Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

A couple of weeks ago we went to a Tuesday-night dinner party, which for the country is excitingly avant-garde. To get there we had to drive out of Herefordshire, through Shropshire and into Worcestershire, which is precisely the reason why socialising in these parts tends to happen mainly at weekends, when there are the same hills and dales to negotiate but no 6.30am alarm calls the next day.

However, our friends Annabel and Richard wanted us to meet their neighbour Dennis, and Dennis works away from home from Thursdays to Mondays.

Dennis is a London cabbie, who moved up here a few years ago with his wife Susie, and finds that the tranquillity of the Welsh Marches is the perfect antidote to sitting in traffic on Kensington Church Street.

It's never particularly easy for him to point the cab southwards down the M40 on a Thursday morning but he's back in the swing of it by the time he gets inside the M25. He says he always knows whether it's going to be a good few days or a bad few days depending on whether or not he picks up a fare on Holland Park Avenue, which is where he first switches on his light.

Over the cheese soufflé, I told him that, in a way, it was a shame I hadn't encountered him by climbing into the back of his cab. I often get into conversation with London cabbies and usually find out where they live. It's invariably Barnet or Pett's Wood, for some strange reason, but how marvellous it would have been to be told "Clee Hill, just outside Ludlow".

It would be tempting to bag a lift all the way home, and I probably would have done had Dennis's been the cab I'd clambered into after a rather alcoholic lunch in London just the day before.

Instead, it took me to Paddington Station, and I thought I alighted sober until I needed three stabs at asking the woman behind the information desk: "What time's the next train to Worcester Shrub Hill"? I now know that after four glasses of wine it's a highly challenging arrangement of consonants and vowels.

Anyway, by the time I did get to Shrub Hill I'd had a little snooze - one of those embarrassing snoozes on trains from which you jerk awake with your mouth open and the woman opposite staring at you - and felt perfectly capable of driving my car, which I'd left in the station car park the previous afternoon.

Of course, the sensible thing would have been not to drink at all at lunchtime knowing that I'd be driving even four hours later, but one glass had led inexorably to two, and two to four, and here I was, clutching my car keys and wondering whether I was over the limit.

So I did the next-most sensible thing. I got into a cab and asked the driver to take me to the main police station in Worcester, where I explained my situation and asked them to breathalyse me. They wouldn't do it. Apparently the police don't breathalyse by request. But they did say that if there was the slightest doubt in my mind then I shouldn't risk it, which I knew anyway.

So I got another cab to take me all the way home, 20-odd miles. It cost me £30 and meant that Jane had to drive me back into Worcester to pick up my car the next day, which she wasn't overjoyed about, but that's what comes of trying to get safely home to Herefordshire on the same day that you've enjoyed yourself in London.

To get back to the dinner party, I also asked Dennis that most predictable and yet irresistible of questions: has he had anyone famous in the back of his cab? A chatty Hugh Grant and a grumpy Nick Faldo was the best he could do, which wasn't bad at all, although not as good as the tale I once got from a bloke who told me that he'd been called out to a central London hotel to pick up Sister Sledge and refused to admit three jolly black American women into the cab, telling them firmly that he was waiting for a nun. Even if he made it up, it was a good story.

'Tales from the Country' by Brian Viner is on sale now. £12.99 (Simon & Schuster)

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