Sunday 30 December 2018

Internal Drainage Boards

Much of the farm land in the Fens is below sea level. This is the result of land drainage and, in the peaty areas in particular, subsequent land sinkage. This makes the high grade farm land liable to flooding. To combat this the land is criss-crossed by a network of substantial ‘drains’ and artificial water ways. They often have romantic names such as Hundred Foot Drain (i.e. it is 100’ wide), Forty Foot Drain and The Cut Off Channel. 

These waterways drain into the four main rivers or their tributaries, that eventually flow into The Wash on the Norfolk and Lincolnshire coast: the Witham and the Welland traversing the Lincolnshire fens, and the Nene and Great Ouse draining fenland Cambridgeshire.

There are some areas, such as at Welney in east Norfolk, which are treated as washes and when necessary allowed to flood to prevent flooding elsewhere. During the summer the washes are used for conservation grazing and farmers graze sheep or cattle on them. The drains themselves are crucial water sources for farmers to irrigate their crops. All round us great arching sprays of water are a common sight during the summer months. This was especially the case during the recent droughty summer. Farmers were kept busy, often quite late at night, moving the irrigation hoses.

The management of the drainage system is the responsibility of Internal Drainage Boards. The whole fen area is divided into smaller districts each with its own drainage board. We live within the Ely Group of drainage board districts. The drainage boards look after the pumps and the sluices which regulate the water flows in this flat, low-lying landscape. They also maintain the drains and collect the Drainage Rate to fund their activities. We are liable to pay an annual Drainage Board rate, as is everyone who owns property of more than two acres within an Internal Drainage Board District. 

We have a fen drain on one of our boundaries. It is called Baldwin’s Lode (lode is an Anglo-Saxon word for drain). It’s name and it’s sinuous route, in contrast to the dead straightness typical of fen drains, suggests a more ancient origin. It is 58 km long but is relatively modest in width compared to some fen drains. It connects the Eriswell Drain near Lakenheath to the River Lark near Prickwillow just outside Ely. In fact Prickwillow is home to the Drainage Museum where some of the old drainage pumps can be seen. 

Although we benefit from this drainage system we are relatively safe from flooding where we are because we live at altitude, some 3m above sea level. 

Baldwin's Lode

In the neighboring farmyard irrigation hoses are
ready to be stored at the end of the summer

Anyone one who lives or works the land in the Fens rely on the Internal Drainage Boards to do their job.

Tuesday 18 December 2018

Club hammer phenomenon

A smallholder friend recently commented that he had to buy yet another club hammer and that somewhere dotted around his holding are likely to be found all the other club hammers he owns. 

I know the feeling. I recently came across a club hammer myself I’d lost (and subsequently replaced) nearly two years ago. It was by that fence post that was loose. 

The problem is that there are jobs to do out in the fields sometimes some distance from the workshop. It’s so easy to put a small hand tool down and incredibly you simply can’t find it again. 

Many people are of the view that any self-respecting gardener or smallholder will always carry a pen knife in their pocket for the many occasions it is inevitably called upon. The club hammer phenomenon means this just doesn’t work for me. I lost my cherished Swiss Army Knife which always managed to keep a sharp blade. I assume I’ve put it down mid-task rather than directly back in my pocket and now it’s lost. 

Now, rather than carry a knife with me constantly, I have several Stanley or craft knives dotted around in strategic locations instead:-
  1. In the feed shed for opening up feed sacks.
  2. In the barn for cutting the baler twin to open up bales of hay.
  3. In the greenhouse for cutting string for tying in tomato plants.
  4. In the workshop for miscellaneous cutting tasks.
  5. Another one in the workshop reserved for tasks for which Stanley Knives are actually intended for.
This is a solution that works well for me. But I do miss my Swiss Army Knife.

Its somewhere

Friday 14 December 2018

December wren

After a period of winter gloom weather-wise, this morning was still, cold and sunny. As I was going about my business, I heard a wren call. Not a continuous spring time sing-song, but a few short bursts anyway. I occasionally see a wren darting in their low level, straight line, flight into the base of a viburnum bush. Perhaps because of their unobtrusiveness, it’s surprising to know that they are the commonest breeding bird in Britain. 

Although they are tiny, not much bigger than a walnut, they are distinctive because of their short stubby tail which is often displayed in a cock sure way. 

Source: Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust

There is plenty of bird life about taking advantage of the hanging nuts and fat balls. However, apart from the cawing of crows, the meow call of buzzards and the honking from a skein of migratory geese, I’ve not heard much by way of bird calls just recently, perhaps not unexpected at this time of the year. But the wren has a very loud voice for a bird so small, and with the viburnum just outside the back door it was not hard to miss. A cheery contribution to the day. It needn’t take much.

Speaking of which, another poem by John Clare, that astute observer of nineteenth century rural England and the countryside.

The Wren
Why is the cuckoo’s melody preferred
And nightingale’s rich song so fondly praised
In poet’s rhymes? Is there no other bird
Of nature’s minstrelsy that oft hath raised
One’s heart to extacy and mirth as well?
I judge not how another’s taste is caught:
With mine, there’s other birds that bear the bell
Whose song hath crowds of happy memories brought.
Such the wood-robin singing in the dell
And little wren that many a time hath sought
Shelter from showers in huts where I did dwell
In early spring the tennant of the plain
Tenting my sheep and still they come to tell
The happy stories of the past again.

