The farm house

“This blog is the unfolding story of Rush Farm and an exploration of life by its philosopher farmer.”

Entirely inadvertently I revealed that while writing part of my notes last week I had playing a CD featuring the violinist Jennifer Pike, which by some strange internal logic led me to use her name instead of the dancer Crystal Pipe.  

Nicki fortunately was puzzled, and I both thanked her and made the correction. In response to my acceptance that humble pie was in order she was kind enough to suggest I eat it with custard – like rice pudding a delicacy as far as I am concerned. 

Much though I dislike commenting on the weather, I have, this week, absolutely no option.  We have had so much rain that work on the land could not be entertained. So essentially all tasks involving machinery had to be paused.   

Youngster

Twenty sheep were sold at the start of the week and on Thursday a further two steers left us. We hope to sell on another thirty lambs next week, meaning numbers left on the farm will be close to fifty – an important step forward. 

The winter-feeding programme obviously has continued, as has been the need to spend time in the pouring rain checking the health of the sheep. Reports from neighbouring farmers who lamb early suggest losses to foxes have been high.  

Almost without exception our ewes and last year’s lambs are unlikely to be taken because of their size, but we have lost one of the smaller lambs.  

The environment 

Sadly, over these last few days the hollowness of the governments concern for the environment becomes ever clearer. Two examples should suffice:  

Towards the end of 2020 the government published two papers on the importance of natural pollinators, and in particular the better protection of bees. Within the last week the decision has been made to reject the European wide agreement on banned neonicotinoid pesticides, and allow these to be used in 2021 – yet another illustration of the pressure the National Farmers Union can exert. In this case on behalf of sugar beet growers.  

Secondly, a consultation has been launched which includes inviting views on the highly emotive issue of gene editing for stock and cereals. Gene editing is a subset of genetic modifications, usually known as GMO’s, all totally banned under EU standards. Amazingly the Secretary of State chose to announce this at the recent Oxford Conference, whose attended includes most of the luminaries from the non-conventional side of farming, who were unlikely to be enthused by his remark.  

My generation was suckered into believing the ‘Green revolution’ of the 1960’s would solve the feeding needs of the ever-growing world population. No mention at the time of course of the expense of the new seeds, and the vastly increased need to use pesticides and herbicides, let alone the devastating consequences on the soil.   

On a much more positive note, I can share with you a report highlighted by Damian Carrington in the Guardian on the 8th of this month from the Food Farming and Countryside Commission, which goes as far as saying ‘Beef herds could be central to sustainable farming’ in its final report on an independent inquiry that took place from November 2017 to April 2018. 

A disappointment 

There is just never enough space to cover all that I would like to write, but I am intending to restrain myself this week to three issues only.  

I start with the issue of choice. Something we were both reminded of when, not having a newspaper in the house for the better part of a year, we succumbed to the lure of a Christmas edition of the Radio Times. A waste of money as neither of us could cope with the apparently seemingly endless choice laid out for our delectation.  

Education

I was teaching in Saskatchewan at the time when the more enlightened educationalist of Ontario decided students should have a greater choice in what they might study. The decision was made there to offer senior pupils a choice of some 1700 modules.  

It has never reached such extremes in this country, but as parents we saw the effect on our children of them having to make impossible choices at 14, 16 and 18 as to what to study. In every aspect of life these days we are faced with more choice, that merely confuses rather than helps. Consumerism and choice promised so much but have unfortunately just run amok. The only upside is that for some of us at least, the catatonic stupor so induced, ensures just not buying!  

Our house and bygone days

The second is to write about our house which we have been living in now for nearly 15 years. It probably is the kind of house that arouses envy. It has a footprint of many thousands of feet; it has a chocolate box appeal to it with its timbered second floor. It has gardens large enough to allow three dogs to gamble in, and grandchildren to build dens in when they get tired of racing around. The gardens, should we avoid a drought have a mass of flowers and bushes together with many species of roses. Ancient apple trees, a Christmas tree which was planted by previous owners and now is higher than the house, a miniature holly bush and ancient brick walls covered with pyracantha.  

Inside it is just as picturesque. In the older part of the house there is the exposure of the basic timber construction on both floors. Upstairs the headroom is variable, the floors slope in every direction and this is explained downstairs where two vast and far from straight beams are what holds it all up. The ‘new’ part, i.e., that of the Queen Anne period, is in some ways quite different. Large rooms and high ceilings though no straight lines, and upstairs a floor which makes it all but impossible to walk in a straight line.  

Though the house was listed in the 1970’s, previous owners over the centuries were not so precious in their approach to conservation for which we must offer thanks. Nor did they hesitate to reuse material as can be seen in many of the beams.  

So far so good, but there is a downside.  

