Wednesday, 31 October 2012

northumberland voices

It has just begun to rain.  So much for yesterday morning's improving five day forecast saying that the rain would not arrive until tonight.  If doing the garden were my paid job I'd have to press on, but since I'm doing it for fun and still fending off the lurking cold I thought I'd come inside, and tell you about last night's concert instead.  Perhaps by the time I've finished the rain will have passed.

I went to the Colchester Arts Centre to hear Kathryn Tickell on her Northumbrian Voices tour.  I eyed this up months ago, when the Arts Centre programme came out, but the Systems Administrator had gone on strike because the seats are so uncomfortable.  Then a friend asked if I were interested in going, and I said Yes, but it turned out that the Colchester date fell in half term, and she said she couldn't go.  I thought that showed great devotion to one's family, but then discovered she was hoping her husband would take them all on holiday.  He didn't, so she put together a party and we went.

Regular readers will know that I like Kathryn Tickell a lot.  She is a very fine traditional musician, playing the fiddle and the Northumbrian pipes.  She is from rural Northumberland, and her recent CDs and concerts have begun to feature readings from the reminiscences of older family members and friends, whom she has long been recording.  The speech  recordings started by accident, when she forgot to press the Stop button after recording music sessions, and she found them so interesting that they took on a life of their own as a personal oral history project.  Finally she teamed up with a theatre producer, some other musicians and her dad, and made a show out of them.  She is accompanied by two fiddlers (who also sing), a guitarist, an accordion player and her father, and they read stories of life in Northumberland interposed with tunes and songs.

That sounds as though it could be cringe-makingly worthy, the sort of thing that could be cooked up by the BBC in patronising mode, or somebody equipped with a grant to make Art in the Community (I have never been a Billy Bragg fan, and loved Ian Hislop's riposte to 'I was a miner' of 'No you're not, you're a Cockney git').  We all enjoyed it very much, and the readings were not embarrassing or cheesy at all, although one of our party did cry at one point.  The performers had each chosen their favourite extracts from the entire archive, and these were arranged roughly chronologically and thematically.  The first fragments, about old violins, how musicians learn tunes (and the difficulty of getting it right once you've learnt it wrong), and long walks over the hills along the sheep tracks to get to dances, were quite cosy.  By degrees we heard more about the hardships of rural life, continuing right into the post war era.  The long winters, when the post didn't come for seventeen weeks, or ten, because the roads were blocked by snow.  The dangerous search in the snow for lost sheep.  We heard how life was changing, how the population of the remote valleys was falling, how people not born to that life didn't want to live anywhere so isolated, which made it difficult for the few locals to marry and stay.  We heard how the pubs were not so lively as they were (not solely a northern problem), with the shift towards food and tourism (I felt a twinge of guilt) being partly responsible.  We heard how modern technology was changing shepherding, though you did not see and hear so much, like a lamb stuck in a drain, driving around on a quad bike and splitting your working day between two farms, as in the old days when shepherds walked.  They told of the loss of the hefted flocks, and the impact on the landscape of reduced grazing, as long rough grass grew and crowded out the flowers.

We learned too of the evolution of traditional music.  Kathryn Tickell asked all of the band members what their musical influences were, growing up.  In the accordion player's house it was Kate Bush and eighties pop, while the guitarist's father was a devotee of Radio 3 and swing jazz.  The parents of one of the fiddlers were into Scottish folk rock group Runrig (and she went on to study classical music at university), while the other had Hank Williams as the soundtrack of her childhood.  Kathryn Tickell's parents were both folk musicians, and her father was brought up on Hymns Ancient and Modern.  Traditional music in 1970s rural Northumberland didn't exist in a vacuum, and country music was very popular in the Grey Bull in Wark.

Kathryn Tickell herself was more steeped in traditional music than most.  Besides absorbing the music from her family, she learnt from the local musicians whose reminiscences formed a large part of the show.  These were farmers and shepherds.  Oh, and they were all men old enough to be her grandfather, if not great grandfather.  I bought the CD of the concert, and in the booklet is a photograph of two elderly fiddlers and a piper who is at least middle aged, plus Kathryn aged approximately eleven, also holding her fiddle and looking very serious.  She described how as a teenager she conducted a long-distance friendship with one such player, by then living at some distance away in sheltered accommodation.  She would play tunes for him, recording them on a cassette and sending it off when she had a tape full.  He did the same thing, recording old tunes for her he thought she might like.  Occasionally she managed to get a lift to visit him, and they would spend the afternoon together, playing their fiddles and drinking tea.  Before that, as a little girl, her grandfather took her to the Grey Bull on Sunday afternoons, and she sat in the snug with the old boys, playing dominoes.

Nowadays Kathryn Tickell teaches the fiddle at summer schools for young folk musicians.  She said that in their playing would be something of herself and her playing, and something of the older musicians that she had learnt from.  Although she didn't mention the subject at all, I thought how one of the things that has changed is the ways tradition and culture are passed on.  I can't see, amidst the wave of revulsion about Jimmy Savile's activities, formalised child safeguarding, and CRB checks, that a little girl nowadays would have much chance of learning the stories and music of the place she grew up from a bunch of old geezers.  It just wouldn't happen.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

winter's work

What a difference two days make.  The sun shone this morning with some heat in it, and there wasn't much wind, so that it felt positively inviting to be outside, well wrapped up.  Even the forecast for the week is improving.

I made some progress planting out my stash of plants.  Three Geranium 'Blue Cloud' finally found a home in the long bed.  This has pale blue flowers with subtle purple streaks, very pretty.  I fell for it last year at work but we'd sold out before I organised myself to buy any, so this year I snapped up three when I saw them in the summer.  I had a broad idea of where they could go, since 'Blue Cloud' likes well drained soil, and sun or semi-shade, and I thought there had to be a bare patch somewhere in the long bed that could usefully be filled by a group of geraniums.  'Blue Cloud' has branching stems that keep on elongating and flowering through the summer, giving it a long season, and the manager tells me that grown in the ground rather than a pot it makes a dense, weed-smothering mat.  I'm always keen to have more of those.  I'd been eyeing up a space at the front of the bed.  Once the geraniums were planted, I fretted that maybe I had them too close to the ivy hedge, on the other hand I don't want a bare 40cm of soil around the edge of the border between the planting and the hedge.

A Euonymus planipes also slotted into the long bed.  This is a deciduous species, which develops rich and marvellous autumn colour in a medley of red and plum by mid-September.  After the leaves drop, the buds containing next year's leaves are long and pointed, attractive in their way, if you notice that sort of thing.  I have admired it at several gardens, including Marks Hall and Scampston Hall, and written its name down in my garden visiting book more than once over the years, which is generally a good indication that my liking for a plant is deep-seated, and not a temporary enthusiasm.  Today's specimen was a replacement, since I planted one about this time last year.  It died at some point.  I didn't notice it go, and don't know why it failed.  It was planted in an area of the long bed that I was renovating, and everything else that went in at the same time did fine.  Maybe I didn't water it enough in the dry spell we had in spring before the endless wet summer started, or maybe it succumbed to a disease.  I haven't found deciduous euonymus the easiest group of plants to establish, when I've tried.  In pots on nurseries they seem rather prone to fungal root infections, and the boss struggles to find clean suppliers of some of the varieties he in theory lists in the catalogue.

Then it was time for stint in the back garden, and another barrow load of compost.  I weeded part of the ditch bed and mulched it, peering about in vain for signs of life in the form of resting buds from the small peony Molly the Witch that I planted down there earlier in the year.  She was a slightly weedy little witch, proving not to have rooted into the full depth of her pot when I tipped her out of it at planting time.  Perhaps she is resting under ground, or perhaps she is no more.  Spring will tell.  A group of three fancy saxifrage with deeply toothed leaves, bought from the Chatto Gardens, is doing very well in deep shade further back in the same bed.

One of a group of three river birch, Betula nigra 'Wakehurst Place', has already turned a soft yellow and dropped all of its leaves.  The other two are still green.  There is no more than a couple of metres between each pair, and as they are a named variety the three trees should be genetically identical, so it is a puzzle why one has turned so far ahead of the other two.  The tree that has shed its leaves is at the southern end of the row, so gets the most light of the three.  The bark of the river birch forms great shaggy tufts and peeling patches, which are very attractive.  I have never felt the urge to pick at it and pull the loose pieces off.  The trunk of the central tree is noticeably thinner than the other two, showing the effect of having competition on both sides instead of the lawn on one side.

As it was a nice afternoon and the chickens hadn't been out for several days, it seemed kind to release them. They were very happy about this, and grazed on the grass just outside their run before rootling around in the turning circle.  They didn't try to disappear into the back garden, which they'd started doing just before we went on holiday.  If they will consent to stay in a little flock in the front on winter afternoons that would be extremely helpful (and make it more likely that they'll be let out, though it would be too much to expect a chicken to work that one out).  I was able to cut down stems and trim the ivy hedge while keeping an eye on them.  They were rather dilatory about going to bed, and I was starting to feel slightly chilly and had run out of space in my bins of prunings before they had finished.  I did a headcount after shutting the run for the first time and found I was one short, but she turned up soon afterwards.  I put the last of our stock of straw bales in their run this morning, as it was muddy after all the wet weather, so I need to find a source to restock.  I had thought of asking the boss if he could let me buy some straw, when he seemed in a good mood. They must have it for the horses.

