Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Lovely Northamptonshire

I'm sitting in a Premier Inn at Billing in Northampton. I usually love a good Premier Inn, but, as we arrived this afternoon, we were informed that the gas ovens had broken in the kitchens, so we wouldn't be able to have the cooked breakfast we'd paid for. My Mum has always been particularly keen on the cooked breakfasts at the Premier Inn, so the news was not hugely well-received. Add to this the fact that my parents' room stinks of damp and you've got a group of people going to a funeral tomorrow who feel a bit hacked off. Yeah, yeah, First World problems, I know, but these little things add up. 

I was also getting really angry at the BBC news this evening. I've tried not to watch the news of late, but I happened to switch the telly on to find a report in full flight about the ghastly Brexit business. What irritated me beyond all measure was the fact that whoever put the package together opted to use cutaway images of union flags when talking about the out campaign, which rather sends the message that those of us who want to stay in Europe are somehow not patriotic or proud of our flag. I am entirely bored of the media whipping this campaign up into an issue of Britishness. I am deeply proud to be British, but I want to be British within Europe. Voting to stay in isn't saying I want to lose the flag! It was wholly unacceptable journalism. Just report the facts. That's all we need. Don't speculate. Don't over-egg the pudding. Don't whip us all up into a state of apoplexy.

Apart from all of this, I've had the most wonderful day in Northamptonshire which started in Higham Ferrers, the town I grew up in. We were expecting horrible weather, but the sun has pretty much shone all day. We decided to take a little walk down the lane where we used to live, and were stunned when a couple emerged from the front door of the very house we'd called home for fourteen years. I decided to engage them in conversation and they instantly asked if we wanted to come in and have a look around.

It was so bizarre walking back through that door. It was like walking into a dream. Everything seemed so familiar, but so so different at the same time. Smaller, perhaps. The walls had been stripped back to brick and stone, and many of the floors had been re-tiled. Everything looked rather classy if I'm honest. Towering above the back garden was the walnut tree which we gave to my Dad on his 40th birthday. It went up like a rocket at the time and started fruiting almost immediately. The earth in Higham Ferrers is apparently perfect for walnut trees. You could have knocked me over with the feather when we discovered that the council had put a preservation order on the tree! It's rather special to know that we've planted something which could last for hundreds of years and simply cannot be chopped down!

I posted a picture of my family standing at the end of the street on Facebook, and was so touched by the many people who posted memories which reminded me what an incredibly special place that house was. People wrote about the parties, the play rehearsals, the strange food we used to make in the kitchen, which included peanut and pickled onion sandwiches, and half oranges, with the pulp scooped out, filled with jelly. It was always an open house. There was always someone sitting at the big kitchen table drinking tea or playing a game whilst chatting to my Mum.

We went up to my old school, past the house where Tammy used to live, and then along the old railway line to the big council estate where a shed load of other mates used to live. I saw my first Brexit posters on that council estate.

We had lunch in the Griffin pub surrounded by people with hugely familiar accents. The East Northamptonshire brogue is a very specific sound which you never hear on telly. There is something about it which goes straight to my soul. It's not an entirely wonderful sensation. It brings back its fair share of unpleasant memories, but it does remind me of a time when I was innocent, and optimistic and all of those things which happen before life starts to bite chunks out of you!

We went into Rushden in the afternoon which looked a little more deprived than even I remember it. Many shops were boarded over on the High Street, and I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. Fortunately, at that moment, I got a message on Facebook from my old music teacher, Chris, telling me that her wonderful goat farm was having an open day. The farm was only about ten minutes from where we were, so we jumped into the car and hot-footed it over there. The farm is situated in a windy spot on a hill overlooking the Nene valley near the lakes at Stanwick where they famously found scores of important Roman remains.

The place is fabulous and they have about 200 incredibly friendly goats who seem to love nothing more than being scratched behind the ears.

It was so good to see Chris. She was such an important figure in my life. She was the person who encouraged me to learn the cello and sing. She's probably the reason I'm writing music now. And the goat's cheese that her farm produces is amazing! They do blue cheeses, harder cheeses like Cheddar and Red Leicester... It's quite brilliant. I bought loads. And ate a goat's cheese ice cream, flavoured with honey and rhubarb!

There was a mini farmers market going on up at the farm and I was astonished to find my old desk partner from the 'cello section of the county junior orchestra selling sweets from the back of a custom-made van! Melanie and I lift-shared to the music school in Northampton every Saturday for at least three years. We did A-level music together and probably met when we were about ten. It was so so lovely to see her - with her bright pink hair looking fabulous in the sunlight. Selling sweets is what she does at the weekend. During the week she's a teacher. I was trying to work out how the pink hair went down with her pupils! Sadly she doesn't play the 'cello anymore. She says she values her long nails too much!

From Chris' farm we drove to Northampton to check into our awful hotel and then drive out, through deeply beautiful countryside, to a little village called Brixworth. The trip involved driving across the middle of the lovely Pitsford reservoir, which I once fell into as a drunken teenager.

Brixworth is stunning. It's built on hills and surrounded by green, tall, ancient trees. The church in the middle of the village is one of the oldest in the country. It's definitely Saxon. There's more than a whiff of Roman about it. It's also incredibly eerie. It always has been. There's a really weird atmosphere inside. It feels pre-Christian somehow. We once had a dog who literally freaked out when we tried to take her inside. On another occasion I heard the sound of a fox hunt as I crossed a stile out of the church. Dogs barking. Horns tooting. I was with a friend and the sound was so loud we thought the hunt was about to race through the church yard itself. We stood waiting for it for ages, but it never came, and then the sound disappeared the moment we stepped down from the stile. As we walked away, we thought how odd it was to hear a fox hunt on a summer evening. We walked across the fields and returned to the church, after dark, an hour or so later, and were astounded when we heard the very same fox hunt, just as clearly, the moment we climbed up onto the stile. Hopping back into the churchyard, the sound entirely disappeared again. It was really weird.

We had tea in a pub. It was slightly bland, but stodgy enough to fill a hole which will probably last for about eight days!

And that was my lovely day in Northamptonshire...

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