30 December 2007

A Christmas offering

Yes, K did get the Maran she had wanted. I, too, had been keen to have a home-based producer of the lovely brown eggs of which The Farmer had given us two examples. In late September I answered an ad in the Hexham Courant, in time for a Haydon Bridge-based, personable-sounding lady to agree to reserve me her last two specimens until after my return from Bolivia, two weeks later. After my trip, it took several phone calls to arrange a viable collection time, partly because I was busy and partly due to the need to give the lady good notice so she could catch the hens. When the day came, the lady’s farm was not easy to find in the dark, particularly not after the first right turn off the road to Haydon Bridge led me, without any warning sign, up a dirt track and right up to the edge of a steep bank from which, had I not slammed the brakes in time, I would have plummeted to the bottom without any prospect of coming back up unassisted. But after that I got the right farm, found the personable lady waiting with the two Marans in a box, and I drove back listening to the subdued accompaniment of their sulky twitter coming from the back of the car. The lady had told me not to expect any eggs before Christmas. One of the new hens was for the Farmer, and he came to pick it up without delay. Fearing a hostile reception from the three older hens, I gave the Farmer the smaller one and kept the larger one, thinking her physical size would equip her better to face the bullying. We called her María.

It soon became clear that María was a different kind of animal. Her mistrust of humans knew no bounds; it was impossible to approach her without sending her into a wild run with loud squawking. This made it difficult to help her when she was being pecked at or forcibly excluded from meals. More critically for us, it made it impossible to herd her into the henhouse, or anywhere else. While Bob Johnson, Rocky and Delilah had always been happy to follow wherever you allured them with a handful of corn, María would not come anywhere near you, and would only bring herself near the other hens with the greatest caution and for short periods at a time. Had she had a traumatic childhood at Haydon Bridge? Or are all marans afflicted from birth by the same pathological shyness? The fact is that it was a very long time before María began to interact with other hens with a semblance of normality. About two months to be precise. By mid-December she was joining her seniors for meals and foraging. She had grown, she had become able to stand her ground, and she even managed to approach within four feet of you if you had some corn to offer, even if the movement of you throwing more corn on the ground would still cause her to run away, sometimes half-flying with her surprisingly nimble wings. The balance of power between the henly generations may also have shifted because Bob Johnson has be moulding for sometime, and at the moment she appears reduced to a pathetic wraith of a hen.

In the morning of 24 December something happened that was to change the hen dynamic in the household. When I went to check the nesting box I found the usual speckledy egg, but also a very small one, of a deeper shade of brown and with speckles similar to Delilah’s or Rocky’s. Only some of the hens are laying these wintry days, so it is hard to tell from numbers alone who was laying what.

On Christmas Day, alongside a normal egg was again an unusually tiny one, this time light-coloured and perfectly smooth, such as might have been produced by Bob Johnson. Was she emerging from her winter moulding and doing it with caution first? Or, more excitingly, was it possible that María the Maran had produced her first two? The thought was too attractive to rule out, and the unprecedentedly small size could be taken as evidence, albeit inconclusive. Later on, we noticed something strange about María: something was hanging out of her backside. On closer inspection, it was a pink, fleshy matter that clearly had come out of her inside, hanging heavily down almost to the ground. We tried not to think too much about it on this special day, and certainly not to look, but I was worried enough to phone the Farmer for advice. In reply to my message, he turned up on our doorstep. He looked at María and declared that nothing could be done for her. She would last another two days, he predicted. There was no fatalist air in these pronouncements; they were matter-of-fact. K reminded us of her uncle’s advice that we should avoid getting attached to hens.

On Boxing Day, the surprise egg was as small as the first two, but this one had no shell and was on the henhouse floor, not in a nest. María herself looked much better: the fleshy matter was not there anymore. We could not find a tasteful explanation for it, and a Boxing Day miracle would have seemed far fetched. We went to see the panto in Newcastle and forgot about María.

On 27 December María stayed in her nest. On 28 December I found her dead. I wrapped the hay she had nested in around her, dug a deep hole in the field and buried her.

