Yesterday, I lost the Eight Years’ War, in which, against overwhelming odds, I had doggedly fended off the suggestion that we should add equines of some sort to our vast and ever expanding menagerie. Horses. Ponies. Shetlands. Mules. Fallabellas. You name it, if it has four legs, a mane, hooves, and a face like a horse, then it’s been on the list. The blandishments have been many and inventive. I’ve been offered things I couldn’t possibly mention in a family publication if only we could just find room for these adorable little miniature horses or whatever.
But then George and Buttons arrived. Donkeys. About 4’ high at what I now know as the withers. Very charming looking chaps, with a stentorian bellow that echoes round the valley, and bottomless appetites for grass and carrots.
I have to say I can see the attraction, although I remain nervous around them – never have liked horses. Judging from the flood of responses to Sarah’s tweets and facebooking, most of the western world is aware that we now have donkeys, and what a wonderful thing it is we’ve done.
So I suppose I just have to share in some of the glory. My contribution is to have the most luxurious stable a donkey has ever owned built at the bottom of their field.
It turns out of course that there is a complication. There just had to be one. They are both what us equine owners call ‘intact’. And when a donkey’s intact you certainly know about it. Testicles like cannon balls, and a todger that brings sharply to life the phrase ‘hung like a donkey’. Unfortunately, the advice is that all this will have to change or we will have problems. I am pleased to say that this is Mrs B’s job not mine. I don’t mean she actually has to get down on her hands and knees with a scalpel and perform the operation herself (although with her obsession with all things veterinary it wouldn’t surprise me if she did), but it is nonetheless a complicated (and expensive) process.
Still – there is one upside. I won’t have to pay to have their 10 acre field harvested because their appetite for grass is monumental. And they seem to do a good job of hedge trimming too!
Hollywood A-listers would be envious of our life-style. Really. Get up. Feed the animals. Walk the dogs. Grumble about the weather. Charter an aircraft. Go to France for lunch. Get pissed. Fly back. Go straight to the pub. Get more pissed. Amaze the locals. Go home. Fall over. That’s us – mixing the best of the rural idyll with a truly Gatsbyesque approach to life.
And that’s what we did the other week. Lydd Airport – international aviation hub with acres of fabulous duty free shopping (acres of soggy grassland covered in damp sheep); a delicious breakfast in the executive lounge (instant coffee and a biscuit at the Caff presided over by Ena Sharples); boarding our executive jet with fully stocked drinks cupboard and on-board service (clambering through the broken door of a 35 year old Islander and cramming ourselves into seats with the foam stuffing bulging out of the edges); soaring into the cloudless sky, the soft purr of the Rolls Royce jets in the background (being jerked sickeningly sideways through a 40mph cross wind to the extraordinary height of 1,000 feet completely blanketed in cloud then thrown across the Channel with the windows banging open); a kiss sweet touch-down, into a private hangar and VIP fast track exit to a waiting limo, (slamming onto the ground so our breakfast landed later, screeching to a halt and falling onto the tarmac – most of us kissed it, walking dizzily through the horizontal rain into a deserted terminal with no cabs waiting).
And then to lunch at the Dunes au Loup – which was, genuinely, fabulous. Actually the flight was good fun too. I got to be co-pilot. Algy to the real pilot James’s Biggles.
The return trip was ‘such fun’ mainly because everyone had made a Herculean attempt to sample most of the restaurant’s copious cellar. And so was formed the Beckley Extreme Lunch, Conviviality, Humorous Entertainment, and Rudeness Society (BELCHERS). So stick that up your Beluga caviar, Cohiba cigar, Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne – George, Matt, Brad and Cate (the last A listers to visit the area). Beckley rocks!
If, 10 years ago, you had told me I would feel sad at the departure of a chicken, I wouldn’t have even thought it particularly funny. I might have thought you needed help. But here I am, mourning the removal of Mike as though my child had left home. Which, in a way, she has. (Mike is a girl, as you may know, but chicken naming is an imprecise art and no domesticated fowl should remain nameless until you can tell if they’re male or female. This would be like waiting to decide names for your children when they reach 16).
Two days ago, Mike moved out. Yes, she packed her water bowl, her bag of corn, tin whistle, train set, comfort blanket – well, maybe just the water bowl – and moved outside.
As an experienced chicken psychologist, I can tell you that if you were born motherless in a warm box, grew up in a cosy conservatory with lots of wood shavings, a heat lamp, and regular food, and the only other animals you had ever seen were a tortoise and a human hand, then the outside world is one hell of a shock. Think of the rush of unknown sensations: water dropping from the sky on your feathers; green stuff under your claws; the air suddenly really cold. And above all – the absence of your ‘brother’ the tortoise (if you’re a chicken who grew up with one then you firmly believe that you’re a tortoise too). Instead you find several really odd looking things with feathers, beaks and clawed feet that are far taller than your ‘brother’. And they move a lot faster. What’s worse, you don’t know anything about this until you wake up one morning stuck in a coop with these creatures because somehow, while you were soporific and sleepy the night before, someone moved you.
