Saturday, 31 March 2012

I like my hat

I did something I haven't done for a very long time, and went to London to go shopping for clothes.  Normally I buy clothes by mail order, supplemented by the odd foray into Colchester.  It astounds some of my friends that I even buy shoes by post, without trying them on, but that's generally fine, once you've worked out which companies make shoes for people with feet shaped like yours.  Boden shoes are for long, thin feet, which is hopeless for me (but they are catering to the upper middle classes, and as Ogden Nash put it 'This English woman is so refined, She has no bosom and no behind').  Toast's shoes usually fit, and The Natural Shoe Store will even give advice over the phone, accurate so far, about which styles come up large and which small.  If they don't fit you can always send them back, and it's almost easier to decide that at your leisure in the privacy of your own bedroom than with the shoe shop assistant hovering over you.   However, today I wanted to buy hats, and it is pretty much essential to try hats on, except for woollen beanies.

We are going to our nephew's wedding in the summer, and I have purchased a new outfit.  Dr Johnson warned us to beware enterprises requiring new clothes, and for the twelve years since leaving the City I have managed with the supply of smart clothes I possessed when I left.  We don't go to many social events where one has to dress up very much, and I bought some nice things when I was in possession of a fund manager's salary, though never very many of them, because we didn't go to many events that required dressing up then either.  But I had to admit that, after twelve years, the stock of party clothes was looking shabbier than it used to, and that our friends and relations had seen them all quite a few times, one way and another.  So I bought a dress, not so smart I'd never wear it again, but smart enough, as long as I save its first outing until the wedding, and a jacket, ditto.  (The jacket when it arrived turned out to be delightful, but with horrible buttons, so I bought some buttons as well while I was in London.  I am astounded at the price of button thread, and grateful to John Lewis for employing people in their haberdashery department who could remember whether the thread was supposed to be lighter or darker than the buttons (darker is the correct answer).

To go with the dress and the jacket I decided I should have a hat.  Post-City I'm not in the Philip Treacy league, but John Lewis seemed within my scope.  I warmed up by buying the replacement buttons, then found the hat department, which was full of grim faced ladies trying on hats as if the success of their offspring's nuptials depended on it, and not enough mirrors.  I joined the throng.  I have extremely thick and curly hair, so finding any hat large enough to go on my head rather than perch uneasily on the top is always a challenge.  (Alternatively I could look at it as simplifying the hat buying process by eliminating half of the potential choices at the outset).  I worked my way round the hat display, discovering which ones wouldn't go on my head, which made the question of whether or not they suited me academic.  I also discovered that the light coloured, wide brimmed hats uniformly made me look like a mushroom, while black seemed rather funereal for a summer wedding.  John Lewis mainly offer hats in neutral shades, but that was fine, given that so is the rest of my outfit.  I toyed with the idea of a fascinator, trying on the ones like miniature cocktail hats, and then a very perky number made mostly out of black feathers that wobbled whenever I moved.  I rather liked that, but wasn't sure whether it made me look like an aunt or more like a burlesque dancer.  More pragmatically, I was concerned that wearing a metal clip round my skull all through a June day while drinking a glass or two of champagne would probably give me a headache.

Eventually I settled for a sort of asymmetric attenuated top hat with a swooping bow, in a swirly pattern of black and natural straw.  In terms of the cost per time worn, it will probably represent the worst value of any garment I purchase this decade.  It would take every unattached person I know to get married and ask me to the wedding, and for the Systems Administrator to take me to a ladies day at the races, and for me to be inexplicably invited to a Buckingham Palace garden party, to bring the cost per wear down in line with the rest of my wardrobe.  But it is a nice hat.

Then, encumbered with the hat box, I set out to find a cardigan to match a dress, a Sisyphan task so futile I won't bore you with the details.  Buying clothes by mail order has a lot to recommend it.

Friday, 30 March 2012

emergency appointment

Whole weeks to spend in the garden never pan out that way.  At lunchtime I got a phone call from my mother, to say that my father had bad toothache and the possibility of an emergency appointment at Braintree, and if he did get an appointment could I drive him there, if I wasn't at work and had enough petrol.  As I answered the phone it was clear I wasn't at work, and he did get an appointment, and fortunately (although in a state of foresight rather than panic) I had filled the car up.  By the time the call came saying that they could fit him in, it was twenty past two, and the appointment was for four o'clock.

The Systems Administrator checked on Google maps that there were no traffic snarl ups reported, while I changed out of my gardening clothes and scrubbed the worst of the dirt from under my finger nails.  I collected my dad, who urged me to drive, drive, while forgetting to do his seatbelt up, and then had to stop at his dentist to collect his referral letter.  Happily the A12 and A120 were both running freely, or at least the A120 was running as freely as it ever does, and we made it to Braintree in quite good time.  I'd had a look at the map before setting out, and the SA had warned me that it had a one way system, adding reassuringly that it was quite small, and full of dentists.

It turned out that we were not just going to any old dental partnership, but to the Braintree Community Hospital, which should have been straightforward to get to, just go along the old main road and keep going.  Except that you can't.  It becomes a no-through road and ends in a Sainsbury's car park, which I began to remember from my trip to the Braintree and Bocking Constitutional Club, so we had to embark on the one way system, and arrived at the hospital with five minutes to spare.

Braintree Community Hospital has free car parking, and actually saw my father for his four o'clock appointment at 4.00pm.  If we'd known that on the way over it wouldn't have cheered us up, as my dad was reconciling himself to the possibility of being late with the thought that the hospital would be running behind schedule anyway.  The free parking was nice, and the water cooler in the waiting area.  The consultation was a complete non-event, as the dentist couldn't see any reason for my father's teeth to be so painful following recent treatment, which was exactly what his own dentist had said, and couldn't see any abnormality on the X-rays that my father had taken with him.  He has to go back for a follow-on appointment, still in Braintree.  Goodness knows why there isn't a suitable dental facility in Colchester.  My father refuses to take pain killers because the side effects are worse than the original pain, so all we got from our afternoon driving about was the reassurance of a second opinion that there was nothing, objectively speaking, wrong.

The medical profession is very bad at pain.  Diagnosing the causes, treating the symptoms, or even acknowledging that it exists.  I have sat opposite a doctor and told him that something hurt, only to be told that it was not supposed to hurt, which wasn't really the point.  My subjective experience was that it did hurt, so what the textbooks said was supposed to happen didn't help.  It is very peculiar, given that pain is one of the things that matters a lot to patients.  Most doctors would much rather be dealing with something they can see and measure on a scan or blood test, and take action to correct, than an unobservable thing happening inside somebody else's head, which they don't understand and often can't do anything about.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

exercising the chickens

The big tabby has come to sit with me while I type this.  He is purring enthusiastically, even though there's no food in the offing, which is rather endearing, and dribbling on the end of my laptop, which is rather less so.  I wonder if Ernest Hemingway's cats dribbled on his typewriter, or whether Dr Johnson's dictionary was spattered with Hodge's spit, while it was still a work in progress?

The Systems Administrator has gone to London for a retirement party, so I thought I'd better take responsibility for letting the chickens out.  The SA discovered how one of the new little hens was escaping up towards the bonfire heap after seeing her walk away from the chicken gate,turn, run towards it, and flapping madly fly over the top.  Apparently it was straight out of Chicken Run.  We are hoping that as they got older and fatter they will forget about flying, but in the meantime have to prop a motley collection of bamboo canes above the gate to raise the bar.  These are very inconvenient if you need to go up to the bonfire heap to empty a bin of prunings.  I tried going through the SA's workshop, but that is not very convenient either, as the various benches aren't laid out on the assumption that you are going to want to walk through it carrying a large bin with twigs sticking out of it.

Today the speckledies didn't try to wander off, but hid in the sage bush in the herb bed.  I found it vaguely worrying to look up from cutting back the santolina and not be able to see them, and had to go and check that they were all right every so often.  The SA tells me that one is definitely the leader, and squawks occasionally, so if I think I've lost them I just have to listen for the squawk, and when I've found one I'll find all.  This afternoon they were notably silent.

The rooster and the old lady hen went to scratch around on the daffodil lawn, which was no good to me as it is the other side of the eleagnus hedge, and if I can't see them then the fox can't see me.  Fortunately they can recognise the Value sultanas bag (actually, there is nothing fortunate about it, as the SA has trained them by waving the bag around prominently when feeding them) and were agreeable to being bribed to come back into the front garden.  They still don't flock with the tinies, though.  The rooster once or twice has had a vaguely interested expression, as if he realised that they were going to turn into ladies, but they are still quite small, so it is just as well that he hasn't discovered his inner Humbert Humbert.  The old lady hen seems jealous of the rooster's incipient interest, which is odd, when she doesn't seem to like sex, but no different to some people.

