For the first 15 years that we were together, Christopher’s dream was to one day convert a barn on the farm into a house. The barn project took priority over everything – we were always saving money by not renovating our New York apartment or our Long Island summer house, and were spending money on surveys and plans for the barn that we had no immediate plans to live in other than the sum total of one month of the year we spent in England. As inspiring a building as it is, the whole thing made no sense to me. But then we moved to England. One of the fantasies we had in coming to that decision was that Christopher would finally have the chance to build the barn, and that would finally make sense if it were to be our primary dwelling. ..
Every year as we inch closer to the longest day of the year, it astonishes me how early the sun comes up on the farm. It’s nearly impossible for me to sleep past 5:30am at the moment. Some days, instead of fighting the urge to be awake, I get up and go outside to see what happens on the farm that early. I already know that the rooster crows because I can hear him, but what are the other animals doing at that hour? The other day I went to see the horses at the crack of dawn, and they pretty much looked the same as they always do, apart from being bathed in the most extraordinary light. Perhaps I’ll join them to watch the sun rise more often.
Hello there. I’ve been on Easter holidays with the kids. They get a month off of school, which just seems completely ridiculous to me, considering they had nearly a month at Christmas and ten days as well in February. I had great plans to work around their freedom – I would wake up early, write and blog and get some emails done and then spend the rest of the day with them. Well, that didn’t happen. I can’t complain too much because I was over the moon to have Coco home from boarding school for so long. Also having to entertain them to some extent made me take the focus off work life and put it instead on enjoying family life, which is the whole reason we moved here to England. So there it is.
But anyway, I’m back. And just in time for lambing season! This year we have 13 knocked-up ewes on the farm and as of today 9 have given birth, yielding 14 baby lambs so far. Last year, we secretly hoped for a bottle lamb – one that sadly gets abandoned by its mother and has to be kept alive with formula from a bottle. It would mean the lamb would come live with us in the house and we would nuture and raise it ourselves. There was one good candidate – the runt of triplets – that was weak from the start. We bottle fed it in the lambing shed, thinking it would gain strength and get in there more aggressively to grab its share of the milk from its mother. But it just wasn’t thriving. We thought we’d give it a couple more days to see if it improved, but then we found it dead one morning. He’d given up the will to live. My heart broke. Of course we wanted to give it every chance to bond with its mother and live the life of a normal lamb, but I was filled with regret. So this year, I said to Rob, who looks after our lambs, right from the start that if any lambs seemed vulnerable to being neglected, we would step right in to mother it ourselves at home. And sure enough, on day 3 of lambing, there was a set of twins born on a very cold night that even produced and few inches of snow. I think the mother must have been overwhelmed by looking after two in such challenging conditions because by the next morning she had completely abandoned one of them, a little boy. Coco spent an entire day with him in the lambing shed, giving him the colostrum he was missing from his mother and trying to get him to bond with her, but to no good outcome. By the evening, the baby lamb was settled into our house in a nice cozy crate and we were armed with a big bag of formula and bottle. It’s very early days yet – we haven’t even named him yet – any ideas???? – but so far it’s a bit like having a newborn baby but not quite. He’s cute as can be, and he is impressively strong and nimble even though he’s only four days old, but he sleeps through the night without needing to be fed, and pretty much entertains himself around the kitchen or my office when he is not napping. That said,with Coco and Zach back at school and Christopher out of the country for ten days, I am feeding him pretty much every two hours and taking him out for regular walks. He follows me absolutely every where, never more than a foot away from me. Not having done this before, I’m pretty much feeling my way through this instinctively and with a little help from Google. I have no idea how long he’ll stay for, but I’m hoping he’ll be out in the world independently before the hound puppies arrive and we start the surrogate-mothering process all over again!
About once a month, I go out to the far field to check on the pigs. I know I should go more often – and don’t worry our groom feeds them and looks in on them daily so they are well looked-after – but they’ve been around for a long time now and I guess the novelty of them has worn down to a once a month attraction. Porky and Bacon (named by my kids obviously) originally belonged to my brother-in-law, but they lived in the yard across from our cottage so we got to know them well when they were babies. They escaped into our garden and often in to the house, and Zach did his first pig riding on them. They were exceptionally friendly little piggies.
