Thursday, 29 September 2011

Swimming in the provinces

One of the hardest things to give up when leaving Stokey was Rosa's
4 o'clock swimming lesson. Don't get me wrong, I hated her swimming lessons: smelly, packed changing rooms, getting two children undressed and dressed again, hanging out with Joe in the freezing cold pool while 30 minutes took forever and not even being able to do a few lengths to warm up. (OK, so I usually did sneak in a few lengths but it looked a bit bad leaving a toddler bobbing up and down in armbands on his own.)
But I'd fought for those lessons. I'd got up at 6am to make sure she got a place. I endured 3 terms of 5pm lessons so that I could have the privilege of moving to a 4pm slot. And blow me if I was going to go through all that again.

So swimming lessons didn't feature high on my list of things to arrange in Lancashire. Then I began to feel that middle-class angst. Rosa had just started to swim without aids, she was gaining in confidence, she needed a regular commitment BLAH BLAH BLAH. Tentatively I phone the local swimming pool to find out what ghastly application process they use. Perhaps I could just put her on a waiting list. But the lady on reception was actually friendly. She was helpful. She seemed to even want my daughter to swim at her pool. "How about 4pm today?"
she asked.

And it was that easy. The pool was pleasantly empty. The other kids and their parents seemed lovely. The teacher was spot on. And Rosa took to it like a duck to water, albeit with a learner sign on her tail feathers.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Rosa and Joe's observations, number 1

Sheep are amazing.
They can eat and poo at the same time!


I largely thank plums for keeping me sane in the first month. Although we're in a farmhouse surrounded by rolling fields we're hardly living off the land. We've yet to befriend the local free-range-egg sellers and there's not much milking going on. There is, however, a 25-year-old plum tree positively drooping with fruit.

So I sit by the Aga with my old friends, Nigel and Nigella, thumbing through their recipe books. It's very satisfying turning free produce into something delicious, even if you have to go through the mind-numbing process of stoning kilos of fruit.

Stewed plums, plum chutney, plum pudding, plum crumble, roasted plum sorbet and - leaving the most obvious but trickiest to last - plum jam. I feel I'm now properly initiated into farmhouse cooking. Thank goodness there isn't an apple tree nearby.


Even before we left London we received the text and email that BT had successfully transferred our phone and broadband to our new address, at no extra cost, lovely jubbly. When we finally located the phone in one of our many packing boxes and plugged it in there was no dialling tone whatsoever. Try all the sockets in the house: no hint of a tone. We phone BT - how did people manage to fix their landlines before mobiles? - and get fobbed off with various things we're probably doing wrong. Still no tone. Eventually India detects that the fault is with BT and they'll sort it out within a week.

No internet - yikes. How do we search for a 4x4 car that we're now convinced we need after driving up our lane several times? Thank Apple for iphones. If you sit in the corner of the conservatory, or better still stand in the sheep field, you get two bars of internet reception. And that's where I learn you can buy a dinky 4x4 at an affordable price and in the right colour, but more of that later.

Fast forward a few days and a local BT engineer phones (my mobile, of course) to say he's on his way. Fantastic. He even finds the house without needing to phone again - "I use a map, not sat nav" - and after a few checks locates the fault 247m away. From the shelter of our conservatory we watch him tramp across a field in the rain and do I'm-not-sure-what for quite a long time.

Eventually he returns with the verdict:
"I've located the fault but it's underground, and I'm only an overground engineer." Of course.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Radio 4

One of the first things I unpacked was our digital radio. This radio, or rather the dulcet tones of Radio 4, has got me through the first five years of motherhood. Where would I be without Woman's Hour? It's not that I even listen to Jenni Murray, but her voice in the background gives me comfort and support.

There's no digital reception.

There's very little FM reception.

The only reception I can get is longwave, and that's only when I'm pootling along in my new (but actually very old) car.

Malcolm discovers we can listen to the radio on TV via the Sky box. But that's not in the kitchen and I prefer to have my radio station unadulterated by Rupert Murdoch.

ALLELUJAH! We have internet connection and it's strong enough, even here, to enable me to listen to the radio from my laptop. Breathe a big sigh of relief, settle down to Woman's Hour, and fail to listen to a word. I'm beginning to feel at home.

