Tales of the Country: No kindred spirits, but plenty of friends

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The Independent Online

On Sunday, it will be exactly six months since we moved from the city to the country. During that time, most of the fears that we brought with us have melted like hard frost in a south-facing meadow... how's that for an effortless analogy, reflecting my new status as, if not quite a horny-handed man of the soil, then at any rate a man with an increasingly battered waxed jacket and a pair of mud-caked wellies? And if anyone doubts that I have immersed myself in countryside matters these past six months, then let them talk to me about the gestation period of a sheep, a topic on which I can expound for very nearly a minute, following a masterclass the other day from the farmer.

On Sunday, it will be exactly six months since we moved from the city to the country. During that time, most of the fears that we brought with us have melted like hard frost in a south-facing meadow... how's that for an effortless analogy, reflecting my new status as, if not quite a horny-handed man of the soil, then at any rate a man with an increasingly battered waxed jacket and a pair of mud-caked wellies? And if anyone doubts that I have immersed myself in countryside matters these past six months, then let them talk to me about the gestation period of a sheep, a topic on which I can expound for very nearly a minute, following a masterclass the other day from the farmer.

One of our fears was that kindred spirits, 10 a penny in Crouch End, would, in north Herefordshire, be as scarce as pregnant bullocks (once I get going with these rustic analogies, then like a lonely herdsman sheltering from a storm with a friendly goat, I'm afraid I find it hard to stop).

To an extent, this is one fear, probably the only one, that has been realised. It was inevitable, really. There must have been 50,000 people in Crouch End, roughly 49,900 more than appear on the electoral register for Docklow. But I've asserted before, and it's worth repeating if only to persuade myself, that it's a trifle limiting going through life consorting only with kindred spirits. The clue is in the word "kindred": our London friends came from the same kinds of backgrounds as us, had the same kind of education, existed on similar incomes, and wrestled with similar anxieties (eg vasectomies, mortgage repayments, and secondary schooling, although, depending on gender, not necessarily in that order).

By moving here, however, we have given the kaleidoscope of life a good, hard shake. Vasectomies, for example, have dropped right off the conversational chart. Our neighbours, Margaret and Maurice, are warm, delightful people, but they celebrate their golden wedding anniversary later this year, so probably don't have much to say about the snip. On the other hand, they can tell us all we need to know, and arguably more, about Sutton Coldfield in the 1930s.

Nor would we have met anyone like Ingemar and Kerstin in Crouch End. They are a charming retired couple from Gothenburg, Sweden, who are renting a cottage in Docklow while they look for something closer to the cultural hothouses, relatively speaking, of Malvern and Worcester.

Ingemar used to work for the Swedish Shipowners' Association; Kerstin was a head teacher. They fell in love with this part of England while on holiday years ago, and resolved to settle here eventually. We're very glad they have. Conversationally, they bridge our new life with our old. On Sunday – when we met them at the home of Mr and Mrs O, from whom we bought our house last July, and who have been unfailingly kind to us – we talked about Swedish expansionism during the 17th-century reign of King Gustavus Adolphus, which I studied at university but have since thought about, I have to confess, hardly at all. It was one of those scary yet satisfying, "we would never in a million years have found ourselves talking about this in Crouch End", moments. Except that we then moved to a subject much discussed in London N8, Sven and Ulrika, which redressed the balance.

Whatever, we have stopped agonising about finding kindred spirits. We've met a few already, and, in time, we'll meet more. And as it happens, 13 of our dearest if no-longer-nearest metropolitan friends descended upon us for New Year, which was lovely, yet significantly, I don't recall once discussing vasectomies or mortgage repayments. Instead we talked about things never before on the conversational agenda, like the gestation period of sheep. Living in Herefordshire, I've decided, is not only good for the soul, it also broadens the mind.

I'm sitting on the fence... on principle

A letter has arrived from the master of the North Herefordshire Hunt, inviting me, as a loyal hunt supporter, to the annual hunt supper later this month. I have a bit of a problem with this. I seem to have been claimed as a supporter because I have not emerged as an opponent. It is as if, having declined to stop in the high street to sign a petition objecting to civil rights abuses in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe then calls to say thanks for the show of solidarity.

Here is the story so far. The master of the hunt has phoned twice to inform me that there is to be a meeting in the vicinity of my house, and would I object if the hounds skirt my land? Apparently, foxes sometimes like to hang out in the laurel bushes deep in our couple of acres of woodland.

Now, while making it absolutely clear that I don't want jacketed men on horseback thundering across the lawn – which would do no good at all to my cherished square metre of turf (legally) dug up from the Lord's outfield and replanted in a now-sacred corner of garden – I have not objected.

This is not because, as the proud owner of three Buff Rock bantams and a Gold Seabright (all doing very well, thanks for asking, although they haven't yet produced an egg between them), I suddenly have a vested interest in keeping foxes away, although that is true. It is because, as a newcomer particularly, I don't want to stand in the way of a tradition about which – no letters,please – I have no strong feelings. I would probably rather that foxes were not ripped apart by dogs in the name of sport, but having sat through a couple of bullfights, albeit queasily, I can just about swallow fox-hunting, like bullfighting, as a valid cultural institution. That doesn't mean, though, that I'll be swallowing the hunt supper.

A question of taste

Thrilling news. Thrilling if you live in Docklow, anyway, which very few people do. The news is that the King's Head has a new chef, and although the grub was perfectly decent before, now there's a fresh swagger about it. The new chap, Johnny, was formerly sous-chef at the Three Crowns at Ullingswick, a gastro-pub which in these parts is talked about with near-religious reverence. And he has made a big impact already. Men have walked through cowpats to eat his lamb shank. Well, I have, anyway.

And he has replaced those nasty, thin sachets of tomato ketchup with smart ramekins, which means we no longer have to arrive at 8am to start ripping open the sachets in order that our kids will have enough ketchup to sustain them through fish fingers and chips at 6pm.

Unfortunately, the new levels of sophistication did not quite meet the expectations of our highly sophisticated friend from Manhattan, Amanda, whose birthday we celebrated there on Saturday night. Amanda, a child psychologist who on other Saturday nights hangs out in the East Village with chums including Sarah Jessica Parker, ordered the scampi. And subsequently left the scampi. "Does it always come with batter on?" she asked, sweetly, with a flash of her gorgeous teeth, pulling her pashmina tighter round her shoulders. She loved the assembly of local cheeses, though. It's probably only a matter of time before Sarah Jessica drops by.

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