Cycles

While the tempests of late winter may still linger on darker days, we have finally found ourselves within the raw grasp of spring; for as Charles Dickens notes in Great Expectations, ‘Spring is the time of year when it is summer in the sun and winter in the shade.’ We immerse ourselves in the joy of bright dawns and primroses and it’s easy to forget the cyclical connections forged between other seasons. The blackthorn blossom arrived to nourish hungry bees and moths, but by autumn these flowers will have transformed into plump, mauve sloes ready for the gin jug; now the hedge is speckled with hawthorn petals. Roe deer fawns will be emerging into the sunshine of our forests and farmlands, native to British soil since the Stone Age; their mothers have carried them in their bellies like an unbaked cake through the winter months, ready for a warm welcome in May or June. And while the cuckoo toots about in the Hampshire treetops for her three short months away from Africa, the sweet petals of dog rose glow pink in hedgerows, bleaching white in summer and ripening into sanguine rosehips for voles to chomp in September. It feels lovely to acknowledge waves of energy through the year, drawing us away from the cold and closer to balmy midsummer noons.

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Bluebells & Milky Owls

After a rather hearty working week, I spent Monday’s bank holiday embracing sunshine and peppy gales at the Hawk Conservancy in Andover. I’d heard plenty about their conservation work overseas and at home, particularly with the international plight of vultures and their rehabilitation service for injured birds of prey. Despite windy conditions the Test Valley lay in sunshine for most of the morning, replete with dizzying wildflowers all afternoon.

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This dapper bald eagle was one of a number of cool birds trained to dazzle visitors with their flight displays. In the morning we watched the Wings of Africa demonstration under a cerulean sky, featuring Othello the African fish eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer), Tolkein the milky eagle owl (Bubo lacteus), two white-backed vulture brothers named Cassius and Clay (Gyps africanus), a mob of yellow-billed kites (Milvus aegyptius), four sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) and two white storks (Ciconia ciconia).

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After coffee and a highly viscous cheese toasty, we headed over to the wildflower meadow to watch a display of kites, vultures and eagles. In one moment thirteen black kites (Milvus migrans) floated through the sky like a dark blossomed carousel, only to be joined by a lone red kite (Milvus milvus) gliding in from the wild, all accompanied by the haunting compositions of contemporary musician Ludovico Einaudi.

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Once the awe of watching birds in flight has settled in, there usually lies an array of complicated ecological problems that need resolving through funding or support. I was particularly interested to hear more about vulture conservation abroad; it’s a topic that’s been circulating on Twitter, as vultures face increasing threats from poison, habitat loss and the poaching industry, who don’t like them hovering around their illegal carcasses in case their location is revealed to authorities. You can read more about their International Vulture Programme here.

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The paddocks were home to the fluffiest donkeys that ever walked the earth, and were filled with paths of wildflowers adorned with chubby bees, including a dusky-lilac palette of bluebells and storms of cowslips and ground ivy.

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Most excitingly, we were able to watch the brand new Woodland Owls display in a faux churchyard surrounded by silver birch trees. Barn owls tumbled from the ‘bell tower’ and crept through the air like moths, and Ennis the great grey owl flew through us and swept our cheeks with cobalt primaries. Apparently owls were a favourite creature to transform into when witches were sneaking away from their hunters, although this sadly resulted in heavy barn owl persecution during the witch trial heyday.

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I can’t recommend the Hawk Conservancy highly enough for the chance to encounter magnificent birds of prey in an enchanting setting. Their conservation record has been fantastic and is seriously contributing to the protection of these birds worldwide. Plus the bakewell tart is to die for. Here’s a picture of me hanging out with Troy the tawny owl:

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The Good Life

I was a bit of an odd child when it came to TV choices. At seven or eight there was nothing more delightful to me than settling down with a jam-oozed crumpet to an evening of Ground Force, watching Charlie and Alan transform little gardens with fruit trees and water features. And for delicious Sunday nights, my absolute favourite show was John Esmonde and Bob Larbey’s The Good Life, that golden comedy from the seventies starring Richard Briers and Felicity Kendall. Even as a youngling, I was drawn to their abandonment of conventional life, their happiness and simplicity, and the pure delight of living off the land.

