Sunday, 30 September 2012


It's time to be thinking about planting bulbs.  Actually, it was time to be thinking about planting daffodils a month ago, as they naturally start into growth by the end of August, but my Peter Nyssen order didn't arrive until while we were on holiday, and today is the first I've had time to do anything about it.

I placed the order back in early June, and at the time I had a clear plan of where every variety was going to go.  Unfortunately I have since forgotten it, and lost the piece of paper it was written on.  I'd pretty much forgotten what I'd ordered, so it came as a nice surprise opening the box to see what was in it.  Lots of tulips, several varieties of daffodils, some alliums, hyacinths, and a few bits and bobs.

The daffodils are all starting off in pots.  The longer term intention is to grow them in the ground, since in my experience daffodils don't seem to like being in pots for more than a single season.  I've managed to fit them into square one litre pots so far, or even 11cm for the smallest bulbs.  This means that they aren't planted as deep as they should be, so when I come to plant the potfuls out in the garden I'll need to bury them a bit deeper.  Weather and other garden jobs permitting, they'll go into the ground in March, once I can see what other bulbs are coming up and avoid spearing them.  I think the original plan was to put them in the long bed in the front garden.  At any rate, if that wasn't the original idea it's a perfectly good one, and I have time to change my mind again before March.  The long bed already contains Muscari, various sorts of bulbous iris, and hyacinths, planted out each year after doing duty for one season in pots.  I thought it could still do with more spring interest, and I was trying to think of places where the daffodils might do well.  They are mostly dwarf varieties, and don't want to be overwhelmed by other plants before their leaves have finished growing for the year.

There were two bags of ten hyacinth bulbs, allowing five each for four pots to go in the Italian garden.  I see that this year I've gone for the variety 'Minos' which is described as blue-violet.  I can't honestly remember why I chose that one, but it must have sounded desirable when I looked into it.  I haven't tried it before.  The hyacinths and daffodils are starting off inside the greenhouse, in case we have another dire winter.  I used to leave the hyacinth pots outside, and they were fine for many years, until the year before last when most of their basal plates rotted.  I had better set some mouse bait, however, since last year quite a few pots of small bulbs were dug up and eaten inside the shelter of the greenhouse.

I've bought some Anemone nemorosa, the wood anemone.  These look desperately unpromising when they arrive, a small plastic bag with little sections of black rhizome in it, like pieces of shoelace.  I've started them off like that before, and I think I got a pretty good strike rate.  At £3.50 for 25 pieces of root it is a much cheaper way of getting plants than buying them in growth from a garden centre.  I have a feeling that I may have read somewhere that A. nemorosa tended to be easier in garden cultivation than A. sylvestris, the snowdrop anemone, but I'm not sure about that.  I know I spent some happy evenings reading up on it all when placing the order, so I must have convinced myself at the time that Anemone nemorosa would be a good thing.

I've also started bringing the pots of tender things in from the Italian garden, to over-winter frost free.  The only problem is that the greenhouse is already desperately crowded.  Some of the pelargoniums that didn't do well this year, and were kept from last year, are going to go on the compost heap, and I'll start again with new vigorous plants in the spring.  I weeded and tidied the pots as I brought them in, and found several Geranium maderense seedlings in them, that had sown themselves from the plants that flowered this year.  I potted three up, slightly unceremoniously since a seed bed congested with pelargonium roots isn't the easiest medium to dibble seedlings out of.  If they survive they'll be my replacement plants for the year after next.  G. maderense generally dies after flowering, though not always, but is very generous with its seed.  My stock came originally from plants in the courtyard of the V&A, which had conveniently set seed and not yet been cleared away.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

a sweet hope of glory

It was a beautiful, sunny day, and after charging around looking at other people's gardens it was nice to have some time in my own.  I need to get the pots of pelargoniums and other tender things into the greenhouse pretty soon, before a frost catches me out, which is tricky as the greenhouse already seems rather full.  The answer to this is to plant out some of the trays of home grown plants, and accumulated purchases, that are currently in the greenhouse, which in turn means finding spaces for them in the borders.

The variegated Luma apiculata was no problem.  I've known for ages where that was going to go, and there's been a place ready for it since the gigantic self-sown biennial Silybum marianum that was there flowered and died.  This is an ornamental thistle whose leaves are splashed with white, and purple flowers.  Legend has it that the white markings are down to the Virgin Mary accidentally splashing the plant with her milk, a story reflected in some of its common names, like blessed milk thistle, as well as the specific epithet of marianum.  It was traditionally used in herbal medicine to treat liver disease, and the scientific jury is still out about quite how clinically effective its active ingredients might be, though they are used to treat acute poisoning due to eating death cap toadstools. The plants can stay as little runty specimens or grow well over a metre high, depending on soil conditions, and this one had become truly enormous.  It is a spiny beast, and the brown remnants were quite uncomfortable to cart off to the bonfire (Christopher Lloyd refused to grow the Scotch thistle Onopordum for that same reason).

The Luma is a slightly tender shrub, and it may be unwise to plant it out in late September, but I thought I could put a pot over it if a very cold snap were forecast.  At least the ground is warm so it should start rooting into the surrounding soil, and it will have more reliable drainage in the gravel than sitting in its black plastic pot all winter in the greenhouse.  In milder parts of the country I have seen the plain green Luma form small trees, with lovely cinnamon brown bark, but in north Essex I'll be quite happy with my variegated Glanleam Gold if it manages to make a nice medium sized dome.  I have got it near to the olive tree in the Italian garden, where it is supposed to contribute to the Mediterranean ambience.

A likely looking gap near the front of the sloping bed in the back garden, where I was hoping to drop in three Penstemon grandiflorus, proved to be rather full of roots.  That is the trouble with trying to fill spaces in mature borders.  Even when there is a gap visible to the eye above ground, below ground things tend to be pretty crowded already.  I hacked out planting holes, digging up a few Muscari bulbs in the process.  Penstemon grandiflorus hails originally from the prairies of central North America, so it may cope with root competition from shrubs or it may not.  We'll see.  It has tubular flowers in a subtle shade of lavender blue, and looks wilder and more natural than the hybrid penstemons you usually see in garden centres, as indeed it is.  I thought it was delightful.  I have just seen that Chiltern Seeds offer it, so if my plants survive, flower and set seed, and if I remember to save some, I should be able to get some more plants.  Looking at the way the bought plants were clumping up in their pots, I thought it might be possible to split a mature specimen, something you can't normally do with penstemons, but this species seems less woody than most of the hybrids.  It may be correspondingly less easy to take cuttings.

One piece of planting from a previous year is starting to pay off.  I sent a Vitis coignetiae to climb up a native birch that had seeded itself into the pile of soil created when the conservatory foundations were dug.  It is very nasty soil, which has seen off several of the plants I've tried in it, and the vine took its time to get going, but on the basis that grape vines are very deep rooting, I hoped that this one would manage to get its roots down or out to some decent soil.  Vitis coignetiae is not a grape vine, so it may be that it isn't deep rooting at all.  However, it has survived on the spoil heap and has just about got to the top of the birch, and this year is colouring up as it is supposed to.   It has the largest leaves of any vine, which are meant to go a vivid red in the autumn, hence its common name of crimson glory vine.  Finally this year it is starting to look both crimson and glorious, standing out against the birch when seen from the far side of the garden.  Some concentration so as not to cut through the base of the stem when clearing brambles and weeds has been required over the years to get to this point.

Friday, 28 September 2012

well worth seeing

I went with my dad today to the Bronze exhibition at the Royal Academy.  It runs until 9th December, but I'd been meaning to sneak in a visit before the end of this month because that's when my gift membership runs out, which by mutual consent my mother is not renewing.  Dad asked if he could come too, having read a rave review in The Economist, so off we went.

It is a really good exhibition, and very well worth seeing.  Some of the objects are beautiful, and some interesting rather than aesthetically delightful (though beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder).  They span five millennia and almost every continent, and are arranged thematically, with heads in one room, groups in another, animals together, and so on.

This produces some fascinating juxtapositions.  A tall, thin figure made as a votive offering dating from prehistoric times stands just across the room from a lanky Giacometti man in a cage.  Had Giacometti seen such ancient figures, or was he reinventing an image that had occurred previously in the history of art?

I was too mean to buy a catalogue (you have to draw the line with art books somewhere) but things that have stuck in my mind include:

Portrait of an artist made in the last century.  His head is modelled from a palette board and his legs seem fused with those of his easel, as if painter and work were one.  His whole air is joyously jaunty.  I'd have liked to take that one home.  It would look very nice in the garden.

A late  Renaissance life size sculpture of a turkey that looks astonishingly modern.  If I hadn't read the caption I'd cheerfully have believed that it was made last week.

The remains of a dancing satyr (head and torso plus one leg) that were dredged up from off the coast of (I think) Sicily, that greets you on the way in.  There is so much movement in his dance.

A strange little prehistoric wheeled chariot with warriors and antlered beasts, found at a Danish burial site.  The beasts could have been knocked out at any time during the Sixties.  Once you've got a good design formula then why change it?

The mysterious buddhas.

The Nigerian masks.

And so on.  There are lots of good things, and for enthusiasts of the male body some very buff nude torsos.  I think the things that moved me least were the vast statues of biblical and mythical figures standing lecturing or slaughtering each other, as the case may be.  My favourites seemed to include the quirkiest, and those portraying animals.

