Our Early Adventures At The Chelsea Flower Show

Ferdinand was a BIG man, big in body, big in spirit, big in personality and big in heart. I have a wealth of blog fodder when it concerns this man. Ferdinand like some before and some after him strode into our lives with such an aura he made us wiser and hopefully better people.

Cindy and I first met the big man at the Chelsea Flower Show in about 1990. It was our second year exhibiting at Chelsea. The first year (a story still to tell) we had the bliss of ignorance to shield us from the mayhem that is the Chelsea Flower show build-up, show days and breakdown. We, two country mice, had no idea what was expected of us and we had no idea what we expected of the most famous flower show in the world.

AS second year exhibitors we could no longer claim Chelsea virgins’ status, so we had nowhere to hide and no excuses. We ‘girded our loins’; hatched a plan and started our set up nine days prior to the show’s opening. Whereas the previous year the three days we thought more than adequate proved to be ridiculously inadequate. Turning up as we did on the pre-show Friday we found the organisers had begun to think we were not coming. A lovely lady with a formidable reputation, but seemed to like us, took us to our stand allocation which was on the corner at the top of Main Avenue and Northern Road, opposite the RHS organisers facilities, so right in the “spot light”. To the west and south of our plot were two mega conservatory companies, who were vying for the really top end market. Both had built massive crystal palaces kitted out with marble floors, grand piano, orange trees, cocktail bars, and second floors with balconies. Space was tight, so over the past ten days they exploited the non-appearance of the country mice by using our little corner stand as a dumping ground for their vast piles of detritus. Mavis instructed them that they had half an hour to MOVE their stuff, and twenty minutes later they had, and we had our first Chelsea stand. Our thoughts then were that we were in danger of looking like a Robin Reliant squeezed down the alley betwixt the Rolls Royce sales rooms.

As the major elements of our year two display came together we kept shunting ‘tarting up’ jobs further up the schedule. “We will do that nearer the end”, “fit that when the site is clearer on Sunday”. That would best be done on Sunday “I’ll do the signage on Sunday”.
It was late into Sunday afternoon; we had a surprising amount of ‘tarting’ still to do. As always on any show set-up things betwixt Cindy and I were ‘fraught’. I kept me head down (literally) and was to be found on my hands and knees laying a foot path of Bethersden marble (look it up) leading off the main avenue directing potential customers to our purpose made summerhouse (we made especially … thankyou Colin) which was to be our Chelsea home for the show days.

I became aware of feet, big feet in big white plimsolls. Big feet that if left unmoved would soon be obstructing my footpath laying progress. I glanced up the grey slacks to see a partial eclipse, obscuring the sun was a ‘man mountain’ in pale blue (damp armpits) no tie and clutching a disproportionately small white plastic carrier bag to his ample girth.
We made eye contact, the giant boomed “ello” in an unmistakable German accent and without drawing breath went off into much speaking and gesticulating, the plastic carrier being swung back and forth like a semaphore flag.

“Hello” I said which was my entire repertoire of German (ie none). I shrugged and smiled in the universal body language way that says “You seem like a nice bloke but I have not got a *ucking clue what you’re on about, and on this particular occasion I incorporated an undertone of “go away I am under the cosh to get this done”. Eclipse man seemed to comprehend, offered me his hand, (big hands.. scared me) smiled and then he disappeared back into the main avenue throng which was now a throng of manic stand builders, who need it to be yesterday. Garden designers with an entourage of anxious young things all on the verge of despair, cos Sebastian has been held up by customs and is stuck in Dover with the specimen (suspect) plants they simply MUST have before judging. Plus hundreds of sightseers who had blagged themselves ‘build up passes’, which got them in a day early for a pre-show eyeball. Camera crews, microphones, sound booms, ear phones, celebrity interviewers, celebrity interviewees, and South Africans with high-vis-jackets, crackling walkie talkies and bucket loads of attitude who are shouting ‘gibberish’ at everybody as they tried to establish, who owns the apparently abandoned Volvo, with no windscreen ID, full of wilting plants, that has clouted somebody’s stand, bringing down the fascia and put tyre trenches up a show garden’s manicured turf.

