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William Castle letters from a small corner of far away
William Castle letters from a small corner of far away
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.

William Castle’s letters from a small corner of far away.

Shortly after we emailed our first, free, Home & Shop Companion newsletter to everyone on our email list, I heard from friend and frequent contributor, William Castle, of Shropshire, England offering to send us weekly notes that we might include. His intent was that they might give a newsy respite from all of our stay at home blues. By the second installment it became clear that the content of these ‘letters’ needed to make it to our print edition as well. So, with William’s generous consent, we offer the first five. If you wish to receive the Home & Shop Companion emails, just send us your email address. LRM

1

Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,

What a change just three weeks can bring. Like nearly everywhere else in Europe, here in Britain we have been in near lockdown for two weeks, only able to go out to buy essential food or medicine, once a day for exercise, or to go to work if absolutely necessary. For me, and I guess for many of you who live on farms and ranches [if you also have to stay at home], much of my daily routine has stayed pretty much the same, and that is mostly what I want to tell you about.

The other change has been in the season. For months it has been dreadfully wet; February here was the wettest on record with many rivers overtopping their banks and flooding farmland, businesses and people’s houses. Then since the middle of March we have scarcely had a drop of rain.

My horses, Molly and Lucy, have been mostly idle over winter, but as soon as it had dried enough, I was out chain harrowing and rolling the pasture, starting steadily, particularly as Molly, now 21, needs a gentle reintroduction to work because of her age.

William Castle letters from a small corner of far away

I have a small garden patch in the field, and usually I hope to have it ploughed by the end of February or soon after, to give the overwintered green manure time to rot and for the furrows to settle before further cultivation. But because of the wet, this year the work has got crowded together. This might be a problem if I was a ’real’ farmer with large acres, but we have only one field of six acres, most of it down to pasture, so the workload is not great. Still, at this time of year my ‘proper’ work as a violin maker often has to play second fiddle to what is happening outside as nature springs back to life.

If you have been reading the Small Farmer’s Journal for a while, you may recall I wrote about ploughing with a single horse when I only had one horse, using a Ransomes RHA plough, a small model designed for use with a one horse or two smaller horses or ponies. Since getting a second horse, I have continued to use this small plough [which was also featured in ‘Learning to Plough’ in the 431 edition of SFJ], because I am used to it and it is light to manoeuvre if the horses don’t line up precisely with the next furrow. So, this year I started out ploughing as usual, but had difficulty burying some of the tufty grass weeds that had developed over autumn and winter. This problem was one result of hurting my shoulder last September, which put me out of action, so instead of establishing an even stand of rye and vetch as a green manure, I had to let the weeds do their thing.

After struggling with this patch where I will plant potatoes and onions, the plough not having sufficient ground-hugging ability in the free working soil to keep the rolling coulter cutting through the weed growth [or perhaps I hadn’t got it adjusted right], I decided to get out my original plough, which I bought thirty years ago but I had never used it here. This is a Ransomes LCP, the type of plough I learned to plough with, which is heavier and more stable than the other one and with a sharper mouldboard which breaks up the furrow. I had intended to give it a go last year, but since the ploughing was going fine with the little plough, I just kept on going with that.

This year, however, it immediately made all the difference in the next patch; with a deeper, and wider furrow, the LCP made easy work of turning the weeds under, and after rolling both patches and putting the cultivator through the first patch, I called it a day for the horses, with the intention of continuing next morning. It was not to be; however, Molly having developed rapid and laboured breathing by my evening visit. She tends to react like this when the cow parsley comes into flower, but this hot day had brought out the bees to the tree blossom, so I called the vet [that’s what we call a veterinarian, not an ex-serviceman], who injected her and gave me a bottle to add to her feed to ease her breathing.

So next day I was back to one horse and the little plough. To make life easier, I chose to plough ground with less weed growth. This was going to be the first time Lucy had ploughed on her own, and the first thing to do was to open out a new furrow, hard enough with a team, but with a single horse you can’t see very well where you are going. So following a tip I got from SFJ years ago, I set the plough to take a small furrow, put the hake [clevis] in the middle, and with my right hand on the left handle to steady the plough, drove Lucy with both lines in my left hand. Having two wheels on the plough, set widely apart on this occasion, certainly helps with the stability, and although the resulting furrow was not good enough to take a photograph, it was good enough for farm work and straight enough to turn back when making the ridge, crown, or whatever you call it in your part of the world. Luckily Lucy is used to walking in the furrow and pulling whatever load I put her to, so we actually had a very pleasant and constructive morning.

