letter from a small corner of far away
by William Castle of Shropshire, UK
This article is comprised of a compilation of letters originally published in the Home & Shop Companion newsletter offered by Small Farmer’s Journal, free of charge, to anyone who gives an email address. SFJ
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
There has been a change in the air this week; it still feels like summer, but it definitely has the feel of late summer. The leaves on the plum tree outside the kitchen window are yellowing, and in the field the onion tops have fallen over, so yesterday I pulled them up and laid them out to dry. A sure sign of the changing season this time of year are the flocks of wild geese which start to fly over our house just before dusk, honking as they go, on their way to roost in the big area of peat bog which lies half a mile to the west. Last year they started early, around the tenth of August, but we have only had one flight so far this year, because the weather is still warm, I suppose. But it has been wet too; on Thursday we had a day out, to visit a friend and go for a walk in the hills to the south of the county, but we were lucky not to get rained on because it has rained every day, and on our journey the fields of wheat in particular were starting to look grey and weathered.
For the first time in months, neither horse has been in harness this week. I had hoped to cultivate the fallow beds in the field again, but it is still too damp and thousands of weed seedlings are popping up, even growing out of the clumps of soil which had been drying out nicely to desiccate the perennial weeds. As soon as it dries a little, I will go through with the cultivator, hopefully while the seedlings are still less than an inch tall, but in two small patches there are some shoots of couch appearing, so this morning while I had the fork to dig a few potatoes, I spent a few minutes following the sharp-ended rhizomes which were easy to pull out of the damp but loose soil. Digging weeds by hand might seem like a lot of work, but on an area such as this, if only 1 or 2 % is affected, it is time well spent, precision extraction and precision timing to stop it inveigling its way through next winter’s cover crop of rye and hiding amongst next year’s potatoes.
Another job I had hoped to do yesterday was cutting the garden hedges, which provide a much needed windbreak against the westerly winds which whistle over the moss where the geese feel safe, gaining speed as the ground gains height to blast the end of our house and garden. Using an electric hedge trimmer, which over here is 240 volts, was not something I wanted to do when it was wet, so instead I went into the vegetable garden and removed the fine net covering the brassica bed. The net is there to prevent butterflies laying their eggs on the cabbages, which, before I had the net, were regularly eaten down to the stalks by the very hungry caterpillars. This year they instead turned to the nasturtiums which I allow to self-seed in the vegetable garden and which are now completely defoliated. The butterfly net is 2 metres wide, [6’ 6”] supported by hoops pushed into the ground and weighed down at the edges by bricks. The hoops are either half inch steel rod or lengths of plastic water pipe which had wooden rods inserted in each end, secured with a nail which also provides a place to tie a length of twine which passes over the netting or clear plastic to keep it in place. This worked fine until the wood rotted through, so now I just push the pipe ends into the ground, but I prefer the steel ones, and when I am done with them, they can at least be melted down to make something else.
The net tunnel works fine for low growing cabbages, but the Brussel sprouts and broccoli have been pushing up so much the tops of the leaves have been pushed inwards and then they lifted the net clean off the ground. This has only happened over the last week or two after the majority of the butterflies had gone, but some must have got underneath because there were still enough caterpillars munching their way through the leaves to make a gentle half hour of caterpillar-squishing worthwhile. I have mixed feelings about butterflies; I don’t like the cabbage whites on the cabbages, but this year there have been many more butterflies of different species than in recent years, a joy to watch as they flutter over the hay field and around the wood. Whether the increase was due to less air pollution during lockdown or the warm dry spring, I don’t know, but the numbers did remind me of when I first learnt to drive a car, forty years ago, and in the summer you would often have to use the wipers because of the number of insects squashed on the windscreen, but it doesn’t happen now.
