On a Hot Tin Roof

Just over ten years ago, Roger and I tied the knot, performed our nuptials, embraced matrimony.  In other words, we married.  The tenth wedding anniversary is special, and appears to be celebrated with a gift of tin.  Why tin?  Tunafish comes in tin.  I absolutely do not want to receive, nor give, a can of tuna as a gift.  Are we certain it is tin and not gin?   But, keeping with tradition — and we are nothing if not adherents of certain traditions — we are embracing this tin thing.

We elected to celebrate our anniversary by booking a weekend in Cornwall with the dogs.  Cornwall has a rich history of tin mines dating back to the Bronze Age, so it seemed an appropriate choice for our get-away weekend.  Explorations of new villages and towns, walks along the coast with the dogs, and some yummy food awaited us.   Pack the car and let’s go!

Whoa!  Hold it right there.  Nope, rewind.  Can we really leave?  Wasn’t the generator recently playing up?  And if it doesn’t charge the batteries, all manner of disaster might befall us in the form of the boiler or water pumps not functioning.   For the dedicated reader of this blog, the answer is an easy “yes”.  Roger managed to get it mostly fixed, but we were still having problems with consistent voltage and the support team of batteries charging properly.  What this meant was that Roger continued to manually hand crank start the generator each day to charge the storage batteries.  This is no way to live and so we did have to call in our generator expert, Paul.  As it transpired, there was a problem with the AC diode…..blah, blah, blah…. I stopped paying attention and went to town to run a few errands.   While I was out, I received this text from Roger:

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Our weekend away was back on track and our generator was functioning as it hadn’t in years.  Happy Anniversary to us!  And now, a confession:  our hard working, thirty-plus-year old Lister lives in conditions which would raise alarm bells in the Geneva Convention for Generators.   The tin roof above is rusted and leaks.  The entire building needs some TLC as the stone walls need repair and reinforcing.  There are no supports for the rusty roof either, so it is a matter of time before the entire thing comes crashing down.   Standing within this falling down shed sits a temporary structure which Roger built during our first month of being at Crockern, bravely protecting the generator from the elements and the failing roof above.  It works, but it is most certainly not a forever solution.

When we arrived to Crockern, the generator was being rained upon and we could have repaired the roof then.  But the roof to the house was leaking, we had water running down a wall in what is now our bedroom, the boiler was either on or off, a fuse box lived below a copper water tank, and we had no insulation, so we had other fish to fry.  Faced with all this, our emergency, short term fix was Roger’s sturdy, moveable cover for the generator.  That was five years ago.

When I walk past this outbuilding, I can’t help but think of that famous line from the B-52s “Love Shack” a place where people of all shapes and sizes, stripes and colours head for a groovy good time. It’s Kookie’s Mad Pad filled with multifarious crowds of hipsters.  It’s state of mind.  But not at Crockern.  Our shack is just that, a shack.  Home to muck and mess, and a hard working generator.

With our bags packed and chicken care sorted, we were nearly ready to head out for our mini-vacay.   With the generator working splendidly we were departing with peace of mind.  I headed to town for my piano lesson.  Just as I was getting in the car to return home, I receive the following texts:

For about a year now, we’ve known we had to address this on-its-last-leg-water-pump.   We’ve been waiting as there is a larger project at hand regarding the water system in the house, and when the water tank got its bulge (Can’t remember?  See:  https://crockernfarm.wordpress.com/2016/12/11/old-stone-cottage-renovation/ ), we had to begin this project.  For the most part, the pump worked, but typically on a stormy night, just as we were brushing our teeth before heading to sleep, it would stop and we would have no water, whereby Roger, not I, would head outside into the wind and rain, making his way to the shed where the pump is located, giving  it a little tap, tap, tap.  Inconvenient, but in the triage of projects, not a high priority.  That is until the latest failure and death of the pump.  And Roger covered in shower gel and standing outside in his bathrobe.

As luck would have it, the plumber arrived within the hour and quickly replaced the pump.  As he left, he mentioned that we should consider a new shed for this set up.  Did we hear him correctly or was this our tin ear?  Another shed?  This is not part of the plans for the outbuildings.

