Can it really be a year since we moved in? The tadpoles in the pond, the blossom on the trees, the sweet cut grass smell, the faint chirrup of the new lamb: all these things tell me yes it was a year.

This time around Mrs YtoC is planting the veggies into much better kept beds, they look terrific. The glut of oversized veg we got swamped with in June an then struggled to keep through the summer is serving as a lesson. This year we’re planting in fortnightly rotation so we should get some staggering at least. We have some soft fruit in this year. And of course a healthy supply of chicken poop.

And a year ago we thought we’d be having sheep on the paddock to keep the grass down and keep us in meat. We always said we’d let the ground recover from the horses for a year…it needed it. It has done remarkably well and the meadow grass has grown back thick and strong. We won’t get it even or flat but the land looks far more presentable. All ready for livestock.

The problem with the sheep plan is the amount of heavy work they entail, manhandling them to vaccinate, worm and check them, and that’s before they get ill, which sheep love to do. Dying is also a favourite pastime. With me away so much of the week during daylight hours, Mrs YtoC was clear that she couldn’t handle a decent size breed which would eat well like  Dorset or Texel.

So we looked at goats. They browse though, and don’t really like grazing so having them in the paddock would be a challenge. Annie, our lovely chicken friend, told us pygmy goats were the answer to everything, but we have different ideas.

Alpacas: low maintenance; not hoofed so easy on the land; ruminants like cows or camels; friendly; easy to train; able to be treated for foot problems and infections without having to lift them or turn them over. Downsides are that they are inedible and we can’t really breed them as we don’t have enough space to separate the close relative when they become sexually mature to stop inbreeding, and we only have space for maybe 3 or 4.

I think therefore we’ll get boys of about a year old, a gang of men to balance the throng of female animals: 9 hens, 2 cats and a dog. Might try to see them tomorrow – and then once the fences are repaired to withstand the odd nibble, the next step on the journey will be complete.

Blah!

So, it’s been a while. Really busy at work explains a little of my silence, but mainly it is an attack of my old unwelcome acquaintance, deep anxiety. The reason for doing this blog is, partly, to have somewhere to vent stuff about my mental health, as there’s nowhere else I feel I can, so warning: this might get dark and depressing; please stop reading if you have an understandable wish to avoid these things.

Oddly it was more acute after the terrible weather passed but I have been pretty unsettled, as often happens, by the harsh conditions. We had the bitter cold, then we had a thaw in mid January and heavy rain – so heavy it flooded the pond and the path across our drive. And since then , throughout Feb, I’ve had the empty, lonely, directionless worry that pulls at my shoulders like a chain-mail cloak. It’s a worry about things: not people, not my job. I worry about services failing that I don’t know how to fix, about things going wrong with the house, about not knowing what I’m supposed to be doing with the land in the paddock.

 I don’t sleep but feel tired constantly, I am fuzzy-headed and unable to focus, and I fear everything. I fear going to bed. I fear going home. I fear things breaking, machines not working, and the fear of the fear itself. I worry that saying anything about these things or confronting any of these issues will actually make them happen. At its worst I worry about not worrying. I have a terrible guilt that a moment of light relief is a loss in concentration and bad things will happen. I don’t feel I have achieved what I need to relax and be happy. I’m not much fun to be around.

I am ashamed to say my fear is not about people – even though I know they are the only important things. Having said that though it is bound up with my sense of responsibility, of needing to provide and being inadequate in that regard. I should know what to do. But I don’t. And that feeling of lack of control, lack of expertise, lack of competence is utterly consuming and devastating.

It makes me difficult with the kids and I can see the anxiety building in some of their behaviour. Scarlet sucking her thumb at six. Joel biting his nails. there are times when the darkest thoughts overwhelm me. If I can’t relax and enjoy what we have I shouldn’t bother.

The hardest of all is that I am aware how if i was to be jolly, confident, relaxed, and paid attention to the children and Mrs YtoC it would make them happier, and lessen the sense of responsibility which I find suffocating. I can decide to make this stuff no bigger than it is, which is very small.

Right now, as the constant nervous sickness rolls around my stomach and I dread the journey home, I know that all I need to do is decide to overcome this. I need to beat it and be less serious ( I used to laugh all the time, and make others laugh. I miss that. Now, when things are dark I can’t cry or laugh). Just being conscious about behaving differently, thinking differently, should provide a solution. But even putting these thoughts down, engaging in the act of telling someone, even if it is only myself, if no one else ever reads this, that act seems to me dangerous and to be unnecessarily tempting fate. I think I should go. And hope that this will pass.

Next one will be brighter, promise. Sorry.

