The Cottage Smallholder

stumbling self sufficiency in a small space

They bought the farm

peas and wild flowersI spent the day with Mike Murphy in Saffron Walden. I’m decorating his house in small bursts. Usually Anna is assisting but she couldn’t make it today. Mike is from San Diego, was married to my friend Clare and has lived in the UK for years. He is different, coming from another culture.

As I sipped an excellent coffee spiked with a spicey dash of his patent chilli cinnamon syrup, Mike discussed lunch.
“I want you to see my park. I have adopted it. We’ll picnic on lunch of Jamie’s potato, avocado and spring onion salad.” He opened the fridge door to show me the bowl.
“And my membrillo Manchego sandwiches.” I added. We all contribute to lunch. A great unspoken excuse to try and impress each other.

I spent the morning hanging in a star shape, from a tall ladder. Cutting in (painting the fine line between wall and ceiling) on a stairwell is exacting work, involving angled brushes lashed to long poles. Finally we packed up our picnic and within seconds were walking down a narrow path, banked with box hedges, aromatic santolina and lemon balm.

Bridge End Gardens were largely laid out in 1840 by Francis Gibson and is a great example of Victorian compartmentalised garden design. The pleasure gardens received a lottery grant and have been beautifully restored. There are six listed buildings on the site, fabulous statues and lots of quirky details – I loved the lookout post located over a mature yew hedge. We briefly explored the Italian garden, the wild wooded area complete with tame squirrels and examined the entrance to the maze, with its pleached limes and wild beastie statues guarding the gate. We settled near a statue of a peacock and laid out our picnic.

“Beyond that hedge is the American Memorial.”
I immediately thought military but when he added, “for the ones that bought the farm,” I was intrigued. Imagining tall smiling Americans wearing 10 gallon hats driving tractors on a vast model farm in the fields around Saffron Walden. They must have been successful and influential too, if they had their own memorial.
“What farm?”

Mike was surprised.
“Haven’t you heard the expression? He bought the farm means that he died.”

It reminded me of the first time I heard the expression “they let the cat out of the bag.” I was five and concerned about the cat and wondered why it was in a bag at all. I can still remember the squirmy embarrassment as the old lady explained exactly what the phrase meant.

As we packed up our lunch and walked over to the memorial we mulled over whether this was a universal expression. Some pretty teenage girls were sitting inside the memorial; they were silent as we looked at the long lists of names of the men that never returned home.

When I got back I Googled “bought the farm.” Apparently it’s an American expression, coined during WW2. Loads of servicemen dreamt of buying land after the war. If they were killed in action, they had ‘bought the farm’ in the great blue yonder. There is also an interesting analysis of the phrase here

I had a great day with Mike. Something magical happens when I lift a paint-filled brush. It is almost as if I am painting into other peoples’ lives.

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  1. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Karen in Delaware,

    That is fun! Danny had heard of the expression but it’s new to me. Thanks for making a comment.

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