Monday, September 24, 2007

Fly away

Swallows are, I think, my favourite birds. I love everything about them: their first appearance, swooping low over the fields, signalling that summer’s around the corner; their cream chests and rosy cheeks; the athleticism of the adults in their aerial arcs; the cherubic babies with their wide mouths in an ever-present grin.

But this ridiculous hotchpotch of weather has conned some couples into breeding again, leaving it dangerously late for their brood to build up the strength for their long journey to Africa. The one good thing about this year’s plague of flies is that they still have plenty to eat. But time isn’t on their side; just last week the brood living in the bottom corner stable was fluffy and soft. Expecting them to make the trip to warmer climes would be like asking a toddler to run the London Marathon. I feared for their future.

I went to look at them tonight. The babies of last week were gone; perched on the beams were little navy coated adults. Suddenly, like a flurry of fallen leaves caught up in a gust of wind, four or five of them were dancing in the air, swooping amid the rafters to show me what they could do.

I hope the weather is kind. I really hope they make it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

International talk like a pirate day

Arrrr me hearties, did you?
Unfortunately every time I do, I sound like a member of The Wurzels ...

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A poorly Grey Mare

My Grey Mare is not a sore and sorry sort of horse; unlike my sister’s thoroughbreds, who have a habit of hopping on three legs if they suffer the indignity of a scratch, the grey girl grins and bears it. So, when something is wrong, I fly into full panicking mother mode.

Initially, we thought her lameness was due to a poison foot. She was dually poulticed on Saturday and Sunday to draw out it out. The farrier came on Monday to probe for the pus. There was none. Suddenly the confidence of certainty disappeared and the butterflies stirred in the pit of my stomach.

“Never mind,” I thought, “the vet is coming to the yard to see some other horses.” I booked the afternoon off work and rang the surgery. Apparently the vet was “too busy” to look at her, the receptionist informed me. She would book me in for Friday instead. This didn’t help my mood. I tackled the vet (who, incidentally is a lovely person and a damn fine horse vet) when she arrived. “I’d hate to think,” I said, “of her suffering until Friday.” The vet agreed this wasn’t an ideal state of affairs and promised to look at her if she had time. Fortunately, she had time.

The poor Grey Mare has a bruised sole and has been prescribed three days of box rest and a course of anti-inflammatory powders, which are mixed into her dinner. For a greedy horse, she is very fussy and is very suspicious of the tiny yellow granules added to her food. However, she eats it if I feed her by hand.

She is also very upset at being confined to barracks rather than being out in the field with her mates. Consequently, she is very pleased when I arrive. She mugs me for sweeties, insists I scratch her itchy bits and makes me feel incredibly guilty by refusing to eat her hay when I am there. I am told she settles down to munch when I have gone. She is bright as a button in herself, but I can’t help fretting. I love that little horse.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sloe-ly does it

Whichever god of greenness was responsible for this year’s glut of brambles appears also to have waved a magic wand over the blackthorn trees to create a similar surfeit of sloes. Looking like hard, little black grapes, the berries swarm across the branches. The best one are usually high in the trees: big, black, touched with a brush loaded with bluish mat paint, so they look like out-of-reach blueberries. But don’t pop one into your mouth: raw sloes are poisonous. Even the birds don’t eat them.

Sloes are secretive; if you weren’t looking for them, you would probably not notice they were there. Unlike brambles which announce themselves with red berries before colouring to purple juicy ripeness, sloe berries turn directly from green to black. Similarly, sloe pickers can be secretive about their sources. Where I Iive, there is a place that everyone interested in picking sloes knows about. But a few years ago, quite by chance, we discovered somewhere new. I can’t tell you where it is though.

The best way to pick sloes is to find a handy branch to hook your bag, so you have one hand to pull down a laden branch while the other gathers the berries. Due to the berries’ hardness, you can also strip them from the branch in a whoosh if you don’t mind removing all the leaves and pieces of broken bark afterwards.

In no time at all, we had 7lbs of sloes. They’re now in the freezer, their skins bursting before they’re defrosted and mixed with gin and sugar. Come Christmas, it’ll be time to crack open the first bottle.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

In the darkness before dawn

It’s been some time since I was out and about at 5am. A mid-September 5am is dark; very dark. The sky remains devoid of those comforting first streaks of brightness, those tentative fingers fumbling for the light switch. Much of the world is asleep, including many of the horses as I walk through the fields.

As my eyes become adjusted to the darkness and my night vision kicks in, I can see that they’re not all asleep. Some are lying down, dozing, but there are always sentries on guard. A few are snoozing on duty, their heads hanging low. Others are cropping grass.

Overhead, an unknown bird lets out a warning cry. The horses take no notice. When I reach the Grey Mare’s field, I fear I won’t be able to find her. But I’ve forgotten one of the beauties of grey horses: they shine like little beacons of brightness in the dark. Indeed, she’s easy to spot: a snoozer on the hill.

