Country Diary: 1
The Idler’s Editor, Tom Hodgkinson, has retired to a Devonshire farmhouse in order to write a book. Here is the first installment of his fortnightly diary.
Took the van and the family off to Culbone Church, a tiny and ancient chapel a few miles along the coast from our house. It was near Culbone that Coleridge, in the middle of one of his long walks, stopped off for the night at Ash Farm, took opium and, his biographers say, wrote his great hymn to the idle life, Kubla Khan. The Church is at the foot of a beautiful wooded valley and very remote. Could he have been describing the scene in these lines:
“But O, that deep romantic chasm which slanted
“Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!”
I can’t claim to have garnered any poetic inspiration from the experience but there was a pleasing sense that this area has simply not changed for hundreds of years, and you could easily imagine the wide-eyed young dreamer Coleridge appearing at the churchyard gate.
I took my two-and-a-half year old son Arthur for a walk to a bay called Heddon’s Mouth. It’s a mile down a riverside path to the sea; then a mile back again. The great attraction is that there is a pub at the end of the walk, called Hunters Inn. So your young Dad, starved of pub time by the rigours of dealing with a young family, can kill two birds with one stone: childcare and drinking. Arthur and I walked in for my customary pint of Exmoor Ale and his customary glass of orange juice with lots of ice (he likes crunching it). In the pub were four characters, one of whom I recognised from a recent party down here. Nick has a wild raggedy beardy appearance, and has recently moved to nearby Parracombe from Kentish Town, and last time I met him he was bemoaning the fact that so few people would know how to go off and live in the woods for a few days. I kept quiet about my own total lack of practical ability and agreed. At the pub he introduced me to his partner, Beatrice and friends Roger and Hannah. I told them of my Culbone visit and Nick stared at me and said excitedly:
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise
Reminding me that these are the two final lines of Kubla Khan. And I must say that at that moment crisps and Exmoor Ale seemed almost as good as honey-dew and the milk of Paradise. I told the assembled company that I was writing a book on idleness, and Roger told me had recently quit his job to go a-wandering. All four seemed great devotees, then, to the art of idling, being poets and wanderers, and I returned home in high spirits.
Work progressed slowly on the book. I paused to look out of the window at our bird table. I have so far seen blue tits, great tits, chaffinches, sparrows, greenfinches, robins, thrushes, blackbirds and a great spotted woodpecker pecking away. In fact, the blue tits are starting to look very fat, and pleasurable though it is to encourage all these little creatures into our garden, I worry whether I am fostering a laziness in the birds: after all, if there is plentiful food on offer on our table, will they forget the art of finding berries and lice or whatever in the hedgerows? I then reflected that it doesn’t matter. I am expecting to be idle, so why not help the birds to an easier life? My one remaining dilemma is the question of the pheasants. There is a small colony of ever-fattening hen pheasants who invade our bird table. They look plump and tempting and we are deliberating whether to shoot them and eat them. I don’t have a gun and I wouldn’t have a clue how to cut their heads off and pluck them, but I suppose I could learn. Someone told us that if they are on your land, then they’re fair game (oh, that’s probably the first time I’ve used that phrase in its real sense). But then I noticed in my Smythson Featherwight Pocket Diary that last Sunday was the last day of the pheasant-shooting season. Presumably it is simply not the done thing to shoot one now. Even if we weren’t strictly poaching, we would certainly be committing a terrible sin
against pheasant-shotting etiquette. But then would anyone ever know?