Christmas Pies

For several months during the spring and summer of 2012 I sat planning, writing, thinking and re-planning ideas for what would eventually become Longwater Farm. I sat there, up my dining room table, in my lovely bay window of my flat on Grosvenor Road, most nights and weekends creating the vision, testing the sums, chatting with others who had or were already giving it a go. I saw the gaps and I saw the short falls and I'd found several ways to fill them so I didn't make the same mistakes. Farmers can be supportive of each other like that. By the end of the summer I was ready to take my idea to the momentous next stage. If I failed here then the project would never happen. Everything depended on how I now handled this defining conversation.


"Grandad" I said. "I want to talk to you about something."

This man was my hero, my best friend, the man who brought me up. He was my happiness. I trusted and loved him more than anyone in the world, and yet I found myself nervous and shaking a bit as I started to talk. Grandad sat in his chair, in his work clothes, muddy from being on the farm, mug of tea and a smoke next to him. Larger than life, a life spent working in mines, putting up pylons, building and farming. As always, he looked at me with his big kind blue eyes, but now slightly taken aback by how nervous I was. "What's up, gal? You moving to Africa again?"

"No, Grandad, I'm not going anywhere. I want to buy half your farm off of you." I was already handling it badly. No matter how elaborate a speech I'd planned, Grandad always had a way, with just a look, of making you cut through the shit. I was studying his face looking for a reaction to spur me on. I hadn't previously mentioned any of my thoughts or ideas on the subject, and as much as he didn't like it, he would have been far more used to hearing me declare what new and dangerous part of the world I was going to explore next. But nothing. His face revealed absolutely nothing. I was disarmed.

I took a deep breath and plunged straight in. I went through every single detail of my immaculate and watertight five year business plan. I stopped every now and then, "are you following me, Grandad?" "Yep." I ploughed on like I was in a board room, presenting big bits of paper, diagrams, graphs, figures, market research. It really was a good presentation. By the time I got to the end of what I had to say, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, there was no way he could say no. But still he sat there, in the same position, tea undrunk, smoke untouched, expression unchanged. Silence. Every second that went by my eyes were getting wider and wider willing a response, I'm sure I could have caught flies. We were just staring at each other, reading each other beyond the words. I couldn't bare it any longer. "So what do you think, Grandad? Do you like it? Do you think it's a good idea?"

"Yes I like it. You've thought it through." His face still hadn't changed but they were the words I'd wanted to elicit for months, so that was good enough for me.

"Thank you so much, that's great! Amazing! So you'll let me buy half the farm!"

"No."

What? What do you mean 'no'? I kept that thought to myself.

"You'll never make it work." He went on. "It's not worth it, it'll be a ball and chain around your neck forever." He was serious. I was devastated. I could see for the first time that this is what the farm had come to mean for him. That shook me more than him saying no.

"Grandad what are you talking about? You love the farm. You just said it's a good idea!"

"I worked down there for thirty odd years, and on my own since my brother died more than ten years ago. I've worked there seven days a week, full time for Draper and Nichols, before work and after work every day and every single weekend. Once you've got livestock you'll never have a day off again, no holidays, no Christmas, you'll end up taking pies to work instead sitting down to lunch. That'll be a bind forever, for you, whoever you marry, your kiddies, and it won't pay the bills, it's too small to work it full time, that's why I never did. They'll never let you build on it so you'll have to travel. I like your idea, Shona, but it won't work. The place is a burden"


He knew he was right, that was his experience, and I knew I was right, but I didn't have any yet. Not that I knew that my way would definitely work of course, but I knew it wouldn't fail for the reasons Grandad gave. I knew that if I tried to farm such a small plot the way he had, it would never work; agriculture had changed too much to try and run a 'hobby farm' with the same business model as a large scale post war farm, and expect to make a lucrative living from it. But my model didn't reflect Grandad's in any way, it wasn't even a shadow of what he had done. If he couldn't see the vision from what I had told him, I would have to show him. Being the open minded, free thinking and wise man that I knew him to be, I asked him to rent me a small area for a year, so I could set up a smaller version of what I aimed to achieve, give it a go and show him, as well as myself, that it could be done. I asked him to watch me, help, and keep talking to me about it, and at the end of that year, if it was going well, if he approved and if I wanted to keep it up, for him to reconsider the idea of selling half. He laughed heartily at the determination and the naivety, and agreed.


For the next two years, I spent every weekend working on the farm, as well as evenings and

mornings during the lighter months. All while working full time for Big C and then the RSPB. At first and for a long time, I failed more than I succeeded, I struggled, I frustrated myself, doubted myself, chided myself. I tried to hide all that from Grandad, and he never said a word unless I asked him to, but he saw everything though. He saw me fall in love with the early morning colours, the satisfaction of working in the rain, pushing through the tests of my fingers and toes being so cold I could have cried. I remember working the land that first Christmas providing veg boxes for regular customers; I'd baked some cheese and potato pies and jam tarts a few days before for lunches. Paul and I had met and fallen in love by then, and I was lucky enough to have met someone as interested in getting their hands dirty too. He got stuck in, working to his strengths. We developed into an incredible team. But he would always end up giving half his pie to the feral cats. We would stop at lunch time, light a fire, drink tea and munch the pies, laughing and chatting, enjoying Christmas day. We were always so hungry that they tasted like the best food we had ever eaten. I never understood how he could bare to part with half of his to the cats. Each year, Christmas day came and went, and each year the farm family continued to grow. We built our own Christmas traditions; normally a walk somewhere in the Broads, to the beach, canoeing. Then a trip to the farm to quickly do the chores so we could get the fire lit and crack open the pies with the animals, who each had their own special Christmas day treats. Grandad thought we were bonkers. We would then quickly nip in to visit one set of parents or the other and then return to our cosy nest to enjoy a dahl we had prepared a couple of days before, with Kitty, cuddled up, with a film. Either that or we ended up in Paul's shed with woodburner, beer and friends, having a mix. Pure happiness. Utter bliss.


Another Christmas day has just gone by. I sat on the tree stump seat having given all the animals their treats. Second Christmas without Paul. Fifth Christmas without Grandad. I still brought home made pies with me. I fed them all to the cats. I watched my daughter running around playing with them, and showing the watering can who is boss. Then I remembered for the first time in all those years when Grandad told me what a bind this place would be, and used pies instead of a roast dinner as an example of what I'd have to sacrifice to make it work, and I laughed out loud. I could hear them both laugh with me. But I couldn't stop and natter today, I had a Christmas lunch to get to.


I'd been feeling it for a while, like a little ball of light growing hot in my chest. I'm ready again, I'm ready now, impatient, poised, balanced, ready to risk again, be bold, ready to let go of the rope that kept me afloat while I found my feet once more. There's a new family on the farm now; it's different, it works, it beams, and is enhanced by the history of the place.

All of the challenges and hardships that Grandad said I'd face; all of them came to pass and so so many more. But not once had the pies been one of them.


(Photo credit: Libby Double @thewayoftea)






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