This summer it will be eight years since we moved to Docklow, north Herefordshire, from Crouch End, north London. This will be a significant anniversary for us because we lived in Crouch End for eight years, so come July we will be Herefordians as much as we ever were Crouch Enders. Yet the strange thing is that even now, so rooted in this beautiful county that our 11-year-old has no memories of living anywhere else, indeed almost literally rooted in that saplings we planted when we arrived are now strong adolescent trees, we still sometimes get asked whether we miss London and will ever go back? Nobody thought to ask us, after eight years in Crouch End, whether we felt as though we belonged.
All that said, it's perfectly true that propping up the bar in the King's Head with local farmer friends doesn't make me a horny-handed son of the soil. I am still as bemused and faintly awestruck at their way of life as they still are at mine. After all, the nearest I get to farming is tending my vegetable garden, and even that still feels like a novelty; hence my excitement last week at the arrival of this year's Marshalls Kitchen Garden Catalogue.
There are many good reasons to grow your own veg but one of them is learning the names of different varieties. There was a time in my life when cabbages were cabbages and leeks were leeks. Now, cabbages are Consuls, Picadors, Winnigstadts, Noelles, Endeavours and Christmas Drumheads, while leeks are Neptunes, Musselburghs, Autumn Mammoths and Apollos. I suppose there must be reasons for this nomenclature, but to me it always seems arbitrary, whimsical. If they weren't cabbages, Consuls, Picadors and Endeavours could just as easily be brands of cigarettes, or cars, or condoms. Moreover, there is always the faint thrill of turning a page in the Marshalls catalogue and finding something for the first time. New for 2010 are Zermatts and Sevillas. Both types of leek, of course. And the Sevilla, I can tell you, "has an erect habit with good shank length". It's years since Esther Rantzen held up a phallic carrot on That's Life!, but it's nice to know that sexual innuendo and vegetables are still, as it were, cheerfully in bed together.
But back to the King's Head and my latest conversation with Tim, who farms a few fields away from us. Tim is angry because he has been forced to slaughter one of his best cows, a three-year-old Holstein, diagnosed with tuberculosis. The dead Holstein's mother is eight-year-old Jasmine, the highest-yielding dairy cow Tim has ever had. Jasmine produced 16,000 litres in her last 10-month lactation, and apparently cows are like racehorses; a successful parent often begets successful offspring. So Tim was distraught to lose Jasmine's daughter, the more so as Defra paid him £1,400 in compensation, which he estimates to be less than half her value.
In the past 10 years, Tim has lost more than 100 cattle to bovine TB, which, all the evidence suggests, is carried to his farm by badgers. He wants badgers culled in areas where disease is prevalent, partly because they infect not just cattle but also healthy badgers. Research in Ireland shows that such culls are hugely successful, but on this side of the Irish Sea they're not easy to implement. After all, we've all read The Wind in the Willows, and we all know that badgers are wise, cuddly creatures in paisley smoking jackets. Come to think of it, we get a worrying number of our stereotypes from fiction, not least the image of the bad-tempered, opinionated farmer. On which subject, David Archer of Brookfield Farm, Ambridge, has also had problems with badgers.
Tim, by contrast, is generally one of the most cheerful fellows you could hope to meet, and what shamefully little I do know about farming after eight years in the sticks, I know from him. Incidentally, I met another metropolitan émigré last week, who told me that on the very day he moved from Birmingham to Knighton, just over the Welsh border, he had needed some emergency dental surgery. In the preliminary chit-chat he told his dentist that he was moving, later that day, to Powys. "Really. Open wide," said the dentist, who then enthused at length about Montmartre and the Folies Bergère. It was 20 more minutes before my friend was able to say, "No, not Paris, Powys."Reuse content