She seems surprised to see me, but bribed with a carrot, she follows me slowly, a child shaken from sleep. “I know how you feel,” I tell her, “but it’s your own fault.” My early morning jaunt is due to her refusal to be caught by my sister for the farrier the day before. Today, I’m taking no chances and am catching her myself before I leave for work. Sometimes her devotion to me is endearing; sometimes it can be galling.

I lead her into the stable and she nudges me for carrots. I studiously avoid looking down the row; a pony died there yesterday and I do not want to see a head looking over a stable door where none should be. I have seen horses that weren’t there before, but I don’t want to today: the loss is still raw.

I fetch the Grey Mare some haylage, and suddenly she’s awake and tucking into her out-of-season treat. Outside, the sky is brightening. The new day is here.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Jelly virgin

The pillowcase looked as though it had been used to mop up after a particularly gory accident. Deep purple-red liquid seeped through and dripped into the container below. Its contents didn’t look very edifying; in fact, one could be excused thinking the remnants of said accident had been scooped up and hung out to dry.

The pillowcase, which I'd nailed to shelf in the larder, was actually filled with a mush of brambles and cooking apples. The juice dripped into a (sterilised) plastic bin overnight and I have just finished attempting to turn it by some kind of alchemy into bramble jelly.

People are often surprised to hear that I cheerfully concoct chutney, make sloe gin and cook a mean quiche. I like to think of myself as quite domesticated. In fact, I often claim that I have missed my vocation and would’ve made a marvellous housewife. However, until tonight, I have never attempted to make jelly or jam.

My mum is a practiced jam maker. She gave me instructions on judging when the jelly was set, but refused to come round and tell me whether it was or not. “But I need you,” I pleaded into the phone, gazing at the bubbling brew on the cooker but knowing not what I was looking for. She laughed at me and refused to come to my aid. “I’m cooking fish fingers,” she said.

I think jelly making must be a dark art. I have no idea if the purple goo is set or not. Anyway, it’s in jars and I’ll find out tomorrow when it’s cooled whether I’ve inherited the knack.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

On the cusp

Suddenly, this week, the scent of autumn is in the air. The vividness of summer is gone; the landscape has lost its lush texture and is brittle and fading, the sky is a backdrop of washed-out chambray with a handful of painted, far-away clouds. The light is amazing but is gone shortly after 8pm. We are on the cusp between seasons.

The summer weather has not been kind. It has not been a vintage year of memories in the sun. When I shut the door on it this year, it won’t be with regret; rather I am ready for the new season and won’t be looking over my shoulder at the summer that never was.

But the wheel of the year is turning and its cycle is on time. The hedges are stuffed with a glut of glossy brambles, the crab apples are starting to appear, the sloes are beginning to colour on the blackthorn. Our plum tree and cherry tree have been a disappointment but the apple trees and especially the pear tree are groaning under the weight of their fruit. My fridge is packed with courgettes, cucumbers and tomatoes – little red and yellow jewels - from my dad’s greenhouse. Soon, I will start to think about making chutney and sloe gin.

Tonight, the beach was lonely, the sea turquoise and still, and the stubble fields stood empty, their gates open and inviting. The Grey Mare loves this time of year too.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Driven to distraction

The theory part of the driving test has apparently just been made more difficult. The BBC website is carrying a quiz to see how many of the multiple choice questions we know the answer to. To pass, you need nine out of 10. To my shame, I scored seven. I would have scored six if I’d answered question 10 honestly.

In my defence, I sat my test a long time ago – before the theory test was even invented. Our theory involved swotting up on the Highway Code and learning the stopping distances on the back cover parrot-fashion ('and double it if it’s wet’). I had no concept of what the stopping distance physically looked liked then, nor do I now, and I certainly can’t remember what they are in theory. I wasn’t quizzed on stopping distances in the three quick-fire questions I was asked after I’d done the practical part of the test. I am one of those unbearable smug people who passed first time.

I am a firm believer that you only really learn how to drive when you’re out there doing it on your own. I didn’t drive at all in the six months between passing and buying my first little mini. Three days later (with a friend along for moral support), I did a round trip of 300+ miles: I had to find somewhere to live because I was starting a new job. That drive was a baptism of fire: I managed to graze the central reservation while fiddling with the lights. I also learned to parallel park in that little car, something I would’ve failed my test on had I been asked to do it. But in the real world, I had to learn if I wanted to park outside my house.

I think now, though, new drivers forget rather than learn new skills when they throw away their L-plates.

One question I would like to see included in the new theory test is:

When do you use your indicators?

a. I don’t, I expect the other motorists to telepathically know what my next manoeuvre will be.
b. Indicators? I don’t need indicators – I’m king of the road!
c. My car doesn’t have indicators.
d. When turning or pulling in or out.

I reckon a lot of today's drivers would get that one wrong …