A display in one room explains different casting methods, including how in lost wax casting you can avoid destroying the original model, which I think I almost followed, except that I am still confused about how the final cast object is hollow, and not filled with clay or plaster.  I should have bought the book.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

gifts available to buy

We are going to another wedding next month.  I am looking forward to this, firstly because it should be a very happy occasion, secondly because it provides another opportunity for me to wear the hat, and finally because it is in West Sussex, too far to drive there and back in a day, and so I get to spend a night in a luxury hotel.  This is because the wedding is being held in the hotel, and by the time we'd booked into a middle market alternative and organised a taxi to take us there and collect us afterwards, we might as well just go for it and stay at the venue.  And some of our friends are staying there.  And as we are driving down on the morning of the ceremony we could be tight for time trying to check in somewhere else first.

I suddenly remembered that we needed to get them a present.  They are very organised, and have a List at John Lewis, but the last time I looked at the details I discovered that the List had not yet opened for shopping.  The Systems Administrator and I did not have a list.  Twenty eight years later we are still boiling pasta in the striped enamel pan from Habitat that someone gave us, though it is a bit chipped now, and cooking from Jane Grigson's Book of Vegetables, though you have to be a little careful with that because some of the pages are coming loose, but the home brewing kit that someone else chose for us never produced anything drinkable, and several house moves later none of the parts survive.  It is probably a good idea to have a list, if you actually need stuff for your house, and don't trust your friends and family's ideas of what items would be either useful or beautiful.

I gave the card with the number of the List on it to the Systems Administrator, who logged in, and announced after a while that the happy couple wanted a waste paper basket, and a radiator.  I would not have thought of giving anybody a radiator as a wedding present, but if you happened to need one you might be very pleased to receive it, which goes to show how useful lists can be.  The SA opted for the last pair out of an original request for three sets of Waterford goblets, which brings them up to a full set of six, and seems preferable to them receiving two of this and four of that.

I had a look at the list, feeling slightly voyeuristic to see somebody else's ambitions for their home laid bare to public scrutiny.  They would like a tablecloth, which is good.  I'm all in favour of tablecloths.  Also baking beans, measuring cups, a cooling rack, chopsticks and a TV.  The TV is one for the parents or a rich uncle, I fancy.  They would like a toilet brush.  Even though it is their day, and they should have what they want, I'm not sure that a loo brush is the best wedding present material.  A pizza wheel.  Can't argue with that.  Happy domestic nights in together with pizza and the Sopranos, of such is married life made.

Trying to remember what we have bought for our house recently, it would probably appear similarly mundane and eclectic.  Two albums of bagpipe music.  A two pint jug from the museums catalogue.  Three tupperware boxes, one with a complicated snap lid.  An experimental reading light from B&Q, since one of ours has broken and the strange conventions of the throwaway society mean that a whole new light costs the same as a new halogen light bulb, without any of the risks of buying a bulb that doesn't fit your existing light.  We need brighter lights to read by nowadays, but the new one can't live where the SA thought it might, since as well as shining on the SA's book it shines across the room and directly into my eyes.  An ice cream machine.  Yes, I should say that we were still living in wedding list land.

Addendum  The SA had a look at the website of the Northumberland Gazette, based in Alnwick, to try and find out more about the floods up there, but the headline news story was that a fence in Alnwick had been vandalised.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

vorsprung durch technik

I went for a haircut this morning, and discovered that my regular hairdresser, who sounded perfectly fine when I spoke to her first thing yesterday to make the appointment, was off sick.  Somebody else was available to cut my hair instead, an offer I accepted with a slightly sinking feeling.  The alternative was to depart in a huff because they hadn't rung me (they'd lost my phone number), but by that stage I was already in Colchester, and didn't really want to have to make a repeat trip, besides which, I badly needed a haircut.  My hair, which last week didn't look too bad at all, had suddenly reached the 'For Goodness sake why don't you get a haircut, your head looks like a chrysanthemum' stage, and I'm due to do my talk to the beekeepers tomorrow evening on the topic of Plants for Bees.

Most people would probably rather have their hair cut by somebody they know.  Mine is naturally curly and very thick, and grows in different random directions over my head, as far as I can tell.  Hairdressers who haven't got the measure of it can be reduced to panic.  The reason I switched to my current hairdresser is that an assistant at my previous place, who once cut my hair when the boss was ill, was so confounded by the way that the hair grew on the back of my head that she practically gave me a tonsure.  I'm not one for refusing to leave the house because it's a bad hair day, but even I thought that was dire.

I explained to the strange hairdresser what I wanted, which is always tricky, since I don't know what I want except that I want it to be shorter and look nice.  I indicated the fluffy bits that were sticking out around the sides of my head and suggested that they shouldn't be there, and asked hopefully if she could channel my inner Judi Dench.  Since I also expressed my unwillingness to use any styling products, and explained that the haircut would frequently be out in the rain, or have a hat pulled down over it, this was probably a tall order.  What I really need is a haircut that will survive being dragged through a bush backwards, since that is what's going to happen to it.  She did quite a good job, in the circumstances.

With the Systems Administrator's help I have got a working set of slides for the talk, which is a relief.  Two days before we were due to go on holiday we had a dummy test presentation, compiled by the SA, which we couldn't try out because the projector wasn't working.  Not being a keen photographer I didn't have a library of my own photos ready to use, so while we were on holiday I spent some time searching on Google images for photos of my desired plants, preferably with bees on them, but crucially the right size and not watermarked or otherwise protected, and saving them.  There turned out to be many more of these available than the SA had been expecting.  However, it niggled at the back of my mind that with a week to go to the talk, my equipment wasn't working, and I didn't have any proof that our method of compiling the presentation would work either.

When we got back, a new lamp had arrived for the projector which once installed threw out the usual beam of light, thus proving that the problem was with the lamp and not with the machine.  That was good news, but then it turned out that if you save Google images photographs as JPEGs on your computer, rather than copying them straight into Powerpoint, they won't copy over to Powerpoint, so images I'd collected were no use and I had to start again.  Fortunately there really are lots of unrestricted pictures available, and it doesn't take long to search.  Once I'd got as many Powerpoint slides as I wanted, with titles (!) and only one death by Powerpoint slide with bullet points, the SA taught me how to save the whole lot as JPEGs.  I renamed them as Slide101, Slide102 and so on in my chosen running order, then after lunch we put them in the machine and they worked. They came up in the right order, and the photographs of flowers still looked pretty good, rather than being transformed into Impressionist blurs.  Problem sorted, with over 24 hours to spare.

I feel quite bullish that I now know how to assemble a slide show from scratch.  It seems like the sort of skill that should come in useful some time.  It is marvellous that so many people post up useful photographs of plants on the internet, freely available for other people to use.  All I have to do now is find the venue (I've never been there before) and hope that it is all right on the night.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

passengers must have a valid ticket

The Radio 2 traffic news this morning said that the A1 was closed in three places due to flooding, and looking at the BBC website I see that a car park in Morpeth where we tried and failed to find a parking space last week is under three feet of water, and that the road to Rothbury from the east that we used several times during our garden visits is shut.  Trains on the east coast main line are disrupted by rain as well. We turn out to have enjoyed our lovely holiday just in time, leaving Northumberland as if we were on the last flight out of Saigon.  I feel terribly sorry for the residents of Morpeth, which is a delightful town, and for the bagpipe museum, which must be flooded by now, though at least the bagpipes are kept upstairs.

I went up to London today to see the Munch exhibition at Tate Modern before it closes on 14th October.  As I ran up the platform at Colchester for the 10.30am intercity from Norwich the guard opened a door for me, and as I gasped my thanks and collapsed into a seat in the quiet coach I thought that maybe travelling by train was quite civilised after all, buoyed by my recent lux experience on the Edinburgh train.  This feeling of satisfaction lasted all the way to just outside Liverpool Street, where the guard announced that travellers on off-peak saver tickets could not return between 4.30pm and 7.00pm, and anyone travelling then with a saver ticket would be liable to pay a full single fare.

When Greater Anglia took over the franchise this year they upped the cost of an off-peak day return from £24.80 to £28.50, an inflation-busting increase of fifteen per cent, and as a compensation trumpeted the fact that the evening restrictions on homeward travel no longer applied.  I hadn't seen any notices at Colchester warning me that they'd come on again, so I asked at the information desk at Liverpool Street whether this was indeed the case.  The man on the desk said that if they had nobody had informed him, but declined to offer any reassurance that they hadn't, instead suggesting I go and ask in the ticket office.  There was an extremely long queue for tickets, which I didn't really fancy joining, so I asked one of the platform staff standing by a ticket barrier.  She didn't know, but went away to ask and returned saying that she'd asked a ticket inspector, and there were still no restrictions on return travel with an off-peak day return.

As it happens, I was all done and dusted in time to leap on to the 3.30pm Norwich train to go home.  Out of interest, I asked the ticket inspector when she came by whether I would be able to return home with my ticket between 4.30pm and 7.00pm.  Without blinking, she replied confidently that I would not.  I expressed my surprise that restrictions had been reintroduced with no publicity to passengers, and she spent a long time interrogating the list of restrictions on the ticket machine around her neck, before telling me that she was wrong, I could get any return train with the off-peak, just not with the super-saver, but she never worked the later trains so wasn't familiar with the restrictions.

