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I arrived at my mother’s home and found her, her body a poor old jumble of bones, crookedly crumpled on the bed.

“Mummy I hear you’ve had a fall?”

“Oh yes darling, I think I must have.”

“Where do you think you’ve hurt, sweetie? Can you tell me where the soreness is?”

“Oh yes, it’s up along there.” She indicates the ceiling with her index finger.

Dementia is an unkind and horrid thing, for both the sufferer and the carer. Normal things like pain, hunger, thirst become extraordinarily difficult for the sufferer to communicate or pinpoint. Usually I’m lucky enough to be able to interpret my mother’s needs, though when she’s overly anxious, agitated or distressed it becomes much more difficult.

I gently stroke her head. “Mummy, I wonder if you can do something with me. I need to find out where you hurt so I can make it better. I’m going to feel all the bones – little and big – in your body. When I touch one that feels different, do you think you can tell me?”

“Of course I can. Don’t be silly. Why are you asking me that?”

I continue to talk gently to her, telling her exactly what I’m doing. The first thing that knocks me backward is the smell – I’m sure she had a massive UTI (urinary tract infection), which would explain the series of falls. Funny the doctor hasn’t mentioned this. She’s hot to touch, her skin papery dry. She has a fever. I carry on, asking her to grasp my arms as I move her shoulder – no pain here. I gently work through each of her ribs, her shoulder blades, her spine and yes, there is a definite tenderness down her left side. I reach round for the softness of her kidneys…

“Ooh, ooh that’s sore.” This confirms my suspicion of an UTI.

I move along her pelvic girdle, her femur – no pain or soreness at all. And then I see it – it’s glaringly obvious, her left knee – it’s huge, weird, completely out of shape, and hot. Gently I cradle it with both hands and apply pressure…

“Oww, oww, oww . Don’t, don’t do that! Oh owww. Oh no.” She’s deeply distressed and in agony. It’s isn’t her hip, it’s her knee.

I phone the doctor. I explain that I’m desperately worried about her going in an ambulance to Derriford, Plymouth’s main hospital, on New Year’s Eve. She’s too frail and ill. He agrees. I explain about the UTI and the knee and ask if I can pick up antibiotics and painkillers. We also agree that she should be x-rayed in Tavistock, just a few miles down the road, first thing on Friday.

I hurtle into Tavistock to pick up prescriptions, hurtle back. Another problem has arisen, her skin is breaking down and she’s developing pressure sores on her heels and feet. Julie has coped brilliantly creaming and wrapping her feet in sheepskin as well locating a ripple mattress that can be delivered tomorrow; she’d also tested her pad for infection and found her urine contained large quantities of blood…no wonder she was so hot.

At last I leave and dash home – it’s dark, late, I’ve animals to see to, bales to move, hopefully Ben is coping with the cooking and Robert will be back with our French family. I’m exhausted, feverish and developing a hacking cough. I’m worried about what tomorrow will bring and if I’ve made the right decision in keeping my mother away from hospitals for the next twenty-four hours (often in the case of elderly, demented patients it’s NHS policy to treat ‘conservatively’ i.e. do nothing). I’m beginning to doubt my own judgement, it’s clear that everyone else believes it to be her hip. There are a million thoughts spinning around and around in my head.  I’m not concentrating properly and don’t see the ice, black, thick and shiny smooth over the whole lane. I touch the brakes, the wheels lock and I’m powerless, a telegraph pole is racing towards me at an alarming rate. ‘Please. Please, please,’ I pray, ‘if anyone is out there, just don’t let me hit the pole. Ditch, ruts anything, but not the pole, please, not tonight.’ I brace myself for the impact…

rushes in heavy frost - cow moor

rushes in heavy frost - cow moor

It’s 30 December and Berengère’s family are arriving to stay with us over the next five days. This is their first visit and I know they are really looking forward to seeing the farm, the animals, the surrounding countryside; absorbing the quintessential unspoilt ‘Englishness’ of the area. Roland, Berengère’s father, feels that that much of England, especially London, is loosing its distinctiveness and was hoping that he would re-find the special character of the country on this rural visit.