The garden is probably at its most fruitful now. The tomatoes in the greenhouse are prolific and red, and even the outside ones are starting to ripen, and we have zucchini, kale, beetroot, potatoes, French beans, lettuce, brassicas and chard outside, with parsnips, carrots and squashes for later, and cucumber in the greenhouse. The apples are also just starting to fall off one tree, though the Victoria plum tree, my favourite, despite a mass of blossom in the spring, hasn’t a single fruit this year. In stark contrast, the damson trees are laden, though the fruit is not yet ripe. The damson was a very common tree around here, the Shropshire Damson being a named variety, and in the days before the invention of aniline dyes produced from coal tar, railway truckloads of damsons left north Shropshire to go to make dyes for cloth, and it is said that tenant farmers paid their rent just from the damsons grown in the hedges between the fields. The problem with damsons are the stones, there seems to be more stone than damson, so in recent years we have been cooking them and putting them through a sieve before freezing the juice which we heat up and eat with ice cream, a splash of colour and tart summer-time goodness to cheer up a winter’s evening.
But winter is a little way off, there’s still plenty of fruit to gather, vegetables to store, and time to plant quick growing protected crops, but it definitely feels like we need to seize the moment, making the most of the dry weather and the warmth while it is here.
A couple of weeks ago I thought that we had just about harvested everything from the field for this year, but yesterday we had a visit from a friend who brought a bottle of cherry-black elderberry syrup, which herbalists say is supposed to be good against viruses. So after lunch we returned the favour by going down the lane and round the field gathering more berries which she took to make another batch. There has, however, been another small harvest, an experimental harvest of unseasonal hay. In April and May we had very little rain, making the June hay crop lighter than usual, so I left half of the grass until July so it would bulk up a bit. Since then I have kept an eye on the regrowth on the June-cut piece, hoping for a second cut in August. Although farmers often get three cuts of grass silage here in Britain, the grass is not usually mature enough to take a second cut of hay, and the weather in August is generally wetter than June or July. This August was particularly mixed, with no anticyclones settling long enough to guarantee dry weather, and then in September we had a lovely settled warm period, frustratingly, while we were away on holiday. I tried not to think about the potential hay making weather I was missing, but the day after we returned home, the 20th of September, I harnessed the mares, got out the No. 9 and dropped half the grass, leaving the other half for late autumn/early winter grazing. When, a few days later, I told a friend that I had cut some hay, he said, ‘that was brave,’ meaning foolhardy, until I explained what I did next.
The problem with late hay at this latitude is the dew; in July the grass is not usually dry enough to turn until after ten in the morning, but by September the dew doesn’t disappear until midday, and the grass starts to dampen once again by five. Knowing this, I had no intention of making hay in the usual way. Instead my son helped me knock a row of posts into the ground to make a Norwegian style hay drying fence. It has a straining post at each end and several horizontal wires running between the posts, the bottom one being a good foot or more above the ground, the others about 9 inches apart with the wire wrapped once round each post.
With the wires in place and a swath on either side turned towards the drying fence, we then loaded the grass onto the wires. I have seen this done in Norway several times, even when it was raining, and was shown how to do it on a small farm high up above the Nordfjord, one of Norway’s most splendid fjords. The trick is to pick up a small armful of grass, perhaps more like a couple of big handfuls, and gently throw it up a few inches and let it drop to the ground. Then you pick it up again gently to keep it loose and fluffy and put it on the wires, starting at the bottom and working upwards.
It is not a quick way to make hay, but once the hay is on the fence there is nothing more to do until you get the hay in. If it rains, the top gets wet as the rain runs down the stalks and falls to the ground. Meanwhile the rest of the crop is kept mostly dry, as the sun gets to both sides and the wind blows through it. I have used this method here on small patches before, in June or July, and it works even when there is significant rain.
As a comparison, I also put some hay on a tripod and some into cocks. I have made some hay on tripods in most of the last twenty years, but never so late in the year, and although I thought it would be an interesting experiment, I was doubtful whether it would work in September. The hay I put into cocks was spread each morning unless it was raining, and because of the dew, put back into cocks before night. Compared with the hay fence, this grass dried much more slowly because of the dew and rain, and started to discolour, so I ended up taking a forkful each end of the day for Molly to eat. With the tripods, I tedded the grass and left it until late afternoon before loading the tripod, a necessity at any time of year because if it is too damp at this stage, it goes mouldy. Of the three methods, drying in the tripod seemed ultra-slow; when I put my hand into the hay on day three it felt little different from day one, with that chilled feel of dampness which in a more normal season would have gone by that stage.
