Say the word ‘dove’ and you think soft, white, pretty, coo-coo, love, weddings and all that stuff. Not to mention a gentle flutter of wings.

What you don’t think is flaming nuisance, poo all over the place, incessant loud cooing and the irritating and surprisingly loud flapping-slapping of wings.

Here at Hill Towers we are suffering a plague of doves, not unlike an infestation of rodents.

Our pesky doves, collared doves to be precise, are the winged version of mice that never, ever leave you alone. We’ve encountered mice in the past which would turn their noses up at cheese and chocolate and keep coming back in the hope we’d put out bait of an altogether more epicurean nature.

The doves are similarly demanding. I almost said ‘discerning’ but there is nothing like that about these maddening birds which won’t flap off and leave us alone.

We look out to the garden to admire the signs of spring and what do we see but pairs of doves lolloping about all dopey and distracted like languid teenagers newly in love, which I suppose is what they are.

They coo and preen each other, hop about on the garden table, indulge in silly lovestruck dances and glances, and all the while they exhibit an unfortunate disdain for the niceties of potty training. Not a nappy between them, as is only too evident.

Last week, one of these love-struck couples decided it was time to put down a different kind of deposit. They plonked a couple of twigs on to the bracket of our satellite dish without so much as a by your leave. They hadn’t even sought planning permission for their new home. As their nearest neighbours we registered our objections, mostly by flapping our arms and also, from time to time, by Geoff wielding a yard broom in their direction as they assumed ownership of the dish.

Of course, we are happy for anything to nest in our garden but we draw the line at a pair of incontinent oafs who want to reside on the wall of the house, creating a poo-spattered runway over the car and the front doorstep.

Our crude tactics eventually worked. The lovey-doveys decamped and took their twigs to a neighbour’s satellite dish where they quickly established a very des res, we were relieved to see.

We felt smug. No longer our problem. Job done, the war over, we could relax until next nesting season’s call to arms.

We were wrong. Another pair appeared, twigs in beaks, to build their love nest in exactly the same place. It seemed an impossibility to create anything big enough to hold Mrs Dove and, in due course, her eggs, yet small enough to balance on a single metal strut less than 2cm in width.

Geoff and I flapped about again, but to little avail. We were obviously dealing with a canny pair here, a couple of doves wise to the ways of weird humans.

We became weirder in our effort to outwit them. We cut strips of cooking foil and hung them from the strut, Geoff gamely balancing on a ladder to do the fixing and me holding on to him and it, pointlessly but in solidarity.

Job done, again. We retreated indoors to watch what might happen next. Affronted, Mr and Mrs Dove flew to the nearest roof and stared at their building site. Then they stared some more. And then they flapped away to try their luck elsewhere.

The triumph was ours. We had finally foiled two bird-brained doves. We hope.

I should obviously know better by now, but it still shocks me when people display bad manners. I don’t just mean the oafs of both genders who get a kick out of shouting foul language at each other when normal mortals are mere inches away. They will presumably grow out of that kind of pathetic showing-off at some point in their lives.

I mean the people who work in situations where politeness should be an absolute given, where their livelihoods should depend on their aptitude, their training and their pleasant dispositions.

I’m talking in particular of shop staff, or customer service assistants, or consumer store operative. It really doesn’t matter what their job title is: if they’re the other side of a shop counter, literally or metaphorically, dealing with customers then even the most basic requirement for employment should be a pleasant smile and decent manners.

Not so, it seems. I have had cause in the past week, in fact on successive days, to go back to two shops – one a health food chain and the other a small supermarket – to point out, quietly and politely, that I’d been overcharged.

Quite by chance, I’d not only kept my receipts but had actually read them. How often do I do that, or do any of us do that?

In the case of the shop I’d been overcharged for an item by £4.49 and at the supermarket a mysterious £2.49 had been rung up for something I hadn’t even had in my basket.

Did I receive an apology? What do you think.

At the shop, where I am a regular customer, the manager spoke not one word to me as I showed him the discrepancy on my receipt and, of course, apologised for troubling him. I didn’t dare risk inflaming the situation by pointing out that I’d had to drag back into town to get this sorted.

He glanced in my direction only once and that was to take my card so that he could perform some till-magic and refund the £4.49 into my bank account. In the final second of our transaction, as I was turning away from the counter, I caught his mumbled “Sorry about that.” Well so am I, and you can manage without my custom in future.

It was hardly any different at the supermarket, where three young members of staff crowded around the till to witness the excitement. Between them they failed to muster a single word of apology as my £2.49 was refunded – not even an attempt at an explanation of how it might have happened.

Contrast this sickening indifference with the perfect customer service I’d experienced the previous week at an independent clothes shop, which has branches in Sturminster Newton and Blandford.

