Friday, 30 December 2011

Battery Hens... safer

Happy New Year to the UK's ex-battery hen population ......

A chicken described as Britain's "last battery hen" has been given a new home, marking the end of an era for commercial laying hens, a charity said.

The hen, which has been named Liberty, will enjoy retirement at a farm in Chulmleigh, Devon, where it will join about 60 other ex-battery hens.

An EU directive abolishing the barren (battery) cage system comes into effect on 1 January, when egg producers will have to provide hens with larger cages enabling them to spread their wings and move around.

In the past two years we Archers at The Larches have re-homed almost 20 battery hens. They came to us looking ratty, pale and sickly. After getting them home, placing them in their new coop for three days, (with good food and water of course,) there is nothing better than opening the coop door one morning to watch them taste their first freedom.

Obviously they start out nervous, they hover near their new home and sometimes it's a bloody nightmare trying to get them back into the coop as night falls, but it's a great feeling to give a creature a lovely home.

I still value the eggs the girls give us and always say 'Thank you.' Just good manners really.

Such good news that conditions for UK hens are set to improve. Though hens from laying chicken farms will still only have a two year life before being slaughtered so if you live near one of these (reputable) farms, why not give them a call they'll often happily sell you their older hens for £1 each. These hens will reward you with eggs for a considerable time, happy in their retirement.

Our favourite hen is called Happy. She was rescued and came to us looking dreadful. As we gently took our new hens out of the cardboard box we'd transported them in from the egg farm, I'd noticed her; she was disabled. One of her feet was curled and useless for scratching and her hip and leg were so badly deformed she could hardly walk.

Uncharitably I felt slightly irritated that we'd taken suck a poorly hen, how the hell would she manage to roam over our acres? .... Then I checked myself and remembered that this was a rescue mission and this hen needed rescuing more than most.

Happy is now our most loved hen. She wobbles about, scratching about in the dirt in her precarious fashion and her temperament is that of Margaret Thatcher... tough and yet vulnerable.

Recently she went through a serious molt and we thought her time was up but we were wrong. Her new feathers are fluffy and a shade lighter than before and she looks beautiful. Even Rooster seems to favour her over the others.

So life is improving for UK hens... why not get a few of your own, or at the very least ensure you are buying eggs from UK producers to ensure you are getting eggs from reputable sources?

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Blimey! Look at the time.....

Dear Readers/Fellow Bloggers,
It has been 32 days since my last confession blog post and I am heartily sorry. As penance I will recite three Twas The Night Before Christmases and watch The Grinch, Towering Inferno and Home Alone without sobbing.

The reason for the inactivity has mainly been due to my trying to finish editing my novel.... still not finished! That, combined with the speed of the close of year, caught me off-guard: Within days, or so it seemed, we'd had Halloween, then two of our sash windows were replaced, then there was the Bonfire Party.... two seconds later the sprogs seemed to be performing in Christmas plays. The 7yo's was on the 30th November! Then there was the Wedding Anniversary (he REMEMBERED I forgot! But he still kindly gifted me a Kindle - Super pressie.) And by the 9th of December they'd broken up for Christmas and the 9yo, the 7yo and I were on the world tour of the south of England, doling out gifts and visiting those we wouldn't see during Christmas week. Added to that mix, a grandma going slightly wobbly and my usual [fake] veneer of organisation-woman was close to crumbling.  

All through this period the HUGE Bonfire, first lit on the 5th November, has been periodically igniting.... it's still smoking today, 8 weeks after we lit it! Very bizarre. 

However, we have clearly survived. Deep breath. Christmas for adults was best described as passable but for the sprogs I think it was still magical... Once again Santa was bang out of order; this year he managed to find a ball of wool in the craft box and while we slept he created an intricate trail of pink fluffy stuff all around the house from door knobs to gifts..... I guess I should be grateful, last year he used my best silky ribbon and stomped huge boots around the place leaving great footprints of glitter on the sitting room carpet. This year winding up the web of wool from the far reaches of the house took some considerable time but at least we may be glitter free for the year.    

Before the babes broke up from school I did managed to snatch a couple of evenings with girlfriends. First there was a delightful book club supper to discuss Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt. Personally I loved it but it didn't suit all members so a fab discussion ensued. It's always so gratifying when the book is not universally loved. 

Then there was a trip to the cinema in Ludlow's Assembly Rooms... a quaint theatre style cinema with plush red velvet seats. It was like stepping back into the 1960s, fitting really, as we went to see The Help set in a similar era and we weren't disappointed. See it if you can. The oppression and racism in the southern states of America in the decade I was born is depicted in Kathryn Stockett's story. It's a shocker to think such nonsense occurred during my lifetime but then again I guess it's probably still happening now.... 


I think the best fun I had recently was at The Winter Agricultural Fair in Builth Wells, Wales. I was with two farming wives and a New Zealand gal. Laugh?!! Yes we did, plus we ate and sipped our way through the day. One of our party, who shall remain nameless to protect the innocent, proved she hadn't lost her va-va-voom! With pretty twinkly eyes she bantered with stall-holders and was soon rewarded with beaucoup de freebies.... The power of a woman beef farmer, oh yeah! 
While we four were out for a giggle, there was more professional interest from the thousands of farmers attending the fair, they were eyeing up the baby beef cattle in advance of the auction. We watched, as the sale began, pinned to railings by large bellied farmers behind us. I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt that they were actually eager to spot the buyers nodding to the auctioneers in the sale ring below!! Young animals were fetching up to £4000. N.B. Being squashed by farmers is not especially good but it did bring on a fit of the giggles again: The exquisite type of giggling that brings tears to your eyes and snot out your nose......Brilliant.

