Americashire: English customs at play
Expat author Jennifer Richardson looks at English customs through American eyes, while playing 'local' in the Cotswolds where she and her husband bought a 200-year-old cottage.
Expat author Jennifer Richardson shares excerpts from her award-winning book 'Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage.'
Becoming 'local' in the English countryside
On the first sunny Saturday morning in June, the kettle was boiling and the French press ready when I realised we had no milk. This lack of basic provisions was a familiar annoyance in the weekly back and forth between London and the Cotswolds. With some exasperation, I extricated myself from my pajamas and into clothing marginally suitable for public view. I couldn't be bothered to brush my teeth; I just hoped I wouldn't run into anyone I knew. I soon learned this attitude is a hangover from the urban anonymity of London. You always run into someone you know in the market square.
It's a one-block walk along a stone-wall-lined lane to the shop, along which the village looks like a country-themed 'It's a Small World' ride. Pensioners were practically skipping on their way to collect the weekend papers. Four cats frolicked in our lane (cats! in all my years as a cat owner, I'd never seen a cat frolic, yet here they were doing exactly that), while white butterflies skittered above. Once inside, my shopping list expanded from milk to include two of the freshly baked croissants on offer, a potato and cheese pastie for D, a newspaper, and a basket of raspberries. I decided I needed some of that yogurt made in the next village to go with the raspberries, so I walked across the green to the butcher who happens to sell it.
By now, I was positively buzzing, chatting with the butcher as I juggled my purchases. I couldn't help comparing it to the last time I went to get a pint of milk at the corner store in London: In midflow of taking my money, the shopkeeper spat onto the floor of his own shop. As I walked back to our cottage, I felt an overwhelming urge to quit my corporate London job, take over the village post office, and open a tea shop selling tasteful tchotckes.
Six months in as an official weekend resident, I was still in love with every aspect of village life. In fact, I was most in love with the mundane routines, the pleasure of which seems to have been totally lost in an urban existence. I may have been in love, but I was less sure if the town was in love with us. There was the potential damage we had done on the horse-racing evening, not to mention the fact that we were, after all, still outsiders. And people are suspicious of outsiders in these parts. Residents who've been here for 20 years are careful not to call themselves locals, even if they were born in the village three miles down the road.
Even worse we were weekenders, sometimes more sinisterly referred to as incomers, a breed reviled throughout the English countryside. Weekenders drive up property prices so locals can't afford to buy anything, then only use their luxury barn conversions on the occasional long weekend. When they do show up, it's in an enormous, gas-guzzling Range Rover known locally as a Chelsea tractor.
I knew all about weekenders because the British media love to do stories on them. Hardly a month goes by without a sarcastic editorial in our regional magazine, Cotswold Life, on these hedge-fund men and their Cath Kidston-print-bedecked wives, children, and kitchens. Channel 4 ran a whole documentary on how weekenders ruined a small Cornish fishing village. To protect against this locust, one member of the Cotswold landed gentry, Lord Vestey, reserves cottages in his hamlet for locals only. According to a tipsy and possibly dubious source at the pub, even the government was out to get the weekender: Second-homers have contributed to the country's housing shortage and legislation or taxation or some equally unpleasant "-tion" was imminent.
You can understand why D and I were worried. We did, after all, work in London during the week and go to the Cotswolds on, well, weekends. But that's about where the similarities ended. We didn't manage hedge funds or work in any other capacity in 'the City'. We were devoted to our country cottage and came every weekend without fail. If there was a fete or a church service or a charity event, we'd be there, first in line to buy raffle tickets. And I've never set foot in a Cath Kidston shop in my life.
To prove our worthiness, we embraced the full lineup of fetes, festivals, shows, plays, operas, and concerts on the Cotswold summer calendar. All of these events were bravely planned for the outdoors, and all were excellent distractions from the question of motherhood. The weather that first summer was marginally better than the summer before, the year of the disastrous Gloucestershire floods, which meant we had about three days of sunshine. We tried our best to make full use of them all. And on this particular morning, the one when the village was looking its rural-themed 'It's a Small World' best, I could think of no better way to make use of the sunshine than by taking a walk.
Things I learned in country pubs
I learned pretty much everything I need to know about life in the country from its patrons. Well, at least everything I need to sound marginally credible when talking about life in the country to someone in a pub. And the sum total of Things I Learned in Country Pubs is:
- How to play Shove Ha'penny, a Victorian pastime played with the aid of a small blackboard, which is rather dull unless you turn it into a drinking game.
