Wednesday, 31 July 2013

two exhibitions

The prime motive for today's trip to London was to see the Grayson Perry tapestries at the RA Summer Exhibition.  It's years since I bothered going to that.  I find it a weird format, a strange jumble of tasteful oil paintings by academicians of safe subjects (pot plants, sunlit pavement cafes, the artist's studio), truly terrible daubs by non-academicians (what were the rejected submissions like?) and small etchings and lithographs that gain nothing from being stacked ten high up the walls, so that you can't even see the ones at the top without getting a crick in your neck (that worries me nowadays, I keep remembering the story of the woman who ripped her carotid artery sitting back to rest her head on the washbasin at the hairdressers).

However, I am a huge fan of Grayson Perry, as are two of my friends, making him the most popular living artist among people I know.  One of them had watched the Channel 4 series on how the tapestries were made, in which Grayson Perry met people from different social classes, spent time with them, and used their lives and faces in six linked works, which he previewed to them at a party.  I think that's how it went, anyway, having not seen the series myself.  We start with a baby on his mother's knee in Sunderland, two heavily tattooed men kneeling before them, offering up a miner's lamp and a football shirt.  This is the Adoration of the Cage Fighters.  Two tapestries on, the geeky youth is leaving his northern, lower class roots behind to be embraced by the family of his middle class girlfriend.  And so on, via his successful computer empire, purchase of a grand country house, and remarriage to a younger model, to his sad end.  It is based on The Rakes Progress, and Perry himself is explicit that it is about the class system, the elephant in the English room.

The tapestries are very visually arresting, brightly coloured and richly textured, and contain a massive amount of closely observed detail.  Grayson Perry is a master of detail.  The more you look, the more you see.  We made them the first thing we looked at when we arrived, or rather, the first thing we concentrated on, since they are in the last room so you have to tramp through most of the rest of the exhibition to get there.  Then we went at looked at the other rooms for a while, before coming back for a second feast on the tapestries.  As well as the carefully chosen class signifiers (the pigeons, the golf clubs, the Aga, the Cath Kidson bag, the Birkenstocks kicked off at the end of the sofa) there are clever bits of narrative woven in (the numerous To Let signs on the commercial buildings of the northern town, the tattered flag, the news of the hero's second marriage on the cover of Hello magazine) and references to classical art (the photographer reflected in a mirror straight out of the Arnolfini portrait, the final pieta).  I'm sure I missed loads of references, but I enjoyed the ones I got.

The rest of the Summer Exhibition was much as I remembered it, a bizarre mixture of the innocuous, the covetable, and things that made me think someone must be having a laugh.  Top prize in the latter category goes to the small crude painting of the Gherkin against a grey sky with glitter on it, yours for fifteen hundred pounds.  If you were prepared to forego the Gherkin and the glitter, you could have a small rectangle of grey paint for a thousand.  Neither had sold.  My friend was justifiably suspicious of how you would keep some of the perspex and cardboard three dimensional constructions clean of dust, and she was right, once they started filling with fluff and thunderflies they would never look as good.

After the RA we went to see Laura Knight's portraits at the National Portrait Gallery.  She was born a Victorian, brought up in financially straitened circumstances, and died at a ripe old age as recently as 1970, a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and the first woman to be elected to the Royal Academy in over 160 years.  You don't hear so much about her nowadays.  The current show isn't large, but illustrates how her technique shifted between loose Impressionism and something more polished and formal.  One of the reviews I read commented favourably on her vivid use of colour.  I loved her paintings, from the large canvas of a father and his two young daughters, begun in the middle of the Great War though not finished until nearly twenty years later, to a small, smooth portrait of a professional female strong woman, made when Dame Laura was nearly eighty. No late fading of eyesight and unsteadiness of hand for her.  The reviews have made much of her wartime portraits of factory workers and air force personnel, and they are great.  Catchy.  OK, they were done as propaganda, but that's part of the history of the time, and the Systems Administrator could have had some fun comparing them to Soviet portrayals of the heroic workers.  Laura Knight's uniformed female NCOs are not quite heroic, vermilion lipstick defiantly in place, looking exasperated, tense, and as though they might be afraid if they let themselves be, only they had a job to do.

The RA Summer Exhibition runs until 18 August, and is worth it for the Grayson Perry tapestries. Laura Knight runs until 13 October, and I liked it so much that if I'm in the area again with an hour to spare before it finishes, I'd happily go and see it again.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

the onwards march of progress

In the past twenty-four hours I have had a taste of what it is going to be like living in Britain in another twenty or thirty years, as we complete our descent from World Power to not quite first world country, one which to boot is being strangled by bureaucracy, and failed to invest enough in its electricity generation capacity.

We heard back from Kent Blaxill yesterday about the window.  They apologised for the delay, but the man dealing with it had been on holiday.  The bad news was that they could not replace our double glazed unit with laminated glass, not without building consent, because it entailed such a theoretically large downgrade to the thermal efficiency of the house.  Building consent was almost never given in such circumstances.

The house was designed and built in the 1960s.  When we bought it, it had single glazing throughout.  If we had never installed double glazing and now wanted to replace single glazing with more single glazing, we'd be allowed to.  If we were prepared to spend the next twenty years looking out at the garden through the increasingly foggy and thermally inefficient failed double glazing unit, we'd be allowed to do that too.  The Systems Administrator could put a pickaxe through the window and we could live with a large hole in the side of the house, or board it up ourselves, and the authorities would have no say in the matter.  A double glazed unit will not save us the £200 to £400 a year in heating bills that it will cost us in depreciation, given the life span of previous outsize units in that position.  It will almost certainly not recoup the carbon cost of its manufacture and installation in reduced emissions attributable to heating our house, before it fails again.  But Big State says we have to have double glazing.  It's the reintroduction of the windows tax by the back door.  I'll make enquiries of the council about this building consent, what it is, and whether I can have it, but I'm not hopeful.

This morning the Systems Administrator heard back from the garage about the posh car, which is in for its MoT.  It is an elderly jag, bought when the SA was still a master of the universe, and when something really expensive to fix finally goes wrong that will be end of that, and the SA will have to do long distances in a small Skoda like thousands of other people do.  This MoT has not thrown up anything terminal, but the headlight wipers do not work.  They have never worked, and road safety in Britain has not been compromised by the fact that the SA has been driving around in a car with two tiny, inoperable flaps of metal attached beneath the headlights.  The MoT rules now state that headlight wipers, if fitted, have to work.  You don't have to have them.  I don't have them, you probably don't have them.  Most cars don't have them.  But if you do have them, they must work. The garage bill will thus be inflated by the time it takes to get the wipers to work, or remove them and blank off the holes where they were mounted.

That was a mere starter, an amuse-bouche, before this afternoon's main event.  It rained today.  I didn't mind that too much, the garden needs the rain, and I had fortunately just inspected the last frame of the final beehive before it started, though I didn't manage to remove a few frames of honey I was planning to take with me.  Not to worry, I was going to make strawberry ice cream, and use the left over egg whites in some meringues and macaroons.  And do supper, because the SA didn't want to go out food shopping because of waiting around for news from the garage.  I went to Tesco, and bought strawberries (best before 31 July, which is tomorrow, when I am going to London.  That is relevant.) and chicken thighs, and yogurt, with the intention of making Moghul style kebabs, to be served with pea and potato fritters and spicy tomato relish.  The SA was going to watch Glorious Goodwood on the TV (I really thought that was with vintage cars, and was very surprised at lunchtime when the SA mentioned horses).

It was all going swimmingly well by mid afternoon, the spicy tomato mixture was bubbling away, and I'd just liquidised the onion for the second stage of the chicken marinade, with Moondog's Sidewalk Dances (a new acquisition the SA is not overly keen on) blasting away on the iPod docking station (I hate earphones).  We'd had 9 millimetres of steady rain for the garden, and all was well with the world (apart from the window problem).  Then Moondog came to an abrupt halt and the lights went out.  I went to see whether Goodwood was still Glorious on the TV and if I had merely lost the kitchen circuit, and met the SA coming the other way down the hall.  The external supply had failed, not our fuse box.  That brought my cooking plans to a stuttering halt.  I couldn't make meringues or macaroons, or at least not without more physical effort than I was willing to expend, because I couldn't use the electric whisk.  I was reluctant to make the custard anyway, given that I didn't know how long the fridge would be out, and egg custard is not good stuff to have hanging around at room temperature in July.

The SA thought my view on the custard a little pessimistic.  There was nothing in the local media about power cuts, but after a while the electricity company website acknowledged that there was a fault in CO7, expected to be fixed by 19.32.  Half past seven.  It went off at half past three.  I chopped up the ginger and garlic to go in the pea and potato cakes by hand, since I couldn't use the liquidiser.  The SA decided it would be prudent to ration battery use on laptop and tablet.  My laptop won't do more than ten minutes unless it is plugged into the mains, but I switched my phone off. Half past seven came and went, and the time for fixing the fault was revised to 21.32.  Half past nine.  There was still nothing about it in the East Anglian Daily Times, the Essex County Standard or the Colchester Gazette, though the electricity company did offer a premium rate phone number you could ring.

I began to fry the potato cakes and roast the kebabs in the gradually failing Aga.  It's an electric Aga, and while the core still held massive reserves of heat, the electric fan that circulates heat from the core to the ovens was not running.  After half an hour of cooking, at half past eight, the SA suggested it might be sensible to take the kebabs off their skewers, and fry them instead, since the hot plate above the core would be much hotter than the theoretically hot oven was, deprived of its fan.  I dismantled them, feeling distinctly unimpressed, since I'd gone to all that trouble finding the packet of bamboo skewers buried in the back of a kitchen drawer, and everything.  They tasted nice, as did the potato cakes, and the chutney, but it wasn't the effect I'd been aiming at.

