Mar 23 2021

At Last a Sign of Spring

Is it spring at last?

As each day passes the sun rises and sets a little higher above the hills and suddenly the valley is not in darkness. We see sunlight once more. Sun greets me in the morning now, as I watch Millie race round the garden before her breakfast. Birds sing. Indeed, they seem to be shouting for joy as they crowd the bird feeder. A pair of pheasants potter down for an early snack, hooting quietly as they clear the fallen seeds on the grass below. Hordes of fat pigeons patrol the garden.  A long bleak winter begins to drift away behind us.

And, after this long, lonely extraordinary year, we are told lockdown restrictions will gradually be lifted too. We will soon be allowed to see our friends and family again, travel a little further afield, eventually even have our hair cut! 

We will open our garden once more in June for the NGS to raise money for the nursing charities who have worked so very hard for us all over the last difficult months.

So as March marches onward, cherry trees are bursting into blossom, buds are swelling and the grass is starting to grow again. Fading snowdrops are replaced by a carpet of primroses. Camellias defy the frost, and everywhere daffodils and hellebores nod in the breeze. Sheep, horses and donkeys graze quietly on the hill. Nature seems to know nothing of this human pandemic. Time will heal.

march garden from Paul Vincent on Vimeo.

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Feb 20 2021

A Pause for Thought

It’s Groundhog Day: time stands still, time freezes, all is repetition, repetition. Is it just me or do the days seem to creep by as weeks fly past? What day is it today? Everything seems the same and yet completely different. Routine takes over my life. But how lucky am I to have space all around me. Millie dog and I walk to the top fields every day to feed the sheep. We climb the hills and look out over Dartmoor in the distance and the river below. We tend the donkeys and clean the stables. We feed our lockdown chickens, Avian Flu not Covid !  Sometimes there’s a little treat, friends walk by and we manage a quick chat, a bark, over the fence. Isolation, aloneness, no friends for a cuppa, a glass of wine or supper in the kitchen.

We wait, we hope, we try to be patient. Vaccinations are going well we’re told, then contradictions flood the media. We hang onto hope. That is all we can do. How will it all pan out? Only time will tell. We wait, we obey the rules, we isolate, we go on hoping.

And then the power cut: we lose everything. No WiFi, no internet, no phone, no contact with the outside world. No electricity, no heat, no light, no cooker, no hot water, no washing machine, none of the things we rely on and take so for granted day by day. I get back from the yard soaking wet, I can’t have a shower or wash my muddy clothes. I can’t prepare supper; I can’t send an email or call a friend. The house is cold and dark. All I can do is light the fire and wait.

A flurry of trucks arrive. Men in hard hats and red jackets jump out and scale the electricity pylons in the woods beyond our gate. Like trapeze artists, they swing from pole to pole high above the ground for hours until finally power is restored. They vanish as quickly as they appear.

It sets me thinking. How did our predecessors live their lives in days gone by in this tall, strange, narrow, remote, funny old house; a four-bedroom folly built by the Rector of Dittisham for his daughter in 1767? The deeds are lost so we know very little of its history but we do know that over the last two hundred and forty years it has belonged to churchman or farmers. The Reverend Francis Lyte lived here for a year or so before crossing the river to become the “Poet and Priest of Brixham”. I wonder if maybe he might even have written “Abide with Me” in this house! We’ll never know of course! All we do know is that the family from whom we bought it all those years ago had farmed here since 1922.

I heard on the radio the other day that someone somewhere has unearthed old records which show we are experiencing the highest rainfall since 1767, the year our house was built. As I watch our 21st century builders equipped with all the latest gear struggle to climb the scaffolding in howling winds and rain to mend our leaking roof and replace our rotten windows, I try to image the scene in the 18th century as men dug into the muddy Devon hillside in torrential rain toiling to build this Rector’s strange folly

Some folly indeed, down a muddy track almost a mile from a steep riverside village, it stands three storeys high at the head of a creek with ten windows, all at the front, looking east towards the River Dart. There were no other windows either on sides or back until the modern kitchen extension of 1820 was built. This was to conform to the Window Tax introduced in 1696 by William the Third to compensate for revenue lost through the clipping of coins. More than ten windows incurred a higher tax.

A well outside the basement kitchen was the only source of water and the privy was a long, cold walk from the backdoor.

A ford ran at the gate we are told and there was certainly no little shop in the village which was only to be reached on foot or by horse and cart. And Dartmouth was only accessible by water.  One token to modernity, if you can call it that, in this quirky house, were the coal grates. Very unusual for the time, they replaced the usual wood burning hearth. Coal barges unloaded their cargo at the head of the creek onto horse drawn carts just outside our gate, so coal was available to warm the two main rooms; so very modern in the eighteenth centuary. But I keep imagining just how hard and bleak life must have been

Dartmouth is still our nearest little town. A town with a an extraordinary history, it has managed to re-invent itself ina quite remarkable way, time and againacross the centuries. It sits at the mouth of the Dart, a river which rises five hundred and fifty metres above sea level on the acidic peat bogs high up on Dartmoor. Dartmouth perches at its mouth, a town with a history of ships and shipping and a story dominated by the sea. But it was not until 1823 that the town became accessible by land for wheeled vehicles, almost sixty years after our house was built. Up until that time only pack horses or ponies could manage the steep descent; the river was the highway to the town.

