On North Yorkshire – Day 2 – Whitby Abbey

We wake up and the sunlight is slanting through the blinds onto our bed. I turn my head, straight into the unnerving stare of my youngest daughter.

‘Mummy,’ she says. Her voice is an urgent whisper. ‘Can. We. Get-in-the-hot-tub-now?’

I pick up my watch, squint. 6:45. ‘No,’ I say. ‘Go away.’

But the children’s excitement is catching, and somehow we’re eating breakfast at half-seven, and the daughters will be hot-tubbing and I will be dog walking in the woods. Stephen’s packing the car (his best thing) then we’ll all be off on the next adventure. We’re to go to Whitby, because the sea-side’s our favourite place.

We drive through Pickering, which has a proper ironmonger’s and a Lidl, and which would please my mother. We find the A169 to Whitby, and start winding our way up onto the moors, Pants barking at anything with two wheels. Around practically every bend, a new vista unrolls; the North York Moors producing views with the aplomb of a souk-seller.  Our speed is erratic, we slow down every few minutes to point and exclaim.

In places, the landscape appears almost primeval; last year’s heather blackened, petrified by the winter winds. There are knots of sheep strung down the steep hillsides, scattering shiny poo-marbles over the thick green mosses. Glossy black grouse shoot out of blonde tussocks of spent grass.

In the boot, Pants and Dora keep sitting up to look out of the window; Stevie shouts at them to sit down as we drop down a dizzying hill. The landscape is changing – the moor slipping behind and the fields becoming green again, protected by their stone walls.

We pass a ruined pub – the Saltersgate Inn – and Stevie and I play our ‘Imagine if’ game, where I suggest up-rooting and carpe-diem and yeah-but-we-could-do-it-up and he reminds me that it has taken us ten years to build our chunk of new house. And it’s still not finished.

‘But I could keep sheep,’ I say. ‘And that barn bit could be a cottage for walkers.’

We drive on, past RAF Fringford, its enormous radar a bizarre concrete triangle on the horizon. We don’t know anything about Whitby itself, but our lovely Forest Ranger has said is worth a look and that we must eat scampi. I know rather more about the Abbey, having Googled it. It’s managed by English Heritage and helped inspire Bram Stoker to write Dracula. There has been a monastery on the site since the 7th century, and the Gothic version was attacked by King Henry VIII’s men. I’ve a thing for old monasteries, I’m fascinated by the idea of private fiefdoms and the whole Papal control thing. I like to stand in bits like the kitchens, and imagine the bone-reek of hot stock, the wielding of a ladle, a knife chopping root veg. The lives lived so basically similar to my own.

We join the A171, Whitby suddenly ahead, its sky-line dominated by the abbey.Whitby Abbey

‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Look at that.’

It’s a spectacular ruin, its empty fenestrations gazing out at a pearled sea. We wind through pretty Whitby (earmarking our chip-shop for lunch), and follow the signs up to the Abbey. There’s a Youth Hostel up here, in the absurdly grand-looking Abbey House, and a huge empty grass car park for the Abbey itself.

The wind snatches the car doors from us, and Pants leaps from the boot, barking in excitement. Dora follows more sedately. We all pull on hats, gloves and scarves, Stephen and the children chasing each other whilst I run to the entrance of the Abbey to find out ticket prices. I already know they let dogs-on-leads into most parts. But, oh. I didn’t check the opening hours. It’s shut.

The children will be pleased, as it means no trailing around learning stuff, but I’m sad. I hop up on the wall to have a good look and surprise a workman in a fluorescent jacket just below.

‘Sorry!’ I say, and wave. He hunches back over his drain, as if routinely exasperated by wall-climbing tourists.

I walk back across the car park to the others, watched by a huge seagull. They’re all ruddy cheeked and breathless.

‘Well?’ says Stevie. ‘How much?’

‘Closed,’ I say, doleful. ‘We can’t go in.’

The children cheer and leap to tig Stephen, running away screaming when they do. He kisses me.

‘Never mind. We’ll walk here instead. After coffee. I’ll just-‘ He runs off, arms outstretched to catch a daughter.

I go to the boot of the car, pull out the flasks and the tin of cake, call the dogs for their biscuits. He’s right: there’s a foot path sign, heading out along the cliff.

I gather everything up and walk to the banked edge of the car park. I perch on the top, pouring the coffee and hot chocolate. The Abbey is before me, and I can look through its windows to slivers of the sea.

