Sunday, 30 December 2007
There I stand, up to one elbow in chestnut, the other in apricot stuffing. My hands couldn't be greasier and that is the moment when the phone goes and my nose twitches.
I am surrounded by raw foodstuffs: the goose, devils on horseback and pigs in blankets to my left; the bread sauce, leeks and peas to my right; cranberry straight ahead; parboiled spuds, parsnips and carrots behind me and my hands encased in stuffing. My nose is full of onion and pepper scents. There is nowhere to turn my head and sneeze safely. I don't have a cold, but you can't always ensure a dry sneeze. I look at the phone, still ringing and utterly incapable of offering aid. There is a tissue in my apron pocket (yes, I wear an apron, ok?) but with hands covered in forcemeat what can I do?
I lift my head to the ceiling and sneeze upwards, no doubt creating a cloud of unwanted spice to descend on every part of the deliciousness about to be cooked. I tell myself that this is the magic ingredient I was missing. I wipe the stuffing from my hands and answer the phone.
Wednesday, 26 December 2007
Here’s a present for the New Year - I strongly suggest you use rum or brandy and not Calvados as Hugh suggests. Green and Black’s Cook's chocolate (and their cocoa for sprinkling) is fab for this. The recipe is tweaked but based on River Cottage chocolate brandy truffles - makes about 50 and I doubt you could eat more than two at a sitting.
Put all the ingredients (except the cocoa) in a heatproof bowl and place over a pan of just-boiled water. Leave to melt, stirring only once or twice. When the truffle mixture is completely melted and blended and thick enough to spoon and not too hot to handle, spoon into petit fours cases on a big tray. You will get drips on your fingers - cook's treat - lick well. Leave to cool, then put the loaded tray into the fridge to chill truffles until firm. Sieve with a bit of cocoa before serving.
Amazing, easy to make, can be done from store ingredients (if you can keep chocolate in store) and gets the best compliments ever. I gave these as presents, making good use of my empty Bravissimo boxes - they take a good number in a single layer, and folks look temporarily aghast that you might have given them lingerie.
Sunday, 23 December 2007
Thursday, 20 December 2007
I wasn't buying - one thing I'm not short of is home-reared goose - but I couldn't resist taking a moment out of veg shopping to see the scale of the thing. The photo shows but a smidgen of what was on offer.
Wednesday, 19 December 2007
I am very moved. The small smiling man goes on his way to make more people very happy.
Tuesday, 18 December 2007
But Bernese Mountain Dogs thrive in this dry cold weather; they are made for snow and seem to inhale energy as the thermometer plummets. They give me the Bernese nudge, an insistent and forceful snout thrust, and I put on a second pair of trousers and socks, not having been naturally endowed with a fur coat. Most of the sheep kept on the farm have been taken off the land so it can rest for a couple of months, so I don't even take a lead with me as we head out onto empty fields. But the fields are clearly not empty. The dogs stick their noses into every conceivable size of hole in the ground, up trees, in the earth banks, behind troughs, under leaves. For them, the farm is thrutched up with animal life, scent flags waving for those with the sense to appreciate.
The rush and push of the day drops off the shoulders and I stand and admire the scene, grateful to be here, now.
Friday, 14 December 2007
Amazingly, surprisingly, bravely, the Arts Council has just announced that 195 organisations will not have their grants renewed in April 2008. 746 (or 75% of) RFOs will have funding increases of at least inflation, with 45 receiving increases of between 50 and 100%, and 41 in receipt of more than 100% increase in their grants. In addition about 80 arts organisations in England will be invited to become new RFOs.
The list of the inevitably very unhappy 195 (all of whom however have an outrageously brief window of opportunity to lobby against the decision) is expected to be made known in the new year, but the news is inevitably breaking as each organisation opens its black bordered letter. Once we know all the organisations at risk (and my in-box is already giving some indication of what is under threat) and just as importantly the organisations being invited to take their place at the funding table, I may come to regret my in principle admiration for this move, but the decision to rethink the funded arts landscape is one I must applaud.
What we will have to scrutinise is whether the funding decisions actually back up the Arts Council's stated aims of supporting artistic excellence, increasing engagement and participation, funding arts more equitably across England and increasing support to the visual arts (although I'm not sure about this latter aim considering how visual arts appears to be thriving like never before). If the resulting raft of RFOs don't reflect this, and if those cut are strong embodiments of one or more of those aims, the sector should claim scalps.
18.12.07 postscript - the Guardian leader seems to agree with me. Their arts correspondent doesn't. I fail to see why we should have to wait for the information on who is affected- surely it should be in the public domain now so that the decisions can be held up for external scrutiny before it's too late to reconsider what may be death blows to many?
9.1.08 update - Bungled seems to be the word being bandied about regarding the HOW surrounding these changes, and I have to say I agree. You would have thought that the Arts Council would have been scrupulous in following their own guidelines in disinvesting (ghastly word) in organisations in order to gain understanding if not actual support for carrying out what after all should be their role; ie making big decisions based on transparent criteria on who should continue to be funded and who should enter as new recipients of a regular grant cheque.
10.1.08 update - The ructions continue, and ACE faces the flack.
27.1.08 - The Arts Council backs down, a bit.
