Monday, 31 May 2010

Free Range?

When we were kids, in the far-distant past, we lived out in the fens of Lincolnshire. Our village was small and everybody knew everybody. When we were not in school we were out and about.
We used to build dens in the hedge and cadge bits of 'furniture' like old orange boxes to make our dens habitable. We used to climb trees - there was one
particular tree which had a flat top and we would sit up there surveying the scene for hours. At a certain time of the year we would go to the old railway embankment and pick violets - hundreds of them - tie them with thread and take them to various old ladies in the village. We would go down to the river (although we could not necessarily swim) at the time of year when little frogs were everywhere - or we would collect them as tadpoles and take them back to their stamping ground when they developed into frogs.
We would pick bluebells by the thousand and carry them home on our bike carriers, put them in jars where they would droop about for a day or two.
Once I read in a book that cowslip 'juice' (got by boiling the cowslips) was good for eliminating freckles (the bane of my life) so I picked loads of cowslips and tried it (it didn't work).
We knew what time dinner was and we would be there - all that activity made us hungry. If we weren't there dinner would go ahead without us and we would go hungry until tea time. Oh goodness me, those were the days - although maybe they are more exciting in the telling than they were in fact - although I doubt it.
Recently I saw where a group of mums in the U S had got together to form a society urging parents to let children go to the park on their own rather than accompanied - and to let them roam a bit - and to let them walk to school alone. Why have things changed so much in our society that this is necessary?
Sir David Attenborough argued last week that the law stopping people picking up fossils or even common wild flowers was wrong. He argued that it would breed a nation of adults not interested in natural history.
The farmer, who has lived in this house for the whole of his life, had a free-range childhood but of course it was on his own land. I am not sure what other land-owners would have thought if he had gone damming up their streams and climbing their trees, but I suspect they would have tolerated it and said 'boys will be boys' which seemed to be a popular saying when I was young.
Today in The Times Libby Purves speaks up for the generation of children who sit at home playing video games, who have their whole playing time arranged for them, who are ferried everywhere and who rarely go out alone or with their friends.
So, readers, where do you stand on this? Has our society and our way of life changed so much that we cannot/dare not let our children out of our sight? Purves says that we are in danger of losing the powers of creative thinking in our children if we don't allow them that freedom. An example she quotes is of making your own bow and arrow from a piece of wood - doing that she says teaches you about the 'qualities of flexibility, straightness, texture and weight.
I would like to think that if I were a young mum today I would allow my child freedom to roam - but then I remember that when we moved in the city when our child was five, we kept a much tighter rein on where he went. And then I wonder if the village children here where I now live rambled freely across our fields and dammed up our beck and climbed our trees - would the farmer tolerate that - and what about the dangers of the cattle in the fields?
What has changed? Why are things so different? I would like to hear your views on it.

On a fun note, and speaking of 'free range' - at breakfast this morning the farmer and I were talking about our favourite foods and what we would choose if we had to limit our choices of food to only three items. I chose free range eggs (hard boiled); bananas and cheese. I hardly dare to tell you what the farmer chose - Yorkshire pudding, bread and jam and cake!!! Need I say more?

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Catching the Poetry Bus.

How quickly that bus does come round; in fact I feel it is almost chasing its tail - must post before Monday so that we can begin thinking about next Monday's offering. Also - I do know Bill and his driving tends to be on the fast side (he will dispute this) so am jumping on early before the bus has moved on.

H'm - the brief was to find a sentence, cross out the second half and re-write it - then do away with the first half. I found lots of sentences but somehow they didn't click - until I found this one:-

"I would rather go by the slow road any day than take the motorway."

Here is my offering:-

For here the tall reeds rattle
when an East wind blows;
and the water rail stalks
furtively in the bottoms.

In the evenings
a stillness settles
and the warm, damp air
is full
of the scent of blossoms.

In the road
a dore beetle crosses,
its purple back glittering
in the sunshine.

And few cars come.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Bank Holiday Saturday.......

