Spring Tidings

The past few months have been consumed with a lot of travel.  These work demands on my time have taken me away from Crockern and its rhythms.  Meanwhile, Roger, Sam and Millie have held the fort.

Being away does give me a chance to recover from some of our projects.  Pot holes, roof repairs, fencing, ceilings, gardening, etc. all leave me feeling some aches and pains.  A few days away and my sore muscles recover; and I return to see anew the beauty of Crockern.  What may take a week or two to unfold seems to happen overnight.  After a recent two-week trip to the States, I returned to find spring in full force at our little homestead.

IMG_2222

Driving back from the train station, the woodlands, lanes, verges and hedgerows are bursting with wildflowers.  British flora may be modest by international standards, but it is full of pleasure.  Wild garlic, gorse, buttercups, bramble, nettle, red campion, cow parsley, poppy, primrose, daffodils, cornflowers and soon to come, speedwell, teasel and foxgloves.

As we cross the cattle grate and climb up onto the moors, a chequered scene appears with green fields, scrubby land, river valleys and patches of woodland.  Newly born lambs, cows and horses chase after their mothers.  Across the hillside, gorse flashes its golden yellow flowers and fills the air with a heady scent of coconut.  These low shrubs are still prickly and I worry about my eyes when I get too close, but they make such a spectacular accent to the landscape.

Spring at Crockern comes later than other parts of the country, even those parts just 5 miles away.  Still, and despite the colder temperatures, things are in bloom.  Bleeding hearts, hostas, geraniums and comfrey are all erupting in growth and flowers.  The bees are starting to buzz about reminding us all this planting is worth it.  So too, the rabbits are making their tunnels in the flower beds making me shake my fist like Elmer Fudd.  Blasted little buggers!

The other day, Roger flew out the front door only to return with dirt all over his hands.  “I saw a rabbit in the spinach bed; I’ve had to block its tunnel.”  Despite last year’s efforts to protect the vegetable beds, this one needs increased attention.  These rabbits never rest, nor do they seem to stop having sex.  Once again, we are spotting several generations dining on grass in the yard.  Of course, our chickens seem more than happy to share space with them under the rose bush.  If only my camera were to hand to document three chickens having a dust bath while two rabbits are curled up napping just inches away.  I suppose if you’re a rabbit, you can let your guard down when clucky chickens are busy preening nearby.

And the birds are back in town!  While walking Sam and Millie, I hear the call of our cuckoo.  Yes ours.  Each spring I anxiously await the return of the cuckoo, worried that its migratory flight may have met with disaster.  But when I hear its melodic mating song across our valley, I feel a peace descend.  So too, the swallows are making their return.  We have only a few so far, but the rest of the crew should soon be here busily making their nests and raising their young.

Of the many bulbs I planted two years ago, the daffodils and snowdrops made their showing earlier.  I noticed, a few of the bluebells were bravely poking through the ground.  With luck, in a few more years, they will spread and form a visual treat under the trees.  To celebrate spring, Roger and I joined our friends on a circular walk taking in acres of woodland carpeted in native Bluebells.  Oh, how I hope ours will one day look like this!  British bluebells are somewhat endangered from cross-fertilization by the hardy Spanish bluebells which were introduced in many gardens.  But I don’t care.   As I pause to inhale the unique sent of spring growth on the breeze, I wonder if the bluebell issue will come up in Brexit negotiations?

Millie and Mr. Badger

The chickens open their mouths in alarm and stand stock still as Millie shoots out the door, starting her day with a raucous round of barking.  While she busies herself behind the oil tank, Sam and I carry on with our usual daily chores before our pack of three head down the track for a walk and the chance to marvel at the dawn chorus.

During the day, people walk past and dogs come up to the gate.  Millie wags her tail, never making so much as a peep.  But at night time, when everything is done and we let the dogs out for one last “hurrah”, Sam sniffs the perimeter of the yard and Millie races over to the oil tank, closing her day with an encore of protective barking.

