So Long, 2013

Having almost forgotten what it is to be cold and wet over the last, well, let’s be honest, year, it came as a big shock (okay, big ish) when it at first turned cold last week and then wet. There was actual frost on the grass and we even saw the sun for a moment or two at the start of the week before it turned wet. On second thoughts, wet is putting too fine a point on it, I have been staggering back into the base camp looking very much like a drowned rat and feeling very sorry for myself indeed. I am then ordered back to my executive shed* to change out of the clothes that are transferring the rain and quite a bit of the vineyard onto the kitchen floor in huge drops of brown goo.

*If you haven’t been with us for long, the executive shed has been flattened by a snow drift, rebuilt, flattened again, and then rebuilt again, properly, by not less than three engineers. We did this while we were supposed to be picking grapes this year (there weren’t an awful lot of grapes).

It is even more disappointing as I have been working in just a couple of layers and navigating the vineyard quite easily until last week. The land was apparently made from something solid and I even noticed that some of the locals had their cows out and about roaming the fields. You might not have noticed that cows usually go to live in sheds in the winter, they do this partly because it is easier to feed them (there is no grass for them to feed themselves) but mostly because they make an incredible amount of mess in wet fields. (We had four escapee cows in one of our fields the winter before last and the gateways are still a mess!) The wet weather appears to have also taken our neighbour by surprise too as I note that the corner of his field around the feeding trough is inexorably turning from green to brown and there are cows slip-sliding all over the place. Half tonne chunks of prime beef fighting over a feed trough makes for extremely amusing viewing.

As it’s cold, that means that it’s time for pruning. It is always uncanny how quickly the feverish activity that comes with harvest (and then wine making) turns into the absolute calm of winter pruning. And generally standing around, wishing that you were brave enough to get close enough to the mud wrestling cows to become a You Tube millionaire. Our peers who are lucky enough to have the sort of employees that you pay in money (as opposed to occasional staff prepared to work for wine and food) are usually extremely keen to jettison this activity at the first available opportunity, usually in favour of spending the winter driving a desk in a warm office, but I absolutely love it.

I’m not entirely sure if this is because of the feeling of satisfaction that one receives from doing a job on the vineyard that, once you have completed it, is actually done for a whole year, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. This is where I am supposed to pretend that I actually dislike cutting the grass and spraying the vines et al over the growing season because we have to do it over and over throughout the summer. Unfortunately for my well reasoned argument, one of the these pursuits is a nice walk in the stunning countryside, albeit attached to a heavyish knapsack sprayer. And the other is literally a drive through the stunning countryside, albeit in a clapped out tractor with a seat that one is obliged to prise one’s self out of, as I have cleverly upholstered it in gaffer tape. No matter, much as I love – you are welcome to remind me how much I love spraying when I am next whining about having to do it six months from now – the other jobs around here, pruning is extra good because it is a one hit wonder.

Once we have dusted down the cold and wet weather gear after it’s summer packed away and sharpened up the secateurs, the next job is usually to digest what happened last year and then make some decisions about your pruning. If the vines are looking super fit and healthy, with lots of shoots that have grown over the top of the trellising, one may wish to leave more buds (and therefore shoots) on the vine if space allows. Conversely, the opposite is true if the vines have been a bit weedy the previous year. Most of our vines fall into the latter category this year, so we are being a little conservative with what we leave on the vines. This will obviously cause them all to grow over the top of the trellising and we will be cursing leaving so few buds on the vines as we wander up and down the rows, chopping the tops off them. But then again,that’s probably better than wandering up and down wondering where all the grapes are.

I’d go on, but one has to save something to write about in the dead of winter. So that’s just about it for another year, enjoy the festive season and Merry Christmas from everyone here (as Lucy is at work, that’s me, two dogs and still, still, two chickens).

Avian Few

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I was going to tell you about winter pruning this week, and I shall be sharing my love of pruning with you in due course – which will doubtless leave you all completely breathless with excitement – but an even more exciting story about chickens emerged this week. Eagle-eyed Facebook friends of ours that are blessed with any sort of short term memory will have noticed that we have diversified into a large agro-business, um, smallholders, that is, some people with a lot of vines and a few chickens in the last couple of weeks.

