“I wonder if life will just go back to how it was before. I think there’s the risk that we don’t remember how lovely it was when things slowed.”

Pete and daughter, Tracey

Simplicity

I first meet Tracey when we’re doing the annual village stream clearance. When she tells me that her dad is the village’s longest-standing resident, and that she works for Children’s Services, I decide they’re a pair I should interview. 

Initially, there’s a lot talk about murderous sparrowhawks. Apparently, one has learnt that there’s easy pickings of birds in Pete’s garden; so much so, ‘It was like taking them from the shelves in Tesco’s. Feathers everywhere.’

As we settle down to chat, Tracey and Pete at the table, his wife, Eileen sitting to the side, I say that, walking into the house, I get such a sense of contentment and happiness. Tracey looks fondly at her dad. 

Tracey: Well, you are pretty content. That’s what’s what a lot of people say.

I ask Pete how long he and Eileen have lived in the house.

Pete: Forty-eight years, I was 24 when we came here. My mum and dad lived at Windmill – which is now Carters Farm – and then they moved to the cottage opposite the cross. So I’ve lived in Piddlehinton all my life. Seventy-two years. 

Living on the edge of the village, we tend to not get much delivered, as in leaflets and all that sort of thing. But we don’t feel out of it. And we obviously know everyone in the lane really well – one brother-in-law lives next door, and the other lives a couple of miles away.

I love the village, to be honest. Although I miss the shop. It shifted three times in my lifetime and when it went I think that was a great loss, to older people especially. The Thimble has also changed a lot, but I think Emma Jayne is definitely the right person for now. 

How did you and Eileen meet?

We was in the village, basically. We all used to create on the cross.

You used to create? I ask, puzzled.  Laughter shakes the room as he reconsiders…

The scene of much creating, maybe

Pete: What’s the word? 

Tracey: Congregate.

Pete: Wrong word. Wrong word. Yeah, congregate. Perhaps some people were creating there too. I don’t know. We didn’t meet at school, coz Eileen was at Dorchester. But we were very young. She were fourteen when I first knew her. I was five years older. We got serious when she was about sixteen.

I tell him, amidst more laughter, that he is very twinkly as he recalls their courtship.

Tracey: Oh, I know. She covers her ears.

Pete: To start with, because Eileen was quite young, I used to walk her up so far up the road, but not come near the house. She used to live in the big house next door. Her family were farmers – had about 1,000 acres in the end. 

Eileen’s old family home

When I first left school I worked for Rex Lovelace – where me dad worked anyway. Dad came back from the war and helped out on the harvest, then stayed for forty years, so I just continued on until about ’72, tractor driving and feeding the animals. 

Eileen: We got engaged when I was 17, married when I was twenty. 

Pete and Eileen on their wedding day

Pete: When we got married in ‘73, I’d been working on her dad’s farm for a year, first as an under-dairyman, then tractor driving again. It was fine, coz they were just ordinary people, just farmin’, you know. It didn’t alter the fact that I was working, I never had no perks.

Tracey: But the house came with the farm.

Eileen laughs. That was my dowry. 

Pete: Yeah, it was a tied house. The farm sold out in 2006, so I got made redundant and we bought the house, because we didn’t want to move. 

Tracey: I remember you telling me about how when you first got married, none of your friends had houses, so you’d have parties here. When you were a milkman.

Pete: Yeah, it got to the stage when I was more or less seven days a week, and it was too much. Because we used to come back here and have parties, then I’d go straight to work. 

Eileen: Well, none of our friends were married, we were the first. So we used to go out to the pub until eleven, or dance somewhere, and then they’d all come back to us. 

Pete: That went on a good few years. A lot of them have moved away now. Many didn’t wanna leave, but they couldn’t afford to buy a house here. We don’t know that many people in the village now. 

I ask what it feels like to have lived here all his life. 

Pete: I’ve had a very happy life. I’ve just been very content to live here, never wanted to move. Although the village has changed. It doesn’t seem as communal. When we used to get around the cross we knew everybody and everybody just used to have a chat. Now I can walk through it and people don’t know who I am, although I keep myself to myself. 

