Friday, 29 June 2007

London town

I was up in The Smoke yesterday. There and back in one day, a thirteen hour round trip. I drove to the station. I waited for the train and after a short delay rolled along inexorably through ruralness and suburbia towards urbania. I headed down into the depths of the underground. My head rang with ratcheting decibels on the tube, whilst my body scorched in the heat and twanged internally to the palsied rhythm. My eyeballs and eardrums threatened to close down. Before meltdown I left the screeching metal intestinal transport system behind and gratefully walked across a park to get to my meeting.
Heading homeward I was talking on the phone, lost my concentration and took a wrong turning in the park, the Thames and Tower Bridge stretching before me. I asked a man which way to the underground and he shrugged. I asked another man, this time walking a dog (usually a good sign) and he told me the way. It was quite clear that he was heading in the same direction, but unlike the casual and relaxed familiarity of home, I forgot that Londoners have an innate suspicion and self-preservation thing going on (I had it too, but my Londoner status has obviously long rubbed off) and he was most uncomfortable when I fell in step alongside him. He quickened his pace, tugging at the dog's lead and marched swiftly ahead, either mildly in fear of my safety or his.
I am a bad traveller. I am probably an angry traveller. I resent the enforced claustrophobia, inactivity and almost inevitable migraine. I feel myself bristle, and that isn't good for bloodpressure or the stranger sitting opposite, with whom you have to do the tired leg tango, avoiding any touch each time you stretch and reposition yourself less uncomfortably.
And then, more tired than a tired thing, I hobble out of the car and open the farm gate. The dogs hurl themselves up the track into my arms and I drive them down to the house, sanity restored.
I take off my London clobber, and curl into fleece and leggings (yeah, right unfashionable slut) ready for a sofa snooze before bed. My mistake. A loud shout has me joining the fray to evict 102 Suffolk ewes from the wood - they should be in the adjoining fields but have opened the narrow pedestrian gate and filed through, munching on things they shouldn't be munching on. It only takes ten minutes to sort them out. The gates are secured with baler twine and I slope back to the comfort of the sofa.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007


Online Dating

Rachel has made me chortle most mightily, and one is obliged to share a good thing. Apparently I am damned and forbidden reading for the under eighteens. I am officially an adult blog. This is determined based on the presence of the following words:
  • sex (8x)
  • murder (5x)
  • death (4x)
  • dyke (3x)
  • rape (2x)
  • cocks (1x)
I didn't recall discussing dykes, so I did a blog search. The references are to Dick van and Greg. I'll leave you to search for my comments on cocks. Go on, have a laugh...get your rating here.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Old Testament toad

The rivers are not running with blood, but they are bursting their banks and cruelly taking life. The news is grim and Gordon Brown will be taking over a country not so much cleansed as deluged. As for the personal being political, the largest toad I have ever seen in this country took refuge from the watery onslaught in the dog's room last night and as it is still dark I have yet to check outside whether this is a single visitation or a veritable plague, and if I should therefore be checking for lice (might be a tick or two on the sheep), flies (check), dying cattle (my heart starts to sink), boils (so far, so smooth), hail of devastating effect (not yet...but the grass intended for hay has nonetheless been flattened by the downpours), locusts (just butterflies at the moment), and far worse.
The toad was the size of my fist - I do not have large hands, but even so, that is a big Bufo bufo. It was carried carefully into some lush green undergrowth out of dog harm.
There is something hugely appealing about a toad. They live a quiet life, rarely intruding on your thoughts or vision, and then they appear apparently out of nowhere to remind you of their existence and helpful destruction of veg patch pests. Digging up spuds a few years ago, a knot of toads emerged blinking from the soil and incredible care had to be taken as more of them were revealed at each now tentative forkful of earth.
But the biggest toad I have ever seen anywhere was Italian. The Toad of Fontemelaia as it was thereafter named, was the size of a football and I nearly squashed it, driving down the unmade treacherous track after an evening at the local pizzeria. There was this big round lump in the road. Thinking it was a rock that had newly fallen on the path I screeched to a halt. As we went to move the rock, the headlights showed it to be mega toad. We gawped in awe. It hauled itself away from the light never to be seen again. I still wonder if it was a figment of too much chianti, but there were four of us and we still recall that night and the wonderful cherries and fireflies that flourished below the flea-ridden but oh so romantic farmhouse.
If my biblical toad is still around in the morning light I will try and take a photo of the man himself.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Creature feature

Bats are a part of life here, and with the young podding, the odd one or two fall from the rafters or get left behind by mum, hopefully (doubtfully) temporarily. They drop from the gap above the Aga into the kitchen where the warmth lulls them stupid, or their mothers fly into the bedroom, just missing the bat entrance to the roof by inches. I have seen three youngsters in varying stages of development in the past fortnight. They are strange creatures, truly prehistoric in their ugliness and fascinating in their otherness. I think this is a young pipistrelle, no more than an inch long, completely bald and clinging to the green oak cladding of the outdoor stairs, awaiting mammary satisfaction and a furry back to climb on. I hope this bat baby finds what it's looking for.

