Sunday, 31 August 2014

autumn is almost here

Finally, at long last, I have finished spreading the gravel from the bright green dump bag that's been sitting by the entrance all summer.  It was never meant to be there for so long, but it's been a hot year, not conducive to barrowing gravel about the place, and although I kept taking the odd wheelbarrow load out of it, I never quite seemed to use it up.  Actually, it was never meant to be there at all, but the lorry couldn't get any further inside the entrance.  Once I've chopped back the Eleagnus hedge and the brambles, perhaps lorries will be able to get all the way in and unload their deliveries of gravel and mulch on to the concrete.  We certainly won't be getting another load of heating oil until we've done something about the hedge.

It seemed a waste to throw the bag away, although there was no deposit on it, but as I got to the bottom I realised that there were two bags, one inside the other.  That would explain why there seemed to be quite so many sets of handles flapping around and getting in the way as I tried to shovel the gravel out.  The inner of the two bags had a rip in the bottom, so there was no point in trying to return it, and the outer bag looked pretty frayed in places.  I decided that they had better both go to the tip, which gave me an extra twinge of environmental guilt about gardening, in addition to my guilt about what the gravel quarry is doing to the countryside on the other side of Colchester.

I have finished planting or potting all of the bulbs that came last week, other than the tulips which don't want to go into the ground until November, some crocus and fritillaries that can't be planted until we've cut the long grass on the bottom lawn, and a packet of Anemone coronaria which are still soaking in a bowl on the kitchen table, like some strange and wizened ingredient of a voodoo charm.  I have no idea whether they're poisonous or not, but it would take a very perverse individual to want to eat them.  They certainly don't look edible.  I had to laugh at the media's recent hissy fit over the revelation that the highly poisonous corn cockle had been included in a wild flower mixture endorsed by Kew and the RHS.  OK, so they are highly poisonous.  So are foxgloves, and daffodil bulbs.  I should say that the latter were more dangerous than corn cockles, since it is possible, if you have very poor sight, or extremely low powers of observation, to mistake daffodils for onions, whereas corn cockles don't look even vaguely like any kind of food I can think of.

Cutting the long grass is now rising rapidly up my list of things to do, along with cutting the Eleagnus hedge, cutting the hornbeam hedge which was supposed to be done in August and clearly isn't going to be, since there are only a couple of hours daylight left in the month, and I'm going out this evening.  The same applies to the yew topiary.  For the long grass to get done, however, cutting it has to rise up the Systems Administrator's list of things to do as well, since it is a joint effort.  The SA's interest in the garden is heavily focused on the railway, and the long grass is about as far from the railway as you can get, so I shall have to appeal to the SA's better nature.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

the cake that failed

The Systems Administrator, who was a fan of The Great British Bake Off in a gentle sort of way, is not convinced by the show's escalation in drama, with contestants throwing unsuccessful puddings into bins and storming out of the contest in a huff.  It seems to be the inevitable fate of all soaps, but where will it end?  With Paul Hollywood being thrown off a roof before an aeroplane crashes into the marquee and finishes off the lot of them?  The SA would rather the GBBO stuck to being kindly, reassuring and not too eventful, with just a few severe remarks about soggy bottoms.

I have managed to produce my own baking failure, without recourse to popular TV, in the shape of a lemon drizzle cake which ended up as more of a lemon drizzle biscuit.  It was the first time I tried the recipe, out of Julie Duff's normally excellent book Cakes: regional and traditional.  I am pretty sure that the fault is not Julie Duff's, but all mine, and that the root of the problem lies in my effort to translate her opening instruction to preheat the oven to 180 degrees C into an Aga oven location for the cake.  That and the fact that there is no standard depth for a seven inch cake tin.

The recipe was essentially for a lemon flavoured sponge, a creamed cake with equal weights of butter, sugar and flour, and one egg for the total twelve ounces of dry ingredients, with no added milk to mix it to a dropping consistency.  The resulting mixture seemed pretty dry, but my rule is always to follow the book to the letter the first time, and only make adjustments if they seem warranted based on the results of the first attempt.  Otherwise it can be practically impossible to learn new recipes, as you end up adapting each of them back to the nearest equivalent that you already know.  So the oddly dry looking cake mixture, flavoured with lemon zest, went into one of my new seven inch shallow sandwich tins as instructed.  That turns out to have been mistake number one.

Deciding how to arrange the cake in the Aga to give it the equivalent of Julie Duff's 180 C was a nice question.  If I put the wire shelf on the floor of the lower hot oven that ought to be about right. Remembering how the tops of various other cakes and tarts have caught I put a solid metal tray in the middle of the oven so that the cake would sit below it, to shield the top.  Which was probably mistake number two, though that's still a working hypothesis at this stage.

The book said the cake should be done in about twenty-five minutes, so I had a quick peek after twenty.  It was clearly not done, because it wobbled when I opened the door, and the shallow sandwich tin was obviously too shallow, because cake mixture had oozed out over the sides of the tin.  Lumps were lying on the oven floor, and the cake had a muffin top frill of escaping goo all the way round.  I shut the door gently but rapidly, and gave the cake more time.

It was not done after twenty-five minutes, or half an hour, or thirty five minutes, and after that I lost count.  Eventually it became more or less 'golden brown', though slightly darker than that at the back, but was certainly not 'well risen'.  Depressed, that's how it looked.  I took it out of the oven and trimmed off the singed edges, and the rest of the muffin top for good measure.  When I experimentally ate some it tasted perfectly nice, in a biscuity sort of way.  Unfortunately the uneven top, and splayed edges when I tipped the cake out of the tin, rather gave the game away that this was not some sort of deliberate shallow flan.  This was a cake that had sunk.  A failed cake.

I'd already got the juice of a lemon, since I had the lemon I'd grated all the zest off, so I mixed it with icing sugar as instructed, tipped it over the cake, and we ate it with cream, as pudding.  It tasted of fresh lemon, in a slightly overpoweringly sweet sort of way.  Certainly I've tasted worse lemon tarts in restaurants that were charging £4.50 a slice for the privilege, though never been served with one that looked quite so catastrophically and definitively awful.  I am glad I did not have to subject my efforts to Mary Berry's scrutiny, though since she is a doyenne of Aga cookery I suppose at least she could have explained to me what I did wrong.  I think the metal sheet must have been overkill, and the cake needed to be slightly hotter.  In the meantime I have managed to buy a pair of deeper (and reassuring solid) pair of seven inch sandwich tins in The Range.  I suppose the Lakeland ones will do for shortbread.

Friday, 29 August 2014

three exhibitions

I went up to London today, for a culture fix, and lunch with an old university friend I hadn't seen for a while.  She was happy enough to meet in Covent Garden, which made a convenient jumping off point for the National Portrait Gallery, which has got an exhibition about Virginia Woolf, as well as the annual BP Portrait Award.  The Woolf exhibition is on for a while yet, and I might have left it to another day if I hadn't been lunching in Upper Saint Martin's Lane, but the BP portraits end on 21 September, so if I hadn't been today I probably wouldn't have got there at all.

I have mixed feelings about the Bloomsbury set.  I like their aesthetic, in a grungy sort of way, but it isn't the greatest art.  I have enjoyed those of Virginia Woolf's books I've read, which is not all of them.  On the other hand, they were terrible snobs, quite horrid about Arnold Bennett, on the grounds that he was northern, from the lower orders, a flashy dresser, and wrote commercially successful books.  All of which is rather unattractive of them, and I can't pretend to myself that we'd have been friends, if we've ever met.  But it was touching to see the pictures of them, knowing how Virginia's story ended, though my view of her life must be heavily coloured by having seen The Hours.  Some of her letters are on display as well, but I found her handwriting entirely indecipherable.  Overall it's worth seeing, but ranks as part of a day out, rather than the focal point and main event of your trip.

The BP Portrait Awards are always worth a look, if only to see what's going on in contemporary portraiture, an art form which has been relegated to a cultural backwater while all the hot money is on jewelled skulls, unmade beds and the like.  This year's winner is jolly good, a homeless man with a direct and penetrating gaze, painted with the style and panache of a Renaissance figure.  His head is outlined against a gold background intersected with chain link fence, giving him the air of an icon, and his legs are wrapped in a tartan rug, every fold and fibre of which is shown with the skill and fidelity you'd expect in a Van Dyck.  The rest is a mixed bag, some tasteful nudes who could have stepped out of the RA summer show, some frankly dull heads, some worthy efforts, some pictures reminding me alarmingly of amateur exhibitions hung on railings in the 1970s.

The Hayward Gallery is showing The Human Factor, a review of the human form in contemporary sculpture, but only until 7 September, and this was the show I did want to catch before it closed.  As bags go it was even more mixed than the BP portraits.  There are three works by Katharina Fritsch, all displayed in different rooms rather than together, which I liked though not as much as I liked her green elephant years ago.  I really, really liked the green elephant.  A couple of smaller than life sized but vaguely realistic figures, a small boy and a school teacher, based on old photographs right down to the grainy texture, uneven lighting and odd palette, were oddly gripping.  I couldn't decide if they were reassuring, sinister, or kitsch, but they certainly weren't boring.  The joke of the bronze dancers abandoning their plinths, one to look out of the window and the other to sit on the ground behind the plinth snatching a furtive cigarette, would have been funnier if the reviews in the papers hadn't given away the punchline.

The reclining nude with a bee colony for a head, which has attracted a fair amount of attention, troubled me.  They were live bees spread over several pieces of wild comb, kept out on the roof rather than inside the gallery with the public held back by a wire fence.  I could see the point that the bronze dancers were making, about figures as passive objects of attention versus having their own lives and desires, and about normal expectations of how sculptures should behave (or rather be shown behaving), but what did a woman having several sections of honeycomb covered in live bees for a head have to say about anything, apart from being rather novel?  And what happened to the bees when it rained?  It is not natural for them to nest out in the open like that.  I asked the security guard, who said that somebody came and covered the bees up, each time it rained.

