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I’m back! A quick explanation on my absence. I felt consumed by my self-imposed virtual obligations and frustrated by a lack of energy and time for my real life work and commitments. So I decided to take time out…over Christmas and the New Year. Break’s finished and I’m here once more to be inspired and fascinated by you, my varied and talented virtual friends!

The best of wishes for 2010 and a huge thank you to each and every one of you for your support, thoughts and messages.

Happy New Year!

...and how!

My friends and I were nattering nineteen to the dozen over supper, catching up on news and gossip when Emily suddenly turned to me and said, poker face “I’ve a new man in my life.” I looked questioningly at her, surprised, and then across at Geoff, leaning back in his chair thoughtfully twirling a glass of wine.  “Yes. I hardly see her anymore” he confirmed.

“Ah” I replied a little cautiously “Go on then. Tell me. Who is he?” I looked encouragingly at Emily

“Oh he’s amazing. Someone very special…I’d love you to meet him. Oh dear, but I don’t think you’ll have the time. I’ll be busy too. Oh!” She agitatedly looped up a stray strand of hair “So silly. I’m doing the flowers for Audrey’s   party tomorrow, so ‘fraid I can’t take you. But you would…you’d love him. You’d be quite smitten. Maybe…”She tailed off

“Emily! Who is he? The suspense is killing!”

“Paula! Paula, Paula, Paula…” she screwed her eyes up, tight

“Yes, yes. Go on.”

“He’s eighty-five. Sooo, so, sooo wonderful!” she paused, lost in thought “The things he knows…about farming, thatching and cleaving chestnut. You should see it. The cottage, his workshop – oh, his workshop! I saw it by mistake…the tools – like a museum collection. His garden, full of dahlias, kept as it was by Ruby. It mustn’t be lost. His skills, his talent and knowledge, I mean. He might be the last. Certainly around here…I couldn’t bear that.” With a worried frown she looks across at me, then smiles.  “He lives down on the marsh. He did a huge amount of work with Christopher Lloyd…you know? Great Dixter?  You must meet him. Go tomorrow. I’ll give him a ring. Introduce you on the phone. Maybe you’ll be able to do something.”

“Yes please. How exciting. Oh, but I was going to plant bulbs on Morna’s grave. No…it’ll be fine. I’ve time to do everything. After all that’s what I’m here for. Remembering, feeling, finding. I’d really love to meet him. Seize the opportunity.” I give her a squeeze “And lord knows when I’ll next be up here!”

The next morning introductions are made over the phone. A time arranged “One o’clock” I’m told, as they still have dinner at mid-day “Just as we always have”. Geoff and I poured over the map and found the farm “Look at the church. It’s exquisite, 12th century.”

The day was picture perfect.  Cold with clear blue skies and far horizons splashed with autumn colour.  The drive down to Romney Marsh was alive with memories I didn’t know I had. Distant stirrings of my first visit to England; never-before-seen snow , rose gardens, my grandparents, damp wool, soft leather and pipe tobacco. My parents  – young and laughing.  Tea with a great-aunt, polished oak panelling, shortbread and rich fruit cake…

Passing the simple, yet quite beautiful church I turned down on to the Marsh and before long was knocking on the door of Bob’s farmhouse.

I spent an afternoon that I hope will live forever in my memory. We walked across the open landscape of the Marsh and as Bob pointed out the cast-up field systems cultivated in Romans times we discussed the virtues of farming ancient and modern. The Romney or ‘Kent’ sheep and red Sussex cattle used to graze the acres of his farm – now no longer pure bred the sheep are crossed with Charolais and the Sussex with Aberdeen Angus. I point out the mile-upon-mile of cleft chestnut fencing and intricate sheep handling pens…Bob it transpires, made them all. In Bob’s youth cattle from hop farms used to graze the marsh during summer months…returning home in winter to be housed in yards; the muck they produced was valuable and much-needed for the hop gardens.

cleft oak teaching thatching frame

We cross back over to his farmyard where he shows me his chestnut wood store, his threshing machine, his thatching frames used for teaching apprentices, and yes, even his workshop! Twenty five years ago Bob handed the farm over to his sons and took up long straw thatching, a very different method to our West Country thatch.  Around the yard I notice all the bullock handling systems, gates and crushes are made from sturdy cleft chestnut…I’m amazed, thrilled (I hate the feel of metal) and, Bob assures me, they are strong and safe, never causing injury to an animal or handler. We continue, talking non stop. Crossing into his garden, we pass beautifully laid out vegetable beds lined with dahlias and walk along cinder paths past an ancient orchard still used to produce cider.  Turning a corner, I was stunned by the sight of a perfect tiny cottage.

