Wednesday, 31 December 2014

not with a bang

It's just as well that we weren't planning on going to a glamorous New Year's Eve party tonight, or any sort of a party at all, and that I am not a fan of New Year resolutions, since by this morning the nagging sense I'd had since before Christmas that I might be going down with something had coagulated into a full blown certainty, in the form of one streaming nostril and a pulsing headache on that side of the head.  A cold.

As I lay in bed this morning trying to summon the energy to get up, and looking ill enough to prompt the Systems Administrator to enquire what I usually gave the chickens for breakfast, Radio 5 Live (my new morning radio squeeze since the Today programme became so moany) was running a listeners' straw poll on plans for New Years Eve.  We seemed to be in the majority in having no plans to go out.  It's never been my favourite party night.  I distrust manufactured sentiment, and a mere date is incapable of bearing all the expectations thrust upon it for everyone to have a Good Time.  I often struggle to stay awake until midnight anyway.  Besides, nobody has invited us to a party.  I don't think any of our friends who live relatively close by are giving parties, any more than we are, and it isn't a night to be on the roads if you can avoid it.

As for the New Year, it looks as though pruning the grape vine, trickling oxalic acid on the bees and all those other tasks which I've been meaning to do imminently for the past week will just have to wait a few more days.  So will losing the post Christmas excess weight, tidying my desk, filing my tax return, kick-starting my fledgling journalistic career, seeing the Moroni exhibition before it shuts, making contact with the friends who have exchanged kind words by card and email over the Christmas period, and all the other aspects of self-renewal and reinvention which I might have put on the list of resolutions if I had one.

So that was 2014, creeping to a snotty conclusion, and in six and three quarter hours it will be 2015, full of endless possibilities, one family wedding that I know about, and at least one general election.  I expect I'll have gone to bed well before then, but by about the sixth of January I should be looking forward to it.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

welcome and unwelcome visitors

The long tailed tits were on the bird feeders.  They travel in gangs at this time of the year, and flit about so rapidly it's hard to count them, but there must have been nine or ten.  They are jolly little birds, like black and buff feathery ping pong balls with ridiculously long tails.  As the flock tears round the garden it makes a high peeping noise, so that you often hear them before you see them. Just now they were doing what small birds do, which is to have a final feed before night falls, to see them through the dark, cold hours.

I used to wonder if I was imagining it, that after I'd remembered to restock the bird table mid morning there would then be a dearth of birds for several hours.  Then I heard a piece on Radio 4 confirming what we'd thought from observations at home, that garden birds need to feed first thing in the morning to replenish their energy, then in the middle of the day they spend relatively more time doing other things.  Being birds.  Preening, eyeing up other birds, staking out territories or just lounging about, before the evening rush to feed again.

According to Radio 4, one of the effects of the cocktail of human drugs that make their way intact through our systems and into our sewage works is to disrupt normal patterns of feeding behaviour in starlings.  I had better stick my hand up and confess that I was doing something else at the same time as listening to the radio and didn't fully grasp the experimental methodology, but the gist of the conclusion was that starlings feeding on the wealth of grubs and insects at sewage farms were losing their urge to feed early and late in the day.   Dosed up on tranquillisers, they were nibbling through the day but not eating with the intensity that they ought.  I think the scientists doing the study did test the water for levels of medication, but obviously to draw firm conclusions you'd need to treat starlings with measured doses of Prozac and then compare their foraging behaviour to a control group.

Less welcome visitors to the bird table are the squirrels.  We have gone for years without their coming anywhere near the bird feeders.  They have the whole of the wood to live in, and have left the environs of the house to us, until now.  The Systems Administrator is a handy shot with an air rifle and took two out, but they are not slow learners, squirrels, and they now know to nip out of the way the second the SA appears around the corner of the house with a gun.  And no, we did not eat them, which we probably should have on strictly ethical grounds, having killed them, but watching Jennifer Lawrence skin a squirrel in Winter's Bone was quite enough for me.  I don't particularly want them to be shot, and if they would learn to give the bird table a wide berth as they always did in the past that would be ideal, but neither do I want to pay to keep them in sunflower hearts for the rest of the winter.

