The countryside in winter – that’s where the action is
09 October 2007
The weekenders are gone now, their interest in the countryside disappearing at almost the precise moment when those other fair weather-friends, the swallows, have deserted us. The dew is heavy on the grass, the nights are closing in. A few late visitors may have lagged behind, bewildered and barbecue-less, and will catch a brief glimpse of what the countryside is like when its doors are not flung open, when it is not showing off for outsiders.
“What on earth do they do all winter?” The question, often thought but rarely articulated, hangs in the air as, with obvious and touching relief, the town-dwellers get into their cars to leave. “And how on earth do they manage to stay sane?”
It is true that winter in the country is not to everyone’s taste. In those regular articles by bright young things who have relocated their family from Islington to Northamptonshire, only to return, blubbing and traumatised by rural life 18 months later, it is the dark months that finds them out. But in fact, there are plenty of activities to pass the long hours of a country winter.
October is rat-hunting month. The sugar-beet has been gathered from the fields and now millions of brown rats, which breed merrily throughout the year and are often the size of small dogs, move off the land to be closer to their ally and enemy, mankind. There is nothing too alarming about this annual invasion: only occasionally will a rat be found lolloping lazily around the kitchen, clattering saucepans as it goes.
Faint-hearts call in the council during the rat wars. A grizzled operative will arrive and tenderly lay down brightly-coloured poison. Those who prefer to do the death-dealing themselves soon develop an admiration for the way rats recognise baits and traps. The truly butch, meanwhile, will hunt rats with a dog – virtually the only type of hunting which, in an openly rattist society, is not only legal but encouraged.
November is ram-raiding month. With the dark afternoons, gangs of men, human equivalents of brown rats, only rather less bright, try to earn Christmas money by driving their cars into the front of village shops. They rarely manage to steal anything apart from some cigarettes and a few Mars bars. Ram-raiders are now such a regular part of rural Britain that future historians will write about them with affectionate forbearance, rather as people now write about 19th-century poachers.
December will bring a row in the local press over Christmas lights. Some shops will have been selling naff yuletide items since July but, as the big day approaches, there will be disagreements about the lights hanging in the centre of town, which will either be embarrassingly drab or irresponsibly wasteful of energy.
All year, Britain’s favourite gardener, Monty Don, will have been talking excitedly about the joys of composting. Most of January is spent putting those important lessons into action. Country folk get as much pleasure from a well-made compost heap as townies do from a ground-breaking new production of a Patrick Marber play at the Donmar Warehouse.
In February, thoughts turn to wife-swapping. Unlike town-dwellers, we country folk prefer not to get too clammy and over-excited about what is a straightforward activity, designed essentially to help us stay warm and keep boredom at bay. Traditionally, a country party in February will end with people pretending to be drunker than they are, staying overnight and forgetting where their bedroom is. The next morning, couples sit together at breakfast as if nothing of moment has happened – which quite often it hasn’t. We are far too sophisticated and well-behaved to mention any bedroom confusion that may have occurred the previous night.
Then, in March, we are back on the telephone, setting up weekends in the early summer when town-dwellers can discover how we have survived the winter. Sometimes, when they arrive, they comment on how tired we look after what they had assumed was a quiet few months, spent sitting in front of a fire. They have no idea