Bob's tiny timber framed and thatched cottage with tiny cottage garden

“Ah, yes” says Bob modestly but with a twinkle in his eye “I wanted to see if I could build a framed building as they used to. Completely out of cleft and pegged oak …thatched. So I decided to make it for my grandchildren.” I’ve never wanted to return to my childhood more than at that moment…and to be one of Bob’s descendents! Inside was just as enchanting…a kitchen, a sitting room, dining room and an upstairs with two wee bedrooms! All the furniture Bob had made out of the elm from the farm.

Back in the kitchen eating a tea of Bob’s homemade bread (with wheat from the thatching straw) spread thickly with comb honey (from a bee’s nest in the chimney!), yellow rock buns and raspberry jam turnovers I’m replete in every way. Cradling my cup of hot milky tea I turn to Bob “Thank you. Thank you so much for having me here. I can’t tell you how privileged I feel to have met you. I just wish I could have met Ruby too.” (Ruby is Bob’s much missed wife who died very suddenly eight years ago) “If ever you have an urge to come to the Westcountry, well…I’d be honoured if you’d visit us.”

cleft chestnut bullock gates

I left with the sun sinking below the marsh, leaving a silhouette of gnarled trees filigreed against the skyline.  As I nibbled on a walnut from the farm’s ancient orchard, I knew, with certainty, I would return.

setting sun

I’ve been away. It was a spur of the moment decision made on Friday morning halfway through making a batch of quince and squash chutney. Well, I exaggerate, not wholly impulsive, I’d been toying with the idea ever since Will (3rd son) had suggested it a month or so ago. The time seemed right. Olly was around for the weekend… “100% mum. Though I’m going out Saturday evening.” And Robert had no pre-arranged ‘dos’ either.

After a couple of quick phone calls and very hastily potted chutney, I threw some essentials into a bag and was on the road by 2pm. It was the foulest drive imaginable. Busy roads, incessant rain, fierce wind and relentless spray, poor visibility…and dark! Six hours later I emerged, zombie-like, from the car.

Relieved to have arrived I push open the wicket gate and, clutching my basket, carefully walked down the slippy, uneven brick path. Lining the pathway are tall, darkly-dense box hedges crowned with mystical topiary beasts that moan and groan in the gusting wind and pelting rain. Drenched I reached the door, give a tap, turn the knob and step into another world. I blink in the soft light “Sorry I’m late…the roads…the rain, the traffic.” I thrust my basket towards Don “Supper.” Pulling it back to me I rummage around and take out a wrapped greaseproof package “Steak…fillet. Ours. Red Ruby.” I look up and smile “Quick to cook. Tender and mouth-watering…hopefully.” Grinning I dig into the basket again “And wood blewits. To go with the steak. From the woods above Marymead.” Carefully I lift out one of the starling violet-blue fungi “Aren’t they just extraordinary?” I hold it to the light “So beautiful…what an amazing colour. You’d think they were totally poisonous!”  And lastly I take out a bottle of wine “And wine. To celebrate!” I pause, take a deep, slow breath and let my eyes wonder around the kitchen absorbing every little detail “How wonderful to be here.  I feel recovered already!”

The friends I was staying with live in an old gardener’s cottage once attached to ‘The Big House’… to me it’s a place of enchantment. I’m Alice… stepping through the looking glass into another world; wood smoke, worn red-brick floors, milky glass, ancient timber framing and soft chalky walls.  Colour; colour is everywhere – softly muted and earthy rich. And then there are the things!  A jumble.  A plethora.  A marvellous abundance of treasure. I love it. I gather to me the extraordinary tapestry of senses and feast my soul.

