Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Summertime and the living is easy

Easy for some maybe. Not, it would appear, for us. Summer for me used to mean daring to go to work without tights and a jacket, sweating it out on the Tube and watching reams of punters drip their way around the statutory sights, walking at an infuriatingly slow pace as they hinder my progress towards an al fresco glass of something  crisp and cold after work.  And then of course you have all the wonderful weekend senses of summer – the smell of cut grass, the coconutty twang of the sun tan lotion from last year’s beach holiday, the sound of ice cubes clinking in a mojito as you watch the sun go down. Oh yes. Summer at its rose-tinted bespectacled best.  I had imagined living in a place like this all of this would be beautifully magnified into some hazy country idyll. The reality, however, is proving a little different…

For starters, you can forget stretching languorously out on the grass to soak up the rays. First you've got to attack the damn grass and that is easier said than done when it literally towers above your head in the couple of acres that we have that are neither officially lawn nor field. This sort of grassy limbo is where we had idyllically imagined we would waft around the pretty meadow, Timotei advert style, running our hands through the wild flowers and tiptoeing lightly after butterflies. Yeah right. Who knew that grass could grow at such a rate?! We are now faced with the challenge of conquering it before it swallows us all up, vicious brambles n'all, and, in true Sleeping Beauty stylee, it takes ten men with machetes to get us out again. So we are now investing in what is known in the game as a ‘topper’. Not, as the name suggests, a nifty device to end it all (although I could see how that might one day come in handy for the increasing number of beasts wandering about the place with a number on their heads), but rather a souped up lawn mower for tackling large expanses of unruly grass.


We’ve also been engaging in a little light fencing this week to tackle the large patch of long-neglected marshy scrub (which the estate agents so poetically described as the “wildlife conservation meadow” in the bullshit patter that only they can do so well) so we can whack some sheep on there and win ourselves another couple of acres of productive land. Turns out the drains (ah yes the beloved drains again) have not been unblocked for many years creating a des res for any number bog dwellers and a nightmare for any form of farm equipment. So to action! For the precision lovers among you, fencing is quite possibly your perfect form of mental and physical exercise. First you’ve got to line up your poles to the absolute millimetre and then you belt the living crap out of them until they are the requisite depth below the ground. Satisfaction incarnate.

Check out that straight line of poles
June always used to be a busy month at work, everyone working late into the evening trying to hit their milestones and deadlines before the City packed up and buggered off to Saint Tropez or other equally glamorous locations for the whole of July and August. Here overtime has taken on a whole new meaning. Basically as soon as the kids are asleep (or at least confined to barracks) it’s a quick game of rock, paper, scissors, stone as to who gets to go back out and try and salvage the remnants of their over ambitious To Do list, embarked upon in the morning and usually in tatters by lunchtime. This week, I found myself up at the veg patch in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt at 9 o’clock at night, in the glorious evening sunshine, manuring a trench for my peas and I was, quite literally, as happy as a pig in shit. Less overtime, more Über time.

And so to the weather.  I’d love to be able to tell you that everything you have heard about the Welsh summer weather is wrong and we have been basking in sub-tropical heat for weeks now. I could tell you that but I’d be lying of course. I’ve also given up torturing myself by obsessively checking the weather in the South East to see how much nicer it is than here. Not helpful.  That said, it’s been ‘good’ enough for me to somehow get myself sunburned (who thinks about SPF protection when you’re speed weeding for half an hour before baby wakes up/toddler kicks off?!) and my nightly two-step to get the baby to sleep each night is now doubling up conveniently as a rain dance. I never thought summer for me would mean avidly watching the weather forecast for the slightest promise of a few drops of rain. Our veg patch, not on mains water and not yet set up with gutters and rain butts, is rapidly starting to look like something out of the Grapes of Wrath, dust and shrivelled up seedlings all over the shop. As I write this it has just started to rain and I swear to God I involuntarily gasped “YES!”.  Nor did I ever expect to find myself coming out in cold sweats in the middle of the supermarket or the dead of night stressing about whether or not I have opened or closed the sodding greenhouse. It feels like my young tomato and cucumber plants are like an extension of the family now and I can’t bear to think of them wilting in the heat or shivering in the cold. As if I didn’t already have enough to worry about…

