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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.
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.
“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.”
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.
For the last two years the Okehampton Show, our local one day show, has been cancelled due to impossibly wet weather. If it was rained off again this year it wouldn’t survive.
As you can imagine the weather’s been minutely monitored. Certainly it appeared the forecast was better than July, but definitely not settled.
Tentatively, a week or so before the actual day, skeletons for the large marquees began to appear; cautiously, almost furtively, the show ground began to take shape…cattle lines, sheep and cattle pens, goat and pig tents, show rings, walk ways, beer tents, an army of porta-loos – every day a little more emerged. We scarcely dared look as we passed by – it was as if even looking was enough to tip the balance between rain or shine. Instead we sucked in our breath, crossed fingers and bit nails.
Nine days earlier the North Devon show made it…just, though conditions were far from easy. Talking to friends who’d been there showing we heard how stock trailers were unhitched, towed onto the show ground and left, dotted about randomly, in a sinking quagmire of churned mud…’Lucky’ Sally said ‘the only white bit in danger was the end of the cattle’s tail. Otherwise we’d have been in an even sorrier state!’
The night before Okehampton show it rained. I woke in the night to hear its patter-pittering on the leaves of the trees outside our bedroom window and the soft sighing hiss of waterlogged ground. The morning dawned in a grey shroud of misty drizzle. Though not, mercifully, torrential rain
Armed with wellies, hats, waterproofs and warmish clothes we set off. We’d planned to get there first thing as a cousin of Robert’s was paying us a visit in the afternoon. Even at that early hour the car parks were swelling; folk seemed determined to make the show a success come rain or shine.
As we hung over the rails of the show ring the misty drizzle gathered itself up into a leaden sky – a bruising layer of cloud enveloped the tops of the tors. Uncertain fingers of sunlight hit the sides of the valley. For a few moments clouds and sun vied with one another when unexpectedly, so it seemed, the sun decided enough was enough and with determind force blistered its way through, burning back layer upon layer of cloud to sizzle and shine gloriously over the show for the rest of the day!
Overheating and dripping with sweat in our rainy weather clothing, we squinted, smiled and laughed our way around the show ground bumping into a plethora of friends and those acquaintances that we generally see on occasions such as this. When it was time for us to leave we felt completely exhausted from the sheer exuberance of the event (and the heat!). As we drove away were amazed to see cars still pouring in. Hoorah! The Okehampton Show was a resounding success and lives to see another year…
I’m back, I’m back! Well, actually I’ve been back since last Wednesday…but it’s been full on. We hit the ground running. So much has happened, with so much to tell that I’ve been stalling in the starting; consequently everything has backed-up into enormous unwieldy stacks. (I have a great analogy, but do forgive its bucolic nature. Sometimes when a freshly calved cow first comes into milk her udder becomes severely engorged. The pressure is so great it prevents the milk from flowing through the teat freely; the newborn calf finds it difficult to get milk out so stops sucking, exacerbating the problem. One needs to completely strip the affected quarters out, release the pressure, relax the valves and start again…so, that’s where I am – just about to begin the stripping out and trying to establish a smooth seamless written flow!)
Leaving the farm at any time of year is difficult, but during the second half of June it’s particularly so as I’m generally gearing up for haylage and hay making. Following the last two diabolical wet weather years I’m even more jittery than usual. Ideally I need to make enough good quality first-cut haylage before the end of June to allow sufficient growth for a second cut at the end of August. So before we left I’d had long searching talks with my contractors, and it was decided that they would go ahead with haylaging if the weather set fair.
We left chaotically early in the morning. Matt and Clare, our friends, had kindly moved in to look after the farmhouse, dogs and stock.
The journey to France was as uneventful as any journey could be herding a large gaggle of adults and children. Arrived at Avignon, we successfully sorted out hire cars and proceeded to our B & B (a large beautifully dishevelled bastide) with the aid of God (our purposely acquired satnav). It was stunningly hot, 36C or so the car said, and humid…new babies, new mums and super-hyped three year olds were feeling the strain.
