Country Life: a generosity of civic spirit

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The Independent Online

It is said that you can tell something about a town from the person chosen to switch on its Christmas lights.

It is said that you can tell something about a town from the person chosen to switch on its Christmas lights. I think that may be true. As a rule, B-list towns get B-list celebrities; C-list towns, C-list celebrities. Cirencester, a town with front, chose the former topless model Melinda Messenger. Football-obsessed Newcastle chose Sir Bobby Robson. And High Wycombe, not quite sure whether it is Thames Valley swanky, Chilterns genteel or Middle England bland, chose Frank Bruno, who has identity issues of his own.

Almost everywhere, the person hitting the switch or pulling the lever was, to a greater or lesser degree, famous. Wrexham went lesser, with former Steps star Lisa Scott-Lee; Birmingham went greater, with Jasper Carrott. Northampton gave the job to actor Brian Blessed; Plymouth, to the comedian Brian Conley. And where it wasn't a celebrity, it was a local dignitary, such as the mayor or a prominent councillor.

But not in Ludlow. To its enormous credit, Ludlow chose Walter to switch on the lights. Walter is one of Ludlow's most familiar landmarks. He seems to have been around for about as long as the castle, and has a similarly medieval countenance. He is out, cloth-capped, in all weathers, dispensing homilies and good cheer, and is not quite the full shilling, apparently on account of having been, 70-odd years ago, an alarmingly premature baby. His first bed is said to have been a shoebox.

Many towns have a Walter but few of them would hand him the honour of switching on the Christmas lights. For Ludlow to have done so suggests a generosity of civic spirit, as well as robust self-confidence. Not for Ludlow a bout of celebrity one-upmanship. Moreover, in honouring Walter it honoured a man most places would be more inclined to disown. Needless to say, Walter himself was thrilled. He stood on a dais, last Saturday week, and made a short speech which I am told by those who heard it was rather moving.

The lighting-up ceremony took place on the weekend of the medieval Christmas fayre, an event we were attending for the third time. Just as the honouring of Walter speaks volumes about Ludlow, so does the medieval fayre. It is, to be fayre, quite beautifully done, and if anyone looks conspicuously out of place, it is the folk wearing sweatshirts and jeans rather than those in sackcloth and armour.

This year, however, the fayre presented me with a parenting dilemma. My nine-year-old son Joseph was desperate to have an £8.50 wooden sword in a rather snazzy beribboned scabbard, but as I had a gang of nieces and nephews with me as well as my own three children, and wasn't inclined to shell out for wooden swords all round, we agreed that I would buy it for him and he would pay me back from his money-box when we got home. Unfortunately, between arriving home and settling his debt, he snapped his sword in an unexpected skirmish with a fierce infidel (his six-year-old brother, Jacob). The wretched thing was unfixable. So what to do? Insist that he hand over the £8.50, thereby teaching him that all debts must be honoured? Or waive it in sympathy for the distress he already felt about his broken sword? Probably wrongly, I chose the latter course.

The good shepherd

Thrillingly, many and excitingly varied are the skills I have had to learn since moving to the country. I can extract a stone from a Shetland pony's hoof; remove with scarcely a flinch a decapitated baby rabbit, a present from the cat, from the back doorstep; build a fire; identify the cry of a pheasant; successfully climb over a stile in the dark after several pints of Dorothy Goodbody's ale; all sorts of things.

Last week, a new skill was added to my repertoire. In one of the fields next to our house I found a ewe lying on its back, unable to get up. Roger, the farmer, had told me that a sheep trapped in this position will die after a few hours, because its internal organs begin to collapse. So I hauled the creature upright but then held it steady for a couple of minutes, because Roger had also told me that if they run away after being upside-down, they are sometimes so unsteady on their pins that they soon get themselves into the same predicament. Whatever, there's nothing quite like manhandling a disorientated ewe to make a chap feel that he has just become one iota less a townie, and one iota more a countryman.

Many roads to Shrewsbury

A couple of columns ago I broached the thorny subject of Shrewsbury and whether to pronounce its first syllable Shroo, Shro or even, as some people insist, Shoo. My thanks to all those readers who weighed in with relevant information. John Gough from Wigan wrote to recall that he has visited Shrewsbury many times and "whichever way I pronounced it, I was corrected. Even the guards on the tannoy at Shrewsbury station seemed always in conflict with each other."

Another reader, Geoff Hilton from Kenilworth, wrote that "during the war, my parents took us for summer holidays to a small farm near Ludlow to live off the fat of the land, before returning for a winter in strictly rationed Birmingham. We put the Shrewsbury pronunciation to the farmer, who looked puzzled, then declared, "We call it Salop."

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