Country life brings with it many rewards but one of them isn’t the common or garden mole. Our small rural patch was under sustained excavation from one (or maybe more) of these pesky pests burrowing beneath our feet to mine for juicy worms. The BBQ was in serious danger of dropping down a sink hole, and whole sections of the lawn began to resemble a toy-town Peak District as the industrious mouldywarp (as moles were called in Shakespeare’s day) built little hillocks from the tunnel spoil.
Mole hills are all too common in these parts. The local graveyard is full of ’em. The dearly departed may not mind, but the alive and kicking certainly do. I’ve had dreams of Mr Mole sunning himself on a little deckchair, cocktail in one hand, worm burger in the other; the party guest who never leaves. It’s the stuff of my nightmares – Wind in the Willows it ain’t. So I counter-attacked with organic repellent and coffee grains in the hope he’d get the message and move on to greener pastures. So far so good. I may have won the battle but the war is not over.
We live in a real life Hitchcock film with Liam doing his best Tippi Hedren impersonation trying to dodge the blitzkrieg of shit from the rooks, crows, pigeons, wrens, blackbirds, robins, doves, starlings, ducks and tits great and small. Wiping down the garden fixtures with a damp J cloth has become a daily ritual.
Pansies HQ overlooks the Wherryman’s Way and so we’re well used to the endless procession of panting dogs with booted walkers in tow. Much more interesting is the sight of partridges and pheasants – though not chickens – crossing the road followed by the occasional muntjac deer.
And then there is the felonious squirrel who raids the nuts from our neighbour’s bird feeder and buries his booty in our lawn. More annoying are the wasps looking for a cosy place to bed down in our loft and the masonry bees setting up home by burrowing into the ancient mortar keeping our equally ancient bricks in place. And don’t ask me about the pesky moles tunnelling beneath our feet.
This isn’t the birds and the bees I learned about as a hormone raging teenager.
I don’t know the first thing about art. Like beauty, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. I do know a lot of old twaddle is said and written on the subject. The stuff we have hanging on our walls is there because of the stories and meanings behind the images – the emotional and sentimental value rather than the worth artistically or financially. And we certainly have nothing to declare for insurance purposes. Here’s a sample…
Life may have slowed to a trickle but that didn’t stop a couple of water pipes choosing the worst time to burst – one in the loft and another beneath the bath. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, one leak might be regarded as a misfortune; two looks like carelessness. With water drip, drip, dripping down our dining room wall, we weren’t sure if plumbing emergencies were exempt from the national lockdown. But a nice man with his big wrench came round to stem the tide anyway. With most shops shut, our young saviour managed to source a length of copper pipe from the wind chime in his father-in-law’s garden, proving that necessity really is the mother of invention. We are forever in his (and his papa-in-law’s) debt.
Our little house is one of a small row of four workers’ cottages standing proud next to the 12th-century parish church of All Saints. Built in 1852, each dwelling once consisted of just four rooms – the original meaning of a ‘two up, two down’ – with water supplied by a well at the end of the row and, in all likelihood, a single outside latrine shared by all and sundry. There must have been quite a queue when cholera struck. The well’s still in full working order but, these days, only used for watering the roses.
One of our neighbours, a sucker for genealogy, obtained the entries for the 1911 national census. It provided a tantalising glimpse into the lives of the residents of our little terrace at that time.
While Liam was lapping up a concert by a local ladies choir at our spitting-distance church, I took a look through the documents. I really hope Mr Jackson the wherryman*, widow-woman Maria, James the omnibus driver, Mr Kerry the jobbing gardener and all their assorted families had happy and fulfilling lives. I guess we’ll never know, but the chances are their day-to-days were hand-to-mouth, horribly insecure and plagued by illness or the fear of it. Life expectancy at the time was about 56 for women and 52 for men, though this average was skewed by high child mortality rates which meant if you did manage to survive to adulthood, you had a better chance of growing grey.
Still, this was a big improvement on the situation when the houses were first chucked up. Back in the 1850s, life expectancy was only 42 for women and just 40 for men. As life was short and often grim, it’s little wonder people took to religion for solace. Thank God for the doorstep chapel.
*a wherry is a shallow-draught barge with a large single sail once used to transport cargo on the rivers and broads hereabouts.