Oh, The Lengths We’ll Go!

Roger’s capacity for detail and care often moves me.  He possesses a patience and ability to dig deep, learning what is needed for nearly any challenge.  Where I might be a planner and excel at fitting a number of things into small spaces; Roger can manage details, intricacies and care in ways I simply can’t imagine.

We had been away in April for a week and enjoying a long overdue holiday.  When we returned, we saw one of our chickens sporting a very messy bottom.  Our neighbour who takes care of our chickens when we are away, indicated she had observed the chicken’s messy bottom and thought it might be a prolapse.

Well now, that’s a first for us.

Raising one’s own chickens is a thoroughly rewarding enterprise. Chickens are certainly the most easily managed of domestic animals — they are smaller than goats, and more practical than parakeets.  Our small flock of hens produces enough eggs for us to use during the week, plus extra to sell.  We keep them safe from predators, provide them shelter and food, and a good bit of free-ranging yard in which to explore, take dust baths, and catch worms.  Unlike Sam and Millie, our chickens don’t need to be trained or walked.  The very idea is preposterous!

Of course, when a chicken develops health concerns that is another kettle of fish, so to speak.  If Sam or Millie were sick, we would take them to the vet.  But, who takes chickens to the vet?  We enjoy our chickens, but we don’t over sentimentalise them.  We’re in the country-side and most people who keep chickens would likely make a nice soup when their hens stop laying.  That won’t be the fate of our girls, because we enjoy watching them in the garden.  Even so, they won’t get a ten mile car ride to the vet when they are feeling poorly.

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Thankfully, there are perhaps as many chicken forums on the Internet as there are chickens in the world.  If you need to know anything about feeding and raising chickens, breed selection, housing options, or recipes for eggs, just click onto one of these discussion groups and you’ll uncover a wide range of expertise, experience, photos and personal stories.  It was one such forum which Roger availed himself of the health and wellness section and quickly learned what to do in this slippery situation.

Treating a prolapse begins with a visit to the chicken day spa, also known as our kitchen sink.  Here the chicken will step into a warm saltwater bath and soak her bottom for about thirty minutes.  I adore soaking for hours in a bath with a good book and a glass of wine, so no doubt in the world of chickens, getting to sit in a bowl of warm water would be bliss!  I’m certain I’m right as our sickly chicken, one of our most evasive and difficult to catch, soon came to see Roger as her key to the spa and practically jumped into his arms when he came to get her for her warm bath.

In the beginning of her care regime, we were concerned about this flighty hen sitting for thirty minutes in a  warm water bath having her bottom cleaned, so I sang to her.  My repertoire bends towards camp songs and I can sing for a good twenty minutes or more about “When it comes to the end of a Brown Ledge day” or “On a wagon, bound for market…”  To more than a few, this skill is among my more irritating, right up there with singing the fifty States in alphabetically order.  But, to this hen, my dulcet tones seemed to do the trick.  Of course, it may have been the warm water bath because as care continued over time, Roger suggested my singing wasn’t necessary.

With the chicken relaxed and her bottom clean, Roger next sprays the hen’s bum with antibacterial spray.  Easy enough.  The prolapse must be pushed back and with the help of a  little haemorrhoid cream, Roger eases the hen’s uterus back into place.  Success!  Somewhat short term though, as about twenty minutes later, her inner organs slipped out again.

For over a week, this procedure of water bath, antibacterial spray and a haemorrhoid cream push-back was conducted twice daily.  The prolapse continued to prolapse.  Reading further, chicken information forums Roger learned about making little harnesses which attach around the chicken’s wings to hold everything up and in, a sort of uterine girdle.  There are endless discussions of the steps people have taken, ultimately ending with such disheartening messages like, “after a week of treatment, the chicken died.”  Like not driving to the vet, we decided to draw the line at making a uterine girdle.

While Roger carried on applying his chicken nursing skills, another chicken who was looking happy and healthy suddenly dropped dead by the feeder.  She was just over 5 years old when she died.  This unexpected death set us about preparing for the loss of another hen.  Her prolapse was not correcting itself and we didn’t want her getting an infection or suffering.

After ten days of treatment in Crockern Spa, our sickly hen, the one who loved Roger for the warm baths he provided, developed a limp.  Was this an infection?  Did she sprain it jumping onto a perch?  Or, was she feigning a new injury to extend visits to the spa?  We may never know because this beautiful hen with her silly slipping out uterus and awkward stride, made a full recovery.  Her warm baths have stopped and so too has her willingness to being caught.  She is back to her evasive manoeuvres, sporting a nice clean bottom and no limp.  She is her old self again.

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Happy and healthy and back in the gang (second from right).

The Saga Continues

They say there are two certainties in life: Death and Taxes. But I believe there is a third, potentially only affecting a few: Projects at Crockern.

In July, Roger and I had elected to take a break from our long list of renovations and instead focus on the delights of summer. We planned to spend August visiting with friends, tending to the garden, catching up on books, exploring new walks and generally, enjoying our lives before heading into the next big phase of things. Out of necessity, we took on one project, which was to replace the oil tank I wrote about in the AGA Saga.

Oil tanks aren’t complicated and getting a new one in place shouldn’t be either. There are simple steps to follow. You order a tank, it gets delivered, and a professional comes out and hooks the whole thing up, right? But, as we were embracing our time off, these seemingly simple procedures took an unexpected turn.

 

Step one: Order new tank and arrange delivery:

When the stop cock was repaired, it was a short term fix resulting in a mad rush to source a new tank and have it delivered as the then plumber was available the following week to switch to the new tank.

