Saturday 23 November 2019

Knitters and knitting

My mother, who died last year. was a prodigious knitter, in quantity, quality and velocity. We all benefited from her productivity usually in the form of pullovers (bear in mind there are ten of us). My mother then moved on to knitting countless baby cardigans as well as baptisimal shawls for the grandchildren and great grand children that inevitably followed. She seemed to barely have to look at what she was doing as her needles clicked away and the yarn ball shrank. 

I don't remember a time when she did not have a knitting project underway. A particularly poignant moment when helping my sisters clear her flat after she died was finding a half-finished baby cardigan in her knitting bag next to the armchair she sat in. One of my sisters said she would finish it off.

It is perhaps to be expected, therefore, that I have some admiration for knitters. In many ways it is a craft that sits well with smallholding and self-sufficiency. I know some smallholders that keep sheep and clean, card and spin the wool sheared from their own sheep flock, and of course knit with it. Knitting from scratch. That particularly impresses me.

We recently went to a birthday celebration for a smallholder friend in a village hall. We only knew one other person there. After the remains of the food (all home cooked of course) was cleared, the tables were set up and about a dozen or so, mainly but not exclusively women, got out their wool and fabric projects and spent the rest of the afternoon working on them: spinning, knitting, tapestry, weaving and lace-making. It was enjoyable looking on and chatting with them, as well as admiring their skill.

What this is all leading up to is that I have recently ventured into the mysteries of knitting myself. I knitted quite a few practice squares first and, when I eventually worked out why I was always ending up with more stitches on the needle than I started with, it was time for my first project. Inevitably a scarf - an uncomplicated rectangle. With great powers of concentration, a protracted delay when a few rows in succession produced too many mistakes to hide or ignore, and help from an experienced knitter to sort that bit out (thank you Anne), I completed the item. The wool (sorry, yarn) was more or less randomly selected but I will put more thought into the next piece of work. The only problem is the next step up from a scarf seems to me quite a big step so I've yet to decide what this might be.

Friday 22 November 2019

A trip to Attleborough means one thing...

One of our ram lambs died during the night. It had not shown any signs of sickness. However, he was distinctly undersized, half that of most of  the other lambs born this year. He was quite timid and readily gave way to the other sheep at the trough whenever supplementary feed was provided. He was a single, born to a first time mother who was not very maternal. I think this got him off to a poor start nutritionally in his first few weeks. He had to be separated out at one point and given additional feed without competition from the rest of the flock to help build him up and he responded well to this. The last few weeks, since the ram went in with the ewes, he was with two ewe lambs who are not being bred from this year, so he had company.

Anyway, he was the reason for the 30 minute drive along the A11 to Attleborough to a 'fallen stock company' otherwise known as the knacker. Its the second time we have delivered a lamb carcass there. We used the same company to despatch and take away a lame sow a couple of years ago.  

When it comes to disposing of sheep that have died 'on farm' there are legal requirements and the process has to be documented. You can't (or shouldn't) just bury it in a spare corner.  It's also a legal requirement to maintain livestock details on a holding register so that in theory every animal can be accounted for. Hence the need for a Movement Licence every time an animal moves to or from the holding. In addition, each December sheep keepers (and goat keepers) have to complete a census return of the number of animals on their holding. When it comes to cattle each animal has an individual passport where essential information is recorded and accompanies any cattle movements. 

The arrangements for sheep and cattle are fairly stringent because of some serious disease outbreaks that have taken place in the past which had enormous economic (and personal) consequences nationally. As a means of protecting the food chain it is not foolproof as evidenced by the horsemeat scandal in mainstream supermarket meat products a couple of years ago. 

If I am subjected to a farm inspection I will at least be able to provide documentary evidence for the legitimate means of disposal of the lamb in question. Hence today's trip to Attleborough

Thursday 14 November 2019

Cornish and Lloyd Ltd

The neighbouring farmer not uncommonly leaves equipment by the side of a field when he is mid-task. From the window where I am now sitting I can see a 'Cambridge' roller used for levelling the earth and breaking down clods. It's also sometimes used after seed drilling to firm the soil. This one has not got the full width of rollers attached so I think he was using it around the grass  field  margins to flatten the mole hills and even out the tractor ruts.

Embossed on the side of the roller is 'Cornish and Lloyd Ltd, Bury St Edmunds'. Bury St Edmunds is about 16 miles away. Cornish and Lloyd had an iron foundry in Bury St Edmunds manufacturing heavy agricultural equipment. It was established by John Cornish who had moved his foundry from Swaffham in Norfolk to Bury in 1840. The foundry was located in Risbygate Street from 1865 and was eventually demolished in the 1970s. A B&Q diy store now stands in its place.The company became Cornish and Lloyd in the 1890s and continued under that name until the foundry was taken over by Dalgety in 1961. 

The farm is a third generation family arable farm. The second generation farmer is not far off 100 and from time to time takes a drive around the fields. I joke with him whether he is checking up on his boy (who is nearly 70). I wonder if the roller had been bought new? Whatever the case it has seen in many seasons of harvests and been around these fields an  uncountable number of times. 

Sunday 10 November 2019

A moment before dusk

We have a mature Cotinus coggygria just outside our back door. I am not certain of the cultivar but suspect it is 'Royal Purple'. It is a widely available shrub but is nevertheless impressive. The leaves are oval in shape and dark red or purple in colour. Mixed with suitable companions, such as the yellow leaved evergreen Choisya ternata 'Sundance' or perhaps Alchemilla mollis at its foot, the purple leaved forms of Cotinus add stature to the border. 

