A Very Small Holding

The Elliffs journey into the good life

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A very sick apple tree

I longed to be able to spend more hours each week managing our smallholding and preparing the allotment for the new year. Unfortunately we had bills to pay and I would need to work full-time for the foreseeable future. Katie was busy managing the house and caring for our young family.

I was fortunate to work from home and be self-employed, which allowed me to dictate the hours that I worked. When the weather was favourable I would postpone an afternoon behind the desk and take the short walk across the road to the croft.

During the afternoon breaks in my work this week I continued removing the weeds from allotment. Each time I pottered over there seemed to be several more that I had missed among the stones or an area I had not tackled.

The area between the field and the cattery after I had removed the first small tree

While I picked away at the ground I would stare at the handful of trees beside the cattery and wonder if they should be removed. The area was a waste of space between the field and cattery. Stones covered the ground, but as no membrane was beneath them the weeds had run riot. A mature chestnut tree was the dominant feature, but there were several other young trees trying to grow in its shadow.

It made sense to me that the fence to the field should continue in a straight line to the entrance of the cattery. The small cluster of trees would be moved into the field and the unused space made to be productive. The chestnut tree would be spared the chop, because it was a focal feature of the croft and we imagined that our children would enjoy collecting its conkers every autumn.

I decided to begin removing the smaller trees and harvesting the wood. I did not have a chainsaw or a wood-chipper, so I sawed down the first few trees, cutting the small trunks and larger branches into fire-sticks. The remaining twigs and foliage I placed in the household recycle bin. I left the tree stumps in the ground for future removal.

Our young apple tree, having survived the move in a plant pot, is transplanted to the field

When we moved we had brought with us two young fruit trees that Katie had purchased for a few pounds in the spring. They were only six feet tall and I had temporarily planted them in pots to keep them alive. They had been sat in the allotment for the past month waiting to be utilised. The apple tree had developed fruit, whilst the cherry tree had not, and did not look like it ever would.

I added the cherry tree to our growing pile of compostable greenery, but decided that I would plant the apple tree in the field rather than waste it. It had borne fruit this summer and may continue its progress next year. We had not planned where our orchard would be located, so I picked a spot close to the allotment.

Over the next few days the leaves began to wilt and the last apples dropped to the floor. I was aware that trees hated being transplanted. I had my fingers crossed that the downturn in the tree’s health would be temporary or related to the approaching autumn season.

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A very lucky cat

We expected that once we had established ourselves in our small-holding that there would be several hours each week of necessary general maintenance. The outbuildings may need a lick of paint or the boundaries to the land in need of repair.

Initially we knew that there would be a great deal of work required to get the small-holding into a productive state. After reviewing the various features and assets we had been left with we established a rough plan of action. It would evolve over time, but there were quite a few areas we wanted to get right before we jumped headlong into planting vegetables and acquiring livestock.

With our second child on the way there was going to be a necessary delay in our evolution of the small-holding. We decided to postpone any food production until the next spring, when our family would be less demanding on our time and when we hoped to have the allotment constructed to our liking.

In the meantime I would be largely maintaining the status quo, while taking opportunities to progress our grand plan for the small-holding. Katie would be tied to producing and then feeding the new member of our little unit, until some time earlier next year when we hope to begin enjoying development of the land as a family.

Tree branches, vines and weeds in three separate piles waiting to be recycled

This week I spent a couple of hours each day removing weeds from the allotment area. The stones that surrounding the allotment beds were being invaded by a number of weeds, mostly grasses and thistles. Most of the stones sat on a weed suppressing material, but this did not stop the weeds from sprouting up and the root of the thistles spearing through the material to the earth below.

As I moved around the allotment digging out the weeds with a trowel I was amazed at how many insects and small spiders lived among the stones. They ran for cover as this giant beast shuffled towards them on his knees, like a small crowd escaping an erupting volcano.

I was aware that in all probability my efforts would be futile, but as I have stated previously I did find some satisfaction from the manual task of clearing an area of weeds. Perhaps I have some form of obsessive compulsive disorder, that Katie would point out does not extend to cleaning the house.

A month after the move our elderly cat developed some very strange behaviour. She had been a house cat before we rescued Tabitha and her brother from the RSPCA. We introduced them to the outside world at our last house. Jake loved roaming the streets and scrapping with his neighbours. Tabitha had not been so keen and this meant we were still required to keep a litter tray close by.

The moment I found Tabitha curled up in her litter tray we feared the worse. She seemed physically well, but had a withdrawn demeanour. When I encouraged her out of the litter tray she found other odd places to make her bed. Previously she had been happy either on the sofa or in her own bed under the dining table.

