supermarkets and relativity

Oddly, nobody seems ever to have remarked that  Albert Einstein  would have arrived much sooner at his theory of Special Relativity had he spent more time with children. The elasticity of time, space and matter can be observed on a daily basis in all children’s lives. Sound, for example, travels much more quickly when it carries a message such as ‘Fish and chips!’ than the sonically equivalent,  ‘Piano practice!’ as can be readily proved by the time it takes the child to respond.

Similarly, distance is a completely elastic concept to the young. Half a mile with a Leisure Pool at the other end is no distance at all, but the half mile between any two points on Hampstead Heath can appear almost infinite to my son Magnus.

I was thinking about all this during a half term break outside Torquay in a rented cottage in a quaint seaside hamlet. On arrival, the first stop was the Tourist Office, where the second question – after ‘Where are all the places within twenty miles where a parent can be fleeced of her last penny by her children’s sentimental affection for furry creatures?’ – was ‘Is there any alternative to ruining the idyllic rural illusion with a trip to a supermarket?’

 Supermarkets in the countryside make our metropolitan ones look like corner shops: unconstrained by land prices or population density, they sprawl over hundreds of acres, so that even to buy a pound of cheese requires at least an hour, and probably a compass and a GPS phone as well.

Hence my enquiry as to the possible existence of a farm shop or equivalent, nearby. What I had failed to triangulate was that Torquay is less than ten miles from Totnes one of the organic foodie pulsars of the South West. Barely pausing between calls about Reptile Week at the Zoo, ‘You’ll want Occombe Farm’ the woman replied, handing me a leaflet from the large pile right under my nose.

Following her practised directions, we were there in fifteen minutes. An experience less like Sainsbury’s would be hard to visualise. Occombe Farm is not merely a shop attached to a working organic farm, but a farm unsullied by any chemical since the first red mud was turned. And to describe what we stumbled into as a ‘Farm Shop’ is like describing Sharon Osbourne as ‘firm’.

Nestled on blonde wood shelves, or piled in endearing knobbled baskets, were chocolate shampoo and home made gala pie, lumps of butter and piles of clotted cream, rock cakes and cheese bread from the farm’s own bakery, and steak and bacon from their own animals. Even the computer was on first name terms with the suppliers; my till receipt said ‘Broccoli; Sam and Fred, £2.40’, as though to soften the blow of paying over two pounds for a vegetable by reminding me that it had been tended by real humans, who thoroughly deserve a rest from their labours in the Maldives, every now and then.

(Before they slap a lawsuit on me, I should point out that Occombe Farm is a laudable enterprise of the Torbay Coast and Countryside Trust and all its profits go to beautify and preserve the local landscape).

This was foodie heaven indeed. (Isn’t it odd that gluttony is perfectly acceptable in foodies, especially organic foodies, but reprehensible as well as dangerous in anybody who indulges it with a trip to McDonalds?). Stocking up for our week under thatch took about a quarter of the time it takes at Sainsbury’s, and left us with far fewer bags to carry as well, because £65 spent at a supermarket produces a much larger and more cumbersome load than the dainty pile it furnished at Occombe.

So, as we’ve saved ourselves half an hour and we exit the shop into a bucolic vista of woods and hills, I turn and suggest to my spawn that we spend the extra time doing the nature trail. What could be more appropriate to the modern successors of  Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon than tripping through meadows to greet and possibly even thank the humble animals whose brothers and sisters are about to furnish a series of nourishing, if wildly expensive, picnics and suppers?

Plus, it’s free, which at that moment seems like a major bonus.
They turn to me, the spendthrift’s elation visibly draining from their faces.
‘How far is it?’
‘How long will it take?’

At home in London, these children will happily heelie for several miles around Sainsburys’ labyrinthine snickets and runnels, a journey recently rendered even longer by a cunning redesign that forces the hapless regular customer to trail up and down every single aisle in search of what they already know they want, thus obviating any possibility of missing any of the thirty-nine brands of spreadable butter, or losing out on a two-for-one offer on fairy cakes.

But the children love it. Who cares if we’re already at Aisle 17 when we discover that the vital missing ingredient of tomorrow’s packed lunch is jeering at us back on Aisle 2? ‘I’ll get it!’ they chorus, elbowing each other aside in their rush to add another three hundred metres to their morning’s exercise. While I wait, hearing only the tick of the Grim Reaper’s watch.

Here, on the other hand, I’m bursting with joie de vivre as we stow our string bags with the friendly staff and push open the doors onto the farmyard. Everything has been carefully planned to delight and divert: there are information panels and stamps for their trail quizzes, ponds and hides and happy animals.

But the information is boring, the stiles too high, the cows scary and the Oxford Sandy and Black pigs make them sad, because of the sausages waiting for us back at the shop. The ducks, possibly because they’re the only edible creature not yet in our basket, hold their attention for about two minutes as they sleep, chests rising and falling gently, beaks buried in their downy white backs.

At the next stile, they mutiny. ‘I can’t climb over it. It’s too high!’
‘My legs are hurting? Why can’t we go back?’
‘Because’, I respond, trying to salvage some of my own good spirits, ‘it’s just as far to go back. Look, that’s what it says on that sign right there.’
‘How far is it?’
‘Well, that all depends. In distance terms, it’s about as far as the walk to school  that you don’t even notice every morning and every afternoon. But if you stay sitting on that stile’ I add, perhaps with a little too much relish, ‘you’ll still be there when you die.’

If it’s possible to become even more immobile, they manage it. Why do I always forget that the only thing children hate worse than open-ended walking is being teased?

The sun is still high. The scenery is still glorious. I’m still thrilled not have been inside a supermarket and to know that, even if I have spent three times my normal budget, the profits are going to keep things this way.

But they’re still sitting, mutinously, on the fence. My personal rapture, that familiar cocktail of greenie smugness and misplaced optimism that there may, after all, be a future for humanity, is in danger. I summon my inner Einstein.
‘But, now that I think about it, we may have spent enough in the shop to quality for a free cream tea in the café. D’you think we can get there before it shuts?’

And d’you know what? An interminable trek became a few minutes’ scamper. Just like that.