Thursday, 28 February 2008

Prehistoric mini monsters

And so the clumps of spawn are increasing. I honestly don't ever remember seeing so much of the stuff; it seems that the frogs are in hyperactive mode and as each nucleus grows from a dot to a dash, more eggs are laid just to make sure. And in the warmest spots, there are tadpoles, those strange black spermy wrigglers that headbutt each other in their frenzied acknowledgement of life.
It's incredibly hard taking a decent photo of tadpoles - not just because they are in constant movement - but because the surface of the water reflects the photographer from most angles in preference to the beasts below. But there they hover, in primordial gloop, safe from the jam jar if not from natural predators.

Let there be light

Yesterday the scaffolders came and removed all the internal scaffolding in the barn which was starting to get in the way of the roof works and the patching of the walls. Wow.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Treasure trove

Winter is the season for major farm earthworks. Whilst the grass, trees, and hedgerows sleep there is heavy machinery at work remedying the trauma caused by decades of sheep and cows trampling at will through supposed boundaries and barriers. Devon hedge banks are strange ramparts, topped with hedgerow plants and trees, but unless they are kept steep sided with a thick palisade of thorny and spiny growth, lambs and sheep will bounce all over them, walk through them and create huge gaps that become livestock thoroughfares.
So, as this year's five chosen banks have had their hedges laid and the earth beneath them scooped by the digger magician back into shape, fencing follows swiftly before the sheep are allowed access; it's not only lambs that like to play King of the Castle.
As a consequence of all this work I have become ultra familiar with each bend, slope and growth on these boundaries. I have walked back and forth, back and forth, fencing tools in hand, gazing first at the ground where the slumped earth has been removed and remade into banks, and then at the banks themselves. Once the early spring rains start, the soil will be quickly, naturally covered with grass and wild flowers, so this is the time for revelation.
The largest objects I find are several ancient ploughshares in fields that it was thought had never been ploughed. Covered in soil, something about the shape of that small piece above ground (too straight for a stone perhaps) makes me stop and tap with whatever tool I have to hand; then I tug and yet another large, heavy piece of carefully shaped metal comes into the light. I drop the ploughshares by gateways. I refuse to throw them out and like to look at them as I go in and out of a field, wondering how the place was peopled and worked in the past.
The banks are the places to find misplaced tools. I find a wrench of old design, clogged with soil and rusted solid, no doubt carefully placed on the bank whilst a back was stretched or shoulders rolled, and then forgotten in a moment of distraction. It reminds me to double check that all the fencing tools are brought away as we move from section to section.
And sometimes I find something more intriguing; shards of pottery with the date of George VI's coronation still clear or hand made thick glass from some bottle of liniment or beer. And just occasionally I find whole bottles; my favourite has the legend "Corner's Oils for Sheep and Cattle" moulded along the body.
The bottles stand on the high mantel over the fireplace, and again, make me wonder each time I glance at them, about the people on the farm in the past.

Friday, 22 February 2008

I'm officially wild....

The wood on the farm is now an official County Wildlife Site, "due to the presence of Culm grassland and wet woodland, both rare and declining habitats in Devon; although the areas are relatively small they are of sufficient quality and wildlife interest to meet the CWS criteria." So says Devon Biodiversity Records Centre.
I'm rather excited about this recognition plus having responsibility for managing the wood sympathetically, knowing that there are fabulous and rare species to be enjoyed within the farm itself, developing knowledge about the various species and the ooh aah factor. Especially the ooh aah factor. That happens when you count a dozen more orchids than in the previous season.
Four other sites across the farm that were also surveyed are "not currently of CWS standard, though with time and continued sympathetic management there is clearly the potential for them to improve further in quality and ecological value." So room for improvement then. I like a challenge.
If you want to hunt through the history of this process, click on the culm label at the bottom of this post.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Five hours of high quality culture a week for kids

