May brings sunshine and blossom to Derbyshire

MAY BRINGS SUNSHINE AND BLOSSOM TO DERBYSHIRE. AND CYCLISTS. You can’t move at the moment for straining buttocks, heaving thighs and bulging calves bent on gaining a summit without getting off and milking it.

Middle-aged men in Lycra love our hilly landscape. One MAMIL I know has some spectacular bicycling outfits including a Union Jack in clinging Lycra. He sported it when the Queen last came to Derbyshire and what she made of it is anyone’s guess. My brother is also cycling-mad and in six years has gone from being plump with a reasonable head of hair to skinny and completely bald. Perhaps it’s the helmets.

I had little thought of joining these nyloned knights of the road until the last school holidays. They were so long that one day, in desperation, I found myself marching the children down to the local bike shop and blowing a fortune on a couple of the latest models complete with some of the trimmings (one can never get them all, they are infinite).

Regal Rhododendron

In the back of my mind were memories of my own childhood in West Yorkshire. My brother and I spent vacations cycling round Sowerby Bridge and Luddendenfoot to visit our grandmother. Besides teaching us self-reliance and familiarising us with amazing place names, our exertions had the much more important advantage, from the parental point of view, of making us exhausted and keen to go to bed early.

Needless to say, my mother and father never cycled with us. But that was not an option for me. The end of our drive emerges on to a steep bend and the children have limited road sense. I brushed the cobwebs from my mountain bike, pumped up my tyres and struggled after them up Thigh-Buster Hill, bitterly regretting the whole enterprise.

But then we found ourselves on the moortop in the sunshine, along with ospreys, larks and an enormous buzzard. Then came the long, glorious descent into Beeley, followed by the run along the flat and through deer-studded Chatsworth park. While I’m ruling out Union Jack Lycra, I might get into this cycling thing after all.

Statues

My husband grew up in a tiny West Country village and as we were passing near recently we decided to drop in. The string of houses along a lane was, in Jon’s day, a pretty, if unexceptional place. No-one – apart from the exciting Seventies author who lived in the manor and drove Morgans – was rich. Otherwise there was little financial or social difference between the village’s private dwellings and those in the ‘council houses’.

The heart of the village was and is the thatched pub into which we had booked ourselves for the night. Jon and his brothers, when small boys, used to nip down here and buy sweets through a hatch.

Here, too, it was that my father-in-law, a Scot with an eye for a bargain, bought some Jersey cow’s livers from a local farmer as food for the family Labrador. A sack of slimy offal duly arrived, which Jon was forced to spend several hot summer days cooking in a borrowed boiler. The pigment turned the dog bright orange and my husband has hated liver ever since.

Saplings

Following this high point in its existence the pub closed and for some years went to rack and ruin. It was recently rescued by a collective of locals who have restored it to some distance beyond its former glory. What used to be spit and sawdust is now a sage-and-beige gastropub.

As we entered, a fearful front-of-house blonde, boho-chic to the fingertips in her Sweaty Betty trackpants, looked at us over her power-glasses as if we were something nasty on her Converses.

“Shut the door!” she barked before resuming a conversation with an old lady so grand she made the late Queen Mother look common. Only after she had swept out did Sweaty Betty take us to our expensive, tasteful rooms and hector us on the complex key protocol. It was all rather terrifying.

Tulips

Nor was it an isolated incident. Our walk through the village next morning was accompanied by the Ocado van seeking out the locale’s Waitrose Onliners. A plutocrat in a shiny car turned into the drive of an under-construction oligarch mansion. By way of contrast, the formerly neat ‘council houses’ seemed to have become exaggeratedly scruffy, as if in defiance as well as acknowledgement of a yawning social gap. Things had changed.

And nowhere more so than at my husband’s former home along the lane. The house, formerly ‘High Croft’, was now something else altogether. The shiny new sign stood by the garden entrance; hidden in the rubble at its base were two broken, rotting bits of wood. Jon saw painted letters and recognised the ‘HI’ and ‘FT’ of the old house name. It was like the ‘Rosebud’ moment in Citizen Kane.

