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letter from a small corner of far away

Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,

Yesterday I had a good day; I sorted through all my clothes, cleared out some that are too threadbare, even for me, put the summer clothes in the bottom drawer, part-made some violin varnish, baked some Norwegian apple cake with some fallen apples, used the last marrow for a stuffed marrow, and spread out the onions on the greenhouse staging to dry.

The onions got quite big this year despite the dry summer, until I pulled them out at the end of August and left them in groups to dry amongst the green manure I sowed a few weeks earlier. There they stayed until last week, too long really, almost hidden by the grass, clover and fodder radish, as I put them in sacks for Lucy to bring home, taking a sledge load of hedge cuttings back to the field on the return journey to rot down amongst the grass that will be grazed next year.

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Opposite the onions on the other side of the greenhouse, the tomatoes are almost done, as are the cucumbers and basil, though there are salad leaves growing away in another bed for winter eating. Outside, the garden is looking decidedly autumnal too, the tomato plants bare of leaves, cut off to let the sun ripen the remaining fruit, whilst the pumpkin and zucchini plants have all died back and the beans have stopped producing. It all feels very early for autumn; often we still get zucchini into October and are eating green beans through ‘til November; it must be because of the dry weather in August.

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In the field too, the autumn flush of grass is much reduced compared with other years, so I am moving the horses quickly over the ground, trying to prevent the grass from being nibbled too short in hope of some rejuvenation before the cold weather stops growth all together. So although it was only a couple of weeks ago that I moved the horses from the last strip of the field, the stripes left by the chain harrow last week to spread the horse droppings now nearly gone, the horses will soon be through this too, so for the sake of the grass, winter hay feeding is going to have to begin a month earlier than usual.

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Next to where the horses are now grazing, the vegetable patch is looking good, more like a field of grass than an arable area, the ground cover almost complete, with the green manures sown last year having grown away after the horses last grazed there, and the remaining carrots and parsnips hard to find amongst the vigorous growth of the cover crop sown in August. The exception is the potato patch, where I might have sown a clover and grass mix where the early potatoes were lifted, but it is too late now for the clover to germinate, so after the remaining potatoes are harvested the whole lot will be seeded with rye and vetch. It is most noticeably a time of change, of bringing together the remaining bounty of the summer and preparing for the months ahead, a time to glance back and a time to move ahead.

I have been looking back a lot recently, because at the beginning of this month my mum died. She was full of years, though in the last few, her lively mind had been gradually diminishing, then disappearing, and for the last half a year she hardly said a word. That was unusual of her because she was a great talker, enjoying everyone’s company, but she was an even better listener.

Recently resurfacing in my mind, I still remember part of one conversation from when I was in my mid-twenties and starting to make my way in the world. Back then, I had just bought my first house, the end of a row of four, built in the 1930s with stained glass panels in the top of the windows and the front door. The front room was my workshop, overlooking the street, where I repaired violins, and in between, endeavoured to become a maker, having distanced myself from an agricultural life whilst still trying to put aside dreams of having a farm or smallholding of my own one day. The workshop was also where the telephone lived, so even when I wasn’t working, I had to go in there to make a call. One evening, I was talking to my mum on the phone, sitting on a stool and leaning against the workbench, and at one point she asked, ‘do you feel grown-up?’

‘Oh heck, I don’t know,’ was my immediate response.

‘Well, you must be then!’

This sort of remark was not untypical of my mother, a comment she knew would be helpful. It was helpful because she understood, she had experienced enough to embrace the ambiguities, the contradictions, and the uncertainties of life.

Now, nearly forty years on, now that she is gone, perhaps it is time for me to be grown up. But in amongst all the practical competencies of going through official formalities, sorting stuff and finding old papers and family photos, it doesn’t feel like it, not today anyway.

But yesterday was a good day, and perhaps tomorrow will be too. One step in moving on was the reorganisation of my clothes, not exactly a priority, but prompted by the need to sort out the last of my mother’s furniture, specifically, swapping my old chest of drawers for one a hundred years older, a nicer one which she had used for the last sixty years. But before it went upstairs it needed a few minor repairs, so it went in my workshop first, glue pot on, sash cramps out. I’m sure my mum would have approved, because although it was from my father that I developed an interest in farming, it was from my mother that I learned the importance of looking after things, about practicality, about quality, and making the best of what was there. That mindset was not uncommon for someone of her generation, but her approach was not rooted in meanness or austerity, it was built on a recognition of true value, on a respect for the materials and the efforts of people who had made these things, and a love of living. For her, that logically extended to appreciating and respecting the natural world and other people, and everyone recognised it, it was why after sitting next to a stranger for ten minutes, she would know their life story! Her philosophy, if you could call it that, was a mantle she wore lightly, aware of bad things that happen, making decisions not just for her own sake but for the effect they might have further down the line, and in between, getting on with life, relishing the absurd, sharing in the sorrows and rejoicing in the delights.

That, I suppose, was her way of being grown up. I can’t think of a better way.

Take care,


William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.

Home and Shop Companion 0139
Yep, accidentally ran this one twice – within a month.

Home and Shop Companion 0139