Editor’s Note: The following in an excerpt from Americashire, a new book by Jennifer Richardson about marrying a British man and then moving to the beautiful Cotswolds. She’s kindly offered us this excerpt. Check out her book – it’s a lot of fun
Chapter Eight: The Strange Customs of the English at Play – Americashire – Jennifer Richardson
On the first sunny Saturday morning in June, the kettle was boiling and the French press readied when I realized we had no milk. This lack of basic provisions was a familiar annoyance in the weekly back and forth between London and the Cotswolds. With some exasperation, I extricated myself from my pajamas and into clothing marginally suitable for public view. I couldn’t be bothered to brush my teeth; I just hoped I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew. I soon learned this attitude is a hangover from the urban anonymity of London. You always run into someone you know in the market square.
It’s a one-block walk along a stone-wall-lined lane to the shop, along which the village looked like a country-themed It’s a Small World ride. Pensioners practically skipped on their way to collect the weekend papers. Four cats frolicked in our lane (cats! in all my years as a cat owner, I’d never seen a cat frolic, yet here they were doing exactly that), while white butterflies skittered above.
Once inside, my shopping list expanded from milk to include two of the freshly baked croissants on offer, a potato and cheese pastie for D, a newspaper, and a basket of raspberries. I decided I needed some of that yogurt made in the next village over to go with the raspberries, so I walked across the green to the butcher who happens to sell it. By now, I was positively buzzing, chatting with the butcher as I juggled my purchases. I couldn’t help comparing it to the last time I went to get a pint of milk at the corner store in London: In midflow of taking my money, the shopkeeper spat onto the floor of his own shop. As I walked back to our cottage, I felt an overwhelming urge to quit my corporate London job, take over the village post office, and open a tea shop selling tasteful tchotckes.
Six months in as an official weekend resident, I was still in love with every aspect of village life. In fact, I was most in love with the mundane routines, the pleasure of which seems to have been totally lost in an urban existence. I may have been in love, but I was less sure if the town was in love with us. There was the potential damage we had done on the horse-racing evening, not to mention the fact that we were, after all, still outsiders. And people are suspicious of outsiders in these parts. Residents who’ve been here for twenty years are careful not to call themselves locals, even if they were born in the village three miles down the road. Even worse we were weekenders, sometimes more sinisterly referred to as incomers, a breed reviled throughout the English countryside. Weekenders drive up property prices so locals can’t afford to buy anything, then only use their luxury barn conversions on the occasional long weekend. When they do show up, it’s in an enormous, gas-guzzling Range Rover known locally as a Chelsea tractor. I knew all about weekenders because the British media loves to do stories on them. Hardly a month goes by without a sarcastic editorial in our regional magazine, Cotswold Life, on these hedge-fund men and their Cath Kidston–print-bedecked wives, children, and kitchens. Channel 4 ran a whole documentary on how weekenders ruined a small Cornish fishing village. To protect against this locust, one member of the Cotswold landed gentry, Lord Vestey, reserves cottages in his hamlet for locals only. According to a tipsy and possibly dubious source at the pub, even the government was out to get the weekender: Second-homers are contributing to the country’s housing shortage and legislation or taxation or some equally unpleasant “-tion” was imminent.
You can understand why D and I were worried. We did, after all, work in London during the week and go to the Cotswolds on, well, weekends. But that’s about where the similarities ended. We didn’t manage hedge funds or work in any other capacity in “the City.” We were devoted to our country cottage and came every weekend without fail. If there was a fête or a church service or a charity event, we’d be there, first in line to buy raffle tickets. And I’ve never set foot in a Cath Kidston shop in my life.
To prove our worthiness, we embraced the full lineup of fêtes, festivals, shows, plays, operas, and concerts on the Cotswold summer calendar. All of these events are bravely planned for the outdoors, and all were excellent distractions from the question of motherhood. The weather that first summer was marginally better than the summer before, the year of the disastrous Gloucestershire floods, which meant we had about three days of sunshine. We tried our best to make full use of them all. And on this particular morning, the one when the village was looking its rural-themed It’s a Small World best, I could think of no better way to make use of the sunshine than by taking a walk.
D, however, was struggling. He was thus far immune to the charms of the outside world, having spent most of the morning whipping himself into a froth triggered by the fact that he left his pants at home in London. This meant he couldn’t wear his bermuda shorts on our walk as he intended to do because then he wouldn’t have anything to wear out to dinner for the rest of the weekend. This also explained why he was wandering around the cottage stamping his feet and sighing in his best rendition of a seven-year-old girl’s temper tantrum.
“I forgot my pants. The weekend is ruined,” he announced.
I decided to sit down. This was going to take a while.
After the better part of an hour, D arrived at the simple solution of repurposing his running gear into walking gear. He dressed in an orange, sweat-wicking tank top, black running shorts, hiking boots, mud-protecting gaiters, and a backpack. He looked like a very camp gay pumpkin, but I of course assured him that he looked absolutely fine. At that point, I would have told him he looked fine in a pair of underpants if it would have gotten him to leave the house. As we finally set out on our walk, he was still moaning. Exasperated, I pointed out the skipping pensioners, frolicking cats, and skittering butterflies. He conceded it was an altogether more pleasant sight than the post-Friday-night cider-cans-in-canal tableau we’d face on a morning walk in London.