Cold weather has its compensations

DAWN WAS ALL BROWN FOG TO T S ELIOT IN THE WASTE LAND. But up here in Derbyshire, as we edge toward spring, it’s red and beautiful. As the sun rises, a sky like scarlet smoke turns a hazy grey and gold. Cold weather has its compensations.

Making crème de cassis is another. Kir is one of my favourite aperitifs and we were almost buried under blackcurrants from the summer’s bumper crop. We also had a cupboard full of undrunk bottles of vodka.

What was stopping us?

Following a recipe found in these very pages, we swamped the fruit in Stolly. The many empty receptacles went in the recycling; what the recycling men must have thought can only be imagined.

This all happened last July and now, six months later, it was time for the next stage. We had to strain the mixture, add the sugar syrup and decant it. This done, and arranged in rows in the kitchen, the labelled bottles are an immensely satisfying addition to the jams and quince paste we made in the autumn.

I feel the urge to open a deli, especially as, adding an exotic touch to this splendid range of home preserves, are several large bottles of Cretan olive oil that a Greek friend imports from her family village.

On the other hand, the deli business round here is pretty competitive. The Chatsworth Farm Shop, with its straw-boatered till operatives, is just over the hill. And there’s another farm shop along the moor road, a deli down in the village and butchers and cheese shops everywhere you look. Food round here is quite wonderful, and quite unlike anywhere else.

Take the pyclet (pronounced pikelet) stall in Derby’s lovely Georgian market hall. Its proprietors, two brothers, cook these small, fluffy pancakes fresh to order. My daughter loves chewing her way through a packet of six as she sits in the stands watching Derby County. I prefer mine heated and slid under bacon and sausages on Sunday morning (or indeed any time of day or night). Pyclets are food for the gods.

After that we strap on our boots and stagger out into the fields, heading, ultimately, to one of the excellent local village pubs. A favourite is the Barley Mow in Bonsall whose dynamic landlady, Colette, has been introducing shabby chic to her time-honoured hostelry. Union Jack cushions, gilt-framed pictures, lopsided lampshades and mismatched chairs have duly made their appearance and it’s all gone down very well.

But a line has been drawn over the flooring. Colette’s plan to pull up the ancient flowered pub carpet and polish the wooden boards beneath has been thwarted. Locals like the carpet and have got up a petition to keep it. Faced with the carpet’s retention, Colette is wondering about extracting some of the generations of local DNA from it; might she be able to clone the ultimate village resident? Or would a flat-woven fiend be let loose? An Axminster axeman? An underfelted Frankenstein? Watch this space.

The Barley Mow’s other contribution to village life is maintaining the fine tradition of hen racing, of which it claims to be world centre. July sees crowds of thousands assemble to watch chickens running across the carpark.

Other established local rites include well dressing, which is not, as a French friend once imagined, a sartorial stand-off among the denizens of rural communities. It is the ancient summer practice of decorating the local water source with panels of coloured petals. Villages get very competitive about it and some of the results are amazing.

Derbyshire winter village traditions are few and far between. But that of putting on your own panto is alive and well. And why not? We all need cheering up in February and there’s zero competition from other seasonal entertainment. But that’s not the only reason. Far from it.

The fact is, villagers round these parts have strong terpsichorean tendencies. They require, nay demand, an outlet. There are many local families which make the von Trapps look like slackers. So numerous are the performers in one place that you practically need an Equity card to live there. One lady I know has two professional dancers and a circus bareback rider among her offspring. She is, moreover, married to the pantomime dame.

By day he’s a respected company director. Last week, as Widow Twankey, he was all pink wig and falsies. Supported, as it were, by other leading lights of local business playing roles from sultans to policemen.

What’s behind all this? It might be something in the water (of which we get a lot). Or something to do with the long dark nights. Perhaps villagers, especially in the undemonstrative north, simply need to let rip from time to time. Or confound opinion by revealing unexpected sides to their personalities.

