Curiouser and curiouser

To start, an apology and an explanation…

Those of you who have read this blog before may have noticed a distinct diminishment in the number of posts recently. For this, I am sorry. I mentioned before that I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel. Well, since then the symptoms of numbness, aching and random stabbing pain have spread to both hands, arms, feet, legs, lower back and more. Honestly, you’d think my body had something against me! I’m not dying or anything (had the blood tests to prove it), but I am baffling the doctors so far! That achievement aside, I’m happy to say that life is now on the up: I’m done with the resting (it makes no difference) and am on some lovely new pain relief drugs which should kick in fully soon. I’ve  got a lovely job that is willing to be flexible around my hospital appointments, drug-induced dizzy spells and discomfort, and I  have upgraded to a shiny new iPhone that I love love love love love, not least because the lack of having to press buttons makes it so much easier/less painful to type on! The above should hopefully explain my apparently paltry efforts when it come to new blog posts in the recent past, and it has all led to a moment of inspiration for a new blog post.

Now aided and abetted by my beloved iPhone I have as I explained before reignited my involvement with Twitter – my Twitter account was created years ago, but only reactivated when my work and my mum both created accounts and demanded faithful followers. My old account was resurrected, given a whole new look (@TheFirstFrost of course, complete with lovely sloe berries as a background) and suddenly I had a whole new life online. Ladies from the aforementioned Shotgun & Chelsea Bun Club are rife on Twitter, and between them can easily absorb hours of my life with talk of cakes, discussions about guns, shooting and associated accessories, lovely photos, beautiful sketches and enough tweedy goods to tempt me and my far-too-empty purse, before I notice and drag myself away from the screen. The acquiring of Twitter followers is a whole new experience – at first it almost feels like you’ve got fans! After a while you start to realise it doesn’t actually mean quite as much as an adoring fan club with banners saying “I ❤ The First Frost” but it’s still rather exciting when you first reach your first 10, then 20, then 50 and most recently for me, 100 followers. And it was my hundred and one-th (hundred and first?) follower that provoked me into writing this.

And now on to the main event…

Mr 101 commented (very kindly!) that he enjoyed my blog and always liked to see ‘country converts’. I replied saying that, truthfully, I was coming to love the country, but that it was a very strange world indeed. And this, to my surprise, surprised him.

Though I’m well aware I’m not a full-blown member of the secret society that is The Country, I feel I’ve fallen comfortably far down the rabbit hole to be safe from burrowing border terriers looking to drag me out by my heels, and thus close enough to Wonderland to able to pass some judgment.[i] And what I’m seeing is intriguing,appealing, confusing, educational, fascinating and very wet and muddy (I suppose as one might expect a rabbit hole to be.) While I am most definitely on my way to becoming a country convert, I am, as I told the lovely man on Twitter, finding a lot of it rather strange.

First is that the country world is far more old-fashioned in a lot of ways than the cosmopolitan environment I’m used to. It seems in a few ways rather behind in the ways of modern technology. Don’t get me wrong; the tractors and other farming machinery I’m sure are built with the newest of new technologies, but for the first time in perhaps as long as ten years, I’ve met fully grown adults who don’t have email addresses. This is astounding to me, a girl who could reasonably comfortable type before I could reasonably comfortable write. I’ve used computers since I was three years old, and have had at least one email address and generally two or more at all times since the age of ten or eleven.  It seems alien to me that anyone could function without regular access to the internet and email communication. Similarly, some of the country businesses, organisations and companies I’ve come into contact with in this new world have websites as advanced and complex as the ones we built for our GCSE IT. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to live a life devoid of email or so un-reliant on the Internet, but it is in my mind peculiar.

