Sunday, 30 December 2012

Driving Home For Christmas

It’s the time of year when folk await the return home of family for festive fun and frivolity. Maybe your kids came home laden with laundry from their first term in the big wide world of university education. Perhaps your siblings flew in from far flung lands. We too were anxiously anticipating the return of family members. Just before Christmas the party ended for Babs, Margo and Myfanwy. Like embarrassing parents turning up at a teenager’s party we arrived to bring our recalcitrant flock of three home from their six week sojourn with their ram fans. Personally I would have thought they might be pleased to see us and welcome a break from the manly ramly attentions. Not so. Spending quality time with ram lambs has not taught them any manners and done nothing to cure them of their “don’t you know who I am” attitude. It came as no surprise to see that Babs was now the dominant ewe and head of the flock, with Margo and Myfanwy as her sub-lieutenants. So alas it was business as usual when it came to rounding them up, with four of us getting plenty of exercise running hither and thither across a squelchy field, brandishing sticks, whooping and generally being made fools of. But round them up we did and initial inspection revealed Babs and Myfanwy as having muddy backs (i.e. suggesting that sheep loving may have taken place), but with Margo having a fleece so suspiciously clean and white as to be worthy of a starring role in a washing powder ad campaign. Someone hadn’t been doing the do! Unless of course she insisted that all rams wipe their cloven hooves before climbing on board….

With the girls hemmed in with the rams there was further indignity to be suffered before home time and so with a daub of blue paint on the back for injection against infections and a daub of green paint on the head for a squirt of wormer, our multi-coloured girls really had joined the ranks of proper Welsh sheep. Mums to be wearing their stripes with pride.


While Babs waited impatiently for her treatment I noticed a short little ram lamb with his nose up to her ear, as though whispering sweet nothings - “I love you Babs, please don’t go, was it something I said, I thought we had something special going on”. I like to think that if life were a Disney movie, it is at this point that Babs would have turned to our little ram, treated him to a demonstration of her well practised down the nose look of contempt, then in a bleating voice sing those immortal words made famous by Beyonce, “if you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it, you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it”. Margo and Myfanwy at the back of the flock swaying to the rhythm and joining in with backing vocals… “all the single ladies, all the single ladies”. Perhaps a pyramid formation dance routine by the ram lambs. Sadly all I actually heard from Babs was a small burp.

Having only a flock of three means it’s not cost effective to arrange a pregnancy scan for our girls so we will have to rely on other signs. Not having access to anchovies, Marmite or pickled herrings, our sheep aren’t likely to display strange eating habits. It’ll be nigh on impossible to notice any mood swings in a regularly moody ewe. There’ll be no knitting of small booties. All we can do is watch and wait, look for signs of bulging (not easy when hidden under an ever thickening fleece) and, in the last 4-6 weeks check for “bagging up”. A delightful phrase that roughly translated means developing udders or, as I preferred to put it when our farming friend explained this agricultural terminology to us, getting big boobies. I’m not sure who was more embarrassed, Dave or Babs!

Eventually the girls were safely stowed in the trailer and it was time to bid farewell to the ram lambs and head home.


As we trundled back down the lanes, Christmas music playing on the radio and the trailer bumping along behind us, in my Disney mind’s eye I could see Babs, Margo and Myfanwy gently swaying side to side with the motion of the trailer, humming along to a familiar Christmas hit…. 

“Driving home for Christmas
Oh, I can't wait to see those faces
I'm driving home for Christmas, yea
Well I'm moving down that line
And it's been so long
But I will be there
I sing this song
To pass the time away
Driving in my trailer
Driving home for Christmas
It's gonna take some time
But I'll get there
Nose to tail behind trailer-gates
Oh, I got red lights on the run
But soon there'll be a driveway
Get my hooves on holy ground
So I sing for you
Though you can't hear me
When I get through
And feel you near me
I am driving home for Christmas
Driving home for Christmas
With a thousand memories
I take a look at the sheep next to me
She's just the same
Just the same
Nose to tail behind trailer gates
Oh, I got red lights on the run
I'm driving home for Christmas, yea”

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Resolutions Revisited: The Final Part

Re-reading my Resolutions of a (Nearly) 40 Something I sense that the last one, namely “Be a Better Bo”, was the one I was least expecting to achieve – downgrading my goal from “sense of ownership” to zero deaths in a year was not exactly the act of a confident shepherdess. It’s true to say that my flock of three is no longer with us, but never fear they are still with us in body and soul and our parting of the ways is only a temporary state of affairs.

You won’t be seeing me on “One Man and his Dog” any time soon and I don’t think Babs, Margo and Myfanwy consider themselves “owned” in any way, but I do feel I’ve made some progress towards becoming one with my flock. Ok, so much of the progress has involved bribery with sheep nuts as bait and rounding them up still requires reinforcements in the form of family, friends, cats, dog and passers-by, but, dare I say it, I really am just a little bit fond of my girls. Brave Babs, with her spotty nose, will eat nuts from my hand and stamp her front hooves like a little madam having a tantrum when the nuts run out; tentative Margo will snatch nuts from my hand then back away as though she’s expecting me to whip out an insecticide gun and pair of hoof clippers to give her a once over at any moment; tetchy Myfanwy will eat nuts thrown on the ground at a safe distance then turn tail and scarper at the slightest twitch in her direction. Not quite a shining example of the “bucket training” espoused by shepherds everywhere, but believe me, this counts as progress!

