…pickling, preserving, painting and a whole lot of fun with sheep…

…Autumn has quickly taken hold…

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…and I have been busy picking blackcurrants for fruit cheese, foraging mountains of blackberries for jam, breaking my back with pounds of damsons for gin, and hoarding buckets of apples to mulch and crush for our latest obssession – cider making…

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…My larder is slowly filling up with bottles of apple juice and hopefully by the end of next weekend our first few bottles of lethal cider will have started to appear too…

I’ve also been painting – a huge still life, saved at the last minute after a gruesome attack from an unruly boy wielding a loaded paintbrush…

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…and a little portrait oil sketch…

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Out of the studio and onto the land, last weekend was spent on a much anticipated sheep rearing course at the wonderful Humble by Nature farm in glorious Monmouthshire. The sun beat down, and clad in obligatory woollen jumpers we learnt lots of weird and wonderful things about sheep.  We spent the whole day with the wonderful farmers Tim and Kate, and saw the whole cycle of life – an unexpected arrival of a little ewe lamb, a death, and all the glorious and gory bits in between.  We saw maggoty bottoms, rotting feet, and learnt how to grapple the sheep onto there backs.  We clipped nails, sheared and cleaned said grubby botttoms, identified scald, sprayed foot rot, tagged ears and checked teeth.  It was a magnificent day (honestly!) and we learnt such a lot from our marvellous teachers.

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It’s just a matter of time before we get our own flock of woolly friends for our fields and our smallholding life will have truly begun.  The only downside to the course is that Kate managed to convince me (rather quickly I might add) to ignore the practical advice of getting a different breed of animal a year and to just get on with it.  I feel it’s only a short matter of time before the goats, ducks and the rest of Noah’s Ark descend two by two onto our little patch.  I think I may have just reserved myself two kunekune sow piglets, and once our DEFRA number comes through next week there’ll be no stopping us…rare breed sausages here I come…

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…a year in the country and a magnificent rainbow to celebrate….

….I can’t quite believe that it is has been a whole year since we packed our bags and travelled 3 and a half hours west from London Town to Ludlow.  The day we arrived at Hillpike last August was truly momentous.  As we trundled down our track, with a huge removal lorry in tow, we were just in time to follow a herd of cows who ran a-mock and rampaged the lawn, leaving huge, fly-encrusted cow pats in their wake.  Safely behind locked gates we marvelled at our field of new ‘pets’, only to enter the house to be greeted by thousands of harvest spiders and a smoking AGA, pumping out inky-black, acrid smoke.   I will fondly remember our first night in our new home listening to the silence and avoiding the darkest of shadows.  As our excited household finally slept the pitch-black night retreated to reveal the most dazzling, golden sunrise, blinding us through our curtain-less windows at the crack of dawn.

I look back on that time very fondly.  It has been a hugely rewarding time for us – we have learnt a lot about ourselves and about country matters – how to rid chickens of mites, how to win the war against rats, how to rescue pigeons from wood-burning stoves, how to cope when the oil runs out…and the logs….how to entertain ourselves when snowed-in, how to deal with slugs eating our prize cabbages, how to cope with no water for three fiercely hot days, and how to stay cheerful when we felt very lonely and far away from everyone we knew. But most of all we have realised that despite all of these things we really are home and we really do love it – this is where we will now rest and settle and grow, and build upon the wonderful new friendships that have started to flourish.

Since living here I have become acutely aware of the seasons – there is something wonderfully and ridiculously clever about them, and now that I am trying to be more self-sufficient I am also very aware that nature waits for no one.  All too quickly an opportunity has slipped to grow something at the right time, or harvest something before the birds have pinched it.  Or even worse, discovering fruit trees too late, their glut of apples lying beneath the branches, unused and sorrowfully fermenting, dreaming of what they could have been – a chutney or a pie or something equally delicious.   This year my tomatoes haven’t worked and I have to wait a whole 7 or 8 months before I can try to grow them again and learn from my mistakes.  In the words of a Burwarton Show Tractor Judge – we are just the custodians – and I have never felt that that is more true for me than now.