The day’s leading price of £4700 was paid for a British Blue-sired baby heifer out of a Limousin x dam, bred locally...... No, I’m not sure what I just said either.... More concerning than the cost of a cow, bull, heifer or whatever they're called... was the fact that my pal’s hubby, (who was working the show as a stockman,) was in charge of graffiti-ing the rumps of cows. He and his companion, terribly important looking in white starched coats, were found in the sheds gluing numbers to bottoms... hmmmmm.

The strange behaviour didn't stop there, the breeders had selectively shaved their beasts, parring down their back coats to accentuate the animal's ..... well, how can I put it..... arses. One's eyes were literally drawn to the puffy oversized cheeky rumps. It was then that I realised that the pre-roast contestants were also wearing make up. Not mascara of course, [actually I couldn’t swear to that,] but they were covered in sparkly glitter. Sexy cows... would you adam and eve it?

This year’s supreme champion was a heifer, an 18 month-old Limousin-sired contender. He was bought by the judge, Alan Davies, butcher, of Welshpool, for £4500. Presumably he ended up as several people’s Christmas dinner....

In the sheep section the supreme championship went to a father and son team from Cumbria, for a pair of Beltex ewe lambs which sold for £520 each. They also exhibited the reserve champions which sold at £480 a piece to the same buyer. Just for your information, I saw no glitter on sheep....


The World Tour of Southern England went well. We bombed off to London to see the sights and the lights and caught up with ‘Cross The Pond and family before they escaped to the Bahamas! Grrrrr! It was the first time my 7yo had been on the Tube. I, once again, failed to meet up with FancyPants from I'm So Fancy. It's getting to be rather fun this non-meeting adventure, I left her a jar of chutney as a consolation prize!

After that we toddled off to South London to stay and catch up with my bestest pal and all round fab Godmother. Then the next morning we zoomed to Ikea Croydon and stuffed ourselves with deliciousness from their cafe. 

Next we visited my parents on the South coast and took in a brilliant musical in Southampton at The Mayflower Theatre - Peter Pan. It was really, really good. The children loved it - it doffed its cap to Pantomime but was sophisticated enough to be in the West End as a true musical. Super fun.

We even had enough time to visit our old manor in Oxfordshire, visit our old farm shop for some stunning beef rib with Tom the butcher at Q Gardens and have a playdate with pals from the previous school in an indoor adventure playground. All fab, if a bit of a rush.

Our last visit was with WYLYE GIRL AT River Cottage Diaries. She is wonderful and was the reason I finished NaNoWriMo as a winner last year, we gently bullied each other along. She was as great in real life as she is in blog land and if you've never experienced her writing take the time to check her out.

Well time has come to stretch, yawn and for the twentieth time this morning, attempt to get the log burner to roar!!! I'm cold, I'm hungry and I need to open up and clean out the chickens (their Christmas treat!) So adieu for now and I'll see you on the other side....... roll on 2012 our Olympic Year. 

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Damp Tassels...

I was wearing an oft' admired grey poncho this morning. It wasn't exactly like Clint's, for starters I wash mine! Clint's, I understand, was never washed, urghhh! Anyhoo mine has tassels. Get me, fashion goddess!

I was feeling rather swish for 7:30am, poncho, boots with a heel rather than my trademark wellingtons, AND I had lipstick on, albeit that it was on my lips and my cheeks [face] as I couldn't find a blusher. I was lookin' good. I even managed to carry a porcelain teacup (it's my favourite,) filled with thick black sugary coffee, to the car. Coffee in one hand, bright orange Halloween bucket of mixed corn in the other hand [WHAT?....OK, OK, image ruined!]

I loaded the sprogs into the car for school and placed the gorgeous steaming cup of coffee on the roof of said vehicle while I went to open up and feed the chooks.

I know what you're thinking....... and you're wrong, I did not sashay back to the car forgetting that the coffee was on the roof, thus smashing my lovely tea cup to smithereens when I drove off, .... No, that was last week.... and the week before! No, I remembered it was there and placed the precious vessel in the cup holder that tolerates my cup but that would prefer a diet coke shaped drink.

There is a certain amount of off-roading to be done after we leave the comfort of our drive. There is a short strip of concrete from the front door to the stables and this is where our equine guests get washed, but out on the bridle path, the track that leads to the cross country tarmac road, we have to navigate Michigan lake-like potholes. I'm always nervous in case one turns out to be Vicar of Dibley size and the car is swallowed whole!

Along this stretch the trick is to pick the cup up out of the holder and balance it in your hand, trying to absorb the worst of the seismic activity. There must be some scientific explanation to this shock absorption but I read Art at Uni with a side order of 'dying one's hair,' so I couldn't hope to impart anything serious regarding this phenomenon.

All was well, we made it to the road; I wasn't wearing my coffee and the sprogs, unpeturbed by the usual gait of the car, were busy learning spellings and French vocab. I took a welcome gulp of nectar and placed the cup back in its holder.

Who'd have thought that poncho tassels made of a wool mix could be so thirsty. By the time I went for another slurp, the coffee had been filched by my cape. A damp patch on the material looked like Australia, plus I smelled like Starbucks! Sucking the coffee out doesn't work, all the wool bits get stuck in your teeth.

Poncho wash day here I come... Oh if anyone has Clint's number tell him I'm putting a wash on, he might want me to do his too.....


Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Good Morning...

This was our view on the school run this morning. The sun was the colour of a log fire that has burned all day... melty orange. A sun as Turner might paint it.....

