Review: A new novel about rural life
by Paul Salveson
Northern Weekly Salvo
The Long Acre by Rachel (‘R’) Francis
Novels about English rural life are fairly common, but this is a bit special. The usual ‘rural’ novel is usually about a city dweller’s take on country life, usually about the perils of middle-class ‘incomers’ coming to terms with life beyond London. Rachel’s novel (her first) isn’t like that at all. It’s about real people who are ‘of the soil’, going back generations. Maybe its nearest similar work is Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Scots Quair, particularly Cloud Howe. But that was about a very different time, and place. This is now, in England’s West Country, facing huge social and economic stresses from the decline of farming, development pressures and how farming people cope – or don’t. There’s nothing romanticised about it – maybe there could have been a bit more about the landscape and places where it was set. But it works. Buy it!
Excerpt from Chapter 10 ~ The Legend of Pad Flynn
Broad Sheep Arts Magazine
“Come in, come in,” Eva seized Betsy’s arm with long fingers and propelled her along an alley into the kitchen. “I’ll make tea,” she said, pulling back a heavy wooden chair and scooping three cats off the table.
She went back out to the alley and returned with an armful of dry wood.
“They told me it wasn’t worth rebuilding this place,” she said, “after the fire.”
“That’s another story,” Eva smacked the back wall with her hand, “but the bare bones were still here. Sheepfold is part of the hills. You won’t burn solid granite, will you?” She put dry wood into the fire box of the range and opened up the dampers. The flames licked upwards. “Won’t take long for the kettle to boil now.”
Moss came in from the yard, “I’ve shut those lambs in the south enclosure Auntie,” he said and sat next to Betsy, adding in a low voice, “don’t ask for tea. She boils it all up in the kettle … strong, black and bitter as hell."
“Moss,” said Eva, “get three mugs, there’s a boy.”
He looked at Betsy, she just smiled.
The kettle was boiling on the range. It steamed as Eva poured tea, thick as treacle, into tin mugs and slapped them on the table.
“You’ve a young horse I hear?” Eva pushed a mug of tea towards Betsy, “I used to ride, but my knees have gone.” She lifted her skirts to reveal bony white legs. When she laughed you could see her uneven teeth.
“We do,” said Betsy, “it’s quite a handful.” She tasted the tea gingerly and coughed.
“I’ve trained a fair few horses in my time.” Eva grasped Betsy’s arm again and dug her fingers in hard, “the difficult ones are usually the best. You bring it up here.”
“Don’t get any ideas about this horse,” Moss said.
“He thinks I’m too old.” She stirred sugar into her tea, three heaped spoonfuls and considered the moment. “You want me to tell her about Pad, don’t you?”
“Maybe,” said Moss.
“That’s why you brought her here, is it?”
“Well, Betsy Rose,” Eva took a swig of tea and wiped her mouth with the back of a hand, “you must be special.”
Outside it was growing dark. Eva shuffled across to a gas lantern above the window, lifted the glass cover and struck a match. There was a soft hiss of gas as she held the flame to the mantle and the glow spread into the room.
“Pad Flynn,” she said, returning to the table, “was born on the road to Trebudannon. We were still horse drawn in those days. I was just turned three, never been in a house in me life.”
There was a cat mewing, just outside the window.
“Let that cat in, would you dear?”
Betsy opened the window and the cat glared at her.
“Come in Bear,” said Eva, “come in.” Bear came in and sat in the darkest shadows of the room. Every now and then, the light caught the cat’s eyes and they glowed pale and green.
“Where was I now?”
“Yes. Pad. You see, he had a bit of the old magic. All our family are good with horses, but Pad had the gift.”
Excerpt from Chapter 24 ~ Everything that Matters.
The storm had blown out, leaving the road patterned with wet leaves, gold, red and brown. Where they had fallen, the gaps in the trees let in the early morning sunlight. The summer had slipped away.
Down by the green in Brenaton, a middle aged man was swimming his beagle along the river.
