A Month in The Countryside

Peace and quiet? In Rutland? You have to be kidding, says (shouts) Helen Walmsley-Johnson.

Ewes in a fieldWhen I tell people that I live by myself in a tiny cottage on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere, they seem to picture me as a kind of Mrs Tiggywinkle in a comfy armchair by the fire, knitting a new shawl, with Mr Pushkin Cat on my lap and no sound but the slow tick of a clock and the cheerful crackle of a log fire.

The reality is, of course, very different. There is in fact a constant cacophony of noises – animal, mineral and human – from first light until my head hits the pillow, and sometimes beyond if the barn owl (demonstrating nominative determinism by roosting in an actual barn) is out and about.

My Rutland day often begins with the Cat expressing an urgent wish for breakfast. I can ignore him up to the point when he starts walking from my feet to my head, marking my length beneath the duvet with every… precise… pressured… step.

Of course he’s perfectly capable of walking around or jumping over me but that would defeat the object: the application of his not inconsiderable weight to the more pain-sensitive parts of my anatomy is a tried and tested method of getting me out of bed to open a sachet of Sheba.

This early morning manoeuvre is accompanied by thunderous purrs and ends when he’s standing on my chest, cold wet nose a centimetre from mine. If I still refuse to budge he places one paw heavily on my forehead and pointedly leaves it there for as long as he can stand on three legs.

“The first thing I do when I get downstairs is put my trusty Roberts on, for what is the point of a middle-aged breakfast if it doesn’t include a good imaginative swear at John Humphrys and assorted politicians?”

Depending on the time of year there is also the sound of bird life stirring outside my bedroom window – the panic-stricken blackbird, the fluting song of a robin, the boisterous jackdaws in the tree opposite. Towards May-time it’s impossible to sleep after first light. The dawn chorus swells and builds, layer on layer like an intricate Bach concerto.

Obviously I’d far rather be woken this way than by a shit-faced neighbour fumbling his key into the wrong lock at five in the morning, as sometimes happened when I lived in London, but you can forget about rural peace.

Next my ears tune in to good old Radio 4. The first thing I do when I get downstairs is put my trusty Roberts on, for what is the point of a middle-aged breakfast if it doesn’t include a good imaginative swear at John Humphrys and assorted politicians?

At various points during my freelance working day I might speak to the postman, my neighbour across the lane, the small dog next door (often in the garden and very chatty), the red kite, the horses whinnying in the paddock, assorted crowing roosters, and sheep hoping for sheep nuts to be dispensed at the bottom of the garden.

The other voice I hear a lot is my own, although I’m not talking to myself (obviously). I’m thinking aloud, addressing the Cat, reciting poetry, thrashing out a tricky plot point, speaking to whoever is on the radio/TV or thanking Angela…

snowdrops on a lane-side bankAh yes, Angela. Angela is marvellous. She lives in the car and keeps me on the straight and narrow when I’m going anywhere off familiar ground. It was Angela who directed me faultlessly all the way up to Wigtown in Scotland last year and it was Angela who helped me find the city hospital (and car park) at 2am when my brother was cleared up in a head-on collision last December.

She is never bad-tempered, unfailingly polite and always beautifully enunciated. Angela is my satnav. “After 800 yards, take the exit” she announces calmly at precisely the right moment and with complete confidence I do exactly that. However, my faith in her was a little shaken recently. It had been a hectic week, ending with an unscheduled trip to Salford and the BBC studios late on a Friday. After a night in a boiling hot hotel with little sleep, I then had to drive back through the teeth of Storm Imogen on the way home.

As we thundered down the M6 in driving rain and a force-9 gale towards a complicated bit of motorway swapping Angela suddenly went AWOL. “Angela, you flaky tart, come back,” I snapped and Angela, who never responds to rudeness, said nothing at all.

Eventually I switched her off and on again, and after making some complicated readjustments to her own reality Angela purred back into life with “after 800 yards, take the exit” and we were back in business. Nothing drastic had happened but I do wonder if perhaps I’m relying on her too much, emotionally.

As I turned into my drive a couple of hours later, Angela announced: “You have reached your destination.” “Oh good,” I replied, “shall I put the kettle on?” But Angela had already gone to wherever she goes to when she’s not speaking to me and I couldn’t help feeling a little hurt, which I suppose proves the point…

Helen’s book, The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years, is out now.
Read all of her Rutland tales here.


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Written by Helen Walmsley-Johnson

Helen Walmsley-Johnson is a journalist and author who writes as the Invisible Woman. She has a weekly style column for older women which she writes for the Guardian. Her first book, The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years, is out now. @TheVintageYear