Sunday, November 4, 2018

Harvest time

Harvest time came round quickly this year - and that's a fact!  Thanks to the very hot weather the crop ripened early and on August 17th - four days before Saint Philbert's day - picking began on the small bloc: in a slow way as there were a lot of other events on the calendar to fit in around.

Kentish Cobnuts ready for picking

All ages including grandchildren and grandparents and ages in between joined in from time to time.

A good haul of nuts
All ages lend a hand
First row of nuts - green and fresh
A little picker reaches the lowest branches

One of the events to be fitted in was the visit to Hurstwood Farm by a group from the KCA, the Kentish Cobnuts Association, by kind permission of Mr Richard Dain.  Having recently taken on the role of Chair of the Association I had the idea for the visit when hearing about the extraordinary development of mechanical harvesting which was taking place on the farm.

Cobnut harvester

The photos show the difference between harvesting at Hurstwood Farm and the traditional methods employed on my plat at Ightham Mote.
The harvester action

A footnote to this visit: for the few who could stay on afterwards Mr Dain treated us to an impromptu piano recital, demonstrating some of the range of instruments in his piano showroom - a special treat.

Tea and cakes in memory of John
Shortly after the start of harvesting a sociable event took place on the plat in the form of a tea-party in memory of a dear friend, helper and supporter.  John Morrison passed away a year ago and is much missed. So Penny and his family organised the tea-party, repeating one which John himself had organised the previous year.  But this year the summer heat was interrupted at that precise moment by a downpour and tea and cakes were rapidly moved into our trusty shed and a joyful event celebrating John and his family was enjoyed by all present.

Nut-picking proceded slowly the following week as, in order to get the rows on the main bloc fit for picking a fair amount of back-breaking bramble-bashing had to take place before the team of pickers from Hurstwood Farm arrived on September 10th.

Some of the team who cleared the main bloc

Boxes at the ready

An autumn fair at the National Trust's Smallythe Place was another date on the calendar.
Smallhythe Place

Ellen Terry's house near Tenterden was the beautiful venue; the sun shone and the event, if not a money-spinner was certainly enjoyable as a sociable day out.

The cobnuts stand

Easy, when you think of it!
Cobnuts sell faster if attractively presented so the elementary shift from paper bags to recyclable punnets proved successful as well as making them easier to handle.

Great help from Visitor Reception staff

 Ightham Mote provided an attractive stand in an ideal location next to the Visitor Reception and the staff there were enormously helpful in keeping an eye on supplies and taking them under cover in the evenings. Sales from my almost daily deliveries went well although they still had to be priced 'by recommended donation' rather than a fixed price.

Last row - golden nuts

Picking on the small bloc continued through September and
when one last row remained the nuts had fallen to the ground
and it was a case of picking them up on hands and knees.

 The last tray of nuts was brought home on September 21st, five weeks from the start.  It had taken longer this year due to everything else that had to be done and some reduction in volunteer help.  It would be nice to involve our usual student volunteers in picking but harvest time falls either during the summer holiday or at the very start of the autumn term before they can get organised for off-site events.

Its always interesting to find wildlife on the plat; sometimes a deer is spotted and buzzards soaring over head are a regular sight when conditions are right.  No photos of these so far but on a smaller scale, fascinating insect life and this year plenty of ladybirds.
A Globe Spider rolls the ball that protects its young

We all love ladybirds - of the right kind of course.


A local collaboration with Sevenoaks Library led to a display on the history of cobnuts in our area.  If you get the chance take a look in the downstairs area of the Library to see some nice old photographs and implements and contrasting show of modern mechanical methods as well as a variety of products using cobnuts.  The display will be in place until Christmas; well worth the detour to take a look.

Minding the stall

September ended with the Apple and Orchard Day Fair at Ightham Mote - a regular date on the calendar.

After a brief respite, October was another busy month, baking muesli for local shops and the Farmers' Market.  The Northern Ireland Red Squirrel groups were quick to put in orders for bulk supplies of cobnuts.  Six different groups were supplied before stocks ran out ,while I kept back enough - I hope - for my own 'Gilly Jones's Cobnut Products' in the year ahead.

