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.

Feel The Burn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sing a Song of Sixpence

Four years ago, when we elected to give up a comfortable and familiar life and take on a lengthy renovation project in the middle of a high moorland wilderness, our only question was “Will we regret it if we don’t do it?”  Knowing our answer, we sold up and moved, confronting adventures and mishaps along the way.  We did not know what was in store for us, but somehow, we knew the journey was going to be worth it.

And it has been.  Each time we return to Crockern, we both have a strong sense of coming home.  This old house, complete with its three-page Excel spreadsheet of projects left to do, hugs us when we cross the threshold, like a fine host who offers a comfy chair and a warming drink.  On a windy, wet evening — of which we’ve had more than our share this winter — we feel snug and dry.  And nothing beats a warm summer’s day, when we can bask in the beauty of the landscape.

It hasn’t all been Bordeaux and vistas though, and we’ve faced some steep learning curves:   Maintaining Generators; Replacing Oil Tanks; Building Concrete Plinths; Repointing; Addressing Damp; Refilling Potholes; Dry Stone Walling; Keeping Chickens; Keeping out Badgers, Foxes and Sheep; Death; Predation; Smashed Fingers and Scratched Corneas; Determined sheep; Leaks; Floods; Rats; and, Rabbits, to name but a few.  We’ve also put to use some of our known skills like mixing cement, hanging ceilings, refinishing floors, basic plumbing and electrical work, and gardening.

Blackbird by Thomas Bewick. Image found on the Internet.

Blackbird by Thomas Bewick. Image found on the Internet.

At the same time, I have been observing and learning more about our local birds.  I’m not a twitcher, nor do I proclaim to know much beyond identifying the birds at our feeders, but my desire to uncover a few ornithological abilities has taken on a new dimension:  To locate where the blackbirds are nesting and to observe their broods.

We have friends who have a nice little nest at eye height in the hedge along the edge of their garden.  My search will not be so easy.   To focus, I need to look for the Blackbird’s nest in the kind of real estate these birds prefer:  Deciduous trees with dense undergrowth.  Hmm.  We have a number of trees around the property, but the undergrowth isn’t exactly what I would call dense.  Muddy and pocked with mole hills perhaps, but not dense.  Blackbirds tend to favour evergreen or thorny bushes such as holly, hawthorn or honeysuckle.  We’ve planted these, but the hedge plants have a few years to go before they offer up any real protection for nesting birds.  And sometimes, they might build nests in sheds or outbuildings, making use of a ledge or cavity.  Oh, and back in the day, you might find four and twenty of them inside pies.

Sing a Song of Six Pence vintage image found on the Internet.

Sing a Song of Six Pence vintage image found on the Internet.

My skill of spying nests is not great, so I intend instead to stalk these birds to see where they come and go.  And like any good birder, I must do this with a bit of stealth.  Something else I seem to lack.  Walking outside usually means I send birds flying.  Sam jumps and barks in anticipation of a walk, while the chickens come running up in hopes of a bit of apple or some corn.  The grazing sheep and cows all stop what they’re doing to assess me.  In short, I am easily observed.  Following a bird, with its rapid and evasive flight pattern to its nest will be no easy matter.

To get started, I thought I’d read up on Blackbirds.  I already know how to identify the male Blackbirds with their slick, black plumage and a splash of saffron ringing their eyes and covering the bill.   It’s the kind of look that says, “I know how to go out on the town, and yet am not at all stuffy.”  Sophisticated and yet, whimsical.  The female birds are “dressed” more to my style; nothing particularly impressive and that’s okay.   Fortunately I also can comfortably recognise the lovely songs of Blackbirds among our community bird choir.  This may help me locate them when my visuals fail.

What I hadn’t realised is the lunar symbolism attached to these pretty birds.  There are plenty of people who see Blackbirds as dark and mysterious creatures, keeping their secrets safe.  Well now, that upped the ante on finding their nests!

