Hobbling Into Summer


One weekend’s worth of sunshine followed by some standard erratic English springtime fayre can only mean one thing: everything is happening, and it’s all happening at once. Something very much like this tends to happen about this time of year every year, but it always comes as a bit of a surprise. It’s usually preceded by conversations along the lines of “Are those vines ever going to get growing properly?” and “We haven’t even had to cut the grass yet!” and is immediately followed by mild panic, lots of rushing around and one or both of us collapsing in a heap, having attempted to ram those four weeks worth of work into one.

Although the growing season technically started about a month ago, the period between then and now is mostly comprised of worrying about the frost, finishing off spraying the weeds and arguing about whether it is time to turn the central heating off. And this year has been a fairly standard one in this respect, one moment we were baking in the sunshine attached to a gin and tonic, preparing for an entire summer’s al fresco dining, and the next we were climbing into our ancient* tractor between showers, turning the key with crossed fingers while uttering words of encouragement. And it is when I am chummily patting the tractor on the bonnet – as it rolls out of the equally ancient shipping container that it calls home – that I know that summer is well and truly under way.

*If you haven’t been with us for long, you won’t be aware quite how ancient our tractor is. I was two when it rolled off its German production line, and though I tempt fate horribly by saying this, it has been considerably more reliable than I have. Then again, it is of course still in the first flush of youth. Like me.

In spite of the additional workload, I absolutely love this time of year. The vines are powering ahead and we can see the flowers that will be doing their thing during the dog days of summer, when the weather will be not at all erratic (we have spent a lot of time with our fingers crossed this week). This is also that nice time of year before we have to worry about spraying the vines, as the mildew is extremely unlikely to get up to any mischief in anything but the most appalling weather at the moment; it’s nice just to go for a walk amongst the vines and enjoy their company, without feeling the need to inspect every other one for anything untoward. Especially when the grass has just been nicely cut and no longer littered with nettles on the lookout for bare legs (or thin trousers) to sting.

In fact, the only fly in the ointment in our idyllic little enclave is my aching hamstrings and wobbly gait. Experienced vineyard types will immediately diagnose this condition as bud rubber’s bend. If you haven’t had the pleasure, bud rubbing involves bending over and knocking off the shoots that you don’t need from the bottom of your vines. In the case of our new vines, we would remove all of the shoots except one, which will eventually become its trunk, as the established ones already have trunks, one would remove all of the rogue shoots from the ground, up to the wire, where the important stuff happens. This is great for the vines, but all that bending over leaves us hobbling around like a very old married couple.

Happily this gets easier as the vines become older, as the older wood is less likely to produce rogue shoots, a bit like the trunk of a mature tree. Last year we removed the guards from a couple of thousand of our most well established vines (in an area where there are fewer rabbits) to see if it would be possible to do without the guards entirely as they were starting to look a little tatty, having been blown around the vineyard on countless occasions by the increasingly lively storms and degraded by the sun when it condescends to shine. In my head, the rabbits would hop along and helpfully remove the shoots from the trunks of these exposed vines for me, and I would return heroically from the fields having secured a couple more weeks of gin and tonic time and ready to inform Lucy that we could stop hobbling around town looking ridiculous.

Did the rabbits do us a favour and save us from having to do our least favourite job of the year? Not a bit of it! Apparently, digging under the back of our raised flower bed in the garden – with fencing worthy of Fort Knox – so that they could eat all of our lovely herbs was fair game, but the tender and unwanted new shoots of a vine is not. They are of course good enough to nibble a bit of some of the shoots to make them harder to take off, but that is sort of par for the course. And in any event, I’m telling myself that we will both be doing yoga well into our nineties on account of all of this stretching, so it’s probably as well that it isn’t working out.

The generator. Hmm, I was confident that I’d have an exciting update for you this week, but I’m afraid that I don’t. I am however talking to lots of interesting people about it and expect that I’ll be able to cobble one together out of blu tack and paper clips by the time that I’m finished…

Oh Deer, Too Much Cargo.

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I’m stood at the side of the road admiring the fortitude of our long suffering Ford Mondeo. A delivery wagon rumbles into life behind me and I wave gratefully to the patient driver. The Mondeo looks like a sports car today, all sleek and low to the ground. I climb aboard and cross my fingers, hoping that nothing falls off it when I do. I turn the key still with my fingers crossed and give the dashboard a friendly tap when the old girl rumbles into life in preparedness for another five mile an hour crawl along the lane home. Which she completes with little more complaining than the occasional groan as we traverse from the relative calm of the smooth tarmac to the stone path to the house that is worthy of Heath Robinson himself. We arrive, I alight and I am once again astonished that we have completed yet another of these journeys entirely unscathed.