It was February 1982 when we arrived and our lives changed forever. We simply fell in love with this poor old battered farmhouse. On the day of completion we were early. We sat patiently on the grass pondering our future. In time an old tractor trundled up and our neighbouring farmer, handed over a key; I gazed at it in wonder, just one enormous, rusty, unused old key; the key to our new life.

Our arrival was, of course, eventful. First the removal lorry broke down on the way. And then, as I had predicted in several high decibel phone calls to the removal company, it was far too big to get down the narrow lane to the house. Everything had to be decanted unceremoniously into a small hired van in the middle of the village right outside the shop; a good place for everyone to get a look at the belongings and the people who had bought “Dorothy’s House”.

Death watch beetle, wet rot, dry rot and flourishing fungi meant we had no floor boards on which to arrange anything. All our belongings, everything but the most basic necessities, had to be stacked high in the farm dairy. They would remain there for the next nine months. We began to forget about them; things we had deemed so essential simply weren’t missed. As the months passed I soon learnt that black mould is permanent and green mould can be brushed off…..

The dairy, now a cosy study, was part of a cold north facing addition circa 1820. The deep slate shelves all around the room still remain. Each shelf has a gully which held a trickle of cold water that acted as the cooling system, keeping hams and cheese, milk and cream fresh; a nineteenth century “refrigerator”.

For months we all camped downstairs, sleeping on plastic covered mattresses. The children were ecstatic. They climbed around the house balancing precariously on the joists, exploring every corner and bagging a future bedroom each. They spent hours happily picking wet wallpaper off damp walls, they counted dead flies and compiled a scrap book of the amazing interior decoration. They recorded all details of yellow and orange staircase, pea green paneling in the little Georgian sitting room and the beautiful iron fireplace steeped in cream paint. They explored the overgrown garden and made camps in the orchard. They tramped across fields arriving home wet and muddy with happy exhausted dogs.

There was no hot water in the bathroom and the lavatory, perched above the kitchen extension of 1820, replaced the mounting block at the original backdoor which had enabled incumbent rector or farmer to lower himself onto his horse from on high! It was inclined to give those brave enough to use it, a fairly substantial cold shower when flushed. Fortunately there was another one upstairs which was less eccentric, but journeying to it meant balancing once more on those ceiling joists.

I loved the solid fuel Rayburn. It stood cream and battered in the corner of the old kitchen. It hadn’t been used for years but it was the only source of heat we had. All the chimneys were blocked up either deliberately or by years of nesting birds. So to cook our food, give us a little hot water and keep us warm, I set about bringing it back to life. I called the chimney sweep, scrubbed the old thing, bought some “nuts” to feed it and fired it up. If the wind was in the right direction it was a marvel. But, as the hills rise high behind the house, on grey days the smoke was returned unceremoniously down the chimney. I began to understand why it had been out of action for so long! It began to rule our mealtimes. Would it roar into life and cook lunch or would thick cloud, hanging heavy in the sky, make us wait till supper time for the fire to draw.

The old kitchen and pantry had no sink or drainage of any kind but a small modern breeze block scullery, housed a metal sink whose waste pipe ended in mid-air. Water flowed first onto the floor then trickled optimistically towards a little drain hole: sometimes it disappeared, sometimes it didn’t. It was a long, wet walk from cooker to sink with a saucepan. Cooking was a challenge.

In November the builders arrived and the restoration process began. The pantry vanished together with the waterfall lavatory. Suddenly a large space appeared which would in time become the new kitchen. Ceilings fell down, new ones replaced them. Heating and plumbing appeared; water, no water, heating, no heating.  And, of course, things got so much worse before they got better.

Christmas approached and after much discussion we decided to make a valiant effort and celebrate in the shell which was to be our home. We hung a curtain across the bathroom door for Granny who whistled to indicate her occupancy; new floor boards in place made her journey slightly less hazardous. 

Rubble was barrowed out of the kitchen; the floor was leveled. A shiny new sink appeared then taps, hot water. What more did I need! A Christmas tree acted as camouflage and a few decorations lit up the occasion.

The dear old Rayburn came up trumps and cooked a turkey to perfection. Chairs and table were pulled out of storage and dusted down. Table laid, crackers in place and friends and family sat down together for the traditional festive feast in somewhat unconventional surroundings.  My father gave me a long hard look and asked if I thought we had been altogether wise. I just smiled.

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Jan 06 2021

New Year’s Day

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We woke on New Year’s morning to a frost-white sparkling world. Tiny clouds bathed in pink sunlight scudded across a turquoise sky.  An omen for a better year, I pondered hopefully, as I struggled out into the frozen landscape. Such a contrast to the recent squelch of months of mud suddenly replaced by the crunch of icy grass beneath my feet. 

