Wednesday, 29 February 2012

food issues

We think that Our Ginger's diet is starting to work, a bit.  From some angles he looks slightly less like a rugby ball covered in acrylic orange fur with a leg at each corner.  From some angles.  When he goes into Clive Anderson mode and shrinks his neck down into his shoulders he still looks pretty chunky.  The Systems Administrator says there is a little less podge around the tummy, and I think that's probably right.  Our Ginger has been quite good about being dieted, finishing his breakfast and then spending the rest of the morning asleep rather than agitating for more food, though that could partly be down to the mild weather.  Cats need to eat significantly less when it's warm, a reminder that they have a higher surface area to volume ratio than us, and that in cold weather they need to stack away a lot of calories just to maintain their body heat.

We are trying to get him to lose weight for his own good, after staring one time too many at the poster in the vet's consulting room illustrating the health dangers of obesity.  Unfortunately, by the law of unintended consequences, the fat tabby has taken the non-constant availability of food as a personal threat, and started hoovering down any she can see, so as Our Ginger gets slimmer (possibly) she gets fatter.  The big tabby's nerves are still jangled, so that he is sometimes reluctant to eat at all, and sits staring at his food with a vague expression.  Standing with him talking to him nicely sometimes helps encourage him to eat, but we have had to resort to taking him into the kitchen with us while we eat lunch, and giving him extra rations behind closed doors.  He seems to like eating with us (his dish is on the floor) so the exclusive company and occasional sachet of Sheba generally persuade him he feels hungry.

The black cat knows what he's doing, eats what he wants, and remains at a healthy weight.  But in response to the Telegraph vet who says it is a tired old excuse among pet owners that they can't control the weight of their animals because they have to feed more than one, I say, try it.  If you happen to have four like the black cat then good luck to you, and no wonder you think it's easy.  For those of us who have one with gluttonous and one with paranoid tendencies, plus another with a borderline eating disorder, it's a challenge.

They are moulting as well, a sign of spring.  The Systems Administrator looked last night at the strands of fur that were rising one by one under the heat of an anglepoise lamp from a mat on the table in front of the TV and said 'Do you think you could move that thing?' and that it was no wonder we both had permanent runny noses and sore throats.  I sometimes think we are slightly allergic to them, but it's too late to worry about that now.

Addendum  The replacement gear part for the lawn tractor arrived in a little cardboard sleeve, and was the right, genuine Briggs and Stratton component.  Taking half the afternoon, and sustaining only minor flesh wounds, the SA managed to rebuild the starter motor.  The tractor now works perfectly, and it will be handy knowing how to disassemble the starter motor for the next time something breaks.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

cutting back

The scene of my gardening operations has returned to the rose bed below the veranda.  It is referred to as the near rose bed in my garden diary, and does contain quite a lot of roses, but some other things as well, including a clump of Paulownia tomentosa and a patch of Helianthus salicifolius.  Both were included to add some height and some foliage interest to the roses, and are suckering with enthusiasm.  The perennial sunflower makes tall, largely unbranching stems with narrow, willow-like leaves, which are quite intriguing.  It has small yellow flowers in autumn, but they aren't really the point.  There are a couple of rusted metal tripods with clematis up them, and an Eryngium pandanifolium bought at Great Dixter, which grew far larger than I ever envisaged before being cut down by the cold of last winter.  That has since started making a good recovery, and I should really be brave and try and move some of its rosettes, since in the course of regenerating from the remains of the old clump it has migrated from its original position, which was already too close to a box hedge.  There's an Astelia chatamica too, which made a fine specimen before being mostly destroyed by last winter's cold.  It is regrowing from a couple of points, but doesn't look totally convinced about making the effort.  And there's a dome of box, included to give some evergreen volume, and a narrow leaved bay, which keeps growing larger than I should really like it, and is a pig to prune, since it is on a slope and all hemmed in with roses.

The near rose bed loomed back into my consciousness because the Systems Administrator began to murmur that I really needed to finish cutting back the climbers on the veranda before the birds started nesting.  They have to be cut back to give access for the SA to paint the barge boards and replace the gutter along the back of the house, and the desirability of finishing this job before the sailing and cricket seasons start has been looming in the SA's consciousness.  They need tidying up anyway, as a great mass of dead twigs and branches has built up beneath the outer living layer.  And when we're sitting in our steamer chairs on the veranda in the evenings, it would be nice to look out at the view, and not straight into the side of a mass of honeysuckle.  I spotted one old birds' nest in the tangle, confirming that it has been used as a nesting site in the past, though it probably won't be so appealing once it's tidier.

I managed to neither stab myself on a thorn nor poke myself in the eye today, and as the afternoon wore on switched to hand weeding for the last part of the day.  When I think about the times when I've scratched myself gardening badly enough to need a trip to the doctor, most of the accidents do seem to have occurred in the last couple of hours before the light goes.  It could be coincidence, but I suspect that increasing tiredness and decreasing visibility have something to do with it.

I'm not even cutting back the climbers very hard, and it may be that when we try to get the scaffolding in, everything will have to suffer another, more severe chop.  They are yielding up an extraordinary volume of debris as it is.  The old lawn tractor, which is used minus its cutting deck to haul the garden trailer, disgraced itself yesterday by breaking down in a place where it was blocking the drive, and the trailer was hanging behind it on a slope.  What should have been a ten minute job for the SA, emptying the trailer by the bonfire and putting it back by the veranda, took most of the afternoon, working out how to detach the trailer, pushing the tractor out of the way, and investigating the cause of the breakdown.  That turned out to be the catastrophic failure of a component in the starter motor.  A new part has been ordered (from Amazon.  They sell everything) but in the meantime we are without the tractor.  The current lawnmower will haul the trailer at a pinch, but as it is new, expensive, and not really up to the job, the SA is reluctant to use it for that purpose, and once I've filled the trailer again that may be my lot until the spare part arrives.

If I run out of space in the trailer then I will be free to return to my primary objective, which is to confine the yellow stemmed bamboo in the gunnera bed within the two rolls of galvanised lawn edging.  It's got personal between me and that bamboo.

Monday, 27 February 2012

tally ho

It rained in the night, which made it difficult to see which pots needed watering.  I didn't think it had rained that much, but some things that had looked by the end of yesterday as though they were going to need watering in the morning felt heavy enough already, when I hefted them.  The phone got busy early, while I was trying to put labels on the last few items left from last week's deliveries.  The labelling consequently took a long time, as I kept having to break off to trot around the plant centre checking whether we had various things and reserving them, or find pen and paper to take messages for people.  The builders were hard at work sawing two holes in the side of the shop for the extra windows.  Cutting through long lengths of weather boarding which are attached to a timber frame, and then the underlying layer of OSB (oriented strand board) makes an extraordinary amount of noise, even using a hand saw.  I had to ask some of the callers to repeat themselves rather a lot of times.

I had an unusual mid-morning coffee break, going instead to watch the hunt gather and set off.  The boss invited us to go, and I was very curious to see it.  The fact the hunt was starting next door explained why since yesterday there had been signposts pointing across the car park for the Essex and Suffolk hunt foot followers.  There must have been forty or fifty horses by the time they all assembled, some large and magnificent in sober shades of bay and chestnut, and some small and dumpy in more plebeian or exotic colour schemes.  Many of them were beautifully turned out, with plaited manes, and tails carefully tied up out of harm's way.  The horses stood around looking relaxed about life, their riders chatting.  I was rather amazed at the insouciance with which the ladies handing out refreshments and the foot followers moved among them.  Since my brief childhood horsey phase I haven't had much to do with horses, but I thought you were not supposed to walk around the rear end of a horse in case you spooked it and it kicked you.  Anyway, that was partly my excuse for staying at the hunt for longer than my fifteen minute break, that and the fact that the owner said I must stay to see the hounds off.

The hounds mostly clustered in a tight and disciplined pack, away from the horses and the refreshments, though the boss's mother did have to drive one determined hound off the table with the cake and sausage rolls on it.  The huntsmen stayed with them, their red coats contrasting with the other riders' black, or greenish tweed.  There was also a terrier contingent, but they were kept in their travelling box mounted on the front of a quad bike, barking.  When the hunt finally set off I saw that the box had a mesh door, facing towards the rider, so the terriers could see out and see their handler.  Another box on the front of a second bike apparently held an eagle owl.  One foot follower had brought a tiny white terrier, which escaped any risk of being trodden on by riding on his shoulders throughout.

We'd been told to help ourselves to refreshments, so I did.  They were made by the gamekeeper's daughter, who is going to do the food for the new tea room, and they were extremely good.  I declined the owner's and boss's offers of a glass of wine at quarter to eleven in the morning, on the grounds that I had to go back and be polite and compos mentis with their customers for the rest of the day.  I was slightly surprised that the riders, who were about to go galloping over hedges and ditches, were cheerfully downing their stirrup cups beforehand.  Maybe a glass of wine numbs the fear, as Nelson's navy was more or less drunk going into battle (I have checked this fact with the Systems Administrator, who says they were pretty well permanently pissed anyway, but would pipe spirits before a major action).