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So I guess it isn’t too bizarre to announce that I now have an allotment of my own! It’s around 32x5m (fairly large) and it’s been completely neglected for quite a while; there are two fruit trees – plum and cooking apple – and a little greenhouse with a broken pane. Aside from that it’s just a big patch of weeds with a heap of broken furniture at one end. Dreamy…

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Fortunately for me, my boyfriend was well up for the challenge. I signed up rather optimistically under the impression that I could sort everything out alone, but being a fool, I didn’t predict how much work it would take just to set it up! He’s provided lots of tools and muscle power and started making the vegetable frames, and I’ve been trying my best to put my feeble arms to use by de-weeding and digging in manure.

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Dave has also built a compost area out of pallets and, after an unsuccessful Gumtree search, he’s going to make us a lovely shed for tools and tea and Gardener’s World magazines. I will helpfully paint it green. I’ve also cleaned out the greenhouse ready to fill with warm seedlings, and we’ve just ordered our first lot of seeds to plant: cauliflower, pea, courgette and scarlet kale. The trees and borders will be filled with flowers for pollinators, part of our plan to make the plot as wildlife-friendly as possible.

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Most excitingly, we’re going to have a little extra life on the plot! After being given a free chicken coop from a family friend, we’re going to adopt some ex-battery chickens from a local farm and give them a happy retirement. I personally think battery farming should be illegal, and I can’t believe people still buy caged eggs when free range is so affordable and so much more delicious. In addition to chickens, we will also hopefully get some bees next year! I’ve just finished a theory course with my local beekeepers association, and I’m planning on gaining lots of summer experience in apiaries so that by next spring we can keep our own hives. Hooray!

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The best thing about having a little slice of the outdoors is that we live in a flat, and desperately miss having a garden; in the summer we can guzzle cool cider in the allotment sun surrounded by bees and aubergines. What’s not to love?

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To the Lighthouse

I am fortunate enough to live on the border of three southern counties – Hampshire, Sussex and Surrey – which means I can zip up to London or down to Dorset in one hour each. This is where I grew up in the South Downs, and although the town in which I live is really quite lovely, I often feel a little wanderlust to explore the countryside further afield. So this weekend, my boyfriend and I decided to venture down to East Sussex for a spring fling by the sea.

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The trip was particularly apt for me to test-drive my new Beachcomber coat from Lighthouse Clothing, a hot, yellow number with a nautical twang perfect for beating away the rain and sea breeze. I wanted something a little more stylish than the usual meagre cagoule, and I’ve been delighted with the tailored fit and amazing colour of this waterproof. The toggles provide a pleasant fisherman’s finish, and the high neck fastening really has protected me against our wonderful English drizzle…

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Our day began with a quick stop in Lewes to raid the bookshops and eat cake. We found an amazing homeware shop called Closet & Botts which sold a vast number of beautiful things that we couldn’t justify buying, like enamel crockery and dreamy soaps. Then we found Lewesiana, a tearoom/florist filled with delicious aromas. Dave had swarthy coffee and oozy brownie; I had scones and Earl Grey with blue mallow flowers.

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We soon trotted off to our next destination. Ever since cycling the South Downs Way a few years ago and tootling past the village of Rodmell, I’ve been desperate to return and visit Monk’s House, the home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf and now a National Trust property. Today was the day! The house and gardens were the country residence of Virginia, her husband and many visiting friends from the Bloomsbury Group, and it was where she wrote many of her best works. Winding through the surrounding fields also lies the River Ouse, where she drowned herself with stone-filled pockets in 1941.

Most excitingly, the house is still filled with lots of the art and decoration that the Woolfs chose themselves, including ceramics painted by Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell. By the fireplace in the bedroom there are several tiles depicting the lighthouse from Virginia’s 1927 masterpiece To the Lighthouse, and on the hearth you can read the handpainted inscription ‘VW from VB 1930’. We also loved the turquoise colour painted in the living room and echoed throughout the house, which the steward told us was Virginia’s choice and that Farrow & Ball had once reproduced it in paint, named ‘Monk’s House Green’.

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Even in early April, the garden was overflowing with life and colour. Vibrant butterflies skipped across the flowerbeds and we saw a great crested newt in the pond! At two o’clock a lovely man called Larry arranged the visitors in sun-drenched deck chairs on the lawn and read a passage from Between the Acts; I was asked to play a female character and perform some lines in the middle, which was fun! We played bowls on the lawn – something which the Woolfs were very keen on and apparently kept scores on every game they played – and visited the allotments at the back. Later, a blue tit visited us outside the writing room.

