Sun: Shining, Chicken: Immortal

What a difference a week makes! Okay, so I’m currently cowering in the kitchen clutching a steaming cup of coffee having been frozen and drenched after venturing into the fields sans waterproofs on the dubious advice of the Met Office, but things are definitely improving weather wise. For example, on one day this week it didn’t even rain at all. And on those days where it did rain, there were definitely some parts of the day where I’m fairly certain that it wasn’t actually raining. And the relative dearth of Old Testament style flooding has had the most remarkable effect on the state of the land: it is now performing a passable impression of solid ground and one almost never has the feeling that one will disappear into it or be eaten by an Alligator or something on the way to work.

As an added bonus, the wind has also dropped significantly, so there hasn’t been any hysterical meteorological carnage here or abroad (everything on the other side of the gate) as far as I can tell. Although there are dozens of hi vis and hard hat clad chaps patrolling the river road, manfully attempting to prevent it from slipping into the river altogether. As far as I can tell, this mostly involves cutting down trees. Quite how a hard hat is the thing if you have the misfortune to fall into a river or are bonked on the head by an entire tree remains a mystery. I’ll consider it while I stare blankly at the temporary* traffic lights and let you know if I come up with anything.

*Given that that there have been temporary traffic lights on the lane for five years out of the seven that we have been here, when great chunks of it were not cascading into the river, presumably temporary in this case means that they will disappear between now and the heat death of the Universe.

I digress, I was just about to explain how I am personally responsible for saving the people of the South West from the ravages of dangerously high winds. I was waiting for the attendees of the first of our two meetings this week (I know, actual meetings, like a normal business person, but don’t worry, I attended both in my traditional homeless chic vineyard attire), when I had a phone call to say that they would be delayed. I thought that I would spend the time constructively by attending to the broken generator. A small amount of investigation revealed that it is broken in a manner that is relatively cheap to repair. Sensing that our luck was turning, I went to investigate a small problem on the second generator (that we use to keep the lights on when the renewable energy lets us down) and discovered a loose wire. Cost of repair: £0.

We were on a roll. I grabbed Lucy and we took the wind turbine down and attached a larger tail (that I had loving crafted from a sheet of plastic with a pair of scissors and some cable ties; it obviously looks extremely classy) and put it back up again. It turned into the wind and started to spin furiously, providing us with deliciously free* electricity. As we emerged from the power shed, having checked that everything was performing as it should, the wind dropped, the sun emerged from behind a cloud and we bathed in the most glorious sunshine and everything started to feel good in the world. The wind turbine obviously hasn’t moved an inch since, but if this is the fee for more spring days like this, I feel that taking one for the team is the appropriate action. In unrelated news, I have started lobbying Lucy for some more solar panels as these do actually work.

*I appreciate that the power isn’t actually free, it’s more a “No additional cost” sort of deal, but I have written off the initial outlay, treating it as a sort of charitable donation to the industry so they can spend it on developing a turbine that isn’t entirely useless.

It appears that our remaining chicken, veteran of fox attack and hurricane (and going by the name of Survivor) has decided that she is essentially immortal and is using her super chicken powers to go around being very brazen indeed. After last week’s storms accounted for 50% of our chickens, I have spent quite a lot of time in the last fortnight building the remaining half (that’ll be one then) a hen house so impervious to weather that it will assuredly still be standing when our own house is inevitably atomised by one of tropical Devon’s increasingly lively storms. John was helping me apply the, ahem, aesthetic finishing touches to it, specifically to make it look like it wasn’t fashioned from a design that never made it out of my head and onto paper. We were busy arguing about whether or not goats eat chickens, when I noticed that something was assaulting my watch.

From nowhere, Survivor had sneaked up on me and was hammering away at my wrist. To say that this was out of character is an epic understatement. When we had four chickens, Survivor rapidly found her way to the bottom of the food chain and appeared to spend most of the time being shunned and/or beaten up by the other chickens. When we introduced another chicken, it wasted absolutely no time at all in beating up poor old Survivor and monopolising the food dispenser. Worse, as she had been present – but pecking around on the periphery of the flock – when the others had been massacred by a fox, she was understandably extremely jumpy. The fact that our largest dog is sort of ginger and could, at a furtive glance, pass for a fox (albeit a dim witted and not at all cunning one) wasn’t helping her nerves either.

