Sunday, May 31

Hornets

As I sit, a gigantic (OK, a 4 cm) queen hornet circles above me. One of the largest of our native ‘social’ wasps, Farmer Charles informs me it’s a gardener’s friend – eating large quantities of the insect pests that plague his fruit and vegetables. He also assures me they’re less likely to sting than most wasps, though I’ll try not to put it to the test. We’re big on assorted true flies and have a fair amount of bees, but wasps are few and far between – especially hornets.

I know it’s juvenile, but my legs have been bitten to buggery by mosquitoes this last week, so I spent most of last night pursuing the little critters with my amazing fly gun.

Lazy Sunday

Can’t remember the last Sunday I spent lazing around the barn without feeling guilty. Have clocked up a few miles this week, with sessions along the north coast up around Exmoor at Lynton, and down in the opposite direction towards the Paignton area. Despite the holidays, Dartmoor wasn’t that busy. Nice lunch at Lily’s Restaurant in Paignton; must have been at least two other diners under the age of 80. There aren’t many places with table service where you can get a slap up meal (grilled sole) for two at less than twenty quid.

Everything here on the Ponderosa seems to have grown another foot as soon as my back was turned, but it can wait until next week. Something (assume it’s a hawk) has been assassinating the collared doves and plucking them in the yard. A couple of magpies are also raiding the blackbirds’ nest, eating the fledglings. Mrs G’s laying in wait with my catapult and a bucket of steel ball bearings.

I’ve finished the OU course and am missing it already. Looking to sign up for another year’s worth of 20th century literature (texts and debates). There’s a 16 book reading list for this one, which should just about take care of the long winter nights.

Thursday, May 28

Bringer of spring

Grief, Cuckoos must have hired a press officer; that or today’s news is thin. Even BBC’s Springwatch has been in on the act. According to the RSPB, cuckoos warrant inclusion on their red list. Cue another global warming prognosis, though the answer is just as likely to be the expansion of Nigeria’s suburban population and the superior attractions of the French countryside. And let’s face it, if cuckoos have been journeying here on a regular basis and trashing the eggs of meadow pipits and other traditional foster birds, where do they now sow their seed, so to speak. As it happens I was on Okehampton Common this morning (where there are pipits) and was delighted to hear a cuckoo calling from back of the quarry area.

Wednesday, May 27

Trip hammers

OK it can stop raining now. Today’s respite was sought at ‘The Taw River Inn’ located in the village of Sticklepath. Nothing to do with small spiky fish – the name derives from a Saxon word for steep: staecle. Sticklepath lies at the foot of a mount on the old Mariner’s Way, the route sailors took from Dartmouth to their ships in Bideford. It was reputed to be big on Quakers until John Wesley turned up in 1743 and his Methodist chums took over. The pub (formerly the Cornish Inn/Wagon & Horses) goes back a couple of centuries or so and does a fair selection of ales. Tried two pints of the guest beer – Dartmoor IPA. Two quid a pint. Ate a dish of their home-made faggots with mash and peas: recommended.I’m still pursuing my passing interest in metal bashing and wanted to look at the local Finch Foundry (1814-1960) which is located in the village and now maintained by The National Trust. It was a forge rather than a foundry, producing high-quality edge tools (hay knives, hedging tools, shovels, etc.) from blister steel. Although there’s a sizeable drop hammer, the real attractions are the two trip hammers – a plating hammer (1171kg) and a smaller steeling hammer (726kg). They ran the latter while I was there and it’s an awesome beast. Reputed to be the last surviving examples in England.

Monday, May 25

Busy bank holiday

By the time I’d finished touring the county - running errands, caught up with weekend’s footy, barbequed a sheep, cut the grass, felled a tree and attended a couple of exhibitions, I find the holiday is almost over. Think it’s time for a cold one and a dish of smoked oysters.

Must have consumed half an acre of asparagus during the last couple of days (not to forget the 30 quail’s eggs – Cool Hand Luke eat your heart out). Need to finish off the sheep tonight – it’s my old favourite, stuffed pitta breads submerged in Encona chilli sauce.

Nine months and five TMAs into my OU creative writing course, and I’m a week away from the deadline for my ECA. Need to magic up another 3,200 words asap, though not tonight, eh.

