Saturday 28 February 2009

Rural China.

In 1984 my then husband (d.1991) and I visited China, staying for a week in Beijing and then travelling into Mongolia by train for the second week.My memories of Beijing are really limited to places of tourist interest, the millions of bicycles and hardly any cars on the roads (yes - this has changed now), Tienanmen square, kites, dragons, and a very plastic Chairman Mao (who had been one of my heroes). I am sure the reason for my memories being so few is that the train journey was so mind-blowing that it took over.

We travelled "tourist class" (in those days we had no option), which meant white linen covers on the seats and a charming Chinese lady circulating constantly with a pot of freshly-made lemon tea. The train went quite slowly, the atmosphere was serene and I, for one, spent the whole journey with my nose pressed to the window, looking out. I did not want to miss one single second of that journey. (would you believe that some people slept for the first six hours or so!)

I have many "snapshot" memories of that journey:

Looking into rural backyards where children and little black pigs would be running around, and where the women would be shaking and hanging out bedding.

Maize cobs lying on the roofs of houses.

Getting a brief glimpse into a village square and seeing a donkey walking round and round, working a mill wheel grinding corn, while the village women stood around, chatting.

Acres of paddy fields of brown soil, separated by narrow, tree-lined roads full of cycling workers.

Tall, steep mountains with trees growing all along the topmost ridges - just like you see in Chinese paintings.

A man walking home through the countryside with a whole side of what looked like deer carried over his shoulder.

Mile after mile of brown and white countryside, the rivers frozen and the fields bare (it was mid-January).

Deep lakes frozen with ice a metre thick and lotus leaves suspended in the ice.

But there was one memory I carried with me that is still as fresh as the day I saw it. That is the memory of the man in the painting at the beginning of this post. The rivers were frozen solid, the train was stationary, and as I watched this man walked along the river bed, then turned towards the village in the distance, carrying a large bundle of twigs on his shoulders. There was beauty, there was serenity, there was the epitome of rural life in China at that time. It was like looking into a time bubble - it was as though the image stood still; I have it in my head today, just as I always have it in my head when China is mentioned.

And I wonder. Who was her? Was he a young man, or an old man? Was he carrying fuel to warm his family and provide heat for cooking? Where is he now? The questions could go on and on.

When we returned, because the image had made such a profound impression on me, my husband did this oil painting. It hangs on my staircase and I pass it many times a day. I love the painting as much today as I did when he first gave it to me. It makes me think too - that man - just a simple man, carrying a simple bundle of twigs - has no idea of my existence, has no idea that he is, for me, my over-riding image of rural life in China.

I hope you enjoy looking at the picture as much as I do.

## Man carrying twigs. Painted by Malcolm Rivron (1924 - 1991)

Friday 27 February 2009

The Journey from Leyburn to Ripon (3)

Older posts: 1. Where rivers meet
2. Middleham castle.
Jervaulx Abbey.
Eight miles into the journey from Leyburn to Ripon, Jervaulx Abbey stands almost on the side of the road. It is one of my favourite abbeys (there a lots of them in Yorkshire), because it is privately owned and very unspoilt. It lies in Jervaulx parkland, so the whole setting is very pretty.
You park opposite the entrance and then walk down the footpath, through the park to the gate into the abbey itself, where there is an honesty box. I understand that many of the visitors ignore this and visit without paying but this is a shame because it is well kept and in Summer there are beautiful flowers in a garden setting as well as fairy foxgloves and wallflowers growing in the crevices between the stones. But today, when we visited, there were only snowdrops - and plenty of them.
On the side of the footpath to the Abbey there is an ancient water trough with water constantly running through it. This water goes underground and emerges in the abbey itself and was their source of water.
The Cistercian monks first came here in 1156 after leaving their abbey higher up Wensleydale.
In those days this was serious sheep country and the monks had huge flocks of sheep on land all over the dale. so there was a tradition of riches here.
In the late Middle Ages three huge fireplaces were added to what was the meat kitchen. One of the photographs above is taken standing in the fireplace and looking up the chimney. I can't help wondering whether their "meat" was mutton from their hugs flocks all round the area.
Because it is not overly advertised and is only small, it is a place of peace and tranquility - and long may it remain so.

Thursday 26 February 2009

Horses for Courses!

I do the books for the farm and, although I keep them pretty well in order, there are always one or two things which I put in the wrong place in the ledger. At the year-end (which is coming up shortly) our accountant comes round and puts it all right for me. The first year he came I made the mistake of asking why something was wrong; the "accountant-speak" I got in reply was quite unintelligible to me. (he is a lovely chap and not at all like the usual idea of an accountant) I know better now than to ask him. And when new regulations come out regarding tax - for example on Budget Day - within twenty-four hours he has it all at his finger tips. I find all that sort of stuff incredibly boring and asked him how he could be bothered to learn such gobbledegook. His answer "Horses for Courses." In other words - that is his line of work, his interest - almost his fascination - my interests and abilities lie in other areas.
I suppose we are all like that, but what makes us so? Some people say we are all either convergent or divergent thinkers and that is what defines the path we take: others say it depends whether the right or left side of the brain is more fully developed.
What prompted this line of thought? I have been reading The Times again! Today there is a lovely story about allotments and how they are becoming more popular in these trying times. The National Trust is making more allotments available at some of its stately homes, so that people can grow their own vegetables.
Then the article goes on to say that Einstein decided to have an allotment in Berlin-Spandau.
He might have been red hot on relativity but I am afraid he was no good at running an orderly allotment. In 1922 the committee who ran the allotments threw him off. They said that
"weeds have spread all over the whole parcel of land and have soared. The fence is not in order, and the whole allotment makes an unaesthetic impression." (I love that image of soaring weeds.) So now we know - Einstein might have been a brilliant man with a super brilliant mind, but when it came to planting potatoes and hoeing beans he was useless. He wasn't much good at managing his hair either come to that.

Wednesday 25 February 2009

Wensleydale Longwool Sheep

Regular readers of my blog will know by now that we farm on the side of a long lane which has only a few houses on its length - and all of them farms. Our next door but one neighbour - about a mile and a half down the lane - has Wensleydale Longwool Sheep, so I walked down yesterday (it was a lovely Spring day) to take a photograph of some of them.

Let's say straight away, they are not pretty sheep - not the sort that would feature in childrens' stories or be converted into a cuddly toy - that role is best left to the Suffolk or the Dorset breeds. They are large, rather ungainly sheep and as you see in the photograph, have quite a curly coat. By the time it comes to shearing them that coat will be long and lustrous. They all originate from one gentleman called Blue Cap because of his very dark blue head and, as an old breed, they went out of fashion and by 1970 were almost extinct.

Well, they have made a come-back and there are now plenty of them about. If you wish to read about them just Google Wensleydale sheep and you will find a wealth of information.

Our neighbours, as well as having a flock of Wensleydales, also run The Wensleydale Sheep Shop on their farm - they sell fleeces, beautifully dyed wool, knitted garments (knitted by local ladies)

and all manner of sheepy things. The wool is pearly and silky and knits up beautifully. The sheep come in two colours - pearly grey and black.