On day six, we had winds of 20mph, gusting to 40, and when I went to the field in the early afternoon some of the hay had blown off the Norwegian style fence. Starting to pick it up to put it back on the fence, it felt dry to the touch, and although it might not have been quite dry enough to trample down in a loose hay mow, it would certainly be fine when left on top. So rather than putting the hay back on the fence for another day or so, and with dark threatening clouds above, I put a pallet on top of the sledge to make it twice as wide, which also meant I could stack it higher, yoked up Molly, who is more sensible in the wind, and gathered the hay. Instead of using a fork, it’s quicker to pull the hay off the wires by sliding your hands towards each other above each wire and dropping the hay on the ground. Then I pushed in the fork and loaded it onto the sledge, the low height of the sledge making it easier than forking the hay up onto a vehicle in the wind.
Meanwhile, the tripod was still slowly drying. Tripoded hay usually takes two weeks to dry, but the vast majority of the hay stays green because it is screened from the sun. On day fourteen and fifteen, while I was away with work, we had a month’s worth of rainfall, but except for the top of the tripod which acts like a thatched roof, the rest of the hay remained absolutely dry. However, the tripod is in the way of where I want to graze Lucy, so I have now fed the hay to Molly, but I could equally well have put it into storage.
The interesting thing is that the tripoded hay seems to take two weeks to make, given a good dry day on day one, almost regardless of the weather and in any month from June to September, and the hay fences, in my limited experience, seem to take a week, regardless of weather. As to labour, the fences definitely take longer to erect than tripods, but you can load them immediately and when the grass is wet, and there is less skill involved. The tripoded hay by comparison must be tedded first and there is more work getting the hay to the tripod, which can’t be started until the grass has lost all of its superficial moisture, which around here is never before early afternoon, and if the grass was mown late or the sky turns cloudy, it is sometimes better to wait until the following day, in which case you probably need to ted it again.
For farmers with reliable weather and a lot of hay to make, these methods will seem slow and arcane, but over recent years, here, in Norway and elsewhere, hay making has gone into decline because of the changing weather, being replaced by haylage wrapped in plastic. Although it may be slow, once you know how to do it, making hay on tripods or on Norwegian ‘hesjer’ are reliable methods in unreliable conditions. For me, my September experiment has saved another three weeks’ worth of hay, and gives me a little more flexibility, independence and resilience to my small-scale agricultural activities.
Two weeks on from my last letter and the view from my window looks very different. The early ornamental cherry has now shed all its leaves, but the Japanese maples are providing ample compensation. The little one in the corner, its leaves a watery Indian yellow changing to ochre, stands out against the stillgreen hawthorn hedge, and overtopping the hedge, the larger one with its layers of delicately fingered fronds is a dark russety orange, or if the light catches it just right, an explosion of rusty scarlet.
Beyond the maples, over the low holly hedge and just out of sight of the workshop, the vegetable garden is also shedding its summer plumage in readiness for winter. The French beans are just stalks clinging to the hazel or bamboo supports, and the bed which had pumpkins, squashes and tomatoes is now cleared, dug over and sown with rye and vetch, except for two zucchini plants which are still just about holding on. They were the ones I planted out between the early potato rows, and although the potatoes did restrict their growth for a week or two, once the potatoes were lifted the zucchinis grew away, but I don’t expect they will produce any more fruit now. By contrast, the tomatoes at the other end of the bed were a complete failure, the cool damp months this summer not doing them any favours. Then last month they got blight, turning the green fruit to mottled brown before they had a chance to ripen, which is the reason why, until this year, I had stopped growing tomatoes outside. The greenhouse tomatoes, however, have done well. My favourites are the cherry tomatoes, the variety Gardeners’ Delight which I grow every year living up to its name both in quantity and taste. I also grew a couple of beefsteak tomato plants again this year, but consistently they do less well than the cherry tomatoes so I don’t think I will try them again; I suspect they really like warmer conditions. Another cherry variety I grew for the first time this year was Moneymaker, but in taste they were less good than the old favourite, with tougher skins and they were less productive too, so I’ll give them a miss next time; the name should have roused my suspicions; never trust anything that advertises itself purely on making money!