The trousers I’d bought needed taking up (story of my life) so it was arranged for them to be sent away and attended to by a hemming fairy. When I got them back I wasn’t over-impressed by the handiwork so I took them into the shop and asked the manager if she agreed.

She did. In fact she not only agreed but she apologised profusely, had them redone at her expense and at high speed, and gave them back to me with a generous gift voucher nestling in the bag as well.

This says all one needs to know about independently owned shops. The customer comes first. Alleluia. Not rocket science, is it?

Sadly, it is clearly a concept way beyond the grasp of some of the chains and their staff.

In keeping with the current trend for transparency and confessions I thought I’d pre-empt any inquiries and come clean about my own habits.

Financially, I have nothing to hide. Nothing to invest, either, so that should keep the sanctimonious brigade from braying at my front door.

I’ve a squeaky clean record with the Inland Revenue, too, and I intend to keep it that way. I really don’t want to be grilled by a tax inspector, hence my assiduous filling-in of forms months before deadline and the searing honesty evident from the stains on those forms of my blood, sweat and tears.

I know there’s a serious difference between tax evasion and tax avoidance, and since I am not in the business of indulging in either, I feel I can safely shrug my shoulders and move on down my list of other things I don’t do and have never done.

  1. I’ve never drunk tea. Never have, never could. As a lovely chimp said so winningly in one of those classic PG Tips telly ads, ‘It’s the taste’ – and I can’t bear it. Or the smell. Sorry, chimps.
  2. I’ve never eaten cream. It’s the consistency, as no-one has ever said in any ad.
  3. I’ve never watched The Voice. Pathetically, I didn’t even know it existed until there was a great fuss about a grand final last weekend.
  4. I’ve never been on a cruise. Many reasons, but most of all it’s the unnecessary excess of everything, especially the gluttonous possibilities created by so much food. I’m more at home in a tent in a rainstorm.
  5. I’ve never watched Britain’s Got Talent. I’ve seen enough glimpses on trailers of screaming audiences and robotic judges to know we were not made for each other.
  6. I’ve never watched Strictly Come Dancing. Again, the trailers are enough to deter me. Why is everything so frantic and loud? Whipped-up hysteria may have found a happy resting place on the TV screens of millions, but not here at Bell Towers. Quiet and dull, that’s us.
  7. I’ve never ridden in a point-to-point. I longed to when younger, much younger, in the days when I could spring up after falling off at speed, heedless of the cracked ribs and a mouthful of mud. Very different now, when springing up from anything has to be thought about for a while.
  8. I’ve never been in a hot-air balloon or been sky-diving. I’m not even relaxed in a comfortable transatlantic Airbus, so to contemplate being transported in anything as flimsy as a wicker basket or suspended from a flappy bit of silky material would be out of the question. My son has done a lot of skydiving and says it’s wonderful. I’ll take his word for it.
  9. I’ve never written a novel. They say there’s a novel in all of us. Well, if that’s true, where’s mine?
  10. I’ve never played a musical instrument. This is a great regret. My father had such a miserable time being forced to learn the piano as a child that he declared almost as soon as we were born that my sister and I should be spared the same fate. He may have been right, but the world will never know.
  11. I’ve never been outside to hear the dawn chorus. I’ve only ever heard it while lying in bed, wishing I was outside and preferably in a wood. I’m told May is a good month for this, so here’s hoping this year I will actually do it – and so turn one of my negatives into a positive.

One of my tasks on returning from holiday, apart from the washing, of course, and tediously relating our experiences to anyone unwise enough to come within six feet, was to try and sort out our diary for the next few weeks.

It wasn’t exactly blank to start with but we urgently wanted to fill a few of the gaps with pleasurable get-togethers with friends. We owe hospitality to too many people, so now, with lighter evenings and spring springing all over the place, must be the time to put this right.

I picked up the phone and got calling. The result: a densely packed three weeks at the end of which the kitchen will look like a war zone and Geoff and I will no longer fit into our clothes.

Never mind, it will be fun and we will love seeing our friends. Not all the meals are being hosted here at Hill Towers, a fact which comes as a relief, no doubt, to our guests, but also to me and my creaky culinary skills.

We’ll be meeting London friends at Winchester – a vaguely half-way point – and two lots of Devon friends in Bridport and Honiton.

Those who are coming here include a dear couple who I know enjoy meat and so I, a veggie these past 35 years, have promised them that’s what they’ll get. I am quite adept at cooking meat with my eyes closed and holding my nose, a feat made easier if I do as I plan to do this time and bung it in the slow cooker.