As for the shop mannequins dressed in various strange outfits or with pieces gouged out of their stomachs, they belonged in my mind firmly in unmade bed territory.  So there were aspects of contemporary treatment of the human form in sculpture which I thought were very silly (as was the treatment of the poor bees).  But bits of the exhibition were really good, which is as much as I could reasonably expect.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

bulbs start to arrive

My bulb orders have started to arrive.  Avon Bulbs sent me an email on Tuesday to say that they were about to dispatch my parcel, and today a tiny box arrived, plus a much bigger box from Peter Nyssen.  My initial reaction to Avon's email, apart from pleasure at the thought of the incipient arrival of some plants, was bafflement as to what some of these things were or what I intended to do with them.  I researched them all painstakingly at the time of placing the order, but that was months ago.

Fortunately nowadays I record bulb orders on a spreadsheet, rather than a piece of paper which come planting time in September I'll find I've lost.  I keep a note of where I intend to plant everything as well, since sometimes a plan which seemed perfectly obvious in mid June can appear as clear as mud by autumn and I'm left wondering what I'm supposed to do with a hundred fritillaries which my fresh internet searches tell me will bloom in a dingy shade of brown, at a height of approximately four inches.

I must have been in an especially indulgent mood when I placed the Avon Bulbs order, since I was slightly surprised to discover that I'd paid five pounds for one bulb of Eranthis 'Schwefelglanz', and another five pounds for one solitary gladiolus bulb.  I had to remind myself what exactly the Eranthis was, and discovered it was a fairly recent introduction into gardens, a pale yellow flowered form of the more familiar bright yellow Eranthis or winter aconite, and was supposed to bulk up readily and easily.  I could see why I'd wanted one of those.  My reasoning must have been that if it survives at all, and especially if it shows any signs of multiplying, then I can get some more later, and if it doesn't I've only wasted a fiver.  Mind you, if they increase so easily as that then they soon won't be five pounds each.

I planted my one bulb as ceremoniously as I could, given that it looked just like a small muddy malteser and I couldn't work out which way up it should go.  Winter aconites are woodland plants, needing some damp and sunlight in the spring, and a dry rest in summer, so a position next to the Zelkova in the ditch bed should suit it.  The common sort have a tricksy reputation, growing like cress in some gardens and refusing to grow at all in others, but I've never tried them, because I don't like their particular shade of yellow.  Sulphur gloss (as Schwefelglanz translates) sounds much more appealing.

All the other little bags of bulbs from Avon Bulbs were destined for the gravel by the entrance.  The one gladiolus is an experiment, a single bulb of Gladiolus tristis.  This has yellow flowers and is much smaller and daintier than the Dame Edna type gladioli, but is dubiously hardy.  The plan must have been to try on in the incredibly sharp drainage of the gravel, and see how it did before deciding whether to buy any more.  What I can't remember is whether I intended to plant it outdoors at once, risking it outside through the winter, or pot it up in the greenhouse with a view to planting it out next year, and risk over watering it in its pot.  Or maybe I never got that far.  More research is clearly called for.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

my night in Snape

Trio Medieval were great.  And in general I was very taken with Snape Maltings.  It is rather feeble of me to have never been to a concert there before, but it is a long drive, and I don't think they generally put on the Systems Administrator's sort of music.  The SA would turn out for a full orchestra doing a Romantic work, a fine sweep by one of the Russians, or Sibelius, or Smetana, but I think Snape generally offers works on a smaller canvas.  And one friend I've been to classical concerts with in the past lives half way to Sudbury, so Snape was even more inconvenient for her than it is from here, while my music loving former colleague lives in London, making LSO St Lukes a better prospect than Snape Maltings.

It is a nice concert hall, though, all exposed brickwork and solid timbers, with a high ceiling and beautiful acoustics.  It was a shame that I, along with probably ninety-nine per cent of the audience, didn't speak Norwegian or Swedish, since I think Trio Medieval's diction was superb.  I could hear lots of consonants quite distinctly, it's just that I didn't know what any of the words meant.  Although from the sleeve notes of the CD I've got so far, I'd say that if you assume that happy sounding songs are about meeting someone attractive, and sad ones about armed raiders stealing all your cattle and burning down your village, you'd be on the right lines most of the time.

One of the three played the Hardanger fiddle.  Just a few traditional tunes, which was probably a few more than most of the audience expected, and maybe as many as some of them wanted. Certainly Trio Medieval's USP as featured on Radio 3 is their vocal sound.  However, it was interesting to see an actual Hardanger fiddle in action.  It has a second set of sympathetic strings which are not bowed, but vibrate in sympathy when the first set are played, giving an ethereal, echoing quality to the music.

None of the tunes were especially close to Irish or Scottish jigs, reels or hornpipes, and I suddenly wondered how much influence Scandinavian folk tunes had in the development of American folk music.  After all, there were a lot of Scandinavian settlers, and listening to American fiddle tunes and dance music it has always struck me how there are tunes which are recognisably Irish or Scottish in origin, although by now sounding distinctively American, but others which sound even more American but otherwise unfamiliar.  I've often wondered where that strand of the American tradition came from, and listening to the Hardanger fiddler began to think that Sweden might have had something to do with it.  It's a theory.  The members of Trio Medieval could probably have told me, since they are all qualified in music to the umpteenth degree, teach at assorted institutes and universities, collaborate internationally with other musicians from every genre, and are as boffiny as you can get while still sounding like a choir of angels.

Besides the splendid hall, Snape has a small but well stocked bookshop (defining well stocked as having books by several of my own favourite authors: Robert Macfarlane, Sebald, Roger Deakin. There's nothing like having your prejudices confirmed).  The restaurant is an upmarket cafeteria, so you queue to collect your food on a tray, but my butternut squash lasagne was good, and we ate sitting by a window with fabulous views out over the reed beds.  I must try and work out which church tower it was I could see in the middle distance, standing in splendid isolation.  The staff were solicitous to an elderly lady who walked with a stick and didn't look as though she could carry a tray as well, while the ladies loo was generously endowed with cubicles, per head of audience the best ratio I have ever seen.  Parking is slightly haphazard, and I was glad I'd taken heed of my friend's tip that there would be a rush leaving, and reversed into a space while it was still light and there were no other cars on the move, instead of having to reverse out into the scrum in the dark.

So I hope to be going back, though probably not in the depths of winter, unless for a really must-see act.  It is quite a long drive.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Scandi folk

This is an early post, since I'm going out this afternoon and will be back late.  Which makes it tricky, since there's nothing much that's happened today to blog about.  I am off to Snape Maltings to hear Trio Medieval, an Oslo based group of two Norwegian and one Swedish women who perform a strange and marvellous fusion of Scandinavian folk, medieval and modern music.  I first heard them on the car radio a few years ago, and was utterly transfixed, and quite unable to work out what sort of a thing I was listening to.  I think I sat in my car on a petrol station forecourt until the song ended, because I wouldn't turn the radio off and get out.

More recently I heard something from the Aldeburgh festival on Radio 3, which prompted me to look at the festival website, to see what sort of acts they had, and how much of it was sold out.  I was not even looking to make a last minute booking, merely curious, and as I scrolled down the page I began to think that this festival was going on for a very long time before grasping that the website simply led on into the rest of the season at Snape.  Suddenly, there in late August I saw the name of Trio Medieval.  I had to go.  I've looked at their website in the past, and hoped they might crop up at Kings Place or somewhere, so to have them as close to home as Suffolk was too good a chance to miss.

You can tell a lot about how much you like a group by how far you are willing to travel to see them live.  I once decided I couldn't face spending a night in Swindon just to hear Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, having once seen them as part of the City of London Festival and been blown away. I've been kicking myself ever since, because apart from their Swindon appearance I have only ever spotted one more concert date, at the Irish Centre in Camden, and a spot at the Cambridge Folk Festival.  We made it to Camden, though not Cambridge, and I live in hope that they will grace these shores as a duo once again.  They have been to Union Chapel in Islington as part of a larger line up but I don't want that, just the two of them.  I digress.

Then there was the question of who, if anybody, would like to come with me to Snape.  Polyphonic Scandi folk is really not the System Administrator's sort of thing, and I'd rather go to a concert by myself than drag someone else along to be thoroughly bored, and make me feel guilty for ruining their evening as they sneak a look at their watch every six minutes.  And today is a working day. After some thought I tried a friend from the music society, who seems to have an open minded approach to new cultural experiences.  So far we have been to the Ice Age art exhibition at the British Museum, which I liked but she didn't, and the Dulwich Gallery, where the exhibition passed muster but it rained all day.  It's not a short walk from the station to the gallery, and the gallery attendant was unnecessarily brusque about refusing her admission until she hung up her wet coat on the unguarded row of pegs in their lobby.  Luckily nobody nicked it.  So I hope tonight's entertainment passes muster, or she will begin to lose faith in my cultural expeditions.

Monday, 25 August 2014

bank holiday washout

The rain arrived, half an hour later than the Met Office forecast suggested it would, but once it came, it stayed.  Forewarned is forearmed, and I settled down to enjoy a wet day.  There is a sort of pleasant melancholy about steady summer rain, which makes me feel vaguely as though I must be on holiday, reminding me of wet afternoons sitting in seaside cafes, or days spent reading in my bunk, moving only to rearrange the mugs under the drips from the deck seams, or make the tremendous effort of lighting the primus stove for a cup of tea.  It must have rained sometimes on working days, but I suppose that when I was in an office I didn't notice so much.  Of course, today is a holiday of sorts, being the second August Bank Holiday, and I feel vaguely sorry for all those people organising outdoor events, which will have been very damp squibs, while being selfishly relieved that we hadn't planned to go anywhere.

