A Month In The Countryside

From barking majors to minor earthquakes, Helen Walmsley-Johnson reflects on the latest rumblings in Rutland.

Illustration by Claire Jones

The other day someone asked me what I do for a social life since I moved back to Rutland. Had I, for example, made any new friends? I suppose I have but there are many old friends here too, although it’s hard to invite anyone in for coffee when there’s nothing to sit on – the Cat and I have been rattling around almost entirely without furniture. When a small nest egg arrived just before Christmas I was at long last able to begin feathering our new nest properly. After nigh on two decades spent living in furnished flats I found the range and quantity of stuff I need but don’t have a little daunting. For instance, the last time I owned my own bed was in 1997 and since then my quality of sleep has been dependent on whatever a landlord was prepared to supply. When I am Queen of Everything there will be a special circle of Hell reserved for landlords who provide tenants with broken beds and stained mattresses.

A new bed had become my top priority after I made the late discovery that the older you get the more essential a proper bed becomes. Sleeping on the floor for four months, while no bother for the Cat (in fact I think he preferred it), left me creaky, stiff and bad-tempered. Things improved when my brother donated a magnificently proportioned old sofa and I could stretch out for an afternoon nap, during which I invariably dreamt of pocket sprung mattresses with vast feathery toppers.

You might suppose that after all those years spent living with other people’s stuff I’d rush out and get everything brand spanking new but I’d been thinking about that a lot over those sleep-deprived months and decided that what I really wanted was stuff with the corners rubbed off – comfy stuff that had had a life. Finding used and vintage felt right for the cottage and right for me when what I yearned for was cosy home-ness.

Painting a home onto a more or less blank canvas has been a massive therapeutic pleasure after the trials of the last couple of years. I was surprised to find it’s somehow less stressful when you’re older, especially if you’re on your own. You don’t care what other people think so you end up with things you really love. My bed, when it arrived, was old and French, although I bought a lovely new mattress to go with it. Serendipitously, some weeks later I found an old wardrobe that goes with it perfectly. I had a weekend of assembling Ikea to provide the bare functional bones for my home. I found rewired vintage lamps and old mirrors and rugs. I watched eBay like a hawk for curtains and vintage linen – the Cat is especially fond of a small turkey rug that he likes to wriggle around on. Looking around the cottage now I can see surprisingly little that’s new. Any new friends can come and sit on my old furniture whenever they like – any old ones needn’t wait to be invited.

Speaking of old acquaintances, it’s a little sad when you come back to somewhere to discover that many of the older ones aren’t around anymore. I’m thinking in particular of the Major. We always knew when the Major was approaching because he drove up very slowly in a Golf GTI packed to the gills with nine – NINE! – highly vocal Jack Russell terriers. The barking reached a crescendo as they neared our house and faded into the distance as they drove past. I’d often meet him in open fields behind the woods, where I’d be walking our cocker spaniel – Og the Dog. The conversation usually ran along the lines of:

“GOOD MORNING, HELEN!” (Shouted at lung-busting volume over a deafening chorus of terriers)

“GOOD MORNING, MAJOR!” (Yelled back at equal volume)


(The ‘hee-at’ in question would have been a purple knitted one with earflaps, tassels and pom-poms. It had a luminous orange motif of dancing llamas and came from Peru so yes, I suppose it’s possible he did indeed recognise my hat).

Then off he would go at the centre of a spinning, whirling mass of terriers.

While the Major was positively petite, his wife was a terrifying creature in thorn-proof tweeds with equally thorn-proof hair. Someone told me that, years ago, he’d been named as co-respondent in a scandalous society divorce case. I rather think he’d been paying for it ever since.

Finally, and somewhat surprisingly, the British Geological Survey confirmed that the deafening bang and low subterranean rumble that startled us as we were settling down to shout at Newsnight was indeed a 3.9 magnitude earthquake with an epicentre only three miles away! Thankfully our new/old kitchen table is constructed along the lines of a Tudor battleship and weighs about the same so if it came to it the Cat and I could shelter underneath until we were rescued.

Earthquakes in Rutland – whatever next?

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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