“ELLO” I heard an hour or so later. Severing the crowed our big German was bellowing “Ello” looking at, and bearing down on ME. He went off on one again and made indication he wanted a brochure (the plastic carrier was now full of them). He flicked through the pages glancing at the pictures then at our display for confirmation the picture and the product correlated. He pointed to some pictures and glanced around the stand disappointed and perplexed we did not have a sample of a chicken house or dog kennel (like Gnomes, chicken houses back then were banned at RHS shows). Then suddenly he went, parted the red sea of minions as he strode forth, anxiously looking right and left obviously looking for somebody.
Those were crazy times for us, that decade of Chelseas, very highs and very lows. Like the time we found ourselves locked in the show ground at 10.30 pm, in the dark, in the rain, hungry, caked in mud and facing the prospect of a two hour drive home, but first having to walk a mile around the other way to our car. Our mood lifted no-end knowing we had to leave home before 5am next day to have any chance of getting back at a sensible hour to get in another long day.

Monetary restraints meant we needed to repatriate, plants, turf, shrubs, anything in fact that others had deemed ‘rubbish’ but Cindy could utilise to good effect on our stand (Cindy is brilliant at making silk purses from sows ears …… ie me) On one sortie to the communal skips I found Lord Snowdon crouching around the back, hiding from the cameras. As a pair of skip dwellers we had a chat about “the bloody press”, what I did (I knew what he did), and surveying our stand from the hidey hole, the merits of my dovecote designs. Nice bloke, reckoned his son did a bit of woodwork.

Next instalment ……….. Its show time ……………

Mowing Machine Obedience Techniques

For those of you who know me well the next instalment of Granddad Rob antics will be of no revelation. To my mind mowers are God’s way of testing his flock’s resolve. Only the most devout know that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the ten stone tablets he had left number eleven up there.

ELEVENTH COMMANDMENT: As oxen level thy grass so will thy mower. Honour both in equal measure.

I am thinking Moses thought, these are heavy, ten’s enough to be going on with, there’s not much call for mowing in the wilderness. I’ll leave the last one up here, for now, hidden in the long grass.

Granddad Rob's Mower - mowing

Granddad Rob’s Mower

Mowers and me have a love hate relationship, in so much as we love to hate each other. They will blow up, seize up, wheels come off (hit a tree stump in long grass), the turning cutty grass thing falls off, bits break off or bend, and punctures are their default setting. Any attempt by me at TLC ends with grease and blood up me shirt. Every nut and bolt on all machines are especially selected so not a single spanner on the face of Kent fits them. Garden hose pipes throw themselves under it and get wound around the spinney bit. And “start the mower” is a penance dished out to grade ‘A’ sinners, by grade ‘A’ sadists.

One time when mummy needed me, (that’s ME) to start our mower, for her (she did the mowing back then), repeated attempts failed to wake it up. A fast rising frustration level was not helped by mummy saying, “why don’t you call Fred”…… “you could try asking Fred”……… “why don’t you just call Fred”….. “Fred will know what’s wrong”….. “Fred gets my mower started”. I had a brain wave and called Fred.

Freddy went into tech-mode, in Bobby* speak it translated to, spark-thing out, dry it, drop of petrol in the hole it came from, spark-thing in, pull the string. Did as was instructed. Mummy said …. “it will start this time, you see” ….“Fred knows how to get my mower started” ….“it will start this time”…“give it another pull”…“pull it again HARDER” BOOmOOFF an eruption of flame engulfed the mower (missed me, mummy and the stable). The obstinate mower was now in Joan-of-Arc mode. My defence, Fred’s fault for not quantifying “drop”.

Mummy immediately got very anxious….“can’t you put it out”…. “what have you done”  “you’re bloody useless”….“what will we do”….“where’s the bucket” … “don’t just stand there” …….. “can’t you do something”

“Let the sod burn” I said, while just standing there.

In a short time the pyrotechnics abated. A comforting smell of grass flambéed in a really nice four star hung in the air. Mummy said nothing  ……….. nothing ………. nothing  (result).

I pulled the string. The mower started. Lesson learnt, torture or in this case torching is a much under rated procedure in machine obedience techniques.

Mummy now sitting astride a warm mower ….. “good ol’ Freddy I knew he’d know …now git out the way you mad Irish bugger  ……. you’re bloody mental”.

* Fred is Cindy’s fifty something, baby brother, and the only person I can condone calling me Bobby. I have got to be nice to him; I think he knows I slept with ‘is sister…. I don’t want him telling mummy.

Tumble Drier or Dead Trees ……

Cindy and I have always had a hankering for an old house with beams and an inglenook fire place. We wanted a house that smelt of stew, wood smoke, old church and bees wax polish. But properties like that came at a premium (over £30,000 in 1976 ) Before we settled on buying No3 Forsham Cottage we had looked at lots of older properties that were at the high end of our means and the low end of the period property market, so there was always an ’issue’.