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We left Monk’s House mid-afternoon and lunched on homemade tomato and garlic soup from the Thermos, accompanied by Ribena and dried banana. The surrounding countryside looked tempting, very flat, chartreuse pastures encircled by rolling downs. We found the River Ouse and lots of horses grazing, and bought six big duck eggs from a local farm (great with asparagus).

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Just before heading home, we drove to Eastbourne and found ourselves up on the cliffs of Beachy Head, where it was now drizzling heartily. We looked over the edge and found a lighthouse, took a few silly photos and then warmed up in the local inn with a cider. Cheers to Lighthouse Clothing for my amazing Beachcomber, which served me faithfully through a typical day of British weather which started in glorious sunshine and ended in a downpour. Here’s to more adventures!

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A Meeting

‘He peered out through the portholes at Creation
And saw the stars millions of miles away
And saw the future and the universe
Opening and opening
And kept on and slept and at last
Crashed on the moon awoke and crawled out.’
(Crow, Ted Hughes)

Early this morning on the downland by the woods, I watched the seventh of sixteen lambs born this spring hop to the meadow edge and encounter a crow picking mining bees from the soil. She squeaked a greeting to her corvid acquaintance and in return the crow, who was quite as big, looked bewildered. What should he say? To avoid awkwardness, he shuffled an inch and shook his sable wings. He wondered if the lamb could be moss, but decided moss can’t hop. Crow cocked his head and began to say ‘Ahoy!’, but before he could speak, a rabbit ambled into the rendezvous with some hesitancy. She had a grey face and speckled paws – Apologies, was she interrupting? Crow watched rabbit; rabbit watched lamb; lamb watched crow.

Who knows what secrets I may have overheard that morning? Alas, at that moment a kite looped a circle overhead and our breakfast club departed into the trees.

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Ancient Spring

It is March, and a Hampshire sun meanders quietly over the crest of Butser Hill in Chalton. Dawn brings a murky light not yet unburdened from the mists of winter, but the South Downs are swept by the splendour of spring as morning arrives and the song thrush begins his opera. Nestled in downland and protected from Solent winds, an ancient farm lies across the landscape, a cluster of roundhouses and prehistoric dwellings all that remain of Britain’s past. These little houses form witch-hat silhouettes against the sun and soak up the warmth like baking bread; it will probably rain in an hour.

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In the half-light a shadow stirs on the hillside. New lambs seem to spring from the earth overnight like woolly mushrooms. They are spindly, feeble things protected by haughty mothers overindulgent with warm milk; these are the latest descendants of an ancient breed called Manx Loaghtan, bringing meat and wool to mankind since the Iron Age. Both rams and ewes grow up to six coiled horns on their heads, left to wander the thistled fields and face salted gales from the sea. Today this lamb huddles close to its flock; three nights ago a more fragile newborn was taken to the woodlands nearby, natural sustenance for a vixen and her bundle of cubs.

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The morning sun wakes two cockerels from their roost in the Neolithic longhouse roof. These pompous fowl are the closest of chaps, two free range bachelors roaming the kingdom in search of life’s greatest gifts: ladies and luncheon. They totter from paddock to paddock, startled frequently by Fagan the farm dog and eternally outraged by the pheasants invading their realm, that strange symbol of the British countryside who wander lost about the land, constantly searching for their Asian motherland. The pheasants hide jade eggs in the dew-drizzled hedgerow, mottled females cloaked perfectly in the hues of surrounding foliage, the males consistently poor in disguise or dignity.

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By noon the goats are clambering on the logs in their paddock, each trying to stand a fraction taller than the others to prove their caprine prowess. They share the nettles with spring’s first solitary butterflies; common blues, meadow browns and gatekeepers all rest quietly in the long grass. A small tortoiseshell flitters through a forest of rosebay willowherb, whose lofty foliage cones are not yet warm enough for mauve frothy blossoms. On the gatepost waits a mottled comma like an autumn leaf, frozen in time. The farm’s avian population are in full chatter as the March sun begins to descend into the undulating hillscape, snapping up invertebrates and shouting raunchily at potential lovers. Goldfinches fill the trees that line the cobbled track, as near as they can be to the wild teasels that grow along the bank, and by the old feed shed stands a towering conifer, its branches home to three tiny goldcrests hopping along like a toy train.

