Alex James: The Great Escape

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The Independent Online

It must be high summer. Fred, the sheep farmer, made his hay this weekend. The whole 30-acre meadow is an immaculate lawn under a minimalist blue sky. It's all so simple and benign. Living on a farm is very absorbing. I never want to leave. A farm is a big Lego set. There are always a few things that need doing, and when you have a few things that need doing there is nothing so nice as doing none of them and just sitting in the sunshine, considering everything.

Things do happen, but only gradually. The tilers finishing the roof of the cheese-manufacturing plant had a fight with each other and disappeared for a few weeks, but now they're back and happily banging away again. It's so hot in the afternoons that they start their banging at 5am and finish before midday. There is always some kind of activity that involves banging occurring on a farm. It's a kind of heartbeat, and it doesn't annoy me any more than the neighbour's cock crowing.

Phillip, our friendly neighbour, came round on Saturday morning with some of his children and a crayfish net. Crayfishing has been eagerly anticipated. We all piled on to the quad bike and wobbled down to the river, with the smallest child driving. The river frontage was one of the main reasons why I bought the farm. There's about a quarter of a mile of the Evenlode, a tributary of the Thames. The river is the only thing in the whole place that hasn't gone wrong or leaked or broken down or needed replacing.

The field through which it runs is only accessible via a railway bridge, and Fred didn't want it for grazing so we've let it go wild. It's my favourite field. It's in the lee of a large wood, and is unusually warm and still. An ancient oak in its lingering death throes stands in the middle. Often, there are deer, and angelica plants tower over your head. Every step triggers a whirr of grasshoppers, butterflies and dragonflies. The river is such a mass of reeds and rushes that it's hard to spot the water. There are water lilies, and strange fronds mess all along the banks. The joy of farms is the joy of the ramshackle, the slightly chaotic. Everything is so tidy in rectories and manor houses. Maybe that's why they've gone out of fashion.

Phillip, who is deliciously posh, had borrowed the butcher's net, which looked like a huge dreamcatcher for nightmares. It stank, and the ladies didn't like it at all. I'd modified a keepnet by tying a pair of socks filled with rocks to the rim to stop it from capsizing in the current. We loaded the nets up with bits of old chicken carcass and threw them in at the old cattle run, and lay in wait in the long grass, smoking fags and brushing away the flies in perfect seclusion. The children were very excited and did handstands.

The river must be teeming with crayfish. In just 10 minutes, we'd caught 20. They taste pretty good, boiled up with dill.

a.james@independent.co.uk

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