Whatever happened to gravity?

Living up a hill in the North Pennines at 1000ft above sea level, I had assumed that water wouldn’t be too much of a problem for us. Why should we worry about that when we are all taught in school that gravity means water will naturally flow downhill.

We are another 200ft above the main village so it would seem logical to expect that any excess water up with us should flow down to the village and on into the River East Allen down below us. From there the water can merrily flow on to join the River South Tyne and then head towards Newcastle before in due course meeting the North Sea at Tynemouth.

However it turns out there is more to this than I first knew.

For one thing, the geology of our general area means that there are many points where water simply emerges from underground as a result of the rock formations. This is not a bad thing in some ways because our house is on a natural spring water supply!

Add to that the fact that drainage in some areas of our small patch could definitely be improved. Not so much to turn all this water into someone else’s problem but just to get the excess to run in the right places where it can be better managed.

Standing water at 8am with rain due all day!
Standing water at 8am with rain due all day!

Another key point is that the upland areas of the UK like the North Pennines, particularly the moors higher up from us, are actually great places for holding up water. I’ve seen many articles since we moved to this area about restoring the peat bogs or renewing the sphagnum moss and such like

I don’t claim to understand the subject in any depth but I can appreciate that if water flows more slowly from the moors at the start of the process then it will help. Reducing the amount of water and the speed at which it flows down will reduce the risk of flooding for built-up areas further away.

Faced with a day of heavy rain today and a small herd of Dexter cattle that live outdoors all year round it was clear that a smallholder with a soft streak like me had some quick decisions to make.

Top of the list, I decided that it would be good to let the cattle have a small section of woodland which would keep them out of the worst of the wind and rain for today.

They may be a hardy breed and quite happy living outside in the UK climate but that doesn’t mean I’d be happy sitting inside my house knowing they are just sheltering behind a stone wall.

Happy to be out of the weather for today
Happy to be out of the weather for today

Looking back over our first 5 years as smallholders

Having reached the 5th anniversary of our move from suburbia to a North Pennines smallholding, it’s clearly a good time to review the current situation and take stock of our progress so far. Not least of which is where did all those years go!

The first task for me was to look back at my older blog posts from previous anniversaries and they were surprisingly informative. A little naive in places perhaps but that’s to be expected with hindsight and I’m sure that some of my more recent updates will look much same when I review them in the future.

Step by step

Apparently after just one week in our new 15 acre home we were already thinking of options and making plans. However reading that post though again now, some aspects don’t match the actual events so that’s a good illustration of how plans will change as you go along!

The one constant from our initial arrival is the collection of white chickens (breed uncertain) that we agreed to keep on from the previous owners. Although the cockerel has long since gone, the remaining hens still occasionally disappear off in random places to sit on some eggs until we can track them down.

Hidden chicken
Hidden chicken

The 2nd anniversary was marked by the dramatic events when the Dexter cattle made their big entrance before eventually settling down. At the time a real low point for me but now I’m not sure I would want to be without the Dexters plus the beef is absolutely amazing!

Around this same time, we also decided to convert one of the stone barns into a 2 bed self catering holiday let and this has turned out to be very popular. There’s a bit more work involved in running this than we might have original expected but it’s still very rewarding and we’ve had a constant stream of lovely guests staying.

Living area and patio
Living area and patio

By the 3 year smallholding anniversary it was becoming clear that we were doing more with livestock than I’d originally anticipated. Along with the obligatory chickens for eggs, we also had 2 Tamworth sows for breeding plus the Dexter cattle were happily calving unaided each year.

Daisy and Garry
Daisy and Garry


Piglets at the trough
Piglets at the trough

Now that the 5 year mark is here you can tell we’re getting more confident or perhaps that should be over-confident.

Despite our carefully thought out plans for managing the workload, we’ve decided to try keeping a few orphan lambs this year but at least these are just for meat with no intention for long-term breeding. This approach was certainly underlined for me when they decided to invade my raised beds and caused all sorts of havoc.

Some unwanted help with the veg beds
Some unwanted help with the veg beds

In general this is a nice way to try keeping a different type of animal for a few months but it’s not cheap with milk/feed costs and I’m still not convinced that I’d keep any sheep as a longer term activity.

Assessing our progress

It’s been a huge learning experience and immensely enjoyable most of the time with just the occasional negative moments. Even during the bad times though, I only need to take a wander around our fields and woods or just sit with the animals for a while.

This whole adventure has only been made possible through the help of our neighbours and the many new friends we’ve made since we started this journey. I’d be the first to admit that without that help and support we would not be where we are today.