I hope you enjoy looking at them in my picture. They are inquisitive things and I had only been standing at the gate a couple of minutes before they came nosing towards me. At present some of them are lambing indoors, so maybe next week I can post lambs gambolling in the field, too.

Tuesday 24 February 2009

Why do you think you are like you are?

Poet-in-Residence (see my blog list) posted a superb translation of a poem by Christine Busta a few days ago. The poem is called "Fragments of Origin". The poet came from very humble beginnings and in the poem she talks about her parents and grandparents and what hard lives they had - the implication being that their hardship has somehow made her what she is.
RS Thomas has a poem along these lines and I have spent the last hour searching for it in my poetry books, but I can't find it. What he says is that he has inherited parts of his character from one or the other of his ancestors.
At present there is a fascinating series on BBC1 called "Who do you think you are?" in which well-known people search for their ancestors, look back and see what their fathers, grandfathers and great gradfathers made of their lives. Last night it was Zoe Wannamaker looking into her father's side of the family. She found that they had originally come over in the late nineteenth century from what is now the Ukraine, but was then part of Russia. Their suffering had been enormous, pogroms were common around where they lived and so they had emigrated to America and her great grandmother had died only a fortnight after their arrival with heart disease and had been buried in a pauper's cemetery.
I would hazard a guess that most of the people who read this blog, were they to go back two or three generations, would find that their origins were also humble. I certainly came from a very poor background, and was the first person in my family to go to University and to have professional training - facts which made my father very proud, for he lived in an age when education was greatly valued (remember in the UK the 1870 Act was instrumental in getting all children into school until they were young adults).
The title of my post today - why do you think you are like you are? - is a question I ask myself often. Why do I behave the way I do in certain situations? What makes me the person that I am? What makes any of us what we are - I suppose it is the old chestnut nature or nurture. But I do know for certain that I have inherited - or learned - certain aspects of my behaviour from my ancestors. So I am posting them here in the hope that it will cause readers of my blog to think about aspects of their personality which they can trace back to their past. Why not give it a try?


From my grandmother, Martha -
a strong personality
and a tendency to want to control
the purse strings.

From my father, John Henry -
a love of books,
a love of nature,
a thirst for learning
and a love of poetry.

From my mother, Alice Maud -
a hatred of argument,
raised voices or discord
and a need for order.

From my grandfather, John James -
a reticence, an unsociability,
a kind of standoffishness
which I fight constantly.

We are who we are
because of who came before us.

Monday 23 February 2009

A Sunday Jolly.

To Ravenstonedale for lunch yesterday, a day of glorious sunshine, breezy with a sky of deep blue with white scudding clouds. Our table was booked for half past twelve, so we had time to go the long way round.
Through Wensleydale to The Moorcock Inn, a lonely pub in the heart of the high fells. Turn right and head due North alongside the most scenic part of the Carlisle to Settle railway. The high, sunny fells were dappled with cloud shadow; waterfalls cascaded, catching the bright sunlight; the tiny church at Outhgill was holding a service - there was a long line of cars outside, although the village is very small. Where had they all come from?
At Pendragon Castle we turned West and up on to the high common, snaking on the narrow road between very short green grass. We crested a hill and suddenly, there they were - twenty or so beautiful piebald heavy horses, their manes and tails catching the breeze. They were well fed, had shining coats and were tame enough to come near when we got out of the car, so I was able to take photographs.
Then on again to the main Kirby Stephen to Sedbergh road, a sharp turn South and then quite soon another turn to the West down the little narrow lane to the village of Ravenstonedale.
Doesn't the name conjure up a wild place? The narrow road has stone walls either side and undulates along the side of the fell. To the South are the Howgill Fells, with their green, velvet mounds and the spectacular Cautley Spout waterfall. The village comes into view and we stop for me to take a photograph, then on for our lunch date at The Black Swan.
It is a warm, cosy, welcoming village pub/hotel with good food - what more could you want?
I read that many village pubs are closing mainly due to cheap booze being sold in supermarkets and also people not being able to drive to the pub, have a drink and then drive home.
Well I would guess that this is one village pub not set to close. It has bed and breakfast accommodation for tourists, but more importantly, it caters for the villagers. They have made one part of the pub into the village shop. It sells bread, home made cakes, cheeses, pies - all locally made stuff, as well as tourist souvenirs and things like birthday cards which you might suddenly remember you needed.
Inside the pub the notice advertises Quiz Nights, Ladies'Nights, Music Nights - and at the bottom of the notice it says - if you can think of anything you would like to have on the programme then let them know - with the proviso which says "nothing too stuffy!"
The loos were lovely (sorry but we women set great store by things like this). There was a splendid notice warning that the drainage was Victorian so watch what you put down the loo and then instructions for flushing, saying that the flushes were a bit unpredictable and that three short flushes in quick succession would probably do the trick!
This pub seems to be thriving, and rightly so. The food was delicious (roast pork and apple sauce since you ask), the dining room bright and cheerful, the flowers on each table were fresh and not plastic.
In March 2008 HRH Prince Charles visited as part of his The Pub is the Hub initiative - and they have a plaque to honour the occasion.

On the way back via Sedbergh we passed the exhausted remnants of a Howgill Fell Race, all looking terribly hot, tired and healthy - felt quite guilty after our two hours of lazy Sunday!

Sunday 22 February 2009

Birds of a feather...

I am going out for the day, so today's blog has, of necessity, to be short.
Recently I spoke of the farmer putting up two new nest boxes - one of which was designed for a robin. Your comments made me realise that my British and my American readers would each have a completely different image in their minds when reading about the robin.
The first time I went to the States someone pointed out an American robin to me - it is a lovely bird, quite tame and pretty, but completely different from our robin. So here for today is a picture of a British Robin and a picture of an American robin, so that you can see how different they are. I don't know how widespread the American robin is - I am sure one of my American readers will tell me (I hope so anyway) but our robin is everywhere - very pretty, very tame but with other robins, very aggressive.
Sorry about the difference in image size - but my computer skills are limited and I can't see how to make the American robin any bigger. So apologies Mr Robin - you are a bigger bird than your English counterpart - sorry I couldn't make you so.

Saturday 21 February 2009

In Another World.

Earlier in the week I read where a scientist said he was sure that there was no planet in our galaxy which could sustain life but that almost certainly there were planets in other galaxies which had advanced life forms on them.
Now, today, I read that the Kepler telescope will spend the next three and a half years locating planets. The article, in today's Times (where else?)says the results will "define mankind's place in the Universe by establishing whether planets that can sustain life are common, or if Earth is an extraordinary exception."
This dilemma seems to have been the pre-occupation of sci-fi writers for generations. I remember being in the thrall of HG Wells's "War of the Worlds", written in 1898. As a teenager (long after that date I hasten to add) I devoured every word and had difficulty sleeping at night for fear the Martians might come while I was asleep!
I really hope they never find anything which could be reached in a lifetime. If they did then there would no doubt be a mad scramble by countries over who had first call on its mineral resources. It seems to me, as a species we have absolutely no possibility of ever living in peace, of ever sharing out resources so that we have equal call on them. I have never understood how we could have Butter Mountains and Grain Mountains when half the world was suffering from famine (please don't try to tell me why - my brain is tired of trying to understand these world problems and I want none of it).

