Wednesday 29 October 2003
Living The Country Life: It takes a strong man to clear our jungle
Rob Dixon is a legend in our house. My children saw him winning a strongest man contest on the telly and for weeks afterwards would pretend to be Rob Dixon attempting immense feats of strength. Jane and I roared encouragement as they lifted small encyclopedias with one hand and bent entire wire coat-hangers, among other awesome achievements.
Anyway, to their delight, we currently have a genuine champion strongman in our employ. It's not Rob Dixon. That would be too much to hope for. It is Nick Hill, Strongest Man in Herefordshire 1993, although as the contest hasn't been held since, the title is still his.
Nick is a tree surgeon, one of the few jobs in which the feats required to win a Strongest Man competition actually come in useful. I suppose if you're an engine-driver then it might on occasion be quite handy to be able to pull a train with your teeth, especially on the Hereford to Paddington line where it would probably speed the service up. But by and large there isn't much call for such skills in real life.
For Nick, however, hardly a day goes by without him having to toss the odd caber. And he tells me that caber-tossing was an important part of the contest 10 years ago. He must have picked up his caber with a surge of confidence, and eyed his fellow-competitors with disdainful superiority. Who knows, maybe the disdainfully superior look was returned by the HGV driver when it came to the next discipline, pulling a seven-tonne truck 25 metres. Whatever, Nick was duly crowned county champion.
He is a fine fellow, though I would say that, wouldn't I? A version of the old joke about the gorilla with the machine-gun comes to mind. What do you call the Strongest Man in Herefordshire carrying a chainsaw? Sir. Although he doesn't seem to mind "Nick".
He is here thinning out our three-acre wood. It had become almost impenetrable, so he has cleared much of the laurel and willow, and we are hoping that he will leave his charming signature, several tree stumps carved into beautiful toadstools. There is a lot more to Nick than immense strength.
Mind you, this morning when I asked him to rig up a tyre swing for the kids, a gleam came into his eye. He told me that he can get a type of rope used by the SAS, and also knows where to put his hands on a lorry tyre. I'm half expecting to drive along the A44 and find a juggernaut on its side, with one tyre missing. And perhaps a few SAS men trussed up nearby.
No sooner had Holly and Bramble, our rabbits, escaped from their hutch after one of the children (none of them are owning up) accidentally left the door open, than Maurice O'Grady, pest control guru, called by with a couple of traps. The countryside is amazing like that. If we look westwards through our living-room window we can see for 40 miles without setting eyes on a single other house. Yet gossip and rumour and titbits of information spread like wildfire.
Maurice, it turned out, had heard from our gardener, Tom, about the rabbits going awol. They're members of the same shooting club. Maurice and Tom, that is, not the rabbits.
So my eight-year-old son Joseph put a carrot in one of the traps and left it on the bottom lawn overnight. And the next morning, there was Bramble. Holly is still nowhere to be seen, and has probably met Mr Fox by now. But Maurice was amazed that we'd caught even one so quickly. "If it'd been me setting that trap," he said, "I wouldn't have caught your rabbit for weeks. But your boy gets her first time."
Naturally, Joseph was thrilled. We have since been calling him "Trapper Joe" and wondering whether there's anywhere in Leominster where we can buy him a raccoon-fur hat. Meanwhile, Maurice, who favours the flat cap, dropped in yesterday to pick up the traps. We gave him a cup of coffee and talked infestation, as you do with a pest control guru. A few years ago, he told us, there was a woolly bear epidemic in Herefordshire. We were agog, until he explained that woolly bear is the name given to the larvae of the carpet beetle. "And it only eats natural fibres," he added, with what sounded like admiration.
The great escape
I suppose that, just as Monty had Rommel's picture up in his tent, a pest control guru needs a healthy respect for his prey. But respect gives way to frustration when the prey is untouchable. Maurice told us of a badger in these parts that has made a terrible mess of several gardens. I asked how he planned to deal with it.
"Badgers are protected," he replied, sadly. "Didn't you know that David was fined £400 with £200 costs for killing a badger?" Jane nodded solemnly, while I explained that I don't listen to The Archers. Maurice looked at me in amazement, making me feel like the central character in a Bateman cartoon: the man who lives in the sticks and never listens to The Archers! How I can recover his esteem, I'm not sure. Perhaps by trapping a woolly bear.
From rus to urbe
We live in an attractive, ivy-covered house built in 1850. One of the former occupants of the house was a Mr Manzoni, the architect who designed the Bull Ring in Birmingham. I often reflect that it must have been nice for him to get home to a comfortable Victorian house of an evening, after a hard day's work modernising a city centre.
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