A Fowl Murder

 At last – ‘A Fowl Murder’ – book three in the Swaddlecombe series, is being published next weekend! Victoria and Albert are back and you can catch up on their latest adventures.

To whet your appetite, here’s the synopsis from the book jacket:

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As her first summer in rural Devon draws to a close, Victoria West feels comfortably settled and her relationship with farmer Albert Moreton is jogging along nicely… but then death comes a–calling.

A work colleague from Victoria’s ‘old’ life in London appears on the scene and life starts to get complicated. An article on breeding chickens somehow draws Victoria and Albert into a web of jealousy, lies and murder. There’s a catastrophe over the canapés and plenty more shocks in store in the third Swaddlecombe adventure.

As ever, the locals add plenty of colour to this the cosy British murder mystery. Will pub landlord Roger ever be able to face a cup of coffee again? Can Victoria keep clear of the clutches of sleazy Morris Podger and will Albert manage to bake a gluten-free cake?

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Thank you all so much for your patience, support and kind words. A Fowl Murder has, for all sorts of reasons, taken much longer to publish than we had hoped. My partner in crime writing, Julia, and myself hope that it brings you suspense and laughter in equal amounts… and that you think it has been worth the wait!

The paperback will be available on my website and on Kindle very shortly and I will let you all have the link as soon as it is ready!

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Blooming marvellous

MayblossomWhen I sit down and think what to write about in my blog, I sometimes have to chew the end of my pen for a bit… but this week, I had no hesitation! Everywhere we have been in the past week or so, we have been ‘wowed’ by the blossom in this extraordinary spring!

We are very lucky in Devon that we always have a profusion of wildflowers, but this year is a truly bumper year. Last year, when we wrote ‘A Violet Death’ I can remember my partner in crime writing, Julia, struggling to find violets to photograph for the cover… this year, you cannot walk through woodlands or meadow without treading on the gorgeous things, they are everywhere! Coloured from deepest purple to pale lilac, wild violets abound. Primroses, wood anemones and celandines have also been amazing this year.

Currently, the biggest ‘wow’ has to be the may blossom, or hawthorn. In this area of steep hills and small fields, we are blessed with plenty of hedgerows and I don’t think I have ever seen such clouds of white may blossom as we have right now. The blossom is so thick it looks like snow! If you look at the flowers close up, they are so pretty.

Top to bottom – wild violets absolutely everywhere this year! Delicate wood anemones and primroses and primulas in profusion.I must just ramble on for a moment about hawthorn as it is a rather wonderful plant, but one that tends to get overlooked as being rather commonplace. It is used extensively for hedging and its spines and many tangled branches make it pretty much animal and human-proof. When you have a garden bordering a field used for cows or sheep… you will find a hawthorn hedge extremely useful! The traditional practice of hedge laying (which we still see a great deal of down here in Devon) works very well with hawthorn. It is also a good firewood and burns with a good heat and little smoke.

The fruit of the hawthorn, called haws, are edible raw but of course we mostly cook them and use them in jellies, jams, and syrups. They can also be used to make wine, or to add flavour to brandy. Even the petals of the may blossom are edible, as are the leaves, which if picked in spring when still young are tender enough to be used in salads. So all in all, a pretty wonderful thing!

With so much splendour in the wild, my garden almost seems a poor second at the moment. But, luckily for me, it has also been a bumper year for one of my most favourite plants ­– hellebores – and mine have done really well, so I am happy.

Sadly, the forecasters are saying that this recent spell of hot and dry weather will end soon – can you believe they are already talking about drought conditions?! Regardless of the change, it is thrilling to see that first few bluebells and sprigs of wild garlic are just emerging, ready for their displays next month. I can hardly wait!

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Puppy time!

As many of you will know, we lost our beloved Wellington before Christmas. Sadly my partner in crime writing, Julia, then lost her dog Tilly in February this year. Richard and I have decided to take a little break and think about our possible future doggy companion… But Julia decided she couldn’t bear to be without a four-legged friend, and so here is the story of her new puppy. You will never guess what she is called…

“I am lucky enough to live on Dartmoor, with access to farmland, open fields and small sheltered farm tracks. Walking every day with my dog and watching the seasons change was always a very important part of my life. When Tilly went, I felt bereft. Knowing that I would never be able to replace the two wonderful collie cross dogs that had been my companions for the past 18 years, Tilly and her predecessor Rosie, I decided it might be wise to go for something completely different. Good friends of mine have had two delightful German pointers, the latest one being wirehaired. She is a particularly delightful dog so I decided this would be the breed of choice.

