Country Life: Privy to information

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For my 43rd birthday last week I was given a book called Herefordshire Privies.

For my 43rd birthday last week I was given a book called Herefordshire Privies. When a chap gets to 43 he can expect mainly novelty birthday presents, although a quick flick through the pages of my new book - while appropriately seated, of course - indicated that it was far too interesting to be consigned to a remote drawer along with the sheepskin belly-button warmer.

It's a fascinating volume, charmingly written by a respectable-looking woman called Paddy Ariss, who, in some of the photographs, stands proudly beside a variety of noteworthy outdoor toilets, with captions such as: "Interior of the superb three-holer at Great Parton Farm. The author takes a pew!" Mrs Ariss found that this county has an honourable role in lavatorial evolution. Evidently, it was a Hereford firm, Saunders Valves, which designed the valve used to operate a flush loo in supersonic aircraft; so just think of the distinguished folk who, thanks to Herefordshire ingenuity, enjoyed a comfortable flight on Concorde. Mrs Ariss even flushed out an old limerick on Hereford and privies:

"A Hereford fellow named Hyde

Fell into a privy and died.

His unfortunate brother

Fell into another

And now they're interred side by side."

I read on, and found details of a venerable stone privy which can't be more than a couple of miles from my house. It is a two-holer - affording two friends or lovers or even brothers named Hyde the opportunity to do their business in tandem - and is built over the Whyle Brook, near Pudleston. "I have recently learned," the intrepid Mrs Ariss wrote, "that a running stream will break up faeces before it has travelled a dozen feet." Fancy that.

She also discovered that Herefordshire privies were often located under yew trees, apparently because flies dislike the smell of yew. Not that the flies could reliably be kept away. She related the delightful tale of a young fellow up from London to visit his uncle, I suppose a century ago or more.

The young man needed to use the lavatory, so his uncle directed him to the privy just past the pigsty. He soon returned saying that he couldn't bear to sit among so many flies. His uncle consulted his pocket watch. "If you wait a few minutes," he said, "your aunt'll have the joint on the table, and all the flies'll have gone there."

Tickled by this and other such tales, I decided to look up the author. I found an entry for Ariss in the local phone directory, and dialled the number. A man answered. "Could I speak to Paddy Ariss?" I asked. There was a pause. "I wish you could," he said. "She died three years ago."

I was mortified, as well as saddened. Her husband Peter, for he it was, told me that she succumbed to leukaemia, aged 72, barely a year after finishing the book, but had had huge fun writing it. He explained that Herefordshire Privies was one of a series, and suggested that I call the publishers, Countryside Books. Which I did, and spoke to a Mrs Battle, the owner, who informed me that Molly Harris, who played Martha in The Archers, had written the original, Cotswold Privies, and that a later volume called Hertfordshire Privies was written by the former newsreader Richard Whitmore. You can't say that this column doesn't furnish you with conversation-stoppers.

There are 11 titles in the series, she added, of which the biggest seller by far was East Anglian Privies. "The subject is a bit earthy for some counties," said Mrs Battle. "But East Anglia embraced it with great excitement."

An eggs-titential dilemma

Our egg assembly line has slowed right down as the nights draw in, with 11 hens currently producing only three daily eggs between them. This has led, perforce, to a considerable reduction in our egg consumption. Since early spring the children have, on most mornings, each been eating a couple of boiled eggs for breakfast. I quite often poach a couple for lunch. And whenever we have friends round, I like to knock up a frittata to slice up and offer with drinks. With the regular Sunday-morning pancake frenzy, the occasional baking session and the odd omelette, I would estimate, over the last six months or so, a 60-70 eggs weekly average between the five of us.

But since production plummeted, we're down to only 20-30. Boiled-egg breakfasts have given way to porridge, the frittata to crisps and nuts. Of course, there is always the option of buying eggs, but somehow I can't quite bring myself to put them in the shopping basket. Such are the perils of semi- self-sufficiency.

Privy counsel

If I might return fleetingly to the privy, Paddy Ariss also revealed in her excellent book that the two-holer at Great Parton Farm once felt the weight of a famous posterior; that of Mrs Winston Churchill. Which reminded her of the old story about Churchill being visited by the Lord Privy Seal, who had been disrespectful towards him that day in the House of Commons. The butler duly went to find Churchill, who was on the loo. "The Lord Privy Seal is here to see you, sir," he called. To which the great man supposedly responded, "Tell the Lord Privy Seal that I am sealed to my privy, and can only deal with one shit at a time."