There is an emanation from the heart

which cannot be described,

but is immediately felt and puts

the stranger at his ease.

~Washington Irving

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.
It turns what we have into enough...

.........and more.

It turns denial into acceptance,
chaos to order, confusion to clarity.

It can turn a meal into a feast,

a house into a home,

a stranger into a friend.

~Melody Beattie

Don't be satisfied with stories,

how things have gone with others.

Unfold your own myth.

May my life be like a great

hospitable tree, and may

weary wanderers find in

me a rest.

~John Henry Jowett

Friday, 23 October 2015

Chicken-Keeping in Oxford

"The cock may crow but it's the hen who lays an egg!" 
~Quoted by Margaret Thatcher

In another lifetime, in another country, and about five hairstyles ago, I was a master chicken keeper. When my children were young I had a small farm, or what's called in Britain, a 'smallholding'. My dream farm was 5 acres with a large, airy barn, an old homestead house turned into a chicken coop, pasture for horses, cows and goats, a stream for ducks, a gigantic vegetable and herb garden, and even an outhouse. It was a perfect place to raise my children, especially back in the days when kids played outside.

"It is strange and wonderful what changes
 may be wrought by a few fleeting months, 
on the human frame, and the human heart."
 ~Elizabeth J. Eames, 
"An Autumn Reverie," October 1840

My pony Sundance and I,  back in
 another lifetime, on my dream farm.

At one point I kept as many as one hundred chickens (12-20 hens and 80 meat chickens), but then children grew up, life moved on, hairstyles and lifestyles changed, until here I am in Oxford, a country-girl-at-heart living in the heart of a city. I've missed keeping chickens and always knew that if the opportunity ever arose again, I'd be back in the chicken business in a heartbeat.

Luckily there's a resurgence in chicken-keeping in Britain and backyard chickens are popular, even in urban areas. Even so, I wasn't sure if chickens would work in Oxford, especially right in the very centre of the city where we live. So I thought through my chicken plan for about a year, took a few months to gather all my supplies, and decided on the type of hens I wanted. Then this past July I took the leap, when our two Burford Brown hens, Miss Havisham and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, moved into their coop on July 6th.

I chose Burford Browns because they're prolific
 layers and lay very beautiful, brown eggs.

Lady Catherine and Miss Havisham adjusted to their life amidst
 the dreaming spires very well. Burford Browns are very
 people-chickens--they love human contact--so I spent a lot
 of time sitting with them during the first few weeks
chatting about the weather and clucking about this and that.

When the sun was high and warm this summer,
the girls enjoyed sitting under their lavender topiary.

Jack wasn't too sure about them at first, but since they
 weren't interested in playing, he soon moved on to 
more promising interests in the garden.

The chickens adored their new garden home........

........and it didn't take long for them to act like they owned the place.

They love going out to lunch together, seeing what's new, gossiping, discussing the pigeons.
It also didn't take long to get to know their personalities.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh is just as her name and 
ample bosom suggest--always leading the way, 
her head held high and with a regal air. She makes
 sure she get more than her share of food and treats.

"I subscribe to the theory that Mankind never 
domesticated any animal. They came in from 
the cold and looked cute until they were fed." 
~David Beard,

Miss Havisham is much more shy and retiring. She's very
 happy to follow behind Lady Catherine, but since she's
 the more observant one, she's also the first to learn new things.
The one thing she'll overcome her shyness for is blueberries, so
I can coax her onto my lap now for the price of a blueberry or two.

As the summer wore on, it felt like the girls would
 never actually lay eggs and that we'd be subsidizing
 them forever, but finally in late August the
 first eggs started appearing. Lady Catherine
 and Miss Havisham are so close and connected
 that they started laying on the same day.

It was an exciting day when I went out and
 found the first two eggs. I felt like the 
girls and I had worked so hard to produce
 the first eggs that I didn't even want to eat them.

