Tuesday, 30 September 2014

our feathered friends

I was not going to let the chickens out for a run, because I was on a roll with the weeding and didn't feel like letting them set the gardening agenda for the rest of the afternoon.  I hardened my heart and ignored their shrieks of complaint, but then they came rushing up to me with such imploring expressions when I walked past them on the way to the compost heap that I felt I had to let them out for a quick wander.  Hens have a highly developed capacity to want things, or at least to look as though they want them.  The first hen I ever met that got me interested in the idea of keeping chickens was at the Ironbridge Museum, many years ago.  She was in a run that had been pecked and scratched bare of all vegetation, and was trying to reach a nettle on the outside of the enclosure through the netting.  I have rarely seen a creature that seemed to want anything more than that hen wanted the nettle, and I felt obliged to pick a stem and pass it to her.

They have quite a broad emotional range, chickens.  They get very excited about food.  On those mornings when I take them some boiled potato, either leftovers from our supper the night before or old ones I've cooked up for them specially, they jump up as I drop the potato lumps into the run.  Tomatoes are a favourite, if we have any that have gone a little squishy, and leftover rice makes them very happy.  They are fans of processed starch, so white rice receives a much more enthusiastic response than porridge oats.  They love sunbathing, and will stretch out sensuously on the floor of the run on hot mornings, extending now a wing and now a leg.  They are assiduous about dust bathing, but it never looks as much fun as when they're having a good stretch in the sun.

They are nosy animals.  Doing any task near their run, it is quite normal to look round and see five beaked faces staring at you, and the Systems Administrator was once busy in the workshop during chicken exercise time and found them lined up outside, looking in through the door, while they regularly visit me when I'm weeding.  They're partly there for the worms, but partly to see what's going on.  They ignore the robins, perhaps because they are too small, but seem to empathise with other larger birds.  The big tabby once despatched a pigeon outside the chicken run and the hens screamed hysterically, whereas a rabbit meeting the same fate left them quite unmoved.  Poultry books warn of the dangers of bullying, and how the other chickens will gang up on one that's ill or injured, but when any of ours have been unwell the rest have looked almost sympathetic.  At least, they have peered at the sufferer and moved cautiously around them, without showing any signs of aggression.

You can herd chickens in the direction they're minded to go anyway.  Try to send one the opposite way to where she wants to go and she will duck and dive like a footballer.  They have strong opinions about where they want to visit, once you let them out, and are very reluctant to be diverted or distracted.  This has sometimes caused friction between them and me as when, for example, what they wanted was to scratch around in the newly weeded and mulched cyclamen patch.  You can shoo a hen half a dozen times off the place where she wants to forage, and she'll be back there every time.

Sometimes one or two will get left behind by the rest of the flock and rush in a panic to catch up, wings flapping madly for extra speed and legs whirring like The Road Runner.  Panic comes naturally to chickens, which is reasonable enough in a world where practically everything else wants to eat you.  The sight of me walking past in my bee suit was enough to send them all rushing into their house to hide, the first time they saw it, but they soon got used to it.  They are quite bright about grasping routines, and know that there's no way they're coming out at eleven in the morning, whereas it is worth making a fuss from mid afternoon onwards.  We had one lot that developed a craze for jumping off the conservatory roof and crash landing with much flapping on the lawn, but none of the later generations ever did it again.

Oh, and they do grumpy spectacularly, when broody.  A broody hen is one of the grumpiest animals you will ever meet, at least when she is never allowed to keep any eggs.  Lift a broody out of the nesting box and put her down on the grass outside so that she can get some air, some sunlight, and some vitamin C, and she will sink to the ground in disbelief, then pick herself up and scream at you.  Then scurry round to the pop hole and back into the run, where she will rush up and down, still shrieking.  Some broodies are grumpier than others, and will turn round to peck your hands when you lift her off the eggs, while others will just look at you sadly, before sliding back into the nest with a wiggle of the bottom.

One emotion the cats have got off to a fine art and the chickens haven't mastered yet is smug. Chickens don't seem to do smug, but you can tell when they have had a nice day, because after they have gone to roost they burble to each other on their perch before settling down for the night.  Tomorrow I am going to an afternoon concert, so the Systems Administrator will have to take a break from the workshop and find something to do in the garden for a couple of hours if the chickens are to come out.  It can be inconvenient releasing them, when they are intent on visiting one end of the garden and you are trying to get something finished at the other, but they are enormously entertaining animals to watch.  And they do enjoy free ranging for a couple of hours.

Monday, 29 September 2014

best foot forward

My Pilates teacher's plan for this month's lesson was derailed by the discovery that I had stiff feet. I didn't go to see her worrying about my feet.  As far as I was concerned my feet were fine.  We had a deal, I bought them shoes with flat heels that didn't rub or pinch, and they carried me from A to B without complaint.  It was lower back problems that led me into the regime of physiotherapy then Pilates.

The stiff feet manifested themselves in jumpy big toes, that wouldn't stay relaxed and softly pointed like they were supposed to, while I was coiling and uncoiling my spine and bending my knees on the supine version of a rowing machine my teacher calls The Reformer.  Which I always think sounds rather ominous, like an instrument of torture from the Inquisition.  My teacher wanted to know what the feet were doing, and I had to admit I didn't know, but I wasn't telling them to do it.  She made me get off the Reformer and massage their soles with spiky massage balls, which was quite nice.  She was not convinced, and replaced the spiky balls with a tennis ball.  That was uncomfortable, I had to admit.

My teacher explained that if your feet were not moving as they should, and were tending to tip outwards as mine were doing, this altered your gait and put strain on the calves and outer thigh muscles.  The thigh bone is indeed connected to the hip bone, and the leg bone, and so on right down to the tootsies, and my dodgy lower back might not be such a separate issue to my feet as I thought.  She demonstrated lifting her big toe, while leaving the other four toes firmly planted on the ground, then did it the other way round, and asked whether I could move my toes independently.  The answer, as you will have guessed, was a resounding No.  At her suggestion I held the other four toes down while trying to raise the big one, and managed to get a feeble wave, but when I tried it the other way round, the big toe didn't just twitch under my hand, it pressed forcefully upwards.

I have been sent home with foot exercises, and had better get hold of a tennis ball from somewhere, and try to have more relaxed and disciplined feet before my next lesson.  It's funny though how often, once you are aware of something, you suddenly see references to it everywhere, as skimming through the paper before lunch I found tennis ball foot massage recommended in an article on how to wear high heels.  Which I will not be doing.

I knew theoretically that the human foot is a complex structure, and looking it up on Wikipedia I see that it has twenty six bones, thirty three joints of which twenty are actively articulated, and over a hundred muscles, ligaments and tendons.  That's an awful lot of components to go wrong, and I can quite see how my brain has forgotten to speak individually to my big toe.  We take feet for granted, until they go wrong, but we should not.  A friend's son, who is only twenty, has been suffering badly for months from plantar fasciitis, leaving him limping slowly and painfully about. This is not good for his work or his social life.  I had better heed my teacher's warning, and start giving my feet the attention they deserve.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

make your own compost

The weather, Radio 4 keeps reminding me, is unseasonably warm.  It ought to be six or seven degrees colder than this, in England in late September.  Maybe eight or nine.  'Ought' is one of my least favourite words.  'You really ought' to do X is a piece of advice designed to make one want to do the opposite of X, and maybe bite the adviser for good measure.  I am delighted with the weather doing what it ought not, which I don't suppose will last more than a few days, and am happily pressing on with the weeding and revelling in the sensation of warm sun on my back.  It will be cold soon enough and stay that way for ages, you'll see.

I have broached the end bin of finished compost, picking out the twiggy bits that haven't rotted down yet.  I think I recognise the stems of santolina, though it's difficult to tell by this stage, and the bunches of straight stems could be asters.  I chucked them into a bucket as I filled the wheelbarrow and emptied them back into the first bin to go round again.  The rest of the compost looks like the real thing, dark, crumbly, and pleasant smelling.  I've found the odd worm, just to underline how alive it is.  Home made compost as a soil conditioner counts as high horticulture, closing the loop and making the garden a self-contained system, if only there was enough of it. There never is.  It's amazing how the contents of the first bin, heaped high with stems, leaves, spent flower heads, chicken house litter, and the contents of the kitchen peelings bin, then refilled again as it slumps until there must have been fully eight feet of stuff piled on to it, rots down to no more than a foot of nice, friable top dressing for the borders, by the time it's been forked along the row from bin to bin.

The contents of the next bin in is looking quite hopeful as well, though it may be that when I come to dig into it I'll find too many lumps and solid stems.  I thought the heap I'm using now might have been ready a few months ago, but when I investigated there were still far too many not yet rotted twigs.  I should probably be more diligent about chopping stems into shorter lengths when I'm clearing the borders, to encourage them to rot quickly on the heap, or shred them.  The trouble is, it all takes time, and is more work with the secateurs.  Even with the Felcos it can feel as though I'm flirting with the risk of RSI during weeks when I'm clearing the borders.

I turned everything from the first bin into the second one some weeks back, because it needed mixing and aerating, and I needed the space at the start of the process.  Then I found pods of grass snake eggs, not yet hatched, which I put back in the compost.  They should have hatched and dispersed by now.  A few years ago I was turning the heaps during summer and came upon a mass of wriggling babies only a few inches long.  I suppose that's an argument for not messing with your compost in July while it's doubling up as a wildlife habitat.  The beekeepers get calls every year about bumble bee nests in compost bins, but I've never had one.

