Moving to the country

It has been just over two years since we moved from London to the country. Thanks to the Covid, I understand many more people are considering such an undertaking. I can’t blame them. I enjoyed a conflicting sense of smugness / relief / guilt in the first lockdown that we were no longer in our house in South East London, despite it being relatively large for London. I can’t imagine what difficulties families face in some of the flats and towers I used to walk past on a regular basis.

In the spirit of sharing, and for those considering making the move out I thought I would compile a Buzzfeed style “6 things you should know” list based upon our experience. Unlike Buzzfeed, it is rather long and quite ranty in places.

1. It’s surprisingly expensive

On paper it’s a no-brainer – I trade in my 3-4 bed house in London and buy a large house / small estate in the countryside, potentially easily covering my stamp duty and getting some change back after it all. If this were the limit of your expenditure you would be absolutely right, but it’s not. It’s only after you’ve made the move that expenses appear all over the place. In the ten years or so we owned a house in London we spent 20p on essential maintenance – most notably on combination boilers which seem to have about a seven year life span. Within days of moving into our new place our “poo tank” broke – resulting in several expensive pump outs, a lot of staring down holes and ultimately replacing a number of key components. £3k literally down the drain within weeks. Repointing, tree clearing, replacing windows, replacing gates the list goes on. Then there are costs that you incur in the hope you avert further expenditure – like painting a tennis court (£5k) which you are assured by the experts that if you don’t you will have to spend £50k to resurface it. You wage war with the various creatures that are actively trying to destroy your home, woodworm, carpet moth, rats, mice, woodlice – again incurring more and more cost. Every now and again, I get a copy of the survey we had done when we bought the house trying to reconcile its fiction with the realities of our situation. Owning old houses in the country is expensive – horribly so. If considering making the move, disregard your surveyors report – if you are lucky it may avert you from buying a house on the verge of collapse, but it will miss everything else. Think of a big number, triple it and then add some more on and that should be a decent approximation of your monthly expenditure on house bits.

2. Commuting is awful

Where’s Wally? Oh no, they all are…

I wasn’t sure whether to include this under 1. above, because commuting is also ferociously expensive – compounding the cost over the years one could retire a decade earlier if you worked more locally. I decided it needed its own section. I’ve observed that people openly lie about their commute times. I was guilty of this in London – the train from my local station took nine minutes to Victoria – so I would say smugly to people living in more fashionable / expensive parts of London that my commute was about 25 minutes. This was complete bollocks – I don’t think I had ever properly worked it out until now but factoring in an eight minute walk to the station, five minute wait time, nine minutes on the train and then a 20 minute walk to the office I am already at 42 minutes – 68% more than my fictional time. But I am not alone – anyone who says it takes 45 minutes to get from Parsons Green to the City is lying. The same is true in the countryside – with a fair wind, an empty car park, absence of signalling faults / overrunning engineering works then I can commute to my current office in 1 hour and 45 minutes – this is in optimal conditions. My average time I would wager is significantly longer – partly due to my incompetence – most notably mistiming my departure from the office to arrive at Waterloo as my train pulls away from the station. So I have to wait for 30 minutes. But quite often there is some issue on the line – signalling fault or some poor fellow throwing themselves on the lines after discovering how long they were spending commuting / maintaining their house. This puts the whole system into chaos and I find myself staring at the departure boards wondering what I should do. The biggest upside of Covid has been to avoid all this madness. I am working more effectively and efficiently from my shed than an office and have reclaimed at least three hours a day. My hope is that once Covid is gone, the world goes back to normal apart from commuting which I hope future generations will reflect on as some peculiar 20th century eccentricity.

A row of new homes

3. Barratt Homes causes anxiety

While you may think rural crime, avian flu, or the impact of neonicotinoids on the bee population would feature highly on the country dwellers worry list, they don’t. Having made the leap to the countryside, the greatest fear is the lovely field you look over or the quite lane you live on becomes the victim of Barratt, or some other such developer, building a couple of thousand monotonous houses. I get the argument that people need places to live, but what infuriates me is that while provincial towns hollow out from the centre, development is focused on the countryside. Building homes that have no real space, with no local facilities and are reliant on cars to get around. Minor things also annoy me like their insistence on installing upward facing external lights on buildings significantly contributing to light pollution and limited attempts to increase the efficiency of these homes. The glow from our nearby town gets brighter and brighter. You could challenge me and say people have the same right to live in the countryside as you do – which is true, but these houses aren’t providing this. The South East risks turning into Los Angeles, one never ending, sprawling suburb – indeed look at the map around Cambereley, Aldershot, Fleet, Guildford – its already happening. If the Government is serious about “levelling up”, then scrap stamp duty in and around those towns in the North and penalise development in the South.

Why?

4. Winter is quite tough

Great look.

