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The Lady
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        There doesn't seem to be much happening in the countryside in December, does there? Wrong! As you will find out if you follow Uncle Geoffrey on a Christmas country ramble with his nephew and niece, Robert and Susan.
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"We tend to talk about the British landscape as if it were a natural thing", said Uncle Geoffrey, "but in fact what we see in front of us is due entirely to the action of farmers."

"You can say that again," said Robert, pausing at a sign which read, "No Right Of Way. No Access for Ramblers. People Carrying Map Bibs will be Shot on Sight. Signed, Mad Farmer."

"Well, I wasn't thinking exclusively of Farmer Boots," said Uncle Geoffrey. "Old Boots has never been quite right in the head since that shelf fell on him twenty years ago come Michaelmas."

"Reaching for a flagon of cider, no doubt," said Susan.

It was well-known that Farmer Boots liked his little drop of cider of an evening and often fell asleep in his corner in the village pub before waking up with a start towards closing time, crying, "I smell trespassers!" and roaring home in his Landrover.

"There can't be much for a farmer to do in midwinter," said Robert. "I suppose he has got every excuse for sloping off for a pint of cider and drowning his sorrows."

"Farmers don't have sorrows," said Susan. "They just have grumbles and complaints."

"Doesn't sound right, does it ?" said Robert. " 'He sat there with a mug of cider, drowning his whinges'... "

Not for the first time, Uncle Geoffrey wondered how a nature conversation could start off so well and take a wrong turning so soon. It was almost as if these two brats were doing it on purpose....

"Oh, there's plenty to do on a winter's day on a farm," said Uncle Robert merrily. "Mending fences. Bringing in the livestock. Building up winter feed..."

"Doing the VAT," said Robert.

"Making poteen," said Susan.

"Alas," said Uncle Geoffrey, "I don't think English farmers keep up the old home brewing any more."

"I think maybe new ways have replaced the old ways," said Robert. "Look at those tracks going ito the wood."

He pointed to some wheel marks going along an old way into the trees, past a sign reading, "Get Out! I Told 'Ee To Keep Your Nose Out. So Now Bugger Off. Signed, Same Mad Farmer Boots".

"Those are just farm vehicle tracks," said Uncle Geoffrey. "The farmer has no doubt been collecting logs from the wood."

"I don't think so," said Robert. "Look! The tracks coming out are not as deep as the ones going in."

"Meaning," said Susan,"that the vehicle has been taking stuff in, unloading it and coming out empty. Now what would they be storing in the woods?"

"Whatever it is, it comes from overseas," said Robert, picking up a label which said, in French, This Way Up Only. "Come on - let's take a look!"

"Oh, but..." said Uncle Geoffrey.

Too late. The children were already halfway down the track. Reluctantly he followed them. After half a mile they came to an old hut. It was locked. There was a window.

"As I thought," said Robert, peering in. "Old Farmer Boots has been on a booze cruise to France and back. Crates and crates of duty-free Christmas cheer. I think he'll be making a fair killing this Christmas tide."

"Killing's the right word," said a voice behind them. They whirled round. There stood the farmer with a gun. "Do you know what happens to nosy little buggers like you..?"

"You've got it all wrong, Mr Boots," said the quick-thinking Robert. "We were after a couple of bottles of rum as a present for mum. Cash only, of course."

"Oh, you're customers !" said the farmer, much mollified. "That's quite different. Here you are, then. Two bottles of best Cuban ten year old. Call it twenty quid."

"Uncle Geoffrey has the money," said Robert, and before he could say anything the two youngsters had strolled off into the trees. As Geoffrey put the money into the dirty palm of the old farmer, he reflected that although he often came off worse in these nature rambles, this was the first time he had ever lost money on them. Next time, he resolved, he would leave his wallet at home.

The Independent Wed Dec 17 03