Monday, 29 October 2012

winter approaches

This morning brought another sign that winter is fast approaching, since it was the last visit this year of the van that calls weekly at the plant centre, bringing trays of little things in flower.  Through the autumn it has been pansies and violas, cyclamen and primroses, heucheras, and occasional climbers in impossibly tiny pots.  If you visit several plant nurseries in the eastern counties in rapid succession and have a faint sense of deja vu that you have seen flowers just like that already in your trip, you probably have.  However, the van won't be back now until the early spring, when it will be time for miniature iris, pots of snowdrops, and winter aconites.  The van does stock ornamental cabbages as well, but the boss and manager don't think that our kind of customer goes for those.  The flying dutchman whose lorry comes on Fridays with supplies of generally rather gaudy shrubs made his final call of the year last week.  Winter's grip is tightening.

That being the case, my first job of the day was to round up all the heucheras that were scattered around the plant centre and put them together on one table under cover, to protect them from the worst of the weather.  There were a great many heucheras lurking in the ornamental displays, as well as in the herbaceous section, and every time I thought I'd got them all I found another.  They would not all fit on the original table, and some had to go on to a second, overspill table near the shop, where at least they could be covered with some fleece or quickly put into a trolley and wheeled to somewhere with more protection if the weather got too bad.

I have become disillusioned with heuchera, and no longer grow them at home.  Plant breeders have developed a vast number of varieties in recent years, and they look very pretty in their pots, in a fussy way, when they are new.  They rapidly look less pretty, are particularly prone to vine weevil attack, and in the garden require frequent division and replanting into improved soil, otherwise they dwindle and die.  They are rather prone to dwindling and dying as well in pots in the nursery over the winter.  Heuchera are not plants that you can leave to happily and usefully get on with life, and I have no time for them nowadays.  But they are very popular.  They need to be, the number we have left this late in the season.  When I go around village Open Gardens I play the game of Spot the Heuchera, because owners resort to them when trying to smarten up prominent corners in their borders.

I discovered that the beekeeper who has colonies in the garden and on the farm had said nice things to the boss about my talk on bee friendly plants, which was good of him, and that the organiser of last week's talk on seasonal planting had said good things about it to the manager, which was nice of her.  In these hard times it is no bad thing for one's employers to be reminded by third parties what a talented and competent individual they have the good fortune to number among their staff.

A couple wanted to buy a birch as a memorial tree.  They told me they had had a conversation over the weekend with a young man who was ever so nice and helpful, though they could only remember the first letter of his name.  I think they would have liked to speak to him again, but he doesn't work on Mondays, and it took some time to coax them away from the subject of their previous conversation, which I hadn't been party to and was in no position to reproduce, and on to the subject of birch trees.  Once they'd stopped pining for their previous sales contact and begun to tell me what it was that they wanted and how I could help them we got on quite well.

I returned from the birch trees to find the man from the cafe obligingly putting a couple of herbaceous plants through our till for somebody.  I am sure he means well but I don't think he should be doing that.  If there's a till error today I want to know that it was definitely down to me or the manager, not that it might have been a third party who doesn't even work for the owners.  I mentioned to the manager at the end of the day that the cafe chap had been operating our till, and he groaned, although he is not so fanatical about who uses the tills as I am.  It turns out that on Friday he didn't see initially why I hadn't just paid for the three plants I sold at my talk, while I was there, until another member of staff who used to work for Nottcutts and has been drilled in procedures and security more than we have pointed out that it wasn't appropriate for me to touch the tills on a day when I wasn't officially working.  After all, they wouldn't want to be blamed for my mistakes.

Although the clocks changed yesterday, we don't switch to a four o'clock finish until the end of the month, so for the last twenty minutes we were all wandering about more or less in the dark.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

do cats eat rats? hope not

The end of British Summer Time last night theoretically gave us an extra hour in bed, but it didn't feel quite like that.  Since the cats and chickens don't know anything about clocks they expect their breakfast and to be let out at the same time as usual, and while the morning seemed long (handy for last night's washing up) I knew that was a mere illusion, and that the afternoon before it got dark would be correspondingly short.

By mid-morning (or late morning, depending on whether you are going by clock time or biological time) I had psyched myself up to go out and do some work in the garden, but once I'd changed into my gardening clothes it had started raining.  By the time I'd done some necessary watering in the greenhouse and conservatory, and checked the rat bait in the pot shed, my nose was running and my ears starting to pop again, and I gathered that trying to dodge the showers to spend the rest of the day tending a wet garden in an ambient temperature of five degrees would probably not be a good idea.  So I went back inside and changed out of the gardening clothes.

In our unspoken division of labour I am in charge of pest control, keeping an eye out for infestations of things that crawl or sting, deciding on the appropriate means of deterrence or destruction if required (I persuaded the SA that the hornets in the end of the house could remain until the cold weather kills them, then we'll block up the hole), and applying them, or calling in professionals.  It started with wasps' nests, which was fair enough since I am used to working in a bee suit and relatively calm in the presence of large numbers of stinging insects.  By extension I became Chief Rodent Officer as well.  That probably makes sense, since I spend more time in the garden and am the one who feeds and mucks out the chickens, so am more likely to spot when something undesirable has moved in.

I don't like poisoning rats, and worry about the research that shows that the majority of barn owl fatalities tested have traces of rodenticide in their bodies.  But we can't have rats living under the shed or chicken house.  I tried buying a trap, but never caught a single rat and almost removed my fingers a couple of times trying to set it.  Rat traps are vicious contraptions.  If I did catch a rat I wouldn't know what to do with it, since I have no means of shooting it and it is both cruel and illegal to drown trapped animals.  It seems cruel to poison them, but we have to do something.

The quid pro quo for my doing the fell deed when it comes to wasps and rats is that the Systems Administrator is in charge of removing all bodies, mainly mice and voles that the cats bring in.  I am very squeamish, and insisted long ago that anybody as keen on military history as the SA must be able to cope with entrails.

The Systems Administrator had already lit a fire in the stove in the study when I went back inside.  Yesterday's supper party in the upstairs sitting room was our swan song for a while, except when we have guests, and maybe on Saturday nights when we begin to develop cabin fever.  The sitting room is too big and too difficult to heat, being split level, open plan and effectively two stories high.  In winter we retreat to the study, a normal sized, normal shaped room with a door you can shut to keep the heat of the stove in.

The cold has made the cats hungry.  Lunchtime is complicated.  The big tabby gets his Special Lunch, a pouch of Sheba, because he easily loses weight to the point of skinniness.  He knows to come and eat his lunch in the corner of the kitchen.  Indeed, nowadays he refuses to eat normal tinned food at lunchtime, and sits in the kitchen dribbling and looking gaunt and pathetic until he gets his helping of expensive premium product.  Our Ginger is still too fat, and doesn't need Special Lunch, but it seems unkind not to give him anything when he knows the other cat is getting Sheba, which he likes, so he gets a few Thomas Treats in the hall to distract him while the big tabby is having lunch.  The black cat has got a touch skinny, with old age, the cold weather and his bad leg, and needs lunch as well, but he won't eat if locked in the kitchen, so has to have his lunch in his usual place in the hall while the big tabby is locked in the study to stop him from snaffling the black cat's lunch as seconds.  The short fat indignant tabby stayed out of the proceedings today, because she accidentally spent most of the day locked in the laundry.  She likes it in there, because it is dark and warm, and went in on purpose and refused to come out when I asked her nicely.  So I shut the door, and then forgot she was in there.  I'm sure that if she'd wanted to come out she could bust the door open, or scream for help.

Let us hope that the rats do indeed die underground, as promised by Rentokil, and don't go tottering around in a weakened state looking like easy prey.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

that's entertaining

Winter is almost upon us.  I shut the greenhouse and conservatory last night for the first time this autumn, just to be on the safe side, and although we didn't have a frost the temperature by late morning hadn't risen above 4 degrees, according to the car thermometer.  It doesn't really agree with any of us.  The black cat has become very cautious about how he jumps on to chairs, and I think his leg is giving him grief, while the arthritis in the Systems Administrator's fingers has come up in lumps.  I have a constant sense of pressure in my ears, and the right one periodically makes a rustling noise as though somebody were scrunching cellophane next to it.  It has gone through peculiar phases before and tends to pop when rain's in the offing, though not in the shower for some reason, so unless it does something more exciting than pop and rustle occasionally there's no point in going to the doctor.  I asked the SA if it were worth going to the doctor about the arthritis, but the SA said not.

It rained in the morning, so I didn't feel that I was missing out on gardening as I cleaned the kitchen.  Even if it hadn't been raining I wouldn't have fancied taking my lurking cold and dodgy ear outside into the raw air.  We have friends coming to the supper, which was the immediate catalyst to set me cleaning the kitchen, but it needed doing anyway.  The SA lit a fire, partly to have something to sit in front of, and partly to start warming the room up ready for this evening.  The Galilean thermometer on the mantelpiece read eighteen degrees, which is a shade chilly even for guests who know that our house is cold in winter and come dressed accordingly.  At lunchtime the sun helpfully came out.  Thermal gain can add a couple of degrees to the sitting room, which has huge south and west facing windows, if the sun shines at mid-day and for the first part of the afternoon.

