Many villages have the Big House... around here there are more Big Houses, double-barrelleds and Rt. Hons than you can shake a stick at and apart from the odd occasion when villages have had to be moved because the residents at the Big House didn't like seeing the workers cottages from the drawing room windows, usually we all co-exist side by side reasonably happily. For some, like Elsie, there will always be a 'them and us' situation; she all but curtsies when the lady of the Manor appears in the post office. Well, we call her the lady of the Manor only because she lives in the manor house, which has been in her husband's family for several generations.
The Howton-Spandles, as we keep telling Elsie, aren't Lords or anything, just your ordinary Rt.Honourables, but to Elsie, that's as good as having been smacked on the shoulder with a sword as she puts it. They have lived in the village since the 1800's I believe, and over the years have extended their house, adding the odd wing here and there, so that what started off as a square house, now has two single storey additions to either side. Like the house, the grounds aren't much to speak of either, in fact there is little to be said in it's favour, it's not one of the nicest manor houses around here. Not open to the public, but like most big houses it takes money to keep it going.
Dinsdale took over the house and estate on the death of his parents a few years ago. He came here from his job in London, with a new bride and lots of ideas for generating income, none of which have really taken off. He breeds deer and rare breed pigs, as well as growing organic vegetables, and has set up a small farm shop, which he and his wife, Polly, run themselves, with part time help from the village. This is the one good idea he has had, others have been little short of disastrous.
He used to organise shoots, but part of his land bordered that of the village hall, and it upset the old ladies playing bingo to hear guns being fired, and the ladies who ran the creche said the children got very upset when they saw a pheasant fall from the sky. This was really the best bit of land for shooting, but with complaints from the locals every time he had a shoot, in the end it was agreed he'd find some other way to make money.
He tried to set up a Christmas Tree plantation, but the siting of this made it too easy for any Tom, Dick or Harry to simply walk in and help themselves to a tree, which they did, in droves so very little money was made from this venture, and not enough to warrant trying again with a more secure area.
He thought of a PYO apple farm, but as Paddy, the part time gardener pointed out, this would have been fine had he not decided to rip out all those lovely apple trees in the orchard because Mrs Howton-Spandle wanted a tennis court and swimming pool. It would take years, he said, to establish enough trees to offer PYO, it would be more like PYO if you're lucky, he said. Dinsdale, never a man blessed with much of a sense of humour, didn't find this at all funny and stomped off to pick an argument with Polly about tennis courts and loss of possible income.
When he heard that a neighbouring Big House had got itself licensed as somewhere people could get married, this became the next Big Thing. He researched it, and the fact that the neighbours house was less than a quarter of a mile away, as the pheasant flies, included fabulous grounds with ornamental pool, an orangerie, gazebos and rose garden, and a house that boasted a ballroom ideal for the reception, seemed of little consequence to Dinsdale. He was all ready to set the procedure for licensing in progress, had the literature all ready to be printed, advertising in national magazines sorted and just waiting for the final go-ahead when the roof fell in, literally. One evening they went to bed safe and snug under their tiled and mossy roof, the next morning they found themselves sharing their bed with it. It was going to cost tens of thousands to be repaired, and so the wedding venue idea had to be quashed. But, like the PYO, it remains on Dinsdale's list of possible 'nice little earners'.
But top of the list right now is renewable energy, wind farms in particular. With being flat, Norfolk lends itself in certain areas, to wind turbines. Notably in the North Sea off the coast, but inland there are several small groups of them to be found, or just the odd one or two as at Swaffham. Nothing is more likely to cause contention than the siting of these turbines it seems. Whilst most people agree with the need for renewable energy sources, most of these people don't want to be able to see the wind turbines, let alone live within sound of them. So Dinsdale's proposal to have five wind turbines on an odd bit of land on the edge of the village, on a slight rise, has not gone down well. There is no housing nearby, other than a solitary farmhouse owned by a curmudgeonly old gent who has raised no objections to being able to hear and see five wind turbines from his house, and Phoebe's cottage, and since she has long been a supporter of all things green, she isn't worried about them at all.
The same can't be said for the majority of the villagers around these parts, even those who don't live in this one have said they will be a blot on the landscape, don't belong in this beautiful, unspoiled bit the countryside. When Dinsdale, and the men from the turbine company, pointed out that if everyone felt the same, then none of them would ever get built, there were mumbles and murmurs but no further arguments. Polly though, has found herself snubbed by some locals who previously would at least nod their heads at her by way of greeting, and Dinsdale found himself dropped from the village boules team, which means he really is not flavour of the month in the Cocky Pheasant, a rather old fashioned drinking establishment in the next village. However, as Dinsdale pointed out to the bemusement of Polly, there's more to life than balls and booze, and so his plan for the wind turbines is going ahead, and we have to wait now whilst all the official channels are gone through, a bit like wading through treacle at times, but rules is rules.
