Friday, 7 April 2006

A letter to all the people who used to live on the farm

When you move into a new house, if you are lucky and the vendors thoughtful, there might be a list of where you turn off the water, a description of the careful handling required for the loft hatch, and a note of when the bin men collect. Moving into our previous house we received reams of instructions, a list of all the plants and trees, and notes and jottings hidden behind skirting boards, under floors, on corrugated tin roofs and in the hen house giving dates for when things had been attended to, plus a commentary on that day’s entertainment – the success of the Christmas panto at the Belgrade Theatre was one example. But when you move into a farm that hasn’t been lived in by farmers for the best part of a decade, you have a million questions, and only local lore to supply just a fistful of answers. There are so many things that I want to ask you all.
That stone-faced banking at the far end of the farm, just running for a matter of yards, so carefully made and where only the sheep can see it; was it something your parents got you to do as penance for some minor misdeed? That enormous well in Little Stone Horse Field; did it ever feed water to anywhere or was it a white elephant, an unfinished project that ran out of cash? Did you use donkeys or horses in the now derelict roundhouse for the threshing barn? That room at the side of the house that you can only access from an external staircase - was it where transient farm labourers slept, away from the temptation of the daughters of the house? Where do all the drains run and why are there at the last count four separate water supplies? Which of you took out and flogged the slate flagstone floors in the house and put in concrete? Who put in the Aga in such a way that you can't use the bread oven anymore? Why is the old cider room floor creased in the middle; was there an mini-earthquake? Who screwed down the floorboards so that they cracked as they shrank? And why are there one inch gaps between the boards so that coins, earrings, pens and other small items both cheap and expensive are lost?
Do you mind that we gave new names to three of the fields when neighbours couldn’t quite remember all of the old ones; the naming of fields felt like an exercise not to be undertaken lightly. How exactly did you make and manage your hedgerows and banks in the 17th century and how long did they last? And this century, that low fencing wire you put along the top of the banks – what was the point of that – even our small sheep breed can hop over it without a second thought. Did you allow your livestock to drink all along the mill leat or only where it wouldn’t interfere with the flow to the neighbouring mill?
Didn’t you mind the smell of the pigs in sties so close to the house? Where did you salt and store the bacon? Did you make your own sausages and have as much fun as we did? It was much, much easier to do than we had expected, even more hilarious, with fabulously tasty results.
Did you ever get to see the dormice that we know live in Langan Meadow only by the evidence of precisely nibbled cobnuts? It’s even illegal to photograph them now. And why is Langan Meadow that strange rounded shape? Were the buzzards, bats and barn owls even more plentiful? Was there ever any wild boar here? When was that veteran oak by the river blasted by lightening and lose its top? It has a rowan growing out of its crown now. Which of the ditches have disappeared and need to be re-dug to get the ground less “drought-resistant” as the estate agent described the more sodden fields? Where on the farm did you dig up the clay to make the cob walls for the barns that are melting away now the roofs have gone? What types of apple grew in the orchards and was the cider any good? We heard that when one farmer here told a son to fetch a jug of cider, that he be sure to keep whistling the whole time – but did you ever manage a secret slurp? Did you ever think that the farm is shaped along the lines of a mini South America?
Did you ever run out of things to do and did you ever get enough sleep? Did you ever write a to-do list? Did it look like ours? What have we forgotten?
We feel the weight of your absence as we move across the farm, mending this, patching that, planning the next ten years of work. By the time the hundred oaks we want to plant come to maturity, someone else might be writing a similar letter to us, but before then perhaps one of you could tell us the whereabouts of the socket for the radio aerial?