Saturday, 23 August 2008

The tears of a clown

For the first time in recent summer memory, it seemed like it might just possibly be a day without rain.
At 6 o'clock I go and give the pigs their evening feed, and gaze out at the grey, grumbling clouds over the hill. I can't feel any wet in my hair or on my face, but there on a stone by my foot is a large splash; a harbinger of a battalion of splashes.
Even the ducks are fed up with being permanently damp.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Fosbury's event

I know I've been reading a fair bit of PG Wodehouse recently, what with making sure that Claude and Eustace are suitable names for the kitkats, but doesn't "Fosbury's event" sound a bit Bertie Woosterish to you too?
Probably not if you like sport, but as I've said before, I'm really not keen. I've heard of Linford Christie and Roger Bannister, remember Flo Jo with the hideously long nails, and recognise that a rugby ball is different from a football, but I don't really care about any of it.
So, there was the last unsolved clue in the Guardian Quick crossword: _i_h/_u_p. I went through all kinds of permutations: fish pump, dish lump, with hump, pith sump, rich bump. I was really enjoying myself. And then I googled Fosbury and there was the answer. Not half as exciting as this, this or THIS.

Monday, 18 August 2008

War wounds

I think, but I don't KNOW, that this is a speckled wood butterfly. It landed on a bramble and I took a quick snap, because my memory for markings is pretty poor and by the time I'd have had the book in my hand I would be scratching my head over any discernible feature other than the hopeful memory that it was mainly brown.
And now, in the comfort of my chair, and filling the screen, I can see how torn its lower wing is between the two eyes. It reminds me of Smudge's ears, those delicate filigree whorls and thin skinned points that took such a beating from unknown cats. I used to gently finger those healed slits and notches and tell him he was just as beautiful as before, just with added character, like a mother reassuring a daughter with a beauty spot or a son with a significant nose.
I have some temporary wounds of my own; sharp kitten claws rake my legs, arms and neck as
they clamber up me for attention, hanging indiscriminately from zips, buttons, flesh.

Friday, 15 August 2008

To the tannery

It gets very sheep focussed round here when enough lambs are ready to go to the butcher. First you bring the lambs in and sort them, checking weights and which ones are the right level of fatness. Then you ear tag the selected few, belly them out (shear off the belly fleece) and put them on clean straw in the barn to make sure they are clean and dry for the butcher. Into the trailer and off to slaughter first thing the next morning, with a comprehensive cutting list so you don't end up with chops the size of hams or joints comparable to fairy cakes. Back to the abattoir next day to pick up the offal and the salted skins, whilst the meat hangs for a further week. Home to remove the hearts and livers from the lungs and other pipework you don't want, bag it up and freeze. Jump back in the car and drive to the southern end of Dartmoor to Buckfastleigh and deliver the skins to the tannery.
That was a real bonus. After a dozen years of sheep keeping I have never had the skins cured before, but these days I'm determined to make use of every bit of the animal. I emailed the tannery who then looked at our farm website, said flattering things and offered me a tour. Well, it was fascinating. The place looked like an ancient distillery, what with all those huge wooden vats. Just ten people work in the three storey warehouse, and it's a physically demanding and highly skilled craft. I saw every machine, every nook and cranny, each process and their results.
The vats where the skins are washed in clean Dart river water, soaped and steamed, pickled in chromium. The machines that remove any flesh, fat and other undesirables. The huge spin dryer, superheated iron and the dragon machine - well it looked like a dragon to me - that with the aid of a brave man leaning into the works to manhandle each skin, softens them after they have become a little hard during the various processes. There were white skins, black skins, Jacobs and curly coated Lincolnshire long wools, these latter being dyed black and used as numnahs for the Horse Guards. The natural colours and variations were glorious, which is more than can be said for the eyesmacking Barbie pink, fire engine red and optimistic sky blues stored in a separate area so, I like to think, not to offend the eye of the workers.
It's a tactile trade - the finger tips can't lie about the suppleness or brittleness of the goods. As I was escorted round, my guide couldn't help stroke each stack of fleece, and there were many, all caressed knowingly as he passed.
I have high hopes of my badger fleeces (that's them above), with their creamy fleece and black border. I pick them up in about six weeks time.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Devil's Cauldron