A quick breakfast and Millie and I trudged up as usual to the top fields to check the sheep. Dear tough Dartmoor girls grazed quietly on frozen pasture melting quickly in the intermittent sun. The river below shone coldly white; Dartmoor looked grey and ominous in the distance. Gradually, as we retraced our steps, clouds gathered and sun vanished.

Donkeys were not so keen to brave the cold this morning; so different from yesterday! For several weeks now they have had to stay in their big barn. Tiny Freddie has been lame for almost three weeks despite the efforts of vet and farrier. So poor old Christos has had to keep him company with silly old Larry-the-Lamb who still refuses to join the other wethers, rushing back into the donkey shed whenever the opportunity arises!  I really am beginning to believe he doesn’t know he’s a sheep! And on top of everything we have notice from DEFRA telling us we must all keep our chickens inside due to another outbreak, somewhere in Britain, of avian ‘flu.

But yesterday the sun shone and we opened the great metal door of the donkey shed at last. Mayhem followed! Whoops of joy: the air full of the sound of eeyors, galloping up and down the field, play fights, kicks in the air, joy all round! And, of course, now Tiny Freddie is lame again.

And to add to their entertainment, we have two beautiful visitors for the winter. Two gentle giants, sixteen hands and fifteen two! Tiny Fred and Christos are the biggest donkeys I have ever had and I’ve had many. But these elegant mares look down on them from far above. They live next door in the stables and spend each day in the big field we call Sunday Orchard. A gate and fence keep them separate from the donkeys who look up, wide eyed at these huge new lodgers in their yard.

All this keeps us busy in these strange isolated times. But we are so fortunate to have our fields to walk through and a garden to tend. We live just a mile or so from a quiet village by a beautiful river where we can greet our friends in the distance as we visit the local shop and go to church in our masks.

Christmas was different for us all this year of course. Like so many we could not be with our family. But we were fortunate enough to have four dear friends for Christmas Day supper. I was gifted a goose, a bird I haven’t cooked for years. It was delicious but, oh the goose fat!

We started with a tiny Japanese style dish of smoked salmon and prawns, nori, wasabi, ginger and lightly pickled cucumber and fennel. The goose followed and then a splendid Tarte au Pomme and Crème Chantilly prepared with a certain amount of theatre by a guest! 

Although it looked a big bird, I realised geese have far less meat on them than a turkey or a chicken. So, I decided to hedge my bets and make two stuffings, just in case. But first I removed as much fat as possible from inside the bird and reduced it down slowly in a saucepan. Some I put into jars for future use and some I set aside for the potatoes. There is no doubt that potatoes roasted in goose fat are the best!

Next, I softened some peeled chestnuts and shallots in a little butter and a dash of red wine. I stirred them into sausage meat with plenty of chopped fresh herbs and pepper and salt. This mixture went into the big cavity in the bird. I made a second stuffing with the goose liver, prunes, breadcrumbs and more shallots. I gently eased the skin back from part of the breast and pressed this stuffing a little across the breast then into the neck of the bird drawing the skin underneath and securing it with cocktail sticks.

This done, I pricked the skin of the whole bird with the point of a sharp knife, sprinkled it with plenty of salt and black pepper, but no oil, and cooked it in a fairly hot oven 180/190c allowing roughly twenty-five minutes to the pound.  I was careful to ladle out the fat at regular intervals. Towards the end I checked it with a skewer into the thighs and when the juices ran clear took it out and rested it while I made gravy.

With the bird we had Brussel sprouts with butter and flaked almonds, leeks, carrots and parsnips in a white sauce, those lovely crispy roast potatoes, unsweetened apple sauce and, of course, gravy.

A wonderful evening, a wonderful gift and a feast indeed despite the strange circumstances

Next day the small amount of meat left from the goose found its way into a pie enriched with a little of the stuffing. The rest of the stuffing became delicious rissoles and the carcase made amazing stock promising good soups for some time to come.

Here’s to a better , happier, healthier 2021 the whole world over.

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Nov 12 2020

Autumn

And here we are again thrust into another national lock-down, empty days stretching out ahead once more.  This time not even long warm summer evenings to enjoy. The clocks have gone back and dusk descends earlier each day creeping like a great grey blanket, spreading prematurely across a rain-soaked sky. As the light fades, we struggle up through mud to the yard.

Donkeys and dear old Larry-the Lamb come in for tea. Chickens scuttle back to their perches, snuggling up for the long night ahead and sheep head for the shelter of the hedgerow. Autumn is gently drifting into winter.

How fortunate are we to have space around us, fields to walk in, jobs to do outside, animals to care for. They know nothing of these difficult times. Millie and I walk up to the top fields each day, rain or shine, to check the sheep grazing quietly on the hills.

We gaze across our neighbour’s land at the river below and Dartmoor in the distance. We amble down to feed chickens, re-straw nest boxes, search for eggs, muck out the stables, or to be more accurate, I muck out while Mil races round bouncing on hay bales hoping for rats!