But ever since the untimely death of the resident bully, everything has changed. And that unhappy event isn’t just emboldening her to pick fights with me, apparently the hammer while it is in operation is fair game too. And I’m pretty sure that I even saw her squaring up to the ginger dog (albeit from the safety of the other side of the chicken wire) the other day. Whether our newly minted tyrant is able to continue her reign of terror or reverts to type once the four new birds that we are expecting to arrive at any time remains to be seen, but rest assured that I’ll be stood watching and taking notes instead of finishing the pruning.

Devonian Road Slip

And just when we thought that it was safe to venture back out into the fields after a day of relative calm last Thursday, the hysterical – and apparently lost, it’s supposed to be hovering over Scotland – Jet Stream vomited up another of its charming little storms to rearrange everything that wasn’t nailed down for us again. I appreciate that this won’t exactly be news for anyone who has been outdoors, or on the receiving end of the media, or has a house that has windows in it, but the weather has again been very exciting indeed in our little enclave of Devon.

For our part, things started to get a little lively at about the time that I was sticking last week’s blog online. I was obviously absolutely livid, as the timing meant that I was unable to do additional whining about the weather (I have begun to refer to the apocalyptic scenes outside as “Content”). The trees in the wood behind the house started swaying, the occasional vine guard cartwheeled past the front door and the wind turbine continued to defy the laws of physics and generate exactly no power.

We had Lucy’s father over for the weekend, so I took the opportunity to cry off work for the afternoon and we popped out for essential provisions (yep, booze). Our route to anywhere other than darkest Dartmoor from the vineyard takes us past the river Teign at the bottom of the lane. The Teign is a glorious, tree lined, junior sort of a river at the best of times, frequented by fly fishing and picnicking types. It was in full on, not picnicking, Mr Hyde mode and doing a serviceable impression of the Amazon by the time that we drove past; it’s usual crystal clear, calming water transformed into an angry brown torrent. It was up to the level of the carriageway and had a couple of huge trees floating around in it. Returning from the nearest shop, we agreed that it might be a good idea to turn back and batten down the hatches for the evening.

On arrival back at Château Huxbear, Lucy looked me up and down, noted that I had something relatively smart on for the first time in weeks and sent me back into the rain and mud to put the chicken coop together. In fairness, she and a passing friend had heroically rescued a chicken from under it not ten minutes before. The wind had used the roof (that was now properly attached) as a handy sail to pick the whole thing up and dump it back down on one of our unfortunate avian chums*. As the evening progressed things became even more exciting. The 12′ trampoline (complete with one of those child injury defying net things) that had made its own way over a 3′ fence and into the garden on Wednesday, turned around and made its way back out of the garden, and roughly back to where it belongs via the newly repaired shed. The shed still bears the scar, but is mercifully still upright. By the time that I was breaking up a fight between the car and a plastic climbing frame, it was clear that it was time to stick my metaphorical head in the sand and my actual body in bed and pretend that it wasn’t happening.

*Sadly, said avian chum keeled over and died two days later. Needless to say, the one that we call Survivor, which was the only remaining one from the first chicken massacre, is still happily pecking around the new bird house even as I type. And presumably wondering why she doesn’t have anyone to play with. The new hen house is essentially bomb proof, is very nearly finished and will have more chickens in it in short order. Lucy also tells me that it looks like an oven, but one can’t have everything. More on this next week.

As we emerged on Saturday, it appeared that everything must have calmed down just as soon as we turned in for the night as there didn’t seem to be much else that was out of place. We were breakfasting and enjoying a news story about the roof blowing off the smoking shelter at the Met Office, when it occurred to me that it’s just possible that the rest of the country may have outdone us again, and that we should probably get on with counting our blessings.

We didn’t have far to go to see that a wonky shed isn’t entirely newsworthy. Our little valley has had its own dose of misery. The road through it, which is cleverly cut into the hill fractionally above the level of the river, had started to lose its foundations into the river about five years or so ago and is periodically, never properly, repaired. The trees that were floating around in the river on Friday have taken quite a lot of those foundations with them and the side of the road closest to the river is sort of partly absent. Which promises to necessitate diversions – that are as picturesque as they are epic – until approximately the end of time.

