A laidback mouse, and soulfood

Empty bottle of cordial

“An artist is an ordinary person who can take ordinary things and make them special.”  I came across this quote today.

Last Christmas my daughter bought several of her presents through ‘Not on Amazon’. We were all trying to buck the ubiquitousness of the big A. One gift was a bottle of Gangplank Cordials’ ginger and lime variety, (made in small batches by foraging folk who live on a narrowboat). Delicious, but all gone.

I caught a few minutes of Radio 4’s ‘Open Book’ this afternoon, (between stocking up with donkey and cat food and walking Jenny). The talk was about a children’s book – ‘Frederick‘ by Leo Lionni – about a non-teamplayer field mouse. Frederick refuses to join the other small rodents in stockpiling wheat, corn, nuts and straw for the winter. He spends his summer daydreaming, idling about, apparently not contributing to the greater good of the mouse community.

Frederick defends his apparent inactivity – saying that he, instead, is garnering the suns’ rays, the colours of flowers and plants… and words. His rationale? What he’s gathering will sustain the mice through the cold, drab and long winter days. And of course, that’s what happens.

On my return I downloaded the book – a deceptively simple apologia for non-material values, and for the importance of spiritual and cultural nourishment. Eric Carle, (yes the caterpillar chap), wrote that Frederick ‘is a poet from the tip of his nose to the end of his tail’ demonstrating ‘that a seemingly purposeless life is far from that.’

A friend told me that she needs a project now – painting or sewing or knitting. She needs to be creating something. The lockdown poetry anthology I have a poem in will be published this Spring. Writing poetry has ebbed and flowed in recent years, more ebbing than flowing if I’m honest. But a switch has been turned. Writing is once more an absolute necessity for me.

The first daffodil

The first daffodil

The first daffodils. One is flowering and one is almost. It seems extraordinary, as the snow has only gone in the last couple of days. Green bulb shoots are evident everywhere, popping up through mulched brown leaves and grass, but not a suggestion yet of a crocus or a snowdrop appearing.

And I posted a card – to the parents of a New Year’s Day new baby boy. My daughter-in-law has just come round to borrow my fairy cake tin for a home schooling maths lesson. My nephew has challenged the husband to Zoom chess at the weekend.

It’s getting dark and Jenny’s now curled up in her basket by the radiator. We all got muddy on our walk this afternoon and, once again I proved to myself, as I squelched and slid through mud and leaves, that I’m no mountain goat. Unlike the Capricornian husband.

Post  festive season viewing is very lean. We watched ‘Traces’ – ok but nothing special, gave up on ‘The Great’, about Catherine the Great, after two episodes – (disappointingly daft), and whiled away an hour or two with Tom Hanks in ‘Cast Away’. Somehow I missed that one the first time round. Mildly diverting but forgettable were the biopic ‘I am Woman’ about the life of Helen Reddy, about whom I knew absolutely zilch, and a silly 2010 crime caper with a good cast, including Bill Nighy and Emily Blunt – ‘Wild Target’.

What was more interesting than the two latter films was the google and Wikipedia fun afterwards, finding out more about Helen Reddy, and trawling through all the famous, and infamous, Blunts. Twenty years ago, a couple would have watched a film and all the ‘I wonders’ and ‘wasn’t that the guy who was in…’ would have remained just that. A few minutes of curiosity and random speculation with no probable satisfactory solution.

It’s the time of day when what-do-you-want-to-eat discussions happen and when I dread the turning on of TV or radio to hear the evening news – with the three constants – the pandemic/vaccine rollout/latest horrendous statistics, the next chapter in the unbelievable presidency election and election aftermath and the post-Brexit delays, glitches and hiccoughs. I  dread it all but find it compulsive.

A birthday. The temporary trimming of wings.

Five degrees today. The frost and ice have gone. As have blue skies. It’s been grey and damp, a light mizzle in the air. And now stillness has been replaced by wind moaning as it circles the farmhouse.