Another World

They say
if you exist
you are
a thousand light-years far
away from here.
And that bright star
that glitters in the clear night sky
and promised life,
has none.

And then they say
that if you do exist
and try to visit us,
you'd have to fly
for several lifetimes
just to reach our world
and stand among us.
I say to you don't try!

You'ld find that
famine, war, religious strife
take up a major part of life.
Stay where you are.
Your distant star
is home -
and you are peaceful folk
or so I like to hope.

Friday 20 February 2009

A Fable for the Modern Age

(Or What women seem to want these days).

Rosy Rabbit was a pretty young thing. Her fawn ears were soft and silky and her brown eyes were kind and tender. She was just a teenager and lived with her mother and father in a burrow in the barn meadow. Spring was coming along and Rosy's mother was just about to give birth, so Rosy had to leave her nice cosy home and find somewhere else to live.

She knew that two boy rabbits were interested in her, but she couldn't decide which one to choose. Jack Rabbit was quite a handsome lad with a sprightly hop and a pert way of sitting up straight in the field to see if the farm cats were about. Rory Rabbit, on the other hand, was a quiet, gentle, thoughtful rabbit who spent an awful lot of his time preeening his fur, washing his ears and generally keeping his burrow tidy. What to do? Which to choose?

Jack brought her an offering of sweet-smelling hay he had stolen from the farm barn. Rosy snuffled her nose into it and smelt the Summer - she was bowled over. Then Rory brought her a few new green leaves from the emerging cow parsley - her favourite. She savoured every mouthful and was again undecided. So she set them a task. Whoever made the nicest home for her would win. She stipulated that it be in the pasture, well away from where her Mum and Dad lived - she didn't want them interfering in her new life! She told them she would inspect the burrow next morning and make her decision.

Jack spent a lot of time watching out for the farm cats and left it rather late to start. The hedgerow bank has several nice terraced houses and he thought another along there would be just the thing. So he began to scratch and scrape away the soil and soon had a nice burrow - an end of terrace plot, so they only had neighbours on one side. He thought that would do, although next door on the other side there was rather a lot of rubbish - old sticks, the odd feather from where the sparrowhawk had eaten a pigeon earlier in the year, a pile of soil which he had removed from the burrow - well he would deal with those later.

Rory hopped up and down the pasture hedgerow bank. It was a nice, sheltered spot, caught the sun for most of the day, well-drained. He saw where Jack was getting his burrow ready and thought that perhaps it was a bit common to be "end of terrace" - and with all that rubbish.

Then he saw just the spot; well away from the rest of the burrows and what is more it had already got superb light-fittings over the front door. He carefully made the burrow, avoiding touching the beautiful lights, lined it with sweet-smelling hay - and as a final touch he got an acorn cup, filled it with dew and put in the first celandines of the Spring.

There was no contest. Rosy adores her light fittings, has already lined the bedroom area with soft pale grey fur and is now busy doing what rabbits do best.

(This photograph, taken this morning, shows wonderful fungus at the entrance to a rabbit hole - the rest is pure fiction.)

Thursday 19 February 2009

Castles in Wensleydale. 3

Middleham Castle.
Middleham is a little town very close to our farm. It is now a major centre for horse racing and has many racing stables in the vicinity. But in the past it was an important place and a seat of royalty.
The castle, now a magnificent ruin and managed by English Heritage, was built in the reign of Henry II, a no-nonsense piece of architecture meant to signify strength and purpose - with keep walls twelve feet thick. In the Wars of the Roses both Edward IV and Henry VI were imprisoned there.
It was in the fifteenth century that it really came into its own, when it became the home of Warwick The King-Maker, and it was there that Richard, Duke of Gloucester and then
Richard III, met Anne, Warwick's daughter. Lady Anne Neville became the wife of RichardIII and they made Middleham Castle their home in the North - it was said to be Richard's favourite home.
These were troubled times. They had money, and status, and - it is said - a palatial home, but none of this mattered in the fifteenth century. In 1484 their son, Edward, aged eleven, died there in what has become known as The Prince's Tower; in 1485 Lady Anne Neville also died and of course Richard himself was killed at The Battle of Bosworth Field.
In the English Civil War it was used for a time as a prison but then it began to fall into disrepair and like so many places around the world, its stone was taken by the locals to build their houses. How are the mighty fallen
Across the road from the castle stands an ancient market cross. On its top is a greatly eroded stone animal, which may well be what is left of a boar - which was Richard's emblem. I am putting a photo of the plaque on my blog too - hoping it is clear enough to read.
It is an imposing ruin and in early Summer it is covered with tiny pink flowers in all the crevices. The flower is called The Fairy Foxglove (Erinus Alpinus). This flower is also growing in profusion at various forts along Hadrian's Wall and I like to think that the story is true that it originally came to England from Italy as seed on the boots of the Roman soldiers.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

A Loss to the English Countryside.

The English Elm tree, along with the yew, was in times past the mainstay of the English country churchyard. Thomas Gray epitomises this in his elegy:
"Beneath those rugged elms, the yew tree's shade
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
There were plenty of elms in the hedges and lanes around here - our lane had many and they were dotted about in our field margins. Go further afield and many stately homes had stands of statuesque old elms - it was the quintessential tree of the English countryside.
Robert Browning in self-exile in Italy, longed for the English countryside each Spring - wanting to see the humble buttercup rather than the "gaudy melon flower" and remembering the trees coming into leaf. In his "Home Thoughts from Abroad," he says
"Whoever wakes in England finds,
some morning, unaware,
that the lower boughs of the brushwood sheaf
round the elm tree bole are in tiny leaf."
That brushwood around the base of the trunk was our way of identifying an elm tree when we were children and the first tiny green leaves of Spring would sprout first on this brushwood because it would be in a sheltered position.
Now they are mostly gone from our countryside. 120feet of majestic tree falling victim to the Dutch Elm beetle and slowly dying. I had three elm trees in my garden when I lived in The Midlands and, knowing the disease was about, we watched them carefully. The odd leaf fell early and we worried. The next Spring barely any leaves sprouted and within a month they had fallen - the trees died before our eyes and the effect was catastrophic as it spread around the country.
The disease, first described in The Netherlands, hence the name, was in this country in the 1930's but then in the 1970's a more virulent form arrived - this time probably from Canada - and there was no escape. Everywhere you looked, these giant trees were dying.
The elms on the farm succumbed in the late 1980's. The pictures, taken at the time by me, although I was not married to the farmer then, show dead elm trees. David and his father felled the trees, sawed them up into logs and stored them on our wood pile.
Well, now we are just burning the last of those elm logs. They have been supplemented by holly, hawthorn, sycamore and alder as and when Nature decided to do a bit of pruning. But now the last few logs lie on the hearth ready for burning.
One dead wych elm still stands in the hedge waiting to be felled. Its days are numbered, for we are running short of logs and Winter is not yet over.

