Today we finally went and got some straw for the chicken's run, a task that's been sitting on the list of Things to Do since before Christmas. We agonised then about who we knew that might be able and willing to sell us straw. I picked my moment to ask the boss at work, who made vaguely encouraging noises, but apart from the owner in the course of the staff Christmas meal enquiring who it was that had been asking about hay, nothing happened. I also discovered that a friend's on-off relationship with a farmer was on again, so got his mobile number from her, then didn't ring him for several weeks. First of all the SA had toothache, and driving around the countryside in an ancient flat bed transit van with no heating didn't seem like a good idea, and then it was Christmas and the New Year and it seemed rude. I finally made contact last week.
We'd arranged to collect the straw around four o'clock, since the farmer would be in the yard at dusk shutting things up for the day. We have been there before, but still managed to get lost and go on a magical mystery tour of the network of lanes north of the A12 out towards Langham. The SA made a journey plan before we set off, so that we could go cross country and avoid taking the truck anywhere near the north station roundabout in Colchester, but one of the lanes on the map didn't seem to exist in real life. It must have been access only, for an expected right hand turning never materialised and we found ourselves trundling over a bridge to the wrong side of the A12. We doubled back so that we were at least the right side of the main road, but the next promising-looking turning in the right direction taken by the truck ahead of us transpired to be a private no-through road, with nowhere sensible to turn round. The SA had to do a seventeen point turn in somebody's driveway, while I hoped that the householder wouldn't come out and challenge us.
We'd gone shopping for straw in our gardening clothes. It seemed a waste of time to change, and it's not as though a working farmyard is a very dressy place. As we hurriedly manoeuvred in a stranger's gateway I realised that the only badge of respectability I had with me at that moment was my accent. Ancient jeans thick with mud, cheap wellington boots and a nineteen year old M reg ex-builder's truck with a hundred and twenty thousand miles on the clock and one front wing made out of an old kitchen unit door do not give out the most reassuring social vibes. We escaped before anyone could come and shout at us. I know it is rude to turn round in people's driveways, but once you've gone down a private road by mistake you have to turn somewhere.
The farmer was there when we arrived, looking somewhat careworn. There was such a gap between my getting his number and contacting him, I don't even know whether his fledgling relationship with my friend survived Christmas. Farming in Essex over the past year would be enough to make anyone look careworn, with a struggle to get every job done, and a poor harvest at the end of it. The SA asked him if he was badly behind and he just said Yes. He could do some ploughing, and that was about it. The farmyard was very muddy, so we were right not to put on tidy clothes for the expedition.
On the way home the truck started to make a loud and horrible noise. The SA said with a note of real concern that it didn't sound good, then turned the fan off and the noise stopped. Phew. An alarming moment when the clutch felt sticky ceased to be alarming when the SA realised there was a piece of plastic stuck under the clutch pedal. By the time we got home with the straw it was dark. Some of the more romantic articles I've seen about the joys of backyard poultry keeping do seem to gloss over the practicalities. Even a few fowl make their run muddy, especially in a wet year, and you will need something to put down on the ground. What will you use, where are you going to get it, and how are you going to transport it home?