Monday, December 31, 2007

Box-fresh

The tiniest of bleets greeted me this morning as I went out onto the field to feed the hens. Over the rise and at the top of the dingle, standing small and all alone, was this little scrap. His mother was tucked into a thicket of blackthorn a few metres away with two more lambs. Triplets then, obviously born in the early hours and all a good size too.

My shepherding - though largely vicarious - I take very seriously. I picked him up and reunited him with his mother who didn't seem over concerned that a third of her new family had gone missing. (But then she wasn't overwhelmed at his return either - a quick sniff and a grunt was all the welcome he got.)

What a good omen it seems, new life for the new year.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Seasonal flim-flam.....

Is it safe to come out yet? What do you think? Dare I peek out over the parapet in the hope of spying some normality?

I've tried. I've tried very hard - and I think successfully - to pay lip service to the niceties of the season, (trees, cakes, pies, presents, goodwill to all men etc) - but it's not my natural habitat. I love the lights and the twinkling, the visit of my 3 wise young men and, sceptic that I am, can even find time for the Christmas story. I'm sorry folks, for me, bring on 12th night and The Last Day of the Sales.

Fortunately Welshpool does not appear to be in the thrall of the retail frenzy gripping the nation - cut price steaks vied with half-price Christmas cards in the town's new Sainsburys store. There didn't seem to be much of a rush for either. Further down the road in Cheap Charlie's Christmas Store, last week's forest of artificial spruce where ersatz polar bear and reindeer roamed in ersatz snow, is now a barren waste. Lawn mowers wait in the wings while desultory shoppers pick over baubles, reduced napkins and angels with broken wings. Perhaps the townsfolk have gone further afield or are glued mouse-in-hand to a computer screen and Curry's CutPriceSale.

I'm patiently waiting for the radio and the TV to be back to normal too. In the meantime I'm reading Byron Roger's biography of RS Thomas: 'The Man Who Walked into the West'. More of that later. Maybe.

Monday, December 24, 2007

'tis the season....

In the field the 'dogged old ewes' have turned their backs against the rain and stand, stock-still as statues, facing east. I watch the rain driving across the dark conifers of Badnage Wood. It's not so much falling, but surrounding us and all pervasive.

If there can be a plus side to this sodden day when the landscape's colour is reduced to a sombre palette - then I find it in the flash of red on the woodpecker outside the window and the extra sparkle of the Christmas tree lights in the gloaming. Small pleasures.

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

What we did on our holidays.....

We're now back at the top of our low mountain after a few days in London. At the risk of sounding like 'a hick from the sticks', when you're more accustomed to the plod of rural life it's a busy old place isn't it? We pounded the streets with the best of them, shopped and ate for England and got an injection of culture as well. Hmm, is it any wonder I'm exhausted?

Our hotel, The Montague on the Gardens' is an artefact's throw from the British Museum - which must be one of my most favourite places. Its proximity means that it's easy just to drop in for a quick browse and a gawp at all that wonderful STUFF. Such a treasure trove. Forget 'Supermarket Sweep ' - I'd like 5 minutes with a shopping trolley in the BM.....or perhaps a block and tackle to liberate an Assyrian statue or two.....

We had tickets for 'The First Emperor' exhibition staged in the Reading Room in the Great Court. Whilst not particularly large it was certainly worth a visit. The chance find of a terracotta head in 1974 by a Chinese farmer whilst sinking a well resulted in one of the archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century - the tomb of China's first Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi. His own burial mound remains unexcavated but archaeologists have uncovered a wealth of material in a vast underground complex which surrounds the tomb. As well as c.7,000 terracotta soldiers, pottery entertainers, officials, musicians, horses and bronze birds have been found in an area 56 km sq. The scale of this one man's quest for eternal life is staggering - and any exhibition can only ever show a fragment of its magnificence.
These little clay figures made by schoolchildren, standing in lines like the real warriors, caught my eye. Each one similar to the next, but each one, like the originals, an individual. Good work girls and boys.

