Time Out’s Executive Editor Michael Hodges has been dallying with danger so you don’t have to. This week’s thing not to do in London – No 819 – have a day out in the country.
A cock crows and the day of the annual summer fair dawns. By 9am the high street has filled with happy locals, a community joining together to celebrate the coming of the season. By 9am stalls selling big crusty loaves of bread and real cheese are open. By ten a pair of shaggy dray horses are taking parties of smiling pensioners and beaming toddlers on sedate rides.
Four fox cubs come to the end of the road to watch and two girls stop to snap them on their phones and cry out: ‘Soooo cute!’ Bunting has been hung on the front of the nearby pub, which by noon is packed with people loudly enjoying the liquid produce of England’s greener and pleasanter parts. At the back of the pub, folk music drifts out of the beer garden where, on a small stage made from straw bales, four men in tattered tweed, collarless shirts, waistcoats and flat caps thrash wildly at banjos, fiddles and drums. They sing with some sadness about bad harvests, a blacksmith being hanged at the county assizes and losing your true love on the banks of an unspecified river. Which is a useful reminder on such an idyllic day that nature can be cruel as well as fair.
And although the air carries the whiff of pig shit, one of the whiffiest whiffs there is, looking on from my own hay bale, with a glass of Old Scroggin’s prize-winning scrumpy and an organic vegetarian pasty, it is impossible not to be moved by the unique delights of the English countryside.
But we are not in the English countryside. We are in a London suburb on a Saturday afternoon. Rather than peasants, the band are a quartet of amiable public school boys called Giles, Hugh, Roger and Piers, whose only connection with the land is the amount of it their parents own.
The dray horses are real enough but they have been bussed –well, horse-boxed – in for the day. The foxes, though certainly cute, are not the genuine articles. Confirmed urbanites, their only brush with greenery is the nearby garden where they have recently filled a toddler’s sandpit with excrement. The smell of pigs isn’t fake, but it comes from the city farm just down the hill from the pub. No, this is not the real countryside. We tried going to the real countryside last weekend, travelling 20 miles only to find a town whose market square was occupied by more traffic than Wandsworth one-way system at 8.05 on Monday morning, and a well-upholstered population of corduroy-wearing thieves whose lives are dedicated to one end – removing money from the pockets of people that come from London.
Through the swirling traffic fumes we briefly glimpsed cobbled streets lined with kitchen shops, antiques emporiums and a ‘traditional family’ greengrocers where all the fruit and vegetables had been polished and placed in wicker baskets arranged on a trestle table in front of the shop window. This window, like all the other windows and doors on the street, was painted in that particular shade of grey that warns any Londoner who has ventured beyond the M25 that he or she is about to pay £4.50 for a small brown paper bag of wilted purple sprouting broccoli.
If that’s the rural life, you can keep it. Today isn’t perfect – Giles, Hugh, Roger and Piers lament a particular crop failure so loudly that many people, in fact all the people apart from the band, are obliged to abandon the beer garden. But later on, rolling down the hill courtesy of Mr Scroggin, it strikes me, as my foot sinks ankle-deep in a large parting gift from the dray horses, that these days it’s London that is the real countryside. Though I did make the cockrel up.
For more tales of the country and the city and everything in between from Michael Hodges, click here.