It’s my nephew’s birthday. Twenty four today. Because of the lockdown he’s not out celebrating with friends in Bristol. He’s not doing the real-time activities he loves. He’s at home with his parents in rural Buckinghamshire. We’ve just sung ‘Happy Birthday’, waved sparklers and watched him eat chocolate cake – virtually.

It was a snowy January night when I drove to my sister’s house to babysit his sister, so that his parents could go to the local hospital for his birth. There is a poem, (of course), about that drive and that night, but that’s for another day! For now, here’s another piece, a short poem inspired by the focus and determination of my nephew – Huw (for himself), William (for his grandfather).

Boy, playing.

At lunchtime, sausages untouched,
neither sitting nor standing, but
quivering on jack-knifed leg; front teeth,
quite new, clamped tight over lower lip,
(frowning like his granddad, his uncle,
before a penalty is taken),
faint humming stirs a straight light fringe.

And that small device, which beeps, has lights,
cannot be prised from nimble fingers
for a wash, for food or drink, for aught
except a clap of exultation,
brief table drumming of his success –

as with those skittering, deft digits,
he scales the heights, his best score yet.

Huw was always going places. Of course no-one is going anywhere this January. But horizons will extend, and freedom, fun and frolics will return one day soon.

Thaw and a theft

our new dog enjoying winter weather

Thaw and a theft.

It’s sllghtly warmer today, but there are still treacherous icy patches. Water to all the outside taps is  frozen. It’s just after five and feels like hunkering down time! Were it not for dry January, some homemade sloe gin would have my name on it right now. The outside animals – donkeys and our remaining two sheep – have been checked on; we’ve done the afternoon dog walk. It’s dark and I’ve just shut out the outside world by drawing curtains.

I’ve been nursing the woodburner into life but she’s currently unco-operative. Today, she’s a luxury, a nice-to-have evening extra. We had two days – two very cold days – with no woodchip, so no central heating or hot water. My son has now part-filled the hopper by tractor so the biomass boiler is fuelled and running once more.

The frost had thawed enough by lunchtime today for us to take the donkeys over to their usual field for a kick about. Since the New Year they’ve had a couple of days in just mooching and eating hay, and a couple of days of us popping them into the old sheep paddock for a couple of hours in the afternoons. Weather has certainly altered their routine over the last week. Except for the farrier, who made it to us mid-week for the seven-weekly pedicure. A rare but essential visitor.

Yesterday I baked – banana bread and an orange cake. I forget how far the new dog can reach when standing on hind legs. I forget how observant, how bright she is. In a five minute absence from the kitchen she hooked a slender front paw onto and through the cooling tray and helped herself to a third of the orange cake. No adverse effects this morning though.

We’ve had her for four months. Her outright terror has diminished but she still barks at people, is wary generally of humans. Dogs she loves. Walks she loves. When we’re out with her she’s less nervous if she sees a stranger with a dog. Whatever happened to her before we brought her home from the rescue centre has scarred her.

To us she’s affectionate and responsive…but we still have a long, long way to go and the outcome, (as are all outcomes now), is unknown and unknowable.

A scintilla of hope; a whisper of sadness

snowyJanuary20211

Another year. It’s January 7th . It’s been nearly four months since I last posted. Hope, expectation, disappointment, worry, frustration. Repeat. Repeat again. It seems we can cope with confinement, with a barrage of financial, personal and professional body-blows, with travelling blindfolded through a long, dismal tunnel, but coping strategies have now worn very thin. We do need to feed our capacity for optimism.

And we’re not all singing from the same hymn sheet any more. We’re negotiating the same choppy, troubled waters but in different ways and in different crafts. With less tolerance than before. Like many others, I’m pinning my fragile new 2021 shoots of hope on the vaccine rollout.