Lunch was rather late because the kitchen floor was drying.  After lunch the SA began the vacuuming, and discovered that the vacuum cleaner was not working properly.  I gathered that something was wrong, as I trotted about tidying various bits of clutter away, because instead of the constant sound of the engine whirring, there were spasmodic bursts of noise interposed with the sight of the SA bent over the opened-out bowels of the machine, poking at it.  At quarter to four the SA announced that it was broken, and we needed to buy a new one.  I said that there was not time to go and get a vacuum cleaner now, not when the SA was supposed to be cooking roast pork this evening, and didn't we have an old one in the workshop that we could use for this evening, otherwise I had better find a dustpan and brush and a damp cloth.  The SA suddenly remembered that we had a second hand Dyson, a present from friends who found it unsuitable because it was so powerful that it sucked their carpets up.  It took some time with the pressure jet blowing workshop dust out of the Dyson, but the noises now from the hall are promising.

My share of the preparations for this evening's entertainment is comparatively light, because one of our guests doesn't eat puddings at all, so by long custom we just have cheese.  We all like cheese, and it's nice to have room for some, rather than squeezing a tiny piece down because your host is urging you to eat, when you have honestly had enough food already.  The normal split of duties is that the SA cooks the main course, and I do the pudding, being quite good at cakes and pastry, and not awfully good at meat cookery, whereas the SA is a whizz at roasts and stews.  So unless the emergency Dyson packs up I've done my bit, though I might peel the carrots and make the apple sauce to show willing.  It sounds good so far.

Addendum  Every so often I sigh with impatience about the folly of young people fixated with the latest in designer trainers, then I remember that I am just as bad, except that the object of my devotion is retro rubber soled canvas shoes, not the hulking great modern ones.  This summer I acquired a pair of genuine Plimsolls, which according to the Toast catalogue were made on 1950s machinery with the original moulds, as designed to produce training shoes for the Red Army, giving each shoe a unique and irregular appearance compared to modern brands.  They are black with white laces, and the first time I wore them to a Pilates lesson, my teacher looked at them sharply and asked Are those Converse?  I am not utterly convinced by Toast's account of their provenance, in that the term 'plimsoll' for canvas shoes seems to go back further than that, but they are certainly very retro.

They replaced a truly ancient pair of navy Supergas, bought well over a decade ago when the Boden catalogue briefly sold branded trainers.  I then read in the Evening Standard that Superga were the canvas shoe of choice for younger members of the Royal Family.  I went on wearing mine until holes in the soles began picking up gravel.  Now I have seen in the fashion pages of the Telegraph that British singer Rita Ora (have truthfully never heard of her) is to replace Alexa Chung as the face of Italian trainer brand Superga after two years, during which the style maven allowed the shoes to enjoy resurgence in popularity, and they have since become the rubber soled sneakers to be seen in (sic).  Even I have heard of Alexa Chung, though I had no idea that she was associated with Superga, but I don't see why a shoe brand needs to be associated with a face.

The Plimsolls are not as comfortable as the Superga were, so when I next need some new canvas trainers, in another ten years or so, I might return to my original brand.  The Supergas were lovely, and outlived cheap imitations from Lands' End by years.  I know exactly when my enthusiasm for canvas shoes began.  It was in 1978, when I bought Parallel Lines.  Forget Debbie Harry's white dress, though I admire her deeply as an artist, what I coveted was the red sneakers the boys in the band were wearing.  I never got any, but fear that I am too old for red Converse high tops now.

Friday, 26 October 2012

plants and puddings

I took the plants back to work this morning.  If it had been a fine, dry day, good for gardening, I'd have hung on to them over the weekend and taken them in with me on Monday, saving some time and petrol.  I've done that before, and the manager doesn't mind, as long as I look after them conscientiously.  He does the same thing himself.  However, when I went to let the chickens out it was drizzling, so gardening wasn't on the cards anyway, and I thought that if I took the plants straight back it would save me taking them all out of the car and putting them in again, while if I left them by the front door and it rained over the weekend then I'd be faced with a car load of wet plants first thing on Monday morning.

I didn't see any of my colleagues in all the time it took me to unload the car and put the plants back in their right places, only a girl inside the shop running the cafe.  I left a note for the manager saying I still owed for the three I'd sold and would pay on Monday, since there was nobody about.  It did strike me that it was just as well I was bringing plants and not taking them, since if I'd walked in knowing what I wanted, loaded up a trolley and walked straight out again, I doubt whether I'd have been challenged.  I still don't know the answer about whether a healthy Skimmia japonica would respond well to hard pruning to reduce its size, since I never saw the manager to ask him.

When I got home there was a message on the phone from the person who booked me for last night's talk, saying that they'd all enjoyed it and would probably ask me back for 2014, if I could send her a list of my talks.  That was nice to hear, since I'd felt rather crestfallen to have sold so few plants.  Although, as the Systems Administrator pointed out, the village where I was speaking was close to work, so there was less incentive for people to buy on the night instead of going to see the full range than if they'd been a forty-five minute drive away from the plant centre.

Christmas has got a step closer in that I've ordered the pudding.  About a quarter of a century ago I made one, but it was pronounced not so good as the SA's mother's pudding, which I took as a signal not to make another one, and have been buying them ever since.  For years now I have bought our pudding from The Ultimate Pudding Company, sold in aid of the Barn Owl Trust, apart from one year when they were too late sending me the leaflet, and I panicked and bought one in aid of a donkey sanctuary.  They are extremely nice puddings, made by a small firm in the Lake District which has hit on the idea of marketing them via charities.  I told the SA I'd ordered the pudding, who said, Ah yes, handmade by barn owls.  This is a dialogue we have every year.  Repeated once a year it is still amusing (to us.  If we had teenage children they'd be biting their fists with embarrassment each time they heard it).

The loss of the UK population of ash trees has got a step closer as well.  The Guardian ran a story on this three weeks ago.  I asked the boss about it, but he had not heard about a new ash disease, and poo-poohed me rather brusquely, saying that there were all of these European and government led scare stories about tree diseases, which never came to anything.  The boss is deeply Eurosceptic, and it didn't help that the story was in the Guardian rather than the Telegraph, but I felt at the time that his reaction was a touch fingers-in-ears, lah-la-lah-la-la I can't hear you.  The manager hadn't heard anything about a new ash disease either, so I told him to read the Guardian.  Yesterday the news broke in the papers and on the Today programme that the disease had been found in two woods in East Anglia, and today I received a press release on the subject of ash dieback from the Woodland Trust.  I hope it is not too late to stop it.  The UK's past record on Dutch elm disease is not encouraging.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

a talk

I have just got back from doing a garden club talk about Colour and Interest in the Autumn Garden.  This was a handy booking, partially making up for the fact that I took last weekend off to go to the wedding, but it took up a fair amount of the day, by the time I'd been up to the plant centre to borrow the plants.  It is fairly convenient for the manager to talk from live plants and not slides, because he's there five days a week, but as a part-timer talks don't always fall conveniently close to my days at work.

In many ways it would be more efficient to put some slide shows together, now that I've learnt how to construct a digital presentation.  I'd put more time into it than I did for the talk to the beekeepers, if it were a proper paid gig, and once I'd assembled each set of images I'd have them for future use.  And given that they aren't my plants and I'm not on commission it doesn't make a great difference to me whether I sell plants or not.  On the other hand, people do seem to like the live plants.  Maybe they like to be able to touch and smell, instead of just looking at an image on the screen, or maybe it is more interesting listening to somebody talk when the lights are on and you can see their face than when they are lecturing you in the dark.  Actual pots with real plants in them bring a touch of theatre to the proceedings.

The trouble with talking from whatever my employers have in stock at the time is that sometimes they don't have things I want to talk about.  The choice then is whether to give up on the idea of that plant and talk about something else instead, or take a sample from the garden.  I took some twigs and sprigs tonight, as there were some varieties I wanted to cover that weren't easily interchangeable with anything else.  There is a lovely late flowering aster, for example, Aster pilosus var. pringlei 'Monte Cassino', which has tiny white flowers, very narrow bright green leaves, bulks up well in the garden, and is incredibly drought tolerant.  It really does flower now, in late October, and there is nothing else quite like it.  It is so good that for some reason our wholesalers have not been able to supply us with stock, and our last few plants have been held back from sale to be grown on and divided.

Sometimes plants behave differently in pots in the plant centre to how they would perform in the garden.  This can be a useful thing to point out to people.  Rudbeckia subtomentosa 'Henry Eilers' with its beautiful soft yellow, quilled petals with spoon shaped tips has finished and gone in the confines of a black plastic 2 litre pot.  I chopped the shabby brown remains down myself on Monday.  In the open ground it is still blooming cheerfully.  There aren't any buds left to open, but most of the flowers are still good, and since it's been doing that throughout September and October to date I think that counts as interest in the autumn garden.  Producing the chopped-down pot with one hand, and the spray of flowers from the garden with the other, illustrated the point.

Talking about autumn leaves from live plants is always faintly nerve-wracking, in case I've chosen specimens that are too close to leaf drop, and the ride in the car finishes them off.  I haven't yet opened the boot to find nothing but bare stems surrounded by a carpet of fallen leaves, but it remains a worrying possibility.  The petals of the Japanese anemone that I took with me to a talk in August did that, though luckily the pot had a coloured label with a picture of the flower on it.

Autumn fruit was faintly tricky tonight, because it has been such an awful year for some species.  The apple season was dire.  I can't fit an entire apple tree in the car, so crab apples always have to be illustrated with twigs from home, but as I held up a cluster of 'Red Sentinel' to describe its many virtues I did tell the audience that the sample in front of them represented approximately twenty-five percent of this year's crop.  The plant centre seemed to be out of holly or pyracantha in berry, which was slightly weird, in that the hollies in the garden are laden with berries.  They did have some very nice Callicarpa when I was at work on Monday, but had sold them all by this morning, so that was another sample, a very tiny one because my two bushes are still so little I couldn't bear to cut more than the smallest scrap off.

