Country Life: Problems in the Slough area

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Marianne, Martin, Ben and Zoe Talbot stayed in one of our holiday cottages recently. I mention this partly because I am obliged to.

Marianne, Martin, Ben and Zoe Talbot stayed in one of our holiday cottages recently. I mention this partly because I am obliged to; last year the Talbots paid the best part of £1,000 in The Independent's Christmas charity auction to stay for a weekend in one of our cottages, an act of generosity that also bags them, whether they like it or not, a starring role in this column. But I don't have to work too hard to contrive a mention. On their way to us from Cornwall, the Talbots were stuck in the mother of all M5 tailbacks, moving just two miles in three hours. Zoe, aged 20 months, took the inconvenience equably for the first two hours, and then, in the words of her father, "lost it". Four-year-old Ben was a trouper throughout. Marianne, meanwhile, phoned her mum to ask whether she could glean any information from Ceefax, for none was forthcoming on the car radio. Unfortunately this had the effect of making her mum worry about her grandchildren being stuck in a stationary car. Apparently, if grandma could have arranged for a food parcel to be dropped onto the hard shoulder, she would have done. Almost everyone who comes to stay here has to run the gamut of the M5, although to be fair, the M6 is much worse. I hate the M6 with about as much passion as is possible in the case of something inanimate, and if I am travelling to the north-west, as I do quite frequently, I nearly always take the train.

Not, of course, that the train guarantees a stress-free journey. Indeed, I have become quite a connoisseur of those announcements explaining the reason for a delay. In the last month alone on the service between Worcester Shrub Hill and Paddington I have been stymied by a lineside equipment failure, signalling problems on the train's outward journey, a points failure at Southall, a technical difficulty leading to a loss of power, and an engineering overrun in the Slough area. I applaud the commitment on the part of train companies to let passengers know why they're going to be 40 minutes late, I just wish the announcements weren't made so damn chirpily. There's a chap on First Great Western who announces engineering overruns in the Slough area almost rapturously, in the same tone of voice with which entertainers at children's parties tell the kiddies that it's time for tea. And what the hell is an engineering overrun, anyway? Oddly enough, Martin Talbot could probably tell me. When he's not stuck on the M5, and even when he is, he is Head of Performance for Chiltern Railways. And a very fine job he seems to be making of it, too. He told me proudly that Chiltern are running second in the Public Performance Measure, which keeps tally of trains that are delayed or cancelled. Merseyrail are league leaders, with 93.5 per cent of trains arriving on time, but Chiltern are just behind on 92 per cent. Excitingly, Chiltern are also part of a consortium, with Laing Rail and Great North Eastern Railways, tendering to take over the west-of-England franchise, including the Worcester to Paddington service. Which might mean that I stop being late for appointments in London, although I will slightly miss being able to say, Reggie Perrin-style, "so sorry I'm late, engineering overrun in the Slough area".

Unpredictable behaviour

About a week after the Talbots' stay, a stylish box of chocolates arrived in the post, with a note from Marianne thanking us for our hospitality. I e-mailed my thanks, but also protested, albeit not too vigorously, that it was unnecessarily generous of them. After all, they had already made a large charitable donation. She graciously replied that we too had been charitable, by giving up a weekend let, and they wanted to acknowledge this. Besides, they really had enjoyed our hospitality. I have been amazed, in the two years that we have been running holiday cottages, by the tokens of thanks we have received. It is not as though anyone stays for free, least of all the Talbots, yet we have been left flowers, plants, bottles of wine and now chocolates. Lest I be accused of touting for business, I should add that this is by no means peculiar to us. We know other people in the holiday-letting business who report the same thing. Yet for them, as for us, there is also a flip side. Some people leave flowers; others leave muddy footprints, wine stains and cigarette ends. At first we thought this was a generational thing, that older people were inclined to be tidier. But it's not. We have had folk in their twenties who have spent the morning of departure vacuuming frenziedly before leaving the place pristine, and pensioners who have trashed the joint.

A slow start

The Bromyard Food Fortnight is in full swing, although "full swing" might be pitching it a bit strong. At any rate, the Food Olympics which kicked the thing off was a disappointing affair, with only a gaggle of faintly perplexed spectators standing round as a series of brawny men pushed beer barrels up the high street. But these things have to start somewhere, and all credit to the organisers for getting the barrel rolling, as it were. Besides, if the Much Wenlock Games in neighbouring Shropshire could inspire the modern Olympic movement, which they did, then great things could yet be in store for little Bromyard and its Food Fortnight.