While I’m hopeful, I’m not what you’d call driven.  I’d like to find the nests and observe the breeding cycle.  A few years ago we found a nest of Pied Wagtails in the wall of one of our sheds.  Their hidden home had a front and rear exit and I must have walked past it for weeks before I ever noticed it.  What drew my attention was the attack flight of a protective parent when I moved too close and paused near their homestead.  This well concealed residence was home to seven babies who soon learned to fly.

Last year, we had nearly twenty-five nests for Swallows and House Martins, which isn’t our highest number.  I can see the Great Tits bomb into the stone walls tending to their hidden homes.  There are probably wrens and Robins nesting in these walls, too.  Since moving here, I’ve hoped to find the Blackbirds setting up camp nearby.  I’ve spotted two males and one female.  One of these males likes to sit outside the window where I work.  Could any of them be living within a short distance to our front door? Or, are they just stopping by for the afternoon to observe the chickens and resident Jackdaws and sing us a happy tune?

Crockern captivates and enchants, providing a deep sense of place and belonging along with a peace and quiet that befalls one upon arrival.  I can think of no reason why at least one pair of Blackbirds wouldn’t make their home here.

Returning from putting the bird feeders away and the chickens to bed, Roger said,  “You’ll never believe what I saw in the shed.”  As it turns out, there was a pair of Blackbirds flying about where we store the bird and chicken feed.  Perhaps their nest is in there?  I go into this shed a half dozen times a day and haven’t thought to search here.  Instead, I’ve been preoccupied looking around the yard and area gorse bushes.  Have I missed the obvious while I singularly search for one thing?   And then it hits me, like so many answers to unasked questions which stare us right in the face:  Despite  all my efforts, I may or may not locate the Blackbird’s home anytime soon, and it doesn’t matter as we found ours.

A January Snow

After weeks of rain, we awoke one morning to a covering of snow. By my mid-Western standards, it wasn’t a significant amount, but those three inches did a wonderful job of covering up the mud and layering the land with a fluffy white blanket.

We were both awake early and took the opportunity for a walk before the crowds of snow-crazed people arrive to go sledding, build snowmen, and generally leave behind a mess from their enjoyment. For us, the chance to be out first, looking for tracks of foxes, badgers and rabbits is exciting.

We found plenty of rabbit tracks surround the house and garden confirming the need for diligence as we plan our summer vegetable planting. Thankfully, there were no paw-prints from foxes anywhere near our chickens. No signs of badgers either. It seems our electric fencing is working to protect our hens.

Oblivious to any predatory risk, the chickens head out to greet their first snow of the season, clucking a mixture of confusion and delight: “This stuff is pretty and makes my feathers look so fetching but where is the mud and how am I to find worms here?” Or, something like that.

It’s still early and the morning sky emits shades of light suggesting more snow to come. We make our way up the path toward the woods and tors, knowing we are the first to lay our boot-tracks in this snow. Roger has a buoyant gate as if he is expecting something exciting to cross his path. Aromas buried beneath the white, flaky ground cover enchant Sam. And I’m taking a few photos to hold onto this moment where it feels as if Dartmoor is revealing her secrets to us only.



In The Trenches

Sometimes, my body simply can’t move and I am incapable of lifting even my little finger.   Naps call to me when a reviving cup of coffee seems inadequate.  These moments of pure exhaustion usually stem from a day of physically demanding projects.   Lately though, my desire to slouch onto the sofa with a good book and a blanket is the result of enduring the tyranny of relentless rain, hail and wind these past weeks.  I’ve had enough.

In December, a beautiful autumn gave way to weeks of heavy rains and strong winds, taking much of the country hostage.  Floods and economic damage have affected thousands.  For the two of us, the consequences of all this wet weather have been relatively minor.  We have a chimney leak, indicating some flashing which needs attention, our winter vegetable garden is not growing, but it isn’t dying either, and our track is developing a number of pot holes.  The river is torrential and raging.  The yard is saturated making each step a potential slip and fall. The chickens haven’t had a good day out in weeks.  Sam’s walks, when not abbreviated, have tested the limits of our waterproof outerwear.   And my hiking boots leak.  Still, life goes on.