I tried to embed this video but couldn’t work out how to embed video that is not from YouTube or Google so I’ve linked to it instead.

I stumbled upon Beach House in a review of albums of 2010, and they seemed to be getting roundly praised for Teen Dream. I’ve listened to it a couple of times and it is certainly dreamy and folk-pop like Wild Beasts or even Fleet Foxes. I think like both of those it will take some listening to for the production not to get in the way of the music. I find this quite a lot with bands recently and in this blended folk/pop/alternative genre in particular where a tinge of melancholy often washes over the music: studios trying to create atmosphere when the music does it already.

That’s why I love the fact that I stumbled upon this beautiful video of the band on the beach at Sydney, playing their simple, very poetic music, and just expressing… I think the ending is endearing too, the way Victoria has not the slightest hint of pretension. Anyway, hope you enjoy it.

The children have an extra week away from school while the staff effect the move from the temporary buildings and portacabins into the shiny new structure. Scarlet and Maddie are going to have their new classrooms in the new building I believe, though Joel is remaining in the old part of the school.

So while all the schools around them went back on Tuesday or Wednesday, our brood have a few days more. Scouting around for films to keep them entertained,  Mrs YtoC came across Nanny McPhee, a film which we knew about but had never watched, assuming it was a rather inferior Mary Poppins. The children watched it on New Year’s Day, and every day since, such is their instant delight. This is for several reasons: firstly the kids are unbelievably naughty to start with, which is the source of gasps and guilty giggles, secondly the dancing donkey scene makes them roll around on the floor no matter how many times they see it (and I have to say it is impossible not to grin), thirdly the story is wonderfully simple and works on various levels so that each age gets something out of it, and fourthly the character of Chistianna looks a lot like Maddie – she’s pictured here with Colin Firth who plays her dad.

The movie is based on books about Nurse Matilda written by Christianna Brand, although there are key differences. It is described somewhere as Mary Poppins if Roald Dahl had written it, and that’s probably about as vivid a description as you’re likely to get. Anyway, Emma Thompson has done a top job transferring it to screen and played the nanny for us in every sense.  

Now I’m back at work and making the early starts I realise how much I miss the children being around all the time. When my sister was with us for Christmas she told my mother that she hadn’t realised how much work the three of them would be, but the constant business and noise and general energy is wonderful.

Next week they’re back at school and Maddie turns 5. I’ve told her that’s enough and she as explicit instructions to stop growing up. She smirks and shakes her head, wrinkling her eyes a little and telling me she can’t and that she will one day be as much as 12. Alas, it’s true, but let’s now wish away the journey in seeing her get to that ripe old age.

The cold came back and with it some much heavier snow than before.

It really started on Friday the 17th but I was well able to get the 2-wheel drive mini back into the farm. On Saturday though we woke to find it almost certainly impassable given the gradient of the incline. I walked up there, making the first indentations into the white carpet, and noted how powdery the snow was. It was a learning moment. Should I ctry to clear a path before it got compacted by vehicles or refrozen over night or would the very act of clearing prevent the car having snow to provide at least some grip over the ice? I decided on compromise, and used my boots to clear a single track down the hill which I thought I would get one set of wheels onto. It left enough road to drive on if this was the wrong decision.

An hour or two later I ventured out for food and rocksalt…slid a bit up to the path I’d cleared…and then…traction! I’ve rarely felt so proud of myself.

The picture above, by the way is of the lane at the top where our private track meets the public road. We call this bit ‘the lane’. It is Piccadilly Circus compared to our driveway.

Meg came with me to scrape this track. She got some pretty icy boots as you can see in that picture. You can also see the expert boot scraping. Actually when it finished it looked a bit like a big old tractor had been down the lane with its massive tyre tracks.

My sister came to stay over the festive break and she got treated to the coldest temperatures I ever remember in England: -12 celsius on the night between Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

Anyway we got in and out and we had the heating on all night for two nights so we kept as toasty as we could. Christmas was perhaps more magical for the cold. We walked as the goose cooked in perfectly still, bright and crisp conditions, amazing views of white against blue.

Deidre followed us again, I took the expert advice of my blogging friends and ensured the children did not interfere with her, confidently reassuring everyone that she has homing instinct and would not venture further than she felt happy with. We got further from the house, higher and the landscape got more and more featureless, covered in snow. All around me told me Deidre would never be able to navigate back. ‘Nonsense,’ I said, ‘a lovely lady in Texas have told me she will be OK.’ Mrs YtoC looked sideways at me.

