I love May. It’s one of the happy months. In the northern hemisphere May heralds the start of warmer weather, longer days and a general feeling of optimism. People stop moaning so much about the weather and focus on the summer ahead. Flowers start blooming, trees come into leaf and B&Q and Home Base do a roaring trade in bedding plants, patio furniture, and lawnmowers. Dusty, rusty, cobwebbed barbeques are dragged out of garden sheds in the hope (especially in the UK) that summer will be a ‘scorcher’. That at every opportunity meals will be cooked outdoors and dining will be ‘al fresco’. Of course it never quite happens like that but the will and the wish is always there. Any spell of good weather in the UK is guaranteed to gladden hearts, bring sales of sausages and burgers (contents most certainly of dubious origin) and sales of Lambrusco and Fosters to an all time high.
But there is another reason that I love May. It was the month that my mother was born in and also of some of my greatest friends. Best of all it’s the birthday month of two of my children. Theo’s birthday is in a few days and this morning I found myself thinking back to the time of his birth 17 years ago next Wednesday. Theo is my youngest and only son. The next sister up, Georgia will be 22 in a couple of weeks.
When I found out I was pregnant I told the doctor that I wanted to have my baby at home. At the time we lived in what our London friends jokingly referred to as ‘rural isolation and obscurity’ in North Yorkshire. Well, they may have been right, it was indeed isolated; a 42-acre small holding in the middle of nowhere perched up in the Yorkshire Dales with just the sound of curlews and the baa-ing of sheep as surround sound. Our local GP was horrified at my suggestion. ‘You can’t have your baby at home Lottie. What if something goes wrong? What if you hemorrhage, it’s much more likely to happen now that you are having your 5th’. ‘You live 25 miles from the nearest hospital if there are any complications you’d have to be airlifted. You’re risking your life and that of your baby. Plus, there is no way that an ambulance could get down your track to the farm’. He was right about that. We’d had a house fire a few years before and one of the fire engines had rolled over on the steep, rugged track and then plummeted down into the beck. The other fire engine had to be towed across 6 fields with a tractor. Our house fire made headline news in the Yorkshire Post and we were the talk of Nidderdale for weeks afterwards.
Despite my GP’s protestations, I had something that I felt that I needed to do. It’s too long a story to write here on this post but I felt I owed a debt to the kindly old man that sold us the farm. Ted Keighley had lived alone on the side of the hill for fifty odd years. Old age and chronic asthma had forced him to put the farm up for sale. Prior to it going to auction I’d been to see the farm a couple of times and to talk to him. As we walked through the meadows Ted recounted his life on the farm and his passion for conservation and organic farming. The house itself was very basic. Concrete floors strewn with rush matting, an old enamel bath tub, and a basic kitchen that hadn’t been up dated since the day it had been put in. ‘No need for a refrigerator’ he said proudly as he opened the pantry door and showed me the cool slate shelf that he’d fitted to keep his milk chilled and vegetables fresh. I fell in love with the farm the minute that I set eyes on it. No matter that there were only 2 bedrooms and a box room for the baby. The idyllic setting, a house nestled on the side of a hill with a stream for our domestic water and ancient woodlands and fields to play in was the perfect place to raise our 4 young children.
The day for the auction came and farmers and property developers from around the dale descended upon the Cattle Market. We went into the packed auction room, which by this stage was standing room only. Our budget was £80,000 not a penny more. Bidding started at £60,000 and soon got up to £120,000. My heart sank; we were out of the game. Then something quite extraordinary happened. The auctioneer stopped. The gavel went down and you could have heard a penny drop. Mr. Keighley had pulled his farm out of the auction.
I left it a couple of days and then summoned up the courage to phone him. He was pleased to hear from me and asked if I’d come round to the farm so that we could speak. We sat in the kitchen and he told me how disappointed he was about the auction, how fearful he was that developers would take it over, sell off the land or that neighbouring farmers would buy the land and then cover it with nitrates. I listened to him and saw his concern etched on his face and in his laboured breathing. I told him the truth, I told him what money we had begged, borrowed and still hoped to find. I told him that £80,000 was all we could spend but that I would keep the farm organic, I would plant lots of trees and hedgerows, that I would mend the stone walls and that he was welcome back anytime to visit and see that I was doing things right. He clutched my arm as I was leaving and said ‘Lottie, I want you to have my farm. I know that you will keep your word, I know that you will love it and care for it as I have’.
A few weeks later we exchanged contracts. It was late November and I was beginning to wonder what winter there would be like with no central heating and just an ancient Aga cooker for warmth. Two weeks before completion we had a phone call from our solicitor. Mr. Keighley had died alone on the farm that he so dearly loved. I knew that he never wanted to leave.
In the months and subsequent years that followed, I’d think about Ted often as I went about the fields and tended the livestock but never more so than on that mid-May morning when I went into labour.
To be continued.