Looking back at the garden after seven months of the growing season, the time seems to have whizzed by, the hopes and expectations of March and April have been made, worked upon and revised, and now they have either been achieved or disappointed. Most years I keep a gardening/farming diary, usually the bare bones of sowing and planting dates, haying notes and veterinary treatments, and it is always a useful reference for the future, but whenever I have written more I never regret the extra detail. Last year however, I was too busy and preoccupied to write anything down and had to rely instead on the empty seed packets as a guide to what I grew, but this year of course I have these letters as reference, so next year it can’t fail to be great! Can it?
At this time of year, I often feel like it is the start of a long haul as I look towards winter, the cold and the wet, the mud and the dark, especially when the clocks go back and the evening feed is an hour earlier, and by late December the light will have gone by four thirty. The tendency to hunker down with a hot drink, put another dry log on the wood burner, eat another piece of cake and slacken the belt one notch is something I try and resist, not always very successfully. Because I work inside much of the time, my workshop is not-so-strategically placed next to the kitchen, it’s easy to become semi-moribund during winter, so I am thankful that I have to go out at least twice a day to check on the horses. Once I am out and whatever the weather, I am always pleased to be there, to start and end the day with physical activity, fresh air and soak in whatever light the clouds allow. Thinking back to the springtime lockdown and the benefit so many people gained from being outdoors, keeping active and positive is going to be even more important this winter as the pandemic continues its horrible path. We may not get to choose what the virus does, but we do have some choice in how we tackle it and how we cope with the wider effects. Choosing to believe that ‘they’ will come up with the silver bullet next month and it will all go away, ‘that we are beating this thing’ and ‘it’ll all be just great,’ is maybe one way to trick yourself to get through the dark times, but I prefer to credit myself with a little intelligence and respect, and accept that this is a marathon, not a sprint.
In practise, for me that means getting on with life as far as possible, making the best decisions I can, and incorporating pleasure and meaning into part of every day. The ingredients in my recipe include playing music, eating a slice of raw home-grown carrot as I prepare the evening meal, talking with friends, making things, forking hay to horses, or particularly this week, enjoying the spectacle of the trees changing colour.
Most of this week, my son and I have been building. Our house, built in the 1860s for a farm worker’s family, is typical of the era, made of local irregular red bricks with a Welsh slate roof. Within easy smelling distance, just outside the back door is an old pigsty, built at the same time as the house with matching walls and roof. After 150 years the roof is showing its age, but next week the roof will come off what is now the bike shed, because after rebuilding and doubling the height of the walls of the outside pig run, we are going to roof the lot, the new bit being turned into a forge. Over the summer my son has been using our mobile forge in the open fronted shed which I use for the horses in winter, but not wanting to mix sparks and straw, another solution was needed before any horse can come in. The stable could have been split in two relatively easily, but it works very well just as it is, so it would be a shame to put work into it just to make it less useful.
In the couple of days before our second lockdown we took delivery of the sand, cement, and ballast for the concrete, and timber for the roof, and went on the search for old bricks. We could have used concrete blocks for cheapness and ease, or new bricks, but the extra cost of matching bricks is not a lot considering we will have to live with the result. So I asked around, and walked around, until I saw a neat pile of bricks, which the new owners of what used to be a smallholding had collected when taking down their old pigsty, and which they were happy to sell.
Once our site was clear and the foundations poured, we took the horses, hitch cart and a heavy-duty four-wheel steel trailer the half mile to collect the bricks. Since I haven’t a pole for the trailer and the shafts that came with it are beyond repair, I had to drive into their field and out again to get close to the new stable block where the bricks were stored, facing the right way for an easy exit. It’s times like this when it would be nice to have a pole on the vehicle and be able to turn tight round and to back it up. Once in position, I looped the cords round the hame ball mounted on the guard rail of the hitch cart, shut the gate in front of the horses, but a brick in front of both rear tyres as an added precaution and started moving bricks. The owners appeared and asked whether the horses would stand there. ‘They should do,’ I replied, using ‘should’ in both senses, as in ‘they probably will,’ and also ‘that is something I expect them to do.’ Molly is pretty good at this standing still business, she is usually happy to follow the line of least resistance, but Lucy can sometimes get fed up with it, hence the closed gate and the two bricks.
