Stoat Your Day Off Right

The other morning, I walked past Roger as he stood stock still and quiet in the back doorway.  His focused gaze clear.  Shhh.  Walk softly past.  I’m waiting to see something come out of that wall.

This particular wall is home to an abundance of life.  The rabbits who make quick get-aways when the dogs are outside.  Small birds making their nest homes among the narrow little cracks.  No doubt, the wall teams with bugs, worms, toads and loads of things we can’t easily see.   It must be an ongoing rave of tiny movements between the rocks and the mosses.  While Millie is chasing a ball, Brock is frequently sniffing parts of this wall, telling us there is a good deal more than meets the eye.  The plant life is spectacular.  Such a variety of mosses and lichen covering the rock surfaces it could easily impress a Japanese Zen gardener at Saihoji in Kyoto.

Crockern Farm Wall

It’s fair to say, Roger spots the majority of wildlife.  I may see it, but am often at a loss at identifying and naming. Roger sees, hears, and can identify the type of bird, animal and plant life easily.  It’s a skill I seek, but am most often off the mark.  Just when I think I can name the birds around Crockern, Roger will casually declare, “I just spotted a long-tailed blahdy-blah-blah”.  Lacking his skill set, who am I to question?

As Roger stood quietly in the doorway, his own wildlife hide, I crept up slowly to see what captured his attention.   He whispered coordinates of where to cast my view.   Just to the right of the Ash tree, down four stones and next to the tuft of ferns.  Do you see it?  There is a small, horizontal gap.   Watch that area.  This break in the wall, so easily unnoticed, suddenly was clear as day. The moss worn at the bottom of a decent sized opening.  Here is a faint, mini trail leading from the base of the hole out onto the yard.   Why hadn’t I taken notice before?  Millie and Brock frequently go sniffing about there. And while I chastised my untrained eyes, Roger pointed out the small movement in that particular void in the wall. I focused my attention and saw something.  A leaf caught in a clump of moss and fluttering in the breeze?  Then it happened again.  It was not a fluttering leaf, but a head busily poking in and out from the wall.  I too spied what Roger and the dogs already knew.  We have a Stoat!

Why this wall?  It seems a little close to the house.  Then again, we had a badger a few years ago burrowing about 30 feet from the front door. Unlike the badger or rabbit, a Stoat doesn’t dig its own burrow.  It’s opportunistic and will move throughout all the burrows and hideaways looking for prey. After it finds its prey, a Stoat will assume the home of the rodent it killed going so far as to decorate its new home with the skins and fur of said-dead-prey.  C-R-E-E-P-Y. That said, I suppose it is the ultimate in up-cycling.  With any number of stacks of logs, cracks in the walls, rock piles and the like, we’ve probably had a family of Stoats for some time.

Despite their approach to decorating their homes, they are adorable.  Those long and bendy bodies covered in a light brown fur on its back and a creamy white throat and belly.  Their tails tipped in black.  Cute they may be, this small little predator is just that, a predator. My thrill in spotting it was immediately offset with concern for our chickens.

Stoats are known for being well suited to hunting small rodents and rabbits. Bring it on little Stoat!  I just spent two days repairing the fourth of our six vegetable beds from rabbit damage.  Our local bunnies had burrowed up into the raised bed, despite a barrier beneath the soil.  I wouldn’t mind a small cull in this abundant population.

Our chickens are large hens, so should be okay with a Stoat moving into their neighbourhood.  And as long as there is an ample supply of rats, mice and other rodents, a stoat should be happy moving in and out of the wall’s hidden burrows.   Watching the activity at the bird feeders each morning, confirms a happy balance of supply and demand at Crockern.  Our chickens should be safely out of harm’s way.

One concern is stoats are known to eat eggs, but I’m not too worried about that since Brock occasionally does the same thing.  In Brock’s early puppy days, we witnessed him gingerly carrying an egg from the hens’ nest to the top of the hill.  Situating himself with a view, he would delicately position the egg between his paws .  Next, he would surgically make a small hole at the top of the egg, keeping the shell otherwise intact before slurp, slurp, slurping away at the raw egg.  Brock’s care in his thievery is impressive, as is his glossy coat.  Consequently, Roger and I check for eggs about ten times a day.  Brock and stoats be damned.

To encounter a Stoat before setting out on a journey is bad luck, or so goes the myth. As we stand in Roger’s make-shift observation spot, we both feel rather lucky to have spotted this Stoat and welcome yet another member to the diverse collective at Crockern.