Right now, Myfanwy, Margo and Babs are on holiday up the road in a field belonging to a friendly neighbourhood farmer and his ever so friendly young rams. I gave the girls a pep talk about what to expect. Given my limited knowledge of sheep loving, it wasn’t a long chat and even then they wandered off before I got to the bit about the stork. I obviously hadn’t filled them with enthusiasm as the usual debacle ensued when it came to rounding the flock up for the journey – if you count the dog (which is probably being very generous given how easily distracted she is), we had a ratio of two herders to every sheep and still their little cloven hooves ran rings around us. Time for a cunning plan – cobble together a sheep race using 8 hurdles, a tree lined ditch and pig pen fence line, position family members in the ditch with the brambles, hide the open trailer round a corner at the end of the race, swap the dog for an energetic teenager, hide the dog, fill the bucket with nuts, speak nicely, push up gently, wait patiently, push up gently, wait patiently, swear, push up, wait impatiently, bundle them in, shut trailer – hey presto, easy-peasy lemon squeezy! 


Up the road we get a lesson in trouble free flock moving.

Position one person in the lane…

20121030_114500.. …open gate, flock flows out into lane, flock obediently turns in the right direction and heads towards you….


… position two people at the other end of the lane, open other gate, flock obediently turns in the right direction, into field, into holding pen….

20121030_114938  20121030_115007….. shut gate, congratulate yourself.

Then we played a game of “Who’s the Daddy?”. Now our girls are big old units. Not one of them is some scrawny rag tag poor excuse of a ewe. We needed a trio of young rams who’d be up to the task of mounting our girls without the aid of a stool to stand on. I’m mighty glad it wasn’t my job to single out the chosen ones from the flock and wrestle each one out of the pen. All I had to do was point and say “what about him, he’s got a nice face”. Thankfully others present had a better understanding of relevant criteria against which to judge who might be the right ram for the task ahead and it was nothing to do with job prospects.


It was difficult to tell whether the rams were “up for it”, but to say my girls were unimpressed would be to overstate the level of their disinterest in their new field mates. Babs, Margo and Myfanwy promptly trotted off to explore the furthest reaches of their new home.


So long girls. See you in six weeks. They grow up so fast. Sigh.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Resolutions Revisited: Part 3 of 4

Be a better baker. It all sounded so easy. I was sure I could conquer yeast, but I’m sorry to say that I hung up my bakers pinny some time ago. There’s not a butter pats chance in hell of me convincing anyone that I have achieved even the tiniest crumb of progress towards “being a better baker”. I did buy a better, bigger, deeper loaf tin in the hope that this simple act of consumerism would magically transform my baking performance. I ended up with a bigger, deeper but certainly no better loaf.

Yet I still yearn to be that rosy cheeked domestic goddess who fills the house with the welcoming aroma of freshly baked bread and who, with one flick of her wooden spoon and a puff of flour, conjures up muffin delights to woo and wow all who pass through the hallowed portal of her kitchen door. Fanning the flames of this desire is a certain show known to the Twitterati as #GBBO and a certain baker by the name of Paul Hollywood. Is it the twinkle in his eye that has me reaching for the flour box once again? Is it his firm yet gentle kneading action that makes me want to prove, poke and rise again? Is it the breaded wonder that is his eight plait loaf that has me slipping into a floral bomber jacket to swap places with Mary “what strong arms you have” Berry? More to the point, should I be disturbed by the fact that this man has the same affect on my husband?

I have yet to turn inspiration into perspiration and test the theory that simply spending my evenings in a dream-like state watching the demi-God of baking in action can really make me a better baker. The new book “How to Bake”, by my new crush Perfect Paul, has knocked the new album, “The 2nd Law”, by my old crush Matt Bellamy, off the top of the Christmas wish list. I’m a fickle woman. Music may be the food of love, but it is the quest for the perfect crumb that gets the blood racing and the heart pumping! Alas, there are still seven and a half weeks ‘til Christmas and the miserly broadband speeds in rural Wales mean I am unable to watch the Great British Bake Off Masterclass episodes again and again. Buffering is so distracting when you’re trying to focus on exactly how those hands are working that dough. So until I can get my floury hands on his book, I shall have to rely on my wine addled brain to recall Hunky Hollywood’s doughy top tips as I throw myself at the mercy of yeast and strive once more to become a better baker.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Resolutions Revisited: Part 2 of 4

According to Resolutions of a (Nearly) 40 Something, the person I was back in January 2012 believed that to claim the resolution of “to be a better beekeeper” passed, it would be a MUST to have achieved the following: (1) find an unmarked queen; (2) mark a queen; (3) not kill a queen while finding her, marking her or generally doing anything at all with a hive; (4) do a successful artificial swarm; (5) pass the Welsh Beekeeping Association Basic Exam.

The person I am now, sitting here in pyjamas and dressing gown on a wet Sunday morning in autumn, having just waded through the wettest UK summer in 100 years, is grateful just to have a honey bee colony at all! Nevertheless, lets look at the evidence and see how it stacks up against my best intentions.

In January my apiary was home to three hives each containing a colony: one a captured swarm, one built up from a nucleus purchased in June, one being my long suffering but surviving first colony. I knew in my heart the swarm and nuc colonies should have been united before winter and were the most at risk, but whilst I procrastinated and generally ummed, aahed and hesitated, autumn became winter and the moment had passed. It came as no surprise therefore that come March the swarm colony was no more, just a tiny cluster of dead and dying bees starving amidst plenty. I was heart broken, guilt ridden, and just a little bit peeved that my bravery up a tree capturing the swarm with a brush, a big stick, a box and a blanket had come to nought. All was not lost, however, as the nuc colony seemed to have survived, the queen was laying and the colony starting to build up. All was lost, however, when a month later the nuc colony dwindled, the queen stopped laying, the bees shivered and starved in the space of two weeks. The reason for this dramatic and disastrous turn of events is still a mystery to me, but what I do know is that I won’t be using VitaGreen (a natural oils based product that is supposed to stimulate colony development) ever again.

