A dreamy kid, I had a naive nostalgia for a bygone era viewed through a pair of heavily rose-tinted spectacles. At the age of fifteen, for an English oral test, I ranted for five whole minutes about the deforestation of the Amazon Basin. I cringe thinking about my teenage self being scoffed at in a poetry lesson for declaring that I’d be very happy to ‘go back to the days of the horse & cart’. Then, as if I wasn’t anxious enough about the fate of the planet and it’s doomed inhabitants, I read my mother’s early edition of Alvin Toffler’s ‘Future Shock’, and I wanted to back-peddle even more fervently.
‘Future Shock’ is the term Toffler uses to describe the psychological effect on society of too much change too quickly, and I feel it. In a memorable chapter Toffler puts the relatively short history of the human race into context within that of the whole universe, and as a teenager I was blown away by his observations.
But hey, you can’t halt progress, (I’ve tried) and since I read Toffler’s words, I’ve surfed the passage of time, keeping my head just above water in the rising sea levels of mind-bending technology, and terrifying predictions of the looming apocalypse.
The funny thing is that 30 years on, I find myself washed up on the shores of a land that time forgot. Even trying to post this blog poses a huge hurdle given the lamentably slow broadband speeds available to us country folk, and this week more than ever, I was reminded of my childish longing to step back in time.
On Thursday I cycled through the village to meet my friend Tina who keeps some of her many bee hives in a clover strewn corner of set-aside. I must have looked a fright, pedalling along in my apiarist overalls, boots and veil, but having once endured a particularly histamine-heavy experience with one of my own bees, which resulted in a top lip the size of an over-ripe beef tomato, I wasn’t taking any chances.
As we peered into the secret world beneath the crown board I was calmed by the sense that centuries of beekeepers before me had carried out the same methodical hive inspections in a collaboration between Man & Bee spanning ten thousand years. With the scent of warm honey and smouldering wood shavings in my nostrils, and a feeling of deep satisfaction at having helped identify fresh brood, healthy queens and plentiful stocks of honey, I left Tina to continue her inspections at other hives on a another farm, and pedalled happily home. Recently, due to a wide range of gnarly issues, the future of our honey bee has looked grim, but thanks to the good work of Tina and her expanding network of colleagues in bee keeper’s associations all over the world, things are beginning to look less bleak. They are very welcoming to new members, if you fancy it…?
Our garden is one of several long strips of land bounded by mediaeval hedgerows known as garths, three quarters of which I like to call my own ‘set aside’. That is to say, impenetrable forests of six-foot nettles, curtains of lacy goosegrass with bindweed tie-backs, interspersed with swaying banks of architecturally spectacular thistles and cow parsley, impervious to even the most potent mix of Roundup. In the midst of this wilderness, between the chicken run and the orchard, I’ve carved a neat quad of raised vegetable beds that I grandly call the ‘potager’. On Friday I harvested baskets of green beans, cavolo nero cabbage, broad beans, garlic and mangetout, subsequently disappointing my family cruelly.
Anticipating, with Pavlovian drool, their usual Friday night delicacy of a dripping-drenched fish dinner from the chippie, I served up instead a deliciously creamy heap of wholewheat spaghetti laced with the aforementioned green goodies from the garden, and worthy of a page in a Tuscan cookbook.
They forced it down, while I basked in smug contentment, at having grown my own dinner, like the centuries of Garth-dwellers before me.
The next slice of archaic heaven was delivered in the form of The Driffield Show, said to be the country’s largest one-day country gathering, held every summer for the last 140 years. Despite my bee-keeping and veg-growing I felt a bit of a townie fraud in my Stan Smith trainers, when genuine members of East Yorkshire’s farming community, young and old, turn out in their uniform of tweeds and leather wellies. I so loved the straw-hatted lady commentator in the main arena, complete with Mrs Bucket floral dress, and no-nonsense Barbara Woodhouse voice. There were gentleman judges in smart bowler hats, and livestock handlers in crisp white showing coats. The Fur & Feather marquee was neatly packed with splendid specimens, and we also inspected immaculately shampoo-and-set cows and sheep, marvelled at the worlds largest tractor and ate shed-loads of local ice cream.