At 21.32 the power came back on.  That's six hours arbitrarily spent with no laptop, no lights, no ice cream machine, no Kitchenaid, no iPod, no TV, a strictly rationed tablet and laptop, and half a cooker, and both of our plans for the afternoon blasted out of the water, leaving me with two punnets of date-expiring strawberries and no convenient time to use them.  We only had internet on the rationed laptop because the SA has a dongle for emergencies.  If there had been ferocious thunderstorms over Essex, or it were the middle of winter with heavy snow, I could forgive the power company more easily, but a calm day in July?  For six hours?  We could hear the generators running down at the lettuce farm.  I'm irritated enough about the strawberries, so imagine having thousands of lettuces cut and waiting to be processed and go out to the supermarkets, when the power to your processing line and chiller units goes off for what turns out to be six hours, with no sensible information on when it is going to come on again.

This is just the beginning.  Given the shambles which is UK energy policy, it will be the new normal, given a few more years.

Monday, 29 July 2013

mission accomplished (until next time)

I have done my three day stint in the plant centre.  The low point is having to get up on Sunday morning.  After a decade of working part time including alternate weekends, the concept of the weekend is not fixed so firmly in my mind as it was when I was a Monday to Friday office bod, but there's still that residual feeling that normal people do not rise at six on Sundays and make themselves a packed lunch in a plastic snap-top container, instead of combining a meal in a pub with a spot of garden visiting, or eating a big fat lunch with their friends or relations.  Monday seems more like a day to leap up, and by lunchtime I'm on the home straight to a whole six days to spend as I will.

As predicted, there was a lot of watering.  The owner put on her watering boots, the gardener and one of the people who works behind the scenes potting and tidying were co-opted, and yesterday's absentee turned up for work, so we had almost more hands to the pump than the water pressure could cope with.   I ran the automatic irrigation on the shrubs and herbaceous plants, but we checked them and watered by hand as well.  I was pleased that the owner came out to help, having an instinctive respect for leadership from the front.  In fact I found after she'd finished the herbaceous section that there was a dry patch in the Verbena, but that's what happens, when you are trying to get a lot done in a limited amount of time.  In the plant centre, the imminent arrival of customers at ten means we have to be pretty much finished by then, as we can't risk them tripping over the hoses, and anyway the owner had a meeting at ten.  I soaked the worst Verbena four at a time in a bucket of water, and they looked happier.

The wind got up through the day, so that while the plant centre had looked quite tidy at the point when we opened, by mid afternoon there were plants lying prone in all directions.  I managed to tie a couple of repeat offenders to convenient bits of furniture, but was defeated by one particularly large shrub (more of a small tree), and left it lying down for the second time in two days, with a note to the boss saying that I didn't like to tie it to the downpipe of the heated tunnel, in case it ripped the pipe off the next time it blew over, and suggesting he get a couple of the chaps to move it tomorrow to a safer place.  If it fell on a customer it could cause real injury.

A customer came to the till with two Romneya coulteri in her trolley, and asked me in all seriousness whether she could have a discount on them, as 'they looked a bit sad'.  I had to explain to her that that's what Romneya look like in pots, and furthermore that they are notoriously difficult to establish in the garden, to the point that if they didn't succeed, we didn't undertake to replace them.  I explained how they grew, that it was normal for the existing top-growth to be killed in the winter, but if the plant survived it would throw up new growth from ground level in spring, so it was a good idea to mark where the Romneya was in the border, to make sure you didn't accidentally tread on the new growth.  She bought one, even after I'd told her that in my own garden I finally thought I'd succeeded at my third attempt.  She hadn't seen the vast specimen by the loos in the Beth Chatto garden, or read the latest RHS magazine where Romneya is one of the plants of the month, and I admired her tenacity, after I'd laid out the pitfalls.  Romneya coulteri is a spectacularly beautiful plant, when growing well, with large, white, papery, poppy-like flowers at the ends of long stems with grey leaves.  Perversely, once established it runs about like mad, but as the RHS magazine article said, what a nice problem to have.

And now I am going to sit out of the wind in the conservatory, which I tidied up last week, and look at the garden through the windows which I washed.  I don't often do that.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

a drying wind

After all of those Met Office severe weather warnings of heavy rain, we had 5 millimetres in the night.  Five millimetres.  That's the equivalent of just over a quarter of an inch in old money.  Be Aware, high probability of puddles.

This morning started windy, and got windier as the day progressed.  Wind in the plant centre is the very devil.  We stood the plants up that had fallen over in the night, and some of them instantly fell over again.  Most pots seemed to have got a reasonable amount of water into them, what with the rain and the irrigation being set to run for five minutes overnight.  However, as the wind blew ever stronger and the sun beat down, things started to dry out.  There's only a limited amount you can do about that, while you have a plant centre full of customers.

We did have an unexpectedly large number of customers, and were down to two people again, though at least we had a tea shop girl.  The third plant centre assistant didn't turn up.  Apparently she missed some days last week as well.  Eventually she rang, saying she was not up to coming in, and had left a message earlier.  This has been going on for a couple of years now.  The person concerned has some issues in her private life, and the owner and everybody else have tried very hard to be helpful and supportive.  It isn't the first time that two of us have battled through the day short-handed because this colleague was a no-show.  The last time she stopped coming in, the owner was concerned enough to go round to the house she was living in at the time to check that she was all right.  I really don't know whether any of it is doing the slightest scrap of good, or whether we have collectively become enablers for her to continue to follow a chaotic lifestyle.  One of these days the owner is going to decide that it can't go on, but I have no idea when.

The owner or the boss could theoretically have stepped into the breach, but had quite a good excuse, in that it was their son's birthday.  I still remember him as a snot-nosed six year old, whereas he is now a teenager who towers over me.  My friend and colleague at the plant centre who lives in the village (in fact born and bred there.  Her father was the village baker) recently saw what she thought was a man and a girl pass by her garden on horseback, and only recognised them as our employers' son and his sister when she heard their voices.

I didn't get very far with the manager's list of things to do, but managed to disentangle around a dozen clematis from each other, so you could now buy a C. 'Jackmanii' or C. 'Jackmanii alba' if you wanted to.  Somebody did want to buy a C. montana which had started climbing up into a magnolia, and succumbed to the embrace of another clematis, before I got that far along the row, and I had to go and disentangle it for her specially.

The owner of the wonderful Fullers Mill Garden came in.  I greeted him enthusiastically and reiterated how much I'd enjoyed his garden and had been recommending it to people, and he beamed with the justified pleasure of one receiving praise of their life's work.  I asked him the name of the rose in his garden with tiny, ferny leaves with a greyish cast, and pink flowers, and he told me it was 'Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother', but I haven't yet been able to track down any such rose on the net.

There is going to be a lot of watering to do in the morning.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

managing without the manager

The manager is on holiday for a fortnight, and has left copious written instructions.  There is a laminated sheet on how to set the automatic irrigation system, either to run at once or to run overnight on a timer, which is very useful.  I have managed to get it to go in the past, though it's so long since I did that I'm not sure I could remember how without the instructions, but in a decade of working in the plant centre nobody has ever shown me how to set it with a delay.  A second set of instructions covers the water tank, where it fills from, how to reset the well pump if that stops working, filling it from the pond if you can't get the pump to go, and so on.  Again it's good useful stuff to know.  The manager showed me how it all worked last Monday, for the first time in ten years, and seemed quite struck when I suggested that it would be helpful to write all that sort of stuff down and give a copy to new members of staff in a folder.  A staff handbook, in fact.

A third laminated sheet gives instructions on how to water: water the compost, not the leaves, if something is very dry water more than once, stand everything up before running the overheads, don't run the trees at night in case a nozzle blows, in which case the tank will empty in minutes. The manager showed it to me last Monday and asked whether it was too patronising, and having read it I could truthfully tell him that it was all good advice, though I added the caveat that it would be far better to discuss it with everybody individually rather than just giving them a memo, since the plant centre suffered from an excess of management by note.  The manager said that of course he would do that, but my bet is that he didn't.  I rather suspect that we were given detailed written instructions not because he believed that anybody would do anything any differently as a result of reading them, but so that he could prove to the owners that he had told us what to do before going away, so if anything went wrong it was down to us and not his fault.

I said as much to the Systems Administrator, who briefly switched back into management analytical mode, and said the issue was that when managers went on holiday they had two choices, to delegate their management function downwards or to temporarily shift it upwards.  The problem in our case was that the manager couldn't do either.  He doesn't have a number two, and the proprietors don't want that level of detailed physical involvement on a daily basis.  The owner is actually pretty hands-on in the tea room, but I don't suppose she knows how the irrigation system works.

There is also a lever arch file with a section for each of us, listing our jobs while the manager is away.  Mine is to keep the end table ornamental displays topped up, to disentangle the climbers which have grown into each other, and to cut back a shelf of heathers.  I started with the end tables, thinking I might as well save the climbers for a wet day since they're under cover, and I couldn't see what was wrong with the heathers as they were, though I'll have to decapitate them at some point.  I didn't get very far.  Thankfully we had a tea shop girl, but apart from that there were only two of us in, and my colleague nominated me to man the till for the morning by dint of disappearing out of the shop and leaving me there.

