Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Trouble on t'hill? I don't think so.

Well, perhaps to call the slight bump on the horizon a 'hill' would be to endow it with a greatness it doesn't deserve. As most people know, Norfolk is flat, but in places, that's not strictly true. There are some pretty gentle undulations, even some slightly bigger, from the top of which you are nearly always guaranteed enough breeze to fly a kite. One such is Primrose Hill I think it's called, near the coast, Cromer way. Round here, the landscape is a bit smoother, but not far away there is an area of raised ground, with several acres of old orchards and a small copse, a couple of small outbuildings, in the midst of which stands an old farmhouse, Orchard Farmhouse. Built in the late 1800s, and lived in until the late 1990s, when the last occupier died. He had no family, and nobody seemed to know what was going to happen to the house and land.

It was the cause of many a discussion in the local pub, the possibilities were endless it seemed, but as the months passed by and nothing happened, the months then turned into years and eventually other subjects became the main topic of conversation. The house stood alone, looking sad with no lights inside, flaking paint and all around it the land untended. Not many of the windows have been smashed, there seems to be little damage done to it, probably because you'd have to be a pretty determined vandal to make your way up the rutted track, full of muddy potholes in winter and packed hard and dry in the summer, that leads to the house, several hundred yards from the road into the village.

But last Monday, as people made their way to work, passing by in their cars and on the little green bus that makes its way along the coast, those who were in the habit of casually glancing to look at the house on their way past were horrified. The one thing a lot of villagers dread, if there is any spare land in their village which nobody seems to claim, is the arrival of travellers, gypsies, call them what you will. The sight of a caravan and pick up parked on some derelict unused land can strike dismay into the hearts of even the most liberal-minded local. So it was hardly surprising that there was a larger than usual crowd in the local that night, and that the main topic of conversation was the arrival of travellers, in not one, but two caravans by lunchtime, as it turned out. The fact that one was an old Airstream caravan, quite the noblest of American caravans and much beloved by officianados of caravans, the other a large modern one, and that there were two four by fours parked alongside also, didn't seem to make much difference to the panic that seemed to be rising.

It was the Major, of course, who was the first to say he had got on to the local council 'first thing' about the arrival of the travellers, but he got short shrift from the person he spoke to, which led to yet another tirade about 'little Jobsworths they employ in the council these days' and so on, an argument the regulars had heard many times before. Then Farmer Giles had to have his say, since his land is alongside the old farmstead. (And yes, he really is a proper farmer with hundreds of acres, bright red combines and all, and he really is called Giles!) He could remember a family of travellers arriving unannounced in one of his fields many years ago, and it was 'a devil of a job to get the blighters moved' - and yes, he really speaks like that as well!

Several other opinions were thrown into the discussion, suggestions for how to deal with the interlopers, and when one of the WI ladies pointed out that the caravans and cars didn't look like those that belonged to your average, living off benefits travellers, her comments were not taken seriously.

Halfway through trying to decide between the serious and sensible solution (getting legal advice from the CAB) and the downright stupid and emotional solution (going up there mob-handed with flaming torches and the like) the door to the pub opened and in walked a couple in their forties, accompanied by two labradors. Being strangers they were stared at of course, treated with a little caution by everyone, except Polly, the landlady, who is friendly to everyone.

Whilst the regulars carried on with their discussions, rather quieter this time, it was Polly who managed to find out that this couple were Leonard and Pru, and they had just bought Orchard Farmhouse, living in their caravan whilst they renovated it. You could almost hear the bodies sagging with relief when the locals heard this, their visions of flaming torches vanished with their sighs, along with the visions of hordes of travellers with an assortment of caravans, lorries, cars, animals and children running wild, washing hanging on makeshift lines strung between the caravans.

The weather hasn't been conducive to working on an old house lately, a couple of feet of snow and below freezing temperatures kept the couple snug in their caravan, the modern one that is (the Airstream they use for trips to see family around the country apparently), poring over plans, and colour charts, catalogues and brochures, but they intend making a start soon as it's warmed up considerably over here in Norfolk.

And you might like to know that Phoebe has lived up to her reputation of being eccentric and rescued a parrot! He's called Birds Eye for some reason she doesn't know except that he has only one eye and can sing CAPTAIN BIRDS EYE as on the television adverts. But that's not the only sound to come out of his beak, oh not, by a long chalk. He used to belong to the owner of a beachside cafe, where he entertained customers with his cheery banter and rendition of television ad jingles. Then he began to copy the sound of police sirena, along with somehow managing to mimic the sound of gunshots, and this, not unnaturally perhaps, unnerved several of the more genteel or elderly of his customers. Which wasn't too bad, once the owner of the cafe put up a sign warning his customers this was what Birds Eye did so people knew what to expect. But then the summer came along, and some unscrupulous youngsters from out of town began to teach him swear words. I won't offend you by telling you what they were.. some began with F, lots with B too.