We scrambled to find a double skinned oil tank that could be delivered in 24 hours and lined up a friend to help us move it into place. Despite meticulous organization and detailed instructions on our location and the access restrictions up to the house, we received a phone call advising that our new oil tank was sitting upon an 18 wheeler-semi (in the UK this massive vehicle is known as an articulated lorry…..whatever).   Suffice it to say, it is not possible for a vehicle this size to make it up our track, let alone turn around, so our new tank was delayed by an extra day.

Frantic phone calls ensued, and several days later the tank arrived on a smaller truck with the greatest of ease and the charge for 24-hour express delivery was waived. Our pretty new tank was sitting in place and awaiting its hook up.

 

Step two: Plumber comes out to do the tank switch:

The new tank is in place and the plumber mentioned in step one never showed the following week as arranged. Nor, did he appear the week after, or, the week after that. There were no returned messages either.   Embracing our relaxed summer, we only partially shook the bushes on this, until it was clear we needed a new plumber for this job.

 

Step two, section A: Find a new plumber to come out to do the tank switch:

I called one plumber. I called another. I called a third. I awaited returned messages. I called again. I finally landed on someone who scheduled a time to come out. Meanwhile, to properly lay the new oil cabling, Roger dug oddly shaped trenches that had to circumnavigate granite stones, the size of small cars, hidden below ground.

Transferring oil from the old tank to a temporary tank.

Transferring oil from the old tank to a temporary tank.

 

Channels for the new pipes.

Channels for the new pipes.

 

Steps three – seven: Drain the old tank into a temporary holding tank; Disconnect old tank and hook up new tank; Transfer the transferred oil from the holding tank into the new tank; Test to see that everything (boiler and AGA work):

The new plumbers showed up on time, commenced work, and by mid-day, the transfer of oil from the old tank to the new, along with new connections were complete. The pipes were encased in protective insulation and laid into the snaky channels. The boiler worked and we waited for the AGA to light. As this takes time, we said goodbye to the plumbers.

 

Step Eight: Celebrate:

Nope.

 

Skip celebratory step and add new steps, as the AGA didn’t light:

After a quick phone call the chief plumber and his apprentice showed up to assess. This felt serious. And it was. The new tank, 1/3 of the way filled with oil and another 1500 litres scheduled for delivery was not high enough for the effects of gravity required by the AGA. Despite our meticulous measurements, we were up against another phase of this seemingly endless project. Now we had to build a plinth.

As Roger and I absorbed this news, our brains were spinning. Roger was scheduled to take a trip to Scotland and was contemplating canceling his travel plans. Meanwhile, I was thinking of how we are going to get this done before my brother arrives for a two-week visit. It is one thing to eat tuna fish sandwiches for dinner every night during a project; it is another thing to serve them to visitors. It feels depressing.

The technical drawings for the raised platform.

The technical drawings for the raised platform.

 

Now we have three tanks. The temporary holding tank, sitting empty. The old tank, moved and once again holding oil. The new tank (right) awaiting its move and fill.

Now we have three tanks. The temporary holding tank, sitting empty. The old tank, moved and once again holding oil. The new tank (right) awaiting its move and fill.

 

While Roger and my cousins were sipping whisky and trying on kilts, I did what I do best and planned. I got the schematics for this plinth, went to the building yard and scheduled delivery of the necessary materials. I also scheduled the plumber to return in order to empty the new tank into a holding tank and help move the new tank so that Roger and I, along with our dear friend and neighbour, can build two pillars with concrete lintels to rest the new tank. I’ve borrowed a cement mixer and mostly lined up friends to help lift the tank into its new elevated position, forever reminding us of its power to keep our AGA happy and dictate our activities. When all this is complete, I’ll schedule the plumber again to move the oil from the temporary tank to the new tank in time for the delayed delivery of oil.

Our oil is having a traveling adventure of its own and we’ve only discovered one new walk. Increasingly, I am convinced if I had a pound coin for every time I’ve said, “I’m waiting for the plumber.” I could probably finance this project.

The new platform for the new tank. A temple to oil.

The new platform for the new tank. A temple to oil.

The Aga Saga

I stopped by the fishmonger yesterday and selected a beautiful piece of fish for dinner. As I was making my way home, I imagined grilling the fillets and drizzling a wine sauce with herbs and capers across the top. To complete the whole dish, a side of rice and some fresh vegetables from the garden. Healthy. Tasty. Easy.

On route, Roger called to tell me “I’ve had to turn the Aga off, will that be a problem?”

My disappointment in the change of dinner plans aside; this new situation wasn’t a problem. Or was it?

After arriving home and putting the fish into the refrigerator, I found Roger up by the oil tank. Then under the counter adjusting the valve on the Aga only to return climb up to the oil tank. Back and forth, between these two locations, he went, muttering and cursing a good deal in his mounting frustration. I knew that now was not the time to try and get a handle on what the exact situation was and instead, just to go with it in a light and easy manner. With that, Sam and I elected to take an evening stroll, tend to the garden before it rained, and put the chickens away for the night.

With no hope of my gourmet dinner, I picked twice as much lettuce than planned and rummaged around for things to throw onto the salad to make a meal of it. Boiled egg? Toasted nuts? Nope, the Aga was temporarily out of commission.

Usually a gentle soul, Roger’s mutterings were growing in volume. With a glass of wine in one hand and my book in the other, I moved to the other room awaiting word of our situation. It wasn’t like dinner was going to get cold.

