On School: Athletics Festival

Today is the great Athletics Tournament, with which the daughters have been preoccupied for days.

The Warriner School in Bloxham is holding its afternoon of athletic endeavour in their cavernous sport’s hall. This year, there are to be 7 primary schools taking part, including Hornton’s arch-rivals, Shennington. Jess is particularly excited, and keeps telling us she can’t believe she was picked for the team. Hornton Primary is sending thirteen pupils, and Jess (aged 8) is one of the youngest and definitely the smallest.

‘We’ll race against Year Sixes,’ she tells us at breakfast. ‘So we’ll lose. But as long as we try our best, it doesn’t matter if we don’t win.’

I slap hands across my mouth as Stevie agrees with her – that’s right, my darling. He sends me a Significant Look.

So now I’ve arrived in Bloxham, thanking the Parking Angel for guarding me a space on the muddy lane. As I get out of the car, I can hear that particular shrieky noise of massed primary school children – like hunt kennels the morning of a meet.

The huge sports hall is across the car park, and as I walk towards it, two Warriner pupils in duck-egg blue go to dash out of the door. They jam the brakes on when they see me, and let me go first.

Inside the hall, the noise becomes more distinct, in waves, corresponding to some sort of action. The whole space is full of dashing figures in bright colours; cherry red, satsuma-orange, the egg-yolk yellow of Shennington. Warriner pupils are supervising, and two Warriner  PE teachers are waving their arms and calling encouragement. The one nearest to me has short, sandy hair and good legs.

Parents are gathered in the viewing corridor that runs along the hall, watching their children through green netting, chattering, laughing. I wriggle amongst them, smiling apologies for jostled elbows.

I spot the royal-blue of Hornton in the far right corner. Some Hornton School mum-chums are on the bench against the wall – Tightie and Damage. They’re talking to Mr. Green, Hornton’s Head, who is looking very serious. He is holding a clipboard. The children are racing up and down in front of them, practising running and turning on the push-off boards against the walls of the hall, and I see a tiny figure streaking backwards and forwards, long pony tail flying. It’s Jess, and I give an inward groan. She’s the only child in the whole place wearing pink and navy-striped leggings.

Around me, the strange mums are talking about the same things Hornton mums always talk about: swimming lessons clashing with ballet, babysitters cancelling last minute, and did you watch the One Show yesterday? A good-looking father arrives in a navy overcoat. ‘Made it,’ he says to a woman in a Joules gilet. ‘Not been here before. Rather smart for a comp.’

You can hear the hiss from the mums, feel the cringe of the wife.

Husbands should be seen and not heard.

A whistle is blown by a very tall man in racy red socks. The children are to line up on their benches against the far wall.

It’s now time for the relay race, and mats are put out in a line down the centre of the hall. Each school are to field four children, running from one end of the hall to the other, before passing a baton. The Warriner pupils do a demonstration, genuinely racing, putting their all in; their trainers thumping like police-kicks on the push-off boards.

The PE teacher with the good legs comes to announce the parents’ race through the netting. For a moment, I ridiculously imagine kicking off my boots and socks for better floor-purchase and increased speed. I forget I’m thirty-four and not wearing adequate rigging. The other parents all laugh, knowing he was joking, and he goes away, smiling.

The primary schools are to go now, and I squeak with excitement when I see Jess standing up, then giving it the Tiggers, boinging on the spot. She seems to be leading a team, and is marching towards a mat with a fellow Year 4 and two Year 6’s. She sees me, but only gives a blink of recognition; too cool to wave to mummy.

Hornton School runner at the Warriner Athletics Festival
My super-speedy little  Jess

Jess is the first to run, and I can feel my own heart-beat start to thump as she gets in position, baton poised. The other children racing are at least two-heads taller; gigantic children in orange and yellow. A Warriner pupil starts the race and they’re off, running flat-out to the push-boards – the noise of the supporting crowds is ear-shearing. Quick turn then they’re up our end, Jess’ pink and navy leggings blurred with speed, ponytail a caramel banner. I think I might pop with pride.