At Colchester I thought I'd have a look and see if there was a notice at the ticket desk giving permitted times of trains.  There wasn't, that I could see, but since there was no queue either I found myself facing the man behind the window, who asked what I wanted.  I presented my used return ticket and asked, for the umpteenth time today, whether I could use it on any train, and he said that I could.  I explained about the announcement on the morning train and he said that would be referring to super-savers.  At this point a ticket inspector who was leaning against the desk joined in, asking amiably which train I'd been on this morning.  When I said it was the Norwich train he said ah, the problem was that there were different restrictions applying to passengers travelling from Ipswich as compared to Colchester, and that the Ipswich passengers couldn't travel during peak evening hours.  The man behind the window then observed that when he had caught a Norwich train home recently he had seen inspectors pulling over Colchester passengers with off-peak returns.  I asked if there was somebody I could write to about this plethora of inaccurate passenger information, and the man behind the desk gave me a Customer Comments leaflet, while the smiling inspector told me the names of the two relevant managers in Norwich.  I rather gathered that their sense of solidarity with passengers from Colchester was greater than it was with the management in Norwich.

I am going to write and complain.  It will be have to be a letter, since the space in the Customer Comments leaflet isn't large enough to fit the whole story in.  I am a seasoned, travel-hardened ex-commuter.  Equipped with a Kindle and enough money for a lot of cups of tea plus no further commitments this evening I can afford to take a relaxed view and spend a couple of hours finishing off volume 2 of Proust at Liverpool Street, if that's what it comes to.  On Friday I am due to take my father to see the Bronze exhibition at the RA.  He is in his eighties, not so fit as he was, likes to know travel plans well in advance, and worries about rules and authority far more than I do.  I can just imagine his state of mind if he had spent the whole day worrying about the validity of our return tickets and fretting about what time we needed to leave the RA to be sure of getting back to Liverpool Street in time.

Returning to the purpose of the day's outing, which was not actually to engage with our marvellous privatised railway network, the Edvard Munch exhibition was interesting, I'm glad I saw it, it's worth catching if you're in the area of Tate Modern in the next couple of weeks, but it isn't one to beat yourself up over periodically for the next five years if you miss it.  I always think of Norway as a deeply civilised country, but Munch's Norway seems to have been a troubling place.  His mother and sister died of TB, he had a nervous breakdown exacerbated by alcoholism, he almost lost his sight at one point, and his paintings mostly portray angst.  I suppose I should have guessed that from The Scream, no version of which is in this show, but the rest of his output isn't much jollier.  A girl stands at the foreground of a painting, so close we can only see her head.  Behind her on the road another group of girls are huddled together.  Are they talking about her?  What is in the red house covered in Virginia creeper to make the man whose head we can likewise see in the very foreground look so worried?  Two women sit by a table, drinking success to the young girl, so the picture's title tells us.  They look as glum as ditch water.  Munch fights somebody who impugns his patriotism, then turns a rifle on him (presumably with non-fatal results), then worries about it for years, working through it in his paintings.

Some of them I thought touched greatness.  A late self-portrait, Munch prowling around the house late at night, peering warily and wearily at us, combined psychological insight with skillful paint handling (I thought, but I'm not a painter), and I liked an almost abstract, very lively picture of children walking down a street, the presence of a young girl indicated by a splash of white dress and black leg.  On the other hand, the set of weary standing nudes (woman crying, we were told), head bowed to indicate sorrow (and obviate the need to paint her face), legs and torso unmodelled, top of (sometimes outsize) head unrealistically close to the ceiling (to indicate her oppressed state?) didn't entirely convince me.  They didn't quite pass the park railings test*.

Then I went to see Everything was moving at the Barbican art gallery, an exhibition of photographs from the 1960s and 1970s.  This was really gripping, though I managed to tour the lower floor of it the wrong way round due to the total absence of signs at the entrance indicating which way you should go, the rooms being un-numbered, and the intended flow of traffic apparently being contravention of my inbuilt belief that circulation should go clockwise.  This meant that I viewed most of the sets of photos before getting to the blurb on the walls about the photographer, or the context in which the pictures were taken, but at least it meant I got to view the images with something approaching an innocent eye.  A black South African (who subsequently had to emigrate) documented the daily lives of black people under apartheid in miraculously composed black and white, shot some of the time from a camera concealed in a paper bag under his arm.  A second generation Lithuanian Jewish South African also photographed his country, though he was able to work with the Africaaners as well, while a white American portrayed the struggles of blacks in the deep south during segregation.  Another American photographer took the most extraordinary small town images in almost psychedelic colour, inconsequential details of diners and traffic signs adding up to a very unsettling vision.  The show continued upstairs, but for me the meat of it was the first five artists (reporters?).

I found it a fascinating exhibition, and spent well over an hour there, until my brain wouldn't absorb any more ideas or images.  I know that Obama has been a disappointment when it comes to the economy (though would anybody have done a great deal better?) but if you want to remind yourself of why it is so significant that America elected a black man as President, go and see this show.  A black child in deepest Alabama stands in front of a chalkboard in a wooden shack.  It is a shed.  It is the child's school.  The photograph is dated 1965.  That was education for poor blacks in the deep south, in the lifetime of the black man who is now President.  In another picture a bullet riddled car stands empty, that was being driven by a white mother of four taking a young black man home after a civil rights march, when they were run off the road and shot dead by white supremacists.  Let us not all assume that we'd have stood up on the side of justice, if we'd been there.

Addendum  On the BBC news just now the bagpipe museum still seemed to be above water despite being so close to the river.  It's in a very old building, so I suppose the highest land got built on first.

*If an artwork were removed from the gallery, and shown to you instead in the middle of an amateur art exhibition, a sixth form student show, or offered for sale on the railings of Hyde park at the Bayswater end of Oxford Street, would you instantly recognise that it was of a totally different calibre to anything else there?

Monday, 24 September 2012

a damp squib

If you build it, he will come.  Or maybe not, if it is a plant centre in rural East Anglia, and it's a wet, cold Monday in September.  Not many people did come.  Certainly not all those customers who, on a balmy June day say Gosh, what a marvellous place to work, I'd love to have your job.

The owner announced, as we did our early morning briefing for the day ahead, that the garden was so slippery, we'd better not let anyone round, given it shut for winter at the end of September anyway.  The only people I'm aware of who wanted to go round today were the local RSPB manager and her assistant, who were wearing full waterproofs and walking boots, and the manager simply let them in.  If I were on holiday, or had travelled a long way to see a garden, as we just have been and did, and it was suddenly declared closed when its website and the RHS guide said it would be open, not because of a major cataclysm like the 1987 hurricane but just because after a couple of days of rain it was slippery, I'd be extremely peeved.  I was therefore rather relieved not to be faced with anyone asking for a garden ticket, since by the next time I go to work we'll be in October, and the garden will be officially closed anyway, slippery or not.

There was a minor crisis over a till discrepancy from last week, when the proprietors were on holiday.  A cheque or voucher transaction for £40 wasn't backed up by any paperwork.  The owner thought it had probably been a voucher since we gave 50p change.  My colleague peered inside the bowels of the till and found a scrunched up voucher still stuck there.  Mystery solved.

The rain began to get into the workings of the back door, that was mended back in the spring at vast expense to the management, and it began to not shut automatically, especially when it was raining.  Pools of water blew into the shop as the doors stuck open, and there was a cold draft.

The enormous chiller cabinet that the new cafe people have now installed didn't sound too happy either, labouring away with a tremendous rumbling noise.  I think there must be a problem with the compressor.  My colleague said hopefully that all chillers make a noise but I don't think they do, not that much.  The tea room at Alnwick certainly didn't sound as though it was next to a lorry park.

I managed to make one customer happy by identifying from a description over the phone the bulb she was looking for, having seen it pictured on a birthday card, as a crown imperial fritillary, Fritillaria imperialis.  She had got hold of the name Corona, which is half way there.  I was so happy to have somebody to talk to, as a change from wandering around in the drizzle weeding pots of herbaceous plants, that for good measure I told her how she would never be in danger of digging it up by mistake, because the bulbs smelt of fox, and the fact that a drop of nectar hangs permanently at the base of every petal, a legacy according to legend of the fritillary's shame at having refused to hang its head at the crucifixion.  This may have been more information than she wanted.

Later on, as I was beginning to feel that the last half hour was going to drag very slowly, I answered a call from a man from Beaconsfield who had called to find out whether we had any Magnolia campbellii.  We had two, of different sizes, and this led on to a long and happy conversation about magnolias, the best size to plant shrubs and trees, the importance of finding the right soil and site, and notable gardens worth visiting for their magnolia collections.  I think he will come and buy a magnolia, and that he was genuinely pleased to talk about trees with a fellow enthusiast.  If your family and friends aren't that interested, and lots of people aren't, then if you don't work in horticulture that doesn't leave many people to swap tree stories with.  He had a four acre arboretum, tiny compared to Howick, but there again land prices are higher in Beaconsfield than in rural Northumberland.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

back to work

Holidays over, it's back to reality, starting with last night when I went to lock the chickens in their house, and found a newly gnawed rat hole in the corner of the door.  That was disgusting and rather tedious, and means it is time for a campaign of rodenticide in the pot shed next to the run, in case rats are living underneath.  I don't like using them, but we can't have rats around the chickens.

Back also to the plant centre.  They've had some deliveries of trees and shrubs since the last time I was there, which is always interesting, and I kept an eye out for what was new as I did my share of the watering. More of that needed doing than I was expecting, but I suppose yesterday was sunny and fairly breezy.  Given the forecast for the rest of the week we shouldn't need to do much tomorrow.  By the time I emerged from the staff room after my lunch it was raining, and it looks as though that is due to continue until further notice.  It was cold as well, not what we need for trade.