1.2.08 - The outcome.
Tuesday, 11 December 2007
I look across to the pig paddock and in front of the ark is a flash of deep orange. I let out a low sound, and the fox looks at me and comes closer. And closer. And closer still. Its feet make small cracking sounds as it passes over the frosty grasses and iced puddles. It is full grown, in flourishing health, but there is something young about its features. It has a snowball tip to its tail, a recognisably large marking that I will know again if it reappears. I am about to let the ducks out into this field, and electric fence or no, I don't want a fox this close. I let Fenn through the gate to send it a message of unwelcome and it streaks off across the fields, scattering the eight month old lambs in its wake. It doesn't duck or jump under or over the stock fencing; it simply flies through the grid of wire as if it wasn't there.
I drop a few flakes of the goat mix that I feed to the llama, and spot a dark velvety vole shoot out of the log pile to take advantage. The survival instincts are on full alert today.
Monday, 10 December 2007
This week I have to go to Exeter four times. This is highly unusual, never mind unpopular, and if I'd have had any say in the matter would have been organised very differently. But there you are. With masses of time in hand, knowing that there will probably be a bit more traffic due to seasonal consumption, I arrive and start to trawl for a space.
One and a half hours and five car parks later, including having to pay 90p for the privilege of driving up and down ramps fruitlessly at one car park that issues you a ticket on arrival and won't let you out again unless you part with coin, I turn my back on the city and head for home, meeting abandoned.
With no reasonable public transport options possible I am going to have to attempt this again each day for the next three days. I need a campaign plan, a large box of Nurofen and whale music (or is it dolphins?). I am contemplating painting my car white with go-faster stripes that might be mistaken for the cops or paramedics. If it didn't take three hours to cycle there, I might consider that. Perhaps I could go in at midnight and camp out until my meetings start, arriving with something of The Lady in the Van about me. Perhaps I could make some big signs saying "free turkeys this way for drivers" all pointing out of the city centre.
All I want for Christmas is a flying carpet.
Friday, 7 December 2007
First we had the style awards for 2007, and nary an affordable pretty piece among them, with an award for the shoe that wouldn't die, an item that needs swift burial, and preferably cremation to obliterate the eye smacking colours first. The awards were all unbelievably inane; surely women don't actually care if Posh looks amazing or awful in hot pants?
Then we are expected to read billionaire Signor Armani's witterings: "I am lucky that I have built myself beautiful houses that I staff with people who really know me and what I like to eat". To add to the shallowness we have a woman sharing her views on men whilst posing like a porn star complete with no knickers and f-me pumps. At this point I want to scream. Thank goodness for Carole Cadwalladr failing to be taken in by Dame Westwood who should stick to designing clothes.
We have important journalism about the appalling levels of rape and sexual assault in Haiti and the contrast with the previous idiocy is so strong that it physically jars.
And thus to bags.
The bags we are told women are buying in their zillions, cost more than feeding a baby for a year. Or a complete household depending on your lack of taste. Now, I have been known to stroke a Mulberry bag longingly. I am not completely immune to loveliness and I admire craftsmanship. And I like their messenger bags (intended for men) precisely because they are made fit for purpose, are low key and avoid being swaddled in painful buckles or slathered in eye watering pink patent leather. The cost, although BIG treat time, could not feed the five thousand.
My own bag, pictured above, was from the local agricultural merchant. It is a game bag made of strong canvas, leather and brass buckles and has a rubberised pouch insert to keep your freshly killed rabbit or brace of pheasants from staining the outer. I have many, many compliments on my bag. All from men. All from men from Devon who wouldn't use the word "man-bag" if it was the last word they could utter. It cost me about £35. Yah boo.
However, I have to admit that the mag's extraordinary photograph of an almost naked Naomi Campbell had me more wide-eyed than a wide eyed frog.
21.12.07 Postscript: my bag (well, not MY bag, but new ones just like it) is now being sold for £62.50! Do you think I have conferred some mini fame upon it and created some local inflation? Nah.
Thursday, 6 December 2007
I had an early appointment at the dental hygienist, and was hurtling towards town (within the speed limit, obviously) when I got caught up in a rare snarl of traffic. I know the dentist makes you pay if you miss your allotted session, so two minutes late I rang from my handsfree to reassure them that I was on my way, and that I'd be with them in just two more minutes.
I could feel the receptionist winding herself up beyond the call of duty to say "you are late and...", so before she was able to complete her little piece of spiteful daily joy I cut her off with "I'll be with you before you put down the phone."
I parked (first time ever) right outside the surgery, leapt into the rain and into the building before she could say "but".
I announced my arrival to a different woman. "Oh", she said, checking the screen, "you're late...." (all of 4 minutes behind for a twenty minute slot), "I don't know if..."
Are they on commission for latecomers and no-shows? Deep breath, girl. "I rang", I said, "just a moment ago."
"Oh. I don't know if you can still....."
"It's a 20minute slot, and there is NO-ONE ELSE IN THE WAITING ROOM".
She sees the look on my face.
"Take a seat".
Five minutes later, now nine minutes late, the hygienist comes down looking for me... "Why didn't they send you up?" she asks.
Sometimes the look works better than words.
