Just outside the village of Sharnbrook, three generations of the Hurley family are still active in their grass-fed beef farm. They butcher their meat and sell it and other provisions from a farm shop. No visit to Sharnbrook is complete for me until I have eaten Mrs. Hurley’s beef pie bought from here and baked at home in the oven. Rich butter pastry covers the most delicious, melt-in-the-mouth beef pieces in thick gravy. It’s a different taste from Canadian beef, even non-supermarket hormone free meat. Paired with local carrots from the vegetable stall nearby steamed with butter and parsley, I challenge a five-star restaurant to produce anything better.
The Hill Farm Shop opens at lunch time on Thursday and closes at lunch time on Sunday, and I am certain whole Collis family visits have been planned around this schedule; coolers and freezer packs organized carefully to keep a stock of pies cool on the drive home. There they will be served at intervals timed to coincide with the next trip.
We arrived on Thursday afternoon to find the small shop buzzing with regulars clutching their shopping lists. Mr. Hurley automatically moved to the cheese counter when it was our turn because my parents buy half a round of stilton cheese from them every week. Stilton is a pungent blue cheese, the only British cheese to have a certification trademark and an EU protected name. It is only produced in three counties in the English Midlands. My parents eat it at least twice a day, on water biscuits (thin crackers). The stilton half used to be kept permanently under a glass dome on a cheese board until it was so ripe it could have walked to the table itself, but now in a nod to caretakers and hygiene rules, they put it in the fridge at night and bring it out in the morning to let it breathe. There were careful calculations on this shopping trip because I was visiting, and I like stilton. Running out before next Thursday was not an option. We decided to stick to the normal amount and prop ourselves up if need be from the Co-op in the High Street.
I have a list of foods I like to eat while in England, and many of them involve meat. English bacon is lean and thin and mouth-wateringly good with baked beans. Cold sliced boiled ham is good with new potatoes and mint. Plain pork sausages are a must (with maybe a little sage) and I will have one taste of pork pie if I am able. I have a stash of marmite in the kitchen which I spread on buttered toast and I eat a Cox’s Orange Pippin apple daily. I’ll tell you about the sweet things later.
We got through our shopping list at Hurley’s and learned a remarkable history lesson as well. “Are you the daughter from Nova Scotia?” Asked Mr. Hurley. Yes, I was. “Is that near Newfoundland?” He inquired. I waved vaguely like a weather forecaster sweeping an arm over the weather map to indicate that although Halifax is 600 miles or 1,000 kilometres as the crow flies from St. John’s, you could say Nova Scotia is near the island of Newfoundland. I braced to hear about the inevitable second cousin who had visited Newfoundland once on holiday. Instead, Mr. Hurley told us about taking his sons to visit World War One battle sites in France, because he wanted them to be there, to walk on the land, to feel the awful history beneath them. They had an English guide with them who is an expert on these sites, who led them over arable, quiet land around the Somme River, negotiating with taciturn French farmers with shotguns and irascible dogs; describing the positions, the trenches, the no mans’ land, the burnt-out villages.
They had visited the Newfoundland Memorial Park, created to remember the soldiers of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who endured one battle in the Somme in 1916 with a 90% casualty rate. Sheep graze on grassy common land, still indented with the shapes of trenches, under the watchful eye of a majestic bronze statue of a Newfoundland caribou. I explained that Newfoundland was not part of Canada until 1949, so these men were part of the British forces. There are school children in London who tend the once forgotten graves of Newfoundland soldiers buried there, as they are not the responsibility of the Canada War Graves Commission.
Mr. Hurley was looking for another monument and another piece of war history. Like many Brits he and his sons are football (soccer) fans. In WW1, professional football heroes were used to recruit volunteers to fight. There was even a Football Battalion. On one occasion the entire local team volunteered at the end of a match. Three thousand spectators swarmed onto the pitch and did the same immediately in a patriotic fervour. During one terrible battle in the Somme, half the team and many hundreds of the fans were killed and 100 years later the Hurley’s found the monument commemorating that heavy local loss. They came upon it suddenly, on the grassy verge of a green country lane. It was not in a large, organized military cemetery. Most of the men were from rural Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire, and I thought it was fitting that they were remembered amid birdsong, the click of the plough turning the dark and heavy, musty earth, and the gruff voice of the farmer calling his dogs off ‘Les Anglais’.
