The Parson and the Publican go Christmas shopping in Hay-on-Wye

PUBLISHED: 00:16 21 November 2011 | UPDATED: 20:20 20 February 2013

The Parson and the Publican go Christmas shopping in Hay-on-Wye

The Parson and the Publican go Christmas shopping in Hay-on-Wye

Our men on a mission to buy Christmas presents recall tales of Christmas past

In the words of the Parson

We stand disconsolate outside the shop. One good idea he has had this year and just for the moment he is thwarted. Like a sweet-starved school boy he presses his nose against the glass taking a last, long lingering look before I tug him onwards.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that all things necessary for Christmas present solutions are to be found in Hay-on-Wye. Or at least it is in my household where some time ago, having endured a Christmas shopping trip with wife and three daughters to some throbbing metrop, I declared that if it couldnt be found in Hay then it wasnt going to be got or given. To date I have adhered to this guiding principle. Its simplicity appeals to my companion of many an outing and so you find us at this moment grouped accordingly. To wit: myself, basket on arm, the Old Licensed Victualler (OLV), a pane of plate glass and and a distorted visage.

Senior Management, aware perhaps that her Significant Other would soon be cudgelling his brain for a seasonal gift, mentioned, en passant, that she had seen "a little something". Armed with such inspiration he sallied forth to gain this favour for his lady only to be frustrated by "Back in 5 Minutes" chalked on a little board. Never mind, we can call back.

It is a Thursday, market day in Hay, and the stalls provide a wonderous profusion of ideas for pressies and a chance to check that Christmas provender is on order. So we spend a happy hour wandering from the clock tower up to the Butter Market and across the square under the castles benign watch. Laughing ladies and giggling girls, all well wrapped up against the cold, proffer their wares: finest cakes, jams and preserves from the WI, glowing citrus fruits, bags of nuts, boxes of chestnuts and dates, bunches of parsley, peppers in traffic light colours, mucky root veg, stacked cabbages, caulis and leeks, packs of home-cured bacon (must remember that for the stuffing), sausages in glistening links, bread, tarts, croissants and pastries, sweet-smelling bath things for the lady who still likes to luxuriate, ribbons, buttons and lace, tea cosies for that second cup.

There are spices from afar and jewel-like fruits, plump and fresh from the sun, glac or crystallised for cakes, puddings and mincemeat. Here too are the cheeses to fill the corners as the port is supped and the brandy swirled around the glass, or to sharpen the jaded palate on Boxing Day with cold meat and pickles. A collection of those with preserves from the WI is certainly on the list.

The sharp wind drives us in for a restorative coffee. A warm fug steams up the specs and the smell of fresh roasted coffee perks as it percs. Wicker baskets clashing we wend our way through yummy mummies and their all-terrain buggies, folk down off the hill with half an eye on the weather, seasoned shoppers sorting parcels and doing a quick inventory of bags, ladies exchanging news of grandchildren and dogs, the solitary with his newly purchased book. We find a corner table with a good view. Steaming coffee has the desired recuperative effect upon my companion and he is soon ready to sally forth unto the breach once more.

Bells tinkle above doors and shopkeepers greet us. It is busy but somehow still polite and pleasant. We are coping well with the task in hand but still a few gifts elude us. "Never fear," quoth I and direct the OLV in the direction of the market place. He is sidetracked for a bit by the display of smoked salmon on the fish stall but ere long we stand before that shrine of the last minute shopper. "Get your own back" I whisper, "Buy em all socks." It is an irresistible temptation and in the twinkling of an eye the deed is done.

As we proceed up the street there are still more opportunities as windows full of finery and fripperies beckon the boutique shopper. Tokens from here were a great hit one year I recall. At the grocers the window is full of bread but inside a box of Dearly Beloveds favourite chocolates is secured and as we come out, the Christmas window at the butchers opposite is not to be missed.

Our lunch destination is in sight but there is one last visit to be paid. The ironmongers/hardware/cook shop is an Aladdins cave of wonderment for the perplexed Christmas shopper. We stand in the portal as I mutter the words "open Sesame" and as the automatic doors part before us, the OLV chunters on about my mixing up pantomimes a little. He is soon silenced. There is not a crook or nanny in this place that is not festooned with something that someone is going to need at some point and the boys and girls who populate this version of Santas Grotto know where everything is and are more than happy to help.

As we stagger across the road with our purchases I am not sure that we have added to the total sum of presents for others but there are certainly a few treats that Santa never need know about tucked in the basket and bags.