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Somewhere in a dusky hedgerow the yellowhammer calls goodnight to his companions with a little bit of bread and no chee-eese. They sit like browning lemons in the hazelnut trees, too fleeting to watch but easy to hear. Overhead the kites soar, kestrels hover and buzzards mew, one last crepuscular hunt before sleep takes hold. In the Saxon hall, built of solid chestnut timbers and woven wattle panels, a barn owl has taken to devouring its prey, sheltered from wind by the dry thatched roof. It swoops and twists in the air like a ghost of ancient England, trapping voles and bulging rats between its talons. Tomorrow morning a pellet will be found on the chalk floor, with little skulls and mouse tails tangled in a clump.

The song thrush has finished his opera now, later than he did yesterday and just a little earlier than he will tomorrow; the roundhouse fires have simmered away and the lambs are squashed between guarded ewes. A waxing moon beams down upon the Roman walnut tree, oak leaves and sprouting primrose. The farm will sleep through another spring night beneath a blanket of stars, a wild, snoozing capsule hidden from modernity.

Black Forest Garden

The Black Forest region in Baden-Württemberg was named silva nigra by the Romans due to its murky thickets and impenetrable darkness. On the bench where I’m resting in a nocturnal spa garden, the trees enclose us like a brooding cobweb silhouetted by the milky pallor of starlight. I’m on a wooden stool outside an earth sauna; this is one of Germany’s famous spa suites in the mountains … and nudity is compulsory. What started as an awkward half hour of a twenty-something fighting every impulse to be throughly British has now blissfully transformed into one moment of silence, while I contemplate and cool off. My toes are pushing into cold, wet grass and the night air swells with aromas of pine cones and burnt wood. It is inescapably dark and quiet. And it’s zero degrees. Back to the sauna…

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Adventures in Cheesemaking

This post was also featured on the Countryfile blog.

Aside from the drizzle and close proximity to manure, working on a farm is quite pleasant. Early this morning a carpet of frost had settled along the turf as two red kites swept through the sky above our random pheasant population, the dregs of an old shoot that died out long ago on a neighbouring farm. There are no rifles to fear now so they just totter around eating grain and infuriating the chickens.

Of all the naughty livestock living here, my heart truly belongs to our four lady goats. Yarrow, Bella and Sorrel are grandmother, mother and daughter; all are stroppy and bewitching. But the most meek and temperate of the four is Áine, who shares her name with the Irish goddess of midsummer, sunshine and fertility. In September she gave birth to a son named Comfrey, who has since gone to live the bachelor dream as a stud on another farm. This means that for the last few months she has kindly provided us with fresh milk (in exchange for fruity snacks), and I have been experimenting with making my own goat’s cheese. By Christmas I believe I cracked the caseiculture process, so I thought I’d share..

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Ingredients:
5 litres fresh goat’s milk
1 vegetarian rennet tablet
1/8 tsp mesophilic culture
1 tsp salt
Optional: Chives or black pepper

Equipment:
Large cooking pot
Food thermometer (like the ones used in coffee shops)
Wooden spoon
Colander
Teatowel

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If you happen to have a goat handy there’s nothing better than fresh milk from the udder, although you do have to watch out she doesn’t kick it all over. At Áine’s peak she was producing around a dish of milk each time, which freezes really well if you want to store it up or cheese it later.

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Once you have around a gallon of fresh milk, it can be beneficial to pasteurise it. Pasteurising kills off lots of potentially harmful bacteria, but it does also mean that the cheese can rot if left out too long; unpasteurised cheese simply becomes more pungent. If you do want to pasteurise your milk, warm it slowly to 30°C and then remove it from the heat.

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Once the milk is heated, sprinkle in the mesophilic culture and stir slowly with a wooden spoon until it is fully integrated. Allow the mixture to rest for 45 minutes so the culture can develop, and then dissolve the rennet tablet in a small amount of water. Add this to the milk and continue to stir until the mixture is fully combined. Transfer the milk to a bowl and leave to rest in a warm place for 12-18 hours, covering it with a teatowel.

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The mixture should now resemble a thick, yogurty substance. Line a colander with a teatowel and place over another bowl. Transfer the yogurty stuff into the lined colander and allow any the curds to separate from the whey as it drips into the bowl – this may take up to 12 hours depending on consistency. As the curds and whey separate, the acidity of the cheese is developing and enriching the flavour of the cheese.

