Meteorological Musings

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I really, really, really must learn to stop tempting fate. The very moment that I* clicked “Go” on last week’s entry outlining the benefits of the Gulf Stream to our enviably situated chunk of land – specifically the part where the warm air sweeps up from the Caribbean and gives jack frost a well deserved kick in the groin, preventing him from zapping the vines with his nefarious icy attentions – the weather performed a naughty little volte-face and started ushering huge amounts of cold air towards the south of England from points north.

*I feel that it is politic at this point to point out that, in spite of our efforts to crush the French wine trade beneath the heel of our superior English produce, this blog is not affiliated to the United Kingdom Independence Party, nor do we believe that even our naughtiest indiscretions (real or imagined) can have even the slightest effect on the weather.

It was all going so sweetly until about Tuesday. The weather remained resolutely drizzly all day and made absolutely sure that the mercury never made it anywhere near the double figures that we had been enjoying. Which in turn ensured that there was no latent heat kicking about to keep the vines warm over night. Then, as the sky faded to black, the wind picked up and blew the pesky clouds away, as we were about to retire we were treated the sort of breathtaking display of stars that one can only enjoy from a field in the middle of nowhere, far from the nearest street lights. And miles and miles from the clouds that had been parked over head all day and might actually have been some use insulating the good vines of Devon over night.

And that is a fairly convoluted way of telling you that Tuesday night was a little dicey. One can always tell when the weather is going to have one or both of us scampering around checking vines at the crack of dawn by the amount of daylight coming through the curtains. When it is particularly crisp and white outside, it is appreciably lighter, and let’s be honest, colder, in our bedroom, which acts as an excellent alarm clock. Even better than the crashes from the kitchen that accompany our youngest fighting his way to the bananas each morning. Drawing back the curtain indicated that it was a little frosty out there, but this veteran of many sleepless nights staring at a weather station was able to determine that we had been the victim of the puniest of grass frosts that lacked the power to zap our elevated vines. Or even the new ones, as it happens.

Panic over? Maybe. Although I am currently stood in front of a window watching pea sized hail stones bouncing down the driveway and am crossing my fingers that this new threat isn’t going to make a mess of our new shoots/swollen buds. I’ll let you know about that next week, because I’m certainly not terribly keen to rush out this instant to check.

If it isn’t immediately obvious what hail can do to the vines, consider the force that they hit the ground with and their ability to remain in tact during this ordeal. When they are unaccompanied by rain – which lubricates them, causing them to slide off whatever they hit – they can deal a fair amount of damage to tender young shoots. Indeed, if they are sufficiently large, they can take chunks out of the infrastructure of the vines; this happened in part of Champagne a couple of years ago and smashed an entire year’s crop to pieces. Which, even given my comments above about French wine, is a crying shame; we have spent many happy hours on the receiving end of their output.

News that is both great and amazing has reached us from the always accurate Met Office! Get out and buy a barbecue and build (dig?) a swimming pool with absolutely no heating, for drier and hotter summers are on the way on account of the previously dastardly and nefarious, but now incredible and super, climate change. After finishing choking on the collective Château Huxbear cornflakes on hearing this on the morning news programme, it was cause for great celebration all around. We immediately started planning what we were going to do with the millions that we would doubtless earn, having snatched all of the billionaire customers from the better known Burgundian wine producers when their vines wilted in the oppressive, climate shifted heat.

But what’s this? A caveat? Yep. We had cleverly grasped the headlines and none of the content from the news story with all of the ham fisted ineptitude of a tabloid news editor. On closer inspection (specifically a grilling of the weather boffin-in-chief by one of the resident BBC pit bulls), this is by no means certain. I now understand that it is likely that there will be less rain and more heat in the summer, but that might not happen. And it is going to rain a lot more in winter, unless it doesn’t. But some weather will definitely happen at all times during the year. I’m pretty sure that they are spending their budget on whisky and cigars and having their scripts written by Mystic Meg at the Met Office now, so it’s probably safest to ignore the last couple of paragraphs.