Tuesday 17 February 2009

The Farm to Ripon 1. Where rivers meet.

From our farm to the ancient city of Ripon is barely twenty five miles, but the journey passes through lovely scenery and through some interesting places, which I would like to share with you now and then.Today Tess and I went to the nearest place of interest for our afternoon walk. Ulshaw is a tiny settlement, just a couple of houses, a splendid RC church and a seventeenth century bridge. I have posted a picture of this bridge before; here it is again with the very pretty church of S Simon and S Jude in the background.The River Ure rises up at the top end of Wensleydale (used to be called Uredale or Yoredale). By the time it reaches Ulshaw bridge it is quite a wide river and as it drains all of the uplands of Wensleydale, it is subject to flooding and can easily rise twenty feet in an hour if there is heavy rainfall up the dale.Within a stone's throw of where I stood to take the picture of Ulshaw Bridge flows the River Cover. It rises at Cover head at the top end of Coverdale and flows down through some very hilly country to Cover bridge and it is here that the two rivers converge.Tess and I set off along the bank of the Cover. Evidence of flooding is everywhere although the river today is quite benign, if flowing quickly. Great swathes of washed stone lie in the middle of the river Cover, brought downstream from the uplands and now lying in such heaps that they are changing the course of the river - for now. Fallen trees litter the banks where they have been washed up as the water receded.This is Tess's first visit and she is ecstatic. In another six weeks or so the grassy bank will be covered with violets, primroses, wood anemones, cowslips - this is a marvellous place for wild flowers - we even see the odd purple orchid - but today, with Spring still a little way off there are just the red-tinged alder bushes and - joy of joys - the hedgerow is lit all the way along with hazel catkins. Across the river, on the far side, a young willow tree with its feet in the water shines out like an orange beacon.Where the two rivers converge there is a spit of land grazed by sheep belonging to the Coverbridge farmer, Tony. He often has to move them away when there is floodwater coming, but today they graze happily, heavily pregnant and soon to lamb.At the far end of the river walk lies Jervaulx Abbey, now a ruin, but today we are not going that far, so we just walk as far as what used to be the abbey's fishponds but are now the home of swans, coots, moorhens and a few ducks.This land all belongs to the Danby Estate and the Scrope family. The first Lord Scrope fought at the Battle of Crecy. Danby Hall, with its magnificent view of the river, is still lived in by members of the Scrope family today.In the Summer there will be sandmartins. The holes in the bank are there, waiting for their arrival. We saw two goosanders and a swan, we met two spaniels, two retrievers and a Jack Russell terrier (and their owners of course!) but other than that we had the bank to ourselves. The peace and tranquility were profound. We came back happy - me feeling refreshed and renewed - Tess feeling ready to set off rabbitting with the farmer. Bliss.
Photos from the top:
Orange willow on Ure bank.
Ulshaw bridge and church.
Stones washed down by the river Cover.
Hazel catkins in the hedge.
Where the Ure and the Cover meet.
Danby Hall.

Monday 16 February 2009

Oh the joys of no snow!

To see the dark green wet grass - somehow much darker than I remembered it -and to smell it faintly on the air - that is a joy today. Edward Thomas says it much better than I can:-
"The February air has all the sparkling purity of winter. It has, too, something of the mettle and gusto of Spring. The scent of young grass, uncontested by the scent of any flower or fruit, is sharp though faint, and thus the air is touched with Spring perfume. Now and then a blackbird flutes a stave or two, but the silence is mysteriously great."
That "mysteriously great" silence is around today in the fields, as though everything is waiting for the first sign of Spring.
Now that the snow has gone, the snowdrops mimic it with patches of pure white. The photograph is of the carpet of snowdrops at Nappa Hall, a fortified Manor House in the heart of Wensleydale.
Our neighbour is gearing up for lambing. He has separated the reds and the blues (first and second batches of lambers). The sheep with horns in the photograph are Swaledales; those with speckled faces are mules. First batch lambers will be taken inside to be fed and kept warm - lambing is only a few days away - expectancy is in the air there, too.
The first lesser celandines of Spring burst through the dead undergrowth on the edge of the wood. This is National Bird Box week so the farmer will be down there tomorrow putting up his two new nestboxes - one for blue tits and one for a robin. Who will decided to nest where we shall have to wait and see.

Sunday 15 February 2009

We're Green Again.

There is nothing like snow for showing up the contours of the land. Driving over "the tops" for the last fortnight has been a feast for the eyes: not just the beauty of the white landscape, but also the fact that at a distance one could see ever dip and hollow in every hill. As you come over one particular road you can see Arkengarthdale on your right and Coverdale on your left. Arkengarthdale is a landscape that is largely man-made. Yes, of course, the Dales were originally created by Glacial action, but this particular dale held a commodity which was at one time much sought after - lead. The old leadmining workings have been ruined for a century, but the heughs - or "hushes" - deep channels down the sides of the hills where lead miners dammed the bottom and then flushed the lead out with water - can always be seen and never more so than when the land is covered in snow.
We went to bed last night with the fields still snow-covered, although when the farmer took Tess out for her last walk (there is another story there for on these dark nights he goes out with a storm lantern in his hand and from the kitchen window he reminds me of Good King Wenceslas) he came in remarking that it felt as thought the temperature was above freezing.
He was right. This morning the fields are green except where it lingers - particularly in the furrows. This area was known for its rig and furrow method of farming, where the ploughed land was heaped up in lines leaving the dips in between (thus giving slightly more surface area). You no long notice the rig and furrow system, except when there is snow on the ground.
The other farming method which still stands out this morning is the thousand-year-old cultivation terraces, which also litter our fields. Farmers produced this terracing - it is still done in hilly areas - I have seen it a lot in China - mainly on common fields. These lynchets, as they are called round here - show up so clearly this morning in their green and white stripes.
At the bird table there is much less activity - the board of sunflower hearts that the farmer has been putting out for our fourteen + blackbirds, has been pecked clean this morning, by a couple of pheasants, while the blackbirds have fallen out around them.
Casserole for lunch is in the oven - the first rhubarb of the season is gently stewing with preserved ginger for pudding - the log fire is lit - Country File is on the TV any minute now - and outside the first vestiges of Spring are in the air - can't be bad.

Saturday 14 February 2009

What a century!