Given this trauma – I think you’d probably choose to stay in your hut for two days, and refuse to eat or drink. This is exactly what Mike did.
Her only comfort was that a couple of times a day, The Hand arrived and gave her a stroke. It brought chick crumb too, so she ate that. No sign of her low level brother though. Gone. For ever. You’d consider calling it a day and just lying down till it all ended wouldn’t you?
I’m glad to say Mike is made of sterner stuff. She’s emerged from the coop, and pecks about – and has slowly come to terms with the weird creatures she lives with now. The Hand is still a comfort from time to time. She’s discovered there are quite interesting things under her claws – grit, worms, grass.
I think Tonka’s quite pleased that his feathery friend has moved on. Sarah has tried to convince me that my chicken-parenting job is now done and Mike has successfully been re-chickenised after her Testudineous start to life. But I remain bereft.
Two weeks ago the Met Office, terrified of a repeat of 1987, exploded into the media. Seven days ahead of the hurricane. Not unlike a hurricane themselves, they blew us away with gusts of satellite images of Atlantic storms vortexing towards us; earnest, school boyish forecasters found themselves headline news and expelled torrents of hot air about isobars, low pressure, floods and fallen trees. Miraculously they were right. And we were prepared.
I spent Sunday lashing down everything on the farm that might wobble in a breeze. Compost loos were strapped to steel poles driven five feet into the earth; glamping cottages were propped with 12 foot chestnut stakes; canvas shelter covers were nailed down. We sent all our glampers home a night early, telling them the roads would be awful in the morning (and not that we didn’t want to find them crushed under a tree). We spent the night wide awake listening as the wind crescendoed around the house. Mrs B was so worried that the giant oak outside our bedroom would topple onto us she moved into another room. Being a Man, I stayed put. I noticed she didn’t overdo the ‘why don’t you come with me?’ entreaty.
At 6 in the morning, I went on a tour of the farm, walking at the unusual angle of 45 degrees to the ground. I swelled with pride as I saw all my roping and lashing had worked. Not a single compost loo had tipped. No logfired shower had crashed to the ground. All the cottages were still upright. Even the roof shingles were still in place (can’t claim credit for that).
I was comforted to see that two trees had hit the deck – no point in having a hurricane if you don’t lose some trees. And relieved too to see the goats were still alive despite the fact that their entire shelter – all 30 feet and one ton of it – had been plucked from the ground and thrown over a hedge. Must have been a hell of a surprise for the goats.
Exuding the sort of masculine composure that only a man at one with nature can command, I strolled back into the house. ‘All fine’ I said. ‘Couple of trees knocked over. Goats OK but house gone. Nothing to worry about.’
‘I’ve got netball in ten minutes’ said Mrs B. ‘You need to feed the animals. Why didn’t you rope down the chicken huts? They might have been killed. Are my baby goats OK? They must have been terrified. The rubbish bins are all over the ground. We need some milk and we’ve run out of pig food. I’ll be back at 11. Bye.’
This is Mike. He lives in our conservatory with his mate Tonka the tortoise, of whom you have read. Mike moves pretty fast when he spots Tonka’s food. Tonka puts on a remarkable burst of speed to counter Mike’s thievery. Tonka is not interested in Mike’s food but he quite likes Mike’s heat lamp and climbs into his pen to bask in it.
Mike arrived here as an egg in the traditional way, except that his mother abandoned him before he was hatched. She was sitting on 25 eggs, three hatched and that was enough for her, she got bored waiting for the rest. So the remaining 22 – including Mike – went into an incubator but only Mike made it out (clearly Nigel the cockerel isn’t particularly effective in his work).
Mike is my friend. I spend a lot of time with him – and Tonka – and he thinks my hand is his mother because that’s the first thing he saw. He hates my feet, and attacks my trousers, but my hand is, to him, the soft, warm, downy breast of his Mum. So I stroke him on the chest, and tickle his chin, and feed him. Now that he’s old enough to be interested in his cell mate, I often have to feed them at the same time. This is a challenge because Tonka eats a sort of porridge made of grass, and dandelions. Mike likes both so I have to hold Mike at bay while I drip porridge into Tonka’s mouth, then put a foot on Tonka while I feed Mike. I always knew bringing up two children of my own would come in handy.
Meanwhile the subject of quadrupeds has re-emerged. Alarmingly, two donkeys are moving into a field opposite us, temporarily, because they need re-homing. My chances of holding out against this unnecessarily provocative temptation are nil. They will be heart warmingly cuddly. They probably have a notice round their necks saying ‘Sarah, please adopt us poor orphan donkeys with no-one to love.’ I will be spending my winter building field shelters for them. And then I’m moving into the conservatory with Mike and Tonka.