I have been churning and turning this issue over in my mind for days and just can't get to grips with it. As someone who has spent all her working life in the arts I should be cheering and clapping my hands, imagining the crocodiles of children snaking past exhibits, crying in theatres and snapping eagerly with cameras, but instead I can't help feeling more than a little bewildered.
How, exactly, are children going to get the equivalent of an hour a day, five days a week of high quality cultural activity? Are artists going to be the new teachers? I suspect that the only people who get 5 hours of HQC a week are art critics, and they have to watch/walk past/read through many tens of hours of dross to attain this. And what is it with the government and the target number five?
Now, I'd love to think that I could spend an hour on Monday having a go at throwing a pot with the help of a fabulous local potter, Tuesday bursting my lungs with contemporary song, Wednesday touring the region's best art gallery and museum instead of munching on a lunchtime snack, and on Friday using up my last two hours on a thrilling performance. But I know that this just isn't going to happen. And on a rural note it'd take at least ten hours of my time to get to these things; not everyone lives near city amenities.
Are we also being ridiculous in expecting this "Find your Talent" scheme to produce hundreds of thousands of artists that wouldn't otherwise exist because of some lingering idea that Cool Brittannia was a real concept and accessible to all?
Yes, I want schools to incorporate music and art and literature and new media and drama and every aspect of the arts within the school day. I want arts organisations to enable people of all ages to engage in their work in thrilling ways. I want people, including children to feel proud of their artistic and cultural achievements, and to have opportunities to get hands on with things they couldn't do at home - I always wanted to have a go at sculpting with stone rather than fiddling with potato prints. Professional artists working alongside communities and individuals can and do deliver extraordinary life-enhancing experiences.
But should this activity be circumscribed and headlined by a highly improbable numerical target? I suspect that rather than creating real, new, extraordinary activities that the most routine will be included by this number crunching daftness. Spent Sunday watching the telly and caught a bit of the latest period drama because your Mum insisted on watching it? Tick. Double period drama class on Thursday afternoon? Two ticks. Eng Lit on Friday morning? Tick. Recorder lesson? Tick.
I really don't mean to sound like a killjoy, but if we want a vibrant, culturally aware population it should be for everyone, not just a few pilot geographies in competition with each other (that post-code lottery thing). And all the pressures that stopped teachers taking pupils to the theatre (cost, overburdened curriculum, transport fears, excessive responsibility etc) and strangled peripatetic music services (too expensive, natch) is the stuff needing tackling. Humph.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

It's a matrix with its very own jargon

You may recall that I was a little nervous of asking the builders when the first slates would go on the cob barn roof.
The massive oak trusses went up so quickly, and since then a veritable crisscross of timbers with their own precise taxonomy is being added so that by the time the roof is ready for the slates to go up, the rain will have to dodge a great deal of wood before it can splash to the floor.
Across the trusses are the mighty purlins, and today three quarters of the roof is covered in vertical rafters. I worry for the ancient cob walls, but am reassured by the structural surveyor that they will happily take the weight without groaning to a heap of cobby rubble.
In the bonus February sun the builders perch like happy parrots all over the roof, hammers and tools strapped firmly into their belts.
I suspect that by the end of the week the mass of horizontal battens will start to go up, and then it's just a matter of putting the jargon in a place where my brain will retain it for further recall, and it will be slate time.
Oh, and I did ask, and the answer is within the next fortnight.

