Blowing hot and cold

The snow has finally arrived to give the land a purifying make-over. Behind the hills, the dawn is a pearly glow, while to the west a band of cloud hangs like a violet curtain. It was a cold one, with rumours of -11 in the depths of the night. Thankfully, with the sun promising to rise, it is now a balmy -3. My hands are freezing already thanks to the finger-less gloves I wear to work my camera (it’s either them, or I have to take proper ones off completely). Above the village, chimneys puff out icy breaths – some of us have our fires on early. Though the UK government is considering taxing stoves or open fires to help with particulates (microscopic sooty particles lurking round city streets in particular that attack those with breathing problems), we have good reason to be glad of them. More than once in the time we’ve been here the power-lines have been felled for a few days by the weight of snow or high winds, leaving us totally dependent on our stoves and fires for warmth, light, hot drinks and pasta that always tastes much better by candlelight.

Mr H loves the snow and holds his tail high as we carefully negotiate our way down the road. For some reason some of our neighbours have decided to replace their roofs and windows in the depths of winter and there is a business-like clutter of workmen’s vans and scaffolding on both sides. But that is as nothing compared to the conjoined cottages further on. Here there are some seriously competitive renovations going on, with whole walls missing, the huge stones sitting outside – presumably in some kind of order – waiting to be put back. They were built, some time early in the last century, straight on to the ground and the inhabitants of the left-hand one, who have just purchased it, are not prepared to put up with the rising damp that goes with such archaic building practices.

For many years when we first moved here, I would often be greeted at the end of a run round my usual circuit by the old man who lived in the right-hand cottage. I confess I had mixed feelings about these encounters, for they were never brief. I loved the old man’s stories – he had lived in the area all his life – but I often did have things to do or would start to feel chilled after my exertions. But it was difficult to find a gentle way of disengaging, so it was either listen or run somewhere else.

I learned much, about the place where we had newly come to rest and the lives of those who could not imagine moving around as we had done. The old man was in his eighties and he told me one day, with a fetching – but baffling – degree of pride, that he could neither read nor write. This was not, contrary to my initial shocked assumption, due to the inadequacies of the local school, but an accident that had kept him bed-bound for months, if not years (it was sometimes difficult to pin him down and I suspect the details varied in the telling). He never really caught up and soon left school to start work in a variety of outdoor jobs from forester to groundsman that obviously did not require either skill.

And it certainly didn’t stop him from acquiring a huge amount of knowledge about local history. Do you see yon hillock, he said, pointing a few feet to a small mound on the edge of a piece of waste ground used as a car park? That was where they stood to count the cattle when they were passing through on their way down from the tryst. They had to pay to lodge each one, you know.

I did know a little bit about the cattle droving in Scotland of previous centuries, how the cows came from all over – even the far-away Hebridean islands – and converged on a nearby town for the tryst where they were sold to English merchants. They would then walk all the way down to the juicy grass meadows of the far south of England which the weary, emaciated creatures would enjoy until they were ready for the chop. Oh, the London folk fair loved a bit of Scottish beef.

I have no idea whether that really was the spot where an official would try to create order out of chaos and write down how many beasts belonged to which drover and how much therefore should be paid for their overnight stop. But I do believe something equally far-fetched – that the cottage the old man lived in with his slight, indomitable wife had no heating in it. He told me that too with an air of pride that dared me to feel sorry for him. Or her.

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I once lived in a flat when I was a student that also had no heating (well, it did, but it was never turned on). We girls scavenged for wood for the fire in skips, holding out as long as we could before having to pay for it. We could get the living room to be cosy, but it was a trial to have to take off one’s clothes to go to bed (okay, I confess, that was when I first got an electric under-blanket). But being a student is like being in suspended animation from real life and whatever you do or don’t do, you can stand it because it won’t last forever. The old man knew he was a law unto himself, an outlier, but I think he enjoyed it as a form of celebrity, for none of us could ever really imagine living the way he did.

He’s dead now, his funeral in the local church packed out. His wife remembered I was there, which touched me, but she did not remember anything much only a few months later, for his death was the end of her own real life. She is with us in body still and it is her son who adds walls and removes windows, so that he and his own wife can move in to look after her.

I think he is putting heating in. I would. But I still feel guilty on his behalf.

 

 

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