This coming year I hope to do the things that I did last year, better – better wreaths, better homemade gin, better marmalard, a better veg patch.  I already have my eye on a walnut tree and a mile-long hedge of cobnuts that I can hopefully use before too many get eaten up by Squirrel Nutkin.  Next year I want it to be me who has a glut of tomatoes and potatoes, rather than just enough for one frugal meal.  I will also sow more peas for my boy – the rotten ones which he has now resorted to scavenging are just too horrid. I will keep a garden notebook and I will grow edible flowers…

The thing that I love most about our new home is waking every day to different weather and therefore to a different landscape. Below are a few photos I took last week of a biblical rainbow outside our back door, the aftermath of a perfect storm, perfectly signalling the end of our first year with a triumphant flourish…

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…St Clement’s curd, wild swimming and a thief in the garden…

…the glorious sun has been beating down on our little patch and we can’t quite believe our luck. Day after day of blazing sunshine and long summer afternoons have lazily stretched into deliciously warm evenings.  Despite not feeling like being in the warm kithen very much, I have had a surplus of eggs from our hens and so meringues it is, followed by thick, ambered St.Clements curd…

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For the meringues I followed and halved a recipe by Nigella in FEAST and simply used 6 egg whites, whisked until stiff, and then slowly whisked in 350g of caster sugar until the mixture was firm and glossy – I like to make large meringues, piled high, and cooked in a  low oven at around 140 degrees C for just shy of an hour…

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…for the St Clements Curd, I used the left-over 6 golden yolks, whisked in 250g of caster sugar and then over a bain marie I continuously whisked the mixture over a low heat, adding the juice of 2 lemons and 3 oranges and half of their grated zest, whisking until the mixture started to thicken, coating the back of a spoon.  At this point I took it off the heat and slowly added 75g of cold, unsalted butter (cubed), whisking continuously until I had a thick and luxurious curd the colour and taste of summer…

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To cool off I have been dragging a slicked-with-suncream boy and my hot dogs down to where the River Teme and River Clun meet, meandering through our wonderful village of Leintwardine.  Old fashioned Choc-ices and mini-milks have abounded, and we have joined hundreds of little fish darting in the shadows, jumping into the icey waters from the shaley banks after the heat of the day…

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…the thief in my garden happens to be my boy.  One of the things I have always wanted is for my children to understand from an early age how to care for animals and how to grow their own food.  He certainly knows how to pick peas in their pods, wrenching great clumps from their frames and stuffing his bounty into his wheel barrow…

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…I wouldn’t mind but we haven’t grown that many, and so far today he must have eaten the contents of 30 pods – seriously.  Oh well, he’s so sweet I can’t really tell him off for eating too many peas, if it was my St Clement’s curd it might be a different story…

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…provencing, gardening and a bit of a water crisis really…

…having spent a week prancing through Provence, I have returned full of high spirits and a ridiculous enthusiam for all things Provencal  – goats cheese, wine, beautiful roses, astonishingly good bread, pale blue shutters, fields of lavender, beautifully aged antiques and billowing white laced linen…

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…and a few heavenly rainbow macaroons…

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…it was with some reluctance that we boarded the plane back to overcast England, however it was strangely marvellous to drive down our old, bumpy track to be reunited with our faithful dogs and feathery chicks.  I also felt a child-like surge of  excitement at our ever-growing vegetable patch, spying new potato shoots and huge lush cabbage leaves.

Our trip away was made considerably easier by the wonder woman that is The Chicken Nanny.  Visiting our home both day and night, she lovingly tended to the girls and loyally watered my vegetables and flowers –  she really is a modern day fairy, visiting at night and doing all sorts of good deeds.  Coming home to a sparkling coop, 7 full egg boxes neatly lined up in the barn, and the girls running to greet us was a wonderful welcome.   I’m assuming they missed us for they have taken to sitting on the front door step causing a bit of a feathery nuisance.

