Camels in the Cotswolds

Anthony Scrivener QC, leading lawyer, on the perils of a townie in the country
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The Independent Online
"May I have a word with you?" said the gardener. "Alone".

I quickly followed him to a secluded clearing in the rhododendron bushes. He dropped his voice and glanced around him. "There is something nasty in the woodshed. I thought you ought to know."

He nodded his head several times and I found myself doing the same. I thanked him profusely and I made my way back to the house. I was certain of one thing: I would not be telling anyone else about the woodshed or the nasty thing in it. Since we townies had found a place in the country we had already suffered a series of unpleasant surprises and I did not intend to add to them.

I took to walking around the woodshed in a casual manner carrying a raised rake in the fashion of a caber before it is tossed. As the days went by I grew bolder and actually entered the woodshed with the raised rake and a pitch fork. I saw nothing. It was yet another rural mystery.

Ever since we got the country place all we wanted was to merge into the local community. I took to tying string around my muddy trousers just below the knee and carried a tall stick with a groove for my thumb at the top.

I admit to having some success. The country barber said as I sat in the chair "farming?" and I nodded. I did not admit that my farming was limited to light weeding and walking with the dog. My enthusiasm was not even dampened when, after sniffing and snipping for a while, the barber asked "pigs?"

Obviously, if you wish to melt into the environment some basic country knowledge is essential. A small bird book for quick identification is invaluable although bird identification can be very frustrating. The birds in our area bear no resemblance to the photographs in the bird book. All of ours seem to be what the book calls "variants". Instead of having a black breast and a yellow beak, ours have yellow breasts and black beaks or even red ones. They do not appear to be regular models at all.

Collective identification of birds can be very acrimonious.

It is quite impossible to agree on whether the thing is an eagle or a redwing as they flit about. The only certain way of securing an identification is to shoot the thing and then examine the deceased on a newspaper on the kitchen table with the bird book alongside. Such a procedure, however, would be considered bad form in the country.

Visiting the country even has a disastrous effect on the cats. As town cats they live a civilised life watching the TV from the most comfortable chair or bed and ripping up the upholstery. As soon as the cat basket is opened in the country they change character. As I grope my way to the bathroom during the night I invariably trip over a mountain of mice which has been steadily accumulating since dusk. There is nothing like the feel of dead damp mice to wake you up.

Of course the locals take advantage of us townies. We have a couple of fields that apparently are called "paddocks" in the country. When the local lady asked if she could stick some animals in the paddocks to keep the grass down we naturally agreed. We expected to have a dozen or so of those nice black and white patterned cows grazing peacefully. How could we have anticipated that she would put camels there!

That was bad enough but what is worse was that one of the camels is in a most appalling moult with splayed legs and dangling clumps of fur and skin. Someone who had been to Africa said that the camel was in "musk" which sounds an extremely unpleasant thing to be in. As the locals say, camels are quite unsuitable for the Cotswolds. Who but a townie would have introduced them?

We had got used to the odd black rubbish bag moving about on its own and we took on board what the man from the council said: namely, that no one is ever more than two feet from a rat. But the secret of the woodshed still came as a shock. As she ate her third bowl of cornflakes the Godchild said, "there's a snake in the woodshed."

This remark had a suitably devastating effect on the other townie breakfasters. After the gasps and muffled screams had died away, suggestions were made to rid us of the "problem". They varied from burning down the shed in a "controlled fire" to notifying the local council.

The British have a blind faith in the local council, they believe that rat-catching, wasp-nest moving, bats in the belfry and nasty things in the woodshed can all be left to the council.

Meanwhile the nature book was produced - back to identification. I knew from my bird-watching that identification would not be easy.

"It is easy," my wife Ying said, "although the colours are the same, the grass snake has got round eyes but an adder has horizontal eyes vertically."

"Good," I said "then it should be easy." Meanwhile, we have given up using the woodshed and we are quite prepared to vacate the barn and garage if necessary.