All of this excitement can only mean one thing: a delivery has once again arrived at Chateau Huxbear on a wagon that is far, far too big to make it up our ridiculous lane that is as overgrown as it is tiny. In turn, we have crowbarred far to much cargo in the boot of the car, crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. At this point, you might be wondering why we don’t have something a little better suited for collecting large items, and it turns out that we do. Unfortunately the more appropriate machine is a pick up that is held together by rust and good intentions (so isn’t remotely road legal) and Lucy’s car is even less well suited for hauling freight, so it’s the Mondeo for anything smaller than a pallet of bottles. They go to the farmer down the road, who brings them on his tractor, but we don’t like to impose on his goodwill too often, lest he tells us to bugger off.

Another excellent reason for riding the gauntlet with the car again was that time was very much of the essence with this delivery. It was the first consignment from our newly minted agronomist and it had arrived a couple of weeks late, so we were understandably keen to get it out of the shed and onto the vines. After looking at the soil and leaf samples from last year, our man decreed that we would need a good dose of his finest fertiliser and he was fairly confident that in doing so, we would be practically guaranteed to have brimming wine tanks and corner the English wine trade almost immediately after that.

The main problem with suggestions from these chaps is that they tend to come in terms of bags per acre as opposed to the amount that you actually need to put on each vine, so the first job is to determine that. This involves some time with a calculator and a piece of paper and then (in our case at least) finding something that holds the requisite amount of fertiliser to toss at the bottom of the vine. This has previously involved my marching out with a bucket of fertiliser and dessert spoon, but it was time for drastic action this year. After making a strap to help me carry around a larger bucket of fertiliser, I strode out like I meant business with an eggcup in my pocket, bolted on a can do attitude and had the lot dealt with in short order.

It was while I was fertilising that I noticed that the deer have been into the vineyard and helped themselves to a little of our Chardonnay (the vines, not the wine). This has happened before, but for the most part, they haven’t done too much damage and we have been relatively sanguine about the moderate losses. Particularly because the electric fence eventually zaps all of them and they go and find their dinner somewhere else. The main problem with the damage this time of year is that the vines never recover sufficiently during the growing season to produce any grapes. This is because its first go at flowers (that eventually become grapes) are now on the inside of a deer. Whence they are most unlikely to find their way into one of our wine tanks.

I was lugging my executive fertiliser bucket down the first row and looking ruefully at damaged vines and crossed a mental Rubicon. Was it not ridiculous to wander up and down the rows, fertilising the vines a la pack horse, just so a deer can eat our impressively vigorous vines? Let’s be honest, it doesn’t take too much thinking about, the answer is a resounding no. But what to do? The electric fence wasn’t cutting it sufficiently to drive out all of the deer, so we would have to think of something else.

My first thought was that I’m partial to a bit of venison, perhaps I could take a radically right winged approach to the problem and get myself a gun. It turns out that isn’t as easy as you might think. The first problem is that deer are quite large, so one is obliged to shoot at them with the sort of weapon that wouldn’t look out of place in a 1980s action film. The authorities therefore take quite a bit of convincing before they start doling them out to the proletariat. At least this side of the Atlantic. I considered a bow and arrow for approximately three seconds before administering myself a mental slap and moving on. The other problem with deer is that when they aren’t being massive and eating your vines, they are decidedly circumspect on account of the wolves that don’t live here any more, but their genes insist on them loitering behind each and every tree. This means that you must lie in wait for them for hour after hour, which is an appalling notion for anyone with lot of other things to be doing.

This sequence of events lead us up to yesterday and to the yard at the local agricultural supplier, where they sell fencing. After bagging the services of the vineyard owning chap from down the road for the day, we now have the top and bottom of the field deer proofed and I’m hopeful that we will be able to report that the deer have started hammering someone else’s crop this time next week! I’m also hopeful that crop isn’t our other vineyard.

I’m due another tour of the fence and I haven’t told you about the generator yet! Hmm, meet you here this time next week?

The Bunny Oiler

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We had spent most of the previous day checking the weather forecast every five minutes or so and cursing the inclement weather. On arrival, last Saturday was pretty much the same as the previous few days: baking sunshine followed by torrential rain on a fairly regular rotation. This was no use at all for our purposes. In fairness, it is April and it is behaving as advertised, but our extra pair of hands was due to arrive and, let’s be honest, it’s years since the weather did what it is supposed to. We walked out of the house with fingers crossed and the clouds parted, ushered along by some very lively wind, the internet rain radar promised a break in the weather and we were all systems go.