And look-ee here, my DIY air fresheners (Hyacinths in water jars) are growing beautifully - I hope they'll be ready for Christmas, but if not maybe my Birthday in January. I love looking at the roots through the hyacinth jars, so alien looking.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Shropshire Safari...

It's been foggy.. nothing you don't know I'm sure, but up here on what's reputed to be the highest point in Shropshire, it has been dense. This morning was therefore a pleasant surprise, bright, clear, still.

We drove through the common land that stretches up high into the bleak Clee Hills and falls away down into the valley. This jaw-dropping landscape links our outpost with the bigger road, the terrain wild with gorse and fern, where farmstead owners graze their various beasts. Their creatures are hemmed into the 1000 acre wildlife reserve thanks to strategic cattle grids and farm hedging. I always drive slowly here, certainly no more than thirty, with an eye on the sides of the road where the live versions of roast dinners can suddenly appear.

The 7yo polices my speed too. He reads well for his age and last Spring he read a hand painted sign that commanded 'Slow DOWN! 10 lambs killed here this year.'

The light was soft at 7:30 this morning but a long way ahead I could still make out a nomadic herd of cows on the road, maybe six or eight mothers plus their woolly calves. Almost 400 yards away, (yes I still do yards, though I'm very, very young!) the closest cow, a brown and white, reflected well in my dipped headlights, though it's calf was more difficult to spot being jet black, he or she resembling a little Dexter.

Even from way back, I could see that the the Dexter's mother was leaning over the perimeter wall to a dwelling, happily eating any flowers that her long tongue could reach. The children thought this to be hilarious.

The rest of the herd made do with the grasslands or the hedgerows.

So peaceful here.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Dinosaur Cake... Raaaaahhhhhhh!

Shouldn't have asked, I thought as the 7yo pondered the question; 'What cake do you want for your Birthday Party?'

'I'd like a Dinosaur Cake.' He announced.


Well, in the end it was quite easy. I baked two standard chocolate cakes. Then, having checked the Internet and a kid's cookery book, made myself a template of a dinosaur.

Cut cake, smeared it with green butter icing (unsalted butter, icing sugar and green colour creamed together, slightly loosened with drops of lemon juice.) Then adorned with Toblerone and Revels and a [craft - non edible] eye.

To be honest the real success seemed to be the dinosaur's Toblerone scales... but hey ho, son was chuffed to bits.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

A Poem Salvador Dali would be proud of...

The 9yo wrote me a Love Poem...

We can be thankful for a few things in life; one's health, the love of a daughter and spellcheck...

Love Poems!
Lovers! are very kind
But lovers are pipel hou
love you
Oranges! are very sweet like
pipel. I lov oranges
Vioulet! is a coular. I love
vioulet it is very light
Eleffhunts! are fany, they have very 
long noses

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Bountiful Land...

Just now there was a knock at the window and I jumped. I had been engrossed in settling my chilli plants on a window sill, they are all more than 2ft tall and heavy with long Ferrari-red fruits. I hadn't heard our farmer neighbour park as he arrived, bearing gifts.

He was proudly delivering a bowl of creamy field mushrooms, just picked from a 6 acre, south facing slope opposite our land.

'The whole field is white with them,' he said.

So the 9yo and I are set for dinner, although the other two family members are not so keen. She and I will share the feast and I may make a garlic and mushroom tart for my book club guests tonight when we discuss Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt.

Fresh Picked Field Mushrooms

The rest of the garden also continues to inspire for dinner; the leeks are good and the celeriac a decent size, the parsnips obscene. Spinach continues to thrive.

Planning ahead, the broad beans are emerging from their seed trays and will go in the ground next week. The kale and other spring brassica are almost ready for planting out.

Broad Beans

In the greenhouse I'm ahead for spring colour and scent, my sweet peas bullied daily as I pinch out growing tips to ensure bushy plants for next year. I'll do the same with the Cosmos babies, a find (and a financial saving) as they'd all self-seeded in the flower beds. I decided to dig some of them up in order to try and protect a few plants from the worst of the weather. The Lupins are doing well too.

Sweet Pea


Fortunately the weather hasn't turned here yet, as the mushrooms will testify, so I've still got time to insulate my greenhouse this weekend. I'm determined to experiment this winter, to see how many seedlings survive out in the greenhouse and in hand-made cold frames, I need to see how they do without constant heat. Mind you, if temperatures dip dramatically I may use my paraffin heater, but at approximately £6 per 5 litres, this really isn't viable for very long periods.

I've managed to plant two long beds of 160 strawberry plants in the allotment in the field, these plants were runners from my original 12 plants that I received as a gift from our neighbours in 2009. Having planted these 160 plants I still had another 400 plants to rehouse in order to free up three of my seven raised beds. These runners had virtually taken over the walled garden.

I've potted up most of them in well rotted manure, thus ensuring another crop for next year. Being rather more portable, these pots can be dotted around the allotment or I might even sell some to friends and family.

Next season strawberries

This weekend in the allotment I spied a new red strawberry - extraordinary weather we're having for November.

Archie's chicks (Roosters centre stage?)


Archie's chicks are enormous and I still strongly suspect that 5 of the 8 are boys. Having experienced the financial disaster of the Poultry Auction when selling roosters, I am determined to lean how to humanely dispatch (polite word) and dress my own birds. After all, I regularly buy free range birds for the family to eat, at a cost of £8+.

Bearing in mind these birds roam or grounds, are fed on corn and quality pellets as well as selected scraps, I know they will be quality meat, so I'm afraid their days are numbered. I just cannot afford to keep them and, believe me, no one wants to take in additional roosters.