By now the first bin is piled high.  Shreddings from the eleagnus hedge make up rather a large proportion of the mix, and I could do with finding some softer material to mix in with it when I turn it.  Meanwhile, the Systems Administrator has started burning the old, dried leaves swept up from under the hedge.  I'm reluctant to add those to the heap, quite apart from the fact that the compost pile is already eleagnus heavy, because they must be mixed up with all sorts of weed and grass seeds after sitting on the ground under the hedge for so long.  The incinerator is doing a good job of keeping a controlled and not too smoky fire going, and we must have got through half a dozen bags of leaves in the past couple of days.  That still leaves a lot of bags to go, not to mention the great heap of long grass.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

from baroque to bulbs

I found my way to Abberton church for this morning's baroque cello recital.  It is small and plain, fairly heavily Victorianised Medieval, reached up a tiny lane but with an unexpectedly large, ballast covered non-muddy car park.  The vicar who introduced the concert drew our attention to the car park, which was new, and warned us that if anybody was thinking they needed to go to the loo, there wasn't one, so they would have to wriggle or go outside and find a convenient bush. There was going to be a new loo as of next week, and we were all cordially invited to sponsor a roof tile.  I was glad I'd limited my breakfast tea intake to two small mugs.  I had a hunch about the loo, or lack thereof.

The artist had brought a baroque cello plus a bass violin, which looked like a giant scaled up normal violin such as I could imagine in the Fortnum and Mason Christmas window display, except that its back was bowed.  Both had gut strings, which took a lot of tuning, including behind movements.  I gathered listening to the Radio 3 tribute to Christopher Hogwood on the way home that failure to stay in tune was a common criticism of the first early music revivalists in the 1970s. I liked the cello very much, but could see why the bass violin had dropped out of fashion for the past couple of centuries.  The only thing that puzzled me was the curious buzzing noise in the final (and most substantial) Bach cello suite, as if someone were fidgeting quietly with a tambourine, or a group of Morris men were shifting from foot to foot in the next room.  It definitely hadn't been there at the beginning, when he played a Bach flute suite transcribed for the cello.  Nobody said anything about it afterwards, but was it supposed to sound like that?

I stopped at Ernest Doe on the way home, and bought an incinerator to burn the bags and bags of eleagnus leaves and great heap of long grass in a controlled fashion.  It was on special offer and cost me the princely sum of seventeen pounds ninety-five, and as I told the Systems Administrator, I give him all the best presents, a new pullover exactly like the old one except without moth holes in it, and a leaf burner.  The SA didn't mind the moth holes, but they made me uneasy every time I saw them, in case they were new holes and the moths were still active.

After lunch I planted bulbs in the bottom lawn, two hundred and fifty Crocus tommasinianus 'Whitewell Purple' and seventy-five Fritillaria meleagris.  It felt like a lot of bulbs while I was on my knees dibbling holes, and won't seem like nearly enough next spring when they come up.  I look enviously at the photos in magazines and books of truly lavish displays, when the text says that the owner just planted thirty bulbs, or fifty, and they have bulked up to thousands, and wonder how long I have to wait before mine do that.  Our Ginger came down the garden with me, and sat in china cat style with paws neatly tucked in, watching the border edges speculatively in case anything came out, but nothing did.  Two robins hopped about the lawn, watching me and grabbing the odd small worm, but as if by mutual consent they and the cat ignored each other.

Friday, 26 September 2014

talking about green living

Yesterday evening being the fourth Thursday of the month, it was the beekeepers' club meeting.  One of our members told us about his eco house, so it was not a directly bee related topic.  There isn't that much you can do with bees at this time of the year, other than feed them, and there's a limit to how many lectures on sugar syrup even the most anxious beginner beekeeper wants to listen to, let alone the members who have been keeping bees for thirty or forty years.

The lecture gave us a chance to deploy our new projector, purchased months ago with a grant from the County association, and not previously used in anger.  We established before the meeting who was bringing the projector, and I offered to take my screen and projector stand as I couldn't remember whether we'd bought a screen at the same time as getting the projector, but was pretty sure we didn't have a stand.  Until you've given your first talk in a village hall you may not realise you need a projector stand, but after you've discovered that the normal tables in a typical hall are far too low, and scrabbled around trying to find a box or chair or anything you can put on top of the table to raise the projector up to the right level for the screen to be at a height where anyone beyond the front row can see it, you'll get a stand.  For good measure I chucked my extension cable in the car as well.

It was a happy thought to have taken the cable, since I arrived just at the point where the others were thinking they'd have to rearrange all the chairs because the speaker's laptop cable wouldn't reach to the power socket in the wall.  Having solved that problem we hit the next one, which was that no member of the committee appeared to know how the new projector worked.  I certainly didn't, I'd never seen it until that evening, and the one I use is designed to be almost idiot proof and runs off a memory stick so I don't have to persuade it to speak to my computer in public. Luckily one of the other members knew more about digital projectors than the committee did. Taking the lens cap off was a big step forwards.

I am so neurotic about using technology for presentations that on the one occasion I pressed the woodland charity's projector into service so that another member could give a talk, I got him to email me his slides in advance, so that I could put them on a stick and test the image size with the screen.  The idea of turning up to speak in public with your laptop, plugging it into a strange and untested projector and trusting that the whole thing will work fills me with dread.  My fellow members clearly have more chutzpah than I do, though I do think there are times when The Protector of all small animals must definitely be watching over the beekeepers.

The eco house was very interesting and quite inspiring, with the proviso that we can't all heat our houses with wood scavenged out of skips, because there won't be enough skips of discarded paint free timber to go around.  I was greatly taken with the photo of the speaker's giant one cubic metre water butt, and enthused about it when I got home to the Systems Administrator, who had already looked at them and said they were quite expensive.  That's the trouble with water butts, they seem to cost so much new that you would need to fill and empty them a zillion times to have used more water than you could have bought out of the tap for the cost of the butt.  Given the size of the roof we ought to be able to harvest a lot of rainwater, but that's no use for the garden without sizeable storage capacity to keep it until the summer months when it's mostly needed.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

two persons went to mow

Over the past two days we have cut most of the long grass.  The Systems Administrator pushed the power scythe, while I raked the cut grass into piles.  It helps to keep raking the cut grass clear while someone mows, otherwise the machine can slide over the fallen stems instead of making the next cut, and as they are swept out of the way you can see the tufty bits the first pass didn't get, that need going over a second time.  We've lifted the cut grass into the trailer and the SA has hauled it off to the bonfire site where it now sits, a great ominous damp heap that we have to burn somehow, and the SA has given most areas a final cut with the lawn tractor.

We let the grass grow long in the middle of the bottom lawn, the daffodil lawn, and the meadow. The bottom lawn is studded in spring with Crocus tommasinianus which do quite well though there are not nearly enough yet, Fritillaria meleagris which tend to be vaguely disappointing and I always wonder whether it is too dry for them, or if the pheasants eat them, and cowslips.  The cowslips in the grass don't do nearly so well as the ones in the beds, making me think the grass is too rank and competitive for them.  I have more crocus and fritillary bulbs to plant now that the ground is clear, and after my failed attempts to establish yellow rattle from seed (fresh seed too, begged from my former employer) I shall investigate plug plants next spring, if I get round to it in time, and try throwing money at the problem.  The grass is too coarse for many flowers to flourish, and a good dose of parasitic weed would help matters, if I could only get the rattle going. I added oxeye daisies to the mix last year, grown from seed that came free with a magazine, but it remains to be seen how that will do.  It's funny stuff, oxeye daisy.  You can put it in and have loads, or it can suddenly disappear, maybe to reappear later.

There is a huge and majestic ant heap on the bottom lawn.  It has been there for years, getting gradually larger, and we mow around it.  I don't know how this particular hill has survived, when generally the green woodpeckers take ant colonies out at some point during the winter.  If I were a tidy gardener I would have got rid of it before it ever grew so large, but I don't mind it there. Ants are wildlife too, after all.  On the top lawn between the rose beds I would draw the line, but it isn't doing any harm down at the bottom of the garden.  I live in hope that eventually a visitor will turn out to be an expert on ants, and be able to tell me what sort they are.

The daffodil lawn has daffodils planted in it, as you would expect from the name (no, not strictly true,  You would expect daffodils to have featured at some stage in the garden's evolution, but not necessarily to still be there now).  There are a few crocus, and I'm undecided on whether to introduce more or to save them for the bottom lawn and avoid mingling my effects.  The space is too tight for the lawn tractor to turn, and as the lawn ends in a steep four foot bank it wouldn't be a good place to be messing around on a tractor anyway, so I'll have to go over the grass to neaten it up with shears and the rake.  This is a slow task, but infinitely worse if left until a panic in February when the leaves of the daffodils start to come through.  The whole of the sloping sides have to be cut by hand as well, which is a long job.  I suppose we could buy a small fly-mo and try the fly-mo on a rope swinging technique, but I don't fancy it.  I have in the past had some success with an electric hedge trimmer, so maybe I should dust that down and try again, to speed things along.  I don't particularly enjoy using power tools in the garden.  They are so noisy, and there's less chance of spotting stray creatures in time to avoid slicing them horribly into bits.

