Thursday, 31 May 2012

a visit to Henry Moore

I went today to The Henry Moore Foundation, a trip originally scheduled for April for my father's birthday, that got postponed due to inclement weather.  It got back into the diary for today because my parents have a very old friend staying with them, and my mother was starting to panic about how to amuse him for an entire week, and thought that he might like the Henry Moore Foundation.

It is a charitable foundation based around Moore's own house, studios and land and it is very interesting.  You can tour the house, in small guided groups, advance booking necessary, and are allowed to wander at will around the rest of the site.  The house is a marvellous 1950s time capsule, since while the Moores lived there until their deaths in the 1980s they much preferred art collecting to interior decorating.  Almost every surface is stuffed with works by other artists (many famous), stones, bones, shells, and ethnic carvings.  A succession of local women were hired to dust and cook, the Moores not being domestically inclined.

The grounds are large, and contain a lot of Henry Moore sculptures, which show off to good advantage with plenty of space around them in the open air, instead of being stuffed cheek by jowl together in an art gallery.  There are some quite nice trees and herbaceous borders as well.

Some of the outbuildings are as used by Henry Moore for his work, and you can see his tools, and sculptures in various stages of completion.  Others are now used as exhibition spaces.  There are some wonderful textiles woven at West Dean College, based on his drawings, in a magnificent timber framed barn that he bought and had reassembled on site.

The staff are mostly friendly.  The pub, now owned by the foundation, is so-so.  If I were you I'd take a picnic, if it's nice weather.

I'm not sure it was my parents' friend's cup of tea, since he kept asking as walked around why the heads of the sculptures were so small, and didn't come over as a Henry Moore fan.  He is visiting from Australia, and I'd have thought a nice trip to see Flatford Mill might have pressed more buttons in terms of revisiting Old England one last time.  My dad doesn't have as much stamina as he used to, and ran out of steam half way round the studios, and I was knackered after an over-committed May.  I'd like to go back sometime, though.

Tomorrow we are going to Devon for our nephew's wedding, and I am not taking the laptop, since while the Systems Administrator is normally very patient about sitting quietly while I type, I don't think that's appropriate on a family weekend, and there won't really be time.  So you will have to hear the edited highlights when we get back, and until then Cardunculus will be on holiday.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

waste not, want not

We are on the fourth week of the new recycling regime.  It has been interesting to see how much does go into the council's food recycling bin, and the answer so far has been reasonably low.  According to the Love Food Hate Waste campaign brought to us by WRAP (a not for profit organisation) the average family wastes £480 of food per annum.  Their website doesn't say what constitutes an average family, but families with children waste more, £680 worth.  The photo on Love Food Hate Waste's homepage did cause me a scintilla of annoyance by including two banana skins in the pile of wasted food, since not even the most fanatical anti-waste campaigner is suggesting we eat those.  It looks as though the average household size in the UK is around 2.4, and on a falling trend, but I'd like to know more about this average family.

In week one our family of two threw away the bone from a joint of lamb.  That doesn't really count as waste any more than banana skins (not that we have had any bananas in the past month).  There were the scrapings from a stew, and a couple of burnt pizza crusts.  It is probably better for the Systems Administrator not to eat those anyway.  Week two saw a bona fide wasted piece of Cheshire cheese that I discovered green and evil in a bag in the fridge, net weight around 50 grammes (I didn't weigh it).  In week three we threw away another piece of cheese, this time a small goat's milk round bought for the cheeseboard when we had friends to supper, that wasn't eaten on the day and then slipped under the radar.  Clearly we must be more careful with our cheese management.  Chelsea week saw the demise of a packet of six mini scotch eggs, that we didn't have room for after the pork pies and didn't fancy after they'd spent the day touring the flower show.  That was a shame, but the scotch eggs were on special offer, and taking our own picnic was a lot cheaper than buying food at Chelsea Flower Show prices, even if some did get thrown away.

This week the bin contains some skin and bones from a chicken stew and the shells from four hard boiled eggs, again not waste in the sense of food that we could have eaten but didn't, plus half a jar of pesto, that is waste.  I don't know how that ended up in the fridge, except that we must have had pasta when it was the sort of weather when you feel like having pasta with pesto, and then it wasn't again for six weeks.  Plus, we have discovered that the farm shop sells pots of pesto that are infinitely nicer than the Tesco's jars.  I'm not sure how to count the three pots of dripping carefully saved from previous joints and not used for cooking.  They were potentially edible (before the meat juice under the dripping went green with age.  The dripping itself looked fine), but by-products of roasting beef rather than something we'd paid for directly.  Given the attitude of modern medicine to cooking with beef dripping instead of olive or sunflower oil we probably weren't supposed to eat it anyway.  There were three shrivelled spring onions this week, but they went in the bin for our compost heap, not the council one, and there was nothing to be done about the spoonful of cooked courgette, since courgettes only come as whole vegetables, and if two were too much for two people, one wouldn't have been enough.

The chickens help us out by eating any surplus boiled potatoes or rice, and stale bread.  As a mechanism for converting waste carbohydrate into nutritious high quality protein a chicken is hard to beat (OK, they mostly live on bought grain and layers pellets, but stale brown bread is never thrown away).  People without the option of shovelling the unnecessary extra couple of spuds they erroneously peeled and cooked into a chicken run are going to have a heavier waste food bin than ours.

I reckon that food thrown away that could have been eaten if we'd been more organised has come in at about a pound a week in the first month of the new recycling regime.  We are quite assiduous at making the most of food.  Today's lunch started off two meals ago as a tomato and onion spicy side dish to go with curry.  It was reborn as tomato and mixed bean stew to go with barbecued burgers, by adding a tin of mixed beans in tomato sauce.  I bulked up the remains of that with a red pepper and four rather tasteless large tomatoes that were sitting in the fridge, and once it was nicely melded scooped depressions in it and cooked four eggs (from the chickens) in the sauce.  (This was loosely based on Middle Eastern methods that I'd read about in Claudia Roden, and seen in passing in No One Knows about Persian Cats).  I suppose the risk with all this reheating is that we'll give ourselves food poisoning, but we haven't yet.  Get leftovers you plan to keep into the fridge pronto after the meal, even if they're still a bit warm, and bring to a proper simmering boil each time.

It's around a five mile round trip from home to any shop at all, so the cost of petrol to nip out to buy a pint of milk is about the same as the milk.  When you live in the country you need to keep a certain amount of perishable food in stock, like cheese, bread, and milk.  Actually, if you live in the average suburb it's probably a couple of miles to the shops.  The time wasted, and aggravation, of discovering as you are about to cook that you don't have some basic vital ingredient like an onion make it sensible and rational to keep a supply in the kitchen cupboard.  If occasionally you misjudge and one or two go soft before you can use them, that's an acceptable trade-off for most people.

The non-food part of the recycling is still worrying me.  The council's waste contractors will not accept a large range of plastics that are described on them as Widely recyclable, and since the new regime came in the volume of our black bins has probably doubled.  The rationale for this is that plastic wrappers and trays aren't worth much, so it's not worthwhile to collect them.  Should the market value of a given material at a particular time be the determining factor in whether it is recycled, or is the reason for recycling plastics to reduce the volume going into landfill?  In the latter case shouldn't we recycle them anyway, rather than cherry picking our bins to donate the profitable bits to industry?  And where do my black bins go?  The council leaflet just said they would by now be tiny (they're not, they're bigger).  Somebody I met who lived in Switzerland for 15 years said that the efficient way to do recycling was in bulk, of clean uncontaminated material in factories during manufacturing, and that the Swiss don't fiddle about but send all of their consumer waste to incinerators with proper filters to avoid air pollution, and simply harvest the energy.  In the UK people tend not to like the sound of incinerators, so that would be a hard sell here.  But I do find the idea of those black bags mostly full of recyclable material going to landfill rather depressing.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

renovation deferred

We conceded defeat today, and took the scaffolding down and stowed it away at the end of the house.  The Systems Administrator had been going to renew the gutter along the back roof, and paint the barge board while the old guttering was removed, but the weeks of rain put paid to that plan, and now the border behind the house is a jungle of new growth.  The SA prodded the woodwork in several places and pronounced that there were no signs of rot, and the job would keep until next spring.  Indeed, I suppose it could be done in the autumn, if we get an Indian summer and I'm brisk about cutting down the herbaceous plants, but the thought of trying to manoeuvre the tower in now among the hardy geraniums, and campanulas, and Lamium orvala, and the new leaves of Tetrapanax papyrifera 'Rex', and rapidly emerging shoots on the buddleias, was just too much.  I think the SA had visions of Rachel repeatedly weeping for her children, because they were not, each time another plant got smashed, and decided against it.  The problem isn't just the feet and outriggers of the scaffolding squashing the odd plant once it's up, but finding somewhere to stand all the component parts each time it has to be dismantled to move it along to the next section of barge board.  On dead flat, solid ground I suppose you could roll the whole tower intact, but not on a slope and on earth.

We need a settled spell of several dry days to tackle the gutter, since once the old one is off there is really no choice but to press on until the job is finished.  The weather now feels anything but, with the Met Office issuing warnings of severe rain.  It poured yesterday in Braintree and Chelmsford, big fat solid lumps of rain that the SA could see on the rain radar, but it all petered out before reaching us here, and we didn't get a drop.  It feels humid, though.  The SA wilts in damp heat, and the bees were a trifle tetchy when I went to see them.  It wasn't ideal beehive-opening weather, but tomorrow is forecast to be worse.