Carrying four bricks at a time, it didn’t take long to warm up, enough to shed a layer of clothing even on a damp and dull afternoon, and the physical exertion and achievement of getting a useful job done was just the ticket for preventing a dull day from being dismal. Close to an hour later and 550 bricks down, we had the full contingent; at 8 ½ pounds per brick that is about a 2-ton load, so with the heavy trailer which probably weighs a ton that was a good load for the horses, not excessive for pneumatic tyres on a tarmac road, but they still had to lean into the collars to get started. Even so, since neither horse gets a lot of work, we came back home the easy way, with only a gentle uphill pull and plenty of loose stones on the side of the road to help slow down the vehicle on the downward slope and take pressure off the britchens. The other way, which is a hundred yards shorter, has a steeper downhill slope to a blind junction and then an uphill pull which would increase the draught by about 10%.
Back at home, the space to manoeuvre is very tight so the horses were driven right up to the hedge to get the trailer into position, then I had to pull the pin on the trailer to back the hitch cart a yard so I had space to unhitch the horses before tying them up to the stable. Meanwhile Liz started to transfer some of the bricks from the far side of the trailer into the wheel barrow to put them immediately where they will be needed, whilst Samuel threw the rest to me, one at a time, to be stacked out of the way in the centre of the forge-to-be.
There are some weighty similarities between farm work and building work, both requiring moving a lot of heavy stuff. I sometimes think farm work is all about moving stuff about, manure this way, straw that way, hay, silage, stones, corn, all to be shifted. With machinery it’s all easier, but the principles still apply. But when using muscle power, a bit of thought makes all the difference – never handle anything more than necessary, don’t leave anything in the way of the job you are going to do soon, face the vehicle you are loading, even a wheelbarrow, in the direction you want to go, leave any loaded vehicle on hard ground and at the top of a downwards slope if possible, and if it has a load that will settle, leave it on level ground.
As soon as the bricks were unloaded, we put the rubble on the trailer to take to the field, pushed it back down the gentle slope into the road by hand, so we had enough space to turn the hitch cart and reattach the horses and get back to the field before dark.
Since then we have been mixing concrete and cement with a shovel and laying bricks. It’s hard work, especially for an aging part-timer, and on day two I recognised that uncomfortable sensation akin to feeling sick when I bent down. I recognise the symptoms of old, particularly from lifting mangels which must be one of the most strenuous jobs on the farm, bending down to loosen the swollen roots from the soil and throwing them up into carts. My symptoms are not a sign of impending doom, but my body telling me to take a break, to slow down a bit, but I also know the best treatment is to get back to it the next day, to recondition unaccustomed muscles to some honest toil. And that is what we have been doing.
Now, two of the walls are almost up to height. We put an arched topped window in one wall; building the arch was perhaps twenty minutes more work than using a concrete lintel, and it makes me smile every time I look at it. With the gable above still a series of steps, it looks a bit like one of the follies the eighteenth-century aristocrats built on their estates to mimic the classical ruins they saw on their Grand Tour of Europe. But by next week it will look different, hopefully more like a building than a ruin.
Yesterday my son and I finally got the last of the roof tiles on the new forge, so it is now weathertight except for doors and windows, and the dirty gritty stage of mud, sand and cement being trailed everywhere on our boots is over. Today I filled the hole into the house around the armoured electric cable and concreted over the narrow trench in the path, completing the electrical work done by a neighbour, so we now have lights, sockets and a 16-amp socket for the welder. After working at it most days when it wasn’t raining and some days when it was, it is a relief to have it done. But it is very gratifying too, the slightly irregular clay tiles and somewhat uneven brickwork [I blame the old handmade bricks] give it a homemade air, which is just what it is; call it hand crafted and it would be worth twice as much! Like many jobs done for the first time, and on a budget, it has taken some thought, the main complications being the roof window and the chimney. But I think it looks fine, a suitable addition to a Victorian cottage.
Now that the weather is so wet and the best thing to do on the land is to leave it alone, in our climate this time of year it is a good opportunity for building before the frosts get too hard, and since my son has been off work during our second Covid lockdown I feel we have made the best of the opportunity, not just of his thought, enthusiasm and labour, but of spending time together doing something useful.