At one stage we had our hearts set on the centre section of an Elizabethan farm house in Grafty Green. It was, and possibly still is, very small, but it had the beams, an inglenook and that smell! After weeks of waiting and hoping we were finally refused a mortgage because of something called a flying freehold. This meant that part of the next doors bedroom was over our front room, so if there was ever a ‘mishap’ (I won’t say the F word. ) there could be a dispute as to who owns what. I did argue that surely was no different than flats, when your kitchen ceiling is some other buggers bathroom floor. But this was back in the days when the folks in the building society were ‘up them selves’. It was the days when you could not get a mortgage without crawling over broken glass having first rubbed neat VIM in your eyes. These were the times when customer service as they perceived it was taking ones glasses off before looking down ones nose at the owiks, especially young owiks who obviously REALLY need the money.

We looked at a big semi in Yalding, right in the heart of village near the bridge. I asked about the planks in the porch, ”duck boards, so you can get to the road when it floods” declared the estate agent in that up beat way to try and make it sound like a quaint period feature. Then I notice the quaint little sand bags and the ancient tide mark up the ancient rag stone footing.

A charming little back street cottage in Headcorn where the hippy occupiers (not owners) had used spray cans to paint Gods magnificent oak beams gold and sliver, and the smell was not of stew and chapel. I wanted to buy this cottage just to rescue it, but the garden was non-existent, having long ago been built over to garage an oldie worldie Ford Capri, we had to leave that little gem to its fate.

Another place again in Headcorn which over looked the church and graveyard, I loved it but Cindy the witch, sensed ‘a presence’ and got a bit upset with me as I started to get exited about beams and features, ignoring her concern that Ebenezer and his misses were shuffling around in the back passage. Half the time I can’t, (or some would say won’t) focus on the real world, so to expect me to tune in to the spirit world is a big ask. Dill the dog was NOT impressed either, refusing to cross the threshold under his own steam, having to be dragged in. Then he laid prostrate by the door with his snout flat on the flagstones whimpering as he sniffed the ‘spook free’ air issuing in under the ill fitting front door. “Perhaps it belonged to a Vet” I suggested “you know how the old boy hates vets” ….. Apparently that was ridiculous, but herselfs “bad feel in here” was perfectly acceptable.

If we were to have beams and that big open fire then we would have to cheat and put them in ourselves. At this time it was possible to buy fake fibreglass beams. Examples of which could be spied in every recent pub conversion in the county where it was thought the punters wanted character.

I think I am allergic to fibre glass I certainly have a bad reaction to the look of ‘play time’ beams. For real authenticity, builders (I use the world cautiously ) advised ‘get a bit of salvaged floor joist, chisel off of the corners, thrash it with a bit of chain, give it splash of creosote, (or in one case old engine oil), and according to builderman “it would look the bollocks”. There was no option, if we wanted that oak look we had to start buying real oak beams. Whilst my contemporaries worked overtime and extra shifts for nice to have stuff like a tumble drier or to go out for a meal. .I worked extra hours to buy long dead trees with wood worm.

Forsham Cottage was a typical farm labours cottage with two down stairs rooms, which had recently been knocked into one twelve by twenty four foot room with the original two chimney breasts now in the one room. One chimney was a working open fire whilst the other had been sealed off. We wanted to ‘beef up’ the open fire with a fire back and log brazier and to reinstating the sealed chimney by installing a wood burner.

Normal folks would have possibly clad the original breasts in brick or perhaps removed the plaster to expose the brick work. Normal folks would have two matching bressemer beams (beam over the fire opening). However we don’t appear to understand ‘normal’. We bought an eight inch square, eighteen foot long oak beam which was to bridge both fire places and the space between them. We acquired a thousand hand made Tudor bricks from a demolished slaughter house in Charing. Enlisted the help of ‘Old Jack’ who was Cindy’s mums neighbour, somehow relation and it needs recording .. one of natures natural gentlemen. Old Jack was a retired bricky who’s speciality was fires and flues. For £60, a roast chicken dinner with pudding and custard, Old Jack built us a nineteen foot long, floor to ceiling Tudor brick fire place with two working fires and a single bressemer beam .. now that dear builder …… did look the bollocks !

I was getting the hang of the oak thing, and it took over a bit. I had plans to make beamed ceilings and studded walls. . I NEEDED oak. On one beam buying trip I followed the instruction to the village and then lost the scent. Finding a phone box (no mobiles then, and you may not be surprised to know that even today I neither have a mobile phone nor a watch , and have no requirement of either) I rang the customer again which yielded me a second set of directions. I was to go back out of the village, go left onto the main road, a mole or so on I was to take the next left into a country lane, which I was to follow until I saw a phone box and they were to found a hundred yards down on the right. I followed the instructions finding myself ten minutes later going back past the same sodding phone box . . but she was right they were a hundred yards down there on right !

