ON EXPERTISE AND CRAFTSMANSHIP


I am reading Mark Norman’s thought-provoking book on Folklore; ‘Telling the Bees – and other customs – The Folklore of Rural Crafts – The History Press’. There is much to think about stemming from this book not only during our current locked down state, but in normal times and throughout history.


I am privileged to live in a house that was for many generations a working hill farm on Brendon Hill, the eastern edge of Exmoor. From the local 1841 National Census the Coles family were farming here and by the 1891 census a branch of the Vellacott family worked this land. Later, in the nineteen-sixties, the farm was sold by Dickie, known as ‘Two Shovels’ Vellacott, its land amalgamated with neighbouring holdings, the house left in other ownership retaining a few acres.

We find much evidence here of yesterday’s crafts, often lying where they fell, pieces showing a blacksmith’s skill at the forge – gate fittings, door latches and other pieces – all beaten out from a single piece of iron, not to mention many horseshoes and items that had once been part of ancient agricultural machines. These items bear current witness to the skill of craftsmen long departed.


An interesting fact seen in local Victorian census returns is the growth and decline of the population brought on by the opening and later closing of the adjacent Iron Mines and the rail connection to export iron ore off the hill through Watchet harbour to South Wales. In 1861 there were 164 residents living hereabouts in 29 dwellings, in 1881 there were 262 residents in 52 dwellings, but in 1891 only 111 residents in 22 dwellings. Of interest in the1881 return there were many Cornish names recorded as miners on the Withiel Florey census returns.


In the 1990s I was at an agricultural sale and, on impulse, bought a farm cart, a single axle Somerset Tipping Putt. It was made by the Thurloxton village wheelwright Jim Porter, evidenced by his name still visible on the backboard. In the 1950s our family lived in the then late wheelwright’s cottage, hence my impulse to buy the cart. All the timber work, including the tall iron-bound wooden wheels, were made by Jim Porter while the metal fittings, there were many, were made by Walter Winslade the nearby Shearston village blacksmith. After the sale I spoke with Percy Adams in his nineties who as a teenager had taken his working horse from his farm near Bridgwater to collect the cart on the day of the Armistice in 1918. After its working farm life of more than seventy years the cart was still in sound condition in its original, but faded, paintwork, maybe the odd floor board replaced, a testament to the skill of those two rural craftsmen. After a further twenty-five years idle parked up in a barn here, the cart went back to Thurloxton to be owned by the village marking the centenary of the Great War Armistice and of the cart on 11th November 2018.


As well as rural crafts Mark Norman’s book speaks of the folklore of bees. A few years back we had a swarm visit us unannounced until I noticed the steady traffic in and out of an enclosed compost frame. Lifting the lid, a superb wax ‘home’ was revealed, the size of half a rugger ball fixed to the bin lid, a wonderful piece of architecture its hexagonal cell wax lacework ball evidence of the bees’ craft over millennia. Later a local beekeeper collected the swarm in a hive-sized basket.


A joy we have had this spring into summer has been the return of ‘our’ house martins. These small birds are, in the main, the ones that have bred here in the last couple of seasons. Since then they have travelled down into Africa and returned to the precise place of their hatching. As soon as they were back, they set about repairing, or in two cases building anew, their superb rounded nests under the house eaves, craftsmanship of the highest order. In the spring drought it was hard to see where they were getting the mud to fashion their nests, but after one or two false starts the rains came and they succeeded. Since then they have laid eggs, now hatched and are forever feeding their next generation. These birds represent just one of the animal kingdom’s superb craft working skills, one that humans ignore at our peril as we exploit the riches of our planet and the universe beyond.


