This weekend found us visiting friends in the Leicestershire countryside. I’d been to Leicester only once before, as a schoolboy to play rugby, and found myself ruminating on just what I knew of the area. I knew it was another one of those odd English words which foreigners struggled to pronounce (for any of my overseas readers it’s Ly-cester-shyre). No not really. But it turns out I knew very little else, it being one of those little bits of England that attracts scant attention or publicity, a bit like Wiltshire, Stephen Fry or Scotland.
My cricketing hero David Gower used to play for Leicestershire, and who could forget Leicester City‘s Keith Weller ? (oh, you have). Rugby legend Martin Johnson was, of course, for a long-time at Leicester Tigers, then there’s red leicester cheese, the deaf midget tax-fiddling horse jockey Leicester Piglet, Leicester Square and the Leicester Shuffle (if you throw two playing cards onto the floor you get less ta shuffle). Clearly I was clutching at straws.
So it came to pass that on Saturday morning I was zipping around mile after mile of beautiful rolling hills and lanes, past box hedges, magnificent oaks and dinky thatched stone cottages. Past signposts which could have been lifted from the script of American Werewolf. Signs for Tugby and Queniborough sped by, for Houghton on the Hill and Skeffington, even Ratcliffe on the Wreake (which sounds to me like Harry Potter on a vodka binge). I looked for signs to North Londonshire but could see none.
It was beautiful. The trees cascaded with Autumnal colour, the pale November sun washed over the copse and ploughed fields and everywhere was teeming with wildlife. Not just sheep and cows, horses in fields and chickens in coops, but pheasants and eagles, buzzards soaring and hawks hunting. Even the roadkill was exotic – badgers and deer where, at home, I’d see foxes and hedgehogs clogging-up the roadside gutters. Ah! the countryside is great. I’ve always been a committed townie, always preferring the smell of exhaust fumes, the sound of a police sirens or a bus’s airbreaks to the smell of dung, the twittering of the birdies or the clip clop, clip clop of farmers throwing horse shoes at boisterous cockerels.
But wandering around this area I could see the appeal, and it became clear to me why at some point in many lives, city dwellers up-stumps and seek out and claim for themselves that little bit of an English field that shall be forever foreign. And smelly. Yes this was it, I thought. I let my mind wander, daydreaming of buying a labrador, wax jacket and wellies, and perchance an Austin Healey. Of doing nothing more strenuous than grow a beard or taking myself for a spin from village to village, working up a thirst before I parked myself on a bar stool down at the local pub, supping endless pints of Thruxton’s Old Dirigible through my grey whiskers, brushing off the pickled egg debris from my corduroys.
Our friends, Julia and Stuart, had moved up from town a couple years ago and I could see in their eyes that this was the sort of lifestyle they were shaping up to enjoy, if they weren’t doing so already. They’d thought ahead and brought their labrador, Oscar, up with them from the smoke of the South East. I liked Oscar. An old boy, he didn’t so much bark as cough. When you entered the room he approached you making the sort of flegmy noises that my old pipe-smoking landlord used to make as I walked into his pub (though Oscar wagged his tail slightly more and scratched himself slightly less than old Jack did). I wanted an Oscar when I moved up here.
No sooner had we arrived at their home than we were whisked off by Julia and Stuart to a nearby pub for the proverbial lunchtime pie and a pint. What perfect hosts. It was a charming, warm country affair with a fine selections of ales and spirits and a decent wine list. They even had lemons. Their daughter worked behind the bar and we were served immediately. It was wonderful ! We supped, we nibbled and we supped again. This was lovely. I could have stayed there all day. Happy days. As we’d come in I’d noticed there was a twee little white cottage next door which had a For Sale board outside. I started dreaming again. Hmmm…….
And then a bell rang and woke me up. “Time gentlemen please” bellowed the landlady.
