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A Countryman's Summer Notebook Extract | 'The Simple Life'

Adrian Bell

‘In practice it’s not so easy,’ somebody said, ‘to live simply.’ We were sitting in a little mill house among paddocks, having supper with the sun in our eyes: it shone straight through the open door. Copper pans on the west-facing wall blazed like some hero’s arms. The hay field outside had a rosy crest of sorrel, and the flowering grassheads glittered. Then the rook appeared, stalking up the path. It was a tame one, rescued after a farmers’ battue, found lying in the grass, its flight feathers shot away on one side. He stood peering in at the door. ‘Here I am.’ Meet Joe.

Joe spends the day in an apple tree, or if it is too hot, in the garden shelter. He climbs upon the garden wall opposite the front door to be fed, flapping up a little ladder put there for him. His perky eye contradicts the faint pessimism (vaguely Victorian-clerical) of his down-turned beak. Bread-and-milk is dropped into his open maw, and for second course laying pellets which fall rattling into his gape like beet seeds down a funnel of the drill. And he makes huffing, chuffing, squelchy noises in gratitude, or complaint, according to whether the food is to his liking, offered in the right sequence, or whether it’s ‘Enough of that: now I want my bath.’


He has a twice-daily bath, in fresh water poured into an old milk pan on the wall. He will not bath in stale water. Then he is taken up and launched into the air, whereby he can flap himself into the branches of the apple tree five yards away. Towards bedtime Joe flops down from his tree, then up the ladder on to the wall, and from thence down upon the grass on the other side, and so along the path to the door of the room where we sat at supper. Joe is given his supper, followed by a drink. He only drinks at sundown, and that drink has to be milk and water. Neither pure water nor neat milk will he touch – nor any bread-and-milk left over from yesterday. Such epicurean habits can a foundling rook acquire in six weeks.

He talks all the time in basic squelchy syllables which express a variety of emotions. His benefactress has discovered their meanings, since the same utterance is repeated till the thing wanted is produced. Joe looks for a spell of petting before he will settle on his perch – which is the brass-knobbed rod which controls the damper of the wall-oven. He makes little vibrations of pleasure, a sort of purring, while he presses his plumage against his mistress’s neck and has his throat and back stroked. Finally he is given four brass buttons threaded on a string looped over his perch, and tied with a double bow or knot. His evening game is to unravel knots with his beak, until the four brass buttons fall to the floor. Then, and not till then, he settles to sleep.


So I could see what they meant when they said at the mill, ‘It’s not so easy to live simply – even in a cottage in the country.’ For there was a robin waif too, hardly fledged – turned out of the nest by a cuckoo? It was found lying in the roadway among speeding cars. Rescued, it too became imperious, and demanded food at hourly intervals to the minute, delivered on the tip of a paint brush. It has just been weaned to a diet of chopped worms. Worms take much deep digging to find in this hot weather. Where do parent robins find them? And then there was the matter of a windmill to be demolished. I had watched it for the last twenty years slowly becoming a skeleton; its sails, a ragged cross against the sunset, looked like the martyrdom of Old England. Restoration was too costly: the mill became dangerous. Yet how tenacious its timbers were when men came to dismantle them. The millpost was as sound as on the day it was raised. The field from which that great tree was taken is still known as Millpost Field. Its top was rounded and polished with friction like the stump end of a huge iron bolt. It fitted a socket in the main beam and turned in it, wood turning against wood for centuries, lubricated through a hole a foot long drilled obliquely into the beam. There were eight different woods that went to the making of that mill – apple, pear, elm, oak, ash, deal, pine and hickory.


And when it was down, and the whole of that subtle structure was an incoherent mass of timbers lying in the grass, there was found tucked into a mortise of the main beam that had stood high in the top chamber of the mill a letter from the sweetheart of a miller dead and gone a century ago. This, then, is a specimen of the simple life of three acres and a cow (or, in this case, sows) in the heart of the country, where nothing, of course, ever happens.

Extract from A Countryman’s Summer Notebook
Adrian Bell © 1950–1980

A Countryman’s Summer Notebook Extract | ‘The Simple Life’

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