The Great Escape

Three years ago, the columnist Brian Viner and his family swapped their modest London house for a rambling home in rural Herefordshire. In this extract from his new book, he recalls how they adjusted to their first 12 months of country life
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The Independent Online

In July 2002, my wife Jane and I sold our comfortable but unremarkable terraced house in Crouch End, north London, and for about the same money bought a large Victorian grange, with three holiday cottages attached, in five acres of rural Herefordshire.

In July 2002, my wife Jane and I sold our comfortable but unremarkable terraced house in Crouch End, north London, and for about the same money bought a large Victorian grange, with three holiday cottages attached, in five acres of rural Herefordshire.

The night before we left our London home, we had a party, using packing cases as tables and chairs. I looked around at the many dear friends we had made during the eight years we had lived in Park Avenue South. I looked at Derek and Rebecca, whose two boys, Thomas and Benjamin, we had watched grow up alongside our own three children. We had shared with Derek the anxiety and adventure involved in opening his shop in Islington selling contemporary rugs, and I thought again of the conversation he'd had with his Blackpudlian mother, when he told her that he'd decided to call the shop "Tribe". There was silence at the other end of the telephone line, followed by a weak "That's nice, love". It later emerged that she thought he intended to call his rug emporium "Tripe".

I had laughed at that story until the tears ran down my cheeks. These were people with whom we had shared so much fun and laughter, and although I knew that we would never lose contact, nor would we ever again enjoy their company on a daily or even monthly basis. They, and so many others like them in Crouch End, were our kindred spirits. Where were we going to find kindred spirits in rural Herefordshire? Were we mad to turn our backs, and our lives, on all this?


Even by the standards of a scantily populated county, we were now living in a particularly unpopulous bit. In the most densely populated parts of the county, such as downtown Hereford, there were between 20 and 33 people per hectare. In our electoral ward, grandly called Hampton Court after a castle a few miles south of us which predated the more famous Hampton Court on the banks of the Thames, it was between 0.2 and 0.3 people.

Moreover, at the time of the 2001 census, in our parish and the two adjoining parishes, the percentage of white people as an ethnic group was an unequivocal 100. In the entire county it was 99.1 per cent. Herefordshire had only 1,576 people of "ethnic groups other than white", whereas in London I would say hello to 1,576 people of ethnic groups other than white on my way to buy a morning paper. Our friendly neighbourhood baker had thought that this was why we were selling up. When we told him that we were moving to the countryside, he nodded sagely and said, "Good idea, get out before we're bloody overrun. That's why the wife's sister and her husband moved to Gravesend."

I didn't challenge him, or tell him that actually we were worried about leaving a multicultural environment behind. I wish I had. But I didn't particularly want to confront the unpalatable truth that our cheerful baker of the past eight years, who gave each of the children a complimentary gingerbread man whenever they walked into his shop, appeared to have racist views. It was cowardly, but I moved the conversation on to our usual topic, that it wasn't a bad morning although I understood there was a reasonable chance of showers later.

The relative lack of people in north Herefordshire rather reduced the opportunities for making friends. It wasn't that I didn't look. Jane teased me that in our local pub, the King's Head, I was inclined to engage in conversation with anyone who caught my eye even for a split-second, in the hope of finding someone to talk to about Everton's prospects for the new football season. Clearly, I was turning into the sad nutter on the train, the one with whom it is always a mistake to make even the most fleeting eye-contact. But so was Jane. She came home from the post-office in Leominster one day to report that she had overheard a couple of cheerful, witty women of about her age chatting in the queue behind her, and had worked hard to overcome the impulse to turn round and ask, "Please will you be my friends?"


I enjoyed writing about our new life in "Tales of the Country", my column in The Independent, but it was also hazardous. In trying to write positively about the countryside, I risked appearing smug about our decision to quit the city. Worse, in trying to give some sense of how we grappled with life away from the city, it might seem that I was poking fun at them country folk and their funny ways. Inevitably, I offended some readers; it might be argued that any self-respecting columnist should. The worrying thing was that some of the people I unwittingly offended lived nearby. One day, I received the following letter from a man who lived in Kimbolton, three or four miles away.