Thank you, Mark Norman for a fascinating book and inspiring these few thoughts.

https://thefolklorepodcast.weebly.com


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ISOLATION

Throughout the world people are attempting to isolate themselves and their families from the pandemic winding its deadly fingers through Twenty-first Century civilization. At the same time, in all countries, dedicated health professionals strive to repel the wretched consequences of Covid 19, often at great risk to themselves.
At 20hrs 45min and 30secs BST tonight, 29th March 2020, I reckon the International Space Station will be passing some 420 km overhead my house here on Exmoor in a just south of easterly direction. I’ve watched the ISS a few times this week, a shining bead of light traversing the sky in the last week’s clear nights. ( http://www.heavens-above.com ).
I don’t know how many or who are aboard at this time, but as our nation and the world population adjust to our isolation circumstance, the ISS crew are living their exalted isolation, a life they have trained for over years. They have one great asset, they can look out from their temporary home and see the world passing by beneath their flight, the same fascinating world as the Space Station has been looking down on for years.
Maybe there will be a subtle difference for the astronauts / cosmonauts at this time, less pollution in Earth’s atmosphere, less jet planes circling the globe, even if they can make it out, less movement in the cities, maybe less illumination in the nights they watch below their course.
Perhaps their isolation is a better set of circumstance than are those of their fellows they left behind for the duration of their voyage.

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DRAGONFLY

A delight of summertime is to see Dragonflies. They come in many sizes and colours. They are predators, hunting flies as they zip around in their summer mating dance. IMG_2116Most of their life cycle is under water, in some species for months, others it could be as long as five years. Climbing out of the water up a reed or anyother convenient growth, they moult into their impressive, often colourful, adult form, they pursue their adult purpose at speed, out helicoptering any man made flying machines with their incredible flying techniques beaten out with their twin sets of wings for their months-long adult life.IMG_2115

After the past days of heavy rain and with the day time temperatures falling I had not expected to see any dragonflies this past week, but this chap landed on a garden table as I was passing this morning, hoping to gain something from a brief burst of sunlight when the storm had passed.

Size varies, but is usually measured in inches. Yet there is some evidence in fossils that long ago, maybe 300 to 350 million years ago, there were huge dragonflies on earth with wingspans of thirty inches.

I like to think such giants might still lurk somewhere in the world today, in a jungle, far, far away. Or maybe closer to home!

I wrote a flash fiction piece recently, letting my imagination wander. Here it is.

 

DRAGONFLY

Old Marcus has fished the river since he was a boy; experts and beginners alike seek out his wisdom on his home stretch of water. Day after day on afternoons he sits in his ancient canvas chair, on the river bank close by the last of the rotting timbers that had, in his father’s time, been the supports of a landing stage.

In late summer months he delights to watch dragonfly nymphs emerge from the water, climbing from their watery existence to moult into glorious aviators, sun-warmed, helicoptering over the riverbank into their brief flying lives.

Marcus blinks as something huge emerges from the water, heaving its bulk out of the river, climbing up the wreck of the old landing stage. A living thing larger than he’d ever seen emerge from the river.

As he watches the unbelievable nymph moults into the greatest dragonfly any man could witness. Sunshine warms its metallic blue body extending to the length of a walking stick, its twin pair of wings unfurling to the span of a grown man’s arms.

Hours pass before, with a wing beating purr of a tiger, the immense dragonfly lifts off from the timbers, pauses, circles round, then sweeps away from Marcus’s sight down river toward the village.

Marcus mutters in awe, ‘who will ever believe me that such a wonder exists, and on this stretch of our home water?’

 

Enjoy.

 

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GOLD BLOCK

In one of my infrequent episodes of tidying-up, a small round tin emerged, resisting any immediate attempt to reveal the contents within. A pipe tobacco tin from the 1950s, a remaining link to my father who for a few years after his return from War service smoked a pipe. Despite the censure in later years there was something welcoming to be greeted on returning home to the scent of pipe smoke.

In later years my father gave up smoking, as he also gave up his pre-war twice weekly fox hunting having been captured by the German army, made his escape, found his way to the Dunkirk beaches, only for his rescuing paddle steamer to be bombed mid channel and to be rescued again by the French navy as he swam, naked and determined, toward the English shore. He understood the terror of the hunted pursued by the many.

Despite regular endeavours over the next twenty-four hours, the tobacco tin was reluctant to reveal its contents. It was certain something was inside. Shaking the tin gave a sound intriguing enough to resist throwing the unopened tin away. I was sure this pipe tobacco tin was not the one my father had sent back from Italy when Mt.Vesuvius erupted in 1944, a massive and its most recent eruption. That other tin contained lava dust from the volcano; we still have it on a shelf somewhere.