The boss had borrowed a horse he never rode before.  I think there is something wrong with his own.  It was a large creature whose reputation preceded it, and he professed to be nervous.  The person who rode it on Saturday is still in bed with concussion.  It had two strange hollows above its eyes, such as I have never seen before on a horse.   Given it was a devil horse maybe that is where its horns were removed, although it was looking perfectly placid during the refreshments.  The boss was wearing the coat, boots, jodpurs and stock, but I was amused to see that he still had his usual green pullover with the clothes moth holes in it under his coat.

Then the huntsmen blew their horns and moved off with the hounds, and the rest of the hunt followed, at quite a distance.  I seem to remember from novels involving hunting that overtaking the hounds is an absolute social no-no.  It was a scene that could have dated from decades ago, apart from the quad bikes.  I hurried back across the car park to my work, and the tiny terrier dismounted from his master's shoulders.

After that I was potting and price-gunning.  The drama of the afternoon was that the builders turned off the power to the shop, so that they could connect the new electrics into the circuit, and then couldn't get it to come on again.  There followed a search for unknown fuse boxes, in case they'd tripped a switch.  The manager, who was supervising the potting, desperately tried to keep his head down, disclaiming all knowledge of the fuse boxes, but eventually had to go and lend moral and practical support to the staff member working in the shop, who had no working till or credit card machine, a queue of customers, and had run out of change.  Then they got the power on again.  I don't know how.  But the highlight of the day was definitely the hunt.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

even busier

It was a good day for bird spotting.  Driving to work I saw a pair of goldfinches flit into a hedge as I passed, the yellow bars on their wings and their red heads shining in sunlight that was already bright by 8 am.  In the early afternoon I looked up, prompted by customers who were doing the same, and saw three buzzards floating languidly high overhead.  They flapped their wings infrequently, gliding for long periods, and made strange high calls, a sort of descending mew.  Somewhere in the garden the peacock thought spring had arrived, and screeched periodically through the day.

My colleague caught up with the backlog of mail order, packaging plants up into strange improvised dalek-shaped parcels.  I took my branded box from Ashwood Nurseries in, which was re-used for a consignment of shrubs.  It would be rather smart, not to say time-saving, to have our own boxes in a variety of sizes, with our name and logo on the side, instead of fabricating parcels from multiple boxes and trays taped together, and topped off with old compost bags turned inside out.

We have got new flexible plastic covers for the tills.  The difference is remarkable.  The old ones were practically opaque through age and use, so that it was almost impossible to read the keys.  The replacements are crystal clear in comparison.  The keyboard has got to be covered with something to keep dirt and damp out of it, otherwise the tills would fill up with compost in practically no time.  I thought the new cover felt rather stiff, but presumed it would bed down with use, then the owner who had been puzzling why they had sent us only one cover discovered that it was in fact two, stuck together.  They seem extremely expensive, costing £20 a time for what is just moulded flexible plastic, but I suppose they have to withstand movement and UV without going brittle.  When I bought a boot liner for my Skoda six years ago I couldn't understand how a plastic tray could cost so much, but as it has survived this long without splitting it must genuinely be made out of superior plastic.

The dangers of bringing plant growth on to appeal to customers desperate for an early shot of spring colour were demonstrated by an entire table of Anemone blanda, which had got badly frosted.  They arrived a few days ago as charming looking pots of blue flowers and dainty little leaves, a critical two or three weeks ahead of the ones growing in my garden, and lo, a sharp cold night caused the top growth to shrivel.  The manager's list of tasks for the weekend instructed us to remove the damaged leaves, and put any pots that looked too bad away out of the sales area to recover.  I soon discovered that on most of the plants virtually all of the leaves and flower buds came away from the pot with the gentlest pull, the stems resembling beansprouts that had been left for too long in the fridge.  The manager was hopeful that there were new leaves coming up, but many of those turned out to be damaged as well.  It will be interesting, in a rather depressing way, to see if they have sufficient reserves to make new foliage, or if they run out of oomph.

Having commented to the owner that yesterday we hadn't had many high spending customers, even though the day's total takings were respectable, today the high rollers were in.  One bought four large box balls, three olives and a big pot, and asked without much conviction whether as he was spending a lot he could have a discount.  Sorry, that's something people have to negotiate with the owner (the answer is almost always No).  Another couple bought six birch trees, and trolleys full of hellebores add up to three figure totals.  It was reassuring to be busy.  When it is very quiet we can't tell if that is just the time of year and the weather, or if it means that everybody has fallen out of love with gardening or stopped spending money on anything except the basics.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

things are hotting up

The warmer weather is bringing the customers back like migrating birds.  Some are regular visitors to the plant centre, commonly seen any time between spring and autumn.  Others are new sightings.  Some have made their way purposely to us in search of a particular plant, while others have the air of having just blown in and landed at random.  We greet the familiar faces, and try to be nice to all of them.

New plants are starting to arrive in quantities too.  The choice of herbaceous plants at this stage seems arbitrary.  We've suddenly got the full gamut of hollyhocks, some lupins, a few achillea, and for some reason Centaurea montana and Hesperis matronalis.  Delightful cottage garden plants, the last two, but scarcely the first names that would spring to mind if putting together a core range.  The glasshouse-fresh foliage, so different to the winter-burned leaves on plants growing outside, is designed to tempt.  Why else have a choice of half a dozen dwarf pinks, which won't start flowering for at least another month?  Pots of Fritillaria meleagris, brought on under cover, are blooming weeks ahead of the ones in the garden.  Bread-and-butter shrubs are starting to arrive too, variegated forms of Pittosporum tenuifolium and pyracantha.  To a plant enthusiast they are not nearly so fascinating as the twigs that came in last week, but they score far more highly as eye candy.

We had to do some watering, outside as well as in the tunnels.  We are out of practice after the winter break, hoses not in the right place, routes round the plant centre not honed to a precise routine.  It takes a few days to learn to split the watering with a new team member.  Initially you find dry patches that each person thought the other had done or would do, then with practice you develop the unspoken understanding that is a mark of all good teams, and everybody knows what the others are going to do without any need for discussion.

The manager had got us moving some of the shrubs that have over-wintered in the shelter of the tunnels back outside.  We weren't too sure how cold he was expecting it to be tonight, as he'd also left instructions for us to wind down the tunnel sides, tuck fleece over the agapanthus and turn off the pump and the water tank at the end of the day.  Turning off the irrigation fell to me, the other two saying they didn't know what we were supposed to be doing, so I hope I have clunked the correct lever and turned the right stop-cock, not being mechanically minded.

There were a couple of mystery plants to identify from samples.  One looked like an alder of some sort, but not the common one, unless it was from a specimen that was doing far better than any of mine.  The other looked more like some kind of Genista than anything else I could think of, though I was puzzled that the people asking had never noticed it flower.  They await the manager's verdict on Monday morning, as does the almost-but-not-quite dead Hydrangea quercifolia, that has gone backwards for two and a half years.  I wonder if two fierce winters separated by a drought sapped its will to live.  All will be revealed on Monday.

The sun shone and the birds sang.  Somebody brought in a gigantic and amiable black dog called Max, who wanted to smell everything, and thought that his owner's views on where she wanted to go need only have a very loose influence on his own progress.  At home Max likes to sit on the sofa.  She had to buy a second sofa.  If you like plants and people watching then an up-market plant centre is an entertaining place to be, in the spring.

Friday, 24 February 2012

bees need homes

I went last night to a meeting of my local beekeepers association, to learn about the use of bait hives.  A bait hive does what the name suggests.  You put out some sort of shelter, and hope to collect some bees.

You can do this for bumble bees, or at least for those species that like nesting in boxes.  Indeed, you can buy purpose built bumble bee boxes, for what always seems a large amount of money for a small and pretty rudimentary piece of woodwork.  Last night's speaker confirmed something I've read elsewhere, and which is a common source of complaint from visitors to the beekeeping stand at the Tendring Show, which is that the bumble bee boxes rarely attract any bees.  Apparently bumbles much prefer bird boxes, and especially boxes that contain an old bird's nest.  An old mouse nest is even better, as bumble bees like the smell.  Odd, honey bees don't.

You can also rediscover the joys of Blue Peter by making yourself a nest for mason bees.  They like small tubes, something the size of a bamboo cane or hollow shrub stem, with one end stoppered up.  A handful of these wedged into a length of drainpipe, again with the back end closed off, put a couple of metres above the ground, preferably on a south facing aspect and angled slightly downwards to shed any rain that gets in, should attract some wild bees, eventually.  They don't actually set up home in there like the bumble bees, but lay their eggs and then die.  You'll be able to see if any of the tubes have been used as the bee will block up the outward facing end of the tube.  You can buy special wild bee tubes as well, but home made ones are much cheaper, and work just as well.  Our speaker demonstrated a couple, one with the drainpipe stoppered with an old jar lid, and the other with an empty can.  I suppose they were not the most elegant creations, but the bees won't mind if they're hung in an obscure corner of the garden.  In fact, they'd probably be quite pleased, as they are shy creatures.