We then had a phone call from uncle Bob the wood cutter, who via the family ‘tom toms’ found out “we was wanting sum beams”. I was flattered Bob had actually phoned us at all, he didn’t like the phone and avoided using it. After years of screaming chain saws, his hearing was ‘shot’. Two way conversation face to face was challenging enough, over the phone it was even more so. Auntie Glad (Mrs Bob, who makes brilliant Christmas cake) was repeatedly dragged into the disjointed conservation as interpreter and amplifier as Bob boomed …”cum er Glad ……wots e say” … If we wanted it Uncle Bob had us a whole oak barn that he had been asked to pull down mainly because it was unsafe, but also because the local kids were practicing pyrotechnics and ‘other’ stuff in and around it, so fearing an accident or christening, the owner wanted it flattened.

Three tractor and trailer loads of flat packed barn makes a very big pile, which soon filled our very small lay-by …… again.

And it only cost the same as a tumble drier and a couple of curries.

Cement and Sympathy

For years the front garden of No3 Forsham Cottage looked like a builders yards. We had turned an idyllic little bit of Sutton Valence into an obstacle course, red sand stained the lane as the lump was eroded by the rain and washed into the road.

Stacks of bricks and blocks, which no matter how many times I re-stacked them still fell over (ground sloped towards the road at twenty degrees). What with the look of the place and the accompanying dust and noise, our neighbours (Mrs B & Mrs T) had every right to complain, but bless them they were always so tolerant and so supportive. I think they felt sorry for us. (We did milk the sympathy vote)

Number 3 FC had a really ugly flat roof extension ‘plonked’ on the side of it. To add insult it was painted battle ship grey, so blend in, it didn’t. From the very outset we were determined …. it had to go. We were endeavouring to transform the HMS ARK ROYAL into something a bit more cottagey and more in keeping with the original dwelling. The master plan was to convert the integral garage into a dining room. We were building a new porch and building a new garage next to the detached garage belonging to Mrs T. Top of the list was to replace the flat felted roof with a proper pitched roof using old Kent clays tiles. I should also add that between us we had amassed approximately NIL experience of the building trade.

Once committed we were spending every spare hour working on our house and spending every last penny not on ‘nice to have’ stuff like an Indian takeaway or a posh frock but on ‘must have’ stuff like cement dust, joists and replacing numerous tools I had either lost or broke. However with the aid of the Readers Digest DIY manual (wedding present) Stan and Reggie (Cindy’s and my dads). Hundreds of hours of swearing, our extension conversion slowly emerged from the mire. Things happened along the way like an eight foot long concrete lintel falling from the top story. She was just being dramatic, it missed Cindy by several foot, but it did harpoon the patio, which I never did repair. The dog caught a half brick I threw down off the roof onto the rubble pile. That must of hurt, but he still did it again! He also diligently picked up the clay I was throwing out of one trench and unbeknown to be was re-filling the trench behind me! Too cocky to be told , I f****d my back repeatedly carrying over full buckets of wet cement up a ladder onto the roof. The legacy of which thirty years later I still endure.

The bloke from the electricity company that came to move the meter got into a fluster because he was running late. Rather than go to get his drill, he borrowed mine. There was a slight problem, the trigger switch was bust (no dosh for a new one) so I had rewired it, bypassing the switch, which meant it literally spun into action as soon as it was switched on at the wall, which to the uninitiated could be a bit startling. It was not a good idea to plug it in holding on the ‘spiny bit’ or as some would call it ‘the chuck’, which he did. Ok, I should have warned him …..but he cottoned on quite quickly and dropped it, where upon it jerked and thrashed about on the floor like a demented critter on a leash having a fit, until I put it out of its misery by switching off its life support system!

Then my startled sparky mate used my stepladder, which had the second to bottom step missing, (concrete block fell on it). Now in my defence he must have known it was missing because he had climbed up it, so to forget a few minutes later when coming down, was in my opinion carelessness on his part. He was not a happy chappy laying there on the floor gasping for air (just a bit winded). SEEBOARD man was not having a good day, as was proven several weeks later when an inspector came out to ‘ eyeball’ and sign off the work. He found that our accident prone sparky had wired the meter up back to front so it had been unwinding for the best part of a month. Obviously his mind was elsewhere!

