Thursday, 5 December 2013
As a student I lived in a thick stone cottage on a farm nestled in the rolling countryside; at the foot of a hill leading to a village so small, the sole amenities were a spit and sawdust pub and a lonely phone box.
There was no heating in our cottage bar an open hearth in the living room in which to burn scavenged wood and, from November until March, an ancient aga in the kitchen. As Autumn bit deep, hours were spent huddled round the kitchen table to soak in the aga's comforting heat, whilst nights became an interesting lesson in how to dress for bed so as not to succumb to the creeping cold in the small hours. Flannel pyjamas, sweatshirts and woolly socks were the sleepwear of necessity.... and occasionally, if the temperature dropped below zero, mittens and the odd wooly hat were added to the nighttime ensemble; our quest for warmth overriding any embarrassment.
We had no need of an alarm clock; as at dawn the cockerel crow mingled with the throaty roar of the tractor, and slow, low bellowing as the cows made their way to be milked , made sleep impossible.
Later a brimming milk churn would appear on the doorstep, still warm from the parlour, with the cream already settling on the top. This was the perk of the first up, to lavish on the porridge slow cooked on the aga.
The farm buildings were reached by a long narrow drive, flanked on one side by a coppice, and on the other by pasture bounded by a ditch. There was a solitary lamppost half way down resembling nothing so much as that which Lucy found when she stumbled through the wardrobe into Narnia.
Its light was always so dim, that on dark evenings stumbling into the ditch was all too real a possibility.
The rain brought further hazards, as the coppice contained a pond beloved by spawning frogs, and the ditch was their destination of choice. Walking home in the dark became a test of skill and endurance. We would gingerly tiptoe, half blind by raindrops, staring through the darkness at our feet as frogs hopped under and over, all but invisible in the gloom. One wrong step could result in a sickening squelch if the poor victim failed to jump quickly enough. There were plenty of near misses, but we, graceful in this ballet of life and death, managed to avoid the ultimate horror of frog underfoot. Yet every morning after rain, a scene of carnage awaited; the tractor a merciless executioner, and the quickest of frogs unable to escape the enormous rolling wheels.
Squashed frogs splayed as if prepped for a biology investigation, slowly desiccating in the sun,is an enduring memory; and probably the reason why I cherish the squat White's frogs that live in the safety of our vivarium; appearing once the lamp is extinguished, to sit wide eyed like comical gargoyles on the heads of long suffering water dragons; and softly croak to the rising of the moon.