That D was still kvetching at this point in the day was normal. His path to unwinding on weekends ran like clockwork, starting with clenched muscles and rapid-fire speech as we battled traffic out of London on Thursday or Friday night. This progressed into a near silent, except to complain, tetchiness the next morning before achieving full relaxation sometime that afternoon, usually after a few hours of hard tramping along a ploughed field or at the point on our bike route just after the big hill through Turkdean, when the landscape opens into a wide valley and we’re compelled to stop and take it all in. I’ve tried to tamper with this process in the past to accelerate it, but I’ve found it’s best left to take its course. It’s kind of like trying to unwind a really tangled telephone cord. You can mess around with it, looping it through this way and that to untie the knots, but the easiest and most efficient route is just to hold the cord up dangling the receiver, then watch it unwind itself.
I joke about my husband’s behavior, but it is all not as lighthearted as the gay pumpkin episode. He had been diagnosed with varying shades of depression over the years and, since moving back to England, had tried medication to treat it. The first prescription that a British doctor gave him was for a medication used to treat incontinence in old ladies that also happens to have some kind of antidepressant side effect. At least that’s what the shrink told D, which made both of us wonder about the wisdom of venturing onto the antidepressant meds frontier in the, shall we say, less progressive world of British mental-health care. (Never mind the bedside manner issues associated with telling a depressed, middle-aged, adult male that he’s going onto pills that help grannies with wee problems.)
D and I are both veterans of therapy from our years in Los Angeles. In the great nature versus nurture debate, his southern California therapist favored nurture, which in turn led her to an antimedication bias. Her logic was that you need to deal with the underlying issues, not just rely on medication. And so D dutifully dealt with those issues, putting in hard time in both individual and group therapy with me. This gave us both awareness and fluency and comprehension of root causes, all of which were helpful and necessary, but only go so far toward managing the damn thing if you’re the person in the thick of it. The problem seems to be that if you are in a very dark place, you can’t muster the will to use skills you may have acquired when you weren’t in the dark place. You may not even be able to get up off the couch.
The depression kept coming back, as is its habit, until finally it got so bad that D broke with principles and got a prescription. This was not without angst. The abstinence from meds to date had been something of a badge of honor. He was dealing with his demons the hard way, rather like I imagine John Wayne would have done it. There were a few things that helped to rationalize the decision, two of which came from our time as Zen practitioners (also in Los Angeles, go figure). The first was the lesson that, as soon as you recognize you are standing on a position, it’s probably worth considering getting off it. The second was the memory of a female priest who practiced with us and was dying of cancer. The pain had become unbearable, but she was wary of going onto painkillers, knowing they would leave her “out of it.” The sensei would hear nothing of it, insisting she take the morphine; he called it “dharmacology” to make her feel better about it. And finally, we both realized in a very real, living-up-close-with-the-demons kind of way that, whatever caused what was happening, be it nature or nurture, it was a physiological thing, and it made sense that something that has a physiological effect might help.
The incontinence medicine didn’t work out so well. You might not wet your pants anymore, but you’ll feel pretty speedy. That’s when Ritalin came on the scene, which is better known for treating hyperactive nine-year-old boys than depression. D’s inability to focus wasn’t of the preadolescent, pogo-sticking around in circles variety. It was more a “what’s the point of anything when humans are all shit, yet I still need to get this PowerPoint done by noon” kind of thing. Since it is one of the most life-affecting symptoms of his depression, it’s what got treated. And it seemed to work.
This is why it was a surprise when he informed me over the summer that he had decided to take a Ritalin vacation. Specifically, he decided to forego the meds for the three days per week we were in the Cotswolds. He said he felt better there. It was something about the fresh air, the peace and quiet, the wide-open spaces. I bought this, but I also suspected this experiment was borne out of a lingering feeling that the meds were somehow wrong, and now that he had found an escape valve from the stress of London, he thought he didn’t or shouldn’t really need them.
Earlier in my married life, this news would have caused me great distress. I would have been on the Internet scouring the implications and freaking out that he was making changes to his meds without consulting a physician. But not now. I was married enough to know any protest would be a waste of energy. He was going to do this experiment whether I liked it or not. On the one hand, it’s his body, and he has the right to determine what he puts into it. On the other hand, it was asking rather a lot of me. It meant only his work colleagues, some of whom he loathed, would be the beneficiaries of the drugs. Surely as the wife I should have gotten something out of this, too. He might have been the lab rat, but I was the hamster’s wheel, spinning like crazy, or not, depending on the day’s experiment.
The evening following our gay pumpkin walk, we drove over to a grand country-house hotel that was hosting an outdoor opera. Elaborate picnics abounded—crystal flute glasses adorned many a folding table and cravats caressed many a gentleman’s throat. We fit in fairly well with our smoked-salmon sandwiches and strawberries, even if our plastic tumblers did expose us as Philistines (not to mention D chasing down photographers from Cotswold Life so he might avail himself for a photo op on the social pages). As night fell, I was most impressed by the appearance of the candelabras. Well, that and the portable bathrooms, the nicest I’d ever seen, all recessed lighting and Molton Brown soap. Thankfully the opera itself wasn’t too highbrow. Even without a program, D recognized “the World Cup” song and “the British Airways ad from the eighties” song.
