Saturday, March 31

Flies and pushbikes

Muck-spreading can do wonders for the lungs; it also bring tears to the eyes. Although, like a familiar fart, it's not too unpleasant a smell. It usually leads to an increase in the barn’s insect population; not that green bottle flies or the odd dead badger are ever likely to deflect our appetites. Steak & eggs for today's breakfast, made extra delicious by a dousing of habanero sauce. Need to maintain energy for my treks to the Kwik-E-Mart. That said, the old knees aint what they used to be - and I’ve been considering the purchase of a bicycle. Like buses, I relinquished this form of transport on graduating school; haven’t ridden one since. So, it was with some trepidation that I ventured into a cycle emporium yesterday.
The last time I looked, bikes were fitted with 3-speed Sturnmey Archer gears, had proper mudguards, regulation lights and a bell. They certainly bore no relation to the two hundred models on display in this shop; although I was pleased to see that Dawes and Claud Butler still survive.
What a palaver, though. ‘Which particular type of bike would sir be looking for?’ Err, ‘one with two wheels.’ ‘And your price range would be?’ ‘Dunno, fifty to a hundred quid, I guess.’ (Chortles in the background.) Apparently, there are mountain-bikes, cycles for trekking, for the city, hybrid versions, racing bikes, touring, freeride, track, cross-country, expedition, downhill, dirt, trials… Confusing?
Being an accomplished salesman, he was able to steer me in what he thought was the right direction. (Have you noticed they way they lead you along?) ‘This is a nice model that we find popular with a certain sort, but at £300 it’s rather cheap and nasty - and perhaps not the sort of thing a man of your calibre should be looking for.’ He then proceeds to dazzle with a shiny ninety-seven-geared number that has disc-brakes, all around suspension and a satellite-navigation system bolted to the handlebars. A six-figure price tag, and it still didn’t have mudguards!
I’m not peddling to the village for my News of the Screws on something Eddy Merckx would ride: they’ll have me wearing Lycra shorts.
Now back in the office, beer in one hand and a copy of What Mountain Bike in the other, I have my eye on something called a Gary Fisher Tassajara Disc. Apparently, it’s last years model that’s been knocked down to half price.

Friday, March 30

Exeter food festival

I’m not always convinced about food festivals: too many people trying to reinvent themselves as artisan sausage makers. It takes more than a farmhouse kitchen and organic label to produce decent food. However, today’s visit to the Exeter Food Festival was something of an eye opener: lots of quality produce and ranks of enthusiastic foodies. I usually make a token purchase to show willing, but on this occasion ran out of spondulics after only an hour in the tents. Very impressed with Fishleigh Estate’s presentation. Located only a couple of miles from the barn, they produce impressive organic meat that’s been hung for a reasonable length of time. In addition to the usual supplies, Mrs G. decided to treat me - by purchasing half a goat. Cooking cabrito is real simple - providing you’re happy to dig a hole in the yard. All you need is a three-foot-deep pit, with blazing oak (or mesquite) fire at the bottom. Wrap the goat in a sack and drop into the hole; cover with dirt to seal in the heat and let it cook all day. As I said: simple. The only remaining effort involves a little patience, and a taste for Dos Equis Especials.


Where’d the frost come from? Looks like my neighbour timed his spud planting to perfection. At least it puts paid to those pesky slugs' eggs.

Wednesday, March 28

The barn wall

Running repairs

Somewhere within the roof-space of the barn there lives an owl. I’ve seen him only once. He fell upon me screeching one moonless evening, after I had the temerity to interrupt his nocturnal hunt in the back yard. The other reason I know he resides there is because of the dead bits of small mammals - in the shape of regurgitated pellets - that litter the ground below the entrance to his lair.
I was thinking of this penchant for sneaking up behind innocent bystanders earlier this week, when inspecting his nest. The entrance had become warped, dislodging a section of the door. Naturally, muggins here took it upon himself to effect repairs. Not the handiest of men with a saw or power drill, I’m even less impressive whilst performing at the top of a fully extended triple extension ladder. Trust me, it’s a long way down.
It proved to be a novel environment for me, up amongst the thatch. It’s not just the birds you offend by encroaching on their space - there’s all manner of insect life: swarms of flies, bees, midges… Lots of iffy looking spiders. Another part of the natural history world.
You can only but admire the lads that built these old barns: all joints and pegs. As a consequence, I’ve found there is little that can’t be fixed by a vigorous assault with a wooden mallet.