They are most interested in the farm and its produce and are intrigued by my passion for animals, farming and the countryside. Ben and Berengère have always championed our out-of-the-garden and from-the-fields ingredients together with my home cooking, so her parents were, I know, looking forward to some tasty meals to restore their faith in British cuisine, food and farming.  The pressure was on! Normally cooking for ten doesn’t faze me, but I was ill and craving a hole in which to curl up and die.  The thought of being a genial host and chef on top of routine twice-a-day stock care and farm work was beginning to make me feel wobbly.

inspecting the cattle

inspecting the cattle

“It doesn’t matter” said Berengère “Really, not at all. Look, my mother was in bed for the whole week when you came to visit! They’ll understand.” (Martine had injured her back when visited in May and was condemned to her bed by the doctor.)

“I know, I know. But I want it to be special for them. I’ve planned the meals. I’ve kept back the joints. I want them to have the whole experience!” And as always when you’re not 100% everything is blown-up by lip-quivery see-saw emotions.

In my head I’d planned the meals for the days ahead – ribs of our Red Ruby beef, sweet melting legs of Whiteface Dartmoor lamb, slow-roasted aromatic hand of pork and warm hearty white bean and kale casserole.  I would prepare gratins of creamy potatoes and leeks, red cabbage and apple, tiny sprouts stirred into sticky chestnuts and port, steam fresh romanesque shoots and caldo nero kale (jealously saved in the veg garden). I wanted to make puddings of backberries and apples encased in the shortest of crumbly pastry, tiny mincepies with clotted cream, blueberries and currants in a cloud of fluffy meringue, a Christmas pudding (of course) and Christmas cake. I knew what I wanted to do…

It was fine! After a convivial first night where we celebrated the coming together of our families we planned the days ahead. Tomorrow we would take a tour of the animals and the farm, followed by lunch and whilst I stayed at home to prepare the New Year’s Eve meal Robert would take everyone on a hauntingly beautiful walk around Scorhill stone circle on Dartmoor.

lambs in five acres - new year's eve 2008

lambs in five acres - new year's eve 2008

Sitting down to lunch after the walk around the farm on gloriously hard ground (even our mud is beginning to freeze – total bliss!), the phone went…

“Paula, it’s Elaine from Spring House. Your mum’s had a fall. Well, a couple actually, we think…  it’s a bit muddled. But the doctor’s been out. He thinks her hip could be broken. He’s arranged for her to be taken to Derriford to be x-rayed. She very confused and in a lot of pain….”

“What? Oh no! I’ll be there. Don’t let her be taken to Derriford, it’s New Year’s Eve, it’s Plymouth, it’ll be complete mayhem, she’ll be shoved in a corner. Don’t let anyone take her. I’ll phone the doctor. I’m on my way…Oh God, please let her be alright…”

With my heart pounding, I garbled hasty instruction at Ben for the evening meal and with an apologetic good-bye, grabbed my coat and fled.

scorhill stone circle in the setting sun - new year's eve 2008

scorhill stone circle in the setting sun - new year's eve 2008

part three to follow…

christmas eve carols hatherleigh town square 24 dec 08

christmas eve carols hatherleigh town square 24 dec 08

So where have I been? What blanket of fug was thrown over my head rendering me silent? The first was the same as for many of you, I shouldn’t be surprised…The Cold (of the virus type)! The second is slightly more distressing…

My slip-sliding into pre-Christmas panic disappeared and unabashed childish excitement and joy took over; our family arriving, friends popping round, unexpected invitations and out-of-the-blue visitors.

The tree twinkled in the warm firelit glow of the sitting room; banisters, mantels and pictures were decorated with binds of evergreen; mistletoe decked doorway and beam whilst freshly woven wreaths festooned the doors.

All was ready – larder shelves burdened festive goodies – ham, turkey and goose; Christmas puddings, mince pies and Christmas cake; nougats, navettes, glace fruits and marrons from France; cranberries, clementines, nuts and chocolate. I was all set to feed the army descending on us for the next ten days. But I hadn’t bargained on The Cold.

