17 June 2014

Haytime - hard work and happy memories

Growing up on a hill farm at the top of Dentdale I had very mixed feelings about haytime. The days in the fields turning and scaling the mown grass with an old fashioned wooden rake were long and hard for a young girl. We had very little machinery, an old grey Fergie tractor, a mower and a sled to cart the loose hay back to the barns, so it was all hands on deck as we worked fast to beat the rain. 
Dad setting off to the hayfield with his basket of pop

Leaning on his rake
But we had fun too. All us farm kids had to work and on a fine sunny day in July before the start of the summer holidays our classroom would be almost empty with just the children of the shop keeper and the vicar sat at their lonely desks. Our mothers worked with us in the fields and all of them carried a yellow duster. When one of them spotted the school inspector's car chugging up the Dale out came the dusters and a ripple of golden semaphore sent us running home to pull on pyjamas and jump into bed. 

These days I love to see the hay meadows filling the valley bottoms with a sea of yellowLook closer though and you'll see that amongst the meadow buttercups and yellow rattle are the blues and whites and pinks of speedwell and chickweed and clover. 

A hay meadow in Dentdale

In the upland hay meadows of valleys like Dentdale you can find over 120 species in a single field. This abundance of wildflowers is a result of centuries of traditional farming practice. The grass is allowed to grow in late spring after the lambs go off to the fells with their mothers then cut for hay in the summer. As stock goes back onto the fields in autumn and early spring their hooves break up the soft ground and cause ideal conditions for the flowers to germinate.

We mustn't take them for granted though.  In the last 70 years over 98% of our hay meadows have been lost. So if you're walking or cycling through the Dales this month, if you're watching the Tour de France, if you're on a coach trip or a day out and you're loving the flowers, please think about all the generations of Dales farmers whose hard work keeps this glorious landscape alive.

8 June 2014

A Good Goodbye

We recently buried our friend. And I mean that quite literally. At the end of his amazing DIY funeral his family and friends all took shovels and we didn't leave the cemetery until his grave was filled in. 

I thought I knew pretty much everything there was to know about funerals. I've been to a lot over the years, from cold miserable little affairs where the vicar kept getting the name wrong and most of the ageing congregation looked like it was hardly worth going home, to a magnificent South London send off which featured plumed horses and a stand up comedian. 
The churchyard in Cowgill where my parents are buried
We buried my shepherd dad in a beautiful Dales churchyard surrounded by bleating sheep and carried my mum out to the same plot to the sound of her Women's Institute choir singing Jerusalem. Like I said, I've been to a lot.

But I've never been to a funeral like this one. No undertakers, no floral wreaths, no hearse. Instead, under the guidance of his wife and following his own expressed wishes, the friends and family of this dearly loved man came together and created an event that reflected exactly the life that he led. A life of creativity, respect for the earth and the absolute conviction that if you want something doing you learn how to do it yourself. 

We erected a huge gazebo in the local cemetery and many of his friends arrived by bus. He came in a wicker casket in the back of his mate's van. The sound system was powered by pedal bike and the celebrant wore wellies. After the ceremony, which was moving and funny and life affirming, his nephews and friends carried his casket up a steep slope to a woodland burial area. They lowered it into the grave where the shovels were passed around as we shared the task of laying our friend to rest. And of course there was a wake. A gathering of several hundred people in a club he had loved and pretty much single handedly maintained. It had been cleaned and painted for the occasion and food and drink was prepared and served by his friends.

The time between a death and a burial often feels unreal, as if life goes on hold and normal activity feels awkward and wrong. Not in this case - we all had jobs to do. Painting and cleaning and shopping and cooking brought many of us together on a daily basis. Sharing our grief but also taking great pride in being together and doing it for our friend. It's changed my view of funerals completely and opened my eyes to the joy to be found in not handing over to professionals, however caring, however helpful, but in taking responsibility ourselves for the end of our loved ones' lives .  

And I thank my friend and his wife for giving me the chance to be part of it.