The promised (or threatened, depending on your point of view) rain never materialised, and as the day grew hotter and sunnier my colleague seemed happier to let me work outside while he took over in the shop.  He appeared to have spent part of the morning doing tables of his own, rather than sweeping down the shrub beds, and had used up the trolleys of plants in full flower that I'd had my eye on.  There isn't an abundance of material to work with at this time of year, but I found some pink lacecap hydrangeas and hostas that were worthy of a more front-line position, and was quite pleased with a mixture of spiky evergreen foliage and allium seed heads.

I went to help a customer look for a particular clematis, which we turned out not to have, and discovered that the large flowered hybrids in that part of the alphabet had grown into each other so much that you couldn't pick an individual pot up.  On that basis I think tidying the climbers had better rise up my list of things to do, rain or no rain, since if customers can't even lift the pots we won't sell any.

Friday, 26 July 2013

saving the bumblebee

Tonight it is the beekeepers' barbecue.  The Met Office forecasts of showers have been shifting around all over the place, but it sounds as though this evening should be dry, which is good.  We have a couple of gazebos, and sitting under canvas in the rain has a sort of piquant Somerset Maugham charm if it's a hot night, but it's easier if it's dry.  It doesn't rain on the actual barbecue, for starters, and somebody always ends up sitting under the drip where the two gazebos join.

Last night it was the beekeepers' regular monthly club meeting.  On top of the committee meeting on Wednesday that is a lot of beekeeping events for one week, but it was the way the dates fell out.  Opinion is mixed among the committee as to whether we should have regular monthly meetings in summer, in addition to outdoor events like apiary visits, the Tendring Show, and the barbecue.  The Chairman is for it, while one committee member seemed truculently against.  He said it was a lot to organise.  There again, apart from helping at the Tendring Show I have never seen him volunteer to organise anything in the time I have been on the committee.

There seems to be quite a lot to do at the monthly meeting, if you are the Treasurer and have offered to take charge of the library.  I set out my stall of bee related books once I'd finally worked out how to unfold the table, pursued my co-signatory to get cheques countersigned for everyone who sold honey and cake at the show plus the Show Secretary's expenses, and dished out cheques to those who were there.  I tried to go and add my name to the list of people wanting tea, but ended up merely lending my pen to the person who had the list at that moment.  A commercial beekeeper who'd sold honey demanded a list of what he'd sold to go with his cheque.  Last year I wrote everybody a nice letter thanking them for their efforts and itemising what they'd sold, but this year I didn't get round to it.  I thought he'd have been pleased to get payment so promptly.  I had taken my master spreadsheet of who sold what to the meeting, so wrote down his pounds and half pounds of honey on a spare piece of paper once I managed to get my pen back.  Meanwhile, the list for teas and coffees stopped circulating before it got to me or the row of people behind me, while the person in charge of tea money made rather loud rattling noises with the tin.

The speaker was from Friends of the Earth, talking about bumblebee conservation.  I am sure his heart was entirely in the right place, and that Friends of the Earth are right to emphasise that pesticides are not the only threat facing wild bees and other insects.  Habitat loss is important. While the FoE chap undoubtedly cared a great deal about bees, I'm not sure he knew enough about them to satisfy some members of the audience, and it was unfortunate that the Colchester Beekeepers seemed more up to date on bee-related and environmental news via Radio 4 than he was (high incidence of pests on imported bumble bees reported last week, Monsanto's announcement that they are pulling out of applications for GM in Europe that morning), and that one member had worked in commercial tomato production and was able to give him a detailed technical explanation of how bumble bees are used in glasshouse pollination, while he seemed rather hazy on details like Do they escape? (answer, almost certainly.  Carrying their imported diseases with them).

If FoE can persuade the local district council to alter its grass management regime so that verges and other areas of public grass can grow long, allowing wild flowers to bloom and set seed, before cutting it, then that's all to the good.  They may be pushing at an open door, since cutting grass once or twice a year instead of keeping it short all year round is an obvious way to save money.  It was nice of the council to buy them some plug plants of wildflowers, though I'd have thought that in a rural area like this, if you cut the grass appropriately, flowers will probably turn up by themselves. As a council tax payer I'm not sure I want to pay for loads of wildflower plug plants.  The FoE man had visions of an England where we once again had hay meadows like before the last war, and seemed a little hurt by assertions from the floor that the reason they had been ploughed up was that without increased food production we'd have starved, and that the only way to really sort out the environment was to address the size of the human population.  He was keen for local food production to replace the current supermarket based distribution system, and I considered asking him whether he'd read Jay Rayner's conclusions on that subject, but decided it was too hot, I couldn't be bothered, and he was already having a difficult enough time as it was, after someone from the back of the room had told him that the giant panda was a useless animal and was doomed. A sweet well-meaning man, but fluffy.  The Colchester beekeepers tend not to do fluffy, but they love a good argument.

The Chairman, who is still quite new to the job, missed a trick and failed to give out the parish notices before the talk started, so tried to do so after it ended, by which time a good section of his audience had already gathered around the FoE speaker to continue the argument.  Or perhaps they were picking up leaflets, but I was slightly reminded of the way that bees will kill intruders by surrounding them in a ball of bees, and suffocating and stinging them to death.  I had to hover by the speaker to try and pay him, then scoot back to my library books before any disappeared without being signed out, and only just got a cup of tea, having eventually managed to add my name to the list.

It was marvellously cool when I got back out into the car park.  One disadvantage of having meetings inside during the summer is that the room gets so dammed hot.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

if you can't stand the heat

I should not be ungrateful about the summer.  Winter was cold enough, and went on for ever.  But the relative humidity was 95 per cent again this morning when I got up.  I am making incredibly slow progress with the garden, every trip to the compost heap to empty my bucket a considered effort, while the Systems Administrator's life is basically on hold until we get a proper downpour to clear the air.  Everywhere you look, a hot and lethargic cat is collapsed.  Our Ginger took up residence in the study for the morning, even though it meant being in a room by himself with nobody else there, because it is at the north end of the house and comparatively cool.  Only the fat indignant tabby has for reasons best know to herself started lying in front of the Aga, where just now I fell over her.

I was all set to combine a trip to Barclays in Manningtree with a visit to the Lawford dump, until fortunately I checked its opening hours and found it was closed on Thursdays.  I was convinced that Thursday was one of the days it was open, so it's lucky I checked.  The bank will have to wait until tomorrow.

I took the super of honey off the bees, but it is still sitting on the kitchen counter, covered in newspaper, because I can't face the effort of washing the kitchen floor, and then shutting the door and window and extracting it from the comb in this heat.  The books say to spin the honey out while it is still warm from the bees, but I think it is at least as hot in our kitchen as it was three storeys up in a beehive.

We finished the vanilla choc-chip ice cream.  The Systems Administrator is still puzzled as to how to make the chips the right size.  Grating the chocolate doesn't work, at least in this weather in a kitchen containing an Aga, as it mainly smears all over the grater.  I canvassed the opinion of two different people yesterday, both knowledgeable cooks, who each said, buy ready made chocolate chips.  The big tabby was disappointed at the end of lunch as he doesn't like vanilla choc chip ice cream.  Maybe he doesn't go for the cornflour-based basic hokey pokey recipe.  Caramel ice cream has him leaping about as soon as you get the tub out of the freezer, and as for Haagen-Dazs Cookies and Cream, he has a psychic ability to appear in the room the moment you start taking the lid off.

Our Ginger has now collapsed behind the stereo stack under the stairs, while the SA has gone to bed to see if an after-lunch sleep will shift the headache that's been rumbling around all day.  I am going to write out cheques for the members owed money from the Tendring Show, and then put on my blue rubber gloves and go and pull the green slime and dead leaves out of the lead trough in the conservatory, unblock the filter to the waterspout, and see if I can get it to run without tripping the fuse box.  The show must go on.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

all go

It's been all go today.  I sat down after breakfast to tackle the next stage of the beekeepers' accounts for the Tendring Show.  I didn't get very far, because I haven't yet had claims for most of the expenses.  However, it was a great relief when the amount that we should theoretically have raised on sales of honey, candles, and cakes, based on the records of stock brought to the show for sale and left over at the end, tallied almost exactly with the amount of money taken on the day.  Actual cash receipts were six pounds and something more than nominal sales, which makes perfect sense since someone bringing biscuits which turned out to be ineligible for the baking competition (for reasons which escaped me) donated them to be sold in aid of divisional funds.

The phone rang half way through the accounts, and it was a beekeeping friend I'd sounded out at the show in the hopes that he knew someone who could sell me some small straw bales to put in the chicken run.  In the winter the ground gets very muddy, which is not good for them, so I throw down straw, which is periodically raked out and added to the compost heap.  A small bale is what you might think of as a normal bale of hay, and not many farmers do them nowadays.  If you look at a field being cut by a modern combine you'll generally see those enormous rolls of straw laid out across the landscape.  Plus, we don't really know any farmers, apart from Dave the lettuce farmer. Farming seems a mysteriously closed world.  We used to get small bales from a friend's partner, who was a farmer, but they split up, leaving me without a regular source.  My beekeeping friend not merely had six for us, but proposed delivering them that very morning, in about half an hour.

Half an hour stretched into more like an hour and a quarter, so the bales were left dumped on the end of the concrete parking area as I steamed off to Colchester for a haircut and to go to the bank, while the Systems Administrator was London bound for a curry with old work mates.  While in Colchester I paid in the outstanding cheque I had from the show, meaning that I was temporarily up to date with my accounts.

