Saturday, 20 July 2013

The Chicken Diaries #2

Whenever I talked about 'the girls' in the past, I would be referring to the four daughters from my first marriage. Ranging in ages from 16-25 years old, they are all mostly independent and give me many reasons to be proud. However, they are being replaced. When I talk about 'the girls' now, it will be more than likely that I am referring to the four lovely ladies that live at the bottom of my garden - our chickens.

I wasn't sure how long it would take our little flock to settle into their new environment and start laying so I was delighted when on day one there were two lovely brown eggs in their run by mid morning. Another egg appeared later bringing the total to three. The following day, there were three more. Two of these had been laid in the nesting boxes which now had fresh straw in them to create a sweet smelling and inviting place to do ones egg related business. The third was laid under a tree in a little hollow. I felt ridiculously proud.

My husband had been away on a 200 mile bike ride when the chickens first arrived at our home. His opinion of chickens was that vegetarians should be OK with eating them because they are so stupid they are practically insects (to clarify, that is chickens, not vegetarians!) Meeting 'the girls' changed his opinion very quickly. He was even more excited than I was when he found his first egg in the nesting box.

Some time ago, after we'd first talked about the possibility of keeping chickens, I happened to be in my local Wilkinsons. I love a bargain so I was drawn to the aisle with the large red sign advertising SALE. I found an egg plate for 50p. Even now I am not entirely sure what an egg plate is for. Is it for storing fresh eggs or for presenting hard boiled eggs? I bought one anyway. I used my egg plate to display my growing number of eggs we'd collected.

My little girl, Addy loves fried egg. I promised her one of our special chicken eggs for her tea. She was very excited. Too excited. She became impatient and decided to 'help'. The first I knew of the disaster was when she ran to me with a very worried look on her little face saying Mummy, come quickly. I've made a mess. She was not wrong.

The egg plate had been on the top shelf of my fridge  safely out of reach - or so I'd thought. She had climbed up the shelves inside the fridge to reach it. Miraculously she managed to get the plate and four of the eggs undamaged to the counter. A further four eggs had been dropped in the process. Four smashed eggs oozing their gelatinous gloopy contents over the interior of my fridge and down onto the floor. I could have cried.

I cleaned up the mess and Addy had her egg for tea.

I had intended to use some of the eggs to bake a chicken themed cake to celebrate the arrival of our girls. I love the sunny weather but with the recent relentless heatwave,  it had just been too hot for baking. Instead, the eggs that survived Addy's clumsiness became part of a Friday Night Fry Up.

I was slightly disappointed that I couldn't tell any difference between our fresh eggs and the ones I usually buy from Morrisons - until I realised that the change in diet and living conditions almost certainly haven't had time to have any effect on the quality of the eggs laid. The eggs were quite possibly identical to usual 'free range' dozen that find their way into my weekly shopping basket.

The chickens now have access to plenty of vegetation and I watched with horrified fascination as the one with two good legs scratched deep enough into the dusty dry soil today to find damp earth and peck excitedly at the wriggling things it found there. I do not want to over think how that might have an influence on the taste of my runny yolks but I am intrigued to see if it does.

This morning, once again, there were two eggs in the nesting boxes by mid morning. Addy collected them - VERY carefully!

Friday, 19 July 2013

The Chicken Diaries #1

When our George brought a small animal carrier home after his day at work on the chicken farm, I found it hard to believe that it could contain four chickens. I thought they must be very tiny. We had only asked for three but as there had been four in the 'poorly pen' reserved for the deformed and reject birds that would not survive in a commercial scale flock, we were given a bonus one.

George opened the carrier and one by one in a flapping flurry of feathers, the four chickens emerged. They were not tiny at all. I still don't know how they fitted in there.

I got my first look at the chickens that we were giving a home to.

I had been warned about the defects but it still broke my heart to see the tatty feathers and twisted claws. These birds had come from a good farm producing free range eggs. Those liberated from battery farms I'm sure would have been in a far worse condition. The worst looking of the birds had a neck that looked as if someone had tried to wring it already and failed (prompting my daughter Charis to share the story of Mike the Headless Chicken).

