Country Life and the Day Job: Finding Balance

This is a more personal post than my usual.  After my post last week, I was asked to say something about how I manage my work life alongside my life in the country.  So far I’ve shied away from talking too much about myself, partly from a fear of giving too much away, and partly because I haven’t wanted to bore you!  But, since I’ve actually been asked to talk about me, well … you asked for it so here goes!

If you’ve read my other posts you might have gathered that I’m an academic.  To be precise, I’m a psychology lecturer.  No, I can’t read your mind, no, I’m not analysing you, and no, I can’t offer advice on your issues!  I’m not that kind of psychologist.  I work full-time and it’s pretty full-on a lot of the time.  Lectures don’t just materialize out of thin air, ready to be delivered; I only wish they did!  Preparing a lecture can involve weeks of research, reading, writing, and putting slides together.  Related seminars also need to be put together, and this often means having to put together activities designed to engage the students and to consolidate and build on what’s been covered in the lectures.  It’s a lot of work to get to the point where we’re delivering lectures but our face-to-face teaching time is just the tip of the iceberg so far as workload is concerned.  I’d say 70% of my time is spent on admin.  Emails, meetings, and increasing layers of administrative red-tape can drive you crazy.  Marking is incredibly time-consuming and stressful.  We have just two weeks to get all our marking done once it comes in, before it goes off for moderation.  This fast turnaround means we’re marking in the evenings and at weekends.  On top of all this, it takes me the best part of an hour to get to uni by car.  There’s no other way for me to get there in that time frame.  I have to leave at 7am or wait til 8.40am if I want to miss the traffic.  And I absolutely loathe driving in the dark which makes winter particularly difficult.

The question which was put to me last week, then, about how I manage to balance this with my life in the country was pretty apt.  I’ll be honest here – it’s difficult, and at times I think I must be mad to even try.  But actually, I’d be mad if I didn’t do it.  It’s the allotment, the chickens, dogs, and sense of community (not to mention Mr P) that keep me relatively sane.  So how do I do it?  Well I wish I could say it was all down to some amazing organization on my part, but I’d be lying, I’m afraid.  Basically, I just squidge things in where I can.  I’ll try to give you some examples.

OK, so in the morning I roll out of bed, and without bothering to take off my night things, I just tuck them into my walking trousers, mooch downstairs and, pushing my feet into wellies, I head to the chickens to let them out of their coop, feed them, and give them fresh water.  Luckily, they’re handily located on a bit of land just behind the house – I can see them clearly from my sitting room and bedroom windows, so this doesn’t take more than about ten minutes.  Except in winter when the outside tap’s frozen … Anyway, then it’s off to work after a quick breakfast.  

In the evenings, the chickens (aka ‘the girls’) go into their coop as soon as it starts to get dark and they need shutting up then to keep them safe from the fox.  The rest of the evening is mine so depending on the time of year I might be reading about allotments, planning the allotment, sowing seeds for the allotment … you get the picture!  Now that the lighter nights are on their way, I can get up to the allotment after work for an hour or two before the girls need putting to bed, which works really well.  On Tuesdays I have the quilting group for a couple of hours before meeting Mr P in The Bull’s Head for a quick drink.  One night a week, Mr P plays squash, so I take advantage of that quiet time to write my blog post, and take Basil for his evening constitutional.  I’m often able to work from home one or two days a week (depending on teaching commitments, meetings, etc.,) and this offers a little more flexibility.  For instance, because I don’t lose up to two hours travelling on those days, I’m able to take an hour or two to work on the allotment or clean the girls’ coop, maybe sow a few seeds, and still fit my work hours in.  At weekends, I’m usually desperate to get out for a walk, so I generally join Mr P and Basil for a good couple of hours’ walk before coming home to either work on the allotment (!!!) or maybe do a bit of baking, reading or sewing.  We generally head to the pub at least once over the weekend, often heading to The Flying Childers at Stanton-in-the-Peak, which is a pub I can’t recommend highly enough – http://www.flyingchilders.com/  

You have probably gathered by now that I’m pretty busy most of the time but I think that without my life in the country, I wouldn’t be able to keep going with the day-job.  That time spent on the allotment, in the fresh air, with fabulous 360 degree views, is one of the things that keeps me on the level.  Digging, hard work though it undoubtedly is, stops me from thinking about any problems I might have.  Pulling up weeds keeps me in the here and now instead of worrying about the future.  At some point, I hope the allotment will provide me with more than just raspberries! Spending time with the chickens keeps me entertained and supplied with fresh eggs daily.  The quilting group ensures I have female company, and helps me learn new skills.  I suppose, in a nutshell, my life in the country acts as a counterbalance to work.