And finally summer wouldn’t be summer without the ubiquitous barbecue and I’m pleased to tell you that we had our very first one of the year this week. Well, I say barbecue, we actually ended up spit roasting the back legs of a roe deer so we could experiment with some different culinary techniques ahead of our Woodland Banquet at Camp Bestival in August. Thankfully we had some willing guinea pigs in attendance to sample our venison delights which went down a treat. All washed down with some amazing rocket fuel cider that we have discovered is brewed, somewhat dangerously, just a few miles from the house. Oh dear. Summer may have just got a whole lot more fun. But in the interests of our To Do list, not to mention our livers, we have also been dabbling with some elderflower champagne this week. Not alcoholic but deliciously refreshing and made with flowers from our own hedgerows. For the first time I don’t have to be paranoid about chemical fertilizers and petrol fumes contaminating our fizz.  I'll take that as my al fresco post work refreshment any day of the week. Cheers to that!

Elderflower champagne in progress

Sunday, 21 June 2015

You win some, you lose some

As I sit down to write this, it occurs to me that it was exactly 200 years ago to the day since the Battle of Waterloo. Fitting, since this week has felt like a series of bloody (in both senses of the words) battles, not least trying to write this blog in the face of children that won’t go to sleep and a broadband service that just won’t work (hence the tardy posting…). So here, in no particular order, is the match report for the week that was…

The week got off to a less than auspicious start with an unfortunate accident resulting from slightly oversized wellies and an overenthusiastic desire to get back into the house. For all the potential hazards that present themselves around the place (farm machinery, barbed wire, tumble down barns etc.) my daughter somehow manages to injure herself on the back door step. Blood and motherly guilt flowed in equal torrents as we retreated to the kitchen to assess the damage. Thankfully just a cut to the gums and a graze to the cheek. Nothing that some TLC and a few “seeties” couldn’t fix (as she was quick to pick up on).

Result: daughter 0 – doorstep 1

Next up, the chicks (biggest misnomer ever here at the moment as they are starting to dwarf the laying hens although, perversely, still sound exactly as they did on day one – peep, peep, peep). Having lovingly checked their barn temperature every ten minutes for the past six weeks, ground up their corn twice a day, and nourished them with the finest worms and other hand-selected fresh greens from the field, finally graduation day arrived for them to brave it in the great outdoors. Now, never let it be said that this smallholding lark is purely physically demanding, oh no. You would not believe how much cerebral calculating and complex problem solving went into their transition from barn to field. No less than four university-educated brains sat around the table and sweated over the challenge like some spotty teenager in a GCSE mathematics exam: ‘you have eight table birds and six laying birds, one hen house and two different diets. You need to keep them separate by day, together by night but ensure that they all get enough of their respective food. What is the answer?’ Well, the answer we came up with, and worked to actually implement by way of costly chicken wire and fence posts, not to mention considerable blood, sweat and tears, turned out to be an EPIC FAIL. The one coefficient we completely overlooked was that of protection from marauding corvids. Mistake. Big mistake. Or one might say, rookie mistake, given that the large black birds we saw flying out of the pen bore a striking resemblance to rooks. Having retreated to the house for a self-congratulatory cup of tea after the afternoon’s toil, we came back out not an hour later to find one chick pecked to death, and another well on its way. Well. You should have heard him – talk about turning the air blue! Shotguns were loaded, bait was laid and we have now officially declared a war of attrition on all crow-like species that deign to come within a 100 yard radius of the now doubly-reinforced, high security hen coop. We’ve still to actually shoot any but we’ll get ‘em. Oh yes. We will. You mark my words….

Result: Crows 1 ½ - Us 6½ (given we managed to salvage a couple of the breasts from one bird for dinner)

The new high security chicken coop

We’ve been a tad more successful in our battle against our ground-based invasion. More fool the rabbit that decided to have a wee munch on our growing lettuces. Beatrix Potter we are not. Before you could say “Benjamin Bunny”, the offending critter was dispatched and found itself in a cool box in the back of the Landrover on its way to Hampshire to be course material for disaffected youths. Ha, take that. And to add insult to injury, the dog (god knows how given his multiple yet dismal attempts to date) managed to catch a healthy, adult rabbit this morning on our daily rounds. He’s been parading it around all day like the proverbial dog with two dicks. Let’s hope that will be a lesson to any other have-a-go bunny heroes who reckon they can take on my veg patch… especially now we have actual grown-up things to eat like strawberries and radishes and mizuna (that’s posh talk for lettuce leaves that any fool can grow…).

Result: Rabbits, nul point – Us, a resounding 2 (but surely worth double as scored within the same 12 hour period?!)

