Friday, 24 August 2007

Daylight snobbery

What is ‘country’? I ask this because I stayed recently with my sister-in-law and her partner at their home in Lacey Green, just outside High Wycombe.

I regard visiting them there as a trip to the ‘bright lights’, to civilisation, to somewhere with daily buses, pubs, shops and entertainment within walking distance. I do not regard it as a visit to the ‘country’. But then I found myself in the middle of a maize maze and had to reassess my opinion of the area. The maize happened to be a maze too, but its primary function was winter fodder for the cattle. It was a great bit of diversification on this particular farm, a farm which, undoubtedly, is in the countryside, but jump into a car and head south and after a few minutes you’re in London (unless there is a traffic jam, then it takes and hour and a half to inch a couple of miles).

I suppose to someone from the middle of the city, that village is countryside, but countryside not as I know it. Countryside to me means wild remoteness, mountains full of sheep, cattle poo on the road, wide open spaces and gaps between houses, except perhaps in the ‘towns’ which are so vastly smaller than Lacey Green, one could argue their right even to call themselves a ‘village’.

Lacey Green, a village with a few shops, several pubs and a school, surrounded on all sides by arable land, with a working windmill and fields with fatly grazing cattle, is still a ‘country’ village, but with all the advantages of a town.

I suppose I am admitting here that I am an inverse rural snob, but what I really should be saying is that I have just woken up to the fact that there is a rural hierarchy. At one end of the scale you have villages within shouting distance of London (or Cardiff or Edinburgh) and the advantages (and, arguably, disadvantages) that proximity to the capital brings. At the other end of the scale are remote settlements on teeny tiny islands in the middle of the sea where you get post once a month.

In between these two extremes are a whole gamut of villages and rural hamlets. The nearer you get to the cities the more expensive property becomes and outside every house is a Porsche, Mercedes or BMW 4x4. The postman visits everyday, groaning under the weight of the Boden parcels ready for the weekend trip to Cornwall. The further away you get from the cities you start to hit the disadvantages of remoteness – it takes ages to get anywhere, you can’t walk to school, the nearest supermarket is 17 miles away, you can get cut off in the winter and you would love to wear Boden, but local wages are so much lower than in the cities you may only be able to afford a few pieces in the sales or second-hand from Ebay.

But perhaps the pressure is less, the further down the rural scale one resides. You don’t have to brush your hair in the morning because there is nobody to see, and if you do pop to the shop in sheep turd-encrusted wellies arms sticky with lanolin from the fleeces in the middle of shearing people won’t bat an eyelid. Although you might encounter someone from a city who has bought a picturesque stone cottage in order to live the country life who then has a lovely anecdote about the wild smelly woman with wool in her hair to tell to their city friends at the weekend.

How annoying is it that those who can afford to live in the country are those who live in the city as well, or have lived there in recent memory. Recent enough to have sold a semi in Hackney and then spend a fraction of the cash on a farm on a Welsh hillside. They can afford the renovations, the installation of shiny new Aga and the requisite 4x4 to negotiate the drive. They have a great time learning how to farm, then use their city-born entrepreneurial skills and marketing know-how to set up courses to teach other country-hopefuls how to do the same.

Meanwhile the farmer who used to live there could no longer afford to farm the land as the money came in at 1970s levels and went out at 2007 levels. He has to turn his back on generations of family farming and, perhaps because he hung on by the skin of his teeth until the bank owned everything, all he could do was sell up before bankruptcy claimed him.

So there are two tiers of rural living: the affluent rural and the cash-strapped rural. But hasn’t that always been the way? Twee Victorian paintings of ruddy faced yokels eking a living in thatched cottages with a pig in the garden and chicken scratching as they children played belied the reality of poverty stricken families starving while local rich squires hunted, shot and fished.

I am not sure if the residents of Lacey Green regard themselves as living in a rural area or not. But they have an excellent farm shop, thriving horticultural society and annual show, they can walk to a pub for a good meal and a pint. The village has its annual rituals, its windmill open day and its maize maze. In fact they have so many things that I’d like, I think I’m jealous! Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to live somewhere where there wouldn’t be a discussion before going out as to who was going to drive and not drink, or where if you do have fish and chips it’s still hot when you get it home; where you can get a decent curry or pizza delivered to your doorstep.

