Friday, May 30, 2008


I've had my knuckles rapped (in the nicest possible way) for Leaving Things Out.

.....There was indeed a sky lark. We hear it first and crane our necks to spy it. The little thing, wings aflutter, soars out of the gloaming, a dark speck against a felty grey sky. Singing, singing its little bird-heart out, a warbling, liquid song above a damp hillside. The only other sounds were the mundane tramp of our boots and the steady munch of grazing sheep.

I must mention the cuckoo too - listen - it's somewhere over there, down in the valley. It's the first we have heard this year and heads are cocked the better to catch the distinctive notes. We hear a sound, full and unmistakable, with just enough time between 'cuckoos' for us to wonder if we were indeed, mistaken. But no, there it is again. And again. Now the call becomes fainter as the unseen bird flies away from us into the distance. Finally we can no longer hear it and we resume our trudge up the stony path.

I suppose there will be trouble if I don't mention the bluebells amongst the lush grass of Gittinshay Wood .... and the mist through the trees and the sweet smell of rain in springtime. The soft sappy green of the conifers' new growth was light and bright and over an inch long already.

We didn't know that the wood was Gittinshay Wood of course, because we were lost. Standing in a clearing, disorientated, with maps turned this way and that, imagining paths and tracks we were found by a dog that appeared through the trees. Hardly the baying spectral hound you'd expect to find in a fog-girt forest, more a small and affectionate cross-breed. I'd like to tell you that the little thing guided us to our destination but in fact we sent 2 boys ahead and trusting to luck stumbled after them.

Is that it? I'm sure SBS will tell me if I have forgotten anything else.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Ponies on the Stiperstones

It wasn't really a night for walking, but walking we went; up to the Stiperstones and on to one of the settlements made and deserted by c19th miners, The Paddock. There's little to see there now of course - nature is quick to reclaim its own. Vestigial stonework, the lumps and bumps that once were cottages and walls, the fruit trees and the lane which led to work and chapel - all greened over now with grass and moss and lichen.

It takes a triumph of imagination to whistle up the beating hearts, the lives and loves of the people who made this place their own. Can I, in my mind's eye imagine the house cow tethered in the corner, the pigs, the fowl - and the days like this when the weather was down and the chimney smoked and whatever was wet would refuse to dry? I try.

And the ponies? They may or may not have been real, appearing as they did out of the mist-muffled hillside to stand and gaze and graze. For all I know they may have dissolved as I walked by. The Stiperstones is that sort of place.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Let's go fly a kite....

Who said this crazy weather was good for nothing?

The wind catches the sail and suddenly it lifts, billowed and buoyant. The kite soars and dances in the gusts that rush up the dingle, tugging the lines in a wind-filled bid for freedom. It's a great game keeping it in the air, harnessing the invisible force with a tweak to the left or the right; exhilarating too.

And look - colour theory in action - see how the green looks greener and the red redder when juxtaposed...strange what comes to mind on a windswept hillside.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Rainy Bank Holiday Sunday

The sheep on our field have turned their backs into the wind and are hunkered down miserably around the compost bins. Swallows are swooping and diving between the trees in the dingle as they do whenever the weather is poor. It's a bit inhospitable out there today - it's a day for the delights of the Great Indoors.

I must be the only person glad to see a drop of rain this weekend - my infant vegetables are desperate for a drink. Hopefully after this weekend's dousing they will grow like, well - weeds. (The weeds are, of course, doing quite nicely - thank you - of their own volition.)

In a perfect world rain would have fallen gently through the hours of darkness and cleared up in time for a sunny Bank Holiday barbecue with H and S. However, today we have sheets of rain, a gutsy wind driving in from the north east, swathes of mist over Badnage Wood and, as for some annoying technical reason the Aga refuses to re-light, a cold block of cast iron standing in the kitchen. (A sort of 'cold-iator'.) Brrrr.

I'm off to light the wood burner.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Pheasant No.8

My curious eye spots a beady eye looking back at me. The owner of the beady eye strolls casually over to my row of infant beetroot and with an insouciant backward glance begins to peck away. Hmm, if we're going to eat any of our own vegetables this season Steps Must Be Taken....