They started to settle into their surroundings and pecked at the food we provided.

During the course of the evening, three of the birds (including the one with the unfortunate neck) made themselves at home and exhibited the sort of chicken-y behaviour I would have expected apart from the fact that they were very quiet. No contented clucking. The fourth bird was a cause for concern. It backed itself into a corner, lay down and closed its eyes. But for the gentle rise and fall of a feathery chest, I would have thought it was dead. The other chickens, rather than having empathy for the weakest member, pecked at her. I really did not expect her to still be alive in the morning.

As the sun set, we knew it was time for the birds to be shut away safely in their house. The number of usable legs amongst the members of our little flock was in short supply. I wasn't sure how well they would cope with the ramp leading up to their night quarters and I had reservations about how well they would cope with the perches inside. We helped them in and as I gently lifted the last chicken from her corner, I mentally reconciled myself with the fact that tomorrow it would be a corpse I lifted out.

The following morning,  I walked down the garden path with a little dread at what I might find. Then I heard clucking. They had been so silent yesterday and now they were clucking. Not loud, enthusiastic clucking, but still clucking.

I opened the door and the wrung neck chicken, who was the only bird to have two good legs, was first down the ramp.. closely followed by another. I had a peep inside and was delighted to see the chicken I had been so concerned about surviving the night, standing tall and strong, though looking slightly hesitant about how to hop down the ramp. Eventually, all four birds were out and scratching around for food.

Later that morning, I went to check on them and was delighted to see two large brown eggs had been laid with a third egg appearing later still.

The chicken house we bought for our new additions to the family has an integral run but it did ot offer much space for the four birds. WIth my husband away on a six day bike ride along the length of the English/Welsh border, I took it upon myself to fence off an area for them to wander free. There was nothing pretty about my boundary but it would do the job until my husband was able to do a proper job. I was so glad I did it. Seeing the chickens exploring the different surfaces and levels within their enclosure was a pleasure to witness. They scratched in the dirt, pecked at the grass and weeds and sheltered from the sun under trees. I'm sure I could see a slight improvement in the flexibility of their impaired limbs and their mobility as the day went on. It gave me hope that they could make a good recovery. I loved watching them preen themselves and stretch out their wings.

The greatest pleasure was seeing how well the chicken I had not expected to see the morning was doing.  Here she is standing tall (albeit on one leg!) :

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Turning Over a New Leaf

I had been having some behavioural problems with my 4year old daughter, most notably during an audiology appointment when she refused to co-operate and shouted at the poor audiologist that she smelt of socks and poo.

Since then, my naughty daughter celebrated her 5th birthday. She decided quite matter of factly that she was a big girl now and that meant she would be good.

The first test of this came when she had a check up at the dentist. Before she was 5, she flatly refused to open her mouth for the dentist and no amount of cajoling or the promise of reward stickers could make her change her mind. Five year old Addy sat nicely on the dentist's chair and opened wide when instructed.

Next was the opticians. Previously, this had gone well up until the point that eye drops needed to be administered to dilate the pupils. Three attempts on three different occasions all ended in the same screaming and refusal to co-operate. We were referred to the hospital to have the procedure as they would be better equipped to deal with the situation. I waited several weeks for an appointment before coming to the conclusion that we must have been lost somewhere in the system. I went back to the optician and persuaded them to have another go. I don't think the staff there really believed me that my daughter had turned over a new leaf and was no longer the child that would cause an unmanageable commotion. However, they were having a quiet afternoon and gave us the benefit of the doubt. My daughter flinched when the eyedrops were applied to her big blue eyes but was otherwise unfazed and behaved beautifully.

She also drew a little picture for the optician of herself choosing her glasses which said in her emergent handwriting 'I am sorry'.