So far the evidence is stacking up against me. Looks like I have more chance of being a better astronaut than a better beekeeper!

In my defence, not all of my self-imposed goals has gone unachieved. I scored a hat-trick with Goals 1, 2 and 3 hot on the heels of kicking Goal 4 into touch. The queen reared from my artificial swarm is a beauty – more of an Italian honey bee golden brown than a dark Welsh honey bee – but beggars can’t be choosers when you have track record as bad as mine for losing queens. The big yellow blob I’ve daubed on her back rather spoils her natural good looks, but she (and all her daughters) should be thankful my shaking hands didn’t run her through with the pin of her own marking cage. I’d post a photo of her in all her glory, but if I woke her up right now for a photo shoot she’d be grumpier than a teenager with an alcopop hangover on an early Sunday morning.

I’m sorry to say that the queen in my original colony fared less well. More to the point, she upped and left. She didn’t even leave a note. Just left a box full of her angry kids for me to look after. Her replacement – safely installed and accepted by the colony back in July – took exception to be being treated for varroa mite. Horrid little bugger the varroa mite. Visible to the naked eye, on the back of a bee it’s like a small backpack, but without the tasty picnic inside.


I had to treat the colony, the infestation was too bad to risk going into winter untreated, but the treatment is harsh. Imagine if someone dumped a vat of jello in your attic for you to wade through, with clumps getting stuck to your skin, clothes and pretty much everywhere in your house, and emitted fumes to make your eyes water and your nostrils sting! My bees put up with a lot, but it seems this was the last straw. I don’t know if the queen rolled over and died or simply walked out the door, but after a few weeks it was pretty clear she’d abdicated and there was nothing for it but to unite the orphaned bees with my remaining colony. And so two colonies munched through a sheet of newspaper and became one. It’s now a waiting game. Did the remaining queen lay enough winter bees in time? Have the worker bees capped enough stores to feed the family over winter? Will the winter weather be kind to the bees? Did I achieve my last remaining goal and pass the Welsh Beekeeping Association Basic Exam? Only one of these questions can be answered with confidence. No, I didn’t pass the exam. But then I didn’t even take the exam, so that’s one less thing to beat myself up over.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Resolutions Revisited: Part 1 of 4

The end of the year is nigh. Browsing this year’s meagre blog offerings I see the “Resolutions of a (Nearly) 40 Something” I rashly posted for all and sundry to see. With just 10 weeks of 2012 remaining it’s time to assess progress.

First up, my resolution to learn Welsh.

Sut mae! Dw i’n dysgu Cymraeg ers mis Ionawr. Dw i’n gwybod llawer o eiriau, ond mae e’n iaith anodd i siarad ac yn anodd iawn i ddeall! Which, roughly paraphrased and translated, means I may be learning Welsh but that doesn’t mean I understand a single word of it! If only everyone spoke the language with the same careful enunciation as my tutor, or in the slow, occasionally painful manner of my classmates and I where long pauses between words whilst one brain rummages through a swirling mass of vocabulary, grammar and conjugations give the other brain sufficient time to dissect the sequence of strangled vowels and consonants and perform an on the hoof (of a lame pony) translation. The reality is that Welsh spoken by a native speaker goes in one ear as a stream of noises, shoots straight across the void of incomprehension and out the other ear, leaving behind nothing but a blank, slightly panicked expression. To be fair, without exception not one of the Welsh men and women on whom I’ve inflicted my fledgling linguistic skills has rebuffed my attempts to speak their language. The response is invariably pleasure that I want to learn, patience in abundance and a twinkle in the eye when they catch me out with a tricky word.

I’m learning to love the quirks of Welsh: the seamless merging of Welsh and English within a sentence, my personal favourites being the expression “dim probs” (no problem); the use of “bach” (small) as a term of endearment for anyone of any age and any sex and regardless of whether you’ve known that person for 30 seconds or 30 years; popping to the “ty bach” (little house) instead of the loo; adopting phonetic versions of an English word in place of the traditional Welsh, like “brecwast” (breakfast) and “plisman” (policeman). But I have no love for the Welsh mutations – these are the X-Men of the language, letters morphing into other letters, letters that clone themselves, letters that can simply disappear. When does a “cath” (cat) become a “gath”? Why does the number five switch from “pump” to “bum”? Who can find the way to Caerdydd (Cardiff) when suddenly it’s Nghaerdydd? Do I live at bucolic “Banceithin” or vampiric “Fanceithin”? These are the questions that trouble the learner of the dark art of Welsh, and the answers to which must be accepted without further question or else forever be confused.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Changing Seasons

September began with these happy facts:

- Wales has endured its third wettest summer since records began in 1910.

- For sunshine it is expected to be the country's second dullest.

- Across the UK experts claim it will be the wettest summer in 100 years, and the second wettest on record.

Am I wrong in reading this as meaning that Wales was not as wet this summer as other parts of the UK? Well that has to be good news. Of course, the fly in the ointment is that is also means that at some time in the last 100 years Wales had two summers even wetter than this summer. I sure am glad that I missed out on those!

Last week the BBC weather boffins claimed that climate change will make Britain like Madeira by the 2060s. At first I drifted off into dreams of living in a lemon and almond scented country made of sponge cake. Then the geography part of my brain woke up, sneered at the greedy food part and reminded me that Madeira is in fact an island not just a tasty cake that goes well with a nice cup of tea. So instead I got excited at the prospect of converting the pig field into a pineapple grove, buying a panama hat, and swanning around squeezing exotic fruit saying “yes” in a Mr Del Monte style. Then came the crushing disappointment when it out turned out said boffins were spouting a load of greenhouse gas. You can’t trust anyone these, not even the BBC.

