Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

Last week the following two exchanges took place within earshot of my wife Jane, who admittedly is blessed with what Jennings and Darbishire - when referring in the novels of Anthony Buckeridge to the ability of their fearsome teacher Mr Wilkins to hear round corners - used to call supersonic earsight.

The first, in a butcher's in Ludlow, was between the butcher and a frightfully tall, well-spoken man who said he'd come in to pick up the collection box for the Ludlow Community Hospital. "I don't know anything about a collection box," the butcher said. "Oh, but I'm quite sure I brought one in," said the man.

The butcher's mate then started in mock-realisation. "I remember - wasn't that the box we emptied before we all went out last Saturday night?" The butcher flashed him a look; the man simply looked bemused. There wasn't much of a gap between his scalp and the ceiling but this fine example of Welsh Marches humour had still managed to sail over his head.

The second exchange took place in Leominster post office, which is shortly to close and take up residence in a newsagent's round the corner. "Can I interest you," said the fellow behind the counter to an elderly woman who'd just finished her transaction, "in a Post Office credit card?" "No," barked the woman. "Not unless you stay put in this building. Then I might listen, but if you move then I doubt whether you can interest me in anything!"

And with that she bustled out, leaving the man behind the counter looking, according to Jane, as though he'd just been hit over the head with a blunt instrument. It was, of course, grossly unfair of the woman to blame the chap for the Royal Mail's disgraceful decision to shut down the Leominster post office, the more so as he is probably worrying about his livelihood, yet her annoyance reflected the general feeling of frustrated impotence that prevails in small-town rural England as post offices and even hospitals are shut in the name of that 21st century god, profitability.

When I was a local newspaper reporter, I was taught never to use the word "axed" in relation to a disappearing service, but in this instance it seems appropriate: as in all the best horror movies, what else but an axe would you use for violent, indiscriminate chopping?

Still, it's not all bad news, for as Leominster's post office is slain, so has the town's swimming-pool been reborn. Shortly before we moved to north Herefordshire in 2002, the Leominster pool was closed so abruptly for health and safety reasons that by all accounts there was a man doing lengths who got to the shallow end and found that the place had been padlocked in the time it had taken him to arrive from the deep end.

There didn't seem to be much municipal will to build a new pool but in June 2003, a stalwart band of townsfolk formed an organisation unambiguously called We Want Our Pool, and the following month, to its credit, Herefordshire Council agreed to splash out £2 million. The WWOP campaigners then agreed to find a further £250,000 to add a learner pool, and apart from the last £14,000 which was stumped up earlier this month by a local benefactor, raised every penny with just about every fund-raising activity imaginable. The official opening took place the Saturday before last, preceded by a celebration aptly called Splashout that filled the market square, not least with some comedy synchronised swimmers performing to Swan Lake. It was all extremely jolly: now all Leominster needs is for someone to extend the water theme by throwing a lifeline to the poor old post office.

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

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