Tabitha, our twenty-one year old cat enjoying the sunshine in the safety of our lounge

We knew the old wives tale regarding how a cat will find a comfortable place to rest when they are near death. Katie called the vet fearing the worst. The conversation with the veterinary nurse confirmed our fears as Katie described Tabitha’s recent odd behaviour. We packed Tabitha into the travel basket and drove to the surgery expecting to return empty handed.

The vet surprised us by diagnosing a simple case of fleas. We were unsure how they had been transmitted. Neither of our cats had ever had a flea infestation, and due to Tabitha’s agoraphobia she never mixed with other animals. We therefore suspected that the previous feline occupants of our new house had left Tabitha a welcoming committee. Tabitha was treated by the vet with a simple ointment, while we purchased some flea spray to rid the house of our unwelcome guests.

The next day I spent a couple of hours fumigated the house and then retreated to the allotment to trim more branches from the troublesome vine roots. Katie and Matilda had left that morning to visit a friend, accepting an invitation to stay for the night and avoid breathing any lingering fumes. I consoled myself that evening with a trip to the pub for a seafood platter and a few drinks.

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A very invasive vine

The largest allotment bed took a little longer than the first to clear of weeds. I repeated the process of the previous weekend, progressing along the length of the bed pulling the weeds out of the soil. I completed three separate shifts removing the weeds and wheeling several dozen barrows to the temporary compost pile.

The three allotment beds after they had been cleared of weeds

Like many gardeners I found the act of weeding therapeutic and good exercise. We had not bought a home with land to satisfy a theological principle. We were seeking a more natural, peaceful and local way of life. There would be no need to join a gym; the land management would provide all the exercise we needed and save money instead of costing us money.  There would be no need to travel by car to the country park; we had the countryside on our doorstep and several bridleways crossing our road. We felt there would be no need to take a holiday; we had moved to a location that was far removed from the rat-race.

We had already discovered we were watching very little television. Our free time was used more productively, maintaining our new home or investigating the local area. A difficultly we could see on the horizon that would interrupt our progress was the imminent arrival of our second child. How much time two children will occupy would have a bearing on what we could achieve and in what time.

Most of the initial tasks involved maintenance and restoration. In our back garden, to avoid any unnecessary injuries to myself, my family or any visitors, I trimmed all the low hanging branches. There were more than twenty trees dotted around the garden and it was apparent that more radical maintenance would be needed to make the garden a more usable space. The trees hid the bottom half of the garden. It was dark, damp and a mess. I lacked any tree felling equipment or lumberjack experience, so I decided to postpone tree management to another day.

The dark cattery interior on a summer’s day before the vine covering was removed

I moved my attention to the old cattery. It had been constructed twenty years ago and appeared that it would be able to serve its purpose for twenty more. However, the cattery was being consumed by vines that had been intentionally planted around the perimeter. The vines covered the roof and protected you temporarily from the rain, until the rainwater began to drip down long after the rain had subsided. The cattery was dark and damp as a result. The paved floor green and slippery under foot.

I decided to cut down all the vines and bushes surrounding the cattery. The vines served no real purpose and would only get in the way of any improvements to the structure. The task was made complicated by the growth of the branches weaving in and out of the steel mesh. I cut all the visible branches that wove under the mesh roof enabling me to pull most of the vine structure from the roof. I had to cut the branches in many places, every two inches in some cases, to separate the plant from the wire.

The cattery enclosure during the removal of the vine branches from the main structure

Several days of cutting, pulling and sawing removed most of the vines. I left part of the vine structure in place to maintain the structural integrity of the cattery wall. The wooden supports had rotten away in places, or had been eaten away by the insects living in the vine architecture. If we decided to keep the cattery in its present design we would need to replace several of the wooden pillars and finally remove the main trunk of the vine plant.

There were smaller maintenance tasks I slowly chipped away at over the passing days. Each time I left the house or returned from the croft I kept an eye out for weeds growing through our gravel driveway. My neighbour had commented the first time I pulled at a lone weed among the stones that it would be a futile task removing them. He had abandoned the idea long ago. I thought I would give it a try. The weeds would never be eradicated completely from the driveway due to the nature of its construction, but I hoped I would keep the worst of them at bay.

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A very rotten chicken run

The chicken’s vacation was over when we returned to our old house to collect the hens from our neighbour’s garden. They briefly resisted capture as each hen was placed into a cardboard box ready for transportation. We had decided to dismantle the chicken run and take the remains for recycling. Their new home was complete, ready and waiting for them. It would have taken far longer to dismantle the run, to avoid damaging the rotting frame, and it required a second journey home. It took less than an hour to take the chicken run to pieces using a hammer, a saw and a brute force. I loaded the broken remnants into the car, tied the rotten frame to the roof-rack and drove five miles to the nearest recycling centre.