I started by making a cake, and discovered that my new, round, loose based, six inch cake tin has a small gap all the way around, where the bottom is rolled over to make a ledge for the base to sit on, which cake mixture gets into during cooking, and which takes an absolute age to wash.  I spent a long time scrubbing at it under a running tap, while the crumbs rolled round the rim ahead of the bristles of the washing up brush.  I was going to leave some customer feedback on the Lakeland site, but couldn't remember my password to log in, and never received a reply to my password reset request.  Maybe I never had a password.  It is a very heavy tin, and non stick, and would be excellent if it didn't take a good ten minutes to wash after use.

After that I did my ironing, before it could develop into a terrifying mountain like it did last time, and listened to Spiegel im Spiegel.  It goes at the right pace for ironing, and bores the Systems Administrator to tears, so the spare bedroom is the best place to listen to it.

Then I ordered a pair of waterproof boots I've had my eye on.  Today's weather made me think it was time to get on with this.  The shoes that have done me for the past couple of years are by now so shabby that they're more fit for garden visiting than the Tate members' room, and are not as waterproof as they were.  It's a perpetual gripe of mine that most women's shoes seem to be designed on the basis that you won't want to walk more than a hundred yards in them, and won't go outside at all if it's raining.  For goodness sake, even people who work in offices and would rather take the tube from Liverpool Street to the West End than undertake the forty minute walk still need to get from their house to the station, and might want to go out to buy a sandwich at lunchtime.  I am experimenting with Sorel, a Canadian brand I saw mentioned somewhere as selling boots that were both walkable and waterproof without looking entirely as though one were shod for a quick ascent of Scafell, and will report back when they've arrived and I've worn them in the rain.

It turned out that while I was buying the boots, the SA had bought a space heater for the workshop. It's the effect of the rain, one's thoughts start turning to autumn.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

planting out

It is forecast to rain a lot tomorrow, heavy, solid rain for the entire day.  The garden could certainly do with some of that, and I thought I'd take advantage of nature's predicted largesse and plant some more things out of the greenhouse in anticipation.

First off were half a dozen Eryngium planum 'Blue Hobbit' raised from seed, which I've a feeling came free with a magazine.  I did have seven plants, but one collapsed in its pot, a victim of either over or under watering.  Unless, of course, it was the dreaded root aphid, and now I've thought of that possibility I'd better check its roots, having previously cut off the wilted leaves and put the pot in a bright corner to dry out.  I initially assumed it was a watering error because I remembered how assorted Eryngium collapsed and died over the years in the plant centre.  They are tricky to keep going in pots.  These were planted in the gravel outside the blue summerhouse where they should be very happy.

Then came seven Oenothera 'Apricot Delight', also destined for the patch of ground in front of the summerhouse.  This variety is supposed to only grow a couple of feet tall, or three at most, and has narrow leaves, altogether a daintier specimen than the slightly thug like but cheerful descendants of the plants I grew from seed harvested on Dunwich beach several years ago.  'Apricot Delight' is allegedly perennial.  I don't mind if they are fairly short lived, as long as they seed themselves a little, though I rather hope they will not be quite so generous in that respect as the bright yellow biennials.

Then came three low growing, purple leaved sedum whose name I am not entirely sure of, grown from fragments salvaged from my unsuccessful experiment in growing a green roof on the pot shed. It is slightly annoying not knowing what they're called, but not reason enough to waste them.  They went into the railway gravel  where I hope they will spread among the thyme.  The stems were already starting to root where they touched the surface of their compost, so they should be good mat formers.

After those I planted four slightly straggly Agastache in the long bed, which were too weedy to plant out when I did the main planting.  They were still not the best specimens, but I was in greenhouse clearance mode, and the light outside will probably do them good.

Finally I planted out the last of my seed raised Dierama, or angel's fishing rod, as it is popularly called.  A couple were labelled as 'Blackbird', two as D. mossii, and the others weren't labelled at all. They have been rattling around the greenhouse for ages, which has not agreed with them.  Dierama does not thrive long term in pots, I have decided.  I ended up with rather a lot of plants because I bought two packets of seed, the 'Blackbird' and presumably D. mossii, and the seed company as a reward sent me some more packets of Dierama seed.  They turn out to germinate reasonably easily, and I ended up with a lot of plants, some of which I gave away and some that have already been planted around the garden.  Meanwhile my existing plants have been self seeding to the point where youngsters are starting to count as weeds, but 'Blackbird' is a very sumptuous dark shade I don't currently have, and I'm hoping the others will broaden out the gene pool and give me some different colours.

The Dierama were badly infested with root aphid, and I shook as much compost as I could off the worst affected plants, despite the fact that they don't like root disturbance.  Some foxglove seedlings and sedum cuttings that I potted on were lightly infected as well.  I treated them with Provado, and can see I'll need to go round the whole greenhouse again before winter.  It is a nuisance, and it's just as well I'm not selling plants commercially, or it would be a catastrophe.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

not finished

No more jobs got ticked off the list today.  I spent the morning doing another stint around the garden railway, teasing grass out of the gravel and cutting back the faded heads of thyme.  Some of the grass is a fine leaved annual, comparatively harmless apart from the fact that it seeded, so there'll be more next year.  It used to infest part of the long border next to the railway, but I pretty much got rid of it through a mixture of assiduous weeding and aggressive mulching.  Mulching isn't really going to help in the gravel, since the only thing I could use as a mulch would be more gravel, which makes a superb seed bed, but I'm fairly confident that with regular attention the fine leaved grass can be brought under control.

There are also two sorts of perennial grass with running roots, one thick and white, the other fine as horsehair between the tufts of leaves.  These are more of a problem, since they have infiltrated the base of the ivy hedge, and the roots of some of the shrubs in the long bed.  At the moment I'm forking out what I can, and will try zapping outlying shoots with glyphosate , when they appear safely out of range of any plants I want to keep.  I darkly suspect that the best I will ever do with the perennial grasses is keep them down to low levels of infestation, short of clearing the front garden of all vegetative life and maintaining a bare earth policy through regular applications of weedkiller for at least two seasons.  Which seems rather extreme.

I don't mind weeding the gravel.  It has a pleasant, meditative quality, and the bits you have finished look very neat and tidy, so you have a visible payback for your efforts.  However, it won't be ticked off the list for ages because the area to be tidied up is large, and I only do two or three hours weeding at a stretch.  The planting definitely needs to be thicker, since the thyme has not been good at suppressing weeds, although it is pretty in flower and the bees like it.  As I weeded I pondered what else would grow with it.  I'm currently inclined towards low growing sedum, which I can imagine intermingling and forming an insect friendly mat.

In the afternoon I tackled the patio (or terrace), which would have been a fairly quick job if my criteria for Tidy patio had not included tidying the bed of winter flowering iris as an implicit part of the job.  I never got round to it before last winter, and the display of flowers was not improved by the background of tatty dead leaves mixed in among the living.  Pulling the dead foliage out of established clumps of Iris unguicularis not merely takes ages, but is a task which is never obviously finished.  It's practically impossible to pick out every withered brown leaf, for they are myriad, gradually shrivelling and becoming wispy with age.  How many wisps do you have to have combed out with your fingertips, and how many may remain, before you can say that the job is done?

Clearing the dead leaves out from the back of the bed revealed a spectacular number of snails clinging to the wall.  It's no surprise that the iris flowers were so badly eaten last winter.  I left the snails for now, since I was not in a murdering frame of mind, but I fear I'll have to do something about them before next winter.  Maybe I should put them all in a bucket and take them down to lane to live on the grass verge of the lettuce field.  I can't remember how far you have to take a snail before it can't find its way home, but the internet will tell me, since that very question was the subject of a Radio 4 citizen science competition a year or two back.

Addendum  Today, August 23rd, is the one hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Mons.  The Systems Administrator predicted that after all the media fuss about the outbreak of war, the anniversary of the first major battle would be ignored.  Sure enough, I haven't seen or heard a single reference to it from the BBC or any of the broadsheets.

Friday, 22 August 2014

things to do

I make lists of things to do.  It's a habit I slipped into during adulthood: as a teenager I found the plot device in one of Dorothy L. Sayer's novels whereby the detective found someone's To do list incredibly unconvincing.  In middle age I find it entirely believable, though I keep mine on my laptop rather than a piece of paper ready to be dropped where a passing detective can pick it up, but any amateur detective worth their salt would find a way to look at my computer anyway.  My memory may not be so good as it was a few decades back, and I have more to remember.  Pay Visa bill by the 18th of the month and Get cat worming pills don't feature in your life when you're fifteen, don't have a credit card and your parents take care of the cats' medical requirements.

A good To Do list is broken down into bite sized chunks.  Weed in front of the Buddha statue now the cyclamen are coming out is an achievable instruction.  The area concerned is about fifteen feet by eight, and in the course of an afternoon it's quite possible to weed it, mulch it, stand back and admire the bright pink and soft white flowers of the cyclamen against their new dark background before deleting the task from the list.  Weed back garden is a useless reminder, since it will never all be weeded at once.  I might as well add Remember to breathe or Keep in touch with friends.  A To Do list needs to be more specific than that.

I add new things to the bottom of the list, and delete items as and when they're done.  I don't date them when adding them, which would be too weird, but obviously the things at the top of the list have been there for longest.  The bottom of the list always has rapid churn, as I add reminders to myself to post birthday cards, and other simple but time critical jobs.  It is very interesting to see how different tasks fare, which ones linger for ages, and which are tackled smartish.  You learn quite a lot about your priorities and your method of tackling them, when you write them down and periodically review them.