A taxi ride across London in the early evening to Battersea took us across Waterloo Bridge. Lights twinkled in all directions; the London Eye and Westminster to our right and the City, London's financial hub to the left. Below us the inky Thames magnified those lights a thousand times. It was both a pretty and an impressive sight. We supped champagne at a friend's new riverside apartment which enjoys equally impressive views across the city - envious? Moi? We dined on fish in Mayfair - at Scotts.

More good food was eaten at Moro in Clerkenwell, where we met the Eyechild who stumbled out of the darkness from the seamy side of town. Good hearty food here - just right for a cold December evening.

On our final night we took our seats at the ROH for Rossini's 'La Cenerentola'. While we were unfamiliar with this opera it's essentially a reworking of the story of Cinderella. In spite of a convoluted plot involving characters changing roles it was remarkably easy to follow - the sur-titles did help! I don't know whether I would go out of my way to see it again - it seemed to lack oomph. I was longing for some spectacle; mice and pumpkins, smoke and mirrors - a grand ball, but this was not to be. We got a swish blue car, a girl in pretty dress for a few minutes and some good tunes. Jacopo Ferretti's libretto - its word play - was great fun. As ever, wonderful to hear music for real - I never fail to feel a frisson of anticipation as the orchestra launches into the overture before the curtains part and the drama begins. Bliss.

There was just time on Friday morning to go back to the British Museum and take a quick look at some of the objects in the European Galleries.......hoards of gold and silver, tools and coins and wonderful things. Interestingly there was very little on display from this part of the world. .....Perhaps that means it is still here, still buried, just waiting to be discovered! (note to self: dust off metal detector and spade. Enlist help of Doreen.)

Then finally, shoe-horned into seats 29 and 30 in coach C on the 12.40 from Euston we hurtle north to Birmingham. It seems many others have the same idea. They and their fantastic amounts of luggage + frail carrier bags of jolly presents, are going home for Christmas. Young and excited, back to Mum and Dad. I imagine the same scenario is taking place in the other direction too. (I am always amused by the thought of this annual people exchange - north to south, south to north and presumably east-west, west-east as well.)

Miracle of miracles. The local train not only arrives in Birmingham, but it departs on time. We are home. Released from travel's enveloping time capsule where there is neither night or day or reality we discover fresh air. Cold frosty air, which as we climb out of Welshpool onto the side of our low mountain, becomes thick and foggy. Long Mountain is swathed in mist and covered in crisp hoar frost. Beautiful.

Oh - and these are my new shoes:


Now all I need is an invitation to the ball.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Tree of Lights

The lights on the village Christmas tree went on last night. The 'ceremony' - a prayer and the flick of a switch took only a few moments and was the cue for everyone to rush indoors out of the cold: a) to grab a seat and b) to have a glass of hot mulled wine. In that order. And what a crowd there was in the Village Hall. There wasn't room to slide a mince pie between the gathered folks. Under the glow of the room's primitive electric heaters heads got hot, coats were shrugged off and bottoms shuffled on the hall's serviceable chairs. Children wriggled. Rosy faces, bright with anticipation and wine, keenly awaited the promised 'Christmas Entertainment.'

Up front, whoever's holding the curtains together on the stage has a whispered argument, 'sotto voce', with someone else unseen. 'No' 'Yes' 'Not now.' 'Get on with it'. Finally the curtains part to reveal a scratch choir of village ladies and some judiciously placed scenery - a chimney, a wall and somewhat inevitably - Santa's sleigh alongside that other potent symbol of Yule-tide, a Post box. With a flourish the Vicar at the piano launches into 'Winter Wonderland' and we're off. A bell rings festively and a sack-carrying Santa enters the room - to loud applause. Santa Claus is coming to town! Hurrah! Everyone under the age of 10 gets a present and there follows much rustling as wrapping paper is torn away.