Now in November, while things have gone quieter, planning for pruning, wanding and general maintenance of the plat for the year ahead is taking place. In a nice surprise gesture the National Trust Ranger contacted me about a hedge-laying programme using the hedge bordering Mote Road.

Autumn colours and hedge-laying in progress
The hedge was definitely in need of attention and after a week's work with tutor Ian, an expert in the skill, and Eleanor, Richard's trainee ranger, the hedge has been transformed and is a beautiful sight to behold.
Their work has transformed a straggly and nearly useless growth into a proper hedge again and a lovely thing. We will look after it and maintain its shape.  Thank you!

The hedge-laying team survey the completed work

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Summertime and easy living

Who needs alpine meadows when there is this kind of a show near to home?

 At the end of May the plat was looking particularly flowery with buttercups, vetch, lesser stitchwort and speedwell carpeting the ground.

June 10th was Open Farm Sunday at Mote Farm.  Tractor-loads of children trundled around the fields and farm machinery of all descriptions, old and new, was on display.

A jaunt around the farm

Serious discussion and an old friend

Naturally cobnut products were on display, alongside  a plentiful supply of strawberries on
the Manor Farm, Oldbury stand and apple and pear juice courtesy of Robert Mitchell and his team.  My thanks to the friends and volunteers who helped out and took a turn on the stall.

In my last blog I posted a photo of this delightful creature, taken by Pam Hardeman of the North West Red Squirrel Group in Northern Ireland. Later in June I decided to take a trip across the water and visit some of my customers there.

My trip took in Tyrone and Fermanagh to visit relatives, both having small populations of reds whilst trying their best to keep out the greys.  While I didn't get as far as Derry to visit Pam's group I did get to see a flourishing colony in county Down.   Mount Stewart must be the 'Jewel in the Crown' of the  National Trust in Northern Ireland: a magnificent house and estate, situated on the peninsular between Strangford Lough and the sea.That location makes it easier to control the grey squirrels, allowing the reds to flourish.

On the shores of Strangford Lough, the Mountains of Mourne in the distance

Magnificent Mount Stewart

Picture-postcard lake with woodland beyond

Toby Edwards, the head ranger brims over with enthusiasm for the little creatures which have made their home in the forested part of the estate.  He and his team have built a hide from which visitors, if they come at the right time of day, can watch the squirrels feeding from several boxes placed among the trees and fallen branches.  

It's hard to catch them on camera!

Maybe you can see the tail?

The little creatures tip up the lid and dive inside to feed on the mix of maize and peanuts and our own Kentish cobnuts. I was interested to know why our cobnuts are so good for them and learned it is because the squirrels' teeth never stop growing, so gnawing through the hard shells of the cobnuts is exactly what is needed to keep them in good shape. You can read more about the red squirrels of Mount Stewart here: Toby's red squirrels :  (click on the link and then scroll down to 'Wildlife' and choose Squirrels).

My final squirrel stop was Belfast Zoo  where I hoped to meet Michael Corscadden, the Head of Stores and a customer for Kentish cobnuts.  

The correct entrance for business visitors.

Michael and one of his team took me up to visit the breeding programme

Belfast Zoo has a breeding programme for red squirrels. They are keen to educate the public as to why the reds are endangered and how it is that the greys pose such a threat.

The greys carry a virus which is deadly to the reds

Belfast Zoo is on a wooded hillside overlooking the city below so the squirrels could not roam freely here. Instead the keepers have cleverly constructed several large cages interlinked by aerial tunnels of strong mesh where the creatures can run and chase and scamper around almost like in the wild.  Here families have bred and at the right time the young are taken to the various conservation groups in the six counties. 

To the right is the caged area and top left an 'aerial runway'.

  I couldn't leave the zoo without taking a look at some other
occupants such as.... flamingos and elegant giraffes. 