Summer is great, but the winters are cold, dark, wet and very muddy. While the changing seasons are enjoyable, by mid-January the countryside looks dead and resembles the Somme in places. You begin to appreciate clothing you might never have considered. My favourite garment at the moment is a pair of Mountain Warehouse pack-a-mac style waterproof trousers. Keeping mud and rain at bay I think they cost about £9. If my 18 year old self could see me now they would be appalled. On walks (we do a lot of walks now given they are the only thing we can do), I look like the geography teachers I mocked at school.

5. Schooling is different (better)

People talk about “push” and “pull” factors when looking at motivations to move. One clear “push” factor for us was London schooling. It felt all too easy to fall into the London trap of assessing your children’s success on their academic attainment only. If your eight year old didn’t get into the “right” school you may as well put them up for adoption as they were doomed to a life of failure. This created a pressure cooker mentality which we felt wasn’t right, or at least not for our children. London private schools becoming so selective and competitive means that even if your child is fairly bright, being surrounded by only uber intelligence is unlikely to help build their confidence. Moving out of London opened up more options, in particular I was looking for a relatively sleepy, low key prep-school where the emphasis was on establishing strong foundations. The absence of a ridiculous waitlist and small deposit was very welcome. Yes the academic side is important, but it shouldn’t be the only focus. Nor did I want a school that was trapped in the arms race of ever more ridiculous facilities – is an equestrian centre really necessary? Placing ever greater pressures on fees and alienating more and more of the middle classes is the ultimate road to ruin for private schools in the UK.

6. Sense of contentment

By now I wish I had titled this 4 things you should know before moving to the country, so scraping the barrel a bit here. I always found living in London fun and enjoyable, but subconsciously knew it was never an end point. That one day, our destiny was to settle down in the countryside. This idea may appal you, and you may well be a true urban dweller which is great. Taking a long-term view on the garden and house and picturing how it will grow and evolve is reassuring. Covid has given us an opportunity to enjoy the countryside spending more time in it than we would ever have normally done and appreciating it for what it is. Released from social pressures, I have taken up a number of anorak past-times, most notably bird watching. While it is more expensive than living in London, the commuting, if it is to return, although a pain feels a price worth paying. I take comfort now from the fact we aren’t intending to move again (unless those bastards at Barratt build something next door). And sometimes, when faced with yet another issue to fix or expense to pay, I wonder if a Barratt home with a warranty might not have been the better decision after all.

Chicken update – throwing money at a problem

The novelty of writing a blog has definitely worn off. Work has been busy and finding the time to write anything of interest has proven difficult. The novelty of extended working from home has also gone and the grim reality of a long, dark and cold winter has set in.

Despite this all we have made good progress on the chicken front. In a fit of lock down virtue I decided to demolish the old dog kennel and run that we had used for our chicken coop. When we first moved in, we thought this looked ideal. Pretty soon after, the challenge of keeping chickens in a building not designed for the purpose became apparent. Cleaning out was a laborious process that required full PPE. It wasn’t a job that could be done by my children so I ended up doing it – and resenting my chickens as a consequence.

Incredibly I was able to dismantle the steel cage and find someone who wanted it. The old wooden dog kennel was dispatched quickly with the only tool I have any confidence in using – the sledge hammer.

Old chicken coop and run
Successful demolition

In parallel I had found on eBay an Omlet Cube Mk 2 chicken coop. I found myself drawn to the slick videos of how easy it was to clean, with happy children cleaning it on their own. This was selling the dream – not the shit covered reality I was living. I was slightly appalled at the cost of a new one direct from Omlet but went ahead anyway – only to discover thanks to Covid, the world and his wife were buying chickens and there was a two month wait for new ones. Instead I found a pretty decent second hand one on eBay for about the same price as the new one, such was the strength of the secondary market.

Within about 5 minutes of setting up my new Omlet it became apparent how brilliant it is. It is really easy to clean, my children can do it. Collecting the eggs is effortless and shutting them up at night took seconds. My old dog run and kennel involved physically climbing into the coop to collect eggs or clean. The hens seem happier too, I suspect because even though the coop is physically smaller, it has far more roosting space.

New coop complete with automatic door thing

After a few months of ownership we decided to head down to Dorset for a long weekend. We didn’t want to trouble our neighbours so ordered the excellent automatic chicken door for the coop. This was a revelation. It opens and closes the coop door shortly after dawn or sunset. Hands free chicken keeping! While ideal for a weekend away, as the evenings have drawn in, it has made chicken keeping much easier and significantly reduces the risk of fox attack because we’ve forgotten to shut the coop door.

We’ve spent a collective fortune on our Omlet and automatic door but the overall improvement on keeping chickens is immeasurable. I no longer need to clamber into and awkward small shed and sweep up chicken poo or remember to put them to bed at night – throwing money at this particular problems has definitely been a good move.

Car review – big bootie

I am currently in quarantine after returning to Hampshire from just over a week in Provence. We had intended to spend three weeks in France, working the first and then holidaying for the remaining two. But in order to get our children to school on time we had to cut things short. Choosing to avoid airports and other people, in total we drove just under 2,000 miles which prompted me to do my next review on cars.