I Found My Thrill On Gin & Tonic Hill

To the back of our garden there is a small hill, an odd bump nestled in the corner of two very high stone walls.  The top of the hill spans approximately two square metres and is scaled via a two-metre high steep slope.  This little hill is covered in grass, nettles and a few wildflowers and virtually impossible to mow.  Also, a small Sycamore tree stands at the top.  Happily, each spring, a few Primroses poke through announcing the changing season, but there aren’t enough to declare this mound a gardening success.   I can’t believe this hill is a natural occurrence as the ground surrounding it is relatively flat.  Jutting out of the ground in the corner, it seems likely it once served as a dumping ground for broken bottles and other rubbish.  Or, perhaps it is where a pile of rocks was placed in anticipation of a future project.  Nature being what it is, the rocks and bottles have quickly over grown with grass and moss.

Whatever its origin, getting rid of this heap of dirt and rocks, with its tangle of tree roots, would require a good amount of digging and there is no certainty as to the gain from such effort. Applying my personal conservation of mass theory, any rock or bucket of dirt I manage to dig, will need to be relocated somewhere else.  I currently have no need to fill holes, or build walls, so for now we’ve left it.

But the idea of transforming this hill nagged.  When, our friend Hilary was visiting, she and I sat on two camping chairs atop of the hill.  It was lumpy and rocky, but the view was nice and the tree sheltered us from the sun that day.  As we sat sipping cocktails, her boys trimmed a few neighbouring tree branches to enhance our view up the valley.   It was at this moment the little hill became more than a hill.  It had purpose.  It had ‘project’ written all over it.  It would become Gin and Tonic Hill!  A fine place to repose in comfort – and to drink.

You won’t find this location on any OS map.  And few will ever know this little mound to be anything so fabulously whimsical.  In centuries to come, people will scratch their heads and wonder why on earth this hill was left behind.  Archaeologists may stumble upon it and think it perhaps an ancient burial mound.   Could my original theory explaining this hill as nothing more than a pile of rocks covered by grass was wrong?  Did previous Crockern residents from bygone times perhaps sip their end of the day cocktails here, too?

With a distinct goal now to hand, I set about clearing a few large rocks from the top.  Attempting to make a rocky hill “level” is a joke.  It can’t be easily done with huge lumps of granite stone hidden beneath the surface like icebergs, and tree roots jutting here and there.  “Never say never” I told myself and instead opted for “level enough” as my new goal.  Roger encouraged my madness by strimming the top every time we mowed the lawn.  Last summer, it became a good little place to sit on a blanket and enjoy the view.

But a few weeks ago, a similar madness took hold of Roger.  I found him outside studying our little hill.  About an hour later, he was digging and setting large stones into place.  Roger was constructing a fantastic, rocky, seven-steps-leading-up-to-the top-of-our-little-hill staircase.   Never one to do anything “good enough” Roger put the finishing touches on the project with a touch of inspiration.  He secured a bench.


After stepping up the hill, I sit upon my new bench.  Roger arrives with G&Ts on offer and joins me.  We pause to take in the view across our field toward the river and the valley beyond.  The birds are chirping in the tree above.  The river is making those relaxing babbling noises that rivers do.   We clink our glasses and discuss our ideas for transforming our fields into wildflower meadows.



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.


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.


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.

And The Beet Goes On

“I can’t remember such an extended period of wind and rain.” Roger utters as we study our very soggy garden beds.   We are standing in the wind and drizzle taking an inventory of the spring gardening projects.  We have a lot.

For such a mild winter nothing has grown.  Too much rain and a complete lack of sunny days have laid to waste much of our winter vegetable beds.  The remaining hopes — cabbages —were attacked by rabbits, despite our fencing.  In short, our winter garden this year has been a washout.

Looking out upon our vegetable beds, I can’t help but feel weary and careworn.  Procrastination taking hold like a tap-root weed as I anticipate the exhaustion I will feel BEFORE we begin to tackle these jobs.  To keep the rabbits out, yet make access to the raised vegetable beds easier, we are considering building them up another plank level.  Currently the beds are 12 inches high.  If we double that, the additional compost will give us better growing conditions, a little less bending for us, and an easier defence from the rabbits.  That is, the rabbits who don’t burrow into the beds.  We’ve just discovered a bloody big tunnel right in the middle of our artichokes.  Those little bastards!


