school


It has changed. The day length has changed; the darkness is winning.  It’s the fastest rate of daylight change. The air has changed, the leaves are changing. Autumn has arrived.  Even the word “Autumn” is believed to come from the Etruscan word “autu”, meaning change of season.  I used to think that I enjoyed all seasons equally; no favourites as a policy. I was wrong, this is it; a winner by a mile.

Now I feed and water the chickens with a head torch on and the air around the cottage has the faint smell of wood smoke.  With the darkness the evening sky is now my seasonal clock as I walk down the lane.  Cygnus, the swan, is beginning its annual migration across the night and, if its dark enough, marks the arc of the milky way. The swan reminds me to keep an eye out for the skeins of birds in the sky. I usually spot the during the commute to school.  Sitting in the static traffic gives me a chance to look up.

It’s strange to have an autumn without bees.  No syrup feed, no honey harvest. The hives were left empty in the hope that maybe a stray swarm might move in; no joy.  To add insult to injury I found a wasp nest in one of the old spare hives.

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Then there is the apples. The trees are older and the pruning, feeding and weeding is beginning to bear some fruit. James Grieves, McIntosh Red, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Katy, Russet and some other unknown varieties. Although the Russet is not really a Russet. We bought it five years ago and planted it as a thin sapling.  Five years latter and we discover that it had been mislabelled. Should I have kept the receipt?  This is the consequence of growing trees, proper slow food.  The taste and textures of the apples are quite different and we eat apple and cheese sandwiches, baked apples, fried apples on toast (which is quite nice; thank you Nigel Slater), apple crumble and simply eat the apples. We have even filled a couple of boxes with apples individually wrapped in newspaper and hidden away in a cool dark place.  Yet, a little while a go I went looking for apples to buy at the market.  I wanted Russet apples as they add to the flavour of autumn for me.  I intended to buy them for my A Level class to try and convince them to branch out (sorry) and try other varieties that the supermarket keep hidden from them.  The market didn’t have any.  Later that day there was a knock on my classroom door in the middle of my A Level lesson.  It was a past pupil with a bag of twenty five russet apples. She works part-time in a fruit shop and when they arrived in, she knew I would like them; a thoughtful and wonderful gift. After they were distributed there was still one or two left to set on my desk.  Although it is nowhere near as neat as the clichéd teacher’s desk.

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It’s hard to describe the busy nature of life with three little people to look after.  After a long day at school I arrived home just after the lovely Sharon; also just home from a long day at school.  We hit the ground running; the dinner needed made, the little man’s homework needed to be supervised, the little lady demanded that I listened to the debrief of her nursery school day, and the littlest man simply demanded my attention with duplo. The lovely Sharon and I juggled these tasks with no time to ask each other how our days had been.  As if to demonstrate how our priorities and perspective on life has shifted; it was only about half an hour later that the lovely Sharon remembered to mention, “Oh, yeah, I forgot to say that our school was on fire today.  We were evacuated and the fire brigade had to put it out.” At that point somebody screamed.  It might have been a duplo block that wouldn’t fit, a spelling written back to front, or someone needing to go to the toilet.  I can’t recall the details, but that was the end of the small talk.

In ancient times we think that people believed their metal tools were alive, and had souls. I am currently reminding my students of this while we learn about smelting copper and smelting iron. We take all these metals for granted and I want to give them a hint of the magic of it all, the wonderful leap in our technology. We, thousands of years ago, even went as far as burying metallic tools and weapons as if they were people. We now know that these things aren’t alive, or are they…..

Tonight I arrived home a little later and wanted to get some wood cut before darkness arrived. I have come to the conclusion that working with a chainsaw in the dark is a little dangerous. I got all the wood out, the chainsaw out, the safety helmet out, and the cutting horse all set up. The saw was revved up and I started cutting while the little man pottered about on his tricycle shouting “NOISE! NOISE!”. I didn’t get far with the cutting before I realised that the chain was blunt and needed sharpening. I have a special tool for this somewhere…..

I looked in the toolboxes, and on the workbench, and around the workbench and in the wood shed, and on the potting table. Then I looked in the toolboxes, and on the workbench, and around the workbench and in the wood shed, and on the potting table again. The light was fading. I started getting desperate. Inside the house I looked in the kitchen, in the living room, and around the computer desk. Nothing. At this stage it was nearly dark, so I angrily gave in. All the wood cutting equipment was put back in a very grumpy manner.

Finished with the wood, and finished with any thought of doing any kind of work for the night, I went to close up the garage. Just as I was about to walk out the door my eye caught a glimpse of the tool. I reached over and pulled a fallen piece of cardboard away. I stared at the tool. We stood in silence for a few minutes just staring at each other, and under my breath I vowed that someday I will bury the dark soul of that tool so deep in the earth that it will never hear the noise of a chainsaw ever again.

About a week ago I looked at the calendar and realised that I would be at the cottage in the Mournes close to the full moon. Such a syzygy between the moon, the cottage and me is usually deliberate, but this time it was purely coincidence. At lunch time on Friday I tried to herd the pupils into the minibus to head to the mountains. There are usually a few pupils who are the sort that are busy. The sort that are quite well organised but seem constantly preoccupied because they are doing so much, doing so many worthy things. There are usually one or to of these types, but somehow most of the pupils were like this. They all seemed to have meetings to attend and I found myself having to be patient and wait on them without being able to be justifiably angry with them.

Eventually we piled into the bus and headed for the mountains. A few hours later they unfolded from the cramped minibus and loaded themselves with their backpacks before heading up into the heart of the Mourne Mountains. Their task was to arrive at the cottage before dark and they achieved it with time to spare.

The evening was spent sitting around the old cottage fire and route planning by candle light before trying to get some sleep before the cold night set in. For a couple of brief moments between laughter around the fire I spotted the nearly full moon through the cottage window. We tried to read a few ghost stories but we totally failed to take ourselves seriously and stories were started but quickly ended in laughter.


Saturday found us all awake very early. At half eight we had our feet on the hills and heading up into the Annalong Valley. Our route stretched the legs and gave the students a chance to remind themselves what hiking and camping involved, a change to enjoy the wild country and the air.

***CAUTION:  Do not read if you are of a squeamish disposition***

The chickens are loving the cool spring sunshine.

They wander around the whole garden and keep sneaking up on my when I am doing the chores.

I imagine the bees have also been loving the bright weather, but they are all early to bed and on these evenings I only ever seem to catch a few late ones fly home.

The eggs have only three days until their due date.  I was chatting with one of the school caretakers about the eggs hatching and he told me that the first time his brother-in-law tried to hatch eggs it did not work quite as well as expected.  He told me that a lot of them hatched with their bowels on the outside.  I did not thank him for that erasable mental image.

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