Autumn colours always lift my spirits. The valley is turning to gold. Trees surround us shimmering yellow, orange, red, lighting up majestically in rare moments of low autumn sunlight. Leaves swirl around me as I walk. They crunch under foot reminding me of long-ago childhood walks in Kensington Gardens to see Peter Pan’s statue.

And the last little roses sprinkle colour where they can.

Apples abound carpeting the ground. No piggies now to feast on them nor local cider press. I hate to see them go to waste and ponder what to do with them. They do at least provide a winter feast for the birds. Maybe the beautiful Redwings will return and gorge on them as they did last year.

Tomato vines wither still laden with unripe fruits and cucumber plants collapse under the weight of a big green harvest. I even have three aubergines! So, of course, jellies, pickles and chutneys are in the pipe line!

I find it even more comforting than usual in these strange times to fill the larder with winter treats, such good therapy!

A bucket of windfall apples turned into clear sparkly jelly with the help of a kitchen stool, a piece of boiled muslin and a large bowl.

 I put the sliced apples into a preserving pan. Just covered them with water I simmered them until soft. I tipped the softened mass into the muslin and let the juice drain over night. This time I had cored the apples which left me with wonderful apple puree which, once sieved, went into the deepfreeze.

Next morning, I measured the juice and put it in a clean pan allowing a pound of warmed preserving sugar to a pint of juice. Slowly I brought it to the boil skimming off the white scum from the top with a slotted spoon. I let it boil hard for fifteen to twenty minutes before doing a setting test: a tiny spoonful on a saucer into the freezer for a few minutes. If the skin wrinkles it’s ready for potting up. I find I usually have to test it too or even three times!! Maybe I’m too impatient!

When I’m satisfied setting point is indeed reached, I carefully pour small jugful’s of the hot liquid into sterilised jam jars being very careful not to burn myself. I cover each jar with a wax disc and a jam cover and look forward to winter treats.

Chutney is another soothing way to use up the end of autumn harvest on long lock-down days! Apples go in, of course, with the green tomatoes, a courgette or two maybe, a handful of little shallots, perhaps a red pepper. Garlic cloves and lemon rind follow with a piece of finely chopped fresh ginger, maybe a dried chilli or two, some mustard seed and spoonful of turmeric. It all depends what I have in garden and store cupboard. This year I added a good spoonful of Ras el Hanout, a gift from a friend, delicious!  All these are stirred together with plenty of brown sugar and white wine vinegar. Three dozen apples will need about 1 1/2 kilos of sugar and a litre of vinegar.  It’s always worthwhile warming the sugar just as for jams and jellies.

I let it all cook gently for an hour or two, stirring occasionally to stop it sticking to the pan. Gradually all things soften and begin to join together to become a wonderfully aromatic savoury jam, best potted up and kept for a few weeks before eating!

Piccalilli is another of my favourites; I enjoy making it as much as eating it! The traditional ingredients are, of course, cauliflower, courgette, green tomatoes, green beans and shallot but other vegetables can be added. Once chopped, I put them all in a big bowl and cover with salt and leave them for twenty-four hours to drain. It is then so important to rinse everything really well to get rid of the salt. When I’m satisfied the vegetables are drained, I pack them into sterilised jam jars.

Next, I mix together mustard powder, finely sliced ginger, crushed garlic cloves, peppercorns, turmeric, cumin, coriander and mustard seeds, some honey. Then in goes a little flour and enough white wine vinegar to turn it all into a smooth paste. As it warms, I gradually stir in more vinegar and cook it gently for about five minutes until I have a silky sauce.  I pour this over the vegetables, seal the jars while it is still hot and store for at least four or five weeks before eating…..if I can wait that long!!

The quantities vary depending on the amount of vegetables I have and, of course, individual taste.

So, my store cupboard and deep freeze are ready for winter and whatever we are faced with in the coming months. As I say to all my friends, we must stay safe, stay calm and wait and see what the months ahead and springtime will bring. I wait as always for that first snowdrop on Boxing Day, a sure omen of better things ahead!!

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Sep 19 2020

Harvest Begins

Time passes oddly in this strange new world, days creep by, weeks seem to fly. The worldwide struggle continues with the pandemic. Gradually restrictions are lifted only suddenly to return: the news is full of contradictions. Now here in England we may only meet with six people at a time again. Last week it was thirty. Soon we’re told it may be none! We struggle on! Life is changing, norms are shifting, wherever we are in the world.

Even the weather in our little corner of Briton is unusual: winter brought us weeks and months of relentless rain followed by the driest of summers. Now we find ourselves at the beginning of a strangely changeable autumn. Farmers rush to cut crops, bring in hay and straw for winter forage. One day the heat is relentless the next we fear the temperature will drop at night to a damaging low, all so extreme in early autumn.

But tiny good things lift my spirit. Walking with a friend recently by our little top barn we both looked up suddenly and stopped frozen in our tracks. “Quick look, who’s that peeping out of the nest box?” Creeping closer we saw a beak and feathers. A couple of minutes later two children left and landed, plonk, on the ledge below: baby kestrels! They stayed just long enough for our photo call before being summonsed for their flying lesson!

