Sunday, 28 February 2010

The Archers

People sometimes ask me whether my life is like The Archers – well, living in a village in the depths of the English countryside midway between a couple of market towns, I suppose there are superficial parallels, but I usually put them right straight away. For one thing, I can’t imagine people round here would have very much time for that ludicrous storyline about Helen wanting to have a baby via sperm donation. And I particularly don’t understand why there aren't any dogs on The Archers. At least none that you ever hear. Most farmers I know round here have at least three dogs and most of them are far from silent, but on the radio, doorbells ring and visitors enter the house unmolested, folk go on holiday without having to make complicated arrangements with the kennels, postmen bring letters without being in fear for their lives, bin day comes and goes with some trusty mutt tipping everything up and rooting through to see if there’s anything worth eating… Hmmm, I think our next dog might have to be a radio dog...

And apart from anything else, I can see that I would be the obvious candidate for the insufferable Lynda Snell, the nosy incomer with a poor, downtrodden husband and several fingers in every conceivable pie, which is just too upsetting to contemplate. I suppose if I really had to be one of them (and let’s face it, that’s far from likely), I possibly wouldn’t mind being Caroline. But the chances of us ever being able to afford Grey Gables or the Dower House are pretty slim to say the least. Dour House, more likely…

Not that I ever listen to it, you understand…

* * *

Of course we don’t need The Archers, because we have our very own real-life archers here. Down in the field next to Hector’s forge at the bottom of the hill in Little Somerford on a Sunday (if it’s not raining too much) or on a summer’s evening after work, you can see them under the boughs of the ancient oak, lining up their sights, fleet arrows buzzing swiftly through the air before piercing one of the targets with a soft thud. Well, at least Hector’s do. Alex perhaps needs a bit more practice. But he’s not doing badly...

Hector is one of our local heroes. Standing over six feet tall with flaxen hair and strong workman’s hands, he looks as though he could easily have been transported here from Saxon times in his softly-timeworn leather apron as he stands with his bow and a quiver of handmade arrows, or at his forge, puffing the bellows until the coals glow red hot. A master arrowsmith and archeological ironworker, he’s a leading authority on historic smithing techniques, his expertise is frequently sought out for TV programmes such as Time Team, and he was responsible for the magnificent ironwork gates at nearby Highgrove. As well as being incredibly skilled and talented, Hector is immensely generous with his time, too – guiding and encouraging young archers and arrowmakers locally with his unstinting patience and enthusiasm.

As you come down the hill from Malmesbury into Little Somerford’s grassy valley, the sight of soft grey puffs of smoke rising gently from the chimney of the forge at the bottom confirms that Hector’s in his forge and all’s right with the world.

* * *

Unfortunately, all was far from right with the world this week when our little village shop was targeted by robbers who threatened the shopkeeper with a knife, demanding cash. Luckily another member of staff was able to raise the alarm and the man ran off empty-handed. I’ve since heard that he was subsequently caught by the Police. It’s thankfully very rare to hear of such things in our quiet little part of the world, but it would be so sad if this incident were to make us all suspicious and untrusting of any visitor.

But perhaps it’s as well to know that bad things do sometimes happen in unexpected places and understand that things are not always as peaceful they look.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Yes, we have no potatoes

And I thought I’d been so careful. I spent time chosing my varieties painstakingly – pest-resistant, blight-resistant, disease-free, easy to grow – and having consulted just about every potato-grower on the allotment as to where best to chit them – Bernard keeps his in the study, John’s are carefully stored in egg boxes on the windowsill of his back bedroom while Henry, rather worryingly, suggests I consult my allotment book – I plump for the cool and bright, yet frost-free, garage windowsill.

Shirley and Gerald, who’ve been growing potatoes on the allotments for decades, helped shepherd me through the labyrinth of first earlies, second earlies, Desirees and Maris Pipers at the Malmesbury Potato Day sale last month, warning me off the tempting-looking Jersey Royals (I do like a nice salad potato) and steering me towards the – well, I wish I could remember which ones they steered me towards, but the mice appear to have eaten my carefully written labels, too. At least, I’m hoping it was mice. The alternative is just too creepy to contemplate < < SHUDDER > >. Well, I suppose it’s not too late to start again...