In 1909 Robert Peary, the US Polar explorer, was the first person to "discover" the North Pole. Of course he made headline news and became a household name. In that same year Louis Bleriot built a 24hp monoplane and then flew it across the channel from Calais to Dover - his name too has gone down in history.
Even in 1953, when Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing reached the top of the world - Everest - on the same day as the Queen's coronation, it made headline news around the world and every schoolchild knew of the exploit.
Now we take all these things in our stride. On Monday Ben Saunders is going to set off from Russia alone, to travel over land and water in a straight line to the North Pole and then on into Canada. Alas, no longer headline news.
In that one hundred years since 1909 we can now routinely fly over the North Pole on a flight from the UK to the US. We take flying as a matter of course, no different from catching a bus or going by train. If you can afford it you can go to Antarctica whenever you like. I don't expect it will be all that many centuries before the same can be said of going to the moon.
I wonder if Peary or Bleriot ever gave a thought to what progress would be made in their field in the future - I am sure they did - but did they imagine it would be so rapid and that it would become so matter of fact?
Has there ever been a century where such progress has been made? Where we have gone from carrier pigeon, so to speak, to instant communication - and that's not to speak of the progress in the medical field and in other areas.
Has this been the "best" century for progress? I would be interested to hear what you think. And on not so very unrelated a subject when you think about it - isn't it interesting how Mother Nature keeps on ticking over at her own pace what ever the weather. I went round my garden yesterday; snow is still lying and the temperature is still around freezing, yet the Spring flowers that should be out now are out and they are struggling and pushing their way through the snow. This is the day when, by tradition, birds begin to mate - they will carry on regardless of the weather - nature - be it wildlife, mountains, poles, the air - it is all here and it will carry on regardless. The sight of the Gertrude Jekyll rose buds against the snow cheered my heart on a morning when I have lost a friend to the ravages of cancer. It all makes you think, doesn't it?

Friday 13 February 2009

Are you superstitious?

Another Friday the thirteenth ! So that's two things to worry about then - Friday and Thirteen.
So presumably double bad luck in the air.
However much I tell my self it is all nonsense - that all these silly superstitions have been imposed upon the natural world by human beings - I still have a few vestiges of superstition that I cannot shake off.
Do you knowingly walk under a ladder without crossing your fingers? I certainly don't; I even cross my fingers if I walk under scaffolding.
And if I see the new moon for the first time through a glass window I am less than happy and have a sudden urge to say "abracadabra, fiddle-de-dee, gobble-do-gook" (if I am alone - yes I will admit it - I have been known to say it and to turn around three times). Both these things I have remembered from my childhood, living with a mother who was absolutely riddled with superstitions She would never bring May (hawthorn) blossom into the house, nor ivy.
In the old days, when we killed a pig each December and cured or stored the meat, there would be a rule that no pregnant woman was to come anywhere near the house until the whole operation was over, as a pregnant woman would taint the meat!
One of my Father's regular sayings on a Thursday evening, would be "Ah well, tomorrow will be Friday and we've caught no fish today!" I understand that fishermen still consider it bad luck to put out to sea on a Friday. Is this so?
Mother's ornaments, if they had faces, had to be looking into the room, not out of it.
I suspect that we have come quite a long way since you could be burnt at the stake for witchcraft five hundred years ago - but old habits die hard and there are still a lot of superstitions about.
I still say "rabbits" on the first of the month (at school we used to say "a pinch and a punch for the first of the month"!)
And why exactly is thirteen unlucky? (Isn't it something to do with Jesus and the Apostles?) And why, if you are acting in Macbeth, must you never say the name of the play?
I could go on - but I would love to know it you have any superstitions which you adhere to, even though you know it is rubbish.
Do you do any of the following for example:
Never leave scissors open on the table.
Never put shoes on the table.
Never cross knives on the table.
Always throw a pinch of salt over your shoulder if you spill it.
Never say thankyou if you drop a glove and someone else picks it up for you.
Say "touch wood" if you say something that tempts fate.
So, I ask again. Are you superstitious? No? Think carefully - and let me know. Good luck!!

Thursday 12 February 2009

Textile artist's mantra - Don't throw anything away!

Out yesterday at a meeting, one of my friends saw my note book and asked how I had made it. Because she does not have a blog, but does read mine, I said I would put it on to my blog today so that she could read how to do it. So here it is:-

I bought the blank note book and then made the cover. The cover itself is just a simple wallet - the outer covering is a piece of batik material, backed with pelmet vilene and then with green felt. What she was interested in was the front decoration. It was simple to make and - as the heading suggests - mostly made up of bits from my scrap bag.

I cut a rectangle of pelmet vilene, scrunched up a bit of old scrim cloth - or it could have been muslin - or bandage and fastened it to the vilene with a good impact glue. When it was completely dry I "dab-painted" it with acrylic and let that dry and then brushed it here and there with "Treasure gold" (I suppose you could use gold spray). The fancy decoration is thin copper wire which I knitted with largish needles, threading beads as I went. Then I sewed the finished piece on to the rectangle. The rectangle needs fitting on to the cover before you put the felt lining in place - otherwise the stitching will show through on the inside. Hope you enjoy making it.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

The wood in winter.

The beck naturally runs through the lowest points on our farm and one particular place for many years became so boggy that that part of the field became unusable. About thirty years ago the farmer and his father, who also farmed with him, decided to do something about it. We are lucky to have a forestry expert in the village and on his advice they planted a stand of spruce trees and a stand of alders. These are now mature trees and they form the backbone of our little wood, which we call The Plantain.
It is only a small area but it is surprising what you can find there. There are three beautiful trees on one edge - an aspen, a hornbeam and a whitebeam. In amongst the alders there is an oak which was planted when my father-in-law died and several self-seeded sycamores. Last year we tacked a little bit more on the edge. We found two cherry saplings - both from self-seeding. They don't appear to be going to fruit but they are now quite big and have glorious blossom in the Spring, so they went in. We dug up three or four sycamore seedlings and planted those and a few beech seedlings. And, best of all, we grew an apple tree from an apple pip and we have planted that in the new part and last Autumn it had three large red apples which were delicious - we shall never know the variety.
In the far corner, under the spruces, there is a large rabbit warren. It is very dry under there and our dogs and cats know very well that there are rabbits there, so they pay frequent visits. When they arrive, rabbits scatter in all directions, leaping over the water and dashing down the burrows.
In Spring there are celandines and marsh marigolds along the beck's edge, a scattering of foxgloves further in, and large clumps of daffodil, snowdrop, blue, white and pink bells which we have planted. There is always something to look for.
Moorhen and coot nest there, as do mallard ducks and a carrion crow puts his nest in the highest of the alders every year. We try to discourage him as he gets the chicks.
In Winter plenty of pheasants roost there. If we go along the footpath at dusk, however quiet we are we seem to disturb them and they all fly out with a great cacophany - if they sat still we would never know they were there.
In the Spring come with me into the wood looking for the flowers. In the meantime, here are a few photographs of the wood in snow. Where there is fencing the farmer has created a drinking pool in the field for the cattle. When the beck is low he has to go down there in his wellies and dig it out.
We love our little wood and we hope you do too.

Monday 9 February 2009

A silent world - well, almost.

