“But how do you function without a Chinese take-away?”
My husband and I feel sufficiently countrified to exchange knowing looks when a visiting Londoner notes our lack of shops.
We have all but forgotten the astonishing choice of fast food outlets and take-away restaurants that lay within a few minutes’ walk from our former urban home, and our guest’s comment makes use realise for the first time that we do not miss them.
Should we feel the urge to eat out, we can choose between two village pubs, and on request, either will put a bar meal in a bag and call it a take-away. In the unlikely event that we crave a ready-meal, instead of the fresh eggs and vegetables available every day from our garden, we can rustle something up from the open-all-hours village shop.
There is also a post office, which was once housed in our cottage. That was when the old lady from whom we bought the house was village postmistress. Before that it was in a house just up the road from us, when the grandmother of our elderly neighbour was in charge. It now occupies the current postmistress’s front room.
At either the shop or the post office, you can buy a copy of what’s nominally the Parish News. This substantial publication, run off every month on a spirit duplicator, contains about 90% general village news and information.
There is a tiny but excellent hairdressing salon, which has just opened in an annexe to a house in the High Street.
Even if we are overcome with a sudden attack of agoraphobia, we need not even leave our front garden to acquire goods and services. The shop’s proprietor will kindly deliver to any home in the village, free of charge. He’s even been known to bring out just a single pot of cream to our elderly neighbours, who had just sat down to eat the raspberries gathered from their garden and felt there was something missing. Some more decadent neighbours whose party went on through the night had more wine delivered with their morning newspaper.
Of course, the shop provides daily newspaper deliveries. One year, in a flash of inspiration, they also offered to send the paper boy bearing a single red rose to the person of your choice, within the confines of the village, of course.
There is also a bevy of other delivery services that never came our way in the city. By this, I don’t mean the sporadic, outmoded door-to-door salesmen or down-at-heel students or immigrants that tour towns touting overpriced dusters or double glazing. Here the deliveries are by people who take a pride in their trade, and whose main quest in life is to make their customers happy.
Naturally, in this dairy-farming district, there is a milkman. We are served faithfully by a village resident who is carrying on what was his father’s round before him. Although he is now approaching retirement, our even older neighbour, once the village schoolmistress, still refers to him as “Young Georgie”.
Though hardly seafaring territory, Hawkesbury boasts an itinerant fishmonger. The apple-cheeked, small and compact Charlie Orchard (there’s nominative determinism for you), dispenses all manner of fish every Friday from the back of his familiar white minivan. We wonder where he goes on the other days of the week. He’d be perfect for a part in Camberwick Green or Trumpton, where with his name he’d take the role of local greengrocer.
Though we are out at work when the fishmonger delivers, a neighbour introduces us to him. Obligingly, Charlie Orchard posts our fish order through the letterbox and we leave the money under a brick for him the following week. Our cats approve.
Providing extra brain-food between Charlie’s weekly visits is the fish-and-chip van with a horn that renders the first bars of “The Dashing White Sergeant” as it trundles through the village on Tuesday nights. If we want them to stop to serve us, the agreed signal is to leave our curtains open.
Their fish and chips are first-rate, so our curtains are open every Tuesday. Around nine o’clock, we form an orderly queue with our elderly neighbour Lenny to collect our order. We’ve only ever had to specify once, because they remember what we like from week to week.
This ritual also serves an important social function: in the winter, it’s the only time we officially see Lenny, a harmless recluse who lives in the cottage semi-detached to ours. (He put up net curtains the day after we moved in to retain his privacy.) The arrival of the fish-and-chip van enables us (a) to confirm that he’s still alive and (b) to pick up his latest news, which usually relates to a report on the birds in his garden and his views on how fat our cat Dolly is.
On a Sunday afternoon, you could set your watch by the ice-cream man, arriving conveniently after lunch. This is no Mr Whippy with ice-cream full of air, but proper, golden yellow Cotswold ice-cream, made locally by Winstones. The smiley driver always remembers our order and has a tub ready for me on the counter by the time I’ve crossed the road to the van, brushing my grubby hands on my gardening apron ready to take it from him.