Hands off Mr Bunnyface!

Finally, to the roads. Not frequented very much at all by me since I arrived here given our propensity to never leave the place. However, somehow, I managed to land myself a speeding ticket. Yeah, yeah, I know. I should drive more slowly, pay attention to the rules of the road, yadda yadda. BUT, in my defence (your honour), I was only going 37 mph in a 30 mph which starts WELL before the built up area in town. And I have since found out it is a notorious blackspot for mobile speed cameras. Now I’ll lie down and take what I’m due as readily as the next person, but on this occasion I feel my injustice quite keenly given the kamikaze style of motoring adopted by the rest of locals around here who drive like coked up Italians, overtaking on blind bends, hills and hidden dips, you name it. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, my one and only excursion into Ingerland since we moved here (yes I know, hard for me to believe too!) this week also ended in total chaos when a jack-knifed lorry forced the police to close the M56 (i.e. the main artery into North Wales). What should have been a straightforward two hour journey back from Yorkshire turned into a five hour magical, mystery tour around the back lanes of Cheshire with husband playing the role of sat nav from his iPad on the sofa at home. It might all have been some charming adventure were it not for the fed-up three month old baby in the back... I think from now on I’ll just stay put.

Result: North Wales Police 2 (+ £100) – Me 0 (+3 points)

Of course this time last year such highway misdemeanours were not something I ever had to worry about. My transport woes consisted instead of a daily personal battle at Waterloo, fighting other stressed out commuters for the last seat on the (invariably) delayed 18.39 to Portsmouth Harbour.  I know where I’d rather be right now...

Friday, 12 June 2015

Farm couture

One of the challenges I never, ever expected to face when I moved here was just what to wear.  I thought my days of standing, perplexed in front of a monochrome wardrobe of suits, wondering which shade of blue shirt to wear with which grey suit, and which pair of killer heels to wear for the *critical* sales meeting in the morning were long gone. I was secretly looking forward to being able to spend every day in my favourite pair of jeans and fleece and not give a second thought to my outfits ever again. Wow. How wrong can a girl be?! I can’t believe she is going to spin the topic of clothing out for a whole damn blog post I hear you groan, but bear with me on this one.

So first up the weather. I think North Wales must have its own micro-climate in its ability to go from minus 5 degrees celsius in the morning to plus 20 degrees in the afternoon. I mean how the hell do you dress for that? Add in a good dose of the inevitable rain showers at some point, maybe a dash of hail and a soupcon of scorching hot sun and you have a typical spring day here in our little corner of the world.

Ok, then you have to consider the types of activities you may be undertaking that day. Anything relating to livestock and which therefore runs the risk of being shat on will require a separate outfit in the interests of trying to maintain some level of health and hygiene around the place. Tinkering with the rotavator or having a play on the tractor? That will require a whole other set of clothing on account of the copious amounts of diesel and two-stroke that seem to end up anywhere but in the fuel tanks. A walking firebomb waiting to happen. And as for working up on the veg plot, any item of clothing with the vague hint of a pocket or a hem or a fold redistributes soil and crap all around the house in reverse Shawshank Redemption style, so separate outfit required for that too. Finally I don’t think there is any set of clothes that can take on the waist deep water of our ditches. With this one you just gotta take a deep breath baby and dive right in.  So on any given day you can be looking at up to five changes of outfit, at least. Naomi Campbell had feck all to complain about compared to this!

Tackling the drains...

And that’s before you multiply all that by approximately five again to wager the child factor of a puking baby and your average mucky toddler. Then divide the number of clothes that you actually have available in your wardrobe by eight to account for the fact that you are too small for your maternity clothes now and way too big for anything that fitted you before you had kids. Oh and don’t forget you need to wear something that is ‘easy access’ so you can feed you baby twenty times a day. This basically leaves you with bugger all to wear, spending each day in a frenzied tango between washing machine, washing line and yet another semi-dry selection of mismatched, ill-fitting clothes. You just hope and pray that no-one you know, or indeed anyone at all, rocks up unannounced to see you wearing your ancient jogging bottoms and your husband’s holey shirt. I swear to God it’s only a matter of time before baling twine becomes my accessory of choice…

But vanity and sheer pragmatics aside, with all this daily re-costuming it is a truth universally acknowledged that the very thing you need at that exact moment in time (phone, lip balm, tissues, pocket knife, essential piece of string, toddler’s favourite toy of the moment and hence only thing to silence their incessant whingeing) will absolutely, without fail, always be in the item of clothing that you are no longer wearing. Every bloody time. It’s uncanny. And very freaking annoying.

