Pizza, fleeces, bees and a tree

I mentioned gluten-free pizza. Finding the perfect flour for a gluten-free pizza dough has taken a long time. But the company we buy our pizza flour from also produces a gluten-free flour. It is, albeit eye-wateringly expensive, amazing.

The youngest and largest sheep, Gwilym, has been getting bossier. When sheep nut treats arrive there’s great excitement, followed by a little tussle with Gwyneth. Gwilym wants the lion’s share. However, he’s usually very respectful of the old lady, Blackberry. Not so today and yesterday. Despite his size and greed, he’s more cautious than the girls, less interested in being petted. Though he will now eat from my hand.

We have the beginnings of a plan for their fleeces.  I’m not a spinner or knitter, weaver or felter, so insulation is the answer. We’re going to wash the fleeces and then incorporate them into the insulation of the upcycled hot water tank for the new showers.

Today, the men worked between and during downpours. It was cats and dogs. Stair rods. When the donkeys finally made it out to their field, I told them to be sensible, take cover in their purpose-built shelter or hide under the trees. I didn’t want to find them standing in the rain, at the gate, looking mournful and accusing. Did they listen?

The bus roof repair is completed. Two yurts have been put up and waterproofed. One more to go, as we will only have three bookable this season. We going to have to leave out some of the frills and the non-essentials this year to minimise the risk of infection.

Cleaning materials, PPE and essential pieces of kit arrive almost daily. I’m trying to find the greenest way of complying with all current advice and recommendations. A package which arrived today contained a note saying my order had funded the planting of a tree.

We love trees. Bees too. My daughter, a novice beekeeper, has a surfeit. Her mentor is currently advising her on the setting up of a second hive. There’s also a new swarm which arrived a couple of weeks ago and seems to have settled next door. They must like it here. Long may this continue.

Soundtracks and a guilty secret

Ennio Morricone, conductor, composer and trumpet-player, died yesterday. Amongst a long career of achievements he wrote the scores to over 400 films and TV productions. Westerns were a particularly successful genre for him. Many of his film scores are classics, (including those he wrote for Sergio Leone and Giuseppe Tornatore). They’ve been absorbed into our popular culture for over 60 years.

The husband is a man of endless resourcefulness, a combination of optimism and problem-solving ability. Recently, I have found myself in a virtual world of ebullient, noisy plumbers. Weekday lunches often have a soundtrack of YouTube tutorials, jolly chaps teaching all sorts of skills not normally on my radar.

We both had one very disturbed night over the weekend. He was fretting over some technical issue and had to get up to draw his way out of the glitch. He then stayed up, wide-awake, to watch a film. Probably involving guns and all things macho. Upstairs, I kept hearing a single plaintive ‘mew’, one note of anguished cat. It lacked Miss Baxter’s range, her ascending scale and volume. The sound occurred every ten minutes or so. I searched the house for an injured animal. Turns out it was a branch, scraping in the wind against a bedroom window, which made those feline-imitating calls of distress.

My current guilty pleasure is wandering through animal rescue websites. I had to stop myself from clicking ‘reserve me’ next to the image and description of a delinquent, anti-social goat. One bossy sheep, Gwilym, is quite enough.

I wrote a haiku or three yesterday…

Define spaniel?
Committed to living life
with limitless joy.

Your brother could have
had webbed feet. Instead, you ran
joyful – till you stopped.

Just an afterthought.
The cute pup chosen: how could
we leave you behind?

A hard act to follow? For now, I need to keep resisting the lure of unfriendly goats.

Let them eat cake

So, the five-mile-limit will be dropped from Monday in Wales. Since this started I’ve only done one trip beyond this limit, to a supermarket in Cardigan. I haven’t really felt deprived, except of course, for seeing the family I don’t live with, friends beyond the ‘zone’, the occasional evening out and…the sea. There is a plan to visit the sea one evening, possibly Wednesday, after work.

Confusing opinions abound in the media – many brickbats, some fear, few plaudits. My concern is that the impetus to restart the economy is pushing aside any environmental gains we may have made, amongst the losses of the last few months. I hope we don’t just slide back to the way things were.