Suddenly I hear, “Catherine, I need your help!” I ran into the kitchen and the jar that Roger was using to drain a little bit of fuel from the line was nearly overflowing. Expertly, Roger placed a second jar beneath the first, avoiding any spillage of oil in the house, and I cautiously carried the filled-to-the-rim one out to the barn for later disposal.

The oil tank had some water and gunk building up in it, which is not uncommon. The whole system requires routine maintenance, to which we adhere. Unfortunately, this time the project was taking hours and hours rather than the typical 30 minutes.

Sadly, our oil tank situation doesn’t end here. Today Roger tells me that after draining all the water out of the tank, the problem has now shifted. The stopcock was now leaking as long as the Aga was on and pulling oil. Even well maintained oil tanks need to be replaced every 15-20 years, and I’m guessing ours is that age or older. So, we’ve turned off the Aga for the next several days. I placed the lovely fish, purchased for the previous night’s dinner, into the freezer. Roger is now researching a new oil tank (an over due necessity and we did lay the concrete base for it a year ago), which can be delivered up our track within 48 hours (usual wait is about 10 days –Gulp!). A call to the plumber has been made to schedule a time for him to make the necessary attachments and welds. And while this unplanned expense is upon us, it isn’t the end of the world. We don’t have guests for a week or so, and therefore no need to do any cooking. And mercifully, it isn’t winter so we don’t need the boiler.

Life in this old house sometimes throws problems our way and we face them usually with good cheer and aplomb. Tonight, our “can do” spirit will be celebrated and nourished at the pub for dinner. I’m having the fish and chips.

Enjoying a pint while we wait for our fish and chips take away dinner.

Enjoying a pint while we wait for our fish and chips take away dinner.

 

We took our picnic dinner here while Sam waded in the river.

We took our picnic dinner here while Sam waded in the river.

 

Yummy!

Yummy!

How’s it Growing?

 

Last year there were three growing in this spot, now look at them!

Last year there were three growing in this spot, now look at them!

 

For some, gardening is a science, backed up with generations of wisdom and bookshelves filled with horticultural tomes. For those serious gardeners, there is a secret stash of seeds and an encyclopedic knowledge of tried-and-tested-grown-in-proven-ways approaches to their planting. My skills and knowledge are nothing of this order and I am often intimidated when the serious gardener casually uses Latin names for plants.   For me, gardening is hard work and a complete mystery. Not the miraculous, awe-inspiring, divine-wonder type of mystery, more the, “What on earth did I do this year and why is this growing (or not) now?”

When it comes to our garden, Roger and I are experimental. Sure, we keep a little black book of when and what we’ve planted, largely because we can never remember year to year. We even do that thing called crop rotation, although I need to confirm the plant category in order to know which bed to position everything for the growing season. Despite our shortcomings, we enjoy the work, the worry and the payout of a fresh salad at dinner, strawberries for breakfast and most recently globe artichokes dipped in melted butter.

 

These potatoes grew overnight!

These potatoes grew overnight!

 

The onions and rocket suffered several attacks from wildlife.  Struggling a bit, but seem to be rallying.

The onions and rocket suffered several attacks from wildlife. Struggling a bit, but seem to be rallying.

 

To protect the lettuces, we had to construct this crazy barrier.  Happy to report the rabbits have moved elsewhere for their greens.

To protect the lettuces, we had to construct this crazy barrier. Happy to report the rabbits have moved elsewhere for their greens.

 

To watch us, one could be forgiven for thinking we possess wisdom and skill. I faithfully tend my compost piles, producing bags and bags of our rich, loamy product for our raised beds. We weed. We harvest. We enjoy the produce we grow. We smile with joy when something we planted grows and briefly frown when it doesn’t. We listen to Gardener’s Question Time on Radio 4 in hopes of inspiration and insight, but alas, they never address growing vegetables, flowers or anything in the middle of Dartmoor. Undaunted, we keep at it.

We have learned a good deal as we head into our fourth summer of gardening here at Crockern.   I may still dream of one day successfully growing sweet corn, but know we don’t stand the proverbial snow ball’s chance in hell of success, so we’ve move onto something else: aubergines (eggplants) in the greenhouse!

We began our gardening adventure by clearing areas and building raised beds for the vegetables. We repaired and created infrastructure along the stonewalls, fencing and gates.   We’ve learned a thing or two about keeping slugs, chickens and rabbits out of the beds, even if it does look like a fortress in places. We’ve built a greenhouse and have a bounty of strawberries and soon, tomatoes. And this year, by moving fallen stones and layering in tons of our homemade compost, we completed two flowerbeds and up-cycled an old bathtub.

 

The up-cycled bathtub.  We built the stone wall around it, filled it with drainage stones and then compost before planting it with these perennials.

The up-cycled bathtub. We built the stone wall around it, filled it with drainage stones and then compost before planting it with these perennials.

 

One of the newly planted flower beds.

One of the newly planted flower beds.

 

When I went to the garden centre for a few pretty plants for these new beds, I had to consider our weather conditions: wet, windy, cloudy, cooler and vulnerable to rabbits, chickens, slugs, badgers and moles. Hmmm. Embracing my “give it a go” approach, I made my selection and planted the new flowerbeds.   So far, so good with a single rabbit attack, necessitating a barrier for the time being. The honeysuckle we positioned into one of the flowerbeds last year has flourished. And so it should, you can find these growing wild in and among the oaks at Wistman’s Wood.

 

The honeysuckle is well established.

The honeysuckle is well established.

 

Having rebuilt the walls, this will be next year's project.

Having rebuilt the walls, this will be next year’s project.

