Monday 30 April 2007

Size Zero Mother looks for fat

It’s been a weird food day. It started off with Adrian cooking soup at breakfast time. Green soup. Very green soup – as in wild garlic and ground elder soup. I blame Jo (ragrug) who told us, when we visited her in Wales, that it was very tasty. ‘Rather like spinach,’ she said.
Honestly it looked more like the kind of thing you concocted when you were five years old, brewing up something to go with the mud pies. It tasted, well, green. Very green.
‘Your mother would approve,’ said Adrian.
‘What? As in it tastes foul but does you good?’
We are still trying to work our way through the industrial size sack of milled linseed my mother (aka Size Zero Mother) pressed upon us at our last visit.
‘It’s incredibly good for you,’ she said. ‘I’ve put in a leaflet so you can read all about it.’
‘Does it taste nice?’
‘Oh no,’ she said triumphantly. ‘You add it to your quinoa porridge along with all your other nuts and seeds. I use rice milk.’
Er, we don’t eat quinoa porridge.
But apparently linseed (of this precise milled variety) will do everything – sort out your heart, your blood pressure, your sex life, your gammy knees. Really it’s clever stuff – I reckon, given half a chance, it could sort out Afghanistan and solve the thorny issue of fortnightly rubbish collections.
Anyhow, back in the kitchen I snuck in a glassful of sherry and a tweak of nutmeg to the soup and it made it just about edible (or should that be imbibible?).

My mother has had issues with food all her life and she has succeeded in passing them neatly and totally on to me and my two siblings. My sister is a classic yo-yo dieter – one moment she’s a svelte size ten, the next a bosomy eighteen. My brother on the other hand lives on a diet of pork pies, Maynards wine gums, Cote de Beaunes and ginger wine (I am so TOTALLY serious).

The other day I found a batch of letters Mum had written to me when I was at university. Every single one, even the short notes, had some mention of dieting or losing weight. A new diet, a yoga posture that would shed the pounds, some wonder-food or supplement that could melt fat. Needless to say, all this ever achieved was me ballooning, slowly, gradually over the years. I have never found a diet I can stick to and I am grown-up enough to know that dieting is not the answer anyhow. It all lies with self-esteem and boundaries and all the psych-stuff. One day I will just do it but I’m beginning to wonder when.

This morning my Internet connection was down and I positively steamed through work without the endless distraction of emails/blogging/websites. So I felt quite vindicated in sloping off for a lunch to celebrate my friend Linda’s birthday. We met in the Quarryman’s Rest, a pub in Bampton, which has undergone a bit of a makeover. Very good it was too – fresh young Exmoor asparagus risotto, thank you very much – with pine nuts and parmesan and drizzles of truffle oil. Followed by white chocolate and Bailey’s cheesecake.

So, feeling plump and just a little overfed, I walked down the road to drop in on Size Zero Mother. I needed to drop in a ‘juicing for health’ book she wanted. She was looking even thinner than ever – a stiff wind would seriously blow her over. We sat in the garden and I offered to make tea.

‘Now. I only want a drop of milk in it. I’ve read that the milk interferes with the goodness of the tea.’
Now the problem is that Mum reads so much (every health magazine and quack publication going) that she has read herself into a very small meagrely stocked corner. She fully believes she is intolerant, allergic or unable to eat virtually everything going – and has been subsisting for the last couple of years on rabbit food. The more I try to persuade her to eat, the less she will eat.

Anyhow, today took the biscuit (or not, as it happens). As we sat admiring her ceonothus, she said:
‘Now, Jane. I need you to tell me how to put on fat. I’ve read that if you don’t have enough body fat it stops your body being able to take up calcium.’
Deep breath. Then I try to explain that really, as a lifelong dieter, Mum knows all too well how to put on fat. Simply eat all the things that she has spent her entire life avoiding. This of course fills her with horror.
‘But I have a square of Green & Black’s every night.”
‘Eat a bar.’
‘Oh, I couldn’t. I’d be sick.’
And so it goes on. I have an 83 year old mother who is, I swear, anorectic while pretending she wants to put on weight (is that possible?). But who also - and how weird is this? – really and truly wants me to be fat (while claiming she doesn't). As I leave, I notice the bar of G&B. She follows my gaze and says, as she always does:
‘Go on. Have a bit. It's lovely.’
But for once, I don’t. Stalemate in the food wars.

PS - don't panic - I know the pic is of Solomon's Seal and not ground elder!!

Friday 27 April 2007

A new day dawns.....

That's it! I'm done. I've uploaded a selection of the many repetitious blogs of the last six months (dear God, is it really that long?) Reading back, I can quite see why I wasn't shortlisted - by heck, I was yawning myself and it was my life! House, house, house.....viewers, viewers,, chocolate, poo, poo,, chocolate, more poo, more viewers, more moaning.... bit of angst.... poo.... chocolate.... house, house.... oooh look, a fox! Oh for Pete's sake, why did no-one shut me up?
But, from now on, I am free of the need to stick to country matters (Lord love me, I really did try to follow the 'write your country diary' from Day One)....
I'm not quite sure what will come next....probably a lot more wine, chocolate and poo in all probability. But maybe other things too.

Anyhow, it's late - and I'm for bed.

The Penultimate One

I am sleep-deprived and not making any sense today. James had a friend for a sleepover last night and we spent half the night playing musical beds. I think I managed about two hours in total and the whole day has taken on a rather surreal air. Actually I think I might wake up at any moment and discover that the columnist shortlist is all a dream!
I’m not saying the finalists aren’t good – they’re fine (or, as Bill says, will be with a bit of judicious editing). But I am very surprised that the list is so short and that obvious contenders aren’t there. Some, I think (Eden and Milla spring to mind) are actually too good for a column – they should be writing novels or short stories. Others (lixtroll, westerwitch, maitreyi etc) are possibly too left-field (and I mean that in SUCH a good way) and far too creative for mere journalism. But that leaves a fat seam of excellent writers who I was gobsmacked to find weren’t included. While there were so many I loved, I had my money on CL choosing someone with a bit of a theme – and was half-expecting (and rather hoping) to be reading My Life on a Remote Island or Diary of a New Restaurant Owner or We Inherited a Moat or We Fled to Devon (but I still Fly to London).

I just hope you won’t be too discouraged and will carry on writing. It’s funny but, when the competition started, I confess I was a bit miffed at all these people flooding the site, not apparently blogging for the joy of it but for the prize of a column. But I have so forgotten all that and love your work and your insights into country life – whether heavy or lite, whether issue-laden or brimming with wine and lippy.

In another, funny, way I’m not that unpleased with the shortlist. It leaves us merry band of bloggers all in the same boat (apart from those sensible souls who didn’t enter) and will surely bond us all even closer together…nothing like a bit of shared adversity. And, by heck, it will liven up the chat room (I am going to have to go in and cancel my ‘notify new posts’ on jackofall’s thread as new emails are pinging in every second!).

Anyhow, back in the real world, lack of sleep is telling on me. I spent the morning editing two chapters of my ‘author’s’ book and then managed to save the unedited version rather than the edited so have lost the whole lot.

So I switched to researching a feature on addiction and laughed my head off as I realised that most of us are suffering from CCU (compulsive computer use)! I also read a fascinating feature on the Telegraph online by Lesley Garner (who is a fabulous writer and damn nice person to boot) about on-line bullying in chat rooms and blog sites (which made for very interesting reading).

Meanwhile I could hear the boys outside doing what all small boys should do on a fine day like this. They were building a den, aided and abetted by Asbo, hunting amongst the beech trees for suitable fallen timber (under strict instructions not to disturb ones that were obviously very old and providing homes for bugs). I was called up to inspect the den and a very fine one it is too, snug between the beech hedge, a rhododendron and a young birch.

They came in briefly to refuel and pick up a picnic and took off for the river for a little bit of damming before lunch. Next up it was a game of cricket and now I can see them vanishing off into the bracken with Adrian hunting for antlers. I do hope they find at least one (I’m almost tempted to sneak out and plant one of our old ones so Nathan has something to take home with him)….but that would be cheating I suppose (and we don’t want that, no sirreee).

Anyhow, dear bloggers. No matter what we may privately think or publicly say about the competition I think we need to hang on to the fact that it has introduced us to wonderful people all over the world. As many of you have said today, if it hadn’t been for the competition, you wouldn’t have started blogging. And that, I think we can all agree, would be a sad thing indeed. Courage, mes braves, and I can’t wait for Blossom to come back beautified and give us the tale from the horse’s mouth!


I’m not really in a blogging state of mind. Have been feeling a bit flat. Not quite depressed but just a little sunken, shall we say. Not sure why. Maybe it’s the total lack of any perceptible movement on the move - silence reigns from all quarters apart from our mortgage company who are inundating us with bits of paper telling us of another fee or a further insurance we don’t need. Maybe it’s the fact that my new computer is languishing upstairs – large and gleaming and totally out of touch with the larger world (hence pretty much unusable). Maybe it’s because my ‘author’ has taken off to Moscow leaving me drumming my fingers and hacked off as, if I’d known, I could have planned nice things to do with James (but instead he’s booked up in the way of all eight-year olds nowadays). Or maybe it’s because I’ve just heard of another friend with a serious life-threatening condition.

Or, then again, maybe it’s just one of the down times. I truly believe that it’s impossible and not even really desirable to be totally UP all the time. It’s the main gripe I have with the New Age movement – the insistence on relentless positivity at all costs. You cannot afford the luxury of a negative thought and all that. Yes, I do think it’s good to keep positive on the whole and that our thoughts can and do affect our reality but (and it’s a bit but) I don’t think anyone should expect to be on a permanent high all the time. It’s not natural. Nature has its highs and lows, and its sort of in the middles too.

When I was doing art therapy I became fascinated with the myth of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess who was one heck of a feisty woman. She loved life big-time, juggling the roles of queen, mother and red-hot lover with all the ease in the world. But she realised that there has to be balance; she felt the need to descend, to go down into the underworld to meet her sister Erishkegal, queen of the dead. As she went down, she was divested of all her earthly glamour and glory. When she finally met her sister she wasn’t exactly greeted with open arms and a cream tea – she was slung up on a meat hook and left to rot for three days. Psychologists looking at the myth often say it’s a vital process, this going within, this going down, this putrefaction.

