Thursday, August 31, 2006

Entertainment. In a tent. In Clun.

Clunton and Clunbury,
Clungunford and Clun.
Are the quietest places
Under the sun.

A E Housman - from 'A Shropshire Lad'

However, tonight Shropshire Young Farmers proved that was not the case. Take an audience of over 700 people, enthusiastic amateurs, some beer and much earthy humour and we have: A Good Night Out. Sophisticated it was not, in tune and choreographed - hardly - but Alan and I, cynical ex townies had a real laff!

This was a fundraiser for the Air Ambulance* held in the marquee put up for the YFCs' President's Ball which will take place on Saturday. The marquee was packed - audience scrubbed up and eager for the show to begin. Chirbury and Marton were scheduled to do their 'turn' fairly late on the bill and as the show started well over an hour late, this was going to be a long evening.

50% of the audience would, on the whole, have felt more at home sitting behind the wheel of a tractor than here on the wobbly folding chairs. The two farmers seated behind me - and whose conversation I tuned into - had the most enlightening and indepth convesation about potatoes and their cultivation. You do learn something everyday. This was followed by an equally detailed analysis of Oil Seed Rape. At last, at long, long last, the first club - Clun, took to the stage and the evening was underway.

The theme, not suprisingly, was rural with a hint of Country and Western (the audience really loved that). Between the Young Farmers' performances we were entertained by Three Men in a Bow Tie - who turned out to be 2 men and a woman - but we didn't have a problem with that. They were very entertaining and could sing in tune. We had singing and dancing, pratt falls, bawdy jokes in the Chaucerian manner, jokes about sheep, jokes at the expense of Craven Arms......fluffed lines - Chirbury and Marton had ingeniously taped their words to the bottom of wheelbarrows (props) and thus avoided those embarrassing moments when minds go blank. We had a good time.

And then at last with much applause it was all over and we could descend on the scrum that was the supper table and the Young Farmers could seriously address the beer.

And at last, home through the night and the quiet lanes to our end of Long Mountain. So quiet that in the half hour's drive we met one car. Shh! let's keep it that way.

*..... and if you live in these remote parts you'll appreciate that this is a Very Good Cause. Support it.

A V. Bad Dog

Oh dear, this is one bad dog. He is in deepest disgrace. He has murdered a hen.

A mis-judged flap for freedom from the hen-house-on-wheels and it landed in his maw. Alive to dead in a frenetic 15 seconds.
Now I can forgive the primal urge to hunt, point and retrieve - that's his job description - but not giving up his quarry to hand is very bad indeed.

So he is figuratively 'behind bars' and I am not for being swayed by those appealing toffee coloured eyes or the nudge of a cold wet nose. Or the wag of a tail. I shall bear my grudge a little longer.

On the plus side - I am ever the optimist - as we were diciplining the criminal and disposing of the still-warm corpse, John, Heather and Becky arrived with the stock trailer containing a cow who had recently given birth to twin calves. Mother and babes were decanted onto our field where they will be able to bond in peace and away from the rest of their herd.

So while we have lost a hen we have gained a cow and 2 wobbly legged calves and I'll get much pleasure seeing them get stronger day by day.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Sorted. A day in the life of a cow.

It has been a most confusing day for the cows here at Lower House. Their tranquil grazing was disturbed late morning by the hoots and hollers of John, Carl and Huw who eventually brought the various beasts down into the yard.

The cattle were, apparently, being 'sorted out' - whatever that means. To the untrained eye it seemed to involve herding cows and calves through one door and out of another, with a brief sojourn in between. There was much mooing - or 'bawling' as they say round here - as cows lost sight of calves and vice versa. That untrained eye of mine seemed to notice the same black cow going round several times.

And here she is, looking a tad suspicious don't you think? Not baffled as yet - as the day's activities had only just begun.

This took all afternoon - with both groups (men and cattle) taking stock - as it were - regrouping and advancing several times. Into the shed and out of the shed, through the yard and back again, a 'moo' here and a shout there. Then at an unseen signal the 'sorting' process was finished and the herd rushed down the lane to the farthest end of the farm's most inaccessible field lest the whole carousel begin again.