A year ago, I planted nearly 300 bulbs and this past November we planted 100 hedge plants — blackthorn, holly,  dog rose, maple, hawthorn and guelder rose — to create a habitat for wildlife and ultimately create a hedgerow where the fencing is failing.  What is giving us hope and renewed energy toward our garden are the snowdrops and daffodils poking out from under their mulch of fallen leaves.  These brave little harbingers of spring are defying the rains and mud reminding us to just get on with it.   So too, the hedge plants are all showing signs of establishing themselves.

The ever hopeful snowdrops!

The ever hopeful snowdrops!

Beginning their floral displays are the garden plots we re-established this past year.   Lifting rocks into place and creating drainage, we added rich compost and planted bulbs and bedding plants artfully along the perimeter of the house.  When my brother was visiting in September, he helped relocate and separate some plants that had wilted or suffered shock by being moved.  Peter and I looked at them with a strong sense that our intervention had likely killed these voracious plants.  Happily, they are perking up, budding new leaves and sporting a few purple, pink and white flowers as they shake off their sleepy winter state.

I am ready for spring and accept that I have another month or two before we are in the swing of it, but the past several months of endless rain and skies, which on most days look like dirty plastic hastily placed to cover a broken window, are enough.  There are days when the clouds are like low-hanging mist rooms, testing my usually sunny resolve.  Or, there are days when the clouds lift up high and play hide and seek with the reluctant sun, setting out to tease me with hopes of a dry day.  While our winter vegetables didn’t grow, the potholes along our track certainly did and we are facing a much larger job this spring than in past.  Most of the trenches to the side of the track have been restored, and once we have several days of sunshine, we can begin to fill the ever deepening potholes.

The activity of Sparrows, Tits, Robins and Finches at the bird feeders is on the upswing.  And those noisy Jackdaws are starting to make a mess in and around the barn building their broken-twig-messy-nests. The lambing season also heralds the arrival of spring and soon the sounds of bleating lambs calling to their mothers will fill the air.  Slowly, our chickens are beginning to up their egg production and the recent daily appearance of a blackbird perched atop one of our window boxes, which will soon be planted with marigolds, delights us with his melodic mating song.  Yes, we need to get a move on with these projects.

The light is lingering later into the day and further inspection of the garden shows we need to build a new bed for the rhubarb as it suffers in its current location.  The blueberries need a prune.  And when a sunny day rolls around, the greenhouse will get its spring cleaning and the strawberries inside will be replanted.  Our potatoes, beets, lettuces, tomatoes, radishes, carrots and onions will all be ready for planting in April and May.  We carry on with our outside inventory, picking up fallen branches from the trees as we go.  We stop and listen to the birdsong across the valley, and notice small buds appearing on the trees.  The beard of moss and lichen on the trees and rocks sports new little flowers.  And just below where we’ve stopped I spy the beginnings of nettles.  Despite any garden setbacks, there will always be successes. Perhaps in a few weeks there will be enough of these pesky plants to make some soup.

The chickens pecking for worms, bugs, and other snacks. Despite the sunshine, they are electing for a shady feed.

The chickens pecking for worms, bugs, and other snacks. Despite the sunshine, they are electing for a shady feed.

The nobel Sam. Not much of a gardener, but happy to supervise the whole scene.

The noble Sam. Not much of a gardener, but happy to supervise the whole scene.

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.

Double Vision

Slowly, Roger and I are getting to the end stage of the downstairs project. The tiles are all in place in the bathroom, and once the grout is set, we’ll seal the newly laid slate floor. Doing this project has not been easy, for countless reasons, but one is getting the tiles cut to the exact shape in a room, which is not perfectly square. Old buildings rarely have such things.

To do the tile cutting, Roger will set up the tile cutter, don his waterproofs and get about the business of cutting tiles. With the larger, more cumbersome pieces (90 cm, needing to become 30 cm x 60 cm), I am called in to hold the slate steady and flat. This may sound easy, but it isn’t. Balanced in a squatting position on uneven ground outside and the noise of the water wheel cutting through the slate causing a headache, is enough of a challenge. Doing this with my eyes closed really tends to piss Roger off.

“Hold it steady and pay attention!” barks Roger “I am, I just can’t see what I’m doing.” I bark back “Why not?” “My eyes are closed.” No response. Silence.