Since then, Molly joined us again for the last patch of ploughing, and both have been working down the ground ready for planting, but that will have to wait for another time.

Here’s hoping you and yours are well and safe,

William

2

Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,

It has been a lovely warm day here today, my favourite time of year. The delicate light green leaves on the hawthorn from just a week ago have now transformed into robust mid-green, and the damson blossom is waning as the apple buds are starting to open. There has been activity in my vegetable patch in the field too. Molly, my 21 year old mare, was well enough to help with the final part of the ploughing, but while she was out of action, I took the opportunity to use Lucy to graze down the grass weeds, confined behind a dead electric fence for a short time each day, to make ploughing easier and as a preparation for her stomach before I turn her out properly.

William Castle letters from a small corner of far away

The last bit of ploughing didn’t take very long, the LCP plough with its wider cut making it a quicker job than with the smaller plough. I also set the plough an inch deeper, to make a more efficiently shaped furrow slice, to get all the trash and weeds buried and to minimise any plough pan. The LCP also left the ground reasonably well broken, so after rolling the same day and cultivating the next, the seedbed was coming along, good enough, had it been more level, for an overwintering cereal crop. However, it was not fine enough for root crops, so I rolled it again, cultivated again and then ran over it with a light set of harrows. On a bigger area I use four of these sections behind a single horse, but moving between different garden patches and different implements, here it is easier to use two.

William Castle letters from a small corner of far away

I then turned my attention to the potato plot, cultivating it again, nearly as deep as the cultivator would go, and then flattening it with the roller to give an even surface for the ridging plough. Even though I have used a single horse on this small patch, it is much easier to use two horses on the ridging plough because I can see where I am going by looking between the horses. For making the first furrow, I usually set the wheels wide apart to keep the plough stable, with the clevis set centrally. For subsequent trips, I move the wheels in, so they don’t run on the excavated soil, and at each end, flip over the bout marker which scratches a line for the next furrow.

When making potato rows some people use a wide doubletree the width of two potato rows, so the clevis always remains central. Otherwise, to keep the plough in line when using a narrower doubletree, you have to move the clevis across, either by having two pins in the clevis and allowing the draught chain to move across on its own, or, as I do for only a few rows, reposition the clevis at each end.

The potato patch is the one I had trouble with when ploughing with my little plough because of the clumps of grass weeds, and the lack of time to allow the weeds to decompose meant that making the potato rows was difficult too. Compared to a normal plough which wants to keep itself anchored in the ground, the ridging plough is more fickle, wanting to follow the least line of resistance, so the straightness of my rows left something to be desired. Once I had made five rows [I usually plant 4 or 5 rows depending on the size of the potatoes] I tied the horses up to the barn while I went to plant. This is a hand and bucket job; I just walk along the furrow dropping a potato in front of my foot, and if it bounces forward I push it back into place with my other heel as I step forward, so the potatoes end up about 16 to 18 inches apart.

This year I made sure to have my knife with me to cut any large tubers in two to get more plants, because if there ever was a year to make sure you grow enough food, this must be it. As it happens, the tubers were small, so I didn’t need to divide any, and I actually had enough for six rows. Then it was back to the horses and the ridger, this time with one wheel mounted centrally to split the ridges over the potatoes. After the first row, those who use a wide doubletree put one horse in a finished furrow and the other on top of the ridge which will be split on the next turn, but it is hard to get a horse to walk on a soft ridge, and although I tried it once with Molly working as a single, I couldn’t get it to work. But putting each horse in their own furrow works just fine, you just need to move the clevis for the plough to follow the correct line, and the horses don’t seem to squash any of the potatoes. Splitting the ridges is harder than making them, especially with soil that isn’t worked to an even tilth, and the plough can even come out of the side of the ridge if you’re not careful. This year it happened once, annoying as it is, so I did return down the same furrow to straighten it out later. This job is one when you really appreciate steady horses that keep in their furrow.

William Castle letters from a small corner of far away

When doing work like this, it is easy to see how some people might think that working horses is all unremitting hard slog, when conditions aren’t ideal, and you end up hot and sweaty, somewhat dehydrated and perhaps a little short tempered. After all, with a tractor, you set the plough more deeply or drop a gear and power on through. After getting the potatoes in, into somewhat lumpy ridges, I am slightly inclined to agree, except that had I not been out of action last year and had planted a cover crop, or if it had been dry enough to get the ploughing done earlier, or if I had waited a few more weeks before planting, or if I had used the bigger plough and ploughed at the same depth as the root patch, it would all have been much easier. Farming, even on a small scale, and gardening for that matter, is not just about getting one job done, it’s about what you did before, and the effect today’s work has on what comes next. I know, for instance, that I can continue to work the potato ridges to reduce or eliminate the weeds while the potatoes are growing, and by getting them in now they are going to be bigger and earlier, and a step ahead of potato blight which often comes in August.