Next day, the enchantment continues outside. An old oak barn tumbled with myrtle, rosemary and clematis, a hidden sculpture, a table, a summerhouse. Brick paths which turn into mazes of tall box hedges and fantastical topiary beings that lead one into small secret places…or with an unexpected twist guide you down a grand avenue (the Queen of Hearts?) to a pond and the rolling countryside beyond.

The reason for my visit? Time to reflect. On my memories. Of my mother and my closest family buried in the churchyard not a hundred yards away from the cottage. My father, my aunt, my uncle…and in a nearby village, my grandparents.

To me the month of November lends itself to recollection and introspection. November is a month of transition, a time for rest, a time of renewal and a time for resurrection.  The darkening days, the wild weather, the slowing down of  nature and the comfort of the home hearth make it so.

With the church bells ringing overhead I walk in the garden gathering sprays of crimson crab-apples, branches of myrtle and sprigs of rosemary which I take and  lay on the still uneven turf of my mother’s grave and remember…..with love.

remembering

remembering

to block my beta, or to let it rip...

to block my beta, or to let it rip...

So my preparation to the run up of the great day commenced…

I had a huge amount of support and encouragement from family, friends and colleagues. An almost embarrassing quantity.

‘Why don’t you record it’ said Pavla ‘Then you can listen to it and memorise it whilst you’re doing farmy things. Or when you’re in the car or tractor, walking the dogs…seeing to the cows and whatnot. I’m sure Olly has the right machine.’

‘That’s a brilliant idea!’ suddenly I felt a little less daunted ‘I mean I can even listen to it whilst painting the windows! That’ll help.  I was fretting a bit. Torn, you know, between preparing and painting!’

You’ll remember that we’re in the throws of redoing all our windows and doors, plus 101 other farm jobs that have been on hold during the summer’s rain. Unfortunate in one way that dry weather and a host of previously arranged commitments coincided, but now being able to listen and learn whilst getting on with other things was an enormous relief. And yes, we had the appropriate equipment.

Other long suffering folk were held captive audience as I sat them down and practiced presenting. Robert and Ben helped with selecting photos and the layout for my powerpoint presentation. All manner of tips and advice came pouring in from every direction; I even found out one of my customers was a ‘presentation-pro’! Berengere, Ben’s wife with numerous scientific presentations under her belt, suggested I might dose myself up with beta blockers…‘Me? Are you serious? I’m a drug free zone!’ but she insisted that the very nervous do find oblivion in them. Well, who was I to resist…

So off I went to the GP. Having explained myself he proceeded to blind me with an impressive army of drugs on offer! I decided to leave off exotics and plump for common-or-garden beta blockers, as recommended. Most probably I wouldn’t take them…but, forearmed is forewarned!

The ‘natural’ method? My herbalist (I’m far happier with tinctures and potions) mixed me up a calming concoction she’d found very helpful for soothing nervous nerves, exploding with valerian and skullcap!

Finally my Alexander teacher gave me a spit and polish just to make absolutely sure I was balanced, grounded, centred, poised…and breathing.

Could anyone be more prepared? I don’t think so…

…and tomorrow – the finale!

Willow - taken by a friend on an escape-the-work visit to the coast.

Willow - taken by a friend on an escape-the-work visit to the coast.

Ahh – Willow. Willow-willow-willow!

Recently several of you have asked about Willow and how she is. Is she still as gorgeous? Is she still as wonderful?

Well, yes actually, she is and we are still quite smitten!

As you’ve probably gathered, even if you’re fairly new to my blog, I have a large rambling family and have looked after animals – humans (of all ages), livestock and other sundry organic life forms – for many, many years. There’s not an inkling of a doubt that I’m extraordinarily passionate about their mental and physical welfare but I’m not given to sentimentality or anthropomorphism.

My dogs, whether working or not, have always been brought up with clear, defined boundaries. They are treated fairly but firmly and they’ve thrived. Then came Willow.

I believed the ‘ahhh’ factor would diminish as she got older; the cuddle factor would wane as she became more robust; and the indulgence shown to her would decrease in proportion to the number of socks and loo-rolls she ruined. But no, her charm still has us in its thrall.