 

Nature is our guide. Outside our garden, seeming to grow without any effort, are the wild foxgloves, full of grace and elegance. Despite looking like pink periscopes coming out of the field to observe us, these bold architectural spires, with bell shaped flowers hanging from one side of the tall stem, mingle in and among the soft tufts of grass and reeds in the meadow.   They seem to grow anywhere that might be awkward: In the wet patch of bog or next to the dry rocks of a stonewall.   They are casual and informal, and also perfect.

What is it about this summer that has nearly ten times as many growing? Last year, my friend Jenny was visiting and commented that she loved seeing the foxgloves, unable to successfully grow them in her own garden. I must quickly point out, Jenny has a serious green thumb and is one of those gardeners who knows what she’s doing. Last year’s small show has become this year’s blockbuster bloom! It’s a Broadway and West End smash hit!

 

Wild foxgloves

 

When I look out to the foxgloves, I realize that our gardening technique of trial, error and humour might be a little haphazard, casual, and sometimes thwarted by mistakes and oversights, but it actually works. Our onions are struggling a bit and there was a giant rabbit hole in our asparagus bed back in March. The rabbits chewed through netting to feast on lettuce until we put chicken wire around the bed. But, if I don’t get too hung up on the why’s and how’s of what we are growing, and instead roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty, I soon notice the tomatoes are in full flower, the potatoes have doubled in size over night, and we are soon to have a large number of blueberries, having wisely netted them before the birds could get to them. Maybe the thing about gardening, particularly our garden, is similar in concept to the surprise showing of this year’s foxgloves: we aren’t supposed to know what to expect and instead enjoy what we get.

 

It is still hard for me to believe that these are growing so well here on Dartmoor.

It is still hard for me to believe that these are growing so well here on Dartmoor.

Kevin McCloud Would Be Proud, part two

Finishing the bathroom happened at nearly the same time that we finished the bedroom. In actual fact, the bedroom was mostly done, just waiting for the bathroom fixtures to be moved out of the center of it.

These projects took us three years. That’s right, three years. When we arrived, the south wall had streams of water running down it. We had to replace the roof and then wait to see if that made a difference. We also had some giant beams to replace, as the ones that were there were rotting from all the damp and no longer supporting the floor above. We did this in year one.

Then, we had to figure out just what to do with this room. All sorts of questions: How will stairs work? What sort of heating system should we consider in an effort to be green? For those of you who have followed the blog from its inception, I’ve written about these topics. Once we decided, it still took a long time. This we did in year two.

Year three had us ripping up the stinky and filthy carpet, which was the easy bit. Living with the dirt this construction project generated for nearly two years was more of a challenge. Over three years, we undertook the following projects in these two rooms (not in any particular order):

  • Replaced old rotten beams with new green oak beams
  • Installed a new boiler
  • Fitted Sovereign Membrane (as seen on a few episodes of Grand Designs!) to let the stone walls do their moisture thing, but not have it come into the house
  • Framed the walls in order to put in insulation. We insulated walls, floors and ceilings
  • Lay new Floors
  • Installed a new ceiling
  • Built a room (big ass closet!) for the boiler so it was no longer in the bedroom
  • Had stairs designed, built and installed
  • Installed a new window and slate sill (found at reclamation yard)
  • Painted walls and ceiling
  • Cleaned all manner of dirt and debris
  • Cleaned some more
  • And still some more
  • Moved furniture into the room and then ourselves
  • Took a few photos and here is the post of the before, during and after:
How it looked our first summer.  Notice the ceiling and the rotten beams being supported by the window.

How it looked our first summer. Notice the ceiling and the rotten beams being supported by the window.

 

Room emptied and ready to replace the old beams above.

Room emptied and ready to replace the old beams above.

 

Getting ready to remove old beams and install the new ones.

Getting ready to remove old beams and install the new ones.

 

Delivery of the new beams (summer of 2012).

Delivery of the new beams (summer of 2012).

 

Andy preparing the window.

Andy preparing the window.

 

Working on the new window.  First step is to take out the old, secure the lintel and integrate the damp proofing materials.

Working on the new window. First step is to take out the old, secure the lintel and integrate the damp proofing materials.

 

Let the work begin.  Old carpeting out.  New beams in.  Next is to frame walls, install stairs, and prepare for a 3 year adventure.

Let the work begin. Old carpeting out. New beams in. Next is to frame walls, install stairs, and prepare for a 3 year adventure.

 

It's just a mess!

It’s just a mess!

 

Insulation ready to go into walls, ceilings, floors.

Insulation ready to go into walls, ceilings, floors.

 

This was the way to get downstairs before we had the new ones built.

This was the way to get downstairs before we had the new ones built.

 

Old boiler.  One switch:  on or off.  No temperature settings.  The little red tank is resting on a box because it was previously hanging from the wall.  And all those pipes....well, this was in the corner of the whole room before we built it's big-ass closet!

Old boiler. One switch: on or off. No temperature settings. The little red tank is resting on a box because it was previously hanging from the wall. And all those pipes….well, this was in the corner of the whole room before we built it’s big-ass closet!

 

Framing and insulation being installed.

Framing and insulation being installed.

 

Plaster boards going into place.

Plaster boards going into place.

 

New stairs are in, plaster drying, floor insulation down.  Next step, lay the floors.

New stairs are in, plaster drying, floor insulation down. Next step, lay the floors.

 

New stairs and secret closet under the stairs.

New stairs, floors, and secret closet under the stairs.

 

Finished corner of the room.

Finished corner of the room.

 

View of the finished room on way to the bathroom.

View of the finished room on way to the bathroom.