Old houses need constant attention, old houses especially with large gardens have heavy running costs, old houses are inevitably cold. For example. even with central heating the average temperature in really cold weather struggles to achieve 16 degrees. Rather like farming, the words of the Caribbean song ring loud. “there’s a hole in my bucket dear Lisa, with what shall I plug it…” And, of course, the building even in the small hours is never quiet. 

But for all those who imagine enactments are worthwhile, consider the following. 

Until electricity was brought to the area, lighting could only have been by candle or later oil lamp. Until mains water arrived, the only sources of water were an iron pipe which brought stream water from a hill a mile or so away and water drawn from the well, positioned just outside the back water. To have water upstairs it had to carried up, to have warm water the kitchen range was the only source. I pass over sanitation leaving it to your imagination.   

As for life without central heating! In the earliest part of the house heating came from a wide hearth probably originally and later burning wood. In the Victorian period, the other downstairs rooms had coal fires. Upstairs had no heating other than what rose up the two stairs. That from the kitchen almost certainly meant the servants’ sleeping place was warmer than the five other bedrooms.  

No wonder the calorie intake needed to be excess of 3000 a day despite the fact that clothing would have been largely woollen and thick.  

There would have been no waterproof garments. In every possible way, all people would have required strong constitutions, and of course there were no antibiotics, and doctors were probably far more a danger to your life than otherwise.  

Good fortune might mean there was some local woman who had knowledge of herbal remedies, and certainly would not have seen blood letting as the main course of treatment.  

Vegetables available depended on the season. Flour supplies depended on the success of the annual cereal crops and since, unlike the Irish, as potatoes never replaced bread as the staple meal, a poor harvest meant very real problems.  

Barley was as important as wheat because ale would have been the main drink for safety and sustenance. Indeed, the valuation for 1911 included brewing equipment. 

Fruit, in this area at least, would have usually been plentiful as the varieties of trees and bushes would reflect the known latest day when frost might have been a problem. The hedgerows would have also fed both humans and wildlife. And of course, there was no refrigeration – not a problem in winter perhaps, but preservation of food otherwise had to rely on traditional approaches.  

Though it appears dental decay has been a problem with us for centuries, there was of course only honey that could be used as a sweetener until, for the ordinary people, sugar became cheap and readily available towards the end of the 19th century. 

Before Covid 19, it felt that all the house was well occupied, now with just the pair of us living here, the feel is quite different. Fortunately, the old saw proves accurate. Empty spaces somehow just get filled. 

Wood stoves in the two sitting rooms ensure only three levels of clothing in winter are needed when they are lit. Updating in our bathroom and bedroom means, despite the strange floor levels, we are very comfortable both there and in the sitting room below our bedroom. The kitchen, the other warm area of the house, was, until shielding, used as most farmhouse kitchens have historically been.  

America

Turning to America, I suppose like the smoker who has broken the habit, as one who felt anti-Americanism was misplaced for many years, I now seem unable to resist setting out just how wide the gap there is between us. The quote below comes from a recent addition of the Atlantic monthly magazine. Du Bois wrote many articles and books on Black American history and is highly regarded by all academics but fervent racists: 

“The genesis of modern American policing can be traced in part to the institution of chattel slavery and its white-supremacist orthodoxy. It started with the slave patrols of the early 1700s and continued with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a federal statute strengthening laws that prevented the enslaved from fleeing bondage and left free Black people vulnerable to kidnapping. White citizens were employed as slave catchers to return the ‘stolen property’ of southern planters by any means necessary. In his 1903 text The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote that the “police system was arranged to deal with blacks alone, and tacitly assumed that every white man was ipso facto a member of that police.  

The ideologies of that earliest iteration of American policing—designed to prevent the freedom and enfranchisement of Black people, and to protect the interests of white people—still persist in today’s policing system.” 

As the world saw only too clearly last week.  

Finally, a word about poetry, or more accurately, choosing a poem to end on. Though the internet is there as a last resort, I prefer to choose from the selection of poetry I have accumulated over the years. The selection is of course limited, and every time I turn to Harold Bloom I feel humbled by my own inadequacies but also enlightened.  

Inevitably, I guess, my choices are not to every one’s taste, but if they encourage the reading of poetry then I am achieving something.  

This week another poem from Erich Kastner which might well be considered seriously by our overpromising and under delivering gems of the present government -Messrs Johnson, Gove, and Hancock – Ms Patel must of course not be forgotten.  

Dictum for New Year’s Eve  

One shouldn’t with lots of agendas  
burden the year like an old horse.  
Because who does will then, of course,  
see how it finally surrenders.  

The more the plans do bloom and prosper  
the trickier will, I confess,  
be then the deed, though really trying  
you’ll find yourself within a mess.  

No use in turning red with shame,  
it only causes harm, and so:  
Stop making resolutions, man!
Leave the agenda! And do better as you go.  

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