We hadn’t yet set out and already this anniversary celebration was becoming an embarrassment of riches.  Tin roof riches.  We will be getting a tin roof for the shed.  Not just getting, but installing.  As quickly as the plumber left, we loaded the car and headed west to Cornwall where there was no tin in sight.  Instead, we settled into the B&B and ordered two glasses filled with gin & tonic.  Happy anniversary to us and don’t we know how to just do things in style.

I’m dreaming of ….

Recently, Roger and I find we awake in the morning with a greater number of aches and pains.  Feeling this way, one would hope for a slower start to the day, a chance to lounge in bed with a cup of coffee, read the news, and spend an extra hour contemplating the day ahead.  Alas, not here at Crockern where everything is a small-demand requiring our attention.

Lets begin with Millie.  She starts her puppy day with joy and excitement, and no end of energy.  Boundless.  Bouncing.  Filled with fun.  Everything is a curiosity and a possible game.  She was recently described as “high drive” by a woman who trains dogs for agility.  At first, this seemed like a good thing, but what I’ve come to discover is that it may perhaps be code for disobedient.  She’s smart and can see the end point, so elects to skip all the middle bits.  She’s like the smart kid in geometry class who knows “one does not equal zero” so why bother with all those steps in the geometric proof to demonstrate that fact?

Meanwhile, Sam, her patient elder, is struggling with the hard wood floors and getting his balance.  His mornings involve some sliding about as I fly out of bed to lend a hand and help him to his feet and out the door.  Shortly thereafter, we three head down the track.  What once took 15 minutes is an easy 30 minutes as Sam stops to take the scent of an animal which passed that spot in the night.  As he inhales deeply, Millie charges off the hill, out of the gorse, with her toy proudly dangling from her mouth before knocking into Sam to see why he isn’t chasing the same toy.  “Why Sam?  Why?”

At this time of the year, the sky is dark as we set out for this first walk of the day.  Still, the birds begin to awaken and there are a few songs to be heard across the moors.  After our walk, the dogs and I fill the bird feeders, let out the chickens, and bring in some firewood.  As we enter the kitchen, Roger is there with his coffee and catching up on the news.  I love the days when I get to be home all day without a work appointment, chore, or social engagement.  We all lounge in front of the wood burner, reading and contemplating our next walk.

Our house projects have been somewhat stalled of late.  No particular reason other than we had a need to take some time off from them.  Of course, just as we were settling into that idea, our water tank developed a huge bulge.  If it is not obvious, this is not a good thing.  A bulge, like any blister on a toe, will eventually burst.   And in the house — specifically under the stairs — that would leave us with a nice little mess.

And so, despite our desire to take some time off, we were facing a problem.  They say, “Every cloud has a silver lining.”  What they don’t say is “every hot water tank has …”  No, they don’t say that and that is because it would be stupid.  Our hot water tank is made of copper, which corrodes over time, especially where the water is more acidic as it is here on Dartmoor.

When Crockern was first built, there was no internal plumbing.  The river likely played a vital role for all the water needs of residents some time ago.  As modern conveniences changed the way people lived, so too the water system at Crockern evolved.  Over time, the system here came to resemble something designed by Heath Robinson, one of those ridiculously complicated machines constructed to accomplish something terribly simple.  Here’s how it worked:  Our water would come from the spring about 100 metres north of the house and enter a tank outside.  Water from this tank would be pumped into the house and up into the loft into an overflow tank.  This tank permitted gravity to then send water, under pressure, to the taps, showers, and toilets.  That same bit of gravity, fed water to the hot water tank which was heated with redirected heat from the Aga.  Of course, when we put in the new boiler a few years ago, which had the ability to heat water, but we elected to delay connecting it to the entire house.

Nearly a year ago, in one of our exploratory whims, we removed a false wall in the kitchen to reveal all manner of pipes.  We lived with these, thinking “one day, we’ll clear all that up and change up the water system.”  That day arrived when the hot water tank developed a noticeable rounded swelling on what should have been a smooth surface.

