Last time we heard how a year in the country has taught Giles Coren five things:
a) It's fucking expensive
b) Children are easily scared by the countryside
c) Hares are amazing
d) The right outerwear is very important
e) Indoor clothes are important too.
But that wasn't the half of it. In fact, it was. It was exactly half. Here are the other five.
Nature does not give up her mysteries easily
Not long after moving in to our new house in Gloucestershire, I decided to keep a nature diary. I thought it might eventually make an expensive illustrated coffee-table book and be a good way for Mother Nature to pay off some of the monster sum I had disbursed for the privilege of looking at her. It would be all about how a chap from London moves to the country and is captivated by the beauty of the turning seasons, the abundance of flora and fauna, the shimmer and gleam of Mother Nature's palette. It would start off quite general, I reckoned, but as I came to know the names (both Latin and demotic) of plants and animals it would soon become an invaluable resource for people fascinated by the magic of the countryside. After three months it looked like this:
December 1: Planned a long walk to get the lie of the land, the local topography, establish the principle rock, soil and grass types, but Esther said I was out of my mind if I thought I was going to fuck off all day and leave her alone with two children under four. So I stayed in and watched Monster Truck compilations on YouTube with my son.
December 3: Saw a bird. Small, brown, erratic flight pattern. Possibly a wren. More likely a sparrow. Could have been a leaf.
December 4: Drove to the country supplies megastore in the village to buy some binoculars to help me tell birds from leaves. It is a shop the size of Wales that sells things country people need. Literally could not identify a single item. There were some pretty girls on work experience in the horse department so I pretended I needed a bridle and a bit and some whips. Then asked them to demonstrate exactly how they worked. Was escorted from the premises by several tractor boys.
December 7: Sat in my study looking out at the myriad winter visitors to my magnificent new bird table as they feasted on the assorted seeds and nibbling toys. But I've seen rats before.
December 9: Still not allowed to go for a walk, but was able to slip off for a few minutes into the small wood behind the house to do some tree-spotting. The gardener says the trees are mostly oak, ash and, um, one other famous one. Birch? Hazel?. Anyway, I'm fucked if I can tell which is which without the leaves on. Or even with them on, to be honest.
December 13: Saw a badger close up. Britain's largest carnivore. Our island's super-predator. Had never realised how big they were. Truly, a magnificent and noble beast. Even with tyre marks down its face and its guts welded to the tarmac.
January/February: Raining. And also bloody cold. Might try again in the Spring.
Nobody can eat that much chard
When we moved in, it was deep winter and there was not much in the vegetable patch: a handful of frost-bitten leeks and a short row of chard. But it was our own, and it was delicious. I cut the chard leaves with pride, chunky stalks and all, and then looked them up online to see what I could do with them. Not a lot, was the answer. And whatever you do do with them involves a lot of washing, then separating the leaves from the stalks, blanching the stalks for a minute in boiling water, then the leaves for a few seconds, then cooling it all, pressing in a colander to remove excess water so that your end dish is not all soggy, then either frying with garlic to get an end result a bit like spinach, or baking in a gratin dish with cheese and milk to get a result a bit like boiled sick.
It's very easy to grow though, which is why it is known in market gardening circles as "the gardener's friend" as opposed to, say, "the cook's friend" or "the eater's friend."
Still, you can get used to anything, including boiled sick, and pretty soon I had my chard preparation process from earth to table down to just a few short hours. So when the gardener asked what vegetables I wanted planting for the following year, I had a sort of blank — like a contestant on The Weakest Link who can't think of a word for female monarch beginning with 'Q' apart from "Quim Lord" — and said, "mostly chard".
Come the spring and we had three rows of it. Maybe twenty plants to each row, each plant giving you about two gratins, each gratin serving up to four people. And each plant, being a cut-and-come-again variety, giving you three full heads of chard per season. Which is roughly 1,400 large portions of chard gratin a year.
Now, we're only looking like being at the place 60 days a year, tops. Which means that each day we are there we must consume between 23 and 24 large portions of chard gratin. And the kids won't touch the stuff. So that's 12 portions each per day unless we have guests, which we try to do most weekends. But everyone we know has now had the chard gratin at least twice so people are starting to turn down our invitations.
As the year pushes on and every chard plant we eat grows back with redoubled vigour, I lie awake in bed in London, feeling incredibly guilty for not being in Gloucestershire, eating chard, and do furious mental arithmetic.
"If I cancel all my filming and we take the kids out of school for November," I suddenly say to Esther at three in the morning. "We could go and live down there and maybe your folks could join us and we could make a real dent in that chard."
And she'll say, "Shut up, go back to sleep, we can compost the chard."
But the thought of such waste just breaks my heart and I lie awake some more until suddenly I sit up in bed and cry, "to hell with chard gratin!"
And Esther breathes a premature sigh of relief as I shout, "We can make chard soup! With a little nutmeg it will be delicious! And we can have stuffed chard, and curried chard, and raw chard salad, and chard tart and…"
Children could not give less of a shit about the countryside
I had been very much looking forward to singing songs and playing games with my kids on the journeys to and from The Barn but all they ever want to do is watch Fireman Sam on their iPads. So I tell them they have to wait until they're on the motorway for their iPads, now, I spy with my little…
"Is this the motorway?"
"No, this is town. That's why there are houses. Now, I spy with my little…""Is this the motorway?"
"No. This is a fucking traffic jam on the North Circular, it'll clear in a few hours. Now, I spy with my little…"
"Is this the motorway?"
"OK! OK! You can watch Fireman Fucking Sam then! But if anyone asks me again if this is the motorway I am going to throw those fucking iPads out of the fucking window!"
