Monday, December 30, 2013

Tony Archer and the Disneyfication of the countryside

Another week and another load of trees fallen over? An overnight hooley two days before Christmas produced some of strongest gusts to trump their way through this valley for some years, as a result some substantial trees with their roots in sodden ground cashed in their chips and leaned in to kiss the earth. A couple of ash trees in the wood play sleeping lions with the mother of all beech trees that toppled over in October, a quartet of Christmas trees that once provided a warm roost for many a bird have crashed down and a couple of balsam poplars have fallen flat across the river, an occurrence that would draw rapturous applause in quarters where the dress code is fine fleece and cutting edge walking shoes. Balsam poplars where planted by Bryant and May up and down this valley in the middle of the last century to provide a ready supply of wood for safety matches, and some people don’t like them. They were planted with a view to be harvested at a later date and I have seen some pretty murky stands of over mature trees where the sun never shone and not much grew, but the two rows here didn’t do much harm and the smell when the buds opened in spring is intoxicating. Over on the brief bit of the Itchen that I jump in and out of many Poplars were felled in the space of a few days last year in order that Victor Vole, Ollie the Otter and Dickie the Damsel fly receive their full dose of sunlight when away from the riverbank, actions that also gifted the neighbouring village an improved vista of the neighbouring M3 motorway and all it has to offer, which went down well.


But Hey Ho as long as Victor is happy.

Everyone’s a winner!

Despite protestations by the lady who sleeps on my left, the wind that blew earlier in the week across these environs has not been as voluble or strong for quite some years. Panel fences inevitably lay prone and wheelie bins wobbled over as peak wind speeds in this county were recorded at over ninety miles an hour. We lost power for half a day, not in a tin pot state coup kind of way; rather the lights wouldn’t come on. The neighbouring village was out for twenty two hours eventually hooking up to amps and ohms on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, a pole had bit the dust in the middle of the field behind our house and all the village’s electricity was piling into the earth. Ever helpful, the gamekeeper of the neighbouring estate who own the field was reluctant to provide access to the field in order that the gallant knights of Scottish and Southern Electric resurrect their poles and lines, but emboldened by the spirit of Christmas, said gamekeeper relented and drove the few miles from his home and flung open the gates allowing the power to return to the village,

Oh for a jolly farmer!


The power outage, as power cuts are now known, was relatively brief compared to the one that Mdme and myself experienced during the nineteen eighties. Michael Fish has squeezed many miles out of his performance, pre-hurricane in 1987, but for me The great storm of the last century was the winds of early 1990 which would undoubtedly be etched on our memories had Fish’s zephyr of 1987 not done for most wobbly trees. In 1987 I was living in Winchester as a student and subsequently slept through much of the blow waking in the morning to a call from my mother asking if the block of flats in which I was living was still standing as she had just seen a similar looking building on the BBC news lying on its side. The lights were still working so I got up, got in the car and after negotiating a few blocked roads I wiggled my way out of Winchester and returned to the North West of England as I had several loads of washing that needed attending to. Six months later I paid rent on a flat through weekend work in the middle river and spent many hours with a wizard of a riverkeeper planking up exotic wood that had been toppled in the estate’s ornamental garden. Slicing trunks of two types of walnut and a banana yellow acacia into inch thick planks for seasoning in his garden before assuming the shape of elaborate cabinets and chests during his retirement, he was quite a keeper and a very clever man.

Anyway, 1990 and Mdme and myself are living in a farmhouse split into flats. A first floor bedsit with no heating and windows that would regularly have frost on the inside. Burns night arrived and like all in the south of England we made preparations for a night of celebration. With the Haggis walked we settled down in front of the TV to view satellite pictures that had heralded a storm throughout the preceding week (Fish had this one covered) and then the lights went out. A high sided lorry avoiding the main road that was blocked by a fallen tree had caught the line supplying power to the farm house. We were the only house in the village without power and a low priority; subsequently we were without power for eight and a half days. Baths were taken in a tin tub in front of the fire previously used for grading fish and jacket potatoes cooked in the embers with the occasional trip to the chippy.

The river has risen but is nowhere near flooding, water is lying in the water meadows and low lying fields but no ditches are running and the briefest break from precipitation will free up the top layer of ground to soak up yet more rain should it be on offer. We are currently on a sabbatical from tinning as the lift in water is working wonders on the channel bed and sides, but once the level falls an inch or two it will be back in to shoo off what remains of the gunk that has built up in this river over the past twelve months.

Funny feathers are starting to visit this parish. For the first time we have blackcaps on our birdfeeders and with the thistles and diddy seeds done for in the wood we have today been invaded by goldfinches and siskin. A Boxing day bumble down on the common revealed the Short eared owls in fine form and eager to display their hunting routine late in the afternoon, laying water has concentrated the mice, shrews and rabbits in tight and high areas and the SEO, who are happy to hunt in the daylight, are relatively easy to locate to record their performance on camera.