Dashing home again for lunch, it seemed a terrible waste to leave the bales standing outside, just in case we got one of the thundery showers they were talking about on the weather forecast.  Those bales need to see us through the winter, with the ones left over from my friend's farming romance, and I didn't want them going mouldy in storage.  Our stock of straw lives under a lean-to between two sheds, and it was an effort heaving the bales to the top of the stack.  I'd arranged to meet a friend for coffee and a catch-up at the Chatto Gardens at two, reasoning that as I'd have been at the hairdressers that morning, I would be less grubby and sweaty today than any other day of the week, so it was a slight blow to be rushing up to the gardens at a minute past the hour, aware that I had worked up a sweat, and probably had bits of straw stuck to me somewhere.

Dashing home again for the cats' tea and to check that the feeder hole of the chickens' water supply hadn't blocked up again, there was just time to put the recycling out for tomorrow, before going round to my parents' house for an early supper with the grandchildren.  Or at least, I presume that's when small children normally eat, but it was an early supper for me.  Handy in that I had a beekeepers' committee meeting at quarter past seven, on the far side of Colchester.  The children were in rumbustious mood.

At the committee meeting I was given the paperwork for the Show Secretary's expenses, a bag containing cash for show entries, a second bag containing cash raised at a wildlife fair, a cheque reimbursing us for some show tickets (it's a long story), and another in respect of a membership fee.  Meaning that I have come full circle, as tomorrow morning I need to update the beekeepers' accounts, and go to the bank.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

you can't get the service

When I woke up I could hear the sound of rain on the garden.  It is badly needed, and I stepped into my shower in a cheerful mood.  By the time I went to let the chickens out into their run the rain had pretty much stopped, as rain, but seemed to have diffused into the air.  The Systems Administrator appeared some time later, looking as though suffering from a relapse of the flu, and announced that the relative humidity was 95 per cent while the temperature was 18.5 degrees, meaning that if it had been less than one degree C cooler it would have been foggy.  Heat and humidity really do not agree with the SA, who had a raging headache on the back of them, and acquiesced meekly to my suggestion that I could go out later to buy supper.

Just as I was starting to think that I was unduly paranoid about our postal deliveries, what with my tickets for Chelsea, and the SA's for the cricket, arriving safely, the postman brought us a jiffy bag clearly addressed to the lettuce farm.  Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.  I dropped the little parcel off at the farm office on my way to Tesco.  I thought the man behind a desk that I gave it to might have tried slightly harder to look pleased and grateful that I'd bothered, since I could easily have left it sitting in the pile of stuff at the end of the kitchen table before discovering it again weeks later, and feeling so guilty that I'd still got it that I dropped it quietly in the bin.

It is difficult to know whether to complain or not.  It feels unwise to antagonise one's postman. Sensible decisions to leave parcels on the shelf in the porch could be replaced by a punitive regime of taking everything back to the post office for collection, and birthday cards and magazines could arrive via a mysterious puddle on the floor of the van, for evermore.  On the other hand, the Royal Mail is supposed to deliver letters to the address on the envelope, not drop them off at any random house in the vicinity and rely on neighbourly goodwill to get them to their final destination.  I complained, stressing that the postman was in other respects very pleasant and helpful, and I did not want him to get into trouble, only to make sure to deliver the post to the place it was addressed to.  'Luke' in customer services thanked me for my words of praise in defence of the postman and promised me that he would not be punished, only reminded that attention to detail was vital. Goodness knows what they'll actually do.  I felt bad grassing up the postman, but I also feel bad at not being able to rely on the mail service.

I combined the trip to Tesco with a visit to B&Q to buy compost.  I rather hate B&Q, and slightly hate myself for shopping there.  They are not proper specialists, they run out of things and cannot be relied on, and they are steadily reducing the number of manned tills in favour of self service points which I find utterly baffling, apart from the fact that I can't put a 125 litre bale of compost on the scales.  But they are cheap, and their own-brand compost is currently quite good.  I hate myself for not buying peat free compost as well, but after a bad run with revolting mixtures of chopped bark and green waste which seemed actively hostile to plant growth, I pine for compost that actually works.

I have discovered one reason for B&Q's recent poor results.  First quarter sales fell by nearly thirty per cent after trading was affected by weak demand and the cold weather.  That's the official explanation.  Also they have stopped providing trolleys, at least in their Colchester Hythe branch.  I hunted around the car park, and eventually had to settle for the only garden centre green plastic trolley I could find, tipping the collected rain water out of it and eyeing the layer of brown sludge in the bottom without enthusiasm.  The body of it leaned at a disconcerting angle, one of the back wheels was appreciably off the vertical, and I wondered whether it would stand the weight of a bale of compost.  Ideally I'd have liked two bales, having bothered to go to B&Q, but that seemed unwise in the circumstances, and I managed to prop my single bale so that it bypassed the brown sludge.  I passed up on the plants as well.

The trolley made it as far as the single manned checkout point, where the girl asked me whether I'd got everything I was looking for.  Whether this is a new B&Q standing instruction to staff, or she was psychic, or I was looking particularly disappointed even by B&Q customer standards, I couldn't tell.  I said I'd have liked another bale of compost, if I could have found a trolley that worked, then made it half way to the door before the trolley collapsed sideways and the compost crashed to the ground.  Instantly a crowd formed around it of several staff members and another customer. Somebody asked if I was hurt, which seemed unlikely since I was still standing.  I replied irritably and ungraciously that I was fine, it was just that the only trolley I'd been able to find was buggered. A female member of staff said apologetically that they were low on green trolleys at the moment. The crowd got the trolley upright, and replaced the bag of compost, which was by now covered in slime and burst at one end, then pointed out to each other how the trolley's rear wheels were on the wonk.  I requested that a member of staff load the compost for me, since I didn't want to get brown gunk all over my trousers, and was assigned a saturnine young man called Vince, who was instructed to put the trolley round the corner when he'd finished with the other broken ones.

Meanwhile, the Systems Administrator rallied sufficiently to make ice cream.  Tonight we'll be trying a cornflour based vanilla gelato with chocolate chips, while I have discovered where Tesco keep their supplies of caramelised evaporated milk.

Monday, 22 July 2013

a little work and two gardens

On days when I've been to work I blog about work.  That's the usual rule.  Maybe I shouldn't, since most people are bored by other people's work.  Today work was very hot, and there weren't many customers, but you can't blame them, given that when I planted out my Silene fimbriata on Saturday I had to practically dig the hole with a chisel.  There, having dealt with work very succinctly we can proceed to yesterday's visit to two gardens in Norwich.

In a moment.  The hot monotony of the plant centre was broken by a couple of incidents.  Firstly, repeated phone calls from a man who is coming to see the owner tomorrow to demonstrate (wait for it) an EPOS system.  Just think, we might be going to have barcode scanning, giving us stock control systems that were almost live, if we kept tabs on dead plants and returns in a timely fashion (which would be the point at which we discovered what the shrinkage is).  I can think of so many questions I should like to ask about any proposed system, I am quite sad I won't be there tomorrow.

The other thing which amused me was a visit by one of my fellow music society committee members, in search of the owner.  Since she volunteered to try and drum up sponsorship for the society from local businesses I deduced that she was there to try and tap the owner for money. From her blank gaze at me I gathered she hadn't clocked who I was, or that we had met a couple of times before.  I wasn't surprised, since I didn't get the feeling I'd made any great impression on her previously, and it takes a certain mental flexibility to connect the person wearing a cheap and compost-stained uniform shirt and picking the dead leaves off primroses on the wrong side of a shop counter, with someone you last met in their best Boden bib and tucker, in the dining room of the house with the best view in the village.

I rate her chances of getting sponsorship from the plant centre at approximately zero.  Or at least, I should say that the owner was about as likely to take up pole dancing and stage a demonstration in aid of the Countryside Alliance as she was to want to give money for a chamber music concert.  The owners have displayed no discernible interest in the arts in the decade I've known them.  She goes to the odd event at the Royal Geographical Society, and apart from that they like horses, hunting, shooting, fishing, plants, and Scottish country dancing.  Also they run a retail business with customers rather than clients, so have nobody to schmooze over a spot of music and some dinner. Local accountants or IFAs would seem more likely prospective sponsors.  And I have seen how carefully the owner controls every last day's worth of extra hours from the part-timers.  I really can't see her spending the equivalent of eight or ten days' wages in order to have the firm's name in a concert programme.  Everybody in the village knows we exist anyway.

Anyway, back to Norwich.  We caught the train, so our trip was nearly scuppered before it started, since a train ran into another train in Norwich station in the early hours of Sunday morning. Fortunately it was going very slowly, so there were no serious injuries, and trains were not cancelled for the rest of the day.  The train ran to time, the pub where we meant to have lunch was where the Systems Administrator said it would be, and the pub where we actually had lunch, having stumbled across it while checking out the location of the first garden as we waited for the original pub to open, was pleasant.  We went to the Adam and Eve, which claims to be the oldest pub in Norwich. It occupies a seriously quaint building, keeps its beer well, and does good chips.  OK, the food is traditional pub grub not gastropub, as some reviewers on Tripadvisor have commented, but it doesn't pretend to be anything else.  It is even next to a public car park which had spaces in it at Sunday lunchtime, should you desire to drive into Norwich instead of letting the train take the strain.

