Country Matters: A little bit of give and take

A sharp frost overnight, followed by a brilliantly clear day, finally goaded me into action. I should have started digging the vegetable plot weeks ago, but various reasons - holidays, other jobs, idleness - had prevented me. Now there was no excuse, and as I toiled away in the afternoon sun, I eased the hard labour by calculating how much money I save through growing our own produce. The total for the year, I reckoned, must be well over pounds 300 - and, of course, I had the extra satisfaction of knowing that everything that had come from this plot was completely organic.

Like walking, digging frees the mind; and my thoughts soon progressed from horticulture to the system of barter that prevails in properly rural areas. I do not mean the kind of haggling that takes place in oriental bazaars; I have never been any good at that - and indeed I nurse painful memories of the time I tried to beat down a Tibetan carpet merchant in Kathmandu. With negotiations only just beginning, an eclipse of the sun set in and premature night began to fall. Ah, I thought, this will unsettle the blighter - but no. He remained rock-steady, and in the sinister twilight exacted the full price for the rug that now lies on my study floor.

The barter that I have in mind here is the simple swap of one commodity or service for another. No rules govern such exchanges, except the unspoken one that nobody should specify precise values or show indecorous haste in seeking reciprocation of a favour.

Our one neighbour does not eat lettuces - a pity, because he could have had dozens this summer. But he does enjoy the occasional bowl of free- range eggs, and at this time of year he strikes back with surplus tomatoes. In return for running some of our sheep in his paddock, we give him part or all of a lamb.

Such exchanges are relatively cut and dried. A looser arrangement was one that we made last winter, when we offered quarter to Harry, a young horse, in return for riding instruction given to my wife by his owner. With the best will in the world, I have to say that Harry overstayed his welcome: not only did he decapitate four young oak trees, planted in a ceremonial line along a hedge; he also killed several semi-mature poplars by scoffing their bark, and developed a sinister penchant for chasing sheep until they dropped.

Two donkeys which come to us for prolonged holidays make no direct contribution to our economy. Yet they never outstay their welcome, because they pay for their keep many times over by means of their ridiculous antics.

In midsummer we provided temporary grazing for some of a nearby farmer's beef cattle. He needed more grass. We wanted our grass eaten off, because a low mow does the sward good. So, one morning, he drove 30 large cows down the track through the wood and turned them loose in our meadow. Twenty- two days later, when he took them away again, they had done an excellent job, devouring not only the grass but a good many thistles and nettles as well. In theory, at the going rate of pounds 1 per cow per week, he owed us about pounds 90; but no word had been said about any money.

Nor was anything said about hay until, several weeks later, the weather at last relented and the same farmer was able to cut, dry and bale a field on top of the hill. Down came word, one evening, that the hay was ready, and that since rain was forecast for the morning, we had better move sharp if we wanted any. Away we went, and as night was falling we crammed our trailer with 40 good bales. Later a similar message reached us about straw: 30 bales of that, added to our hay-haul, put the score about level.

More recently we received a low-key inquiry about some stone slabs thought to be stored in one of our barns. Twelve years ago a builder had taken them out of an old stable we were converting and urged us not to throw them away. "Stood there in a corner," he pointed out, "they don't eat nor drink nothing, do 'um?"

The other day that man's brother-in-law - another builder, who has been renovating a cottage nearby - remembered those good old slabs. Did we still have them, by any chance? And if we did, could we spare half a dozen, to make two fire-surrounds? "Of course," I said. "They're no use to us."

Down came the heavy mob with a pick-up truck, and within 10 minutes they had swagged away eight of the best, each weighing about 150lb. The slabs will make fine fire-surrounds, and must have been worth quite a bit. But no one was so boorish as to mention cash, and only time will show what comes back in return. In fact, I may easily have had the worth of the slabs already, in logs, for which the owner of the renovated cottage lets me forage in his wood.

So it goes on. The point of the barter system is not so much to save money as to oil the wheels of everyday existence.

The exchange of small favours creates no end of goodwill - and it often turns out to be extremely useful to be on easy terms with people whose facilities are more extensive than your own.

I know a man, for instance, who, without charge, will be glad to take away the superannuated hay-turner that is rusting down by our bottom hedge, because he cannot resist such museum pieces; and the next time one of our ewes keels over, it will be a very great help to us that we have a friend who is prepared to bury the corpse in his muck heap, where, at no expense to anyone, it will quietly rot away and return its elements to nature.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering