The exodus from our cities to a rural idyll seems to be more popular than ever. People even endure six or more hours of commuting, just to finally come home to their dream home in the stix.
What images does living in the countryside conjure up? Roses around the cottage door? A Labrador or two spread out in front of the Aga, perhaps? Friendly rustic types popping round with home reared honey and eggs? Above all, you would expect a bit of peace and quiet, wouldn’t you?
Some years ago, my husband and I moved from Leeds to a small, East Yorkshire village, to escape the rigours of city life and enjoy a more relaxed atmosphere. A row of twelve old chalkstone houses had been modernised and we moved into the end house. The village’s claim to fame was the Great Flood of 1888, when it’s said that a grand piano and also several pigs were swept away down the streets. Imagination conjured up an image of a pig, perhaps playing the piano as it sped to its doom.
Inclement weather could still have an impact, as winter power cuts were quite common. Sometimes, the village could be cut off entirely, to the delight of the local school children who enjoyed a day’s sledging instead of lessons. One year, an RAF helicopter had to drop supplies onto the village green.
We came to realise that it was actually easier to go for long walks in the countryside environments in and around Leeds than it was around our village. We were surrounded by farmers’ land and there wasn’t much public access. When there was, you had to keep your dog on a lead. We began to envy Londoners who lived near the freedom of Hampstead Heath.
There were two shops, one pub and one bus a day to the local market town. Apart from church and PTA functions and the Women’s Institute, entertainment was at a minimum, though rumours of wife swapping were rife. A mobile library called, which tended to sway like a storm tossed canoe, as you were trying to choose a book It was debatable whether the literature on offer was worth the inevitable sea sickness.
Peace and quiet was the last thing we got. It was soon apparent that the local fly boys liked nothing better than to terrify the life out of us by skimming over our chimney in their fighter jets, making a noise that made your head burst and your windows rattle. Also, there was a coach depot opposite the houses, by the name of Riley’s, which only had a few coaches pottering about when we moved in but then seemed to breed overnight. Suddenly, there was a whole fleet of them – clapped out, rusty wrecks that limped home on a wing and a prayer. They had the contract for the local school run, often breaking down part way. The kids were even asked to get out and push on one occasion.
You really took your life in your hands if you trusted one to get you to Scarborough. Remarkably, a coach trip did manage to go all the way to London. A resident from the village happened to be walking down Regent Street on a sightseeing holiday in the capital, when the sound of a dodgy exhaust made her turn around. Sure enough, there was a Riley’s coach struggling up the road, belching fumes all the way. Periodically, they would light a gigantic bonfire of old, unwanted tyres. The acrid smoke spread throughout the village and the indescribable smell lingered for ages. You couldn’t hang your washing out that day. We were usually woken by the revving of an engine, which was the driver making it warm and cosy, while he went to eat a three-course breakfast; that’s if the cockerel or bird song didn’t wake us first or the merry church bells ringing at eight in the morning.
Sometimes, people would have long conversations at six in the morning directly underneath our bedroom window. It was tempting to throw a bucket of cold water over them. At night, dogs would be constantly barking and I would just be dropping off when the big, hairy man at No. 8 would start calling his cat in for the night, with a high pitched “Twinkle, Twinkle”. There was also the hooting of the owls, the roar of boy racers on motorbikes and the shouts of the returning revellers from the village pub at chucking out time. Just to ice the cake, there was a pig farm in the centre of the village, which was fine unless you were down wind.
As for neighbours, the small community seemed to attract eccentrics in disproportion to the population. Across the road, in the aforementioned coach depot, there was an old man whose name no one could pronounce. Inexplicably, everyone called him Albert. He was from Estonia and he had been a POW in the nearby camp during World War Two. After the war, he dared not return to his homeland for fear of being shot as a traitor, having fought for the Germans. He worked on the coaches as a mechanic and was rewarded with a wooden hut to live in, in the yard alongside where the coaches were parked. This was just a step up from homelessness. The owner of the coach firm had unlawfully rigged something up that tapped his own electricity supply into the mains. It was an all mod cons hut. The coach firm has since, unsurprisingly, gone bust and they built posh houses on the site. I bet Albert is still there, defiant in his hut with his flag of independence raised, surrounded by commuting yuppies.
Beatrice was a pensioner who lived alone but liked to talk to herself and dressed up like a femme fatale from the French Resistance, complete with caked-on stage make up and a beret worn at a jaunty angle. Taking her dog for a walk involved dragging her reluctant little terrier behind her, but she wouldn’t let her cat out because the sunlight might damage its fur. It used to sit on the window ledge and look outside, forlornly. Her favourite hobby was going to people’s funerals, regardless of whether she had known them or not. This was an opportunity to really dress up. Her son was a famous television presenter, whom she persuaded to open the Village Fete one year. This was done in great haste. He couldn’t escape quickly enough, not even stopping to sample the homemade rhubarb and ginger jam.
