho.

So much for the past; in the present
There are moments caught between heart-beats
When maybe we know each other better.

But what is that clinking in the darkness?
Maybe we shall know each other better
When the tunnels meet beneath the mountain.

From Louis MacNeice. Selected Poems. London; Faber, 1988, p.158.

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