Walking the Spaniel this morning, I felt a distinct whisper of Spring. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was there. The smell of snowdrops circled my nose and the morning chill had lost its bite. Spaniel seemed to be able to tell the difference too. On her 6th lap of the field, she still didn’t think it was an appropriate time to go home and I was left to admire my favourite tree and take in the view of the surrounding valleys, pastures and bleating sheep in the next field.
Moving to the countryside, I’d sort of lost the typical look-over-your-shoulder-be-wary-of-strange-folk feeling that I’d developed in Cape Town. Happy to say that it wasn’t an all-consuming sense of threat, but rather the typical locking of doors when you make a journey, especially at highway off-ramps, or slowing down and going vs stopping completely when arriving at red traffic lights on empty roads. It was an awareness of things and people around you, most of the time. Living in Beaminster, I’d started becoming more lax about things – forgetting my car open, leaving the back door unlocked at night. I was now living in a house without burglar bars and security gates on the front door, none of the things that remind you of anything untoward.
Until there was a ring on the doorbell one Saturday afternoon. My Englishman opened the door, and I could hear the faint sound of a woman’s voice. By his reactions and the tone of his voice, the strained politeness, I could tell he was incredibly uncomfortable. So I went to interfere. Or help, as I like to put it.
There stood a middle-aged woman – slightly disheveled, breath laden with the smell of Jack or even Captain Morgan himself. One plastic packet in her hand, shoes untied, not making eye-contact. She’d decided to wander into Beaminster, from the next village over the hill and with 4pm striking, realised that she wasn’t going to get back before nightfall. She had noticed all the cars on the driveway and decided to ring our bell to ask us to take her home.
What can you do? I was foreign to this situation. I would most likely have had my sentences rehearsed and organised, was I back in South Africa, but I didn’t understand this situation. My gut instinct was telling me that something dubious was ahead, but my head kept insisting that this instinct was based and built on a very different environment and upbringing.
Needless to say, both Englishman and I were at a loss for words. We didn’t have a lie ready, and we both felt too uncomfortable to kindly ask her to go away, so I volunteered to drive her to the village. For the first time since arriving on the shores of this green and pleasant land, I was slightly fearful. I grabbed my phone – thinking that it may save me should I be, I don’t know, at the hands of some unmerciful ax-murderer.
I didn’t care for the speed limit, nor the potholes in the road that led me to the next town – I just wanted to get there. She just wanted to talk. She, or it may have been The Captain, told me about her life, and her struggles, and her husband, and her son, and how life had generally just been unkind to her. We arrived at the hill leading into the village, and she asked me to drop her off there. It was deserted – there was nobody around. I insisted on driving her to her house (where hopefully, there were people around), but she declined. So I stopped.
She hopped out. Thanked me. And without fuss, trundled down the hill towards her home.
Driving back to Beaminster, I felt like an utter fool. My paranoia and second-guessing had created an experience in my mind that implied that this would be my demise. After 3 years of un-noticeably becoming alkaline to any sense of disturbance or imposition, my built-in, almost innate sense of self-protection kicked in.
Whether this lady was a source of real concern or whether she was just simply someone who had been dealt a rough set of cards and was looking for a lift home – I’ll never know.
But I’ve never seen her again.
And I did start locking the back door.
One thing you cannot deny about living in a little town in the English countryside, is the invaluable opportunity to be exposed to the worlds of Thomas Hardy, Beatrix Potter, Jane Austen (amongst others) and their gardens of hedgehogs, robins, honeysuckles and stone cottages. Before moving to Dorset, never in my life had I experienced the true wonder that is known as the Dawn Chorus. (And I don’t refer to the woman who auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent 5 years ago, that lives down the road).
You find yourself setting your alarm clock to simply catch this sound splendour that is created by local Robins and Sandpipers, Redshanks and Finches and Gulls. You could stand for hours, looking out of your bedroom window, listening to the sounds of a new day completely consume you of your evening’s rest.
I remember, on one particular occasion, volunteering to taxi my Englishman and his friends to and from the local pub. It was a warm summer’s evening and I was thoroughly excited to be driving my new little VW Beetle convertible that I’d just purchased. My cuckoo clock had just chimed 2 o’clock (am) and I hopped into the Beetle and zoomed through the country lanes, roof down, to pick up the partying lot. Even then, at that time of night, the birdsong guided my drive. Even at that time of night, these feathered friends had something joyful to sing about. Even at that time of night – the evening skies shook with their twitters and chirps.
Much was the same fascination the moment I saw my first badger. A real, living, breathing racing-striped badger. The animals I’d come to know in the pages of Kenneth Grahame, where a toad lived in a hall and a mild-mannered mole decides to leave his spring-cleaning habits and explore the riverbank. Little stocky characters they are, and speedy too. We’d seen a glimpse of a badger running along a country lane one evening, in the light beam of my car, busily looking for evening nibbles and snacks. You can understand my excitement at the opportunity to watch them scurrying about at a local farm that had set up a badger hide. A controversial idea, given the recent flurry surrounding culls and bovine TB in the area, and one that was, no doubt, frowned upon by some local farmers. But a gift of an opportunity to experience a precious insight into a creature that I’d only had the opportunity to imagine, before then.
Dorset is a beautiful place to live and to visit. As I let the Spaniel out for her evening constitutionals before bedtime, last night, I stood in our garden, as the stars flickered brightly in the black sky overhead, and the frost started icing the grass, closed my eyes, and listened. An owl, a seagull, and even a faraway fox. All going about their normal lives and completely unaware of this foreign voyeur.