 

Finished work.  Just need a door for the closet and maybe some art and furniture.  Hey, Rome wasn't built in a day.

Finished work. Just need a door for the closet and maybe some art and furniture. Hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

 

Now that the spring and summer is upon us, all our new projects are moving to the outdoors. True to my nature, I’ve started a list and it is long!

Kevin McCloud Would Be Proud, part one

We love watching Grand Designs. It’s a television addiction, in which we regularly partake. Each week Kevin McCloud, the host and our hero, takes the viewer on a home building journey, a Grand Design, born of grit and determination and sometimes, sheer lunacy.

As with any TV program, there are certainties:

  1. Everyone wants to be in his or her new build by Christmas.
  2. Everyone has a vision and a wildly underestimated sense of budget and timeline.
  3. It seems just for extra drama, the people building have no experience and take it all on by themselves usually after they’ve fired an architect or their builder has fled the scene.
  4. For good measure, the couple building their grand design – exhausted, stressed, broke, living in a leaky camper van, etc. – somehow end up pregnant. This part always seems implausible. Honestly, how do they have the energy to have sex after all that stress and work?

With our bathroom completed, I’d like to say to Mr. McCLoud, “I think you’d like what we’ve done.”

  1. We didn’t have an architect, but we had a part time builder for the stuff we couldn’t do and was clearly beyond our skill set;
  2. We avoided fixed deadlines (several Christmases came and went) and hence stress. We were not good television material, unless watching us contemplate with templates made with boxes just where the tub, sink and toilet would be located.
  3. We stuck to a tight budget.
  4. We sought green credentials in as much as we could, given that we live in an old stone building run on a generator.
  5. Nobody was fired or got pregnant during this project. That said, our builder friend and his partner are expecting a baby. Oh well.

Basically, we’d make for boring, boring television, but who cares? Here are a few pictures of before, during and after. It may have taken nearly three years to complete the downstairs, and there are still decisions about where to hang art work, but we’ve done it. Hey Kevin, have a look!

 

The bathroom when we moved into Crockern.  Damp carpeting on the floor, no insulation, damp walls, and that toilet wobbled....not a fun thing!

The bathroom when we moved into Crockern. Damp carpeting on the floor, no insulation, damp walls, and that toilet wobbled….not a fun thing!

 

The shower stopped working in our first few months of being at Crockern.  The end wall grew moss.  The entire room smelled and was cold.

The shower stopped working in our first few months of being at Crockern. The end wall grew moss. The entire room smelled and was cold.

 

For months, we had the bathroom fixtures in the bedroom, while we finished the plumbing work and installed the slate tiles.  We also raised the floor, put in damp proofing and insulation, and ran electricity for lighting.

For months, we had the bathroom fixtures in the bedroom, while we finished the plumbing work and installed the slate tiles. We also raised the floor, put in damp proofing and insulation, and ran electricity for lighting.

 

Building the raised floor.

Building the raised floor.

 

Slate tiles and plumbing complete, just awaiting the installation of the tub, sink, shower and toilet.

Slate tiles and plumbing complete, just awaiting the installation of the tub, sink, shower and toilet.

 

Heading into the finished project.  This is the door we refinished.  I found it at a salvage yard and it was under several layers of paint.

Heading into the finished project. This is the door we refinished. I found it at a salvage yard and it was under several layers of paint.

 

New sink and groovy mirror I found at a flea market.

New sink and groovy mirror I found at a flea market.

 

Ta Da!   A few things left to do:  hang towel rack and hang some art, but we did it!

Ta Da! A few things left to do: hang towel rack and some art, but we did it!

Next posting, the finished bedroom.

A (Red)Start of Spring

Roger and I were recently in the States, joining family and friends, to celebrate my Dad’s 90th birthday. It was a grand old time filled with endless laughter, stories told a hundred times before, and the addition of new tales which will soon be worked into the tapestry of family lore. Before we made our way to the airport to head to this auspicious gathering, we were anxiously awaiting the arrival of spring to Crockern. Sure, we have had a few signs, but what we wanted was something greater and more profound than brave daffodils and hopeful snowdrops popping up through the grass. And yet as we left, the leaf buds on the trees teased and taunted us, displaying no more than tight buds of much anticipated foliage unfurling.

My Dad is 90 and loving it.  We are a big family and don't all fit well in this photo.

My Dad is 90 and loving it. We are a big family and don’t all fit well in this photo.

But what a difference a week makes: spring has finally sprung at Crockern. Everything is verdant with those previously mocking trees finally showing their full and proper leaf along with the rhododendron in a showy bloom. The Swallows and House Martins are busy competing for nest materials, while the Jackdaws seem to be applying the finishing decorating touches to their nests. Recently we saw a pair carry in their beaks some fleece along with flowers to accent their homes. We’ve also spotted nest-building activity between stones around the property: in the dry stone wall fences and the side of the barn and sheds. These well-hidden and newly built nests are home to future broods of Pied Wag-tails and Great Tits. It’s all happening!

While all this activity is exciting, it sadly cannot offset the fatigue brought on by a long trans-Atlantic trip. The best way forward is to indulge in a little nap as nothing else surpasses this effortless way to maintain health and well-being. But as I slipped into my noble and restorative siesta, I heard a “tap, tap, tap” on the window. Roger had warned me about this sound. He and Sam had heard it earlier and thought at first it was a bird or small animal trapped in the house. Like Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tale Tell Heart, the sound grew and grew. I am not suffering “an over-acuteness of the senses” because Roger and Sam had earlier staked out the window and watched a Redstart fly from one of our sheds to the window and commence its tapping. Presumably for insects, but possibly warning off its own reflection assuming it to be a rival male.