 

This is the third of a set of posts, written about our family holiday in North Yorkshire, as guests of  Forest Holidays (part of the Forestry Commission for England). All opinions and views are my own.

 

 

On North Yorkshire – Day 1: Arriving In The Forest

The last town we drive through before reaching Cropton Forest is Pickering, the sign for which stirs uncomfortable memories. ‘Something odd,’ I murmur, but then I stop as the memory crystallises into shape.

Pickering. The last name of a brawny blonde labourer who always turned up at Young Farmers’. He was the one you had to snog at the end of a party if you hadn’t found anyone else.

‘What?’ says Stephen, as we drive over the crest of a hill. The North York Moors is suddenly rising before us.

‘Nothing! Golly! Look at the hill!’

Poor Master Pickering. I hope he’s happy, somewhere, not still cow-eyed and slack-jawed at the bar, hoping it’s his lucky night.

We’re winding through Cropton village now, dark-stoned houses with jolly orange-red roofs. The dogs are sitting up in the back, sensing the end of the long journey. The children have taken off their head-phones, bored with DVDs, and we all lean forward, peering from the car windows, searching for a signpost. The Sat Nav counts us down with smug efficiency.

I say for the hundredth time: I hope it’s going to be nice. We have bad form for British holidays, especially ones where we’ve taken the dogs. When the children were little, we never had any money, and we did everything on the cheap. We once took our German Shepherd (Archie) to Devon, and stayed in some tin-hut type chalet with the most terrible smell. It had black mould ringing the smeared windows, like eye-liner on an ageing raver, and human-hair balls beneath the children’s beds. The owner met us with the key, and to take our money (‘Cash only, dearie’). She had a blonde candy-floss beehive and insisted on telling us that the guests before us had left a giant poo in the middle of the floor. They hadn’t had a dog. As soon as she had gone, we ran to the on-site shop and bought three bottles of bleach, a mop and a scrubbing brush. Whenever we have tough times in our house, we always console ourselves that at least we’re not in the Tin Shack.

It’s starting to spit with rain with rain as we follow the signs and turn left into the woods. We drive up a rough Tarmac road, and a sign welcomes us to Forest Holidays. We pull up next to a house and courtyard area, all pointing and talking at once.

‘Go on, then,’ says Stevie, leaning back and shutting his eyes. ‘Go do your stuff.’

Our map of the North York Moors.
Our map of the North York Moors.

The children and I jump out, staggering as we shove our feet into trainers, trying not to squash the spears of new daffodils.

‘Look, Mummy! Bikes!’

The courtyard area has a bike-hire shop to the left, and those lovely chunky hard-wood tables and chairs up the centre. The weather has turned them that soft silver, and I briefly imagine sitting at one with a coffee and the paper. Reception is up a couple of steps, in the little on-site shop. We go in, and are instantly welcomed by a team of smiling out-doors types in green fleeces.

‘Hello,’ we say back. ‘Hello, hello.’

I sign us in as the children roam the shop, louder with each new discovery. ‘Pencils!’ ‘Jam!’ ‘Mummy! They Make Pizzas Actually Here!’

‘Anything you need, or want to know,’ I’m told. ‘You just need to ask.’

I can’t think of anything sensible, and we say thank you, thank you, and run back out to the car. We pile back in, waking Stephen up and sending the dogs scrabbling with excitement. Stevie starts the car and we roll slowly round the one way system, looking for our cabin. Cabin 29. We keep stealing little looks at each other. It’s so nice. All so nice. The cabins are arranged on a short of sprawling figure-of-eight, with plenty of space between each one. Smoke curling from chimneys tell of wood-burners, and quite a lot of smart cars are parked on the bends of the eight, away from the cabins themselves. A cock pheasant struts out in front of us as we climb a slight hill, and Pants erupts into a series of howls.

‘We know,’ we tell him. ‘We’re nearly there.’

Cabin 29
Cabin 29

We find Cabin 29, and race with the key. Ellie spends at least five minutes trying to open the door, sending the rest of us into orbit with frustration. Finally, she gets it open and we all crowd into the hall. It’s so warm, so clean and Scandi-style, like the very best sort of ski-chalet.

‘Dogs’ll be in here then,’ says Stevie. The children kick off their shoes (which they never do at home), and run into the living room. We hear their cries of delight and follow them in. There’s a big, curving sofa, big enough for all of us, and the whole of the back of the cabin facing the trees is glass.

