An ot­terly un­usual sight

Country Life Every Week - - My Week - Ja­son Good­win

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

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