The snow has left us hardly at all. It lies with its crisp topping icing the roofs and carpeting the ground everywhere. It has blanketed the farm in a strange sort of silence. This morning, the farmer being away for the day, I ventured forth with Tess on a long lead to walk round the fields. Well muffled up in long socks, woolly hat, scarf and gloves I soon realised that I was greatly overdressed. By the time I reached the first field if I had closed my eyes to shut out the snow I could have been walking on a fine Spring day.
The eerie silence is broken first by a small flock of long tailed tits working the hedge on my right. They flit up and down the bare black branches of the hawthorn looking for food and chatting busily as they go. I stand and watch as they reach, then pass me on their search.
Here and there rabbit tracks criss-cross the snow, particularly near to the barn known to have a rabbit warren under the floor. And across the corner of the same field the straight track of what might be a fox. The farmer has seen one several times lately, and if it is a vixen then she may well have young cubs by now. She will find searching for food for them very hard in this weather.
An army helicopter buzzes overhead, breaking the silence - as Ronald Blythe would say 'like an angry dragonfly'. But it is soon gone out of sight over the moor and the silence returns. By the plantain the snow has melted at the edge under the trees and as I reach there several fieldfares rise up and fly off. I see a patch of rotting crab apples have been revealed so no doubt they were picking amongst those for any bits of apple which were still eatable.
The beck is running swiftly, black against its snow edging. Where it snakes its way through the wood there are already celandine leaves showing here and there. This is where I usually find the first lesser celandine of Spring, and the first Marsh Marigold - both a little way off yet!
But the alder trees, which stand with their feet in the beck and their heads in the clouds have already got that red sheen which tells me that their sap is rising.
Two mistlethrushes stand alert on the hedge as I pass by the steaming manure heap. I can't help feeling that they were probably scratching about in it before I came along.
By the pasture gate the wild honeysuckle is already showing roundels of green buds from its sheltered place inside the hawthorn hedge. On the other side the blackthorn lives up to its name with not a bud in sight yet.
As we reach the farm again the sun turns hazy. The long tailed tit family have reached the bird table and are busily eating the fat balls. The washing hangs limply on the clothes line - there is not a breath of wind. As we go in I think about the South of England, where a Winter Storm is forecast for tonight with rain, hail, sleet, snow and gale force winds. Keep warm and batten down the hatches down there. We shall be thinking of you but also hoping that storm doesn't stretch up the country as far as us.

Sunday 8 February 2009

Down on the Farm.

JWM Turner, that most British of painters, painted a lot in the Yorkshire Dales because he so admired the quality of the light. This week, with the snow on the ground and the sun shining, the light has been exceptional. I took the photograph of the snowy field, just outside the kitchen window, at about three thirty one afternoon as the sun was low in the sky. The ground was frozen solid and the snow hadn't gone at all.
Frozen ground at this time of the year presents a golden opportunity to "muck out" ( sorry, but you cannot avoid poo on this site). While the ground is really hard the loose housing can be shovelled out into the trailer, load by load, and transported to a field where it will sit in a steaming heap until spring, ready to be spread on the fields when the grass begins to grow. The heap will rot down some more, birds will scratch in it and sheep will gallivant up and down it just because it is there.
So, on Wednesday morning the farmer opened the doors of the loose housing, shut the gates of the fold yard back and began to work with his shovel (mechanical, I hasten to add). The sun was shining but it was freezing hard. Out streamed the cattle. Some of the older matrons, who had seen it all before, stood in the sun and enjoyed it on their backs, but some of the heifers began to jostle and push and jump for joy, tails in the air. Great steaming trailer loads kept going past my kitchen window - all was going well. Then disaster struck!
Fear not - it was only a minor disaster - after all we are well-insured. One frolicking heifer caught the edge of the door of the tractor and crash, the glass shattered into a thousand pieces.
The cow was unhurt but there was glass everywhere, which had to be cleaned up. Now the farmer is sitting in a very chilly and draughty tractor (normally he has the heater going full blast).
Ordering the new glass took me the best part of the morning - it became something like a Keystone Cops silent film! It went something like this:-
Phone call 1. (what is the registration number? Don't know, will find log book and ring you back)
Phone call 2. What is the distance between the door hinges? Don't know, will measure it up and then ring you back
Phone call 3. Is the glass tinted or is it plain glass? Don't know, will ring the farmer on his mobile and then ring you back.
Phone call 4. We think you would be better ordering it from our other depot. Here is the number.
Phone call 5. Hello, this is Skipton taxi service. (they had given me the wrong number).
Phone call 6. Ordered the part.
Phone call 7. Rang the insurance company (straightforward!)
Now the cattle are in their spanking clean housing (farm cats not so happy as it is not as warm without that layer of heat underneath). Looking at the photograph it is hard to believe that there are thirty animals in there, but many of them are eating at the bay along the side (see the other photograph). They enjoyed their frolic in the sun but seem happy to be back in the new straw. As for happiness, this can't be said of the farmer as he goes up and down taking feed to the sheep with a lot of fresh air getting into his cab!

Saturday 7 February 2009

"V" Day today.

Willow did an interesting post last week investigating things beginning with E. I really enjoyed it and suggested she gave me a letter to explore - she gave me V. At first, when this alphabet thing began to circulate around blogs I thought it was a bit of a cop out and I wasn't interested. But I can tell you that looking into all the things I like beginning with V and doing a bit of reading around them, has been a very interesting exercise and I have enjoyed it very much - so thanks to Willow for suggestion that I think about the letter V.

The first three things which spring to mind are Venice, Vivaldi and Vienna.

Vivaldi is one of my favourite composers. In the seventies and eighties I played in an Early Music Group - mainly playing virginals. I can tell you there is some wonderful Vivaldi stuff for keyboard and I spent many happy hours playing it. Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678. He was a contemporary of Bach and a brilliant violinist, as well as being capelmeister at a Girls' Conservatoire on the waterfront in Venice. He wrote over four hundred concertos and also The Four Seasons, which is one of my favourite pieces.

Venice - maybe the most beautiful city in the world, and unique in so many ways. I once had the good fortune to have to wait for landing for forty minutes over Venice, during which time we circled and got a fantastic view of Venice from the air - the layout is amazing. If I had to choose my favourite building it would have to be Santa Maria della Salute - as much for its position at the head of The Grand Canal as for its simple beauty.

And where, conveniently for this blog, did Vivaldi die? He died in probably the next most beautiful city in the world, Vienna. A city so full of Renaissance and Baroque buildings that it is impossible to choose a favourite. A city so closely associated with the music of Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and Schubert and also the home of Sigmund Freud (where would we be without him?)

Moving on to painters; one of my favourites is Vermeer. I have a print on my wall of what used to be called Girl in a Yellow Turban but now seems to be called Girl with a Pearl Earring. It was bought for me on my twenty-first birthday and I never tire of looking at it. Then Van Gogh springs to mind with all those wonderful sunflowers and views of the countryside which are full of movement.

Rather than make this a long read, I am now going to list some other favourite things beginning with V:

One of my favourite instruments is the cello, conveniently really called the violincello - particularly Elgar's Cello Concerto - particularly the du Pre version.

A favourite novel is Charlotte Bronte's Villette - a bit Gothic but also a bit of an antidote to the rather "over the top" Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre (sorry to J E lovers)

Vindalanda - one of the forts on Hadrian's wall, which is easily visited for the day from here.