Dear Mr Viner,

We, like you, are incomers, having moved here at the end of 1980. It is a pity you do not restrict your contributions to 'The Independent' to your sporting interviews, as your Tales of the Country are exceedingly trite and patronising. The arrogance of Londoners is quite breathtaking. What a shame you don't use that column to address some real local issues such as the lack of a swimming pool in Leominster.

Hey ho, on a positive note I cannot believe the number of times you appear to have emptied your septic tank. Something is wrong. The real key is the French drain or nitrification tile or perforated plastic pipe which takes the septic tank's effluent. It must be of sufficient length (+150ft) and surrounded by coarse/medium gravel.

Yours sincerely, Arthur J Kirtley

This, it occurred to me, represented a new turn in the evolution of the poison-pen letter. Mr Kirtley hadn't sent me his shit, but considered technical advice on what to do with my shit. I was almost touched.


In all the long conversations we'd had with those friends, and friends of friends, who were former city-dwellers, relentlessly quizzing them about what we might expect when we moved to the country, none of them mentioned power cuts. Maybe north Herefordshire was unusually vulnerable. We certainly didn't seem to be quite plugged in properly to the National Grid. It seemed that almost every time there were high winds, or persistently heavy rain, we would lose electricity without so much as a phut! In my garret I became a neurotic wreck, pressing the Save button on my computer keyboard after practically every word. I've just done it now. And again now. Sometimes the loss of power would last for only a second or two, which was maddening, because the central-heating timer in the cellar needed re-setting every time. But towards the end of October we had a truly epic black-out. It started with gales that swept across western England killing six people, which put our discomfort into perspective. But after the first eight hours we had stopped counting our blessings and started counting our candles. The power stayed off for three more days.


At least we still had the Aga when the power went off. By now we had not only overcome our deep suspicion of the Aga, but, with the zeal of the converted, treated it like a member of the family. A word here about Agas. They inspire a strange kind of evangelism among those who own them, a bit like Morris Minors and Citröen 2CVs. If the Aga was roadworthy, there is no doubt that on certain Sundays every summer you would see long lines of them being driven from London to Brighton by hearty enthusiasts.

My friend Dominic has one, and when we too acquired one by moving to Docklow Grange, he could hardly contain his delight at being able to welcome us to the club. He talked us through the multifarious uses of an Aga, and solemnly pointed out that the lower oven was ideal should we ever need to thaw out a frozen robin. So far, we never have.


We bought four chickens from the Rare Breeds Centre in Onibury, Shropshire, much to the amusement of Owen. Owen was a farm labourer from Pudleston, in his sixties. He was short, with cropped grey hair, a large bulldog tattoo on his left forearm, and the broadest shoulders I had ever seen. His claim to local fame was that years earlier he'd come second in the Strongest Man in Herefordshire competition and would have come first but for the fact that his false teeth were dislodged when he tried to drag a tractor using only his mouth. At the news that we'd just spent over £60 on four bantams he threw back his head and laughed the laugh of a man who had just had all his prejudices confirmed about silly-bastard city types who come to live in the country with more more money in their wallets than brain cells in their heads. "I've got four you could 'ave 'ad for 50p each," he roared. I didn't add that we had also paid £248.50 for a henhouse from Forsham Cottage Arks in Tenbury Wells, and that it had a staircase because the man there had told us that "Banties like going upstairs to bed." Owen would have wet himself.


Even the experience of visiting the doctor's surgery contrasted markedly with London. At Crouch End Health Centre, our family GP had been Dr Williamson, a woman of irreproachable professionalism and competence, but whose style was most politely described as no-nonsense.