We called the plumber and got an estimate.  We called another plumber, received a nicer estimate and scheduled him to come out and begin the work.  What should have taken one day, unfortunately took two days, but he managed to disconnect the hot water tank and remove it.  Next, he hooked up our water system to the boiler which heats the water when we require it, rather than all the time.  After he left, Roger removed the redundant overflow tank while balancing on a ladder over the stairs.  He also removed all the silly pipes which were hiding behind the false wall and were now no longer needed.  The thrilling part is that the pump works less frequently and our water pressure is better.  A few weeks later, we back-filled the AGA and as a result are burning less fuel.

So why didn’t we do this earlier?   We are free of extra pipes and an inefficient way to heat water.  We’ve gained closet space.  We have greater water pressure.  The truth is, there are a lot of projects and this one could wait.  The copper water tank was working.   And as the Laws of Renovation declare:  Each project results in an equal  and opposite amount of additional projects which are always unanticipated despite enormous preparation and planning.

In short, we’ve learned with this old house, there is never a project which can begin and end all in the same month.  Now that we’ve changed up the water system, awaiting us in the new year are the following:

  1. Repoint the wall that was previously hidden.
  2. Build shelves in the closet under the stairs which previously housed the hot water tank.
  3. Remember to install a light INSIDE the closet so we can see what is on those new shelves.
  4. Purchase a new whizzy pump (the current one sometimes — usually around 11 p.m. at night — stops working and requires one of us (okay, Roger) to head outside and give it a good whack! — and put it under the stairs, along with a ph regulator for the water.

Four steps!  Four manageable and easy steps.  Really?  What project can end in four more steps?

None.  Nadda.  Zilch.  That wall in the kitchen, which needs to be repointed, is one part of a wall in the kitchen.  We still have paint to remove from another wall, and repair blown plaster on two other walls.  The beams need to be sanded and shelves under the counter tops to be built.  These are a few projects for the kitchen, but not all.  With our newly modernized water system, we can permit ourselves to renovate the small bathroom, which still has carpeting on the wall as a nod toward insulation and no insulation in the roof.  In the office, there is a radiator I’d like to move, floors to sand, some walls to paint, and another wall to repair.  We can’t do any of this until we address the flashing on the chimneys outside.  Oh yes, the list goes on and on.

Four more steps?  In our dreams.

Crazy Horse

The Wild Dartmoor Ponies

Dartmoor Ponies

There is no more an iconic sight than a herd of ponies grazing together, with stunning Dartmoor landscape as backdrop. So much so, when Dartmoor was designated a National Park in 1951, the image of the pony was selected to be the logo for the park.

Not only are these ponies an integral part of the moorland landscape, they are part of the area’s heritage having been on Dartmoor for centuries. Hoof prints discovered during an archaeological dig were found to be 3,500 years old. Due to their strength and sure-footedness, the ponies have been used for many purposes over the years: riding and pulling carts, as pit ponies, shepherding, and taking people or goods to market; or, carrying the postman delivering mail or the prison guards as they escorted prisoners at Dartmoor prison. Today, their role is largely environmental conservation through grazing the moor, which helps to maintain a variety of habitats and support wildlife.

These hardy ponies thrive on Dartmoor despite the harsh weather and poor vegetation. They are smaller than regular horses, and, let’s face it they are fluffy and adorable. It would seem every tourist visitor to Dartmoor would agree and if I had a pound coin for the number of times I’ve had to swerve the car to avoid a tourist stopped on a blind bend as they take a photo of one of these ponies, well I’d be rich.

When two ponies laid claim to the fields outside our house, we were thrilled to see them.   We would watch them as they ran freely by the river, grazed in the meadow, and came up close to our stone walls to watch us in the garden or say hello to Pie and Polly, the horses which graze in our paddocks. On occasion, they would chase the grazing sheep around them: harmless turf wars.

Because of their calm temperament…WAIT! Stop the press and hold your horses!

The Ponies are watching us.

