I am, by nature, a little bit of a list maker so, on arrival at Stow at the commencement of our social distancing, I began. I managed to list twelve things to do of varying duration, complexity, cost and creative content. The priority, it seemed to me, was to plan ahead with regard providing food for ourselves on the assumption that things might get worse, an assumption reinforced by the then daily anxious pronouncements of our Prime Minister and the news from Italy, Iran and Spain.
The gardening year starts for me on or about 21st March which is the vernal equinox and potato planting time. However, this year I began more seriously than ever: digging over my vegetable plot and bring more of it into use. I also surveyed my seed tin. In some ways this did seem like moving the deck chairs of the Titanic since the immediate problem was empty shelves in supermarkets created by the irrational but increasingly hysterical hoarding hordes. But there was little that I could do about that - except join in! Hence I was taking the long term view: I ordered more seeds. Of course there are some foods that you cannot grow in the garden particularly meat and eggs, and so I added sheep and chickens to my action list.
Margaret was not keen on the sheep idea, partly because she doesn’t like the meat but, I suspect, more likely that she did not savour the thought of the wooly ones eating her carefully planted wild flowers – sheep are however still on my list. On the other hand she was delighted with the prospect of keeping chickens, she wanted them anyway. This is of course déjà vu for us. In our smallholding days we kept many things including: sheep, pigs, goats, chickens, geese and peacocks: the sheep and the peacocks were the least successful.
So, chickens topped sheep and I set to. First, I thought, better get a chicken coop and a run to go with it. No good getting birds if they have nowhere to live. So I advertised locally, but got no response and began searching the web. The coops advertised were too small, too expensive or already sold. I began to panic, if coops are in short supply, what about the chickens themselves?
I think that as you read this blog during the current crisis you might think us a little uncaring and petty. I was beginning to feel that myself, was I doing my bit? I had offered to work from home for Samaritans, but the rules do not allow that (so far) so I then offered my services as a trained listener to the RVS who are handling the spectacular tsunami of NHS volunteers, but have heard nothing back as yet. I also laid some vegetables on my ageing neighbour’s doorstep and she phoned her thanks – from a distance.
But, back to the chickens. On the morning of Sunday 22nd March I began searching the web for chickens - coop or no coop. I called a number of local dealers and began to panic. People had already begun to hoard point-of-lay pullets it seemed. One lady from Gloucester sounded very tired, but kind. “I’m expecting some Golden Comets on Tuesday afternoon, but it’s first come first served and I’ve no idea of price”. Most of those I called had sold out and had no idea when or if more would be delivered. Then, at lunch time, I struck lucky. I called Cotswold Chickens and a very distracted lady shouted down the phone.”We’ve just had a delivery of 200 and there are ten cars waiting already.” The line then went dead.
I’m not sure that Iverley House has ever seen such a rush. We were falling over each other searching for a cardboard box, money, keys, and coats and were out of the door and into the mini in no time: lunch entirely forgotten. As I sped north up the Foss Way we both giggled, this was rather fun. When we arrived the car park was full, no room for a mini amongst the Range Rovers and such, but an ample lady walked over and gave us a torn off piece of paper with the number 34 on it and said that someone would be leaving soon and we could park and wait in the car. Thirty-four! There were only ten waiting when I called a half-hour before! Would we get our birds? Panic had abated a little now that we were at least in the queue, though any concern about price or breed had flown out of the car window. We were desperate for chickens.
The ample lady occasionally wandered over to a car whose number was up and they were led to a hut around the corner. Ten minutes later they walked proudly back with their chickens: one person had three boxes of them: a real chicken hoarder! If she had peered through our windscreen our look of disgust would have persuaded her to give one box to us – or not, probably not.
After nearly two hours our number 34 was reached and we were so grateful. There were still about twenty hybrids left and we chose a black, a white and two pretty greys, paid £20 each (a lot) and bought up what little was left of the food plus a chicken drinker. We had made it. We had chickens, but where were they to live? In the kitchen?