After what seems like months (because it actually is months), we were finally on the brink of attaching one part of the generator to the other. And it had been a long and arduous road to this point. From first blowing up, it had teased us by pretending that one thing was wrong with it, before the prognosis became progressively worse and we ended up on the receiving end of a bill for a new alternator (the bit that makes the electricity) last month. At the time that we bought it, a friendly local offered to help us put it together, using the forks on his enormous tractor to lift the surprisingly heavy alternator onto the still functional engine.

This is where we were up to this time about a fortnight ago. Since then, our man arrived, plus tractor, and we attempted to attach the new bit to the engine, only to discover that several things were in the wrong place so it wouldn’t fit. After a medium sized panic, I have spent most of the intervening period attacking additional bits of metal with an angle grinder and shouting at inanimate objects (which is pretty much what I spend the rest of the time doing minus the angle grinder) having discovered that our engine is rather helpfully not a standard one. I’d like to pretend that this time was exactly like when the A Team find themselves in a barn, conveniently filled with spare parts for a tank, but in truth, it was more like a cross between Dad’s Army and Faulty Towers.

No matter, the additional bits of metal were attached to the engine, the rain continued to leave us alone for the moment, and the new motor was perched precariously atop a car jack as close as we could get it (I couldn’t coordinate the tractor and the additional help), ready to be lifted on. We were braced and ready to make the final push, myself and our endlessly patient pair of hands doing the grunt work and Lucy guiding it onto the fixing point, when we were assaulted by the most appalling, yet strangely familiar oily stink.

My heart sank. Had the new bit broken before we had the opportunity to have a go of it? Not a bit of it! Charlie (age 2) had spotted that we were busy, grabbed a bottle of hydraulic oil and emptied it over his head. And that was the extent of the drama for the morning, the motor slipped on to new bolts and, once the new ignition switch arrives, we are going to have a go at starting it (keep your fingers crossed for us). And then bottle some wine. At last. And it doesn’t get much better than that. Particularly as we’ve been promising people rosé for weeks as the weather is becoming increasingly conducive for drinking it.

And that is a round about way of explaining where this blog was last week. As well as testing the elasticity of my patience, fixing the generator did remind me of something else that I have been meaning to address for a while: rabbits. We have covered almost everything else that we have had difficulties with over the years, but I don’t think that we have specifically covered rabbits.

As the seasons change and the days lengthen, we are visited by an increasingly diverse collection of fauna. Some of these are most welcome, from the beneficial insects (soldier beetles, ladybirds etc.) to the magnificent pheasants who are doubtless delighted to discover a Devonian landowner who isn’t packing heat of any type. However, some of the local critters are not at all welcome, like the accursed wasps who endeavour to munch our thin skinned Germanic grapes at harvest, the deer who go after the vine’s tender shoots and the rabbits, who visit us in their hundreds and will eat pretty much anything that isn’t under wraps.

For the most part the unwelcome visitors haven’t been too much of a problem, we trap the wasps in the run up to harvest, electrocute the deer into submission and have rabbit guards on everything that is showing a bit of green below waist height. This method for keeping the rabbits off has worked brilliantly for the vines and the couple of fruit trees that we own, but everything else that we have tried to grow that won’t go in a guard is ruthlessly hammered back to ground level by our astonishingly promiscuous floppy eared tenants.

We were feeling resigned to our fate and relatively sanguine about not being able to march out of the front door and grab a couple of leeks or a courgette, when how bad the problem has become was brought into sharp focus on our return from an Easter trip to our ancestral Mancunian seat. As we pulled up at about midnight and the car’s headlights traversed the garden, it had become a boiling mass of grey fur as overly confident rabbits of all sizes bolted for cover. A week later, we discovered a drowned one in a half full bucket of water. Apparently they can now climb too. But not swim.

This calls for some fairly drastic action. We initially thought that the dogs would do the job for us. And the terrier that we owned when we bought the land had some form in this respect, having cleared out and eaten a good number of them on our epic hikes across the South Downs during our time in Brighton. Unfortunately, the very instant that we moved in, she refused to chase anything other the sticks, stones and balls that she incessantly demanded that I throw for her.

So we went out and bought a puppy. Another youthful dog, another scourge of the rabbits? Nope. We bought a pointer who we thought would be just the ticket as she is considerably quicker than a rabbit and should have had the patience to lie in wait for them. I don’t know whether it’s our logic or the fact that we apparently picked the world’s dimmest dog that’s the problem, but the rabbit population remains nothing short of awesome. Could this be because she has decided that the rabbits are there for her personal entertainment and spends literally hours, just staring at them gnomelike? Perhaps. I believe that we may need a pack of wolves, or to join the club, pack some heat of our own and develop a taste for rabbit stew.