Monday, 31 October 2011

enjoy yourself, it's later than you think

The change in the clocks is gently confusing.  Compared to the horror of the change the other way in the spring, when if I'm working I have to get up at what my body clock insists is 5am, it isn't so bad, but the fact that there's so little light left after lunch is disorientating.  At work, we don't cut back our hours until November, so today I spent the final half hour standing by the till in case a customer came in (fat chance, given it was dark) and wandering around the shop putting bird feeders out for sale in a desultory sort of way, because by half past four I couldn't see to weed properly outside.

The mildly positive investment trend at the plant centre continues, in the face of world economic doom.  I picked up my two new uniform shirts the other day, which is just as well as one of my existing shirts reacted very badly to the sap in something I was handling a couple of Mondays ago, and has come put of the wash with a fresh spattering of lurid axe murderer stains.  It's been too warm to need the new uniform waterproof coat, but I tried it on yesterday.  The effect is rather NCP car park attendant, or maybe football manager, but it's not a bad coat.  The cuffs are adjustable, and the hood detachable, and it has a lot of pockets, some zippable, which is handy for carrying radio, phone, secateurs and so on.  It is very heavy compared to my walking coat, which I've been wearing in lieu of anything provided by work, but that did cost something approaching three digits over ten years ago, and was presumably engineered to not weigh the wearer down during the ascent of Scafell.  It has been up Scafell, and Scafell Pike, in February, but by now it is rather muddy, and I need to investigate whether it can be washed while remaining waterproof.

As well as the new uniform clothing there is to be a heavy lifting course.  I would really like to go on that, but it has been arranged for a day when I'm already booked to do something else.  Another Woodland Trust talk in Billericay, as it happens.  And there was a note from the owner saying we had pretty much made this month's budget, which by lunchtime had translated into a plate of cakes.  It's ages since we got buns for making the budget.  And apparently the adverts are going up at the local horticultural colleges and in the East Anglian Daily Times for a new full-time member of staff.

With the short afternoons, from tomorrow I'm going to have to try and get into the habit of rolling out of bed smartish in the morning, to make maximum use of the light.  One final challenge remains, which is to reset the clock on the Skoda.  On the dashboard is a little knob, which if turned one way advances the hour and if turned the other scrolls on through the minutes.  The snag is that I can't remember if to add an hour I should turn it clockwise or anti-clockwise.  It won't reverse the time, so if I add a minute by mistake there'll be no alternative except to sit there holding the knob while the other 59 minutes tick by.  The handbook doesn't help at all.  I suppose that when I've worked it out I could make a note in the handbook, for next time.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

yellow and black and pale and hectic red

The leaves are turning, at last.  The hazels around the edge of the wood are going a subdued yellow, and the field maples in the hedge stand out as splodges the colour of butter, viewed from across the lettuce field.  The first cherry to change is 'Tai Haku', which is turning a soft plum red.  The wild gean, which I can see from my desk, is flushing an ever darker shade of green, and there is the first hint of red in the top branches.  Many cherries have superb autumn colour, a fact commonly overlooked by those garden writers who dismiss them as one season trees, since they fell out of fashion.

The birch trees turn yellow, and are doing it at different rates.  One of the bottom lawn trio of river birches, Betual nigra, has already changed colour and dropped most of its leaves, while another within the same group is still mostly green.  A wild seedling birch that placed itself in the spoil heap at the end of the conservatory is going a rusty brownish yellow.  It has a Vitis coignetiae growing up it, which is supposed to drape the birch in huge flaming vine leaves at this time of the year, but doesn't like the spoil heap as much as the birch, and is only making rather half-hearted growth.  I can see a few red leaves, but no glorious cascade.  With any luck it will get its roots down and really take off one of these years.  The Zelkova carpinifolia is a lovely strong yellow.  I like it, and I still think the boss is wrong about zelkovas.

The Amelanchier 'Ballerina' has gone a good shade of red, probably the best it has ever achieved.  I planted it partly for its autumn colour, which is supposed to be superb, but often it just goes a muddy shade of brown.  'Ballerina' has relatively large flowers, as amelanchier go, and sometimes I wonder if one of the species might have been a better choice.  Something wilder and more delicate.  But 'Ballerina' is a nice little tree.  It was selected in the Netherlands in the 1970s, and holds the RHS Award of Garden Merit.  In the front garden the Cotinus has gone a vivid deep red.  I cut out the pieces that died, and am hoping that was down to the drought in spring and that the rest of it will be fine.

Up in the meadow the Liriodendron tulipifera, or tulip tree, is turning a rich, soft yellow.  In the back garden I've planted a little ginkgo, which also goes a fabulous warm yellow, but little is the operative word.  It isn't happy, and is growing at a snail's pace.  I put it in horrid clay, hoping that as it grows well as a London street tree it might tolerate poor, heavy soil, but the ginkgo doesn't seem to see it that way.

The birds haven't yet started stripping the yellow berried Cotoneaster salicifolius 'Rothschildianus', which is putting on a splendid show.  This has made a big shrub, and it responds to more than the lightest pruning by throwing up vertical water shoots, which spoil its shape.  I wonder how people get on who buy them for screening in smallish gardens.  Prune them so hard they don't have any shape, I suppose.  The Malus 'Red Sentinel' are absolutely weighted down with fruit.  I met somebody at the Braintree talk who told me about a garden pest problem I'd never heard of before, thought she looked honest and sane and I believed her.  She has a 'Red Sentinel', which always used to hold on to its apples until the new year, as they do, then began to lose them in October.  She couldn't work out what was taking them for quite a long time, until she saw the culprit in the act.  She lives near a river, and the creature climbing her tree and eating the apples was a moorhen.

Addendum  Tonight's Choral Evensong on R3 (repeated from last Wednesday) was from the chapel of Merton College, Oxford.  I was christened there.  A punch bowl from the Senior Common Room had to be pressed into service as an improvised font, since college chapels don't normally have one.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

job done

The lecture to the Braintree beekeepers about good garden plants for bees was OK in the end.  The centre of Braintree is so densely packed with small streets that while I could see my destination, Great Square, on the map, I couldn't work out exactly how it connected with the other streets around it.  I presumed that the Sainsbury's car park where I'd been told I could park would be signposted, and there was a superstore marked on the map close to Great Square, so the best thing to do seemed to be to leave plenty of time, follow my nose to Sainsbury (in a metaphorical psychogeographical sense), park, and wander about through any likely looking alleys until I found Great Square and the Constitutional Club.  The car park had notices saying it was pay and display, maximum three hours, cost refundable if you spent at least £5 in Sainsbury, but the first machine was broken with a notice saying use the one in front of the store, and the one by the store turned out to be broken as well.  I asked a security guard inside the store where I could get a car parking ticket.  He seemed a gentle soul, maybe not an obvious candidate for a security guard (the ones at Colchester Hythe Tesco all look like nightclub bouncers), and he didn't know about car park tickets, but took me to the information desk who said the car park was free after six.

The Braintree and Bocking Constitutional Club reminded me of a provincial hotel of thirty years ago, with very patterned carpets, plenty of non-structural beams, and a strong smell of gravy and food that had been boiled into submission.  The Braintree beekeepers meet in an upstairs room featuring an extraordinary wooden chandelier vaguely resembling a cartwheel.  I arrived well ahead of my hosts, but the staff were very kind, and didn't grumble at all about having to unlock the front door to me several times, while I shuttled backwards and forwards getting plants from the car.  It says something about the innate courtesy, or else sheer lack of curiosity of the English, that nobody seemed to notice as I carried boxes of plants and a fairly large Mahonia japonica through a supermarket car park.  The only tables to put the plants on were wooden dining tables, so I covered them with the only thing I had, a pair of towels that normally live in the car to cover the back seats when I'm going to the dump.

I got the plants set out in the order I was going to speak about them, and was ready to roll twenty minutes before the meeting was due to start.  With five minutes to go we still only had about eight or ten people in the audience, then the room suddenly filled.  They seemed to enjoy the talk, and bought a lot of plants.  Since I'm not on commission it doesn't make a great deal of difference to me whether they buy plants or not, but it meant that at the end with a couple of helpers it only took one run to put what was left back in the car.  The tables had gone rather misty looking, towels notwithstanding, so I hope that polishes out and the beekeepers don't get into trouble over it with the club.  I'm not entirely sure they knew what they were getting when they booked me.  Most of the clubs I speak to meet in village halls, which generally have plastic topped tables able to withstand a few plant pots.  The car had not picked up a ticket or been clamped, despite the lack of notices confirming that parking was free after six, so I trundled off home with a great sense of relief that I'd finished all my talks for now without mishap, apart from the tables.  It turned out the Systems Administrator had recorded Monty, so we can watch Gardeners' World and The Sopranos on Sunday night instead.

Addendum  The cats have forgotten that they don't like Haddock, and we have been able to palm off the two tins on them that were left over from the previous fish multipacks.

Friday, 28 October 2011

out and about

I took some bottles to be recycled yesterday, en route to Colchester.  Among them were some empty spice jars, and being a eco-conscious citizen (though not that green or we'd have bought refills instead of new jars) I took the plastic tops off first and put them in with the recycling for collection.  One of the jars must have contained garlic powder, and have not been entirely empty, because it tipped its last contents into the boot of my car.  I drove off last night to a lecture on bee diseases in a rich fug of garlic.