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Returning home rather grubby from a hot airport to find there was no running water has been a summer highlight.  The novelty of bathing a baby in mineral water and giving the poor animals a slurp of Evian to drink soon waned after 3 days.   Joy of joys when it came back on – it has certainly made me think how much we depend on water for absolutely everything and has made me inwardly promise to be less wasteful with water…well I will once I have given my vegetables a good dousing….

…on that note our vegetable patch is certainly thriving and we have already sampled our first deeply red strawberries – well, one strawberry, cut into 5 pieces, and  passed around the table triumphantly for all to try…

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We have also been making delicious stir frys using the young green leaves from our cabbages, stirfrying them with the bright green shoots from the growing onion tops and lots of fresh ginger, garlic and chilli…

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…the constant gardeners…

…we have spent the last few blazingly warm days turning our little unloved and desperately tangled garden into a little paradise.  Slightly burnt and ever so tired we have cleared and pruned, raked and sewn, with our efforts culminating in a mighty bonfire.  Neither my husband nor I have ever considered ourselves to be green-fingered, but we have definitely caught the gardening bug, and now spend the warmer, lighter evenings watering the little saplings in hope of a bounteous crop of fruit and vegetables for the coming months.  The bees are buzzing merrily around the newly painted and planted door, with the pots now full of sweet peas, trailing-geraniums, lavender and hollyhocks and all is well.

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We have taken our vegetable patch very seriously and have even measured out precisely (with a ruler) the positioning of our seedlings, allowing order to preside in our otherwise disorganised lives. We look forward to four types of cabbage – I’m not a huge cabbage fan but my husband got carried away. Cherry, Roma and Heritage tomatoes, Red peppers, chillies, garlic, red and white onions, carrots, herbs of all varieties and 3 types of strawberries.

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On an even more exciting note are the rows of runner beans and peas, slowly curling their leafy tendrils up the steep canes.

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Mightily impressed with ourselves, all that is left to do this eve is to sit back and enjoy the sound of the bees buzzing and the unmistakable silence that ensues when the naughty Jemima is doing something she shouldn’t.  As I look up she has destroyed yet another poor sapling – this time a helpless chilli plant just starting out on its growing adventure. Stay away from the plants Miss Jemima…

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…chips in the parlour, cider in the castle, and piglets on the farm…

…last Saturday dawned bright and clear, and full of springtime optimism we headed to Ludlow Castle with several excited children in tow.  It was marvellous, however the sun soon disappeared from the stony ramparts and a fine drizzle dampened our enthusiasm – we were left feeling rather cold and seeking sustenance.  A quick sashay around Zani Lady’s brilliant Brocante and we were off to our local village of Leintwardine to The Fiddlers Elbow, to enjoy their famous fish and chips which were delivered to us in the next door pub, The Sun Inn.

I have been visiting this little parlour pub – one of the oldest surviving parlour pubs in Britain, since I was a little girl.  Then, I would have had lashings of ginger beer, but this time I had a whole pint of cider all to myself!  I was ravenously hungry and devoured mine and most of my boy’s chips, before feeling very full and very tired, and being forced to rest in one of the crochet-draped armchairs by the little coal fire…

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…to wake ourselves up we spent a wet and blustery afternoon at the charming Acton Scott Museum, (BBC Victorian Farm)  where we nearly bought two Tamworth Weaners – I’ll have to work hard to convince my husband that two piggies are the next best step for Hillpike.  At a mere £38 these babes are worth some serious thought, particularly this cheeky little piglet…

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It really is an astonishing farm, using entirely Victorian methods with the farm labourers charmingly dressed in Victorian clothing with red spotted neckerchiefs. We saw lambs that had just been born, terrifically huge Shire horses ploughing the fields, a donkey that I fell in love with, alongside numerous chickens, turkeys, and ducks, all with their numerous babes in tow…