Friday, 22 June 2007

The meme game

Thanks to le Chippy, followed swiftly by Jan Tregeagle, I have yet another meme (or more appropriately meme) to send on its merry way. If this carries on, I will have no secrets left.

What was I doing ten years ago?
It was a Sunday, and according to my diary the day was blank - but I was no doubt recovering from the previous day's surfeit of stunning outdoor international theatre at its very best - and all a decade before The Sultan's Elephant was a twinkle in a Parisians eye.

What was I doing one year ago?
I was working in London for the day, with a view of Tate Modern, and meeting more than 40 of the most interesting artists and arts managers in the capital. I was also celebrating my first year living in Devon.

Five snacks I enjoy (only five?)
Halloumi, fried in olive oil and served with rocket and raspberry vinegar - it's posh cheese for adults, and it squeaks!
Ready brek
Raspberries with clotted cream
Sausages - homemade, with friends and an old Kenwood
Chocolate puds - any luscious kind will do.

Five songs to which I know all the lyrics
If I were a rich man
I've farted
She was poor but she was honest
Every last word of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat (feel free to wipe that memory any time you like)
I'm gonna sit right down and write myself a letter (or perhaps a blog)

Five things I would do if I were a millionaire
I'd build a big tall house with rooms by the dozen... (actually no, I'd restore the old barns on the farm)
I'd fill my yard with chicks and turkeys and geese and ducks (and lots of art)
I wouldn't have to work hard (in reality I would probably work harder, but on the land, using muscles and no less brain)
I'd buy my sister a house with garden in central London - make that if I were a multi-millionaire
I'd have a party!

Five bad habits
Picking my feet
Snapping and snarling
Forgetting important things, remembering the minutiae
Innate laziness
Writing other people's to do lists

Five things I like doing
Walking the dogs
Eating with friends
Dibbling my toes in the sea
Lambing successfully
Reading in the sun

Five things I would never wear again
Zigzag orange and purple psychedelic flares
Yellow crocheted dress
A suit
Red stilettos....then again
Polo necks

Five favourite toys
Binker the bear
Newspaper fish
My Canon iXus

Phew. The baton is now passed to: Eurodog, Flowerpot Days, Keir Royale, Around My Kitchen Table and And Who Cares? Feel free to pick it up, to ignore it or to pity my revelations.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Midsummer madness

On midsummer night you should do something fabulous, and as the stuff on the box is positively appalling tonight, you are going to have to make your own entertainment. The suggestions made to me so far include "sprangling our mangelwurzels" and "spurtling our furtleberries". If you have any idea what these might be, please feel free to share. Alternative activities include: looking mournfully at the drenched hay field; having to water the veg in the polytunnel, because no matter how hard it rains, the rods can't penetrate plastic; hunkering down with a good plate of nosh and the DVD of Casino Royale. Daniel Craig wins hands down. Also hands up, behind his back, etc.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

The culm

I have mentioned culm a few times, and mountainear has asked me to explain what I mean by the term. I will try my best; just remember that I am no ecologist and had no idea what it was myself two years ago.

