Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

"For my money," the great American humorist and country dweller S J Perelman wrote in The New Yorker about half a century ago, "the most parochial, unwholesome aspect of contemporary civilization is the life led by the average urban dweller. Cooped up in a stuffy, overheated hotel suite with nothing but a bowl of cracked ice, a blonde, and a fleet bellboy poised on his toe like Pavlova waiting to run errands, he misses the rich, multiple savour of country living. He never knows the fierce ecstasy of rising in a sub-zero dawn to find the furnace cold and the pipes frozen, or the exhilaration of changing a tyre by flashlight in an icy garage. No wonder his muscles atrophy as he lies abed until noon, nibbling bits of toast over the latest edition. No wonder his horizons shrink and his waistband swells. And no wonder he'll live twice as long as I will."

Even allowing for comic licence, Perelman clearly felt ambivalent about the pleasures of rural living, and indeed it is true that there were mornings in the depths of winter when it would have been nice to have a warm coffee shop 150 yards from my front door, instead of a woodpecker.

But this is the time of year when such subversive thoughts can be cheerfully suppressed: Herefordshire never looks lovelier than it does in April, when Mother Nature pulls on her Marigolds and starts her spring-cleaning.

I wouldn't want to get too poetic about it, but the landscape around us looks as if it's been shaken out like a dusty bedspread, its colour and vitality magically restored.

One of the best places to enjoy it is Croft Ambrey, an Iron Age hill fort not far from Ludlow. We've taken lots of weekend visitors up there and most of them feel a little weak-kneed when they reach the top, partly because it's a fairly arduous walk (especially for city folk, dare I say) but mainly because the views are truly awe-inspiring. A couple of Saturdays ago, we walked up to Croft Ambrey with our friend Ali, who was visiting from Crouch End with her three children.

It was a typical April day: warm sunshine, the odd lick of chilly wind, and fleeting showers. The children and the dog had a ball making dens while Jane, Ali and I shared a flask of coffee. It was about as perfect as a morning could be and it needed a perfect ending, so when we got back to the cars we drove a few miles to an idyllic black-and-white timbered pub. We arrived just before 1pm, and asked if we could have lunch outside, beside the inevitable babbling brook.

The landlord heaved a huge, tormented sigh. "You can sit outside by all means," he said, "but we won't be able to serve you for at least 45 minutes. We're waiting for a party of 13 to arrive, and you see those five people over there, and those three there, and those two there, they're all before you."

I felt my exhilaration ebbing away. He wasn't hostile, exactly, but nor was he the jovial, accommodating landlord that our morning had demanded. I asked him whether perchance he sold filled rolls. "No," he said brusquely, "everything is cooked from fresh." So Ali, Jane and I, after a quick discussion, decided that we would just order some drinks, perhaps have some crisps, and then head into Ludlow for a late lunch. "I'm sorry," said the landlord. "That's just the way the cookie crumbles."

What we should have said to him was that the cookie didn't have to crumble that way. He could have told us that there would be a lengthy wait but that they would do their utmost to serve us as soon as possible.

He could have made us feel welcome, as if we were enhancing his day rather than complicating it.

And the bottom line is that in return for feeding nine of us, we would have happily paid him £70 or more.

The dispiriting truth is that while there's nothing lovelier than the English countryside in the springtime, at typical English country pubs typically English standards of service still prevail.

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

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