It was obvious he would have to go... and Phoebe heard about this from a friend of a friend and decided, though she only ever had cats, that a parrot would be a fun thing to have. She was going to teach it to say 'More tea vicar?' for when that person decided it was time once again, to try and get Phoebe into church (he seemed to think she needed saving though was never clear from what exactly when she challenged him). But the first time Birds Eye saw the vicar he came out with such a string of vitriole against vicars, the church and religion in general, that it was obvious where his previous owners thoughts lie on that subject, and Phoebe now lives in hopes that the vicar might find someone else to save instead.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Every village should have a Phoebe!

There is a list of things a typical English village must have it seems... including a village green, village pub, village school, village post office, and village shop. These make up the quintessential village, especially if you ask outsiders. But it also has to have a village eccentric. You know, the mad old woman who lives alone in a tumbledown cottage with her cats, shaking her stick at anyone who trespasses into her garden. Or maybe the old gent fallen on hard times, who sits and talks to himself about the good old days, occasionally shouting at strangers from his spot on the bench outside the pub.

And of course, this village is no exception. Allow me to introduce you to Phoebe. In her youth a beautiful young woman, with the kind of looks much beloved by artists.. doe eyes, curly red hair, creamy skin never allowed to be kissed by the sun. I have seen photos of her, being one of the few people she will actually tolerate long enough to have a conversation with, and believe me, she was absolutely stunning. Even now, you can see remnants of this, her skin smooth and creamy still, despite her age of 'somewhere between 80 and 90, shall we say dear?' according to her.

What most people don't know is that she was once married, briefly, to an Army officer, who turned out to be a bully and treated her like one of his raw recruits, turning her from a vibrant young woman to a quiet young woman who wasn't allowed to express her own opinions but to kowtow to his. It didn't last of course, and it was with relief she isn't ashamed to admit, that he died during WWII. The whole experience put her off marriage, but not men by any means. She had affairs with an actor ('always put on a stirring performance!' she would tell me, with a twinkle in her eye); the son of a very wealthy landowner who was friendly with the Royals, or so he told her; a politician ('he liked the sound of his own voice that one!'); and several other men who were charismatic, romantic, interesting, and exciting in their own way, including the local poacher. I did ask, how good a poacher was he if everyone knew who he was, but she thought I was being impertinent and refrained from answering, something she often did when the question was not, in her view, worth answering. He was her 'bit of rough' apparently, something she said all women like, rarely admit to liking, and even more rarely do something about. I refrained this time, from commenting!

Well, people in this village call her eccentric because of the way she dresses, her protests over the years about this and that, the fact that she keeps to herself, gives short shrift to anyone she considers a waste of space to use modern language, which she would never do. Phoebe is incredibly well spoken, loves the English language and hates the way it has been corrupted. She is very intelligent, an intellectual, who did an Open University degree course, achieving her degree in her seventies. She painted the outside of her cottage lilac, the only painted cottage to be seen around here, which wouldn't have been too bad but the window frames were all different colours, turquoise, scarlet, green and yellow. As this stands apart from any other housing, surrounded by her little copse and orchard, nobody complained. She has plastic flowers amongst the rambling roses, the gypsophila, the asters and nigella. And of course a few cats, all Persian.

Anyway, Phoebe's latest rant as the villagers call it, has been about a fir tree which was due to be cut down simply because it's branches overhung the road and could be dangerous. Major Hutton, whose house is nearest the tree, was the one who told Phoebe about it, they get on quite well at times, and said he would not be sorry to see the back of the vermin. The vermin being grey squirrels, who had built their summer drey on one of the stout branches, a perfect ball of twigs and so on, covered with leaves and mosses, beautiful in its way. And Phoebe thought the same, so she got in touch with the leader of the Parish Council, who said it was nothing to do with him, and referred her to the Highways department at the local council. Phoebe wrote letters to the local papers, the councillors, and generally got a bee in her bonnet about this drey, though nobody knows why as she hasn't been averse to having vermin like this humanely trapped, if there is such a thing.

But nobody, not even Phoebe, knows why she gets wound up about some things, but in the end, when letters were ignored, phone calls never returned, she invited the local papers to watch her climb the tree to protect the squirrels! This caught everyone's attention of course, and who knows if she would have gone through with it if it hadn't been for the council having a change of heart and deciding just to get rid of the branches overhanging the road, leaving the rest, warning Phoebe meanwhile that they wouldn't be held responsible if it were lopsided now and blew down in the next gales. Which satisfied Phoebe, but didn't much please the Major!