Tuesday, March 27


Just as a Goldfinch arrived to add yet more colour to the barn, the van of the tourist season fetches up. Alien looking life forms that gather furtively outside the Quik-E-Mart, consulting maps. It’s one of the reasons we left Greenwich behind. Our feathered migrants are more reassuring company. Arthur and his bride are the latest additions to join us at the homestead - crash-landing last night, amid much quacking and squawking. They join a garden full of collared doves, tits and finches, robins, a jay, magpie, wrens, buzzard, woodpecker, sparrows, jackdaws, owl, crows, pheasant, wood pigeons, blackbirds and a nuthatch. The downside includes my spending much of this morning chiselling crap from the oil tank; cleaning countless windows. On the plus side, I got to barbeque a couple of steaks; and Mrs G. manufactured a gallon or two of her famous potato salad and jalapeno-laced guacamole. Laura Canales on the tannoy, and it’s our own little Cinco de Mayo - albeit, a month early.

Monday, March 26

Charming the wildlife

They never come within a hundred yards of yours truly, but Mrs G. swans about the place like Snow White in the forest - has them eating out of her hand. If only she could train it to clean my shed.

There’ll always be trouble in River City

The opening line of the general manager’s induction speech during my first day on the job was along the lines that ‘work, like life, could be broken down into 10% that was fun, and 90% which is mind numbingly tedious. And that the sooner I learnt to formulate suitable strategies to cope with the hand that life had dealt, then the happier both he and I would be.’ He was quite a lad.

I thought of this salutary piece of advice whilst viewing the final episode of The Trap, an Adam Curtis trilogy on the concepts of freedom. Although at times you felt like a first year undergraduate, the series was eminently watchable. Curtis has a talent for sifting through hours of archive footage and assembling a polemic, which - in this particular case - derides much of what passed, or still passes, as perceived political wisdom in the field of liberty and democracy. Regretfully, bored politicians = mischief. If only they’d concentrate on emptying bins and making sure our trains ran on time, a lot of people in Iraq and elsewhere around the world would be so much happier.

Saturday, March 24

Load of rubbish

An idyllic afternoon on the Ponderosa. The only sounds were of chirping birds; and bees, buzzing. Butterflies appeared in the margins. OK, the temperature wasn’t exactly scorching, but it sure beats the hell out of winter. Warm enough for me to break out the BBQ - our first of the year. Days like these make you grateful for everything you’re not: a Pakistan cricket coach; junior doctor in need of a post; or member of a boarding party, late of the Shatt al-Arab waterway.

Then again you could be a member of England’s football team. Sans Sky Sports I’m tucked up with the wireless, a slice of Mrs G’s apple cake and glass of grappa, listening to Rooney et al struggle in Israel. Still to atone for the World Cup, this week’s stories of Beckham jealousy beggars belief. A hundred grand a week and they still perform like a bunch of nancy boys. Better than bent cricketers, you may say; but that’s scant consolation. I’d swear some smart Alec from the terraces is playing Èl Degüello on his bugle.

Friday, March 23

Birdsong makes you spend

So, THAT’S WHY courier vans have been beating a path to my door. I’d always harboured suspicions about Terry Wogan, but to think the birds are in on the act!

Playground bullies

I can’t claim to be much of a birdie person, but you’d have to be both blind and deaf to ignore their presence around the barn. Life this month has become noticeably violent amongst the chaffinch community as individuals engage in ritual mid-air combat, vying to establish a pecking order. But they know better than to antagonise the nuthatch or greenfinch.

Thursday, March 22

Eating out

Whilst acknowledging that Marco’s a bit of a lad, you can’t fault his pedigree in the kitchen. Our esteemed chef’s recent comments regarding value for money Big Macs were foremost in mind this week when leaving another half eaten £12.50 dish on the table. Pierre White's assertion that McDonalds offer better food than many restaurants aint too far from the truth. In this neck of the woods, you too often have to rely on pub grub; and I don’t mean the Anchor & Hope variety. It’s as though we jump from the John Burton-Race and Rick Steins of the world to a scene of mediocrity. There’s too little by way mid-range competence. Some of the pastry served up could be utilised by plod to reinforce stab-proof vests; and don’t get me started on fish from the Cretaceous period. God save us from publicans wives and catering school graduates. I miss the Turkish guys in Lewisham the most. What wouldn’t I give for a kebab, accompanied by beans, rice, salad - and bottle of Efes. Dammit, I feel a Homer moment coming on. Bugger the rain, I’m resurrecting my barbeque.

