Thursday, 29 November 2007

Cows, butter and learning new things

I am hoping to adopt the vocabulary of the enthusiast. You know the kind of thing; you overhear a group of folks yacking on happily about their shared pet subject and it has all the meaning of gobbledegook until you have been initiated into the intricacies of the language.
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....

Evidence of the mayhem

It's only just light and before the builders arrive the dogs have a snoop around the site to reinforce their scent markings and suss out any new smells or bits of dropped sarnie. No luck there; the site is litter free and spotless. Apart from it turning into a moonscape.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Calm down dear!

I am not, stress not, going to go into a numpty-strop just because the morons in the Barclays call centre somewhere south of Katmandu are causing blood pressure red alerts. I will be calm. I will think about something else.
I will be grateful that I now have electricity and water, after having had both withdrawn for the day.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

Too much on your plate?

On the days you wonder if you have just too much to do and much too much to think about, or have an over-complicated life that just can't be fitted into the days available, it can help to know that others in Devon have taken on even more.
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

Over my ranting body

I watched the news in utter dismay last night. Yup, the civil servants are now downloading information onto discs so that your identity can be stolen and abused. 25 million parents and their children have been added to the hordes who will now refuse identity cards. If the attempted introduction of these cards doesn't create more resistance than the poll tax riots, I'll eat my passport.
(And I can't believe that I actually agree with George Osborne on this).


I have deliberately avoided posting about badgers for a very long time; their mention generates such strong feelings for both conservation and culling, especially here in Devon, which is a TB hotspot.
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

Cherry picking

7.30am the dogs are howling and a very shiny, very yellow JCB cherry picker (telescopic handler sounds so unromantic) is delivered for the day. In a couple of hours all the remaining slates on the roof have been removed, those in good order stacked neatly, the rubbish discarded. The skyline is changing daily, my home is in flux and unfamiliar.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Guest bloggery

This is my first time as an invading force on another's blog. I've written a piece on farming skills (by open invitation; no force, threats or underhand behaviour utilised) for Tim Relf's very jolly and frequently picturesque Farmer's Weekly Field Day blog. There are no pictures of furry animals involved. You can have a peek here.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Green lane

Today I have been a-sawing and a-lopping, mostly holly, but some hazel, blackthorn and hawthorn too. Much of it has been slim branches above head height, so my hair and fleece are peppered with holly sawdust, and I smell strangely piney and sappy.
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

Hibernation preparation

You may have seen better, you may have built better, but this is the neatest log pile I have ever seen on my premises. And yes, it warms you many times, in the cutting, the dragging, the chopping, the stacking, the barrowing and the restacking by the fire and finally in glorious combustion. This little lot will last til Christmas or perhaps just into the new year when the dragging, chopping, stacking etc starts all over again.
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

Reasons to be cheerful - part 7

Two reasons to be cheerful this morning.
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


Hedging is a complicated business. There are many opinions on it; to cut or not to cut, and if you cut, then how much and when. There are numerous styles of laying a hedge depending on the locality, and certain approaches favour particular species of wildlife. It is verboten to neatly cut, mechanically flail, or chop indiscriminately at your hedge during the months of March through July as you would certainly disturb nesting birds, and January and February are the preferred lopping times if possible.
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

In awe of the tv artist

For those of us who deeply admire Stephen Poliakoff the BBC have laid out a banquet - not so much a taster menu as a complete blowout. Last week those seeking out rare television drama gems had to juggle whether to record the new adaptation of A Room With A View whilst getting a Poliakoff hit with the exquisite Joe's Palace or vice versa. If your DVD was up the spout you were quite possibly in tears. If you'd watched the reruns of the first two parts of Shooting the Past a couple of days before, I doubt you headed for the Forster.
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

Birthday pleasures

Yesterday I became just seven weeks away from half my Mother's age; she will be ninety before the year is out. I sit here goggling at the thought, as has everyone before me who has reached their middle years and realised that their school mates are probably older now than their teachers were then. I feel the reality of it drift and sink in my head like sand.
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

Heading north

OK, apart from Cornwall, everywhere you can get to by car is north of Devon. I've walked the dogs, washed off their beloved fox shit and am sorting out papers and stuff for my trip to the Midlands. Just a couple of days away, to see friends, and as a welcome change be on the receiving end of some training. I'm looking forward to it, but even before leaving am eager to return. This place has got its hooks deeply embedded in me. I thought that would take a lifetime but it seems not.
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

Spinal treat

I wasn't planning on doing a post tonight; the lamb korma needs my attention. But the lovely man at The Spine (Guardian accredited dontcha know) has obliged and produced a collided and elided Janet and John that absolutely proves my point that Mr Depp and Ms Street-Porter are Russell Brand's parents. The Sun will carry the full story tomorrow.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Today is the first day of the rest of your life

I have never been one for calendars with daily homilies; intemperate reactions to that kind of stuff would mean expensive bills or hours of my life spent with polyfilla or linseed oil putty. I would never subscribe to services that send you a new word a day, or otherwise attempt to improve your vocabulary and by inference, your life. But there are some days that are momentous not for themselves but for what they will bring, and today is probably one of those days.
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.