I tried daffodils in the meadow, but the sand seems to have been too much for them, or rather too meagre, and there wasn't much of a display last year.  The meadow is fairly straightforward to cut, but quite large.  Well, objectively speaking it is not large, but it feels big enough when you are going over it with a plastic lawn rake.  Field scabious grows fairly happily in the grass, and the SA rescued a handful of flowers to go in a vase rather than slice them up with the scythe.

I have said it before but I will say it again, never, ever rest the handle of a lawn rake between forefinger and thumb of whichever hand you have holding the handle half way down.  You will remove a large disc of skin from the soft flap between your thumb and your finger in a remarkably short time, and it will hurt a lot.  Grasp the handle against your palm.  Palms are leathery and designed to withstand friction.  So long as you can avoid accidentally removing useful sections of skin, raking is splendid exercise.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

a happy accident

It has taken its time to get going, but now a pink clematis has come into flower below the rose bank.  The flowers are about an inch and a half across, with four faintly fleshy and slightly ruffled petals held well apart, and a neat central pale yellow boss.  The colour is a strongish mid pink, verging on cherry, paler on the reverse.  I had completely forgotten its name, though I remember buying it on impulse from the plant centre because I liked the colour and shape of the flowers, and the fact that the label said it would not grow too large, and could think where it would go. Looking it up now on my spreadsheet of things planted in the garden (a salutary experience after over twenty years, so many of them are no longer alive) I see that it is called 'Confetti'.

Googling it I see that it is classed as a viticella type.  Certainly it looks like one, with the smallish nodding bell shaped flowers and late season.  Viticellas are a useful class, coming towards the end of summer and in autumn when gardens can sometimes do with a boost, and while the individual flowers are not so showy as the large flowered hybrids, the plants are tough and good doers.  'Confetti' was bred by Raymond Evison, a great nurseryman specialising in the genus who has brought us a vast number of new varieties.  He shows them off each year at the Chelsea Flower Show, and some of them are saucer sized frillies I wouldn't attempt to grow myself.  They probably wouldn't survive in our less than ideal conditions, and they would look silly if they did.  But 'Confetti' is a charmer, a dainty and traditional shape and size, in a colour normally seen in large flowered cultivars.

It was supposed to be climbing up Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postill'.  I remember that part of the plan quite distinctly.  The daphne is a good seven feet tall by now, and not doing anything in particular in the back end of the summer.  I thought it wouldn't mind carrying a small passenger for those months, and that the little pink flowers would look pretty hanging down among the shiny but otherwise unexciting dark green daphne leaves.  One of the handy things about the viticellas is that you hard prune them in February, so a bird nest tangle of old shoots never the chance to develop.  Instead they flower on the current year's growth.  By February the daphne would be in flower, and I wouldn't want to risk pulling clematis stems out of it, but I couldn't see why I couldn't prune the clematis earlier, in about November, once it was dormant.

I had left one factor out of my calculations, which was the inevitable tendency of plants to grow towards the light.  Clematis 'Confetti' did not see why it should bother scaling the dark heights of the daphne, when it could ramble out over a small neighbouring shrub towards the sun.  By sheer good fortune, that neighbour happens to be Abelia schumannii, a slightly tender, semi evergreen shrub that also flowers in late summer and autumn.  Its small tubular flowers, held in little clusters, are a pinky purple which co-ordinates beautifully with the larger flowers of 'Confetti'.  Each abelia flower sits in a pinky brown calyx, giving the whole shrub a sort of warm glow, and it is a nice plant in any event, but the addition of the clematis flowers gives it a lift to a higher plane of gardening.

I wish I could take credit for the combination, but in truth it was a complete accident.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

dutch man sings the blues

Hans Theesink, the Dutch blues guitarist (now living in Vienna) was good.  In between songs he told us how he came to play the blues.  He is now sixty-six years old, and was born as far east in The Netherlands as you can get before you run into Germany, so the Delta blues was not an obvious career choice, but he heard Big Bill Broonzy on Radio Luxembourg and was hooked.  He didn't give us the date of his epiphany, but I'd guess it was the late 1950s or early 1960s, given that by now he claims to have been on the road for fifty years.  And your early teenage years are when musical ideas tend to grab you most violently.

It wasn't easy learning the blues guitar in the provincial eastern Netherlands fifty years ago.  There was no teacher, he couldn't get hold of any books, and neither of the two record shops in Enschede stocked any relevant vinyl (though one did sell him some blues and ballads that turned out to be more Dixieland, the first album he ever bought with his own money.  A good album, in its way, but not what he was looking for).  How quickly we have got used to the idea of the on line tutorial, and the ability to access infinite amounts of music or buy almost any book from practically anywhere in the world.  Hans Theesink (pronounced tea-sink, at least if you're English) taught himself the old fashioned way, listening hard to whatever he could get hold of and sitting in the front row on the rare times he could get to a gig so that he could watch the fingering.

Anybody who can insert Greensleeves as an instrumental break in the middle of St James Infirmary and make it sound entirely reasonable gets my vote.  Apparently, this jeu d'esprit came about when, back in the 1970s, he had a gig to play on a cruise plying between Sweden and Denmark (a booze cruise, possibly?  He didn't say).  It was a good three hours each way, and his contract was to play for the entire crossing, taking five minutes' break in every hour.  The sea was pretty lively, and after the first twenty minutes he had no audience, and a great deal of time left to fill.  He knew a lot of verses to St James Infirmary, and set out to sing them all, and to bulk it out still further and break the tedium he included blues versions between verses of any tune that came into his head.  Most of them didn't stick, like the Dutch national anthem, but Greensleeves worked so well that he left it in.

He is a very fine guitarist.  For all the saying about how white men can't play the blues, I would defy anybody to pick Hans Theesink up on his guitar playing if they were blindfolded, and say it was not proper blues but a pale imitation.  The slight Dutch accent when he sings is a bit of a giveaway, but I'd rather that than a fake American accent.  He has a fine, deep voice, and in the introduction to one song used a phrase I'd not heard before, 'next to the wood', meaning the lowest note on a piano.  He can't sing that low, but has worked with someone who could.  He has worked with all sorts of people, Ry Cooder, and the Dubliners, and Johnny Cash.  When the banjo player of the Dubliners died he went to his funeral.  The wake lasted for three days, and included a session with about forty banjos.

So my Dad and I got to see real international blues star.  I was sufficiently enthusiastic to buy a CD at the gig, which I don't normally bother with.  After Colchester he is off to Middelburg, then Spain, Austria, Poland, Denmark, Germany, back to the Netherlands, and off to Norway.  You can just catch him first, tomorrow in Fyfield, 8.00 pm in the Queen's Head.


Monday, 22 September 2014

back to the hedge

Back from holiday and back to the eleagnus hedge.  Our neighbour called round with the parish magazine as I was stuffing the latest batch of prunings through the shredder, and on seeing what I was doing remarked that we had been pushing our luck with that hedge for the past year.  He did not see why it should die from being hard pruned, which cheered me slightly since he used to be an apple farmer and must have done much more pruning in his life than I have, on the other hand he has never shown any interest in gardening, and Eleagnus x ebbingei is not the same as apple trees.

I stopped cutting after lunch, since by the time we went away my hands and arms were beginning to feel it, and I did not want to give myself tendonitis or anything ridiculous.  It is terribly easy faced with a large and repetitive task in the garden to do yourself a mischief.  I knew one woman who had been working as a trainee with the RHS who spent an entire week raking leaves, until her GP had to sign her off because she had mucked up her forearm so badly, and a professional gardener at one of the Oxford colleges who was out of action for weeks after spraining her wrist digging holes with a trowel for a large planting scheme.  Dilettante gardening, flitting from one project to the next, is the way to do it from an occupational health point of view, only of course it takes longer to get things done (unless you go off sick before you've finished, in which my way might be quicker).

Weeding around the compost bins I was pleased to catch a glimpse of our black builders barrow.  It disappeared ages ago, and we could not work out where we had left it, but couldn't believe that anyone had come into the garden and stolen it.  It is old and pretty knackered, with small rust holes in the bottom, which are only going to get larger over time until the rest of the barrow has to go to the metals recyling bin at the dump, and nobody would take that while ignoring the pots and rusted iron plant supports.  The only answer was that one of us (probably me) had left it somewhere, but I had a scout round without discovering where, so it was a relief to see it lurking behind some brambles.  It wasn't even stored tipped on its side, but fortunately the rain will have been able to drain out through the holes.

And that is all the blog for tonight, because I am taking my dad to the Arts Centre to hear a Dutch blues guitarist, and I mun eat my dinner.  I must remember when I go out that I am going to the folk club, and not drive to the beekeepers meeting on autopilot.  That isn't until Thursday.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

start of the concert season

North east Essex has quietly been developing a classical music festival.  I first noticed a poster for Roman River Music a few years ago in the window of a cafe down the road from the Mercury theatre, advertising concerts in various churches around Colchester.  There was an address to write to if you wanted tickets, and it all sounded rather a faff, especially if I were to try and organise anyone to come with me.  Establishing in principle that someone would like to go, then making them hold the date while you find out whether you've got tickets, sounds like hard work for both parties.  Last year I got as far as looking at a brochure, egged on by a friend who was helping out at the festival, and even indicated to her a couple of concerts I'd be interested in going to, but she was busy helping and we never got organised to go together.  By now the festival has advanced to on line booking, and I simply booked a few things I liked the look of, and as a bonus agreed to go and help at this morning's recital at the Minories.