What I think will make this review unique, is that I know nothing about cars. I do like cars, I used to own a Defender 110 which we drove down to Morocco, but it was a nightmare to park in London and candidly it was incredibly uncomfortable on long drives. The onset of children sparked a rapid succession of cars as we tried to identify the optimal one for our needs. This culminated in us owning a VW Passat GTE estate and Fiat Panda 4×4.

Passat GTE in touring mode and unusually not being repaired

On paper the Passat was great, in that it was a plug in hybrid, very economical, big boot etc. In reality, it was the most uncomfortable car I had ever driven and would arrive after only a two hour drive with my back broken and reduced to hobbling around like an old man after longer journeys. My wife had the same issue. It also had very low ground clearance and ridiculously low-profile tyres that were not going to be up to the job with our move to the country. And finally, like every VW group car I have owned, it broke down ending up off the road for nearly a month while VW in Germany tried to work out why it wouldn’t move. My Panda, which was really a toy, was great fun, unstoppable off road and I relished rocking up to shoots in it. With the lane to school deteriorating, my wife drove the Panda and I commuted to the office or station in the Passat, or more often than not, the VW Sharan the garage had lent me.

My one concern with the Panda was its death-trap status, officially confirmed by Euro NCAP awarding it zero stars. Zero stars is an incredible feat of aged engineering. What you must not forget is there is an arms race happening on the UK’s roads with cars getting bigger and bigger, particularly if your children attend a certain type of school. You are in the minority if you are not driving a XC90, Range Rover, Discovery or, god forbid, that ghastly Bentley 4×4 thing – officially the worlds most obnoxious car. The Bentayga, which means “c**t” in Swahili apparently, could drive over our Panda reducing it to a crushed Italian tin can without even noticing. Fortunately, as we didn’t send our children to Cheam, there are relatively few of these monstrosities around, so while the risk was relatively small, we concluded the Panda had to go despite the pleasure I got from how out of place it looked in the car park.

Fiat Panda 4×4 – great off-road, not so good on it

With both the Passat and Panda on the way out I was on the hunt for something with:

  1. Big boot – this is critical, cannot overstate its significance
  2. Safe – I am anxious
  3. Petrol – I love my lungs and those of my children
  4. 4×4 with good ground clearance- but should not be an SUV
  5. At least 2 tonne towing capacity – have a boat to shift around
  6. Not a status symbol – see above
  7. Reliable – I was getting fed up of VW Basingstoke’s waiting room
  8. Really comfortable – I’m getting old
  9. Big tyres – need to be pothole proof
  10. Automatic gearbox – why would you have a manual any more? In the UK you are either stationary or crawling along about to become stationary, a nightmare in a manual car.

I spent quite a lot of time trying to find something along these lines, but most options from Skoda, whose 4×4 Octavia should really be ideal, were let down by low profile tyres, or no petrol option available. The new XC70 from Volvo looked too expensive and complicated and it no longer had the cavernous boot it used to, plus it also had low profile tyres which are prone to popping on pot holes, of which we have some particularly spectacular ones around us. The Audi Allroad was fine, but I didn’t want to drive an Audi.

Lane and river merge into one

I was beginning to loose hope and was resigning myself to perhaps having to get the Skoda, deal with its nitrous oxide and stump up a load of money to put normal wheels on it. Then, on an extended business trip to the US mid-west in the winter, when the temperature got down to -28c and thick snow covered the ground I saw it. Literally everyone was driving a 4×4 estate that was petrol and automatic. I even got picked up by one being used as an Uber (btw always a good sign I think, these Uber drivers don’t dick around with anything second rate). It was comfortable, quiet and reassuringly bland from the outside. It also had sensible tyres on and great ground clearance. These Subaru Outbacks were everywhere, indeed, from later research in America “wagons”, which I think is what we would call an estate car, represents 1.4% of the US market of which the Outback made up 1.2%.

Jumping off the plane at Heathrow I was set on a Subaru Outback. The problem is, that while Subaru are massive in the US, they are tiny in the UK selling just over 3,000 cars a year. 3,000! To provide some context, Audi sell up to 30,000 cars a month! I was staggered, why wasn’t everyone driving these brilliant cars like in the US?

Anyway, the Outback, in the UK is certainly niche, so niche in fact that the dealership I bought it from sold Subarus and Lotus, another incredibly niche brand, seeming genuinely surprised to sell a car. Regardless, its just been over a year and, having done two 13 hours drives, fully laden, bikes on back, box on roof, dog in footwell across France in temperatures that hit 43c I cannot fault this car.

Good size boot

While being supremely comfortable on the motorway, once we got to rural Provence, it was brilliant on the various off road tracks that get you to the best picnic spots in the foothills of the Mont Ventoux. Even more laden on the way back with as much wine as we dared, we still had a very comfortable drive.