The cattery run before the chickens were released

Following a chat with our old neighbours to catch up with local events we drove home. We released the chickens into the cattery run and left them to familiarise themselves with their new residence. They quickly made themselves at home, scratching at the virgin ground and exploring the undergrowth.

There were so many tasks and projects that we wanted to complete it was difficult to know where to start. Matilda was in the care of Katie’s parents which allowed both of us the freedom to spend a full day on the allotment.

The previous owners had constructed three raised beds a foot in height and six feet wide. Each were a different size; thirty feet, twenty-four feet and twelve feet in length. The smallest bed had been maintained over the past six months. The other two allotment beds had been left in the hands of nature. The result was a forest of weeds eight feet tall. The smaller bed had raspberries, strawberries and rhubarb growing in it quite satisfactorily, with only a small number of weeds. It needed some additional care, but not major restoration work like the other two beds.

Raspberry canes, strawberry and rhubarb plants left to grow in the allotment

Katie set to work picking the ripe berries and clearing the weeds that were crowding the fruitful plants. Any dead, damaged or deceased plants or rhubarb stalks were removed and added to the compost. Katie’s tortuous pregnancy did not allow her to do too much physical activity so this task was more than enough.

I tackled the first of the other two overgrown allotment beds. The weeds were taller than me, but the roots were fairly shallow. The various grasses and plants had all gone to seed and therefore I expected a reasonable amount of regrowth after clearing them. I progressed from one end of the bed to the other, systematically pulling out the weeds, trying doggedly to keep the roots intact. It took the whole afternoon to completely remove all the weeds. Among the thistles, groundsel, chickweed, fat-hen were a dozen parsnips that must have been sown a year earlier.

I piled the weeds into a wheelbarrow and unloaded them onto the concrete base, with the expectation that they would be added to a compost heap. I knew it was a bad idea adding weeds in seed directly into a compost heap, but once they had been drowned for several weeks I would be able to utilise the organic waste in my heap. At present I had no compost heap constructed or a bin to drown them in.

The middle allotment bed after all the eight-foot weeds had been removed

The allotment bed had lost a fair amount of soil. It was clumped into the roots of the weeds that have been removed. I avoided disturbing the weed heads and roots to lessen the possibility that they would shed their seeds. We would be improving the soil in any case, adding compost and rotted manure once we had located a supplier or generated our own. We had no idea of the source for the previous owners soil. It seemed fertile as demonstrated by the exaggerated weed growth. It was had a slightly clay consistency and a loamy texture. To my amateur eyes it appeared to be good stuff, but without testing it we had no idea of its origin. We hoped no chemicals had been used to fertilise the soil, as we would eventually digest produce grown in these allotment beds.

Katie returned to the house after harvesting several bowls of strawberries, raspberries and a bucket of rhubarb stalks. She spent the evening baking several rhubarb sponge cakes. One cake was delivered to each of our immediate neighbours and the ice-breaker was very much appreciated. The berries were washed and frozen to be offered to friends and family who would visit our new home over the first few weeks.

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A very overgrown allotment

The entrance to the croft

We discovered that the allotment and the croft had been neglected for the passed six months. The weeds had taken over, some were eight feet in height and obscured the allotment beds from view. Grass and dandelions were consuming the ornamental stones that were supposed to suppress them. The entrance to the croft was almost hidden, the hedges had ballooned in size during the recent mix of sunshine and rain.

The overgrown entrance to the cattery

There was a cattery next to the field that had for the last twenty years been home to rescue cats. We were in no position to take this responsibility on, especially as Katie was allergic to cats and pregnant. The cattery building was obscured by vines that had been left to grow for many years into an organic roof covering. The wooden structure partially eaten and strangled by this relentless parasite.

The only areas that had been maintained recently were the old chicken enclosure and a small fruit bed containing several strawberry, raspberry and rhubarb plants. The previous owner’s chickens had eaten all the weeds and grasses in the enclosure leaving the ground clear. The surface was partially covered in bark, the centre had a concrete base that must have been intended as the foundation for an incomplete building.

During this first visit to our new allotment we happily picked all the fruit that had ripened on the plants and broke off the mature stalks from the rhubarb. Katie made several rhubarb cakes and we were able to harvest the stalks and berries for several weeks. Some were frozen, but most were offered to guests as they made their first visit to our new home.