There are always difficulties associated with having a full-time job along side running a smallholding but that’s not impossible, it’s only hard work and a desire to live that life. The subject of time management is always uppermost in my mind but cutting corners to fit things in would not always suit me You just have to plan out the workload for the time available and keep on going…

Reaching another milestone

Surprisingly, today marks the 4th anniversary of the move to our smallholding in the North Pennines. This is hard to believe partly because it’s just 4 years since we left the suburban semi-detached house but also because it feels longer than 4 years given that so much has happened in that time.

From having 3 chickens in our suburban back garden to a 15 acre smallholding with an assortment of chickens, some rare breed Tamworth pigs (plus piglets) and some pedigree Dexter cows (plus calves). It’s been an amazing journey so far even just from a livestock perspective never mind the converted barn for holiday lets.

The ups and downs along the way have been both educational and humbling in equal measure but the overwhelming feeling is that we have been extremely lucky and we should continue trying to make the most of the opportunity.

We have been helped along the way by far too many people to mention but that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate all the help and advice provided though. We still have a lot to learn though and without the knowledge and experience of others we definitely wouldn’t have made it this far.

Over time it’s becoming clear that there will never be a point when we can just sit back and relax. Mostly because there’s always a job that needs to be done or another mad idea to plan and pursue. I wouldn’t have it any other way!

To celebrate this significant milestone, here are a few of my favourite pictures from the past 4 years


Cutting the hay meadows

It’s that time of year again when the friendly neighbouring farmer comes along to cut the hay meadows. Unlike last year when everything happened while I was out for the day, this year he arrived while I was pottering around the place so I was able to take some pictures.

In our area it seems that hay making has been going on for some time so I had thought ours would be some of the last to get cut. This is not a bad thing with these wildflower hay meadows as it’s good to let the plants set seed before cutting.

I have also noticed that there are still a number of fields dotted around locally which have not been cut yet so we can hold our heads up high. It may not be a competition but there is a part of me that’s glad we’re not the last to get cut!

view from ground level before cutting
view from ground level before cutting

View from higher up during cutting
View from higher up during cutting

All finished!
All finished!


Now would seem a good time for me to make some plans for the future maintenance or even improvements to these fields. In the future we may need to consider taking on this work ourselves so it would be very helpful to know a little more on the subject.

Luckily the North Pennines AONB Meadow Management workshop listed on the North Pennines Smallholders website is coming up soon so that’s probably a good place to start!

A change of scene

After a month or more of grazing the limited grass in a nearby paddock, today seemed a good time to move our guests to a new spot. We’re only looking after the neighbours tups while he is busy with lambing but it’s been interesting to see them at such close quarters.

Somewhere with an untouched lush growth of grass was the order of the day and not hard to achieve as it’s only 100 yards away from their previous home for the last few weeks.

I’m sure they’ll love the fresh grass on offer but I’m doubt whether they will fully appreciate the glorious view of a North Pennines valley in spring time as well!

Fresh grass and a lovely view
Fresh grass and a lovely view

Final preparations

Some last-minute preparations and planning for the pigs journey – it’ll be their only time out of Northumberland! We’re very glad that we decided to try having pigs but also glad that they are on their way in good time before any really bad weather sets in.

It was a frosty morning on Friday with a light dusting of snow so it can’t be long until we begin to experience our first full winter in the North Pennines. All relevant preparations for that are well underway including winter tyres, warm clothing, salt/grit and the like!


The final Friday weigh-in

The usual calculation has been repeated yet again with the expected minor increases in their overall dimensions…


Heart Girth (measuring around the body just behind the front legs) = 0.96 m

Length (measured from between the ears to the base of the tail) = 1.04 m

This means that the approximate weight is: (0.96 ² x 1.04 x 69.3) = 66.4 kg

No Tail

Heart Girth (measuring around the body just behind the front legs) = 1.04 m

Length (measured from between the ears to the base of the tail) = 1.1m

This means that the approximate weight is: (1.04 ² x 1.1 x 69.3) = 82.5 kg


Apart from one of them being a little lighter than I might have wanted, the only concern now is whether the remaining pig feed will last until Sunday morning. If it doesn’t then that’s a trip to Carrs Billington to get another 20kg bag for just one or two feeds but it can’t be helped I suppose…

A busy weekend of highs and lows

Sometimes it’s nice to take it slow at the weekend and enjoy the slower pace of our new life with the wonderful scenery around us. Since we moved to the new house I’ve always been very conscious that I should be grateful for the combination of persistence, good timing and dumb luck which got us here.

