A True Story of Country Living 60 Years Ago

Nearly sixty years ago, we were going through what is politely known as a 'sticky patch'. Not the least of our concerns was the urgent need for accommodation. How it happened, I can't recall, but suddenly we found ourselves the tenants of an unoccupied cottage that had been a gamekeeper's, but no longer was. Why this was so, we never knew - perhaps the landowners had run out of game to keep?

Although it was not miles from anywhere, it was somewhat isolated, situated at the top of a rise in the land, and accessed by a rutted track on one side and by a steep path on the other. There were no neighbours, so almost literally we had the countryside to ourselves. That would have been fine were we country people, but we weren't - we were 'townies' through and through. However, beggars can't be choosers, and we did our best to settle down to our new surroundings and circumstances.

Our Cottage - Off Grid Country Living!

If the cottage was isolated, it was also totally lacking in all of the amenities one takes for granted in 'civilisation'. There was no electricity; no running water; no sanitation. Certainly there was no such thing as central heating, although because it was not winter, that was no hardship. One way or another we gathered about us the essentials of life, bare as they may have been. As we found, the cottage included a small, coal-fired 'Kitchener' range in the kitchen, but our cooking, such as it was, was done on a Valor oil-stove.

Lighting was restricted to candles for going to bed, and a kerosene (paraffin, for the UK reader) lamp, which in its way was quite romantic. It had a large glass bowl for the oil, and a tall glass chimney. Sitting on the kitchen table, it gave out a good light. We were particular about making sure the chimney was cleaned daily with screws of newspaper, and that the wick was properly trimmed.

Romanticism however can have its down side. We kept our eggs in a spherical wire basket that hung from a beam in the kitchen. On one occasion, we decided to have an omelette. Down came the eggs, for us to find that each one was hard-boiled - without thinking, we had had the lamp directly under the basket, and the heat rising from the chimney had slowly done the cooking!

Our water came from a well just outside the door. It was good, pure water, and it was almost pleasurable to drop a bucket into it and draw it up, filled to the brim. I did on one occasion carelessly let go of the line, allowing a bucket to fall into the well - like Clementine, it was 'lost and gone forever'! - but luckily we had a spare, so no real problem there. Sanitation, however, was 'something else', as is said.

There being no drains of any kind, recourse had to be made to a somewhat primitive solution: an Elsan chemical loo, and this lived in what apparently had been the pig-sty, which as far as I can remember had no door. Or if it had one, it was never closed. What it did not have was any kind of smell remaining from its original purpose. On summer mornings it was almost a delight to be there, looking through the doorway to the woods beyond, listening to an old cock pheasant shrieking his defiance at those who wished him ill, seeing and listening to smaller birds as they went about their daily grind. Of course, the thing had to be 'dealt with' periodically, but that was a small price to pay. I won't say that I miss the Elsan, far from it, but the mere mention of the name evokes quite happy memories.

Ablutions were a unique experience. For hands and face, not a problem, but for other needs, an alternative to a small basin had to be found. As it happened, we had friends who ran a secondhand-cum-'antiques' business a few miles away, and they turned up trumps with a Victorian hip-bath. It was quite a performance, getting the Kitchener range fired up, pans of water heated, the bath filled (and enjoyed!), but again it was fun, and filled in some of the time.  Not least, we felt and were properly clean.

Country Living Entertainment Provided by Mother Nature

Naturally, with no electricity there was no television, even had we owned one. We may have had a small battery radio, although I don't remember it. We were very much dependent upon ourselves for entertainment. Mother Nature decided to help us with that, by encouraging a small harvest mouse to come into the kitchen to fossick around for crumbs. He, and I assume it was a 'he', was almost tame, quite unconcerned should we move a chair to get up to do something.

There was also a small, inherited cat, that we called "Mrs Puffer", although I have no idea why we did so. If we had been away for the day, when we came home at night we would hear a scampering across the field, and Mrs Puffer would appear, flinging herself up onto my chest and nuzzling my face. She was a nice little thing, and I have often wondered what happened to her. Perhaps she went feral.

I suppose that, for the time we spent at the cottage, it could almost have been called idyllic. In all honesty, we had few cares other than the need for additional money, and for that I found a job. I have to say, it was one that I took more in desperation that an exhibition of skills. As an ex-regular army chap, strictly speaking I was completely unsuited for civilian life. However, that's another story …

Frequently, after we left, we would recall how we would climb that steep path in the dark, one of us swinging the white enamel can that contained our milk. Neither of us was or is religious, but childhood Sunday School memories die hard, and we would encourage ourselves by repeatedly chanting the chorus of 'Sound the battle cry': Rouse, then, soldiers! Rally round the banner! Ready, steady, pass the word along; .. it ran. As a certain reverend gentleman, whose name I forget, rightly asked, "Why should the Devil have all the best tunes?" Or as a chap I knew in the army once said, "There's nowt like a good hymn tune for a brass band!" - he too was right.

The Mysterious Cold Draught on the Stairs

One thing that did disconcert us more than somewhat, as Damon Runyon would write, was the occasional sudden cold draught down the staircase. It was
quite pronounced, and we couldn't understand how it happened. We would feel it on a warm day, and even when windows and door were closed, still it would manifest itself.

Occasionally the family I mentioned would turn up, always arriving in grand style by horse and cart. We would hear it coming as it made its way up the rutted track. One of their boys, aged perhaps six or seven, immediately became conscious of something about the cottage. He refused even to go in, and would keep as far away from it as possible. We had to wonder: was he psychic in some way, and thus aware of what was causing this unsettling draught. As we had already debated, was the place haunted? What other explanation could there be?

Time to Leave our Cottage and Country Living

Eventually it came time to leave. Thanks to my elder brother, I had landed a job based in London, which meant we could return to civilisation, something that we did without too many regrets. We never would make the grade as country people.

Before our final departure, my wife called in to the local village shop and post office, to let them know we were leaving. "Yes," said the owner. "I didn't think you'd stay long up there." Mention was made of this peculiar cold draught, together with the thought that perhaps the place was haunted. The postmistress was not to be drawn. "All I'll say is, a very bad woman lived there," so we took our leave with the mystery unresolved.

How bad this woman was, and what she had done, we never learned. We had no means of finding out, although mind you, now that there is the marvel of the internet and Google, I may well go a'huntng and a'fishing. Who knows what I may find!

Written by Michael Price
Mandurah, Australia

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