The Culm is an area of North and West Devon. It is characterised by "an undulating, open, remote rural landscape, sparsely wooded and dominated by livestock farming. Intricate steep valley systems form rolling ridges feeding into wider major river valleys. Steep rugged coastline, much of which falls within the North Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty."
So that's The Culm. Which is not the same as culm grassland. Culm grassland is found in The Culm area and is Purple Moor-grass and rush pasture that is home to many interesting and rare species of plant and animal life. You find Purple Moor-grass on poorly drained, usually acid soils with high rainfall, which explains its ubiquity in Ireland, and until recent years in Devon before much of it had been drained and ploughed. Because there is considerably less of it now than there used to be, Defra and Natural England are trying to encourage its maintenance, re-creation and restoration. Why do they want to maintain this shrinking landscape? There are a huge number of plant species in addition to the Purple-Moor grass in these patches of land, including wonderfully named plants such as Bog asphodel, Bugle, Devil's-bit scabious, Hemp-agrimony, Lesser water-parsnip, Ragged-robin, Southern Marsh and Heath Spotted Orchids, Sneezewort and Whorled caraway, to name a few. These plants support some of the loveliest and increasingly rarest of critters. Curlews and Reed Bunting love this type of landscape, Kestrels and Barn Owls hunt over culm where voles are to be found, Marbled White and Marsh Fritillary butterflies thrive here as does the Narrow-bordered Bee Hawk-moth.
To maintain the grassland for these diminishing species you need to have the grass grazed by cattle at the right time of year - summer and autumn, or in January careful swaling of the dry thatch that is formed by the Purple Moor-grass, to encourage new growth in spring.
On the farm there is a patch of culm grassland that is just over an acre, a large bow-tie (or as I prefer to think of it, dog-bone) shaped glade surrounded by woodland. It has been fenced so that access to it by sheep and cattle can be controlled, and in summer it is incredibly difficult to walk through. It is thigh-high and tussocky and you have to wade through it and be very careful where you place your foot to avoid twisted ankles and squashing the orchids. Deer hide in the long grass and I long to come across a fawn.
The Devon Wildlife Trust think this small patch is bursting with interesting species and want to do a full survey. I can't wait.
Here endeth the lesson.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Walking the dogs

Mightily peeved at nature since scooping the remains of the baby nuthatch off the grass this morning. Need a walk to get the brain back on forward motion. We head across the farm to the wood. There is a full size roe deer, bouncing through the long grass. The dogs pretend to pursue but turn back at my call, and we plunge into the thigh high purple moor grass in the patch of culm. I count 24 orchids, a fluttering of butterflies, Bird's Foot Trefoil that will soon show its flowers, in fact all kinds of everything. I feel the stress drain out of me, literally through my feet into the boggy patches of watermint. Perhaps it will make the plants grow even more lush.

R.I.P young nuthatch

Sometimes I hate my cats. I know they only do what comes naturally, and they are fabulous rodent catchers. But today I found the newly fledged nuthatch dead and bedraggled from a mumbling in the cat's mouth. I suspect the only reason it hadn't been eaten was a surfeit of mouse earlier in the day. If the young great spotted woodpecker goes the same way I might not be held responsible for my actions.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Going, going.......gone

Devon is full of auctions. In a random week you could pit your wits and auction technique against the pros and hustlers for: antique furniture; crap furniture; granite adornments of massive tonnage; farm implements; cattle, sheep, lambs and other livestock; horses; jewellery; arts and crafts of all kinds; houses, farms, clumps of woodland; miscellaneous objects of every kind; and poultry and poultry paraphenalia.
You may not think that bidding for a clutch of laying eggs, a group of sorry-for-themselves goslings, or a pair of majestic Silver Appleyard ducks is much of a thrill, but you would be wrong. First there is the viewing. You push your way past the hordes of folk eyeing up the cages of squawking birds. You see a mother hen with a half dozen chicks, one perched on her back as she struts and clucks, checking all are present and correct. There are examples that just about pass the vet's muster, that you would not risk introducing to your own flock; runny nose, dull eyes, feathers lacklustre, scaly legged or just sitting dejected in a corner. You spot a fabulous cockerel - black, polished, mature, shiny-eyed, probably done his bit for the breeder and now surplus to requirements. You don't need a cockerel, but he looks at you and you decide to take him if he's going at the right price. Then there are the examples you are really keen on: the trio of Khaki Campbells, just coming up to laying age; the Cayugas, with their effervescent plumage or a set of fine comical Indian Runner Ducks that should have their own primetime cartoon show.
You decide to bid. You get your auction number from the tiny booth, and even though you've only bid twice before, they know who you are and you don't need to repeat your address. The auctioneer and his sidekick push the wheeled auctioneer's stand into position. His hand does a quick check for auction notes, handkerchief and the two guinea pigs sewn together that sit on his head and impersonate a toupee. People cluster round the cages of birds they want to bid for, the numbers of the lots scrawled on the back of their auction number. They then try to act nonchalant, and mostly fail. The auctioneer's patter clatters on, barely intelligible; you have to deliberately tune in to his wavelength and it's a lost cause if you were intending to bid on the first few lots.
Your first lot comes up, you are now tuned in, you wait til the bidding slows and raise your hand quietly. You win or you lose. Sometimes there are no or few rival bids and you get your desire for pennies; you see something others don't, or they see something you can't. At other times a simple lot goes for bigger bucks than you can fathom. Concentration is total, even though you may be about to part with nothing more than a blue beer voucher. It's over quickly, but the initial adrenalin rush is as great for a duck as for a house, although the buzz lasts for a great deal longer if property or a new throughbred showjumper is the outcome. Done. Dusted. You do not control the pace of purchase.
When you emerge from the auction shed you feel the same as when you come out of the cinema and it's still daylight; disoriented, unreal, but with an experience and a story whirling in your head. The difference is that you may well have a trio of ducks in a container in your hands. You smile at them and take them home.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Summer fiction

