Friday, 28 February 2014


Last night I spent a thoroughly amusing evening listening to a lecture on bed bugs.  And rats, mice, flies and foxes.  It was the monthly meeting of the beekeepers, and one of our members agreed to share selected highlights of his thirty years working as a pest controller.

It was a virtuosic performance.  He spoke for three quarters of an hour, which the lecturer in child development when I was a student declared to be the maximum length for a lecture.  Any more than that and your audience's attention begins to flag.  He had no slides and no notes, simply stood at the front of the room in a village hall, weight slightly tipped on to the balls of his feet so that he looked alert, and told us stories.  Occasionally, to make sure that we were awake and paying attention, he threw questions out to the audience.  I have had much less fun in lectures by academics and professionals who were qualified to lecture, and did so for a living, rather than dealing with unwanted rodents for their day job.

The pest controller's definition of a pest was rather like a gardener's of a weed, that is a creature in the wrong place.  Mice in the hedgerow fine, mice in a food processing plant bad news.  With the added similarity that pests, like weeds, tend to reproduce rapidly and thrive in close proximity to humans.  I guess we all enjoyed hearing about them because people at some level generally enjoy the yuk factor, things which are disgusting but are not happening to us.  Plus most of us had suffered from pests of some sort, squirrels in the thatch if not bed bugs.

If you trap a squirrel you are legally obliged to kill it.  It is an offence to release it back into the wild, though you can trap and release mice, moles and foxes.  The pest controller did not tell us how to kill a squirrel humanely, though I know that drowning it in the water butt is inhumane and doing so is an offence.  I made a mental note not to trap any squirrels.  If you can work out how to kill your squirrel legally then it makes good eating, though difficult to skin.  You really don't want a squirrel in your loft, as it will strip the insulation off your wiring and dismantle your water tank for nesting material.

If you trap and release a mouse, it's no good taking it to the bottom of the garden, it will be back in the house before you are.  You need to take it at least two miles away.  He didn't say how far you had to take a fox.  A friend who is a wildfowler and knowledgeable about country ways disapproves of the the idea that relocating unwanted foxes is kinder than destroying them, having seen too many bewildered job lots of disoriented foxes wandering bemused with no idea of what to do in the countryside, after presumably being shipped out of town.  The pest controller once shot fourteen foxes in one night at an urban school, and four days later had to despatch another seven.  He blames human carelessness, leaving food waste lying accessible.

He sounded as though he really enjoyed being a pest controller.  It was not that he enjoyed killing things, far from it.  He tells people how to let animals escape, if that is what they are trying to do, like the ladybirds clustering in front of a window.  If someone insists the nuisance creatures must be poisoned instead of simply opening the window, he certainly enjoys charging his call out fee after he has opened the window, and whatever it is has flown out.  For every job requiring him to dismantle light switches to get at the bed bugs within, there are many more where he simply looks at a house or factory from a mouse or rat's eye view, and advises where the weak points are, that need stopping up so that they can't come in.

He didn't mention bees at all, until we got on to the Q&A.  Pest controllers do get called up on to kill colonies of wild honeybees, and bumbles, and although he always tried to persuade people to leave them be, he sometimes ended up destroying them.  Maybe he thought that would upset an audience of beekeepers, and he'd get a rough time.  He was called to one firm which had co-existed happily with a colony of feral bees they didn't know were there, until they uncovered them, at which point they became unhappy and insisted the bees had to go.  It was a big, strong colony, and the middle of a warm day when his client insisted he did the deed.  Having done as they asked, he took some pleasure in getting into his van and leaving sharply.  The foraging bees, of which there were many, were not at all pleased when they got back and found the entrance to their colony blocked (as you must do by law, to make sure robber bees don't later on take the poison back to their own hives). They were so cross, they made a complete nuisance of themselves for the rest of the day, and nobody could get to their cars.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

gravel gardening

I set an alarm this morning, so that I'd be up and about by the time the gravel came.  Admittedly I didn't know what time it was due to arrive, but any time from eight onwards seemed possible.  In fact my tactic of going and hanging around in the front garden once it stopped raining was quite pointless, since the first warning we had of the gravel's arrival was when the Systems Administrator took a call from an unknown mobile number, which was the driver asking where we were.

The brambles at the entrance had grown out more than I realised, and the gravel lorry could barely squeeze past.  Note to self to cut them back.  Fortunately the driver was a cheerful man who insisted he could get the lorry in if he just took a different line, and would be able to put the bags in the same place as I had them last time, which was the first point at which the gravel widened out enough for there to be room for traffic to get round with two bags of gravel parked there.  I have planted the area with spiky leaved things, and Zauschneria californica which revels in the extremely sharp drainage, and it is quite jolly in the summer.  At the moment most of the inhabitants are underground, and I had moved the sculpture that normally sits there safely out of harms way, to avoid any incidents with swinging dump bags.

I waited until the driver had reversed out (I do feel sorry for people who have to deliver things to our house, and most of them are so nice about it) and then inspected the bags.  The firm I use doesn't specify on their website which quarry their gravel comes from, they only give the size, and I had gone for ten millimetre as that's what we've always had in the past.  This delivery was such a perfect colour match for the existing gravel that it must also have come from the Birch quarry.  It wouldn't be surprising if it was from the same place, since I asked my original gravel merchant for the cheapest, back in the days when we were buying it by the truck load, and the cheapest is likely to be the closest.  There are all sorts of things to be said in favour of using local materials, some aesthetic, but stone is heavy stuff, and the smaller the distance it's transported, the better.

The bags looked enormous.  When I checked on the phone how large a dump bag was, to make sure I'd had one of those last time and not the next size down, the man on the phone corrected me when I asked if a bulk bag was about a metre in all directions, and said it was more like half that.  These looked fully a metre tall and wide to me, and I wondered if I'd ever have the time and energy to spread it all out, or if there would still be half a bag languishing by the entrance at the end of summer.  But I do have a lot of thin places to top up, and it was such a palaver getting the lorry in last time that I thought I'd spread the pain over more than one bag.

Ten shovelfuls to the wheelbarrow is my working rule, for pushing gravel around the garden, maybe less if I'm going off the drive and the soil is wet.  I expect that hearty young men on landscape jobs manage more, but I wish my back to still be functioning the next day.  By the end of the afternoon I'd made an appreciable dent in the first bag, and was starting to think that two bags were not too ambitious.  I'd started with a particularly fiddly job, and could have moved more if I'd just been shovelling the stuff out and not weeding as I went.

Refreshing the beach inspired part of the gravel is one of the most painstaking tasks of the gardening year.  The gravel is decorated with round pebbles, mostly collected from other parts of the garden when I'm weeding, and shells, so as well as pulling out the seedling grass, nameless vetch, odd bit of ragwort and other unwanted vegetation, and picking out fallen leaves, I have to make sure I don't bury the pebbles and shells as I go, which I do by picking them out of each area as I weed it and throwing them on to a nearby patch I've already done.  Then I apply generous shovelfuls of gravel between the patches of thrift, and move on to weed the next gap, depositing pebbles and shells on to the piece I've just done.  The sea holly and Crambe maritima are barely visible at this time of year, but there are seedlings of thrift and annual flowers, some of which I wish to keep.  The effect in late spring, when the thrift is flowering, along with Nigella damascena, yellow Asphodline lutea, the seakale and the blue spiny flowers of the Eryngium, is striking, but definitely not low maintenance.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

gardening at full clatter

We went and got mushroom compost.  The woman at our friendly local garden centre offered to tip an industrial bucket full of compost directly into the back of the truck using their tractor, to save us bagging it, or at least to fill the scoop for us so that we could bag it without bothering about the thirty litre measuring bucket, but after some deliberations the Systems Administrator opted for the usual bag-as-you-go method.  I was quite relieved not to be left with five hundred litres of wet manure in the back of the SA's flat bed, rotting its way through the floorboards every day I didn't manage to finish unloading it, and as the SA said, the compost needed to be in a bag of some sort for me to carry it into the beds.

After twenty bags the SA's back was beginning to give way, and the SA was worried about the loading on the truck.  In its young days it would have been filled with piles of sand or bricks and made nothing of it, but it is a very old truck.  Twenty bags is three hundred litres, give or take, and when I went to pay I found I had been promoted to the bulk rate, even though I hadn't technically bought a bulk load this time round.  As the woman in the garden centre said, I keep coming back.

After lunch we had another session with the pole mounted saw.  Tapping branches with a long bamboo isn't quite as easy as it sounds, since the other end of the cane keeps getting tangled up in things, but we managed to remove some dead branches from the trunk of the gean, and take some more overhanging ones out of the boundary hedge.  I don't think the dead branches in the gean were a sign of ill health, merely that as trees grow they naturally shade out their lower branches.  I wanted them off for aesthetic purposes, to give a clean trunk.  The view past the Buddha statue into the wood will be very nice, once we've worked out how to remove the fallen birch that's currently wedged itself across several other trees.

The pole mounted saw will not cut very thin or whippy branches.  They just bounce off, while threatening to unseat the cutting blade from the guide.  I promised the SA I'd clear out as much as I could by hand, then we could review the problem again.  The SA said we might need the Henchman, but it is getting very late in the season to be doing that, with bulbs and new foliage coming up all over the place.

By the end of the day I'd already used a third of the compost, and am within spitting distance of finishing mulching one end of the long bed, to the point where the mushroom compost will meet up with the home made stuff in the middle I applied in the winter, until it ran out.  I can see where the pots of Nectaroscordum siculum (I have to remember not to call it Allium siculum) in the greenhouse need to go, now that the ones already planted in the bed are through, so will plant those before applying the Strulch.  It's all charging along splendidly, if only I could have a whole dry week I'd get loads done.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

weather dependent

It was too windy to go on cutting the hedge with the pole mounted chain saw.  And it rained.  I was disappointed, since today was forecast to be nice as recently as yesterday.  Now tomorrow is supposed to be nice, but we'll see, it could be a case of jam tomorrow.  I am worried that there are not going to be enough days before the leaves flush on the trees and the birds start building their nests, when we are both here and the weather is suitable for pole mounted chainsaw work.  The Systems Administrator has come up with a plan for communicating which branches are to be cut, which is for me to equip myself with a very long bamboo cane and point to the ones I want reduced. Maybe if I tied a paintbrush to the end I could leave felling marks for the SA to follow, in case it is lovely chainsaw weather on either of the days next week when I'm going out for the day.

By late morning the showers had passed, and I went out and pruned some of the roses.  The roses at the top of the rose bank don't understand that they are meant to cascade down the bank, and want to grow out over the neighbouring border as well, and it was a fiddly job working out which were which, and reducing the ramblers while freeing the shrub roses they are threatening to overwhelm.  It would have been better to do this a month ago, before the foliage of the Camassia and Aconitum in that bed were so far advanced.

It started to rain again by half past four, and I gave up for the day, before I could tread on anything precious, or stab myself in the eye.  Since it was still office hours I ordered bulk supplies of mulch, which I'm going to need very soon, two bulk bags of washed gravel for the front garden, and fifty large bags of Strulch, which I calculate come to a slightly mind-boggling 7,500 litres.  It would be nice to spread the cost, but Strulch is far cheaper per unit bought in bulk, and the time to mulch is as soon as you've weeded, before the next crop of weeds can grow.  Gravel (I have said this before) does not prevent weeds germinating, in fact, it makes a marvellous seed bed, but it does make them much quicker and easier to pull out.  Strulch cuts down the quantity of annual weeds very considerably, and again, any that do come up are far easier to extract.  All I need to complete the set is to persuade the SA on the next nice day that a morning spent loading mushroom compost on to the truck does not preclude an afternoon session with the pole mounted saw.

Addendum  One of Jeremy Hardy's most disconcerting observations, though completely true, is that cats are all covered in dried spit.  I thought of this as I fastidiously wiped up the spots of dribble the big anxious tabby had left on my chair, sprayed it with Mr Muscle, and dried it.  I will happily let him lie in my lap, and stroke him, but don't want to sit directly in the dribble.  Human beings are irrational creatures.

Monday, 24 February 2014

first experiment with the pole mounted saw

This afternoon we finally got to have a session with the pole mounted chainsaw.  Afterwards the Systems Administrator pronounced it a handy bit of kit, but too heavy to use for very long at a time, despite being one of the lightest electric models available.

It is a two person job, because the one holding the saw can't judge how things look and which branches need to come off while standing directly underneath them.  I stood well clear, for a good view, and in case the SA accidentally allowed the cutting end to drop rapidly.  Trying to explain which branch you want taken off, and where the cut should be, when you and the person doing the cutting have entirely different viewpoints, is like an arboricultural version of one of those teamwork exercises, in which somebody describes an object while the others have to draw it.

We started on the higher branches overhanging the ditch bed, that I couldn't reach from the Henchman.  The aim was not to face up the trees around the boundary like shrubs in a supermarket car park, but to remove enough material to let more light into the borders, while keeping a natural, relaxed appearance, with some branches still allowed to overhang the ditch bed.  The Systems Administrator ended up removing what amounted to a surprisingly large pile of vegetation, when it was all collected up.  There is one chunky hazel branch that will have to come out at some stage, but was too high to reach without the platform, even with the pole saw, and we agreed that it would have to wait until next winter, since growth in the bed is too advanced to try and get the Henchman in there now.

In a fit of optimism I suggested that if the weather was decent before Christmas, and we were both fit and well, we could aim to do the next round of pruning before the New Year.  Well, I can dream, but in an ideal world we wouldn't be dropping lumps of hazel and willow on the borders when the snowdrops and hellebores are full out.

We looked at the next run of hedge, on the slope behind the bog bed, and I explained hopefully which branches I wanted reduced, and the general principle that the hedge needed to be fatter at the bottom than the top, instead of having a vase shaped profile as at present, with branches too high for me to reach from ground level growing out over the bed and casting shade.  The SA understood the concept, but was unwilling to cut anything without my being there, in case of misunderstandings, and said that in any case the next phase would have to wait until tomorrow.

The flowers of the Crocus tommasinianus in the bottom lawn were stretched wide open in the sunshine, looking very pretty in shades of purple and lilac.  They are much denser in some parts of the lawn than others, which leaves me wondering whether I have been uneven in planting them, or whether they are beginning to naturalise, multiplying where conditions are to their liking, and dying out in the bits of lawn that are too wet, or too shady, or with too rank grass, or otherwise not to their liking.  If you walk through woodland with truly wild bluebells, you will see how the leaves form dense cover in some places while being entirely absent in others, according to whether the local conditions are quite right for them.  It is a far more subtle effect than the block planting usually applied to roadside daffodils.

I was pleased to see in a dark corner a good clump of leaves and one breaking bud of Cardamine quinquefolia.  I planted one lonely specimen a couple of years ago, which I'm pretty sure I bought from the Chatto gardens.  It is one of those spring flowering woodlanders which disappears fairly soon after flowering, and I'd forgotten where I'd put it, and when I thought about it concluded it had probably died, so it was a nice surprise to discover it very much alive.  It is in a particularly dark and inhospitable corner, in the angle of the hedge and with large conifers on either side, so it would have had every excuse to die.  It is supposed to spread to form a large patch fairly quickly, but that might be asking a bit much, where I've put it.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

a cold day in the garden

A flock of female pheasants has taken up residence in the garden.  I wish they hadn't, since they eat the flowers of crocus and fritillaries, though not snowdrops, for some reason.  They were rootling in the far rose bed when I looked out of the bathroom window first thing this morning, but when I clapped my hands to scare them away they merely scuttled into the shelter of the rose bank.  Later on I startled them in the gravel, and they took to the air, but when I went upstairs to wash and change after gardening, there they were again in the back garden, processing down from the upper to the lower lawn.

It was not truly a very nice day for gardening.  It remained dry, after a brief spit of rain while I was having my breakfast, but grey and windy, and not the weather to experiment with the new pole mounted chainsaw, which had been the plan.  The Systems Administrator elected to stay indoors in the warm, and even the chickens didn't look overly keen on coming out.

I went on weeding the gravel, but only because I am miles behind with everything, and am fanatical about gardening.  The SA gave me a narrow trowel for Christmas, which I think the manufacturers intended for planting bulbs, since the blade is marked with inches to measure the depth of the hole, but turns out to be just the thing for extracting fennel roots.  I grow bronze fennel in the long bed, which is a handsome plant, much of its beauty being in the flowers and then the seed heads, but it does seed itself like crazy.  Having established a bridgehead in the middle of the turning circle a couple of years ago it is trying to colonise.

The narrow trowel was also good at grubbing unwanted seedlings out of the wider gaps between paving slabs, and with that and the hook-like tool we got at Chelsea specifically for that task, I made quite good progress with the paved area by the formal pond.  Give it a few more weeks and it will be time to get the cafe table and chairs out again.  They are going rather rusty, but it is a chic sort of rust.

The black cat came and sat with me briefly, then decided it was too cold and windy and retreated to his basket, and Our Ginger came outside after lunch, but didn't stay long.  The next time I saw them all three male cats were curled up in their baskets in the hall.  There is no fourth basket, but the fat indignant tabby doesn't use baskets anyway.  Instead she has a cardboard box, which is somewhat in the way just inside the front door, but neither of us dare move it.  I sometimes fall over it while she is in it, and have to apologise profusely.  One should not overstate the intelligence of cats, but I think they judge us by our intentions as well as our actions.  They can be remarkably forgiving when they get kicked or trodden by accident.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

led by chickens

I didn't originally intend to let the chickens out of their run this afternoon.  It was very pleasant, weeding and pruning in the sunshine, and I am so far behind with the garden that I selfishly wanted to get on with it without worrying about what the chickens were up to.  But by three o'clock their little faces looked so hopeful that I relented and let them out.  They looked very happy as they tumbled through the pop hole, and stopped outside their house to eat grass.  Then they came and joined me as I weeded the gravel in the turning circle, and for a while I thought they were going to flock nicely.

Alas, they have turned into an ill disciplined rabble during their winter confinement.  After half an hour of regarding me as a substitute rooster, and waiting for my fork to turn up tasty morsels, they suddenly took a fancy to go into the back garden.  I had to bundle up my tools and radio, scoop up my bins of waste, one destined for our compost heap and the other for the dump, and follow them. If a fox should have chosen this afternoon to stake out the garden, the fact that I was crawling around in the front garden would not in any way deter it from mounting a swift commando raid on a chicken in the back.  I have seen foxes take chickens, and they are quick.  They don't hang about, but gallop in, grab the bird and keep running.

It wasn't altogether a bad thing being led into the back garden, since I discovered that the dark pink flowers of Prunus mume 'Beni Chidori' had come out since the last time I looked at it.  The chickens seemed quite happy and busy foraging around the base of the cherry for all of half an hour, before upping sticks and disappearing back into the front garden.  I followed them, and tracked them down to the bed by the entrance, so settled down to pull up teazel stems and tease creeping sorrel out of the gravel.  There were a few seedlings of Morina longifolia, which pleased me, but I'd barely got settled to that task before the chickens were off again.

As the afternoon draws on they gradually converge on the hen house, and while I could only see three of them scuffling around in the dahlia bed outside my greenhouse, I was fairly confident that the other two were around somewhere.  This left me back in the turning circle where I started, pulling up seedling tufts of grass, creeping sorrel, and a wild vetch whose name I don't know, and fishing eleagnus leaves out of the gravel.  At about five o'clock the chickens went back into their run, and by half past I had to admit that I couldn't see what I was doing.

Friday, 21 February 2014

a night of high culture

We went into Colchester last night, for another trip to the theatre.  It has been a very cultural week, by our standards, and last night was downright highbrow, since we went to see Cheek by Jowl's performance of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.  All I knew about it was that it was a Jacobean tragedy, and that Cheek by Jowl were a tippety top company of international rather than regional standing.  The Systems Administrator actually studied the text at school (the SA's Eng. Lit. syllabus sounds much more exciting than mine, we got Romeo and Juliet, a very clunkily constructed play, and Great ruddy Expectations).

Last night was the second ever of the current tour.  I say current, because the production was previously staged a couple of years ago.  You can work out where by looking at the trail of 2012 reviews on the web.  I purposely didn't look up anything until afterwards, for fear of plot spoilers, though given that I've seen The White Devils and The Duchess of Malfi I was expecting gore, and no happy ending.  This time round, after Colchester they are going to Taipei, then the Barbican, Cambridge, Oxford, Southampton, Bath, Amsterdam and The Hague.

I loved it.  I was utterly gripped from the moment the lights went down, came up again, and the full cast came dancing on to the stage.  It is a very physical production.  Even when they are not party to events, many of the actors remain in view a lot of the time, sitting around the edges of the stage, or gathered around the characters who are speaking like the crowd in a Renaissance painting of a biblical scene.  There are long gaps in the dialogue, when characters who believe they are unseen mess around, while other characters observe them.  There is lots of music, dancing, play fighting and pretend real fighting.  Indeed, by the end the SA felt sorry for the lead actress, whose knees had gone quite pink after spending a large part of two hours being thrown around the stage in her knickers.  It was all a far cry from the reverential and deeply dull tripping iambic pentameters of my school days, it-is-the-east-and-Juliet-is-the-sun etc etc.

So it was wonderful.  The actors in their modern suits made the circa 1630 language sound completely natural, and there was enough physical acting going on to make sure that we got the gist of it, even if occasionally struggling to keep up with the archaic speech done at full production speed.  Some of the 2012 reviews said there was a bit too much dancing and prancing, but I liked it all.  I shall be disappointed if the national reviews don't heap praise on it this time round.  If they don't I shall have to conclude that I am a simple, provincial, middlebrow creature who is easily pleased.

It runs for an hour and fifty-five minutes with no interval, so if you're thinking of catching it at the Barbican (or indeed Oxford, or Taipei) then don't drink too much coffee first, or anything that's likely to irritate your bladder.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

the administration game

Sometimes you have to stop putting something off, and get on and do it.  Today it was raining, I'd busked my way through one beekeepers' committee meeting armed with nothing more than a bank statement, and had an email in my inbox from the new membership secretary asking me to confirm a quite long list of names of people who hadn't paid yet.  It was time to start the accounts.

2014 will be the third time I've done them.  Compared to the first year, when I happily entered all the data in spreadsheets of my own devising based on the previous year's accounts, and only looked at the guidance on the format required by the County Treasurer afterwards, I've got a far clearer idea of what totals and subtotals I want to drop out of the spreadsheet at the end of December. And to guard against data input errors, when something gets typed as five pounds on one sheet and seven on another, so that I spend hours going round in circles trying to work out why the totals don't match up and where the discrepancy has come from, I have pretty much arrived at a layout where each figure is input once and once only, and all totals including that figure are calculated by Excel, and copied where needed from one sheet to another.  And I've learned never to leave odd figures unallocated, just because they are small, with the intention of coming back to them later.  If I don't know how to classify a stray deposit or expense in February, it is going to make even less sense in eleven months' time, when I come to do the final accounts.

Allocating subscription income is not conceptually difficult, but fiddly, because compared to a stand-alone society where your subscription entitles you to membership for the year, end of story, the beekeepers are a Division of a County Association, which is in turn part of a National Association. Every subscription thus breaks down like Gaul into three parts, plus a standard fee for bee disease insurance which the Division passes on to a third party insurance provider.  Members with more than three colonies of bees need to pay an additional insurance premium, then everyone has the option to donate to divisional funds, a county level educational fund, and bee research.  My aim is to ensure that the sum of all these parts is exactly equal to the amount paid into the bank, and to get that right now, so that I am not left hunting the difference in early January 2015, with the AGM looming.

The membership secretary has a far more onerous job, because she has to chase the 2013 members who still haven't renewed, to discover whether they really want their membership to lapse, or have simply not got round to renewing it.  Since insurance cover lapses along with the membership, giving up membership can have real world implications in a way that failing to renew your garden society or art club membership (until you see details of a meeting you want to attend and decide to join after all) doesn't.  Which said, if it was up to me I'd issue a couple of clear warnings to past members, that if they don't contact us by a given date their membership will cease and they will not be insured, and leave them to it.  No other organisation I have ever belonged to goes to as much trouble to follow up on non-renewing members as the beekeepers seem to.  We are fairly sure that some of them delay renewing deliberately, until they see whether their bees have survived the winter.

Hunting through my inbox for messages that might help me clarify a couple of queries brought up by the new membership secretary led me by degrees to having a long session clearing that out as well. I'm reasonably good at chucking out Amazon order confirmations and shipping notifications, once the parcel has arrived, and not bad at junking monthly newsletters, but don't seem to have dared erase or bothered to file most of the messages received in 2013 concerning either the beekeepers or the music society.  And there were a lot of them.  Mostly with attachments, which is probably one reason why I was so slow to deal with them, since opening all the attachments would be a bore, but I didn't want to chuck anything I should have kept.  However, nobody needs the agenda for six committee meetings back, or draft concert schedules that were superseded months ago, or even polite messages thanking them for meringues and nibbles, and I decided that since the 2013 beekeepers' accounts were now done and audited, I must have hard copies of all invoices on file, and didn't need to keep invoices or membership queries relating to the prior year in my inbox.

It took ages.  There again, my desk is generally heaped with stuff waiting to be read, filed or thrown out, so there's no reason to think I'd be any tidier in the digital world.  It was actually rather lucky I went through them, since I found confirmation of a woodland charity talk I'd agreed to do and not written in my 2014 diary.  That was a shock, because despite the messy desk I have never double booked myself or missed a talk in ten years.  Looking at the dates, I think it was confirmed just as the great storm of last year hit, so I may have had other things on my mind.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

green waste, brown bin

My ears pricked up when I saw on the East Anglian Daily Times website that Tendring District Council had voted to introduce a brown bin scheme for garden waste.  The round trip to the dump (sorry, recycling centre) takes around eighteen minutes each way, more if I'm caught by the lights at the railway crossing, and it would be a useful saving of time and petrol if the council would come and take my rubbish away for me.

On reading the article I discovered that the service would not be free.  Householders who wanted their garden waste collected would sign up at an annual cost of fifty pounds, and pay twenty-five pounds for the bin.  A council spokesman was quoted as saying that at a pound a week it represented good value.  Since it sounded as though collections would be fortnightly rather than weekly, I preferred to think of it as two pounds per bin load of waste removed.  Which left me wondering how big the bins would be.

The Babergh District blue and black bins at my former place of work were enormous.  I wouldn't grudge paying two pounds to have one of those emptied, since it would hold quite a lot of old compost bags worth of weeds, especially if I left them to wilt and shrink in the bags for a couple of weeks before binning them.  However, since a bin that large full of weeds, maybe with some soil attached, would be difficult to manoeuvre, and certainly too heavy to lift, I didn't think the new council bins would be that large.  Paying fifty pounds a year to have less than half a car's worth of green waste removed once a fortnight scarcely seemed worth it, especially since I sometimes combine my run to the tip with a trip to the garden centre, or go first thing on a frosty morning when I can't do anything else outside.

The scheme is going to be trialled in Clacton first, so the obvious solution is to keep an eye out, and have a look at someone else's bin for size.  Or indeed whether more than one bin will be allowed.  The EADT did not explain what is going to stop people from simply nicking other people's bins, given that they are going to cost twenty-five quid a pop.

Addendum  The green solution would be to get an old bath or similar, and drown all the couch grass, horsetail, sorrel roots and the rest of it for several weeks until they were well and truly dead, then add them to the compost heap at home.  I'm not sure I can face doing that, what with the smell, and wet legs shovelling the drowned weeds from bath to bin, not to mention the risk of a cat drowning too.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

support live music

We went last night to the Colchester Arts Centre, to hear folk duo Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman.  I first came across Kathryn Roberts nearly twenty years ago, when as a very young woman she recorded an excellent album with Kate Rusby.  You might have heard of Kate Rusby, who released a decent cover version of the Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society, used as the theme tune of the BBC's Jam and Jerusalem, and has in the past been nominated for the Mercury Prize. You have probably not heard of Kathryn Roberts, unless you are a dyed-in-the-wool, hardcore folkie.

Sean Lakeman is the oldest of three musical brothers.  You are more likely to have heard of the youngest, Seth, another Mercury Prize nominee and smouldering sex symbol from Dartmoor.  He took the 2007 BBC folk awards for best singer and best album, but in 2013 it was the turn of his older brother and sister-in-law, with best duo.  That wasn't why we went to see them.  They were due to visit Colchester years ago, and had to cry off due to illness, and we were planning to go then.

It was a good gig.  They played a mixture of their own material, other recently written songs, and traditional numbers.  They did them well, with a real feel for the music, and a nice line in stage patter.  Their own songs were pretty good, especially one about a love affair gone wrong, which told the complete story in three verses, with a nice twist of the refrain at the end.  I love economy in a song, rather than taking seven or eight verses and maundering about repeating yourself to describe something that could have been got down in half the length.

Kathryn Roberts sings, and plays keyboard, clarinet and flute.  She has a great voice.  The quality of female vocalists on the folk circuit at the moment is mixed, with some of the younger generation going for a breathy, naive style which might be meant to convey authenticity, but to me suggests lack of technique.  June Tabor is wonderful, as is Linda Thompson when she's singing, and the excellent Julie Murphy, sometime of Fernhill, follows in their footsteps, as does Niamh Dunne of the young Irish band Beoga.  Kathryn Roberts is up there with them.  She has a strong, deep, supple voice, one which I guess would train up to quite a big mezzo, if she were classically trained.  And she is funny, charming, and sexy.

Sean Lakeman plays the guitar, and doesn't sing at all, not even a tiny bit of backing vocals.  He is a very, very good guitar player.  I couldn't tell you exactly what he was doing, because I only ever learned just enough guitar to understand that I was never going to be the faintest use as a guitarist.  So I stopped.  The Systems Administrator said that it was good, heavy blues guitar, and that the pair of them ought to do more overtly American music from the south, they had the sound for it.  Perhaps they will.

So we went home in a thoroughly good mood, after a good gig.  I don't think the SA was overly enamoured of going, before we went, and came out mainly to humour me, so it was nice that we enjoyed ourselves, and a reward for other evenings spent sitting through things we found we didn't like very much, but had tried in a spirit of enquiry.  It can be a lucky dip, supporting live music.

Monday, 17 February 2014

sowing seeds

Suddenly the air has a softer, spring-like feel.  It was very pleasant out in the greenhouse, listening to the radio while sowing seeds.  After a break from raising any ornamentals from seed last year, while I tried to catch up with myself, this year I ordered what was meant to be a sensible number of packets from Chiltern Seeds and Plant World.  However, add in the free seeds that came with magazines in the past year and are still in date, and I have a formidable number of varieties to deal with.

Chiltern Seeds package their product in small, plain white envelopes.  Occasionally one will carry a brief message about cultivation, either warning you that These seeds have been removed from cold store and should be sown as soon as received, or else advice on stratification.  Most of the time you are on your own as to what to do with them.  I've got them mostly in a large propagating case at ambient temperature, which is the level reached by an unheated greenhouse boosted by the thermal gain of an additional plastic case.  I had doubts about the large seeds of the Leopard Lily, Belamcanda chinensis, since some looked as though they had started to sprout in the packet, while others were shrivelled.  Maybe some are still good, but I wondered if they should have been sown as soon as ripe.  Large seeds tend not to keep so well as tiny ones like foxgloves and annual poppies, which can remain viable for decades.  Still, I read the other day about some sixty year old tomato seeds which were said to have germinated.

Plant World put a colour picture and some information on their packets, though the advice is quite generic, with some advice about whether heat or cold stratification is needed, but nothing too precise about the number of days before you can expert germination.  Thompson and Morgan tend to give detailed information on germination temperatures and timing.  Then there was a packet of Eryngium that came free with Gardens Illustrated, and some varieties I saved myself last year.  I didn't know off the top of my head what the Alcea cannabina I bought last year at Beth Chatto would like, so guessed room temperature, until I read something to the contrary.

The pots look very hopeful, tucked up under their plastic roofs, but experience has told me not to get too excited yet.  I might have got a dud lot of compost, which is a depressing thought, but compost varies wildly from year to year even for the same brand, as the manufacturers alter the recipe according to price and availability of ingredients.  I have had plants sit and do absolutely nothing for ages, which suddenly romped away when they were repotted.  A Hoya, given to me as a barely rooted cutting, scarcely made any more roots in two years, and appeared constantly on the verge of death.  In despair I moved it into a fresh pot, trying not to break off the few roots it had, and it increased ten-fold in size within months.  An anemone I had from the normally reliable Avon Bulbs was equally reluctant to grow, putting out the odd leaf which promptly died, until given a different growing medium more to its liking.

Mould might strike and ruin everything.  I washed the pots, washed the labels, used a freshly opened bag of new compost, washed the propagating cases and lids, but you never know.  The air is full of spores, ready to land on my pots of seeds and cause carnage.  Sometimes doom can be introduced via the seeds themselves, if the seed case is infected.  I have had pots in the past where a thick white growth of fungus appeared around every seed within days.

Even if they germinate, a hot day could spell disaster.  The greenhouse is quite well provided with opening windows, but it can be tricky keeping the temperature inside down on a really sunny day, especially if I'm not here to damp the floor down at lunchtime, or the amount of sunlight ramps up on a day when I'm out and haven't left all the windows open.  I'll apply shading paint in a month or so, which helps, but a three inch pot of compost can dry out extremely quickly.

Or pests could find their way to the seedlings before they are big enough to make more than a single mouthful  for a slug or snail.  I've scattered a few slug pellets into each case, to act as decoys, but that might not be enough.  I spent part of the afternoon emptying out the remains of most of the species tulip and fritillary bulbs I potted up last autumn, a sad reminder that a few determined pests can wreck most gardening projects before they have fairly got going.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

in the greenhouse

At last, a day when it was not raining and howling with wind.  When the sun shone, and the breeze had a balmy quality carrying intimations of spring.  When the bees ventured out of their hives, to forage on the hellebores and the remains of the Chaenomeles under the kitchen window (half of it had to be chopped down to give access to the drains, alas).  A nice day.

Let us not try to run before we can walk.  The ground is still absolutely saturated.  Streams of water are running off the fields and across the roads.  The Systems Administrator went for a walk around the farm after lunch, just to get some exercise and enjoy the fresh air, and returned reporting that the footpaths were still every bit as impassable as they were a couple of days ago.  They would be, and will be bad for a while yet.  Still, it is wonderful to get out of the house without being blown into a fluster, and to work outside with no risk of being caught out in a sudden, vicious shower.

It seemed a good day to start sorting out the greenhouse.  I have packets of seed waiting to be sown, a job I normally start around the eighth of the month, and occupying myself usefully in the greenhouse would keep my trampling feet off the borders.  Cleaning out dead leaves and anything infected with mould, finding space on the bench for the propagating cases and washing them, pulling out any weeds and watering anything dry, before getting to the point where I could actually start sowing, were all sensible jobs for a wet soil day, if not wet weather.

I went to the Clacton garden centre to buy fresh seed compost.  Some years I've just used multipurpose, and still would, for big, vigorous seeds like broad beans, but there are some species whose seedlings do not like too many nutrients in the compost when they first germinate, and multipurpose can be too coarse for tiny seeds, if they should land on a great chip of not-quite composted bark.  A trip to Clacton combines usefully with a visit to the tip (sorry, household recycling centre) anyway.

Cheshunt compound has been withdrawn.  I was afraid it had been.  It had been around for donkey's years, bright blue, acrid smelling copper based crystals you dissolved and used to water the seed compost and seeds.  It helped combat the fungal diseases that cause damping off, when your pot of seedlings suddenly collapse.  Copper has been used as a fungicide since the days of phytophera destroying vinyards, and I don't know whether Cheshunt was actually deemed hazardous, or simply an old-fashioned product that the manufacturers didn't deem worthwhile to put through the current approval and registration process for garden chemicals.  After some deliberation I bought an alternative, recently introduced copper based fungicide, which was labelled as suitable for seedlings as well as more mature plants, but since it was packaged in sachets each of which would make three litres of spray, which was not suitable for keeping but had to be used at once, and since I don't need anything like three litres at a time for sowing a few dozen nine centimetre pots of seeds, and don't have a sprayer, I'm not entirely sure how I'll use it.  I got shading paint as well while I was at it, to avoid being caught out in a month or two, when the first hot day threatens to fry any seedlings in the greenhouse.

I did not have much success splitting primroses, in the end.  P. 'Wanda' and the pink form of the common primrose mostly had their roots eaten by vine weevil grubs, and as I suspected, P. poissonii did not like being split at all.  I found no roots in any of the pots, and no weevils either, which makes me think there were never any roots to be eaten.  On the other hand, my botrytis infected Teucrium chamaedrys cuttings had healthy roots below compost level, and looks as though they may sprout again.  Established plants run in the border, and I think it is able to shoot from below ground level.

I never got to the point of making any sowings, by the time I'd pulled dead leaves off the geraniums, investigated various pots of bulbs, moved as many of the rooted Peter Beales iris offer irises out to the cold frame as would fit, and generally fiddled about and titivated.  The first large propagating case is washed and dried, so I should be able to make a start tomorrow.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

baby angst

My cousin and his wife have just had their first baby.  A girl called Jessica.  I mostly see my cousin at major family events.  He is a nice chap, but he is half a generation younger than I am, busy with his career (he is an accountant), and lives a longish and tedious drive away.  So far as I know he is not especially interested in gardening, let alone beekeeping, does not have any pets, and spends his holidays in exotic foreign places rather than visiting museums around Stoke on Trent.  Families are like that.  You get the neat and tidy Home Counties branch, and the wild and woolly Bohemian side.

However, I wish him and his wife well on the birth of their daughter, who stands in the same relationship to me as I do to my father's cousin.  I wanted to send them a card, but on looking in the box of cards I keep for thank you notes, last minute birthdays and so on, decided that a stock William Morris design would not really hack it for the birth of a baby.  The least I could do was go and buy something appropriate for the occasion, that would look as though I'd made an effort.

I went to Tesco.  Maybe that was not making enough of an effort, but I needed to go to Tesco to collect some dry cleaning from the in-store Timpson.  I feel safe using Timpson, on the grounds that it is a well-established national chain.  I have been suspicious of small independent dry cleaners, probably unfairly so, since one round the corner from the office that I entrusted an especially favourite suit to for cleaning and to have the skirt re-lined managed to lose it, and soon after went out of business.  I feel that Timpson will be there tomorrow and the day after, and I like their vibe. The founder's wife has fostered dozens of children, notwithstanding the fact that the family business makes her a multi-millionaire, and their Tesco shop-in-shop has adverts for fostering and adoption, and a notice saying that all employees get their birthday as a holiday.  I don't know when else the chap who works in the Tesco branch takes off, as he always seems to be there not matter what day of the week I go.  He is a chatty bloke, and told me that demand for resoling is up forty per cent year on year, as the rain has made people notice that their shoes are leaking.  Plus last year's figures were depressed by the snow.

I digress.  There are racks of cards in Tesco for almost every conceivable occasion.  Minority religions seem under-represented, or at least I didn't notice any cards saying Happy Bar Mitzvah or Eid greetings, but all other bases seem to be covered.  Valentine's Day, obviously, at this time of the year.  Birthdays, by age and relationship.  Moving house.  Moving job.  In Deepest Sympathy. Get Well Soon.  Thank You.  Good Luck with Your Exams.  Well done on passing your Driving Test. Christenings.  And Births.

Turns out that births are colour coded.  Pink for a girl, blue for a boy.  Facebook may now have fifty shades of gender, but Tesco has just two.  I realised that I could not buy a pink card for Jessica. OK, the possession of XX chromosomes determines that we are going to develop female primary and secondary sex characteristics as we grow up, we are statistically likely to be shorter and lighter and have less upper body strength and a higher pitched voice than the average holder of XY chromosomes.  But it doesn't mean we need to be channelled into the role of little pink princesses from birth.  Jessica might want to be a pink princess when she grows up, that's up to her, but she might want to be a nuclear physicist, or an accountant.  Or Prime Minister, or Director General of the BBC, or the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Marks and Spencer have just announced gender neutral toy packaging for children, a tiny step in the right direction, but there is still a mountain to climb. Tesco are not helping.

It was very difficult to find a suitable gender neutral card.  There weren't many left blank for your own message, for starters, and half of those were views of National Trust gardens, which were perfectly nice but had as little to do with the birth of a baby as the William Morris wallpaper cards I'd already rejected.  That left a choice between a kitten on a lime green background dressed in a sweater, and a puppy reclining in a miniature deckchair.  Eventually I found a black and white photo of a teddy bear, which was at least child themed and sexless.  All I need to do now is remember to post it.

Friday, 14 February 2014

happy valentine's

It is Valentine's Day.  For weeks the lifestyle pages of the broadsheet websites, and even the front pages, have been full of articles on What to Get Her for Valentine's Day, What Not to Get Her for Valentine's Day, Why I Hate Valentine's Day, Ten Romantic Places to Go on Valentine's Day, My Most Awful Valentine's Day Experience.  And so on and so on.  Even the most unlikely retailers climb on the bandwagon, so I have with my own eyes seen an optician's window display of spectacle frames decked with red silk roses and heart shaped balloons.  I'm not sure myself that new glasses are the best present to get for the object of your affections, though not so bad as vouchers for Botox.

Back in the real world, the people I know don't seem to make much of it.  The Systems Administrator and I have never celebrated the date at all, for the sad and simple reason that the SA's father died on 14th February, a couple of years before we got together.  Valentine's Day was a date for the SA to remember, but not in the way the armies of journalists scrabbling around for something to write about would have us do.  And if you don't go in for the whole commercial, hearts and flowers thing when you're young and in the first flush of love, you are unlikely to take it up three decades later.

I last received a Valentine's Day card in my second year at university, when I had two, one from someone I subsequently briefly went out with, and one from a friend who had sent cards to all of his female circle.  The amusement of having a secret admirer faded rather quickly as we each saw identical cards in other people's rooms all around the college, but it was a kind thought.  Over the years I have once given the SA a card with an arty photograph, and once a red balloon, but the idea never really caught on, and nowadays I worry that it is a waste of a valuable finite resource using helium to fill up balloons.

As it happens we are going out tonight, to a lecture about Gainsborough.  It was originally scheduled for last Friday, but was moved to fit in with the lecturer's other (more prestigious and better paid) commitments.  We have been asked to supper afterwards, and the organiser commented that we would all be at the lecture on Valentine's Day, and that is the only time I have heard an actual live person mention it at all.  Nobody seemed to mind spending February 14th going to a lecture in the village hall, followed by nibbles and a late supper.

I gave miniature choux buns a go this afternoon, as my contribution to the nibbles, but they didn't work.  I haven't made choux pastry for well over thirty years, and was worried as I mixed the dough that although I'd followed the instructions in the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book as accurately as I could, and not added all the egg, the result still looked sloppy.  So it proved.  They spread out too far, not so much little puff balls I could fill with a savoury mixture of cream cheese and anchovy paste, as vaguely three dimensional pancakes.  They tasted quite nice, when I ate a couple to test them, but were not fit to serve as nibbles.  I'd bought a packet of water biscuits as a reserve, in case the pastry didn't work, and will look on it as a sighting shot.  As well as learning about how stiff the dough needs to be, I have discovered something about the cooking time and where in the oven I should place the baking sheet, which is handy given that the book says to give between fifteen and twenty minutes, but warns strictly not to open the door before the buns are done.

I am not the hugest fan of Delia Smith, being more of a Claudia Roden, Jane Grigson follower (once things get more exotic than Good Housekeeping, which is the single most useful and reliable cookery book we own*), but I am right with Delia when she says that you must allow for failures when learning to cook, and not stigmatise it as Wasting Food.  People accept that we learn to drive by paying someone to teach us, and driving around on pointless journeys while we get the hang of it, but won't accept that it's OK to use up two ounces of butter and some flour in the course of practice, without getting anything edible at the end of it.

*Waitrose's Food Illsutrated voted Simon Hopkinson's roast chicken and other stories as the most useful cookbook of all time, but the people who took part in that poll were either deluded, pretentious, or had forgotten what it is like not to know how to cook.  A book with seven recipes for aubergines and five for brains, which does not tell you how to calculate safe cooking times for a pork joint, how long it takes to bake a potato, or how to make shortcrust pastry, or soft boil an egg, is not the most useful cookery book you own.  Amusing, yes, but not the most useful.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

hanging on by a digital thread

We have lost our emergency back-up 3 Mobile wireless coverage.  The Systems Administrator has two dongles, a new one with a battery life of several days, bought for Cheltenham jaunts, and an old one, which at my suggestion the SA loaded with a tenner's worth of data and left with me while the SA was at Cheltenham, in case of problems with the BT line or modem.  There is definitely something wrong with the modem, and the SA has got a replacement, but hasn't yet found the right time to grapple with the task of installing it.  The line is always erratic, especially in a wild winter, living as we do towards the furthest end of a very long copper wire that snakes its way merrily across the rural landscape of the Tendring peninsular, dotted with trees all poised to fall on it, or at least rest on it a little.

The BT connection would not connect when I got in from my music society committee meeting last night, and the SA tried the old dongle, muttered that perhaps it was out of credit, and found the new one no better.  They were both still out this morning, and the SA even took one on a walk this afternoon, to see if it was a purely localised problem, but it wasn't.  It sounds from the 3 Mobile website as though the mast covering our area might have been on top of one of the towers of Mordor on the university campus, and blown off in the recent wind.  That means that in the short term there is only BT between cardunculus and internet silence.  It doesn't leave much of a margin for error.

It is so easy to assume that in the digital age of total connectedness, that anyone who doesn't respond almost instantly to our approaches is ignoring us.  I found a message on the answering machine the other day, from a retired beekeeper offering a couple of his old books to the divisional library.  It was a long and plaintive message, from which I gathered he had initially offered them to the County librarian, but he had emailed her TWICE and not received a repy.  Implication being that she was deliberately snubbing his kind offer.  By the time I caught up with him, he had heard back from the County librarian, and discovered why she had not replied earlier to his messages, which was that she had been out in Africa working on a beekeeping based economic development project. Nothing to do with not wanting his books at all, in fact, she was very pleased to get them.

As it wasn't raining I went and bought some mushroom compost, just a boot load, and finished weeding and mulching around the hellebores by the oil tank, so that I could put the picket fence back up.  I pruned some branches hard back on the cut leaved elder while I was in there, to encourage it to keep renewing itself from low down.  The hellebores, and indeed the fence, look quite smart, and I was pleased to have finished tidying the bed in time to enjoy the flowers.  I'm afraid that after that I gave up.  Although the sun was out the wind was biting.  The SA had to give up on the walk as well.  The fields are so wet, the footpaths are incredibly muddy, so that the walker risks a lost boot, or a spine jarring slip and tumble into the filth with every step.  It didn't help that one of the SA's wellington boots has sprung a leak.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

dial M for murder

The Systems Administrator asked whether I'd blogged yet, and when I said I hadn't suggested that it might be a good idea, before the power went off.  In truth we are not getting it so badly on this side of the country as they are in the West.  A hurricane warning for sea area Lundy is ridiculous. I've heard the odd forecast of Force 12 in Biscay over the years, but not for the Bristol Channel.

We went to the theatre last night, to see Dial M for Murder at Colchester's Mercury Theatre.  It was something of a milestone in our joint recuperation, as it was the first time we'd been out together since before the New Year.  We'd each managed to rally separately for various commitments, but colds put paid to our last planned trio to the Arts Centre, and the SA ended up missing the party in Dedham.

Dial M for Murder was very well done.  Neither of us had seen the Hitchcock film, miraculously (actually there was nothing miraculous about it.  If we had seen the film we wouldn't have bothered to get tickets for the stage version).  It started life as a play, before being adapted for the big screen, and is well constructed, with a rigorously tight plot.  Ludicrous, but tight.  It would be a shame to give any sort of plot spoiler, but as the pace of the action increases in the final third, all the clues do fit together.  I went through it carefully in my head afterwards on the way home, and the sequence and location of the key events and objects did flow absolutely consistently, with no awkward fudges.  I like that in a drama.  It is annoying to have been swept up at the time, only to realise afterwards that you don't see why so-and-so did something, or how the whatever-it-was ended up in the thingummy.

It is an economical play to stage, with only one set and five actors.  That bodes well for these straightened times, and well executed economy of effort is generally more fun to watch than sloppy excess.  After a slightly halting start, the Mercury production cranked up the tension to an interesting level, and continued to raise it for the rest of the evening, without climaxing too soon and having nothing left for the big reveal.  We both enjoyed it very much.

The auditorium was almost full, which must have been without the benefit of any school parties, since I can't believe that Frederick Knott's 1950s three act classic West End thriller is on the A level syllabus.  I am afraid we are a very Radio 4 audience, middlebrow lot in Colchester.  The Mercury had a new Artistic Director last season, and there have been changes, the familiar faces of the Mercury company being disbanded for a start.  I would like to support the Mercury, since I enjoy theatre, and it is conveniently local (and has very comfortable seats), but we have struggled to find that much from the last couple of brochures that we wanted to see, and weren't overly taken with the Ayckbourn we did go to last year.  Last night's entertainment was a welcome return to form, from our point of view.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

if wishes were horses

I am running out of things to do in the house.  There are still things that need doing.  Yesterday I cleaned the bathroom, and I could follow that with cleaning the kitchen, and the downstairs cloakroom.  I could vacuum, or do the small pile of ironing that's built up since I did every last scrap of ironing, and sorted out two drawers of t-shirts into neat, rational piles (best Boden, old and somewhat worn Boden, posh pima cotton, ancient but still incredibly comfortable pima cotton for winter layers, short sleeved, sleeveless).  I could finish the biography of Sir Edward Grey (funny chap, the author keeps telling us how honest, upright and transparent he was, yet he fathered a series of unacknowledged illegitimate children, and had a long-standing affair with the wife of one of his friends).  When I finish that, there's the whole of Gibbon's Decline and Fall to be getting on with, or Moby Dick.

The trouble is, I don't want to read, or watch TV, or wash floors, or wipe the Aga, or even start the beekeepers' accounts, which I am going to have to do at some stage fairly soon.  I don't want to go for a walk by the coast and watch the short, grey, restless waves of the southern North Sea or the lower reaches of the Thames estuary.  I have no wish to tramp across the fields, the sodden and barely passable mud sticking to my boots with every step.  I don't even want to go round an art gallery.  I want to go outside and get on with the garden.  And the ground is very, very wet, and the wind is blowing a stiff breeze.

Treading on wet ground ruins its structure, especially on a clay soil.  I want to finish pruning the roses, the David Austin ones I haven't touched yet, the 'Paul's Himalayan Musk' which I took masses out of before Christmas, to try and open up the steps to the lower lawn, and clearly need to take as much off again, the tough yellow flowered climber that's hanging out over a grass path, and which I left until now for its hips.  But I don't want to walk on the rose bed, or be smacked in the face by the wind catching the long tentacles of 'Paul's Himalayan Musk'.

I want to get on with weeding the beds, and go with the Systems Administrator to collect a truck load of spent mushroom compost, and spread the compost, and order up a pallet of Strulch.  Except that I shouldn't walk on the saturated ground, and my trousers would become soaked and caked in mud within minutes when I knelt down, as would my cuffs, and great gobbets of earth would come up with every root, while every shrub I brushed up against would dump a load of water down my back.  And the thought of shovelling up two dozen bags of saturated manure and straw and heaving it on to the back of a truck isn't delightful either.

I should like to have a go at clearing the vegetable patch, finally, apart from the fact that I never managed to prune the grape vines round the edge when it was the right time, and now I suppose I can't until the leaves are out and the flow of sap has abated.  The last remains of the great compost heap like a neolithic barrow, which was superseded by the theoretically weed-free series of bins, is destined for the vegetable beds, but I don't want to have to push it a wheelbarrow at a time while it is soaking wet.

The boundary hedge needs cutting in the next month, before the birds can start nesting.  We have invested in a new electric pole saw for this purpose, a Ryobi which reviewed well on Amazon and which other users said was not too heavy as long as you wanted it for light garden use rather than hammering away all day on a commercial woodland scale, but the ground is too wet and slippery to walk on, and the wind is thrashing the branches about too much to cut them.

I could start sowing seeds in the greenhouse, but that would be a so much more relaxing job on a relatively calm day when the whole structure was not rattling fit to bust, and I would be more confident about the health of any seedlings which germinated if it were not so constantly damp.  I want them to emerge into the buoyant and encouraging air of spring, not a botrytis soup.

It could of course be much worse, and I must be grateful that we are not flooded here.  But it would be so nice if it could just stop raining, and blowing, and simply be average.  Boringly average.  Bit of rain, bit of sun, a few overnight frosts, nothing too severe, some calm days.  Just dull normal stuff, instead of the wettest/coldest (delete as appropriate) winter for the past fifty years/century/since records began (ditto).

Monday, 10 February 2014

cabin fever

It's not raining!  Oh, it's started to rain.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's still raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining. It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.

It's raining a bit less.  Oh, no, it's raining again.  Raining.  Raining.  Raining.  Raining.  Raining. Raining.  Still raining.  Raining.  Raining.  Raining.  Still raining.  Raining.  Raining.  Raining. More rain.  Rain.  Rain.  Rain.  Rain.  Rain.  Rain.  Rain.  Rain.

It's stopped!  The ground is really squelchy.  Each step sinks into the ground.  In the meadow.  The meadow is on such light soil you could put it in dump bags and sell it as sand.  Someone nearly did, two fields away.  The wood is so wet you cannot walk in it.

It's started raining again.  The puddle in the drive has filled up, again.  More rain.  Rain.  Rain. Rain.  Raining.  Raining.  Raining.  Raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining.

I think I may be going slightly mad.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

mouse attack

The greenhouse is looking surprisingly better than it might have done.  As I have previously confessed, due to a basic design error (standing the greenhouse on one corner of a large continuous concrete raft), as soon as we get any appreciable amount of rain, water runs across the floor.  The greenhouse in winter is thus apt to be damp, even though the roof doesn't leak very much, and damp is the enemy of overwintering plants.  The pots of geraniums were looking remarkably buoyant, all things considered, and I have to conclude that while damp is bad, weeks of barely above freezing cold weather is even worse.

The mice have been active again, though, after a quiet period when I thought I'd seen them off. Confession: I use rat and mouse poison under glass.  I worry about using rodenticides, since they have been implicated in breeding failure in barn owls.  I foresee it is only a matter of time before I feel I can't use them, or else they are withdrawn from sale for domestic use.  On the other hand, I don't suppose the mice (or voles, or whatever they are) that cause havoc in my greenhouse are going to travel very far afterwards, and I don't honestly believe that the local tawnies, let alone barn owls, hunt for food on the concrete next to our drive.  Meadow, probably, back garden possibly, but front garden, with all the gravel, and the parked vehicles, and general urban crowdedness of it all?

Most of the pots of alliums seem to have survived.  There was some surface scuffling, but it looks as though mice don't eat the bulbs.  Perhaps they are too onion flavoured.  Past experience at home, and observation at the plant centre, has taught me that Allium siculum is sensitive to over watering, and can easily rot in a pot.  Sometimes nothing comes up at all, and when you investigate the compost you find merely a mush, or a few tiny offsets around the remains of the basal plate, which will take at least a year to reach flowering size.  Alternatively the leaves grow a few inches tall, then keel over, for the same reason.  I have tried to be very stingy watering the pots of A. siculum, and 'Ivory Queen', and it looks as though so far I am on track to have nice living plants to place out in the borders.

I start a lot of bulbs in pots nowadays, simply because at bulb planting time in the autumn I can't see what's already growing in the beds.  Then there are the pots I'm growing for display.  Several of the Whichford basketweave pots already have the snouts of tulips showing above the compost.  I found space for the hyacinth pots under the bench inside the greenhouse, after the year when the bulbs rotted, left outside, and the compost in those was heaved up into mounds and hollows, I'm not sure how much by the energies of the emerging leaves pushing through compost which had caked, or whether the mice have been investigating them too.  I can probably risk bringing them out fairly soon, now that they have roots to take up water and are at less risk of rotting, and in more need of light.

I don't know how many of the primroses I divided last year have survived.  I split a pot of the little purple flowered 'Wanda' to get the most part of two dozen plants, a slightly forlorn hope since the birds here (or mice) seem to like to eat the flowers of 'Wanda' above any other primrose.  I've been very cautious about letting the compost in the primrose pots sit wet during the winter, and it's now a case of wait-and-see as to how many pots send up central tufts of new leaves as spring arrives, and how many have quietly died, either rotted, or died of drought if I was over-cautious with the watering.  I don't think Primula poissonii responded at all well to being split.  That's just a feeling. The other plant I bought one of and broke into pieces was the pink, eastern European form of the UK native P. vulgaris.  That should have worked, theoretically.

The best value bulbs have to be the six small hybrid cyclamen that have been blooming all winter on the shelf in the porch.  I got them in a polystyrene multipack in B&Q for the princely sum of three pounds or thereabouts, and potted them individually into small identical terracotta pots.  Whichford describe them as auricula pots, though they are not honestly as nice as the old fashioned pots the specialist auricula growers use at Chelsea, having thicker walls, curved sides and a lip, whereas the classic auricula pot is straight sided and rimless.  However, they are not bad little pots, and the row of six white flowered plants, all alike in their matching pots lined up along the shelf, makes a stronger design statement than I'd have achieved messing around with one of this and three of that.  The label was rather vague about the identity of the cyclamen, and I suspect they will not be hardy planted out in the garden, though I'll probably try them under the shelter of the gean.  Even if they don't last beyond this winter I can scarcely say I haven't had my money's worth.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

holed up

I couldn't motivate myself to get out into the garden today, even though apart from one short and phenomenally sharp shower it was mostly dry for the rest of the day.  The garden looked so sodden and uninviting, after yet more heavy rain overnight, and the top part of the garden where the soil is lightest and easiest to work is also worst sheltered from the wind, which was fierce.  I could have crawled around on the gravel, weeding the Italian garden, wind-induced tears dropping on my spectacles, but frankly I couldn't face it.

The poor Genista aetnensis in the turning circle catches the full brunt of the wind, and is gradually leaning at more and more of an angle.  It has always insisted on growing as a multi stemmed shrub, instead of forming a graceful tree like the ones in the Chatto Gardens, and each year I cut out as many stems as I dare.  This year I'll have to take out the most lopsided, downwind ones, but I'm more worried about what is happening below ground to the roots.

I made some more bread, and even though I started at half past eight, a full hour earlier than last time, it still wasn't ready until half an hour after our usual lunchtime of one o'clock.  Frankly the timing of bread making is still rather a mystery, though the finished loaf was very nice once it was finally done.  Also I made vegetable soup, which is a good occupation for a day when you are stuck indoors, cutting carrots, onions, turnip, potato and celery into tiny dice.  Twenty minutes before serving I thought I'd blown it and been far too heavy handed with the mixed herbs, but then the flavours miraculously melded.  The final addition of some broad beans and peas out of the freezer seemed to help.  While I was at it I prepped the vegetables for tonight's stew, which has been simmering all day in the cool side of the Aga, an experiment in making something sold as 'stewing steak' acceptably tender.  The term is rather ominous, but what's the point of having a slow-cook facility constantly on the go if you aren't going to use it to render cheap cuts of beef edible?

The Systems Administrator watched the racing at Newbury.  I was amazed that was even on, since my image of the Home Counties is of them gradually disappearing under water.  Apparently the fences are moved around to spread the wear across the grass, but even so the horses were coming in so muddy that the jockey's colours were undetectable under the all-enveloping spray of filth.  The SA has now moved on to watch England v Scotland in the Six Nations at Murrayfield, and since the main pre-match news seemed to be that the pitch was suffering badly from worm casts, that is presumably equally muddy.

I feel as though we are beginning to exist in a state of limbo.  We seem to be over the worst of our colds (though they have been so persistent that I hesitate to write that, in case it invites yet another relapse) but it feels premature to try and arrange to see anybody or do anything.  With reports of cars being swept away in the Hadhams, and floods of sewage in Saffron Walden, I feel like staying close to home and travelling on familiar roads.  I am even wary of the trains, in case landslips or falling trees leave me stranded and waiting for an uncertain replacement bus service fifty miles from home.

Looking on the bright side,  if this carries on our olive tree, which has shrunk in each of the past three cold winters, might finally grow back to the size it was when we bought it.

Friday, 7 February 2014

job done

The Henchman has gone from the back garden.  No, we are not the victims of metal theft. Suddenly at lunchtime the Systems Administrator suggested that we could do the pruning this afternoon.  I'd given up even thinking about it, apart from as a distant concept to be grappled with sometime in the future, as strong wind followed gale, punctuated by rain, but the SA said the wind wasn't too bad, while it had stopped raining and the sun had even come out.

We took off the whole large branch that was growing out over the lawn, crowding the neighbouring river birch, and thrusting a casual side branch in front of the Parrottia persica.  The way to tackle substantial branches is in stages, so that the weight of each individual section is not too much as it falls.  Even so, the tree is full of sap, and a couple of the thicker chunks dug gouges out of the lawn and border as they landed.  You would not want to have been standing underneath at the time.  Our Ginger had followed us down the garden, and did go and sit exactly where the branch needed to drop, until I carried him away and posed Llewyn Davis style while the SA worked.

We daren't take the tractor and trailer down the slope in the back garden, since the tyres would chew up the lawns dreadfully, and the tractor would never make it back up the last, steepest part of the slope.  The tractor is not really very well.  It will only go at a sedate crawl on the flat, and certainly isn't up to climbing hills.  It needs a service, but since we don't have anywhere under cover to work on it that is yet another job that needs a dry day.  As a compromise in the meantime the trailer is parked on the level in the front garden, and prunings destined for the bonfire have to be hauled up the hill by hand, which is still quicker than carrying them all the way to the bonfire heap. Only the smallest twigs are rubbish, anything of an inch diameter counting as kindling, and anything the thickness of my wrist being future firewood.

I cut up what I could cut with the bow saw, and the SA will section the largest logs with the chainsaw.  That's a task better done by the workshop than out in the garden, since it creates a surprising amount of sawdust, which is not what you want heaped on the lawn.  As the years have passed and the garden has matured we've become much more beady eyed and opportunistic about what garden waste will do for the stove.  Rhododendron trunks, Paulownia prunings, hawthorn and hazel out of the hedge, there's no point in wasting them on the bonfire when we can burn them inside.

After we'd finished with the gean I eyed up the hazel hanging over the ditch bed, and persuaded the SA to at least try and get the Henchman in there.  The SA was initially concerned that the feet would sink into the wet soil, but I argued that if I could walk on the bed with two feet it would be fine for me to do the pruning with my weight spread over four.  We had to undo the struts and collapse the platform, then had a struggle to erect it at the back of the bed when we found we'd carried it in the wrong way round and were going to have to turn it through a hundred and eighty degrees.  First of all the top snagged on a branch, and then when we lay it down to free it from the tree it became tangled in a large shrubby honeysuckle, along with the SA who claimed to be stuck. We got it up, wedged between the fence and a rather good female form of narrow leaved Aucuba which I don't see for sale nearly as much as it deserves to be.  The SA stood at the bottom poised in case the platform started to tilt, and I cut off as much of the overhanging hazel as I could reach.

And that was my lot.  The SA rejected my suggestion that maybe we could shuffle the platform both ways along the bed so that I could reach some more branches, saying that they were too high and too thick.  But we did put the Henchman away by the sheds where it is supposed to live, so that it is no longer cluttering up the back garden.

We do now have a plan B for the hazel, to see if we can hire a pole mounted chainsaw for a couple of days.  I didn't even know there was such a thing, which certainly didn't feature in Writtle's 2002 arboriculture module, until I saw one at my former place of work.  I immediately coveted it, but believe they are expensive.  We wouldn't need one very often, and seldom-used two-stroke engines tend to have stopped working by the time you need them, so hiring would probably make more sense.  Unless you can get electric ones.  I can never start pull-cord motors, but would be happy to use an electric pole mounted chainsaw.  The blades would be a long way from where I was, so, supping with the devil, I would be using a very long spoon.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

feed the bees

There was a lull in the weather, allowing me to clean the chickens' roosting board and see to the bees.  Poor chickens, I suppose they will be sheltering in their house now, or under the corner of a lean-to wood store that projects over their run.  It can't be much fun, being a chicken in an endlessly wet winter.

All four hives had compact clusters of bees in them, which started to break up as I disturbed them. Chickens do give the impression that they are capable of enjoying themselves, given something to eat, space to roam, and a sunny day, but bees don't really make it on to the fun scale.  About the best they manage is purposeful content, on a warm, dry day when there's plenty of forage and all's well inside the hive, the queen present and correct and laying, but fun is too frivolous for them. You might as well ask whether an oak tree was having fun, or an earthworm.

I was glad to see the bees still alive, since the last time I saw them I was dosing them with oxalic acid, and they did not like it.  Bees may not do fun, but they do grumpy, not to mention downright aggressive.  In theory I should have lifted the corner of each hive in turn to gauge the weight of it, and so tell whether the bees needed extra feeding at this stage of the year.  If so I was prepared to give any light hives a two and a half kilogramme bag of the splendidly named Ambrosia bienenfutterteig, or feeding paste.  It is a soft sugar paste very similar to bakers' fondant, so much so that some beekeepers simply use the latter.  I buy the animal feeding product, because I don't know any bakers, and would worry in case the human version contained any additives that weren't suitable for bees.

The bienenfutterteig comes as slabs about an inch and a half thick, sealed in plastic packs.  I discovered when the box arrived that it is worth storing them flat side down and not on end, otherwise the fondant distorts inside the plastic, leaving you with an irregular lump that may be too thick in places to fit in the space at the top of the beehive.  Rather than put the feed on top of the crown board that covers the body of the hive, so that the bees have to go up through the holes in the board into the roof space to reach the fondant, it is better to put it directly on top of the frames of bees.  You create a narrow space to put it in by using an eke just under two inches tall which sits on top of the brood box, then the crown board rests on the eke.  You want to keep the extra space to a minimum, as the bees are working to maintain the temperature of their cluster, so you don't want to leave them in the bee equivalent of an impossible-to-heat open plan house.  In cold weather you can even fill the space around the fondant with hessian sacking.

I didn't want to open the packs of fondant until I'd decided whether the bees needed it, since it will keep better sealed up.  However, cutting open the vacuum pack with scissors, in bad light, your vision obscured by the veil of a bee suit, takes a while, and I found that if I'd already messed around hefting the hive, by the time I was ready to rest the fondant on top of the frames, the bees had beaten me to it, the cluster had broken up, and there were bees standing all over the hive just where I wanted to put my two and a half kilo sugary brick.  It was nip and tuck whether the first hive even needed any extra stores.  It was certainly not light, on the other hand the days are lengthening and the weather is mild, so the queens will start laying soon, if they haven't already, and the food requirements of the colonies will go up.  I wanted to feed the bees, not squash them to death, so after the first couple of hives I decided to give every colony a lump of fondant to be on the safe side, and to to take no more than a brief peek beneath each crown board to check they were still alive before I opened the packet.  I managed to get the last pack on the final colony with barely a bee coming up to see what the fuss was about.

After that I did a quick run to the dump, as the bags of weeds had dried off overnight sufficiently for it to be OK to put them in the car.  Then it began to rain again.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

the dreadful wind and rain

We have got off lightly here compared to the West country, where they seem to be suffering from positively biblical storms and floods, but even so conditions outside are not conducive to getting anything done.  There were hailstones on the front doorstep when I went to let the chickens into their run, the wind blew wildly all morning, and at lunchtime it started to rain again, heavily.  I looked through the kitchen window at all the jobs that needed doing in the front garden, the old stems and weeds in the herb bed that ought to be cut down and pulled up, the dead Malus to be removed from the long bed, the yards of bare earth needing a thick layer of mushroom compost, and the large multi stemmed Acer campestre in the hedge that fell apart several gales ago and needs cutting down, and knew that for yet another day none of those things were going to happen.

In the back garden the David Austin and hybrid tea roses need pruning, and the worst struggling HTs removing so that their space can be given to a Buddleia fallowiana var. alba which might appreciate it more.  In the greenhouse a perfectly hardy climbing honeysuckle is waiting to be planted out.  In every border bulb foliage is emerging before I can spread Strulch on the beds, or have even bought the Strulch.  None of these things are going to be done either, nor is the gean going to be pruned, or the overhanging hazel, or the Henchman dismantled and put away, until it stops pouring with rain and blowing a gale.

I occupied myself going through old gardening magazines and musing on future plans, and arranged with a friend to go to a couple of concerts, so the day was not wasted, but it was not the most productive either.  People I know who are going around the career merry-go-round one more time ask me whether I don't get bored stuck at home, to which the truthful answer is No, I am generally extremely busy and certainly not bored, but after what seems like a hundred days and nights of rain, boredom is starting to look like a realistic option.  There's no point in making more bread, because we still have some, and the prospect of sorting out books in the spare room doesn't quite hack it.

The forecast (ha!) suggests that there could be a lull tomorrow morning, in which case it will be my chance to muck out the chickens' roosting board and check if the bees need feeding.  Then from noon tomorrow there are yellow warnings for rain in force until Saturday night, along with the prospect of fifty mile an hour gusts on Saturday afternoon.  Looks like I'll have plenty of time to do the cleaning and the beekeepers' accounts without the tempting distraction of gardening.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

two exhibitions and some lunch

I went to London today, for my rescheduled exhibition and lunch with a former colleague.  We hadn't seen each other since a team reunion which I think must have been not even in February of last year, but the one before, and I was pleased when in her Christmas card she suggested meeting for an exhibition or show, and then followed up on it when I replied in the affirmative.  We go back a while.  Looking at us now you would take us for what we are, a pair of retired and semi-retired ladies of a certain age, but back then the two of us spent two solid days in a room checking and rechecking every last line of a vast Excel spreadsheet of two hundred and fifty million pounds' worth of UK equity holdings spread over a large number of clients, that we were going to sell in a programme trade, as part of our then employer's reorganisation of its assorted asset management businesses.  In some cases they represented several per cent of the issued share capital of the companies concerned, while the market in others was pretty illiquid, and selling more than we actually held of anything would have been a deeply embarrassing and expensive error.

My former colleague was brilliant at that sort of thing.  I had learned to be extremely competent, because I knew that I was not naturally organised, and between us we got there, and there were no errors.  But it means I can tell you from personal experience how it feels to sell a quarter of a billion pounds' worth of anything, and the answer is, nerve wracking.

We met at the British Library, where we were going to see their exhibition Georgians Revealed. I've been to some good exhibitions at the British Library, but they never seem to get the publicity of the British Museum or V&A.  Georgians Revealed skims elegantly over a hundred and sixteen years of social and economic history (accession of George I, 1714, death of George IV, 1830), touching on tea drinking, wallpaper, canal building, sporting pursuits, pleasure gardens, Josiah Wedgewood, dancing, Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital, architecture, Adam brothers furniture, landscape gardening, home music making, shops, attitudes to animal welfare, theatre, Jane Austen's writing slope and spectacles, and other topics that don't immediately spring to mind.  Nothing can be covered in any depth, so Wedgewood is represented by two or three pieces of pottery and a letter, whereas we happily spent three hours last autumn at the Wedgewood Museum, but the overall effect is highly effective at giving the flavour of how society was developing, and what sort of things people were concerned with and getting up to.

After an hour and a half we agreed that our brains were full and our tummies empty, and went in search of lunch, unkindly passing by the eager young researcher with his tablet who would have liked us to take ten minutes to complete a questionnaire about our visit.  My friend had promised we would go to a trendy cafe, as they are springing up all around Kings Cross, and so we had lunch in a cavernous converted warehouse next to the Central Saint Martins college of art.  I could have had pizza if I'd wanted to, but we agreed that it would have been a wasted opportunity, with the rest of the menu offering dishes like bulgur wheat, spinach and manouri pastille, green olive yogurt, and deep fried duck egg, babaganoush, chorizo oil, cumin.  As she said, you probably don't get that out in the sticks.  Since I have no food allergies that I know of, I will attempt to eat almost anything once, though I tend to stick to vegetarian unless I know the meat has been ethically sourced.  The main thing is not to absent mindedly order risotto, since each time I do I remember when it arrives that I don't like it.

We parted company after lunch, and I just managed to squeeze in a visit to the Taylor Wessing photographic portrait competition at the National Portrait Gallery, which ends very soon.  It receives over five thousand entries, and the pictures that make it through the exhibition are always worth a look.  Thematically, socially disadvantaged subjects are in this year, as are refugees and victims of war, while celebrities are out, and there were three sets of twins.  Black and white is hanging on in there, but colour photography predominates.  I bought the Systems Administrator a postcard of the winning entry, a tired and exasperated Katie Walsh captured after a hard day's racing.  Portrait photography is a fine art, and I look forward to getting along to see Bailey's Stardust in due course.

Monday, 3 February 2014

legacies of a village

The best time to send a thank you card is the day after the party.  It's easy to leave it hanging in the air for a couple of days, while feeling vaguely guilty and disorganised, but better by far to simply write the thing and post it, or send an email, or a text, or decide it was the sort of informal do where further thanks beyond those you trilled as you departed would be OTT.  Whatever you opt for, choose something, do it and have done with it.  If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly.  And so I wrote a card, wondering as I stuck a left-over pictorial Madonna stamp on the envelope quite how many Christmas cards I'd thought I was intending to send, and walked down to the post box.

The box is around a ten minute walk, by the time you've gone round three sides of a large rectangle.  I'm amazed the Royal Mail keeps it going, in this day and age of needing to cut overheads, and pushing the price of postage up to the point where you could practically buy a cup of tea for the cost of one first class stamp.  It sits on the boundary between our spinney and the neighbour's garden, with no more than twelve or fifteen houses within half a mile of it.  The heart of the village, such as it is, upped sticks and moved half way across the parish a long while ago, so that the church has been a private dwelling since some time in the 1970s, the manor mentioned in Domesday is by now just another farm house with business units, and the old school was already a home by the time we moved here.  Only the post box remains to show that back in the eleventh century this was the nominal heart of a village.  The lettuce farm might go and stuff all their business letters into the box, but my bet is that they don't, and why the Royal Mail keeps a post box in a rural lane that must see all of three letters a week posted in it beats me.

When I'm busy in the garden I often jump into the car to go to the post box, thus joining the ranks of those eco-unfriendly people who use their cars for short journeys.  It is a bad habit, but there are times when you don't want to take twenty minutes out of your working day simply to post a letter. However, my residual cold still lurked threateningly enough to convince me that crawling around through my sodden borders in the biting wind would be a seriously silly idea, even if the sun was shining for a change and water not actually falling from the sky.  Taking a short, brisk walk as far as the post box was my nod to getting some exercise without getting damp, or chilled.

The graveyard on the other side of the road is no longer used for burials, which presumably ceased when the church was deconsecrated, but a couple of workmen in a council van turn up every now and again to cut the grass and tidy the shrubs, so it is kept up about as much as you'd want it to be, not overgrown but romantically dishevelled.  The metal gate was stolen many months ago, and has still not been replaced, despite occasional mentions in the parish magazine suggesting it has not actually been forgotten, but remains on somebody's list of things to do.  It is quite nice that there isn't a gate, since it was always kept padlocked, and there are lots of snowdrops growing among the gravestones, which one used to only be able to stare at wistfully through the bars.  Today I stepped through the gateway, and spent some time admiring them, standing in thick clumps among the heart shaped leaves of celandines.  I do not want celandines in my own borders, but am charmed to be able to go and look at them in a disused graveyard.