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Berwick, North Northumberland: Food-Travel-Culture-Community

Archive for the tag “Hen keeping”

The hen is being needy. The barbecue explodes.

Posts on social media about reclassifying music collections, organising book shelves, oven cleaning, greenhouse purging, and garage clearing have surged like the green shoots of spring. I find them rather demotivating. Instead of spurring me on to do the tasks – all of which need doing in my home – they make me feel rebellious and inadequate. The daughters say I’m being needy. They massage my ego: ‘You do loads. You’re the most active person we know… blah, blah, blah.’ Even so, I know I’m getting credit where it’s not due.

Our hen, Pretty, continues to be erratic. She escaped to B&M again – if you missed out on the account of her first leap over the wall, it’s here. It was the Husband and I who roamed Castlegate at 2am in our dressing gowns and slippers and wearily enticed her home. The following day we cleaned, refurbed and relocated the house the hen has shunned for many moons. The hen, as if the intervening years of outside roosting in trees had never happened, promptly entered her historical home, and settled down for the night.

A room with a view: the re-sited hen house – no longer abandoned

This whole immediate action on the hen house front was, of course, prompted by self-interest. It was okay when the youngest daughter had to lasso the hen in the small hours – less okay when it was us. But things that ‘need’ doing or ‘should be’ done? Often, I spend so long in the small hours planning the things I should do the following day, it seems a waste to spend the day actually doing them. I’ve even struggled to plant veg seeds this year. But I will regret my lack of commitment and preparation unless I get my act together asap. Even the seeds I have planted seem to be keeping their heads down. Maybe, like me, they’re feeling the weight of expectation: after all, we’ve all got to dig deep for victory in these calamitous days.

And so many people are digging deep. Friends are sewing scrubs, making masks from laminating pouches, stitching wash bags for PPE out of pillow cases, delivering prescriptions, returning to frontline jobs as pharmacists and medics, continuing as teachers, supermarket staff, and refuse collectors (let’s hear it for refuse collectors – just imagine how much worse this would all be without them).  And, in amongst this truly credit-worthy endeavour and fierce community spirit, Tory MPs keep telling us to ‘Protect the NHS, save lives’ (as if they invented the concept of protecting the NHS). Each time I hear them, I feel hot fury. Erm, who starved the NHS of funds? And what about opportunities to join the EU bulk-buy scheme?

At the beginning of lockdown, we decided to have themed Saturday evening meals – prepared by all four of us. We’ve had formal (complete with à la carte menu), slumber (pizza and popcorn), Mexican (tacos and tequila). Last weekend was barbecue night. You know, marshmallows, and campsongs by the glowing embers as the light fades. Our ancient rust-encrusted BBQ went to the tip before lockdown. The Husband was charged with creating a suitable outdoor firepit. I pictured a small ground-based stone-supported fire, our homemade burgers sizzling merrily atop. Turns out the Husband’s vision was different to mine. As his vision took physical form, I think I may have expressed some anxiety about safety.

Urban chic? The Husband’s barbecue

The hen, always at the centre of all garden goings-ons, showed no signs of fear when the Husband’s barbecue exploded – a slight hop and then more pecking. The rest of us, having established that the Husband was uninjured, mocked him and cooked indoors. Despite her resilience to household drama, the hen has become what the daughters again interpret as attention-seeking or ‘needy’ since her recent lockdown. A couple of days ago she had the audacity to leap up at the eldest daughter as we were having tea in the garden. This morning she was on my lap, for a crop massage (hen not daughter). Then, as if to keep us on side and claim credit for keeping the whole family machine on the road, she proudly produces a very occasional egg. The government’s daily briefings are more regular than the hen’s eggs, but do they, I wonder, have the same purpose… asking for a friend?

The hen’s progress… need or greed?

The world is in chaos and the hen is eating my meadow

I am trying to create a tiny meadow in my garden, but my hen is eating it. I know I could try to fence her out of the area but, right now, it seems sort of apposite to feel powerless in the face of her overwhelming desire to eat seed.

A young colleague who I’m working with on a little book asked me if I’m keeping a coronavirus diary. It made me feel rather guilty. I’m not really writing anything, I explained. The newly launched magazine I was writing a column for is in aspic for the foreseeable: how do you publish a local, lifestyle magazine when all visitor attractions and events are cancelled, and advertisers have nothing to advertise? Events and organisations I’m involved with are either postponed or holding their breath.

