Jan 06 2013

Farming Floods and Festivities


It’s stopped raining! Hurrah, but for how long I wonder.
I cannot believe that it is over two months since I last had time to sit down to write. So much water has gone under and over the bridge, literally and metaphorically since September. The sodden ground can take no more. The rain started in the spring, continued throughout the summer, drenched us in the autumn and continues unabated. Floods spread across Britain; we’re sinking into the sea or so it feels. Devon has been particularly hard hit; towns and villages under water, farmland devastated, railway lines washed away. Now and then the sun tried to break through to remind us of times past, but not for long, just as we gazed in wonder at the golden autumn light casting long shadows on the grass storm clouds gathered again, trees danced manically in the returning wind and the heavens opened once more.
Again and again I Google Dartmouth weather forecast praying aloud “please, no more flood alerts, no more amber warnings, grey clouds, rain symbols”. Dry till Monday it says today; a brief lull and time, maybe, for some water to drain down the hill into the raging torrent that was once a gentle stream.

But we’ve been lucky this time. The flood protection put in thirteen years ago after the terrible night of December 24th 1999 has mostly held up at least for us. The house is dry so is the cottage and all the animals are safe. Just one big shed, thankfully empty of livestock at the moment, is still under water. Only our drive is washed away, pipe work not large enough to carry the cascading torrent underground out of our gate and beneath the road into the river beyond.
As the rain fell relentlessly once more I went out one evening to check the place where the stream is supposed to disappear underground. It was very dark, suddenly I found myself struggling to stay standing in the raging water. The gates were jammed open the wrong way, the great refuse wheelie bins trapped against them forming a perfect dam. I pushed through the water managing to release them and watched helpless as they disappeared at speed down the road towards the river.
Water rushed round the Landrover rising higher and higher over the wheels and up the bonnet. I forced my way through the water, scrambled in and drove up the drive out just in time. As I looked behind me the drive collapsed and a huge crater appeared filling in seconds where the car had stood two minutes earlier. Shaking a bit I went into the house taking off soaking clothes before making light of it to Paul who was still unable to walk after his second knee replacement at the beginning of November.


Knee surgery has stopped him doing anything for the last two months so I’ve been promoted to (Acting!!!) Head Farmer and General Factotum; a demanding role! My days have been divided up into small chunks reminiscent of a time when the children were tiny and everything had to be shoe horned in between everything else and done at speed, a time and motion master class.


Seven o’clock the alarm clock shouts. It’s still dark outside. I make a cup of coffee for Paul, scramble into boots and waterproofs, serve breakfast to surprised cats and dogs and venture up to the yard in the grey light of yet another wet murky dawn. By the end of September all dreams of piggy’s living happy autumn days foraging in the field had disappeared. Rain and mud forced us to move them back into the big barn. So first job is always to assuage their voracious appetites, refill water trough and re straw their sleeping quarters. It never fails to surprise me what clean and tidy animals they are if given enough space. I scatter chopped carrots and apples amongst the clean straw so they can at least pretend to be foraging outside.


One morning a few weeks ago as I filled their food troughs I glanced towards the water trough and gaped in disbelief; it had gone, vanished, disappeared. I looked down at my boots squelching in the straw, covered in water, then at the trickle coming from the disconnected pipe. The water had frozen the day before and even though I had filled the trough with buckets to the brim my fat pink boys had furiously removed the trough and footballed it away across the barn in protest. Oh, mud inside as well as out now! Fortunately Stephen arrived and quickly replaced the water trough with a solid concrete one unsuitable for rugby tackles or scoring goals! I live and learn.

Next donkeys have breakfast. Bunty must have hers separately being almost the oldest donk in Devon and therefore the slowest eater in the world. Given half a chance the other two, big fat Luke and Prima Donna Nutmeg will elbow her out of the way and scoff hers as well as their own. The water logged barn adds to the complicated logistics of keeping them separate but fortunately their stable stands on higher ground and has remained completely dry throughout the deluge. As donkeys eat, dogs and I take a bucket of oats out to the wethers and rams in Sunday Orchard. Then I clean the stable as donkeys, food finished, climb the hill to drier ground. For once such steep land has its merits. When all that is done dogs and I set off up to the top fields to feed the ewes. They’re alone now without big Dez and young Ernie and will lamb at the end of March, the next big event in the farming calendar.

Down the hill again we go to the yard then up the lane to a neighbour’s field to check out yearling ewe lambs before finally going home to make breakfast.
Each day Paul becomes a little more mobile. Gradually the magic of modern medicine is working, the pain diminishing and mobility returning, each day a little better than the last. “You’ve grown, you’re taller. Hey, you look ten years younger” our friends shouted when he finally emerged from the house without crutches or a stick. Meanwhile my days pass in a whirl of farming, shopping, washing , cleaning, lunch, back to the yard for the evening feeds before dark at 4.30, then cooking again and finally sleep…. full-on days and always raining of course! No time to sit and ponder or to write.


And so the weeks have passed punctuated by visits to the hospital in Torquay and play rehearsals in the evenings for our village Christmas production of Alan Shaffer’s hilarious Black Comedy, a hugely demanding and exhausting success.


Then suddenly Christmas: I baked the cake, made the pudding, stuffed the turkey, cooked one of our hams. I made a Brawn terrine from my pork ( see under Recipes: Poultry & Game) and a giant not so traditional Shepherd’s Pie with our lamb, tomatoes, red peppers, parsley and sliced potatoes. I made up beds, went shopping, wrapped presents, decorated the tree, hung up the Christmas cards, laid the Christmas table. And then all at once they were here; first son and family from Japan then daughter and family from Bath; the first Christmas we have had together for twelve years.
On Christmas Eve we ate a huge pot of Bourride for supper ( see under Recipes: Cooking Fish) based on Claudia Roden’s wonderful recipe in her “Mediterranean Cookery” published in 1987, an old favourite of mine, before a Midnight Service in St Georges Church, Dittisham of Readings and Carols led by Paul.

On Christmas morning I was up to the yard as usual to feed the animals before cooking the turkey. We had a huge traditional Christmas lunch: turkey, ham, chestnut stuffing, Brussel sprouts, more chestnuts, bread sauce, cranberry jelly, roast potatoes and gravy all followed by ice cream, clotted cream, Christmas Pud and brandy butter made, as in the old days, by our son Tom, home briefly form Tokyo, who still remembered how delicious he always used to know it was! We pulled crackers, opened presents, hugged each other, laughed, played games and climbed the hills to feed sheep and donkeys and take photos of fat pigs munching their supper.

On Boxing Day I had lots of help in the farmyard! Next day we set off for the village along the river bank sliding on the seaweed, watching the birds, paddling in the water, then lunch in the Ferry Boat Inn

We visited Totnes market, had supper in Harberton’s Church House Inn. Friends dropped by to say hello. Suddenly the six days had disappeared, it was all over and time to say goodbye.
Happy, sad and exhausted, Paul and I quietly dismantled the traditions of Christmas as the week gradually floated away behind us changing by stealth into a precious dream to be held in a memory bubble forever.


And now it’s time to go and feed the animals.

It’s raining sideways again!
Happy New Year, I’ve just found the first snowdrops!

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