An otterly unusual sight
IHEARD barking outside, then Kate came in with the dogs. ‘Guess who we met in the garden.’ It’s too early for the postman. A rat? ‘No, much better.’ This is a country pastime: who I met on the lane/what did this cost/famous actor spotted in town. You can play it fast or slow.
‘Farm animal?’ ‘Wild one.’ ‘Weasel?’ No. ‘Muntjac? Stag?’ All wrong. ‘Bigger than a cat. Guess. Smaller than a dog.’
‘This week, the fields around Dorchester were barred in silver, mackerel like the sky’
I settled for hare. After all, hares are reasonably common on the hill, not often spotted down here in the valley. There are deer beyond the walls, in the copse in the bottom; rarely do I follow a hare running die-straight along the lane, always bigger than I expected. I once gutted a hare and blew into the lungs to show biology to the children, giving myself a fright when they puffed up to twice the size of my own head.
Hare was wrong, too. You’ll appreciate what a good game this is. The best animal version we played was with a skull we mounted on the bonnet of the van one summer, driving back down to Dorset from the Outer Hebrides. We still try it on visitors, a thin trickle of Hebridean sand sifting from the enormous eye sockets. Huge head, thick bone, teeth, British mammal. People turn it over in their hands, but nobody ever guesses that it’s a seal.
Kate’s mystery visitor wasn’t a hare, a deer or a badger or a big cat (we get those, too). She saw it turn its head and undulate away across the grass, into the farmyard. The dogs came in. Kate came in, eyes shining. Otter, of course.
The sighting is more remarkable when you consider that the house and its gardens stand at the head of the valley, half a mile above the springs that feed the lake and then, cascading down a picturesque waterfall, turn our River Bride into the largest short river in England. It’s less than 10 miles to the sea, but wet enough for making water meadows, which arrived around the time of the Civil War and lasted until the agricultural depression and cheap fertiliser finished them off in the late 19th century.
The course of the river is full of old sluices, ditches and elaborate stonework around the hump-backed bridges. Some of the sluice-gate channels are hefty, others lost in hedge and bramble. On the meadows, mysterious shallow arches show where carts were once brought onto the grass.
‘Drowning’ or ‘floating’ the meadows created a farming revolution. The water was made to creep across the fields in late winter to keep the frost off the land, which is why such pains were taken to keep the water moving. You brought it in at a walk and off at a gallop was the axiom.
It turned a virtuous circle: the grass started growing six weeks early, so farmers could feed their sheep on the meadows instead of on expensive fodder. Cheaper feed meant more sheep, which were folded on the hillsides at night—they mainly dung at night—which manured the arable crops. Less winter fodder had to be grown and laid by, so more corn—or, down here, flax—went to market. As the flocks ballooned, selective breeding could begin.
The abandoned channels sometimes fill after heavy rain: this week, the fields around Dorchester were barred in silver, mackerel like the sky. It’s an oddly moving sight: a faded vision of the past, the lost skills and patient toil.
I’m thinking about meadows for a novel, in which a man arrives to create them in this valley after the Civil War, digging up more than ditches in the process. I have a gloomy working title, The Drowner, but The Floater sounds a lot worse so I’m going with it for the moment.
I’ve also been reading for the Stanfords Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award, wearing out several armchairs as I travel from the Pyrenees to Ohio and back, via Paddington station and bush tucker in Adelaide. We’ve got down to the shortlist without blood being spilled, but I sense the judges sharpening their pencils for the final scrap: veterans such as Paul Theroux and Elisabeth Luard face competition from newcomers including Julian Sarayer. The announcement is on February 2.
The book I’m looking for now in the heaps and piles around the house is Otter Country, by Miriam Darlington, which I first read on holiday on South Uist, on the very beach where we found the seal skull. I chanced to glance up and there, lop-lolloping down onto the hard sand through the marram grass, was a creature I had never in my life seen so clearly. Do guess.
Jason Goodwin is the author of the ‘Yashim’ detective series, which now has its own cookbook, Yashim Cooks Istanbul (Argonaut). He lives in Dorset