© Philip Dixon 2014, 2016
Photos © Philip Dixon
Cover design © Earlswood Press
Cover image Ian McAllister via www.alamy.com
Published in 2016 in ePub format by
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Dairy Cows and Duck Races started life as twenty-six letters that I sent every week to my son, who was spending some time working abroad. They told him of a very different world, far away from the one he was experiencing and of my early years in dairy farming. They were all upbeat and, I hope amusing.
To turn the letters into a book I had to fill in the gaps in between the stories to link them into a coherent manuscript, which meant baring my soul about my all my loves, lost and found. All the stories are told with my inevitable enthusiastic poetic licence and based on my personal experiences. In a few instances it has been necessary to change the names of certain individuals, whilst certain characters are purely fictional and bear no resemblance to their actual counterparts.
French Cows and Four Kisses is the sequel to Dairy Cows, the adventure alluded to in the last sentence on that book. What follows on, African Cows (plus whatever I might add,) is a story still ongoing, so please keep in touch and eventually, to quote a real cliché, all will be revealed…
As I was approaching the eighteen-month mark at Peepy farm, where I had begun my career as a dairy farmer, I realised that once you were employed there as a boy, you were always a boy. One of my fellow apprentices, Paddy had been there since he was fifteen and had not progressed and I had stopped learning anything new. I was also aware what an enormous gap there was in my practical agricultural knowledge. I had just turned seventeen and I was miles behind farmers’ sons who had started learning their trade as soon as they could walk. I needed a full hands-on job, so I started reading the ads in week-old copies of the Farmers Guardian that were left in the workshop when the big house had finished with them. I noticed an ad for a position as a tractor man/relief milker at Whalton Manor, near Morpeth. I applied.
T R S P Norton – Timmy to his friends – was joint master of Morpeth Hunt and a senior officer in the Northumberland Fusiliers Territorial Army. He very much played the part of a country squire and banking type – ‘live in Whalton Manor, don’t you know?’ Although he seemed ancient to me, he was probably only in his late thirties and he looked the part, with his slicked back hair and his crisp, stripy shirt and matching tie and he drove an Alfa Romeo GTV. He was newly married to the young, good-looking, blonde Penny. They owned North Farm and the Home Dairy; nearly 400 acres in total and a herd of one hundred Ayrshire cows.
The Nortons had only a passing interest in the farm, but they were passionately interested in their horses and fox-hunting. A stone archway off the yard led to the stable block, a stone built horse palace with a cobbled courtyard and polished oak stable doors, which was attached to one corner to the main house. Usually between eight and ten horses were kept there, four belonging to Tim and Penny and the rest liveried – that is to say looked after by the Nortons for others, for a fee. The place smelled of new mown hay, saddle soap and sweaty horses.
Nellie and Eva Cook, known collectively as “the Cookies”, were employed to run the stable. They were spinster sisters and queens of this impressive facility, and it was their duty to have at least six horses fit and ready to hunt three times a week. It may be a bit misleading to call them queens, as this conjures up somebody who looks like Elizabeth or Cleopatra, but nothing could be further from the truth. Eva, the younger of the two was about five feet, eight inches tall and five feet wide. Nellie was five feet tall and five feet wide. Both wore slippers while shuffling around their small tied cottage and wellington boots outside in the yard or fields. They were so fat that their calves did not fit down the legs of their boots, so they cut the backs out, right down to the heels, turning them into slip-ons. They wore headscarves Monday to Friday, which hid their hair rollers. Then, on Sunday, they would expose to the world the scant tufts of curly hair. One thing you noticed about them was their teeth, or rather the shortage of them. Those that remained were black and green. They were a pair of happy witches, waddling around in their floral print pinnies, administering their lotions and potions to their charges with an ability that was legend in the county. Local vets, who were struggling with treating a horse would arrive at the stables, collect Nellie and whisk her off in their now lopsided car to look at someone’s nag. Returning an hour or so later, Nellie would take little sis on one side and five minutes later, Eva would waddle off up the track beside their cottage to the woods and hedgerows. She would collect various plants, herbs, bark and other general witchy stuff. Then they would concoct something for the vet, occasionally accompanying him when he visited his charge. Today we would call them horse whisperers, but two hundred years ago they would have been burnt at the stake.
It was Nellie and Eva that Mr Hall’s wife, Joan had arranged to make my midday meal. Of course for me, a fast-growing and permanently hungry seventeen-year-old lad, Nellie and Eva’s role as provider of my sustenance was their most important job. However, their idea of lunch for one was sufficient food to feed a family of six. It always started with a serving bowl of broth, thick and meaty that would have satisfied TV’s Hairy Bikers for lunch. Next there was a meat plate holding the main course. Typically about one third would be mashed potato, the next third, two veg and the last third, two homemade plate pies, piled one on top of the other. Then there was the pudding, usually jam roly-poly or spotted dick served with a two-pint milk churn of thick, yellow, homemade custard. This daily feast would be put on an over-large tray, a clean tea towel laid over the top and be put out at ten past twelve, ready for me to transport it to my cottage, which was about a hundred yards from the Cookies’ cottage. As soon as I got this feast home, I got out some normal sized plates and bowls and served myself two portions of everything. I put one complete meal in the fridge for the following evening and the other I ate fresh.
The remaining food, about one third, I returned to Nellie. She scraped all the savoury leftovers into the cauldron (actually a jam pan) that was standing on the edge of the black leaded wood-fired range that filled the inglenook. This was the broth and it boiled all day every day, then on a Saturday night it was emptied out and restarted after Sunday lunch. It tasted different every day with the new additions and fresh herbs, including wild garlic, rosemary, sage, and other, witchy stuff. The pan did not have a lid and you would have thought, simmering as it did, that it would have boiled dry but it didn’t because it was covered by a one-inch thick layer of liquid fat. This was removed before the liquid was served as soup but was returned to the caldron to be used on a Saturday night.
Saturdays were very important in the Cookie coven as their twin brothers arrived on the midday bus from Morpeth. As they waddled up the street from the bus stop, dressed in matching three piece suits and battered, brown felt trilbies and looking like two matching Toby jugs, they carried with them four large bottles of Johnny Walker’s whisky, a large sack of lemons and two bags of Tate and Lyle sugar. As you might expect, warlocks and witches have rituals to follow and the Saturday binge was theirs. At 6 o’clock prompt, all four bottles would be opened and then they were committed to drink them because, by their rules it was grossly unlucky to take a partly consumed bottle of alcohol into the Sabbath. In the meantime the blackened kettle was put on to the range to heat up. The best glasses were retrieved from the heavily carved sideboard and lemon juice, sugar and hot water was mixed with the whisky to make hot toddies. This is where the soup fat comes into the equation; they filled four large mugs with the hot fat and left it to cool, but not long enough so that it congealed. Before they started drinking the alcohol they each drank a mug of fat, downed in one, “to line the stomach”. Then the hot toddy, all of it would be consumed.
Were they drunk by the end of the evening? They were roaring. I only ever visited them once on a Saturday night and I was chased around the table by these two cackling hags, each with smudged red lips and bleary, blood shot eyes. I only just managed to wriggle out from Eva’s grasp before the mountain of flesh enveloped me, from where, I‘m sure, I would never have emerged. I was terrified. To me, these were two nice old ladies. Sure, they were a bit strange, but they cooked so nicely and looked out for me. At seventeen I was so naïve.
The next day I was passing through the yard to get to my tractor, which was parked in front of the Cookies’ cottage. Yes, the stock still needed tending, even on a Sunday. And there they were, bright eyed and bushy tailed, in their clean pinnies and nicely quaffed hair, humming and doing little shuffling dance moves, going about their normal routine, none the worse for wear. In fact they were in such fine form you would have thought they had just been on holiday or taken those vitamins that enable you to perform “like you but on a good day”.
Nellie and Eva cooked my midday meal for about three years and they educated my narrow-minded taste buds to appreciate things that would be deemed completely barbaric today, like badger ham. This is fabulous, the best ham I have ever tasted. Then there was young crow pie, made with just the breasts from fledglings taken from the nest, hedgehogs baked whole in clay (they taste like fatty chicken), squirrels, adder and snails (it’s not just the French that eat them). Basically, they caught and cooked anything that moved and was big enough to handle. I was never told before the meal what I was eating but in all the time that they fed me there was only one thing I did not like and that was fox. It has an acrid taste and is very chewy.
It had never occurred to me how these two old biddies managed to get a hold of this proteinaceous bounty from the countryside, until one day I was ploughing a twenty-five acre field next to the parkland that lay behind Whalton Manor house. The park wasn’t exactly Capability Brown but it was very dramatic nevertheless. Ploughing is a slow process and once you set your field out, you seem to merge with the horizon and you can watch all the animal and human movements unobserved. It’s as if you and your tractor have become invisible to the animals and birds, be they deer, hares, rabbits, or stalking foxes; you see it all, while all around, a swirl of seagulls chase each other, demanding the first pickings from the newly turned earth, squabbling and squawking over the fat, glossy, juicy, worms and the blind, pink baby mice that Mr and Mrs Tittlemouse abandoned when their world was literally turned upside down. The adult mice would skip and dance along the last furrow, trying to escape, but they would be spotted by a buzzard, who would end their terror quickly and efficiently, taking this bounty back to its eyrie to be consumed at leisure by its tufted chicks.
