Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Another well known phrase or saying.

What's this I hear from the hen-house-on-wheels, home to my small and motley flock of poultry? It's a rousing 'cock-a-doodle-doo'. As I open the door the birds come spilling out - and here they are at my feet milling expectantly for pellets and grain. The cockerel struts about in that macho way beloved of the male of the species everywhere. I'm glad he's crowing - it's what cockerels do and it's a real sound of the countryside.

But from the interior of the hen-house-on-wheels his crow is answered by another. What? What's this? I only have one cockerel and he's here, outside.

I investigate. Up on the perch, with head thrown back and throat stretched to the heavens sits the Cuckoo Maran - crowing her heart out. 'Tis flying in the face of nature - a crowing hen - and there I was expecting an egg from her any day now....
'Limp wristed - moi?'
I Google. It's a good place isn't it, the t'internet, for everyman and his dog to put their 'two penneth' in? The wild and wacky, the sane, the scientist and the slap-happy amateur all rub shoulders in a glorious melting pot of idea and opinion. Who knows what my search criteria: 'crowing hen' will throw up.

I'd rather hoped to have found a more rational explanation than 'it's the Devil's work...'

A crowing hen is apparently not an unheard of phenomena - Google throws up over 50,000 references. (Sadly none of them suggest that 'Crowing Hen' was big chief of an obscure Native American tribe.) There are not many scientific explanations either - I'm thinking hormonal here - which might account for 'her' behaviour. (I have already begun to think of her as male.) She's well developed and quite assertive - but that's probably a characteristic of her breed. I'm none the wiser.

It seems that 'A whistling woman and a crowing hen are neither fit for God nor men'. I read with foreboding that a crowing hen might portend misfortune, or worse still, a death in the house. Oooh er....Folk tales are pretty strong magic and on a cold dark evening with long shadows in the corner of the room I feel a little spooked by this. It seems to be a global belief too. I tell myself, bearing in mind there is probably a grain of truth in most maxims, that eons of experience have shown that a hen showing this male characteristic is unlikely to be a good layer and will not be worth her keep. How sensible is that?

I'm going to keep an eye on her. Her vocal outburst may amount to nothing and a deep brown egg will prove she was just a 'tomboy' at heart and this to be a passing phase. In the meantime I've winged an email to my brother ('poultry keeper extraordinaire'), a guru in hen-world, because if he doesn't know the answer I don't know who will. And there's not much point in having an expert in the family if you can't make use of their talents is there?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Out and In

It's a funny old cold-wet afternoon. Not inviting at all. I can't summon up the enthusiasm to don boots, hat, coat and gloves and set about the numerous autumnal tidy-up jobs which await me out there in the garden. There are things aplenty to cut down, haul away and compost. The greenhouse needs a thorough 'bottoming' to rid it of the air of neglect I sense as I slide the door open - the summer's tomato plants are now sorry specimens hung with a ragbag of half-ripened fruit; peppers are sticky with whitefly; a lone cucumber is swollen and flabby on the vine....

And leaves....leaves in abundance. Leaves falling like confetti, ginger as freckles, tumbled into crackling heaps. I have raked and scooped 'til my back aches but a glance skywards shows more and more waiting for the whip of the wind to direct them earthwards. I don't relish the prospect of wheeling yet another barrow load to the compost bin even if it does mean more of the brown gold that is leaf-mould.Through the glass of my window and from the corner of my eye I spy a beech tree, brilliant as a beacon against the sombre conifers of Badnage Wood. In truth it's hard to miss and like all good beacons draws me towards it. I am out and how good it is to be up here on the hill with the land falling away beneath me - a stream of golds and browns and greens tumbling away down the side of the Long Mountain. How I wish I could fly and soar over this magnificent landscape with its myriad twists and turns, clefts and hollows.

It's cold and the air is wet but I'm glad I stirred my stumps. The hardest thing I think is getting through the door.

Then, from my vantage point on the hill, I hear Heather, Karl and Phil over there in the Little Triangle Field gathering in the last of the cows and calves. Phil is out on the flank somewhere while Heather urges them on and Karl thwacks his boot with a stick. It's the odd rhythmic thump which attracts my attention - and that of the hens as well. The birds stand with heads cocked and listen to the cavalcade of men and animals move across the field. There's a young bull amongst them too and I can hear him snorting heavily as they move towards the yard. He's a lumbering, muscular, ginger beast amongst the lighter-weight cows and their liquorice-allsorts calves. There's a wagon in the yard waiting to take them down off the hill to their winter quarters. The tail-gate shuts, the lorry strains its way up our narrow lane and they are gone. Silence.

That's it 'til spring then; only sheep left to nibble back and forth, seemingly oblivious to the elements.

I turn my back on the burnished landscape, head into the wind and rain and sprint for the warmth of home. Time for me to be in too.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Normal service will be resumed....