It was obvious the Gold Block – 2 oz, net of Fine Virginia Cut Plug – tin opened by twisting the lid from its base. Hand pressure was resisted, hot water on the lid made no difference, tapping all round the tin was to no avail, rubber and leather gloves brought no success. The final resort on D+1 was WD40 in the knowledge the oil might contaminate the contents.

Five minutes later the tin was open and the contents unharmed. Inside was a supply of decades old small stationery labels, each with its string attached ready to identify keys and other like objects.

It struck me then how apt the legend on the tin was. I have been distracted of late from my work-in-progress, flitting, and hesitating, between one part-written novel and another, between – The Register of Joe’s Trees – set in the 1940s and ensuing decades, to another, with the working title – Exmoor Puffball – set in the twenty-tens here on Exmoor; yes, Puffball has been on the stocks for months, if not years.

In front of me was this wake-up call: GOLD BLOCK, to bring me back to measured and directed work. Further it was a tin full of labels as if each one was crying out to be a prompt to measure and inspire the pace of my writing.

 

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PLOUGH SHEARS, PRUNING HOOKS AND NOTEBOOKS

Amongst the many joys of living in a house that was once the heart of an Exmoor hill farm, isolated and self-sufficient, are the unexpected things from a bygone age that turn up on occasion.

Over a long period, for many months the ground was too wet to get the big digger onto the site, we have re-worked our ‘top pond’. Over the years it had silted up with the run-off from the road blocking incoming field drains. IMG_1982Once the digger had done its work, I have been preparing the surrounding ground using the Quad to pull my small harrow, clocking up five miles round and round the pond, to work the bare, IMG_1968and dusty, earth for wildflower seeding. As a consequence a huge number of stones have been brought to the surface. I have collected a trailer load – where are those stone-picking Victorian school children when you need them?

One of the ‘stones’ I collected was triangular in shape. On closer examination after chipping away the dense earth attached, it turned out to be a long-lost, surely Victorian, iron plough shear. On another occasion, we found the closing hook from an old broken-down gate lying half buried, a prime example of the local blacksmith’s work, beaten out from a single length of metal. IMG_1969Also, still fitted on a larder door, there was a metal latch hand made on an anvil, as were the many horseshoes we’ve unearthed. The ‘pruning hook’, perhaps more a sickle, IMG_1976was my father’s and dates from the 1930s bearing his initials, PGT, burned onto the handle as he did with many of his working tools.

All these things tell a story, each is their own notebook, the equivalent of the notebooks all writers must have with them as they go about their day, noting down maybe only a word, a single sentence or more, that one day can be worked into a piece of writing. IMG_1973Over the years the notebooks accumulate, their jottings within being a seedbed of ideas for writing, maybe only a paragraph of fiction, or memorabilia, perhaps a verse of poetry. And some of those notebook seedlings will later prosper as the trigger of a short story, a novel or a script.

 

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WORLD POETRY DAY

Today is World Poetry Day; while many established poets will be honoured and celebrating, I thought there would be no harm in joining in, but I make no claim to have skill as a poet.

A SWALLOW IN MY HAND

Today I had a swallow in my hand,

its silky sheen of blue and black

within my grasp. Just one from out the band

of fledgling chicks, gape-fed, still hanging back

to crouch beside their nest across the beam.

A day went past before they launched and flew

save one small bird, dropped from their team,

to press against the window pane, not through

to sky, but tangled in the spider’s den.

I heard the noise and took it to the light

a while it sat upon my hand and then

was gone, at first uncertain shaky flight,

but next in wheeling arcs it soared away

its sweeping flight my huge reward today.

 

DARK BRENDON NIGHT 

Dark Brendon night, see lights shine out from sheds

where panting ewes and standing cows bide time

and through the night, tired souls get up from beds

and go again to watch their stock. Hours chime,

they wish themselves asleep some more and yet

seek out first signs of life to come; they wait

to ease the way with skill or call the vet

if trouble shows and problem signs dictate,

till bleating lambs and rasping licks relieve

concern and nursing dams bring young to suck.