Even amongst the ups and downs, the hopes and disappointments, those of us who live on the land are extremely lucky. Especially in the current situation, when you think of those confined in tiny apartments or with no home at all, we are lucky to have space to move, lucky to have contact with the natural world and lucky to have something constructive and valuable to do.

So, if you can, keep busy, and keep safe,

William

3

Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,

Between Christmas and New Year, I like to slow down, to have time to read and spend time with the family, but there are two gardening jobs that I like to do too. Pruning the fruit trees, which is easily forgotten, is one, though sometimes it is too cold at that time of year. The other is an inside job, going through packets of seeds and the new seed catalogues to work out what I need before the new year’s growing season.

This year the weather was mild, so I pruned the trees, but the seed sorting got left and forgotten as I started a new project in the workshop. Then on the 22nd of February, prompted by the shocking news of the spread of Corona virus in Italy, I put my seed order in while things were still running as normal. I’ve grown a garden every year since I was twenty-four; I like to be outside, I like the freshness of the produce and the measure of independence that growing it gives me, but this year the possibility of supplies of fresh vegetables becoming erratic sharpened my intentions. For me, growing a good garden this year is partly self-interest, but it is also true that the more any of us can grow, whether just for ourselves, or some extra for neighbours or to sell, the more is left in the shops for those who can’t. The new circumstances have also changed other people’s priorities, with many digging up parts of their gardens for the first time, so much so, that the demand is stretching the supply of seeds. So this year I have been sharing my spare half packets of seeds with friends and family.

William Castle letters from a small corner of far away

Even though the seeds arrived a couple of days after being ordered, the vegetable garden at home was running late because of the wet winter. But being smaller than the garden patch in the field, it was easier to catch up, so by mid-March I had the broad beans in, I had forked the weeds out of the beds for peas and potatoes and covered them with fleece to warm up the soil. At the same time, I washed the greenhouse glass, inside and out, not my favourite job, but it looks much better and lets more light in, and sowed lettuce, pak choi, cabbage, spinach, mizuna and radish, and started off the tomatoes in the house.

In the field, the day after planting the potatoes, I planted onions. I only ever plant two rows for our own use, but because of the extra potato row this year, I had less space for onions, so made the rows narrower than usual, but still wide enough for a horse and cultivator to go between them. I mark out the rows for onions with a push hoe which I bought in a junk shop for £15 [about $25]. It has three tines, but I use two to mark out, set as wide as they will go, then I plant in every third row. Compared with a row marker of the correct distance, I know this takes more time in walking up and down, and maybe someday I will make one.

Just like when making a row with horses, the difficult part is getting the first row straight, because with the wheel hoe you can’t quite see the wheel as you look ahead at your mark. I grow onions from sets, because it is easier than growing from seed, and you can still get a good crop if they are planted late. After making the rows with the push hoe, I plant the sets about 8” apart by hand. In the past I did this bending over, but now I go along on my hands and knees planting both rows as I go. Then to cover them and hide them from the birds, who tend to pull them out and drop them, I set two tines on the wheeled hoe a few inches apart to make two small furrows and in doing so, they cover the onions in between. The tines are offset to one side so that the wheel goes alongside the onions and doesn’t squash any, and for the same reason I avoid walking on the row.

With the onions and potatoes planted, I started thinking about the root vegetables. Since this was the patch last to be ploughed and worked down, it still retained some moisture, but hoping for some rain, I thought I would wait a while before sowing. But after a week, the weather forecast on Good Friday morning gave no rain for the following week, so I decided to sow anyway. For the root vegetables I use the same procedure to mark the rows as the onions, only this year I followed each row with a single tine mounted centrally on the wheel hoe to expose more moist soil. Usually I grow three rows of mangels, one of swede, half a row of parsnips and half of beetroot, but this year I increased the parsnip and beets to one row each. I always keep home saved mangold and parsnip seed in the freezer, the germination of the parsnip usually being 90%, compared with 5 or 10% for the shop bought seed. Another problem with parsnip is its slow germination, so the weeds between the rows can’t be tackled early. Taking a lead from gardeners who sprinkle a few quick growing radish seeds to mark the rows, I use mustard seeds to mark the row, which otherwise I use as a quick growing green manure, and weed them out later when I thin the parsnips.