Finally, the audiologist. It was with some trepidation that I entered the room. Would she kick off again? Would her venomous outburst be even more insulting than the poo and socks insult? It was actually my little boy who was a bit of a pain. He was in a chatty mood and could not keep quiet for the all important hearing test. My only option was to take him out and leave my little girl to the mercy of the audiologist (or possibly the other way round). My daughter informed me that it was fine, she didn't need me and I left. I sat outside in the corridor (trying not to be upset by being told I wasn't needed!) listening intently for the sound of abusive outbursts. Nothing. The door opened and the smiling faces of the audiologist and my daughter greeted me. Unbelievable.

I am not quite sure why turning 5 years old precipitated such a change in my daughter but I am grateful for it. I no longer feel a sense of dread when we have to do something outside her comfort zone. Don't get me wrong, she can still be naughty - sometimes very naughty - but the naughtiness never lasts long and she is usually repentant. In her very grown up way she will ask Can we just forget about that? Gladly!

Incidentally, her teeth are perfect, her hearing is perfect. She does need glasses to correct her vision. She looks very cute in them.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Here Come the Girls

My daughter Ivy's boyfriend lives on a farm.

One day, Ivy and her boyfriend offered to show my two little ones around the farm.

Dylan absolutely loves tractors and got very excited when he got the chance to sit in an old one. Addy loved the chickens.

Both children were fascinated by the incubator containing chicken eggs in varying stages of hatching. The newly hatched chicks are a sorry sight - bedraggled and exhausted - but before long they dry out, recover their energy and become cheeping balls of fluff.

A lifetime ago when I lived out in the country with my first husband, I kept chickens. I loved the fresh eggs they provided and I really enjoyed having them around. Tragedy struck when two large poodles from a neighbouring farm got loose and had immense fun ripping my lovely birds to pieces. The dog owners compensated us with new chickens but I never felt quite the same about them as I had about the first batch that were small enough when we first bought them that they still cheeped.

I am lucky enough to have a fairly large garden in the town house I live in now with my second husband. We have talked about getting chickens but the timing never seemed to be quite right. The children's delight at the chickens they saw on the farm coupled with an offer from Ivy's boyfriend to supply us with some were the catalysts to galvanise us into action. We bought a chicken coop (which the children seemed to want to live in!) and cleared a space to house it.

All we had to do was wait. Wait until the chicks we had seen hatching were big enough to fend for themselves outdoors. Addy was very excited.

My daughter Taylor's boyfriend is George. George will be going off to Uni in September but for now, to earn some cash, he is working on a chicken farm. We tease him a bit about smelling of chickens and call him Chicken George but I am so proud of his work ethic and the way he has thrown himself into the job. Taylor loves it that he comes round for lunch on work days and has started taking pleasure in having a sandwich ready for him.

George happened to mention to his employers that his girlfriend was getting chickens. Their first response was dump your girlfriend which Taylor did not take too kindly to but the fact is that if we were to have chickens and George was to be exposed to them, there was a risk of infection being passed on. Maybe there is a lingering paranoia after the whole bird flu threat but even a small risk of infection could still have potentially devastating consequences to the thousands strong flock and the livelihood they represent.

George, being a noble and responsible person, could not take the risk.

Taylor did not want to miss out on her precious 'George time'.

There was a solution. Instead of sourcing our chickens from the chicks we'd witnessed breaking free from their shells, we could opt for birds from the chicken farm which would be fully immunised and no threat. However, the birds on offer were the ones from the so called 'poorly pen' - chickens with defects that would mean they stood no chance of survival in the massive flocks required for commercial egg production.

Did I really want deformed reject chickens?

There were definitely pros. The breed was a proven good layer. George could still come round for lunch. We would be giving a home to previously unloved poultry.

In all, that was enough to swing it.

We explained the situation to Ivy's boyfriend. Although he believed the risk of infection to be so insignificant as to be virtually non existent, he sympathised with the chicken farmer's point of view.

Yesterday, George came home from work with an animal carrier. The children were beside themselves with excitement. Our empty chicken coop was suddenly buzzing with life. There were missing feathers, deformed feet, droopy combs and damaged beaks - but we fell in love with each of them at first sight.