....... I neverthought I would hear myself saying this but we are so desperate for rain to make the grass grow for silage that even on a Bank Holiday it is very welcome. In spite of a forecast of heavy rain we have so far had only two millimetres, but it is dull, damp and cold - so hopefully there will be more before it moves on. Tomorrow is supposed to revert to 'proper' weather for the time of the year.
This morning it was really back to normal as I did my usual Saturday morning thing of meeting friends for coffee in The Golden Lion. Much to their consternation I took a photo and also one of the rest of the bar. The pub, which is in the absolute centre of our little market town,, has recently changed hands and is warm and welcoming. We only ever go in for coffee but we are welcomed like old friends. And speaking of old friends the lady on the right is eighty eight years old and had a major cancer operation only three weeks ago and is already, in her words, 'back to normal..' She is amazing. When told she needed an urgent operation she agreed on condition the surgeon chose a time so that it did not interfere with her social calendar! Now she has turned down five weeks of radio therapy in favour of regular three monthly check-ups as the five week stint would break into her two planned holidays with her family. You have got to admire her spirit.
Next week is Appleby Horse Fair - a major event in the North of England. Already Romanies and Travellers are making their way through the Dales towards Appleby with their horses and their covered caravans. Some are parked on our local Auction Mart field - their horses are tethered on the road side for a good feed of grass. I didn't like to be too intrusive so took both photographs from the car window . But at least you get a flavour of what it looks like.
Have a nice week-end.

Friday, 28 May 2010


Seventy years ago this weekend occurred an event which was probably the greatest trial ever witnessed in this country - most of our armed forces were trapped at the channel coast ; surrounded by enemy forces they had absolutely nowhere to go but the beaches upon which they stood.
Of course, we have all heard of Dunkirk, and the phrase "Dunkirk spirit" has gone down in history and is still used for times when we all pull together in a crisis.
I have a special reason for remembering it because my only brother, Jack, was one of those soldiers. He was only nineteen and for many days we had no idea what had happened to him.
I was a very small child and these few days are among my earliest memories as my mother and father fought to keep things as normal as possible for my sake.
I read in Paul Simon's column in The Times yesterday about how much depended upon the weather, which was apparently kind to the British forces. It was cloudy and often foggy which meant that enemy aircraft could not see well enough to attack for much of the time.
Tellingly, I also read how Churchill estimated that only about forty five thousand of our troops would survive. In the event, three hundred and thirty eight thousand troops were evacuated from the beaches - thanks to a fleet of small boats which made the crossing and could get fairly near to the beach, so that the men could wade out. Those small boats have made the crossing again this weekend in an act of remembrance and celebration.
Don't you find it frightening that our politicians can play with lives like that - making an estimate of how many troops they might have left to continue the war? I suppose the same thing has happened throughout time and is still happening in wars and skirmishes today - the men who are planning it all are busy deploying troops as though they were playing with toy soldiers rather than mens' lives.
The day when we learned that my brother was safe (by a telegram from him when he landed in England) was a Sunday. When the telegram boy arrived my mother fainted away and my father shakily opened the envelope. I remember that moment vividly although I was very young. My older sister took charge of things, we all put on our coats and we all went to church.
Standing in the pew, holding my sister's hand, I remember looking up at her and seeing that she was crying - and as I looked at her she smiled down at me - I remember that smile.
Both my brother and my sister are long dead - Jack died in 1986 and Vera in the early 1990's - but those memories came back strongly yesterday when I thought about it all.
Some years ago I wrote a not very good poem about it - I think I printed it last year on the anniversary but I make no apologies for printing it again - it is important to remember.

On the return of a beloved brother from Dunkirk.

In the black fen soil
the village sinks
untouched by war
except by wireless
and its sons
"somewhere in France"
and a telegram
on a Sunday afternoon.

Rooks wage their own war,
clacking their crusty beaks.
Below them we walk...
father, mother, sister
and I,
through the newly mown grass
of the graveyard,
past our granfathers,
uncles and aunts,
on the soft sweetness of the
Summer evening -
to the church door.

Its cold, iron ring turns.
The door clangs open,
faces turn.
Inside is redolent with
old hymnals, candle-wax and
lilies heavy with pollen.

"Now thank we all our God"
They rise and sing, while we
kneel and give thanks
for his safe return.

My tiny hand inside my father's rough one,
I turn and look up;
I see the tears as my
sister looks down at me.
Those tears - and her smile -
stay in my heart for ever.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Promise this is the last holiday snap!

I don't want to become boring about our holiday - and there is plenty going on on the farm at present with more heifers and sheep and lambs arriving - but before I move on I must just show you this fabulous photograph.