Before I forget – congrats to the Gers. I was always sorry when Walter Smith walked away from the Premier League years ago. Celtic now join the growing queue of clubs looking for a manager. A declining list of suspects who must surely be able to name their price.

Saturday, May 23

Two not-so-different pies

What a beautiful morning with which to start the holidays. Apart from an occasional vapour trail and the lingering smell of shrimp from last night’s barbeque, it was blue skies all the way. Swallows, swifts and martins performing acrobatics in amongst the clouds of insects above the long grass (need to get some four-stroke for the mower). My nesting magpie attacked and dispensed with a greater spotted woodpecker that encroached on his patch and was duly rewarded with a shell from Farmer Charles’s Remington. My neighbours have an intense dislike of magpies. I’m a live and let live man myself but baulk at the demise of a woodpecker. That said, the woodpeckers themselves are pretty fond of bird meat and will drill through nest boxes to extract the resident fledglings. A scarlet-headed male has spent all afternoon flying between an oak and a post in the yard, calling out for its erstwhile partner and squeaking like a plastic duck.

Hard boiled quails’ eggs sprinkled with celery salt for snacks. A neighbour sells trays of (30) freshly laid eggs for two quid a pop. They’re buggers to peel though.

Thursday, May 21

Smithy

Following up on something I recently submitted, I am reading Ron Moss’s book about chain making in the Black Country. I was involved in the business in an obscure way some zillions of years ago. Given the physical nature of the job, I hadn’t appreciated that up to a third of the individuals making chain in the early part of the 20th Century were women. I was particularly taken with the story of Lucy Woodhall, who Moss had interviewed. She was still knocking out chain at the Eagle Chain-Works of Samuel Woodhouse & Sons, Cradley heath in the 1970s. Woodhall subsequently retired in ’73, at the age of 73, after 60 years with her hearth and anvil.I sat watching this gent at work during the afternoon. Adjacent to him were five, two-man teams of blacksmiths competing against each other to fashion a set of horse shoes from metal bar in a set period of time. The (young) guys did very well, but needed to put themselves about a bit to meet the deadline. I thought about Lucy Woodhall, who’d begun her apprenticeship at the age of 13 – her hours were 7.00 to 7.00 Mondays to Fridays, and 7.00 to 2.00 on Saturdays. Couldn’t help thinking the old girl would have given the lads a run for their money.

The County Show

I always enjoy the Devon County Show; it’s reputed to be the largest of its type in the country and appears well organised. Today was also well attended, though the recession looks to have dented the number of exhibitors. There’s plenty to eat and drink – local ales and ciders, together with the usual hog roasts and venison burgers. Principal attractions include the show jumping crowd, and their horses; and the assorted livestock and the farmers. Must admit, I’m always impressed by the cattle and the range of sheep. I wouldn’t like to have my bluff called, but I swear I’m starting to appreciate some of the finer points of Exmoor Horns, Devon Closewool and Dorset Downs, etc. Mrs G. believes it’s the smell of the barley which lines the pens that draws me in. Pigeons were thin on the ground, though both Birmingham Rollers and West England Tumblers did well.

It seems worth mentioning the highways and byways of Devon are ablaze with UKIP posters. If next month’s elections are going to be decided on promotional ability, the Tories and Liberals need to get moving (Labour doesn’t bother running in this neck of the woods).

Wednesday, May 20

On the other hand

Whilst the public’s anger shows no sign of abating, let’s be fair – as long as the money was flowing most everyone was happy to turn a blind eye. Close to half the country appears to have had their snouts in the trough via one or other of those generous public-service sinecures with the BBC or suchlike, or courtesy of enhanced health, education and law enforcement budgets. Another 15-20% probably live on the back of our benefit system. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to public services per se, nor against the idea of supporting people – we’re all in this together and punters need to be gainfully employed (idle hands and all that). I just find it sad that the UK had to import several million migrants to do the actual work. Michael Martin and McPlonker have spent this last ten years filling a fair percentage of the country’s pockets with gold – from GPs, to council functionaries on six-figure salaries – and it seems churlish to turn the poor schmucks out of Parliament just because of some minor embarrassment with their moats and chandeliers.