María had a brief time in our midst and, unlike all the other animals, was not happy there. Her relationship with the world was uneasy at the best of times. She was more troublesome to keep than any of her peers and at times she caused some irritation. But she made an effort at Christmas time to show that she appreciated our care. The timing of her first two eggs could not have been better chosen. But the exertion proved too much for her. She was either too young or too weak inside to be productive. Gratitude killed her.

16 December 2007

16 December 2007

This incomparable corner of Northumberland is proving unique in more than one respect. As the rigours of winter bite, temperatures seem to reach lower nadirs than the official forecast, even those the BBC or Mozilla predict specifically for this particular postcode. After a diluvial November, the first fortnight of December brought welcome dry weather, but at a price: every day the frost gets sharper, the roads more slippery and the house more damn bitter cold.

Ensconced on the side of a hill and framed by the confluence of two rivers, the house is built into the hillside, some of its walls acting as a kind of rampart against it. Mysteriously, one of the downstairs walls has an arrow slit, even though there is nothing on the other side but the bowels of the hill. Was there no hill outside when the house was built? Hardly, since some of the upstairs is sculpted in, with concrete flooring laid directly onto the seemingly natural elevation. Only parts of the house have a downstairs as such at ground level.

This situation provides good shelter from the wind, but also puts us in the shade for much of the time, causing the ice to stay longer with us, sometimes not thawing at all. As to the squadron of builders, plumbers and electricians who once were part of the house’s ecosystem, they have taken their vibrant presences, colourful temperaments, musical propensities and sonorous voices elsewhere, presumably to a more pressing project, leaving us with drafty cracks unsealed, central heating unbalanced, and electricity very provisionally connected through a tangle of cables plugged into a socket at my feet in the study – not to mention the next stage of remedial houseworks we cannot afford to proceed to, such as tanking the said study, a room ‘unfit for human habitation’ according to the survey. And, believe me, the house is cold.

Even before any snow has fallen, the field is iced with a white coating that glistens under the moon and crackles underfoot with a satisfying sound, as if you were walking on corn flakes. Initially this experience would be available only on canine walks, first thing in the morning and last thing at night, but this week the cold has been such that the frost stays over the field all day. On the dirt drive, patio and paved areas the ice provides a treacherous rink where the postman’s van and any inadvertent visitors skate with unpredictable results.

I come out in the morning to find the henhouse all frosted over, and sometimes it is a struggle to open the door. The hens’ water freezes within half an hour, so we have begun to bring the dispenser into our house at night so the poor creatures will have fresh liquid water to drink in the morning. They now choose to lie in their nesting boxes, all huddled together. This unfortunate habit is not a result of the cold as you might expect, but an practice introduced by María, the Maran, who joined us in October. It was not cold then; the problem was that on her arrival the other three hens accorded her a fiercely hostile welcome, so vicious that at night the newcomer had to take refuge in the nesting boxes, away from the perching bars where the bullies lorded it over. Apart from sympathy for the underhen, this drama affected us in that the unusual amounts of hen droppings in the nesting hay forced us to replace the hay more frequently.

09 September 2007

Sunday 9 September 2007

Life on Tynedale and the endless works needed on the house have brought a procession of interesting characters I never tire of observing. There is the Chimney Sweeper, with a colourful, resonant voice and a use of the dialect that epitomises the vocal music of this region. There is the Calor Gas man, who doubles up as welder and mechanic, and whose son has a small farm nearby and a small child that takes his hen-keeping duties very seriously. There is the Skip Man, whose aristocratic face and dignified bearing, unhampered by the overall he wears to work, exude an air of lordliness. Some other time I will write about the motley team that has been working on this house on a daily basis, giving our space the stamp of their idiosyncrasies and dictating to a large extent the rhythm of our lives.

Last week came the Scrap Man, bearing a luminous face and a sense of enjoyment of his trade that seemed at odds with the evident physical effort of lifting heavy pieces of metal, dismantling obsolete contraptions and loading the rusty components on the back of his van. He was quite methodical about it, and seemed to know where each piece of metal should go in the van with such exactitude that my offers of assistance were cheerfully declined, as if it were obvious that I wouldn’t know where to put the items I was proffering.

