Brian Viner: A Country Life

'I suppose fundamentalists think that a vengeful Almighty had it in for the sinners of Middle England'
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The Independent Online

Noah sent out a dove to see whether the flood waters had receded, but we have the telephone, which, when you think about it, would have come in very handy in Old Testament times. "Is that Gomorrah 68739? I wouldn't hang about, if I were you."

At the height of the floods, we were getting phone calls from as far afield as Australia to see whether we were OK. This made us feel as though we were at the centre of a major humanitarian crisis but, in all honesty, the evidence didn't really support us. "No, we're fine, although we've had a slight leak on the landing," was not much of a cri de coeur, but maybe our Australian friends thought that we were just putting a fantastically brave face on things. After all, the most dramatic images of the Great Flood of 2007 came from towns all around us: Tenbury Wells, Worcester and Ludlow, as well as places only a little further away, such as Tewkesbury, Gloucester and Evesham. (I suppose there must be some crackpot fundamentalists out there who reckon that a vengeful Almighty must have had it in for the sinners of Middle England, perhaps for spending too much of their time at the golf club, or the garden centre.)

We got off lightly because our house is high up, with no nearby streams or rivers. Our friends Stuart and Susie, a mile down the A44, were not so lucky. They live in a kind of bowl, with ploughed fields at the back of the house, and, unfortunately, the farmer had ploughed in such a way that each furrow pointed towards them, which of course caused nobody the slightest concern until monsoon-like conditions turned each furrow into a raging torrent, carrying tons of topsoil downhill. Within minutes, Stuart and Susie's ground floor was ankle-deep in mud, and the expensive new decking in their back garden had been upended, but even they got off lightly compared with their next-door neighbours, who took the real brunt of the mud slide.

By the time I joined the clean-up operation, their living-room and kitchen looked like lakes of molten milk chocolate, with islands of furniture and electrical appliances. A huge fridge-freezer, taller than me, floated on its side. Chairs, tables, and even a heavy dresser had been overturned. It was an extraordinary spectacle, more evocative of the coastal regions of Sri Lanka after the tsunami than north Herefordshire after heavy rain.

The farmer, I should add, was aghast when he saw the damage, and set about building a protective trench to prevent anything like that happening again. He could not have known that his nicely ploughed field was going to turn demonic. But it seems worth wondering whether other agricultural practices hereabouts might have contributed to the flooding, on which subject I am indebted, as Cyril Fletcher used to say on That's Life, to a reader called Gareth Burridge, from South Wales, who sent me the following email: "In all that has been written about the recent disastrous floods, I have not read any reference to the effect that polytunnels must be having on water run-off. Much has been made of paving urban gardens, but nothing of these innovations. The run-off from these acres of plastic sheeting must be nearly 100 per cent, which must be having an effect on local streams and rivers, especially during torrential downpours.

"As an aside, a few weeks ago, on the early Sunday-morning farming programme on Radio 4, a polytunnelling farmer was asked whether he saw any incongruity in denying his land rainfall, while operating expensive irrigation systems to his plants. His response was to the effect that irrigation watered his plants accurately, while rainfall was wasteful, because it fell everywhere."

Mr Burridge's point seems a sound one, not that many people round here need any more reasons to get in a stew about polytunnels, which are creeping over the Welsh Marches like a peculiarly severe form of eczema. Meanwhile, my own beef with the media coverage of the floods concerns the word "bowser". It seemed to enter the vocabularies of TV and radio reporters almost overnight, but without anyone taking the trouble to explain just what a bowser is, and why every street corner in flood-stricken communities should have one. Overseas visitors might have been forgiven for watching the news and thinking that bowsers are as integral to British life as boozers. Let's hope they never are.

Only in the provinces

Another victim of the flooding was a restaurant in Ludlow called Mr Underhill at Dinham Weir. With Dinham Weir doing a reasonable impression of the Niagara Falls, it was no great surprise to learn, a fortnight ago, that the restaurant could not accommodate the booking we had made several months earlier, so instead we went to a new place in Ludlow called La Bécasse, which has opened where Hibiscus used to be.

Hibiscus was run by the acclaimed French chef Claude Bosi, who left, like Dick Whittington except with two Michelin stars rather than a cat, to seek his fortune in London. Jane and I only ate twice at Hibiscus and considered the food, while excellent, a little too fussy. La Bécasse, regrettably, is the same. My main course was delicious but looked more like a Jackson Pollock painting than a plate of food. More to the point, the evening cost about the same as a Jackson Pollock painting. If there was a bottle of wine for less than £35 on the wine list, I didn't spot it, which, oddly enough, is the kind of liberty-taking that you find only in the provinces.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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