Naively, I thought I could sleep through it all, but that wretched Redstart is persistent. He awakens Roger at about 5:30 in the morning. He interrupts my return-from-travels-nap. And he is still tapping as I write!

Redstarts are easily identifiable especially when they shake their bright orange-red tails. The males look dressed up for a night out with their slate grey upper parts, black faces and wings, and an orange chest and bottom. Very smart, indeed. It’s exciting to see a pair at Crockern and know they are nesting so close as they are in decline across much of Europe.

Redstart image from RSPB (found on the Internet)

Redstart image from RSPB (found on the Internet)

The Redstart also has a beautiful song, joining the amplified dawn chorus that greets me each day comprising, among others, Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Jackdaws, Robins, Dunnocks, Wrens, Stonechats, Great Tits and Blue Tits. I frequently struggle to isolate a single sound among the hundreds let alone attach it to a specific bird type. Yet there are a few calls I can distinguish. In and amongst the reeds in the meadow along the river a ratchet-y sound, not dissimilar to a fishing reel spooling out its line, can be heard. A quick assessment confirms there are no anglers making their way in search of trout in the river, so it can only be the most impossible of birds to spot, the Grasshopper Warbler. And there is the call of the Cuckoo, who has returned for the summer to its ancestral home in our valley. Last year, Dartmoor National Park, along with Devon Birds, participated in a national satellite-tagging project conducted by the British Trust for Ornithology. This project tagged four Cuckoos in Dartmoor to study the migratory patterns of these birds and gain an understanding behind their alarming decline. Hearing its call among all the bird song adds to the wonder and privilege of bearing witness to so much singing!

But seeing is believing and Roger spotted the cuckoo in the pine tree near our barn. With its sleek body and long tail, this dove-sized bird is often elusive to spot, despite knowing it is near due to its easily identifiable call. If you visit the Devon Birds Cuckoo Watch Map, you’ll see our blue dot denoting a recent sighting.

Yes, we're the blue dots between the road and Wistman's Wood.

Yes, we’re the blue dots between the road and Wistman’s Wood.

With this arrival of spring and the longer days and longer grass, the chickens are all happy. The asparagus crowns are showing, though we must wait another year before we can harvest. The rhubarb is up. The blueberry bushes are looking healthy and the strawberries are kicking out berries. Our potatoes are in the ground and in a few weeks we’ll plant out the rest of the summer vegetables. Oddly, for the first time ever, I’m excited about the nettles growing all over as it is now time to make some nettle ravioli. It’s somewhat labour intensive, but the payoff in flavour is oh-so-yummy!

Still to come, harkening the arrival of spring will be the return of the newly born lambs and their mothers to the upland moors for a summer of grazing. Their James Brown call and respond sounds will fill the air, not in a melodic dawn chorus I hasten to add, but more likely as an effective means to drown out even the most persistent tapping of our resident Redstart.

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I Heart Compost

In the cooler months, steam visibly rises off the heap.  Each day, the pile on the right grows with new additions, while the pile on the left seems to transform into a dark, rich, and crumbly material.  There’s no smell.  There are, however, bugs swarming about, the sight of which even in the cold depths of winter, provides an anticipation on a par with hearing the coffee grinder on an early Sunday morning, knowing that I do not need to get out of bed to walk Sam – Roger’s already done it.  This week’s clear blue skies, warm, soft breezes, and the determination of the snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils all announcing spring, my low level of anticipation is ramping up into something approaching giddiness.  Yes, it’s happened again and I am completely obsessed with our compost, my steaming pile of pride and joy.

I’m clearly not alone in this world with my affection for this decayed organic material as books could easily line several shelves on the topic:  Easy Composting; The Humanure Handbook; Compost This Book; and, Let It Rot! are among the many.  I am curious about the Diary of a Compost Hotline Worker, but haven’t had the local bookshop order it for me.

When we moved to Crockern two years ago, we set about clearing an area of nettles and stones, building up some wind breaks and constructing seven raised beds.  We built our compost bins, erected a greenhouse and armed ourselves with determination to grow in an exposed, windy, cold, and wet environment.   Over the seasons, we have had successes and failures leading to a more focused list of what we intend to grow this summer.  Our winter beds are miraculously still providing lettuces, chard and spinach.  We are feeling proud and I affectionately know our lovely compost has something to do with it.

I suppose, making compost is considered to be complex and may cause a level of anxiety among some, but all you need to do is provide the right ingredients and let nature get busy.  Simply dump some green waste and then brown waste in equal amounts, give it air, moisture and time and voila, rich loamy stuff for the garden!

Where we live we don’t need to worry about adding water to our compost lasagna, but we do need to consider air.  Twice a month, I stir with a pitchfork the layers of mass, giving them a good mix then cover the pile with some old carpet and a tarp.  After a few months, the compost is beautifully decayed and I transfer it into bags to continue its transformation for a few more months.  All in all, I can create around half a ton of compost every six months.

I don’t know how my love affair began.  Unquestionably, composting is an act of frugality, which has some obvious appeal.   There is also the environmental feel-good factor of using organic material that would otherwise be entombed in a bio-indestructible plastic rubbish bag perched somewhere in a landfill.  Around 40 percent of the average dustbin contents are suitable for home composting.   But like all love affairs, there is something magical and enchanting at play.  To observe in a matter of months a pile of melon rinds, apple cores and other leftovers from our kitchen and garden, along with cardboard or waste from the chicken coop become a super rich decomposed material containing lots of humus, carbon and nitrogen is pure delight.  I’m busy making black gold and I love it!

