Tales of the Country: The perfect sunset and Lord Hereford's Knob

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The Independent Online

Since I was a child, I have had a thing about sunsets. It was probably passed on to me by my parents, with whom I used to stand in our back garden in Southport, watching the sun setting spectacularly over the Lancashire sand dunes (which were Lancashire sand dunes until the 1974 boundary changes when, most irritatingly, they were given to Merseyside).

Since I was a child, I have had a thing about sunsets. It was probably passed on to me by my parents, with whom I used to stand in our back garden in Southport, watching the sun setting spectacularly over the Lancashire sand dunes (which were Lancashire sand dunes until the 1974 boundary changes when, most irritatingly, they were given to Merseyside).

"Oooh," my late father would say, as the last fragment of orange sun inched towards the horizon. "Oooh," my mother would add. "Oooh," I would chime in, as finally the sun disappeared from view. And then my mother always said the same thing: "I wish I could paint." It was a sacred ritual, and no concessions were made if I had a friend to play. He would have to stand there too, ooohing and aaahing.

Since I left Southport, in 1980, I have lived in some scenic places – in France, in the United States, in Scotland – but never anywhere with comparable sunsets. Until now. Our house in Herefordshire has fantastic views westwards towards the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains, and this winter we've been getting some heart-stoppingly glorious sunsets. I'm looking at one now. Oooh.

Just as when I was a child, nothing and nobody is permitted to hinder my appreciation of a good sunset. This has led to some decidedly embarrassing situations, like when the man from Dyno-Rod was here to talk about a blockage in the septic tank. I suddenly caught sight over his shoulder of an absolute cracker – a 7.5 on my personal Sunset Scale, with 10 being the virtually unattainable maximum – and let out a long, rapturous sigh. Seemingly unused to expressions of rapture during discussions about septic tanks, the Dyno-Rod man left rather hurriedly.

Which was a shame, because sunsets, like all great natural phenomena, are even better shared. Jane and the children are used to me herding them into the living-room to gaze at crimson skies, and in fairness to the kids, as long as it doesn't happen during The Simpsons, they normally humour me by making most of the right noises. They might not be so indulgent when I start saying, every time: "I wish I could paint."

Still, I'll always have a fellow sunset-phile in Ashley, the lad who comes once a week to do some gardening. A few days ago he caught me looking west in a state of suspended bliss. In fact, so pinky-orangey-red was the sky that I briefly wondered whether there had been a terrorist attack on the SAS base in Hereford, 20-odd miles away. Anyway, Ashley joined me and for fully 10 minutes we stood together, in silence, bonding over a setting sun. If he hadn't had stubble on his chin I might have kissed him.

We watched as the outline of the distant hills, forming an unbroken line from Hay Bluff in the south to Bircher Common in the north, became more and more stark against the dramatic sky. After a long while, Ashley, a chap of few words, took a deep breath. I realised he was about to speak. "I think I can see Lord Hereford's Knob," he said. Lord Hereford's Knob is a topographical feature, I gather, so nothing to get worried about. But the very mention of it quite spoiled the mood.

Have I driven the people-carriers to distraction?

Crouch End: an apology. Three columns ago I referred to the fact that within a couple of miles of where I used to live in London, within the space of about two weeks, there were two major anti-terrorism operations, a couple of shootings, a huge dawn drugs swoop, and a mass brawl between pupils of a fairly notorious secondary school. For all this to happen in a fortnight was, of course, highly unusual. None the less, I ventured that our move to the sticks was increasingly seeming like a good idea.

Some of our friends back in N8 took exception to this. My name, not inappropriately for a countryside-dweller in late January, was mud. The mud round here currently carries the sour whiff of what my mother, wrinkling her nose, calls muck-spreading, and in a sense that was what I was being accused of. I had disturbing visions of a battalion of people-carriers setting off from the gates of Alexandra Palace, its mission to hunt me down like a fox.

I refer lightly to the matter now, but at the time it caused me some distress. One hates to upset friends, and it's not nice to be thought of as a turncoat, either. Because for years I have tirelessly championed Crouch End in print, relating, for example, the tale of when I hit back viciously at an American acquaintance who had the temerity to suggest that it was a silly name. Which wouldn't have been so insulting except that he had a very silly name himself. He was called Tray. And I got my own back by getting him to say "the drinks are on me".

Ah well. Like war correspondents, so-called lifestyle columnists have to lift their heads above the parapet and risk getting one in the eye occasionally (no letters, please, from offended war correspondents). The flak can come from all angles, too. A woman in the King's Head on Sunday accused me of writing that all those who hunt are toffs. "I'm not a toff," she said. "I didn't write that everyone who hunts is a toff," I said.

"Yes you did," she said. For a moment I thought it was going to get nasty; pickled eggs at 20 paces.

Still, as regards London N8, at least I know I'm not a turncoat, and I also know that, were I still living in the area, I would have written in an even more horror-struck tone about the events of that disturbingly dramatic fortnight.

It hasn't altered my view that Crouch End is a vibrant, bohemian, stimulating neighbourhood, a wonderful place to bring up a family, and I hope that the battalion of people-carriers will forgive me for any offence I caused. Anyway, they'd never have made it to Herefordshire; they'd have got stuck in the traffic up Muswell Hill.

Hurry up Harry

Our hens have still not laid any eggs, which is disappointing, but on the upside, nor have they been massacred. The trouble is, one becomes complacent about foxes. We have been opening the henhouse in the morning, then shutting the hens up at dusk. But a friend, a veteran poultry-keeper, warns me that we relax at our peril.

Such is the emotive language used by poultry-keepers. Indeed, the booklet produced by Forsham Cottage Arks – the firm from which we bought our very costly henhouse – uses a line that would not disgrace a Clint Eastwood film. The fox, it cautions, has "only got to be lucky once; you have to be lucky every time". To maximise that luck, it adds, we should keep the hens in the run at all times, and move them every few days. But it's clear that to keep Amber, Poppy, Babs and Ginger totally safe, we need to bring in Dirty Harry.

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