Walking down to the post box I noticed for the first time that at our temporary dog's house the bird feeder is suspended on several metres of fishing line from a large tree.  We are clearly not the only ones with squirrel issues.

Monday, 29 December 2014

when the days begin to lengthen

When the days begin to lengthen then the cold begins to strengthen, so the old saying goes.  And it's often true.  Last night was the coldest of the year, and I ran the heaters in the greenhouse and conservatory for the first time.  It was rather a half hearted effort, admittedly, since I didn't bother checking that they worked apart from testing the conservatory heater in a desultory way yesterday morning while I was tidying up in there, so if either had failed to come on, or emitted a puff of smoke and some sparks when plugged in before working no more, I'd have been stuck.

The Met Office and media are getting a bit carried away with their warnings and reporting.  The Met Office had a Yellow Warning out for Essex.  Be Aware.  I looked up the details and discovered that it might be frosty overnight, so the roads might be icy.  In the middle of winter.  In England, which is as far north as Moscow and Newfoundland, even if we do have the gulf stream.  Who'd have thought it?  The newspapers were full of their new phrase, the weather bomb.  The north was hit by one.  Meaning that it wasn't snowing, and then suddenly it was, and they had, oh, four inches in Leek.  Four inches of snow in December in a Midlands town six hundred feet above sea level.  I think that's just normal snowfall.  Two feet of snow in two hours, that would be a weather bomb, or a hurricane like we had in 1987.

It is quite chilly, though.  We spent yesterday evening in front of the log fire in the sitting room so as to get some more use out of the Christmas tree, and the Systems Administrator's not so tiny hands remained frozen.  Tonight we are retreating to the study before making a final festive push to see us through to the New Year.  After that it might be bye bye tree.  It is shedding needles as generously as Our Ginger moults orange and white fur.

The flower buds of hellebores are starting to show, and I've been busy chopping off the old foliage and picking up fallen mahonia leaves from around them so that the open flowers will appear to best advantage.  It's a fiddly job, because you have to make sure not to step on any of the buds, which are not very easy to see once the surrounding cluster of leaves has gone, when you are standing bent half double under a mahonia with your breath steaming your glasses up.  Some were lying broken and scattered in places where I was sure I hadn't trodden at all, and I'm afraid the mice have been at them.  They will eat hellebore buds.  I had no display at all in the ditch bed a couple of years ago.

The light on the mouse trap in the greenhouse was flashing this morning, but it was a false alarm. At least the bait was still there, so they haven't learned how to trip the thing at arms length with a twig before going in to rob the peanuts in safety.  Mice that will eat Luftwaffe blue paint could be capable of anything.  I've caught five in seven nights, plus the one that drowned in the watering can, and have just bought yet another trap so that I can set one in the garage as well.  I don't like the way the cats go bustling down there and stare meaningfully at my pile of beehive parts.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

let the train take the strain

The Systems Administrator went to the rugby at Twickenham yesterday.  The railway was operating a reduced holiday timetable but didn't manage to keep to it, and it took an hour and a half to get to Stratford.  That was still better than the experience of one of the group who lives in Hertfordshire and was supposed to come in to Kings Cross.  He made it for the 4.30 pm kick-off, just, by dint of leaving home very early, but his local train was extremely crowded because the whole of an Edinburgh train's worth of people had been decanted on to it at Peterborough.

He found himself sitting with a couple from Edinburgh, who were travelling down to London, or attempting to travel down, for a matinee that afternoon.  As the minutes ticked painfully by somewhere beyond Finsbury Park it became painfully obvious to them that they were not going to make it in time for the first act.

It is time that the management of Network Rail and the railway operating companies started listening to themselves, with their advice not to travel yesterday but to delay journeys until Monday, and their promises that tickets purchased for use on Saturday would still be valid then. They just don't get it.  Rugby matches and matinees can't be delayed like a trip to Ikea. You've got tickets for Saturday 27th December 2014, and Saturday is when it happens.  Not Monday. This morning Network Rail were still defending their position on the radio by saying that they had do maintenance over the Christmas period because it was essential work.