I think Jess’ team have come third, but before I can find out, the next lot of teams are lining up, Hornton racing in the lane closest to us.  Hornton’ve put up their speediest Year 6’s, and we’re level-pegging with the orange children when disaster happens. Hornton’s last runner turns on the push-off boards and somehow drops her baton or trips, either way, the baton hits the floor with a bell-like clink, and the runner is down, landing heavily on her hands and knees. The cheers turn off like a switch, and there’s a collective gasp. But then the Hornton runner staggers to her feet in the silence, obviously hurting, and runs for the finish line. The cheers almost take the roof off.

‘Brave little girl,’ says the mother next to me.

We watch as she finishes, disappears into the comforting arms of her team. She’s crying now, ow,ow,ow, but post-race tears in no way detract from the fact she got back up, finished the race.

There’s another few more heats to go, and then the whistle’s blown and the children all waved to a huddle. There’s rousing words and certificates, and lots of applause and modestly-pleased faces. The PE teacher in the racy red socks announces the overall winners, and the fact that Hornton came bottom to last. I join the other Hornton mums, and we all lean together, exchanging gossip and pointing out each other’s children.

‘And,’ we whisper, knowing it’s bad form, but unable to resist. ‘We weren’t last. We beat Shennington-‘

Then we all cheer for the jolly PE teachers who worked with the Warriner pupils in organising the whole thing, and we cheer the children themselves.

‘Very good!’ we say, clapping.

M, the glamorous daughter of Damage, speaks sotto voce at my shoulder. ‘Them ones that won have different outfits for each sport. Like cricket and that. I was talking to them before.’

I boggle at the thought of increased uniform costs. ‘Golly,’ I say.

Now the children are starting to leave, and I step back, out of the mum’s circle, looking for Elle and Jess. Jess is a bullet, straight into my arms. She gives me a bone-crunching hug, then grabs my hands, so I listen.

‘Mummy!’ she says, squeezing. ‘Great news! I beat a Year Six!’

Elle slopes up, gloomy after having her events cancelled. ‘Whoop dee doo.’ she says, deadpan. ‘It’s the doing your best that counts.’

‘No it isn’t,’ says Jess, suddenly very fierce. ‘It’s the winning. Isn’t it, Mum? It’s the winning.’

‘Um,’ I say. Oh, what the hell. I return her squeeze. ‘Yes, darling. It is really. All about the winning.’

Lambing Live at Hadsham Farm

LL1 Expectant ewes at Hadsham Farm, Horley
Expectant ewes

Oh, I love sheep. And lambs, and the whole lambing time with all the drama and fight for new life. It’s Thursday in February half-term, and Jess and I are driving to collect Elle. She’s been lambing with GFD (God-father Dave*), and has been unbelievably excited for days. This morning, she woke us up at 6:06 to ask what to do if a lamb comes out dead.

‘I’m worried it will be yellow.’

We pull her into the warm fug of our bed and tuck her between us, juggling mugs of tea and a William Fiennes. ‘You’ll cope,’ we say, breezily, as if it’s no big deal. We look at each other above her silky head, widen our eyes, grimace.

Now, in the car going up to fetch Elle, Jess has her buddy Tightie with us, and both girls are shrieking and bouncing in the back, singing 1Direction with guessed-at words. We pull into Hadsham’s courtyard, and the girls are out before I’ve even turned off the engine.

‘Boots!’ I yell, before they disappear. I climb out of the car more slowly, looking up and around. The grey corrugated walls and roofs of the barns segue into the grey of the sky above. The air is thick with the peremptory bawls of ewes, the anarchic shrills of lambs.

I look up at the sky as if checking for rain. Then I look at my car, as if assessing its parking place. Jess and Tightie have gone, vanished into the biggest of the barns. To the casual observer, I look as if I’m just taking my time over pulling on my boots, zipping up my navy anorak. But really I’m nervous. I’ve never left Elle on her own here before, with no other children, and she’s not here to play, she’s here to help, to work with the GFD, Giddyup and Chris, and GFD’s father, Wyck. I hope she’s not been frightened, or felt silly, or been bored (and announced that fact, clearly, in her high, carrying voice).

I hope she thinks the whole thing is everything she thought it might be. Ever since she was tiny, Elle’s dreamt of running her own farm, and this is the first time she’s been on the bloody, messy , muck-ooze side of things. Getting stuck in and sweating, rather than watching and messing about on straw bales. I take a deep breath, shake my hair out of my eyes.