One couple drove from near Norwich because we had a particular Viburnum that she wanted.  She was given our name by her local Nottcutts, and was rather hurt that they wouldn't order one in specially for her.  I explained gently that they might not even have a supplier who grew that variety.  I can think of several other reasons why they wouldn't order in a plant they didn't list, like that they wouldn't have a stock code for it on their computer.  Having driven all the way from Norfolk she bought a couple of other things as well, and pronounced herself pleased with the place, while lamenting that it was so far away.  I suggested that she could do as some of our other customers did, and make a day of an occasional visit, combining it with a trip to the Chatto gardens.

Another couple who had travelled a distance, though not so far as Norfolk, had just come from Beth Chatto's.  They were on the second year of a total garden redesign, and wanted advice on choosing trees.  They'd already done their homework, with a list of species they liked the sound of, a roughly drawn plan of their garden that made sense, and a fairly clear idea of what they wanted the trees to do.  They invited me to sit at their table in the cafe, and we had a long and civilised chat about their list, while I suggested a couple of others that might do for two beds near the house, and a point on the boundary where they wished not to see the next door bungalow.  It was much more fun than standing in the greenhouse weeding trolleys of peonies, and they seemed genuinely grateful for the advice.

A man shopping with both parents and his small daughter turned out to be choosing trees for their fiftieth birthday present to him.  When he was out of earshot his mother muttered that it seemed a funny thing for a present, but it was what he wanted, and I assured her that trees were great and would be an excellent gift.  He was considering a birch with brown bark, and I was able to draw on my memories of the beautiful Betula  albosinensis var. septrionalis I'd admired at Edinburgh Botanic and describe to him what it would look like when it was bigger.  However, he chose Betula nigra in the end.  The Chinese red birch has glossy reddish bark with horizontal lines of lenticels (the pores through which the stem breathes) and you could almost mistake it for a cherry, while the river birch has very shaggy, peeling bark, which he preferred.  The Norfolk couple were also eyeing up Chinese red birches, so I ended up describing the joys of the Edinburgh tree again.

I discovered the fate of the pea chick, which was not eaten by the fox after all, but drowned in the formal pond.  That's a shame, for it was a nice little thing.  Large formal ponds with more than a small drop from ground to water level are potentially very dangerous for wildlife and pets, which if they fall in may not be able to scramble out again.  In a small pond then if you put in a ramp a struggling creature will probably find it, but  in a large area of water the victim is unlikely to discover the way out.  Even cattle water troughs can be a hazard to birds, and the Barn Owl Trust appeals to farmers to install floats in their troughs, so that any owl or raptor that falls in while trying to take a drink can get out again.  In your own garden a water butt can be deadly.  Ours all have lids, though we would do that in any case because of the cats.

I was pretty cold by the time I got home, and it was almost dark, while it wasn't properly light this morning when I got up.  It's a slightly gloomy thought that the days are shorter than the nights now, and last night we lit our first fire of the autumn.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

what I did on my holidays

We're back.  On balance, there would have been enough time to write the blog, and I rather missed it, but once I'd started then I'd have had to worry each day in case we were going to get back too late for there to be time to post before going out to eat, or to the pub.  As it is you will get the distilled highlights of interesting things to do in the north, free of observations on what the traffic on the A1 was like, the weirder foibles of the in-car navigation system, or the difficulties of cooking in a strange kitchen.

The Beamish is a very, very good museum.  It describes itself as the living museum of the north, and has a collection of buildings, mostly moved from other sites, that show Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian life and work through a high street, a pit head, a real drift mine, miners' cottages, vintage vehicles, a farm, school and chapel.  It is very fully staffed and there is a lot going on.  We visited at a weekend to be on the safe side, and all sorts of machines were in steam, including the vast 1855 pit engine, a reproduction Georgian industrial train, a traction engine powering a Victorian threshing machine, and several coal ranges on which women were actually cooking.   You can ride on the vintage trams and buses, and go a little way down the drift mine.  There are heavy horses, and we saw a demonstration of horse ploughing.  The staff and volunteers are knowledgeable, friendly, and astute at working out when you would like to be told more about something, so having commented to each other on the overhead system for moving cash around the Co-op grocery store we were treated by the cheerful woman behind the counter to a demonstration of it actually working.  We spent all day there, only leaving because we were tired of walking about rather than because we'd seen everything.  Tickets are valid for a year, and if it weren't so far from home we'd certainly be repeat visitors.  It is brilliant.

At the other end of the scale is the Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum.  I have wanted to visit that ever since hearing on Radio 4 that there was such a thing as a bagpipe museum.  It is not very big, and contains mostly glass cases containing different sorts of European pipes, plus photos and memorabilia of famous pipers.  The explanations about quite what distinguishes Northumbrian from Uilleann or French bagpipes were not honestly very clear, but after buying the souvenir booklet for £4.95 I more or less got the gist.  The museum itself is free, and it has a small but useful gift shop containing CDs of traditional music from Northumberland, probably the most beautiful and distinctive regional English folk music.  The museum opens all week, at least in September, though you'd be hard pushed to discover that from their website.

Just up the road from Morpeth is the Woodhorn Museum, which occupies the site of one of the former pits in the area.  This one is also free, and there are displays about working life underground, and family and social life above ground.  Though pretty bitter about the pit closure, as you'd expect, the displays acknowledge that the tight knit communities were starting to alter by the 1960s, as social mores changed and new industries developed.  At Woodhorn I learned how you prove what time your racing pigeon returned to its loft: answer, at the start of the race you are given a sealed timer to take home, and a token that you put on the bird's leg.  If and when the pigeon returns you put the token into the timer, which stops it.  There is a collection of paintings by the Ashington group or so-called Pitmen Painters on display, none of which stand out as great works of art, but all of which are interesting, for the scenes of life they portray, and the visible influences of famous painters of the day.  Amateur art, like TV adaptations of historic novels, reflects the age in which it is made.  Also there are red squirrels at Woodhorn.  We saw three hanging on a peanut feeder by the kiosk at the entrance to the car park.

Cragside is a National Trust property.  The house, a sort of Arts and Crafts cum gothic creation with a touch of Swiss chalet, is a building of quite startling ugliness.  It was the home of a Victorian industrialist who made his money in armaments, and was the first domestic house in England to be lit by hydroelectricity.  You can go and see the engine house with its dynamos and switches, and various educational toys designed to demonstrate the principles of hydroelectric power.  The house clings to an extremely steep hillside which holds a rather wild rockery, and on slightly more level ground a distance away is an immaculately tidy garden with dahlias and some quite good tender and permanent planting for late colour.  My favourite bits of the house itself were the plumbing and the tiles.  There is a whole suite of bathing facilities, with a conventional bathroom, a steam room, and a plunge bath, first used in 1870 and lined with blue and white Delftware, with a mahogany framed splashback of tiles probably from Utrecht.  The upstairs corridors are lined to waist height with cuenca tiles, which have coloured glazes separated by ridges.

I am indebted for the information on the tiles not to the National Trust, but to my Tile Gazetteer, Lynne Pearson's Guide to British Tile and Architectural Ceramics Locations.  What do you mean, you don't take a Tile Gazetteer on holiday with you?  It is very useful thing to have in your luggage.  I got mine at the Ironbridge museum, in the year of the Northern Rock bank run.  I am afraid that the National Trust did a rather poor job of explaining the houses in its care, on this trip.  We also visited Wallington, ancestral home most recently of the Trevelyans, which was an early gift to the Trust.  It is a pleasant house, but the experience of visiting it is frankly bewildering.  You enter through a modest door into a medium sized room full of china cabinets, go down a corridor lined with photographs of servants, find yourself in a roofed over central courtyard painted with late Victorian murals, go into another ground floor room that contains a collection of dolls' houses, get to the kitchen, and upstairs are allowed into a bedroom, a room full of toys, and a museum.  Laminated information sheets in the rooms give you some information about some of the objects on display, and in the kitchen an eager volunteer guide asked if we'd been around the grounds and seen the ice house.  We said that we hadn't, and she told us about the ice house anyway, and then told us about the ice cabinet in the kitchen which we hadn't been showing any interest in, but I had a flavour of how the guest at the wedding feast might have felt as the Ancient Mariner launched forth.

We eventually pieced together something of the history of the house, based on what we could see on the day, some prior architectural knowledge, and a session with Wikepedia afterwards.  It was a pretty old site of habitation, with with a hall house built around an ancient Pele tower, which was replaced by a Palladian structure, then remodelled in the nineteenth century to cover the central courtyard and build a grand staircase.  The staircase is not a total success, because it is attached to what had become a Victorian atrium, so instead of landing in a grand hall with big external doors leading to a portico it finishes in a rather tight corridor.  Looking on the bright side, it means they kept the Georgian facade.  The whole thing is grade I listed, and there is some extremely nice and lively plasterwork in two of the older reception rooms.  But why couldn't the National Trust tell us that?  Likewise, we argued fruitlessly as we walked around the delightful walled garden whether it had been built as a pleasure garden, or was originally productive, and I eventually found out the answer after we'd got back to our flat, once I had access to the internet and half an hour to spare searching.  Nor would you know from the National Trust's interpretive material that Capability Brown hailed from those parts, knew the Wallington estate as a boy, and was involved in its redesign early in his career.

