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 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.

Those eyes said it all .. and it wasn’t thank you!

Thanks to the spell casting prowess of Cindy (see, I married a witch). The field that was adjacent to our garden was now part of the garden of No3 Forsham Cottages. We paid way over the odds for what on paper was agricultural land. But we were not buying agricultural land we were buying garden and DTS (Despite The Spell) our farming neighbour did not actually want to sell land, so a classic case of a seller’s market.

Like a couple of seventeenth century homesteaders we started to clear OUR land of its Logan and Blackberries. This we did before the ink was even on the deeds, let alone dry. We were excitedly anxious to claim our patch and had a notion that the more we stripped out the evidence of cultivation, it lessened the likelihood of bloke next door changing his mind.

There was a lot of posts, a lot of wire, countless fencing staples, and multiple hay stack size mounds of sadistic, bramble briar’s in three acres. Usefully we found a lot of bagging hooks (local term for a sickle) and various pruning tools in the pickers shed which had come as part of the deal. Other than that we had very little in the way of tools and absolutely nothing that could be deemed agricultural machinery. As the plot was ‘land locked’ with the only access being via a six foot wide alley between our house and garage, we were a bit snookered as far as getting any mechanised help. And as we were in yet another one of our ‘dosh free times’ buying or hiring was not an option.

Our tractor and trailer was an old tarpaulin with ropes tied to the corners, on which we stacked the ‘fire fodder’ and manually towed it to the bonfire. So that Cindy could carry on ‘towing’ when I was at work, I made her a ‘lady size’ towing sheet…. those eyes said it all .. and it wasn’t thank you!

Having to construct a new boundary fence, as part of the deal, we recycle the posts, wire and staples that were serviceable. Cindy was the post holder, I hammered in the posts whilst standing on a kitchen chair and swinging a nine pound sledge hammer. When in full swing, and beyond the point of a controlled stop, I just had time to say … “the heads coming“……… before the head parted company with the shaft and hit Cindy in the stomach. I know cavemen are reputed to have clubbed the lady of their choice and drag her back to the lair. But in my case a nine pound sledge hammer head in the belly did nothing to impress!

Tracey (daughter) or as we called her ‘the Kidlet’ was very young at this time, and feral. Her wardrobe consisted of red wellington boots and a miniature tractor suit (overalls) or when she went casual, just red wellies and her pants! The Kidlet spent hours doing nothing, I say “nothing” because whenever you asked what she was up to it was always ‘nothing’, or in her parlance “nutink!” One day whilst doing ‘nutink’ she managed to find some white stuff in an old sack which had been long buried in the tangled grass of the headland, we found her slightly foaming white at the mouth, with a white chalk face pack which extend down to her hand smeared white chest … and she now had fast going white parents …………. she lived.

A really nice local farmer called Bob, delivered some hay, ‘Bob the farmer’s wife’ emerged from the old transit van (she was nice as well) and asked Cindy if she could meet our little girl. We whistled her up (which worked with the dog well) in time our little darling came around the corner. A bit miffed to be called up, because she had been washing her hair in a puddle, golden blond curls were liberally smeared with an Anita Roddick style blend of wet clay and oak leafs, she looked like a cherub version of the Green Man Green ManSurprisingly, Kidlet did have her tractor suit on, which went someway to lessen the shock, when the feral Pellett kid met the nice Mrs ‘Bob the Farmer’.