Cindy at nine months and two weeks pregnant spent her days pointing block work, in appreciation of her condition I did mix up the cement. She woke me about midnight saying something about waters breaking, which given we were always having problems with the plumbing and the back half of the roof was a PVC lorry sheet, I at first assumed she meant we had another leak.

I called the number (like my list told me to) and explained to a very nice lady, who in my opinion was far too calm, that something called the waters breaking had occurred. She asked if I was sure. “If Cindy says something’s broke, then it’s broke!” I told her. The blue lights turned up and two confused ambulance men stood in the lane, in the dark, in the rain, shining torches around the place trying to work out which bit of plastic sheet covered holes in the wall was the door and then what was their best line of approach. I gave them a lead, particularly drawing to their attention the two foot wide, three foot deep trench that ‘moated’ the building and the piles of now wet clay that had been exhumed from around and under the house (I was under pinning the footings). Having negotiated the obstacles two slightly bemused blokes stood in our front room with a stretcher and with clay up their otherwise very neat trousers. Procedure dictated that the patient was to be stretchered to the ambulance, which was not going to be easy. They thought of making an arm cradle and manual carrying her out to the road, but gave up on that. What actual happened was that Cindy, who was not overly fetchingly dressed in her night attire and wellington boots clambered over the trench and sand piles, followed by the blokes in black carrying the stretcher. Once we had gotten onto flattish ground they put Cindy on the stretcher and carried her the remaining twenty five foot to the ambulance. Dill the dog always liked a trip out and had to be persuaded that this was not an occasion for him to ‘get in the back’, so as a memento of their visit, Dill dropped a half brick on the ambulance step and left his mark up the side. (class act that dog).

It was snowing a week later when having convinced the midwife we had a warm nursery and that Cindy had help at home, she wangled the OK to take the ‘kidlet’ home. I consulted the list again. “When collecting us bring the bag on the table” it said. I presented Cindy with the bag of nappies, Zinc & Caster ointment jars and pins. She wanted the ‘bringing baby home clothes’ bag. “It didn’t say which bag” I offered as a pathetic defence. So it was that our Kidlet came home in ill matching and ill fitting clothes lent to us by the nurses, who had rummaged and borrowed them from around the ward. (they felt sorry for us)

Not the most auspicious of starts for our Tracey, but Dill gave her a bit of brick, so she WAS welcomed home ……..

“Just One Night”

It was snowing hard, the garden was filling up, the harsh edges being smoothed under a blanket of the white stuff. Then and now, as a so called adult I get a childish thrill watching the snow cascade from out of the heavens, especially at night thought the light an unveiled window.

A lone set of foot pints came in from out of the darkness of this cold winters night. Copper Cat (she had a brother called Tommy) was holding centre stage, framed as she was in the light of the kitchen window, bleating and crying, a sorry looking spectacle. Already she was up to her belly in snow and gathering a measurable ‘drift’ betwixt her ears. Copper Cat had stables, the hay store, a goat shed and the garage to sleep in …… she was pulling all the strings to be let in!

Unsurprisingly Cindy and the kidlet started to harangue me to let the pathetic critter into the house, “for just one night”

I have lots of ‘life rules’ one being that I don’t let anything in the house that can lick its own ‘jobby bits’! … trying to eat breakfast whilst some critter is tonguing its privates is a step too far… I remained adamant ……. I stood my ground………. I let the shyster in.

Next morning CC sat calmly at the door waiting to be let out, the snow had stopped, the garden was brilliantly white, and strangely tidy. On opening the door a small snow drift tumbled onto the cat and across the floor. Copper Cat gave me a look that was both accusing and vengeful. Without a hint of gratitude the shyster trotted out onto the frozen snow … “just one night” I said, as she slowed to a saunter and showed me her penny bit!

It became evident that the bugger had not slept in the card board box supplied, a mass of hairs portrayed it had hunkered down on my work jumper, which because of its unsavoury nature was not allowed anywhere near the coat hooks, destined always to be slung on the floor behind the backdoor. I hate pet hairs, so with a degree of disgust I pulled my jumper on ….. I had no option it was cold. Instantly a smell like no other was wafting around the kitchen. Cat crap! That bloody cat had shit, not simply on the jumper, that would have bad enough, the dump was UP a sleeve. The offending mess was now wiped a second time up my arm as I took my cat haired and poo smeared jumper off.

That cannot have been anything else other than deliberate! To gain maximum effect that cat must have diligently backed itself up the sleeve. Even now I can imagine the shyster’s smug expression as it relieved itself, thinking ……… “just one night”.

