Thursday, 19 July 2012

Eccentrics make the world go round

I probably appear fairly eccentric to a lot of folk: I don’t smoke, I don’t drink alcohol, and I usually only swear when someone whacks me in the shins with a hockey stick. Only on the most special of special occasions do I wear make-up or don any form of finery: I am at my happiest in comfy leggings and a pair of (even in the summer) hippopotamusly muddy wellies. [NB: Spellcheck changed that last word automatically to “willies”, but luckily I spotted it in time! Although maybe it cleverly predicted my meeting with The Naked Rambler later in this post...]
Looking at my parents, it was evident that I was destined not to fall readily into any particular stereotype.  My mum (aka Supergran) was playing still tennis with (and beating!) teenage lads in the village till she was well into her 60s.  Sadly her tennis playing came to a premature halt after she broke both wrists simultaneously in a spectacular fall involving a camera, some children, and a dog chain turned tripwire – but that’s another story...). Supergran once walked round a Farming of Yesteryear Show at Glamis Castle for an entire afternoon wearing two completely different coloured shoes, having been so busy speaking to all and sundry that she didn’t have time to look down at her feet until she returned to the car several hours later and went to change into her driving shoes.
Meanwhile, my dad (aka Farmpa) is regularly to be overheard telling anyone in the vicinity: “I’m nearly 80 you know”. But that doesn’t stop him being out on the land first thing every day, and often he doesn’t come back in for his lunch until the middle of the afternoon, having been caught up chasing runaway cattle or filling potholes in the road.  He can only very occasionally be prised away from the farm – and that’s usually to attend a farm sale or to pick up spare parts for some malfunctioning machine or other.   Farming is, quite literally, his life.
My parents’ non-conventional behaviour was perhaps most evident a couple of years ago when they decided to deliver a (full) hive of bees to the Sparrowholding . I did express concern about the wisdom of this operation, given that it involved a 40-minute drive up the M90 in the dark, but my worries were brushed aside and I was assured that adequate precautions would be taken.  And they certainly were.  In the picture below, you’ll see the gung-ho duo of hive removal men who arrived that evening, complete with one  hive, complete with  30 thousand bees (give or take a few) in the back of the Landover.  You’d think that given their great age, the pair of them would have learned to “bee” sensible by now...
                                                               Bee prepared!

Mark you, even their eccentricity pales into sorry insignificance when compared with someone whom I encountered today in a nearby village.  There I was, sitting in my car slurping an amazing ice cream from the local Italian supermarket when an approaching figure caught my eye. He was wearing a broad-brimmed bush hat, a rucksack and hiking boots – and nothing else. For the figure plodding along the pavement was none other than the Naked Rambler, naturist Stephen Gough, recently released from Perth Prison after six years of incarceration for insisting on walking in public without his clothes. 
Blending naturally into the scenery
Being an inquisitive journalistic sort, I hopped out of the car and walked alongside him for a few strides, to ask him where he was headed. Quick as a flash (perhaps an unfortunate analogy, but you know what I mean!), the UK's most renowned rambler produced a brand new OS map, which he opened partially to point out his planned route. By some strange coincidence, it went straight through Kinross, out into the countryside for a couple of miles and right past the end of our road.  On a sudden impulse I said: “Would you like a cup of tea when you pass by?”  His eyes immediately lit up and he said, “Actually, yes, that would be great. I’ve grown used to the taste of water, but tea would be really good." We rapidly ascertained that he didn’t have a mobile phone to let me know when he’d be passing (“Er, I did have, but the battery went flat while I was in prison for six years...” Of course, it did – idiot that I am!).  
So I returned home, filled a flask with some tea (milk, with no sugar, as I’d had the presence of mind to ascertain during our briefest of chats) and drove back to find him already out of Kinross and heading south.  On impulse, I had also popped a couple of cupcakes in a plastic bag, not being quite sure about the Ps and Qs of food acquisition when you’re wandering naked along the highways and byways of Britain. When I handed my paltry pickings over, he seemed genuinely grateful, but was obviously keen to get going – and as I’d noticed a police car lurking round a corner not far away, I didn’t blame him.  His final destination, Bournemouth, is a dauntingly long way from rural Kinross-shire, so I wished him well for his journey and returned home. As I drove, I pondered a society in which violent robbers and gangsters often seem to be able to avoid the long arm of the law and operate with impunity, while a comparatively harmless eccentric can spend six years banged up in a Perthshire prison. It’s a funny old world, although possibly not quite so funny when you consider the huge amount of tax-payers' hard-earned money that has been consumed footing the bill for his extended prison stays...