In the far-off days when I did a degree in Renaissance art I would have given my eye-teeth to be able to afford to go to Florence and the other cities associated with that period - but money was short and I had to read about the art in books.

Since then I have been to Venice and Florence several times and really been blown away by it all - particular favourites being the Botticelli 'Primavera', which remains my favourite painting and the Donatello David, which shows him in pastoral mode rather than the big, strong MichaelAngelo version. But I had never been to Arezzo!

It was here, in the choir of the church of San Francesco that Piero della Francesca painted his most wonderful frescoes. His home town of San Sepolcro was only just down the road. His work - The Legend of the Holy Cross - adorns the walls of the choir. The colours are rich and sumptuous and sing out as much as they did in the 1450's when they were applied to the walls.

For me, seeing them (and there were only six people in the church at the time, not the huge crowds of Florence) was one of the highlights of my holiday.

His use of the new ideas of perspective, his tremendous use of rich colour and - above all - his portrayal of every face as a different person, was breath-taking.

So dear blog friends I will give you one tiny taste - this is a portrayal of the city of Jerusalem at the time of the crucifiction; but in actual fact he has chosen to show it as the city of Arezzo just outside the door of the church where he was working.

There is a piece of textile art lurking in that photograph if ever I saw one. My mind is working of ways of doing it - so any textile people out there - if you can give me any tips on how to get going on it, I would appreciate it.

In the meantime, marvel at the brightness, and above all the 'modernity' because don't you think it could have been painted yesterday?

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Strange things occur at sea.

Take a close look at today's photograph - aren't the things in it the most beautiful blue colour?
The hotel we stayed in on Elba had its own private beach down to the Mediterranean. One afternoon we wandered down. It was a warm, sunny day but there was a stiffish wind blowing off the sea.
Along the shore line was a thick rim of navy blue which on close inspection was these tiny creatures. They were washed up onto the shingle and appeared to be dead. One brave soul with us decided to pick one up- it was hard and leathery and its 'innards' were clearly visible.
But what was it? The staff in the hotel said it was algae and that it appeared every year at about this time. Algae? With innards? I took a photograph.
Now I don't know whether you know Stuart Dunlop's blog - Donegal Wild Life - but I knew he was the man to ask. Yesterday I e mailed him the photograph and - as I expected - I got a full report on them almost by return. So here it is.
"They are By-the-wind Sailors - velella velella. Each individual specimen is actually a highly-organised colony rather then an individual creature, so they are not true jellyfish (which are single-cell organisms) - they are related to The Portuguese Man o'war, but not dangerous to humans".
Thank you for that Stuart. If you are interested in wildlife then I urge you to pop over and read his fascinating reports.
Have a nice day.

Monday, 24 May 2010

On the Farm.

While we have been away in Tuscany the last of the over-wintering in-calf heifers have gone out to grass, so the yard is now empty (apart from a rather large rat which the farmer saw dozing in the straw where the heifers had been!). Tess and the farm cats have been told about this intruder and a trap has also been set - so watch this space.
If we do not get a substantial rain in the near future then the situation will become quite serious for dairy farmers. To keep up the milk yield the cows have to have their Summer pasture (although we are no longer a dairy farm, we rent out our fields to our neighbouring dairy herd) and the grass is so short of water that it is not growing very quickly. This means that the cows are grazing the silage meadows as well as the pastures. This is fine for now but does not bode well for Winter if the silage crop is less than usual.
In addition the water in the beck is quite low and although there is plenty of water to drink on our fields our neighbours further along the beck are really worried about the flow of the water.
I also wonder about the ground-nesting birds and how they will fare as the grass at present is hardly high enough to conceal their nests.
Still, as the farmer is fond of saying, we shall have to take what comes where the weather is concerned.
Tess and the cat both accompanied me on my walk today. Here and there bits of May blossom are out, there are a few buttercups in the pastures and huge clumps of plantain are already going to seed. I did intent to go into the wood and photograph the bluebells for you, but the young heifers had settled down in that corner and I didn't want to disturb them - so I took a long-range photograph of them instead.
Baby rabbits abound in all our fields - they are so pretty but, sad to say, the farm cats regard them as easy meat and at present are not eating any food we put down.
Any day now ewes with lambs at foot will be arriving - I will keep you posted on that one too.
I found Solomon's Seal and Honesty in flower - yes Summer is almost here. In addition the first two young race horses have arrived. I called to them over the fence but they were not interested so I took a long range photo for now - hopefully they will get a bit more friendly after a day or two, although race horses are usually pretty aloof.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

I'm back!