Technology aside, the country seems slightly old-fashioned in other ways. I’ve met people of my own generation (early 20s) who admit to having only ever met one or two people of African or Afro-American origin, including  someone who said he once proffered an introduction along the lines of ‘I’m sorry if I’m weird around you, I’ve just never met anyone black before’. I grew up oblivious to skin colour. You might not believe me, but I really did. Accents I noticed, but the colour of someone’s skin meant absolutely nothing – my school was a rainbow of skin colours, and none of them had the slightest of impacts on our opinions of each other – your performance in inter-house challenges was far more important! My mum will back me up with an anecdote about some friends and me sat in the back of our car discussing how a girl we knew looked like Sandra Bullock. My mum sat in the driving seat somewhere between astounded and amused, as the lookalike in question was from an Indian family and thus had completely different colour skin to Sandra Bullock. But that was irrelevant – she really did look like Sandra Bullock! Let me be clear: I’m definitely NOT saying that everyone in the country is racist. Far from it. This is probably more of a comment on those people not-in-the-capital-city. But the slight, unintended racism of a few of the people I’ve met in the last year or two is incredibly strange and slightly shocking to me. I thought that sort of stuff had mostly died out, at least among ‘people like me’. Shows how closeted I’ve been in my capital-city life.

Similarly, I’ve personally encountered more sexism since discovering this world than I ever had before – for instance, gentlemen assuming I would know nothing about guns (problem here is, they’re right) or ammunition (I know a little more about cartridges I’m proud to say) and automatically turning to a male colleague to ask advice. Or more simply male customers looking unsettled in receiving ammunition advice from someone who dared have both a matching pair of X chromosomes and an interest in guns. Surely not! I’ve met women who volunteer to help on a shoot only to restrict themselves to helping with tea, coffee and refreshments. Now, I’ve made my love of tea and cake abundantly clear, and if you’ve read my blog and not realised that perhaps I need to work on my writing. But simply because a woman enjoys baking, does that mean she should be limited to the kitchen? Why not bake and help with the shooting side of things? Or god forbid, shoot yourself?! This is definitely NOT a problem affecting all country folk – if you possess said pair of X-chromosomes and find yourself sat at your computer agreeing or shouting “YEAH!” then I highly suggest you find your next S&CBC meet and come along. Join us in our ambition to prove to all menfolk that we enjoy baking and take pleasure from our beautiful kitchen aid mixers (wishful sigh) while simultaneously enjoying shooting and taking pleasure from our beautiful shotguns.[ii] Call it multitasking. If you like the sound of that, come along and you’ll meet plenty of like-minded women I promise! Anyway, I digress. Until I left university I was coming to the conclusion that from my own (admittedly limited) experience, sexism was far less prolific than some of my more feminist minded friends made out, and as long as I stood my ground I’d be okay. But if it’s still in existence in country life, evident to me in under a year, then who’s to say they’re not right that it is prolific in other worlds too. I’m growing to really like the country, and love the history and tradition – seeing no point in change for change’s sake, and valuing hugely a lot of things lovely and old-fashioned – but some things have changed for a reason, and these isms are one of them.

The second odd thing I wish to comment on, and that I can ramble on about for some time if given the space (but I’ll try not to), is the acceptance of the roles of nature and death. I’ve talked about it before, but Country Death is not a horror that lurks in the corner in a black cloak with a scythe just waiting, revelling in the general fear and loathing that people hold towards him until the time comes for him to hack your head off or whisk you away into The Beyond. Death is accepted. The animals shot for sport are respected while living, treated well, looked after and protected while still left to roam free. And yet their deaths, and the achievement of killing them, are celebrated and glorified with photographs of dead birds laid one atop the other, or a shooter photographed and so preserved for all eternity, posing behind the dead of a just-shot dead, one hand on each antler holding it up. Animals are frequently killed on a regular basis – a farming friend casually mentioned that he was going out ‘blasting bunnies’ later on, as they were causing problems in his crops. I won’t mention the hunts-on-horseback at this point, but foxes are still shot regularly as pests, and photos will often be taken of the carcases as the norm, even just friends snapping pics on iPhones. Taxidermy – a practice which I had thought antiquated and old-fashioned – is very much still alive, with stuffed birds dotted around country shops and living rooms, the heads of decapitated buffalo, stag, antelope and countless other animals mounted on wooden plaques and displayed in shops, shoot lodges and hallways. From a city perspective, this means that someone has taken it upon themselves to track down a living, breathing animal, end its life, carefully gut and empty the animal of all its bones, muscles, arteries and other live-preserving matter to leave only the outer skin, fur, feathers, eyes, feet horns and so on. They then stuff the dead animal (and use other much more complicated techniques) to ensure its preservation, and proceed to display this emblem of a life ended too soon as a pretty ornament. City girl says: what’s wrong with a painting or sculture?