Hardcore & cider

As we swapped shifts Ron shouted over the clattering roar of the printing press “do you want some hardcore Joe” ( my name’s Rob, but they called me Joe) “no thanks” I said “our video’s on the blink, we need a new one“. “No, not porn, you pillock*, builders rubble” (*old printers term for esteemed colleague).
Ron’s boy had some hardcore to ‘dispense with’ but it HAD to be done the next day. We didn’t actually need any hardcore, but it was a bargain and hardcore is always handy! (but perhaps that’s just me) plus it was on some distant agenda to make a ‘hard walkway’ from our old garden into the new field, so I paid Ron and sealed the deal.
I got back off that night shift about 4 or 5 am on Saturday morning, and went to bed, only to be disturbed a few hours later by the aggressive hissing of air brakes. I heard Cindy and somebody talking in the lane outside, then the sharp hiss of releasing brakes and the lorry drove away, assuming it was somebody asking directions, I went back to try and get some sleep.
I had not had the chance to tell Cindy about the pending delivery, to be honest I forgot, so she was a bit taken aback by the question “were d’you want this dumped” from the driver of a Really Big Truck fully loaded with hardcore. She woke me, I tried to explain, “you’re a nightmare” herself said disappearing back down the stairs. I would have liked the change to have a sodding nightmare, shift work had destroyed my so called ‘body clock’, sleep was something I couldn’t even dream about!
The RBT was too big to turn around in our little lane so he had speed off to find a turning place. More than an hour later RBT returned with a less than calm driver. Son of Ron had tried to turn around in a junction with a grassy island. A local farmer had to drag him off with a tractor. The grassy knoll was left trenched and ready for main crop spuds.
On returning RBT hurriedly backed into our little lay-by, tipped his load and drove off. Leaving us to admire our new rockery which partially filled our section of the lay-by and spilt out into the lane. The next time(s) RBT came he reversed the quarter mile down our lane around the narrow blind corners, good driving but not conducive to other road users AKA neighbours, who as they reversed in convoy back past us and then had to wait for the RBT to shed its load glared at us, not brave enough to confront the driver of a RBT. Cindy asked “how much of this stuff have you actually agreed to buy? “some” was the best estimate I could offer ……..“nightmare!” said herself.
Over the course of that Saturday morning RBT came back four times. He filled our drive our lay-by our ever suffering neighbours lay-by and partially blocked the lane.
The only way available to us to ferry the hardcore ‘around the back’ was a wheel barrow. After several hours I was wilting, it was hot, I was tired, the loads were heavy, Cindy was ‘little’ and bless her could only offer minimal assistance. Some of the lumps were so big I had to sledge hammer them into lift-able chunks. We only had the one wheel barrow, which one mad collie dog accompanied back and forth on every trip barking insanely and trying to bite the tyre, which on some occasions could be deemed funny.
Tony, the farming neighbour pulled up in the lane, he looked at us, looked at the lump and looked at the wheel barrow, shook his head slowly and drove away.
A quarter of an hour later Tony returned at the helm of a smokey, noisy, and seen better days, little red dumper truck (with a damp flowery cushion to guard against piles). I can’t recall the exact conversation, but “I can’t watch you crazy f****er’s” was the gist of it.
I do not have an empathy with things mechanical. It’s mutual, I hate them, they hate me. But in this instance I was prepared to let bygones be bygones. That little red dumper took a bit of mastering, the steering needed two full turns of the steering wheel to take up the slack in both directions. The clutch was a bit ‘snatchy’, but the brakes were fine, once, but not in our time! Having watched me remove part of the external rendering from our kitchen wall, failed to stop in time and crashed into the lump and stall multiple times, Tony walked back up the lane, still shaking his head. Me and the dumper became mates! By tea time we had shifted the lump, swept the road, and collapsed with a mug of chilled cider.
Whilst slowly drifting off into a cider induced coma, I concluded that we didn’t actually need a new video …what we needed, was a dumper truck!

“That’s disgusting, what would Louise have said”

“Come and push down on the goats bum to see if she wants to mate”. That’s a welcome home greeting that only a select few would have had.

Coming home after dark from a late shift I found Cindy and the goat bathed in the light radiating from the back door. Gert the goat was very animated, anxiously shuffling from side to side, bleating persistently and waging her tail like a child with a flag. Having consulted the books Cindy reckoned this behaviour meant our Gert was on heat, but she needed conformation of her prognosis by having me ‘act the Billy’. Feeling slightly self-conscious I stood behind Gerty and pressed down on her hips. Gerty registered her ‘requirement’ by bracing herself for some ‘nooky’ action. My remonstrations that I was too tired, and she’d have to wait till morning, got me ’THAT’ look from Cindy and her mum (who I didn’t realise was there) went back to the telly, muttering something about “that’s disgusting, what would Louise have said” (Cindy’s gran) .

