Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud

I’ve frequently declared country life to be muddy. I don’t just mean the countryside – on occasional walks in the countryside as I was growing up, I walked and waded through mud, no doubt splashed in some muddy puddles as a toddler (Mum?) and when I was fourteen even tripped over a stile and fell face-first into the mud (and quite possibly cow pats too). I have seen enough mud to know the countryside is muddy – I daresay it’s linked in some inexplicable way to the lack of paving stones, tarmac and concrete. Mysterious.

But mud worms its way into other places in Country Life – like right on your doorstep for example, because so many people actually live in the world I walked/splashed/tripped my way through before; or sprayed artistically up the side of cars (probably due to the aforementioned scarcity of concrete.) And in its drier form, those signed up to country life (and those who had it thrust upon them) will find mud encrusted into the bottom and around the sides of wellington boots or any other footwear you elected to go clay shooting in one rainy day (and thus in its crumbled, powdery form all over the inside of the foot wells of your car).

And now, to a certain degree, I see mud as a certificate of authenticity. I’ve mentioned how my friends laugh at my wellies, not just because they cost less than a night in a nice hotel, but also because of how incredibly shiny and green they are. I’ve worn Mum’s blue Hunters for years, and they are most definitely not shiny. When I went to university, she wouldn’t let me take them and generously bought me my own pair which I duly wore and loved, trudging around campus and the shooting ground in the snow and mud, and the wellies showed this loving wear in their lack of sheen and newly-dulled greenness. However, the inside sole started rolling up within the guarantee period and Hunter, true to their word, replaced them with a brand new pair. Problem is, this coincided with my third year and – horror of horrors – finals. This is the time that every university student becomes far, far too familiar with the library – or in my case, Starbucks. When you walk five minutes on citified concrete/tarmac/paving stones, sit down, head down for eight hours, make the same walk home (in the other direction of course, and work some more before falling asleep on Erasmus’ Institutio principis Christiani, there may be need for an infinite supply of biros, sticky labels, coloured pens and most importantly hot cups of tea, but there is very little need of wellington boots. Hence the new replacement wellies haven’t been worn half as much as they would have been in first or second year, and still stand glorious proud in their very-greenness.

This shiny green is the badge that marks me an infiltrator into Country Life, or at the very best a newcomer. Those fully-fledged country people, initiated into the fold years ago, will without fail sport wellies in a stoic shade of used-to-be-green, mud spattered on the tops and legs, mud encrusted into the zip, mud slowly infusing with the sole of the boot its been there so long. The wear, the mud, the gorse/blackthorn scratches, the mud, the  worn sole and lest we forget, the mud – these are all signs of Belonging.

Similarly, the position on my mental map of those vehicles that I used to look down on disdainfully – the accursed Chelsea Tractors  – has changed. I’ve mentioned this before, so apologies if I’m repeating myself, but there is a point relevant to this post hidden somewhere. Chelsea Tractors used to take up space on the roads, slow everyone down by not fitting through gaps or parking oh-so-carefully in a normal parking space because the silly car is just too big for the normal world. People sat in them, quite literally on high, and looked down at us mere insects daring to scuttle down the M<insert motorway of your choice here> beside them. And yet now I’ve seen 4x4s in action – and probably not yet at their best or most useful– and I finally understand why some people need them. I’ve seen them stoically crawl their way up hills that my car would slip and slide to the bottom of, quite likely ending up on its little toboggan of a roof. I’ve seen the stupidly large boot that I could quite comfortable sleep in filled to bursting with stock, with guns, cartridges, cartridge bags, tools, with boxes of packets of ear plugs, defenders and safety glasses, you name it. These vehicles are like mini transport vans, but ones strong enough to transport that stuff up a mudslide in the rain.[i] But all these 4x4s I’ve seen put to their good and proper use have been splattered with mud, their glossy new-car sheen long gone and however well kept the interior, however frequently washed the outside, you can always tell that it is a Working Car. So I now reserve my disdain especially for the spotlessly clean, shiny Range Rover Vogues that soar down motorways with cream leather seats (honestly, who ever came up with such as impractical an idea as cream seat in a car! Even in my thoroughly non-country little blue city pug, pale seats would have ceased to be pale within six months of ownership). A Landrover Discovery, mud splattered up the sides and encrusted all over the wheel arches wears that mud as a symbol of its legitimacy and its right to be owned.

