Viewer Discretion Advised

 

If I was looking for an artistic excuse for including this video I could claim it is my attempt at Slow TV. But really this is not the reason. The reason there is a video from a fat, elderly, bloke wheezing on a bicycle is because of the second reason I write this blog.

My first reason for writing the blog is to help me gather and clarify my thoughts. To force me to focus and try and form a view on current events and culture. I feel I need to ensure that I am not simply accepting ‘the party line’ and committing my thoughts to print forces me to look at them and assess whether they are sufficiently logical and formed to be published. Once I have stated them publicly I can assess whether people are horrified, nonplussed or in some degree of agreement. In some regards this function of the blog replaces the political debate I had when living in the city although any debates I recall were all conducted within narrow parameters of the political parties designated stances.

The second reason, and the one applying here, is to act as a diary for myself. I hope to look back, as on a journal, and see what I used to think and feel and either enjoy these memories or feel embarrassed by my naivety.  This video is firmly in this camp. At the moment, as part of my fitness routine, I cycle daily. I do varying numbers of a lap outside our farm. I am aware that in the future I may not be able to do this. No matter how good my exercise, age and infirmity will still come knocking, and I may no longer be able to cycle. This is now such a part of my routine I want to be able to remember it, hence this video. It is a lap taken on a grey, drizzly day and catches all my wheezing and panting so it is not a tidied up version of my routine. I think despite this I’ll still look back on it and think I was lucky to be able to do this each day, this mile or so of road gives me great pleasure.

I assure you there is nothing of interest in the video, no twist in the tail, no surprise event. It is quarter of an hour of pedalling through lanes, it is a quarter hour of your life you won’t get back so, if you watch, find where the fast forward button is located and use it liberally.

 

I should be better than this.

I have found myself with time at the keyboard that I did not expect to have and also have found myself embarrassingly self-aware. This self-awareness arose courtesy of the DPD delivery man and has been todays major surprise. I have discovered, to my chagrin and disappointment, that I am subject to petty anger and annoyance. I am sitting fuming just because a delivery didn’t arrive.

I had arranged that this would come today and after downloading the companies app onto my overcrowded phone I was given my “1 hour delivery slot“. I was duly impressed and thought “this is progress“. I organized my day so that I was not away in  the morning, I would not want to be delayed on my return home for the delivery man and organised a number of jobs for the afternoon.

Just as the end of the 1 hour delivery slot arrived, perhaps the 61st minute, the delivery slot was changed to an 8 hour window – all of the afternoon and evening! Now the plans I had to go into the wood and to the water tank were impossible as I had to wait in, I had to stand-down the neighbours who’d agreed to come to help, and I had to dart about trying to do the animals between visits to the front door to check the delivery man had not arrived.

By mid-evening my delivery had still not arrived and my app now informed me that they called but I was unavailable and will try tomorrow. I will be given another 1 hour delivery slot in the morning. Hopefully this one won’t expand into an 8 hour slot with no warning. I think I am going to try and have the parcel delivered to a shop in town as I could not stand another day like today.

I don’t know why this annoys me so. The parcel is important but hardly life or death. There is probably a good reason that the delivery failed; for all I know the delivery driver’s wife went into labour and he had to rush home. I will, almost certainly, get the parcel at some point, and it is pretty amazing that something manufactured in South Korea can find its way to the wilds of North Wales. But I still found myself angry and annoyed.

I dislike being lied to. Sometimes when people do it I can understand their motivation and make excuses for it. But I don’t like being lied to by an app on my phone ! If the thing was not going to arrive I’d prefer to have known not been left with unrealistic anticipation. I suppose I also dislike feeling that my life and tasks are held to be so worthless that someone can say “just sit about for a full working day, our driver is an important man and will get to you when he can“. I feel my time is as valuable as his. I dislike phoning help-lines and listening to people telling me they are “so sorry” and that I am a “valued customer“. I feel that rather than pay people to sit at a phone and give apologies they should employ staff to get the logistics right.

But that is me back at my petty anger again. I suppose it’s the materialistic bit of me showing through. I am like a huffy child puffing and demanding “my stuff”. The more I think of it the parcel can wait, it will make little difference if it doesn’t arrive until the weekend. It is not a pacemaker – I will survive. Perhaps if I wait I will learn to defer my gratification, perhaps I’ll be less demanding. Deep breath in and relax. That’s better. Thanks DPD that is a lesson learnt.