Olly, first to succumb to The Cold just before Christmas, was surprised to find he became worse rather than better. Will arrived home with the London strain. Camille brought the French version with her over the channel, her temperature soaring on Christmas Eve. The next in the firing line was me – whilst cooking Christmas dinner (naturally). Then it was Berengere. With rapid and single-minded intent it worked its way through us all. We had the added frisson of the more exotic, as our friends from across the Atlantic added their contribution to the melting pot. This was fast becoming virus heaven!

‘Hey bro –how ya doin’? Gi me five!’

‘Aw’rite mate. Didn’t ‘spec you ‘ere. Aint ‘alf bad – oi mean look at these fekking geezers…!’

‘Pardon…I ‘ave not zee Englieesh…mais oui, ici, c’est trez bon. ‘Ow you say? Bloodee marvellous!’

‘Good to see you all in this neck of the woods. The frog’s right when ‘e says it’s bloody marvellous. Never seen such a cosmopolitan gathering. Here’s one for united nations and entente cordial!

The viruses rub their hands in glee at the prospect of increasing their kith and kin by 500,000 billion in the next few days. They high five and in unison stream forward to launch their attack; bookies shout the odds on favourites, and humans didn’t stand a chance!

sharing a quiet moment - two poorly people - camille and paula

sharing a quiet moment - two poorly people - camille and paula

Yesterday, sadly, the house emptied. Today, as I gather up pine needles, escaped shreds of wrapping paper, broken toys, cracker jokes, squashed mince pies and baskets full of holiday detritus, I stop as I seem to the whole time at the moment to gaze out at the frost-sparkling countryside. Do you know we haven’t had a drop of rain for over ten days? I can scarcely believe it.

The more distressing part two tomorrow…

the tops of the cairngorms dusted with snow

the tops of the cairngorms dusted with snow

Lumpy heather, bog myrtle and blaeberry moorland under foot, majestic snow capped mountains before me, sparkling white against ominous deep purple-black storm clouds, I tingle with the sheer joy of being alive. Spellbound I watch as snow squalls march over mountain tops, through glens, finally engulfing me in a flurry of whirling snowflakes and battering hail. I was in snow, being snowed on! It was October 3rd. I walked on with flame-stinging cheeks and a grin.

We’d arrived in Scotland and while Robert was at his aspen conference I’d taken the opportunity to walk in the Cairngorm foothills directly outside our B&B.

aspen - loch nedd

aspens over the loch

The following day we drove up to Assynt, the far north-western highlands, further north than we’d ever been before. A tiny single track road took us the last nine miles to the cottage we’d rented for the week. Twisting, turning, climbing, falling it led us through breathtaking countryside. Ochre-orange gneiss moorland deeply gnarled and gouged; bleached grey rocks folded, kneaded, pummelled, tortured through millennia after that first ever cooling of the earth’s crust. Impossibly slender stems of rowan and aspen cling to high craggy outcrops, falling away to birch-clothed slopes shivering and shimmering in the dappled reds and golden-yellow green of autumn. Still, mysterious, peat-dark lochans speckle the landscape overspilling in single white threads down to churning burns. To one side of us a colossal hulk of magenta Torridonian sandstone rises up like a brooding prehistoric monster to dominate the surrounding countryside – this is Quinag, the three armed mountain. The road leading us past lochs where sea and mountain meld along ribbons of golden seaweed tossed with weathered bones of boats and the detritus of the ocean. Out to sea our eyes are led over a flotilla of small islets to a horizon of dark steel-blue peaks and headlands stretching into infinity.

assynt hills from quinag

assynt hills from quinag

We arrive at our destination on a high, euphoric. An old metal gate marked the start of a bumpy track down which we drive a couple of hundred metres to a parking spot; walking the last steep descent we turn to each other in bubbling excitement as we see in front of us, nestled on a natural rocky platform overlooking the loch, the cottage! A traditional low rectangular building built of gneiss and sandstone painted white; two windows and a small door face east looking out across the loch and moorland to the brooding, ever changing presence of Quinag. Inside all is miniature; the front door opens into a tiny passage leading to a sitting room on the right, a kitchen to the left, and a bathroom at the back; ahead of us is a miniscule stairway up to the two bedrooms in the sloping eves. Robert has a problem negotiating his height!