And so you see how mud becomes a badge of authenticity in the country. Proof that you belong. And yet recent events have proven that even the country can’t cope with all the mud the English Countryside and English weather have worked together to offer. Event after event this year has been cancelled – the optimistic, go-getting organisers of the Yorkshire Show gritted their teeth through just one day of their event, before succumbing to the mud and cancelling the rest. Horse trials have been cancelled, fair and shows have followed in their footsteps and most recently and devastatingly, the CLA Game Fair in Belvoir has been cancelled. This was to be my first game fair not working, where I was going to get to see more of the fair than the route from my stand to the ladies’, and I was so excited. I’d been gifted with a free ticket and entry into all those exciting, exclusive members bits that I don’t know what they are – though as I won’t get to see them this year, I’m sure they’re wonderful and decadent and luxurious and amazing. But now I’ll never know. Sniff. Self-pity aside, all those traders who had prepared, produced, packaged and packed so much stock to take to the show, not to mention the signs, tills, furniture, flooring and goodness only knows what else… They are the people you should really feel sorry for.

The overwhelming muddiness of recent events has demonstrated a quality about the Country that the rest of us should try to learn from – resilience. Mini-Game Fairs have been popping up all over Twitter and Facebook, some in Belvoir, some elsewhere, one at the Oxford Gun Company, one with Really Wild at RBSS, and one at E. J. Churchill – where I shall be going instead! Lots of the Chelsea Bun Club ladies will be in attendance, so there should be plenty of fun to be had. Everyone is being so supportive of one another, demonstrating enthusiasm and positive thinking. The mud may have cancelled event after event, but the proud mud-encrusted-boots-wearing attendees still fight back. The lessons to be had here are:

1)   Don’t underestimate the symbolic value of mud.

2)   Don’t underestimate the power of mud.

3)   Don’t ever give in to the mud.

 


[i] Please don’t try this at home, whether to prove me right or wrong. I deny any responsibility for any accidents that may occur from such experiments.

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Much Ado About Farming

A few weeks ago, I found out about an event taking place in Yorkshire that I wanted to attend. After begging the day off, and securing a place to attend, I considered my options for accommodation. Running through my list of friends in the area, I realised quickly that it was the university’s Easter holidays, and so the usual array of floors, sofas and armchairs would sadly be unavailable. This opened up the opportunity to stay on the estate belonging to the aforementioned Sir Pheasant and his peasant farmer. The bedroom I was allocated was bigger than my university flat, and indeed contained more beds than my university flat; my unfortunate but terrifically honest flatmate pulled straws for rooms before I even moved in, and having picked the straw for the small room, kitted out with a futon instead of a bed, was perfectly and admirably honest and began unpacking. She did come to be quite fond of the straw mattress – or so she led me to I believe. All of this aside, the fact remains that the room I occupied during my stay on Sir Pheasant’s farm was absolutely enormous. Another lesson about the country: houses are bigger. The rooms in general in the house were vastly bigger than anything I’d seen in Twickenham or Richmond growing up.

I was curious about the farm, and on the mini tour to view the pheasants and Mad March Hares, I asked a lot of questions. The farm had both livestock (cows and sheep, for meat though not for milk – no Eau de Dairy Farm here) and arable crops, and having been told this, I opened my mouth to ask a question about the cows – only to be corrected before I’d even finished my sentence. Another countryside lesson: while colloquially the term ‘cows’ is used in general to refer to cattle, in Farm World calling a beast a ‘cow’ implies that the beast is female, and has had calves. ‘Heifer’ is the term for a female cow before she has had any calves. A bull is an “intact male bovine animal” while ‘bullock’ refers to a less fortunate male, who has been castrated. The cows (colloquial use) on this farm were all bulls, being farmed for beef. I have to say, I never thought I would know this much about cows (again, colloquial use), and I’m still not sure it will ever be useful, but for now it will become yet another part of my country disguise, so that people think I know what I’m talking about.

Continuing towards the hares’ boxing ring, we stopped on a dirt track between two fields. Sir Pheasant’s farmer, gesturing with one hand to all the land visible in front of us, told me,

This is all corn.

Corn. Okay, I thought, I know what corn is. I’ve eaten corn. He turned to his left,

This is wheat…

He swung round to the right,

…and this is barley.

I stared into the space in front of me.

I thought you said they were both corn.

He smiled, trying not to laugh, explained what he meant, and I think I understood him correctly (but if not please comment below and further my agricultural education!)

