Tales from the Country: By fowl means

It is indicative of how far we have come in so short a time that when someone now suggests a Hen and Chickens outing, I think not of the comedy club, but of hens and chickens
Click to follow

At Highbury Corner, in London, there is a comedy club called the Hen and Chickens. When we lived in nearby Crouch End, if someone asked me if I was interested in a Hen and Chickens outing, it meant that they were proposing an evening of stand-up comedy. It is indicative of how far we have come in so short a time that when someone now suggests a Hen and Chickens outing, I think not of Jo Brand, but of hens and chickens.

At Highbury Corner, in London, there is a comedy club called the Hen and Chickens. When we lived in nearby Crouch End, if someone asked me if I was interested in a Hen and Chickens outing, it meant that they were proposing an evening of stand-up comedy. It is indicative of how far we have come in so short a time that when someone now suggests a Hen and Chickens outing, I think not of Jo Brand, but of hens and chickens.

Last weekend, we visited the Wernlas Collection in Onibury, just north of Ludlow, which proclaims itself the UK's leading conservation centre for rare and traditional breeds of chicken. We have decided that we cannot live in the country surrounded by farmland and continue to buy our eggs at Safeway; we are going to become poultry-keepers.

So we went to Onibury to find some suitable breeds to house in the orchard and, since our ignorance of the fowl world was just about total – extending in my case to an uncertainty about whether there is even a difference between a hen and a chicken – to get some much-needed advice. Incidentally, I was reassured to learn, after conducting a quick straw poll, that many of my metropolitan friends weren't sure about this hen–chicken thing, either. Some thought they knew. "A hen is a young chicken," said one, confidently. But I can now tell them that chicken is the generic term for the domestic fowl, embracing pullets, which are hens that are under a year old, hens and cockerels.

With us at the Wernlas Collection were our friends Ally and Chris and their children, who were visiting from Crouch End. Unless it comes with gravy and roast potatoes, Ally is not a chicken-lover. She looked at the Appenzeller Spitzhaubens, which our accompanying booklet informed us are hardy birds with distinctive horn-shaped combs, consistently good layers of small, white eggs, and natives of Switzerland – their name deriving from the similarity of their crest to the lace bonnets worn by women of the Appenzell region. "They're a bit pecky, aren't they?" remarked Ally.

Undeterred by Ally's insidious poultryism, Jane and I continued looking. We admired the handsome white Sultans (first imported in 1854 from Constantinople), which appear to be wearing legwarmers. But they are rotten layers, apparently. We also liked the white-crested Polands (one of the oldest breeds on record, featured in many 17th-century Dutch paintings), but the nice lady in the shop advised us not to stick a Poland in with other breeds, because other chickens are fascinated by their magnificent top knots, and harass them terribly. Just as Americans pick on Polacks, so do chickens pick on Polands.

In the end, we ordered three Buff Rock bantams, affable creatures supposedly each able to lay 180 eggs a year, and a Gold Sebright, which has golden-brown plumage gorgeously edged with black, reminiscent of the sort of plump little cushion you might find in a just-so Chelsea town house. Our middle child, Joseph, was gutted. "I wanted a weird one," he wailed, pointing at the alarming-looking Transylvanian Naked Necks. I told him he could have one for his next birthday. Mercifully, it's some way off.

Just four spoonfuls of sugar helps the supporting wall go down

This week, to paraphrase Jesse in The Fast Show, we have mostly been having tilers. Last week it was electricians, the week before builders, and next week it will be kitchen-fitters. There was one day when we had four electricians doing the rewiring, three builders pulling down an internal supporting wall, two painter-decorators, a plumber, and a carpenter elsewhere in the house, and a couple of gardeners outside. Jane and I might be heading for financial meltdown ourselves, but at least we're trying to leave the north Herefordshire economy in good shape. Not to mention Tate & Lyle. One of the electrician's apprentices took four sugars in his coffee, or rather one spoonful of coffee with his sugar. The rest averaged two.

Alan the carpenter, however, takes his coffee without sugar, which puts him in breach of the tradesmen's code of ethics on two counts, the second being that, unlike both painter-decorators, the electrician, the man who came to service the Aga, and the locksmith, he is not called Brian.

Alan is such a calm and reassuring presence, and so preternaturally handy, that he may be the only reason Jane has not had a nervous breakdown. When I was away for two days last week, she told me not to be surprised if I got back to find that she had married Alan. I told her that if she did, I would really like to be best man; when a chap can do what he can with a spirit level and a length of MDF, it's important to keep him on side.

My life is a septic tank

When you encounter a word or name that you have never heard before, for example the word "synchronicity", and then keep finding it everywhere, then, as I understand it, that phenomenon is known, funnily enough, as synchronicity. The latest example in my life of this weirdness concerns septic tanks.

I have shared with you already the fact that until we moved to the country, septic tanks had never entered my mental orbit. But since we became the proud if clueless owners of one, I find them mentioned everywhere. I still don't know what's septic about them, but I do know that they block easily. And on Sunday evening there was yet another reminder of the horror that can ensue. We watched a film called Meet the Parents in which a woman takes home her accident-prone boyfriend, and one of his accidents is to flood the septic tank, with horribly smelly results.

Meanwhile, I am still getting a response to my concerns about how best to prevent our holiday cottage guests blocking the septic tank. Marguerite Greenstone, of London N2, perhaps has the answer. She recommends the sign put up by her friends in rural France, which reads: "Please do not put anything down this loo unless you have eaten it first."

Whatever, it is extraordinary how toilet-related matters move people to pick up not just paper, but a pen, too. Some weeks ago, I wrote a paean to the men's loos at Reading station, which as well as being spotlessly clean are suffused in a soft blue lighting that would not disgrace a nightclub.

My illusions about the Reading station mandarins selecting the blue glow to create a charming ambience took a bit of a knock when I learnt that it is designed to discourage heroin users. But still, I wholeheartedly recommended the loos, and was inundated with letters, including one from Mike Arnott, who said he had been reminded of a story his uncle told about arriving at Victoria on a train with no toilets, and being desperate to go.

At Victoria he rushed to the gents and dived into a cubicle. But as he dropped his trousers everything fell out of his pockets. A penknife, keys and lots of loose change fell to the floor and rolled under the door into the neighbouring cubicle, which he realised was occupied when a frightfully posh voice said: "Good God man, what have you been eating?"

Comments