And don’t even get me started on footwear.  Before I arrived here I thought a pair of wellies was just a pair of wellies. Oh-ho no. There is a whole other level of welly etiquette around here that I never knew existed. None of your high-falutin Hunter or Le Chameau rubbish round here. What you need for dealing with the great Welsh weather and mud are some good, honest Dunlops.  Straight out of the farmer’s mart and straight into the cow pats. No messing about. Unless of course you are dealing with anything remotely dangerous. Then of course you need your steel toe caps of course. But not the chainsaw because that merits a whole pair of boots all for itself. Oh and if you are doing anything in the sun trap that is the veg plot in the afternoon you best wear short boots to avoid the rivers of sweat pouring down your legs and the immediate onset of athlete’s foot. It’s an absolute podiatric minefield I tell you!

Trusty Dunlops 

However, we may have found a solution… Anyone who has secretly envied their child’s all-in-one suit for romping around outside prepare to be very, very jealous. We found these bad boys at the local farmers’ mart and they are a-w-e-s-o-m-e. Put em on, zip em up and off you go. The only thing you have to consider is whether to wear anything underneath them or not. No pissing about with coats or waterproof trousers or sun cream or farmer’s tans. You just zip and go. It may not be the most flattering of outfits but I tell you what, I’m considering getting a whole load of them in different shades of blue, so that I may, of a morning, scratch my head and wonder which one to wear to meet my adoring animal fan club. 

Overall chic

Thursday, 4 June 2015

You get less time for murder

This week we celebrated ten years together and five blissful years of marriage. The nature of our wedding was perhaps a sign of things to come:  memorable for the high volume of wellies worn and forgettable for the high volume of alcohol consumed. It’s not everyone who celebrates their nuptials with Welsh lambs cooked in the ground, homemade venison sausages and shooting contests mixed in among the champagne and speeches. In fact, I kept the white wellies I was wearing on the day, not for any overly sentimental reasons, but rather because, as my father pointed out just as we were about to walk down the aisle, “they might come in helluva handy one day down the abattoir”. I think the writing was on the wall.  So after five years of going to work, coming home, spending the odd evening, weekend and holiday together, we suddenly find ourselves almost constantly in each other’s company as we take a year ‘off’ to sort things out with our new place. With no 9-5 (more like 5-9) or other fixed commitments to occupy your time, embarking on a project like this puts a whole new angle on your relationship, so what’s the secret for success? Here, for what it’s worth, is my Guide to Ultimate Marital Harmony on the Land.

Wedding day

Five years later...

1.       Give each other space
There are some tasks that can be completed en famille in manner of soft focus pictures straight from the pages of Country Living magazine. This week, for example, we spent a happy afternoon strimming and clearing grass and weeds from the drive: Dad on the brushcutter, Mum on the rake and a giggling toddler hitching free rides in the wheelbarrow while the baby dozed quietly in her pram. Easy. Now to be fair we have achieved this a sum total of once by some completely flukey alignment of weather, toddler cooperation and baby sleep patterns.  In order to get anything actually done and keep frustrations and screaming (from all of us) to a minimum I wholeheartedly recommend putting as much distance between yourselves as possible. Ideally, at least three fields if you can. My general rule of thumb is to remain out of sight as much as possible during daylight hours, convening only for meals and the kids’ bedtime. Other than that the only way I know my husband’s whereabouts is by the almighty racket usually issuing from one of his many new and potentially life threatening pieces of machinery. I can generally be more covert in my operations around about the place, other than the piercing shriek of a toddler that has misplaced a worm or the cries of an over-hungry baby. When I start to get a bit twitchy is when it all goes quiet. That’s when I really have to self-manage my paranoia that he has severed a limb or, worse still, mangled said equipment in some costly error of judgement. Again.

