A Month in The Countryside

Summer’s here but Helen Walmsley-Johnson’s still grading her storms according to the number of towels wedged under the door.

IMG_1915I think it’s time I pointed out some of the drawbacks to rural living. After all, I wouldn’t want you to run away with the idea that every day dawns with the Cat and I bathed in a righteous glow of bucolic bliss.

For example, should I be seized with the urge to bake something (good displacement activity for a prevaricating writer – being both useful and therapeutic) but discover I lack a vital ingredient, that will mean a seven-mile round trip to the nearest shop.

A similar set of logistics applies should I desire an excursion to one of the many excellent Rutland pubs, in that none lie within staggering distance and all are downhill (meaning home is uphill and I’ll likely give up and spend the night in a hedge-bottom – although to be honest, that’s only really an option in summertime).

Also, driving to a pub is fairly pointless if a stiff drink is what you’re after, as opposed to actual human company. Chez nous, therefore, contains a decently stocked drinks cupboard, including several jars and bottles of homemade sloe gin at various stages of maturity. Sloe gin is excellent for staving off incipient hypothermia after an afternoon’s trudge through the teeth of Storm Whatever.

Additionally, the stuff I make is good for killing ants, reviving small birds and for restoring the postman after he’s battled round the corner of the cottage to deliver my copy of Vogue in horizontal January rain. A mere thimble-full would put Lazarus back on his feet and I guarantee a very pleasant warm sensation will accompany each sip, all the way down to your toes.

Helen's booze cupboardHorizontal rain (sleet or snow) is something you get used to, living on top of a hill but upward rain (sleet or snow) was a surprise. To be prepared for that it’s been necessary to acquire a keen ear for wind direction. Today is a good case in point.

Yesterday evening the wind changed from north to east and today therefore Mr P Cat and I are virtually housebound. We had a troubled night’s sleep because the wall where my bedroom is got a proper – loud – buffeting. A gale from the east rattles everything vigorously, wakes us at unsynchronised intervals and gives us both the jitters. On this, the chimney side of the cottage, the wind howls like a banshee across the stack, dislodging whatever might be sheltering inside (usually bees) and dropping it into the hearth. It makes a very good point for not reading E F Benson’s Night Terrors at bedtime in certain climatic conditions.

Anyway, upward rain happens because if it blows with any strength – and it usually does up here – rain comes at our only door vertically up the back garden and results in a flooded hallway. The elegant solution to this is an old bath towel wedged tightly into the gap. Thus storms here are known as Level One-, Two- or even Three-Towel Events. I hope Tomasz Schafernaker will make a note of this as a reliable meteorological indicator.

Speaking of floods, the immersion heater sprang a leak since we last spoke and has had to be replaced but not before it soaked everything in the airing cupboard and spent a week or so dripping sadly into a bucket like an old incontinent dog.

The Cat was thrilled to find the second bedroom temporarily turned into a laundry, draped in damp vintage silk, summer frocks and old tweed jackets and he promptly made a hairy Cat nest in the most expensive item to hand. He stayed there until the plumber and the carpenter had finished hacking things about, which is doing them a disservice because they were, in fact, very kind and efficient.

“The wind howls like a banshee across the chimney stack, dislodging whatever might be sheltering inside (usually bees) and dropping it into the hearth. It makes a very good point for not reading E F Benson’s Night Terrors at bedtime in certain climatic conditions.”

Old cottages follow no logical method known to woman in terms of how the plumbing works and it can take quite a bit of detective work. When it got to lunchtime, the carpenter popped his head round the door (I’d stubbornly refused to relinquish Radio 4 or the kitchen table) and asked if I fancied a bacon and egg sandwich because he was nipping home to cook one.

The prospect of lunch that I hadn’t had to make myself was so delightful I immediately said yes and he returned about 30 minutes later with a foil-wrapped parcel containing three doorstep sandwiches, one for each of us, made with his own bread, his own bacon (from his own pigs) and his own eggs – messy, greasy and heavenly food of the gods. Now, I ask you, how many people can boast carpenters who make them a delicious lunch AND fit out their airing cupboard with beautiful new shelves?

rainy windowSo anyway, I am no longer able to make a mug of coffee, put my feet up and read a chapter of E F Benson while I’m drawing a bath because now an enthusiastic torrent hot water gallops from the tap instead of crawling out so slowly I lose patience. This will help greatly with thawing me out after next winter’s walks. I suppose that counts as one less drawback to living on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere, possibly even a plus? Oh, all right then, perhaps I exaggerated a bit about the downside.

By the way, I’ve just been told the plumber is also a hypnotist. I must remember not to look into his eyes when he presents the bill…

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