I had expected to see a bee inspector, but must have not been paying attention, because the talk was by my old bee tutor, now president of Essex Beekeepers.  It turned out that we had been going to have a disease expert, but she was temporarily unable to drive following a hip operation.  She has promised to visit us in the summer, bringing with her frames infected with genuine American and European foul brood, so that we can see what they look like.  Thses are about the most serious bee diseases there are in the UK, and if you think your bees have got them you should call a bee inspector.  She has a special Ministry licence to allow her to keep diseased comb on the premises, but I wondered about us, and whether we would have to attend the lecture in paper suits which we then burned.  Last night's talk was about Nosema, a disease of the gut, and Acarine, a disease of what passes in a bee for lungs (trachea, for those of you who remember your O level biology).  They do get rather a lot of diseases, but it doesn't do to dwell on it unduly, since they have been around for millions of years and are probably not about to give up yet.

This morning I set off again, still in a haze of garlic even after shaking out the boot liner, to borrow some plants for a talk I'm doing tonight at another beekeeping division, about bee friendly plants.  I expect it will be alright on the night, but I don't have a good feeling about it in advance.  It's half way across the county, the person who booked me has not confirmed it in writing and left a message on the answerphone saying she wouldn't be there and leaving me the phone number of another person, and the hall they use doesn't have dedicated parking, but it will be OK to use Sainsbury's carpark, then carry the plants up an alleyway to the hall.  Let's hope that I don't end the evening having been fined for misuse of the car park.  And that the Treasurer has been told what my fee is.  Beekeepers are mostly nice people, so it will probably be OK, but for organisation give me a nice bossy WI or long established garden club any day of the week.

One of the plants I borrowed was a Mahonia japonica, already in flower several months early.  This autumn has confused mahonias thoroughly.  My M. x media 'Winter Sun' has been blooming for weeks, not just one or two out of season flowers but a full display.  It will be interesting to see if it does it again at the normal time and this is an extra effort, or if it has just shifted in the calendar.  The M. japonica has a very beautiful scent, which almost managed to overcome the garlic on the way home.  It is very attractive to bees, and I had to shake several off it when I picked it up.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

my John Hegley moment

I went for an eye check-up today.  The optician has been sending me reminders since July, and I thought it was probably time I did something about it.  Plus I thought my vision wasn't as sharp as it had been.  That's sharp while wearing glasses.  Without glasses I couldn't be trusted to cross the road without being hit by a bus.  Fortunately where we live there are no buses, but I still don't attempt to walk further than the loo at night without them.  Certainly nothing tricky like going down stairs.

Eye testing has got more complicated since I got my first glasses, aged around twelve, unless it is just that as you get older they test you for more things.  I have reached an age where I no longer feel entirely confident that any encounter with the medical profession won't end in my learning that I have something wrong with me, and on this basis I don't like being tested for glaucoma.  I don't mind having air puffed in my eye, it is unfomfortable, but no more.  I just don't want to find out that I've got glaucoma.  Fortunately it seems I haven't, this time.

Given that eyesight is pretty crucial and I might as well know all while I was there, I agreed after the air puffs to pay the extra tenner to have the backs of my eyes photographed.  The assistant optician who does the preliminary tests said that if I liked they could e-mail me the photographs so that I could look at them at home.  I said that since I was rather squeamish I probably wouldn't do that, but the optician showed them to me anyway.  It was a relief to hear that everything was in good order, blood vessels, optic nerve and retinal pigment.  Apparently if you have hypertension it can show up in the blood vessels of your eyes.  It's amazing what they can tell.  Not only are eyes a window into the soul, but also into the circulatory system.

My prescription hadn't changed much, though my astigmatism had shifted around a bit.  I have never quite worked out how often it does this, and whether new glasses are likely to be an improvement on the old for longer than a few weeks, or whether my eyeballs will by then have bulged out in some random new direction.  The optician looked at the state of my existing glasses, and ventured the opinion that maybe I couldn't see through them so well as I used to not because the prescription was out of date, but because they were so scratched.  I think he did have a point.  He asked about my contact lens history, which is the same conversation that we had in July 2009, and made a faint attempt to sell me disposables for wearing to special occassions, but I said that honestly I was used to the glasses, and didn't think my friends and relations would suddenly like me any better because I appeared without them.  (In fact, I don't suppose they would even notice.  A few years ago I had a tooth veneered, that had died and gone a funny shade of grey, and whenever I mentioned this fact, if dental work came up in conversation, my friends and family said as one 'what blue tooth?  I never noticed'.)  I didn't say it to the optician, but I think it would be rather rash to wear an unfamiliar optical device to a party, like attempting to cook a new and tricky recipe for the first time when you have people coming round.  At weddings and special occassions you want to be able to concentrate on the event and the other people, not the workings of your own eyes.

The optician made a modest attempt to talk up anti-glare coatings, but I've gone right off those.  The last pair of glasses I bought with coated lenses seemed to attract every piece of grease and dirt around, and generally looked revoltingly smeared, to the point where someone teased me about them.  I kept some lens cleaner on the kitchen window sill and wiped them frequently, but it was an uphill battle.  He didn't mention varifocals at all, to my relief, since I don't want those either.  The only way to find out if I got on with them would be to try, but on the basis that my glasses always slide down my nose, and that my brain likes to concentrate on one thing at a time, I don't think we'd be suited.  Even the optician was struggling to keep the test glasses sitting in the right place for the duration of the eye test.  Apparently I have a petite bridge.

After the optician's examination came the peripheral vision test, given by a different assistant.  This requires the subject to track a red light with one eye, and push a button each time they see a green light.  The machine makes strange little arcade noises, and at least at the beginning you don't know how hard you have to press the button.  I think they should give you a few practice goes first.  As someone with poor eye hand co-ordination even when I am not sitting with my face pressed into a plastic frame and a pirate's patch fixed over my spectacles, I found this difficult, and kept distracting myself with half-remembered protocols from tests that measured decision making in signal processing.  I must have done OK, because after the assistant had shown the results to the optician I didn't have to do the test again.  I told the Systems Administrator afterwards how difficult it had been who said 'Oh, so you never got above Level One, then'.

The really difficult part, much harder than doing the eye tests, was choosing the new glasses.  This is always tricky, because without prescription lenses I can't see my face.  Hairdressers occassionally ask me what I think, before they've finished, and I have to remind them that all I can see is a pinkish oval with two dark smudges and a dark fuzz at the top.  I never, ever take a friend with me to choose glasses, or anything else.  People who are not professional shoppers are mostly incapable of separating what they like, and would suit them, from what fits your style and would suit you.  Good sales staff in opticians can be very helpful in this respect, and I trust their judgement much more, even though they are trying to sell me something.

The other baffling part of buying new glasses today was the prices.  I'd got a voucher that gave me money off frames if I bought a second pair, which I'd thought would be useful as I could get new distance glasses that weren't scratched and some spare reading glasses.  In the shop they had so many special offers that the staff didn't understand them.  There were budget glasses for set prices all-in, ranging from £20 to £60 or so including lenses.  There were buy one, get one free (or cheap) glasses in various price brackets, all including lenses, but I didn't see what happened if you wanted to combine frames from the £99 plus a free pair section with glasses from the £129 plus a second pair for thirty quid ones.  The designer glasses were all priced by the frame only, lenses extra, and there wasn't a handy table of lens prices anywhere obvious, making it difficult to compare the in-store offers with the £80 off voucher.  I began to feel bewildered and deeply discouraged, and a kindly young man took me through the whole thing again, though we never covered mixing and matching between offers.  My choice in glasses is limited anyway to smallish ones with plastic rather than metal frames, and definitely not rimless, because I need such thick lenses.  Add to that the fact that I dislike big designer logos, and refuse to wear anything with sparkly bits on, and the choice ought to be easy because there are only about three pairs left in the running.  The sales girl I spoke to having made a choice advised against my chosen reading glasses, on the grounds that they didn't fit well across the nose, and rummaged around in a drawer until she found some plain, brownish, fairly lightweight ones that were mercifully free of rhinestones, glittery swirls, metallic stripes or other distractions.  For my new seeing glasses, which I will try not to wear for gardening and keep scratch free for a while, I was vaguely daring and went for a red stripe along the side pieces.

That took £99 and two hours of my life to sort out two pairs of glasses.  And now it is a case of deferred gratification, because the ready in one hour offer doesn't apply to heavily short sighted astigmatics who require lenses like modified milk bottle bottoms.  Even without coatings the lenses come from a factory somewhere, and could take up to two weeks.  Lucky I haven't broken my old ones.

While I was typing this the pictures of my retinas arrived from the optician.  I could post them on Flickr, but I don't think I will.  I don't suppose you want to look at them either.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

an historical link

I was reading a book about the Arctic last night, and a little piece of history fell into place.  The book is The Magnetic North: Travels in the Arctic by Sara Wheeler.  It is a fascinating read, and I don't understand why Amazon's reviewers only give it an aggregate four stars.  I'd give it five myself.  The historical figure in the book who suddenly rang a bell was Augustine Courtauld.

I wanted to get the book after hearing it serialised on R4.  This can be a dodgy method of choosing books, in that some benefit from the abridgement that goes with becoming Book of the Week.  I made the mistake of buying Tomas Graves' memoirs of his life as a musician in Majorca after hearing it read on R4, only to discover that the abbreviated version had told me as much as I wanted to know.  The unabridged memoir seemed to include the names of every member of every band he had ever played with, and did go on rather.  Maybe I was seduced by the fact that I am a huge fan of his father's poetry.

