Top 10 moments

Simon Dawson chats with one of his 'mates'

Simon Dawson chats with one of his 'mates' - Credit: Archant

Some smallholding moments are magical. They linger in the memory, and are a reminder of why we do it. Simon Dawson, who has a smallholding on Exmoor, and is author of several books, reflects on his most memorable moments

Simon is having fun with some of his animals

Simon is having fun with some of his animals - Credit: Archant

What would be the best moments of your life? It’s a good question. The day you fell in love? The day you got married? The day that thing happened that you secretly hoped for but never really thought would come true? Or was it something bizarre that you couldn’t really voice outside of your closest friends for fear of being marked as an oddball?

If it’s the latter, fear not, you’re in safe company. Actually, far from marking you out as an oddball, bizarre standout moments are what makes life interesting. Oh sure, walking down the aisle was amazing, but just for a moment forget the memories with bows on and dig a little deeper for the ones that make you blush and smile at the same time. We all have them, and if you’re a smallholder, you’re likely to have them in tractor loads.

I’m talking about the memories that warm you when the wind is cutting through your jacket and your wellies have sprung a leak. When the pigs knock you over in the deepest mud, or when you straddle the electric fencing and misjudge how high it is. When the rain comes down so hard fish would feel sorry for you, or the goats break into your veg patch and hold a scoff-a-thon. If you can think of a memory and smile through any of that, then you’re either mad, drunk, or have a Top 10 Moment such as these. Here’s the countdown…

10. The miracle of life - a joint effort.

I am not a midwifey type person. Meet me on the street and you’d never say ‘I bet he’s a midwife’. I’m squeamish, terrified of blood… and a man. All I know about women giving birth is that it hurts, a lot, and there’s shouting (I’ve seen Call the Midwife).

Kylie was my first girly pig. When she was old enough I took her to meet her husband-of-right-now. Three months, three weeks and three days later, and her contractions started.

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It was both of our first times. I kept nipping up to the head end and telling her she was doing brilliantly before zipping back down to see if anything was happening yet. When it happened, it happened fast. Piglets arrive into the world in a hurry, flinging themselves out and landing about a foot behind mum.

However, what made that first time so special and a Top 10 Moment wasn’t the birth itself, but what happened next. When she was finished and all the piglets were out, fed and heaped in a sleeping higgledy-piggledy mass, mum got up, sniffed her babies and came over to me oof-oof-oofing in my face, as if to say ‘Did you see what we did? Did you see what we did?’

Emotional, smelly and utterly exhausted, I sat in the straw and pulled her ears affectionately, doing the only thing that seemed right at the time, and took full credit. ‘We? We? You weren’t at the end I was! I was like a wicket keeper back there!’

9. Man’s best friend

Relationships are what make the world go around, and best friends come in all shapes, sizes... and species.

My best friend is a bloke call Ziggy, but as BFF’s go, he’s pretty rubbish. Far better is the General, a 55-stone Berkshire pig. Whatever you’re looking for in a best friend, General has it in heaps.

When he’s in bed I’ll scrunch in beside him and tell him what’s going on in my life. He doesn’t judge me, he’s dependable, thoughtful, trustworthy, has a great sense of humour and is always there for me, as I am for him, though he’s more your strong, silent type. We did once have a beer together, but that didn’t go terribly well. The only downside is when I’m lying in the straw next to him I have to watch he doesn’t accidentally roll over and squash me, but then what friend doesn’t come with the odd caveat?

8. Yelling at the TV (Are you serious?)

That cooking show, the posh one, the one where the chefs have stars and the food has a ‘jus’ ‘Oh yes, the loin comes from the belly.’ No it doesn’t! ‘Making sausages, tie a knot in the skin first.’ No! ‘Use plenty of salt petre when making bacon’. Are you kidding me? And don’t get me started on preparing poultry for the table...

Now I’ve cooked on TV. I know the coo. Should these amazing chefs know a little more about the basics? Probably not. Am I being an arse yelling at the TV when they get it wrong? Almost certainly. But when I’m traipsing through the mud, cold, dirty and miserable, memories of shouting at the TV warm me. What can I say? It’s a guilty secret.

7. That ‘oh, so good’ first taste.

Taking an animal to the abattoir is one of the hardest thing anyone can do. I still struggle with it even after all these years. But, getting the meat back is a joy. An absolute joy, and that is exactly how it should be. It shouldn’t be easy to take an animal off, and when it comes back you should respect what you’ve done by loving the produce. That’s how it works for me anyway.