Bumbles and solitary bees are both delightful to have about the garden, and good pollinators, and increasingly rare, so you can upgrade the aesthetics of your domestic environment and give yourself a pat on the back for conservation work by providing them with a home.  Our speaker was equally passionate about the need to provide suitable accommodation for swarming honey bees, so that they would not have to move into people's roof cavities, chimneys and other unsuitable places, where they would fall victim to pest controllers.  I sensed that the audience were sympathetic to his conservation message, but more interested in how to obtain free bees.  I fancied the idea of free bees myself.  They cost a fortune to buy nowadays, what with beekeeping having become fashionable, and I'd quite like another colony or two.

Honey bees like a space which as far as possible resembles a hole in a tree trunk, with an ideal capacity of 40L.  In other words, something a little smaller than the commercial brood chambers I normally use, with a solid floor and a small entrance.  Putting frames of foundation or drawn comb in there will help attract them, as they like the smell of the wax, and the smell of bees, if the equipment has been previously used.  On that basis you could just use a spare beehive.  The speaker suggested making a copy of a proper hive, to less exacting construction standards and out of plywood.  After all, it only has to stand outside in the swarming season, from about April to early August.  Compared to using a spare hive, a plywood model will be cheaper, and if the bees you collect turn out to have American foul brood, burning a home made plywood box is going to be less painful than torching a couple of hundred quids' worth of Thornes' finest cedar.  Which said, AFB is quite rare and while possible wouldn't be top of my list of things to worry about with a swarm.

Swarms like to move about a mile from their original hive, so you are likely to catch other people's bees rather than your own.  Our speaker had tried setting boxes up next to feral colonies in Colchester Castle Park and they had shown no interest at all.  With around ten bait hives set up locally he achieved a hit rate of about 20% of hives occupied in 2011, when there were very few swarms, and more like 80% in 2010, which was a swarmy year.  The ideal height for a bait box for honey bees is 3 to 11 metres above the ground.  Make that 3 metres then.  Tottering around up a ladder 11 metres off the ground with a box of stinging insects is not my idea of how to make life easy for yourself.  Actually, 3 metres sounds pretty inconvenient, and I don't have a stand that high, so I shall put my bait hive exactly where I should like the bees to remain, should I manage to catch any, which saves any issues over moving them once they've set up house.

Unless you are a beekeeper you probably don't want to attract swarms of honey bees into your garden, but you will find wild bees the most delightful companions.  Solitary bees can't even sting human beings, being unable to penetrate our skins.  Bumbles can (and if they do it is extremely painful) but you have to annoy them a lot before they will (I did, inadvertently).

Addendum  I ended up volunteering to take on the role of treasurer for my local group, as they needed somebody and no-one else had stepped forward.  The rule is that the treasurer has to stand down after three years, and ours has done his three year stint.  Knowing him I'm confident I'll get some spreadsheets in good running order, and not a shoebox of mysterious invoices, unmarked cheque stubs and unreconciled bank statements.  He made it sound very easy.  There aren't even any capital assets to worry about.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

tall buildings

Trawling around the newspapers over a mug of tea, I stumbled upon a thoroughly entertaining website called Skyscraper News.  It does what it says on the tin, in that it contains news about skyscrapers, but it also has a load of history and some good panoramic views taken from high places.  If you are curious about the great edifices that are being added to our cities, or making the news for not being built, Skyscraper News is the place to find out more.  (It would have been just the thing to have on my smart phone, if I had one, during yesterday's journey into Liverpool Street, when I proved quite unable to answer half my mother's questions about what the tall buildings were).

The tallest completed building in the UK is not a skyscraper, but the Emley Moor Transmitter at Huddersfield, completed in 1971 and standing 280m tall.  Coming in at number two is One Canada Square, the Canary Wharf tower with the pyramid shaped top, completed twenty years later.  That is 235.1metres tall, so the view from the top floor must be pretty good, but it ceased to function as an observation level in the mid 90s, leaving Britain as the only country in Europe not to have an observation level at the top of its tallest building.  There are fifty floors over ground, but no floor number thirteen.  Other facts I previously didn't know about One Canada Square is that it has 36 lifts, the steel structural frame weighs 27,000 tonnes and the cladding another 47,000 tonnes.

The Shard when completed is due to knock One Canada Square into a distance second place, as it will rise to 310 metres.  This was scaled back from the original proposal for 380 metres.  The part built Shard overtook One Canada Square as long ago as November 2010, and it is due to be finished this year.  There will be a public viewing gallery 243.8 metres above the ground.  Ironically, the name was coined by English Heritage, who dubbed the tower a shard of glass stabbing the heart of historic London.  Thanks guys, cool suggestion, we'll use that.

Statistics on buildings use their own terminology, like data on most things.  I puzzled for a while over Roof Height (AOD) before working out that AOD stood for 'above ordnance datum' (ordnance datum in Great Britain is the mean sea level at Newlyn in Cornwall between 1915 and 1921), and that Roof Height (AGL) must stand for Roof Height above ground level.  Roof height (AGL) is the measurement used in rankings of building heights.  Raising the top even nearer to heaven by standing your building on a mountain doesn't give you a comparative advantage in the tall building stakes.

You get the top thirty buildings in the UK, ranked by height.  The first entry from outside London feiatures at number ten, the Beetham Tower in Manchester which is a mixture of hotel and residential, and in total only six of the thirty are outside London.  The Blackpool Tower is at number 18, the London Eye at 21 and Wembley Stadium at 23..  The top thirty is limited to completed buildings, so there'll be some changes in the rankings as various projects get finished, though yesterday's Evening Standard was not very optimistic about how lettings are going, and some partly built towers may end up shorter than originally envisaged.

You can look up details of tall buildings for any city.  London has 2,717 entries, Manchester 466, Ludlow only one.  Actually, lots of places only have one or two tall buildings listed.  (The facility to list by location isn't obvious from the menu, and I fell into it while fiddling around with the search option).  Colchester has seven entries, including Colchester Castle, status complete, completion date 1100.  The other six are the student blocks at the university, height 43 metres, 14 floors.  No images are available but I can tell you that they look like the towers of Mordor (black, forbidding).  Identical.

The list of buildings for London are a geography of memory, and of the imagination.  A palimsest, they include not merely buildings demolished, but buildings never built, and buildings that exist as 'visions'.  Somebody might build them one day, depending on the economy and the planners, or they might join the ranks of the cancelled.  The Aldgate Tower existed as a 325 metre possibility in the late 80s, and was cancelled as the market collapsed.  The original Wembley Park observation tower, completed in 1907, stood at 353 metres making it the tallest thing to have actually been built, until it was demolished.  [Erratum  The Systems Administrator pointed out to me that this was proposed, but aborted when the ground proved too soft.]  Of the top twenty tallest buildings ever proposed for London, according to Skyscraper News, one was built and four are under construction.  The others are all visions, in pre-planning, on hold, or in  five cases cancelled.  Architecture must be one of the most soul-destroying art forms, as your chances of seeing your idea become even approximately realised are pretty low, according to this database.

It struck me yesterday as our buses trundled through the City, how many holes in the ground there were, and how often I struggled to remember what had been there before, beyond a feeling that it had been post war and not very interesting.  Some, like Bucklersbury House, I remember being frankly hideous.  The table bears my impression out, with buildings erected in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s already demolished to make room for something else, or in many cases representing failed experiments in high-rise living.  Ropemaker Place, completed in 1987, was demolished in 2005.  We can't afford to go squandering materials and energy like that, and need to learn to build better and for the longer term.

Addendum  Having written this on Wednesday afternoon I failed to press the Publish button, and found it still in draft when I posted Thursday's blog.  That is the first time I have ever failed to post, which is rather a waste when I did write it on the day.  My trip to London and the shock of paying for my 40,000 mile service for the Skoda were obviously too much for me.  Erratum  In the blog as originally posted, I said that the old Wembley Park had a tall tower, but in fact that was abandoned when only partly built, so it didn't.  I should have known that, and it proves that I should look at big databases found on the internet more carefully.  All I can say I wasn't concentrating when I wrote the post.  Sorry about that.

bees and bamboo

Today felt like spring.  I went to see the bees, and to my pleasure they were alive and flying from all three hives.  I was particularly impressed that the little colony in the nucleus hive, only half the size of a normal beehive, has made it this far.  They appeared as a swarm late last season, and by autumn were not nearly as large as my bee instructor told me a colony needed to be to come through the winter.  However, there was nothing to do about that, short of risking upsetting one of the established colonies by trying to combine them, so I fed them and left them to take their chance.  It looks like they may have seized it with all six legs and both wings.

