Image: Brijesh Patel
May 09 2011
My favourite mode of travel is the train and my least preferred is that yellow and blue cattle truck, Ryanair. (Excellent if you want to know how it feels to be a parcel. They do not love their customers.) Being able to read without being sick, travelling with a snack bar a few swaying paces away, not having to debate the best route while remaining firmly stuck to the ground, being able to see where you’re going and where you’ve just been, are all underrated bonuses. The pricing is rather maddening – like most modern travel, if it’s at the time you’d like to leave, you’ll get fleeced.
This weekend we went by train (there was one midgy, actually more of a horsefly, in the eye, in the form of an exceptionally large and venomous gentleman – who thought I’d stolen his seat. It turned out he was right) to Babington House, which is “Soho House does the English countryside”. It is hard to see it in any other way (I’m sure Monsieur AA Gill would find an amusing angle of destruction) but I’m struggling to find fault.
Invitations to stay with friends in the country are most welcome, gladly received (I can provide a list of available dates) and invariably weekends away are highly entertaining. At these times the whole family is under strict instructions to be on their very best behaviour (“Do not be yourself” tends to be the mantra). It would be horribly selfish to stand under the shower for 30 minutes enjoying a tropical downpour, draining the tank, or, on account of feeling exhausted, to disappear at 9pm to watch a video in bed. You obviously can’t appear for breakfast at noon, eat a continental, a full English and a few other breakfasts in silence while reading the papers before sloping off for a massage. Invitations would quickly dwindle and you’d be “Billy no mates” in the country. However, this is all possible and positively encouraged at Mr Jones’s hedonistic Somerset hotel.
He knows how to put you, the customer, in pole position – at the head of the grid – and we had a fantastic time. Both girls and boys had massages, manicures, pedicures (I should never have agreed to the “matt, no one will notice” nail varnish on my toes) and all sorts of delightful spa treatments. We swam or rather played with Jamie (he is a keen zoologist and has devised a game called Parasite whereby he clings to you like… well, a parasite and you have to try and dislodge him, no drowning permitted). We walked in the woods and talked about how attitudes towards wildlife have fundamentally changed since I was Jamie’s age.
To illustrate my point I told him a story of how once, when I was at boarding school in Uganda, we were playing outside during morning break when a magnificent Crowned Hawk-eagle plucked an apple from a girl’s hand, slightly scratching her face in the process. We were both thrilled and terrified – it was electrifyingly exciting. The Jaws effect took hold and the whole school walked around with their heads tilted back, eyes skyward, scanning the heavens for the terrifying winged beast. Parents had to be discouraged from removing their darlings. All food was consumed indoors, experts summoned and then finally, in a hushed assembly, as we sat cross-legged on the floor, it was announced that drastic action would be taken. Mr Patel the local mechanic had agreed to shoot the vile beast.
So, the following Saturday, as we all lay on our stomachs in a ring around the sports field, Mr Patel, wearing a black turban, tied a lump of bloody meat to a stake and then crouched on the floor. I remember thinking, “This isn’t going to work”, but it did. After what felt like not very long to a nine-year-old boy (so must have been very fast indeed), the eagle was circling high above us and as it swooped and extended its claws to take our offering Mr Patel opened both barrels. There was a shower of feathers and the wounded bird flapped, fluttered and limped across the field and into the woods. We collectively leapt up whooping and cheering and gave chase. “Kill the eagle”, we cried (it was all very Lord of the Flies); Mr Patel, who was now elevated in our minds to an Indiana Jones character, led the pack and when the poor bird lay exhausted, he fired the killing shots. We ate cakes and drank juice as we crowded to touch the magnificent fallen creature.
Jamie is horrified and looks at me strangely.