I had been ploughing for about an hour after lunch when I spied Eva entering the far side of the field neighbouring mine. She had a stout, ball-ended walking stick in one hand and her whippet, tugging on her lead in the other. She bumbled over to the fence and tied the pooch to a wooden rail in the shade of a large spreading oak. Then she set off around the outside edge of the field on a first circuit. With her rolling gait this took at least 20 minutes. She then did another tour of the field a few yards further in, then another, and another, the circumference of her trek diminishing with every circuit as she spiralled around the field. After two hours of watching this behaviour, I was intrigued. I thought she must have lost something the day before and was searching systematically for it, or she was picking mushrooms or some of her witchy stuff. After another hour, when she was nearly at the centre of the field, I spotted a hare sitting on his hind legs, as still as a statue. To my amazement it did not run away as Eva gradually got closer to it. Eventually she was within touching distance and suddenly with the speed of a striking cobra, she clamped her free hand around the unsuspecting creature’s ears, swung it in the air, clubbed it on the back of its head with her ball-ended stick and it was dead. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes I would not have believed it possible.
A few days later, after I’d eaten my portion of hare and badger ham pie and was returning my tray, I asked Eva how she had done it. She just giggled and winked at me, which is a very unnerving thing to do to a seventeen-year-old. Nellie came to my rescue by explaining that there was no great mystery to this. A hare’s eyes are set on either side of its head so that it has as near as possible 360 degrees of vision. So, by walking slowly around and around them you become part of their horizon and they aren’t bright enough to notice that the horizon is getting bigger. If you misjudge the final sweep and snatch by a millisecond or millimetre the spell is broken and the hare escapes. When Nellie had explained the method, Eva told me her father had shown her how to do it. She had never failed to catch her tea. I am now in my early sixties and I have tried to do this and never succeeded. Who says there are no such things as witches?
Sergio Margarelli was, and possibly still is a bottom-pinching Italian who had real charisma, swarthy good looks and the dazzling smile that beguiled both male and female alike. He owned the best fish and chip shop in Snodbury, which was so popular that from the moment he opened at lunchtime till late at night he had a queue of customers, often snaking out the door. Sergio was a man who was happy in his work. He would sing Italian opera in between his heavily accented conversations with his customers. Actually, they were more like interrogations. ‘Heya Meesses Pauly,’ he would say to a mother. ‘How’s-a your-a boy? He’ll-a be a big now?’ Or to an attractive lady, ‘Allo bellisima, I wus a wonderin’ where the sun she was and then she comes into ma shop!’ He was full of it.
His fish and chips were superb and his menu was vast and inventive, but the people of Northumbrian mining towns are very conservative in their tastes and cod and chips was the order of the day, so when I started choosing plaice and chips he was thrilled. He would cook a dinner plate-sized flatty, all golden in his special batter. Then, because he was so proud of it, he would place it on greaseproof paper, come out from behind the pans and show it to the other customers standing in the queue. ‘That’s-a fish, eh?’ he’d say. ‘It’s-a beautiful, no? I’m-a so gud at-a the cooking!’
The population of Snodbury lapped it all up. They never cottoned on to the fact he had never been anywhere near Italy, and when he was at home he had as strong a Geordie accent as anyone else in the town.
The Margarelli family consisted of his wife Carmella, their two children and Sergio’s father, Franco. He was our neighbour, living about the best part of a mile away on top of Colridge, the highest hill in the area, in a tiny Northumbrian stone farm worker’s cottage with a range of outbuildings. The place had loads of potential for extending the cramped living accommodation. Sergio and Carmella had plans drawn up to do so, but the building work meant losing some space in the meantime, so Sergio asked his dad if he would move out while work was being done. The plan was that Franco would live in a flat in the nearby town, which was about half a mile away at the bottom of the hill. During this time, Franco would be able to have a pint or two at The Star Inn, buy a daily paper and generally have a break away, a bit of a holiday from the isolation on top of a very steep hill. Previously his social life had revolved around The Leek and Whippet, which was once a spit and sawdust real ale pub about 100 yards away on the crest of the hill, where you could hear impromptu concerts with local musicians jamming anything from North Country ballads to AC-DC. Unfortunately its fabulous location and large car park had attracted the attention of the plastic pub brigade, who brought in a chicken-in-a-basket type menu. This had all but got rid of the locals, including Franco, who now only used the facilities in an emergency. His daily walk to the pub gradually decreased until the sight of this distinguished, slightly stooping man in his brown felt Russian type hat, swinging a silver topped black lacquer cane, all but disappeared. He became reclusive, barely venturing beyond the wooden five bar gate bordering his property, but he would often be seen leaning on it, gazing pensively up the track leading to the main road and the great wide world beyond.
He point blank refused to move to a flat in the village.
Sergio’s wife, Carmella was a psychiatric nurse, small and extremely attractive, with short blonde hair who juggled shift work with the mothering of her and Sergio’s two primary school-age daughters. She also had a very short fuse and she was desperate for more space.
Sergio was the sort of character who nearly always got his own way, no matter what the circumstances and when he didn’t, his fiery Mediterranean temper would erupt like Vesuvius. Carmella got on as well as could be expected with her father in law, but life was all too cheek-by-jowl for her, and because he refused to move out, they could not proceed with their plans. The row that erupted between her, Sergio and Franco over his refusal to move was of monumental proportions, but he would not be shifted from his decision. So, Sergio and Carmella decided to buy a semi on the outskirts of Morpeth and leave the stubborn old git, as Carmella had christened Franco, to fend for himself.
Just a few short weeks before moving day, Sergio, Carmella and the two girls packed their belongings into a hire van and moved out from rural life on Colridge. Two months after their move, when Carmella had put curtains up, positioned new furniture and laid new carpets – in short, had settled her family in to their new life, they received a telephone call from Franco. He told them he was moving out from Colridge to a nice little flat in Newbiggin and that the house was now available for renovation. Of course Sergio and Carmella had used all the money they had saved for the renovation to buy their new house. They were committed to their new lifestyle and renovating Colridge was now impossible. Carmella took this news in her stride. Her life had been made simpler, she was near to the schools, her work and the shops and she didn’t have to put up with Franco living under her feet, but Sergio was almost catatonic with fury. The cottage at Colridge had been his family home and he loved the place.
At this point in the story I should lay down a Scale of Annoyance; a sort of Richter scale, going from 1 to 10, to give you some idea of how Sergio’s temper grew in the following events. As I am sure you can imagine, Sergio was indeed infuriated and on the news that Franco had decided to move out of Colridge would have registered his annoyance at level 1. A week before Franco’s move to Newbiggin, Sergio took a pile of empty cardboard boxes to his father, deposited them inside the front door and with a cursory growl, instructing him to pack his belongings in them before the following weekend, because, at 8 o’clock precisely on the following Saturday morning, he and a friend would arrive with a borrowed van to transport Franco’s worldly possessions to his temporary home. They had to return the van before 1 o’clock, so Sergio told Franco he must be ready on time.
At 8 o’clock on Saturday Sergio, friend and van arrived at the front door to find it locked. When they opened the door, they found Franco, still in his pyjamas. The pile of empty cardboard boxes hadn’t been moved, let alone filled. Sergio swallowed hard. A pulse in his temple started to twitch and his temper moved up to 2 on the Scale of Annoyance.
Using growls rather than words, Sergio sent his old man upstairs to shave and get changed into sensible clothes, while he and his friend carried boxes into the kitchen to start filling them. Throwing open the cupboard door, Sergio could not believe the sight that met his gaze, or the smell that hit his nostrils. Over the previous three months, Franco had worked his way through every piece of clean crockery, then put it all away unwashed. There was mould on it that Alexander Fleming would have found intriguing, if not downright useful. In fact he was sure there were new species that should have been registered with the Natural History Museum. Sergio would now have to wash and dry the crockery before he could pack it. That is, if he could find the sink under every available pot and pan that was piled in and around it. This pushed Sergio to Annoyance Level 3. His temple started to throb. But there was no washing up liquid. Sergio reached Level 4 and the throbbing in his temple turned to a strong, visible pulse.
Sergio asked his mate if he would start washing up, using an old bar of soap he found, while he went upstairs to see his Dad about the midden that was the kitchen. On his way upstairs it seemed prudent to carry some of the empty packing cases and while he was doing this, thoughts of his ageing father living alone for the first time in he did not know how long, entered his mind. He realised he hadn’t been back to visit properly since his family had moved out and some of his rage began to wane as the thought pricked his conscience.
As Sergio reached his father’s bedroom door, it opened and there stood the elderly gentleman, still in his dressing gown, the picture of abject misery, holding his arms out in front with his palms turned up. ‘Son,’ he said, ‘I am so sorry.’
Sergio’s anger completely disappeared. Thinking his Dad was an old school macho Italian whom he had deprived of female care by moving away, he put his arm round him and told him not to mind. Now that he was upstairs the pair of them would pack his clothes. Franco told him that would be nice, but he first had to go to the toilet. As Franco disappeared out the door, Sergio opened the wardrobe. He was puzzled to see that it was empty, apart from a few sports jackets. He turned round and saw a double blanket on the far side of the room covering a large dome-shaped pile. ‘No, it can’t be,’ he thought. ‘Surely not.’ He pulled the blanket back to reveal all of his father’s clothes, all dirty, in a pile. That was why his dad was still in his dressing gown. Sergio now reached Annoyance Level 5 and he let out a few well-chosen words that called his father’s legitimacy into question.