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…they even had a flock of Shropshire Sheep – a breed of domestic sheep that have been roaming the hills of Shropshire since the 1840s, and they are indeed a fine and chunky breed…

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The evening ended with beautifully marbled steak from The Ludlow Food Centre, alongside my very first homemade béarnaise sauce and even more chips. Chips twice in one day…how terribly naughty…

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…chickery chick, cha laa cha laa…

…our feathery friends have finally arrived, and they have been pecking around their Hillpike residence – resplendent with bunting – for two weeks.  Despite my fears that the dogs may eat them, or that they might be terribly hard work, they are in fact a delight.

Introducing…

Winifred, a beautiful White Sussex,

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Peggy, a shy little Amber,

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Gertrude, a very shy Barred Rock,

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And a confident and harrumphing Brown Ranger that answers to the name of Dorothy,

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Despite the freezing weather and incessant snow, we have already started to have some eggs – some white, some brown – and they are delicious.  It is still such a treat to peer into the nest box and spy a cluster of little eggs. The eggs are still very small, and will remain so whilst our pullets are young, but as the hens get older the eggs will increase in size and numbers. We have already used them to make an Easter hotcross bread and butter pudding, and a giant pavlova, and look forward to many more culinary treats thanks to the girls.

Early in the morning we venture outside to let out the birds, and by dusk they have already taken themselves off to bed.  They really are rather self-sufficient, and I do hope Mr Fox stays away as we are all becoming rather attached.  They already peck treats from my hand and run towards us when we pop out to visit them.

As the Easter weekend draws to a close, the fires are lit and we are trying to stay toasty despite the arctic temperatures. A wintery walk earlier this week proved somewhat difficult, particularly for the youngest member of our family…

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…Oh well, by the end of next week we will probably be in the grip of an early heatwave and the little chicks and skinny, leggy Jemima can bask in the spring sunshine at last.

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…Spring…lambs…and a spring lamb supper….

…the last few days have been typically spring-like, with the strong sunshine making my skin feel burnt,  to snowfall the following morning.  Our Spring Equinox is fast approaching and the first lambs can been seen dancing and prancing in the fields by day and hopefully snuggled with their mothers during the icy nights.

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On a trip to see Granny Cockspur last week, we stumbled upon a wonderful farm in deepest darkest Herefordshire, having read a charming advertisement for ‘Lambing Afternoons in Pudleston’.  Round and round and up and down we drove, snaking along narrow country lanes following the signs that simply read ‘Lamb’.

Finally we found the farm and were greeted by a lovely rose-cheeked man with his faithful collie dog who was curled up in a box guarding the lambs.  On entering the sheds we were rewarded with the most amazing sight, stall after stall of beautiful sheep with their darling lambs, some still so dangerously small and underweight that they may not have lasted through the afternoon.  Several times whilst we were there the smallest creatures were gently lifted from their mother’s sides and put into wooden boxes with blow-heaters aimed at them, a far cry from the idyllic image of lambs in the gentle warming oven of an AGA.  Nevertheless it proved to be a very effective way to warm up their chilled little bones.

Luckily, this small farm has not been affected so far by Schmallenberg disease, an infection caught by mothers that is spreading all over the country, leading to stillborn or deformed lambs and calves being born.  However, despite this, Whyle House Farm has still lost more lambs than in previous years, and the farmer and his son were being kept  busy tube-feeding the weakest babes and bottle feeding the slightly stronger ones.  This can be vital if a mother rejects her lamb or simply cannot feed because of common conditions such as mastitis.  Some ewes who give birth to stillborn lambs are very often given another lamb to adopt as their own, and by rubbing the new lamb in the dead lamb’s after-birth the mother will quite often successfully rear another’s offspring.  The same can happen if a mother has triplets and another a singlet, meaning both mothers have two lambs to rear, thereby ensuring all the lambs have as much milk as possible.  This year at the farm they have had one set of quadruplets born – quite a rarity – and even more surprisingly, all four have  survived and indeed were out in the fields thriving.