The only true signs of changing climate or even just changing season are those I see before me. Sadly “Dave’s Nature Notebook” has scant records for 2012 so there are few facts to cross-check against the initial enthusiasm of the 2011 records. All I can say for certain is that the housemartins arrived at least two weeks later this year and are still here, that the barn owls failed to rear any chicks after successfully raising four to fledging last year, that the honey harvest was 15lbs instead of 35lbs, that the carrots are like babies of babies of baby carrots ….


… that the beetroots are like marbles, and that the slugs are just as slimy but twice as fat as last year!

The traditional signs of summer turning to autumn are already there to be seen – blackberries ripening; mushrooms springing up across the field; horse chestnut leaves turning from green to burnt orange. The somewhat less traditional signs are there too – getting a tad too chilly to wear pyjamas for the early morning animal feeding chores; shouty, egg laying, “I want out” chickens waking me at 7 a.m. instead of 6 a.m.; loading six logs in the wheelbarrow for Bertha’s breakfast instead of four; washing going from wet to dry to damp again if “someone” forgets to bring it in after tea; the sundowner “I’ve been really busy, honest I have, I deserve it” beer gradually getting earlier and earlier. But despite all this, Mother Nature is having another roll of the dice and has been throwing out summer days willy-nilly. The bees and butterflies are supping greedily and drunkenly on the late nectar flow like wedding guests at a free bar. Brush past the flowering herbs and you risk a face full of buzzing and fluttering. Inhale too sharply in surprise and you get a mouthful too!

Our third summer season may be drawing to a close, but it’s onwards and upwards here at Banceithin. In just nine days time work begins on phase one of the Boardwalk Project. The wood has been bought. The woodsman has been booked. The brambles have been cleared and grown back. There’s no going back. Unless it rains. The plan is to start with a ground level platform between the trees by the stream, over which the hammock will swing. Hammock?! Are you crazy? After the summer we’ve just had? Hey, who said that lazy summer days have to be in July or August. I’m happy to swing in the breeze any day of the year. Isn’t that what blankets were invented for? Next to the hammock platform, just a hop, skip and a few ladder rungs up will be not one, but two hideaway decks in the trees. Pour a glass of wine, grab a book and disappear amongst the leaves for some quiet contemplation.  

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud

Why the long absence? I could tell you that I bagged myself a six figure book deal and have been beavering away on my first novel. But I’d be lying. Would you believe me if I told you I’ve been on an all expenses paid trip of a lifetime to Africa? No, I wouldn’t either. How about if I said I’d spent the last two months trapped under something heavy? If a weight of rainwater counts then that would be closer to the mark! The truth is even more mundane. I simply blinked and the past two and a half months slipped passed me in a drizzly damp blur.

As you may have gathered it’s been a bit wet here lately. It’s been a bit wet everywhere lately. It’s still a bit wet here. It’s still a bit wet everywhere. Summer, schmummer ….. mustn’t grumble though (grumble, grumble), as compared to some of our fellow Cardies we’ve come through the worst of it unscathed. While others in the north of the county were watching their caravans bob about like giant buoys or scrabbling to save belongings from the raging torrent in their living rooms, all we lost was some stones from the drive. Not easily deterred, our guests at the time braved the overflowing stream to head out for dinner – this was what greeted them at the bottom of the drive ….


… but when you’ve got to eat, you’ve got to eat, even if it means swimming to the restaurant!

The pigs take a similar approach, though their trip to the trough is more of a bog snorkel than a swim. The pen is so thick with liquid mud in places that I’m considering setting up Dave in a tent with his guitar, rigging up a bar in the pig ark, and calling it a festival. 


Desperate times called for desperate measures. We stole a patch of field from Babs, Margo and Myfanwy to give Larry, Pip and Mo a daily break from the mudfest. A few harsh lessons were learnt when snouts met electric fence, and Teri rediscovered what happens when fur meets 12 volts, but the conclusion of this sophisticated scientific experiment is that sheep have better memories than dogs as Babs, Margo and Myfanwy have steer well clear of the new pop-up boundary and were in need of no shocking reminders. Electrocution aside, judging by the high levels of bum cheek slapping, side to side tail wagging going on the pen extension has been a source of great pleasure. In two weeks, our trio of porcine rotivators turned this ….


into this ….


The boys are serious rootlers and clod tossers. Everyday the lower wire of the electric fence has to be dug out from under piles of sodden mud clods and strips of turf. Available for hire for garden clearing at the price of a box of stale cakes per pig per hour.

Other headline news from the frontline of smallholding:

Black Rock shock as six become two

Hera turned all Ray Mears on us, insisting on spending nights under the stars, which went pear-shaped for her and dinner-shaped for Foxy Loxy. Six became five. Two days later, to celebrate Athena’s miraculous recovery from her egg bound hell, we captured her in a fishing net and packed her off to market with Aphrodite and Hestia. Five became two. Blodwen and Branwen kept their distance and eyed us warily for a while, but the bullied soon became the bullies when the new pullets on the block turned up …

IMG_6889 IMG_6884  

– Dilys (perfect) & Deryn (bird) the Calder Rangers and Eira (snow) & Enid (spirit) the Speckledys.