Eh…? what…? Wassappening ???? I looked at my watch. It was 3pm. OF COURSE. Bloody country hours. Strangers to these shores may be unaware that up until ten years-or-so ago, pubs in England would close every day at 3pm (2pm on Sundays) and not re-open until 6pm (7 o’clock on Sundays). Legend has it that this haitus in available alcohol purchasing time was introduced during WWI to encourage the factory workers back to the production lines. As 20-somethings we didn’t give a monkeys about the history, all we knew was that our formative years of beer-swilling were punctuated by daily and very annoying periods during each afternoon when landlords would throw us out of perfectly good drinking holes. Pah.
Thankfully, the lawmakers of this country came to their senses and the laws were changed to allow beer to be served pretty much all day. Reason had prevailed and one could happily go missing in action in a saloon bar for a goodly amount of time. But, of course, we lived in London, where every opportunity to screw a few more pence out of the spending public was seized upon. Everything was open at every hour, every day. Pubs, restaurants and shops seemed never to close (though, perversely, police stations and hospitals and nursery schools started to close or operate restricted hours- go figure). Folk out in the sticks, however, liked things as they’d always been and the half-day closing practices continued.
So now, here in the middle of the English countryside and for the first time in yonks, I was being asked to leave a pub before 11pm for reasons other than foul language. And I tell you something: It felt perfectly fine. A sudden bout of nostalgia overcame me. I was transported back to those long, beerless afternoons of the 1980s, when I and legions of other thirsty herberts traipsed the streets trying to come up with something, anything to do while the pub was shut.
A smile passed my lips, this was a good thing. It was civilised, I could handle this. I was too long in the tooth to still feel the need to spend every waking hour in a hostelry. This is how adults behaved: you had a couple of quiet pints at lunchtime then made your way home to your loved ones. Spiffing. Adulthood, that which I vowed never to have anything to do with – like the Liberal Democrats, Strictly Come Dancing or anal tucks – had barged its way into my life and I felt comfortable letting it in.
We strolled back to the car. “That was great” I offered as convincingly as I might. “Very civilised indeed. Haven’t done that for years”.
“Yeah, it’s like the old days back in London, isn’t it?” agreed Stuart. We all nodded and manoeuvred our sensible middle-aged frames back into the car. I almost felt smug with myself. Stuart started the car then added,
“And on Mondays the pubs don’t open at all !”
“Beg your pardon ?” I felt a cold chill run down my back. “Not open on Mondays. AT ALL???” I was a tad quieter on the drive back to the house.
The rest of the weekend was spent chomping a quaffing our way through Julia and Stuart’s wine cellar and food cupboards. Bloody fine it was too. Great company, smashing grub and a very fine selection of vin rouge kept us very happy indeed. We ventured out again on Sunday afternoon for a short tour of the area, stopping off at another pub for a pit stop. I wasn’t entirely convinced it was going to be open at all, given the shocking revelation of the day before. Thankfully I needn’t have fretted.
Just before we got our things together for our return trip home, a winter wasp (presumably another quirk of the countryside) flew up my trouser leg and stung me, thankfully only on the shin. Little bastard.
So we retraced our route back to the motorway en route to London, through the same lanes as the day before, now covered in jet blackness. Every so often we’d see a pair of unkown creature’s eyes illuminated in the headlights, or the flap of an owls wings as it swooped across the road in front of us.
It was all very different and all very lovely, but I decided that, as it turned out, I no longer wanted to live in the country. I’d gladly trade the smell of horses for the smell of a kebab house (often a strangely similar smell), I certainly could do without November wasps and I’ve never been all that keen on long country walks.
Back home now in Railway Cuttings, the rain is pouring down the window on a miserable, cold, November Monday afternoon. I’m looking out at bluetits on my nuts and squirrels burying theirs, not Owls hooting or badgers badgering. When I get bored of watching my more mundane urban wildlife I may just take myself off up to the village where there are five or six pubs with varying levels of charm. Some offer less-than-mediocre service, nearly all possess truly shocking toilets. In some the pipes won’t have been cleaned and there will be more barflies than customers (though I’ve yet to be bitten on the shin by a barfly). Being a Monday someone will have forgotten to order the lemons or re-stock the ice bucket.
But whatever the state of our local boozers down here in our little part of London they will be open. And that’s the way I like em.