I love that image of the chattering clockwork teeth; it reminds me of one of my favourite items in my parent's joke shop.
Tuesday, 4 December 2007
Somewhere amongst all these great works there is a water leak. This is an un-ignorable situation; the cost both monetary (the meter is whizzing round far too fast) and environmental is unacceptable to wallet and principles but where do you start? Even those most familiar with the farm in the last twenty years are baffled by aspects of the water supply and the number and placement of drains, taps and troughs are confusing and sometimes deliberately unhelpful. There are multiple possibilities and hours are spent eliminating options until it's possible to arrive fairly safely at a logical conclusion. It's clear which length of pipe must be leaking, but where exactly does the pipe meander on its route from A to B?
A neighbour renowned for his dowsing skills is called. His rods twitch definitively. Red paint is sprayed along the ground. A pit is dug, and there is the pipe. Sadly, dowsing can't tell us where the leak is, and now Scoopy will be called upon to dig yet another lengthy trench to by-pass and remedy the leak with new bright blue pipe that coils and springs like an overactive serpent.
Sunday, 2 December 2007
The last three days have been very stormy; if I didn't know better I would think I was living in a crow's nest, what with all the creaking and moaning and shivering of timbers, shifting of slates and the whistling of the wind in the chimneys. The rain water is gushing down the lane, brown with clay, creating ephemeral waterfalls that dump their load behind the gathering of leaves and twigs blocking drains and ditches. The lunar landscape of the yard now resembles the Lake District as viewed from a passing satellite, and the field ditches are being swept clean by the deluge.
The sheep shelter behind the feeders and hedges and when the rain softens shake their fleece free of the weight of the water. The ducks churn their grassy daytime sward to sticky clay and quack at the wind. The geese splash in the impromptu stream that courses through the orchard.
The mill leat that runs the length of the north boundary of the farm has gone from trickle to flood, backing up where the wood sits alongside, carrying off the leaves that have collected below their parent trees. The ferns at this northern edge thrive on getting their feet wet, and they grow not just in the crevices at the foot of the trees but high up in the canopy alongside mosses and lichens, a whole ecosystem of green dampness. It is not too hard a leap to imagine Moor Wood as an underwater world, the surface above the tree tops, me and the dogs picking about on the water's bed admiring the whorled and fantastically patterned plant exotica; fungi for coral, moss for seaweed, frogs for fish.
Apologies for the poor quality picture - it was getting dark and raining for Devon.
Thursday, 29 November 2007
In the past fortnight I have had a day admiring Dexters - I hope the photo gives you an idea of their diminutive scale but if you are not familiar with round bale hay feeders, perhaps not - and a day learning the basics of cheese, yoghourt and butter making. I am slowly starting to develop a new vocabulary.
In my fridge is a selection of hand-made dairy delights: Mascarpone, Greek-style yoghourt and my pride and joy, two types of butter. One is sweet butter, made from unpasteurised cream with absolutely nothing added. The other is a slightly salted butter made from cultured cream. I don't believe this means it has a passing acquaintance with Jonathan Miller, rather that it has had bacteria added to give it a particularly lactic taste.
Making the butter was incredibly straightforward and it is one of those things (like using a potter's wheel or seeing otters in the wild) that I have always yearned to do. Considering how expensive a cream separator is, I will now be on the lookout for one at farm sales and in the small ads. In the meantime, if there's reduced double cream for sale, I'll be first in line. And then there's just that small issue of having cows....
Tuesday, 27 November 2007
I will be grateful that I now have electricity and water, after having had both withdrawn for the day.
I will smile that there is a perfectly good walkway across the deep trenches that crisscross the farmyard and avoid skipping out of the door in anything less than full concentration mode.
I will be happy that I remembered to tell visitors to park at the top of the farm track, to wear wellies, bring torches and walk SLOWLY.
I will ignore that I let the fire go out due to the distractingly manic proceedings of the day, and will crumple up irritating newspaper articles and poke them with kindling and flames.
I will make fish pie and eat wholesome, comforting lusciousness.
But now I find that my only source of cooking heat, the Aga, has gone out. So I will put down the axe and chop more kindling tomorrow before I find my aim tonight is not so true.
I'm going to bed. Without supper.
Or I could listen to some R.E.M.
Thursday, 22 November 2007
This morning ten lambs and 2 cull ewes went off to the butcher. I come back and sort lamb sales and then start looking at tenders for work and draft something to titillate a potential funder. I pay the wages, look at the cashflow and try and get everything sorted for taking a day out tomorrow to do a cattle course with Dexters.
It's noon, I've achieved a lot, but I haven't had to deal with an escaped wolf, a jaguar that has found its way into the wrong big cat enclosure, a boss who doesn't know when it's time to put down an ancient arthritic tiger, or a bear with horrendously overgrown claws.
Ben's Zoo is Jimmy's Farm with claws. I feel much better now.
Wednesday, 21 November 2007
(And I can't believe that I actually agree with George Osborne on this).
The case against the badger being the source of infection for TB in cattle is continually proved and disproved. To a non-scientist this is a very live case of bad science . Would I be naive in imagining that politics and self-interest groups were badly interfering with independent, rigorous research here? Why is the answer so difficult to ascertain? Meanwhile cattle farmers live with the very real consequences of TB, and others flinch at the prospect of a potentially unwarranted cull.