Like most of the local tradesmen, he knew this house well and had done work for its previous occupants. He wanted to know what alterations we were planning, he enthusiastically agreed on the need for all the changes I mentioned, he praised the beauty of the surroundings and he told me about his own house near Wark, which over many years he had improved with his own bare hands. His pride in it was unmistakable. Well after he had finished loading the remains of our ancient Rayburn on his van I could still hear the clunking of metal outside. At length he knocked on the door to tell me that he had finished. He informed me that he had removed some metal from the skip at the front of the house so we would have more room for our rubble. I looked at the skip, previously full, and it had come down to about one-half of its capacity, betraying a considerable burst of activity on his part. He left, wishing us good luck with the remaining work to be done, and he left behind the warmth of his beaming face and his name card: P Pratt, Wark Metals Scrap Dealer.

31 August 2007

Friday 31 August 2007

Geordie’s demise has transformed the dynamic between the surviving hens. Bob Johnson is now in a minority of one, so she can ill afford to peck at her younger and increasingly stronger colleagues. There is no vindictive bullying from the black majority either, so the three go about their business in amicable normality. What’s more, the Black Rocks have begun to lay! Smooth, light brown, white-specked eggs. After a period of unsettledness Bob Johnson has resumed daily laying too, so we are now blessed with three eggs most days – one brown, slightly rough and jagged, the other two smaller, a lighter shade of brown, very smooth and with delicately placed white specks here and there.

27 August 2007

Monday 27 August 2007

The two new Black Rocks are feisty characters, especially the younger one, Rocky. Her friend Delilah is more corpulent and has more of a comb and her behaviour, although quite bubbly too, is less exuberant. Rocky spots you from a distance and follows you around running at high speed, and when she catches up with you she overtakes you, she stands in front of you and goes flat on the ground spreading her wings. You have either to walk around her or bend over and stroke her head, which appears to please her, even if her real hope was that you would have some corn for her.

When Rocky and Delilah first arrived they were bullied by the older residents, Geordie and Bob Johnson. Jealous of their space and food, the senior hens would peck the junior ones so mercilessly that we often felt we had to intervene. It took several days for the four of them to learn to coexist in some kind of entente cordiale, although the balance of power was far from even, and the everyday activities were segregated along colour lines: two brown hens on one side, two black hens on the other. Until Geordie got broody.

One day Geordie was seen all puffed up, sitting sulky and motionless in quiet corners instead of being out in the field foraging for food with her comrades as usual. Alarmed, I phoned W to seek advice. When I described the symptoms, the diagnosis came unhesitant: “she’s clocking”.

At least that is what I now understand W to have said, even though at the time I thought he was saying “she’s clucking”. After all, I had heard it over the phone, I’m new to this area, not a native English speaker, and certainly no expert in the jargon of hens. But K was prompt to correct me. Clocking it was, even if I could not find independent corroboration in the dictionary. The fact is, I knew what W meant, and K knew what I meant, and Geordie seemed to know what she was doing as she did it with assurance. What took me aback was the intensity of the broodiness, and its duration. Day after day she refused to join the other three, preferring instead to sit alone and sulk. Gradually she even lost the interest in food, her one remaining pleasure being sitting in the sun. Although there was no visible reduction in her bulk, it was clear that she was getting weak, and one evening she did not have the strength or the will to go back to the hen house. She sat in a corner by the hens’ gate, with her face against the wall. There was something resolute and final about her posture, and by this time I was wondering if there wasn’t more to Geordie’s sufferings than mere broodiness. I let her be, partly from fear that, whatever her ailment was, it may be contagious, and I closed the door to the hen house with the other three in it. I fully expected to find Geordie on the same spot the next day.

First thing in the morning I went to the hen house, and on the spot by the gate where I had left Geordie there was nothing. The other three came out of their house and down to their breakfast, seemingly cheery and in good health. When I told W, he said he had seen brown feathers on the way to the field – sure sign that the fox had got Geordie.

