Home & Shop Companion #0049
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
When I was a kid, quite a number of the Christmas cards my parents received wished us a merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year. Even then, of all the adjectives they could have chosen, I was not sure whether prosperous was the thing to wish for; whilst certainly better than being impoverished, a happy, enjoyable, satisfying, interesting or healthy new year seemed much better choices. This year, however, a ‘better 2021’ seems to be the flavour of the good wishes, and I can’t disagree with that, though I did hear of a person who mixed her thoughts rather too closely together, and sent her mother a card which read, ‘I love you, Mum. Next year it will be different!’
This year I am sure will be different, but as it stands on day four, healthy and prosperous don’t look like the most likely descriptions, as a new more infectious variant of the virus sweeps across Britain. There are plans underway to vaccinate two million people each week, so being in the over fifty category, I might get my jab in March or April, but as we have come to appreciate, if a week is a long time in politics, it is also a long time in virus world. So in the next few months the words that are going to have to serve us well are care, consistency and patience. Luckily for farmers, and for violin makers too, these characteristics are the backbone of what we do, but the added isolation that so many are feeling nowadays remains true for us too. My solution, well part of my solution, is the telephone, and this has been the case for years since I had a bout of depression, and in a time when we are not meeting face to face, the phone must be high on the list of useful inventions.
But to move onto more mundane matters, last week I brought Lucy in for the first time this winter. If the stable, which is just an open fronted shed with half height doors, had not accumulated building materials, sacks of wood shavings and other stuff to keep dry, I might have brought her in sooner, but I am glad it is done now. She is only in at nights, which gives Molly time on her own without having to compete for hay or hard feed, but it gives Lucy a good time for exercise. Theoretically, because of her age I should probably be bringing Molly in to shelter her from the rain and wind, but with her delicate breathing, she doesn’t do well when bedded on straw, and wood shavings as an alternative are expensive and slow to rot down, so instead she has the dust-free outdoors and a bit more feed. Although the winter routine of leading Lucy in and out takes a bit longer, I like the to and fro with regular contact; otherwise at this time of year, days and sometimes weeks pass all too easily without her being handled or worked much, and the routine and the obligation helps keep her handy and paying attention.
Otherwise I have not done much outside, though I did make a small start on one of my January jobs just after Christmas. January is the month to trim back the hedges and dig out the ditches, but one of the ditches along the roadside was completely full of water, higher than the level of the road, so Boxing Day morning saw me out with the drain rods to unblock a drain that lets the ditch water run into the pond. For some people, dirty jobs like cleaning out ditches seem like the worst job in the world, but I quite like it because the work keeps you warm, and even when there is a cold wind you are mostly out of its blast, and watching the water moving away is nearly as satisfying as creating channels in the sand on the beach, or moving stones to dam a stream as a child.
When we bought the field about fifteen years ago there was a patch in the centre, probably half an acre in extent which remained six inches deep in water all winter long, and much of the rest was fairly waterlogged too. Luckily, after a couple of years the neighbour downhill from the field got a local farmer to redo the drains in their field, and when he put the digger bucket in the ground to remove the last obstruction to the water from our lowest ditch, a torrent of water ran from our land. Watching my face, David the digger driver said he had never seen anyone so pleased to see the water go, but my delight was not just the visceral sight of the swirling water, but the knowledge that this work would allow us to effectively drain at least a part of our field, a field which I suspected had been drier in years gone by.
When David got to our field, he asked whether he should just remove the dark soil from the ditch, the topsoil, but I said ‘no, keep it as low and level as you can, then we have a chance of getting more of the field dry.’ After digging eighty yards he came across the concrete pipe exiting from the pond, but because we had kept the ditch level low, two feet directly below that he uncovered the end of a clay pipe also coming from the pond, and after a bit of digging next to the inlet, another exodus shot full bore out of this pipe, lowering the pond and eventually the surrounding water table by two feet. Continuing along the ditch we came across the top of some more clay pipes, confirming just how deep the ditch once was, but these clay pipes were not the tubular ones, they were U shaped, placed upside down with no bottom, a style which stopped being used around 1880 when the round pipes came in. With five feet of soil having nearly filled in the ditch above these pipes, the neglect must have started years ago; I suspect the concrete pipe was put in in the mid-twentieth century when the clay pipe from the pond no longer functioned, by which time the field must already have been much wetter than it was in the 1880s.
The year after this first phase of re-draining, my father came here on what turned out to be his last visit, and proudly I described to him what we had done and showed him the improvement in the field. My dad, as a farm manager of clay soils and a happy ditch digger too, knew a thing or two about drainage and soil, and had designed a couple of hundred-acre drainage schemes himself in the ‘80s. His comment was that the initial improvement was one thing, but after three years the drainage would once again show a significant improvement. And he was right, a couple of years later the soil was indeed less waterlogged and quicker to drain, as the soil life realigned itself to aerobic conditions, as the worms burrowed deeper because the soil wasn’t saturated, as the soil warmed up more quickly in the spring and the grass roots could penetrate to lower levels.
The following year we piped the water from the ditch above our field to the pond, so some water never gets to dampen the field and then we put in the pipe that I had to clear on Boxing Day. Since then the January maintenance is usually all the work that is required. I like to think that if the tough farm workers who hand dug the trenches for the U shaped pipes a hundred and forty years ago were able to revisit, they’d be just as pleased as I am to see their drains still running with water; ditches and drains may not be glamorous, but for anyone with an interest in the land, they as sure as heck are satisfying.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.