The self-justification continued: Who am I to add to the corona-word-mountain? Mind you, that didn’t stop me adding to the heap of cancer words when I had bowel cancer. And, actually, this self-isolation is a bit flashbacky. During chemo I isolated myself and spent hours in the garden, desperately trying not to pierce myself on a rose thorn and develop septicaemia. It felt lonely. However, this is now, and the whole world is in it with me. Besides, I am not ill and not pumped full of drugs. Frankly, being able to lay my hands on some paracetamol would be a fine thing.

This morning I went to the supermarket. It was the first time I’d been to the big supermarket in a fortnight. Last week I did my shop in Berwick. We’re lucky enough to live next door to Iceland, have two great local butchers, and the feisty organic Green Shop down the way. However, yesterday a friend was in touch. She’s a nurse and has Covid-19. Her mum lives out of town and there are no home deliveries to be had this side of Christmas.

I was happy to do the mum’s shop at the same time as I did my own. Her order was easy compared to ours and did not involve huge quantities of wine. I felt like a naughty schoolchild when I was told I could only have six bottles. It was hard to choose which four bottles to say goodbye to.  I also couldn’t understand why people kept coming so close to me. I think I may actually have said, ‘back off’ to one woman. I’ve just tried saying ‘back off’ to the hen who’s still pecking what has become bare soil but, a bit like my fellow shopper, she’s giving no quarter.

This hen’s not backing off

When I dropped off my friend’s mum’s shop, I felt guilty leaving it on the doorstep. That guilt was nothing compared to how I felt when the elderly woman appeared at the door, leaning on a stick. From my social distance of five metres along her path, I shouted to her that the bag was heavy and that she should carry the items in a few at a time. And now I’m haunted by a vision of her wrestling a giant honeydew melon from the bag with her walking-stick-free arm and somehow transferring it to her kitchen.

I’ve never been a big fan of warfare discourse when talking about illness. It’s always felt like a huge burden to place on the sick: as well as feeling crap, they’re supposed to show their mettle by battling down their illness and winning through. Presumably the alternative is to be a wimp and die. I acknowledge the fight formula works for some and, apparently, is particularly good for fundraising. ‘We’re going to thrash the living daylights out of this cancer/Covid-19!’ Woop-de-doo! Yeah! Let’s annihilate the plague! Meanwhile, those who have it will carry on dealing with it any way they see fit.

Having said that, war as a metaphor for illness and vice versa has a strong literary pedigree. According to a piece in the Guardian, Albert Camus’ 1947 novel ‘La Peste’ (‘The Plague’) is selling in extraordinary numbers. The plague of the title was symbolic both of the Algerian cholera outbreak of 1849 and of Nazism. It’s a book about individual and community responses to the plague of the title – heroic and selfish – during a time of lockdown, quarantine and self-isolation. I studied it for French A level and was profoundly moved and disturbed by it. But I can’t say I fancy reading it right now.

The fact is, I’d rather concentrate on feeling irritated with my hen’s obsessive destruction of my tiny nascent meadow. And, while she feasts, I am wondering whether or not I will rouse myself to fight back.

The birds, the bees… and a spot of Tai Chi

Is it just me or is there more nature happening this year? More bees, more birds and, yes, more reproduction. I’m having a bit of a love-in with nature at the moment. And, as so often happens during such spells of intense awareness and appreciation, serendipitous encounters contrive to enhance the glow.

At a friend’s house, I happened upon a book by the writer and broadcaster Richard Mabey, “The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn”. The friend was good enough to lend it to me. It turned out to be a library book – which could have been complicated. Thanks to Berwick Library for keeping things simple: our library’s a fabulous resource, please love it and use it. Mabey’s essays are a thoughtful exploration of the harmonies between science and romanticism through nature’s lens and an excellent counterpoint to the idea that science and romanticism must always be at loggerheads.

Richard Mabey’s inspirational book

Having hens at the bottom of our garden means regular sorties to deliver scraps, check for eggs, deal with poo, massage Vaseline into scaly legs and, most recently, a broody hen that stands no chance of raising a brood. This is how we know the crows talk about us. Like the vultures in “Jungle Book” they telegraph along the treetops: “Caw! Here they come! Caw! They’ve got leftover porridge. Caw!” It wouldn’t surprise me to find them wearing bibs and holding knives and forks by the time we reach the hens.

“It wouldn’t surprise me to find the crows wearing bibs and holding knives and forks.”