25 August 2007

Saturday 25 August 2007

Bellingham Show day. The road workmen have had the good grace to remove their barriers, cones and ‘no access’ signs for the occasion. I had to miss the show because of family business in Edinburgh. K went with her cousin J taking the Bouvier with her, but there was no category for him. An attempt was made to smuggle him in with the Child Pet Dogs, and one of J’s small daughters was game for it, but when it came to answering the judge’s question “how old is your dog?” her answer was “he’s not my dog”. That put paid to Fluffy’s competitive season this year.

K met the Farmer on the Show ground, and commented on the absence of sheep this year. "I feel undressed without them here" was his comment.

21 August 2007

Saturday 21 August 2007

Roadworks have been on for a few weeks on the road that connects us to the A68. In order to go to Newcastle we have had to take a detour through Bellingham and West Woodburn. This week we found that the road to Bellingham was closed too. W was the first to break the news to us yesterday morning, flushed with the excitement of his argument with the workmen who had tried to stop him coming to his workplace. By the time we attempted the crossing the workmen looked weary, as if W and others like him had dissuaded them from preventing the likes of us leaving their village in any direction. After a few days they and us found an equilibrium where they would let us through if we waited patiently for them to move their big machines. There was even a semblance of friendliness in the way they returned our handwave.

18 August 2007

18 August 2007


Saturday 18 August 2007

Falstone Show day. K decided we should enter Fluffy in the dog class, Any Other Dog category. Following the discontinuance of the Terrier Race on grounds of Health and Safety, it seemed that the dog presence in the show was set to have a lower profile than hitherto. She thought it would be good for the show if we unleashed our Bouvier on it. Who knows, he might elicit a smile or two. In the morning I gave the Bouvier a good grooming, or as good a one as a dog as shaggy as this can undergo. He submitted to it with good grace, as if he knew it was a special occasion.

Once there, Fluffy became predictably excited, especially at the density of the dog population on the show ground. Every time he saw a dog he would make an impetuous dash for it, often causing its owner such consternation that we had to shorten the lead and hold on to it quite firmly. In frustration Fluffy would pull at his lead with such force that once the collar came off over his head. I went to the dog accessories stall and bought a smaller one.

Falstone turned out to be a smaller affair than the only other display of its kind I had been to before, the Alwinton Show. Its scope was further diminished by the ban on transport of animals decreed in the wake of the latest foot and mouth scare. There were no sheep and no cattle. Only some stalls selling produce, a tractor display, a few tents where prior to our arrival prizes had been awarded to the best cake, the best painted egg, the best jam and so forth.

The dog display attracted interesting characters, not only the four-legged ones being entered but also the handlers and spectators. The judges carried themselves with an air of impressive authority, their faces strained by the responsibility they bore in the knowledge that their verdict was going to be incontestable. They choreographed the handlers around the ring, they motioned us one by one onto the platform in the middle, then after a hands-on examination of the dog they would direct the handler away towards the side of the ring and back onto the platform, and then away again. Next the judge would call the three finalists onto the central platform, give them an appraising look and choose the final winner. All this was conducted with a cheerful solemnity.

When it came to the Any Other Dog Category and Fluffy walked onto the central platform, the adjudicator admitted to some puzzlement as to the kind of beast he was judging. He gave Fluffy third prize. No comment.

05 August 2007

5 August 2007

After the best part of another day toiling fruitlessly, finally towards the evening I found a way out of the deadlock in ‘Music and Land’. It doesn’t yet feel like a breakthrough, but the relief to see the music flowing again is no bad feeling.

Fluffy the Bouvier showed a rare semblance of vigilance when he barked from his watching post. The reason became apparent soon. The farmer, who had done some more work on our field yesterday, was back in his tractor, and behind him another machine, bigger still, followed into the field. They lost no time and began to work, one on each side of the field. The commotion was considerable and I was curious, so I went to have a look, leaving Fluffy in the house lest he run under the tractor’s spikes. It was an impressive sight to see two agricultural vehicles working in our land. Their weight set the ground vibrating underfoot and their roar sounded incongruous in this idyllic retreat, but at the same time it felt right to see the idle long grass gone and coming out of the rear of a round baler as neatly compressed bales. The thought that that hay is going to be used is good for the soul.