We went to Howick Hall Gardens.  This was Roy Lancaster's top pick among Northumberland gardens when he visited the plant centre and the boss introduced him to the staff, and I asked his advice on gardens to visit.  It has belonged to the same aristocratic family for aeons and they have been keen gardeners, to the extent of collecting seed in the wild in Asia.  Howick is the plantsman's choice of garden in the north east.  We saw some very interesting trees, and had a pleasant walk around, but it was not quite what I'd expected.  While I knew we'd be too early for autumn colour, I was hoping for a few more Sorbus and their coloured berries, but they don't seem as keen on Sorbus at Howick as they were at Hergest Crost, back in the year of the run on Northern Rock.  Nor was I expecting quite so much recent planting.  In a mature garden there will always be areas that need renewing, but there were a quite startling number of young trees and shrubs at Howick, some struggling among the grass and bracken in wire netting cages, and some in opaque plastic rectangular tubes that made areas of the garden look as though it was littered with cardboard boxes.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we saw high horticulture at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, which we visited by dint of taking the train from Berwick upon Tweed.  Every tree at Edinburgh botanical gardens occupies its own immaculately weeded and mulched space, and is labelled, and beautifully pruned.  There are some very rare trees, an enormous rockery, and the most wonderful collection of glass houses.  For the first half hour I felt quite hysterical with anxiety that I wouldn't be able to see everything in a day, before relaxing and having a marvellous time.  Entry to the gardens is free, apart from the glasshouses, which are worth every penny of the fiver they will cost you.  If I lived there I'd go every week.

While we were in Edinburgh we visited the recently refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which is an amazing piece of high Victorian gothick, with murals of medieval romance all over the main hall, and at the moment an interesting exhibition of war paintings by Lavery.  It's good, if you're in Edinburgh.

In Alnwick itself we looked at the castle and garden.  Tickets are valid for a year, which would be handy if you lived closer than a six hour drive away, since they are eye-wateringly expensive at twenty four quid for a combined ticket.  However, both are brilliant and again if we lived closer we'd be regular visitors.  The castle has got proper battlements, and a bastion, and all of those castle bits, and while there is some Harry Potter theming it isn't too obtrusive, which is nice for those of us who are not fans of the boy wizard.  The State Rooms are an incredible display of bling, but done very well, with more colour co-ordination than you always see in explosions of aristocratic Georgian opulence, and a superb art collection.  As we looked at the Titians, and the Canalettos, I thought how interesting it was seeing them in their natural habitat, the home of a rich patron, rather than gathered together in a temporary display in a London gallery.  There is a little museum devoted to the Northumberland Fusiliers, and a lot of history of the Percy family, though I found that five hundred years of politics, warfare and the development of the modern British army in one visit was a bit much to take on board in one go.

The gardens are fantastic.  We went twice.  There is a fashion for dismissing them by saying that they are not real gardens, but a theme park, and that they are vulgar.  Indeed, some of the  criticisms of the Duchess of Northumberland are positively vitriolic, which I think is deeply unfair.  You may if you wish display your credentials in the horticultural good taste stakes by claiming to prefer Howick.  The two are trying to do completely different things, so you might as well say that you prefer Beamish.  The Alnwick gardens are glorious.  The cascade is spectacular and great fun, a great noisy torrent of water, with jets shooting up, and sideways, in an elaborate programme. I defy anybody with even a modicum of fun in their heart not to enjoy the cascade.  This is the tenth anniversary of the gardens, and the cascade still looks very new, and I thought it would look pleasant when it had mellowed and weathered, with some ferns, then thought that all cascades were new once, and this was the nearest I was going to get to experiencing the raw power of an Italian nobleman's Renaissance garden.  I don't think ferns will grow anyway, as it smells chlorinated.  I case of Legionnaires's disease, presumably.

The formal gardens in the old walled garden were by Belgian designer Jacques Wirtz, and I think remain the only example of his work in the UK.  They are in the late twentieth century style, internal dividers of hedges and pleaching, rills, no grass.  There were still lots of things in flower this late in the season, and lots of birds. I noticed many of the beds were edged with what looked like very recent plantings of Ilex crenata, and wonder if box blight had struck.  Also, some small leaved Ilex hedging I remembered from our previous visit was not there, so either that failed or my memory is wrong.  We enjoyed wandering around the walled garden a great deal, though if you don't like Alnwick you will dismiss it as mostly being done by Jacques Wirtz's sons, or containing garden centre plants.

The conducted tour of the poison garden was fun as well, and I learnt several new facts about plants, despite knowing more about them than most people to start with, so I should say our guide knew her stuff, plus she didn't tell us anything that I knew for a fact was wrong.  Also there is a large collection of stainless steel water sculptures, each occupying its own space in a sort of maze, and each illustrating some physical property of water, surface tension, pressure and so on.  They had the slight air of the Duchess having gone mad with a cheque book at the Chelsea Flower Show and bought one of every stainless steel water sculpture on offer, but they were nice.  I liked them.  Science and big shiny things, what's not to like?

The refreshment area at Alnwick occupies a vast space in the middle ground in front of the cascade, which I think makes a deliberate point, that this is a palace of fun, a garden built for people to use.  Equally, from the refreshment area you get a great view up the garden, and if you arrive when the doors open, out of season, on a wet morning, you can have it all to yourself.  When the gardens are busy you are faced with timed entry tickets, and the whole experience is probably not so good.

For our final visit we went to a private garden, built over the past 36 years by its owners.  Herterton is a small, modest miracle of topiary, stonework and meticulous design.  We were the only visitors, and were greeted by one of the owners, so have now met at one remove the great Margery Fish, whose books were one of my formative gardening influences, in reprint and I suspect via the garden where I grew up, whose original owner I believe in retrospect must have been a Fish enthusiast.  Herterton looks as though it had been there for centuries, and goes to show what you can do in three decades with box and yew, even seven hundred feet above sea level in the far north of England.

Before disappearing to the north we spent my birthday visiting Orford Ness, a fascinating place, but that is another story.  We ate some nice food in our travels as well, but there's no time for that now either.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

cardunculus is on holiday

In a moment of weakness I agreed to do a talk to my beekeeping group about plants for bees at only three weeks notice, one of which will be taken up by our holiday.  This would have been fine if I'd had a digital presentation prepared, but I hadn't.  Normally I borrow plants from work to illustrate the talk, but there won't be much in flower by late September, and I couldn't face lugging them into an upstairs meeting room in the new venue we're trying out, in an effort to escape from the noise of Zumba at our previous hall.

I thought I'd be able to find some images on the net that I could lift and use, as long as the Systems Administrator gave me some guidelines about image size.  The SA did not initially embrace the project with the enthusiasm I'd hoped for, saying discouragingly that the pictures on the web would mostly lack enough pixels to look OK blown up on to a screen, or be protected in some way.  I thought that in the age of Wikipedia some people must be putting up photos with the intention of sharing them freely, and if the image quality was a bit mixed that was tough, given that I was doing this as a favour at short notice.  However, the SA's attitude softened after spending some time poking around the resources of the web.

The RHS protects all its photos, so if you try to copy them into a Powerpoint format they come up with a big Protected notice across them, which seems mean when it is a charity with an educational remit.  Some pictures in Google Images and Flickr are likewise restricted, but there are enough that aren't to let you put a show together, as long as you aren't looking for Gardens Illustrated standards of glamour, or anything that would win a photography competition.  The SA fairly quickly had half a dozen images saved, resized to what looked like the right size, and was quite cheerful about having learnt something in the process about changing image size in Powerpoint.  I'd said all along that I was expecting to do the donkey work of picture hunting, if I could just have some help working out the technical guidelines to what I was looking for.

This morning, as an interlude from cleaning, I got the digital projector out of its box and fired it up to test the six images we had before spending time collecting more, just to check that we were on the right track, and the internet pictures weren't coming out impossibly large, or small, or fuzzy.  I found the projector had broken.  It powered up, but there was no light beam, and a small red light had come on for the first time ever against the word 'lamp'.  We looked at the instructions and decided that the bulb had gone.  The lamp of a digital projector turns out to be an elaborate piece of kit, not just a little halogen plug-in, and new ones cost £150 on the internet.

I contacted the person at the woodland charity responsible for volunteer speakers, and asked if she could send a new lamp as soon as possible.  It transpired that they don't keep them in stock, as they are expensive and the warranty starts ticking away from when they buy them, irrespective of when someone starts using them.  She promised to get a new bulb, or temporary second projector, to me by the date of my next scheduled woodland talk, which unfortunately was two weeks after the beekeeping talk, so I had to confess that I'd been hoping to borrow it for another conservation charity, and hoped that would be OK.  Obviously if I broke it that would be my problem, but otherwise given I didn't even charge for petrol I hoped they wouldn't grudge me the use of it for an hour.  She said that would be fine, and it sounds as though I'll have either bulb or projector by the time I get back from holiday.  Which doesn't solve the question of whether our borrowed internet photos will work as slides.  The SA is hopeful, having looked at the size and quality of the photos the woodland charity provides for their presentation.

Sometimes I wonder why I agree to do these things, and the answer is that I am too good natured by half.

And that is it until the weekend after next. Tomorrow I reach what is coyly called a Milestone Birthday, and we're going out for the day, and on Saturday we're driving to Alnwick.  We have a long list of things to do in Northumberland, including catching a train to Edinburgh to visit the Botanical Gardens and the Scottish Portrait Gallery.  Around Alnwick there are gardens, the coastline and castles to look at.  On Sunday we'll go to the Beamish industrial museum, and I have long wanted to see the Northumberland bagpipe museum.  We are planning to eat in the tree house restaurant at Alnwick gardens, and the teashop in Alnwick's old railway station, which also houses a giant second hand bookshop.  The Camra north-east pub of the year 2012 is just round the corner from the flat we're renting.