I didn't open the hives fully.  It would probably have been just about warm enough for a very brief inspection if I've absolutely had to, but I didn't.  There's a risk they may have lost their queens during the winter, in which case there is no future for them, unless I intervene with a replacement, but they probably haven't.  Instead I gave each of them a 2.5kg lump of fondant, a soft paste of sucrose, glucose syrup and invert sugar syrup, which is supposed to be easy for them to digest, and not to require them to collect too much water to use it.  Stored honey by this stage can be rock hard, and require the bees to gather water to dilute it before they can eat it.  The fondant comes in plastic bags similar to vacuum packs, which are peculiarly resistant to being cut open with kitchen scissors.  The brand is called ambrosia (which makes me think of tinned rice pudding) and is German.  On the side of the box it says Bienenfutterteig, which translates as Feed Paste, and in smaller letters Einzfuttermittel,  which less felicitously translates as Single feeding stuff.  You put it on top of the crown board over one of the holes leading down into the body of the beehive, and they come up and collect what they want.

I bought the fondant a while back, when I was concerned that the unseasonably warm weather might be leading the bees to be more active and use more stores than they would normally, at a time when there wasn't much forage.  My bee tutor said that they knew what they were doing and would be fine, and then it turned cold again and a friend warned me that they wouldn't touch the fondant when it was that cold.  Then I began to feel so tired and unwell I decided to believe my bee tutor and leave them to get on with it, but today felt like paying them a visit.  It was very nice to see them, and fairly soon it'll be time to have a look inside each hive, and find out what's going on.  If I see them bringing in pollen in the meantime that will be a good sign that they are likely to be feeding brood.  They were foraging today, working the crocus in the bottom lawn and the hellebores, even the new ones in pots that are still stood in the porch.

I worked at weeding the damp bed.  I still call it the Gunnera bed, even though the Gunnera died a couple of years ago.  They grow from a great scaly core, like a rhubarb crown on steroids, which is vulnerable to cold in severe winters, rotting if it gets too wet, and being eaten by voles.  I have a replacement sitting in a pot in the greenhouse awaiting planting when the milder weather arrives.  Before planting anything it is necessary to remove the excess yellow stemmed bamboo, which has run far beyond its intended space.  Its name is Phyllostachys aureosulcata 'Aureocaulis', and if you are ever offered one I should treat it with the respect it deserves.  Once I've hacked mine back to a quantity of bamboo I consider appropriate, I am going to try and check its future wanderings by sinking two rolls of galvanised lawn edging around it.  It may of course attempt to burrow under or climb over the lawn edging, but at least that will give me a boundary to work to.  I shall have to be vigilant.  The way this bamboo spreads is to send out horizontal shoots only just below the surface of the soil.  These periodically send down roots, and a new vertical stem arises from that point, which gradually thickens into a large woody plate.  The roots do not go deep, but in established parts of the clump they are extremely firmly attached to the ground.  It's no good trying to fork them out, you would just break the fork handle, and a pick axe is required.  Bafflingly and rather frustratingly, while the yellow stemmed bamboo has gone wild, the black stemmed Phyllostachys nigra planted in the same bed keeps dying out in patches, and has never made a good clump.

Self seeded willows have shot up in this bed, and reached a considerable size remarkably quickly.  I should have hauled them all out last summer, but never got round to it.  Fortunately their trunks and roots are comparatively soft, quick to saw through and to chop through with the pick axe.  The bamboo roots are tough as hell.  I have heard of really rampant clumps that could only be removed with explosives.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

great big trees

I went with my mother to see the David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy.  It was rather a faff getting there.  The trains into London ran OK, but when we filed down to the Central line we found a train standing at the platform, doors open, for an ominously long time, and then there was an announcement that the delay was caused by a customer incident at Oxford Circus.  That could have meant anything from a minor scuffle to a suicide, so we went back up the escalators and caught the number 23 bus.  A bus arrived almost at once, and I felt rather triumphant at knowing how the buses worked, but the traffic was very slow (or maybe just going at normal central London speed) and after huffing and puffing at the delays in Great Winchester Street my mother declared at Charing Cross that it was time to abandon the bus and walk.  I was concerned that by the end of the day she would probably have done more than enough walking, but we got off.

The Hockney exhibition is very large, and good.  Enough art critics have said enough about it that I am not going to join in and even hazard a guess whether or not he is the natural successor to Lucien Freud (OK, he's not), but if you like extremely big, brilliantly colourful evocations of the English landscape you'll like this.  Lots of people do.  You could tell that from the length of time they spent in front of individual pictures and groups of pictures, and the conversations that were going on.  Anybody from Yorkshire was in triumphant mode, able to inform their companions how like the real place the picture was, and I heard the comment 'I could live with that' oftener than, say, at Gerhard Richter (actually, I don't think anybody expressed the desire in my hearing to live with a Gerhard Richter).  Hockney paints Yorkshire with warmth and love, and people respond to his warmth. I did myself.

Various critics had mentioned the drawings made on his iPad, and I thought the RA missed a trick in not having a small display somewhere explaining how exactly you do draw on a tablet.  I don't have one and I hadn't a clue.  I managed to gather the basics (or at least a version of them that may turn out to quite misleading when I look it up) from an overheard conversation between some fellow visitors, and a helpful security guard who showed us the iPhone equivalent.  Apparently a stylus and a colour menu are involved, plus the ability to visualise what something done on a tablet is going to look like when it's blown up to be 4 metres high.  I liked the scribbly, graphic quality of the iPad drawings.  And I liked his two early paintings, done when he was 19 (and included to show how far his style had progressed), though if he had continued as he began he would now be having a nice retrospective at the Minories Gallery in Colchester rather than the Royal Academy.  And I enjoyed the video installations shot from multiple viewpoints, though my mother said they made her feel seasick.

It was rather a bun fight, but fortunately most people were pretty sensible about staying back from the walls so that we could all see the paintings, and the paintings were mostly huge.  It is a big show with a great many rooms, and after an hour and forty minutes our brains were full and our legs tired, and we had to totter off, but it was worth the effort.  The RA still haven't got their ticketing sorted out, though.  On arriving at Somerset House I had to queue at the members desk with my computer booking printout to get actual tickets, which seems a pointless extra step.  The British Museum just checks your home printed proof of purchase at the door as you go into the exhibition.  They don't have enough loos either.  We didn't even attempt to use the Friends room after our viewing, and went for a cup of tea at Pret a Manger, which was much more civilised.

Then we walked to the Courtauld Gallery to see the Mondrian and Nicholson exhibition, and about half way along the Strand my mother asked plaintively if it was much further.  When we got to the end of the road leading down to Waterloo Bridge we were engulfed in a sea of French school children, and glimpsing the end of Somerset house and panicking at the quantity of children she suggested that we head down towards the bridge, so we entered Somerset House by the river entrance, and found that the courtyard was occupied by a large, noisy marquee surrounded by trendy young people and photographers, and that we were in part of London fashion week.  I ploughed on round the edge of the tent, on the grounds that we hadn't crashed through any barrier to get into the courtyard, and that you can walk through all sorts of places if you look confident and keep going.  Nobody wanted to photograph us, though I read in the Evening Standard on the way home that shearling is coming back into fashion, which is handy as I'm still wearing a shearling coat from twelve years ago.

Mondrian and Nicholson were friends, who had adjacent studios in Hampstead for a few years.  There must have been some tricky moments when Nicholson left the first Mrs Nicholson, who was a close friend and patron of Mondrian, to take up with the second Mrs Nicholson, who was Barbara Hepworth, but they seem to have weathered them.  I really like both of their work, and if I had to choose I'd give Nicholson the edge, because it is less strictly geometric and more 3-D.  I loved some of his white carved wood reliefs, and liked the domestic detail that one of the larger ones was cut from a leaf of a mahogany table he bought in Camden Market.  As the people were saying in the RA, I could live with that.

Then we looked at some of the permanent collection and made use of the seats, which are very comfortable.  One of the advantages of the Courtauld for visitors to London on cheap day returns is that it stays open until six, and is a civilised place to wait until the off-peak trains start again.  We got a bus back to Liverpool Street, slightly too early because my mother was nervous about missing the train.  One of the reasons why I normally travel from Colchester and not Wivenhoe is that there are more trains, and one of the reasons why I tend to walk around central London, unless it's raining hard, is that I know how long it will take.  Getting on the bus I found that my Oyster card had run out.

For once I've been to exhibitions early in their run, so you have plenty of time to go and see them.  Both are well worthwhile.  You need to allow plenty of time for the Hockney.  It is big.

Monday, 20 February 2012

tiny trees

We received a large delivery of herbaceous plants this morning at the plant centre, some in 9cm and 2L pots to be sold as they are, and some field grown bare root pieces of plant to be potted up, and sold once they are properly rooted in.  It was a case of all hands to the pumps to unload the lorry, and we began to run out of space to put the trays and boxes down.  One tray disintegrated in transit causing twenty Francoa to crash to the ground, sustaining minor damage, but as the manager was carrying that one there were no recriminations.  A couple of Agapanthus got dropped in the excitement as well, and there was a moment of minor tension when two different sorts of grasses got mixed up, but overall it went quite smoothly.