I also hope that the leaders who have actually done some good, (or even are just wading through this as best they can, but in an honest, compassionate way), are rewarded for their efforts. Not the  bamboozlers and the blaggards.

Yesterday, pubs opened in England and it was Independence Day in the US. After seeing some film footage of non-distanced socialising in London, I decided not to depress myself further. I watched one of the Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’ – this time with Tamsin Greig – reminding myself both of her acting talent and her beautifully expressive eyes. A tour-de-force, but not cheerful viewing either.

It was take-out pizza Saturday yesterday. The son-in-law has been experimenting with gluten-free dough. He’s absolutely nailed it now! After responding to some accommodation enquiries – it was, once more, small central here. Activities comprised visiting the horses, feeding the rest of the menagerie, cleaning out and bringing home the donkeys. There was also Hunt the Teddy, a puzzle, a couple of storybooks, watching Jungle Book, (the more recent version), and making, icing and eating cupcakes.

All being well, we’ll have our first visitors here from 14th July. So, between now and the two hundred and thirty first anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille, our little smallholding will be a hive of activity. It won’t just be the bees. But we’ll fuel ourselves with pizza… and cake.

A postman and two specialists

‘It’s worse than Christmas,’ said the postie. Several building/DIY related parcels arrived for the husband and a gift for me. It was a lovely pack of butterfly playing cards. I predict a heated game of snap very soon.

Today, there was huge excitement. Hot water now comes out of the cute copper taps in the loo block. This hot water is stored in a cylinder which used to live upstairs in the farmhouse (until it sprung tiny leaks). A local guy repaired the tank and it’s now being heated up by the second-hand solar panels on the barn roof (first lockdown project). Still a few tweaks necessary, but we’re almost there.

Despite changeable weather, the bees are very active. Lavender is popular as ever but there’s been a lot of to-and-froing near the last windblown roses on the yard pergola. More by chance than design, these co-exist amiably with jasmine and clematis. Today we have a few new clematis flowers, not a full second flush, but I’m optimistic.

Pink roses on the wall

Yesterday a friend passed on good news about her pet’s clean bill of health. At its recent annual booster and check-up, her dog’s heart was behaving oddly. With great haste, pet and human made their way to a local centre of excellence for doggie tickers. There, every test known to veterinary cardiologists, and pet insurers, was carried out. With hindsight, my friend thinks that her pet’s heart irregularities were probably due to panic. Under current C-19 precautions, owner and pet separate at the door of the surgery. The owner waits in the carpark, unable to hold a paw or make encouraging noises…

This tale brought back a time when we too lived in the Home Counties. Rosie, the dog we had, injured her eye badly. Almost immediately, we found ourselves in the consulting rooms of a pet eye specialist. He was a magnificent specimen, with a manner which soothed all canines and their owners, (particularly the female of the species). He also had a helicopter parked jauntily in the clinic garden.

When our patient was convalescing, we went to stay in a farm cottage, one of a pair, near Cardigan. Our next-door neighbours had a black Labrador and, for the three or four days of the mini-break, humans and dogs socialised. One early evening, perhaps over a cup of tea or glass of wine, the couple told us about their recent pet experiences. There was much praise for the vet who had cured their dog. ‘And you’d never guess what,’ the lady said, ‘but on the lawn of the clinic there was a helicopter. And it was his.’   

Art, artists and a competition

The headlines have been proclaiming it’s back to school in Wales. This is an over-statement. The eldest small went back to school yesterday morning for three hours. Six children took up the invitation to return. They have two more Monday mornings in this very different school setting and then, it’s the end of term.

In Orla’s absence, her younger sister watched the husband working through a small box of things-to-be-fixed. Mostly bits of jewellery. I’ve always loved jewellery, generally vintage or handmade by a craftsperson. Often with little financial value. But, to my eyes, pretty. Some things were not repairable or had missing hooks or clasps. My talented sister silversmiths. I know that’s a tongue-twister but am not sure if it’s a verb. Amazingly, a little package arrived from Buckinghamshire this morning with some spare parts. Thank you, sis!