Just the other day our neighbour said she had witnessed one of the ponies taking a lamb and throwing it up in the air the way a cat might play with a mouse it has recently captured.   I couldn’t believe it, let alone imagine the scene. The Dartmoor ponies are mellow. They are known for their placid nature. You can walk up to them and they don’t startle. I wouldn’t recommend feeding them (it’s against the law anyway) as they might bite or kick, but they are generally mild mannered.

More recently, while working in the garden, a man fishing in the river yelled up to us, “There is a dead sheep in the river.” Roger went to investigate and found a dead ewe mid river with a lot of fresh blood on her face. The cause of death remains unknown, but we couldn’t help but wonder about the ponies. They had been prancing and running near the river just moments before. The fisherman said the sheep hadn’t been in the river when he passed by a few hours earlier. Could one of the ponies have had a hoof in this situation? As possibilities raced through our minds, the immediate concern was the now-motherless-baying lamb nearby, the one which Roger saw being born in the fields not more than a week before. After a phone call, the local farmer came and gathered the dead ewe and took the lamb back to bottle feed it. It was a sad moment, but a part of the nature of things. Sheep die, lambs become orphans. You hope you discover them in time to avoid their deaths too.

So, imagine our surprise when Roger saw one of the ponies prancing and bucking along the same stretch of river. Quickly, out came the binoculars! Clearly this pony, one of the pair we had been lovingly watching for weeks, was harassing another sheep. As we headed out to address the situation, people walking past stopped us to let us know what they were witnessing. In an instant, Roger ran across the garden, sprang over the fence and raced toward the ponies in hopes of stopping the brutality. Our neighbour who was visiting quickly followed to help and I grabbed the phone to call the farmer. Something crazy was going on!

When I arrived on the scene, the horses were gone and a single, very stressed sheep was in the river panting. The three of us surrounded the sheep and as it darted, our neighbour swiftly grabbed her. We held her still, calmed her, and noticed a huge gash along her rear leg. The farmer arrived a few minutes later and he took her back to his farm to tend to her wounds.

We’ve asked a number of people about this behaviour and no one has witnessed anything like it.   Since these events, someone, likely from the Dartmoor Hill Pony Association, an animal conservation group, has come along and moved the ponies higher up onto the moors. Perhaps the two needed more of their herd to keep them from terrorizing sheep. I’ll miss seeing these two ponies outside, and while I don’t like to see the sheep chased, I didn’t mind how effective the ponies were at keeping the sheep from jumping our walls and getting into our paddocks.

With our de facto sentries gone, we really now do need to finish repairing that bit of wall.

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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One Finger and Three Chicken Butts

There are times when we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place, facing a difficult choice amid two unsatisfactory options.   Then, there are those times when we find our finger, specifically my left index finger, between a rock and another rock.  Ouch!

The injured finger.

The injured finger.

Nearly two weeks ago, Roger and I were once again, hefting, lifting and returning heavy granite stones to one of the stonewalls.  This section failed earlier in the spring with large rocks giving way and making a nice trespass for the sheep in and out of the field.  On the day of the injury, the sun was shining brightly and we were filled with pride after hours of successful rock placement and wall repair.  Nearing the end of our efforts, we heave-hoed one last, and rather large, rock onto the wall.  It went into place all right, but did so before I could get my hand out of the way.

“Ouch!  Fuck!” began my colourful expletives, rapidly growing technicolourful.   I will not deny it, the pain was incredible and to match it came an outpouring of expletives that put me in a league with the burliest of truck drivers.

A quick trip to the local hospital and a few X-rays later, I was relieved and happy to learn nothing was broken.  For three days, I wore a splint and changed bandaging before the follow-up appointment that confirmed I also had not experienced tendon damage.  While my finger remains swollen, tender and unable to bend fully, I am keeping my fingers crossed (well, as many as possible) that all will be back to normal soon.

There is never a good time for an injury, but August has been especially tough as we’ve been busy.   Many friends and family have come by for visits, which keep us on our hosting toes.  We’ve readied the downstairs for our big renovation push and the garden is kicking out a good deal of produce, some of which we share with the birds, butterflies and slugs who get there first.   In August, we also made a quick trip East to pick our cherry tree.