A week later we're in business. Barry has been kind enough to lend us his Pheasant Catching Device - a sort of cage which incorporates cunning little tunnels into which a dim-witted bird strolls in order to scoff the corn scattered liberally within. But ha! Having entered, the bird brain can't work out how to retrace its steps. It has to sit it out and passes the time by alternately pecking at anything edible, and by flapping hysterically against the cage's wire frame. In due course I will come along with the sack which is to be its passport to freedom.
I grasp the bird by the shoulders -well, where I imagine a bird's shoulders might be anyway - at the top of its wings. We look each other in the eye before I stuff it into my sack. (Gently I assure you.) Being in the bottom of a dark sack seems to have a calming effect on the bird and safely packaged like this we can take it over the hills and far away to be released.

A quick shake of the sack over a gate into Wayne's new field and Pheasant No.8 is free to join the 7 others I've relocated in the past few days.

Meanwhile, as I'm going through the CD collection to see which I can recycle as bird scarers (a splendid use for 'Sounds of the Seventies' I think) pheasants Nos.9 and 10 can be seen approaching......

Edited to add:

Later that same day.....This is pheasant No.11 - a nasty piece of work I think - there's a murderous glint in that eye and a trace of gore on the beak. He vented his fury at being incarcerated by scrapping with his fellow inmates, two other cock birds. He avoided the journey in the sack by scratching my 'brave' assistant who hurriedly dropped him. I imagine he, not the assistant, is now in the undergrowth somewhere....sniggering at me and planning a raid on the pea shoots.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Coffee Morning.

'D'ya mean people go and, er,' said theeyechild as we surveyed a typical bit of rural outdoor advertising - an A4 sheet tacked to a telegraph pole inviting one and all to a Coffee Morning at some village hall or other.

'Yep.' I reply 'That's about it.'

For him, a product of the Starbucks generation, it's a bewildering concept. Why on earth would anyone bother to foregather to drink a mediocre brew in a dusty village hall when a superior drink could be supped, slurped or sipped in the comfort of one's home or high street, and with friends of one's own choosing? (And if it's fundraising that's the name of the game, why not simply slip a tenner into an envelope and send it to the charity of your choice.)

Why not indeed?

But old habits die hard - Marton WI deemed a Coffee Morning a Good Idea and a date was arranged. Posters were hastily tacked up, cakes baked, plants potted-on and bric a brac was gathered. By 10.00am - opening time - tables groaned under the weight of produce and early arrivals hurried to take advantage of this shopping opportunity before supping the obligatory coffee and munching one of Lynn's most excellent scones. WI matriarchs Mrs Evans, Mrs Trow and Mrs Thomas presided over The Draw. (There is always a draw.) Stationed close to the door they could 'sting' visitors as they arrived - £1.00 a strip - or get anyone they missed on the way out. On stage Shrewsbury Junior Windband tootled - they were very good!

By mid day a quick count up of the takings showed a healthy profit - and while we like to say it's all about raising the profile of the WI, recruiting new, young members blah, blah - it's always good to raise a few pounds. The ladies are keen to support The Children of Sumatra, a charity which helps children living on that island and suffering from cleft lips and palates. I do hope that is where a substantial amount of the money raised will go.

I guess putting a smile on a child's face will make this curious Coffee Morning business worthwhile.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Hauling timber

Did I mention that one of the Kingdom of Trelystan's venerable Sycamores needed felling? Yes? Thought so.

Rob came along last week to do the deed. He strapped himself into harness, helmet and crampons, secured ropes to the highest branches, and gathering a mighty chainsaw, took himself to the very top and began taking the tree to pieces bit by bit. The first bits were easy - with a few delicate passes of the saw, little light twiggy bits dropped quietly to the ground. The tree's skeleton was gradually revealed and these branches were dismembered too - Rob cleverly remembering not to cut off the length he was standing on. (Lesson No.1 at Tree Surgeon Academy perhaps.) These heavier pieces fell with thuds - some were lowered by ropes if there was a chance they would fall on something we wanted to keep. As he progressed down the tree the crashes of falling limbs became heavier - it's quite a dramatic process.

We surveyed the devastation afterwards; there's a mountain of wood, brash and sawdust. Rob helpfully points out that 'Yup, there's three times as much tree when it hits the deck.'
We agree - standing upright a tree is, indeed, quite an organised thing. We contemplate the work involved restoring some sort of order to this part of the dingle.

