The Green Green Grass of Home

Grass, in all its variety of colour and texture, has been the dominant factor in all I have done this last few weeks; all I’ve done and all of my thinking.  As October arrived, a morning vision caught me off guard, it unwittingly and unwanted, returned me to a time long since past, a time I was determined to leave unvisited, especially just now.

A year has past without me even noticing, as hard a year as my years have generally been.  It hasn’t helped that its one of those years that sees the crossing off of yet another decade of my ‘three score years and ten’.  Those significant milestones on life’s path always bring about an amount of reflection, regret, re-enforcement of the will to ‘do better this next ten’ and a general melancholy, for a while anyway, of the passing of time.

 

Autumn dawn - mist and dew

Dew on the grass, mist in my valley, a common sight come October, and here it was again....

 

The shock that it was the beginning of October was amplified by the misty dew covered grass, by wet shoes from just walking to the car, by leaves of red and gold, oh yes, and by crab apple covered track-ways.  I talked recently of the wonderful amount of fruit this year, and crab apples have certainly benefited, as have Rowan, Haw and Elder – normal folklore would have it that we’re in for a hard winter – oh really ?

 

Spiders webs of dew

The spiders need their wellies too on these mornings, a true sign of temperature inversion, moisture trapped at ground level sits on anything and everything.

 

Now the reason that grass has been so influential in my life recently is down to three factors, albeit the over-riding issue has been the need to make a living !

Since March I have been looking after a small garden near the wonderful lake at Llangorse, in fact it is the neighbouring house to one of my favourite farms at Cathedine, where I have worked for some years, and was there this time last year…

I have been responsible for the cutting of the grass and the hedges and generally keeping the garden ‘tidy’ for the absentee owners so that it is able to be enjoyed by ‘holiday-makers’ who come to stay in this tranquil spot.  It is neither arduous nor time-consuming.  I tend to visit once a fortnight and spend an hour or two – usually in the early evening after a day’s work – so far I have clocked up over 20 hours.  In addition I have done some wall repairs, and still have a section to finish of mortar work, a job also under-way a year ago !  As soon as the grass is cut for the last time – October is that time – I can put my invoice in, and whilst its not huge, it is mine, all mine and not for paying general monthly bills – it is in fact set aside to buy myself a birthday present !  So grass is determining when I can have my treat, I want it to stop growing !

I am beginning to ‘gather my nuts’ as it were, squirrelling away items of some potential  value for future use.  The trouble is I have to harvest now, things that I have been nurturing for some years.  For instance there is a rather nice 1930s Living Van, the type that was pulled behind Fred Dibnah’s steam traction engine, the type towed behind road rollers – steam rollers indeed – wherein the man who drove the roller lived whilst ‘away from home’ rolling roads.  This particular example once belonged to Breconshire County Council but, in 1953, it was made redundant and sold off.  It was bought by the father of the farmer at Cathedine and remained as a store shed until the death of a cat rescued it, some six years ago !

 

a 1930s Living Van, the type in which a road roller driver lived whilst away from home.

'Katy's Shed' is its name ( a long story - don't ask !) and its all mine, or rather it will be once I can persuade the farmer to help me empty it of HIS ''stuff' ! I want to get it home soon, very soon, but then I have been saying that for 4 years !!

 

I was driving by early one Sunday morning, strangely, on the way to a Vintage Steam Fair (like the earlier post at Corwyn), the Three Cocks show which is always the second Sunday in August (for those of you already planning next year’s visit to Wales !).  As I drove by the farm, in the road lay a poor little kitty killed in the night.  Now I knew there were kids in that farmhouse – though at that time I didn’t know the farmer or his wife – and I imagined how awful it would be for them to come out and see poor kitty.  I stopped and walked around back to see if anyone was about, and there it was !!

Since that time I have become good friends with Eric (which was also my father’s name) and his lovely Spanish wife.  He’s a genuine honest straight guy, a well respected farmer, interesting and passionate about his ‘Quarter Back’ American horses – indeed all horses, all Welsh Black cattle, in fact “all things bright and beautiful”…. he is a rarity.  So I did some wall rebuilding (and gave him a little cash, can you believe that a year or so later, when I was laid up and unable to work due to a ruptured achilles tendon, he asked his wife to ring me and offer me the money back as they realised I would be short !! that is what ‘Love thy Neighbour’ means).  I have long since finished paying off the Wagon – oh yes, and a nice old hay cart (keep forgetting that one) but his boundary wall with his neighbours out back also needed some work, they are the folk for whom I ended up grass cutting – what goes around…..

Whilst I am striving to get the current walling job finished I am also having ‘diversion therapy’ by doing some instructing and by carrying out farm assessments for farmers considering applying to enter the new All Wales agri-environment scheme, Glastir.  In order to gain entry a farm has to score a set number of points – dependant on the size of the holding – which are gained by agreeing to undertake some management or other aimed at, primarily, improving water quality and carbon capture.  Most of the farms I have visited thus far have achieved their points through grass.   Yes, grass is a very important element in this scheme. Of course there is grass and then there is grass.

 

Green grass and misty morning

You see the problem, grass is not just grass and there's just so much of it !

 

To make it simple the ‘powers that B’ have come up with a fool-proof way of categorising farmland grass – don’t try this at home folks – and it has been exercising my brain, and then some.

One of the big issues surrounding water quality (its one of the target areas that the UK Gov has to address under – is it Kyoto ? – some International protocol or other) is ‘run-off’.  That is, when rain falls on the ground it runs over and through grass and soil and washes out nasty chemically type things that are hiding in there.  Farm land – apparently – has all sorts of this genetically modifiying junk in it, put there by those farming types who just want to make the grass grow quicker and greener.

