Brian Viner: Country Life

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Before moved to the country, the only people we knew aged 75 and over were relatives. Now we count quite a number as friends; indeed, my newest friend is 91, and I've just returned from knocking back a late-morning glass of sherry with her. Her name is Madge Hooper, and I made contact after receiving a lovely letter from her, in which she kindly said that she had enjoyed my book about our first 12 months of living in Herefordshire. She was an incomer too, albeit in 1939, and there was something so spirited about her letter that I knew I would enjoy meeting her. Any nonagenarian who gives you her e-mail address has to be worth meeting.

Madge did not disappoint. She is one of those extraordinary old people whose zest for life is undiminished; to celebrate her 90th birthday, she took a hot-air-balloon ride from Worcester racecourse to Eastnor Castle, having marked her 80th with abseiling in the Brecon Beacons.

She grew up on the Gower Peninsula and remembers seeing a First World War Zeppelin flying over, presumably on its way to bomb Cardiff. By the time of the Second World War, she was married and living in the Herefordshire village of Stoke Lacy. "We recognised aircraft by sound: whether it was one of ours or one of theirs," she told me. "And one day, when I was mowing the lawn, I heard one of theirs, so not very cleverly I took shelter under a young Red May tree, which wouldn't have protected me from a bowl of porridge." A little while later there was a distant explosion, which shook the windows of her house. It turned out the Luftwaffe bomber had jettisoned its ammunition after bombing Coventry or Birmingham, and, to the great indignation of the good people of Stoke Lacy and district, had blown a cow into a tree.

By then, Madge was a professional herb farmer. As a girl, she had been greatly inspired by a book her father brought home one day, containing recipes evidently written by a proto-Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, advising on how to take culinary advantage of the meadows and hedgerows. So in 1935, when she was 20, she enrolled on a four-year course taught near Sevenoaks in Kent by one of the pioneers of herb gardening, Dorothy Hewer. Miss Hewer took six female students a year and worked them relentlessly, harvesting peppermint and lavender to make oil. She was deaf, with a basso-profundo voice, and over the subsequent seven decades Madge has perfected an impression of her. "She used to come into the shed and say, 'Girls, something lamentable has happened.' That was her favourite word, 'lamentable', although it was never anything very dire."

Most of Madge's fellow students were filling in time before getting married, but for her, herb-growing became a vocation. In 1939, she and her husband rented Stoke House in Stoke Lacy, and started growing commercially. During the war they had to follow Ministry of Ag directives, but deve-loped a useful sideline in sending pot pourri to America. Afterwards, they built up a flourishing business, which she ran on her own after she and her husband separated in 1952, and in 1954 she bought Stoke House, which she'd been renting from Dorothy Morgan, of the Morgan Cars dynasty, for £70 a year. The property came with more than six acres and cost her £1,400. It is currently on the market for £600,000, although with a slightly reduced acreage, because in 1974 Madge sold up and built herself a bungalow in the grounds. She closed the herb business in 1992, when she was a stripling of 76.

It is a truism to say talking to people like Madge brings local history alive. When she arrived in Stoke Lacy, the entire village belonged to the Morgan family. Dorothy Morgan's father and grandfather had, between them, been rectors in the village for more than 50 years, and her brother Harry had built up the car-manufacturing business. Stoke House had been built for Dorothy on Flower Show Meadow, the site of a much-loved annual staple of the Herefordshire social calendar. "Had the house not been for a Morgan daughter," said Madge, "I expect the locals would have torn it apart brick by brick. Another sherry?"