OK, here's an idea.  Schedule it better.  Be less ambitious over how much you try to do in two days. Build in time allowances for the fact that unexpected things happen during construction work, and you don't know how long a job is going to take.  Have a better cut-off procedure for starting to bring work to a halt when it becomes clear that you aren't going to finish everything you optimistically thought you were going to do before it's time to hand the track back to the train operators.  Or give yourself more than two days to do the work at Kings Cross.  Announce back in October that it will be shut over the weekend after Christmas, as well as Boxing Day, and give yourself a four day window.  Yes, that will be inconvenient for people wanting to travel over the holiday period, and will provoke grumbles and howls of outrage, but at least the travelling public will have time to make alternative arrangements.  Fly.  Take a coach.  Decide to book the opera for a different weekend.

I am longing for the day when the passenger sitting uselessly outside London in a stationary train that is delayed not by flash flooding, lightning strike, or suicide on the line but by the incompetence of Network Rail or a rail operating company, turns out to be a hot-shot top QC who decides not to leave it at that, and to challenge the legislation that exempts rail carriers from any liability for consequential losses.  London theatre tickets do not come cheap, nor hotel rooms. Why should people who have paid up for both be left to carry the can when the whole enterprise turns out to be a waste of time and a colossal let-down and disappointment because thanks to Network Rail's inability to plan or finish a job on time they weren't able to do the thing that was their reason for travelling in the first place?  I wouldn't dish out US style multi-million dollar awards for mental distress, though there was probably some of that too, but compensation for immediate out of pocket expenses would be a good start.  To be funded out of the Directors' bonus pool or the contractors' profits, not by the taxpayer.

You could say it served the theatre loving pair right for planning to travel on the same morning that they had an important engagement in the afternoon, but that's a damning intictment on Britain's railways.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

more winter flowers

The mild weather in the run up to Christmas has brought all sorts of flowers on.  The ornamental quince under the kitchen window has been coming into bloom in the last few days, earlier than it normally appears.  This year's display is not going to be its best, since two thirds of it had to be cut to the ground last year to give access to a blocked drain, and it doesn't look as though the regrowth is fat and strong enough to flower this time round.  Plus, the mild winter has left it with the faint delusion that it might be an evergreen, and it is hanging on to a scattering of leaves which do nothing for its appearance.

I don't know its name, since it was already there when we bought the house.  It's a waste of wall space, given that Chaenomeles are perfectly hardy and capable of growing as free standing bushes in this part of the world, on the other hand it is so monumentally spiny that any but a determined burglar would probably pass by our kitchen window in search of easier pickings.  And the soil right by the house is dreadful, and there is often a car parked outside the window so it isn't a spot anybody would linger to look at a more elaborate planting scheme.  And the bees love the flowers, not that they were out today.  The plant seems rather quiet and lost without them.

Maybe I should try and identify the variety, but the flowers are red and there are a lot of old red flowered sorts of Japanese quince when you look in the books.  The flowers are carried very close to the stems, starting off as tight, round buds like miniature pink Brussel sprouts.  The developing buds become red globes, before opening into cupped, rounded, five-petalled, single flowers with a central boss of pale yellow anthers surrounding a little tuft of stigma.  It's a good shade of red, with a touch of brown in it.  I wouldn't mind having a lipstick that colour, if I wore lipstick.

A few fruit are still hanging on to the lower branches.  They are large for an ornamental quince, and look like slightly shrivelled yellow skinned apples.  You can cook with them, though I never have.  As far as I can gather they don't taste of anything in particular, so there didn't seem much point, but maybe I will one year in a spirit of enquiry.

The white flowered Chaenomeles speciosa 'Nivalis' by the oil tank is starting to come out as well. It's always one of the earlier ones to flower, much sooner than the pink 'Moerloosei', and is a strongly upright grower so it's just as well nobody tried planting it under a window, whereas its height is appreciated in front of the tank.  The sight of the camellias and flowering quince in that bed bursting into life makes me realise that I'd better get on and weed it.

Friday, 26 December 2014

alba simplex

I noticed today as I went out to top up the bird table that there were three flowers open on the Camellia japonica 'Alba Simplex'.  That's probably a first.  I'm not very good at writing down what is flowering on each day, or at least I have tried in the past and found it extremely tedious.  And what counts as flowering anyway?  One odd bloom is quite a different thing to a full display.  So I have no record of when the first flower on 'Alba Simplex' was in past years, or whether it has ever flowered as early as Boxing Day, but I know that in the years when we had snow there were no camellia flowers to be seen at all by mid February, and pretty much nothing until March.