Anyway, Magnetic North is most certainly not a sad disappointment.  Sara Wheeler made a series of journeys into the Arctic, visiting towns and staying on scientific bases north of the Arctic Circle.  She writes of the Arctic landscape and traditional peoples, and how these are being affected by contact with mainstream modern culture and climate change.  The book is elegant, lyrical and objective, and I warmly recommend it to anyone, and especially anybody whose romantic point of the compass is the north, as mine is.  And if you are put off because journalism about tribal peoples and the melting icecaps can get all hand-wringing and shouty, don't worry, Sara Wheeler doesn't.

Augustine Courtauld, known as August to his friends, was a member of the textile dynasty.  Incidentally, I discovered in another fascinating book, The Stones of London by Leo Hollis, that the Courtaulds were originally goldsmiths.  In 1749 Samuel Courtauld married Louisa Perina Ogier, member of a London Hugenot silk weaving dynasty, and the family later moved into textiles, first in silk and then in the early twentieth century creating synthetic silk, in the form of rayon.  August does not seem to have been interested in textiles.  He joined an Arctic expedition, and in 1930 volunteered to remain alone on a Greenland icecap through the winter to monitor the weather: food supplies at the base were not enough for more than one person.  The following May the rest of the expedition returned to look for him, at which point August had been alone for 140 days.

On returning to the site of their camp the rescue party at first could see nothing, and feared the worst, then spotted the top of a ventilation pipe in the snow.  They dug Augustine Courtauld out, half starved, with a matted beard and stained with dirt and smoke.  The instruments outside the tent showed that the temperature had dropped to -53 degrees Celsius.  Sara Wheeler's account of his incarceration is moving, and I will quote it rather than paraphrase it.

Courtauld had read The Forsyte Saga, played chess against himself and planned a yachting tour with the help of Bartholemew's Touring Atlas.  He had drawn up table plans for banquets, and menus, including the wine for each course and the vintages of the port and brandy to be served.  He had sipped lemon juice to ward off scurvy, and planned where in Suffolk he was going to buy his house ('Fewest possible servants').  But he had thought he would be relieved in mid-March.  He began to go very short indeed.  His toenails fell out.  He had barely any fuel left, and by Easter he was lying in darkness all the time.  'If it were not for having you to think about as I lie in the dark and can't sleep,' he wrote to his fiancee Mollie Montgomerie, 'life would be intolerable.  I wonder what you are doing.'  By mid-April he was smoking tea and eating uncooked pemmican.  He could no longer heat the tent.  He did not despair: quite the reverse.  He wrote of 'the curious growing feeling of security that came to me as time passed...while powerless to help myself, some outer Force was in action on my side, and I was not fated to leave my bones on the Greenland ice cap'.

He didn't.  He returned to England, married his Mollie, and bought his house.  Which is where the historical fragment fell into place for me.  I visited his house with my parents this June.  Augustine Courtauld bought a house in Essex, not Suffolk as he had planned while stuck in the Arctic ice.  It was Spencers at Great Yeldham, which is still in the ownership of the Courtauld family, and opens its gardens in the summer for the Red Cross.  They are very well worth a visit.  He and Mollie had six children, and I like to think that after his Arctic winter, the summer of his life was a happy one, with his family, his beautiful house, and his continued adventures in polar regions and sailing.  Sadly, he died relatively young, being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1953 and dying in 1959, several months short of his 55th birthday.  Mollie married again, to Conservative politician Rab Butler, and lived to 101.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

what you missed hearing about on Monday

I arrived at work yesterday morning slightly late, because when I looked at my basket of twigs left over from the previous lecture I decided that they were too wilted and shabby to take to Billericay, and had to cut some new ones.  The gardeners were waiting for me in the staff room as I walked across the car park, and we went up to the office together.  The door was locked.  The gardeners said that the manager had the day off for half term, and would not be coming in, which left us unable to get into the office, since none of us have a key.  We went and searched the possible cunning hiding places in the staff room, like inside the microwave oven and the cutlery drawer, in case anybody had left us a key, and found one, that turned out not to fit the office door.  The older gardener drove around to the owner's mother's house to borrow her key, and twenty minutes after arriving at work we finally managed to get in.

The phone went.  It may have been going for the previous twenty minutes, but we couldn't get to it before.  It was my colleague's mother to say that she was still unwell.  This meant that the plant centre staff were reduced to two, me and the woman who normally works on the other side, who doesn't do telephones.

Then the older gardener said that he couldn't find the van.  All of the cars and the horsebox had gone as well, but we presumed that the owners were taking part in some sort of social event requiring transport, rather than that they had just gone out early for the day and then the van thieves had struck.  However, the gardener needed the van, because he was due to deliver a large pot to a customer's house at ten, where someone would be waiting to help unload it.  I rang the owner who normally deals with staffing issues and got her mobile messaging service, so rang the boss who is the plant supremo and got him.  He said that they had the van and it was full of stuff, but we could have it after lunch.  I explained about the large pot and the person waiting to help unload, and he said 'Let me think.  Think.  Think' and told me to call the gamekeeper and ask him to deliver it in his trailer.  The gardener and I had just managed to find the gamekeeper's number in the directory on the boss's telephone when the phone rang, and it was the boss saying he had spoken to the gamekeeper, who would be with us in one minute.

The gamekeeper arrived in his open top Land Rover, which was filled with bags of wheat for the pheasants.  He and the gardeners took most of the bags out, and lifted the pot in, and off it went, wedged in place with bags of pheasant food.  The customer was so happy with the delivery, she sent an e-mail in the afternoon thanking us, so that was all right.

This left me with forty minutes before the nine-thirty deadline for booking in my jukebox parcel with the delivery company, so I rang them up, told them where I worked and explained that I needed a parcel collected, if it wasn’t already booked in.  They said no, it wasn’t already booked, and I explained that I didn’t know how to book a parcel and was working off a sheet of printed instructions.  The chap at the parcel company was very nice about this, and said the best thing would be for me to fax them the details of where it was going.  I had to confess that I didn’t know how to work the fax machine, and read him the details over the phone.  He seemed to think that would be fine.

The woman who works on the other side had discovered the bad news from the gardeners, that she would be working in the plant centre, and came and helped with the watering, and the woman who works in the office helped with the telephones, and we managed.  The talk in Billericay was fine.  Actually they were a nice group, and it was good fun, but in any event standing up and lecturing a room full of strangers for an hour, equipped with a trug of twigs and a digital slide projector (minus any technical support) is positively low stress, compared to being a shop assistant in a small retail business.  No contest.

Monday, 24 October 2011

house plants

And here’s one I made before the programme.  I try not to do that, but as I have to load the car up with Woodland Trust talk kit, go to work, go straight on to Billericay, and do the talk starting at 7.45pm, I don’t see when anything is going to get composed on Monday.

I am almost resigned to the prospective demise of the Norfolk Island Pine.  I don’t see where it can go inside.  The Systems Administrator, in a moment of unusual firmness, vetoed the idea that it could live in the sitting room permanently.  I said that it would not be permanent, only from now until about late March, but it was still a No.  I have to admit that a conifer over 4m tall and more than a metre across would be horribly in the way, and probably an eccentricity too far even for us.

The spider plant that spent the summer in the porch has been moved to my bathroom.  I bought it at a WI produce stall for 50p when I was doing a talk, and was thrilled to find it.  I used to grow them when I was a child, and haven’t had one for years.  It has made a large number of trailing stems over the summer, with babies of various sizes, and I couldn’t work out where to put it for the winter, since it can’t stay outside, and I think needs to be warmer than frost-free.  We don’t have many house plants, due to a lack of surfaces to put them where the cats wouldn’t knock them over, and the fact that in winter much of the house isn't much better than frost free, so the choice of species is actually quite limited.  Cyclamen, mainly.  And Norfolk Island Pine, while small.

The Systems Administrator said that the spider plant could not live on the dining table, as it would take up too much space and the cats would attack the babies, which is probably right on both counts, so I ended up putting it in my bathroom.  That has a heated towel rail and stays warmer than most of the house in winter.  Plus the S.A does not seem to share my nostalgic enthusiasm for the spider plant, and in my bathroom won’t have to see it.  The bathroom is not very big, and the spider plant, sitting on an old blue and white dinner plate, had to go on the counter by the sink, where the babies hang down in front of the door of the cupboard containing clean face flannels and spare loo roll.  It is rather in the way.

What I really need is a nice 1970s macramé plant pot holder, then I could hang it up.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

make your own dalek

There were just two of us in again today, due to staff sickness, and the watering took until gone half past ten.  It's got to the time of year when you really don't want plants to sit too wet in their pots, so rather than spraying water over everything it is a case of trying as far as possible to look at each pot, or at least take a view about the qualities of that supplier's compost and the thirstiness of the species by looking at the ones at the front of the row.  Someone had managed to get a knot in one of the hoses, which I only discovered once I'd got it uncoiled and running.

Then I thought I'd better try and package up the mail order plants that our mail order person would have boxed up, if she hadn't been ill.  I don't normally get involved in packing plants for despatch, and my first task was to box up an Ilex verticillata over four feet high.  Despite much talking about how we ought to get some dedicated packaging, and even ordering in samples, we don't have any purpose made mail order boxes.  Instead we reuse boxes that supplies to us arrived in, supplemented by the owners and staff donating any suitable ones that have come their way.  Indeed, having forgotten to take my own bags to Tesco on Friday I grabbed a couple of frozen chip boxes instead of using disposable plastic carriers partly because they looked good solid ones that would come in useful at work.

