Highway to Hell

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Finishing the tucking in in the far field should have been cause for celebration. As I climbed through the electric fence, having passed row upon row of tidy (okay, let’s not get carried away, I mean not entirely junglified) vines on my way home, I couldn’t help feeling a wary nibble of uncertainty chipping away at my good mood.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In their natural habitat, vines have evolved to have their fruit eaten from the vine by the top end of birds and the seeds deposited elsewhere from the bottom end, preferably somewhere near a tree. In turn, that seed grows into a vine. Presuming that the poor thing doesn’t fall victim to the accursed rabbits and deer, the vine will thrive, go in search of lots of the sunshine – climbing up the tree in the process – until it eventually swamps the poor old tree, and wipes the pair of them out in the process. We saw some Vitis Vinifera (wine species) vines doing this to some huge Eucalyptus trees in Turkey once, it’s remarkable how big regular vines can get.

Sharp eyed readers will have noticed that the trellising at Chateau Huxbear is rather smaller than enormous Eucalyptus trees, so how does that work? Well, the wine cognoscenti would have you believe that people all over Europe spent generation after generation looking for the most utterly wonderful piece of land on which to plant vines, tasting the wines at each potential site until alighting on the perfect spot. I suspect that they spent as long looking for stony land that was rough enough so that they didn’t have to spend all of their time hacking away at a field full of triffids. In fairness the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but the best land for vines is rarely of much use as anything else.

After a winter’s work hacking away at the previous year’s growth and having planted the vines in a carefully selected site*, the vines still need some attention throughout the growing season. Tucking in comes from when the discerning vigneron would wander around the vines tucking the extraneous shoots into the wires of the trellising. Tucking in now usually involves moving a wire that lives beneath the growing part of the vine in the winter up the post to a hook above where the shoots are growing, lifting all of them into place in one go. It is hard to overstate quite how satisfying watching a tangled mess of shoots turn into gorgeous row of vines is. I’d recommend turning up at your local vineyard and having a go, but you have to have spent three years having a bash at doing it the old fashioned way and failing miserably to enjoy the full effect.

*Don’t let your correspondent’s levity fool you entirely, he spent literally hours going cross eyed in front of Ordnance Survey, geological and soilscape maps before pulling the trigger on the purchase of this particular bit of land. Honest.

“So why all the confusion, it sounds like you should be absolutely punishing a gin and tonic in celebration” I hear you cry. Well, for starters, the weather is still sub-tropical and probably better suited to ale, and secondly, when I arrived home and checked our progress with last season’s dates, we are miles ahead of where we were this time last year. I smell a rat, because this never happens. It was while I was looking for that rat that I stumbled over the new – well, new to us – sprayer that had tiptoed its way past militant French people at Calais all the way to our vineyard! Glory be! In fairness, the sprayer probably accounts for a good bit of our additional progress this year, and it actually had a dead rabbit under it until the dog found it yesterday, which probably accounts for the eau de rat.

Given the shenanigans of the ferry workers, the delivery of the sprayer was fairly uneventful until it reached Devon. We had it delivered to our ever patient and willing farming friend who is fortunate enough to own land on a road that is worthy of the name and I arrived in time to see him carefully extracting it from the delivery wagon with his enormous tractor. Once the delivery documents were signed and I had stopped weeping at the thought of tossing my backpack sprayer in the bin, I was instructed to go away and return with my rather smaller vineyard tractor so the sprayer might be attached to it in preparation for action.

Logistically this is probably more of a problem that it might first appear. While the tractor itself moves around freely enough, it was manufactured when I was two, has a top speed of under twenty miles an hour and I was about to take it out on the sort of road that is frequented by young chaps who will invariably enviably plant their massively exhausted motorised discotheque into at least one of the fields. But then again, it is holiday season, and who can say that they have had the full Devonian experience without having a near death experience with a tractor?

I enjoyed myself enormously on the road, it made a fascinating change from driving around in a field. I was actually feeling quite disappointed when I turned back onto our lane and bid farewell to my new friends in the line of traffic that had formed behind me; who were doubtless as amused as I was that right hand indicator appeared to have stopped working causing me to apparently stop in the middle of the road for no discernible reason. Fine times! I could even see them all earnestly ordering two bottles of wine each with their hands on my way back up our lane.

On its first outing it became apparent that the sprayer was worth the harrowing journey, making mincemeat of the big field in about three hours – a job that is pretty much a couple of days work this time of year when one has factored in the associated procrastination. I whizzed around the smaller field in the afternoon and even managed to fit a spot of grass cutting in before clocking off and was feeling so self satisfied and smug by the end of the day that I assumed that I’d turned into Piers Morgan or something. I can now only imagine how awesome it is to have one of those tractors that cut the grass and spray the vines at the same time; that’d leave me loads of time to repair all the things that I’d smashed into while attempting to do two things at once.