There is an active badger sett on the farm. It sits in a remote spot, and the inhabitants quarry huge amounts of stone and shingle to continuously improve their home. They are fearsomely strong and persistent animals; no fence I know of can keep them in or out, so you don't even try. The entrance holes to the sett are big enough to swallow a toddler or a rugby player's thigh, and a few yards away you'll find used bedding, dry grasses for the most part, turfed out regularly. When the ground is soft the impression made by their claws requires respect, and you really don't want your dogs to meet them snout to snout.
Their overactive toileting habits have always made me chuckle; they dig shallow scrapes a short distance away from the sett which they then proceed to fill beyond the brim. In the autumn these mounds are full of plum, damson and sloe stones.
It is the beauty and strangeness of the badger which is so appealing. They remind me of the tapir, a particular favourite from a time when I drove past some every day on the way to work (pdf), even though they are not odd-toed ungulates and therefore in a completely different category. Even so, both have the camel-like association of being an animal designed by committee. The badger's markings are as extraordinary as a zebra's stripes and they beetle about in an inelegant and apparently casual manner that belies their natural sense for self preservation, although I suspect their poor eyesight has something to do with that.
I have tripped over badger cubs in the middle of the day, seen Mopsa pounce on a moving heap of leaves to reveal not the mouse we were both expecting but a young badger who moved swiftly off the scene, and heard badgers fighting at night - the most ferocious sound.
I can't help but hope that the badgers here are free from both TB and legislative danger.
Tuesday, 20 November 2007
Monday, 19 November 2007
Sunday, 18 November 2007
Across the farm there are a few linear areas that are neither field nor boundary. They are tracks wide enough (just) to have once driven a horse and farm cart through, and are ditched, banked and hedged at the sides. It is possible, indeed probable that pre-records the tracks joined up to allow the farmer reasonable access to wet and hard to reach fields, but now they stand alone, shortened, testimony to past times.
I call them green lanes - although they are not in the true definition of the word - because that is what they look like; leafy tracks, arched by trees and native hedge, and in autumn paved with leaves.
Back in 2005 the tracks were hidden beneath willow and bramble, the ground heavily poached by cows, the banks slumped, the ditches choked and deep clay covering the loose stone that was once scattered on the surface. One of these tracks was made both passable and off limits to livestock last winter, and now it is the turn of the T-shaped lane running from the farmyard down to the lower fields. From what was a shambles, I have cut a path. It looks glorious right now, but next week the beautiful arches will be cut and laid into hedges. I know though that in a very few years the Gothic shape will be back and I will once again get horrendously sweaty in my efforts to tame what won't be permanently tamed.
Friday, 16 November 2007
There are at least three huge wood piles dotted in various semi-sheltered places about the farm where lumps of dead, fallen or lopped tree are stored for seasoning until the time is ripe for dragging, chopping and stacking (ad nauseam) that finally produces the ready to use hunks and chunks.
Once the poultry is bedded down by 5pm and farm activity comes to an abrupt dark-induced halt, my hibernation instincts kick in. All I need to keep me content over winter is a vast heap of dry logs and kindling; a freezer full of home grown meat, poultry, veg and apple juice; and a larder stacked with jams, chutneys, strings of onions and cider. I sound like Ma Larkin in little grey rabbit mode, but to be honest there are also plenty of ingredients that Nigella would approve of on the shelves (I haven't yet learned to produce wasabi or smoked sweet paprika) and Waitrose still beckons.
The other winter necessity is a heap of new books, and post birthday I am all catered for; mostly fiction with a sprinkle of cheesemaking, preserving and owl guides. I don't intend to preserve owls you understand, just learn more about them. And in the next couple of days I'll be visiting a newly discovered bookshop in Torrington, so it's entirely possible that the heap will grow, thanks to all your recommendations.
Thursday, 15 November 2007
Doing the animals is always hard work when the weather turns. I have to hump heavy hay bales about for the sheep and the lambs and I can't always put my hand on a wheelbarrow even though there are three of them somewhere or other. I think one is hiding in the polytunnel and I couldn't get at it first thing as the door bolts were frozen solid. One is full of farmyard manure and needs emptying and rinsing out and the other holds a heap of flower bulbs and echinops, dug out of topsoil (composted waste material of ages chucked behind the piggeries) that is being removed as part of the great barn works, ready for replanting elsewhere when the soil is soft enough to dig.
When it's frosty I have to check the water troughs in case they have iced over. And it is also time to start feeding the geese, who live almost exclusively on grass during the warm months, plus any windfalls they can snaffle before my apple crumble intentions leave them bereft. So sans barrow I slung a 20 kilo sack of feed over my shoulder and trudged up the steep track to put it in the feedbin closest to the orchard. Lastly, it's time to feed the llama, who gets a scoop of goat mix in the cold weather. He was covered in frost (click on the photo for a really good view). Llamas have hair made of hollow fibres, so unlike sheep they do not get overheated in summer nor require shearing. They have inbuilt insulation against heat and cold, so the frost that settles on their backs at night takes an age to melt. This always makes me smile.