I won't inflict too many of Marton's festivities on a fragile world - only about 44 seconds worth of the '12 Days of Christmas' as performed by 2 local farmers. It's just as well that the audience were not too bothered about a polished performance - in fact the more gaffs and pratt-falls the better. This was definitely a work in progress. How we laughed! This is the village comfort zone, the well worn, much loved and innocent - and as somebody said on the way out 'Only in Marton.' Dave sings 'When a Child is Born', softly and a little self-consciously. He is a farmer and I suspect has rehearsed by singing to his cows at milking. We are all proud of him and applaud loudly. Well done.



Finally the vicar picks up his piano accordion and everyone sings carols very thoroughly, verse after interminable verse. Maureen, sensing that at this rate we'll be here until morning, hisses loudly and authoritatively through the curtain 'Get on with it. Top and tail 'em'. That seems to do the trick. 'Silent Night' is abruptly silenced. The serious business of munching mince pies, drinking tea and talking about the woes of farming can now begin.

And that's it really for another year, bar the totting up and submitting expenses.

The little tree and its cloud of white lights twinkles outside the Hall at the edge of the Village. If you're coming through Marton I hope you'll like it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Dear Me,

I've been tagged by Snailbeachshepherdess. I must write a letter to my 13 year old self. Hmm.... (Scratches head, chews metaphorical pencil). Here goes............
















Dear Felicity,

I know, I know - that’s not what you want to be called. (A bit too different when you’re in a class with all those Helens, Heathers and Kathleens – to say nothing of the Annes, Lesleys, Rosemarys and Alisons. Ooops, nearly forgot the Margarets…) You stand out when you want to blend in and long to be called something like Janet.

Your nickname – Topsy – is not entirely conventional either. It’s the name you’ve been known by since you were a teetering toddler – and it was fine in the rough and tumble world of home but in the more sophisticated surrounding of Kings High School it’s not quite right either. Keep your thumb over the name on your bus pass – it’s one thing for your friends to give you a nickname – but when bus drivers replace ‘Hello muy duck’ with ‘Hello Fliss, Flick or Fizz’ it’s time to be assertive. You will be assertive won’t you? And Felicity? You will grow to like its difference.

And how is school? Hockey? I didn’t think you’d get much pleasure from hurtling up and down a muddy field on a foggy afternoon in pursuit of a small wooden ball. I quite understand that you could never see the point. I am glad you gave it a try though. I suspect you will always avoid anything remotely sporty involving teams and ugly clothes. How are the other subjects going? Hopeless at maths? That’s unlikely to change! When you have children of your own try to sound convincing and encouraging about the importance of the sciences.

Art though, that's a different matter - I’m sure you’re in your element in the Art Room. I think that’s all you ever really wanted to do – make marks and play with colour and shape. Don’t give up on Latin – believe me, in years to come what seems like a pointless exercise now will later pay dividends.

I imagine that you wish you lived in the town like most of your school friends. The concept of ‘cool’ hasn’t been invented yet but I think we’ll agree that living surrounded by what your mother describes reasonably accurately as ‘a sea of mud’ is not ‘cool’. You are drawn to those beckoning city lights. I know that deep down the countryside’s slow and regular pace has entered your soul and taken hold of all your senses. There will be sights and smells and sounds in 40 years time that will suddenly transport you back to Warwickshire – leafy then before Dutch Elm disease took its toll – and you will feel you’ve come home again. You will eventually learn to love, and live with, mud. And poultry too believe it or not.

I suppose I should advise you to heed the wise words of your parents – but I can’t do it very convincingly. As B Dylan will shortly bring to your attention - ‘The Times they are a-changin’. His words will speak for your generation:

'Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond
your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin'.
How lucky you are to be young now. The country has finally shaken loose from the privations of wartime and the austerity which followed. The social order is changing. By the time you reach adulthood - and don't laugh - the fact that you're a woman shouldn't hold you back either. So get out there and seize every opportunity. Throw caution to the wind. These are such exciting times.

What else can I add? Travel, see the world. Measure twice, cut once. Enjoy.

With love and best wishes,
F x

It is an interesting exercise - if you're up for a challenge consider yourself tagged!

