Off to market in Hatherleigh

Lamb on Monday, gammon on Tuesday, pork chops on Wednesday, mutton stew on Thursday…that’s one of the pleasures of rearing your own meat.  But woman wasn’t bred to live on meat alone. No matter what leafy green veg is served alongside, you know that variety should be spicing your life, and the market will provide.

Market day has always been the time when livestock and produce get converted into cash, when farmers change out of their boiler suits, sell their wares, buy what they need and catch up on the happenings of the previous week.

Tuesday is my market day. Dan the fishmonger is always there with his quips, recipe suggestions, flirt mode turned on high, a grin for all. His painted signs are things of beauty and utility. Every last fish, crustacean and mollusc on display is caught in the South West. This week’s crop of lovelies included sprats, mackerel, lemon sole, grey mullet, conger eel, prawns, mussels and skate wings.  Brain food for me on Tuesdays then, served with the first of the year’s purple sprouting.

Then there are the guys who started off selling a bit of artisan bread and quickly became known for creating every kind of fishcake imaginable. You couldn’t make better at home, and the queues are long, chatty and determined, sharing lunch preferences – coriander and cod, pollock with mozzarella and basil, or salmon and dill?

My little bit of cheese paradise only appears on market day; it’s a fairy tale cheese shop, awaking to display its wares for one special day a week.  The tiny space can just about fit in three shoppers weighed down with bags of veg and suet balls for the birds; you discuss what’s new, who made that gorgeous salty blue ewe’s milk cheese, that round of lemony goat.

This isn’t a farmer’s market as we’ve come to expect in recent times, it’s simply one that farmers use when they come to town to have their hair cut, buy some new boots or a cap and meet friends in the cafe for a mug of tea, a hot bacon sandwich, and share the news.  But it also has food of real quality – fresh, artisan, local as it gets, and such a range of things that you can source your whole meal:  chicken or sardines, carrots or pumpkins, thyme and saffron, cakes and fruit pies, cream (clotted if you like), the cheese board and oatcakes, apple juice, and Lindy’s hand cream smelling of roses to sooth the hands after the washing up.

The whole experience is to be enjoyed against the backdrop cacophony of the poultry auction.  Checking out the old garden and woodworking tools you amble ever closer to the ear-splitting crowing, quacking, and bellowing of the auctioneer and his lots.

Close to Christmas there’s also the deadstock sale, all the seasonal fowl – ducks, turkeys and geese – laid out in long rows, tagged with their provenance, some dressed ready for the oven, others merely plucked for the brave.  And a mass of holly and mistletoe sit in berried heaps to be auctioned off at the end of the day; you can seal the deal with a kiss.

Published in The Landsman December/January 2011 Issue 23

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Bartering

You may think that bartering has no place in the modern world, that everything has a value and therefore a price, that a pound of bacon could not be bought for a couple of dozen eggs, and anyway that would be confusing (what’s the going rate, what about the change?).  Money is easier.  Well yes, but it’s not as much fun.

I’ve been toying forever with the notion of getting some cattle, but with so much going on in our lives and on the farm they always seem a step too far. But I can and do swap my pork for wondrous Devon Ruby beef.  Everyone is happy, the food mileage is miniscule and there is something satisfyingly simple about swapping your excess produce for something equally but differently mouth-watering.

And then there’s the brawn part of the equation. For years we’d given time and labour to help friends build stables, erect barns, make hay, drench sheep. Now, with multiple projects always on the go we are on the receiving end; roofs cover voids, brick walls rise from the ground and sheep mustered in a spirit of well-honed teamwork.

We’ve exchanged protein for brain power and artistry on more than one occasion; want a farm logo designed and have as much artistic flair as a camel?  Dangling a juicy joint of prime lamb can be a fine temptation to a designer.

Gardeners and smallholders are bartering for all they’re worth these days.  Have a glut of raspberries but a failed chilli crop? Swap jam for relish. Determined to try a bit of goat (meat or milk, cheese or butter) before you decide to buy some Anglo-Nubians of your own?  Those sheets of unused corrugated tin might be just the ticket for your friendly neighbourhood goat keeper.  Need a drake, got a spare duck?  Look through the small ads and make a few calls and you’re sorted.

A pal once told me that there was nothing interesting or cheering in looking at a fiver lying on a heap of straw, but a couple of softly snoring weaners was a different prospect altogether.  In the same vein, I’m convinced that bartering things animal, vegetable and mineral just feels better, more rewarding, than buying stuff with a fistful of readies.