In truth I did not help very much, because there wasn't that much for on-the-day volunteers to do. I was given the task of selling programmes, nicely produced and substantial books covering the whole festival and costing a tenner, but since there were only three left pending a reprint, that didn't take long.  The festival organiser seemed slightly defensive about the price, which has doubled since last year when they lost money on programmes, but I adopted my sales technique honed at the plant centre, which is to smile, look people straight in the eye, and appear confident as you tell them the price of something.  The book did look comprehensive, with information about every piece of music (or at least the scheduled programme at the time of going to press) right down to the lyrics, and notes on all the musicians, so it would be worth it if you were going to several events.  If people said they were only going to the one concert then I laughed and agreed that in that case they wouldn't get their money's worth.  It didn't take long to get rid of the three copies.  Apart from that I told somebody where the loo was, and showed the programme details to two or three people who'd forgotten what it was they had come to hear.

That was music by John Ireland, Lili Boulanger, David Knotts (no, I hadn't heard of him either.  He is still alive) and Ravel.  I don't think my CD collection includes a single thing by any of them, unless Ravel's La Valse or Bolero have sneaked in on a compilation album, and I wouldn't have chosen that particular event out of the festival programme if my friend hadn't been involved, but I was willing to give it a whirl.  Approaching it in a spirit of openness I quite liked it, especially some of the quieter moments of Lili Boulanger, but it hasn't started me on a new quest to discover early twentieth century French music.  You can't be mad keen on everything.

I finally earned my keep helping put the chairs away afterwards.  They were hired by the festival organisers, and the Minories manager told us to put them in the garage ready for the hire firm to pick them up.  The garage turned out to be not very large, and already almost entirely full of other things, including some freezers to which, since they were switched on, I guessed the Minories cafe staff might want access.  I knew that with all the gardening I was reasonably fit, but have now also established my credentials as The one of your friends most able to fit an unfeasibly large pile of folding chairs into a very small space.

One of the concert goers looked extremely like Bernard Jenkin, but I still can't work out if it was my MP or simply someone who looked like him, having never met him.  He gives music as one of his interests on his website, and he was working the room with the smiley confidence you'd expect from an MP, so it's not totally unlikely, but not very likely either.  Whoever it was had a great concertina fold of tickets, so if it was Bernard Jenkin I hope he gets to use them before parliament is recalled to debate the Scottish vote and English devolution.  For the record, I think Bernard Jenkin is a good MP.

Addendum  By the time I got home it wasn't worth resuming work on the hedge.  I potted up my latest bulb order which arrived while we were away, other than some tulips (which you will remember need to wait until November when the soil is cooler) and some anemone de Caen which I put to soak overnight in the kitchen, where they are sitting in a pyrex bowl looking like ingredients for a witches' brew.  The last lot of anemones I soaked and planted not long before our holiday have leaped into life, with leaves up to three inches high and pots absolutely crammed with roots, so I planted them out.  I'm not sure when they are planning to flower, and hope it won't be in the middle of a cold spell that destroys the blooms, but as the bulb companies send them out in September, this is when I'm planting them.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

late flowers

As if to reproach me for gadding off looking at other people's gardens, my own is producing a late flourish.  In the island bed at the back the main display of asters has just opened.  There is lots of 'Harrington's Pink', which produces soft pink flowers, and 'Andenken an Alma Potschke', with brighter pink flowers.  In fact, there are more than two shades of pink, which leaves me wondering whether they have been seeding themselves.  I often leave the seed heads standing though the winter, in an attempt to get that New Perennial sculpted look, to feed the birds, or because I simply don't have time to cut everything down in the autumn.  I've raised asters for the meadow from bought seed, and subsequently noticed tall plants in a fairly dull shade of purple blooming where I never put them, so I know they will self sow.

There is a tall fancy purple flowered one in the back garden which I'm pretty sure is a trophy from a visit to The Old Court Nurseries, national collection holders of autumn flowering asters based over in Worcestershire.  A smart deep blue one is definitely one of their's, but the dumpier purple could be from the Chatto Gardens.  I need to do some detective work with my list of all the asters ever planted in that bed, and try and put some names to faces while they're in flower, and when I can see their relative heights.  I haven't helped myself by possibly allowing them to seed, and by dividing a lot of them late one September when I was renovating the bed.  September is not the recommended month for messing around with asters, instead you are supposed to do it in the spring when they are starting back into active growth, but I thought that I would get away with it on our light soil and wanted to finish work on that area.  They all came up the next year as if autumn division was the most natural thing in the world.

Kniphofia caulescens is on the verge of opening its orange and yellow flowers in the same bed. It hails from marshes on high altitude slopes in South Africa, according to Kew's website, so it's slightly surprising that it has willingly made a large clump in my dry and low altitude sandy garden in north Essex.  However, it has survived since March 2002, expanding into a multi-stemmed clump of evergreen, slightly drooping, slightly fleshy rosettes of greyish leaves, woody at the base.  You might think that orange and yellow were not the best thing to pair with a great deal of pink, but the orange is a fairly soft shade, described by the RHS as coral red, and there is a lot of yellow in the garden by now anyway with all the dying foliage.  Anyway, I like the kniphofia, and the asters, and by the twentieth of September you can't afford to be too precious about your colour schemes. The poker has a fairly open habit, and last spring I squeezed in some plants of the low growing Allium karataviense between its rosettes, so we'll see if those appear again next year.

The Cotoneaster salicifolius 'Rothschildianus' at the back of the sloping border is carrying a splendid crop of yellow berries.  The birds will eat them in due course, which is fair enough and counts as wildlife gardening, but the display until they do get round to stripping the bush is a good one.  However, I'm disappointed that the Clematis orientalis which was supposed to be draping its coordinating yellow flowers all over a nearby holly bush, and which I admired draping itself madly over walls and shrubs in most of the gardens we visited last week, is still refusing to flower.  It has managed a bit of draping this year, but that's all.  I will have to give it more mushroom compost and fish, blood and bone, and see if I can find it in my heart to water it occasionally next season.

Friday, 19 September 2014

holiday final instalment

So here we are again, safely home in north Essex, and I had better bring my account of our travels to an end, since I'm certainly not going on about them after today.

The Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum  This regimental museum charts the history of the Gloucester regiments, through the centuries and across campaigns, mergers and name changes.  It makes a pretty good attempt at summarising over three hundred years of military activity as pursued by one section of the British army.  You can tell it is a good museum in that I found it interesting, and military history is not one of my specialist things.  It is housed in the old customs house in Gloucester docks, a sensible use for an attractive building.

Gloucester Waterways Museum  The canal museum occupies a former warehouse on the other side of the docks.  It is managed by the Canal and River Trust, and is a sister museum of the canal museum we went to in Ellesmere Port a few years back.  It has the usual things you would expect in a canal museum, with maps and photographs of the canal system, a mock-up of a lock gate (with trickling water), old British Transport Films films about canals, sections of model canal boats, collections of painted ware and so on.  We would have liked a little more about how the business of hauling cargoes by canal worked, since canal museums nearly always seem to focus on firstly, the physical infrastructure and history of how the canal was built (usually late, over budget, and frequently with a bankruptcy and supplementary fund raising in the middle), and secondly, the day to day social conditions of the boatmen and their families (children not being able to attend school regularly, cleanliness as an outward symbol of respectability despite nomadic lifestyle, and so on).  However, it is a good canal museum, if you like canals, and has an old (possibly the oldest in Britain) steam tug parked outside, though it was not steaming when we were there.  We did get to take a short trip on the museum's authentic Dunkirk Little Ship, built for tourist service on the Thames and pressed into military service at the start of the war.

As part of a separate expedition we went to look at Saul junction, the point at which the Gloucester and Sharpness canal meets the end of a waterway that once went all the way to Lechlade, linking the Thames and the Severn.  We met a passionate volunteer who told us how plans were afoot to reopen it.  Certainly it would be jolly nice to be able to get all the way from St Katherine's dock to Gloucester across country by canal boat.  Afterwards we discovered in the museum that this part of the canal network was never a great success even when new, because the engineers had not made enough provision to have water in it.  That is a drawback in a canal.

Gloucester Cathedral  The cathedral is very, very beautiful, with great round columns to rival Tewkesbury's in the Normaneque nave, while later additions were made in the Perpendicular.  The East Window is a splendid expanse of Medieval glass, the largest in the world when it was installed, and I liked the modern glass in one of the side chapels.  We even managed to find the memorial to a friend's uncle, who was a bishop of Gloucester.  My only minor complaint about Gloucester cathedral would be that it was being used to host a temporary exhibition of modern sculptures, same criticisms apply as at Hidcote, though not quite as bad, the cathedral being so large and magnificent that it could more or less shrug them off.

Gloucester Folk Museum  The folk museum is housed in a timber framed Tudor building which is objectively speaking the best thing about it.  The Systems Administrator was rather resistant to going, having somehow got the idea that it would be full of conceptual art.  In fact it was like most small provincial museums, rather full of assorted objects that local people had donated, and with a random scattering of cuddly toys in an attempt to appeal to children.  It did not have as much information on the Severn eel and salmon fisheries as I was expecting, but I forgave it for that because we did discover that Gloucester used to be a major centre for pin making.  I never knew that, and can now add it to my mental collection of centres of obscure industries (brushes in Wymondham and cast rion grand piano frames in Burnham on Crouch).  Plus, the woman on the desk said that Tuesday still counted as part of Heritage Weekend, so entry was free.

