I went to bed with Bill Bryson last night. Not in the biblical sense, you understand, but between the pages of a book. Somehow I've managed to avoid him (though for no good reason), though his books are everywhere, but this one jumped off the shelf of the travelling library, and I'm glad it did. I shall now buy everything of his I see at a Car Boot Sale or charity shop and devour it. He makes me laugh out loud. Last night he made me guffaw (what an under-used word that is) and I think my husband thought I was losing the plot! So last night I spent a pleasant hour revisiting the Dorset I know and love (lived there for several years before we emigrated here). Why is it that you are just enjoying a good book, when the wildlife of the countryside decides to intrude? Last night it was a bluebottle. I swear he had trained in Bomber Command before he came to my bedroom. First of all he hurtled around the inside of the lampshade like it was the Wall of Death, and then suddenly, at the peak of his hurtle, he would suddenly get too low and shoot out from under the shade and start growling around my head. Swatting him was pointless - it just sent him on a new trajectory. Ah well, I suppose it might have been the falsetto whine of a mosquito, and then I'd have woken up itching.
We have a fair bit of wildlife here, living in such a rural spot. In fact, when we bought the house, a lot of the wildlife was literally inside it - not the rooms, but the walls. It had been unlived in for a good few years, apart from Tim the Cowman from the farm next door, who lived, with an aged collie dog and a pair of muddy boots which left a permanent green trackway along his favourite paths - up the hall, into the kitchen, from the kettle to the sink, from the sink to the sitting room, where - almost mercifully - the track was lost amongst the slurry green, mud brown and once-orange swirls of the most hideous nylon carpet I have ever set eyes on. We heaved that out straight away (the smell had to be experienced to be believed), but for years we had to put up with a strip of this same carpet, which went up the stairs and onto the first floor landing as we were too skint to replace it.
The first night we were here, we spent in what is now our eldest daughter’s wonderfully eclectic bedroom. Back then it was a damp magnolia colour, and had a shelf hammered into the ancient horsehaired plaster with 6 inch nails. Our bed was stuck in the middle of the bare wooden floorboards, surrounded by unpacked boxes. We collapsed thankfully into our bed and were soon asleep. Then it began . . . a furtive scritchet-scratchet in a corner, then a foghorn of tawny owls having a very loud conversation in the ash trees behind the house. A cow mooed forlornly in the yard, separated from her calf, and left to wander aimlessly on the barren concrete. We nodded off again. The scritchet-scratched became louder. It became focused on an aged plastic carrier bag on the shelf which hitherto we had paid no attention to. We realized it was a mouse – or a mouse and friends – and it sounded like they were having a Jane Fonda workout in that bag. Only a shoe, flung by my husband who is a far better shot than me (I’d have missed the wall!), shut the little blighters up.
The next day we began to notice signs that the house was a homestead for more unwelcome critters. Perhaps it was the baked bean tin lids which were hammered at regular intervals along the skirting board that gave the game away. That night, in the sage green bath, looking at the sage green walls (what had possessed them?), I became aware of a mouse looking at me from the middle of the bathroom floor. He was curiously unafraid, and began a wash and brush up which came straight out of Beatrix Potter. I splashed and he gave me a world-weary look which obviously meant, ‘oh you’re going to be difficult are you?’ and scampered out of sight in the gap between the bottom of the wall and the warped floorboards. One of the first things we did was to get a cat – two cats in fact, Blackberry and Tatty, but they are another story.
When we were renovating the house, the builders came upon a Rat’s Larder in the wall in the basement. It consisted of snail shells, hazelnuts and the remains of a rattus rattus who’d kicked the bucket – perhaps he died of overeating? It was curious, but we thought no more of it. We have had them racketing around inside the walls before. With walls three feet thick, it’s hardly surprising that there are rat highways inside them. It is annoying when they start junketing in the wall behind your bed though. We heard one making progress for weeks, then one night we heard it obviously fall (a heart-rending moment . . .) No noise for days, and then he set up his racket again, but on the far side of the room. Another chose to die, very inconveniently, in the wall behind my daughter’s bed. It was warm there, as the central heating pipes were nearby. The smell was truly horrendous. We obviously couldn’t use the room and we had to shut the door and leave the window wide open and even so it ponged for weeks. I say inconveniently, as that was just when we had the house on the market, and you just try explaining a smell like that away to prospective buyers. I expect our house is still trotted out at dinner parties up and down West Wales - . . . “and then there was this old house with beams everywhere and the most AWFUL pong in one of the bedrooms. They said it was a dead rat, but I wonder . . . perhaps they’d walled up the mother-in-law . . .”
These same builders then set to work on a first floor doorway. We discovered that behind the plaster, someone had once extended the wall over the doorway upwards to the sum of about 4 tons of local river stone, with just a couple of broad 4” deep planks – fortunately of oak – which had subsequently bowed under the weight. They are still there, still bowing, and what the surveyors will make of that when we come to sell up, Heaven only knows. But I digress. As the builders excavated this area, a mummified rattus rattus fell upon their heads. He was quite a splendid chap, complete with whiskers, and though I hesitate to tell you this, we have him still, on the shelf above the kitchen sink, propped up amongst the Portmeiron china, keeping company with a child’s tackety boot, well rat-nibbled, which was found over another doorway , and the cat’s skull which was above a third. There was obviously a very real fear of witches in this household, as these were all devices to keep witches at bay. qv: http://www.apotropaios.co.uk/dorset_survey.htm which deals with some Dorset ones. It mentions a mummified cat. Now, if you ever go to Shaftesbury in Dorset – a wonderful place – at the top of Gold Hill, familiar to some because of its use in the Hovis advert all those years ago: “’twas like climbin’ t’top o’world . . .”, there is a mummified cat in the little Museum there (well worth a visit). Apparently dead cats were put into the thatch when a cottage was being roofed, supposedly to keep rats and mice at bay. There's another example in a case in a little pub beside the river on the A31 Blandford to Wimborne road, not far from the lane up to Corfe Mullen.
There's my tatty kitchen, now being retiled and re-worktopped. You "may" just be able to see our friend the rat on the left hand side of that shelf above the sink, but I think he's tucked behind the red candle. Snowy's in the window though . . .