Just opposite us lives a kindly couple who run a mobile shop to the outlying hamlets, for whom they are the only source of fresh food deliveries. (By comparison to them, our village is positively built-up.) Caroline bakes bread and cakes to order, while Arthur drives the van and makes the deliveries. We do not use their service, as it would be unfair on those who depend on it if we depleted their limited range. But we have been known to barter with Caroline and Arthur, swapping our surplus of plums for any home-made cakes or pies left unsold at the end of their rounds.
So much for the inner man: what about the outer one?
Well, there is an Avon lady with a difference: she operates on trust. We leave our order on our front wall and she puts the goods through our letterbox. When we remember, we put our money on the wall and her son picks it up on his paper-round.
To keep us warm, there are deliveries of fuel of all kinds – essential in rural areas like ours which are not connected to the national gas mains. (Indeed, mains water only reached Hawkesbury in 1945, and electricity not long before that.)
A coalman comes twice a week with bagged and loose deliveries, and for those who’ve opted for oil, a tanker man will call on demand. Woodmen abound. There is stiff competition from foresters and a long list compete for our attention via local newspaper advertisements. Our first choice comes from the nearby Beaufort estate, from one of the Duke’s foresters who is allowed to cut and sell any wood he has felled in the course of his duties maintaining the rides. He cadges old sacks from his farmer friends in which to bag the logs up and drops them off in his old yellow British Telecom van.
And there are still occasional newcomers joining the fray: we’ve just had a leaflet through the door announcing the imminent arrival of a travelling knife-grinder.
Is this starting to sound like the famous street scene in “Oliver”, in which the traders form the chorus to the hero’s song, “Who Will Buy?” I must admit that even to me it sounds like something engineered by the English Tourist Board for an enticing film on the pleasures of our nation’s rural life.
And that’s before I’ve told you about the crowning glory of all. This comes twice a month in the form of the Village Market. Here we buy all manner of things, from handicrafts to baked goods, from preserves to pot plants. We may order our cakes in advance or trust to luck and brave the rush when the doors open. Or in return for just 20p, we can relax there with tea and cake and a varied collection of young and old ladies. My husband, venturing up there on his own one day, returned to report that he was the only boy there who wasn’t accompanied by his mum. There is a blissful sense of conquest in returning with a laden basket and hardly a dent in the housekeeping money.
But the market is not without controversy. Once, years ago, there was a WI market. Sellers religiously paid 5p to join, which entitled them to have their wares on display. A complicated accounting system worked out the financial rewards for sellers. The WI market laid down strict rules, and woe betide anyone who disobeyed. No more and no less than a pound of jam in every pot, and the pot had to be the regulation shape, or there’s be trouble. Everything had to be labelled with the official WI label. But did anyone ever ask the customers if that was what they wanted? Oh, no. It was generally agreed by buyers and sellers alike that the rules were restrictive to the point of being ridiculous. Next thing you knew, they’d be dictating the shape of the cakes.
So the village rebelled. Abandoning the rulebook, it restarted the market under its own flag, and the new form keeps traders and customers happy.
Rumours of requiring a passport to enter Hawkesbury are as yet unfounded – but opponents of the European Common Market, eat your hearts out.
Reviewing this description 20 years later, I am sad to report that most of these services have now disappeared, though our two pubs, post office and village shop survive. When my first husband died 10 years ago, Mr and Mrs Fish-and-Chips insisted on providing me with my portion free of charge every Tuesday for as long as I wanted it, even though I was working full time and was hardly in poverty. Eventually, I kept the curtains closed each Tuesday night, too embarrassed to take advantage of their kindness. They, like so many other tradesmen, no longer call. If you are lucky enough to live in a community served by such wonderful people, neglect them at your peril.