Writing is essentially a solitary and selfish activity, and although the Systems Administrator is very good about my sitting down and tapping away at the laptop for some time at some point each day, I am not going to commit myself to doing it on my holiday.  Besides, I have a strict rule about never pressing Publish or Send on any kind of internet enabled device after having drunk any alcohol at all.  So like the Matt cartoon or Alex, cardunculus will be on holiday until Saturday week.  Have fun until then.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

down at the dentist's

I didn't much take to the dental hygienist.  It must be hard to do that job, and have your customers like you, when you are scraping around inside their mouths and quizzing them about their hygiene and dietary habits, but I didn't warm to her.  She was a seriously overweight and flabby person, and I always find it difficult to take health messages seriously from medical personnel who are themselves patently unhealthy, but mainly I never trust health workers who use the word 'pop', or refer to everything as 'little' to make it seem less threatening.  Just go behind the screen and pop your things off.  Or in the hygienist's case, I'm just going to pop this tube under your arm.  'Put' is a perfectly good English word, and I'd rather they used it.  And 'little' is a relative term.  Today's dental tools looked a perfectly normal size to me.  Small compared to a shovel, or a pick axe, but not otherwise 'little'.

Apparently my enamel is showing slight signs of thinning due to acid erosion.  An apple a day, which we thought was so good for us, is all the while dissolving our teeth.  The hygienist suggested it would be a good idea if I were to drink my morning glass of apple juice through a straw, to prevent it coming into contact with my teeth.  I wasn't convinced that was going to help, and anyway thought that life was too short, but it seemed easier just to agree with everything she said than try and argue with somebody who said 'pop' and 'little', and was about to put sharp pointed instruments in my mouth.

She tried to make me look at the plaque on my teeth in a hand mirror.  I looked at them for a bit, but I'm really not very keen on peering into mouths, including my own, so got out of that by explaining that I couldn't see clearly that close to wearing my distance glasses.  This was a slight exaggeration, but by then I'd seen enough gums for one morning.

I don't mind switching to a toothpaste that replaces enamel, when the current one runs out, but I'll have to see how I do cleaning my teeth before breakfast instead of afterwards.  My teeth feel so much in need of cleaning after I've first eaten in the morning that when I used to have a job involving business travel I amassed quite a collection of toothbrushes and odd tubes of toothpaste, bought at Euston and King's Cross because I absolutely had to clean my teeth, or go mad.  Maybe having a little swill around with some water after the muesli and apple juice will do the trick, but perhaps it won't.  I am pretty sure I won't floss them every day.  It's difficult enough finding time to do the Pilates exercises, and I can see the benefit of those because I do have a dodgy back, whereas I don't have gum disease.

Then I did some last minute holiday shopping at the Clacton Factory Outlet.  No, still not a bikini, but a lightweight breathable walking jacket in an inoffensive shade of green, waterproof trousers and boot socks.  With any luck that should ensure nice weather, but I am determined to look at Howick and Cragside whether it's raining or not.  The jacket isn't such good quality as my old one, and I wouldn't trust it for fell walking in winter, but my old one, bought in a sale in a camping shop in Ludgate Hill thirteen or fourteen years ago, when I was in need of retail therapy one lunchtime, became my work coat for several years, and has so much mud on the front that while it would be fine at the top of Scafell I would be embarrassed to walk into a pub wearing it.  And in truth, I'm not sure it's as waterproof as it used to be.  The new jacket is a small man's one.  The sleeves are a tiny bit long on me, but I appreciate the extra length in the body, and the subdued colour.  The ladies' coats came in a lurid array of pinks and purples, but when I'm walking in a beautiful landscape I want to blend in, not stand out like a traffic light.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

countdown to the holiday

We are going on holiday on Saturday, and I am already in getting ready to go away, pre-holiday mode.  This does not entail last minute leg waxing or purchases of beachwear, because we are going to Northumberland, and visits to beaches will be limited to walking along them while wearing several layers of clothing.  No, while we used to put the cats in kennels (they didn't much like it, and now they're old we don't even have them vaccinated every year, which boarding catteries insist upon and the vets say is not especially good for elderly animals), you can't put chickens into a chickenery, not to mention the plants in pots.  There are a lot of those, and though they won't need as much watering in mid-September as they do in the summer, they still won't last for a week by themselves.

So we have got housesitters booked.  A nice, sensible couple from Royston will arrive at around ten on Saturday morning, and live in our house while we're staying in an apartment in Alnwick.  In fact, we are paying more for them to live in our house than it's costing us to rent our holiday accommodation.  Besides feeding and watering the pets and pots, they will need to cook in our kitchen and bathe in our bathroom, which means the house needs to be clean and tidy before the weekend.  This morning I got three quarters of the way round the kitchen before I had to go out.  I didn't want to leave all the cleaning until the end of the week, in case it took longer than I was expecting, leaving us washing, wiping and vacuuming late into the evening in an increasingly exhausted and fractious mood, which is not the best way to start a holiday.

The housesitters need space in the fridge to store some food, so I thought I'd better do something with some of the accumulated collection of eggs.  The Systems Administrator is still not all that keen on eggs for lunch, since the gastric flu, which means I haven't been eating them either, since my insisting on an omelette while the SA had a piece of ham or something is just too anti-social, though I did have a sort of frittata with eggs and leftover sweetcorn on Monday night when the SA was out.  I've given away about as many boxes as seemed polite, without deluging anyone with so many eggs that they began to feel a sense of obligation leading to oppression.  This morning there were still at least six boxes in the fridge, taking up rather a lot of space, and holding forth the prospect of our returning from Alnwick to a fridge full of ageing eggs.  The SA has talked in the past of pickling them, but not actually got round to it.

I looked up pickled eggs in the Good Housekeeping Book of Preserving and it seemed very straightforward.  Hard boil eggs.  Shell them.  Cover them with spiced vinegar.  Job done, and the eggs will be ready after six weeks.  The SA had got as far as buying some ready made pickling vinegar, possibly with pickled beetroot in mind, which saved me the task of boiling plain malt with spice and cooling it again, and had kept a spare vinegar jar complete with lid.  The pickled eggs accounted for a dozen, so that was two boxes gone, and I gave a box to my mother.  I want some yolks for ice cream, which will use another three.  The eggs now left in the fridge are fairly new so will still be good to use when we get back, but if I can't persuade the SA to start eating them again then I'm going to be doing a mammoth amount of baking.  If you are going to keep five hens you do really need to like eggs.  We will urge the housesitters to eat as many as they possibly can.

Monday, 10 September 2012

a new dawn

The queue of traffic waiting to cross the railway line at Manningtree was longer than it had been for weeks, and made me feel that the summer holiday season was well and truly over, and the world was back at work.  By the end of the day this prediction turned out to be depressingly true, as wherever people were, they weren't buying plants, and the plant centre was desperately quiet.

There was some buzz provided by the start-up of the new cafe.  Twenty minutes before the plant centre was due to open, nobody from the cafe had showed up, and I thought that while they surely must be coming, they were cutting it fine.  Then I saw that a wooden sign for the cafe had appeared at the front of the shop, and one of the owners came in carrying a box with crockery and food in it.  Over the next hour it cranked into life, with more food, the other one of the owners, an artist who arrived to hang pictures on the walls, and assorted relatives and well-wishers who had come for a celebratory coffee or lunch on the new venture's first day.  It smelt very nice, and emitted an air of cheerful bustle.  A couple of people that I recognised as regular customers of the plant centre turned up, and made straight for the cafe, where they were on first name chatting terms with the owners.

We take pleasure and pride in recognising our regulars, learning their names and circumstances, and welcoming them on each visit as valued guests, so it comes as a slight shock to be reminded that their custom is not exclusively ours, and that they enjoy equally cordial relations, if not more so, with other local businesses.  Though I once met one of today's cafe supporters coming out of another garden centre, when several of us went there for a day's training on selling, and she did look embarrassed at being caught patronising the competition.

The cafe food looks great.  There was home made (or at least it's made in a small industrial unit, not their kitchen, but they make it) bread, and a quiche which I think contained goat's cheese, and date and walnut tart.  My employer was talking about negotiating a staff rate with them, but I had better not get into the habit of having a cafe lunch on working days.  Today they gave us a free cheese and vegetable panini to share between the three of us.  They brought some fliers for their main operation, and it looks jolly nice.  They put on themed evening events, though I can't see the Systems Administrator taking me to the seafood Valentine Day special.  They'd like to do breakfasts at the plant centre eventually, which would be a great idea at weekends, as long as breakfast didn't start until ten when we'd finished the watering, or breakfast customers could be persuaded to head straight inside.  It's a wealthy village.  There must be lots of people who when their chums come to stay for the weekend would like to take them and their hangovers out on a Sunday morning for some freshly squeezed OJ and a handmade croissant.

Apart from gawping at the cafe I stuck price labels on pansies and weeded patches of the herbaceous plants.  The manager gave me a choice between them and shrubs, and given that tidying the herbaceous section doesn't involve any heavy lifting or slime and the weeding can be done standing upright with the spine in a neutral position, there's no contest in terms of nursery work.  As plants per se I tend to get more excited about shrubs.  The designer Russell Page dismissed herbaceous plants as coloured hay, and there's something in that.

Late in the afternoon the peacocks returned from their travels.  The boss is rather irritated that they have started wandering, when they have everything they need at home.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Indian summer

When I wound the bathroom blind up this morning I was greeted by a thick wall of fog.  Dimly in the middle distance I could just make out the shape of the top of the Metasequoia (that was supposed to be a swamp cypress) at the bottom of the garden, but the blades of the wind turbine on the next farm were shrouded from view.  Later, as I drove to work, I began to think that I should have allowed myself some extra time to get there.

