Thursday, 3 March 2011

Wattle corner

Wattle Corner sits less than a mile from Stone in Oxney in Kent, nestling on the horizon as one winds up the narrow road from the village. A shroud of branches all but conceals the 17th century house from the roadside; patches of weathered brickwork flicker briefly into view as you pass.

It's here that my childhood friend John Davis and his parents used to live over twenty years ago. Although I didn't really think about it until recently, I'm sure that the years spent exploring the house, its garden and the surrounding countryside with him helped shape my passion for food and a love of the wild.

Vast open fields fall away towards the River Rother on the south side; dense woodland resides to the north. The wood was stocked with pheasant for the game season; I once had the bright idea of attempting to poach one (homemade bow and arrow being the rudimentary weapon of choice). This idea quickly dispersed when the gamekeeper chased us out of the wood, brandishing a twelve bore. Terrifying. Nevertheless, there were often a brace of birds hanging in one of the outbuildings back at the house; lord knows where John's mum got them. The butcher's probably, like most people.

I'm cautious about rose-tinted skews on the past, but this place genuinely felt like it was a cook's paradise. An old orchard sprawled alongside the house; gnarled, lichen-covered apple and pear trees blossoming excitedly in the spring, then creaking under the weight of heavy fruit come late summer. Espalier damsons crept up the south face - or were they plums? Can't quite remember. Then there was the vegetable garden.

John grew and tended everything (startlingly impressive in retrospect - we were about 9 at the time). The garden was filled with neat rows of carrots, potatoes, beetroot, broad beans, lettuce, fennel - to name but a few. I'd never seen a globe artichoke before, let alone eaten one. Clumps of wheat and barley swayed in one corner, gooseberry, raspberry and blackcurrant bushes crouched in the other. The greenhouse was full of young seedlings in trays, waiting to be planted when their time came. I think the deal was that John grew it; his mum cooked it, which seemed fair enough – she was a great cook.

The house was sold, the family moved and John and I sadly lost touch. Such is the way I guess. That garden was amazing though. It's still the benchmark in the back of my mind as I sort through a pile of seed packets, preparing to get our little veg patch up and running again. I've knocked the poaching aspirations on the head though. For the time being anyway.

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