Trees were heavy with ripening plums, and apples were already bending branches low.
Under a sweltering sun, a Northumberland village on the edge of the Kielder Forest dozed. Nobody was around, and nothing stirred. Nothing, that is, except for a husband and wife, tending their flower beds and fruit trees as if they were Adam and Eve. Stopping only to sell us a pot of honey, they said what an extraordinary crop they were expecting this year. By autumn the larder would be groaning with chutney and jam, the freezer bursting with vegetables to tide them through the winter. Meanwhile, their bees were in overdrive, their contented buzz rising on the syrupy air.
It looked too good to be true, an idyll of rural perfection as seen in period dramas, where grime and poverty and infighting are airbrushed out of sight. And so it proved. Asked if he had always lived here, the husband's face changed. He had been brought up further down the valley, he said, but his village had been drowned under a reservoir. Forty years on, he was still mourning his birthplace.
Wherever you go in the countryside, you find another kind of life, unimaginably different from the town. City folk such as me often dream of exchanging fumes and concrete and crowds for the peace and balm we imagine the country offers. Such a fantasy might just come true for those with deep pockets, but for most who put down roots in the country, there is nothing restful or easy about it.
In a hamlet where we often stay, cattle low and sheep bleat from first light to dusk. This is as nothing, though, to the perpetual grumble of farmers. Even in a year when the hay has never been better, and a bumper harvest is expected from every field, they still like to moan.
The day we arrived, the field beneath our window was packed with sheep, cheek by jowl like commuters on the tube. Fat and frisky, they were a cheering sight. At breakfast the next morning, however, the field was empty and the lambs gone, sent to market, and then the abattoir. Talk that day was of the unfair power supermarkets wield over the price animals fetch. When later we met a farmer whose sheep had been sold, he shook his head. It had not been a good day.
With farmers, it never is. And while they still drive costlier cars than most of us, one understands their pessimism. Making a living from the land is precarious. A good year merely creates a buffer against a bad; prices for livestock fluctuate faster than those of a barrel of oil, and there's no telling what blight or disease or economic slump lies around the corner.
Even so, many farmers and farm labourers seem remarkably content and settled, despite their constant state of apprehension. The land matters to them, and fulfils them, in a way the rest of us find hard to comprehend. It is not an elemental thing, nor is it spiritual, and yet it goes as deep.
Settling down to his pint, a retired local told us he was still viewed as an outsider a decade after moving there. He drives the school bus, a taxi and a hearse, not to keep himself busy but to help pay for his son's horse, an adjunct as necessary as a car in these parts, where hunting is not a sport but an ancient, inviolable right. Tales of chasing down the otter whose moth-eaten head adorns the gantry made another regular's face brighten with nostalgia.
Compared with 50 years ago, the countryside is empty. Only the die-hard, the smitten, the incurably attached remain there, and thank goodness they do. At a stock market, deep in the hills, we watched as sheep were penned and auctioned in a hut that might have stood in Dickens's time. Animals sold, the farmers huddled over mugs of tea in a tin-roofed cafe, and eyed us as if we brought foot and mouth.
Sitting in the middle of nowhere, these country men, women and a smattering of children fortified themselves. The baa-ing of lambs, the hollering of stockmen corralling them into trucks, and the babble in the greasy spoon, were the sound of another world. It's a place where few of us could survive, and sometimes even they struggle.
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