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Puddings, ponies, packages and potatoes

At the end of last week, I spotted a link on the BBC News website, inviting me to find out “Where are you on the global fat scale?” I should have known it would be a mistake to follow this alluring link into the virtual ether – it could only lead ultimately to deep depression. And it did. It also led to the discovery that my BMI is at the absolute highest it should safely be (25) by UK standards - the same as an indigenous Malaysian apparently.  Other members of the Twitterati only compounded my misery by then announcing gleefully that they were equivalent to natives of countries such as Liberia and East Timor (i.e. both considerably lower BMIs). Thanks @gallopen484 and @ALifeInWellies ... You sure know how to kick a girl when she’s down ;-) My pursuit of svelteness was not helped by a rare foray to M&S this week, where a vision of loveliness met my eyes : a Jubilee-inspired Eton Mess cheesecake, which miraculously floated down off the shelf and dropped itself delicately and suggestively into my basket. It would have seemed churlish to refuse...
Anyone for pudding?
Fortunately for me, elephantine as I may be in global terms, I’m still not the heaviest female occupant here at the Sparrowholding – our Shetland and Highland mares, Little and Large, both tip the scales at greater weights than I.  (Or at least I haven't checked, but they'd better!) 
Little is still on a starvation diet because being a native pony, she doesn’t cope well with the richness of the summer grass and ends up with a nasty equine lurgy called laminitis. 
Little: the expert pill repeller                       
The vet has prescribed her medication for a metabolic problem, but is she's incredibly adept at sifting the pills out of her feed and leaving them triumphantly in the empty trough.  – very galling for the stablehand (aka Yours Truly).  In desperation, we have hit on a cunning plan involving a pestle and mortar, in the fond belief that she’ll struggle to spit out every last tiny grain of the problematic pills in powder form. Mark you, according to the vet, they’ve never come across a pony who refused to eat these tablets, so no doubt contrary Little is busy sieving the powder through her teeth as I type...
4 of the 6 tablets left - rest of feed was cleared, of course!
Large is, as her name suggests, is rather ... er .... large. Like Little, she is following a restricted grazing regime on bare pasture at present, and is being topped up with a daily Halley’s Ad Lib Blox, containing alfalfa and straw fibre, but, critically, no sugar.  Hmmm, maybe I need to be nibbling on Blox rather than Twix as part of my calorie controlled diet. (Don’t try this at home...)

Large: an expert electric fence jumper
Moving swiftly on from paddock to garden, I can report that one row of our potato plants (the red multipurpose variety known as Rooster) is flourishing in the raised outside bed (see below). Sadly, the plants in the row of Charlotte (salad variety, in front of photo) seem to be either non-existent or seriously stunted at the moment.  And of course, we’re keeping our eyes peeled (note cunning potato pun!) for any signs of blight.  The combination of warmth and relentless rain has been taking its toll in other parts of the country and this insidious disease is threatening to reduce many commercial crops to slime. All the more reason to try to protect our precious little crop! You never know, by the end of the season, we may need roof-top missile launchers (is this what's meant by "spud" missiles?!) on the Sparrow residence if there’s a national shortage.

Peas and beans and potatoes popping through the ground

Meanwhile, the strawberries in our small outside bed are still resolutely green, but at least they’re reasonably prolific. Our only problem is finding any of the eponymous straw to bed them with.  The stuff seems to be like gold dust hereabouts, so we’ll maybe have to let the berries take their chances. The plants in the polytunnel have produced a few decent berries, but sadly most of them have been almost too small to be of any real use. Took a photo recently of one that was a rather endearing shape and texted it to the three Sparrow chicks as a fruity token of maternal affection (see below). 
With love from mum
And in other news from the smallholding ... last week I eventually managed – after much prodding and pushing! – to persuade two chocolate fleeces into an former feed bag, which I then encased in two green garden refuse bags and despatched from the local PO to yarn and spinning devotee @EdenCottage. Not sure what her local postman thought about the smell of eau de mouton emanating from the package but, judging by the photos she's sent, @EdenCottage is already busy doing wonderful things with the wool.  As an avid fan of all things ovine, I’m curiously excited about seeing our Shetlands’ ex-jackets transformed into something new, so I’ll be following her progress with interest.
All packaged up and ready to go: 2 chocolate fleeces
Weebruv (he may be 46, but he’s still my little brother!) obviously reckons he doesn’t have enough on his plate looking after the farm, horse feed and sawdust briquette business, plus multifarious guinea pigs, dogs, ponies, cats, wife and kids (not necessarily in that order!). So today he and his trio of offspring headed off to St Andrews to uplift some hens. We received an excited text this evening, complete with photo of their first egg, “hot” off the hen-press. Fortunately, as our neighbours up the road from the Sparrowholding have free range hens, we are in the perfect situation of being able to enjoy local free range eggs every week, but without having the distinct tie of tending any endearing feathered friends ourselves. What some might call an 'eggsellent' plan!