Spring, of course, should be an up time. When everything is going bonkers outside, it feels like being a bit of a party-pooper not to join in. But it’s hard to feel totally joyful at an overly warm dry spring when the spectre of climate change is whispering over our shoulders. The house martins have arrived but, as Adrian pointed out, how will they repair their homes under the eaves without any mud?
But over and above all at the moment I keep noticing the blackthorn – frothy flurries of white, like bridal veils all over the hedgerows. And, as all country-dwellers know, the pretty dainty flowers hide a nasty crop of thorns – scratch yourself on blackthorn and the cut will frequently go septic. So up and down, sweet and sour, pretty and putrifying go hand in glove. I’ll probably be right as rain (yes please) tomorrow.

The Dragon Tree

There is something to be said for following the same route every day. When we lived on the Levels, Adrian spent a year photographing our favourite walk every day and posting the changes in his diary. It was a fabulous record of the shifting seasons and put us very much in the Now.
Since we’ve been on Exmoor, we rarely take the same walk each day – there is simply too much choice, too many delights. But we do often drive the same route – from here to Tiverton – quite often day in, day out.

Last year we watched a house being built, following it from the diggers moving in, through the foundations being dug to the walls growing. We cheered when the roof went on and applauded the new hedge of native species that the owners carefully planted. We speculated about who they were and what they were like – we invented names and careers for them, gave them children and pets. Then, to our great disgust, they stuck up a big fence behind the fledgling hedge so we could no longer peer over and see if we were right or wrong. Maybe, like Eden’s naturist watchers, we need to find us some girt big horses (seventeen handers ought to do the trick) and do us a nice easy rising trot past.

We watched another house, small, square, perched on a hill, go on the market, its For Sale sign jaunty and new. It went Under Offer. Then was back For Sale. Under Offer. For Sale. We sympathised (little knowing we were watching the warm-up act for our own house-selling farce) and positively let off fireworks when that miraculous word SOLD was slapped up on the (now painfully listing and shabby) sign. This time there was no fence to keep out our nosiness. A bustling family moved in, stuck up swings and slides, erected a shed. Tubs appeared. Hanging baskets. A bird table. A vegetable plot was sliced out of the hillside. I became quite proprietorial about them, to the point where Adrian once said, ‘For God’s sake, why don’t you drive in and introduce yourself?’
‘Oh, don’t be ridiculous. They’d think I was a mad stalker. We don’t even live that close.’
He just looked at me and raised an eyebrow as if to say, ‘my point exactly.’

The last few days, since we’ve been back, the route has exploded into green. I’m not the first to say it but it has to be said again – every shade of green in the palette. I can never decide which I love the most – it’s a tough call between the acid yellowy-green and the clear paintbox green. When we first moved here, I adored the green of the new beech leaves so much I took a leaf into Homebase and got it matched for our kitchen. It’s actually darker than you think – but so clear and pure. Everyone loved it and you’ll find quite a few houses on Exmoor with beech-green paintwork here or there.

But my new obsession is not a house. We’re watching a work of art appear. On one of the large fields just outside Tiverton along the Exe Valley, a huge ancient tree stood starkly dead. Dramatic, like a fist raised to the sky. We loved the tree and were tremendously sad when, last autumn, it was finally felled. At first we thought it was being cut up for timber but now, slowly, we’re seeing it turn into something quite magical – a dragon is being carved out of its vast trunk. The funny thing is we never see the sculptor – it’s as if elves pop along with chainsaws in the night and snip off a bit more. This morning, as I took James to play with friends (a mere forty-five minute trip) we noticed that the teeth were coming along nicely. I wonder what I’ll find when I got back to pick him up in about an hour’s time?

The shaman one (post-Bill)

The shamans say there are lessons in everything. They teach that, if you are mindful of the signs and signals around you, life will show you what you need to learn. On a ‘medicine walk’ you would keep your eyes peeled, alert to warnings and instructions. A feather found in the grass at your feet, a certain stone, a bird or insect that flies across your path, all these can be guides, often offering clear metaphors. A tiny flower pushing up through a concrete path teaches perseverance; a tiny lamb gambolling down the hill teaches us that life should be fun from time to time.

Sometimes I walk like that, looking for meaning. Often I don’t. Sometimes I look for meaning in different places, like maybe on a certain website which also has its ebb and flow, its highs and lows. The image that stayed with me from North Wales was the single buzzard hanging motionless above Bodran mountain. We have plenty of buzzards in our valley here at home but this one had a message: it was up high, looking down, seeing clearly without being involved in the hustle bustle of life on the ground. I know I have a tendency to launch in and become embroiled with the detail, with the minutiae so I am trying to hang on to my inner buzzard for a while at least. The second lesson was coming back to the website after a week’s absence and meeting the maelstrom that was fermenting on it. Reading posts and blogs it seemed as if nearly everyone was feeling it personally, taking it on themselves. If I’d been here, I strongly suspect I’d have done exactly the same thing. But, with buzzard vision, it’s easy to see that it’s not about any of us in any way, shape or form – it’s all about the other person and her own tormented inner world-view and problems.

As buzzard-Jane I also pondered on how the whole theme of conflict is coming at exactly the right time of year. However high-tech and modern we may consider ourselves, we all follow the natural rhythms of the year, we have ‘tides’ that run within us. Not just our monthly tides as women (sorry, DelArun, Bill, loony and any other chaps) but also seasonal tides. There is a time for everything: for starting new enterprises; for beginning or ending relationships; for looking deep into the psyche and for letting go.

At the moment we are in the run-up to the old pagan festival of Beltane. While Christianity absorbed a lot of the old festivals (Easter, Christmas and to a lesser extent Candlemass and All Saints Eve), Beltane (May 1st) was a bit too much to stomach so was quietly forgotten. For Beltane is the naughty sex festival, with all that dancing round the phallic maypole and plenty of trip-trapping off to the wood for some unbridled passion (hopefully with clement weather). But Beltane is not just about sex. It’s also about energy, determination and freedom. It’s a great fire festival packed with feisty young headstrong energy – the energy of new thrusting life. Freedom is exciting, but it’s also stressful. It means making decisions, balancing opportunities and it also means the freedom to break.

Beltane is often known as the festival of vows or contracts. Not only is it a natural time for weddings but it is also the time when many partnerships break up. It's as if the energy is being put in a new vessel and, if the relationship is not strong, the vessel might crack and break under the strain.

This is a bit esoteric but it is, I think, why so many people are feeling edgy and indulging in a bit of ‘shall I go or shall I stay’ at the moment. New energy is flying out all over the place and, hate to say it, may well continue to do so for the next few weeks. I think it’s a case of surfing the tsunami, hard hats firmly buckled on.

Personally I am coming to feel that a little dissent is a good thing in any relationship – be it a partnership or a website community. If we were all just super-nice and simpering all the time it would become a bit stale and boring. I have to say that what I found of Bill was like a breath of fresh air (but I don’t think I found all his offerings) – he said things out loud that I suspect a lot of people were maybe muttering under their breath. Equally I was a little disappointed when ACritic was unceremoniously bundled off the site. As a writer I am well used to criticism and, providing it is constructive, I welcome it with open arms. But I think it’s the ‘constructive’ bit that’s important. All-out spite and rancour may be commonplace on other websites (and I totally take the point that here we are probably way too sensitive) but I think it’s fair to say that very few of us would want it on this particular site.

Here on Exmoor the new energy is being highly irritating. My new computer is not playing by the rules and may yet become a very large expensive ornament in my study. I drove all the way over to aerobics to find an empty village hall and car park - harrumph. The eggs we bought from the ‘wonderful’ farm shop in Shropshire are out of date and one was cracked (Adrian, of course, didn’t notice). The phone keeps ringing but nobody leaves a message and our buyers are still being tricksy. But hey ho. The primroses are going bonkers and Muddie is on the mend. Let’s get life in perspective and ride the waves, gang.

The ragrug one

Jo and Colon at Bodran

Well, I’m back and putting my nose very cautiously around the door, wondering if there might be a bag of flour balanced on top or I might be about to tread on a stink-bomb! Crikey, you lot: I go away for a week and what happens? All-out thermonuclear war!

It’s been a hectic week up in Wales. Managed to fire-bomb Asda in Llandudno and Tesco in Abergele before leading a protest march through the centre of Llanwryst about the atrocious amount of lipstick worn by bloggers. Made a pyre out of James’ Easter eggs in the MiL’s back garden before dispatching James off to the workhouse. Divorced Adrian and signed the pledge. So, with all my new free time, as a liberated single woman I spent a pleasant rest of week hunting and fishing (sadly shooting season over).

OR (alternative reality) I spent the entire week logged on as Bill in a cyber-café writing pithy comments about Milla’s curtains.

Of course you know the ‘real’ reality, don’t you? Yup, it involved chocolate, it involved wine, it involved children. Go figure. Luckily no vomit appeared, but instead we got a chest infection (James’ cousin, Morgan) and a troublesome tooth (James) which put paid pretty well to our treks up the mountains and our forays along the beach.
We did, however, manage to get to Bala and Llaneuchlyn to track down Adrian’s grandparents’ grave. And, of course, we made the pilgrimage up to Bodran mountain to meet ragrug. She’s as lovely as you’d imagine from her blogs, with a decidedly slightly naughty sense of humour. Monty was firmly in his field but we saw the damage he’d done to the young trees (bad horse). We met the very beautiful Tye and the six other dogs. Asbo went ballistic.

