Let it never be said that Exmoor is dull. Whether you’re indoors or out, life can be challenging here and being flexible and patient is a virtue.
Here, on the moor, you have to look after each other and help where you can – you never know when you’re going to need a helping hand or, indeed, what skill sets you’re going to require. However, I always find that it’s healthy to have a good attitude and a smile ready when the going gets tough – sometimes I think they’re the only skill sets I possess but they’ve worked for me so far.
The call had come out that my happy disposition was required next door in the fields. It seemed that some heavy metal gates and pens had to be moved. The tractor was out already, chugging away and the wind was blowing a hooley making it quite chilly in the top field. Well, I couldn’t stop laughing at the antics that followed and was quite sure I was being more of a hindrance than a help. Whilst the tractor lifted the wide, barred gates, we had to steady them and walk with the tractor to their destination. The wind was fierce! We couldn’t stand up to begin with, and were stood clinging onto the gate with every bit of strength we could muster, shouting our words into the wind for the trees to hear. Following that, we were trying to balance ourselves at a 45 degree angle, whilst contending with the contraptions we were moving, which was great fun. It was a sight for sore eyes and if anybody had clocked us in our task then I think we’d have made their day. The tractor driver was amazing – it was us on the ground that was the problem. Job done though, we were absolutely exhausted having fought with the wind and prevailing rain. With ruddy cheeks we traipsed off to the homestead for a well-earned cuppa.
I was once told that if the wind, rain, hail, snow could be seen blowing from right to left across the cottage’s front window, then, with a few deep breaths, all would settle down soon. However, if it came blowing in the opposite direction, then we were headed for trouble – heavy snow, floods or severe wind damage. It was a weather forecast that served us well. Today it was blowing from the right direction but it was still extremely strong. My neighbours had further chores to do and I was off to take advantage of collecting some starters and lighters for the wood burner. Every cloud has a silver lining and the wind that day had certainly brought us that. Twigs and branches aplenty to be picked up and barrowed back to the log store while the pickings were good. It was always a welcome outing the day after a huge wind, to go out picking up sticks amongst the fallen leaves. Something for nothing – you can’t go wrong, and it makes the warmth you feel from them all the more comforting.
Anyway, good neighbour that I am, I suggested that I cook for my two friends that evening. With the responsibility of caring for their animals, it was on very rare occasion that they were able to venture out. Their work is never finished and I thought they’d enjoy a change of scenery and being able to sit down to a hot meal with us. To be honest we took it in turns to share a meal whenever we could, so this wasn’t something out of the ordinary.
I’m one of those hearty cooks – a true meat and two veg or ‘chuck it all in one pot’ cook. Wood burner casserole is my absolute favourite and I’d often have a pot of something simmering on the wood burner all day. The smell would play with your head, making your mouth water and would drive visitors to despair. Coupled with the smell of wood smoke, it was a heady combination. Plus, there’s nothing like coming home to the smell of a good meal ready and waiting to be served, meat falling off the bone, vegetables and juice waiting to be mopped up with crusty, wholemeal bread.
So, with little time, I decided to prepare a shepherd’s pie with veg picked from the garden and maybe throw together a rhubarb and ginger crumble…and that’s exactly what I did. Listening to the growing wind outside hurtling through the tall beeches at the side of the cottage, I crossed my fingers that the power would stay on and running. It’s one of those little foibles living on Exmoor, that you never know when the power is going down, leaving you with the wood burner, candles and not a lot else. Don’t for one minute think that I’m complaining though, for when this did occur, there was nothing that could match the atmosphere in the cottage. You’d feel cosseted and wrapped in love and warmth as you sat listening to music with no tv and no other technical gadgets to confuse the brain. You became quite inventive with meals too, with only the wood burner to cook on, but having toasted marshmallows for pudding was always a favourite. Although they were more melted than toasted with the heat that the burner threw out!
So, there I was, all set and hoping against hope that my other half made it home in time for us all to sit down together. The wind was still raging and the lanes can be quite a challenge with debris falling from the trees. I like to do things properly with a well set table, homely and welcoming, with candles lighting the cottage. It’s just what I do. In my small but very functional kitchen, the shepherd’s pie was half way cooked, the crumble was on the top shelf doing its thing and the veg was in the steamer and coming to the boil. Then… the lights flickered… the power went off and I held my breath. It came back on again and I felt a sigh of relief leaving my body as I really wanted to cook a meal for my neighbours that evening. In my heart of hearts, though, I think it’s a tall order knowing what I know about Exmoor and the winds. I stood in the kitchen and waited. It wasn’t long before the lights flickered once more and the power was gone – this time it’s for good.
I couldn’t call my neighbours because the phone line had gone down too and there was no signal on my mobile. All I know is I had to rescue the dinner somehow. Quickly, I leapt about the cottage (well as much as I could leap in the dark – thank goodness for the candles), collected together some large tote bags and cardboard pieces that I could line the bottom of the bags with. Out of the oven came the pie and the crumble and into the bag they went covered with tea towels, closely followed by the steamer containing the veg. I threw in the custard mix, the gravy (already prepared from chicken stock) and turned on our large lantern torch. I had no idea how I was going to get this meal to my neighbours but I knew if I could get it round to their kitchen and fired-up Rayburn, then all would be saved.
As I blew out the candles, it looked like a scene from Miss Havisham’s house in ‘Great Expectations’ but with not so many cobwebs and just then I heard a loud banging on the back door. The door flung open and a welcome ‘Cooooeeee!’ came through the darkness, a chill draught filling the cottage. My lovely neighbour had turned up with his wheelbarrow because ‘there’s no way I’m missing out on your dinner’ he said. Leaving a quickly scrawled note as to my whereabouts, we’re off, balancing the bags on the barrow, some hanging from the handles, As we headed off together amidst falling twigs, careering leaves and beech nuts, I am sending up a silent prayer that my other half is safe on the road.
Out through the gate we tried to converse but out voices are taken away on the wind as our heads twist and turn in our hats, which were blowing up like balloons around our heads from the onslaught of wind. Struggling to see where we were going with just a head torch and a small wind-up version, having left the lantern for my other half at the cottage, we wend our way up the lane in what is practically pitch black darkness. The wind was roaring through the trees, the creaking was quite frightening and my neighbour is protecting ‘his dinner’ like he was wheeling the crown jewels up the lane. It made me smile so much.
After much laughter, we made it to their wooden, five-bar gate and waiting to welcome us into a candlelit and very warm kitchen was his wife. We carried the bags from the barrow and placed the pots and pans onto the heat of the Rayburn to continue their cooking in peace. The arrival of my other half completes the foursome, swinging the lantern in the darkness of the night, to let us know he has arrived at the door safe and sound.
Together, we cooked and dished up our much travelled dinner, whilst drinking mulled wine left over from the Christmas celebrations. Together we sat, as friends and neighbours, together we shared our meal, together we laughed and together we said our thanks for flexible friends.
It was a comforting meal, not quite as I’d planned it to be but who knows what’s around the corner when you live in such a place as this. Flexible and ready for the simple pleasures in life – it works every time and memories were made that night, that’s for sure.
PS: Power was restored at 3am that morning and a tree came down in the front garden… giving us yet more wood for the wood burner. Every cloud eh?