Thursday, 29 August 2013

A Tale of Two Tractors.

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness’.  Charles Dickens once wrote these words about two cities; last Sunday they became a hideous, surreally hilarious reality for us, in the tale I am about to tell, about two tractors….

Mid August – the final weed-cut of the year is underway and myself and Neil were working in the river on Sunday, cutting and chopping whilst Dylan took to swiping some of the river bank areas with a tractor mounted swipe (essentially a chain mower on the back of a tractor).
The day progressed well, the rain cleared up and the sun peeped out, and all was as it should be.  Until the phone call.

I received a slightly worried sounding Dylan on the end of the phone saying he had got the tractor stuck in an area at the top of the Duck Grounds.
Now the Duck Grounds at Mottisfont is a stunning area of wet woodland, reed bed and peat mire complete with running ditches and ponds.  Water vole, otters and kingfishers abound and even Bittern have been known to overwinter in the reeds here.  It is a private area, only open to the public through daily guided walks from the grounds of Abbey.  However, its tranquillity hides its deadly nature – the general rule is to keep to the boardwalk in the Duck Grounds – and this is beyond compulsory in the winter months.  Members of staff (naming no names) have come close to leaving the gene pool by straying off the boardwalk here and sinking up to the neck, simply because the Duck Grounds is Mottisfont’s answer to the Grimpen Mire.  In amongst the trees and banks are treacherous areas of peat bog that to the untrained eye appear solid enough.  However there are rumours of a Victorian horse and trap that remain lost and sunk in the bog and when the ponds were widened in 2005 they found a pair of old workman’s boots deep in the peat. 
So naturally, where else would you want to take a tractor?

After getting the call I made my way from the river to the top of the Duck Grounds, found the woodland track he’d gone through and followed the tractor tracks – coming to a dead halt as I saw the sight that awaited me.  There, tilted at a wacky angle was the tractor, its back wheel firmly sunk into a canyon of its own making, the swipe acting as a huge spade and dug in and sunk under the peat.  Dylan stood to the side chain smoking roll ups and muttering: ‘I got it through once!  I got the river bank swiped it was just on the way out!’ 

The sight that greeted me.

After having a go myself at driving it out – about as likely as it floating up and flying away, but I had to try – we went back to the yard for the other tractor. 
‘Don’t worry’ I said confidently, ‘the other Massey is more powerful, it should pull it right out’.
The other Massey tractor had the timber crane on the back which would add to the difficulty and restrict its power but it takes such effort to remove the crane, and we were short on time, so I just drove the tractor and crane as a complete item.  I trundled through Long Lash, into the Duck Grounds and through the woods on the track way that Dylan had followed to get to the river.  Having driven my tractor up nose on to Dylan’s, we attached a heavy chain to the pair, each got in to our tractors and made our first attempt.  As I had to reverse the timber crane through woodland I was fairly restricted so although the pull did move Dylan’s a fraction…my front tyres soon started digging in and were at risk of becoming stuck themselves.  We unhooked the tractors and I ensured mine could still move. 
Dylan was adamant we call our colleague Dave who, having worked the tractors for over 2 decades, could make them do anything he wanted in the most hideous conditions and restricted space.  I wanted one more go at pulling from a slightly different angle, to try and pull his out of its tilt.  I don’t like giving up after one try, and I was insistent we try it this slightly different way. 
Pride Cometh before a Fall.
So I realigned my tractor and tried again from a slight angle…and due to my realignment slightly to one side of the track, slowly, surely I felt myself tipping softly to the side like some slow motion horror film.  The peat bog loomed up in the window as my tractor started sinking sideways, its connection to the timber trailer the only thing preventing it from tipping full into the bog.
Uttering expletives, I shut it down and leapt out the door.  Dylan got out of his and we just stood and stared at the land based equivalent of two ship wrecks, both tilted at ridiculous angles in the mud.

The result of my rescue attempt.  Peat bog to the left.
‘Well thanks for your help there, Cat’ Dylan half giggled in a slightly hysterical manner.  ‘Now instead of just the one tractor, we’ve got about a hundred grand worth of kit sunk in a bog!’
And so it was, that Dave, having been on annual leave for one, single day, got a sheepish phone call to tell him that we’d sunk both tractors, the swipe and the timber crane in the Duck Grounds and could do with a little bit of help.