Each year as the weather warms, my brain cells atrophy and go all teenage girly. In the autumn, the grey matter rehydrates and becomes more discerning. But those summer months of utter non-intellectuality are to be enjoyed, because that is when the bad fiction gets stacked by the bedside and devoured in steaming heaps. There is always a two-inch thick bonkbuster special or chicklit surprise on the kitchen table or by the bog to be munched through in 'spare' moments. Picking through the Oxfam book stock becomes a fortnightly addiction, and the local market provides 3 for £2 if you have time to browse between securing the week's cheese and veg supply and haring back to the desk.
It often starts with a re-read of a Jilly Cooper, although this year's temptation was freshly printed and bought cheap cheap at Paddington station. At the moment I am chewing through (why? shoot me now with a stone-age weapon, she is dire) Jean M Auel's Earth Children series. There is a heap of Georgette Heyers (first time for me) that I failed to wade through in adolescence. I do have some limited standards though. Jean Plaidy, Danielle Steel, Dan Brown, Jeffrey Archer (arggghhh!) and Terry Pratchett are permanently OUT. The distinctly classier Barbara Pym, Paul Auster and Philip Roth do rub shoulders with my current trashy stuff.
Many years ago, at a house warming party, the woman I showed round first gasped at the Jilly Coopers piled next to the complete, unmatching sets of James Joyce and Henry James. She spent the next hour commenting on and showing other people my apparently bizarre (and I must admit alphabetized) book collection. What she saw was my summer stock put to bed with the rest of the library - and at what I think is over 3000 books, I suspect it is becoming something of a mini library. My catholic reading is something I see reflected on friends' bookshelves. The more rigorously informally educated they are the more eclectic their collections and the more I want to prise their gems out of the vertical. In my head I am a book snob. In my heart I am a book slut.


Thinking about my eventual long white pigtail got me in a hair frame of mind. The previously referred to wild barnet is just that. Long; when wet it is below the waist, when dry it waves about between my shoulder blades like a remonstrating ferret on a windy day. It won't stay behind my ears and it won't stay tidy. I doubt if it has it ever been tidy. Twenty years ago it was deeper brown, glossier, fuller and curlier. I was Shirley Temple on speed. Or if you are feeling unkind, Bonnie Langford on prozac. Now it is my thatch, with a fabulously Cruella De Vil silver streak on the left. I thought I'd hate it but actually, I'm rather fond of it and wonder when the finger-thick streak will extend to the rest of the still dark ringleted mess. In my twenties it was my mane, my pride and joy, my mark of femininity (important for someone who eschews make-up and only recently owned perfume and high heels), but now it is probably more appropriately characterised as middle-aged hair. The hairdressers are itching to cut it off to some respectable length - but I refuse to look like somebody's mother from a previous generation. But perhaps I'll give the pigtail a blue rinse. When I'm eighty.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Des res for otters

Some days you do something that you suspect will be an absolute one-off. Yesterday was one of those. It was beautifully sunny, with the sound of bale wrapping coming at you from all sides, with neighbouring farms taking note of the dreadful forecast for the following day, and getting in their hay and haylage as fast as mechanically possible. But most of my day was spent in shadow, on a slope, underneath ash and oak, building a log cabin. Not any old log cabin but an otter holt with four internal chambers; bedroom, nursery, and two reception rooms (or perhaps kitchen, bathroom, office and conservatory). The holt was built with mega logs three and four layers high, kept back from the mighty hedgelaying last winter. You have to be careful that the internal rooms interlink - no panic chambers here - or you get a space with no way in (also no way out). The holt was covered in long poles of ash and willow, and the whole covered in twiggy branches and wired down to keep it stable. There were chainsaws, sledge hammers, pruning saws and loppers, logs, poles, stakes and brashings, midges, red ants, hornets; the usual macho outdoor stuff.
There are otters locally; this is Tarka country and I have had their spraint crumbled educationally beneath my nostrils to release the pungent fishy odour. The prospect of otters mating and producing young on the farm is in the category of "one of the most exciting things I can imagine". Turning away from the new housing plot, it was good to imagine that sanctuary might have been provided for a pair of first time buyers. I only apologise for having taken so long to build the off-plan dream.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