About 45 minutes away she lost us and we trudged on. It was no warmer, and the snow was beginning to penetrate the boots throught the thickest Christmas socks. We ate, we gave out our presents, it got dark, we played games, we opened some champagne and settled down to watch a movie. As I was slicing the ham for the sandwiches, it was creeping towards bedtime for the kids. And still no Deidre. We’d been back for nearly nine hours. Mrs YtoC asked me again about my information: ‘Exactly who told you the kitten would be alright?’

But I had faith…I only put my coat, another pair of socks, my scarf and my thickest hat on, and started up the lane with a torch out of curiosity. Sure enough I had got a hundred yards and a tiny but persistent mewing came ringing from the bushes. Five minutes later and Mrs YtoC was cuddling Deidre and warming her by the fire. I never doubted for an instant.

The two kittens are now not only hunting but eating their prey. Deidre came in with a mouse a few nights ago, played with it while all the other animals watched enviously and Meg tried to steal it. Eventually she got bored and I disposed of the carcass. Last night I found something stuck to the bathroom floor which we identified after much prodding and poking as ‘unidentified entrails of rodent’. The rodent the entrails cam in was absent.

A little later she (Deidre) woke me with loud growling, the sort she only makes when she is guarding a kill, and sure enough another mouse was clamped lifeless in her jaws. I wanted to check it (the mouse) wasn’t just playing dead but as I got closer, the cat fled, mouth still clamped round mouse, upstairs. I’ve long and frustrating experience of chasing a cat with a kill around the house so, thinking she would bring it back down to show off, if I left her. And yes, within two minutes she was there wandering through the house, relaxed, proud and completely sans-mouse. I checked upstairs: no sign of dead mousey, and no animal interest (Al was lying around up there, Fatima was out)  – certainly not enough staring and prowling to suggest a live rodent had been seen recently. Deidre’s whole demeanour said ‘there’s nothing to see here. Move along’. Only explanation: she ate the mouse. Just like she ate (most of) the last one. Now she’s stopped messing, put aside childish things and is and like her mum, who eats rabbits and squirrels regularly from ears to tail, finding her own warm food.

This excitement may explain the kittens’ new found confidence and the end (so far) of bed wetting. This is just as well as the girls’ new bunk bed arrived

Maddie is thrilled to have a proper bed with a proper grown up duvet. So lack of cat wee and rodent innards are an added bonus.

The girls did performance one of their key stage one (4-7 year olds) nativity play yesterday. It was another cold morning but was made glorious by mince pies and mulled wine (9.15 usually a little early for me but it’s Christmas I guess). The whole performance was utterly enchanting. The hardest heart melts when under 7s perform and if one of them is yours, you go quite wobbly – well I do.

Scarlet had started off getting all upset because she wasn’t Mary or one of the major parts. She had a line, which was a major result in a performance of 45 children where the story is mostly told by singing, but as a street trader in the middle east 2000 years ago she didn’t have the opportunity to wear pink or have pretty things in her hair (as you can see below – she’s in the middle). These things matter disproportionately when you’re six.

Maddie was one of the angelic host appearing before the shepherds and, in this version of the story, communicating the birth of God in the form of man through the medium of dance. No wonder the poor farmers looked a bit bemused and didn’t know what to say until prompted.

Both girls did brilliantly and so did their friends. It was a triumph…and the run has been extended until Friday making three shows in all.

When  we were in London, they used to have Christmas shows but they were massive and totally impressive performances, more like pantomimes than nativity plays. However as a multi-faith school and in a very politically correct part of London, they had to be secular in order to avoid complaint. The last one we saw was Dick Whittington I think.

Anyway the point is that this performance in a church school was so overtly Christian (it being a Bible story I don’t quite know what I expected) that I found myself shifting uncomfortably and looking about for offended minorities. Now it’s not that I’m religious or violently anti-religion, that I’m PC or against it particularly, just that I am now programmed to feel as uncomfortable if children talk about God as I do if they talk about race, sexuality or guns. No doubt there were non-believers and all sorts of religious groups represented by the audience and the cast, and no doubt none were offended. I wonder now that I am getting older whether the fear of offence (and therefore the stifling of expression and joy) is more offensive than open religious fervour.

I’m sure there are very happy right-on PC people, but when you can’t have a Christmas Fayre and you have to refer to the blackboards as chalkboards something of the happy-go-lucky innocence of childhood goes.

Beautiful white crisp landscapes surround us still. But this isn’t snow. We have had a light dusting only since late November, but over the last ten days we have had severe frost on top of severe frost, forming an extraordinary effect. It isn’t like snow, where everything is white – suddenly this frost sharpens each detail and makes it stand out. Last night driving home in -5 temperatures the cobwebs on the traffic lights formed a ghostly network of cables. The power lines are tightly drawn against the sky. The flimsiest branch is laden with spikey crystals.