It’s a magical place – snug against the mountain, bathed in sunlight with the most welcoming embracing atmosphere. The house is delicious – a mix between a Hobbit burrow and an Elvish tree-house – seriously, it’s like something out of Lord of the Rings, with incredible carved natural wood windows; a lion and unicorn facing each other across a beam; a bathroom that shimmers like the sea; stained glass and fairy wind-chimes; huge slate fireplaces with cosy woodburning stoves. She and Colin (sorry, Colon) are so talented – they’ve done all the work themselves (and appeared in Real Homes magazine – if any country magazines want a really great interiors photo-shoot, they should get themselves up to Bodran!)
I had a good old nose down Colin’s eco-loo and he demonstrated its unique ‘flush’. And we marvelled at Jo’s vats of birch sap wine. It’s wonderful having a blog come to life like this – it’s all there (honestly, she’s not a trucker from Liverpool living in a high-rise bedsit). We sat outside, looking out over the valley, Jo lamenting the fact that the mist hid the far-off mountain ranges (if it had been clear I could have at least have SEEN Moel Siabod, even if I couldn’t climb it).

Like all good things, it came to an end far too quickly and we were heading off down the mountain out of a dream. It’s fired me up though and next time we go up I’m hoping to squeeze in one of Jo’s workshops – maybe building an eco-loo all of our own (every home should have one) or learning how to use plants for dyes or how to find food from the hedgerows. I might even learn how to ragrug (if there is such a verb). If you haven’t yet found Jo’s website and you are interested in sensible proactive ways of promoting a green lifestyle (far more sensible than firebombing supermarkets), do have a look at her website and put the word out about her courses. It’s a new venture and needs our support.

I always feel sad leaving Wales – I’m very lucky in that I get on extraordinarily well with my in-laws and it’s real ‘time-out’ from the madness of everyday life.
Now it’s back home to find that the estate agents and solicitors are tying themselves in knots while our buyer is still playing silly B’s… nothing new there.
I’m looking forward to catching up with your blogs and finding out what you’ve all been up to. Please don’t let me down as I sincerely hope it involves absolutely bucketloads of chocolate, wine and vomit. Now, just add poo in there and, to my mind at least, it’s a pretty accurate breakdown of country life as we know and love it!

Cowgirl Appreciation Blog

Cowgirl rules OK? I can’t believe this woman, I really can’t. There she is, up to her neck in water (literally); cattle perched on the hill peering at the floods; foul Dutch tourists hassling her for vegan meals at all times of day and night; wielding her chainsaw with one hand and dishing out meals on wheels with the other….and what does she do? In the middle of all that chaos she finds the time to send me the most gorgeous bouquet of flowers! Not just any old Interflora bog-standard lilies or the dreaded and despised carnations. No sireee. One girt big hand-tied bunch of stunning non-air-miles blooms from a very fine company called Wiggly Wigglers ( who send out seasonal flowers from the English garden (and I suspect, greenhouse!). I couldn’t believe it.

I had been over to South Molton to get my neck cracked. The day before yesterday I woke up with a pain in my upper back, around the scapula. Thought, ‘Damn it, slept funny’ and settled down to work. But it got worse and worse and I have spent the last two nights in a lot of pain and the days in a bit of a Neurofen daze (does anyone else find that Ibuprofen has the effect of a mild narcotic? I haven’t felt like this since trying the wacky baccy waaaaay back). My doctor reckoned I’d trapped a nerve and said, ‘Get thee to an osteopath’.

Sadly my good friend the osteopath has upped sticks and gone. She had the most stunning farm you’ve ever seen – absolutely archetypal children’s book farmyard with fat ducks on duckpond; doves in dovecot; sheepdogs, deerhound and terriers dozing in the sun; horses poking noses over stable doors. The farmhouse was thatched and cobb, low-slung and flagstoned – you stepped inside and time stood still. Many a time she thawed me out by her Aga, pushing a dog off a hairy sofa and sticking a vast brandy in my paw. It was the most perfectly gorgeous farm ever – and she sold it. She was heartbroken but her mother (who owned it) wanted to be closer to her other children so Jo shrugged and obeyed. Mother, it has to be said, was pretty indomitable – still riding in her eighties and mightily hacked off about the hunting ban.

Anyhow (are you still with me?) without Jo I needed another osteopath. So found one that would fit me in at 8.30am. A nice chap – not a patch on Jo (no brandy for starters) and I’m not quite straightened out but better, a bit better. Bombed back, feeling a little bit sorry for myself (absolutely NO reason except that every time I tried to see if anything was coming from the left I yelped in pain). Walked in and there was this huge cardboard box in the hall.
‘What’s that?’ I asked Adrian.
‘No idea.’
Unwrapped it, tore out the note and the biggest, broadest smile spread over my face.
‘It’s from New Zealand! Flowers!’
Adrian looked puzzled and I had to reassure him that cowgirl hadn’t ransacked her garden and sent them over airmail.
‘Crikey,’ he said. ‘They’re lovely. What are they for?’
‘For selling the house and getting ‘our’ house.’
‘But you’ve never met her!’

So? Poor Adrian cannot understand that the fact one has never met one’s fellow bloggers does not make one iota of difference. This site has let me make friends from all over the UK and way, way beyond – right to the other side of the world.

There is rarely a day goes by that I don’t ‘talk’ to cowgirl – via the site or via email…and she’s become a very dear and close friend. Weird, maybe, to many people. But not, I suspect, remotely odd to anyone who has experienced blogging!
So – THANK YOU again my friend. Tonight in Woods, I will raise my glass to you. It’s a pleasure and a deep honour to know you.

The one about foxes

I love foxes. I no longer keep chickens or guinea fowl so I don’t have poaching issues but even when I did, I still had a bit of a thing about those russet coats and slinky movements, those bright clever eyes. When I was a child I devoured the Enid Blyton books and, above all, craved a fox as a pet – like the boy in the ‘Adventure’ books. For several years a vixen raised her family every year on the hill beside the house and we could waste hours watching the cubs learning to pounce, rolling and tumbling in the bracken.

Yes, I love foxes. But I didn’t love the phone call we got last night about them. For a long time I’ve heard rumours of urban foxes being released into the countryside – and have, indeed, talked about it on the nature forum – but we never had any hard evidence. It was more that, every so often, we would see a fox that didn’t seem to ‘fit’. It was in poor condition and had a confused air, as if it didn’t know what it was doing. But I couldn’t lay my hand on my heart and say it was an urban fox (misplaced) rather than a rural fox (fallen on hard times). It was fast becoming a rural myth.

Last night though, we had a call from some friends who own a country house hotel (posh b&b). An RSPCA van had been seen in their area and someone had seen a number of foxes being released from it.

So far, so OK, you might think. What’s wrong with taking foxes from an urban environment and letting them go in the nice countryside, their ‘natural’ home? Well. Firstly I’d argue that the fox has adapted superbly to life in the town and is probably far better off there. When I lived in London, our house backed onto a cemetery (one of the wild ones, all gothic and overgrown) and we frequently saw foxes – including a fox cub that I discovered curled up on a catmint bush on the border. When I went out to check it was OK, the cub jumped up, fixed me with one of those bright beady eyes and then scaled the ten foot wall in a nimble hop (rather like a cat would). Funnily enough, the cemetery was also home to a gaggle of ducks – I don’t know how they rubbed along but they clearly did (I suspect scavenging is a lot easier for a fox than taking on a big plump mallard).

Secondly, introducing urban foxes to the wild is, in my mind, cruel on all counts. A rural fox’s life is tough, very tough. I don’t know if any of you ever saw the fascinating documentary about foxes v rabbits? It was illuminating. Don’t pity the poor bunnies – the odds were severely stacked in their favour.

In the case of last night’s story, the foxes had allegedly been released right next to farmland. Farmland on which there were young lambs. Mayhem ensued. The farmer was furious. Foxes were shot. Then the local foxes apparently weighed in and had a go at any of the incomers who were left standing.
Why? Why on earth would anyone do this? What is the point? My friend was furious. ‘You’re journalists. Do something!’
People always assume that, if you’re a journalist, you have a hot-line to the editor of The Times. Sadly not. But what do you do?
‘Did anyone take photographs? Film it?’
Once again, sadly not. We explained that no hard news page would take the story without clear evidence.

But why does this happen? In the nature forum, racanncat suggested that it is the urban councils who round up the foxes and ship them out (as the town dwellers fear for their cats, their tame rabbits, their toddlers, even their terriers!). But the RSPCA? Why would an organisation which purportedly has animal interests at heart, do such a ridiculous thing?
Any answers, I’d love to hear them. For today I am sad and cross and puzzled. Which is pretty much how the major protagonists in this lamentable story must feel.

btw, if anyone has evidence of this or a story to tell, do get in touch. Grouse and I would love to put together a really good story about it.

Wobbly Blog

This is an old blog - in case anyone's worried that I'm feeling like this today!
Am in a very strange and uncomfortable place right now. All out of sorts. Bit shaky. Bit wobbly. I’m not sure if I want to blog or not. It feels like the words are being squeezed out of my fingers one by one. It’s not coming easily. Yet not to blog feels uneasy and odd too. Various things really. Maybe writing it out will help – usually does.
My psychic friend said that the moon eclipse would change things, and that feels about right. At the weekend we more or less made the decision that we would take the house off the market. When we put our farmhouse up for sale, the idea was to downsize a bit, losing our mortgage and a lot of stress. Now, while our house has stayed at the same price (actually even dropped) the others have suddenly started hurtling upwards. While we still had our dream village house in our sights, all was possible – we were languishing in the doldrums together. Now it is sold, we are all at sea.

So I sent off an email to the estate agents, asking for a meeting. We got back a phone call with a huge, and unsettling, surprise.
Our old buyer (whose chain collapsed) has been back in touch, in fact calling the agents every day for the last fortnight. He wants to return, with his original offer. The agents have been investigating, as we were stung so badly last time (basically he didn’t keep us informed, told a lot of porkies, and strung us along for nearly five months while we could have been getting another buyer).

If ‘our’ village house were still on the market, we’d be elated. But instead I just feel flat. The ‘cave’ house is fabulous but, as you so rightly point out, a money-pit for sure and in a village we don’t know, a long way from our friends and community. On a day like this, I look around at the hills and feel like bottling out. But we have to be practical. We need to be closer to James’ school and to my mum, and to have fewer outgoings in order to live a more balanced life. I suppose we should grab this and jump, trusting all will be well.