Jewellery components from my sister

 Years ago, a local painter was running workshops in our Old Dairy. Presumably she had more than enough fish at home as she started populating our little tank-cum-trough, (aka pond 1) with fish. She did this gradually and by stealth. When we had five new aquatic residents, I mentioned this strange occurrence to her. Her face gave her away. Five became four a while back. We’ve noticed that one of the survivors doesn’t seem to be thriving. While we became custodians of goldfish by accident, not design, I don’t like to see any creature ail on my watch.

An entry just popped into the letterbox. We’ve been running an art competition for children here to draw or paint something from the last three months of lockdown. The idea is to use elements from their pictures to create a mural. This would then decorate a rather ugly wall in the farmyard.

The dull, the drab and the dreary has seemed dominant for the last few days. Any bright flower emerging is cause for celebration!

The hole is plugged. Glass now exists where it was formerly absent. It’s less draughty. However, when asked if the job was finished, his response was slightly shifty. ‘More or less,’ he said, ‘but don’t open the window yet.’

While sweeping up shavings and splinters of wood and other evidence of the recent activity, I came across clouds of soft fine dark hair. This was from Sunday afternoon, a socially distanced visit by a chocolate lab called Millie. Her humans came too.

Defences breached and fields of flowers

There is a hole in the conservatory. One of the windows broke last night. It’s been a mostly grey day today. The temperature has dropped and the chill has been palpable. The timing hasn’t been brilliant.

Last time anything like this happened it was three houses back and what feels like a lifetime ago. We were living in, and extending, a modern house. For once, we’d employed a builder. Turned out he was a rogue, who disappeared, leaving his sub-contractors out of pocket and us with a building site, and no windows in the front of the house. The husband was elsewhere, possibly in the Middle East. The weather wasn’t good and I had three quite young children. Friends rallied and a posse of other husbands arrived to board up the windows, to protect us from ingress by either weather, uninvited visitors or both. The current problem is minor by comparison and should be fixed tomorrow.

My niece has lost and found a job in the last couple of months. Her first day went well today. The wind was fresh and the donkeys were fast and frisky this morning, relishing their freedom. We played poohsticks on a bridge in the village. With a small, naturally, not with the donkeys.

A friend was talking about how much more closely we look since lockdown, how much more we notice. I’ve seen this especially with the children and have included an image of a burnet moth, feasting on nectar in our tipi meadow. We’re cutting two fields this summer. We have the gear to cut and turn but not to bale, so a local farmer is going to cut and make round bales – either for silage or haylage – from one field. As for the other one, he’ll probably cut the grass and take it away in a trailer to be used as cattle bedding.

What we amateurs relish for its prettiness, and for the pleasure it gives to us, is not necessarily a plus for a professional. The farmer picked a bunch of oxeye daisies to take home. ‘Cows don’t like flowers,’ he said.

Chocolate cake and nude trampolining

Miss Baxter climbed on my keyboard yesterday afternoon. I pushed her off and she fell asleep on my mouse mat, nudging the mouse and shedding fine pale hairs with every exhaled breath. I worked around her, relishing her warmth and physical presence inches from my typing fingers. Poor tired puss.

But the amorality and perfidy of cats knocked me sideways again early evening. The boys were still on the roof of the double decker bus, trying to finish the job before rain set in. Hopefully wearing masks and goggles and being careful: the husband has had one or two accidents. I tend to cross digits and look away. I was making an unexciting risotto and chatting on the phone when Miss Baxter came in, dragging something heavy. She darted under a pine cupboard but I’d clocked her. Half a rabbit. The hind quarters of a rabbit which she’d planned to sneak past me for later enjoyment. I was not amused.

Take-out Saturday again, which means looking after two smalls while their mum and dad cook and serve pizzas from lunchtime till mid-evening. This morning, there were flowers to organise to send to the widow of a couple married here not that long ago. Strange and sad that all the optimism, all the joy of that wedding day, had led so quickly to here.

Then there was the socially distanced trip to the village shop-cum-post-office returning stuff, posting cards for an assortment of occasions. But there were three real-time, brief conversations in the queue with neighbours and acquaintances, including one with two dogs which were waiting patiently, tied up outside like trusty steeds outside a western saloon. That sparked the inevitable exchange about the loss of our two. Would we get another dog? It seemed such an odd question.

Delivering post next door before lunch, I was greeted by a trio of little girls bouncing on the trampoline and the three-year-old boy sitting, being bounced.