Sheep lose coats and dignity on road trip

On a miraculously sunny day in June we packed Babs, Margo and Myfanwy into the trailer for a mini-road trip to visit the mobile shearing unit. The speed and ease with which I write those words is inversely proportional to the speed and ease with which the described act happened. Obviously we had to go through the usual Benny Hill style sheep chasing shenanigans. It’s harder to fool a sheep than you think. Once at the shearing unit our girls were on the receiving end of some rough handed man handling – those shearers have no truck with sheep tomfoolery, it’s grab, tip, shear, grab tip, shear. Zippity zap and the coats were gone, exposing three rather round tummies and rumbling my secret treat feeding regime. Whoopsie.

IMG_6929 IMG_6931

Queen goes missing, colony at risk

Where do I begin with the bees……. two steps forward, six mile jog backwards. This has been the summer from hell for my colonies. I had three colonies in March, down to two in April, down to one in May, up to two in June. Lack of sun means lack of nectar flow. Too much rain means too little foraging. My one achievement was to do my first artificial swarm. The glow of satisfaction soon became the fug of despair when the old queen absconded anyway, probably flicking a V sign in my direction as she departed. A few phone calls later and a new mated queen and entourage arrived in a travelling cage packed in a jiffy bag labelled “URGENT – LIVE BEES INSIDE”. I bet the postman loved delivering that package. So now I have two colonies, each with a new queen. Sit tight, wait for the sun, hope for the best, try to make the remaining few jars of last years honey last until August 2013.

Accident prone cat saves local veterinary clinic from financial ruin

Not content with scaring me silly with his brush with death by poisoning, Charlie decided to go for a hat-trick of “bad things”. One morning he’s fine, the next afternoon he’s hobbling along on three legs, the fourth being a puffy club foot of a paw. Suspected broken leg, vet talks of feline orthopaedics and metal pins, flashing pound signs in his eyes. We fork out for anti-inflammatory drugs and x-rays. Turns out it was a bad sprain and Charlie is under vet’s orders to rest up for a few weeks. So what does he do? Heads out and comes home with a big bloody hole in his neck. Back to the vet. More fur shaved off, gaping hole is cleaned and stapled (yes, STAPLED!) closed. He can’t walk. He has metal staples in his neck. Charlie has transformed into “Frankenhobble”.  Vet’s bill arrives. Sharp intake of breath. Reach for cheque book. Take big swig of wine.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Game Over

Sometimes I have to admit defeat. Sometimes, when the period of occasional gentle reminders is over, when the time for repeated heavy hints is passed, once I’m at risk of straying into nagging haridan of a wife territory, I know the only option left is to call it a day. And thus, the Clay Oven Project is no more.

As regular readers may recall, I have admitted to a degree of culpability here as, in all fairness, we did at one point in time have a near complete clay oven, and, if it hadn’t been for the pain caused to my over-sensitive twitchy aesthetics antennae by the blue tarpaulin, and the ensuing incessant rain, said clay oven project may actually have culminated in production of our first clay oven baked pizza. Whilst rebuilding the clay oven was high on the list of 2012 projects, I knew in my heart that Dave’s heart wasn’t in it. Once I saw the glint in his eye, heard the whirring of his brain and saw him striding off tape measure in hand, it was clear that the newer, grander and infinitely more exciting Woodland Trail Project had usurped the lowly Clay Oven Project (and then we have BBQ Hut Project, Treehouse Project and Tree Planting Project that are also now bobbing about in Woodland Trail Project’s wake). However, the demise of the Clay Over Project left me with a problem. More specifically a problem in the shape of an empty clay oven platform. Hmmm, what to do ……  cat posing podium? Mini stage for mini performances by mini people? Pedestal for all those wood sculptures Dave has promised to whittle for me? Then it came to me in a flash of black and white … a giant chessboard! I knew this plan had a good chance of coming to fruition as within 48 hours of planting the seed of the idea, the tape measure was out and the paint had been bought.

There were a few “you’ve splashed white on my black” and “you’ve splashed black on my white” incidents, and some close encounters involving a certain black and white cat and wet black and white paint, but all in all the painting of the chequerboard when remarkably well. There was something of a hiatus, however, when it came to the chess pieces.

Wood whittling was quickly dismissed. Not only would wood not last but more crucially neither of us possess any discernable whittling or carving skills. Painted pebbles won the vote. A quick trip down the road to the beach secured two backpacks full of pebbles. A quick surf of the web secured the images to be painted. A few weeks and a good deal of procrastination later, the pebbles were still sitting in a box looking more like pebbles than chess pieces. There’s no end to the number of times I can shift “paint pebbles” from one to do list to the next. More fool me, as on one rainy day, fed up with hearing me say “yes, I’ll do it tomorrow”, Dave seized the initiative and the paint brush and I arrived home to said pebbles transformed into a full set of chess pieces (bar the horses). I won’t lie, I wasn’t gracious in my praise. I smiled, said “well at least they’re done”, smiled again and said, “I could lie and tell you I really like them, but you know I’d be lying”. Am I really so horrible? Don’t answer that.

Actually, looking at them now, after a little tinkering around the edges, I’ve decided I really rather like our combined effort at producing a “rustic” (a word used regularly in this household to hide a whole host of sins) chess set.


 IMG_6804 IMG_6803

All we need to do now is learn how to play chess. Now where did I put that to do list …..


Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Not So Magic Animal Magic

Keeping animals brings joy. Like being treated to one of Teri’s aerial displays…


…. or watching the chickens gossiping like old women …


… and witnessing trophallaxis between honey bees


(don’t be smutty, it’s the posh word for food sharing).

But with joy comes the triple whammy of helplessness, guilt and frustration. Helplessness because you want to help but don’t know how. Guilt because you wonder if it was all your fault in the first place. Frustration because saying “I’m trying to help” and “this will make you feel better” mean “blah blah blah” to the sick animal who has one eye on its escape route and the other on the loaded hypodermic needle in your hand.