Altogether it is quite hard work exercising the chickens, and really taking a dog for a walk would be more straightforward, at least if you kept it on a lead.  I don't know how the SA manages to remain so calm and get through so much of the sinking of the Tirpitz while on chicken patrol.  I must be more paranoid.  We haven't lost one on the SA's watch yet, so it would be awful if the morning after the retirement party I had to confess that I'd gone and mislaid one of the speckledies.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012


I panic bought some petrol today.  I was not actually in a panic, it was more of a planned journey to a garage where I filled up.  As I listened to R4 over breakfast I began to think that I only had a quarter of a tank left, after three round trips to work and driving to my monthly Pilates lesson.  I don't have a contingency plan for getting to work if I can't drive, since it's 11 miles and there's no way I'm going to walk there, do an eight hour day in the plant centre and walk back.  Alternatively I could walk a mile and a half to a bus stop, get a bus to Colchester, then a train to Manningtree, then walk two miles from Manningtree station, but I'm not going to do that either.  This is why people who live in rural areas need cars.  Making sure I had enough petrol to see me through essential journeys for the next month began to seem like a good idea from a personal point of view, and yes, I know that isn't necessarily the best thing for society as a whole, but that's how games theory works.  When the Systems Administrator got back from going to Tesco in the Skoda and went straight out again in the Jag I thought I was right, and when the SA got back I asked Did you go for petrol and what are the queues like?  The answer was that there were queues at the Clacton Tesco, which was starting to run out, some queues at the garage on the roundabout on the Weeley by-pass, and none at all at the little Shell garage on the way to Weeley.  So I went to the little Shell garage, and there was only one other car on the forecourt.  Later on I heard the politicians telling us that there was no need to queue, so you can tell that they don't live in Colchester, where there are queues half the time at the Tesco garage anyway.

(The Jag sounds grander than it is.  It is one of the last vestiges of the City days, a remnant of empire, with a couple of dents, and one of these years something will go seriously wrong with it that is too expensive to fix, or the SA will decide that insurance and servicing are no longer affordable.  In the meantime while it lasts it is nice for long journeys.  Today's tank of petrol means that in the event of a tanker drivers' strike we will still be able to make a long-planned visit to relatives on Easter Sunday).

I would be more impressed by the fire brigade's warnings about the dangers of storing petrol at home if it were the culmination of a long campaign against the perils of domestic uses of petrol.  Lots and lots of people have petrol driven lawnmowers, lawn tractors, chain saws and strimmers, and they keep a can or two of petrol in their shed.  We do, and the FBU has never previously expressed any concern on the subject, which makes me think their current righteous indignation at Francis Maude's advice has a whiff of politics about it.  Use a proper petrol can and not a lemonade bottle, obviously, and don't leave it in the sun, or smoke while you're handling it.

The Systems Administrator put up the scaffolding again, ready for the final decorating push on the back of the house, which is the most difficult part to reach.  I don't suppose the FBU would approve of the SA being up there either, if they got round to thinking about it.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

uneasy thoughts of drought

The garden is beginning to look ominously dry.  I did the watering by hand using cans, including the recently planted things in the end of the wood, and the area down the side of the back garden where I removed the Rosa rugosa 'Alba', and I remembered to go and water the 'Quaker's Bonnet' primula in the ditch bed, that I am now meant to call 'Lilacina Plena'.  It took a good hour, and that was without soaking the conservatory.  Tomorrow I am going to have to investigate the hoses, and find the spray end fittings that I removed last autumn so that they wouldn't freeze and split, and see if they still work, or at least can be persuaded to work, or if I'm going to have to buy new ones.  They do have a tendency to stick and choke up with age and use.

I'm going to have to start watering all the trees and shrubs planted last year.  They won't yet have large or well-established enough root systems to cope with this weather, and spring, when the new leaves are bursting, is a key time for them.  Likewise all herbaceous plants set out last autumn, the newly purchased, those raised from seed, and existing garden stock that was lifted and divided.  I renovated one end of a big border, and had to replace a large number of winter casualties, so it's going to be a lot of watering.  I don't use sprinklers, which apply water over too wide and indiscriminate an area, and on plants' foliage rather than their roots.  Instead I'll go around with the hose, plant by plant, and spray every root zone in turn, counting to thirty, fifty or sixty for each one, depending on how large the plant is and how dry it looks.  I'll do one bed one evening, another the next, and so work my way round the garden over the course of a week.

At one level it's not an unpleasant task.  It gives me a chance to stand looking at the garden, appreciating individual plants at close quarters, and picking up on aspects of planting that could do with improvement.  I can listen to the radio while I'm doing it, and the intensive watering regime only lasts while the weather's warm.  If we go back to an apparently endless cycle of low pressure systems sweeping in from the west, like we have in recent summers, then the need for emergency watering will fall right back.  It does take time, though.  The normal decorative pots plus my propagation efforts in the greenhouse can take an hour by themselves in the summer, so add in extra for the borders, and it can be getting on for a quarter of the gardening day just spent watering.  It's time spent that will keep plants alive (on which I have expended much effort and expense getting them in the ground) but it doesn't progress the garden.  Weeding, mulching, dead-heading, pruning, planting, laying paths, installing ornaments, bringing out pots for the summer, all of these make the garden better groomed or furnished than it was before.  Spending hours watering it just to keep it from dying doesn't.

The damage done by those two cold nights in February continues to reveal itself.  The regrowth on the Olearia macrodonta and the various Callistemon has been clobbered, and I'm not sure they will have the energy to regenerate again.  The top parts of last year's Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Wrinkled Blue' have defoliated, and hard pruning will probably be required.  Every leaf on the Michelia doltsopa is brown and shrivelled, which is galling when the one tucked into the corner between two walls at work is fine.  Temperatures there went down to minus 13 in the open, showing what protection a wall can afford, and how narrow the margin is between receiving a clobbering and escaping unscathed.  Arbutus x andrachnoides has lost most of its leaves, and although I don't think the whole tree is dead, there are quite a few dead twigs in the crown, which are going to spoil the look of it even when (or if) it leafs up again.

The spring weather is very beautiful, and the flowers of spring.  Primroses, magnolias, little yellow Iris bucharica, pasque flowers, cherries, Muscari, over fifteen years' worth of hyacinths in a myriad of colours (though not pink) planted into the borders after doing duty in pots, species tulips, daffodils, violets, lesser periwinkle.  The grass is still fresh and green, the leaf buds are bursting by the day, and the birds are singing from every bush and tree.  Most of the time I enjoy it while it lasts.  But the garden is beginning to look ominously dry.  In years when by July things are flagging I can console myself that I only have to keep them going for another month or six weeks, and then it will cool down, even if there isn't much rain in September.  Now it's still only March.  Keeping things going for six months could be very hard work.

Monday, 26 March 2012

day three in the plant centre

Today passed in part in an air of barely suppressed chaos.  One of my colleagues had booked a holiday, arranged with another colleague to swap working days to cover, and then changed her holiday dates.  The person she swapped with didn't realise that the dates had altered, so wasn't expecting to come in today.  The manager, detecting at the eleventh hour that we were about to be down to two people in the plant centre today, arranged for the woman who normally works on the other side but can operate the till to come in for an extra day as cover.  The owner decided to spend most of the day working in the shop so that she could run the tea room, and co-opted her twelve year old daughter to help with the teas.  In theory we had enough people for a Monday.

In theory we had.  But then the manager decided to leave the third staff member over on the other side, where she had more than enough jobs to be getting on with, and working with the owner is not as slick as when it is another regular member of staff.  I expect that's largely down to lack of practice, but I think it's also a difference in mindset.  It's her business and she employs us, so isn't used to the idea that if she wants to go to the office for ten or even five minutes at a point where she is minding the tills, she needs to tell us that she's going and then maybe wait until we've finished talking to a customer and can come and take over from her.  Several times today I went out of the shop leaving her there, and returned to find nobody from the home team except for the twelve year old, and a customer waiting at the till.  And the staff are accustomed taking it in turns to eat lunch, so that there will always be a minimum of two people on duty, one to operate the till and the other to help customers and answer the phone.  That's a bore for the person who goes last and ends up sitting down to their lunch at quarter to two, but it's necessary to keep things ticking over smoothly.  The owner, seeing a lull in trade, announced when the manager said he would go for his lunch that she would go for her's as well.  The lull didn't last.

Still, I'm pleased to see her out there.  Management by walking about is a very good way for anybody in charge to find out what is going on in a business, and it will be instructive for the owner to see how busy we get on the ground at this time of year, and how it is that phone calls get missed or plants not put out for sale the moment they are ready.

The dog added to the air of faint disorder by persistently coming into the shop, and walking around the kitchen and under the tables in the tea area, a would-be snapper up of unconsidered trifles.  The owner exclaimed each time that the dog was supposed to be in the house, and removed her, and the dog escaped from the house every time and was back in the tea room.  The daughter protested that the dog was not doing any harm and should stay.  The manager and I said that the environmental health inspector would not like it, if they dropped by and found a dog in the kitchen.  I heard the owner going through our operating procedures with the catering student yesterday, and whatever risk assessment form they were filling in said that they wore aprons.  It did not say that we had a dog in the kitchen.  One hopeful couple asked me if I could make them some tea, at a point where the owner was not there, but I had to tell them that I had not passed my food hygiene exam and had got compost on my shirt, and that while I ate my lunch in this state every day and hadn't died yet, I didn't think it would be acceptable for professional catering purposes.

The telephones have become practically inaudible at the top end of the plant centre, unless it was just my handset.  Incoming calls were very faint, and kept breaking up.  That's difficult at the best of times, but particularly so when you are trying to discover the name of the person calling, and the name of the plant they are looking for, as you can't fill in proper names from the context like you can with more general chit-chat.  Two of the three doors to the shop aren't working properly either, and the person from the door company the manager spoke to last week while the boss was in Cornwall was spectacularly rude and unhelpful on the phone.  As I said, it was a day of barely suppressed chaos.