Seeing me standing there, the farmer came down from his tractor and explained that he wanted to make the most of the dry weather to press on with the job. I expressed concern that he was having to do this on a Sunday evening, but he didn’t seem to mind. Tiger the cat was sitting beside me, transfixed by the big machines. Her estranged colleague, Douglas, watched from a respectful distance, looking deeply concerned at the turn of events. I left the farmer and his assistant to their work and I came back to mine, which was now also making headway. Night has now fallen, but soon I’ll be going out with Fluffy to survey the transformation.

04 August 2007

4 August 2007

I’ve hit a dead end at bar 135 of ‘Music and Land’, the second movement of the string quartet. I’ve been trying one solution after another since K went on tour three days ago, but nothing I come up with seems to provide a suitable continuation from this point, which also has to be a preparation for the movement to come to an end. Only my surroundings are keeping me sane.

On the way to the bins I bumped into M, a professional gardener and a friend of the last owners of our house. He was mowing the lawn on the other side of the road, the piece of land that has been retained by our predecessors. After some small talk about his gardening and our building works, I found myself telling him, without meaning to, about the full moon on the field. Rather personal perhaps, but I did give him an edited version that he might understand. He understood, and responded in kind with some or other of his own admiring experience of the beauty of these parts. This appreciation of the landscape did not surprise me. A couple of days ago I had also intimated something about the lunar experience with W, who, in turn, had told me about his days as a farmer, when in the summer he would rise at three in the morning and let the dogs run around in the moonlight. “You felt grateful to be alive” is the exact phrase W used. Notwithstanding his claims of inadequacy at self-expression, W not only uses language vividly, but he is a true aesthete. And today M the gardener didn’t fail to empathise either. I’ve come to the right sort of place.

03 August 2007

3 August 2007

In the morning the Bouvier had dried up a bit, but an unholy whiff still wafted up whenever he got near. His self-esteem seemed still shaken. He would approach me with awkard movements and a needy expression in his face. And every now and then he would still bend to reach the affected area, even though he could not think of an effective action to improve his situation. I could: I gave him a shower.

He was very reluctant to come into the bathroom – no fool, he. He had to be dragged with some force, but once there he resigned himself to the warm water and the shampoo. His frame decreased to about half its habitual dimensions with the wet hair stuck to his skin. You had to make an effort not laugh at him. Douglas the cat broke into inconsolable wailing outside the bathroom, possibly in sympathy for what he considered a cold-blooded torture on someone who was, after all, a family member. The Bouv came out in a fit of hyperactivity, no doubt part of it designed to shake the water off his fluffy body. The smell was gone, and nothing untoward stuck to his rear anymore. His dignity was saved.

True to his word, the farmer has been cutting the grass in our field. He must have arrived when I was out in the village buying food. As I came up the drive I could see his tractor’s rotor blades scything the wild growth into some kind of agrarian submission. He was working quite intently, but he responded when I waved from the car. He will use the cuttings for hay, even though, he had said, this is no longer the best time for it and it will be all seeded. But I think this is the time he is making his own hay, as are other local farmers. If the best time is past, our grass doesn’t seem to have been alone in outstaying its prime.

An interesting man this farmer. The other day he turned up with a present: one deep brown, speckled egg for K. It was perfectly shaped and tastefully coloured as if by the hand of an artist. I held it with admiration and respected the farmer for his attention to detail. K had been talking about liking brown eggs, such as a Maran might lay. This jewel was the farmer’s demonstration of one his Maran’s output. Now K very much wants a Maran.

02 August 2007

2 August 2007

2 August 2007

One of the hens is limping. K thinks there is some kind of infection in her foot, the one she (the hen) can’t put down. When I asked W, who knows more about these things, he thought the hen had hurt her foot on the construction debris she had been exploring. He recommended soaking the injured foot in warm water with TCP. But the next time I saw the hen she was walking normally.

