Yesterday evening my daughter Annie sent me an email. ‘Mummy, where is the post that you wrote about Gillbeck?’ For a moment I couldn’t think what she was talking about. I’ve touched briefly on the farm where we once lived, when I wrote the posts ‘Why I shall never eat Babi Guling Part One’ and ‘Driving the Vicar’ but I couldn’t remember doing an entire post on it. Then I remembered – I wrote just one post called Middle Tongue Bank on Blogger last year a few months before Irishman and I moved out to Jakarta.
I’d totally forgotten that I’d written it until Annie reminded me. She missed me yesterday, as I miss her and her brother and sisters everyday, and I guess sometimes we all like to re-visit places where we were happy and life was good. For all of us as a family, Gillbeck farm in Middle Tongue Bank, Pateley Bridge. North Yorkshire, was a special time in our lives. Annie suggested that I post this on my blog. It has nothing to do with Indonesia but it was somewhere where we lived for 5 years and where Theo was born, and if it makes Annie happy to read it again, then I am very touched and I hope that you enjoy it too. (Annie, I’ve tidied it up a bit. Hope you like the picture of the house burner? I drew it very quickly just now with Tom or is it Sam? asleep on the sofa. Mummy xxxxx)
Wednesday, 18 May 2011
Middle Tongue Bank
Clearing out boxes this morning I found some old notebooks. In one of them was this short piece that I think I must have written about 6 years ago. Middle Tongue Bank was a place that I lived with my first husband and our 5 young children. That was 19 years ago, for the last 10 years I have been living in London – a far cry from the world that I write about here. I don’t think I shall be writing anything in this vein again but like Janus I am casting my eye back on the past whilst standing on the threshold of the new and exciting times ahead.
The arrival of the curlews in early March heralded the start of spring and the promise that the long winter would soon be over in the hills. Their shrill cry, a haunting crescendo, would echo from the moor tops down to the ghyll, breaking the eerie silence that blanketed the valley at that time of year. (I met a man a few years later who told me that when he heard that first call, the hairs on the back of his neck would stand up)
Despite the curlew’s arrival, spring still liked to take its time and seemed in no rush to paint the fields and trees with it’s palette of verdant hues. Although the trees had buds, they did not generally burst into leaf until early or even mid-May some years. On February 14th, I found the first of the six geese laying, her careless nest made in the middle of compost heap at the bottom of the garden.
After the cruel March winds and the last of the snow had left, the month of April was busy with the lambing of 40 ewes. The spring equinox meant that the short winter days were at last behind us and in between showers, bursts of sunlight poured through the clouds that skudded across the moors, giving an ethereal glow to the landscape, and picking up the rich greens, purples and browns of the moors and hills.
The sun was higher now and the windows at the back of the house at last let in the light that had been denied them for nearly half a year as it flooded in and cast its beams across the kitchen, specks of dust dancing in the pools of light.
Our farmhouse was built into the side of the hill, an old stone traditionally built Dales longhouse, part house part barn. Massive thick stone exterior walls, and modestly sized simple rooms with low wooden beamed ceilings, stone floors worn by generations of inhabitants and small deep set windows designed to keep out the chill – they were perfect for growing potted geraniums all year round. The height of the windows at the back of the house, set into the steep gradient of the field directly behind, meant that they were low enough that I could eyeball the sheep or see the cows legs as I did the washing up at the kitchen sink or be watched by an inquisitive goat whilst having a bath.
Directly in front of the house there was a yard flanked by sheds, and an old stone barn used for housing the tractor with a hay store above. The yard dropped steeply down into a small, wild garden of sorts, where gooseberries and currants grew in the summer and where the chickens scratched around and laid their eggs in the nettles. Beyond the garden there was an ancient wooded valley (gifted by the previous owner to the Woodland Trust) through which the beck ran, and where our water supply was pumped up to the house by a cranky old generator. The children had made a path through the woods as a shortcut up to the road at the top, and after breakfast they would gather up their bags and school books and disappear down the rutted farm track, and into the woods. I could hear them but I couldn’t see them until they came out the other side, their little figures scampering up the steep path to the roadside to wait for the school bus. We had no TV in those days so the woods and the fields and farm animals were their entertainment. They had special names for some of the trees and they made up stories about the fairies who inhabited them. Black tooth was a hideous and wicked fairy who lived in the woods. She was the arch enemy of the tooth fairy and woe betide anyone who should cross her path. For some time I think they lived in mortal fear of her. She certainly encouraged them to clean their teeth. Having concerns about them wandering too far whilst I was occupied with other things, allowed I invented a character called Ominous, a weird fellow who lived in a cave in the woods. Thanks to Ominous and Black tooth my children never came to any harm during their years on the farm and I believe that their lives were enriched by outdoor living and learning to use their imaginations instead of a diet of TV and other stuff that inevitably we succumbed too in the end.
Hundreds of years before we lived at Gillbeck farm, the monks from Fountains Abbey (some 15 miles away to the east) would shepherd their sheep through this valley at the end of each spring, and walk them up to the summer grazing on the high pastureland. I’m sure I sometimes felt their presence as I trod the winding path that led up to the road to collect the post from the battered box in the shed.
Behind the house the fields rose steadily upwards towards Greenhow Hill. The grazing was poor by lowland standards but perfect for the Swaledales and Dalesbred sheep that I kept at the time. Stone walls divided the land from our neighbours and ancient hedgerows beaten by the wind grew knarled and twisted offering poor protection from the rain that drove hard from the west or the snow from the north-east. We eventually managed to get a grant and over time planted 1,500 hedge plants and young trees to help conserve the land for future generations.
When early May came round and the fields where rested, fertilized and rolled after the hard winter frosts, the new sweet grass and herbs had grown long enough to welcome the cattle from their long winter housing in the barn. The open barn doors set them free at last, and they kicked and bucked, as they stampeded across the yard to the other side of the farm, mooing madly, tails in the air they galloped across the yard and up to the meadow, scaring the geese as they passed the pond, nostrils flared with anticipation and excitement. It always took them at least half an hour to settle down into their new environment but it was one of my great joys to watch their pleasure as they felt the sun on their backs once again, and their long tongues pull hungrily at the new grass.
There were always jobs to be done on the farm and as the livestock grew so my days took on a different form. With the cows outside again there were still the pigs and piglets to attend to and 8 goats to be milked morning and night, their kids to be bottle-fed. Bread and cheese to be made, eggs to be collected, the now feral bantams laying them in corners of the barn or under clumps of nettles, whilst the chickens laid their brown speckled eggs on tidy golden straw nests in the coop. They followed their daily egg laying with an enchanting unison of clucking, their call to signal that their hard mornings work had been done. Even though lambing was over, I still walked the fields morning and evening to check all was well and in the early evening, as I walked back down towards the house I could hear the distant laughter of the children playing on the hay bales in the barn, and the goats plaintive bleating in their pens waiting to be milked and I felt truly blessed and happy.
16 Feb 2012 – The curlew is the largest European wading bird, instantly recognisable on winter estuaries or summer moors with its long down-curved bill, …
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I shan’t be gone long. — You come too.
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I shan’t be gone long. — You come too.