At the moment we’re bartering logs for blacksmithing lessons and I wonder just how imaginative we can get in a non-currency economy.  I wait, fancifully, for the day I can pay my council tax in meat, cover my fuel bills with labour and eggs, and exchange access to grazing for tax owed.  I’d swap a bale of hay for a couple of litres of diesel any day.

But even the natural process of barter comes under the beady peepers of the tax man, and if you are registered for VAT both parties must account for VAT on the amounts you would each have paid for the goods or services as if there had been no barter and they had been paid for with money. Just reading those lines from HMRC makes me depressed. Trust them to take all the fun out of it.

Published in The Landsman October/November 2010 Issue 22

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Gearing up for the abattoir

Pulling together the material for our introduction to smallholding courses I knew that whatever else we couldn’t cram into the two days, leaving out the detail of the final journey to the abattoir wasn’t an option. I remember vividly that first trip two decades ago and how unprepared I was for taking those few nurtured lambs to slaughter.  The paperwork and practicalities were in order, my mind was not.  I was wracked with guilt and fear, slept little and fretted much; intimations of mortality and turning vegetarian haunted my dreams.

To reassure myself I attended a live to dead event run by EBLEX, held at a local abattoir; one of the most informative days I’ve ever spent.  In the lairage we handled live lambs from a scrawny article to a rather fat beast and everything in between, to estimate their grades. Dressed in white boilersuits, hairnets and hard hats we moved to the processing area. The scale took my breath away: a continuous line of machinery, people and lambs, with everyone focussed on their task. Asked if we wanted to see the slaughter, no-one baulked. It was so calm and professional, with the layout designed to cause nil stress to the animal and the slaughterer. I watched several animals being stunned and throats cut. I wanted to make sure I saw the reality of where my animals are headed, and I felt huge relief that such an important role in the food chain was being so expertly undertaken.

We followed the line as skins were removed, guts discarded and offal inspected. We saw condemned livers ruined by tapeworm, fluke and other parasites and arthritic joints spurned as unfit for human consumption. We clocked the results of injecting in the wrong muscles, and that lambs were being sent both too thin and too fat to slaughter.  We watched the grader determine the score of each lamb, the weighing, the tingling with electric current to reduce hanging time (hmm…not sure about that one), and then into the chiller, where the lambs we’d attempted to score were tagged with the official result.

So what have I learned over the years apart from how to stay calm?  If you are using a small abattoir you need to book well in advance, sometimes many weeks beforehand in the lead up to Easter and Christmas.  Do check that they take your type of livestock; not all of them do pigs. Make sure appropriate slaughter ear tags are in place. In winter your lambs will need to be bellied out the day before and all livestock need to be clean and empty (no food for 24 hours before you leave). When you get there don’t expect help unloading, so practice ‘til you are confident.  Have your much pondered cutting list ready, with the movement licence and food chain information form.  Decide if you want the skins and if so get them salted ready for the tannery. And finally, don’t ruin things by keeling over and fainting when you collect the offal and find that the oesophagus and lungs are still attached, or that you get a line of piggy nipples on your belly pork.

Published in The Landsman August/September 2010 Issue 21

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Neighbours

It’s been five years since we arrived in the South West, a day I’ll never forget. Our tractor and other bits of farming kit travelled by low-loader, and having forewarned the driver to avoid the most obvious route and the subsequent danger of grounding on a steep and curving hill, we suffered his sneers until he sullenly blocked the road, unable to move forward or back, holding up the whole community for the best part of six hours.  We couldn’t have announced our presence any more brashly if we’d asked the town crier to bellow it in every village square for miles around.

But there was no road rage or irritation.  Instead, farmers stopped and looked at the tractor, debating its merits.  The school bus and the postman went the long way round, our neighbour-to-be following behind, and we all left the man in the low-loader to get on with it as we went to sort out sheep, poultry and more.  By late afternoon, now unstuck, the driver was beyond sneering and refused to manoeuvre down the perfectly navigable lane to the farm, and blocked the road again as he unloaded everything into a top field.  Our neighbour-to-be was stuck once more, but with a grin and a shrug asked if he could drive through our fields to get home.  That first night, as we lay in bed in our new home, we thought how differently our arrival could have been greeted and were hugely reassured that we had made the right move.