At one point, the pigs were moved up to the field next to my brother-in-law’s house but we still saw them almost daily while walking Ginger. Then one day we heard through the farm grapevine (as one does) that the pigs were being sent off to be made into sausages. Well Zach was not having that at all. ..
It’s taken me a while to write about poor little Bear, our pet African pygmy hedgehog. He died just before Christmas. Of course I was very sad, but even more I was overwhelmed by guilt. From the second I heard that Bear had been found lifeless in his cage, I was filled with deep regret. In the weeks and perhaps even months before that day I had become very clear that Bear, while cuter than you can possibly imagine, was not the right pet for us – it was obvious he was not thriving in our home – and I had planned to tell Coco, his “owner,” when she came home from boarding school just a week later that we needed to find a new and better home for him. The struggle I faced was that I couldn’t really imagine where that would be.
The first problem we faced with Bear was that he came into our lives not with proper consideration and planning, but on impulse. A year ago, Christopher went to pick up Coco from boarding school and later that afternoon they arrived home with Bear! Another student had brought him into school hoping to sell him, and Christopher and Coco just couldn’t resist him. As cute as all headgehogs – especially miniature ones – look in photos I was shocked by how much he looked just like a blonde sea urchin with legs. His quills were sharp. Really sharp. My internal alarm bells rang right away. “This is a crazy idea!” I cried to Christopher. Why should our daughter who lives at boarding school for the majority of the year take on the wellbeing of a new pet that lives at home? And where is he going to live? Christopher thought Bear would be happy living outside in the cage with the two bunnies. While I was googling “hedgehog habitats” and discovering that Bear’s rare variety meant he couldn’t live outside because he needed to be in a minimum of 72 degrees, Christopher and Coco thought they’d try him out with the bunnies. Well the bunnies hated him and got very aggressive with Bear and upset him terribly. He hyperventilated for hours afterwards. We resolved that he would live in Coco’s bathtub until a proper cage arrived from Amazon in a day or two. Well, his cage arrived and it was HUGE, dominating Coco’s tiny bathroom. But he seemed happy enough, exploring around, eating the catfood and fresh roasted chicken we’d been told he especially liked. And he ran and ran and ran in his wheel, but only at night. Yes, he was nocturnal. And that meant that whenever we went to play with him and give him love he would be sleepy and grumpy. Nothing in me thought this was a good idea, and the regret in me now is that I didn’t act then and there, that I didn’t insist that he be returned immediately.
I admit that I too get swept up in his cuteness and in the novelty of him. But it didn’t last long. When I thought of all the endless nights he spent in that cage in the bathroom, alone while the rest of the house slept, more alarm bells started ringing. We’d take him out of the cage at 9 or 10pm when he was just waking up, but he would do his rapid heavy breathing that clearly signalled distress and after a few minutes I would put him back, worried that I was upsetting him. Also, hedgehogs are not easy to hold. I could just about cup him in my hands when he was relaxed, but he would spook easily and when he did his spikes would puff out painfully stabbing my hands.
After a few months, I received a warning sign. I checked on him late a few nights and found that he wasn’t on his wheel doing his beloved running. As I live on the other side of the house though, I thought he must have just been doing it later on in the night while we slept. Then after that I noticed he was eating less, and not finishing his chicken. When Coco came home for a weekend, I expressed serious concern. She played with him late into the nights and took videos and showed me that he was happy and playful, which he did indeed appear to be in those moments.
But my feelings about his wellbeing became more grave over time and I decided I would tell Coco when she came home mid-December that I was sure he wasn’t thriving and that we needed to find a new home for him, perhaps with other hedgehogs (and I certainly wasn’t prepared to get another).
On a Monday in early December Zach’s friend Ali come over to the house, and she was desperate to play with Bear. She patiently waited until after dinner when he would be waking up and then we brought him out to play. Bear was always shy and nervous at first but as usual he eventually warmed to us and did all his sweet and endearing body movements and facial expressions. I showed Ali his funny buck teeth and his oversized mouse ears. She was scared to hold him so I let him crawl all over her on the sofa. He seemed happier than I had seen him in ages. I even sent Coco a message that I thought Bear was maybe becoming friendly and more well-adjusted. But the next morning as I was doing an errand after dropping Zach at school I got a text from Christopher saying that Bear had died in the night. I couldn’t believe it, but of course in retrospect it all made sense. I was devastated. I felt like we had utterly failed this poor creature. I am sure he died of depression and loneliness. He showed all the classic signs – decreased energy, decreased food intake – and yet I didn’t know what to do to better care for this helpless creature. He wasn’t neglected, he had a lovely home, plenty of food and toys and we loved him. And then it became clear to me. Bear was never meant to be a pet. He never should have been taken out of his natural habitat.