Gloucester Warwickshire Railway  This steam railway has been extended in recent years, and now has enough track to run half hour long trips terminating at Cheltenham racecourse, with building in progress to extend it at the other end as far as Broadway.  We chugged down the line in carriages that seemed faintly familiar from childhood trips to Woking, drawn by an engine that would originally have hauled coal wagons in south Wales so was not strictly accurate, but hey, it was a steam locomotive.  They run a pretty full timetable through to the end of September, then I think ease off to weekends only for the winter.  It is staffed almost entirely by volunteers, and the guard on our train was very amiable.  You get a view en route of some Medieval ridge and furrows, and once you have got your ticket can spend all day riding up and down, if you've a mind to.  We did not, because we were going on to:

Snowshill Manor  This National Trust property is absolutely bonkers.  I'd have realised that, if I'd read the National Trust guide more carefully.  I focused on the guide to Cotswolds gardens, which made it sound like a pleasant smallish Arts and Crafts garden that would make an interesting pendant to our visits to Rodmarton Manor and Hidcote, not necessarily one you'd drive miles to see, but worth stopping off there if you happened to be visiting something else (like a steam railway) only three miles up the road.  I didn't really register that there was a manor house, though the National Trust book does say that someone called Charles Wade purchased it to house his collection.  Too right, all twenty rooms of it, while Charles Wade slept (in a Tudor box bed) in a modest cottage in the garden, bedroom decorated to look rather like a chapel, while his wife slept (in another box bed) up a teeny tiny staircase in a room called Unicorn.

The twenty rooms of Snowshill Manor (we only saw nineteen of them, because one is shut since the weight of visiting feet caused the ceiling of the one below to start crumbling) are full of stuff. Model ships, clocks, helmets, carpenters' tools, inlaid curio cabinets in turn full of things, children's toys, bicycles, a dozen sets of what I think was Mongolian armour, about twenty spinning wheels (why have one when you can have twenty?), embroidery, tribal textiles, portraits, a set of model carts from virtually every county in England (they were rather good).  The National Trust says there are twenty thousand objects in the collection.  Charles Wade started collecting when he was seven, and I don't think he ever stopped.

The model houses in one of the cart sheds were fun.  He built a Cornish fishing village to stand by the pond.  Volunteers have started to reconstruct it, though the SA spotted early signs of delamination and said that they couldn't have sealed the ends of their ply properly.  But overall there were too many things.  Way too many things.  We walked through the nineteen rooms, and fled to the comparative peace of:

Cleeve Common  This is a vast expanse of unimproved limestone grassland on a hill above Cheltenham racecourse.  Gloucestershire's largest common and the highest point in the Cotswolds.  It is a great spot for wildlife and people alike, home to some rare flowers (though all I spotted were a few things that looked like small campanula and some thistles that might or might not have been rare, I have no idea) while we clocked kite boarders, dog walkers and a golf course. It is very sparse and bare and gives you the idea that you could walk for miles, though we only walked as far as the remains of a hill fort and some unique exposed rock strata, because we couldn't work out the route round the golf course, and time was getting on.  You can park almost at the top of the hill, so enjoy the ridge walk and the views without the slog of climbing six hundred feet first.

Westbury Court Garden  This Dutch style water garden is unique twice over, as a surviving eighteenth century garden of a type that was generally swept away by changing fashions (the owners of Westbury couldn't afford a new garden), and as the first English historic garden restoration.  Yew hedges, canals and a couple of brick pavilions make a charming formal scene, while the planting is all done using plants that would have been in cultivation in English gardens at the time.  The most exciting plant in the garden is actually the four hundred year old holm oak, which has a splendid vast and knobbly bole.  Sadly the yew has suffered from phytophthora in recent years, exacerbated by periodic flooding, while the box hedges have got blight.  Westbury came to the National Trust without any financial endowment, and faced with environmental challenges one fears its future is not as secure as it might be.

The Dean Heritage Centre  We plunged on into the Forest of Dean, and soon felt a long way from the chocolate box tourist spots of the Cotswolds, although still in Gloucestershire.  The heritage centre is well done, and tells you quite a lot about the history of the forest and its people and industries.  They were a bolshie and enterprising lot, not shy about tearing down the odd sawmill as graziers resisted attempts at reafforestation after the Napoleonic wars, and I did not know that the world's supply of Ribena is made in the Forest of Dean.  The heritage centre does its bit to keep some old skills alive, and still sometimes make charcoal by the traditional method, though all we saw was a big sooty circle on the ground.  I was pleased to see the pair of Gloucester Old Spot pigs, who initially remained coyly in their sty, revealing nothing but an ear and half a snout, but then came out for a good scratch.

Chepstow Castle  We ventured over the border into Wales for a tour of Chepstow Castle, which is large and well preserved, dating from just after the Norman conquest and expanded over subsequent centuries.  It was still in active use as late as the English civil war, which is probably one reason why so much of the fabric remains, rather than it having all been recycled by the inhabitants of Chepstow.  Very good if you like castles (we do).

Tintern Abbey  From Chepstow it's a short drive up the Wye valley to Tintern and its famous abbey, as painted by Turner, immortalised in poetry by Wordsworth, and so on.  It is a fine abbey, and was mercifully free of special events (unlike our tour of Whitby Abbey which was conducted to a soundtrack of My Boy Lollipop).  It is beautiful and melancholy, and I felt sorry for the monks displaced at the time of the Reformation, notwithstanding my reservations about Anglo-Catholic ritual.

Waddesdon Manor  We squeezed in one last piece of garden sightseeing and value from our National Trust cards on the way home, and stopped at Waddesdon, the Rothschild chateau outside Aylesbury.  Have a careful look at the website, you will see it is branded Rothschild and not National Trust, as is the property.  The Rothschild influence and millions are still brought to bear, though it was bequeathed to the National Trust in 1957.  The Victorian parterre is a marvel, as is the apiary complete with live exotic birds (not all of them very rare, but a small anxious dove was one of only a hundred left in the world, having been extinct in the wild for thirty years).  There is a good rose garden, still with some roses, a splendid tropical mound with cannas, castor oil plants and blood red dahlias, and parkland stretching beyond the formal gardens.  It is one of the Trust's most heavily visited properties, and they have just invested in a huge new car park at a discreet distance from the house, linked by shuttle bus for those who don't want to make the fifteen minute walk across the park.  A twentieth of the cost of the car park would probably go far towards solving poor Westbury's drainage problems, but the Trust has four and a half million members, and they want their facilities.

Gloucester docks  I never knew that Gloucester had docks, not that I thought that it hadn't.  Turns out it used to be a busy port, helped by the building of a canal to bypass the last seven or eight winding, treacherous miles of river.  A fine collection of mid nineteenth century warehouse buildings survived, and are now mostly turned into flats, though you can get a view of the original floors if you go to the canal museum.  It makes a good base for a holiday in that part of the world.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

more holiday experiences

We're going home tomorrow, and like Thurber's drawing of a dog with really short legs, which ended up that way because he doodled it on a telephone answering pad and ran out of space when he came to do the legs, I can see that my reviews of the attractions of Gloucestershire and the Welsh borders are going to get shorter and shorter.

Tewkesbury Abbey  My father recommended that we go and see Tewkesbury Abbey, and Simon Jenkins gives it five stars and nearly two pages of text in his guide to England's thousand best churches.  Its website (I still find it mildly incongruous that churches have websites, but they mostly do) said that it opened until six on Sundays, so we thought we'd have time to stop on the way back from Hidcote and Kiftsgate Court.  What the website had made rather less clear, though I'm sure it was on there somewhere, was that choral evensong would start at five fifteen.  The bells rang for us as we approached the abbey's squat, golden, Norman tower, which was on the one hand lovely but on the other hand did not bode well, and sure enough as we walked through the door a tall man tried to press service books into our hands, looked agonised when we said we were there for the architecture, and said that we could stay but absolutely mustn't walk around while the service was in progress.  I've been to a wedding in Italy* where normal tourist activities continued throughout the ceremony, but they are clearly more fastidious in Tewkesbury.

The abbey is very, very beautiful.  It has massive circular pillars and a great vaulted roof with lavish bosses.  I indicated to the Systems Administrator that I wished to sit through the service to give me time to look at these things, and hear the seventeenth century organ in action, and get a sense of the building being used for its original purpose of religious worship.

On the last census form I ticked the box marked No Religion, but my lack of religious faith is far more specific than that.  I am a Protestant agnostic, while Tewkesbury Abbey is Anglo-Catholic. Seen from my perspective, their service is quite extraordinarily peculiar.  There is a theatrical amount of incense swinging, a great deal of genuflecting, and most of the time the huddle of people in robes conducting the ritual don't seem to take any notice of the congregation at all, but busy themselves bowing and kneeling to each other and to points around the altar, putting an extra robe on and taking it off again.  If there is a God I suppose he or she might be pleased by all that, but I wouldn't count on it.  However, each to their own.

Towards the end of the proceedings my phone, set to vibrate, gave the morse signal of four vibrations, followed by a pause and one more, that told me I'd missed a call and someone had left a message, then did it again.  From the way I saw the SA slide phone out of pocket to check it at much the same time I knew they must be trying to get hold of us, which meant it was almost certainly the house sitter and not good news.  I checked the message after the service, and it was the house sitter, to say that the black cat had died.

The message said he was willing to bury it if we wanted, so we called home to discuss that, and went back to Gloucester without ever seeing the six chapels around the ambulatory or the tombs.

