Archive for June, 2009

Oxford cont…

Back from a tourist extravaganza.  Visited two colleges this morning on the walking tour – Exeter and Oriel colleges.  Both suitably impressive.  Our guide was an exuberant and dramatic ex-pat Lebanese man who liked to charm everyone he ran into on the street.  Amusing.

Well, I have seen quite a bit-the pub where the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and other notables hung out as students, the pubs where CS Lewis and Tolkein discussed high matters of literature, philosophy, and religion.  And much more./  I spent the afternoon wandering through the Oxford University Botanical gardens, which were relaxing and a quiet respite from the hordes of tourists.  This town is remarkable to walk through just to hear how many different languagues are being spoken by visitors and students from all corners of the world. 

A few final words though, about the farm that I didn’t get to write before.  We had a few funny days toward the end of my stay, where Tess, the young cow, went into heat and bellowed constantly while making advances on the horse.  It was impossible to ignore the bellowing but hilarious to see this little randy cow affectionately sniffing the horse and licking her and then occasionally really putting the moves on…need I say more?

In other livestock news, we had a look at the bees on my last workday and discovered a mystery of missing larvae which Fran called the Bee Inspector about.  Mystery yet unsolved….

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Hello!  Writing now from Oxford. 

I was very sad to leave the farm.  Fran and Kevin and everyone there are so wonderful, and it is just such a beautiful place. 

However, I am now in Oxford for the rest of my journeym, soaking up the intellectual inspiration and all the beautiful architecture.  It really is an amazing city – overwhelming in all its grand possibility.  The many colleges are a maze – I’m never quite sure where one starts and one ends.  There are 39 in all.  I planan to be really touristy today and take the guided tour of the city – just to get really acquainted with it all.  Yesterday, I wandered around and found a poster for a concert of Baroque music that evening in the chapel of New College.  After a half pint of ale and several wanders around the streets, I finally found the entrance to the college and followed some other people into the courtyard and through some mazes of buildings and into the magnificent church, where we listened to a wonderful concert of Bach, Purcell, Handel, and Scarlatti.  So beautiful  Well, computer time is running out.  More later!

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The past few days have been so lovely.  On Sunday, Fran and Kevin were going to Ludlow to see a friend’s gallery opening, so we all went with them and explored Ludlow for the day.  Ludlow is a market town in Shropshire, the next county over from Wales in England.  Ludlow was filled with old timber frame buildings and other interesting archtecture.  The church was itself very impressive, and while we were there, they happened to be celebrating an anniversery or something.  As part of the celebration, they were ringing the bells, which, I discovered, had been restored just this year.  Some of you know of my research on bell ringing in England, so I was very pleased to hear some rather masterful ringing.  At first, when I heard the bells, I thought it must have been an automated carilon or something, because there were so many tones being played very quickly.  But based on the patterns, it sounded like it must have been real bell ringing.  It turns out the bell tower has a set of 12 bells, and the ringers must have been very well practiced.  Another little research project waiting for the right moment.

After we left Ludlow, we went for a drive through Shropshire, which is where Fran grew up, where she and Kevin met, and generally one of her favorite places.  I can see why.  We drove across some pretty farmland and woodland and then started upwards toward the Long Mynd, or Mountain.  It is small for a mountain, but still very impressive, rising from the rolling landscape and joining other ridges.  Driving over the top, we saw a rolling moor covered with heather, and of course, a few grazing sheep.  Coming down the other side of the Mynd, we had a stunning view of the patchwork valley of fields and hedges and winding lanes.  And soon, we were winding through those mazes of lanes in a just magical kind of countryside.  It felt really dreamy…maybe because it was the longest day of summer.  We stopped at a lovely town called Bishop’s Castle for a pint at one of Kevin’s favorite pubs, a local brewery called the Tunn Inn, and then grabbed some fish and chips before heading home. 

Since then, it has been sunny and almost really summery here.  Yesterday, we dug out a little pond for the new ducks and rerouted some water from another pond to flood the area and recreate the former duckpond that had dried up. 

I spent therest of the morning coaxing the young cow Tess from a field at one end of the property, down a hill, across a stream, up a track, through the yard, and into a new field with the other cow, Clara.  It was very challenging.  Basically, I carried a bucket of feed and fed her little handfulls to keep her following me.  Karl and Kanako walked behind and encouraged her on.  She bolted back down the hill twice before we got her to come the whole way.  It is so interesting how cows behave a react to you.  You have to be really encouraging and patient and even empathetic to some degree – think like the cow – in order to create a good working relationship.  It’s all about body language and tone a voice.  Fran says her cows have always generally reacted better to women than to men, which is in itself interesting.   There is definately something very visceral about working with animals – a different part of your brain at work.