It’s that funny time of year between Winter and Spring when there’s nothing much going on and everybody seems to feel a little bit gloomy. I can’t help thinking that this must have something to do with the decision to make February just that little bit shorter than all the other months. It’s too wet to dig, too early to plant anything, too cold to stay out for very long – I even saw the odd flurry of snow earlier on this week. It’s the sort of weather when you feel you ought to be making a rich, nourishing soup or be safely inside, stirring a glistering vat of molten marmalade in a warm, fuggy kitchen… Except I realize I’ve missed the Seville oranges, too.

I have a sinking feeling it’s going to turn out to be one of those years…

But of course there’s always something going on in Great Somerford. It’s that kind of place. Doubtless thinking of a way of cheering everybody up in the midst of the cold, dank bleakness of this time of year, Carol and Maritsa have decided to put on a village concert in the Community Room with an exclusive line-up of local talent at the end of the month. There’ll be singing, there’ll be folk music, there’ll be one or two of Mary’s famous, wonderful, monologues, there’ll be a bit of Jazz, there’ll be more singing… I tell you, it's not to be missed. No stone has been left unturned to seek out local acts of all description.

Thankfully, no one has yet got wind of the singing dog…


...I think perhaps he needs a little more work on the piano part, though...

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Groundhog day

Yesterday was Groundhog Day, or Imbolc, or perhaps more commonly in this country, Candlemas – exactly half way between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, and traditionally a day for predicting the weather.

On Candlemas Day, if the thorns hang adrop, Then you can be sure of a good pea crop

Well, everything was certainly hanging adrop, but I don’t know about a good pea crop – every day I go down to the allotment it seems to be Groundhog Day; I dig up half a wheelbarrowload of weed roots, and the next time I go down, it’s exactly the same again. It’s all a bit dispiriting. But I suppose on the bright side, we’re halfway to Spring.

And it’s all so very muddy. The long frost has broken down the soil structure and made go a bit spongy, so it feels like there's gallons of water down there.

Still, the groundhog or the badger, or whatever it might be wouldn’t have stood a chance of seeing his shadow yesterday, so if the folklore is right, Spring is on its way and we can all start growing peas. Except we can’t, as John reminds me – it’s a waning moon.

* * *

I went up to Westonbirt in the afternoon with the Malmesbury Dog Walkers (you’d have thought I’d had enough mud for one day, but no...) Sally was there, and she has an allotment in Little Somerford, so I picked her brains about what to do about the endless quantities of subterranean marestail and bindweed root that seem to rear up overnight like some gardening version of the many-headed Hydra.

“The first thing to do is only dig over the bit you're actually going to grow things in - don’t bother with the rest, you’ll just find yourself fighting a losing battle,” she suggests quite sensibly. “You’ll never get rid of all the marestail – it's been around since the dinosaurs and survived the last ice age, so it's not going to worry too much about the odd bit being yanked out here and there.”

Already things are beginning to look up and I’m beginning to see some distant mirage of normal life forming hazily on the horizon, in between lengthy episodes of digging interspersed with muddy dog walks. I’ve lately begun to feel I’m in danger of developing an unhealthy relationship with my spade and I realise that I can't actually name many people in the village that haven't either got a dog or an allotment. Except for Adam and Cheryl, who I’m always popping round to borrow things from or ask to borrow the spare keys because I’ve forgotten to take mine down to the allotment with me.

“And if you can manage to get down there for about an hour every other day, you should soon find yourself keeping on top of it”

“Blimey!” says Fiona, who hasn't got an allotment. “It’s like being out on a walk with a couple of seventy-year old blokes!”

Not that I have have anything against seventy year-old blokes. In fact I can count several among my best friends.

Mind you, I suppose I have met most of them down on the allotments.

* * *

...and for badger lovers, here's a little clip taken by our neighbours in the snow. (See, Adam – I’m not the only one who comes round on the scrounge...)