The talk was held in the village library, the shelves of books being wheeled out of the way so that the room doubled up as a social space.  There was a village hall next door, but that was full of people singing and dancing in what looked like a rehearsal for a show.  It wasn't possible to park at all close to the entrance to the library, but people were helpful about ferrying plants in and out, so that didn't take too long.  I didn't sell many, though.  Although I have no immediate financial incentive to do so, I'd rather I did sell more, since it reassures me that I must have made them sound interesting.  But the club organiser did ask me for a full list of talks, which suggested she might want me back, unless she were being phenomenally kind and tactful.  Somebody wanted to know whether if he hard pruned a Skimmia that had outgrown its allotted space it would regenerate, and I was bound to admit that I didn't know, but promised to find out and let him know.  If people ask me sensible gardening questions to which I haven't the faintest idea of the answer I do generally try to discover afterwards, if I remember what the question was.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

the art of compost

I was gardening today.  The jobs I tackled were determined in a rather back-to-front manner, revolving around the compost bins.  We currently have four bins, each just wider than a large garden fork and about the same height and depth.  All were full, or nearly full, and looking at the quantity of herbaceous stems and rampant growth on the ivy hedges waiting to be cut down and put in them, it was obvious that I was going to run out of space.  Meanwhile, we still have a fair quantity of planks left over from the old decking, which have been piled up in front of the dahlia bed all year.  Some still have nails sticking out, and every so often I turn one over or try and rearrange them to hide the nails before there can be a disaster involving the cats, or us, come to that.  As I tottered over the heap yesterday afternoon to get to the dahlias to cut them down while supervising the chickens' exercise time, I decided that I was completely fed up with the pile of planks, and that it was high time they were put to good use.

The obvious solution was for the Systems Administrator to build a new bin at the end of the row, which would give me extra space for prunings, and use up some of the the planks.  However, the space by the bins is currently taken up with a fine crop of nettles, and the remains of the long barrow free-form compost heap like a neolithic burial site that we made when we first moved in, before introducing bins plus a no weed seeds or roots in compost heap policy (weed seeds in this context includes those from garden plants that I like, but not in unlimited quantities.  Verbena bonariensis springs to mind).

I set to digging out the nettles, which needed doing anyway before they spread into the bins, and optimistically threw the roots on the bonfire site, which is in danger of becoming another free-form compost heap.  Proceedings were slowed down when I hit chicken wire, the legacy of a previous and unsuccessful attempt to restrain the great compost barrow.  I found various pieces of sticky tape, left over from my phase of adding brown cardboard boxes to the heap.  Yes, the cardboard composts perfectly well, but the tape holding the box together lasts well over a decade.  I cleared the weeds off the top of the barrow, so that I could shovel the weedy compost from the site of the new, hygienic heap on to the still substantial remnants of the old one, until I judged I had a large enough level and clear space for another bin.

Then I began to move the contents of the penultimate bin into the end bin, since that was only half full.  I found some strange pieces of man made fibre, which must have been the remnants of either an oven glove or a dish cloth, since I now put anything made out of cotton on the heap if it's too knackered for any other form of recycling.  Also a mysterious circular nest made of grass and leaves.  I don't know what that belonged to, but hope it doesn't mean we had rats breeding in there.  If something was trying to hibernate in the compost then I apologise.  It is good for compost to turn it, which mixes the ingredients more thoroughly and introduces air into the heap, and I reckoned that there was space to budge the contents of the first three bins up and clear the left hand bin entirely, ready for the great autumn cut-down.  The original plan was to turn the compost regularly, moving it in stages from one end to the other until it emerged from the final bin as beautiful, crumbly brown soil conditioner.  By the time I'd cleared half the contents out of the penultimate bin the end bin was piled up to overflowing, but by then I'd hit usable compost in the bottom half of the bin I was emptying.

It seemed a terrible waste just to bury it again, and the obvious solution was to use it, but I didn't have any part of a suitable border all weeded, tidied and ready for compost.  It seemed best to use it on the smaller, more delicate plants and woodlanders that might not appreciate a mulch of spent mushroom compost, so the next step was to start weeding the ditch bed, which contains primroses, hellebores, cyclamen and other small things.  At the moment it also contains a great many hopeful young plants of Herb Robert, which I now know not to leave to grow to maturity.  As babies they are very sweet, and native wild flowers to boot, but when fully grown they are great smothering things that you don't want in a border, not if you want the primroses and hellebores to get a look in.

By four o'clock when I wanted to let the chickens out I'd managed to use two barrow loads of compost, and there is still enough compost left in the bin to fill the barrow another two or three times.  It was all good useful work that needed doing eventually, but I can't say that I got out of bed thinking that today I was going to start weeding the ditch bed.  Once the chickens were unleashed the order of gardening events was determined by where they decided they wanted to go, and fortunately they wanted to stay in the front garden, scratching around in the turning circle, so I was able to get on with chopping down flower stems and trimming the ivy around the long bed, which was why I wanted more space in the compost bins in the first place.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

fog, frost and felt

It was another foggy day, and the air felt astonishingly moist.  You would not think air could hold that much water without it leaking out as rain.  It is forecast to continue like this until the end of the week, when it is supposed to turn cold, which was my cue to get on with moving pots of tender plants into the greenhouse for the winter.  I started doing that ages ago, then progress ground to a halt.  I'm not exactly sure why, except that I must have been doing something else instead, or it was raining, or I didn't feel very well.  The greenhouse is looking ominously crowded already, and I'm still not sure exactly where all these pots are going to go.

I took my jacaranda seedling inside, that was a present from a friend back in the spring.  The gardener yesterday was telling me how the jacarandas in Africa were just coming into bloom, and I didn't see how a plant that grew in Zimbabwe and Botswana was going to be happy in a frost free (no more) greenhouse in north Essex.  The leaves were looking rather brown and tired at their tips, and I realised that I didn't even know whether jacaranda was deciduous or evergreen.  Wikipedia let me down for once, since the entry on jacaranda listed forty different species, but didn't say whether brown leaves in late October were a natural sign of autumn (= deciduous), or meant that my plant had already caught a chill (= evergreen).  Somebody on a gardening forum who sounded as though he knew what he was doing (thought that's no guarantee) said that frost free plus pretty dry at the roots was OK, better than keeping the plant indoors where the combination of warmth, low light and dry air would result in nothing better than weedy growth and an attack of red spider mite.

After lunch we returned to the pot shed roof.  The felt we attached ten days ago has survived without ripping, which is a great relief, since we never meant to leave the job half-finished for so long, but rain and colds intervened.  I was nominated to attach the final roll of felt along the ridge.  The Systems Administrator had reassured me a large number of times that the shed was massively over-engineered, and that the roof was easily able to bear my weight.  It's true that it survived having a large tree fall on one corner a few years ago, but I was concerned that rot might have set in since then, given the leaks.  As I lay on a ladder running up the side of the roof that one can get at properly I asked the SA whether I was the chosen one to go up there because crawling on the ladder would wreck the SA's knees, or because I only weighed two thirds as much.  The SA said it was mainly due to the knees, but also the weight.  I didn't find this degree of caution about the load-bearing capacity of the shed entirely reassuring, but it seemed solid enough.  The only way to get at the roof to fasten the felt along the top section on the far side was to reach right over the apex and fix the battens and tacks from above, so the ridge did have to bear pretty much the full weight of one of us.

The other shed with loose felt was easier to access, and the SA was able to get on with that single-handed, until running out of battens, so I let the chickens out for a yomp for the first time in ages.  They were very happy to come out, and started off by burbling a great deal while gorging on grass.  Then they were happy to play in the turning circle in the front garden, instead of charging off to the far end of the back, which is what they had taken to doing before our holiday, to the Systems Administrator's exasperation.  Perhaps it was so long ago they had forgotten, or perhaps the afternoon was so dark, foggy and discouraging by half past three that they didn't feel the urge to go that far from their hen house.  I was able to keep an eye on them, and half an eye on the SA on the roof, while removing the black netting from the front of the dahlia bed and cutting down the dahlias.  It feels wrong doing it before the frost has blackened them, but that's due to happen on Friday, and I can't believe that three days will make any difference to the tubers.

I cleaned out the chicken's house as well before lunch.  If you have a romantic attitude to the idea of keeping chickens then don't get any.  They are thoroughly entertaining animals, and the eggs are nice when they lay them in sensible places, but what with the ordure and the trouble with foxes it is quite hard work, one way and another.

Monday, 22 October 2012

damp and quiet

It looked very dark this morning when the alarm clock went off.  I knew that fog was forecast overnight, and was planning to leave early for work.  In fact, as I went out to open the pop hole of the chicken house, the fog didn't seem that thick, and it didn't get any worse even along the low-lying stretch approaching the river Stour, so I arrived with about ten minutes in hand.  The manager arrived a moment after me, having also allowed extra time for the journey.

They had a very busy day on Saturday, though nobody quite knew why.  The weather then was OK-ish, but nothing to get very excited about.  Whatever the reason, it had worn off by today, and we had another quiet Monday.  I suppose it was damp and foggy all day, so not wonderful weather for wandering about outside, though it was pretty mild.  At least Saturday's brisk trade proved that people will still buy plants, some of the time.

The owner told us all sternly that she was tired of finding every single evening when she reconciled the tills that someone had put credit card transactions through as cheque or voucher, and that it had to stop.  I think that probably means it wasn't me doing it, as I'm not there all the time, and wasn't certainly guilty this weekend, because I was in West Sussex.