....probably some time tomorrow.

We have a guest; a guest we are very pleased to see and of whom we are both very fond. However, the change of routine which hospitality entails is beginning to take its toll.

There's no selfish, solitary half hour hunched over the crossword at breakfast - instead I must make bright conversation. There are no self-indulgent forays into cyberspace for minutes which stretch into hours - I must find entertaining earthly diversions instead. There's the need to sustain a sparkling social smile when, frankly, I'd prefer to snarl. I have face ache.

But hey! Our guest enjoys seeing the countryside from the comfort of the car so each visit takes us deeper into the Welsh countryside. Yesterday we went to Ruthin, enjoying a day of near perfect autumn weather and fantastic scenery.

We visited the new Ruthin Craft Centre which opened with fanfares earlier this year. It's a great complex of buildings, shop, work spaces, galleries and a cafeteria. It looks good. We did our usual trick of arriving at a gallery either a week too early or a week too late - one exhibition had finished and the next was in the process of being staged. We toured the shop instead, peering into the glass cabinets which held the jewellery, ceramics, glass and objets beloved of craft galleries nationwide. I must admit here to having a problem with this kind of 'craft' which I find hard to define. Yes, it is almost always beautifully made but it is neither 'Art' nor is it 'Design'. It has a twee uniformity; a sameness, a lack of vigour. I would have like to have seen the work of artisans, of the weavers, the basket makers, the tilers, the wood and iron workers et al who marry beauty with function and form. It's my problem and maybe I'll get over it.

By contrast today we've 'done' the Christmas extravaganza at the local garden centre. What you see is what you get; lots of plastic sparkle. Lots of glittery tat. Made in China. What good honest fun. No pretension.

Anyway, tomorrow things should be back to normal.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Hens on the field

The electric fencing kit I ordered following last week's fox attack arrived very quickly but it took me a couple of days to digest the instructions. There was something grey and photographic which showed me how to unroll netting and stick stakes in the ground. There was something in very small type for the technically minded telling me where to stick the energiser (that's the thing which converts the power from the battery into pulses....I think.) and what to attach the various clips to. Finally, by dredging up enough schoolgirl French I could read what to do with the little light thingy which flashes in the dark to show me it's all working. Not too difficult after all.

I did a fair bit of pacing - I know my best-ever stride is exactly a metre - to achieve a square of my 50 metres of netting. Stakes were stuck in, ditto corner posts. I made a little gate too. Then because all the instructions stress that any vegetation touching the green netting would 'short' the circuit we laid plastic damp-proof course along the bottom. This of course showed that my 'square' was not exactly erm, square and wandered all over the place. (Alan did a lot of sighing at this point.) Alan did manly things like hammering in the earth spike and attaching guy ropes to the corner posts - all those years as a boy scout were not wasted after all were they? I should add that he came to help at the eleventh hour - as I was fixing the last corner post and had nearly finished the job. Apparently I shouldn't have done it like 'that' - I should have done it like 'this'. It's said that a little help is worth a lot of sympathy (by whom?) so I resisted clocking him over the head with the mallet and shut up. Patient, moi?

We attached the battery to the energiser and the energiser to the fence and 'thwack' - as Alan didn't let go soon enough and leapt back clutching his thumb we realised we had power. Hurrah.The hen houses were rolled into place and the birds released into their new home. It does look pretty good.

After a week's confinement in tiny runs I'd like to think they were delighted with their new surroundings. They're in the lee of the hill, have sun and shade and should be out of the worst of the prevailing winds. I've incorporated a big log pile for shelter and added interest.

I've left the small run in in case they need to get out of Mr Buzzard's way. Mr Buzzard has been hovering lately and won't be deterred by a bit of netting - he'll just drop in. We hope the birds will now be safe from the murderous fox too of course.

None of them are laying at the moment - the old ones are going through the moult and the young ones are not quite mature enough. Shouldn't be long though.

A clutch of Fabergé eggs would be very welcome. Can you manage that girls? It would go a long way towards to recouping my expenses.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Hues' news

Today we are mostly doing orange....

A puff of wind, a shot of frost and all this wonderful colour will be gone. Catch it while you can.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

This week...

Latin class. We hit the ground running. The classes' collective bums have not had the opportunity to settle comfortably into the classes' seats before questions of declensions, conjugations and the minutiae of grammar are fired at us. My pea-sized brain finds recalling English grammar difficult enough so tackling the nominative, accusative, genative, dative and ablative in another language is challenging. We aim to be able to read some Medieval Latin at the end of this 8 week course. If turning Latin sentences into English ones were not enough we need also to read the script - so some paleography is involved too. And then, after we've translated the words and deciphered the text, we must understand the quirky code of symbols and abbreviations that contemporary writers used. I'm not sure if 8 weeks will be time enough but I relish the challenge.