Once upon a time you would have found the likes of Elvis Presley, Rhett Butler, Mr Darcy and John Cusack sipping champagne at my fantasy dinner party. Now I’m thinking of ditching John Cusack in favour of Dr Dolittle and shoving Mr Darcy out of his chair to make way for James Herriot. Dr Dolittle could teach me how to whisper words of comfort in an assortment of animal languages (well I’m learning Welsh so how much more difficult can piggish and chook-speak be). Mr Herriot could teach me all I need to know about animal anatomy, be on hand for all the tricky bits, but in return for fabulous cooking at each fantasy dinner he’ll never charge me a penny for his veterinary services. In fact, while we’re on the subject, goodbye Rhett Butler and hello Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall - if all hell breaks loose and Dolittle and Herriot mess it up, the cooking tips may come in handy. Naturally Elvis retains his place at the fantasy dinner table. Afterall, someone’s got to keep my champagne glass topped up and entertain the diners as they exchange hilarious animal husbandry anecdotes.

So why the tales of woe? The bible tells us that when Noah stocked his ark, the animals came in two-by-two. What the bible didn’t go on to explain was that when the animals on the ark fell sick it wasn’t a case of two-by-two, but one after the other in quick succession. It started with a cat(and now I find myself humming the tune for Hot Chocolate’s “It Started with a kiss”!). As Charlie lacked the opposable thumb and technical savvy to check his symptoms online, I played hypochondriac by proxy. It didn’t take long to diagnose him as being on the cusp of multiple organ failure and generally knock, knock, knocking on death’s door. Cue sharp intake of breath, hand wringing, heart ache. The vet only had to say “so what seems to be the problem” for the dam to break. Rendered incapable of speech due to tears and unable to mime “he’s puking his guts up all over the stairs, please save him or I’ll never forgive you and will curse all vets ‘til kingdom come”, Dave had to come to my rescue. One neck shave, one blood test, one thryoid test, 3 injections, many pouches of dirty cat comfort food and £130 later, he’s right as rain, thinner but just as lazy. Diagnosis – poisoning.

Exactly one week later I’m stood at a sink gently massaging the abdomen and applying Vaseline to the vent of a chicken who’s standing in a bowl of warn water quietly clucking to herself. Within the hour I’m back at the vet, but with a chicken instead of a cat in my cage. One abdomen syringing (nasty, really nasty, seriously nasty), 10 traumatic days of antibiotic injections and £22 later, she’s still alive and has laid the sum total of one small funny shaped egg. Diagnosis – egg bound infected abdomen.

Two weeks later, my heart sinks as I hear the words “Fatty’s limping”. Lo and behold, within 48 hours I’m welly deep in mud watching Dave attempt to pin down 20 kilos of angry, squealing, limping pig. Don’t try this at home, kids. Believe me, not one of us is enjoying the daily bum injection. Diagnosis – God only knows, but please, please, please let it not happen again.

So what next? Well, I lost a honey bee colony. And I’m pretty sure I saw the dog limping yesterday. Is that sheep just resting?

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

What did the Welsh ever do for us?

There’s more to a Welsh class than learning Welsh. The Welsh are as idiosyncractic as any people – why say it’s raining cats and dogs when you could say it’s raining like old women and sticks (hen wragedd a ffyn) - and like any proud nation, they have bold claims about their place in history. In evidence, I proffer these two gems of historical “fact”:

1. How your cornflakes got their box

Nansi Richard Jones, a famous Welsh harpist known as “Queen of the Harp”, once visited Mr Kellogg of cornflakes fame. Mr Kellogg was launching new packaging for his cornflakes, previously only sold in bags. Nansi (a marketing executive in the making years before anyone knew what a marketing executive was or realised that the world could come to a crashing halt without such a person) suggested to Mr Kellogg that perhaps he could feature a cockerel on the box – not just because cockerels crow in the morning whilst you are tucking into your bowl of cornflakes (curse those pesky cockerels), but also because the similar sounding “ceiliog” is Welsh for cockerel. And it’s no coincidence that the colours of the Kellogg cockerel are the red and green colours of the Ddraig Goch (Red Dragon) of the Welsh flag. The rest, as they say, is (marketing) history!

2. How the U.S. of A. got its A

So you thought that Amerigo Vespucci gave his name to the Americas? Well, think again! Enter stage left, Welshman Richard ap Meurig, also known as “ap Meryke” (see where I’m going here….?). This is the chap who helped fund John Cabot’s voyage of discovery to Newfoundland in 1497. As thanks for the cash in hand, Mr Cabot named this new country after the Paymaster General and, as if by magic, the country of America came into being.

There are doubters amongst us who question the authenticity of such claims, but there’s no arguing with these other “interesting” (in the widest sense of the word) facts about Ceredigion:

- there are no motorways or dual carriageways (but there are lots of tractors, horse boxes and trailers, and innumerable ways of saying “goodness me, isn’t this traffic moving very slowly, do you think this nice chap could pull into one of the passing places and let us very patient folk go past”)

- there is only one major traffic light controlled intersection (but no one is quite sure where it is or what it would look like if they accidentally drove through it)

- there is only one escalator (and that didn’t arrive until autumn 2011 when the new Next store opened in Aberystwyth and although sales of the “fantastic collection of cushions in a variety of colours and styles” have been slow, the novelty moving staircase has seen a lot of action).

But who wants to see countryside in a motorway blur or a whizz down a dual carriageway? Why while away life queuing in traffic at junctions? Slow down and watch the celandines flower. And while you’re waiting, why not come to Ceredigion and take a ride on the escalator?