We understood that the second morning of the three day season was the most fruitful time for mating. I can’t remember how, but we had the contact number a lady in Biddenden (ten miles south) who had a suitable stud Billy goat that would ‘do the deed’.

Early next day found us heading toward Gerts ‘Mr Right’. Gert was a big goat so when she stood ( she didn’t want to lay down) in the back of our old Cortina Estate her head and neck came over the back seats and pressed tight against the roof lining making her ears protrude at right angles from her head. Gerts restrictions and contortions did nothing to quell her persistent bleating, which was now at our ear hole level. We had to open the car windows when Gert gave up on bladder control and started a torrent of wee which went on for miles, most of which found its way into the spare wheel well. Exposure to warm goats pee in the confines of a moving motor vehicle must surely contravene some road traffic act or other. Going through the road works in Headcorn High Street earned us some bemused looks.

Having found the place, a smallholding in the ‘back lanes’. We introduced ourselves to a very serious lady in a once white dairyman’s coat. Stud lady was not interested in any attempt at small talk . This was SERIOUS and things had to be done correctly. Cindy and I obviously knew about the ‘plumbing aspect’ but the protocol of having a goat mated was another matter. Stud lady disappeared behind the house to get her prize Billy. I had a preconceived idea of what a stud billy goat looked like, this based on the illustrations in the Billy Goat Gruff book Mrs Taylor read to us in class two at primary school (Cira 1959). I wanted the stallion of the goat world, a big powerful beast with a flowing beard, massive sweeping horns and a look that would kill. I was thinking Arnold Schwarzenegger, I got Albert Steptoe.

Albert was small, only about two thirds the size of Gert, sported a matted nicotine yellow stained white coat. Protruding from his head was a pair of distorted horns one pointing north the other east. He had a steady dribble of ‘stuff ’ coming from the ‘nether regions’. The smell of Albert and his ‘stuff’ is beyond any words I can conjure. To complete the picture smelly Albert was salivating, had a puckered top lip, which was twitching, as was his nose as he savoured the essence of Gert, this was no Schwarzenegger.

However Albert was well up for it, he did the sniff the bum bit (Gerts not mine) Then he let out a loud bellow, ran and up and banged himself against Gerts rear in a clumsy leap frog action which had him jumping clear over Gerts head. The whole ‘action’ was over in seconds. Stud lady said “we’ll leave it a few minutes and then do a second cover”. I was not aware there had been a first cover. The second time was none the less intimate, loud bellow, leap frog over the head, but this time on landing Billy raised himself on his back legs, spun on the spot and with head cocked crashed it down on Gerts crown. My comment that “Albert was not much of gentleman, gets his end away and then head butts her”, was not well received by the serious stud lady.

We took Gert home, this time she laid down, she stopped bleating, she smelt ………as did we and the Cortina.

Son of Albert was a good looking kid, but he ended up in the pot……..

A beastie on the wood pile and a pee on the floor

Having recently discovered the merits of dumper ownership I set my sights at getting me a dumper. My first hurdle was to get Cindy ‘on side’ she needed to understand that our limited budget had to stretch to getting me, (I mean us) our very own dumper. My ace in hole was that Cindy wanted a stable block which would need a concrete slab so ALL that HEAVY concrete would have to be hand barrowed from the road to the site ……. First hurdle cleared.

One of the perks of being a printer on the local paper is that you get a head start on the rest of the county when it comes to responding to the classified ads. With the ink still wet on the page and the sun barely above the horizon, I called the owner of a dumper advertise for sale, and arranged to see it.
We found the address deep in the country south of East Peckham. A cluster of varying sized natives approached, all white shirts, belts, braces and boots. The smallest shirts on chopper bikes ( remember those) and the oldest shirt in his slippers, sulking behind him a skinny lurcher cross, with a limp and an attitude.