None of the boxes were remotely deep enough to accommodate an American holly nearly five feet tall, pot included.  I watered the plant, which was a shade on the dry side, put the pot in two plastic bags so that it wouldn't leak on its packaging, and put the pot in a garish box that originally held a leaf blower.  Folding the flaps of the leaf blower box up and taping them together with parcel tape got me about half way up the plant.  I thought I'd better reinforce the inside of the parcel, so stuck two canes inside the pot, taped the tops together and tied the holly to the canes with soft string.  Then I thought I'd better put some packing in the box so that the pot couldn't rattle around, and had to scrumple up most of an old copy of The Times retrieved from the staff room.  Then I couldn't find any bubble wrap to put round the top half of the plant, and had to make a cardboard hood for it out of a large sheet I found in the pot store, after I'd carefully prised out some vicious metal staples.  The end product looked like a homemade jukebox from the set of an extrememly tacky stage production put on by nine year olds.  Then I couldn't work out from the paperwork whether I had to book the parcel in with the parcel company or whether that had already been done.  The entire process took the best part of an hour, and we can't possibly be making money on the transaction, but at least all those years spent watching Blue Peter were not wasted.  Maybe one day we'll buy some proper packaging materials.

The other parcel defeated me utterly, because I had the name and address of a customer, but nothing to say what plant I was supposed to be sending him.  I rather guessed it might be the Ceanothus sitting on the floor at the back of the shop, but rather guessing didn't seem good enough.  I rang the number on the paper with the name and address and got an answering machine, so left an apologetic message pleading staff sickness and asking if he could possibly let me know what plant we were sending him, so that I didn't pack off the wrong one.  Marks out of ten for professionalism, about half a point.  Marks for hand knitted out of tofu, at least a hundred and ten per cent.

Over lunch it began to get busy, and I was called back to help at the tills twenty minutes into my break.  Yesterday was one of those days when customers knew what they wanted, and presented themselves at the checkout with £150 trolleys that they had filled up unassisted.  Today's customers wanted help and advice in spades.  I was lucky in that I got my specialist subject twice, plants for arid sites, and was able to steer the first couple towards a pineapple broom, and persuade the second dry garden owner that Cotoneaster would be a much better bet than Sorbus in those conditions.  My colleague drew the short straw, getting the man with the garden plan.  I wondered if he was the same one who had rung up earlier asking whether we did discounts for large orders, to which my reply, courteously worded, had boiled down to Speak to the owners, but No.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

short staffed Saturday

The owners were hosting a shoot today.  I guessed this must be the case when I arrived at work, and most of the radio handsets were missing from the office.  One member of staff who normally works on Saturdays was on holiday, so without the bosses to call on it looked as though the two of us who were on duty were going to be stretched.  We did miss quite a few phone calls.

I was fairly sure I recognised one customer as Will Giles.  He has a splendid garden in Norwich, which the Systems Administrator and I visited three years ago.  Its last open day of 2011 is actually tomorrow.  As I started to ring his plants up at the till I asked if he was Will Giles, and discovered he was indeed, so I told him that I'd visited his garden and liked it very much, and that I had his book.  He seemed pleased.  Some authors are just plain embarassed to be recognised.  I once told Adrian Bloom I'd got his book and found it very useful, and he looked agonised.  The Exotic Garden will be opening again next year, and the S.A. and I were saying the other day (or strictly speaking I was saying and the S.A. said 'yes') that we ought to go and look at it again.  It is full of ginger lilies and bananas and all sorts of extraordinary tender plants, plus some very slinky little cats, and is easy to get to, being a short walk from Norwich railway station.  While I had an exotic plant expert on the premises I thought I might as well pick his brains, and asked what he thought the chances were of getting my Norfolk Island Pine through the winter outside.  He said that he had had one that got too big to go under cover, so he had planted it outside, and it had died.  Oh well.

Somebody else returned a trolley load of plants that she had bought yesterday as part of a larger purchase.  They weren't exactly what she had on her planting list but she had thought they might be acceptable substitutes.  Her gardener disagreed, so she needed to bring them back.  She had her original till receipt and the plants looked OK, so I had to give her a refund, which was a pity as it came to nearly 10% of yesterday's takings, and she had originally paid cash.  I had to borrow £20 out of the other till (leaving a note for the owner to explain what I'd done) to find enough cash to make up the refund.  Later on someone else bought a ten pound plant with a twenty pound note and I had to swop another tenner between tills, and my colleague had to go and hunt around the office to try and find some more float.

The garden shuts for the winter at the end of September, and a couple of disappointed would-be visitors asked why this was, one grumbling that she would have expected an arboretum to be open in autumn.  I suggested that it might be partly down to the grass paths, to reduce wear on the grass and the risk of visitors slipping, given that one person had fallen in the garden and had then sued the owners.  She huffed and departed dissatisfied.  I have only moderate sympathy, in that the open period is clearly stated on our website and in the RHS handbook, and it is generally a good idea to check out opening times before visiting anywhere.  True, I have been caught out myself several times over the years, but have only had myself to blame.  Although I didn't say so to the frustrated garden visitors, I suppose one reason for closing the garden from October is that the shoot has started.  The estate wraps round the garden, and if having a visitor break her ankle falling over was bad, winging one would be worse.

Late on a young couple came in, asking if we sold concrete tortoises.  They had tried to ring us, but must have been one of the calls that with only two staff we didn't manage to answer.  We don't sell any kind of concrete animal ornaments.  I suggested the garden centre up the hill, but they'd already tried there.  The only other place I could think of was in Clacton.

Friday, 21 October 2011

talks and teeth

My fourth box from Mr Fothergill arrived, and the postman handed it over remarking cheerfully 'More plants!' so he has clearly got the idea.  When I opened it I discovered I had ordered frost resistant Delosperma, or ice plants, not Gazania, and they were already in 9cm pots that should see them through the winter, so beyond standing them on the greenhouse staging I didn't need to pot them or do anything.  Frost resistant or not, I think they might as well be planted out next March and not now.

I gave a woodland conservation talk to a gardening club last night.  They are a friendly group, with thriving membership numbers, and I already knew them from a previous talk about gardening and bees, so I was fairly confident that it would be OK.  I'm due to give another talk on Monday evening to a group in Billericay, so I'll have to take my equipment and trug of twigs with me to work, plus some clean clothes and a nailbrush, and go there straight from work, having tried to make myself look roughly presentable in the loo at the plant centre.  As I'm working over the weekend as well it's going to be a bit of a marathon three days.  Then at the end of next week I've agreed to go and talk to Braintree beekeepers about gardening and bees.  When I agree to do these things, which is generally ages in advance, I think it will all be fine, and then as the hectic period approaches I begin to feel rather gloomy about it, and wonder why I get myself into such situations.  And then it's fine.

I once saw a documentary in which people surfed up the Severn bore.  The better ones stayed on the wave for ages.  Getting into the mental and emotional state where you can stand up in front of a room full of people and entertain them, and then do it again after three days of solid physical work, and then for a third time in just over a week, is probably a bit like riding the bore.  It's good to sometimes make the effort, but you couldn't do it all the time.

Once I'd got back from the talk, and unwound, it was quite late by my standards, but I had to set the alarm as I needed a haircut and the only appointment I could get was at 9.00am.  Normally I wouldn't risk Colchester's traffic at that hour, but happily it was running freely.  Then I went to Tesco, where the money off toothpaste voucher they'd sent me wouldn't work at the till.  When I reclaimed my discount at the customer service desk I discovered that the entire mailing was faulty, and nobody's toothpaste voucher would scan.  Somebody in an IT department somewhere is going to have some explaining to do.  People who look askance at my downshifted status, compared to the intellectual stimulation of their own graduate level employment, forget how much of having a proper job consists of spending your days sorting out messes of unbelievable tediousness, like having sent entire batches of non-scanning money-off vouchers to customers.

Then, proving that I know how to have a good time, I went to the dentist.  I quite like the dentist, who is a reassuring Swede who doesn't give out the disapproving vibes of some dentists.  Also I don't generally need anything doing to my teeth.  I shouldn't be smug about that particular health outcome, as doubtless genetics and lifestyle will find something else to go wrong if not my teeth.  By the time I left the parental home and the ministrations of the Devon dentist I had four fillings, and I have never required another since.  Makes you wonder about the drill and fill method of paying dentists in the 1970s, doesn't it?

Thursday, 20 October 2011

first frost, not many killed

There was a very light frost, just the merest dusting of silver on the grass.  The dahlias haven't blackened and collapsed, so it couldn't have been very cold.  Their last flowers are rather poignant.  Winter is going to get you, flowers, any day soon.

My bare root plants arrived from Mr Fothergill.  Back in early September I succumbed to temptation, and ordered a few things from their plant catalogue.  Who could resist purple flowered Iberis sempervirens?  They came as plug plants in the middle of last month, and were potted into 3 inch pots (that must equate to something in metric terms except that I think of it as a 3 inch pot, as probably do all other gardeners).  I checked this morning, and a few roots were showing through the drainage holes, so they've made it out of their mesh bags.  Today's delivery was a box of three Geranium sanguineum in a new (for G. sanguineum) purple colour break, and three white oriental poppies that promise a second repeat flowering in summer, after the traditional spring one.  All of these are destined for the front garden, on the light sand, where G. sanguineum seeds itself with great determination, and I am so grateful that anything wants to grow in the sand that I let it.

The bare root plants were packed in bags, with almost every scrap of soil washed off them, and looked alarmingly small, if you weren't used to that sort of thing.  They were the same size as the ones we get at work, and I treated them the same way, putting them straight into 2L pots.  They should have formed a potful of roots by early next summer.  My conscience impelled me to get peat free compost, the last time I bought any, and I'm still getting the feel of it.  It has the knack of looking dry on top, while the pots are still heavy when hefted, and I can see that accidental overwatering could be an issue.  (I like 'the pots are still heavy when hefted'.  It sounds like a translation from a gardening version of Beowulf).