When I am out doing my shoot duties, it has no problems lugging bags of grain around through the fields. Potholes are no issues and when the lane floods, and it floods seriously, the Outback plods along quite happily. It is inoffensive on the eye and critically not many people own them so its quite hard to stereotype the owner, apart from being a massive anorak that blogs about broadband.

Picnic spot finder

Downsides are it doesn’t have a DAB radio, or parking sensors instead giving you a camera at the back which is fine provided it isn’t too sunny, when the screen is impossible to see, or when it isn’t muddy, as mud covers the camera. I’ve now taken to giving my finger a lick and wiping the lens every couple of times I open the boot to keep the camera lens clean – I like this car so much I’m surprised I’m not using my tongue to do it…

Côte at Home

This is my first attempt at a product review beyond rural broadband.

My first mistake was picking Côte. It’s taken me some time to find the “ô”, in the end resorting to copying and pasting it from the Côte website – circumflexes are a nightmare.

I’m fortunate that my wife is an exceptionally good chef who is able to produce phenomenal meals effortlessly from the most humble of ingredients. The upshot of this is two fold, I cook very little if at all and secondly, we don’t eat out much. My wife is very frugal, far more so than me, and she can’t stand going out to a restaurant to have an average meal. Whereas I value convenience, she definitely vales quality. As a consequence, most “fast casual dining” options, as they are called, in the UK are disallowed. Côte is the one exception where through a combination of the food quality, pricing and service, particular when we have our children with us, it has made my wife’s ok list. Candidly Côte is a middle-class stalwart now present in more affluent market-towns and the nicer parts of London which probably helps. We’ve also met the boss of Côte at a wedding once, he is a proper Cordon Bleu chef which is certainly conveyed in the approach to quality and a nice chap to boot.

You know you live in the “right” area when Côte announce they were going to trial their home delivery offering there. In the midst of lockdown this caused great excitement in our household as, while my wife enjoys cooking, the relentless grind of producing three lockdown meals a day was beginning wear her down. With great excitement, and near reckless abandonment of fiscal caution, we ordered fish cakes, gratin potatoes, beef bourguignon and poulet grille. Good hearty stuff that are all a bit of a pain to make, or so I am told.

Fishcakes in box

Our order arrival coincided with our decision to turn the AGA off. The timing of this is always contentious with the decision based upon climatic and macro-economic factors with me preferring to keep it on longer than my wife. The weather had been good but, thanks to Covid-19, oil was incredibly cheap. This had prompted some debate as our kitchen was increasingly hot during the day but I appreciated the warmth the AGA gave in the morning. I had also filled the oil tank up just before lockdown and irrationally I wanted to work my way through the expensive stuff before filling up with as much 20p/ litre oil as I could. Anyway, I risk digressing into another area of my interests which is attempting commodity speculating with my 2,600 litre oil tank – trying to time the fill to dips in the market and then taking delight / despair as I subsequently mentally mark to market its changing value… fun times.

Fishcakes out of box… lemons not so good

Anyway, with our kitchen approaching 30c during the day, the climatic issues won and the AGA was turned off. Our summer back up is a an ageing cooker with four hobs on top, a small grill and a tepid oven. The oven, on full blast, can just about reach 180c which is about optimal ready-meal temperature. We don’t have a microwave so everything is subject to either gas or aga.

All things fuel related in the house are definitely my responsibility. Oil, gas, wood, electricity are all things I tend to look after. So with our AGA now cold, and only able to be restarted by a professional, it was somewhat of a surprise to discover we had run out of gas. After much tapping, it was evident that the two large cylinders were definitely empty.

There followed an argument which went along the lines of “it was your idea to turn the AGA off” versus “your responsible for all the fuel things”. Despite my some what panicked and pleading phone calls, our local gas supplier would take a week to deliver replacement cylinders, it would appear I wasn’t alone in my sudden need of gas. In the midst of lock-down and with our Cote (giving up with the circumflex now) having arrived this caused a degree of regrettable tension in the house.

Fortunately, my mother-in-law doesn’t live too far away and was able to lend us a single induction hob thing that you plug in and can cook quite effectively on. Who really needs four hobs after all?

Saved by the induction hob thing

Anyway, back to my product review. So, if I was doing this properly I would probably spend 10 minutes describing the box it came in, and what it feels like to take it out of the box, and what it looks like after it has been taken out of the box. But to keep things short, the food arrives cold in an insulated box of some sorts. Cote use DPD, which is now my favourite courier company as we get the same driver every time and we are now on first name terms. This is great, if a little embarrassing given the frequency with which he comes to our house.

Our first attempt was fishcakes – which could either be microwaved (which we don’t have) or put in the oven (which wasn’t working). My wife being resourceful opted for the option not on the packet which is frying on the frying pan using our single induction hob thing. This isn’t an option on the packet, presumably for ease, which is a mistake as this is the best way to cook Cote fishcakes.