Some of the shrub roses are opening.  The white single 'Nevada' is full out.  I fell for that variety many years ago, after seeing one in a border in the formal part of the gardens at Killerton.  It is not much in fashion nowadays, though the RHS lists 19 suppliers, so it is not endangered.  The brilliant magenta single 'Anne of Geierstein' is also blooming.  She is well past her centenary, bred in 1894, and I am confused as to how rare she now is, since the RHS Plantfinder says that she was last listed in 2009, but the Peter Beales website offers to sell me one for £12.45.  Some mistake surely.  'Anne of Geierstein' is classified as a sweet briar, but I have never noticed any smell from her foliage.  My plant grows on its own roots, the original specimen having sickened and died after layering itself a metre away from where it was planted.

Less welcome is the epic growth of goosegrass, and I need to spend a day going around pulling it out.  The seeds are not yet ripe and ready, and I must get rid of it before they are, besides which, it would make the borders look much tidier.  That and finishing doing the edges.  Unfortunately tomorrow's gardening jobs will be geared towards making the watering intelligible to the (non-gardening) friend who is kindly looking after the pots as well as the cats and chickens while we're off at the wedding.  Collections of pots awaiting planting out have proliferated, and need to be gathered into one place clearly designated Water Those, while  the pots of dead things outside the greenhouse will only cause confusion, and since they need to be dealt with it might as well be tomorrow.

Our neighbour the retired farmer, who sold what was his farm to the lettuce farmer, came round to deliver the parish magazine.  I think he would like us to object to the planned polytunnels, but didn't want to seem to be steering us.  I sympathise with the owners of the house more directly affected by it than we are, who are related to him, but he isn't in a very good position to grumble in that he sold the land.  If he wanted to be secure from future agricultural developments he shouldn't have done that.

Monday, 28 May 2012

free advice

It was baking in the plant centre.  Fortunately, and surprisingly, trade was brisk, and I was kept busy on the till and out of the sun for much of the hottest part of the day without the manager having to manufacture excuses for me to stay indoors.  The owner had a stand at a plant fair yesterday, and almost developed sunstroke after spending the day out in the open, even wearing a hat, so her instructions to us first thing this morning were to be very careful.

Just as I'd finished watering the owner flagged me down to help a customer who needed some advice.  She was carrying a sketch pad under her arm, which turned out to contain the outline of a garden with plant names pencilled in round the edges, supplemented by photographs.  She had just moved to a house whose garden was a blank, and wanted advice on what to plant.  A friend of a friend who dabbled in garden design had drawn her a plan, and she had some existing plants (propagated or lifted from her old garden.  I never quite gathered) which she intended to use, supplemented by a list of new plants that she wanted.

My mind initially boggled.  Our garden was never designed on paper, and I don't consider myself a designer.  I got very high marks in the only design exam I ever sat, a Year Two module at Writtle, and rather low marks in the design assignment, which suggests I am better at talking about design than doing it (though the low marks in the assignment were partly because the tutor didn't like my handwriting on the plans).  I designed my brother's small garden, at his request, and it took getting on for half a week, though I did do him a colour plan (complete with dodgy handwriting) and written briefing.  The amount of design input I could provide in a quick chat in the back of the shop seemed limited.

Once we got started it wasn't as difficult as I'd feared.  Her list of plants was sensible for the site and she had realistic ideas about maintenance and what she wanted from the garden, so I started in one corner and worked my way round her draft plan, checking whether each plant would be happy with the conditions in that part of the garden and how it would look with its neighbours.  By the end of it we had a yellow themed area, and a purple and silver patch, and she seemed to like my suggestion that bringing the planting out from the fence at one point would make it more interesting than sticking to a peripheral border all the way round, and that the children (they must have been grandchildren) would probably like it if their play area were somewhat enclosed and more private.  It was a slight shock when, having sorted out that side of the house, she turned the page of the sketch pad and there was another map of the other half of the garden, but by then I was on a roll, and she mainly wanted advice on gravel gardening, which is one of my specialist subjects.  So she was very happy and grateful for my help, and it's just as well that most customers don't require that degree of hand-holding, as we couldn't do it, without increasing staffing levels about fifty-fold.

Somebody who'd been to Chelsea wanted to know if we sold Orlaya grandiflora, but once I'd explained that she would need to grow it from seed, preferably fresh seed sown in situ, and that it would die after flowering but seed itself about, and that the seedlings were quite easy to recognise, and in short, no, we didn't stock it, she went off the idea.

The unhappiest creature on the premises was probably the dog.  Far from blooming during pregnancy, she looked hot, heavy and distinctly apprehensive.

Addendum  On checking my e-mails when I got home I found that I was not the only person to have decided not to go to the beekeepers' meeting on Saturday.  Numbers were low, and the Committee is going to have to try and work out why that is.  It is very disappointing for the hosts when not many people show, and makes them less likely to be willing to do it again, so I now feel bad that I should have gone.  The trouble is, I know why I didn't go, which is that I'd been running around like a loony all month, and needed a weekend off.  Sometimes you just can't do everything.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

back in the bog bed

I was shocked on writing up my gardening diary to realise that I hadn't done any gardening for the entire week before this weekend.  I even checked my pocket diary, in case I'd forgotten to write up the gardening one, but no, three days at work, Chelsea and another trip to London, catching up with admin and drill and housework, and the bees and a Pilates lesson, and that was the week gone, with no gardening except for watering.  No wonder I'm not on top of the horsetail.

The things planted in the bog over a week ago are looking very happy, so clearly they will live in waterlogged soil.  If they couldn't take constant saturation they would have let me know by now.  Indeed, one last Primula bulleyana and the final Filipendula rubra, that I didn't have time to plant last time round and have been sitting outside the front door since, don't look as good as the ones in the bog, which have grown since planting and are a better shade of green.  I got the leftovers into the ground, plus some white flowered ragged robin (all over Chelsea this year, but I bought mine before then), some pale yellow Trollius, a yellow Iris ensata in the boggy bit, and yet another kind of saxifrage next to the walkway.  I tucked a Gunnera tinctoria in behind the yellow bamboo, planted on a built up mound of compost, since while it needs it damp it won't like having its crown sitting in water.  There is scarcely room for it, since the bed isn't that large, but I do want a gunnera.  The huge leaves are fabulously prehistoric.  The idea is that the new deck, and attendant pretties like the primula and globe flowers, should be screened by tall, lush vegetation in the summer, so that you walk down the garden and come upon the deck as a surprise.  Well, obviously it won't be a surprise to us, because we know it's there, but it will feel secluded and secret.

The Systems Administrator returned from Nottingham, having taken the scenic rail route via Ely to avoid the replacement bus service, and wasn't able to use the new deck having chosen to let the chickens out for a yomp in the front garden.  They were very happy to come out, as I didn't manage to make the time to supervise chicken exercise while the SA was away.  I was originally planning to go to a beekeepers' garden meeting near Bures yesterday, and visit an open garden in Tendring today, before working out that there simply wasn't time to do everything.

In our garden, the Paeonia rockii has put on a splendid display of its huge and exotic white and purple flowers, while Aquilegia are popping up everywhere.  All the columbines are originally from seed, some that I grew and some that have seeded themselves.  There are some quite refined varieties, including one that looks like 'Ruby Port' though it may not be, and pale pink ones that could be 'Clematiflora', but others are the vigorous plain dark purple sort.  I like the latter, but ought to try and remember to cut them down before they seed, to keep the balance tipped towards the more unusual forms.

And that is it.  I am going to go and sit on the veranda before it gets too cool, and talk nicely to my other half.  It is a very beautiful evening.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

setting out the pots

I spent a happy day moving the pots of geraniums from their winter quarters in the greenhouse to the Italian garden in front of the house.  These are geraniums in the pelargonium sense of the word, but not even the boss insists on calling them pelargoniums.  Their ancestors came from South Africa, and by March they were looking unutterably miserable after an Essex winter in a frost-free (but no more) greenhouse.  The recent hot weather has made them believe they are in heaven, and they are leafing up and sending out new shoots with the air of plants whose time has finally come.  I like keeping them from year to year, even though it is nip and tuck in the winter, because it saves the time and expense of buying fresh plants and compost each spring, and the labour of planting them up, and because it gives a pleasant sense of stewardship and continuity.

Some were bought at plant stalls, or received as presents from friends and relations and never came with names, while I've kept others going by taking cuttings and have managed to lose their labels, so I don't know what half of them are.  The scented leaf varieties seem to cope quite well with the low winter temperatures, while some other sorts bought for their relatively glamorous flowers from a specialist geranium grower did not make it through the two long, cold winters.  Some ivy leaf specimens bought at work look particularly stressed and dreadful in the winter, but leaf up vigorously in the spring.  If they can't cope with the conditions they go on the compost heap, and by a process of natural selection I'm ending up with a selection of those that can survive the winter damp and chill.

Some of the Geranium maderense grown from seed filched from plants by the V&A courtyard cafe are flowering this year.  This species normally dies after flowering, and flowers when it has built up the strength and inclination to do so.  I gave one of my young plants to a friend, and it flowered for her in the first year, so this spring I've been dosing mine occasionally with liquid tomato feed, which is what the specialist geranium nursery recommended in their growing instructions.  This species is not the easiest to keep going through the winter, being picky about the watering regime.  They seems to want to be dry (as do all geraniums in a UK winter) but die if allowed to get too dry, quite suddenly.  Cold nights distress them, sending the leaves wizened and bronzed, and they are more susceptible to aphid attack than the usual sorts of geranium.

