Tales Of The Country: It's all in the hands of the fêtes

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The Independent Online

It has been a quiet week in Docklow, as Garrison Keillor used to say of Lake Wobegon. Well, quiet except for the sheep, who woke me up at about three this morning apparently practising harmonies. Baa-baa-baa-baa-Baarbara Ann, I think it was. And quiet except for the children, who are now on their summer holidays and making their delightful presence felt.

We have a rambling attic where I have my office, and where, in an adjacent room, the kids keep their dressing-up clothes. So far today I have bumped into a wizard, a princess, a dalmatian, a cowboy, Buzz Lightyear, and a kind of Ottoman infantryman, wearing a helmet with a spike on top, which I accidentally bought, in a badly-timed twitching fit, at a Brightwells house-clearance auction in Leominster.

Still, when they are not thundering around the attic, or asking for bits of unwanted furniture with which to enhance their den in the woods (where Brightwells might soon profitably set up an auction house, if they can get enough punters through the rampaging cherry laurel), the children are quietly focusing on the very important business of wooden-spoon decorating.

In three weeks time it is the Eardisland Village Show, at which handsome monetary prizes of up to £1.50 will be awarded in numerous categories. Children between eight and 11 are invited to enter up to five exhibits: a decorated wooden spoon, an animal made of vegetables, three decorated digestive biscuits, something new from something old, and a garden on a plate. Our nearly five-year-old, Jacob, has just two exhibits to ponder, a painting of a fish and a decorated potato. He has been thinking particularly hard about the fish-painting challenge, and only slowly did we realise that he had grasped the wrong, potentially fatal end of the stick, and was working out how to daub Teddy, our elderly goldfish.

We learnt about the Eardisland Show at the Pembridge Show, which took place last Saturday. I don't know whether all rural parts of England have a vibrant village-show culture, but Herefordshire's certainly takes some beating. Not a weekend goes by without one, and there is obviously some dialogue between villages, as they rarely clash. Indeed, they seem happy to promote one another.

The Pembridge Show, buzzing doughtily in the steady July drizzle, was a model of its kind. Sheltering from the rain, we saw quite a bit of the inside of the marquee, where no fewer than 104 categories of exhibits were displayed. Entrants in some categories were invited to out their inner Damien Hirst; class 11 stipulated "four different vegetables, one specimen of each, staged for effect (space allowed 18in)".

But I have no doubt that the general air of cheerfulness hid some raging and possibly even murderous indignation. Beside one of the specimens in class 77 - "an old-fashioned cherry cake (recipe given)" - a judge had rather cattily written: "What a shame this cake is overcooked, otherwise it would have won first prize."

We are thus preparing our children for disappointment. If Jacob's decorated potato romps home, it'll be a bonus.

Be my guest ... but not for too long

A recent edition of a fine magazine called The Countryman contained an article that made Jane laugh for about a week, and me for at least three days. Coincidentally, it was written by an old university friend of mine, a freelance journalist called Kevin Pilley who, like the lager, seems to reach the parts other freelance journalists don't. Open just about any esoteric magazine of the sort sniggered at on Have I Got News For You, and the Pilley by-line invariably looms large.

Anyway, we have regrettably lost touch over the years, although I was aware that he had moved to the Wye Valley. Like us, he doubtless has lots of metropolitan friends to stay, and his article in The Countryman takes the form of a questionnaire to be supplied by those with a house in the country to weekend guests. Here are some of the (loaded) questions...

When you arrived was your accommodation ready and what you expected? Yes/No. If "no", please indicate what was not in order (room size/sheets/view/welcoming coffee and biscuits).

Did your pets enjoy their stay? Yes/No.

Did you find the house quiet enough when you slept in until 10.30am? Yes/No.

Were you happy with the overcoat you borrowed when you went out for a walk? Yes/No.

Was your room cleaned satisfactorily while you were in the sitting-room with your feet up reading the newspapers? Yes/No.

How would you rate your hosts for: smiling and opening doors for you/ taking responsibility to answer questions and resolve problems/organising social and leisure activities/anticipating your needs?

How many similar trips have you made in the past 12 months?

Please let us know the names of any members of the host family who were especially helpful or rather grumpy at having you around for such a long time.

What could we have done, apart from vacating the premises, to make your stay more enjoyable?

Vegging out

As I write, rain is relentlessly hammering the Velux window in my office. Last summer, when we were new arrivals, this much rain would have depressed me terribly. But as a born-again vegetable-grower I can scarcely contain my delight. The runner beans are rampant, the garlic galloping, the lettuces lavish. On Monday, Jane and I had a supper which, but for a couple of sausages, was entirely home-grown. Even Zoe, our Shetland pony, might have baulked at so much chard, but we happily demolished it all. The novelty will doubtless wear off, but in the meantime we are practically sweating betacarotene and vitamin C.

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