Yikes! I’m supposed to be on holiday and haven’t yet had the opportunity to tell you about the generator, so I’ll save it for next week. In the meantime, rest assured that we have jettisoned our previous and simplistic plan and have seized on a convoluted and reckless one; but at least I shall know how to make a generator at the end of it. And that is the melodious thunk of Lucy’s hand hitting her forehead as I dive all over the path of most resistance with not a thought for common sense.

New Beginnings and Endings

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And lo, the vines began to grow, marking the start of another season’s toil in the fields. And the people gave thanks and crossed their fingers, unsure exactly what a burned offering was, and hoped that the next seven months would treat them kindly so that they might have something useful to pick from the vines at the end of the season. Things had certainly started well for them. The sun was shining and the wind had dropped, their winter hats and coats were safely stowed away, never to see the light again until the other side of harvest. The people paid homage to the sun, digging out the garden furniture and taking their meals bathed and warmed by its magisterial golden glow. Imbued with its healing power, the people turned off the central heating with wild abandon, gleefully pressing the off button for what must surely be the ultimate time before next winter. They rushed out to buy ice and cider, and tossed their drinking glasses into the freezer, for it was up hill all the way from here! There were shorts and discounted hay fever medicine in the shops (for summer was in the air), blossom on the trees and positive, colourful people everywhere. Devon was warmer than Cyprus!

You can probably guess what’s coming next, can’t you? After a small break in the wall to wall sunshine – for which I take full responsibility* – and some extremely pleasant temperatures to go with it, the vines took the hint and started to a do a spot of growing.

*The only drop of rain that we had in the two week period of dry weather that we have been enjoying in Devon fell out of the sky, past my telephone and its lying weather forecast and onto me, my knapsack sprayer and all over the weeds that I had been applying weed killer to, washing it off nicely. I think that we can reasonably extrapolate from this that there would have been nary a drop of rain had I been doing anything that didn’t necessitate dry weather.

I’m the first to admit that my knowledge of things that grow is fairly zeroed in on vines, but I understand that some overwintering plants are canny enough to use sunlight as their prompt to start growing. This ensures that a warm snap (can you have warm snaps? Let’s pretend that you can) in the middle of winter doesn’t kick things off prematurely, causing the delicate new shoots to be zapped by the next bout of frost that comes along.

And do vines take this brilliant precaution on board? No, they do not. Vines cleverly kick everything into gear the very moment that the ambient temperature reaches a particular point for a period of days as it assumes that it must be spring time, and that any risk of frost must have therefore receded northward. And the problem with that is that unlike the bare chested football hooligan waving his shirt around his head in the middle of January, vines are very much susceptible to the ravages of winter. A good dose of frost turns the delicate and joyous new growth into a stunted black, and very much dead, thing. But only after it has teased you with a hiatus of about three or four hours, just long enough for you to think that everything is going to be okay.

In fairness, this has only happened to us once and only in a tiny part of the vineyard when the vines were very young (and therefore growing nearer to the ground). I’d like to tell you that this is entirely due to us picking a stellar vineyard site and burning through ruinous amounts of money on frost prevention measures. But I think that it has rather more to do with the elevated position of the more mature vines (which keeps them away from the ground frost) and our location in the South West, where we may enjoy much of the benefit of the Gulf Stream; which does the frost protection measures for us at no additional cost. Other than being in the vanguard when that self same system dumps storm after storm on us through the winter; but hey, the roads are mostly still here after the storms, and I haven’t seen a single canoe on Chudleigh high street for weeks.

