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
Our Cottage - Off Grid
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.
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.
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
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
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