Cotinus is a deciduous shrub that is late to come into leaf in the spring. The numerous tiny flowers that form billowing clusters give it its common name of 'smoke bush'. However, if you are happy to forgo these and have the courage to hard prune it, the Cotinus will produce much larger leaves. 

What caught my eye this afternoon, however, is a particular quality of the Cotinus which provides an extra moment of micro-joy. This is when sunlight shines through the translucent leaves; its worth stopping a moment to have a look. At this time of year the leaves are turning from purple to autumnal flame-coloured hues. As I passed, on my way to fill up a watering can, I noticed the late afternoon sunlight radiating through the cotinus leaves. The effect at this time of year is accentuated. 

The photographs from my phone don't quite capture the intensity of the experience but they might be enough to whet your appetite to stop and look should you happen to be passing a Cotinus bush one autumn afternoon when the sun is going down.  


Friday 8 November 2019

What did the leaf say to the tree?

I had just finished some jobs outside: collecting the morning's freshly laid eggs, replenishing the straw in the pig arks, checking the sow we think might be pregnant, feeding the ewes hopefully gestating next year's lambs, harvesting a cabbage for dinner. 

I sat on a seat to take a break, and for the moment. It was a mild, still morning and, absorbing the view, noticed the green shoots of the winter wheat in the farmer's field opposite just coming through the brown soil. A future harvest to look forward to, of hope and expectancy.

I also watched the leaves slowly falling from the branches of the towering poplar trees that line our boundary (where "yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang"). As there was no perceptible breeze, it seemed as if each leaf chose its own moment to fall.

Another thought. Having worked for some years in the mental health field I've perhaps known more than the usual number of people who have taken their own life. One person who came to mind was, in fact, another mental health professional whose sudden departure took everyone by surprise, including their own distraught family. Even among those who had been known to mental health services in the previous 12 months, only around one third of suicide attempts, when evaluated, are regarded as having been predictable; two-thirds are not. In any case, a completed suicide nearly always invokes a sense of shock among those who know (and indeed some who don't know) the individual concerned.

The feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that accompany serious depression; certainly. Or escape from the torment of psychosis; regrettably all too frequent. Occasionally a trigger event. But sometimes someone's suicide, on the face of it, is not always fathomable. Nevertheless, e
ven the very leaves of a tree are numbered. 

A Parting Leaf to the Tree

You did not notice my life crinkling at the edges,

The rich green slowly sapping away.
We once provided succour for each other, 
Until I felt there was no return.

I went unheeded amid the safety of your canopy

But now could hide no more.
An imperceptible barrier between us grew;
Was it for my protection or for you?

Still I clung fast even as I faded,

As my hold slowly degraded.
I wasn’t pushed; I dropped quietly away.
I felt my time had come.

©  Notes from a Suffolk Smallholding


Thursday 7 November 2019

Knobbly delights

We have been regularly eating the strangely named, and even stranger looking, Pink Fir Apple potatoes in recent weeks. We had a very good crop of potatoes this year, Pink Fir Apple included. It is some years since I last grew them and I have to say I had forgotten how excellent a potato it is.

I have not been able to elicit much information about their origins except that they were probably first introduced from France in about 1850. Although in recent years in the UK there has been increased interest in growing them, on the whole they are not that common. You would be hard pressed to find them in the shops and if you do I suspect it would be at a premium price as a 'speciality' food. 

The fact is they are just as easy to grow as any other potato. They have a low resistance to blight but scab is much less of a concern, which suits our dryer growing conditions well. Their top growth gets a bit taller than other potatoes and is likely to flop but that won't affect the growing tubers.

One of the reasons why they are not commonly grown is, I'm sure, their propensity to deviate from the expected cigar shape (as depicted in the seed catalogues) to something quite knobbly, reminiscent of root ginger. I assume this characteristic makes them a challenge for anyone trying to grow them on an agricultural scale using mechanised harvesting. 

However, in the kitchen their knobbliness is not really a practical problem because it is unnecessary to peel them. They can be cooked and eaten with their skins on as you might with 'new' potatoes. Indeed, Pink Fir Apple are recommended as a late maturing salad potato and for good reasons. Their skin has a pink tinge  and the flesh is buttery yellow, waxy and dense. They hold their shape and structure well after boiling. Most importantly, they are very tasty too. We eat them plain boiled with a little butter and maybe a light sprinkle of herbs. 

If you have not tried them before and have the space, Pink Fir Apple are certainly worth growing.

Pink Fir Apple potato. They are not always as knobbly as this

Monday 4 November 2019

Last of the aubergines

I cleared the greenhouse a couple of weeks ago, removing the tomato and cucumber plants which had virtually all run out of steam. The remaining peppers and chillies were picked. All that remained, other than a few bunches of grapes, was one aubergine plant that still had some fruit on it. With a run of frosty mornings following some mild temperatures, it was time for it to be composted too and the last of the aubergines picked.

Aubergines usually do quite well for me. They need a relatively long growing season to give time for the fruit to develop. This can make them tricky to grow as this normally involves sowing them early (beginning of March for me) which means keeping them indoors until the weather warms up enough to safely transfer them to the greenhouse. Aubergine seedlings prefer warmer temperatures compared to their tomato equivalents and they dislike soggy compost so careful watering is needed. If such checks to their growth can be avoided they normally thrive pretty well in the greenhouse or polytunnel once established.

The variety I grew this year was supposedly 'Long Purple' but they looked a bit skinny to me. There are a few long thin aubergine varieties available and I wonder if they were one of those. Nevertheless, they tasted fine. Being late in the season the skins were tougher than those picked in the summer but they went well added to a curry.