Aug 13 2022

Summer Heat!

And still the heatwave grips us, a drought, a hosepipe ban, no rain for weeks! The stream still trickles through the garden, but oh so low: the river creeps by, mud glistens. Temperatures rise daily, sun or cloud but no rain.

The garden fries, but worse still, no grass for livestock. Lambs and ewes, separated now, all hide in the hedgerows, occasionally creeping out to graze the yellow offering in the top fields, already hay!

Is this 1976 all over again, how long can it go on?

The farmyard is silent now, but for lamb shearing today, cooler at last.

Donkeys gone. Oh, how I miss them but I know they are in safe hands. They are back at the Sidmouth Donkey Sanctuary where Tiny Freddie is getting the very best possible long-term veterinary care he needs. It is the sad legacy of neglected rescued donkeys. Thank goodness for the Donkey Sanctuary.

My mind goes back to childhood when my grandmother let her two small fields to a Miss Green who cared for six donkeys belonging to Violet Philpin’s donkey sanctuary near Reading in Berkshire. My love of donkey’s began then!

Some years later Paul and I lived with our small children in Granny’s cottage for a while. One summer night when Paul was away sailing in the Irish sea, the doorbell rang very late. Alarmed I ran down in my nightie to see who it could be. A young policemen stood on the step. My heart raced; an accident at sea, a shipwreck, widowhood?

“Excuse me, madam” he laughed “Could you identify this donkey” I almost cried with relief! And, of course, it was scruffy little Treacle who had recently been moved up the road to keep a lonely pony company. Treacle had other plans. He simply brought the little chap back to join his pals here with us! Quietly policeman and I led them back to the meadow to join the other donkeys!

A couple of years later in 1974 Elisabeth Svenson received a letter from the executors of Miss Philpin’s estate informing her that she had been left all 204 donkeys cared for all over Berkshire by Mis Philpin’s charity! Granny’s donkeys, including dear Treacle, were to become some of the earliest residents of the now famous Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth Devon! Hence my lifelong attachment to donkeys! How I miss my boys!

In June, while gentle rain still fed the valley, our open garden went with a swing this year! Warm sunny afternoons, not yet too hot, and a cream tea brought visitors from far and wide. Over four wonderful days we were able to make a big donation to the National Garden Scheme Nursing Charities. Worth the effort!!

 And in mid-July four wonderful gardens opened just nearby in the valley for the N.G.S. Despite the ferocious heat, people flocked to the little hamlet of East Cornworthy to see four big, beautiful and very different gardens. Hats off to the gardeners who managed to keep their gardens looking so amazing despite the weather!

But still we pray for rain! The vegetable garden fries in the drought as do the fields. I know I must not water my struggling little crop. Never has rain been so sparse! But surely, I ask myself, it’s better, isn’t it, to water a little and pick my tiny harvest than buy veg from the supermarket with a huge tag of air miles……But I’m so conscious of the oncoming serious water shortage!

Meanwhile I return to the kitchen. Summer is the time for wonderful salads.

My version of Salad Niçoise is my favourite; our own little lettuce, rocket, tiny French beans, wisps of fennel, mint, sorrel. Our smallest new potatoes and, of course, my own little tomatoes! Top with gently boiled eggs from my chucks and topped with anchovy fillets, black olives , capers maybe, and a really good homemade classic salad dressing: olive oil, garlic, a touch of French mustard ,mixed herbs, salt pepper and a dash of white wine vinegar.

All sorts of things may be added. Tuna is the classic. A tin maybe, but, oh so much better, a slice of fresh tuna quickly seared in butter and a little olive oil. Sometimes I add chicken breasts or quickly seared sardines.

French beans, red peppers artichoke hearts, chives, tarragon all go well too: the variations are endless but always delicious!

There are so  many versions of this “classic” salad !

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May 10 2022

Changing Times !

Trees are greening, branches clothed at last. A reluctant Spring, mornings still harsh and fears of frost remain. Slowly camellias fade and daffodil and primroses give way to bluebells, stitchwort, carpets of wild garlic and the wonderful, vibrant pink of campion. The valley is changing colour from day to day.

But tiny tomato plants stand still in the greenhouse shivering in the evening chill. Runner bean seeds are reluctant to germinate and baby broad beans sit still in the vegetable garden! In our deep Devon valley we long for the warmth of May! 

Up on the hill Matt’s sheep are lambing. So strange to have no part in it any more. Each day as we walk up to the top fields with Millie dog we meet Matt and Lucy helped by their three children, checking the flock, clipping feet, dagging, moving  them on to pastures new.

All sorts of little babies bounce around the fields, progeny of different sires! Some are our pedigree Whiteface Dartmoors, some Greyface Dartmoors with funny smudgy black noses and many big sturdy cross- bred Llyen lambs; a mixture indeed from three beautiful pedigree rams!

It’s wonderful for us to see our flock so well managed and diversified after our forty years of sheep breeding.

With great sadness we will also be saying goodbye to the donkeys in two weeks’ time. After a lifetime of donkeys. Tiny Freddie needs constant veterinary monitoring for ongoing abscess damage to his foot caused by the terrible wet winter. After many vet and farrier visits, we all decided this would be best done by the Donkey Sanctuary to whom these boys belong. We will miss them terribly.

