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hawthorn flowers, locks park

hawthorn flowers, locks park

“Oh hi. Simon, it’s Paula. Time to shear the sheep I think. I know. Yes, of course, yes, definitely…we’ll go after this band of rain? I would, please, yes. Before the weekend would be good. It’s coming right again Thursday, Friday. No, spring’s certainly later this year for sure. But the May’s well out now, the lanolin will have risen…! Excellent see you then. Byee.”

I put the phone down. Good another job ticked off the list

It’s interesting how, even in these days of uberfast-multisocial-technoinfo-popscience, we still (well, I, anyhow) rely on folklore and old sayings, sometimes without even knowing it.

The Hawthorn or May tree is seeped with them and is one of the most enchanted and sacred of our native trees. The flowers, known simply as May, have long been considered to mark the proper onset of spring and the renewal of life.  Spring often comes earlier these days, but in the past not until the May was in flower was it time to plough the land or shear the sheep: its arrival is deeply symbolic in the countryside. Hence my comment to Simon on the phone about the May blossoming and lanolin having risen in the sheep’s fleeces.

Still May Day is celebrated in places by collecting boughs of May blossom as part of the ceremonies and festivities.  Though the tree now flowers around the middle of the month, it flowered much nearer the beginning of the month, before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752. But take care before you bring it into the house! Using the blossoms for decorations outside was allowed, but there is a very strong taboo against bringing hawthorn into the home as it was believed illness and death would soon follow.

Botanists discovered that the chemical trimethylamine present in hawthorn blossom is also one of the first chemicals formed in decaying animal tissue. In the past, when corpses were kept at home for several days before burial, people would have been very familiar with the smell of death so perhaps this is part of the reason why hawthorn indoors was banned.

But still the tender young shoots were eaten and referred to as bread and cheese.  My freshly calved cows will avariciously seek them out too – they are said to be beneficial for lactation and milk production. The blossom and berries are made into wines and jellies. Known as “valerian of the heart”, hawthorn is highly valued as a heart tonic across a range of cultures, and decoctions of the flowers and leaves are used to reduce blood pressure.

The strong, close-grained wood is used for carving, and for making tool handles and other small household items.  Also known as white thorn and quick thorn,  its spines and fast growth make it the ideal hedging shrub and it has been used very widely to this purpose.

But beware! Care should be taken before removing any of its branches.  Do not damage the tree in case the guardian spirit becomes angered! Any Hawthorn tree standing alone should be avoided, and only parts from trees forming hedges should be taken.  The Hawthorn is particularly sacred to the fairies, and in Ireland and Britain is part of the fairy-tree triad known as the “Oak, Ash and Thorn”, and where all three trees grow together it is said that one may see the fairies.  In which case our hedges should be full of them.  Perhaps they now appear as dormice.  Do faeries sleep a lot?

Enough, enough! There is a wealth of information to which I’ve given you the links. As soon as it’s stopped raining I’m off to collect May blossom petals which I’ll dry and use for confetti for my son’s wedding….

female orange tip butterfly on lady's smock

female orange tip butterfly on lady's smock

May, extraordinary exuberant May. How can anyone fail to be blown away by such a stunning month? I walk with my eyes out on stalks. They sweep across the multi-layers of a green-gold filigree landscape and down to minute iridescent creatures nestled in the heart of a buttercup. Every sense is tingled and tweezed.

the tiny micropterix calthella moth on a buttercup

the tiny micropterix calthella moth on a buttercup. See the mating pair?

The scent of blossoms is exquisite yet elusive, I catch a wisp, a suggestion – then it’s gone – I find myself sniffing, head up like a wild animal. Greens, there are so many and each with its own aroma; nasal sharp and acid citrus-bright, crushed bitter-sweet liquor and garlic-pungent aromatics – I taste each smell on my tongue.

bog-bean blooming in Rob's Folly - Forty Acres

*bog-bean blooming in Rob's Folly - Forty Acres

I become sensitised to sound. Like a tuning fork I pick up the buzz and whir of the insect world under the constant celebration of bird song. The steady bass drone of the bumble bee, the frenetic high-pitched whine of the midge and the scary cacophony of a billion cluster flies taking off from the thatch as the sun pops out from behind a cloud. Fragile daddy-long-legs flip-flap knocking and bumping with flimsy clumsiness and March flies thistledown around your head, sticking in your hair, eyes and lips.

blue tit nest and eggs in birdbox

blue tit nest and eggs in birdbox

Life’s abundant. It’s everywhere.  There’s a continuous rustling and scurrying in the trees, hedgerows and verges. And did you know we’ve hares in the far River Meadow? I’m so excited; it’s unusual for this non-arable part of the world.  And the Hobby is back!

