Politics

Rosemary Goring’s country life: Fog, moles and a very quiet new year

VERY occasionally these past few days the near silence in the village is broken by a car door slamming. Sometimes two doors. Three, when someone has left a bag behind and remembered just in time. Then tyres crunch over gravel or rock salt, and red tail lights disappear around the bend, as visitors depart.

The season of goodwill reached Hoolet this year with its usual uplifting cheer. Houses and gardens are lit up like George Square, doorsteps glow with carriage lamps, like coaching inns of old, and an array of Christmas trees, lights twinkling from breakfast till bedtime, turns windows into Advent calendars. Our tree is in the back garden, a miniature Cox’s Pippin, draped with coloured bulbs. Stepping outdoors in the early morning to flick a switch is not for the faint hearted. I begin to understand why the appeal of indoor decorations never fades.

Yet despite the jolly scene, the general mood this last week has been subdued. Dogs, when they felt the need to bark, did so sotto voce. Cyclists in festive lycra whooshed past, tinsel fluttering from the handlebars, legs pumping like pistons, but vocal chords on pause. Even the recycling collectors, tipping a surfeit of cardboard and wrapping paper into the lorry’s maw, seemed to do their job on mute.

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Fog has descended on the village most days, muffling what little sound there is. The other morning, I arrived from the nearby town to find Hoolet swathed and invisible where all around was bright. It looked as if someone had lost control of a dry ice machine. One night, when the rain was lashing, visibility was so poor I had to crawl at 20mph, grateful I had fathomed how to make the fog lights work. “It’s disappearing,” Alan said, referring not to the miasma in which we were shrouded, but the road, which could not be detected beyond a few metres.

This is a route I take all the time, but the sense of disorientation was unnerving. It explains why, in winter, people hedge all their travel plans with the caveat, “Soutra permitting”.

It’s not just snow or ice that periodically seal us off from the rest of the world. Soutra Hill, a high, bleak pass over the moors that separates the Borders from the Lothians, is occasionally smothered by a pea-souper, turning it into a scene from The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Behind the holly garlands and evergreen wreaths on front doors, half of Hoolet has been hosting families and friends. Not that you hear a peep. Ours came on Boxing Day. Surprisingly, the house remains intact, despite the best efforts of a three-year-old with a remote-control car, whose driver was catapulted out so frequently the next gift will be a doll’s hospital. Meanwhile his eight-year-old sister built a radio and tuned it immediately to Radio 3.

Most visitors arrive by the front door, but one was more adventurous. Near the gate onto the field, I found a creature had burrowed under the fence and emerged beneath our grizzled hawthorn tree. The hole where it had poked out its nose was perfectly round, and the newly excavated earth pink and fresh. This was our first mole hill, a tiny replica of the Eildon hills beyond.

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I thought of Mole in The Wind in the Willows, when he makes a bid for freedom at the first hint of springtime: ‘Something above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gravelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residencies are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged, and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working with his little paws and muttering to himself, ‘Up we go! Up we go!’ till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.’

No meadow greeted our uninvited guest, but an abundance of mossy grass, rotting, windfall crab apples and tender daffodil shoots, newly poking through. Was this peak the first of what will in time become a Himalayan range? At this time of year, it’s surely the work of a solitary tunneller, not yet in search of a mate. Since there are no other mounds within sight, I think ours is what is technically called an outlier, which might be another word for lost.

I happen to know a Borders postman who, in his spare time, is a mole catcher. I like the idea of portfolio careers, but will never call on his services. Where I grew up, you’d find sad little bodies dangling on barbed wire fences in the local woods, where these so-called pests had been left to swing, like black socks. The message this was intended to convey was much the same as when the severed heads of criminals were stuck on city walls, to show what happened to those who stepped out of line. Except quite how subterranean moles were meant to take heed remains unclear. Perhaps the gamekeeper was simply displaying his skill.

Given how small an animal it is, you can imagine how many met their end simply to be turned into gloves, let alone moleskin trousers, in the days when they weren’t made from cotton. Their fur was hugely popular – described by Mole’s friend Ratty as “a black velvet smoking jacket” – and never lovelier than when on the animal it belonged to.

Of course, thoughts of cruelty have rarely deterred the tailoring trade; it has taken generations for growing public revulsion to change attitudes. Demand for the beaver’s soft, waterproof pelt was what drove it to extinction here in the late middle ages. Many birds owe their preservation to the campaign in the late 19th century by women opposed to the use of their feathers in society ladies’ hats.

The plight of moles who died for their skins reminds me of messages the anti-fur league used to place in the pockets of mink coats for their owners to find. Signed by the mink, it read: ‘I hope you love this fur as much as I did’. If our mole happens to read this, I’d like it to know that its coat can stay where it is.

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