He was going to need help to sort all this lot out. Clearly the move was not going to happen that day. All this washing had to be done before they could move, so they carried it down to the kitchen. It was then they discovered that the washing machine was broken. According to Franco it had been like that for nearly two months. Reaching Level 6, Sergio phoned Carmella. She arrived half an hour later with the girls in tow, appraised the situation and took charge. She packed the dirty laundry into plastic bin liners and dispatched Sergio with them to the Washerteria. She also told him to take his daughters, because while the laundry was in the machines he would have very little to do, so the opportunity of spending quality time with his children was too good an occasion to miss. Meanwhile, she would whip the remaining male workforce into shape and have the place shining like a new pin. By the time they had finished, her calm, Zen-filled husband would have returned with the clean, dry washing to complete his original mission of moving his father to his temporary home.
So, there was young Sergio, driving down the narrow winding hill to the Washerteria. This emporium was sited in the middle of the parade of shops (parade is a very generous description of the damp, dowdy shops that serviced this once bustling, but now quiet and desolate community, made so by the on-going mine closures). All the parking close to the Washerteria was taken, which meant Sergio had to park in the public car park, several hundred yards away. It him took three trips to fetch the six bin bags, which were splitting under the weight of the festering clothes, to the Washerteria, with his two little girls dancing around, emitting high pitched squeals of delight at the thought of visiting this wonderland. Imagine a pressure cooker, fitted with its 15lb weight when the heat is turned to maximum. Then imagine that moment just before a stream of steam screams out beneath the stainless steel weight. Sergio was that pressure cooker and he had got to Level 7.
Safely inside the empty washhouse, Sergio set about his task. There were three washing machines on one side of the premises and three large tumble dryers on the other. At the far end there were vending machines, one selling soap powder and the giving change for one-pound notes. On two of the washing machines hung a sign saying, “out of order”. Sergio took a deep breath and placated himself with the thought they were big machines and they would hold two bin bags each. The rapid wash took 30 minutes, which he thought was acceptable. Not good, but acceptable. Just. How much was it? 85p. He had plenty of £1 notes and a few 10p pieces, but thanks to Sod’s Law, no five pence pieces. He went to the change machine and fed it a £1 note. It gobbled it up greedily but gave him nothing in exchange. Under normal circumstances a person in a reasonable temper would not risk another pound, but Sergio was a boiling cauldron. Common sense had abandoned him and he took the risk of feeding the pound-eating monster with another, which again it swallowed, with a distinct clicking sound and nothing else. So he punched it. Nothing. Then he shook it. Nothing. So then he kicked it, and it crashed to the floor amidst a cascade of plaster and cement. The girls thought this was great, and bounced around, kicking bits of brick around the floor.
Tears of pure rage and frustration came into Sergio’s eyes. He had his girls with him, so he had to set an example, but while showing no more outwardly signs he passed to Level 8. He took a long, shuddering deep breath and settled the girls on the bench running down the centre of the Washerteria and gave them their colouring books and crayons. They were not to move, he told them until he returned from next door with some change. Next door was a Chinese takeaway, which, at 9.45 on a Saturday morning was not open. Next to that was a corner shop, open till midnight but again, not open at 9.45am. Across the lane, The Commercial public house was closed. Next to that was a cobblers, (closed) then, the Northern Rock Building Society, also closed. Next, wonder of wonders was a newsagent and general store, which was open, but on the door was a notice that read, “no change given for the Washerteria”. Sergio’s heart sank. Then, he had a brainwave. He could buy his washing powder there and then they would be forced to give him change.
Armed with lots of change he ran back to the Washerteria, very aware that he had left his two little angels by themselves. All was well with them and he quickly set the machine going with the first load of washing.
Unfortunately, in his masculine ignorance he had bought soap powder for hand washing. The amount of bubbles that squeezed out of the seal of the top-loading machine was alarming, but Sergio put it down to something his father had spilt onto his clothes. Two extra rinses and another half-hour later the first load was finished. He transferred the wet stuff into the tumble dryer and set his next batch off in the washing machine, playing I-spy and ring a ring a roses with his increasingly bored, thirsty and hungry children. Towards the end of the extra rinsing of the second batch, the door to the laundrette swung open and in walked a woman who could have been Les Dawson’s double. She went over to the two machines with the “out of order” signs on them, opened their lids, took her washing out and transferred it to the two unused tumble dryers, fed her money into them and set them running. She then returned to the washing machines and removed the out of order signs. Folding them neatly, she put them in her pinnie pocket and walked back out the door. It took Sergio a few minutes to understand what had just happened. The woman had put the signs on the machines so that no one would interfere with her washing; it also almost guaranteed that the two tumble dryers would be empty and ready for her to use. She had cost him two hours of his precious time.
He was practically moaning with the anger that was boiling inside his head. He had reached Level 9, but at that moment the ping of the timer brought his mind back from murderous thoughts to folding the first dry load into a nice neat pile. He then transferred the washed clothes to the tumble dryer and started the last load. The room was becoming increasingly hot with all three tumble dryers chundling round and the girls were getting increasingly bored. ‘Are we finished yet?’ They said. ‘When are we going home?’ ‘I’m really thirsty!’ ‘Kristy hit me, Daddy!’ ‘No I did not, and anyway she snapped my pencil!’
Finally, the last load was processed and Sergio was busy folding it up. The girls were quiet, having found something to occupy their inquisitive minds, at the end of the dryers in the far corner of the Washerteria. Suddenly, there was a crash and a big grey cloud of dryer fluff exploded into the room, covering everything it touched. And it touched everything – people, walls, machines, newly done washing, clothes, and the floor. It was impossible to breathe, so, all three ran outside covered in downy fluff, looking like newly hatched emus. It took a good quarter of an hour for the dust to settle before they could go back to retrieve their belongings. This gave Sergio time to reach the giddy heights of Level 10. What he realised, when he looked around was that his darling daughters had managed to remove the cover off the fluff filter at the back of the tumble dryers and the blowers from the three machines had blasted what was several years’ worth of fluff and dust into the atmosphere.
Washing and children having been unceremoniously shoved into the back of the car, he drove back to Colridge like Paddy Hopkirk on the final section of the RAC rally. He skidded to a halt on the gravel drive behind the van to be greeted by his father, still in his dressing gown, arms spread, looking like the statue of Christ the Redeemer that stands over Rio de Janeiro. ‘Son, I’m so sorry…’ he began.
Sergio, seeing the dressing gown, was tipped beyond Level 10. The red mist had come over him. Something had to give. And it did. Sergio walked up to his father, punched him squarely on the jaw and sent him crashing to the ground. Sergio just strode past him leaving him to recover and struggle to his feet.
Six weeks later Franco was dead. He had been riddled with cancer and must have been in constant pain. He had never consulted a doctor. The remorse and guilt that Sergio felt was palpable.
While they were waiting for the body to be released, Sergio and Carmella went through Franco’s personal papers. Sergio was keen to find out about his Dad’s history. He had been an intensely private man and never discussed any of his early years with his son. Sergio knew Franco spent some time in the USA, but did not know where or why, so he was flabbergasted to discover his father had been a stunt man in Hollywood. There were professional photographs of him in various costumes, posing with actresses like Olivia de Havilland and Anne Sheridan.
Sergio found it unbelievable that his Dad had just sat up on top of Colridge and had done nothing for as far back as he could remember. Under the photographs, wrapped in tissue paper was the Robin Hood costume Sergio wore in one of the photos. Under the costume was a brown envelope. Written on the document inside was the reason the Margarelli family had spent their days on a hill in the middle of nowhere. It was an agreement between Franco and a Don: not a man’s name, but a title. It said that if Franco spent the rest of his days on Colridge, his wife’s, son’s and his life would be spared and he could keep what little funds he had, but he was never to show his face outside of Northumberland. All deals would be off if he did. It read like one of his father’s film scripts, except one of the two signatures at the bottom was clearly Franco’s. The ink they had used was brown and smudgy. Was it blood?
The day of the funeral arrived, and it was to be a lavish affair. Sergio had announced his father’s demise in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle and he had been staggered by the amount of condolence cards that had arrived; not in their tens and twenties, but hundreds, all with long Italian names and all asking for the funeral details. Sergio arranged high mass at the big Roman Catholic Church in Morpeth and then a service at the crematorium. I attended the funeral to support Sergio and Carmella. I had only known Franco for a couple of years, but he had become part of my landscape. Although he was a man of few words, the few I had passed with him had been meaningful.
Sergio was on an immense guilt trip and wanted to give his father the send-off he deserved. The church was full of flowers, the cortège was ostentatious. There were even attractive professional female mourners who draped themselves over the coffin and wept as we waited for the service to start (after the funeral, Sergio denied paying anything for them and had no idea who they were). The church was filled predominantly with short, stocky, balding men in black suits, all wearing sunglasses. All they needed were the violin cases to complete the picture.
