Staying in a family’s holiday home is never a holiday for the family. There is always a long list of jobs to be done, and those who tell me how jealous they are of the fact that I have weeks away every year a) have a point, and b) are wronger then they know. By the time the jobs are done – or, more likely, started and abandoned due to any one of a number of limiting factors including weather, the absence of people to do the tricky bits, the difficulty of running somewhere by committee, dwindling finance, etc – it’s always time to come home. ‘The kitchen sink may be different’ my mother used to say ‘but it’s still the kitchen sink.’ At the time that made no sense to me at all. Now, I get it entirely.
Some jobs, however, are more fun than others. Emptying the water tank on the hill has always been a bit of a cracker.
In Argyll, we’re on a private water supply. Which is a grandiose way of saying that we are dependent on rainfall for all water. Despite being in a part of the world where five feet of rain regularly falls in a calendar year, this isn’t always as simple as it sounds: in very cold years the supply can freeze; in very hot years it can dry up. Whatever happens, it often comes with little bugs and wrigglers in it, and the washing machine usually makes things dirtier. Certainly, you routinely can’t see your feet as you get into your full bath. For small children, the old and the ill we supply bottled stuff. The rest of us take pot luck and enjoy the weight loss that results from incautious consumption.
And yet, it sort of works. The rain falls, and comes down the burn, into a series of three pools that have been dug on a steep bit of the hill. From one of these there has been, since time immemorial, a length of hose which diverts some of the flow into a huge concrete tank perched a little way away. Over the years the slab sides of this have weathered and they’re now covered in lichen and their edges are softened with bracken and saplings to the point where it is almost indistinguishable from the undergrowth around it. Once a year we open the green brass tap at the bottom of the tank and empty it: to this day, watching what my father always called ‘the muck and ullage’ plop out of it remains immensely satisfying. Then we scour it, clear the filters at each end of the hose, and then flush the pipe through that runs from it first along the road, then beneath it, and then underground down to the house by the sea. (A word about the ‘filters’: for years they were pierced McEwan’s lager tins, with scantily clad ladies on them. When ‘Emily’ and ‘Rhona’ finally rusted away entirely, presumably into the water we then drank, we lashed out family capital and invested in two watering-can roses, one for each end of the pipe. We’re not Luddites, for heaven’s sake.)
When the children were small, of course, they came into their own. Over the years they had become less keen on going up the chimneys – no idea why – but offer to tie a rope around them and lower them into a huge, echoing water tank with a dodgy torch and a coal shovel to scoop out the big bits? Well – they positively fought for the right to be first in. The last time I squeezed through the hatch on the top I was about eleven and I can still remember looking up at the square of daylight and watching it shrink as one or other – or probably both – of my delightful brothers shut the lid on me ….
Down the length of relatively new, bright blue neoprene pipe between the tank and the house we’ve put in stopcocks. This way, sections can be shut off and cleaned in turn and, if the worst happens and there’s a burst, we should only have to replace a relatively short length of the stuff. Where the line emerges above ground, we used to tie hot water bottles to it to keep the contents liquid in mid-winter. Now, in the Apple-riddled wifi enabled 21st century, we wrap bubble wrap round it. I repeat: we aren’t Luddites.
I may grumble, but I tell you. There’s nothing like coming in frozen to the core from clearing the whole system out in February and climbing into a chestnut brown scaldingly hot bath, with the first hot cup of tea made with the fruits of your labours. Bliss.