Still to come are the frost proof gazanias, though I think I'll pot those too, and plant them outside after the winter.  Gazania are almost frost resistant, as I found a couple of survivors yesterday when I was weeding the gravel by the entrance, that were planted last year.  One even had a flower on it, better late than never.  I also found what were definitely seedlings of Morina longifolia, that strange plant with scallop edged bristly leaves and whorls of pink flowers.  Next year I'll add some Puya to the mix, which are currently growing in the greenhouse and taking up rather a lot of space after a seed packet gave a good rate of germination.  I ought to try selling them on e-bay, but shrink from the hassle of packing and posting.  How exactly do you package a rosette forming semi-succulent, armed with backwards facing spines designed to trap sheep, so that the plant can live on the juices when the unfortunate animal expires in its clutches?  That sounds almost as much as trouble as dealing with irate e-bay customers, whose parcels have been lost or taken hostage for the weekend in a warehouse twenty five miles from their house, by some delivery company.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

a day in the front garden

The robins have reappeared.  In summer they skulk invisibly, presumably moulting, but the bird books say that they pair up and establish their territories earlier than many garden birds.  Recently they have started singing in the small hours, and one peered at me beady eyed from beside the dustbins as I went down to shut the conservatory doors for the night.  The Systems Administrator, who combines birdwatching with supervising chicken exercise time, says that there are at least three territories in the front garden.  One robin sings from the hawthorn tree near the chicken run and the dustbins, which might be the one I saw.  Another moves between the Eleagnus hedge and the Genista aetnensis in the turning circle, and a third hangs out in the the hedge behind the greenhouse.  There seem likely to be a similar number in the back garden, but we haven't observed that so systematically.  Last summer blackbirds nested in the Eleagnus hedge and in the field maple by my greenhouse, suggesting robin and blackbird territories might be similar in terms of size and demarcation.

We have noticed song thrushes around the hedge on the way in, frequently enough to suggest that they might be living in the garden.  They have a preferred patch of lawn in the back garden, at the top of the slope, not too close to the house.  When I was a child they seemed as common as blackbirds, but now it is a rare pleasure and something of a thrill to see one.  The S.A. has seen blackcaps, but honestly I wouldn't recognise a blackcap if it came up and pecked me.  Although a lot of my life is spent in the garden I am not a good birdwatcher, as I'm too often looking at the ground or the near distance.  I am an ace toad spotter.

Tonight is the first time I've shut the glass since May.  I'm not sure if we'll get much of a frost here, and it is forecast to warm up again over the next few days, but it feels as though winter were a step closer.  I went to trim back the Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve', which have put up a valiant show all summer and still bear some purple flowers on the ends of their long, wispy stalks, then stayed my hand.  A few late bumble bees are still flying and foraging, and it won't hurt to leave 'Bowles Mauve' for another week or two.  I began cutting the ivy hedge instead, which led by degrees to tackling one end of the long flowerbed, which had got badly weedy and overgrown with ivy.  A Callistemon which lost all of its top growth to last winter's cold is resprouting from below ground level, and I finally cut out the dead branches.  The S.A. offered to cart away the prunings and trails of ivy, and I ended up getting more done than I was expecting.  The soil is like dust, structureless, mere and bone dry.  A pair of Photinia serratifolia, planted in the hope that they would grow up and mask the telegraph pole, are clinging to life.  A book on dry gardening said that they were surprisingly drought tolerant once established, but I think the clue lies in the phrase 'once established'.  A Berberis dictophylla, planted at the same time for its beautiful white stems and sea green leaves, is looking equally overwhelmed.  I dug in lots of organic material when I planted them, but it has vanished without trace.  Mulch, mulch and more mulch is called for.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

another job ticked off the list

I finally finished sorting out the greenhouse.  The geraniums and other tender perennials are tucked away, ready for me to shut the doors when frost is predicted, as it will be any night soon.  Things propagated in greater quantities than I've managed to use so far in the garden have been weeded and kept for next year, potting them on if needs be, and the contents of pots that had died or gone horribly manky have been chucked out.  The lilies are stacked under the bench, together with four Whichford planters containing next year's hyacinth bulbs.  Last winter I left the hyacinths out, as I've always done, and the bulb plates rotted away in the extreme weather.  Odd pots containing small bulbs that I never got round to planting in the spring have been investigated, and those with live, sprouting bulbs weeded and kept, and the remainder thrown away.  There are a couple of nice things from the Avon Bulbs catalogue growing on, ready to be planted out in the spring when I've finished (ha!) the great tidy-up outside.  So I struck 'greenhouse' off the list, which left only fifty items to go.

I set out to flame some odd bits of beekeeping kit that were sitting outside the garage.  For the non-beekeepers, this doesn't mean burning them on a ceremonial pyre (though that is what will happen to your hive if it should have one of the nastier brood diseases).  Flaming to a beekeeper means running a blowtorch over the surface of wooden beehive parts until they are lightly charred, which is a method of sterilising them.  As wood is porous and you don't want chemicals soaking into the hive and contaminating the honey, heat sterilisation is a good method, and I'd been cleaning my kit as I stacked it away.  What I didn't know this morning, but do now, is that the System's Administrator's blowtorch uses a butane canister, which won't work below 15 degrees C.  I found the torch on the veranda, where we'd had it to light the barbecue, twizzled it to on, flicked the ignition button and - nothing.  Repeatedly nothing, except for a faint hissing sound and slight smell of gas.  I found the S.A. and grumbled that the canister must be running out (though it felt pretty heavy) and so learnt about the thermal requirements of butane.  Leaving the torch in the kitchen brought it to a temperature where it would work, but it kept running out of oomph outside, and as the wind got up I decided that today was really not the day to choose.  Pity.  You know how it is, when you galvanise yourself to get on with a tedious job, and circumstances get in the way.

I scraped aside the gravel where the poor Teucrium fruticans 'Azureum' used to be, and couldn't see the rootball at all.  I ended up probing cautiously with a garden fork, lifting sections of soil on the basis that the ground would crumble whereas the Teucrium would come up in a circular lump.  It did.  There is no top growth left whatsoever, and I'm not terribly optimistic about its chances of revival, but some shrubs have surprised me pleasantly by regenerating from below ground level after being hit by cold above, so I might as well find out if Teucrium fruticans is capable of that trick.  Watering it correctly in the greenhouse will be key, as it needs to be on the dry side, and is currently fairly wet.  The ginger scented rosemary went into the gap.  If you come across one of these then grab it, if you like rosemary.  It really does smell spicy and different to the usual sort.

The gardening afternoon was cut short by my monthly visit to the Pilates teacher.  She was recovering from a vicious cold, and looked rather exhausted, but that's part of the deal being self employed.  No lesson, no fee.  I seemed to be particularly dense this afternoon about co-ordinating my breathing with the movements of my legs.  I find formal exercise one of the dullest things ever, but that's part of the deal having a dodgy back and a hardcore gardening habit.  If I do some moderately boring exercises reasonably regularly and take notice of my posture I can function normally.  If I don't, I can't.  The teacher is a nice and cultured woman, and congenial company, which makes the lessons nicer than they would be otherwise. 

Monday, 17 October 2011

rearranging the tunnel

The countryside in autumn isn't the haven of tranquillity that some people might like to think.  A few weeks back the plant centre resounded to the noise of hedge cutters working their way around the lanes, and today it was the clatter of sugar beet being dumped in the farmyard across the road.

The older gardener survived his unexpectedly prolonged trip to Cambridge, and the younger one completed his jury service without getting caught up in a trial that took months to complete.  I've never been called to do jury service, and don't actually know what happens in the case of potential jurors whose business or exam prospects or whatever would be ruined if they had to take six months out, rather than a couple of weeks.

My task today was to move clematis from one end of a polytunnel to the other, tidying off dead leaves as I did so.  We have begun bringing plants inside that don't want to sit too wet in their pots through the winter, and they are standing where the climbers were all summer.  To make room the remaining climbers are being budged together.  By the end of yesterday the space vacated by climbers so far had been entirely filled, so no more plants can come in until all the climbers in that half of the tunnel have been moved.  Trimming dead leaves off clematis has a quite pleasant, meditative quality, though each time I began to get into a really good rhythmn of mindful tranquillity the phone rang.

Somebody wanted a mulberry.  That was good, as we had mulberries.  Somebody else wanted a particular Sedum, and we had two of those left.  A third person wanted Davidia involucrata, which we had, and a shrub said to be a type of rhododendron, which neither the manager nor I had ever heard of, despite her claim to have bought one from us before.  Another caller wanted Amelanchier 'Ballerina' and we had those, though I stepped in a puddle by mistake looking at them.  We also came up trumps with three lavender 'Hidcote' and a Cistus x purpureus.

I dismally failed to get my replacement Teucrium, as they had all been sold, so I shall have to exhume the roots of the previous one, put them in the greenhouse, water them very carefully, and say my prayers to Saint Fiacre.  (As well as being the patron saint of gardeners, he is also the saint of taxi drivers, not the most obvious of pairings).  I did get a very fine and luxuriant young Rosmarinus officinalis 'Green Ginger'.  I wonder if cuttings would root, struck this late?  Also a pair of Phuopsis, to bulk up my homegrown plant which is looking quite cheerful about life in its current situation.  That made one deliciously scented plant, and two that smelt of fox.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

first concert of the season

It was another very beautiful day, and it seemed rather a waste to have to go indoors at half past two to start scrubbing my finger nails prior to setting out for the first music society concert of the season.  I consoled myself with the thought that I wanted to go to the concert anyway, and I was only really going half an hour earlier than I would have otherwise, now that I'm helping with teas.