the view from the cottage - sunrise over quinag

the view from the cottage - sunrise over quinag

Almost unable to believe our luck we take in our surroundings in the late afternoon light. Sheltered from weather by hillside and trees, we slowly absorb the untamed beauty of the loch below us and the hills beyond, tasting seaweed, the damp decay of leaf litter and peat on the salt blown air. A small gaggle of sheep wander past the front door on their way to their evening grazing spot, turning to look at us with mild interest. Inside I draw a glass of spring water, deliciously cold and clear with a hint of mussels soaking in fresh water. Later that evening, snuggled under the duvet, we gaze at the stars through a large skylight, listening to the wind in a lone Scots pine mixed with the distant sound of the sea. Across the loch the primal roar of a stag in rut echoes around the mountains. We drift to sleep wrapped in a blanket of dreams.

red deer stag

red deer stag

eas a cual aluinn falls - the highest in Britain

eas a cual aluinn falls - the highest in Britain

An extraordinary week to be away.  An extraordinary week to be without any of our normal communications; no phone, no broadband, no telly, just  a crackly old boom box which tunes into radio 4 with a protesting hiss and fart, fading out in an explosion of excruciating white noise at the pertinent  point… “Global meltdown!”  “Financial Armageddon…” “A day so black it’s impossible…” “No one has seen the like since 1920…” “The chancellor has just announced…” “Now we are going to our correspondent in Reykjavik for the latest on the collapse…” the rest frustratingly disintegrates in a furious high pitched whine.

Yes, I have savings in an Icelandic bank; researched carefully on such sites as moneysupermarket.com, make-your-money-work, what-to- know-about-investing-your-savings and how-to-get-the-best-out-of-your-money.  Before we left for Scotland I seriously toyed with the idea of moving my money out amid the panic and mayhem – but where to put it? Nothing seemed secure.  In the end I decided it was probably best to leave it alone, after all it was FSI backed.

Through last weekend the panic and collapse of the financial system worsened. We gleaned snippets in the foothills of the Cairngorms of the drama being played out across the world; stock markets crumbling, banks folding.  And in the car driving to Robert’s aspen conference dinner we heard of the American 700 billion dollar bail out being thrown out, and then succeeding in an enlightened form.  Arriving at our destination high in the remote north-west highlands, we learnt of the lack of positive response in world markets, which continued to plummet in chaos and turmoil.

Surreal, and strangely bizarre. On the one hand my eyes and mind were hungrily drinking in the remote ancient wild beauty of a landscape that feeds my very essence and on the other there was the banal, yet very real, material worry that I could lose my hard earned savings.

aspens by the edge of eas a cual aluinn

aspens by the edge of eas a cual aluinn

It would probably be better not to have even a radio.  Not a thing I can do about it.  I now inhabit a part of the world that is clothed in rocks three billion years old.  Today, in a wild isolated hanging valley, I stood at the head of the highest waterfall in Britain, watching a rainbow caught in the fall’s spangled spray which played on quivering, golden leaved aspens;   around me a curtain of blown mist parted to reveal scenery that made me ache with its beauty.  Billions lost? The fall on Wall Street?  The crumbling City? The crazy machinations of bankers? Armageddon? Standing there in the wind and the rain I felt rich beyond words and extraordinarily fortunate.

the mists lift to reveal an extraordinary panorama

the mists lift to reveal an extraordinary panorama

suillven calls

suillven calls

We’re away to Scotland first thing tomorrow. Robert has an Aspen conference up near Aviemore, we then go high, high up to the north western highlands to stay in a little bothy for a week of walking. Snow is forecast for this weekend! I can’t wait!

highland cattle

highland cow and calf

Till I’m back…bye bye!

zebu-cattle-1-san-cristobel-22-jan-08-reduced.jpg

a handsome zebu bull with one of his cows on San Cristobal

Before I completely forget about some of the wondrous animals I interacted with whilst away, I thought I would upload a few images to share with you. You will have gathered by now, I’m passionate about animals, and in particular mammals – from the teeniest rodent through to gargantuan whales. All, wild and domesticated, human and not so human, fascinate me. I thirst to know more! Here are a few encounters… Read the rest of this entry »

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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