Names: I can't think of a single boy's name I like, but I do like Valerie, Virginia and Veronica - and I had a sister called Vera.

Flowers - well that would have to be the violet. They grow in profusion in the hedge bottoms of our fields in May - the simple, wild dog violet with its deep purple colour and its heady scent. As a child I knew a railway embankment in our village where they grew in their thousands. Each year we used to pick small bunches of flowers, surround each bunch with a few violet leaves, tie them with cotton and take them to any old house-bound ladies in the village. It was a custom which had gone on for many years.

Is that the end of my V list? Well almost, but I must say that I am very partial to vowels. Where would our written language be without a,e,i,o and u? Have you noticed how we have to open our mouths wide to say them? They open up our words and make our language intelligible.

And last, but not least, there are all those wonderful vegetables. I am already sitting by the fire with the seed catalogue on my knee and a pad and pencil in my hand. In February I have such hopes - that's before white fly, slugs, clay soil, drought, too much water, mildew, rust and all the other pests kick in.

So willow and all other fellow bloggers, that is my list of V loves. If I could have an orchestra playing it could be the Vienna Philharmonic and they could play out my post with The Ride of the Valkyries!

If anyone feels like investigating a letter - tell me and I'll choose one for you.

Friday 6 February 2009

Things a'int what they used to be!

There was a letter in yesterday's Times, urging a revival of "national Spirit". The writer cited the closure of our schools and the failure of our buses to run because of the snow, and the lack of public pride in a job well done, as examples of why that so-called national spirit has evaporated. He says that these things would have been the norm in the 20's, 30's and 40's (which, let's face it, were all decades of adversity). I thought about it a lot yesterday and came to a few conclusions, but I don't want to be seen as a carping old hag harping back to the "good old days!" So let's get one thing clear before I start - for me these are the good "old" days - I don't have a single complaint about my life, so I generalise with my thoughts on the old days.
I once read a quote which was along the lines of - things were much better in the old days and I don't know what young people are coming to these days. I found that the quote was from either Socrates or Aristotle or Confucius - so nothing's new, is it? It was ever thus - things usually seem better in retrospect.
But I would like to share these thoughts with you and hopefully get a response - which may or may not change my argument, depending upon the strengths of yours.
There used to be a school in almost every village. There would be a Head teacher and maybe one or two other teachers - and everyone would know them. Children would stay there until they were eleven and then go to a fairly near Secondary school which they were old enough to get to under their own steam. Snow was just an excitement and could be put to good use in lessons:- for maths you could measure it and plot its disappearance, for geography you could find out where it came from and how it got here, for art you could examine and draw snowflakes - and so on.
My teaching was done in an inner-City Comprehensive which was very large (and is, incidentally, now doing very well indeed). The pupils, boys and girls, came from Secondary Modern schools in the vicinity. In one of these schools there was a very charismatic Head who used to go through the register each morning and then get in his car and go to every house where there was a non-attending child - if they were truanting then he would collect them and make them come in to school. Now these pupils came to a large school where, if they didn't teach you, the teachers would not even know your name. Needless to say, a lot of disaffected youth left school at the end of their schooldays.
When I was a child there were three bus companies which served our village. All had the owners as drivers, with perhaps one or two extra drivers who we all knew. If my mother wanted to send a chicken to her brother, fourteen miles away, she would kill it, tie a label round its feet and hand it to the bus driver, who would stop at my uncle's door and hand it to him.
My first journey alone to Lincoln (three miles away) was supervised by Mr Gelsthorpe, the bus driver. He dropped me off in Lincoln and told me exactly what time I had to be standing outside "The Durham Ox" pub for the return journey. And he watched out for me. Now our National bus companies are huge and we are unlikely to get the same driver twice.
Now we come to national pride in a job well done. Our village used to have a Road Man, who lived and worked in the village - he kept the gutters clear of rubbish, cleaned the snow from the paths, swept up the autumn leaves, unblocked culverts - any job that needed doing. If the road flooded because the culvert was blocked with leaves you would call and tell him, he would see to it and you would call again and thank him.
We have gas leaks down our lane. This is what happens. You ring and get a recorded message from which you choose one of about six options. This puts you through to another recorded message with another choice of six options. Eventually you get to a human and tell him about the gas leak. Then a man comes to check it and mark the road with yellow paint. Another week passes and then along comes a man in a van, from another company, to leave the fencing ready to be put round the hole in the road. Several more weeks pass and a team comes along - from another company - to mend the leak. When this happened recently the farmer pointed out another leak nearby to the mending team - they couldn;t mend that because it wasn't on their list - we had to go through the whole procedure again. As for the fencing being collected - we still have some which has been here for three years!
There seems to me to be a common denominator in all this. Size. Schools have got too big (yes I know the argument about resources) Companies have been taken over until everything now is part of a large organisation - this goes for biscuits, to engineering parts, to water supplies.
No longer does The Boss walk round and chat to his employees and know most of them by name.
In my Dad's day he worked for an internationally known engineering firm, Ruston and Hornsby.
Old Joey Ruston used to regularly walk round the work force and knew many of the men by name - many of them had worked there for years - in my father's case 50 years. There is no longer a Ruston and Hornsby - it was split up - Turbine division to one national company, Boiler division to another - and so on.
How can we expect loyalty to one's work place when the bosses are faceless individuals and when any redundancies do not seem to take into account anything about loyalty and hard work - but are seemingly indiscriminate?
I know the arguments about consolidating resources in one place, about heating and maintaining small buildings, but I would hazard a guess that the money wasted by large organisations would more than take care of this. Isn't it always about money in the final analysis?
Please - give me your views. Am I living in the past? Have things all gone so far ahead that things can never be like that again?
Even our local Defra office (which changed from MAFF overnight during the Foot and Mouth epidemic) now has limited use - any real problems and we have to go on the "press 1 for this" circuit. No longer can I ring Mr Bloggs, who knows our farm intimately, for advice. It has all gone National. And while I am on the subject - did Defra have to have new note paper etc? I would have been more impressed if they had crossed MAFF out and written Defra underneath.
There! That's got that off my chest! Am I wrong? Am I being far too simplistic? See if you can change my mind!

Thursday 5 February 2009


Stealthily, like a thief in the night,
it came down and stole
the colour from our landscape.
We awoke to black and white and
all shades in between.
When it went,
leaving, as it came, by the back door,
we awoke to green.
Like flying into London
from Siberia;
the white landscape
miraculously green.
Then things began to grow
as though it had never been.

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Farming in the snow.

The snow lies a foot deep on the ground here. At last the snow plough has cleared the lane and the farmer has cleared the yard. When the feed merchant came with sheep food on Monday he got as far as the farm gate but couldn't get into the yard, so drastic measures were called for. Now we have a mountain of very dirty-looking snow on the side, but a very clear yard and drive.

The birds are coming to the bird table in droves. At one time this morning we had fourteen blackbirds and eight long-tailed tits. It is on days like this that I wish I had a more sophisticated digital camera!