So it's quiet up here now, the evening sun casting golden light down the dingle where swallows are swooping low in their trawl for insects and the merest hint of a breeze is disturbing the leaves.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Don't play with your food....

Tonight we were mostly eating grilled chicken and ratatouille.

.....and here are the ingredients. All straight from the garden: food miles - nil, sense of achievement/satisfaction: enormous.

In the 10 minutes between gathering and preparing these knobbly vegetables I took a few pictures - and isn't food photography the hardest thing? I tried artfully arranged vegetables in the style of the Dutch Masters, vegetables as faces (tomato eyes, courgette lips and pepper nose...), vegetables lit, vegetables in the gloom, vegetables on granite, on wood and on limestone. I was having so much fun that getting back on track and into culinary mode took some effort, but eventually all was washed, chopped, sliced and simmered and we had vegetables on the table, on the plate and in the mouth. And they were good.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

2 hours and 15 miles in south Shropshire - a road trip.

Another 'away day' - this time with Doreen.

.......And off we go through torential rain. It's pouring off the hills, coursing 'cross the roads. My windscreen wipers are flapping double time. We wonder where all the water will end up. No wonder the Severn floods. Up through Tankerville and Stiperstones and Snailbeach, saluting the remnants of the lead mines as we go - we both have lead mining antecedents - and agree we'd rather study the social history of the miners rather than the mechanics. Perhaps it's a girl thing?

I don't know what our mission is, and I doubt if Doreen does either. We are in pursuit of our elusive past, the key to which is in these hills and barely tangible. In this respect we are hunters. I think perhaps we're going to see where places are with a view to coming back later and examining the intricate details of landscape and monument.

Doreen has the benefit of me - having spent her life hereabouts. I sit back and drive (eyes on the road but ever on the q.v.) and listen to Doreen's narrative of who lived where, bequeathed what and married whom. She does not, however, take it all for granted, and is as awed as I am at the vistas that unfold as we drive on.

From Snailbeach we dip down to Lords Hill - where the Baptist Chapel is. (Lord Tankerville would not allow a non-conformist place of worship on his land so it was erected yards away, across a stream.) The Chapel, a fairly elegant building, barely used these days, sits alone in a still cleft in the hills. In its graveyard, tombstones loll raggedly, on them the incised names of the deceased are slowly losing the battle to wind and weather. An elderly woman, living in a shabby dwelling adjacent to the chapel keeps the keys and will act as guide. She mourns her companion - a dog, who died recently. I suspect the isolation of these parts is not good for one in such a frame of mind. We do not stop here save to open a gate, and leave the Chapel and it's elderly keeper to solitude. We follow an unmetalled lane. We go off-road. Great excitement as the car bounces on the muddy rubbled tracks and brings us to a filthy farmyard where we are observed - dolefully - by a single rangy beast pulling wisps of hay from a stack.

And on we go - the Shropshire landscape opening up before us through narrow lanes, barely cart tracks, hedgerows wet and heavy rising high on either side. Rowan trees already hung with orange berries. By now the rugged landscape of the old lead mines - long softened by grass and brush-wood - has given way to more pastoral scenery. We glimpse, through gateways and across fields, the lumpen mass of nearby Pontesford Hill rising in the north. Beyond and to the east is the Long Mynd. Skirting Habberly we follow the eastern aspect of the ridge that is the Stiperstones. This is a land of myth and legend, trodden since ancient days, its fields and bye-ways, ridgeways, cairns and tracks still bearing the mark of early man.

We meet no one on the road and pass only the odd farm and cottage. Sheep and cattle barely raise their heads as we pass then resume their steady grazing. We admire a buzzard on a fence post - which on meeting our gaze flops into the air and flaps languidly away. A wisp of cloud drifts, like smoke, from a conifer plantation on the other side of the valley, then evaporates. We clatter over another cattle grid. We have by now circled the Stiperstones, it has stopped raining and it's time to go home. The cars we meet when we turn onto on the main road come as something of a suprise. It is as if we had been gone centuries rather than a couple of hours.

