Hanging out in a playground where the only entertaining structures were two sad swings and some dangerously high monkey bars, returning home from jumble sales with Debenhams carrier bags stuffed full of home-made woolly octopus toys and jars of Fruit Salad sweets, rooting around the fields hunting for the soggy paper carcasses of exploded rocket fireworks in November or the dropped-off tails of lambs in spring, these were just some of the rural activities that were par for the course growing up in a sleepy West Somerset village in the 70s and 80s where everyone knew your name and nobody locked their doors.
With a population of no more than 350, a village pub with a mouldy-walled skittle ally, a ready supply of pickled eggs and a village primary school with less than forty children, Crowcombe was a typical West Country village, nestled beneath the Quantock hills.
It was my home until the age of 18. It’s where I fell off my bike and got snaggy bits of gravel lodged in my knees, it’s where my friend Rory was caught shop-lifting Double Lollies from the Village Stores, it’s where the vicar had a scandalous affair with one of his flock and where the annual Christmas show in the Church Hall saw dads dance across a make-shift stage in tutus and teachers perform wobbly solos of popular folk songs, and it’s why I adore the brilliant TV creation, This Country, currently on its second series and going down a storm on BBC3 and Iplayer
Written by and starring siblings, Daisy and Charlie Cooper, and set in the real Cotswold village of Northleach, it’s the finely-observed characters, coupled with classic village activities, which make This Country so entertaining and acutely real. From “Mad Mandy” who has a side-line in doing terrible tattoos and once stalked a member of S Club Seven, to Kerry’s estranged and gruff dad Martin, the ever-smiley vicar Rev Seaton and “Slugs”, the village bore, who everyone swerves to avoid, all of them bring warmth, reality and a swell of humour to the small-screen.
And they all strike a chord of familiarity. We may not have had Slugs or Mad Mandy pacing around our village, but we had Bruce, the straggly-haired village drunk who lurched around the hedgerows mumbling obscenities, Mr Hallmark the immaculately-attired primary school headmaster who was an unsettling mixture of fun and fury – I will never forget him puce-faced and spittle-mouthed on the day of our annual school photograph, glaring at our assembled group and shouting the words, “You look like a bunch of gypsies!” – (It was a non-uniformed school and our sartorial choices clearly didn’t pass muster).
Meanwhile there was “Cruella De Vil” who was not a Dalmatian-murderer but a fearsome and stony-faced woman who lived in a big white house up the hill, mysterious OAP brothers Morris and Herbie whose cottage had hessian sacks permanently taped up in the windows, Alan and Christine, the chirpy husband and wife duo, who ran the village shop and liked a natter over the rows of Mr Kiplings and The Brewer family opposite who had a son called Storm, (yes really), and whose ceilings were a rich hue of nicotine yellow thanks to their enthusiastic cigarette puffing.
Just like This Country’s Northleach, where the height of excitement is the village’s annual duck race or the scarecrow festival, Crowcombe’s calendar was punctuated with community-rousing events such as the annual Christmas Show, bonfire night, the Harvest Festival and what seemed like weekly jumble sales.
And then there were other non-annual occurrences thrown into the mix. The re-enactment of a Roundheads and Cavaliers civil war battle in a field next to the church which, as a seven- year- old, left me traumatised and convinced the men writhing and groaning on sodden hillsides, as fake blood ran in rivulets across their faces onto their plumed hats, were just seconds away from grisly death.
Or the time a film crew snaked into the village in their trailers to shoot a period drama. Sawdust and soil were tossed over our tarmacked road to create an 18th century street while oil lanterns were positioned in strategic places, Give Way signs were removed and actresses emerged from big trailers and wafted around in crinolines. Our entire school of pupils almost combusted with excitement when we were herded en masse, to watch a scene involving someone getting in and out of a carriage seventy-five times beside the village green.
Aside from those heady highlights, for the rest of the year, growing up in a village where the only other person in my school year was Darren Hayes, whose mum would wait with us at the secondary school bus stop, a fag dangling from her lips as her pointy varnished talons rifled through Darren’s hair rooting for nits, we were forced to rustle up our own fun.
