Wednesday, April 11, 2007


The joys of the countryside

Blinking rapidly as my eyes adjust to the light, I take a peep outside the burrow to see if it’s safe to come out and hey presto, spring’s arrived. Above ground is definitely the place to be.

We’re renting a cottage for a while in a beautiful, peaceful area of Wiltshire, where, my loved one hopes, surrounded by fields of new-born lambs and not much else, he’ll be able to write without interruption. Apart from there being no shop, garage or pub in the village, it’s perfect. Oh, and the fact that the upstairs floorboards creak louder than those in Jamaica Inn, the kitchen isn’t exactly new-age and there’s no central heating. But there are compensations. No really, there are. We can toast our toes by a roaring fire and a community shop (which I think means it’s run by a team of volunteers) in the next village – a mere four miles away - sells groceries, local eggs and vegetables.

Of course being a community shop, community issues take priority, so you might have to wait while these are being discussed, or an extra five minutes while they add up your bill, but when it’s your turn, you too get value for money. They give you free information like where to buy your wood and who’ll cut your grass. You learn that our village used to have a train station until Mr Beeching took his axe to it along with many thousands of other stations in the sixties to control the spiralling cost of the railways, but that you can still catch a train from Pewsey, a town 15 minutes away and get to London in an hour and a half. There’s the Wiggly Bus that goes all round the villages once a day – well you wouldn’t want to go anywhere more than once a day would you? And most scarily of all, you can become a bit of a twitcher and get yourself a book on birds as we’ve done and exclaim excitedly when you spot a yellow hammer, firecrest or skylark. But the icing on the cottage loaf is the large collection of books left for the tenants. Left in the 1940s it’s true, but, nestling among the biographies, classics and novels (just enjoyed one by a previously unknown to me author, Eric Ambler – Britain’s answer to Raymond Chandler apparently), there’s a feast of exotica such as Memoirs of a Bengal Civilian, History of the Behar Light Horse Volunteers, Gas in the Next War (written after the first world war by Major-General Sir Henry Fleetwood Thuillier – who has the same unusual surname as our landlady, but maybe extolling the virtues of gas didn’t endear him to his family and his book got consigned to the servants’ quarters), Tirhoot and its Inhabitants of the Past (published Calcutta 1903) and Shoes of the Fisherman. Would you let your little treasures be taken to bed by any passing stranger?

From the cottage you can see in the distance a white horse carved into the hillside, which seemed the ideal spot to take our Easter visitors when a ‘place of interest involving a walk’ was called for. There are quite a few of these horses around the country and I don’t know if a definitive explanation for them has ever been given. Are they megalomaniac territorial claims of old, guiding points, or just someone with no other outlet for his artistic temperament thinking “here, I could carve something out of this here chalk and everyone for miles around will know that a brilliant artist lives here”? An ordnance survey map showed us the way – the circuitous way that is, which my loved one claimed was chosen by my family and therefore, being a gentleman, he couldn’t dispute and insist on the more direct route. So we tramp up the hill, opening and closing gates to the various fields, negotiating styles and finally find ourselves eyeball to eyeball with the horse, but of course it’s the distance that makes it distinguishable as a horse - from such close quarters it’s just mottled scrubland where even the chalk has lost its dazzling white quality. So, a trifle underwhelmed, we make our way down again via a very long winding, circular path and at the bottom, look up exhausted and, perspective restored, say “wow, isn’t that amazing”.

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