One woman came into the shop with a pained air and said that there was nobody out there to help her at all, which was true, as I was on the till and the manager was at his desk telephoning orders for plants through to suppliers.  I offered to help, and she wanted some bare root quick thorn dug up.  I bagged up a bundle of ten hawthorn whips for her, and she and her husband began to quiz me about how large they would grow.  They were happy to hear that they would get to eight feet as required, and asked how quickly they would get there.  They were not happy with my reply, as it turned out they wanted them to get to that height this summer.  I explained that almost nothing newly planted would be likely to make that much growth in its first few months, and that we did have some large specimen evergreens suitable for screening, but that they would be much more expensive.  She said could I leave the hawthorn in its bag for now, as she'd probably have it anyway, and otherwise she'd let me know, but could she see the other plants as well, so I showed them some Italian grown Photinia x fraseri 'Red Robin' and pointed them in the direction of the bamboos.  Later in the day I thought to go and check that she had taken the hawthorn, and there it still was, sitting in its bag.  I heeled it in again.  When you next read an article in the Telegraph or the Times by some journalist grumbling about how awful, rude, ignorant, useless and unhelpful shop assistants are nowadays, remember that they have to deal with some pretty stupid and godawful customers sometimes.

I have been admiring the emerging new leaves on a larch that is reserved for somebody behind the shop.  At first they looked like tiny green pegs, on close examination like minute stubby bright green shaving brushes.  Today they were visibly longer than at the start of the weekend, morphing from stubs into needles.  They are extraordinarily pretty.

Now I have a whole six days to spend on our garden, with almost nothing booked in my diary.  Admittedly I have some domestic errands to run, some of which won't wait, but the weather forecast is favourable for outside work and I should get lots done.  I cross my fingers mentally when I say that, since the last time I had a run of intensive gardening planned I managed to ram a rose thorn into my knuckle at the end of day one, and spent the rest of the week with a partially useable and very painful hand the size of a potato, feeling totally zonked from the horsepill sized antibiotics.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

grey, sunny later

The owner was not in a happy mood first thing, despite yesterday's bumper takings, grumbling that there were too many errors putting garden tickets through the till, since the total kept coming to an amount not divisible by the price of a garden ticket.  This led to a lecture about the importance of putting the right items through the VAT free category, and the boss chimed in with a pained expression that there were nine messages on the answering machine, and we might wish to look at them.  My sense that my efforts were under-appreciated by my employers was exacerbated by the fact that I'd been obliged to get up at what was still only 5.15am by body-clock time, after last night's one hour time shift.  My car thermometer registered just 4 degrees as I drove to work, and the morning remained grey, clammy and cold as I dragged the hose about.  Welcome to the wonderful world of high end horticultural retailing.

The boss came into one of the tunnels with a trolley while I was watering the magnolias, I think with the intention of raiding stock to plant in the garden.  They went on a tour of Cornish gardens last week, including a trip round Caerhays conducted by Charlie Williams himself (that is Williams as in Camellia x williamsii hybrids), and I expect he has come back buzzing with ideas for his own patch.  He seemed to find the combination of the hose and my chilly, sleep starved presence off-putting, because after a while he muttered that he would come back later, and departed empty-handed.

Later on the sun came out and the management cheered up.  The tea room does make the shop smell nice, a blend of coffee and real cake.  The noise of the chair legs scraping across the concrete floor is too much, but the owner has promised to get a vinyl floor laid.  People like the tea room.  Some who didn't know it had opened had pre-loaded with biscuits before coming to us, and were disappointed because if they'd known they'd have left themselves some room for cake.

One of the tills has started adding to the retro feel of the business by inking in the centres of all zeros on the customer's receipts.  It looks like a typeface you might find on the liner notes of a CD by an indie folk-rock band, rather fetching.  An engineer who came to service the tills a couple of years ago said then that you didn't see many that old still in use.

The owner sold a large magnolia and some largish olive trees to a relatively youngish couple (only early middle aged) which made her very pleased.  She thought the father would have bought more, if it weren't for the children acting up.  Actually, the wife wasn't very keen at the start either.  If they are the people I think they are, they bought a house with one of the grandest gardens in their village fairly recently.  It is a village with a very strong Open Gardens tradition, and failing to participate when you have just bought one of the top gardens is probably not a social option.

The dog absconded at one point, but turned up safe and well before being discovered as a puddle of squashed brown fur on the road.  I got home to find that the new little hens have taken to free ranging with a vengeance, and one of them had wriggled under or clambered over the chicken gate to head off along the side of the wood, not for the first time.  If she insists on doing that she will end up as fox food, later or probably sooner.  The chickens were originally my idea, but the Systems Administrator has really taken to them as a project, sourcing the speckledies after the old hen died, and assuming almost total responsibility for chicken exercise time.  When you exercise a dog you have to exercise with it, whereas with chickens you can sit in a deckchair, reading about the bombing of the German battleship Tirpitz.

Saturday, 24 March 2012


It was a very busy day in the plant centre, busyness that by close of trading translated into healthy takings through the tills.  There are some days where by the end we all feel we have worked very hard finding plants for people, and answering endless questions about their gardening problems, and the actual money taken over the counter seems pathetically low compared to the effort involved.  Today customers were spending, despite the drought, the incipient hosepipe ban, the record price of petrol, the granny tax and all the other reasons why they might have decided to stay at home with their wallets and purses tightly shut.  Busy is good.  It's what keeps the boss in the business and me in a job.

There were a couple of tedious telephone calls, one from a woman who seemed to seriously expect that we could mail order to Devon a Cercis that was over a metre tall and wide, in a pot the size of a small dustbin.  We had spent a very long time going over the prices and sizes of the various specimens of 'Forest Pansy' in stock before she mentioned mail order, and even after I'd explained that we couldn't send something that large she still tried to describe to me what she wanted it for.  I don't care whether she was going to use it to screen the neighbour's conservatory or deck it with prayer flags and make it the centrepiece of a new cult religion.  I still couldn't put it in a cardboard box and send it to Devon.  The second was one minute before closing, from somebody who wanted Magnolia x soulangeana 'Alba Superba', but had left the soulangeana out of the name while insisting on spelling Alba for me, in case I couldn't.  Once we'd worked out what kind of magnolia it was that she wanted it then transpired that she was looking for one that was already 8 feet tall.  I took her details and promised to check what we had in stock and ring her back in the morning, while warning her that it was fantastically unlikely that we would have one that large.

The new tea room did reasonably brisk trade, and the catering student the owner has recruited to run it at weekends seemed very much in command, though she is still encountering new issues, such as how to run the dishwashing machine, and what to do about people who want to pay by card given the tea area doesn't have a credit card machine.  She seems a quick learner.  She and the owner spent some time debating how many slices various cakes should be cut into.  There never seems to be any left over cake for the staff room.

We didn't manage to put out for sale half the plants that we were supposed to, according to the manager's list of things to do.  The watering took me until gone half past nine, and later in the day I spotted areas that had been missed.  We haven't quite caught up with the warmer weather and longer days in terms of our watering routines, which are not yet as slick as they will be in another few weeks.  At least it seems as though the layout of plants is fairly sensible, without any groups of pots at key places where they  would be in the way as we manoeuvre the hoses around.  I spent quite a lot of the day on the till, which I don't mind once in a while, but will have to watch that it doesn't become a routine on Saturdays.  I know that my two colleagues had lists of things they were supposed to get on with, but so did I.  Till duty should be shared out equally, since it isn't as much fun as being out in the sunshine on a nice day.

Friday, 23 March 2012

a lovely day

The postman brought us a letter that wasn't for us.  It had a postcode on it, not ours, and the name of a road, not the road where we live.  The only detail that matched our address was that the house had the same name.  I was irritated enough to find a post office website where I could register an official complaint.  It happens too often, that we get mail that is clearly addressed to the neighbours, or mail addressed to any other house called the same as ours in the CO postcode area.  It is difficult, philosophically speaking, to know what mail we haven't received.  I'm currently short two sets of concert tickets, and hoping the LSO really will sort that out on the door as easily as they say they can, and have previously missed a monthly subscription magazine (though to even things out the postman has in the past brought me two of those addressed to other people), but who knows which of my friends, relatives or acquaintances I've offended by failing to reply to something they sent me, which I never received?  From now on I am going to complain every time, and if I don't get satisfaction there's always the nuclear option of contacting You and Yours.

Apart from that it was a very beautiful day.  The Systems Administrator hadn't heard of Britain's Lost Cricket Grounds, or Beyond The Tower, John Marriott's history of East London (the latter was something of a joint present, but it's traditional we give each other at least one book we want to read ourselves.  Anyway, it gives us something to talk about) and seemed pleased with both.  Target Tirpitz had featured on the radar, but not to the extent of buying it yet, so that was a mixture of something already on the SA's wish list, and some total surprises.  I still think Amazon's search algorithms are marvellous, and the reader comments give a fair idea what a book is like, even if you don't agree with their conclusions.  If I had gone into the best independent bookshop in Britain and said that I wanted books for somebody who was interested in cricket, railway history, the visual imagery of twentieth century soviet Russia, the history of London and the second world war, I don't see how they could have come up with recommendations for all of them off the top of their heads.  Suggesting the latest Max Hastings doesn't count.

