My mother warned me never to trust a man who drives a white motorcar or has a beard.
These wise words, from the smoky kitchens of Chelsea mews houses in the days of the John Profumo scandal, seem apposite today as they were then. As we all know, white cars are driven only by salesmen, criminals and the newly-rich.
If you doubt her advice, just take a look at Alan Sugar.
Such clear-cut regulation can seem to unfairly and irrationally divide. It is no less here in the countryside.
To those who visit, the rules seem many and confusingly the most important ones of all are never spoken of, least of all written down.
Now some, like Second Breakfasts or the fact that the pubs and the few small restaurants that exist in these parts only serve lunch at lunchtime mean that, at worst, an ill-informed visitor might go hungry for a few hours.
Some transgressions can, however, scar you near-permanently as ‘city folk’. It doesn’t matter how muddy your not-white Range Rover is, it will take you years to remove the tarnish of such a reputation.
If you live on one of large farming estates here – or in part of a gothic castle, as I do – the rules multiply quicker than the bushy-tailed thieves of the walnuts from the trees outside my front door.
My weekend guests have often given me blank looks when I’ve told them that they cannot under any circumstances use the West Drive (which actually lies due south), no matter what their TomTom might say otherwise.
Invariably they ignore my detailed map, get lost and arrive very late (up the wrong drive) having rung me two or more hours ago to say “we’re only ten miles away”; at which point I’ve started to mentally prepare cocktails and lay the table for dinner.
I actually sympathise with the horrors of the M4 on a Friday evening that guests might endure. I also have nothing but a kind ear for tales of the hell-hole of Membury Services where they seek a comfort-break. (Note: Leigh Delamere is much better. Magor is better and cheaper still).
However, please remember your host, who has got up early and visited the butcher, baker, pie-maker and the greengrocer. They are now sat in the kitchen staring at a Number One cut of prize Herefordshire beef and trying not to drink too much, in case they have to drive to meet you after you’ve got lost.
Such delays can bring on zombie-like impatience for dinner and horror of horrors, no time for a proper welcome with a G&T; or a brief of how the heating works. This is the countryside, not Quaglino’s darlings.
Here, we eat at seven. Possibly eight, if you are coming from London or it’s the middle of summer.
Remember, we have to get up at dawn to feed the chickens or make emergency calls to get the boiler refilled with oil so you can have a hot bath over the weekend. So excuse us if we leave you with the gin and show you where to turn the lights off.
We may live in huge houses or gothic towers, but we had to let the staff go when our great grandfather gambled the fortune away on a fail-safe investment in 1929. Thus doing breakfast for guests, whilst we nurse a hangover with only four hours sleep, is Not Much Fun.
Whilst on the subject of hangovers: never, ever finish off the gin in a midnight thirst-rage assuming you can replace it in the morning. We don’t have 24hr off-licenses here. In fact we don’t have off-licenses at all and nowhere is open at all on Sundays. We will silently curse you the rest of the weekend.
Gosh, there are so many rules.
Or manners as my grandmother would call them.
Of course, she believed that if you had to ask what the rules where, you were likely somewhere you shouldn’t be.
However, the first rule of hosting is to make your guest feel comfortable. Thus an error on your part will receive nothing but a smile. Possibly the wave a hand airily and cheery laugh, if it’s something really bad you’ve done, like let your dog chase the sheep in the top field.
This makes the whole business of the countryside complicated for everyone.
But it was on my walk back from church that the simple answer to all this dawned on me.
I was on the forbidden West drive, to which I am granted access only on Sundays for services at the estate church. It’s a ritual I now enjoy much more than the now fading appeal of Downton Abbey. Whilst avoiding the icy potholes in my inappropriate suede footwear (even I can make mistakes), I was idly contemplating the etiquette of coffee after communion services.
In the absence of fellowship of instant coffee and cheap biscuits by the font, country custom dictates reciprocal invitations for decent caffeine at one’s home, with anyone whose first name you can remember.
If you do not know the rules, this can lead to all sorts of trouble.
Of course the correct answer, when invited for coffee at a neighbour’s house depends on the time of the service.
For early services (those that finish before 11 o’clock), then you can say yes, unless either party has weekend guests, in which case the answer is no.
Don’t forget that, if you do go, you should then stay for no less than half an hour and no more than an hour. Too little time chatting over a custard cream is rude, too much is an imposition. Don’t forget to reciprocate the invitation at the earliest opportunity.
For later services, when it may be midday by the time you leave (depending on the sermon), then the unspoken rule is that everyone offers invitations to each other, but no-one accepts. It’s obvious why: we all have Sunday lunch to think about, whether we have visitors in weekend residence or not.
Actually there is a very simple answer to all these situations; even one’s as complex as whether to accept an invitation for coffee: rules are manners and manners themselves are nothing more than organised kindness.
Since returning to live in the countryside my friends worry that I might be lonely. They forget that in the country one is very rarely ever alone. One must beware gossiping with a friend in a remote field about the local ne’er –do-well, for the subject in question is very likely to have materialised unseen behind you.
This brings warmer advantages though. There is never a lack of help here and we all keep a friendly eye out for each other. Oddly, with greater space comes greater community. One often finds assistance before even needing to ask for it.
Here, kindness is all around.
This is why the countryside has so many rules. It’s not about prevention of fun but rather encouragement of friendship and community. Whilst at all times respecting other people’s needs, be that need for sleep or time to make Sunday lunch for weekend guests.
Act with kindness in all your actions and the countryside, if not the world, will be a glorious place. You will find yourself with remarkable people and in remarkable places. And be invited back.
So now you know. We haven’t written the rules down as that would be rude as well as not very British of us.
Please visit. We want to share the joy of where we live. We want to share our local single-estate gin. We want you to have a fabulous experience.
Just remember to be kind. Arrive on time, leave farm gates as you find them and don’t finish off the gin without us.