Bank Holiday Monday dawned bright and clear, the steam rising off the dewy grass signalling what a scorcher the day would become. 
9am saw Dave, Richard (Dave’s son), Gareth (a local farmer complete with a kick ass tractor), myself and Matt (my boyfriend, who seemed perfectly happy to witness my tractor devastation) all start the uncertain attempts at rescuing our poor machines.  Gareth made short work of pulling out the first tractor, having first disconnected the swipe.  His monster tractor had it out in a jiffy.  Hooray! One down, one to go! 
I felled a couple of small tree’s that were hindering the access route and we started by hooking Gareth’s tractor up to the Timber crane and attempting to pull it all out.  When Gareth’s tractor started up ending onto its two back wheels, we ditched that attempt.  Next came the idea of using Dylan’s original tractor as a sideways anchor to keep mine from tipping further over as Gareth tried pulling it out backwards.  Barely budged an inch.  Richard walked around the side to take a close look and SLUEEUURP! Shot down through the peat and sunk up to his waist in a second.  There was a split second of disbelief and a mental fight against the urge to take a photo before we grabbed his arms and hauled him out, with Dave gibbering slightly at the thought of nearly having to explain to his wife that he’d lost their son to the famed Duck Grounds Bog.

Now forever known as 'Richard's Bog' - you can see from the watery puddled bit, where he sank.
Several more attempts were made using different pulling techniques.  The winch was brought in on the back of the tractor and we tried diverted pulls off sturdy trees to drag it out frontwards but when the clutch started burning out we ended that attempt. Gareth tried bigger chains pulling with his tractor but with a loud BANG! One of the chain links actually snapped – chains that take several tonnes of pull, snapped like elastic. We tried pulling with both Gareth’s tractor and our other tractor but both started digging their own wheels in under the weight.
Eventually we realised the only hope was to unhook the timber crane and pull it out the way, leaving the tractor lighter and more accessible. 
Given that I was lightest and it was me who got it into that situation, I clambered inside the tractor to release the timber trailer hitch.  Matt held the door open so I had a quick getaway if needed as the tractor sunk and tilted with every move I made – made worse by the fact that as it was almost sideways, I had to brace my feet on the side door and various levers to try and keep upright.
However, we succeeded in unhooking the crane and Gareth towed it out the way. 
Then came the final test; if this didn’t work we were out of options.  We hooked the poor half sunk tractor up to Gareth’s tractor one more time, with a chain that looked big enough to anchor the Titanic.  We held our breath and stood clear as Gareth put it into gear and began to pull… inch…two inches….then Gareth’s tractor started sinking and the Massey rolled back into its ditch…

Trying to pull it out with Gareth's tractor (hidden behind the crane) and our second Massey (front).

‘It’s got to be driven out!’ Dave yelled and he leapt into the leaning Massey, fired it up and hit reverse, whilst Gareth started pulling again with his machine….and slowly oh so slowly it began to heave its way out of its boggy tomb.  We cheered from the sidelines, urging it to keep going and for nothing to snap as that would surely send it back in with such a jolt that it would tip into the peat completely.  Richard held a hammer ready to smash his way through the window should he need to get his dad out in a hurry and we watched between our fingers as the two tractors managed to drive their way up, up and out onto the track and freedom!  Whooping and cheering ensured and I almost hugged the tractor with relief at seeing it back on all four wheels and with nothing broken and no lives lost!  The stench coming out of the depths of the gorge was incredible, a hideous boggy sulphuric smell, oozing out of layers of rotting vegetation long since buried and seeing the light of day for the first time in decades.  We made short work of hitching up the timber crane again – left it to Dave this time and he glided it between the trees like tractor ballet – and used the crane to pick up the swipe which was still lying in the mud where Dylan got stuck originally. 
And so if you were visiting Mottisfont on Bank Holiday Monday, you may have seen/smelt an unusual convoy sludging its way through the field and the visitor car-park.  It would have consisted of two filthy, smelly tractors that were shedding peat pats every few yards and included one man who looked like he’d fallen into a cess pit as well as the rest of us smudged with dirt, peat, oil and grease yet grinning inanely with relief.

Me standing in the canyon left behind by my tractor...


So we all learnt our lesson – Dylan learnt not to tractor through peat bog woodland, I learnt that following your leader is not a good game and Dave learnt that when he goes on annual leave he should hide the tractor keys in an undisclosed location known only to himself.  I also got some video footage out of it that should earn me a cash sum on 'you've been framed'...

And here endeth the Tale of Two Tractors: ‘It is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known…’ 

Thursday, 15 August 2013

One Year On...

August 13th marked my one year anniversary here at Mottisfont - hard to believe I have been here a full year and seen a full cycle of seasons across our sites - where does the time go?

