My brother and sister and my wife and I mounted a cross-border raid at the weekend. We invaded Lincolnshire which is only in the Midlands but it took us six hours to drive there from Leith. Usually we only meet our cousins at funerals but this time we were simply celebrating the fact we were all still alive. We filled the car boot with old family photographs and Scottish delicacies: pies, Tunnocks Teacakes, Irn-Bru, tinned haggis and Tennents Lager.
After Berwick, the scenery began to change. Grey stone became red brick. The trees were greener and bushier. England was having a summer. Bees queued up to sip at the cow-parsley blossoms. When we looked over bridges, unfamiliar fish with odd names – chub, roach, dace, bream, perch, pike, zander, barbel and gudgeon – flashed and flickered under the water weed.
Our B&B was hilariously badly-run. They had no record of our booking and the staff were prepared to send us packing until we produced the computer printout that proved we’d paid the deposit. Upstairs smelt of damp and something unmentionable. We nicknamed the place Farty Towels in honour of John “Basil” Cleese.
Arriving a day early allowed us to get a proper flavour of Englandshire. The village we were in was posh. When I threw open the curtains next morning, a cream Rolls Royce ghosted past the window, driven by an elderly lady with silver hair, a navy blue jacket, red silk scarf and white gloves. It might well have been the wraith of Lady Thatcher who was born in Grantham, just a few miles from our less than cushy billet.
The village appeared to have been ethnically cleansed by Nigel Farage. Everybody was white. In the window of an antique shop, gold watches and diamond bracelets were proudly displayed on rolled-up newspapers bearing the headline “UKIP Sense Victory. The shelves of the local bookshops groaned under the weight of books about fox hunting or military history.
We didn’t come across anybody who looked remotely like an immigrant, legal or otherwise, until we met the Cray Twins.
My brother and I peered over the parapet of a bridge above a small, shallow brook. A trout darted upstream and out of sight. As the ripples settled, two creatures sidled out from under the bank looking like miniature lobsters. They had huge, menacing pincers with white flashes on them and I recognized them immediately – freshwater signal crayfish. Not the native British crayfish but an invader from North America, brought in by entrepreneurs in the Seventies to be farmed for the table – they taste delicious.
Sadly, like the real Kray Twins, these unscrupulous predators quickly escaped from their prison on the crayfish farm. They went forth and multiplied. There are now around 250 million of them wreaking havoc in England’s waterways. They’re ganging up on Scottish rivers too. Nobody messes with the Crays.
They devour fish, snails, plants and each other. In winter they tunnel deep into the banking, collapsing the riverbanks and silting up the pools. But we would need to trap and eat our own weight of them every day to make the slightest dent in the population.
Next day at the Cousins’ Carnival, we ate our own weight in burgers and drank the contents of a paddling pool full of ice, beer and wine. As the sun set and blackbirds warbled evensong from the roofs of redbrick villas, we gathered into one big group photograph, yelled ‘Cheese!’ and burst into a lusty rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody. There was a little impromptu choreography and more than a few jaw-dropping family revelations, mostly about relatives who were too long dead to care if we knew their secrets. It was brilliant and we’ll do it all again next year.
The Cray Twins are invited too. They’ll be first on the barbecue.