At nine I got a phone call from the woman who works in the office, to warn us that the owners' peacocks were in her garden.  She said she was very happy to have them there, but supposed the owners might want them back.  The owners went to a party in Cambridgeshire last night, returning home at three, and when they surfaced did not seem disposed to set off on a peacock hunt.  The woman who works in the office lives a little way away, so the birds have not merely strayed next door.  Goodness knows what prompted them to make a move en masse.  Did they walk, or fly?

Once the fog burnt off it was a hot day, too warm for most customers, and we were pretty quiet.  I grabbed myself a space inside the shop near the till to clean up herbaceous plants, and through the course of the day worked through Veronica, Veronicastrum and Viola.  My brave colleague stood out in the sun weeding Campanula until mid afternoon, when she had to pack some into a trolley and seek shelter to work on them, but I don't know how she managed it.  It was really too hot to stand working outside, especially on gravel, which seems to reflect sunlight back up at your face even when you're wearing a hat, as well as absorbing heat and becoming very warm itself.

The pleasant couple from Dedham came in, and we had a long discussion about the merits and demerits of various evergreen large shrubs and small trees, as they need something to mask a view of their neighbour's new and hideous shed.  They went away with half a dozen names of plants to look up and think about, and I thought I had better re-read Sean Hogan's Broadleaved Evergreens for Temperate Climates.  The spot they wanted to fill was in full light and on good soil, but in a wind tunnel, which raised a question mark over some potential candidates.  The customers were slightly caught in the trap of wanting something that would grow quickly, while not wanting to commit themselves to too much regular pruning.  Alas, there aren't that many evergreens which obligingly rush up to three or four metres, and then stop growing.  I was relieved to hear that they had discovered the reason why a rose we supplied had not initially done at all well, and that it was not that we had sold them a dud plant, but because a rabbit had been hopping down their drive and chewing bits off.

My involvement in the tea room was limited to extracting two chilled cans of coke from the fridge.  Tomorrow the new people take over, it is a separate business, and while I'm happy to extend a spirit of friendly co-operation to my fellow workers, I need never set foot in their kitchen again.  I suggested to the owner that we'd need to find out what time they normally packed up, and she agreed that if it was later than the plant centre staff they would need a shop key so that they could lock up when they finished, as we aren't going to want to hang around for them regularly.  We'll also need a procedure for their customers to pay by card, since the cafe doesn't yet have its own credit card terminal.  And doubtless there will be other issues and glitches that nobody has thought of, but never mind.

The puppy is still not house trained.  I gather it was widdling on the carpets this morning.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

do the shop fitting shuffle

This will be a short, not to say cursory, post, as I have only just finished the watering after getting in from work, and we are going to watch the Last Night of the Proms on the TV.  And before that starts I need time to scrub the filth from under my fingernails.

The man who's taking over the cafe, his friend who's painting the walls, and his five year old were all in the plant centre today, getting things ready.  The new colour of the walls, that looked depressingly like multi-storey car park concrete grey from the test patch, and equally dismal and grungy after only one coat, has come up quite well after the top coat was applied.  It's a sort of greyish green, not as strong as sage, maybe lichen.  They have co-opted two olive trees in cream glazed urns to go by the counter, and a bay tree.  I suspect that the plants are going to have to be rotated inside and out again pretty regularly to keep them healthy, and I wonder if there's going to be an issue with the olives dropping dead leaves on the worktop, but it is starting to look quite Mediterranean and chic.  And they've superglued soft feet onto the bottom of half the chair legs, to reduce the terrible scraping sound they make on the concrete floor, but they ran out of feet. The chiller cabinet hasn't arrived yet, which makes me think it won't be in use by Monday, since after moving it I presume the coolant needs time to settle, like the ice cream maker, but overall it's progress.  And I have only one more day of having to potentially make pots of tea and dole out cake, before it is part of a separate business and nothing to do with me, and I can keep my compost covered shirt out of the kitchen.

The five year old was as noisy and rumbustious as five year old boys are.  He had a go with a hose, and a radio, and got a lot of paint on himself, and pushed a sack trolley about.  My young male colleague was so good with him, I thought he must have nephews and nieces of about the same age, and sure enough he did.  The little boy latched on to him like a limpet, and was very disappointed to discover he wouldn't be working tomorrow.  You read in the papers about the importance of adult male role models for boys, and the drawbacks of primary school teaching having become a predominantly female profession.  I've read that and thought, yeah, OK.  A couple of my female relations are primary school teachers and they are both brilliant with children.  However, today I saw for myself how clearly and instinctively small boys, or at least some of them, really want to be around men.

The racks of seeds used to demarcate the cafe area from the shop had been moved again since the last time I was at work, and still weren't right, since anyone browsing though the seed packets would have been looming disconcertingly over the tables in the cafe, and half the racks of seeds had been moved to a far corner so they weren't in one section.  The older of my two colleagues spent the morning shuffling racks and tables around, trying to fit everything in.  Despite myself I got drawn into the sport.  It is a good game, rearranging the shop, and I can see why they do it so frequently.  In the end I decided that the task as being attempted was logically impossible, because he was trying to fit all of the seed racks into a space too small to hold them, no matter how they were arranged.  I suggested that if we were to move the book cases and some of the display tables from the middle of the shop to the end where the odd seeds were, that would free up space to move the odd seeds to join the others, and to put the display of pots and seed trays that had somehow ended up with the gifts back with the seeds as well, and have all the gifts together, near the till and alongside the cafe.  Then I left the chaps, including the five year old, to do the heavy lifting.  I wouldn't dare try and shuffle the china cabinets around with all the mugs and things still on them, but they managed it without any breakages.  I was relieved when they stopped trying to move the bookcase containing grass seed and lawn fertiliser while several bottles of lawn weed killer and a roll of galvanised lawn edging were still on top of it.  It would be a ludicrous event to have to write in the accident book, if somebody was injured by a reel of metal lawn edging falling on their head.

Trade was better than it has been, with some expensive trolley loads going past the till, but it was still fairly quiet.  On the other hand, it was very hot, and at least one customer said to me that she wasn't planting anything in her garden until we'd had some rain and the soil was a bit moister.  I think lots of people were simply enjoying the sunshine.

Friday, 7 September 2012

cutting the long grass

In the past couple of days we've cut down the bulk of the long grass.  It seems sad to do it now, when there are still late flowers blooming like the field scabious, and insects buzzing about, but it has to be cut at some point, otherwise it would revert over a few years to scrub.  Even after one season's growth there are young oaks, ash and cotoneasters springing up, plus the odd bramble that has gained a toehold.  The Systems Administrator pushes the power scythe, and I follow behind and around with the rake, hauling what has been cut into piles, and so revealing the Mohican stripes and lumps that have escaped the first pass of the scythe.

The scythe is a great tool.  Petrol driven, it consists of two horizontal sets of blades that snicker across each other, and the machine is self-propelling, otherwise the SA would die of exhaustion before we were a quarter of the way through.  Even with the motor pushing it forward it is hard work to steer and control, particularly when it hits an ant hill.  It's been a good year for ants.  No other insects as far as I can see, just ants.  Cutting the lower lawn was harder work this year than usual, because the wet weather has made the grass grow more than ever before, sprouting into great rank tufts that jammed the blades of the scythe periodically.

We rescued two large and fine toads from the bottom lawn in the back garden, and I found a third making its way to safety.  There were a couple of little dark scuttling things but I didn't manage to see clearly what they were.  Mice or voles, probably.  We have never yet caught a toad in the mower.  They seem to have the knack of pressing themselves down into the grass and letting the blades pass overhead, though it must be a horrible experience for them, with all the noise.  They are very strong, for such small animals, and don't freeze on contact with humans, unlike newts.  When you hold one cupped between your palms to move it you can feel it pushing against you, trying to break free.

I cut most of the bank along the side of the daffodil lawn with shears before lunch.  It is one of those jobs where after ten minutes you seem to have done pathetically little, and start to feel tired and discouraged, and then after an hour you have done a good amount, and can see that the task is achievable.  Half way along the bank I heard a strange hissing noise, like a water leak.  After a while my brain cranked into gear that this was not irrigation coming on in the neighbouring field, and that the last time I heard that noise it turned out to be a bumblebee nest.  I backed off for a moment and looked carefully, and sure enough there were small wild bees flying around one area of moss.  Bumbles are generally peaceful animals and will not attack you, but if you plonk yourself right on top of their nest and brandish a pair of shears by the entrance they will sting, and it is excruciatingly painful.  I identified the patch of moss which, if I touched it, started the hissing noise again, and worked my way carefully past that section.

The meadow was comparatively easy to scythe, because the soil is so light in that part of the garden that even with all the rain, the grass has not grown so thick.  Two thirds of the way through raking, the blister on the palm of my right hand at the base of my fourth finger became too large to ignore any more, and I had to stop.  Blisters there are not so bad, since that part of your skin is designed for hard wear, forms callouses easily and heals quickly.  The key with raking (I said this last year but it's important) is not to rest the rake on the soft skin between your thumb and index finger.  It's easily done without thinking, and you will lift a piece of skin in no time at all, which will hurt a lot, and take ages to recover, during which period you will be going around with a series of disgusting pieces of elastoplast on your hand, which get wet whenever you wash.