Tuesday, March 20

Trip to the seaside

The merest glimmer of sunlight this morning proved sufficient encouragement for Mrs G. to break out the picnic hamper and steer yours truly coastwise, for an assault on Padstow beach.It must be a British thing? A national eccentricity that derives pleasure from sitting on harbour walls, drinking oxtail soup whilst dressed in an Arctic fleece and balaclava helmet. Everyone gazes rather wistfully out to sea - maybe wondering why we’re not in Malaga, sipping a cold one.
Even sadder was the number of people with the same idea: I had to circle the car park for ten minutes until a space became vacant. Most of those camped out alongside us were earnest young couples with obligatory bambino in harness; Rohan-clad grandparents bringing up the rear. Entire groups of these extended families were supporting ethnically-inspired hats - the ones with ear flaps, that used to be de rigueur for climbers returning from Nepal. Fair put my woolly bonnet to shame.
Padstow, or PadStein as it is known, is a small fishing village that’s primarily given over to tourism. There are plenty of pubs that sell a variety of locally brewed ales. Doubtless a frightening place to visit at the height of the season.

Monday, March 19

Sage bread

Today's trip to the Quik-E-Mart for a Ferreters' Weekly is off. I leapt from my pit this morning to be greeted by a scene not dissimilar to that I envisage when following Aubrey's exploits off of Cape Horn . The homestead continues to be subject to alternating waves of sleet and hail that sweep down from the moor. We stand directly in it's path, beam on, as though part of some thermonuclear fusion experiment. Makes me wonder why I bothered to clean the windows. As for the metallic paintwork on the motor…

Breakfast with Mrs G’s eclectic breads continues to surprise. Today's special promotion featured potato and sage flavoured toasted rolls, with homemade marmalade. At least it wasn't sprouting, unlike the last lot.

Everyone should express their thanks to Adam Curtis for his series about liberty, broadcast on BBC2. Last night’s instalment was riveting. I’d actually forgotten about that old tosser Tom Peters and his management-speak. As for the spooky Stepford Wife on Prozac… scary. Personally, I think you’re all going to hell in a handcart.

Sunday, March 18

Eddie Floyd

Argh… You can’t really appreciate how painful sleet can be until sheets of the stuff have been driven into your left ear by a gale from the North Atlantic. It might be blowing a hoolie, but this guy appears happy just to sit outside my window and knock on wood.


The north-westerly gales return, bringing a welcome taste of Arctic temperatures to those so inclined. It clears the pesky flies from my shed. Except for two carrion crows clinging bravely as though to topgallants, the birds remain grounded. Trees thrash around out back in a fruitless attempt to uproot themselves; fallen limbs from previous encounters litter the gully. My route to Quik-E-Mart sounds menacing; looks black. Do I really need yesterday’s match reports?

Saturday, March 17

City Slickers

Yours truly was marched down to the local livestock market this morning to attend an auction of rare breed chickens and ducks. The neighbour keeps half a dozen hens for eggs, and there’s an empty pen we could use. Having been given a subscription to Practical Poultry for Christmas, I’ve begun to take a vague interest in Ancona Bantams and Scots Dumpies, However, being the cautious type, I'm holding back until we find a place of our own.

Given my agricultural experience todate is a window box in South London and goldfish on top of the TV, the thought of inheriting an allotment and greenhouse was initially quite attractive. But whilst our original ideas revolved around a little cottage off the beaten track (high on comfort, low on maintenance), we’ve been seduced by life at the barn on a 120 acre farm. Much against my better judgement I’ve been viewing a twenty acre smallholding, complete with cider orchard and a frighteningly large four-legged animal galloping around the paddock. I’m not sure my fifty yard dash on a donkey at the age of six or a day trip to Kempton Park qualifies me as a judge of horse flesh. And I can't imagine what I’d do with the pig pens, storage barns or hay loft. Presumably, the new Honda would be traded for a second hand tractor?