To that end, another farmer has promised to teach me how to to responsibly kill. It's not a decision I came to lightly, after all I know these birds personally, however, it is interesting to note that we, [and I mean all family members,] have only named one of Archie's chicks, that being the little white one; Moon. Maybe we are seeing them less as pets and more as egg producers or livestock.

Are we becoming more countrified I wonder?

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Fire and a Party.... improvisation.

Bonfire night (this past Saturday - the 5th) went with a bang as usual. For the third year running our pals from far and wide packed up their families, fireworks and fantastic desserts and wheedled their way to Shropshire and The Larches. We were expecting almost sixty guests, more than twenty of them staying the night.

It was a miracle I made it to the Saturday, for starters my head cold seemed to have turned into a brain tumor, so magnificent was my headache. I can only assume this was a combination of stress and sinus strain. It also wasn't great that, on the Friday, we seemed to be experiencing the worst weather for months, with a ton of rain creating flooded roads further down in the valley towards school.

The rain was also turning our driveway into a quagmire and I worried that the farmer's low loader would sink low in the field, as he endeavoured to push the huge bonfire into a compact shape. We build the bonfire over a year and therefore it is generally monumental, but we regularly disturb it to ensure no creatures consider it home. This final shake of the bonfire is invaluable to ensure no animals remain before we light it.

Apart from the weather, all seemed well; the house was cleaned, bedrooms made ready, drinks chilling, the only thing that niggled me is that my caterers - a couple I've employed for the past two years who run a mobile burger van serving local sausages, burgers and hot crispy chips, hadn't returned my last two calls. We had agreed the date almost a month ago and had discussed the menu several times since then but now I needed to clarify numbers, always difficult to judge till the final few days when guests finally confirm or decline the invitation. I also needed to ensure timings for feeding everyone before the firework display.

At 3pm I tried the mobile number yet again, just before I had to leave for school pick up.

The caterer answered and I sighed with relief.

'Gosh,' I said. 'You're going to give me a heart attack, I've been trying and trying to contact you.'

'Oh yes, sorry about that I meant to call you back. We can't do your party now as we're booked somewhere else. I forgot to look in the diary and we were already booked to do this big thing in Ludlow. Sorry, should have told you.'



Do you know what? It was fine. I phoned the local butcher Bowkett's of Tenbury and he made me 100 of the fattest and best tasting sausages ever.

On Saturday I awoke to bright sunshine which continued all through the weekend and there was not a murmur of a breeze.

We set up our barbecue, (previously packed away for the winter,) in the log shed and even employed Grandma's 1970's hostess trolley to keep the food warm.

We offered sausages in finger rolls and burgers in soft buns and our guests did us proud by bringing some truly stunning desserts (even though I'd specifically asked them to bring deserts in the invitation...... good lord, cardinal error!)

The children marauded in the dark, loving the wild freedom of our fields while the adults drank wine or sipped at hot cups of my home-made tomato soup, many did both. The fireworks were awesome - very professionally managed by Hubby. So all in all it was a great night, especially great to see old pals of course and local people who have become good friends.

We've cleaned up now - probably need to go and empty the cans and bottles tomorrow at the recycling bank and I definitely need to wash the floors, but other than that the house looks fine.

It was a super party again and a late'ish night but I think we'll have a year off next year. Catch our breath a bit and go to someone else's display..... look out Oxfordshire were coming to visit!!

Friday, 4 November 2011

Coming Home.... The Kodak Big App Challenge.

We have rather a long school run each day. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. The morning run is a real delight, we catch up on homework; spellings, times tables and we sing, (particularly requested is Cee Lo Green's Forget You, the clean version!)

On the way home it's a little more demur. Some days John Humphrys, Jim Naughtie, Evan Davis, Justin Webb or Sarah Montague accompany me home and I catch up on world events rather than my lyrics.

Other days I take the time to look out and see the seasons change.

The picture above was taken last October. It's the last stretch of open road before I'm home over the hill in the far distance. Sometimes there are cows grazing, crossing the road at minimal speed, sometimes there are sheep but always present are the tarty male pheasants and the little partridges with their pretty red eye makeup. It's a busy road therefore, but not with cars, so you need to take it easy and stick to 30mph.

I like this picture and the calm it brings me.

This is the picture I'd like to enter for the Kodak Big App Challenge. Hope you agree.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

There's a hole in my house....

...dear Liza, dear Liza... The new sash windows, made by hand by a local carpenter, are going in. Looking good so far..... and no rain... she said in hushed tones.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Low in Iron.... high on life..

Although I'm FULL of cold and my head feels like a brick, we went trick or treating last night. This is no mean feat when you live a fair way from your neighbours and there's no street lighting. The owls helped tremendously with the atmosphere as the sproglets, (one small witch and one small rat in a vampire cape!) and I (Mummy witch; complete with geisha-white face and mean red painted-on lips,) trudged along the bridle path holding our begging-bucket. With very little breeze and a balmy temperature of 12°, our pointy hats were undisturbed, cape unruffled.

We scored some good sweeties, a ton of hand-me-down books and a barely used box of Cluedo. Being that my two are just that bit older now, they were most impressed by the Cluedo and the thought of solving a murder.

We thought our tree-farm neighbours were out for the evening so we didn't call on them, fearing their guard dog might eat us. It turns out they were in, waiting for us with goody bags.... so, I'm delighted to announce that we will be continuing the dress-up and make up adventure again tonight.... sheeesh -it appears we're trapped in groundhog day with e-numbers. 