At ten o'clock the phone rang, and it was the chap who has taken over the cafe, to say that due to staff shortage nobody would be in to run the cafe.  I see trouble ahead with the arrangement for the cafe.  I don't think it is clear to either the new operators or the plant centre owners whether it is being run to maximise profit for the people who have taken it on, and whether, as long as they pay the rent, they are at perfect liberty to choose their own hours, much as they might with a market stall, or whether it is supposed to be operated as a service to our customers, given that it is featured on our website, in which case its opening hours ought to tie in with ours.  If I'd come to buy some plants, thinking I'd have a nice day out, and get some tea or a light lunch, I'd be rather irritated to discover that the cafe was arbitrarily shut.  I've thought for several weeks now that the cafe chap was rather keen to shut up once lunchtime was over, rather than hanging on for afternoon plant centre visitors who might want some tea.

When I commented on the cafe's sketchy hours a while back to the Systems Administrator, the SA replied that the trouble was, we didn't have an SLA.  (That is a Service Level Agreement to you and me, a document that sets out in exhausting detail exactly what your outsource supplier is going to do for you.  Writing good and watertight ones that cover every eventuality is a fine art.  The SA used to do them for a living, amongst other things).

That was it, really.  I stuck price labels on some pansies, and cut down herbaceous plants that had died back, and put a few things that didn't want to get too wet under cover in the tunnel.  The gardener showed me the photographs of his recent trip to Africa, which looked very exotic.  I agreed in principle with the woman who works in the office to go and see Kathryn Tickell at the Colchester Arts Centre, if we could still get tickets.  It was a damp, quiet day.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

a wedding and an AGM

The wedding was very nice.  We whistled down the A12, round the M25 and down the M23 with no delays, found the hotel, and almost immediately ran into our friends, by the simple expedient of looking for them in the bar.  At half past two we all presented ourselves in the suite where the festivities were due to take place, and in due course the happy couple appeared and all went smoothly.

The bride looked fragile and very pretty, and was led to the front of the room on the arm of her nine year old son to the strains of Here comes the sun, accompanied by their dog, who had had a bath that very morning in honour of the occasion.  The groom beamed.  The ceremony was just right, not too long but not too utilitarian, with just two readings, both well chosen.  The canapes were good, the prosecco plentiful, the food when the three course meal arrived was nice.  The speeches were kind and funny and not too long.  The small boy and the small dog behaved beautifully all evening.  I met various of the Systems Administrator's old colleagues and cricketing friends that I knew of, or knew slightly but hadn't seen for a long while.  The wives and partners were amiable, and a Muswell Hill barrister (another other half) and I made a genuine effort at cheerful conversation when we found ourselves sat next to each other at dinner.

Life by the time you reach your middle years is seldom as straightforward as that.  Everything in the last paragraph is true, as far as it goes, but it leaves various important things out.  The bride has been seriously ill, and on Friday was using a wheelchair, exhausted by all the preparations.  Her boy has behavioural difficulties, so nobody knew until the last minute whether he would be OK walking his mother down the aisle, or fail to cope with the event, and the number of strange people.  The nanny, instead of sitting down to a nice meal on the bride and groom's table with the rest of the family, could easily have been spending her afternoon and evening trying to calm a distressed and hysterical child.  The best man, close friends with the groom since their university days a couple of decades ago, suffers from a degenerative eye condition and by now has almost completely lost his sight, so his speech included a gallows quip about how even a blind man could see how much the couple were in love.  The honeymoon has been quietly deferred until later in the year, to give the bride the chance to regain her strength after the efforts leading up to the wedding, and in fact the groom will be off shortly on a fishing trip with a friend that was arranged before the date for the wedding was set.

This evening was the AGM of the music society.  The chairman has decided that she is fed up with our having to do the teas, and decided to delegate this job to supporters of the church where the concerts are held, who will charge a pound a head in aid of church funds.  The tea and biscuits are currently provided by the society, and are free at the point of use.  The chairman has been flagging this idea to the committee for the past couple of meetings, and although I don't think it was every definitely decided upon by committee, tonight put it to the members of the society (or at least those that turned up to today's recital) before the concert started.   Reminding members that the price of season tickets had not gone up this season, and smiling her brightest smile, she asked those who were against the idea to raise their hands.  Nobody did.  One hopeful soul asked whether there would be cake, but the churchwardens have vetoed cake on the ground of crumbs.

Having spend hunks of this evening drying approximately sixty cups and saucers, and later washing about twenty plates after the cheese and biscuits at the AGM (a couple of years ago we didn't use plates, and there was an Incident over brie being trodden into the carpet) I don't mind if somebody else would be willing to do the refreshments.  I don't suppose the members particularly want to have their free tea withdrawn, but none of them will dare complain, not when it's in aid of the church.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Haste to the wedding

We're off to West Sussex in less than an hour, and the laptop is not coming with me.  In the meantime I am sitting at the kitchen table in my wedding clothes, since the ceremony is at half past two and the hotel can't guarantee to let us have our room before two o'clock.  I remembered to top up the chickens' water last night, so that I wouldn't have to go into the run dressed like this, but had to fill up their food and check for eggs (one, still on the roosting board instead of in the nesting box.  I wish I could work out why she is doing that) this morning, wearing wellingtons over my new tights.  It might look like the photos in the Toast brochure, but I can tell you that the brochure is silly.  I think I have escaped without bits of sawdust stuck to me.

They're funny things, wedding clothes.  You are trying to look nice, but not too eye-catching, since the guests' job en-masse is to provide a backdrop for the bride and groom, and make it look like a wedding.  I have got a houndstooth print shift dress in fine viscose, with a frilled front and bow.  It is not perfect, being cut too wide across the back so that the neckline flops, but I liked it enough not to want to send it back.  It does have pockets, which an awful lot of ladies' clothes don't have, and which are very useful if you are expecting to stand about nibbling and drinking on a terrace (weather permitting) in late October, especially if you have a slight cold.

I was worrying that I'd have to get a jacket to go over the dress, and wondering what would do and whether black was too funereal, when I realised that I could layer the dress over a thin sweater, 1960s style.  Nowadays every decade is being revived constantly and simultaneously, so 60s is as good a look as any other.  For less than the price of a jacket I didn't really want I could get a really, really good sweater, and have gone for John Smedley sea island cotton.  It is incredibly soft and very comfortable, though I don't think pure black is honestly my colour nowadays.  Black baroque pearls fit over the black sweater, and I have bought some new tights in zillion derniere black cotton, in the expectation that it's going to be chilly on that terrace.

The shoes are not new.  They are completely unfashionable black suede ones with a moderate heel, square toes and a sort of loafer top with a bar across, that remind me vaguely of the illustrations from the very boring French language books we had at school, and as such are retro enough to go with the dress.  They have the great advantage that I can walk in them, and believe I can wear them all day without giving myself blisters.  Though they do feel a teeny bit tight, and I'm not sure I've ever put them over thick tights before.  I have just shoved a box of elastoplast in my bag, just in case.

With the hat it should do.  I tried the whole ensemble on yesterday to make sure, and was not transformed into an elegant creature, but looked slightly bewildered and as if I would have felt much more natural in my gardening clothes, or at any rate in flat heels.  It is so much easier for the Systems Administrator, who is going to wear a suit.  At one point a new suit was spoken of, but the SA never got round to buying one, and by yesterday afternoon it was raining.

Friday, 19 October 2012

storm in a B cup

After the good bits of yesterday's excursion came the low point, in the form of a visit to Marks and Spencer to buy a bra.It was a dismal experience.  Chaps, be very grateful, you don't know what you're missing.

I don't like bras, on the whole, and most of the time manage very happily in cotton camisoles.  Bras were one of those necessary but tedious things, like court shoes, that I largely parted company with when I gave up office life and became an outdoor creature.  There are few things more revolting and uncomfortable than spending an energetic day digging, bending, and lifting with a sweat-soaked elasticated band clinging to your ribs, and nasty synthetic straps rubbing over your shoulders.  If I were to take up sport I would buy a proper sports bra, but since that isn't very likely to happen any time soon, the world of bras and I remain largely estranged.

However, I didn't think that a cotton camisole would cut the mustard for the wedding.  For that I thought I should have a proper foundation garment, to go with the rest of the outfit, even though the likelihood of me dragging the Systems Administrator on to the dance floor is about as great as that of my taking up sport.  I used to have a very nice, rather expensive, plain black, moderately see-through one that did for such occasions, only I have lost it.  Goodness knows how you lose a bra, but it managed to disappear somewhere on the trip to Devon.  I couldn't find it after we got home, and searched my suitcase, and the laundry basket, but it was nowhere to be found, so I presume it dropped down behind the furniture in the hotel room after undressing, and we failed to find it in our final sweep of the room when we were leaving.  I'm surprised by that, since we are pretty meticulous about checking round after we've packed, and don't normally forget things.  However, unless the B&B owner was a fetishist who nicked undies from guests' rooms while they were having their breakfast, which seems highly unlikely, then I must have left it behind.