‘We’re naked,’ they shrieked. They were. ‘But it’s raining,’ I said.

‘It’s hot rain,’ one of them said.

And then the youngest piped up – ‘I’m not naked .’ And he wasn’t.

Activities this afternoon included tracing, drawing, colouring, the sheep and donkey routines, making a chocolate and raspberry cake – mostly orchestrated by the husband, while I acted as chief washer and clearer up to all of them, picking wild cherries, making jam and replying to accommodation enquiries for post July 13th. This is the date tourism unlocking is planned to start in Wales. A friend told me yesterday that there are now twelve empty shops in our little market town, Newcastle Emlyn. The decline has been gradual, but it’s accelerated over the last few months. Can it be reversed? I’d like to hope so.

Past Glastonbury highlights on TV are my background music as I write this. It’s been a day of cloud and sunshine, wind and rain. Of course, it was hot rain.

Lost, lavender and another birthday

George the cat seemed confused. Outside the pizza wagon, on the conservatory windowsill, in the yard, up in the vegetable garden. He’s been spending time here for the last few days now, but then, yesterday especially, it was as if he’d forgotten where home was. And he seemed distressed about it.

In the heat of Wednesday and Thursday who could blame him for losing the plot a little? For two days the sheep barely moved till mid-afternoon. A couple of times I had to check that we still had three of them. They were so utterly still. May was, without doubt, a record-breaker, followed by a few weeks of more mixed, more normal Summer days. Then came Wednesday and Thursday. Scorching and humid. Brain foggingly, ankle swellingly humid. The kind of heat when it’s impossible to feel fragrant for long.

The barometer is not entirely responsible for my recent sense of being overwhelmed, under-achieved and exhausted. I’ve found the images of the British beach madness depressing too.

We had thunder and lightning last night; and rain, just enough to clear the air. We watched Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’  – just the one monologue with the brilliant Sarah Lancashire. Excellently acted but bleak. And Radio 4 was right about the appalling knitwear. Have always found Bennett challenging. He’s very talented and has such a great ear for speech, but it’s quite a dark, narrow furrow he ploughs.

On what would have been the beginning of the Glasto weekend, it’s also my elder son’s birthday. Have been round for tea and, inevitably, cake – this time a Hugh F-W carrot cake which my daughter-in-law and two smalls baked bright-and-early this morning. My son took the day off and he woke to smells of baking.

I’ve never been to Glastonbury, (as in the festival). I love the abbey though. It was the place we visited the day I discovered I was pregnant (with today’s birthday boy). I think the scale of the festival would put me off now – smaller festivals, yes, but not something that massive.

The lavender is finally out and spectacular as it always is. I brushed past it earlier. Then, on their way home, the two youngest brought me flowers from the cutting section of one of the polytunnels. And they fed the fish – a pinch each.

A happiness expert spoke on the radio yesterday. ‘Happiness,’ she said, ‘is not having what you want…but wanting what you have.’ And, despite all the conflicting emotions, I do.

Flowers delivered by the youngest two

A dragonfly

All four smalls were here yesterday morning; the mother of two of them was doing university work, but the parents of the other two had gone to see a funeral cortege and to watch the funeral remotely through zoom. Deaths are still occurring for other non C-19 reasons. This was a tragic road accident which has left children fatherless. Technology broke down nine minutes into the service.

It felt more like a blustery March day than late June. We all went for a walk before the weather broke – grey clouds were looming. First stop – the horses, who are currently number one attraction for the children. Despite their size, they are much less skittish and unpredictable than the donkeys. And then we walked the fields – a route not taken in nearly two weeks, as the recently deceased spaniel was too frail to walk it in his last few days.

In that fortnight we’ve had ideal growing conditions for brambles. The only way to get through in places was bearing sticks. The smalls enjoyed this. Creatures abounded – birds, butterflies, ladybirds (that eternally entertaining spot-counting exercise), assorted little bugs and beetles and the most extraordinarily-sized dragonfly, which kept us company for a while. When we googled later, it looked like we’d seen a golden-ringed dragonfly.

