Since the bridge grafting episode we’ve needed to asses how we fence the fruit trees. The so-called stock proofing we did a few years ago (quite apart from the fact it is emphatically NOT sheep proof) has also been outgrown by the young trees which are in some cases rubbing along the top rails. The netting also makes it very hard to get to the ground inside to keep the weeds down and to collect some windfalls which inevitably fall inside. The final clincher is that Tom had to take some of the fencing down to get to the grafts so it’s time to look at a new way of fencing them.
So yesterday we started to take down the old netting and rails. Working with me was Phil who we’ve known for around 17 years and whom over the course of that time has taught me more diverse skills than almost anyone else has. What he doesn’t know about working on a small mixed farm almost certainly isn’t worth knowing and he’s a tremendously hard worker and is very easy to work with as well. In short, he’s possibly the most skilled person I know. It’s true he has an unfortunate habit of pulling my leg – relentlessly. As he sometimes comments, his wife thinks it’s a wonder I don’t “pun” him (hit him). But he’s so cheerful and loves laughing that even tedious, heavy, boring jobs when it’s horizontal rain or freezing cold or conversely strenuous jobs in the heat of summer such as lugging hay bales in off the fields, somehow seem easier or less miserable when he’s chivvying and giggling alongside.
Taking fencing staples out of timber after several years weathering doesn’t come under my heading of “most fun jobs”. I have inflammatory arthritis in various joints which is currently latent but even so, my grip strength is not what it once was – as Phil says, I have “rubber’aands” so manipulating fencing pliers which seem to have been manufactured in such a way as to make it impossible to dig out the sunken rusty staples is not easy, even with the aid of a hammer to drive the point of the tool under. He likes to refer to himself in the third person and assigns grammatical genders and personalities to most inanimate objects in a most unEnglish way which makes for interesting conversation. Watching me whimper as I struggle with the pliers he will eventually elbow me out of the way “Gittawn! Let Philip at ‘im” as he swiftly removes the recalcitrant staple with a twist of his strong wrist “See! You have to show ‘im who’s boss!” Sometimes he reckons, all it needs is a bit of extra “swaysion” with a hammer and he’s got more strength to do the persuading with than I have.
We’ve worked together so often on so many jobs (and he’s recommended by word of mouth so good is he at his job) that I actually know quite a few of the other people he works for as well as “knowing of” some others because he tells me what things he’s been up to since he last came so mostly I know who he’s talking about when we catch up with each other’s week. The day passes quicker if you can chat whilst you’re working and so I’ll ask him how so and so is, has he finished the fencing at Mrs X’s house, did he get to the farm sale to look at tractors and so on. Sometimes we’re working in different areas and so the conversation has to wait until one of the regular tea breaks, tea being the fuel on which he runs – on the hour, every hour, 2 sugars please.
Sometimes I get tired or cold and I can no longer think of what I’m trying to say or to listen even and I zone out whilst I get on with the job in hand. But mostly it’s his cheeriness that makes the mundane bearable and I also like to hear about a life I’ve not experienced myself. He left school around 14/15 years old and went to work on the farm where his dad was farm manager. (I’m a bit hazy on his age because he claims to have 2 birthdays a year. I challenged him on this once saying nobody has two birthdays a year so don’t be so silly and he looked mock indignant for a second before bursting into yet more giggles. He pointed out quite rightly that the Queen has two birthdays a year and if it’s good enough for Her Majesty then it’s good enough for Philip…) The skills and knowledge he has built up over the past 50 years cover an old fashioned way of farming that has disappeared now but spans right up to current farming methods because he still works on various holdings as self employed even though officially now retired. He is my touchstone to the near past, explaining methods and machinery that I don’t understand, coming from a townie background as I do and listening to him is like looking through a photo album of yesteryear or a museum of agriculture, the machinery and equipment festooned with cobwebs and dust and time.
