A Second Day in the Life of a Herder on Tour

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It’s a couple of days since I wrote my last blog and I’m on a roll, so here’s another. We’ve travelled back to South Wales from Cornwall, and there’s another event to be done.

7.45am: Once I again I greet my alarm clock with despair, and consider whether I would be better suited to a job working nights somewhere. The first few minutes of my day are not improved when I remember that I arrived back to Wales yesterday sans toothbrush, which is languishing in Cornwall. Andi (infinitely quicker than me in the morning to cope with life) nips out to the shed to give the reindeer a small breakfast, but they are deeply unimpressed that she doesn’t give them any lichen – that can wait until we get to our event.

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Exercising the reindeer in the field yesterday afternoon

8.20am: There’s no time this morning to take the reindeer out into the field to stretch their legs, but being as they had a good blast when we got back to the farm yesterday afternoon, we’re not too worried that they’ll be too full of bounce. We collect up their feed bowls, load them up and off we go, bang on schedule at 8.45am.

A beautiful setting for our welsh farm base

A beautiful setting for our welsh farm base

We’re staying on a farm near Cwmbran, and Andi and I know it well having been here every winter for years on end. Being in rural Wales, that therefore means winding lanes and big hedges, and the first 3 miles of any journey is a narrow gauntlet to be run before we emerge on to a dual carriageway. We always play the ‘gauntlet game’ here – guessing how many cars we’ll meet – and I thrash Andi soundly this morning. What can I say – we have to make our own fun on tour…

9.55am: Today’s event is in a wee town in South Wales, and is a favourite of mine, being very well run. It’s our most ‘standard’ type of event, with a quiet set up area away from the crowds, then the parade and finally a couple of hours in a display pen before we pack up and head away. We head to the pen first to drop off our signs, feed bowls, water and leaflet box, and then make our way another half kilometre along the road to our set-up area.

10.30am: Having set up our tether rope for the reindeer so they can come out of the lorry and have a second (small!) breakfast before the parade, Andi climbs through the partition in the lorry into the reindeer area to put on their halters. A couple of minutes later there is a muffled squeak, as Paintpot has shaken his head unexpectedly and clouted Andi really hard across the face. She sticks her head back out through the partition for me to check there’s no blood (i.e. hers, not Paintpot’s!), and then emerges, reindeer in tow, with a visible bump and bruise on her forehead – an occupational hazard of the job. Paintpot appears to be smirking. We potter around the field a couple of times, letting the reindeer stretch their legs a bit, before attaching them to their tether and giving them a pile of food each.

11.30am: Reindeer are fed and happy, the event organizers are faffing with the sleigh, cable ties and a tiny camera with which to film the parade (how long can it take to attach a 3 inch camera?!), and we’re about to start harnessing up. We’ve had to had a quick experiment with Tanner to check we can actually do the harness up around his fat belly – Tilly’s obviously been feeding him too much at the farm – but unfortunately for Tanner we managed, so it’s his turn to pull the sleigh today, along with Sooty.

12 noon: We are good to go. The best thing about this event is its organization – it’s a huge parade of which we’re only a small part, but whereas most events are slightly spoiled visually by a sea of security people wearing hi-viz jackets, this town comes up trumps. There are apparently 50 police here today on duty, but almost all of them are dressed as elves! Looks-wise they are in keeping with the parade, and everything runs very smoothly with no problems – after all, who messes with a 6ft elf?

Sooty and Tanner flanked by their giant security elves!

Sooty and Tanner flanked by their giant security elves!

12.15pm: There’s been a brief delay as everybody in the parade is organized and set off in the right order, with a disagreement about where the St Bernard dogs pulling carts (oh yes) should go. NOT right in front of the reindeer is the answer! The band should have been at the front but were all in the toilet at the wrong moment, so have to be slotted in further down the line… We are the back markers as usual, and once we’re over the speed bump then Santa gets in and off we go. Our sleigh has very low ground clearance (it only flies on Christmas Eve) so grounds at the slightest opportunity, leading to us frequently kicking Santa out while we heft it over a speed bump or kerb.

Our team of reindeer behave impeccably, with Andi and I feeling slightly surplus to requirements at times, particularly so Andi at the back of the sleigh. She might as well have gone for a coffee instead to be honest, being as Paintpot, Minute, Nazca and Olmec plod along with no guidance needed at all. At the front I am barely needed either, with Sooty and Tanner being total pros. As one of the elves comments, we should be concerned for our jobs! My main task in the entire parade ends up being yelling at a helium balloon seller, marching right towards Tanner with an enormous bunch of balloons. Tanner’s eyes pop out on stalks, but the rogue bunch of balloons with legs is accosted by a police elf, who quickly sends her packing in the opposite direction.

1.10pm: After possibly the slowest, but most relaxed, parade I’ve ever done, we finally arrive in the pen. Andi unattaches the reindeer from the sleigh as quickly as possible, and the crowd has a good laugh at Nazca, who has clocked the food bowls hidden in the corner of the pen instantly. He beats us to them, and then batters us continuously with his antler twiglets as we try to space the bowls out around the pen. Toerag.

And then… I hear a chorus of gasps, and exclamations of horror. Everyone is pointing in alarm towards Minute, who 10 seconds ago had two antlers, and now only has one… Oh dear. I grab the offending antler out of his bowl where it has fallen, and head to the side of the pen to make my way around, explaining to everyone that this is completely natural at this time of year and that poor Minute has not been maimed for life! A cast antler is a very useful prop in a pen, as everyone’s natural instinct is to lean over the barriers and touch the furry velvet antlers. When still attached to the reindeer this is a strict no-no, but once one has fallen off then suddenly a new opportunity arises, and lots of hands reach out eagerly to feel the soft velvet. I do laps of the pen continuously with the antler until Andi takes over, and I head off to retrieve the lorry from the set-up, filing away a mental note of the location of a brownie stall en route. Gotta keep my priorities straight…

Antler disaster for Minute! Photo by @HortopHortop via Twitter

Antler disaster for Minute! Photo courtesy of @HortopHortop via Twitter

3pm: After the exceptionally long parade and the huge crowds around the pen (roughly 15,000 people attended today’s event), the afternoon has flown by, and we’ve just finished packing up. Thankfully it’s been dry which is always nicer anyway, as nothing is worse than packing soaked straw (rain and reindeer pee) into giant plastic bags with frozen bare hands… If any of you ever catch me at that point and choose then to tell me I’ve the best job in the UK – I may argue. But today it’s dry and I’m warm (fleece lined trousers!) so all is good with the World.

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Snoozing Olmec! © John Lewis via Facebook

After a hasty gallop into Tesco on a toothbrush related mission, Team Handi are ready to go. The reindeer will be tired after a busy day and deserve to get back to base as soon as possible, so we do our best to oblige. Andi wins the gauntlet game this time.

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Dramatic backlit reindeer! 

4.50pm: Reindeer are back in their barn, the animal movement license paperwork for the day is finished, we are back in our cottage and another day is done. We’ve checked in briefly with Fiona to let her know that all has gone well, and written our ‘event report’. This details carefully all relevant info from the day, including the travel times taken, details of the pen (was it big enough etc), set-up area and behaviour of the reindeer, plus anything that needs addressing for future years. At the bottom of the sheet is the most important bit though – the Santa rating. Today’s Santa has garnered himself a big fat shiny 10, based on: good banter, own beard (bonus point), glittery boots and the fact that he didn’t instantly address all the reindeer as ‘Dasher’ or ‘Dancer’. A Santa rating of 10 is not too common, or at least not from the pen of Team Handi, so good work that man!

Now, to finally brush my teeth…

Hen

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