Walking back home we came across our cow farmer friend, his pickup parked outside our nearest neighbour.

'What you up to now?' He said chuckling. I thought it was obvious but sadly, having checked his cab, he was bereft of sweeties. I'm pretty sure he thinks I'm bonkers, last week I asked if he could deliver me a load of big cardboard tubes, the type the polythene wrapping comes on for hay bales.

'What you want those for?' He asked, incredulous that I wanted his rubbish.

'I'm going to grow long show-carrots in them,' said I.

His eyebrows have a personality of their own, they weren't convinced by this gardening technique but a few hours later my tubes arrived.  


This morning the boy turned 7. Henceforth my sproglets are to be named the 9yo and the 7yo rather than the 8yo and the 6yo..... obviously, Doh! Struggling with the complexity of Ninjago Lego at 6am Hubby tried valiantly to put together an ice dragon.... eventually he made a weak excuse about having to be at work on time..... a likely story.

I had forgotten to bake wee cupcakes for the boy to distribute at school, instead I sent him to school with 20 mini Haribo packets. (NB. Now I need to replenish Hubby's secret stash!)

With children delivered to school I was happy to meet my vitamin dealer in the school car park: My dealer is another school mummy, a woman convinced that I'm low in iron. (I agree with her.) She delivered me a packet of big bulk iron tablets and I obediently took one. This was the first random act of kindness today. I felt pretty good, in control and it was a lovely sunny day. I was just on my way home, ready to accept my shopping delivery, bake my Birthday boy a cake and generally clean the house, when I felt the car judder.

Parking in a little supermarket car park in Ludlow my fears were confirmed - a flat tyre. Grrrr. 

To cut a long story short I was saved by TNT in Ludlow. They came to me immediately, blew up my tyre and took me to the workshop. I managed to postpone my home shopping order - thanks to a lovely chap in Tesco Kidderminster. I contemplated cancelling the order completely when I was informed that two other tyres needed replacing too. To make matters worse this was 9:30am and the new tyres weren't due to arrive at the garage till 1:30pm. Arghhhhh! I had so much to do. I felt myself welling up, my bottom lip quivered and that lump appeared in my throat.....

Random Acts of kindness shouldn't be allowed, they usually occur when your at your most vulnerable and can leave you breathless with awe that nice people and good customer service still does exist. The boss of the garage, a huge older man, concerned I might flood the garage with my tears, gave me his car. The second random act of kindness for the day.

'We'll call you when everything's done.' He said as I left the premises in a massive Mitsubishi.

Finally home, the Tesco driver - alerted to my plight, had waited on the driveway for me. Surely this was the third random act of kindness..... So brilliant. I couldn't stop thanking him.


Utterly fleeced of money...... seriously...... I was forced back down the mountain to collect my car and return boss's car at 2:00pm...... 3 hours and 10 minutes before I could pick the sprogs up. Sigh. Thank god for libraries. I'm behind on my reading and had omitted to pack my book into my bag before leaving the house, so I enquired of the librarian,

'Do you have Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt?'

She checked. 'No sorry, it was missing at the last shelf check.'


I said OK in that sort of resigned-to-my-life sort of way. It was then that I remembered the book in my bag: The book the 9yo had been reading, a library book I was unable to renew recently because the library system didn't know I had checked out the book.....The 9yo had finished with it now so I was honest and returned it. The librarian was very grateful.

In the library I drifted around.... I read a few pages of a couple of new novels... didn't like them... perused the cooking and gardening section...but found nothing of interest. Then I drifted to adult fiction and thought I'd look for something to take my interest. Can you believe it? I found it; Mr Chartwell was there on the shelf, exactly where it was supposed to be! 

Seriously, do a good deed - get a goodness in return. It's Pay it Forward... I love it. Silver lining and all that shit.

Those iron tablets are definitely working.     

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Lou 1 - Sod's Law 0

Good day today, so far: Good weather, hot and blustery with rain all last night, (night rain is sooo convenient,) watering in my 300 or so strawberry plants.

Discovery that parent's evening is not tonight, is also wonderful news - must amend diary.

Also discovery that an evening social was postponed from this Wednesday, (OMG totally forgot that it WAS this Wednesday!!) to the Wednesday after half term, is wonderful news.

6yo's meltdown about getting 7 x 2 wrong in test may be unfounded according to teacher. Phew!

Daughter's school coat found - thank god for labels. BTW, super service from these guys

My Blackberry and Plum jam complimented (and several pots requested) by school mum.

8yo's Birthday pressie arrived by courier, (for Thursday,) henceforth she shall be named the 9yo! Yikes!

Lovely thank you from a friend.

Tesco arrived at 9:05 in a 9am - 11am slot.... wow! Shopping put away by 9:45am, wow-wee.

All the above was completed before 10am. Seriously, you may not be interested in my achievement today but I HAD TO WRITE IT ALL DOWN FOR POSTERITY, [indoor voice please] I'm sure it's unlikely to happen again!

Saturday, 15 October 2011

How to conduct oneself at a Poultry Auction....

Pre-Auction (Selling) Things to do...
  1. Identify birds for sale
  2. Segregate the blighters
  3. Find suitable box(es) for transportation
  4. Pack food and water for them....gin for you
  5. Wear nothing you care about
At Auction (Selling) Things to do...
  1. Get there stupidly early to bagsy an early lot/cage
  2. Beg everyone for help
  3. Take birds out of the box(es) and place into the selling cages without losing them...sheesh!
  4. Listen and act on all free advice offered, (if the veterans sense you are a virgin seller they will offer tons of advice) NB If the person looks like a complete numpty, consider the advice carefully...
  5. When your birds sell, don't cry, interview the new prospective parents or ask if you can visit.