You have one more day in 2013 to visit the Bishop's House Gardens.  They open on Sundays for local charities, and the last opening for this year is next weekend.  The Diocese of Norwich website very charmingly doesn't seem to give an address for the gardens, and I had to go to the Visit Norwich site to discover it, but they are just round the corner from the Adam and Eve, in Bishopsgate.  You get a splendid view of the cathedral from the gardens, plus a fine ruined medieval gatehouse and seventeenth century chapel.  In the upper part of the garden, which is informal, there is a large Liriodendron and a good London plane, plus a large expanse of level lawn which I was itching to fill with shrubs, but of course they need it for diocesan entertaining.  In the lower part of the garden are shrub borders containing some rarities and a hebe grown from Queen Victoria's wedding bouquet, a pair of large herbaceous borders, a rather struggling rose garden, a wildflower meadow labyrinth that is really fun, a collection of bamboos, and an organic vegetable garden to supply the Bishop's table.  The herbaceous borders were in full clatter and very colourful, but if you don't catch them next Sunday you won't see them in their full glory for a couple of years, since they are going to be cleared in turn, fallowed for a year while the soil is cleaned of persistent weeds, and then replanted.

After the Bishop's garden we went to see Will Giles' Exotic Garden.  This was a repeat visit.  We first went two or three years ago, and I've got one of his books on exotic plants (for use in the British climate).  It is an extraordinary place and I recommend it highly.  It is not large, occupying the garden of a suburban house just up the hill from the railway station in a road now largely occupied by insurance offices and similar.  He has enterprisingly agreed with his insurer neighbours that his garden visitors can use their car park, since he only opens at weekends when they are closed.  We paid our money to a young man playing the bongos, and walked through a grove of bamboos and assorted shrubs, some more exotic than others, and odd bits of sculpture, until we arrived at the garden proper.

The core of the garden is brilliant and bonkers.  Gravel paths lead through a maze of small beds holding a mixture of things that can stay outside all year, some of which look exotic, such as Fatsia japonica, and tender things bedded out for the summer.  There are loads of pots, and lots of sculptures, ornaments and found objects.  The front of the house has almost disappeared under a two storey wooden veranda covered in a rampant vine, and he has somehow persuaded the city planners to let him build a large tree house, which you are free to climb into.  As you ascend the slope behind the house the ground has been formed into beds with retaining walls of flint, rubble and oddments, some of them quite substantial.  There is a waterfall running down the tallest.  You can sit in the pavilion at the top of the slope, by which point the planting has become xerophytic, and admire the view of industrial Norwich, and the ingenuity of Will Giles' design.

He does some very clever things.  We liked the two classical columns, made of telegraph poles topped with blocks of wood, the uppermost tier wrapped in lead, and with planted-up pots resting on them.  They were substantial poles, a good four or five metres high.  A narrow window in the pavilion at the top of the garden basically looks into a holly hedge, but the effect is to give a feeling of distance and seclusion even though you are at that point sitting immediately next to a dilapidated larchlap fence.  The vistas are by necessity short, because it isn't a big site, but every one ends in an object or focal point of some sort, a trick that Frederick Gibberd used at his garden. Small gravestones that you assume will be for pets turn out to be recycled human ones from Victorian times.  Holly bushes are clipped into vertical blocks and walls fully five or six metres high.

We peered into his polytunnel on the way out, which is screened from the rest of the garden by hedges.  It is lined with bubble wrap, and an electric fan was running to circulate the air.  Smallish cupboards like fume cabinets ran along one side, lined with another layer of bubble wrap, and with individual thermostatic controls.  His book talks about the minimum overwintering requirements of the plants he uses, and some of them need a higher temperature than we manage to keep our house at.  Tropical gardening, even on a sheltered south facing slope in a city, needs a fair amount of heat in the winter months.

Back to today.  When I got home from work, expecting to have to do the watering on what has been officially the hottest day for seven years, the Systems Administrator had already done it, and it had taken an hour and a half.  How nice is that?

Sunday, 21 July 2013

a night at the electric palace

Last night we finally went to the Electric Palace at Harwich.  The Electric Palace is one the UK's oldest remaining purpose built cinemas, and is Grade II* listed.  It first opened in 1911, closed again in 1956, and reopened in 1981, four years before we moved to the area, so it shows a sad lack of organisation on our part that we didn't get round to visiting until 2013.

It is now run as a community cinema.  They show current releases, a few weeks after you could have seen them in a mainstream cinema, and put on jazz concerts.  I meant to go eighteen months ago to see The Deep Blue Sea, thinking that Terence Davies' painstakingly evoked period charms of a love triangle between an upright but dull judge, a dashing but flaky fighter pilot, and a beautiful but bored wife would benefit from the baroque surroundings.   However, by the time I got round to looking at the Electric Palace website I found that The Deep Blue Sea had been on about two months previously.

This time I thought Behind the Candelabra would fit the bill nicely, and was so fired up not to miss the film that I rang several days beforehand to ask whether it was possible to buy tickets in advance.  The man (volunteer) who answered the telephone sounded slightly nonplussed.  There was no facility for advance ticket sales, but he really did not think that would be necessary.  I did know that it was a members-only film club?  I said that I was aware of that, and thought it was possible to buy temporary membership for a pound.  He agreed that was so, and advised me to arrive a little early, say at seven, to give time to sort it out.

We duly arrived at seven for the half past seven screening, to find the metal grille across the front of the cinema firmly shut, and two people ahead of us in the queue.  They were joined by two more people who were obviously with them, and then several others, at which point we discovered that by local convention the queue at The Electric Palace went the other way down the pavement, and we were not in it.  The gates remained shut, and the Systems Administrator asked hopefully if we had time to nip down the road for a pint in The Alma.  I said not, because we had to sort out the temporary membership.

At ten past seven the gates opened.  It took a long time for the woman (volunteer) to process the queue, partly because she seemed to know everybody in it, and was updating them on her operation, and how she had been checked out and did not have deep vein thrombosis.  Which was nice for her.  The woman ahead of us in the queue caused further delays by contradicting everything her companion said about their ticket purchase.  It turned out that she had not understood that her friend's membership had lapsed and that the the friend was trying to renew it as well as pay for their tickets.  We got to the front of the queue, and I asked for two tickets and temporary membership.  The volunteer said without blinking that that would be fourteen pounds, and gave me two tickets.  So much for arriving early to sort out the temporary membership.  I thought at least they would go through the motions and take names and addresses.

The inside of the Electric Palace is amazing, well worth driving to Harwich for and then spending fifteen minutes standing on the pavement and paying out fourteen pounds, when we could have got Behind The Candelabra quite soon on LoveFilm.  I don't know if it strictly counts as Art Nouveau, or if you would say it was a very late flowering of the Baroque, but there is lots and lots of swirly plasterwork painted in quite a lot of different colours.  The seats are covered in red velvet, and generously broad, with ample leg room.  At the front is a little booth with advertising drinks and ice creams in a pleasingly mid-twentieth century font.  It was not nearly full.  Most locals sat near the back, and I wondered whether they knew something about the screen or the acoustics that we didn't.  The SA said we could sit at the back and have a snog, but we opted for a row about half way down, which we had almost entirely to ourselves.

I'd forgotten that you get trailers at the cinema.  We sat through twenty minutes of advertisements for cars, advertisements for alcoholic drinks (an unfortunate combination, surely), an advertisement urging us to be more dog (I still don't have a clue what that was about), a trailer for an animated film called Epic about a forest threatened with destruction which I will certainly not be watching, a trailer for Joss Whedon's black and white version of Much Ado About Nothing filmed in his own house when he had a week off, which looked rather good (Kermode and Mayo liked that one in their Film Review), and a trailer for a new channel 4 drama called Southcliffe which looked very violent and depressing, but fortunately I seemed to have got all the key plot points after seeing the trailer so there is no need to watch it.

Behind the Candelabra is a very good film.  Kermode and Mayo chose it as their film of the week, and quoted another critic as saying that Michael Douglas gave the performance of his life.  I haven't seen enough of Michael Douglas' films to judge that, though by a curious twist one of the last three films we've seen in a cinema was also one of his.  That was Falling Down, released in 1993, which shows how often we go.  Behind the Candelabra is about the affair between the ageing Liberace and a young man called Scott Thorson.  Hollywood wouldn't touch the gay theme, and it ended up being made by HBO, which adds weight to the theory that Hollywood has lost its way, and the innovative work in the States is increasingly being done on television (The Sopranos, anyone?).  Behind the Candelabra is deeply engaging as a story of human relationships, and the destructive powers of drugs, with some brilliant comic moments thrown in.  About the only female characters in it are Liberace's mother, Scott Thorson's foster mother, and a housemaid, but you completely forget that it is a gay movie.  You just believe in the characters.  Or at least, I did.  Rotten Tomatoes give it 94 per cent, meaning that so did a lot of other people.

The audience was almost impeccably behaved.  There was a tiny amount of sweet packet rustling for the first five minutes, and then complete silence, until a particularly key moment ten minutes before the end of the film, when somebody's phone rang.  The culprit, a woman at the end of our row, knew she'd done wrong, because she was out of there before the credits had fairly started rolling.  Otherwise I'd have given her a crash course in the Wittertainment Code of Conduct while we queued for the exit.  I'd remembered to turn my phone off, even though I have it set to vibrate only.  It's not that difficult.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

the insects

My belief that I had caught the dark bees at the last inspection before they swarmed may have been premature.  I felt uneasy before opening the hive, seeing only lackadaisical activity at the door, and no signs of foragers bringing in pollen, and my suspicions were further aroused as soon as I lifted the crown board from the top super, and saw that they'd brought in virtually nothing more since last time.  Although looking on the bright side they hadn't taken what was there.  There were no eggs or uncapped brood in the brood box, but three of what looked worryingly like emergency queen cells. An emergency queen cell looks almost like a normal queen cell, but a bit smaller and build out from the comb at a slightly odd angle.  They are made when a colony finds itself without queen or queen cell, and hastily converts a larva originally intended to be a worker bee into a queen.  They may or may not produce a good and viable queen, depending on the age of the larva chosen.