Today was an absolutely perfect summer day.  Last night, the light faded into a soft rose gold on the horizon, and this morning, the air was so clear and bright, everything seemed fresh and clear.  I woke up much earlier than usual and just enjoyed walking around in the sun.  We made some more elderflower wine in the morning, helped with lunch for some visitors, and I spent the afternoon experimenting on some fleeces we saved from shearing.  Several fleeces were very matted on the inside, so we thought it might be worthwhile to try and felt them further to see if we can make them into skinless sheepskin rugs.  So I’ve been washing and felting in the barnyard. 

Tonight I am going to sit out and see if I can spot a badger.  Badger watching seems to be a well loved activity among wildlife-loving Brits.  They are a protected animal, and aparently very interesting.  I’ll let you know if I see one!

Well, ta ta for now!

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I finally figured out how to connect my photos via flikr – click on the photos to the left of the page to view them all!

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Hello again!

Sorry I’ve been so long since writing.  We’ve been very busy.  I may just let my pictures speak for themselves here.  First, there are pictures of the meadows I described in my last post.  Fran took us out to see the different meadows, and it was really interesting to see the differences in the flora between fields.

Next, we had a day at Powys Castle last Saturday -Fran dropped us off there to wander through the beautiful gardens while she ran some errands nearby, and then we dropped through the town of Montgomery to see that castle ruin as well.

Monday, Kanako and I tramped all around the property searching for elder trees in order to make elderflower wine.  We found a few, but most were not in bloom yet.  We got enough flowers to make two gallons of wine, though.

Tuesday, we sheared the sheep!  A neighbor farmer came over and did the shearing, and we helped with wrastling the sheep and folding fleeces.  it was quite a day.  The fleeces aren’t worth anything, as they are brown.  For a white fleece, you might get 25 pence!  Can you believe it!  so little, especially for a region that made its medieval wealth on the wool trade.  Synthetic fibers have taken over, I guess.  It was  a warm day, so I imagine the sheep were quite happy to be out of their hot fleeces.

Wednesday, we drove to Hereford for the Chicken Auction.  Fran was wanting some more ducks and hens, as they have been low on eggs recently.  So we got there around 9am, looked over the birds, and made notes on the ones they wanted to buy.  Then the auction started, and it was rather exciting as the bidding went on.  Fran said the prices were much higher than a year ago, but we came away with six Cardall?  hens, three Marins, four Indian Runner ducks, a pair of Khaki Campbell ducks, and four ducklings of unknown breed.  Plus, a broody white Sussux hen with 11 chicks.  It was really interesting.

Today, we repaired some of the chicken and duck runs and walked some of the sheep over to their other property a mile away.  We met another herd of sheep coming the opposite way on the road!  luckily, they were able to back up and let us pass.  Very funny, though.

Well, that’s the update for now.  Ta ta!

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hedges and meadows

So, it has been a frigid few days here – cold and wet.  I’ve been living in my thick wool sweater, the one that I almost didn’t pack.  But today, we finally got some warmth and sun in the afternoon.

Yesterday, we worked part of the day in the new potato patch at the top of the field.  The soil is quite poor, so we’ve been getting wheelbarrows full of muck from the barn and transporting it up to the new garden.  The potatoes should help break in the soil.  We hilled up the potatoes to encourage more root growth and thus more potatoes.

Today, we went over to Fran and Kevin’s other patch of property, called the Waun (pronounced Whyun), which means meadow or moor.  The others worked on repairing fencing, and I took the clippers to one of the hedges, which was more like a row of trees.  This year, they will “lay” that hedge, meaning they will cut into major upright branches and bend them sideways, in order to create a the hedge, which is like a living fence.

Hedges are really fascinating things.  They are full of all different types of trees and shrubs – hawthorn, willow, beech, blackthorn, oak…and they host so many wild species.  I’ve been reading a fascinating book called The River Cottage Cookbook by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.  It is basically a manual on how to manage what the British would call a smallholding, or a very small farm, in order to produce your own food.  He has sections on raising beef, sheep, pork, and chickens.  But the really interesting chapter is called “Hedgerow” which discusses all manner of wild plants and animals that live in the “wilder” secitions of the farm – and the hedges are kind of like a small managed woodland.  These wild game include, rabbit, hare, squirrel, pheasant, and wood pigeons. 

It is interesting to think of how the hedge, which is sort of what one thinks of in the quintessential English countryside landscape, adds a very distinct level of agricultural management to the farm.  Managing hedges can be like managing a mini-woodland, and they would have provided wood for fuel.  In addition, they provide habitat for all these birds and animals, which, though they aren’t raised like stock, can provide an interesting addition to the diet.  Just the other night, we had pheasant for dinner.  Though it wasn’t caught here, Fran bought it in town – I gather they are shot locally and quite cheap.  And Karl, one of the other wwoofers, is going to have a go at some of the rabbits and squirrels soon.  So perhaps rabbit will be on the menu!