August has also brought us into a slightly cooler climate than we have had of late and with it I have started to notice the signs of the impending Autumn – the swallows and swifts are starting to gather on the phone lines to discuss their migration and some of the Acer tree’s in the garden are showing the first tints of autumn colour.  However there is still plenty around to enforce the late summer; the Chalkhill blue butterflies on Stockbridge Down are out in their thousands on a sunny day – you can’t blink without disturbing a cloud of them which then consequently flutters around your head until you feel you are walking in some kind of butterfly daze.  It is also heart-warming to see the sheer quantity of fruits and nuts that are heavy on every tree and bush at the moment.  Blackberries, Sloes, Apples, Plums, Chestnuts, Walnuts, Beechnuts, Hazelnuts – everything seems to be weighed down with the weight of its produce and, after the rubbish harvest of last year this is a huge relief to see.  Birds, mammals, bees, invertebrates – all will benefit and be able to feast upon the rich crop of fruits which they suffered from a lack of last year.  And of course it means more fruit crumble, roasted chestnuts, Sloe Gin and Cider for us!

Sitting at my desk tapping away the other day, I kept hearing a high pitch ‘kee-ing’ noise from outside the window.  It sounded like the kind of cry that young birds give when their parent bird returns to the nest with food and they are all squeaking and twittering for edible attention.  Hearing this call continue off and on for a few minutes I scrambled up to the window and stuck my head out, looking round for what I thought must be a nest site somewhere nearby and spotted the source of the noise.  Sitting on the rooftop to my left was a very fluffy young Kestrel, which had obviously fledged not too long before.  It was hunched up against the slight windy drizzle, which was making its baby feathers fluff up in a funny bouffant effect and every-time one of the adult birds flew over it would give its baby ‘feed-me-feed-me-feed-me-feed-me-feed-me’ cry.  I watched it for a good few minutes until it got itself out of its sulk and took off to find itself food instead of relying on mum and dad who were clearly relishing the fact the kids had flown the nest and they could have their own time back again…I’m pretty sure this strikes parallels with all species including humans!

The slightly grumpy teenage Kestrel.

In the garden of Mottisfont stands the Beech Circle, an aptly named circle of Beech trees.  Within this circle, a new art structure is being created by artist Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva in conjunction with one of our countryside volunteers and retired Mottisfont forester, John Surplice.  The work consists of five dead Oak trees that John has chosen from around our woodlands and cleaned and stripped down to their natural form.  John has an expert hobby of cleaning out dead wood features, removing all the rot and grime and dirt to reveal the fantastic shapes, pattern and structures that lie underneath.  Some of his sculpture works have taken years to complete and have been sold internationally. These Oak trees have been turned upside down with their root systems cleaned in this way and they have been put into the ground in a circle within the Beech circle with their roots stretching skyward.  They are looking fantastically striking and have had gold gilding put on them by Elpida as part of the project.

Drilling the holes for the Oak sculptures - a scene that i thought was straight out of the film Armageddon with Bruce Willis drilling down through a huge Comet, in order to plant a nuclear bomb, blow it up and save mankind from extinction ("I have NEVER missed a depth that I have aimed for!!").  A definate exact parallel.

The tree's in situ.

The Millennium Orchard in Hatt Lane is looking brilliant at the moment, with all the boughs heavily laden with fruits to make up for the bad fruiting season last year.
The Orchard was planted in the year 2000 to celebrate the new millennium.  It consists of tree species that were popular in each of the centuries of the last millennium – so you can literally go and eat a piece of history!
 It is also home to a new feature that has been created, demonstrating the most innovative use of old river boarding that I've yet come across.  Back in the Spring the countryside volunteers were removing the old rotten river boarding from the edge of our river beat on the Oakley.  Instead of just throwing it away, it caught the artistic eye of Ed who pointed out the amazing patterns that had been created by the eroding flow of the water around the posts.  The water had brought out the grain of the wood and eroded the parts of the post that were in the main flow, whilst the bottom bits in the river bed had remained untouched, giving a striking spear headed effect.  Ed and Keith, who both look after the Millennium orchard decided to clean these posts up and erect them as a feature in the Orchard.  They have just completed this work today and as you can see from the photo, they make quite an arresting sight.  Based on the quantity, Keith and Ed have named them ‘The Twelve’ (although the River Apostles was also a fond nickname!).

'The Twelve' (plus Keith and Ed)

The Orchard is open to the public and is right by the estate trail, so go and have a peek, crunch an apple and enjoy the tranquillity of the place – also keep an eye on the mass of walnuts on the tree in there which are yet to ripen (but save some for the Mottisfont Kitchen).