Tony Blair’s war on Iraq has been good news for rural estate agents. A new wave of ashen-faced Londoners is on the move, anxious not to be gassed on the Tube or blown out of the air at Heathrow. This lot are more serious than the Nineties crowd, dominated as they were by management consultants and City dealers who wanted a bit of thatched weekend bijou to recover from the hernias they got trying to lift their Christmas bonuses. “Relocation, relocation – for good (as seen on TV)!” is the buzz phrase of the new refugees as the warlord at No 10 struts his global stuff.
Serious migrants will want to know how to behave in the countryside. This can be a steep learning curve. Lording it over the natives in Blasterheath-cum-Slurrytop, when your only experience of village life has been Islington, is a risky business. What you need is a glimpse of the broader picture, like the Northumberland fells, which are very broad, have gales that blow for three months, and where the landscape designation AONB stands for Area of Outstandingly Natural Bloody-mindedness.
I moved there in 2000, to live in a damp braeside house ten miles from what I shall call the market town of Westerside, with wife, two collie dogs and an ancient Land Rover. One local family, expecting the collapse of computer civilisation to cause the fells to be overrun by starving mobs from Newcastle, was moving into a disused lead mine with a month’s supplies and a loaded shotgun.
I left the region three years later not quite sure what had caused the ulcer but with a long list of suspects. Was it my distant neighbour – whom I shall call Obadiah Gobrightly – a teetotal Presbyterian farmer so demented that even the Lord wore protective clothing for his frequent visits to the old man’s head? Was it the legend of Fat Frank the Paedophile, hunted down by men with shotguns in the dark wilderness? Even now, back in the comparative security of West Country village life, I have to remind myself why I chose to make my home in that 1920s time capsule of rural England: lambs, cows, warm community feeling, people make their own entertainment, jolly country inns – that kind of thing.
The farm on the other side of my valley produced world-famous Swaledale sheep. The secret, partly, was the animals’ family status. When the farmer’s wife opened her yard door and shouted “milk” the Swales would run into her kitchen and get their hooves under the table. Some were allowed upstairs for a snooze. Obadiah Gobrightly, a more conventional shepherd, preferred prayer to mollycoddling and vets’ bills. His neighbour, Thomas Contrary, told me that he had heard him reading the Good Book over a sick ram rather than give it the 50p flu jab that works in minutes. When the old man went in for his dinner, Thomas hopped over the wall and gave the animal an injection. Later he heard Obadiah shouting in his paddock: “Lord be praised!”
Northumberland’s semi-wild cattle, a short-fused lot with big horns and curly coats, go around in packs rather than herds. Anyone with a dog is a prime target. Two weeks after we moved to the north-east, a man walking his Labrador on a leash (vide, Countryside Code) was trampled by a cow protecting its calf and had his bits airlifted out by ambulance helicopter. When farmers put “Beware of the bull” signs on public footpaths (rather than the usual blockade of rubble or barbed wire) they mean it.
Family feuding has been a growth industry for generations in wilderness Northumberland. The foot-and-mouth epidemic elevated it to an art form of high-octane recrimination. The disease on Westerside struck first at one of the finest herds in the county but its blameless owner will be known till kingdom come as “Him that brought the foot-and-mouth to Westerside”. This last remark was from Obadiah’s brow-beaten son, Gabriel. It was directed at Thomas Contrary, who had attended the village school with Gabriel’s father.
Gabriel’s great-grandfather, an Afghan warlord by nature, had once ruled hundreds of square miles of tenant farms around Westerside, fencing common land for his private use, leasing dairy cows that would be repossessed if the rent was an hour late. When he died, the teacher at Westerside village school made the children stand and give three cheers.
Westerside’s remote village post office survives, despite its location being kept secret to protect it from hold-up bandits. Though I knew the village well for three years I never had the slightest idea where the post office was hidden. The postmistress, whom we met at a small, boozy impromptu party, told us that wasn’t Westerside’s only secret. “I know families round here where your mammy’s your daddy’s sister,” she said. This seemed to remind her of her younger days when she worked at the sorting office in Hexham and was sexually assaulted almost daily by her supervisor. “Stand up,” she said to my wife, “and I’ll show you what he did.” The demonstration was very thorough, but while my wife and I exchanged startled glances no one else in the group seemed the slightest perturbed.
Westerside’s many pubs offered mountainous plain dinners (“Cooked by a farmer’s wife!”) but this thriving local industry lost much of its charm for me when I read an enigmatic paragraph in the local paper reporting that Mrs Parsons, the landlady of the Red Pheasant, had been charged with conspiring (with a Sunderland gangster) to murder her husband.
It took me weeks to dig out the details. Whenever I questioned a local, a shutter would fall, as happened when you asked about the rumoured wife-swapping among members of the Westerside Amateur Dramatic Society.
Eventually two versions emerged. One was that Mr Parsons, a merchant seaman, had decided to pack it in and settle at home, thus putting an end to his wife’s lucrative arrangement to cater exclusively for the annual Westerside Farmers’ Fair. Police were said to have removed a number of videos showing Mrs Parsons involved in strenuous business discussions with influential shepherds. The other version was that Mrs Parsons had simply reported a rival pub for after-hours drinking and its demented customers had made the whole thing up. A year later the Red Pheasant changed hands and the story, like so much else on Westerside, disappeared quietly into the landscape’s mist-shrouded peatbogs.
Northumberland’s rural dramas tend to have this kind of surreal quality and the hunting of Fat Frank the Paedophile was no exception.
It began, my farmer friend told me, when he was repairing a dry stonewall and peeped over the top to see a pot-bellied naked man stretching in the early-morning sunlight. My friend made a connection (correctly) between Fat Frank and an incident the previous day when he had followed a bloody-muzzled mongrel heading down a gully to where a sheep, trapped in a barbed-wire stock fence, was being eaten alive by a terrier. Local farmers traced the dogs and their owner to an old caravan that they put under siege, digging ditches to isolate it, firing shotguns nearby at night. Fat Frank bolted and as dusk fell my friend parked his car near the caravan to make sure he did not return. “It must have been near midnight,” he told me, “when this other car, with two men and a woman inside, pulled up. One of the men got out. When I didn’t recognise him and told him to bugger off, he waved a police card with Vice Squad written on it and told me to get lost. They got out of their car, made for the caravan and next thing I know, someone’s torched it.”
At no time during the months of slaughter and segregation that accompanied the foot-and-mouth epidemic did I hear a single farmer on Westerside express sympathy for the Northumberland tourist industry, which was wrecked (without compensation) by the plague. The killings in my area were brutal and often incompetently executed, new Labour having its finest hour in a region that holds a fair proportion of cabinet seats. In one village men waving rifles chased panicking cattle through people’s gardens, then dragged the corpses across the village green. Outside my house a steel truck, full of dead sheep staring glassily through my bedroom windows, was stranded for three hours because the disinfecting crew had run out of water.
The slaughter that silenced the Westerside pastures for six months also destroyed the myth of farmers as sturdy, independent yeomen and exposed them as the compliant, upholstered villeins of the Whitehall machine. None of them likes it but none of them bucks it. Theirs is, after all, a generous kind of dole, which paid for many a new farmhouse conservatory when the restocking was done.
Londoners now queuing outside rural estate agents, desperate to swap City gridlock for the good life beyond a cattle grid, could do worse than count their metropolitan blessings. Ken Livingstone is getting the traffic sorted; and all those stories about swarthy men with poison gas and rocket launchers . . . Tony was just having you on. Wasn’t he?