The underwear department of the Marble Arch department of Marks and Spencer is full of bras whose use and purpose I cannot fathom.  My idea of good underwear is that it should be invisible under my clothing while making me look a nice shape.  No lumps, no bumps, no strange wrinkles where my underclothing obtrudes through my outer garments.  Perhaps brightly coloured straps, to add a touch of frivolity if one's top slips to one side.  Marks and Spencer's lingerie department is full of rack upon row of ruched, ruffled, sequin-encrusted, lacy, lumpy, embroidered, bedecked and be-feathered bras.  Bras made out of material so thick and textured it must surely have been designed as upholstery fabric.  Bras that seem to be prototype examples of 3-D printing.  I can't imagine any shirt, sweater or dress sitting happily over them, let alone a sea-island cotton turtleneck and a shift dress in ultra-fine viscose, which is what I'm wearing tomorrow.

The average UK bosom is a size D nowadays, apparently, and there are acres of support for the larger lady.  I could ignore those, so the choice was beginning to narrow down.  I thought I'd give the push-up section a miss as well.  I'm very happy to have been born after the era of the corset, and should like to be vaguely comfortable for our friends' wedding.  T-shirt bras sounded like what I was looking for.  I picked out a likely plain black candidate in all the combinations of cup and chest sizes that sounded remotely plausible, and went to try them on.

The underwear changing rooms in M&S are really depressing.  You get your own cubicle, which is something, and it is surrounded by mirrors so that you can see exactly how awful you look from every angle. In a bid to reduce the store's carbon footprint the ambient lighting is dim, giving the initial impression that you might have wandered with your shopping into a cupboard.  Then a strip light comes on, presumably when a sensor detects movement in the cubicle.  This emits a strange, yellow light, possibly the most unflattering colour ever devised for viewing human skin.  Mine, sallow at the best of times, appeared a deep, jaundiced yellow with greenish overtones, while the stress of trying on all those elastic straps brought out random pink splotches.  I looked like something out of a Lucien Freud painting, but without the quality of brushwork.

None of the bras fitted.  I didn't fill the cups of any of them, as even the B cup wrinkled loosely over my breasts, producing a peculiar, shelf-like effect.  I am quite slim, and fairly well-toned as middle aged ladies (the core M&S lingerie customer) go, and the 34 inch bra dug into the flesh under my arms producing ugly rolls of flesh that aren't there with the cotton camisoles.  The 36 inch size did exactly the same thing, while simultaneously riding up across the back, a classic sign that a bra is too big.  That bra might have looked OK on somebody whose BMI was so low they were borderline medically underweight, or else someone as finely honed as Jessica Ennis, but I couldn't see who else it was going to be any good to.

I was very tempted to give up.  I looked at some cotton T-shirt bras that (joy of joys) were not underwired, but they came in packs of two and there were none left in bearable colours in the 34-36, B-C range that I thought I must inhabit.  Eventually I found another two-pack in an OK-ish design, went through the horrible rigmarole of trying them on, and discovered that, as far as I could tell, I was still a 36B, which is what I have believed myself to be for the past twenty years.  Nobody was free to give me a proper fitting.  I knew that because the woman ahead of me in the queue for the nasty cubicles asked, and they couldn't offer her an appointment until the next day.

M&S still sells a quarter of all ladies' underwear sold in the UK.  That comes to 45 bras a minute.  They remain the market leader, even though their market share is not what it was.  Apparently they have been trying to appeal to younger and more fashionable customers who want their bras to show as part of their outfits (silly girls), while not alienating their core customer base.  Meanwhile, I am going to start saving for my underwear escape fund, so that next time I need a bra I can go to Rigby and Peller.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

culture trips

Arsenic and Old Lace at Colchester's Mercury Theatre was brilliant.  I'd seen it about three decades ago, and all that I could remember besides the fact that it was about two old ladies who poisoned lonely elderly men with arsenic (which isn't really a plot spoiler since the clue's in the title) was that it was very funny.  It is a black, manic farce with some great wisecracks and one-liners, and the Mercury does it proud, with a pacey production and a splendid gothic set.  The author, Joseph Kesselring, never wrote anything else that was remotely as successful.  A well-constructed farce is a wonderful thing.  The protagonists, while mad, should behave consistently in character, and each sudden entrance and plot twist should follow from what has gone before.  You can't have any soldiers on horseback in a good farce.

The only worry before the start was the couple to one side of us.  Both were immensely fat, so that the lady threatened to spill into my chair (luckily I am rather small), and before the play even began she had complained that the haze might trigger an asthma attack, and giggled that she didn't know how to switch her mobile phone off, while her companion made ponderous observations about the set.  She let out a shriek in the dramatic opening, and I thought for a moment that our evening's viewing was doomed, but after that they were quiet until the interval and it was OK, apart from the fact that she didn't shrink during the course of the evening.

Today, with time to spare before my lunch, I nipped into the Guildhall Art Gallery.  The current temporary exhibition is of a living painter John Bartlett, whose extraordinary narrative paintings are fixated on the paranoia of modern urban life (quote).  I was one of two visitors, so I don't think that one is taking the art loving public by storm.  I did feel I was being Told Stuff about Social Issues, and would have preferred a little more wit, or ellipsis, that allowed me to work things out for myself instead of beating me over the head with them, or failing that a more sensuous use of paint.  I wandered around the permanent collection as well while I was there.  There is some rather nice modern stained glass in the front of the gallery, in the form of tall thin windows to various guilds, including gardeners and waste disposal people.

After lunch I went to see Shakespeare:staging the world at the British Museum, which is my absolute favourite museum at the moment.  I love the great court, the gift shop, the permanent displays, the way they do temporary exhibitions, the whole shebang.  I haven't been to a dud show there since they started staging them in the reading room, and today's was no exception.  We got things you'd expect, like books and letters, several swords and daggers (feature a lot in Shakespeare), household objects of the time like a clock, and displays to illustrate the scope of Shakespeare's world, encompassing Venice and Virginia, as well as the importance of Warwickshire to him.  The extent to which the history plays were used for coded discussions of political issues that could not be spoken of or represented directly was raised, with an eclectic collection of objects including witches' charms (Macbeth) and a tiny stone relief of the suicide of Cleopatra.  There were film clips of Royal Shakespeare company actors reading from some of the plays, and plenty of quotations on the walls (and as we know, Shakespeare wrote largely in quotations).  There were also some quirky little oddities, like a seventeenth century schoolboy's cartoon scribble of his teacher.  It is a very interesting, well put together show, and you wouldn't need to be a dedicated Shakespeare scholar to enjoy it.  It's on until 25th November so you have no excuse not to go.  I didn't book in advance, and was able to get in straight away, and it wasn't too crowded.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012


I drifted awake in the night with an ominous tickling in the back of my nose and aching limbs, and as I came to, realised that I had the beginnings of a cold.  This was followed by the dismal mental tally of all the things I was supposed to be doing in the next few days, that would be spoilt if I felt awful or could only go anywhere accompanied by a box of man-sized tissues.  The Mercury Theatre tonight, a trip to London to meet an old university friend tomorrow, nothing on Friday.  Work on Saturday - oh no, not work, The Wedding.  The wedding in West Sussex, the one entailing a night in a posh hotel and for which I have purchased a new outfit.  To which my general response was Oh Bugger.  Botheration.  Maybe if I lie very still and hold the duvet tightly over myself it will all be All Right.

They're odd things, colds.  I've felt this one stalking me for about a month.  It's never developed into a full-blown streamer, and never gone away entirely.  Apart from a worse than usual tendency to rhinitis, it has manifested its lurking presence in the odd ache, or occasional slight touch of sore throat.  I once mentioned the tendency of colds to hover on the sidelines to my former GP, back in the days when there was a particular doctor at the group practice that I felt was my GP, and he dismissed my theory briskly, saying that colds didn't work like that and you either had one or you didn't.  I still think he was mistaken.  After all, the medical profession recognises that other viral infections can hang around latent for months, or even years.  The nasty thing the Systems Administrator had back in August is recognised as being capable of flaring up again for up to six months, while a childhood infection of chicken pox can rear its head as shingles decades later.

What prompts colds to progress from a slight hint of something into full-blown stinkers?  Getting cold and wet certainly can.  Novelists have made full use of the dangers of 'catching cold': look at Jane's collapse following her rain-sodden trip to visit Miss Bingley.  Since I have been rather careful recently not to get wet I can't blame a chill.  Nowadays 'stress' is preferred as a culprit.  When you're a bit stressed your immune system is weakened, and the germs that surround you seize their chance to act, that's the theory.  Blaming stress isn't a very comforting idea for the sufferer, suggesting either that your life is out of control and badly organised, or that you aren't coping with it very well.  A cold is no longer a misfortune, but a sign of weakness.

I can't believe that doing one little talk that I've done loads of times before to a room full of friendly people, who plied me with free cake and polyanthus plugs, would be so stressful that it would overwhelm my immune system.  Instead I shall put the resurgence of the cold down to either random timing and luck, or else the fact that it has been getting chillier recently.  The chickens have suddenly gone off lay, the cats have started eating like horses, and my body has decided to flirt with the idea of a cold.  The cure for an incipient cold, if you can manage it, is rest.  Sit down somewhere warm (I know that sitting down gives you diabetes, but that's in the long run) and drink a lot of tea.  Rest.  Do nothing.  It's tough if you have a job, or children to care for, since your average employer is not going to be very impressed if you call in sick explaining that you are starting to develop a cold and don't want it to get worse, and nor is your child when it misses out on breakfast, the school run and football practice.