Now that the festive season has been and gone, (more ‘no’ than ‘ho’ this year), new novels and the jigsaw puzzle have given way to screen dependence again. Generally underwhelming, with no binge-worthy offerings based around chess or the monarchy. However, I did expect good things from the second series of ‘Staged’, (with Michael Sheen and David Tennant). None of those good things was forthcoming. And who would have thought that the word ‘f***’ would pop up quite so many times in one 15 minute episode – I stopped counting at 30 – or that the word ‘scintilla’ would be uttered twice (in the same episode)?

2020 ended with rare snowfall. Only a couple of centimetres, but it’s been icy, frosty and bitterly cold for a week. Today, the last remnants of polar frosty stuff gather in corners and cling to rooves. The donkeys stayed in as their paddock was crisp and white.

And the vet visited this afternoon. Blackberry, our eldest pet sheep, had reached the end. We’d been waiting for her to slip away since before Christmas. She clung on – arthritic, wavering on her pins, getting thinner, falling over and needing to be set upright again. Every morning she still greeted us, the tamest and most vocal sheep of my acquaintance. ‘Just a sheep’? Tonight, there’s a feeling of relief and inevitability with a little whisper of sadness.

Fall falls early, barn camping and the inspection of feet.

And now it’s September. We have been seizing the day or making the most of a flurry of staycation activity. A whole month has gone by. My blue notebook is filled with scribbles – such a long time since my writing was neat or even legible – but they’ve not made it to the blog. So I must apologise for my tardiness and try to catch up with extracts from my notes!

‘Almost the bank holiday. Almost the end of August. And, buffeted by the latest storm – Francis I think – it feels like Autumn is here already. Branches are laden, still very green but now weighed down by fruit and ripening nuts. The loss of a bough in high summer wind is a much more serious proposition than it would be in November or February. We drove up the lane earlier to get animal feed – donkey nuts were still unavailable due to a problem with deliveries – and there were sticks, twigs and small branches everywhere, several getting caught under the car.’

Keats was so right! I do love Autumn – mist in the mornings, cooler evenings, scents of ripeness on the air and underfoot. Crispness to come. But we did not welcome that blustery intruder in late August.

Warmth, humidity and wetness didn’t do any favours for two of the outdoor pets – one sheep and one donkey. There were weeks of checking feet and applying, amidst strong protests, the purple spray. Of the two donkeys, Treacle seems susceptible to anything going – infections, allergies, thrush… Now both of them have begun to look scruffy again, losing their glossy summer coats and acquiring the unkempt between- seasons look.

As ever, I was concerned about our guests, sharing their disappointment about ‘unseasonal’ weather. In the midst of the worst rain two families of campers abandoned ship, or rather canvas, and slept on the floor of the barn.

Unlocking seemed to be progressing everywhere with news of new cases, new ‘spikes’ outside the UK being consigned to the footnotes of journalism. We read articles with graphs showing, beyond the possibility of contradiction, that cases of C19 were climbing again.

‘It’s our fault, our own stupidity,’ one of the barn campers said as he left. ‘We are the virus’.

Making hay, thunderclaps and uncertainty

It has been a period of incessant activity. Juliet’s birthday, Lammastide and another glorious full moon came and went. Barely remarked on.

Weather of all sorts has visited us. Of course there have been blue skies and staggeringly beautiful sunsets. But also days of brain-fogging humidity. Clammy, restless nights. Thunder and lightning. Hot heavy showers. Brief power cuts when the storms were close. For a minute or so technology was extinguished. I was mid-conversation with a prospective guest when this happened two days ago. He rang back. ‘I think there’s a problem with my phone,’ he said. I didn’t correct him.

Bad weather is a problem in this holiday business. You feel – or I do anyway – personally responsible – when it rains or is unseasonably cold. Many guests expect perfect, sun-filled days. Some are in lush, green West Wales because their foreign holiday is not feasible or sensible this year. They’ve been locked in for months and their more exotic plans are just not going to happen this summer. And some visitors are here because they know us, have been here before and understand the vagaries of the UK climate.

