Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Big Picture in a Small Village

Filming started last week, and the estate is teeming with people in neon yellow vests with radios, and extras in costume drinking coffee out of paper cups. The cast and crew put in 13-hour days, a lot of which appears to be waiting. Artistic merit and red carpet appearances aside, making a film seems to be a tedious process.

I don't see many movies and my tastes are narrow. I only make the effort to go to the cinema for Woody Allen and zombie films (if Woody made a zombie film, I would be his target demographic) and I probably won't see this one until it comes on TV. I did read the book. The first year I moved to Dorset I read all of Thomas Hardy's books. As an American, I appreciated living among the hundred-plus year old villages, churches and buildings that I could read about in his stories. My bank is in the building that belonged to the Mayor of Casterbridge, I can still eat at the Black Bull Hotel, and I regularly walk my dogs on footpaths through all his village settings.

I particularly liked Far from the Madding Crowd for its heroine Bathesheba, bucking convention and becoming a shepherdess to run a farm that she inherits. She's self-reliant both in spirit and financially, and Thomas Hardy makes the bold assertion throughout the novel that her suitors and marriage are the biggest threats to her independence. "Amen, sister." I thought when I read it.

My literary criticism aside, it's been interesting to watch the process of filming this story unfold. Filming is simply a business like any other. It requires huge amounts of infrastructure and coordination, from feeding people to moving people to building backgrounds. I can appreciate the set building from my museum days, as I remember time spent researching, designing, and labouring to create a single museum exhibition, often over a year. The process is a lot quicker with films. A whole village has been erected - complete with cottage, sheepwash, farmyard, thatched grain stores, and church - in under a month.
Grain stores in progress, made from round bales covered in thatch, with plaster mushroom "supports"

Most of these sets have been built in the main courtyard at the big house. Then one day, the 19th century arrived on the back of a lorry-

There must be a props department somewhere, where film companies just order set dressing for the time period required. Horse carts, barrels, wooden sheep hurdles, and woven crates turned up.

There's also a Base Camp for the film staff with a huge tent, motor homes, people carriers, and a double-decker bus being used as a dining hall. It sprung up like a crop of barley in a farmer's field. All the lights are on when I'm on my way to first lambing checks at 4 am. The crew keep farmer's hours.

Our house, far left and the base camp. The dogs are more interested in what the grazing cows left behind overnight.

Sadly, my fifteen minutes of fame passed me by. The actress was game for going into sheep wash herself, albeit with a stuffed sheep, so I wasn't needed to "double". To be fair, it must be easier for editing to make fake sheep seem real than to make me look like a Hollywood size zero in my 20s. The actor was not so outdoorsy, and a male shepherd was found at the last minute to get in the wash to do the cold and heavy lifting in the actor's place.

Another tick in the self-reliance box for Bathsheba, then.

My chickens have made the cut, and I drop them off to Gill the animal wrangler after my lambing checks. They asked for all brown hens, but I didn't have enough Rhode Island Red-type layers so I threw a couple of young meat chickens in there, and no one noticed. My future chicken dinners are earning a crust before they go under a crust.

When Gill's on another site filming, I look after a small flock of geese and Cromwell the goat, all regular film industry extras. They're used to handling so they're quiet, and I fit them in among my daily chores. All the animal work means there's still something extra to put in the bank, without long days in a cold bath - a blessing in disguise for me during a busier-than-usual lambing period. But, it's not such good dinner conversation as being the shepherdess double. "Always the goat handler, never the sheep wash babe." That's a saying, right?

Apparently, Cromwell the goat worked with Angelina Jolie. He doesn't do autographs, just pellets.

Mike gets occasional calls from various assistants to answer relevant game keeping questions. He's been summoned to show the actress the technique used to dispatch a rabbit. Not a live rabbit. No rabbits were hurt in the making of this film, of course. She simply wanted her scene to look accurate. I think Mike used a tea towel for demonstration purposes. (Incidentally, tea towels also make good chickens.)

Other than that, seeing how films are made is sort of like seeing how sausages are made. Personally, I don't want to know what goes into either, I just want to consume and enjoy. And with no story to tell of "the time I doubled for that actress" I will just have to be satisfied with being my own Bathsheba, and washing my own sheep. Incidentally, we're having bunny biryani for dinner tonight - one I shot, dispatched, and butchered myself in late spring, when it was fat on good weather and good grass. I hope Thomas Hardy would be proud of me.

Lambing update: Six ewes have lambed, and there are seven yet to lamb. Even with a few tricky births and to-be-expected baby illnesses, we've not lost any more lambs. As of this morning, there are nine healthy lambs. 