Chirp, chirp, chomp

The yard’s traffic seems to have increased exponentially, particularly in terms of stock doves, collared doves and wood pigeons. Nesting magpies spend most of each day brawling with the jackdaws and carrion crows that stray into their territory. The cock pheasant and his two hens have become semi-permanent residents, slinking away as the sun goes down and nocturnal predators come out to play. Our evenings are punctuated by the sound of slavering rodents tearing at the floorboards and ceilings. I’ve seen nothing of the bats or the barn owls so far this year, though there seems to be an explosion in our rabbit population. Chased a hare down the track yesterday afternoon - they too are making more regular appearances. The swallows left when the rain blew in. Two pied wagtails that feed out back were joined by a lone garden warbler. Unfortunately he’s since flown into my office window and is no more.

Mrs G. has continued to dazzle this past week with an array of dishes. In addition to fresh North Devon crabs, lemon sole and some outstanding red mullet, we have feasted on wild boar and Camargue rice, curried goat, prawn risotto, roasted rare breed pork and a classic coq au vin. The secret is in the birds: we purchase boilers from a local supplier at a cost of £5 for three, then simmer for 12 hours or so, until they’re edible. If that isn’t enough, tomorrow is the start of the Devon County Show – oceans of beer and cider, supported by lines of marquees that are full of butchers, southwest cheese producers, and pasty and pie makers.

Sunday, May 17

MP's expenses

Like most people, I thought this would be another 48 hour special. But just when you think the boredom factor is bound to kick in, another mindboggling expense claim comes to light. It’s hard to credit that, at the same time our soldiers were getting turned over in Iraq and Afghanistan, a turd like Gerald Kaufman was submitting his claim for an Odeon sized £8,000 television. Eight grand! When the same squaddies finish their service they’re probably lucky to qualify for a council house, yet the poor schmucks are still required to pay taxes to fund Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls’s £2,000/month mortgage interest payment on their £655k property.

Whilst we’re led by a man with a lower poll rating than Michael Foot, everyone is crapping themselves in case the great unwashed chooses to vote for that bunch of extras from the Mel Brooks film. A generation of politicians is likely to be sacrificed on the altar of righteous indignation – and no doubt we’ll be forced to relive the whole thing over again in a few years time as the replacement models, sans experience, make the same mistakes.

I remember an old friend who came over from Dublin in the 60s telling me (rather shamefaced) how pleased he was when our black neighbours arrived from the Caribbean. Likewise, I bet our bankers can’t believe their good luck. If we do boot out Gorbals Mick and his cronies I trust we won't make the same mistake as we did with Fred Goodwin and his pension.

Friday, May 15

Gotcha

Me and my big mouth: the rain hasn’t stopped since yesterday morning and there’s localised flooding throughout the region. The droll weather man says it’s ‘humid’. Good news is that my rat trap finally came good, incarcerating the biggest and nastiest looking rodent this side of the Okement. He was not a happy chappie, screeching to high heaven and doing his best to gnaw through the wire. The problem was what to do with him? Said rat seemed too large for any of the four cats in the yard, and Farmer Charles’ hounds are too valuable to risk. It came down to a choice between emptying the lad into a sack and bludgeoning him with a spade, or tossing the trap into a water butt and counting up to one hundred. I guess this is why people keep small vicious terriers.

Thursday, May 14

Curry and rain

The Boss finally caught on to my Bob Marley retrospective and came up with an outstanding goat curry for supper. Rather apt, as the equivalent of a tropical depression is passing through. I feel embarrassed about saying this but I’ll say it anyway: I’ve missed the rain - the sounds and smells.

Despite the hectic pace of this last 3-4 days my backlog of chores has continued to mount and even the cheery disposition of our resident song birds begins to grate. You become irritated by the flapping of butterflies’ wings and feel the need to escape to the coast. Guess it’s the sense and scent of reminiscence that attracts me there: the suggestion of samphire and whelks and pasties, of bowed windbreaks and Ambre Solaire. Despite these grey mornings and the horizons obscured by mist, I can pick my way across a bank of slippery lichen and find a seat on the sandstone; lay back and absolve myself by reflecting that neither The Telegraph nor Mrs G. are reviewing my expenses.