My Crufts champs

OK, no. They aren't champs. They have various "not quite perfect" traits. But I love 'em. To bits. And not for the world would I hold their tails out, raise their heads unnaturally or flick at them with a brush like a demented game show contestant (not in public anyway). No Crufts for us. But all the same, they have been prepared for a hot summer by having their coats stripped and the thick under layer of matted fluff removed. Their toes have been trimmed to perfection and they look and smell cleaner now than they will in five minutes time. They won't stand for more than a cursory weekly grooming from me, so off to the professionals they go and my, don't they look a picture?
Both dogs have collar tags with mobile number, home number and vet's number - that way they can make the phone call they need to, as long as they have the requisite change in their pockets. I have a different kind of tag. Keir Royale has bummed one of these my way. Eight things you don't know about me?
  1. I have an EVIL temper. Snap, snap, snap, snarl.
  2. My parents owned a joke shop in Soho, but I can never remember the punch line.
  3. I can lift heavy weights when there is no-one else around; somehow that talent disappears when there is help at hand.
  4. I'm scared of having my hair cut short; when I am older I will have a long white pigtail down my back and look like some freaky eccentric. Which means I can act like a freaky eccentric. And that sounds good to me. Win/win.
  5. I like to be in new places but I hate to travel. I want a magic carpet.
  6. You only cry in the theatre three times in your life. I wish it was more.
  7. Unlike M&M I have one earring in my left ear. But none in my right. This is to keep one earlobe utterly perfect - an earlobe is so nice to twiddle and a hole mars the pleasure factor. Thirty years after having my ear pierced my Mother still asks me when I am going to have the other one done.
  8. I'm not telling.
Anyone who reads this, consider yourself tagged. And if I'd read this first, I could have got away with just five things.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Blair and Hirst and crass farewells

Enough has been written, and more will pour, on the extended Blair exit. Damien Hirst on the other hand has not announced a farewell, but his truly bizarre diamond skull unveiled yesterday to the art world must surely be a nail in the coffin of his parallel era. Since Sensation in 1998, a year into Blair's reign, Hirst has grabbed the public imagination and the art buyer's wallet contents like no other artist. Sceptical, I finally saw his work at the Saatchi gallery in County Hall and was unexpectedly blown away by his sliced cow - otherwise known as Some Comfort Gained From The Acceptance Of The Inherent Lies In Everything - I couldn't tear myself away from it. But this Tiffany special he has created has got to be one of the more crass statements made by an artist. Turning a human skull into a disco ball and charging £50million for it is either a horrendously apposite comment on humanity, greed, the worth and worthlessness of human life (the price of everything and the value of nothing), or Hirst's two-fingered diamond wave to the rest of us.

Friday, 1 June 2007

The Magic Faraway Tree

Noddy never really did it for me, even though I read all the books with pleasure. But when Enid Blyton turned her hand to The Magic Faraway Tree, something clicked. There was a whole different world to be had in exchange for a simple turning of pages. Massive, ancient and gnarled trees hold many mysteries and myths. The true veterans suggest pre-history. When you lean your back or place your hand against a huge tree trunk your mind tricks you into sensing it has knowledge and awareness. As a child growing up in a London suburb with a few fruit trees of no special merit in a rectangular garden, I longed for a magic faraway tree of my own set in a meandering, untamed patch of land. Me and a thousand others.
At the far end of the farm, perched on the very precipice of the steep river bank is an ancient oak. It is entirely hollow, so dendrochronology would be a wasted exercise. The base of the tree is scalloped - foxes and badgers can easily pass through to shelter in the core of the tree. The trunk is wrapped in fist-thick veiny cords of ivy. A rowan grows up through the middle of the tree, giving the oak a crown of orange berries at the end of summer; the tree no longer has a crown of its own. And yet, it is still living, producing leaves and acorns, sheltering insects, birds and mammals, providing a rubbing post for sheep and reminding me that its lifespan far, far exceeds that of any human Methuselah.