Hot off the hen press

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Music festivals, dislocated shoulders and banana bread

Last weekend we spent most of the daylight hours in Edinburgh (watching Scotland’s U18 hockey boys playing in the Celtic Cup) and the nights back at the Sparrowholding, where we were serenaded in the misty distance by the steady thump of drums from the T in the Park music festival. Usually this auspicious occasion in the Scottish music calendar heralds the springing up of a tented village in our garden (as per last year’s photo below). However, this year - with the daughterly duo 500-ish miles away in Cambridge (i.e. just out of earshot) and Son&Heir busy wielding his hockey stick in Edinburgh all weekend - none of my brood was attending "T".

Despite their absence, I did still do a late pick-up run on Saturday night – to collect DaughterNo1’s boyfriend plus two of DaughterNo2’s friends (another parent having done the Friday run). Amazing that even without the darling daughters here, they still manage to involve me in raking out my old taxi hat! Fortunately my several years of previous experience prompted me to take a roll of bin bags with which to bedeck the seats and floors of the trusty wee Corsa. Just as well I did, too, as the mud at TITP on the Saturday was welly-deep (see photo below). Talking of wellies, early on Monday morning I spotted a lone muddy welly lying on Kinross High Street.  The car park of the town’s Park and Ride area was a sight for sore eyes too (NOT!). I really don’t mind all the extra folk in town, the slight inconvenience of roadblocks and the inevitable noise that the festival creates, as the visitors undoubtedly give the local economy a welcome boost.  What I do mind, however, is the ubiquitous litter that’s left lying in the aftermath. Perhaps festival goers haven’t come across that quaint Scottish expression: “Pit yer rubbish in the bin, ya tumshie!” (Direct translation: please put your detritus in the waste disposal receptacle provided, you turnip)...
 Campsite at T in the Park
 Mud, mud, glorious...
 Lonely without you
Er, hello: does anyone here know what a dustbin's for?
This week has seen a catalogue of poorly creatures and plants in and around the Sparrow residence.  Little, the Shetland pony, is still suffering from laminitis (painful swelling of tissues in her feet caused by rich summer grass). This means the vet has consigned her to the stable, which she hates, as well as prescribing a cornucopia of pharmacological products (already costing more than the said Shetland pony herself is worth).  Also downing the painkillers (though not equine ones!) yesterday was Son&Heir, who was on the receiving end of a particularly pernicious tackle by a Welshman during Sunday's international match.  Result: Welshman - 1; Son&Heir’s shoulder - 0. Spot the strapping in the photo below - and the makeshift sling concocted by the team physio out of a Scotland tracksuit top! To add insult to injury, the Scots were 1 goal up against the Welsh for almost the entire match, only to concede a goal in the last 17 seconds before the final whistle.  Very frustrating, but nothing like the frustration felt by another Scottish sportsman on Sunday afternoon, I suspect!
 One-armed hockey bandit

 One day I'll play for Scotland...

In addition to the warmblooded wounded warriors, there’s my out-of-sorts orchid, a gift from the daughterly duo a couple of years back.  Despite having flowered prodigiously for the past month (about five delicate flower heads on the go currently), it is looking distinctly peaky.  One of its leaves has turned yellow and appears to be mouldy.  Anyone out there know anything about the maladies of orchids?  I'm desperate to save the poor plant, but I suspect it might be on its way to the great greenhouse in the heavens if I don’t instigate dramatic orchid-healing measures soon.

 Poorly orchid

And now (I saved the best for last) to the final photo for this post, which shows a masterpiece of culinary endeavour created around midnight this evening by DaughterNo1’s boyfriend and myself: a chocolate and banana loaf. We can confirm that, in the words of the song, it was "truly scrumptious" as we couldn't wait till tomorrow to check. BF is actually an Oxford engineering student, but that is of little consequence to me: what is of considerable consequence is that he can cook - well.  Not only that, he tidies up after himself, and has been known to stack and unstuck the dishwasher twice in one day.  After my experiences (the stuff of horror films) of trying to get Son&Heir not to leave foodstuffs growing - er, I mean lying around – in his room, it is a complete revelation to have an incumbent lad who assists on the domestic front.  Not only that, he’s paying us rent each week while he does his internship in Perth.  Which leads me to wonder whether I could perhaps enforce a similar rent arrangement on Son&Heir who is now back home. I suppose it's always worth asking (even if you know the answer in advance...).
Chocolate and banana bread - a midnight treat!