Two years later, haymaking in a small window of hot weather between dismal forecasts, huge tractors appeared from all points of the compass.  Unasked but most welcome, help had arrived to get our bales into the barn before rain kicked in; we did it with minutes to spare.  Then there was the day one of the rams bashed his way through sturdy rails, bursting with testosterone and sexual frustration.  He hadn’t accounted for the burly arms that seconds before had been steering a quad bike down the road grasping him before he could do a runner and holding him fast whilst we made quick repairs to the fence.  And when a group of neighbours had spent hours vaccinating sheep, I had the gall to ask if they would help catch the uncatchable llama so I could give him his Bluetongue vaccination.  Weary but accommodating, we grabbed a long rope and slowly pinned him into a shelter, everyone enjoying the novelty.

We know we can rely on our neighbours to take care of the animals if we both have to be away; we swap bits of equipment, labour and advice; we get a phone call to remind us of the next farmers group meeting; we find, in hunting season, enough pheasant, duck, pigeon and woodcock hanging in the workshop to keep our bellies and freezer full.  We have made fantastic friends who have welcomed us into their homes, and now ask us for favours that we are delighted to give. Neighbourliness is alive and kicking and so is the sharing of home-baked cake (chocolate, if you’re asking).

Published in The Landsman April/May 10 Issue 19

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Rural Reading

Every now and then, parked carefully on one of the few verges big enough to accommodate its size, the mobile library squats at the top of the road.  It serves, tops, three farms and two cottages, the ultimate in bespoke service.   I hadn’t seen it for a while and then the village newsletter led with a piece on the mobile library, exhorting us to “use it or lose it”.

There are eleven mobile libraries in Devon alone, stopping in 1200 places, for ten minutes in secluded backwaters up to a couple of hours in small towns.  7,500 people are borrowers; not diminutive people living behind skirting boards, scouting for spare lumps of cheese, but regular users.  Dedicated though the remaining ones are, borrowers have decreased by 40% over the last decade, and as crucial a lifeline as it is to some, the times and days on offer now only suit a minority of rural dwellers.  Obliged to provide libraries in rural areas and determined to reverse the declining trend, the service is looking at setting up shop at times and in places where people congregate naturally, on market days, alongside the mobile post office and tying in with other village activities.

Their biggest problem is that not enough people know about the mobile library – those that do, love it and relish their chats with the mobile library assistants who double up as HGV drivers and who often hold the same post for twenty or more years.  They make sure the stock has something for all their customers including the under fives, families, young adults, and not just the elderly as many assume.

Finding a parking space is not the only consideration that limits where mobile libraries can stop; the slow spread of broadband into rural communities has had an impact too as they use the same computerised issue system as all Devon libraries, which is why you’ll find the vehicles parked up in high spots where they can get a signal.

I relied very heavily on the library as a child; my weekly trip didn’t come round anything like quickly enough and I’d read every book at least twice before it was time to visit again.  This was in the city, but even so, it was too far to walk on my own; having a mobile full of books at the end of my street would have been heaven, doubly so if it came complete with knowledgeable recommendations and chats about what stirred me in my reading.  Rather than the behemoth building  that was a bit scary with hard, ringing floors so you couldn’t be as quiet as the signs required, I’d have loved a cosy cave of child-sized possibilities where I could grab an unknown gem that made me gasp or giggle or groan.

By this winter the library service will make changes so we can start borrowing books in a way that fits more naturally with the way we work and live.  And if you like a bit of sand between the sheets of a juicy paperback to get you in the holiday spirit, the South Hams mobile library parks on the beach!

Published in The Landsman June/ July 10 Issue 20

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For the love of dogs

I find myself living in the glorious South West because of dogs.  I look sideways at the second of my large hairy beasts, and know that it was her addition to the family that required a move to more abundant premises.

Living with dogs makes my life in the countryside complete.  Watching them hooley through the wood, snuffling through crisp leaves to reveal a mouse hole, chase fox tracks along the hedges, stand hopefully on their back legs to see if they could just, possibly, reach the squirrel in the tree canopy, gives me another, more alert perspective on my surroundings.

Blackberrying becomes supremely companionable when I fill my basket from eyelevel brambles as the dogs delicately wrap their purpled lips round the juicy offerings at knee height.  No-one can come through the farm gate without the dogs warning me that there is someone to attend to.  And nothing is as good as a dog for getting me out and about for a dose of stretched legs and fresh air when I’ve been cooped up indoors, stale, pale and crotchety.

I can’t say my pair is much use around sheep, entirely unsuited as they are for shepherding work, but as long as I keep them in my sight I happily walk them through our flocks.  They will, of course, spot anything ill or vulnerable and that has its benefits.

