Mud and the joy of rural practice

Satellite navigation is one of those inventions that, like Viagra, does not disappoint.

I used it this year while driving on the freeways of Los Angeles (SatNav, that is, not Viagra, although I'm not knocking the idea; in LA anything in possible) and it is absolutely idiot proof.

If I can use SatNav, anybody can. It gives you clear and continuous directions, and even if you go wrong, it recalculates your course immediately and without even a hint of exasperation.

Home visits should be no problem, no matter how complicated the route. But when I was a lad, things were different. Searching for No 29 Laurel Grove, after eventually hunting down the apparently moveable estate, you would follow the numbers (if there were any) to find that the last house, inevitably, would be No 28; after fending off the friendly skinheads and paying protection money for your car, you would be advised that No 29 lay, to all intents and purposes, on the other side of the planet.

South Armagh presented even greater problems. During the Troubles, the locals had removed all road and streets signs to confuse the security forces and the TV licence man; confusing the GP was just a bonus.

I had just started in Crossmaglen when I received a call to the outlying village of Ballytunney.

Being new, I asked for clear directions.

'No problem, doctor,' said the caller. 'It's the house with yellow JCB outside.'

Of course, when I arrived in Ballytunney, I observed with fatal satisfaction that every house had a yellow JCB outside. Getting out of the car, I gazed around, disoriented. It was raining, as is mandatory on these occasions, and the unwritten law of the countryside can be expressed as an equation: rain + JCB = mud, all of which augmented the air of general jollity, as did the large herd of frisky cows roaming the village and decorating it with triumphant digestive mounds, which soon dissolved in the rain to add a beguiling yet pungent odour to the steamy cocktail, as the locals sniggered at my discomfiture from behind the curtains.

I selected a house at random and waded through a tidal wave of ordure to the front door.

'You found us alright then, doctor.'

I remembered the golden rule of general practice; never do what the enemy is expecting.

'You couldn't miss it,' I said. 'What a lovely village.'

Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh. Email him at

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