For others I shall try and devise meals that accommodate my less-than mainstream ways but don’t alarm the diners. I find if you don’t mention words like polenta and brown-rice flour then no-one is any the wiser and they just chatter and chomp away and clear their plates.

I’m not much of a pudding person – other than perhaps in appearance – and I usually rely on doing something decidedly uncreative with fresh fruit. For once, though, I plan to break that habit and some of our friends will be treated to a clementine cake. I had this when we went out for our Mother’s Day lunch and the chef kindly scribbled down the recipe for me. It was amazing how he could concentrate as I was so intent on telling him how fabulous it was, and he was, that I don’t think I stopped pouring praise into his ears for a full five minutes.

I passed the recipe around various pals and they all report it to be a huge success. Now it’s my turn to give it a whirl, perhaps with a blob of my lemon curd ice cream on the side.

On the in-between days, when Geoff and I aren’t due to be eating serious meals with starters and puddings, we have agreed we must eat lean and take loads of exercise. It’s alarming enough having to fight slightly straining buttons on the season’s lighter clothing after winter’s cosy comfort uniforms, but to inflict yet more difficulties on ourselves this early in the year would not be good. So there’ll be a tough regime in place at Hill Towers, just to make sure we don’t relax and enjoy ourselves too much. We couldn’t have that.

THE thing about going away for a holiday is that you have to come back – and all that entails. It can be just a car journey but, for many holidays, it means a flight and a drive home from the airport.

I’m always glad to come home, even if I’ve had the time of my life when away. There is something so comforting about the familiar. We have a friendly house that behaves itself in our absence and it doesn’t take much to crank it back into full working order once we set foot inside and call out a cheerful “Hello, house!”

Our return from Madeira was as uneventful as the journey back from our last holiday, a year ago, had been manic, exhausting and nerve-racking. On that occasion, our flight from Italy had been grounded because of fog so we had to stand around outside for three hours being told nothing until two coaches suddenly pulled up and we were herded inside. Geoff and I, of course, ended up in the second coach with the driver who’d just been dragged out of bed, had hardly bothered to dress and had a violently shaking right arm. It was an eventful journey to the back-up airport 100km away, especially when the panic-stricken driver became lost and couldn’t reverse the coach.

Actually, we were panic-stricken too, but by that time we’d given up hope of ever seeing England again, let alone our home.

We did make it back, 12 hours after the due time, and it was no thanks to anything to do with Italian efficiency (an oxymoron if ever there was one) or budget airline communications (another oxymoron).

This time, though, flying back from Madeira, there were no such dramas or delays.

Geoff likes a window seat so I sit in the middle, not daring to look out in case my mind should actually compute that we are all the way up there and the world is all the way down there and the pilot really is telling the truth when he says we’re flying at 38,000 feet. How ridiculous!

This leaves the aisle seat for someone else, which is something of a lottery. Will it be a snoozer, a chatterer, a fidget, a noisy scoffer of crisps, a bookworm, a listener to tinny music crashing through earphones, a crossword puzzler?  Pot luck, or should I say Lady Luck, this time had a treat in store for me: a man of such inordinate handsomeness that I had to keep taking sneaky peeps at him.

“The chap next to me is absolutely gorgeous,” I whispered to Geoff.

“Thank you,” he replied, looking smug.

His Hotness was probably about 28 and very tall, dark and smouldering, with a sportsman’s physique and good clothes. He may have been a model, I suppose, so it was understandable we’d have been seated next to each other, what with my catwalk career about to start any year now. We could have swapped backstage tales from London, Milan and Paris fashion weeks, but instead we sat in studied silence, me reading and him in a trance as his huge headphones blotted out his environment. I certainly hope it was blotted out, otherwise he’d have noticed me taking subversive eyefuls of him.

After that, coming home might have seemed an awful let-down but it really wasn’t. Storm Katie saw to that – just as she saw to the felt from the garden shed roof, ripping it off and flinging it to the ground. Ah, it’s good to be back.

Oh no, I couldn’t possibly go there, I said to Geoff, very firmly, when we were trying to choose a destination that might thaw us out post-winter.

Thus it was that I found myself last week on a plane heading for Madeira, the place where I couldn’t possibly go. It’ll be full of old people, I whined. There’ll be shuffling queues of beige OAPs and we’ll only be able to move at the pace of the slowest.

Wrong. Quite wrong. No shuffling queues. Plenty of old-ish people, acres of beige, but no shuffling. In fact, most people holidaying here – of whom 75 per cent appear to be Brits – walk about swiftly and with purpose, just the way I like it. Some have walking poles and really mean business. Others carry maps and manage not to look in the least bewildered. We marvel at how they can do this and hope that one day we’ll be half as competent.