I'd expected to spend the day potting, which I was looking forward to, but no labels were ready until late on so we couldn't make a start.  Instead I found myself cleaning up pots containing tiny oak and thorn trees that arrived sometime in the past week.  Some of the Crataegus had such lush crops of liverwort growing on the surface of the compost that I'm surprised the grower wasn't embarrassed to send them out in that state, but I suppose we are paying for the rarity value, not the presentation, and there's no benefit to them in having a staff member spend time cleaning them.  We get these rare trees as very young plants, mostly 15-45cm tall, which comes as a disappointment to those customers who want to start with something at 2-3m.  They retail at close to thirty pounds, which puts them among the most expensive plants per centimetre that we sell.  Most of the cork oaks, Quercus suber, were horribly shrivelled.  It's true that they were left outside last night, but it wasn't that cold, and cork oak is reasonably hardy (the most northerly specimen I've seen growing in the UK was at Gosforth in the Lake District).  The pots felt normally moist, but the manager decided they had probably been allowed to dry out at some point during transit.  To a plant lover it is sad to see a nice little young plant ruined by poor treatment.

It is exciting when the new stock starts pouring in.  We're scheduled to get all sorts of things in the next couple of weeks, and they are harbingers of spring, like hearing the first skylark (as I did on Saturday).  It's nice to see familiar plants reappear, and there's always the possibility of something new and unknown.  Since I was last at work Prunus incisa 'Kojo-no-mai' had arrived, so I did buy one of those, as I know exactly where I am going to put it, in the middle of the long bed next to a dwarf pine, and the site is more or less ready.

The chippie was hard at work in the shop, fastening together the cabinets for the new kitchen.  Apparently some customers have expressed disquiet that we are having a cafe, even an incredibly modest one, and asked whether that means that we are going to become like everybody else.  I put it down to dislike of change (rather sad).  There is no reason why starting to sell proper pots of tea and cake should be the  precursor to halving the range of plants and diversifying into gas barbecues and novelty clocks.

Addendum  Essex does not feature on today's list of additional counties that are officially in drought.  I see that Thames Water are telling customers that there are simple steps they can take to save water, like not running the tap while cleaning their teeth, and only running full loads of laundry.  I find that sort of advice completely unhelpful, as I only ever run full machine loads of washing, and haven't run the tap while cleaning my teeth for about three decades.  It's like those headlines that promise savings of so many thousand pounds a year, and then in the article it turns out that I have to stop buying a latte every day, take my own sandwiches to work, and give up my gym membership to walk the dog instead.  The theoretical savings would indeed be immense, if only I bought latte and sandwiches and had a gym membership to start with (or indeed a dog).

Sunday, 19 February 2012

how I helped destroy the planet

I was reading the papers on-line while eating my breakfast, and clicked on a story in The Independent Gardening turns out to be very eco un-friendly.  I don't know why I did that, as I knew it was going to upset me before I read it.  It turns out that a study done by the University of Reading, the University of Sheffield and the RHS has found that gardening activities, from mowing and watering the lawn to the use of peat and pesticides, have a harmful effect on the environment.  Planting trees doesn't help, as they can take a decade to become carbon neutral.  Garden paving has a carbon cost.  The production and use of garden chemicals 'contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions'.  The use of peat is controversial due to the association of peat extraction with habitat loss and carbon emissions.  Oh, and gardeners introduce invasive species.  The RHS concludes rather primly that they will 'continue to work closely with gardeners, horticultural trade and horticultural researchers to minimise negative impacts'.

I never water my lawn, and I don't know anybody who does, though the last time I went to RHS Hyde Hall they were running sprinklers on the borders.  As for trees taking ten years to become carbon neutral, since when did we plant trees on a ten year view?  The trouble is, everything we do has an environmental impact.  I've spent a couple of days this week working in my garden.  During that time I have rather knackered a pair of gardening gloves, which will end up in landfill, and I'll have to buy new ones, which will use up some of the planet's resources in their manufacture and distribution, but other than that I've consumed remarkably little.  Infinitesimal wear and tear on my tools is about the sum of it.  Think what else I could have been doing in my time off.

I could have gone shopping.  I could have taken the train to Westfield at Stratford (driving to the station and contributing to air pollution in Colchester) or driven all the way to Bluewater.  I could have walked around in a heated mall, and drunk coffee out of a disposable cup, and bought throwaway fashion.  My dear, this fabulous pair of neon pink plastic shoes made by children in the third world was only twenty pounds!  Imagine!  For that price you can afford only to wear them a couple of times.  Or I could have bought the latest electronic gadget.  I know my antique Nokia still works, but it is so last decade, I'm ashamed to be seen with it.  My friends will lose all respect for me and teenagers will laugh at me on the train.  And I don't have any kind of a tablet, or a games console, or an espresso maker.  We could have gone away for the weekend, and stayed in a lovely little hotel, that being a classy joint would have washed the sheets and towels after our stay, despite the fact that we'd slept in them for one night only and dried ourselves after only a single shower.  We could even have flown abroad (whee!) for some winter sun.  Lots of people do that.

Or I could take up golf, played on a big green grassy expanse that definitely gets mowed, and watered, and fed with chemicals and treated with herbicides.  Or go swimming, in a big sploshy heated pool, treated with chemicals.  Or go skiing (more flying, and an entire set of special clothes that I only wear for one week each year and change after four or five years even though they still function because they are so out of fashion).  Or I could give my house a whole new look with new cushions and throws (the Saturday supplements never say what I am supposed to do with the old cushions and throws but there's always landfill, via the charity shop).  I could paint the walls while I'm at it (with chemicals whose production and use presumably contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions).

I could have a big fat steak for dinner.  I read once how producing one kilo of steak required a quite extraordinary input of water and energy, though I forget how much, so you'll have to Google it, if you're that interested (bet you're not).  The frozen chips to go with the steak require another load of energy to transport and store them, and the cream in my coffee after the meal adds to atmospheric methane as all those cows farting is a major source of greenhouse gas.  It would be much better for the planet if I were to dine off lentils chased down with peppermint tea.

You get the picture.  Almost everything that people do in their leisure time and as they live their lives has a detrimental environmental impact.  Some things have less of an impact than others.  Going for a walk (starting walking from your own house, not driving your car to somewhere more scenic first) seems comparatively harmless.  Once in a while you'll need some new shoes, and you might eat a bit more than you would otherwise, but your ecological footprint is going to be pretty small.  Sitting looking out of the window would be even better for the planet, as you won't wear your clothes out and you'll eat less.  Flying down to the Med to indulge in a weekend of powerboat racing is not going to be good.

What would be really helpful would not to be told that chemicals and paving and compost are all Bad things, and that we should feel really, really guilty about using them, but to be given sensible advice on how we can reduce the environmental impact of whatever it is we choose to do, and how different kinds of activity compare.  My patio (Bad) is equivalent to your junk clothes habit (Bad) but only half his trip to Australia (v. v. Bad).  Maybe people who want a patio, or fifty pairs of shoes, or a foreign holiday, could find ways of saving elsewhere on the demands they place on the planet, if they were given the information to help them do it.  Of course the most effective thing we could do to reduce our future environmental impact would be to simply die now, but not even George Monbiot is suggesting that.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

keeping track

I was shocked when I wrote up my gardening diary for Thursday to see that it was apparently the first day I'd spent working on the garden since January 27th.  Indeed, my initial reaction was that I must have forgotten to enter a couple of days, but when I checked against my pocket diary and February's blog entries, it was true.  I'd been ill, or busy, or at work, or the weather had been impossible, and I hadn't done a thing for over a fortnight.  It's so easy to lose time.  The Systems Administrator said that I probably ought to budget for bad weather and colds in the winter and assume that I would lose a few weeks, which is sensible, but not what I want.

I've kept a gardening diary since moving in.  I use A4 ruled hardback books from the stationery section of Tesco or Staples, nothing bound in moleskin or anything fancy, and I'm halfway through the fourth book.  The daily entries are short, noting where in the garden I was working and roughly what I was doing, and listing anything I planted and where I planted it.  It doesn't represent a complete record of all the work done in the garden, partly because I sometimes forget to write it up and have to try and remember what I was doing several days after the event, and because it is my diary and I don't record each time the SA cuts the grass or has a bonfire.  Also I don't keep detailed notes in the diary of every packet of seed sown, though I sometimes do a spreadsheet for that growing season when I'm feeling organised.  It isn't a descriptive diary, with records of what is blooming or how nice things are looking, or not.  I've sometimes tried writing that sort of thing down separately, and always petered out by February at the latest.

The records of things planted in the garden are transferred to a spreadsheet when I get round to it, though at the moment it's about a year out of date.  It is helpful, when looking at a plant I can't put a name to, to at least have a short-list of possible identities.  It doesn't always work, because occasionally I forget to write down things I've planted in the book, and a few have probably missed being transcribed from the diary on to Excel.  Some plants came to me without names, or obviously misnamed, and I've never discovered what they are.  When it does work it allows me to check quickly when something was planted, which can produce a sense of gratification if it has made a lot of growth in the time since, or more often a crushed feeling of disappointment that the shrub or tree is still so small after that many years.  Consulting the spreadsheet does force me to acknowledge how many things have been planted and are no longer extant.  Some gave a good account of themselves and reached their natural span, but many reached untimely ends, failing to thrive in the spot where I'd put them, or falling prey to wildlife or extremes of weather.