The first morning walk with Sam down the track includes a routine assessment of potholes.  Filling potholes is a regular spring activity and the quicker we stop them becoming craters, the better.   Left to grow,  larger potholes need a packing of bricks, which we hammer down before covering with road planings.  Heading into December, I was feeling smug about how fine the track was looking, even flirting with the idea that spring 2016 might mean a “miss” on track maintenance.   But this winter’s rains have undone our past summer’s efforts.  More than a few potholes have emerged.  Big, bold, deep, and growing each time anyone drives up the track.  With the ground so heavily saturated, the rainwater runs off the hillside and across the track, taking all the gravel with it and giving way not just to potholes, but to a relatively new aspect of Crockern maintenance:  clearing ditches.

As no one expected the war to last as long as it did, the first trenches in WWI were made quickly and often filled with water and subsequently collapsed.  Our trenches — ditches really — are designed to direct the water off the hills and into holes which run under the track.  In the distant past, some wise soul constructed this series of ditches, but years of neglect has left them overgrown, filled with grass, silt and low growing gorse branches.  In some areas, the network of sheep paths has flattened the lip of the ditch letting water run over the ditch’s banks.  With my shovel and clippers to hand, I’ve set about a wet, wintry madness of clearing this overgrowth so the water can resume its historic flow when it rains heavily.

This is not a quick job.  According to the British trench guidelines, it took nearly six hours for 450 men to construct 250 metres of trench.  The layout of the trenches was generally about two metres deep and two metres wide.  Our ditch is about 20 x 20 centimetres.   Considering the smaller size, I suppose it shouldn’t take too long for one woman, one shovel and a pair of garden shears to clear the overgrowth.

But, there are many reasons why this job is not quickly accomplished:

  1. It is futile to dig when it is pouring down with rain or the wind is too blowy.  I fall over more.  My hair is in my face and I can’t see.  I rapidly get fed up.
  2. There are only so many hours in a day the body and mind can do this sort of work.  I suspect prisoners and slaves made to smash rocks or build pyramids would agree.
  3. After about 2 hours, I’m happy to see I’ve accomplished about 30 feet of clearing.   I arch my back and stretch my shoulders only to see the remaining 2,000 feet left to clear.  My heart sinks and it takes time to recover motivation.
  4. Last year when I started this project, I scratched my cornea on a gorse bush.  I close my eyes half the time I’m doing this job now, which does slow things down considerably.
  5. The house is warm and dry.  My book is good.  The sofa is comfy.

While I’ve been outside covered in mud and rain, Roger has made incredible progress on removing the paint from the interior granite stones using a non-toxic paste and a lot of hard graft.  This is no easy undertaking either, as he must first apply the paste, then remove the softened paint with a scraper before using the power washer to get rid of the rest.  This clears the stones of paint while at the same time making a flooded mess inside the house, necessitating an hour or so of cleaning up.

While we toil away on our various projects, the rains continue.  Occasionally there is a brief interlude when thick cloud cover gives way to a watery sunlight.  The powerful winds die back and the birds return to our feeders.  When we eventually have a few days free of rain, the soggy, muddy, squidgy ground will once again find firmness.   For now, we alternate between ditch digging, paint stripping, drying wet clothing, and drying a wet dog before we answer the call of a book, a hot bath, a cold drink, a soft couch and the chance to drift off into a blissful sleep.


A view from the trench as the clouds give way to a brief moment of blue sky.

Raking with Chickens

Raking leaves is one of those necessary projects with no end during autumn.  I rake and then rake some more.  Next, the wind blows or it rains and there are more leaves. approach is simple:  Get the majority of leaves up and into the compost and liberate the electric fence from any which lodge themselves onto it.  If I dedicate myself to doing this every week for about an hour, then it is a small and manageable task.

That is, unless you have chickens.

Love our hens.  Hate their help.

Try digging a garden bed with chickens around.  They are there to supervise and assist, and eat all the worms.  Clean their coop, and they are all a flutter to closely inspect our efforts.   They peck at newly discovered insects, make certain the feeders are topped up, and kick about any new hay to make their nests just so.  Truthfully, they are a little micro-manage-y.