This morning just after 6:30am I packed up the Bantam roosters and three of the girls, decided against the gin, and drove off into the sunrise towards Hereford.

It was a beautiful morning, cool not cold with not a whisper of a breeze, and I could hardly hear the pitiful cries of the chickens over the audio book, (Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass - brilliantly read by the author and actors.)

By the time I pulled into the livestock market, some twenty-five miles away from home, the sun was up and it was more like a summer morning than an autumn one. The market looked like a huge unfinished metal shed, unfinished because one side is open to the elements displaying the containment rails to keep cattle, pigs or sheep from escaping. It looks like an empty DIY or Wall-Mart superstore.

I wore old jeans, wellingtons and a baggy jumper together with my usual smile, the smile is invaluable for seeking out new friends in unfamiliar situations. While I unpacked my chickens, the transit van next to me in the car park was disgorging its colourful characters and their birds, (just for clarity by birds I mean birds, not street slang birds, though I strongly suspect these chaps were intimately acquainted with quite a few birds, if you know what I mean, nudge-nudge!)

By their voices I knew these chaps were Welsh and I would have described them as farmers, except that their earrings made me think they were more traders than farmers. As I got out of the car they toned down their banter, which had sounded very, very bawdy till they clocked me, and we all exchanged pleasantries about the weather, the fact that they'd driven from mid-Wales to come to the sale and the forthcoming rugby game on Saturday. (Cumoooonnnnn Wales!)

Their chief and ringleader was a stocky chap about my age, (... young, OK?!) He was twinkly-eyed and bar-room confident, a lovable rogue, - you know the type.

After the auction-porter and I had loaded my lots into three sales cages; 2 pairs comprising a cock and hen and a trio made of two cocks and one hen. The chief Welsh trader from the transit sidled up beside me to enquire about my chooks. Soon I had my very own personal advisor and he stood very close, whispering poultry secrets.

'You makin' a mistake there luv, you needs to make a trio, rather than leave that hen with the two cocks.' He said in his lovely Welsh accent. I, being blonde and tired, looked blank.

'I've made a trio,' I said, wondering if trio meant something different in Welsh and wishing I didn't have to discuss trios or cocks with a man I hardly knew.

'No luv, a trio's two hens and a cock, not two cocks and a hen!'


'I'll grab the cocks out and you can put the hen in with the pair if you like? You'll not make any money see, as the cocks'll cancel out the worth of the hen.'

Dear Lord why is everything so sodding complicated!

Anyhoo cocks grabbed (dear Lord!) and girls moved, all was happy in camp Archer. Bearing in mind that the sale didn't start for another 2 hours I decided not to stay chatting to my new best friend, as our vocab was worrying me, so instead I zoomed off to Asda, (big shop wow-wee) to get provisions for the mountain.

By ten, the metal shed was pretty full of cock-a-doodle-doos and lots of breeds of people. I wandered about, briefly on my own, observing the characters - a great place for the writing.

Soon I was joined by my buddy who chatted about chickens and horses and sheep until he enquired whether I had much land and livestock. I'm not sure it was a proposal of marriage, he sussing whether he and I could join poultry forces, but I found myself constantly mentioning my husband and the sprogs but not where we actually lived.

'Have you got raaabbits on the land?' He enquired kindly. I was glad we were moving away from the in-depth analysis of me and of the double entendre language he seemed to enjoy.

'God yes, loads. I can see them from my bedroom window every morning.' [Screech! Why did I mention the bedroom!!!]

'I'll do you a bit of ferretting up your way if you like, pop over like, [from mid-Wales!!!] bring me ferrets and the dogs for a bit of a session?' He said eyes a-twinkling.

I came over all Margo from The Good Life [clip below] after that...

'No thank you!' I said indignantly. 'My neighbour does all my ferreting!'  ... Oh! sob! He just grinned.

All in all it was an education. The money was appalling; the trio and pair fetched £11.50... I may have just covered the petrol... and the two cocks fetched a whopping .10p... purchased by my new best friend, a pity-purchase I fear but he did promise faithfully not to murder them.

Hey ho!

Friday, 14 October 2011

Death to bugs.... by the Human Buffet..

I cleaned the chicken coop today and made it all gorgeous for the girls. I do it weekly (not weakly) so as to ensure they have a nice comfy place to plop the eggs. To be honest I don't know why I bloody bother; the Bantams have completely slipped from my radar screen, preferring to hide their tinsey-winsey white eggs somewhere within the grounds. Drives me bonkers. They have been warned and the market looms.

As if the fact that chickens seem to do all of their poo in the coop at night wasn't unpleasant enough, today I had to deal with yet more revoltingness. Leaning into the little coop to scoop up the sawdust, I noticed a little mass of squirmy red stuff near the perches.

Intrigued, I leaned in even closer, resting my head on the wooden boards above the back door and YUCK upon yuck!.. I could see that there was a mass of tiny red mites on the wooden slats, presumably having a bacchanalian party to make yet more mites..

The hot, humid weather has obviously been perfect for them. I have used mite powder before, dusting all the chickens just in case, but to see the little parasitic blighters was horrid.

I pulled back my head and started examining every crevice. That's when I realised that I had rested my head on another village of blood suckers, there were squillions of them but the moving mass was no bigger than a penny piece.