Fortunately, our cherry picking adventure happened before my Oh-Roger-can-you-do-this?-My-finger-won’t-bend injury.  We rent a cherry tree on an orchard.  How this works is we pay a small annual fee and the knowledgeable farmers net, prune, manage and write a monthly newsletter filled with updates about our tree.  When the cherries are ready, we arrive with our boxes and commence harvesting.  We have just the one tree, and this year came home with nearly 18 kilograms of cherries.  Having pitted our cherries, we set about creating the following:

Twenty jars of jam,

Six jars of pickled cherries,

Three kilo’s pitted and frozen for future use,

Nightly bowls of cherries as a snack,

Various cherry desserts,

Gift bags of cherries to friends;

And last, but by no means least, cherry liquor, which will be ready in the New Year.

Cherry Tree

Our Cherries are ripe for the picking!

Hours of pitting should have put us off cherries, but oddly we find ourselves wishing we had two trees!  It must be divine intervention that there is a waiting list to rent trees.

It is just this sort of thinking, “If some is good, more is better.” that has landed us with more rescued chickens.  This month, our flock has grown from four chickens to ten.  The original plan was to go to the rescue centre and collect four more hens, but when we arrived, I with my bandaged finger, they with their bald, featherless little bodies, I couldn’t stop myself.  “If you need us to take more, say six, we can do that.”  No discussion with Roger.   No consideration as to whether we really needed six more chickens.  Just pure impulse, and a desire to save more chickens, had me gather more.  Into the crate in the back of the car the six went and onto my lap leapt Sam, he having no interest in riding in the back of the car with six scrawny new chickens.  Thankfully, Roger was in complete agreement that a couple more chickens would only add to the fun.

This new cluster of hens is feistier from the last group we rescued.  They are ex-free range, yet despite their right to roam during their working months, they are surprisingly short on feathers.

Rescued Chickens

One of the six newly rescued Hens. In another month, she’ll have all her feathers.

There is a trick to introducing new chickens into an established flock.  Most literature on the subject recommends a minimum two-week separation between the old and new flocks.   Due to our set up, we squeaked by with a week.  We would have preferred a shorter period still, but the establishment of pecking order was so dramatic, we were prepared to give it more time.  The top hen from our original flock was not having any of this rescue nonsense.  Clearly, she had forgotten her own humble roots as a working girl.  Her squawking, strutting and yes, chest thumping with the self appointed leader of the new flock was something else.  “Bwaaaak!  Bwak! Bwak! Bwak!!!!”  Chest thump.  Head peck.  Jump on top of one another.  Wings flapping.  More squawking.  The risk of serious injury was increasing as the two were engaged in their girl fight until Roger and I intervened.  These sorts of squabbles reveal how mean hens can be to one another if they don’t have space.

Within a week, the chickens reached détente and became one flock.  The thing that may have sealed the pecking order battle was recognizing the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  Early in their integration process, we had the new flock out in the grass in a portable run.   These six were safely caged.  Meanwhile, the original four were freely roaming, pecking, scratching, sunning and doing chicken-y things in the yard.   Suddenly, a huge ruckus of upset chicken sounds filled the air as a dog ran rampant through the yard attacking our hens!  This dog was out of control from its owner when it jumped our gate, chased our chickens and attacked three of the four.

Feathers littered our garden giving us the certain thought we would find four dead chickens.  Roger and I spent about twenty minutes searching.   We located one, unharmed sitting on a nest.  The other terrorized three were hiding between rocks and hard places, with nothing but their now featherless butts visible.  They were all alive, but now looking a lot more like the newly adopted chickens that all witnessed the dog attack.

For the next several days, we tended to the wounds.  With my own injured finger bandaged, we placed the chickens into warm water, washed their bottoms and applied antiseptic cream.  After the dog’s violent attempt to catch and kill our hens, all the chickens seemed to conclude that they were in it together and the pecking order was established with ease: Roger and I are here to keep them safe; they just have to get along.