And then, only last week, the sound of autumnal buzzards seemed to come closer and closer to the house. Usually they whirl across the sky on the far side of the valley but this year is different. One now habitually takes up a stance on the top of the telegraph pole just beyond the back door. Thrilled the first time I saw it, I rushed out with my camera and managed a distant, rather out of focus shot, but oh, such a special treat!

We’re reducing our flock now. Time for dear old Hercule, our pedigree Whiteface ram, to move on to pastures new. He’s served his time well with us and produced some great offspring. But now he is too closely related to our ewes and must join a new flock.

Last week Paul had a wonderful, if slightly strange day selling sheep at the annual Whiteface sale. All masked up, farmers led their sheep into the pens at Exeter Livestock market. Judging commenced and, too our delight, we gained two first prizes. One for a pen of Whiteface yearlings and the second for a small group of cross breed Whiteface/ Suffolk girls. The latter made us smile!

It must have been eighteen months or more ago now, when walking dogs on the top fields, I came face to face with our neighbour’s handsome Suffolk ram in with our Whiteface ewes. Hm, I said to myself, I wonder what you doing here! A silly question; lambing time revealed all. And these were the yearlings that gave us first prize!

All sales successful, Paul returned with an empty trailer, two first prizes and a nice cheque! Flock reduced! Now we just have our ewes and last year lambs who are looking good and growing fast.

And now harvest begins. As the farmers all around are racing to bring in their crops so I am too, here in the garden.  I gather vegetables and fruit daily either for our supper or winter treats in the deep freeze. The raspberry crop was wonderful and we even had a bowl of cherries for the first time from our old tree; I fear it may be its swan song !

Beans have been wonderful too this year, both French and Runner. That is till our great pine tree suddenly toppled over one breakfast time. We jumped to our feet wondering at the loud cracking, crunching noise. Rushing outside we looked first at the roof, then the road in case of accident. We found nothing until we went to the yard to feed the animals and found the huge tree crushing the beech hedge and lying across the vegetable garden. It was a still day, no strong wind. How strange we thought but can only think it was the result of the very wet winter followed by such a dry hot summer. The roots did seem very shallow for such a giant. How sad it was to see the magnificent pine destroyed on the ground.

The tomatoes have been spectacular this year. As the season draws to a close. I wonder just how many more we can eat and how many more will fit in the freezer!! I have dried them in a cool oven, made ratatouille, tomato sauce for winter pastas, frozen bags full just as is, straight from the vine. And still there are plenty. How I love my own summer tomatoes but have to admit I’m not so enamoured with winter supermarket specimens! Hydroponics, aquaponics all so scientifically proven just don’t seem to deliver the flavour of a home-grown chap!!

I often make a sort of Salad Niçoise with tomatoes, anchovy, olives and our own cucumber, lettuce and little new potatoes and whatever else I have in the fridge. Today it is the turn of a beautiful piece of fresh tuna. A spatchcocked chicken is delicious with roasted tomatoes, as is a quick pasta with fresh tomatoes, chili, garlic, plenty of olive oil and parmesan. And so, I could go on and on!

I planted three cucumbers amongst the tomatoes and they too have been prolific. Deliciously sweet and tasting of so much more than just water, they have found their way into pickles and endless salads, accompanied cheese at lunchtime and, when too large and yellow, have been enjoyed by chickens.

Six new girls came to join us last week: a Blue Maran, a Splash Maran, a Rhode Island Rock, a Speckled Gold and two Light Sussex!  Gradually this rather startled group of youngsters are settling down with our five senior orange ladies. When the pecking order is re-established we look forward to a variety of coloured eggs!

The garden is just beginning to show signs of autumn. Trees have a tired look and show just a hint of the golden time to come.

Roses bloom on stoically, but generally there is a windswept look creeping into the valley and I ponder when the first frost will arrive.  

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Jul 07 2020

A Donkey Story

He arrived in the yard at exactly 2.30 in a smart grey van, Tor Equine writ large on its side. It was our first meeting. He listened intently as I told him her story. “Let’s go and meet her” he said. She was waiting quietly in their little yard, the two boys behind their gate looking on. There she was, a shadow of her former self. “Lice” I said “but something else? She is quite an old lady even for a donkey, nearly thirty maybe?”

He looked at her for a while then, gently “Now sweetheart, let’s listen to your heart and take some blood samples” Nutmeg stood quietly as he gave her a mild calming sedative. He said her heart sounded good. He put a brace on her nose and opened her mouth. He was silent for a while, then “look at this” he said and turning to me, quietly, “I can’t do anything for her”. He held the torch and I looked deep inside her mouth.

Silence. We looked at each other.  “I’ll fetch Paul” I said. Slowly we all walked down to the sheep shed. Minutes later she was gone. I opened the gates and called the boys. Down they came, looking around, into the big shed, sniff, spot her, walk all around her, sniff again. Then they turned on their heels, ran back to their little own yard and shouted at the top of their donkey voices. “That’s good” said the vet and we all knew exactly what he meant.