The Lambing Barn is split roughly into thirds. One long third contains panting, swaying ewes in labour, then another third contains the pens for single ewes and their newborns, then the final third is manic, like the worst kind of children’s play centre- a creche – ewes and lambs all in together, making a ginormous racket; lambs rushing around in excitement, ewes barging past each other, stamping.

I see my girl as soon as I walk into the big barn, so tall, her yellow anorak too small. Her hair’s springing loose from the long plaits I put in the night before, and her face is very serious.

LL4 Elle in the madness of the sheep creche, Hadsham Farm
Elle in the madness of the sheep creche,

‘Mummy!’ she hisses. ‘Shush!’

Jess and Tightie have joined her at the hurdles, balancing on a long trough, avid to watch the drama in the corner of the ewes’ pen. GFD is up to his elbow in a sheep, and Chris looks like he’s sitting on its head. The children are open-mouthed, entranced. There’s blood, and brown goo.

‘Hellooooo’ I say to GiddyUp, who’s watching, and my mummy-manners kick in without thought. ‘Has-she-been-good-have-you-had-fun?’

GiddyUp says yes, just as GFD announces he can’t find the head. Schmallenburg, I think, horrified. But then I remember a conversation with Wyck, who told me about natural immunity, and how unlikely it would be this time round. We watch, our hands over our mouths.GFD and Chris helping a ewe in difficulties

GFD withdraws his hand, sits up. ‘Need Dad,’ he says, and GiddyUp and I hurriedly distract the younger children, hustle them off the hurdles and across to the other side of the barn.

‘Oh dear,’ we say. ‘Um…Do you think?’ And we don’t finish our sentences.

Jess and Tightie catapult into the raucous creche, intent on cuddling a lamb. Elle follows, slow and steady, scolding her sister for being too loud, pointing and instructing. Imperious. Utterly at home amongst in the deep, yellow straw, one eye on the stamping ewes.

‘Not that one,’ she says. ‘It’s got a new mother. She’s a bit fussy.’

Giddyup and I laugh, although I’ve still half an eye behind to my left. Please, please don’t let that be a dead lamb in that ewe.

Jess and Tightie are juggling wriggling limbs, Giddyup helping.

Giddyup catching lambs
Giddyup catching lambs

Elle slides across to me, for a moment dropping her cool act. ‘Mummy,’ she hisses. ‘Mummy. I’ve eaten a KitKat and went for a wee and there’s been four lambs. Tell Jessie to stop shouting.’

The other two have finally captured a lamb to squeeze, and Elle goes to supervise.

LL5 Ewe adopting a lamb at Hadsham Farm
Ewe adopting a lamb

I turn, and stand on the lower bar the single-pen hurdles, looking over to where GFD and Chris were wrestling with the ewe. They’ve gone, and my breath catches, ridiculously. Then I see Chris scooting round holding a lamb by its forelegs. Its head hangs horribly, and it’s covered in blood. The next minute, he’s leant over a hurdle, laying the lamb at the feet of a ewe, rubbing at it briefly with a twist of straw.

‘Come on,’ he says. The ewe noses the lamb, then starts stropping it with her tongue. ‘Its head was right back,’ Chris tells me. ‘Tucked on its shoulder.’ He demonstrates and I laugh with relief. Of course it had a head.

I tell him about my mum’s goats, and helping them kid. ‘Never had a lamb from a goat,’ he says, and waits for me to get it, grinning at me when I do.

‘There’s another going,’ he tells me, and I follow him back to the labour pen.

LL2 Chris watching the pregnant ewes at Hadsham Farm
Chris watching the pregnant ewes

A ewe has had twins, without fuss, and they lay in the straw, wet-looking, but already trying to sit up. ‘I’ll get the ewe,’ says Chris, and I’m left with the lambs. I try to pick them up the way I’ve seen the others do them, by their two forelegs, above the knuckle, one to each hand. But my grip’s not strong enough, they wriggle and they’re slimily wet and I’m terrified I’ll drop them. I take one at a time, running after Chris, chattering rubbish to the minutes-old lamb. ‘Lambikins,’ I say, laying it next to the ewe in the single pen. I leg it back for the second, anguished at the thought of it alone amongst the panting, pregnant, stamping ewes.

When they’re both in with the ewe, Chris shuts the hurdle and reaches for a spray bottle. Iodine, for their umbilicals and mother’s udder. He checks for colostrum, and then we back away, watching.

