Alex James: The Great Escape

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The Independent Online

There was a forgotten half-cup of espresso frozen solid on the well when I first stepped outside at sunrise. It was another bright morning and the whole thing had been brought to a complete standstill under the stars overnight. A billion tiny details arrested, and presented as a vast still life in showers of winter sunshine. It stopped me for a moment, too and I tried to remember if I'd ever seen anything as beautiful. I couldn't. I went back inside to the hungry children and forgot it all instantly.

In the morning, it was still deepest winter but by the afternoon I had sensed the very first pinpoint of spring. Chipping Norton is England's coldest town. We're quite high up, but even here the first daffodils were opening and clouds of midges had begun to rise in pools of sun by midday. Ice was still lurking in the shadows, but the bright light had me blind as I went inside to make more coffee after my post-lunch cigarette in the rays.

That sunshine was more than enough, the perfect complement to cigarettes, coffee and being alive. I used to be such an adrenaline junkie. Now I seek only sunshine and silence.

It was all there. Everyone else had gone back to bed, something I'd been looking forward to all morning but now I had the choice I didn't want to, even though I was deliciously tired. Instead I climbed up to my favourite spot, the top of the wobbly scaffold at the end of the barn and had a good long gaze in peace. The ice had been thick enough to walk on in the shade of the barn, but the chicken yard was so hot by now they were all staying inside. We've got four cockerels and I think I've got to kill three of them. You can only really have one, but I'm dallying. Dave the dog, who built the hutches, came round to have a look at how they were getting on when I wasn't here and told Claire: "He knows what he's got to do." Actually, it's hard to know what to do. They haven't started fighting yet and another source told me that having more cockerels makes the hens lay more eggs, which is probably not true, but easy to believe when you want to. I think I'll wait and see.

I could see everything from up there. The dog, Socks, had formed an allegiance with Mackerel, one of the cats, and they were trotting around with purpose. Rooks tumbled out of the big oaks, fighting and screaming. The whole of the Evenlode valley, my valley, was laid out and it was hard to believe anyone was doing anything, anywhere.

I was struck by the beauty of it all and welled up. It's not everyone's cup of coffee, though. A new au pair arrived on Sunday and was gone by Wednesday, bored and indignant. The dog is dirty and the chickens are horrible, she said. Beauty is easily missed.

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