After the hour and a half of Latin and incense, the pallbearers arrived to move the coffin back to the hearse for transportation to the crematorium. The cortège left the church at 11.30 to get to the crematorium, which was out of town. They had to be there by 11.45. Wednesday morning in Morpeth is a market day, and there was also a miners’ picnic (a bit like a country fair) going on. It was busy to say the least. Everyone had to make their way through the one-way system and through the traffic lights. It turned into wacky races. All that was needed was the Benny Hill chase music. The signposts were unclear, and a lot of the mourners – there were hundreds of them were from out of town, were annoyed that no one was paying them the respect they deserved.
As I was going through the door of the chapel at the crematorium a man in a broad fedora turned and said to me with a thick Italian accent, ‘My word, but it’s hot in here.’
Putting both feet into the mire, I said, ‘what do you expect? It is a crematorium.’ Realising what I had said, together with the solemnity of the occasion. I started to giggle. When I start giggling, I cannot stop, and to make matters worse I am a very noisy giggler. The vast number of people trying to get into the chapel prevented me from escaping until I had got my infantile affliction under control, so I took my hanky (luckily a nice clean white one), out of my pocket and stuffed it unceremoniously into my mouth.
I found a corner at the back to sit in. I was totally out of control. Tears of laughter were running down my cheeks, I was making hissing noises and I was trembling. I hung my head to deaden the sound. Mercifully the service was very short but to my dismay I saw Sergio making his way to me. I took my hanky out of my mouth and clutched it in my hand, clenching my fists till the nails dug into my palms and pulled my face into a more contrite expression, keeping the urge to start giggling again strictly under control. Sergio said, ‘Philip, I’m touched by how much you must have thought of my father. Thank you for coming. I’m sure he is in a more comfortable place.’
He had clearly mistaken my appalling behaviour for somebody who was overcome by grief. To this day I have never told him the truth, mainly because I still get the giggles if I think about it.
Second only to a watertight roof and somewhere comfortable to lay your head, getting clean, especially on a farm, is of paramount importance. Unfortunately, there was no sewage system of any sort at Upper House, so putting one in was necessary before we could install any running water in the house. The day we got a fully functional bathroom was a real red-letter day, or to be more exact a browny-purple day. I had bought a top-of-the-range, ex-showroom Villeroy and Boch suite, which included an enormous corner bath. It’s only problem was its colour, which was a muddy purply, browny, reddy sort of colour, an extreme colour even though it was probably made in the psychedelic 1970s and already at least 10 years old, but that was why it was so cheap. As Ronald, the house’s previous owner would say, ‘nowt’s for nowt.’ He thought I was completely mad spending time and money on our living conditions when there was proper work to do out on the farm.
Ronald was a proud Yorkshire farmer, born and bred. He was a dyed in the wool bachelor. His brother, Edwin, a worldly married man who had once been to Leeds had kept a brotherly eye on him, Edwin’s wife cooked Ronald’s meals for him and the couple took him in after we bought the farm. Ronald seemed to be about 150 years old and had a wealth of knowledge inversely proportionate to the condition of his body. All that was left of him was sinew and bone. He looked like a desiccated Popeye. He wore woollen clothes that had been clean twenty years ago, when they probably would have fitted him. His flat cap was superglued to his head, and there it remained, even when he was eating his meals. I think he might have worn the cap to bed, too. But little did we know, when we exchanged contracts for the land, the stone walls, the barns and the houses, the deal also included this overgrown gremlin, who grumbled at every change we made.
Every morning at 7 o’clock sharp I would look out across the fields and there Ronald would be, wending his way to me, through rain, fog, and more rain. The first job of the day for him was to feed the hens and collect their eggs. In the field behind the house was what looked like a miniature railway truck on wheels. This was the hen house, or cree, as it was known in Yorkshire. Inside were our hens’ nesting boxes and their nightly roosts. Ronald would open the door so that the twelve-strong brood could run free for the day, and his last job of the day was to shut our poultry away safely in the cree. This was a responsibility he took very seriously.
One morning, a year and a half into this routine, I had almost finished milking when he arrived in the byre, his ruddy face redder than normal and his larger eye rheumier than ever. ‘A’m away t’ t’ouse fur t’gun,’ he growled, and then promptly disappeared like some magical creature from the forbidden forest.
It took a few moments for the news to sink in that Ronald, who squinted because of his poor eyesight and had hands that shook with the onset of Parkinson’s disease was going home to get a gun. As quickly as I could I stopped what I was doing and went outside, to see Ronald disappearing into the mist. After an anxious wait, he re-emerged, presenting the most forbidding sight. You know that at the beginning of the film, Gremlins, the creatures are cute and cuddly, but half way through, they turn into nightmarish ghouls. Well, imagine one of these ghouls armed with a shotgun and you will have a good idea what was emerging from the abyss.
I called to him to find out what on earth he was up to and why he needed a double-barrelled shotgun. He didn’t reply. He cut across in front of me, bulldozing his way to the hen cree, shotgun held at hip height like John Wayne entering a saloon full of bad guys. He jerked open the door, and because the door opened towards him and the entrance ramp was behind him he lost his footing and started to tumble backwards. One barrel of the gun exploded into the early morning silence, punching a hole up through the felt covered roof and sending chunks of timber and bitumen into the air like the spume of ash from a volcano. The thought of the madmen who lose control and murder whole communities flashed across my mind as Ronald continued his inevitable backward trajectory, propelled by the recoil of the shotgun. Suddenly from the door of the hen house a red blur emerged. Seeing its way blocked by a gun-toting gremlin, it launched itself into the air as if it were Red Rum at Beecher’s Brook. I had just focussed enough to see it was a large dog fox, when the second barrel of the gun thundered into the air and the beast tumbled to the ground, dead. Ronald continued rolling and as soon as his back made contact with the ground, and he rolled sideways and backwards. Drawing his knees up, he was on his feet in seconds as if the whole manoeuvre had been deliberate. Clint Eastwood would have been proud of the shot and Lewis Smith would have been delighted with the gymnastics.
Once Ronald was on his feet, he delivered his lecture on foxes. They were, he said the foulest creatures that roamed the earth. The only good fox was a dead one. They were the serial killers of the animal kingdom; they would kill every hen in the shed and take only one to eat. Sure enough, the creature had killed all our hens. It had tunnelled its way in through the bottom of the hut and torn away the timbers. He’d then wreaked so much havoc on the inside that he had blocked his own escape route, hence his demise. He got what he deserved.
Following a painful divorce, and the loss of his farm, Philip started his own dairy produce and married Jean, his sister’s friend and moved into an aprtment in Stanhope Castle
After Jean and I married, our life as working parents settled into a normal routine. We got to know most of our neighbours, who shared some of their adventures, both past and contemporary with us. We had secured the services of a local child minder, a young mum called Katy, who looked after the children before and after school. I had a very early start, so Jean normally delivered them to her before she left for her long drive into Newcastle. Jean was employed at the University, researching into something to do with retina attachment and when she got home she still had her thesis to write up. Following her three years post-graduate studies at Leeds University she had a mountain of results to sort through, analyse and come up with some new scientific conclusions. Then, if she presented them in an oral examination to a panel of professors and academics working in that field (it’s called a “viva”, from the Latin, viva voce, or “live voice”) and if they agreed with her results she would be awarded a Doctorate (PhD). This process took her about two and a half years of all her available spare time, but after overcoming some analysing problems she secured the prestigious qualification and was allowed to become Dr Jean Bennet (all her research was done in her maiden name).
I tended to get home first, so I collected the children from Katy. This worked really well apart from the day when Katy was not able to collect the children from school and we had arranged for Rob, a friend of mine to do the honours. I turned up at his house on Stanhope High Street at four o’clock and he invited me in for a natter and a cup of coffee. My children were playing in the front room with his two children who went to the same school and were the same age and sex as Gavin and Tracey-Emma. Rob and I were sitting at his scrubbed pine kitchen table, half way through our coffee, when he suggested that we should sample his new batch of home brew. So we did. I have a vague recollection of drinking half a pint of a really nice beer, but my next memory happened about four hours later, when I was lying flat out on the settee in our sitting room in The Beeches with Sharron kneeling beside me with a cold flannel, mopping my brow. She was speaking to Jean who had just got home and was standing in the open door. ‘Daddy is very poorly,’ Sharron said.
Much to my shame I was as drunk as a skunk. I had even driven the children home, because the car was parked outside. I had no recollection of this at all. The next day, as it happened to be a Saturday, I had a bit of a lie in and at about 10 o’clock Rob knocked on the door. He asked if I had a bad head, because his was stotting around like a puck at an ice hockey match. I was holding my head up with my working arm to preventing it from falling off and bouncing around on the floor. Without another word he came in and went up to Jean and said, ‘the wife has sent me around to apologise. She says I was a bloody fool and nobody should suffer my evil potions.’ With that he turned round and walked out. Unfortunately, his apology didn’t prevent me from being in the doghouse for several days.
The gatehouse to the castle was a Hansel and Gretel-like structure with tiny, fixed leaded windows, and it was occupied by a couple called Jane and Bill. One night at about 11.30pm, just as they were drifting off to their respective lands of dreams, a gentle fluttering of wings brushed against their bedroom window. It made the loving couple pull the duvet up a little higher, but halted their drift into the land of nod. Each tuned half an ear into the noises that an ancient building makes when the timbers contract and give up their heat that has been stored from the day. Five minutes passed and oblivion once more settled on the pair. Then there came a funny little cooing noise from the outside windowsill, which brought them wide awake. They both turned their bedside lights on and sat up, looking at the tiny curtained window. It was clearly not a burglar or anything dangerous, so the brave duo got out of bed, made their way to the window and drew back the curtain.