And then finally you arrive at your beautiful new, totally child-oriented house in six acres of its own land with sheep and stables and a climbing frame and a slide and a trampoline and a sandpit and a huge barn room with indoor swings and a train set and bicycles, and the kids run into the house, straight into the sitting room, leap onto the sofa in front of the telly and shout:
"Fireman Sam! Fireman Sam! Fireman Sam!"
Horses are a bit shit at grazing
Now, I've got a ride-on lawnmower. It cost me five grand. But it turns out that this is only for mowing the actual garden. For the horse paddocks, the gardener says, we'll definitely need a tractor, which is twenty grand I simply don't have (see previously: "The country is fucking expensive"). So I put my mind to the problem and soon realised that, surely, the best thing for keeping the grass down in horse paddocks, is horses.
Except I don't want to own horses. They're expensive and there's going to be nobody here to look after them most of the time, and nobody in my family can ride them or wants to ride them. But I thought they'd be picturesque to look at and useful for keeping the grass down so I asked some people down the lane if they'd like to put their three horses on our fields, and they said they would. And I thought what a nice turn I was doing them and how nicely everything looked like turning out. Then we went back to London and didn't come back for a month or so because the weather was poor and I had a lot of stuff on in town.
When we came back in March, it looked like somebody had held a re-enactment of the Battle of the Marne in our fields. The lovely green paddocks were all churned to mud, there were piles of horse shit three feet high all over the place, loads of thistles and patches of long grass, loads of fence rails down and the ones that weren't down all chewed to shit.
I asked the gardener what on earth had happened.
"It's just the horses," he said. "That's what horses do. They chew the fences and shit a lot. Did nobody tell you? And they're not very good at grazing. Sheep are better for that. And they're much better in a stew."
So I got some sheep. And he was right. Everything looks much nicer now. And if any of them makes too much noise or looks like being a troublemaker, I just eat the fucker.
Gypsies are an actual thing
Okay, so gypsies are actually a big thing in the country. And not in a good way. Not in the London way of how they have to be protected and the Roma language is a precious treasure and they are the forgotten victims of the Nazi holocaust and so on. But as in, "Watch out for the gypsies, they'll have anything that isn't nailed down."
I laughed the first time I heard it. I had seen a gypsy camp outside the local village with actual painted caravans and big horses tethered up and grazing, and men with red bandannas knotted on their heads and half-naked kids playing hide and seek in the road. Very picturesque. Very Thomas Hardy. Part of the rural colour I am shelling out the big bucks for. I mentioned it to it a man in the pub.
"That'll be Stow fair," he said. "They come from all around when it's on. They used to come to steal horses."
"Ha ha, yes, I imagine they did," I said. "But that was a long time ago."
"Right you are," said the man. "Now they come to steal cars."
"Ha ha ha," I said.
And tractors," he went on. "And then mowers, drills, general farm machinery, horse-trailers. Anything that isn't nailed down."
"Ha ha ha ha," I said, finishing my pint and sidling away. In the back bar I ordered a pint off a young barman in a Bob Marley t-shirt.
"So these gypsies that come for the fair," I said to him. "They don't really steal farm machinery, do they?"
"Not any more," he said.
"I thought not," I laughed, extremely relieved.
"The farmers have wised up. They don't give them the chance. Machinery all gets locked up when the fairs are on. Everything into the barns then padlocks, dogs, and they'll sit out with guns and a thermos. It's you people who get robbed."
"Us?" I said.
"Weekenders. You don't take the gypsies seriously. You think we're a load of old racists. You leave your car out just like always. They'll have that. They'll have Google Earthed your whole place to check for access points, weaknesses, unattended large items: wheelbarrows, spades and forks, planters, trailers, pets… if it's midweek and they think you're in town they'll have the gravel off your drive."
Walking home from the pub, I saw the gypsies again. Sitting round the campfire, singing. I don't know much about gypsies, but these are not just random crusty travellers we're talking about. These are like something out of Asterix in Spain, yodelling into the night and being really nice to their animals.
Still, I close the rickety old wooden gate onto our drive, and double lock the Jag. The ride-on mower is safely barricaded into the stable. I wonder if they steal sheep?
Next morning, I was making a cup of tea when my favourite neighbour knocked on the kitchen door [the countryside is like Neighbours, except with old men in flat caps instead of young Australian girls in swimsuits].
"Tea?" I ask.
"Thank you but I can't stop," said the old boy. "I just came by to warn you about the gypsies."
My heart sank.
"Don't worry," I said. "They told me in the pub. The mower's locked up. The car is in the garage."
"Oh I'm not worried about your car," he said. "It's the hare coursing that I hate. They'll loiter around the perimeter of your land to see who's coming and going — they might even come offering to do work for you, lay a drive, move some bricks, but it's just a smokescreen — and if they think you're not around, they'll get the dogs out and start flushing the hares. It's illegal and quite horribly barbaric."
"Okay," I said wearily. "If I see any gypsies with dogs I'll tell them to go away."
"No!" he cried. "For heaven's sake don't approach them. You haven't got proper guns, have you? They're very dangerous people. No, just call me and I'll have it dealt with. But don't talk to them. Don't even look at them. The fair's over tomorrow and they'll move on."
And so I sat indoors for the next two days, with my family close by, staring out at the rain, pathetic air rifle to hand, still pretty certain that this was all just rural paranoia and refusing to let such explicit racial profiling cloud my judgement of my fellow men. And also feeling terribly guilty about one of the little bogeyman tricks we've been playing on Kitty since we arrived here. One which we have done so often that now, whenever she punches her little brother, or throws water bombs indoors or makes chocolatey handprints on the wall, she immediately says, "Sorry, sorry, sorry, please don't sell me to the gypsies!"
And now after all those months when I thought we were joking, I find myself expecting a guy with an eye patch and a pair of lurchers to knock on the door and make me an offer.