I am hoping that with care, the reject chickens will be restored to strength and beauty and hopefully provide us with many fine eggs.  It may take time and they may never be the best looking birds but I look forward to witnessing their progress and am very happy to welcome them as the latest addition to the family.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Miss Nunn

Last year, my husband organised and participated in an epic bike ride from  Queen's School in Chester to Buckingham Palace. This year, the team are endeavouring to cycle the length of Offa's Dyke from Prestatyn to Chepstow (some 200 miles). No mean feat - especially considering the current heatwave we are enjoying (suffering?!)

On Sunday night, I drove out to their scheduled overnight stop to show my support.

They were staying in Adcote School, a small independent day and boarding school in the most beautiful rural setting. The school itself was a gorgeous tudor style sandstone building with grand mullioned windows and set in extensive landscaped grounds. It was most impressive. Inside, the grandeur was still evident and as I walked up the main stairway, I couldn't help but notice a large oil portrait of Mrs Doubtfire!

It turned out that the costume designer on the set of Mrs Doubtfre was Marit Allen, former pupil of Adcote School. She had very clearly drawn her inspiration for the look of the character from the Headmistress whose portrait I was now admiring. The likeness was uncanny.

It got me thinking about some of the more iconic authority figures from my school career. One in particular sprang to mind. Ageing spinster, music teacher - Miss Nunn.

Miss Nunn had a face that always reminded me of the Child-catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Upon those unfortunate pointy and unattractive features she would plaster thick foundation. I would not have been surprised to discover that it was actually stage makeup that she used, such was the thickness she achieved - and it would crack - further adding to the Child-catcher illusion. I distinctly remember being fascinated by the skin/make up interface around her jawline. As a result , I am always very careful when it comes to blending my own foundation (on the rare occasions I wear it).

Despite her sinister visage, she was actually of a kindly disposition. She was passionate about her subject but had absolutely no skills when it came to classroom management. She was regularly the target of abuse from the naughty kids in class and her voice would become more and more shrill as she tried to restore order. On one particular occasion, her shrieking and the escalation of bad behaviour from one pupil culminated in a chair being thrown across the classroom at her. It did not hit her, thankfully,  but we certainly did not learn much about music theory during that session.

Miss Nunn went by the nickname Winnie. I'm not sure whether her name actually was Winifred, but apparently she was named after or adopted the name of a famous concert pianist of the time. I have Googled 'Winnie concert pianist' but it shed no light on the matter for me. The name did suit her though.

There was much speculation about romantic liaisons between Miss Nunn and an elderly divinity teacher, Doctor Davies. I doubt there was any truth in the matter but there was a very obvious match between the two distinctly 'old school' dinosaurs. Nowadays, the internet has spawned 'fandoms' in which fanatics of popular TV shows can write their own version of the shows using the established characters. More often than not, this involves 'shipping' which enables the exploration of romantic couplings between characters that wouldn't necessarily have been in the original script writers intentions. At school, we all 'shipped' Miss Nunn and Doc Davies. We never tired of it!

The most remarkable thing about Miss Nunn for me was her choice of dress. She always, without fail, whatever the weather, wore a blue woollen two piece. I have to hope that she had a wardrobe full of identical blue woollen two pieces which she alternated but to all intents and purposes it was as though she never EVER changed her clothes. This idea was leant weight by the fact that the armpits of the outfit were discoloured to the most vile shade of brown imaginable. There was nothing more horrendous than Miss Nun enthusiastically conducting the orchestra (of which I was a member with my trusty clarinet). Her arms would wave at full stretch overhead to ensure everyone could see her (she was fairly diminutive in stature)  revealing the unsanitary armpit area in all its gruesome glory.

Had I gone on to become a movie costume designer, Mrs Doubtfire may have had a very different appearance!

Although I would find it very difficult to assign an age to Miss Nunn, she surely must be long dead now.  I wonder how many of the pupils who passed through the door of her classroom have such vivid memories of her as I do. A quick search on Friends Reunited Teacher Memory proved that she certainly hasn't been forgotten:

Miss Nun

Short, big boobs, Fancied Doc Davis ? Not sure why !


