Country Diary: 10
The Idler’s Editor, Tom Hodgkinson, has retired to a Devon Farmhouse to write a book. Here’s the tenth part of his diary.
IT WAS SUCH a lovely long hot summer that I forgot how cold it gets here in winter, and worse, how much work and money is involved just in keeping warm. We have no central heating; instead we have a collection of different heating devices. The kitchen is heated by the Rayburn, which also heats the water and one upstairs radiator. My study and one bedroom are heated by Calor Gas heaters. The sitting room has a wood-burning stove. And the other bedrooms rely on electric heaters. Each of these methods has its own problems. The Rayburn goes out and its tank must be stocked with oil. The wood-burning stove requires dry wood, which has to be ordered, then carried from the log barn. Plus there is a lot of chopping to make kindling. The gas heaters seem to run out quite fast; so I have to make sure we have a couple of spare cylinders, or face two or three days of typing with fingerless gloves on while we await a new delivery. The electric heaters must be used with caution: one needs to remember to turn them off when they are not being used as they are so expensive to run. Oh, and the bathroom has one of those bedsit-type three-bar heaters on the wall. It tends to roast your head when you walk past it. Doors must be kept closed at all times to conserve heat. When walking around the house, the body undergoes regular shocks when it moves from a cosy hot room into a freezing hallway or pantry. To make myself feel better, I reflect that in the olden days, no one had central heating, and they managed. In fact, they may well have been happier and hardier than us. Now I must go as I have to brave the freezing hailstones outside to go and bring in the logs. So much for idleness.
WE’VE GOT CHICKENS. They are small ones, called Bantams, completely insane and very entertaining. There is one cockerel who, despite his towering stupidity and violent rapes, is worshipped by the other four hens as some kind of guru. He leads them on an afternoon promenade along the garden wall and to peck around in the fields. Then in the evening, he rounds them up into the outhouse where we keep them. If he goes missing, as he did the other night, they become quite distraught and begin pecking each other. Each afternoon, we find two little eggs in the hay. We got Bantams as they are the most independent and therefore the least effort of any chickens, but of course there is a downside, and, like the cats, it’s their shit. The turds of a chicken are surprisingly large and they produce a surprisingly large amount of it. I have suddenly realised that hay is nature’s litter: it soaks and deodorises. It doesn’t deodorise for very long though, and so after a few days the stink in the hen’s house became unbearable and this idler was to be found shovelling shit. I forked balefuls of shit-covered hay into the wheelbarrow and dumped it on the compost heap, which is now full. I am going to have to start more compost heaps and if I fill them at this rate the whole yard will be filled with rotting piles of faeces. Still it’s supposed to be good for the vegetable patch.
SPEAKING OF WHICH, I have to confess that I haven’t yet finished digging the patch. In fact, I am only about a quarter of the way through. According to our guru Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the digging must be done now, before the frosts set in. Then we should add our compost and wait till March before we start to plant our first seeds. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to convert bramble-covered pasture into soil, but by God it’s hard work. I spent around four hours cutting the turf off the top off the soil, digging up brambles and turning the soil over with the fork. It nearly killed me. My stomach ached for a week, as if I had done three hundred sit-ups. My hands seemed permanently bruised from the cutting. The grass is too thick to rotovate, so we must remove the turf, then dig over, then rotavate. I have been up there three times since, and we’ve managed to make a bit more headway, but the task seems unfinishable: after an hour of agony, I look at how much I have done and how much is left to do and I sigh, lean on my fork, look to the heavens and despair.
THE SEX LIFE of the chickens has fascinated young Arthur, and has relieved us of the duty of teaching him the facts of life. The other day I went to to see the chickens with him, and he told me: “The cockerel puts his willy in the hens.”
THE CHICKENS ARE fun but I cannot say the same for the cats. Over the last few weeks, these cruel spongers have cynically abused our good nature and sense of guilt by clawing and mewing pathetically at the window while we sit by the fire in the evenings, cosy and warm while gales blow outside. The result has been that we have let them come back in the house and how do they repay our kindness? By pissing in it. I found three pools of cat pee in the loo when we got home last night. Even a hint of the smell is enough to send me into a blind fury and woe betide any small animal or child who encounters me. I admit we haven’t had any mice since the cats have been around but at what cost? We are also in a perpetual battle with them to stop them from leaping on the table while we eat and stealing our food. My hisses and shouts are completely ignored by these fearless minxes. The naughtiness is beyond belief.