We’ve been on holiday – Norfolk Broads, Majorca, France. But a couple, three days and I’m feeling a bit homesick. We think, ‘Oh, this is lovely, but let’s get home.’

Tracey: I was born in this house, I’m 43 now. I went to St Genevieve’s Convent school in Dorchester, then when I left Thomas Hardye sixth form, I did a few different things: worked in mobile phones, then for a training company. I then moved to Dorset County Council, working in lots of different departments. At one point I had a really great boss who said I should do a degree, so I did one, part-time, in business management.

Pete: Oh, I was very proud then. Both our daughters are brilliant. My other daughter, Helen, works for the NHS with midwives and health visitors.

Pete, Eileen, Helen and Tracey

Tracey: I met my husband, Ben when I was 19, through friends. He’s also local, from West Stafford. Ben’s grandfather used to deliver honey to Mum’s parents. We didn’t intend to buy in Piddlehinton, but the right house came up so we did. 

When I think about it, I had the most idyllic childhood. We lived here, and had the farm. I remember summers playing with my cousins. There were no mobile phones, we’d just say, we’re going out, and off we went. Grandad used to take us in the Land Rover, he taught me to drive in the field behind the house. My parents weren’t particularly strict – although I knew where the lines were. 

Helen and Tracey

Pete: You know how far to push us. More laughter.

Tracey: They were pretty fun parents, I would say. They’ve actually never had a row.

Pete: We don’t row, no, do we? He looks at his wife and smiles. We’ve had arguments, but never a massive row.  

Tracey: I’m probably the most fiery out of all of us. But I never rebelled. I had a lot of fun when I was growing up as they were just very laid back. From my point of view, now having my own children, I see what a great job they did. 

The setting for many a Sunday lunch

I say that I’ve established that this is indeed the happiest family I’ve met and it’s no surprise that Tracey decided to move back.

Tracey: I had the best of both worlds. When I came back I could go up to London and stay with friends at the weekend, but had this country life as well. 

But also, you see happiness and contentment and a really tight family, but it’s not that we’ve not had challenging times. My sister was in hospital for nearly two years when she was thirteen. 

Pete: Mum was away for about eight weeks, stayed with her, and Tracey and I were back here together.

Tracey: Yes, I was a mini-mum. Having my own children now – Milly’s twelve and Jessica’s eight – I know how hard it would be to have a child in hospital for that long. 

Pete: We used to go up and see her, didn’t we? Not every day. But we always said, me and Eileen, that that period brought us together more than ever. We were contented and happy before, but that seemed to bring us together even more. 

Tracey: And Helen’s amazing. Nothing stops her. 

Pete: She’s unbelievable. So inspiring. 

I ask Tracey if she wants the same country life for her children.

Tracey: I just want them to do whatever makes them happy. Ben and I speak to them about opportunities and following their dreams and I want them to feel like anything’s possible. Although I’ve stayed here, I want them to know that there’s more out there as well; to find their own way.

Pete: I think we are connected to the outside world, although I like watching comedy on telly most; Dad’s Army and all that sort of thing. We watch a lot of news, and read newspapers. But it’s just, this is our world up here, basically, I suppose, in’ it. If we’ve been to Dorchester shopping or anywhere, it’s just nice to come back to somewhere nice and quiet. 

My father was the same. He was ninety-two when he died and the world to him was family. And I grew up with that, because I was an only child. 

I wonder if, having been so connected to the land all his life, Pete’s seen much environmental change.

Pete: It’s definitely not so cold in the winter now. When I worked on the farm we used to have to break the ice on the water troughs in the morning and again at lunchtime, because by then it was all froze again. I can remember really hot summers, and wet ones, so I can’t say that’s changed. It’s the winters I think have so there’s definitely sense about climate change. I am concerned, but I sort of feel sometimes that nature does take care of itself. Whether it will or not I don’t know. 

Tracey: Young people, that generation is becoming increasingly more aware. My daughters will talk about the environment, about what we should all be doing. 

