Tuesday, 30 December 2008

The George

So, this is the aftermath of the terrible fire that has utterly destroyed The George (this is what it looked like before the fire).
There is nothing left worth saving; a door, a sash window, one cast iron manger used as a flower basket. A week after the fire there are still small plumes of smoke rising from the debris and the whole town smells of doused bonfire.
The site looks so small, so diminished, from what was a smart, imposing building.
The house next door must be at risk; the joining wall looks a disaster of crumbled red cob.
It was market day in Hatherleigh today, and people had come to look and reminisce and see for themselves what they couldn't really believe from the television, the papers and the chat.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Christian cheer

Just before Christmas I was in a church not a million miles away with a bunch of friends, listening to the most awful Christmas concert imaginable. Truly awful - I should have backed out when I heard the electric organ twang in lift musak fashion as I entered. There were candles everywhere, on all the pews and tucked into every churchy crevice.
On top of the extraordinary tinkling, twangy sounds provided for the audience's pleasure, we were preached at from the pulpit by a lay orator between each musical offering. I didn't know that smugness and self satisfaction were Christian virtues, but being an atheist, I might have got that wrong. Certainly, there was no humility on show.
I have long hair. I smelled burning. The man in the pew behind grinned at me in unchristian fashion as my locks crinkled and burned on his little pew candle. I wanted to throttle the smug bastard. Instead, I filled the church with singeing pong and left in the interval to stick pins in a wax effigy.
Far better were the Christmas carols in Hatherleigh square on Christmas eve. The Hatherleigh Silver Band played beautifully, and as I walked up from the cattle market, arrived to the sounds of a gorgeous, plaintive Silent Night. The service lasted just 30 minutes and ended with delicious mulled cider and minced pies. There was a great sadness and coming together, all in mourning for the loss of the George, the ruins in full view from the square.

On the first day...

...the two flocks were brought one at a time into the barn, the rams hived off into a small pen, the ewes amalgamated and sent gently back to pasture for the rest of their confinement.
Toyboy and Samson were not happy. First, they'd lost their lady-loves, and second, their machismo was severely under threat from another young male. Toyboy, the older by a couple of years, was certainly in the ascendant. He butted and chinned and swiped as much as the highly restricted pen allowed. I left them with hay and water and very limited space to get to know each other.
On the second day, Toyboy was standing guard over the haynet. I fed Samson by hand and then put up a second net on the opposite side of the pen to give my black boy a chance to feed. I wasn't going to make their area bigger yet; rams can kill if they have enough of a run up and the will to damage an opponent.
On the third day I stood and observed. They were sharing haynets. Time to enlarge the pen by adding in a couple more sheep hurdles. A bit of minor argybargy ensued. Toyboy is definitely top dog.
On the fourth day a bit of a schoolboy ribbing is taking place, but the SAS mentality has retreated. Toyboy is the alpha male, but Samson is eating boldly from whichever haynet he likes and is unharmed.
On the fifth day I dismantle the pen entirely and give the two rams the run of the barn. Mayhem and madness ensue. As soon as there is room to do so, Toyboy runs backwards and charges full pelt and head on into Samson. The smack resonates round the barn and I pick up a hefty piece of 4x2. As Toyboy chases Samson round the weigh crate I position myself, legs anchored, and just as Toyboy is about to butt a head spinning Samson for a third time I intervene with my thwacking stick. Toyboy stops and thinks for a moment, and then entirely unfazed gallops in reverse, fllicks into first gear and charges again and again. But my stick comes between them and Toyboy gets no joy. I refill the haynets and the water bucket and stop to watch the boys dance about; it's a game of Glasgow kiss-chase that Samson can't win. Samson has been told that he is at the bottom of the food chain and submits to his fate.
On the sixth day, the two rams stand side by side, looking up at me as if butter wouldn't melt.
On the seventh day I open the gate to the rams paddock, fetch a small scoop of sheep nuts in a bucket, and open the barn door. Toyboy runs after me, eager for the nuts. Samson follows behind. Into the paddock, gate shut, reinforced with an old metal gate to stop them barging their way out. The ice in their trough is broken up. Hay is served. Samson wanders about snatching at the fresh grass. Toyboy follows him, not wanting to stray too far from his new best mate.
What a palaver. But so far, I have two live rams, no blood spilled, both contented to spend their off-duty time together.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Getting ready for the hols