‘Hot tub!’ we shriek. ‘And look at the fruit bowl, and the map, and we’ve got two loos – two loos darlings – and look at the lovely kitchen with gas, and oh my goodness, look at the picnic table and the woods and IT’S JUST ALL SO NICE.’

Stevie and I go into domestic mode, unloading the car, taking the dogs for a run (straight into the woods) un-packing everything, immediately, bustling with the kettle and making hot drinks.

A Forest Ranger with a pony tail comes to talk to us about heating and how to work the telly (which sorts out our Wifi), then gives us a whole load of brilliant places to go and visit.

‘You must go to Whitby,’ he says. ‘Best scampi in England. Seriously.’ We write a list as he talks, and he shows us where to go on our map. The children ask him about the pizza we can order.

‘We’ll go up to the shop, later,’ I say.

The ranger grins. ‘You can order it from your telly-‘ The children are in raptures.

Later that night, after we’ve stuffed ourselves silly, marked up maps, hot-tubbed and we’ve opened a bottle of wine, Stevie and I lean together on the long sofa. I tuck my feet up, away from Pants and his loving nibbling. Dora is fast asleep on the rug, exhausted by the car.

‘Oh,’ I say. ‘This is going to be a brilliant week.’ Stephen is scrolling through the lists of films for the children. I nudge him. ‘Don’t you think?’

‘What?’

‘Going to be brilliant here. At Cabin 29.’

Stevie stretches out his arms and yawns loudly. He’s grinning, his face mischievous. ‘Yeah. It is. It’s all right, suppose.’ He gives me a sly look. ‘Just about beats the Tin Shack.’

I punch him, aiming for a dead-leg, and the children tell us to shush, just shush, they’re watching their film.

 

This is the second of a set of posts, written about our family holiday in North Yorkshire, as guests of  Forest Holidays (part of the Forestry Commission for England). All opinions and views are my own.

 

On North Yorkshire – Day 1 (‘Let’s Just Get There’)

One of the loveliest things about going on an English holiday (apart from not weighing suitcases), is taking the dogs with us. We’re off to North Yorkshire to stay in a cabin in the woods, where we will play Scrabble, walk until our shins are numb, and Embrace Nature.

‘Will there be bears?’ asks Ellie. We assure her that there will not. ‘Pity,’ she says.

It’s Monday morning, and we’re doing the usual stressy nightmare we do whenever we go away. Have-you-packed-the-torches-well-why-are-they-on-the-stairs-then, and I-thought-YOU-were-putting-diesel-in-the-car. This time though, it’s worse than ever, as we were out for Sunday lunch yesterday, and I haven’t packed anything. Not one thing. Worse still: three pairs of jeans (two of mine, one of Elle’s) are still in the tumble dryer. I don’t actually remember them until we’re roaring up the M40.

‘We’re not turning round,’ says Stevie. ‘Look. Let’s just get there, shall we?’

‘Fine,’ I snap. ‘I’ll buy leggings.’ He hates leggings. I shake out Sunday’s Telegraph and retreat behind it, muttering.

I sulk until the M1, but then I glimpse the pale face of Hardwick Hall up on its hill, and put down the paper. I say for the millionth time how lovely it would be to visit. Stevie rolls his eyes, but the atmosphere in the car has lightened; the holiday-feeling  working its magic. Yorkshire Moors! Sea-side! Hot tub!

As we pass Nottingham, the sun comes out. Blue scraps of sky are visible between the sullen March clouds. The blackthorn is starting to flower along the motorway – incongruous frills of white behind grey crash-barriers and bright orange rescue-phones. Here and there are clumps of just-flowering daffodils, and Stevie and I speculate how they came to be there.

‘Wild animals, birds?’ ‘Bulb-bombing truckers?’

The miles roll on, the children entranced by a DVD, the dogs silent in the boot like stowaways.

We join the A1 and marvel at the smoking giant chimneys of Ferrybridge.

‘Look Jess,’ says Stevie. He gestures to her to remove her ear-phones. ‘Cranes!’

Jess hums politely and replaces her earphones. Stephen and I exchange glances. Too grown up now, for cranes.

We go past York Racecourse, its huge glass stands glinting in the afternoon light, then we’re in the gentle sweeps of the Howardian Hills.

A sign comes up for Castle Howard, and I look at Stevie hopefully. He steadfastly ignores me for three miles, but then he crumbles, abruptly.