Bees interpret scent cues across substantial distances, passing on the gen to other bees. According to Mabey lead free petrol residues react with odour molecules messing with the bees’ ability to interpret scent, which may be a factor in their decline. Happily, our raspberry canes have been mesmerisingly and slightly terrifyingly alive with bees this year. For the last four years, The Husband has been building a structure to protect the raspberry canes from birds. Four years! “It needs done!” I cried, avoiding eye contact and shoving him into the humming cauldron. And, hey presto! the berry protection strategy is complete. No bees or husbands were harmed during implementation, the bees pass freely, the birds are largely kept at bay, and I will eventually get to grips with the intricate hook and eye system.

Despite berry deprivation, our garden birds are bursting with natural fulsomeness – families of blue tits, starlings, dunnocks, sparrows, great tits, blackbirds and wrens are all making a go of it just outside our window.

Friends recently guided us on a scenic circuit in the Cheviots – somewhere I really haven’t spent enough time. Mabey describes a moment when, listening to the nightingale’s song, it was as if, “the bird was in my head, and it was me that was singing.” “Yeah right.” I thought. Until the Cheviot walk, that is. Our ramble rolled through scrub and heather where the birdsong was genuinely tumultuous. The skylarks were particularly abundant, dropping like leafy musical notes to their nests. And, yes, the refrain wasn’t only outside, it was somehow also inside me as I walked. Shelley, in To a Skylark says, “Pourest thy full heart/In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.” And there’s the rub. Counter to what Shelley says, nature – birds singing, bees pollenating, animals reproducing – isn’t an accident. All that ‘art’ has a ferocious purpose – attracting, repelling, sounding the alarm, and ultimately being.

The Cheviots: A fabulous place to wander with friends.

The Cheviots: A fabulous place to wander with friends.

I’ve been popping along to Castle Vale Park Viewpoint in Berwick on a Wednesday morning for an hour of free Tai Chi (every week til the end of August 2014). It’s part of park manager Kate Morison’s drive to ensure the newly refurbed park spaces are used for positive purposes. High above the Tweed making its way to the sea, the flowing movements of Tai Chi seem particularly apt. As we shift and sway, nature gets on with doing its stuff around us. No more or less than usual – just noticed more by me.

The view we enjoy whilst doing Tai Chi and, coincidentally and extraordinarily, the one I enjoyed with Colin Firth when he visited Berwick on a recce for the film The Railway Man.

The view we enjoy whilst doing Tai Chi and, coincidentally and extraordinarily, the one I enjoyed with Colin Firth when he visited Berwick on a recce for the film The Railway Man.


(A version of this post first appeared in The Berwick Advertiser in July 2014)


Meat – let’s celebrate animals

I am a diehard omnivore. Meat, fish, shellfish, vegetables, dairy, pulses – I love it all! And, as I’ve mentioned many times before, fresh local produce is abundant here in Northumberland.

Roast chicken is a bit of a family favourite with my lot. Over the years it’s become a symbol of togetherness. When London Daughter was little I always served roast chicken when she returned from time away – and usually still do. There’s nothing finer than a carved platter of succulent chicken, scented subtly with tarragon, surrounded by crisp roasties (maybe even a Yorkshire pud or two), plus mountains of veg of the season and a tangy white wine gravy made with the juice from the bird.  The best accompaniment is, of course, the family banter. Oh, and the inevitable squabble over who’s going to get the oysters (apparently the French call these easy-to-miss tasty morsels tucked beneath the thighs, ‘le sot l’y laisse’ or ‘the fool leaves it there’).

And there are leftovers: bones equal stock for soup or risotto; shreds of meat pressed with cold cooked potato, spring onion, ginger and chilli and coated in breadcrumbs make chicken cakes; scraps of meat, thin-cut veg, dried noodles, dollop of Tom Yum paste and, hey presto!, it’s spicy Thai soup; or how about a chicken sarnie with lashings of pepper and mayo? Yep, roast chicken can do a fair few meals (more, perhaps, than a pack of breasts).

When we moved from London to North Northumberland, we became hen owners (for eggs rather than meat). I know people keep hens in coops in tiny town gardens (and, spotted recently, even on the decks of houseboats), but I am still haunted by the memory of a schoolfriend’s father’s battery hen farm. Low-slung sheds were rammed with hens in restrictive cages, their beaks trimmed to stop them damaging each other, necks rubbed featherless as they hoovered up feed from troughs at the base of the cages. I can’t remember where the eggs gathered – although the eggs were the point. I do remember the overpowering smell and noise. A Guantanamo for hens, perhaps.