These fishcakes were extremely good, full of good bits of fish (salmon and smoked haddock) – definitely generous on the fish / potato mix and critically it was well seasoned with dill and capers. We’ve had them twice – first time on improvised frying pan and they were excellent – crispy golden skin and delicious inside. In the oven, they’re ok but loose much of the crispy goldenness of frying them, I would definitely recommend getting someone to fry them for you.

The final product – all delicious except the bits of lettuce in the peas…

We’ve subsequently had a lot of the other Cote at home meals and they are all decent, certainly above your average supermarket ready meal and pretty comparable to the restaurant. Some of the sides are passable, e.g. lettuce in your minted peas doesn’t seem to survive reheating and ends up looking like a piece of lettuce you might find at the back of the fridge after several months.

So, for my first product review I would highly recommend Cote at Home.

Subsequently we have purchased some of their cheeses, some of which are quite difficult to source in the UK, and I am personally keen to try some of their meat which looks excellent.

Rural broadband… an update

Great excitement generally as over the past few weeks a lot of Openreach vans have been seen up and down the lane. This has resulted in new coils of cable hanging from the telephone poles with the welcome words “Caution Fibre Overhead”. However, for the poles that connect to our house this seems conspicuously absent so it looks as though we will have to continue relying upon our 4G connection as discussed in my first post.

As I mentioned in my first post, I did promise to create a list of 4G unlimited data sim plans – it really was a dry post. But my neighbour, a very successful blogger who one day will mention my blog in hers and drive massive amounts of traffic to me, has reminded me to get on with this, so here it is:

You will need to check you get decent 4G coverage as not all operators coverage is the same – e.g. we get ok Vodafone coverage here but no EE. The best way to test is to take out a pay as you go sim or 30 day contract that you can easily cancel if you don’t get sufficient reception. If you do get a good signal with decent speeds, then its normally easy to upgrade to a longer term contract.

NetworkTarif Name18 Month* / 2 year contract1 year contract30 day contract
VodafoneUnlimited Max£30/month£33/month£37/month
ThreeUnlimited£22/month discounted to £11 for first 6 months£24/month£26/month
EEUnlimited£35/month*
02Unlimited£33/month*£35/month
* denotes 18 month contract – struggling with wordpress table formatting

To simplify things I have limited this to the four mobile operators that own their networks, not the virtual ones (e.g. GiffGaff) as there are often speed restrictions in place on data. I’m only selecting tariffs where there are no speed restrictions in place to keep things simple and speed is what we are going after.

Further reflections on chickens

You are expecting me to go on about how superior our home produced eggs are to the crap ones you get from supermarkets produced by battery hens. You are right to a degree, the eggs are very good, but the eggs I buy from a supermarket have a use by date on, produced by hens that have all their vaccinations and who don’t compete with crows or plague carrying migratory birds for food.

For all there deliciousness, before I pop my poached or scrambled egg into my mouth a pang of anxiety is triggered. Will this be my last? Will I contract some extraordinary illness from our semi-wild hens. Should I have cooked them a little longer.

I advise you not to google chicken diseases and illnesses – e coli, salmonella, bird flu, the list of things that are potentially resident in your flock doesn’t bear thinking about. My children come bounding back into the house having spent an hour communing with our hens covered in chicken shit. While I insist they wash their hands, I know both my children have their hands nearly permanently in their mouths and god knows what lives under their fingernails.

Wuhan had bats – we have chickens. In my mind it is only a matter of time until some pathogen makes the leap from our hens to us.

This was brought to my mind again recently as Basil has developed an unusual issue with her neck. I am struggling to describe it, it’s as if her head if falling off, or trying to twist itself off with the net effect that her head is at times nearly 180 degrees around the wrong way. Clearly resorting to the authority that is Google, I’ve identified this as “skygazing” and the list of causes range from injury to future Wuhan.

Neck so good…

A couple of weeks have passed and we have tried massaging her crop, giving her some vitamins, putting her in the cage in the house (equivalent of a chicken spa day), none of which seems to have any effect. Luckily the other birds seem fine, so I feel that rules out any contagion.

Apart from the independent movement of body and head, Basil seems fine and shows no other issues apart from not being able to climb up to her perch. I am now required to tuck her in at night, gently placing her on the perch while she gazes up at me with her weirdly angled head. I wash my hands even more thoroughly, just in case.

Misadventures with chickens

Having moved from London to almost the middle of nowhere in Hampshire I clearly needed to get some chickens. I had attempted, briefly, to keep chickens in our small back garden in Brixton which was an unmitigated disaster. Sufficient time had passed though, and I had pretty much forgotten what a pain chickens are.

A fine hen

One of the biggest beneficiaries of COVID-19 has been our chickens, which have received a stay of execution. My wife and I had concluded that they were more trouble than they were worth. However, with rationing and panic buying of eggs, I began to feel quite smug about our daily egg production so at present they remain with us.