‘Fine,’ he says. ‘But only for two minutes, and we’re not going in.’ I have a wild moment, imagining leaping from the car and shinning the wall with the daughters and the dogs.

We pull off the A1 and drive past a giant monument inscribed with ‘The Earl of Carlisle’, but we can’t figure out exactly what the monument is for. It heads the top of a long avenue that undulates like a very long magic carpet. It’s bisected by huge stone walls, and I crane to see the main house. ‘I bet it’s amazing,’ I say. ‘Almost a Blenheim.’

The mysterious monument
The mysterious monument

‘Nowhere’s a Blenheim,’ shout the children.

We drive past yolk-yellow gorse, puffy fluffs of pale green goat willow. Then woodland; silver birch, larch, pine, ash. We see signs for an arboretum, but then we swing into Castle Howard’s car park, come to a stop beside its cricket pitch.

‘Look, look! It’s got a pavilion and everything, and they’ve got a wicket like Horley-‘

Everyone explodes from the thick air in the car and we run about, whooping, playing tig and shouting instructions at the dogs and abuse at each other. Then we put the dogs and Stephen back and head towards the signs that say Farm Shop. We walk into what was once the courtyard for the stables, and it’s the nicest place.

We visit the bookshop, the gift shop and the loo, and we buy three Castle Howard Pencils. The lady behind the till is endlessly patient as the children and I squabble over colours.

We finally settle (one yellow, one green and Jess buys a rubber), and whiz to the farm shop. It’s groaning with delicious things, and I hugely regret my grand statement that this holiday, I shall not be shackled to a handbag.

Playing tig on Castle Howard's cricket pitch
Playing tig on Castle Howard’s cricket pitch

‘I only grabbed a couple of pounds,’ I say. The children look appalled. They’d spotted tremendous cake.

‘We’ll just ask Daddy to get out of the car-‘ says Ellie. I shake my head, not holding out much hope. The children run ahead, and I arrive back at the car just as he says it: Where’s Your Bloody Mother? and Let’s Just Get There.

I wave my hands at the daughters’ chorus of disappointment.

‘Fine,’ I say. ‘It’s fine. Be calmed. Calm.’ I look at Stephen, who’s reversing before we’ve all got our seatbelts on. He accelerates and I look back at Castle Howard, its intricate roof-line indistinct behind the winter trees.

‘It’s a fabulous place,’ I say. ‘A day’s worth place, not a snatched half-hour. We’ll plan it properly for the summer and we’ll bring a picnic in the hamper.’

The gates of Castle Howard. The nearest I got - this time.
The gates of Castle Howard. The nearest I got – this time.

‘And a book each,’ says Jess, thoughtfully. ‘In case there’s cricket, and Daddy starts watching.’

I turn round in my seat, looking North to Cropton Forest. If this is a taste of Yorkshire, we think we’re going to like it here.

 

 

This is the first of a set of posts, written about our family holiday in North Yorkshire, as guests of  Forest Holidays (part of the Forestry Commission for England). All opinions and views are my own.

On Pub-Going – The Rose and Crown in Ratley

I push open the heavy oak door to The Rose, and I’m instantly hit with the roar of Friday-night conversation. The air rushing out to greet me smells of good wine gravy and old pub, and I pause for a moment, blinking at the crowd.

I haven’t been here for perhaps five years – the old gang have all grown-up, moved away. The last time I remember, we’d been the only ones here, our voices carelessly loud in a mid-week hush.

Now though, it’s Friday night and it’s packed – so many people that it’s hard to squeeze in the door. My black-rimmed spectacles steam up and I snatch them from my face, suddenly terribly nervous of walking into a newly-strange place.

‘Carles!’ It’s The Ferg, a local farmer I’ve not properly seen for years, and who has a terrible reputation for havoc-making. It’s The Ferg’s brother and his wife that I’m to have a quick drink with, and I barely say hello before I demand if he’s seen MinanRuss. I run the names together, as if they’re a trusted brand I can rely on.

‘No,’ he tells me. ‘Are they coming here? Do you want a drink?’

I’m flustered by the crowd and the sense of no longer being cool, and I  shake my head, start sliding away through the checked-elbows towards the bar. I forget that I prefer spirits with mixers, and I order a Pinot Grigio; tonight, Matthew, I shall be – God, I’ve no idea.