Over the ear piercing barks of chained dogs, who were hurling themselves at us being halted in mid air and dragged back to earth by being literally being at the end of their tethers. We managed to established that we were not from the council, but had come in response to the advert for the dumper.

At slipper mans bidding one of the younger shirts disappeared. A few moments latter we could hear the quickening putt …… put…… putt….. putt…. putt… putt.. putt. putt. puttputtputtputt of a diesel engine awakening. Then around the corner steamed a dumper, a big dumper, a really very big dumper.
Having just recently made friends with farmer Tony’s little red dumper, I was expecting to see a beastie of a similar stature. Before us was a massive yellow dumper with a swimming pool for a bucket which was caked in dried concrete. It had four wheel drive, hydraulic steering and tipping, big tractor type tyres and throbbing engine which made the entire beastie shudder and gentle rock in harmony with the engine.

Over the cacophony of dogs, kids and exploding diesel, a shirt shouted that I should try it out. I knew he was right, but with my track record with stuff mechanical I knew the odds were in favour of me making a knob of myself. I would have preferring to be a knob on my own patch with nobody there to witness the event.

I got up on the drivers platform. It was like when you first got to ride your dads bike, you couldn’t sit on the seat and reach the peddles at the same time, when you did get on the saddle, all the controls were at the extremes of your reach and the ground seemed a disconcertingly long way down. A shirt gave me instructions as to the gear locations. I engaged a gear (first, I think) lifted the clutch. Yellow Beastie lunged forward throwing herself and me down the dusty track like one of those lizards running on hot sand, one front tyre did not touch the tarmac for twenty feet or more, and when it did, it was with such force that it nearly bounced me out of the seat. It was then I discovered that to stop the brakes literally had to be stood on and you had to apply additional leverage by bracing hard against the steering wheel. Which is when I also discovered the seat was not a fixed other than with a single bolt so it skewed sideways in an attempt at tipping me out the side. I managed to stop,turn around, and did a repeat ‘sand lizard’ performance. The shirts looked away, skinny dog took his attitude and limped away.

It was so powerful, so big, I loved it, I wanted it, I (we) brought it.
“ Foor anoveer score, heel dliveer it ome” said slippers . A young man, who should have been at school, then negotiated my Yellow Beastie neatly and smoothly up two ridiculous narrow planks on to the back a ridiculous small lorry. And with scant attention to roping Beastie down, we gave the shirt a lead back to Forsham Cottage.

Over the next few weeks we tentatively got to ’know’ Beastie. Manual dexterity with the starting handle was required to wake Beastie. You had the get the engine turning over at speed with the handle, then, whilst still turning the engine at speed, flick over a little lever on the top of the engine. Sometimes it started and sometimes it stopped the handle dead, which had the effect of ripping your hands off. Even though Cindy had to use both hands to swing the handle she actually got the hang of this. I went to get an X-ray.
Cindy did have trouble braking, she had neither the strength nor body mass to apply the pedal pressure required to stop, especially with bucket full of horse poo. The situation was aggravated when she had the bucket so full she could not see over the lump preferring to hang out the side. (like steering from the side car). Without faltering, Cindy, the dumper and dung run up onto, and then over our trailer, rolling back the mudguard like peeling the lid off a Sardine can.

One of the quirks of Beastie was the steering. Being pivoted in the middle when you turned, the front half ( the bucket) went around the corner while momentarily the driver (sitting on the back) is left still looking in the original direction, and being dragged around the corner as an after thought. This made the art of corning at a speed ‘interesting’.
This one time I came hacking down the field ( being cocky) and had to make a tight right turn followed quickly by a left around the wood pile.
The exact sequence of events is a bit vague. I do remember falling off the seat and going down the gap between the front and back wheels. I remember being a bit shaky but still able to stand and that Beastie had staled precariously up the wood pile.
Being covered in mud, rather than go in I knocked on the back door. “ I’ve just managed to run myself over with the dumper, ” I told Cindy as she opened the door. She looked aghast at the clay tyre tacks imprinted from my left hip and up over my right shoulder, she hesitated a moment before starting to laugh, with tears rolling down her face, “I think I’m going to pee myself” she said as she doubled up and collapsed on the kitchen floor.