First up I lose a chicken to the fox so in addition to the one that hopped off its mortal coil on Sunday due to a mystery ailment I am now 2 birds down. Grr. Keeping my little flock safe in the future will now involve buying electric fencing at great expense. A rough calculation shows each hen will probably have to lay in excess of 300 eggs before I even approach break-even. I'm a bit fed up with economics at the moment.

It's the night of the WI programme planning meeting. Only 6 of us forgather in the local pub to see what we can put together for the next 12 months. It's the same recipe as forever I think; a health thing, a hands-on thing, some history, cooking, travel, a visit here and a visit there. It will be interesting but the same old, same old. Yawn?

We're in the comfort zone here - no challenges but hardly the stuff to set the world on fire either. How on earth will this organisation ever attract the new members it needs to survive? If there is anyone out there who might join a group - what would you like to listen to/take part in at a monthly meeting? Serious question - I really would like to know.

Anyway, as we deliberate around our table my eye is caught by the couple - she's potential WI material - sitting on the couch over there in front of the pub's wood burning stove. It's hard to avoid them actually. They're not youngsters - probably in their 30's but they're snogging. Really loved up. A mixture of intertwined arms, legs and lips - there is no one else in their world. Probably not a good time to ask if she'd like to join our group....

Here's the bit which is probably too much information - Sweet memories of snogging in the hollows of the very saggy couch in the residents 'lounge' of the White Lion in Banbury, but reading Baudelaire too and drinkingsweetMartinieatingchicken'n'mushroompie. No one else in our world. No names, no pack drill. Happy days.

And I wouldn't have wanted to join the WI then either.

To the hills across the flat Rea Valley and an afternoon with blogging friends in Snailbeach.

What a fantastically strange place this is, especially on a dank autumnal day. Actually to call it dank is a tad untrue - we were blessed with clear blue skies which lit up leaves, hips and haws. Whatever. We're in a post-industrial landscape. The mines here produced, at the height of production, the largest quantity of lead in Europe but since their decline in the dying years of the 19th century the landscape has reclaimed its own.

Those lumps and bumps you see may be spoil heaps or a tumble-down settlement. The Shropshire Mines Trust has the industrial buildings and the mines themselves in its care and have worked to safe-guard this local history for future generations. The village itself, clinging to the hillside, is a mix of old and new. Incongruous executive homes have been built as infill on plots here and there and they dwarf the little worker's cottages that remain. I never entirely escape the feeling that here the 'old ways' are just beneath the surface - maybe one day a year a mist rolls in and the past comes to life again.

I'm interested in the lives of the common man - and woman. What was it like to be alive then? Curiously shaped patches, plots and pieces are the miners' gardens - if you are shown where to look you may spot a 'root store' where potatoes would be stored for winter use. Boundary hedges have grown into trees. Snailbeach is quiet now - the pulsing of the mighty engines that drove the processing machinery and was the community's heart beat have long been silent - sent for scrap. There's only bird song and our chatter as SBS leads us through the network of lanes that knits this little village together. She points out curiousities as we go: fact and fantasy, faces, places and people - this is my sort of history. We meet sheep and rare wood ants. We stand above the village and are awed by a magnificent view over Shropshire and into Wales and north to the Cheshire plain.

We enjoy a very late lunch around SBS's table. Chatter, gossip and laughter - strangers from blog-world, now friends. Thank you J for a lovely day.

Ah! The Bangers 'n' Mash Supper. More fun in a Village Hall.

First sweep your village hall and remove industrial quantities of crud. Scrub well and curse ineffectual 'caretaker'. Tape over holes around perimeter of floor thus stopping icy draughts whistling up ladies' frocks. Remember that this is yet another fund-raiser to build a new hall so that one day none of this will be necessary.

Set up bar. Panic that there is not enough beer. Buy more. Peel, boil and mash 6lbs of potatoes.

Turn up at hall In Good Time with potatoes to find that at least 70 people are there already.

Take up position behind makeshift bar and assume role as barmaid. I had assumed that my days of being leched over are long gone - but no, there are still lascivious old goats out there. Sad and creepy. Sigh.

Crikey, these people can eat. Food is served school dinner style and a long queue forms quickly. They return to their tables with plates bending with the weight of sausages, beans and mash, eat and then go back for more. Perhaps they need to stoke up before the dancing begins, because when it does they are all on their feet and the hall is shaking. Those in the know share a grimace of concern - the joists which hold the floor up have - shall we say? - seen better days. All is well however and the hall is rockin' to the music of Alan Herbert. And crikey, can these people dance? They're up and on their feet stomping the night away. I reflect that fun isn't the sole preserve of the young. There are few people on the floor, if any, under the age of 40. A conga forms and winds through every room of the hall. It's very surreal. The sense of fun and sheer enjoyment is tangible.