- The difference between straw and hay, a stag and abuck, and a meet and a meeting.
- What a gilet is – a quilted nylon vest that's de rigueur country attire – and how you pronounce it.
- How to make a dry martini.
- How to make an extra-dry martini.
- The hierarchy of gamekeeping: gamekeeper, beatkeeper, and underkeeper.
- What a muntjac is and that they taste good.
- The perfection of a pickled egg nestled in a bed of potato chips.
- A gun dog bringing back four partridges at once is a bad thing.
- When snipe season starts.
- How to make damson gin (said to be good for cold days on the links) and that I enjoy fruited gins of most varieties.
- Why Chinese takeout restaurants in the UK serve french fries (I'll explain this later, but for now your hint is Butlins).
- How to herd sheep on a steep hill.
- A joke about a Yorkshire butcher.
- An inn to visit in the Forest of Bowland.
The English Sunday lunch
In March, we had lunch. It wasn't just any lunch. It was Sunday lunch, a fixture of English life, and a ritual I had admired since we first moved to London. There it was, an event that played out in pubs, where groups of friends would arrive with armfuls of newspapers. I used to look in at them through the windows of our corner pub, The Bonaparte, with their steaming plates of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and all those papers spread around like they were getting ready to paint something.
The closest thing I could think of to this routine was in Los Angeles – aspiring actors/directors/screenwriters sitting at coffee shops gripping soy chai lattes in one hand and scripts in the other. The harder the person tried to look nonchalant, the more deliberate the whole thing seemed. The English version seemed both gastronomically and intellectually superior. And now we had been invited to Sunday lunch, the first since our arrival in the Cotswolds.
This one was a belated birthday celebration for Miles and was hosted by his ex-wife, Lillian. (Fraternising between ex-spouses is uncommonly common in the Cotswolds, presumably a coping mechanism for divorcees to maintain a social life in such a small community.) Like all good parties, this one took place largely in her kitchen around the farmhouse table. After pheasant pie and potatoes Dauphinoise but before almond cake and coffee, snowflakes started dancing outside the kitchen window, which was already framing a picture-perfect winter-white landscape. I was pretty sure Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson were about to walk through the door and join us for the cheese course.
An entire cast of Richard Curtis characters wouldn't have been more interesting than the assembled company. In addition to the charms of Miles and his ex, we were joined by another couple. The husband, also one of the Fat Boys, resembled Paul Bunyan in his leather waistcoat and was a writer whose work I knew from my favourite newspaper. These facts alone would have been enough to sustain me for the entire afternoon, but he turned out to be only too happy to further oblige my stereotype of an idiosyncratic former Fleet Street journalist. While the rest of the table drank rioja, he steadily drained the bottle of The Famous Grouse and a small pitcher of water that had been set out at his place. (This is the only manner in which I have seen water offered at a Cotswold table. Unless it's accompanying whiskey, locals seem to think using water to hydrate yourself is somehow wimpy.) Between courses, he smoked hand-rolled cigarettes and told me stories about his early years in Los Angeles and New York.
Neither did his wife disappoint. She was dressed in Toff I-don't-give-a-s**t, in this case a ripped hot-pink cashmere V-neck, jeans, and leopard-print loafers. I think it was my compliment of her ring – Fabergé – that sparked the conversation that revealed her father had been a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who, while stationed in the AP's Moscow bureau during the Stalin era, eloped with her mother, a ballerina in The Bolshoi. Clark Gable played her father in the film version of her parents' romance. Really.
I couldn't help feeling a little bit sorry for her. How are you ever supposed to live up to parents like that? It was enough to make me grateful for my own parents' relative mediocrity. The day before on a phone call with my father I had to explain to him what cava was. He seemed downright fascinated to learn about the existence of this economically priced Spanish sparkling wine.
"How do you know about things like that?" he asked, his voice filled with genuine wonder.
On second thought, my father may have just been expressing understandable bafflement that my knowledge of wine seemed to eclipse my knowledge of the birds and the bees. Or at least my seeming ability to act on it.
Read more: Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage.
Reprinted with permission of Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage.
Jennifer Richardson is the author of Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage, the 2013 Indie Reader Discovery Award winner for travel writing. You can find Jennifer online at: Americashire, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Pinterest.
Comment here on the article, or if you have a suggestion to improve this article, please click here.