I went back to get Beastie off the wood pile, leaving ‘ herself’ to mop the kitchen floor!

Its offical …… I’ve married a witch

Cindy & I are born and bred Kentish, she from High Halden and me from Woodchurch (four miles apart). I am not sure if we are “Men of Kent” or “Kentish Men”, which has something to do with being born one side or other of the river Medway, apparently to some folk’s that matters! . We have never moved out of the county, I supposed that makes us a pair of stick in mud’s which given the glutinous properties of Wealden Clay seems totally apt. We had no desire to ‘move away’ we like the Kent countryside from the neck craning chalk hills of the North Downs to the big sky’s of Romney Marsh.

In about 1976 we brought our second home, an end of terrace cottage, No3 Forsham Cottage, which is to be found four or five miles south east of Maidstone at the bottom of Sutton Valence Hill, in Forsham Lane. The attraction of Forsham Cottage was the third of an acre garden and as the asking price was at extreme top end of our budget, we weren’t going to get better for our dosh.

No3 had been ‘done up’ with not a penny more spent than was necessary so was totally void of any frills like carpets, curtains, the heating was an open fire which smoked (we smelt like kippers). The garden was rough pasture consisting monster lumps of couch grass, black thorn runners, and a prize selection of brambles and nettles. It needed the repeated application of an industrial grade flymo to make it even walk-able. At this stage I am meant to say ….. “but we loved it” . We had just left our first home, a tidy fully furnished semi with central heating and double glazing so during the winter of 76-77 we had some very intense ‘what have we done’ moments.

I have told Cindy and anybody who will listen she is a witch. I love her to distraction but that don’t change the facts, she performs spells. Three hundred years ago she would have been strapped to the wet end of ducking stool. Critters love her they trail along behind her. She reckons they talk to her, which to Cindy’s perception is perfectly normal, because she talks to them. If you ever see Cindy without a dog, cat (that’s a witch thing) or horse within chatting or patting distance, then its because she’s in the bath.

She will drive towards red traffic lights and barely slows forcing them to go green. Me, I get stopped at every light even pedestrian crossing with nobody there! She pulls up at junction and practically never has to wait. I look left, no traffic, look right and I have an on coming traffic stream longer than the Toyota output but for an entire shift. Cindy drives into a car park and there WILL be a space. I try to park and loose the will to live.

Over next few years we had various adventures at No3, but they are stories to be told another day. After we had tamed the garden, built an extension, installed a wood burning stove and had a baby, Cindy went into witch mode. From the landing window she would gaze out over the garden and adjoining farm and started to insist we were going to own the field next door. It started with an odd comment like “I want a horse”. Then I’d find her staring out and plotting where the paddock fencing would go, and planning how I would convert the pickers hut at the top into a stable.

Now given that the field Cindy had her mind set on formed part of a neighbour’s long established fruit farm. Was hardly standing fallow being planted with trellis after trellis of loganberries and cultivate blackberries. Was NOT for sale, and perhaps I should also mention we were ‘ without funds’, so all in all the omens for Cindy’s equine expansion plans did not look promising.

We took ownership of the field and pickers hut a few months later. I could regale you with how this happened, but to me even now, it is still a blur. Back then I brewed cider, now I would have to seek therapy …… just go with the flow, I have to.

At this point in time we now had a mortgage, a land loan, a horse, a baby, three acres of posts wire and brambles and a wood burning stove, which did keep the house warm and got us an introduction to the Reserve Fireman from Headcorn , twice, on the same night ….. they were not happy chappies.