Monday, 16 September 2013

Lambing Live! (and no-so live...)

Lambing has started, and we've had two births now - one easy, and one fodder for a shepherd's nightmares. Of course I'll start by describing the bad one in detail first.

On one of my regular checks, I saw this -

Easy to identify, first stages of labour: the water bag. It was attached to Gregor, an experienced ewe who had triplets last year. It was an hour or so before sunset and a nice evening, so I settled down on an upturned bucket to watch the show. It got dark before the end of the first act. Just water, no lambs.

I walked her to the maternity stable, but had to disturb her to move her. I thought it may set her lambing back a bit, but nothing to worry about. I let her settle in and sat in the truck to close my eyes for a minute. A minute turned into a hour, and when I checked on Gregor, she was still restless but not in labour. Mike came up to the field with dinner and a cup of tea. We sat in the front of the Land Rover eating Chinese takeaway, keeping out of Gregor's way and hoping she would settle.

I made a fatal error in judgement and let her continue unaided. I thought moving to the shed was slowing things down for her. In fact, when I finally went in for a look, the twins were so tangled that neither could enter the birth canal and start the process. That's why the hold up. Traffic jam.

I untangled triplets in her last year, but had to get a local shepherd to lend a hand with this one. It was a Gordian knot, with fleece. A shepherd is more cost effective than a vet. Vets don't come out at midnight on a Saturday night and detangle your lambs for homemade cake and a dozen eggs. This shepherd is a late-season lamber like me, so was on his rounds when I called and was with us in minutes.

Even after the pig's ear I made in that sheep's uterus, the shepherd managed to save one of the two twin rams. The survivor was very weak and couldn't stand or suckle.
12 hours later, and he's still so depleted. He's too tired to respond when his mother calls to him.

I tube fed him, and propped him on a straw pillow. I fed him and adjusted his position every few hours so he wouldn't get stiff. I milked the spare colostrum off the ewe to put in the freezer. And I worried. And I felt guilty. I had just read a chapter in the Malcolm Gladwell book about plane crashes. Apparently, in every plane crash attributed to pilot error, it has been shown that a minimum of seven errors occurs. Small errors in judgement combined with tiredness leads to catastrophe. I worked backwards from dead lamb to water sac, and charted my errors - at 3 am sat in a dark office with a cup of tea, unable to sleep even though I knew I had to be up to the field in two hours for the next check. No more lambs came that day.

No sense making mistakes if you don't learn from them. Mike did the next night checks for me, and I got a full eight hours' sleep. That made the correction for overtired. I read up on options for dealing with delayed births, and reminded myself to trust my gut. I plan to bake two cakes for the shepherd, just in case I need to call on him again after hours.

This morning I was at the field before 5 am and, just the other side of the gate, ewe 2844 was cleaning a pair of bright-eyed lambs. I could see the family in my truck's headlights. No hassles, no interference, no late night phone calls.

Ewe 2844 and babies, safe and dry in the maternity shed

We're lambing at Milkweed for the first time and having two horse stables temporarily converted into a maternity shed (individual pens for bonding) and nursery shed (group room for older mums and babies) is a joy. The weather's just turned - single digit temperatures and squally showers - and I know the babies are safe from draughts, foxes, and downpours. Kitty grazes close to the stables and when the ewes call to their babies, Kitty whickers back in fellowship. She has that matronly protective air of an older mare, and I think she's adopted the flock as her own. After all, she was a mother herself once.

There are still 21 lambs waiting to be born. No doubt I'm due more of those "Here's two I made earlier" scenes at the field gate, and no doubt I'm due more stuck lambs and heartsickening mistakes. The ram lamb has recovered despite his hard start. He's up on his feet and feeding now-

I think in aviation terms this one would be classified as a 'near miss'.

Friday, 13 September 2013


The M&T computer is up and running again - just. It still overheats but I'm going to try and limp it through the winter. I've found that a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a saddle pad makes a pretty good laptop cooling mat.

With that problem in the chiller, I can think about filling the stores. The harvest is coming in and I make time every day to pick, or gather, or cook up a batch of what's been picked and gathered. I've filled one small shelf in the pantry with chutneys - French bean, plum & chilli, apple & onion - and tomato relish. The house smells perpetually of malt vinegar during September.
A small selection of chutneys            

Preserving food is part frugal and part ritual. Though, as far as frugality goes, by the time I've bought canning jars, spices, and had the stove on for two hours, I can't in good conscience say it's free food. But everyone with a vegetable patch knows the mental anguish that comes with a glut. Compost it and you feel wasteful. Serve up beans or courgettes twelve days in a row and face a mutiny at your kitchen table. (A Mutiny from the Bounty!) Try and give it away, and you realise everyone else is wrestling with their own glut.

