Nancy the champion of the world
On not catching any pheasants in Wales
It was midnight when we set off – me, and my six-year-old daughter – lit only by the moon as we walked downhill from our gypsy caravan.
We crossed into a field of tall grass and even taller thistles. The moon was behind us now, so we lit our torches, casting dim yellow light on the moths that flew at us. And eventually we drew close to the dark mass of the woods.
We'd been planning this for weeks: a painstaking re-enactment of our (current) favourite Roald Dahl book, Danny The Champion Of The World. We re-read it carefully, in the days immediately beforehand, to remember key details. How a boy called Danny grew up in a gypsy caravan with his father, who ran a garage. How his father disappeared one night, on an excursion poaching pheasants, so Danny borrowed a customer's car and rescued him from the woods. And how Danny invented the greatest-ever strategy for poaching: dosing raisins with fractions of sleeping pills and scattering them in the wood, causing dozens of birds to fall out of the trees soon after roosting.
Obviously, there were things we'd have to change, or overlook. For instance, Nancy is a girl, and a bit younger than Danny. Also, Danny's mother died when he was a baby, but Nancy's had come with us on holiday in Wales (if not absolutely enthusiastically). And I know very little about cars.
But we did have a gypsy caravan, thanks to a company called Under The Thatch, which specialises in a variety of traditional buildings. Sitting atop a rounded hill in Monmouthshire, with splendid views, it had been built for a TV version of Wind in the Willows – but I made little of this to Nancy lest our adventure got all muddled up.
Before we arrived, I took care to familiarise her with the workings of our VW Golf so she could rescue me, as Danny did, if I got injured while poaching. She learned how to start the engine, change gears, and – crucially, given the weather forecast – control the windscreen wipers.
My wife prevaricated for days over whether to join us in the caravan – which was plainly not going to be vast. Indeed, it contained nothing but a bed, a woodburning stove, and a couple of cupboards. But the good news was that an attractive cabin stood beside it on the hilltop, fitted out with a cooker, antique furniture and stylish bathroom; and powered by a combination of solar panels and calor gas.
I phoned ahead to the owners to ask whether the three of us might fit. They indicated that it would be a squeeze, but that the bed was fairly wide.
While I was on the phone, Nancy tugged at my sleeve. She wanted me to ask if there were woods nearby where we could do some poaching, whether there were pheasants in it, and whether the farmers employed gamekeepers with shotguns. (Nancy had beep delighted and appalled by Dahl's account of “poacher's bottom” – the medical condition of having buckshot in one's backside.)
There was indeed a copse nearby, the owners confirmed, full of badgers and other wild animals if not necessarily pheasants, and absolutely nobody with guns.
Nancy was satisfied – and so was Harriet, who decided to come too, regardless of the weather.
We arrived in the late afternoon. Nancy couldn't wait to get inside the caravan with various important soft toys, while Harriet installed herself in the cabin, attractive enough inside – it turned out – to feature in interiors magazines. I, meanwhile, schlepped up and down the
hill with our luggage but this was no great hardship under a largely clear sky. The few clouds there were glowed orange and pink. Things were looking up.
We decided to walk to the nearest pub for dinner. It was three or four miles, and we didn't set off till eight o'clock. Nancy was stung by nettles, and the rain came, but we were more than half-way by then, and decided to push on. It was dark when we gained sight of the pub, but the last field was full of frisky young bullocks so we walked the long way round and eventually stepped inside the licensed premises, dripping wet, at 9.30.
It was crowded with drinkers, and didn't feel entirely suitable for a six-year-old. Worse, they weren't serving food tonight because there was a band playing. Nor would we be able to get a minicab to fetch us in this remote spot.
Disaster! Harriet and Nancy sank, defeated, into chairs in a corner.
But then a young man tapped me gently on the arm with his car key. “I'll take you back,” he said. Wouldn't he miss the band? I asked. “That's OK. It won't take me long.”
You can't legislate for this kind of thing, or advertise it in travel brochures. We never found out his name – only that he's been married a couple of years, has a terrier that comes to work with him on the golf club, and originates from nearby Usk. (If you know him, please pass on our thanks.)
Back home, we ate quickly in the cabin, then crowded into the caravan for sleep and rose the next morning to build a real fire and cook on it.
Nancy was hypnotised by the flames, which she fed constantly with damp green grass, despite my lectures in favour of drier matter. Later, we visited our hosts' farm to inspect chickens and sheep, and in the afternoon built a ford across a nearby river. At teatime, we decided that the night had arrived to “do Danny”.
On balance, Nancy thought it best not actually to poach any pheasants or other animals because we didn't want to have to kill them. Just as well, I said, because we had no sleeping pills or raisins to stuff them with. But we had some dried apricots and decided to fling these about the woods instead.
Harriet stayed in the cabin, and at midnight precisely we set off through the fields. As well as drawing moths, the torchlight showed innumerable black slugs climbing the dense tillers of tall grass. It also reflected back at us from the eyes of unspecified beasts patrolling
the field's perimeter.
I was astounded that Nancy felt brave enough to continue. Certainly, I'd never have walked in dark woods, at midnight, at her age, among so much wildlife.
At the copse, she suggested that, instead of going inside, we could perhaps fling our apricots from the outer perimeter. I consented. Then an owl hooted and flapped out of the tree immediately above us. The apricot-flinging got faster and faster. “I think I'd like to go back now,” Nancy said, with trembling lip. So I carried her back on my shoulders.