When our daughter Eleanor was three, she needed a routine hearing test. At the same time, Jane needed a routine smear test. So she asked Dr Williamson whether she could get both jobs done in the same visit. As far as Eleanor knew, the sole purpose of the visit was to have her hearing tested, but she sat in the corner of the room and didn't bat an eyelid when the doctor invited Jane to lie down on the couch. Eleanor watched with interest as Dr Williamson poked around Jane's insides with a speculum, and then, when the poking was over and Jane was told to get her clothes back on, she asked, in a faintly anxious voice: "Are my ears alright, mummy?" That had been the hearing test as far as she was concerned, which struck Jane as uproariously funny. Not Dr Williamson. "I haven't tested your ears yet, Eleanor," she said curtly.

I suppose curtness was the best way of dealing with the sometimes barely tolerable demands on a busy London medical centre. If ever we rang to make an appointment for one of the children on, say, a Tuesday, we would be lucky to get an appointment by the end of the week. Yet the first time I phoned the surgery in Leominster, to make an appointment for Joseph who was coughing badly during the night, I was asked: "Would you prefer this morning or this afternoon?" Our doctor was a gently spoken Scotsman in his thirties, Dr Senior, who struck me as just the sort of chap who might have helped Dr Finlay out with his Casebook. He had the same air of professionalism as Dr Williamson but oodles more charm. I don't suppose that's because he worked in Leominster and she in London; it might just as easily have been the other way round. But it certainly seemed as though the National Health Service was functioning more cheerfully and indeed more efficiently in the Marches.


Although I remembered how exasperated I had been as a Londoner when people who had moved to that hinterland beyond the M25 started wittering on about the thrill of watching the changing of the seasons, I began to understand what they meant. In the fields and hedgerows around us, the snowdrops were out and some early daffodils were starting to bloom.

One afternoon I looked out of the kitchen window to see four people, wearing an interesting variety of hats, scrutinising our old cider press through magnifying glasses. I went out to see what on earth they were doing. One of them was our neighbour Will, a wildlife consultant, and he introduced the others as two distinguished lichenologists and an expert on moss. "A mossologist?" I ventured. They laughed as I have rarely seen people laugh outside a Peter Kay gig, clutching their sides and gasping for air. Eventually they recovered sufficiently to tell me that the study of moss is called bryology.

They found several interesting varieties of lichen on the cider press, and more in the orchard, all of which was dutifully noted down for forwarding to Bradford University's lichen-recording project. The abundance of lichen growing on the fruit trees in the orchard, they told me, meant that the air quality was excellent. "It tells us how things are changing," said a woman called Joy. "Politicians can lie, but lichen can't." I asked Joy whether there was one particular lichen which, if found in our orchard, would send tremors of excitement through the world of lichenology? She looked delighted with the question. "Yes, if we found Lobaria pulmonaria here then we would be celebrating for years to come," she said. I loved that image, of perpetually partying lichenologists, with one occasionally standing on a chair and shouting "Lobaria pulmonaria", and everyone else whooping and hugging one another.


On Monday 10 March, at 6.03pm (I checked, because moments such as this need recording), I heard a terrific squawking and flapping coming from the direction of the chicken house. It was Jane. She had found an egg.

We were some distance from being self-sufficient, still more Margo and Jerry than Barbara and Tom, but it was immensely pleasing to have something yolky for all our outlay. Later, indeed, we would add another six hens to our brood, and catch ourselves talking enthusiastically to fellow poultry-keepers about the exciting garden eco-system in which hens can play such an important part. You feed them vegetable peelings and leftover scraps from the kitchen, and then you collect their eggs. The eggshells and the hen droppings are added to the compost, which in turn enriches the soil in which you grow vegetables, the peelings from which go back to the hens. As do the crumbs from the toast soldiers you made to eat with their eggs in the first place. I can think of nothing more satisfying, and I write as a man who once, in a tennis pro-am, placed a drop shot just out of the reach of John Patrick McEnroe, albeit flukily.


