Amongst the vintage and decorative living fair cognoscenti, chicken keeping was a great passion. Like any epidemic, it started with one carrier and then the virus spread particularly affecting those wearing linen and visiting country vintage fairs. Suddenly, small talk was all about hen houses and where to obtain the best-looking hens and the procurement of various galvanised containers for feed and water.
Much like the hens themselves, there was a pecking order amongst the ladies. The Chief Henkeeper was a countrywoman of standing who bred hens from her picturesque but tumbledown cottage and gardens. Hens roamed freely in her wildflower meadow, housed in a variety of ramshackle timber buildings. Her word was law on the merits of different sorts and sizes of bird, types of hen house, feeding regimes and hen health. As Chief Henkeeper, she supplied her avid disciples with their livestock, having inducted them into the Dark Arts of hen husbandry at one of her jolly Hen Parties aka chicken keeping courses.
At a slightly lower ranking than the CH, Mrs Seasoned Henkeeper was another reliable source of handy hen hints. Not for her the fancy Frizzle or the pretty Pekin; her poultry de jour were rescue hens obtained from the Happy Hen Foundation. The HHF regularly liberated battery hens and then sought loving homes for their scraggy ex-captives. Mrs Seasoned Henkeeper was not deterred by the balding appearance of these unlovely creatures. A few weeks in her tender care and the little darlings would be sporting glossy feathers and beginning to enjoy their freedom. Mrs SH had a massive flock, being a soft touch for a sad story. This was alongside her motley menagerie of rescued dogs, stray cats, a one-legged parrot and two ancient sheep that occupied her very untidy garden. Neighbours had long given up complaining about the farmyard noises and smells, bought off with copious trays of free eggs.
The Young Pretender was desperate to achieve the heady heights of knowledge of the Chief Henkeeper. Not for her the shabby secondhand-on-Freecycle henhouse or the converted garden shed. She had been lured into buying an Heirloom Henhouse, as advertised in "Country Cottage and House" magazine. The pretty Gothic style structure, softly painted in eggshell Barrow and Fall Liberty Bodice pink created a perfect bucolic vision in her well tended gardens.
Mrs YP could not countenance anything less than "divine" or "pretty" in her line of vision and thus, rescued hens were not on her agenda. Poring over "Henkeeping Style - the magazine for the country home henkeeper" she was torn between Bantams,Silkies or even Pekins. The dainty bantam with its tiny eggs would be a fitting occupant of her chicken Doll House. But the Silkies were just so very lovely and as for the Lavender Pekins, she positively drooled over their pin-up portraits in Hen of the Month. Her husband, Jonty, sarcastically referred to these magazines as Chicken Porn. In the end, the Chief Henkeeper had graciously supplied her with 6 bantams and her 7-year apprenticeship had began. The CH's Hen Hotline was constantly engaged with lengthy calls about why one chicken was pecking another, or why no eggs had yet been laid.
Ms Urban Chick had a completely different style. Her longing for an aesthetic yet functionally designed hen house for her pocket-sized town garden had been assuaged by a trendy Egloo. A funky purple dome now stood on her tiny lawn complete with two brown hens. Whilst not the fanciest birds, there was something pleasing about their utilitarian shape and their willingness to produce regular brown eggs. Ms Urban Chick's reading matter "The Urban Hen" mixed helpful advice with fuzzy focus shots of pet hens and the poetic hen-inspired offerings of 9-year old girls.
Aspiring hen keepers could apply to join the ranks of the established Chicken Ladies, but would have to undergo a lengthy initiation first. Attendance at a Hen Party was the entry point; the purchase of a hen house painted a romantic pastel shade and almost the cost of a second home in France was also obligatory; a selection of hens chosen only for their pretty feathers and picturesque appearance was usually a requirement unless a special case could be made for rescue hens. Having passed through this process, piles of unread "Henkeeper's Weekly", regular visits to the country store and an ongoing battles against foxes, rats and red mite would become part and parcel of the newly sworn-in henkeeper's life. But the eggs looked so sweet for sale in their specially-sourced pink egg boxes.