Monday, 30 September 2013


The owners have started interviewing for a new plant centre assistant cum tea room operative.  It sounded from the manager as though the quality of the field was mixed.  If you seriously want a job in a plant centre then spending most of the interview grumbling about your back problems is not really the way to get one.  Two more hopefuls rang up today.  One sounded competent, brisk, cheerful, and faintly geezerish over the phone, and I warmed to him immediately.  The other didn't sound like a natural fit to me.  I warned him that the interview process had already started, so he would do well to get his application in as quickly as possible, ideally by e-mail, which produced a long explanation about how his outgoing e-mails were not working, how his wife was trying to sort it out because she needed it for her work with her church, how he could not ring back that afternoon when the owner might be there because he was going out, and how he was currently engaged as a part time support worker but found it rather stressful and thought that working with plants would be less so.  Plants possibly, yes, less stressful, but the plant centre is another matter.

I am not involved in the interview process, so it is nothing to do with me.  In the past decade the owners have managed to recruit three real gems, and a couple of complete horrors.  I don't know how that success (or failure) rate compares with the average for small businesses, though I could have told them that both the horrors were indeed going to be horrific after meeting either of them for five minutes.

It was pretty quiet, which was disappointing as the weekend was very busy, and so was Friday. They had a panic yesterday over the tank for the irrigation not filling, which meant that there was quite a lot of watering to do this morning.  Apart from that I stuck price labels on pansies and heuchera, fielded telephone calls, and moved on to pulling dead leaves off hemerocallis.  I'd have happily dispensed my horticultural wisdom, but nobody wanted any.

When I got home I found that the replacement roof panel for my greenhouse had arrived, but that there was no sign of my Peter Nyssen bulb order, nor any word from the booking secretary of the garden club I am supposed to be talking to tomorrow evening.  I rang her and found her caught up in the tail end of domestic drama involving her mother-in-law falling over, but expecting me.  Maybe the bulbs will turn up soon.  It is already getting late to be planting daffodils.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

pukka pitta

It was third time lucky with my adventures in experimental carbohydrate cookery.  Last night I tried making pitta bread, and succeeded at my first attempt.  The finished product puffed up magnificently, looked just like bread, and tasted jolly nice.  After the couscous experience and the rice pudding episode, I was half expecting the dough to turn out bafflingly runny or unmanageably dry, take hours to prove before showing any signs of life, and for the resulting bread to taste like cardboard, or a round cut from an ironing blanket.*

I looked for a recipe in a couple of my bread books, but neither even included pitta in the index, so I hunted around online.  One recipe measured everything in cups, which was no good to me.  I am not an American, and cups are what I drink tea out of.  Paul Hollywood put nigella seeds in his, which was far too jazzy.  I decided to go with Dan Lepard of the Guardian, who always sounds sensible in his articles, and has done whole series on baking, while wondering why I hadn't just bought a stoneground loaf when I was in Tesco the previous day.

Dan's pitta bread is made with a mixture of strong and ordinary plain flour.  As well as salt the dough contains sugar, which I wasn't expecting, and sunflower oil.  I didn't have any easy-blend yeast, so used my normal dried yeast instead, and started it off for a few minutes in the tepid water.  The dough felt springy, elastic and alive almost immediately.  The recipe requires minimal kneading, and total proving time of just an hour.  I knocked the dough back the recommended number of times, but not at the specified intervals, because I was busy blogging between bouts of kneading.  The breads were cooked as high up the top, hot oven of the Aga as I could get them, and we ate the first ones fresh from the oven with a Diana Henry recipe for peas and broad beans with chorizo and lemon juice.

They reheated well today, and the recipe says you can even freeze them.  Certainly they are a quantum nicer than shop bought ones, and a method of making bread that means you can have something on the table in less than two hours from when you first thought of it is extremely useful. So many breads seem to require you to have started before breakfast if you wanted anything by lunchtime, or to have begun about three hours before you did if you don't want to be sitting up until midnight waiting until the dough is ready for you to actually cook it.  So thank you, Dan, and I have added your baking book to my Amazon wishlist.

Meanwhile in the garden the Systems Administrator finally ventured to have a bonfire, and managed to dispose of a good portion of the great pile of stuff waiting to be burned, including some but by no means all of the long grass that was cut down earlier in the week.  It's a relief to see the heap starting to disappear, without taking the polytunnel or the nearest shed with it.  There is plenty more to come where that lot came from, as I've started on the back of the Eleagnus hedge, now we've cut the long grass on the daffodil lawn and I can get to it, and there will be trailer loads of ivy to come off the hedge around the long bed.

I have achieved the equivalent indoors feat, and tidied up my desk, which had got to the point where its entire surface was covered in a six inch deep layer of books, magazines, letters, leaflets, catalogues, and files.  Plus a screwdriver, a small and unsatisfactory digital radio with a broken aerial, a tray of daffodil bulbs, a collection of biros (all of which amazingly still worked), two rather flabby rubber bands, two memory sticks, two hole punches, and quite a lot of fluff.  Some people with messy desks claim to be able to find everything on them, and academic research has backed some of their claims up, but my desk was not like that.  I could not find anything, including the letter telling me at what time and in what place I was supposed to be doing Tuesday's talk, and which I have now discovered.

The surface of the desk, now I am reacquainted with it, is a medium brown wooden veneer, from Ikea.  I dusted off the worst of the fluff, respectfully.

*I nicked that phrase from Susan Coolidge.  It is good enough to deserve an outing every now and then.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

lovely rice pudding

I had another go at cooking couscous last night.  I bought a packet with larger grains than the supermarket one from a wholefood shop, hoping that they would be less likely to turn to porridge, and remembered someone telling me that I did not need to simmer the pan, merely pour hot water over the couscous and leave it somewhere warm for a few minutes to take up the moisture.  After several minutes of standing on the warming plate of the Aga, the couscous had gone soft on the outside, but was still distinctly chewy on the inside, while the water had cooled to tepid.  I ended up tipping the mixture into a small saucepan and giving it a quick turn on the cool hob, where the grains cooked through, while leaving an interesting layer stuck to the bottom of the saucepan. Maybe the pour-and-leave method does not work with wholefood shop large grained couscous.

The grains of the finished product swelled to about the size of slugs' eggs, and remained separate, instead of turning to mush.  They had a glossy appearance rather than the soft fluffiness I was hoping for, and in the mouth could almost be described as slimy, if you were feeling unkind.  The Systems Administrator took a small helping, sampled a couple of mouthfuls, and left the rest of it on the side of the plate, explaining politely that while the chilli chicken was very nice, he really did not like couscous.  I think it will be better to save further experiments for evenings when the SA is out.  Luckily, the chickens do like left over couscous, even the strange sheet of globules stuck together with starch which came off the bottom of the saucepan after I'd soaked it.

Nothing daunted, this morning I set out to make a rice pudding.  My parents were coming to lunch, and my mother had expressed a yearning for Aga rice pudding like she used to make twenty five years ago when she had an Aga.  Apparently it is the long slow cooking that does it, and she is not willing to run her oven for that long, while tinned ones are too sweet.  I'm not convinced the cost of running an oven is really a reason not to make rice pudding, since if she sticks to cooking it in the winter when she presumably would have the central heating on, she could always compensate by turning the thermostat down a notch or two.  It is at least twenty five years since I've made rice pudding, but I thought I'd give it a go.

I checked a few recipes on the internet, finding one which warned darkly not to overcook the pudding or the rice would go peculiar, then settled on the Mary Berry book which came with the Aga. Mary Berry is a National Treasure.  Her rice pudding recipe was sure to be a winner.  Perhaps I should have been warned by her comment that no two rice puddings ever seemed to come out the same, and the indicated cooking time of two to three hours.  That's quite a window of uncertainty, if you would like to serve lunch at one o'clock, and have the pudding follow the main course after a reasonable interval.

Mary Berry said to start the pudding off in the top of the baking oven, which is hot but not really hot in a four door Aga, give it half an hour or so to form a skin, then move it over to the simmer oven, which is just below boiling point, and give it two (or perhaps three) hours until it was done.  I kept an eye on the pudding for the first half hour, having dark visions of it boiling over and stinking the house out with burnt milk, but after its allotted time it showed no signs of doing that.  Nor of forming  a skin.  I gave it several bursts of another five minutes at hot, then moved it over.

When I came to get the main course, which was keeping warm in the simmer oven, the pudding was still very liquid, not so much a creamy nutmeg flavoured slightly granular paste as a dish of warm milk with grains of barely cooked rice sitting in the bottom of it.  I shoved it back in the hot oven while we ate the goulash, warning the party that if it wasn't done by the time we'd finished then we'd be having slightly under ripe bananas with maple syrup for pudding, or small oranges.  The rice pudding just about made the grade, and was voted highly for flavour, but I don't think the consistency was what my mother was after.  She said the trick was to stir it periodically to break the skin, so that more of the liquid could evaporate off.

The Systems Administrator turned out to be unexpectedly keen on rice pudding, and became fired up with the desire to recreate the puddings his mother used to make.  Those involved evaporated milk, and were cooked quite quickly in a hot oven before lunch.  The cold remains were apparently delicious.  I told the SA to be my guest, since we now had enough pudding rice to furnish, at a rough estimate, about two dozen more puddings.  We should have got the hang of it by the time we've used that lot up.

Friday, 27 September 2013

frustrated fashionista

I like clothes.  You wouldn't think it most of the time, if you met me.  At home I am either gardening, in which case I am wearing gardening clothes, or in the house.  If I am in the house I am probably sitting down, in which case I have a cat sitting on me.  Cats and nice clothes don't mix, what with the thread-pulling claws, the moulting fur and the dribble.  If I am not sitting down I am probably cooking.  Nice clothes and cooking don't mix either, what with cooking odours and the risk of spillage.  You need something machine washable, which will not plunge you into mourning for a fortnight if it gets a spot of olive oil or tomato juice down it.  At work I am in my monumentally hideous uniform, matched with comfortable and functional equally hideous trousers of my choice.

I could always dress up when I went out, if only I went to the sorts of places where dressing up was appropriate or appreciated.  The beekeepers are not a very dressy lot.  Wearing a jacket to a beekeepers meeting is enough to trigger comments that you look very smart this evening.  The average audience at the Colchester Arts Centre is not very dressy either, and there always is the sporting chance that someone squeezing their way along the row behind you carrying a pint of beer in each hand will inadvertently drip some down your back.  I try to remember not to wear my Russian partisan leather coat to the Arts Centre.  The music society is altogether more genteel, but it is so cold in the church that you probably won't want to take your coat off anyway.  On holiday we spent our days touring industrial museums and gardens, neither of which are quite the place to break out the Stella McCartney and the Jimmy Choos.  I wore a dress to dinner in the Polish restaurant, and after that it was so cold I wore a sweater everywhere.

I dress up a bit when I go to London, but then my look is limited by my desire to wear shoes I can comfortably walk a minimum of four miles in.  That rules out all shoes with heels, and sandals without socks or tights.  The shoes need to be waterproof on days when rain is likely, which is most of the time apart from during heatwaves, when you are back to the sandals and socks dilemma. Almost all women's fashion is predicated on the idea that women do not wish to either (a) walk or (be) venture outside a building for more than thirty seconds when it is raining.  It is practically impossible to buy waterproof women's shoes.  Sometimes I think I will just invest in a pair of the horribly expensive Danish short wellingtons I saw in the Plumo catalogue and be done with it.

I was amused to read in the Guardian that women's plaid shirts are back in fashion, apparently because the 90s are back in a big way.  I still have a very nice plaid shirt I bought circa 1987, from a firm which used to come to your office so that you could choose your shirts at your desk.  I flicked through the photo gallery of shirts, not thinking much of them, until my eye was caught by a really stylish black and red one with a long pointed collar and no pointless patch pockets.  Red silk, Miu Miu, £530, according to the caption.  I have an eye for clothes, just nowhere to wear them.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

the talking game

I have just got back from a very interesting talk about bumblebees at the beekeepers' monthly meeting.  I thought I was going to be late, having spent far too long beforehand faffing about in the kitchen, the way you do when you have plenty of time in hand, but when I arrived everybody was still standing in the car park, because the key holder had forgotten to come and unlock the hall, so the fact that I'd arrived at 7.30 pm on the dot for a meeting which was supposed to start at half past, and had still to unpack my box of library books, went unremarked in the general chaos.

The queen bee broods her first clutch of eggs, just like a bird.  Who'd have thought it?  Mated in the autumn, she survives the winter alone, and in spring finds herself a nest site.  There she collects a ball of pollen almost as large as her own body, builds a little wax cup which she provisions with nectar to keep her going, lays her first eggs on the pollen mass, and sits on it for four or five days to keep it warm until the eggs hatch.

Meanwhile, I am grappling with the realisation that I have committed myself to doing four talks in the next  month.  Well, actually the next three weeks and two days.  I am supposed to be talking to a garden club next Tuesday about beekeeping, including forage.  I haven't written the talk yet, or jarred up any honey to sell.  It requires no research as such, since I will only speak about things I already know, and I have done general beekeeping talks before, but not for some time, so I need to plan the running order and make a checklist of equipment to take.  The beehive I want to use to show them what a hive looks like is currently in the apiary, I hope still sans bees, so I need to retrieve that as well.

Then at the weekend I'm due to do a talk on gardening for wildlife, specifically birds and insects, as part of the annual autumn jamboree at work.  I'm doing it on Saturday and Sunday, so by Sunday I'll have had some practice, since at the moment I haven't written that one either, or worked out what props I'll need.  I know pretty much what I want to say, so it is a question of preparing some bullet points to focus my mind so that I don't go rambling round in repetitive or disjointed circles.

Then I'm doing another gardening talk, this time on bulbs, to be done from slides.  I have started preparing the slides, but not finished, so had better get my skates on.  They are a nice group, whom I've spoken to several times before.  When the organiser rang and asked me whether I could talk on bulbs I warned her that I was not a bulb specialist, and that the subtle differences between a hundred different sorts of snowdrop were not my forte, but it turned out that they wanted ideas on reliable bulbs to use in the garden throughout the year, apart from daffodils, which everybody already knows about.  I do not possess a collection of bulb images, but if people don't want me to use their pictures they shouldn't put them on the internet.  I wouldn't risk it with a website, but a one-off performance in a village hall should be fine.  The main limitation is in finding pictures that are roughly the right size.

I round off with a talk on autumn gardening, using actual plants.  This will be fine provided that work doesn't let me down and not have anything in stock that looks half decent for the time of year. Berries, autumn leaf colour, late flowers, coloured stems, supplemented with a few seed heads from my own garden.  I've never yet been stuck for lack of material, and using actual plants chosen on the day rather than prepared slides means that it is always different, and maybe fresher than if I'd talked from that script a dozen times before.  It can be frustrating, though, to find that something I really wanted to use has just sold out and there is none left in the plant centre to take with me.

The question is, why do them?  Well, I enjoy it, which probably means I am at heart a great big show-off.  And it keeps my hand in.  Having talked for a living as part of my City incarnation, and had some expensive presentation training, it seemed like a skill worth keeping up on my CV.  Not that it does me any good in my present job.  My employers are quite happy that I'll help fill the programme for their open weekend, but it won't result in an extra penny in my pay packet, versus spending the weekend on the till.  I might get a talk request from a garden club off the back of it, though, and anyway wildlife gardening is a subject dear to my heart, and if I can convince one or two customers to rethink the way they garden, or at least tweak it, so much the better.  Doing a few garden club talks a year doesn't make a great financial difference, in the great scheme of things, but at the margin it helps offset the cost of two quite expensive hobbies.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013


Today we began to tackle the long grass in the back garden.  We have two lawns which receive only an annual cut in the autumn, the daffodil lawn by the house, and the bottom lawn, where a mown path runs round the edge, but all the rest is a sea of waving grass for most of the year, or, as at the moment, a brown, almost scalped patch.

I like long grass.  I like the fact you can grow flowers in it, and that it changes through the year, and is attractive to insects.  Besides the bees and butterflies, our long grass has been lively with assorted grasshoppers (or are they crickets?) since late summer.  I like the fact that it reduces mowing, which apart from the effort involved, and the cost of petrol, is a disproportionately polluting activity, due to petrol lawnmower engines being pro rata far less clean or efficient than modern cars.  Really, what's not to like?

Long grass needs the contrast with short grass, partly to provide access around the garden, but also to make it clear that the long grass has been left that way on purpose as a design feature, rather than because you couldn't afford a gardener, or to have the lawnmower repaired.  In larger and fancier gardens than ours I have even seen designs with three different cutting heights, which worked very well, a strip of manicured short turf alongside the gravelled paths, then a strip of medium height grass, before the great expanse of uncut grass waving in naturalistic glory.

The clue to the daffodil lawn is in the name.  It has daffodils planted in it, so we couldn't cut it until June anyway to give the foliage time to die back.  Once you've waited until June, you might as well leave it until September.  After the daffodils come ox eye daisies.  I tried to persuade Silene vulgaris, or bladder campion, to grow there, but it disliked competition with the grass and far preferred to seed itself in the cracks between the paving and in the gravel.  Knautia arvensis, or field scabious, has been a little shy as well, but some opportunistic cow parsley is starting to sneak in at one end.  Primroses in the bank that runs down from the daffodil lawn to the main top lawn seemed like a good idea, but in practice the bank is too dry for them, and populated by mice (or are they voles?) which eat the petals.

The Systems Administrator scrantled* the level area of the lawn, and I am now tackling the bank with shears, as well as tidying up the straggling patches of lodged grass and odd rogue tufts which escaped the power scythe.  At the same time I'm having a good go at the back of the Eleagnus hedge, which has ballooned out over the lawn during the summer.  Tracks trodden across long grass look absolutely dreadful, so it does create management issues having it running alongside the hedge, but there isn't room for a path, the daffodil lawn being a fairly modest triangle bounded by the patio (or terrace), the hedge, and the main lawn.

The bottom lawn is a bigger beast, and it took several passes with the power scythe, while I raked like mad and helped heap the cut grass into the trailer.  Getting rid of the debris is always tricky, since it is chock full of weed seeds and quite unfit to go on the compost heap.  This year, because of the hot weather, we haven't had a bonfire for months, and the pile of woody prunings to burn has grown so vast that the mown grass can probably go in with them without the bonfire slowing to a smoking, mouldering heap.  The SA tries to avoid the creatures that appear during cutting, mice and toads rudely disturbed in their previously peaceful mini-meadow, and trying desperately to escape.  We didn't see many toads today, and haven't all year, which is a worry.  Last year there were loads.  Apart from the fact that I like toads, I regard amphibians as being good indicators of the health of the ecosystem, like the canary in the coal mine.  Plenty of toads and newts = healthy garden, fewer = warning sign.  Of something out of kilter, less healthy.

Come the spring the bottom lawn will be studded with the purple and mauve flowers of Crocus tommasinianus, still not enough.  Each year I plant another couple of bags of bulbs, and fret that I was too mean, and should have bought many more.  After the crocus come the fritillaries and cowslips, though it is really too dry for them, and they grow taller and fatter in the borders, where they don't have to compete with the grass.  I tried sowing yellow rattle** seed last year, freshly gathered from the garden at work (with the boss's permission), but I don't think it took.  Camassia quamash largely failed to go, for all that I read it was good for naturalising in grass.  I have seen a website offering yellow rattle plugs, and am wondering if those would be a good investment, come next spring.

*The English language has no verb for the act of cutting down long grass with a walk-behind petrol driven power scythe, and so we gleefully adopted Stella Gibbon's splendidly descriptive but undefined agricultural term.  Though I don't think I could get the SA to scrantle two acres.  The long grass in the meadow had to wait until Friday because the vibrations were making the SA's torso ache too badly.

**Semi-parasite that lives on grass, usefully (from the gardener's point of view) weakening it.  The SA's brother spent a lot of money on yellow rattle seed for their small meadow, to no avail.  It is not easy to establish.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

fitting in, planting out

I have a nasty suspicion that I am not going to be able to fit all the potted dahlias and the geraniums and tender bulbs in the Italian garden back in the greenhouse, when the weather gets cooler and I need to move them in.  Since we are already into the fourth week of September that day is going to come sooner rather than later.  The problem is that after unpacking the greenhouse for the summer and distributing its contents around the garden, I moved on a lot of plants I'd propagated previously into larger pots.

A set of Puya venusta which had been languishing in two litre pots for ages are now sitting resplendently in five litres, though not looking nearly as good as the one I gave to the boss a couple of years back, who got the young gardener to repot his in a timely fashion (Puya have extremely sharp reverse pointing spines up the edges of their strap shaped leaves, designed to trap sheep, so that the plant can feed on the rotting carcass, so I don't suppose the young gardener enjoyed that part of his day particularly).  The problem is that they now take up a good quarter of the greenhouse staging on one side.

A number of other things had been stuck in too-small pots for too long, ranging from one litre down to divided trays, and these were also moved up by an appropriate margin.  The trouble is, between them they now occupy all of the bench and the narrow shelf above the bench, and most of the aluminium staging, and a good proportion of the floor, while I still have to put the dahlias, geraniums, agapanthus, pineapple lilies, dwarf pomegranates, tulbaghias and the rest somewhere. Two bulb orders are due to arrive any day now, and while I'll start off the big pots of tulips outside, I'm not risking it with some of the smaller stuff, so they'll need space under cover.  And then next February I want to sow a decent quantity of seeds, after taking a semi-break for a couple of years. It is a mathematical impossibility for it all to fit in.

Part of the solution is to plant as much as possible into the garden.  Anything that's rooted fully into its compost and ready to go, unless it is particularly tender.  I think it would be sensible to leave my gift of a rather battered Buddleia fallowiana var. alba safely under cover until the spring.  But there was no reason why some of the Physalis alkekengi should not go out, other than the fine crop of weeds growing in the space around the feet of a Rosa glauca where I intended to put them.  And so it came to be  that my first most urgent task after returning from holiday was to weed a space in the middle of the island bed.  Physalis is also known as Chinese lantern plant, due to its inflated orange-red seed cases, which I think will look cheerful with the red hips of the rose, and the blue flowers of a hibiscus nearby.  It has rather coarse leaves, and running roots which I hope will do battle with the herbaceous Coronilla varia, whose underground expansionist tendencies are starting to become faintly alarming.

As I weeded I found a few lupin seedlings, which I potted up carefully with a few grains of miccorhizal fungus while hoping for the best.  The best is that they will prove to be offspring of the beautiful and drought resistant Lupinus albifrons, and not just yellow tree lupins.  Both have grown in that bed in the past, the L. albifrons raised from seed supplied by the excellent Chiltern Seeds. It is a lovely thing, a native of California with a lax habit, a silvery cast to its foliage, and blue flowers.  When I first planted it out I totally failed to grasp how large it was going to get, and set my plants far too close to the edge of the bed so that they grew out over the lawn to a ridiculous degree.  I like a bit of informality and spilling over, but the lupins were just wrong.  In cavalier fashion I dug the plants out, after saving some seed, which I then failed to get around to sowing. In the meantime Chiltern dropped the species from their list, and I found I'd failed to keep a record of the name.

I contacted Chiltern, describing the plant and asking whether they could tell me what it might be given I got the seed from them, and after a few days received a very detailed and helpful reply from someone there, telling me not merely the name, but the bad news that she'd checked who sold it, and not only did they no longer stock the seeds, but the plant itself was not currently in commerce in the UK.  She added that it sounded such a good species that maybe they should reintroduce it to their catalogue.  I've said it before, Chiltern Seeds are a first class company.

The good news is that I have one solitary self-sown plant, which appeared last year, in a rather overgrown patch of the island bed.  When it first grew I assumed it was another yellow tree lupin, that was not growing very tall due to the competition, until a flower opened blue.  I was all set to harvest seed, when the lupins in that bed were hit by an extremely bad aphid infestation and the plant not only failed to set seed but lost most of its leaves.  I thought it was a goner, but the stunted remains that were all that was left after I'd cut out the dead wood have sprouted anew.  I found my packet of saved seed as well when tidying up, and will sow them in February in case one or two are still viable after three years in a brown envelope.  With one plant growing in the ground, four wilting potted-up seedlings that might or might not be the real thing, and a packet of geriatric seed, Lupinus albifrons is clawing its way back from extinction in north east Essex.

Monday, 23 September 2013

happy mondays

The boss was in a grumpy mood when I arrived at work, not helped by the fact that the manager rang in just before eight to say that his back had locked up in the night, and he might or might not be in later if it would unlock sufficiently for him to drive.  The dog rolled over and showed me her tummy to be rubbed, but the boss gloomily observed that she was not such a good dog as her mother had been.  The owner asked whether I needed the woman who works on The Other Side on Mondays to help with the watering, and I replied that I would be OK, as most things had looked pretty damp last night and I didn't think there'd be much watering to do.

The manager made it in by nine, limping.  He went on a two day management course run by the Horticultural Trades Association a couple of weeks ago, but the section on leadership can't have included remembering to ask your staff whether they had a nice holiday.  After a while his loyal assistant came and asked me why I had not asked Margaret to help with the watering.  I replied that most things were wet enough already.  She warned me darkly that it was going to be hot, and that she was going to water the fruit as it always got dry.  At least the dog was pleased to see me.

After that things were pretty quiet, and I got remarkably little done compared to yesterday, because I kept finding myself hanging around the shop.  Someone has to be ready to accept customers' money, and act as a vaguely deterring presence to shoplifting, and it is impossible to do so from the vantage of half way down the shrub beds while you tidy up the Escallonia, which arrive from the suppliers looking lovely, then go rapidly downhill.  They seem to turn spindly and starved in no time, drop half their leaves, and generally look dire.  They are easy going plants in the garden, but if you want a nice evergreen for a pot, don't choose an Escallonia.

One of our major suppliers for that sort of thing will not be able to provide any Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postill' this autumn.  They did not actually do their own propagation, but bought in liners, the horticultural trade term for young rooted plants, from an even smaller firm, and grew them on into saleable sized shrubs.  The proprietor of the firm supplying them is gravely ill, and the supply of liners has dried up.  Customers sometimes get stroppy with us (occasionally very stroppy) when we don't have things in stock that we are listed as stocking in the Plantfinder, and can't order them in within a couple of weeks.  I don't think many people realise quite how small and precarious the supply chain is for many garden plants.

It is about to get even smaller if the European Commission has its way, according to recent reports in the Telegraph.  A proposal is allegedly afoot to require all ornamental plants for sale to be entered on an official register, where their characteristics would be described in botanical detail, at a cost of around five hundred pounds a time.  This is a bad idea in so many ways, I can't be bothered to start.  You can think of them for yourself, or read Michael Leapman's views on the subject.  It's stuff like that which has turned me from an enthusiastic Europhile into a muttering sceptic.

It wasn't hot.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

back to work

All good things come to an end, holidays included, and this morning when my alarm clock went off at six, it heralded the start of a working day.  Armed with my packed lunch and souvenir box of Leek fudge for my colleagues, with a long sleeved t-shirt under my uniform shirt now that it's the second half of September, it was back to work time.  Back to school day for the owners' son, too. September's like that.  The equinox has just passed, and the evenings are rapidly drawing in.

Not much had changed while I was away.  From the display of new plants outside the shop I gathered they'd taken a delivery of a consignment of shrubs, including Skimmia  x confusa 'Kew Green', which I remembered somebody wanted, on our list of customers searching for plants currently out of stock.  She hadn't yet been crossed off the list, so I rang her.  Whether she will come for the plant I'm not entirely sure, since I was left with the impression that she was elderly, lacked independent transport, was in the habit of ordering plants, but possibly lived with relatives.  In the course of the day I spotted some Cistus another customer was after, and two varieties of Hamamelis on the list. It was worth making the call about the Hamamelis, since the customer after phoning a friend decided to take both, even though they were only in 3 litre pots and not the 5 litres she'd originally specified.

The need for watering is dropping, now the nights are longer and dewier and the days cooler.  My colleague and I watered odd dry pots from cans, but it wasn't worth getting the hoses out, or running the overhead irrigation.  The compost in some pots was quite wet enough already, and it doesn't do plants any good at all to sit around in soggy compost.  In hot summer weather you can at least rely on them drying out in a day or two, but not by this stage of the year.

The owner, who wanted us to lock up at end of play while she took the dog for a walk before it got too dark, gave me an anxious half hour when she insisted that she had given me a key to the house about a month ago.  I have noticed myself becoming more absent minded with middle age, but I really didn't remember that at all.  I'm sure it would have made an impression on me, finally being given my own key after working there for ten years.  I remember being lent a key, against a Sunday when the owners were due to be away, and the only keyholding member of staff scheduled to work that day was going though a particularly unreliable patch, but I thought I gave it back.  I went and searched the glove compartment of my car, since that would have been the sensible place to keep a key if I'd had one.  There's no point in keeping it at home, since I'd probably forget to pick it up on the morning when I turned out to need it, and I don't want it sloshing around my handbag, which is quite crowded enough already, not to mention the risk of it being accidentally flicked out when I'm looking for something else.  By the time we'd tilled up and shut the shop the owner had found me a key, so I suspect that my version of events that I recently had a key overnight but gave it back is correct.  A key, after a decade with the business.  Maybe next it will be how to do till reconciliations.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

conference season

I rounded off my week of museum-based self-improvement by tacking an extra day on to my holiday, and going to the Essex Beekeepers Annual Conference.  The big draw for me, as soon as his name was announced at the conclusion of last year's conference, was Professor Nigel Dunnett of Sheffield University.  His full job title is Professor of Planting Design and Vegetation Technology, and Director of The Green Roof Centre.  He and his colleague James Hitchmough, Professor of Horticultural Ecology, have been studying alternatives to traditional planting schemes for urban landscapes for years.  I first came across their names while at Writtle, and more recently Nigel Dunnett emerged slightly further into the public consciousness as designer of the planting for the London Olympics site.

Today's talk focused on his development of what he terms Pictorial Meadows, ornamental planting mixtures inspired by wild plant communities and traditional meadows, but which adapt them to create something with more visual impact and a longer flowering season for use in urban settings. As Prof Dunnett observed, echoing a view of Piet Oudolf, if public planting schemes don't appeal to the mass of people, because they are perceived as messy or boring, they won't get public support, however ecologically sound they might be.

Dunnett's starting point with his meadows, back in the early 1990s, was that cash strapped councils couldn't afford to maintain traditional bedding and borders in their parks as they had done, while there was a great deal of urban grass that was regularly mown, at a significant cost in terms of labour and pollution, but not used for anything.  He thought that sowing areas with mixtures of flowering plants chosen from around the world to provide a long flowering season might be a better and cheaper alternative.  The flowers would be attractive to humans and insects alike.  Sheffield's verges and neglected parks could do their bit for nature conservation, and the sight of brightly coloured flowers and butterflies would make people happy.

Since then he has been researching mixtures of plants that will work well together on different types of site, and canvassing public opinion on his meadows.  His hunch was correct.  Most people really like them.  Annual meadows are sown in April or May on a clear site, should bloom until the first frosts, and by February have shrunk to light, dried stems that can be swept away.  They may naturally re-sow themselves giving a second year display, but by year three will be getting rather weedy.  The seed is mixed with sand or sawdust to bulk it out for broadcast sowing, and if the client is feeling rich or ritzy a two inch layer of sand spread over the site before sowing will suppress the weed seed bank and give the sown annuals a head start. They can be in full flower within two months of sowing, and are a good way of covering development sites that are lying temporarily bare for a year or two, as well as beautifying verges, roundabouts and parks.

The original soil on the Olympic planting site was so contaminated that it was not judged safe for humans to touch it, never mind plant it up and invite tens of thousands of visitors.  It was removed and replaced with artificial soil, which was conveniently weed free.  Prof Dunnett was hired on the strength of his track record, but that didn't prevent the organisers from being so nervous at the spectacle of nothing but bare earth four months before the Games were due to start that they insisted on a contingency supply of turf being lined up.  Sadly, the general public will not get to see the Pictorial Meadow in its original form when the Olympic site reopens as a park.  The ecologists on the planning committees have insisted that the long term planting should draw more heavily on native plants, to restore the Lea valley vegetation towards what it might have been two hundred years ago.  Plus, that many exotic flower seeds don't come cheap.  Which is a shame, for those of us who didn't go to the Olympics, as the pictures looked very pretty.

He does perennial meadows as well, but didn't really cover those today.  Pity, as I'd have liked to hear how his views lined up against those of Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury.

The last talk before Prof Dunnett was from Professor Dave Goulson of Sussex University, on the subject of neonicotinoids: The impact of neonicotinoid insecticides on bees and the wider environment.  Prof Goulson's research speciality is bumblebees, not honey bees, and his conclusion is that the impact of neonicotinoids on wild bees is pretty dire.  Neonicotinoids are incredibly toxic to insects, approximately 5,000 times more so than DDT.  A gramme, or roughly the quantity of a sachet of sugar, would be capable of killing 250 tonnes of bees.  Non-lethal doses appear to him to check growth in the size of nests, and reduce the end of season production of new queens that would form the basis of the following year's colonies.  They seem to reduce the ability of bees to navigate in unfamiliar locations, and curb pollen collection.  Domestic bee colonies are not so easy to measure, for a variety of reasons, and the evidence is still inconclusive on that score.

Neonicotinoids are mostly used as seed dressings.  The chemical is absorbed into the plant as it germinates, and every part of the plant is then toxic to insects.  All insects.  A bee foraging on treated flowers will ingest the insecticide with the nectar, more so in the pollen.  Only about two per cent of the chemical used on seed ends up in the plant, however, with the other ninety-eight per cent blowing off as dust during sowing, or leaching into the soil and soil water, where it has a long half life, estimated at 200 to 500 days, depending on the conditions.  Over the course of a six year study the concentration in soil sown each year with treated seed increased through the period.  The study was included in the data supplied to the regulator during the licencing process.  The EU regulator concluded that it had 'no potential for accumulation in soil'.

In Oregon this July lime trees in a car park were sprayed with a neonicotinoid to kill aphids and prevent honeydew from dripping on the parked cars.  By the end of the week thousands of bumblebees were dead, and officials were attempting to net the trees to keep further bees off the flowers.  The trees could remain toxic for years.  Thousands of bumblebees is a lot, since a nest only contains around three hundred.  Neonicotinoids are not nearly so toxic to vertebrates as they are to insects, which is good news for us.  Except that a partridge ingesting just five treated maize seeds in a sown field would receive a lethal dose.

I went to the conference agnostic on the subject of neonicotinoids, and reassured by Defra's stance on the subject.  By the end of Dave Goulson's talk I was deeply worried.  Now Prof Goulson is strongly in the anti camp, and obviously it would have been better to hear both sides of the story, particularly as the professor is a very good speaker, fluent, charismatic, and funny, besides being really rather good looking.  Before making up my mind I ought to hear someone from Defra, or perhaps Owen Patterson, putting the other side of the argument.  Maybe they weren't invited today, or perhaps nobody was available.  In the meantime I shall remain deeply worried.  What makes it even more depressing is that according to Prof Goulson, while it is almost impossible to buy untreated oilseed rape seed nowadays, the graph of UK output since the early 1980s shows no increase at all since neonicotinoids were introduced in the first half of the nineties.  Output has fluctuated from year to year, but the trend has remained resolutely flat.

Friday, 20 September 2013

what I did on my holidays

We are back.  It didn't feel like we were away for a week, more like we were gone for ten minutes. We packed a lot in, for there is a lot to see in north Staffordshire, more than you might think.

The Leek Embroidery Society.  You won't be able to see them just for the moment, since the last day of their exhibition fell on our first day in Leek.  The society was set up in 1879 or 1880 by Elizabeth Wardle with the support of her husband Sir Thomas Wardle, owner of a local dyeworks, who successfully developed a method of colouring previously dye resistant varieties of Indian silk, and collaborated on textile production with William Morris.  The Leek Embroidery Society developed its own particular style using very subtle shading, which was greatly admired at the time, while Sir Thomas was a local philanthropist who still merits a plaque in the local Sainsbury.  A little piece of industrial history I had absolutely no idea about until I went to Leek.

Biddulph Grange.  A brilliant and bonkers Victorian garden carefully restored and recreated by the National Trust at the end of the last century.  My first introduction to it was in a video of a TV programme about the restoration, shown in the course of a gardens restoration module, which featured two garden historians having hissy fits about the exactly correct shade of red to paint the rebuilt Chinese pavilion.  Biddulph Grange has a series of fanciful buildings and themed gardens at its core, Chinese, Egyptian, country cottage, Italianate, but it is much more than that.  The mapping out of interlocking and initially concealed spaces is extremely ingenious, and there are some rare and interesting plants.  Its creator, James Bateman, had strongly held ideas about fossils and the Creation, which I'm afraid we didn't spend any time on, but the garden is delightful.  I wanted to go because it was an important historic garden I hadn't seen, while half expecting to laugh at it, and instead was utterly charmed.

Brindley's Mill and the James Brindley Museum.  James Brindley was one of the great canal builders of the industrial revolution.  His knowledge of rivers and waterways led him into the water mill business, and at Leek he built a corn mill, now in the keeping of a charitable trust after restoration by volunteers.  We managed to catch it on one of the relatively few days when it is running, and so I learned that an undershot waterwheel (wheel sits in the current of water) is only half as efficient as an overshot one (water hits the wheel from above).  You don't often get the opportunity to see a 1752 water powered corn mill in action, but you had better go quickly, as the volunteers who run it aren't getting any younger, and there is a shortage of new recruits.

The Gladstone Museum.  One of the few potteries in Stoke on Trent not to have been demolished. They no longer fire the bottle kilns, but all the parts of a pottery are there, from the engine house and clay mixing equipment through the throwing and moulding rooms to the decorating and mould shops.  Luckily our visit coincided with a Heritage Weekend with demonstrations of the art of pottery, and so we were both mesmerised by the woman hand modelling flowers out of lumps of clay, while keeping up a conversation with local visitors who, like her, had once worked in the industry for real.  And entry was free.  A really interesting museum, and we left having learned the basic principle of how a bottle kiln was stacked.  I had never grasped that the smoke was vented through the inside of the kiln, and while I'd heard of saggar maker's bottom knockers I didn't know what a saggar was (clay container in which pottery was placed for firing, placed in columns, they protected the pottery from the smoke).

Etruria Industrial Museum.  This one confused me thoroughly before we went, because I'd heard of Josiah Wedgewood's Etruria pottery, whereas the Etruria Industrial Museum is nothing to do with him.  It contains a steam powered mill once used to grind flint and bone to powder that was in turn used as raw material in pottery.  I had never even heard of flint milling prior to our visit.  We were lucky to catch the mill on the Heritage Weekend when it was working, and we could admire the 1903 boiler steaming, the beam engine dating from the 1820s turning majestically slowly, and the vast gears and paddles of the stone crushing equipment rotating.  They don't actually crush stone nowadays, for reasons of health and safety, and the future of the museum (which is a scheduled Ancient Monument) depends on volunteers due to the squeeze on council spending.  The museum sits at the highest point of the Trent and Mersey canal, which is interesting if you like canals. Unless you can go on a day when they are steaming there wouldn't be very much to see, and I'm not even sure the volunteers keep it open all the time.

The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.  Stoke on Trent's museum possesses a world class collection of ceramics, and is desperately in need of a Neil MacGregor to curate it.  There are cases and cases of stuff, plates, jugs, pots, mugs, and what must be the world's largest assembly of pottery cow creamers.  Little cards give you information on each individual item, once you've managed to match the description to the right object in the case.  There is almost no overview to explain the sequence in which the major firms emerged, or the relative strengths of each, or anything technical, like what salt glazing is, or lead glazing.  After our visit I still didn't know the difference between earthenware and stoneware, and had to look it up on Wikipedia when we got back to the cottage, and the only reason I knew anything about the history of Stoke's exports to the United States or the difference between porcelain and china was that I'd read it in a book by Emma Bridgewater and Matthew Rice before we went.  The museum is free, and was being used by various mothers of small children as a dry place to exercise them on a wet day.  One toddler was as bored by cases of ceramics as you'd expect, and was screaming the house down.  A sadly wasted opportunity on the part of Stoke on Trent.

Stoke on Trent.  Has possibly the most confusing and aggravating traffic system of anywhere in England.  Make that Britain.  Maybe Europe.  Stoke has an unusual layout, because it is polycentric, developing from the six towns (not five).  This has left it with more civic buildings than it can use, and tracts of secondary and tertiary space between them in places that you feel ought to be the centre.  Great tracts of this has been demolished, along with the bottle kilns, and an impenetrable network of new roads installed, with a minimum of any kind of signposting.  Despite all the new roads the traffic seems to flow incredibly slowly, and there are a monumental quantity of junctions and roundabouts.  We weren't helped by the fact that the sat nav in the jaguar pre-dated the new one-way system, but signposts would have helped.  Our portable navigation devices didn't, since Stoke appears to be in a 3 Mobile and O2 blackspot.

Northern Rail.  Pips Stoke on Trent to the post for the least satisfying customer experience.  The car park ticket machine at Wilmslow took five pounds of our valuable reserve of coins that we were hoarding for car parks, and didn't print a ticket, or return the money when the red button was pressed.  Paying the outsourced operator of their choice by mobile phone was incredibly cumbersome, and would have been impossible had I not had a phone (not everyone has) or a pencil to write down the code of the station (5700) since it was raining so hard that my phone would have stopped working before I got to that stage, if I'd been standing in front of the ticket machine for the entire performance.  The station staff said the ticket machine was nothing to do with them, and I noticed when we got back from Manchester that they still hadn't bothered to put a notice on it to warn other travellers.  Northern Rail's management don't know it yet, but I am not going to let this one rest.  I can waste considerably more than five pounds worth of their time in my quest to get my five back.  (And they would still owe me twenty pence, morally speaking, for the confirmation texts).  The train was twenty minutes late as well.

The Lowry.  I have wanted to go to The Lowry ever since it opened.  It is currently showing some previously unseen drawings by Lowry, as well as a selection of paintings.  I presume a great part of the collection is at the Tate, but we were planning to go to that anyway.  Lowry could draw figures and portrait heads, not to Lucien Freud standards, but he could certainly draw.  And he studied at art school, and went to concerts and the theatre.  The popular image of a self-taught artist whose prosaic job as a debt collector implied he had no intellectual or cultural hinterland is clearly wide of the mark.  I liked the Lowry a lot.

The Imperial War Museum.  Our visit to the northern branch of the Imperial War Museum started well, and went downhill.  The Daniel Lieberskind designed building is fabulous, a series of great interlocking curved shapes clad in grey metal, rising above the canal which by that stage is vast. Inside it is divided into themed areas, with lots of glass cases with stuff in them, and some bigger bits of stuff, and we were just settling nicely into the first world war, and I was looking at a mine and reading about the minefields off Lowestoft, when the lights began to dim and an audio presentation started.  All over the museum.  Forget self-directed study and the recent vogue for lifting up little flaps and pulling out drawers, everybody in the museum was going to listen to a homily on the horrors of war whether they wanted to or not.  A child's voice said that her father never came back, and another said that its school was blown up, and an adult voice intoned that humans had always made war and it was terrible.  Anyone who watches the news on Syria each evening already knows that.  We left.  The noise was giving the Systems Administrator a headache, and I was just plain cross about being dragooned into listening to the communal lecture instead of being allowed to read about things in my own time.

The Museum of Science and Industry.  This is brilliant.  It occupies some fine historic railway buildings and an amazing ironwork former vegetable market.  There is a huge room full of engines of various sorts, which made the SA very happy, and I watched fascinated through an ancient educational film about Manchester's former hydraulic power system.  Another room looks at the textile industry.  The vegetable market turned out to be full of aeroplanes, which pleased the SA very much.  It is Manchester's most visited museum attraction, and is in danger of being closed to save money to keep the London Science Museum open.  I thought we were meant to be inspiring young people about science, and Kensington is rather a long way for the children of the north to go.

Cromford Mills.  This is the site of Richard Arkwright's first cotton spinning mill.  There are fine Georgian buildings, restored or in the process of restoration, having undergone a chequered history since Arkwright's day.  Other than that there is not a lot to see unless you catch them on a day when they are doing lectures or further interpretation.  I think there might be some working models somewhere on the site, but we didn't manage to see them.  We did see one of the practical difficulties of an overshot waterwheel, which is that since the channel that takes your water away obviously has to be lower than the one that brings it by the full height of the wheel, unless you have a naturally sloping site you have to raise the one or drop the other.  Arkwright had to build a large and expensive culvert for the mill tail.

Masson Mill.  There wasn't enough power in the mill stream at Arkwright's first site, but just up the road you can see his second factory.  The building survived in commercial textile production until the early 1990s.  Most of its storeys now house a shopping complex, which we didn't visit, but down in the basement is a collection of vintage machines covering every stage of cotton production from carding to weaving (excluding dyeing).  There are live demonstrations twice a day, and so we saw cotton cloth being produced on a series of looms dating from the mid nineteenth century to 1973.  It is a mark of how far textile production has progressed that the 1970s simple version of a Jacquard loom could make 130 passes of its shuttle per minute, while modern looms achieve several thousand, and have dispensed with shuttles according to our guide.  Nowadays they use compressed air or a jet of water, but we couldn't imagine how.  A very interesting museum and incredibly cheap at three pounds each, plus a modest parking fee.

Caudwell's Mill.  This took us forward in time from the days of the undershot wheel and millstones to the water turbine and flour rollers.  I was keen to see this, having worked my way several times through Elizabeth David's preamble to her bread book, in which she deals with the milling industry. Caudwell's Mill stands where a mill has stood for around four hundred years, in a very pretty valley on the river Wye (not that one), and was producing flour commercially until the 1970s.  Most of the machinery dates from before 1914, and you can see the rollers, the sifters, and the elevators and archimedean screws that moved grain and flour around the building.  One of the turbines was rumbling away, and some machinery was working, but they didn't have the whole process running end to end.  It was still very interesting, and the bread roll in the cafe was the best I've eaten for a long time, a sort of wholemeal soda bread.

Haddon Hall.  Is a fortified stone manor house, as featured in various films and TV dramas including Jane Eyre.  Romantic and beautiful and with a rather fine long gallery, and rambling gardens wrapped around the buttresses.  It is the lesser house of the Dukes of Rutland, their main pile being Belvoir Castle.

Chatworth.  Was great, really well done.  It is very popular, but you can see everything as you move through the house, and the grounds are so vast they can absorb vast quantities of visitors almost without trace.  I hadn't grasped that the state rooms were so early.  I assumed they'd have been redone according to Georgian or Victorian taste, but Chatsworth is still a Baroque palace.  I love the Baroque.  All those carved wooden swags of fruit and gold leafed window frames do it for me.  The Emperor fountain is truly impressive, all gravity fed, and the sun shone so that we could see it in its full glory.  Every stage of the famous cascade is deliberately made different to its neighbours, in terms of the drop, the number of steps, whether they have rounded or sharp edges, and whether there is any overhang, to vary the sound of the water as you walk past.  The staff were friendly, informative when asked, and didn't convey that weary air that visitors are an imposition that you get in some stately homes.  I liked Chatsworth a lot, including the fact that I have now seen the great grape vine from which the RHS autumn show award winning grapes have come in past years, beating rival entries from other ducal seats.

Buxton.  Was smaller than we expected, and faintly disappointing.  The park with its conservatory was nice, but the large attached cafe had a disconcerting whiff of loos throughout, and the shopping wasn't up to much.  I thought I might be able to buy myself a necklace with a piece of Blue John in it somewhere on this holiday, but failed.  Buxton's Devonshire Dome, grade II* listed and the largest unsupported dome in Europe, is part of the Leek and Buxton college.  It is supposed to also contain a cafe and spa and be accessible to visitors as well as students, but signposts to them were non-existent, and we got embarrassed about hanging around a school, and gave up.

The Wedgewood Museum.  Was everything that the Stoke museum was not.  Each stage of Josiah Wedgewood's career, and the developments he pioneered in the pottery industry, was clearly explained, with a judicious mixture of interpretation panels and objects, then the later history of the firm from his death in 1795 to the present was charted, with rather more objects.  Only the reasons for the firm's recent unhappy collapse were tactfully skipped over.  The museum shares the site of the current manufacturing works, which also offers a Visitor Experience, and I began to see why the Inland Revenue considered them both to be part of the same entity, if the law allowed that interpretation.  Josiah Wedgewood was an extraordinary man.  When he started in the pottery industry, modest salt glazed and unglazed wares were the norm, perhaps decorated with slip.  By the time of his death, his company had pioneered cream glazed ware, christened queen ware in honour of the queen, painted and transferred patterns, coloured glazes, and an incredible range of applied moulded decorations.  He saw the potential of using lathes to finish pot forms, and learned about lathes.  He saw the potential of steam power, and bought a steam engine.  He needed better transport, and joined the movement to promote canals.  And he appears to have been a thoroughly nice human being.  We discovered we had spent nearly three hours in the Wedgewood Museum.

Trentham Gardens.  Are fabulous.  They are part of a private scheme, in which italianate Victorian gardens designed by  Sir Charles Barry have been restored and redeveloped along with a shopping centre, hotel, and assorted leisure attractions.  The brief for the gardens was given to Piet Oudolf for one part, and Tom Stuart-Smith for another.  They have each done their own take on the new perennial planting movement, both are beautiful, and it is interesting to see them side by side, and see how easily Stuart-Smith's work sits with the Victorian built landscape instead of his usual corton steel.  There was still plenty of colour, as well as lots of seed heads, and I was smitten with the beauties of a late flowering umbellifer which a gardener kindly identified for me as Selinum wallichianum.  We didn't walk the mile to the end of the lake, but it looked a beautiful stroll if we'd wanted to, with rather more trees than in Capability Brown's day.  Trentham is one of the largest and most significant examples of this style of planting in the UK, if not Europe.  It was a nice sunny morning, and we shared the garden with approximately six other visitors.

Little Moreton Hall.  A sweet, madly askew sixteenth century timbered house, now in the care of the National Trust.  It is in that chunky, four-square style of timbering characteristic of Cheshire, quite different to the narrowly spaced thinner uprights of East Anglia.  Nowadays it only stays up thanks to a concealed metal frame, but it is five hundred years old.  There were an amazingly large number of other visitors for late on a Thursday afternoon in September.

The countryside.  North Staffordshire and the adjoining bits of Derbyshire and Cheshire are quite astonishingly pretty.  Rolling fields, very green and generously dotted with trees and small areas of woodland, give way to rolling moorland and wonderful jutting rock formations.  There are some amazing hanging woods along the roads.  Many of the trees are ash, alas, so if you want to see the countryside in all its beauty then go fairly soon.  I fear the landscape will not be so generously wooded, given another decade or so.

Staffordshire oatcakes.  Leek has a traditional oatcake shop, unchanged since it opened in 1964. It only opens in the morning, from early until lunchtime, and someone cooks the cakes on two large griddles in the front of the shop while unseen hands add the fillings behind the scenes.  The cakes are about the diameter of a saucer, as thick as a pancake, and take quite a time to cook, so the griddles can't be very hot.  I had one, with mushrooms, and it was delicious, faintly oaty and nutty, with little holes in it like a crumpet.  We then tried catering versions at the cafe at Trentham, which were soggier and lay heavy on the stomach, so putting the SA off the whole idea.  I have bought a book about them (on Amazon), and intend to give it a go.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

cardunculus is going on holiday

Tomorrow.  At half past nine the man from the house sitting agency will come, and after we have briefed him about the black cat's stiff leg and run through the rest of the list (cats, pots, chickens) we'll be off.  He and his wife sat for us last year and it all went smoothly.  Yes, it is very sad that we don't have friends or neighbours to do it, but the nearest neighbours live in London half the time, and the next two houses are occupied  by pensioners in fragile health, while the only one of our friends who lives within a quarter of an hour's drive works in London.  Such is our fragmented society.

We are going to stay in Leek, Staffordshire, on the western fringes of the Peak District.  It is a part of the world that neither of us knows at all well.  Once, on a company visit, I was driven in a corporate minibus through the outer fringes of the grounds of Chatsworth, simply because they are so large they encompass the local roads, and that is the sum total of my Peak District tourist experiences.

We have a long list of things to do and see, so many that I have entered them on a spreadsheet, roughly grouped by geographical proximity, with notes on which days of the week they are open. There is Chatsworth, of course, and Biddulph Grange, Hardwick Hall if we drive over the Peaks towards Chesterfield, more glass than wall, and Haddon Hall, a fortified stone manor house which you have probably seen if you have watched many costume dramas on the telly.  It appeared fairly recently in Jane Eyre with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens.

There are a great number of industrial museums.  There are textile mills, pottery museums, and I have a fancy to see the pre 1914 working flour roller mill.  The Wedgewood Museum, which won the Art Fund Museum of the Year Award a few years back, is horribly threatened with having to sell its entire collection to help fund the pension deficit of a now bankrupt company with which it is only very distantly connected, but still connected enough under bonkers UK pensions legislation.  Something must be done, but I hope and believe that the Art Fund is on the case.

We might run up to Manchester for the day to visit Salford Quays, home of the Lowry Museum and the northern branch of the Imperial War Museum.  It occupies a building designed by Daniel Lieberskind so should be worth a visit for the architecture, never mind the contents.

And we could go for a walk in the country.  The Peak District is the UK's oldest national park, and the scenery is stunningly beautiful, to judge from the pictures I've seen.  It depends partly on the weather.  Sunday is forecast to be a shocker, but it probably won't rain that hard all week.  I'm packing my walking boots and waterproof trousers, in anticipation of a bit of outdoors action.

The blog is not coming with us.  It does impose something of a constraint, having to find half an hour back at the cottage in the afternoon or evening when I can tap away, and I'm not going to try. A break from your normal routine is partly what having a holiday is about.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

from the Slade to Mexico

I went to London today, keen to catch Nash, Nevinson, Spencer, Gertler, Carrington, Bomberg: a Crisis of Brilliance, 1908 - 1922 at The Dulwich Picture Gallery.  As exhibition titles go it's not the snappiest, but it has reviewed well, and concerns the early work of those six artists, united by the fact that they were all students at The Slade, and were to various degrees friends.  It closes on 22 September, and we are on holiday next week, so if I didn't go this week I wasn't going to go at all.

I tried to persuade a friend to come with me a while back, but while she professed interest in the artists, and a desire to see the gallery which she had never visited, we failed to finalise a date, and then she said she couldn't leave her dog for the entire day.  It is an elderly dog, and not all that well, but I think that in truth she just wasn't that keen.  I'd have liked her to come, if she'd been up for it, but going alone has its definite compensations.  I don't have to worry about how far or fast the other person is willing or able to walk, or whether they are enjoying the pictures or secretly bored rigid.  There is no-one fret about the traffic and the glacial speed of the bus, or set off randomly in the wrong direction because other people are going that way, or because it is less crowded than the way we ought to be going, or demand to stop for tea when there is only enough time to see the exhibition before the gallery closes.  If the exhibition is dull or stupid, lunch is horrid and the trains are shot to pieces, it is only my problem, and I am not responsible for someone else's disastrous day.

The Slade before the Great War had its own way of doing things.  Tutors laid a great deal of emphasis on life drawing, and would rather that their students had not gone to see the exhibition of the still new Impressionists, which might corrupt their views.  The students did, of course.  I am all in favour of artists being able to draw, but it shows a sad lack of confidence to try and prevent them from being exposed to new ideas.

The Slade six met with mixed fortunes.  Nevinson was advised by his tutor in 1910 to give up ideas of being a professional artist, before shooting to fame as a war artist, though never again enjoying that level of success after the war.  He died in obscurity, as did Bomberg.  Carrington and Gertler committed suicide, while Paul Nash became a famous and successful landscape painter and official artist of the Second World War, and Stanley Spencer ended his days as Sir Stanley.  Death or glory. I wanted to go because I love Nash's landscapes, and admire his war art, and was curious to see some of his early works, and because I am intrigued by Spencer's mystical portrayals of Cookham.  And because I am curious about the whole Bloomsbury and bohemian strand of society in the 1920s and 1930s.

The only disappointment of that part of the trip was that the cafe at the gallery is under new management and no longer does bagels with smoked salmon.  I used to like those.

A morning trip to Dulwich combines surprisingly well with an afternoon in the West End, because of course once you are back at London Bridge you can hop straight on to the Jubilee line.  Since I was in London I thought I'd go and see the Royal Academy's exhibition Mexico: A Revolution in Art 1910-1940.  It closes on 29 September, so I thought that if I didn't go today I probably wouldn't go at all.  The art critics in the papers have been rather muted about this, apart from grumbles that there are no murals, apparently the most quintessential form of Mexican art from the first half of the last century.  Well, there wouldn't be.  There are photographs of people, buildings and objects, including a bullet-riddled corpse described as being the first casualty of election day, and there are paintings, but only one teeny tiny one by Frida Kahlo.  I really liked some of the photographs, the paintings not much so.  Quite a few of them were by overseas visiting artists rather than Mexicans, and it was striking how many captions ended with the words 'He (or she) never returned to Mexico'. DH Lawrence bobbed up everywhere today, since he had his portrait painted in Mexico, and was a close friend of Mark Gertler.

I walked back to Liverpool Street, and toyed with the idea of calling at the Guildhall Art Gallery, which has just opened a new show in which contemporary artists reinterpret Victorian aesthetics, which sounds great fun, but I decided that two exhibitions were as much as my brain could take in one day.  I felt a little stiff after the walk, proof that I've been pretty sedentary through the hot summer.  Once we're back from holiday it will be a new regime of activity and fitness, if it doesn't rain all the time.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

making more plants

My cuttings of the perennial wallflower Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve' have rooted.  I'm pleased about that, for it is a great plant.  Mid purple flowers with the four petals characteristic of the cabbage family keep opening for months at a time on gradually elongating vertical stems, and are hugely attractive to bees and butterflies.  The foliage is an agreeable bluish green.  But it is not long lived, five years tops on free draining soil, and maybe just the one season on heavy soil or given a cold winter, and the flowers are sterile.  I knew that it was propagated from cuttings, and have joked a few times to customers in search of it that while the traditional method of propagation was cuttings, nowadays the usual method of getting more plants seems to be to go to a garden centre.

However, I was a guilty of that as anyone else, and had never previously tried my hand at cuttings. This summer I did, they rooted easily, and today I moved my four new plants into individual pots, reluctant to leave it until our return from holiday given the rate at which the tops were growing.  If they now keel over and die then I'll know I should have left them longer before disturbing them. Christopher Lloyd cautioned against pricking out things like hydrangea cuttings in the autumn, saying that it was safer to leave them until the spring when they were naturally starting back into growth, but 'Bowles Mauve' already seemed to be in full growth.

'Bowles Mauve' is named after EA Bowles of Myddleton House, who was born in 1865 and died just a week short of his ninetieth birthday.  He was a great and famous gardener, botanist, botanical artist and plant collector, who was awarded the RHS Victoria Medal of Honour, served on fifteen RHS committees, and was a Council member for thirty six years.  His wallflower holds the Award of Garden Merit.  And yet it may not be so old as I originally assumed it was.  Chosen at this year's Chelsea Flower Show to represent plant introductions between 1973 and 1982, it was first exhibited at Chelsea in 1982.

Most of my first batch of Penstemon cuttings rooted as well.  Those that failed were nearest to the glass of the greenhouse, caught too much sun, and wilted before they could root despite the protection of a plastic propagating case.  I went about making more penstemons quite systematically, buying one each of three varieties I liked in one litre pots, potting them on in the greenhouse into two litre pots to encourage them to grow, and using them as stock plants to provide cuttings.  Again, Penstemon are not the longest lived inhabitants of the borders, especially given a cold winter, though those with narrow leaves and slender flowers are hardier than the bigger and blowsier types.  Fortunately they are the ones I prefer, and I thought a ready supply of young plants to fill any gaps next year could be handy.

The perennial wallflower and the penstemons were both stuck into normal multi-purpose compost, the penstemons trimmed just below a leaf node and the wallflowers pulled off as side-shoots with a little heel of main stem,  all with a tiny dab of hormone rooting powder on their cut ends.  I bought the powder fresh this summer, since it is supposed to lose its potency with age, though the manufacturers very annoyingly do not put a best before date on the pot, and so I have no way of knowing if it was actually fresh powder, or if the stock had been sitting around in the garden centre since last year, or even longer.

The Teucrium and Sedum cuttings I took using the same method look hopeful, though I can't yet see any roots through the drainage holes of the pots, and am not going to disturb them yet.  I struggled in both cases to find non-flowering shoots to use as cuttings, so simply cut the flowers off.  One tray of determined Sedum cuttings made new ones from the leaf axils, which I have removed as well, to try and focus its mind on rooting.  I didn't use a plastic case for the Sedum, or my shrubby Salvia cuttings, for fear of them rotting in the moist air.

The Dianthus cuttings are not looking good, despite my best efforts to pull off pipings like I saw on Gardeners World.  Perhaps I can't get away with normal multi-purpose for those.  Salvia lavandulifolia seems undecided whether to live or not.  Pity, I'd like some more, having started with one from the plant centre to see how it went, and because they were expensive, only available in three litre pots at nearly ten pounds a pop.  I may not be the only person to experience iffy cuttings, since this year the manager never managed to source any and we didn't stock them.  Salvia lavandulifolia has much smaller leaves than the common culinary sage, which smell strongly of lavender when touched.

I was so pleased with my results that I took some more cuttings.  They may not root so readily now it is so much cooler, but it seems worth a try, since it's still only the first half of September.  I sowed some seeds of Primula florindae out of the bog bed while I was at it, as they seemed ripe and ready, and I had a feeling that primulas were much easier from fresh seed than dried.  Last year I left the seed heads to shed their load in situ, but got no primula seedlings at all, and most of my experiments with bought seed of any kind of primrose have drawn a blank, but it's worth a try.

Monday, 9 September 2013

rainy monday

What a difference four days make.  It has turned decidedly cold, so much so that I abandoned my Tilley hat in favour of my fleece beanie, while the woman who works in the office had to go home to get an extra layer.  That's comparatively easy for her, as she lives in the village.  If I forget anything it's a round trip of virtually an hour to go and get it, so I have to manage without.  I try to make sure I don't forget my work coat by keeping it in the car on the days when I'm not working, and in ten years I have only once forgotten my lunch and had to go and buy something in the village shop.

I felt the first light drops of rain fairly early on, as I carried on where I'd left off at the lupins, working my way through Myrtus, Nandina and Neillia.  By mid morning the spots had developed into proper, serious rain, and so I wasn't as upset as I'd have been otherwise to be left in charge of the tea room and tills, while the manager disappeared to do whatever it is that he does on Monday mornings.  My extreme antipathy to the idea of combining serving tea and cake with cleaning up pots of plants between cafe customers seems to have registered, and I was left in peace to read up on shrubs and FERA's latest leaflet on Phytophthera ramorum in between serving customers and washing up.  The washing up meant that after a while I had reasonably clean hands, although my trousers were another matter.

The owner is interviewing for someone to run the cafe and shop, and I heard her tell today's candidate that the manager and I couldn't operate the cappuccino machine, so I am cautiously optimistic on the tea room front.  It needs a welcoming, enthusiastic face permanently behind the counter to give customers an encouraging smile as they walk into the shop, not somebody hired for their plant knowledge who would patently rather be out in the plant centre, either looking after the plants or talking to customers about them.

My phone calls yesterday bore modest fruit.  Someone rang up and did want the two Pennisetum 'Hameln' I'd put aside for him in a spirit of some doubt, given he asked for them in May (it took me a while before the penny dropped that 'Hameln' was the German name for the city which we have anglicised as Hamelin.  Not such a bad mistake as an RAF driver my father came across during his national service, who drove a very long way across Germany looking for Cologne, leaving the signs to Koln far behind).  The second successful message was for someone who had been identified on the customer wish list by their surname only.  I wish that particular colleague wouldn't do that. Ringing up and having to say that you have a message for Bloggs feels crass.  Mr, Mrs, Miss, Doctor, The Reverend, Joe Bloggs, I don't mind which, whatever the customer is comfortable with, but not just Bloggs.  Today's customer turned out to be Lady so-an-so, which I didn't guess correctly in my phone message, but she was pleased to get her plant anyway.  She had the shrewd face and twinkle in the eye of someone who probably didn't take offence easily.

Someone rang from one of our suppliers wanting to apologise to the boss for sending an invoice for Hibiscus at £75 each instead of £7.50.  The boss wasn't answering his radio, so I got the full benefit of the apology and promised to pass it on.  The yellow book organiser rang to chivvy the owner because the deadline for inclusion in 2014 was fast approaching.  One of our regular elderly customers, who gives the impression of being terribly lonely (which of course puts people off) came in to ask if she could change a Buddleia she had bought which wasn't right for her garden, although she had lost the receipt.  One of the pea chicks died.  Sales were rather quiet, but the rain didn't help.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

lavatera to lupinus

It's a mystery what makes people come out and shop for plants.  Yesterday was hectically busy, today dreadfully quiet.  There were a few light showers, but nothing more, and it's not as though there'd been a bad weather forecast to put people off.  There were no other major things going on, that I know of.  The A12 wasn't blocked.  I don't think it's been reported that scientists have discovered that gardening gives you cancer or Altzheimers.  But whatever the reason, they didn't come.  I'm not sure the cafe takings even covered the tea shop girl's wages, which is bad news for me, since the owner won't want her in tomorrow and I'll be stuck with teas.

The quiet gave me time to make some decent progress sweeping down most of a shrub bed.  I got from Lavatera to Lupinus, via Leptospermum, Lespedeza, LeucothoeLeycesteriaLigustrum and Lonicera.  The prize for the most derelict looking plant in a pot goes to Leycesteria, or pheasant berry.  Well grown in the garden this shrub is a delight, with smooth, glaucous green stems a little like bamboo, and pendant clusters of white flowers with red bracts, followed by red berries.  In a pot it forms a most wretched specimen.  The leaves scrunch up, then the small side shoots die back.  All I could do was pick off the worst of the brown leaves, since I didn't like to cut them right down without the manager's say so.  You are only supposed to remove a third of the stems at one go anyway.  I had one in my previous garden and cut it hard to the ground, thinking that I was doing the right thing.  It died.

The prize for the plant that's soddiest and most difficult to keep alive in a pot goes to Leptospermum.  They are bastards in pots, becoming root bound in no time.  If you over water them, they die, likewise if you under water them they die too.  Once planted they are not all that drought tolerant, despite coming mostly from Australia, which one thinks of as a hot, dry place.  I had one in the garden, which died to the ground a couple of times following droughts, only to shoot again from the roots.  Finally it died, the victim of a cold winter or one drought too many.  The fabled Manuka honey is gathered from the flowers of certain species of Leptospermum, though recent reports suggest that much of what is marketed as Manuka honey is in fact no such thing.

Lespedeza is nice.  It's a member of the pea family, which produces long arching shoots with mid green foliage that produce purple (rarely white) clusters of pea-like flowers in the autumn, and are generally killed by the winter.  Not to worry, clear them away as if it was a herbaceous plant and not a shrub, and it will start again in the spring.  You don't see Lespedeza very often, which is a shame, since they are very little trouble and burst forth into bloom at a useful time of year.  The RHS says that its one disadvantage is that it is late into leaf in the spring, but I can't say that has ever troubled me.

During my stints on the till I went through the list of plants we are supposed to be getting for customers, which were out of stock at the point when they asked.  I found several things that had been on the list for some months, and to judge from the appearance of the plants some of them had been in stock almost equally long.  I left some answerphone messages, but the customers I spoke to had all sourced the plants elsewhere in the meantime, though none were cross about being disturbed.  Other plants on the list I knew had come and gone since the customer left their details, without anyone making the connection.  The trouble is, there is no system for matching the list of wants to incoming stock, or to plants that we've potted up becoming rooted and ready for sale.  It depends on someone going through the list, and remembering that they've seen so-and-so in the plant centre, which is about as hit and miss as it sounds.  Though I was gratified to see yesterday that the owner has adopted my suggestion (made several months ago) that we should record voucher sales on pre-numbered sheets, so that it will not be possible for staff to re-use voucher numbers that have been allocated once already.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

mists and mellow fruitfulness

Autumn is almost here.  If I were in any doubt, given the blood red hips on the Rosa glauca, and the generous crop of ripe crabs on the 'John Downie', I had confirmation this morning when my car was fogged up.  I got as far as the farmyard, and had to wait with the screen blower on maximum until it had made some peepholes in the misted windscreen, because with the low September sun in my eyes I couldn't see a thing.  An articulated lorry or a fleet of tractors could have been driving up to the farmyard, and I wouldn't have seen them.  Luckily the traffic was really light, and I was not late to work.

The autumn stock is arriving.  Container grown hedging yew has come in since the last time I was there, while all of the herbaceous peonies have disappeared from sale.  We might have sold them all in the last four days, but I presume they have been put away in the tunnel on The Other Side, to prevent them from getting too wet.  The manager's opening instructions for the weekend were all to do with watering, how we must not over-water things now that the weather was cooler (shame it wasn't cooler on Thursday).

The manager's list of jobs to do said to sweep and tidy the shrub beds, but also said that my colleague should treat the gravel paths with weedkiller if it wasn't too windy.  After he had walked around the edges of all the beds with the sprayer, I thought I did not fancy kneeling in wet weedkiller to tackle the shrubs, and that I would find something else to do until it had dried.  I weeded the irises and pulled dead leaves off them, one of those perennial tasks that always seems to need doing again as soon as you've done it.

The turkeys spent the morning hanging around the plant centre.  Seeing them side by side, it was quite clear which was the cock and which the hen.  She is large, but he is enormous.  He held his tail up in the display position some of the time, which made the difference even more obvious, and he has bigger and more elaborate wattles.  They were standing outside the back door to the shop when the tea shop girl arrived, and I saw her give them an anxious glance before venturing to approach the door.  Later on a small toddling child began to run at them, then realised how big they were, thought better of it, and sat down very abruptly at his father's feet.  I do get the impression that not everyone is entirely happy with the turkeys.  They are huge, and I can see that if you weren't comfortable around strange animals, two gigantic black birds with bald faces decorated with what look like old men's scrotums could be off-putting.  In fact they are as gentle as anything, and toddled away meekly each time I shooed them away from the back door of the shop.  They are presumably not daft, and have worked out that there is food in there.

Following the season of mists, the mellow fruitfulness came at lunchtime when I had a home grown apple and three figs from our 'Brown Turkey'.

Friday, 6 September 2013


Today was a toss-up between cleaning the house, and going to catch Vermeer and Music at the National Gallery before it closes on Sunday.  The cleaning won.  Shame, I'd have liked to see the Vermeer, but sometimes there just isn't time to do everything, especially in a hot summer when every action seems to take twice as long and require twice the effort, and I dread the trains.  I must try and get to Dulwich before we go away, to see the early twentieth century British artists, Nash, Nevinson, Spencer et al, as they only run until 22 September, if the cleaning is under control by the middle of the week.

I made quite good progress this time on the hall, which missed out last time.  I washed the pottery on the hall dresser, and wiped the glass partitions, and scrubbed the floor, and took everything off the hall table and wiped that, and washed the door stops.  I wiped the ceiling and the wall where snails had walked across them, leaving slime trails, and wondered whether other people had snails walking up their walls, and what happened if you had wallpaper.  I fitted a new light bulb to replace one that went ages ago, but hasn't seemed to matter while the evenings were so light, and discovered that we were running out of 60W bayonet fitting light bulbs.  I put down clean newspaper under the cats' dishes (thank you Liz) on the clean floor, and set the blankets from the cats' baskets to wash, and afterwards the Systems Administrator showed me how to check the filter on the washing machine.

I progressed to the downstairs sitting room or hall extension, depending on how you look at it, and removed a broken shoelace the System Administrator left on the table in front of the TV some weeks ago, and separated out the one booklet from Sky which we needed to keep, because it contained vital instructions, from the three other booklets that were merely marketing gumph and could go in the bin.  I emptied the waste paper baskets, and replaced the plastic light pull in the cupboard with a wooden one which had been sitting on my dressing table for about two years.  I polished my wooden shaker sewing and jewellery boxes, both slightly rain spotted since the window got left open in a storm, and gave my little box of earrings a shine for good measure.  The SA managed to find some Brasso in the workshop, and I polished the pair of brass candlesticks we bought in the Netherlands on a sailing holiday.

I banished the SA's trouser press from the bedroom, since I can't see the SA ever pressing another pair of trousers, having left office life.  A vintage stereo stack that got relegated to the bedroom some years ago was sent in turn to the garage.  Technology has rendered it virtually obsolescent, now we both have iPods and portable digital radios, so we almost never used it.  The thing was a dust magnet, and if I jig the furniture round a little I can make room for a small chest of drawers, though a woman I spoke to in the second hand furniture shop round the corner from the poultry feed merchant said that competition for small chests was fierce.  In the meantime the table that did hold the stereo makes a useful home for my pile of as-yet unread books.  I had better check with the SA before finally disposing of the trouser press, otherwise a friend thought she had found a home for it with a local charity.  I'm not sure anyone would want the stereo.

I moved a rug which was forever rucking up and threatening to trip me on the way to the loo at night, and put it in front of my dressing table where it might not ruck up, and would hide the dents in the carpet from the trouser press, and the grubby patch by my dressing table stool, which I am afraid is a legacy of my rubbing beeswax hand cream into my feet every morning, and found a bath mat on which to anoint my feet in future.  It is a shame about the carpet, but I haven't had cracked heels in years.  I would rather like the SA to replace the carpet with oak planks, but the SA was very downbeat about how we would get the planks round the corner at the top of the stairs, and it isn't honestly worth spending the money.

The SA offered to do the vacuuming, and I said that was very kind, although the SA did not have to, since my efforts were not intended to guilt-trip anybody else into doing anything.  The SA vacuumed, then I had to vacuum again where the rug had been, as a fair amount of debris, mostly plant-based, had accumulated underneath.

I wiped the downstairs cloak room, and treated the obstinate lime stains with some vile chemical that dissolves them, and changed the hand towel, and the one in the kitchen.  I washed the kitchen floor, having remembered to vacuum it before lunch so that I could listen to the Radio 5 Live film programme in peace after lunch.

I don't like cleaning.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

to the lighthouse

We went to Orford Ness today, our second visit.  We visited this time last year, thought it was extraordinary, and suggested to friends that they might like it.  Thursday 5 September ended up being pencilled into the diary, subject to weather and random events, as fitting in with everybody's holidays and other commitments.  And I thought it wouldn't be so hot by September.  There is no shade on the Ness, except in those disused military buildings you are allowed to enter.

You reach the Ness by National Trust ferry.  It runs every twenty minutes at this time of year, with a break for lunch, and holds a maximum of a dozen people including the ferryman, which acts as a natural cap on the number of visitors.  In October it drops back to Saturdays only, another reason to go in September given that I work every other Saturday.  What happens in high season if more than thirty three would-be visitors have arrived in the hour I don't know.  Does the ferryman make an extra trip, or are some unlucky tourists told they'll have to content themselves with the delights of Orford?

The experience of buying the ferry tickets (half price to NT members) was just plain odd.  I thought it was peculiar when the woman behind the counter asked the two men ahead of us in the queue whether they were friends.  As opposed to what?  Complete strangers who had simply fallen to chatting in the (slow moving) queue?  Civil partners?  (I think she meant to ask whether they were travelling together and wished to be on the same ferry sailing).  They thought it was odd too, as they replied in puzzled voices that they were brothers.  You have to give the surname of someone in your party when you buy your ferry ticket, as your docket forms part of the National Trust system for ensuring that nobody is left behind on the Ness overnight, and the ticket lady then commented on their surname, and how there was somebody with that name in the village.

It got to our turn.  The Systems Administrator and I both put our membership cards down on the counter and asked for four tickets, two members and two not.  The ticket lady looked at our cards, and demanded to know how it was that Mr unusual-name and Mrs unusual-name had different renewal dates for their membership.  We were nonplussed, while one of our friends missed it because by that stage he had fled from the room.  What are you supposed to say?  The tickets are forgeries, but we are very careless.  We are brother and sister.  It's terribly romantic, we only got married last week and haven't got round to synchronising our memberships yet.  We have been married for nearly thirty years but can't be arsed to synchronise our memberships.  You should be grateful, the National Trust gets more money that way.

The Ness was looking as marvellous as I remembered it.  The day was hazy, the outline of the lighthouse slightly blurred seen from the river.  As our boat load of visitors began to fan out from the landing stage, a hare broke cover and ran briskly up the road away from us, before ducking back into the long grass.  Heading for the lighthouse, metalled road and waving grass with scrapes for water birds gave way to shingle scooped into long ridges topped with sea campion and lichen, and studded with lumps of concrete and shattered metal.  Much of the unexploded ordnance on the Ness has been cleared since the military stopped using it in 1987, but not all.  You are told to keep to the marked paths, and in truth I can't think many people feel the urge to stray.  The threat of unexploded bombs is of course a great way of protecting the rare shingle flora from the damage that tramping feet would do.

We took the red path, which led us past the lighthouse, now decommissioned and fated to fall into the North Sea in a few decades, and along the beach, then back via some of the bomb testing buildings.  Photography of derelict industrial buildings has become fashionable in the past few years, so much so that the term ruin porn has been coined for it (I hesitated a moment before googling to check that term, in case something very unsavoury came up, but it was all bona fide to do with photographing decayed buildings, at least on the first page).  It is faintly irritating when something you have always liked becomes trendy, but I've long had a soft spot for atmospheric industrial decay, and haunting reminders of the cold war.  The ruins on Orford Ness are extremely atmospheric.

Unfortunately signs began to appear on the walk back to the landing stage that all was not well with the SA, who had gone very quiet, and begun to pour quite alarmingly with sweat.  The retreat out of the sun into the shade of a pub did not do the trick, nor did the pint of chilled lager (not the SA's usual tipple), and after two mouthfuls of lunch the SA had to go and sit in the car with the air conditioning full on, to cool down.  I knew the SA was not good in hot weather, but have never seen things that bad.

The pub was rather chaotic.  A mystery electrical fault made the lights go out every few minutes, so half the staff were wandering about playing hunt the fault, and the stress had got to them.  The sweet girl behind the bar when we arrived had forgotten one of the specials, her young colleague charged me for a pint when serving me a half, and was then incapable of either calculating the right change, or correcting the till error, the hot food arrived before the cold and all of it arrived before the cutlery.  They were very nice about putting the SA's uneaten lunch in a little box (the ploughman's lunches were gratuitously enormous.  I ate as much of my cheese as I could, and wrapped the rest in my paper napkin as it seemed a waste to leave it.  I have just weighed it and it tips the scales at four and three quarter ounces).

The cool of the air con revived the SA to the point of being able to drive, which was just as well since none of the rest of us know how to drive the jaguar or are insured to do so.  Once safely home the SA sat in the shade and drank a great deal of water, and began to look much better.  The car thermometer peaked at thirty two degrees C on the way back.  So it was a mixed day out, good in parts, shame about the weather.  You don't reckon on being hit by incipient heatstroke on the Suffolk coast in September.