There are so many jobs needing doing in the garden, it was a toss-up where to start, but I settled on Strulching the borders where the bulb foliage is lengthening by the day, while it was still upright enough for me to shake the mulch down between the leaves.  I've used nearly six of my 25 bags on the last pallet in two days, which makes me wonder if I should have gone for 50 bags and got a cheaper price per bag.  However, when I come to the end of the areas I've recently weeded the rate of application will slow, and the Strulch gradually goes damp and rather solid in its bags if not stored under cover (and I don't have anywhere) and is easier to apply when dry.  Also, the bulk bags physically degrade over time.  I discovered this empirically when I was using the last of my previous order, which had hung around the end of the house for months.  As I dragged it down the stairs by the conservatory the bag disintegrated spectacularly, spilling damp mineralised straw over the steps and my feet.

The Systems Administrator celebrated the beautiful day by letting the chickens out for a yomp in the afternoon.  The new little hens didn't want to come out of their run, but as soon as the older hen and the rooster saw the chicken gates go across the way up to the meadow and the back garden, which are there to encourage them to stay in the front garden and make the chicken minder's life easier, they went running to the outside door of the run, ready for their turn in the garden.  They haven't been let out since late November, and I could work out the date because it was the day I got the rose thorn in my knuckle.  After that it got too cold to sit with them, and then we were both ill, and couldn't face minding them.  Today they were very happy, and fussed about the herb bed plucking beakfuls of greenery.  We had to buy some eggs, me for my lunch party and the SA for Cheltenham week cooked breakfasts, and the bought ones are anaemic looking things with pale yellow yolks, compared to those produced by our own hens.  With fresh parsley and lemon balm in their diet the eggs should now be even better.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

a pilgrimage

When we were planning our trip to Oxford, the Systems Administrator suggested that we could take in a garden on the way back, and I instantly said that we must go and see Rousham.  The SA asked what that was and I replied that it was a very important early example of the English landscape movement, designed by William Kent, which left the SA not a lot the wiser.  In the Turf Tavern I was asked what sort of garden we were going to see tomorrow, exactly, and replied rather vaguely that it was an exercise in laying out space, and very green.  That was about all I knew about Rousham, having never been there, but only read about it in books and seen it on TV.  It is one of only two English gardens that Monty Don included in his tour of 80 world gardens.

We both fell in love with Rousham, and the SA saw at once why I had been so adamant that we had to go to a garden with almost no flowers that most people have never heard of.  Rousham is in private hands, very much so.  There are no brown tourist signs directing you there from the main road.  If you don't understand the significance of the place name then you don't need to go there.  Although the garden is open all year round there is no tea room, no gift shop, no guide book, and you get your tickets out of a machine.  Children under the age of 15 are not allowed.  You squeeze into the car park through a gate in a Kent-designed eighteenth century stable block, are directed by small austere hand-painted signs in the direction of the ticket machine, the lavatories and the garden, and that's it.  There are no signs telling you to beware unfenced ponds, or be careful on slippery slopes, although there is a small step like a monumental trip-hazard right outside the ladies loo.  You are treated like grown ups, and you are on your own.  We were entirely on our own for our first circuit of the garden, since we arrived at ten on the dot when it opened, and we never saw any other visitors for the first half hour, and not more than a dozen others in total, which is not a bad stocking rate for a 25 acre garden.

We were sent around the side of the house, which gives you a splendid view out across the park, which contained a couple of imposingly large long horned cattle, reassuringly on the other side of the ha ha.  We found  a large, plain, level lawn with a marvellous bulging mixed hedge of yew reinforced with patches of holly and box, which were all similar in colour but very different in texture.  From the small and difficult to read map on our free leaflet we gathered that we had to go past a clipped holly tree at the far corner of the lawn.  Beyond that we found William Kent's garden.  Paths snaked around the sides of a slope, some broad and inviting, others narrow ribbons of hoggin across grass studded with primroses.  Trees underplanted with solid masses of clipped laurel and box made green masses between the paths.  Every view ended in a classical statue or small stone built temple or pavilion.

Most thrilling of all, and the iconic image that was my central reason for wanting to see Rousham, a narrow rill, scarcely more than 30cm across, emerged from a hole in the ground at the top of a steepish slope, snaked down the centre of a path between flanks of laurel, flowed over a gently protruding lip into an octagonal pond, then continued on the far side of the pond until it met a far larger octagonal pond in the middle of the valley.  That was perfect.  It is such an unexpected sight, to find a small, formal stream in the middle of a formal path in the middle of a wood.  The idea must originally have owed something to Italian renaissance gardens and the gardens of the islamic world, and the much larger version at the Welsh botanic garden must owe something to Rousham, but Kent's rill is perfect.  Rather bafflingly, it doesn't get a photograph in the three pages of Monty's book of the series that he devotes to Rousham.

There are beautiful views out across the river Cherwell and the meadows beyond it, and a sham ruin built as an eye catcher sits square in the middle of the view from the house.  The text books say that Rousham is an early UK example of borrowed landscape.  It is a slight pity that the landscape they have to borrow nowadays includes a railway line across the centre ground.  The little passenger trains aren't so bad, but the freight trains make quite a racket.  The SA later told me, after checking out an oddly familiar name on one of the road signs around Rousham, that it was now quieter than it used to be, as until about fifteen years ago it was two miles from the end of the runway of a US heavy bomber base.

There are a couple of fine walled gardens by the house, largely laid to grass now.  To fill them with vegetable production would require an army of gardeners, and an army of people to eat the vegetables.  There are some beautifully trained fruit trees, including a vast fan up the side of the circular dovecote, which contains doves.  The door was open, so I peered inside, though the quantity of guano was sufficient to deter me from going any further.  There was a wooden ladder like fruit pickers use, mounted on an arm attached to a central pole, which presumably revolves to allow you to climb up and reach any part of the inside of the dovecote to take the squabs.  The doves themselves fly in and out through a neat little wooden cupola.  There is a box parterre, planted up with roses which weren't doing much yet, and as we sat on a bench in front of a sunny wall contemplating it all we heard the voices of the gardeners through a hedge, debating how to clean something.  We couldn't work out what 'it' was, but it was evidently disgusting.

Rousham is a beautiful, perfect place.  If you are travelling anywhere near Oxford do try and go there.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Oxford revisited

We took the scenic cross country route to Oxford, a nostalgic journey for the Systems Administrator, whose father perfected the route from Berkhamsted in the course of years spent commuting to Wantage.  Our hotel was in the Abingdon Road, and as we walked towards the town centre the view looked very unfamiliar, and it took me some time to work out that the tower on our right belonged to Christ Church.  There again, I didn't have any friends at Christ Church, and I'm not sure I ever had any reason to go over Folly Bridge before in my life.

I dragged the SA to the Ashmolean rooftop restaurant for lunch, since I'd been told it was good, it was already gone 1pm, and having a definite plan to go somewhere seemed better than playing the game of peering into pubs in an increasingly hungry and tetchy state and asking each other if they looked OK.  The rooftop restaurant turned out to be pretty busy, and we had to wait ten minutes for a table, though there were some original seventeenth century botanical prints on the wall to look at while we waited.  The room was big and very light as the walls consisted mostly of glass, and the light fittings innovative, all very modern and trendy.  We had a good lunch there, with two or two and a half caveats.  The service was slow.  It took over half an hour from ordering for them to produce two plates of salad and some bread, and by the time we'd eaten the room was starting to empty out, and all but one of the waiting staff, including the manager, were having a cheerful chat at the end of the bar and no longer catching people's eyes who wished to pay their bills, and once I'd managed to get the bill the manager wandered off and did it again instead of bringing me a credit card machine.  The menu was very fish heavy, including adding clams to the only pork dish so that it counted as fish to anybody with a seafood allergy, like the SA.  The half caveat is that it was pricey for what it was.  It was nice food, no quibbles, but if you are going to pitch prices that far above Pret a Manger for salads whose raw ingredients cost a fraction of the price of the finished dish, service has to be spot on, even if you do have a fantastic room.

We headed for our old college after lunch, and as we walked up Holywell Street were slightly disconcerted by the number of alarms going off, while the drunk who upturned a full dustbin outside the music rooms and then walked on up the street clutching a drink and shouting abuse at immigrants added to the jangly atmosphere.  The porter was happy to let us in on the strength of my alumnus card (the SA claims never to have been sent one, and is feeling hurt) and explained that the alarms were going off due to a power cut.  Term had finished so there weren't many students about, but there were a number of school parties being led round, presumably as part of some scheme to increase access.  There must have been a conference as well, as the college was liberally dotted with neat laminated notices pointing out the way to every meeting room and facility in the place. In normal life you just have to learn to find your way about, or you did in our day.  We walked around the quads, and looked up at our old staircases, and peered into the JCR, which used to be the Nelson Mandela Room but has been renamed the Christopher Cox Room in the intervening years.  The alarms began to stop, and we walked around the garden, and the cloisters, and went and sat in the benches in hall while a tour guide reassured her gaggle of serious faced youngsters (mostly but not exclusively girls) that they didn't have to eat there unless they wanted to.  Some of the tables were laid for dinner, presumably for a conference, and I noticed that the strange giant rectangular soup spoons of our day had been replaced by more conventional cutlery.  I'm not sure the plates have the college motto on any more, either.  We couldn't visit the chapel which was shut for a concert.  I think the concert had actually finished by then, but the door was still locked.