There were lots of pregnant ewes too pacing in their stalls, and we learnt that although some lambs can be born very quickly and without warning, some mothers stare into the distance or stargaze when they are in labour, and some paw the ground in anticipation of an imminent birth.  Sadly we didn’t see any lambs actually being born, but we are hoping for a return visit next week so fingers crossed.  We were however fortunate enough to hold some of the lambs, there little iodine stained bellies indicating they had been newly delivered and their umbilical cords cut and swabbed to help ward off infection.

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I had the wonderful opportunity of bottle-feeding one of the smallest lambs, who had up until that point been tube-fed as he rejected his bottle.  The farmers do not like to tube feed the lambs for too long as it can damage their oesophagus and cause further problems.  Either it was an extraordinary moment of luck or I really am destined to be a shepherdess but the little lamb wolfed his milk down much to my – and the farmer’s – delight.  After all, these little babes are a commodity for the farmers and it is vital that as many lambs as possible survive and thrive.

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Whilst I am a vegetarian, with a ridiculously soft spot for animals, especially baby ones, I am also realistic as to the nature of farming and why these lambs are being bred in the first place.  I also know that for about six months these lambs will have a wonderful life, ensured by the small scale of the farm and the obvious dedication and love that the farmers’ feel towards their livestock.  Whilst no charge was asked for spending an afternoon at the farm, they did encourage people to buy their lamb meat directly from them, and we scuttled into the butchery to see what was available.  I bought two lamb shanks for my boys to try.  I made them into a hearty stew using tips from the farmer who gave me his recipe for a deliciously melting and tender supper, and some helpful suggestions and measurements from Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries.

2 lamb shanks
A large glug of olive oil
2 onions, peeled and quartered ( I used red onions)
3 bay leaves
3 large cloves of garlic
2 tbsp of hot wholegrain mustard
300ml of red wine
200ml of stock

salt and pepper

So – I simply sealed the lamb shanks in the hot oil in the base of a heavy cast-iron pot.  Once golden brown I added the onions and the bay leaves, the hot stock and red wine and allowed it all to bubble for a while.

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I then added the peeled and squashed garlics into the liquor, added the heavy lid, and put the pot into a moderate oven for 2 hours, stirring halfway through (at which point I also stirred in the mustard).  I served the stew – with the lamb melting from the bone – with a swede and potato root mash from a recipe I had seen in Hugh FW’s book Three Good Things, and a cauliflower cheese made using locally smoked Cheddar.

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…Now that our naughty pup Jemima has started to behave I am on the look out for a new challenge – in the form of two pet lambs – but these will definitely not be destined for our table.

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…coffee, coffee, coffee…

..When I first moved to the sticks I was mildly concerned that I would not be able to find a delicious cup of coffee.  I only have one coffee a day which follows my first cup of tea of the day – this small daily quota does not, my husband informs me, entitle me to be such a coffee snob.   That said, my perfect cup has to be strong, but milky, with a thick creamy top.   I haven’t really been able to find my holy grail consistently, so today – the day Easy Jose entered our lives – has made for a very good day.  Despite having the shakes as I write – I’m not used to having four flat whites followed by two espressos – it has been an amazing experience having the fabulous barista Jose visit our cafe, allowing us to taste his wonderful coffee and to be inspired by his contagious enthusiasm and passion. I also now know that I like a double ristretto flat white (which even to me sounds like I’m being a fusspot)…

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I’ve been taught that coffee beans in their raw green form come from the inside of what is known as a coffee cherry…

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…and that the green beans are then roasted in the UK to ensure that they are as fresh as possible when they reach Jose and his clients.