What is this all about?  For the past few days, she has been persistent in this behaviour.  Millie will not let you rake leaves or sweep a floor without the odd little yelp, but she is not a big barker.   She watches the rugby on TV.  She bites at your boots if you kick dirt, snow or leaves and she happily chases rabbits and squirrels out of the garden.  Unless we are out on a walk, she will run inside if the wind is too strong, but not before rounding up leaves as they soar past.  She’s a chaser, not a fighter.

img_2037

A quick investigation reveals her concern:  we have a resident badger.  Over the years, we have had neighbouring badgers and evidence of their nocturnal visits— track marks, holes with badger poo (yes, they dig little latrines and then shit in them).  About four years ago, I had a rare sighting late one late one night and watched the badger in all of its black and white splendour slowly pass through the yard.  They have killed some of our chickens, damaged our bird feeders, and caused us to make adjustments to the chicken coop, which now has the equivalent security of Fowl Knox.    But now, there is a tunnel opening in the hillside about twenty feet from our front door.

We don’t mind if they want to “sett” up their household and include us in their territory.  Badgers mostly eat earthworms, insects and grubs.  That’s agreeable to us, despite how pathetic the grass looks as a result.  Sometimes they dig up and eat roots and fruit, but with our efforts to protect the garden beds from the rabbits, the badgers are not a problem.  They will sometimes eat small mammals and birds, including chickens but our chickens are safe and secure at night behind multiple layers of  wire defence.  As to the other small mammals — rats and moles — we have no concern about this level of predation.

Badgers are notoriously shy and elusive and will scurry off if disturbed by us, so making a big noise as we open the front door should keep Millie safe.  But the fact that she runs over to the badger’s door, barking an invitation to come out and play or go away, might make the badger inside feel trapped.  And feeling trapped could make it lash out in a bid for freedom.  Millie frightening an animal with long claws and a jaw powerful enough to crush bones doesn’t bear contemplating.

Besides, we welcome critters to Crockern — the more the merrier — however, there are a few conditions for this happy republic:

  • Rabbits, you are to stay out of the vegetable beds.  To this, there are no if’s, and’s, or but’s.
  • Mice, rats, moles and squirrels are welcome, but you must stay outside and not chew anything of value.
  • Birds can nest where you like, but try to not shit on the cars or our heads.  Jackdaws please be warned, the chimney will be repaired in about a month’s time, so hanging out there won’t be easy with the new chimney pots.
  • Foxes and badgers we welcome you, but you must stay away from the chickens.  If you’re hungry, consider the abundance of rabbits, rats, mice, squirrels and such.
  • Bees, spiders and bugs are invited to the Crockern party.  We love how you help the flora and fauna.
  • Lichens and mosses, snakes, frogs and toads you are all welcome, too.
  • Bats, you are always encouraged.
  • But, unwanted solicitations from sales reps, religious organisations, etc. are not welcome.

Without seeming rude, how do we encourage the badger to move house to something more private and maybe a little further afield?  This door is just too close for comfort.  The hillside is located under tree roots which were exposed decades ago when this bit of the property was excavated.  Our oil tanks are located there.  The land is slowly eroding, and we need to build a retaining wall.  The badger is not helping our progress.

Our research reveals that badgers do not like the smell of urine near the opening to their home.  I couldn’t agree more.  Clearly, the logistics of dousing the full garden boundary in human urine are tricky, so we’ve gone for a focused approach:  Roger has taken to peeing near the badger’s tunnel door.

We think this may be just a brief badger visit.  After about a week, there is just the single hole and it is too close to our activities and front door for a relaxing badger lifestyle.   Still, Roger pees outside and Millie continues to announce her arrival outside to one and all with her barking song.  I encourage Sam and Millie to pee in various places to keep the foxes on alert.  Me?  I prefer to avail myself of the toilet.

Livin’ on the Veg

It isn’t easy gardening in winter, let alone on Dartmoor.  The UK, with its distinct seasons, offers a challenge to keeping a year round vegetable supply.  By late autumn, it feels as if there is nothing left to harvest after the near glut in summer.  Even in spring, as plants are beginning to grow, there are too few things ready to harvest.  We’ve had to learn about what to grow and when, protecting our vegetables, and making use of different vegetable varieties to fill empty spaces in the garden.

So far, the new and improved raised beds, which Roger built this past spring, complete with their chicken wire surround to keep out pesky critters, are working a treat.  We have been feasting the past few months on kale, beets, spinach, winter purslane, radishes, and land cress.  The rainbow chard is beginning to look pickable and our spring cabbages are blossoming out to a respectable size.  Our progress comes as a huge satisfaction.

