A Month in The Countryside

In Rutland, Pushkin Cat is in love and Helen Walmsley-Johnson’s draped in roses and jasmine.

Mr Pushkin Cat gazes adoringly at Madam.

Mr Pushkin Cat gazes adoringly at Madam.

Never believe anyone who tells you that the countryside is dull – mysteries abound. In the city it might be which neighbour dumped an old sofa into your lovely empty skip. In the country it could be what on earth is digging in the lawn and my plant pots every night. Here in Rutland, recent weeks have thrown up a few such conundrums – or should that be conundra? – to be solved, each providing inspirational grist for this writer’s story mill.

For example, what does new arrival Madam find to do all night in the moonlit fields and where does she go? Will I remember how to shepherd hens and ducklings over the weekend I’ve offered to take care of a neighbour’s smallholding? What IS that inside the bedroom wall? And what, or who, is the Midnight Snuffler?

Madam the Cat – in the long and honourable tradition of lengthy HWJ cat names, the Grand Duchess Soukie Sodoffskaya – has settled in so well that it feels as though she’s always been here.

Mr Pushkin ‘I’m mad, me’ Cat is completely smitten and spends hours gazing soppily at her through the hedge. Part of her appeal is that she is a rufty-tufty ninja of a cat who likes to be outside as much as possible, which has had the beneficial knock-on of recalibrating his exercise regime from none-at-all to quite-a-lot-really.

For my part I’ve enjoyed watching her doing the cat thing of extending her radius of exploration incrementally while making frequent trips back to check we’re still here. Nowadays I’m very likely to spot her patrolling along the garden fence checking the perimeter for mice.

It was Madam who provided the first real clue to the identity of The Midnight Snuffler – named thus because late at night I’ve occasionally opened the door to velvety blackness and the distinct sound of hedge rummaging by perps unknown, but hopefully a hedgehog.

One night there was the most unholy torrent of filthy cat language outside the kitchen window and, worried about foxes, I flung open the door in time to illuminate something vaguely dog-sized go crashing off through the hedge and across the garden.

So unless hedgehogs have evolved differently in Rutland it definitely wasn’t that and nor was it another cat. I don’t think it was a fox. I suppose it might have been a badger but the height of the leap suggests not. I think it was a Muntjac deer. Madam was unsettled enough to stay indoors that night. I might set a muddy trap for footprints to identify the intruder – and apply for membership of the Famous Five.

bedroom window and rosesWhich brings me to the bedroom wall and what’s inside it. There were the Cat and I, tucked up in bed – me, with a book and him with his favourite cushion – when a noise that was big and fierce and buzzy ruptured our peace. The cottage at this time of year is liberally draped in roses and jasmine (as stupidly pretty as it sounds) and barely a day goes by without a furry friend making an unexpected detour through an open window so I wondered if it might be a mislaid bee.

After a bit of investigation it became clear that whatever it was, and there appeared to be several of them, was inside the wall. At this point the Cat, with a look that clearly said, “you’re on your own with this one, mate”, decamped to the spare room and his second best cushion in an act of staggering disloyalty. I didn’t sleep well, or at all.

The next day it quickly became apparent that we had wasps and that in a short space of time they’d built an extensive nest in the wall space. Fascinating things though they are and tolerant as I am of our many and various ‘lodgers’, wasps need to be dealt with, not just because of the unnerving noise but because of the risk of structural damage to the cottage. Wasps love a crumbly ironstone wall and a joist to chew through and what’s more, I could actually hear them doing it when I put my ear to the wall.

The first attempt at extermination was unsuccessful but the second attempt resulted in wasp Armageddon. With the threat of wasps bursting through the wall removed, the traitorous Cat returned to his favourite cushion, which says quite a lot about his priorities.

hen and ducklingsAs far as hen and duckling herding goes, I’m delighted to tell you that I haven’t forgotten how to do it, mainly because you don’t. The fact that I only remembered this after 30 minutes of frustratingly getting half my charges into the hen house only to have them escape while I wandered around making fruitless efforts to corral the rest of them is neither here nor there.

The fact is that hens don’t want to be eaten by foxes either and take themselves off indoors to roost as the light fades. The ducklings just did as they were told by their hen foster-mother. All I had to do was be patient and then fasten the door safely when they’d all gone to bed. In return they gifted me four freckled brown eggs for my breakfast.

So, you see, plenty of drama. It’s simply a matter of scale.

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