Monday, 18 February 2008

The boy's so good...'s enough to put you into a permanent slump. It isn't that the plot is so magnificent or that the characters are particularly original, it's that the writing is just so damn good.
Andrew O'Hagan had me on page one - truly gripped and completely relaxed in the knowledge that I was in the hands of a master for 278 pages of brilliant prose. Whether it was the "smirr of rain", "the lipstick smile" or the "windows the size of bibles" I groaned with appreciation of the originality yet appropriateness of the phrases.
There are life changing experiences for various characters. When the housekeeper finds an ancient note tucked deep under the mattress by her husband telling her "I DON'T LOVE YOU ANY MORE", I found myself startled on her behalf, not by the fact of the lovelessness but by the bitterness that must have led him to put the note there in the first place. To imagine finding such a note is to wish yourself permanent despair.
The priest tells of his school's tradition of pupils and staff wending their way to the annual picnic at Gormire Lake by any means of transport possible, and how he made his journey by elephant accompanied by cheers, and in so doing realised that imaginative impulses can be made real.
And then there are the comments leisurely chucked into the brew, that speak with painful honesty and admit to singular snobbery, such as the advertising hoardings speaking "of other people's choices" - don't they just?
Even a blogger wants to shape words in a way that creates interest, and Be Near Me is surely a prime example of the good stuff.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Yet more firsts - some good, some most definitely not

Last month I was counting off the various firsts of the year to date. Now there are more to add to the list.
This morning there was a heap of straw in the goose hut, pulled and picked into a comfy doughnut shape by one of the geese. I parted it carefully, and yes, the first goose egg of the year. Traditionally they start laying on Valentine's day, so if it was laid before midnight, she was spot on. I'll wait til there are enough eggs to put in the incubator and then let them do their thing by benefit of electricity, leaving the geese to sit naturally on another clutch.

There was the first flush of blossom in the orchard. It is on the unknown tree - I think it is a plum but don't really know - and the reason as to why it never fruits and reveals its true nature is clear; every year it blossoms far too early and the frost will kill off any premature buds. Looks like it's getting it wrong again.
Then there were the two nuthatches eyeing each other up. One of them, the male I guess, was displaying and trembling his tail feathers for all the world as if he was a bird of paradise; never seen that before.
And then on Wednesday I came in to find my first ever ominous recorded phone message from the animal health department of Defra announcing that the farm is in the newly enlarged Bluetongue surveillance zone. To be honest, the chances of doing anything to prevent my sheep getting this disease is nil, and the temptation to bury my head in activity is strong. I know only too well that some midges and mozzies have survived our warm winter. What a way to welcome the lambing season.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Up she goes

A duck's eye view of the magnificent erection, showing the back end of the barn, still hidden by heaps of mud. But you get the general idea, I hope. By the end of what was a gloriously sunny day all the roof trusses are in place, and a sprig of oak has been attached to the right hand truss for luck. As night falls and the builders feel rightly proud of a good day's work we all celebrate the topping out by downing some fizz - in this case sparkling cider made from the 2006 crop of apples.
Next day and the builders are perched on the apex, fixing the sections that will create the hipped ends. I haven't dared to ask when the first slates will go on.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

War Horse

I spent a lot of yesterday afternoon with tears splashing down my face and trickling down my neck. I was with a thousand other people, many of whom were dabbing uselessly at their eyes or struggling to keep juddering shoulders under control; it was practically full house for the penultimate matinée of the current run of War Horse at the National.
I'd come up by train from Devon, travelling for five hours, just to find myself right back there, but now the countryside was animated by extraordinary lifesize puppets of horses, crows and geese. I sat there wishing all my friends had been in the audience so that we could have shared this astonishing experience.
Michael Morpurgo wrote the book on which the play is based, just a few miles from here in Iddesleigh. For me, the Devon roots of the story added further poignancy to this tale of love, family, war, bitterness, violence, humanity and the ties between man and beast. We see the wrangling sale of a young colt and the bond between growing horse and growing boy seasoning. Humanity in its black, white and grey sides is blatantly portrayed, with both the loss of feeling and the fervent hold onto emotion and kindness when faced with the impossibility of war.
The overwhelming horsepower on stage was so strong that I could almost smell their sweat. Utterly horselike, the puppets were completely convincing as proud cavalry mounts and withered broken-mouthed starvelings; the deaths of horses as desperate as that of men.
Critics who have mocked this piece as a bit of flagrant anthropomorphism have missed the point; the puppetry is masterful, amazing, pure theatre at its most magical, but it is the capturing of the emotional journeys through appalling wickedness, and the death and simultaneous survival of the spirit, human and animal, that had us all weeping.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Love is in the air