We got off to a bad start with our chickens. A friend had very kindly given us five beautiful Brahmas. I understand Brahmas to be a particularly desirable breed of hen, with fine colouring and standing almost as tall as a small child. My children dutifully named the hens Lavender, Basil, Star, and , rather brilliantly, Pecky. Playing up to gender stereotypes, the cockerel was mine and I decided to name him The Admiral, for no particular reason other than I thought it sounded magnificent.

Optimal housing conditions – an old dog kennel

Gender identity issues

Issue one began a few months into ownership when one of our hens, Lavender to be precise, began to look, well, rather manly. Chickens are notoriously difficult to sex, particularly when they are young. Essentially chickens have two holes, a mouth / beak and a multipurpose hole that seems to be capable of producing anything. Barring dissection, there doesn’t appear to be a particularly accurate way of telling girl chickens from boy chickens. As the weeks past, it become evident that Lavender was definitely a boy which presented us with a problem. It would appear that male chickens like to fight other males. I learnt this at university as the pub you did not want to go into for fear of being glassed by a local was called “The Fighting Cocks”. So as Lavender slowly transitioned from a hen to a cockerel it was clear that we would have to get rid of one of our cockerels before they savaged each another. Despite my protestations, to spare my children’s heart break, it was decided that my Admiral, a magnificent, huge and striding cockerel would have to go. Lavender, inferior in absolutely every measure, would stay.

I evaluated the options on what to do with the Admiral. A good friend of mine was commanding Gurkhas in Aldershot and apparently our brave Nepalese soldiers like nothing more than fresh chicken so that was one option. Luckily our combined disorganisation meant the Admiral was spared eating. Miraculously, a colleague of mine was in the market for a cockerel to pleasure his hens. So, the Admiral was put in the back of the car and driven to his new home in Wiltshire. We were now a one cockerel family.

Assisted suicide

A few weeks later, following a malfunction in our electric gate, our neighbours dog strayed onto our drive and made a beeline to one of our hens. I wasn’t there at the time, so I’m going to keep this fairly neutral in tone as I wouldn’t want to apportion blame, but the upshot of the situation was I came home to very upset children, an angry wife and a hen, Pecky in this case, with a broken leg. Brahmas are the size of horses, so I suspect our neighbours dog probably had a few scratches too.

I was sent out to “deal” with Pecky. Luckily my wife isn’t overly sentimental and had spent the afternoon managing the girls expectations on my likely prognosis for Pecky. Given the cost, you also have to be slightly deranged to take a chicken to the vets. Perhaps the subject of a future blog, I am increasingly skeptical of the veterinary profession – I am certain they are able to keep any pet alive indefinitely if you can afford to pay.

Given the life expectancy of chickens, and that their demise is usually at the hands of a human, they stare at us with a high degree of suspicion. As I approached Pecky, hunkering in a corner of the coop, her eyes met mine and we both knew the writing was on the wall. While I enjoy fishing and shooting, I hate to see any creature suffering, and Pecky’s leg was barely hanging on. She had to be “dispatched”.

Like most difficult things to do I immediately got on to YouTube to get some internet advice on the matter. Rather disconcertingly, although useful in this context, there are a lot of videos on how to kill chickens. I browsed a selection of options to find the one that I felt most comfortable with and had least risk of me inadvertently decapitating Pecky. I concluded stunning Pecky with a bash over the head followed by breaking her neck would be the quickest and most humane option. It turns out, like many things one tries having watched an expert do it on YouTube, humanely dispatching a chicken is harder than it looks. Somewhat traumatised, I returned to the house with the job done and hopefully not inflicting too much suffering on poor Pecky.

Aggressive coq au vin

A few weeks passed, and life with chickens improved. My children continued to enjoy playing and petting them but would in no way help clean them out. A task that now fell to me entirely, my wife keen to point out exactly whose idea they were. Despite the cleaning, we were starting to get a good supply of eggs, so things were looking up.

It began with a pain in my leg. As I turned to walk out of the chicken run, I felt a sense of pain in my leg, as if I had walked into something. I turned around to see Lavender staring at me with his suspicious eyes. I didn’t think much of it, but over the next few weeks Lavender became increasingly bold. He was definitely kicking me, almost a kung-fu style kick as I walked out of the run from feeding them or topping up their water. Like all problems, my first reaction was to ignore it for a few weeks. He continued, indeed he got bolder, now running at me in the cage before launching into his kung-fu kick. No longer when my back was turned but face to face – he was exerting his alpha-maleness on me. Bear in mind as well that Brahmas are massive so Lavender was now standing nearly seven foot tall.

Lavender (left) with suspicious eyes

While I am normally the paradigm of placidity, I was not about to become some chicken’s bitch. Having attempted to train a gun dog, I thought I would apply some of the same techniques to Lavender. Bearing my teeth, growling and adopting dominant body language. Lavender, unmoved, staring back at me with his suspicious eyes.