But rake leaves, and they are beside themselves with mischief.  Just look at the photos:


The beginnings of a row to make a pile for moving.

The beginnings of a row to make a pile for moving.


Here come the chickens.

Here come the chickens.


"Let's do it!" say the hens.

“Let’s do it!” say the hens.


A guilty member of the flock has spread the leaves back into their original location.

A guilty member of the flock has spread the leaves back into their original location.


After twice as much time, I managed to collect a sizeable amount of leaves for the compost.

After twice as much time, I managed to collect a sizeable amount of leaves for the compost.


The hens have taken themselves off to bed and seem to be having a conversation along the lines of, “It wasn’t me.”

The hens have taken themselves off to bed and seem to be having a conversation along the lines of, “It wasn’t me.”

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.

Old Man Winter

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve had a few friends visit, but none more wild and disruptive than Old Man Winter. Carried into town on gale force winds from the north, he arrived full of bluster, hail, snow, and disruption. It’s been terrific!

After being blown sideways on walks, the weather finally settled and left a beautiful covering of snow. Not so much to cut us off for any length of time, but enough to change the atmosphere. Snow dampens the ambient sounds, while at the same time lifting the various bird songs to a purer tone. Because of this and the play of morning light, I enjoy getting outside first thing. Sometimes I imagine myself a skilled animal tracker as I follow where the fox has been in the night. From the size of his prints, he is a large chap and no doubt would take all our chickens if given half the chance. We also know the route of our visiting badger, who seems to circle the house, the vegetable beds and bird feeders, and then end up down near the horses. The good news is our electric fence is working a treat, as there are no tracks inside its zappy perimeter.


Snow just beyond Wistman's Woods.

Snow just beyond Wistman’s Woods.


If only these winter scenes were this simple: to enjoy the landscape and note animal tracks in the snow. But as the day unfolds, this snow invites crowds of people who approach it as if it is some sort of drug. They tried it once and can’t get enough of the fluffy stuff! Hundreds of people from surrounding lower-lying areas, which received rain rather than snow, arrive en-mass to go sledding, build snowmen, and enjoy it all. In their joyful frenzy, they leave behind litter, block our access gate with their cars, and this time, remove stones from the stonewall in order to climb over into the next field. It’s hard to imagine going to their houses and doing the same without invoking genuine rancour.

At such times, it is important to turn our attentions to our house and stop fretting about all of the playground behaviours outside. Given the renovation work we’ve accomplished, the house keeps us feeling snug and dry during these cold winter days. And we still have the downstairs to complete. But, we’ve had a few troubles of late: The Aga went from working okay to not working at all. We have a boiler, so this just means no heat in the kitchen, or the ability to cook or have hot water. In this situation, I enter a state of despair about no coffee in the morning. Ever quick to solve the problem, Roger appears with a camp stove. Hurrah!

Yet it took Roger three days of cleaning filters, bleeding fuel lines, lighting and relighting the Aga, before it finally stayed lit.  We know the problem and are replacing the troublesome bit of pipe in the coming days. Still, we are back in business with hot water and the ability to eat warm food. This just in time as we have friends arriving for the weekend.

As sledders, and snowman builders and photographers and hikers and birdwatchers pass by, we were hoping to rest on our laurels, before turning our attention to finishing the bathroom tiling. Never rest on your laurels is the message of the season because as soon as we did, almost to the second, the boiler decided to go on holiday. As it is only a year old, we hadn’t had any troubles and couldn’t help but think all the problems encountered while fiddling around sorting out the Aga were now manifesting themselves in like fashion with the boiler. A quick read of the owner’s manual and we locate the reset button. Depress it for a few seconds, release it, wait a nail biting second or two and, hey presto, the fan begins to whirl. The red light changes to green and the boiler is back.


In the meadow, you can build a snowman......

In the meadow, you can build a snowman……


“Roger, we really need to set a deadline and stick with it.” is my haunting refrain. The downstairs remains a close-but-no-cigar project as the devil is in the details, and there are more than a few details. The largest one is finishing the tiling in the bathroom, which has been delayed due to all of the above heating fiascos.