Tuesday 11 December 2018

"I love you, rotten"

There's a group of fruit trees that have a medieval aura to them - medlar, quince, mulberry, cobnut - and smallholders and keen gardeners sometimes like to grow them, if they have not been inherited, because they are unusual or in the name of diversity. A bit like keeping rare breed livestock. 

These fruits are unusual in the sense that you don't often see them for sale, certainly not in a supermarket. And its not always clear what you can do with them. They are forgotten fruits. More recently they do seem to have acquired a degree of metropolitan trendiness, encouraged no doubt by a certain strata of cookery writer. Nevertheless, there are good reasons for growing them if you have the space, including their ornamental value if not for their culinary contribution.

We have a quince, but not a mulberry nor cobnut. We do now have a medlar. We have had a growing familiarity with the medlar and make use of the fruit, so there are reasons for growing it. I generally use medlar jelly in the same way as redcurrant jelly, to flavour and add a little sweetness to meat dishes.

The relative rarity of medlars has not always been the case. Seventeenth century recipe books have instructions about how to use them in among today's more familiar fruits. Shakespeare refers to the medlar in several plays in the knowledge that the audience would be familiar with the fruit and understand his references or puns. In Romeo and Juliette, for example, Murcutio makes the following somewhat salacious comment:- 

    "If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.
      Now will he sit under a medlar tree
      And wish his mistress was that kind of fruit
      As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone. - 
      O Romeo, that she were, O, that she were
      An open-arse, thou a pop'rin pear." 

The fully grown fruit is green and hard but not yet ready for consumption. They have to be allowed to begin to go rotten or ferment. Medlars become soft and mushy, and turn brown with wrinkled skin. Frost helps matters along the way. Although this sounds unattractive the 'bletting' process, as it is called, causes the starch in the fruit to turn to sugar. This is when medlars are ready to use. 

The rottenness might be off-putting for some. D.H.Lawrence, in his emotional-laden poem Medlars and Sorb Apples described them as "Wineskins of brown morbidity, Autumnal excrementa", which is not really intended to stimulate the appetite. To put people off further the medlar is known in France as 'dogs arse' and to the observant the semblance is apparent. (The 'open-arse' mentioned by Shakespeare I suspect refers to a  more gender specific term for a part of the anatomy used in Elizabethan England). Anyway, I actually prefer to think of it looking more like a very large rose hip.

Medlars, not quite bletted

Medlar jelly is the usual, although not the only, consumable to produce from the fruits. I've previously bought medlar jelly from farm shops (a bit pricey) and more recently from a smallholder friend (a snip). This year we were gifted a basket worth of medlars from another smallholder which we have turned into jelly. We decided that it was time to grow a medlar of our own.

Today I planted a couple of new apple trees ('Spartan' and 'Gala') and a medlar tree. The variety is Mespilus germanica 'Nottingham' which is commonly available from fruit tree nurseries. We now look forward to continue to be able to enjoy rottenness for many years to come.

Wednesday 5 December 2018

Hay security

With the droughty summer seriously impacting on grass growth, I had to resort to commencing feeding the sheep with hay earlier than usual. I currently put out the hay twice a day rather than a large quantity for them to eat ad lib. This is because of the problem of too much wastage. Sheep, mine at least, won’t eat hay that’s been spilt on the ground or if it’s too wet. This way they will clear the hay rack completely, which I replenish again later in the day. I also give a small amount of coarse feed, enough to keep me in their good books for when it comes to rounding them up or moving them. I’m pleased to say that the flock is looking in good condition so it looks like they are getting enough to eat.

The other day I needed to replenish hay supplies so that there is enough to see us through into the new year. I picked up 30 more bales to stack in my small barn. That’s three trips as my trailer can accommodate 10 bales at a time. Fortunately I do not have far to go, barely half a mile. A friend, Sheila, buys in a large quantity of hay each year and factors my requirements into her order. This is very convenient for me as I know there is ready hay supply stored close by. It’s good quality hay too and smells summery when a bale is opened up.

Sheila is not a smallholder but keeps thoroughbred horses. (Newmarket race course and associated stables and studs are not far away). They are either retired race horses or horses that did not quite make the grade for racing. They are nevertheless beautiful, majestic-looking creatures. Her daughter uses two of them for show jumping and eventing. 

If you keep livestock, a barn full of hay engenders a feeling of security in the same way as having a full tank of heating oil, or when the wood shed is full or having well stock food cupboards.

Sunday 2 December 2018


December is the month of the darkest days. Fellow Suffolk resident Sue at The Cottage at the End of the Lane points out that during December day length deceases down to 7 hours and 49 minutes on the 21st, at least in these here parts. 

If you are of a certain disposition, the darkness might get you down and for many this can be a real problem. For me, being a smallholder, there is always something to look forward to. Filling the barn with hay bales in the summer to see livestock though the winter. Manuring the vegetable plots to prepare the earth for the next season. Winter pruning fruit trees for greater returns next autumn. Sowing seeds for future crops. Putting the ram in with the ewes for new spring lambs.  Actually, despite the dark, December is a time of anticipation.

Behind us a flat arable field stretches out, and in the distance a line of Scots pines marks the field margin, with an expansive grey sky above.  The field is dull brown after the potato harvest. It will soon be ploughed, though, and re-sown with wheat. It won’t be so long before new shoots come though and the field turns bright green; the prospect alters once again. I look through our rear window daily, anticipating the changes.

After the winter solstice the days will ever so slightly begin to lengthen and nature perceptively signals the changes: buds begin to swell, snow drops appear from nowhere. Our hen's come back into lay. We anticipate the birth of the lamb.

Having something to look forward to is a way of letting in the light. 

The view from my window