But, I didn’t have safety glasses and the time I used my sunglasses was worse than just closing my eyes. You see, I don’t want a little shard of slate flying up into my face and blinding me. We all know there are a huge number of injuries from DIY projects and I was not going to be one of them while we are cutting slate tiles. Roger and I reached an agreement about how to proceed.

While we wait for the plumber to show up to install the radiators, shower, toilet, bathtub and sink, Roger headed into town and I headed out to do some clearing of ditches to keep the water flowing away from our house and track. It’s physical. It’s muddy. It’s fun. That is, until a gorse bush leaps up and hits you in the face. Ouch!

The bloomin' gorse.

The bloomin’ gorse.

On this blog I have waxed poetically about the beauty of the gorse bush:

What an impact this plant has on the landscape, both in colour and scent. There is a distinctive coconut smell, fragrant to some (Roger) and weak to others (me). Along with heathers, these are the plants we think of on wild, windy, and open moors and this landscape certainly would be lacking something significant without them.   It characterizes the scenery, and with its spiny, needle-like leaves, provides dense shelter and food for insects and birds such as Warblers, Stonechats and Yellowhammers, the last of which will return soon to our bird feeders.

But, not this time. After this spiky, aggressive, and in this moment, rather fugly plant hit me, I uttered more than a few disparaging words and then immediately grew concerned. My right eye was watering profoundly and my vision was significantly blurred. Also, it hurt like hell. To be precise, it felt like a burning needle had been inserted into my eye.

Attempting to stay calm in the face of the unknown injury, I went inside, climbed out of my waterproofs, and waited for Roger to return. I couldn’t drive myself to A&E because I couldn’t see very well. Within 30 minutes, we were at the hospital and quickly redirected from the emergency room to the Royal Eye Infirmary, which honestly, came as a relief. I like experts, especially in moments of mild panic. I’m not proud and, rational or not, will quickly admit that I was fearful about losing some vision in my right eye.



A thorough exam was performed to see if there was any loss of vision, scratches or objects lodged anywhere. What was revealed came as a huge relief, the right cornea is scratched, but not too deeply, so with some drops, rest, and time, everything should return to normal. There will be a follow up appointment in a week.

While Dr. McFay was taking my medical history and performing the exam, she asked how I sustained the injury. I explained I was in the garden and digging when a gorse bush came from nowhere and socked me in the eye.

As the eye exam was winding up and I was being handed all of my prescriptions, I asked if there was anything else I should be doing. Dr. McFay responded with a smile and said, “You should wear goggles when you garden.”

Dear 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,

I am happy to be sending this letter to you now, as I was admittedly late last year.   You must receive millions of letters this time of the year, but I hope your administrative elf-team bump mine up to the top of your in-box, giving you time to read it and know Roger and I are thinking of you. I’ll assume you, Mrs. Claus, the Elves and all the Reindeer are all happy, healthy and ready for your upcoming big night of global gift giving. What a job you have!

This is my third letter to you in as many seasons from Crockern Farm.  But you knew that already with those special powers of seeing people when they are sleeping and knowing when they are awake.   That, and you follow the blog which pleases and delights me no end.

I don’t have much for “the list” this year but wonder if you might consider sending a few of your elves our way to help finish up a project or two. We have had a very busy 2014 and sometimes could use the extra help. An elf’s work ethic is beyond compare and they could easily provide us that necessary push. I’m not suggesting now; oh no, it would be impossible for you to spare any help during the holiday season!  What I had in mind is an off-season visit, say January? You and I agree everyone is entitled to some well deserved R&R, so my idea is to send a few of the elves to Crockern for a working holiday. These sorts of get-aways are all the rage lately. Plus, the reindeer might enjoy grazing on the moors along side the sheep and Dartmoor ponies. Perhaps you could address this proposal with Boss Elf at the next staff meeting?

Roger and I owe you many thanks for granting our holiday wishes last year. We finished the upstairs living room in April and immediately turned our attentions to the downstairs. Admittedly, we started the downstairs project over two years ago when we replaced the old, rotten beams. But now, the bedroom and bathroom are framed, insulated, and plastered. The floors are in, along with the plumbing and electrics. There are a few final carpentry details, which may take some time to complete, but the biggest remaining projects are to lay the tiles in the bathroom and then install the bathroom fixtures. Are you certain you can’t send an elf or two along to help?

