The hospitals are even more like war zones than usual, the mortuaries have run out of space and the crematorium is booked solid for at least the next two weeks. It can only mean one thing: another mild winter in Britain.
Personally I’d put up with any amount of wind, rain and grey skies if it means we don’t have to endure snow and ice. But the other day I had to forsake the gloriously mild temperatures of my sheltered bit of southern Gloucestershire and endure an expedition to a depressingly bleak and windswept village up north in “the Cotswolds”.
Having always lived on the southern edge of the Cotswold escarpment, I harbour very ambivalent feelings towards the northern half of Gloucestershire – the bit everyone thinks of when you say “the Cotswolds”. On the one hand it undoubtedly represents a reassuringly untainted slice of old England, with quaint little tea shops and verdant countryside.
The only concession to multi-culturalism is the hosting of coach-loads of Japanese tourists, whilst the Cotswold equivalent of an ethnic minority would be a black Labrador. But on the downside, the thick coating of aspic also preserves a lingering impression of country set pretentiousness – albeit that’s largely a by-product of the sizeable sub-population of second homers and London blow-ins.
But there’s a harsh economic reality lurking behind the affluent, rural facade. My own town of Nailsworth has completely reinvented itself over the last 20-odd years, moving from a gritty, workaday kind of place to becoming a thriving little town with an extraordinary variety of independent shops.
The result is a highly successful destination town pulling in hordes of visitors. But nevertheless, Nailsworth’s working class heritage still keeps it innoculated against the disease of pretentiousness that’s reduced similar places in the Cotswolds to antique shop-filled, zombie towns.
So, as we tootled up the Fosseway in the hearse I’ll admit to feeling rather superior as we passed through the living museums of Tourist-On-The-Water, Waitrose-On-The-Wold and finally Mortuary-In-Marsh.
We negotiated the streets of Chocolateboxville, dodging the tourists and the obligatory Land Rovers, Range Rovers and rusty, straw-filled Austin Rovers, before heading off down a grubby lane towards our destination. But having reached the far-flung village of Muddywellyford we were disappointed with what we found there. No picture-perfect, cosy little display village was this. Oh no. Muddywellyford seemed to consist of little more than a stretch of road where someone had fly-tipped a bunch of houses and then shoved a church in at the far end, along with a rather uninviting pub: The Incomer’s Arms.
But credit where it’s due, the stalwart members of the church were a highly organised bunch. The churchwarden – Hugh Reclamation-Fireplace - was outside supervising the parking, whilst inside the church his colleague Clarissa Conservation-Windowframe was handing out the hymn sheets. The service itself was a heartfelt affair, thanks to a stirring performance from the Rev. Simon Not-From-Round-Here-But-I-Know-What-They’re-Like, but the burial was an altogether more grim affair. I don’t think I’ve ever set foot in such a bleak, miserable churchyard. And windswept? It was like having the windows open on Concorde.
However, my team of bearers managed to find themselves a source of amusement. Having gone to get the flowers from the hearse they’d got involved in a spot of social archaeology by chatting to one of the original villagers – a weather-beaten old crone who lived in the cottage opposite.
She was stood at her garden gate with a clipboard, noting the registration numbers of the lorries that were using the village as a shortcut and churning up all the grass verges in the process. Instead of just phoning the number on those “How’s my driving?” stickers on the back of the trailers, the wizened hag seemed more intent on lacing her cauldron with eye of newt and wing of bat before reciting dark incantations of doom towards the trespassing truckers. At least, I think that’s what she called them.
The final insult came when we got home. We’d left four hours earlier with a clean, shiny hearse, but came back with a filthy, mud-plastered one. Still, I suppose you could argue that’s the authentic Cotswold look. There’s too many bloody lorries churning up the verges…