I left them to it, putting a clearer board underneath the top super to clear it of bees, in preparation for taking the honey off in a couple of days.  I shall be sorry in a way if I've lost them, since they are tough little bees with a great will to live, on the other hand they also have a powerful urge to swarm.  This is their third season with me, and if I succeed in harvesting one half full super of honey that will be the first crop I've had from them.  They turned up as a late swarm, and last year they were just starting to look as though they might do something halfway useful when they swarmed again, taking the contents of their super with them.  I am puzzled there are still so many bees left, however, and not really quite sure what is going on.  The books and lectures make it sound so much more cut and dried than it seems half the time in real life, like those neat pruning diagrams in books that look nothing like the burgeoning mass of vegetation that greets you when you go out into the garden, secateurs and saw in hand.

The golden bees are still not preparing to swarm, and have suddenly started trying much harder. Both supers were almost full, and they were storing nectar in the brood frames, whereas at the last inspection they'd done next to nothing in two weeks.  I gave them a third super, hoping the temporary lack of space for stores wouldn't trigger them into swarming when they hadn't yet.

On the edge of the deck in the back garden I found a female stag beetle.  I didn't touch her, and the next time I looked she had dropped down on to the grass.  The sighting was very close to where last year I found a dead one, which a naturalist friend of a friend identified for me as a female which had probably laid eggs, given the wear on its hind legs.  Adult stag beetles don't live very long, after spending years as grubs.  In fact, they mate, lay some eggs to make more grubs, and that's about it.  I reported the sighting to the friend's friend, who thanked me for the info but said she didn't keep records, and the people to notify were the people's trust for endangered species.  I duly did so, and expect to see the friend's friend at next month's wildlife fair at the Chatto Gardens.  This will be held on 21 August, and I see that the beekeepers are still not included in the details of the event on the garden's website, although we are supposed to be going.

While inspecting the bees I saw a hornet on the grass, and stamped on it.  Hornets prey on honey bees, and are to be discouraged around the apiary, although I know they have their useful place in the ecology of the countryside.  How human beings attach values to nature.  Be a hornet and a threat to my bees (a wild species but treated as livestock) and I will stamp on you.  Be a stag beetle and I will stare at you reverently, and start sending out e-mails about you to comparative strangers.

Friday, 19 July 2013

ice cream

I have discovered a new and terrifying delicious foodstuff.  It is Poison Food* par excellence, temptation in a tin.  Nestle now sell caramelised condensed milk, which in turn can be turned into ice cream.  I got the recipe out of Caroline and Robin Weir's Definitive Guide to Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati, where it is called Dulche de Leche ice cream, and described as a successor to the 1980s dinner party pudding made from boiled condensed milk spread in a pastry case and sprinkled with nuts.

I don't remember eating that in the 1980s, but there again we didn't get asked to many dinner parties.  But caramel or butterscotch flavoured ice cream sounded very tempting.  Also it is an easy recipe, not requiring you to make any sort of custard, and I was too busy with the garden to want to spend ages in the kitchen.  On that basis the maple syrup ice cream requiring you to spread your custard across six separate ramekins and cook them in a bain marie, and the strawberry gelato requiring you to spend half an hour stirring your custard in a double boiler, both sounded more trouble than I wanted to go at that precise moment.

In the old days you had to boil your tin of condensed milk for three hours.  If you let the saucepan boil dry during cooking then there was the exciting possibility that the tin might explode.  The Weirs suggest boiling two at a time, and saving one for later, once you are going to the trouble of boiling one at all.  Boiling things more or less indefinitely is not an issue with the Aga, but buying a tin of ready-made sounded easier.  After that it is terribly easy.  You dissolve the condensed milk in some more (full fat) milk, and add some more sugar, chill the mixture, add some whipping cream, and freeze it.  The condensed milk does not dissolve particularly easily, and I kept finding little globules in the bottom of the saucepan each time I thought it must have amalgamated by now. Cooling took so long I shoved the whole mixture in the fridge and finished the process in the morning.  But it was very easy.

I am still thrilled with the ice cream machine.  It took me over a year to buy it, as first of all I researched myself to a standstill, and then the cat broke his leg and the money earmarked for the machine went towards the truly enormous vet's bill.  Having an ice cream maker with an integral freezer is an extravagance, no doubt of it.  Various people have told me how they make wonderful ice cream using machines with those bowls you pre-freeze, or stirring it by hand several times during freezing instead of churning it automatically.  I'm sure they do.  We all have different extravagances.

A friend recently showed me her new coffee machine, which grinds the beans, makes the coffee, and has a spout for frothing the milk.  It was a very clever machine, if you like coffee that much, and would be totally wasted on us as we almost never drink it at home.  I will happily drink coffee in a social setting, to prolong a meal, or instead of booze if I'm driving.  I enjoy a cappucino and muffin in lieu of lunch as a treat when I'm gallery visiting.  But I'm not that fussed about coffee, whereas I adore ice cream.  A machine stirring the mixture constantly while it freezes is going to produce a silkier texture than my breaking up the ice crystals a couple of times with a fork during freezing. And I don't want to have to decide to make it twelve hours in advance so that I can put the bowl in to freeze, nor do I want to have to find space in the freezer for the bowl.  I watched my friend lovingly wiping her coffee machine, as she explained to me all the pieces you could remove to wash them, and thought I really couldn't be bothered if it was me, I rather have a cup of tea, but I don't grudge the time spent spraying the ice cream machine with Milton steriliser and then wiping it down.

The Dulche de Leche ice cream is utterly delicious, and stays just soft enough to be easy to spoon out of the container even after several hours in the freezer.  Next time is the turn of the Systems Administrator, so who knows what flavour we'll have.  Last year the SA was heavily into comparative trials of vanillas, and has expressed an interest in fruit sorbet.

*All those highly refined carbohydrate, fat  and sugar laden things which you know you shouldn't eat but are awfully nice.  Including jam doughnuts, cake especially with a buttercream filling or an inch thick layer of marzipan and icing, white farmhouse bread, and cheese footballs.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

the birds

The heat may be a nuisance during the day, but the evenings are glorious.  Sitting outside on the veranda as the sun sinks in the western sky, and listening to the evening chorus, or barbecuing a sausage while the strains of Glenn Miller drift through the open door, is one of the pleasures of living here.  We may spend our winter nights huddled in front of the stove with the study door shut, but in summer the boundaries between inside and outside become blurred.  Or at least, they do in this weather.  Last year in what passed for summer they remained obstinately separate.

We have noticed a song thrush singing at the bottom of the garden, and apparently being answered or challenged by one in the wood.  When I first heard its loud and fluid song I asked the Systems Administrator whether that was the blackcap, not being great at bird identification, and song thrushes being rare visitors to the garden.  The SA spotted the singer at the bottom of the garden perched in the top of the not-a-swamp-cypress, and said it could be a blackcap, while I insisted it was too large, more blackbird sized than blackcap.  The SA managed to train the binoculars on it, and announced that it was a song thrush.  It is lovely to have thrushes around the place.

Less appealing was another dead baby bird, just starting to grow feathers, this time outside the front door.  I am beginning to wonder whether they are anything to do with nest predation, or whether they have died of heat stress and the parent birds have cleared the corpses out of the nest. They are quite revolting, and already larger than a robin or finch, so maybe they were going to be pigeons, or corvids?

The hot weather has set the erstwhile broody hen off again.  I let them out for a run yesterday afternoon, and she wouldn't come out the egg box.  I wondered whether she were laying an egg, but she took too long, then wondered whether she might be ill, but when I opened the box to have a look at her she pecked me vigorously.  This morning she came charging out of the house when I opened the pop hole, ready for her share of stale brown bread soaked in water, and not looking in the least ill.  The Systems Administrator is my guru on broodiness, having done in-depth research on various chicken keeping forums, and apparently they are liable to slip back into it, and hot weather makes it worse.

It is a waste that we don't want to hatch any eggs, since a good broody used to be a valuable commodity.  I once read of someone who used to lend his to a local fisherman's wife in exchange for lobsters.  Not that I want any lobsters (or know any fishermen wanting to hatch eggs).  The trouble with letting her raise a clutch is that some of them would be bound to be cockerels, and neither of us are willing to go the full Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and kill our own Sunday roast.  And we don't actually need any more hens, either.  The Speckeldies have so far been such tough survivors and prolific layers compared to the pure bred Marans that we have more than enough eggs.  As I try to balance the number of times I give any one person a box, so as not to overdo it and create an unwanted sense of obligation, there are times when I feel I need more friends and relations.  The SA is not much help in finding recipients for the surplus, having a social life at this time of the year that revolves around cricket.  Apparently sitting all day at Lords with a box of eggs is not convenient.

Our Ginger is reacting to the heatwave by moulting.  The house began to fill with a swirling mass of white and ginger fur, and every time I looked at him he had a tuft of torn-out fur between his toes. I examined him suspiciously in case he had fleas, or mange, but he looks clean and ebulliently healthy, merely eager to divest himself of some fur.  A fresh coating of loose hair sticks to my hands each time I stroke him.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

heat and dust

There is officially a heatwave.  The Met Office website says:

There is a 90 % probability of heatwave conditions between 0900 on Wednesday and 2100 on Thursday in parts of England.