 

 

Mynd am dro

Mynd am dro

Yesterday, in a fit of madness, we decided to take the afternoon off. The continuing heat and flies have made work outside feel like purgatory. All the vital tasks had been done and were up to date, all the animals were fed and watered and we felt we needed a short break. We spoke with our neighbour, who farms the smallholding next to ours, and found he was of a similar opinion. A plan to go for a walk was hatched.

We decided to go to see the meadow flowers before it was too late. We are fortunate locally that a number of the local farmers are strongly opposed to industrial farming and employ much more traditional methods. This avoidance of overgrazing and monoculture seeding means that the hay meadows can look wonderful at this time of year. They remind me of the meadows of my youth with their wide varieties of flowers. This is a view of the countryside which is unfortunately being steadily lost.

We decided on a simple local circular walk through the old meadows. This took us along the bottom edge of Cader Idris which is a fine backdrop for any walk.

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The hay meadows are irregularly shaped. The shape is determined by the contours of the hills and mountains and the channels that the streams and rivers follow. Paths and roads also follow the natural courses, there are few straight lines here.

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These fields are full of colour and smells. The early purple and butterfly orchids are perhaps the stars of the field, but it is the ox eye daisies, buttercups, cotton grass, clover and raggedy robin which supply most of the colour. Even the yellow rattle and eyebright play their part.wp-1528907987390..jpg

However, it is not only the flora which make this local walk so enjoyable it is the fauna as well. Unfortunately, I was not quick enough with my camera to catch the birds we saw. The Hawfinches were everywhere but on this occasion I also saw a Linnet, for the first time,  and two barn owls which was a pleasant surprise.  The Canadian geese were the only birds I managed to capture with the camera, but we did see squirrels, farm animals, slow worms, signs of badgers and foxes and myriads of dragon and damsel flies.

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Even when on the roads there is much to see in the hedgerows and very little traffic to break the peace. Indeed, during a two hour walk we passed nobody  on the route except when we stopped in at a neighbour’s house for tea and cake. I could walk these back roads naked if I wished, with little risk of startling anybody other than the sheep and cattle (But the horseflies would then become a bigger problem.)

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On the return half of the walk again  we had mountains in our view. This time we were looking northward to Snowdonia. Looking at the many small valleys and plains between the mountains I was struck by how hospitable this area is. These valleys, like the one I live within, are natural boundaries to communities. They suit small farms and small group living. The large farms have not yet established much of a foothold in this area and hopefully they never will. We need to rediscover smaller more traditional farms and villages.

It is certainly true that these ways are less effective in generating profit but in a post-scarcity age we need to consider whether accumulation of even more wealth is our most pressing aim. Perhaps many of us would forgo some of this affluence if in return we had better lives. Perhaps we’d give up social media and on-line entertainments if we had stronger and more engaging local communities.  Perhaps we’d use less pre-prepared meals (with consequent obesity and diabetes),  if creating food and meals was an integral part of our lifestyle. Perhaps it is time we focussed more on making than consuming, being creative usually brings more joy and pleasure than simply feeding our appetites. Previously I used to travel the world with work and for holidays. I did enjoy seeing different places and experiencing different cultures but it is very surprising that a simple walk, at your back door, can supply just as much pleasure as the most luxurious tourist excess.

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The benefits of topping.

Today has been a day spent topping. When we first started small holding we spent much of our time watching the experienced farmers in the area and then, a couple of days late, copying them. When they started cutting hay, a day late, so did we – when they sheared their flock so did we (although a lot less expertly). Every year I copied them until I understood why they did what they did and when. In the early years one of the greatest mysteries was “topping“; each year, each field was topped at least once. We did this faithfully but ignorantly. (Topping is cutting the grass short and leaving the remains where they fall rather than taking them for hay or silage)

I now know topping is a valuable part of pasture management. It helps keep down thistles, reeds and other weeds. The regular cutting also promotes a better sward of grass which the animals prefer and benefit from. It cuts down the large stems of grass which the animals are not eating and which have become “leggy” and these, and all the other items cut, lie as mulch so that their nutrients go back into the soil. However, topping has also taught me something much more important, it has taught me about belonging.

We have tried in the main to undertake most of the farming tasks we have to do,  either by hand or without heavy machinery. Some of this is through choice, but a great deal is through necessity as machinery is expensive. As farms have become bigger in Britain farm machinery has grown pari passu with this. Although prices are reasonable they are only reasonable if you want to work an area of over 500 hectares. Vaccines are reasonably priced when you buy enough to inject 500 sheep but can be difficult to get in reasonable volumes to do 25. We do not have a standard tractor on the farm. It would be too expensive and the few times we really have needed one it has been possible to call on the aid of a neighbour. There are people with back-hoe diggers, mobile sawmills and cherry pickers in our valley and they are seen as communal resources. As long as you contribute what you can, machinery or labour, you can call on these other resources.