So, an interesting afternoon going nowhere. The kind of journey I like.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The 'other' Hampton Court

A brilliant day out today with friend Lesley to Hampton Court in Herefordshire - about an hour's drive from here. The purpose of our visit - the gardens. The castle itself is not open to the public but the gardens were so stunning that missing the stuff indoors wasn't a problem.

We're not talking here of gardens with the breadth and scope of Villas d'Este and Lante or those at Versailles. Here we find that particular blend of past and present - elements of both drawn together in the landscape - which make this particular garden so successful and so English. Parkland of ancient and venerable trees, close-cropped meadows grazed by dreamy cows slip down towards a trickling watercourse. The back-drop; a crenellated pile. Close by its walls, the pleasure gardens, blowsy borders, an extensive potager, a maze and orangery.

The Hampton Court estate was extensive before the 15th century - it was believed to have extended to over 60,000 acres, and was granted by Henry IV to Sir Rowland Lenthall in recognition for his bravery at Agincourt. The estate and the manor house built on the site remained in the hands of a succession of notable families who, over the centuries remodeled both house and gardens. The 20th century, two world wars and economic depression saw a decline in the garden's fortunes and a renaissance has only come lately with the Van Kampen restoration of house and garden.

In the garden of today we see ghosts of the past and promise for the future. The reworking of the walled gardens are particularly exciting - and the bold 'water feature' perhaps the best known. With regret I realised my camera was battery-less (damn and double-damn), as there was so much I would have liked to record.

Planting: - colour (a harmonious and repetitious palette), texture, form and structure - full marks. Hard landscaping ditto. So much to excite and delight, something around every corner. Loved it.

How brave do I have to be (see above) to be granted something like this?

Would certainly like to make a return visit - perhaps earlier in the year to see if the spring garden is as rewarding as this bountiful one of late summer.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Only mid August, feels like September already

We've got the Aga going again it's so chilly. The skies are leaden in colour and lumpen with cloud. Feels like the season of mellow fruitfulness is upon us already - berries ripening in the hedges and the small trees in our orchard weighed down with fruit. (Hope we get to them before the wasps do.)

You'll have to take my word for it that the melon is a big 'un - and no, it didn't come from Sainsbury's.

We spent a rainy Saturday up in Stockport, shifting furniture from here to there and assessing the number of journeys it will take to empty a garage. Probably 2. Fingers crossed that the sale of Tom's flat will go through smoothly now.

The 4 Heatons appear unchanged, same old faces in the same old places - we seem to have come along way since leaving at the end of 2003 and have no regrets whatsoever about quitting the suburbs. It does look a lot livelier than it did when we moved there in 1979 though - the onward march of bars and cafes seems endless and the major supermarkets have got their feet in the door (so to speak) in the form of open-all-hours 'express/local' stores. The chattering classes can now enjoy 2 good deli's - a visit to Pokusevski's Delicatessen at 13 Shaw Road was an exercise on how to spend £20 on nothing - the stuff I bought wouldn't make a meal - it was the sort of stuff we snarf on the side. Still, what wouldn't I give for it to be teleported down in Welshpool. It would go down a bomb here as Welshpool is ram-jam full of Polish migrant workers....and exiles like myself desperate for culinary oddities and extras. Chocolate hedgehog anyone?

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Some years ago (way back when ?), we had a tea towel on which cartoon cat Garfield proclaimed: 'Woof-woof, everyone should learn another language!' How funny was that?

From the same school of dish towel philosophy the words ' A stranger is a friend you've yet to meet' have lately come to mind....

For on Wednesday that stranger, Dan Levin, strolled into our lives bringing a breath of fresh air, freedom and good ol' fun. In despair at the election of G W Bush to the Oval Office, Dan quit the USA - his travels to be funded by the sale of toilet paper. A brilliant scheme which has the 884 remaining days of the Presidency to run.... and opportunities for travel to Europe, North Africa and beyond. Jealous? Moi?