Growing for winter is truly a year-round job.  It begins in the summer when we must resist being seduced by the bounty of veg we gather at that time, staying focused on the leaner months of autumn and winter to follow.  By October, light levels are low, affecting the speed of germination.  Add in a healthy dose of wind, rain and cold, which begin to dominate the weather forecast, and it is tempting to throw in the trowel.  As is our style, we ignore all the obvious discouraging signs and charge ahead.

p1030688

A typical frost covering the plant life on the hillside.

We’ve never had much luck with leeks, and so didn’t bother this year.  But now, I’m regretting having not given leeks, garlic and more onions a spot in our winter beds.  In reading up on these edible alliums, I discover that garlic actually needs a period of cold and so wants, nay begs, to be in the ground and growing well before the arrival of winter.  I will need to make a note for next year in my little black book.

We have a forecast of snow for later today, so Roger has just put on his waterproofs and headed out to cover the beds with horticultural fleece.  Most days this autumn and winter have been easy for us to tend to the garden.  But this week it feels like wind, rain, freezing temperatures, rabbits, slugs, and a host of other challenges are joining hands to welcome us each time we go out to pick some lettuce.  I have half a mind to forego our Five-A-Day.

Roger outside in the rain and sleet protecting the veg beds.

Roger outside in the rain and sleet protecting the veg beds.

Despite all the challenges, lettuce does well through the winter as does spinach, which actually is easier to grow in winter than in summer because it doesn’t go to seed so quickly.  We are always thinking about what to grow and whether or not to bother.  I don’t have any interest in growing peas and beans, they aren’t suited to our location.    Nor, do I have any interest in Brussel Sprouts.   Despite how much I love them, they take up too much space in the garden.

Winter gardening also involves planning for the spring.  While sitting by the fire with the snow coming down, thoughts drift to:  What will we repeat?  What will we try new?  What will we completely abandon?  Two years of aubergines and we aren’t going to bother again.  They grow, they flower, and then nothing.  It’s best to learn from mistakes and build on our successes.  With that in mind, Roger has purchased several fruit bushes which do well in acidic soil.  Where to plant these is yet to be decided, but we will need to get them in the ground soon.  Of course, my make shift bird netting for the blueberry bushes will no longer do, so we are discussing how to go about building a fruit cage which will be easy to access and yet not blow over in some of the strong winds we get in our moorland valley.  Despite this new challenge, which we brought on ourselves, we are both looking forward to growing more fruit.

While the rain hammered down this morning, I was dry inside the greenhouse giving it some attention by tipping out pots with finished plants from the summer, pulling weeds which are making their home inside the greenhouse, watering the strawberry plants, and giving it a good sweep.  In the early spring, we’ll take everything out and clean the glass and give the floor a scrub to rid it of moss and mould, but there’s no point doing this in winter.

With our winter garden, it’s vegementary, really.   It’s all down to the planning.  Typically, we have big gaps form March through May and in the past, November onwards.  Not this year!  We gave some thought to how we were going to rotate our crops in the raised beds and when we needed to plant things out for winter.  Because there are any number of things that can go wrong:  Some leafy crops are prone to bolting; caterpillars seek out and find cabbages; there’s club root, flea beetles, birds, slugs, snails, whitefly, and heavy rains, and strong winds.  It’s apocalyptic!  But the stuff that survives, thrives and provides, delights us.  Really, we just try a few things, see what works and then repeat.

Hey Santa!

Santa Claus (A.K.A., Kris Kringle, Papa Noel, and Father Christmas),  Santa’s Grotto, near Reindeerland,  North Pole,  Somewhere in the middle of the Arctic

Dear Santa Claus,

What a year, eh?  What happened to it?

In all of the hullabaloo, I believe I may have neglected to send you my annual note last year, for which I am terribly sorry.  Rest assured, despite this oversight, Roger and I are thinking of you and hope you, Mrs. Claus, the Elves and all the Reindeer are happy, healthy and ready for your upcoming big night of global gift giving. What a job you have!

While you have been busy getting ready to travel the globe, spreading your usual good cheer (I think you have a rather large task ahead this year), we’ve had our own busy schedule.  Lots of work demands which took me away from Crockern nearly every month.  I did travel to some terrific places like Ireland, the USA, Paris and Brussels, which made it fun.