Discomforted, I take my wine glass to the last table in the tiny bar dining area. It’s a table for four, and I put down my wine, phone and car keys in a semi-circle in front of me; earthworks of technology, fending off invaders. I can’t remember the last time I drank alone in a pub (the Red Lion doesn’t count), and I feel so self-conscious on my table that my shoulders are up near my ears, my hair over my face.

I pick up my phone, pretending I’ve got a signal and have an important message I must send immediately. I want, more than anything, to ring Stevie, tell him I’m coming home. Weed, I hiss to myself. I try not to bolt my wine, and instead force myself to look around me, although I make sure I don’t catch any curious eyes. Every table is crammed with people; laughing, sharing tales of their week gone, planning the weekend ahead.

A woman behind me keeps saying ‘clearly’. Clearly the situation in Crimea is volatile. Clearly the Kremlin must not be allowed – her voice drops, confidingly – clearly the woman in the grey cashmere has been stood up by her date. I put my hand out and my wedding rings catch the light. Clearly you can get stuffed.

The bar is mostly covered in farmers, unmistakeable with their capable, red-chapped hands and sensible Country Wide shirts. They all know each other and talk in half sentences, agreeing with each other in ascending chorus. There is a woman laughing, over and over, and I resent her easy belonging. I hate not belonging – the inevitable by-product of not knowing who to be. I feel awkward.

I turn my glass, thinking how I should stand up, smile, go and hang on the bar and get chatting.

I slug at the dregs of the  Pinot for courage. I stand up just as a man behind me speaks into a microphone, and I end up jumping, clutching my heart. I laugh with him as he introduces the evening’s singer, then I catch the eye of a woman in a black cardigan watching me, speculatively. She’s wondering what I’ll do next.

Put on my coat, run away. Or fling myself at the bar, chat up farmers. The woman’s watching from her busy table, her half-eaten supper ignored.

I decide to go for the farmers.

I make my way towards The Ferg, who is rocking with laughter at a neat-looking blonde man who’s describing something with his hands.

‘Carles!’ says The Ferg again, when he spots me. ‘Drink with us! Come on! Say yes this time!’

For a moment I freeze, but then my smile unsticks itself.

‘I can’t,’ I tell him. ‘I’m too shy.’

‘Rubbish,’ says The Ferg. He comes and collects me, sweeping me up in his arm. He introduces me to the farmers he’s standing with, and I instantly forget their names, but am charmed by their smiles.

I launch into a dreadful have-you-come-far conversation with the blonde. He has naughty twinkling eyes and his girlfriend is the one in the red skirt over by the piano. We stutter through another few stock-phrases (he farms at Avon Dassett. A few sheep, but mostly arable. No, no, he’s not been pleased with the weather either). But then he mentions returning from skiing, and we’re off – ‘It’s my most favourite thing in the world to do,’ I tell him. ‘I just never really have anyone to do it with.’

He tells me all about a deliciously scandalous holiday a few years ago, and we compare resorts.

We’re deep in the merits of Austria versus France when the pub door opens, and two familiar heads appear, pushing through the crowd.

‘Minanruss!’ I cry, waving. ‘That’s who I’m meeting-‘ But suddenly I’m torn. I want to stay with this nice man, and talk about snow, and really, we should wear helmets, but we don’t.

‘Go,’ he says. ‘Go say hello-‘

‘Thank you for chatting to me,’ I say. ‘And being so nice.’

Min is trying to take off her gilet, creating space by wagging her elbows.

‘Good God,’ she bellows. ‘It’s like a Range Rover convention out there! Who the bloody hell is it? Where’ve they come from?’

There’s a cheer from beside the piano.

‘Drink?’ I say, squeezing through, kissing them both hello. ‘So brilliant to see you! Let me get you a drink-‘

It’s past ten when Min and I manage to snaffle a table, and the singer has got into his stride. We’re chattering non-stop, catching up on gossip, who’s doing who, and oh-my-life, I can’t believe that. Are you sure? Outrageous.

I don’t tell Min how nervous I was before, how I nearly went home.

A tall, dark vaguely-familiar brunette comes to say hello. ‘You have such a lovely voice,’ I shout against the music. ‘All deep and raspy.’

‘Oh no,’ she says. ‘I’ve had this ever since that night.’ She and Min exchange significant looks. ‘Let me buy you a drink,’ she says. ‘And I’ll come and join you.’

‘She’s with The Ferg,’ says Min, in my ear. I look at The Ferg with new respect. He really does pull some crackers.