It didn't take four people three quarters of an hour to set out the cups and three plates of biscuits, but never mind.  The hot water urn has to be switched on about that long before the concert starts, so that it has time to come to the boil before the music starts, and is turned down to tickover for the first half.  The tea making brigade all bagged aisle seats, so that we could leg it to the kitchen while the applause was still sounding and before the musicians had left the stage.  Even so, the rest of the audience caught us up and we had a queue a minute or two before we had any tea ready.  We'd poured milk into most of the cups before starting, and got into quite a reasonable rhythmn pouring tea for four people who hadn't worked together before.  The bad news was that we had to wash up and dry the cups before the second half started.  I have never dried so many saucers in a quarter of an hour in my life.

The string quartet, who were the original reason for going in the first place, were very good.  They are called the Piatti Quartet, and are young and upwardly mobile, the recipients of various awards and winners of competitions.  They will be playing the Wigmore Hall for the second time next April.  In the first half they played Mozart's quartet in C major and Bartok's quartet number 3, and after the tea we got Smetana's quartet number 1.  I really, really liked the Smetana.  That was the piece that would inspire me to go and get the CD.  I struggle with Bartok.  My hunch is that quite a lot of the audience secretly struggle with Bartok, but don't like to admit it.  I am hopelessly middlebrow and any attempt to pretend otherwise would be futile, and I find Bartok tough going.  But I really liked the Smetana.

Then there was the AGM, which was all over inside twenty minutes, and my fellow new committee member and I were voted on with the rest of the committee en bloc and unopposed.  Phew.  Then there was cheese and wine in the back of the church, watched over very strictly by the verger, to make sure that everybody used a plate as requested.  After last year's AGM it took him an hour and a half to scrape the scraps of brie out of the carpet.

The next concert will be Chaconne Brass, playing 'a varied programme ranging from Handel to contemporary and jazz'.  It's in St Mary's Church in East Bergholt on Sunday 20 November at 4pm, for anyone whose interested.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

et in arcadia ego

It was a very beautiful day, with strong light that made the Verbena bonariensis look almost fluorescent, and virtually no wind, and I made the most of it, crawling around weeding.  I realised how low the sun sits in the sky at this time of year, as for a large part of the morning it never made it above the little oak tree and the hedge, and I was in shadow as I pulled creeping sorrel and goose grass seedlings out of the island bed in the back garden.  There was a heavy dew last night, and my gloves were soon soaked.  The BBC keeps reporting that various newspapers are carrying stories of cold weather to come, and even snow by Monday.  I find that unlikely, but am aware of how valuable each day working outside is.  There have been years when I've been able to carry on right up until the New Year, but the Systems Administrator has warned me that the recent warm and settled weather is linked to jet stream patterns that could bring another cold winter if they persist.

As we were sitting in the kitchen eating lunch we heard a strange barking sound, and our ginger came rushing away from the sitting room and scuttled out of the cat flap.  This was odd enough to make us go through and check what was going on, but there was no strange creature to be seen from the sitting room windows, only the big rangy tabby sitting on the window sill, dribbling and looking anxious.  As he often dribbles and looks worried this wasn't a clear sign of anything, but we went outside and had a quick look in the garden.  Nothing.  Not even the neighbours' airedale, which has a wandering tendency.  Maybe it was a dog.  Maybe a fox?  A muntjac?  We both heard it, and it got an odd reaction from the cats.

As I weeded, a small bird or birds flitted about, sometimes very close to me, but never in my direct line of sight.  I presume a robin or robins, since they are the boldest around people and understand weeding and worms.  The strong sideways light is beautiful but also casts a sinister aspect over the landscape, and I don't think it's any coincidence that Halloween, All Hallows Eve, and the mythology of dead souls walking the earth falls at the end of October.

Later on I moved to weed in the front garden so that I could supervise the chickens.  I pulled up a half-dead lump of thrift to find a small toad, which began to back away from me, blinking.  I admired it for a moment, then moved it to sit beneath a large clump of ornamental grass, where it might feel safe and I wouldn't accidentally kneel on it.  A toad, a familiar, a very appropriate find for such a day.

Addendum   I found one person who liked Autumnwatch, a twenty-something journalist writing for the Telegraph, who regarded it as an acceptable substitute for the now axed Top of the Pops.  The Systems Administrator and I have given up, and bought a boxed set of all six series of The Sopranos, which should keep us going.  After episode one I'm hooked, and there are 85 to go.

Friday, 14 October 2011

slaves to our pets

The cats have decided they don't like their food.  A couple of nights ago they refused to eat the half tin I'd put down for them, and the Systems Administrator was convinced that it was off.  Cats are very good at detecting tins that are dodgy, and there was a time when I dished out one that smelt fine to me (well, it smelt of cat food, but in a normal way, cat food never smells that good) and they all refused to touch it.  Half an hour it stank, and I realised that they had sussed that it was off as soon as it was opened.  We left the recent possibly off tin down for them, on the grounds that if it was OK they would eat it in the night when they got hungry, and if it wasn't OK they would know not to eat it, and gave them some biscuits as well.  The next morning they had licked the jelly off the chunks, but as all five looked fit and healthy it couldn't have been off.  Then I looked at the tin and saw that it was haddock flavour.  They got funny about haddock once before, so before going out for the day I left the Systems Administrator a note explaining that the tin was not off but haddock, and we had better get some non fish flavoured packs.

Two packs of tins that were meat, not fish, and a different brand were duly bought, and this morning I spooned out some beef in jelly.  Now they don't like beef either, and I'm beginning to run out of ideas, except that once the weather gets colder they will be hungrier and less fussy.  The S.A. suffers more than me in the feline diners' strike, getting punched by the fat tabby if she doesn't like her breakfast.  I'm still getting a chirp and a hop, though that may not last.

Now (5.23pm) the S.A. is sitting in the front garden, dressed in a fleece and thermal leggings, armed with a pair of binoculars to watch passing birds and aeroplanes, supervising chicken exercise time and trying valiantly to look as though it is fun and not freezing cold.  Sometimes I think our pets are spoiled.

Black and White Alsatian Killer Cat has spent the day curled up among the hybrid teas.  I greet him 'Hello Arnie' when I go past, but he just looks at me.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

a walk in the woods

The music society is starting to look ahead to 2012-13 season, and the process of putting together a programme turns out to be fascinatingly Byzantine in its complexity.  There is a trio we would like to book, but the dates of their other tour bookings would push their visit to us into the first Sunday in Advent.  Churches have other things to do on that day than give their church over to a chamber music concert so that doesn't work.  There are a couple of interesting sounding string quartets, but we don't want the season to be completely dominated by strings.  One of them might be available with a clarinetist to make up a quintet, but if we were to have the quintet we wouldn't want another concert with a clarinet or oboe as well.  Young singers are apparently inherently unreliable, because if we have booked one for an evening for, say, £300, and they get the offer of five nights of opera work at, say,  £1000 a night for dates that clash with us, they have to have incredibly high principles (and a rather dense eye for the main chance career-wise) not to dump us in favour of the opera.  We can't have too many concerts requiring us to hire a piano, since that costs extra (although patrons do sometimes sponsor piano hire).  The branches of the decision tree soon spread into an incomprehensible tangle, and I have nothing but admiration for the person who goes away with notes of the committee's deliberations, and turns it into a programme.

Today I  drove my father to a Woodland Trust charity day for loyal supporters.  It was organised by their Legacies team, but to my relief the fundraising part was done with a light touch.  Monitoring and assessing the performance of staff employed to get legacy income for a charity must be tricky, as most of today's guests looked pretty healthy, even if not in the first flush of youth, and the lead time between making the pitch and discovering if you've won the jackpot must be quite long in many cases.  We met at a hotel outside Stowmarket, and were taken in a coach for a tour of one of their local woods.

This was Priestley Wood, which is an ancient wood, with a rich ground flora, SSSI status, and the remains of mediaeval wood banks still clearly visible.  We were shown around by the area manager for the Trust's sites in Suffolk and Norfolk.  He led us to something we were promised would be special, which turned out to be a medium sized tree with angular branches and dark, crazed bark.  This was a true wild pear, not an escaped garden pear tree, but a European native at the very northern edge of its range.  It is thought to be the only surviving one in Suffolk, and is considered by some experts to indicate that the area covered by Priestley Wood has been under continuous tree cover since the last ice age.  Somebody has apparently succeeded in taking cuttings from it, but wild pears are on a long-term losing streak.  They used to be much more common in Saxon times.

The other piece of forestry information which amused me was that many of the standard oak trees in the wood are thought to have been planted, rather than having sprung from natural regeneration, and were probably grown from stock taken from the Low Countries, which produced better timber for local purposes than the native trees.  Given that the local versus foreign provenance debate assumes almost religious dimensions at times, locally collected seed being assumed to be superior because it will produce individuals suited to the local conditions, I think it is really rather funny if some of the 'local' trees were grown from Dutch acorns.  (The League of Gentleman completely hijacked the word 'local' anyway, so that I can't help placing it in mental inverted commas whenever I hear it).