Probably not for us. And yet... having read all those J.T. Edson books as a teenager, I always suspected there was a little of the Ysabel Kid in me.

Cuttings away

My new boy’s toy. I spent three hours yesterday extending our carbon footprint with a Honda HRX 476 SX. Not, unfortunately, the latest in GP motorcycles; rather, a boring mower. That said, the 5.5hp engine destroys everything in it’s path, scything through the garden like a mini combine. Yours truly, towed along in it’s wake. Evidence of the barn’s former occupants continues to surface… buried within the vegetation I discovered a footy, three tennis balls, one cricket ball and a set of stumps.
A jerry can of unleaded has now been added to the vast array of flammable materials already stored in the shed. If ever the balloon goes up, it’ll be Pudding Lane all over again.

Knocking at the door

A Jehovah’s Witness called the other morning. You need an Ordnance Survey map and pair of Wellington boots to find this place; it’s 300 yards from the nearest public road. Yet they still come knocking, and I can’t fault their perseverance. Opening the door at eleven in the morning whilst still clad in string vest and boxer shorts was a tad embarrassing (late night at the young farmers’ poker school), but I’d guess they’ve seen a lot worse than my crooked pins during their years of ministering to local sinners. Delivery and mail men aside, our only unannounced visitor this last three months has been a council snooper, checking electoral role anomalies against poll tax payments.

Local tax is a contentious issue in this part of the world. There’s a lot of aggrieved grannies wondering why they’re haemorrhaging pound notes for a once a week bin collection. Bless their hearts, the old girls don’t seem to understand that building an Olympic stadium or nuclear submarine costs big bucks. And let’s face it, if it wasn’t for the guys in Barrow and Devonport, old sour face would only piss it away on another of his grandiose schemes for the betterment of mankind.

Wednesday, March 14

End of a perfect day

I wish there was a little of the poet in me. That I was more qualified to articulate on the changes out back. Spring has most definitely arrived, together with gloriously warm sunshine. The trees and hedgerows are alive with birds, the air with manure. As I watch the sky turn red, a line of geese pass over the barn and a large grey heron drifts down across the gully to land in a meadow alongside the weir. Our lone fox emerges from the coppice and takes in the scene. I have no idea if he’s on his way out, or going home. An ugly cat is hunting small mammals in the garden. The neighbour, four aging Labradors and a Stafford pass by the window looking tired and hungry. As the sun goes down life changes to a bluish grey; an ancient single prop aeroplane stutters and struggles, late to its destination. The birdsong increases by a decibel or two; the temperature drops. An aroma of anchovy-flavoured beef drifts in from the kitchen - and I feel a beer coming on.

Tuesday, March 13

Tell it to the Marines

I’m an enthusiastic recycler who’d rather walk than drive; that uses low energy light bulbs, wears 20 year old denims and aspires to growing the odd carrot. So please, give me a break! ‘Thousands misled?’ ‘Millions of sceptics,’ more like. I’ve yet to meet someone who can accurately forecast next week’s weather, let alone present a case for global warming that doesn’t smack of religious fanaticism, political indoctrination, or the glib pronunciations of a snake-oil salesman. They may well be right, but the movement effects all the righteousness of public sector workers on the make. Cameron tries to present himself as a well meaning country parson, but as he’s a politician we know the man’s just selling a line. Global warming sounds frighteningly similar to the bombast of 19thC preachers promoting hellfire and brimstone - and we aren't buying it.

Monday, March 12

The Great Unread

I can believe this. Whilst no one condones wasting good money (is there bad?), some books are too excruciatingly painful to finish. Being the mean type, I have a decent track record for plodding on to the end in the hope of a surprise, a twist to the tale, a moral or lesson to be learned. Paulo Coelho’s raison d’être is primarily to test such fortitude. Yet I bet we can all name an acquaintance or two with the literary pretensions that boasts a mini-library of Foucault and Joyce, but which is augmented by their bedroom collection of Andy McNab adventure stories and Nigel Mansell biographies. My weakness as a teenager was JT Edson; in later years, Patrick O’Brien. I’ve read all 20 volumes on at least four separate occasions. I know, I know: sad bastard. Prize for the most politically incorrect book on my shelves has to go to Jonathan Aitken’s positive spin on Nixon.