And before coming in to start work, I had a quick peek at the builder's site hut area. From scratch they have built a composting toilet, and it is a thing of beauty, with a door handle made from a handy branch. If they put this much effort into the barns (and it has taken them two days to make the toilet) I will be beaming for ever more.
Wednesday, 14 November 2007
As the land here is, as the optimistic estate agent put it "drought resistant", it has to be done before waterlogging sets in and the tractor with its heavy flail makes irredeemable grooves in the ground, so this is the week for the cutting of selected hedges.
The hedges that were so beautifully laid last winter get a gentle trim. Those to be laid this winter are sided up to enable the hedgelayer reasonable access to his target, and across the farm about half of the hedges will get a haircut this year, allowing the rest to grow tall before it's their turn next year. Not cutting everything in one year is important for retaining diversity of habitat and to make sure I have enough blackberries for jam-making and such (no, that's not included in cross compliance but it's important to me and anyone who visits in the expectation of chomping on scones and jam). And then there are the three hedges that have very high environmental value status - they have dormice - which won't be touched until January or February to ensure hibernation is not curtailed. There are also a few good hedges that will be left for the foreseeable future, and are being allowed to grow big and bushy and dense.
The process of preparing for all this is not easy. All the hedgerow trees carefully planted last winter have had their high visibility orange markers checked so that they don't fall prey to the flail. Trying to do this in early autumn was a complete waste of time as leaves obscured all new planting from view, and the late leaf drop has only just revealed the young saplings. Heated debates have been had about which 50% of hedges to cut and which to leave. Even those fields that are to be left need to have their gateways trimmed so that tractors and trailers can move across the farm and I don't knock myself out as I daydream whilst walking the dogs through what my memory rather than my eyes anticipates as a gap.
Devon hedges are bizarre things, most of them being laid on top of earthbanks. I cannot get a definitive answer as to why this is, unless Devon farms used to house particularly tall beasts that would not be contained by hedge alone. I have absurd visions of giraffe and elephant roaming these parts in medieval times when the field patterns and boundaries were determined. Someone must have the answer.
Sunday, 11 November 2007
I remember the impact Poliakoff's Shooting the Past had on its first showing in 1999 - the best evocation of how pictures tell stories that I can recount. A collection being so much more than the sum of its parts; that storytelling is one of the most important attributes of the human race; how the brain is exponentially superior in every way to a computer no matter how large the electronic database; that business schools may be money making machines for churning out mini mes but they do not develop the soul: all these concepts were set out for the viewer. When something is so near perfect, any minor irritant galls, and my ointment's flea was Emilia Fox playing the redheaded leather trousered Spig who lopes and stares to minor effect. Up against Lindsay Duncan, Timothy he can do no wrong Spall and Billie Whitelaw, she didn't stand a chance; eight years on she's still not really fit for purpose.
Next up was Joe's Palace, bringing together worlds so disparate you expect the dissonance to be greater than it is. Unlike some interpretations, I didn't believe that any of the people Joe met thought he was wise, brilliant or clever. He was a young, lonely, inexperienced soul, a quiet boy neither overly naive or worldly. He was easy to befriend, mildly exploited, but saw things as they really were. He was simply the least complicated of the people around him, a cipher with little personal baggage. Chippyness was reserved for all the remaining characters, their baggage slowly unpacked for the viewer.
Holocaust references can jar - like child abuse, its horror can be misused to create undeserved dramatic tension. In Joe's Palace the revelations of the source of the billions that had bought the 'palace' and its contents were portrayed with frightening originality. Jewish men in Berlin forced to crawl naked through the park whilst the women perched in trees chirruping like birds were extraordinary harbingers of ultimate degradation.
Last night we had Mark Kermode head to head with Poliakoff, who openly shared his absolutism; his vision, his script, his work. It's a rare artist that can command control. I could rabbit on about A Real Summer or the fact that I loved The Lost Prince and Gideon's Daughter. I don't care that all the pieces are set in luscious surroundings; there is more than enough cold reality available on every channel every day (and for some good reality stuff see The Street where you can have your Spall and eat it too). All I know is there is more brilliance to come.
Saturday, 10 November 2007
I woke up to a gratifying heap of cards, knowing that today was not my turn to do the animals. I could do a bit of duvet wallowing, just enough to savour the cosiness. Then my ears pricked; there were sounds. Voices. A bit of Led Zeppelin. John Humphrys. Yes. YES! Radio 4. In stereo. Loud. Clear. All mine. I scooted downstairs, and saw it - a new, discreet cable headed south from the ceiling attaching the tuner to the chimney mounted radio aerial. Two and a half years I have waited, patiently and not so patiently for this moment. I go away for a couple of days and miracles have been worked, the floorboards lifted and replaced, connections made. I can now listen to The Archers and get a handle on how to farm for real. I know how much effort went into this. I am thrilled, I am moved, I am jigging about with pleasure.
There are books, wrapped in pink princesses and white ponies. As intended, I drop forty years in as many seconds and feel the pleasures of pulling off paper from unknown goodies. I stroke the book on owls, their incredible faces captured for me to look at again and again. And last of all, a wooden boot jack, again made in my brief absence, from oak board removed and saved from the dilapidated calf pens. It is beautiful, it is waxed and sealed, and will be used every day. Underneath, the carpenters mark of the maker and giver is stamped clear. I stroke that too.