Lots of friends and family visited us from near and far, which was a treat.  We traveled to Wales and managed several weekends away to visit friends throughout the UK.  We even spent a week on a canal boat winding through the country-side.  Have you ever done anything like that Santa?  I highly recommend it.

When home, we set about our usual projects and a hearty thank you is also in order for helping us with a good year for our garden.  After making needed improvements to the raised beds to keep the rabbits out, we enjoyed a terrific crop of lettuces, potatoes, tomatoes, chard, spinach, kale, cabbages, beets, strawberries, blueberries, rhubarb, asparagus and onions. Even now in the midst of winter, the garden is providing us with winter vegetables. If you wouldn’t mind, could you send our thanks to Mother Nature when you see her at the New Year? The weather this summer was great for the garden and we would love to put in our request for another splendid summer for 2017. Along with the garden, we had so many opportunities for BBQs and evenings in the hot tub.

I don’t have much for “the list” this year.  I could use some time to rest and reflect on this past year and focus on my intentions for 2017.  I am planning to use the holidays for precisely this activity.  For Roger, I’m wondering if we might not consider some head protection.  There was that concussion he suffered while laying a fence this summer.  But, after seeing Roger knock his head more than once on a low door frame or beam in the house, our friend Miriam suggested he could use a “house helmet”.  Old stone farmhouses are not easy places for someone his height and I’m wondering if your elves might have some suggestions.  I know they are short, but I’m guessing they may hit their heads on the underside of a work table from time to time.

The chickens have had a good year and in preparation for the holiday season, are taking several weeks off from egg laying.  The one Roger nursed back to health is happily scratching for worms with her mates as I write this.  All six of our hens have recently finished moulting, so we are anticipating their winter break is soon coming to a close and we’ll be back into having too many eggs.  If that happens when you are flying past, we’ll make you an omelette or a soft boiled egg.

We think you’ll enjoy a few improvements since your last visit.  We finished the floors and walls by the wood-burner, making that room cozy as can be.  We still have to work on the ceiling, but we’re not in a particular rush.  Of course, if you or the elves are looking for a short working holiday, let us know and we’ll move the furniture out of that space and you can help sand the beams.  You’ll like the staircase we refinished and now that the water system is up to date, you may have some thoughts about whether we carry on with the work in the kitchen, finish the office, or start the small bathroom next.

When you arrive please be aware Sam is moving slowly and can’t hear as well these days, so you may need to bend down to give him a little scratch behind the ear.  When you do, be warned that Millie will thrust her chew toy into your hands and insist on a game of tug.  She’s not met any reindeer yet, but likes meeting other dogs.  She’s shown no interest in the Dartmoor ponies, sheep and cattle she’s encountered, so we’re guessing your team of eight reindeer plus Rudolph will be a welcome set of friends.  Warn your team, she does enjoy a good game of chase!

Bit of a non-sequitur Santa, but can you vote?  I received my British citizenship this spring, and with my new dual citizenship, had the right to vote in both the UK referendum and the USA presidential election.   You have such an unusual address, it’s unclear where you cast a vote.  And, does your system of democracy involve electoral colleges?

We are excited for the holiday season. The tree is up, decorated and ready for your arrival.  We hope you’ll have some time to visit when you come to Dartmoor.  With all of its history and adventures, the projects and quirks, the visiting critters and various challenges, the coziness and the beauty, both inside and out, Crockern continues to captivate and enchant us.   As you’ve always told me Santa, with the right attitude, each day can be filled with wonderful adventure and discovery.  Boy oh boy, do we have that here.

Safe travels Santa. I hope the weather will be clear and bright for you as you take your sleigh across Dartmoor.  Maybe there will be one of those super moons to guide you!

With love and warm wishes for a healthy and happy holiday season to you, Mrs. Claus, all the elves and reindeer,

Catherine

Crockern Farm,

Pretty much in the middle of Dartmoor, UK

p1030521

Autumn is Knocking

The light on the horizon has changed significantly this past week, casting long, broad shadows across the hills.  The sky is filled with an eclectic mixture of brooding, grey clouds adorned with cotton-candy-like puffs of white accentuated with splashes of blue.  Crisp leaves are beginning to carpet the ground and collect in corners of the garden and in all our drains.  An annual autumn project of clearing leaves has now appeared on our to-do list.  The most notable announcement of the season’s change is the formation of the bright flame-red berries dangling from the Rowan trees.

img_1792

Where did the summer go?  It seems just yesterday we were filling the long days with visitors and projects.  We were busy tending to the vegetable garden and our on-going repair of stone walls.  Daily we pulled weeds, maintained the garden, and filled potholes.  We spent hours gathering and consuming the abundance of our vegetable beds, building a new fence — which resulted in an unfortunate concussion for Roger — juggling family demands and embracing the arrival of the thoroughly modern Millie!