Ooh, before I sign off, I’d like to thank you for keeping your fingers crossed. Although the weather has been less than stellar over the period of flowering – it has been threatening to rain pretty much throughout – it never actually got around to actually raining and the vines are now through flowering and out of the season ending danger zone. Which is as well, because at the time of writing, it’s absolutely lashing down.

The Exploding Rabbit

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I’m currently hiding in the kitchen scowling at some decidedly inclement weather on the other side of the window. The dangerous side of the window.

I’m sitting here primarily because I was losing the will to live in my boil-in-the-bag all weather gear. I appreciate that the upmarket stuff that I was wearing is supposed to breathe, but the breathing mechanism seems to sort of break down a bit when one is covered from head to toe in atomised weeds, grass and rabbit*. As if further justification for my wanton procrastination were required, the weather arrived in grand style in the form of a whopping great lightning storm. And Thor saw fit to lob his sizzling javelins as your correspondent was stood at the top of a hill, soaking wet, clutching a metal strimmer; which is perhaps a less obvious lightning conductor than a golf club, but was still likely to get the job done.

*I saw first hand why I am stalked by a collection of buzzards every time that I take the tractor out this morning. I was innocently tidying up the bits of grass that the mower can’t cut and blew up the carcass of a rabbit that had previously been clobbered by the mower.

The downturn in the weather is particularly galling as, if all – and I mean all – forms of media are to be believed, the weather is utterly wonderful everywhere else (except the bit of France where all the rain is coming from, I don’t why that makes it it worse, it just does). When one adds the fact that the vines are very nearly about to flower to the mix, the news stories about trains and roller coasters being cancelled because the people who operate them have forgotten what happens in summer are completely intolerable.

If you have been with us for a while or just know how the flowers work on vines, you will be aware that rainfall at this time of year is not our friend. In the first half of July (in Chudleigh at least), the inner workings of the flower that have been encased in fused petals (which look at little like tiny grapes) emerge when those petals fall off. The interesting parts of the flower are covered in pollen, which is blown around the vineyard during the flowering process, lands on another flower and makes little grape babies. In turn, we smash those babies to pieces and make wine from their blood (I accept that I may have taken that analogy a little far, I blame this morning’s horror show with the strimmer).

Vine flowers rely on the wind as opposed to insects** to facilitate the movement of their pollen from one flower to another. Grass is pollinated in the same way which explains the rather uninspiring flowers that have evolved on both. As any hay fever sufferer will know, all that wonderful/miserable pollen is mysteriously absent when it is raining. This is because it has been washed onto the floor, as opposed to being in the air, looking for flowers to make delicious grape babies with.

**There is a limited amount of pollination carried out by pollen and solider beetles, or the very occasional bee, but this is more of a happy coincidence sort of a deal. Vines don’t advertise.

At the time of writing, only the very earliest of flowers have emerged – I’m not about to start counting, but I’d guess that 1% or so wouldn’t be far off the mark – so all is not yet lost. The forecast over the next few days shows an improving picture, so logically there should be wall to wall sunshine and nary a drop of rain until the end of October. Cross your fingers please.

Something awful happened the other week that was as surprising as it was disappointing. Our previously invincible Hilux pickup sort of ground to a halt and refused to start again. In truth, I blame myself for this mishap. After six years of faultless service – other than bits falling off it on account of all the rust – I committed the cardinal sin of treating it to a new starter motor, an oil change and even a tyre that was full of air, as opposed to that aerosol stuff that cheapskates (that’d be me then) fix punctures with. After all that pampering, it was an absolute nailed on certainty that it was going to keel over and die at the first available opportunity.

This posed a bit of a problem. At any other time of year this would mean a bit more fetching and carrying on foot, but the pick up is also my portable water supply (in a tank on the back) for spraying during the growing season. As I have successfully deluded myself that using a person mounted sprayer as opposed to a tractor mounted sprayer was a better bet for murdering the mildew every couple of weeks, this promised to become a major problem rather quickly.

Once I had wiped the tears from my eyes, shouted a bit, poked it with a screwdriver and scratched my head for a moment, I had a solution and rushed out to the shop for farmers down the road. And in absolutely no time I was sat in the tractor, looking at a pick up cab full of wife and children that was tethered to the front of the tractor with a tow rope. It was attached to the front of the tractor as I couldn’t find a handy place to hook it onto the back, so we looked very ridiculous. Which was excellent preparation for the return journey, when we were both going backwards.

By the time that we next meet, it is very likely that our new tractor mounted sprayer – one can only take ones delusions so far – will have arrived from France. Unless there is a strike at the ferry terminal or something, which seems unlikely…