Sitting there on the narrow sill, with his back to them was a Little Owl. The miniscule chap was preening himself and making little contented cooing noises. Jane and Bill thought he was lovely; they smiled at one another, closed the curtain, switched off the light, snuggled into the duvet and cuddled up to one another. Sleep descended very quickly on them, but not for the ball of feathers sitting outside, for he had found his ideal hunting perch. The lights for the castle grounds were in front of him, giving him a clear, shadowless killing field. For the next hour or so he filled his near-bottomless belly with all the shrews, voles and dormice that ventured out of the surrounding woods in search of food. This miniature raptor took each catch back to his widow ledge to hungrily devour. When he had finally had his fill, he decided that his position of superiority in this area of Weardale needed establishing. He puffed out his chest and gave a long loud hoot, letting all his rivals know he was the chief here. He felt one hoot was not enough and he continued until Jane and Bill could take no more. Bill threw back the covers and stormed over to the non-opening, antique, listed, leaded window and rapped as hard as he dared. The owl stopped hooting and did that peculiar owl manoeuvre where he turned his head 180 degrees without any other part of his body moving. With his unblinking, enormous saucer shaped eyes, he looked directly at Bill, who was flapping his arms near to the window, shouting, jumping up and down and doing anything short of smashing through the window and knocking the fluff ball off. Basil Fawlty could not have given a better display of frustrated rage. The owl was totally unimpressed; he looked disdainfully at Bill and turned back to gaze at his hunting grounds. It was at this point Jane started to snigger. Bill realised how ridiculous he looked, prancing naked in front of the curtainless window and he started to laugh as well. Their tears of laughter turned to tears of frustration when, four hours later, the owl was still to-wit to-wooing on the sill.
The next day they were so annoyed they told everyone they met about their night visitor, but in doing so negated their chances of using more violent methods of ridding themselves of the legally protected night hooter. They had no idea it would go on intermittently for months. They tried every method they could think of to stop the pesky bird landing on their sill, before finally vacating the only double bedroom and moving into the box room down the hall. Their efforts included Bill standing in the courtyard at two o’clock in the morning in his dressing gown and slippers, the cold night air whipping round his nether regions, trying to poke the little bleeder off his perch with a fifteen-foot bamboo pole. As soon as Bill returned to his bed and turned off the light, the owl would ruffle his feathers, chunter disgruntledly under his breath and return to his perch.
It was at times like these that the use of a shotgun seemed the best and only solution, but that was out of the question, as the owl was protected by law. Of course at three o’clock in the morning, the temptation to break the law was attractive, but the damage it would have caused to the castle would have been prohibitive. Another, legal method they tried was installing those spiky strips that they use to keep pigeons off ledges in city centres. The problem was that owls are far more intelligent than pigeons. Using nesting technology, their little avian professor filled the gaps between the spikes with sticks and moss to make a substantial platform from which to launch his nightly forays.
Then, one Friday night in winter, there was complete silence from the windowsill. Bill and Jane enjoyed a full night’s sleep and a three-hour lie in on Saturday morning, followed by a slow, leisurely breakfast. To blow the cobwebs away on this sunny, crisp clear morning, they decided to take a walk in the woods. Putting on woolly hats, scarves and gloves, they set off down the path. They hadn’t gone fifty yards when they saw, in the middle of the path, frozen stiff, dead as a doornail the Little Owl. Bill wanted to stamp on the little bugger with glee, but Jane went all gooey about it, picked the little chap up and took it home. She had him stuffed, making him a permanent member of the family. It was the ideal compromise – Bill had the satisfaction of having the job he wanted done in the first place and Jane had a little feathered memento for her mantelpiece.
Derek and Joan occupied a flat around the corner from The Beeches, above the castle’s old wine cellars. They had moved there after living in the Raffles Hotel in Singapore for the previous twenty years. Derek was the wine correspondent for Diners Club International’s monthly magazine and had a collection of wine second to none. It was all stored in neat, catalogued rows in the stone vaulted cellars, which protected it from the harsh weather conditions of upper Weardale. Derek had been a naval officer before taking up his colonial life style with his young bride in Singapore and I’m afraid that they did not live in the real world. They’d come back to England to retire, and on disembarking in Portsmouth to start their retirement, they were dismayed they couldn’t fulfil their dream return to Blighty. This was to go into the nearest pub, order a pint of Guinness and a dozen oysters each. It was fish and chips or nothing!
One cold December morning Joan arrived at our door to introduce herself. She was dressed in a baby pink cat suit, was fully made up and sported a blonde bubble perm. She looked like a Eurovision song contest entrant from the early seventies. ‘Where,’ she asked, ‘can I order a daily delivery of fresh flowers?’
Tact is not one of my strongest attributes, but in an effort to be welcoming I suggested some creative foraging in the castle’s gardens and woods. She was more likely to find Lord Lucan in the local shops than fresh flowers. She was obviously a lady who was well used to getting her own way and she pursed her lips, turned on her heels and said, ‘Well, I’ll have to see about that. Thank you!’
How she managed to make her thank you sound like ‘You stupid man,’ I’ll never know, but it must be a generation thing. This pink apparition became a regular feature around the castle as she busied herself trying to make the grounds look presentable, but unfortunately she was totally ineffectual, because she flitted from task to task, never quite getting to grips with anything. One snowy morning just after Christmas, I became aware of how quiet it was in the house, and realised the children must be outside. Pulling on my wellingtons, I went in search of the mischievous trio and when I rounded the corner of the castle I saw, on the doorstep of Derek and Joan’s house three small pairs of boots, all standing in a neat row. I had never been inside their house, but imagine my dismay when I was shown into the sitting room. It was furnished in a light cream carpet and there was a large matching three-piece suite. There, sat in the middle of the practically white, sumptuous settee were my fun-filled three, grinning from ear to ear, each cradling large mugs of steaming hot chocolate.
It was one of those moments when the art of Zen becomes paramount. I sat in an armchair opposite them, and with well-chosen, calm-filled words prayed silently, because no matter how confident you are about your children’s behaviour, hot chocolate and white furnishings do not mix. Joan flitted around the room like a fussy, emaciated pink chicken, titivating the ornaments here and plumping cushions there. After an incredibly tense quarter of an hour for me, but a good time for everyone else I was able to extract the little darlings without any of the children depositing chocolate stains on Joan’s white furnishings. As we were leaving, I hung back and I explained to Joan the risks she had taken with her pristine interior. I was amazed how she waved my cautionary words aside, saying they were welcome to a drink of chocolate any time they wanted, and on her cream sofa. That said, I can’t remember her ever having them round again.
In 1986, the snow fell heavily and the valley sides and minor roads became brilliant sledging tracks. Sharron was eleven, Tracey-Emma was seven and a half and Gavin six and for Christmas I bought them each sledges from Fenwick’s in Newcastle, the like of which I had never seen, and have never seen since. They were like a narrow, solid Li-lo, and if you put “snow body boarding, air boarding” into YouTube you will see something approaching their mode of operation. They could take three people sitting or one person lying down. They would slide on wet grass, let alone a snowy slope and were faster than most skis. Obviously I had to choose the slopes carefully so that the children didn’t get into trouble.
One Sunday, my parents were visiting and Dad, Grandpa Dixon was keen to have a go on one of these sledges. Grandpa was not a practical man. Granny (me Mam) would dread the days he would attempt any DIY. In fact she would hide his tools so he couldn’t use them. The damage he caused was always costly and the day would end in arguments because of his frustration at his ineptitude. His driving skills were no better. He always drove big, 4-litre models and they would become bashed and dented very soon after they left the showroom. He would approach a roundabout thinking he would be turning right, and sure enough he would, but he’d go the wrong way around it. In his mind, that was a more direct route. One day he drove round a corner, straight into the bucket of a big bulldozer. The list of the bashes and scrapes he got into is endless.
As we stood on the children’s sledging track together, Grandpa kept on looking over at where the village’s teenage bucks were having a raucous time, sledging, skiing and sliding down a precipitous run. He turned to me and said, ‘That track looks good fun.’
‘No, Dad,’ I said. ‘These sledges go too fast. Go on a gentler slope until you have leaned how to control it.’
Of course, to Grandpa, this was a challenge to his age and his masculinity, so off he went, trudging his way through the deep snow to the top of the hill, where the boys had compacted the track into an ice run. Halfway up he had got hot, so he had unzipped his waterproofs and put his bobble hat in his pocket. He paused at the top only to wipe his fashionable (at the time) over-large spectacles, and then threw himself forcefully onto the sledge. It was like watching Eddie the Eagle – even the glasses were the same – and we all expected disaster, even though we could not help but admire his courage.
Man and sledge careered down the hill at breakneck speed. At one point, the two of them separated in mid air over a large bump, but managed to reunite just as the sledge crashed into the ground and continued their journey towards terminal velocity. The whole journey couldn’t have lasted more than sixty seconds and Granny didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Grandpa overshot the end of the track and was heading at the speed of sound in the direction of the River Wear, but the impending cold wet dip was fortunately avoided when he flew head first into a large snowdrift. All we could see were two snow-covered legs sticking out. We all rushed over and pulled him out, which was hard work. Even his wellingtons were full to the top with impacted snow. Rolling him over was just as hard, because his partly unzipped jacket had filled with hard snow. His head was caked in snow, but somehow his glasses were still visible on the surface of his snow-white head. As he shook off his snowy casing he laughed, and laughed, and laughed, making him look like a vibrating comedy snowman. The happiness virus had infected us all and tears of merriment coursed down our cheeks.