Our first task in the house would be to work out that we had all the keys for all the locks of the property. The previous owner had left us a bowl full of keys. None of the keys were labelled, so we began by trying each key in every lock we found. We had already two sets of front door keys that Katie had collected from the owner on moving day. After an hour we had three sets of keys for the workshop, three for the conservatory, ten for the windows, two for the kitchen, one for the boiler and two for the garage. Once all the useful keys had been set aside we had another dozen that appeared to have no home and no purpose. I guess this to be a typical situation in most households. If all the orphaned keys were collected together from every home there would be a mountain of keys the size of Everest.

We performed the usual checks on the house to make sure all the services and appliances were functioning correctly. The house was in general good order, but one issue that we discovered immediately was a constant trickle of water escaping through the overflow pipe from the water tank in the bathroom. My dad decided to investigate and inadvertently snapped the cold water tank ball valve. He rushed down the stairwell into the kitchen to switch off the stop-cock and avoid flooding the house. The valve had broken because the float was too small and the valve was submerged permanently in cold water. Over the years the metal had corroded and a small amount of force snapped it clean off. A quick visit to the DIY store later, we fitted a new valve and a large ball float to prevent the water submerging the valve in future.

One of our ambitions for our dream house was to have an open log fire. We were lucky that this house had two chimneys and two log burners. Each multi-fuel stove appeared to be reasonably new and in working order. We had been left a receipt from a chimney sweep who had cleaned the chimney in the lounge, so we decided to test it out and build our first fire. The stove came with instructions on how to maintain the fire and optimise the heat it produced. We ignored them, piled in some coal, kindling, rolled up newspaper and lit the fire. It was not long before we had a roaring flame and the wonderful aroma of charred wood permeating the house.

The workshop building at the end of the garden that had been converted to house two greyhounds

There was a workshop at the bottom of the garden behind a two metre fence. The previous owners had used the building to house two greyhounds. The interior was partitioned into two pens, each with a raised wooden bed board and a door to access an external pen where the dogs would exercise. The building had running water and electricity. The power was provided by a fifty metre extension lead that wound its way down the garden from the conservatory. This was not terribly safe and at risk of a wayward lawn mover. We had an armoured cable and additional fuse wiring on our long list of home improvements.

The water pipe followed the cable down the side of the garden to the workshop. It was in several sections partly due to damaged pipe having been replaced. I am not sure how they managed to damage the pipe, which was an adequate thickness. A misplaced spade or edging tool perhaps. Despite the revisions we discovered that the pipe was leaking in several places where the joints were not sealing correctly and the plastic tap inside the workshop was dripping slowly into a bucket for the same reason. Initially we tried replacing the tap, but came to the conclusion that we were unlikely to need running water in the workshop. Therefore we saved some time and removed the long stretch of pipework. Where the external water pipe began we fitted an outside tap on to the utility room brickwork. With our old hose reel attached we had sufficient range to reach most parts of the garden. We kept the large blue water pipe, because we have learnt over the years that nearly every unemployed item of equipment will eventually have its uses.

The allotment beds growing eight foot weeds

The croft too needed some urgent maintenance. In was in danger of disappearing behind a wall of branches and weeds. The green veil made exploration a more exciting event and exaggerated its size, but we would need to clear the croft if it were to become a practical space to grow produce and keep livestock.

We hacked away at the hedges by the entrance and dug up the grass that had grown over the ground. There was now a clear paved driveway connecting the road to the croft gate, across a grass verge and where, we presumed, the hedgerow had continued. The wooden gate was rotten and in need of a replacement. It had a rubber wheel on its base to assist opening and that was all the prevented its weight from wrenching the rusty hinges from the fence post. Another item to add to our list of required improvements.

We would be collecting the chickens imminently so we had to locate an area within the croft that they would call home. The area where the previous owner had allocated for her chickens was reasonable large and open. The ground was bare, covered in bark and concrete. It did not seem like an appealing site or completely safe from an agile fox. The cattery seemed like the obvious choice. It was enclosed in wire mesh, safe from any canine, feline or winged invaders. The main area had two rows of pens, each sectioned off by galvanised steel mesh. Every pen had a lockable door, a shelf, a wooden cat box and an electric socket. One of the home-made boxes still had an electric blanket plugged inside. A gangway between the two rows led to the detainees exercise yard. It was another thirty feet long and completely enclosed. There were shrubs, small trees and grasses enjoying the animal free environment.

The two cat pens we converted into a chicken house

The cat boxes made perfect nesting boxes and each pen would be ideal for our chickens to roost overnight. We isolated two pens at the entrance to the run from the rest of the cattery by removing their doors and fixing them across the gangway entrance. Several round wooden stakes were used to create perches inside the pens and two planks of wood were rested against the shelves to allow the hens to walk up to their new nesting box. We put down a layer of cardboard on the floor and scattered straw inside the pens ready for their return the following week. The chickens would make light work of clearing the yard of weeds and grass. We were very fortunate to have the infrastructure already in place to house our birds and easily expand our flock in the future.