I am reminded of the time we put up our barn seven years ago; it is a pole barn made of old telegraph poles, with timber beams notched into the poles and bolted on. Because the poles are basically tree trunks, they are narrower at the top, so making sure the siding would be vertical meant that the notches became progressively shallower as they neared the top of the poles. All the notches were cut out with a chainsaw, hatchet and drawknife and laid out bent by bent, side by side, nailing a piece of wood on the end of each pole so it couldn’t roll and using a level to get the notches parallel. Once done, Molly dragged the poles to the field on a home-made timber arch, and then the big day came for putting it up. I asked a dozen friends to help, mostly smallholders and other practical people, explained the basic plan, and everyone got to work. One friend who is not used to hands-on work was a bit confused and surprised to see everyone working together without being told what to do, so I got him to help me so I could explain things, but mostly it got done by people seeing the need to assist in manoeuvring the poles as they dangled by a chain from the telehandler belonging to a local farmer, or moving a scaffold or passing up beams. Once the first post was in the ground, supported by rails nailed to temporary stakes to keep it upright and in the right place, the rest went together like big pieces of Meccano, so by the end of the first day all the posts were in the ground, joined by the horizontal beams, with one pair of rafters also in position. Having spent hours drawing it out, working out the detail of how it would fit together, so for instance, the whole barn fitted under standard sized roofing sheets, and days preparing it on the ground, to see the structure against the sky after the first day was a real buzz. But not just for me, everyone involved was pleased to have been involved, to have been fed at midday and to see this huge visual affirmation of their collaborative work. As we packed up, I asked the farmer with the telehandler, who I didn’t know very well, how much I owed him for his day’s work. His reply was that if I paid for his diesel, that would be enough because he had enjoyed the day so much.
Earlier in the day, Des, a newly retired neighbour who was out walking his dog asked if he could help. Although we already had plenty of hands, Liz noticed how keen he was, so I agreed. After another community day the following weekend to put up the roof structure, over the next couple of weeks it was Des who came to help put on the roofing sheets and to install the track for the hay trolley, always ready with the right tool in hand to pass to me as we worked high up to put together the complicated construction over the projecting part of the hay track.
The barn is not a very big barn, but I couldn’t have done it on my own. When it was in the planning stage I got a price from a company to put up the steel frame and roof it, but even without the siding, the joists and the hay floor it would have cost four times as much as I have paid for everything. If I had gone down that route, I would still be saving my pennies. Used virtually every day over the last seven years, the barn has been a great asset, used in different ways, to harness the horses, to store hay, straw and equipment, so over time I have come to own it in many different ways. But one of the best things about the barn is that when I went to do the horses the morning after putting in the posts, Mike, who worked to get the posts in upright, was leaning on the gate, his dog at his heel, talking to Des who had spontaneously come with his dog from the other direction. They were renewing a day-old acquaintance and together appreciating the fruits of their endeavours, affirming their ownership of the process, and of the slowly changing landscape of this small corner of rural England.
It has been a cold week this week by our standards; the daytime temperatures rising only a degree or two above freezing with the ground remaining hard, so there has been little to do outside, and even less incentive to be out there. In these conditions, even walking along the road with a horse on thin compacted snow and ice is challenging some mornings, so a long lead rope and a horse that will walk five feet away from you, one that will pick its way on the less slippery bits, is a great help. One warmer morning when there was no frost I did use the horses to refill the water bowser, but that has been the only horse work this week, and since then I have been topping up the trough whenever it has been warm enough for the valve on the bowser to turn.
Otherwise I have been in the workshop and feel lucky to have useful work I can do inside. Though not a feature of recent Januarys, often at this time of the year we would spend a couple of days inside making sausages, salami, pâté, lard, bacon and ham, a productive way to spend a cold weekend after sending off our three pigs to slaughter. Not having had any pigs for a few years, I miss the pork and preserved products, and I miss not having the pigs through the autumn and winter. It wasn’t a conscious decision to stop keeping pigs, it’s just what happened. It’s appealing to think that life will become easier and less hectic as you get into your fifties, but that has not been my experience, and having pigs is one activity that has fallen by the wayside. The other factor has been the mud, because although keeping pigs until late November or December would suit us better, partly because they use a lot of energy in winter just to keep warm, with the slaughterhouses running at full capacity to meet the Christmas rush, we always kept ours until the new year. By then, their large enclosure was sometimes a sea of mud, so with the winters getting wetter I am not sure we will have them again.