While many hedges were pulled out in the middle of the last century to make bigger fields, there are now significant grants from the government to replant and maintain hedges.  Fascinating part of life here!

Tomorrow, Fran will take us out to see how the hay meadows are doing.  They are trying to revive the wildflowers in their fields.  Also for the past century, farmers have been plowing up their fields and re-seeding them with about four kinds of grasses and putting large amounts of fertilizer on the fields to maintain those grasses in order to support large populations of grazing sheep.  However, wildflowers and other plants can’t compete with those grasses.  Fran and Kevin have left their fields without fertilizer for several years and are taking off hay crops every year to reduce to soil fertility.  With reduced fertility, wildflowers can actually compete with the seeded grasses again. 

So when Fran came back from the field today, she was very excited about the diversity of the plants growing this year!  She can’t wait to show us.  And all those flowers seem to have encouraged lots of bees and butterflies. 

Biodiversity in action.

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Toe trimming

Toe trimming

Enjoy these!

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We’ve finally had more Welsh type weather today: cloudy, unpredictable, and somewhat chilly.  I am very glad I packed the sweaters and my waterproof shoes.  I’ve been working on the front garden for the past few days – weeding, planting new things, more weeding.  Today, I helped Fran with the sheep.  She was trimming their feet, innoculating the lambs, and worming those that showed signs of worms (ie those with particularly wet, green, mucky poo stuck to their rear ends.  Fran did the toe trimming, which is quite a tiring job, cause you have to grab the sheep, flip it onto its bum, and hold it steady while you use a small knife to trim off long and floppy bits of hoof that might cause the sheep problems.  Then we were sorting out the mothers and lambs from the non-breeding sheep to put them into several different fields.  We’ll sheer them in the next two weeks or so.  Sheep are rather gross creatures…they’re really dirty, and they have poo all over their bums and feet.  And they’re pretty dumb.  I didn’t trim any feet, but I had to help hold a few squirmy ones, catch some lambs, administer the worming medication.  As dirty and dumb as they are, they still are rather cute, especially the little lambs.  And they do have very beautiful fleeces, at least the parts that aren’t mucky.  Fran has Jacob sheep, which are brown and white spotted, with four horns, and a few dark brown Shetland sheep, one of which was bottle fed as a lamb and is particularly people-friendly.  Maybe sheep will grow on me someday.

I’ve been asking all sorts of questions about the agricultral environment here.  I had a vague sense from my visits before, but Fran has told me that one of the great things about this area – one of the things they like about it – is that it is all small family farms.  No large corporate enterprises.  Largley because its rather marginal land, so it’s not terribally profitable.  But Fran was saying, that even if no one makes any money here, at least they all know their farms and land really well and really love it.  However, most of the farmers left are older men, in their 60s, and most of their children don’t want to go into farming – they’ve moved on to city jobs and more comfortable lives.  So one wonders what will happen as this generation retires and fades away.  Who will take over?  Fran doesn’t really know.  Right now, everyone holds onto their land, and so their is rarely any property that comes up for sale.  So if this generation dies, and their families don’t take it, Fran wonders if a new type of farmer will come in, who might try to capitalize on the prospects of countryside tourism, rather than just straight farming.  Or who knows?

These questions intrigue me greatly – and others as well.  One wonders how the countryside will adapt and who will want to live in it?

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on the farm

I write from Old Chapel Farm!!!  I got here on Saturday evening from Abergaveny.  I stopped in Abergavenny to have a look at where my family came from.  It was a pretty little market town in the hills of the Brecon Beacons.  I’ve heard more people speaking Welsh than I expected, which is really interesting.  I decided to leave Abergavenny the next day, as I knew if I waited until Sunday there would be no bus services, making it nearly impossible for me to get to the farm.  As it was, I took three buses and travelled for five hours before I finally got to Llanidloes, where Fran picked me up.  It is a lovely way to see the countryside, travelling by local bus, but also very very slow. 

The farm is absolutely beautiful.  It’s been sunny and gorgeous ever since I’ve been here, and it is so peaceful.  There is so much going on at the farm – so many projects – I don’t know how Fran and Kevin keep up with it all.  There are two other volunteers here at the moment – Kanako from Japan and Carl from London.  Both are very sweet.  Carl is a techie seems to have some sort of business doing internet/blackberry stuff.  But’s he’s just got divorced and has decided to do something completely different with his life by spending the next year wwoofing and learning about farming.  He’s SO enthusiastic and you can tell it is a real life-changing thing for him.  Kanako was a teacher in Japan but quit her job and decided to come see England and Europe. 

The past few days have been busy with many different chores – working in the garden, innoculating sheep, and setting up a yurt.  I find myself exhausted at the end of the day, but it is nice to sit down with a book in the garden or take a walk.  I’ve been so enjoying reading for pleasure – something I haven’t done much in a long time. 

More soon!


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