I also have a few dwarf pomegranates, grown from seed, which have recently leafed up nicely, having spent the winter as pots of worrying little dried twigs.  They flowered last year, but not lavishly, and I have been including them in the tomato food regime.  Pots of the almost hardy, silver leafed Senecio, grown on from a tray of young plants bought at a garden gate, have mostly survived the winter, and are bushing out.  A couple shrivelled and died when we had a cold spell, but I couldn't work out whether that was the drop in temperature, or if I'd been too stingy with the watering in my attempts to avoid rot.

There are several pots of Agapanthus, the number tending to grow over time as I buy odd extra plants I like the look of.  My target this year is 'Queen Mum', which has large flowers of violet shading to white.  I admired them last year at work, but we only had a few huge plants at over thirty quid a pop, while this year we have more plants at a more sensible size and price.  Some of the older specimens could do with repotting, and I have made a basic error and planted them in pots that are narrower at the top than further down, with attractive pie crust edges and rope tops.  This is a shame, because the only way I'm going to get the plants out for repotting is to smash the pots.

There's a mauve flowered, striped leaf form of Tuhlbaghia, an allium relative whose affinity is betrayed by the onion smell of its leaves.  It flowers for a very long time once it starts, and is a better value plant than the green leafed and white flowered sort, which doesn't seem to bloom as prolifically, or for as long.  There's a pink flowered Crinum, which flowered a couple of times last year, and another Crinum that is supposed to be white, but I haven't been able to verify that because it has never flowered with me.  It is a weaker grower than the other, so maybe it is the white form, as white flowered variants are sometimes less vigorous than their stronger coloured companions.

There is a red and a white Clianthus, or lobster plant, both raised from seed and flowering a little but slightly beset by snails and the cold nights dragging on so late, and an Albizia, also raised from seed, which isn't growing as vigorously as I feel it ought to be, having seen the ones at work.  There's a marguerite with single pale yellow flowers, and I've bought a double pale yellow to expand the range.  The Argyranthemum, and a B&Q box of blue nemesias I've just got to go in the ancestral Heals pot, are the only bedding plants I've bought this year, everything else being a tender perennial or shrub that scraped through winter in the greenhouse.  B&Q are doing a BOGOF on plants this weekend, so I got a box of red and green flowered mimulus for free when I bought the nemesias.  I'm not exactly sure where I'll use them, but it seemed a shame to pass up free plants.

Friday, 25 May 2012

et in Arcadia ego

Finally, the housework caught up with me.  One might have expected that on a day that was warm and sunny, albeit blowing half a gale, I'd have been pulling up horsetail, or finishing planting up the bog, or moving the pots of geraniums out of the greenhouse.  I didn't like to risk moving them outside until last week, in case of one final overnight frost.  However, I wasn't doing any of these things, but spending a nice day cleaning the kitchen and vacuuming cat fur off the sitting room, and going to Tesco to buy courgettes and creme fraiche.

The immediate trigger for such a perverse outbreak of domesticity was that I'd invited a friend to supper, while the Systems Administrator is off with a friend at Trent Bridge.  I try to be careful not to mention to guests that I've spent the day of their visit cleaning, or that I don't like cleaning very much, since this would sound ungracious, and the cleaning isn't their fault.  The house needs to be cleaned periodically, so an impending visit doesn't create the necessity for housework, merely determines the timing of it.  In fact, given that I don't like cleaning, it's just as well that we do occasionally invite people round and are nudged into doing something about the state of the kitchen floor and the clouds of cat fur before they become a health hazard.

I like having a clean house, or at least a cleaner house.  Shiny cupboard fronts, crumb-free worktops, rugs that don't have an additional layer of fur overlaying the ethnic weave beneath, walls that aren't fretted with odd strands of cat hair, non-sticky place mats, clean hand towels, the loo smelling vaguely and reassuringly of Toilet Duck, side tables that aren't lightly spotted with red wine, light shades that don't suddenly and embarrassingly reveal themselves to contain a layer of detritus consisting of small dead flies, dust and more cat fur.  When I have accomplished these things I feel cleaner and shinier myself, reassured that chaos has been thrust back along with the vague possibility of infection.  It feels virtuous and comforting and nice.  I just don't like cleaning

Maybe I would like it more if I were better at it, or did it oftener and more conscientiously so that the end results were more impressive.  After an hour of scrubbing at the grease spots on the Aga, using two different sorts of proprietary cleaning product, one for chrome and steel and the other for enamel, and chasing dust and cat fur round it, I have to admit to myself that it is still not like the ones in the showroom, or in other people's houses who don't have four cats, and employ a competent cleaner, or wipe their Aga with proper Aga cleaning pastes oftener than once every three weeks.  Maybe because it is an electric one it seems to carry a static charge that attracts dust, and cat fur, and after an hour of wiping I can still see odd strands, and tide marks where the last swipe of the cloth got to, while there are still deposits around the hinges of the top plates which it would take me the rest of the day to remove, and I don't have the rest of the day.  It isn't really a clean Aga at all, just a lot shinier than it was, and it will have to do, just as the draining board and the sink will have to do, because to get them back to a showroom state of shininess would require the application of at least an entire bottle of limescale remover.  I don't really want that much industrial chemical running down into the septic tank, and I don't have the rest of the afternoon to spend scouring.

It's the same with the vacuuming.  I go diligently round and round the room, trying and failing to avoid getting the flex wound round the furniture and my legs.  A great deal of fluff came off the carpets and the pouffes today, even though the Systems Administrator gave it all a vacuum only a week ago.  After I have put the vacuum cleaner away I see bits that I missed, like the ethnic rug on the table in the downstairs sitting room which I completely overlooked, while new random bits of fur and dirt have appeared and settled in the time it took me to walk upstairs, open the spare room door, and put the vacuum cleaner away.  If we were to vacuum the house oftener maybe there wouldn't be such a reservoir of fluff lurking.  Maybe I would have a better routine and not forget the downstairs table.  Maybe the vacuumed house would look really, sparklingly clean, instead of merely appearing less obviously grubby.

In Poussin's pastoral paintings, shepherds gather around a tomb on which is inscribed Virgil's warning, et in Arcadia ego.  So it is here with housework.  Even in the middle of the rustic idyll, housework lurks.  I will never do enough of it, and it will never go away.  Tomorrow I am not going to clean the dust off the cases of the CDs racked under the stairs, even though they are very dusty.  Instead, I am going to move the geraniums out of the greenhouse.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

bona fide celestial music

I made a return visit today to LSO St Luke's for another of their lunchtime solo Bach series.  In a way it would be nice for us country day trippers if concerts on a theme that we like could be spaced out through the year, instead of there being four in as many weeks.  My companion and I couldn't decide which we preferred out of the cello and the harpsichord, and solved the question by going to both, but I'd have been quite happy if today's event had been in two or three weeks, instead of in Chelsea week.  But it wasn't.

My faltering musical brain fails to grasp most of what is going on in the music of JS Bach, but in the end I find it the most perfect music there is, just as TS Eliot is in the end my desert island poet.  I listen to Radio 3 programmes that explain what a fugue is, or how the theme in the second part is the first theme played upside down, and I try hard but I can't hear it.  But today's three preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier felt as large and mysterious as the universe, planets and stars rolling on through vast unimaginable space, while the closing Partita was as lively and complex as the whole life of a human being.  If there were a god and it spoke, it would sound like the music of Bach.

Today's harpsichord recital was by an astonishingly talented and astonishingly young Iranian born musician named Mahan Esfahani.  I hadn't heard of him until this series came up, which says more about me than about him, but I'm sure I'll be hearing more of him and from him in the next few decades.  You can hear him sooner than that, since today's performance will be the Radio 3 lunchtime concert on Thursday 18 October at 1.00pm.  The concert was respectably attended, but by no means a sell-out.  Quite a few of the audience were there by themselves, mostly dressed in casual shirts or T shirts, and significantly more than half of them were men.  I wondered whether some were from the high tech firms that now cluster around Old Street (according to the Telegraph), taking in some abstract musical high culture in their lunch hours.  Pairs of ladies up from the provinces for the day were definitely in the minority.  Maybe Bach's abstract complexities appeal to the male brain, or maybe the fringes of Hoxton are still a bit threatening to some visitors, but it was a very different demographic to the RA Friends' room.

It seemed a terrible waste that music of such high quality was going on with plenty of empty seats in the house, but was an odd echo of Monday night's concert in Colchester with Brendan Power and Tim Edey.  The previous week when it was Spiers and Boden the Systems Administrator and I had to arrive ridiculously long before the main act to get seats, and were beset with silly women who professed not to understand why everybody was sitting down instead of dancing, having talked and giggled their way through half the numbers instead of listening to them.  The gig was a sell out.  For Power and Edey the room was set up with chairs around cafe tables near the stage, and rows of chairs behind with a generous central aisle, a signal that the Arts Centre knew it was nowhere near sold out and wanted to make the room look full.  Brendan Power is a harmonica player of world class, with a polished stage presence and a decent voice, while Tim Edey plays the guitar and the melodeon to a very high standard (though obviously not at the same time) and faster than you would have believed possible.  I'm rather with my dad when he said he did not altogether approve of people playing tunes faster than they were meant to go, just to show off that they could, but it was a jolly good and entertaining gig by two superb musicians at the top of their game, who won a major folk award (Radio 2 Best Duo) only three months ago.  The audience did not talk, or giggle, or try to clap along, but sat listening with the same level of attention that Mahan Esfahani got for JS Bach.  In terms of musicality and technical proficiency you could not squeeze a hair between them and Spiers and Boden, but in marketing terms, the latter have got caught up in the broader media enthusiasm for New Folk and Bellowhead, while Power and Edey are still mostly only known to harmonica enthusiasts (and there aren't very many of those) and hard core folkies who follow Mike Harding on Radio 2.