Monday, May 11

Hillan Piet

It’s windy but the sun is shining and our swallows are back in force. The hedgerows are alive with the sound of fledglings, and chicks that have fallen or been forced from the nest litter village pavements. A rare mistle thrush in the yard. I say rare... they’re not really – it’s just that we see so many red wings and song thrushes rather than hillan piets as Mrs G. calls them (highland pies?). Whilst not normally an aggressive bird, holm thrushes as they are also known here in Devon get a cob on if you go near their nest, and will drive off marauding jackdaws and rooks – have been known to successfully attack a kestrel or sparrow hawk. The Ten Tors Challenge seems to have gone off without major incident and for once the weather remained good. I must get out on the moors myself this week, though there’s plenty of work to keep me busy.

Thursday, May 7

Goes way back

I didn’t bump into any of the Sackett clan but there’s no doubt you’re encroaching on a ‘community’ (we were viewing the previously mentioned prospect). The area is a bit special and not unlike another we looked at last week in Cornwall. Not so much ‘old money’ as deep roots. I’m led to believe there are families up North who still bear grudges that stem from the ’80s miners’ strike. In this particular neighbourhood people mark you out because your family teamed up with Cromwell’s lot back in the 17th Century.

Where big ladies eat

I’ve met Captain Alberto Bertorelli, the gauche Lothario from Allo Allo. He’s alive and well and holding court at an Italian restaurant in Exeter. I say Italian, the decor is more American diner – a Formica and chrome trattoria, with Alberto ensconced behind the bruschetta and béchamel, dispensing genial goodwill and flirtatious canapés to the ‘wonderful ladies’ who eat there. And what ladies... an exaltation of Rubenesque forms, openly gorging on dishes of Fusillia al Formaggio and Maccheroncini al Prosciutto Cotto. Looking back, I suspect it was some sort of club I’d stumbled on, where BBW congregate to secretly dine amongst their own.

Wednesday, May 6

Property slump continues

Contrary to last month’s optimism from Nationwide, Halifax reckons that house prices have fallen another 1.7% during April. Pays your money... as they say, in how you quantify the conflicting information. There’s a real shortage of decent homes on the market, but while the number of active viewers has expanded, people are still looking for a bargain. From what I can determine, many of those who have actually sold have done so at well below their asking price. Am off to view another prospect in a village of some 150 souls - all of whom belong to one or other of the three resident families, and each of which goes back seven generations. What’s the chances of my pissing off Tyrel Sackett during the visit?

How quickly they forget

I’m with Obama’s ‘guns and bibles’ when it comes to nationalists, but Lehmann represents the antithetical view – one that doesn’t bear thinking about. Most of the guff relating to Thatcher’s accession is being written by people who either weren’t there or have forgotten what it was like. We’ve moved on, certainly, but the horses for courses adage still stands.

Tuesday, May 5

A jaundiced view

As I’m calorie adverse, I bitterly resent eating crap food (waste of a valuable meal). Likewise, the time I took leafing through Mullin’s views from the foothills could have been spent more wisely. A no-account who snipes from the sidelines but hasn’t the balls, talent or energy to do much about anything, unless it’s from behind the barricades of a select committee. Our self avowed slacker can barely disguise his revulsion for the local electorate. When not in pursuit of another sinecure, the lad seems to devote most of his time to smoothing the path of migrants. All worthy, of course... but then Labour wonders why its supporters are beating a path to the BNP. ‘Tories have cleared the way for BNP wins’ says Denis MacShane. Yeah, right! The Chipmunk had it: a lamentable failure to get the message across. Labour took its eyes off the ball long ago - too busy enriching themselves. And we share the blame: there’s a tendency to dismiss the likes of Mullin as a decent sort whose heart’s in the right place, a failure to accept that too many of our representatives are mediocre. We take better care choosing produce at the market than when selecting our representatives, and so rarely hold them to account.

Monday, May 4

Glasgow Rangers admitted to Premier League

Congratulations to the big lad; I’m sure both his and a number of the Birmingham City players necks were on the line during yesterday’s match. With big money now on tap, standby for a rerun of Kris Boyd and a couple of his Ibrox buddies heading south during the summer. And what price Joey Barton ends up at St Andrews come August?