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A swarm of bees in May
Is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June
Is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July
Is not worth a fly.

bees

bees

I’ve escaped, carved out a couple of minutes; I just had to tell you…

On Friday evening some friends came over for supper. They came to meet the New Zealand branch of the family. They came to pick up some plants. They came to see Dillings, one of our hay meadows, at its beauteous best; abounding, bursting, tumbling with orchids jostling with meadow thistle, intense blue-purple spikes of bugle, the cowslip-yellow flowers and rattling bladders of hay rattle, walnut-sized madder-pink heads of red clover, tall delicate stems of ragged robin, a yellow-starred understory of vetches – the whole washed in a haze of liquid gold from buttercups in the setting sun. D was whooping with glee as she spied ever larger fatter bigger better spears of orchids egged on by me, when a quiet thoughtful voice from behind us said “Isn’t that a swarm of bees?”

southern marsh orchids in Dillings

southern marsh orchids in Dillings

Stopping dead in our tracks we both looked high into an oak overhanging the field margin. “Where? Where?” We asked scouring the tree, squinting our eyes up through the dense canopy of leaves. “Where? Where? We can’t see?”

“Just there. Look! No, much lower” pointing, A guided our eyes to an oak limb not that far away “See? On that branch.” And there, hanging quite peacefully in a small fork not much above our heads was a conical swarm of bees.

'my' bees!

'my' bees!

“Oh, wow!” I spluttered “Wow, oh wow” I turned to A “I’ve never ever seen that in all my years here! You are clever!”

In the fading evening light it could have so easily have been missed and certainly, as D and I were ginormous orchid hunting our eyes were scouring the field at nothing above knee level!

I oh-so wanted those bees. Visions of orchid honey from bees that had chosen my very own flower-filled hay meadow danced in front of my eyes! But alas, I’m not a knowledgeable beekeeper. I had very little idea of how to contain a swarm, other than to brush or shake it into a container. And I had no equipment.

“Why don’t you check in the morning?” suggested A “They might still be here. They’re very quiet at the moment. Then you can decide.”

First thing next morning I checked before I started the stock round. They were still there.

At a reasonable hour I phoned various beekeepers but unfortunately no one was able to help…unless, that is, they could take home the swarm. I rang the National Bee Supplies in Okehampton and spoke to a most obliging man who said he could let me have some frames and suitable bee-collection wooden box until I was sorted, but, not until Monday, as being Saturday they were shutting. Mid-morning I checked the bees…they were still there. A little later I was phoned by a beekeeper who helpfully told me how best to collect the swarm and how to construct a temporary smoker out of a tin, chicken wire and a funnel. Excitedly I made up a bee suit out of Robert’s butterfly net (vale), my hat, overalls, waterproofs and gloves; collected up a bucket and cover, makeshift smoker with accruements, stepladders, a hand brush and set off up the drive and across Dillings to take possession of ‘my’ bees.

Arriving at the oak I looked up at the branch and saw…nothing. My bees had flown!

…I’m going to be leaving you on cliff-hangers quite a lot in the next couple of weeks as the house fills prior to Ben and Berengere’s wedding in mid June and when we, lock stock and barrel, decamp to Marseille for their nuptials and a week of celebrations. Arrangements for leaving the farm, contingency plans in case of emergencies, feeding and managing a family of between nine and thirteen and the general hurly-burly of  farm and household are swallowing-up most of my time and energy.

I just wanted to thank all you loyal followers and supporters who read my posts regularly and ask for your understanding if I’m unable to visit and comment on your blogs during the next few weeks. As soon as my life returns to normal so will my routine.

just coming into flower the rare lesser butterfly orchid hannaborough moor.

just coming into flower the rare lesser butterfly orchid hannaborough moor.

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!

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

hedgerow arrangement for Robert's birthday

hedgerow arrangement for Robert

On Sunday it was Robert’s birthday – and yes, yes I did the table bit. Will, with his girlfriend, Kat, came down to make sure the proper ceremonial direction was followed to the tee! I’m joking. Will and Kat did come down to celebrate with Robert; it’s the last time they’ll be home before Christmas. Will is off to Glasgow to work on the new series of Phoo Action for the BBC – he’s the production designer – and Kat, a graphic designer for Heat magazine, will be spending any free weekends she has in Glasgow with Will.

For Robert it’s, of course, hedgerows; and there can’t be a more perfect time to have a birthday with a hedgerow theme. Despite our diabolical summer I still found a basket full of berries, seed-heads, sinuous twisting ropes of bryony, dusty bloomed sloes, glossy haws, hips, translucent bracts of guelder-rose, ferns and on-the-cusp-of-changing leaves.

Robert passing through the Tolman

Robert passing through the Tolman

Sunday was a glorious day. Soft, mellow sun which we desperately turned towards like sickly, yellow-white seedlings. We decided on a walk on Dartmoor at Scorhill where there’s an evocative and impressive stone circle. It’s an extraordinarily atmospheric place.

Halfway through

Halfway through

Nearby, in the river Teign, is the Tolman; a solid block of granite about 10 feet in diameter and two to four feet thick, where the action of the water has worked an almost perfectly circular hole. Passing through the hole is said to be a cure for rheumatism or arthritis, whilst children would be cured of whooping-cough or tuberculosis.

Through!

Through!

Another legend is that if you pass through the hole you will see the future. I thought that in view of it being Robert’s birthday and the beginning of a new life direction for him what could be better than to ‘re-birth’ through the hole (for those that think I’ve lost the plot, I am about 7/8th Celtic!). And to my amazement he did.

four spotted flycatcher babies (you can just see the fourth behind the middle one) the day before they flew

We waited with bated breath for the rare Spotted Flycatcher to return this year. Our swallow numbers have plummeted and we feared for the flycatcher. On the 15 May we heard a familiar ‘tich tich tich’ outside our bedroom window – and sure enough there he was safe, well and nest prospecting. Surprisingly he settled for an extraordinarily sensible nest site too, in the apex of a small open fronted barn-shed outside the kitchen window; one that’s well protected and safe from predators. His mate soon joined him. We had a ‘birds-eye-view’ of all activities – nest building, clutch laying and sitting, hatching and feeding. Last weekend there was huge excitement and activity from both parents as they encouraged their fledglings out of the nest on their first flight. A success! Hopefully they will manage a second brood too. Watch this space.

Another rarity – the Lesser Butterfly Orchid. We found a small group of these rare and beautiful flowers in Hannaborough moor. Aren’t they something?

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.

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