He quite likes what he calls my “old fashioned” way of approaching small holding so is mostly game to help us carry out our more hair brained schemes, anything will set him off giggling anyway and work is work is work – he doesn’t question me as some others would do, just gets on with the job without arguing. Sometimes I wish he would though. On more than once occasion, one of my wilder flights of fancy has crashed Icarus-like to the ground, it’s wax wings dissolved by the heat of ignorant enthusiasm and been greeted with a quiet mutter of “well I knews that weren’t gonna work…”
He is also quite tolerant of my distinctly over-sentimental and un-farmerlike attachments to all living things although I think he draws the line at rescuing every single worm that we dig up. Yesterday as we started on removing the netting from one fence I noticed a hibernating ladybird clinging tightly under the rail in the chilly wind. I adore ladybirds and always have and we really don’t get many this high up here so I am fiercely protective of them especially as they do such a valuable job of predating on greenfly. I intended to scoop it up and move it to the potting shed to sleep out the rest of the cold spell in peace so told him to mind “my” ladybird as he started work. He mumbled a bit about telling it to “fly away home” and gave a couple of swift taps with the hammer on the post to remove the top staple before I could stop him and the ladybird slid an inch down the post with each reverberation – I swear I could hear it’s claws screeching down the timber – before finally losing it’s grip on the third stroke and plummeting Geronimo! the remaining metre to the ground below. I immediately started hunting in the long grass for it but it had rolled into the roots and disappeared. I looked at Phil reproachfully and told him I couldn’t find it. “well you told it to fly away home” he said. No. I didn’t. I was going to rescue it and then you hammered the post before I could and it fell off is what happened. Actually. I told him to mind where he was treading now as he finished removing the netting. “Well if she stops whurr she is then she won’t come to no harm will she” he retorted, clearly unimpressed with my St Francis Thought for the Day.
Last week as we dug over the raspberry cage – a truly thankless task given the soil was sodden and compacted and has many years of weed roots in – ready to plant the fresh raspberry canes we’ve just bought
we talked a lot about the farm where he worked when he first left school. About the hardy native Hereford cattle that would live out all winter unlike modern Dairy/Beef which are continental cross breeds and are housed in the winter months. It was his job to throw straw along the hedges for the cows to calve on in the lee of the windbreak and he used to take the horse and cart out to do this as the semi wild Hereford mammas would charge at people to protect their calves (never ever underestimate the danger of a mummy cow) but would leave the horse alone as it posed no threat – and with it the vulnerable human standing in the cart. He said when he was a lad the boss wouldn’t let him take the tractors (he is now one of the most skilled tractor drivers I’ve come across and can manoeuvre them in ridiculously tight spaces) so he always had to use the Shire horse for heavy jobs as a youngster. He liked the horse he said, she was gentle and calm. Mind you, he said, once she panicked a bit. They used to cart the muck to the edge of a quarry in a wood and tip it down there. He said it was one of those oval tipper carts? I didn’t know what he meant, it’s not something that you’d see on any farm now despite the fact that I imagine they were still fairly common in the 60’s and I was also becoming cold and starting to get weary so I just grunted. He explained that you pulled out a peg and the cart tipped back on it’s pivots, emptying it’s contents out the back and in this case, over the edge of a cliff into the woods below. An handy piece of kit in an age where hydraulics hadn’t been invented and like so many elegant solutions continued long after more modern methods had become common.
He carried on “I pulled out the peg a bit sharpish like” Oh dear I said, did the cart tip too far? “No!!! Blummin’ horse went up in the air!!!” He stretched his eyes wide and flung his hand sharply skywards to indicate the trajectory and speed of the unfortunate Shire. He shuddered at the memory, “Boy! was I frit!!!” I pointed out the horse was probably rather “frit” as well under the circumstances. Most horses I’ve had any dealing with would take grave exception to being dangled from the shafts of a cart by it’s harness, hooves scrabbling frantically in the air whilst teetering on the edge of a precipice. Even the more unflappable carthorse types. What happened? “I was cutting at the straps with my knife to free it, boy did it take some cutting, those straps were strong!!!!” Apparently the horse landed safely and no real harm was done – except to the harness. What we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history however and apparently the horse had a second episode of being launched into orbit on another occasion before the young Phil finally got to grips with the mysterious workings of the tipper cart.
He shook his head “Poor Leonard”
“Yeah that was it’s name, Leonard”
But you said it was a mare?
“Yays” he affirmed.
But Leonard is a boys name I protested!
He shrugged – this being his standard reply to all things beyond his ken. “It was definitely a mare and it was definitely called Leonard, dunnos why”
The unfortunate Leonard presumably need a psychiatrist by the time she was retired what with her ton of person being flung around every so often at short notice and being called by boys names and whatnot. I began to wonder at her placid nature and decided she’d probably just given up altogether… However the story of her flight did keep me chuckling for the rest of the afternoon and so the job got done.