My colleague John Walsh wrote with his customary flair earlier this week about his search for a pastoral idyll, somewhere in the English countryside where he could let the myriad stresses of city life flutter away on the breeze. I confess that I began reading in a spirit of mild indignation, for John's first destination was Burford in Oxfordshire, an architectural delight to be sure, but overloaded like so many Cotswolds towns and villages with traffic, tourists, and expensive tat. I found myself urging John westwards towards the Welsh Marches, far lovelier than the Cotswolds, and significantly less blighted by traffic, tourists and tat. Reassuringly, he reached the same conclusion, finding his nirvana in Church Stretton in Shropshire, just a short tootle up the A49 from us, in fact I'm slightly offended that he didn't drop in for tea and scones, to which in these rural parts we sit down every afternoon at 4pm, or would if we weren't so bloody stressed by the rising costs of living in the country.
The latest source of stress is our seven-year-old Volvo, which gave up the ghost on Monday not three months after we had remortgaged our house, enabling us finally to clear our debts with Volvo Finance. My mother was visiting and Jane had driven her to Ludlow for some gentle ambling round the shops on a day of typical spring-like conditions, namely gale-force winds and driving rain. On their way home the car simply conked out, with what we now know to be a terminally-ill gearbox that will cost £4,150.35 including VAT to replace. The alternative to spending so much on a car with 150,000 miles on the clock is to rekindle our marriage with Volvo Finance. Mind you, I'm not sure I want another Volvo. Who wants a gearbox with a seven-year hitch?
Whatever, to make matters even worse, there had been a crash on the A49 with so much traffic being re-routed along the B4361 into Ludlow that the town could almost have been mistaken for somewhere in the Cotswolds. This crawling traffic had to pull out to pass the stricken Volvo, with a depressing number of drivers gesticulating angrily at Jane, as if she and my mum had stopped for a flask of tomato soup and some egg sandwiches.
Why do cars turn ordinary people into pitiless bastards? When I arrived an hour or so later in the Mini, so that Jane and my mum could get home leaving me to wait for the RAC, I started to perform a three-point turn, encroaching by a couple of feet at most onto a private driveway. Then there was a rap on my window, issued by a man with flushed cheeks. I could somehow tell that he was not about to compliment me on my driving skills. "What are you doing?" he barked. "I'm turning round," I said, about to explain that my wife and mother were stranded 50 yards away in a broken-down car. "Not in my drive you're not," he snapped. I was lost for words, even four-letter ones.
Still, a friendly face soon materialised in the form of my good friend Ian, who pulled over to see if he could help. With what in the circumstances was rather stoical larkiness I told him I needed £100 to get to London, and offered him a ball-bearing I had found rolling around in the boot, which I said was actually an amethyst. This was a cheeky reference to a con perpetrated on Ian a couple of years ago, also just outside Ludlow, coincidentally, by a foreign-sounding man who flagged him down and explained that he needed money for fuel to propel his car, containing a suitably anxious-looking wife and several wide-eyed children, to London. He showed Ian his chunky gold ring and asked if he would pay £100 in cash for it. Ian had only three £20 notes in his wallet, but coughed up the £60 and took the ring. It turned out to be made of brass, worth about 50p. I suppose Ian should have been more of a pitiless bastard, and told him to sod off.
Anyway, stress is a relative concept, but my point is that nobody, not even John Walsh, should think that the countryside is free of it. We have confidence tricks, road rage, traffic diversions and knackered gearboxes to contend with out here just as city folk do, although John is right in ways that he perhaps doesn't realise to identify Church Stretton as a particularly fine place to find relief. It's the only small town I know in these parts with a shop specialising in sex toys.