Posts Tagged ‘countryside’

Snow day in the Cotswolds: if the power goes off, can you find your matches to light a candle or the fire?


I’ve become a proper countrywoman. Or as good as an incomer can get. A few nights ago I held a newspaper across the front of the fireplace to make the chimney draw stronger. The fire was feeble: I didn’t even have to think what to do.

The boyfriend who taught me the trick is long gone. But I learned all the back lanes between Malmesbury and Moreton in Marsh from him, plus multiple knacks of making rural life comfy.

I was eight years old in 1969 when my father’s work moved us from East Anglian suburbia to the edge of a small Berkshire town. Our gate opened onto a potholed lane with Green Belt woodland opposite.

Nobody told me about vixens.

Night after pitch dark night, searing screams and screeches woke me in paralysed terror. I wasn’t allowed a bedside lamp. I was too frightened to switch on my torch. It was Not Done to wake my parents. 

Presumably I worked out that some wild creature in the woods made the noises, but it was years before I could put a name to it. Meanwhile, my dreams were troubled and Dr Who didn’t help.

Learning to love the night

At age 12 I won the nasty battle for parental permission to cycle alone to the shops and library. Down the lane, around the end of the woods and across the wasteland, under the railway bridge and into the village with its sticky heaven of a sweet shop. Nowadays I’d shun that route as a rapist’s paradise. In the early 1970s it was independence.

By my early teens, on summer camping expeditions I was the Girl Who Loved The Night. I walked at the front of the group across fields under vast starry skies. How did I manage that? As an only child, asking for help was Not Done: I faced fears alone and head on. So I learned to love rural darkness. Here in the Cotswolds I still walk without a torch on star sparkled nights. If I must carry a light, I prefer the warm glow of an old fashioned miner’s safety lamp. Just one of my quirks.

Paris to popcorn

London and Paris featured in my student life. They were only fun if you had money. Marriage brought me to suburban Luton, to recession, redundancy and depression.

Running away with my then husband to a gamekeeper’s cottage beyond Newbury couldn’t save the marriage, despite good will all round. Even so, I was developing rural skills all the way. Keeping in a solid fuel burner. Keeping out damp and rodents. The tiny 19thC cottage efficiently circulated warmth from downstairs. The cats grew glossy and athletic, hunting rabbits and rats nearly their own size.

I probably saved the whole neighbourhood one night when I alerted the farm manager to the grain dryer fire alarm. If I hadn’t, there’d have been popcorn raining down all over West Berkshire!

Power cuts and indoor camping

Since 1993, when I gave up trying to be married, I’ve enjoyed renting accommodation in the countryside. From a room at small dairy farm held together with bailer twine, to neatly trimmed modern feudalism.

I tamed a coal fired Rayburn, with gritted determination on mornings when the dratted contraption would heat neither kettle nor eggs. (There were electric options but I’m stubborn!) That Rayburn moistly and tenderly cooked the biggest Christmas turkey I ever offered to guests. Fancy stuffing and all.

Solo neighbours took refuge with me on nights of storm and power cuts. I like thunder and lightning: they didn’t.

The first Saturday after moving into a beautifully redecorated farmworker’s cottage near Cirencester, I woke to the mewing and scratching of my two cats – and looked outside to see a red fire engine with hefty firefighters moving briskly. Chimney fire next door, right behind my bed. Luckily, order was swiftly restored. My neighbours were in fact the kindest people, born and raised in the countryside. They showed me how to stack wood tidily and now I get compliments. 

Candles, lanterns and the wood burning stove turned regular power cuts into camping adventures: you can very nicely heat baked beans, cook sausages and make toast with a woodburner. A small camping pan boils water for tea. It was comforting to potter about in the dark and quiet, with the crackle of logs and the gleam of candlelight on my ornaments and picture frames.

At least by then I knew about vixens’ screaming. And the dogmess stink of fox on morning paths.

Hot water bottles that purred

At my next home, owls duetted on the fence at dusk just metres from where I sat on my garden sofa. Small, rounded shapes uttering friendly “towhoos” in the summer dusk.

But it was an odd village: a hamlet of wealthy recluses, who seemed to regard a 40-something single female with cold suspicion. The husbands were not seduction material, believe me.

The down to earth, unobtrusive friendliness of my farmer neighbours made everything bearable. Cups of spontaneous coffee on sunny morning benches. Fascinating conversations about what farmers really do and think – their bone deep love for the land, for their animals domestic and wild. Hard truths: “If you’ve got livestock, you’ll have dead stock.”

When snow was deep and the temperature fell to -12 degrees C, as in earlier homes I slept in two duvets on my sofa next to the woodburner. With furry hot water bottles that purred.

In 2017 the farm was sold. All cottage tenants had to leave. After 16 cosy years I decided on total change – after all, I’d lived in London and Paris – and sought “café society” in town.

Drunks and druggies kicked off every night until dawn, pissing and vomiting all round the square. Seagulls used my elegant oval skylight as watering hole and toilet. Noise assaulted the flat from restaurant kitchen fans, an air compressor, shop alarms, idling engines and amplified buskers. Town air was like diesel soup. My health imploded. At least the flat was within walking distance of the hospital oncology department.

In the valley of power cuts

December 2019 brought me “home” to the Cotswolds again: a tiny cottage on a hill. Talk about timing.

Throughout Lockdown chemo, shielding and after serious surgery, village neighbours I barely know and old friends have brought me supplies and giggles.

As I recuperate, everything I’ve loved and learned about living in the countryside has sprung back into relevance. From watching buzzards and kites circle over the fields, to double checking the outside tap isn’t dripping. I stock up tinned and dry goods in summer against winter bad weather. I bring firewood indoors to dry on the hearth before use. I’m restored to my countryside quirks, such as wearing the colours of the day that I see out of the window in the morning.

Back in the valley of power cuts, a certain life hack is crucial again: leave the tail of at least one match sticking out of the box so you can find it and light your candle in the dark. And put the box in the same place all the time, so you always know where your matches are.

One day, Chloë of the Midnight Storytellers will buy batteries for all the modern torches she has in the cottage.
Meanwhile her spoken word performances are going online for the rest of UK Lockdown and beyond.
It’s a great way to reach a worldwide audience.
To commission your own bespoke Story Cabaret set for grown-ups, or family storytelling, email chloe@midnightstorytellers.co.uk

photo by Gill Fothergill

“Cotswolds are closed today,” said my landlord the farmer. He’s out playing with his snowplough – a man in his element: big tough machines and huge amounts of stuff to move!  People for miles around are grateful, as we stare out across where arctic whiteout has replaced the fields.

How happy I am to stop in the warm, fire blazing (saving LPG!) and snuffles medicated.  Hundreds of thousands of people all over Britain are struggling to keep up daily life, let alone get into the Christmas countdown…

This was the weekend shopkeepers and many other businesses were counting on to keep their financial heads above recession.  Friday and today were supposed to be the Great Chrismas Getaway.  Instead there is frustration, pressure, struggle… Crowds overheating, queues shivering… With all my heart I hope people find the patience and invention to reach safe places, with friendly faces.  Deliveries will be late, shopping will keep till better weather – we’re humans, that means good at adapting. It’s a survival skill, and we’d better remember it. In every aspect.