All day I thought with anticipation of the nightfall and the lunar conflagration it would bring. When the day’s work was done and tiredness set in, I took the Bouvier to the field but was disappointed to see that no moon had risen yet. No party, no late night, no moon. Never mind. The dog was entitled to is walk. He was off the lead, since in the night he is less likely to run amok. As I made towards the river he stayed behind near our bonfire spot. I reached the bank and waited, listening for the owl. No owl either. On tonight’s evidence, it seems that the owl remains silent if the moon is not out. Young B was not answering my calls and he had not joined me by the river, which was unlike him. I walked back to the spot where I had left him, and there he was, sitting in a cowering sort of way. He would take a step or two towards me, bend his body in a sideways arch and then sit again. The unpleasant smell was the telltale sign. So that is what was keeping him.

He had done his dogly duty in the field, but this time he had something of a loose stomach and he had either misjudged the angle or just been unlucky. The fact is that not all of it had fallen down, and there was a large mess sticking to the fluff of his rear. The Bouvier seemed mortified, and it was clear that he was unwilling or unable to walk anywhere in his present state. This had happened before, and I knew what to do. I went to the house, got a roll of kitchen tissue and came back to the field, where the Bouvier, as he hadn’t ever done before, had stayed put on the same spot. I laid the lit torch on the ground, stood in front of him and, holding the fluffy body between my legs, I bent forward towards his backside and wiped his bum.

It was hard to believe how much there was, as sheet after sheet of kitchen tissue came off soiled until there was a goodly pile of them on the ground. I realised this wasn’t going to solve the problem this time. After puzzling awhile over the humbled dog’s predicament, I coaxed him towards the house, left him sitting on the yard and went in to prepare a solution of warm water with washing up liquid. I probably don’t need to describe what ensued. Suffice it to say that, after repeated ablutions to which he submitted with surprising docility, the Bouvier began to wag his tail again. As I disposed of the rubber gloves, the water and the plastic container, I remembered the kitchen tissues in the field. I went to fetch them without a torch and found them easily, not only because I know my field and I remembered the exact spot, but also because, only then did I realise it, the moon was now shining in all its glory, and the field, apart from the temporary defilement of a few soiled sheets of paper, had once more become a silver temple. The unscheduled developments of the night meant that I was' after all, able to partake of tonight's lunar worship. If the owl screeched, I did not notice.

01 August 2007

1 August 2007

I was late home after the performance and the party, which the worrying about dog and hens had compelled me to leave earlier than I would have liked to. The roads were blissfully empty most of the way back, and on arrival I headed straight for the Bouvier, who had spent a record number of hours by himself. My visions of psychological harm to his canine mind and physical harm to the furniture proved groundless as the good fluffy thing came up to me in his unfailing affectionate fashion, the only signs of any trauma being, if anything, a greater intensity of joy in welcoming me. He came out with me to check on the hens, who unforgivably had been left out at the mercy of every wild beast of the night until a late hour. They, too, had come to no harm, and as I shut their pophole I heard a screeching in the field indicative of some interesting creature. I brought the dog into the house for his dinner and once he had eaten I took him out to the field. A treat was in store.

In the chilly midnight the moon was burning the field with its silver light, giving it the look of one vast pagan temple dedicated to lunar worship. It was impossible not to remember Casta Diva che inargenti queste palle piante antiche…I didn’t need the torch; it would have been sacrilegious to intrude with a man-made light. I plodded over the uneven ground in the direction of the screech, by the river. When I reckoned I was in front of the sound’s source I put the torch on and shone it on the trees: it was an owl, perched on a horizontal branch. I hadn’t come this close to an owl before, but I had always thought owls made an ocarina-like hoot. And yet this was a strident, alarmed kind of screech, with a two-beat, iambic sort of rhythm. And the bird was definitely an owl. This owl was not amused to be glared by my torch and it showed his displeasure by releasing a dropping, audible and wet. And he held his ground, not budging from his branch, and the light did not inhibit him performing his screech with determination, not averting his round eyes from the glare of my torchlight. I observed it for a moment and then switched the torch off and went on my way round the silver temple the field had become. The murmur of the Rede sounded confidential, like an intimate talk or perhaps a prayer in propitiation of the moon. After a full circuit round the field it still seemed too soon to go back in, so the Bouvier and I went up the drive. Walking back, the moonlit was a blessed thing. If I hadn’t written mooncast I would do it all over again, but re result would be different up here from what I wrote in Coquetdale.