Because, let’s face it, it’s all about work-life balance.  For me, that means that my life is what happens in the country.  My day-job is just that; it simply facilitates my country life.  It provides me with the means to replace the roof on the chicken enclosure after it was blown off in the recent high winds.  It enabled me to buy a shed for the allotment when I was desperate for somewhere to store my tools and shelter from the wind and rain.  It pays my share of the rent on a cottage in a beautiful part of the world.  I’m grateful for my job. But it’s not my life.

What does work-life balance mean for you?  I’d love to hear from you so please drop me a line.

Friendship

I won’t be posting photographs in this post because I don’t want to invade my friends’ privacy, and they might not want to admit they know me!  Really, I just want to talk a little bit about making friends in the country.  Some of this will probably seem obvious but sometimes doing the obvious gets overlooked, and we need a reminder to buckle down and get on with it.

I had at one time spent nine years living in a village I would describe as ‘semi-rural’.  I got to know a couple of neighbours while I was there but only one ever invited me in.  Was it me?  I don’t know but I don’t usually have trouble making friends.  Essentially, this particular village was a bit of a ‘dormitory’ – a place people went to just to sleep and spend the weekend but not really a place that seemed to be truly alive.  Had I been a mother with young children, or a committed church-goer, I might have fared better.  Both of those scenarios seemed the most calculated to produce friendships and a social life of some sort.  But, since children aren’t my thing, and I’m a committed atheist likely to burst into flames if I get within 10 yards of hallowed ground, these options weren’t open to me.  I just didn’t ‘fit’.  So, when I took the plunge and moved to the Peak District to be closer to Mr P, friends and a social life were my main concern.  After all, I was leaving behind a thriving social life with good friends and regular social activities.

Luckily for me, my first neighbour was lovely, and within minutes had brought me a cup of tea and cake to keep me going while I moved my stuff into the little house I’d rented, and invited us round for her birthday party that night.  Mr P (a bit of a party animal and dangerous dancer) and I had a great time, drank a little too much wine and danced on the carpet.  I’d always wanted to try my hand at patchwork and quilting and by some miracle, there was a woman at the party who was a member of the quilting circle based in Monyash just three miles up the road.  By the time I moved to Monyash to live with Mr P, just six months later (I’m sick of moving – enough already!), I was a regular at the Tuesday night quilting circle.  We’re a really mixed bunch, though a fair few are farmers’ wives, there’s another academic, some retirees, and more.  Quilting might sound parochial but it’s far from dull or boring – if you heard some of the conversations we have … well!  And people make the most amazing and beautiful things (more on that in future!).  I’m now also a member of the local WI where, once a month, we get together for a natter and to listen to a speaker.  Speakers so far have been as varied as a professional makeup artist, representatives from a local owl and otter sanctuary, and my favourite, a farmer who talked about grass.  Trust me, this was much more interesting than it sounds! Afterwards, we have a pot-luck supper, and a chin-wag.

All this is great but the real revelation was the pub.  “You can’t rush friendship round here”, declared Mr P, who’s lived in the area for about 14 years.  ” Don’t try to be friendly.  You just have to wait for them to be ready to talk to you”.  Blimey.  I envisaged scenes out of An American Werewolf in London … a foggy night, walking into a pub, only to be met by stoney silence and hostile stares.  Actually, there is a pub like that a few miles away but that’s another story.  I expected that or Royston Vasey from The League of Gentlemen (which is actually filmed nearby).  I’m not much of a drinker but beer-monster Mr P already knew lots of people in the pub and I just sort of tagged along for the ride really.  At first all I got was ‘hello’, then nothing but, slowly, people started to include me in the conversation until last night I felt quite at home getting a drink and chatting until Mr P arrived to meet me.  Through the pub I’ve become friendly with local farmers who I can drop in on and have a cup of tea with.  They lend me books on chickens and tractors, and are a great source of information on what’s going on locally.  I’m hoping to spend some time helping them with lambing over the next few weeks too.  A local farming contractor sourced my chickens for me and gave me a chicken coop he happened to have spare!