Whatever the reason, the performers have a blast and it brings the whole village together. Entire local dynasties, including lots of teenagers, people the panto cast list. Some perform, some produce, some provide musical accompaniment. Round here, community spirit isn’t just alive and well, it’s singing, dancing, cross-dressing and providing ice-creams in the interval. We may live in the age of the internet download and a million TV channels but there’s still no fun quite like your own fun.

Derbyshire Winters

I MAKE THE MORNING JOURNEY to my writing hut with a torch this time of year; the garden is still dark and the various paths bend and dip. My way is marked by the indignant outbursts of disturbed wrens and blackbirds. I am greeted at my hut door by a welcome burst of electric light. The outside lamp is on a sensor, but it is not just any old lamp.
Some years ago we were walking at Lea, Derbyshire, a village close to us where Florence Nightingale was born. Lying hidden in long grass by the road, seemingly abandoned for years, was the rusting round headlamp of a Mr Toad-style vintage sports car. How it came to be there; how it had come off in the first place, could not be guessed. Unless it really was Mr Toad, in a hot bull-nosed Morris…

I decided to rescue it and stick it on my hut. This turned out to be a somewhat foolhardy act, as restoring it and connecting it to a modern electrical system was pretty expensive. Worth it, however, to have this glorious reminder of the golden age of motoring attached to the place where I spend great swathes of time sitting completely still.

Florence Nightingale is of course famous for many things, but few people know that she kept a pet owl in her pocket. I learnt this surprising fact at a quiz in which I recently took part. I love a good quiz, and there are few better than the one organised by my Derbyshire neighbour for the Children’s Society. Nicki and her band of dynamic local mums have made over £100,000 for the charity in the past few years. The annual quiz night is the jewel in their fundraising crown.

Over a hundred people, organised into tables of eight, gather in the village hall to do battle. The atmosphere is electrically tense. We crunch nervously on big bowls of crisps as we scan through the titles of the upcoming rounds. ‘Word for Word’, ‘On The Map’; do they mean what they seem to? And on which round shall we play our joker and get double points?

Our crack team all have individual areas of expertise. My husband’s is politics and current affairs; another member is a geography teacher and another is an accountant and therefore good at maths. I’m supposed to be history and literature, although my best ever performance was on a round about the royals. My knowing that Prince Charles was partly educated at Geelong Grammar School, Australia landed us full marks (and we played our joker). We won the quiz, although at considerable cost to my personal cool.
We are of course all fascinated by the royal family. But it is the love that dare not speak its name. I have been teased my whole life about my interest in them and never more so when I displayed a framed letter from Biddy Baxter, legendary editor of Blue Peter, in the downstairs loo. The letter congratulated me on achieving runner-up status in a competition to design a plate for the royal wedding of 1981. It was displayed in the loo as a camp historical curio but the joke was soon on me as guest after guest worked out that I was a highly embarrassing 16 when I entered the plate-designing lists.
Back to the quiz, anyway. There is a glorious supper halfway through. Heavily-laden paper plates of meat pie, gravy and mushy peas are served to you at your table and eaten with a plastic fork. Mere words cannot do justice to the sublime savoury slop of this absolute polar opposite to everything small, fussy and fiddly on the food front. Thus fortified, we cruised into the second half and won the quiz by a single point, plus the coveted trophy of a Terry’s Chocolate Orange.

Another of my old friends has dropped off the perch. Elsie was a magnificent 95 when she finally went to meet her Maker. She was our neighbour in the village where we lived when we first moved to Derbyshire. A tremendously spry woman, she was up with the larks and always busy. The flash of her axe in the morning sunshine being brought down on a pile of firewood was one of the local sights, just as the deafening boom of her telly was one of the sounds.
At Christmas Jon and I would be invited to partake of a glass of Bristol Cream in Elsie’s parlour, a room distinguished by walls hand-painted with thick green stripes. Elsie had done this entirely as an economy measure, to save on wallpaper. But the surprisingly artistic effect bore an even more surprising resemblance to Vanessa Bell’s efforts at Charleston, a milieu of which Elsie certainly would not have approved.

