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Glorious October certainly! We continue to be busy outside with the hundred and one jobs this dry weather has allowed us to get on top of…dung spreading, ditching, fencing, hedge trimming, cutting and carrying wood from our wood stacks to our winter store and, of course, never ending topping (yes, we are still able to get onto the land with a tractor!).
The ewes have been tupped and are now grazing peacefully, happy in the autumn sunshine and revelling in the unexpected bonus of being dry underfoot.
Cows and calves are contentedly munching away in the River Meadows, whilst the bull and his cohort are doing a first-rate job around our smaller meadows at the home farm. Our autumn flush of grass has been excellent – more sustaining and nutritious than the rank crop our waterlogged fields produced during the wet summer months.
Polytunnel beds are gradually being mulched down with our organic dung and covered over for winter – though a handsome supply of chilli, aubergine, tomato, squash and carrot are still providing us with tasty suppers. Outside in the kitchen garden leeks, kale, red cabbage, spinach, broccoli spears and roots are giving us delicious seasonal variety.
Though apples haven’t produced that well this year the quince tree is heavy with golden, fragrant fruit which I’ll pickled, make into jelly and quince cheese. The pear tree in the orchard is also bowed over with small, bullet hard fruit for which I’ll have to invent some different preserves.
It’s a good autumn; land, man, beast and wildlife flourish. Next weekend, on the 25th, we have two farm walks, so though the weather is due to break tomorrow I hope we won’t return to horrendous torrential drenching!
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!”….
I was busy preparing a celebratory supper for us and some friends. It was Friday and Hallowe’en or Samhain; the end of summer, the beginning of winter and the Celtic New year.
Having lived my life in tune with the seasons and nature for so long I find myself compelled to do certain things at certain times of the year, as if engrained in my genes. Autumn I love, even after a dreary summer. There’s a gentle tranquillity, a whimsical melancholy. I draw the countryside and her gold, bronzes, rusts and amber to me, into some secret place which I hug tight.
The past couple of weeks have found me collecting and squirreling away the last of the fruits and berries. Hips, for rosehip syrup and crab apple and hip jelly – stuffed full of vitamin C and A to chase away those winter’s colds; haws to make into hawthorn butter and bottles of piquant sauce – a wonderful tonic for the heart and circulatory system; and quince for quince cheese, jelly and spiced quince, just because I love it.
The house changes too. I swap cool summer greens for warm rusts and Turkey red. Our fires smoulder slowly throughout the day ready to sparkle into crackling dancing flames in harmony with curtains drawn against the early evening dark and chill.
Like our ancestors I need to celebrate the end of summer and harvest, to wish us all well during the dark months and toast the return of light and growth!
Samhain celebrations have survived the centuries in several guises as a festival dedicated to the harvest, fertility and the dead. Samhain was a time to take stock and eliminate weakness; to decide which animals, too frail to survive the long winter months, to slaughter, and for preparing stores of preserved meat, fruits and grain to last through the coming winter. Not so very different from us today.
Bonfires, originally ‘bone fires’, played a large part in the festivities, as the bones of the slaughtered cattle were thrown into the flames. These bonfires also represented the sun, the giver of life and light, warding off evil spirits and providing warmth and a welcome to good ones. With the bonfire ablaze, the villagers extinguished all other fires and each family would relight their hearth from the embers of the common flame, bonding the families of the village together. Often two bonfires would be built side by side, and people would walk between the fires as a ritual of purification; sometimes cattle and other livestock would be driven between the fires as well.
Samhain was overlain by All Saints Day and All Souls Day in an attempt by the church to undermine the Pagan festival and so it became All Hallow’s Eve or Hallowe’en. Even before this it was tangled up with the Roman festivals of Feralia, celebrating the passing of the dead, and of Pomona, goddess of fruit and trees (the apple being a symbol of fertility).
With our bonfires already having burnt fiercely from the polytunnel clearance; a shoulder of lamb slow roasting in the oven, vegetables aplenty from the garden, spiced baked apples for pudding and our carved lantern flickering on the table, it seems we are keeping to the age old festivities and traditions of our ancestors.