Tales Of The Country: A swell end to an idyllic afternoon

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The Independent Online

Before we came to live in Herefordshire, we asked Mr O, from whom we were buying this house, what nearby Leominster was like. We had learnt that it was pronounced "Lemster", but beyond that we knew zilch. "Leominster?" said Mr O. "It's black and white." Jane and I nodded solemnly, while wondering what he meant. We knew he couldn't possibly be talking about the town's racial mix, but decided, on balance, that he was probably referring to Leominster's honest, uncomplicated vibe; what you see is what you get, folk who call a spade a spade etc.

In fact, while there is indeed that kind of vibe about Leominster, he meant simply that it stands at the beginning of the so-called black-and-white trail of villages full of ancient timbered houses and pubs that are literally black and white, Tudor-style. And we have come to realise that the prettiest of them - Pembridge, Weobley - are more than a match, aesthetically speaking, for any village in even the most chocolate-boxy sweep of the Cotswolds. The same goes for the surrounding countryside. I really can't understand why the black-and-white trail is not on the coach-party route, although I'm pleased it's not; such loveliness, combined with such tranquillity, makes north Herefordshire a uniquely glorious part of England.

Which is why, when friends from London descended at the weekend and Sunday dawned sunny and warm, we decided to take a picnic to our favourite stretch of the River Arrow, just outside Pembridge. As we'd expected, there was hardly anyone else there, and an idyllic afternoon unfolded with the children and the dog cavorting in the river and the adults gorging on organic smoked salmon and stuffed aubergines, which is the kind of picnic you end up with when you've just been to the Ludlow Food Festival with a debit card.

The blissful languor of the afternoon seemed too precious to last, and it was. Suddenly, our friend Jan started fiddling urgently in his shorts, then leapt to his feet and let out a bloodcurdling roar as if he'd been stung on the balls by a bee, which in fact he had been. He hopped around in obvious agony, and as sympathetic as we all were (partly, it has to be said, towards the bee, as the inside of Jan's shorts is not where I'd choose to buzz my last), I must confess that there was laughter. Jan laughed too, between yelps of pain, and took with admirable equanimity the predictable swelling gags.

Anyway, all this followed to the letter Viner's Law of Idyllic Afternoons, which holds that as the communing with nature gathers pace and the general feeling of contentment approaches its zenith, someone will either be assailed by dreadful hay fever, step in a dog turd, or get stung.

And the bees and wasps round here have scant regard for human dignity. It was during a jolly barbecue in our garden that a wasp navigated its way into Jane's knickers and stung her on the bottom, although what bothered her most was not so much the pain, as intense as it was, as that our friend Mandy was the one who applied the cream - and Mandy's own bottom is arguably more pert. I think it's what you call a girl thing. When we later told other friends about the incident, the men said: "Oh no, not a wasp"; the women said: "Oh no, not Mandy."

The sample pleasures of a good freebie

We spent a happy day, not to mention far too much money, at the Ludlow Food Festival last Friday. It was a deliciously middle-class affair, with people earnestly sampling olives stuffed with feta cheese as though their very lives depended on making the right purchasing choice between those and the olives marinated in walnut oil, garlic and cumin. The sampling culture is not big in Britain, on the whole. When I was an impecunious student living in America, it was possible to stroll around a food store buying nothing but sampling everything. You didn't even have to feign intent to spend; with a broad smile, and a "Have a nice day", the shop assistant would hand over a slice of cheese, a slab of pie, a chicken wing, pretty much anything.

Here, assistants in all but the most enlightened food shops are trained, if not genetically predisposed, to regard with the deepest suspicion anyone asking for a freebie. At the Ludlow Food Festival, however, samples are practically forced on you. Which is how I came to try garlic honey, mature goat's cheese, runner bean chutney, a Scotch egg, free-range mayonnaise and game sauce with port all before 11am, quite ruining my plans for a lunchtime sortie to the exquisitely-named paella and faggot emporium, a treat which will have to wait for next year.

A mystery most fowl

Marigold, the free-range chicken we assumed had been snaffled by a fox, has returned, intact, to the fold. I'm all for renaming her Agatha, after Agatha Christie, who disappeared in similarly mysterious fashion seemingly off the face of the earth, before suddenly pitching up again 11 days later.

As in the case of the doyenne of whodunnits, the motives behind Marigold's disappearance remain unclear. Our best guess is that she was being bullied by Babs, Ginger and Amber, in what amounted to a fowl version of racism, for she is a Gold Seabright bantam and they are Buff Rocks. Still, they all seem to be getting on famously now, although Marigold hasn't produced an egg since her return. Not in the hen-house, anyway. There's every chance that she has, as we poultry-keepers say, been laying away.