Maybe it was my age? The lack of small needy creatures? Age possibly, needy creature…nah. But then I realised that Olly was just as bad. So I ruled out age too. And my stiff-upper-lip-don’t-smile-we’re-english husband is similarly affected; I’ve become used to hearing him muttering sweet nothings to her as they lounge on the sofa together.

My other dogs? Jealous? No. Tolerant to the point of stupidity ‘Tick her off’ I admonish ‘if you’ve had enough tell her. Let her know!’ But they give me woefully long-suffering looks and let her continue to harass them.

Strangers pass her by without a glance until something compels them to look and then they’re captivated ‘But she’s sooo sweeet’ they coo ‘What is she?’

‘Oh, a lucher, just a lurcher.’ I say as I watch them melt.

‘Is she? Really? But she’s…oh, just…’ and they trail off with more cochie-couchie-cooing.

‘Yes, a lappet (lap-whippet), a pocket lurcher…’ I reply, tongue in cheek (you see she’s forgotten to grow).

‘Of course’ they murmur without looking up ‘Of course’.

It’s quite hopeless really. Robert’s naturally researched the condition and has reached the conclusion that she oozes oxytocins– the cuddle factor (it just can’t be us – going soft in the head).

Willow is very okay!

Willow

Willow

Jo, from LittleFfarm Dairy, wrote this comment after reading the various posts about the injured deer. I thought it  a wonderful tale, poignant and thought provoking. I asked if she would mind if I posted it on my front page as I felt it was somewhat hidden as a comment and deserved to be read. She happily agreed. Thanks Jo!

I visited a Theravada (Forest Tradition) Buddhist Monastery near Bodh Gaya in India (where the Buddha was said to have attained enlightenment) a few years ago.   Whilst there a deer suddenly burst out from a thicket of trees at the edge of the forest, hotly pursued by an excited dog.  The monks watched impassively as we stared in horror at the inevitability that the dog would surely bring down the young deer….

…..and then, extraordinarily, just as it seemed the dog would make his move, the deer pirouetted abruptly and started chasing the dog!  The pair ran into the central compound of the Monastery around which a modest cluster of Kutis (living quarters) and a Meditation Hall were grouped, the only other sound the regular swish-swish-swish of a broom as a young novice deftly flicked dust from the warm courtyard floor, not even raising his eyes as the clatter of cloven hooves and the patter of paws puffed up fresh clouds of dust, deep in the meditation of his task.  The dog flopped to the floor, tongue lolling, and rolled onto his back.  The deer danced up for a second, pawed tentatively at the dog, and then flopped down companionably, beside his unlikely friend.

We were dumbfounded; the monks, mildly amused.  The monks radiated serenity, especially the Abbot who as we soon learned, was accompanied everywhere by the dog and the deer; themselves inseparable companions.  The Abbot explained this was a place where no living being need fear another; all was harmony.  Even the mosquitoes seemed subdued!  It certainly was an incredible, unforgettable place: an oasis of calm and compassion, deep in the quiet forest.

I often think of that beautiful young deer and his canine companion, seeing them as a beacon of hope, that nothing is impossible; and that true peace can exist.

When all around me seems turbulent and chaotic, I close my eyes and take myself back to that aura of peace; and all is well.’

jo sent me this photo of the Abbot with the deer...Jo say's the dog is in the background, but not, unfortunately in the photo. 'I just think' says Jo 'that this photo radiates such harmony, calmness and tranquility...'

Jo sent me this photo of the Abbot with the deer...Jo said the dog was in the background but not, unfortunately, in the photo. 'I just think' says Jo 'that this photo radiates such harmony, calmness and tranquility...'

Jo and her husband Tony left high profile careers in the RAF to pursue a dream. After many ups and downs they now successfully run a herd of dairy British Toggenburg goats and make wonderful ice cream. They have just been awarded a Great Taste Gold Award for their Lovespoon Honeycomb Gelato –  as Jo says ‘Not bad for their first year in business!’ To find out more about their struggles and successes follow LittleFfarm Dairy.

