‘AT LEAST IT'S SUNNY'
–front page headline, The Sun
The tottering old man, on his way for a lunchtime pint, spots me and smiles
“Luvverly day eh?”
I’m home, back in the village, back in the heart of Middle England.
Middle England, that vague word for the comfortable, the respectable, the jolly decent folk who make up a large proportion of this country .
Whatever it is my mother plunged me right back into the thick of it without delay and soon I was facing my most daunting challenge yet.
Within 24 hours I found myself in a situation far more terrifying than anything we’d encountered out on the road: tea and scones with the ladies of the village.
Drunken Russian soldiers, Thai jungles crawling with snakes and scorpions, stormy ocean crossings, Szechuan cooking…nothing compares to facing the combined might of seven ladies of Middle England.
The questions came thick and fast, I did my best to accommodate them before beating a hasty retreat.
‘Your tulips are looking lovely’ one of them cooed as I headed indoors, 'isn’t it wonderful weather we are having…’
I smiled ruefully to myself as I recalled the many hours I’d spent during the course of our trip trying to combat English stereotypes, repel the images propagated by Hugh Grant, Merchant Ivory, Jane Austen et al.
All that effort to persuade everyone, from Americans to Zimbabweans that we didn’t all live like The Vicar of Dibley and yet here I was in the most stereotypically, ludicrously, absurdly English of situations.
The village couldn’t have been any more English if it had donned a topper and sung Noel Coward.
The birds are busy nesting and the air resonates with the hum of lawnmowers, the throb of RAF helicopters on manouevres and the beautiful call of blackbirds and robins.
The friendly postie has stopped by for a natter, marigold gloves are on display in the village shop window and my mother is worrying about the church flowers.
It’s warm and sunny (yes it does shine sometimes here) and people’s gardens are looking beautiful.
Gardening – there’s something I’ve not seen much of for a while.
I’ve been stuffed with cake, crumpets and even a belated Christmas lunch, drowned in tea, and listened to my fill of serious Radio 4 programmes.
It all is – to use a very popular English expression – ‘lovely’.
But under this idyllic exterior the old place harbours problems like any other and beneath the bucolic harmony I can sense real worries, even anger.
People mutter about immigrants and house prices and the price of petrol (it’s not ‘gas’ now) and the whole country seems a bit jaded.
The recession is biting and friends tell me of people losing their jobs. Politicians and bankers seem to be held in lower esteem than ever before and, as the Chancellor presented his new budget on Wednesday the headlines screamed about the looming economic apocalypse.
Whilst grumbling has always been a national sport it’s still knocked me off balance a little; things I’m told are a lot worser than when we left.
Not what I expected. This country is after all one of the world’s largest economies and this is a village where overall affluence seems to have increased hugely since I used to lark about in its meadows and streams in my short trousers.
Has the country changed whilst we’ve been away?
Well there’s no more Jade Goody, no more Woolworths and the Coop has had a lick of paint, but other than that it doesn’t seem to have really.
There’s the same automated queuing systems when you call up any bank or utility, the same obsession with celebrities, scandal and the weather, the same stories in the Daily Telegraph, brimming with self-righteous indignation (‘Balls Smear Unit’).
And the same sense of humour, perhaps the one thing I’ve really missed.
I venture out for a stroll round the village.
'Nice day' I shout out to the Major (Ret’d)
'It’s a cracker, what'
He gets back to his strimming; I return to admiring the neat little cottages and peaking into gardens.
Next morning we take a spin up to the Berkshire Downs. It’s St George’s Day and the English are celebrating in their traditional way of marking their patron saints day…by not marking it.
There’s the odd St George’s crosses flying, a few pubs festooned in bunting but largely it passes like any other day. People don’t even have a day off workholiday.
We head out into the green, the glorious green, for England is surely the greenest place on earth. (There are advantages to being a wet country).
It’s bluebell season and we search out this natural phenomenon. Come late April / early May the floors of many woods throughout the country are turned into carpets of bright, vivid blue, like they’ve been cast adrift at sea.
Kites and buzzards wheel overhead as we park up the car and head for a likely-looking spot – a small copse at the end of a rough track.
Breaking through the undergrowth and braving waist-high nettles we’re rewarded for our efforts: the wood floor is covered in bluebells, awash with blue.
It’s as if a school of impressionists have been let loose in a Dulux factory.
A throaty pheasant calls out with alarm, woodpeckers drum intently at rotten trees and
fat woodpigeons flop lazily over the tilled fields as the first swallows announce their return in the skies above.
And it’s very, very lovely.
We stop for a pint on the way home to toast St George - and dragon slayers in general – at a nearby village pub.
Three farmers, decked out in check shirts and bodywarmers, eyed us warily from a corner as I supped my ale in the beer garden.
'Lovely weather', the landlady says.
We return to the car and head home, rolling down out of the chalk downs into the Vale of the White Horse. The view is wonderful - quite, quite perfect.
I guess 'they' are right. It is only when you take an extended leave of absence from a place that you realise quite how nice it is.
45,000 miles and still nothing can quite compare to home.
And the weather really is quite lovely…