The dawning sky creeps in the day to weave

as skipping legs and wagging tails will buck

about their pen.   The school bus comes uphill

to take the kids to class against their will.

 

I live on Brendon Hill, the eastern edge of Exmoor, UK.

 

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SILENCE

Erling Kagge is a Norwegian Philosopher, Lawyer and Explorer who has trekked to the North and South Poles, also climbing Everest to complete the ‘Three Poles’ challenge. His book Silence is being read on BBC4 at 09.45 in the mornings this week. The book expounds the concept that Silence is fundamental to our existence.

In the book he is quoted as saying getting to the South Pole is a matter of putting one foot in front of the other until you get there.

That seems to me to be akin to writing a novel – the technique of putting one word in front of another until you get ‘there’.

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POEMS

There has been much said of late of a renewed interest in new published poetry. I live in West Somerset on Brendon Hill, the East flank of Exmoor. This is farming country, in the main beef and sheep lands.  In the next few, late winter early spring, months there will be round the clock activity in calving and lambing sheds.

After a few nights in the sheds years back I wrote a piece, which after many edits emerged in Sonnet form as Dark Brendon Night.

 

DARK BRENDON NIGHT

 

Dark Brendon night, see lights shine out from sheds

where panting ewes and standing cows bide time

and through the night, tired souls get up from beds

and go again to watch their stock. Hours chime,

they wish themselves asleep some more and yet

seek out first signs of life to come; they wait

to ease the way with skill or call the vet

if trouble shows and problem signs dictate,

till bleating lambs and rasping licks relieve

concern and nursing dams bring young to suck.

The dawning sky creeps in the day to weave

as skipping legs and wagging tails will buck

about their pen.   The school bus comes uphill

to take the kids to class against their will.

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A SOMERSET TIPPING PUTT

The GTX of its day, this farm cart, a one horse Somerset Tipping Putt, worked on a single farm, Horsey Farm, Bridgwater for some seventy-five years. It was sold in the Farm Sale in the early 1990s and has rested in an Exmoor barn for over two decades.

The day I bought it I was told by its farmer owner Percy Adams, then in his nineties, that as a seventeen year old he had walked his horse from his farm to the village of Thurloxton to take delivery of the Putt from its maker, the wheelwright Jim Porter. As his horse settled into the shafts St Giles Church bells rang out to celebrate the Armistice, Monday the eleventh of November in 1918.

This week the Putt has returned to Thurloxton, the place where it was built, to be held in Village Ownership and to be part of the village’s Armistice Centenary Exhibition in November.

The Putt shows some scars from its years of farm work, but the inherent strength of its design and its fitness for purpose, still in its original, now somewhat faded, paintwork, is witness to the skill of yesterday’s craftsmen – Jim Porter, the wheelwright and Walter Winslade, the blacksmith who made all the ironwork fittings.

 

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TREE DOWN

We have seen all weathers since the Autumn Equinox last weekend, First the storm brought down a Rowan Tree, 20180926_082842not the biggest, but one we planted some twenty-one years ago as a six-foot sapling. We hope to reset the root and a foot or so of its trunk so that we have a coppiced tree and there are already two four foot growths from the last two summers looking set to prosper. Slices of the trunk will make good wooden painting boards.

 

 

Last December we had to coppice a sweet chestnut tree growing in our woodland, too tall under the power lines. Ten months on its summer growth is spectacular. It will have to be a regular coppice!

20180926_08404620171205_121724

The woodland, planted in 2009, is making good progress. Mowing the paths is ever more difficult, further trimming of side shoots will be on the agenda this winter.20180815_115334Then during the week we have had cold nights and hot cloudless days, a temperature range of some twenty degrees C, from 1C to 21C on still days. During the week the nights have lengthened by about half an hour as a full moon from a cloudless sky has ‘lit’ the scene.

The swallows have gone on their journey South and in the early morning we heard the first ‘roar’ of a rutting red deer stag down the valley. Every day we have been treated to large squadrons of  geese overflying us. Their base is at Wimblball Lake, but where they go, back and forth, we don’t know, is it to graze local fields or do they go down to the coastal plain either the North Somerset shore or the South Welsh shore?

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