Normally I would have blogged about it yesterday, got it out my system. But yesterday the CL site didn’t feel a particularly friendly place. It suddenly reminded me of my old school playground: some staunch good friends, for sure, but also some spiteful girls in whispering huddles. I am, I freely admit, far too thin-skinned for my own good.

I also took very much to heart what madcow said about the site feeling like a clique to newcomers. Suddenly stepping back, I could see what she meant. Friendships seem to develop very swiftly on-line. Partly I think it’s because of the anonymity – it’s easy to talk about feelings and quite deep things with your screen, rather than real live people. Secondly, there is the immediacy. In real life, particularly rural life, you don’t see people every day, every hour – but often only every week or even less. Intimacy takes time to build in the real world; in cyberspace it happens very fast.

I was reasonably popular at junior school. Then my father died (on the eve of going to senior school) and suddenly I wasn’t. My father’s death left me with the twin legacies of asthma and depression. I was withdrawn, remote, bullied and sad. I made friends with the one girl who seemed sadder than me – a girl with curvature of the spine who couldn’t do sports, who couldn’t run with the pack.
When I think back, I suspect I was drawn to writing as a career as it is – primarily – a solitary sport. Yes, you can work in offices; yes, as a journalist you have to go out and interview people; but at the end of the day it’s just you and your computer. I worked in newspaper offices and hated it – they were hotbeds of vicious competition. ‘Creative conflict’ was considered a Good Thing. I don’t work like that. I believe in networking, in helping people, in sharing round the goodies.

‘It’s a dog-eat-dog world, Jane, don’t you know that?’ one girl said to me, as she stabbed me neatly and precisely in the back.
Yes, it had dawned on me. I also realised that it wasn’t possible to work on a national newspaper and have any form of life/work balance – if you had lunch you were considered to be slacking. The very thought of having a baby was the kiss of death.

So, escaping to the country, even though it meant a huge drop in salary and security, was a godsend. Bye-bye bitchiness and eye-clawing. But it does get lonely sometimes, particularly when you’re as cut-off as we are here.

People think it’s funny that I have on-line friends, a little sad even. They can’t figure out why I’d want to write when it’s what I do for a living. But this isn’t writing to order, to deadlines, to fulfil a brief. It’s writing for fun, for the sheer joy of words, for communicating to people, for sharing experiences. It’s a very necessary balance to my everyday work.

Funnily enough, as I write this, I think I am working out how I feel a bit more. The playground analogy is telling as, I think, yesterday I did feel like a child again – hurt, withdrawing into my shell, scurrying up the apple tree or into my hut in the wood to get away from it all.

But, if I put my adult hat on, I can realise that – try as we might – we cannot expect any place (whether playground, office or website) to be places that are always full of joy and light. We can’t expect absolutely everyone to like us, or understand us, or be on our side. We can’t always get picked for the rounders’ team! But equally, it’s OK to have a ‘gang’. It’s alright to be popular. It’s not necessary to feel guilty about coming out on top from time to time.
It’s a bit of a lesson to toughen up. It’s a bit of a lesson to stop the hand-wringing and to put aside the crushing feeling of ‘I don’t deserve.’
Phew. I’m not sure that makes any kind of sense whatsoever, but what the hell.
Last night I told a friend who is going through a very dark place to write out her feelings. ‘It helps, you know,’ I said. This morning, I have taken my own advice and it does help. It also feels very wide-open somehow. Not sure if I’ll press the button and send or not. Oh, what the hell. I can always scuttle back up the apple-tree.

Mothering Sunday

It’s been a weekend of friends and family. Those you like and those you love. Those you choose; those that chose you. Those that soothe your soul; those that drive you potty but you still love all the same.
I had a touch of a headache this morning thanks to a rather late night last night. We had friends over for supper – Rachel and Charlie (parents of the Mistress of All Evil) and Gill and David (the ex-dairy farmers who lost their herd to TB). We cooked an Indian feast, much to my mother-in-law’s horror.
‘A dinner party and you’re cooking Indian food? Do they LIKE Indian food? Isn’t it a bit odd for a dinner party?’ Followed by a sort of harrumph down the line and a quiet tut-tutting and the unspoken words ‘most inappropriate’. But they seemed to like it. Adrian excelled with seven stunning dishes. I was in charge of puddings and produced two, both of which bore an uncanny resemblance to sick.

To cut a long story short, I got to bed at 2am and was woken four hours later by a small boy who crept in, planted a big kiss on my unsuspecting cheek and whispered, ‘Happy Mother’s Day, Mummy.’ Eyes snapped open and I attempted to focus on the two small black bags that were swinging in front of me.
Yesterday he’d asked to be left alone in town. The beauty of country living is that you can deposit one small boy, very grubby (just out of football) and sporting a red Mohican (legacy of RND) on the pavement and know that there will be at least ten people in the shops up and down the high street who will be keeping kindly but beady eyes on him. I marched off to the Spar, having promised I wouldn’t eavesdrop on his shopping. He could have gone into the gun shop, the hardware shop, the butcher’s or the Deli but, praise be, I sneaked a glimpse of him scooting into Vanilla, the gorgeous jewellery shop, and into the safe and tasteful hands of Caroline. Yippee. Though really I had no worries. James has a good eye (way better than his father) and the boy done good. Not one but TWO pairs of earrings, both lovely, nestled in the little black bags. Plus a box of Green & Blacks. Plus (and best of all) a gorgeous handmade card with a dog (I think) with boss-eyes and hearts all over its body. Pampered or what?
‘When I was little we used to go to church on Mothering Sunday and all us children would go up to the altar and pick a posy of violets to take back to our mothers,’ I told him.
‘Was that it? All you gave your mother? Didn’t you like her?’
‘Of course I liked her! It was just simpler then.’
‘Well, I like it much better now. Which pair are you going to wear?’
God I love that boy. So much it hurts my heart.

We went over to my mother’s, and I gave her my gifts and she cried a little. She always does. We left Jack with her border collie (saying a quick fervent prayer to the saint of canine continence) and drove to the Culm Valley Inn (whose praises I have sung many times before). The usual drama ensued – Mum was too cold, the seat was too hard. Heaters were brought, cushions were positioned. Then it was too hot. Then she couldn’t eat pretty well anything on the menu (still in pursuit of size zero, under the disguise of food intolerances). But, all in all, it was good. I was so tired though that I actually fell asleep over my John Dory and had to be prodded by James before my forkful fell into the hopeful mouth of a lurcher.

The weather was totally irrational as we drove back. Blazing sunshine with driving sleet. Most peculiar. Dropped Mum home, plucked armfuls of forsythia from her garden and then set off for home.

Once again it feels like the weekend has spun wildly, like a dog chasing its tail, and now it’s all done and dusted. But lovely it was, and I’ll carry its memory into the new week. I hope it’s been as good for you all, too.

Sacred Places

A small boy, a dog, a hill.....
I've written more about the spirit of place in my book The Energy Secret (HarperCollins) - now out of print though the odd copy might be found in a dusty secondhand bookshop...

Every land has its sacred places - from the great mysterious sacred sites of antiquity to the quieter, more hidden, spots that a stranger could easily pass by. These places - it could be a hill, a cave, a spring or a stone; or it could be a structure built or positioned by humans - a stone circle; a well; a church or a soaring menhir - seem to draw the soul like a magnet. They touch us in deep and unfathomable ways.

As a child I had many favourite sacred spots. They ranged from the large ‘public’ sites, such as Glastonbury Tor and the Cerne Giant to tiny corners - a nook in a suburban wall where I left ‘gifts’ of flowers and stones (I’m not sure for whom I was leaving them but there was a definite sense that this was the right thing to do) to a forgotten corner by the railway track where I sat stock-still amongst the tall grass and tried to ‘melt’ into the earth. As I grew up and travelled I found more mysterious and powerful sacred spaces, full of the awe of the earth spirit. My soul shrank at first from the huge vastnesses of the desert in the South West of the USA - I felt like an ant, tiny and inconsequential. Then I took a deep breath and drank in the raw power and beauty of the place - the energy of rock and sky. I felt dizzy at the soaring mountains and endless forests of Wyoming and New Hampshire. Then exhilarated by the clean, fresh air and the timeless splendour of tree and mountain. Stepping into the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid at Giza was like being plugged directly into a battery, a source of superhuman spiritual power. The ancient prehistoric cave paintings in France filled my soul with awe and almost trepidation.

But strangely, when I think about the places which mean the most to my soul, they are neither the vast monuments nor the huge vistas: they are smaller, more personal spaces. There is a particular spring, hidden down a forgotten track, tucked away amidst trees and curling ivy. It is not large, or spectacular in any way but it has a magic for me. I approach it as though visiting a lover, always mindful of taking it something - a daisy chain perhaps or a tiny posy of wild flowers tied with grass, maybe a little figure whittled from wood. Suddenly I’m there and I am overcome once again by its simple beauty. I sit on a rock and look into its bubbling waters. I give it my gift and watch it being swirled gently around in the ripples. I could stay there for hours, listening to the bird-song, simply watching the water. Like many springs it is said, by local legend, to have healing powers. You take a leaf from the overhanging tree, bend it into a cup and drink. As you drink, you also wish (yes, of course, it is also a wishing well) but you must tell no-one your wish.

Of late ‘my’ well has become better-known and I have found litter by its banks, shouting voices splitting its peace. With more visitors, the local council have ‘tidied’ it up, replacing the old crumbling walls with safer new ones. The last time I went I felt the spirit had almost vanished. Was it dying or was it just quietly moving on, away from the raucous voices and the disrespect?

The same principle can be seen in many of the ‘great’ sites. Stonehenge has become almost like a creature in a zoo, to be ogled through the fences. The huge temples of Mexico, Egypt and South America are swarmed over by hoards of tourists half-listening to their guides barking out snapshots of information. The pathways that lead up Glastonbury Tor are littered with rubbish; when you reach the top you will most likely meet - not the echoing voice of the wind as it hurls itself around St Michael’s chapel, but the beady lens of a camcorder and the shrill tones of pop music.