I am dreadful at not quite finishing things.  I will do most of something, maybe nine tenths of it, and then fail to make the final push that would allow me to say it was finished.  The Osmanthus delavayi at the corner of the island bed nearest the house has been almost but not quite pruned into a dome for weeks.  Why?  I truly have no idea.  It's not as though I disliked pruning it, or grudged the necessity to prune it, or had suffered a past pruning accident involving Osmanthus which left me with a suppressed fear of taking the secateurs to it.  I just don't seem to get round to finishing it.  At the opposite end of the scale, I am prone to mission creep.  Weeding in front of the Buddha statue took longer than an afternoon, because once I was settled in that corner of the garden I felt unable to stop weeding at the edge of the area with the cyclamen, and continued under the canopies of the neighbouring shrubs before I could declare the job done.  Which is fair enough.  It's my garden, so I can do things in any order I want to.  The list is only meant to act as a memory jogger.

Sometimes I realise that the reason why I still haven't done something ages after I thought I should do it is because I don't want to, or the thing itself is fundamentally misconceived.  That can be a useful discovery, and mean it's time for a total rethink on the issue.  Sometimes the answer is to grit my teeth and do it anyway.  Tax returns, for example, are dull but essential, and the week comes when they can't be put off any longer.  Sometimes the avoided task is totally innocuous, and I can only think that it has become abhorrent as a way of justifying having put it off for so long. Some tasks go away by themselves, as they are superseded by events.  Clearing the dead leaves from under the eleagnus hedge, for example.  I worked my way along about the vast bulk of the hedge weeks ago, picking up the fallen leaves, but never got right to the end.  Now it's time to cut the hedge back hard, which will reveal a whole new lot of leaves needing to be picked up, but makes the old memo redundant.  And sometimes things stay on the list for ages simply because I was totally over-optimistic about how much I could get done in a week, and added a month's worth of work in one go.  From that point of view the list can be a useful reality check.

Today was a red letter day, as I polished off the top item on the list, Tidy the HT bed.  The box hedge around the bed, which has been cut in several stages since Derby Day without ever quite getting there, has finally been hard pruned all the way round.  The worst of the non-thriving roses have been dug out.  The scaffolding pole for the standard wisteria has been installed, using a spirit level to get it vertical, and the wisteria planted, along with a slightly battered Buddleia fallowiana alba which someone gave me ages ago.  The weeds have been grubbed up and the bed mulched with mushroom compost, 6X, fish blood and bone, and Strulch.  The only thing not done is to prune the remaining roses, because while it would be nice to be a completionist and cut them down now, I felt I should leave it until they'd gone dormant and prune them at the conventional season.  I have been working on this mini project intermittently since March, when I bought the wisteria, and at some point over the summer I dug out the scaffolding pole from its previous too crowded and too shaded position.  At last it is done.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

each to their own

This morning brought the final stint of this week's run of volunteering, helping with the music society's mailshot for the forthcoming season.  It was very easy, since all I had to do was stick address labels on to a pile of envelopes, after somebody else had been through and crossed out the labels for people they knew had moved, or died.  Then I stuck on the stamps, putting to one side any envelopes with addresses that were so local that they could be done by hand.  There was one for a farm just up the lane from us, but I stuck a stamp on it anyway.  Last year I took it round on my way home, but found it was one of those bewildering places with multiple doors facing on to the farm yard, and no sign which was the correct one for mail.  As I dithered I felt as though eyes were looking at me, and that somebody might emerge and challenge me as to what I was doing skulking around their yard.  So I decided to leave it to the professionals, and let the postman use his superior knowledge of which was the right letterbox.

In general I feel rather uncomfortable dropping things round even to people I know.  Especially to people I know.  Supposing they are at home?  Will they feel constrained to ask me in, even though they weren't expecting me, and it might not be a good time?  Will they find it embarrassing having to tell me it's not a good time?  Or feel hurt I hadn't said I was coming?  Should I have told them? Suppose they detect me in their front garden or on their doorstep, but decide to feign ignorance because they are right in the middle of doing something, or their house is not as clean and tidy as they would like it to be for visitors?  What if I catch a glimpse of them rapidly disappearing behind the curtains or retreating into their shed, and have to pretend I haven't seen them?  Much better to make a firm social arrangement, or else subcontract the problem of delivery with a stamp.

The Systems Administrator had disappeared to the Clacton Air Show by the time I got home.  I struggle with air shows because of the noise.  In my City days I was once taken to the Farnborough Air Show, the finale of which was a row of Harrier jump jets hovering a mere ten or twelve feet above the tarmac.  In unison they all dipped their noses, and I thought that this was close to hell on earth.  Which was ungrateful of me, I know, and lots of people would have been thrilled to see them, but the barrage of noise was truly appalling.  And I don't especially like aeroplanes.  I learned about the Venturi effect at some point during my physics O or A level, but never really believed it.

The SA adores aeroplanes, and returned home thoroughly content having seen the Vulcan bomber, the two Lancasters, and the Typhoon in action.  It was probably one of the last times the two flying Lancasters will be seen together, since one is on loan from Canada and will be going home soon, and the Vulcan's flying days must be numbered, before it is too fragile to be allowed out, so it was an historic display.  Tendring Council are not obliged to provide an air display, the way they have to provide social care for the elderly, and it's good that they manage to keep it going, given that lots of people love the air show even if I don't.  Family friendly tourism is part of Clacton's revival strategy, so I presume the council sees the air show as an important part of that.  I fear it will take more than an air show, although the SA said it was packed.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

more volunteering

Today I was volunteering again in a different guise, as the beekeepers had a stand at a local wildlife fair.  August is a quiet time for garden centres, which is scarcely surprising.  The soil's dry, the borders look blowsy and uninspiring, and it's too early to be thinking of autumn planted bulbs or winter bedding.  Not for nothing is August a traditional holiday month for keen gardeners.  Even Christopher Lloyd used to decamp to Scotland at this time of year.  Hence you will see brave attempts by plant nurseries and gardens to drum up some trade by staging events.

We're happy enough to put on a modest display.  It's nothing approaching the scale of our stand at the Tendring Show, which has grown over the years to be a complex enterprise involving over forty volunteers.  For the wildlife fair we have a small pop-up gazebo, take along a core set of informative posters, a demonstration beehive with photographs of brood instead of live bees, a glass topped hive of actual live bees which remain firmly shut in their box throughout the day, and candle rolling and colouring in for the children.  And honey and candles for sale, which is handy for members with only a few jars to sell and no regular retail outlet.  Set up for the day, we talk about bees to passing members of the public, and between times gossip and drink coffee.  On a sunny day it's a very pleasant way of spending a few hours.

I was rather alarmed to have to supervise the candle rolling, because I have never done it, and am not used to talking to children.  As my nephew then aged seven informed me gravely, I am not good with children.  I'm not, but I find that if I ignore the fact that they are children and speak to them politely as if they were people it generally works, so I was probably more worried about the technicalities of candle rolling.  You take a piece of wax sheet embossed with a honeycomb pattern, already cut to size by our Show Secretary, place the wick at one end, already dipped in liquid wax to stiffen it by our Show Secretary, and roll the sheet up tightly, keeping the bottom end of the candle flat by not allowing your roll to go off on the wonk.  That's the theory, but my fellow volunteer who is a retired home economics teacher was better than I was at gently but firmly making the children go back and redo bits of their candles when they started to go off true.  I relied more on the fact that it was a very hot day to squidge the bottom of the candle roughly level when they'd finished, while praising them for their efforts.

Talking about the bees in the observation hive is more fun.  What with finding the queen (she was marked with a white spot so that was easy) and talking about what she does, and how all the workers are girls, and how long they live, and answering questions on bee diseases which is the main thing that most people seem to have heard of, and pointing out how the queen is surrounded by workers smelling her with their antennae, and talking about what bees forage on and how it produces different colours and flavours of honey, and listening to stories of bees in chimneys and bumble bees under sheds, the time flows by.  Being armed with an observation beehive is like having a dog with you, it is a great source of conversation.

Sales of honey weren't great, though, and we are going to have to have another committee discussion about the price.  Having empirically tested the price elasticity of demand this year, I think we may have to conclude that the curve is quite steep.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014


I did a woodland charity talk today, in Romford.  It is slightly daft for somebody to drive from east of Colchester to inside the M25 to preach the word on environmental conservation, but half the time the charity doesn't seem to have a volunteer from that side of the county.  I think they may have at the moment, since they found somebody to cover for me once when I couldn't do a talk, but I haven't met him and don't honestly know where he lives.  Maybe he is another north Essex resident who'll trek down the A12 when circumstances require.

I rarely meet my fellow volunteers.  I have a cordial email relationship with the paid member of staff who coordinates our efforts, and have met her in the flesh a few times, originally when she brought the digital projector over, and then at the odd conference, but the other speakers are mostly a mystery.  They need not be, nowadays, since the charity has recently started a volunteers' online forum.  Unfortunately from my point of view they have chosen to make it a closed group on Facebook, and since I don't want to join Facebook I haven't signed up to the forum.  Before settling on a host they surveyed us for our preferred option, and I replied that I was quite happy to use LinkedIn, but was not prepared to try and negotiate Facebook's privacy settings which I believed were designed to confuse.  I was obviously in the minority, and the forum has gone ahead without me.  I stick to my guns.  I don't want to join Facebook.

There used to be a volunteer speaker from Chelmsford or thereabouts, but as his work got busier he had to give up.  I covered for him at Hatfield Peveril, or maybe Kelvedon, when he'd taken the booking and then had a late meeting on the day and couldn't make it.  Groups who book a speaker generally only know that somebody is coming to talk about trees, and while the organiser has our names and contact details they don't especially care who it is.  Half of them don't even grasp that we are volunteers, but think we work for the charity, so the Hatfield Peveril (or Kelvedon) lot were not as impressed as they might have been to have a speaker roll up and save them from having no entertainment for the evening's meeting, who twenty-four hours previously hadn't been planning on giving a talk that night, or going out at all.

