July 25 2005

The Red Arrows dropped in during a family picnic at Milford a few years ago. It was a birthday party for my mother-in-law and we said we’d arranged the fly-past in her honour.
They came from nowhere, roaring in like rolling thunder, low enough to touch and vanishing in seconds, leaving everyone blinking and breathless, with just a trail of red, white and blue vapour to show we hadn’t been dreaming.
The picnic coincided with RAF Stafford’s open day, five miles down the road at Beaconside, but nobody had told the guest-of-honour and for a second or two she thought those jets really might have been just for her.
When they reappeared half an hour or so later on their way home, she was all but convinced.
We held those picnics every year. It became a tradition, a chance for brother and sisters and their spouses to catch up and boast about how well we were all doing and for the cousins to check out what had been happening on the boyfriend front since Christmas.
In the early days the kids entertained themselves, rough and tumbling on the hillside above the common and getting lost in the bracken. Later we did the parent thing, refereeing ball games and demonstrating how not to fly kites. Before we knew it they were bored teenagers complaining that high-heels were no good for rounders. Arms tightly folded, eyebrows raised, tutting barely audibly, they let us know, just in case we hadn’t guessed, that this sort of thing wasn’t for them any more.
So the picnics stopped and get-togethers became less frequent.
We still met up, of course, but in smaller family chunks and then there we all were one day at a funeral and suddenly there was no longer any excuse for a birthday picnic.
Earlier this year someone suggested we should try again, so a couple of weekends ago we all met at Milford under the same old Scots pine.
The weather was perfect, the food plentiful and the wine flowed. We sat in folding chairs and watched our kids doing the parent thing while the babies rough and tumbled and lost themselves in the bracken. The older ones played ball games and tried not to get annoyed by our dog.
Then, Sam, Adidas-cool and the third oldest of the new generation, gave a shout from 30 yards down the path he was exploring on a solo safari.
“There’s a snake!”
We flew down the path, the kids to get a good look, the grown-ups to make sure they didn’t get too close.
And there it was: a young adder, brown and beautiful, graceful and pugnacious, and ready to take on the whole lot of us.
“It’s Britain’s only poisonous snake,” some know-all whispered.
Sam was elated and his dad took some video as the adder slowly subsided out of strike mode and slithered off. We watched the diamonds on its back disappear into the heather.
The Red Arrows didn’t show, but that was probably just as well. That snake would have stolen their thunder.


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