And when we landed back at the farm? We collapsed, gasping deep breaths of apparent tranquil Englishness greenness; an illusion nevertheless! In fact the countryside thrummed with industry as every farm for miles around unwaveringly and single-mindedly mowed, turned, raked and baled their forage fields in a race to make silage, haylage or hay. Unsurprisingly this year everybody was determined to beat the weather!

I was overcome. My neighbours and contractors had done me proud. Knowing my anxiety at being away they’d come in over the weekend and despite being under huge pressure themselves had worked unrelentingly to finish my harvest!  I couldn’t find the words to thank them enough. What wonderful neighbours. This was just the perfect homecoming; hundreds of bales of quality June haylage for the stock this winter and the opportunity to take a second-cut of ‘rocket-fuel’ as we’ve nicknamed it (the second-cut in organic systems is bursting with clovers, proteins and sugars; soft and palatable it’s perfect for weaning calves and freshly calved cows).

I was ecstatic! All that was left to do was to carry in the bales. This was something that could happily wait a few days.

The next day I was off to admire the fields and bales with Theo, who was ever so serious and involved in all this real ‘portant farming stuff, when there was a kafuffle in the hedge alongside the lane “Oh! What’s that Nanu?” asked Theo

“I expect it’s just the dogs after rabbits…or” as there was a sudden increase in the excitement “…it could just be a fox.”

“A fox, Nanu? A fox? In there?” Asked Squiggs aka Theo.

“Umm yes. Ness and Skye are pretty chasey after foxes. It’s because they are sheepdogs, you see.”

“Oh” said Squiggs thoughtfully “Nanu, are you sure?”

“Not sure, sure. But…” I trailed off – the dogs had started up an excited hunting yelp along the side of Rushy field. Followed by one of the most chilling screams I’d ever heard.

“Run Wiggle, run, run, run with me” I got hold of his hand and ran as fast as his legs would carry him along the lane. We reached Rushy Field gate. The screaming and yelping had reached a crescendo.

“Listen Wiggs – this is very very ‘portant. I have to run as fast as I can over there and I need you to follow me, really follow me. You mustn’t go away. Please. You must follow.” I bent down to him and put my hands on his shoulders “You’ll do that won’t you. Cos you’re my best boy?”

He looked a bit askance. I could see him sizing up the alternatives. The noise was frightening. But it could be exciting. He could go on up the lane to the bales. But maybe there was something in following Nanu. Looking at me solemnly, he nodded.

“Good boy! I’m off now.” And with that I pelted across the field whistling and calling to the dogs having no idea what I would find. Breathless I reached the other side and thank god saw Theo following. Ness suddenly erupted out of the hedge, her mouth wide and frothing, tongue lolling, wet, muddy and panting as if her heart would pop. She flung herself at my feet. Skye, just as run-out emerged higher up the field. I was about to turn and call out to Theo that all was well when I heard a loud splashing in the stream.

“Oh no” I thought and fought my way through a tangle of bramble, thorny blackthorn and low slung willow branches “Oh no” I muttered as I pushed through to the edge of the steep stream bank. A bloodcurdling scream filled my ears and there was a young roe deer buck, desperately scrabbling to get out of a deep pool of muddy water. His eyes enormous with fear, his nostrils dilated, breath jerked out of him in jagged rasping wheezes. He caught a glimpse of me uttered a spine-chilling screech, floundered and sunk under the muddy, blood-stained water.

I jumped in, scrambled to get hold of him, stop him from going under. Terrified and gasping for breath he screamed and kicked at me frantically with fear-strengthened legs and hooves as somehow I managed to put my arms around him. Then I saw. His neck, lolling helplessly to one side, puncture wounds stippling its circumference trickling trails of watery blood. An open gash along one shoulder. He screamed again and quietened momentarily in my arms.

“Nanu, nanu? What you doing?” I looked up and there was a grimy, scratched Theo looking down on us and not at all sure if this was frighteningly serious or a kind of weird Nanu game. “Nanu what is you?” he asked puzzled.

Simultaneously I heard Olly calling “MUM, MUM? What’s happened? Where are you? I’m coming!” and in the background Joe shouting “Theo, Theo! Mum is Theo with you. Mum! Theo! Will you answer? Answer me!”….

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

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