But what’s this? Free material for foundations for the builders that has magically appeared on the carriageway? Nope. It’s a whopping great landslip from the field above the lane on Wednesday, to remind the poor benighted thing that it can be assaulted from above as well as below. It’s funny, I thought that we’d be in Panama or somewhere equally exciting before landslips became a problem. No matter. I have a good feeling about next week’s weather, so it’s going to be okay. And therefore, I promise that next week’s blog is not going to be about the weather. Honest.

Laurel, Meet Hardy.

I’m trying really very hard to present life here as a completely regimented and sober (pun intended) affair and that the vineyard and winery run like a well oiled machine. In truth, in recent weeks it would be impossible to present it as anything other than a sort of Laurel and Hardy disaster film. And this week has been no exception. In fact, this week has been so utterly delightful that it started with a sort of generally depressed malaise, came perilously close to me dropping everything, nailing a For Sale sign to the gate and reporting to the Job Centre and rallied at the end of the week when we elected to stop worrying about the things that we can’t change and concentrate on the things that we can. Which is code for open a bottle of Chardonnay and remind ourselves why we are here.

I’m getting ahead of myself. The week started reasonably well. I’d begun to start counting down the rows of vines that we have left to prune in our largest field and was relatively happy with the result, we had accepted that the weather wasn’t going to get better any time soon and we had discovered a pretty efficient way of rotating the waterproofs so that one is not obliged to stride out into the fields wearing moist wet weather gear. As an added bonus, the drainage that we installed around the house was also working beautifully. One of the drains was keeping the driveway (which is less like crazy paving and more like compacted stone that was dug out of a neighbour’s field) reasonably dry and the other is ensuring that the contents of the septic tank don’t make their own way out of the tank and into the house via the lavatory. I’m particularly pleased with the driveway drain as it looks and sounds like a little waterfall and ensures that there is no longer a puddle of water sitting on it enticing fully clothed children in as if stocked with mermaids; it was certainly big enough to house a couple.

The only ominous sign of things to come was the wind turbine. Long suffering readers will recall that we live off grid – it’s too far away to economically connect to it/we are saving the planet (delete as appropriate) – and that we have had lots of fun with wind turbines over the years. In fact, problems with the wind turbines have usually presaged problems with the weather. This has historically taken the form of them falling down or to pieces before a shed or a dog or something rolls past the window like a lump of tumble weed. I have been asking myself why we don’t just have more dependable and reliable solar panels and I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I think that it has something to do with making a mockery of all weather conditions. To this end, we are considering a water wheel in the vineyard.

Our new and not at all improved wind turbine is slightly different. After a couple of months of fairly efficient output, it is currently disregarding the flotsam careering past it and obstinately pointing in any direction other than the one in which the wind is blowing. By my reckoning, this is technically impossible, but I shall be keeping a close eye on it so I know when to expect and prepare for the next apocalyptic storm.

Wednesday was when it really started to warm up a bit. That’s a bad analogy, um, I’ll make one up. Wednesday was when it really started to apocalyptic up a bit. The previous weekend I had put all of the wine through the first two grades of filter and, having taken a look at the state of the weather forecast, decided to spend the day doing the final filtration on one of the whites and to get it into bottles. I felt vindicated in my decision as the wind whipped up and the rain started to fall sideways while I remained warm and dry in the winery. Which feels better than you might think given the last few weeks.

I had everything in place and was even employing a novel new technique for filling the bottling machine and was feeling fairly smug when I noticed that the large generator that powers the winery equipment had started to make some alarming noises. I rushed out to turn it off, but had cleverly locked it up away from the elements and couldn’t find the key. By the time that we located it, one of its alternators was well and truly cooked and there was lots of wine in the wrong place. Specifically in a bottling machine, and not safely back in the tank waiting for the generator to be fixed.

By the time that we had managed to get the wine back where it belonged, it was time for lunch. Our route back home took us past the shed that we rescued from the undergrowth at the back of the field we live in and spent some money on last autumn. It now has a substantial (okay, over-engineered) wooden frame to hold the walls up that was doing absolutely nothing in terms of keeping the roof on. Quick as a flash, I ran into the shed and grabbed a drill and some screws to keep it attached (for it is the shed in which we keep the tools), noticed that everything looked even more alarming inside the shed and then that the battery on the drill was flat. Know how a watched pot never boils? Pots have nothing on charging drill batteries when you are taking turns to hold the roof on a shed. But it did eventually charge, and we did eventually get it secured in such a way that the whole edifice is going to have to blow away in one big lump if it intends to move itself again. Which I don’t entirely discount.