So I guess for the foreseeable future where-ever he lays his hat - that's his home

Dan Levin met Dan Bevan in Edinburgh - and to cut this long story short - accepted our passed on invitation to stay here with us in Wales. We do apologise for the fact we're only about a kilometre inside the border! - and that the weather was so grim - we needed rain, but not this much and now. The landscape was as beautiful as ever though; dramatic, expansive and inspiring. Purple heather was in bloom and we picked bilberries on the Stiperstones, staining our lips, tongues and fingers blue.

Here's Dan with a somewhat phallic monolith on Stapely Common - part of the stone circle that is Mitchells Fold:

Good too to sit round a table over coffee or a bottle of wine, putting the world to rights and getting the bigger picture. Perhaps we spend too much time at the end of this low mountain?

Dan Levin, I can't begin to tell you, after 3 short days, how much we miss you now you're gone. Au Revoir.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Grey afternoon, August

Half way through August and the summer seems to be ageing rapidly. Whatever weather system is dominating us at present has brought cooler, fresher air and grey skies. Light levels have been very low for the last few days. The trees and hedgerows have lost their fresh gloss and now are a dull green. Grass is brittle and straw-like. Thistles have flowered and now their downy seed heads are drifting hither and thither in the slightest breeze. We have berries are ripening on the Hawthorns, Elderberries and Mountain Ash - somebody will observe that's a sign of a cold winter to come. More like a sign of a late spring when frost didn't nip blossom in the bud.

There's a ripe harvesty feel to the garden and surrounding countryside. Even under leaden skies this border is satisfyingly rich and jewel-like. The 'hot border' (still in its infancy) is aflame with red, orange and yellow which seem just right for now.

Round in the vegetable garden we're harvesting the fruits of our labours - trying to get to the cabbages before the caterpillars and devising yet another cunning use for courgettes.

Alan has just gone out to shake his fist at a blue tit which was busy pecking away at an apple - I don't like to tell him that the moment his back was turned it came back - with a friend - and now there are 2 little birds tucking in with gusto. Surely there's plenty to go round?

Friday, August 11, 2006

'Terror alert: don't panic'

It's official then - residents of sleepy ol' mid Wales can rest easy in their beds and fields. The Powys County Times, in a front page EXCLUSIVE, reassures us that the likelihood of being hit by falling debris from an exploding aircraft is, in the words of Lembit Opik MP, 'vanishingly small'.

Mr Opik adds: 'The flight path above Mid Wales is incredibly busy - it's like a motorway in the air but there is nothing to suggest that any terrorist would purposefully detonate a bomb while flying over Powys. There is nothing they could conceivably consider to be a target." Thank goodness for that.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

These beautiful stone heads - headstops - are to be found on either side of the doorway to St Etheldreda's Church in the parish of Hyssington a few miles from here. I would like to think they were ancient but suspect they were part of a Victorian rebuild in 1875. Clwyd Powys archeological Trust suggests the Church's origins were post Norman Conquest but there is not much of its antiquity in evidence - a medieval font and a Tudor pulpit are the most obvious remnants.

But 'modernity' isn't a crime - it was a beautiful place in which to pass a sunny Tuesday morning; in the lee of Corndon, overlooking the Camlad Valley and the distant Kerry Ridgeway. I have a partner in crime, Doreen, who is also in pursuit of her ancestors, some of whom lie in Hyssington. She had noticed that there were Crosses buried there too - hence our visit to check it out. I photographed the stones - and it would be nice, and neat, to think they were my antecedents - but I can't make the dates and names add up. The Cross family - lead workers to a man - flourished in these hills and floundered when the industry stuttered to a halt in the closing years of the 19th century. If, out there, someone who was part of the Cross diaspora reads this, please get in touch.