It's impossible to capture the power, the cacophony, the all pervasive wet in one wee photo, but Lydford Gorge's Devil's Cauldron is quite something. Some gentle pasture, a mild mannered woodland, and then boom! The cracked rock is full of tumbling, roaring, endless water moving at incredible velocity, gushing into the potholes below.
The path is very much single track; no holding hands in holiday mood or chatting companionably side by side. You go down, down towards the mayhem and between the fissured stone into the depths of the gorge, secured either side by hand rails. Then a little swing gate and if you can brave the sudden lack of an outer handrail, soaked and slippy slate steps take you into the heart of the thing, where you stand on a platform right over the cauldron and imagine what it might have been like to be the first to discover this force of nature without a handhold to steady your body or spirit. I baulked and then set my jaw and completed the walk, strangely unaffected by vertigo, probably because everything is so contained and claustrophobic, quite unlike looking out from a high bridge or cliff into a world of scary nothing.
On the gentler parts of the walk, water constantly oozes and trickles, drips and splashes, spurts and springs through the ferns and mosses. Trees grow incredibly tall and straight seeking the light, and the undergrowth is an emerald and jade jungle - a cartel of chlorophyll. It's impossible to imagine going thirsty here; the antithesis of desert
The White Lady waterfall at the other end of the gorge is also beautiful if not so nervily dramatic, but the National Trust rather overdo the walker warnings calling it arduous, treacherous and goodness knows what else. You need stout shoes and a concentrating eye, and the dogs were left at home to avoid tipping anyone into the deadly depths, but although it's fairly steep, it's a short trot, and you couldn't compare it to climbing Everest.

Friday, 8 August 2008

A breathing barn

Weird. After three years I finally have an inkling of what the roofless barn will look like with its hat on. That extraordinarily high tech breathable membrane pinned to the rafters may look oddly modern, but it will be entirely hidden by local reclaimed slate and ensure that moisture doesn't drip onto the floor and that any wet in the building will be able to escape through the roof if it hasn't run out of the doors first.
That's not so daft as it sounds. Yesterday the river below the farm burst its banks spectacularly and caught folk unaware. Fenn swam for the first time, unable to touch the ground as the water reached tall human thigh height on the road. Twenty minutes previously it has been an inch high, but turning to retrace their steps, dog and dog walker communed with the African Queen experience.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008


Last year I was pulling ragwort on the farm in the places where diggers had disturbed the ground and created a lovely new seedbed. This year, only a couple of plants re-emerged, so the yanking up by the roots, removing and burning process seems to have worked. And there is not a trace of the stuff anywhere near the hayfields which is good news.
But the wood is a different matter. A year ago there were just a few plants but as it is closed off to livestock, I didn't think it too important to deal with them, after all, if there was a problem there would be a sea of yellow, not just a sprinkling. Humph. I have just heaved the fifth heavily crammed sackful back to the bonfire. It's the usual story; look after the pennies (or the individual plants) and the pounds (the heavy sack) will look after itself. Lesson learned.
Trouble is, although I always mean to take an old carrier bag or similar on all my walks across the farm to pick up any rogue plastic, litter, baler twine or other foreign body, I remember, say, once in every twenty walks, and I often return home with a length of wet, muddy twine in my now begrimed pocket. But you can't pull ragwort safely without gloves, and it won't fit in my pocket, so it requires a special trip loaded with refuse sacks, gloves and a keen eye.
There may be one or two plants left, but I will be bold, fearless and focussed, and get rid of the deadly weed before they go to seed. And perhaps I should hum this for good measure.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Introducing Claude and Eustace

Well, you just try taking a decent photo of wriggly squirming pusscats!
Thank you everyone for your fabulous suggestions for names. It's been an interesting task giving a pair of almost identical kittens monikers that will do well for adult cats. The only difference I can tell at the moment is that one has blue eyes and the other green; but most moggies' blue eyes change as they get a little older, so I'm just going to have to learn to distinguish other features and personality traits.
Claude and Eustace it is then, the twin cousins of Bertie Wooster who turned up far too early in the mornings, perched on Bertie's bed and nicked his breakfast. Trouble was their magnet. Sounds about right. Blue eyes is Claude, green eyes is Eustace (front).