As the weather vane (okay, it’s a wind turbine, but it makes almost exactly the same amount of electricity as a weather vane) swung around to the north and we started to dig out the winter attire again, further unpleasantness was heaped upon us by the man who was attempting – and failing – to attend to the generator (more on this next week) and the news that we lost our solar powered dog on the very same day. I don’t think that the most upsetting part of this is losing our constant companion through virtually all of our married life and the entirety of our ‘Mancunian career in IT to Devonian vignerons via Brighton adventure’, or working out what to do with all the time that we will save by not having to chase her around the valley and apologise to the people from which she is demanding attention. Nor is it explaining what has happened to the children – “Going to live on a farm” doesn’t exactly cut it when you actually live on a farm – and watching their innocent faces crumple in horror at the realisation that sometimes things go and don’t come back. The absolute worst part is watching the other dog charge through the front door looking for her partner in crime before collapsing in despair. If she didn’t still have a chicken to terrorise, I don’t know what she’d do with herself…

Ode to Springtime

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There is something truly wonderful about this time of year. Living in what can only be described as a field halfway up a hill in the middle of nowhere has the effect of bringing the seasons in general (and the weather in particular) into sharp focus, so you will imagine what striding out into the fields in a t shirt and a pair of training shoes does for morale around here. Whether it feels so good because we are leaving the miseries of a particularly ghastly winter in our wake, or whether it just is genuinely marvellous in its own right is to some extent moot; at this very moment, everything in the Huxbear garden is excessively lovely.

The view from the open door is much the same as it has been for a number of months. The vines remain dormant, the trees are bare, the grass is still short and there is still probably rather more wreckage from last month’s storms strewn around the place than I’d care to admit. If one looks harder, it’s possible to see some clues about what is changing from the absent puddles, the catkins on the trees and the ominous looking yellow orb that has been floating in the sky for a protracted period for the first time in months. Once one has stepped through the front door to ensure that the sun is actually hovering in its appointed place and confirmed that it isn’t an hallucination or that Lucy isn’t attempting to lift my spirits by sticking a picture of the sun on the window and turning the heating up, the changing seasons are palpable.

Leaving the house, we immediately trip over one of the dogs doing a serviceable impression of a solar panel in her appointed place, directly behind the front door. We notice another dog keeping a vigil underneath the handrail for the decking as a chicken, resplendent in its new season’s coat of gorgeous iridescent feathers, aggravates it by strutting along the top of it. Turning toward the vines, one gets a whiff redolent of long summer holidays and unmitigated excitement, of picnics, of beaches, of, of the supermarket own brand factor ten sun tan lotion that Lucy has just assaulted me with. Amongst the vines there are signs of movement, the freshly pruned bleed their sap and the buds have swollen dramatically and appear ready for action. The ground is so firm that there is a car parked upon it with impunity, and one may venture onto it as sure footedly as at any time of year. The birds are singing, the bees buzzing and the rabbits hop across our quiet little idyll.

Logically there are many other exciting signs of spring, but as Lucy blundered into my day dream brandishing a rolling pin and gesturing frantically at the remaining pruning, I stopped taking mental notes at this point. And in fairness, Lucy and her rolling pin had a point. The vines really are seriously starting to have a think about growing – the furthest along will almost certainly be showing the smallest amount of green by the time that you read this – and one should really have the pruning in the rear view window by the time that this happens as the tender shoots are very delicate.

That the winter has consisted of a string of the sort of low pressure events that suck the warm and moist air from the south – while the cold and dry air has resolutely hovered above the north of America, freezing it solid – has shrunk the off/pruning season by at least a couple of weeks this year. Needless to say, that low pressure has disappeared now that it might be of some use in delaying the start of the growing season and has been replaced by sky high pressure and gin clear skies that are currently giving the vines an unceremonious shove and me palpitations and the sort of early season sun tan that usually necessitates a pricey skiing holiday.

Which in turn means that it’s probably time for the annual vineyard spring frost panicathon, with extra emphasis this year on account of the early growing season. But I’m going to save that until next week, as the vines haven’t actually started growing yet and Lucy’s rolling pin still very much remains in the cocked position. No matter, by the time that the rugby kicks off at the weekend, I intend to be parked in front of it nursing something cold, with a field full of neatly pruned vines looking on and the rolling pin back in the drawer.