Since then I have mega cleaned the coop, I have dusted chickens, I have showered and scrubbed my hair and yet I seem still, some 10 hours later, to be being used as a human buffet by creatures that look like walking grains of ground black pepper, (or red pepper if they've feasted. Shudder.) They are in my hair, down my back, in the arms of my sweater and as I sit here trying to concentrate I feel sure they are about to penetrate my sturdy smalls. I cannot tell you how defiled I feel.

All my dreams of being a vaguely competent farmer in years to come are being dashed by something that is like red sand with teeth. [scratch, scratch, itch itch, SQUASH! SQUASH!  ... oh look a blood streak! smile..]

If this is how it feels to be a chicken in a coop with mites then I really hope reincarnation is a myth.

Tomorrow I'm buying this stuff; it's a bomb for the coop.... at this rate I'll be sat in there when it goes off... naked....

....Oh my goodness I can't take anymore biting, I'm off to throw my clothes on the bonfire and then I'm washing again and again and again...

Bet you can't wait for the blogs posts when we get sheep..... have you heard of dagging or crutching?????

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Spiced Apple Jelly...

I feel a certain amount of guilt at this time of year. Although I've made tons of jam, tray-frozen fruits and peas and made winter soups from our vegetables, I find myself averting my eyes from the damson tree outside the front door, as it's still laden with fruit, even after we relieved it of kilos of its tubby blue offerings. I try to convince myself that the chickens will benefit from the glut, but still the guilt of wasting precious food from our land niggles me.

The apple trees similarly chastise me with their pointy fingered branches.

Thanks in part to the rugby, Hubby has peeled me bags and bags of massive cooking apples and these are now stashed in the freezer for winter crumbles or apple sauce. However there's only so many apple pies I can make, so I looked about for a new recipe to utilise some of the apples.

I found a recipe that really took my fancy in The DK Preserving Book by Lynda Brown, possibly the best preserving book ever! I've borrowed and borrowed this book from the library, moving it from my ticket then to the 8yo's then onto the 6yo's.... I'd be very grateful if DK would kindly donate me my own copy after this shameless plug!! (One can hope!!) I would buy my own copy normally but I've just taken out a mortgage to buy the 8yo new school shoes. Who'da thought plain black shoes could be so chronically expensive?.... All to do with moving into size 2.5 or some such nonsense.... Anyhoo, I digress.. Breathe.

I've slightly adapted the original recipe, adding lemon zest to the chilli flakes, although a "friend" has suggested this looks like spiders trapped in jelly! Nice! You may or may not decide to add the spiders.... but remember it is Halloween soon! My attempt turned out to be opaque while also being a deep orange, the colour of autumn sunshine. FYI, the actual picture in the recipe book is a soft watery gold.

This jelly is delicious with cheese or meats so I'm making some for Christmas presents.... but don't tell anyone!!



You will need: A muslin or jelly bag for straining and 3 small sterilised jars.
Keeps for 9 months.
  • 675g (1.5lb) sour cooking apples with skin on, roughly chopped
  • Approx 454g (1lb) granulated sugar per pint of juice added at stage II of the process
  • Juice (and zest if using) of 1 lemon
  • 1-2 tsp of dried chilli flakes
  1. Put chopped apples, including cores and pips into a preserving pan. Add 1.7 litres (3 pints) of cold water and bring to the boil. Simmer for 30-40 mins till the apples are stewed down. Mash to a pulp.
  2. Spoon the pulp into a muslin bag. I use a muslin cloth and tie with string hanging it from a strong hook over a clean blow.
  3. Leave to drip overnight. DO NOT SQUEEZE IF YOU WANT A CLEAR JELLY.
  4. The next day measure the clear juice, adding 454g (1lb) of sugar for every 600ml (1 pint) of juice. You should have approximately 1.7l/3 pints of juice.
  5. Pour the juice into a large clean pan with the sugar and lemon juice (but not the zest.) Bring to the boil, stirring till the sugar dissolves, then bring to a rolling boil and remove any scum from the surface.
  6. Continue to boil for 20-30 minutes or till the jelly reaches a setting point. This is crucial as you really need a good strong jelly. Remove pan from heat while you test for a set.
  7. Leave to cool for 10 minutes then stir in chilli flakes and zest. Ladle into warm sterilized jars, cover with wax discs and seal. Label when cool.
Refrigerate after opening.


Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Autumn Sowing....

Clematis Ville De Lyon

Several days ago I sat in the walled garden working on my novel, I was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, it was 82° and leaves kept falling on my manuscript. Considering that I live half way up a mountain in Shropshire UK and it is October, I was mildly confused.

Today Mother Nature has turned the dial to Autumn, it's blustery, cool enough for socks and a sweater. Lovely.

I've taken stock of the garden. We've accomplished such a lot this year; removing huge conifers and an unwanted hedge from the centre of the plot. We planted a new hedge and incorporated our orchard into the garden space. We've softened the pond area, laying turf into the water to both to hide the liner and to allow creatures safer access. Around the pond we planted nectar drenched flowers to encourage more wildlife.

At the bottom of Home Field the allotment has generated enough potatoes to last until late Spring and is now planted with leeks, spring cabbages, broad beans, onions and celeriac.

The walled garden still feeds us daily with spinach, dwarf french beans, runner beans, lettuce, parsnips, cucumbers and yet more celeriac. Here the onion sets are already sprouting.