What is the answer? I think we have to find our own sacred sites, our own special places. They lie in every neighbourhood, but just in the country but in the towns and cities too. It just takes a careful eye and an opening of the soul to find them. And when you do, keep them secret, make them yours. Approach them with reverence and always thank them for their restorative powers. Children find them naturally - so be careful not to blunder into their own private worlds. Visit the old sites but carefully, mindfully. Pick up litter and take it away. Visit in the small hours - at twilight, at sunrise - when coach parties do not visit. Go alone or if you are with others, be silent. Listen, watch, feel. Allow yourself and the place time to get to know each other: sit softly and quietly, just be. Let’s get away from the continual race: the urge to notch up sites as if they were trophies. Come to learn. Quietly sit and wait for the place to communicate to you. It probably won’t happen immediately; it may not happen at all. Shamans spend years building rapport with places. But when and if it does happen, you may find wonderful surprises.

Milla blog

I’m not sure I can write this blog. Every time I start thinking about today I start laughing again and I sincerely mustn’t laugh the way I did earlier or I will rupture something for sure. So I am going to think soothing, calming thoughts……soothing and calming, soothing and calming.

Let me tell you how I met Milla. I had decided that I wanted to write The Novel (like so many others looking for an easy way to earn a living at home in the middle of nowhere). So I trekked off to The Hurst, near Clun in Shropshire to do an Arvon Foundation course. This was at the height of my six-year patch of insomnia so I spent most of the journey slapping my face to keep awake and arrived feeling decidedly delicate and ever-so slightly paranoid.
A small huddle of people were gathered on the terrace but I only really noticed one – a slim woman dressed entirely in black with wild dark hair and plum lipstick, with a glass of wine in one hand and a fag in the other. She’s going to be my new best friend, I decided without a second’s hesitation. Isn’t it funny how there are just a few rare people in this world that you know, just know, without even speaking, that you will ‘click’. And so it was. The course was terrifying but wonderful – led by the novelists Philip Hensher (truly inspirational, did a lot of swinging from beams) and Susan Elderkin (the landscape lady, Eden) and there was monstrously good talent there. It was actually so terrifying that one woman fled into the night without even saying goodbye.

Since then (four years is it?) neither Milla nor I have written our novels (which, in the case of Milla is seriously a crime) but we have kept in touch and meet up when we can, and email far too frequently.
So…..sorry, took a while to get there…..Beer God dumped me outside her new (to me) house and I chatted with E while Milla finished off her game of tennis (the wretched woman runs too). The reviled cat was reclining in a plant pot outside the front door looking innocent. I witnessed the space that is waiting patiently for the foul and feckless builders to transform it into a stunning kitchen. I spotted the boxes, six deep in places, around which the poor woman negotiates her life.

Clonteen, this woman has SERIOUS bird feeding gear. She also knits and is an accomplished needlewoman and craftsperson which I don’t think she has ever mentioned in the blogs. And she has a footpath running outside her back garden, DevonLife – and E apparently delights at shouting rude things to ramblers. Plus, I can vouch, she has a lot of smart yellow unpronounceable things in her garden.

We walked down to the infamous Post Office and had a coffee – ah ‘twas like stumbling onto the set of Eastenders – some place previously fictional, now made all so real. Creme eggs were purchased. We then walked the perimeter of the village to the pub for lunch. So far, so civilised. Then we sat down with a bottle and started talking about you all – bet your ears were burning – about the rough and the smooth in your lives, the funny and the poetic, the mud and the hens. Of course there was some conjecture and, OK a dollop of gossip (nothing malicious) and (hands up) some pure unadorned jealousy about the limpid quality of so much of your writing.

‘Oh my God,’ said Milla. ‘Do you realise we haven’t talked about our children, our families, our work, our real lives at all?’
‘Damn it, you’re right,’ I replied, filling my glass. ‘All we’ve done is talk about people we have never met!’
‘We don’t even know their real names,’ said Milla.
‘We don’t even know if we’re really reading about their lives,’ I countered. ‘After all, we only have it on their say-so that they are really out there, rearing hens and wading though mud.’
‘They might be men living in Leeds!’
‘In fact they might all be making it all up……maybe Frances is the only real rural person and she’s really a pig farmer in Essex.’

At this point, it all got too much and we started laughing so much that we couldn’t stop. You know when you get hysterical and the tears are falling down your face making your mascara streak? So hard that your ribs start hurting? The people on the next table were straining as hard as they could to hear what we were saying but in the end the laughter was so contagious that they started giggling too, blithely unaware of what was causing the mirth.

We laughed all the way, dodging magnolia trees and daffodil banks. We were still laughing when we got to the house, much to the consternation of E and Adrian who were talking in a sober restrained bloke way about cider.
We tried to explain but they just looked deeply puzzled and gave little knowing glances of the ‘they’ve had too much to drink’ variety.
Ah, but it was hard to say goodbye. We took a pic for posterity (to show we really are real and do exist and aren’t policemen from Chichester.)

But really, how wonderful, that we could talk for nearly four hours about you all (and, in all seriousness, it was kind, fond, ‘what nice people we know’ chat).
‘I’m so glad I introduced you to the website,’ I said.
‘It’s the best thing you ever did,’ said she.
So there you have it. Bloggers united.

PS – wordsmith, me too! I thought the same thing – but I do think the website people are maybe different from the fair people…..
Truthhurts – good plan!
@themill – you bet chillis from Northumberland….Trees Can’t Dance – from Coanwood.
Carolyn – Pure Alchemy is fabulous. Michelle Roques-O’Neill is one of the best aromatherapists I have come across (and I’ve met a fair few) – her blends aren’t cheap but are pretty special.

PPS – my nail is still shining - but the eye is back to being wrinkly……

PPPS: Frances, we did think about twin blogging, but Milla is ever impatient and couldn’t wait until I got down the motorway before starting without me!

All the Fun of the Fair

Well, I went. How could I not, with a small army of fairy godmothers frantically jumping up and down in their sensible brogues, insisting that this unlikely Cinderella SHOULD go to the ball?
I have my mongoose moments and miss the city from time to time (though not enough to ever want to go back) but the moment you get off the train at Paddington London just smacks you in the chops. The sheer busyness of everyone. The purposefulness. The sour faces. The irritability. God help you if you don’t know EXACTLY where you’re going and if you don’t go there at a trot (preferably with mobile clamped to ear and finger tapping on blackberry).
I stayed with The Barrister (my eldest and dearest school friend; scary-smart and mega-lovely). She poured me a stiff gin and tossed me a menu.
‘What d’you fancy? Thai? Indian? Italian?’ By heck, I’d forgotten food choices could be so complex, and that a simple phone call could summon delicious, hot (!) food in minutes. Sure enough ten minutes later we were tucking into tapas and downing a couple of bottles of red, talking about toy boys, Internet dating and Miss Matthews, our old headmistress – who always sat on stage for assembly with her portly legs slightly too wide apart so the first-years could see straight up her skirt.

The next morning she (Jane, not Miss Matthews) vanished off to Cambridge, leaving me in dubious control of a Dualit toaster and a serious bank of hi-fi equipment. Eventually, after a few hours of sitting in the sunlight and watching breakfast TV (what a load of old tosh!) I wandered up the Essex Road to the Fair.

Well now, I kind of dread to say this as it sounds horribly ungrateful. But…..I was a bit disappointed. I think I’d built it up to be a sort of super-dooper cross between the Bath & West and the Ludlow Food Festival, with maybe a dollop of the Centre for Alternative Technology – a sprinkling of something green or eco-conscious at any rate. I was bracing myself for withstanding the charms of plump hens and those rather gorgeous Omlets or eggloos or whatever. I’d figured I’d be convinced into parting with good cash for solar panels at the very least, and possibly a couple of wind turbines and a reed bed system to boot. I’d wondered if I might be educated in the best way to worm a sheep. But no, no and no.

There was a chap from some fancy kitchen company, dutifully splitting teeny tiny bits of wood. He looked a bit uncomfortable and nobody really paid him any attention. There was a nice lady pulling flowers into bunches and a depressed-looking basket-weaver but that was it.

I’d bragged to Adrian that this would be a ‘foodie paradise’ and promised him something exotic – rose veal or jugged hare or, at the very least, wild boar sausages. Some wild artisanal cheese and some seriously full-on olives. But the food bit was small and tucked away in a corner – and mainly comprised pretty big boring companies like Yorkshire tea and Brown Brothers wine. Not a hunky dentist in sight, DJ!

Really it’s just a girt big craft fair with a few food stalls tacked on the end. However, on the bright side, I’ve always been partial to a craft fair and this one was blessedly low on really unbearable tat - though a few of the jewellery and clothing stalls skated pretty close to the wind.
For the sake of those who asked….. I bought:

1 x Jan Constantine Union Jack felt cushion (stunningly gorgeous –see pic)
1 x Rooster (Carolyn moonlighting?!) knitting kit (bunting variety)
1 x organic geranium shower gel (mother’s day present – didn’t go for the Boy Band Greatest Hits, bradders!)
1 x candle in lovely ceramic, silver-edged pot (but now it’s home, the smell is very overpowering).
4 x packs of sausages (multi-buy option)
4 x bottles of chilli sauce (ditto, from interesting company with a chilli farm in Northumberland).

What I wanted but didn’t buy:
1 x swinging ‘horse’ made out of plane tyres (c’mon DL, start your own - put that pile to good use!)
1 x real rocking horse (always wanted one; never had one)
1 x cast iron doormat (tooooo heavy to carry)
1 x vivid green silk embroidered coat (don’t want to frighten the livestock)
Entire range of Pure Alchemy aromatherapy (FANTASTIC stuff)
1 x small girl (about five) to dress in cute vintage knits/dresses

Verity (Camilla will be pleased to hear) was supposed to meet me halfway through but had been caught in a partner’s meeting and arrived late in a small furious flurry of black, barely pausing to say hello before launching into a tirade about how she’d spent ages finding a hotel for everyone to stay in for a friend’s wedding and that now the ingrates were moaning that the rooms cost £250 a night.
‘I’m done with them. Let them sort themselves out! If they want to stay in some pokey B&B that’s fine. I can’t be doing with it.’
She then went on about how stressful it was being on the verge of exchange (for her 1.25million townhouse). Bless her, she really doesn’t have a clue how incredibly thoughtless it is to go on like this to someone who a) would have to stay in the pokey B&B and b) spent three months on the verge of exchange only last year. Hey ho.