It was 1969 when Elisabeth Svendsen bought a donkey in Sidmouth, called Naughty Face. Gradually she gathered more. These donkeys were to change the face of donkey care across the world.  But it wasn’t until 1973 when Miss Philpin bequeathed Dr Svensen two hundred and four donkeys in her Will, that the Donkey Sanctuary became a charity.

Some of those donkeys I knew well. They had lived in Granny’s field near Reading looked after by a lady named Miss Green. There were six in all. Bill, charming to your face but quite prepared to bite any bottom as soon as a back was turned and Bluebell, a gentle grey. There were three others whose names I don’t remember. And, of course, there was Treacle, a small hump backed fellow with a huge personality.

At that time, we lived in Granny’s converted stable with our small children. One night when Paul was away sailing in the North Sea, I was woken by the doorbell.

Nervously I went to the glass front door. I could see the police uniform. Had he been shipwrecked, was I a widow: terrified thoughts raced through my head. Trembling I opened the door.

“Can you identify this donkey, madam”. Laughing with relief, I ventured out into the dark with the policeman who shone a torch on Treacle. He was accompanied by a pony.

“Oh” I said “Yes, that’s Treacle. He used to live here but recently went up the road to keep a pony company” Treacle had simply brought the pony back to join his pals!

Later I read that, despite his diminutive size, he had become known as “The Boss” at the Sanctuary, famous for keeping the “Big Boys Group” in order!

And so it was that when we came to farm in Devon, it was perhaps not surprising that donkeys were on my mind. I found an ad in Smallholder magazine. Off we went to collect Dandy and Sweep from a sad home near Torquay.

They were both thin and out of condition. As we drove home, we began to wonder what we had taken on. Dandy, we were told, was about twenty-two and had been with the same family since he was two. Sweep, much older, came free with Dan, a sort of early “buy one, get one free”. She was thought to have been an unlicensed beach donkey from north Devon at some time, but no one knew for sure.  Both donkeys looked so thin, lice ridden and dejected.

We hurriedly converted an old bullock shed into a stable, bought fresh hay and shampooed frequently to kill all bugs and clear the mange. Spring came, the grass grew, tatty winter coats vanished and suddenly they were transformed into sleek round little donkeys.

Sweep had a strange groove in her neck and never managed to lift her head properly. My vet thought that at some time she had been tightly tethered. But as she grew fitter and more cheerful it caused her no problem. We just remembered to put the hay on the ground or in an old bath tub for her. She was incredibly greedy and would shove us all in the back of the knees if she felt we were a little slow at teatime.

I smile when I remember my vet’s advice when he first met them, “He’s OK” he said looking at Dan “but she’s had a hard life. If I were you, I’d look for another companion for him; just in case” And so it was that I found a two-year-old Nutmeg some twenty-five years ago, at Woodlands Leisure Park. And dear old Sweep lived another ten years!

Suddenly I had three donkeys!

Dandy, the most sociable of all the donkeys, went for his Equity card at Christmas! He starred patiently in Nativity Plays, standing for an hour or so while minute angels sat on his back and diminutive shepherds stroked his head and stuck fingers up his nose. He processed to church on Easter Sunday with a gloomy looking Sweep in tow. He adored children and was happiest when he was giving rides on the “Ham”, our village green, on Village Day. He nuzzled the children and stood quite still as they sat on his back and stroked his long soft ears.

When old Sweep did finally leave us she ate her tea as usual and simply lay down quietly in the stable with Dan. Next morning we made sure all the donkeys had a chance to see her. They came one by one into stable sniffed her, stood for a while and then went off to eat some hay. They needed to know that Sweep had gone. Donkeys often go into shock when they lose a companion and fall victim to the fatal hyperlipemia.  In the wild they live in small social groups and look out for one another. I won’t forget the day Sweep trapped her leg in a rat hole and the others shouted and shouted till I arrived to dig her free.

Nutmeg, a beautiful little donkey, brown and sleek, was a complete contrast to these two gentle friends. She was adorable but a wild child. We used to laugh and say she’s put on her white high heels and her shiny handbag and she’s off down the town on a Friday night!!

A few months after she arrived, I went up to the yard, as usual, to feed them all, when I noticed Nutmeg was “bagging up”. I was right, a couple of days later she presented us with a beautiful little foal. It was Good Friday! So, of course he was named Friday. She was only about two or three years old, too young to foal. I was soon to learn that she had been running with a stallion who was her sire, not an auspicious beginning for the little chap.

Friday quickly grew into a replica of his mother; a very handsome little donkey. But then the problems began.  He developed an infection when he was castrated and took a long time to recover. Then he developed a sarcoid on his sheath. The vet returned. Nutmeg had one too on her tummy. My vet put us in touch with the Donkey Sanctuary vets and over time there followed three long stays in their veterinary hospital where they were treated by the best in the country.

After Nutmeg and Friday’s first stay, I wanted to thank the vets for their wonderful care. What could I do to repay them? “Foster two donkeys” they said. So, then we had six!