The best moment is when you can’t wait any longer and you just have to cook a little piece and see what it tastes like. Cook it, and let it rest. A little seasoning. Then scoop it up with your fingers and pop it into your mouth. Oh man. Oh...

Such mixed feelings, but when you take that first taste of your very own, home produced meat, it’s like nothing else on earth. Now that’s a memory to warm your cockles.

6. We need to talk about milk

Very few of my friends or family, it seems, are happy to drink goat’s milk. ‘It smells... goaty,’ is a common complaint. I nod. ‘I don’t like the thought of it.’ I nod again. ‘I don’t trust goats.’ Strange, but okay - actually not that strange; I do own the world’s most annoying goat, a little girly called Curry.

Nods done, complaints out in the open, I reach for the kettle and make my guest a hot drink. No prizes for spotting where this little warming memory might be heading. This little Top 10 dairy Moment.

Yes, for the last seven years, nearly every single cup of tea or coffee served up in my house has been made with our own goat’s milk. More than that, if you’ve eaten yogurt at my house... butter... ice-cream... ricotta style cheese... chances are it’s been made with goat’s milk. Sorry everyone - is it really terrible to say that the thought warms me just a little bit?

5. Set fair

As much as I adore the thought of all my animals free ranging during the day, and I do, it’s also a delicious prospect to tuck them up at night. That moment when everything is done; horses contentedly munching on a hay-net in their stable, goats snuggled up together in their cupboard, geese in their shed, chickens in their little houses dreaming of hunky cockerels and laying eggs, and pigs snoring in their arks.

All done. All safe and happy. All quiet. I stand there, on my own, nobody nagging me for food, or attention, or just because they can. It’s kind of funny that one of my Top 10 Smallholding Moments is when there are no animals around and it’s just me, but I guess it’s the sense of completeness - yes, that’s it, that’s as close as I can get to describing how it feels - it’s a sense of completeness, and it’s really comforting.

4. Man’s red fire

There is nothing like a bonfire. The smell of burning wood, the dancing colours that just beg you to stand and watch, and the heat. Ah, yes, the heat...

There’s an art to lighting a fire. A real art. If you’re into that, I suggest you watch Bear Grylls. Alternatively I find a glug of petrol and a match usually does the trick, and believe me there’s no art in that. Anyway, fire blazing, it’s never very long before I have company.

Chickens love a good fire. They come and gather around sunbathing, getting in real close and showing the flames their backs, their sides, lifting a wing to get some heat in there, poking their bums at it. I’m cold, too, but I’m competing for space with the chickens. “Will you please move over a bit - has nobody every taught you lot to share nicely?”

Chickens are hilarious at the best of times, but light a fire on a cold day and they’re doubly so.

3. Dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle.

I didn’t start horse riding until I was 30. I was taught by bossy women with big boobs and scraped back hairdos who, presumably because of their frail sex (ha!), decided against the Army and opted for pony club instead. It was a very confusing and painful period of my life. But as soon as I got it sussed, a whole new world opened up for me, and the best time ever was rounding up sheep on horseback.

I needed to get them in for their monthly MOTs, only they’d been turned out on Exmoor and could be anywhere. Saddled up, Dex my collie dog running beside us, we trotted off in search of the little woolly darlings.

Sure, I could have jumped on my quad and sped off, but doing it on horseback just felt so natural and honest and real. It was really beautiful.

2. Do it yourself

I was never happier than when the term ‘shabby chic’ was coined. Suddenly all my things were no longer embarrassing, they were fashionable!

You absolutely can make your own clothes and be trendy. You can whittle spoons and spatulas and eggcups for the kitchen. You can make quilts and throws and cushion covers and curtains. You can make your own sheepskin rugs. Slippers. Hats. You can even make your own furniture - who wouldn’t feel romantic sleeping on a bed they’d worked at and made themselves? And everything has meaning.

As Top 10 Moments go, it’s difficult to quantify the things you gather around you, but my home and the self-made things within it are without doubt on the list.

1. My mates

I moan about them, curse, even on occasion yell. They’re maddening, infuriating, cantankerous, idiosyncratic and weird. Some of them are even stupid, I mean really stupid. Others are punchy, randy, raucous, riotous and rebellious. They love, hate, sulk and throw temper tantrums. They can be stand-up funny or funeral sad. You never know what you’re going to get with them from one day to the next. But they’re my mates and I love them to bits. The animals.

From Dex my one-eyed Collie dog and Solly the Great Dane, through the horses, the feral cats, the hooligan geese, the hilarious chickens, the turkeys, quail, sheep and lambs, pigs and piglets, goats and kids. When I need a Top 10 Smallholding Moment to get me though a dark time, it’s my mates that I think about.