Next month it will be four years since we moved from north London to north Herefordshire, yet still we find ourselves making comparisons between our new life, which of course is not so new any more, and our old one. These comparisons are reinforced when London friends come to stay, as many of them did last week.
By Tuesday, recognising that it was our fourth successive day of having to put a meal for 13 on the table, our friend Derek generously undertook to go into Leominster to buy steaks, burgers and sausages for the barbecue. We directed him to our favourite butcher there and assured him that he would have a more successful retail experience than he did last time, when he tried to buy some parsley only to be told at the greengrocer's that "there won't be any parsley in Leominster until Thursday".
For a man who lives in a city where you can buy kumquats at midnight on Christmas Eve should you want to, it had come as a shock to hear an English grocer in the 21st century talking a bit like a shopkeeper in Tombstone, Arizona, circa 1888: "There won't be no supplies, mister, until the weekly train from Phoenix passes through." That kind of thing.
Anyway, we'd had a laugh about it, with Jane and I trying, unsuccessfully, to convince Derek that there is something rather wholesome about not being able to buy everything you want, whenever you want it. Admittedly, it took us a while to come round to this way of thinking. Not long after we moved here, Jane was in a queue at a farm supplies shop, buying some pet food, when a man wandered in and asked the guy behind the till whether there was a B&Q nearby. Jane found the reply both amusing and disconcerting.
"In Leominster?" the guy at the till said, slowly. "Don't be silly."
I should swiftly add that since then Leominster has acquired a marvellous branch of Focus of which we are all very proud. But in general the requirement to go a little further, or wait a little longer, for stuff we need has had an unequivocally positive influence on our lives. With every day in the countryside, the importance of instant gratification recedes a little further.
That said, our assurances to Derek that he'd get everything he wanted from our favourite butcher turned out to be premature. By the time he got there, at 12.15pm, the shop had closed. Derek went across the road to the deli and asked the woman there if she knew why the butcher's was shut. "Yes, he closes at noon on a Monday," she said. "Oh," said Derek, and selected some cheese. Then a thought occurred to him. "But it's Tuesday," he said.
"Goodness, so it is," said the woman. "But it was Monday yesterday," she added, gnomically.
Presumably, the point she was making was that even though the butcher had been closed on Bank Holiday Monday, he was damned if he was going to forsake his half-day. That is an approach to retailing that drove us mad when we arrived in these parts from London, yet now we think it's great. We have become very fond of Leominster and indeed all the little market towns of the Welsh Marches for just this air of unhurriedness. Besides, the woman in the deli simply directed Derek to another butcher round the corner, where he bought 12 excellent sirloin steaks for under £20. You might not always be able to find what you want, but by heavens it's good value when you do.
I don't know whether the large numbers of economic migrants who have arrived here from Poland and Lithuania, mostly to pick strawberries, would concur.
Maybe they think our food prices exorbitant, and consider the shops in Leominster and other local towns to be repositories of plenty, with unusually generous opening hours. Everything's relative. Whatever, I am reminded of a lovely quotation that a couple of weeks ago ended the Radio 4 programme Quote Unquote, and was thought to be Eastern European in origin: "If we had ham, we could have ham and eggs... if we had eggs."
'Tales of the Country', by Brian Viner, is out now (Simon & Schuster, £7.99)Reuse content