Two of our hens are assisting with the composting efforts.

Two of our hens are assisting with the composting efforts.

While one pecks bugs and adds poop, the other is off to assess the progress and quality of the black gold in the left bin.

While one pecks bugs and adds poop, the other is off to assess the progress and quality of the black gold in the left bin.

There are little areas of chaos that characterize the circus we call our vegetable garden.  The chickens enjoy their role as supervisors, determining the right balance of worms in the bed.  “Cluck, too many, this one must be eaten!”  The rabbits visit but so far remain deterred by the netting over the beds.  The slugs and snails nibble.  And the rain hammers down on our plants, stripping the beds of vital nutrients and adding to the challenge we like to call “satisfying fun”.   At the base of it all, is our home grown compost.

Early spring is always a mad scramble with the garden.  This past week, I’ve turned our future fertilizer, bagged some of the well-rotted stuff for further decaying, and emptied tons of the fresh and ready material onto the garden beds awaiting our spring plantings.  We have started to chit out seed potatoes for planting mid to late April.  Tomato seedlings are now started.   I am excited to see the budding on the blueberry bushes and am anxiously awaiting the asparagus spears to show themselves.  The rhubarb is already about 4 inches above ground!

Despite the trouncing this watery-winter gave us, we know warmer days are around the corner.  Some mornings, as I pad out to my compost pile with the plastic kitchen pail chuck-full of potato peels, apple cores, and coffee grounds, I think about the bounty our veg garden will provide.    We are enjoying the longer days and the reverie of birdcall aware the return of our summer migrants like Swallows and House Martins is near.  As I tip the contents of the pail onto the heap, my heart swells knowing a rind is a terrible thing to waste.

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You Cute Little Heartbreaker

Driving home one recent evening, Roger met me at the gate and said, “We have a problem.”  Gulp.  No one ever wants to hear these words from their partner.  It can only mean misery and heartache, the kind born of death, disease, or financial ruin.  Once my racing mind filled with all matter of imagined catastrophes began to subside, I heard Roger calmly telling me he spotted a fox in the garden earlier, just five feet away from the chickens.  Yikes!

We know there are foxes all over Dartmoor.  We know they come sniffing about Crockern at night.  We’ve seen one slinking through the reeds on the other side of the river and spotted others crossing the road, or laying dead along side it, in countless locations.   We just hope they don’t come sneaking around during the day to snatch one or two of our chickens, or worse still, kill the lot.  Thankfully, on this occasion, Roger spotted the fox in time and he and Sam ran around the garden, making barking noises until the chickens were safely returned to their coop for the remainder of the day.  Deprived of their free-ranging fun, but safe.

Foxes sustain themselves on a variety of foods, including rabbits, voles, mice, insects such as beetles, worms and snails, ground nesting birds, little lambs, and of course, domestic fowl (a.k.a. chickens!).  The vast majority of chickens in Britain are raised in battery conditions and foxes are the least of their problems.  Free-range hens, such as ours, are usually safe from foxes if they are securely housed and not left out at night.  We remain vigilant in our efforts to keep our hens safe.

Are you talking to me?

(Photo by Charlotte Levy.   charlottelevyphotography.co.uk )

Some people love foxes, with their furry tails, pointy ears, adaptability and intelligence.  Others view them exclusively as pests.  I have mixed feelings about foxes.  They are indeed beautiful creatures, but they are a potential threat to our chickens.   Over the years, I have enjoyed the countless stories where foxes are presented as sly, clever, and cunning.  But, I don’t like Fox news in the United States, finding it misleading and troublesome.   Foxes are among the most adaptable of all carnivores, living in nearly every type of habitat on earth, which I find admirable.   And, if a fox chooses to feed on the rabbits that attempt to feed on our vegetables, then I subscribe to “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  The problem is, foxes have excellent memories for the location of their food caches.  A return visit if it knows we have chickens could spell curtains for our hens.

I find it enthralling and magical when out walking on the moors to catch a glimpse of a lone fox loping across the heather, slinking stealthily among the reeds, or darting out of sight into a hidden den.  It is more unusual, and thus the thrill of this wildlife spotting all the greater, to come across one of these creatures out in the open, perhaps sunning itself along a riverbank.   Sometimes, at dusk or dawn, we might catch a flash of movement in and among the reddish brown reeds.  We might not see the fox, but we know it must be there given the evidence:  The sheep continue to graze, pausing only to assess a potential threat while several birds quickly take flight from a gorse bush.  Moments like these are always filled with sudden bursts of pleasure.

This past week, I returned home at the end of the day, and Roger once again met me at the gate this time saying, “I have some sad news.”  Once again my mind tripped into overdrive about death, disease, and financial ruin.   This time, I was right about death.  Earlier in the day, three of our chickens had fallen victims of fowl play.

Roger quickly disabused me of my notion that a hungry fox – the one spotted the previous week – had returned and killed our chickens.  Instead, an off-lead dog had jumped our walls, given chase and killed three of our hens.  Unlike the fox that kills for its food, this dog’s instinct to catch and kill a moving object caused the carnage.  Not for food.  Not for survival.  Simply because it could.

Our chickens scratch and peck and do their funny chicken things just like moveable flowers in the garden.  I lose all track of time when watching them digging for worms, or scratching at a new bit of compost I’ve just put onto a garden bed.   I may get a little cross with the hens when they find a way into the vegetable bed and tear apart the Kale, but it warms my heart when they meet me at the door in anticipation of treats.  It puts a smile on my face when they see me across the yard and beat a path to say hello.  Or when they help put the bird feeders up, making certain the ground below is clear of any spillage.  I like when they decide to stand on my boot, or peck at my fleece when I’m trying to do any work outside.