But, of course as usual, I have the NGS garden open days in June to fret about! Will the huge Embothrium still be in flower, will Seagull do her usual cascade of white blossom over the pond, will the waterlilies wait, will the sun shine…… ! Meanwhile we dig and hoe, repair and reorder, waiting for the temperature to rise.

So, life changes, time moves on.

Raining Sideways

A Devonshire Diary of Food and Farming

Sally Vincent

RedDoor Press

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Feb 05 2022

It’s Winter Again !

We wake to a dull, cold, slate grey morning, a silent world. Bare trees silhouetted against the dark sky, a valley white and frozen, gripped by heavy frost. All is still, cold, dark, ominous; just as we expect, it’s January, it’s winter!

But suddenly, abruptly, everything changes and the air becomes strangely warm, almost springlike. Confused birds sing, camellias risk some early flowers, snowdrops run down the hill. Even the winter cherry shows a little early pink blossom, primroses appear, a tiny spike of purple crocus.

Then suddenly we find ourselves plunged into extreme chill again; all is frozen once more. A huge icy wind rages through the valley. Heavy frost is followed by warm, torrential rain, then sudden sunshine and soothing warmth. The contrast is so extreme, so strange, so unseasonal, confusing. Is this really climate change? I wonder.

It makes me restless. On these mild, balmy days I long to get into the garden, to prune, weed, prepare for spring. But, despite this seductive warmth, it’s much too soon to begin the endless jobs to be done. It’s too soon to sow seeds in the greenhouse, too soon to prune. A late frost will burn down the newly sprouting shoots. If I sow now, I will have leggy little seedlings ready to be planted out long before the threat of frost is gone. I must wait for the days to lengthen and hope for a more consistent season to unfold.

Donkeys have been confined to their big barn for some time now. Not-so-Tiny Freddie is lame again. Phone calls to the equine vet and several farrier visits have helped him heal, poor boy. The consensus of opinion is wet ground, Donkey feet are designed for the dry desert, not Devon mud. As he improves and the ground dries out a little, we let them both onto a small patch of grass to ease boredom! They’re ecstatic! Donkeys like to race around and play! Fingers crossed, he’s on the mend.

Matt’s Sheep

And something else is new: it suddenly feels so different now to walk over the top fields with Millie to check the sheep. I’ve been doing it each day for so many years, with so many dear dogs.  Everything looks just the same. Sheep graze quietly; Dartmoor in the distance and the river below. But all has changed. Matt and Lucy own our sheep now and rent our fields. A truly wonderful arrangement has unfolded just as Paul and I began to realise it was time for us to step back from the day-to-day farm work. Paul still helps Matt to top and harrow fields, move sheep, build lambing pens, but he no longer has responsibility for it all. And, best of all, we know all is being beautifully looked after.

So, slowly I’m learning to walk across the hills without counting sheep because, of course, I no longer know who is meant to be where! But still I must check the hedgerows, I can’t help myself. I have to be sure no one’s caught in a bramble or has fallen on their back as happened recently!

Standing in the fading afternoon sun a week ago, I was watching two big crows chase a buzzard over the hill.  I was caught in wonder at the buzzard’s dance, it’s extraordinary agility and ability to duck and weave to escape its foes. Suddenly it seemed to see it’s chance and, wheeling higher and still higher, it turned and flew free and far away across the river.

As I turned to continue across the field, I saw in the distance, legs waving in the air. I ran to find a poor expectant ewe on her back. As I seized her legs, rolled her over and helped her back on her feet, I saw at once the awful damage and her blood-stained face. The crows had pecked her eye as she struggled to get up. She paused for a moment, then wobbled away from me stumbling towards some other mothers-to-be. But could she see them? I quickly dialled Paul’s number on my mobile, but alas, we have no signal in the farmyard. So Millie and I raced down the hill and across the fields as fast as our legs would carry us; dog, of course, much faster than me but unable to convey the message. Paul jumped into the tractor. I raced back to the house to the land line, Matt arrived and he and Paul moved the poor girl into a barn with a couple of her companion ewes for company. They gave her painkillers and antibiotics, waiting with her till she settled.

She seems quiet now and not in pain but none of us are sure how much sight she still has.  She will stay quietly inside with her companions until she lambs in a few weeks’ time. All farmers are aware of the danger of foxes but few people know how quick and destructive crows can be.

Now, of course, Matt has introduced delightful new comers to the flock. Greyface girls, with their black noses and teddy-bear legs and long curls, graze quietly with the Whiteface Dartmoors ewes. But the boys are not all they appear! The other day as I was walking quietly down the hill guiding a wayward chuck home, the junior, sweet looking Greyface boy took exception to my presence and gave me a very hard and very surprising shove from behind to help me down the hill, back to the yard and off his patch! I have been around rams for many years and treat them with great respect, but this was a first!

Talking of sheep, it was time for supper! What better than a shepherd’s pie made with our own lamb. I softened a leek, a chopped shallot, a clove or two of garlic and a piece of red pepper found lurking in the fridge, in a little butter and oil. I added the chopped remains of the meat, mixed it with some tinned green lentils , the remains of the gravy from the previous night’s roast and a big spoonful of home-made chutney. I added salt and pepper and topped it all with lots of mashed potato! So simple and comforting on a dark cold winters evening!

To be Published in April by RedDoor Press

“Raining Sideways”

A Devonshire Diary of Food and Farming

Sally Vincent

Forward by Joceline Dimbleby

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