We start by burning the brash on a bonfire of municipal proportions - the mass is reduced considerably and quite quickly. Smaller logs are to be hauled to where they can be sawn into more manageable pieces. That still leaves some mighty pieces of wood which will have to be dealt with in situ before stacking and storing. The final 3 metres of the trunk still stands, Alan hopes to fell and plank it for timber. And the rest? A year or two to season and dry out and we have a lot of firewood. Sycamore will make good chopping boards too. I suggest carving out some huge bowls from some of the big 'slices' of trunk.

Today, while Alan repaired the damage caused to our stream bed by tons of falling wood, I continued to haul and stack branches. It was a fairly mindless task - good 'thinking time'.

I think about moving things as little as possible. A dry stone waller aims to pick up a piece of stone only once. How many times will this wood be handled before it eventually turns to ash on our wood burner? I do not like to do that sum, having moved some pieces more than once already. I think of the times a item is handled in the supermarket before it gets it 8, or 10? It passes the time, and one thought leads to another.

I think about burning calories. Digging apparently uses up roughly 360 calories per hour. Hauling logs must be the equivalent of digging surely? On that basis I decide to do an extra half hour. The chocolate biscuit which sits enticingly alongside my cup of tea can then be eaten with a clear conscience I think.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Cauliflowers, Asparagus and....Fire!

We plod along. By and large, life's excitements pass us by. It's tranquil up here. In the past week we have seen the greening of the countryside and basked in glorious warmth. We note the arrival of birds* and the tapestry of wildflowers shoving forth from hedge and ditch. Last week, on Tuesday, we harvested 12 cauliflowers and three still languish in the fridge. There is only so much cauliflower cheese a person can eat. (I should add that we have also donated cauliflowers to anyone who looked vaguely hungry....)
This week we have also started harvesting asparagus from the bed Alan planted in 2006 - fresh spears, dressed with butter have been on the menu each night this week. I suspect we will be sharing some of this crop too. How good it is too eat food in season.

But what's this disturbing the rural idyll? A thud, a bang and next door's dog sets off barking. Smoke is blowing across the lane from beyond the barn. A tractor is on fire. Its driver is on his mobile - struggling for a signal - and trying to establish where he is so the fire service can come and do the business. With the best will in the world they are at least 15 minutes away so in the meantime it is, literally, all hands to the pump. We race to our sheds and unearth inadequate looking extinguishers while a neighbour and the young driver connect a hose from a drinking trough to a spare bit of alkethene pipe. There are flames and some alarming bangs and clouds of stinky smoke coming from the tractor. Extinguishers are pointed and water is sprayed liberally. There are a few dramatic moments in which I wonder if knowing a bit more first aid would be a good idea. By the time the brigade arrive we think the fire is out but they go into full fire-fighting mode anyway - helmets, hoses, the lot. It's an incongruous sight at the end of our quiet lane - flashing blue lights on the shiny red appliance which came up from Welshpool with sirens blaring.The good news is that the driver is OK, only a little shaken, and that he hadn't started loading straw from the barn - a potentially volatile situation. The adjacent barn was empty too - the cows and calves had been moved on at the end of last week. I guess it took the Fire Service about 20 minutes to arrive and while that's pretty good I guess there would be situations when that time span would seem like an eternity.

With the excitement over, mundane chores await us at home; Alan finishes hoeing chickweed from the asparagus bed and I prepare supper - salmon and new potatoes. With cauliflower and asparagus.

Swallows: Saturday 29th April - 10 days later than last year. I need to keep a note of that.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Today in Trelystan

Fantastic. We have sunshine. Dainty zephyrs are twitching the leaves just enough to keep things stirring. Sweet birds sing.

Like old stoned hippies we are gibbering with joy at the warmth and light. We have wet feet from the morning's heavy dew. We've breathed deeply and sucked in the scent of fresh leaves and blossom and feasted our eyes on spring's luminous green - it's like someone has just flicked the 'growth' switch. We gazed deep into the heart of a vibrant dandelion flower and noted it's vibrancy against a cerulean sky.Ferns are unwinding their fiddle-heads, next will be bluebells and that sky will seem to be beneath our feet.