For anyone who is not deeply into woodland management, 'standard' trees in this context means trees that have been allowed to grow up to their full height.  Looking like a normal tree, in fact.  Many of the trees in Priestley Wood are coppice, which are regularly cut down and regrow as multi-stemmed plants, to be harvested again and again.  Priestley Wood is in active management with plenty of coppice work going on, thanks to volunteers.  The wood they harvest is allowed to season for a year and sold for firewood.  Nowadays they leave the piles of logs in the wood, well away from the road, until they are ready to sell them, since a couple of years ago they had several hundred pounds worth stolen.  With the rise in the cost of heating oil and the growth in popularity of wood burning stoves, the price of firewood has shot up, and if you leave it lying around it is liable to get lifted.

There are doormice too.  They had died out in that wood, and were reintroduced a dozen years ago in co-operation with the Suffolk Wildlife Trust.  Since then the population has sustained itself.  Muntjac are less welcome, and nowadays owners of the local woods manage them.  'Manage' in this context decodes as shoot, following a survey of their numbers and the extent of grazing damage.  Some of our party did see a muntjac faun lying among the undergrowth.  I didn't go and have a look myself.  I'm sure it was very cute, but in my book they are garden pests and tree murderers.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

be prepared

I am going to a Committee Meeting this evening.  Somehow I have been invited to join the committee of the local music society, subject to election at the forthcoming AGM.  That sounds grander than it is, in that I think my main role is to pour out tea and make cheese straws and other savory nibbles for post concert refreshments.  I was asked because I'd been going to the concerts since discovering that they existed, and was spotted as a regular and apparently physically fit attendee under the age of fifty.  I warned them that I knew nothing about classical music, but that is not a barrier to making tea and cheese straws.  I rather like the idea of having a Committee Meeting to go to every now and then.  It makes me feel quite grown-up, and connected to local life.

Extending my reach beyond catering and distributing posters, I volunteered to put together some concise guidelines on what to do in the case of a medical emergency at a concert.  The Chairman is a lawyer (retired) and I think she thought that we ought to look as though we were prepared.  I thought it wouldn't hurt to actually be prepared, in case the worst should happen.  I hate anything medical, as it happens, but I gather not as much as the Chairman does.  Looking at the demographic of people who attend music society concerts, I decided that some sorts of medical emergency were relatively unlikely.  I would be very surprised if any of our audience went into labour without realising they were pregnant, for example, and fairly surprised if they were to overdose on illegal drugs during a concert.  I would be rather less surprised if one of them were to suffer a heart attack or stroke, and not at all surprised if they were to fall over.

There is a lot of medical information on the internet, some of it from reputable sources.  Trawling through websites of the NHS, Bupa, and various medical charities, plus a US one on emergency care that I'd never heard of (deduct marks for using a source of unknown reliability) but that looked sensible, I came up with lists of symptoms of and appropriate responses to the most likely ailments I could think of.  Heart attack and stroke topped the list as being the most serious, but as well as falling over I thought that nosebleeds ought to go on the list.  Nosebleeds in older people can be serious (I knew this, having known a couple of older people who suffered from them).  You should keep the patient upright (less blood flows to the head) and if after twenty minutes you can't get the blood to stop then they need medical help.  It is rather depressing thinking about so many different medical problems in one go, since one would be unlucky to get all of them at once.  The chairman of course has to think what she is going to do with a church full of people while we wait twenty minutes for somebody's nosebleed to stop.  Does the concert go on?

I finished up with the addresses including postcodes of the concert venues, in case we should need to call an ambulance, and the addresses of the local A&E departments, for the benefit of concerned friends and relatives who wanted to know where their loved one had been whisked off to.  It took ages hunting around the website of the Ipswich hospital (which is enormous) to establish that it did have an A&E department at the main hospital site.  Maybe they thought it was so obvious it didn't need spelling out.  Now that I've thought about all of this depressing stuff (and that we need to know where the first aid box is kept, and the whereabouts of the cleaning materials in case somebody is sick) I hope we never have to use any of it.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

the autumn tidy continues

It was still windy today.  I took refuge on the top lawn, weeding and tidying the rose beds, as that is a relatively sheltered part of the garden, and less uncomfortable to work in than the more exposed parts.  In high winds I am slightly cautious about lingering beneath our larger trees.  Every winter one or two do fall down, or shed limbs, and while the chances of being underneath at the time are pretty slim, I'd rather reduce the odds still further by not being there than push my luck.  In the front garden the entire top blew off the recently planted Teucrium fruticans 'Azureum'.  It must have thrashed about in the wind until the single stem just broke.  I'll repot the roots and see if they sprout from ground level, and I expect there'll still be some plants left at work next Monday, the way trade is, but it was a disappointing moment when I looked at the blank space where I'd planted it and realised that something was missing from the scene.

In the back garden the texensis form of clematis 'Gravetye Beauty' is still flowering prolifically.  It has deep, four petalled flowers in a luxurious shade of dark red, and scrambles down a bank and over a prostrate cotoneaster and a golden yew.  The soil in which it is planted is unpleasant stuff, being the spoil from when the conservatory was built, largely clay subsoil, and poor old 'Gravetye Beauty' doesn't get full sun because it is shaded by the house for the first part of the day.  If you want an autumn flowering clematis and have a less than propitious site this has to be one to try.

I've been chopping down the Baptisia australis, even though large parts of it are still green.  This has blue flowers in the summer, and at this time of year black seed pods generously filled with seeds.  They are viable, and I have to weed out unwanted seedlings.  It goes against the grain to put them on the bonfire, but I don't need more plants and I don't have room in the greenhouse for speculative seedlings.  I've been cutting down the herbaceous peonies too, even those that have gone a vaguely attractive shade of pinkish brown.  As soon as the roses have dropped their leaves I'm starting on those.  I just want this part of the garden tidied and mulched.  The combination of drought and now days of wind mean it is not turning into a good year for autumn colour, and the boss at work was grumbling about the state of the arboretum.  It is a very good year for many fruits, but they are displayed for the most part against a background of scrunched brown leaves instead of glorious reds and golds.  The path across the lawn has practically disappeared under encroaching grass, but it will be easier to cut neat rectangles around the slabs when we've had some rain, the ground is so hard.

The Systems Administrator didn't let the chickens out, as it was really too windy to want to sit in the front garden with them, and they don't like coming out in the wind anyway.  The cats don't like it either, and hang around the house annoying each other.  How much we are all influenced by the wind, living where we do.  Spending the day in the office I barely noticed it, except maybe for the wind tunnel effect around the base of some of the higher buildings, walking to and from Liverpool Street station.

Monday, 10 October 2011

after the party

When I arrived at work my colleagues and the boss were already gathered in the office.  As is the British way when something has been a less than resounding success, they were not talking about the open weekend but about ash trees.  They hailed me, and asked where the ash tree got its name.  I replied that it came from an old northern European language word for spear (hedging my bets as to exactly which language).  I looked it up in Archie Miles' book Silva when I got home, and it is Anglo Saxon.  Aesc was their word for spear.  I retain this nugget because I use it in my woodland talks, but that's the only time I've ever been asked.

My first task, after a little bit of watering in the tunnels, was to make use of the newly tidy greenhouse and turn some pieces of Aeonium given to us by a customer into cuttings.  There were three different varieties, one green, one green with pinkish tips and one bronze, rather nice.  I've taken them at home with a good strike rate, but never this late in the season.  You just cut the rosettes off with some stem, strip off some of the lower leaves, and put them into compost.  Around the edges of the pot is advised by some experts because it gives better drainage.  I've never used hormone rooting powder on succulents.  If they take, I shall ascribe it to my superior propagation technique, while if they fail I shall blame the manager for watering them incorrectly.  I made two pots of each, and negotiated to take the remains home to try my luck at rooting the leftovers.

I was assigned for the rest of the day to help the longest standing employee weed the pots of herbaceous plants over on The Other Side.  Weeds have germinated at a ferocious rate, which is rather disheartening for her, when she has weeded them all already this season, so recently that she can clearly remember doing it.  In an ideal world we wouldn't have pots sitting around for long enough to have time to grow weeds, but it can't be avoided given the range of varieties we offer.  They come in at the start of the season, some we pot up ourselves to grow on, and they stay with us until sold.  If a designer has specified a dozen of a given plant that can absorb half of our stock for the year in one fell swoop, but we can easily get to October and find we still have several pots left.  Weeding is more fun with a bench at the right height to work at, and when I don't have to worry about dropping compost on the gravel, and I charged along at a fine rate.  I did end the day with a large black disc of compost on my uniform shirt.  The fastest way to clean a pot that is covered in weeds, rather than just having the odd hairy bittercress, is to knock the rootball out of the pot so that you can get your thumbs into the sides just below the surface.  The whole weedy top layer then falls away, to be replaced with fresh compost, but to get the old compost to fall straight into a bin I go back to the effective but shirt-destroying technique of resting the rootball against my stomach.

It was due to be a busy week for deliveries, Cambridge this morning, and Norwich on Friday, with less distant places from Tuesday to Thursday.  The older gardener who doubles as a delivery driver was despatched with the van, loaded with olive trees, standard bays and phormiums.  Mid morning, word came that the fan belt on the van had broken and it was in a service station near the M11.  This was not a good start to the gardener's week, or ours, given that we need the business and he was saddled with the task of getting the van repaired.  Apparently the customer was extremely cross at the delay and gave the owner a hard time over the phone.  By late afternoon we were starting to get worried, given that the gardener is an insulin dependent diabetic, and we feared he set off without his lunch or his insulin, not expecting to be all day.  He told us that he had somebody coming to fix the van but not until mid afternoon, and that the battery on his phone was running flat.  By close of play he still wasn't back, and we hadn't heard any more.  The manager and the owner will see the story through to its conclusion.  The rest of us went home, lucky us.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

day two of open weekend

Radio 3 managed to get me through breakfast and to work without breaking out into listeners' e-mails.  There was something pastoral and vaguely familiar that turned out to be Delius, something choral and rather splendid by Herbert Sumsion (I never heard of him but that's part of the point of listening to Radio 3), and a nice romantic piece of Johann Strauss.  It was a properly civilised start to Sunday, and I hope they keep it up, although that is 'hope' in the sense of 'wish they would' rather than 'expect they will'.