No matter, having enjoyed some lunch, I thought that I would go back and take a look at the generator and attempt to ascertain whether the not very expensive alternator or the very expensive alternator was the cause of appalling smell that was emanating from it. This necessitated a jump start, and as the land is so utterly wet, I fired up our archaic off road pickup to get it going. I probably don’t have to tell you that in short order the generator remained off and had a flat battery, and that the pick also acquired a flat battery and now needs a jump start. Quick as a flash, I grabbed a bottle from the winery and turned the heating on in the house.

Learned and Patient Pruning

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It has been explained to me by learned and patient people more than once that it isn’t actually possible for the sky to run out of rain. Nevertheless, I’m fairly confident that, as the planet isn’t making any more water, there can’t be much more of it left to fall on the wet people of Devon. It’s now easily the wettest that I have ever seen it at Château Huxbear, and the weather forecast isn’t promising much joy in the immediate future either. While I was winter pruning this morning (yes, actually winter pruning, and trying to find something far more exciting to do), I noticed that the land at the top of the hill – which is level and therefore doesn’t deposit the rain into the river quite as efficiently as the slopey bits – has taken on a kind of custard type of consistency and it moves around as I step on it. And when one walks down one of the rows – these are particularly slopey slopes – the rain is running down them in constant streams along the channels that tyres of the tractor and the passage of people have made over the years. It’s quite a sight, and is presumably happening as there is no longer any room for water inside the soil.

If you are getting the sense that we have had just about enough of mopping up after the sodden dogs and trying to keep on top of drying the waterproof clothing, you would be about right. As an added bonus, the rain has been accompanied by some industrial strength storms this week too. And we were just about to continue to whine and moan about the state of the weather until said storm picked up a quantity of the sea, deposited it on the railway line at Dawlish and took much of what holds the railway line up away with it, which helped to put things into perspective. And when one considers that there are folk up the road in Somerset who haven’t enjoyed the benefit of access to their homes for upwards of six weeks, while we perch gratifyingly somewhere near the top of our very own hill, it becomes clear that less whining and more stoic mopping up is just the ticket.

When we weren’t considering the weather, things have been moving along a bit this week. I have run out of excuses almost* entirely, so winter pruning has been the order of the day and we are now just about halfway through both fields. This means that we are moving into that sweet, sweet part of the year when it is possible to see light at the end of the tunnel regarding the pruning, and the frantic attempts to do two or more jobs at the same time in June and July still seems to be many gin and tonics into the future.

*Almost is exactly right. The storms have produced another little job for us to do this weekend. The poor and much abused chickens suffered further indignity this week when the lid blew off their house, leaving most of it exposed to the elements, causing them to cower in the covered bit where they lay eggs in more clement seasons. Quick as a flash, I was out to rescue them by wrapping one of those buckle strap things around the entire edifice, ensuring that the lid was inextricably linked to the parts pertaining to chicken. And how long do you think it took before the entire thing decided to try and make its own way out of the chicken run? Not very long. It’s currently propped up alongside a post, which is keeping it upright, but failing to keep the thing from rattling all over the place. So I have been given the go ahead to burn some more time making a hen house from a quantity of wood and four large posts that are driven many feet into the ground.

Just in time for us to start the final leg of the winter pruning a missive arrived with a thud into the vineyard’s email box informing us that all the cool kids are now doing their pruning in March (in fairness, this did ring a distant bell or two from our time at college). The idea is that the sap is flowing upwards in the vine in spring in readiness for a spot of growing as opposed to down towards the roots in autumn/winter. This helps to prevent you from spreading disease from vine to vine with your secateurs, as any traces of the disease will be removed as the sap bleeds from the pruning wounds. Allowing a little of the sap to run from the vine is also thought to help to delay the start of the growing season to a time in the year when the delicate new shoots are unlikely to be frosted to death.

Sounds good, yes? Unfortunately the email didn’t include information about where to source (and how to pay for) your army of trained vineyard people in the three week window this method allows in our part of the world. I’ll be sticking to our start in winter, finish by the end of winter and burn the disease on the secateurs to death on the cooker’s hob method until I work out how.