We visited Merton as well, which has a lady porter (not in our day) who was happy to point out which building was The Old Warden's Lodgings, and received the news politely that I had been born there, and the alumnus card worked again.  We were able to visit the chapel at Merton, and admire the view from the garden out over the playing fields, where some very small boys were playing football.  Then we cut up through the covered market to look at the house in New College Lane where the SA had a room in our second year, the SA by a weird symmetry having come bottom in the room ballot whereas I had come top and so resided in splendour (though with practically no heating) in the garden quad.  The SA had forgotten my desire to visit the botanic garden, so we hared back to whence we had come, and made it in with two minutes to spare before last admissions at 4.15pm.  In fact, at this time of year when there isn't much growth visible above ground in the order beds, three quarters of an hour is about right to spend there, and we looked in all the glass houses and walked around the full extent of the garden.  One of the glass houses contains a huge jade vine, but it showed no signs of flowering at all, which confused me in that I visited Cambridge Botanic at about this time of year a while back, and theirs was full out.  The Oxford one did have a computer coded card on it which, if we had had a smart phone and clicked on the code, would have let us access a film about the jade vine.  That's the first time I've seen that in any garden or museum, and it seems a marvellous idea.  Oxford Botanic suffers from plant thefts from its glass houses, which is sad.

We had a drink in the Turf, which was slightly scuzzier than I remembered, and then walked up to Keble and across the university park, as it was rather early to settle in the pub for the evening.  I don't understand how anybody mountaineered up the outside of Keble chapel, but they used to.  We looped back down St Giles, and back up Broad Street, and had another drink in the pub at the end of Holywell Street, which lacked the faint smell of either vinegar or off beer that had worried me in the Turf.  We looked at the Bodleian complex, and found a Thai restaurant in a handsome timber building in the High Street, which the SA thought in our time had held a very smart French eatery, which the JCR committee a year or two after us had disgraced themselves in by holding a very swish dinner there and charging it to JCR funds.  This act of larceny even made the pages of the Daily Telegraph, and they ended up repaying the money, but probably went on to careers as bankers and MPs.

It wouldn't be true to say that memories came flooding back.  As the afternoon and evening wore on I began to remember people I hadn't thought about for years, not with any particular sense of loss, but rather as if starting to remember a novel I'd read a very long time ago.  The streets around college were deeply familiar, and I realised what a limited part of Oxford I'd inhabited.  My world was generally confined to the area bounded by Walton Street, St Catherine's, the psychology block in the science area, Magdalen Bridge and Merton Street.  I was as limited in my geographical scope as any inner city teenager, but in much more salubrious surroundings.

We heard many foreign voices, on the pavements and in the pubs and restaurants.  Compared to the early 1980s, modern day Oxford is teeming with Americans and continental Europeans.  The family on the next table to ours at breakfast were Japanese.  The other thing I noticed is how well the city is doing.  In our walk up the main shopping street, the Cornmarket, and along the High Street, and through the covered market, we saw scarcely any empty shops or units at all.  Parking in Oxford is a nightmare, but the economy appears to be booming.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

a trip down memory lane

We are off to Oxford in an hour or two for an overnight stay.  The Systems Administrator suggested the trip originally as a birthday outing, and I had to confess that we couldn't go away for the SA's actual birthday because I had agreed to do a woodland charity talk in Thundersley the night before, and was working the day after.  I did run the talk past the SA at the time, but it failed to register as at that point we weren't thinking of going anywhere.  When I told my mother we were going to Oxford she looked slightly confused and said, oh, is it a gaudy? but it isn't, just a sudden desire to revisit the scenes of our youth.

I don't think the SA has been back to Oxford at all since our graduation ceremony in the autumn of 1983.  I've been back twice that I can remember, both flying visits.  I don't know exactly why the SA wants to go now, but maybe I'll find out over the next couple of days.  We don't have much of a tourist agenda.  We'll look at our old college, and the college where my father was a fellow and where I was born, and have a drink in the Turf Tavern where we used to go in our courting days.  (I was a cheap date, being genuinely happy with halves of bitter).  We'll probably look at the botanical gardens, not because they hold any special associations or because we are avid Philip Pullman fans (we're not, though I have read the books) but because it is the oldest botanic garden in England, and we always go and look at the botanical gardens if possible when we visit anywhere.  I have gracefully conceded that we needn't go and look at Howard Hodgkin's collection of Indian art in the Ashmolean, since it's not my birthday, and the SA isn't interested in Indian art.  We could try the new rooftop restaurant, though, which somebody at the music society tells me is very good.

We could look at the covered market, which would bring back memories of youthful purchases of cheese and ground coffee.  We will probably spend a lot of time wandering about the streets and staring at the colleges and the Radcliffe Camera.  I suspect that compared to the Oxford of my memories it might all look very small.  We might go and have another drink in the Turf Tavern.

In truth I don't remember very much.  I think I enjoyed it at the time, so I don't think this is due to a process of repression, like Ari Folman suppressing all memories of Sabra and Shatila.  It's just that it was a long time ago, and since then my life has taken a path a long way from academia, and it doesn't seem to have all that much to do with the person I am now, so I don't think about it very often.  My memories of Oxford are pretty unreliable anyway.  As a devoted watcher of Inspector Morse back in the 90s my visual memory of the streets is hopelessly mixed up with what I saw on the screen, which in turn combined and moved around features of different colleges and roads, so that it didn't correspond to any reality on the ground.  And further back than that my undergraduate life was superimposed on faint memories of early childhood, so my 1980s Oxford sits on a 1960s one, and was covered over with a fantasy version.

I didn't live in Oxford for long.  We moved to the West Country when I was four and a quarter, and spent a year before that in America (where my pa was a distinguished visiting professor).  I can remember our garden in the house against the city walls in Holywell Street, the fascination of watching a horse crapping in the road outside the front door, and the thrill of a visit to a hardware store (a taste for the smell of compost and galvanised iron remains with me to this day).  I remember (I think) my grandmother's house, very faintly, and being scolded for pulling some kittens by the tail (I didn't realise I was being cruel, it was before I learned to have empathy with cats), and being told to keep an eye on the purse in the shopping basket of whatever female minder was taking me shopping, and feeling very mortified when it was stolen, and surprised when the grown ups decreed that I was not to blame and that it was an unreasonable request to have made to a small child.  I remember my mother going away twice, once I think for the birth of my brother (which was conducted in hospital after a fright with me on college premises) and once to go to a conference in Africa (which I think was about a railway).  I remember some very loud wallpaper (think that was in the dining room) and tricycling around Rose Lane.  That is partly why I would like to go to the Botanical Garden, to imagine my toddler self, tricycling about.

Monday, 19 March 2012

the tea room has landed

It sounded as though the open weekend went off OK.  Saturday's miserable weather hit attendance a bit, but the new tea room was a success with visitors.  It does suddenly look quite good.  When I left work a week ago it had no tables or chairs, none of the catering equipment was plumbed in, and the two new windows were still boarded up.  By the weekend all was finished, and the walls decorated with some reasonably attractive prints.  It was unfortunate that the man who was supposed to come and fit the new coffee machine failed to show up at the appointed time, and staff training ended up being done late on Thursday afternoon, when everybody was exhausted, but the catering student the owner met at a village fund raising supper and recruited to help out turned out to know how the coffee machine worked, which was a stroke of luck.

I think they are looking for staff for the tea room, at least for the summer, as I took a phone call from somebody enquiring about the job.  The owner ran it for today, but I don't think that's going to be a runner in more than the short term.  She went out first thing, and as customers started to arrive we began to realise that we didn't know how much we were supposed to charge for any of the hot drinks or the cakes.  Later on I had to summon her from her lunch to make two cups of coffee.  I cleared a few tables in quiet moments on the till, but slunk into the very edge of the kitchen area, put the crockery down and slid out again.  The owner pointed out where the sink for washing hands was, but I still don't think I should be in the kitchen.  I'm quite sure the dog shouldn't have been there, but of course an open plan tea room and kitchen with the possibility of cake crumbs are going to act like a magnet to the dog.

At lunchtime I went for a walk round the garden, something I don't do very often.  It still wasn't really warm enough to sit outside, but pleasant strolling about.  I found the gardener dividing clumps of snowdrops, and we discussed whether it hurt them doing it at this time of year.  There is a theory among some snowdrop experts that it weakens the plants, as normally they would be making leafy growth and storing up reserves for next year after flowering.  The gardener's view was that it never seemed to do them any harm, and we agreed that if you didn't do it around now you couldn't see where they were, or where the gaps were in existing bulb plantings.

I sat briefly on a bench, admiring the blue sky and white fluffy clouds, and the buzzards gliding high overhead.  There was a very beautiful magnolia in full flower, with great chalice shaped flowers flushed pink.  I went and checked its name on the label, and realised when I got back into the plant centre that I had already forgotten it. It's a sign of age.  Later on I had a very confusing conversation with a customer who was after a peony called 'Beauty of Livermere', since I thought that was a variety of oriental poppy.  I was very relieved when in the end I appealed to the manager for clarification, and he said that there was both a peony and a poppy with that name, and that we only did the latter.

