My wife happened to be in the orchard next to the front drive and watched the disaster unfold.
A lorry driver delivering tables for our housewarming party decided, on a whim, to take a shortcut across the lawn, and got halfway before his 10-ton vehicle began to slice through the rain-soaked turf and sink foot by foot into the black earth, until it was resting on its axles, wheels spinning wildly.
I should explain that each and every square inch of grass around our house is unutterably precious to us, representing a small but expensively fought victory over the dark forces of chaos. (Last week, their evil emissary was the Portaloo man, who drove his lorry straight across our only other bit of pristine turf.)
If you happen to have seen the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, then you will be able to picture exactly how my slender, demure wife reacted. She flew 30 yards through the air towards her target, feet never touching the ground as she weaved between the apple trees, arms whirling, howling a ninja death-cry. The truck driver never had a chance. He was still there, whimpering in his cab, after I had run to the neighbour’s farm and returned with a tractor powerful enough to tow his truck from its hole, 3ft deep in the mire.
An hour later, the first guests arrived. And did they mind tiptoeing across the sodden, mud-filled craters in their sling-backs? Actually, I think in this county of raked-gravel drives and front lawns clipped with nail scissors, they enjoyed the novelty, perhaps imagining the brutalised landscape was the work of an avant-garde landscape designer. Anyway, the party went with a swing.
Everything else seems to be coming right, too. Our house itself not so long ago derelict, frigid and reeking of decomposing rodents is fully restored. The little lake I dug out, dry almost since the day the excavator left, is steadily filling up with torrents of winter rain. Even the council has started being nice to us. The building inspector who came to check on the restored dovecote gave it the nod, muttering cheerfully as he strolled away: ‘It’s good to breathe new life into an old house.’ (I think I shall have that engraved on my tombstone.)
Too bad our old piggery still stands on the rise above the house, exuding all the charm of an abandoned Soviet silo. At least the competition we ran among guests to suggest what to do with this desolate acre has found a winner. ‘Give every visitor a sledgehammer, and insist they take a good swing at it before they leave,’ suggested an American friend.
So, two and a half years, almost to the day, since we began work on our house, I can report that we have finally got the builders out. Before I waved them off, I thought I should ask Bob Knight the head of the firm, and the man who has cheerfully and masterfully steered the works from start to finish what he thought any project like ours demands from a client to see it through. He scoured the sky for a moment. ‘Patience. Optimism. A deep enough pocket.’
I would only add that I think it takes vision – tunnel vision. In fact, more or less the same obsessive compulsion as emperor penguins display as they trudge in pitch darkness across Antarctica, risking blizzards and starvation, in the hope of rearing a chick among like minded neighbours on a decent patch of ice.
This New Year, I shall be a raising a glass of our first crop of sloe gin to the wonderful, indefatigable team who helped us bring new life to the old manor, but also to adventurers elsewhere who have set their hearts on restoring an old house, and even now are taking the first slippery steps on their own long march across the creaking, treacherous floes. Farewell.