Technology here is finally improving after almost a week of at first patchy and then no mobile coverage. Fortunately, we have an office landline and a second internet connection through a different provider, so we weren’t totally cut off. But it was extremely frustrating while it lasted. My work computer has yet to be moved back to the farm office from the kitchen table.

There are other concerns, irritations and difficulties right now – a lot to do with communications from government. Announcing changes without having thought through the detail. Basic stuff really. Why should this surprise me?

As often happens, I found myself delving further into dragonfly territory. I started with Tennyson’s little poem, (barely clocked before), and then moved on to dragonfly eating habits. A dragonfly has a prodigious appetite, consuming its own weight in insects in 30 minutes. It’s carnivorous, and sometimes cannibalistic. Its wings typically beat 30 times per second, compared to an average bee speed of 300 beats per second. Despite lack of speed, the dragonfly is the strongest flyer in the insect world – its strength enabling it to hover even in strong headwinds. A thought to hold onto for a moment.

Fathers’ Day, a damp squib and an emergency cat

Several of us slept badly on Saturday night – maybe it was the loudness of the rain or the shortness of the night. Several of us felt quite tired and a bit flat on Sunday morning. The paper made for dismal reading. Brains proved inadequate for both crossword and sudokus.

Then, on the way to put the donks out, I rescued a rather beautiful butterfly from one of the barns and we collected a handful of courgettes and small squashes from a polytunnel.

Towards midday, between heavy rain showers, there were visits and presents – three fathers together in the conservatory – the husband, the son-in-law and my elder son. Silverback gorilla, (aka the husband), received chocolate, homemade cards, a painted ‘You Rock’ stone, a bottle of homemade elderflower cordial and a jar of homemade lime pickle. We drank tea, coffee and squash, sampled the elderflower gift and ate cake. My daughter made a lemon drizzle cake with raspberries. Orla baked cupcakes for the festivities, entirely unaided.

These past three months have been punctuated by small celebrations on the farm – Easter, an anniversary, a birthday, VE Day and then yesterday, Fathers’ Day. A whole season has passed. The internet was full of suggestions for make-the-solstice-special-at-home ideas. No-one here was especially inspired. The solstice came and went.

Dependent on the next First Minister bulletin, and of course the ‘R’ number, it looks like we will be  opening guest accommodation from 13th July – a reduced number of yurts, no shared facilities, no camping – but some business. Over the weekend we were updating prices and availability on our website. Plans for the remainder of Summer 2020 are still fluid and we’re waiting to receive details about the rules, regulations and protocols. It doesn’t quite feel real yet.

Soon we may be able to see other family members and good friends living beyond the current permitted area. That’s a definite end-of-tunnel light.

A few of my friends, for various reasons, have been much less lucky than I have and have spent the last three months more-or-less alone. One has an allotment to keep her busy. One has a beloved small dog. A third is in real need of an emergency cat. We all need something living – if not human company, then something which grows. Or better still, something which breathes and responds to us. I wish I could dispense, where required, an emergency cat or two.

from the polytunnel on Fathers’ Day

Terrible lizards, bluebirds and a painting in the attic

Two of the smalls were around this morning, while their mother snatched a couple of hours’ freedom for studying. We were scraping the barrel with the games still unplayed. But Downfall and Connect 4 whiled away a happy hour, while big globs of gloopy, sticky rain landed on the glass above and around us. Despite protests, when a couple of jigsaw puzzles were unearthed, we got stuck in and particularly enjoyed the dinosaur one.

I tried to explain who Dame Vera Lynn was to one of the children. The term ‘forces sweetheart’ was far too archaic to feature. The small person claimed never to have heard the song ‘We’ll meet again’. I’m sure it was playing on a loop at our VE Day picnic.

Whatever your position on the political scale, however you regard the Second World War, there was surely something rather splendid – heroic, no-nonsense, lacking in personal vanity – about the dame? Having all your own marbles, being able to hold a tune and reaching 103 is pretty good too. I wondered if people would still be listening to those iconic forties’ anthems 50 years from now?

And the Streetcat Bob died a few days ago. Aged ‘at least 14’. He must have been, as his transformational relationship with his recovering addict/Big Issue seller human dated from 2007. By all accounts, Bob was a remarkable marmalade feline. I saw the film and blubbed throughout. I might rename our ginger cat ‘Vera Roberta’ for the weekend.