I'm off to sow seeds now. There is a waxing moon in the night sky and the soil is warming. Seems the right thing to do today.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

At Moreton Hall

Here I am in 1952, a passenger in a sturdy coach-built pram, restrained by reins of soft blue leather which are embellished at the front with a gaily skipping lambkin.
My father has obviously been sent out to 'walk me' while mother sparks up a Woodbine and idly flicks through her recipes at home. He has been sent out with the dog too - a Sealyham terrier named Tessa - I see her lead is attached to the pram handle. On flat ground she would be given the job of pulling the pram - a party trick which amused my father's colleagues no end, and one of which I have no memory whatsoever.

It's wintery - as the bare tree which appears to rise from my father's head indicates - and we have fetched up on the terrace of gravel and lawn behind Moreton Hall, the mansion around which Warwickshire's new centre for agricultural education had been recently created. I'm quite interested to know how we actually got there because as far as I recall the only access to this once elegant space was via flights of stone steps - not easy to negotiate with a pram and a dog - but just the thing for grand and sweeping entrances by the Edwardian family who built this Palladian-style country mansion. These gentrified folk were long gone by the time I came on the scene but their buildings, gardens and landscape remained, every stone evoking the glory of a former age. The new Warwickshire Institute of Agriculture re shaped the estate in the 1950s and it's 'squire-archical' past gave way to mechanisation, new farming techniques and a herd of Dairy Shorthorn cows.

Don't for one moment think that when I write - 'I grew up here' - that this magnificent building was the ancestral home. We lived in a series of modest houses on what was euphemistically called 'the Back Drive'. The utilitarian back drive was lined by a straight avenue of Elms while the front drive curved gracefully beneath elegant Wellingtonias and led to the front of the Hall - the place which was to be the backdrop to the first 18 years of my life. So in a way I feel I have some sort of claim on it almost as much as if it had been my home.

It wasn't a hum-drum existence by any means, although in mother's eyes it would never live up to that proffered by her county of birth - the 'California of England' - Yorkshire. She persisted in describing Warwickshire's bosky landscape as a 'sea of mud'; a description accompanied by much histrionic tutting and a growing belief on my part that sometimes parents said things that Were Just Not True.

It was here I learned to walk and talk, and with my brothers learned the names of wild flowers, 'scrumped' fruits in season, climbed trees and built dens in dense undergrowth. In summer we swam like little fishes in the College's 'pool', sat on tractors, fed calves and maybe even learned, by osmosis, some of the rudiments of agriculture. When it snowed we hurtled downhill on sheets of corrugated iron steered with reins of baler twine. And contrary to maternal opinion, I swear it never rained. You get the picture.

Fast forward far-too-many-years and this is a photo taken from the same spot yesterday.

The fire which swept through the building at the end of March has taken its toll - and what it didn't destroy has been damaged by collapse and the firefighters' watery deluge. The roof is gone, windows hang at crazy angles, glass splintered and shattered. The beautiful interiors have suffered too; I see bare brick through the windows of what was the Drawing Room - the carved oak paneling has gone up in smoke. I wonder if the door furniture - unbelievably made of silver - remains? Estimates of the extent of the destruction varied but it looks pretty wrecked to me.

The fabric of the building must have been dry as tinder, and whilst I am sure that sprinklers were installed and working, once the fire took hold there would be no stopping it. I don't want to watch this video again.A short detour on a cross country journey has brought me here. I hang onto a shaky security fence at the Hall's front, feeling the prick of tears behind my eyes, conjuring up the ghastliness of that March evening. The thoughts 'it's only a building' and 'that's my childhood' jostle in my head. Neither really gets the upper hand though, and I just feel overwhelmingly sad.

Somebody has put a flag back on the shattered roof and it flies optimistically over charred timbers. It is a bold symbolic gesture. I've read somewhere that a re-building project is already underway. It will get put back together again and probably in a way more suited to its modern purpose. However, I can't see silver locks and handles finding their way onto massive doors again - and how to recreate the patina and smell of old waxed wood?

Memory though, that's the thing - locked in my head's ghostly corridors it's all still there - and if I want to, my inner child and I can run and whoop and slither through corridors, halls, gardens and bowers to our hearts' content. And I expect we will.