Not wanting to rest up over the winter, I've been planting madly to try to steal a march on spring. Some of my sowings are a bit of an experiment!!! I've planted next year's sweet pea now (super early I know, but I'm pinching out the growth to see if I can make strong, bushy plants before it gets too cold.) At the moment the seedlings are in the green house. As I don't plan to heat the greenhouse till early spring, I may well bring them into the utility room, which is bright and cool, when the temperatures drop dramatically. I've sown Miss Wilmott, a vintage pink from 1901. A big blue and two types of old fashioned mixed. My garden should look and smell gorgeous next year. 

Sweet Pea Miss Wilmott

I've also sown sweet rocket, a tall perennial that can be considered invasive.... I prefer to refer to it as offering free cover to a large space.....

There's a ton of other seedlings and sowings in the greenhouse but this morning I noticed the Tutti Fruiti Lupins had broken the surface of their compost. With their garish colours they are aptly named.

This year the orchard is providing tons of huge cooking apples, probably due to the hard pruning we've administered over the past two winters. I've started making Spiced Apple Jelly from the harvest. These jars of bottled sunshine are delicious and are flecked with chilli flakes and lemon rind and would be a great pressie for Christmas. They are however quite high-maintenance to make. See next blog post for recipe.

If anyone out there has any other suggestions for Autumn sowing (particularly perennials) I'd be really pleased if you'd leave a comment.


Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Horrible Jobs...

Normally I blog in an upbeat tone, (I hope,) preferring to focus on success here at The Larches. Of course there are times Hubby and I throw a wobble, especially when we find that we haven't won the lottery and THAT bathroom ......

and THAT crumbling porch .....

will remain with us for the foreseeable future... breathe.... but on the whole we're chipper.

It is with this positive attitude that I tackled a job on Sunday morning I'd been putting off for almost two years.

The south facing walls of the the kitchen garden actually belong to the original cottage c. 1700. It's in a sorry state really but I use the last remaining full room as my potting shed and the 1st floor, albeit unstable, we use for light storage. The lottery win would really help to save this building!

When we had the house peeled of wisteria and Virginia creeper we decided to keep a toupee on the cottage..... it may be the only thing keeping the roof in place.

From what I can gather, over the past fifty years the cottage has been used for various purposes, but in the past decade the whole space seemed to become a general dumping area.

View from the driveway

View from the Walled Garden
Open the 'front door' to the cottage (rather grandiose term for a bit of a door with woodworm) and you are greeted by a chasm of darkness. Immediately facing you is a rugged ladder leading to the first floor, seemingly barring your path. Bearing in mind that this is the way the entire family gain access to the house, preferring to use the back door rather than the dilapidated porch and front door, it's a wonder no one's lost their lives.

Last year I tackled one side of the downstairs, taking load upon load of non combustibles to the dump some twenty five miles away. I tried to ignore the other half of the space, segregated by wooden boarding behind which lay a fifty year old mountain of coal lying on top of fifty year old coal dust.

This Sunday, after almost four hours I had sifted all the coal, storing it in borrowed boxes in the wood shed and wheeled many a barrow of black dust to the monumental bonfire in Home Field.

My hair was a greeny black colour and I'm sure my lungs were similarly shady. But, the job was done and I now have more room to sow and report all through winter in my water proof'ish shed. Bliss.

.... Next blog post: Plan and Plant - Autumn sowings for next year; veg and flowers.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

No one here but us Chickins!

I have finally evicted Archie and her brood of 8 from the walled garden. These chicks grew remarkably fast and the grass paths between the raised beds were being annihilated by the constant scratting. I had planned to let these chicks free range on the 1st of November but now, at approximately 5 weeks old, they are either the same size or bigger than the free range Bantams. Time for freedom (for me and for them.)

I locked them in the bungalow (the granny flat annex built by Hubby which attached to the main coop) last Sunday morning. The 8yo and I had a bit of fun as Hope, (the tiniest girl,) managed to escape, luckily some corn soon tempted her back to her prison. Sunday passed, then Sunday night and I kept the brood topped up with water and food. Normally I'd leave a new gang of hens locked up for three days to imprint on them their new home, but I figured Archie was an old hand at the routine so I trusted her to teach her brood about roaming and coming home to bed at night.

On Monday afternoon I let them out to roam. 

It's one of my greatest pleasures to give chickens their freedom. We've done it several times with ex-battery hens and it's lovely to see them blossom with good food and space to move. The chooks are fairly safe here at The Larches, there are no big roads and us humans feed them and ensure the coop is locked and electrified at night against predators. Touch wood, we've only lost one hen to a badger and that was before we put the electric fence up.

I gave the hens a treat on Monday - a little pot of cream cheese. One of Archie's babies loved it [check out the video. He's the one on the right with the tawny feathers. If you can't see the video in the email version of this post, click on the blue post title to be transported to the web version.] 

However, we now have 28 chickens and with approximately half of them in lay I have plenty of eggs for baking and sharing. Trouble is I have too many roosters; 4 bantams, Road Runner (our dominant rooster) and of Archies's chicks, I think 5 are boys!.... Too many.

It's not just that I object to feeding these lads when they donate no eggs and, thanks to a plea from the 8yo, we now have no plans to make Coq au Vin for Christmas..... I object to the fact that they are so flippin' noisy AND the Bantam boys constantly encourage the girls into my walled garden.... naughty.

But I must admit they are beautiful, with gorgeous feathers and plumed tails and hilarious personalities. The cock fights are interesting too.

But it's time to be realistic, soon I'm going to take them to the Poultry Market some 25 miles away, hopefully to trade them in for something else......

........ North American Turkeys anyone?......

The Archers at The Larches

Lou - Chicken whisperer....

Lou - Chicken whisperer....

Snowy and Moon

Snowy and Moon