One of the real pleasures of living in this part of the North Pennines comes at the start and end of the day with great scenery in the morning and huge star filled skies at night. The frosty start this morning while feeding the pigs was a typical example especially the way the rising sun hits the fields on the opposite side of the valley.

Sunrise over the valley
Sunrise over the valley

However this weekend was not one of those easy-going, relaxed weekends. Instead it was spent taking on a couple of important jobs which we had never tackled before so there was a certain amount of apprehension. In my experience there is only way to go when faced with that kind of problem and that is to tackle it straight on, just get on with it.

Chicken slaughter

Our first homegrown chicken
Our first homegrown chicken

The biggest deal in my mind was the need to”rationalise” the chicken flock before any problems could arise. There are too many males after the eggs that hatched earlier this summer so some of them have to go.

We finally got up the nerve and took the opportunity on Saturday to slaughter our first chicken.  This one had been one of the eggs that a hen was found sitting on soon after we moved in.

A great deal of internet research was done, many messages exchanged with helpful people on web forums and a number of slightly gory YouTube videos as well.

In the end I decided on neck dislocation using a broomstick which seemed the most hands-on without actually having to look him in the eye while doing the deed. There was a little uncertainty after doing this so I also tried a manual neck dislocation just to be sure but I’m certain now that the first attempt was successful.

On reflection I realise that it wasn’t anything like as difficult as I’d expected apart from the concern that we hadn’t done the job correctly. The biggest fear leading up to this was always that inexperience might mean a botched job but as it turned out this was unfounded.

The feeling might have been different if the 2 remaining “pet” chickens were involved as a result of illness or injury but these white chickens were inherited from the previous owners when we moved in. They seem to be naturally flighty and want to avoid human contact so the sense of attachment is greatly reduced.

On this first time we also decided against the full gore of plucking and gutting to help ease ourselves into the idea of raising chickens for meat. For this occasion we decided to pluck a little so we get the general idea but to just take the most accessible bits for eating.

My first attempt at chicken dissection were nothing special but I managed to remove the breast meat and some of the thigh/leg as well. A generally successful first go at this with a little experience of each aspect but the next time we really need to take things a stage further – assuming we can bring ourselves to do this again of course!

Trailer collection

Shiny new trailer
Shiny new trailer

Over the weekend we also collected a shiny new Ifor Williams trailer which is just in time for some gentle practice (especially reversing!) before taking the pigs off the abattoir in a couple of weeks.

Having never towed any kind of trailer before I was worried that my shiny new toy might not look so good by the time I got it home.

It turns out that towing this trailer is no bother at all – in fact it’s no wider than a Subaru Forester and only slightly higher. When loaded with livestock the driving experience may be a little different of course but I’m much happier to know how it handles in general.

The trailer might be considered to be a little too large for just 2 pigs who are making a one way trip of less than an hour. However I prefer to think that they deserve to go in style, especially as they have been such characters and absolutely no bother to look after for the last 4 months!

I’ve already wondering what breed to get next year and hopefully after one more set of weaners next year I can swing it so that we get a couple of breeding sows for the longer term.

What next?

There are many more things in the pipeline which will be covered by future blog posts in due course – fruit trees and bushes, broadleaf trees for the woods and of course like any keen veg grower I’m already making plans and shopping lists from seed catalogues!

Ideas and suggestions are always welcome though…


Weather watching

According to the BBC Weather page for our area this morning, it looks like we may be getting the first sub-zero temperatures at night this coming weekend! We’ve particularly enjoyed watching the onset of autumn with the associated array of colours but we can’t ignore this sign that winter is coming.

First frost perhaps?
First frost perhaps?

Even after 5 months, we still find ourselves caught up in the excitement of finally completing the purchase and move to our new property. I’m sure this will fade with time but I’d like to remember the feeling for as long as possible so that we appreciate our good fortune (and hard work).

I’m still making a conscious effort to update the blog or keep taking notes for future reference though because, with so many new experiences in such a short space of time, there is no way I will be able to remember everything from one year to the next!

We’ve already sorted out the most important winter preparations – coal delivered, wood delivered and stacked, oil tank filled etc. – but even these fairly basic tasks were all new to us. We’re only used to the mains gas supply that we had in our previous, suburban house with no need to ensure that we have enough supplies in stock. One remaining task is to ensure that the spring water supply is properly protected to prevent it freezing if we get a really cold spell.

There are still so many first time experiences to come and a great many unknowns ahead of us but that is all part of the adventure. One thing is almost certain though – I’m sure we will find ourselves regretting the recent enthusiasm for the coming winter by the time the cold North Pennine weather really sets in.