Dogs aren’t all sweetness and light.  I’ve had sheep torn to bits by straying canines, and allowing unwormed dogs to foul on farmland can cause gid, a ghastly condition that attacks a sheep’s brain, resulting in blindness and death.   The countryside code for keeping dogs under close control is helpful, but I doubt if all dog owners know that they need to keep their dog wormed if they, like me, love a country stroll.

But dogs and the countryside definitely do mix in so many good ways, summer and winter. I don’t know what it is about hay but the dogs just adore it. They roll in it, burrow through it, toss it about and play with it. They drape it over their ears and stick their black button noses deep into the drying grass. It’s as if they inhale life, summer, pleasure and delight with every happy whiff.  Now it’s winter, my Bernese Mountain Dogs thrive in the cold weather; they are made for snow and seem to thrum with increased energy as the thermometer plummets.

The dogs give me the Bernese nudge, an insistent and forceful snout thrust, and I put on a second pair of trousers and socks, not having been naturally endowed with a fur coat. As we walk, they explore every conceivable size of hole in the ground, up trees, in the earth banks, behind troughs, under leaves. For them, the farm is thrutched up with animal life, scent flags waving for those with the sense to appreciate.

When thin sheets of ice seal the water in the troughs the dogs lick at it forlornly. They can easily break ice with their great paws, but they are slippers and pipe girls and wait for me to serve my purpose.  I always oblige.

(For the full countryside code regarding dogs:

http://www.naturalengland.org.uk/ourwork/enjoying/countrysidecode/keepdogs.aspx )

Published in The Landsman Feb/March 10 Issue 18

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Seasonal forays

At the close of the year when all I want to do is pull on cosy boots, thick woollens, and wrap myself up like a pig in a blanket tending to my chilblains in front of a well banked fire, the dark outdoor winter world starts to flicker with life.  Harvests safely stored, it’s time for whooping it up with mulled cider and braziers.

Not one for Halloween (I forgot to grow pumpkins and am hopeless at bobbing for apples), instead I grabbed some sparklers on Guy Fawkes and twirled them in the dark under the stars, dogs dancing round my legs listening fearfully to far off fireworks.

A handful of days later it was Hatherleigh Carnival and the pulling of the tar barrels.  At 5am when I snoozed under a duvet, a group of traditionally minded lads with a taste for high drama pulled flaming barrels on a sledge, from the top of the town to the market square, to kick off carnival day.  At 10pm once the floats had travelled round the town they had another go (better lubricated), with hundreds of spectators cheering them on, agog at the speed of the barrels as they turned the corners, eyes wide and dry with the heat, in anticipation of stray flames.  It may or may not be successful at casting out evil spirits, but the stream of sparks and the massive blaze certainly gave everyone a thrill.

It’s also mumming season and you’ll find me at the Moorland Merrymakers panto in the middle of Dartmoor, where the players in full costume and inch thick grease paint turn waiter in the interval, serving the audience with hot pasties and mugs of tea.  Folk in Dorset have to wait ‘til New Year’s Eve for their own Symondsbury mummers play starring Captain Bluster and Colonel Spring.

As the temperature plummets, thick gloves are a necessity for joining the thorn cutting ceremony in Glastonbury, or nipping into Wiltshire to celebrate the winter solstice at Stonehenge

Come Christmas Eve you’ll find me back in Hatherleigh square singing carols as the Silver Band plays. Last year, walking up from the cattle market, I arrived to the sounds of a gorgeous, plaintive Silent Night. The service ended with hot cider and minced pies; there was real sadness, all in mourning for The George pub, six hundred years of history lost to fire the night before, the still smouldering soot-blackened ruins in full view as we sang and hoped for better things.

One of the seasonal jollies I shan’t be joining is the Christmas day swim in the sea at Exmouth; the very idea of stripping off any layers at a time when I’m adding extra, is more than the body can take.

After a quiet New Year’s Eve embellished with turkey leftovers, mid-January is time for orchard revels, to hang toast dipped in cider in the branches of the apple trees, and pour last year’s vintage onto the roots.  Wassailing placates the tree spirits, encourages a good apple harvest, and makes a lot of noise; pots and pans are clanged and bashed to frighten off the less amenable spirits.  I wonder where all these evil spirits go, chased away by fire, hot alcohol and soggy bread?

Published in The Landsman December 09/Jan 10 Issue 17

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