Helping out in the farm shop may not have been what young Gracie, Elsie's god-daughter had in mind for part of her gap year. It was more like swanning around the Med or Greek Islands with some of her rich friends from college, or even going to work in her other godmother's hotel in Skegness would have been better than being stuck in a village in the middle of flat nowhere, with Elsie - you think so Gracie? Never been to Skeggie dear, have you? said Phoebe, listening to Gracie's rant in the village shop.
None of us knew Elsie had a god-daughter - she is apparently the grand-daughter of one Elsie's oldest friends from school (never knew she had any of them either!) who convinced her own daughter that it would be good to have Elsie as godmother. Nobody knew why, nobody bothered to ask why, for the sake of peace and quiet they agreed, and so there was Elsie, eighteen years ago this was, resplendent in a hand-sewn blue crimplene dress and sleeveless jacket, with a pale blue straw hat with an ostrich feather, making the promises that godparents make. She was proud as a peahen, she told everyone, not wanting to say the 'c' part of the word for the male of the species. And for eighteen years she has dispensed her duty she says, sending birthday cards with five pound notes, and Christmas cards with book tokens, to Gracie. Over the years, she has received in return, the forced THANK YOU FOR MY PRESENT letters that children, for time immemorial, have been made to sit and write to long lost relatives they don't know and may never meet. She has also received the occasional photograph of Gracie, the last one being of a sweet-faced twelve year old, with braces and pigtails, in her school uniform... another awful ritual children have to go through, the school photo.
So when this leggy blonde with pale pink highlights, wearing a pelmet for a skirt and a vest which revealed she didn't bother with underwear, and with an ear piece through which could be heard some screechy noise, turned up on Elsie's doorstep one evening last month, armed with a hold-all and a forced smile, Elsie was at a loss. She thought the girl must be lost, or collecting for something, until she said 'Hello Auntie Elsie, I've come to stay, here's a letter from Mam', as she wafted past into the house.
For a while Elsie just stood and stared at the letter in her hand, then looking about her as if to make sure nobody had seen all this, she scurried into the house, looked at the girl and demanded to know who the heck she was. 'I'm Gracie, dontcha recognise me then?'
Elsie flopped down onto the sofa, hand fluttering over her chest, and said that Gracie would have to give her a moment to recollect herself. Gracie shrugged her rounded shoulders, and went into the kitchen, where she made herself at home, and a cheese sandwich.
Eventually of course, Elsie had opened the letter, read that Gracie had been in a bit of bother and because of this had been refused permission to go on any jollies with her friends for her gap year, and as further punishment she was being sent to stay with Elsie. Elsie was a little affronted at being seen as some sort of boot camp, a punishment for a misbehaving teenager, but was appeased by the sight of a cheque for several hundred pounds 'to help with the housekeeping', and asked to please make sure Gracie found some gainful employment otherwise she'd just sit around and look for trouble, or wait for it to find her more like!
Elsie had never been responsible for anyone, so it was all a bit of a 'curving learn' she told the Major when they had one of their regular little chinwags over tea and cakes, served in Elsie's sitting room. 'I don't mind telling you Major, it was all a bit much at first, setting rules and so on, and then trying to find work for her, well, you can imagine what that was like, employment isn't easy to come by even for qualified people let alone some flippertigibbet fresh from school and she has no idea what she wants to do now let alone with the rest of her life'. Pause for breath, during which the Major thought he might get a word in, but no, off she went again. 'Anyway, as luck would have it that nice Mrs Spowton-Handles was in the village shop saying they could do with some part-time help up in the farm shop and so I offered Gracie to her there and then. Course, his nibship wanted to give her the once over, and judging by the way he looked at her, it was more than a once over look. Still, Gracie seems to like him as well, loves his posh accent she says and he has ever such nice hands, for a farmer. I tried to tell her he was a gentleman farmer, at which point she just laughed and said, he ain't that much of a gent Else, know what I mean? Naturally I don't know what she means, but she seems happy working in the shop, works late a lot though, I always thought it closed lunchtimes on Wednesdays but she doesn't get home till gone six some times. Ah well, more tea Major?'