It would be more accurate to say that my English hostess lives in a small town rather than a village per se, but “village” sounds better. Certainly visiting her in Somerset has clarified a number of things for me. For one thing, I have always been amazed at the miniscule size of many British refrigerators. They are little bigger than those ubiquitous in student dormitories. Part of this is the inexplicable lack of appreciation for ice one often finds in the U. K. (There seems to be more ice about these days, but rarely in quantities that satisfy us Americans. We are culturally conditioned to like lots of ice; the British are not. However, I have learned to drink cold tap water with Rose’s Lime Cordial, which is actually quite nice.) However, what I discovered is that, in a world of green grocers and butchers, one does not need to stock up as I do in Florida, carrying bags of groceries from Publix just to get me through another week. No, one goes just down the street for fresh produce and comestibles. Why lug back bags and bags of groceries, when a short trip in the morning will produce fresh viands for that night?
Of course, we have farmer’s markets, like the excellent “County Line” in Hastings. Years ago it made Reader’s Digest with its injunction to “Slaw Down.” It closes for the summer until the autumn, shortly after the glorious Silver Queen corn runs out.
Alice Waters would approve of the country emphasis on local produce. Of course, not all the produce in British Markets is British. A good deal of food comes from abroad, for instance green grapes from Egypt. Britain, like the States, gets food from all over. However, here in Somerset, much is local or nearby – cheeses like “Cornish Yarg” and “Somerset Brie.” And for goodness’s sake, don’t forget the cider (which in England is always “hard,” that is alcoholic.) One can even buy Somerset cider vinegar. Then there is the cream, single, double, or even clotted. One can even obtain milk with a dose of real cream floating at the top of the bottle! It would be hard to imagine a British summer without strawberries and cream; I even eat them in the states, though with not quite such a delicious dairy topping.
Then there is one of the great English desserts: Summer Pudding. Fresh berries are slightly cooked in sugar until they render their juice, then they are put into a mold that has been lined with decrusted bread; the same bread goes on top. The summer pudding is then weighted down so that the bread is all turned the imperial purple of Tyre. It is a feast fit for a king!
In the summer, the sun gets up so early that much earlier and the British would have “White Nights” like St. Petersburg. As I write, it is almost 10:30 at night, and there is still a very slight light in the West. I can remember walking back from a country pub when I was at University, and it wasn’t completely dark even at closing time. (Pubs always used to have “last call” before 11:00 p.m. Now the hours are less limited.)
Winter here is less satisfactory, not only for the damp and cold, but because twilight comes shortly after three o’clock in the afternoon. This is the less pleasant opposite of the long, lovely summer days. England is so far north that, without the Gulf Stream, it would be more like Iceland. (I am told Greenland is even colder!) When I went up to the University in England, I was still used to Florida. That first year, I found myself sleeping under twelve layers of blanket, four blankets folded in half and four left unfolded. The bed-makers hated me! I finally took pity on them and bought myself an eiderdown.
Village life no longer is centered between the Squire’s house and the Parsonage. I am not sure that there isn’t something to be said about life under the squire and the parson, though it wouldn’t suit now. It used to be that the Church Year and the change of seasons set up everyone’s calendar, especially in a farming community. That sadly has long gone.
Another feature of village life is the Memorial to those who did not come back from the Great War or its grim successor. It is hard to imagine now the horror of the Great War; it is even getting harder to imagine the Second World War as “the greatest generation” is dying out. The Great War marked the beginning of the decline of the aristocracy and gentry. The “entre deux guerres” saw vast changes in society; all the poor women who lost husbands and fiancés were legion, and to see the Memorial Plaques in Oxbridge chapels is to read the names of the families whose own history made up the history of the nation.
Warden Spooner of New College was famous for his “spoonerisms,” his inadvertent switching of initial consonants in the words he uttered. (He is supposed to have tried to get a woman to move from the wrong pew with “Mardon me padam; this pie is occupewed – may I sew you to a sheet?”) But he had a far more interesting quality; he insisted that the Germans who were New College men but who fought for Germany in World War I should have their own memorial in the College chapel. This was not invariably popular back then, but it was something I find noble.
Before World War II, the Oxford Union passed a motion “That this house would not fight for King and Country.” It was, as one critic put it, “the Children’s Hour.” And of course men of both Ancient Universities and many, many others did in fact “fight for King and Country.” It was, as Sir Winston Churchill put it, “their finest hour.”