Amongst the huge selection of birds at the table is the resident jackdaw; he appears to have a damaged wing and for several weeks he couldn't fly at all. Now, in an emergency - like the sudden appearance of farm cats - he can fly up into the lower branches of a Scots pine. So he is improving. I am hoping he will soon be able to soar skywards. He waddles in and eats his breakfast and then comes again mid-afternoon for his tea.

The sheep are a hardy breed and used to roughing it. They scrape with their front feet in the snow to try and get and the green stuff but with twelve inches of snow this is almost impossible. Then they rear up on their hind legs and nibble at the prickly holly leaves. They eat the hay begrudgingly and look with suspicion at the "sheep nuts" which seem to be slightly different from the last lot. They eat them eventually and any they leave is eaten just before dark as the rooks make their way home to Forty Acre wood. Suddenly the field is black with rooks and when they lift off all the surplus nuts have gone.

The farm cats don't venture far in this weather. But they are restless because the snow has forced a pretty long haired grey feral tom cat to come into their hay loft. He is a big lad and our two neutered toms are a bit scared of him. They have abandoned the loft and have taken up residence in two straw lined boxes in the feed hut - nothing like as warm and cosy but safer. They would be welcome in the farm kitchen but will only venture in if I leave the door open as an escape route. Not in this weather.

The cows and heifers sit and chew the cud, their warm breath steaming in the frosty air. Silage to eat whenever they want, warm water to drink, deep straw to lay in - this weather affects them not at all.

And the farmer? Well wrapped up in many layers against the cold he seems unperturbed by the awfulness of these bitter grey days. His fingers and heels have developed frost cracks but even these he accepts as an occupational hazard. When he comes in in the evening to a big log fire he finds it hard to keep awake, so we have got out the jig saw puzzles. Sleeping from 10pm to 6am is better than dropping off at 7pm and then being awake half the night.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Friends. Where would we be without them?

I have just spent the afternoon with an old friend in her eighties who is virtually snowed into her house. We have looked at, read and discussed the poetry of Jen Hadfield, the recent winner of the TS Eliot poetry prize over a cup of china tea. Her cat has sat with us and listened to it all - he is a most erudite cat (or would be if he could talk). We have passed a very pleasant couple of hours on a pretty miserable day.
Aristotle saw a friend as a single soul dwelling in two bodies - in other words a soul mate. If we actually find a real soul-mate in life I would say we are very lucky indeed. But friends - there is a different matter. It is a brave person who says he doesn't need friends; even the word "friendless" brings a chill to my bones.
I certainly would not have liked to have been without mine. Some have been constant throughout my life; some have come and gone; some have stayed to be a very important part of my life.
My oldest friend, J, I made on my first day at infant school. She always says that I took her to school but I don't remember that (isn't memory selective?). What I do remember is that she had very shiny black hair with a blue hair ribbon which kept slipping off until our very wise infant teacher secured it with a hair grip. I remember sharing the infant toys with her, especially the farm animals. We would kneel on the classroom floor and set up a wonderful farm (nothing's changed except now it is for real!) and I remember her utmost belief in Santa Claus long after the rest of us in class had sussed it was your Dad. Now we live at opposite ends of the country, yet we share long phone calls about gardening, about memories, about our families - and we manage to meet up once a year.
Moving around the country has meant friends left behind but even a letter at Christmas in with the card means that we have never really lost contact. Some friends have fallen by the wayside but then I suppose some friends, like some marriages, don't survive separation.
Moving up here twenty years ago meant making new friends - but now after those twenty years of shared experience they have become old friends. My oldest friend, B, gave me such support at a very difficult stage of my life, when I was nursing a dying husband. Just one single act during that time marked her out as a true friend, when she sent her husband to the door with a box full of ready-cooked meals for my freezer. It was an act of kindness I have never forgotten.
So thank you again, B, if you are reading this - and love too.
We are all getting old together now. Not so much Derby and Joan, more a lot of Joans together, sharing coffee, tea, worry, happiness, laughs - the list of sharing with friends is endless.
So thanks M (we don't meet so often now but when we do we can talk all afternoon, taking up where we left off a month ago and never running out of things to say). And thanks Gl, who I see much more often and who keeps me up to date on bird sightings and who is interested in so many different things that she regularly sparks off a topic to put on my blog. Thanks F and R, who live in The Netherlands and who we only see occasionally but who e mail regularly and keep in touch. And thanks J, who is a "real" poet and who never tires of reading my poetic efforts and giving me constructive criticism on them
My friends have stuck by me through thick and thin and I don't know what I would do without them. As Walt Whitman said, "I no doubt deserve my enemies but I don't believe I deserve my friends."
So here is a toast to Friendship - raise your glasses to all those wonderful people who form such an important part of your life and never let you down.

Friends! Where would we be without them?

Monday 2 February 2009

On Candlemas Day - Thanks Mr Farraday!

I don't suppose it will be long before there will be nobody still alive up here who can remember the days before electric lighting. Because there are so many remote farms around here electric light was very late coming to them and they had to make do with candle power. I think that is why so many farming families got up with the sun and went to bed when it went down. On the occasions when we have had a power cut (we are on a separate line and it does occasionally give up the ghost in bad weather) I am always struck by how difficult it is to manage by candle power; romantic it might be but don't try to read any small print!

Today is Candlemas day - no longer of any importance - but there was a time when this was not so. Before the days of electric light this was traditionally the day when all the candles needed for the church in the coming year, were blessed - hence Candle Mass.

I didn't realise until somebody on TV pointed it out yesterday, it is exactly half way between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox so is seen as absolute mid winter. I know it was an important day on the farm because that was when the farmer checked his supplies to make sure he had half of them left. There is a folk lore poem:

A farmer should on Candlemas day

have half his corn and half his hay.

It was apparently also the day when if you had forgotten to take down your Christmas decorations on Twelfth Night you could legitimately take them down. As Robert Herrick says in the poem Candlemas Eve

Down with rosemary and bay,

down with mnistletoe.

Instead of holly now upraise

the greener box for show.

Today we have had about five inches of snow and the weather is a mixture of beautiful sunshine and white-out blizzards. So there is one Candlemas saying that cheers me up:-

If Candlemas be fine and sunny there's a lot more winter to come.

If it be bad weather then the worst is over.

Not sure where that leaves us as the day is a mixture of both.!

You will see from the photograph that Tess enjoys the snow.

On a completely different note. Poet in Residence has been talking a lot lately about haiku and haikutrios - and has now added an extra element of trying to include the same word in each stanza of the trio. I struggled with this and even asked him to help by supplying a word. But he quite rightly, said I had to find the word from my own experience. So here is my first effort.

The Waiting Game.

The yellow aconite
waits for the warm sun to shine
to raise up its head.

All the brown earth waits
for the faint stirring of Spring
to throw up its seed.

But the sharp, green nettle
pushing through the dead, brown grass
waits for nothing!
Happy Candlemas everyone - just give Michael Farraday a thought when you switch on your light.