Because our farm is very hilly, some of our pasture would be quite dangerous to drive on in a tractor for fear of overturning. For this additional reason I felt best to keep temptation out of my reach – if I don’t have a tractor I can’t try topping the steep field with it. Further, there was another problem –  the time I needed a tractor and topper was always the time everyone else needed it too. Topping, therefore,  faced us with a dilemma, as the prospect of mowing a 6 acre meadow, by hand, was pretty daunting.

Thankfully the Italians came to our rescue. DSC_3185In Italy, as many of the farms work olive groves and, also because inheritance law has lead to the growth of very small farms, there is a call for small, two-wheeled tractors. There is a steady demand for machinery which works on a smaller scale.  In Italy, and throughout Europe, there are a number of manufacturers of these small multi-talented tractors. Our first purchase was a Goldoni with a field topper. This makes light work of topping even large fields. Around this time of year I have a pleasant few days following the Goldoni at a brisk walking pace as we top each of our fields.

DSC07601.JPGIt is not too strenuous and there is plenty to keep you interested as you top the field. There is the wildlife to watch. Often this is wildlife trying to flee from the advancing topper but fortunately we are slow enough not to catch any. Today’s walk introduced me  to slow worms and toads as well as allowing me to watch the Red Kites circling overhead.

As we DSC07595.JPGare not taking hay these years (we have too many animals and not enough pasture) we let the meadow rest last year. In addition to the animal life we have also been fortunate to see  orchids growing wild near the damp edges.

However, by far the best sight is looking over the field, past the big cherry tree, over the house and seeing the mountains. Whoever, planned our house back in 1796 knew what they were doing;  they chose a wonderfully sheltered spot which avoids the winds without losing the sun. Looking over the field and knowing that, again, you have walked every square foot of that field and checked it is very satisfying. It helps tether you to your place and fosters an affection for your patch of land. I guess this is what starts to develop those attachments to place which bind you to home. Welsh has a word for this –  “hiraeth” – it is similar to  the German “heimat” , but has more  a sense of yearning to be where you belong.DSC_3187

These connections are not truly innate, they arise from being in close proximity to a place over a period of time. They come from working with that area’s nature and getting to know it as it changes throughout the year. It is the sinking of roots into a patch of land so that you feel unsettled when you are not at home. This can occur in the town or the country, a village or the city but it depends on constancy of place and its people. As our lives are much more mobile now;  our working lives often takes us from place to place, and our families likewise can be moving and dispersed over wide areas, for many of us it is difficult to generate this feeling. This is unfortunate as I feel that this connection is also part of the emotion which binds us to our communities. This is the part of the jigsaw that was missing when I worked in the city, this was the bit of me that I felt was lost which drove me to leave.

I have never regretted that decision. Yes, I often feel like a fool and out of my depth when I try to grapple with new problems. But facing problems and dealing with them is what makes life enjoyable. Routine, while comforting, needs to be broken every now and then to keep us on our toes. Having to learn new ideas and skills keeps the challenge that we need to keep our spirits up. I stated at the start that when we started small holding we learnt by copying. However, to tell the truth there was one time when we were in the vanguard and leading from the front.  Once, when we thought we might have been trendsetters or to have possibly discovered a new farming technique.

One of our elderly ewes had to be helped when she delivered her lambs. This  was exciting as it was the first time that we had to actually pull a stuck lamb from its mother. Everything that we had read and watched worked as it should and we felt quite smug after having successfully delivered healthy lambs. However, our relief that we managed to do this was quickly tempered by the ewe developing a uterine infection. After a course of penicillin she recovered but lost her entire fleece and was completely bald. We did not know what to do, we feared she’d be cold and come to harm.DSC_0791.JPG

We found an old dog coat, in fetching blue, which we kept on her by bands of duct tape which gave a dashing belted effect. We thought we had done very well and she looked quite handsome. She recovered fully which she would have done anyway, apparently. Local farmers later told us that this was a recognised side-effect of antibiotics and will sort itself out. We watched as the farmers  drove past our field, we noticed as they shook their heads and wondered if they were nodding sagely and thinking “what a wise and fashionable idea, why didn’t we think of it ?” or whether they were convulsing with laughter thinking “what are those idiots up to now ?“. I tend to think that latter was more likely as I haven’t noticed a sudden profusion of colourfully dressed sheep in our local fields.