High temperatures are expected to continue across much of England over the next few days. Temperatures are expected to reach or come close to Level 3 Heat Health Watch criteria in London and Southeast England.  Elsewhere  temperatures may come close to criteria, however certainty is lower, giving a Level 2 Heat Health Watch in all but the North East and North West of England.

Unless you are very young, very old, or suffering from a chronic disease, in which case the Heat Health Watch is aimed at you, such weather is generally accepted to be 'glorious' and we are all supposed to be 'basking' in it.  Basking is what you do, when the thermometer hits 25 degrees or above.

The trouble is, it is dull after the first day.  I don't even bask when I go on holiday.  I like doing stuff.  I haven't actually been on a beach holiday since I was of an age to possess a bucket and spade and believed that swimming in the sea in the UK was a good idea (it isn't.  It's bloody freezing even in summer) and the Systems Administrator is no good in heat at all, collapsing like a balloon with a slow puncture.  This is one reason why we have booked our holiday this year for September, and are going to Staffordshire and not the south of France (other reasons being that cottages are much cheaper then, and everyone's children have gone back to school).

I don't mind heat as much as the SA, but it does limit what one can do.  We certainly won't be going for any walks while this lasts.  I am very reluctant to risk it with the trains, what with the tracks buckling in the heat, the overhead lines sagging, the risk of one's fellow passengers being taken ill, and the fact that Greater Anglia are making no concessions to summer.  A friend who had to go in on Monday reported that the heating in her carriage was running full blast on the way home.  So plans to go and see Lowry, the RA Summer Exhibition and the current show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery are all on hold, a pity since walking around an air conditioned art gallery could otherwise be rather pleasant.

Goodness knows, the gardening season has been short enough as it is in recent years, what with everlasting winter and ceaseless rain.  It's very difficult to get everything done if you only get two little windows of opportunity, in autumn and spring, before conditions are completely unsuitable for working outside.  I've made some progress today.  I've split a Primula poissonii bought for the purpose, taken some cuttings from a Penstemon 'Garnet' also bought to yield cutting material, and potted the parent plant into a 2 litre pot to grow on and provide more cuttings later.  I've also been to the tip, weeded in the herb bed, dead headed most of the sage bush, fed two of the struggling clematis, and covered their roots with cobbles to keep them cool and remind me where they are. I've planted out a small bay cutting that's been growing on in the greenhouse, and some thyme plants which could have done with getting into the ground a month ago.  I've put my collection of clay pots away in the pot shed, and watered the pots in the Italian garden with a weak solution of liquid fertiliser.  But that isn't much to show for over half a day's work.  It sounds more written out in full, but everything I planted out was in a tiny pot, and the weeds I pulled up didn't even fill half a bucket.

I shouldn't be so ungrateful, but glorious weather is over-rated.  If it would just stick at being warm enough for me to take my fleece off that would do me fine.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

ladies who lunch

I counted the beekeepers' cash from the Tendring Show with the neurotic care of someone dealing with somebody else's money.  First of all I totted up the contents of each box, recording how much there was of each denomination of notes and coin, and calculated how much I ought to pay into the bank after deducting my floats.  Then I took the amount of the original sub back, putting it in another box so that if there was a discrepancy later on I could check I hadn't taken too much, and recording what denominations of note and coin I'd taken from each box.  Finally I calculated how much I ought to be paying in to Barclays in £50 notes (one of those), twenty pound notes and so on right down to the one pence pieces, information I needed to complete the paying-in slip, and counted and bagged up every denomination in the correct amount per bag, twenty pounds in coin for £1 coins but only one pound per bag for pennies.  I confused myself briefly about whether a stray 10 pence piece still in a cash box had been counted first time round, but apart from that it all miraculously balanced.  That was a better result than last year, when it took me hours to count and I kept getting to a different total each time.

It was still incredibly long-winded, and the owner at work who has to till up two or three tills every day must be faster at it than I am, otherwise she'd spend half her life chasing coins around her desk.  But I am not used to adding up cash, and as it wasn't my money I was very anxious to get it right.  The teller at the Colchester branch of Barclays seemed to take almost as long to check it as I'd taken counting it, despite the fact that she could flick through the notes as quickly as a croupier handling cards, and had scales to weigh the coins.  I became worried when she started weighing the bank notes, in case we'd accepted forgeries.  At the Manningtree and Brightlingsea branches they aren't nearly so particular, just counting the notes and stamping your book with a gung-ho flourish. Eventually she returned my paying-in book, duly stamped and without rejecting any of the notes, and I was relieved no longer to be carrying £1,280.92 of beekeepers' funds on my person.  It isn't all our money, a great hunk of it is owed to those beekeepers selling honey at the show, and there are expenses to pay, but we did do very well on the fruit and honey drinks this year.

I was due to have lunch with a friend who e-mailed apologetically yesterday to say that her daughter had borrowed her car again, and could we possibly meet in Colchester where she lives as she had no transport.  I was able to tell her truthfully that as I had to go to the bank (actually two banks, mine and the beekeepers') and needed a new watch battery, Colchester would be quite handy for me. When I arrived at her house she lamented that as well as the car, her daughters were in the habit of borrowing her clothes, and she was not entirely sure whether she had a front door key as the children kept taking those too.  I began to think that her maternal lot compared unfavourably even with that of the pelican, which chooses to pluck out its feathers to line its nest, while in her case her (grown up) children were doing the plucking.

She did find a key, and we went and had a very pleasant lunch in a cafe I hadn't visited before, and whose name I have already forgotten, though I could find it again.  I almost never lunch in Colchester, there's no need.  In fact I almost never do lunch, in the absence of an art gallery or garden visit that means I'm out at lunchtime and need sustenance.  I put on a dress in honour of the occasion, one I bought last year and then never had a single chance to wear because the weather was so wet and cold.  After lunch we went and drank tea in her garden while I waited for the watch repair stall at Colchester's best department store to fit the new battery, and she sprayed her pug dog with water to help him cool down.  He seemed initially uncertain about this, then grasped the idea, and lay flat out on the patio, pink tongue showing and his extremely thick and soft fur glistening with tiny droplets of water as if he'd been dusted with glitter.  Pugs are not built for heat.

Monday, 15 July 2013


It was very hot in the plant centre.  We watered as best we could, but by the afternoon plants were visibly flagging.  They seem to dry out faster than my own pots at home, which is perhaps the downside of having a sheltered walled garden surrounded by trees and with its own microclimate. Our garden is draughtier, and while I've suffered winter losses of things growing in the ground that have survived in the shelter of the walled garden, we are cooler in summer.

I went on with the end tables, mentally designating each as moist or dry, and sunny or partially shaded, and mixing plants accordingly.  I attempted to stick to a clear planting style or mood for each one as well.  Garden plants are not merely organisms with cultivation requirements, that suppl a particular colour or growth habit.  They have cultural associations as well, be it cottage garden, prairie planting, playing-it-safe good taste, or slightly naff, and I tried to keep to a single theme for each table.  The manager did not tell me to do the tables, or even comment whether the tables looked nice, but neither did he tell me to stop.

I took a peculiar phone call from somebody who wanted to check our address because it wasn't working in her Satnav.  The address I gave her tallied with the one she was already trying to use, but she seemed to want me to give her another address, a better one that worked.  I thought it sounded as though she needed a better Satnav, but offered her the names of a couple of roads just round the corner from us, in case the machine could recognise either of those.  She didn't seem to think this was any help.

We had two coach parties, one in the morning and the second at lunchtime.  The first group were German.  One person wanted advice on whether Berkheya purpurea would over-winter in the ground in her garden, which stumped me slightly since I had no idea how cold or long her winters were.  I told her the winter conditions that my Berkheya had survived, and left her to draw her own conclusions.  They must have been favourable, or she might have been feeling lucky, but she bought one.  They are delightful grey leaved, prickly perennials from South Africa, with tall spikes of fat mauve daisy type flowers at this time of year, and given very sharp drainage and full sun they come through even bad winters in this part of the world.  The dormant buds are underground, so that the plant disappears entirely during the winter months.

The two coach parties kept the tea room busy, and it was just as well that we had two tea room girls in.  The manager was expecting a good sum on the tea room till when he tilled up at the end of the day, but it was a blow to discover that the grand total was over six thousand pounds. Something had obviously gone badly wrong, and the till reconciliation was going to be a nightmare.

I remembered to drive home via the village, to buy more cat food, and the makings of supper in case the Systems Administrator was feeling better.  When I got home I saw a chicken standing in front of the hen house, which meant that the SA must have got up.  It turned out that the SA had tottered down to the village at lunchtime, partly to buy more aspirin, and that we had each bought identical 500 gramme packets of minced beef as well as cat food.  The SA stocked up with seven tins, which would explain why by the time I arrived there were only two left on the shelf.  One of the packets of mince is now in the freezer.  I had probably better freeze the sausages as well, in case the SA isn't up to them before they go off.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

back to work

Today I was back at work for the first time in two weeks.  A few things had changed or moved around in my absence.  The tables that held the tired remnants of the bedding the last time I was there had been cleared away and that side of the tunnel swept down.  Either there was a last minute run on bedding, or a fair bit must have gone on the compost heap.  Some rather overpowering hydrangeas with massive flower heads had arrived, along with some arum lilies in an exotic range of sorbet shades.  My posters for the bulb day in September had gone up.  I was a bit irritated, the last time I was at work, that I'd given up an hour's good gardening time to prepare them when the manager asked me, and a week later they still weren't on display, since on that basis I might as well have done them at a time which suited me, and saved them for a wet day.

