Two miles from the nearest hamlet, off a B road and up a long, snaking track, lies the farm which was to be our campervan site for three nights. It’s on high ground above the market town of Helmsley on the edge of the N. Yorkshire Moors. Many sites are in such places, on working farms, so it is an opportunity for us to see how life is lived in the real countryside. Lonely is how I would characterise it.
It was spring–time and the lambs had just been born. The whole of England was enjoying fine, sunny weather but, despite that, ours was the only van on the site. The farmer, relieved at seeing humans again since their retreat to the towns last autumn, was talkative in a way that one observes in those who don’t spend much time in company. When we told him where we were from, his response was a twenty minute account of how some relatives of his nearly went there, or at least the airport near there, once but didn’t. I have come to accept that these one-way conversations are often the real price one pays as ground-rent for such lovely, remote places. But we had arranged to rendezvous that evening for dinner in Helmsley with our relatives who had travelled from London so, with apologies for having to curtail the conversation, we left the farmer half way through his account of the birth of each of his lambs and walked the three miles into town.
The next morning I asked the farmer how much we should pay for the site. “Oh, wife deals wi’ books like. You’ll ‘a’ see ‘er, onny she’s tekkin dog out” is what I think he replied. When I caught up with her later she invited me into the kitchen to complete our transaction. Because her accent was less pronounced than her husband’s - or maybe because she had a full set of teeth – I soon got her drift, settled the account and turned to small-talk about the weather. The topic is usually considered to be a good starter for conversation because it’s uncontroversial – unless, that is, you are the contrary type who prefers cold, rainy days to warm, sunny ones. On a farm, however, the topic is far from uncontroversial – as I should have known by now. Too much rain, not enough rain, blah, blah, blah...
And so I got stuck in an endless loop of weather-talk, becoming increasingly anxious for a gracious way out of both the conversation and the cosy (dark and pokey) kitchen. My dilemma became more acute when she confided that the unseasonably warm weather had caused her to break with tradition and switch from flannelette to cotton bedding earlier than was usual. I could see the direction this might take and was keen to extricate myself before the topic of underwear came up, so I pretended to take an interest in the dog – there is always a dog in a farmhouse kitchen. It was a smart move in one way – the underwear minefield was sidestepped – but I then had the problem of trying to follow the minute particulars of this dog’s pedigree. In situations such as this I try to keep a light in my eyes and not allow them to glaze over completely – it’s another life-skill that I have acquired. In the end, however, I resorted to the excuse that I needed to get my boots on and start our planned hike before it got too late.
That evening, as I was preparing to barbeque, the farmer “happened to pass by”. There was something unfamiliar about his appearance which, as he came nearer, was explained by the fact that he was not wearing his flat cap! He was holding it, carefully, as it was full of hens’ eggs he had just collected. “So that’s what those caps are for!” I quipped. Whether his responding smile was of amusement or bemusement I could not tell; but, either way, I was in for a detailed explanation of the egg-laying habits of his hens. I was careful not to ask too many leading questions lest I should become obliged to lay another place for dinner.