Christmas eve is my time for getting ready for Christmas day as far as the grub is concerned. The goose and red cabbage with apple have been slid out of the freezer and defrosted. I've made the chestnut and apricot stuffing, wrapped prunes and sausages in streaky bacon, simmered the goosey giblets for stock to make the gravy, dug up the parsnips and beetroot for roasting, watched the bread sauce glub on a low heat and made a fish pie for tonight. The house already smells like Christmas, and there's just sprouts to prepare and an apple pie left to make.
I've walked the dogs and listened to the dessicated oak leaves still clinging to the trees tremble and susurrate in the light breeze, and sploshed through the sodden lower fields which stamps out any other sound.
The banks are full of holes. No, I hadn't ventured onto a High Street near you or into the City. The Devon banks are full of holes and the lack of foliage reveals all the rabbit workings, fox diggings, badger scrapings, shrew, vole and stoat earthworks. Every yard reveals recent activity; disturbed earth, droppings, heaps of dried grass, discarded twigs, acorn cups and natural detritus of all kinds.
At 3pm the light starts to fail, at 4.30 all the birds are put away for the night. Christmas is coming, fast and furious. Hope you have a good one.

Our local pub, The George, burned down last night after six centuries of existence. Everyone is shocked by the loss of this beautiful and ancient building, and rumour is rife about how it started.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

There's an ugly duckling on my roof

Putting the birds away at dusk I heard this bizarre squawking. It didn't sound like a Barn owl screech to me, but whatever it was caused great disturbance to my duck flocks; they huddled in the corner of their runs, hunkered down as if there was a fox about. I couldn't see or smell anything untoward, but as usual wildlife knows best.
As I came down the farm track towards the house I noticed through the gloom a large bird sitting on the ridge of the roof midway between the chimney pots. It was clearly a duck, but not what I'd call a thing of beauty. The Muscovy or Barbary duck is the turkey of the waterfowl world - basically it has an excess of skin around its face. I cannot love this breed.
I doubt it will go anywhere in the dark, but will probably fly back home once it's light; some folk down the road have Muscovies that perambulate the lanes oblivious to the (admittedly rare) traffic.
You never know what will turn up next. I'm still waiting to come across a zebra, although considering the state of the land, a water buffalo or croc might be more the thing.

Photo by Stuart Brown

Saturday, 13 December 2008

The big melt

Weather warnings across the South West not to drive, and I don't hear about it until I'm out in the car, you know, driving. It's clear that water has whooshed down the roads overnight, leaving huge mounds of leafy, twiggy and branchy detritus. The gullies are roaring streams and the river is just contained within its banks, having subsided from the surrounding fields. Everywhere water. My twenty year old Puffa, without even the vaguest memories of waterproofing, is quickly soaked through, and I keep warm if not dry, by hurling soiled straw out of bird huts into the wheelbarrow as quickly as possible.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Who knew the Clangers were pink?