After much searching, and a very long trip to south west Wales, I arrived home with a gorgeous little bundle of fluffy puppy! Rather predictably, she has been named Moss. Yes, the same name as the dog in Joanna and my novels but of course that Moss is a dog, not a bitch, and he is a collie cross. 

Choosing a name that suits the personality is important, so although I was pretty sure I wanted to call her Moss, I would only know if it was right for her once I actually met her. The first time I gazed into her bright little eyes I realised it was definitely the right choice as she has the most beautiful moss green eyes and not the normal soulful brown of most dogs. She is officially coloured liver (brown) with white ticking which makes for an extremely pretty speckled coat.

It is 18 years since I last had a puppy and it certainly makes you realise how much younger and fitter I was in those days! Having a puppy is very like having a toddler suddenly thrust upon you in your comfortable middle age, a mixture of sheer delight and utter exhaustion all at the same time.

We realised quite early on that Moss possesses extremely large paws… Which could only mean one thing – in due course we are going to be the owners of a rather large dog! When I first brought her home at 10 weeks she weighed a not insubstantial 5 kg. She was easy to pick up and wonderfully soft and cuddly. Now at 15 weeks she weighs a very hearty 9 kg and is getting quite difficult to pick up! However, I am pleased to say she still remains a delightfully affectionate little dog, well, quite a big dog actually.

She is doing us good too as we are enjoying long walks in the lighter evenings in the beautiful countryside where we live up here on Dartmoor. Pointers need a lot of exercise, so there will be no slacking! Introducing her to water in the rivers and streams that abound around here is great fun and her energy and enthusiasm for life is wonderful to behold. She is currently very gangly, rather like a foal, and watching her gallop about, quite often falling over her own feet, has us in stitches. Like a young child, as soon as she has used up her energy – that’s it – she falls sound asleep, and that’s when we get to enjoy wonderful snoozy cuddles!

Apart from chewing everything and everybody at the moment, she is turning out to be intelligent, energetic, brave, enthusiastic and extremely lovable. Rather like older doting parents, we are completely besotted and convinced that she is a future Crufts best in show or possibly canine Mastermind champion. But most of all, she is just our adorable and loyal companion.”

 

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What is it about chickens?

© ChickensInSweaters – Nicole McArthur The chicken. What is it that makes it such a popular subject in just about everything these days? Chicken fabrics, chicken calendars, chicken sweaters – yes that’s for the chickens, not you! – and just about every other chicken-themed thing you can imagine!

I shared a post on the Joanna Sheen’s Country Days Blog Facebook page today about sweaters for chickens – there are some beautiful designs and ideas out there. It isn’t quite as dotty as it looks as some chickens, especially ex-battery hens, can often be lacking feathers and they benefit from being kept warm. Julia, my partner in crime writing and general chicken-crazed woman was designing fleece jackets for hers a few years ago, when they moulted in the middle of winter but I’m not sure if that particular project ever got completed.

You only have to look online to see how phenomenally popular chickens are. Chicken doorstops, chicken coat hooks, chicken mugs, chicken plates, chicken clocks – it is endless! And there are lots of websites dedicated to chickens. Some of my favourites include:

www.ilikechickens.co.uk

www.countyourchickens.co.uk

www.cotswoldchickens.com

© www.ilikechickens.co.uk

So what is it that makes us so fond of chickens? Is it the shape of a hen? Their featheriness? The varied colours, the cosy noises they make or the fact that they provide us with that wonderfully versatile thing – the egg?

I suppose few farmyard or back garden animals display such appealing characteristics as chickens. Whether they are scratching the ground searching for grubs, performing aerial acrobatics in pursuit of insects or strutting self-importantly, they never cease to entertain us. Their ‘chatter’ is immensely soothing. I know when I have sat outside drinking a coffee with Julia in her garden, the hens are a constant background soundtrack as soothing and melodious as a bubbling brook.

