The velvet blackness of a tranquil Welsh night gives way imperceptibly to the subtle halflight of a new dawn.
The profound silence is broken by the soft, measured tread of stealthy steps as Moriarty approaches the peaceful farmhouse, his night’s murderous work complete. The creak of clandestine footfalls on the old wooden staircase alerts me to his presence, jolting me from a jumble of dreams as the first fingers of golden morning sunshine thrust their halo of light through the heavy ivory curtains. He pauses for a moment in the bedroom doorway; judging by his slickly triumphant gaze, I will find another sad, broken body cast lifess in the haybarn when I venture out to feed the livestock as the birds break the back of darkness with their rousing chorus.
“Busy night?” I enquire with a stifled yawn; “you must be in need of some breakfast.” Purring loudly, the big, smoke-grey cat leaps gracefully onto the bed in full accord. Our little green valley is Moriarty’s happy, feline hunting-cum-playground paradise; yet, while we share such a passion for this place, for the two human occupants at least it is so much more than just home; far more elemental, more profound indeed than the rich brown earth & its milky-white threads of quartz running through the seams of grey slate, deep beneath our feet.
But at this point I feel I should introduce us: I’m Jo Knight, & I moved here to Ffarm Fach (or ‘Little Farm’, in Welsh – hence the name of the Dairy) with husband Tony at the end of October 2005, just as the Autumn colours of the woods which plunge down to the river were painting the valley in hues of deepest ochre & gold. For us, the journey to reach this lovely, enchanted landscape of Cymru has been a spiritual stumble over the rough wilderness of our uncertain & dangerous careers as Military Officers, to a leap over the waterfall of faith into pastures dramatically new with a fresh future as dairy goat farmers & artisan cheese & ice cream makers – all in the space of one short but breathtaking year. Yet our turbulent past still seems as far behind us now, as the Autumn rains that transform the river running through the cleft in the valley from an angry, tumbling torrent of shouting foam to a gently murmuring brook, giggling & gurgling over boulders softened over centuries by the sweet Welsh rains.
2002 -2003: Love, Life & Marriage
Prior to crossing the River Severn I was working as a Logistics Officer at Royal Air Force (RAF) Lyneham in Wiltshire; I met a pilot, Tony, whilst we were building a snowman for our Winter Ball; our whirlwind romance swiftly led to his proposal of marriage in January 2003.
Before we met our working lives had been spent focussing on the high-tech, ordered, military discipline of our respective careers. The discovery that we wanted to be together however, was soon to be tested to the limit; as being a captain on the tactical Hercules transport aircraft, Tony endured repeated, risky operations in both Afghanistan & Iraq (commencing only 24 hours after his romantic, down-on-one-knee proposal). He came home briefly for our wedding on St David’s Day, the same year; & after a fleeting trip of only a few hours to the beautiful Gower peninsular for our ‘honeymoon’ he flew back to the war zone, a deeply unhappy time & not how we had anticipated starting our married life.
From then on, our military circumstances seemed destined to keep us apart; thus our focus gradually changed from one of career, to quality of life – of which ours was now evidently lacking. However, an ironic twist in events was to change our lives forever….
January-July 2004: Time to Say Goodbye
Owing to Tony’s prolonged detachments a more leisurely honeymoon had to be delayed until the following year, when we departed for two glorious, sun-soaked weeks to the enchanted island of Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, we brought home with us more than the usual crumpled clothes in a suitcase, contracting severe food poisoning on the very last day.
To cheer us up whilst recuperating (& once sufficient distance from the loo would allow!) we visited the wonderful Golden Oak Shetland Pony Stud & unintentionally fell in love with a feisty foal, called Toto. A plump little companion dubbed Kemosabe, who looked as if he’d trotted straight from the pages of a Thelwell cartoon, soon joined Toto; & with livery fees doubling overnight we considered the possiblility of moving to a house with a little slice of land – all owing to a bowl of improperly cooked rice!
At the time, we shared with our four cats, a modern house on the edge of a Cotswold village & were lucky enough to have a substantial garden in which we grew some veg & tended a handful of hens. Our cockerel had been forced into exile following a bitter feud by a neighbour who wanted to live in the ‘countryside’ but couldn’t stand anything with fur or feathers; so by July 2004, we’d decided enough was truly enough; & with the ponies’ rotund bulk finally tipping the scales of our future, we knew it was time to move on.
August 2004 – September 2005: Dreaming the ‘Impossible’ Dream
Unfortunately though, we swiftly found that property in the local area came at an overwhelming price for our frugal pockets. After our hopes were dashed a couple of times prior to the agreed sale of our property, we nevertheless ploughed grimly onwards; but the market’s interest waned as the winter nights drew gloomy curtains over any potential purchase. I endured a lonely Christmas, with Tony yet again on operations in Iraq. January refreshed our resolution to relocate & as Tony hailed originally from the Blackwood area, we decided to widen the net to his native Wales. Meanwhile, time ticked by as did yet more potential properties, some of which we almost bought through sheer desperation (except for the one with ‘unparallelled views of the Brecon Beacons’ – the glass having long since fallen out of the windows!).
