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cutting against the clock. our little blue tractor whizzes around Out Across

In a blur - cutting against the clock. our little blue tractor whizzes around Out Across

This is a first. Never ever in the years I’ve been farming have we topped fields in January! Yes, I’ve experienced cold spells before, though these have generally been accompanied by snow or wetness of some sort and very often wind.  Never before has the ground gone rock hard, hard enough to drive a tractor over without marking it. And, of course, we haven’t actually needed to top in the depths of winter as this has been done and dusted during  spring, summer and autumn.

This week meadows we’ve been unable to touch for almost two years have, in the last couple of days of sub zero temperatures (and lack of  precipitation since before Christmas), become frozen enough for us to cut.  We’re hoping for a permanent freezing death of the rush – yes, forever dreaming, forever hopeful.

topping Out Across on 7 january 2009. A first!

topping Out Across on 7 january 2009. A first!

We have only a small window of opportunity. The thaw is expected and we’re trying to top around ten fields and bits of others. It was -5C when I took this photo, during the night and early morning of the 7th January the temperature dropped to -8C.

Mosaic topping of Five Corners

Mosaic topping of Five Corners

This is Five Corners, one of my favourite fields, secret and unexpected, bursting with wildlife and a hunting haunt of our barn owls. We top this pasture in a mosaic so as to leave cover for the owls’ prey and other wildlife.

topping, topping, topping, topping!

topping, topping, topping, topping!

The car glissades off the road bucking and lunging across a frozen buckled verge unexpectedly stalling on a ridge of iron-hard mud only a whisker away from the pole…I can scarcely believe it, I’ve stopped, I’m unharmed, the car’s okay, and, because of the freezing conditions, not even stuck – as far as I know. My gods were with me. I’m shaking so much I can’t get the car into reverse let alone co-ordinate clutch and accelerator. Eventually I manage, and after some manoeuvring, dislodge the car from the ridge and gradually inch backward onto the lethally icy corner. I limp home at a snail’s pace overwhelmed by emotions. I creep into the house trying to avoid being heard or seen, but Ben finds me and engulfs me in a hug – it’s too much, I burst into tears. I mumble about the animals and scrabble around for my overalls.

“No mum, no! You don’t have to go out there it’s dark, it’s cold. Rob will do them. Hey, look at me…it’s not been a normal day, look at you- you’ve had it. The animals will be okay. You’re ill. It’s freezing. Hey mum, don’t.”

I look at him and feel overcome – my son, so concerned, so gentle, so caring and he doesn’t even know about the might have been accident, his love is breaking me up. “Pip, I know it seems stupid, but I want to. I think, just for a moment I need the space, the peace. Please. I’m not being difficult. I promise I’ll stop when Rob gets back. Are you coping with the New Year’s Eve meal? The goose, all the bits? The pudding?”

“Yes, everything’s fine. Not probably as you’d do it, but it’s just fine. Don’t worry. But please, don’t do too much out there. Come in soon, won’t you?” Reluctantly he lets me go.

I stumble out to the animals and, as I know they would, they calm me, ground me. They sense my anguish and even though it’s way past their normal feeding time, they don’t bawl and jostle, they don’t even demand.  Instead they’re quiet, conciliatory; concerned liquid-treacle eyes follow my every movement, dew-dropped noses and rasping tongues tentatively nudging and exploring my hands, arms and hat. Gentle reassurance. I curl up on the straw where Robert finds me. In a couple of hours it’ll be time to welcome in the New Year!

The following few days passed in a haze of phone calls, journeys and doctor-nurse-hospital arrangements on behalf of my mother. Clamouring, pleading, demanding; questioning, challenging, probing. Eventually I was persuaded to take her to the main hospital in Plymouth in case the local cottage hospital could not provide all the treatment needed. Also, I was assured that return transport would be far quicker from there.

Her triage treatment in A&E was excellent and in a couple of hours we found she’d fractured her knee cap. From then on it was a nightmare. Treatment was to be ‘conservative’ – in other words nothing would be done, not even pain relief. Mobilise, I was told, get her moving (with a fractured knee cap? with nothing to help?).  It was obvious they couldn’t wait to pass the problem back to her home, her GP and community services. If you’re old and demented you don’t stand a chance, even if yours is a ‘mechanical’ injury, time and money will not be wasted on you. After a seven hour wait for return transport we arrived back at her home at 9pm – my mother was past all reason – frightened, confused and irrationally furious at everything, including me.