I do miss pigs, though; there is something splendidly piggy about a pig, perhaps it has something to do with their intelligence, but also with their earthiness. They are great entertainment too; as my then three-year-old daughter said in response to a question at the end of one year, the year we moved here and had two pigs to dig what became our vegetable garden. ‘What did you like best about this year?’
‘The pigs,’ was her immediate response.
‘What is it about the pigs that you like?’
‘Everything that pigs do,’ she said. I can’t disagree.
Those two pigs were the first animals we had here, before the chickens and before Molly came as a weaned foal, and I still remember the day they came. Having kept pigs as a teenager and having learnt the hard way about their abilities of escape, I had made a run of stock netting with barbed wire along the bottom and top, with a strand of electric fence inside as extra security. After lifting the first little pig from the crate into the pen, I got the second wriggling squealing pigling and put it on the ground, but instead of running off to the far corner, it stood motionless, seemingly stunned by being outside for the first time in its life. After twenty seconds, it grunted a little, sniffed the air, lowered its head, sniffed again and put its snout to the ground, then right into the ground, levered its nose forward, blew out through its nostrils and dug; as I say, there is an intrinsic earthiness about a pig.
I made a start on the vegetable garden today. After below average temperatures and frozen ground ten days ago, the temperature is now well above average, and although it has rained, the garden is just dry enough to hold my weight, though the field is still too wet to work. It’s good to make a start on the garden anyway, because in another month or so, by the time I have done the work in the field, the garden could already be behind schedule. Next to the bed where I started digging, there is plenty of kale left to eat from last year, and the purple sprouting broccoli is just starting to sprout, rather early. It didn’t take me long to fork over most of what was the legume bed, not because I am any superman but because the soil, after years of cultivation and compost, is easy to work. The green manure didn’t grow very well in this bed so instead of inverting the soil I only pushed the fork to a third of its depth to loosen the roots of the grass weeds which were starting to take hold. This week I will probably sow the broad beans; in this year’s legume bed there are so few weeds I probably won’t touch the soil except to push in the dibber before dropping in the seeds. Later I can run a hoe over the surface when the weeds come.
A robin joined me to look for his supper as I was digging. He is often known as the gardener’s friend, probably because he comes to see you as you work, or more accurately, he comes to see what you have unearthed. He was in luck; I did see him pounce on some sort of grub as I straightened up from my moderate exertions. The European robin comes from a different family of birds than the American robin; our robin stays around all year, and with its bright orange breast it is a popular image on Christmas cards. They are argumentative little birds. One Easter morning as I sat at the kitchen table making up rhyming clues in readiness for the children’s Easter egg hunt, a robin landed in the hedge outside the kitchen window. I am not a fan of anthropomorphism, whether it is dogs, horses or robins, and this came into my head.
The robin sings upon the bough
and as we listen, we think, how
beautifully the sweet bird sings,
it must be thinking lovely things,
But to a robin it’s a shout –
you other robins, you keep out!
Looking up the robin this morning, I discover that the robins of the same species are much more shy on the continent of Europe than they are here, and that fact reminded me of an idle speculation about what robins did before humans were there to dig our gardens. The answer, I mused, must surely be pigs or wild boar. Since we have had no wild boar here for hundreds of years, until some imported ones escaped in the 1990s and became numerous, perhaps the robins were just stuck with us, while in Europe they stayed in the forests and followed the rootling boar.
Whether that theory holds water or not, the robins are welcome around here, and I guess their lives are about to get easier because spring is just around the corner. Along the hedges the delicate kittens’ tails of the hazel flowers have already appeared and Lucy is showing much more interest in the grass verges as I take her back and forth from the field; spring at last.
William Castle’s recurring letter from a small corner of far away appears in the weekly SFJ Home & Shop Companion email newsletter. All you need is an email address, sign up online or call us to get added.