Apparently, ‘corn’ is a term used to refer to any sort of cereal crop, including, wheat, barley, and what I was thinking of as corn is called maize. It starts its life as a type of corn, specifically as maize, then is cut down, stripped and bagged up by the Birds’ Eye polar bear and sold as either corn on the cob or sweetcorn, or failing that is puffed up and sugar coated, and sold as Butterkist popcorn. Unnecessarily confusing if you ask me, and greedy of the farmers who already have an umbrella term for that type of crop – cereal. Why they need a second is beyond me, but as much as I rant here, I’ll keep my lips firmly zipped when out in public among more agricultural folk; until I’ve learned a little – okay, a lot – more, they remain the experts.

Once I’d returned from the far distance lands of the North Yorkshire countryside, two friends asked me about my trip, about the farm I’d stayed on, and I recounted the storied detailed above, about how I’d seen the pheasants and the hares in the fields, about how quiet and peaceful it was, and some more boring facts about the land. Apparently I’d misunderstood something, somewhere along the line, as when I said the farm was 120,000 acres, they goggled at me.

My mother will tell anyone who will listen that I have a good eye for space, and that I should have been an architect. I have always enjoyed things of a 3D nature; woodwork when I was little, and building Lego and Duplo houses when I was littler. As a teenager I had a penchant for all things interior design and used to mock up floor plans of our house. All of this, combined with an A* in Design Technology, an A at A Level in Product Design, and the school Technology prize, I should have decent spatial awareness. And like to think I do, but my grasp of space starts at mm2 and cm2, travels up through sq ins, to pretty much reach its limit at m2. I think a house my aunt used to live in had an acre of woodland out the back, but I was small and it was big and I never full explored the limits of the Acre.

The fact was that before my visit to the farm, at the ripe old age of 23, I couldn’t have marked out how big an acre is to save my life, and even now I’m still not utterly certain whether a hectare is bigger or smaller than an acre. If I’d known then even roughly the size of an acre, I could probably have worked out that 120,000 acres was a little larger than the farm I’d seen. In fact, a 120,000acre farm would be double the size of the city of York, and approximately one seventeenth of all North Yorkshire. So having announced with faux confidence that I’d stayed on a 120,000acre farm, it’s no wonder my friends goggled; they must have thought I’d been staying with the Grand Old Duke of York, or someone of equal importance. After a quick telephone call, it transpired that the farm I described was in fact just as fictional as the Grand Old Duke. In reality, Sir Pheasant’s farm is 300-400acres. This fact and the absurdity of my initial description brought gales of laughter to my friends when I confessed, but I should be grateful – it brought humour, laughter, and yet another smidgen of agricultural enlightenment. And aside from that tiny, negligible misunderstanding, I promise you that everything else about the farm is true: there are strutting pheasants, boxing hares, plenty of corn (wheat and barley among other types), a lot of bulls, just a few sheep and at this time of year, a smattering of lambs to keep them company.

Eau de Dairy Farm

Last week I went on a mini-tour of the shooting grounds of the Home Counties: E.J.Churchills, West London, Royal Berkshire and finally Holland and Holland. About the individual grounds I shall have to write another time, because, as all those who follow my Twitter account with know, I recently promised a friend I would write about cows. This came about after a comment I made in the office, about some cows I’d seen at the end of my shooting-ground tour. I told him I’d visited a dairy farm, and met a horse. He asked me whether it was a big black and white horse with udders. And I explained that the dairy farm I’d visited had also had a livery (stressing this word somewhat proudly, as it seemed a genuinely country-sort-of-word that might help secure that notion of ‘fitting in’ I’d had at the charity shoot). He went on to ask me more about the farm, and in particular what type of cows were bred.

–       Brown ones.

The ensuing laughter suggested that apparently this isn’t an accurate description of a breed of cow, and also ruined any notion I might have had that I was becoming country’.

It turns out that the cows in question were in fact pedigree limousin, but I have to say that the name means nothing to me. They were big, creamy brown cows, the colour of a not-too-weak white tea. I was shown some of the new calves, only around a week old, and it was fascinating to see that, while I had no idea of the specifics of what makes ‘a good calf’, I could clearly tell the difference between a ‘good’ calf and a ‘weak’ one when the two calves were pointed out to me. The good calf had a much more symmetrical face and body, a broader, flatter back, wider, more muscular rear (rump?) and looked healthier; if it had been a child, my mother would have described it as ‘bright eyed and bushy tailed’.