Saturday, March 10

Sunshine's back for the weekend

It’s been a busy old week, though I’m still unable to cut the waterlogged ground. Yesterday turned into a good old fashioned Friday lunchtime session at the Dog & Duck (Remember the old days: the 12:30 - 16:00 weekend warm up?). Our return walk was a sobering experience.

Someone in a Hawk insists on using the homestead as a marker for his low-level training runs. I’m into boys’ toys as much as the next man, but retrieving loose thatch from the yard 4-5 times a day becomes monotonous. I can just about recall being at the receiving end of English Electric Lightnings during an exercise on Brecon Beacons many moons ago. I’m not sure Lightnings were actually ground attack aircraft, but then they never really needed their cannons as the roar from full throttle Avons was enough to put the wind up yours truly. Boy, could they climb; a giant engine with a pilot glued to the front and flames coming out the back.

I’m told that life improves appreciably once spring arrives. This weekend is a taster, the high pressure bringing prolonged periods of sunshine. An unbelievable 14° . The last place you want to be is indoors, although - as it’s FA Cup weekend - the footy is being broadcast on terrestrial TV. I get to dust off the cathode ray tube. Neighbours can’t believe we haven’t a plasma, but it hardly seems worth the trouble for 3-4 programmes a week. Our local heroes are hosting Watford, and I toyed with the idea of acquiring tickets from the same man in the pub that’s selling legs of lamb at £5 a throw.

Wednesday, March 7

Green Giant

You want to see these guys fight over a peanut. Would that my broker worked as hard.

Tuesday, March 6


The itinerate fish monger triumphs again. Shell fish here is more than acceptable; you forget it's supposed to taste of the sea.

Past it

Paxman an old fart? Yep, it’s official. When someone rants about litter, you know he's taken to wearing slippers. It’s Martin, from Ever Decreasing Circles.

Sunday, March 4


Another example of Mrs G’s range of exotic breads. I suspect this one contains lots of seeds (sunflower, linseed and sesame) and is made of something called spelt. She’ll make an organic, weed-eating fruitcake of me yet, whether I like it or not. Not that I’m complaining, although my loaf-a-day regime could explain the extra 7lbs I’ve acquired. Nothing of course to do with my exploits in the Dog & Duck or the pork scratching suppers.

Another three points… Playing garbage by all accounts, but - like MU - the boys are winning. Am currently stretched out, listening to West Ham v Spurs; my third match of the day. Upson lasted just 10 minutes; looks like WH are getting the same value for money that we did.

Field sports continue apace… My neighbour out back is catapulting dead pigeons across the draw as part of Fang Junior’s training programme. I want to see his nancy-boy Labrador mix it with whatever’s devouring the deer. Revenge, after Junior and his three stable mates pinned me to the floor yesterday and removed the Eau D’Hermes from my freshly shaved face.

Spare ribs

I’ve yet to get to grips with venison, and the jury’s still out on the culinary merits of Bambi burgers. Unfortunately, our resident carnivores appear less picky. Just a pity they use my garden as their depository for take away meals - worse than Friday nights in South London. Damn it though, don’t they do a great job of stripping the bones.

The Road

Reading McCarthy’s ‘Road’ is somewhat apt, given the hours I spend walking between homestead and Kwik-E-Mart. Very occasionally, during a howling gale, it can be a drudge; becomes an exercise for health’s sake. In the main, however, the walks are pure pleasure. It’s so easy to become distracted from the errand at hand by a view or the wildlife; to lose yourself. As a consequence, a brisk stroll for the newspapers can easily stretch to a three-hour jaunt. Worst case scenario includes a return diversion via the Dog & Duck, effectively writing off both morning and afternoon.

Saloon bar debate continues to revolve around the cost of water & sewage, and the proposed increase to our local community charge. My suggestion of dealing with the latter by halving salaries of public servants fell on deaf ears, particularly those of the two RCN reps bemoaning their latest pay increase. Have you noticed how reticent people are to criticise nurses? It’s a bit like God. There’s a reluctance to take an unequivocal position on the big man just in case there actually is a guy with a long white beard at the end of the line. In the same way, you just know that 24 hours after rubbishing nurses, some bugger on a tractor will put you in hospital.