I am aware of the emotional investment in a short break to the Welsh countryside. I want, in some small way, for a stay on our little farm to replenish these visitors after months of confinement. And I want them to appreciate what an amazing part of the UK we live in… Most do, I think.

Making longterm plans is impossible now. But today we’re making hay, with thunderclaps in the distance and the odd scary shower. This hay will feed our pampered pets for the winter. We have no illusions about being ‘real’ farmers.

It was stickiness in the extreme earlier. Even Miss Baxter looked worn out, overwhelmed by the heat, albeit in a languid feline kind of way. Two buzzards and a red kite circled above the farmyard this afternoon. The newly turned grass was obviously the draw, but, to us, it seemed as if they were waiting for one of us to drop.

Hay is being baled, despite late afternoon thunderclaps and fat globules of rain. The husband rang down earlier. ‘Get help,’ he said. ‘There’s more than we thought.’

It’ll be a late supper tonight.

Losing things and finding Jane again

Jane Austen is a regular preoccupation. Though not a complete Janiac, quotes and phrases from her novels do pop into my head quite regularly. And soothingly.

It is a truth probably universally acknowledged that a new sock and its mate will soon be parted. I recently received a thank you email from my brother-in-law for a pair of merino walking socks which we sent as a birthday offering. Unexciting, predictable but extremely postable. And he walks a lot, even more so since lockdown. My sister made the sock suggestion and we knew that merino wool would be appreciated. Unlike the husband, my brother-in-law’s also the kind of guy who doesn’t lose things.

With me, there’s a constant loss of pens, not socks. All guests arriving on the farm, whether to stay or to eat, have C-19 contact forms to fill in. Just before a Saturday pizza afternoon/evening,( the first at which guests were going to be able to eat their pizzas outside if they wanted to), the pen shortage had escalated into a mini-crisis. Orla lent me 10 of her store of writing implements, fully believing that she would be able to reclaim them. I’m afraid to say that only 7 remained at the end of the evening.

Early in lockdown I bought three or four packs of pens and stashed them in a top drawer in the farm office. I naively commented to my daughter – ‘that’ll keep us nicely stocked up for the summer’. All have gone without a trace.

A small delivery of wine arrived about two weeks ago (the first since February). With it came a rather smart pen bearing the logo of the local West Wales wine business. I claimed the pen as mine – not for sharing, not for folks to borrow. Of course it’s vanished too.

The last three weeks have been hard, exhausting in fact. Once the donks are in bed, the sheep are fed and we have eaten I have no energy left, especially mental energy. Talking to friends, blogging, reading – all are temporarily on hold. The pendulum has swung too far the other way, but it is as must be for now.

I return to Jane Austen…the other evening, I collapsed happily in front of the concoction that is ‘Becoming Jane’. I’d seen it before, probably twice. But it had a watchable cast and sufficient wit to sustain me until bedtime.

Presence, absence and processing

Life is different, but the ‘old normal’ shows no sign of returning yet. A steady flow of visitors has been arriving, staying and departing since last Tuesday. 12 days now. We’re not currently offering camping, B&B or the big house.

There’s more space between bookings. Which is just as well – we are a smaller team and the whole changeover between guests takes longer. There are more processes and safeguards in place. And we’re slowly getting used to the new system.

Two of the smalls just asked to feed the fish and we all noticed that the eco pond cleaner has stopped working. Once again, the water is green and gloomy. Also, someone has donated two small yellow plastic bath ducks to the pond. It’s a little mystery.

There’s been lots of outside activity. A newer yard tipi has been put up. An ugly old farmyard wall is now white. After a couple of weeks of lifting, carrying, climbing and lifting again the husband has hurt his back. Earlier, he took a couple of anti-inflammatory tablets and went for a brief siesta.

