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 & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
tvMartin Freeman’s casting is a stroke of genius

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival

film
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

    The man who could have been champion of the world

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
    Didn’t she do well?

    Didn’t she do well?

    Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
    Before they were famous

    Before they were famous

    Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

    Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players