That same weekend (the same weekend in fact as the boxing match of the Mad March Hares,) I was also shown some bulls, on a different, livestock farm (that’s a meat farm to me) where beef is farmed for Waitrose and other supermarkets. And the biggest difference between the two farms, far more noticeable than the set up, machinery or even the cows themselves, was the smell. It turns out being in the countryside elicits far deeper sensory experiences than those found in the city. Either that, or I’m just used to the sights, sounds and smells of Greater London.

I’d already been lead to believe that dairy farms had a distinct smell. A couple came into my showroom a few months ago, the parents of an ex-colleague and, more importantly for the purposes of this anecdote, the owners of a dairy farm. Just after they left, another colleague (the nephew of a dairy farmer who accompanied me to the Halloween hunt ball mentioned previously) walked into the showroom and asked whether they were the parents of the woman with whom we both used to work. When I said yes, he said,

–       Ahh, I thought I smelled dairy farmer.

At the time, I thought he was joking; whoever heard of a person being able to smell someone’s profession, and this after they had left the room. He attempted to convince me of his sincerity, but I have to say that until I stepped out of the car onto the dairy farm the other week, I still doubted him.

But it’s true. The livestock farm, with exclusively male cattle, smelled vaguely farmy, for want of a better word. The warm, pungent, almost fruity smell of manure, mixed with fresh air and general agricultural dustiness. But the dairy farm smelled very different. It was sweaty, tangy, sour, not unlike milk past its best. Difficult to describe, I have to say it was not a pleasant smell, but definitely distinctive, and I began to understand what he meant now about being able to recognise smell of a dairy farm. Once that scent gets into your hair and clothes, I imagine it’s virtually impossible to remove.

The second thing I remember most vividly about the dairy farm was the farmer’s manner with the cows. None of them had names – no Daisy, no Buttercup, and no Ermintrude to be seen. I assumed that a farmer, who sees hundreds if not thousands of cows, generation after generation, pass through his farm, would be ambivalent towards the cattle, see them purely as a means to an end – the end in this case being the milk and profit accrued from it. But far from it. He leaned over the fences and pointed out beast after beast, telling us when how old they were almost to the day (the calves) or how many calves they’d had and when (the cows). As we chatted, cows wandered over to the railings and stuck their heads over the fence to be petted, as my dog does when I walk into the room at home. And just as I would with my dog, he scratched behind their ears and above the brow ridge, and they stood calmly enjoying the attention. I liked the fact that the farmer really did care for his animals, and while not silly about them – they are after all there to produce milk and thus an income – it doesn’t stop him being affectionate and concerned. Any milk that comes from that farm definitely comes from happy cows, and that I like.

Despite my naivety about the breed of cows I have to end this post by pointing out that even working on a dairy farm doesn’t teach you everything about them. Months ago, I was at a pub quiz with my colleagues, gin and tonic in hand, and a question was asked about cows. We all spun round in delight – we had the aforementioned nephew of a dairy farmer on our team after all – as the compare broadcast the question:

–       From where on its body does a cow sweat?

But even he was stumped and could do little more than guess. A lifetime’s experience of cows hadn’t taught him this, and yet, after just a few months just tiptoeing around the edge of country life, I can share with you that a cow apparently sweats predominantly from its nose. You learn something new every day.

Sir Pheasant Struts His Stuff

Last weekened, for the first time in my life, I met a combine harvester. Or rather, I met one of the wheels. And one of the wheels was enough; it’s almost as tall as I am (and I’m not short) and probably similar in size to my whole car [i]. The machine itself, even without the wheels, was probably bigger than the house currently I live in.

The farm I visited was entirely alien to me, but the strangest thing about it was the noise it made in the evening. When you stand in the middle of the fields (and there’s quite a lot of land there, especially for a girl who measures floor space in square feet), you can hear nothing. Actually nothing. I like peace and quiet, but peace and quiet to me comes with the background noise of living under the Heathrow flight path (when I was small) and mere metres away from the M40 (now, when I’m not so small). Vehicles of one form or another tick away quietly in the background of my life, ever present and for the most part, unnoticed (though listening for concord at 11am when I was at primary school was a definite exception – everything stopped when concord flew over; it was far too noisy to think, especially when you’re thinking complicated four-year-old thoughts). So for me, Countryside Quiet is quiet on a whole other level. It truly does ‘echo with the sound of silence’.

Everyone knows the sound of your ears ringing when you subject the poor things to a lot of loud noise for a continuous length of time, whether it’s a concert, festival or screaming child. But stood in the middle of a field, with zero background noise, no matter how hard I strained to hear, my ears were ringing with the lack of noise. It was like they couldn’t cope without sound, and so generated it themselves.