Miss Baxter brought in a critter while we were having a TV supper and watching Professor Brian Cox on astronomy. The part I saw started with dinosaur footprints. The husband was following the whole thing. I drifted off, deeply impressed by the spareness of the commentary, the flattened yet emotive vowel sounds of the boyman scientist in his black teeshirt and walking trousers. You know the sort of thing.

There may well be a really scary painting in the Professor’s attic. There’s probably no longer a small mouse under the sofa in the conservatory. It would be good to predict with confidence those mythical bluebirds appearing sometime again soon.

The donkeys have a visitor

The farrier has been. We cancelled the last visit because it was too early into lockdown. But, by this week, it had become a necessity. As with sheep shearers, you cannot know an exact arrival time. Even if the farrier is a regular visitor, (so with no chance of getting lost), there are the unknowns about his previous calls. His day had started at 5.30 a.m. and we were fourth on his list.

I was ready early. We’d run out of both carrots and apples but there was no shortage of donkey nuts. The farrier was of course delayed, arriving at 10.15 rather than the estimated 9.30. In anticipation, I had put on both donks’ head collars. However, since this is generally a precursor to leading them out, they smelt a rat. Or quite simply realised that something was afoot.

They are, for all their bickering, inseparable. The larger donkey is Top Donk – first to be led in and out of the stable, expecting also that we will approach her first with a head collar and a feed bucket. She is first in the queue for a pedicure also. We have tried to mix it up occasionally, to give the other smaller donk the option of being first. But the natural order is one they are comfortable with. And it always prevails.

Top Donk was just about co-operative with the farrier, compliant provided that a non-stop supply of food was available as bribery. Her companion is less food-driven and far more intelligent. She had plenty of time to view the proceedings and to decide no-thank-you-very-much-and-if-it’s-all-the-same-to-you-I’d-rather-not. Second Donk is more than capable of refusing point-blank to fit in with human schedules. If the opportunity had presented itself for her to hoof it, she would have done. One very strong small donkey did have her toenails trimmed eventually but she made her displeasure obvious.

When the farrier left, the floor of the stable was sprinkled with hoof parings – grubby potato peelings on the outside with a touch of silvery grey iridescence on the inside.

There are limited distractions for children right now, so the whole proceedings were watched in rapt silence by the four smalls. All at a safe distance from the rear end of feisty Second Donk.

Ascot without the crowds

“This Year” Simone’s Royal Ascot ITV poem

I was asked to write a poem for the opening of this year’s Royal Ascot. Poems commissioned for TV are strange hybrids. You write them to a brief. Time, invariably brevity, is of the essence. And it’s an odd experience hearing someone else voice your work. Having said all this, it was an honour to be asked again.

Furlough in the fairy kingdom

In the three months or so of containment here, there has been much hair, and some teeth, activity. The third little girl now has a neat bob, courtesy of the skills of my daughter-in-law. Despite the Welsh accent, she somehow looks very French. 

The guy who lives on the farm with us, (and is helping the husband in the loo block project), has a painful broken tooth. He’s waiting for a call-back to discuss when he’ll be able to have a socially distanced dental appointment to sort out the problem. The six-year-old with a new haircut has lost two teeth in lockdown. The going rate, I’m told, is £2 for the first one and £1 for each subsequent loss.

I was becoming rather concerned. For three nights the smalls reported that there was a tooth fairy no-show. Was there a late furlough amongst the community of fairy folk? Were they working at reduced capacity and thus taking longer to respond to new under-pillow-packages? Was each sprite overstretched, having to fly over a much wider territory?

Or even, was the lack of entertainment and diversions for children of a wobbly tooth vintage, causing excessive wiggling, a swifter shedding of milk teeth and a greater workload for the already stretched miniature winged creatures? These possibilities and more popped into my head.

Finally, on the fourth night, and without apology, explanation or sicknote, the West Wales designated tooth fairy put in an appearance. Everyday life was visited by magic. All, once more, was well.

Elderflowers – one day at a time

In the afternoon, my daughter popped in to borrow scissors and to check we were ok with her collecting elderflower heads for cordial. There are still plenty left for berries, but higher up, less accessible. We’d saved Welsh apple juice bottles from the bar – months and months ago when the bar was open. I had thoughts of making elderflower liqueur when I woke up yesterday – but listlessness took over.

