Country Life: A passion for 'old things'

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Herefordshire to Zanzibar is not a journey made every day of the week, unless something keeps going drastically wrong in those confusing roadworks just outside Leominster. But I do know someone who has made the journey from Zanzibar to Herefordshire. His name is Rupert Woods and with his wife Pru he runs a reclamation yard on the old road from Leominster to Ludlow. He used to work in Africa for the World Bank, helping smallholders develop their livelihoods. Now he wanders the Welsh Marches looking for stone carvings and weathered troughs and cider presses, not to mention old apple boxes, 60 of which he bought at auction for £1, then sold for £8 each.

I invited him round to our house the other day because we had some bits and pieces in which I thought he might be interested, although, alas, he only took the bits and left the pieces. We got chatting. He's a fascinating guy, who returned from Africa with his family because he grew disillusioned with the amount of work he was putting in, compared with the negligible improvement in the quality of the lives he was trying to change.

Like us, he and Pru moved to Herefordshire just because they saw it and fell in love with it; there was no family connection. Unlike us, they didn't know how they were going to make a living here. But they were devoted recyclers; in Zanzibar they had a one-metre hole into which they threw all the family's waste, and in seven years they didn't fill it - everything either rotted or was recycled. They also had a passion for "old things". So the salvage business seemed like a good idea. Leominster Reclamation was born.

There are times, however, when it doesn't seem like such a good idea. "We won't be retiring to the Bahamas any time soon," Rupert told me. "We had no experience at all when we started, and we had to learn that there's no point buying things just because they're old. They have to fit in with people's lifestyles."

If the apple boxes represented a particularly canny piece of business, there are lots of things in his yard to remind him that he is still learning. "We bought lots of lovely old oak beams, which I thought would sell well, but there's not much demand," he said. "Builders round here tend to use new oak, and conservation officers are not great allies of our trade, strangely enough. If people are building extensions they like it done with concrete, apparently so that architectural historians in the future can tell the difference between the old and the not-so-old."

Still, for all the frustrations, he plainly gets a huge kick out of supplying people with what they are looking for. He bought a working fridge from a woman to whom it was given as a wedding-present in 1950, and then encountered a couple from Swansea who were decorating their house in 1950s-style, and didn't yet have a fridge. Engagingly, Rupert recalled the transaction with the enthusiasm of a matchmaker who has found a chap the woman of his dreams: in this case, 54 years old and still in perfect working order, if with a slight whiff of cheese.

A stationary celebration

Should you happen to be in the north Herefordshire area on 11 and 12 September, I can tell you that the privately owned former branch line stations of Fencote and Rowden Mill, between Bromyard and Leominster, are being opened to the public. I have written before about Fencote, which has been lovingly restored by Ken Matthews, a retired signalman who has made a comfortable home out of the old waiting-room. Ironically, it is the only station waiting-room I know with a functioning toilet, yet the only one that doesn't smell of wee.

Fencote is a marvellous, evocative place, and so is Rowden Mill just a couple of miles up the line, by all accounts. But anyone with a Victor Meldrewish disposition is best advised not to scrutinise the 1944 timetable that Ken has on display; it details how easy it was to travel between Leominster and Worcester 60 years ago, a journey that is now accessible by public transport only if you consult a soothsayer who will tell you when the bus might next be passing through.

The Leominster-Bromyard stretch of the line was closed in 1952, so it can't even be blamed on Dr Beeching, who takes the rap for most of these branch line closures, but didn't start his cull until a few years later. The last open weekend at Fencote and Rowden Mill was held in September 2002 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the line closure, not that it seems to me much to celebrate. However, as the publicity blurb for next weekend's event says, the money raised will be donated to various local good causes, so the stations "are still serving the community". Which is rather moving, don't you think? If only the locomotives were moving, too.

Far-flung fish

The recent storms out in the Atlantic reportedly sucked up a load of fish and dropped them on the good people of Knighton, on the Anglo-Welsh border.

I have read before of such a phenomenon, but I didn't know it could happen in Herefordshire. I'm delighted it does; there's lots of wonderful meat for sale here, but it's not so easy to find really good fresh fish. The occasional consignment from the Almighty Cod above is just what we need.

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