But back to the shopping. Most locals go shopping in the shopping centres of nearby towns, or have their groceries delivered. There is nothing exceptional about those shops, they could be anywhere in the UK or North America except that they have Marks & Spencer’s, oh joy. My parents like to support local shops and buy fresh food, and fortunately can get everything they need at the beef farm, a fruit and veg stall, and on the narrow village High Street (Main Street) a Co-Op, a tiny newsagent with the Post Office in it (Mr. Gill’s), and a bakery. Real estate is at a premium in these shops, and negotiating the crowded aisles is a lesson in etiquette. You know how sticky British people are about queuing properly – well, that’s hard to do when you are winding your way round a shop the size of a big living room; crammed shelves of canned goods, someone bending down to pick up a newspaper, a shop assistant trying to find birthday candles for a customer – all the while keeping an eye on the fellow shoppers to make sure you are not cutting in line or bumping someone and apologizing like a Canadian on steroids. And then you have the distraction of the sweet display.
Maybe it’s the result of sugar rationing during WW11, but the English have an enduring love affair with sweets, chocolate, and all things wrapped in crinkly paper which ruin your teeth. Not for them the discreet shelves placed high out of sight and reach of children like the health danger that they are. In the corner shops a whole wall is dedicated to sugary delights wrapped in brilliant and enticing colours saying: “Eat me!” Most of this stuff can be bought on either side of the Atlantic, but I always want a Yorkie chocolate bar and a Cadbury’s Chocolate Flake (the English ones taste different), and Polo mints; ‘the mint with the hole®’. Yes, that is the worst registered trademark ever.
My father used to give Daughter #1 and Daughter #2 some pocket money on visits when they were little and allow them to hold hands and walk the three or four blocks to Mr. Gill’s to spend it on sweets. This was a highlight of the visit. Almost hyper-ventilating with delight and the pressure of decision-making, I imagine them standing with necks craned and mouths open in front of the vast shelves, coins sticky in their hands, scanning the rows for novel treats and discussing the merits of Maltesers over Galaxy Bars.
These days coins and bank notes in most countries are indistinguishable in terms of size, shape, weight and material. I used to like feeling the solidness of a 12-sided thrupenny bit (three pence) or a fat brown penny in my hand. Coins were bigger and more substantial than those in Europe or North America, and they sat heavily in your palm so you really felt you could buy something with them. Not to mention they were much easier to dig out of a purse. I grew up with pounds, shillings and pence, before the decimal system, and on a Saturday morning we got one penny pocket money starting at the age of four, with a penny increase every birthday thereafter. There wasn’t much to buy with a penny or tuppence (two pennies) except sweets, so we walked a mile or so to the village shop where in pre-packaging days the sweets were in glass jars on shelves behind the counter, going all the way up to the ceiling. Just like Honeydukes, the sweet shop in the Harry Potter books, except the candy was not magical. Though maybe it was. The sharp sizzle of yellow sherbet hitting the top of your mouth is an enchanting sensation. You told the shop assistant what you wanted and how many ounces, and they measured them on a scale and poured them into little white paper bags, which they swung and twisted closed with an expert flip of the wrist. The bags went into our pockets and our hands went into the bags every few minutes as we sampled the goodies on our walk home. Here is a list of my favourites:
- Lemon drops
- Flying saucers (sherbet in rice paper)
- Pear drops
- Aniseed balls
- Wine gums
- Gobstoppers (a huge ball which changed colour as you sucked your way through it, it was so big you couldn’t talk – it literally stopped your ‘gob’ – your mouth)
It really is amazing that my teeth are in such good shape. That’s thanks to my mother – she worked hard on it.
So that’s the shopping tour of the village. With everything on the shopping list crossed off, we returned home to more lists. Lists of things to do, where to place things, which medicines to take when, how to operate machines. The maps we trace for a journey where memory slips off the well-known paths into a strange, unfamiliar landscape.