A hearty thanks is also in order, for helping us with a good year for our garden. The weather was on our side, and we learned a thing or two from previous planting experiments, which resulted this year in a terrific crop of lettuces, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, chard, spinach, kale, cabbages, celery, celeriac, beets and onions. Even now in the midst of winter, the garden is providing us lettuces, spinach and cabbages. If you wouldn’t mind, could you send our thanks to Mother Nature when you see her at the New Year? We would love to put in our request for another splendid summer for 2015. Along with the garden, we had so many opportunities for BBQs and evenings in the hot tub.   If your summer schedule permits, pop over for a visit, as we’d love to see you and Mrs. Claus.

As you know, our chickens had a challenging year. There were two daytime fox attacks and a horrible dog attack. The badgers attempted to burrow into the coop, too! That said, the current flock is looking happy and healthy. With the strong housing, extra fencing and now the electric fencing, they are as safe as can be. The chickens have asked if from your global travels you know of any parts of the world wishing to re-home a fox? We have one nearby and the girls wouldn’t mind seeing him living a little farther away.

We are excited for the holiday season. That said, I had a rough day the other day when I discovered some mice had chewed their way into a box of Christmas decorations and nibbled a nice hole in the stocking my Mom had helped me knit when I was young. That made me sad, and I’ll admit it, ready to wage war on the mice. But as you’ve taught me Santa, to have a jolly disposition, you’ve got to turn a bad situation into something better. I may have said more than a few disparaging remarks about the mice, but later that day, when Sam and I returned with a Christmas tree, all was right with the world again. The tree is up, decorated and ready for your arrival.

Roger and I love Crockern as it remains magical. 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, it continues to captivate and enchant us. We have learned a lot about life, death, and the surrounding environment by being here. We’ve had to make peace with the food chain on more than one occasion as we bear witness to predation.  Mostly, each day is filled with some wonderful adventure and discovery, which underscores our sense of place and belonging.

Safe travels Santa. I hope the weather will be clear and bright for you as you take your sleigh across Dartmoor. Those rains last year had to be nightmarish. Since it is likely to be wet and windy, don’t forget to wear your waterproofs. No one would want to see that handsome red suit of yours damaged from precipitation. Also, please take special care when landing your sleigh at Crockern. As I mentioned earlier, we had to put up an electric fence and I hate the idea of you and your team of reindeer getting tangled in it. You may wish to just land on the track and come through the front door.

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


Crockern Farm,  Pretty much in the Middle of Dartmoor, UK

p.s. We’ll leave your favourite tipple on the kitchen table along with some carrots and apples for you to provide to the reindeer.


Santa "piggy bank" which I've had for as long as I can remember.

Santa “piggy bank” which I’ve had for as long as I can remember.

All The Leaves Are Brown

Crockern Farm

After an extended and beautiful summer, autumn has arrived. Crisp leaves now carpet the ground. A damp air freshens and awakens. And a lower angle of light on the horizon casts longer shadows. On early dawn walks with Sam, I spy spider webs glistening on the gorse bushes and glimpse my exhaled breath as we walk down the track. If there is a mist – and now there is almost always a morning mist – and if the sun is just right, the bushes on the hillside glisten and sparkle. With the end of October near we will soon enter the winter months, making staying indoors much more tempting, especially if it is as wet and windy as last year.

This season brings the arrival of chillier weather, and with it, more of the critters from outside join us inside: spiders who spin intricate webs in a moment; the long eared bat; moths and a few late season butterflies; and our chickens. These are a curious clutch of hens and if the door is left open a jar, they march in single filed to see what might be on offer.

With its cooler air and changing colours, autumn always fills me with memories of apple bobbing, raking leaves, pumpkin carving and, of course, Halloween adventures. Halloween is a once a year opportunity to get dressed in scary clothing, hang up paper bats and skeleton decorations and cover the front door with fake spider webs, carve pumpkins and eat vast quantities of mini-chocolate bars. Who doesn’t enjoy that?

It is disappointing to accept, but once again I do not think we will get any trick or treaters up our long track. All the same, I’ve purchased candy, as I will not be caught short-handed should the bell ring. And imagine if our doorbell did ring!   How would that brave soul — or, boooooooh undead being — behave if we didn’t have a bowl full of mini chocolate bars to offer as treats? Halloween is not just about trick or treaters, it is the very night when lost souls roam and haunt! What if a coven of witches on their way to celebrate the night of the dead at one of the ancient stone circles on the moors knocked on our door in hopes of receiving a bite size Snickers Bar? Well, I for one refuse to disappoint!