Summertime and the Livin’ is Easy

Summertime

Summertime view from Crockern

Not that long ago in May and June, we began to release our reluctant and extended grip on the memory of winter, all the while continuing to keep a watchful eye for last minute frosts on the garden.   By late spring and the subsequent arrival of a few weeks of sun and warm weather, everything seemed to erupt in a bout of growth and fertility:  eggs hatched, flowers bloomed, and the leaves on trees finally gave shade.

Now, in the height of summer, and in the heat wave in which we currently find ourselves, all of that activity has slowed and it appears July is a time when there are to be no dramatic changes.  The garden is growing steadily without sudden surges.   The dawn chorus is quieter and while the birds regularly visit the feeders, they do so with less noise than in the spring when they were busy attracting mates, building nests, and raising families.  Even the way Roger walks down the track has a quiet to it.  Unlike last year, we are experiencing days of full sunshine, warm breezes and a pace that is reminiscent of the summers of childhood:  Long, lazy days, seemingly without end.

The sunshine, heat and soft breezes have life around Crockern hiding in the shade.  The chickens like it best under the car or the rose bush.  The horse has a shady spot by the wall.  Even the sheep seem to be in hiding, with only the occasional bleating noise from some faraway stand of trees.   However, what we have in abundance are butterflies, moths, bumblebees, dragonflies and loads of other insects.  They buzz, hum, flit and flutter, pollinate, bite, get eaten by birds and know no difference between the inside and outside of our house.

Chickens in the shade of the Car

Two of the chickens keeping their cool in the shade under the car

Chickens in long grass

Our chickens enjoying the long grass of our Slow Gardening efforts

Once we finally managed to keep the sheep out of the yard, we had to address mowing the grass around the house.  We elected to adopt a Slow Gardening approach and keep the grass long in some areas.   No close-cropped, emerald green lawn for us.  Instead, we have longer grasses, ferns and reeds, and with them, wildflowers such as buttercups, clover, speedwell, cow parsley, violets, daisies, stinging nettles, poppies and dandelions, among others.   The Foxgloves and Thistles, with their purple heads, stand tall and spiky and accent, along with yellow gorse flowers, the green landscape.  One might say we are being lazy, but we would argue that we are embracing the essential premise of a Slow Gardening approach where less intervention helps create an environment of wildflowers and grasses for all those beneficial insects that are helping with pollination around the garden.

Dragonfly

Dragonfly in the Reeds

Slow Gardening

Slow Gardening and its benefits

Despite our slower pace, we have recently received a 20-tonne delivery of road plannings to repair the potholes, which developed with the torrential rains of winter, along the track to our house.  We set aside two hours a day on this project in order to preserve our sanity and our muscles.  From one of three large piles, we shovel the rocks into a wheelbarrow, which is then carted down the track to the next pothole in need of filling.  We dump the contents into the pothole, rake it smoothly, and then return to the large pile and repeat the process on the next pothole.  This is a labour of love and cheapness.   My achy muscles have me wondering if we shouldn’t just learn to embrace the potholes?  But admittedly, my vanity lights up when people notice the improved track.  Either way, when I stop to take a drink of water, the beauty around me momentarily transfixes me and I’m happy to be enjoying the summer, forgetting my suffering shoulders and arms.

We still have an unending list of things to do, and the next big project is the downstairs and all that it entails:  central heating; new floors, walls, and ceiling; replacing windows; installing stairs and a new bathroom.  Oh my!  But in this seasonal low activity of hot summer days, we appear to be settling into a nice slow pace.  However, we do have another item on the “To Do” list and that is participating in The Big Butterfly Count in Britain next week.  On the national count map from last year, there were no reports representing the middle of Dartmoor.   How can this be?  We have spotted Meadow Browns, Small and Large Whites, Small Tortoiseshells, Red Admiral, and a few that I can not identify as they flitted past too quickly during my practice observation.  I am positive the day we do our count; we will add some numbers to the national tally.