A highlight for me were the heavy horses in the main arena, where I used my limited knowledge of equine perfection to correctly predict the winner in the Hunter Mare class; a fine glossy beast with a set of yellow flights in her mane and a matching satin neck band. This was followed by a breathtaking display by the Atkinson’s Action Horses. Kicking off proceedings, the handsome young Ben Atkinson first entered the arena with each foot on the saddle of two galloping horses lead by a team of three more. The commentator noted that, to do this, he needed strong thighs, and ‘buttocks like two badgers fighting in a sack’. The ladies in the audience checked closely, and concurred. There were famous horses, stars of Peaky Blinders and Poldark, and the whole show was brilliant, moving, and left us aghast at the sheer joy and absolute trust displayed by both horse and rider.
A few days later I was invited to Fox Covert Farm (that of the epic Fiftieth-birthday-party-in-a marquee, see previous blog) for a walk. There is an embarrassment of public footpaths through the glorious Wolds landscape here, but this time it was a treat to set off across private land to hidden corners where the farmer’s beautiful wife told me stories of life up on the high Wolds. She pointed out some of her ‘neighbours’; distant farmhouses on the horizon, and regaled me with an account of how just last week, a spark from their ancient combine had ignited a stubble fire. The whole family set to, putting out the flames with a set of old fire flappers found in the barn and they managed to extinguish it just as the fire brigade sauntered down the hill.
At the bottom of a deep valley, marked on the map as The Chalkland Way, she pointed out mysterious holes in the iron railings. These are all that remains of a firing range set up by The Home Guard during WW2. My rose tinted spectacles took me off on a ‘Dad’s Army’ reverie, but Yorkshire Farmers have an unsentimental view of the landscape and it was a great leveller for a romantic like me to hear some of the grittier stories of country life (some of them unrepeatable) from Simone and her husband Phil, who’s father before him was the custodian of this very special place.
My week of bucolic delights and old fashioned country traditions almost tipped me into a complete horse & cart meltdown, concluding as it did with the annual Londesborough Show, an event underlined twice on our kitchen calendar.
Here for the past 72 years, the longest stick of rhubarb, most perfect half dozen hen’s eggs and tidiest set of onions have been keenly contested in a tiny country show that is so old fashioned that you won’t even find reference to it online!
It takes place in the village ‘concert hall’; a classic red brick tribute to rural Victoriana, that was specially built as a laundry when the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, came to stay at the big house. (He presumably hadn’t heard of packing light, or rinsing out his smalls.) What makes this location even more extraordinary are the fairy-tale murals lining the interior, painted in the nineteen-forties by Italian prisoners of war billeted there. After the armistice, they were said to be quite reluctant to leave, who can blame them?
I was up early, ransacking my dewy ‘potager’ in pj’s and wellies, for a matching set of six runner beans. I also gleaned just enough garden flowers from the jungle to make a few arrangements, hoping to secure my name on the Floral Art Cup for another year. Then I rustled up a round of shortbread (as you do) and raided the cupboards for a bottle of sloe gin and a jar of gooseberry & honey conserve (both home-made, natch). At the last minute, casting about for more exhibits to enter, I dug out a little felted cashmere rabbit wearing a Liberty lawn dress that I had made one Easter for Rose: It would do for the ‘Any Piece of Textile Art’ class. In the end I feverishly loaded twelve entries into the car and made a dash for the 11am deadline before the judges moved in. It is possibly one of the most stressful mornings of the year, but completely worth the effort, particularly when at 2pm the public arrive to admire the display, rivals scan the trestle tables for a glimpse of a prized Red Card next to their entries and then check out the competition. Tea, cake and gossip liberally shared out, the prizes were awarded and yes, reader, I won the cup back for another year. In fact I came home, pockets jangling with prize money to the tune of £3.50, making my original investment of 25p per entry yield a whopping 14% profit!
And so, for just a week, I escaped the ravages of a modern age, stepped back from the troubles of the wider world, buried my head deeply in the chalk dust of a small quiet corner of Yorkshire, and it were reet grand.
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