We were hunting up houses around Bricester this weekend and coming home had cause to pass through our old haunts up around Cockermouth. Big enough to be a town, small enough to be nearly unique in that its occupied and Georgian high street boasts almost nothing resembling a chain store. The cities might have all the amenities, but you can go long miles without finding a real butcher in them. When we lived in the next village from Cockermouth our little shop was pretty good, and our bakery was wonderful. Cockermouth has three excellent butchers, grocers, a sweetshop, toyshop, everything you could reliably want. It even has a posh lane where you can dwell over coffee and make choice selections from an uppity delicatessen should that be your thing. I like that, I miss it when such things aren’t there and whilst it does have the usual supermarkets tucked out of sight then the meat you’d normally be used to from ‘em isn’t fit for ghouls.
But the best was Billy Baxter.
Billy’s is right down in Wiltshire where so too I lived some mumblety years ago. Before children and responsibility (and probably decimal currency). Billy was a butcher with a sideline as a baker and nothing came pre-packed. You wanted a pork chop, he’s show you the carcass. Rabbits and pheasants (and whatever else he’d scrumped the night before) hung by hooks. And Billy was something special. We got on really well. Just as I had odd walks and a host of odder people I’d meet on them most days, then Billy was the king. He came from Durham way, lived in a sprawling tumbledown house, shot to competition standard and was invincible. He once cut off the best part of a finger and not having liked the hospital on his previous visit just cleaned both bits and stitched them right back on. And it worked too.
He’d always round prices down. Really down. The week’s meat might come to twenty-eight quid – call it twenty. I thought I knew how to skin a rabbit until he showed me a better way. Nothing like a slow morning playing with dead animals and small, sharp knives to wile away the summer. He’d confuse people if you took them in to pick up a dozen of his famous sausages. You had to order months in advance for Christmas because everyone – everyone, went to Billy. There was no best-for-restaurants with Billy, it was all the same and it was all good. We were rather dull with goose. If we’d wanted lion he’d have probably been seen next day striping up his land-rover for a quick jaunt over to poach up Longleat.
And he was fair. I went in there once and before I could open my mouth he handed me a small sack of bread rolls, because he’d over baked and it was gone lunchtime. Then asked what I wanted and a bit shamefully I had to admit ‘bread’. He laughed and that was that, waggling his finger as if I’d gotten one over on him.
So I hope Bricester measures up. Ramsay Campbell reckoned there was nameless horror there, and he ought to know. Or was it Gordon Ramsay? I’m easily turned about. But not round Billy, because Billy Baxter was the best, a character from a Roald Dahl story never written.