Here on our farm, animals and the loving care of them is a huge part of our lives and one that gives us great pleasure and happiness. We have managed and cared for endless pets and livestock that have thrived on our watch. But this time we got it wrong. I don’t mean to say what is right for everyone, but what I do know for sure is that pygmy hedgehogs, unlike rabbits or hamsters, are not easy to care for. I think anyone would have a hard time convincing me that they should be pets under even the most responsible and loving circumstances. Lesson humbly learned.
Recently Zach has been boarding at school every Thursday night. My newfound freedom on Fridays mornings has almost been startling. No 6:40am alarm bell, no rushed breakfast, no 40 minute school run (each way!). So I’ve been making a conscious effort to savour my new start-of-the-day options. Sometimes, I lay in bed reading a book or chatting with Christopher like we used to do on the weekends before we had kids; sometimes I go to my office early to get a head start on a new creative project that requires energy I only seem to have at the start of the day; and I often take the time to make myself a nice, leisurely breakfast. But now that we are in mid-February and the sun comes up into the sky a little earlier, I realised that the timing is right to walk up the hill from our cottage and watch the sun rise before I get started on my daily routine. This morning, Gingy and I set off up the bridle path, and even Fatboy followed us for a while. When we passed over the gallops and up through the old pillars, the sun was just coming up over the horizon. Ginger and I stood together, both absorbing the light and the warmth, until it was too bright to face. Then we walked back down towards home where I made soft-boiled eggs, toast and fresh squeezed blood orange juice. And then I was ready to get to work.
It’s hard to argue that there is any meal more quintessentially English than Sunday lunch at home. Many of our friends and family members make it a weekly practice – either going for lunch at a friends house or hosting their own. As much as Christopher and I enjoy these meals, we often feel that we need Sundays to be more focused on down time – finding ourselves in the garden, on a horse, or gorging ourselves at the buffet at Soho Farmhouse instead of hosting a house full of people. With Zach at school 6 days a week, it’s the only day we have him to ourselves and we all like to sleep late and go where the day naturally takes us.
That said, from time to time, I do get inspired to cook Sunday lunch. And when I do, I like to enjoy the results of my labour with friends and family just like the English do. ..
Wishing you all the very best for the holidays and the coming year. We are home in England this year, for the first time in three years. The kids are very happy to not be traveling for Christmas day and we have made the most of it by decorating cookies, going ice skating and singing lots of carols. Tonight we’ll be home for Christmas Eve dinner followed by lunch with the whole Brooks family tomorrow (32 for lunch – not at my house, thankfully!)...
It’s been 10 days since we said goodbye to Jake, and my eyes still fill with tears each time I think of him. We haven’t even sold him yet! Two Sundays ago we sent him to live in an agent’s yard who will market him, show him to potential buyers and negotiate his eventual sale. He’s had a lot of interest and a handful of people are coming back this week for a second try on him. Despite my sadness, I feel so happy for the lucky person who is going to take him home. But I didn’t always feel that way.
We bought Jake for Coco when he was five and she was nearly twelve. Five is definitely on the young side for a horse intended to be ridden by a child. But Coco had always inherited excellent and more experienced ponies from her older cousins – they were “push button” as horse people like to say when referring to a horse that will do anything you ask on command. First Mr Teddy and then Sailor followed by Polo had all made Coco a confident and daring rider. So both her coach and her grandmother felt she was up to the task of taking on a bit more of challenge. ..
Then we moved them to an old abandoned chicken run just behind the farmyard. They were safe there – and boy did the hens produce a LOT of eggs – but we never saw them. We had no relationship with them whatsoever. Besides the pleasure of having fresh eggs, it was if we didn’t even have chickens anymore. And that felt sad to us. ..