Ben Hur, Goats and a Hangover …

Our posh but very nice neighbours (Mike & Pat) were happy to have our goats on their grass, and we were happy to oblige because it saved our grazing. Therefore there was nothing untoward when one morning Cindy said “I’ll put the kettle on if you put the goats out on Pats lawn. Gert’s (the mum) got her tether chain with her but Oscars (Billy kid*) chain is still out with his tether spike, and as Oscar might not follow you out you’ll have to lead him by his collier.”

(* Yes, we did eat the Billy kids, but this one is another blog)

Over night Gert was tethered to her Ark, hence she had her chain with her, and Oscar free ranged in the chicken run. I didn’t normally get involved with the goats, Cindy did the milking she had built up an empathy with the critters, so there was an uneasiness in air as it was me, and not her they spied approaching them, fetchingly attired as I was in my old boots ( sans laces) and baggy shorts. It was still early enough that the nice posh folks had their curtains drawn and the birds were BLASTING out a dawn chorus which coupled with the persistent two tone bleating of agitated goats was not sympathetic to the aftermath of the several pints of cider which was still trying to impose its numbing presence on my skull bone.

I got the kid out of the chicken run, holding him as instructed by the collar. Unhitched Gert’s chain and started towards the grazing. Gert broke into a trot, anxious to get to the grass and to get away from me, the kid although young was getting to be a ‘handful’ and sensing the panic of its mother was pulling so hard it was rearing onto its back legs. To help with this torturous situation I was bent at forty five degrees, because when Oscar was on all fours, he was only stood a little over two foot at the shoulder.

I pride myself as being pragmatic, so rather than endure this situation and end up with a permanent stoop and arms proportionality so long as to never fit a ‘regular’ suit again. I had an idea …….I hauled Gert back to me and hooked Oscars collar to the other end of her chain so I could lead them both on the one chain ….‘Ben Hur style’. Proving that even under the haze of receding cider intoxication and applied torture. I could ‘sort it’.

All I did was to shut my eyes for a few moments, they wanted to be shut, I needed them to be shut! The tugging of two goats and that bloody bleating was doing my head. The sun was warm in my face. I was fighting to keep awake. OK, I may have remonstrated with the critters (just a little) asking them to “please be quiet” or words to that effect. Their instinctive ‘fight or flight’ mode kicked in, they went into flight mode, so now instead of the buggers being in front dragging me out across Pats lawn they were swinging out sideways and parallel with me. At this juncture I defiantly did question their antics in a slightly more animated and vocal way, which severed as the final impulsion they needed to cross behind me and run out tight which left me with a twenty foot tether chain warped around my naked legs being pulled tight by two goats who were not about to stop pulling and release the tension because the critter in middle (me) was now screaming every profanity he knew (which is lot), crying and starting to bleed.

How I laughed, laying on the grass outside my neighbours bedroom window ‘reeling in’ a kid goat whilst its now demented mother was taking up the slack in the chain instigating a cheese wire sawing action across the back of my knees.

Still looking on the bright side, the sodding kettle was on, so there was plenty of sterilised water!

In fear or ecstasy ….. it was hard to tell

Gert the goats first morning at Forsham found our new girl a bit ‘stressy’ her unrelenting bleating bellowing visibly into the damp morning air, an indication she needed attention in the udder region. With some trepidation we lead Gert out of her newly constructed (Stig of the dump) goat shed, to be milked. A liberal bribe of goat mix got her up onto the milking stand. Cindy positioned herself and the bucket, took a hold of Gert’s teats in the fashion Goat Bloke (see last blog) had shown us. A combination of her new surroundings and new slightly hesitant handlers were obviously going to impact on the new girl, so she was going to be, and did, get a bit ‘worked up’. To give Cindy her due she kept talking and assuring Gert, but initially only the odd squirt of milk resounded into the stainless steel bucket. As Cindy got to grips (pun fully intended) with the task and Gert started to relax. The squirts became more frequent and more rhythmic and although it took an inordinate amount of time, patience, and perseverance on Cindy’s part (the latter two attributes, God forgot to issue me) she actually had our first milk. Unfortunately this initial contribution to the Forsham Dairy Emporium was short lived as Gert then ‘plonked ‘ her foot in the bucket………

Cindy’s mum, Topsy, had hand milked cows as a girl, to her milking was as simple and as automatic as riding a bike. It took her only moments to get back into her stride, milk gushed into the bucket. Gert stood mesmerised, whether in fear or ecstasy it was hard to tell. It would have taken a high speed camera to actually see Topsy’s hand action, and an interpreter in ‘Middle Kentish’ to decipher her instruction, but Cindy’s milking technique was enhanced under her mum’s guidance.