There was a cheerful little chap with a neat beard from Manningtree who'd taken up volunteering after retiring from some multinational conglomerate.  I got the impression he'd been professionally involved in marketing, so he should have been good at talks, but he didn't seem to last very long.  I think he got downhearted that he kept being offered gigs at the other end of the county.  There was a strange man from Harwich, who borrowed the projector in the early days of providing volunteers with digital projectors, but he disappeared from the scene again as well.

I once needed to find my own substitute, before the charity's email cover became as thorough as it is now, and back in the days when we were given contact details of other speakers and left to liaise. My mother-in-law's funeral fell on a day when I was due to give a talk, and I didn't think I was going to be back in time, or be in the mood to entertain a room full of people, or want to leave the Systems Administrator sitting alone at home.  I tried ringing a man in Ipswich, who gave me a lecture on how young people today left everything to the last minute, and didn't give me a chance to explain why I needed someone else to do the talk.  He dropped out of the scheme soon afterwards, and I heard on the grapevine he'd forgotten to go to a meeting and left his hosts high and dry with no entertainment.  (The thought of that bothers me, and I make suggestions to the beekeepers that we should have an emergency quiz prepared in case of a no show booked speaker, but we have never got round to writing one, or copying someone else's).  After the righteous man in Ipswich I tried a woman called Judy, who heard me out as to why I needed cover and said without hesitation that she'd do it.

Today's talk seemed to go well.  They were a very nice, friendly group of ladies, who seemed interested.  My only regret is that while I was starting to load my car afterwards, somebody cleared away the last of my mug of tea before I'd finished it, and the second chocolate digestive biscuit which I was thinking about eating.  Romford is a long way, though.  Any volunteers from Sarf Essex?

Monday, 18 August 2014

the unvarnished truth

I see in the Daily Telegraph that Laura Ingalls Wilder's autobiography is to be published this autumn.  It will be the unvarnished version as originally written, which failed to find a publisher until reworked into the series of children's books many of us know and love.  And then the TV series, though I quibble with the Telegraph's headline use of the phrase 'much loved' if intended to cover the telly version as well as the books.  I loved the books.  The TV series Little House on the Prairie was an abomination.

Apparently life in the mid-West as a pioneer in the 1870s was not so squeaky clean as the books made out.  That's not really a surprise.  After all, they were written for children, and I don't know if even now Jacqueline Wilson would include a drunk setting his bedroom on fire and dragging his wife around by her hair.  Perhaps she would.  I know my mother finds my niece's enthusiasm for Jacqueline Wilson over Geoffrey Trease rather depressing.

The thing I particularly liked about the children's books was not Laura's feud with Nellie Olsen, so much as the detailed descriptions of how you did stuff.  After reading Little House in the Big Woods I felt I too could have moulded and trimmed my own rifle bullets, or tapped a sugar maple.  By the time the family were half way to Dakota I'd cracked building a log cabin, and the dangers of fire damp when digging a well.  More than forty years later I have yet to put any of these purely theoretical skills to the test, but I still like the idea that I know how to tap a maple tree or how to retrieve a horse and sled that have fallen through thick snow lying on prairie grass.  Nobody ever dared me to lick a pump handle while I was growing up, but I'd have known not to do it during a winter freeze if they had.

I guess I will read A Pioneer Girl.  I am curious to hear the grown-up version of life as a farming family travelling West as the West was opening up, and fond enough of the Ingalls clan to risk hearing something closer to the truth.  It can be a sad disappointment, though, reading about the private lives of writers whose books you have loved.  So many of them are not very nice, authors of beautiful and lyrical books turning out to be selfish and manipulative characters you wouldn't want as a friend in the real world.  The review of A Pioneer Girl says that Pa was not always the scrupulous character he is made out to be in the children's version of the books.  Suppose Laura Ingalls Wilder turns out to be a right cow?

Sunday, 17 August 2014

next door's party

The tail end of Hurricane Bertha is lashing the garden with half a gale.  Indeed, looking at the Met Office Inshore Waters Forecast I see that the whole coast of Britain and Northern Ireland is ringed in red, indicating strong coastal winds, except for the south coast of Devon and Cornwall.  I ducked the wind this morning by dint of spending it in the kitchen extracting an odd super of honey.  (It's a bit of a waste having to wash the extractor and do all the clearing up afterwards just for one super, but that's all there was left to take off, and I must have got ten or a dozen jar's worth out of it).

I ventured out in the afternoon and finished planting out the stash that had been sitting by the front door for a while, and were destined for a relatively sheltered stretch of border just uphill of the bog bed, but the wind annoyed me.  I really don't like wind.  It makes me edgy, and ruins my concentration.  When I'd finished the planting I came in for a cup of tea, and when loud music started up from the next door but one neighbour's field I decided to call it a day.

The neighbours, in fairness to them, are not normally noisy.  In fact, it's generally quite difficult to tell whether anybody is at home.  They are making up for it now, though, as I can hear the music clearly from inside through the walls and the double glazing and with the doors shut.  I was slightly surprised that they hadn't followed the standard precaution for people planning to hold a loud event and invited the neighbours, even if it's not going to be their sort of party and you don't expect them to come, but then it occurred to me that it may not directly be their party either.  I would not like to hazard a guess at how old our next door but one neighbour is, but she has grown up children, and grandchildren, and her husband died just before Christmas.  Without wanting to leap to ageist assumptions, loud al fresco guitar music doesn't seem her usual style, and maybe her field is being used by a young relative or friend to hold a party of their own.

I'm pretty sure the music is live.  There was a burst of tuning and practice noises before the evening got going, followed by something poppy that was definitely made in a studio, but now we're down to a fairly stripped down line-up, vocals, bass, guitar, drums.  It's actually not bad, although not especially good, and goodness knows how loud it must be when you are standing right next to the band, given that I can hear it comfortably from inside and across another small field.  I don't know why live music at private events often ends up so loud.  There was an evening wedding reception where the band got so overwhelming that I had to go and stand outside because my ears were beginning to ring, and a fiftieth birthday party with a group doing classic rock cover versions who were quite good, but so loud that any kind of conversation in the room they were in was impossible, and all the party goers who didn't want to dance the night away (the majority, by the time you get to a fiftieth) ended up sidling away from the centre of the proceedings into the kitchen and the corridors.

The Colchester Arts Centre is generally a safer bet.  I suppose they are constrained by planning, and health and safety rules about safe levels of noise exposure.  I once found a Faustus concert verged on the physically painful, when I sat too close to the speakers, but even the Bad Shepherds have been OK.  I am a wimp about loud noise, having ears that ring easily, not to mention developing a strange sense of pressure when it's about to rain.

The guitar band, if it was live, is taking a break.  We're back to dance music again.  Luckily we sleep at the other end of the house.

Saturday, 16 August 2014


Magpies have been maligned, it seems.  Far from being natural thieves, they avoid shiny objects, according to an animal scientist interviewed on this morning's Today programme.  She was originally investigating their behaviour foraging for food, before venturing off-piste into the question of whether or not they take shiny things to adorn their nests.  When she put a pile of shiny objects near the food, and a pile of similar shaped objects painted matt blue, the magpies not only didn't take them or touch them very much, they spent less time feeding.  She was keen to stress the limitations of her study, that she was studying paired-off adult magpies, and that juveniles below breeding age might behave differently, but she concluded that folk lore had given magpies a bad press, and that maybe people had noticed and remembered the odd incident with shiny things and ignored all the much more numerous instances in which magpies ignored them.

Ah, the difficulties of science.  Corvids are extremely intelligent birds, and even quite dim animals in my experience can be very suspicious of changes to their routine, or anything that looks like a set-up.  So I would be a little cautious about drawing too many conclusions if she were using the same magpies and started introducing arbitrary piles of shiny things or matt blue things or anything else, once they had got used to the feeding routine.  And I wouldn't be at all surprised if magpies avoided blue things, because food is not generally blue.  Hence rat bait and slug pellets are both often coloured blue to try and discourage birds from eating them, and blue icing has never caught on.  But it was only a quick Today feature, and didn't give the methodology in full.

I am convinced that something picks up shiny things and carries them around before dropping them, though, because I keep finding small pieces of glass in the garden.  This is the first house to have been built on the site, so far as I know, and we have lived here for over twenty years, during which time we have thrown a few decorous parties but never been in the habit of smashing drinks glasses around the garden, or randomly leaving them in the flower beds.  I can just about believe that one or two pieces of domestic glassware got dropped outside on our watch, and maybe a few more under the regime of the previous owners, but I'm struggling to believe that all that broken glass was generated in situ.  I have never found a whole glass, or most of the pieces of one, just  fragments. And the drinks in the garden hypothesis absolutely does not account for the flat rectangle about one inch by two of something that looked like picture or window glass which I picked up in the wood, unscratched and with edges still sharp.  It was fresh out of somebody's workshop.

Something picks them up and then drops them.  Magpies?  Whirlwinds like the ones that account for showers of fish?  Although if it is the proverbial thieving magpies then why is it never a diamond ring, or a silver teaspoon, but always broken glass?

Friday, 15 August 2014

a question of light

It's remarkable what a difference light levels can make to the colour of some foliage.  I had three sedum cuttings in the greenhouse, rooted and beginning to straggle in their pots, begging to be planted out.  The labels said simply Back of long bed, where I have an odd sedum and had obviously not bothered to go inside and check its name when snipping a few shoot tips off to yield more plants so that I could bulk it up into a more definite group.  One sedum doesn't go very far in a garden setting, in anything except the tiniest of gardens.