William Castle letters from a small corner of far away

Once all the seeds are sown, I go back with the wheel hoe to cover the seeds, in the same manner as the onions, except I mount the two tines equidistant from the wheel, and run the wheel on top of the seeds to push them down before the small waves of soil from the tines cover them. To keep pressure on the wheel and an even covering of soil over the seeds by keeping the hoe at the same angle, I hold the hoe handles further down than usual, resting the loop of the handle on my belly or belt, so I can push down quite hard, and just creep along the row, putting each foot just in front of the other to press down the soil.

It’s now been a little over a week since I sowed the roots, and thankfully it has rained a little, but we could still do with some more. Hopefully the shoots will appear soon, like they have in the neighbouring patches, a shimmer of green showing where the oats have come through, a sign that spring is well under way.

Hope you’re all keeping well and are using this strange time as best you can,

William

4

Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,

It’s been another hot week here again, more like late May or June than April, but no more rain yet. After some concerted work outside from mid- March, most of this week I have been inside in the workshop, though I have done bits and pieces in the garden.

The tomato plants I started in pots in the house and moved to the greenhouse a fortnight ago are now a few inches tall and planted in the soil in the greenhouse, and the quick growing leafy vegetables, also in the greenhouse, are now big enough to eat. But with the peas I made a mistake this year. Before I sow broad beans and French beans, I often soak them on a paper towel on a plate for a day or two, especially if I am running a bit late, because it gives them a couple of days head start and it makes me get on with preparing the ground. I thought I’d do the same with peas this year, but left them soaking for three or four days, adding water occasionally, before sowing them. Usually I would expect them to come through after a few days, but when there was no sign of any shoots, I had a little delve in the soil and except for three little plants, there was nothing; I had obviously left them too long and too wet, so the seed had started to rot. Luckily, I had bought two packets of seed so sowed the replacements a couple of days ago, still under the fleece to keep the soil warm and to hide the shoots from the pigeons which like to eat them.

William Castle letters from a small corner of far away

Last time I wrote I still had Lucy, my younger mare, in at nights, but now she is out in the field. Nowadays, the transition between winter and summer feed regimes is very gradual, because the horses have access to a track round the outside of the field for at least part of the day all year round. Some of the track is stone, some is soil which turns to mud in winter, and some on the free-draining sand keeps some grass. When the grass starts to grow, they start eating it, so it is not like changing from an all hay to an all grass diet. I am still careful though, and only turn Lucy out on a tiny patch of grass for an hour to start with. So far, she has only been grazing odd patches near the barn and the tiny paddock at the bottom of the garden, always behind a single strand of electric fence. In these small areas for a short period of time, I don’t usually connect it to the fencer unit. Being able to graze awkward corners is one of the fringe benefits of having a calm draught horse or two.

This unseasonably warm weather in March and April has started to be a regular thing in recent years, sometimes followed by a cold May, so I have started to rethink my management of the grass. Usually we would expect spring showers throughout April as the temperature slowly rises, and continual growth through to hay making time. Traditionally, most farmers would graze the grass down tightly with sheep over winter, dairy farmers around here often getting sheep down from the hills to ‘tidy up’ the fields. In the spring this very short grass takes some time to get going, partly because there is little protection to the soil, though of course, many farmers spread artificial nitrogen to get it moving. A couple of years ago, after it had been too wet to graze part of the field in late autumn so the grass was longer going into winter, I noticed how much quicker the grass came back in spring, and that it was ready to cut for hay earlier than the rest. Given the new pattern of little rain in spring and early summer, I am now trying to keep more height as we go into winter, so the spring grass can make the best advantage of the moisture still left in the soil from winter.

Another thing that led me to rethink the grassland was a story a friend told me. He milks cows for local farmers, and a few years ago one of these farmers, who has about 200 cows, put down a track made of old concrete railway sleepers [railroad ties] placed upside down, and installed electric fences to graze the cows in paddocks, one paddock per day. This system is widespread elsewhere, perhaps where you live, but not common here. But the startling thing for me was that after the second year, the farm’s bottom line was up by the equivalent of the wages for two full time cowmen. The direct reason was a decrease in the amount of fertiliser used and a fall in the amount of concentrated feed they needed to purchase for the cows.

William Castle letters from a small corner of far away

The more subtle reasons, however, are probably more interesting. Because the cows are in any one paddock for just a day, the grass is not grazed so hard, so it recovers more quickly, and because there is less trampling of the soil, the ground remains better aerated. The grass, free to grow, puts down deeper roots because it is not being stopped in its tracks by being grazed so often, the deeper roots having greater access to moisture and nutrients. So if there is a dry time, the deep roots can still reach moisture more easily than continually grazed grass with a shallow root structure. In autumn the improved soil structure, better drainage and increased humus allows the cattle to be grazed longer without damaging the soil, and for the same reasons, the soil warms up more quickly in spring, so the cattle can be turned out earlier too.

