Scenes from a Smallholding

a couple of extracts…

Page 207….

We took the afternoon off to meet the 2.45 from the West Country, and collected our gently tweetling box of day old chicks. They’d travelled hundreds of miles with no food and apparently no discomfort. Day old chicks are truly incredible.
They ran round and round like little clockwork dandelions for a while, then sprouted into queer-looking gangly teenagers, all claws and bristles, and finally grew gracefully into proper hens. So far so good. And they produced proper eggs as well. Excellent.

But we didn’t notice any particular superiority over our old Rhodies. Perhaps they had advantages that never showed up in our particular circumstances? All we did notice was that they were, as advertised, ‘sex-linked by colour’. This was nothing to do with miscegenation or political incorrectness, but rather the fact that male chicks were always white and females always… something else. Black, was it? Pink? Can’t remember.
Anyway, this seemed to me to be rather more information than we needed about a hen. After all, it was going to be pretty obvious who was who after a few weeks; ie, at the time when decisions would have to be made regarding each individual’s future, or relative lack of it. Some would be laying eggs and going broody now and then; others would be strutting about like ghetto pimps, looking for trouble and stealing cars.

They were the last Posh Birds we ever bought. Instead we reverted to serendipity, and accepted day-old chicks, pregnant eggs, battered old biddies, the halt, the lame, the huddled masses, from whatever quarter they arrived. Some we bought and some were given us. One we found wrapped in a threadbare tartan blanket on the doorstep one morning, with a little pencilled note in a childish scrawl which read ‘plese, mister, oh plese look arter me little n what is ill wiv the flux. I must go nah to be wiv muvver…’
Quite untrue, that last one, as you might have guessed. But we did collect all colours, shapes and ages. Sussex, Orpingtons, Red Leicesters, all sorts. They were then free to mix it as they wished.


Page 30….

What we required were notices of properties of approx three acres of growable land, with double-dwelling capacity, within reasonable reach of a town. By return of post we received a dozen or so inch-thick A4 envelopes stuffed with details of derelict manses, derelict hovels, town houses, modern bungalows with no gdn, but fll ctl htg, htd twl rls, nc gld tps, etc, etc; but amongst all this dross there were five possible possibles.
Mum and Dad drove down again to examine them. Two of them turned out to be flat-pack shacks apparently free-standing on a bed of rock, with a decorative goat nailed to a nearby cliff for effect (‘broad pastoral views’); two of them they never found at all, despite map references and Dad’s years of experience leading convoys all over the UK in the blackouts of wartime; and one of them looked quite promising.

It was on the outskirts of Carmarthen and fulfilled most of our modest criteria. I jumped on a train to see for myself.
Yes… pretty good. But somehow… the house was a bit clunky, and the land was a bit small, and full of reeds, which suggested that expensive drain-laying was a matter of urgency. ‘We’ll think about it. Thankyou.’
By now Mum and Dad had examined dozens of places, and this was the best they’d seen, by quite a long shot. We began to lose hope of finding anywhere right, and drove the two hundred miles home in moderate silence.

On the mat when we arrived was another small mountain of assorted bumph. All rubbish. ‘Desirable top storey attic (no pets, no window-boxes, no visitors after seven)’; ‘Charming Norman keep, ready for restoration’; ‘Chip shop, with planning permission for bingo hall and airport’.
What is it with estate agents, that they seem to be entirely impervious to what it is you actually want?
‘I would like to buy a perfectly ordinary three-bedroom semi within twenty miles of Derby’.
‘Certainly sir. I believe Fontainebleau will shortly be on the market, but meanwhile perhaps sir would like to look at these machine-washable wigwams?’

But then.. next to the bottom of the pile.. an A4 envelope with just one sheet in it. It described a place that fulfilled all our requirements except the double-dwelling, which we knew was always going to be a problem. We grabbed a few hours sleep and all six of us set off back to Wales.


Page 115….

The real fun begins when you start trying to put the polythene skin on. People have been known to come from miles to watch the fun from a deckchair with a crate or two of lager to hand. Advice is freely offered.

The important points are that you must pick a warm day that will allow the plastic to stretch a little, and you must have four people on the job, at least to start with. If this means hauling one or two of the audience out of their deckchairs, so be it. You need a bod at each side and each end. Sod’s Law (Polytunnels) states quite clearly that ‘the unseasonal squall will invariably come from the side with no anchoring bod’.

One side of the sheet is tucked into the trench you have pre-dug, about a foot wide and ditto deep, just outside one line of ground pegs. You then weigh the plastic down with rocks, earth, smashed-up deckchairs, etc. The skin is then stretched reasonably tightly over the spine and the other side is entrenched. Now you only need two people. One to do the work, and the other to do the swearing.

Briefly, there are two stages left. The ends have to be somehow gathered and hauled, tailored and forced to fit round the doorframe, and of course, entrenched. Then the skin must be tensioned.

It’s our view that a staple-gun is essential for attaching the plastic to the frame. We’ve tried nails and battens, but the Uzi staple-gun is king. You grab a swatch of greasy polythene and heave it round the edge of the frame, blasting in staples as you go. An assistant swearer is very useful here, as it is a warm day remember, and you are heaving and straining inside a greenhouse. The sweat is running into your eyes and the audience is smirking and nudging each other. Any dogs present will think you might be interesting to lick. But eventually it is done.

All that remains is to lift sixteen hot steel ribs three inches vertically upwards to tension the skin, against the combined weight of the infill from both trenches, in a temperature of over 100ºF. I don’t know what the force required is in Newtons or Horse-pounds or whatever, but it feels enormous, particularly as you can’t actually position your body so you can get a proper grip. It’s like trying to lift a motorcycle by the pedal, while squatting with your face jammed up against a boiling radiator. This is the bit the deckchair brigade likes best. ‘Look how his nose is all bent and squashy! Har har… Oh! He’s starting to slobber now, see…’

But erecting our last tunnel was different. Several thousand years on, I re-invented the lever and, with the aid of two bricks, some shimming, and a crowbar, lifted all sixteen ribs in four minutes.

The audience thought it was cheating, but I can’t say I agree.