Hello to you all - sorry about the gap in publication, but I have been on holiday. Tuscany is beautiful at any time of year but in May it is probably at its best, when all the wild flowers are busy getting their flowering and going to seed over before the really hot weather sets in. There was a preponderance of yellow flowers of all kinds but the real show-stoppers were the ubiquitous red poppies which popped up all over the place and made a real statement.
It has been a lovely break, with a super group of people. We stayed in nice hotels, ate good food and saw some lovely places as you can see from today's photographs. No country seems to display its food in a more artistic way than Italy - their fruit shops and their ham and cheese shops are almost works of art.
It is, of necessity, a short blog today. You will understand why when I tell you that we left the island of Elba at eight o'clock yesterday morning, travelled to the mainland by ferry and then
(mainly because of BA strike action) travelled across to Bologna for a flight to Gatwick. We arrived in Gatwick at 8.30pm and were then brought home by taxi, arriving at the farm at 3am this morning.
Here on the farm there has been a distinct lack of rain. The grass in the fields we need for silage has not grown at all and is beginning to look very droughty. Our neighbouring farmer has already rung up today and asked the farmer to dig out the beck to let a little more water through as his water source for the cattle to drink is fast drying up.
In the hedgerows the may blossom is in bud but not yet in flower - its flowering is one of the highlights of my year, so am poised with my camera to record it for you. In the meantime the various indigenous crab apple trees are in full blossom, the buttercups are beginning to show yellow in the meadows and in another day or two the lane will be edged with cow parsley.
By tomorrow we hope to be more or less back to normal. I shall pop over now and see what tomorrow's poetry bus has to offer.
It is lovely to be back. Thank you so much to those of you who sent me e mails to enquire if I was alright and why I was not blogging. I do appreciate your concern. As far as my back goes - the walking on the holiday has done it no harm and may well have strengthened it a little. See you all tomorrow when my blog will - hopefully - return to normal. In the meantime enjoy the photographs.
Probably the highlight of the whole holiday for me was seeing the Pierro della Francesca frescoes
in the basilica in Arrezzo - the clarity and freshness of the colours, the 'modern' look of work which is six hundred years old, the magic of actually standing in the building rather than looking at photographs - wonderful - shall do a blog on it all one day soon.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

She could 'ave found a better 'ole!

I'm a simple country field mouse, without airs and graces. I trundle along in the hedgeback, minding my own business and trying to keep out of harm's way. When I first met my wife she was (I thought) a simple country girl but somehow, oh dear, she has developed ideas above her station.

When it comes to making a home for our intended family, I have always thought it wise to leave the choice of site to her. If I choose somewhere it is bound to be too hot, too cold, too stuffy, too vulnerable - so, like most men, I find it easier to sit back and let her choose.
Well, all I can say is now I wish I had been firmer. Round here there are hundreds of hedgebacks, miles of stone walls, dozens of uninhabited stone barns, plenty of old tree trunks - need I go on. And where, do you suppose, has she chosen to set up home?
Right by the farm gate, that's where! Right where the farm traffic goes in and out every day,
where the farmer's wife drives out to do her shopping, where the farm dogs come romping through twice a day after their walks, just where the farm cats choose to sit in the sun and survey the scene.
Not content with choosing there, she has nibbled off all the surrounding grass to line her new bed so that our entrance hall is visible to anyone who happens to look down as they come through the gate.
'Why did you choose here?' I tentatively ask (she is heavily pregnant and I don't want to upset her). Well, I told you she had ideas above her station - what do you think she said -
'it will be lovely to give birth in a little terrace of tulips and hyacinths - think of the perfume wafting down into the nest; and have you seen that beautiful flowering cherry tree just over the wall - think what pleasure that will give the children when they first come out to survey the world; you're bound to get a better class of mouse here than you would in the hedgeback.'
So here we are stuck, and would you believe that she is even chuffed today because the lady of the farmhouse has been out and photographed our house - I think she is expecting it to be featured in Homes and Gardens next month!