Whatever uncertainties, I do know this: that my forefathers would have known this landscape, its seasons and ceremonies. So I walk in their footsteps and surmise, these words in my head:
We dance around in a ring and suppose
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

- Robert Frost

This stone caught my eye too:
Ye Soul is gone but here
Ye body Lies hopeing through
Christ in glory for to Rise
I hope in Jesus Christ Who
died for me from all my Sins
Will quickly Set me free

Words in stone for the common man. For me, calligraphy doesn't get much better than that.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Vron Gate Show

It's the first Saturday in August and it's the Vron Gate Show, now in its 40th year.I suppose once upon a time Vron Gate must have been more significant than it is today - now it's a tiny hamlet comprising a farm, a chapel and two nondescript bungalows. The pub 'The Seven Stars', long since closed and in a stunning state of disrepair, recently sold and is undergoing gentrification. Its landlady Ethel was removed from her squalid surroundings to residential care in Welshpool. But Vron Gate's sense of agri and horticultural importance lives on in its annual show, held in the neighbouring village of Vennington.

It's a quintessentially English occasion. Take one field recently cleared of livestock (avoiding the various droppings is part of the fun), introduce some dodgy weather, a tent with giant vegetables and men with bells on their shoes and you have it. And don't forget the dog show, the children's races and for some reason a display of rusting farm machinery.

At the Vron Gate Show local farmer Chris Halliday always brings one of his fine Jersey cows to be admired - this year it was Whitton Welsh Princess, a gorgeous girl who was Junior Champion at the Royal in 2003. (Well done.) She spent the afternoon contentedly munching. Should her supply of hay have run out she could have turned to the bales behind her - the Best Bale of Hay competition or the Best Pasture (12"x12"). There were also classes for Biggest Dock Leaf and Best Stalks of Wheat x 5.

Inside the marquee fruit and vegetables, baking, jams and country wines weigh down the tables. Children make scarecrows, write poems and there are the most unfunny, Funny Photographs. My favourite class had to be children's Shoe Box Farmyards and Vegetable Animals. Do you think I should get out more???

Last year the South Shropshire Hunt sent a wagon load of fox hounds which were quite interactive - peeing against anything that didn't move and snarfing burgers from out of the mouths of small children. But variety's the thing and this year the Morris Men and their womenfolk provided 'entertainment'. Morris Dancing is surely a very English thing - although I suspect, as we know it now, a largely manufactured tradition. They shook their bells and clattered their sticks and danced to the music of Olde Englande. All very energetic and Good Clean Fun.

And that, I suppose is the essence of The Vron Gate Show - nothing offensive*, just the buzz of a village getting together on a Saturday afternoon.

*Unless in these namby-pamby, politically correct days you count the Punch and Judy Show.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Today, from the garden we are mostly eating....beans

Here, looking more like a nest of vipers than a plate of beans, are the first of the crop.

Unlike us humans (human beans?) colour doesn't matter a jot and these beans, green and black have coexisted, side by side, in the same bed and will continue to do so even onto the plate.

I couldn't resist this, which I entitled, memorably, 'Waiting for the plums to ripen.jpg':

However, the moment my back was turned, a plum had been snatched and was speedily snarfed.

Strictly speaking these plums are Mirabelles - and anyone who's been to France in late summer/early autumn will have found the tiny golden fruit piled high on market stalls, lying be-wasped under trees and enjoyed delicious Tarte aux Mirabelles. If the brown dog leaves us any that will be something we'll be enjoying too.

Incidently, I caught the white dog grazing on the tomatoes in the greenhouse. (Bad Dog!) As if the normal run of pests and diseases weren't enough to contend with......

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


......and by a student as well. (They're awfully brainy these days.) Here is the truth - that small dot you can just about spot on the work surface is in fact The Melon. Dwarfed by a tomato (albeit a very big one). But hey, you've got to get your fun where you can and a rainy afternoon spent arranging fruit and doll's house furniture was - well, fun.

Bit hard to follow yesterday's post with such banality but here, as everywhere, life goes on one way or another. I'm looking out of my window at sheets of rain crossing Badnage Wood. And it's OK. The parched earth needs the water. I have crops in the garden to bring to the table. And it is so peaceful.