We wandered up after the concert to the Geffrye Museum, since it was a long time since I'd been there and my friend had never been there at all.  It is a lovely museum, opened in some former almshouses early in the last century partly with the aim of providing instruction and inspiration for the furniture industry that still occupied Bethnal Green and Shoreditch, and it contains room sets with furniture for English homes from Stuart times to the late twentieth century.  It has a charming garden behind, a large and restful expanse of grass and plane trees in front, and a cafe, that served a really good bagel on my last visit and this time round produced a passable scone.  Entry is free.

Then we were able to go home when we wanted to, on a train leaving Liverpool Street at twenty to six, instead of having to wait around for an hour, because the new franchise holder on the Colchester line has scrapped the restriction on the time of homeward travel using a cheap day return.  The quid pro quo is that the fare has risen by over three pounds, on the other hand we spent close to that last time on refreshments to tide us over and buy us a place to sit down while we waited for a train.  Day trippers were not consulted about whether we wanted to make this trade off, but I'd say it was a fair exchange.  It's a pity that after all that the train going home ran late.  I shall look up the timetable presently, and check that it was more than half an hour late, in which case I can put in a claim for 25 per cent of the cost of the ticket.  Oh, and this morning the Circle line was suspended entirely when I got to Liverpool Street, so thank goodness it didn't do that on Tuesday morning when the SA and I were going to Chelsea.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

catching up with myself

 One of the neighbours called round on Monday, when I was at work, and spoke to the Systems Administrator to ask if we'd heard about the lettuce farm's planning application.  The copy of the letter she gave us was rather unnerving, since the application is for permission to erect polytunnels 6.4m high and up to 360m long, covering five fields, and construct two agricultural reservoirs, and the letter talked about how the development would 'dramatically change the present countryside landscape and impact on the local wildlife, volume of highway traffic as well as devaluing local properties'.  I was out on Monday evening, and the SA didn't look up details of the application in my absence.  I told myself that the farmer had been pretty sensible about community relations so far, and with the whole farm to choose from probably wouldn't try and stick the tunnels immediately next to houses, but it niggled at me at odd moments yesterday as a vague, overhanging threat.  This morning the SA looked up the full details on the web, and the proposed site of the tunnels is on the far side of the farm, well away from houses, while the planned reservoirs are due to be on the site of previous worked-out gravel extractions.

The news came as a relief.  Even though my rational mind thought that the developments were unlikely to take in the next door field, anxiety still lurked.  It's tricky living in the countryside.  You know that you don't own the view, and that fields are a working environment in which farmers have to make a living, but you still don't want rows of plastic tunnels over six metres high just over the hedge from your garden, just as you understand that farmers in the eastern counties need to store more winter rain for summer use, but don't want to listen to the noise of diggers and especially those wretched reversing bleepers for the year it takes them to excavate the reservoir.  The planning application has to make the commercial case for the development, and so we discovered that the farm plans to invest £9 million, and that the development will create six full time jobs.  That's £1.5 million capital spend per job created, so I think we can conclude that horticultural food production is not going to lead the UK out of its present unemployment problems.  The tunnels are intended to grow some kind of salad leaf used in supermarket bags of mixed leaves, which is currently imported to the UK, so the project will help the balance of trade, if it goes ahead.  Remember, the next time you buy a bag of mixed leaves or a supermarket lettuce, that the fields of north Essex are disappearing under fleece and polythene tunnels so that you can get one of your five a day.

Meanwhile I made some progress with my (rather long) list of things to do.  A fellow beekeeper is producing a leaflet for our stand at the Tendring Show (it is a lovely show.  Do come) and had circulated draft versions for constructive comment.  I fired off my first set of comments ages ago, and was disconcerted on getting back from work on Sunday to find myself being chased for comments on the next version when I'd only been sitting on it for a week, given the show isn't until the middle of July.  What with work, and Monday night's concert, and the Chelsea Flower Show, I had to confess that there was no way I was going to even look at it until today.  I sat down after breakfast to go through it, and was greatly relieved to send off my latest list of constructive comments and be able to tick Beekeeper's leaflet off my list of things to do.

Then I was able to have a look at the bees, since it has finally warmed up.  They like the warm weather, and all four colonies were in a benign and docile mood, while a problem a couple have been having with a fungal infection of their larvae, called chalk brood, was much reduced.  I was hoping that warmer and drier weather would do the trick, once the bees could fly freely instead of being stuck on top of each other in the hives.  One colony that was so slow to get going earlier in the year that I initially thought they must have gone queenless has increased greatly since the last inspection, and was starting to show signs of swarming.  I added a super (extra box) to give them more space, removed the incipient new queens, and crossed my fingers.  The tiny swarm I collected last year that made it through the winter, in defiance of what the text books say about the minimum colony size for successful overwintering, is building up as well.  I'm not sure what the other two colonies are doing, after my unsuccessful attempts at swarm control, but the bees seemed contented and purposeful, so I shall leave them to get on with it.  They have millions of years of evolution behind them in how to be a bee, whereas I have 13 year's experience in how to manage a bee, so when in doubt I take the view that they know better than I do.

Then I made it through my monthly Pilates lesson without disgracing myself.  By next month things should be less frantic, and we might progress to some new exercises and challenges, which would make it more interesting for both of us.  My life recently has felt like the proverbial paddling swan, legs going frantically even if the surface seems serene, though in truth it is probably more like a small dog doing the doggy paddle, little legs churning while the whole dog looks pretty worried.

Addendum  The Telegraph reports that the Shard doesn't make it into the world's top ten tall buildings, even at full height.  It would need to be another 460 feet tall.  Oh well.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

the greatest flower show on earth

We spent today at the Chelsea Flower Show.  The RHS bills it as the greatest flower show on earth, and it is a good one.  The trains going into London ran to time today (bless them) and we were rather lucky to get a Circle Line train almost immediately, since there were severe Circle Line delays this morning, so we were at the Royal Hospital not quite as the doors opened, but by twenty to nine.

We started off by looking at the small show gardens in the Ranelagh Gardens area of the show ground, since experience teaches that they are quiet early on, and packed later.  Then we looked at some of the large show gardens, then the great marquee.  After a break for Pimms and our packed lunches we divided forces for a while, as we do every year, so that I can inspect the stands in the marquee in minute detail, while the Systems Administrator strides around looking at things more impressionistically at a pace less crippling to the back.  We met again at the war memorial, which is always our default meeting position since it is not going to have moved, and showed each other things the other had missed, and I caught up on some stands in the grand marquee I'd not had time to look at.  We had a final look at the show gardens, and I bought four more glass leaves to hang in our front garden.  Then we set off home, just ahead of the rush hour, and I couldn't believe I'd been at the show for seven hours, which proves I was enjoying myself.

We had a lovely day.  Chelsea is always done magnificently, so there is lots to see.  Good weather helps, as it is nicer looking at show gardens in warm sunshine than drizzle, and you can eat your picnic in the Ranelagh gardens, and the marquee doesn't get so horribly crowded as when everybody is inside at once sheltering from the elements.  Public transport working properly helps too, as it takes the edge off the day to arrive later than you'd planned, when the crowds have built up, because you were stuck somewhere, or take ages to get home. So it was a very successful outing, and all being well we'll be going again next year.

In terms of show gardens it was not a vintage Chelsea.  We both felt that, while beautifully executed, they were conservative in terms of design.  Grid based layouts with slab internal walls, straight line paths, big boulders, rills, yup, seen all those before.  Purple, orange and lime green colour schemes.  Yes, I definitely saw plenty of those last year.  Lots of Gold medals were awarded, and the winning show gardens were lovely, but on safe and familiar territory.  There was very little that we thought was surprising or felt like the start of an influential new trend.  Cleve West's large garden that won best in show was about the most conservative of them all.  Actually, we were pleased that won, because the sponsor's Chairman is a friend from our City days.  His wife was on the stand when we were there, playing the part of the Chairman's wife to perfection, but she didn't see us in the crowd.

Matrix planting is in.  Forget groups of three, or five, or drifts.  The same plant repeated randomly through the whole expanse of planting is the trendy Chelsea way to do it.  That will be a legacy of the New Perennials movement.  Wild flowers are in, and good insect plants.  Orange geums are popular for the second year running, whereas the dark red Cirsium rivulare 'Atropurpureum' is on the wane, having been all over Chelsea like a rash a few years back.  Orlaya grandiflora, used by Tom Stuart Smith a couple of years ago when nobody knew what it was, including one of the girls handing out blurb on his garden, is now everywhere.  The most surprising new fave plants, to me, were the variants on Centaurea montana.  The common or garden blue version of this good natured ornamental knapweed was popular in the years after the last war.  Margery Fish writes of it, and it grew in the garden my parents bought when I was a child, which had been planted up by a very keen cottage gardener.  When I first wanted to acquire it, about twenty five years ago, I had great difficulty tracking down plants or even seed, it was so out of fashion.  At this year's Chelsea it is everywhere, in shades of pink, mauve, and deep purple, but not blue.  The blue is still the nicest, I think.