Rose - later to become 'The Killer Hen'

I’ve always felt that, like humans, animals should be able to get outside as well as have safe, roomy indoor quarters. Of course, such lodgings are more expensive. Take chicken. Today, it’s mass produced on an almost unfathomable scale. According to RSPCA-monitored Freedom Food, around 800 million birds are reared in the UK for meat each year – and, don’t be fooled, ‘high welfare’ supermarket brands are kept indoors, albeit with a tad more space. But let’s not condemn out of hand, research suggests that furnished cages (more space per hen, a perch and nest area) which contain around 90 birds and are stacked on top of each other in tiers, can offer better quality of life than some free-range coops. So, not straightforward – and a bit of a lottery for the poor old hen.

Battery hens are, thankfully, a thing of the past. However, enriched cages like the one above aren’t exactly a bed of roses for Henny Penny.

In days gone by, slaughtering an animal was a whole-village ritual – a sort of celebration of the animal’s life and death. The carcass of a pig would be shared and would feed people for as much as a week. And that’s another thing. Not only is meat now a daily certainty for most of us rather than a special event, portion sizes have ballooned. And, you can’t help linking portion size to mass production, and to the desire to distance ourselves from the animal as a living being before it hits the shelf.

But it is all a bit chicken-and-egg – do we eat more because there is more, or vice versa? I don’t know the answer. But I do like to know where my meat comes from and how it’s been treated in life and death. And, if that means spending a bit more and eating a bit less, then so be it.

Does staying hands on with animals help us appreciate meat a bit more?

Does staying hands on with animals help us appreciate meat a bit more?


A version of this post was first published in The Berwick Advertiser on 3rd April 2014

Drama & demos, fun & festivals, laughter & aching legs: Another fab year in Berwick

Calendar Girls at the marvellous Maltings – you can still get copies of the fab cast & crew calendar at the Maltings or on line here

As we’re approaching Christmas I thought I’d partake in that age-old tradition of ‘looking back’. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, looking back –  whether with a sense of yearning, a frisson of shame, or a wry smile – is an inevitable pastime. So, in this festive season, bear with me as I glance back over my musings in this column during 2012.

In January my post-holiday glow, gave me cause to celebrate the plethora of events and functions in and around Berwick. Many still to come this year – from the Dickensian Market (9th December), to the Spittal torchlit parade (December 14th), complete with camels this time! I gave three cheers for the pioneering spirit that ensures that treasured traditions continue and new things are thrown into the ring; the lights on the Royal Border Bridge, now fully functioning and gorgeous; and the colours of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, which, come August 1st 2013, will hopefully be central to a thrill-a-minute civic week.

February was the month when Scottish independence and broody hens made curious nest fellows. With a referendum due in 2014, Berwick’s claim as the Monaco of the North needs to be shouted loud and proud. As for hens, I managed to pop fertilised eggs under our broody hen who, miraculously, hatched two gorgeously cute chicks. One is now the noisiest cockerel in Berwick.

The chicks. One is now the noisiest cockerel in Berwick

The chicks. One is now the noisiest cockerel in Berwick

The inescapable inability to keep New Year’s resolutions slapped me reproachfully in the face in March. But, happily, so did the beauty of the surrounding countryside as charity and exercise collided in the form of training for the Edinburgh MoonWalk.

Mary Portas fever hit in April as the first-round bid for funding gripped the town. As in so many things in life, success came second time around. Hopefully uniting behind a coherent vision for Berwick will follow seamlessly.

By May training fatigue plagued me as did fury at the amount of litter that people insist on dumping – particularly from cars. June brought a train timetabling rant after a five-hour journey twice took eight hours – I am fearful that East Coast Mainline’s habit of dropping Berwick from key routes to regain time might mark the whittling away of what has been a fantastic London and southeast-bound service.

Will Berwick's train service be whittled away as trains sail straight through on some routes to save precious minutes

Will Berwick’s train service be whittled away as trains sail straight through our station to save precious minutes?

In July, following on from June’s Jubilee and Olympic fervour, I celebrated Berwick’s ability to lay on a jolly good day out. I hoped – and still do – that we might become a renowned town of festivals.

August was a month off for me – but the people of Berwick continued to plan, party and campaign – notably in the march to keep Berwick’s Maternity Unit open.

September: two more festivals! The Food Festival and Film & Media Arts. Plus October’s all-new Frontier Music Festival. All fabulous. All attracting a wide variety of people to Berwick. All back in 2013.

