Country Life: All the fun of the village harvest auction

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The Independent Online

Our life in Herefordshire increasingly resembles a soap opera.

Our life in Herefordshire increasingly resembles a soap opera. Quite literally so, because frequently what happens to us is either about to happen or has just happened on The Archers, which is set in this neck of the woods.

I have to take my wife's word for this, because I hardly ever listen to The Archers, but rare is the week in which Jane does not alert me to some uncanny parallel. Last year, for example, 10-year-old Pip Archer prepared for an entrance exam at the same time as 10-year-old Eleanor Viner, and for a school seemingly based on the one Eleanor was seeking to get into. Moreover, Jennifer Aldridge's son Adam is currently gung-ho about growing strawberries, a hot topic hereabouts, where intensive strawberry farming under polytunnels is blighting the landscape and leaching the soil. I never thought I would look upon a plain English supermarket strawberry as the enemy, but that is the pretty pass to which things have come, and the clever writers on The Archers are obviously keeping abreast of the situation.

I've got much more to say about strawberry-farming, but I'll save it for a future column, when I've worked up an even bigger head of indignant steam. To return to The Archers, they were preparing for the annual harvest supper in Ambridge last week and so were we in Docklow. In fact, two of Docklow's major social occasions took place within a few nights, for the supper was preceded by the traditional harvest auction at the King's Head. The pub was packed to the gunwales as the auctioneer, Eddie Crowley, started the bidding for lot one: a cardboard box containing three leeks, two cabbages, a large beetroot, a bunch of carrots and some onions. Sotheby's it wasn't.

I am now a veteran of three harvest auctions. The first one was something of a rite of passage. It was the first time I had got inebriated in the King's Head, as well as the first and indeed last time I have climbed over a stile and stumbled through a cowpat-strewn field at midnight, while carrying a heavy box of organic produce and alternately chuckling to myself and swearing. These days I am more Docklow-savvy. I took the car, knowing that the responsibility of driving home would keep me from imbibing too much Dorothy Goodbody's bitter, thereby avoiding an inconvenient Thursday morning hangover.

I also knew that I would have lots to carry, especially as I was accompanied by two of my children, who had their hearts set on lot 29, an unnaturally large pumpkin.

Even in sobriety, the auction was great fun, and the harvest supper - which was held in Pudleston Village Hall, a couple of miles away as the crow would fly if the farmer hadn't just shot it - was a similarly jovial affair.

Back in Docklow churchyard, however, folk were apparently turning in their graves, for there is some historic enmity between Docklow and Pudleston, reportedly based on resentment that the hall was erected in their village, not ours.

You have to work hard out here to keep up with who dislikes who and why, although I'm pleased to say that our good friend Mrs Snell, with whom we sat at the harvest supper, seems to be universally popular. Unlike her namesake in The Archers, I'm assured.

In the pink

Our friends Jane and James had a hysterically harrowing start to their week last Monday. To be more precise, it was harrowing for James, but hysterical for Jane. In fact her eyes still moisten with mirth at the thought of it. Jane and James live, as we do, on the edge of open countryside, where rodents are not uncommon. The fun started when their cat Beano, who is a brother to our cat Tiger, brought a live mouse into their kitchen.

The mouse then shot behind the fridge, and Jane told James that the job of catching and dispensing with it was his, to which end she handed him a pair of pink rubber gloves.

The sight of him trying to corner a mouse while dressed for work except for pink rubber gloves was funny enough in itself, but the spectacle became a sight funnier when a strange look came over James's face. "It's gone up my bloody trouser leg," he cried. "Oh, don't be ridiculous," said Jane. "No, it has, I can feel it," James insisted, and ran out on to the decking outside their kitchen, where he whipped off his trousers and shook them frantically.

So now he was standing outside in his underpants, in the rain, still wearing the pink gloves, shaking his trousers.

Events took an even more comical turn when the, doubtless terrified, mouse came flying out of a fold in the trousers and, for a fleeting moment, clung on to the front of his underpants, apparently in the manner of a mountaineer trying hard not to fall off the north face of the Eiger, before dropping on to the decking and scurrying to safety in their orchard.

Jane and their children, Jack and Alice, who were also witness to this marvellous pantomime, spent the next 10 minutes holding each other up while screaming with laughter. James, whose sense of humour is wonderful but bone-dry, laughed too, if with understandably less abandon.

Later, when she had recovered some composure, Jane related the tale to an acquaintance in the village.

"That's nothing," he said. "A bat once went down my mother-in-law's nightie."

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