It's good to have that done, before any more of the grass topples over and lodges close to the ground, at which point the scythe has little chance with it.  There have been years when the daffodil lawn and even the meadow haven't been cut until after Christmas, when there is a sudden panic because the first leaves of bulbs are emerging.  There is still a lot of finishing off to do by hand, around the edges, and tidying up the tufts that the scythe never caught, but the bulk of it is done.  It filled a great many trailer loads, carting all of it off to the bonfire site.  The next challenge for the SA will be to try and burn it, mixing it with whatever woody prunings we have to get some sort of a blaze going.  I need to cut the grass near the beehives, but that will have to wait for a day when it is cooler, so that the bees aren't as active as they are today, and I won't faint with the effort and the heat, wearing my bee suit over my gardening clothes.

The cut areas look starkly brown and barren at first, but will green up soon enough, especially once we get some rain.  It's a look I associate with early autumn, and reminds me of our first ever visit to Great Dixter, in mid September (ten years ago), when the meadows had just been cut.  While sad to see the scabious go, it is satisfying to get one of the most tangled and jungly parts of the garden back under control, and feel that a step has been taken towards the stripped down, pared back neatness of winter.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

take good care of yourself

Trying on a pair of trousers the other day, and craning my neck to try and get a rear view of myself in the bedroom mirror, I saw a dark something in the middle of my back that I didn't think had been there the last time I looked (which isn't very often).  After I'd digested the information I thought that I'd better follow the medical advice to get any change in the appearance of a mole checked out by my GP.  It turned out that the soonest I could get an appointment with the only GP at the practice I actually like was ten days, or sixteen days for another that I'd met once and didn't much take to.  I could see the locum in only forty-eight hours, so on the basis that his or her lack of popularity probably reflected deep-seated conservatism on the part of most patients rather than any medical deficiencies, and the fact that the first of the other two dates fell on my birthday and the second during our holiday, I settled for the locum.

The locum looked at my back and said that the moles were fine, but there was an outsize blocked pore that he could deal with if I liked.  He did, and professed himself pleased with the result, saying I was the first person he'd cured all morning.  He commented that dark skinned people like me were relatively unlikely to contract melanoma, which mainly afflicted redheads, but agreed it was sensible to get moles checked when in doubt, and that it is hard to see the middle of your own back.  I have known two people with melanoma, though they were both redheads, and one of them died of it, so I am more hawkish about it than I might be otherwise.

When the Archers scriptwriters decided that Siobhan's adulterous behaviour was punishable by death and gave her malignant melanoma, she said that not having a partner to look at her back she had been late in picking it up.  It may be that new lovers observe each other's bodies with that level of detail, despite middle age, but in my experience by the time you are embarking on your fourth decade with your life's partner, you have both begun to develop the art of glossing over physical defects.  Minute inspection of each new emerging blemish would just be too demoralising.  I was looking at my legs in the mirror recently, and discovered that my knees had gone baggy.  I mean, when the hell did that happen?

After the doctor came the dentist, booked in a fit of panic because I hadn't been for a long time, and the surgery reserves the right to chuck you off the NHS list if you don't go for regular check-ups.  The dentist said that my the teeth were fine, with no fillings needed, and that it was marvellous that I had so few.  I have four or five, all except one dating from before I left school, a legacy of 1970s drill and fill dentistry.  My current dentist took a charitable view, saying that in those days that was how things were done, with more precautionary fillings.  I thought it probably reflected the fact that if you pay dentists according to how many fillings they do, they have an incentive to drill holes in children's teeth.  When I hear from the pro-Statin lobby, funded partly by Stain manufacturers, about the population health benefits of giving Statins to all over 50s on a precautionary basis, I need only look in my own mouth to be reminded of the other side of the argument.

Alas, although I didn't need fillings I did need a good scrub.  In the past the dentist has done the scraping and polishing, and I have regarded it as the reward for undergoing all that probing with an alarming pointed tool, but this time she told me I needed an appointment with the hygienist.  I can see that it doesn't make sense for NHS dentists with their umpteen years of training to be doing work that could be carried out by hygienists, but it means I have to make an extra visit, so that's another half a morning gone, not to mention an additional £38.50.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

the home of English cricket

The Systems Administrator took me today to see a county match at Lord's.  It is not that through the influence of the Olympics and the Paralympics I have suddenly become interested in sport, for I still find the idea of supporting a team baffling, and remain as serenely unpeturbed as ever by who wins or loses.  Nor have I changed my views on football.  However, I do like cricket, in moderation, and provided it is played by teams wearing traditional white clothes and not coloured pyjamas, against a background of polite clapping and throaty muttering and not loud music, and on a sunny day, not under spotlights.  And I particularly like Lord's (actually, I shouldn't say that, as it is the only cricket ground I have ever been to) because having read and re-read the Peter Wimsey novels more times than I would care to count, I can imagine Wimsey (five foot nine and rather sensitive about his height) striding out on to the pitch in the Varsity Match, bat in hand.

The Systems Administrator is a member of Middlesex Cricket Club.  This is not nearly so posh as the MCC, which the SA's late father unaccountably forgot to put the SA's name down for at birth, but it does mean that for county (as distinct from Test) matches when Middlesex are playing at home the SA can use the Pavilion, and can sign in a guest.  Not being allowed in the Pavilion for Test matches is not a total disaster, since MCC members have to queue from about half past six in the morning to bagsie good seats, whereas the plebs' seats at the other end are numbered, so there's no need to queue and the SA and great mate can saunter in for the start of play.  Today we were in the Pavilion.

The Pavilion is wonderful.  The Lord's website doesn't make as much of it as it might, and I had to look up its architectural details on Wikipedia, since I don't have the Pevsner guide for that part of London.  It was built in 1889-90, and is a magnificent concoction of Victorian brick and ironwork, now grade II* listed.  The Long Room is renowned, and the last time we went we saw the players file through it as they came off for lunch.  An extremely fine collection of cricket related paintings, from the nineteenth century to the current day, is dotted around the building.  A people watcher can have a field day in the Lord's pavilion.  There are more linen jackets per square metre than anywhere else in England, an intriguing array of hats, a secret code of ties which I don't understand (some of the MCC members are not very pleased with the way that Middlesex members and their guests lower the tone on 20-20 match days), odd rooms that only MCC members can enter, and a Committee room restricted to Committee members.  There are two huge war memorials for the two World Wars, one on each main staircase.  The MCC lost a heart breakingly large number of members in both conflicts.  I read the one for the Second War all the way through, and only spotted a handful of names that had Pte and not an officer's rank against them (and no visibly Jewish surnames at all).  Female members were only allowed in 1998.

Wanting to enter into the spirit of the thing, I wore a rather well-cut, moderately expensive, decorously below the knee linen skirt in a colour discouragingly described by the Toast catalogue as 'donkey', a new T shirt and a double row of fresh water pearls, topped off with a straw hat and an ancient two-tone cotton jacket that was originally the top half of a trouser suit but went well with donkey.  As pre-war vibes went I thought that would be spot on.  Ladies are required to wear 'appropriate' shoes, which leaves things a little vague.  My idea of an appropriate shoe is something which I can walk in and which is not going to give me blisters walking from Baker Street tube to the cricket ground.  Victoria Beckham's idea of an appropriate shoe seems to be a four inch heel.  From the MCC's perspective I should think that flat cream sandals that show the tips of three toes are highly appropriate.

The cricket.  I didn't mention the cricket.  Middlesex were playing Lancashire, and when we arrived Lancashire were just going out to bat.  It was a bit slow.  Middlesex had their fielders bunched in close and defensive, and sent on the fast bowlers, and then tried a spinner, and not a great deal happened.  Lancashire notched up the odd run, and the score crawled towards twenty, of which six were extras.  The SA had to explain to me what an extra was, and I asked if they were supposed to account for a third of your entire score, and apparently they aren't.

I can't remember what the score was when we got to lunchtime, but at that point we were allowed to go and walk on the pitch.  The 'hallowed turf', as it is traditionally called.  Stewards stood in the middle and prevented the crowd from treading on the wicket, but a big group of happy and surprised people swirled slowly around the rest of the field.  Apparently this is sometimes permitted at the end of the season, plus as a quid pro quo for allowing Lord's to be used for the Olympic archery they are going to get a hunk of the turf replaced.  It is amazing turf, very short and dense, and made out of grass species with much narrower leaves than your common or garden domestic lawn.  I took my sandals off, the better to experience it, and it felt like walking on a carpet.  I have long thought that there would be an interesting TV series to be made about sports turf, and all the techniques the groundsmen use to keep it in good nick, the special substrates, and the problems caused by things like new stands making the whole ground too airless and enclosed.  I'd watch it.

The opening batsman managed to rack up some fours, so that he had reached 55 (I think) and his partner 25 or so.  The SA suggested that as it was very slow, if I'd seen enough we could go home ahead of the rush, so we did.  Walking past the end of the ground we heard a more energetic burst of clapping than any of the previous ones, and when we got home I looked up the score on Cricinfo and saw that Smith, the opening bat, was out for 55, so we must have just missed seeing that.  The match was going slowly, though.  Lancashire need to win, otherwise they will be demoted from Division One of the County Championship.  That will be a severe reverse for them, as they won it last year.  I asked the SA how things had gone so badly wrong in such a short space of time, and whether several of their best players had retired or something, but apparently not.  They just went off the boil, mysteriously.

There was a big plan to redevelop Lord's, to be funded by residential development on land at the 'nursery end' which is the opposite end to the Pavilion.  It was voted down by the Committee, and Sir John Major resigned from the Committee in protest.  The outward appearance at Lord's is Oh so English, traditional, peaceful and unchanging, but dark currents run beneath the surface.