The news is full of praise for Oliver Postgate. If nothing else it reflects the age of those editing the news. Like me, they must have grown up with and loved those surreal, utterly captivating and made-with-bits-of-fabric-and-tin-found-in-the-shed props that populated Bagpuss, Noggin the Nog and the Clangers. I must have watched it on a black and white telly, as I remember the Clangers as grey, while all the photos (and Youtube clips) reveal them as baby pink, and more reminiscent of George, the hippo who starred with Zippy, than a moon-based knitted mouse with an anteater nose should be.
A schoolfriend nick-named me Noggin the Nog for several terms; I never really understood why, but enjoyed the sound it made in my mouth.
I suspect I was getting too old for these delights by the time Bagpuss came on the scene. I liked the soft sepia beginning and end when the soft baggy cat snoozed, but I barely took in the main action; that woodpecker held no charms for me.
I remember the Clangers' soup dragon and the permanent supply of broth from within the bowels of the moon, and as a child I recreated my own version. My bed was its own universe, with everything I needed on hand (comfort, books, warmth, quiet) apart from food. So I imagined little taps and dumbwaiters in the wall by the bed that would deliver goodies on demand. Strangely, favoured deliveries were chicken hearts (the family always argued who got the one from the Sunday roast), and spaghetti - either with meatballs, or in vermicelli form floating in chicken soup. No chocolates or crisps or pop featured, although the odd slice of warm, thickly cut white bread with plenty of unsalted butter surely did, as white was restricted to my Father, and the rest of us gnawed healthily on stoneground wholemeal.
And thinking of animalistic colour surprises, I saw my first kingfisher on the farm this week. Walking across Bull's Field, a particularly marshy, reedy pasture with a deep ditch that runs with spring and rain water no matter the season, I saw a startling bravura of azure rise from beneath the lush ferny undergrowth that curtains the sides of the ditch. It was lost for a moment as it flitted through the black willow branches, and then shone bright against the sky before heading off above the hedgeline. Sometimes it's worth having land so spongy with water that wellies are required footwear even at the height of summer. I wonder if there are fish living in the ditches, or if frog was the plat du jour for my little blue bird?

Friday, 5 December 2008

Straying from home

Taunton, Wadebridge, Exeter, Birmingham, Cardiff, Exeter again, London, Bournemouth... a ten day crazy merry-go-round of trains and cars, rails and roads, delays and traffic snarls, eating up the miles and the hours. Every time I close the farm gate behind me and set off in the car for the hour long drive to the station, I feel as if I'm straying from home, as if the travelling is against nature, both my own and of the way of things. It's as if I hold my breath the whole time I'm away and can only take a fresh, clean gasp once the gate shuts with me safely inside.
I've given up driving long distances unless it's entirely impractical to go by train, so I can read and write and think as I thunder cross country, but even so, it's such a waste of life and I resent every bit of it, which doesn't enhance my mood. Far from believing that travel broadens the mind, I now find it entirely inane, stuck in a canister with hundreds of others, also wishing they were elsewhere.
I wonder if the desire to be a homebody, a farmbody, is a danger; that I wouldn't see beyond the end of my nose, but I don't think that would happen. Lifes swirls round me quite energetically enough, my brain has to work harder than ever, the people I meet are as fascinating and rich in attitude and thought as I could wish, and there's a warmth that cannot exist in the commuter zone.
I will try and plan my diary more carefully and balance the away time less generously. Thank credit crunchie it's friday and I'm home.
And to celebrate, here's a photo taken today of the ewe lambs I'm keeping back for adding to the breeding flock next year.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

The frost report

Gloves are now a key part of the outdoor pocket patting repertoire, alongside checking for penknife and baler twine. My pockets are getting more like those of a small boy every day: grubby hanky, acorns and rosehips, useful bit of string, chunk of wood, bent nails, dusty handful of ewe nuts.
The gloves are to stop my fingers sticking to the metal field gates and suffering freezer burn. I have to huhh on the gate latches like some heavy breather to melt the ice so that I can open the gate. I'd rather walk through than go over at the moment as it's rather treacherous climbing over the gates as the bars are so slippery with frost, but I do it when I have to and hope I won't find myself dazed on the hard ground with the sheep looking down at me still waiting for their hay.

Monday, 1 December 2008

The first of the month

December arrived with a vengeance today. The first time that I've crunched rather than splashed across fields to feed the sheep, and every water trough surface had to be smashed; inch-thick ice stretched opaquely over each one.
The holly berries are out in great clusters, vying with the rosehips and occasional string of bryony for who can do the scarlet drapery thing best.
It's all very festive, but it's incredibly difficult to poke my nose from beneath the duvet when I know it's my turn to do the animals.