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A very wet new home

Our first day at our new home did not go exactly as we had planned. Choosing to move in the height of summer you would expect the weather to be a little kind, not the wettest day of the year. According to the statisticians it was the most rain that had fallen in one day since the millennium began. I was not going to let the weather dampen my spirits and barely gave a thought to the possibility of floods or any other problems getting in the way of our dream move.

We were fairly well prepared for the move. I had packed all our belongings into labelled boxes and transported some of our old furniture into storage to make our unpacking less complicated. My parents had arrived a few days earlier, to support us during the move and house sit the following weekend, when we were attending a wedding in Formby. My dad helped me to empty the loft and then move the chicken run to our neighbours where they would spend a short holiday. Katie was six months into another difficult pregnancy, with a toddler in tow, which left the manual labour to me during the weeks before the move. Inconveniently I had two stag weekends and a golf weekend during May that reduced my availability to the evenings following work and a whole week that I had planned off before the big day. I am not sure how we would have coped had my parents not arrived on the Monday. Over the next three days we managed to finish the packing, clean up the chicken’s mess in the garden and tidied the house to our satisfaction.

The removal lorry parked outside our old house packed full of furniture

Friday soon arrived, the removal men turned up on time and began emptying our old house. It quickly became apparent to the foreman of the team that their lorry would not be large enough to hold all our belongings. A hasty phone call later and another removal truck arrived, driven by a slightly annoyed employee, who had planned a leisurely afternoon at his local public house. There was little for my dad and I to do, but wait until they had completed the removal. Katie, Matilda and my mum had left early that morning for the calm and a safety of my father-in-law’s house.

We had the call from the solicitors very early in the day to confirm that the sale had gone through. Shortly after midday Katie and my mum left to meet the previous owner of our new home to collect the keys. The removal men left a short time later while my dad and I waited impatiently for cleaners to finish dusting and vacuuming the old house for our successors. At half past one we were able to wave goodbye to the old place and head toward our new home.

The rain was not heavy, but consistent the whole day. Katie had mentioned there were reports of flooding in the villages around our destination. The road out of our village was closed, meaning there was just one route in. The journey was reassuringly uneventful and thirty minutes later we were only a mile from the house. Then we reached the first sign of floodwater. The road was passable provided we took a route down the centre of the carriageway. I drove slowly to avoid flooding the engine and continued forward. At the Hunter public house the road was interrupted by another lake of floodwater. Several cars had been abandoned in the road, having failed to complete the short drive through the water. Fortunately our village was a short distance after a right turn just before the Hunter. As we drove up the slight incline into the village I was glad to know the climb probably meant our house was unlikely to have been affected by floodwater. Just before we made the final turn into the private road where our house stood we noticed that the main road out of the village had been closed. Those who had been stranded taking refuge in the other village public house, The Greyhound Inn.

As we approached the house we could see the removal vans swapping places on our driveway. The additional van had already emptied our gardening equipment on to the front lawn and my tools into the garage. I could see Katie waiting by the front door. She was smiling, which reassured me that our house was dry and that everything was going according to plan. Although I could see the drainage ditches either side of the unadopted road were full and the rain was still coming down.

The removal team soldiered on, emptying the rest of our belongings into the house. They were done by five in the afternoon. They had not stopped, they had not complained and they had worked hard all day in rain. Our first dealings with Staffordshire tradesmen was to foreshadow our future experiences; reasonably priced, friendly and agreeable. I doff my hat to Pecks Removals and Storage.

In addition to the two public houses the village boasted only one other retail business, a curry house. Therefore we decided on a take-away as the first meal in our new house, hoping that this could be classed as ‘local food’. Katie had sensibly packed a box specifically for moving day, with four plates, glasses and cutlery. So when my dad and I returned home, via a pint at the Hunter, we tucked into our curries surrounded by a hundred unpacked boxes.

Matilda making herself at home in our new back garden

Matilda felt at home the moment we arrived. She donned her wellies and raincoat and dragged Katie with her to explore the garden. Our previous house had a back garden the size of a postage stamp. The new garden was fifty yards long and contained twenty trees that obscured the view from the house to the workshop at the end. Matilda discovered, much to her delight, that the previous occupants had left behind their playhouse, swings and climbing frame. We would encounter several more unexpected treasures in the weeks that followed as we began to explore the new Elliff family home.