I chat on the phone to say thank you for the book tokens as the finishing touches are made to my birthday cake. Adult chocolate, raspberries picked fresh from the garden, cream, heaven. It is proudly secured in the fridge away from tongue wielding pets, as I pack the car for a day out.
Back to Northcott Mouth for a taste of paradise. There are just two other cars parked. The tide is out, the dogs romp off the lead by our sides, and we leave first footprints on virgin sand. The sea is vigorous, the breeze brisk, the sun generous for November. I wear warm wellies, a jacket and a wide smile. There are black fish in the rock pools, thick as a finger and twice as long. Mussels are picked; Mopsa tries some straight from the rocks, cracking the shells with her teeth. The rocks and stones are beautiful, ancient as time. Moments don't get any better than this.
Back at the farm the builders are starting to take control of the site. Two containers arrive as site hut and store. A small and ugly breeze block gatepost has to be removed so that the lorry delivering the containers can reach its destination. For a change someone else is doing the work; it is a very strange feeling.
A bunch of flowers has been left, no note, by the front door. There are more cards in the day's post. Friends drop by and we eat ambrosial slabs of chocolate and raspberry cake and drink tea until it's pitch black outside. The fire is lit, Scrabble is played, but I don't concentrate, turning over as I am the pleasures of the day. I listen to The Archers and Front Row for the first time in this house. I drink champagne and eat some fabulous kedgeree with a generous addition of tiger prawns and mussels c/o the National Trust. Would forty-five more birthdays just like this one be too much to ask?
Monday, 5 November 2007
The rapid churning of the season just emphasises what I will miss by averting my eyes for 48 hours. Yesterday the small non-fruiting fruit tree in the garden planted by predecessors (cherry I think - the tree that is, not the previous owners) was aflame. Today the flames are snuffed out, every last flicker dropped to the ground. The hedge cutter will have topped and tailed a carefully selected range of the hedges whilst I'm gone. I hope he can make out my multi-coloured markings on the map of the farm, the paper tucked behind the steering wheel of the tractor or balanced on his knee as he traces his path, shaping and trimming the boundaries. I think I might also come back to a front door freshly painted if it doesn't rain.
Although the dogs will be walked, it won't be me that takes them. I won't see them flush out the incredible number of pheasants about at the moment or pursue a scent trail at speed, or stand with one paw raised as they stuff their snouts deep into a bank, inhaling the shadows of secretive creatures.
I will be visiting three old stamping grounds. I will notice major changes - houses built, children grown, alterations and improvements to my old home, Birmingham bustling. There will be puppies and toddlers and good conversation. I will learn things (I hope) and will have seven hours on the road all told, there and back, to think, to listen to the radio and just be. And then there will be the lane with the grass growing down the middle, and I will be home.
Sunday, 4 November 2007
Friday, 2 November 2007
This morning there should be signatures added to much discussed contracts. I will take a good look at the derelict barns and hold my breath and try and make the major mental adjustment needed for when a troupe of people previously unfamiliar, are about to enter one's daily life for 18 months.
As excited as I am about the outcome, I cannot say I am looking forward to the constant round of noise, dirt, and sheer physicality of the whole process. I like a quiet life.
The farmyard already looks like a building site: much in-house activity has been taking place in preparation for the arrival of the pros, with electricity cabling trenched underground, a site hut area levelled, tin lean-tos demolished, elm boarding taken down and stored for re-use, self seeded ash saplings torn up to enable access to walls. The digger has come into its own. I have splinters from sifting the rubbish for fire-wood. My boots are constantly muddy as the scalpings that kept feet dry in the yard have been pressed more deeply into clay with the comings and goings of heavy machinery.
Things will look much worse before they start to look better; dodgy walls will be taken down, rotten timbers removed, last suggestions of roofs removed. But then the craftsmanship will kick in and my admiration will bloom.
Restoring cob buildings takes time - the material requires it and it is truly manual labour. I suspect much of the good works will be hidden behind scaffolding for many months, and I must be patient.
Tuesday, 30 October 2007
Brand's face has peered out at me from the back page of my Saturday Guardian sport section for some while, and although I normally bin the sport pages or use them for firelighting, I would rather read the back of a cereal packet than stare into space whilst visiting the bog.
Trapped with the sweaty muscular thigh pages or perforated 2-ply to choose from, Brand's column was digested. He has good style I thought - wish he was writing about something other than goals, balls and footie players.
And then last week (yes, I am dreadfully behind the times, he is probably already passée), there was Janet Street Porter's voice and character whanging out of Johnny Depp's face and body. A strange cross Atlantic fusion that had me unhover my finger from the remote.
I think I'll ask the clever chap at The Spine to do a melding of Janet and John and see if my suspicions can be validated.
(Mopsa desperately needed to think about something other than MEAT. Seven lambs and two hoggets picked up from the butcher today and distributed, alongside the offal which the butcher smilingly gave me in a huge bag with all the lights so I had to do my Hannibal Lecter bit and remove the livers and hearts from the rest of the innards. Then I plucked pheasants. Don't fancy tonight's dreams at all at all.