These were my chickens and so this was my problem. Again I thought the best thing was not to share the news that we had an aggressive cockerel – it seemed to be only directed at me. Clearly my alpha-maleness was causing an issue. Reading a couple of the chicken books we had, the outlook for an aggressive cockerel was not good. In essence, it seems that for some cockerels a switch is flicked that turns them into aggressive shits. Once flicked, there is no turning back.

A few more weeks passed and I was beginning to accept my fate that every time I went into the chicken’s cage, Lavender would take a swing at me. The prospect of a fox to take away the problem my only hope.

Life changed quite suddenly.

While I was splitting logs, or some such activity, there was a sudden scream from my eldest daughter who was being pursued down the drive by Lavender. My daughter bravely stopped, turned to face Lavender, and was met by the flying kick. Lavender and my eldest daughter are about the same height so this landed somewhere near her waist and must have been terrifying. An aggressive cockerel Brahma is not unlike a dinosaur. Luckily, in thick, waterproof outdoor trousers no damage was done, at least not physically. The mental scars I’m sure will manifest themselves in due course.

Lavender has gone insane and was now rampaging my children. Action had to be taken.

Unlike the demise of Pecky, my children’s point of view on the matter was clear. “Kill him Daddy”, seemed to be the universal view of all members of the household. I had to agree, counselling wasn’t an option and who wanted re home a gigantic killer cockerel?

Despite the general disdain now towards Lavender, my wife suggested that once I had dispatched him we didn’t waste him. This somewhat would alter my approach to dispatch and I enlisted the support of a local friend whose father was a farmer. This time we went for a stun over the head followed by an axe to chop the head off, and bleed the bird. This was a disturbing experience and I regretted wearing blue suede loafers.

Incredibly, my wife then plucked, drawed and then butchered Lavender turning him into a very good Coq au Vin, which seemed particularly appropriate.

Lavender on his way to the pot

Prolapse vent or chicken haemorrhoids

Normality ensued for several weeks and again, our chickens felt like a blessing. That was until eggs started appearing with blood on them. Again, much googling and referring to chicken books resulted in a lot of staring at chickens bottoms (vents to use the technical term). Eventually we discovered Snowdrop had what is called a “prolapsed vent”, which in layman terms means her insides were beginning to move outside through her vent. Faced with the prospect of a chicken slowly turning itself inside out, we had to act.

Having gotten used to bashing chickens over the head, I was surprised to learn that the first step was to give Snowdrop a warm bath. I wasn’t entirely sure how a chicken would respond to a warm bath. We filled our boot room sink with warm water and a weak disinfectant and tentatively lowered Snowdrop in, fully expecting an explosion of flapping and squawking. Instead, Snowdrop settled in and seemed quite content while I tried to wash her vent and my wife tried to contain her laughter. This was the comparatively easy bit, the next part was somewhat more challenging and involved rubber gloves.

According to chicken experts I needed to push bits of Snowdrops vent back into her. This required the insertion of two lubed up fingers into her vent. Armed with my rubber gloves, I attempted to push back in whatever it was that was hanging out. Snowdrop, having looked quite relaxed in her bath, reverted back to default suspicion. For me, fingering a chicken felt like a new low point in chicken ownership. Each time I retracted my fingers, whatever had gone back in would re-emerge, accompanied by a little wet fart and some vent convulsions. After several attempts I was feeling sick and was beginning to think head bashing a better option. My wife, somewhat more rationally, suggested Sudocrem. Sudocrem in our family has legendary powers to heal nearly any ailment. It works on humans, so why not chickens? I was keen to try anything, so we slapped some on and hoped for the best.

The next morning, much to my astonishment, Snowdrops vent was looking much better. We continued to bath and then Sudocrem her vent for the next few days until she had made a complete recovery. Whilst recovered, after our shared rubber gloved intimacy, Snowdrop now keeps her distance from me whenever I go in to top up the feeders.

So our first year of chicken ownership has been more trying than I anticipated. My reflections on it are that while the idea of chickens is appealing, the reality is somewhat different. I would never buy a rare breed one, instead choosing the hardiest, most genetically modified one possible that will reliably fire out eggs come what may and doesn’t get sick. While we are in lock-down and eggs are in short supply, our reliable layers are an asset, but whether I can sustain the enthusiasm in more normal circumstances is a question.

Rural broadband – one man’s obsession

I’ve been advised to blog about something that animates me. Over the past year, nothing has animated me as much as our broadband. This has become an unhealthy obsession and I bore pretty much everyone I meet on the subject. Perhaps writing about it will get it out of my system once and for all.

Dreadful phone line broad band speeds

At first, moving in to a house in rural Hampshire with the sun shining at the height of summer was charming. It didn’t actually feel like moving house at all, rather we had rented a charming but tired holiday cottage, the abysmal internet and blue carpet adding to charm. In London we had been used to nearly 300mbps, we were now getting between 1-3mbps, if we were lucky. I hadn’t realised how reliant we had become on fast broadband.