After only a few weeks both the goat and Cindy were getting comfortable with each other. Gert would run to the stand to get grub, and udder relief. Cindy was getting as proficient at milking as her mum. The whole milking bit was becoming so ‘matter of fact’ that Cindy did not even have to clip (by her collar) Gert to the stand. This trust was repaid one bright and sunny morning when with surprisingly nimble action Gert jumped off the milking bench, knocking over Cindy and bucket. With milk swollen udder swinging like a metronome, and Gert bleating in time to the beat, she was out of the garden, and went heading off down Forsham lane. Gert’s progress was followed Benny Hill fashion by Cindy welding a feed bucket, the Kidlet in her red wellies and pants, a pair of demented Collie dogs (Dill & Basil) who assuming this was a game, were running in circles around the entire procession, barking manically at each other, at the goat and the pursuers. Gert took a right at the next gate, up the ‘posh but nice’ neighbours drive, across their manicured lawn, pass the patio window and family (now agog) at breakfast. She blundered her way through their boundary hedge back into our plot, stumbled over the wood pile and jumped back onto the milking bench. …. ……… lesson learnt.

I should at this time mention that neither of us had actually drunk goats’ milk. Cindy was completely at ease with milk straight from a warm hairy mammal. To her teats and udder cream, were normal. I however was not enamoured with the idea, and had qualms about drinking anything that had just been squirted into a bucket from the lady parts of a critter sporting a beard and Beelzebub eyes, and then had to be filtered through several layers muslin to get the hairs and ‘bits’ out of it.

After that very first mouthful, I knew I was right,……….. it was awful.

More ballcocks than bullocks……

As kids, the fields around us were ‘polka doted’ with cows, they were everywhere. Whenever you crossed a pasture a quick scan to see if the bull was about became standard ‘survival’ practise. As a dare we would grab hold of the electric fencing, set up to stop the cows braking out onto lusher grass. Bike riding slalom skills were required to avoid the twice daily application of cow poo which was literally splattered up and down just about every lane and byway as countless cows were brought up for morning and evening milking. Farms and lanes had a bitter sweet smell of cow poo and silage, which I found strangely pleasant (perhaps that’s just me). There’s still a junction in our village known as ‘smelly corner’ but I doubt if there has been a cow on that farm for twenty five years or more.

Cindy’s dad, Stan, was a farmer as was Stan’s dad, his dad, and his dad’s dad. Their family farm was in the middle of High Halden, I say ‘was’ because it’s now a selection of ‘desirable residences’ with not a blade out of place let alone a silage clamp. Elm Tree Farm was typical of its type and of its time in its framing diversities, including the requisite herd of black and white Frisian cows. Within living memory Stan and his dad had delivered milk, cream, farm kitchen butter, and eggs from a horse drawn cart. The milk being ladled directly from a churn straight into the customers own jug. (There’s a carbon foot print to ponder, hand milked, no diesel, no bottles, not even any foil bottle tops!)

Given her lineage, Cindy’s hankering to have a house cow was totally predictable, so we out and brought a ………. GOAT !

She may well have a blood line of cow keepers going back generations, but Cindy is scared stiff of the critters. Herself will sit astride a horse which looks to me as if its having a fit….. but she won’t go within thirty passes of a cow. Me, I’m not comfortable with cows or horses, my blood line goes back through generations of jobbing plumbers, so more ballcocks than bullocks in my case.

A scan of the local classifieds located us our first goat. Yet again blissfully ignorant we went to see our proposed addition to the Forsham Cottage mad house! We listened intently to the ‘Goat Bloke’ as he told us what he (and we) thought we needed to know. He showed us how to tether the goat. He showed us how to house the goat. He showed how to milk the goat. He showed us how when trimming the goats hoofs it was essential to hold the beast properly because if you didn’t it would kick out and you would plunge your pen knife into your leg. Goat Bloke demonstrated how to bleed quite badly whilst doing a one legged hopping dance and cursing at a disinterested goat. Mr and Mrs Goat Bloke started shouting at each other about ruined trousers, tetanus and tourniquets. Mr Goat Bloke did not look at all well as they sped off in the direction of A&E.

We posted £60 though Goat Bloke’s letter box and took the goat home. ……. another interesting day.

A chicken house with two letter boxes…. that’s class

Having finished building my chicken run, I could now stand at the kitchen sink and survey my stockade. I am not admitting to it being ugly or an eyesore as was some people’s unsolicited opinions. I would suggest my run had a certain rustic charm that only the more discerning, or somebody in touch with their weirdo caveman side, (see last blog) could appreciate and applaud.