The bitter February snows heralded March’s dramatic entrance, roaring like a lion through wind & sleet. Tucked close by a fire which hissed like an angry cat each time a gust of wind blew a rattle of hail down the chimney one evening, I continued my unrelenting trawl for suitable properties & came across details for a small goat dairy near Ystrad Meurig. I read it wistfully to Tony; having a scheduled option to leave the RAF but no real consideration of a specific career path thereafter, I observed it was a shame I couldn’t pursue something so radically different to my current vocation. “Well, why not?” he retorted – & he was right. That bowl of Sri Lankan rice was relentlessly turning the wheel of fate to ensure things would never be quite the same for us, from that moment: our life’s focus suddenly changed forever. It felt as if a great weight had been lifted, despite the extremely daunting prospect of moving to an unfamiliar area to set up, from scratch, an unfamiliar business! However, whilst that particular smallholding transpired to be not quite what we were after, it did encourage us to believe that our dream really could become reality, one day. Eventually, in June, we discovered a modest smallholding near Carmarthen with pleasant views & a period house with bags of character. It seemed perfect; thus, its compelling spell was cast. And thus, the nightmare began….
Two months, several thousand pounds in extensive searches & burdensome solicitors’ fees later, with only a tremulous week before we were due to start our new lives, the vendor of the smallholding abruptly withdrew from our purchase for a better offer. This devastating news came as my mother was in intensive care following open-heart surgery; my sister was mysteriously ill in another hospital; & Tony was away – yet again – in Iraq. Heartbroken, & desperate not to lose our own sale, I searched fervently for somewhere else for us to put down our parched roots.
Miserably trawling the Internet one balmy Summer’s eve, I happened across a scant set of details for a thirty-six acre farm, situated between the majesty of the Prescelli Mountains & the romantic Cardiganshire coast. With nothing but a grainy aerial photograph to whet our starving appetites, no sooner had Tony arrived home than we set off to view the farm in bright summertide sunshine; although, with so many hopes & dreams dashed repeatedly, the mood was inevitably one of greyer skies.
Our unfounded sense of foreboding was replaced with anxious anticipation as we drew closer to our destination. A gnarled, weathered beech tree stood as sentinel at the top of the silver-grey slate drive, which wound its’ way down towards the little farm. The sense of intrigue was heightened at every turn, the property illusively shielded from view by ancient hedgerows & stout drystone walls studded with luscious fern fronds & a riot of colourful wild fruits & flowers.
Another change of direction, & we were there – the white cottage nestling stoically into the hill, facing a valley of mysterious oak woodland behind which the sky shimmered in cloudless, endless blue, red kites rising on their great russet wings in the warm air above us. Carefully maintained stone outbuildings enclosed the yards, the cottage peacefully dominant with its neat vegetable garden, wildlife pool & an orchard, windows gazing dreamily toward the distant mountains & the sea beyond. The organically-managed pasture was verdant & well fenced, gently sloping toward some eleven acres of ancient bluebell wood through which the summer-parched stream meandered lazily. The old cottage itself retained slate-flagged floors; low, exposed beams & the wooden tongue-&-grooved ceilings favoured in many traditional Welsh farmhouses. Warmed by woodburning hearths in the snug & parlour & by a lovely old Rayburn in the kitchen, every window afforded a wonderful view. We hardly dared hope that we might have at last found somewhere we truly desired to call home; & although this move would mean radical downsizing as well as the major lifestyle downshift, we were ready to declutter the lot. We were truly smitten.
Immediately, the agent was contacted & we placed an offer on the property, spending a sleepless night awaiting a reply. The following day, to our amazed delight, a price was agreed upon & solicitors swiftly instructed. Ironically we then received a call from the vendor of the previous property: his sale had fallen through, & so he assumed the deal was back on. Whilst many might (& indeed did) call it poetic justice I felt genuine sympathy when I tactfully explained a far better prospect had presented itself. The spell was broken – at last, we could finally move on.
October 2005: Home – at Last
An Otober morning, & our relocation dawned with a sky the colour of a chaffinch’s breast, blushing in the first gentle rays of the early morning sun & turning the tops of the valley’s oak trees into a splendour of shimmering bronze as a brilliant red fox slipped stealthily along the woodland path. We were home, at last.
The move however, proved to be only the very beginning of an extremely emotional journey into the unexplored territory of our new life & living, in West Wales. Those first few weeks were an elemental rollercoaster: from the glorious golds of woodland autumnal colour enrobed in rich, late sunshine; to relentless, lowering clouds of lashing rain, filling the frenzied river with a roar of foaming fury; followed by the eerie stillness of snowfall, slate-grey skies discharging a heavy burden which froze teardrops of ice on skeletal branches weeping silently into the leaden water. Badgers grunted indignantly in the wood, their quest for food resounding in echoing snorts from the valley floor. We embraced our new environment with the gladness of heart felt by an anxious parent who has lost sight of their child a momentary age too long.
Sadly, our trials were not yet at an end as we both had to complete our commissions in the RAF. Further, for Tony, the stark reality of our hefty mortgage gave way to the uncomfortable truth that in order to fund our new life in Wales he would have to take a job as a commercial pilot, employed a gruelling four-hour drive away at Heathrow; although at least his shift pattern involved a roughly three-day rotation, working abroad for the duration of his absence. Meanwhile I was committed to the RAF until January 2007; & so had to ‘grin & bear’ a minimum daily six-hour round trip to the office in Gloucester for just over a year after handing in my notice.
Easter 2006: Porcine Procurement
On top of this exhausting journey my burden of chores increased, from managing our modest menagerie of our handful of hens, our pair of ponies, & the quartet of cats; to a tandem of of horses (quadrupeds, not quad bikes are the order of the day for miscellaneous ffarm/logging work), a gaggle of geese & a penful of porkers.