With horses, of course, grazing management is a bit different; you can’t safely turn them into long lush grass because their digestive system is really built for a desert animal. Still, I am sure there are some lessons to be learnt from the Regenerative Agriculture brigade for horse keepers too.

Keep safe,

William

5

Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,

At last we have had some rain. Last Sunday it rained heavily for two hours, and two days later we had gentle rain all day, but despite the accompanying cloud it has been the sunniest April on record. The rain has also brought forth the weeds, so as soon as it is dry enough and I can see the rows, I’ll go down the rows with a horse and cultivator.

The day before it rained I did manage to ridge up the potatoes, which I had rolled flat a week earlier to break down some of the clods, and soon I will go down the furrows with the cultivator to loosen the soil so I can ridge it up again to keep on top of the weeds.

William Castle letters from a small corner of far away

After doing the ridging, I took Lucy to our little wood to drag out some firewood. She had not been in the wood before, and her reactions showed she wasn’t so sure that it was a good place for her to be. So, I tied her to a willow tree on the edge of the wood while I went in a little way to move some branches to clear a path to get the logs out. Once I had done that, I led her further into the wood and tied her to a birch tree while I continued to work, still within sight, and talking to her most of the time about something and nothing while she went round and round the tree. After a while she settled down, as I continued to move further out of sight, talking occasionally. It is in situations like this that I am glad to always have a halter on a horse, under the bridle, because without any danger of the mouth being damaged, you can tie up a horse securely. For the horse, it knows from experience that the pressure on the poll from the halter, or the nose band, means it has to stay where it is. Usually this is in a place where it is happy and secure, and perhaps that also helps them become calmer. For the teamster, it is also a bit of a time out, because you don’t need to keep a constant eye on them, or keep tight hold of the lines and continually switch from a reassuring tone to keep them calm to an emphatic one to stop them from moving. Once she was calm, I drove her out of the wood, back in again with gentle encouragement, then in and out a couple more times without any hesitation before attaching a singletree and choker chain and steadily pulling out the logs, every journey becoming more relaxed and more normal.

The other thing I did before the rain came was to go for a bicycle ride. During lockdown we can go out for exercise, not that I really need any additional exercise, but after four weeks I did fancy a change of scene. There’s nothing better on a warm spring afternoon than pedalling down narrow hedge-lined lanes, with the fruit trees all in blossom and the oaks just starting to open their crumpled leaves. With very few cars on the road and scarcely a vapour trail in the sky, I was reminded of my childhood, and the air, even in a rural area like this, seems fresher than normal.

Something I hadn’t thought about, and so hadn’t expected to see on my bike ride, were the handmade posters stuck in many windows, even though the postman and the occasional cyclist would be the only ones to see them. There is one near here, typical of thousands, perhaps millions, all over the country; it is a picture of a rainbow, a heart symbol, and the words, ‘thank you, NHS.’ After months of divisiveness and division in Britain surrounding Brexit, the posters demonstrate a profound change brought on by the Covid pandemic. Here and now, there is a remarkable degree of unity, most people accepting the lockdown with patience, stoicism, and a respect for others, especially for the people who work in the health service. That, by the way, is what NHS stands for, the National Health Service. It came into being in 1948, when, after the sacrifices of war, everyone thought that we deserved something better than what went before. So our NHS, and most people do think of it as our NHS, is free at the point of use, so when you are sick you don’t have to worry about how to pay. [We do pay of course, through our taxation system, throughout life when we are well enough to do so.] But perhaps the greatest demonstration of positivity through this difficult time has been the weekly applause for the health workers, when, at 8pm every Thursday, people stand outside their front doors and applaud. Some cheer and whoop, a few bang pots and pans to let off steam, while others share a few words with neighbours; but all stand in support, with admiration and thanks.

William Castle letters from a small corner of far away

Although this is a really hard time for many, it is also a time for reflection, a time to review how we live our lives. In lockdown, we have come to realise the value of music and drawing, of baking, gardening and the natural world, but most of all we have come to appreciate our friends, our neighbours and our families, because in the end, what most of us value most highly is each other. The last weeks have reminded us of what many had forgotten, that the best way to protect and support ourselves is to protect, support and care for each other, not just because we need to, but because we want to. After all, no matter whether we greet each other with ‘Buenas Dias’, ‘god dag’, or ‘good morning,’ the next thing we say is, ‘how are you?’

Keep safe,

William