Country & garden: Secrets of an old farm kitchen

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The Independent Culture
Apart from sundry mice, which must have thought the world was ending, nobody resented the upheaval more keenly than Jasper and Rosie, our tabby cats. As I came downstairs at 6.45am, I found Jasper sitting ostentatiously on a corner of my wife's desk, radiating disapproval. The position he had taken up; his attitude; the very set of his whiskers; everything was telling me not only that the Aga had gone out, but that his favourite perch on the working surface beside it, where he likes to bake himself for hours on end, had mysteriously vanished.

As for Rosie, she was devastated to discover that her normal feeding- place, on a draining board beside the sink, had also disappeared. Timid at the best of times, she lurked about outside giving piteous yowls, unable to face the possibility of coming in and being bounced by Jemima, our boisterous young black Labrador, without the possibility of jumping on to the high shelf that normally guarantees her safety.

The cause of all this dismay was our decision to renovate the kitchen. I mentioned this project some time ago, when I discussed the rights and wrongs of throwing out the old flagstones that covered the floor. Well, by last weekend we were past worrying about niceties of conservation, and in any case we had found a buyer in the village for any slabs that survived intact.

A water-diviner who once came to dowse for streams beneath our fields sat in the kitchen and, after consulting a pendulum, announced that the house had been built in 1681. We had no evidence to contradict his estimate, and by the time we had wrenched out all the units, the room looked at least 300 years old.

We have always known that our kitchen was once the farmhouse's dairy, used for cheese-making, and the effect of clearing it was to make the slope of its floor seem even more pronounced.

Down this hill, in the old days, the farmer or his wife used to slosh buckets of water, and the fall of six inches from Aga to larder was one of the main reasons for our wanting to get things straightened out.

I awaited the lifting of the slabs with no mean excitement. Because they had sunk into various comfortable hollows, we always assumed that they had been laid directly on to earth, and now our theory was to be put to the test. There was always the chance - remote, I had to agree - that some earlier inhabitant had buried the family treasure beneath them.

The stronger and more sinister possibility was that we would find a stream flowing where we wanted to lay the concrete base for the new floor. Our neighbour, 50 yards down the hill, has been persistently troubled by just such a subterranean watercourse, which appears to flow directly from us.

Before the slabs could come up, the Aga had to go out - and until you have seen an Aga taken apart at the seams, you have not lived. I had correctly imagined heavy iron castings, but not the tangle of innards or the mass of vermiculite insulation - glittery, featherweight chips - which poured out like slippery popcorn and had to be carefully shovelled into sacks for reuse later.

The first, ceremonial lift of a slab was performed by Matt, the work- experience lad helping our builder, who got the end of his jemmy down the side of it and prised it up. Beneath it, as we expected, lay earth and clay, both fairly dry, but we were amazed by the slab's thickness - nearly 5in - and by its weight. One by one its neighbours came up, and we took them out in wheelbarrows to stack them in the yard. Thank heaven, no watercourse came to light, but, alas, also no treasure. Nevertheless the floor did harbour several curiosities.

One was a mouse's nest of some antiquity, complete with hazelnut shells black with age. Another was live roots that had infiltrated through the south wall. At first I thought these must come from the fig tree growing against the house; but when we found roots invading from the north as well, I was forced to conclude that the villain must be the big poplar on the front lawn.

If this diagnosis is correct, its implications are sinister, for the tree stands at least 30 metres from the kitchen, and its roots must have extended right round both sides of the house before penetrating the walls, so that, like a giant squid, it has the building clutched in its tentacles.

When a pneumatic chisel and a Kango road hammer were brought into play to smash the old concrete base of the Aga, the noise in the empty room became shattering. In spite of the din, Jemima had to be forcibly restrained from assisting in the excavation. The cats predictably absented themselves, fleeing to the sanctuary of the hay bales. But, come dusk, they sought to return to their usual haunts, only to find everything still in chaos.

Their persistence reminded me of the time we moved an ark-and-fold in which our chickens spent the night, from a field to the bottom of the garden - a distance of barely 100 yards. The birds seemed quite unable to appreciate that their house had shifted; so firmly hefted were they to their old territory that for night after night they went and camped on the bare hillside where the ark had stood, at the mercy of any passing fox, and as dark closed in we had to carry them in to safety one by one.

Now the cats are behaving in a similar fashion, and it is difficult to find a way of explaining to them that in two or three weeks' time the status quo will be restored - with the important innovation that, for the first time in its history, their playing-field will be level.