*As a guest, not as a tourist.

SS Great Britain  Onwards and upwards.  It was a shame about the cat (the call came on my birthday, just to add to the pathos), but the holiday had to go on,  We caught the train to Bristol in order to pay our respects to Brunel's great iron ship.  I saw it once before, years ago, when one tiny patch of the hull had been restored and all I can remember was feeling distinctly underwhelmed.  The SA had never been.  Nowadays you can walk under her, on her and in her. She is remarkable in many ways, launched in 1843, the largest ship of her time, the first to be built out of iron and to have a screw propeller.  After suffering storm damage in the southern oceans she ended up in the Falklands, first as a floating warehouse and then derelict, before being brought back to Bristol in a recovery operation that was remarkable in itself.

She sits in a dry dock, so visitors can walk around the hull and see the replica propeller and balanced rudder (equal areas in front and behind the rudder shaft, to minimise the work of steering).  The hull below the waterline is enclosed by a roof with a skim of water for visual effect, and an airtight seal so that the atmosphere in the dock can be kept to a maximum of twenty per cent humidity.  This prevents the iron plates, which are impregnated with salt after their long decades at sea, from rusting any further.  Above the waterline where the salt impregnation is not so severe, the conservators have managed with a combination of cleaning and preservative paint (just as well otherwise she would have to live in a vast bubble).

The interior has been fitted with replica decks, cabins, galley, and everything, including a full sized model engine, the decks have their full complement of furniture including a chicken coop and a cow, and she has been re-rigged to her original design, after a varied history which saw an extra deck being added when she served a stint as an emigrant ship, and the rigging altered when the engine was stripped out and she became a vast windjammer carrying cargo.  Walking around her today you can get a pretty good idea of how she would have looked on her maiden voyage to New York in 1845.

Thoroughly recommended to all who like Isambard Kingdom Brunel, or ships, or both.

Alney Island  You may have seen aerial shots of this on the TV in 2007.  You may not have known it was called Alney Island (the name means alder island island) because your attention will have been on the electricity substation, that was within two inches of being over topped by flood water and cutting off power supplies to the whole of Gloucestershire and a chunk of south Wales.  The island is formed by a division of the river Severn, and is one of England's largest river islands.  It is now a nature reserve, and you can walk along the banks of the Severn, or take the cycle path across the middle, either of which will lead you to an historic bridge by Thomas Telford.

The walk to the bridge is not honestly the best walk I have ever been on.  The riverside path proved difficult to pick up at the Gloucester docks end, so we took the cycle path, which turned out to be flanked by a herd of grazing cows.  I am cautious about cows, and this lot had horns.  I told myself that they must be generally placid to be allowed loose on a cycle path, and that since they didn't have calves and we didn't have a dog it would be fine, and it was, but I'm still not awfully keen on sharing public spaces with cows.  Later on I found a notice that made it sound as though they might have been a rare breed of cow, but that didn't make them any less large, or horned.

Alney Island is a real edge land.  I'm sure it is good for wildlife, but the human eye cannot escape the lines of pylons, or the ear the constant roar of traffic from Gloucester's ring roads.  We met one cyclist, and one young couple who I thought must have led sadly deprived lives if the best place they could find to go and sit in the grass, her head in his lap, was by a cycle track in a cow infested meadow over-run with pylons and traffic noise, but there you go.  The SA professed surprise that there were not more people out, and I suggested it might be because objectively speaking Alney Island was not very nice.

We found the bridge.  It sits alongside the new ring road, now unattached to any road itself, marooned in the rough grass.  It is a handsome bridge, in an austere way, which is how I always think of Telford.  It is called the Over bridge, not because it goes over the river but because Over is the name of the place where it is, and was opened in 1832 after a three year delay, because when it was finished and the wooden supports removed, the stonework slumped by a foot and they had to wait and see if it collapsed any further.  It didn't, and remained in use for road traffic until 1974.  It is built of Pennant sandstone, quarried in the Forest of Dean, and I am indebted to a useful book on the Landscape of Gloucestershire by Alan Pillbeam and not even Wikipedia for that last piece of information.

what I did on my holidays (part III)

The holidays are unfolding faster than I can write about them.  That's always the way, which is why I don't try to sit down every day to blog about what we've seen, but here I am with an hour to go between breakfast and when we need to set out for the first of the day's amusements. Practically nothing opens before ten, which is a waste of a potential tourist hour when your body clock is set for half past seven and all you want to do before returning to the cultural fray is take a shower and eat some wheatabix.

Kiftsgate Court  I had cast an envious glance at the doors of Kiftsgate years ago, when we made our day trip to Hidcote.  The two are just across the lane from each other, and I still can't work out whether the presence of Hidcote, with the National Trust marketing machine behind it, brings extra custom to its independent neighbour, or creams off some of their trade.  Kiftsgate is still in private hands, managed according to my Cotswolds gardens guide by the third generation in a family of keen gardeners.  That boded well, along with comments about planting for late colour, and the promise of views out across the countryside off the edge of the Cotswolds escarpment, and besides, I was curious to see the rose.

If you are not all that well up on Cotswolds gardens, and yet have an odd nagging feeling that you know the name Kiftsgate, it is probably because you have heard of Rosa filipes 'Kiftsgate', a fabled rambler capable of engulfing entire forest trees.  The plant centre sold them, and I always felt private doubts when somebody bought one with the stated intention of hiding their shed, since from what I'd read of 'Kiftsgate' it was more than capable of engulfing the average garden.  So I was keen to inspect this horticultural legend for myself, even out of flower.

Kiftsgate doesn't open until two in September, and we were there on the dot.  I recognised a couple of other visitors from the Hidcote cafe, who like us had been waiting there for Kiftsgate to open.  The Systems Administrator steered me past the plant stands outside the front door, and after some hesitation as to whether to go left or right, along or down, we were in the garden.  If I tell you now that it is a wonderful, marvellous garden then anybody who is not all that interested in gardens can skip the next few paragraphs and still have got the general idea.

First off you encounter a network of paths strung down the side of a fairly steep cliff.  The slope is well planted with trees, so you feel reassured that it must be quite stable, and under-planted with all sorts of interesting things, some of which like the spike of an echium, now gone over, I wouldn't have imagined being happy living under trees.  It was all meticulously weeded, and my mind was racing trying to work out how the gardeners did it.  Suddenly, you come to a stone tiled gazebo let into the face of the cliff, giving a panoramic view out over the countryside, and containing a venerable swinging seat with an awning and fat cushion.  We were in that seat in no time, and lounged there, beaming benignly at the other visitors who went past and staring at the view. There is a semi-circular pool in a lawn at the base of the cliff, and, as we discovered when we finally peeled ourselves out of the seat, more good planting, a stone fountain and steps that are completely invisible from above, and a nice classical pavilion with proper tapered columns.

Around the sides of the house are terraces with lawns, crazy paving and low walls that give a nod to the Arts and Crafts movement, a little fountain producing just the right amount of plashing noise, and some topiary which again had me scratching my head as to how the gardeners managed to clip it without tumbling down the hill.  You meander from one garden room to another and back again, edges wiggle and plants sprawl everywhere, some of them rare and many of them flowering abundantly in mid September.  There are some fabulous large planted-up pots near the house, and a cheerful run of geraniums in mismatched pots around the edge of a portico that was half disappearing under a purple leaved grape vine.  Apart from dead heading, almost nothing had been cut down in the borders, and I found the appearance of fullness, albeit yellow and brown in places, more satisfying than if the remaining flowers had been isolated in patches among bare earth and shorn stems.

The latest major addition to the garden was made by the third generation gardener, and is a reflective black pool set in a plain yew bordered grass enclosure, with a sculpture of heart shaped leaves set on tall stems that trickle water down into the pond, stems waving gently in the wind.  It was a Millennium project, and I'd seen pictures when I was at Writtle and subsequently in magazines, another reason to go to Kiftsgate.  It is a very, very good piece of water sculpture, and the owners have done well to resist the urge to embellish the space, no extraneous pots, or sculptures, or anything, just the grass rectangle, the enclosing yew, the black water (they must put dye in it since all the other water in the gardens we've seen on this trip was as clear as anything), and the rectangular grass island and stepping stones over the water.  It was all very Chelsea exhibit, but since we weren't at Chelsea we waited until we were the only people there, and then walked across the stones to the grass island.

The reflective pool area feels very peaceful, and is hidden from the rest of the garden, a clever solution if you have worries about adding a modern feature to an historic landscape.  Though it is in the nature of gardens to evolve and develop, because plants grow, and die, and a keen gardener's ideas are not usually static, but change over time as they get bored with some things and acquire new interests and enthusiasms.  So the idea of a perfectly preserved garden is something of a contradiction, because if only Lawrence Johnson, or Christopher Lloyd, or Vita Sackville-West, or whoever it may be, were still alive, they wouldn't be doing everything the same as they did last year, let alone five or ten years ago.

Anyway, Kiftsgate turned out to be a magnificent garden, and relatively under-visited, which was great from our point of view, and might be disappointing for the owners, or else exactly how they like it.  The problem with large numbers of visitors in a garden is two-fold.  It is not just that every view you turn to has someone in it, or else scowling at you because your presence is spoiling their photo, but that the weight of feet and friction of passing bodies change the very structure of the garden.  Paths have to be widened, grass given over to paving, narrow and fragile places fenced off entirely.  Kiftsgate is not like that.  You are allowed pretty much anywhere, and there is a refreshing absence of signs telling you not to trip over or fall off the cliff.  Hallelujah, treat us like grown ups who can see a steep slope when its put in front of us and decide for ourselves whether we are capable of walking up it safely.