Labelling plants in the garden is difficult.  I have bought and used a great many aluminium stick-in labels over the years.  They tend to get lost, scratched up by birds or cats, or trodden on and broken at the base.  They don't always remain legible when I can find them, as pencil can rub off over the years.  Ink is pretty indelible, but requires me to have the special pen for writing on aluminium, which I don't seem to most of the time.  I've tried tie-on copper labels, that you write on with ballpoint pressing hard, to indent the name.  These often disappear into the centre of the plant as it grows, or get removed without noticing during pruning.  Herbaceous plants often travel around the garden, via division or by cuttings, which aren't always accompanied by the correct label, or by self-seeding, which makes labelling individual clumps absolutely hopeless.  There are parts of the garden, such as the gravel, where I actively don't want to be looking at a sea of labels, like a hamster's graveyard.  Labels are not easy.  Those professionally printed black plastic rectangular labels with plant names, families, date of planting and accession number, used in some professionally managed gardens, represent a considerable effort and expense on the part of the garden management.

I was making good progress today clearing weeds from the sloping bed in the back garden, and cutting back the field hedge, a job that needs to be finished soon, before birds start nesting in it.  Work was brought to a premature close when it began to rain so much that I could no longer ignore it and pretend that it wasn't really raining.  We do need the rain, but that's another couple of hours gardening time lost.  

Friday, 17 February 2012

a day at the races

We went racing at Fakenham today.  It's something we'd been talking about for ages, going to a small course where I could see the horses close up, and stand down by the rails and hear the thunder of hooves as they go over a fence, but we'd never got round to it.  Finally today was the day.

It's years since I went to the races at all, and I wasn't sure what to expect.  It turns out that Fakenham is a sweet little racecourse.  The Systems Administrator, who takes racing seriously, got us our orange day member passes, which entitled us to use the members' end of the little stand, and use the bar in the small but perfectly formed members' pavilion.  Admittedly the other end of the stand was open to non-members, but the bar was jolly nice, with a view down on to the finishing line and across the course, and heating.  (The heating probably made all the difference, as I'm typing this after spending two hours in the warm car on the way back and I'm still cold).

The first race wasn't until 1.30pm, and we arrived before then, having allowed for traffic which turned out not to need that much allowing for.  We saw the last heats of some greyhound racing, and then there was a parade by the West Norfolk Foxhounds and the North Norfolk Harriers.  The harriers were some sort of small hound that came in subdued shades of magnolia rather than white and tan, very tasteful, and apparently they are one of only seven packs in the world.  The huntsmen wore coloured coats and blew their horns, and tipped their hats to various eminent local ladies whom they addressed as 'Ma'am', and I thought that is really why so many urban politicians hate fox-hunting.  It isn't purely indignation about the sufferings of the fox, otherwise they'd make an equal amount of fuss about intensive farming.  It's a class thing.  Oh well.  The hounds were very well behaved, and the huntsmen must have had faith in their good nature, because members of the public were invited on to the course to meet them.

Then there were the races.  I understand nothing about racing, except that all the races were won by a horse.  In fact, the last race we stayed for was won by a mare, and I was pleased to see a female getting a look-in.  The horses were very beautiful, and none of the jockeys fell off, and the green screens never had to go up, which is my definition of a successful race meeting.  We went down and stood by the parade ring and admired them at close quarters, and stood by the rails to hear them thundering past and watch them jump, and stood in the stand where we had a view to the far side of the course, and inside the bar where we had a view and heating.  It was vibrant but not too crowded.  In fact, it was a perfect sporting event, from the viewpoint of somebody who isn't interested in sport.

I began to get my ear in for the commentary.  It is much less waffly and more precise than I'd realised, with its own phrases that carry specific meanings.  Some horses were said to be 'not travelling', which sounds contradictory when they are galloping, but means not running freely and easily.  Likewise one was said to be 'ridden along', which again sounds silly, when it's got a jockey on its back who is riding it, but means that the horse is not running well and the jockey is using arms and legs to urge it on.

The Systems Administrator placed a couple of modest bets, working on the theory that there had to be a reason why Jonjo O'Neill had sent two John P McManus horses to run at Fakenham.  The theory turned out not to work.  I don't know why the SA expected it to work, given that long days of this winter's successive colds were largely spent building enormous spreadsheets of racing results, and testing theories of betting, none of which worked.  Using the best theories the punter ends up about 5% down, which is what I'd expect.  Bookies make a living, don't you know.  But it's the taking part that counts.

There were lots of dogs, on leads.  The programme had a note saying that Fakenham was one of the few UK courses that allowed dogs into the enclosures, and would owners please keep their dogs on leads, as there had been an incident in the past when a dog ran on to the course during a race, and if it happened again dogs would have to be banned (well, the programme said the Racecourse Management would be forced to consider banning them, but I can't imagine the decision would go the other way).  The dogs all seemed to be enjoying themselves very much, bouncing up and down at the other dogs, and sniffing them, and watching the hounds.  I find that dogs add greatly to the atmosphere of country events, and am all in favour of them.

The final of the greyhound race was won by a lady dog, by a very short head.  The final of the whippets and lurchers race was a shambles, as after a promising start one of the contestants started barging the other off the course, and they stopped half way to the finishing line and had a friendly wrestling match instead of a race.  The person doing the commentary with great decisiveness awarded first prize to the dog in the red collar, on the grounds that it had got further before stopping.

The Queen had two winners, although I don't think she was there in person to see them.  My favourite winner was the mare, partly because she struck a blow for equal rights, and because she was bred, owned and trained by the same person.  They'll be having a real celebration tonight.  When you own lots of horses, like the Queen or John P McManus, and don't have a hands-on role in their careers, it can't be quite the same when they win.

We skipped the last two races, which were a hunter race with only three runners and a flat race, and managed most of the drive home in the light.  Two hours exactly.  I recommend Fakenham racecourse, if you like country days out, even if you aren't fussed about racing.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

back in the garden

Suddenly the air outside feels gentle.  I took a stroll round the garden counting my losses, after the cold spell.  The leaves on the poor little Phlomis italica growing in the gravel are shrivelled, and I think I'm going to lose the top growth, but it will probably shoot from the base.  It did last spring, and the plant is larger and more established now than it was then, and this cold spell was shorter and less severe.  The leaves on the olive tree look utterly unaffected so far, and I wonder whether the lack of cold wind helped it survive this time round.  The operative phrase in the last sentence is 'so far', since evergreens have a disconcerting habit of looking OK immediately after being hit by cold, and then dropping their leaves later, like somebody who initially seems to have survived their paracetamol overdose, only to die of liver failure after three days.  The leaves on my nice new Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Wrinkled Blue', that was making such good progress last year, have turned a suspicious colour, and I'm worried about that.  Pittosporum tenuifolium varieties that were hit last year but not killed outright have made little recovery since, though the drought may not have helped them.

The open flowers on the two Daphne bholua varieties are spoilt, burned to a dingy shade of brown.  There are still buds, so it's a case of waiting to see if these open normally.  The leaves on the evergreen Michelia doltsopa, that was turned out of the conservatory to take its chances at the edge of the wood, have gone brown round the edges and the plant looks distressed, but as long as the shoots haven't been injured my money's on it flushing new leaves in spring.  It has managed to pull off that trick in the conservatory, after red spider mite attack plus whatever else it was that it disliked about conditions in the conservatory had defoliated it.

The display of snowdrops is disappointing, after the quantity I planted two and three years ago.  Maybe the cold weather has held them back, and they'll look better in another couple of days, but I fear that some of the places I tried them, coupled with the very dry weather last spring and this winter, have not suited them.  The shortage of crocus I put down to some bastard small rodent eating the corms.

Still, it was very nice to be able to work outside in comfort.  When I investigated what it was like yesterday the wind felt so raw and cold that I merely watered the conservatory and greenhouse and scuttled inside again, but today felt positively inviting.  I've been digging over the area where the Rosa rugosa used to be, and forking in mushroom compost, so by the weekend it should be ready to receive the new shrubs and the Ashwood's hellebores and Hepatica.  I made encouraging noises to the cats to come out too, and Our Ginger and the big tabby came and ran about a bit.  They could do with the exercise, especially Our Ginger. (His diet is not going very well, since the big tabby is still upset and refusing to eat, so we end up having to leave food down for him.  Alternatively he will eat if one of us stands by him making encouraging noises.  It isn't very convenient).