Garrison Keillor once said that the only time anyone locks their car doors in Lake Woebegone is during tomato season, simply to stop people leaving boxes of their surplus in your car. A fictional town and a fictional harvest, but surely a true statement.

In the UK, there's never an overabundance of ripe tomatoes. Not enough sun. Here, we lock our doors against courgettes. Courgettes and marrows (think a Hulked-out courgette). We can't even make ratatouille with them unless we - gasp! - buy tomatoes.

Pickling spreads the load. I can hardly face another plate of runner beans right now but the week before Christmas, that runner bean chutney with cheese and a door-stop wedge of home-made bread will be most welcome. Courgettes can be made into pickles that will keep until next spring.

A pair of cucumber plants burst out of their makeshift polytunnel - made from leftover pheasant pen sections
Freezing apples and blackberries is very frugal and less of a time-suck than standing over a jam pan. Peel and roughly chop the apples, add a squeeze of lemon juice, and freeze in recycled takeout containers - what could be easier? Blackberries just need washing before freezing. Voila! - instant makings for a hot crumble on a cold day. The only limiting factor is the size of your freezer. If I shoot a good-sized deer, then we have crumbles every other day to free up some space. And now you're back to the "too much of a good thing" scenario.

This is why eating seasonally has its drawbacks.

But you can't beat preserving for satisfying our human need for ritual. Harvest is probably the most rewarding time in a farmer's or grower's calendar. Whether your harvest is laid out on the counter for canning, or stacked in a barn for overwintering animals, it's a tangible measure of one's successes that year. It marks the culmination of so much luck, skill and hard work coming together. When the chutney or jam has been spooned into jars and you hear the 'plink' as the seal sets, that plink says to me "Your food's safe, now go and enjoy the quiet, contemplative months of winter". After lambing, cutting wood, culling deer, and shoot season of course.

Another crop about to burst out. The ewe's legs look like they are buckling under her weight!

My other favourite ritual job at harvest is braiding onions for storage. I've pulled and dried a small but respectable onion harvest out of the vegetable patch. I braided the best ones and they are hanging in the spare room on the curtain rod - the curtain rod with its end still resting on top of the bookshelf, having pulled out of the wall two years ago when I hung my braided onion strings on there the first time. You'd think I'd get around to fixing it during one of those quiet, contemplative winter months I mentioned earlier.

The onions too small or soft to make it on the curtain rod have been going into the chutneys. I use them as a self-limiting mechanism: when the onions run out, no more chutney. If you have compulsive tendencies (and let's face it, who doesn't?), canning can become a self-rewarding stimulus. Or perhaps sniffing vinegar stimulates dopamine production, I don't know.

Anyway, the onions are going to run out soon, but the beans seem never-ending this year. I've started feeding them to the dogs, cooked in lamb fat or with scrambled eggs. We have seven dogs and I'm always grateful that not one is a fussy eater. In fact, they never pass up an opportunity. When I'm making chutney or jam, Pip sleeps in the kitchen on the mat by the back door - far enough away that she's not being sent out for getting under my feet, but close enough to snaffle up any apple peelings or blackberries that hit the floor. Quincy adores banana skins, but has to rummage in the compost for her fix. Spud likes the ends of the cucumbers Mike eats in his sandwiches every day.

I hope everyone's had a bountiful season. Tonight we're having our first harvest of late carrots and some beetroot given to us by friends. And, if you're having problems curtailing your own canning impulses, I'm available for interventions.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Please Bear with Us...

We're having technical difficulties here at M&T -- the 'blue screen of death' on your laptop kind of technical difficulties. Parts are on order and the IT guy is standing by but, until then, I only have my husband's ye olde computer, which just about allows me to check my emails but not to edit and download photos, or publish blog posts easily.

There's still lots going on here. Lambing starts this week and there are 13 ewes fit to burst already. I will of course be posting photos of cute lambs. Filming on the estate starts soon after lambing, including my role as stand-in for the lead actress (as in, I get to be filmed "standing in" a cold sheep wash so she doesn't have to) and my extra job as goat- and geese-minder. You make your money where you can in the country. And it will be a fun, new experience too. Then there's just about time to catch my breath before our first shoot day on 8th October.

Please check back with us, we'll be on-line again soon. There's always my email address in the side margin, if you want to drop us a thought or question.