Saturday, 27 October 2007
I stank of wet sheep. The gates were opened, a feed bucket was waved encouragingly in front of the tup. It was raining, it was grey, I could hardly see across the field but Toy-boy didn't notice. He was a ram on a mission. Head held high, nostrils flaring, ignoring the feed but momentarily interested in my Eau de Ewe trousers, he sneered and headed for the real thing. He made his entrance. The sheep raised their heads from their breakfast. The crowd swallowed the star of the show. Sniff. Paw. Mount. Sorted.
Wednesday, 24 October 2007
So, I am after your book recommendations - what should I be sticking on my wish list?
I don't have a love affair with short stories - all too wham bam thank you mam. I don't much care for biography or history unless wrapped in a fictional format. Sci fi and crime don't hit the spot.
I want novels: contemporary and classic; pithy and rambling; elegant and coarse; witty and woeful; poetic and prosy.
There are a heap of authors I despise, but otherwise I am open to all suggestions. Oh, and hardbacks aren't great - I like to read in bed and the corners poke uncomfortably into my chest - but I can always wait til next birthday when they are out in paperback.
Tuesday, 23 October 2007
Here, the occasional plane comes past, the red Devon Air Ambulance hovers, and the RAF have been known to lean out of their Harriers and Chinooks and wave at the dogs (well, no, but they get so low you think they might). But these are rare intrusions. The regular noises are of the rural and agricultural kind.
There is the the regular clunk clunk of the chains hitting the sides of an empty muck spreader, accompanied by the rich whiff of future plenty. In autumn the terrifying flails are out trimming the hedgerows. The milk lorry rattles down the lane late at night taking its lactose load to be cartoned for your breakfast. Here on the farm there are angle grinders and bandsaws and chainsaws and cement mixers and diggers and all kinds of tools and machinery moaning, groaning and whirring at their task.
And then there are the animals. Each morning this week a stag has been roaring that his testosterone is high and that he's ready to party. In response, confused cows have bellowed back inviting him over to their place. Next doors' cockerels join the wild bird's dawn chorus. The Barnevelder cocks I'm rearing for meat are not yet mature so their muffled adolescent crowing isn't a cause for disturbance yet. The owls screech and call at night. The ram is bashing on the gate in his eagerness for the 1st of November when he will be allowed to visit the harem. The dogs growl and bark if something so much as deigns to pass the farm gate. The cat wheezes and squawks to be fed. The sheep munch rhythmically on haylage and the geese honk and shout. The cluster flies just buzz.
It's an old house so the sash windows rattle in their frames, the Aga snores as it gulps its oil, and with a distinct lack of carpeting the floorboards bend and creak as animal and human feet tap across the floor.
Soon, the builders should be arriving to start work on restoring the barns adding their sounds to the mix. I may invest in a packet of ear plugs.
Monday, 22 October 2007
There is just one thing I want to do with the few fruit that have doggedly grown and ripened. I want to experiment with dried apple rings, dehydrated in the bottom oven of the Aga. I promise not to bother the trees too much. I'll remove a few samples, walk quietly away, and they won't be the wiser.
The hedgebanks round the orchard will be laid and restored this winter and so let more light in which will benefit the young plantings. By the time blossom arrives, the hedgelaying will be complete, and the banks will be fenced. Yes, the sheep love lying on top of the banks but their sharp feet erodes them terribly and this in turn kills off the plant life. Instead, they will have to lie under the trees and scratch their arses against the guards.
PS: the apple is an unknown dessert/culinary type; the pomologist was unable to identify it.
Friday, 19 October 2007
Thursday, 18 October 2007
I was supremely impressed by the auctioneer. Extremely knowledgeable about cattle, the breed, and the provenance of the specific animals and most of the purchasers, he positively hummed with the required wisdom. His introduction showed that he had been preparing for this event, and there were all his peers watching him perform, determining whether they would sell their stock through him at some future point.
The estate stockman brought each lot into the ring, some individually, others with a calf at foot, adding a few words of insider wisdom for the occasional animal. It must be heartbreaking for him to bring to sale a herd he has cared for and developed.
We stood on trailers, six deep, hopping from one foot to t'other to glimpse between bunched shoulders the particulars of each animal - its confirmation, the clearness of its eye, it's breeding potential. I couldn't see why one cow went for over £1600 when another the same age went under the hammer for less than £500. Perhaps her teats were compromised - I couldn't tell from where I stood.
The auctioneer was miked and clear-voiced, the bidders discreetly nodding their catalogues or touching the brims of their caps. I didn't take a photo - I was worried it would be mistaken for a bid. I couldn't stay long, but I swallowed the essence.
Events like this are supremely English. There is a shorthand, a modus operandi, a complete sense of familiarity for those in the club, and an utter confusion for those unacquainted. And a key part of this mystique is that of course the lots were sold in guineas.
What's that all about? You bid, say, a thousand of these babies and have to part with £1050 (and possibly a buyers premium depending on the auction). Where else outside the auction house does a non existent coin of the realm become the accepted currency? Why not shekels or zlotys, or to keep with the English theme, groats?