(In my head are two grassy songs from my adolescent ‘grass’ filled days, one is an indication of what is going to recur if I go on this way, the other is recently resurrected in my repertoire of songs sung outdoors, no doubt because of the intimate bond I now have with grass.  As a consequence “I can hear the grass grow” (I think it was the Move, but they also saw rainbows in the evening which I’m not doing just yet) and I’m singing an old Joan Baez song from my student days (she was something else….) which was actually lamenting the state of the rain at that time – water quality ! – and, boy, was she ever right; acid rain decimated this little land of Wales for many years after.

“Just a little rain falling on the ground, the grass lifts its head to the heavenly sound,                  Just a little rain, just a little rain, what have they done to the rain…” is how it goes.

In essence, a field of grass is a mixed bag, or rather, it ought to be !  Of course after years of development (not least at IGER here in Wales) grass has become increasingly ‘modified’ and farmers have increasingly concentrated on a limited number of ‘grassland species’.  In fact most intensive farms, especially dairy and heavily stocked lowland farms, have ploughed up old leys and substituted a quick and lush growing rye grass with white clover.  This ‘improved’ ley is actually the ‘anti-Christ’ of grassland, hated by conservation minded agri-environment schemes.  This not solely because of the singular lack of diversity such a minimal ley provides for nature, but because in order to sustain a constant growth and provide much needed silage – 3 crops ideally – to feed stock through a long winter, the farmer has to ‘improve’ the soil by the addition of chemical fertiliser and slurry.  It is the run-off from such fertilising regimes that causes alarm.  (I liken such improved grassland fields to the plastic wrapped, cheap, white sliced bread one gets in super-markets as opposed to the more healthy wholegrain from the local bakery).

Now in order to deal with the water problem – and achieve a by-product in the form of bio-diversity – farmers are being asked to assess their fields and judge if they are ‘improved’ or ‘unimproved’ (semi-improved has been dropped – a great pity in my view, especially when what I see time and time again is hard to assess !).  The way to do this – remember, this is the simple system worked out by a scientist (?) in a warm, dry laboratory – is just look see; look and see if there is more than 25% rye grass and clover or less, its that simple……. I’m actually getting quite good at it, ha ha.

So, from now until near the end of November, I am going to be spending much time on my knees looking at the green green grass of home. “Then I awake and look around me, at four grey walls that surround me, and I realise I’ve only been dreaming…” We’ll see, I hope there’s a God, otherwise me and that sad ol’ Padre are going to be walking “on and on at daybreak” for six long weeks….

 

Iron-Age defended enclosure

This is one farm I would like to visit - can you see that funny 'space-ship' that landed in that 'unimproved' field a long long time ago ...

 

The problem with me and farm visits is chronic, my ‘lust for rust’ or, in the most recent case, my desire to rescue every old wooden farm cart I see, overcomes me whenever I smell FYM (that’s jargon for cow shit !).

If my family knew what I was doing for the next month and more – oh boys boys….

My final encounter with the green green grass of home came after a six year wait.  I was employed on a major restoration of a ‘Walled Garden’ in the rear of one of the Tywi valley’s old and eminent estates.  This began in the spring of 2004 and took about three years (one week a month, before you gasp !).  It was festooned with old garden and farm equipment and had the most intriguing ‘tip’ of old scrap – read ‘rare and valuable artefacts’ –  which I spent most lunch times retrieving.  It also had a couple of irresistible tractors.  The owner was retired and ailing and has recently died.  He had agreed to sell me the Ferguson TEF (that’s a little grey diesel tractor of the early 1950s for the unitiated) and an International but every time I tried to ‘close’ the deal he decided he had better hang on to them ‘just in case he needed them the following year’ ! – you need to realise he had not actually started them for 20 years or so and never never changed any oils or water !!

Anyway, finally, thanks to the efforts of his grandson Danielson (after Karate Kid) who has been working alongside me in a herculean way, barrowing 30 tonnes of stone up a slope, I have achieved half of my birthday present – and spent half of the money I haven’t yet got !

 

An old lady gets a new life after 57 years - a Ferguson tractor moves home.

This 57 year old lady has just moved home, not into retirement but 'back to work', a sign of the times perhaps - she will be restored and overhauled and then put - now and then, once or twice a year - to cutting hay. She'll love it !

 

This grand old lady will receive a total overhaul / restoration and be put back to work – after all she has had a very easy time of it for at least 40 odd years, she’s never done a hard day’s work in her life, but that’s all about to change – with a nice period mower attached she will once again enjoy sunshine cutting grass, actually hay, in a field with much less than 25% rye and clover – well suited to Glastir then !!

So as autumn colours begin to dominate the scenery and ‘unimproved’ grassland becomes more and more contrasted with the ‘unnatural’ improved dark green of improved areas, improving grassland is my task.  Its an interesting and confusing terminology is it not, why call the least environmentally friendly grass leys ‘improved’ (isn’t that supposed to imply better ?) and the old diverse and wildlife rich leys ‘unimproved’,  who’d be a teacher of English as a second language…..

Finally a little tribute to the King of Soul, Mr Burke we will miss your huge presence, after all ‘Everybody needs somebody to Love, especially ‘Down in the Valley’; your music has been ever present in my adult life and it will certainly be booming out this next week or so.

 

Autumnal Oaks in a remote Welsh valley

'Down in the Valley, in the valley below', the sun on the autumnal leaves of the Sessile Oaks greets a melancholy me with the sad news of Soli Burke's passing, but it is sort of 'soulfull' and 'spiritual'.

 

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