“I have to keep him on a lead when he’s swimming”, said the man. He stumbled and slipped over boulders as he struggled to keep up with the swimming dog, “I mean this beagle loves swimming. I’ve never had one like it before. He’d be half way to Bideford if I let him off”.
There was something that had to be done.
She walked across the green and pressed a buzzer in the wall. The burgundy gates of the Manor House swung silently open to admit her, then closed behind her. There were no cars in the drive. She walked up to the house, half hoping he wouldn’t be there, but as she appeared on the narrow pathway between lawns, he called to her from the verandah above the orangery.
“Come on up and drink gin”.
She walked between neatly trimmed box hedges, beautifully manicured lawns and white sculptures amongst the trees. Brett came to meet her, gin bottle and glasses in one hand, swung open the door and ushered her in.
“My parents had the kitchen redecorated, what do you think?
“It’s farmhouse chic”.
“That’s what they call it. See the unpainted brickwork? And all the woodwork is stressed to make it look old, full of character. White washed walls. This basket for the eggs”.
“Oh, I didn’t know you kept chickens.”
“The eggs are from Sainsburys. But what about these old chintz curtains. Real Calico. From India”.
“Beautiful. The curtains are beautiful”.
“Not like Long Acre then?”
“No. It’s more dirty boots and wet coats by the Aga, calf milk powder spilt on the draining board and mud in the porch. The table is never clear, there’s always Farm Trader magazines, tractor keys, grass seed, animal movement records, gloves with holes in, somebody’s unopened mail on the table. Everywhere smells of horses, socks, the dairy, dogs and sheep. The phone’s ringing, there’s been a break down, the cows are out on the main road. Somebody trod in the dog bowl again and didn’t clear it up so there’s Field and Trail pellets all down the hall”.
PRESS RELEASE: NEW FICTION FROM THE WEST COUNTRY
The Long Acre by Rachel Francis: “Adventure, romance, an environmental and human dilemma, the age-old battle for land.”
Local author Rachel Francis worked on Dartmoor for many years, taking out treks and helping on the family farm. Her three children grew up swimming in the rivers and helping round up the sheep and cattle, two of them now work on farms in Devon and in Cornwall. She says the outdoor life gets into your blood, so during lockdown, when she found herself unable to travel to the moor from her home in Chulmleigh, Rachel threw all her spare time into finishing her book, The Long Acre, which is all about people who live and work outside and up in the hills.
“I thought, if I can’t go out there, she said, “at least I can write about it”
The Long Acre was published this month and it is now on sale in local bookshops.
Rachel said “It’s not autobiographical, but of course it draws from my own experience working on Dartmoor, there was a time when I knew my way across the moor better than I did around some of the roads in Mid Devon!”
The story is about a farming family whose past catches up with their present when Uncle Ferg loses money and decides to sell the family farm.
Rachel said, “the book has a serious side, which is very relevant today. For the farming community, selling your farm is like selling your whole life, everything you know and have worked for, probably everything that generations of your family have worked for.”
The book is being released at a time when farmers face uncertainty about the future, with the high standards of animal welfare and protection/ enhancement of the natural environment in Britain come under threat from a possible deluge of cheap imports. Minette Batters, president of the NFU is leading a campaign to make sure that British farmers aren’t driven out or driven to extreme levels of industrialisation by cheap imports and poor trade deals with countries like the US. It is a campaign that seeks guarantees written into law that will protect good farming standards. Rachel says, “I’m an environmentalist as well as a supporter of farming. If the government signs a poor trade deal, that will drive a wedge between good farming and making enough money to stay in business. We could see farmers going out of business and we could see food standards going through the floor, it would be a race to the bottom.”
Rachel’s book, The Long Acre, is available at local, independent bookshops:
The Curious Otter Bookshop in Ottery St Mary
Book Stop in Tavistock
The Abbey Bookshop in Launceston
Crediton Community Bookshop in Crediton
Walter Henry's Bookshop in Bideford
To order by post/online visit www.long-acre-rfrancis.com