I think I was feeling a little weak at that moment as I foolishly allowed my hand to be sucked into a stand for some kind of dead sea mud products. Possibly the most bouncy salesman ever plucked at my paw and announced it was, ‘Dry, very dry.’
He sandblasted it with some kind of dermabrasion, then washed it off and showed me the grubby water. Thanks, mate.
Then rubbed in some kind of cream and asked me to imagine how it would feel having that all over my body. Not with you, thank-you.
Have to confess, it did feel nice, that one hand. I thought he’d do the other one but that was left rough and dirty, presumably to ram home the contrast. He then (having got me for a sucker) sat me down and did my eye – yup, just the one – with some kind of anti-wrinkle treatment.
‘Look! Look!’ pushing a mirror at me. ‘See, Barbara…..’ (er, Jane actually), ‘See how you have all wrinkles on that eye, but on the other eye? Wrinkles – pfff! Gone.’
‘Mmm. Wonderful. I’ll think about it.’ Edging towards the escape exit.
But he wasn’t letting me get away that fast. Nabbing a finger, he started polishing it, buffing it, shining it up like a bit of old silver. My nail (just the one) gleamed. Phew, I’d found something I could buy.
‘Yup, I’ll have one of those. How much?’
‘Ah, well, usually it’s forty pounds….’ WHAT??? Betterware flog ‘em for about four quid. ‘But because it’s the show….special offer of £24.99.’ He could see the look of frank disbelief on my face. Up went his finger.
‘Just for you, because you look like my auntie, Barbara. Special price with free oil and cream - £20.’
I fled. And spent the rest of the day convinced that everyone was staring at me with my one normal eye and my one baggy saggy one; my one soft lovely hand and my one grubby calloused one; and my one single gleaming super-shine nail….

The Lore of the Logs

Hard to believe that this time yesterday I was sitting on the bench outside the house, basking in the sun. For today is damp, turning the hillside opposite fuzzy and indistinct. But yesterday was glorious – a true spring day bursting out of itself, not knowing what to do with all that pent-up energy. Adrian was strimming the steep bank below the house and making a huge meal out of it, harrumping and making loud grunting noises, doubtless hoping for sympathy. None forthcoming: it was his own fault. If he hadn’t been so slipshod in his mowing last year (having made the fatal mistake of slipping into complacency over our supposedly imminent move), he wouldn’t be in such a pickle now, the proud owner of vast tracts of thick tufty grass interspersed with blobs of springy moss. I resist saying those three hugely satisfying three words: Told. You. So.

James and I went foraging for firewood, to deprive him of his audience. Feeling a bit lazy, we struck out behind the house, where a long outgrown beech hedge provides easy pickings. I love woodgathering. It takes me back to happy childhood Guide camps, carting an old tarp into nearby woods and gathering the means to cook our supper.

I am teaching James the trade. How to pick out little bits of dried bracken and fern, a few beech nuts to pop into an old tobacco tin for ‘punk’ (to start the fire). As Guides we were supposed to be able to do it with just three matches - no paper and certainly no firelighters – sometimes I show off and do it like that still – it just takes patience (a rare commodity nowadays).
How to tell green wood from dead. How to leave the old mossy logs well alone as they’re already doing a good job providing a home for the insects which, in turn, become food for the birds, foxes, badgers, hedgehogs. How to say thank-you and leave a little present for the woodland elves (OK this is fanciful, but again a childhood habit – a circle of beech-nuts will do, or a teeny tiny posy of wild flowers tied with grass).
I give him the lore of the logs as well….well, the relevant bits for the day’s work.
‘Beechwood fires are bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year…’
He brings me a bit of birch and looks challengingly:
‘Birch and fir logs burn too fast,
Blaze up bright but do not last.’ Ta-da! He thinks I make it up on the spot.

It feels a little like edging into the wild wood, into occupied territory. The combe behind us provides an eerie echo, so it sounds as if someone’s footsteps (a troll, ogre, big bad wolf?) are following us. We delight in spooking ourselves silly.

As we came down, we spotted some late snowdrops, surprisingly tall and pristine on the bank. Back on home ground, on the ‘garden’ slope James noticed the first wild daffodils, poking up, a flash of yellow ready to burst into action – yet paler than the brazen hussies you usually see, smaller, more perfect. A remnant of a simpler world.

Asbo didn’t come with us, but stayed behind to watch Adrian and nurse a hurt paw. ‘Karma for LS,’ muttered Adrian, pausing for a drink.

James and I played penalty shoot-outs for a bit (apparently I’m developing a good curling technique) before going in and lighting our fire in an attempt to get the house temperature up to volcanic levels for the arrival of my mother and sister for lunch.

Mum’s pursuit of size zero at age eighty-two is irritating. It leaves her prone to the cold so we have to crank up the heating and strip off to our underwear to prevent unseemly sweating on our part (no, not seriously – but certainly t-shirts or sundresses). They arrived late – about forty minutes late – because apparently Bonnie, her geriatric Border collie, hadn’t wanted to get into the car (‘She didn’t like the water’ – water runs down the edges of the road in Bampton). We managed to get Mum into the house (a stately but incredibly slow progress - sometimes I think it would be easier just to sling her over my shoulder). Bonnie got gingerly out and proceeded to have a week’s worth of craps all over the drive (Jack giving her impressed looks).
Settled Mum by the fire with a vat of Bailey’s and fended off the usual questions. ‘That tapestry looks nice there. When did you put it up?’ Hmm, about three years ago, Mum. But really, it was fine. We had a heated debate about identity cards but we managed to change the subject before it got too nasty. I showed Viv the blogging website and she thought it was fabulous. ‘I could get into that,’ she said, ‘But I hate the country! Is there one like it for Urban Living?’
‘I dunno,’ I said, ‘But I’ll ask all my new friends.’

As they left, tooting down the drive, that sort of ‘end of weekend’ feeling hit the house. It had been lovely, a perfect weekend, the right mix of sociability and solitude. Now Monday morning is here, suitably drab and businesslike. Nose to the grindstone.

Mistress of All Evil

Chit-chat, chit-chat, that’s all I seemed to do yesterday. I jumped ship en route to football and escaped to the library – people wandered in and out (chit chat, chit chat). I popped into the bookshop and ended up helping Patsy try to find some antiquarian classics tome (chit chat, chit chat, giggle-giggle). Meandered down the lane, past the mill-leat, past the cottages all huddled together like a bunch of girls in the playground (chit-chat etc). Discovered Adrian on the pitch, struggling to maintain control. Christian was lobbing mud. Ben and Luke were wrestling in a puddle. Jools and Fran (two of the mums) had come over to offer support and the odd bawling-out. They beckoned me over (you’ve got it - chit-chat).

Off to South Molton to grab some goodies for Sunday lunch from the market. Bumped into my friend Rachel by the cheese stall. Just about to launch into a mega chit-chat when her eldest child, Ruth, self-styled Mistress of All Evil, butted in:
‘Jane.’ Said peremptorily in a much deeper, darker, growlier voice than a child should possess.
‘It’s my birthday. I’m nine. I’ve been galloping on the moor this morning.’ She tugged down her grungy black skull-embellished T-shirt with pride.
I have a very soft spot for Ruth. Always have, ever since she firmly turned her back on pink as a two-year old and declared that Snow White was a wuss and that the Evil Queen was where the action was. But truly she is a little terrifying. At three, when someone asked the children what they wanted to be when they grew up, she looked scornfully at the girls who piped sweetly that they wanted to be, variously, ballet dancers, stable girls, vets, princesses, mummies.
‘I want to rule.’
‘Oh, be prime minister you mean?’ said I, deeply impressed. That’s my girl!
‘Furrowed brow. ‘Oh no. He only rules Britain AND he has to answer to the cabinet.’ Scary.

Her parents are both lovely people – kind, mild, easy-going. Her younger sister, Helena, is truly bonny and blithe and good and gay (in the original meaning) trip-trapping through the big bad forest with a basket for granny. So where did Ruth’s mania for world domination come from?

Poor Rachel. She’s a good mother, a concerned parent. She’s read every book going, from The Terrible Two’s through The Difficult Child to The Trouble with Tweenies. She still doesn’t understand why one child should be a strop-fest with dictatorial urges.
‘Maybe she needs more structure,’ she sighed.
‘The army?’ I offered.
‘God no,’ said Rachel. ‘She’d go straight to the top and would you really want The Mistress of All Evil with her finger on the nuclear button?
‘Not the army.’

Anyhow, they hauled us off for lunch at That New Place (truly is called that).
‘Guess what I was for National Book Day, Jane?’ said Ruth.
Now, let me think. She’s madly into Harry Potter but Hermione would be far too nice.
‘Professor Snape.’ A good choice, I thought.
She laughed throatily. ‘No, silly. I was a dementor.’
Silly me indeed. I caught Rachel’s eye and she leant over to whisper dramatically, ‘She sucks out all the joy you have ever known!’

Meanwhile Gabriel, the nearly two-year old (and my beloved godson), lounged like Nero before grabbing my hand and dragging me firmly off to a quiet corner for a bout of his favourite sport of Pointing.

Eventually we hauled ourselves away and dropped in to the ‘organic shop’ for a few bits. There’s a gallery attached and inside a woman weaving (thought of Mandy). James watched entranced and, inevitably it ended up with a bit of chit-chat that became a bit involved as James wanted precise explanations of sheep drenching and worming and parasites. Adrian all the while, sitting patiently as a Labrador, in the car.