Rural England, we began to appreciate, operates on a different time scale to urban England. Never mind British Summer Time and Greenwich Mean Time, there should be British City Time and British Country Time. A phenomenon not unrelated to jet-lag applies when you move from the city to the country. Maybe I should patent it as Viner's Law; holding that for every year you have lived in the city, you can expect a month of disorientation in the country. I think that ratio is about right. On which basis, having lived in London since 1987, I could expect it to take me well over a year to get used to the pace of life in Herefordshire.

But ways of life are about people, not places. According to the person we were dealing with, the Herefordshire way of doing things could be either beguiling or, that regrettably under-used word, nettlesome. Just after 10 o'clock one morning, Jane went into a bakery in the high street in Bromyard, and asked for a white sliced-loaf. "We've completely sold out of bread," said the plump young woman behind the counter, cheerfully. "It's brilliant."

Jane looked at her bemusedly. "It's not brilliant for me," she said. This was the point at which the most complacent of shop assistants might be expected to say, "No, sorry, you're right." But not this shop assistant. "Well, it's brilliant for me," she said heatedly.


Our acquisition of a miniature Shetland pony, Zoe, was frowned upon by the horse-lovers we knew. This surprised us. We'd thought they would welcome us into the horsey community, express solidarity, give us generous helpings of advice and maybe some spare Polo mints, which, after all, is pretty much how it goes when you have your first baby. Nobody says, "Having a baby's not like getting a hamster, you know." And then mutters to other experienced parents, "I bet they've never even heard of Calpol."

But far from them encouraging us, the exact opposite was true. We realised with a jolt that they thought us downright irresponsible. What right did we have to own a pony? What did we know of mucking out or scraping hooves?

Maybe we were irresponsible. It certainly took a while before we became confident about handling her, not least because of her inclination to take a friendly bite of whichever part of the human body happened to be at head height, a situation which in my case especially was fraught with peril. About this time I happened to read in a newspaper that Shetland ponies were going to be trained to guide blind people. It was said that they were more intelligent than dogs and blessed with better memories, which would make them more suitable as companions for the blind.

This provoked many intriguing images, one of the most colourful of which was that a Shetland pony might one day enter parliament - not, like Caligula's beloved stallion Incitatus, as a representative of the people, but as the eyes of David Blunkett, the sightless (former) Home Secretary. I liked the idea of observers in the public gallery asking who that was in the chamber with the twitching nostrils, the barrel chest, the severe fringe and the iffy teeth. "No, not Ann Widdecombe - on the other side."


I liked Owen and Georgie, and there were faint signs that they were beginning to like me. At any rate, they had taken to greeting me with slightly warmer scowls than before, and our growing bond was cemented, as growing bonds often are, by getting paralytic together. When I popped into the pub just after opening time one evening, Owen and Georgie were already at the bar. "Do you want a pint, Bri?" asked Owen.

One pint led to a second and a second somehow led to a seventh, and it was nearly midnight by the time I stumbled home. I had learnt that Owen was a foundling, which sounded impressively Dickensian. He had literally been found, swaddled in a blanket, on the doorstep of a house in Pudleston, 64 years earlier. The farmer's wife who found him took him to an orphanage in Birmingham, but stayed in contact and her husband hired him as a labourer when he reached his mid-teens. He had worked for the family ever since and never found out who his parents were, although his theory, aired somewhere between the fifth and sixth pints, was that she was a gypsy girl who'd been impregnated by her father or one of her brothers. "Christ," said Georgie, and looked thoughtful. He'd obviously never heard this bit of Owen's story before, and seemed to be reaching for some words to match the poignancy of the moment. "That must be why you're so bloody daft," he said.

Brian Viner's column, now called 'Country Life', appears every Wednesday in 'The Independent'. His new book, 'Tales of the Country', is published this week by Simon & Schuster, priced £12.99. To order your copy at the special price of £11.99 (including free p&p) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897.