In the words of the Publican

What could be better after a spell in the pressured world of commerce than to retreat behind the stout inn door to soak up the friendly warmth and revive the inner man? So here we sit in the bar of the creeper-clad Blue Boar watching the constant flow of cheery souls stopping by for a winter warmer, or something more substantial, served by the delightful and friendly Milly. The coal fire glows as the mellow wintry sun shines on the polished copper and umber-tinted oak panelling. We place our order and chat about our mornings escapades. The subject, as oft is the case, comes around to food, in particular the challenge of the Christmas bird; what spiced and herbal delicacies to introduce into which orifice of the festive roast. Thus prompted I tell my old chum the saga of the Big Bird.

In a manner reminiscent of Alison Uttleys classic story of The Wandering Hedgehog there appeared in the village one early summers day a traveller, a Romany who went by the name of Johnny Fox. He found work on a local farm where he lived in a caravan with his dogs and a pet sheep. Very little time elapsed from the moment the first thin blue spiral of smoke rose from the tin chimney till he presented himself, cap in hand, at the inn door. Having secured a promise from him to abide by the rules of the house Johnny became a regular face among the throng. If inclement weather kept him off the land he would undertake odd jobs around the inn.

So it was not surprising that just before Christmas he and his ever present lurcher, Woofie, joined me to collect the turkey. Since we never knew quite how many family, friends, waifs and strays would be present at the Yuletide board we always ordered a bird of considerable proportions. Although not far, the farm was somewhat off the beaten track. It was getting dark and the sky threatened snow so I told Johnny that we should not loiter. However, once we had crossed the common and bounced down the track it seemed churlish not to accept the offer of a glass of home-made perry... just to keep the cold out. It would be fair to say that this was the first error in what was to become an afternoon littered with errors. Our next was to have a second, just to see how the first was getting on. Much later, and much warmed, we staggered out of that hospitable kitchen to be met by a sharp wind bearing flurries of snow. The farmer led us across the icy yard to a byre where, penned in with a couple of hurdles, stood the largest turkey I have ever seen. "But, but its still alive," I spluttered.

"And all the fresher for it," said the farmer. "Give us a hand here Johnny." Together they gathered up the indignant bird and in treacherous procession staggered towards the car. Even through the perry-induced fog it was clear that this monarch of the turkey race was not going to fit in the boot so turkey and dog shared the back seat as we started for home.

Whether it was our talk of rapid dispatch or a dislike of car travel in general I know not but the turkey began to attack Woofie who retaliated in kind. Soon the inside of the car was full of fur and feathers.

I stopped on the common unable to go any further. It was clear that the bird had to be dealt with immediately. I am no stranger to the sharp twist and pull that painlessly dispatches most fowl, and with a sideline in moonlit expeditions, Johnny had a variety of techniques to hand, as it were, but none of them seemed to make any impact upon this monster. We were standing in the swirling snow with just the headlights to lighten our darkness when Johnny had a brainwave. Perhaps the greatest error of the afternoon was to listen to him but at the time and with the last flicker of perry warmth still fuddling the brain it seemed quite reasonable. We would use the lid of the boot as a guillotine.

Somehow we managed to open the boot and while I struggled to hold onto the bird with its neck placed strategically for the lid to do its business Johnny arranged his sparse frame for maximum impact. At any moment we might be discovered about our task, so speed was of the essence. Bang went the lid, the bird kicked and jerked, the dog went berserk, Johnny slipped on the deepening snow, a cloud of feathers and flakes obscured the view. Speedily pulling ourselves up along the car I gained the front seat and was pulling off as Johnny slammed the door shut, shouting as he did for Woofie to keep it down. Knowing the snow would soon cover our tracks we made for home.

We made a late but triumphant return. With the warm glow of a job well done gradually supplanting the glow of perry, we summoned a small crowd to the back of the car to view what must have been the largest turkey carcass in captivity. By the light over the back door of the pub I encouraged the crowd closer, the better to see and with a flourish I threw open the boot.

There have been few more sobering moments in my life as the lamp bathed the darkness of that compartment in its revealing glare displaying not the plump breast and mammoth drumsticks of the Goliath but rather its severed head, sporting a rather startled expression, and a few feathers eddying in the empty chasm.

The Parson is tickled. Indeed if the food had not arrived at that moment I am not at all sure that he wouldnt have done himself an injury but the arrival of a steaming plate diverts him. It is well worth paying attention to. My chum has plumped for the pork steak on a garlicky stew of white beans, liberally sprinkled with parsley. Warming and sustaining. My warm salad of pigeon breast with black pudding restores my self confidence somewhat. This is exactly the food to sustain and we partake with pleasure as indeed we do of Millys attentive service and warming smile. Pleasantly replete and greatly cheered we are wafted through the door by Millys best wishes and drift gently back to the gleaming chariot to make our way home.

"Oddsbodkins," exclaims I sometime later. The Parson jumps and the old Wolseley wanders a little off the straight and narrow.

"I forgot to go back and get Senior Managements present."

It is a truth universally acknowledged that all things necessary for Christmas present solutions are to be found in Hay-on-Wye

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