*Interesting links to bogbean also this one for Sian!

green shoots growing in the biome

green shoots growing in the biome

The biome begins to blossom!

the kitchen table (and linen cupboard) is providing the ambient growing temperature for seedlings!

the kitchen table (and linen cupboard) provides the ambient growing temperature for seedlings!

It began as a small seed of  an idea in our heads following yet another atrocious summer and a rotting defunct vegetable garden.We decided to take the plunge. Cleared an area of scrub, trees and detritus behind the fruit cage and booked in digger Dave to level the site.  Then wondered what we’d done as the rain continued and conditions became increasingly difficult.

Biting the bullet we ordered a polytunnel ‘kit’ and  began the massive construction operation. Backs were almost broken along with spirits. Eventually the monster was assembled. The next task? Working hundreds of tonnes of sodden clay topsoil chockablock with tree, bramble and weed roots into a friable workable tilth. Tonnes of chippings and sand were added along with lime to produce a neutral soil.  Robert hit his wall…but somehow found the strength to soldier on.

men at work. site clearance

men at work. site clearance

digger-driver-dave does his bit

digger dave does his bit

men at work

cold and frustrated

form this...

from this...

...to this

...to this

and eventually this!

and eventually this!

Every Easter Sunday we hold an egg competition. Will is master egghead who devises new ingenious eggcentric challenges.

Over the years we’ve had ‘How to Get an Egg Across a Lake ( using air power)’, ‘Keeping an Egg in the Air the longest’, ‘How Far can you Splatter an Egg’…how to cook an egg, how to dissemble an egg, egg creations, egg songs, egg poetry, egg music. Around fifteen to sixteen years of eggsperiences.

Locks Park mafia keep a close eye on proceedings

Locks Park mafia keep a close eye on proceedings

This year the challenge was ‘The Most Remarkable Thing You Can Do with an Egg’. Entries were slow starting  but by Saturday they were pouring in from across the world.

Winner of the World Class. Joe and Jess's  most remarkable thing they did with an egg...!

Winner of the World Class. The most remarkable thing Joe and Jess did with an egg!

Judging was hard. Bribes of unmentionable proportions were bandied across continents.  In the end the judge decided to categorise the entrants (those bribes worked) and was happy to award a first prize to all competitors!

Undisputed winner of the Under 10 European Entry - Camille's egg juggling!

Undisputed winner of the Under 10 European Entry - Camille's egg juggling!

There are too many to upload. A big thank you to all participants, judges and competition inventors!

Mary asked how I now managed to tweet. After all, she commented, you’re running a farm, a business, and holding a blog together. This week, Mary, believe me, it’s been challenging!

I returned from Marseille with a French cold – very different, my body maintained, from an English one – more refined, targeted, kind of specific.

And as I arrived home on Monday evening one of the cows, Wildcat, began to calve. It was a straight forward calving, with no problems, but it meant we didn’t get to bed until well after midnight.

I’ve also had a hot line to New Zealand. Joe, my son, and his partner Jess were waiting for their baby to be born – she was two weeks late. Jess, as you can imagine, was almost at her wits end. Every minute over one’s due date seems an eternity, so two weeks must seem interminable.

A small problem had arisen with Jemima’s calf (born whilst I was away) who developed an infected navel and needed daily treatment with antibiotics.

My last parcel of fat lambs had been procured by an organic co-operative and were due to go on either Tuesday or Wednesday. At present there’s a shortage of organic lamb, and prices are excellent, but selling this way when it is not my norm involves a fair amount of organisation – entailing paperwork, transport arrangements and bellying-out. This last involves shearing the tummy and crutch area – a doddle for an experienced shearer but a little more testing for a novice like me.

A group of friends – the erstwhile ‘Pie-nighters’ were convening here for a meal on Wednesday evening. It also happened to be the evening Jess at long last went into labour. Between absorbing and challenging debate and calls to the other side of the world I eventually got to bed in the small hours with the wonderful news that Jess had produced a beautiful baby girl !