Except that the sedum at the back of the long bed has leaves of a rich, dark purple.  I knew that without going and looking at it, and this trio were a muted greenish grey.  On the other hand, I thought the labels were probably correct.  I wouldn't invent the description Back of long bed unless that was where I'd got them from, and I hadn't dropped a tray of cuttings or done anything to make me mix the labels up.  It is quite shady in the greenhouse, probably too shady as the hedge has grown up, though I've been glad of the protection in the recent heatwave, and the sedum cuttings were on a middle shelf of the aluminium staging, which shaded them further.  I could only guess that the low light levels had affected their colour.  Accordingly I planted the three grey stragglers out alongside their putative parent, and within a few days their leaves had turned the same plummy shade.  The variety is 'Purple Emperor', by the way.  I looked it up, and after having to think about it will probably remember it, at least for a bit.

I have recently bought three low growing varieties for the railway garden, a greenish yellow affair with very solid stems from Beth Chatto, and two fragile and fleshy ones by mail order, one rusty red and the other bright yellow.  Their supplier warned on the website that they were almost impossible to pack so that pieces didn't fall off in transit, but customers shouldn't worry, just pot the broken pieces up and they would make extra plants.  I followed their advice, taking a few extra sections off for luck, and sliced half a dozen small cuttings from the Chatto plant before planting that out.  As I said, one sedum doesn't go very far in a garden setting.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

three exhibitions

I went to London today, for an art fix.  I'd been waiting for a day when it was forecast to rain enough not to be good gardening weather, but not so much that lightning strikes and flooding would take out the trains.  The forecasts recently have been a movable feast, but today's still looked promising by breakfast time, light rain showers throughout the day.

I started with British Folk Art at Tate Britain.  Or at least, to be strictly accurate I started with a latte and a pain au chocolat in the new Members Room under the rotunda.  I don't know the original purpose of the space, and feel vaguely idle that I haven't tried to find out, but the stone balustrade round the central void dips in and out with a sort of crinkle crankle effect, creating little niches that are just big enough to take a cafe table and a couple of chairs.  I was able to get a niche to myself, and admire my surroundings over my elevenses.

The Folk Art is quite fun, and much as you'd expect it to be, a mixture of the practical and informational, such as tradesmen's signs, and purely decorative, like the cockerel painstakingly made out of slivers of bone by a French prisoner of war.  I've always had a soft spot for quilts and ships' figureheads, and enjoyed it.  The art establishment seems to get itself into a needless tizz about the status of folk art, made worse by the incoherent distinction between Art and Craft.  It seems to me that human beings like making things, indeed, that along with the use of language it is one of the characteristics that differentiates us as a species.  Some makers have more creativity and energy than others.  Constable and Van Gogh had oil paints, the French prisoner of war had old bones from the kitchen.  Each did what he could in the circumstances.

From the Tate it's a short walk to the National Gallery, which has got a free temporary exhibition on architecture in Italian Renaissance painting.  It's small, but interesting, and makes you look at pictures more carefully, and think about how the artist has divided the space, and the relationship between the figures in the painting (there are always figures) and the space they inhabit.  I fell for a small annunciation scene in tempera, a solemn Gabriel in a lovely apricot coloured robe with beautiful multicoloured wings, kneeling before a slender Mary whose face and gestures expressed a strange teenage hauteur, by an unknown artist of the mid fifteenth century.  I'd have liked to take that home with me.

The main event at the National Gallery was their exhibition Making Colour, an examination of the choices and limitations painters have faced through the centuries in sourcing paint of different colours.  Some of the material was familiar from TV programmes, like the torturous and expensive route by which lapis lazuli reached Western Europe, and the problems of pigments proving unstable over time.  However, it's well done, and makes a nice pair with the architecture exhibition, in terms of inviting one to think about how pictures are done.

Somebody tried to photograph one of the paintings on her phone, and was warned off by a guard, which reminded me of the National Gallery's recent decision to allow photographs of the permanent collection, though not loaned items due to copyright restrictions, provided they didn't use of flash or tripod.  They say that now so many people have cameras in their phones and tablets, and are so used to photographing things and sharing them, taking pictures is simply part of how many people interact with things, and that it might encourage them to go away and find out more afterwards.  I felt a twinge of anxiety on hearing the story on the Today programme that it would make it harder to get an uninterrupted view of paintings without other people's hands and tablets held up in front of them, but apart from that I didn't mind one way or the other.

Not so the expert Today had wheeled on to flesh the story out.  It was wrong to allow it, he said, because it would stop the public from looking at the pictures properly.  Instead of concentrating on them for a decent amount of time, their attention would be on capturing the image, and then they would move on to the next thing.  Why, there was one Leonardo drawing in the collection that he could easily look at for half an hour.  Oh dear.  Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.  If people taking pictures is going to stop other people's enjoyment because it encourages them to stand in the way, or might damage the pictures as they lean back to take selfies, as apparently some guards have suggested, that would be a valid reason to stop them taking pictures.  As a small child I sang I'm a Little Teapot in the Ashmolean, complete with actions, which probably annoyed some other visitors at the time, and maybe we should have a general presumption against singing in galleries.  Maybe we should try and give some guidance on how to look at pictures so as to get more out of them, for those who want to know.  But an ordnance whose purpose is to prevent the great masses from looking at art in the wrong way?

Addendum  Today's Today was setting up a debate on whether or not women should wear high heels, just before the sport slot at half past eight, but I can't tell you how it went, because at that point I got up and turned the radio off.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

pets and livestock

The hen with the strange tuft of feathers on her neck has used up another of her nine lives, or however many lives it is that chickens have.  I went out this morning to let them out of the hen house into their run, and found her waiting in the garden beside the run.  We try hard to make sure that all of the chickens are safely back inside their pen before shutting the run pop hole in the evening, but it is quite difficult to be sure they're all there when they're all the same colour, and keep going in and out of the house while you're counting.  Any stragglers have a second chance to be let in when one of us goes to shut the door of the hen house for the night, but the one with the funny neck evidently didn't present herself last night.  Fortunately for her, the fox didn't come calling this time.

As I said, we try to look after them, but it is up to them as well to show some survival instincts. Those that don't learn to behave sensibly don't last.  We had one pair of Marans who were both taken within weeks of arriving, because they were determined to forage along the side of the wood in spite of our best efforts to direct them back into the main body of the garden.  The hen with the strange tuft is the most prone to wander of the present lot, and this was the second night she's spent in the open, but so far she has led a charmed life.

The cats, meanwhile, have all decided that they like the pouches of food formulated specially for geriatric cats.  Senior, the manufacturers call them.  We got some as an experiment for the big anxious tabby, because he was becoming so thin, and always so hungry, and then made himself sick eating too much, and we thought the special geriatric food might be more easily digestible. Digestible or not, now they all want it, and since they are all technically Senior it is difficult to say they shouldn't have it.

Lovely food it may be, at least from a cat's perspective, but I should like to meet whoever designed the pouches.  Or at least, not so much meet them as hear them explain for five minutes why they thought that packaging design was a good idea, while simultaneously massaging cat food into the skin of their hands.  When I rip the top off the pouch, half the time it doesn't come away cleanly, and I am left with a flap dangling from the top of the pouch and getting in the way, and I have yet to discover the art of squeezing the contents out without getting blobs of cat food on my fingers. As annoying food packaging goes it is right up there with the cartons of yogurt whose foil tops refuse to peel off, until they come away with a jerk firing a spot of yogurt with unerring accuracy at the middle of your shirt front.

I went to see the bees after lunch, who seemed happy enough.  They have reached the point in the year where whatever swarming catastrophes were going to happen, have happened, and as the weather has been quite reasonable for foraging none of the colonies are too near starvation, so beyond making sure that they are still queen-right and keeping an eye out for signs of disease, there is not a lot to do.  I was rather taken aback that just as I'd got the roof off the first hive, a tractor came and started doing something just over the hedge in the lettuce field, but they ignored it.  Bees are said not to be very keen on the vibrations made by some engines, and I've read horror stories of farm workers leaving tractors idling, and coming back to find them covered in bees, but I've never had any complaints or comments from the lettuce farm that my bees were bothering anybody.  I do try not to do inspections when there are pickers in the field, though, just in case I put them in a bad mood and they decide to take it out on an innocent passing Lithuanian.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

late adopter

I am the beneficiary of the Systems Administrator's largesse, in the form of a second hand tablet. It is an Asus, and beyond that I can't tell you, but I am someone who did not discover until my early twenties that there was more than one sort of BMW.  The SA upgraded to a bigger and faster version that was better for running video, and with my birthday approaching was beginning to think of a tablet as a suitable present, before having to admit that it made more sense to try me on an existing one before investing in another, just so that I could open a new box.  Since the SA would do all the setting up, it would have made it an expensive box-opening experience, and anyway I am all for recycling and re-using.

The SA scrubbed all the old SA things off the tablet until it was returned to factory condition, then could not believe that I did not know my Google password.  I couldn't remember ever having had such a thing, but the SA assured me that I must have when I got my new phone.  How long ago was that?  March of last year, I said.  And when did I last buy an App?  April of last year, I hazarded. After some searching through the papers in my filing tray, which made me think I must do some filing, I found the sheet where I'd written down my Google password, but it didn't work, and the SA, after asking sadly whether that Z could possibly be a 2, had to do a password recovery exercise and reset it.

I must be about the last educated to degree level fifty something in England to have not had a tablet.  I've noticed over the past couple of years that my friends' emails have started arriving with little tags at the end, sent from my iPad, or whatever it is.  Actually, I think my new phone does something similar, but it is tactful enough to just put Sent from my Android Device, not Sent from my Samsung Galaxy Ace 2- too-mean-to-buy-an-S4-but-at-least-no-mugger-would-want-it-budget-phone.

