Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

Every summer I get a fortnight-long reminder of what city life is like. While covering the tennis at Wimbledon, I always stay with my sister-in-law Jackie, her husband Tony and their teenage daughters Rachel and Hannah, who conveniently live a 20-minute walk from the All England Club. This is nice for me, and nice for The Independent's accounts department, who don't have to shell out to put me up in a hotel. Jackie very sweetly claims that it is nice for her, Tony, Rachel and Hannah, too, although I'm sure they were pleased to get their spare room back at the end of the championships, and the girls, whose bathroom I shared, possibly weren't overly distressed to see the back of my shaving apparatus.

Whatever, my annual fortnight in SW19 reintroduces me to lots of things that are no longer part of my life in the country. The saunter, for example. In rural Herefordshire I stride, sometimes purposefully, but I never saunter. There is nowhere to saunter to. But every morning in Wimbledon I sauntered to the shops for a choice of coffees at a choice of cafés, and occasionally pushed the boat out and had a scrambled egg and smoked salmon baguette, while perusing the paper. It was very civilised. But strangely, I knew I wouldn't miss it once I got home.

This is partly because the King's Head - our local pub and the only place we can walk (but never saunter) to from our house, albeit across a thistly field - is under excellent new management. When I called Jane last Friday evening, she told me that she and the kids were enjoying scampi and chips at the King's Head, which was music to my ears.

In a tiny place like Docklow, the pub assumes enormous significance. It is the focal point of the community in the way that the church used to be, decades or perhaps centuries ago. Not that the clientele is quite the same as it was. Last Friday, my seven-year-old son Jacob played pool with a Slovakian coach driver, who'd just dropped off a load of economic migrants at the local strawberry farm.

Anyway, I don't want to be too critical of the extended family who ran the place for the past three years or so. I don't doubt that they did their best. But not even they would claim that they ran it with dynamism. In fact, they all seemed decidedly shy, which is not the most helpful characteristic required in operating a successful country pub. On the other hand, they were never unfriendly. I know another pub, not far from here, where the landlord radiates downright antagonism, especially towards anyone who dares to cross his threshold with children, however well-behaved the little darlings might be. He hasn't actually gone so far as to ban kids, doubtless recognising that his profits would take a hammering if he did. But he makes the Childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang look like a Blue Peter presenter. I sometimes muse ruefully that England must be the only country in Europe where people like him routinely work in the so-called hospitality industry.

And yet, for all that, his pub is usually full. He is a good chef, that's his secret. People will forgive almost anything if they can rely on the grub, as we now can again at the King's Head. Lyndsey, the new landlord, is a cheerful presence behind the bar, and his wife Sally makes a cracking steak and kidney pudding. Moreover, they have given the exterior the lick of paint it has desperately needed for too long, and restored the beer garden that hasn't been used for years. We're cock-a-hoop.

On which subject, it was something of a surprise for me in Wimbledon to wake up to the sound of clucking hens, but Jackie and Tony, it turned out, now have poultry fanciers on both sides.

It is the new middle-class enthusiasm in SW19, apparently, although foxes are an ever-present threat, far more so than they are in the middle of the countryside. In four years in the Welsh Marches we have only once seen a fox in our garden; in Wimbledon they can be seen practically every night, sauntering with intent.

'Tales of the Country', by Brian Viner, is out in paperback (Simon & Schuster, £7.99)