2ND 3RD year RE lessons... total chaos !

Miss Nunn

Miss nunn always had a white face as if she had dipped her face in flour before coming to School

Monday, 1 July 2013

Mike the Knight at Warwick Castle

It was my little boy's third birthday on Friday and by lucky coincidence, we had been invited by HIT Entertainment to attend a blogger event at Warwick Castle on the Saturday which involved meeting Mike the Knight and taking part in a range of themed activities aimed at preschoolers. My little ones both enjoy watching Mike the Knight on CBeebies  and with the sun shining, I had the feeling we were going to be in for a good day.

I have visited Warwick Castle on a number of occasions in the past. There was much that felt familiar on this occasion but I couldn't fail to be impressed by the improvements that have been part of a £6million restoration project over the last 10 years and by the programme of events and activities designed to bring history to life.

The collaboration between Mike the Knight and Warwick Castle seemed to me to be a perfect fit. I was looking forward to seeing how my little ones would respond to being immersed in history through play with the familiar characters from a much loved TV show to act as their guides in the dramatic setting of a real castle.

As we were queueing to get into castle, we could see a glimpse of canvas tents that dotted the lawn, cheerful bunting flapping in the breeze and the familiar Mike the Knight branding. It all looked very exciting.

My little ones couldn't wait to dive in, making a  beeline for a large sandpit. This gave us a moment to have a look at the leaflet describing all the activities on offer so we could make sure they didn't miss anything. The leaflet also had places for stickers that could be collected on completion of each of the activities (or keeping in character - chivalrous tasks!) Completing all ten chivalrous tasks earns a reward of a fluttering favour.

The activities included Medieval Face Painting, Mr Cuddles Colour and Crafts, Mike's Target Test and a personal favourite  Galahad's Gallop - a hobby horse race.

All activities were free and manned by friendly, enthusiastic staff in medieval dress. Although it was busy, we were able to do everything we wanted without too much waiting around and the whole atmosphere was very relaxed. The little ones enjoyed collecting their stickers.

The queues to meet Mike the Knight were long earlier in the day but less so later on. Although my children were excited to see the Mike from a distance, the reality of being close to a cartoon character made flesh (albeit synthetic flesh animated from within by a human being who must have been suffering terribly with the heat under the weight of his/her costume) was almost too much. They reluctantly posed for a hastily taken photograph before making a speedy exit!

For me, the very best activity was Sparkie and Squirt's Dragon Egg Hunt. This involved following a series of clues to discover dragon eggs located around the castle grounds. The eggs were huge, beautifully decorated and resting in nests made from twigs. My children were completely convinced that they were indeed dragon eggs.

Whilst my excited little knights in training followed the egg trail, I was able to follow them and enjoy the delights of the Victorian Rose Garden, the Mill and the Peacock Garden. The final egg was on the Mound which meant an ascent up steps and ramps. The children were delighted by the 'hatched' dragon egg while I enjoyed the stunning views which were well worth the effort of the climb.

If this wasn't enough activity to keep everyone occupied there were also the usual attractions such as the Warwick Warriors (making a lot of noise and bashing at each other with big swords!), the Flight of the Eagles Show and Firing the Trebuchet to name but a few.

The story of our visit would not be compete without mentioning the incredibly detailed sand sculpture created by Raymond Wirick which depicts Warwick Castle, Buckingham Palace and Mike the Knight's own castle complete with dragon. It was built to coincide with summer solstice and was simply awe inspiring. Children have the opportunity to enter a competition, creating their own 'Ultimate Sandcastle' in the sandpit. My little boy was more interested in knocking down his sandcastles and to my embarrassment, throwing the sand around!

For a fantastic family day out, Warwick Castle is easily accessible from Junction 15 off the M40 and the next Mike the Knight weekend takes place on 6th and 7th July. (For more information visit )

The Birthday Boy as Squirt the Dragon
A new series of Mike the Knight airs on Cbeebies mid July followed by the release of a brand new DVD, Be a Knight, Do It Right on July 29th.
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