The Diarmuid Gavin tower was just silly, but by now I don't mind that, regarding him being silly as part of the Chelsea tradition.  Andy Sturgeon's design for M&G bothered me, in that it featured internal stone walls peppered with expensive laser cut circular holes.  I think these were meant to echo the metal sculpture made out of copper rings (that weaves through the garden and enlivens it without challenging its formality, according to the programme), but I couldn't help thinking they symbolised the holes the current economic difficulties had shot in my portfolio, and the Systems Administrator said they reminded him of bullet holes, and he felt that Kate Adie ought to be there, in a flak jacket.  On the other hand, the garden by a Korean designer based on the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, which featured the rusting detritus of war and scorched tree trunks amidst a tangle of Korean plants, was completely wonderful.  Even among the crowds and bustle and BBC cameras and ice-creams and Pimms, it held a haunting air of loss and separation and history.

The grand marquee was beautiful, and I saw some new and fascinating plants, as well as old favourites like the auriculas (them reckless plants, as Mrs Fish's gardener used to call them) and Bloms tulips (another Gold medal.  Phew).  And I saw Roy Lancaster, who is one of my heroes, and got advice from the proprietor of Broadleigh Bulbs about my non-flowering Iris unguicularis.  The marquee is always wonderful, and probably my favourite bit.

And now we are going to watch it all again on the television.

Monday, 21 May 2012

work and play

Another Monday, another folk club night.  I'm taking my dad to hear Brendan Powers and Tim Edey.  They won a prize in this year's R2 Folk Awards, though that won't have swayed my dad, who doesn't listen to the radio, but he likes them anyway.  There'll be enough time after getting back from work to scrape the compost from under my fingernails and grab something to eat, but not much more than that, before it's time to go out again.  We are going to take the risk of not arriving at the Arts Centre until about quarter past eight, so we'll have less time to endure sitting on the hard chairs listening to whatever dodgy local support act the organisers have found for us.

I shouldn't be horrid about support acts.  After all, everybody has to start off somewhere.  I just wish they could get together and found a new singers club, where they could practice on each other, instead of tagging themselves on to the coat tails of what are (in folk terms) international superstars.  Otherwise it's too much like having got a ticket to hear Mitsuko Uchida live, and finding that as the warm-up you have to listen to this really keen girl from the local sixth form college, whose just passed grade six piano.

If I am feeling keen, and awake, maybe I will tell you more about the harmonica and squeeze box duo when I get back.  If not then that's it, folks.  That's the trouble with a live blog.  I couldn't even have written today's entry last night, because I was busy writing yesterday's, while the poor Systems Administrator sat patiently, occasionally asking plaintively if it was time to go and start cooking the supper yet.  Have a good week.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

more watering

The trouble with the weather being warmer and drier than of recent weeks is that we have to do more watering at work.  It took us a good couple of hours this morning.  The fact that the pipes of the automatic irrigation system are broken on a couple of the shrub beds didn't help, but in main it was because we were fiddling around, trying to water the individual pots that were dry, and not those that were already wet enough, if not too wet.  I volunteered to go and water the tunnel and outdoor standing areas on the other side of the car park, where we grow on plants for sale later, as well as storing the extras from large deliveries when there isn't room for them all in the plant centre.  The manager's note of jobs for the weekend said that we could use the overhead irrigation outside if needs be, but NOT inside the tunnel.

I don't like watering over The Other Side.  None of us do, apart from the manager's trusted helper.  It is true that newly potted little roots, which have not yet grown anywhere near big enough to fill their new 2 litre flower pots, are dangerously easy to overwater, and if allowed to sit too wet for any length of time they will rot, so only people who know what they're doing should be allowed near them.  However, other things can go wrong with the growth of potted-up roots besides overwatering.  In sunny weather it can get uncomfortably warm for plants in a large polytunnel, even with the doors open and the plastic sides rolled up to allow air in through the underlying shade netting.  Compost formulations seem to keep changing, presumably partly as manufacturers try to adjust their recipes to use less peat, and some compost I've encountered over recent years seems inimical to plant life.  However, if any plant fails to thrive over The Other Side the manager's instant response is always to blame the staff for getting the watering wrong.  I prefer not to be involved, when I can avoid it, but as today was forecast to be quite warm, and yesterday was warmish, anything that was already dry really was going to need watering.  It took a long time, as I lifted a lot of pots to check the weight, rather than rely on looking at the state of the top layer of compost, and I did the bare minimum, leaving anything I thought would last until tomorrow.  The manager can water it himself, then he will be happy it has been done properly.

In the course of my watering I spotted a couple of varieties that customers have asked me for in recent weeks, but which weren't out for sale in the plant centre.  The general rule of thumb is that anything over The Other Side with a price label on it is ready for sale, so if I'd known we had the plants hidden away behind the scenes then I could have scooted over and fetched them for people.  If the sales force don't know the full range of what's available, they can miss out on sales.  The danger of having us going and finding plants for people from there is that we don't know which things aren't out for sale because nobody has had time to put them out, and which things are actually reserved for some designer or large customer and are never destined to make it to general release in the plant centre.  At the moment there are various caches of plants roped off with stern notices on them saying Suffolk Show Do Not Touch.

A couple of customers commented on the fact that we were still allowed to use hoses, when they weren't, and I explained that we had a borehole and were mostly not using mains water, and that we were a business, and if not allowed to water our stock would be bankrupt inside a fortnight.  I don't know exactly what the exemptions are for horticultural businesses, but I presume there are some.  Anyway, we do have a borehole.

In the afternoon we hosted a meeting of classic cars in the car park, so eight or ten Daimlers and Austin Healeys came and lined up on the grass in front of The Other Side that we use for overflow car parking, where they looked very nice.  The girl who runs the tea room was rather excited at the prospect of a gathering of classic sports car owners, whom she hoped would be rich and glamorous, and I had to break it to her that most of them would be middle aged, if not older.  I was right.  If any of the classic car contingent were still looking forward to their fiftieth birthdays I'd have been quite surprised.

The peahen has made her nest in a raised bed just outside the office.  At first I thought this was an odd place to choose, being very public, but I suppose she knows all of us, and a nest right by the house is probably safer from the fox than one somewhere more secluded.  In the middle of the afternoon she rises off her nest and comes to stretch her legs in the plant centre, where she behaves very oddly, shaking her head and uttering loud hoots and screeches.  At one point she stood on the ridge of the house roof, hooting, and I took the opportunity to look in the nest and see how many eggs.  So far she has two.  They are very large, and a pale mottled brown.  She flew off the house roof, landing rather heavily in the gravel, and I wondered for a moment if she had taken umbrage at my looking at her eggs, and if so what it would be like to be attacked by a peahen, but she contented herself with looking at me and marching about purposefully.  One of my colleagues said she had been rushing at customers, but they must not have looked firm enough.  If you find yourself being approached by a large and possibly insane peafowl then just stand your ground, that's my advice.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Facebook passed me by

I had just started my day's allotted task of tidying up the herbaceous section, having equipped myself with a pink bucket and the only pair of work secateurs available for staff use, and was staring at Acanthus mollis, the first plant in the herbaceous alphabet, when the boss hailed me through the gate into the garden.  He told me the latest on the bees his friendly local bee farmer keeps on the estate, and suggested we go and have a look at the bait hives the bee farmer had put in the garden, to see if any bees had moved in yet.  They were only installed yesterday, and one had so much activity round the door we thought a swarm must already have taken up residence.  Bees in lesser numbers were crawling around the entrance of the second empty hive, which we thought were probably scouts at this stage, sent out by a swarm to find it a good permanent home.  Then we went to admire a rather ordinary and badly leaning conifer which has been transformed into a frothy tower of beauty at this time of the year by growing a white flowered wisteria up it.  This was Wisteria venusta, which has comparatively short racemes of individually quite large flowers, and the boss was very proud of the effect, and the way that the wisteria had turned a dull tree into something special.  The flowers had a pleasant scent, not as potent as W. sinensis, but sweet, and with a hint of the bean field about it, and the whole plant was humming with foraging bees.  I quoted W B Yeats to the boss, about the bee loud glade, and returned to Acanthus.

It was a pleasant day, warmer than days of late, which put all the customers in a good mood, and there were some familiar faces among the throng, including the couple around my age who once popped up at a lecture about local architect Raymond Erith, on which basis I feel they must be civilised people to know, besides which, they have kind faces.  I was rather taken aback in the afternoon by a man who appeared to have a dead squirrel hanging from his chin, but on closer view it was a straggly goatee beard, tied tightly just below his jaw with a rubber band.  I cannot think of any circumstances in which that would not be a seriously bad look.

While tidying the herbaceous section, in between stints on the till, I mused about the Facebook flotation.  I am not and have never been on Facebook.  When it first appeared it was for young people, and then London based journalists began to write about it, and I thought it was for metropolitan media types who were trying to be trendy, but still irrelevant to me, and then I began to not like the sound of it anyway.  Everything I heard about the opacity of the privacy settings put me off, knowing that I would never get those right.  Besides which, I couldn't think of anything much I needed to communicate via Facebook, and I couldn't think of many people I'd communicate it with.

