Home and Shop Companion 0142
Home and Shop Companion 0142
Lucy & Molly.

letter from a small corner of far away

Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,

After a misty start early this morning, by the time I headed off with a small sack over my shoulder, the sun was bright, bright enough and low enough in the clear blue sky, so I had to dip my head for the peak of my cap to do its job. On rounding the corner of the lane, it was immediately cooler behind the high hedges and in the shade of the tall willows as I continued on my way, my feet crunching over a carpet of gravelly acorns on my way to the field. As the bolt on the gate squeaked open, the horses raised their heads and looked towards me as they stood head to tail, Molly raising her head over Lucy’s back, both in anticipation of the electric fence being moved to free up some more grass.

By now, I expect you can guess what is in the sack, as last weekend I ploughed out the maincrop potatoes, using Lucy and the fishtail attachment on the ridging plough, before picking the potatoes into paper sacks and sledding them home. Ploughing out potatoes with the slatted fishtail is not as clean a job as using a potato spinner or elevator digger, so straight afterwards we cultivated the ground to expose some more, then did the same again on Monday after chain harrowing the last patch of grassland they grazed.

Home and Shop Companion 0142
Lucy at barn.

This morning I picked over the potato patch again, leaving my sack at the edge, then laid out the light harrows before going to catch Lucy. Catching is not really the right word, as she lifts her head up from eating, pokes her nose through the offered headcollar, dips her head as I reach for the poll strap and with a whisper of a command, she follows to the barn. Once harnessed and ready to go, we head to the potato patch, run the cultivator through once again in the morning sunshine, switch over to the light harrows, just a few times up and down, before retracing our steps to the barn. With a bowline in her halter shank securing her to one of the upright poles of the barn, I go back to my sack and scoop out a bowl full of seed, and like the sower of old, flick out handfuls onto the prepared ground. It’s rye and vetch, as you probably guessed, the best cover crop to sow at this time of year. A few bowlfuls more, the cover nice and even, I return to the barn carrying a half sack of harrowed out potatoes, then Lucy and I harrow the ground again to cover the seed.

At this time of year, every day seems to make a difference, the seed, now safely in the soil, can grow away while the heat of the sun still has some strength in it, hopefully enough to cover the ground by the end of November. With that job done, that is the last bit of cultivation, the last bit of sowing for this year. As the year slows into inactivity and as my outside activity reduces once again, it also seems like the right time to draw these letters to a close too.

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Lucy with cultivator.

It has been two and half years since I started writing them, shortly after the pandemic struck and the Home and Shop Companion was launched. Looking back to those early letters, it was a strange time, with normal activities suspended and many people confined to their homes, whilst in the background was the ever-present fear of the virus, its effects and virulence then unknown. Just how much of an impact it had on our lives was brought home to me the following November, highlighted in the reaction of a BBC presenter to the announcement of the first vaccine – ‘at last a piece of good news, after all these months of continuous bad news,’ she said, with genuine relief on her face. Being completely immersed in the detail and extent of the pandemic, all day, every day, her reaction was completely understandable, but for me, the intervening months had also brought interests, challenges and successes, joy and relaxation; luckily, my life was not completely taken over by the pandemic. And that was the point of these letters, to give anyone who wanted to read them a break from the news, a break from their own lives, maybe just for ten minutes, and to provide something to mull over, if only because living and working in this small corner of far away is going to be a bit different from where you are. At the same time, of course, it is probably quite a bit similar too.

Around the time we bought the field, about fifteen years ago or more, my wife gave me a slim book as a Christmas present, which she had sent off for, all the way from far-off Pennsylvania. It was Eric and Anne Nordell’s ‘Weed the Soil, not the Crop,’ about their horse powered market gardening, their bio-extensive growing system. The book brought together their experiments and experiences which had developed over time and had been drip fed in detailed articles to us Small Farmers Journal readers over the previous few years. As you probably know, their work, their on-farm experiments, their observations and adaptability have influenced many growers across North America and further afield, including me and my few rows of vegetables. After pulling off the wrapping paper that Christmas morning, and opening the book, I discovered a note from Eric inside the front cover. Although the parcel was addressed to Liz, he had realised that I was the one who had written articles about horse powered farmers here in Britain and asked when they might read of my own farming adventures. At that time, any farming adventures I had had were limited to working on other people’s farms and making a bit of hay with my then-young Percheron mare, Molly. Back then, I didn’t think I had anything worth writing about. Over the last two years, however, some of you have been kind enough to contact me with your appreciation for what I have written. One of those people is a certain Lynn Miller, who, quite early on, suggested that my letters could form the basis of a book. Sometime, that is likely to come to fruition, some words from here along with some new writing, but for now, my farming activities will remain in the field and in my head because there is a limit to how many times you can write about what is essentially the same thing, and I guess that by now, you know as much about my tinkering with farming as you need to!

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William, Molly & Lucy.

Even though my efforts are just a tiny part of the narrative and knowledge base of animal powered husbandry, of earth-centred agriculture, they are nonetheless an integral piece of that continuing flow of accumulated capability, of which you, I hope, are part. What we do, whether farming with horses or growing cabbages in the back yard, shopping at local markets or bottling fruit for winter, may be an anathema to the big system of modern economics, but cumulatively it is of significance way beyond our individual relevance and capacity. Our little stories, our farming adventures, built upon successes hard won and failures deeply felt, are what makes us who we are. Our stories are the method by which we remember what we know, they are how we build upon the past and gain in competence and skill. Stories are how we pass on deep knowledge, not in a lump of a leather-bound tome nor as a glib comment swiped across an electronic device, but piece by little piece, in narrative and in jokes, in conversation and occasionally on paper. But, even if we think back fondly to warm days and gentle horses, stories are nothing if they remain in the past, they are nothing if they are not underpinned by doing, by demonstration and participation, strengthened by routine and repetition. Although most of us are not inclined to share our stories by putting pen to paper, doing what we do, doing what we can, is enough. Because if we are doing the right thing, even in a small way, we are making things better, as we live our own adventures, and create our own stories.

Take care,


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

Dear William,

When we, at the Small Farmer’s Journal office, came up with the notion of a regular newsletter entitled Home & Shop Companion, sent to anyone who wished for it, that notion was fueled for the most part by our interest in offering some positive bits and pieces to those of us sheltered in place during the pandemic. Recipes, shop hints, tidbits, games. It seemed that parents with small children might be particularly challenged by the tightening walls. From the beginning it was our dear friend William Castle who recognized that these times called for something more, perhaps a set of letters from home. And he set to sharing in what has become a thread of generosity so precious and elegantly decent that I believe we will remember and cherish how each one of these messages made us feel as they came to us through that thicket of worry.

Please, dear friend William, accept our boundless gratitude for your super suite of most poignant, particular, and illuminating letters. We have been so well served by your torchlight and your unselfishness. I still say you have a book in here, one for the ages. See you down the road and in our fondest memories.

Thank you. – Lynn

Thank you. – Everyone

Home and Shop Companion 0142

Home and Shop Companion 0142