Monday, 3 May 2010

Typical Bank Holiday Weather!

There is a tradition here in the UK that whenever a Bank Holiday comes round the weather always takes a turn for the worse. This weekend - our May Bank Holiday Weekend - the weather is dull and the wind is blowing from the North East and the temperature struggled yesterday to reach 7 degrees.
However, up here in the Yorkshire Dales we are hardy folk, so yesterday the farmer and I drove to Hawes in Wensleydale, principally because I wanted to see if the newsagent had sold any of our Writers' Group book, which he has on sale or return. There was also another agenda though, as I wanted a new pair of sandals and there is a lovely shoe shop there. Bought a super pair!
After shivering round Hawes we drove on the extra two miles to Cotter Force. Regular readers of my blog may well remember earlier visits - this time I was hoping that the marvellous collection of native wild flowers would be out. No such luck, they are hardly daring to show their faces.
Here and there our beautiful native primrose was peeping through the grass - is there a more exquisite flower? I doubt it. The yellow dead nettle had the odd bloom and there was one patch of struggling pink campion. The young rowan trees were beginning to bud - a pretty little white throat was flitting through the branches.
In the field which borders the footpath up to the force, the lambs were charging up and down. It seems to be that one has one of two reactions when watching them. Mine is to think - how can I eat lamb again when they are so lovely - but the farmer's is more along the lines of lamb chops.
We are seriously short of water here now. I read that they had over an inch in the South East yesterday - as you can see from the force, we have had hardly any rain here for weeks. Tess enjoyed sniffing about on the rocks of the dry river bed though - and a pair of grey wagtails were busily getting mud for their nest.
By the time we arrived home we were very chilly (for May) but were soon cheered up by the first rhubarb crumble of the year (with custard).

Sunday, 2 May 2010

"That" TV Programme....

Caught you all there - I'm sure you thought I was referring to the "Great Debates", but no what I am referring to is not a programme at all but the new John Lewis advert. Sorry readers in the US - but you can watch it on YouTube - where I understand that in its first week on the telly it has been watched by more than one hundred thousand viewers.
If there is anybody here who hasn't seen it it is "everywoman" played by nine different actors each one portraying a different time in her life - it goes from her being lifted from her cot as a baby, through her playing as a toddler, blowing candles out on her seventh birthday, at her 21st kissing her boyfriend, then she opens the fridge (John Lewis naturally) and when she closes it she is pregnant (gosh, didn't realise looking in the fridge was such a dangerous activity), then she is cooking a meal for her grandchildren and finally walking off with her beloved into the distance.
All to the sound track of Billy Joel's "Always a Woman" sung by Fyfe Dangerfield of the Guillemots. Why I wonder does it pull at the heart strings and why I wonder has it become such an iconic advert after only a week. It cost £6 million to make, I understand. Does that seem a bit obscene to you in these days when we are warned about the austerity to come after Thursday whoever gets in power?
There seems to me to be two possibilities. Could it be that today's modern woman is so stressed by trying to keep all those balls in the air - work, housework, baby, kids at school - that she can't help looking back with nostalgia to the days when all the woman did was run the house and look after the children (all?), when having a career never entered her head ( or if it did it was firmly pushed back into the wide blue yonder. (When I left High School in 1950, the two jobs which seemed to have the most prestige with the staff of the school were Teacher or Radiographer)
Or is its popularity because it is an antidote to those three awful political debates, where we have watched three poseurs grimacing, smiling falseley, standing on one leg and churning out platitudes which tell us absolutely nothing?
I suspect a bit of both. Just think, after Thursday we can watch it as much as we like without
thinking we have to have a reason for liking it. We can just wallow in the sheer sentimentality of it all, love the background music and - presumably - go and spend our money at John Lewis.
For surely they must be aiming to make at least £7 million extra in order to make the advert worthwhile. Ah such is the influence of television.
And - Joanna Lumley makes her last trip down the Nile on Monday night - oh how I have enjoyed this wonderful programme and how fantastic she looks for 64 (Happy Birthday yesterday Joanne) - I really covet the floaty clothes she wears but the farmer (realistically and in quite a kindly way) advised me that even if I splurged out on similar wear, sadly, I would not look like Joanna Lumley! Have a nice day.