Cole Porter was on my lips even before I read the Guardian's Saturday Poem. I was composing and humming a lewd farming version to myself, whilst admiring the gander's ability to copulate with three different geese in the space of ten minutes. Putting the ducks to bed later the drake couldn't even go the distance from paddock to hut without a quickie en route with his favourite bird.
The ram, now in sweet seclusion having done his thing during November and December, is still feeling distinctly amorous and I had to remonstrate with him quite firmly that no, constant head-bashing of the gate was not going to lead back to the harem.
The ewes, on the other hand, are heavily in lamb, with just six weeks to go. They spend their time eating and lying down, mating a distant memory.
All of which leads me to this week's bad joke. At some point in the next few days there should be a magnificent erection; the roof trusses are due to go up on the cob barn and a crane is on order. Pictures will be taken.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Fabulous sea creature habitat

Back to the wonderful Northcott Mouth today to get a winter fillip and celebrate the neighbour's dog's birthday (any excuse). It is the most amazing place.
But what is this stuff? It looked like sesame seed snaps, extruded into cylinders and clumped together in massive boulder size lumps. Click on the image to have a really close look at the structure.

Postscript: it's honeycomb worm! Even the name is fabulous.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Putting in the floor

Work stopped on the West Barn temporarily as the builders wait for the oak to be delivered that they will make on site into the roof trusses.
Not leaving hands idle seems to be the order of the day and an immense amount of readymix arrived at 7.30am to be poured over the damp proof membrane in the threshing barn. The conveyor belt was unfurled from the mixer and went in the main doorway, through the full width of the barn and out the other side to fill in the footings for the roundhouse before being retracted to fill the main floor area.
And the oak finally arrived today, courtesy of old wingnut himself.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Self-cleaning dogs?

Last night the ever watchable Kevin McCloud was in architectural heaven over paint that literally shrugs off dirt. He was as gleeful as a six year old boy as he dipped and re-dipped a piece of board coated in this clever stuff, and no matter how many times he submerged it in a vat of liquid mud it came out sparkling whilst the non-coated back was thick with gloop.
Yesterday I was on my hands and knees; that's on HANDS AND KNEES, with damp J-cloth wiping Mopsa's muddy pawprints off the stairs, landing and bedroom floors.
The building work + the weather + the season = unavoidable heaps of mud. Unbelievably copious amounts of the stuff. You open the front door and it pushes into the house unasked and unwanted like an evil relative or a z-list celebrity contrarily selling Daz. Footprints and pawprints are swabbed off the kitchen floor weekly; more often would be pointless - you might as well do it every half hour and die of boredom and drudgery. At least that can be done with a mop, the floor being covered in lino. But the stairs, landing and bedrooms are all ancient floorboarding of varying widths - the mop is not for them. So, hands and knees it is then.
Mopsa watched Grand Designs with me last night. She cast a baleful eye of recognition at the vat of mud.
I sit up in bed this morning and see the trail of huge mucky pawprints polkadotting what had been the beautiful clean wooden floor. I cast Mopsa, who is sleeping on her soft mat by the bed, my own baleful glance, wondering if it would be possible to have her coated in Kevin's miracle paint.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Five minutes to the Himalayas

Driving to Okey today, the Himalayas were spread out in front of me; a panorama of snow capped mountains.
Well, no, it was the tors and hills of Dartmoor that had been dipped in clotted cream and whipped meringue just to remind us it is winter. The banks by the side of the road were crystalline with sparkly icy slush, but the snow was all kept specially for the heights of the moor itself.
I didn't have my camera with me, so this is pinched, and you can bet the snow will have melted by the time I head that way again.