Country Living (UK)

TALES FROM THE BLACKSMITH’S COTTAGE

Octavia Lillywhite discovers that her father has unexpected plans for his next home

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All in all, I’m pretty sure that what they’re looking for doesn’t exist

In the manner of most elderly neighbours, Stamford comes over embarrassi­ngly early; he’s dropping off the first of the rhubarb. This is thrilling, not just because I love rhubarb but because we don’t have any other option available for Saturday’s pudding.

So I’m grateful, even though the household is still in pyjamas. Stamford is now 90, which gives him nearly 20 years on either of my parents. Despite their relative youth, however, neither has ever taken to rhubarb-growing, or any other kind of growing, for that matter. Granny was our chief gardener. Her speciality was roses – she loved pinks and blues but hated anything yellow. So forsythia, St John’s wort and Scotch broom, all of which she was far too frugal to get rid of, were relegated to one corner next to the orchard scathingly named ‘The Yellow Bed’.

But what was a labour of love for her was just labour for the rest of us. “What I’d like,” says my father, musing on where to move next, “is a really small garden. And no lawn.” So it’s a bit of a surprise when the first property we view comes with five acres, a river and two independen­t cottages, plus a vague plan that we could all move in together in order to afford such extravagan­ce. The perimeter fence is nearly half a mile long. “I keep meaning to get our fence redone,” I tell Mama as we’re beating the bounds with my husband, the Lawyer, on a reconnoitr­e, “but fencing is so expensive, isn’t it?” She agrees. “How long is your fence at home?” I ask. “Seven foot.” The house turns out not to be the one.

The second place is a dream, with a dappled brook at the bottom of the garden and ducks on the lawn. But it has no parking – not even streetside – which is a great lesson to city folk who assume that, once they flee the double yellows of suburbia, they’ll never have to worry about finding a space again: parking in rural villages is often a nightmare. Not just that: the house has a single entrance – a modest doorway at the front. This means that everything – bins, lawnmowers, felled trees – has to come through the house and through that door. Too tight.

Still, the picture is getting clearer, in a kind of Three Bears way. We (they) are after a large/small, spacious/compact, three/ four-bedroom place with nice/no garden and parking space. Characterf­ul but not exhausting. Central but secluded. Forty years in a 400-year-old thatch puts a new-build out of the question; it also puts a thatch out of the question. All in all, I’m pretty sure that what they’re looking for doesn’t exist. I’m making the crumble topping for the rhubarb when my father comes in from walking Eric the Manchester terrier with a triumphant look. He will buy Stamford’s barn, knock it down and build the house of their dreams on the plot. He’s grasping some blueprints in his fist, which he lays out over the dining-room table and begins to pore over with a pencil, calling me from the crumble continuall­y to review his plans.

It sounds like the worst of all possible worlds: months (if not years) of planning and building to end up in a plot that will still need mowing and, crucially, is still in the same isolated hamlet three miles from the shop – thus not giving my ailing mother the independen­ce that motivated the move in the first place. He’s jubilant, Mama is confused, I’m sceptical; the Lawyer, wisely, has his head in last Saturday’s Times.

The scheme doesn’t last much longer than the crumble: Stamford’s family decide the barn is not for sale and that is the end of it. I’m slightly disappoint­ed only when I realise that his rhubarb patch would have been included.

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