Pumpkins ready for carving.

Pumpkins ready for carving.

Autumn is also a time of finishing up all those outdoor chores before winter arrives. 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.   Most recently, Roger has been repairing the shelves under the kitchen counter – a truly awful project – whilst I’ve stacked more firewood, cleaned the greenhouse, raked the fallen leaves, cleared the drains, given the lawn one last mow, turned and bagged compost, weeded, laid mulch, and straightened the barn. “It’s preposterous, I’m cutting shapes which have never been invented before!” said Roger as he walked past carrying a new shelf to replace the rotten ones under the counters.  And watching him contort himself underneath the kitchen counter, home to spiders and decades of accumulated dust, to solve the puzzle of these shelves has me realizing how easy my chores have been.

Except for one. I’ve just finished planting over 350 bulbs. How is it that bulbs seem so few when you buy them and oh-so-many when bent over planting them? I can only hope when spring arrives I appreciate the number and avoid my usual mistake of thinking, “Hey, we need more bulbs for next year!” Across from our barn is a collection of mature trees – Ash, Rowan, Oak, Sycamore, Beech, and Laburnum — under which there are now more clumps of bulbs. These snowdrops, bluebells and daffodils with their delicate yet proud stalks holding flowers will declare, in the fullness of time, spring is on its way.   They will be our hopeful signs that winter is not forever.

But we aren’t there yet. Soon, we will spend more time by the fire and less outside. As the nights draw in and our wood burner provides daily comfort, we will turn our attentions back to finishing the downstairs. We got stalled.  The summer was just so nice. No, it was glorious! That, and the demands on our time were extensive. Work, travel, and the real test to any relationship, selecting plumbing taps, had us running to play catch up. Yet, we’ve endured. The fixtures are all here and the plumber arrives this week. We’ve framed and wired the new bathroom and with that, we can hopefully complete the downstairs before the year’s end.

This week, however, we will carve our pumpkin, enjoy the visit from our friends, and wait for the knock on the door from those lost souls!

The colours of autumn.

The colours of autumn.

Rosie’s Big Adventure, The Sequel

When Roger and I met in the Canadian Arctic, we enjoyed the company of several fine people. Like any amazing adventure, you gain new friends and life changing experiences. And Greg has been part of all of that. Early on in our adventures at Crockern, Greg wrote me in an e-mail, “So let me get this right…..You were this girl living in Hoboken, New Jersey. You went on a trip to the Arctic. You met a guy from a group of men, who go wildlife spotting. You fell in love and moved to England, and now you have a house in bumfucknowhere!!! How absolutely brilliant!!! Bet you a million bucks you never thought your life would turn out like that!” (

Since our very first summer, Greg, his wife Anita, and their daughter Rosie, have come to visit for a day. Last year, I posted a photo blog of Rosie’s visit. ( This past August, they came for their annual visit and Rosie immediately put herself into the role of living at Crockern.

At the energetic age of 3.5 years, Rosie led us all in a full day of exploring Crockern and the surrounding area. We took a walk up onto the Moors, got stuck in with some gardening and animal husbandry, walked Sam, fed chickens, looked for eggs, tended potatoes, and then waded in the river.

Again, Greg has provided a collection of photos, a day in the life of Rosie.

While we enjoy the easing into autumn with crisp morning air, earlier sunsets and the departure of the swallows and house martins, we are turning our attention to more projects inside. The downstairs is in the final stretch and we’ve ordered the bathroom fixtures. I can’t help but wonder how skilled Rosie might be with painting walls and laying tiles?


Three eggs and I've only just started hunting for them.

Three eggs and I’ve only just started hunting for them.


Feeding chickens with Sam keeping a watchful eye.

Feeding chickens with Sam keeping a watchful eye.


Tending to the vegetable garden.

Tending to the vegetable garden.


"Hey Dad, hurry up and lets get walking.  There's a lot to do today!"

“Hey Dad, hurry up and lets get walking. There’s a lot to do today!”


Rosie takes her Mom, Anita, up onto some huge granite boulders!

Rosie takes her Mom, Anita, up onto some huge granite boulders!


There are horses which need some carrots, too.

There are horses which need some carrots.


After a busy day, a feast!

A feast!


Relaxing and watching the birds after a long day.

Relaxing and watching the birds after a long day.