Summer in Dorset is a picture of true heavenly beauty. The vivid green of the rolling hills moulding shapes under a piercing blue sky. Heavy leaf-abundant trees create draping canopies over the small country lanes leading to little areas yet to be explored, and the sound of the ice cream van interrupts a lazy afternoon of gardening and house maintenance.
On one particularly sweltering summer’s day, where most people seek shade and swimming pool relief; where the allure of melting ice cream cones and suntan lotion seems to be the activity du jour, you wouldn’t be to blame should you happen to find yourself in the heart of the Blackmore Vale, and more specifically in the sprightly little town of Sturminster Newton, drinking tea.
And that’s exactly what Englishman and I decided to do.
Across the bridge, just on the hem of the town, lies a beautifully restored Georgian building which is home to Rob & Michelle’s Comins Tea House, a tea-sanctuary that welcomes all visitors that walk through the door with muted scents of faraway lands and abundant hospitality.
Englishman and I had met Rob at a local country fair, and we’d decided to pay their tea house a visit. With my love of tea, and Englishman’s love for trying new things – it was the perfect combination for us to enjoy and be educated. More than this though, it was the thrill of finding something slightly different to the run of the mill tea and coffee shops you see dotted on every corner, in our own countryside. A little piece of a faraway land, at home, like us, in a little corner of the UK. It hardly mattered that we didn’t know our Assam from our Matcha, our Oolong from our Sencha, finding this little oriental gem was a treat that we’d both been looking forward to.
As we slowly made our way through our first cup of Oolong, with Rob carefully taking us through the traditional Gongfu tea ceremony, we chatted about the life of the teahouse, and the course of events that had brought them to this point. Rob, a self-proclaimed former tea sceptic, and his wife Michelle, had walked the Indian tea lands, smelt the leaves, felt the earth beneath their feet – and had lived and breathed a journey that would change their lives forever. And in this brief moment of sharing something so foreign, we all had a commonality that bonded us, over our little clay tea cups.
And as the day grew longer, and the 3rd hour had passed, and we’d tried the frothy Macha and the ice cold Sencha, time had escaped us completely, we’d realised. We’d chatted with a resident local called Chris who told us about travels, while philosophically sipping his Houjicha and we’d enjoyed the stretching afternoon sun that was creeping in from the patio outside, and warming the tips of our toes. We’d listened to Rob’s stories about creating the counter in the shop out of a local Ash tree, and the vintage school chairs that he’d sourced from an antique dealer in Cornwall. But most of all, we’d experienced something new.
As the River Stour meandered its way around Sturminster Newton and the Dorset sun set over a hill shrouded by a herd of lazy fresians, we felt blessed. We’d found something new, something foreign, but at the same time, something so familiar. And most of all, we felt welcomed, and we felt blessed.
There is something special about Christmas time in the country. You know when it hits. The air chills creep into your bones and the heating is switched on a little more than normal. The smell of cinnamon and cloves seem to follow wherever you go. Wet muddy boots replace pretty dainty shoes, and lie waiting at back doors and on front steps for the next time you need to pop outside to let the dog out for a wee.
Christmas in Beaminster is a truly beautiful season. And for me, slowly making that mental shift from the scenes on the Christmas cards, to the reality of a stone-built town filled with narrow streets and smoking chimneys is becoming a little more comfortable. The whistling Robin that sits on a snow-covered hedge is now the one sitting in my front garden. The Christmas wreath glistening with dew, is now the one hanging on my front door. The quaint country lanes that lead to town centres bubbling with warmth and fires and bakeries and pleasure, are now the ones that lead to our town square.
I remember the first Christmas I experienced in Beaminster. Slightly overwhelmed by the picture-perfectness of it all, you couldn’t blame me for being completely oblivious to the fact that this was, in fact, a new kind of reality for me. The entire thing felt like a movie set – I’d stepped into a picture-book of quintessential English traditions – and even a roasted Chestnut wouldn’t break my idyllic state of mind. It was blissful. Picture-postcard perfection.
This past Christmas was not very different. Except for one small thing – this was now my reality. No longer the drawing on a foreign Christmas letter, but a traffic-jam, soggy-leaking-boot, pothole-ridden reality. And it was ok. The Christmas lights still flickered, the chimneys still whispered puffs of steam as heating and fires warmed homes decorated with icicle lights, flashing Christmas trees and garden signs that read, “Santa – please stop here”.
This was the 3rd Christmas we have spent in our little town and no different to before, we ventured down to the town square to be part of the annual Christmas Lights Festival. The Christmas ‘edge’ had perhaps been taken off due to familiarity, but we were happy to feel part of a community that celebrates, and enjoys the triumph of another year completed. Poetically looking back at what has been, and triumphantly looking ahead to what may still be, we ate, drank and were merry.
Nibbling on melting marshmallows straight from the fire and bumping into familiar faces, this year I felt a little more ownership for my Christmas festival, and I felt proud. Englishman and I took a moment to just be quiet and absorb our surroundings. Christmas lights flickered from shop windows and pubs, overwhelming laughter and chatter emulated from every corner of our precious town square. Carol singers lifted the clouds away, and as 7pm struck the dark corner of our Town Square was immediately illuminated by the magical Christmas lights officially turned on for 2013’s Christmas season.
Delirious with orange and cinnamon Christmas scents and a satisfaction of feeling welcomed, we grabbed a hot chocolate from a local vendor and joined in with verse 2 of Hark the Herald Angels Sing.