Joe and Jess's baby daughter, my granddaughter, Islay, just minutes after her birth

Joe and Jess's beautiful baby daughter, my granddaughter, Islay, just minutes after her birth

The next day I had to be away early to complete the last legal rigmarole on my mother’s estate so probate could be granted.

This brought us to Friday and a household full of family for the Easter weekend. Our new puppy was due to arrive on Monday – but amid cries of ‘Oh, no. We won’t have time to get to know her. We’ve got to go back on Monday!’ I arranged to pick her up on Friday afternoon…little did I know that in true bank holiday style our kitchen tap would decide to give up the ghost and regurgitate a fountain of hot water and my trusted washing machine gasped its last breath…so Mary, you hit the nail on the head, this week’s been a bit of a struggle!

Puppy post tomorrow!

Morna Thomson (nee Yarrow)

I have been asked by friends and relatives across the UK and world unable to be at Morna’s funeral if they could have a copy of the tribute I read that day. Posting it on my blog seemed the simplest thing.

Those of you kind enough to follow my farming and wildlife postings  may wish to skip this one!

Morna

Morna

Morna was born 86 years ago in London to Vera and Kenneth.  Vera, my grandmother, was born in Shanghai, her father being a pioneering eye surgeon there – this eastern connection was to reappear throughout Morna’s life.  Ever adventurous and brave, Vera, as a young girl and accompanied only by her younger sister was sent on the long boat journey back to the UK to be educated.  Here, in her late twenties, and an accomplished violinist, she met my grandfather and fell passionately in love. She was an extraordinary, vivacious person, and no doubt had a huge impression on her daughter, Morna.

Morna’s childhood was spent at Bovingdon Grange in Hertfordshire.  She has told me so much about this time I almost feel I was there with her.  It was a full and happy childhood.  From an early age she revelled in the hustle and bustle of a large and vibrant tribe of cousins, aunts and uncles from all sides of her family – friends and relatives were encouraged and welcomed at Bovingdon where she led a full and social life.  She was, though, she assures me, a shy and gawky child.  Time was to do away with both – she grew into a confidant, beautiful and elegant, woman, tall for her time and much admired.

When my mother first went to school she packed a trunk twice her size with all her most important possessions and could not be parted from it for the first year – a habit of being well prepared that never left her.  She was sent to boarding school at St George’s and hated it from the start – she was dyslexic, a condition not then recognised and punished frequently for her apparent slowness.  This scarred her for life.  At school she was desperate to paint and explore her artistic talents but not allowed to, being forced to focus on mainstream subjects, a great shame as it was later to transpire.

After school, my mother went to a finishing family in Switzerland.  Whilst there war broke out and she had to return to England.  She tried nursing for Red Cross, then driving for the MTC, but only found her true vocation when given a posting in the Wrens.  Remarkably, not long after joining she and four others were chosen to be the first Torpedo wrens – the first time women had worked alongside men in the forces doing equal jobs – and this was much acclaimed.  It did a huge amount for her self esteem.

While doing the job of servicing torpedoes, my father, a naval captain, came across her sitting on the deck of Peter Scott’s boat swigging rum out of a bottle, surrounded by a group of captivated men! (My father’s version and one she hotly denied!).  It was love at first sight.  Those five pioneering Torpedo Wrens formed what they called the “Straw Club” in a rented basement flat in Brighton, and who knows what happened there!  Wild parties for sure.  I have photos showing that they lived life to the full…. Morna and Ian married during those heady yet precarious war years.

My father was a banker in a small, but growing merchant bank, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (now the HSBC!).  After the war he was given an immediate posting to the Far East.  He went out ahead, to Jahore, my mother joining him in a garret flat, with only a primus stove to cook on.  Quite a shock for the English rose she was!  It was boiling hot, humid – no air conditioning and life was very different to anything she had known.  But my mother soon made friends, as she always did – this was one of her great gifts.  After they moved to Kuala Lumpur (KL) she began to enjoy all that ex-pat life had to offer – she threw herself into it, despite the scary difference of it all. She had a great love of dogs, adopting a stray – her adored Whisky.  But most of all she wanted children.

