Notes from a trip to River Cottage with Xander and Ben…part one.
Past 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 laundry, 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.
We 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.
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