It’s difficult to describe the feelings when losing chickens from a dog attack.  We recently had one chicken that fell ill and two days later, was dead.  It happens.  And chickens are vulnerable to attacks from foxes and badgers when not securely housed.  Chickens also can lead short lives, sometimes dying of unknown natural causes.  But for that evening, it was hard to be existential about life and death.  Instead, we just felt sad.

When the weather is a little better, we’ll get a few more chickens to join our remaining five.  For now, losing three in such a grisly attack has left a silence in our garden and an egg size hole in our hearts.

I'm so pretty, oh so pretty...

One of our hens who died from the dog attack.  She was an original in many ways, including she was our first.                           (photo by Charlotte Levy)

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Horrible Imaginings

About a year ago, a friend, let’s call him Mr. Green Fingers to protect his anonymity, sent me a snarky e-mail.  He is a keen gardener and our gardening exchanges always contained encouragement, advice, wisdom and occasionally, the gifting of plants when he had too many for his own garden space.  But after sending some pictures of the location for our vegetable beds, he wrote me, “I especially like your optimistic reference to the future vegetable plot. I have this image of a line of bunnies sitting on the stonewall with tiny napkins grasped in their dirty paws.”

Was this some kind of a joke masking encouragement, or true empathy anticipating any number of challenges that awaited us?  Possibly, it was a prophetic truth, akin to the three witches in Macbeth whose predictions hold the capacity to effect later events in the play.  No matter, I felt decidedly unnerved.  The very idea that our friend, this gardening man, could profoundly influence our garden’s future sent shivers.  We know when the three witches speak of those “Horrible Imaginings” they happen.

While not in the opening act, our character made his cameo hopping into the garden from stage left, as we were exiting stage right for 10 days of holiday.  Blast!   We had lined up friends to water the plants, pinch out anything before it began to bolt, and to harvest whatever looked ready.  But on the morning of our departure, while we loaded our suitcases into the car, Harvey, Bugs Bunny, Peter, Roger or Jessica Rabbit, Flopsy, Mopsy, or if you prefer, Cottontail burst onto the scene and we were powerless to do anything about a possible future invasion from this furry fiend and his colony of mates, grabbing their napkins to feast on the bounty of our garden.

Crockern Farm

The Rabbit

Crockern Farm

Trying to hide while nibbling grass.

Admittedly, rabbits are cute, and some people keep them as pets, but they can cause considerable damage in the garden.  If our garden came under attack, we would suffer heartache of epic proportions because we’ve worked hard.  As if the slugs and weather challenges weren’t enough, do we really need to fend off this little blighter, too?

Despite its late start due to an extended winter and a cold spring, we’ve done well with our summer garden.  Throughout the year, the vegetable beds were under siege from our own chickens, determined slugs, snails, cabbage butterflies, moles and, at times, harsh Dartmoor weather.   Let’s not forget our own learning curve, too, which was steep:  We planted many plants too close together and our companion planting was sequential rather than simultaneous, letting the aphids get the better of our broad beans before the nasturums blossomed to the rescue.   Despite all this, every day since mid-June we’ve managed to collect something from the garden for our table:  A variety of lettuces, cabbages, carrots, potatoes, cucumbers, beans, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, chard, beets, tomatoes and onions.  Soon to come are the celeriac, celery, purple sprouting broccoli, courgettes, peppers, squash, swede and Brussels sprouts.

Much of where we live, in the high moors, is not ideal for rabbits, who prefer kinder soils in which to burrow and breed like, well, rabbits, kicking out a litter of three to six babies each time.  It’s inconceivable, but the females can become pregnant again one day after giving birth!  We may not have the cultivated land favoured by rabbits, but we are surrounded by gorse, which provides shelter.  We are also surrounded by historic man-made rabbit warrens.  Centuries ago, people built these from stone and earth to provide the ideal burrowing places so rabbits could breed and then be caught for their meat and skins.  Still today in the UK, rabbit is available at the butchers and some supermarkets.  At a local market, I once spotted some dead rabbits hanging next to pheasant and other small game.   And if it is on the pub menu, Roger will always opt for the Rabbit and Bacon Pie.

After our ten-day adventure in British Columbia and Montana, celebrating our 50th birthdays (for the careful reader, our birth year was 1963 – The Year Of The Rabbit! – an unusual coincidence, me thinks) with childhood friends, we returned to find the garden doing well.  Whew!   It is nearly two months later and we still have daily visits from this single rabbit, which has us wondering what happened to the others?  It was a small baby when we first spotted it in June and now it is a medium sized adult.  But, we only ever see the one.  Or, is that is what we are being led to believe?

Usually, when you see one rabbit, you’ll soon see many.  Like Bugs Bunny, these critters are known to be tricksters, and it is possible we are under a cunning illusion cooked up by a warren of rabbits that are planning a stealth operation to devour our garden.  It’s also possible a fox got the rest of this rabbit’s family and it was spared, but we are keeping up our guard.  While I find myself rooting for this one rabbit to survive, find a mate and make a happy bunny family life, I look at the bounty in our garden and hope it keeps to nibbling the grass, commits itself to a life of celibacy and stays far, far away from our vegetable patch.

With a rabbit population of one, we happily welcome this bunny to join the wildlife of Crockern.   But if things change and our garden becomes a bunny smorgasbord, then we may grab our own napkins and cook up a rabbit pie.