I ought to be writing this post on the Asus.  I thought about it, but time's getting on, I've got other things to do afterwards, and I am a reasonably quick touch typist as long as it's text and not figures, while the Asus touch screen was very sensitive when I tried it out and I might take some time to get up to speed.  Then after that I suppose it will do all the things that tablets do.  It has synchronised itself to my Kindle, although it rather idiosyncratically orders the contents alphabetically by title, and I don't recognise most of the virtual dust jackets, which didn't come with the original Kindle version.  I have yet to discover how reliable it is at picking up emails, whereas I know the answer with the phone, which is Not very, sometimes it is faster than the laptop but Sync is out of order quite often.  And then I need to work out when I'm going to use it, given that with the laptop, the Kindle and the phone I wasn't aware of any outstanding needs to be met.  But that is the art of twenty-first century consumer electronics, to fill needs we didn't know we had.

When asked what I wanted for my birthday, I suggested a waffle maker, some more glass danglers for the garden, or some rusted iron plant supports.  It's just as well that the pace of development in home electronics isn't down to me, or we'd all still be on the original Nokia.

Monday, 11 August 2014

my right leg

My right leg is starting to look much less battered than it was.  I'd managed to pick up a long scrape on my shin, and a large bruise just above the knee, but the bruise has faded and the scrape is almost healed, give or take the flaky edges.  I picked up the scrape walking into a log while carrying a bale of sawdust.  The log lives outside the pot shed, and has done so for years.  I am not utterly sure why, except that it is very heavy and that may be where it ended up after it had proved impossible to split for firewood.  It has the stubby remains of a branch coming from it, which may be why it wouldn't split, and was the thing I walked into.  We should probably move it before either of us does it again.  My leg was quite sore for several days, and when I surveyed the damage I thought I had better learn not to do that sort of thing, before I become an old lady and my flesh no longer heals.  Damage to the shins is notoriously tricky in old people.

The large bruise was a complete mystery.  I never felt anything at the time.  Indeed, I don't even know when the time was, but merely discovered a startling striated purple patch when I saw myself in the mirror after taking a shower.  From the height of the damage I suspect that the edge of the wheelbarrow may have had a role in the accident.  The bruise went from purple to greenish yellow, as bruises do, before fading as if it had never been.  It's just a pity that I have collected another, smaller bruise higher up on the other leg.  I don't know where that one came from either.

I am amazed at the amount of angst that the question of shaving or not shaving their legs arouses in the breasts of female columnists, but perhaps it is only synthetic angst, because they have to write about something, and having an opinion on shaving is easier than going out and investigating something or interviewing somebody.  But why doesn't the question of whether or not men should shave their faces receive equal column inches and agony?  Men who want to grow beards, or can't be bothered to shave, grow beards.  Other men shave.  Occasionally a journalist gets a short piece out of the question of whether we have reached peak beard, and nobody takes any notice of the conclusion, or at least the Systems Administrator still has one, and Guy Garvey had the last time I saw him on TV.  Same for legs, ladies.  If the sight of your hairy legs under your floral summer dress upsets you then shave them, or wear trousers, it's up to you.  If you don't mind, or can't be bothered, or believe that body hair is a feminist issue, then don't shave.  Nobody else minds that much.

Addendum  The younger generations may think in metres and litres, but the language remains resolutely Imperial.  Nobody ever ran a kilometre at the prospect of something they didn't like, or devoted column centimetres to it.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

wet weather jobs

This morning we were back to what I regard as typical August weather, with half a gale and heavy showers as the remains of Hurricane Bertha barrelled through.  This summer's heat wave, with day after day of bright sunshine and moderate wind has seemed aberrant, after getting used to the previous run of summers where one low pressure system after another tracked across the British Isles.  Today was like being time warped back to our last few sailing holidays, sitting storm bound in a marina listening to the wind shriek through a hundred and fifty sets of rigging, checking the shipping forecast at lunchtime to find out that it wasn't due to calm down until Tuesday, and taking a short walk to look at the nasty mass of tumbling grey and white water out at sea, before the next rain band sent us scuttling back to our bunks and a fresh packet of biscuits.

It is better from that point of view not being on a boat, being able to make tea with an electric kettle instead of having to fire up a primus stove and having full run of our very extensive book and music collections, not to mention being able to stand upright freely and not just under the hatch cover.  It was quite romantic lying in my bunk with a pile of Terry Pratchetts and a whole packet of custard creams, but the house is more comfortable.  I got quite a lot done.

I made another honey cake, putting sultanas in it this time, then having doubts the moment I did so that the mixture was too runny and they were all going to sink.  The top had caught even after fifty minutes, so to hide the mess where I'd shaved the burnt bits off I spread a thin coat of glace icing, flavoured with honey, and decorated it with pecan nuts left over from the disappointing ice cream recipe.  When we cut a slice later on we found the fruit hadn't sunk, and I'm beginning to feel quite inventive about this honey flavoured batter of a cake mixture as a carrier for all sorts of additions.  Chopped nuts?  A diced apple?

I did my ironing too, catching the growing heap on the spare bed just before the point at which it became oppressive.  As domestic chores go I don't mind ironing.  It doesn't make too much noise, so you can listen to music while doing it, and you can see when it's done.  You start with a pile of rumpled cloth and end up with neat piles of folded clothes and napkins which you can put away.  The pile has gone, the spare bed is a satisfying blank, the clean shirts and t-shirts and dresses will be there when you need them, instead of that sinking feeling when it's almost time to go out that the thing you thought you were going to wear is in the wash.  It is quite satisfying.  Today's heap took all of an Erik Satie CD, and half of a Fado recording that the Systems Administrator finds boring so I only listen to it when doing housework, alone.  The Gnossiennes make very good music for ironing (and a really excellent accompaniment to rose pruning.  Slow and wistful, they just suit cutting things off, though they really make me feel they should be the soundtrack of a classic Cold War thriller, something by le Carre where the anti-hero dies at the end).

I cleaned the cloakroom and ensuite bathroom as well, which is far less satisfying.  I don't know what's in our water to make it hard, given that we are not in chalk and limestone country, but it leaves copious mineral deposits around the taps, on the plughole fittings, anywhere that water lies, and especially on the glass shower screen.  I wipe and scrub and spray with limescale remover and leave for the recommended time and scrub again, but the mineral layers never come off like they do in the advertisements on TV.  And there is always fluff.  Every time I think I've wiped everything and that must be all the fluff, another piece appears from somewhere, or a stray wisp of hair.  Not even Trevor Pinnock's version of The Goldberg Variations could make cleaning the bathroom fun.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

visit to a railway show

We went today to the East Anglia Garden Railway Show at Bressingham.  The gardens have a steam museum anyway, on account of Alan Bloom being a steam enthusiast, and they had flung open their doors to other steam fans for the weekend, so there were model layouts, trade stands, quite a few people driving about on miniature traction engines, and what the programme described as a variety of Street Organs playing around the museum site.

I hadn't realised there were so many full sized trains at Bressingham.  Some belong to the museum, and we should be grateful to Alan Bloom and his ilk for buying them in the 1970s when they might otherwise have gone for scrap.  Some were on loan from the National Railway Museum, which surprised me until I thought that they have only limited display space at York, and are presumably custodians of more engines than they can have on show at any one time, so lending some out to other museums where they can be seen by the public and will be safe makes sense.  One of the steam locomotives at Bressingham was designed to pull the commuter services out of Liverpool Street and so had the ability to accelerate and brake quickly, to help keep up a decent average speed despite the large number of stops.  It was quite advanced for the times, when most railway companies used superannuated long distance rolling stock on the commuter services.  Alas, how times have changed.  Abellio Greater Anglia racked up 2,000 hours of delays this July, and cancelled almost fifty trains.

The model layouts and trade stands were the real draw for the Systems Administrator, who quickly bought a gas filler for the home railway, some steam oil, a model crane, and some tiny signs.  I liked the layouts, though it spoils the effect when their operators don't drive the trains at a scale speed.  It looks silly, not to mention the ensuing derailments.  I probably didn't appreciate the ingenuity of the engineering as much as I would have if I knew more about quite how technically difficult it is to make an engine that's only six inches long run off actual steam, albeit gas powered and not coal fired.

The miniature traction engines were coal fired, and gave the site a nice whiff of coal smoke.  I thought that for the SA's garden railway it would be worth running a coal burner of some sort just upwind of the layout when trains were steaming, just for the smell.  The variety of Street Organs played, but were very British about taking it turns, rather than all letting rip at once.  They did have to compete with the steam powered roundabout, which as well as two rows of horses to ride upon had an inner circle of ostriches and roosters.

Playing at trains is a man's game, though.  I saw a female operative on one layout, who was definitely a hobbyist in her own right and not simply a model railway WAG because she was talking about how she had three coach building kits on the go at once and was holding back on starting yet another project, but she was the only one.  I suppose that's simply how life is, just as the only Zumba class I ever went to, which was in theory open to all, was in practice attended entirely by ladies.

Friday, 8 August 2014

tiny plants

I have nearly finished planting out two orders of tiny plants for the railway garden.  It turns out there is a whole world of specialist alpine suppliers out there, which is not really a surprise, since there are specialist suppliers for practically everything.  If we had decided to take up Morris dancing, or taxidermy, or English Civil War re-enactment, you can bet there would be firms out there ready and willing to sell us bells and cudgels, or miniature curved sailmakers' needles and glass eyes, or pikes and halberds.

I found the alpine suppliers by dint of typing the names of a couple of plants suggested in the garden railway landscaping book into Google, and seeing who sold them.  The answer was, lots of people, and some of their websites were very good indeed.  Forget lists of plants the nursery might sell at some point during the year, but with no price or pot size, or real time stock availability, where you are invited to contact the nursery and they will see what they've got and get back to you. That might have done for a few years ago, when the internet was new and it was a novelty to be able to find out who supplied the plant you were after, and to be able to read their complete list without sending off four second class stamps for a catalogue.  It's not enough nowadays.