I don't need to post status updates.  I have been married to the same person for 27 years, living at the same address for 18 and doing the same job for 8.  If any of those facets of my status suddenly change it will be a sufficiently momentous fact that I'd rather tell my friends and relations about it personally.  Facebook is supposed to be good for sharing photos, but I don't want to share photos.  I don't even have any photos to share, finding that the act of walking around photographing life is detrimental to the act of actually living it.  If I had any photos I can't see why people I know would want to look at them.  Pre-internet, making other people look at your holiday snaps was considered pretty naff, and I don't see that it would get less self-indulgent just because it happened on an on-line forum.  Much as I love the company of my friends, I don't feel any great need to look regularly at their photos either.

Anyway, I don't think most of my friends are on Facebook.  Some who have children may be on it in a low key way to stay in touch with their kids, but they have never suggested to me that I might like to join them there.  A good half of my friends don't even like computers very much.  I mean, they're not phobic.  They'll use Google when they have to, to check out museums and galleries and gardens and things, but they don't spend their spare time surfing the net as a leisure pursuit.  And I can't see the attraction of amassing great long lists of Facebook 'friends'.  And I find the whole idea of formalising social relationships in that way deeply bizarre.  Asking somebody to be my 'friend'?  'Unfriending' them if we've had a falling out or things have gone a bit cool?  It sounds like the language of the playground, not the nuanced relationships of adult human beings.

Apart from that, I don't really know what happens on Facebook, because I have never been there.  The only reason I can think of why I would join would be if it becomes ubiquitous among the sort of middle-aged people I hang out with for organising events.  If the Colchester beekeepers switched from using e-mail to using Facebook to announce details of club meetings, for example, then it would be unreasonable of me to refuse to use Facebook, and insist that I had to be different, and get my own special e-mail, or phone call, or letter, or message carried by runner in a cleft stick.  Until that day I'll steer clear of it.  I'm pretty sure that the flotation is insanely overpriced, though.

Friday, 18 May 2012

gardening the swamp

Tiny seedling weeds were starting to spring up in the gunnera bed, and I thought I'd better start planting my own choice of bog plants there, before the weeds grew any more and I was back to square one.  Hoeing was not an option, so I stirred the surface of the mud around with a fork and hoped the bittercress would drown.  Even though I'd done my research on which species would grow in boggy conditions, it felt strange puddling the nice solid root balls of my expensively amassed plants into such a wet mess, and I couldn't quite believe that they wouldn't all instantly start to rot.  However, the books, websites and the boss's labels say that Osmunda regalis, Lysichiton camtschatcencis, Darmera peltata, Primula bulleyana and Filipendula rubra 'Venusta' will grow in wet places, so here's hoping they're right.  Sometimes learning by doing feels as though it might be a costly exercise.

The front of the bed, which was very wet about a decade ago, has dried out again as the springs have moved, and I replanted an iris there that was drowning round at the back.  I couldn't work out from my not up to date spreadsheet which one it was, but it looked as though it could do with more sun and drier feet.  There was a reasonable sized gap to plant up, once I'd weeded out the horsetail, and I can't remember what used to be there, but filled it with a replacement Iris confusa 'Martyn Rix' and some fresh Thalictrum flavum glaucum.  The iris 'Martyn Rix' is an unusual looking thing, which visitors used to mistake for a low growing bamboo, when it wasn't producing iris flowers, and my original plant spread to make a good sized patch, but the two cold winters did for it.  I'm not sure what happened to the previous generation of Thalictrum, but suspect they were over-run by the yellow bamboo.  A pink flowered Thalictrum is seeding itself usefully, and looks very happy in the front half of the bed, so with any luck the yellow flowered version will do equally well there.

I tried a Cardamine quinquefolia in the corner in fairly deep shade.  It may prove too shady for it, but I won't know until next spring, since it's a woodlander that dies down pretty quickly after flowering in the spring, and my new plant was in the process of dying back naturally when snails hastened it on its way.  It is a member of the cabbage family, with typical cruciferous four petalled flowers in an agreeable shade of pink.  Some sources describe it as spreading slowly, while others say it is quite rampant.  I think growing conditions have a lot to do with it, and I expect my very shady corner will slow it down.  Of course, if it never comes up at all I may not remember having planted it.

A group of three saxifrages of yet another variety, bought from the Chatto Gardens, went in front of the new deck.  I thought that low evergreen ground cover would be good there, rather than growing something too tall that would get kicked when we walked out to the deck, and the soil looked about right, not too wet, not too dry.  The general rule at the Chatto nursery is that you have to write your own label, rather than getting a printed one like the boss provides at work, and I'd made a note on the reverse of my label that the instruction on the nursery label warned 'not too dry'.

Stems of the yellow bamboo keep leaning over.  I've cut out some of the worst ones, and tied others to iron plant supports driven into the ground inside the clump.  This is a long-standing difficulty, and I've never seen it mentioned in books or articles about growing bamboos, so I don't know why mine decline to grow vertical and self-supporting.  Maybe I'll find somebody to ask at The Chelsea Flower Show.

At the top end of the gunnera bed the Systems Administrator is building a narrow walkway to give me dry shod access across the swamp to the back of the bed, for maintenance.  My plan is then to put alder logs like stepping stones around the back of the bed, to link up with the new deck.  I don't suppose that I, or anybody else, will step along them very often, but I think the idea of them will be playful and appealing to the eye.  Just so long as any visiting small children don't fall off them into 20cm of mud, otherwise I shall be in trouble with their parents.

Addendum  At least one of the new little hens has started laying small pullet eggs.  I found one in the egg box this morning, and this afternoon the SA was concerned to find a little hen sitting in the egg box, in case she was ill, so was relieved to discover it was because she was laying.

Thursday, 17 May 2012


I disturbed my first toad of the season today.  I was digging up clumps of grass in the island bed in the back garden when suddenly my forkful of soil contained something brown and knobbly that was not a stone.  I stared, transfixed and horrified, until the toad extended its legs and hopped away.  Phew, I didn't skewer it.  I dread the day that the tines of the fork come up with a toad body impaled on them, but it hasn't happened yet.  I don't know if that is just luck, or goes to show that toads are quite tough.  Later on I unearthed another toad, or maybe the same one twice, and cupped it carefully in my hands and put it into a thick patch of foliage where I knew I was not going to dig that afternoon.  It felt vital and alive through my gloves, and not keen on being picked up, but it was for its own good.

I really like toads.  I like them as a token that the environment is healthy.  Amphibians, with their moist skins, seem vulnerable to infections, and I feel that a healthy toad population is a sign of a healthy and thriving garden. I like them because they eat slugs, and are the gardener's helper.  I like them for their own sake.  I don't find their warty looking skin off-putting, or consider them ugly.  They appear to me to be rather dignified little creatures, with an alien air of self-sufficiency that appeals.

I've enjoyed The Wind in The Willows, in book form and, when I was a child, as a pantomime, but I don't know where Kenneth Graham got his idea of Mr Toad from.  Ratty and Badger are quite convincing characters, if you accept the notion of anthropomorphised water rats and badgers, likewise the stoats and the weasels, but the toads I meet are not loud and blustering.  They seem enigmatic and shy creatures.  George Smiley is a more likely personification of a toad in literature than Mr Toad.

Legend has it that the toad has a precious jewel in its head.  Sweet are the uses of adversity, which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head.  So wrote Shakespeare (As You Like It).  Though, as I have already said, I don't think the toad is ugly.  It is not strictly venomous either, though it does secrete substances that deter many predators from eating it.  One of our previous generation of cats once came into the house drooling severely and looking very ill.  We took him to the vet, who said he had probably licked a toad.  He spent 36 hours sitting in a chair, wrapped in a towel and dribbling, then leapt to his feet and was fine.

Philip Larkin didn't seem to take kindly to the toad's chilly, squatting aspect in his poem Toads.

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison -
Just for paying a few bills!
That's out of proportion.

Lots of folk live on their wits:
Lecturers, lispers,
Losers, loblolly-men, louts
They don't end up as paupers;

Lots of folk live up lanes
With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-
They seem to like it.

Their nippers have got bare feet
Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets - and yet
No one actually starves.

Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that's the stuff
That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney
My way of getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.

I don't say, one bodies the other
One's spiritual truth;
But I do say it's hard to lose either,
When you have both.

However, Norman MacCaig had a kinder view of them.


Stop looking like a purse.  How could a purse
Squeeze under the rickety door and sit,
Full of satisfaction in a man's house?

You clamber towards me on your four corners -
Right hand, left foot, left hand, right foot.

I love you for being a toad,
For crawling like a Japanese wrestler,
And for not being frightened

I put you in my purse hand not shutting it,
And put you down outside directly under
Every star.

A jewel in your head?  Toad,
You've put one in mine,
A tiny radiance in a dark place.

I'm in the MacCaig camp on the subject of toads.  I was convinced that Robert Graves had written a poem that used the toad with the jewel in its head as a metaphor for the ugly but faithful lover with hidden merits, but I can't find it.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

a dry day in the garden (blimey)

Our Ginger caught a squirrel this morning.  He came stomping around the side of the house with the body in his jaws, looking as if he had captured the squirrel himself, rather than nicking it from the big tabby.  I put a box in front of the cat door so that he couldn't take it into the house, and he ate the head outside the front door.  He'll never lose weight if he goes eating squirrels between meals.