When he had gathered his composure he started out with determined strides for another go. Granny ran after him and shouted at him that he was to do no such thing. He continued on his way, leaving Granny behind. Bad move. You don’t ignore Granny. She ran after him and rugby tackled him, knocking him of his feet, which started us all on another round of uncontrollable laughter.
The prologue from The French Experience (its working title), the next book by Philip Dixon, to be published soon by Earlswood Press
The early morning spring sunshine bounced off the rolling English Channel, casting bright shards of light that forced me to cover my eyes. Behind us, the twin propellers of The Pride of Dover cross-channel ferry whipped the surf as it drove me away from familiarity to the excitement of the unknown. I had boarded the ferry at 6 o’clock that morning, along with George Lidbury, an agent who would deliver me to a farm in the centre of France called Les Marais, which I was supposed to be buying. But as I gripped the safety rail, with the sun and a fine salt mist on my face, I was contemplating how on earth I came to be on this boat.
A year earlier I had been the general manager of the Ashley Chase Estate in the Bride Valley, just outside of Dorchester. All my working life I had been involved in dairy farming, and Ashley Chase was reckoned to be the largest dairy farm in Britain (if there was bigger I never came across it). As just one small part of the operation, we made 5 tonnes of farmhouse cheddar a day. It was a multi-million-pound agribusiness created by, and the life’s work of L T S Littman. He was so proud of his achievement he wrote a book, Ashley Chase, a Dorset Domain, celebrating its formation.
Nine years previous to my ferry trip to France, Mr Littman had died, and at that time the Ashley Chase Estate had not been profitable. I had been appointed to make it so, and having achieved this, Mrs Littman, the widow of the owner, a gracious French lady, decided to offload the responsibility of her inheritance by dividing her estate between two much loved but belligerent, bickering adult sons. Cedric, the younger son, sadly decided to sell off large portions of the estate. His father would have been horrified.
I was made redundant because of this, but before that happened I was tasked with managing the practicalities of the sale and of breaking the bad news to the staff of the mass redundancies. In agriculture, salaries have always been low, because they take into account the tied cottages that are provided with the job. Living on the job has pros and cons, but when you are made redundant you not only lose your salary, but you and your family also lose a home. Long gone are the days when retiring agricultural workers, having given a lifetime of service to national food production, had a right to be housed. Instead, people who manipulate the system have a greater right than those who have earned it. The Tolpuddle Martyrs must be turning in their Australian graves at the anguish caused by this injustice.
Mrs Littman had agreed to allow the Dorset Operatic Society to host an outdoor concert of Puccini’s La Bohème in the beautiful grounds of Ashley Chase House. This would take place on my last day there, and I was requested to put together the infrastructure for it. I have done many varied things, but this was a whole new ball game. All of a sudden my life was infected by foppish artistic types and neurotic women, wind-milling their arms about, making requests which would always start, ‘Philip darling, I do think it would be nice if we could just…?’ They had no concept of money or logistics and seemed to think that comfortable seating, car parking, loos and interval refreshments would be provided by the fairies.
Under the stars on a gloriously warm summer evening, the performance went very well. When everybody had gone, all that was left for me to do was switch the lights off and walk down the long drive, into a new, as yet unknown future. In the silence of the night, this moonlit walk was made more poignant, because the tree-studded parkland surrounding the house, which we had used as a car park was illuminated with tea lights, set in brown paper sacks. Now the cars had gone it looked completely surreal, with a myriad of glowing orange stars that appeared to have fallen from the sky. With the sound of the opera, and an image of Mimi’s tiny frozen hand swirling around in my head, I walked away, putting the lights out one at a time, and in doing so gradually distancing myself from the big house as it disappeared into the blackness of the night.
The act of handing over a £500 deposit to George Lidbury, a complete stranger who had assured me that he would be able to find me a farm that I would want to buy did not sit comfortably with me. I discovered this individual after answering an advert in Farmers Weekly. He claimed that viable dairy farms were available in France for the price of a semi-detached house in Britain. This sounded like a major scam to me, but desperate times need desperate measures. When I rang him up, he sounded plausible; he had been (and still is) running his business, Eurofarms.com since 1989. I then contacted other people he had helped buy French farms and when I called them they all sang his praises, but when I researched the price of land and farms in France I found the prices were far greater than I could afford. It didn’t stack up. I rang him back to tell him so, and he explained the farms we would be looking at were not normally available to les étrangers (foreigners), but he worked on the local market, dealing with two government departments, the ADASEA, which is a quango that oversees the development of agricultural land and the countryside, and the SAFER, which controls the transfer of agricultural land. With my background and many decades experience in dairy farming he would be able to secure grants to help me start up as a young agriculturist.
‘Hadaway, man,’ I told him, my incredulity revealing my Geordie roots. I was 45. Young I was not.
George drew in a breath and patiently explained, in great detail, about the French installation process. As long as you had never owned or rented a farm in France, you could virtually be any age to be classified as a “jeune agriculteur”; perhaps “new farmer” would be a more realistic translation.
I took the gamble. I handed over £500 (that was deducted off his final commission, if, I bought) and at 10 o’clock one Sunday night, he picked me up in his black Citroën Xantia and we set off from Dorchester for the Euro tunnel to start a week-long trip. He had arranged to show me fifteen dairy farms. I was to pay for the fuel and accommodation, and he was to do the driving. It is all very well to check the veracity of the people you wish to do business with, but normally it is not necessary to check their driving ability too. Ability is an understatement, because George Lidbury was a former international rally driver. He made Brian O’Conner of Fast and Furious seem like Postman Pat. However I cannot stress enough what a bonus it was being chauffeured around France by an extremely competent driver. The distances are vast and it was essential to pack in as many farm visits in as possible to make the whole trip cost efficient for me. At 12.15am we drove onto the train at Folkestone, disembarked at Calais and drove through the rest of the night and the early hours of the morning. We breakfasted on croissants, hot out of the ancient, cast iron, wood fired oven that almost filled the local boulangerie. We drank several dark steaming espressos, courtesy of the bar in the village square and sat at the red chequered outside tables for half an hour, pulling ourselves together after the 10-hour ordeal. The dappled light that filtered through the pollarded plane trees shielding the square from the early morning sun eased away the night’s tension and allowed excitement to return. By 9 o’clock, we were driving onto our first dairy farm, just outside the village of Le Ménil. How could such different cultures be separated by a strip of water shorter than Loch Ness?
The farm’s bâtiment agricole, the group of farm buildings that a Northumbrian would call a steading, was just 100 metres from the outskirts of the village, which consisted of just twenty or so houses, a bar, the boulangerie and an enormous Roman style church. We jumped out of the car and shouted ‘bonjour’ to the empty buildings, hoping somebody would answer, but all was as silent as the Marie Celeste. Not even a hen clucked a greeting. George scuttled up the road to the nearest house for help and was told that the farmer, a Monsieur Fournet was on the high pasture, milking his cows. We jumped back in the car and snaked 800 metres up a tiny gravel track that clung to the side of a very steep mountain. All of a sudden, the land flattened out and a lush, green, dished plateau stretched out before us. It was as if God had taken a giant teaspoon and chopped the top off a mountainous egg. Under the azure sky, could I see Julie Andrews, skipping barefoot through the wild meadow flowers? It was spectacular.
As we mounted the brow we saw Monsieur Fournet, leaning against an enormous brown and white cow with the nonchalance of a man who had lived with his stock all his life. He was waiting for her to finish delivering her white gold into a giant, spherical, stainless steel tank, which was mounted on the back of a battle-scarred grey Citroën pick-up truck that could have been used by the French Résistance during the war. The petrol driven generator hummed gently in the background, driving the pulsing “chushhh- pupe, chushhh -pupe” of the bail (a portable milking parlour) he was using to milk the 40-strong herd of Montbéliarde cows. It truly was an odd combination of ancient and modern.
I said ‘bonjour’ to Monsieur Fournet. He peeled himself off the cow, shuffled forward to shake my hand and spoke to me, and at this point, reality kicked in. I was taught French at Gateshead boys Grammar School by Taffy Jones, a Welshman from a mining community in the Rhonda Valley. His French accent was non-existent but his Welsh one was very pronounced. He of course, was teaching a class of Geordies, all be it a group of well-spoken ones, but nevertheless very northern. It took me three attempts to get my French ‘O’ level, with two years of extra tuition and then I only managed to scrape through with a Grade d. I didn’t have a clue what Monsieur Fournet said, but he was smiling, so I smiled back and nodded like some imbecile. Thank the lord that George took over, or this venture would have been very short-lived. I was heartened by the fact that I recognised some of the words that George used, but I still could not follow the conversation. Instead, I took the opportunity to assess this pickled walnut of a man standing before me. He was very mole-like, with tiny, narrow eyes and huge, brown, wrinkled, shovel-like hands. Weather-beaten is not a harsh enough word to describe his complexion; weather-hammered gets close. I could see he was ready to retire. He looked very tired, so imagine my amazement when I found out he was only 56. I would have put him nearer 76. George explained later that day that on most of the farms we would be looking at, farmers were getting out before a new EEC rule arrived forcing men to retire at 65. Sons who did not want to inherit their forefathers’ burden had moved to cities for the bright lights and an easier life, rather than age prematurely like their parents.