I think I’m starting to be able to rationalise it, and even possibly understand it (and I’ll save that ramble for another day) but the problem is that however rationally I explain it in my head, the fact is that I’m still pretty squeamish when it comes to dead stuff. Or dying stuff. Once it’s dead in my kitchen, it’s not a problem; it’s not an animal that recently died; it’s meat, even if it is still fully clothed in fur or feathers. I’m just not phased by dead animals when they are obviously there to be eaten. But that act of killing them still turns my stomach slightly, the idea of a stately stag in the wild standing proud one minute, and lying dead the next with a bullet through its neck (or head or heart or wherever else they’re shot), blood spilled on the grass and then dragged back home. Then again, once it’s strung up to be skinned and gutted, I have no problem – it ceases to be a deer and becomes venison. But still the middle bit, the transition from dead to alive, the idea of people and children in particular being so close to that moment, and the successful hunter taking quite so much pleasure in it… much as I possibly shouldn’t admit this to some country-friends, my head may have manage to get around it, but my heart and stomach still haven’t. I’ll admit, I’m far happier with the idea of shooting birds than I am deer and stags, so I may simply be suffering from a case of Bambi-it is. Nonetheless, it took some serious thinking to find the idea of what I first saw as ruthlessly shooting a bird down mid-flight not unpalatable, and I still find the ‘country-folks’’ complete, nonchalant acceptance of it all rather peculiar.

The last thing I’ll comment on today that I find strange looking down the rabbit hole is the amount of money people spend on clothes and footwear. I come from a world where you buy your day-to-day things cheaply, be it H&M to M&S, but the extravagant purchases are a beautiful pair of heels, or a dress for a special occasion, both of which you may wear only once a year – if that! And I know someone who buys the absolute cheapest wellies he can, once a year for a festival, leaves them at the festival and buys another next year. But suddenly I fall into the Country, and meet countless people who own £300 wellingtons (leather-lined, of course). But it does make sense – a lot of people will spend days, even weeks on end in their wellies, wearing them all day long, day in day out. They need to keep their feet dry, comfortable and warm. Similarly, a £500 coat isn’t a designer item, it’s a heavy-duty, waterproofed affair – tweed of course, if you’re of a traditional persuasion and going on a game shoot – but still Goretex lined with these storm cuffs, that drip stopper thingy and those draining holes (in the pockets of course, to keep your cartridges dry!), and countless other sensible touches, instead of the frills and fripperies of the city. This makes so much sense – I’ve even started adopting it in my every day life, spending less on dresses and heels for occasions and more on my day-to-day shoes and clothes – and you know what, it works! My clothes wash better, last longer, and are quite simply fit for purpose – so much more worth the money I spent on them than a £200 dress I might wear once or twice. Though I’m still not in the market for £300 wellies – I just don’t wear mine enough. Amazing, wonderful, sensible, logical, and most definitely to a girl who grew up in the city, just a little strange.

Strange isn’t bad, it’s strange. The Country is my wonderland, and assuming I stay safe from decapitation-hungry monarchs that torture hedgehogs with flamingos, I’m eager to see more of it. I promise that as I keep falling down the rabbit hole, I’ll let you know what else I see. In turn, if you farming folk would be so kind, should you find yourselves out ‘bunny-blasting’ please avoid any flustered looking rabbits with waistcoats and pocket watches.


[i] A country friend recently confirmed this for me, as I, a humble girl from Twickenham, referred to her local country town as “Chippy”. Apparently this means I passed some sort of test, and am well on my way to becoming ‘country’. Though apparently not there yet, as I still own Hunters, and insufficiently muddy ones at that (and love them).

[ii] For the record, I don’t recommend baking with shotguns or shooting with cake batter or even sultanas. Neither will yield very good results.

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The Welcoming Gaze of Gazelles

Finally, I have experienced a moment of belonging! But I shall tell you about it properly, try and do it the justice it deserves. Let me set the scene.