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Tatties, fleeces and toads

Manic is the only word that sums up the past week, so I've condensed this post into a mini 'photoblog'. As previously reported, the household numbers were reduced just before the weekend by the departure of the daughterly duo, who headed off to keep order amongst visiting foreign language students in Cambridge. Before they departed we took a photo of the three "ladies of the house" - or rather of our feet, because we noticed we all had pink footwear on!  Two of us were dressed for a summer in Scotland: one of us (DaughterNo2) was not...

Incidentally, DaughterNo1 texted this afternoon to divulge that she had been up till 3 a.m. this morning supervising a teenage lad throwing up following closet excessive alcohol consumption. DaughterNo2 also reported having had to call paramedics following a similar incident! Seems the teens and alcohol problem isn't just a British one...

Monday brought an invitation from my parents (aka Supergran and Farmpa) to lunch with them at The Brig Farm restaurant near Bridge of Earn. Loads of yummy fresh produce, most of it locally sourced. Re-sult! As we munched lunch, we exchanged news, which included me showing Farmpa a photo of our beans, peas and potatoes which are now through the ground. 

The pair of them immediately looked distinctly smug and revealed that the potatoes they are growing in their rockery (don't ask!) are way ahead of ours.  That's when I played my potato-growing ace and showed them the photo of our first boiling of new potatoes, fresh from the polytunnel this week. Tah dah :-). And very tasty my tattie trump cards were too!

The polytunnel also yielded a few strawbs and a few spears of asparagus early in the week - though HunterGatherer rapped my knuckles for picking the latter. Apparently you're not supposed to harvest asparagus from June onwards (to let the plants regenerate for next season).  Sad that, as there are another few spears already  waving at me and I'm looking at them wistfully, but I dutifully haven't laid a finger on them.
Last night I harvested several stalks of rhubarb from the "fruit" section of the veggie patch.  Something had gone wrong with the thicker stems - they were sort of spongy inside, as if the liquid had dried out.  I don't know what was up with them - perhaps just a bit too old and shrivelled (know how they feel!). Still, I stewed the younger stalks in orange juice and honey, and added them to my porridge this morning. Not sure what that combo will do for my IBS, but hey, I enjoy living dangerously!

The rhubarb may have been slightly dodgy, but two of the gooseberry bushes are way beyond dodgy. They are decimated!  Some rotten pests (HG thinks "sawfly"?) have dined in extremis on the leaves, so that all that's left behind are bare twiglets - with a sole gooseberry hinting tantatlisingly at what might have been. Any suggestions to avoid this next year on a postcard (or rather comment), please! It's soul destroying seeing the poor bushes like this and it happens every year.

The most important task achieved on the Sparrowholding this week was shearing.  HunterGatherer girded his loins, embraced the backpain and set to work with his hand shears during a (very) rare break in the rain.  He managed to get all the ewes shorn and wormed, and gave the 14 lambs their second jab to protect against clostridial diseases.  Unfortunately most of the fleeces were only suitable for weed control in the garden, because HG had bedded the shed with woodchip in the winter to help keep the sheep dry.  We did manage to rescue a couple of the brown fleeces, though, and I'm dispatching them to a lovely spinning lady whom I encountered on the Twittersphere.

These poor "naked ladies" were thoroughly unimpressed with their impromptu disrobing - especially as the rain is forecast to get worse.  "Better soggy than maggoty," we told them.  (They still looked unimpressed...)

There's been a lot of wildlife - in addition to the domestic animals -  in evidence around the smallholding this week.  Several swallows (or possibly housemartins?) have set up mudhome in our stable, keeping the poorly Shetland pony company.  Here are the babies peeking out and saying "hi" from on high!

And last, but definitely not least, here's a lovely wee toad who leapt out of the middle of the raised strawberry bed while we were working in the polytunnel this evening (HG has planted a bed of spinach so large we may feed the whole of Kinross-shire with it). Mr Toad crawled away under one of the wooden supports that holds the raised bed in place - he couldn't get into our special terracotta toady des res, because it's been taken over by ants! We're fervently hoping that the distant thumping beat of T in the Park won't deter him from coming out later to continue his slug feast.  He's got a lot of eating to do!

Sunday, 1 July 2012

There were 22 in the bed and the little one said... “I’m going to sleep in the car!”

The Village Hall is ready to receive guests!

