Despite, or even because of, the old-fashioned nature of the place, it felt like we were embarking on the most fantastic adventure, and I remember a clear sense of liberation after we first arrived. We were going to be living on a much reduced income as I had given up the commercial work I’d been doing. But we would have time, space and beauty, and, what’s more, we were going to learn how to grow our own food.
My Soho vodka cocktail habit – also now on hold for city folk, thanks to lockdown – was replaced with real ales and in the evening I read various guide books. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was our primary guru, but I also enjoyed Jocasta Innes’s Country Kitchen and John Seymour’s Self-Sufficiency. It was time to cast off my foppish ways and become hardy and practical.
My practical skills were tested at once. During the first winter our pipes froze. We called our landlord, the farmer, but he didn’t have the same service ethic that I had come to expect in town. “All our pipes freeze, Tom,” he said. “You’ll have to get a warm dishcloth and wrap it round them.” The pipes remained frozen. We eventually paid a man to come around with a blowtorch to get the water moving. I was still feeling distinctly foppish.
In the spring we bought six hens. I studied Hugh F-W on the subject and he mentioned that an outhouse might make a suitable home, so we put them in a barn. The following morning, I rushed out in the hope of collecting our first batch of eggs. Instead, I found a scene of devastation. There were feathers everywhere and a dead chicken in the corner. Behind her cowered her still living sister. I hated to think of the horrific Reservoir Dogs-style violence she had witnessed.
Later we got a cockerel and managed to raise a few chicks. But as the chicks grew, it turned out that one was a male. He started fighting with his dad. So it was time to kill him. Like Gérard Depardieu in Jean de Florette, I got the book out. Victoria read the instructions to me while I dispatched the bird. It was pretty gruesome, but we managed it and even gutted, feathered and ate the bird, though the book did get bloodstains on it, which remain to this day.