Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud

I’ve frequently declared country life to be muddy. I don’t just mean the countryside – on occasional walks in the countryside as I was growing up, I walked and waded through mud, no doubt splashed in some muddy puddles as a toddler (Mum?) and when I was fourteen even tripped over a stile and fell face-first into the mud (and quite possibly cow pats too). I have seen enough mud to know the countryside is muddy – I daresay it’s linked in some inexplicable way to the lack of paving stones, tarmac and concrete. Mysterious.

But mud worms its way into other places in Country Life – like right on your doorstep for example, because so many people actually live in the world I walked/splashed/tripped my way through before; or sprayed artistically up the side of cars (probably due to the aforementioned scarcity of concrete.) And in its drier form, those signed up to country life (and those who had it thrust upon them) will find mud encrusted into the bottom and around the sides of wellington boots or any other footwear you elected to go clay shooting in one rainy day (and thus in its crumbled, powdery form all over the inside of the foot wells of your car).

And now, to a certain degree, I see mud as a certificate of authenticity. I’ve mentioned how my friends laugh at my wellies, not just because they cost less than a night in a nice hotel, but also because of how incredibly shiny and green they are. I’ve worn Mum’s blue Hunters for years, and they are most definitely not shiny. When I went to university, she wouldn’t let me take them and generously bought me my own pair which I duly wore and loved, trudging around campus and the shooting ground in the snow and mud, and the wellies showed this loving wear in their lack of sheen and newly-dulled greenness. However, the inside sole started rolling up within the guarantee period and Hunter, true to their word, replaced them with a brand new pair. Problem is, this coincided with my third year and – horror of horrors – finals. This is the time that every university student becomes far, far too familiar with the library – or in my case, Starbucks. When you walk five minutes on citified concrete/tarmac/paving stones, sit down, head down for eight hours, make the same walk home (in the other direction of course, and work some more before falling asleep on Erasmus’ Institutio principis Christiani, there may be need for an infinite supply of biros, sticky labels, coloured pens and most importantly hot cups of tea, but there is very little need of wellington boots. Hence the new replacement wellies haven’t been worn half as much as they would have been in first or second year, and still stand glorious proud in their very-greenness.

This shiny green is the badge that marks me an infiltrator into Country Life, or at the very best a newcomer. Those fully-fledged country people, initiated into the fold years ago, will without fail sport wellies in a stoic shade of used-to-be-green, mud spattered on the tops and legs, mud encrusted into the zip, mud slowly infusing with the sole of the boot its been there so long. The wear, the mud, the gorse/blackthorn scratches, the mud, the  worn sole and lest we forget, the mud – these are all signs of Belonging.

Similarly, the position on my mental map of those vehicles that I used to look down on disdainfully – the accursed Chelsea Tractors  – has changed. I’ve mentioned this before, so apologies if I’m repeating myself, but there is a point relevant to this post hidden somewhere. Chelsea Tractors used to take up space on the roads, slow everyone down by not fitting through gaps or parking oh-so-carefully in a normal parking space because the silly car is just too big for the normal world. People sat in them, quite literally on high, and looked down at us mere insects daring to scuttle down the M<insert motorway of your choice here> beside them. And yet now I’ve seen 4x4s in action – and probably not yet at their best or most useful– and I finally understand why some people need them. I’ve seen them stoically crawl their way up hills that my car would slip and slide to the bottom of, quite likely ending up on its little toboggan of a roof. I’ve seen the stupidly large boot that I could quite comfortable sleep in filled to bursting with stock, with guns, cartridges, cartridge bags, tools, with boxes of packets of ear plugs, defenders and safety glasses, you name it. These vehicles are like mini transport vans, but ones strong enough to transport that stuff up a mudslide in the rain.[i] But all these 4x4s I’ve seen put to their good and proper use have been splattered with mud, their glossy new-car sheen long gone and however well kept the interior, however frequently washed the outside, you can always tell that it is a Working Car. So I now reserve my disdain especially for the spotlessly clean, shiny Range Rover Vogues that soar down motorways with cream leather seats (honestly, who ever came up with such as impractical an idea as cream seat in a car! Even in my thoroughly non-country little blue city pug, pale seats would have ceased to be pale within six months of ownership). A Landrover Discovery, mud splattered up the sides and encrusted all over the wheel arches wears that mud as a symbol of its legitimacy and its right to be owned.

And so you see how mud becomes a badge of authenticity in the country. Proof that you belong. And yet recent events have proven that even the country can’t cope with all the mud the English Countryside and English weather have worked together to offer. Event after event this year has been cancelled – the optimistic, go-getting organisers of the Yorkshire Show gritted their teeth through just one day of their event, before succumbing to the mud and cancelling the rest. Horse trials have been cancelled, fair and shows have followed in their footsteps and most recently and devastatingly, the CLA Game Fair in Belvoir has been cancelled. This was to be my first game fair not working, where I was going to get to see more of the fair than the route from my stand to the ladies’, and I was so excited. I’d been gifted with a free ticket and entry into all those exciting, exclusive members bits that I don’t know what they are – though as I won’t get to see them this year, I’m sure they’re wonderful and decadent and luxurious and amazing. But now I’ll never know. Sniff. Self-pity aside, all those traders who had prepared, produced, packaged and packed so much stock to take to the show, not to mention the signs, tills, furniture, flooring and goodness only knows what else… They are the people you should really feel sorry for.

The overwhelming muddiness of recent events has demonstrated a quality about the Country that the rest of us should try to learn from – resilience. Mini-Game Fairs have been popping up all over Twitter and Facebook, some in Belvoir, some elsewhere, one at the Oxford Gun Company, one with Really Wild at RBSS, and one at E. J. Churchill – where I shall be going instead! Lots of the Chelsea Bun Club ladies will be in attendance, so there should be plenty of fun to be had. Everyone is being so supportive of one another, demonstrating enthusiasm and positive thinking. The mud may have cancelled event after event, but the proud mud-encrusted-boots-wearing attendees still fight back. The lessons to be had here are:

1)   Don’t underestimate the symbolic value of mud.

2)   Don’t underestimate the power of mud.

3)   Don’t ever give in to the mud.


[i] Please don’t try this at home, whether to prove me right or wrong. I deny any responsibility for any accidents that may occur from such experiments.

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…