It was the second morning of waking up in a spaniel-free, dog-free house. Inconsiderate of our need for sleep at night, the cat had brought in one after another mouse to consume at her leisure under the bed. First thing, I’d had to slither underneath to scoop up five piles of small rodent innards. As soon as we’d vacated, post tea and muesli, she fell asleep, replete, on our bed.

For the second consecutive day, Miss Baxter absented herself from the conservatory – on Saturday, probably to avoid a noisy invasion of small people, while two of their parents were making pizzas. Then, on Sunday, her absence was doubtless due to the previous night’s strenuous antics and maybe also she was avoiding an embarrassing display of human sentiment. We were looking at spaniel photos and videos on the PC. We hadn’t realized there were so many. Lovely memories. But Miss Baxter does not like fuss.

Late afternoon, I tried to pull myself out of the low mood to collect some elderflower heads for my own use. A small bored person appeared, looking for distraction. She helped to strip the flowers from their tiny stalks. Somewhere between two and four weeks from now, we will see how drinkable this liqueur is!

The small person stayed to feed the sheep and help get the stable donkey-ready. She’d tired of the other project on offer in the yard– painting a new house for the growing brood of chicks.

In the evening I felt too exhausted for anything other than submitting to i-player. Our kitchen/living-room felt curiously empty. But it felt good to have done something.

Flight and the jynx bird

Finding somewhere which feels like home has a lot to do with luck. This little farm has been our home for thirteen years now, the longest we’ve lived anywhere. Finding it was a rather odd process, and the ‘it’ we found wasn’t necessarily the ‘it’ we thought we’d find, or were looking for. But there were good omens on the day we found it – a hare, and then later, in early evening, dolphins.

In a way I envied the two of you,
the box lid farmyard prettiness, it all
unmarred by serial improvements
ripping it apart.

I saw the pristine canvas, past lives shed.
You arrived, cabin-bags-only, freshly
severed from your partners, your stories
scattered from the Bridge.

You were sold the dream of the new start, bought
your farm, while we turned up trailing baggage,
failing parents, ailing child, itching scabs,
partly mended souls.

We stumbled over tyre mountains, decades
of buried rubble, brambles which burgeoned,
a wealth of unconnected gutters,
mud, flood, persistent rain.

Last five years and you’ll stay forever!  Like
it was an ordeal or trial. That’s what
he said, the deal struck, some hay bought, lobbed
in the back of his truck –

as if weightless. City folk. I prickled.
He shrugged and left. Like we were strange, foolish,
like it was hard. That seen-it-all-before look
in our ramshackle yard.

As if he knew about winter, and the fact
of all we’d had before at the turn of tap,
the flick of switch. We learned to live with
unpredictability…

Yet the Jynx bird picked you, curdled the milk,
turned the hens off laying, drained the well to dust.
In that husk of a home the cracks widened:
you started to hope

for a new chance, another flight. But here,
us, despite all soothsayers, we put down
roots. This place, of all places, has hooked
us in to stay.

Grief and a lesson

We’ve been living here since 2007. The animals we’ve shared this space with have been, and still are, only pets. We’ve lost two cats, rescued siblings we brought with us – first Cooper and then Chaplin. Both are buried under the little walnut tree which is not thriving. We’ve lost two sheep – English Dave, saved from the pot in Buckinghamshire, and the young lamb, Gwilym 1, who died at the hands of a cocky locum vet. A sad waste.

And now both the spaniels. Our two English Springer Spaniels were brothers, bought from the next little farm up the lane in late May 2006. This was the year before we moved here permanently. The surviving one, Dylan, died on Friday, ten weeks and a day after we lost his brother. If he’d had a death certificate I believe ‘died of a broken heart’ would have been a contributory factor.

In the human world many worse things have happened over the last five or six months. Thousands and thousands have been bereaved and have suffered hugely. Globally it has been a grim year and there is no quick fix to the situation the UK is now in. I get all that, and obviously it is affecting us too.

But this morning we are still in the early stages of processing the loss of our furry companions, the legendary duo, who, for the last fourteen years, played such a key part in the experience of all who lived here or visited.