Now, nurseries which are doing all of their business via mail order, or all of it barring sales at shows, have got websites with the same click to add to basket facility as we've come to expect from any other internet retailer.  For this to work the website has to be linked to real time stock information, updated frequently for what has sold, or died, or been withdrawn from sale for splitting or potting on.  It's great as a customer.  You can trundle through the plant list adding things to the basket, see how much the grand total is, draw a deep breath and delete some of them, or start bulking up singles to groups of three or five while keeping track of your total spend. You can settle down for an evening of retail therapy, and end up with a confirmed order, all done and dusted outside office hours, no waiting for somebody at the nursery to respond to you the next day.  Lovely jubbly, and requiring significant investment from the nursery in IT and stock control.

The two nurseries I have used so far have both been an absolute pleasure to deal with.  Border Alpines sounded as though they ought to be in Scotland or Northumberland, but are actually a husband and wife partnership based down in Devon.  I ordered several trios of prostrate, drought tolerant (I hope) alpines from them, plus another variety of mud tolerant primula for the bog bed, and a couple more Halimium calycinum, since I was so pleased with the one I already had, and they were offering them at four pounds.  None of the plants were very large, the herbaceous in 7 centimetre pots and the Halimium in 11 centimetre, but they were all well rooted and healthy, and apart from the Halimium cost between two and three pounds each.  Delivery was by 24 hour courier and the order was sent out extraordinarily quickly, the plants being with me within thirty-six hours of my placing the order.  Border Alpines had invested in packaging as well as systems, the herbaceous plants coming packed in larger versions of the stout hinged plastic boxes often used for plug plants.  Border Alpines offer a free plant of their choice if you buy ten, and send me three free Primula of a different moisture loving variety, plus a postcard with a nice picture of a geranium and a handwritten message thanking me for ordering, and warning that the primula I had ordered were starting to die back naturally, but would make cracking plants next year.  It caused me some head scratching trying to find the right spot for the free plants, since they seemed to need somewhere that would not dry out in summer (shallow rooted) or become sodden in winter (or they'll rot), but it was a kind thought.

Craigiehall Nursery really are in Scotland, and are another husband and wife team, who according to their website started with nothing and still have most of it left.  Their plants were slightly larger, in 9cm pots as standard, and cost fractionally more, but again very nice, healthy, well rooted but not old and pot-bound.  Delivery was  by 48 hour Parcelforce, but the plants survived the journey perfectly well.  They had taken an eco-friendly but labour intensive route to packaging, each plant being individually wrapped in newspaper done up with a dab of tape, and with a collar of twisted paper around the top of every pot to protect the foliage, each held on with two rubber bands.  Three Alyssum spinosum, which have quite brittle stems, came individually wrapped in rolls of corrugated card done up with tape.  I thought that my former employer could usefully have looked at both parcels before being so contemptuous of staff who wanted 'training on how to put plants into a cardboard box'.

The Craigiehall order took me ages to unwrap because I kept smoothing out the bits of newspaper to read them.  There were advertisements for the Stewarton and Dunlop 100th Show, the Ardlamont Sheepdog Trial Association Open Trial, and the sale at Dumfries Mart of 30 horses and ponies and four donkeys.  Situations vacant included a Breeding Technician to work with pedigree sheep (specialist training provided) and a Shepherd Required.  A tall, fit, shy livestock farmer 6'2" sought a similar lady for friendship and maybe more.  Entry fees for the Doon Valley Sheepdog Trials were £5 per dog, and there was good news that the Schmallenberg virus had stayed away.  It was a window into a different world.

I daresay there'll be more orders to come, once my credit card and my back have recovered from the last ones.  Buying tiny plants is great fun, as you can try so many different things and feel lordly ordering three of each, for the same amount of money as would buy you one standard tree.

Thursday, 7 August 2014


This will be a very quick blog post.  I've just got in from a beekeepers' committee meeting, it's nine minutes to ten, and like The Sweeney I haven't had any dinner.  Nor has the Systems Administrator, who got in before I did after a day at the cricket.  I left a corn beef hash in the simmer oven before going out, what seems like a long time ago, so it should be done by now, though the SA didn't smell it on getting home, and I'm bound to admit that I can't smell it either.

I didn't think it was going to be a long meeting, but it's amazing how committees can go on sometimes.  This evening was  full two hours, as was the music society on Tuesday.  The music society managed to get through an autopsy of the jazz supper, a review of the accounts of the last financial year, and a preview of the whole of the 2014-15 concert programme, so did pretty well to cover it all in only a couple of hours.  The beekeepers, on the other hand, should have been straightforward, what we thought of our efforts at the Tendring Show, where were we going for our Christmas meal, er, that's it.  The Secretary and Membership Secretary were both unable to attend, as was the Training Officer.

Not so.  Maybe it is an immutable law of nature that meetings expand to fill the time available, and given a comfortable conservatory and choice of two home made cakes, even a three quarters strength committee will settle in for the duration.  The new Show Secretary wanted to defer discussion of the show until she had had time to digest the feedback from volunteers and her own thoughts, and the whole committee was there, but we somehow ended up discussing the show anyway.  And the terms and conditions of hiring equipment out to members, and where it should be stored.  And how old our supply of candle moulds was, and why some of them had funny interior finishes.  And whether committee members were willing to have their photographs on the divisional website, which would be accessible to anybody via Google search even though that section of the website was members only if you went in via the home page of the site.

And whether to buy some child sized bee suits for loan to children interested in seeing bees, and for use at school talks.  And having a register of members willing and able to do talks and who should coordinate it.  And whether we were supposed to be mailing out a list of the rules of the Essex Beekeepers to new members, and if so whether we had been, and where could we get a supply of new leaflets with the rules on them.  And whether we had mistakenly paid a subscription for somebody who had not in fact renewed their membership.

And so on and so forth for two hours.  And that is fifteen minutes of blogging, and I really need that corn beef hash now.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

the railway garden resumed

Sandwiched between the long bed and the boundary hedge is an accidental, unplanned space.  If I were setting out a garden from scratch now I would know not to do it the way I did twenty years ago, and the space wouldn't arise, but that was then and it did.  Initially it was raw earth, uneven from having the apple orchard grubbed out of it, and then it was smoothed off and made into a poor quality lawn which was never used for sitting on, playing games, or anything else, and then it was turned over to gravel, but not gardened very much because it was barely visible from the house and nowhere near the top of the list of priorities.

Then it came in useful, because the Systems Administrator wanted to build a garden railway, and a long thin space allowing a full scale mile of track, somewhat shielded from the rest of the garden, suited both of us as a place to put it.  The initial attempt at railway building proved as flawed as my first efforts at garden design, and the SA slightly lost heart as track defects derailed the tiny trains, and the model buildings fell apart in an English winter out of doors.  I occasionally pulled out the worst of the weeds and encroaching ivy, until I began to wonder whether the SA was ever returning to the project, or if I could hide the abandoned track under some shrubs.  A garden railway is one thing, a derelict garden railway is vaguely depressing.

Then the SA found new energy for the project.  Sections of track were relaid, others were declared unviable and I was promised the ground could be released and returned to the garden proper.  And the SA got a new book on garden railway planting, which was passed over for me to look at.  I took this as a signal that I was welcome to resume planting things with appropriately minute leaves if I so wished.  I was quite happy to play in the gravel around the railway, since it is virtually the last undeveloped space this side of the meadow, and I have always liked alpines.  I sometimes have fantasies of cultivating them as a retirement project, when I am too old and feeble to cope with a large garden, and no longer able to bend or kneel.

The railway garden is definitely not a place for tiny treasures.  The soil is the merest light sand and infested with roots from the hedge, a very poor substitute for an alpine scree washed through with melt water.  The area to be covered is large and my budget is finite, so each individual plant needs to cover a reasonable patch, otherwise the railway garden will cost more than if I were covering it in the finest Axminster with premium underlay for good measure.  And it is the SA's project, so any plants that go in at this stage might need to come out again to make way for subsequent building works, which is fine if they're quick, cheap and cheerful, not so good if they cost an arm and a leg each and it was a red letter day when after several years they reached a diameter of six inches.

From past experiments I know that creeping thyme grows well, flowers abundantly, and seeds itself, but is not awfully weed suppressing.  Arenaria montana has done pretty well, making quite dense mats, flowering profusely, and seeding itself about.  Small leafed hebes more or less gave up the unequal struggle, faced with drought and famine.  A tiny leafed pink remained solid, but didn't spread out into mats as fast as I'd hoped, likewise a miniature thrift.  A Parahebe coped, just, while a dwarf prostrate Penstemon suffered without dying entirely.  Alyssum spinosum, which I adore, struggled about as much as the Penstemon.  Antennaria made big, solid, spreading mats and looked as though it planned to continue, slowly but indefinitely.  Dwarf Phlox seemed worth persisting with. I knew from my efforts to cover the ground in parts of the long bed that Teucrium chamaedrys would cope after a slow start (and in fact after being agonisingly slow to get going it is showing potential to be invasive, sending out underground shoots that pop up through other things some way from the parent plant), and that prostrate Gypsophila would survive.

That gave me a sort of feel for roughly where to pitch my efforts.  Faced with planting ground of unknown quality, but which you suspect is going to be difficult, there's a lot to be said for treating your first attempts as sighting shots, trying a bit of this and a bit of that and finding out what works, then building on your successes, and giving up on the failures without wasting too much money or energy on them.  From my first experiments at planting up the railway garden it became pretty clear that it was only worth bothering with the toughest plants, as the triple whammy of the light soil, root competition from the hedge and low rainfall was going to see off anything else.  It's good to know where you stand, and armed with knowledge I started to explore the on line catalogues.

And had a ball, but that's a story for another day.