Change and its challenges were hot topics in October – brought on by our own lengthy building works and the many positive plans being hatched for Berwick. Deep down I know we are doing the right thing in updating and modernising our home – but the process is not always easy or without conflict. This, I mused, is a bit like keeping up the momentum for change in Berwick.

I wafted (rather bravely I thought) into windpower in November. Another brave move for me was appearing at the marvellous Maltings in Calendar Girls. Having marched round Edinburgh in my bra for breast cancer, it seemed only fair to walk the boards in – well, not much really – for Leukaemia and Lymphoma research.

I have had a fabulous year in Beautiful Berwick – thank you for letting me share some of it with you. And, as the windmill might say to its sails: ‘What goes round, comes round.’ So, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

(A version of this article was published in the Berwick Advertiser on 6 December 2012)

The rush of rural life

Fast Castle - just one of the wild and wonderful places near Berwick-upon-Tweed

Rural life is so hectic!

Despite being reared in the country I had forgotten the  relentless things to do, see and take part in – every town and village designs its own activities and fetes. Then there are music events, lectures, groups and societies. And, of course, the business of living.

It’s nine months since we moved to Berwick from North London. The Husband finds going back to London increasingly difficult. Even I have felt less need to book up advance trains for every school holiday. This must surely mean we are settling in. Even more radical than that, it means that we really have decided to make Berwick our home. Of course, we will never be locals. I remember my mother explaining to me that although she had lived in Suffolk for 25 years she was still an ‘outsider’!

I look back over these busy months and have to acknowledge that, as we’ve determinedly thrown ourselves into our new home and way of life, the highs have been way up there and the lows have been, well, low.

Our garden has given us enormous pleasure despite its daunting dimensions and landscaping. The installation of our three hens had the whole family in anthropomorphic clucks. We found it so easy to attribute ‘the ladies’ with human characteristics…they ‘enjoyed’ being with us, they ‘chatted’ to us and each other. In short, Nutmeg, Champion and Rose delighted us as they dug the garden, kept us company, ate scraps and, most importantly, produced impossibly luscious eggs.

Rose - later to become 'The Killer Hen'

Rose - later to become 'The Killer Hen'

The first egg

The first egg

I’m growing lettuce, cabbage, basil, coriander, radishes, garlic, tomatoes, peas and sweet peas. The Husband dusted down his tool box and found enormous fulfilment in fashioning a chicken run and a variety of other satisfying manly wooden items for the garden. We barely scratched the surface of such rural pursuits in London. We loathed the idea of pets – the campaign against the resident house mice and urban foxes filled any need for animal contact.

In Berwick, we’ve enjoyed delicious, locally sourced food as fresh as that found in any posh London restaurant. We’ve attended Slow Food events, we have a pig developing nicely over in Foulden at Peelham Farm, we’ve hurrahed the Riding of the Bounds, we’ve attended philosophy lectures, been to the theatre, cinema and art galleries (on our doorstep instead of a tube ride or two away), set out for marvellous walks on our own and with the local bird group, we’ve done a sailing course and we’ve received amazing hospitality, generosity and kindness from so many people. It really makes me smile when I count my Berwick blessings.

A marvellous birdwalk on Holy Island with North Northumberland birdwatching group

Of course, we arrived with our rose-tinted glasses firmly in place. We didn’t worry too much about locking garden sheds. After all, in this local community everyone knows everyone and crime is low, unlike the London area we hail from. We are more careful now after most of the husband’s tools went missing.

When we realised one of our hens had arrived with scaly leg, we regaled our friends with the picture of two inadequate Londoners wrestling
Vaseline onto the legs of said hen. How we all laughed. It was less fun when two of the hens died suddenly and inexplicably. And, when our remaining hen turned into a blood-thirsty hen-pecking murderer after we attempted to introduce a new hen, we were revolted. Our desire to apply human characteristics to our hens did not stretch to accepting power structures, territorial instincts and natural selection. Even if, as a Suffolk farmer I once knew used to say: “Where there’s livestock, there’s deadstock.”

So, the tint of our glasses hasn’t exactly been tarnished but it has cleared a little. Which is probably just as well. We have a lot to learn about our new life. But I don’t want to totally lose the thrill of what is a great adventure. And that seems unlikely as the pace of Berwick living hurtles us into the next new experience.

Garden pleasures

(A version of this article was first published on June 9th 2011 in The Berwick Advertiser

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