Min introduces us, and I tell Max we might have met before, at the Red Lion. ‘Probably my sister,’ says Max. ‘She’s way more beautiful than me.’ She says the words flatly, with no intention of prompting denials and fluttery compliments.

Min and I raise an eyebrow each. ‘You’re hardly fugly,’ we tell her. I like this girl. We then indulge in premium-rate gossip, the sort of stories friends always start with ‘Carles, don’t blog this, but-‘. God it was exciting.

The singer was really belting out his tunes now, the bar staff were still smiling and smiling.

Something rockabilly-like came on and Min was whooping, shouting I should dance with The Ferg, who once literally swept me off my feet for several minutes years ago, for which the old gang used to tease me mercilessly.

‘I’ve not had enough wine,’ I say, shaking my head, protesting. But then I’m up anyway, being towed down the bar towards the singer; there’s cheering and applause. No one else is dancing, but that doesn’t deter The Ferg. He flings me into a spin, narrowly missing a table of eight. Then he scoops me up, rocking out, and I’m laughing so hard I’ve got a searing stitch, and my hair’s come loose, and I’m not wearing my glasses, so everything’s a warm blur full of music and noise and steps that were out-of-time but exhuberant. The Ferg whizzes me around, still astonishingly strong.

As a finale, he bends me backwards, so I can see the room upside down. I feel like all of the glittery-glee has gone to the top of my head, shaken free from the boring grey silt of the every-day. I’m grinning as we take a bow to the applause, and I catch the eye of the woman in the black cardi.

She’s clapping, smiling, nodding at me as if she knows me. As if I belong.

RoseandCrowninRatley

 

On Digging: Jack-Rat In A Badger Hole

I’m lying in the thick orange mud, the root of an elder root goring my hip bone, a vicious cilice-like bramble around my thigh.  I’m  scraping up clodded earth with my bare hands, gouging with my nails, dragging free lumps of Hornton stone, ash twigs, dried leaves. I’m up to my shoulder in the hole I’ve created, and I can see Dora’s darling foxy face beyond a lattice of roots, inches beyond my reach. She’s choking now, her breath rasping, ending each time on a thinly wheezed whine.

Pants is trying to dig next to me, crying with effort, scraping my arm with his long claws, flicking dirt into my face, down my navy anorak. But the earth’s too wet, I’ve compacted it – I need a spade. Dora’s cries are quieter now, the choking more pronounced. I imagine her harness, the buckle of it twisted and wedged in the clayed darkness, or her thin, nylon collar, hooked on some recalcitrant root.

‘Stay,’ I tell her, uselessly. I wriggle backwards, out of the hedge, fling the ketchup-red lead into a bush to mark the spot. Then I’m  running up the short stretch of Clump Lane towards McNellie’s house. I can see her car, I tear across the lawn and leap down the stone wall, landing in a skitter of gravel. McNells opens the door as I’m almost to it, sane and beautiful, her hand on her baby bump.

‘I saw you running,’ she says. ‘What is it? What’s the matter?’

Ridiculously, I suddenly feel on the edge of tears. ‘Dora’s stuck in a badger hole,’ I say. ‘She can’t get out and oh-‘

I don’t add the last bit – I’m scared a badger might have bitten her – torn into her drumstick with those shark-sharp, yellow teeth.

McNellie, as practical as she is glamorous, tells me she’ll fetch a spade. I hang onto Pants’ collar, biting my lip, torn between embarrassment at making a fuss, and fear for the that silly little dog  that doesn’t belong to me.

Oh God, oh God. Bloody dog in a hole and the school Music Assembly is in less than an hour, and I promised I’d be there for Jess’ clarinet song. I jiggle on the spot, agitation burning my feet. Guilt prickles my neck.

McNellie appears with a wooden-handled spade, and I grab it with thanks, turning to run back up the hill of the drive. I can hear Dora even from here, and I’m sprinting up the Clump, Pants barking beside me.

Dora’s not moved and I start digging, trying not to cry as the heavy earth falls inwards, blocking her from view. I’ve got to loosen it, I’ve got to. I cut and lift, cut and lift, then I lie down again, hauling out the spoil with my hand. Dora is beyong three thick roots, each the width of my wrist. I can touch Dora’s face now, and I can just get my finger tips around her neck. I free her collar  just as McNells comes up the bank.

‘Have you got her?’

‘Nearly,’ I say. But I just can’t reach, and I can’t see how to dig out more earth – the ground is thick with roots, compacted from my body weight.