Monsieur Fournet let the final five cows out of the bail and after the quickest wash down of a milking plant I have ever seen, led us back down the mountain, away from the summer pasture, where George explained the arrangement of the farm’s tenure. The farm had three parcels of land; the upper pasture, a parcel surrounding the farm building and a further 80 hectares a bit further away. What was for sale was 20 hectares of the land, the farm buildings, all the machinery and all the cattle. The other 140 hectares were rented and he assured us there would be no trouble taking over the tenancy. There were several houses in the village to rent or buy and there was even a renovation project of a house (which was in fact a pile of stones) next to the farm buildings. I walked around the old fashioned, but nevertheless mechanised cow stalls, and I went into the hay barn, which was full of large round bales of the sweetest smelling hay. My mind was in overdrive, because the asking price was only €175,000 (£126,000). Then George gave me a nod and told me we had to go. Our next appointment, arranged at 12.30pm was a 2-hour drive and we only had an hour and a half to get there.
As we sped away, George told me that the farm was an administrative nightmare. To be able to sell milk from a farm in an EEC country you have to obtain a licence / quota dictating how many litres you are allowed to produce annually. On this farm, the milk quota was attached to the upland pasture, which was rented; secondly, I would have to deal with two landlords, one of which was Mr Fournet’s brother and the other his brother in law. Thirdly, but most importantly, each parcel of land was in a different département, or administrative region. Le Ménil was in the Vosges, the summer upland was in Franche Compté and the other piece was in Alsace. At this point in time I didn’t know what effect this would have had, but with hindsight I realise it would have taken a full time administrator to keep up with the paperwork from the three départements.
Our next appointment was in a tiny hameau (hamlet) outside Montbozon in the Doubs Département. Thoughts of why we were in France were not possible during the white-knuckle ride to the next appointment; I was so preoccupied with my own survival. George would not use the autoroutes with their péages (toll booths) but stuck to the routes nationales and minor roads where possible, a lot of which seemed to follow the old Roman roads or their Napoleonic extensions and were as straight as a die and extremely fast. At traffic lights in busy town centres, he wouldn’t wait in the queue for them to change several times. He would pull onto the wrong side of the road and drive to the front, stopping at the red light. The local traffic would see the registration plate and realise he was English. Gallic heads would shake generously; shoulders would rise and fall sympathetically. ‘This stupid rosbif, on the wrong side of the road!’
Then, “dis donc!” when the light changed from red to green the mood of the French drivers would swing dramatically as George pulled off from the spot as if he was on the starting grid at Brands Hatch. Horns would blare and fists would shake as they watched his disappearing taillights and realised they had been conned. It was exhilarating and at no time did I feel that George was out of control. I suppose I felt like one of those stars in Top Gear when The Stig took them for their first circuit.
Driving as only George could, we arrived just 10 minutes late. The visit here was very short-lived. The set up was positively medieval. The farmhouse was in the middle of a village, with the cows’ stalls underneath. Twice a day, the cows had to walk the length of the village to the pasture, and back, on a path that was too steep to take a vehicle. It was hopeless. It was 6 o’clock by the time we arrived at our third and last visit of the day. This looked more like it, with modern facilities, a good house and the pastures within a ring fence (the land was in one block). George and I spent a long time looking around and all seemed promising until I looked at the cow records. The herd had deep rooted health problems and I came to the conclusion the land was cow sick, which happens when too many cows are kept on the land for too long.
The next farm visit was at 8.30 the following morning, so it was on to Limoges, four and a half hours drive away for our overnight stop. We drove through the evening, stopping for an hour for something to eat. George was so tired he was dancing his legs up and down while he was driving to keep awake. We pulled into a motel at 11.30 that night, but after breakfast the next morning were on the road again by 7.30. For the next four days we kept this up, seeing between three and four farms a day. None of the farms were as I imagined they might be, although most of them were still viable. When we returned to the UK at midnight on the Friday I arranged with George for another week of visits in three weeks’ time. I had short-listed two, and this had given George a clearer idea of the sort of thing I was looking for. Towards the end of the second week of searching, things were getting clearer and it seemed to boil down to two fundamental options which were; a farm with modern farm buildings and a Friesian herd struggling with health problems, or an ancient steading with Montbéliarde cows. Montbéliarde was a breed I had no experience with, or indeed knowledge of. They looked like Herefords on steroids, if a little lumpy in shape, but enjoyed marvellous health. The French described them rustique or “robust”, and that about summed them up.
As we were driving along, discussing the options, George received a telephone call from SAFER in Bourges. The caller told him that a dairy farm had just become available and there was little time left for the farmer to move out before the retirement ruling kicked in. From the description that George relayed to me, it sounded ideal, but experience had taught me they all sound good over the phone. We cancelled our next appointment and set off on the three-hour drive to one of the five villages that claim to be truly the centre of France. As we neared our destination the landscape was disappointing, with great flat grain prairies that lay south of Bourges, but as we entered the south Berry region of the Cher Département, the ground started to roll gently. There were large areas of woodland, making it softly beautiful. I was falling for the area already. Saulzais le Poitier was the nearest village and as we passed through it seemed to me to have all that is necessary for daily life. And it had that shabby elegance that is so typical of a lot of French villages.
Our destination was a farm called Les Marais, which lay a short drive to the west of the village. As we drove down the single-track road, lined with neatly clipped hawthorn hedges and entered the tree-lined rough farm track, I knew this was the one.
Monsieur Askamp was waiting for us, outside his old farmhouse. The building had all the living accommodation on the ground floor and a large granary above. It was very typical of the area, with a traditional range of farm buildings bordering a large grassed quadrangle. The eastern side of the lawn faced open countryside and the wooded hills in the distance. It was so peaceful. As we got out of the car a mongrel dog galloped up to me with her tail wagging in that random way that makes their rear end sway from side to side, making it impossible for her to run in a straight line. Her name was Flora and she also came with the farm. As we shook hands, Monsieur Askamp told me to call him Gerard. I was pleased to feel his hands were soft and pliable. This was always one of the things I looked for when employing herdsmen. If their hands weren’t soft, you could bet your bottom dollar the cows’ udders would be cracked and dry too.
The farm was 75 hectares of softly undulating lowland, studded with mature cherry and oak coppices, all in a ring fence. There were lots of sound buildings, a good simple milking parlour and all the machinery needed to farm. It even had a 4-hectare irrigation lake. The herd of 40 cows was a mixture of Friesians and Montbéliardes, which would give me the opportunity to appreciate the differences between the breeds. I was all ready to say yes to a deal, when Gerard said there was something else to see and that his wife, Françoise, would show me. She took me down to an old piggery that looked semi-derelict and to my amazement there was a second milking parlour but on a much smaller scale. I was intrigued. Françoise continued on into an old farrowing house (a place where sows give birth). This had been converted into a large open barn for 60 alpine milking goats. If I had been able to sign on the dotted line there and then I would have done so.
I knew enough about French land values, and although Gerard was technically the owner, he had already entered the retirement scheme. This meant there was not time for the paper work to be completed before his date to officially stop work, so there was to be a paper transaction where the SAFER would be the owners for a short while.
It was complicated.
After an awful lot of meetings with all the necessary departments (and believe you me there were a tremendous number of them) I was accepted, which seemed strange to me, as I was the one buying, and a plan drafted by the CER (Conseil de l’ expertise comptable – another quango, this time dealing with all things financial) to present to the banks. It was like wading through treacle and George held my hand through the whole process. He taught me when a fonctionnaire (an official) said ‘non’ he meant ‘maybe’ and when you wear him down, ‘peut-etre’ (perhaps) means ‘yes’. After sending my agricultural qualifications to a government department that verified they were comparable with the French ones and I was suitably qualified, I was accepted as a jeune agriculteur. Then it got to the stage where the whole process seemed to have gathered a momentum all of its own, albeit a very sedate one and things just began happening. Meetings would be arranged, where George and I would attend and our only contribution seemed to be ‘bonjour’, ‘au revoir’, and the very occasional ‘oui’ or ‘non’. Then as if by magic all the problems disappeared and it was arranged. I was going to buy Les Marais and I was to live with the Askamp family for a minimum of three months before I took over the farm to familiarise myself with French ways.