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Dosbarth Cymraeg

Satchel. Packed lunch. Notepad. Pen, pencil, eraser. Butterflies in the tummy. Missed the bus. Driven into town by Dave, still in his slippers. The only thing I needed to complete the “back to school” flashback was a gym kit and a battered violin case. This was it, a new year resolution in action, I really was heading back to the classroom. But first I had to find it. Feeling confident I headed down corridors and through doors following signs to the Welsh Department. The Welsh Department, or rather a stern woman tapping furiously on her keyboard who appeared to be the sole member of the Welsh Department in residence, told me in no uncertain terms, but thankfully in English, that the Welsh class for adults I was looking for was in fact nothing to do with the Welsh Department, and no, she doesn’t know where my Welsh class is taking place, and yes, it does seem strange that a Department with “Welsh” in its name doesn’t have anything to do with my Welsh class. Feeling less confident I found myself alone in a stairwell with only 5 minutes to go before my first lesson was due to start.

Some time later, after a comedy Benny Hill style montage of high speed jogging up & down stairs and knocking on doors (though I hasten to add that I remained fully clothed throughout and as far as I know there was no dirty old man in hot pursuit), I was ensconced in an overheated classroom with my shiny new classmates, all of us gazing uncomprehendingly at smiley, round Mrs Pepperpot the tutor as she emits a series of noises that we assume is the Welsh language but could equally be her choking on her own tongue. It seems that teaching methods have changed somewhat in the fourteen years since I was last in a classroom mangling vowels and attempting to learn a new language. It’s all “ecoutez, repetez, ecoutez, repetez, ecoutez, ECOUTEZ, REPETEZ, REPETEZ,… aaarrggghhh ….. ad nauseum”. The class “rules” include trying not to ask questions about grammar and trying not to write during oral practice. They may as well ask me to try not to breathe! After four hours of chanting mispronounced vowel-less words it certainly felt as though my brain had been starved of oxygen.Ok, so strictly speaking that’s not true, yes the words were more than likely consistently mispronounced, and yes, my brain cells were gasping for breath, but no, the words weren’t really vowel-less, it just looked that way – you see the Welsh alphabet has seven vowels; the five usual suspects, plus the Frankie Howerd letters “w” (oo) and “y” (er). Words like “llyfr” and “eglwys” just look like they’ve been thrown together by a monkey with a Scrabble bag of consonants. Mind you, knowing that doesn’t necessarily help you figure out how to pronounce the words! “Book” and “church”, if you’re interested.

We’re encouraged to practice our newly discovered but tenuous grasp of the Welsh language outside of the classroom. Aside from throwing the odd “diolch” (thanks”) over my shoulder as I leave a shop, all but running out the door as I say it to avoid the risk of getting a full blown Welsh response that leaves me red-faced, I haven’t been brave enough to start any kind of conversation with the locals yet. I’m waiting for the class where we learn the Welsh for “lambing”, “beer”, “rugby” and “what the ****”. In the mean time I’m practicing on Teri, Stevie and Nessa, all of whom are born and bred in Wales. Teri puts her head on one side and responds with an enthusiastic tail wag, but that’s also how she responds to discipline, sticks and biscuits so I’m not getting my hopes up that it’s my perfect pronunciation that’s the cause of such encouragement. I suspect that the feline response of sceptical rolling of eyes, lick of the bum, a wailing cry and exit through cat flap is more representative of the quality of my performance. Dave already has a tendency to look at me blankly or glaze over when I speak, so I can’t risk slipping too much Welsh into my day to day speech for fear of him slipping into his own world never to return. The best way of judging how native Welsh speakers pronounce those crazy looking words is to watch subtitled episodes of the Welsh soap “Pobol Y Cwm” (People of the Valley) – rural folk (like Emmerdale), with townie pretensions to controversial storylines (like Eastenders), not altogether convincing sets (like Crossroads), hint of the amateur dramatics (like Doctors), feel of a daytime soap despite being pitched at a peak viewing time evening audience (like Hollyoaks). Last week it was revealed that the guy who’d framed the woman who’d just been released from prison was sleeping with the Detective who was investigating the case leading to the woman being released from prison because the girlfriend of the woman in prison saw the guy and the Detective having coffee together and grassed them up to the Detective’s senior officer. High drama indeed. Love, betrayal, anger, adultery – it happens in the valleys too!

But who needs “Pobol Y Cwm” when in class I can follow the soap opera that is the lives of Ffred and Sandra. Long gone are Peter and Jane and the fun they had with balls and Pat the dog. Ffred and Sandra are the Gold Blend couple of Welsh class, their “will they”, “won’t they” shenanigans providing weekly titillation through the medium of the dialogue box.


Ffred and Sandra met in week 1, by week 2 he was already asking her on a date, and by week 3, after said first date at the Black Lion on Saturday night, followed by a meal, he replies to Tom’s enquiry as to “what happened afterwards” with a cheeky “Oh, I couldn’t say”. Back in the day, it took months and months of French lessons just to find out whether Jean-Paul went fishing or swimming of a weekend, and now we have Ffred intimating to Tom that more than just a pie and a pint might have been on offer after a mere three weeks of getting to know Sandra. That’s progress for you!

