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Brian Viner

Country Life: If you get down in the woods

An item in the Hereford Times caught my eye last week.

An item in the Hereford Times caught my eye last week. It was headlined "If you go down to the woods, you're sure of a surprise", which rather suggested that the story was a frivolous one. But the opening paragraph read: "A Herefordshire mountain biker was left shocked and disgusted when he saw two pensioners in a compromising position in Haugh Wood."

Is that an amusing story, worthy of a chirpy headline, or not? I'm not entirely sure, and nor, I suspect, was the Hereford Times. To encounter a couple energetically love-making when you are out on a bike-ride can, I am sure, be distressing. And disregard for propriety in a public space is shameful, whether the miscreants are Romeo and Juliet or Darby and Joan. On the other hand, the fact that the "shocked and disgusted" witness was 25, and the libidinous pair "about 65 or maybe even older", has to be worth a titter, if not a round of applause. After all, the boot is often enough on the other foot. So in that respect it's a rather uplifting tale.

It is also, for several reasons, a faintly worrying tale. For one thing, it is laced with the ageist assumption that older people publicly having sex is somehow less acceptable than younger people doing it. That certainly appeared to be the reaction of the shocked mountain-biker, James Taylor, who for all I know may be having post-traumatic stress counselling to deal with an unprecedentedly appalling spectacle. "I have mountain biked in Brazil, Laos and Cambodia," he said, "but I have never seen anything like this". Can the Hereford Times, too, be accused of ageism? It's fair to conclude that it would not have given the same prominence to the story had it been a couple of pensioners horrified to stumble across two thrashing 25-year-olds. But every journalist is trained to know that a predictable tale turned on its head has news value; that "dog bites man" is not a story, while "man bites dog" is.

Speaking of dogs, the Hereford Times reported a few months ago that Haugh Wood featured on a website recommending places to watch other people having sex - the practice known, I'm told, as "dogging".

Quite why anyone should wish to go dogging I have no idea, although I am reminded of my friend Johnny, who years ago told me that from his kitchen window in south London, a couple in a neighbouring flat could frequently be seen having sex, indeed seemed to invite the voyeurism, keeping the lights on and the curtains open. Once, when my girlfriend and I were round at Johnny's for dinner, he called from the kitchen to tell us that the couple were, at that very moment, at it. To our great discredit we made our way to the kitchen with what can only be described as haste, and looked out of the window. "I can't see anything," I said. "No," said Johnny, "you need to stand on the draining-board, hold on to the extractor fan, and lean out as far as you can, then twist your head round to the right." How he first happened on the spectacle, I never really found out.

Name games

Let me turn to a much more wholesome practice, that of storing apples through the winter. My birthday present from Jane was a handsome beech apple-rack, which she ordered from a mail-order company, knowing that I have entered a time of life when scarcely any present is likely to give me more pleasure than a beech apple-rack.

The procurement of it, however, was troublesome. By the day before my birthday it still had not arrived, even though it had been ordered a fortnight earlier.

So Jane phoned the company and explained the situation to the woman at the other end. "It's Mrs Beech Apple-Rack," she heard the woman tell a colleague. "She says it still hasn't arrived." This tickled Jane, not least because we do the same with our holiday cottage guests, giving them the name of whatever cottage they are staying in. "Mrs Woodlands wants to borrow an Ordnance Survey map," Jane might tell me. Or "Mr Yew Tree would like to know whether there's racing at Ludlow this week."

It's the best way of identifying them, we have found, although we try not to let them overhear. Sometimes, though, such things can happen by accident, which again takes me back to our former life in London.

About five years ago we had a new kitchen fitted in our house in Crouch End, and Jane wanted a matt finish on the cupboards. But those delivered were gloss. She duly expressed her dissatisfaction to the fitter, Trevor, who promptly phoned head office and in his agitation got her name slightly wrong. "Mrs Veneer's doing her nut about the finish on these cupboards," he said.