Over on the Itchen, after four months of funny pills, Otis was reintroduced to the shooting environment with a twenty minute bumble about the meadows, flushing a dozen or more birds significantly raised his pecker and after four figures of purple pills he is almost back to the dog he was. At home flashes of water on the meadows are irresistible for dibbling ducks and few are currently visiting our pond.

A sure sign that we are having a normal winter is the appearance on the news of the County ground at Worcester covered in water. It sits in the valley of the Severn, a river that can rise many feet in a day and should flood most winters. My money’s on some pictures of damp conditions in the Gloucester region and the Ouse busting its banks in the middle of York at some point during the next ten days with “Outraged” of Tewkesbury demanding to know why this was allowed to happen. Some rivers are prone to flash flooding, chalk streams aren’t which is why houses such as the one over the road have stood in the flood plain for hundreds and hundreds of years without any problem, build houses in a floodplain of a river that is prone to breaking its banks and you are asking for trouble. Groundwater flooding is the real threat in chalk valleys and some houses that have cellars can acquire a subterranean swimming pool during periods of high groundwater, although houses continue to be sited in inappropriate areas, In a neighbouring village half a dozen houses have been chucked up in the last decade on a site locally known as “spring bottom” and are a shoe in for groundwater flooding should we have a very wet winter.

Returning to cricket, I caught the end of a bizarre first test match between South Africa and India. In which South Africa had reduced a world record second innings target of 448 to 18 from 20 balls with 4 wickets remaining. Unwilling to push gently for a win they shut up shop and played out for a draw with the final ball of the game being hit for a six. If it had been a team drawn predominantly from the Hindu Kush questions would have been asked.

Of England I despair, each morning Mdme and myself have turned on the radio around 5am. Short of a death in the family overnight there cannot be too many depressing ways to start the day. Ian Bell is the best bat in Britain with weakest mind, Nathan Lyon has just taken his first five wicket haul and passed a hundred test wickets yet he wouldn’t bowl his full quota of overs in our village side. There is one Antipodean bowler who can bowl at over ninety miles an hour and he has wrought havoc, England have four who can hit the ninety mark but none have been able to do so this series. Time to take a look at those diet sheets perhaps, if this performance is a reflection of a surfeit of mung beans, to quote some old french tart:

"Let them eat Cake"

or Steak

Just after Christmas, the front page of the paper that flopped into the box carried a picture of Countryside Alliance Chief, Barney White Spunner. The headline trumpeted an attack on the RSPCA and their expensive and fruitless pursuit of individuals in the courts. I don’t know too many of the details but £350,000 of money donated spent on one failed court case would have me asking if this was money well spent in the name of animal welfare. I must confess that I have met Mr Spunner, who impressed me greatly with his obvious concern for all things countryside, so I read on. Further into the piece he raised the issue of BBC bias and the rift that has opened between town and country over how the countryside is presented and perceived through the medium of all things gogglebox. Countryfile was the example given of a programme made by an urban elite with little idea of what goes on behind the hedges of those places we sometimes drive out to see. Countryfile was once a sensible programme on a Sunday lunchtime that I would take in with a pre prandial can of beer and a handful of pickled onions. It tackled heavy weight rural issues had a reasonably accurate weather report for the week and was watched by many people who worked in the countryside. Today’s programme in the “feel good” slot on a Sunday between Songs of Praise and The Antiques Roadshow has become a vehicle to further perpetuate the disneyfication of the countryside. Jeremy Clarkson on the car show on the other side has a better grasp of rural affairs than the current Countryfile team who seem to see the countryside as a place to visit and have a brief walk round in search of a hedgehog to tickle, or possibly don some lycra and take it all in on two wheels.

The signs the BBC were losing touch with the countryside were there long ago. From an early age I was forced to listen to the Archers, and after sustained immersion in all things Ambridge, I relented and admitted that it was ok. I was acquainted with the Eddy Grundys, Nigel Pargetters and Brian Aldridges of our village life and we were warned about the Nelson Gabriels of this world by our Scout leader,

An intermission:

In all my life I don't think I have ever met anyone called Shula, did it not catch on?

Resumption:

Sorry, another intermission:

Just googled “Shula” turns out there is a chain of steak houses across the pond bearing her name, good to know she turned out ok.

Anyway, I took in the Archers well into my mid twenties until the levy broke one summer when Tony Archer took himself off to wash his Landrover one afternoon in the middle of harvest.

At harvest time dirty Landrovers can wait.

I pushed the button on the radio and never visited Ambridge again.

How on earth Radio 4's Farming Today has survived is anyone's guess, shame it's only ten minutes long? For all those needing a field sports fix on a moving screen give "The Field Sports Channel" on Youtube a go, a regular and informative half hour slot on country sports and the environment in which they take place.

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