My childhood was spent in a picture-book English village. Jam for tea, a crumbling vicarage (and vicar), whiffy spinsters and grubby knees after school. Real end-of-empire stuff. The house I grew up in was a big rambling place in the middle of the village. On the front edge of the property, a set of fancy cast iron railings and a sturdy brick wall surrounding the front garden were the main features.
They were put there, I suspect, to keep the farmhands and other village oiks from peeping in when the previous, slightly superior, occupants were playing croquet or somesuch on the front garden lawn. It was definitely a bit special, in the front garden.
Out the back, however, was a different kettle of fish altogether. It was where, presumably, gentlefolk in days of yore would wander ruminantly about as they plucked damsons, blackcurrents, peas and gooseberries from the fecund arrays of shrubs and trees planted tens if not hundreds of years ago. Because of this, it wasn’t known as the back garden — it was called The Orchard, and it was our own private adventure playground. We would search for rats in the old pigsty, climb for birds eggs in the trees and make secret dens in the undergrowth where we could plot clandestine assaults on unsuspecting passers-by. Perfect.
It was also our own private food factory, and had lots of very productive fruit trees amongst all those other wild garden growths. We always had plenty of healthy, body-strengthening fresh fruit and berries in our diet.
The other way The Orchard differed from our front garden was in its margins. It didn’t have fancy cast iron fences or big brick walls like the front garden; instead it had hedges separating it from the cow pastures which bordered the property. The hedges were all made up of dense thickets of hawthorn, trimmed and hedged regularly by my Dad to make sure they were as gap-free and as prickly as possible. There was a sound reason for this.
Just the other side of the hedge, spying lustfully at the cornucopia of fruit just hanging there on a myriad low-hanging branches was a sizeable herd of cows. They had grass aplenty in their pasture, of course, but nothing is ever as sweet as forbidden fruit (especially the fruit lounging seductively around in our Orchard). Consequently, the dense and defensive thicket of tough branches and sharp, hard hedge thorns were maintained meticulously by my Dad to keep the heavy bovine brutes out of our fruity larder — any gap and they would be in and snacking in a jiffy.
However, the farmer who owned the pasture next door was a bit slack about trimming his side of the hedge. This irritated my dad, who suspected our farmer-neighbour was happy to see his cows behaving like a hoofed battering ram on the hedge, so they could shift the boundary line slightly and make his field bigger — and Our Orchard smaller. It was a bone of contention. Borders are tricky things.
Despite the thorns, the cows always hung about next to The Orchard, nostrils hoovering up the tempting fruity waft from the other side of the hedge. Most attractive of all to them seemed to be the scent of rotten apples, fallers that lay under the apple trees. We picked as many as we could and stored them away in our cellar, but plenty would still fall off and rot down — and smell richly delicious (if you were a nearby cow) in the process. The cows would cluster disconsolately on their side of the hedge, dribbling copiously.
But back to that small boy with grubby knees. It’s well known in any farming village that if you whack a cow on its hind quarters, say with a short stick, it will kick its back legs up in the air like that Horizon cow on the milk packets. Massive fun — usually compounded by an instant herd of contagiously random jumping cows all over the pasture. But whacking a cow usually demanded the whacker creeping into the field with the whack-stick — and that risked rousing the ire of any passing farm worker, or in our case the un-neighbourly farmer. The solution? Those rotten apples.
The answer was to simply pick up a couple of particularly rotten and smelly examples, toss them over right next to the hedge, and wait for the whole herd to trot over and muscle into position for a munch. As soon as there was a sizeable bunch of cows huddled close to the hedge, we would take a new, fresh, dense and heavy apple and throw it as hard as possible at the biggest/nearest cow’s arse. Whack, out the legs would go and the whole herd would immediately scatter, dervish-style with plenty of random jumping and bellowing and fanning out across the whole meadow. Unspeakably delightful and rewarding for any small boy.
This technique proved so effective that boasting about it at school resulted in a small queue of other grubby-kneed kids eager to come into The Orchard to repeat the tempting/throwing/jumping cow routine. Sadly, the popularity of the pursuit resulted in grown ups becoming aware of the new sport developing in our back yard — including the farmer who owned the cows and who didn’t get on very well with my Dad.
The realisation that his cows were being regularly and deliberately stampeded by the neighbours, apparently for fun, and without regard for their physical well-being or mental health didn’t go down at all well. He came round and Spoke To my Dad. Who Spoke To me in a rather more direct way, which ensured no more cow’s arse antics over the hedge. But it was magnificent fun while it lasted. The vision of all those cows’ legs flailing in all directions — occasionally with one or two even shitting themselves in panic as they did so — will never leave me. I still smile at the thought.
And if you have never seen a jumping cow, just aim a hard Cox’s Pippin at any bovine arse from about two metres and watch it go. I am sure you will see the appeal.