Tuesday 26 March 2019

Spring in England

My hands hurt. In the past I have complained about this because I was working with stone in Spain, but this year we are staying in England for spring and my hands hurt because I have been working with stone in England.

For me spring begins on the 21st March. That’s potato planting day for those of us who plant potatoes. Years ago, when we had our little farm, I’d couple up the potato planter to the old Grey Ferguson tractor, empty a load of seed potatoes into the hopper, sit a child on each side to put the seed potatoes one-by-one into the chutes and tow the jolly lot along a newly ploughed bed. Nowadays I do it by hand, alone. In those old days I always planted loads of that old favourite Desiree: this year I put in just three short rows of Casablanca, an early variety which is new to me. I also planted carrot seed together with onions, leeks, parsnips and broad beans. The process of germination which I have now set in train for the umpteenth year still fascinates me, as does the complex workings of photosynthesis which will power the seedlings (hopefully) into productivity. For now my job there is done. I left it to the brilliant sunshine and the moisture in the soil to awaken the dry, seemingly inert, seeds.

I then moved on to the real challenge of my week: rebuilding a section of collapsed dry stone wall at the road end of our field in Stow on the Wold. Most people love to see Cotswold stone walls deliniatiating the landscape, but for me they evince mixed feeling.  From a distance I too think that they are lovely, but close up I view them more critically: do they have the right taper, what sort of stone was used in their making, was ungiving and untraditional mortar used to set the headers, were faults introduced between the layers? It’s not that I am an expert, far from it, but I know enough to be aware of the things that I do incorrectly.

Almost done

Don’t be inclined to romanticise the role of that lone and lonely stone laying man working away at the roadside (yet to see a woman doing it so far, but why not). It may seem like a work of art, but it is actually mind bendingly boring and frustrating work. The idea is never to cut a stone to shape. In Spain during the years I spent building my little caseta I spent some time searching for the right stone to fit the next space followed by quite a lot of cutting to shape. In the Cotswolds I do much more searching and rarely any shaping. Remember, these stones are not like bricks that fit neatly together, they are of random shapes and sizes and all surfaces have to link into the wall itself: yes, a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle where none of the pieces quite fit. The best part of dry stone walling for me is to finish the job, then to walk far enough away from it so that I can view the overall effect without being distracted by the flaws.

As I paid for a pint at the Stocks on the night of the day that my task was completed, Pete the barman looked quizzically at my finger tips bound with fraying microporous tape.
“Been dry stone walling,” I answered the unasked question.
“You should ha’ worn gloves,” he said unsympathetically.
I smiled, whilst in my head I shouted, “I did, otherwise your bar would now be covered in streaks of blood, as would that twenty pound note I just gave you”.

So, back to Oxford where this blog was typed in pain whilst viewing daffodils nodding in the sun-warmed breeze through the spreading branches of a vast cherry tree with its first green leaves unfurling to expose red flower buds that will soon burst into a gloriously pink announcement of spring in the city. So very welcome.