Trouble comes to the sleepy market town of Little Woodford – a world of allotments, pub quizzes, shopping and gossip – the heart of middle England.
Little Woodford has a sleepy high street, a weekly market, a weathered old stone church and lovingly tended allotments. A peaceful, unexciting place, the very heart of middle England.
In Little Woodford, no one has fingers in more pies than Olivia Laithwaite, parish councillor, chair of the local WI, wife, mother and all around queen bee. So, of course, it’s Olivia who is first to spot that The Beeches has been sold at last.
Soon rumours begin to swirl around the young widow who has bought this lovely house. Why exactly did she leave London with her beautiful stepdaughter and young sons? Are they running from someone? Hiding something? Though if they are, they won’t be the only ones. Sometimes the arrival of newcomers in a community is all it takes to light a fuse…
Heather walked up the road, under the ancient oaks and yews, across the brook and past the cemetery, the old, rather higgledy-piggledy gravestones basking in the ever-strengthening April sunshine. Above her, the rooks cawed incessantly as they wheeled over the rookery in the trees behind the Norman church, with its weathered grey stone walls and squat tower, and the only other noise was the distant hum of the ring road, the other side of the cricket pitch. The peace of the scene was deeply calming. Sometimes, in the summer, when there was a cricket match on and the bell-ringers were practising, she felt it was the kind of place that John Betjeman could have immortalised in a poem; leather on willow, an occasional spattering of applause, cries of ‘howzat’ and the slightly arrhythmic bing-bong-ding-dong of a peal of bells. Utter cliché but utter English bliss.
She strolled on knowing that she could have phoned Joan to ask about the flowers but she always liked an excuse to take this walk, and besides, she was mindful that neither Joan nor her husband Bert had been in the best of health since the winter – Joan had had a nasty virus and was only recently on the mend – and they might appreciate a visit. Plus, there was every possibility that Bert would offer some of his own flowers from his allotment for the church, and every little helped. Bert’s allotment didn’t just yield a cornucopia of vegetables every year, but dahlias, hellebores, foxgloves, hollyhocks and a dozen other types of flowers that Heather would accept gratefully for the church arrangement whilst having only the vaguest of an idea as to what they were called. And, even if it was a bit early for the best of Bert’s flowers, he would certainly have foliage which, in itself, was very useful.
Towards the top of the road, the quiet was dissipated by the bustle of the high street but Heather didn’t mind. She loved the town’s wide main street with its wiggly roofline, its big market square and pretty Georgian town hall. It mightn’t be the sort of place you moved to for the shopping – Bluewater it wasn’t – but the boutiques and delis, the cafés and the pub and the hanging baskets full of winter pansies and the tubs of daffs and tulips more than made up for the lack of major retailers. And today was market day so there was the extra bustle and activity thatalways brought. It was a proper small market town, she always thought. Perfect – well, perfect as long as you didn’t scratch too deep. Like everywhere they had problems with poverty, drugs and the occasional crime but there were worse places to live in the country. Far worse. She knew that – Brian had been a vicar in one or two.
She was looking in the window of the cake shop and wondering about treating herself and Brian to a custard tart each when she heard her name being called. She turned and saw the pub’s landlady. As always, Belinda had a smile on her face. She was a life-enhancer, thought Heather. Brian might deal with the town’s moral well-being but Belinda provided an equally important service on the mental health side of things by listening to their woes, being unfailingly cheerful and totally non-judgemental. Her sunny outlook radiated out of her and sparkled out of her blue eyes.
‘Belinda, hello. You well?’
‘Yes, thank you. You?’
‘I’ve just been to the hairdresser,’ said Belinda. ‘That always makes me feel better. Good for morale, don’t you think?’
Heather gazed at Belinda’s beautifully cut bob that framed her smiling face and wished she knew. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a professional hair-do. She washed her own hair and pinned it up to keep it out of the way. Not smart or fashionable but suitable for a vicar’s wife. Cheap to maintain, and when it got too long, she hacked bits off with the kitchen scissors.
‘It must be,’ she said, smiling and quenching the tiny pang of envy she felt. ‘By the way, Amy says someone is moving into The Beeches.’
‘Well, if Amy says so it must be true. Anyway, I’d better get on; not long till opening time and I mustn’t keep the punters waiting. Will you be coming to the next book club?’
‘I will. I can’t say I was thrilled by the last choice but it was an interesting read.’
‘Good. Well… Good, you found it interesting, at any rate. If everyone did, it’ll be the basis for a lively discussion.’
‘Will you be there?’
‘Should be if the new girl shows up. We’ve had so much trouble with our part-timers recently. Don’t the young want to earn extra money? And don’t they realise that letting an employer down is more than just bad manners…’ Belinda stopped. ‘Sorry, I was about to go into rant mode.’’
Living in a market town is explored in this easy to read story of country life, secrets and gossip. Everyone in the town has secrets, and the characters are complex and vivid, not all of the characters are likeable, and some do border on the stereotypical, but they do work well together in a well-paced plot with lots of opportunity for them to interact and their lives to entwine.
Olivia is the serial committee member, the pillar of the community, so busy doing good; she misses the problems in her own life. Heather is the vicar’s wife; her door is always open, her life is not easy but shares her husband’s calling. She is the community agony aunt, trustworthy, loyal and full of common sense. Bex is the newcomer, attractive, lovely but with a broken heart, children who depend on her and secrets she doesn’t want to share. Amy is a single mum who works hard in the town, she has a good heart but is a terrible gossip which leaves her open to manipulation.
Little Woodford is like a ‘Midsomer’ village without the murders, fun to read with a sense of community, lots of humour, a little romance, and a web of lies and secrets an enjoyable way to pass a few hours.
I received a copy of this book from Head of Zeus via NetGalley in return for an honest review.
Catherine Jones lives in Thame, where she is an independent Councillor. She is the author of eighteen novels, including the Soldiers’ Wives series, which she wrote under the pseudonym Fiona Field.