Luckily I had nothing whatsoever scheduled for today until this evening, so the sum total of my labours has been to write one letter, one card and two cheques, and totter as far as the post office before lunch, and after lunch very carefully prune and tie in some branches of a climbing rose that were in the way of the ongoing shed re-roofing project.  The SA is on notice that I would like to be driven to the theatre tonight, contrary to our usual informal understanding that whoever organises an entertainment drives to it.  The cold has not progressed to the overtly snotty stage, so I should be able to enjoy the play and without ruining it for everybody else, on the other hand it is definitely still there, aching, tickling and slightly clammy.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

another woodland talk

I have just done another woodland charity talk, this time at the AGM of a local horticultural society.  They are a friendly group, whose activities mainly revolve around their spring, summer and harvest shows, and flower displays for their local church, so the AGM lecture is the only one they have during the year.  I was invited once before, about four years ago, to talk about seasonal planting, and I gather that at last year's meeting they had a park ranger from Colchester to speak to them.

The formal proceedings were wrapped up admirably quickly, in twenty-five minutes, which beat last year's record by five minutes according to the minutes of last year's meeting.  These were ceremoniously read out and signed, though as the chairman said who could remember what had happened a year ago.  The treasurer's report covered all the relevant facts while fitting on one side of A4 paper, and I paid careful attention, given that I'll have to present my own report at the beekeepers' AGM, which will be the first time I have ever been to it.  Normally I try to avoid AGMs, on the grounds if you are an ordinary member with no particular gripe about how your club is run and no intention of standing for office then they fail the test that meetings should be either useful or entertaining (millions of hours of human time would be freed up every year if all organisations adhered scrupulously to that rule).

After the AGM there were home-made cakes and sandwiches, which were very good, but I had to partake abstemiously since trying to talk to a room full of people when your own stomach is full of cheese nibbles and fruit cake is not a good idea.  There was a good turn out, and the annexe to the village hall was nearly full, which goes to show that if you want people to come to a potentially boring meeting then bribing them with food is the way ahead.

I had to set up my equipment to discover the correct position for the projector table and check the wall socket worked before the AGM started, and then move the projector table out of the way so that it didn't obscure the officers of the society from half the audience.  I was a little on edge about having to switch the projector off and move everything then set up again during the refreshment break, since I'd have rather got it all sorted out before the room filled up, and sat there knowing that it was ready to go and I had only to un-blank the image to begin.  However, I managed to put the stand back where it had been before, and not drop anything or press the wrong buttons on the remote control, and it was fine.  I am not a mechanically adept person, especially under time pressure or when people are watching me, so my anxiety was not entirely unjustified.

The fact that I am not good with machinery was demonstrated while I was setting up, since a large and kindly man with long hair and sandals, observing me adjusting the angle of the projector by jamming a sailing magazine under the back edge, observed that my projector stand had a tilt adjuster, and wound a screw underneath it, which had the effect of elevating the back of the stand and so lowering the height of the image.  I have been using that stand for around a decade and never grasped the point of that screw, but was quite happy to be shown.  When you know that you are not good at getting equipment to work, you take all the help you are offered, if you are sensible, provided it is genuine help from somebody who knows what they're doing, and not just somebody being bossy (I had one of those the other day at work, who was very keen to supervise while I loaded trees into her horse box, despite the fact that she had no prior experience of the task and much less practice at loading trees into vehicles than I had.  Her view on how to load the trees turned out to be wrong, and it was the manager who worked out the best way of fitting them in).

After my talk there was a raffle, for which we had all been given one free raffle ticket.  The prizes were boxes of polyanthus, for which there is a class at the spring show.  I won a box, though I think I am excused from entering the show.  Also I discovered that somebody has started putting concerts on in their village church, so left my details to put on the mailing list for details of those, and with a couple of people who thought they might want a talk for other clubs they belonged to.  It was a nice evening.  It is remarkable what can be achieved with some goodwill, some twigs and a projector, and some cake.

Monday, 15 October 2012

stacking the tunnel

My task for the day was to move the magnolias up in their tunnel, to make space next to them for those plants that need to be kept on the dry side in their pots through the winter.  I don't mind moving the magnolias around, in that I like them as a group, and it is a chance to see what's in stock.  There were some lovely young plants of the yellow flowered variety 'Lois', which the boss claims is the best yellow because the flowers don't fade with age.  Unfortunately by the time he said this I had already planted another yellow variety 'Elizabeth', but I think that may have succumbed to muntjac attack, in which case I could replace it with 'Lois'.  The bed concerned is a long way from the house, close by the edge of the wood, and the things planted in it were slightly left with two choices, live or die, but it needs a good weed and tidy this winter.

The list of plants that need to be kept dry over winter was quite long, but in practice not everything on it was in stock.  A couple of the more tender buddleias come in, and the pineapple brooms, and cordylines (but we only had one of those left).  All of the yuccas and the indigoferas, the lavateras and kalmias.  I think of Kalmia as needing a humus-rich, moist but well-drained, woodlandy sort of soil.  I suppose the clue is in the phrase 'well-drained'.

Vitex agnus-castus or the chaste tree comes in to the dry, the origin of whose common name I learned in the Alnwick Castle poison garden.  Apparently the seeds produce a chemical that suppress testosterone production, so monks drank a liquid made from them to reduce those urges incompatible with vows of chastity.  It has been in cultivation in UK gardens since around 1570, and I have seen a very large and fine specimen growing in the botanic garden at Leiden.

We always refer to the autumn process of putting plants under cover as stacking the tunnels.  I don't know if the phrase is in general use in the horticultural industry, since is the only nursery job I have ever had.  Moving plants on a list from point A to point B sounds as though it ought to be a menial, unskilled job, but in practice is made much faster and easier if you have a reasonable knowledge of and interest in plants, or at least the ones on the list.  Otherwise you would have very little idea where in the plant centre point A was, and if you couldn't recognise what you were looking for you would have to read every label, which would take an insanely long time.

None of the individual pots I moved were very large, apart from one Magnolia grandiflora which I dragged instead of lifting.  However, by the end of the day I'd rearranged the whole of one side of a polytunnel to the depth of about a metre.  I didn't pace the length of the tunnel out, but it must be around 25 metres.  The plants weren't quite pot thick (in nursery parlance that means touching, as fully packed in as is physically possible) but they weren't far off, and the plants I moved into the tunnel I had to lift twice, once at each end of the journey.  My shoulders do now feel as though they had done a lot of lifting for one day.  There again, it's all healthy exercise, and the upside is that I still don't mind wearing sleeveless dresses, which are a no-no for many middle aged ladies.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

missing person

I nipped down to the village mid-morning on a couple of errands, and was surprised to see a police car parked outside the lettuce farm car park, plus other emergency vehicles and people in uniforms milling around.  Nobody attempted to flag me down, and I was fairly sure I saw next door's Airedale wandering among the throng, so it didn't look like a crisis, on the other hand it was an odd thing to find on your doorstep on a Sunday morning.  I wondered whether there had been an accident with a forklift or something, and more frivolously whether the lettuce farm had been busted for employing illegal labour, though that seemed very unlikely.  There were still police cars there when I got back, and an unmarked white van with people dressed in black standing next to it, looking unhurried but purposeful.

I told the Systems Administrator that there were police down at the farm, though I hadn't seen if there was an ambulance as well, and we speculated uselessly about what might be going on.  Then a police helicopter arrived, and began flying low and slow over the surrounding fields, following the hedge lines.  The SA commented admiringly that that was skilled piloting, and we agreed that they must be looking for something or someone, but that whatever it was couldn't be judged to be a threat to the public, given that nobody had come to warn us or tell us to remain indoors.  We decided that they must either be looking for someone who was feared to be a risk to themselves but not other people, or else had another sighting of the Essex lion, though after the embarrassment they suffered last time we didn't think they'd send the helicopter out for the lion again.

There were voices outside the front door.  The SA went to investigate, and came back saying that five coppers had just gone down through our wood as being the quickest way to reach the small copse across the field.  They hadn't said much, but confirmed that they were looking for somebody at risk of harming themselves.  We stood in the sitting room window, watching the helicopter circle, and after a while the figures of five policemen in luminous vests appeared crossing the field.  They reached the copse, circled it, and seemed not to find what they were looking for, as they set off again heading south towards the far corner of the field.  More police arrived and said that they would like to search our garden and outbuildings.

They were full-blown police officers, not community support officers, in the search team clothing of a one piece suit and boots, and carrying Google Earth printouts of the area.  It is very strange to find your property and immediate neighbourhood the subject of a police search, especially on a beautiful, calm, sunny Sunday morning when you are about to go to lunch with your assembled relatives.  We jumped for a moment seeing somebody moving on the bottom lawn, then saw that it was just a policeman.  The SA wondered if it was OK for us to go out, but the police confirmed that it was fine, and I couldn't see what good it would do if we blew my mother out, besides which, I had the meringues and the cheese straws.  As we got into the car, dressed in our party clothes, a police officer appeared from the side of the house, looking absurdly young and fresh faced.  He said we had a lovely garden, and we said we hoped they found the person they were looking for, and off we drove.  There were clusters of officers in the lane by our spinney, and more police cars parked in the field entrances.

I did deeply and sincerely hope that they found whoever it was, safe and well, as the standard phrase goes.  Two of my classmates killed themselves not long after leaving school, in both cases becoming depressed following educational setbacks, and I always thought what a terrible, tragic waste that was.  There were so many fulfilling lives each could have led, instead of the ones they'd initially visualised for themselves aged eighteen, it really didn't matter in the grand scheme of things where they went to university, or whether they went at all, but they had reached a point where they couldn't see it like that.  I very much wanted whoever it was to be found.