Addendum  The newspapers and Radio 4 have finally caught up with the idea that we are facing a serious drought in the southern and eastern counties, now that Caroline Spelman has been having meetings about it.  It has been blindingly obvious for weeks to anyone who listens to the farming programme, or just notices how much it rains, that trouble is brewing.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

art in the east end

I went yesterday to the Whitechapel Art Gallery, in yet another case of catching something I wanted to see which was going to end soon.  If I made New Year’s resolutions then my one for 2012 ought to have been to get more organised.  I’d promised my uncle that I’d go to my aunt’s lunchtime recital, so I went to Whitechapel via Wesley’s chapel.  The concert started with a piece for cello and piano by a contemporary of Brahms called Albert Dietrich, who used to be famous in his day but has sunk almost without trace.  Unfortunately the concert organiser had omitted to copy the copious notes my uncle had prepared, so the audience left no wiser about Dietrich than they were at the beginning, apart from having heard his Sonata in C major.  Then there was some Faure.  My aunt did not think the Dietrich went so well as it had at the run-through, and my uncle was preoccupied because my aunt was unhappy, and cross that his programme notes had got lost, so the effort I'd made to travel up to town went largely unappreciated by my relations.

I knew that bits of the East End were now very trendy, with prices to match (a far cry from the days when my grandfather grew up there), but I hadn’t seen it for myself, until cutting through from Wesley’s chapel to Whitechapel High Street via the Commercial Road.  Blimey, there are some posh shops and eateries round the back of Spitalfields.  The trendy bits seem to pop up among the unreconstructed areas like currants in a bun, so one minute I was walking past uber-cool clothes shops and delis, and the next minute back in the Tower Hamlets that is the most derived borough in the country.

The Whitechapel Gallery is a lovely art gallery.  I’ve said so before.  It is a very nice, quiet, soothing space.  I feel good just being in the building.  It has the best art gallery cafĂ© I know.  Lemon polenta cake yesterday, yummy (I love the slight grittiness).  The main draw for me was the third selection of works from the Government Art Collection (I missed part two), this time chosen by Simon Schama.  The Government has managed to acquire an eclectic set of art, and the current offering has everything from a neon installation to a portrait of Admiral Nelson after his victory at the battle of the Nile.  My favourite thing in the room was probably Grayson Perry’s Map of an Englishman.  Drawn in the style of a Tudor map, from a distance it looks just like the real thing, showing an island with estuaries, mountains, and trees.  There are pictures of little buildings and towns, and the whole thing looks very English, until you read the captions and find that the regions are called Normal, Myth, Posh and Guru, the seas off the coast called Paranoia, Anorexia Nervosa, and Schizophrenia, and the names of the buildings and towns are all states of mind or human behaviours.  It was funny and clever and I’d have liked to buy the poster, but there weren’t any.  Goodness knows if it’s Art, but who cares?

The Government Art Collection exhibition (which only takes up one room, it’s not big) comes with a chunky free booklet, telling you something about Simon Schama’s thought-processes in making his selection, and a bit about each individual work, including where each one is normally hung, a detail that gives an extra layer of interest to the show.  In the Cabinet Office they go in for modern, conceptual pieces (though they do also have Lord Nelson).  A Howard Hodgkin oil painting titled Mud on the Nile normally lives in our ambassador’s residence in Cairo, while the Government Office for the East of England in Cambridge has to make do with a giant colour photograph of allotments in Ely.  It’s great fun. You have until 26 February to see it, then twelve works from number 10 Downing Street, selected by number 10 staff, go on show from 9 March.

The other thing I particularly wanted to catch was a meta-exhibition, a show about a show the Whitechapel did in 1961 of Rothko’s work.  I went to the Rothko exhibition at the Tate a while back and loved it.  I went twice, and if only I’d still been working in the City I’d have gone every week.  Nothing much seems to be happening in those huge canvases, and yet everything is happening.  I could look at them for hours.  There is just one smallish Rothko at the current Whitechapel show, a red and black one, plus photographs of visitors to the original 1961 exhibition, looking grave and absorbed and wearing amazing 1960s hairstyles and spectacles.  There are letters between Rothko and various UK artists and gallery directors discussing the arrangements for that show, a visit Rothko made to the UK, the Tate’s first purchase of a Rothko, and his subsequent gift to them of the Seagram murals.  Rothko was very particular about how his paintings should be hung, at what height from the floor, against what shade of white paint, and how they should be lit, suffuse moderately bright ambient light please and definitely no spot lights.  He rejected the claim by one friend and admirer that his great canvases were like great calm windows in a cathedral, saying that on the contrary they were full of rage and turmoil.  Three months after making his gift to the Tate he killed himself.

There were some other things on as well, but by then I was very tired and not in the mood, so I gave up.  I was able to go straight home instead of hanging around London for another hour and three quarters, because the new railway company on the Colchester line is so far following the example of their predecessor, and lifting the evening restrictions on cheap day travel for half term week.  A friend discovered this wrinkle in the ticketing system a couple of years ago, and it makes a huge difference.  My train home was not full when it left Liverpool Street, and while I see that season ticket holders who have to make the journey every day should get priority for seats during the rush hour, I wish the train company would take a less sweeping view of when the rush hour is.  Normally I can’t get any train home between 4.15pm and 6.44pm.  A quarter past four is too early.  It really limits how much the day-tripper can fit into their trip to town, and most office workers don’t leave their desks for at least another three quarters of an hour after that.  The alternative of hanging around London until quarter to seven can be utterly dismal.  Fine on a sunny summer’s day, when you can sit outside with a book, OK if you are with somebody, miserable on a chilly day in February when you are tired and at the tail end of a cold.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

support live music

We went last night to hear Ewan McLennan at the Colchester Arts Centre.  He is a young Scottish musician I first heard on Mike Harding’s Radio 2 folk programme about three years ago.  Mike Harding opined that he was very good, and although Mike Harding is a natural enthusiast with many swans and very few geese, I too was greatly taken with this new and unknown Scottish voice.  I looked him up after the next day, when R2 had finally posted programme details up, and found that he had a modest website but no record company deal yet.  Instead he was marketing his home produced CD himself, so I sent off for one, which he kindly sent back by return of post despite the fact that I’d spelt his name wrong on the cheque and had to send him another one.  You could tell it was a homemade CD because it took about eight times longer than normal to load to my iPod.

Two or three years on Ewan McLennan is on national tour.  Colchester last night, Carlisle this evening.  He has a record company deal, with the first CD out and the next one due soon.  In 2011 he won the R2 Horizon Award, and he has just played at a Martin Simpson gig.  He has had guitar lessons from Martin Simpson (presumably only once he was up to the folk equivalent of grade 8) and it shows, but in a good way.  He has a nice, light, husky voice, good for folk (meaning that in a good way too), and you can hear the words when he sings, even in the slightly muddy acoustics of the deconsecrated church that houses the Colchester Arts Centre.  He has a gentle, amusing line in stage chat, which he needs, having also studied in the Martin Simpson school of guitar tuning.  He sings a mixture of traditional and modern songs, has found good versions of the former, and mostly decent examples of the latter.  He is clearly anti-war, and his politics are to the left of centre, but he wears his convictions lightly and doesn’t ram them down the audience’s throats.  Folk musicians tend to be of the left, a bit like comedians.  His stage manner is still quite reserved to the point of shyness, but he comes across as a very genuine human being.

I’d bought the tickets in advance, although I knew it would be nowhere near a sell-out, to galvanise us into bothering to go on the night.  While I wasn’t expecting us both to be suffering from colds (we were), going out on a Monday night in February after three days at work can feel like an effort, and staying in by the fire seem a very attractive proposition.  But I thought I’d like it if I only made the effort to get there (I did) and having heard Ewan McLennan’s debut on R2 I wanted to see him live and support his fledgling career.  And I felt a certain moral obligation to go because I had asked the organiser of the Colchester folk club if she could book him, though she doesn’t know me and I shouldn’t think she did it for my benefit.  I think Ewan McLennan is poised to go far.  His guitar technique is already superb, and he has a real feeling for traditional music.  Given time and practice to develop his stage persona and confidence he looks like the natural heir to Martin Simpson (though I hope Martin Simpson will not be retiring for many years yet).  If and when he is headlining at the major folk festivals and picking up folk awards for best album or best traditional song, I shall get a little buzz that I bothered to go and hear him on a cold night in Colchester, when he was almost unknown.

Monday, 13 February 2012

gone to pot

Today I was mostly potting.  I rather thought I might be, given that I knew there was some potting left over from last week, and went dressed accordingly, wearing two pairs of socks and thermals over my thermals.  The boss didn't allow us to pot over the weekend, as we had to be supervised by the manager.  I don't know if the boss realises that the extent of the manager's supervision is to ask us how those hemerocallis or hostas looked, so that he can write it on his records.  Today's plants were from the Netherlands, and were mostly pretty good, though there was one bag of Tradescantia roots that were five plants short.