Bunty and Luke arrived. Two very different donkeys: Luke, a large gentle, obese grey, came from Skegness. His previous owners used to send him a Christmas card every year which he ate if given a chance! He in turn sent one back with news of his life in Devon and companion donkeys.

Bunty was a Strawberry Roan with Eire on her notes. Even after many years, both at the Sanctuary and later with us, she hated her ears to be touched; I guess they were cruelly twisted sometime in the past. She too had a rather strange figure, covered in lumps and bumps of hardened fat, making her less than streamlined. But she was a quiet gentle sweet natured, funny little mare.

After two more long stays at the Donkey Sanctuary hospital the vets finally decided they could do no more for Friday. Nutmeg returned to us without him.

And so the five companions continued to live quietly and happily on our little farm. They shared fields with sheep and watched piglets play over the fence.

Time passed and gradually so did they, all dying peacefully of old age until just Nutmeg remained. I rang the Sanctuary. “Do you have a companion for her?” Two big teenage boys arrived, Christof and Tiny Freddy and Nutmeg took on the role of senior mare, so very different from her youth!

For the past two years they have lived happily together. And I am quite sure that the boys are still looking for their matriarch.

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May 11 2020

Living Lock Down !

It’s over seven weeks now since the coronavirus lockdown order was announced: right across the world we must all obey the rules and stay at home. A recent e mail from, son, Tom, in rural Japan could have come from up the road! The restrictions on life sound absolutely familiar and yet they are living on the other side of the world. As each day passes a new vocabulary is emerging in every language: social distancing, self-isolation, stay safe, stay home, stay alert, R-numbers, wiggle-room and, of course, lockdown, to name but a few. How strange it all is.

Gradually and uncomfortably we must adjust to this isolating way of life; no friends for tea or supper, no family visits, no summer picnics or walks with friends, no hugs, no kisses. Sometimes there’s a chance of a wave to a neighbour or passer-by, a shouted greeting, but little else. We must all turn to our own resources. We must Zoom, phone, face-time, e-mail, twitter, what’s app…….

Oh, how lucky we are to have our garden.  Although it will be the first time in ten years that we will not be opening in June in aid of the National Garden Scheme Nursing Charities, it doesn’t stop me from gardening my socks off!! I just love to see spring turn into summer and the valley leap into life once more. And, of course, this is the most spectacular year! Wild garlic and bluebells vie with red campion. Camellias begin to fade replaced by blousy rhododendrons. The Embothrium, huge now, explodes into scarlet. The bright red leaves of photinia vie with azaleas. And forget-me-nots, azure as the summer sky, run riot; a cacophony of chaotic colour!  

Tomatoes stand to attention in the greenhouse. Courgettes are in place in the vegetable garden. Beans go in tomorrow when sunshine is a promise. Only my salad seeds are suffering after one of the orange egg ladies jumped the fence and had a scratch around in pastures new!!

Lambing time is finished now too. No more late nights and early mornings for us! But even so yesterday was a big day for Paul. All sheep came in for dagging, drenching and ovine manicures to keep everyone fit and healthy in the months to come. Rain has helped the spring grass grow and ewes graze peacefully on the hillside while lambs play together like kindergarten kids, donkeys looking on over the fence.

Like so many of us, penned up at this time, my thoughts have turned to cooking. I have always found it strangely therapeutic, odd, I know! In bygone days when I finished a hectic day at work on the farm having prepared all those dozens of salad bags and table birds for delivery, I would stare into the fridge and gently unwind as I planned an evening meal.

 Now I find myself gazing into the deep freeze and pondering how to create something without going shopping! I’m amazed at what has emerged!! Fig conserve made from last year’s frozen fruit. Big pots of chutney sit in the larder created from those strange green frozen tomatoes, a few shallots, fresh ginger and spices.

On a wet day I found a tub of chicken livers and made chicken liver pate.

I have spatch-cocked a chicken, rediscovered how delicious Salad Nicoise can be. I have cooked pork belly with lentils, ginger and sweet potato. We’ve had big flans filled with left over this and that, sea bream baked in parchment, simple pasta dishes, chicken risotto, even a sort of paella!

And then I came upon a packet of pork mince from my erstwhile pigs. Digging deeper revealed a few chicken thighs and a turkey liver! Terrine, I thought! All I needed was some streaky bacon and there it was.

I chopped a couple of shallots and crushed three cloves of garlic and mixed them into the pork. Salt and pepper followed with a glug of red wine.  I let it stand for a while to give time for the flavours to infuse. Meanwhile I lined a little loaf tin with bacon. In went half the pork mince and a layer of the chicken, skin removed. The turkey liver followed , some chopped parsley from the garden, then more chicken and finally the remaining mince.

Carefully I folded the bacon across the top and decorated it with a few slices of lemon and a couple of bay leaves. I covered it with tin foil and put it into a ban marie of hot water and into the oven at 180c. I checked it after an hour or so with a skewer to see if the juices were still pink. I continued cooking till they ran clear. Then out of the oven and on went a heavy weight. I have a brick, well washed, for this purpose but anything will do as long as it gently presses down the meat.