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Philippa’s Project List

So for those of you that know Philippa, she is an exceptionally well organised individual. You could even say she even has a touch of the OCD’s. (I say this without fear of reprisal knowing that her favourite job would be working in a library cataloguing books).Those of you who know me, know that I’m not very organised, and will get round to stuff at some point. Without Philippa’s love of lists however, I’m sure we would drift along here and not get half of the things done that we have. Philippa’s to-do list is an ever morphing creature, which one day can be replicated on the back of a stamp. The next day you would need a ream of that old style dot matrix printer paper that goes on forever. I have learned how to handle this beast recently, and I have come to the decision that if I wait long enough, the list will naturally evolve, with some of the more undesirable jobs disappearing altogether. This technique can only last for so long, and eventually I can identify the jobs that Philippa definitely wants doing from the jobs which were entered following a sudden rush of enthusiasm following reading some article, or seeing someone's comparable business.

One job she has been elbowing me about for over 6 months now is to build a mini jetty at our pond, so guests can do some pond dipping without getting their feet wet. Today was the day when I finally got round to it.

About two months ago I managed to acquire a few lengths of old board walk. The original plan was to build a bridge across the pond, but that scheme died a death immediately as I found that the maximum working wellington boot distance from the bank was 12 inches. So I reverted back to the mini jetty idea

IMG_6653 IMG_6652

Philippa practicing her forward twist dive with two and a half pike from the 0.5 metre board.

With this job complete however, I am aware that the beast that is rebuilding the clay oven looms ever larger, and I fear that I have no defence from that particular task!

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Resolutions of a (Nearly) 40 Something

It’s 2012. It’s the year in which I hurtle inexorably downhill towards the conclusion of my 40th year on planet earth. No more frolicking in the garden of the House of 40, nor tip toeing down the path, my foot is firmly on the doorstep, the delaying tactic of pretending to fumble in my bag for the front door key is fooling no one any more. Thankfully there’s a bunch of friends already in the front room plumping the cushions & getting the drinks in ready for my arrival. Some of them (who shall remain nameless) are already in the kitchen heading for the back door and then it’s over the fence into the garden of the House of 50!

Anyway, on the assumption that it is indeed possible to teach an old dog new tricks, my first “(Nearly) 40 Something Resolution” for 2012 is to learn Welsh. I should come clean and confess that the very same resolution also made the list in 2010 and 2011. The Teach Yourself Welsh CD-Rom has been languishing on the self, next to the dusty Welsh dictionary, for some time. Teaching ourselves at home was not a success. I should have known that introducing “homework” would dampen Dave’s enthusiasm pretty sharpish. Flying solo got me through the alphabet, a few place names, some comedy verbs and some token greetings. Not so impressive for 2 years work. So I’m going for hardcore, full on, no turning back, learn ‘til you bleed classes – Beginners Fast Track – 5 hours every Wednesday for 20 weeks. Learning doesn’t get tougher than this…

Warming to my theme of it’s never too late for self-improvement, I have taken to heart the breaking news that scientists believe “mental dexterity and brain power deteriorate earlier than thought”, and memory loss “can begin from age 45”. Personally, I struggle to remember when I started to lose mental dexterity, it may have been that time in the 1970’s when my best friend cut the fringe of my hair down to the roots… or was it that time I was offered a bowl of cornflakes with Jack Daniels instead of milk …. or perhaps the Bros concert .. so many possibilities. What was I saying? Oh yes, maximising self-improvement before hitting the age of 45 … let me introduce you to the 3B resolutions…


Well let’s be honest, I could hardly be a worse one, but if I can go into my third season of beekeeping with three colonies and come out of my third season with three colonies, a few jars of honey, no tears and no panic phone calls, it will be an improvement. To be able to say, hand on heart, that I truly am a better beekeeper these are the goals I must achieve in 2012: (1) find an unmarked queen; (2) mark a queen; (3) not kill a queen while finding her, marking her or generally doing anything at all with a hive; (4) do a successful artificial swarm; (4) pass the Welsh Beekeeping Association Basic Exam (in English - I suspect that Fast Track or not, trying to combine learning Welsh with Being a Better Beekeeper might just end in a soap opera style punch up except it’ll be in an apiary instead of a pub).


I’ve seen the programmes, I’ve read the books, I’ve got the kit, but it seems what I’m missing is the knack. My white bread is passable, my wholemeal edible, my bullet buns legendary, but the fluffy muffin eludes me and I’m pretty sure that the perfect loaf is a mythical beast whose existence is perpetuated by cruel hearted so called “celebrity” bakers just keep their viewing figures up. I know there are ordinary people out there who can bake, I’ve seen their blogs, I weep with envy at images of their crusty farmhouse loaves and their warm and buttery breakfast rolls. I’m not asking for the world, I just want to share in their joy of dough and bake a loaf worthy of praise just a few notches up the laudatory scale from “well at least it’s better than your last loaf”. Oh yes, and I’d also like to make a ciabatta with real airholes instead of finger poke holes, a Victoria sandwich without crunchy edges and rolls that won’t take down a passing bison with a single blow to the head.


This is a tricky one, with goals as hard to define as sheep are hard to catch. There have been some improvements in my shepherding skills since losing my sheep on day one - I can now identify each one by sight, but I can’t say we’ve bonded in any way, which I guess is fair enough when as far as they’re concerned 50% of the time my arrival in the field leads to chasing, tipping, clipping & sticking with a needle. What I really want to achieve is a sense of ownership, of connection, of feeling like I’m just a little bit relevant to their lives. I’m not expecting them to gambol across the field bleating my name lovingly as I open the gate, or to roll over for a fleecy tummy rub, but it would be nice if it felt less like having three malevolent squatters in my field who, whilst presently content simply to humiliate me on a regular basis, are ultimately plotting my downfall. In practical terms, the goal is to get to the end of year with none of them dying and all three of them in lamb, but I’ll be grateful if come the midnight chimes of Big Ben and the singing of Auld Lang Syne, I’m not face down in the field shelter with nibbled ears and hoof prints on my back.