There was a potting hiatus in the middle of the day, as we ran out of labels.  The labels are stapled to the sides of the pots for herbaceous plants, and you really do need to staple them to the rim before filling the pot up with compost.  It is possible to retro-fit them, but fiddly and time consuming, and impossible to do without spilling compost.  Plus the finished potting is stood in large blocks so that you couldn't reach most of the pots to label them.  Plus you would be practically bound to lose track of which varieties were in which pot.  The hold-up with the labels occured because they were varieties that we hadn't sold before, so the boss had to write the descriptive blurb for each one before we could print them.  Writing the descriptions is a task that the boss refuses to delegate, and he was supposed to have done it this morning, but it is half term and he took the children out riding instead.  The manager, who had managed to prise both gardeners out of the garden to help, and called in an extra staff member who is normally laid off at this time of year especially to finish the potting, was rather irritated to have his crack potting team standing by with no labels.  We all found other jobs to do in the interim until the boss produced labels, and finally got the last geranium roots safely encased in compost five minutes before closing.

None of us are sure how the tea room is going to work out.  Apparently the idea is that we will have somebody to run it during the busy season.  The gig has gone to the gamekeeper's daughter, who has passed her foor hygiene exams and is also going to make the cakes (at this point I feel as though I might be living in The Archers, in one of the brief interludes when nothing sensational is happening).  In the quiet season the plant centre staff are going to dish out the tea and cakes.  We are?  When I get home from work it generally takes me ten minutes to scrub the dirt from my hands, and my cuffs and the front of my jacket are always covered in a dusting of compost and the odd smear of green slime.  How exactly are we going get this past the environmental health officer?

We do have one splendid new piece of equipment.  Last year a couple of us said that what we needed for the plant centre was a mobile potting bench, so that we had a working surface on which to clean pots that was at the right height to work all day, and not 15cm too low, which the display tables are.  Working for eight hours on a surface that is uncomfortably low would give anybody backache, even the fit youngsters, and the two of us grumbling about it have combined ages of over 110.  I discovered today that the older gardener has indeed made a mobile potting bench, with proper wheels, a sturdy metal frame and elegant wooden handles.  I asked, fascinated, what it was made out of, and it turned out to be based on an old ice-cream cart which had been sitting in one of the sheds for the past fifteen years.  I have no idea whatsoever why the boss possessed an old ice-cream hand-cart, but it goes to show that you should never throw things away.  Eventually they do come in useful.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

playing at shops

I was right about the shortage of customers, but wrong that nothing would be going on at the plant centre.  It turns out that we are going to have the tea room for this season, and the builders start on Monday, moving the radiators and making a couple of extra windows.  When I arrived for work on Saturday the shop was in a state of flux, with the display cabinets in random groups around the room as if they'd been caught up in an ocean current, then stranded.  I had a choice of tasks for the day, to clean up dead leaves in the polytunnels (guessed that one right) or help rearrange the furniture in the shop.  I don’t rate my skills as a shop designer particularly highly, but it was very cold in the polytunnels, so I thought that as somebody who had done some shopping I would hunt for my inner Mary Portas, or at least make myself useful clearing debris and rejected shop fittings out of the way.

The owner had an idea that customers ought to be directed diagonally across the shop and back again, rather than being allowed to go straight to the till.  I expect this is based on sound retail theory, but most retailers aren’t dealing with shoppers who may have a metre or two of tree sticking out of the back of their trolley.  The width of the aisle required to allow customers with trees to negotiate the bend was so vast that we ended up losing about a third of the floor area of the shop to this gigantic runway.  Besides seeming wasteful and looking rather silly (not helped by the exposed acreage of concrete floor), this didn’t leave enough room for all of the display cabinets.

It became clear that various improvised structures made out of shabby tables and old packing cases swathed in black landscape fabric were going to have to go.  It was a pity about the picturesque wooden vintage port crate, but there was simply not enough space for the amount of furniture.  Two or three metal display racks, that seemed to occupy a volume out of all proportion to the quantity of goods they held, were evicted into the snow as well.  After some debate a large dovecote was moved outside, and we ended up with some wooden bookshelves, and the purpose built cabinets, which are quite nice ones with glass shelves.  My colleague, who has a really good eye for that sort of thing, hit on the notion of placing them on the diagonal instead of flat against the wall, and the whole layout began to come together.  The owner got her diagonal route into the gift area, but we kept a straight run from the door to the till as well.  She is still not fully reconciled to that, but she will be if she makes us get rid of it, after a few shelf-fulls of china have been swept to the ground by a passing tree.

We moved the cabinets that had been placed along the edge of what’s going to be the tea area.  Sitting next to a wall of glass shelving felt claustrophobic, and it’s going to be quite a tight squeeze fitting 10 tables and 40 chairs into that amount of floor space, which is the plan.  Putting shelves of bone china mugs and glass flower vases in range of people’s flailing arms and coat hems as they sit down to their tea seems to be asking for trouble, so I thought there should be not too much stuff there, and what there was should be non-breakable.  My new colleague, whose previous retail experience has given him a jaundiced view of humanity for one so young, added that it should be low value, since it would be easy for people sitting at their tables to slip things off the bottom shelf into their bags.  We compromised with a few cabinets, not too tall.

My colleagues managed to move all the display units with their contents still in place and without any of it falling out.  I don’t know how they did that.  It saved a lot of time, but meant that things ended up all over the place.  This morning I volunteered to rearrange, which the rest of today's shift agreed to.  I don’t normally clean and tidy my own house that much, so wiping glass shelves with windolene and arranging things on them nicely is not really my forte, but it seemed preferable to picking up leaves in the polytunnel (although first thing this morning it was only –3.5C and not –10.5C like it was yesterday).  The shop at work tends to go in for artistic displays, because various staff members like doing them, and believe that if the place looks attractive and eye-catching we will sell more.  I don’t regard shopping as a pleasurable leisure pursuit, so as I’d volunteered to sort out the muddle I did it my way, which was to make it efficient.  So I put all the bridge scoring sets together, and all the gift bags and tags on one shelf, and all the mugs in a china section.  My view is that if you want to buy a mug you would like to know that you have looked at all the mugs there are, ditto if you want to buy a bridge scoring set for a friend who likes playing bridge, and so on.  Mixed displays that combine napkins, greetings cards, candles, soap, a biscuit tin, a hand trowel and some raffia, all colour co-ordinated in carefully chosen shades of pink and green, are very good in moderation to add to the ambience, but not the way to present your entire stock.  I was commercial enough to put the toiletries in the middle where people would see them (and felt a glow of pride when this afternoon we sold a set of two sorts of handcream in a stand), and banish things that seemed out of season or never sell at the best of times to the edge of the room.

I’m sure that within a month it will all have been changed round, but the way that I did it was very rational.

Addendum  The supper was quite amusing and my apple crumbles arrived intact and did not turn to apple-flavoured quicksand during the drive to the hall.   The committee members were not even required to do the washing up, which came as a welcome surprise.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

it's going to be a long (cold) day

I’m not going to have time to write a blog entry today, which is why I’m doing it last night.  Today is a working day.  I don’t suppose there’ll be many (any?) customers, as it’s still forecast to be jolly cold, and the roads will be icy, but it’s my weekend to work.  The only thing I can imagine the manager will find for me to do is to tidy away dead leaves and spilled compost in the tunnels, although come to think of it that’s all there’ll have been for my colleagues to do all week.

At the start of February our finishing time moves later, to 5.00pm.  It is light until then, so on a normal day that would make sense.  If we have any customers after 4.00pm today I’d be very surprised.  I’m hoping to negotiate to go home then, even though it is February, as I need to get cleaned up and changed for the supper concert and then drive back to the village hall with the apple crumbles.  It’s probably going to be so cold that the boot of the car won’t get any warmer than a fridge, and I could get away with leaving them in there all day, but I’m nervous about making the experiment.

Goodness knows what they’re going to be like, after an eleven-mile drive to the hall.  I still have bad memories of an apple crumble cooked in a school cookery lesson, taken home on the bus and carried the final mile from the bus stop.  It was pretty soggy by the time we ate it.  Cookery lessons at school were a waste of time anyway, because I’d already done more than that at home, apart from learning how to gut herrings, a skill so revolting I have never again put it into practice, and made sure I wouldn’t need to by marrying a non-fish eater.

I haven’t been to the supper concert before and don’t know what to expect.  At the committee meeting they were talking about tablecloths and flower arrangements, and the timetable of events said the rehearsal was at 6.30pm.  I asked whether this was a musical rehearsal or a catering one, to general hilarity, but honestly I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.  Scurrying about carrying plates of chicken stew to 90 people, I think, which I don’t mind.  I’m glad I volunteered to cook extra pudding and not get involved in the main course.  The scope for accidentally poisoning people with apple crumble is quite limited.  I’m slightly amazed that this kind of community catering hasn’t been banned by now, unless all the volunteer cooks have obtained Level something-or-other Hygiene and Food Handling certificates and submitted their kitchens for official inspection.

I suppose that at the end there’ll be washing up, and then the roads will be icy going home, and it will be horribly late, and then on Sunday morning I’ll have to leap up early to go to work again.  Still, the thaw is forecast to start on Sunday.  Here’s hoping.