The Madam de la domaine could speak not a stitch of English but ‘understood’ my expressive gesticulating and stuttering franglaise. This prompted her to talk to me fast and in great depth about all things. I gathered we were short of a room…but she could possibly help out, otherwise we were going to have to double-up in the apartment. Swift instructions were given as to where the supermarche was, the boulangerie, the butcher, the gasoline, the candlestick maker; everything in fact we could wish for.
I returned to the family who were exploring our apartment. From the shady gravelled courtyard a pair of imposing french doors led into a large spacious living area where an enormous covered pool table acted as a multi-use surface for everything from cooking, eating, sorting, storing to baby changing…leading off this were the bedrooms, architecturally intriguing but unfortunately for us Anglo-Saxons completely dark and windowless! We came to the conclusion that this whole area under the main bastide must have once served as a store or kitchens. From the courtyard we looked down over lawns to an impressive soft-yellow sandstone surround swimming pool. The gardens were bordered by ripe barely fields bleached to wheaten paleness, with a small wooded hill beyond. To the left we had the most stunning views of St Victoire, Cezanne’s mountain, ever-changing from the softest dove grey through washed-out blues into rose quartz pink, magenta and deep palettes of purple.
Robert, Olly and I made our way to the shops indicated by Madame to find food for supper and stock up on basics. Still hot even though it was early evening, roads and buildings shimmered, the sound of cicadas swelled as we passed roadside trees and bushes, the smell of sun-baked earth and astringent herbs filled our nostrils. It was so different, so very different from the damp, tangled greenness of Locks Park.
As my son’s family turned up, jet-lagged and travel-worn from New Zealand with brand new baby Isla and electric three year old Theo, so did the broken-washing-machine-fix-it-man and, on cue, my last very expectant calving cow started bawling in the field. Though desperately wanting to drink in and savour every minute of their arrival the intensity of the moment was shoved to one side as we manhandled broken washing machine into the van (it wasn’t an easy mend) followed by a hasty kiss and hug and a sprint down the lane to bawling cow.
Bawling cow, Ginny, assured us she’d had her calf and it was now lost.
“That cow hasn’t calved” I said
“LOST,” she bellowed “lost.”
It’s in the brambles, over there! NO, no, no, in the ditch, drowning in the DITCH. GET IT OUT NOW! Silly, silly, it ‘s stuck in that rush clump. No not there, it had squiggled through the fencing and was bouncing about two fields away. GET MY CALF.
We searched, we waded, we crawled, we prodded, we poked. Just in case…
“That cow hasn’t calved” I said
“Yes I jolly well have” she shouted “AND I’ve lost it”
We eventually left her. We dashed back up the lane to fling arms around the travellers and to settle them into home. We answered a million and one questions about tractors, bobcats, diggers and chainsaws (Theo), welcomed gorgeous tiny baby Isla into the world and shared a garbled eighteen months of news and scandal with Joe and Jess. The cow continued irrepressibly in the background.
“I’ll go check on her quickly.” And off I trotted down the lane. She hadn’t progressed much and a small piece of deflated membrain hung limply from her vulva. I couldn’t feel what was going on so decided to move her up to the cow palace. Moving a cow out of a field and up a lane away from her group and her ‘new-born-calf’ (she was convinced) is not easy. But patience and coercion works in the end, if very slowly…
Little by little I cajoled her out of the field and up the lane to the shed where Robert helped me get her into a pen.
Now I had her in a small enough space to do an internal examination. I was expecting a malpresentation, a dead calf or something that was grossly deformed. Holding my breath I found a fore leg…and then another, groped around and felt the nose and mouth – all fine and dandy. It must be dead…I pinched the pastern…it moved!
I looked up at Robert “It’s alive!” I beamed “It’s alive, though quite a size.” Fiddling about inside I said “I’m going to put the ropes on. She’s not pushing very vigorously either. Let’s go for it. Get it out. It’s getting late too.”
I didn’t have too much trouble attaching the ropes as she wasn’t bearing down hard…and then we began pulling.
The stimulation started much better contraction too. She lay down and with every contraction we eased the calf forward. Luckily she’s an older cow with a roomy pelvic opening, this was one big fellow. We eased the head out and then with a final tremendous heave from Ginny the shoulders and body followed.