And vice versa, although Elsie did not lack an exotic side. In her middle years she kept parrots and to the end remained a fan of sensational literature. When we took our newborn son Andrew round to see her for the first time, she looked keenly at him, and then at my husband, and remarked, “He looks just like you, Jon. There’s no doubt!” To what doubt she might have been referring remains a mystery.

Festival Fever

 

FESTIVALS HAVE NEVER BEEN SO POPULAR! WHICH IS WHY I DECIDED TO SET MY NEW COMEDY, WILD & FREE (OUT NOW), AT ONE. It’s the first festival novel, therefore breaking new literary ground! It seemed to me that there were endless comic and dramatic opportunities among the Hunter wellies and celeb Winnebagoes. I explored some of this territory recently in this article for the Sunday Express magazine, outlining some of the people you might find at a Wild & Free-like boho-chic festival. The beautiful illustrations are by Nila Aye.

The Hip Hens and the Significant Birthday Party

Rachel is a secretary on a glossy magazine. She’s getting married and wants to do everything just like Kate (Moss, not Middleton). Kate went to the Isle of Wight Festival for her hen party so Rachel’s hired a pink stretch Hummer just the same, filled it with champagne, girlfriends and ‘Guilty Pleasures’ disco and headed off to ‘Wild & Free’ where she’s reserved a luxury yurt from a company called Poles Apart. For Rachel and her friends, the festival’s one huge outdoor catwalk; Rachel’s gone for vintage floral but other hens are working kitsch urbanwear and gap-year boho.

Behind the Hummer as it gets stuck in the country lanes are ad agency exec Spencer and his old university mates. They’re in their rented, split-screen, vintage-but-with-WiFi VW camper van. The mates haven’t met for thirty years. But, ever-persuasive and violently nostalgic, Spencer’s got them all back together for his big Five O. He told them it would be cool to go to a festival but now they’re actually here, in the back of the VW, listening to ‘Life on Mars’ on the Shuffle amid ‘Let It Bleed’ album-cover cushions, the rest of the guys are feeling like mid-life-crisis clichés. But Spencer’s just spotted the hens and things are looking up, big-style.

The Burger Flippers

Deciding what to do on your gap yah is pretty challenging. Caspar and Freddie, between Eton and Bristol, first tried to train as lifeguards in Rock. But they couldn’t save their own lives let alone anyone else’s. Then they tried, unsuccessfully, to open a nightclub called Munter’s in the King’s Road. Now they’re flipping burgers and jerk chicken at festivals in a converted caravan called the Ital Freedom Fighters Surf Shack. They wear knitted hats, skank around to eardrum-bleedingly-loud reggae and call all their customers ‘yu whiteys’. Caspar has made friends with The Hon Ottilie Wilderbeest on the next stall. She’s a Cressida Bonas type in tiny shorts and hi-top trainers who sells little chairs she’s made out of the cages on champagne corks. She’s doing contemporary dancing at Peterborough University and plans to hit Hollywood. Caspar’s thinking of coming too. Every film star these days is an Etonian; he might be the next James Bond.

S:SUNDAY EXPRESS MAGAZINE/ILLUSTRATION: NILA AYE

The Weekend Pagan

Rowan’s camped in the field reserved for bards, ovates and druids. She’s straight out of Game of Thrones; a vision in flowing crushed velvet with her hair streaming over her shoulders. Her day job is in public sector recruitment but in the evenings and weekends she’s a pagan. She believes each of us has the right to follow their own path; Rowan, much to her neighbours’ amusement, frequently follows the path into the back garden of her Leicester ‘covenstead’ and says things like ‘Thank you, bush, for being here.” Rowan (real name Sharon) started to worship Gaia the earth goddess after a workshop at a climate camp and is a member of the pagan morris dancing group Rune. They wear ivy bustiers and bird beaks and are in great demand for Beltane festivals. Rowan doesn’t find it difficult to switch between all this and everyday life; she’s always being asked for love spells at the water cooler.