I have learnt that freshly roasted coffee must be allowed to breathe for a little while, and that the speed of hot water passing through ground coffee can make the same coffee taste bitter if too slow, or citrus if too fast.  I’ve also learnt the importance of grinding, water temperatures, the type of milk you use, the perfect temperature to steam the milk to (60-65 degrees C), and how to create Latte Art – intricate and beautiful patterns made using ribbons of contrasting creamy steamed milk with the rich dark depths of the coffee.

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Most importantly the ethos behind Jose’s company means that he travels to the coffee farms, whether that be in Costa Rica, the Peruvian Andes, Brazil or Cape Verde, and sources his coffee personally, allowing him to choose not only the finest, seasonal coffee beans but allowing him an important insight into the farms he uses and the methods they practice – promoting respect and fairness for the coffee pickers.

As people continually embrace local, seasonal and artisanal produce, the Easy Jose company is as ethical as can be.  It is about quality not quantity, and morality not profit.

A top tip from Jose for anyone who wants a delicious cup of coffee at home is to pour very hot to boiling water into a cafetiere, and leave this for about a minute before adding the ground coffee.  Stir, put the plunger in place, leave for 3 minutes, plunge and enjoy.  Also, for anyone who likes to use a Bialetti Espresso pot on the stove, boil the water in the bottom aluminium section first, before screwing on the top sections containing the coffee.  Basically, the less time that the coffee has to sit around in the swampy steam the better.

Message to my ever faithful commenter Crease – you must come and visit soon as I think I have perfected the above trick, plus you can pick up your jar of marmalard to go with…

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…wild guinea fowl, fowlish hard work, magic mushrooms, and not much else…

…a balmy spring walk with my boy, my brother and his girl, led us not only to a carpet of snowdrops interspersed with rather magical and terrifying fungi…

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…but also to a rasp of wild guinea fowl.  At first I thought they were peacocks, but through the tangle of branches there were no beautiful plumes, only a warning cackle.  I didn’t realise there was such a thing as wild guinea fowl – but there are – and I’ve since found out that gamekeepers use them to warn off any predators near pheasant pens.  We have so many pheasants around here and it seems a marvellously wholesome way to ward off any thieves, whether they be of the nasty Danny Champion of the World kind, or the Fantastic Mr. Fox kind.  Not that there is too much thieving or other untoward behaviour going on around here luckily.  A flick through our local newspaper today had the following headlines –

Firemen called to small electrical bathroom fire

Bin with green lid stolen, if found please contact the Telford police, and…

 Women left upset after a group of boys run naked through the village.

I’m hoping they may be coming to a village near me soon, but in the meantime at least there is no need to rush back to the big smoke for any major crime excitement.

Whilst my brother was visiting I thought I would put him to good use, and by working him to the bone we managed to collect and dry firewood…

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…clear the paddock, burn piles of straw and scrub the chicken coop in anticipation of the arrival of our chickens.

I haven’t quite plucked up the courage to actually get the chickens yet.  So far, I have been the proud owner of a magnificently empty multi-levelled chicken coop since October.  I’ve been told to stop dithering and just get on with it,  but reading my Hen Keeping Manual: Inspiration and Practical Advice for Would-be Smallholders by Jane Eastoe, filled with its stories of scaly legs, mites and fleas, has slightly panicked me.  I am rather hopeless in that the simplest thing can make me feel very squeamish – I’m concerned that the arrival of chickens will also herald the arrival of some strange egg phobia, and potentially a major rat problem too.  I will have to stoically soldier on, besides, I’ve slightly fallen in love with four little chicks – a Speckledy, a Sussex, a White Star, and a sweet little plain brown girl.  In anticipation of their arrival I told my family that each couple could name a bird.  I was slightly amused when boys names were mentioned – maybe I’m not the only one who doesn’t really want to know where an egg comes from…

…With dusk falling fast on our day of hard work, pictures of the chickens, their names and subsequent adventures will hopefully be not too far in following…

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