Sunday afternoon, we headed off with our neighbors—who had politely declined to mention anything about the evening at the races—to an afternoon hog roast and jazz concert in the field behind the village hall in Guiting Power. Without aid of a portable marquee (the hallmark of the truly seasoned British picnicker), we roasted to the tunes of Artie Shaw. By the second bottle of cava, we resorted to putting up rain umbrellas for shade. Our collective stamina was as resolutely British as it had been several weeks earlier when we sat through three rain-soaked hours of outdoor Shakespeare under blankets and brollies. This was our summer and, damn it, we were going to have it.
In July and August, the acid yellow of rapeseed gave way to chunky, sage green foliage, threaded through with papery poppies in a lurid shade of coral usually favored by little old ladies for lipstick. Green seas of wheat faded into bleached wisps standing on end like a blond shot through with static electricity. Only plumes of cow parsley persisted, party favors of spring. During these months, we worked our way through village fêtes like greedy children with a box of chocolates. I learned firsthand the strange customs of the English at play, which included a rudimentary form of bowling called Skittles, a rubber boot–throwing contest called wang the wellie, and the mysterious-sounding coconut shy. The last consisted of hurling balls at coconuts perched on stakes like shrunken heads. There was always a dog show with more ribbons on offer than dogs in the village, my favorite of which was for the dog with the waggiest tail. Don’t forget the Tombola, which, as far as I can tell, is a raffle of the most mundane items the ladies of the village could find lingering in their pantries. (I won a bottle of storebought lemon curd that was nearing its sell-by date.) Of course, there are tea and cakes on hand to sustain you throughout.
The traditional end to the summer festival season is the last night at The Proms. Every year the BBC stages this multiweek classical music festival at the Royal Albert Hall in London. My employer owned a box there, and, in years past, I had succeeded in nabbing tickets to a few nights. But this year, the private-equity firm that now owned the company was either filled with classical music nuts or the box had been disposed of in the latest wave of cost cutting. Either way, no Proms tickets were forthcoming.
Luckily, I noticed a sign for a last night at the Proms charity event on a bicycle ride around the Cotswolds. We packed a picnic and headed off to the cricket pitch in Naunton on an early August evening, one of the few dry and mild ones of summer. Like our evening of outdoor opera earlier in the summer, British picnicking prowess was on full display. I watched as one trio in front of us planted two stakes in the ground then laid a third across the top, half expecting them to next produce a whole pig for roasting from their wicker basket. Instead they used their spit to hang a colorful array of paper lanterns, which later illuminated important activities like wine pouring. D spotted his doctor sitting in front of us—not the one who had prescribed the wee medicine for grannies, but a local general practitioner he had acquired since our arrival in the Cotswolds to deal with his more mundane yet routine bouts of hypochondria. This sighting stopped him from rolling a cigarette until the end of the evening, while I coveted the doctor’s serious picnic utility chairs—chrome with handy side tables attached—on which he and his family balanced healthful plates of poached salmon and rice salad. We were only slightly self-conscious that our dinner was composed entirely of cheese and wine.
The London Gala Chamber Orchestra started the evening off with an overture to Orpheus in the Underworld, which somehow morphed into the can-can. My musical education continued as I learned “O, Danny Boy” is really called “Derry Air.” The evening progressed in this vein of songs familiar enough for clapping or singing along, both heartily encouraged by the conductor. Such “let yourself loose” occasions are rare for the tone deaf like me, and I belted out “I Could Have Danced All Night” with abandon.
The crowd had worked itself into a champagne frenzy for the firework finale set to “Jerusalem” and “Land of Hope and Glory,” complete with flag waving. This was mostly of the £1 plastic Union Jack variety, but a group that had clearly done this before was equipped with large Scottish, English, and South African flags. I’ve heard people dismiss this behavior as jingoistic in the past (flag waving and “Jerusalem” are also a traditional part of the real last night at The Proms), but from my foreigner’s point of view, it all seemed harmless enough. The only sinister hint was when an overly enthusiastic middle-aged gent rushed the stage during “Rule, Britannia!” to stare into the soprano’s eyes at uncomfortably close range. If I’d had an American flag, I would have joined in and had the Fourth of July experience I’d been deprived of the previous month.
The evening ended with a reprisal of the can-can, during which the audience was invited down front. One pink chinoed Toff found himself flat on his back in his haste to descend the hillside. The potent combination of champagne consumption and embarrassment had him back on his feet in plenty of time to high-kick his heart out. I hoped for my husband that the combination of Ritalin and fresh air would someday soon make him feel cheery enough to high-kick his heart out, too.
JENNIFER RICHARDSON is the author of Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage, the 2013 Indie Reader Discovery Award winner for travel writing. The book chronicles her decision to give up city life for the bucolic pleasures of the British countryside. Americashire is out now from She Writes Press, and you can find Jennifer online at: