Country Life: Come to England to escape the winter

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Ingemar and Kerstin, the charming Swedish couple whom we got to know a couple of winters ago when they rented a home in Docklow, were back last week, staying in one of our holiday cottages.

Ingemar and Kerstin, the charming Swedish couple whom we got to know a couple of winters ago when they rented a home in Docklow, were back last week, staying in one of our holiday cottages. They are retired - Ingemar used to work in shipping, Kerstin was a headmistress - and are certainly living retirement to the full: like swallows they head south for the autumn and winter, then return to Sweden for spring and summer.

The idea that someone might come to Herefordshire to escape a winter is a beguiling one. I remember a former convict once saying that it had been a relief being transferred to Wormwood Scrubs because it meant leaving Parkhurst, and I suppose it's a comparable phenomenon. I am also reminded of a Yorkshire friend of mine, a man square of jaw and blunt of manner, being described by a Glaswegian as a southern poofter. Everything's relative.

Ingemar and Kerstin's strategy each winter is to rent a property and immerse themselves in local culture, living not like tourists but like natives. They used to live in Gothenburg, but had a summer house on a Swedish island that had belonged to Kerstin's grandmother, so they made the summer place their main residence, sold the Gothenburg house, and are cheerfully spending the proceeds on their winter sojourns in the south. They arrived here in their trusty Volvo last week on their way back from Burgundy, having wintered there and in Provence.

Obviously, the best route from Burgundy to Scandinavia would not normally take you down the A44, but they wanted to see the friends they made while they were here.

I asked whether they had missed anything about Sweden, thinking they might have a yearning for 30 different styles of herring or something, but they said no, not a thing. I also asked for their observations on the English. They reckoned that we are friendlier and more open than the Swedes, yet a lot of that friendliness is just on the surface.

Oddly, this is precisely what English people say about Americans, and is almost exactly the opposite of what Americans say about us, which is that we are reserved and formal on the surface, but with hidden reserves of warmth and kindness. I suppose national characteristics are entirely in the eye of the beholder, which takes me back to my "southern poofter" mate, the rugged Yorkshireman.

Speaking of generalisations, Ingemar told me that a friend in Sweden had urged them not to come to England, saying, "Haven't you seen Midsomer Murders? In the English countryside everyone keeps getting killed!" We all hooted with laughter, but I wasn't sure whether their friend had been joking or not. After all, the grandmother of a guy I knew was genuinely appalled, 20-odd years ago, to hear that he was planning to visit New York. She'd seen enough episodes of Kojak, she said, to know that he was taking his life in his hands.

* The odd thing is that rural England and rural Sweden are probably more similar than rural and urban England. This struck me last week while our London friends Rebecca and Derek were staying. On Tuesday, Derek offered to go into Leominster to buy some provisions, and Jane asked him to get plenty of parsley, which is still rather sparse in the herb garden about which I get so gung-ho in the summer, but neglect in the winter.

He duly went into the greengrocer's, to be told bluntly that "there'll be no parsley in Leominster until Thursday". He might have found some in Morrisons or Somerfield or even Kwik Save, but supermarkets apart, or possibly included, it did indeed seem that Leominster was a parsley-free zone.

This would once have irritated me, but I have come round to the charms of living in a part of the world where not everything is available all the time; I like the idea of a town waiting for parsley, like those towns in Hollywood westerns that had to wait for the latest in fashion to arrive by railroad from New York and Philadelphia.

In Crouch End, where Derek lives, parsley stocks never run dry. Nor is there a greengrocer's quite like the one in Leominster, where a wonderfully lugubrious comedy act goes on between the two men who run the place.

Jane was in there once when the older of the two was complaining of a sore foot. "Drop your wallet on it, did you?" muttered the other. She also, in the days before we had our own chickens, asked whether their eggs were free-range. The grocer looked at her with a look somewhere between puzzlement, amusement and disdain. "Well, the barn door's open, look," he said.

* At John F Kennedy Airport in New York a few weeks ago, waiting to catch a British Airways flight to London, I was lucky enough to be taken into The Supper Room, a gleaming new restaurant for Club World passengers. I noticed that lentils and curry featured heavily on the menu, perhaps an initiative to get the plane home quicker. Dish of the day was haddock with lentils created by Shaun Hill of The Merchant House in Ludlow. The Merchant House closed in February, alas, but it was nice to find BA flying the flag for Ludlow.

'Tales of the Country', by Brian Viner, is on sale now (£12.99). Or call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897 (£11.99 with free p&p)

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