But perhaps I’ll stay here in the hills. I’ll forgo the fish and chips and cook my own instead (with takeaway alcohol). I can go blackberrying and sloe picking any time I like. If I leave my front door open my belongings will still be there when I get back and I don’t need to lock my car when it is parked on my drive outside my house. Shopping for food takes more organisation, perhaps, but organic veggies arrive either in the garden or delivered from the wholesaler and if we should get snowed in there are five organic lambs in the freezer to eat. I can drive 75 miles in an hour and a half and listen to Sally Traffic on Radio 2 and just feel glad that it doesn’t affect me. At night there is silence, except for the occasional twit-twoo, and it goes completely dark apart from the stars.

But when I visit places like Lacey Green I wonder whether I’d like to live there. Maybe it would be fun if I was rich enough to afford to live in the Preselis too.

Monday, 20 August 2007

A wild goose chase in the Chilterns

I always have mixed feelings about go away to visit friends and relatives. Going away is fantastic, but reminds me of how much there is to do at home. So I’m back now, amongst my muddle, dreaming of house extensions and minimalist living.

We have just been to stay with Brian’s sister and her bloke who live in the Chilterns. They are child free (by choice) and have just extended their lovely flint cottage which now includes three bedrooms and an upstairs bathroom. They live a tidy, orderly existence without clutter and the new bathroom has a minimalist hotel look.

Hannah and Rosie loved it, of course, especially the bunk beds they shared, and kept telling me which bits from the house they would like to have in our home. Sadly we don’t have the sort of income to buy such gorgeous things (like their lovely aubergine Aga and hand-built maple kitchen, for example), but I can pinch ideas and colour schemes for free.

Our visit, which was a bit of a last minute decision, was really to look at cars. We need to replace our estate and sadly defunct old Land Rover for just a single 4x4. I’m embarrassed to say that I need it for the school run, but I do! We are surrounded by rivers and a number of times it has been touch and go to be able to get to the village and pick up the girls from school. The estate struggles and I have repeatedly got it stuck in the verges, usually when forced to pull onto soft ground by other 4x4 drivers, so it is also part self-preservation, part necessity and part ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’!

But first of all before car viewings we visited Waddesdon Manor, near Aylesbury, a French chateau-style manor built in the late 1800s by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild to display his art collection. It is famous for its parterre garden and Rococo aviary and has wine cellars containing thousands of bottles of Rothschild wine.

We picnicked in the garden, admired the gorgeous parterre and the girls had a lovely time playing on the new woodland play area. We had the obligatory ice cream sitting in the sunshine on a wooden bench in the garden watching the water dancing in the fountain. It is a beautiful place and we plan to return in the future to fully explore the house and grounds.

But we had to leave the Manor to go and view cars. We drove back into Aylesbury, found the correct car sales and immediately wished we hadn’t bothered. The car had four bald tyres and the spare was perished. The radio looked as if it had been jemmied out with a crow bar and another fitted with bits of foam sticking out. The clock didn’t work and there was a can of Diet Coke in the drinks holder. We said ‘no thanks’ politely, and left.

The next car had weird gouges out of the rear passenger doors – as if it had been used to transport pianos or something. We imagined little fingers picking at the gouges, spilling the filling, and imagined the repairs bill. We left.

The third was located in Chalfont St Peter. It was 4.45pm on a Friday afternoon and we were heading towards London. Were we mad? We arrived. The car was obviously an import. We left.

Cars could wait, so we spent Saturday amusing ourselves and the children in the Lacey Green Maize Maze. It is a genius idea, even in the rain. We collected our map and quiz sheet and rushed about in the maize losing ourselves and finding the clues. Then in the early evening we went to the local pub, The Whip Inn, and had a fantastic meal. It was walking distance from Brian’s sister’s home so I availed myself of a couple of pints of the local brew. Lovely!

We dragged ourselves away on Sunday and headed home via Brian’s Mum’s flat in Langley. Hannah and Rosie were fascinated by the planes taking off at Heathrow – the same planes which would later fly over the Preselis on their way to America. We had one more car to see, with the registration COO, but a black one not a purple one, so that wasn’t quite right either. We pointed our trusty estate car westwards on the M4 and headed on home in the wake of the planes we had just seen heading into the sky.