Oh, and the rose is even larger than I thought it would be.  By now it is working its way through three large trees, the middle of which seems to be succumbing to its embraces, and a large section of flower bed.  Although we missed the flowers, 'Kiftsgate' puts on a pretty good display of hips, and the foliage was extremely healthy at the end of what has been a bad year for blackspot.

There were still some things left on the plant stands when we got out, as the SA had promised there would be, and I bought a couple of Althea cannabina, since I know I need more and Beth Chatto had run out the last couple of times I was there, and a tender salvia with tiny orange flowers on furry stems, which I'd been coveting in the pots there and at Kiftsgate.  It will probably catch botrytis over the winter and die, but I had to try with one.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

what I did on my holidays (part 2)

We have walked ourselves to a standstill in Gloucester's museums (of which more anon) so with an hour or two to go before supper, there is time to tell you about another garden, before I forget the details and they all merge into a blur.

Hidcote Manor  The late Derek Jarman and his friends disliked Hidcote, mocking it as Hideouscote.  Well, it is not at all like Jarman's marvellous organic creation at Dungeness, and I can see that it would not be to everybody's taste.  Indeed, the Systems Administrator didn't take to it when we visited several years ago, finding the garden rooms near the house too small, fussy and claustrophobic.  But we made the error of driving there and back in a day, which might have coloured the SA's judgement, and our visit did fall just before the National Trust's multi-million pound revamp, commissioned because they felt the garden was becoming tired.  It is one of the most famous English gardens of the last century, and has been influential in subsequent garden design (along with Sissinghurst) and I wanted to see it again.  Plus, it opened on Sunday mornings, fitting in with something else nearby that I very much wanted to visit and which I would only get to see if I went on Sunday afternoon.  Of such logistical banalities are garden visiting priorities partly made.

Near the house Hidcote is a garden of rooms, and the SA did not like them any better this time than last, while having to admit that the planting had improved a lot.  This is the classic image of Hidcote, with its clipped hedges, garden pavilions, and packed borders.  East Ruston Old Vicarage does not so much nod to it as fling its arms around Hidcote's neck and give it a big sloppy kiss on both cheeks.  Most of the garden by area is more relaxed and informal in the small scale twentieth century landscape tradition, and the SA liked that much better, even though by now most of the floral interest was confined to the formal areas by the house, where skilful use of annuals and tender perennials was keeping things going to a remarkable degree.  Dahlias, salvias and cosmos are all friends of the September gardener.

I found Hidcote rather fun.  I liked the profusion of late flowers, the use of pots, and the plant house.  I could happily have spent a long time sitting in the plant house, and even the SA mellowed enough to express enthusiasm for the view of tall growing tagetes.  But I didn't love it. It's not Hidcote's fault, but it is being managed as a major visitor attraction.  Numbering for the tables in the cafe runs to over a hundred.  Visitors are skilfully managed, and by dint of arriving soon after opening and holding off on taking a coffee break until we'd finished touring the garden we got a fair look at it without having to share the space and the views with too many other people, but it doesn't have that indefinable magic of some gardens.  There again, if Hidcote were in private hands it would have to belong to somebody as rich as Croesus to bring the resources to bear upon it that the National Trust can, and it's unlikely they'd invite me for a solo viewing.  A tip to the National Trust: find a way of muffling the noise of the fountain pump, which is obtrusively loud.  I was relieved to see that the National Trust hadn't nearly finishing cutting their formal hedges, since I certainly haven't finished mine.

The best came afterwards, but that is a story for another day.  To be continued.

Addendum  I have a second gripe against the National Trust, which is that they were using the garden to house a temporary sculpture exhibition.  Problems being that I didn't like most of the sculptures (a strictly personal view, I admit) but also that they weren't anything to do with the garden.  People have different ideas about outdoor sculpture.  You won't find any at the Chatto Gardens, and Christopher Lloyd mostly loathed it.  I like it, but I like objects to have been designed or at least chosen with that place in mind, set within a design that needs a focal point in that position.  Dumping down a random collection of metallic flower heads, seated children, sleeping cats, lizards, dinosaurs and goodness knows what doesn't work.  If you have got to put temporary sculptures in a garden like Hidcote (and I don't see that you have) then at least choose the biggest, blankest, greenest space that you can find and use it as a gallery.  Don't litter them randomly throughout the whole garden.

what I did on my holidays (part I)

I was going to take a break from the discipline of daily postings, but here I am sitting in Gloucester Docks with time to spare before the museums open.  So here are some observations on what we have seen so far in the West Country.

Westonbirt Arboretum  Westonbirt is a wonderful place at any time of the year.  We were too early for the bulk of the autumn colour, but nobody who loves trees could fail to enjoy walking around Westonbirt.  It's years since I last called there, and the Forestry Commission have moved the car park and built a swanky new visitor entrance.  The site is so vast that an entire day would not be enough to see it all, so we walked around the Old Arboretum, and once again I missed seeing the gigantic lime stool in the native Silk Wood.  I was smitten by a holly that I've written down as Ilex aquifolium 'Dragon Lady', but see that most web entries have as Ilex x aquipernyi 'Dragon Lady'.  Certainly the leaves had a clawed quality, making it well named, and suggesting something beyond the common holly in its make-up.  It is an upright growing, pyramidal variety with a fairly open habit, lustrous, slightly curved dark green foliage with obvious spines, and was thick with bright red berries.  A beauty.

Painswick Rococo Garden  I had long wanted to see Painswick, and was not disappointed.  The Rococo was in fashion for a few decades in the eighteenth century, and was applied to gardens as well as to dress and domestic furnishings.  Few examples survive, and if you were being strict about it you would say that Painswick had not so much survived as been reconstructed, since most of what visitors see today above soil level has been rebuilt or replanted since restoration began in 1984.  It is garden design as fun, as party time, as a place to hang out, without any lofty messages about politics or the state of the nation.  Asymmetry, flourishes of decoration, a mixture of the straight line and the joyously wiggly, odd little follies, and a cheerful refusal to take itself too seriously are hallmarks of the Rococo, as exemplified by Painswick.  So a white painted exedra with gothic pinnacles presides over a vegetable patch, and the Eagle House does not contain any traces of eagles.  In winter Painswick is famous for its snowdrops, but obviously we missed those. However, we were enormously pleased with the garden, and with our cream tea (consumed in lieu of lunch, which is how to maintain your cream tea intake while on holiday).

The gardens are licensed for weddings, and I did take the precaution of calling before we went, since it was a Saturday, to check that there wasn't one, as it would have been galling to get there and find we weren't allowed into half the buildings because they were being used for a private function.  I guessed from the way the person who answered the phone replied that perhaps they didn't actually get too many weddings, licence or no licence.  Maybe competition for bridal trade is fierce, since Westonbirt do them as well, indeed we saw Adam and Becky's guests assembling, but Westonbirt provides a dedicated function room so normal visitors to the arboretum need not be inconvenienced.  (One of the tutors at Writtle made a special trip to Chiswick House to see the camellia house, about two restorations ago, and found it was being used for a wedding reception.  She was so loathe to miss out on the camellias after travelling all that way that she simply slipped in and mingled with the crowd.  The canapes were very nice, apparently).

Rodmarton Manor  Rodmarton is the last large Arts and Craft House built in England.  Begun in 1909 in the final high days of Edwardian pomp, it was finished twenty years later, just in time for the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression.  It was built for a stockbroker and his family, who live there still.  If you look carefully at the upstairs windows, you see that quite a few have towels along the bottom to catch the rain as it drives in, and I should say that living there was something of a strain.  The garden was started at the same time as the house, and is one of the last Arts and Crafts gardens of the original wave, although the movement has continued to influence garden design up to the present day.  The stockbroker and his family were subscribed to Arts and Crafts ideals, and the house contains an important collection of Cotswolds Arts and Crafts furniture made by local craftsmen using local materials and traditional techniques.  House and garden are available to public viewing on two afternoons a week.

I'd long been aware of the existence of Rodmarton, and its historic significance, and was pleased to see it.  The Systems Administrator hadn't, and was amazed and faintly mind boggled by the entire experience.  It is utterly weird, an anachronism even while it was being built, and while the furniture is indeed historically significant is is also for the most part hideous.  It struck us both as we were going round what a desperately uncomfortable house it was, too big to heat, the fireplace in the big sitting room smoking abominably to judge from the soot staining the chimney breast, windows now leaking, painstakingly hand-made pieces of ugly furniture standing marooned in vast, uncarpeted rooms.  The garden is quintessential Arts and Crafts, all crazy paving, low walls dividing the space, topiary, stone troughs of alpines, maze like paths, yew hedges.  And it could desperately do with the injection of a fat wedge of cash and the services of another gardener, preferably two or three.  The family are doing well with whatever resources they've got to keep the grass cut and the hedges trimmed, but it's no Dixter.  Flowers were in short supply by the time we got there, which need not be the case in mid September, as you will hear when I come on to write about the other gardens we've seen, and dead leaves on the paths and weeds in the paving gave it a tired look.