My previously mentioned shooting instructor recently asked me whether I might be around and available one Sunday, to help out on a charity shoot being set up by an ex-colleague and very good friend of his. Of course, I said yes. My instructions included when and where to arrive (approximately at least); to dress in ‘smart-casual but country casual’; and to smile, be charming, answer any questions and generally ‘help’ – instructions as wonderfully specific as so much of this world seems to be! So I dutifully rocked up armed with comfy-yet-country boots, fleece waistcoat and tweed skirt, and without a clue as to what I was expected to do.

And what a place to ‘rock up’ to. A central circular bar had been set up in the centre of a vast hall that was the shoot lodge/building/welcome space, with what can only be described as an armoury of spirits, beers, fruit juices, glasses and citrus fruits neatly arranged as though on display under the bar. A casually elegant basket of Danish pastries was wafted in front of my nose, and warily clutching a pain-au-chocolat, I sipped my tea (somewhat stewed in the pot but easily rendered drinkable by the addition of a little milk and plenty of sugar) and looked around. It was extraordinary. Huge wooden beams floated metres above us, a clean and fresh take on ‘country’, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves set in either side of the fire, over which a mezzanine level had been built around the chimney. The rest of the room had been left open up to the (beautiful) rafters, with huge doors on either side of the room beckoning the daylight inside. Two water buffalo heads looked down sternly from one wall, while a few decapitated gazelles gazed down at us with an altogether more welcoming expression than the angry buffalo. After a few moments spent in my own world (pondering how I’d convert the room into a one-room-house – it’s easily as big as the house I currently live in and a lot lot lighter to boot), The Day Proper began.

My ponytail anchored a James Shouler Shooting baseball cap firmly on my head, (James being the man running the shooting side of the soirée) and so bestowed on me the official role of Staff. There were sporting clay traps set up along one side of a upward-sloping field, and at the top of the little hill sat the flurry – my domain for the day. My job was to sit on the flurry, lounge in the sun with tally counter in hand, back to the cages and the shooters within, and count the missed clays. My old instructor (at this point I feel I should start calling him by name or as simply my friend, but for the sake of anonymity and also for story-telling purposes he will remain My Old Instructor) released the ‘flurry’ of clays over the four cages, spitting clays out at random angles and intervals, in an attempt to mimic a flush of real birds on a game shoot. Scoring and boosting morale for the more amateur shooters was a remarkably easy job, especially on such a beautiful day in such stunning surroundings. The attitude of the competitors was wonderful – as a charity shoot, no-one cared too much about losing (though of course everyone wanted to win) and the day was a huge success with staff and guests alike wearing sunshine-and-daisy smiles throughout. However, I’ve somewhat missed the point – my moment of belonging.

Walking out of the ladies’ alone with cap in hand, soon to be on head, I passed a group of women with perfect hair-dos and elegant (but highly impractical) white aprons, one of whom had so generously wafted temptation under my nose earlier in the form of the pain-au-chocolat . As I stepped onto the terrace, she spotted my cap and whispered to me conspiratorially,

–       ‘I wonder, can you tell us, what exactly is a flurry?!’

She went on to describe how she and the women she was with had sat around committee meetings about this charity shoot, smiling and nodding every time someone mentioned ‘The Flurry’, without the blindest idea what it actually was. I smiled and explained – terribly professionally of course – and joy of joys, they actually understood what I’d said, including my tentative references to game shooting (my experiences of which number to exactly nil).

The shaky sense of ‘I might actually know enough to pretend I belong here’ was reinforced by a fortunately overheard exchange between one of the instructors and one of the women actually shooting on a stand. Gun in hand and appropriately kitted out in tweed skirt and Dubarry boots, she was asked whether she was using a 12 or 20 bore shotgun. She glanced down at the gun she;d been using all morning and replied,

–       ‘I don’t know, the one with the little holes’

demonstrating to me without the tiniest hint of a shadow of a doubt, that I am not the least informed person within the world of shooting.