I admire butterflies, with their highly coloured wings, and since they are unable to bite or sting like some of their insect relatives, namely the midge, I think they are marvelous!  Sadly, butterflies and moths are sensitive to environmental change and in the past few decades, have suffered dramatic declines in numbers in the UK as their habitats have been destroyed.  Sir David Attenborough said, “The Big Butterfly Count should be great fun.  Butterflies are extraordinary, heart-lifting creatures – visions of beauty and visions of summer.  Butterflies in profusion tell us all is well with nature.  When they decline, it’s a warning that other wildlife will soon be heading the same way.  So with the big butterfly count we will be doing more than just counting butterflies, we’ll be taking the pulse of nature.”

http://www.bigbutterflycount.org/

It couldn’t be easier to participate and does not disrupt our summer pace:  Fifteen minutes of watching for butterflies, counting what is spotted and all this from my garden chair!   So serve up a beverage and snack, hand me my notebook, and let me take a seat and register numbers while I delight in seeing the butterflies flit about from flower to flower, doing all the hard work in our garden.

Life can be so expansive and yet we still return easily to the elements of childhood.  On a recent trip to Montana with a group of childhood friends, the smells from a backyard grill in the air, we sat on a deck reminiscing about our days growing up in Ohio, and I was instantly transported to a time when life slowed, laughter erupted, and we watched butterflies and clouds with carefree abandon.   After a day of work outside, I admit to a weakness for the ordinary pleasures of the end of a day:  a shower, a gin and tonic and a book.   In the evening, while sitting in the hot tub, we are grateful for the diving patterns of all our resident Swallows as they feed on the midges that are in pursuit of our pliable, edible skin.   As the evening draws in and the last of the Swallows head to their nests, the remaining million or so midges set about their full attack on us.  We retreat, hiding deep in the water until the bats begin to sail past and pick up the Swallow’s abandoned feast.  As the stars finally emerge in the night’s sky, we know to experience a long summer’s day is well worth a few itchy bites.

The Sounds of the Hunt

Living close to Wistman’s Wood, I occasionally find myself thinking about its beauty and its mythical folklore.  For centuries, this small woodland has been a draw for walkers, photographers, historians, archaeologists, spiritual-questers, ecologists and the occasional spinner of ghost stories.   What is it about this unique woodland that inspired the story of Old Crockern, the pagan God of Dartmoor, who is said to keep his Wisht Hounds here?

To see this grove of ancient dwarf oak trees is to know there is something otherworldly about them, like a Tolkienesque setting from Lord of The Rings.  The trees grow from between huge granite boulders that are covered with such a variety of mosses and lichens that any ecologist might jump for joy.  Yet, there is also tranquility amidst the vibrant bird and insect life, which live among the dripping moss and lichen.  Each of the trees has an arthritic look with gnarled, stunted branches reaching in all directions.   Serene and spooky both come to mind.

Wistman's Woods

Wistman’s Woods

For centuries these woods have appeared in poems, stories, scientific descriptions, words of praise for their beauty, and some words of contempt for the struggle of walking through them.  Deep within the wood, Natural England, has cordoned off a section and the plant growth has been untouched since 1965, a year after Wistman’s Wood was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.  When bramble, wild honeysuckle, Bilberry, grasses, ivies, ferns, mosses and the like are left to grow without being walked over or grazed, the boulders become invisible.  It is easy to see why someone from centuries ago would view these woods with some fear and also as an ankle-breaking impasse.

One day, I encountered a professional landscape photographer who had spent hours up on the moor photographing Wistman’s Woods.  We started up a conversation and he asked me about living so close to the woods, “So you are either very brave or simply don’t believe any of the stories about Wistman’s Wood, which is it?”  Hmmmmmm…..Am I?  Do I?  What exactly are these stories?

Druids, apparitions, pixies, fairies, the Devil and a host of other supernatural creatures abound in the stories based in these trees.  I recently read that the woods were once described as being among the most haunted places in Dartmoor.  That notion is aided by the fact that near the northern edge of Wistman’s Wood is the Lych Way, an ancient track known also as “Way of the Dead.”  Historically, it was along this track that corpses were carried for burial in nearby Lydford.   Occasionally, a modern report will tell of seeing a ghostly procession of men dressed in white walking past the woods.  A bit like sighting Big Foot.