It is hardly surprising we Northern European softies are here in droves. There is so much to like about Madeira. There is the mainly sunny, warm, climate, for a start, and the fact we’ve been able to leave at home the top three or four layers of our winter clothing. We’ve caught the sun, though obviously only with the intention of bringing it back with us, we’ve walked miles and we’ve also sat doing nothing. Unsurprisingly, we have developed a deep liking for this beautiful speck in the Atlantic.

There are plenty here younger than us taking advantage of the more adventurous pursuits of the kind that require a head for heights (everything involves huge hills) and a blind faith in the strength of climbing ropes and the reliability of engines.

Our lust for adventure has got us as far as climbing on and off the buses.. There are scores of them, whizzing about in different liveries, so it hasn’t been easy working out which will get us where we want to go, and back again. But by taking our courage in both hands we quickly mastered the system and after only two days we could confidently travel half-a-dozen stops without panicking. That’s quite enough adventure for us for one holiday.

It seemed entirely right that we should have been holidaying at the same time as international world happiness day was being celebrated. Geoff and I were certainly happy, but what about the Madeirans? My word, they are a glum lot! This lovely place, so clean and blessed with so much natural beauty, has every cause to spread sunny smiles, yet it doesn’t appear to have had that effect on the islanders. Their default is to look determinedly glum.

Sweep a glance across the faces of local bus passengers and you’d be forgiven for thinking they were on their way to a funeral.

I know life here isn’t all sunny days and relaxation, because for Madeirans the reality is seriously tough and jobs are hard to come by. Many families encourage their children to seek careers on the mainland of Portugal, 900km away, or elsewhere in the EU.

But since the heartbeat of the island is tourism it is surprising that even a pasted-on smile isn’t de rigeur.

One place where we did encounter the most genuine and joyful smiles of welcome was a restaurant where the chef/owner spoke in impeccable English. I couldn’t help remarking on it.

“Well, I should be able to speak it,” he laughed. “I’ve come home to Madeira after spending 20 years working in England.”

“Whereabouts,” I ask, nosily.


No wonder he’s a happy smiler.

There is nothing like a good catch-up with friends to give me a feeling of well-being and contentment. This is exactly what I experienced last week, when I got together with dear old pals Carla and Anna for the purpose of shooting the breeze.

We used to live in the same village when our children were all the same very young age. Carla lived in the smart, newly converted former school next to our decrepit, falling-to-pieces cob cottage and Anna lived further out of the village centre in a house so smart it had a drive.

My children were impressed by Anna’s colour television, especially after they’d been invited to sit in the luxurious warmth of her house one Christmas and watch The Snowman. For a long time after that heady experience, my spoilsport response of “No, we’re not getting one,” became a familiar soundtrack in our house.

After having to move from the village for work reasons, I stayed in touch with Carla and Anna, and through various house-moves of their own, but the contact gradually fizzled out until it was just a Christmas card exchange. In more recent years, thanks to emails, we have rekindled our friendship and have taken to meeting for a pub lunch each autumn.

A lunchtime is never enough, though. We have so much to say that we continue talking in a huddle in the car park, only finally tearing ourselves away when darkness is beginning to fall and we reaffirm our promise to do the same thing, same place, same time, next year.

Last week saw a change in format. We hadn’t been able to meet last autumn so, with 18 months of life to catch up on, we decided that only an overnight reunion would enable us to accommodate all the chatter.

Carla worked out a point equidistant for the three of us, which turned out to be a hotel in Nunney, near Frome.

The plan was to meet in the afternoon, take a four-mile walk, for which Carla had printed out the route, and then enjoy a meal in the hotel restaurant.

Nice plan: foul weather. So we didn’t do the walk but we sat and talked instead, which we found a most acceptable alternative.

We chased the threads of each others lives in a way that happily took us back and forth from our old village to our present homes, via huge amounts of Life in between.

Not having to rush while looking at our watches made a huge difference, and we were able to relax into our evening, enjoy a meal, drink a toast to our friendship and just go on doing what we do best: filling clouds overhead with unimaginable quantities of hot air.

Suddenly it was midnight and some rather unsubtle switching-off of the hotel’s downstairs lights sent us like chastened schoolgirls to our rooms.

Over breakfast we continued manufacturing our own brand of global warming, only briefly silenced while we consulted the menu and decided how we would like our coffee and eggs.

Later, we chattered our way through the village for a morning walk and to admire the extraordinary French-style 14th century castle, and then it was time to leave. In keeping with tradition, we said our goodbyes in the car park and made firm promises to do the same thing again soon, maybe even this summer.

I wonder if we will, and, if we do, if we will find anything to say. I think we know the answer to that.


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