A Weekend In The Country

I’ve been pondering this post for some time now.  Over the past few weeks I’ve considered all sorts of topics, with weather being at the top of the list for obvious reasons.  However, today is considerably fresher than the last few weeks and we’ve actually had some rain – hooray!  Anyway, there’s been so much talk about the weather on Twitter, Facebook, and the news that I eventually decided to be very un-British and talk about something entirely different for a change.  Finally, today it came to me.  This blog is supposed to be all about what it’s really like living in the country, and part of that is rural pursuits.

But what does that actually mean?  The phrase ‘rural pursuits’ conjures up images of rich people who really ought to know better galloping about the countryside on horseback, ripping animals to shreds.  Or just galloping about on horseback.  Or possibly weaving a basket before taking a break for high tea, complete with home-made cake and cucumber sandwiches.  Well pardon me but for most of us that’s just chocolate box fantasy so sit back with a cuppa while I tell it like it is.

My mornings invariably start around 7ish (give or take) when I roll out of bed.  Rather than Laura Ashley and tweed, I opt for usually grubby, paint-spattered walking trousers and a fleece.  Oh, and wellies.  I practically have them welded to my feet.  Thus glamorously attired, I can take the girls fresh water and feed, let them out, and hand pick the poo out of their house – this gets saved for the compost bin on the allotment.  There’s usually at least one or two eggs – I’ll collect the rest later – and it’s back in for breakfast.  This weekend it was the Monyash Quilters exhibition – “Quilts in the Peak”.  Held just once every three years, I had offered to help out in the kitchen on Sunday but I popped along on Saturday morning just to have a look while Mr P took the dogs out.  I have to say it was a pretty impressive display!

A few of the quilts on display.

From there I headed straight to Bakewell and Mr P went off to play cricket.  For those of you who haven’t been, Bakewell is very pretty in a quaint sort of way, with a few high street chains, such as Boots, Fat Face, and Costa but otherwise it’s mainly independent shops selling everything from clothing to bears, books, and kitchenware.  There are some real gems: Bakewell Cookshop, Birdsong (possibly the prettiest shop ever), and the Hartington Cheese Co.  For those who like to browse the charity shops, Lighthouse is set out like a French brocante.  I headed there first before legging it to my favourite place for coffee, Gallery Cafe, to try to avoid the lunchtime rush.  I celebrated losing a bit of weight this week by indulging in a homemade scone with clotted cream and jam (cream first before you ask!) and a large flat white.  It was a valuable bit of me-time accompanied by the book I’m reading at the minute – At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell, funnily enough!  It’s a good read and I highly recommend it.

Yum. What else is there to say?!
There’s nothing better than a good book.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t hang around too long as I’d got things to do at home but I did just swing by the Farmer’s Market where I picked up a couple of succulents to plant in the wall at the back of the house.  Given the weather lately, it seemed sensible to give them a try!  If they do ok, I can buy more at the market when it’s back next month.

 

Back home there was a load of fruit waiting to be dealt with.  I had gooseberries from my allotment and my neighbour on the next plot had given me a batch of whitecurrants.  I’ve never actually eaten whitecurrants before.  I grow blackcurrants on the allotment and there are two very productive redcurrant bushes in the garden which, to be honest, I don’t bother with.  The blackbirds are welcome to them – I’ve got enough on my plate (pardon the pun) with everything else!  The gooseberries just needed topping and tailing for the freezer, as I’d already made a batch of jam a couple of weeks ago.  It’s not my favourite job but it is quite absorbing and I sorted them into cookers and ‘ripe-enough-to-eat-raw’ as I went.  With those sorted and bagged up for the freezer it was time for the whitecurrants.  I always think currants are a bit of a phaff, quite frankly, and probably more trouble than they’re worth – at least if you’re bothered by the seeds.  I’m including a short video of the easiest way of getting currants off the stalks using a fork.

My allotment neighbour strains hers to get the seeds out but I really can’t be fannying about with all that – life’s just too short and besides, that’s what flossing is for.  Also, I don’t really have space for doing it in our little kitchen.  All our jam has to be made in the microwave because of the utterly useless piece of shit that is the Rayburn which masquerades as a cooker, water heater, and fires the central heating.  Even when it’s turned on it’s hopeless but in this weather the only option is to turn the whole thing off and just use the immersion heater for water.  This means we don’t have a hob and can’t even boil a bloody egg!  So the microwave is the only option for jam.  Or any kind of cooking at all.  All I do is bung the fruit into a large bowl, heat it til it’s a bit mushy, add an equal weight of sugar and stick it back in the microwave for a few minutes – I just keep checking it and stirring a bit til it seems about right.  It’s all a bit Heath Robinson but it seems to work pretty well really.  Luckily, I prefer my jam soft – it’s so much more versatile as you can spread it on toast, dollop it on scones, or slather it over icecream.  Or mix it with whipped cream.  Or custard.  Or … you get the idea.

One of the prettiest jams I’ve ever made.
Gooseberries bagged up and ready for the freezer.