With the house now warm, what’s our excuse? That’s easy; it is nicer to go out, walk the hills and soak in the beauty, even in this seemingly dead of winter. The exposed grass is not simply green, but is accented with colours of gold, brown and red. The sky often seems mostly grey, but there are variations in the clouds and the colours poking from behind of blues and yellows and oranges, depending on the sun.  Lately, there has been a full moon and clear star-filled skies at night reflecting off of the snow. To walk along listening to the sounds of my boot on the frozen ground is one of my simple pleasures. And if I stop and look, I am often greeted with a flock of several dozen Fieldfares flying about the gorse bushes and reeds, or a bird of prey taking a break on a high branch, before pursuing its next meal. Most recently, we spied a pair of Goldcrest feasting on seeds in the pine trees near the barn.

At the end of the day, the snow tourists will eventually return to their cars and make their way home. Those of us who live here will breathe a collective sigh of relief. And when Roger and I sit by the fire, contemplating the tiling to do below, we will be easily tempted and then simply adjust the deadline to some future date.

I see a bad moon rising.

I see a bad moon rising.

More fabulous skies!

More fabulous skies!

Just How Green Was my Valley?

What a summer we’ve had so far. Sunny, warm days filled with unobstructed light stretching late into the evening. Soft breezes rustling the trees, leaving enough insects in the air for birds and bats to swiftly buzz past as they take their in-flight meals. It has been fantastic. It has also been green.

In 1961, Johnny Cash wrote the song, Forty Shades of Green about his memories of Ireland. I wonder had he visited Crockern at that time whether he would have written a different song, because I know I am seeing across the meadows and moors, at least fifty shades of green.

The walk is just beginning, and already so many shades of green.

The walk is just beginning, and already so many shades of green.

On a recent afternoon walk with Sam, I pause to look up the vast hillside along the river heading north. I can’t help but notice how the luminous and green earth tones seem to recede into the background helping make the smaller patches of brown and black cows or white sheep appear so clearly. They pop out of the green, as do the yellow gorse flowers and pinkish-purple fox glove flowers. Even so, the dominant colour is green, a variegated patchwork of it!

With so much of one colour, the landscape could almost appear flat and yet it is deeply textured with the acid-neon greens of the grasses closely grazed by sheep laying snuggly next to the jade green of the gorse bushes. At their very base, the clumps of reeds and tall grasses resemble British Racing Green before they transition to the harlequin of the seed heads. Upon closer inspection, the lawn green colour of the grasses under my feet is laced with reds and browns.

A short distance ahead is Witstman’s Woods. Despite its legendary haunted tales, it sits like a fuzzy mirage in the distance. The sun is shining brightly revealing the Hunter, Shamrock, Apple, Spring and Leaf greens of the individual trees as might be captured in a botanical painting by William Hooker. But as the sun slips briefly behind a cloud, this montage of colours morphs into one cool aquamarine and the canopy of trees melts away into the hillside.

We're into the woods.

We’re into the woods.

Sam and I make our way over the stile and toward this jungle-like wood of ancient dwarf oak trees. There is something otherworldly about this grove of trees as if stepping into a stage set for Lord of The Rings. The trees grow from between huge granite boulders that are covered with such a variety of mosses and lichens and the whole place is vibrant with bird and insect life. Each of the trees has an arthritic look with gnarled, stunted branches reaching in all directions; they too are dripping with mosses and lichen. Deeper within the wood, all manner of bramble, wild honeysuckle, bilberry, grasses, ivies, and ferns grow untouched by walkers or grazing animals, making the huge boulders invisible.

We leave the woods and continue north towards the weir. As we scramble over sturdy stones and walk along ancient dry stone walls, my eyes are drawn to the grey-green, green, silver green, and yellow-green on every possible granite and wood surface. These slow growing lichens and mosses, punctuated with the emerald fronds of ferns and the viridian of stinging nettles, remind me of the camouflage uniforms of some military fatigues.