Back home and a quick turnaround. Blogging for me, chain-sawing for Adrian, solo cricket (don’t ask) for James. Then I slapped on a bit of mascara and raced off to meet my sister for supper at the Thai restaurant in town. V lives outside London and isn’t down that often so off we went (chit-chat, gossip-gossip, moan-moan, cackle-cackle) for four hours until we realised that we were the only ones left. It was a lovely evening and if you’re ever around these parts, ask someone to point you to the place (otherwise you’d never find it).
I drove back at the witching hour and the tawnies welcomed me up the drive and Adrian welcomed me at the door. Putting an arm round me, he and I stood and watched the stars until our noses started to freeze and then we went in and sat in a little pool of light on the sofa in the kitchen for one last dose of ever-so sleepy chit-chat, chit-chat.

PS – thanks for all the encouraging messages yesterday. Toady – I hope you’re psychic! SuffolkMum, Camilla and AnnaK – do wish one of you could take over my dear house. CL – thanks for the ribes advice – sooo nearly brought some in and something was niggling at the back of my memory. The last thing we need is more pee smell.

PPS – thanks too for the enquiries after LS. Still lost, sadly. Hope is fading.

Jack and poo (reprise)

Asbo Jack and I have fallen out. Big time. It’s my own fault – I let down my guard and began to think that maybe he was growing out of his adolescent angst and was en route to becoming a nice dog. Of course he was merely lulling us into a false sense of security. Shit has always been an issue but vigilance and judicious use of a lead tied to the Aga at sensitive times has kept us out of trouble. But the last couple of days he’s been getting cheeky. I don’t know how he does it but he’s managed to balance a turd right on the very edge of the porch step – so carefully and precisely positioned that a small breeze would set it wobbling. It’s like that mountain in Snowdonia (ragrug, help me out) – the one with the two huge boulders (Adam and Eve or is that something else?) poised one atop the other.

The first day we spotted it as we were coming out the house and were able to dispose of it. The second day we were coming in, in the dark, and the three of us – in turn – trod in it and walked it through the hall and, variously, up the stairs, down the hallway and into the kitchen. I suppose it could have been worse – he could have timed it just before a viewing. But why? Why, when he is surrounded by hill, dale, moorland, woodland, open fields, bog and even close-cropped lawn, does he choose to do it right there? He’s sticking the doggy equivalent of two claws up at us, no doubt about it.
Then, last night, as we came out from watching Lewis, what greets us but three small poos, neatly presented on the mat like some superchef’s tower. All it needed was a puddle of pee couli spotted around it. Does he bark to say he needs to go out? Does he hell. No, the little blighter waits until we’re all settled, by the fire, watching TV or whatever, and then sneaks off. Grrrr.
He’s mightily proud of himself and fairly danced down to the stables alongside me this morning with the compost. The sun was shining and it felt divinely spring-like. At last, at last, we have the greening. It’s the name I use for that shimmer of green that settles over the trees and hedgerows as spring begins in earnest. Somewhere in my memory there is something about Hildegaard of Bingen and a tad of Gerald Manley Hopkins, but really that all gets too intellectual and I just enjoy the softness it brings, the hope that we’ve turned the corner and are heading into the light. We’re behind much of the country out here and still have our snowdrops on the banks below the house, but they’re joined by bright daffodils and the acid green shoots of lilies. The primroses are starting to shine through and so too the lungwort. The hellebores (some of my favourite plants) are still putting on a fine show and everything else seems in a race to get out its buds and party.
It was, all in all, a promising start to the day. I managed to get a lot of work done this morning and had a nice healthy salad for lunch. Then wrecked the whole thing by remembering that I had a packet of chocolate chips (cooking variety) tucked away in the baking drawer and snuck them upstairs and ate the whole lot in one sitting. So now I feel a bit queasy and decidedly cross with myself.
‘I’m going to the post office,’ Adrian just called up the stairs. ‘Do you want anything? A crunchie?’
‘No thank-you.’
‘Oh, well done. I’m impressed.’
Little does he know.

Friends as books

Photo deliberately blurry to protect the innocent!

Woke up to the sound of rain coming through the bedroom window (yes, you did read that right) and knew it had to be tipping it down. Hurrah, I thought and turned over and went back to sleep. Heavy rain means no football and no football means not having to stand, frozen-footed, on the edge of some godforsaken windswept pitch watching our team getting thrashed again.
So instead I get to stay home, catch up on the washing and snatch a few minutes to blog. While I can justify the odd half-hour during the working week, I do feel a tad guilty about abandoning my family while I sneak up here. But Adrian is out walking Asbo – gone to survey the large branch that came down in the night and to look for deer while James is enjoying a rare lapse of parental control and is stuck solid to the PlayStation.

I had a wonderful night out last night with some of my best mates and this morning I still have that warm fuzzy feeling that excellent food and fabulous conversation give (and, because I was driving, I’m not suffering from the usual payback for such evenings!). Neighbours may be the bread and butter of country life (they pull you out of ditches, patch up your fence when the horses sneak out onto the road, round up the young bullocks that have gone AWOL and are rampaging around the plantation and so on) but friends are the coffee walnut sponge of rural living.

Last night we gathered at Katharine’s for supper. A sort of Last Supper really as she has, reluctantly, decided that she is spending too much time on the road, ferrying her girls to two different schools and that it would be sensible, practical and cheaper to move to Wellington. We are all totally glum about this but trying to keep positive and bolster up her failing courage.
‘Oh I love this house,’ I said, with a supreme lack of tact, as I walked through the door of the Manse. It’s tucked away down a tiny alleyway behind the Chapel, playing hide and seek amidst a huddle of old cottages and ancient mills by the leat.
‘No! Don’t say that,’ said Katharine, horrified. ‘I’m not sure I can bear to leave it.’
‘Oh, I was only being polite,’ I replied firmly, back-peddling furiously. ‘Awful place really. Must be damp down by the river. Far too big and expensive to heat. It’s a nightmare.’
She laughed, but a little hollowly.

Katharine should be in a Jane Austen novel. She has a sort of puzzlement with the modern world, a permanent mild confusion, a sense of worry that wraps her like a shroud. She lives in genteel poverty (the Manse is rented and she scrapes a living doing translation), thanks to her ex-husband, a rather delicious Frenchman who had the unlikely twin careers of horse-wrangler and photographer. She is really as smart as a whip and has a big generous heart. Why no man has had the wit to snatch her up is beyond me. Though, when she talks about the Frenchman, a look of wistfulness flits across her face and I suspect that if he came to his senses and begged enough, he might still stand a chance (why isn’t real life like fiction?).

Which made me think, if Katharine is a Jane Austen heroine, what are the rest of my friends? Looking round the table, I thought what a varied bunch they are. If I lived in a city, I would never have met most of them – but the country is a great leveller and the bliss is that you don’t just end up being friends with people who do the same job as you. Take Gill, ex-midwife, whose husband farms land that has been in the family for generations. Their dairy herd was wiped out by TB and now they raise chickens (and quake at the mere mention of bird flu) and are diversifying into solar panels and bio-fuel. She’s the sensible one in a Jilly Cooper novel. Vicky, on the other hand, lurches straight out of Cold Comfort Farm – another farmer who lives a life of ongoing chaos and drama, whose ancient farmhouse is held up by poles and who has several nasty things in the wood-shed. Carolyn is pure Joanna Trollope – elegant, refined, beautifully dressed and perfectly organised – she is an Aga-saga on long lean Pilates-toned legs. Jools is bonkbuster material – feisty, gutsy, straight-talking and with a vicious sense of humour. She used to run a lovely gallery until it burned to a crisp (which was rather ironic seeing as she is married to one of the local firemen). Chris (a bit Maeve Binchy) has set up a florist business and is supremely creative and successful – yet languishes under a dark cloud of low self-esteem and impending doom. And Lisa, who works in one of my favourite shops and is married to a gamekeeper, is pure chick-lit (she first met her gamekeeper at her own engagement party – but that’s a long story).

We chewed the fat, put the world to rights, indulged in a bit of gossip and did that uniquely female thing of asking Interesting Questions about each other – such as ‘what was your favourite childhood memory?’ and ‘what has been your greatest regret?’ Time passed in a blur and I stayed up far too late and drove back bellowing along to Avril Lavigne, keeping a beady eye out for deer crossing the road (you can’t win round here – if it’s daytime it’s pheasants; if it’s night-time, it’s flipping red deer trying to squash your car).

So today I’m a bit tired, a bit sore-eyed, but very mellow. A fire will be lit; lunch will be tucked into the Aga; no doubt the Monopoly board will be hauled out and I will, once again, be mortgaged to the hilt. Which just goes to show that life really does mirror art (or even games).


Yesterday was a pure nostalgia-fest. James was playing in a football match just outside Glastonbury. It’s a lousy long journey from school so Adrian and I figured we’d better show up to show support (as unlikely many other parents would make the schlep). Also it’s over by our old stomping ground so it was a good excuse for a step back in time.

The drive takes you over the Quantock hills, a long-time Favourite Place. Memories of our old boxer, Monty, vanishing into the mist and giving us palpitations as we heard shots being fired. Memories of coming off the Levels for a walk, leaving behind a full spring day and finding the hills in a winter wonderland thick with snow. Down into Bridgewater - a sad town that was once proud and beautiful but now, no matter how hard the estate agents try the ‘up and coming’ tag, just can’t seem to shake off its reputation for being generally grim.
Over the motorway, past the turn to our old village and onto the Polden Hills, that narrow spine that cuts through the Levels. You feel like a kid running along the top of a high bank, perched atop, flatness to the right, flatness to the left. When it floods it’s surreal – like driving over a vast inland sea. But today spring was everywhere – daffodils, blossom, heck even aubretia - it’s a much softer climate and a much gentler landscape than tough as boots Exmoor.
We parked in Glastonbury and popped into the post office. It LOOKS normal enough, except for the fact that there are more than the average number of rainbow sweaters, piercings and multi-coloured hair. But when the chap in front of us (actually dressed in a suit) got out a pendulum and swung it over his bank book – I had to bite my lip. It’s just SO Glastonbury, home of every wannabee Merlin or cut-price Gandalf.