But then it was time to head back home. 
It is mid July and on the plat mallow and ragwort are the dominant wild flowers: the latter poisonous to cattle and horses but loved by the bees.


In the dry area at the top of the plat some trees are feeling the stress of the hot weather,

But in general the nuts have reached a considerable size now. 

However if you crack one open the kernel is still only about the size of a pea.

That doesn't deter the grey squirrels which have already started to help themselves.  

We learn that pine martens predate grey squirrels (whilst the reds are too quick and light to be caught).  I wish we could import some here!

Monday, March 19, 2018

Winter 2017 - 18

We welcomed students from Hadlow College to plant up little nut trees in gaps in the rows - it's called 'gapping up'. They made light work of planting ten trees, in ground which was already moist from the October rains. But when it was time to leave, to everyone's dismay the college minibuses were unable to get a grip and churned up the grass of the pathway making deep ruts. They were stuck! A call for help was not in vain and soon arrived in the shape of a heavy-weight tractor, with driver and helper.  It soon had the buses moving and the students were safely on their way.  They seemed to have enjoyed that part of the day best of all.

The Gilly Jones brand of cobnut products expanded in the run-up to Christmas into local outlets, including Ide Hill Community shop and Plaxtol Village Stores. As well as cobnuts in shell, there were packets of roasted cobnuts, chocolate bars with roasted cobnuts and, of course, the original Granola-muesli.

The view from Ide Hill Community Shop

Cobnut products on display

Plaxtol Village Stores

Its New Year and already the main bloc of nut trees have been pruned.  Between the rows lie twigs, wands and branches which have to be cleared away before the grass begins to grow. February saw the return of the Hadlow students to help with this task.  They set to work with energy and enthusiasm, dragging piles of prunings on tarpaulin 'sledges', down to an open patch where a bonfire was already burning.
Collecting prunings

Bonfire is going nicely
Potatoes which had been pre-baked just had to go in the embers for 20 minutes and were so hot that the butter melted on contact.

spuds ready to go in the ashes

Very tasty!

Back to work again and the bonfire is revived
After that it was time to get back to work and another hour of dragging and burning.

Tutors working hard too?
Thank you Hadlow students; you did a brilliant job and we hope you'll come again!

Meanwhile, back in the nut store, the mice have discovered the sacks and are feeling hungry....

Raiders have been at work!

Although the furry monsters have helped themselves to a lot of nuts, not all have been consumed.  That long green thing in the photo below is a rolled up mat and when I accidentally knocked against it, out poured a veritable waterfall of carefully cleaned and stored nuts  I scooped them up - about 20 kg in all - and shut them away in a mouse proof bin: three crates like the one below in all. The mice had taken off the outer husks - and possibly polished them with a duster, they were that clean; no bad or empty nuts were found as the mice can tell (by the weight) and they reject any non-viable cobnuts.  

cobnuts collected and sorted by mice.

Thank you mice; you did me a favour.  and there's a post script to the story.  In March when I inspected two pairs of Wellington boots kept in the same shed, they too were full of cleaned cobnuts. 

This year, encouraged by the National Trust at Ightham Mote, I entered for the 'Taste of Kent' Countryside Award which rewards countryside businesses who caring for the environment, the soil, wildlife and the community.  It was exciting to receive a visit from the judging panel and to  be one of the finalists. 

At a dinner at the County Showground, the winners were announced and although we did not come out on top I received this nice framed plaque.  It is a reminder of how far we have come since starting in 2012, thanks to so much hard work and support by volunteers, friends and local organisations.

At the middle of March there was till work to be done on the plat and the Hadlow students reappeared, ready for anything. We were fortunate with the weather and apart from a few showers the day turned out mostly sunny.  More hardwork, another bonfire and a picnic lunch with baked potatoes.  Thank you, Hadlow students and tutors alike!  
A fine blaze

Picnic time again

We were indeed lucky with the weather for the very next day the snow was back. 

What a difference a day can make!

The bonfire site!

And as I conclude this post snow is still falling outside my window and the biting East wind is whirling it around.  Roll on spring!