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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

an old sash window - not one of ours. Beautiful, but oh so difficult to repair

an old sash window - not one of ours. Beautiful in its dilapidation, but oh so difficult to repair

For the last couple of years we’ve been studiously ignoring our rotting windows and doors. Though I’ve murmured endearing little asides like ‘I think this window is a wee bit falling apart’ or ‘Oops, silly me. Look! Another chunk of door came off as I closed it.’ It fell on deaf ears.

The deterioration galloped on a pace along with our diabolically wet weather.  I became more direct. ‘I think it’s time we all made a concerted effort to SAVE the windows and doors. They are rotting’ No response. Nothing, nada, not a pipsqueak. Those who were meant to hear either buried themselves obliviously behind periodicals which two seconds before they were mindlessly flipping through or walked away swiftly before I could finish.

In a last ditch attempt I phoned the joiner…making quite sure everyone was gathered about ‘Hi, Greg. Remember I phoned you about our windows and doors the other day? Yes? Did you get the measurements…? No, no, I understand. Just an estimate. Of course. Really! No! That much? And that’s just for a repair? Okay. Oh heavens, so it would be really pricey for a replacement? Wow, that is a fair whack; I’ll have to think about it. It’s a lot of money.’

RESULT!

Frenetic activity. Sanding, scraping, gouging and scouring. Old paint, dead wood dried putty flying off. Buckets of water, litres of white spirit, bundles of wire wool and rolls of sandpaper. Olly set to with grim determination. Twenty-three windows in our veeery looong house, and five doors, all, bar one, glazed.

Filling, re-puttying, glazing-bar renewal, wood hardening and preserving, joinery and carpentry – without a doubt Robert’s your man. 23-windows-5-doors-all-bar-1-glazed…

The final titivating preparation, washing down and paint job – that’s me. 23 windows, 5 doors – all glazed, bar one…

So, over the last week, as the sun shone, the wood dried, we beavered and are continuing to beaver. Twenty-three-windows-five-doors-all-bar-one-glazed. It’s like the Forth Bridge – immense, never-ending and infinite. All to get done before it rains…

the thing is - I love gentle deterioration too...

the thing is - I love gentle deterioration too...

woman spinning

woman spinning

Mrs. G lived a timbered medieval hall house surrounded by her sheep. She was ancient when I first met her. Her voice, deep and husky from smoking, her face, scrunched brown paper, was all crevasses and troughs. Her clothes were simple tunics in faded ochres, moss greens, indigo blues and rusty madders made up from the nubby fabric she’d spun, dyed and woven. She always wore an apron with a multitude of deep pockets “To protect myself, dear girl, from the wool and lanolin,” she’d growl “and to have somewhere to put things. So important.”

Outside she wore a battered old hacking jacket, tied around with binder-twine “Never, dear girl, be without twine, or a knife. They’ll serve you” and galoshes pulled over her ancient brogues. She smelt of earth, of wool, of wood smoke – the essence of Mother Earth. I loved her.

She taught me spinning, weaving and dying; she taught me about sheep and wool and folk law. She made me look at and feel the countryside; she revealed how man can live in harmony with nature.  Far beyond her time and long after it too. Friend and mentor, she set me on the path I now walk.

Back in the 1970s when I first met Mrs G, our rural skills and trades were withering away and  we were in real danger of loosing a vast font of knowledge, centuries of expertise.  Now things are better.  Rural crafts are being revived –  and more and more of us want to work with nature and the land, not against it.

I’ve many friends and acquaintances involved in a wide variety of these traditional trades. Some started off learning a new skill or craft as a hobby which evolved into small (sometimes not so small) rural businesses. Some gave up the rat race and demanding careers to find a more worthwhile occupation. But all of them, I know, struggle to find funding, whether it’s to help train an apprentice, further their own knowledge or to start or expand a business. While researching information for a piece I was asked to write I came across some very helpful and committed people in various organisations that provide funding for scholarships, apprenticeships and training. So I thought I’d provide a few links and names for those of you interested. Perhaps if you’ve had experience of other sources of helpful funding you could provide a link in your comment for others?

The Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust’s (QEST) aim is to give awards to craftsmen and women of all ages to help them further their careers. Shelley-Anne Claircourt, their press officer, explained to me that back in 1990 this trust was established to celebrate both the 150th anniversary of the Royal Warrant Holders Association and the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Their website gives details of the individuals who’ve recently been awarded scholarships and how you can apply.

Lantra the skills council for vocational training and apprenticeship programmes in environmental and land-based businesses, is passionate about skills and improving business performance., . They help support the individual and represent the interests of around 217,000 businesses and over 1.5 million workers and volunteers in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Contact them on 0845 707 8007 or email connect@lantra.co.uk so they can explain how best Lantra can benefit you. (Vicky Brewin – Marketing and Communications Co-ordinator at Lantra – contacted me with some information concerning the South West. She said ‘In your region we have one funding programme called Women and Work which offers funding to women working in farming and other male dominated industries.   If you would like more information please visit www.lantra.co.uk/WomenandWork.’)

The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has just invested an additional £7.3m to support a wide range of specialist skills and training opportunities within the heritage sector.  This will deliver up to 1,000 paid training opportunities for people seeking a career in heritage and will include specialist skills ranging from horticulture to conservation and web design. Katie Owen is a helpful contact to point people in the right direction.

I found that most of the people in the above organisations have good knowledge of other grants available. So do ask them – they’ve done the foot work!

reed cutting in Norfolk

reed cutting in Norfolk

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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