Our neighbours are lovely.  The couple nearest are fun to go for a drink with, helped us to build our chicken enclosure, and invited us round at Christmas.  They’ll be keeping an eye on the chickens while we’re away in return for the eggs.  If we set foot out of the door we’re almost certain to see someone we know and with whom we can have a chat.  Through the pub we’ve got to know lots of people from the village, especially if they have dogs too.  Dogs are a great way of meeting people; if you have one with you people will always talk to you, even if the dog is the only topic of conversation to start with.  

If you’re going to move to an area like this, where there are people whose families have lived here for generations, you have to throw yourself into things if you want to be part of it all.  If there’s a village fair or fete, go to it.  Even if the weather’s awful!  Join things. Take up new hobbies – if quilting’s not your thing there’s sure to be something that is.  A nearby village has a bee-keeping society.  If you fancy growing your own, take up an allotment and you’ll never be short of advice from helpful allotmenteers.  There is plenty to do in the country and it is possible to build a fun and rewarding social life but you have to make it happen.  Just don’t be snotty or expect fancy nights out, designer shops, and all night pizza deliveries – if you want those things, you’re in the wrong place.  At this point you’re probably thinking “Christ, this sounds bloody boring. Bugger that, I’m moving to London instead.”   Well, yes, country life quiet compared to the town or city but isn’t that why we live here, to escape the insane pace of urban life and instead find peace, a sense of ease, and community?

Of course, there’s always the pub’s New Year’s Eve party but that’s another story, and discretion is the better part of valour!

I’d love to hear from you.  Please feel free to ask questions or comment using the form below.  If you have suggestions for topics you’d like me to cover, fire away!  I’ll do my best to respond as promptly as I can.

Lambing Course at Broomfield: Review

On Saturday morning I was up by 7am.  By 7.30 I’d cleaned out the chickens, fed and watered them, and was in the kitchen getting breakfast and making up the largest flask of coffee I could.  This was lambing day!  I’d been looking forward to this since I’d booked it and paid my £50 way back in November.  A couple of weeks ago I’d received a reminder email from Mark at Broomfield (part of Derby College), giving full details of what we’d cover, instructions about appropriate clothing and footwear, and reminding us to take a packed lunch since the canteen would be shut.

I arrived on time for the 10am start and, after some initial awkwardness (something akin to being in a lift), introduced myself to my fellow would-be lambers.  We were quite an assorted bunch; a couple of A-level students who wanted to be vets, one man who had a smallholding, and half a dozen middle-aged women whose small hands were in demand by farmers at lambing time for reasons I hope I don’t need to explain!

We started with a fairly brief (30 to 40 minutes) classroom introduction to some basics, during which I grabbed a coffee from my flask, and were provided with useful handouts detailing management of ewes, preparing for lambing, what facilities are required, managing newborn lambs, feeding, etc.  I also brought home a ‘Sheep Gestation Table’.  Sheep have a 145 day gestation period so if you know what date your ewes were tupped (i.e. serviced by a ram, also known as a tup), the table tells you when the lambs are expected.  Hygiene is a really big deal in lambing so Mark stressed the importance of dipping our feet in the disinfectant everytime we moved in or out of the lambing sheds.  Then it was off for a quick ride round the site and to the sheds on a tractor trailer, which was fun if a little chilly.