‘So incredibly slippery,’ I say, looking at my hands, and Chris takes me to the roll of blue hand towel paper. I wipe and blot, exhilarated by even such a small part to play.

There’s a lull now, a re-gathering. GFD is skipping out single pens, carting away the dirty straw, down to the concrete, sprinkling lime, sweeping, filling the barrow. I go back to the first lamb, the one we thought might have died. The ewe’s accepted it and it’s in there with a new sister, bleating on unsteady legs.GFD lambing at Hadsham Farm

‘So cool,’ says a voice beside me. Elle slides her hand through mine. It’s covered in blue-spray paint, her nails rimed black. ‘Oh,’ she sighs. ‘Look, Mummy.’ The lamb’s nosing around, as if to feed.

GFD’s in the creche, with Jess and Tightie.

‘Had a good day then?’ I whisper, nudging her with my hip.

‘The best,’ says Elle. ‘Awesome.’

I put my arm around her, squeeze her close despite her protest. My clever, long-limbed growing-up daughter. Dreams still intact.

My El with a new lamb
My El with a new lamb

* We have lots of Daves in our lives. God-father Dave (above), but also Opposite Neighbour Dave, Up-A-Bit Neighbour Dave, Landlord Dave, Cousin Dave and Jack Russell Dave (who really is a Jack Russell). Hence GFD.

On Walking: Tuesday 11th February

Horley, taken from Spring Field
Horley, taken from Spring Field

This morning there was rain and sleet, and this afternoon, there is bright sunshine and blue skies. I’m slogging my way up Spring Field, and I’m wearing far too many layers. Spring Field is on the opposite valley to Horley, and has been left as stubble over the winter, which means it’s now covered in early flowers. Everywhere I look, there’s something unfurling into tentative colour: scraps of blue speedwell (Veronica), tiny finger-gloves of pink Hemp nettle. There are also clumps of what I think might be heartsease, like a wild viola, although its gorgeous brave yellow and purple faces are yet to appear.

Pants shares my love for this field, and loons around in huge circles, silly ears flapping. Dora is not so keen. Tiny streams are pouring through the heavy orange soil, and she stops every few seconds to shake out her feet. By the time I reach the muck-heap in the top corner, Dora is nowhere to be seen. I stop trying to photograph a plant with tiny white flowers (what are you, dammit?) and stand and shout. Pants leaps around, as if to say, ‘I’m here! Pick me!’ but there’s no sign of Dora.

‘Rat!’ I shout, against the wind. ‘Bloody dog!’ I whistle too, but still nothing. And then I lose my breath, and fear closes my throat. I can see her, in her yellow fluorescent coat, trotting steadily through the mud of the neighbouring field, back the way we came, heading straight for the Banbury Road.

I’m far too far away to run to get her – I can’t run anyway, the mud sucks at my boots like some living thing, desperate to consume me. I shout again, uselessly, starting to slip and slide down the hill. I fumble my mobile from my pocket, ring Stevie.

‘Get in the car,’ I say. ‘Dora’s on the road-‘

Pants is barking, thinking this is all some brilliant new game. She must’ve reached the double gates by now, just before the Sor Brook bridge.  There’s a green truck with a horsebox rattling down the hill from Horley. I freeze, terrified I won’t see it come out the other side of the bridge. But I do,  it accelerates up towards the Warwick road. I start to run, clumsily, my boots sliding out from under me.

‘Dora! Dor!’ I think about the time she ran out in front of Dr Nicely-Tightly, or when she ran up the Wroxton Road, a queue of five cars behind her. Thank God for the fluorescent jacket – worth all the piss-taking as long as it keep the silly animal alive.

I skid down to the gate, and see her, just as she slips under the first of the double gates. She’s at least two hundred yards away.

‘Stop!’ I bellow, raw-voiced. ‘Just bloody stop!’ She does, just as a skip lorry thunders past.

I call again, forcing my tone to jolly-fun ‘come-on-then-darling-isn’t-this-a-lark!’ and thank God she responds. She starts coming towards me, just as my phone rings.

‘I can see you both,’ says Stevie.

‘Sorry,’ I tell him. ‘Sorry darling. I thought it was curtains-‘

And I can’t shout at her now, because she came to me, and she’s wagging her stump of a tail as if expecting a pat. I clip on her lead and ruffle her head, before turning her round and marching back into the Spring Field. I’ve bulbs to inspect, and views to record.

