Country Life: Quicker access to a speedy recovery

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Our friends from north London, Ali and Chris, came to stay the other weekend with their children Lauren, Rosie and Jake.

Our friends from north London, Ali and Chris, came to stay the other weekend with their children Lauren, Rosie and Jake. Their kids are almost exactly the same ages as our three, and devoted friends, but because they see each other infrequently the excitement very quickly reaches fever pitch. They arrived at about five on the Friday afternoon and by the time we four adults had consumed a couple of bottles of Merlot, which must have been getting on for, oh, 20 past five, six-year-old Jake had been injured in a game of try-to-see-how-far-you-can-jump-from-a-not-inconsiderable-height.

He had hurt his arm but there seemed no need to take him to casualty. Which was just as well, since none of us were sure whether we were within the drink-driving limit. I write those words with slight trepidation, incidentally, half-anticipating an angry letter from someone who, with six school-age children in their care, would decline alcohol on the off-chance that a car journey to hospital might be required. It's amazing what I get angry letters about. I've just had one referring to my column last week, saying that it is insulting to call a snake Nigel. Whether insulting to snakes or to Nigels was not entirely clear at first, although it emerged that my correspondent meant the former.

Anyway, by the Saturday morning Jake's arm was still hurting, so Ali and Chris took him to Hereford General, about 15 miles away. It was 9am when they arrived, having parked directly outside. If you can park directly outside their nearest hospital, the Whittington in Highgate, then you have probably arrived by skateboard. In A&E, there was one other person waiting, again in striking contrast to life at the Whittington. An X-ray duly showed that Jake had a hairline fracture, so he was given a snazzy blue sling, of which he was understandably proud. The entire business took less than 40 minutes, whereas when Lauren broke her arm nine years ago, they waited at the Whittington for five hours.

I realise that none of this will have you reaching for the smelling salts. Plainly, a hospital in Herefordshire, one of England's least densely populated counties, is likely to be markedly less busy than a London one. But the story seems worth telling because the nurse who saw Jake had coincidentally spent 15 years working at the Whittington. She agreed that there was an almost comical difference, ascribing it largely to the fact that the Whittington A&E gets clogged up with people who do not have GPs, whereas in Hereford the NHS works as it should, with GPs doing much of the work that in London gets dumped on hospitals. Even so, she still hears local people criticising Hereford Hospital for being busy and over-stretched, which tickles her enormously.

But I must not be smug about the quality of health care out here in the sticks, so let me add one more thing the nurse told Ali and Chris. They had explained that they might have brought Jake in the evening before, but had been worried about driving while over the limit. "It's a good job you didn't," she said. "Friday nights are a nightmare in here, mainly because of all the binge-drinking that goes on in Hereford." Surely not worse than Friday nights in the Whittington? "Oh, much worse," she said.

My children have reached the age at which they come home from school and tell me things I did not already know, by which I do not mean that Josh has chicken pox or Jemima a new puppy, but things they have been taught by their teachers. My 11-year-old daughter announced the other evening that in maths she had learnt about a particular number, so huge that if it were written down even in small writing, it would stretch all the way from Hereford to Leominster. I did not confuse the issue by asking whether a number that stretched still further, to Ludlow say, might not be considered even more noteworthy. I just rejoiced that her teacher seems to have a talent for bringing maths to life in a way that mine never did. Even now whenever I hear the word "logarithm", which mercifully is not often, I need to lie down.

As for my nine-year-old son, an interesting fact he brought home the other day was that travellers constitute the biggest ethnic minority in Herefordshire, which means not so much that there are loads of travellers round here, rather that there are very few ethnic minorities. All the same, there is a travellers' site not far from us, on Eyton Common. I bought a painted horseshoe from them the other day, for £5. A bright-eyed urchin called Zoe assured me that it would bring me luck, and it is true that I promptly won £10 on the lottery, so I suppose I'm a fiver in credit.

When I worked on a local newspaper in London I used to report on furious controversies concerning travellers, but the good folk of Eyton don't seem remotely perturbed. Maybe this is because they are a rather picturesque band, with the kind of painted wooden caravans doubtless coveted by middle-class women driving past in their Saabs, saying "oh, that would look absolutely super in our orchard". Or maybe it's because, as one Eyton resident said to me, "I think it's nice that the common is being used as it has been for centuries."