Mosses and Lichens display the continuum of green.

Mosses and Lichens display the continuum of green.

Sam and I looking down the river valley.

Sam and I looking down the river valley.

The return leg of our journey takes us along the leat with glorious views of the river valley. Ahead is a forest of pine trees. The air grows considerably cooler and you can almost smell the green – an equal mix of calming and uplifting — as we enter this stand of tall, straight fir trees planted by the Forestry Commission. Their boughs give shelter to fuzzy mosses and bright green and bottle-green ferns. It is from these woods at night we hear a Tawny Owl and, during the day, a raucous party of squawks from a colony of Herons. The other day, one flew from its nest, circling around our house looking rather prehistoric as it attempted to land in the ash tree, with its Kelly green leaves and bouncy branches. Too heavy to gain purchase in this tree the Heron returned to the forest.

Down by the river, I came across three people dressed in olive-drab waders. They were with the Environmental Agency and conducting a survey. Happily, the fish life in the river is doing well. After just a few hours of counting, these scientists had identified, along with a few eels, over two dozen salmon and over two dozen trout, including one which was 10-inches long!   While standing and chatting, I spot some wild mint growing and marvel at the elegant jerky flight of a dozen dragonflies, their iridescent green and blue wings sparkling in the sun.

Moss, bramble, lichen, and green grass.

Moss, bramble, lichen, and green grass.

Back at the house, I can see the celadon seedpods hanging in the Sycamore and Laburnum trees. The farmer on the other side of the valley has been cutting his hay meadow. Today there are rows of dark green grass waiting to be bailed, exposing the lighter rows of cut grass: a striped tee-shirt look to the field.

Before calling it a day, I make my tour of the garden and to see how green is my thumb. We have seven types of lettuces growing some tinged with reds, others looking like a granny-smith apple. Cabbages, onions, potatoes, spinach and chard all provide their various shades and tones, and the outer leaves of the artichokes have a lovely patina. The stems of the rainbow chard vary from a cool iceberg lettuce towards a purplish-green. The beet leaves are tinted with magenta. Our greenhouse is filled with herbs, strawberries, green tomatoes waiting to ripen, and cucumbers, which make me feel cooler on a hot day by just looking at them.

My green (and blurry) thumb by some of the herbs.

My green (and blurry) thumb by some of the herbs.

Part of our vegetable garden.

Part of our vegetable garden.

The greenhouse.

The greenhouse.

Even our blueberries are green!

Even our blueberries are green!

As the day winds to a close, I’m giving the green light to cocktails. Roger squeezes limes into our G&Ts; I set out a bowl of Gordal Olives and put an Al Greene disc into the player. My mind is filled with the colour green and its equal associations with renewal and growth or the lack of experience and need for growth. The Green Party, Going Green, Green thumb or Green fingers, waiting in the Green room, the Greenback, Green-Eyed Monsters, Greener pastures, Green with envy, Greenhorn, Green around the gills, and more mundanely, should I paint a room green?

Then, as quickly as it started, I stop this internal list making. Roger and I sit back and relax to watch all manner of birds at the feeders, including of course the Greenfinches.

This Old House is Home

This Laburnum greats us each time we walk out the front door.

This Laburnum greets us each time we walk out the front door.


I open the door in the morning to take Sam for his first walk of the day and am greeted by a dawn chorus and a powerful sweet floral aroma. The Laburnum tree outside our house is in full flower with its yellow dripping blooms, hanging like bunches of grapes, the colour of sunshine. The stimulation of the senses is a heady start to the day and reminds me why Victorian gardeners were so fond of this tree. Despite being highly toxic, it is wonderfully intoxicating!

The tree is also abuzz with bees. There are hundreds of Bumblebees pollinating its blooms and, thankfully, also our garden. With our seven raised beds and one greenhouse fully planted, we need these bees to keep busy. Last spring, we saw an occasional bee and assumed it had traveled a distance. This year, the quantity of bees indicates we may have a hive somewhere and these bees could be making their home outside our front door.