‘I’ve got to get to school,’ I say, pathetically. I feel tears threaten again. For goodness’ sake. She’s a Terrier. They belong in holes. Dora ups the crying, and I withdraw, pull out my phone, ring Stevie.

‘I’m still in Middleton Cheney,’ he says. ‘Knocking out a fireplace. Can’t you just drag her out?’

‘No,’ I say. ‘I can’t bloody reach.’

As I’m talking, McNells bends down into the hole, and starts pulling free rocks.

‘No!’ I shriek. ‘You’re not supposed to lift stuff!’

She rolls free a stone the size of a cabbage. ‘Stop it!’ I say.

She backs carefully out. ‘Who else can help? We need someone with long arms.’

‘The GFD,’ I say, without thinking. The screen of my smart phone is smeared in orange mud, and I swipe it on my filthy jeans.

The GFD is in bed, after lambing all night, and I wake him up.

‘Um,’ he says. ‘I’ll ask Chris-‘

As I gabble my thanks; McNells is sliding down the bank. Her toddler’s nap time is up. ‘Come and see me,’ she says. ‘When you get her out.’

I carry on digging, scooping. I can see a way of digging beneath the third root – it might just give Dora wriggle-room beneath. I scrape and drag, my shoulder muscles protesting, the cold dampness of the soil against my thighs, my belly. I have mud in my mouth, I can feel the grit as I push my tongue against my teeth. Dig, scrape. Pants is slobbering in my ear, trying to see down the hole. Images of angry cartoon badgers pop in my head, along with images of Elle and Jess scouring the Chapel audience, realising I’m not there, their smiles crumpling. I dig, dig.

My arms are like jelly now, sweat makes my glasses slide down my nose. Beneath my anorak, my newly-ironed going-to-school white shirt is stuck to my back. I hear the roar of an engine, and suddenly Chris is there in his blue 4×4. I sit back as he comes up the bank in his lambing overalls; tall, smiling. A spade in his hand.

‘Oh thank you,’ I say. ‘Thank you so much.’

Pants starts barking as Chris throws the blade of the spade into the ground. He digs twice as deep as I do with a single movement, then reverses the spade to drag the spoil.  Pants barks, Dora cries, and I flutter uselessly with a girly running-commentary. Chris is kind, and doesn’t tell me I should’ve left the daft dog, she’d have got out by herself.

‘Her harness was caught,’ I gabble. ‘I should’ve taken it off, but she never goes in holes, never further from my feet than a few yards.’ As I speak, I realise this is untrue. She does bugger off, always with near-miss consequences.

Chris lays down the spade; the hole is vast now – a badger’s courtyard. He lies down, reaching to Dora, trying to push her head beneath that bottom root.

‘Damn thing,’ he says, meaning the root.

‘She doesn’t bite,’ I say. ‘Well, not usually.’

Chris is patient, coaxing her down, down, then hooking her collar. He drags her out, covered in clodded mud, orange-brown from head to tail.

I cheer, grabbing her, roughing her up as she tries to lick me. I stand up and she goes to dart down another nearby hole. My deepest, crossest shout stops her in her tracks.

‘Thanks Chris,’ I say. ‘Thank you, thank you-‘

Chris calmly fills in the huge hole, waves good bye as he climbs back in his 4×4 with his spade.

I clip both dogs onto their leads. It’s ten past two. Twenty minutes to get to school.

I fly back down to McNells’, delivering back the spade, flinging more thanks before I turn and make a run for it. No time for a shower, just change, wash hands. Bung the dogs in the extension until I can get at them with the hose.

I run home through the village, stitch needling my ribs, shoulder numb from digging. I’m unbeleivably filthy, and it takes me five minutes to scrub clean my hands with a nail brush. I’m out of clean jeans, and am forced to wear a denim skirt of unflattering length.

Then I’m in the car, driving as fast as I dare to Hornton. I can hear the children tuning up as I run down Hornton hill, wishing I’d thought to grab a glass of water. My chest is heaving, and I know I’m red in the face.

I slide in, moments to spare, next to Tightie.

‘Hello,’ she whispers. ‘Don’t they look grown up?’ Then she looks at me. ‘Did you know you’ve got half a bush in your hair?’

I reach up to pull the twigs free, catch the eyes of my daughters; one, two. They barely smile, full of nerves. I raise a hand to wave. My fingers are still faintly orange.

Dora, out of the Badger Hole