Only a few days ago a friend referred to me as ‘Stig of the Dump’. In this instance it was because of my ‘ interesting’ dress etiquette and my unfailing ability to clutter any area I work in…. I could make the municipal dump look untidy.

However I willingly admit my Stig prowess, I can’t pass by a skip without having a rummage for the treasures it holds, seeking out those goodies that will ‘come in handy’. As a kid I wanted to be a dustman, I needed to rescue thrown away comics, toys, old bikes and those old prams with spoked wheels for cart building.

My first house was designed ‘from the hip’ (or should that be from the tip) which means I made it up as I went. The project was dictated by the ‘stuff’ I had salvaged, my limited woodworking skills, a minimalist tool box, a blissful lack of bird knowledge and ultimately lack of funds. What I did have was a big head, an ego to match.

A little time ago some bloke was up for the Turner Prize for art with a shed made out of a boat (or something like that) which indicates I was well ahead of my time. I built a chicken house out of a skip.

Stripped out pallets (saved the nails) a couple of old front doors with letter boxes, yale locks, knockers and glass still in place. The roof was water proofed with rubber printing blankets* salvaged from the skip at work. The floors and walls were lined with used litho plates* ( *printers will know what I mean).

This very first ever Forsham chicken house would have gotten me onto to the red carpet at the Stig Oscars. It was big, its was heavy, it was glorious, and I loved it. Everybody who came to visit had the guided tour of my poultry palace. When they came again they had to ‘eye ball’ the updates ……. not many came a third time.

Surprisingly this first effort actually worked, but more by default than design. I had four scruffy cross breed bantams (supplied by Uncle Bob the wood cutter) Those little birds would have used a tea chest with a hole knocked in the side, at Bobs they nested in the wood pile. They now luxuriated in an eight by six foot house with four massive nest boxes.

Access for cleaning was gained by lifting the HEAVY roof, which was constructed from the two front doors and propping it open with the broom handle. Yes, it did collapse, cascading front door glass over me the girls, but I STILL maintain I did that deliberately to lessen the weight …

A weirdo caveman

I have a theory based on no sociological theory whatsoever, other than my slightly distorted perspective on the world, and just about everything. I think, that buried deep in some of us there is this gene that has its origins from way back when a weirdo caveman decide that running about with a spear trying to harpoon dinner was too much hassle. The weirdo thought it made sense to build stockade around a hut, call it ‘Dunhunting’ and breed his dinner in the back garden, which at the time was some pretty radical thinking.

My weirdo gene was running riot, I needed to build my stockade using stout chestnut posts (cut from the forest). Secured with chicken netting (from the farm supplies shop). I wanted my stock tamed, corralled and safe from the wild beasts. (well that’s my theory)

Before we acquired the extra ground at Forsham Cottage we had already established a vegetable garden and chicken run in our existing garden. The location and size of this first chicken compound was dictated by a combination of ignorance and geography. If ignorance is supposed to be bliss, then I was blissful. I had no comprehension of the potential hassles of a permanent chicken run, let alone one plonked twenty foot from the kitchen door. And geographically because the only area in the original garden for a run was behind the garage. The area was shaded by the building and 50ft tall popular trees so never got the sun. Plus the soil was clay and a concrete slab that caped the cesspit was only a spade depth down.

To get the stockade started I went to find Cindy’s Uncle Bob. He was (and still is, ‘just’) a woodcutter, and literally had stacks of posts in his little fencing yard. Uncle Bob is as wide as he is tall, and he is not very tall. His donkey jacket came down to his knees. He has shoulders like a bullock and is as strong as somebody who spent their entire life reducing trees to logs, would be. If Mr Attenborough had every sighted Bob in the woods he would have the sequel to the silver back episode.

(Coincidentally I was once reading an account of the doodlebug raids on London during WWII . It told that a lot of the V2’s fell short of the capital and splattered Kent. The author mentions an incident during the raids when he discovered a woodman (guess who) dragging fallen V2’s out of the woods to get the scrap value of the copper wire they were apparently full of.)

My run was going to be constructed of neatly aligned posts, with wire pulled thigh and buried deep, to keep the fox out. I was going to have functional and secure chicken house. Feisty hens being attended by a vocal cockerel. And produce so many eggs I could sell them over the gate and pay the mortgage.

My neatly aligned posts were not neat and not aligned, tree roots, builders rubble and a cesspit cover hindered that. The tight wire, was baggy because the posts weren’t straight. And digging a trench around the lot to bury the wire was abandoned on the grounds that if I could not dig it, then nor could a fox.