I did a garden talk last night, up in the Suffolk Sandlings.  The Orwell Bridge and A12 were clear, and the instructions on how to find the hall, which looked on the map as though it might be going to be difficult, turned out to be accurate and helpful, corresponding to the sort of detail on the ground that you can spot when driving by yourself at main road speeds, so it was an easy trip up there, and I had time to run through my talk in my head sitting in the car park, and look at the swallows perching on the telephone wires.  It is lovely countryside up beyond Woodbridge, and it was a fine evening, the light having the sort of fierce clarity that you get as you approach the North Sea on a sunny day.  Among the conifer plantations are little patches of broadleaf woodland, at this time of the year vivid with bluebells.

The audience seemed to like the talk, although what some of the ladies really wanted to know was where I got my sweater.  They were a little disappointed to learn that it was at least twelve years old, though the company I bought it from is still going, so they could have one if they wanted to, albeit not to the same design.  My vintage one is in a cheerful pattern of smallish squares in rich earth colours, which reminds me of a small Paul Klee painting I once saw, but might remind some other people of a Channel 4 garden show presenter circa 1998.  It is made out of alpaca, an excellent and hard wearing wool that doesn't pill and is a much better bargain than cashmere, looking nicely worn in after twelve years.

The instructions on how to find the hall warned me sternly to beware of deer in the forest, and I saw one on the way home, lurking in the verge.  Despite having read The Yearling at an impressionable age I'm not a great fan of deer.  I don't wish them individual suffering, and I know that in the right numbers they have their place in England's ecosystem, but I can't shake off their associations as destroyers of trees and gardens.  I can't perceive grey squirrels as cute for the same reason, hence my instant reaction on seeing Our Ginger this morning was not 'poor squirrel' but 'bother, the cat's found something to eat'.

In theory I now have the rest of the week to get on with working in the garden.  I don't have anything booked, and the forecast is for it to remain dry.  I spent today weeding the island bed, where great patches of weeds ran away from me in the wet weather before I could tackle them small and get the Strulch down.  After two late nights on the trot I felt slightly tired, and conscious that I must take particular care not to poke myself in the eye on the low branches of the Judas tree.  Fatigue breeds clumsiness, and pessimism, and I had a vague conviction all day that it couldn't last, and that presently it would start to rain, or I would stab myself on a plant and spend half tomorrow morning at the walk-in medical centre, or the phone would ring and I would have to leave the garden and go and do something else instead, but none of these things happened.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

going for a walk

We went for a walk after lunch, once the hailstorm had passed, to see the bluebells.  We can see two ancient woods from the sitting room windows, and a footpath lets you cut down between them, though there isn't public access into either of them.  Bluebells are an ancient woodland indicator in Essex (though not in all parts of the UK), and the woodland floor to either side of the path was thick with them.  In bright light they shine a vivid, luminous blue, while when the sun goes in they go dull, grey and half invisible.  We were lucky and as we got to that part of the walk the sun shone through, and the ground around us gleamed back at it.  The individual flowers of the native bluebell are narrow funnels, which hang down along one side of the stalk, whereas the Spanish bluebell is larger and coarser in all its parts, each flower is wider and more flared at the mouth, and they are carried all around the stalk.

The verges were thick with cow parsley, and a little white flowered thing I have known since childhood without ever learning its name.  It used to stud the hedges on the walk home from school at this time of year, back in the 1960s when infants were allowed to walk themselves a mile home from school.  At Cockaynes Wood, where what was until recently a working gravel pit has just been turned over to the Essex Wildlife Trust, we saw a lapwing.  The bluebells in Cockaynes seemed to be going over compared to those in Captains Wood and Fratinghall Wood, some already setting seed or partly obscured by the emerging bracken, though it may partly have been an optical effect because at that point the sun had gone in.  The Systems Administrator was slightly disappointed, having wanted to show them to me after tracking them as they came out, but I was quite happy, having already seen a generous display further back.

Many of the fallen trees still lie along the south-west, north-east axis, relics of the 1987 hurricane.  Some have successfully thrown up strong new trunks from the sides of their fallen original boles, the part of the root plate still in the soil being enough to support life, while the fallen trunk rooted where it touched.  Professional forestry managers will now admit that they were too quick to clean up the mess after 1987.  Wind-thrown broadleaf trees have a considerable ability to regenerate.

Skylarks were singing above the cornfields.  They seem to hold their own in this corner of Essex.  Whether the farmers clear patches for them to nest in the middle of the crop, which is a good place, relatively secluded from predators, or whether they manage in the field margins and headlands, I don't know.  We saw several hanging above the fields, and a couple dropped down into the middle of a field of some sort of grain.  We agreed that it was wonderful to see the larks, and that what we needed was an idiot's guide to the farmed countryside, since we couldn't tell wheat from barley, and don't know whether the stuff that looks like rye grass is a recently sown grain crop that just hasn't grown much yet, or whether it really is rye grass, and if so why.  It is a rather unbalanced state of knowledge to go for a walk, and be able to identify quite a few of the birds, flowers and trees, and recognise an old pollarded oak and understand why it looks like that now, without being able to identify the major economic crops growing on either side of you.

Outside Arlesford we turned a corner, and a view to the river Colne suddenly opened up.  It took me a couple of minutes to get my bearings, then the unfamiliar sights fell into place and became a landscape that I knew, with the barrier across the river at Wivenhoe, the quarry dock at Rowhedge, and the bulge of the Fingringhoe reserve.  The landscape around here is a patchwork of old quarry workings, with abrupt changes in level, and the grassed over bottoms of previous gravel pits providing thin grazing for horse paddocks.  The horses, wearing rugs in this weather, must all get supplementary feed, so the grazing is only to amuse them.  They are the lucky horses in this recession, the ones whose owners can still afford to keep them.

We met no other walkers until the home stretch, when we passed a cheerful spaniel and an old codger going in the opposite direction.  The SA and the codger exchanged courtesies about the weather, and the spaniel looked as if it would have liked to jump up at me, but its owner told it sternly that if it did he would bop it with his stick, and it desisted.  It was a nice walk, and I said that we should go again.  The SA often walks, and knows the paths around here far better than I do.  I have to be prised out of the garden, but I like it once I get going.

Monday, 14 May 2012

flat, stale and unprofitable

The nice weather over the weekend was just an interlude, and this morning things were back to grey, cold and raining.  As I set off for work I suddenly realised I'd forgotten that my usual route was closed for five days for Works.  I can't think they're resurfacing the lane, so it must be a utilities company.  By then I was driving the wrong way for the route I'd meant to take, so was slightly late.  Fortunately, from my point of view, the manager arrived at the same time as I did, so my late arrival was camouflaged.  He was suffering from a ferocious migraine, and wasn't sure he'd make it through the day.

The morning was very, very quiet.  Those customers who did come complained that it was not just wet, but cold, and it was.  It really was not weather for making you feel like walking about outside and shopping.  Plus, when the breaks in the weather are just enough to get the grass cut, people may not be ready to plant.  There were two or three good big trolleys late on, but overall it was a disappointing day.  Or at least, not a good day in sales terms, since to describe something as disappointing implies that you had thought it might be better than it was, and I was fairly sure that today was going to be poor.  I gather that yesterday, when the sun shone, it was quite busy, which does at least show that, even with the hosepipe ban, people are still prepared to buy plants, provided they don't have to walk around in the rain and the cold to do so.

Driving home I saw a fox in the public lane, just along from the turning to the farm.  I told the Systems Administrator, who said that was nothing, since this morning there was one outside the kitchen window, standing in the Italian garden.  That's the second fox we've had in three or four days (or the second sighting of the same one).  The big tabby came crashing in through the cat door the other day and took refuge on the sitting room window sill, and when the SA went to see what was wrong with him saw a fox walking through the garden.

And that's it for now.  I didn't make one before the programme, and we have tickets for Spiers and Boden at the Colchester Arts Centre.  It's a sell-out, so we don't want to arrive too late or we'll be stuck behind a pillar.  Never doubt that Cardunculus is not done in real time.  Have a nice evening.

Addendum  Spiers and Boden were excellent, like the fine musicians that they are, and we are going to try and find an alternative venue to see them, the next time they tour.  The Colchester Folk Club did their usual thing, which is that the doors open at quarter to eight, you grab a seat not too long after that to avoid getting a really dud spot, and spend the next half an hour listening to a CD of a band that's playing there in October.  Then you listen to a local musician doing a support act, whose taste in songs you do not share, and then there is another ten minute hiatus while the Arts Centre sound man rearranges the stage.  Finally, after you have been in the building for an hour, you get to hear the band that is the reason why you went.  The Arts Centre seats are hard, and the Systems Administrator can't manage much more than an hour and a half sitting on them before developing acute hip pain, so by the interval the SA is in severe discomfort.  At least in the interval you can stand up, but then you have to sit down again.

In another decade I will probably only go to classical concerts.  Tonight there were three women sitting directly behind me who kept up a constant stream of mutters, comments and giggles throughout.  God knows why they spent fifteen pounds a head on tickets to a live concert they were going to treat as background music, and why some classical music promoters feel it is a good idea to encourage a more informal atmosphere is beyond me.  An audience convention that you don't talk and spoil it for other people is a precious legacy to be guarded, not squandered.  The ghastly trio weren't talking very loudly, but muttering certainly carries forward a row.  They were also among the leaders of the outbreaks of moronic clapping along to the music.  If you at a Spiers and Boden concert you do not need to clap along.  Jon Boden has brought his own percussion, and he is in time with himself.