When we first bought the land we had big plans for the parts of it that we did not intend to plant vines in. We immediately fenced off a piece of it that was very nearly the size of our bathroom (fencing is quite expensive, and we were spending every available penny on the vines) a mere quarter mile from where we were living (I don’t recall why we didn’t do it by the front door) and planted some food crops in it. Safe in the knowledge that we would soon be completely unaffected by the spike in food prices that had people rioting in Africa at the time. Fast forward three months and our colossal vegetable patch hds disappeared under a huge pile of weeds and I couldn’t find it. We have tried growing things closer to the house in a larger plot, only to discover that weeding isn’t exactly the thing after a long day spent tending the plants on which we depend for a living.

You will imagine my surprise and delight when Lucy* found someone who was literally giving away a chicken coop and arranged to pick it up. It was looking very sad indeed when it arrived, but unabashed, for only very nearly the price of buying a new one, I was able to patch it up and get it back to working order. And it would very likely have spent the next five or six years sat there, waiting for one of the children to take an interest in it, had Lucy not found another person who was giving away perfectly good chickens that were still capable of laying some eggs.

Now I can’t say for sure as I have no real evidence, but I suspect that Lucy secretly raids those clothes for the poor boxes on the way to work and goes around like a homeless person, looking for kindly people to take pity on her and give her awesome stuff for free.

What an absolute result! We were playing at being proper farmers! Lucy and I were happy because of the extreme low price that being farmers had cost, the children were happy as they had something other than the dogs to chase around and the chickens were happy because they had acres of countryside to roam in and only some rabbits to worry about. Which they could no doubt peck into submission if they tried to steal their food. Our perfectly happy chickens lasted for exactly five days. I was busy putting up a wind turbine and noticed that one of the chickens was sort of head butting the fence around the garden, attempting to fit through a gap that was much too small for it.

I was immediately suspicious. The chickens had been wandering around for days and were well acquainted with the garden, specifically where the gate was, so I went to investigate. Something, probably something quite a bit larger than the accursed rabbits, had murdered the other three chickens. Worse, they hadn’t taken more than one head to eat from three chickens, which seems rather a lot like vandalism. The remaining bird spent the next few days cowering in the coop and resolutely refused to lay any eggs. As luck would have it, Lucy managed to acquire yet another gratis chicken (more tatty clothes), so we are now back up to two, and the original one – which we are calling Survivor – seems much happier. And all we have to do now is convince John (who has just turned three) that we only ever had two chickens and that there are none missing when he asks where the other ones are and we are all set.

Surely this must be the end of the chicken flavoured excitement? There couldn’t possibly be any more! But wait! There is!

As we were keen to finally make the small holding thing work, we went out and bought quite a lot of fencing to make a run for the chickens that would allow them a free range lifestyle with battery hen levels of security. And they appeared to be having a good time, going around pecking the ground and eating things until one of them escaped yesterday while Lucy was at home alone with the children. I knew that the new chicken (henceforth known as Lightning) was trouble the moment that it started terrorising Survivor and pecking away at the executive gate that I had installed in their run (two pallets lashed together).

When I arrived home, it was dark and Lightning was still on the loose. We couldn’t possibly lose yet another chicken and show our faces in the pretend farming public again. Not even one that is a trouble causing bully, so I grabbed my torch and resolved to find her. I walked around and around, through weeds and over hills, looking and listening for some sign of Lightning. I even stalked a rabbit and a raven for a while before working out that chickens don’t live in holes or at the top of trees. I was just about to return, dejected, when Lucy suggested taking Tilly, our youngest and stupidest gun dog to help track our escapologist chicken.

And do you know what? It was absolutely thrilling. I told Tilly what I expected from her and she went straight off into the woods behind our house, with me in hot pursuit, convinced that Lightning would be back in the fold and providing us with tip top eggs in no time. I went up and down hills, along pathways and through a seemingly endless supply of prickly holly that Tilly was astonishingly good at leading me through. It was on our third lap of the same half acre of woodland that it occurred to me that Tilly was under the impression that I was taking her for a walk and that we hadn’t actually trained her to track things. I extinguished our last hope of finding lightning along with the torch and headed for home, contemplating just how appropriate Survivor’s name now was. I was just about to get home and tell Lucy to dig out her homeless costume again when I tripped over the chicken that Tilly had just walked past, missing it by inches, without spotting.