2.       Share the load
I.e. divvy up the shit jobs, quite literally. For example, clearing months’ (possibly years’) worth of chicken shit from a very neglected hen house, a task I neatly managed to avoid on the grounds of being eight months pregnant. So I watched somewhat smugly from the wings as husband and father-in-law (on a very badly timed visit) donned Ebola-esque outfits (masks, rubber gloves, overalls, I kid you not) and waged war on the neglected hut. However, I was not quite so smug when it became apparent that we needed to address the seemingly indiscriminate bowel movements of the previous owner’s dog. So there I was on Easter Sunday (still not entirely sure why we chose such a key date in the Christian/Pagan calendar, depending on your persuasion - think it was just a nice, sunny day), skulking around stony-faced with my spade and bucket, watching the kids frolicking around hunting for chocolate eggs, whilst I embarked on a wholly different type of hunt. This did however get me out of clearing up the kitchen in the aftermath of a particularly virulent bout of canine diarrhoea the following week. Ah, you see, we really are living the dream.

3.       Surprise each other with thoughtful gifts
Five year anniversary. Wood. Some women might be expecting some beautiful carved ornament, or perhaps some tasteful table mats. Or, indeed, to hell with tradition and show me the damn Mulberry handbag and diamond rings, Mister. But it seems we know each other too well. When I was presented with a stunning piece of Alder, hand cut and sanded from the first tree that we felled on the place I was genuinely touched (i.e. weepy, but thankfully still able to blame the post pregnancy hormones, just) and it now has pride of place on our dining room table. I wish I could say the same for the pressure cooker which arrived right behind it. I’m pretty sure that I speak for most staunch (and borderline) feminists when I say that any gift with the vague whiff of ‘get back in the kitchen and slave, wench’ would be met with a sharp jab to the nether regions followed by even sharper sting from the tongue on a better choice of present next time. However, it transpires that in our house pressure cooker falls into the category of ‘gadget’ and not ‘cooking equipment’ and therefore I am not allowed to touch it, let alone cook with it. Hurrah to that! It also turns out that this is yet another piece of equipment that can be added to our growing list of ‘Things That Could Easily Kill Us’. Who knew that pressure cookers were so potentially darn lethal?! But I tell you one thing: it can work absolute wonders with a geriatric rabbit, a few bendy carrots and an onion…

Our very own Alder

New pressure cooker - stand well back!

4.       Play to each other’s strengths
For the most part our To Do list here has naturally fallen to one or other of us quite easily and we have just cracked on with our tasks, me looking largely after the veggies and the flowers, him dealing with the heavy lifting and anything involving potentially lethal machinery. However, experience and a few blazing rows have taught us that there are some domains in which Thou Shalt Not Interfere. Something as seemingly innocuous as making a sausage (not a euphemism by the way) can result in an almighty slanging match. For those of you not familiar with the art of sausage making it’s really very simple: meat in, much noise and grinding of metal, sausage out. Where we differ is on the optimum rate at which meat should be fed into the machine. It seems our definition of ‘optimum’ differs widely and thus we have decided that in the interests of our marriage and not filling the coffers or our lawyer this is one task that is better tackled alone. Number 2: rotavating. Once again, how hard can it be? Put machine in ground, press go, lo and behold earth turned over, deep joy. Oh no. Again it seems there can be two very different opinions on the speed and depth and general handling of the tool.  To avoid one of us ending up six foot under the newly rotavated earth, we have again agreed that one or t’other of us handles this. Alone. And finally, number 3: firewood. Now I am quite happy to stand back and let The Master work his magic with the ridiculously pimped up Vauxhall Nova of the chainsaw world, but when it comes to placing a piece of wood on a pallet, surely any old fool could manage that right? Apparently not. Apparently there is A System and that System must be adhered to at all times throughout the chopping, stacking and burning process. Dear lord, I fear my husband is suffering from a severe case of OCD (Obsessive Chopping Disorder, sorry…).

DO NOT mess with The System
5.       Share the dream
Now before you all find the nearest bin to puke in, I think there have been more than a few occasions when it feels like we are sharing a nightmare, rather than a dream. The one thing that has stood us in good stead throughout the ‘dark days’ is the thought that we are in this together, come what may. It is so very easy to get bogged down in the minutiae of everyday tasks and start to dwell on how relatively easy and free of chores and stress life was before we bought the place. However for all the low points, like the drains just plain refusing to drain anything and the seemingly never ending growth of grass and weeds (like those magic candles on a cake that you can never blow out that my toddler is obsessed with), there is always something, however minor, to give you hope: FOUR eggs in one day, the surprise discovery of a ton of gooseberry bushes on the drive, or the sight of our first runner beans coming up. I think as long as we hang on to the little successes, with luck the rest might follow. And if it doesn’t, we will still have learned a shed load about what and what not to do in a place like this, and a whole hell of a lot more about each other.