How is it that these bumblebees have selected Crockern as their home? And what is a home anyway? Is it just the place where you live? Is a home a place that holds favourite things and people? Is it a place to retreat for peace? A place where we can spend an entire weekend in our pyjamas if we choose?   Or, as The Temptations suggest, a place wherever that Rollin’-Stone-Papa laid his hat?

If a house is a place that provides basic needs and safety, does a home provide mental and emotional well-being, a place to look forward to being in to escape the trials and tribulations of the outside world? According to psychologists, a home has less to do with décor and design and more to do with enabling its inhabitants to let go, even with its demands and quirky aspects. It is a peaceful and happy place, a place to spend time and share with others, to make memories through shared laughter with friends and family. It’s less about the building and more about an emotional connection, a sense of comfort and wellbeing. A home is a sanctuary.

But, do Bumblebees even consider such distinctions? For them, any dry, dark cavity can become a home. Abandoned rodent holes are ideal. Compost heaps will serve a purpose. Some bumblebees make nests in thick grass, bird boxes or trees. The ideal criterion is a place that is relatively undisturbed. They don’t like nesting in areas with extended exposure to the sun as it can overheat their home. I share a few home-criteria with the bumblebee, for instance, I don’t want our sofa to fade in the sun.

In my lifetime, I’ve had at least fifteen different addresses. Roger has had more than a few, too. Some I would consider a home, others, simply a place to live. And yet, when we return to Crockern, we both have a strong sense of coming home. This old house, complete with its three-page excel spreadsheet of projects to do, hugs us when we cross the threshold, welcoming us back like a favourite Granny with some warm chocolate cake. On a windy, wet evening, we feel snug and dry. On a sunny summer’s day, we bask in the beauty of the landscape. Compared to previous places we’ve lived, Crockern requires a good deal of attention. It kicks up demands greater than any narcissist. Most recently, we’ve had to dig up a soak-away and establish drainage when it became overgrown and blocked. Water from our spring was overflowing and had to be redirected until we could solve the problem. A five-hour project we had not planned to undertake.

This happens, but certainly less so as we’ve become nuanced partners with the eccentricities of this old house. No longer mere residents, caretakers or renovators busy playing catchup, we are now engaged in a subtle rhythm with Crockern. And just like the couple celebrating their golden wedding anniversary – long after guests have left the party and the music has stopped — we quietly turn familiar dance steps. While our renovation efforts downstairs are chugging along slowly, we have new tasks presenting themselves weekly if not daily and we adjust.

But despite this predictable pattern of facing unpredictable projects alongside our planned ones, Crockern remains magical. It captivates and enchants. It provides a deep sense of place and belonging. There is a peace and quiet that befalls us each time we return up the track creating a quality of life unsurpassed by previous places we’ve called home. The old saying, “No matter where you go, there you are.” seems challenged by living here. Or is it now truer? Both of us find ourselves feeling the freedom of “living in the moment” more than ever before. Nourished and revived, we happily work hard or take long naps as the day dictates. It isn’t always easy dealing with what gets thrown up at us: Death. Predation. Smashed fingers. Determined sheep. Leaks. Floods. Rats. Rabbits. Foxes. Badgers. To name but a few. But each day, we are profoundly content.

I understand why the bumblebees have selected Crockern. (I should also add the recent influx of too many rabbits!) It’s a beautiful location, free from insecticides and lots of blooms to pollinate. There is plenty of fresh air and, occasionally, some harsh weather, but still lots of protection. And that Laburnum? Fantastic! I don’t know where this nest is exactly, and if I find it, I shall consider myself very lucky as bumblebee nests aren’t easy to locate. Mostly, I’m happy to let these bees get on with life and do their own thing. A perspective Crockern teaches all who live here. These bees are doing a fabulous job of pollinating plants, wildflowers and our vegetables. Let me root, root, root for the home team, encourage them to make themselves at home, and I’ll look up into the tree and say to those bees, “Keep at it!

We have two of these trees.  This one is in the back of the house.

We have two of these trees. This one is in the back of the house.