If you are wondering, at the time of writing, we still have two chickens, exactly how is anybody’s guess…

Pilgrim’s Progess

Attempting to run a business in the middle of nowhere has it pros and cons, but way over on the far end of the debit side of this column lies inaccessibility. And frankly, it’s our own fault. Before we first came to see the land, we had a good feeling about the field that lies to the east, adjacent to our current estate. We had had a look at the land on geological and soilscape maps and we were happy with what we found, the Ordnance Survey maps also indicated that there was a good slope that was pointing in approximately the right direction. A quick look on Google Maps indicated that there was a whacking great road running alongside the field which would allow access for the articulated wagons that would doubtless be carting away case after case of excellent Huxbear Vineyard wine to points all over the globe, and probably beyond to that international space station.

It’s probably as well that we decided to make wine and not read Ordnance Survey maps for a living as the gentle and agreeable slope that we were expecting turned out to be the sort of hill so steep that one expects that it must be an optical illusion until one attempts to scale it. It’s technically possible to plant vines in such a place, but it doesn’t exactly make for an easy life; the thought of running up and down that particular slope for the duration still makes my blood run just a little cold. If you are thinking that I’m being a little melodramatic about the hill, I’m honestly not. The previous owner had a collection of cows on it, one of them fell over and literally broke its neck and another pushed a bale of hay down it which smashed into and wrote off his pick-up truck.

No matter, there were four adjoining fields that had a much more agreeable slope that, if anything, was even more inclined toward King Sol than the north face of the Eiger. We were able to discount one of the fields (it had a matching pair of springs right in the middle) and, after much discussion, talked the vendor into breaking up the lot of four fields and selling us three at a mutually agreeable price. So we had our fields, two of which were pointing southward, and another that belongs to us because it joins up the previous two and we don’t own a helicopter. What’s more, we had the all important road access. Lane access. Stupid single vaguely tarmacked track access.

Why am I telling you this? Because it explains why I was halfway up the aforementioned track in the car travelling at not more than five miles an hour, steering with one hand and attempting to hold 300kg of traction batteries upright on Friday afternoon, and failing miserably. This is not the first time that we have treated our clapped out Ford Mondeo so shabbily – long suffering readers will remember that we had lots of fun attempting to transport nearly a tonne of wire up the same lane – but it is the first time that our payload has attempted to make its own way out of the car.

I suspected that there might be some fun moving the batteries from the lane to the house when researching them on the internet. Whilst I was discovering that they were just the ticket for people in our position (the position of being with out a connection to a decidedly 20th century power grid), I also noticed that they were impossibly tall, thin and heavy. Which is exactly the sort of thing that you need rolling around the back of your estate car. No matter, I was prepared to manfully take the risk as they also have two of my favourite attributes: they are a) cheaper and b) good. I arrived and helped the delivery driver to unpack the very carefully packaged batteries and confirmed that they were both tall and heavy before loading them into the car myself, the delivery driver being much too busy offering nuggets of advice and doing that sigh that mechanics and plumbers do before proffering the bad news.

Fast forward ten minutes and I am halfway home, travelling at glacial speed and have ascertained that batteries do not respond to threats or abusive language. A pioneering battery is listing at an alarming angle and appears to be going for the handle. I had completely forgotten about the child locks on the rear doors that would have prevented them opening at this point (and the oncoming traffic, if I’m completely honest) and had visions of the precious new batteries vomiting their acid all over the car and it eating away the back seats. Causing us to have to sell the children because there is literally nowhere for them to sit*. Fast forward ten more minutes and I’m at home, the batteries are in their rightful shed place and I have lost only nine or ten years from my life.

*I appreciate that it is technically possible to buy another car, but I had left rationality back on the proper road.

And do you know what? It was worth every terror filled minute. The unmitigated wonder of turning things on without having to check the batteries every five minutes or fill up a dirty old generator is incredible. Particularly once you have already accepted that you are going to have to do it forever in return for living in a particularly idyllic part of the middle of nowhere.

And what of the wind turbine? After teasing you for weeks about how amusing putting it up is going to be? Um, well, the bits that weren’t in the box arrived, I wired it all in and attached it to the pole and it is currently behaving itself perfectly. I know. I was as amazed as you no doubt are.