By the time I’d done all this I was pretty knackered as I’d been on my feet all day and it was around 4.30pm.  The dogs had already been out with Mr P for a good long walk but needed a quick ten minutes to stretch their legs.  And so on.  I still needed to get cracking on this blog post too but gave myself permission to watch an episode of Foyle’s War with a cup of tea.  I love Foyle’s War; Michael Kitchen is fab even if Foyle is just a tad dour, and Sam’s a female version of Tim Nice-but-Dim.  Having said that she seems to have a bit more about her in the later series.  I managed to fit in a bit of sewing at the same time – I’m currently working on dressing a bear in clothing inspired by Dolly Parton’s song “My Coat of Many Colours”.  This basically means I’m making a tiny patchwork coat – the pair of patched trousers are already finished.  Anyhow, Mr P came home from cricket and I got sidetracked into going to the pub around 9pm, where Echo started barking and had to be taken home in disgrace, while Basil did his impression of a starving dog for the benefit of the people eating dinner at the next table and combed the carpet for errant chips.  Somehow, in the midst of all this the girls were shut up in their house for the night well before I fell into bed long after midnight.

Close up of applique on a quilt.
Country themed quilt.

Today has been rather less busy – I’d volunteered to help out in the kitchen at the quilt exhibition so after dealing with the girls, I spent two hours washing pots.  A highlight was venturing out to see how things were going and meeting Jenni of @notreallyafarm.  It turns out we have plenty in common and a cup of tea is on the agenda.  There was lots of cake about and I bought a whole chocolate, courgette and coffee cake to take home, with a promise from the baker to let me have the recipe.  After a piece of cake and a cup of tea I managed another episode of Foyle’s War and then by 4.30pm felt compelled to take a nap! This isn’t like me really as I usually only sleep in the daytime if I’m ill but, since having been particularly unwell last autumn, it’s become a more regular occurrence than I’d like.

Courgette, potato, and feta omelette. Salad’s mostly homegrown too!

I really enjoyed my dinner tonight, partly because it was delicious, partly because some of it came from the sweat of my own brow.  An omelette with home grown courgettes, my own potatoes, and eggs from the girls only needed a little feta cheese to become a feast.  That was followed with a short walk with Mr P and the dogs, shutting the girls up for the night, and back to the blog.  Bed is calling and I won’t be able to resist for long.  Apart from the fact that I haven’t been to the allotment this weekend because of the rain, or walked with Mr P and the dogs because I was otherwise committed, this has been a reasonably typical weekend.

I suppose the point of all this is to say that there is plenty to do if you live a rural life but the days when I lived in the city and spent weekends meeting friends in town for coffee and shopping or going out for cocktails are long gone, and seem a million miles away.  Much of what I do now revolves around creating things, whether it’s an allotment, quilts, bears, cakes, or meals.  Dogs feature heavily, as do chickens.  Activities are weather dependent, and maintaining a social life is largely reliant on me making an effort to get involved in what’s going on locally.

In short, you need to be able to find things to do indoors on a wet weekend without relying entirely on the TV or heading off to your nearest shopping centre; you only get out what you put in.  A rural life is very much what you make it.

Peak District Colour: Monyash May Market

Monyash has a thriving community spirit and there’s usually something going on.  Today it was the annual May Market.

Pommie band in action. Note the new bull under the sign!
Skittles on the village green.

Held every Spring Bank Holiday, this has been going on for as long as anyone can remember – the village was originally granted a charter for a market and fair back in 1340 but sadly this is the only market remaining.  We met a family today who, though they no longer live in the village, retain local ties and had come specifically for the market today.  They remembered the market as a big affair, with over 40 stalls, a pet competition, and much more.

Mr P’s in charge of the shopping bag!

Today’s market is a much more low-key affair, with just a handful of stalls selling second hand goods in support of local causes, such as the primary school and the small park behind the pub.  But everyone has a good time and certainly doesn’t go hungry!  There is a rather splendid barbecue, from which I enjoyed an absolutely massive hot-dog which deserves a much better name, featuring as it did a fantastic Critchlow’s sausage completed with fried onions and mustard.  It was hot, juicy, and incredibly delicious.  Mr P hardly ever eats meat so missed out on a real treat, I reckon.  Yah boo sucks to him!

The best hotdogs in the world!

The May Market also coincides with the well-dressings, which take place at the same time all over the Peak District.  This is the result of an awful lot of hard work, with volunteers staying up til midnight to puddle the mud and get the petalling completed in time but the results speak for themselves.  It’s great to see these old traditions surviving in a world where the screen seems to dominate everything we do.

Monyash’s well dressing 2018

The local school hosts afternoon tea but I’m afraid all I could manage was a piece of rhubarb cake and a cup of tea.  Mr P had said “Just get me anything” then when I got back a piece of lemon cake for him, claimed that was probably the only thing he didn’t really like. Didn’t stop him eating it though.   I had rather hoped for a piece of a cake I’d seen being carried in a few minutes earlier but it turned out to be intended for the cake competition.  Drats!

 

 

Results of the cake competition – how did the judges restrict themselves to such small pieces?!
The school all decked out for the occasion.

We also managed to buy a picture of the Peak District, which is already hanging in the hallway, from the stall in the Methodist Chapel, where I also bought a big Pyrex roasting dish just the right shape and size for a chicken.

Our latest purchase. £5 well-spent and for a good cause.

This year, we actually won a bottle of wine from the ‘Wine or Water’ stall (last year it was water), and picked up an Alchemilla Mollis for the grand sum of 50p.  There were skittles on the village green, and cade lambs in the schoolyard.  Music was provided courtesy of the Pommie (Pommie is the nickname for Youlgrave) Brass Band.  The weather was fabulous, which makes a change from the previous year when it was sodding awful.  Fingers are crossed for next year!

Coming soon – my review of our new chicken coop. Try not to get too excited!  Please contact me if you’d like to comment – it’s always great to hear from you.

 

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