He was fine lad. Ginormous and perfect. I cleaned the mucus away from his airways and after a couple of laboured gulps he began a steady rhythmic breathing. Ginny was up within a couple of seconds licking him enthusiastically and lowing softly. After an hour or so I went to help him onto the teat so I would know he’d had a good belly full of colostrum before I went to bed.
Tomorrow I hoped for an uneventful, enjoyable, long awaited catch up day with my family. But….
Yesterday I started lambing – at 5.15am precisely!
The weather couldn’t have been better, gentle, mild and, most importantly, dry. Three ewes got on with the business almost simultaneously.
Last autumn I made the decision to sell a large proportion of my flock. My sheep were finding it harder and harder to manage on our land as a result of two unprecedented wet years. If summer was a problem, winter was going to be worse.
I kept back a nucleus of flock-aged ewes and a dozen ewe lambs just in case. You see my sheep, being a hill breed, are hefted, or leared, onto my land and are familiar with my system; if I go back into sheep farming it’s vital that years of flock knowledge isn’t lost.
One of the ewes I kept back was Dot, the wise old matriarch and also a pair of her two-tooth twins, known as the Tails – 1 and 2. I would like to say I kept their tails long so they could be easily identified, though in truth it was one of those lambing-exhaustion oversights. Still it’s been useful, as they weren’t sold and didn’t go for meat. I was hoping they had inherited some of their mother’s exceptional genetic traits.
Tail 1 lambed today. She handled her labour skilfully and calmly, giving birth to the first of her twins standing up. Without hesitation she set about cleaning her baby, nickering and mumbling to her with total concertration and tenderness; she manoeuvred herself into an easy-udder-access position as soon as her lamb began to nuzzle search for the teat. Once her first newborn had sucked and was belly-full warm, she got on with giving birth to the second twin, taking just as much care as well as maintaining contact and giving reassurance to the first. What a first lamber! The beginning of ‘Dot’s Dynasty’ (yes, Tail 1’s twins are ewe lambs)!
I am hopelessly behind. I know I have a legitimate excuse but the things-that-must-be-done mound doesn’t get smaller – it just keeps growing!
The leaver is pulled, my head spins wildly like a fruit machine, then slows to a juddering stop. And the jackpot? Three Cherries? Three Lemons? Three Oranges? No, and no spewing waterfall of bounty either. My fruits are Mucking Out Cow Palace, Lambing Preparations, Straw Delivery, Soil Association Inspection or yet another TB Test. (We are contiguous with infected herds, they say, and must now be tested every six months – but we have been contiguous, no, cirtiguous for ages, and this test will be right in the middle of calving…)
After landing three Straw Delivery fruits on Thursday, on Friday I pulled the jackpot of Cow Palace Mucking Out . So it was all hands on deck to get the job done and dusted by the afternoon, so cows could be returned to a sparkly clean and carpeted palace in time for imminent calving.
These are savvy cows. Instead of the usual thunderous explosion out of the cow palace, a decorous bunch of gigantic pregnant galleons swayed rhythmically down the lane. Memories of deep frozen wastes still fresh in their minds, they were not too sure if they wanted to spend another day banished to hostile lands without food or water. They need not have worried: temporary accommodation was available in Silage barn with all basic mod cons laid on.
Meanwhile back at the ranch all was a hive of activity and in record time we’d mucked out, hosed down, scraped and swept up, re-hung gates, bedded down and fed up.
On their return, no longer worried about possible banishment, they took time to take in and consider the state of the surrounding countryside, adjust their rather uncomfy corsets, pull nonchalantly at hedgerow ferns or straying binds of ivy and discuss the merits of employing full-time staff 24/7 365 days a year.
After a cursory look at their gleaming accommodation and dragging a haughty hoof along the feed barrier to check for clinging grunge they got down to the all important task of eating, belching, breaking wind and dunging…just to give it back that lived-in appeal!
The next day my lucky strike was Lambing Shed preparations…
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.
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.
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.