I was going to write in detail about the months I spent on the phone to Talk Talk and OpenReach, the replacing of the old copper wire from the telegraph pole thing to the house and the rewiring of our internal phone cabling – the net effect of which was bugger all. Our broadband still trundled along at 1-3mbps, but I thought I would spare you this and instead give some practical advice on how we finally managed to get something usable.

With no fibre coming our way for decades, there was no option but to go down the mobile broadband route. This was going to be a challenge as we also suffer from terrible mobile signal but I was not going to let this defeat me. We get no signal in the house – so I was going to need to find someway of sorting this out.

EE offer a 4G home broadband package, it looks great and I was hooked by videos of engineers in white land rovers going round and sticking aerials on the side of pretty houses. At the time it was pretty expensive though, and there was no unlimited data option – I have no idea how much data we use but I expect it’s a lot. They have subsequently reduced their pricing which certainly makes it more compelling although still no unlimited data. We also have generally poor EE coverage around us for some reason.

So if you don’t want to go down the EE route there is a DIY option that’s pretty cost effective. I’ve listed out below the bits of kit you need based upon my experience of using them:

  1. 4G router
  2. 4G unlimited data sim
  3. External aerial (possibly)
  4. Wi-fi extender (possibly)

4G Router

This is the heart of the system and takes the 4G signal and turns it into Wi-Fi for you to access around the house. I would recommend either of the following from TP-Link or Huwaei . These things are pretty easy to set up – you stick your 4G data sim into them, turn them on and you are pretty much good to go. If you get good 4G signal and live in a relatively small house this could be all you need.

4G Unlimited data sim

A lot more choice here – you want to use the network that gets the best reception in your house. I bought a couple of pay as you go sims to experiment. I also found MastData, a website that lists where your nearest mobile mast is. My nearest is Vodafone and while I get no reception in the house, I now use a rather elaborate set up with a high mounted external aerial that really improves the signal.

There are loads of deals out there, but as a rough guide you should be able to find an unlimited data sim at the moment for £25 or less. I would tend to pick one from one of the big mobile networks (EE, 02, Vodafone, Three), rather than a virtual operator as some of these limit your actual data speed which is what we are after here! I’ll blog about these in more detail another time and will try and keep a list up to date of the better offers around.

External aerials

Impressive aerial length and untidy use of cable ties

If you really are in the sticks then you probably will benefit from an external aerial. I began by buying one that stuck to a window first, as I was a little daunted about drilling holes in walls etc. This definitely improved the speed of our internet, although didn’t change the number of bars signal shown on the router. Again, I would recommend SMA 4G LTE Antenna as a cheap initial option.

If this doesn’t work, then you will need a decent proper external aerial, mounted up as high as you can. Our house is listed, so this wasn’t an easy option, so I became obsessed with working out how to do this. In the end I put the router in an outbuilding which is uphill from the house and then attached a 6ft pole to it. At the end of which is a Poynting 4G Omni LTE Antenna. This is getting more serious now, but it definitely gives a more stable internet connection. I’ve attached it using jubilee clips and it’s mounted on a 6ft steel TV aerial mast- bulk which is then joined with more jubilee clips to 3’ Aerial Pole & Bracket. I am not at all practical, so its a miracle its still standing but it seems to have survived some high winds. I used a lot of jubilee clips (they only come in packs of 50 it would appear) to hold it all together.

Wifi Extenders

4G router in the building furthest away, wifi signal broadcasted this disc in spare room – seems to work well!

So I have now significantly faster broadband but it is essentially being delivered to a glorified shed that I tentatively use as an office. To get the signal down to and then around the main house required some thought and investment. I’ve tried powerline adapters before in the past and found them to be universally useless. For whatever reason, perhaps old wiring in the house, they seem to loose their connection at the critical moment. I have had much better experience with mesh wifi extenders. There are a growing number of these, but I’ve had really good results with BT Whole Home Wi-Fi. These white discs were super easy to set up and have been totally reliable. You connect one to your 4G router, and then distribute the others around the house. The app it comes with gives you some pointers on how to do it. In my case, I have a box in my “office” connected to the main router, this then broadcasts to another disc in the window of our spare room (about 30 meters away), this disc then connects to another two in the house which ensures our L shaped house has universal WiFi coverage. I invested in a fourth disc (you can buy them individually and add them on) just to make sure everywhere was well covered.

More usable – we’ve occasionally get up to 25mbps

So as I sit here writing this in my shed, and my third proper week of working from home thanks to COVID-19, my obsession seems to have paid off. Whereas before we were barely able to go on a web page in recent days I have been able to join Zoom video conferences while my daughter simultaneously does a Zoom piano lesson.

As I re-read this as well I am acutely aware of how dry the subject matter is. My only hope is someone, somewhere, wrestling with crap rural broadband while trying to work from home, reads this and it solves their problems.