If black is in fact the absence of colour or light, then silence is the black of the auditory realm. Quiet you can hear, but this was the complete and utter absence of anything – and I can’t stress that enough. Very occasionally you could head a distant moo of cattle or squark of a pheasant, but that only heightens the lack of sound the rest of the time. Nothing happening, the world just Is. It lifts everything from your shoulders, the world is put on pause… it’s wonderful.

Another thing I liked about being on the farm was seeing the animals. Not just the farm animals, but the wildlife. I’ve developed a familiarity with game – I’ve had to, as it’s emblazoned on everything in the shop where I work, from jumpers and cufflinks to crockery and boxer shorts. Partridges on side plates and bowls, woodcock on mugs, pins and brooches of roe deer and snipe, pheasants embroidered onto jumpers and grouse woven into silk ties. I’ve been presented with a brace of pheasants, a few rabbits, pigeon and even haunches of venison as gifts, and I even have a tiny silver grouse hanging off my charm bracelet as a gift from my mother. But I’ve not yet actually spent any length of time around the live birds. Seeing them around the farm provided not only a novelty, but immense amusement.

They really are funny little things. The plumage on a cock pheasant is stunning, and stationary it looks almost elegant with long slim tail feathers, a proud face and the spectacular shimmering mallard-green and holly-red head, subtly speckled and smoky feathers on the body. But then they start to move, and the show begins. Strutting around with his chest puffed up, the cock pheasant assumes a comically arrogant persona: a rich portly gentleman of class, red face from years of overindulgence and cigars simply because he can; one thumb hooked into the pocket of a silk waistcoat, gold buttons straining, as he consults his shiny pocket watch pretentiously, rising onto his tip toes in that sort of way as he proclaims something supposedly insightful, concluded with ‘… don’t you know old boy’. Tail thrust out proudly behind him, our Mr Pheasant –sorry, Sir Pheasant, swaggers about as if he owns the land and terribly kindly lets the poor farmer work it. And yet, for all his apparent pride, if you walk or better yet drive towards him, the two scrawny little legs that support his rotund body start spinning round in circles like a Loony Toons character. Both scared and hilariously indignant, huffing and puffing he scuttles away.

Partridges are simply a smaller, rounder version of the same. Quiet and peaceful on the surface, not quite so proudly plump in the chest but they are just as funny to watch. Given that despite their wings, they’re not the most proficient fliers, partridges and pheasants both really do have tiny little spindly legs, with movement limited to just two options: the overinflated strut and comical scuttle of resentful desperation.

In the fields at dusk we watched the Mad March Hares playing (before returning home for tea with Alice and the dormouse no doubt). Bounding through the sprouting wheat and barley, pausing occasionally to box each other before carrying on their whimsical game of tag. Roe deer spotted in the distance, only as tall as the hedges around them, slim elegant legs and necks, they walk sedately though the fields. Admittedly at this point I only saw the farm, I didn’t do any work or get involved in any way. But watching the wildlife at dusk you see how nature endures calmly and happily, barely disturbing the silence and flattered by the twilight, providing gentle entertainment, amusement and wonderment. I’m sure Mother Nature will reveal her nasty side to me soon enough – and eyes peeled because I’ll write about it when she does – but for now, I’m smitten.

I know some of my friends would ask how I could reconcile this attitude towards nature and wildlife when I am in favour of shooting. On a farm like that one, small shoots are held during the season, and Sir Pheasant, who I’ve been writing about with such affection, becomes a target. While I’m desperate to go, I’ve not yet actually been game shooting (one day… one day) but despite my lack of experience and my appreciation of nature, I will still defend it. The shooting industry  is actually responsible for an awful lot of conservation of the wildlife and habitats involved in shooting (see BASC for more info). Birds are bred specifically for the sport, and are looked after from birth – after all, a weak bird that can’t fly a good distance, for any length of time or with any speed makes for a very poor target. Anyone who takes issue with game shooting should consider the source of the meat they eat from their local supermarket – I for one would far rather eat a bird that’s lived its life outdoors and been shot mid-air than a battery farmed hen. It is very possible to appreciate the elegance and comedy of the puffed up pheasant strutting his stuff on the farm, the challenge he provides as an airborne target, and the flavour of the pheasant breast wrapped in streaky bacon on your plate at dinner.


[i] The overgrown toboggan that is my little blue Peugeot 107.