I like the idea of paying with gold ingots, topped up from leather bagged gold dust to reach the required weight. It goes with my idea of Wild West ranchers, and that's not too far a leap from West Country farmers; one of the chaps there WAS wearing a leather cowboy hat.
He is, by now, a pretty ill cat. He is skinny, demands food and is fed constantly, and can wheeze abominably. But he also enjoys most minutes of his day; he still hunts, he sleeps, he seeks out company and warm laps. He is clearly not in distress, and in most ways he is unchanged and relaxed. Best of all, he doesn't engage in avoidance tactics for fear of a pill.
This is the fourth house Smudge has shared with me. He was a brightly blue-eyed terror of a kitten, much taken to sleeping curled up in man-size tissue boxes after exhausting frequent dare-devil antics had him hanging by needle-like claws from the dining room ceiling (ghastly walls covered in hessian eased his vertical travels). He has taken to Devon and its many trees with gusto.
There is a dent in the cushion on the floor of my office where he usually sleeps. I can see him crossing the frosty garden in search of choice vole.
Wednesday, 17 October 2007
These beauties grew from suckers taken last winter from our neighbour's canes and have grown from a few inches to towering plants of five foot. The book says I have to cut them down to ground level in February, and having proof that they really do grow like topsy in one year, I will not be too nervous of wielding the secateurs.
I appreciate that having berries posed on the ends of my pale fingers, assuming the likeness of fly agaric toadstools may put some off the fruit, but it minimises the need for spoons, and I'm not fussy.
Saturday, 13 October 2007
There isn't much art at home base though. Just some hamfisted craft. Nothing like the amazing quality of the stuff you might find here, more of the kind on display in the home-craft tent at the village fete.
Just the thought of pyrography makes me chortle; it's tattooing for the sensible, or the naff hobby you can do hunched over the kitchen table when there is nothing good on the telly and you don't fancy reading. I don't think I have ever seen an example that suggested this was a means to achieving good or interesting art. Perhaps it will be the medium for a future Turner prizewinner.
But I was desperate to label the trees in the orchard. After going to all the trouble of asking a pomologist to identify the existing varieties, and carefully doubling the number with new plantings of old Devon fruit trees, I didn't want to scratch my head in a couple of years time wondering what on earth was what. The posh version as used by the National Trust, arboreta and probably her Maj's gardeners were much too expensive and anyway entirely daft for a farm orchard. I improvised temporarily with stapled dymo tape, but the sheep rubbed them off quick smart, and with more than sixty of them I wanted a fairly permanent solution.
Pokerwork was the only cheap idea I came up with, and after a swift ebay purchase and a bandsawing of ply offcuts, there I sat, hunched over the kitchen table, being naff.
It worked though.
Thursday, 11 October 2007
My patience in not murdering a cat can be rewarded by a choice gem, a nifty morsel, a radio gaga. This week we had Sue McGregor holding hands with Jeremy Paxman and Bettany Hughes around the library table sharing some fave reads. It's not particulary relevant that Paxo chose The Secret Agent, the point is that he described it as "terrific" more times than I could count. And then it became catching and "terrific" was thrown about the programme as if it was an alternative for "and" or "the". The show was punctuated by terrific and I found myself gulping for breath so that I could continue to drive safely without tears of laughter blurring my vision.
And then I started to gasp in wonder. You'll remember Paxo's utterly brilliant interview of Michael Howard where he repeated his question a dozen times and didn't get an answer. On the basis of the "terrific" revelations I'm now wondering whether Paxo is THE interviewer of our times or someone who gets stuck in a salient groove. He sure loves repetition.
Wednesday, 10 October 2007
So today a drive through some unknown local lanes to a course on conservation grazing run by the Devon Wildlife Trust. It wasn't the lookering I was specifically interested in, but the chance to find out something, in knowledgeable company, about caring for cattle. A gentle way in to test my interest and potential commitment to keeping a few of my own and to keep the culm in good order. When the cob barn is restored it could house a number of cattle over winter, and if that is just a year or so away, planning and thinking is needed.
After a morning of discussion and learning on topics as beautifully named as zoonoses, cudding, bulling and locomotion (nought to do with Kylie and everything to do with movement) we went to see some real Devon Ruby cattle. They were on a very steep pasture and came to their owner in response to a waving of hay. One was put into the cattle crush for a few minutes so we could take a look at handling techniques and get a close-up of the signs of good health.
Glorious animals, the most rich of chestnuts - permanently autumnal - with a thick furry coat which makes them very hardy. They are not a large breed but are still enormous to someone only familiar with sheep. I was most enamoured. I need to find out more.
Monday, 8 October 2007
And then the ads come on and I find myself moving from calm to crazy in seconds. Is it just me or will Boots have to withdraw their new ad within the week? A breathily voiced woman (surely no-one speaks like this for real?) pants over some pseudo scientific face product. We see and hear how this stuff has resulted in women queuing like desperadoes in a state of heightened agitation, giving high-pitched screams, elbowing their fellow women painfully aside, and praised for their innovative use of handbags to bash each other on the head.
What is all this ridiculous stereotyping of women as violent idiots? Considering women must make up the massive majority of Boots customers you think they would avoid wholesale sneering at their lifeblood. We've moved on guys. Get a grip.