Comparing notes with colleagues in an idle moment this afternoon, it's not just Radio 3 that is alienating its audience though pandering to the idiot element.  On Friday evening, after watching Gardeners' World, the Systems Administrator and I stayed tuned for the first part of Autumnwatch.  I was fairly sure after the first two minutes that I was not going to like this, and it was a great relief when the Systems Administrator agreed that it really was dire, and we switched to recordings of Michael Portillo's railway journeys.  For those of you that didn't see Autumnwatch, two gurning men with bad haircuts and a silly woman with a mirthless smile larked about with zero personal chemistry between them in Westonbirt Arboretum, and an item about horseshoe bats, which should have been jolly interesting and included some fantastic night photography of the bats, was needlessly cut with jumpy camera shots and switches into black and white with dramatic music intended to reference horror films.  Why?  I mean, really, why?  Nature is fascinating, and lots of people like it, as witnessed by the enduring and highly successful career of David Attenborough.  Plus people who stay in to watch telly on a Friday evening are probably middle aged or older.  They (we) don't need to be jollied along as if we were watching a version of Ceebeebies for grownups.  One of my colleagues said that Autumnwatch was dreadful, and she had gone to sleep during in it, and the manager said that it was dreadful, and he had stayed tuned in to the bitter end but wouldn't watch any more episodes.  Apparently after we gave up there was a feature about radio tagging migratory birds, and rather than telling him anything sensible about bird migration the presenters had larked about giggling because the tag fell off.  After BBC2 Gardeners' World crashed and burned when somebody tried to turn it into an offshoot of light entertainment you'd think the management would have learnt something, but apparently not.

It rained for the first part of the morning, which was not supposed to happen.  The forecast said that the rain was due to blow through in the night.  Although as one of my colleagues said, this was still the night.  Things brightened up later on, and we sold a bit more than we did yesterday, but it was still quiet.  I really don't know what to blame.  The overall economy?  The lack of activity in the housing market?  The weather?  Gardening going out of fashion?  I have a nasty feeling that if people aren't thinking about their gardens by now, they aren't going to until next spring.

My first task was to tidy out the small greenhouse in the corner of the plant centre.  It is a lovely greenhouse, I guess Edwardian, with magnificant roof vents and a brick lower half.  Some of the glass has been replaced with polycarbonate, but it is still a nice little building.  It gets used for putting reserved plants to one side, and overwintering tender plants, and also tends to accumulate junk.  The aim was to get rid of the junk, sort out the plants, and have one end dedicated to stock, including things that mustn't be watered too much in the winter or they rot, and the other end for reserved plants.  The manager can then water the stuff that needs to be dry himself, and if they rot he has only himself to blame.  Unfortunately in the course of removing the dead plants, empty compost bags shoved under the staging and other miscellaneous rubbish, I managed to tip compost laden water down my uniform shirt, so by the time the customers arrived I presented a thoroughly shabby sight.  I did have to bite my lip when one person asked me whether I worked here and just say yes, how could I help, rather than yes, it's the uniform shirt with the company logo and compost all over it that's the giveaway.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

day one of open weekend

Today was day one of the Open Weekend at work.  I've always found it a slightly odd phrase, given that we are a shop and are Open seven days a week, apart from Christmas bank holidays and Easter Sunday.  My colleagues had got the place looking very nice, and I was impressed, given how windy it was last week, and how much of a mess strong winds make when you have pots of plants everywhere.  At least today was relatively calm, but it was grey and cold, and drizzled from mid afternoon onwards.  Not the sort of weather to make people think that what they really wanted to do was walk around slowly outside buying some plants, and maybe sit through a lecture or two in an unheated polytunnel.

The manager gave a talk about pruning, which was very well attended.  The audience looked a bit chilly by the time he'd finished, but they said they enjoyed it.  Then the manager and the boss talked about ornamental autumn fruits, illustrated with lots of samples of berries gathered from the arboretum.  There were Sorbus, and crab  apples, Cotoneaster, Berberis, and a strange red magnolia fruit that looked like something the cat might have sicked up.  More of a talking point than a thing of beauty, the magnolia seed pod.  That was very well attended as well, and they had to take extra chairs into the polytunnel.  Then the boss gave guided tour of the garden, which lasted for two hours, and those who stayed with him to the end must have truly deserved a cup of tea.  The talks and the guided walk were free, but people visiting the garden under their own steam and not on the walk had to buy a garden ticket at the normal price.  I really can't work that one out at all.  The tea and cake were not free, but you got twice as much cake for less money than the National Trust charges at Flatford.  Staff were given cake, and my piece was so enormous that it did me for lunch and tea.

My role in all of this was largely to operate the till, but occassionally customers wanted some gardening advice, which made it a bit more interesting.  Also keeping me on my toes was the October offer of a 15% reduction on clematis and herbaceous plants (as a lure to customers and because we don't want to carry large stocks through the winter) but not anything else.  The tills don't do 15% discounts automatically, so that called for a calculator and an organised approach to the order in which items went through the till (discountable items first, subtotal, work out the discount, then all other items).  In the quiet spells during the talks I got to stick prices on some coloured string.  Interesting that the twine and sundries business we deal with is still based in Dundee, a survivor of the traditional Scottish jute industry.  I can recommend coloured raffia, which helps make all sorts of presents and bunches of home grown flowers and produce look more jazzy.  Magenta raffia round a bunch of rhubarb, there's a combination.

A former colleague called in on a mission, which was to deliver some smoked salmon for the owner's mother.  I knew him via beekeeping, and he stopped working there shortly before I applied for a job.  In fact, it was him who introduced me to the plant centre, initially as a customer.  Nowadays he runs a successful pub and as a sideline operates a smokehouse, hence the salmon.

The day's takings at the end of all this effort were not especially impressive, but I think the weather was against us.  Tomorrow everybody has to do their talks and walks all over again.  The weather is forecast to be much warmer, so nil desperandum.

Friday, 7 October 2011

the wrong trousers

It is now definitely autumn.  This morning I swopped the tilly hat for my fleece hat, as sun protection gave way to thermal insulation.  We had what we thought was probably our last barbecued steak of the season on Monday evening, and have been muttering about how we could tidy up the study as we prepare to settle in there for the winter, and abandon the sitting room as too large and difficult to heat, except when we have guests.

I was shocked to discover how dry the dahlia pots were this morning.  Although there is now much less heat in the sun, the gales of the past couple of days have ripped the moisture out of them.  Some of this year's plantings were looking stressed as well, and a pink flowered deciduous azalea that is battling to survive under the birch trees.  I may have that in the wrong place, but in the meantime I ran the hose on it for twenty minutes.

Now the afternoon seems to have disappeared.  After lunch with my parents I went into Colchester hoping to find a pair of army surplus trousers for doing the gardening in.  I kneel down a lot working in the garden, weeding and edging, as it tortures my back to stoop whereas my knees are fine.  Consequently I go through trousers at a phenomenal rate, as they wear through at the knee.  Always the left knee.  My current pair were bought in a Lands' End sale, and lasted the summer but disintegrated just over a week ago.  I ordered some new ones last week, but yesterday received a card saying they didn't actually have any more of those trousers left, which put me back to square one.

The Systems Administrator suggested trying army surplus trousers, on the grounds that they would probably be more rugged than most.  This sounded a very good idea, but unfortunately my trawl around Colchester's tertiary shopping areas failed to produce any in my size.  I tried on a pair in Troopers across the road from the town railway station that were too small, and all the others in stock would have been way too big.  At least I now know what my size would be.  The changing room at Troopers consists of a (possibly) disused lavatory with an extremely foetid smell, which the chap in the shop did apologise for, and although I am not generally shy about going into places, I was somewhere well outside my comfort zone trying on trousers in Troopers.  I ended up buying a pair of discounted Peter Storm trousers in the Millets sale, which will in due course go the same way as the Lands' End ones have, but will keep me going for now.  I could try those strap on knee protectors that some people use, but I am terrified of getting a stone trapped inside without noticing until I put my weight on it.

I had a very quick look at the new visual arts centre, or Firstsite as it is now called, but as I was in a car park where you have to decide in advance how long you are going to be, and buy a ticket accordingly, I didn't have time for a proper visit.  First impression of Firstsite was that it reminded me faintly of the terminal at Stansted when that first opened, before it got busy.  Nearly all the walls curve, so while there is quite a lot of interior space I'm not sure it will accommodate much actual art.  I'll go and have a proper look when I've got more than seven minutes to spare.  I hate car parks where you can't pay retrospectively according to how long your business has actually taken you, and only went to this one because the likely army trouser shops were at that end of town.

By the time I got home it was spitting with rain, and the Systems Administrator was peering at the sky and climbing up and down the scaffolding, trying to decide whether it was possible to do any more work on the house.  Given the rain, and the limited time before it got dark, it didn't seem worthwhile changing into the Millets trousers and trying to do anything outside, so that's it until Tuesday.