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; it used to be the Parsonage.
On the front of the property, a set of fancy cast iron railings edged the front garden. It was put there, I suspect, to keep farmhands and other village oiks from peeping in when the previous, slightly superior, occupants were playing croquet or something on the front garden lawn. It was definitely a bit special, the front garden.
Out the back, however, was a different kettle of fish. It was where, presumably, gentlefolk would wander ruminantly about as they plucked blackcurrents, peas and gooseberries from the arrays of shrubs 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 a fancy cast iron fence like the front garden; instead it had hedges separating it from the cow pastures which bordered its margins. 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 good 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. They hung about by the hedge, nostrils hoovering up the tempting fruity waft from just over the hedge. So that dense and defensive hedge of tough branches and sharp, hard thorns was maintained meticulously by my Dad to keep those hungry cows 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 hawthorns, so they could shift the boundary line slightly and make his field bigger — and The Orchard smaller. It was a bone of contention. Borders are tricky things.
Most attractive of all to the cows were rotten apples, fallers that lay under our apple trees. We collected as many as we could and stored them away in our cellar, but plenty would still fall down and rot in the grass— and smell richly delicious (if you were a nearby cow) in the process. Cows would cluster disconsolately on their side of the hedge, dribbling copiously.
But back to that small village boy with grubby knees.
It’s well known in any farming community 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 jumping Horizon cow on the milk packets. Often compounded by an associated herd of contagiously jumping cows all over the field. Massive fun — but whacking a cow usually demands the whacker creep into the field with a whack-stick — and that risks rousing the ire of any passing farm worker, or in our case the un-neighbourly farmer. It was a problem, for sure. The solution? Those rotten apples.
We would pick up a couple of particularly rotten and attractively smelly examples, toss them just over the hedge, then 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, densely unripe and pleasingly heavy apple and chuck it as hard as possible at the biggest/nearest cow’s arse. Not a whack-stick, but good enough.
Splat: out the cow’s 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 amusing 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 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 physical 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 every direction — 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.