The Exhumed Eighties Pop Star

Back in the day, ‘Berlin Airlift’ were right up there with OMD and China Crisis. But like many ensembles from that magic musical moment they suffered their fair share of wilderness years. So when the redirected email came from The Great Eighties Music Company, selling ‘vintage pop’ to trendy festivals, former lead singer Gary Crabbs had long since disappeared into second-hand car-selling in his native Basildon. His guitarist brother Nige had fared (only slightly) better as an estate agent, but synth-player Kev had disappeared off the face of the earth. Kev is still missing but has been replaced by Ryan; keen young and from a performing arts academy (what comprehensive schools are called now, Gary gathers). The new line-up has played loads of festivals this summer; parents doing ironic Eighties dancing and kids surprised to recognise their music (because of all the sampling). The kids think Berlin Airlift is some sort of weave (as does Ryan). But Gary’s not complaining. It’s money.

The Bugaboo-Hunters

Flora Bugaboo-Hunter, Notting Hill yummy mummy, is wearing a TopShop ‘Glastonbury’ dress that’s been altered by her favourite couturier. She’s here with Artemis, 12, Genghis, 9, Ptolemy, 2 and husband Giles. Giles works in the City and usually avoids family holidays by pretending he has a conference in Frankfurt. He is not looking forward to pushing Tolly through the mud in the Bugaboo Frog and wearing the festival outfit Flora has packed for him – hi-viz Hunter wellies and a T-shirt saying ‘Unexpected Item In Bagging Area’. Flora, on the other hand, is loving all the artisanal food; she’s already sampled clams from the Coast of Death and vegetables grown in sustainably-sourced rhino dung. And she’s rediscovering her inner Oxford graduate; she’s been to see Mary Beard interviewing the Hairy Bikers and is going to a Radio 3 disco later with Simon Rattle on the decks. She feels so free in her pink Smythson wellies; the everyday stress of being a multi-millionaire’s non-working wife is simply melting away.

S:SUNDAY EXPRESS MAGAZINE/ILLUSTRATION: NILA AYE

The Socially-Inclusive Children’s Storyteller

Tenebris Hasp is here with his life partner Siobhan and children Buster and Django. The boys are home-educated after Siobhan took them out of school following a production of Joseph And The Amazing Technicoloured Dreamcoat. In Siobhan’s view, the production glorified feckless parenting. Far from being celebrated, father-of-twelve Jacob should have been sent to local authority-sponsored parenting classes. Siobhan believes that traditional children’s literature is elitist and irrelevant and so has launched her own range of socially-inclusive fiction for 5-11s, starting with The King Who Couldn’t Wee. She is promoting it, and its follow-up The Prince Who Couldn’t Poo, at the Story Jam in The Hibbertygibberty Wood (the children’s part of the festival). Siobhan’s put a sign up above the family tent saying ‘Reading Is A Human Right’. But some wag added ‘Going to’ in the middle of the night.

The Hilary Mantel Groupies

He’s short, he’s ugly and he’s ruthless, but she dreams about him almost every night. She’s a middle-aged librarian from Stoke and he was executed in 1542 but Valerie Evans thinks Thomas Cromwell’s the sexiest man who ever lived (and died). She’d never even heard of him until Wolf Hall but after that and Bring Up The Bodies, she was a woman possessed. Then Hilary Mantel did a talk at Valerie’s library and now she’s a fully-fledged groupie and expert on all things Tudor. Valerie’s husband Brian, suddenly forced to spend weekends visiting mullioned manor houses the length and breadth of the Midlands, decided that if you can’t beat them you may as well join them. It was his idea to go to the literary festival (their first) where they’re attending talks called things like ‘What Did Anne Boleyn Have For Breakfast?’ The Blessed Hilary will be there, of course; Valerie is planning to ask her in person what she thought of Nasty, Brutish and Short, Valerie’s own Tudor trilogy. Hilary was sent the first three chapters and a synopsis, but never wrote back, strangely enough.

Keep warm and keep reading!

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