I thoroughly enjoyed it for the atmosphere of decay, redolent of past glories and lost Empire.  The garden writer Tim Richardson wrote in an article in the Telegraph in 2012 (I would give you a link, except that my computer is now refusing to let me open it in Chrome, having been perfectly happy with it two days ago) that Rodmarton is his favourite, much more so than Sissinghurst and Hidcote, because it is so authentic.  Hmn.  Richardson is a serious, heavyweight writer and his views on gardens must be taken seriously, but the modern cult of authenticity is as apt to mislead its followers as any other cult.  Rodmarton is under-resourced, and the horticulture being practised there is no longer of the highest.

To be continued.  In the next instalment, Hidcote and Kiftsgate Court.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

cardunculus is on holiday

The reunion lunch has been eaten, and up to two and a half years' worth of news exchanged.  The house is as clean as it's going to be.  The kitchen table is practically collapsing under the weight of the pile of cat food, as if the house sitter wouldn't be capable of buying more if he somehow ran out mid-week.  The beekeepers' library has been lugged from the spare room to our room, together with my projection equipment and various boxes of beehive frames, bags of spare Christmas wrapping paper and all the other oddments that end up in a spare room.  Some clothes that vaguely go together are packed in a suitcase.  Guides to churches, architectural tiles, gardens, and the National Trust are in a heap with the holiday reading lights and an extension cable, just in case the flat doesn't have good light for reading.  A list of things to take reminds me that I must pack my wellington boots and walking coat.

We're going on holiday.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

your call is important to us

It was the beekeepers' committee meeting last night.  We are getting almost alarmingly professional, with an association laptop and mobile phone, and great plans for developing the website.  The Chairman had just spent a few days minding the phone, while the Secretary was on holiday, and conversation turned to some of the calls that come in from members of the public.

Some of the very peculiar calls.  Calls that leave you baffled and faintly anxious that these people are allowed out by themselves.  Social services do not rush to remove their children for their protection.  They have votes.  They can drive on the public highway.  Really scarily stupid people.

The Show Secretary's husband was called out to assist with a swarm of bees in someone's plum tree, only to find a lot of wasps busy eating the plums.  All he could suggest was that if they were to pick the plums, the wasps would go away.

The Chairman had been out to see another swarm, which turned out to be bees foraging on ivy. The householder assured him that there had been loads of them, all over the garden.  The Chairman explained that the bees were feeding on the flowers, as bees do.  Then there was the woman who had bees in her gutter.  He enquired whether they were really in her gutter, and she said they were flying back and forth from the direction of the gutter, and he said it was much more likely that she had bees in her roof.  She demanded that he remove them, now, because she had people coming to dinner that evening.  He had to explain that he was not comfortable with heights, nor equipped to dismantle her roof to get at the bees, and that she needed a builder.  She got quite shirty with him, on account of the dinner party.

Somebody else was upset by the bumble bees in their garden, afraid they would get stung, and adding that they were eighty-five, as if that made it more dangerous, or more likely.  The Secretary fielded the call, and cunningly asked whether the caller had ever been stung by a bumble bee before. They hadn't, which was the answer the Secretary was gambling on, since it enabled her to suggest that if it hadn't happened in eighty-five years it wasn't very likely to happen now.

The most bona fide peculiar case was of the digging honey bees.  The Membership Secretary got that call, and was of the opinion that if they were in the ground they were bumble bees, but the caller was insistent that they were honey bees.  The Membership Secretary went to have a look, and they were honey bees, digging in the earth, clustered together in little groups and fighting each other.  She had never seen anything like it, and she has been keeping bees for a fair while.  She called one of the local commercial beekeepers, who had never heard of such a thing either, and could only suggest that it was a swarm which had lost its queen somehow, leaving the bees aimless and disunited in the field.  With no queen a colony is lost, and without a queen to act as a focus there was no way of collecting them, so all the Membership Secretary could suggest was giving them a wide berth for the while and waiting for nature to take its course.

Bees and beekeeping have been getting a lot of media cover in recent years, but to judge from the phone calls to our beekeeping division, public understanding still has a way to go.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

count down to the holiday

The day of our holiday is getting closer.  We're off on Friday, to Gloucester, and I have somehow managed to agree to go to a reunion lunch with my team from my last City job on Thursday.  I'm not entirely sure how that happened, except that we started trying to plan it about three months ago, and throughout the whole of the summer somebody or other was off on holiday, so it ended up in September.  I must have looked in my diary, seen that Thursday 11th was free, and thought That'll be fine, without focusing on the fact that I was due to go away myself the following day.

The housesitter who is coming to look after the cats, the chickens, and the many pots of plants while we are away is nice, and sensible, and has stayed here a couple of times before, so knows what's involved.  But I don't think that gardening is one of his hobbies, or ever has been, so I feel I'd better make it obvious which pots are supposed to be cared for, weed them, finish off any odd bits of potting, and generally try and make sure the greenhouse and conservatory are uncluttered and organised.  Odd dead things, weeds, pots hidden behind other pots and so on are all very well when they are your own, and you know what the plan is, but not so good when you are supposed to be watering them for somebody else.

I haven't bothered dismantling the Henchman and putting it away by the sheds for the week. Instead it is standing tall in the middle of the turning circle, waiting to be pressed into use as soon as we're back.  After all, this isn't the Housesitter's holiday home, and there's no reason why he shouldn't have some lightweight scaffolding in the front garden.  But I did feel I should tidy away the floating collection of bins and buckets and put the shovel back in the shed instead of leaving it outside the front door, and that he shouldn't have to climb over a mountain of bags of old leaves to gain access to the patio (or terrace), where there are some pots that will need watering a couple of times.  And I thought I'd better finish pruning the shrubs that are growing out over the path to the conservatory, which were beginning to dump water over anybody who walked past on dewy mornings or after rain. It's one thing putting up with it yourself, while thinking that you must get round to cutting back that viburnum, another to inflict it on other people.

Tomorrow we'll have to clean the house.  You can't expect a relative stranger to come and live for a week in a miasma of cat fur and odd blobs of syrup left over from feeding the bees.  From that point of view having a housesitter is much like inviting guests round, with the added details that he will be using the fridge, and the Systems Administrator's bathroom, and sleeping in the spare bedroom so I'll need to move the boxes containing the beekeepers' library books.  And he'll need space cleared in the freezer in case he wants to live on frozen ready meals for his week in the country.  He may not, of course, but the agency specifies freezer space should be provided.

It tends to feel like wasted effort, going to so much trouble to make the house clean and tidy and then driving away without getting any of the benefit, if not feeling that we need a holiday to get over the effort of getting ready to go on holiday.  But at least we come back to a clean house.

Monday, 8 September 2014

cutting back

Cutting the hedge is starting to get repetitive.  That's a pity, since I can't be more than half way down it.  It doesn't grow as tall at the far end, something I used to think was because those plants went in later as I extended it, but after many years I suspect that it must be due to the soil being even poorer near the entrance than it is by the house.  The lower growing section shouldn't take as long, and I might even be able to manage without the third high level cut from the Henchman platform, as well as the preliminary attack on everything I can reach from ground level, and the second wave using the stepladder.

I've been shredding the leafier prunings to go on the compost heap.  They mustn't be too soft and leafy, or they clog the shredder up.  A nice woody base to the stem is ideal, plus some leaves on top to give a better mix for composting.  The Systems Administrator wanted to burn everything, on the basis that it would be quicker than sorting and shredding, but I stuck to my green waste recycling approach.  Home made compost is a great soil conditioner, and I never have enough, so the prospect of the best part of a bin of weed free shredded leaves and stems is too good to be passed over.  Plus, the left over woody and angular twigs and branches that won't easily go through the shredder take up much less space in the trailer, so time spent sorting and poking twigs into the maws of the machine is at least partly offset by time saved not having to drag the trailer to the bonfire heap so often.

The Henchman is essential.  There's no way I'd be wobbling around at that height without a proper platform to work from.  Even so, I concentrate all the time that I'm up there.  I switch between secateurs, loppers and pruning saw as I work, depending on the diameter and woodiness of whatever I'm trying to cut, and putting one tool down to pick another up is an exercise in mindfulness all by itself.  Concentrate.  Bend down.  Place secateurs.  Pick up loppers.  Stand up slowly in a controlled fashion.  It makes me grateful that my knees have not gone yet, and that the effort of practising Pilates has kept my spine and hips mobile, up to now.  Which said, it might make sense to tie a bucket to the safety rail, and keep my tools in that.  But you don't move hastily on top of the Henchman, or tug wildly at any severed branch that's so tangled with its neighbours that it won't come free at once.  Pull steadily.  Find the twigs that are caught up and cut through them.  Pull steadily again.

One of the ways you know you no longer want a large garden is when you cease to be comfortable working at height.  Actually, this is not only true of gardening.  East Coast sailor Robert Simper knew his time with his 1904, thirty-five foot Swedish pilot cutter had come to an end when he lowered his wife down from the masthead, where she had been doing some annual maintenance task, and she told him, calmly but firmly, that she was never going back up there again. Fortunately, I am still quite happy with the Henchman, as long as the SA will help me carry it across the garden.  I'm OK shuffling it along the drive, once it's up.  Made of aluminium, they are very light.

I take comfort from our visit to the wonderful garden at Herterton House in Northumberland a couple of years ago, where we arrived at the tail end of the garden visiting season and were greeted by owner Frank Lawley from half way up a large hedge, where he was perched on a ladder. The Lawleys have been gardening at Herterton for four decades, and while I am hopeless at guessing ages, I should say that if he hasn't already passed his three score years and ten he is close to getting there.