Monday, 6 August 2007

National Botanic Garden of Wales

Today we visited the National Botanic Garden of Wales which is one of our favourite days out. Just 40 minutes drive for us in the Preselis takes us to the garden which lies off the A48 between Carmarthen and Cross Hands.
The garden has been open since May 2000 and initially opened to great acclaim. I was fortunate to be taken for a birthday treat on a guided tour the year before the gardens opened. After that we fell into the habit of visiting at the end of August every year. But then something went wrong. One birthday - August Bank Holiday - we visited and it was a sad place. Lots of people were there, but they were trailing dispiritedly about. Around the Great Glasshouse people were sitting around as if miserably waiting for the last bus. It looked run down, neglected and depressed, like a supermarket with a closing down sale. Funds were short, our local newspaper reported, and it warned that the botanic garden could close unless a rescue package could be found. Monty Don mentioned the garden on Gardener's World and urged people to support it and help save it. So we did! Support it, that is, I can't claim to have saved it, that role belongs to some unknown genius or geniuses who worked out what needed to be done to save the place and did it.
The next time we visited the garden it had been rejuvenated. The plants were perky again, the rubbish had been cleared. The glasshouse was sparkling. The restaurant had an entirely different style of menu - lots of filling, healthy food. The shop had stopped selling tat, the amazing double walled garden had been designed and planted, and quite beautifully planted at that. That was two years ago and since then the place has - excuse the pun - blossomed and we love it.

There are rolling acres of mown grass to run about in, three huge lakes with ducks, glorious borders, wild flower meadows, dipping ponds, a rill leading from the Great Glasshouse to the circle of decision, the amazing double-walled garden, a new tropical house, woodland, farmland (all organic), a great children's play area... I could go on!

There is a very relaxed, laid back air to the garden. The welcome is warm. Today we were met as we walked from the entrance, up the hill following the rill to the glasshouse, by the land train and its jovial driver. His carriages were empty so he stopped and offered us a lift. In we got and were taken along past the lakes and on up to the Great Glasshouse. We love the glasshouse, especially now the plants have filled up all the gaps. It is divided into different zones, so one minute you might be in the Mediterranean, the next in Australia. The planting is imaginative. You sit down for coffee amongst the olive trees, then you cross bridges (there is a valley with a waterfall and pool in the middle of the glasshouse) and have to duck under deliciously fragrant blooms. Often we find ourselves following our noses, chasing the scent of one of the flowers. These pictures (above and below) show the Wallace Garden in front of Principality House. This garden's curving pathways reflect the shape of DNA and the planting shows the history of plant breeding and genetics. It has food crops and garden plants and this year the display of dahlias is breathtaking.

Across from the Wallace Garden is the Stable Block (above) which now houses the shop, ice cream booth (selling Mary's Farmhouse ice cream, made in the Preseli Hills), restaurant and gallery. When we first visited the garden in 1999 before it opened, this was being used as council flats. It was dilapidated and ugly. Not any more. The play park is off to the right, with willow tunnels and mazes, and a plethora of wooden play equipment - wobbly bridges, balancing poles, tunnels and a funky wooden xylophone.

The walled garden (above) has been divided into four quadrants. Three use plants to explain the evolution of flowering plants and the fourth is a kitchen garden. The brand new tropical glasshouse (seen in the background) has orchids, bromeliads, bananas and other varieties which will no doubt adore its warm, moist environment.

This tree pansy was looking fantastic with the sun shining through its leaves.

This little knot garden is tucked into a gap by the auricula theatre (below) between the two walls of the garden. The box hedges have matured now and I think it looks lovely. The theatre (below) currently houses a gorgeous display of streptocarpus.

The garden also offers activities for children, including pond dipping at just £1 per child. You get a tray, a net and go off to the dipping ponds to catch wildlife which you then take back to the Aqualab and peer at under the microscope. It is totally absorbing and fascinating. We caught a water beetle, water fleas, tiny water nymphs and a pond skater which made a bid for freedom before we got back to the lab. Other activities included using materials found in the garden to make a raft to float a grape down the rill. A genius activity for children, all of whom find the rill completely fascinating. It's great for a game of Pooh sticks too, but the rill does disappear into the ground and out again a couple of times which can be a little challenging for the average stick!
It takes all day to see the various components of the garden and I still haven't been to the Japanese garden. That's one for next time.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

While the sun shines...