I sort of love and hate the place really. When I was a child, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents in Castle Cary. My aunt and uncle lived in Glastonbury and – if we could hitch a lift on the milk truck – we would go to see them (picking up churns along the way). I would hang out the window, waiting for that magical turn in the road when all of a sudden you could see the Tor, bang splat ahead of you, rising out of the mist.

My whole family were a bit New Agey (bar my father who thought it was all a load of old tosh) and so I grew up steeped in the legends of the Grail, of the Isle of Avalon, of magic and mystery.
But in the old days (here we go!) the town carried its mysticism lightly. It was subtle, even secret, as all good magic should be – a hint, a whisper, hidden down alleyways and passed on by word of mouth. Nowadays Glastonbury is a New Age slot machine and every second building is a day-glo temple for Maitreya or a shop peddling mystic tat. Yet the original locals still go about their business in the few real shops still standing, seemingly oblivious of the be-cloaked, be-wanded, be-drugged oddbods chanting in their midst.

Whatever. Times change. We had a very nice lunch at the 24 Monkeys café and I managed to nab some Love Potion Number 9 from Starchild (seriously outrageous bath oil – use with extreme caution – I won’t be held responsible for the effects!) and then watched the match (we were held to a 1-1 draw, purely because the other team had a well-good goalie. Frankly, we were robbed).
Struck out of Glastonbury back to Street and hit another wave of nostalgia full in the face. As a child my twin loves were the Tor and the sheepskin factory. The latter sprawled along the road, a faint smell of tanning on the air. Best of all was the shop where I’d lobby hard (but always unsuccessfully) for a sheepskin rug. It’s been derelict for years but now they are pulling it down. I suppose it will be replaced with new housing or yet another supermarket. I know life has to go on, but I nearly found myself crying watching the old brick walls come tumbling down.
‘Flipping heck. It’s only a factory,’ said Adrian. But he gave my hand a quick squeeze nontheless. Of course it’s a factory but it’s also my Mum trying on huge sheepskin coats; my Nan wanting to leave so we had time for a cup of a tea and a large cream cake; my Dad sitting in a chair in the corner stoically reading the paper. It’s the taste of honeycomb (not sure why) and the feel of wool between your fingers and the scent of people you loved who died a long long time ago.
So we drove back in thoughtful mode. Retracing our steps, moving back up the layers from childhood through the early days of our marriage until, finally, as we came down Partridge Hill, back into the present day.

Not blogging

‘I didn’t blog yesterday,’ I said to Adrian in bed last night.
‘Is that a good thing or a bad thing?’
‘Good thing. I was becoming addicted and I was turning into the blogging equivalent of Mester the dog.’
‘Fester the what?’ He gave me a very odd look which comforts me that he really hasn’t been on the site and hasn’t read my blogs.

‘Oh, and I didn’t eat chocolate either.’
‘Yes, you did. You had a Crunchie at the petrol station and you finished off the cooking chocolate. And don’t say you didn’t because I saw the wrapper in the bin.’ Ah.

I’m not sure if Not Blogging felt liberating or not. As it was I ended up scrawling pages in my diary instead (which is usually a highly boring affair that simply states things like – ‘A took J to school. Worked. Ate too much. Picked up J. Watched Invasion. Bath and bed.’ God, bet a fair few of you wished my blogs were so succinct.

Yesterday was parent’s evening (or rather parent’s late afternoon), which I dread with the heaviest of hearts. It’s not that I don’t care about James’ progress but, at eight, I don’t really see the point in discussing whether he has any real grasp of the implications of Egyptian civilisation or how his knowledge of birds stacks up against the other children in his class. He is happy (nay deliriously happy) at school and regularly comes home with stickers and certificates and badges. They have never phoned up and complained that he has beaten children in the playground. So really what’s to worry? We live forty minutes away from school and it all seems a bit pointless for fifteen minutes of polite smiles. But we skived off last time and felt we couldn’t really be Bad Parents again.

The time before that I had cornered the headmaster and suggested that French was a worthier subject than RE and that maybe they could start comparative religion at an earlier age – given the fact that most world conflict is caused by religion. Then I think I went off on one about Latin.

Yesterday he caught sight of us striding over the playground and literally took off at a sprint in the opposite direction. Who’s to blame him? It was all a bit grim. The teachers looked like animals at the zoo, trapped behind their desks ranged around the edges of the hall. Eight chairs in the middle, back to back as if they were waiting for us to play Musical Chairs.

Adrian wanted to talk to the sports master – think he hoped he would tell him that James has a career as an international sportman awaiting him. Nice chap but no sense of humour.
‘James is big. Very tall. Hugely large for a Year 3. Actually immense for his age.’ OK, OK, we get the idea – our child is a freaky giant.
‘Hey, better put him on the basketball team then eh?’ I quipped.
‘Sorry but we don’t actually have a basketball team. Maybe when he gets to high school.’
Ah. Sense of humour deficit.
We glazed over during the maths talk, having lost any clue of what James is doing there about a year ago. English fine. French fine. Skipped history, geography, RE and all the various Ts (DT, IT, FT) – and fled to the car so we didn’t have to engage in ghastly social chit-chat with other waiting parents playing Musical Chairs.

‘You were remarkably restrained,’ said Adrian. You didn’t even talk about Latin,’ said with something like awe.
‘I know,’ I replied wistfully. It’s not that I’m a horribly pushy parent but I still have terribly fond memories of the Cambridge Latin course and labour under the misconception that all teachers will have gone through a similar love affair. Caecilius est pater, Metella est mater; Erat Quinto discus novus and so on. I would spend hours reciting qui quae quod and hic haec hoc and can still spout Horace by the yard. I wept buckets when it finally dawned on me that Caecilius’ villa was situated in Pompeii, bang splat in the firing line of Vesuvius and that it was all going to end under several feet of volcanic ash.
Still, all things considered, it was a far more erudite addiction than chocolate – and blogging.

Exford v Winsford

We live loosely sandwiched between two villages. Neither one nor t’other, twixt the two, slightly schizophrenic really. Two miles one way is Winsford, two miles the other is Exford. And really it could be a Tale of Two Villages as they are totally different.

Winsford is picture postcard cute – ‘the prettiest village on Exmoor’ (or so it claims), all thatched roofs, ancient cob, banks dripping with snowdrops and brooks that softly babble the way brooks are supposed to. There are five (I think) bridges and one ford. Two artists’ studios and an old thatched inn; a lovely old church and the old school turned computer centre. Horses poke their noses out of stable doors and there are crocuses edging the walls of the post office-cum-shop. Its population is (mainly) the ever-so-slightly smug retired and the biggest moan is the cottage that ‘lets the side down’ by having a huge pile of slag in the front garden. Nothing much happens in Winsford – well apart from the body being found in a bag up on Winsford Hill, of course. Oh, and people still roll their eyes at the time when a helicopter flew in a handful of whores to service the city slicker shooters staying at the inn (but that was about ten years ago).

Exford, on the other hand, is a far leaner, meaner, tougher, rougher place altogether. Two pubs face off across the green. The shop, the post office and the newsagent hustle for custom and over the years there have been ‘turf wars’ with underhand smear campaigns and shopping each other to Customs and Excise over cheap cigarettes and booze from the continent. Skullduggery abounds and people swop husbands/wives/dogs/bodily fluids with monotonous regularity. Down past the school skulks the ‘Social Club’ where Drink is Taken in gargantuan quantities and bodies fly out at periodic intervals.

Winsford is all dinky Suzuki Vitaras and invalid ride-ons with whirligigs; Exford is stonking great trucks with bull-bars and wall-eyed collies balancing on haybales in the back. Winsford is the bridge club, musical evenings and coffee mornings. Exford is all about getting rat-arsed, fighting and falling off your bar stool/horse/quad or driving down a ditch. The Winsford ‘inn’ is full of tweedy shooters in weird stockings in the winter scoffing venison and packs of day-glo ramblers sharing one cream tea in the summer. Exford ‘pubs’ are thick with smoke and crammed with men in steel-capped boots, filthy jeans and John Deere baseball caps chatting up girls with scraped back blonde hair, jodhpurs and very tight polo necks. Winsford is well-behaved black labs and elderly spaniels; Exford is Jack Russells peeing up your leg. Winsford is shooting parties; Exford is poachers. The Winsford shop sells parma ham, Green & Blacks and parsnip crisps; the Exford one flogs turkey twizzlers and Bulls’ Blood.

Sorry, got a bit carried away there but I was thinking about it today as my neighbour (mile down the valley) drove me to our friend Vicky’s for lunch (in honour of another friend, Gill, whose birthday it was). We were talking about various people from Exford and Winsford and how different they were (there are serious clans – it’s just like Lorna Doone)… and whether we were more ‘Winsford’ or ‘Exford’..and what it meant. No final conclusions reached.

Lunch was fabulous. I’ve been going a bit stir-crazy of late (as you might have noticed) and it was good to get together with friends, glug a bit of wine and have a laugh. Vicky lives in an age-old farmhouse (they have a mixed farm – but mainly chickens and cattle). It’s an old long-house that rambles up and down and is quite simply divine in a rather ramshackle and unprepossessing way. Rather alarmingly today it was boasting a steel girder balanced on bricks holding up the hall.
‘Ah yes,’ said Vicky. ‘Paul decided that calving wasn’t enough for him so he decided to excavate the loo.’ She opened a door and what had been their cloakroom now resembles a sort of dungeon, festooned with pick-axes and another pole looking decidedly precarious, given it was probably holding up the entire house. Being Vicky she didn’t seem remotely worried.

We ate too much, drank too much, laughed like drains and generally behaved raucously. Then I was bundled back in the car and deposited home feeling very guilty as I hadn’t done a scrap of work – and Adrian was going to have to pick up James as I was clearly over the limit. I’m now sitting here with a slightly sore head and the distinct feeling that I must be veering towards Exford somehow.