This contrasts to the misty mornings we had at the weekend when I thought the weather was on the turn. We had warmer air coming up against the cold and magical dawns looking down on the lake. Meg, Joel and I got a wonderful, stop in your tracks view on Sunday morning.

 

We had the school’s Christmas Fayre last night, at which my role was to look after the kids and take them home while Mrs YtoC helped out. In the end I half volunteered and half got roped in to running one of the games stalls. It was super fun.

Later it made me reflect on the differences between this school and our old one in London which had its school fayre on the same night. In London with more pupils and more money around the stalls were far more professional, far wider ranging and the organisation was incredibly slick (there was someone whose sole job it was to provide a steady stream of refreshment to those manning stalls for example).
But last night I saw my children all recognised, and included by every one of their school mates regardless of age or class. I saw every parent involved so there was no standing by and sneering. No one was afraid to ask parents to do stuff. The amateur nature of the event just underlined how committed the community is in the event – everything was home made, everything was fitted in around keeping livestock healthy in this biting frost, or the community running properly.

But the most important thing was seeing how happy and engaged the kids are. We hear that back in London there is tension and discord amongst our former neighbours surrounding things that have been said in the playground and whether people’s children are getting sufficient attention at the school. The urban competition that we weren’t conscious of when we lived there is sharply vivid from a distance. There is none of that politics here in the Chew Valley, well, not the bit we live in. There is just a wonderful sense of community, of helping one another and of friendship. All values we want our children to learn as part of their rule book for life.

It stays cold, though we have rain today so it might clear some of the snow. And we researched the cat wee on the beds problem – it appears they are prone to it when stressed. Recently, the kittens’ mother Pansy the Terminator-cat has been around the catflap being extremely aggressive so that explains a lot. Meg is on Pansy-patrol, she thinks it’s highly entertaining so let’s see if she can see the source of the stress back to Tulip farm where she (and her daughters) came from.

Now the children are getting a little older and discovering a sense of humour beyond just saying a word to do with the toilet (which is pretty much still where I am), we’ve started to invent our own basic jokes. Effectively, it’s think of a pun and work backwards. Joel does this quite well now, and Scarlet is getting there – I’m quite proud of her efforts for a 6-yr old (her best I think is ‘what do you get if you go to Africa and win a prize? – A free car’…Afreecar/Africa, geddit? She loves that one).

Joel’s latest revolves around the fact that since the weather turned Tundra-cold (-7 degrees this morning and no sign of abeyance) the chickens have started popping out eggs like there’s an egg-amnesty and they’ve got to turn in they’re stash. We’re getting 7 a day now up from 2 or 3 last month.

So given that they’re inspired by the frosty weather, incase you hadn’t worked it out, Joel’s joke is ‘What is the chickens’ favourite band? – Cold-lay’ . Oh those sub-zero nights just fly by…

So yes, it is still mercilessly cold. Last night I couldn’t get the car up the lane – there’s an icy uphill bit just before you get to our farm – so I went down again (turning the car round nearly ended up with a gate on the passenger seat) and got some grit from one of those yellow bins.

I then heard this morning on the radio a man from East Riding in Yorkshire complaining that the public help themselves to grit from these bins without authorisation. I think he meant me! But that’s what I supposed the bins were for. After all gritter trucks spread salt on major roads in quantities which make the yellow bins look like a cigar box, so surely these supplies are not for those operations. And as they never grit the minor roads I assumed (yes, I know the perils of that) that the grit was there for residents whose untreated roads are impassable without it. Exactly what I use it for. I am now feeling very guilty that I am denying a greater need and have kept an elderly infirm person trapped in Compton Dando or somewhere. But I can’t pick it back up off the road, so there you are. I’m sure if I was French or Italian I wouldn’t be so worried, they just get on with it whereas we English wring our hands at any sense of a duty not fulfilled , a protocol breached or a rule broken.

A friend also advised me to get winter tyres which work really well. They’re common in Germany, Switzerland and Northern Italy I believe; the garage fit them and keep your regular tyres for better weather when winter tyres are inefficient and damage road surfaces. Sounds like a sledgehammer to crack a nut given the amount of bitter weather we get but maybe I should check it out.

Now, off to listen to Cluck Berry, the Rhode-Island-Red Hot Chilli Peppers and the winner of the ‘Eggs-Factor’…

Westlife

April 2010: two absurdly impractical Londoners who were fed up with buses and flashing blue lilghts at the foot of the garden rather than fairies and elves, moved into a N Somerset farmhouse dating from...well no one quite knows but try the Civil War and you're close. With three children young enough not to care and a cat called Alan who misses the concrete and the squirrel watching, we set off on a truly life changing journey.

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