Sloe-dancing Giraffes

The same colleague who took me to the Horse Farm invited two of us to join her at the Bicester Hunt and Whaddon Chase (I think that’s right) Halloween Ball at Aynhoe Park, and I can honestly say I’ve never been to anything like it, ever. Dressed to the nines in a backless dress, and armed with cobwebs and a single white contact lens – it was Halloween after all – we drove into the courtyard to be greeted by two gargantuan hands clasped together and thrust up through the flowerbed. Walking in, penguin-dressed waiters welcomed us proffering green gin-based cocktails with dry-ice cubes in emitting a trickling stream of fog. Clutching our smoking, bubbling cocktails we entered a house surreal enough to rival Alice’s rabbit hole – and this was real. Bathed in eerie red and green light, with guests swanning around elegantly in full dresses, capes, top hats and one sexed-up Marie Antoinette outfit, the rooms were filled with a range of taxidermy the like of which I’ve never seen, and will probably never see again. A full-size giraffe on the dance floor (I seem to remember it wearing a top hat, though that may have been the cocktails taking their effect), a prowling lion by the bar, a polar bear, mounted zebra heads, more stags heads and antlers than I could count, and a penguin dancing in the elaborately turquoise ladies’ bathroom. White marble statues mingled in amongst with the animals, and with the lights and the smoke from everyone’s cocktails, a probably too-generous helping of gin and miniature food brought round on silver platters midway through the night, it was absolutely wonderful, truly a night to remember.

The next day was the next step forward in my Country Education, and my first experience of the previously mentioned sloe gin making. London-born and university-educated, a night out is something I Can Do, eyes closed and hands tied behind my back (not yet literally – but who knows what the future holds?!) But spending the night at my friend’s cottage revealed a hangover cure as yet unknown to me. A traditional, greasy and delicious fry up from a roadside diner nearby was entertaining – many locals suffering a similar fate joined us for breakfast, dressed in an array of costumes in various states of bedraggleness. But later on my friend took me out to walk her dogs, and feet shoved into my far-too-shiny wellies[i] and armed with a big Tupperware box, we went sloe picking. It was like the blackberries I picked with my Mum on a much bigger scale, with more nettles and ditches to negotiate and bigger thorns, but no cars roaring in the background. Crisp fresh Autumn air proved a much nicer hangover cure than hiding under my duvet, and returning home with 2kg of sloes as well as my hangover felt much better and more productive than returning berryless would have.


I was given instructions on turning my berries into sloe gin, and told you must be sure to only pick the berries after the first frost. Apparently if you’re impatient, you can also pick them and pop them in the freezer overnight (though ‘In the freezer overnight’ didn’t make quite as nice a title for this blog). You then prick each berry with a pin, which is best done in front of an entertaining television programme with one bowl on either side and a tea towel or apron on your lap. It’s not fast, but it’s not hard either. You pop each pierced berry into the gin with some sugar and leave it be. Some say around two months will do (and I decanted some after this time to be given to family as Christmas presents) but someone else said that a minimum of six months is needed, so I’ve left one bottle to mature for a few more months, and if I can resist temptation might even leave it ‘til next year to open. Part of me is also considering sealing up a small bottle and hiding it somewhere to be discovered in years to come, and see what difference that makes.

The freezing aspect of the ‘recipe’ makes complete sense when you think about it – and anyone who’s ever forgotten about a can of coke/beer/bottle of wine popped in the freezer to chill will know why. A berry is full of juice and when frozen that will expand, breaking the cell walls inside. So release the juice inside the berry, and it will seep out of the pinhole far more readily than out of an unfrozen berry. A new friend’s boyfriend told me that you can also lay your berries out and crush them with a rolling pin, but apparently this will lead to cloudy gin. The pinprick keeps the bits of berry inside the skin and lets the juice out, resulting in lovely deep pink clear sparkly sloe gin (or so I hope).

Spending the night at my friend’s cottage with a front door key bigger than her hand; meeting her pretty little chickens (and being sent home with some fresh eggs, smaller than a normal egg but much, much tastier); sloe picking with the dogs on a frosty morning; all of this made me want more than ever to keep discovering more about this world, even if I continue to be laughed at along the way.


[i] Note to self: must muck up my wellies a bit if I’m serious about joining this world…