We are showing some sculptures in the garden, I discovered when I walked down there, which explains why we have leaflets about the sculptor displayed in the shop.  They were all of skinny figures with exaggeratedly long limbs, and postures suggesting anguish, not bad as eye-catchers if you wanted a sculpture in your garden, but derivative.  I heard the other day on the radio that Tatty Devine were suing Claire's Accessories for ripping off some of their jewellery designs, and Elizabeth Frink and Giacometti would have a pretty good case against this chap.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

last concert of the season

The new little hens came out of the chicken house with the fully grown fowl when I opened the hen house door this morning, which is an advance.  Previously they've waited in the egg box until the big scary hen and the rooster have gone out, and then made for the food hopper.  I can tell this because after the two older birds have emerged there is the sound of cheeping and small beaks tapping on galvanised iron from inside the house.  (I don't think it is conventional wisdom to keep the food hopper inside the hen house, but it stays dry that way, and is protected from any visiting rats at night when the door's shut.)  Coming out at the same time as the others gave the new small hens a chance to sample wet bread.  The old hen and the rooster were not keen on sharing their morning treat with the incomers, so the technique of the little hens was to grab one piece of bread and run away.  I don't see any signs of pecking or real bullying going on, so I'm relaxed on that front, but they haven't yet formed a united flock, the two oldies keeping themselves to themselves most of the time.  The new hens, while quite tame, are not used to being treated as pets, and are taking their time learning the concept of being given snacks.  The first time I sprinkled some Value sultanas for them, the old hen and the rooster came bustling over for their share, while the tiny chickens just looked at me blankly.  Food falling out of the sky was evidently not something they'd experienced.

This afternoon was the last music society concert of the season.  A string quartet was playing, who started with Haydn, finished with Brahms, and did the conventional classical music wheeze of including a piece of twentieth century music that approximately half the audience were not going to like as the second piece in the first half, just before the interval.  Today's piece of compulsory musical self improvement was Benjamin Britten's third string quartet.  I am afraid I fell into the half of the audience that didn't take to it.  It wasn't distressingly awful, but my mind wandered off to what I intended to do in the garden on Thursday, if it wasn't raining.  My fellow committee members all said they enjoyed it (or at least those who expressed an opinion did) but that's fine.  I'm sure I'm the most middle-brow member, but it needs one, to represent the half of the audience who don't especially like much twentieth century classical music.  Happily, the Haydn was good and the Brahms was completely wonderful.

The church has a new kitchen.  It now has a dishwasher, quiet enough to be run while events are taking place in the body of the church.  It isn't large enough to hold all the cups and saucers we use for a concert, but takes quite a lot, which helps break the back of the washing up.  There are two sinks replacing one before, which makes things easier.  Most significant of all, there is a new water boiler.  It takes only ten minutes to come to the boil, and we don't have to mess around with dials turning it down and trying to keep it just below boiling during the first half of the concert.  The tap runs faster too, so we had the first pots of tea on the go significantly faster than during our previous attempts.  The fridge and half the cupboards have moved around, so we kept looking in the wrong places for things, but overall it is a great improvement.  I think the verger and the vicar are both extremely proud of it.

The queue for tea did seem to stretch on forever, even with the upgraded kitchen.  We filled up two large tables with cups before the start, with milk in them, so that all we had to do was pour tea, but people refuse to move down and use the full length of the table.  Instead, they all want to take their tea from the first corner of the table they reach.  Maybe they feel that moving down feels like queue jumping (it's always a nice question of manners whether, in self-service cafes that have the hot drinks after the food cabinets and just before the tills, it is OK to overtake people who are having plates of food dished out to them, if all you want is a cup of tea.  I think it is, but some people won't).  Apart from the mass refusal to use a serving space more than about a metre wide, there did seem to be more people wanting tea than had been in the first half of the concert, but that must have been an illusion.  I don't think passers-by could really have been nipping into the church for a free cup of tea and a biscuit at the music society's expense.

One of my fellow volunteers questioned whether it was worth doing tea, as we washed up the last of the cups after the concert, when everyone else had headed off home.  I'm sure it's worth it.  That kind of event is a social occasion, as well as a cultural one, and people like to socialise over light refreshments.  Every decent club I've ever belonged to has had a break at some point in the proceedings for chat over a drink (normally beer, if it's a folk club).  I belonged for a while to a county garden trust, before giving up because, among other things, the organisers were so cliquey and the experience so unwelcoming.  One of the signs that all was not well was when they ditched the tea and biscuits.

Saturday, 17 March 2012


The Systems Administrator returned from Cheltenham, having had a good time catching up with old acquaintances, and hoarse with shouting after staking the modest winnings of the first three days on Synchronised at 8 to 1.  That made this year's festival self-supporting financially, after paying for the cottage, the petrol to get over there, and some extra seats for friends.  It's sort of a pity that Kauto Star didn't win, what with him being a legend in the making, and Christy Moore's The Ballad of Ruby Walsh being our new favourite song, but there you go.  I'm glad I didn't go, as I really don't like it when horses are killed, and this was a dreadful year for casualties.

The rain had lifted to a light drizzle by after lunch, so I set out to plant my 1000 common and 100 double snowdrops.  If they don't go in this weekend I won't be able to do it until Thursday, and I don't want them to sit sweating in their plastic bags for that long if I can help it.  I got this year's plants from a little family firm called Chapelgate Bulbs.  I hadn't used them before, but their website had a good feel to it, and I'd rather buy direct from a grower than via an internet retailer, as the plants should spend less time hanging around after lifting.  Chapelgate sent me an e-mail to alert me when the snowdrops were dispatched, and they arrived very neatly packed and looking healthy and fairly fresh.  In an ideal world I've have started planting them on Thursday afternoon when they arrived, and finished the job yesterday (they'd have gone back into the ground sooner and it wouldn't have been raining then) but in the real world you do gardening jobs when you can.

The double snowdrops are for the ditch bed in the back garden.  I've planted half of them so far, reflecting regretfully as I did so that their dying leaves are going to look tatty for a while, just as the primroses and violets are springing into life.  Bulbs that have been lifted in growth nearly always die down faster than undisturbed ones, unless you can replant them incredibly quickly, and this is why I leave ordering snowdrops until the main display is going over, so as not to spoil the look of the existing plants by dotting new and wilting ones among them.  The back garden is looking very nice, at ground level.  I've planted as many violets as I could afford every year for years, in a range of colours, and they are starting to seed themselves about quite generously.  The same applies to primroses, and this year a jolly little pink flowered corydalis has seeded lavishly around the border.  The Anemone blanda are just coming out, as is Omphalodes verna.  Some unspeakable creature has eaten most of the leaves of my smart evergreen ginger, but overall it's a good display, and getting ever closer to my ideal of an intricate sheet of mingled low growing plants, which between them will smother out weed seedlings before they have a chance.  Indeed, the Omphalodes is so vigorous that it is within a hair's breadth of starting to become a nuisance.  Unfortunately this year there is another fine embryonic crop of goose grass, so I need to weed that out.

The single snowdrops are for the wood, some to go where the rhododendrons were, the idea being that we will look out of the bedroom window on to a carpet of snowdrops, and some to bulk up existing groups.  My method of planting snowdrops in the wood is to space little groups of two or three bulbs at 30-45cm apart in the first instance, and see how well they do.  Areas where they bulk up quickly, make big fat leaves and look happy and healthy are clearly good places for them, and in subsequent years I can fill in the gaps.  Places where they only make miserable small leaves and never flower a couple of year down the line must be wrong for them in some way, too dark, too dry, too wet, or too something.  Bulbs can have very definite ideas about where they will and won't go.  It is fascinating to walk through a long-established bluebell wood (bluebells in Essex are frequently associated with ancient woodland.  This is not true across the whole country) and see how the bluebells grow in patches, thick as grass in some places and completely absent in others, often with sharp demarcation lines between the two.  They are a plant map of changing growing conditions on the woodland floor.  I reckon there's no point in lovingly dobbing in snowdrops ever 15cm at great effort and expense, if they are going to dwindle and die out over subsequent years.

There is a risk with this method that if they fail completely then after a few years I'll forget I ever had snowdrops there, and try again in the same place.  On the other hand, conditions change over the years as trees grow or die, and the water table is unstable, so places that were unsuitable five years ago might be fine now.  I hope that over the years, as they fill the areas where they are happy and I learn to leave the places where they aren't alone, that they will look increasingly un-planted and natural, like the bluebells do, which appear utterly right and at home in their setting, as of course they are.

When I did smoked mackeral pate on rye bread for the music society, the SA expressed a wistful desire for smoked salmon on rye.  Fortunately there is some of both left from yesterday, so we will have posh nibbles before our supper tonight.  That doesn't happen very often.

Friday, 16 March 2012

mission accomplished

The furniture is all back in its usual places, and the house is cleaner than before I started.  There are a lot of leftovers tucked away in the fridge, some of which I'd better split into sensible sized portions and freeze, but I think I'll do that in the morning.  It was a nice lunch, or at least I think it was.  Out of it has come a plan for a beekeeping friend to put a hive in the garden of a gardening friend who doesn't want to look after bees, but fancies the idea of bees about the place, and a scheme to go to an amazing craft shop in Tiptree and have tea at the jam factory.  I'd never heard of the shop, but it is said to be full of all sorts of useful and wonderful things.  I thought it sounded marvellous, and even though I can't crochet or knit, I'm sure I'd find something there that I could do something with.

The cats did not enjoy the party.  Our Ginger crawled into people's laps, including the one person who doesn't like cats, tried to steal the fishy nibbles, and started dribbling on somebody's skirt.  In the end he had to be put out in the hall until after lunch when the food was all safely locked away in the kitchen, and spent the whole time sitting the other side of the glass door, looking mournful.  Once he was allowed in again he devoted himself to trying to put as much white and ginger fur as possible on everybody's clothes.  The big tabby sat in the hall looking wistful as well, and the two Essex originals were nowhere to be seen.  They're happy now, though, as I have sat down in front of the fire instead of locking them out of the kitchen while I cook, or charging about with a vacuum cleaner.  Our Ginger was allowed to have the toppings from three fishy nibbles that were left over.  He likes smoked salmon, but he'd better not go getting ideas.