Saturday, March 3


So, tonight’s a blood moon. An omen of disaster? Let's hope not. As the sky is relatively clear we hope to see the full moon turn coppery red or orange. This is what it currently looks like above the homestead…

Friday, March 2


After my crawfish reminisces, today’s experience seems like a duplication…
We’ve had a problem with plumbing at the barn. Septic tank aside, our utility room lavatory refused to flush with its earlier enthusiasm and had began to smell like Boulogne drinking establishment. Excavating the exit pipes with a JCB failed to solve our mystery. So, armed with a twenty foot rod and pair of rubber gloves we spent an enjoyable morning digging out and removing a series of manhole covers. In London I would have reached for the Yellow Pages, happy to sign off on a three-figure sum. However, in the country, real men are expected to take care of such things.
Our guilty section was easily identified by the thousand gallons of turd infested slurry which filled two inspection junctions. A five feet pool of half smoked Montecristos from a three-property system is not a pretty sight, and the eau de toilette was a definite tear jerker. Despite the nagging thought that I should be clad in a bio-hazard suit and some sort of mask we launched ourselves into the shite, and, rod in hand, began to attack the blockage. You don’t want to know how much of this crap ended up over yours truly - suffice to say Mrs G. refused to wash the offending articles, preferring instead to burn my clothing in a ritual decontamination ceremony.
The effect of releasing 4-5 weeks output from the farm properties’ bathrooms, kitchens, washing machines and lavatories was a sight to behold. The thunderous noise as this mass of effluent rushed downhill along the sewer was eclipsed by the sight of drain covers being launched into space, and an incoming flight of jackdaws being decimated by a barrage of turds that had exploded from the earth like a battery of patriot missiles. F--- knows who’s going to clean it up; I’m going down the pub.

Thursday, March 1

Dangerous bugs

Talking of collateral damage and shell fish… A while ago I found myself entertained to lunch by an American gent of long acquaintance. Good host that he is, I was treated to a memorable meal in an eating house that consisted of little more than an outsized garden shed, located on the outskirts of a dusty and obscure Texas parish. With the temperature in the 90s and humidity to match, I arrived suitably dressed, in shirt sleeve order - starched and dazzling white.
In due course and following consumption of several Moosehead beers the restaurant owner came across and introduced himself. Covering the table with pages from last weeks newspaper, he pointedly suggested we try the day’s special: freshly boiled crawfish. Given he bore close resemblance to a grumpy looking Smokin’ Joe, we readily agreed. In concern for my well-being, mine host asked if I was familiar with this delicacy - given that lunch arrived on the table in a zinc bucket, was upended onto the newspaper and expected to be eaten without utensils.
Encouraged by the beers, I launched into a tale about my past experiences in the small Louisiana city of Thibodaux. Organised by a good friend for his old college fraternity, neighbours and family, this mini-festival revolved around taking over the parental home for 3-4 days, drinking large quantities of alcohol, and cooking and eating ridiculous quantities of mud bugs. You recall the scene from Forest Gump, when Bubba details the various way you can cook shrimp? Just substitute shrimp with crawfish! The guy had lines of metal drums set out on the lawn in which he boiled up sacks of crawfish arriving fresh from the bayou on the back of pickup trucks. His Mother stayed inside, baking, stewing and broiling; generating an endless supply of gumbo, pie and etouffee.
After an arduous weekend of consuming whatever was put in front of me, I felt gratified to hear myself referred to as an honorary member of the Thibodaux Head Suckers Club (at least I think that’s what he called me). For the uninitiated, the sucking bit relates to your snapping off the tail and extracting brightly coloured, hot spicy juices from back of the bug’s head.
Anyway, back to my lunch… Suggesting to my Texan host there was little he could teach me with regards to crawfish, I snapped the tail from our first victim…
To this day I’m at a loss to explain how such a large quantity of fluorescent orange grease managed to be contained inside such a tiny vessel. Nor how it came to be released with the explosive force of the wrong end of an SS-21. The result looked like a Sunny Delight drinking Graham Taylor had thrown up over Ronald Koeman. Everyone loves to see people making prats of themselves: and this bought the house down. Smokin’ Joe was on the verge of writing off the meal, ’till he calculated the tab on our bottles. My prized shirt was no more; and I’ve not eaten mud bugs since. Always dangerous where twirling forks and spaghetti sauce are concerned, exploding crawfish was my piece de resistance.