The manager's list of jobs for the weekend was left open as to who did what, so I opted for titivating the end tables.  I haven't been allowed to do the display tables for ages, even though the manager has been grumbling that they haven't been as nice recently as they used to be. Though I say it myself, I thought my end tables were pretty good, back in the days when I was asked to do them.  I tried to work with what was already there, when I could detect an existing theme or colour scheme, and could get away with removing anything that had gone over, filling gaps, and dead-heading.  Most of them looked pretty shoddy to my eyes, and I could sympathise with the customer who apparently complained to the manager that they weren't inspiring any more.  A good display table should contain plants that could work together in the garden, which means things needing similar growing conditions, and while I have a more eclectic sense of colour than some of our customers, I do not believe that soft pink mallows and bright orange day lilies do each other any favours.  Displays are not the easiest things to do at this time of the year, as so many plants that would be looking good in the garden are showing their resentment at being confined in two litre black plastic pots, but I was heartened when I saw a customer photographing my combination of orange day lilies and yellow Helenium.

Quite a few of the Hemerocallis have been hit the mite that's been a problem for UK gardeners in recent years.  It lays its eggs in the flower buds, which become swollen and never open properly.  If you cut one open you can see the tiny maggots wriggling around.  It is all rather revolting, and no chemical treatment is available.  The mites overwinter in the soil, and my colleague says she visited a garden that had managed to break the cycle by removing every flower bud for a season, so that the emerging adults had nowhere to lay their eggs.  That could clean up the soil for a time, but would not stop adult mites flying or drifting on the wind into the garden and reinfecting it.  Early flowering varieties suffer worst, while later ones are relatively safe because they miss the mite season.  I removed any infected buds I found, but I don't know if its a good idea to grow susceptible varieties nowadays.  At home I'm thinking of digging mine out and using the space for something that will actually flower, though I suppose I could pot them up, keep them from flowering for a year or two, and replant them in the meadow in ground that hasn't had day lilies before, then see how long it is before the mite turns up.

The day's takings were boosted by a couple who bought five trolley loads of plants, for delivery next week, having only come to look.  Having decided they might buy something today and not just look, they initially wanted us to keep the plants for them for three or four weeks until they were ready for them, and it was a relief when they changed their minds again and said that Tuesday delivery would be great.  It's a nuisance having great stashes of paid-for plants on the reserve bed, as we have to water them all by hand, and there is always the risk of something being over or under-watered. They were slightly odd people.  He quizzed me about what we would do with the plants after they had paid for them, and after I told him that we would put them in the reserved area with his name on them, he and his wife for some reason wheeled every trolley through the reserved area, which is signposted staff only, to get to the till.

At the end of the day I got as far as the entrance to our garden before remembering that I was supposed to have come home via the village to get cat food (we've run out), fresh bread, and further supplies of mini cheddars and Lucozade.  I drove round the turning circle without stopping and headed out again, to the confusion of the Systems Administrator, who heard the car tyres on the gravel and then nothing.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

a great little show

Today was the day of the Tendring Show.  I'd been hoarding change all week for the floats, swapping ten pound notes with my parents for coins and fivers, and sauntering into the local Tesco Express to buy one bottle of shower gel with a tenner, while the Systems Administrator kindly allowed me to raid the change pot in the study, as long as I gave it back afterwards.  The SA likes to have the right money in the farm shop, and is now such a regular customer known for giving the exact amount that they will waive the odd pennies from time to time, and tell the SA to pay them tomorrow, on days when the SA doesn't have the precise money.  I wimped out of helping set up the show stand yesterday, on the grounds that last year I didn't really have anything to do and merely stood about in a field to show solidarity, while I did have loads to catch up with in the garden, but last night I made up my floats on the kitchen table.

It is a lovely show, not too big, and with the emphasis still heavily on the agricultural.  There are goats, and sheep, and cattle, and heavy horses.  I love the way that sheep sit quietly in their pens, while goats are always arguing with the goats in the next stall, or searching for something to eat, or maybe planning their escape route.  There are equestrian competitions, which I personally can take or leave.  It's the shire horses and Percherons that do it for me.  There are blood hounds, fox hounds and beagles.  There are stands selling chalk and combine harvesters, which don't look welcoming if you aren't a farmer, though I did manage to ask a man selling seed potatoes why he thought that so many farms around here were growing potatoes this year.  His answer was that he did not know, but guessed it was because the price of potatoes had been so high last year.

There are fancy chickens, and fancy rats, and rabbits, and pigeons.  I'm not a great fan of rabbits and pigeons.  Even in cages they remind me too much of the marauders that eat my garden, while the rats are too much like the ones that moved in under our shed a couple of winters ago.  The poultry are great, and I was witness to a shouting match between a turkey and a goose, the turkey gobbling at the goose which in turn screeched  back.

There are vintage cars, loads of them parked in their own ring while their owners sit beside them on deckchairs, and one splendid vintage caravan that comes every year.  The Morris Men are also a regular feature.  It must be a happy side, because I recognise the faces each time, and reckon that staff turnover is minimal.  This year there was a Scottish pipe band, and a steel band who were supporting the WaterAid stall, while drowning out the RSPB warden and his team on the next pitch. The Essex Wildlife Trust were there, and tried very hard to get me to sign up on the spot, but I preferred to think about that later.  There were owl rescuers, and bat rescuers, and falconers, and a terrier club.  The local wildfowlers had some beautiful photographs of the Walton Backwaters and some vintage firearms, but no wildfowl, while next to the terrier club a taxidermist was stuffing a small dead bird.

There are retail opportunities, of course, though I spent so long considering whether I really wanted a Polish china serving bowl that the one I particularly liked had already sold.  I can probably track the firm down on the web later, though their publicity material was a bit hit and miss.  I'd thought of buying an olivewood board for serving cheese, but the olive oil firm wasn't there this year.  I picked up a card from a young woman who made rather nice ceramic plaques that can be used outside, and might revisit her work at some stage, if I find a place that needs a little decoration.  I don't like buying things with no clear idea of where to put them.  Instead I contented myself with a poster on bumble bee identification.

Oh, and there was the beekeeping tent.  I thought my colleagues had put together a really good display this year.  There was honey for sale, and wax candles, and cakes made with honey.  There were two honey bee flat observation hives, a bumble bee colony in a box, and a mock up of a cavity wall with more honey bees, one side of the wall perspex to show how feral colonies make their nests inside buildings.  There was beekeeping equipment, information on neo-nicotinoids and swarming, a display of candle making, and a German straw skep covered in dung which is a new addition to our props collection.  The honey show had its own separate gazebo, and after the Show Secretary's panic about the low number of entries she had managed to rustle up a respectable quantity of honey, cakes and candles, which with our collection of trophies on display looked very fine.

I got out of helping take the stand down, because I had to guard the money.  All that remains now is to pay it into the bank, and crunch the numbers.

Friday, 12 July 2013

in sickness and in health

Just as I began to feel as though I was recovering from the bug enough to want to re-engage with normal life, the Systems Administrator has gone down with it.  The SA's decline has been slower than mine, since I went from working full tilt in the dahlia bed to lying in my own bed with aching limbs and a temperature in less than four hours, while the SA has been feeling intermittently chilly and nauseous for the past week.  Yesterday morning the SA looked so woebegone that I offered to get supper, as a gesture of goodwill, then by lunchtime the SA had revived enough to propose a barbecue and offer to buy the food.  However, while lasting just long enough to light the charcoal, the SA had to admit that the chills and nausea were back in spades, and retreat to bed.

I offered to help make up the spare bed properly, since the SA spent two uncomfortable nights while I was ill sleeping in the ironing room in a sleeping bag with a tog rating that was far too high for the circumstances.  As I hunted around for the spare bedroom duvet the nasty suspicion crept up on me that we do not currently have a spare double duvet.  I think we filched it for our room after one of the cats did something unspeakable on our bed.  The SA said that there was a single duvet in the ironing room, which I must admit I'd completely forgotten about, since it lives on the bed under a nice blue and white checked blanket and an everlasting pile of ironing.  I even managed to find the cover for it, but had better add spare room double duvet to my shopping list.

This morning the SA was not better, but was not particularly worse.  I thought the SA did not seem so ill as I had been, but the SA did not seem pleased by this comparison.  I promised to stock up on Lucozade and mini-cheddars, and left the invalid surrounded by more electronic equipment than was carried on the fist moon mission.  At least there's the cricket on the radio.

In the garden I finally saw a couple of toads.  I disturbed a green one while trimming the edges of the lower lawn, though fortunately without amputating any of its limbs.  They are pretty adept at crouching down below the blades of the shears.  The second, a handsome spotted specimen, was hopping around in full view on the lawn.  More depressing were the two baby birds that were dumped on the lawn one after the other as the day went on.  They were fairly large, and at the stage of starting to sprout some feathers, though I couldn't tell you the species.  Some nest must have got robbed out, but it seems wasteful of the predator to simply leave them lying in the middle of the path, instead of eating them.

The primroses, hellebores and some of the azaleas in the ditch bed had started to flag badly, and I ran the hose on them while I edged and weeded, moving it at regular intervals.  I irrigate the garden very little, but thought they'd better have one good soaking to keep them going.

The hazel and willow trees along the ditch bed have grown out again, and are casting too much shade even for an area that is meant to be shady, so I got the pole lopper out and started to prune out some of the overhanging twigs.  I had to stop before I'd finished the job, since it is hard work holding up the pole, and was giving me a crick in my neck peering upwards into the canopy. Something to return to on Tuesday, or perhaps Wednesday, which is my next scheduled full day of work in the garden.  I feel rather cautious about looking forward to it, after how last week turned out.