We left at quarter to eleven, which meant we'd spent three hours in the Arts Centre, of which half was spent listening to the musicians we'd gone to hear, and the other half was spent sitting and standing about.  That's not a good ratio.  Compare and contrast with the Mercury Theatre, where you can arrive a quarter of an hour before the play starts and still have time for a tonic water, and where the seats do not send the SA into spasm.  The talking problem is probably worse for Spiers and Boden than some other bands, given their Bellowhead connection and general trendy funkiness.  I don't think anybody talks in a Martin Simpson concert, because they have too much respect, and because the rest of the audience would lynch them.  In the meantime, we'll get some more Spiers and Boden albums, but I can't see us watching them live again in that venue.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

de spring is sprung, de grass is riz

Spring has suddenly sprung.  The path to the compost bins has become a narrow track between banks of cow parsley and hawthorn blossom, studded with bees.  An agapanthus on the greenhouse staging, that I was worried about because it was scarcely showing a leaf, and I thought I had let it get too dry over the winter, has thrown up 10cm of leaves while I've been away.  The growth of the goosegrass is prodigious, and the horsetail leaves are coming through.  The cow parsley is very pretty, and worth enjoying while it lasts, as it is a brief affair.  Bluebells have started to seed themselves under the little oak tree, which is good of them, as I should like some bluebells there.

The Systems Administrator managed to get the rotary mower over the lawns in the back garden, and the lawn tractor over the meadow.  Cutting the grass in the back garden was a slow job, and the SA's forehead was slicked with sweat by the time we'd finished.  The mower was able to pick up the clippings, which was better than I'd feared, and the SA tipped them into barrows for me to trundle away.  This cut isn't going on the compost heap, because it is full of horsetail spores and dandelion clocks, so it gets dumped in an odd corner.  It is a relief to have got it done, since the longer the grass grows, the more time, wind and sunshine it takes to dry it, and the fewer the opportunities to cut it, so the whole problem can develop into a descending spiral of increasing difficulty.

I started cutting the edges, but only got about a third of the way round, so must return to that next week.  It's forecast to be colder and showery by then.  A piece of advice often offered by professional gardeners is that if you have time to do only one thing, cut the lawn, and if you don't even have time to do that then cut the edges.  Some of our edges are 20 to 30cm long, so it isn't exactly a quick fix this time for making the garden look tidy, but the place does look much better when it's done, crisper and more cared for.  A preference for crisp and cared for is a cultural phenomenon, since in Regency times it was the fashion to leave edges uncut, in a soft and natural style.

The SA didn't try to pick up the grass while cutting in the meadow, since it would only have clogged the lawn tractor's innards, so that will need another turn with the tractor if we have some good drying weather, or a session with the rake if we don't (which seems more likely). Still, the worst of the impending grass management crisis has been averted.

The garden's headlong rush into leaf highlights those shrubs that aren't doing so well.  The leaves on the two Callicarpa bodinieri, planted as a pair from different suppliers to ensure pollination and a supply of those amazing purple berries, are puny little things, not at all reassuring.  Most of a dwarf lilac in the top garden appears to be dead.  I fear it is finding competition from the boundary hedge too much.  A self-sown wild rose nearby is completely leafless, while the hedge is flourishing.  Looking on the bright side, new growth is visible at last on the Aloysia triphylla in the Italian garden.  This is a tender shrub whose leaves are strongly scented of lemon.  I was concerned that after the two very cold nights in February I might have lost all the top growth, and that the best it might do would be to shoot from ground level, but leaves are breaking quite a long way up the stems.  Mrs Earle was very keen on Aloysia triphylla, and  advocated covering its roots with cinders in the winter for protection, which I did not do.  It is a nice thing.  I grew one in a pot for years, but it was not truly very happy, so risking one in the ground seemed worth a go.

Addendum  There is something I meant to mention before.  On 9th May Claire Lomas finished the London Marathon, after sixteen days.  She did it at a walk, wearing a bionic suit, having broken her back in a riding accident several years ago.  The organisers said that she could not have a medal after taking sixteen days, but quite a number of other people gave her theirs, and she ended up with a collection.  She was walking to raise money for research into spinal injuries, with the aim of raising fifty thousand pounds.  I thought that the walk showed extraordinary grit and determination, and that Claire Lomas seemed an extremely nice, brave and genuine person who had worked very hard to rebuild her life after catastrophic injury, when it would have been easy to disintegrate into self pity and give up, and that spinal injury was something that could happen to any of us.  She fell off a horse, but the next time each of us steps into a car could be the last time we walk unaided.  I meant to sponsor her while I was watching the news on the day, and forgot, then remembered the following evening, and saw that her fund raising total was up to £103,000, just over twice her target.  The next morning it was over £108,000, and it is now over £141,000.  Please give something if you can, and send the link to her fundraising page to your friends, and ask them to bung in a tenner, or whatever they can afford or deem appropriate.  If she can reach £200,000 that would be good, half a million even better, and a million is a nice round number.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

on tour

I'm back.  I had a nice time.  I should have gone for the Grantham Travelodge wi-fi option, then I could have written about my historic garden visit this morning before the conference, instead of watching breakfast TV.  As it is you are going to get a truncated account of everything, otherwise the blog will start getting days behind, like Tristam Shandy's life unfolding faster than he can write about it.

The Grantham Travelodge was fine.  It was very quiet, no slamming doors or loud voices in the corridor late at night, and clean.  It was slightly cold, and I should have taken a supply of tea bags, but overall I'd recommend it if you need to arrive for a meeting in Grantham before ten, and don't happen to live in the area, and don't want to spend more than £35.  Travelodge room pricing is quite dynamic.  It was only £29 when I first looked at it, a few days before I got round to booking.

Belton House and its garden were interesting, and I'm glad I bothered to go and see them, but I was not captivated.  I don't know if I'd have felt differently if I'd been there on holiday with the Systems Administrator, when I was in the mood to be captivated, or if it was down to the National Trust's stewardship of the house, or the compromises forced by the sheer number of visitors.  I started by looking at the house, since that shuts earlier than the gardens.  The National Trust is very keen nowadays on explaining the life of domestic servants, but I skipped booking a timed, guided tour of the basement, since over the years I've seen quite a few servants' halls and sculleries, and read Margaret Powell's Below Stairs (highly recommended).

The trip round the house was faintly baffling.  It was built in the late seventeenth century, and altered internally over the centuries as is the way with grand houses.  Turn the dining room into the library, move the front door, adapt what were servants' stairs for use by the family, that sort of thing.  Many original architectural details remain and are superb, like some of the plasterwork ceilings, a (presumed) Grinling Gibbons carving in the hall, black and white marble floors and so on.  What I failed to get was any sense of how the house had been used.  The furnishings are original, meaning that they were in the house when the Trust acquired it in the latter part of the last century, but different rooms are furnished to different periods.  As I followed the prescribed route for visitors I felt as though I were looking at a disjointed series of bedrooms, boudoirs, bathrooms, dressing rooms and dining rooms, with no idea of how the family and their friends would have lived in it.  The large print (it needed to be large print because to preserve the fragile textiles there is no artificial light at all) booklet I borrowed at the start of my tour (self guided in the tourist and leisure jargon) told me about some of the rarer and more distinguished objects in each room, while most rooms had a cut-out of a servant, with some stuff about servants (like that footmen were tall and chosen for their good looks).  At the end of it I was none the wiser about whether, by the year 1900, the red drawing room (or whatever it was ) would have been used every day, or on special occasions, or where the family ate their meals if they didn't use the formal dining room with the tapestries every day, even for lunch on a wet Wednesday, or anything.

The gardens are historic grade I listed, but I only knew that from my elderly Telegraph book of gardens to visit, since the National Trust doesn't seem to mention it, or not anywhere obvious.  There is a formal Italian garden (fountain not working because of the drought) and a formal Dutch garden (think more topiary and bedding but no fountain) and some pleasure grounds and a big deerpark.  The pleasure grounds are carpeted with bluebells and cowslips, and lines of tatty rope strung between angle irons to stop you walking on them.  There is a box maze (reinforced with wire mesh to stop people pushing through it) and surrounded with more old rope.  There is a boat house in the Swiss style (locked).  The effect is of a landscape struggling to cope with the weight of visitors.  The most atmospheric thing is the orangery, which is now run as a burgeoning conservatory, full of plants with big leaves, some tender, and a working water spout.  Some of the plants had a nasty attack of greenfly.  That's the trouble with being a gardener.  You notice such things.  I sat in the conservatory and felt thoroughly charmed.

The cafe is OK, and there is a second hand bookshop where I got a very clean copy of the reprint of Mrs Earle's Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden for a quid, and overall I'm glad I bothered to go, but I wasn't enchanted.

The conference was just like a conference, with name badges, and slightly tepid hotel coffee.  It turned out that I should have been impressed that Clive Anderson made it, since this morning he was in London recording this evening's episode of Loose Ends.  His speech was very funny, and he did a splendid job of chairing the closing debate, and once more I was thoroughly charmed.  Almost all of the speakers over-ran their allotted times, including the Chairman in her opening remarks.  I realised that my years of reading, and hanging about people who manage woodlands must have rubbed off, as I didn't learn many new actual facts about trees and woodland that I didn't know already.  The organisers put people from the same area on the same tables, so I met some fellow volunteers from Essex, and my task manager, who I last saw about four years ago, and have communicated with since via e-mail.  It was fun, without leaving me pining for the corporate world of agendas and name badges.  Ted Green was pugnacious and thoroughly entertaining in the closing debate, and I'm still disappointed not to have been allowed on his workshop session about the Ancient Forest Myth, but I expect I can buy the book.