Settling into the new routines

Slowly I find that we are settling into something resembling a routine and each day that passes sees us getting more used to the realities of our new life. Even the few animals that we already have here are adjusting well to the new regime although we’re still not too sure where some of the chickens are laying eggs

We are being careful to assess everything before making changes and trying not to jump into anything too soon which is the most common advice from every book, article or web forum on smallholding. However I am eager to start making some of the bigger decisions about things like other livestock, managing the woodland , adding renewable energy sources and expanding the growing capability.

I’m not sure that I will know how to tell when we’ve reached the point when we can start on some of these things but I’m hoping that I’ll know when the time is right. I’m also reminding myself regularly that we can do whatever we like now we have the space and also that in some cases it might be better to “do and learn as we go” rather than “plan too much and never start”!

For example, we hadn’t planned to get any more chickens yet but with one of original pet hens dying it seems very opportune that one of the hens we “inherited” from the previous owners has hatched out a couple of chicks!

Two chicks doing well
The two new arrivals


Appreciating the surroundings

One of the other hopes for this move was to have some time to appreciate things and, just occasionally, raise the eyes to take in everything that is around us rather than getting swamped by the daily grind. Obviously you don’t need to move to do this but looking around the local area here is definitely more scenic than our previous suburban existence. It’s called the North Pennines AONB for a very good reason.

A simple walk down the lane into the village on a Saturday morning recently was just one such occasion. A pleasant morning stroll with curlews and chaffinches calling all around and I noticed that the clover was flowering at the side of the road.

I’d never noticed before that clover flowers have quite a noticeably (and not unpleasant) scent. The combination of that with the other wild flowers at the moment was definitely worth a picture at least. I’m sure we’ll look back at this fondly in about 6 months time when the verges are covered in snow!

Wild flowers
Wild flowers at the roadside

Never a dull moment

It barely seems possible that we only moved in just 4 weeks ago given that there has not been a dull moment in that whole time. We have no problem in coming up with plans for things to be done but there is a definite lack of spare time to get on with things at the moment

Despite it being such a short period of time we’ve very quickly come to appreciate the whole “circle of life” thing having had both unexpected deaths and births either on or around our land. Here is a brief summary:

Chicken numbers

Sadly we lost Amy, one of the original “pet” chickens, who was discovered lying dead but at least she looked strangely peaceful lying in the long grass when we found her.


My suspicions are that the trouble was related to egg laying as she has had occasional problems in that department but it came totally out of the blue and she was fine earlier that day when seen foraging with the other 2 pet hens.

It's not all bad news
It’s not all bad news

Within a few days of this sad episode, we spotted some better news with the broody hem who had been sitting on some eggs when we moved in.

As noted in an earlier post, two of the eggs had hatched and with 5 other eggs still in place under her there are hopes for more in the near future.

While not exactly part of the original plan, having left her sitting on the eggs all this time I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that some (or perhaps all) of them may hatch in the end!

We may have read up on chickens (and many other subjects) in preparation for this big adventure but a few books or videos have nothing on actually learning through practical experience.

Unconnected deaths

Luckily (if that’s the right word) another of the deceased animals was a wild rabbit which my grand-daughter found – fortunately with no blood or guts on display. However, rather than being upset by the episode, she was most impressed by how soft the fur was and was happy for us to move it somewhere out of the way so that nature could take it’s course.

Within the first week or so of living here, we also came across a dead ewe in an adjoining field along with her lamb which was looking a little confused. However  a couple of quick phone calls to the neighbouring farmers eventually tracked down the owner and everything eventually worked out well – for the lamb at least.

Not so noisy guests

Our paddocks at the back have been set aside for another neighbour to use for his sheep but after 2 week delay in their arrival we can see very clearly how things can get out of control at this time of year. The grass has grown at an impressive rate but now that the sheep have arrived things can return to normal.


The visitors are looking slightly surprised and very pleased to find themselves with so much good food around them. Perhaps this is why they seem to be very quiet with little noise other than the satisfied munching of grass?

I’m told these are “teenagers” which is a little worrying because we’ve already been through that phase some time ago with the children so I hope these new guests will be less troublesome.

What next?

So far there has been everything we hoped and a whole lot more that we hadn’t quite appreciated – I’m keeping my fingers crossed for much more like this in the future too! Perhaps with slightly fewer deaths though?

I’m certainly happy to get this sort of view while travelling back from work at the end of the day:

View of the North Pennines
I can see my house from here!