In 1950 they came back to the UK on leave, and on a visit to my father’s family in Ireland, I was conceived much to Morna’s joy.  She ate thousands of unripe green apples all through her pregnancy, so everyone tells me!

They returned to the Far East, and I was born in Hong Kong.  My childhood there was wonderful.  To me my mother was a magical being and I adored her.  I was never left as so many others were just in the care of amahs, and was encouraged to have lots of friends.   Morna was an amazing story teller.  She and I made fairy gardens together, and the fairies left me little gifts, tiny silver balls, silken threads of gossamer, sparkling dew drops.  It was all so real to me that even when I was once seriously ill, all I could think of was ‘I wonder what have the fairies left this time’? I still vividly remember glass vials of  magic coloured waters she conjured up – I was never bored.  She had a wonderful imagination.

During her time in Hong Kong, she was able at long last to put her passion for painting into practice, and learnt the formal art of Chinese painting, at which it turned out she was extraordinarily talented.  So talented that one of her paintings when exhibited alongside those of local artists won first prize.

Although she embraced all aspect of life abroad, she still yearned for England, and constantly told me stories of the far away land she called home.  While on leave in the 50s they found a house in Benenden, this was Greenways.  Morna was over the moon.  It was only after the purchase they realised that they had 7 acres of woodland – woodland that was later to play a large part in Morna’s life.

We travelled – Bombay, Penang, Singapore.  Always, she made friends, making the best of circumstances.  Then I, her only and much loved child, was sent back to school in England.  This was agony to both of us. We sobbed.  Why did you send me, I asked?  But it was the accepted way of doing things back then. Our letters were very poignant throughout my school years – I hated being away from her and she from me.

Then, unexpectedly, my father got a posting to the London office.  I think it must have been 1966 or 7.  So they came to live in Benenden for good.

Morna threw herself into her garden and the woods at Greenways, something she had craved for her whole time in the Far East.  Squirrels and rabbits were her bane.  Compost and leaf litter were made to perfection.  She truly had green fingers.  Herbaceous borders, rose pergolas, rock gardens, ponds and streams with a vegetable garden and fruit cage second to none.

Morna soon found her niche in village life.  She worked with extraordinary energy: the Conservatives, the Benenden fiddle and umptytiddlyone committees, she raised money for many worthy causes.  Together with my father she ran the church fete for a good many years (I can still remember their agonising…is it going to rain? Is it going to be dry? Or sunny? Will it be out? Or will it be in?) Little changes, I think.

All the while she maintained her eastern friendships and was always there for their families and her many god children.  She loved to make people smile, and always had a sympathetic ear for anyone with a problem.  In fact, in Benenden, she found her idyll –her dream came true.

I moved to the West Country in 75 and started to farm.  My parents came to stay with us, in a caravan, and were over the moon when I presented them with their first grandchild – three others followed soon afterwards!  It became the custom for us to visit Benenden over Easter, the boys have vivid memories of Easter egg hunts, counting oast houses and visiting castles! Some of you present will probably remember our unruly gaggle moving down the street?

On Christmas Eve her grandsons particularly remember her reading A Night Before Christmas– something which became a family tradition.  Indeed, traditions were an important part of Morna’s life and the ways our family celebrate birthdays, Christmas and Easter have been handed down through her.

In due course, Morna and my father moved from Greenways to Oakdale, just off the Green here, where she continued her gardening, restoring a Victorian greenhouse.  But when my father died in 1988, devastating her, she realised that Oakdale was too big, and sensibly decided to move to Thelveton, opposite the paper shop.

At this time her imagination became ever stronger and her mind began to pay tricks on her: she started to struggle to find reality.  But to most she remained the charming and lovely person she’d always been. Audrey Bridgeland was a huge help to her, and to me, during this time. It was really down to Audrey, and Morna’s brother Ian, that it was possible for Morna to continue to be independent and part of the village scene.

After my uncle Ian died in 1997 Morna agreed the time had come to move closer to me, to sheltered housing in Devon.  However, part of her stayed in Kent and in the Far East. As time went by that part grew and she lived two or more existences.  Those years were confusing for both of us.  For me, it was hard to accept that someone who had been so important in my life was failing, and it was difficult for her to accept that she needed my help.