We have had two weeks of the school holidays now and the first week was a bit of a wash out. First Rosie was ill and it was raining, then I took both girls for their injections (Rosie, 3, is just having her baby injections; Hannah, 5, is having her pre-school boosters. We’re a bit behind.) and it was raining, then Hannah was ill and it was raining.

Then the rain stopped, the sun came out and we did normal holiday things like go to Newgale beach last Saturday and eat sandy sandwiches and ice cream. We built a sandcastle with a moat and then a seaweed fire breathing dragon using the big smooth cobbles from Newgale’s sea defences.

We then went to Hilton Court Gardens which has a wooded garden with a maze of paths mown in between the trees, just perfect for little girls to race about. It has a lake with waterlillies and dragonflies and a tea shop which serves truly fabulous cakes.

I was there once pre-children with Mum. We had been for a tour around the gardens and were just sitting down to a pot of tea and a slice of poppy seed cake when a woman and her elderly mother arrived. The woman was quite primly dressed; a sort of twin set and pearls type, and very nicely spoken. Her mother was the sort of woman who would wear purple and eat a whole pound of sausages at one go. She was all grey-haired, twinkly-eyed mischief. In a granny hat.

“Look,” she announced in a loud, carrying voice to her prim daughter. “That tree over there is a Penis Glaucosa.”
“Mother,” shrieked Miss Prim in the style of Lady Bracknell saying ‘a handbag’, “I think you mean Pinus!”
Mother sat down to her tea with a very satisfied look on her face.

Monday found us at Colby Woodland Gardens again. We ran about the paths, pausing occasionally to admire the hydrangeas which are in full bloom at the moment. The walled garden is superb at this time of year. A lovely cool rill runs down the middle and there is an enviable rosemary hedge. I adore rosemary (which is why Rosie is called Rosemary). I am currently taking rosemary cuttings to make my own Colby-style rosemary hedge. The garden also boasts a fig tree, with big fat figs on it. My fig tree dropped all its baby figs during the dry spring, but it is in a pot, so perhaps I had better take the plunge and plant it in the ground. I have spent the past five years dithering over where to put it and, to be honest; I’m still none the wiser.

This year we have decided to make hay not haylage. Yes, I know we have taken this decision in the wettest year since records began! The past couple of years the haylage has been so dry, we have wondered why we bothered to wrap it, especially since the plastic is such a pain to get rid of. So, in the spirit of reduce, reuse, recycle, as Bob the Builder would say, it will not be wrapped, and our fingers will be firmly crossed until it is safely tucked away in the barn.

The hay was cut on Tuesday, turned on Wednesday, and rained on in the early hours of Thursday morning. But only a little. Mum has been phoning the turner and the baler and has vague promises that they will come (hopefully in the right order) to row the hay up and then big bale it. But everyone is so busy having been held up for six weeks by the wet weather. It will get done, though, it usually does.

Our Exmoor pony lodger has returned for a month. She has been away to a yard to be taught a few manners and now is much more polite about gateways and the fingers of small children. She has lost none of her feisty nature, however, and still thinks she should be first, whatever is happening. So far on this stay she has not broken any fence posts or gates and hasn’t started any riots yet. When the farrier visited on Tuesday morning she waited her turn like a good little girl. Last time she broke the gate latch because she wanted to see what was going on (and be first, of course).

So we are settling down to our summer routine of getting up late, forgetting to brush our hair and going out on alternate days. If it rains we do craft, so are slowly disappearing under a pile of drawings and paintings, including one, today, of a snowman.

Sunny days at home this week have involved climbing up the hill to inspect the hay and riding scooters back down again (it’s a very good slope). While the girls ride their scooters I plan my fantasy house which would be built up the hill with views of the Preselis and towards Tenby. This is in my fantasy world where the local planners would let me build a house in the middle of a field in the middle of a farm. Dream on! It would have lots of sunny windows, lovely wooden beams (oak) and a big, square kitchen with a table and an Aga. It would be far, far away from our noisy inconsiderate neighbours. Sigh.