The Love Songs of the Elderly.

The Love Songs of the Elderly.

As the relentless march of time carries me ever onwards towards my demise I find, perhaps as a useful reminder, that I spend increasing times at funerals. It seems that each month I am on a pew listening to the service, recalling the life of a friend or acquaintance. Each time I am aware at how increasingly close to my age they were when they passed. I listen to the services and to the stories of the lives of my friends and find it very comforting that everyone gathers together to remember the departed and to show respect for their life.

This respect is real. It doesn’t depend on the person having done anything spectacular or unusual it is simply respect for a life well lived : a parent to brought up children, a spouse who supported their partner, a neighbour who played a part in the community. It is respect earned by living a good, normal life. However, it is not shallow respect or deference, this is respect that was earnt as it came by the passing of time. It came by being a good person day in and day out for years. It follows from raising children to their maturity. It is respect when a spouse helps through the thin times as well as the good. It is respect that is often earned in those times at the end of our lives when illness and infirmity make our lives harder. A partner who sees beyond these elderly problems and gives support and love despite them certainly deserves anyone’s respect.

We often talk of love in our teenage and early adult years when we are setting out on the road of our lives. The songs we hear are about our love being as deep as the oceans or as wide as the mountains. We will face and conquer all for the person that has conquered our heart. But how little we know. In many developed countries the average length of a marriage, until separation or divorce, is a little over 10 years. The romantic songs of our youth often profess undying love but for many a decade is the length of eternity.

At these funerals I hear the tales of marriages which have lasted decades. Stories of couples who, split by death, lived longer together than they ever did apart. Stories of children bereft of parents who have always been part of their lives. It is clear when you listen to these tales of normal life that there were good times and dark times, but the latter were faced down and defeated. It is clear that, it is the sharing of these difficulties that is important in the person’s love, probably more so than the simple sharing of enjoyment. During these years families and couples grow into each other and grow deeper in love. Like watching a vine growing over the years round a tree, in time the vine supports the weak and broken branches; were the vine not there neither would be the tree. Pleasures are important, and obviously enjoyable, but it is the facing difficulties together that tempers love and makes it stronger. The more problems you solve together the deeper is your attachment and affection.

“For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

A love that cannot overcome difficulties is a weaker thing, these elderly couples demonstrate that their love was so strong that, ultimately, only death could break them apart and, even then, could not break their love. These eulogies of the bereft are the love songs of the elderly and they remind us that love can last for ever. They sing not of the possibilities of love but of the proof of enduring love over time. They also remind us that working to stay together can strengthen and deepen love. We should be wary of viewing love through the eyes of the young and foolish, looking only for pleasure and joy. No-one’s life can be unalloyed joy we will all need to face difficulties, dangers and disappointments. If we have a family these dangers will be multiplied (although so will the joys). Finding someone who cares about you enough to stand by you throughout is a remarkable feat and should demand that you are steadfast in return. If both of you can do this, you will have found something the young can only sing about.

“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be,

the last of life, for which the first was made.

 

Our times are in his hand who saith, ‘A whole I planned, youth shows but half;

Trust God: See all, nor be afraid!”


Robert Browning

Busy Days & Lazy Nights

The last few days have been quite pleasant. During the day I have been busy reclaiming the lower meadow so that we can keep the billy goats here (away from any female temptresses). It is now fenced, more or less, cleared and only awaits gates and a shelter. The goats had cleared much of the bramble that bedevilled this field before when, during last autumn, they were tethered here. When speaking to a neighbour, who has lived in the valley for over 80 years, she recalled this meadow, and the adjoining one, being quite productive in terms of hay and grazing. If I am to reclaim the other one we will need to remove a fair few trees but this could be the winter’s project while the sap is low. Waiting until the end of autumn will also be best for the bird life.

This work has been quite laborious and made all the more tiring by the sun and heat. It has been in the 80’s all week. As this meadow is bounded by a stream it is also heavy with gnats and horseflies so in the early evening you start to be eaten alive. This labour, in conjunction with the need for early starts for milking, mean my evenings have been very quiet and lazy. Little time to look at the blog and sometimes not even enough to consider cooking. This has meant that a few times we have just jumped in the car with one or other of the dogs and made the short trip to the seaside. Here a café will provide tea (with more than enough calories to replace the deficit) and the dogs get to run on the beach and play in the sea. All I need to do is sit, ache and watch.

