This week, I was in Milborne St Andrew, Dorset, with my parents. As usual, I have been making pancakes and cooking casseroles, but on Wednesday I went out for a walk, to see what was going on in the village. I headed on down towards the Londis shop, passing a man walking with two Newfoundland dogs, and, further along, a little blind cat. Milborne seems to be a place where disabled pets are welcomed – there is a man here who has a blind dog, and I’ve seen a dog with three legs as well. I love it when people recognise that a pet who is ‘different’ in this way can be just as splendid a companion, and live just as happy a life, as one with the full complement of legs or eye.
Whenever I come to Milborne, I realise that I need to slow down. My brusque, speedy London ways cut no mustard here. It’s important to say hello to people, to spend the time of day, to make sure that you acknowledge any greetings from passing cars. In a small place, people rely on one another, and keep an eye on what’s going on. This can be either claustrophobic or comforting, according to your temperament and state of mind. Mum and Dad consider themselves very lucky to have moved to such a friendly place, and it certainly suits them very well.
One thing that is always prominent in Milborne at this time of year is the red valerian. This should be the village’s designated flower, for it is popping up everywhere, not only in the standard red, but also in pink, white, and in a rather fetching pale pink. It peeks out from old walls, churchyards, and cracks in the pavement. All I need to see now is a hummingbird hawk moth (as occasionally witnessed by my mum in her garden, where the valerian even grows out of the drains) and my life will be complete.
There are also patches of that most ephemeral of flowers, the poppy. Last year, Mum and Dad’s garden was full of it, but this year it seems to have moved up the road. I also saw it in the area of Milborne known as Little England, a collection of old cottages and more modern houses that runs along behind the main road. Milborne is a ‘real’ village, not chocolate-boxy, but full of a variety of folk. As a result, it still has a shop, a post office, a school and a pub, and long may this continue.
I stop just before the shop because I hear a flurry in the apple tree, and get a quick glimpse of a newly-fledged collared dove. It’s only half the size of an adult bird, and has a ridiculously long beak. One glance is all I get, and then the bird rustles away into the foliage. The way that baby birds scramble about in the branches reminds me that the ancestors of birds were probably arboreal, climbers rather than fliers.
I cross the road, and pass the statue of a stag that stands outside one of the houses. This has been a cause of some controversy. At one point, I seem to remember, the stag was painted pink. On another occasion, someone painted his testicles pink, which outraged the village so much that questions were asked at the parish council . Today, the stag is a uniform raggedy white colour, and the house is for sale, again . I wonder if whoever buys the house realises the nature of the local monument that they will be purchasing? One can only hope that they have no plans for any stag-related psychedelia.
In the churchyard opposite, a view over the adjoining field shows the house martins swooping and chirruping over the thistles as they hunt for insects in the humid air. I love these black and white wanderers, and I hope that, much as we dislike a damp summer, it will provide rich pickings for them.
One of Mum’s best friends, a lady called Pat Tribe, was buried here in 2012. Her simple headstone, which simply gives her name, her dates (1941 to 2012) and the words ‘With God’, is the epitome of the woman herself: straightforward, devout, no nonsense, the very heart of her community. I know that she would approve of this spot, close to the church which she served faithfully for so many years. It is a hard fact that, as we get older, our friends fall away. All the more reason to love them while they are here.
I decide to follow the path from the church that runs alongside the little river upon which Milborne St Andrew stands. There are springs and streams all over the place here, one of which caused a flood at the end of Mum and Dad’s road a few years ago, effectively sealing them in. Recent roadworks seemed to have tamed the rivulet, but I do worry for the houses that back onto the existing stream.
When I peer into the stream I see that it is garlanded with water crowfoot, a kind of buttercup that grows actually in the water. I have some in my pond which has produced exactly one flower so far. The stuff in Milborne was doing much better. I love the white and yellow flowers, the way that they carpet the surface of the running water.
‘ I was just admiring your water crowfoot’, I enthused.
‘Were you indeed?’ he said, backing away with a worried expression.
Ah well, even in a village as friendly as Milborne St Andrew, it’s possible to overdo it.
Dear Readers, since I wrote this piece, the UK has voted to leave the EU. Whilst the metropolitan areas (including the paradise that is East Finchley) voted to Remain, nearly everywhere else (except Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar) voted to Leave. The area where Mum and Dad live voted overwhelmingly to leave, which was no surprise, judging by the bright red ‘Leave’ posters which were every bit as ubiquitous as the valerian. As this is a largely rural area, which receives extensive farm subsidies from the EU, it feels a lot like the turkeys voting for Christmas, but there we go. We live in ‘interesting’ times here in the moment, and I, for one, am deeply concerned about the divisions that this whole process has exposed, and the uncertainty of what lies before us. But I also know that, while 50% voted to Leave, 48% of us voted to Remain, because of our vision of this country as an inclusive, generous place, working with other nations rather than in splendid isolation. And that vision is not going to go away because of a single vote, however drastic the consequences.
On another note, poor Mum managed to have a bad fall on the very night of the Referendum (and no, it wasn’t a Brexit protest) and is currently in Dorchester Hospital, wearing a rather horrible collar that she’ll have to wear for the next six to eight weeks. She’s possibly fractured a bone in her neck, but we may not know about that till she’s seen a specialist, which may be next week. So, she’s ok, but not delighted with this turn of events. Hopefully, she’ll be out of hospital soon, and fortunately my brother is doing all the legwork at the moment. It really feels as if everything is out of joint at the moment, nationally and personally. We will all need to make ourselves ‘comfortable with uncertainty’ in the weeks and months to come.