We march through the mud, lickety-split. Passive-aggressive dog-walking with a rictus grin. But then a clump of dark-edged green leaves catch my attention, with one single tiny purple and yellow flower. Heartsease, flowering after all.

Hemp nettle in the Spring Field
Hemp nettle in the Spring Field

Speedwell, with the smallest scraps of blue flowers

On Walking: On Hunting

We’re heading up over to the Orchard Field, and Pants and Dora are swinging and straining on their leads.  They’ve caught the scent of the hounds who lolloped through the village yesterday, leaving their big paw prints over the wide grass verges. Dora’s father was a Hunt Terrier, and I wonder if the scents provoke any ancient instincts. I hold her lead tightly, in case she shoots off down a drain.

The rain is falling in an unfriendly curtain, and I can barely see out from my hood. I fit my boots in semi-circular divots left by the horses, and wonder what glory was to be had, riding to hounds on a grim, grey Wednesday in North Oxfordshire.

The topic of hunting makes my heart race. It makes people so incredibly angry – far more than illegal deer hunting, or mole-trapping (which makes me FURIOUS), or dog-fighting.

I’m ambivalent about foxes. I’m not very good at killing things. But I’ve been around chickens most of my life, and as a child, I remember my mum picking up the poor, headless bodies of the pullets in the side paddock, putting them in a black plastic sack. She had tears coursing down her face, and was shaking with rage. I had that same rage, twenty years later, when I caught a fox half-in, half out of my chicken pen, one summer’s dawn. My birds woke me with a tremendous noise and I shot outside in my knickers, then chased the fox (a whopping dog) out of our garden and across the cricket pitch. I was so angry I didn’t feel any pain in my bare feet, nor care that any early walkers would have seen me; breasts bouncing, buttocks wobbling – streaking and shrieking, ludicrously waving a gardening trowel. If I’d have caught that fox, I’d have squashed it flat, shoved it in the van and driven into Banbury for it to live outside Iceland and be urban.

But to be honest, I’m not at all sure that general anti-fox hunting feeling has anything to do with foxes. I was at the school-bus stop yesterday, when the Warwickshire came up the Wroxton Road. Every single one of the women I stood with made hissing noises and took a step back into Bob and Brenda’s driveway. The Huntsman waved and called hello, and the hounds were merry and controlled, but still the others didn’t call hello, just shrunk back further. I stood alone, with my phone camera, grinning, loving the ancient treat of seeing horses and hounds trot briskly past in the rain.

When they’d gone (the last rider was a lady, who looked as if she were wearing an old Scout tent) I asked the others why they didn’t like them. There were mutterings about hounds meeting the school bus on the bends, and horses shouldn’t be on roads at school-bus times, and that they think they can ride where they like, and they don’t shut gates. No one mentioned foxes.

‘Bunch of knobs,’ came the last comment, and we hastily turned the conversation back to types of dining chair. But how interesting.

And then there’s my own thoughts on hunting. I went out as a child in the late eighties with Pony Club chums, and frightened myself silly, but I still love the whole glamour and bravery of the thing. I have all sorts of unsuitable crushes on men in tweed jackets with shiny-topped boots, and my heart races ridiculously when I hear the horn, or the shoes of trotting horses clipping past. I’d love nothing more than to be at the back, giving the fences and ditches a go, spitting mud out of my mouth, swigging a hip flask behind a blackthorn copse. I don’t want to kill a fox, though. Or see a fox being killed. In fact, I’d like to take foxes out of the equation altogether.

We reach the Orchard Field and I let the dogs go as I stand beneath the little oak. Mid-wee, Pants suddenly does his funny half-collapse before going on point, and I start running to catch him before he mullers the cat from Meadowsweet Farmshop, next door. But I’m far too slow. He’s off like a rocket, bendy rubber-toy body flying over the yellowed goose-grass. Dora goes after him, a second bullet, complete with yapping. They’re heading towards the spinney, away from the farmshop – it’s too far – the cat won’t stand a chance. I dash the rain from my eyes, reach the top of the hill.

I see their quarry; it’s getting away and I stop shouting and laugh, my breath coming in heaves. Not a poor little cat. A bloody great fox.  Go Pants, go. Point it towards Banbury.