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Once the curd has drained, place it in a bowl and work in the salt, which adds flavour, promotes the shedding of moisture and slows bacterial growth. At this point the cheese is ready to eat so if you would like to add other flavours, now is your moment. I chopped fresh chives into one and mixed cracked black pepper into the other. Due to the nature of the recipe this cheese is best eaten fresh – I recommend with caramelised onion chutney and digestives…

You can also use the whey to condition your hair! It sounds odd but I swear you won’t smell of curdled dairy. Have a glass of it beforehand to lock in the nutrients, and the whey makes everything really shiny.

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Listening to the song thrush and yellowhammers tooting away in the hedgerow, I am very excited for spring to arrive this year; I will be hunting around to create delicious treats from natural plants, fungi and farm produce. If I can just make my elderflower champagne as potent as last summer’s, I’ll consider it a good year…

Wild January

I’ve literally eaten five hundred truckles’ worth of stilton this festive season, so although I was reluctant to say goodbye to the Christmas break it was wonderful to be back outside doing a little physical activity at the farm.

My drive down the track this morning was brightened by those other creatures embracing a crisp, drizzle-free dawn; a hare bounded across flint stones buried deep in the rapeseed field, and as we paused to open the gate a kestrel watched us judgementally from the hazel trees. The copse that runs along the track brims with goldfinches flittering and chortling together in the sun, and as we bundled past in my ‘vintage’ Ford Focus, they gathered together and hurtled away through the bright air.

The goats are much happier now they’ve been freed from their piggery prison, as we were forced to shut them in over the Christmas break due to excessive rain waterlogging their paddock. Upon their release they spent two hours leaping blissfully around in the green, and this afternoon I fed them the shell from my cantaloupe. Perhaps the strangest sensation of this mild winter was hearing the song thrush tinkling his refrains. At first I couldn’t detect anything beneath the brash blast of robin song, but later I eavesdropped on a vibrant conversation between two thrushes in the conifer trees. I couldn’t quite make out the topic of their chat, but I imagine it revolved around gym membership deals and leftover figgy puddings.

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Every Child Wild: Techno Kids

This is my next post written for the Wildlife Trust’s #EveryChildWild campaign, all about getting children outdoors and enjoying nature. You can find more information here.

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How do you tempt a twenty-first century child away from the thrills of Minecraft, YouTube and iPad screens? Technology has become a staple part of children’s lives; even if parents try to reduce their child’s dependence on the digital world, most schools now include hours of computer time and they are bound to be jealous of friends’ gadgets. So how can we get them to switch off and go outside – and better yet, do it voluntarily?

My uncle thought up a superb solution. It was autumn half-term, Christmas had already become a financial drain, and he didn’t fancy spending limited holiday time in motorway traffic. So, he decided that he and my two cousins, both emotionally invested in their tablets and consoles, would celebrate half-term with a family ‘No-Tech Day’ at home.

They rustled up a fire in the garden, surrounded by crisp autumn leaves and robin song, and cooked sausages and fajitas over the flames. They set up targets on the garden wall and practised air-rifle shooting until it was too dark to see – ten year old Daisy was particularly pleased to tell me she got a bullseye! They boiled water in a kelly kettle and roasted marshmallows on twigs, before coring fresh apples and filling them with dark sugar and raisins. These were wrapped in foil over the fire for a sumptuous outdoor dessert, although one of them accidentally exploded…

When I asked if they enjoyed themselves, both of them agreed it was one of the best days they’d spent as a family. Daisy loved the fresh air, and Joe, who is thirteen, said he usually spent his free time playing computer games or doing homework. He thought he’d find it hard being away from the small screen, but he loved being outdoors doing something different and didn’t touch the computer until the next morning.

Technology can be a dream when it comes to keeping children entertained; gadgets are fantastic tools for educating and inspiring everyone, but it’s important to remember that they are a new addition to childhoods. Before my generation, there were no computers to keep children busy. They had to use their imaginations and curiosity to explore the world around them, and we mustn’t forget how important the natural world is in the creation of young, healthy minds. From fostering frogspawn to climbing trees and inhaling the salty air of our coasts, interacting with the wild is vital for children to develop. And fortunately, nature is an awful lot cheaper than a PlayStation 4…