English Dacha Diaries
1. Life as a ‘Velikiy Britanets Repat’
Parole after forty years at the chalkface is rather agreeable, and a chance to reflect. Half our teaching lives were spent abroad, including seven years in Moscow. Exile leaves echoes. Perspectives on life at home are different after so long in exotic spots. Urban excitements were fading memories, even before 2020’s unique constrictions. Life at our little cottage is more dacha than vysotskiy. (Kotelnicheskaya, since you ask). How is life as a de-exiled repat? Dip into ‘English Dacha Diaries’.
One of my favourite reads is Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’. The book, not the ghastly Disneyfied saccharine schmaltz. The original is exotic, entertaining and amusing. But fundamentally, it is a lament. Our hero, the human child in a jungle Eden, eventually has to leave that kingdom, only then to be rejected by his own tribe. Once an expat, condemned to be a de-pat! Then again, Kipling was born in then Anglo-India, and came ‘home’ (via the New World) only late on. We grew up in UK, and enjoyed new horizons in mid/late career. Rudyard I ain’t, but having a different world view certainly changes local perceptions of us.
Home is ‘Burrowbeck’, a small, spread out hamlet between the market town of Lunebridge and larger urban excitements on the Irish Sea coast. We have one pub, one church, two post boxes, a bus stop and a large yellow bin full of road grit. Most people work away, are farmers or wrinklies, like us. The post office closed years ago, but rolls up at the Village Hall every Thursday to dish dosh to pensioners. There is just one shop in the village a drumlin hill or two away, within easy cycling distance, as the summer’s long lockdown made necessary.
In mid terrace, our little stone cottage is the one with ‘1726’ engraved on the front door lintel, and the only one with solar panels. Our abode turns 300 soon, but no, we did not buy it new. Curiously, the row was not built all together. Further, thanks to this historical lottery, our gardens are not joined to our own houses, and a communal access separates them. Three neighbours’ cars brush our back door getting to their own. More, the gardens are wider than the houses, and as the fourth one along, we look out over next door’s, and have to walk diagonally across their patch to reach our own. Life is necessarily communal. This is a mixed blessing, as we will see, and in some cases hear. And hear more.
Traditional village life has been described and painted by many, not least Polenov and Constable. But urbanisation, counter-urbanisation, buses and mass car ownership have made a mockery of old insular life. Even the luckiest villages send their workers off every morning; the unlucky ones only meet their owners for weekends and holidays.
Burrowbeck is therefore lucky.
I have tested this. Lighting a garden bonfire is not easy. It is only possible after enough organic debris has stacked up, and on at least the rare third dry day in a row. That narrows the options. Then: cows safely in for milking, tick; sheep not too close, tick; no washing visible on lines, tick; all systems go! Get the kindling under, the paraffin (etc) soaking in, and get it lit!
Wind direction? Sorry, one tick too many to check. Success is never certain; billowing damp plumes are. NOW the wind joins in, and quickly flushes out all and every neighbour in residence. Practically a census. Certainly censorious. It is well known that proper Northerners (I am but a mere “incomen” of only decades’ standing) are economical with words, and express simple but strong feelings with laconic terseness. What you may not know is just how many of these expletives start with a B. My errant bonfire has smoked out many aggressive bees.
Coming soon: “Good fences make good neighbours”. They’d be better still if both smoke-proof and soundproof.