So here I was on The Pride of Dover ferry, being delivered to my new home and business, with my family to follow at a later date. Was I excited with this new adventure? You bet but also very nervous. Yet again I was laying all my worldly possessions on the line but as J Rockefeller said “If you’re not living on the edge then you’re taking up too much space”
Well! Where on earth do I start? I’ll skip the preamble and just say I am on the final few days countdown to take up a job in Nyandarua County, Kenya. Am I nervous? I’d be a fool not to be, but I am thrilled to be having the opportunity. I have been fascinated by Africa since having cut my reading teeth on Gerald Durrell’s’ work, followed by anything to do with that mighty and mysterious continent. But therein lies the reason for this blog. There appears to be little or no information out there about up to date modern life in Kenya, unless of course you are going on Safari or visiting a tourist spot. Fortunately for me English is the official language, but I have still been trying to learn a bit of Swahili on the net. There are forty-five tribes in Kenya and all of them speak a different dialect of Swahili, so it’s a bit of a challenge. When I first went to Kenya for my interview there were all sorts of questions about protocol that I wanted answers for, e.g. having said hello first thing in the morning, is that it for the day? It seemed to me that if you were out of each other’s company for an hour or so a fresh set of greetings would take place. When we lived in France, if you had overlooked that you had already said “bonjour” that day and you said it again, people would be offended that you had forgotten the earlier contact. To not cause offence you had to say “Re-bonjour”. In Kenya there also seemed to be a number of different handshakes, some quite complicated, I didn’t manage to find out when and where you used the different forms. Then there was greeting people of the opposite sex. The French have got air kissing off to fine art and although it should be quite intimate, it is perfunctory and, in my opinion, quite sterile. On the five evenings I socialised with a group of professionals who met at the bar of the Karen Lodge, where I was staying, for an end of day drink and a wind down. The first thing that was noticeable was that the sex split was fifty-fifty and the women dominated the conversation. We all sat on high bar stools around a covered area heated by an open fire. Although we were virtually on the equator, the temperature in the evening was only nine degrees, so a warm fire was a welcome addition to the evening’s ambiance. The first few evenings’ greetings were kept on a pretty formal basis but when it became certain I was going to join life in Kenya, the male-female greeting moved to a bisous and a quick hug. Now being a Geordie I am well used to the tactile greeting, with a quick peck for the girlies and a good back slap for the boys (it’s a northern thing) and one I had to be careful of. Ever since I knackered my left arm 30 odd years ago, when I go into the greeting clinch it hangs somewhat limply (my arm that is!) and the recipient gets their bottom touched. So, when the third evening came and it was clear I should greet the girls with the informal greeting, I kept to a one armed squeeze and, just to be sure, I asked if I was behaving appropriately. They all replied politely that anything goes in Kenya, so I shouldn’t worry about it. So actually I am no further forward in knowing what is the correct greeting to use when or where or whether “anything does go in Kenya”. Either way it promises to be exciting times!
At Karen Lodge, where I am staying in Kenya there is a spreading, fruit-laden loquat tree that not only attracts monkeys but the work-worn intelligentsia from this upmarket feeder town for Nairobi City. Below the tree is a table, a unique, large round table with the trunk of this tree exploding from its centre. Two-inch thick boards of nut-brown timber radiate from its bark like the blades of some giant wooden turbine. Immediately below branches with their bright yellow hanging clusters of monkey fodder is an open-sided wooden pagoda, which shelters the table’s occupants from the falling debris of the feeding frenzy above. The cool night air is kept at bay by the heat of an open fire that burns brightly on the farthest side. It is hidden from any passers-by that are too shy to join in the intense debates that happen here nightly.
Ten tall wooden bar stools surround the table. On one side, guilt ridden smokers puff away on their coffin nails while opposite, smug, non-addicts sit in not-so-silent judgement. The alcoholic consumption is directly in proportion to the intensity of the debate. The choice of tipple is either beer or wine and quite a lot of it, but very rarely spirits. This keeps Umbogo the barman incredibly busy. When he is in sight, that is. He scuttles back and forwards keeping his customers satisfied with drinks, their suppers and the occasional match for the smokers’ cigarettes. When he is out of sight either his legs turn to lead or he goes seems to go to France for the next glass of wine. Or perhaps even he is brewing the beer fresh. Having taken your order with great efficiency, he will not return with it for at least fifteen minutes. If it is food, lets just say you’re good and hungry when it arrives. On the other hand, it is freshly cooked and wholesome.
Always present t the table there is the President, an elder figure, but who he may be I’ve yet to discover and perhaps it is rude to ask. There is almost always a propensity of girls and they explained that this was a place they could relax in and not be “hit on” by passing lecherous men. Now this is a bit of a backhanded compliment because in no way do I want to be thought of as lecherous but on the other hand no red-blooded male wants to feel he has lost his edgy appeal. When I was first greeted at the “Round Table”, the topic that seemed to be visited every night was Brexit and how stupid and shortsighted the UK public had been. Now of course the subject has crossed the pond and the girls – no, that’s not right – these are bright eyed, vivacious, opinionated women who have taken possession of American politics and are affronted at the uncertainty the world has been thrown into. The outnumbered men with their loosened ties and crumpled suits sometimes play devil’s advocate and put forward subtle arguments just to fuel the discussion and outrage. When the whole tone becomes too ascorbic and the debate has reached its zenith, because the protagonists are running out of ammunition, then, the table President and founder speaks with such knowledge and authority that we all feel like silly children in front of Dad. I’ve learned so much about the character and nature of the people of Kenya, sitting, listening and only occasionally joining in. There is a distinct loyalty, almost personality split within each Kenyan, on one side is the ancient family tribal traditions from the thirty odd different tribes and the other is a united Kenya forging its way forward, firstly within Africa, then within planet earth.
The “karibu” (welcome) everybody receives when visiting this Table of Knowledge is profound and and feeling of inclusion heartfelt. Different opinions are welcomed, no matter how extreme and at the end of the evening, no grudges are harboured. It is so refreshing to find that true conversation at its highest level has not disappeared into the electronic ether, even if I have travelled over 6500 miles from home to find it.
Philip Dixon’s formative years were spent around the banks of the River Tyne, in the north of England and later on farms in the area in the 1950s and 1960s. He describes himself as “first and foremost a dairy farmer” and has spent much of his working life farming and managing dairies in England and France, and has owned and run a chambre d’hote in France.
Besides farming, Philip has renovated houses, appeared on television and radio and had articles written about him in Farmers Weekly. Presently he lives in Surrey with his wife, Heather. He has four children of his own and is stepfather to three more, all of whom are now adults. When he wrote this book, he was working in a special needs school, which he describes as an incredibly rewarding experience. He and Heather now live in Dorset.
Visit Philip’s and read his latest blog
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Upper House Farm, South Yorkshire
Ducks Away! The start of the very first plastic duck race
Stanhope Castle, where Philip and his second wife, Jean lived. This foreboding place had been a secure institution for young offenders
If all you ever wanted to do in life was to be a farmer, nothing will stop you – not even losing the use of one of your arms! In this heart-warming tale, former Northumbrian farmer Philip Dixon recounts the story of how he began farming at the age of seventeen, at last acquiring his own farm a decade later, coming to terms with all manner of events and fascinating local characters. His story is told with humour and candour, and features his farming neighbours and colleagues in the north of England and some of the less pleasant people he met as he moved away from farming and into the dairy product industry. This book brings up to date the world occupied by James Herriot, but with an added edge
“Skilfully crafted tales of farming life that veer seamlessly between enchanting and explicit, hilarious and heart-breaking”, says former senior Reuters editor Paul Radford
Also available in paperback March 2017 (UK) and May 2017 (USA)
264 pages | 198mm x 126mm | ISBN 9780957475410
Cover price UK £8.99 USA $14.95
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Just what is it like for a foreigner to live and work in a northern Italian village, and become part of the community? How tough is it to leave your home country and settle in a new one? What do you have to do to be accepted by the people who live in a village that has existed for over five hundred years? Award-winning mural and Trompe L’oeil artist and stage designer Paul Wright and his partner Nicola found out the hard way, working, playing, laughing, eating and drinking alongside the residents of a beautiful lakeside village
“Paul Wright’s tribute to the robust pleasures of village life on Lake Como … brings out the generosity and humanity of the inhabitants” Desmond O’Grady, Italian Insider Review
Also available in paperback -
264 pages | 198mm x 126mm | ISBN 9780956230812
Cover price UK £8.99 USA $14.95
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[Find it as an ebook on Shakespir
In this, the sequel to his successful debut book, ‘An Italian Home’, Paul describes life in the Italian village of Moltrasio, particularly focussing on the Italian male. His regular dialogue with a group of men who have retired, mostly from the catering trade, punctuates his adventures beyond the village boundaries for all manner of clients, both reputable and not so reputable in the surrounding area and beyond, to the Italian Riviera. After selling some of his trademark Trompe L’Oeil painted furniture to an American client, he finds himself working for one of them at his home in New England, and enjoying a break in New York City, where he discusses the art market. With his typical Liverpudlian humour, Paul pulls no punches in describing the behaviour, likes, dislikes and prejudices of the people he meets.
“An insightful and often funny depiction of Italian Life” Hannah McIntyre, The Italian Insider Magazine
Also available in Paperback in the UK now, from May 2017 in the USA
264 pages | 198mm x 126mm | ISBN 9780993101892
Cover price UK £8.99, US $14.95
From all book retailers
Find it as an ebook on Shakespir
Philip Dixon describes himself as "First and foremost, a dairy farmer". But his readers will tell you he is a great storyteller too, weaving tales of his lifetime's work in farms across the UK and now, in Africa. In this free sampler, let us introduce you to Philip's work, with extracts from his first book, Dairy Cows and Duck Races, his forthcoming work, French Cows and Four Kisses and some tracts from his blog, about his work in Kenya Former REuters News Agency senior editor Paul Radford says of Dairy Cows and Duck Races: "Skilfully crafted tales of farming life that veer seamlessley between enchanting and explicit, hilarous and heartbreaking."