So where do chickens come from originally? Although the chicken has been in Britain since Roman times (and possibly before) it originates from South East Asian some 10,000 years ago. Amazingly, it is estimated that there are about 27 billion chickens in the world today at any one time!

And finally, here are a few chicken nuggets for you:

  • The Poultry Club of Great Britain was founded in 1877
  • Depending on its size, a chicken egg provides between 60 and 80 calories
  • Queen Victoria kept chickens!
  • So which came first, the chicken or the egg? In 2010, two British universities, using a super-computer, decided it was the chicken.

PS. You might like to know that in our next novel – book 3 in the Swaddlecombe series  – chickens play a major part in the plot!

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Chicken dinners

From the top: One and two – Edith and Dahlia having a go at the cabbage. Three – Dahlia and Lavender making sure they don’t waste any bits! Four – the ladies gather for a photo, minus Iris. Five – thinking about taking afternoon tea in their chalet.I know you all like hearing about chickens, so I’m handing over today’s blog to my partner in crime writing, Julia.

I haven’t rambled on about my hens for a while, so Joanna said I could give you an update this week. I introduced five new hens back in October and you can never be sure how they will settle down and whether there will be bullying. I always think a flock of hens is very like a group of people – sit and watch for half an hour and you will see many human traits you’ll recognise (mostly bad!) and will soon understand where the phrases ‘hen pecked’ and ‘pecking order’ come from.

The three buff orpingtons, Dahlia, Iris and Lavender, and the two cream legbars, Edith and Bunty (all named after characters in our novels!), have settled in very well. Far from being overwhelmed as I’d feared, my two old hens, less romantically named Dino and Specky, who had looked ancient (Specky is 6 and Dino an amazing 9!) have both rallied. Chickens tend to moult in Autumn and both the old ones were looking moth eaten, but the arrival of their new companions has galvanised them into action and they both have beautiful new feathers and are even acting ‘young’ again. Just like us humans – nothing like a bit of competition to make you go and get your hair done or nip to the gym!

My previous flock had a bully in its midst and I’m afraid it made life hell for some of the others. The bully died last year and I was determined that when I introduced new hens it would all be harmonious. Several hen keepers I’d chatted to online had told me how to deal with any future bullies. And no, it doesn’t involve a cooking pot! You isolate the bully, keep them out of sight of the others for about a week. The main flock will then settle down and a pecking order re-established. You then reintroduce the bully who will very probably find herself at the bottom of the heap – and she will then behave herself! Can’t we all think of instances when it would be handy to do this in real life?! 

This time of year it is all rather muddy and the hens can get bored with no grass to peck at or insects to chase. The lovely people I bought the cream legbars from, rather cleverly hung cabbages on string from trees. The chickens can then peck away at it and, as it moves about it, gives them a bit of a challenge and keeps them interested. I had a hilarious 10 minutes recently, watching Dahlia and Lavender standing either side of a suspended Savoy cabbage. One would peck, the cabbage then swung toward the other hen, and she’d lunge to peck it, and back it swung – I swear it looked as if they were playing ‘swing ball’ with great enthusiasm! 

The buffs are very gentle natured, but they are big birds and they do like their food! The cream legbars, Bunty and Edith, are faintly hysterical (they remind me of that character Mavis in Coronation Street!) and paranoid, so they will only approach the cabbage once the buffs have had their fill. They manage a few pecks but are, of course, frightened by the swinging vegetable as it is clearly ‘out to get them’ and they tend to run off screaming.

When we introduced the cream legbars, they were younger than the others and needed to be kept separate and given different food, so we searched eBay and managed to buy a second–hand coop for very little money. It is rather twee and looks a bit like an alpine chalet! Bunty and Edith liked it and would fuss around inside like two old maids bickering over the housework.

Now, the hens all live together in the main coop, but the chalet is still there inside their run. We have noticed that most afternoons, the five new hens go Gossiping inside the willow structure before going in for a WI meeting in the chalet.and stand in it, apparently for no good reason other than to have a bit of a gossip. You can hear them making contented ‘pock pock’ noises like a load of old gossips at the WI. It’s interesting that the older birds don’t seem to be invited, so perhaps there’s a little bit of girl power in action but fortunately, it seems to be no more than idle gossip! Let’s hope it stays that way!

 

 

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