As noon approached I noticed a lot of cat fluff stuck to one wall of the sitting room, but it was too late by then to vacuum it off, so I decided to hope that people wouldn't notice, or wouldn't mind if they did.  Other than that it all looked quite clean and tidy, by our standards.  We have pets, open fires, and clatter in and out of the house in our working boots.  Anybody who really isn't comfortable in that environment is probably not going to enjoy knowing me anyway, and anybody who has known me for any length of time is not going to be under any illusions about my general level of tidiness. (I have a theory that some people are naturally tidy, and some just aren't.  One of my colleagues must have had the tidiness fairy godmother wave her wand over his cradle at his christening.  He can spend all day moving large pots of plants around, and at the end of it his cream coloured chinos are still clean.  If I touch anything with any possibility of mess or stickiness, be it paint, marmalade, honey, compost, or fountain pen ink, I invariably end up with some of it smeared on me, and the room, even when I'm trying to be really careful).

There were two last minute cancellations, due to illness, so we just crammed round the dining table without my bringing the kitchen table through, and I didn't need my 4.5 metres of red sheeting bought as an impromptu table cloth.  It was a shame not to see the absentees, but it has been a rotten winter for illnesses.  The red sheeting will come in useful sometime, maybe at Christmas.

There is a dismal school of political and social thought springing up at the moment, that says that the Systems Administrator and I should not be living in a house large enough to hold a lunch party for eight or twelve people.  We have surplus bedrooms (most of which are full of books, so if we could rebuild the house the same size but with an enormous library and only two rooms originally designated as bedrooms I suppose we'd be OK on that score).  It would be for society's good that we go and live a nice little bungalow or cottage, and yield our bedrooms up to a Family.  And we can't afford to heat it, so it would be for our own good, though I'd have thought that as sentient adults we should be allowed to decide for ourselves whether we would rather be spacious but cold, or cramped but warm.  I find it an especially irritating message from the nanny state because I'm sure the cabinet only imagine it applying to the great middling masses, not people like them.  I don't suppose David Cameron expects his widowed mother to go and live in a nice little bungalow, or that George Osborne expects Sir Peter Osborne and his wife to give up what the Evening Standard described as their 'eclectically furnished, five-bedroom house in Lansdowne Road in Notting Hill, a lively home with high ceilings, crammed with modern paintings and art work, 18th-century engravings and Italian furniture'.   We don't run to the art collection or Italian furniture, but still appreciate having room to have people round, once in a while.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

ladies who lunch

I spent a large part of today shopping and cooking for tomorrow's lunch, after spending yesterday cleaning.  I don't really like cleaning, or at least I infinitely prefer gardening, so asking friends around is a good incentive to do something about the state of the house occasionally.  I like having a clean house when it's done, so I don't grudge my friends the effort, and anyway one of the most off-putting things I know in a host is when they grumble about the trouble they went to getting ready for you.  A good host is like a swan.  Even if it's paddling madly under water, all should appear serene on the surface.

The amount of cleaning people get depends partly on how well I know them, on whether they have been to the house before, and how messy their own houses are.  I do make less of an effort for friends who have dogs running around their kitchens and wear their wellingtons indoors than for the pet-free with light coloured fitted carpets in their houses.  Tomorrow's guest list includes two people on their first visit, one of whom runs a professional B&B, and when I dropped a tree stake off at her house after work as a favour she gave me tea out of a silver tea pot, and the other I don't think is a pet owner, though she does have teenage boys so must be reasonably inured to mess.  Partly in deference to them, and because it needed doing, I did more than a quick wipe and vacuum, and hoovered a lot of cat fur off the curtains.  The cats are already busy applying fresh fur to every surface.  My list of things to do tomorrow morning, after various final bits of cooking and key things like cleaning the loo, ends with final vacuum, if time.  I'm not sure there'll be time.

I never know how much food to do.  It seems nice to offer choice.  Nobody's a vegetarian (or at least if they are they should have told me) but not everyone likes red meat, or some flavours, so I ended up with a choice of main courses and puddings.  I have a horror of anyone not being able to have what they want, so that means enough of both to feed everyone, if they should all go for the same thing.  That's not a problem.  The leftovers will keep us going over the weekend, and we can freeze some of them.  I seem to have panicked in Tesco, as I really can't work out why I bought so many onions, but they'll keep.  I did a blueberry cheesecake, and then a chocolate cake in case anybody doesn't really like fruit, or blueberries, or cheesecake.  I spent years feeding fruit puddings to my sister-in-law, who is an extremely polite woman and never complained, before noticing that she never actually ate more than a spoonful, and the penny finally dropped that she hated apple crumble and much preferred chocolate.

I have done red cabbage, in homage to my Polish great grandparents, and because I like it and it goes with goulash, and improves with re-heating, as does goulash.  The goulash was simmered for at least four hours, and is still tougher than I'd like, so that's going straight back in the simmer oven as soon as I get up.  In recent years I have succumbed to the System Administrator's method, and now add passata.  When I was growing up it never had passata in it, just maybe a spoonful of tomato paste.  You need to put a lot of onions into a good goulash.  Really a lot of onions.  They should be an equivalent weight to the meat.  And a lot of paprika.  Then I made a chicken casserole, as anybody who doesn't like red meat or paprika will definitely not like goulash.  I was relieved to be able to buy packets of free range legs and thighs, as otherwise I might have ended up buying non free range because it was too late to think of anything else.  Shallots, mushrooms and snippets of bacon went into the chicken.

The chocolate cake is basically cooked chocolate mousse.  When I was a child my mother made an excellent mousse, but nowadays I wouldn't dare serve raw eggs to people.  The cake is made out of eggs, sugar, and cocoa, but the butter-free, flour-free vibe will be ruined once I've slavered it with cream and chocolate icing.  The chocolate icing is from a recipe I copied out of The Times years ago.  You melt dark chocolate with a high cocoa content and add warm double cream, and that's it.  The cake recipe is from Delia, but I tried her chocolate filling recipe once and it curdled, a complete waste of good chocolate.  I know that Delia has a particular place in the nation's affections, but I don't believe the temperatures she specifies for that cake filling.

I am not going to exercise my recently acquired skill with cheese straws, because I have absolutely run out of energy to cook any more food.  They'll just have to make do with fishy things on rye bread and posh crisps.  They'll get lots of dairy product in their puddings anyway.  I have done a table plan, on the basis that 'sit where you like' produces enough dithering even when there are only four of you, and that people would rather be told what to do.  It'll be fine.  Even if some things are a bit rough and ready, they are all too nice to mind too much about it.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

my second career in finance

I have had my handover meeting with the outgoing treasurer and membership secretary of my beekeeping division.  I just have to get the bank mandate form completed, and signed by the appropriate people, and be formally voted on by the rest of the committee at the next meeting, and my three year tenure will commence.  It doesn't look too onerous.  Last year's accounts are done and dusted, and the last treasurer said to refer any queries to him.  At the year end we had no debtors or creditors, I've got the bank statements for the year so far, and while we need two signatures on cheques, I'm the one with the cheque book.  All equipment bought out of divisional funds is written off as an expense, not carried on the balance sheet as an asset, so the only assets are in the bank.  The balance sheet at the end of the year will therefore consist of the start of year balance, plus receipts, less outgoing payments.  As long as I can tell from my records what the money going in and out represented, the income and expenditure account will practically write itself.  That's the theory.

There are one or two wrinkles, of course.  The membership secretary's membership records look very clear, as I expected they would be, and she banks the cheques from members, so I don't have to do that.  I do have to split every subscription between contributions to the division, the county and the national association, plus payment for bee disease insurance.  BDI looks the most potentially fraught.  Full members get cover for two hives automatically with their membership, and can pay for more hives if they think they might need them.  The forms issued by the national body apparently don't make the distinction between total number of hives, and additional hives above two, as clear as it might be.  The worst thing would be to accidentally under-insure somebody with the central body, who had paid the division for sufficient cover.  (Two hives scarcely gets you anywhere.  If you start the year with one colony, then if you split that in the course of swarm control you've hit your limit.  Collect a swarm and you have three colonies, just like that).

I won't be able to use the bank mandate form that the last treasurer printed off, and started to fill in, since he didn't know that the name I'm always called by isn't my full baptismal name, and put my nickname in the box.  Given that the bank's instructions on changing signatories require me to turn up with a passport and additional means of proving my address, I don't think the everyday name will do.  If I have to get the old treasurer to sign a fresh form that will be rather a bore, as we don't live very close to each other, and could have done it this afternoon, if it weren't for the confusion with the name.  (In the modern age of computers, databases, identity checks, identity theft and all the rest of it, it is better to stick with your given name as it appears on your passport.  If you're a Patricia then try to avoid being saddled with Pat, or Patsy, and especially avoid diminutives that don't immediately look or sound like part of your name, like Trish.  And try to avoid combinations like William-Bill, because it will throw out your initial.  I knew a Christopher who firmly put me right the first time I absent mindedly referred to him as Chris.  At the time I thought he was being precious, but now I see he was right).