Pete: Everybody says there’s a shortage of water. And I mean our village, there’s now so many more houses drawing more water from the reservoir. The amount of rain we probably had years ago would be alright, because there’s not so many flush toilets. Now I think it will impact. 

Photo of Pete by Holly Stead

At times I think farmers get a bad rap. I’ve never known industrial farming – although it’s beginning to get like that. The old style of farming was much more low impact. Also, farmers today have got all their eggs in one basket. Years ago, you’d have like fifty cows, then a few sheep, pigs, a bit of harvest, so if one part failed you had other things to balance it out. But now, coz you’ve only got cows, if you get foot and mouth, or something like that, then your whole income will be gone. 

By now I’ve got the impression that, for this tight-knit family, lockdown probably didn’t make that much difference. 

Pete: Not really. Although to our social life it did. Every second Saturday of the month, we used to go to a country and western dance in Dorchester. Old-style dancing, freestyle. And we’d go out pretty regular with our friends for meals. Same friends we’ve had for years – about three or four couples. Most weekends, we’d either go out ourselves or with them. 

And we couldn’t see the grandchildren, which meant a lot. Eventually they’d walk up and stand outside the house, but it was the hugs that we missed more than anything. But we was in that age group that had to be careful, and Eileen had a heart attack a few years ago and I think that’s always on my mind. And I’ve got an asthma, like a farmer’s lung. That’s why we had to stay away, on our own.

I ask if, on their own, they set up any romantic candle-lit dinners or anything. Again, the twinkle.

Pete: Well we’re always romantic, anyway. We still dance in the kitchen. We put our music on and dance around the island. We tend to put it on Sunday mornings, while Eileen’s making the lunch and I’m in the garden.

Tracey smiles.

Tracey: I did know that. I knew they were missing their dancing and when I said they should dance on their own, Dad said they did.

For me, I think one of the problems is that the rules have been so difficult to interpret. 

Pete: Yeah, don’t make sense, half of it. I don’t think the Government have done a good job. Although, whether it would be better for any other Government? Because they haven’t seen this before, have they? They say about the war, but this is something completely different.

Tracey: The way we interpreted the rules was because there was two of them, we felt we couldn’t form a bubble. My children are still worried about hugging them and ask ‘Should we be doing this?’ They’re back to school now, and are in classes of thirty children, so they’re aware, definitely aware of the risks. 

Vintage hugs

Pete: Yes, I think they’re worried about us. We can’t resist a hug sometimes, but with our faces turned away. We’ve been desperately trying to follow the rules, and Tracey got our shopping for us. 

Tracey: It was quite embarrassing at times. There was one time I had a stacked trolley with both our shopping, and a basket of alcohol, and I felt like it must look like I was panic buying. I know all their staples now.

Pete: I’m very, very down to earth. I don’t like too much experimenting. Meat and two veg, that’s me. We find Waitrose meat is as good as anywhere.

To me, lockdown has meant not going out or seeing the grandchildren. Coz we’re up here we could go for walks – we did that eventually. That main road was far quieter. It was like when we used to go out, when we were courting. That brought back memories.  As time’s gone on we’ve relaxed a bit, but the pandemic’s definitely been one of the biggest threats I’ve experienced. And the worst thing is, when’s it gonna end? It’s going on so long.

We cancelled a big holiday this year. We were going to Spain as a big family for Helen’s fortieth, and me and Eileen were going to pay for it. Everything was booked.  I suppose it was a bit depressing, although as it’s gone on, I’ve got back to that contentment better. 

I ask what he’d say the highlight has been.

Pete: Hugging the grandchildren again. We didn’t go to the singing but we could hear it from here. John came up and said Happy Birthday to our neighbour too. 

At this point that I become slightly distracted by Pete’s necklace, and tell him how chains became one of the hottest items during lockdown. With his sporty aertex and slow smile, I’m beginning to think he might be Piddlehinton’s answer to Connell (ref. Normal People). I say this.

Pete: And I chew gum all the time. 