At 12.00 Alan H. plays a smoochy last waltz and the night winds down. It's all over bar the totting up and the debriefing. There seems to be a lot of beer left over.

I make my way home up Marton Hill. There is a thin drizzle falling and a dead badger in the lane. Finally get to bed about 1.30. Sleep. Eventually. The night is very quiet.

Hmm - do nothing. Yes!!

As James Thurber might have said: 'My world and welcome to it...'

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

On such a glorious morning....

The land is glowing, suffused with golden light; an illusion helped I suppose by the amount of yellow in the fading vegetation. The grass is still heavy with dew and shimmers in the autumn sun. Was there a hint of frost this morning? Maybe.

The 16 sheep in our field have brought themselves out from the shelter of the hill into the sunshine and now lie chewing their cud. Just chillin'. A buzzard is mobbed by a trio of ravens - the foursome roll and tumble clumsily against the dark backdrop of Badnage Wood. This wood changes little with the seasons - it's mostly coniferous - but here and there Birch and Larch are dull and tinged with yellow. In fact these few acres have probably not changed significantly for centuries......

Close by my window and seen through a purply haze of Michaelmas daisy, a blue tit pecks an apple, reminding me that I should get them picked. I must gather Squash too. I must harvest and store against the coming cold.

It's so damned tranquil here that I would rather sit and stare. There is nothing wrong with that methinks.

How hard it is to imagine the world outside the small mountain kingdom of Trelystan, a world where headlines scream 'Global Down turn!', 'Bank bail-out!', 'Crisis!', 'Recession! Doom.....Despair!' It seems a world gone mad and it will touch all our lives. I think I am just a little bit afraid.

I walk on the field, calling to my small flock of poultry, with a dish of grain to scatter. The 3 old birds come running; that's The Evil Mrs Black, Mrs Scraggy-neck and the Bantie. 3 Blue Marans, one, two and three - tick - are soon pecking the ground. The little Cuckoo Maran - tick - she's at my feet too. The Cockerel and one Cream Legbar pullet - and another - that's 2. They're here. But where's the third? A bird is missing. I walk the perimeter of the field calling 'Chick, chick, chick - birdie, birdie, birdie' and shaking my dish of corn. (You might have heard me.) She does not come running.

She's inside a fox - that's where she is. A pile of feathers and a patch of gore. The bastard's seized its opportunity and snarfed her. I'll shoulder some of the blame - I should have kept them penned in - but hey! this is paradise. So even here - as in the wider world we suffer 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' and here too we can be wise after the event and feel the consequences.

Me? I've shut them all in and am off to host the inaugural meet of the Trelystan Hunt. Hunting's banned? Tough, this is my kingdom and I mean business.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Things to do in Autumn

Bowling home last night along the road that follows the spine of Long Mountain I kept my eyes peeled for a glimpse of the new moon. It seems forever since we have had a clear sky and this night was no exception - indeed as I neared home a misty and persistent drizzle fell and I drove the last few miles lulled by the rhythmic slap of the windscreen wipers and a fascinating tale on the car radio. (One of those programmes that make you want to drive around for a few more miles just to hear the ending.) I'd been to Shrewsbury and the County Archives where D and I have embarked on a short course of Medieval Latin. (I think I shall need to explain this venture at a later date.) Suffice to say I wish I had paid more attention at school because by 9 0'clock my brain felt like it had fought 10 rounds with something harder-hitting than grammar.

I fell into bed declining nouns and conjugating verbs. It's a good way to send yourself to sleep - maybe better than counting sheep.

On waking the litany of 'amo, amas, amat' hadn't quite cleared from my head - but hurrah! - a gutsy wind was blowing the cloud away and give or take a few spots of rain the weather looked set fair. A good day to take stock of the garden in early autumn; what has been successful, what can be composted and what was a complete waste of time. It's a job best done with the sun on one's back and a mug of tea to sip while making mental notes. Ever the optimist I know I will be beguiled by such fripperies as fennel and sweetcorn - the evidence in front of my eyes should make me question the sense of trying to grow the like on the top of a low Welsh mountain.

There are still vegetables to harvest and winter greens and roots still in the ground but we are clearing beds and applying compost and muck in readiness for next year. There are apples to be gathered in and bulbs to be planted too for a splash of welcome colour when spring comes round again. The flower borders, so exuberant in spring and summer, have something of the Matto Grosso about them now (so dense is the vegetation that there may indeed be lost civilisations hiding there). I need to summon up much energy and enthusiasm to start tidying them. This will not be a job to do today.

So today under a bright and beautiful sky I pressed onion sets into newly tilled earth - exhorting them as always to 'grow, damn you, grow' - and planted garlic. It's good to get things growing - both I hope will be ready in the early summer. Thus the cycle begins again.