Then there was Bill and Doreen. Bill, a Brummie, who would engage you for hours, if you let him, in a discourse on the internal combustion engine and the performance of his latest banger and Doreen who made all the neighbours cringe in terror. Her temper was legendary and caused me to hide until the coast was clear. They too had dogs. Doreen’s favourite rant was “Act your age, not your shoe size”. One was never sure if this was directed at Bill or the hapless dogs. Early one morning, after a skinful, Bill fell down the stairs and landed in the fish tank, which sat at the bottom of the staircase, breaking the glass as he did so. There was water and fish everywhere. It was later reported that as he lay bleeding and concussed, Doreen completely ignored him and calmly rescued the fish. This incident passed into village folklore.
They kept a couple of goats, which were once savaged by Jack, a huge St. Bernard who resided at No. 5 with Steve and Julie. He was a lovely old thing, continuously salivating, partial to stealing eggs, downing Mars Bars and swallowing the odd child here and there (Jack, not Steve). Doreen’s father, however, who was staying with her at the time, took great exception to this attack on his daughter’s livestock. It all ended in an unseemly brawl between himself and Steve as they rolled around the garden.
Steve and Julie were ardent vegetarians but seemed to live on a diet of veggie burgers and chips. If Julie couldn’t be bothered scrubbing, which was more often the case, she would throw a saucepan in the bin and simply buy a new one. She was quite friendly to me, trusting me to lend her countless cups of sugar, onions, eggs, etc. However, this did bring its rewards. She did not replace these items but instead, felt so beholden to me as to shower me with gifts. I got a nice pair of eggcups from Habitat, a new colander and a smashing Delia Smith cookbook. Julie would pack her bags once a fortnight and leave Steve. You could set your watch by it. She always returned, to burn more saucepans and borrow more sugar.
Steve was a builder and had a shiny red pickup truck. There was a wood pigeon, which had taken a shine to all our gardens, eating up everyone’s seedlings in the process. Steve kindly volunteered to remedy this. Not by shooting it; they were vegetarians after all but by driving it far away and releasing it. He didn’t drive far enough. It kept coming back. He took it further and further away. Three times. Finally, the fourth trip was successful, just when we thought we’d have to put it on the train to Inverness.
Speaking of pigeons, it soon became apparent to us that life is too short to pluck one. One day, a man with a shotgun appeared at our back door. He was an acquaintance of ours and he’d brought an offering of a brace of pigeon. We were rather taken aback. It turned out he wanted to help us poor city folks with a bit of country goodness. We thanked him very much. Unfortunately, he took this politeness to be a sign that more pigeons would be welcome. It takes hours to pluck a pigeon. It’s the most tedious chore on Earth and you end up with a teaspoon of meat for your effort. A dry and tasteless teaspoon as well. But those pigeons kept coming. Thankfully, our benefactor moved out of the village. Or did my husband load him into Steve’s pickup and send him far away?
Watson’s fulfilled the traditional role of the corner shop. Everything under one roof. Unless you wanted basic food items (not counting the rotting bananas in the window). You couldn’t get garden peas; they only had processed. You couldn’t get tinned peaches either – “There was no demand for them”. But you could get prunes, string and amusing books written in the Yorkshire dialect. They had a one and a half hour lunch break and always shut for two or three days during bank holidays. The youngest son of the family was the village milkman and delivered every other day. He liked his bank holidays off too, which meant that he delivered a double order sometimes. One morning, we were met with eighteen bottles of milk on the doorstep. We worked out that the milk, which was frequently sour, had last seen a cow seven days previously. It was being transported from Leeds, where people got their milk nice and fresh!
What you couldn’t get at Watson’s, you could possibly buy from the various provisions vans that toured the villages. There was always a long queue at the butcher’s van. George had his scales and his till in the back of the van, where incredibly everything he weighed was “just a bit over”. He was a jolly soul, until his wife ran off with his brother, resulting in bitter diatribes against her and all women in general, which his customers had to listen to, while they waited for their sausages.
There was a general feeling of insulation there. Some elderly people had literally never been further than a six-mile radius, perhaps just visiting the nearby market town occasionally. There was a ‘them and us’ attitude towards newcomers. Remarkably, this tiny place had French and Dutch residents and a gay couple that were all much more accepted than people from West Yorkshire. Wessies, as we were affectionately called, were the most unwelcome. My husband was once accused in the pub of coming to take “our jobs and our women”. You weren’t considered a proper villager until you had three generations in the graveyard, but in fact, the incomers actually contributed to the life of the village more than most.
Beautiful, peaceful countryside, full of people living in harmony, enjoying nature’s bounty? Forget it. It was too much stress for us; we went back to Leeds for some peace and quiet. And fresh milk.