Fortunately I have been given a folder, issued by the county association, that sets out what the treasurer has to do, and when things like paying for bee disease insurance and county subscriptions fall due, and even a proforma of what, eventually, they would like every division's accounts to look like, with standard headings for outgoings, though I understand this isn't being applied yet.  And I have been told that the county treasurer, and the BDI treasurer, are very nice and helpful.  That sounds good.  Also I have inherited a bag containing the last three years' accounts.  My predecessor is an organised sort of person (another reason why I felt reasonably safe volunteering for the job) and I don't expect to have any trouble with them.  In addition I've been given a box containing earlier years' financial records.  Nobody knows how long we are supposed to keep these, and it was suggested that it would be OK for me to chuck them out.  My guess is that they will spend the next three years in my spare bedroom, before being handed on to my successor.  Without a very definite instruction from somebody that the old accounts can be binned, I'd feel exposed throwing them away, and I don't know who would be competent to give me the go-ahead to destroy them.

We'll see how it goes.  Compared to £39 billion of pension fund assets it should be straightforward.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

planting in the wood

I finally planted my beautiful new Hamamelis x intermedia 'Livia' in the wood, and enclosed it in a circle of wire netting stapled on to a stake, and held with a couple of bamboo canes.  It doesn't look a very strong defence against a determined browsing or nibbling animal, but seems to be enough.  The Oemleria cerasiformis is sending up hopeful looking suckers inside its wire cage, and growing up above it, but one stray shoot that ventured to poke through the netting has been bitten off.  I planted out my two remaining potted up suckers of Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postill' as well, and circled those with more wire.  It doesn't look at all elegant at the moment, but is necessary.  As they get to be larger and stronger plants (if they do) they should have the resources to withstand the odd bite taken out of them.  I have a very vague feeling that daphnes might be poisonous, but maybe that is just the seeds.  They are so expensive to buy that nobody would risk recommending them as rabbit proof shrubs.

I added a few primroses.  They aren't enough by themselves to make much of a show, but should spread themselves around in years to come.  I bought some at work, and work got them from the travelling plant grotto in the van.  They were nice chunky plants, and I could have split them if I'd been minded to, but didn't.  The others came from the farm shop, and looked a bargain when I bought the tray of six, but then two went mouldy and died before I got to the stage of planting them out.  I felt rather pathetic buying foxgloves, when they are not difficult from seed and I need a lot to make any sort of an impact, but I don't have any home raised plants coming on at the moment, and I wanted some foxgloves this year just to give me a taster, after the effort I have gone to clearing the area.  I bought three plain white and three giant spotted, and they should seed themselves usefully about and give me many more plants to bloom in 2014, if I can keep the nettles under control between now and then.  Finally I planted a group of three ferns, Dryopteris erythrosora, which have coloured spore cases that give the undersides of their fronds a reddish tinge.  Ferns do well nearby, and I fancy a change from broad leaved buckler fern.

The snowdrop company has just e-mailed to say that the snowdrops in the green should be with me on Thursday.  Unfortunately I won't be able to plant them before Saturday, when it is forecast to rain, and I will be out for the first part of Thursday morning, so I hope the delivery company will leave them without a signature if they turn up while I'm not here.  I'll have to stick a note to the front door and hope for the best.  I always ask bulb companies to leave parcels in the porch, if there is a space on the order form to let me make any sort of comment, and it is a sad fact that instructions given to the vendor are almost never passed on to the firm making the delivery, be it requests to leave parcels or instructions on how to find the house.

There is a crop of young self sown Helleborus foetidus as thick as cress at the bottom of the garden, under the Zelkova carpinifolia, so I'll move some of those into this newly planted area.  This hellebore is a native of the British Isles, though if you were being picky you could complain that my plants are not necessarily from a UK genetic strain, being garden plants.  I am not going to let that worry me unduly.  Helleborus foetidus has elegant, narrow, evergreen leaflets and smallish pale yellow-green flowers.  The bees love it, and it will look very smart and help cover the ground, which needs covering, since its present ambition is clearly to revert to nettles, brambles, ivy and goose grass.

The two cold nights have hit the Arbutus x andrachnoides hard.  This is a shame, as it was just recovering from the previous two cold winters and starting to look quite handsome again, with a crop of white flowers.  I expect it will pull through, as it did before, but it has lost most of its leaves, the others are spotted black and discoloured, and it will take months before it looks half way respectable.  Once I can see which twigs have been killed I'll have to spend some time pruning them out.  Only the cinnamon coloured bark remains for now out of its former beauties.  It didn't look so bad in the immediate aftermath of the cold snap, but hard freezes are treacherous, and it can take days or weeks for their full impact to become apparent.

I planted a little cottage garden pink primrose, of the sort that used to be called 'Quaker's Bonnet' and we must now call 'Lilacina Plena'.  As I wrote this down in my gardening book I realised I had probably put it in the wrong place, tucking it at the very front of the bed along the ditch when it would prefer more shade.  I must remember to move it tomorrow.

Monday, 12 March 2012

gearing up for the rush

The labels weren't done for the Italian plants, so they stayed where they were on the grass at the back of the plant centre.  Most of them are in quite hefty pots, so I didn't entirely mind not getting involved in moving them. Instead I priced up and put out for sale the things we got this morning out of the back of the weekly travelling van, which were much smaller.

I really like being allowed to go and have a look in the van.  It visits garden centres between late winter and autumn, and is fitted with racks which are always stuffed with whatever is looking pretty at that moment, plus a slightly random selection of shrubs and climbers that can be useful for plugging gaps when we've run out of something.  A few weeks ago it brought pots of snowdrops, miniature iris and winter aconites in bloom.  Now it's got primroses and pulmonaria.  It is such fun poking around the shelves, to see what they've got, like a visit to Santa's grotto for plantaholic grownups.  We took strawberry plants, and little pots of garlic for those customers who neglected to plant their cloves back in the new year, and sweet pea seedlings, bleeding heart, white violets and lungwort.  The manager passed on the trays of mixed buddleias because he had some coming in anyway.  Then, after nearly nine years of working there, somebody finally showed me how to change the reel of labels in the price gun.

The tunnel over The Other Side is still crammed with plants that ought to be out for sale in the plant centre, and the manager was given the services of both gardeners for the day to help label them and tidy them up ready for sale.  It's a busy time of year in the garden too, and I don't think the young gardener was best pleased to lose an entire day from what he regards as his real job, in order to spend it stapling labels on to plant pots.  I was rather surprised not to be sent over to join them, but we were just busy enough that we needed two people in the plant centre all the time.  The phones kept ringing with the usual mixture of people with sensible and straightforward questions, irritating callers, and the plain weird.

It took a long time for the penny to drop, after I'd explained several times to one woman that we had medium sized packets of micorrhizae in stock at £5.99, but not large ones, and that the large ones had been £10.99 but I couldn't remember exactly how many grammes the large ones held, that what she was after was for me to offer to sell her two medium sized packets for the price of one big one.  Look, lady, if you want two medium sized packets then buy two packets.  I partly blame lazy newspaper columnists for encouraging this vogue for people spending relatively small amounts of money to start demanding discounts from hourly paid staff, or worse still waste everybody's time by going round and round the houses instead of making it clear that they are asking for a discount.  They don't go into Tesco and start asking the checkout staff if they can have two medium sized packets of steak for the price on one big one.

Another caller was completely unable to hear me.  I kept repeating who we were more and more loudly and slowly, until I had to go out of the shop because it was too disruptive, and she kept repeating that she couldn't hear me, she couldn't hear me at all, while not saying who it was she wanted to speak to, or asking who she had run.  This alternated between long silences and truly disgusting coughing.  Eventually I hung up. If she was a genuine caller she needed to try again and hope for a better line, but she didn't.

On the bright side, some of the regular customers were back, including a tall and perpetually amiable garden designer who gets a very generous discount despite never spending much, mainly because he is so cheerful and rather good looking.  He is also gay, so the boss needn't worry about the owner's generosity in the matter of discounts.  And I steeled my nerves to ring people about plants they had ordered a very long time ago, and had taken that long to come into stock.  A couple of people still wanted them, one had bought elsewhere but was awfully apologetic about letting us down, and the others were on answering machine.  I should really have done yesterday afternoon, but you need to be feeling well rested and quite brazen to summon the nerve to call people to tell them that if they still want that rose they ordered a year ago, it is finally here.

Somebody rang to enquire whether we had his Berberis georgii yet.  It would be very handy if only we could  find some somewhere, as by now the list of customers looking for it runs to half an A4 page of an Excel spreadsheet.  It had a glowing write-up in the Telegraph, ages ago, and today's would-be purchaser told me that there is a very fine one at Hyde Hall, which he and presumably some other customers had seen, but we can't find plants anywhere.

The cloud never lifted, despite optimistic weather forecasts first thing, and by mid afternoon it had got distinctly cold.  I think it was a fog off the sea, as one customer told me that her son in London reported bright sunshine there.  Driving home I heard there were hosepipe bans across swathes of southern and eastern England, as I feared there would be.  That will not be good for trade.  Looking when I got home at the map on the BBC website of exactly where the restrictions were, I saw that the Tendring Peninsular was still a little unrestricted island in a sea of bans, so I'm still OK in the garden at home.  Passing the end of our wood I saw that the neighbours have had a delivery of some sort of compost dumped on our land.  They have their septic tank on it, which happened before we bought the house, and we agreed that they could use the track to their tank for overflow parking.  More recently they, or somebody, has been using the edge of the track as a compost heap.  They denied all knowledge of this, but subsequently some branches of Magnolia grandiflora appeared in the heap at the same time that one vanished from their garden, so I don't think they were telling me the truth.  Now they, or somebody, is using it to store bulk deliveries of soil improver.  We are going to have to get on and fence the land off to stop the compost heap, and it would serve them right if we put a gate across the track at the same time, padlocked it, and didn't give them a key.