I also had a much baser and selfish thought, which was that I didn't want this missing person to commit suicide in our wood.  That wasn't very nice of me.  I shouldn't have been thinking about my own feelings at all at such a time, but I'm afraid it is in human nature to do so.  Later on, chatting with someone over lunch they told me about the summer they'd had worrying about their father, who is over a hundred and in poor health in a nursing home some way from where they live.  They were busy with a set of monthly weekend classes leading up to an exam, which they wanted to pass, and with their career, and couldn't help wondering after each scare what they would do if their father died, and whether they would be able to complete the course, or do the exam.  They said they knew it was mean of them, and they shouldn't think in that way, but one did.  One couldn't help it.  Normal life kept happening even in the face of something momentous.  Ah, like the Auden poem Musee des Beaux Arts, I said.  I felt better thinking that I was not alone with my inappropriate thoughts.

We drove home wondering nervously whether we would find police in the front garden, or an ambulance, and incident tape, and how it would feel looking at that patch of one's home and knowing that somebody had killed themselves there, and whether if it turned into a tragedy the press would turn up.  All was quiet.  Everybody had gone, apart from three cars parked as normal for a Sunday in the fishing club car park by the reservoir.  There was nothing obvious on the local news websites to say who they had been searching for.  I very much hope that they found them, safe and well.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

mending the shed roof

B&Q in Clacton came up trumps with roofing felt, so we started on the pot shed roof.  The pot shed was originally built as a garage, but we soon found that the turn into it was too tight to get the MG in safely, and it became a garden shed.  That MG is no more, having gone to the great scrapyard in the sky.  It was an MGF made by the now defunct revived MG company, and it required a string of expensive repairs from early in its life, demonstrating a build quality so low that I'm afraid the manufacturer deserved to go bust.  Once we were no longer City slickers we couldn't afford to keep it running, and by then it had proved such a let-down that the Systems Administrator had lost all affection for it anyway.

During a great shed reorganisation this shed became mine, and I spent a long time building shelves to keep my spare terracotta pots on.  It took ages, not because they are very posh shelves, but because I am not very good at carpentry.  The felt has been coming off the roof for months now, and mending the shed has been on the list of things to do.  In the summer it rained virtually all the time, and when the rain stopped there was a mini-heatwave.  Very hot weather is not good for handling roofing felt, because it softens and rips.

Access to the shed roof is not straightforward.  It is next to another shed, which is now the province of the SA, with a gap between them of under a metre, while the chicken enclosure wraps around the back of both buildings, in a sort of L-shaped run.  The run has a wire netting roof to keep foxes out, since a fox will shin over a 2 metre wall of chicken wire, no sweat.  This means that to reach one end of the shed roof from ground level on its northern side you have to work from the narrow alleyway, while to get at the other end you have to remove the netting from the top of the chicken run.

The entrance to the gap between the sheds was blocked by a large wild rose that seeded itself there, while a thick crop of ivy was growing happily in the virtual dark, so we had to do a fair bit of pruning before we could start roofing.  The Systems Administrator thought that we would have to cut the chicken netting, but I thought that given a sharp screwdriver I could prise the staples out, which was preferable given that we'd need to put it back afterwards.  Mobility inside the chicken run is restricted, from a human point of view, by a hawthorn tree that seeded itself in there and is growing out through the wire top.  I was surprised that the chickens didn't eat it or scratch it up when it was little, but it survived, and I've left it, on the grounds that they were originally jungle fowl and are supposed to like sheltering beneath trees.  I managed to open up a large enough hole in the roof to squeeze my shoulders through, but it isn't the easiest way to work, perched up a ladder with your legs hemmed in by a roll of galvanised netting and a hawthorn bush.

The thing that destroys the felt on shed roofs is wind getting in underneath it.  For this repair we ran the felt across the full length of the roof, and as well as tacks applied vertical battens at approximately 80cm intervals, including at both ends.  Horizontal battens will hold down the edges of the felt, though we haven't finished yet so those aren't all in place.  No part of the felt should be more than 15cm or so from an attachment point, and that should prevent it from ballooning up until it rips.  We still have to do the ridge, having run out of daylight, but the other two courses are in place, and I managed to reassemble the chicken run.  The SA's technique with battens has refined over the years.  They are pre-assembled in the workshop with their fixing screws already partly screwed in, so that on the shed roof all you have to do is hold down the batten with one hand and operate the rechargeable screwdriver with the other.  Also this time round the SA is using shorter battens, so that none of them span more than one width of felt.  Last time they were cut to run the full depth of the roof, and we've since realised that if you want to repair one section of felt you have to remove the whole batten to do so.  All we need now is for it not to be windy before Tuesday, as the upper edge of the top roll of felt isn't fixed yet, and we don't want it ripping in the meantime.

Addendum  Here are the culinary lessons of the week.  Firstly, it is very easy to over-cook Tesco's couscous, and if you do it turns into porridge.  Luckily the chickens really like couscous porridge.  From a human perspective I want the individual grains to remain distinct. The instructions on the packet said to boil for five minutes, then stand for another five.  My books talk about steaming it, so I will try that, although I wonder if Tesco sell some sort of easy-cook couscous.  I will ask the advice of a friend who I'm sure has served delicious couscous at parties in the past.

Secondly, pushing other people towards healthy eating tends to produce an equal and opposite reaction.  The SA dined on Moroccan vegetable stew quite meekly, but bought a Pukka Pie to eat for the following night's supper when I was out.

Thirdly, if you blind bake a flan case and it cracks because the pastry fell apart in the course of transferring it to the flan dish, and you did not moisten the edges enough when repairing it, then when you add the filling including egg custard and put it back in the oven, the custard will run out of the hole.  It will not set quickly and stop the hole, like pouring gunge into a leaking car radiator, but will go on leaking for quite some time.  Luckily I had some spare eggs.

Friday, 12 October 2012

unleashing my inner domestic goddess

The plan for today was to re-felt the shed roofs.  However, when I woke up it was still raining, and quite windy, so while I waited for the Systems Administrator to surface I thought I might as well make a start on the meringues I promised to do for my mother's party on Sunday.

The party is in celebration of her birthday, last Monday, and mine, last month.  I offered to make some meringues because various family members like them, especially the younger ones who have no inhibitions against eating what is basically a great inflated spoonful of neat sugar.  Also the simmer oven of a four door Aga naturally runs at exactly the right temperature to cook meringues, so I can bask in a glow of culinary accomplishment for practically no effort.

I started off with four eggs' worth, which will nicely fit on the largest baking sheet, and decided I'd better double up and make two batches to be on the safe side, which left eight egg yolks to use up somehow.  Egg custard based ice cream accounted for three, and used up a bag of 2010 frozen blackcurrants at the same time.  Anything involving blackcurrants more complicated than putting them in a dish with sliced apple and covering them quickly with crumble topping is apt to be messy, and the recipe for blackcurrant ice cream made more than would churn in one go, so by the time I'd finished I'd got purple mixture on the kitchen table, the outside of the ice cream machine, the floor, the drawers of the deep freeze, and (after I'd licked the utensils) my face.

The SA returned from shopping and said that the Colchester B&Q had run out of roofing felt.  I do wish they wouldn't do that.  I go there because it's cheap, and relatively convenient, but they regularly and randomly let basic items go out of stock, and really one shouldn't encourage them.  As it was still windy, though no longer raining, we agreed to try and get felt tomorrow at the Clacton branch.  The wind was forecast to have dropped back by then, and the whole job will be much easier on a calm day anyway.

I settled into full domestic goddess mode, and excavated the laundry basket to find my outstanding hand washing, two pairs of alpaca socks, a linen and cotton sweater and a wool one.  The woollen jumper is a much loved old favourite, now so shabby it has been demoted to domestic wear only.  I used to have it dry cleaned, but it's really not worth it now.   The alpaca socks are an experiment.  They got a very favourable write-up in one of the garden magazines, so I bought two pairs, a compromise between buying loads of socks that turned out to be rubbish, and paying the full delivery charge for just one pair, which seemed silly.  One of the selling points for alpaca was that it was naturally antiseptic, and I could allegedly wear my socks for a week without washing them with no ill effects, but they do still need washing, and they didn't come with any instructions.  I'll let you know how it goes.

I'm very glad to live in the age of the washing machine.  Washing everything by hand, even the sheets, would be ghastly, and incredibly time consuming, but I don't grudge the odd little bit, being rather keen on natural fibres.  I listened to a fascinating programme about the flower fields of west Cornwall and the Scillies on Radio 4 which is well worth catching if you have a spare half hour.  Under the latest BBC system you have over a year left to listen, so you should be able to fit it in.

Three egg yolks were destined for the filling of a flan for supper.  I thought wistfully that the other two could have been turned into lemon curd, if only I'd asked the SA to buy some unwaxed lemons, but couldn't be bothered to go out just to buy lemons, and decided they could be cheese straws for the party instead.  A friend of ours makes wonderful cheese straws, but when I asked her how she did it, all she would say was that they were really easy.  I thought she was protecting her recipe, which was fair enough, until I had to learn to do them for the music society and discovered that they were really easy.  I use a recipe out of the good housekeeper's cookery book I've had since I was a teenager.  It looks stingy with the cheese, but makes really nice short pastry.

The SA volunteered to do the vacuuming, so I got off the boring domestic task.  If I were a full-time housewife and had to do this stuff seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, I would be screaming with boredom and demanding an office I could escape to, but it's good fun to spend the odd day pottering about in the kitchen when it's windy outside.  Tomorrow we really will re-roof the sheds, assuming that the Clacton B&Q has any felt.