While he was resting, a neighbour came to tell me about ragwort – evil poisonous stuff – which has popped up uninvited in one of the fields we use for the donkeys. I immediately went and pulled out what I could. But there was still some left, deep-rooted and resistant to my feeble tugging. Reinforcements arrived in the form of a young male volunteer and the loan of a very conveniently located small fork. The husband emerged just as we’d finished and has now removed all the ragwort we’ve collected. All’s safe in the donkey field for now.

Earlier today I was reading that it’s the first anniversary of Mr Johnson as Prime Minister. The headline, I think, was – ‘Twelve months at the helm of government.’ I’m not sure that’s strictly accurate .

Ragwort – a poisonous weed.

Byebye tipi and feeding the sheep

Today the chaps have been taking down one of the tipi frames in the yard. We’re going to leave one frame there and cover it – when time permits. But the other canvas is beyond repair. It’s over eight years old now so has lasted well!

The frame was made on the farm with Welsh poles we brought back to de-bark here. The canvas was 50% flax and 50% organic canvas. At that time, (the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012), we couldn’t find a British giant tipi maker. All giant tipis seemed to be imports. Which is why we chose the self-build route.

Taking down the second skeleton is part of the tidying-up the farmyard project. We plan to offer socially distanced eating and drinking there soon – maybe twice a week. There’s painting to do and the creation of a mural based on local children’s designs.

However ready you are for guests, it’s the last details which eat up time. When you’re not on mains – for gas, water or sewage – there’s bound to be an occasional glitch too. It’s part of the way of life here and keeps us from complacency.

But our first visitors have arrived – three units were occupied from yesterday and a fourth today. It’s all short breaks. Harder work now though, with the additional hoops to jump through.

The weather has been a bit disappointing for our first two days. Yesterday the forecast worsened as the day moved on. I wanted sun. I wanted our little smallholding to look at its best. But the barometer had other ideas.

The husband, and the guy who lives with us on the farm, have been working long and many days. We’ve been on a mission to get ready for our partial re-opening. Even the in-theory-office-bound one has been busy physically. According to the gadget on my wrist I walked over 16,000 steps yesterday. No walk, just visitor-preparation activity. For the moment at least, the rather more relaxed way of life of recent months is submerged.

Apparently there was a success on the plumbing front yesterday. It’s a complex system here, a black art understood only by the husband. It needs documenting for the ‘Clapham omnibus’ scenario…though he assures anyone who asks that there are ‘schematics’. Would anyone else understand them? I rest my case.

Early yesterday evening I was mucking out the donks and two guests toddled past – a child of about 18 months and his grandfather. I gave them a bucket of sheep treats. Sheep have very soft mouths and nibble gently when hand-fed. It reminds me of one of the really good aspects of doing what we do. And for now, that, and a G&T is enough reward for one evening.

One year ago

A friend sent me a picture of the boys making hay a year ago. There was no pandemic, no furlough and there was a sunny window of opportunity between weddings. So we made hay. While the sun shone. Although it looks overcast and brooding in the photo.

Our first guests arrive tomorrow. It’s been like a March pre-season flurry of busyness, only it’s mid-July. Some of the activity has been the usual stuff – bringing yurts and their contents out of their winter hibernation, putting them up, re-waterproofing them and getting them ready them for occupation. But there have been processes to document, forms to fill in. A lot of paperwork. Added to this has been the return to part-time work of a few of the team, and introducing them to the way things have to be done now. The new normal which is anything but normal. It seems sad that we have to pare down what we provide in accommodation, prune it right back. No frills this season.

There’s been productive busyness down the lane. My daughter’s hive was overpopulated. Just before the weekend, her beekeeping mentor visited and helped her to set up a second hive.

There are 44 big round wrapped bales waiting to be taken away. This strange year, we decided to sell hay off the field, rather than deal with it ourselves. Three fields were cut and I think they’ve made haylage.

I’m a romantic. I confess it freely. I love the scent of fresh hay and the look of the small rectangular bales stacked high in a barn. The job has been done anyway. These bales will be gone soon.

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.