But as time progressed we overcame these difficulties, and I to understand that she saw things differently from me.  We grew very close once more, as we had been when I was a child. Gradually dementia set in. In some strange way it started to ease her mind, to make her at peace with herself, and to allow her to enjoy and relive her many vivid and varied memories .… perhaps on a train in the Far East, perhaps walking favourite dogs, Rusty and Max, perhaps entertaining friends or on a trip to London to catch up with family.

All the girls at her final home, Spring House, loved her for her charming behaviour, the different worlds she took them to. This Christmas she was the happiest I have seen her for a long time. Taking my hand, and with her face squiggled up with pleasure, she said “I love Christmas, I absolutely love it”.  Two days later she had a fall, and began her last journey close by me.  She never once failed to recognised me or respond to my voice so together we learnt to let go and how to travelled this last path.
She died peacefully and quietly, without fear.

The day before she died I was oiling her skin and singing – and guess what, she began singing with me. So can I ask you all to join me in singing Morna’s last song Morning Has Broken.

Morna, my mother, 23 January 2009

Morna, my mother, 23 January 2009

Morna's funeral 2nd February 2009

Morna's funeral 2nd February 2009- the same day as the celebration of Candlemas and the celtic Imbolc

I decided I wanted to arrange my mother’s funeral myself.  I have a dislike of conveyer belt type funerals, most probably inherited from my mother who always said she found undertakers and hearses somewhat foreboding and sinister.

For a good many years, well actually from the time I realised I wasn’t immortal, I knew exactly what I wanted done with my body when I no longer inhabited it. Simplistically, if there were any functional parts left these could be used (providing my family felt okay with that), followed by my burial in one of our hedge banks with an oak tree – grown from an acorn from my special Hartland oak – planted on top of me. I checked out the legal requirements so I didn’t land my family with an impossible task, and hoped, because I’d talked about it enough, it wouldn’t cause them any distress.

In our sanitisation of modern life we’ve become very good at prolonging life and very bad at coping with its ending.

We seem to have developed a deep embarrassment about death and a nervous reluctance to discuss coffins, burial sites and what happens when life stops. There was a comment in the Independent on Sunday last week on this very thing: in a recent survey the majority of those questioned said that they would sooner discuss the most intimate details of their personal lives than what their dead relative or friend might have wanted in the way of caskets and burials.

setting out the candles

setting out the candles

I knew my mother was dying. The fall she had after Christmas was the beginning of her last journey. After I accepted this, which took time, I knew I had to make those final weeks as peaceful and as gentle as I could; to give both of us the time and space, and love, to learn how to travel that ultimate path together and how to let go.

After she died it seemed the most natural thing in the world for me to bring Morna back to Locks Park  and continue to look after her here until we were able to take her to Kent and bury her alongside my father in the village she never really left.

I’ve never done anything like this before, but with the help of Jane Morrell, the author of the book We Need to Talk About the Funeral, and the support of my wonderful family it was a truly extraordinary and special experience. I won’t go into great detail here, but caring and administering to Morna daily and planning a funeral ceremony that was such a personal celebration of her life was a gift.

Morna's shroud

Morna's shroud

Morna, my mother, was buried in a shroud made from the wool of my sheep, by a friend, Yuli Somme. We took her up to Kent ourselves and decorated the church with armfuls of paper-white narcissi, ivy, yew, myrtle, willow and hazel. The music was heavenly, the hymns, reading and poems moving and poignant. She was buried beside my father, with the snow falling in silent white peace. It was totally spiritual, even magical.

Jeremy, one of Morna's godsons, took nine hours to get there in the snow. We took him to visit Morna's grave in the evening

Jeremy, one of Morna's godsons, took nine hours to get there in the snow. We took him to visit Morna's grave in the evening

Locks Park Farm

Thanks for visiting my blog. All entries are presented in chronological order.

I have a small organic farm on the Culm grasslands near Hatherleigh in Devon, with sheep and beef cattle. I've been farming in the county for more than 30 years. I've set up this blog to share views on farming and the countryside - please do give your thoughts.

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The Campaign to Protect Rural England has helped set up this blog. We want farming to thrive in England, and believe that it is essential that people understand farming and farmers better in order for that to happen. Paula's views expressed here are her own and we won't necessarily share all of them, but we're happy to have helped give her a voice.

Find our more about CPRE and our views on food and farming at our website, www.cpre.org.uk