In the summer months, we carry on with all our activities until our bones and muscles ache, taking breaks to walk Sam and Millie or have a cup of coffee. By the end of the day, covered with dirt, we put away our tools, clean ourselves up, and prepare dinner. Afterwards, we take a glass of wine and make our way back outside to soak in the hot tub.  We make plans for the next day while the night shift of wildlife clocks-in. On a clear night, one by one, the stars appear in the sky and the bats flash past to feeding on new insect life. Foxes and badgers make their plans for the evening’s hunt and forage, and the tawny owl in the stand of pines across the valley sings a musical riff.

Now, as I walk the dogs in the early morning, I feel a chill in the air and can see our breath in the dawn air.   This first walk of the day is one of two stories:  Sam sniffing all the news of the day to come and slowly awaking his achy bones as he lumbers down the track; while Millie darts from one moment to the next, chasing her toy and racing past me and Sam to exercise her job as the Ambassador of Joy!  I certainly have my pre-coffee challenge with the two dogs moving at different speeds and entertaining their different interests, but our pack of three sync up with the pleasure of the crisp morning air.

As we turn the corner on our walk, down in the valley the fog hangs along the river as if a dragon flew past in the night and left a breath trail.  Exposed by the morning dew are the webs of the thousands of spiders who make their homes in the gorse bushes.  With the arrival of cooler temperatures, many of these spiders now seem to be making their homes inside our house and not a day goes by when I don’t discover yet another large arachnid awaiting rescue from the kitchen sink.

It’s not just spiders who have made their way into the house, we’ve had a few bats too.  Recently, I was spending the afternoon stacking our winter wood supply in the barn when I noticed something flapping about in jerky flight.  Too late to be a swallow or a house martin, they’ve left for warmer climates and won’t be back again until the spring.   When I stopped to investigate, I spied a bat hanging upside down in the rafters.  I’ve not seen it there before or since, so I suspect this is simply a temporary rest stop as it was too early to be out and about hunting insects.  Sure enough, later that day Roger and I spent the better part of the evening trying to isolate the Horseshoe bat, which had found its way from the barn into the house.

The greater horseshoe bat is one of the larger British bats with a wingspan of about 35-39 cm, and also one of the rarest.  We are in one of the few areas in the country where these bats are still breeding, so it is a treat to see one.  After Roger photographed and confirmed its identification, we managed to get it into a room where we could close the doors, turn out the lights, and open the windows so it would head out into the night to commence its hunting before returning to its roost in parts unknown to us.

p1030650

As the plants die back to conserve their energy for a spring bloom, so too, Roger and I have turned our attentions to readying for winter.  But we aren’t there yet. Soon, we will spend more of our time inside by the fire and less outside. As the nights draw in and our wood burner provides daily comfort, we will turn our attentions to projects inside.  We have a water tank which needs replacing, pipes which need relocating, and we’re making some changes to the hot water system as a result.  Roll on Autumn….

Finding my Way

Recently I attended a navigation workshop for women offered by Two Blondes, a fabulous business run by two women dedicated to getting everyone outside exploring (check them out:  http://www.twoblondeswalking.com).  The idea of other like-minded women, interested in the outdoors and Dartmoor appealed to me.  But learning to properly use a compass, well that was the cherry on top!

How had I gotten to my fifties and not learned this skill?  Three of my four brothers were Eagle Scouts and my Dad was a Scout Master with the Boy Scouts.  As a family, we frequently went camping.  And yet, no one taught me this basic skill.

Is it possible I’ve never learned because I never needed to do so?  Years ago, friends and colleagues gave Roger a silver cup engraved with “The Navigator”.   When it comes to using a compass in the wild, I’ve obviously relied on Roger.  It’s easy to let him figure out our route, while I mind the dogs, look at the landscape and enjoy myself.  And given that engraved mug, who wouldn’t cede responsibility?