So here we are, frustrated and banging our heads against several brick walls.  Trying hard to find her some form of pain relief that won’t exacerbate her mental condition. Trying to get a response and hurry along the re-enablement team so we know how best to mobilise her without causing her more injury (but referrals, don’t you know, have to be processed through proper channels before a visit is allowed). Trying to encourage her to eat and drink (at the moment she won’t). Trying to explain to her what’s happened (she has no idea of why she hurts). I don’t know how she’s going to cope; her body’s fast becoming a random muddle of irrelevant, awkward bones.  But I know I still see that spark of  fighting spirit flashing in her eyes, and until that dies I will do everything I can.

hartland - new year's day 2009

hartland - new year's day 2009

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…

Firstly, before I write jot, my wishes and thoughts are speeding their way to you over the ether for a year in which you will find fulfilment, happiness and peace  as well as buckets-full of energy and excitement for new ideas and projects.

I also want to thank you for all your support, encouragement, comments and debate; without you there really wouldn’t be a blog!

So here’s to you and the best 2009 can bring…A Happy New Year!

the best of New Year wishes to you

the best of New Year wishes to you

The slippery slide to Christmas panic well and truly kicked in today…
I was okay. I thought I’d got a handle on it.  Work has been rather demanding, but it’s under control – just. We’d decided that we weren’t going overboard on presents this year; stockings would be a joint venture – couples sharing – apart from children who we could all spoil; we’d decided the main thing was to enjoy ourselves and the family being together (actually we do say this every year!).

But today the rug was whisked from under my feet. There were icy cold fingers running down my back and persistent butterflies churning in my stomach. It’s strange as I’m not an early organised buying-presents-far-in-advance sort of person; I enjoy the excitement and anticipation of the build-up. We don’t put the tree up until a few days before Christmas and our decorations come from the wood; armfuls of holly, ivy, pine and fir to decorate mantelpieces, bookcases, fireplaces and beams, with Will weaving glossy darkly-green wreaths for the doors.

Last weekend the Christmas goose, purchased from a friend, was despatched and a finger-numbing, but happy-chatty companionable afternoon was spent plucking in a sneezing, tickling snow of white down.  The puddings? They were made, stirred and wished into by the family back along on stir-up Sunday; the cake’s maturing in its tin and I’ve jars of mincemeat on the larder shelves. So what gives? Why do I feel so unready, flakey and shakey?

I think it begun with the moths – a couple of weeks ago I went to put on a warm jumper and its sleeves were peppered, well no actually, they were shredded by clothes moth larvae. Since then all, each and every precious thing appears to have succumbed to moth damage.  Cupboards, drawers and shelves are having to be cleared and the contents stored in the deepfreeze – not a pre-Christmas job by choice.

Then the washing machine decided to have a wobble – and on a farm in winter, with our mud, the washing machine is elevated to god-like status, I assure you. I prayed. I also kicked and banged. In the end I offered well-managed and sorted sacrifices (clothes and pockets devoid of hidden nails, straw, binder twine, lumps of soggy tissue and mouldy barley); this appears to have appeased the mechanical washing god for the moment.

But it was this morning that hammered the panic home. The scraper (the implement I use daily to scrape out the cow palace) gave a tortured teeth-on-edge tearing screech and hung limply from the arms of the bobcat – broken and twisted. Kaput.

Following hot on the heels of scraper, Robert’s car’s crankshaft pulley was making ominous noises – “you get out of there – that’s not safe” scolded Chris at the garage “how you got home last night’s a bloody miracle!” Car out of action for the foreseeable future.

So what with the moth infestation and freezer full of clothes, not food for feeding the thousands; Amazon deliveries consisting of moth repellents, cedar balls and pheromones, not gorgeous trinkets and presents to die for; my broken can’t-live-without mechanical aids and a defunct car – I feel a little overwhelmed.

beautiful brilliant red holly berries

beautiful brilliant red holly berries

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