Typical activities included hanging out with my younger sister and her friends, seeing who could cycle over the cattle grid outside Cruella De Vil’s house at the fastest break-neck speed, creeping into the church to try our hands at bell-ringing, calling the operator from the solitary red phone box, climbing up onto the roof of someone’s garage to pelt fir cones into the lane below at startled ramblers and there was even an exciting foray into the local sewage works which we stumbled across on one of our afternoons wandering across the surrounding fields.
What a riotous time we had taking it in turns to balance on slowly rotating blades, like the hands on a large clock, trying to avoid little jets of water falling from the arms and spraying onto the gravel below.
Yes. It’s fair to say entertainment was in short supply.
As the years passed and we grew from dungaree-wearing kids whose flares got caught in the spokes or our bikes, into surly teenagers sporting frosted lipsticks and Doctor Marten boots, our rural idyll, where tourists would come to visit the surrounding heather-coated hillsides and where thatched cottages nestled next to lush green landscapes, held even less appeal.
Show me a country-dwelling teenager and I’ll show you someone desperate to pass their driving test and stick a key in a car ignition without supervision.
Until such a time, attempts to meet up with friends involved parents ferrying us by car to the bright lights of Taunton ten miles away where the delightful troves of a heated-swimming pool and Top Shop awaited. Failing that it was wait for the bus. The bus that ran a helpful two times a day.
It’s no wonder I couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel of my first trusty Fiat Uno.
And it’s why, although rural living had its benefits: clean air, big gardens, entertaining Morris dancers clashing sticks twice a year and the chaos-induced hilarity of sheep breaking into the school playground on a regular basis, I decided as soon as I’d finished Sixth Form College, I would move to the biggest city in the UK.
It’s why I can appreciate Kurtan Mucklowe trying to break free, albeit to Swindon not London, and it’s why, when vague acquaintances tell me they’re leaving the Big Smoke to pursue a life of rural bliss in the backwaters of Devon, I raise my eyebrows, and, with, just the required amount of polite-engagement, respond, ‘Oh right.’
Not that I don’t appreciate the charms of the countryside. With parents still living in West Somerset, I relish long walks up squelchy hillsides. I love inhaling the mustiness of autumn leaves. I adore looking out across sweeping landscapes to the blustery grey seas of the Channel, or being tucked away in a cosy pub down a narrow lane.
I love the dog shows, the falcon demonstrations where badly-behaved kestrels ignore their handlers, the cream-teas, the rivers, the shouty front page news: “Villagers protest as cobbles replaced by paving stones!” I love the sound of wood pigeons in the morning and the smell of bonfires, hedges bursting with cow-parsley, the happy shrieks of children as they cycle along wide mud- spattered tracks, the view of diamond-bright stars cloaked by inky blue nights.
And then I love getting in my car and heading to the dual carriageway of the Hammersmith flyover and the welcoming beacon of the flashing oversized Lucozade bottle advert that signifies I’m entering the realms of pollution, endless miles of terraced houses, the corner stores where I can buy a Galaxy at 1am, the rich array of diverse people and cultures, the comforting backdrop of sirens and the fluorescent glow of the streetlight seeping through my curtains at night.
I don’t know if Kurtan and Kerry will ever leave Northleach, especially as series two opens with the news that Kurtan’s “sacked off” the GNVQ course he was doing in health and social care at Swindon College.
But while they’re still in their picturesque Cotswold village, ambling about in their football shirts, getting excited about the steam fair arriving, debating whether to go the Grease themed night at the village hall, or bickering over which oven shelf to place a pizza on, they’ll continue to portray with perfection and razor-sharp observation, the flabby tedium and isolation that can swamp rural life when nothing much is going on, the petty-disputes and grievances that can escalate to become all-consuming village disasters and the warm-hearted close-knit characters whose gardens back onto fields.
This is the side to rural living that you will never see on Escape To The Country or the glossy pages of Country Living and it’s why This Country, is a TV gem.
Series two of This Country is available on BBC iPlayer