Morning Sky














'Red sky in the morning - shepherd's warning?'

This dramatic dawn greeted me when I woke this morning. Surprisingly there are only short moments between the two pictures. The fieriness disappeared and was replaced by a rather uninteresting golden glow.

News for lovers of sheep....'The dogged owd ewes'

John and Heather fetched up the other night with a lorry load of sheep for our field. 20 plus ewes, extracted from the flock over at Fir House, stumbled down the ramp and off into the darkness. They are all due to lamb in January and need a bit of tlc; extra food and such. (3 troughs arrived with them.) They are indeed a sorry bunch and remind me in a way of one of those wartime regiments where some wag, to while away the hours, had gathered together groups of men with similar characteristics - red-hair or facial scars for example. It may be an apocryphal tale, but I would like it think it true. These unfortunates mostly have bad feet.

John described them as ‘dogged owd ewes’ – I wouldn’t have thought doggedness was an ovine trait – but what do I know?

The prospect of food, any food, excites them though and bad feet or not they come running. Here they do show determination. There was much pushing, shoving and head butting in order to snarf a mouthful of hen food yesterday. Today they are enjoying the sun.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Hoping

Marton was all a-twitter this morning when the news came in that our Lottery bid to fund a new Village Hall had gone forward to the next stage. This is good news indeed - we are now amongst the final 104 projects waiting to discover if we will be one of the lucky 'good causes'. Last Friday we were one of 541, so the odds have shortened considerably.

Everyone who has worked so hard preparing the bid and raising funds - fundraising which basically covers professional fees and maintenance - is much encouraged. I am too but with my cynic's hat on wonder if we should instead have encouraged the Modern Olympiad to return to Shropshire - funding would have poured into our hands and we would have facilities, a transport system and affordable housing that was the envy of west midlands and Welsh Marches alike. (Look what's happening in Hackney and see, further afield what the Guggenheim Museum has done for Bilbao.) Instead money trickles awfully slowly into our coffers, coffee morning by coffee morning and our ultimate success will be, well, a lottery. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the scale of the project and the little impact we make on the final target figure.

'They' have appraised our project so far by paperwork and telephone interview. Now 'They', the ├╝ber-powerful great and good, will leave their London offices and pay a visit to Marton to view the hall. Usually we try to show its best side to visitors but this will be one occasion when its dilapidations will be an asset. Asbestos? Tick. Rot, wet and dry? Tick. Wheelchair Access. None? Tick. Possibility of repairs or refurbishment - see asbestos - none. Tick. We expect a final decision some time next year, late summer perhaps. And what if the bid fails? There is no plan 'B'.

In the meantime the Fundraising sub-Committee continue to plot events - anything to keep the money coming it. There will be a Burns Supper in January with all the trimmings; haggis and whisky and, if the floor will take the strain, some Country Dancing.Before that though, a bit too close for comfort and back by popular request will be 'The Tree of Lights'. With the flick of a switch and a short prayer from the vicar (for those that like that sort of thing), the tree's little white lights will twinkle into action - a welcoming and festive site on a dark stretch of road at the edge of the village. With the lights officially lit everyone trudges indoors for mulled wine, mince pies and Entertainment.

It's another of those 'am I really here?' moments for me..........but it will be fun. Goodcleanvillagefun amongst friends who know each other well and appreciate each other's party pieces. It has a sort of innocence from before the days of rock 'n' roll.

After much head scratching I re-worked the 12 Days of Christmas for two farmers to 'perform':
On the twelfth day of Christmas,
My true love sent to me
Twelve John Deere Tractors,
Eleven loads of silage,
Ten tanks of diesel
Nine Polish workers
Eight cows in-calf
Seven Aussie shearers
Six Vets’ visits
Five bull rings,
Four tractor tyres,
Three bags of sheep nuts,
Two forms from DEFRA,
And a copy of Farmers’ Weekly!
Give us the money and we'll all stop making fools of ourselves!