But it is not sustainable to take the back seat and rely on others to explore new areas.  The times I’ve gone out to explore on my own, map in hand, I’ve managed to get somewhat lost on Dartmoor.  Not so much lost, really, but haunted by an overriding awareness that I could get lost at any moment.  Then what?

Dartmoor is a tricky challenge, which is why the military train and orienteering activities like the Ten Tors or Duke of Edinburgh are held here.  The usual landmarks found in other national parks are often absent.  Forests change due to cutting.  Walls on the map aren’t always there as they may be historic and grassed over.  Pillow mounds and hut circles, easily identified by archaeologists or skilful navigators, often look like a pile of rocks to me.  Add to that, the weather can be like the ocean with shifting tides from clear, calm waters to rip tides putting an innocent swimmer in peril.  Knowing what you’re doing on Dartmoor is a good idea to say the least.

Thirteen of us gathered for our workshop by Two Blondes.  Armed with our OS maps, compasses, and enthusiasm, we chatted about why we were there:   “I want to get my skills and sense of direction back.”  “My partner always reads the map….what if he drops dead?”  “I just want to do something for myself and sometimes that means walking by myself.”  I was in good company.  All these women, ranging in ages and skills, backgrounds and interests, were crooning just like Annie Lenox and Aretha Franklin, we were doin’ it for ourselves.

Soon, the workshop begins and we open our maps to locate towns, pubs, buildings, footpaths, woods, and rivers and streams.  We calculate distances, times and read the contours of elevations.  All of this was familiar from the hours I’ve spent pouring over OS maps.  I love them for their detail and history.  These beautifully scaled representations of the land are the key to exploring, complete with the easy to use 4 or 6 figure grid reference system.  This part of the workshop was interesting, but when we were going to get to the compass?  That little magnetic mystery that somehow holds the key?  Every skilled navigator will say, “trust your compass.”   But mine, with its needle, orienting lines, directional arrow, declination line, magnifying round and compass scale sat there teasing me.  Then suddenly, one of the Two Blondes announced, “Okay, everyone pull out your compass.”   At last!  And within minutes, what had always seemed difficult and elusive, was made easy.

Roger has explained how to use a compass before, but often he assumes I know what he’s talking about.  Because it is familiar to him, he enthusiastically shows me all the cool things, without ever setting up the basics.  He tells me about true north, magnetic north, and how the map shifts out of north by 1 degree, 29 minutes every year.  My mind drifts.  Is this how Robert Scott and his men missed their South Pole destination only to die tragically close?   It is fair to say, Roger is operating from the notion that I surely must have some basic concepts about this simple, yet revolutionary, circular instrument.  But the Two Blondes knew that we few, we happy few, we band of sisters didn’t know and thus provided a simple, encouraging, and educational approach to using our compasses.   And it is so easy and fun!  I now see why Roger would make the assumption I had a basic understanding.

 

IMG_1566

After mastering our compasses inside, we set out on a walk.   Navigating is not just about the compass, it is also about timing and distance, so we learned our pacing.  We set a bearing and headed off to find a pool on the moor.  Why would anyone ever want to go off a path and find a pool/bog marked on the map?  Well, because it’s on the map and with a compass and a little know how you can.  And what a find!  This bog area was covered in all manner of wildflowers and dwarf shrubs of heather and billbery, along with sedges, cotton-grass, deer grass and purple moor grass, the likes of which I hadn’t noticed along the path.  And because of the boggy nature of the area, all the grazing animals stayed clear, so there was indeed a different wildness to the flora and fauna.  The path we left was still busy with other walkers, families, bike riders and the like.  But up by this pool, away from the path, we could only see the Dartmoor wilderness — that vast landscape rich with varied ecosystems.   We noticed small blue flowers, heard bird song, and spotted sundew, a small carnivorous plant with red spiked leaves to enable it to catch insects to supplement its diet due to the poor nutrient levels of the blanket bogs.  What we couldn’t see was the footpath, or anyone on it, and we were a mere 250 meters away.