Going to Church

It's a bright Sunday morning and we're full of good intentions. We will not drive anywhere today. Instead we'll go for a walk across the fields to our local church. In time for the morning church service. Which starts at 9.15am. Already our mission is temporally challenged.

The next challenge is getting a three year old who is inadequately dressed in shorts and t-shirt (it's the rugby world cup so he wants to look like a rugby player) across a field of high, wet, sheep-poo-strewn grass. Ride on Daddy's shoulders: problem solved (if you ignore the sheep poo rubbing from boot onto Daddy's jumper).

And the third challenge is finding the footpaths. Yes, I do need to turn the map round until it's facing the way I'm going but no, that doesn't mean I can't read maps. How was I to know that the path went through someone's front gate and out the other side of the their garden? No matter. We go the long way round and realise we're almost half way and already 10 minutes late. Cue five year old's sense of humour failure and outpouring of why the countryside is rubbish.

Find something - anything - that will distract her. Horses. Sweet horses. Let's go and feed the horses. One black and two bays walk over obligingly and give Rosa a consoling nuzzle.

Sod church, let's make this our destination. It's a stunning, verdant valley, with moors looming to the right, rolling pastures to the left and a pretty stone village nestling in between. So we sing a few hymns to the wind and say the Lord's Prayer, followed by the children's rendition of "All pigs are beautiful". Job done. We find the short-cut home and celebrate with hot chocolate and toast.

The Country Life

Fortunately where we now live is the perfect antidote to the stresses of moving, renting out our London home and buying a car. Rolling hills all around, walks from our garden to waterfalls, cloughs and moorland, making mini rock gardens, sailing paper boats, picking plums and stewing them on the Aga... So far, we definitely get how people cope with living in remote places.

I say remote. Our landlady lives a stone's throw away, mows our lawn with her mini tractor and employs a gardener to sort out our flowerbeds. She's just fitted smoke alarms at our request, mended the shower and brought round a pole for the washing line that she's provided. Then there are the 20 and counting other people that live up this track. Still it's remote in Stokey terms.

The Move

3.5 ton truck or 7.5 ton? Risk not fitting all our stuff in or risk not getting the truck up the windy, pot-holed, narrow, steep track?

We chose Lancastrian removal men. They would know the lie of the land and not shirk at a few hills. We hadn't accounted for Ramadan and fasting in daylight hours. Luckily after travelling over 48 miles they were allowed to break their fast. Sadly they couldn't break the 56mph speed limit.

We arrived at 9.15pm, they arrived at 11pm. I sent Malcolm, fuelled with champagne, to guide them up the lane. Then I stood at the bottom of the garden, by the sheep field, praying that they'd make it round the tight bend. Eventually I saw headlights. There was an anxious moment when they came to a standstill but I later discovered the truck had met an obstinate sheep.

By 2am, whilst the kids slumbered on, we were unpacked.

How it Happened

To stay in London or not to stay in London? And if not London, where? Why? How?

It's a conversation I've often had with Stokey Mums. We love Stokey. Why would we want to live anywhere else? Everything is so convenient, so happening, so brilliant for young families. Except, except, except... Is it fresh air I'm yearning for? Adventure? A break from the pavement pounding, school comparing, humdrum bustle and occasional shooting?

The internet is a dangerous thing. So is Pick a location, any location; search for properties within a 5/10/20 mile radius; tour the rooms and the views and in the space of five minutes imagine an alternative existence for your whole family.

Practical husbands are also a dangerous thing, especially when coupled with daydreaming wives.

"I'll check out that farmhouse on my next work trip up north."
"What? No! I wasn't serious. I can't uproot the family. I'd never live that far from my parents. And it definitely won't look like that in real life."

One week later. Afternoon phonecall. "It is like the photos."
"Actually it's better."
Big gulp. "But can you imagine us there?"
"Yes. Yes I really can."

So we reserve the farmhouse, break the news to my parents, find a last-minute place in a fantastic-sounding primary school for Rosa, then twiddle our thumbs for TWO WHOLE WEEKS while Malcolm's boss is on holiday, before we discover whether he can reverse his commute.

No one else wants the job in Blackburn, we assure ourselves. Surely a year in a beautiful farmhouse isn't too much to ask? Will anyone in the office even notice?

It was an agonising two weeks' wait, but a reaffirming one. If they had said no, we'd have been gutted.