It is often said that amongst the boulders in Wistman’s Wood one will find nests of adders, larger and more dangerous than any other in Britain.  And of course, it is the home of the Wisht Hounds — that pack of fearful hellhounds who hunt down lost hikers across the moors at night upon their release from Old Crockern himself.

Headless Horseman image from internet

Throughout the world one can find tales of wild huntsmen, those strong, menacing riders who gallop across the land, hunting their prey without mercy.  I’m reminded of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow with its late night ride of the Headless Horseman.  Any of these stories, with the sounds of approaching hooves carrying a hunter accompanied by his pack of hounds, provoke a spine shiver and impulse that I should high-tail it if I hope to keep my life and very soul intact!

We are not superstitious types.  But early one morning, around 5:30 a.m., I awoke to the sound of horses’ hoofs thundering past the house.  Or so I thought.  In my sleepy state, I wasn’t certain that I hadn’t dreamt it.  As I continued to struggle between sleep and wakefulness, howling in the distance startled me, giving rise to a feeling that something evil was about to happen.

Beware the moon, lads and keep to the road,” is the warning given to two American college students backpacking across the Yorkshire moors by locals having a pint in The Slaughtered Lamb.  In this cult classic, American Werewolf in London, the two soon find themselves wandering off the road onto the moors when they hear a spine tingling howling.

Am I watching the movie bits in my dreams, or have I actually heard something?  In my early morning daze, this movie moment is no longer set in Yorkshire, but instead, right behind our farmhouse.   I’m still not fully awake, but my mind is racing, as the howling gets steadily closer:  Could these be the Wisht Hounds?  Is Old Crockern, astride his skeletal horse, hunting down some lost Duke of Edinburgh competitors?    Even early riser Sam is now reluctant to head out for a walk.

There are characters in any horror film who irreverently ignore advice and promptly pay the consequences.  Keeping with this tradition, I head out onto the moors  — dressed in my pajamas and wellies — to investigate.  Through the morning mist I see nothing, but continue to hear sounds of dogs howling, barking and from some distance, a lone voice calling, “Loooooooooooooo-in.”    It makes for a haunting atmosphere and my general sense of foreboding is growing.  In no time, my nerves have gotten the better of me, and I turn to head back towards the safety of our house whereupon I stumble into Roger and Sam who have come to help investigate.

“Yo hote, yo hote, yut, yut, yut.”  “Looooo-in.”   Eerily these sounds echo around the valley.   From behind the trees, there is an answer; “Taaaaaaa-Leo.”  As the three of us climb the hill back onto the moors, we see in the distance a rider on a horse.  What exactly is going on?  More howls of dogs, another call of “ta-leo”.   Surely, this can’t be the spectral figure of Old Crockern himself since the rider is wearing Tweeds and talking on his mobile phone.

Image of a Don Macauley Hunting in Dartmoor (available for use from Flicker Share)

Fox hunting goes back centuries and has an equal mix of supporters and critics.   Apparently, the organization of a hunt is not just a few horse enthusiasts getting together to dress up and chase foxes, but a highly organized and expensive operation with strict rules.  Numerous people, horses, and dozens of hounds are often involved.

Hunts are to follow rules of etiquette designed to respect crops, livestock, fences, and hedges.   Autumn hunting can start early in the morning, but I’m guessing there are no rules about disrupting our sleep.

“Looooooo-in!” calls the hunter with one of the many special calls used to communicate between hound and master.   The hounds continue to howl and bark.

As we make our way back to the house, we realize that there was nothing more to our morning panic than a traditional hunt.  Did our close proximity to an enigmatic place get the better of us?  Wistman’s Wood has survived in a hard landscape for centuries, despite agricultural clearances and grazing.  Many will continue to promote woodland spirits and mystical energies that protect the trees.  One thing is certain though, without the boulders scattered across the hillside these ancient trees would likely not have survived.  And, neither would the tales.

Wistman's Woods

Wistman’s Woods and its boulders