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En Garde !

I have taken up fencing today, I had little alternative. It was only a matter of time following the birth of the billy goat kids. This is not some form of self-defence, there is no cut and parry nor clever swordsmanship, this simply the need to fence the old lower meadow as somewhere for them to stay.  Goats mature sexually very young, as we know from experience, and I don’t want this to happen while the boys are living with their mother, aunty or sister. I need some good fences and distance between them.

One of the important things about fencing, as with many agricultural tasks, is having the right tools for the job. My wife believes the right tools for fencing are the business card of a professional fencer and telephone. It is true that the professionals with tractors and post drivers will do a better job and that you will end up with taut, plumb straight fences but you will have to pay them. Fencing, basic stock fencing at least, is not that difficult and it is quite enjoyable to do. There is quite a sense of achievement to look at the end of day’s work and to see that you have actually altered the geography of a place.

The correct tools you need are :-

  • DSC_3140.JPGCrowbar
  • Post Rammer
  • Fence tensioner
  • Fencing Tool

as well as stock fencing, post and staples.  The posts you will need for basic stock fencing are 5′ 6″ long, 3 1/2″ diameter, rough hewn posts. These are reasonably priced in most farmers’ marts. The staples are bought by the kilogram and 30mm (by 3.3mm) galvanised staples are your best bet.

Once you have decided where your fence is going to go then get all your tools, and enough of your materials to the start point. Then clear the line of your proposed fence with a brush cutter.  Try to keep to straight lines as far as practicable. I could not today as the edge of the meadow is a meandering river, so I needed to follow its curves.

DSC_3155.JPGFirstly use the crowbar to make a hole. This need not be too wide. It is best about 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide – as the post goes down it will create its path and we want a tight fit. We don’t want to disturb more earth than necessary. While the width of the hole doesn’t matter the depth does. The hole should be at least 2 1/2 feet deep. This is where the strength comes from and it is wise to work get at least this depth.  Once you have the hole, roughly insert the fence post into place.

Now use the post rammer. This is one place where the right tool helps. You could use a sledgehammer for this task. That is, you could use a sledgehammer if your spouse has fingers to spare, an undoubting loyalty to you and no sense of fear whatsoever.  If you use a sledgehammer you need somebodyDSC_3153.JPG to hold the pole while you hammer it in. Or if you are really brave you can hole the pole while someone tries to hit it with a large metal hammer. If you use the post rammer you can work alone. Check after the first couple of strikes that you have the post vertical as if you try and correct later on it can ber very difficult. It you do manage to dislodge and re-align the fence post you will often leave that post wobbly which you do not want.

Next you need the fence tensioner. This is a long bar that can grip one of the horizontal wires on the fencing. You can then use it as a lever to pull the fence taught before hitting in the staples. It is important to get the fence as tight as you can or else it will sag and start to become a liability. A loose fence is poor at DSC_3157.JPGkeeping animals  in (or out, depending on what you want). You can put all your body weight against the long arm of the tensioner to get a good tension going and then, stand leaning against it, while you use  both hands to get the staples knocked. Or you can ask your spouse to keep the tension while you hammer. They should be happy to do this after you have told them you abandoned your plans with the sledgehammer !

When knocking in the staples don’t be too stingy with them. At least 4 for each post. Always one on the uppermost and one on the lowermost wires, and two (and preferably three) in between them. It is useful to hammer the staples in on the oblique, slightly slanted. DSC_3159.JPGIf you insert them vertically with the pins going in one directly above the other there is a tendency to create a fissure, or crack, in the fence post between them. Over time this widens and your staples will risk falling out.

This is another time when the correct tool will help you. A fencing tool is your best bet for this part of the job. Certainly you can use a hammer but you will also need pliers to bend wires and a bendy thingimmy to extract old or misplaced staples. You can also be sure that when you are standing holding the pole and fence in position  and holding the hammer you will actually need the bendy DSC_3160.JPGthingimmy, or if you have the pliers you will need the hammer. Having all of them in one tool is invaluable. I would also suggest getting a pair in bright colours. I regret buying my blue handled pair. You will spend an annoyingly long time looking in the grass for this tool. You have a better chance of seeing it if it is bright red or yellow – avoid black and green like the plague.

Once you have done all of this work you will be able to look back and admire your handiwork. There is now only one last thing you need to do. You can now tear up your gym membership card; if you manage this you never need to see the inside of a gym, or look at an exercise machine, let alone consider wearing lycra.

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