Again, his eyes twinkle; precisely in that Connell way… Marshalling my thoughts back to the interview, I ask what his lowest point was.

Pete: Not seeing the grand-children. 

Tracey: It’s not about us, you see. Their actual children. 

Pete: Well, and you. Because we’re so family orientated. 

I wonder if Tracey’s experience of lockdown has been quite different.

Tracey: I feel I know more people now, there’s definitely a bigger sense of community. Because my children go to the local school perhaps I know more people than my parents do and the village did feel very supportive in those early days. 

Everything slowed down. Life was still crazy but we weren’t flying everywhere with clubs. It felt nice just to breathe a little and just ‘be’. Work-wise I was doing stupid hours and my day became video meeting after meeting. Which is exhausting, totally exhausting. Just staring at a screen. And there were no breaks. My diary kept being filled with back to back meetings, leaving little time for my actual work. It’s like a whole new cultural thing that people have had to adapt to. But you can’t operate in that way, it’s just too tiring. 

I’m lucky in that Ben and I have got a really balanced relationship, and he’s always done a lot with the children. He works from home as a mortgage broker, and although his business continued, his work levels dropped a little, meaning he was able to do more of the home schooling. He just gave me his office and moved into the kitchen to do his stuff. Thinking about it, his world completely changed, because he was used to just being on his own all day. He’s been amazing. I’m very lucky.

Tracey and Ben on their wedding day

And there were some really nice things that happened. We did a lot of things in the garden, watching the girls create movies and dance routines. Just seeing them ‘be’ was really nice. And I got really into jam making, and chutneys, using our home-grown produce. 

I work for Dorset Council, and applied for – and got – a new job during lockdown. It was a surreal thing. I was in a position where I knew that we weren’t going to be furloughed, so there wasn’t the angst of thinking I might lose my job – but there was the angst of being in the middle of a wholesale restructure of a new operating model – how we deliver services within communities. So that, along with then being locked down, was quite stressful.

My title is now Strategic Commissioner in Children’s Services. And yes, I got dressed up for my virtual interview. Put on my suit and heels. They couldn’t see me, but I felt it was important. I was lucky that I only had two people interviewing me – although it was hard because I already know them. The job is a promotion and means managing a new team of nine, people I’d never met face to face – although this month we’ve just started meeting for coffees. 

I turn to her mum and dad and say how proud of her they must be. They nod. I also comment that it’s good to hear how a monolithic machine like Dorset Council still grinds on – with everything just switching on-line. 

Tracey: I don’t think many staff have been furloughed, which is quite something. Even those who work in places like the library were re-deployed. I’m proud of Dorset Council – I think they’ve done a really good job. 

Things like the Community Shield Project – created to ensure we work closely with the volunteers’ services to deliver food – how that’s worked across health and the council, well it’s something that would have normally taken months, even years to galvanise.

And yet agreements were just done, it just happened. So if we can learn anything from this situation, it’s that it shouldn’t take a crisis to make things happen quite quickly. 

In my area, I’d say there’s a high proportion of Dorset children who have been okay during Covid. But there’s still a proportion who are vulnerable, especially as they haven’t been in school. It’s a place where problems are identified, so there’s been that loss. Even down to free school meals. For some, we know it’s the best meal they’re going to get that day.

I ask how she feels about the MP’s voting against free meals. There’s a long pause. 

Tracey: There’s no words, are there? Yeah….

In the silence that follows, I ask about her working hours. 

I was working between ten and twelve hours a day – at the peak – but I’m aware that I’m just working at the back end. The front-line social workers have some of the toughest jobs – they’re still out doing visits, wearing PPE. I feel very privileged to work in children’s services, where you can see the impact your role can have.

I think I’ve worked much harder since March. Because of that intensity of back-to-back video calls – and then you’ve got this chat bar going down the side where they’re having another conversation. Oh my God! What would be a normal one-hour meeting, mentally, it’s a completely different dynamic.

I’ve just sat there, and Ben brings me coffees and lunch. So being completely sedentary has also been a bad thing. I’m used to being in meetings a lot, but normally you get up to move to the next one or go and grab a coffee and have a quick hello with someone. I’ve missed all that social stuff. 