We went through the normal problems in the early days of egg laying--soft shells, wonky shells, days with no eggs and then days with huge, double yolked eggs. It takes awhile for a chicken's hormones to stabilize when they begin laying, but now the girls have settled into a routine of laying a beautiful egg each, every morning--although sometimes we're still blessed with an XXXL egg with a double yolk--ouch!!

Double yolked eggs have always had folklore
and superstitious meanings attached to them--

it's said they bring good luck or heaven forbid, 
foretelling that you're about to have twins. 
 There is a good reason for a double yolked
egg though, and it has more to do with hormones 
and the age of the chicken rather than twins or luck.

Once I knew that our great Oxford Chicken Experiment was going to work-- they survived the summer and were laying like champions, it was time for the girls to leave their summer-coop and move into a deluxe chicken abode. We have plenty of foxes in the thickets and copses of Oxford parks and the girls need extra protection during the long winter nights, when hungry foxes are on the prowl. It was a good thing too, because the very next morning after the girls' first night in their new coop, I went out to the garden and found a calling card that Mr. Fox had left me--the first time in seven years that's ever happened. I think he was telling me that he knew, that I knew, that he knew--that I knew. What he doesn't know is that I've never lost a chicken to a fox, or a weasel, or even a dog--and don't ever intend to.

The girls live in about one third of our garden (about 15ft x 25ft), with plenty of room to roam, scratch, take dust baths, and perch. Their new coop is raised up off the ground so Mr. Fox can't dig underneath, it has an extra long run in case they need to stay inside their pen for awhile, and an ultra cozy nest box and place to sleep, complete with a little, paned window. I love watching them climb up the ladder to tuck themselves into bed at night.

I let Miss Havisham and Lady Catherine de Bourgh out to free-range in the rest of the garden only if I'm out working in it; if I were to let them free-range throughout it all day, our garden would look like a colourful tossed salad by nightfall. But, now that the weather is cooling off and the rains have begun, they're sad and I'm sad that I'm not in the garden with them as much. I make a point of getting out there several times a day though--just for a bit of gossip, they can roam for a few minutes, and I can collect eggs and clean out their coop. We have a nice little routine.

"Animals are such agreeable friends --
they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms." 
~George Eliot

Now that the days are starting to shorten, the lack of daylight can affect the girls' egg production. To make sure they stay active as long as possible, and get every ounce of sunlight out of the day, I go out with them about an hour before sunset. 

It gives me a chance to rake leaves, trim back roses and lavender, put the garden to bed for winter, while they get some extra daylight and activity at the end of the day. Then just as it's getting to be dusk, I sit on the bench and have some quiet time while Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Miss Havisham scratch around at my feet, my feathered companions never wandering very far from me.

"Until one has loved an animal, a part 
of one's soul remains unawakened."
~Anatole France

Our evening communion in the autumn garden.
I'm so glad I took the leap and reclaimed my chicken-keeping skills. I gave up a lot of things when I moved to Oxford (of course I gained many things too), so it's wonderful to be able to have the part of me that is firmly planted in my South Dakota-born, country-loving soul, living in the dreaming spires of Oxford. I always wonder what academics rushing by our house, lost in their own thoughts, think when they hear Miss Havisham clucking and squawking away, as she lays her lovely egg. I wonder and it makes me smile.

*Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Miss Havisham are named for characters in two of my favourite books & movies--since it seems to me that chickens in Oxford require a refined, literary name to suit their surroundings.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the 
1940 version of 'Pride and Prejudice'.

The tragic Miss Havisham, from
Charles' Dickens 'Great Expectations'.


  1. Wonderful post, Carrie! You are a great writer, and make chicken keeping sound so very civilized! It reminds me of Prince Charles and his estate at Highgrove! Thank you for a break in Oxford! Jane xo

    1. Thank you Jane and it's always a pleasure. Also, funny you should mention Highgrove because Stuart and I had tickets and a day at Highgrove planned for July 6th--and then had to cancel because the chickens were arriving that day. They helped ease the disappointment a bit and we'll get there next summer. xxxooo