At the lambing sheds we were hit by the first upset of the day; a dead lamb which had been aborted.  It looked as if it hadn’t formed quite properly and couldn’t possibly have survived.  It was sad but, as the shepherd pointed out, it happens, and at least the ewe had another two lambs.  It wasn’t long before we saw lambs actually being born.  The two young students had the opportunity to feel inside a ewe to see if they could feel the head of the lamb.  Its feet should have been pointing forwards, under its chin but they weren’t so it was a case of feeling around in the dark to try to right them.  Over the course of the day we had plenty of opportunity to get involved, though there was no further need to intervene in that way.  As Mr P so eloquently put it, there was no need for me to “put my mitt up a ewe’s no-no”!  However, I did get involved in saving a lamb’s life when we came across a lamb which had been born inside the sac full of amniotic fluid. Effectively, it was drowning.  The shepherd broke the sac and I had the task of rubbing the lamb’s chest hard with clean straw in an effort to get it breathing.  This didn’t work so I then had to pick the lamb up by its back legs and swing it backwards and forwards before letting it drop to the floor quite hard to try to clear its airways. If it sounds brutal, it is but it’s about saving the lamb so the end justifies the means.  At this point there were signs of it beginning to breathe so the shepherd used a bit of straw to ‘tickle’ the lamb’s nose – this helps to make them sneeze and clear out any remaining fluid.  He also inserted a feeding tube into the lamb’s lungs and blew – very gently, just tiny little puffs – to get extra air into it.  Eventually this seemed to get the lamb breathing – I just hope it survived the crucial first 48 hours.

Dead lambs are a fact of life, unfortunately

 

Hoping these two survive. Their triplet was born dead.

Over the course of the day we had the chance to try all sorts of useful skills; ear-tagging, tailing (docking), and castrating.  Ear-tagging is a legal requirement and also helps the shepherd keep track of which lambs were fathered by which ram – this is to avoid inbreeding in the future.  Tails are docked to help prevent disease, and castration is performed on male lambs which are destined for the chop!  Both these latter two processes are done using a special rubber band applied with a metal gadget that stretches it then releases it once it’s been fitted over the necessary area.  This cuts off the blood supply to the unwanted part, causing it to die and eventually fall off.  The lambs don’t seem to feel any ill-effect or pain from this.  The hardest part is getting them to stay still long enough to do it, as they wriggle about like babies!

Castration using a rubber band applied with a handy tool

 

There was also the opportunity to feed the lambs, trim the ewes’ feet, learn how to get ewes to move where you want them to by holding their lamb, walking backwards, and making little bleating noises (I did ask the shepherd if he was just having a laugh at our expense)!  We learned how to catch the ewes and lambs using a crook – I’d always thought it was just a big walking stick.  Importantly, we also got to hold the lambs and get a bit of a cuddle.

Aren’t they sweet?!
Lambs having fun getting into the hay feeder.

 

Around 4.30pm I was back in my car on my way home, exhausted but delighted with the day and what I’d learned and achieved. If you’re thinking of doing a lambing course – no matter what the reason – I would definitely recommend the one day course at Derby College, Broomfield Campus.  It was the best £50 I’ve ever spent. All I need now is to get some practice in with a couple of local farmers!

https://www.derby-college.ac.uk/careers-courses/course-search?controller=courses&task=details&cid=—%20All%20—&courseType=Learning%20for%20Leisure&courseid=45044&searchKeyword=&ItemId=1315&currarea=47

The Weather: Snow Sucks!

Well, my post this week had to be about the weather didn’t it?!  While there are lots of other things I want to write about, the snow and arctic-like conditions have been the most pressing concern for country-dwellers over the last week.

The mere – frozen over

 

It all started on Tuesday – I was working from home and keeping half an eye on what was going on outside since I needed to get to work in Derby the next day.  During the afternoon, the white stuff began to descend and by the time I got up on Wednesday morning we’d had a good couple of inches.  The sub-zero temperatures meant the sodding stuff wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry.  No traffic was passing either, which is never a good sign.  A quick look at http://buxtonweather.com suggested that I wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon.  Over the next couple of days, it came down in bucket-loads and local roads were either being declared impassable or completely closed.  Not just side roads, you understand, but main routes, including the A515 which runs between Buxton and Ashbourne.  Locally, two lorry drivers were stuck in the snow for four days until rescuers managed to dig them out.  Nevertheless, there seemed to be no shortage of idiots willing to chance it, judging by the number of comments on Buxton Weather from people who somehow had just about managed to get through and were willing to supply pictures of the conditions they’d managed to ‘brave’.  Quite honestly, as I said in a Facebook post, unless you were a brain surgeon on your way to perform emergency life-saving surgery, your journey just wasn’t that important, and even if you were, it was still doubtful.

