Tales of the Country: A year in the sticks

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The Independent Online

It is exactly a year since we first set eyes on this house. It was a wintry day, I remember, with precious little sign of spring, but Mr and Mrs O, bless them, were waiting for us on the doorstep, and ushered us in for tea and cakes in the drawing room, in front of a blazing log fire. They were being characteristically hospitable, yet had it been a cynical ploy – "How can we best seduce city-dwellers into buying our house on a miserable February afternoon?" – it could not have been more brilliantly executed. We were captivated by the place, and by the view; we could just about make out a whole Brecon Beacon through the steady drizzle. We drove back to London nearly two hours later in a state of great excitement, even though the asking price was beyond our upper limit and then some. And then a bit more.

It is exactly a year since we first set eyes on this house. It was a wintry day, I remember, with precious little sign of spring, but Mr and Mrs O, bless them, were waiting for us on the doorstep, and ushered us in for tea and cakes in the drawing room, in front of a blazing log fire. They were being characteristically hospitable, yet had it been a cynical ploy – "How can we best seduce city-dwellers into buying our house on a miserable February afternoon?" – it could not have been more brilliantly executed. We were captivated by the place, and by the view; we could just about make out a whole Brecon Beacon through the steady drizzle. We drove back to London nearly two hours later in a state of great excitement, even though the asking price was beyond our upper limit and then some. And then a bit more.

What finally propelled us into the great unknown was the three holiday cottages that came with the house. Jane and I did some sums and, conveniently overlooking the fact that we are both rubbish at sums, worked out that the rental income might just about meet the extra mortgage payments. Which, more by chance than design, it just about has. Nothing, it seems, boosts the holiday industry in Herefordshire quite like the prospect of Britain helping to incinerate the Middle East. So cheers for that, Tone.

For all our enthusiasm a year ago, though, moving to the sticks still seemed like a pipe dream. That, on reflection, was one of the reasons we were so enthusiastic. We began to wobble as the dream edged nearer to becoming reality. In Priory Park, Crouch End, one day, Jane talked to an acquaintance who was moving with her family to Malawi for three years. "How scary," said Jane. "No, what you're doing is much scarier," said the woman, breezily. "At least we're coming back." Which is what my friend Hunter Davies thought we would wind up doing. "The sooner you go," he said, confidently, "the sooner you'll be back."

But once you take your foot off that London property ladder, it has a tendency to topple over, out of reach. And once it's out of reach, you wonder why you made such a fuss about it in the first place. Jacob's ladder leads to Heaven, but the London property ladder reaches even higher, to Hampstead. Better to get off it altogether than to get stuck halfway up.

Please don't think I'm dissing London. I get into terrible trouble when them city folk assume I am. It is true, though, that leaving the metropolis feels like a release. And I don't mean a release from crime and traffic and litter and stuff, I mean a release from the conviction that London is the centre of the universe.

Of course, that suited me fine when I lived there, but now I can feel myself getting wound up by the London-centricity of the media. Restaurant reviews, for example, are absurdly weighted in favour of the capital, which, apart from being faintly insulting to people in the provinces, also seems decidedly short-sighted. After all, those of us living near Ludlow are far less likely to visit a vegetarian curry house in Acton than people living near Acton are to visit Ludlow. So get off your expanding backsides, broadsheet restaurant critics, and head way out west – by which I don't mean Ruislip.

There are lots of wonderful places to eat round here, although it is true that vegetarian curries are difficult to come by, except via Safeway in Leominster. Cinemas, theatres, museums and concerts are also in relatively short supply, and a year ago, as we tried to get our heads round the idea of what it might be like actually to live here, we were troubled by the thought of leaving all that entertainment behind.

But there's entertainment aplenty in the country; it's just different. And I don't mean seances, wife-swapping and bestiality parties. Well, I don't just mean those. For instance, I have been invited by a friend to do some off-roading, and though I'm very much an on-road kind of guy, whose only off-road experience was mounting a pavement in Camden Town a few years ago, I'm greatly looking forward to it.

I don't mind admitting, though, that if you'd told me 12 months ago, when we were sitting here politely drinking tea with Mr and Mrs O, that a year later I'd be spending my Sundays off-roading through Herefordshire fields, I'd have herded up the kids and driven quickly back to Crouch End with nary a backward glance.

It's panto season. Oh no it isn't . Oh yes it is

There I was, the other week, thinking that the pantomime season was behi-i-i-i-i-nd me, when my wife, Jane, flourished tickets for the annual panto at Richards Castle village hall. We went with the children on Saturday evening, and, in fairness, the Richards Castle panto turned out to be quite a phenomenon.

Richards Castle is a village of about 300 souls on the Shropshire-Herefordshire border. As in many villages in these parts, the houses are dotted about the countryside; there's no main drag with a post office, two pubs and a war memorial. Yet the community spirit there is intoxicating. Those locals who weren't in the panto, or working behind the scenes, were in the audience. And although we are outsiders, from fully 10 miles away, we did enjoy ourselves hugely – partly, it has to be said, because the panto was set in the Wild West and there was something richly comical about broad Herefordshire vowels infiltrating the Dodge City accents.

None the less, we left full of admiration, wondering whether we should try to initiate something similar in Docklow, perhaps with Roger and Jean from the King's Head as Prince Charming and Cinderella. Which suggestion should get me a free pint next time I go in there. Well, I could have said the Ugly Sisters.

Bogged down in the Marches

My thanks to all those readers who have taken the trouble to write with the answer to my query last week about the meaning of Marches, as in the Welsh Marches, where we now live. Sue Johnson from Otham in Kent explains that in Scotland "to march with" still means "to border upon". She could therefore say, she adds, that "the Smiths' garden marches with mine on the east side". Which would get her some funny looks from the Smiths, but never mind.

Incidentally, not least of the pleasures of writing this column is the feedback it elicits. And I am particularly indebted – as Cyril Fletcher used to say on That's Life! – to Doctor Norman Mills, who has e-mailed me to say that he was amused by my recent reference to the topographical feature that is visible from our garden, the splendidly named Lord Hereford's Knob.

"Back in the Sixties," writes Dr Mills, "my late mother was amused to see on a map another feature, which is not far from Lord Hereford's Knob, called Myarth. Perhaps you have no need to worry unless and until you can claim to see both at the same time." Indeed.

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