Oh, I’m hooked alright.  I love the compass and the idea of being able to learn to orienteer with greater skill.  I love how ordinary it looks, but that it powerfully denotes direction.  I also prefer my little compass to the modern geospatial app on my phone, which is useful but not foolproof.  When I got home, I told Roger all about my day.  He shared my excitement and showed me another type of compass, a sighting compass.  I had no idea we had this little treasure.  He attempted to explain to me how it worked, and nearly failed until I explained how the Two Blondes taught us to use a compass at which point, he wound back his enthusiastic description so that I could see its potential.  Practice and patience will improve my skills as it isn’t exactly rocket science.  In the coming days, I plan to set out and make a few discoveries on my own so that all of us can safely get lost together.

Feel The Burn

I was in town when Roger called me to tell me about the fire raging across the hill on the other side of the river.  His voice sounded concerned as he described hearing fire engines in the distance while watching how the strong winds were rapidly spreading the fire.  Alarmingly, there appeared to be nobody bearing fire shovels in sight to control this burn.  The fire was moving swiftly down the valley toward our fields, but if the wind had shifted, it was entirely possible embers from the fires could easily jump across the river and burn Wistman’s Woods.

Roger is not one to exaggerate so I quickly finished what I was doing and high tailed it back home.  It seemed better to have both of us home in case we had to do anything to keep the fire from coming too close.

Driving back to Crockern, I kept a sharp eye out for smoke filling the sky and saw none.  But when I rounded the corner to make my way up our track, there were four fire engines parked.  The closer I got to home, the more I could smell the charred remains of burnt gorse and grass and see the smoke drifting up from the scorched earth.  What had been green and golden when I left in the morning was now black and smouldering.  Several acres were burned, but by the time I arrived, the fire had been contained.

Controlled Burn.  Prescribed Burn.  Hazard Reduction Burning.  Backfire.  Anglo Saxons called it Swælan.   Locally, it’s known as Swaling and has been carried out for centuries.  Swaling is the annual burning of gorse and scrub in order to clear the ground of dead and overgrown vegetation, allowing new growth to flourish.  Those green shoots which grazing livestock love to eat, not the ones economists like to talk about on the news.

On open moorland, overgrown vegetation can restrict some public access and in dryer, warmer months can present significant risk for wild fires.  The farmers who graze on the common land are allowed to conduct controlled burning of moorland vegetation, in other words swale, to clear the ground encouraging new growth.

Between 1 November and 31 March it is permissible for the Commoners to do controlled burns and all signs pointed to this being a planned burn.  But we suspect it might not have been.  The local farmer for that patch of land said he was not swaling that day.  Honestly, no one in their right mind would have set out to swale because it was such a windy day.  Could it have been a casually tossed cigarette?  We see enough litter lying about that it wouldn’t have surprise us.  A few years ago, a fire damaged over 600 acres of moorland when strong winds fanned the flames.  The cause of that fire was unknown and took more than 100 firefighters to bring it under control.

As the sun was getting low on the horizon, the firefighters returned to their engines after a job well done.  The sheep in the fields carried on nibbling grass and the horses and chickens seemed unfazed.  The songbirds at the feeders were out in full force, possibly discussing just what the hell happened.  Roger and I sat down to do the same.  The fires were out, but all of us at Crockern were left with the view of a blackened hillside and air heavy with the smell of charred vegetation.

Before we had a chance to recover, we received a phone call from the farmer who grazes livestock on our side of the river and he was planning to swale up our side of the valley the next day.  I know it is a technique to manage the landscape and is legally done this time of the year, but looking upon the burned remains on the other side of the river, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad.

Around two in the afternoon, we saw the haze of smoke cloaking our usual view down the track.   We scanned the hillside to see the group of swalers assembled to oversee the burn.  After about ten minutes, the flames were licking over the tops of the yellow-flowering gorse bushes, marching forward across the hillside toward Crockern.  This is the very gorse which I had scratched my cornea on last year, and spent a good amount of time this winter cutting back to clear trenches.  Not certain I would have bothered with that miserable task if I knew this burn was going to happen.  Still, I was sorry to see the prickly gorse so easily go up in smoke.

With the air calm and a seasoned crew of swalers, Roger and I weren’t concerned about this fire, even as it made quick pace toward our house.  I took pictures and watched from the window, comfortable in the knowledge that this fire was under control.  Given the day before’s experience, I don’t wish to be too close to a fire outside of our trusty woodburner any time soon.