I do think that HR have done a really good job of trying to focus on wellbeing and provide some tools. But the reality is that if you’re really busy, you’re busy and you can’t check out of that really easily. I’ve learnt to block out focus-time in my diary – not that people take any notice. I think there are lessons that we’ve all got to learn: including being disciplined and saying no.

Sundown in the garden

I ask her for her highlights.

Tracey: I’ve got out on my bike, and started boot camp – so I’m trying. Spending more time with Ben and the girls has been lovely. Although at times it’s been really challenging as well, because none of us are used to spending that much time with each other and you had to make that adjustment. But there’s been some really nice moments where we’ve been up in the garden, it was beautiful weather, we’d look at the view and just take stock and think how lucky we are.

I think my biggest highlight was that period where we just stopped scurrying. And while I didn’t have the pause from the intensity of work, life still became simple; just going back to things like making jams. I really loved the jam making. 

For the girls, their silver lining has been bonding. They now have this brilliant, brilliant relationship as a result of lockdown. Although they’ve missed their grandparents so much.

I ask how they see the world coming out of this time.

Pete: Well I thought that when it was lockdown proper a lot of people seemed to come together. Standing outside, clapping hands. I’m going back to my younger days, but everybody in the village always used to help one another, but I don’t see that any more. I think everybody’s just for themselves, people aren’t communual any more. I think lockdown did bring us together, but it’s going back the other way, to that same old, ‘for me only’. 

When you heard the clapping coming up through the valley you thought that people would see that we need to get together to help one another, but I don’t think we’ve learnt that much. 

Tracey: Although, if you’d been on the WhatsApp you’d have seen a lot of that.

Pete: Yeah, maybe.

I say that, despite the happiness in their house, Pete is the first person for whom I can’t say there’s been a silver lining. I suggest that perhaps it’s because he and Eileen are two of the most contented people I’ve ever met. Would they say they had 100% contentment previously?

Pete: Pretty well, didn’t we? He looks at Eileen. Lockdown meant we lost the two things we loved the most: going out and seeing the grandchildren. 

Tracey: For twelve years, my Mum and Dad have had the girls for two days a week. It’s not just been the normal grandparental occasional visit has it? They’ve been a key part of their lives.

Eileen: And lockdown’s just taken that away. I haven’t been able to go to school and pick Jess up.

Eileen and the girls

Tracey: They’ve really missed that bit. 

Pete: I can’t imagine families that live so far away from each other. I would hate that. I really would.

Tracey: No pressure…

Pete: I guess we were more contented before the lockdown. We’re so chilled out before it. 

I say that if he wins the prize for not having a silver lining, how about Tracey?

Tracey: I want to try and hold on to some of the simplicity. I wonder if life will just go back to how it was before, and I think there’s the risk that we don’t remember how lovely it was when things slowed. 

A big part of simplifying things is that I’ll now work from home three days a week, long term. I think there’s been a massive shift towards WFH, which the Council has embraced. They’ve done surveys with staff, asking where they’d like to work in the future and for the majority of people they’ll want a split between the two. Because we’re humans. But we’ve tested the capability and know the technology works. 

They’ve held council meetings virtually, so we know that democratic part of the system works, and they’re also doing some climate studies on it. Obviously they declared a Climate Emergency so that’s got to be a part of their thinking. 

The kids have now started going back to clubs, but because I’m working from home it doesn’t feel as rushed. What I do now is work intensely, then stop, make some dinner for the girls, with Ben, then go back to work after that. 

Working from home more will definitely improve the quality of my life. So actually, that’s a massive silver lining. 

Phew, at least we got there with one of them…

__

 NB: Apologies, for I know this is blog is even longer than usual. But as I was writing, it felt in some ways like I might be delving close to the essence of what makes one truly happy in life. A salient lesson indeed. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I’ve now had a ‘Simplifying’ and a ‘Simplicity’. Something, I suspect, that’s akin to mindfulness.

Pete (second left) in a school play

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