Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Six of the Best

We never needed a manual for adapting to rural living – we had the amazing Roger Barton Farming Circus.

A toned six-pack. (from left) Roger, Nicky, Barbie, Anna, Meg and Rupert Barton.

I mean Circus in the sense of constant bewildering activity, performed by an experienced troupe with a deftness which masks the skill involved – of course.
We first experienced the boundless generosity of this amazing family when Rose had a stampede at our previous home, several years ago. We were looking after four young steers who suddenly decided that our cattle stop was no obstacle after all. I hadn’t arrived home yet and Rose was all alone when they staged their breakout at dusk and rushed onto the road en masse.

It’s not often that Rose is overwhelmed, but faced with visions of lethally tenderised beef and a traffic pile up when the next wave of commuters hurtled home from the railway station, she was in a desperate state. Suddenly, a lone car appeared, pulled over and Barbie, Rupert and Nicky Barton leapt out. Quickly assessing the situation they skilfully mustered the wayward beasts back through the fence to safety. Cheerfully waving aside Rose’s heart-felt thanks, they piled back into the Bartonmobile and disappeared into the distance.

So our first encounter with the Barton’s was a rescue, and their kindness and experience has come to our aid many more times since.
I like to think that we have a fairly unpretentious approach to living in the country, coupled with a willingness to laugh at ourselves when things don’t quite work – and this seems to appeal to Roger. After we had raised our first two orphaned lambs, Barker and Corbett, (also provided by the Bartons) Rose decided to embrace the concept of ‘using the entire animal’ and taught herself how to tan and turn their fleeces into sheepskin rugs. When she proudly displayed the beautifully-prepared skin of Barker-or-Corbett to Roger, he took a closer look and then roared with laughter: "You’ve tanned his pizzle!" Cue hilarity all round and a quick snip for Rose’s first ever sheepskin rug.
Needless to say, we were given endless Barton help in raising Barker and Corbett, including free consultations and eventually the ending of their brief, but we’d like to believe, happy lives. I’m not going to justify raising our own animals for meat here, it might sound arrogant, but after ten years in the country I’d now be surprised if someone felt I needed to. I did make sure I at least watched as Roger coaxed our trusting boys over and despatched them in moments. I also recall hosing the small amount of spilt blood out of the grass before Rose got home, and then, as a thank you gift, I sent Roger a cartoon afterwards. It depicted a hooded figure brandishing a scythe while hurtling down the road on a quad bike, the gowned and harp-playing souls of two newly-departed sheep floating into the clouds behind him.
Our first animal husbandry experience was deemed enough of a success to be followed by Irwin and Pluto (we had developed a tendency to name our sheep after the recently deceased - in this case: Steve Irwin, and the recently-demoted planet), followed by Florence and Dillon and then the piglets Trinny and Susannah. In all cases Roger and Barbie’s help and advice was invaluable.
It’s not been all slaughter, although it pays to keep your guard up in social situations, too.
Roger is a notorious prankster, past triumphs having included festooning a friends Christmas decorations with ‘recently jingled lamb’s bells’ (the flies were particularly numerous in their living room that summer) and artfully arranging two enormous grinning cattle skulls on our front gate in full view of the road. We retaliated by continuing the skull theme and locally promoted a totally fictitious performance of Hamlet, starring Roger in a fetching pair of green tights, with fliers and posters. To his credit he took it very well and even received a booking.

Despite running a farm, sitting on almost every committee going and raising four amazing children, Roger and Barbie always have time to socialise and held an unforgettable hilltop barbeque overlooking a vast stretch of the south Wairarapa one year, including the piece of land which was one day to be ours. We even graduated to being invited to spend Christmas Day with them last year, an event which completely belied everything you’ve ever heard (and experienced) about the nativity celebration bringing out the worst in families. In fact, we had the best Christmas in years and left wondering if they ever argued with each other.

Negotiating with Roger and Barbie to buy ‘Little Bush’ (which we had fallen in love with as soon as Barbie took us there, one perfect summer afternoon) could have been awkward – talking that amount of money face-to-face with people you hardly know is bad enough, never mind your friends. But as usual, it was done with straight-forwardness, honesty and a certain degree of humour. Initially Roger advised us to wait until the wettest months (August/September) so that we could fully appreciate how marshy the land got. As it happened, it was a very wet year and we didn’t have to wait that long to see the place at it’s worst. Wading through the lower paddock with muddy water splashing up our legs, we still loved it, and so a valuation and soil survey were carried out, and finally an agreement was collectively signed. It was a mark of the magnitude of the situation that Roger stayed awake the entire time – his evening ability to slip into unconsciousness almost mid-sentence is legendary, but farmers work long and hard.

We have never looked back and the Bartons still factor very much in our lives. Nicky recently baked Rose the most amazing 50th birthday cake and used her influence at the Tin Hut to ensure that our night out was very special. As I’ve mentioned earlier, Roger connected our container to his farm water supply (something which can’t be overvalued) and even the on-going offer of the use of their shower and washing machine has been made.
Tonight we have a very special treat in store. The Bartons are away for a few days and have literally opened their home to us, inviting us to use their shower, relax in front of their TV and enjoy being in a house for a little while. It’s just the kind of people they are.

Roger and Barbie overlooking their domain.  Little Bush is indicated on the right.

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