Once cold it went into the fridge; a treat in store! So good with a baked potato and salad.

But tonight it will be wonderful sausages made by our local Dartmouth butcher with a vegetable bake, that is to say, whatever I find in the fridge with a cheese sauce!

And we’ll all soldier on in this strange twilight world.

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Apr 10 2020

Lock Down Lambing!

Lock Down Lambing !

Triplets!

Here we are lambing for the last time but in the strangest of circumstances!

No cars hoot on the corner by our gate, no planes or helicopters buzz overhead. No distant whistle of the steam train across the river. No one walks by calling greetings over the hedge, no one drops in with kids to see the lambs, to have a cup of tea or a glass of wine. No friends for supper, no Sunday greetings in church: only isolation and “lock down”.

No one knows how long it will last, when it will end. And it is the same right across the world. Suzu-Chan in Tokyo, an architect student, house bound now with her mother and brother, tells me she is learning to knit!

And yet things on the farm continue unchanged. Lambing simply goes ahead as usual.

Handsome Hercule

The magnificent Hercule has done a wonderful job yet again this year. He will leave us later in the summer when eventually the sheep sales reopen. A gentle fellow, he has had his time with us.  He is by now too closely related to our flock to be able to run with the ladies again next year. So the time has come for him to move on to pastures new to beget yet more beautiful pedigree Whiteface Dartmoor lambs on fields afar.

As ewes graze quietly on the top fields, their lambs playing together in the sun, it’s so difficult to believe we are living in such strange and frightening times. I look across the hills to Dartmoor in the misty distance and the river Dart below; not a person in sight. Just the baaing of sheep across the valley and maybe the sound of a solitary distant tractor way above me on a neighbour’s farm. It is so hard to believe what is happening across the world. But then, once home, I look again at the news and the grim reality hits hard.

Lambing is tiring, full on, relentless; early mornings, late nights. But this year we are so grateful we have our sheep to care for. We have space around us, hard work, long days, short nights. The animals know nothing of this madness. They centre us and keep us, oh, so grounded and busy.

Donkeys sun themselves outside their barn.

Chickens peck through the orchard. The yearlings graze quietly on the top fields and Hercule and the boys relax on their hillside. And down in the yard still more lambs are born. The sun continues to shine and grass is growing at last.

Yearlings in the sun

But everything has changed. Now we must print out a form from the NFU if we are to travel to the local farm shop to buy animal feed. We must consider carefully if we really need to leave the house. Should we risk the town or order from the village shop? Do we need to go shopping or can we make do with what we have in garden, fridge and freezer? Can we sign up to get medication delivered or is the service overwhelmed already?

So glad am I that I love gardening !

So many questions, so many challenges to all those things we have taken for granted over the years. We will surly find ourselves in a very different world out there when the lock-down is finally lifted.

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Mar 31 2020

A Walk around the Garden

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Mar 05 2020

Towards Spring

The sky is a dark luminescent blue, a bright sun shines through the valley. Despite the sharp March wind, flowers are exploding everywhere. This is the first day without rain for months and months.

All around are celebrating the warm glow from above. Birds shout, sheep laze in the fields, donkeys clamor to get out into their paddock. Only my chickens must stay in as I still ponder the strange disappearance of dear old Claude, the cockerel.

We spotted him at the top of the donkey paddock as we drove down from the top fields in yet another wild rain storm, having fed the ewes. “Get him in, in a minute” said Paul “but first let’s tackle the flood in the donkey shed” It was three o’clock in the afternoon. An hour later he had completely disappeared, no shrieks, no feathers, nothing. In came the three feathered ladies without him. I searched for days but no sign of him. He was such a big boy it must have been a mighty fox to vanish him so fast without a shred of evidence! So the girls stay in for now, bored but safe.

Slowly the ground is draining and grass is just beginning to grow.  I look at the weather forecast and the week ahead is a little better. So I hope this is not just a tiny welcome respite with another storm secretly waiting in the wings to buffet us again tomorrow.

The muddy girls are down from the top fields now and coming into the yard for tea with last year’s ewe lambs. As lambing approaches we will separate them again and send the little girls to fresh pasture, leaving their mothers to start the cycle all over again.

Except that this year will be our last year of lambing. Hercule has done his time and must move on to a new flock and fresh blood. Instead of replacing him, we have decided to call lambing a day. We will reduce the flock gradually over the next two years to just a few sturdy lawnmowers and plant more trees. It’s both a little sad and, at the same time, exciting after thirty years of breeding Whiteface Dartmoors. But time moves on and we must be realistic.

And realistic is what we are all struggling to be at the moment with the threat of a coronavirous world epidemic swamping news and social media. Strange times indeed; what of stories of the severe flooding across our country, the storm damage, of international news, war zones, draught in Africa, Australia’s recent fires? All I read on tablet or in newspaper is speculation and fear of the spread of this virus both here and across the world. Oh and the rain has returned, sweeping sideways in a huge grey curtain across the valley. I spoke too soon!

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