It has taken a full seven days to recover from last weekend’s belated 21st festivities, but I’m happy (and relieved!) to report that our lovely little village hall is still standing, HunterGatherer and I are also still standing, our wee hoosie is still standing, and DaughterNo.1 and her multifarious friends from home/school/uni/allotherpartsofherlife seem to have had a ball (although technically it was a Ceilidh, which is even more fun!).  Job done – and only 20 months to go till DaughterNo2’s 21st ...

Dancing the night away Ceilidh-style
Ceilidhs have a great knack of appealing to all ages, and certainly the age range a week past Saturday went from the minuscule 4-year-old cousin to the “I’m nearly 80 you know” grandpa (aka Farmpa). As ever, phenomenal superwoman P – local caterer and organiser extraordinaire – was on top form: her lasagne was so delicious it made you want to apply for Italian citizenship, and her home-made chicken stroganoff would have done Count Pavel Stroganoff himself proud. The toe-tapping Tibbermore Band lifted the rafters of the hall with a succession of traditional Scottish reels and jigs, and the birthday girl herself even took to the stage at one point to lead them on her fiddle for the reel of the 51st.

DaughterNo1 with fiddle at the ready

We’d taken the precaution of recruiting a couple of Scottish Country dance gurus to come along, who coaxed and encouraged even the ‘virgin’ Scottish Country Dancers (from Oxford) on to the floor – and kept them there. Celebration Cake Station in Perth supplied the cake, complete with icing tartan sash, and their client service was exceptional. And last, but definitely not least, there were the guests: 70 odd (!) folk who drank and ate and laughed and danced all night, then stayed on stoically to help clear up at the end.  Great nights are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, made of great people.

Thanks to Celebration Cake Station in Perth

Mmm, extra pud - Auntie G's pavlova...
Once the Ceilidh was over, the party continued back at our bursting-at-the-seams bungalow.  Eventually, by 3.30 a.m., there were 22 teenage and twenty-something-year-old house guests strewn over every available floor space. This included the hallway immediately outside the kitchen, which meant that Yours Truly was effectively penned in the said kitchen.  Figuring that neither the wooden floorboards underfoot nor the kitchen table would provide the necessary modicum of comfort, I retreated outside to the relative comfort of my wee Ford Fiesta, reclined the driver’s seat and proceeded to snatch a couple of precious hours’ sleep.
The dawn chorus woke me around 5 a.m., then FatCat (evidently unimpressed by the bodies lying around his familiar indoor sleeping haunts) jumped on the roof of the car at 6 a.m. and sat on the sunroof (can testify that it’s odd viewing the underbelly of a cat through a glass sunroof!), meowing his displeasure and demanding to come into the car. I remained unmoved by his remonstrations, until 7.30 a.m. when I roused myself sufficiently to drive back to the scene of the “night before” to make sure that there was nothing “unsuitable” left in or around the village hall and adjacent churchyard.  The last thing I wanted to greet worshipers that Sunday morning was an inappropriate undergarment hoisted on the village flagpole...
My eagle proofreading eyes proved to be extremely useful in spotting rogue cigarette butts amongst the grass and gravel around the hall. Other than that, however, there were no signs in the tranquil little hamlet of the previous evening’s revelries, so I bolted back home to launch the mammoth bacon and sausage sarnie marathon.  Half-asleep creatures began to emerge chrysalis-like from the cocoons of their sleeping bags, and eventually everyone was awake – though to say they were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed would be a gross exaggeration, if not an unadulterated lie. Most to be pitied were the four folk who had to set off at 10 a.m. to participate in hockey matches.  A definite case of not-quite-so ‘jolly’ hockeysticks for them!
DaughterNo2 (blue bib) is armed and dangerous - and hung over...
Bodies started disappearing from the Sparrow residence as early as Sunday lunchtime, and a week later, all that remains is DaughterNo1’s boyfriend who has secured an engineering internship in Perth and is renting a room from us for two months this summer.  Meanwhile our daughterly duo have headed south to Cambridge to work for two months as house parents for groups of international teenage students in a language school.
Previous experience (DaughterNo1 worked there last summer) indicates that this task will not be without its challenges.  Such as the time when elder daughter dear rang in desperation around midnight one evening to ask me to look up and text her the Russian word for “bedtime”, so her recalcitrant Russian charges could no longer pretend they didn’t know what she was telling them! 
For DaughterNo2, the role of keeping an eagle eye on the extracurricular antics of a bevy of belligerent teenagers is akin to a “poacher turned gamekeeper”.  It’s only a couple of years since she would have been the perpetrator in any shenanigans rather than the police(wo)man...  Looks like the leopardess will have to change her spots for the summer J.