Country Life's newest columnist Patrick Galbraith on car washes, dogs and the inevitable culture clashes that come with being a country boy living in London.
For some months, the muscular Romanian lady who works at the car wash at the end of my street had been calling me ‘a very naughty boy’. It wasn’t anything like that: Marta only ever sponged the outside of my little Suzuki and occasionally hoovered the boot, which was where all the trouble began.
One late October afternoon last year, after I had returned from the Isle of Lewis, I popped down to the car wash just before closing time. I’d been shooting grouse over setters and casting a Collie Dog for salmon at Grimersta, a swathe of country the great poet-fisherman Ted Hughes called ‘the loneliest place’. Inevitably, the boot of my truck was covered in all sorts.
Marta, setting to with her hoover — she wields the thing with the sort of grace I can only ever dream of with a fishing rod — found feathers beneath the seat. ‘Ah,’ she shouted, ‘you kill fezan.’ Initially, I was concerned that Marta was going to transpire to be the treasurer of PETA’s Bucharest wing, but, instead, we had a long, lovely and pretty incomprehensible conversation about how much her grandfather enjoyed hunting and about the many times he’d taken her along as a girl. As ever, I made a promise I failed to keep and every time I turned up at the car wash, Marta demanded to know where the fezan was. Eventually, it got so bad that she would shout after me whenever I walked past: ‘Fezan, you naughty boy.’
Finally, I put things right. I’d been shooting in the Lincolnshire Wolds at a beautiful place where Alfred Lord Tennyson grew up. In case you’re thinking of inviting me, I don’t only shoot at places associated with literary brilliance — I recently accepted an invitation to a partridge day at Steventon in Hampshire where Jane Austen spent the first 25 years of her life and I feel much the same way about Austen as Charlotte Brontë did. But that day in Lincolnshire by the stream that inspired Tennyson to write The Brook was perfect. The spaniels worked their little hearts out and we shot a dozen pheasants and a few woodcock.
I had the woodcock for dinner with my friend Thomas Woodham-Smith, an antiques dealer who lives in Oval. I call him my friend. He, I suspect, refers to me as his ‘niece’s boyfriend’. Either way, he lends me lovely antiques to furnish my flat.
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Meanwhile, the brace of pheasants I went home with were plucked and taken to Marta. Her reaction could have made me cry.
She told me, again pretty unintelligibly, about cooking fezan with her granny and said she would invite her sister, who works at another car wash, for dinner. I was so elated that I spent February trying to pull the same trick. I gave a young sculptor with whom I’m collaborating on a theatre project a brace of woodpigeons. He lives in a warehouse-cum-studio-cum-squat with a Frenchman who makes leather trousers. They stuffed the pigeons with apricots and cooked them with Armagnac.
Regrettably, one of the musicians on the theatre project got wind of this loving gesture and, rather than asking if she could be next up for a pigeon, she quit. Her liking for oat milk should have given the game away.
Some time after the post-pigeon walk out, I was in Suffolk looking at some cocker/springer spaniel pups. Mine will be called Jessie and, by the time you read this, she’ll probably be piddling at my feet.
‘And what is living in London like?’ the farmer’s wife asked. ‘It’s strange,’ I replied, ‘and wonderful. I think Jessie will love it.’