The lesson I’ve learnt? Do not acquire two pups from the same litter. The chances are that their lives will come to an end at around the same time.  And that is heart-breaking.

The boys

Being in a heightened state of readiness, or not

The in-box is full of directions, instructions, imperatives. What happened to ‘please’ or ‘have you considered?’ They’re all at it – websites, forums, agencies, the bigboy channel managers, the free and not-so-free consultants. Stand out. Get ahead. Catch your competitors napping. Hit the ground running. Make sure you’re Covid-ready.

The problem is that it’s difficult to prepare for the unknown. More of it. Here, in Wales especially, we don’t know what we’re going to be allowed to do, how much of it, with what provisos and restrictions, and when. In tourism and the hospitality industry, the future is still very fuzzy. So it’s becoming beyond frustrating to be harangued continually. What actions are we taking? What announcements are we going to make on our websites and social media? What reassurances can we give our future guests and customers that we are primed and ready to go?

Apart from anything else, these exhortations to us, as business owners, suggest that there’s a huge team of cleaning and maintenance staff here in hazmat suits, raring for the end-of-lockdown whistle to blow. And there isn’t. Our little team has been furloughed. We won’t be calling anyone in until we have the relevant information from the government, and we can look at it, understand the implications and make a plan. Until then, we’re not making guesses or empty promises.

Perhaps I’m not alone in feeling bullied. I’ve always had rather a glass-half-full role in every situation I’ve found myself in – a kind of blend of Heidi and Pippi Longstocking. Today, I’ve let tiredness and grief overwhelm me. But I will be more than ready when it’s time.

Full moons, strawberries and a man with a passion

The full moon was last Friday, 5th June. It’s known as Rose Moon, Hot Moon or, more commonly, Strawberry Moon. It roughly coincides with the start of the strawberry picking season. Ours, growing inside a polytunnel, are just beginning. I checked on them earlier and only snaffled one. Which was pretty restrained I thought.

July’s full moon will be as a Thunder Moon, or Full Buck Moon. But let’s not wish the month away. It’s furlough payroll time again. Another fortnight has passed. There is a little more freedom, but not much. Wales is closed to visitors. We don’t know when business can resume, and in what form. So much we’re waiting to find out.

Recently I was sent some information about a distant cousin, whose existence I was totally unaware of. Theodore Ballantyne Blathwayt was born in England but worked in Cape Town and died in Johannesburg in 1934. It was his splendid name which drew me in to read and find out more.

He was the discoverer of three comets – c/1926 B1, C/1927 A1 and a third whose name I haven’t been able to establish yet. For each new discovery he was awarded a Donohoe Comet Medal and he was elected as a member of the British Astronomical Society in 1929. I came across articles he’d written where his enthusiasm and individuality was palpable.

He spent many nights ‘sweeping’ for comets. He writes that he made his finds using a four inch refractor and an eight inch reflecting telescope. I have no idea whether or not this would still be the kit of choice for a modern comet hunter.

Earth, whisky and water

A month ago, just as we were all remembering VE Day, I was sent a wartime photo by Lisa, a cousin, of her grandfather. Derek was a fabulous man – a people person, fond of children and easy in his manner with everyone. This poem was loosely inspired by him…

At three a.m. wakefulness can seem a judgement.
In darkness, with owlhoots and wild, nameless
animal cries for company; am back at my uncle’s funeral
and before – whisky poured, he turned to ask his wife
of forty-four years what’s your poison,

turned back, dropped crumpled to the floor.
The paramedic, a family friend, blubbed plump tears,
said it’s a good death, a good way to go,
that he’d be much missed, a glass-half-full bloke,

whose face swims before me, misty, detail
coarsened, then falls back. So on, treading water,
to where I’ve buried scraps from his funeral. I peel
back the feeling, words said, readings, voices,

Jim Reeves somehow fitting. How they closed
the rainwashed pewter roads in that little town,
chapel filled, they filled the porch, trampled sodden grass
outside to hear his sending off broadcast, crackling out.

They’d come to pay or show respect, the size
of the hole he’d leave, its shape and depth
measurable in that place he’d never left,
would never leave. Had never seen the need.