country life

Loyal readers may remember that my son and his father share a deep hostility to the countryside. The last time Mr Fixit went to Wales, it took just two hours for him to retreat to bed, declaring he was too ill to eat anything except fruit. When I brought him the only fruit in the village , two very sad Golden Delicious apples and a banana, he turned his face to the wall and stayed that way until it was time to go back to England. The fact that Wales has since become a haven for off-grid tepee dwellers has probably not raised it far in his esteem.

As for Magnus, the last time I proposed scooping him into one of our periodic rural trips, he looked at me with the Alan Rickman sneer he’s been practising for adolescence, and said, ‘When I wake up, I want to see HOUSES!’ He’s also terrified of dogs, which tend, not unreasonably, to see green spaces as their rightful playground and appear in them at random, unconstrained by leash or muzzle.

So his poor sister Dolly, who adores anything furry and even quite likes camping, has had a lifetime of deprivation on this front. And I have been quietly breeding a plan to chop in our modest London home for a rural smallholding ,   just big enough for a toy farmyard’s worth of beasts, but not enough to necessitate any nasty, petrol-guzzling machinery. The staggering costs of this enterprise I would neatly offset by writing a  witty column about my misadventures for the weekend supplement of a national newspaper, following in Betty McDonald’s footsteps, except with glossy pictures of myself in chic wellies, taking up the space I would otherwise be obliged to fill with content.

The conjunction of these circumstances made me wonder why it had not occurred to me before to take Dolly on a farm holiday at lambing time. I would get a few days with no housework, and she would be so entirely won over that our return, action plan in place, would be unbeatable.

Meanwhile Magnus and Mr Fixit would do manly urban bonding things, like watching action movies while the EU still allows them a plasma screen , in between hunting and gathering trips to Westfield for NBA basketball shirts. After several days of this aversion therapy, surely even they would be gagging to join us in Arcadia? 

It all went brilliantly; the farm was gorgeous, the countryside was gorgeous, the lambs were gorgeous, the breakfast (today’s eggs and last year’s pigs followed by a quick trot to a woodland dell to feed yesterday’s breakfast to next year’s pigs) was gorgeous. On our second day, a delegation from Crediton up the road came to walk round the farm, talk about permaculture and cooperative community farms, and chow down on home made Victoria sponge and tea. ‘These are our kind of people, Dolly!’ I exclaimed that night, over a glass of excellent organic Chardonnay in the local gastro-pub which doubled as a boutique cinema cum skittle alley cum al fresco guitar school, and served modern British food to make Marcus Wareing eat his toque. ‘We could live here, couldn’t we?’

With this in mind, I determined next morning to observe more closely the peregrinations of our delightful host and hostess, to see what the job entailed. I began to notice that they seemed very busy. It was really quite hard, from the comfort of the sunny porch, to keep track of where they were , as they drilled carrots, fed baby chicks, rescued orphan lambs or mothers with prolapses, checked heifers’ udders, moved feed, and rounded up hoggets for market, in between going online to keep up with DEFRA directives and the local  mothwatch group.

Still, they were very healthy on it. That sort of gentle but continuous exercise is supposed to be the best, isn’t it? A bit like Tai Qi. That’s why the Okinawans live to be 110 and have great skin. Of course, Mrs Farmer also had the bread to bake and the supplies to get in for the B and B, subsidised by an EU grant as an education centre for local schoolchildren. Except, as she explained, the local school children weren’t too keen on being educated as farmers, possibly because their parents had already told them all about it.

The next day, the weather turned, and it rained continuously for thirty hours. As I sat by the window with my book, keeping warm and dry, I couldn’t help noticing that Mr and Mrs Farmer were still out, doing exactly what they had been doing yesterday, except getting cold and wet. ‘It’s a vocation,’ Mr Farmer explained, shedding more mud than boot on the mat by the kitchen door.

Well, I’ve had plenty of experience of  vocations too, if it means living on almost nothing instead of being paid to do a proper job. Then of course, writing and arty stuff don’t entail working on-site twenty hours a day, every day of the year, most of them outside. But then being tied to the place wouldn’t matter, would it, if you couldn’t afford a holiday anyway?

‘That’s all very well, but why do you really do it?’ I asked him, once he’d got indoors, changed his clothes and dried his face, hands and hair. ‘Well, the Soil Association reckon that by 2013 it won’t be the credit crunch but the Food Crunch that’ll be worrying us, because the cheap oil will have gone, and conventionally farmed food prices will have rocketed. Organic will start to make economic sense. And organic farm land will be at a premium.’

In those two sentences, my entire plan – to live in nature, preserve the value of my tiny assets and ensure the future security of my children – was triumphantly vindicated. But oddly, as we packed up and set off back to Town I discovered the idea had mysteriously lost a lot of its charm.