It’s a whiteout in Monyash

During those next few days I must have checked Buxton Weather every couple of hours but I wasn’t alone in that.  It’s a great website, updated every few minutes, and equipped with links to webcams locally, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Living out here you become obsessed with the weather – it’s absolutely crucial to everything you do, whether it’s travelling, taking care of animals and livestock, gardening, or just taking the dog for a walk.  Your awareness of the weather and it’s variability, and tendency to change drastically in a very short space of time, is heightened.  In weather as harsh as this it really could be life and death.  You need to be properly equipped and I will talk about appropriate clothing in a future post.  However, I digress …

There used to be a road under there!

Over the next three or four days we were effectively cut off from the outside world. No post, no tourists … and eventually we started to run out of essentials like firewood, milk, bread, and loo roll.  This latter is particularly important to Mr P., who likes to have at least four spare rolls available at all times, and gets quite nervous if supplies get lower than that.  The bread issue was addressed relatively easily as I’d been prepared enough to have a supply of bread flour and dried yeast in stock.  In a former life I used to make all my own bread.  One day a fortnight I’d bake enough to last two weeks – loaves, rolls, sweet muffins … they were made, frozen, eaten and enjoyed, and filled the house with that amazing smell that you only get with homemade bread.  Moreover, making your own bread is easy.  Really!  It requires no special skill; you just need a bit of time, patience, and some energy for the kneading process.  Oh, and a modicum of self-restraint so you don’t end up scoffing the lot while it’s still warm from the oven, slathered in butter, honey, or whatever your particular fancy happens to be.

Homemade bread makes the best toast with loads of butter. Never mind the calories in this weather!

 

We managed pretty well all in all but my main concern was for the girls.  Chickens are pretty hardy but I thought minus 15 degrees C at night might be pushing it a bit.  During the day we were getting up to a relatively sub-tropical minus 6 degrees but oh, those nights were fecking freezing!  I was going out every couple of hours with a kettle to defrost their water, which was freezing solid within about 30 minutes.  Chickens drink a surprising amount, and go to sleep (it’s almost a torpor) as soon as it starts to get dark, so it’s important that they drink enough during daylight hours.  Warm water is something they particular enjoy in cold weather and I was taking out warm porridge for them too, in addition to their usual feed and corn.  They absolutely love porridge and go mad for it, mobbing me as soon as I set foot in their enclosure.  During such cold weather, it was one of the few things that would tempt them to come out of their coop – usually they can’t wait to get out in the mornings, practically falling over each other in their rush to get to food.  But this was a whole other experience for them.  In spite of it all, they somehow managed to keep laying though, and eggs were one thing we weren’t going to run out of.

Nevertheless, by Saturday now only were we running out of basics but I was going slightly stir-crazy.  Luckily, on Saturday afternoon there was light at the end of the tunnel, and we risked the short drive to Bakewell.  Mr P. is a careful driver (a bit like a maiden aunt at times) so we made it in one piece and it was just lovely to get out.  Though it’s only five miles away, Bakewell was like another world!  The streets were largely clear of snow though it was perishingly cold and my wellies were totally inadequate so I came home with feet like blocks of ice.

By Monday I had a clear case of cabin-fever and was in a foul mood.  Pity the poor Mr P. who had to tolerate me.  But then the roads were declared open again and I don’t think I was ever so glad to go to work as I was on Tuesday!  What a joy it was to be around people again, and to be wearing less than four layers.  And how strange to hear that many people had hardly been affected at all – lucky buggers!

The whole thing was a real reminder of the vagaries and local peculiarities of the weather, the importance of paying attention to it, and not taking things for granted. Of taking proper care of your animals – dogs have to be walked and chickens fed regardless of feet of snow – and yourself.  And of the importance of looking forward to spring if you don’t want to go crazy.  Bring it on!

Dogs still have to be walked! Basil enjoys a snow day.