I picked one to look at it more closely (and to refer to it while typing this blog post.  You see, I denude my garden for you).  Seen in close up one petal has been slightly marked with brown by last night's frost, but when I first saw the flowers from the viewpoint of the path by the dustbins they looked unblemished.  It has eight petals, two smaller and standing slightly proud inside a ring of six larger ones that are lying almost flat.  I couldn't cut it with any stem at all without sacrificing further buds, so it is sitting in a small dish of water, facing up at the ceiling like a water lily on a pond.

The petals are a brilliant white, at least when seen under the artificial light of the kitchen.  They are thick to the touch, fleshy almost, and reflective with a slightly ruffled surface, especially the two smallest inner petals.  Altogether they look more like wind sculpted snow than a lot of white flower petals do.  They surround a central boss of pale stamens that stand bolt upright like a shaving brush, pale yellow filaments supporting turmeric coloured anthers.  The flower has been very tidy about not shedding pollen on its pristine white petals, but when I experimentally ran a finger tip over the stamens it came away lightly dusted with yellow.

C. japonica 'Alba Simplex' is an old variety.  Hillier's dictionary doesn't give a date, merely describing it as the most proven single white, and the website of the excellent Trehane nursery just describes it as 'historic' (and gives an indicated flowering time of February to March).  A decade-old Telegraph article dates it back to 1816, and an Australian site by somebody I've never heard of (though it looks scholarly enough) gives an introduction date from China (presumably to Australia) of circa 1818.  If this were my Dissertation I'd have to try harder than that to find references, but I'm pretty sure it has been gracing our gardens in the West for a couple of hundred years, and was cultivated in the East before then.

Strangely, for the most proven white, the RHS only lists eleven suppliers in the UK.  Perhaps it is out of fashion.  Maybe people prefer the sugar pinks, or dark sumptuous reds, or perhaps the stark simplicity of an almost single row of petals doesn't compare to modern eyes with the lavish muddled or severely formal doubles.  Or perhaps camellias are out of fashion, and I'd find there were only ten or twelve suppliers for many varieties.  Outside the great Cornish gardens and woodland gardens of the first half of the twentieth century you don't see them used widely nowadays, as the fashion pendulum has swung towards herbaceous plants and grasses.  Maybe their comparatively short flowering season and the slight heaviness of their dark green foliage the rest of the year puts people off.

Actually the leaves of my three camellias look very well, tucked in front of the wood and sheltered by other shrubs, holly, a sprawling Viburnum tinus, an evergreen Berberis, Cotoneaster, and a cut leaved hazel whose hairy, toothed and dull green leaves in summer make it look disconcertingly like a giant woody nettle.  They are solid looking shrubs, the camellias, but their largish leaves catch the light pleasantly.  Some people seem to want everything in the garden to be doing something, all the time, but I quite like a bit of solid green to rest my eyes on from time to time.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

merry Christmas, everybody

Happy Christmas.  We have exchanged presents, and the Systems Administrator is now cooking the lunch while I listen to Peter Warlock.  The SA is unaccountably hostile to Warlock, and I may have to fast forward to get to Bethlehem Down before lunch is served.  Our Ginger is delighted to have a fire lit so early in the day and is basking on the hearth rug.  The short indignant tabby is sitting in the hall.  She sees no reason to alter her routine just because we have, though I did hear cries earlier that suggested she might be trying to break into the kitchen.  The chickens have had a handful of sultanas and a couple of tomatoes that had gone squishy in the fridge.

It is a very beautiful day in north east Essex, sunny and bright and quite warm.  I went down to the bottom of the garden first thing, and picked a spring of white daphne, some viburnum and a solitary cyclamen that was flowering in the lawn.  It would be a lovely day for gardening if I didn't have a special dispensation to spend the day on the sofa, listening to music, looking at the books I've been given, and ambling through a Sudoko without any illusions that I'm going to set a personal best for time.  Picking the cyclamen reminded me that it might be a good idea to move the self seeded plants out of the lawn, where they're likely to be caught by a late cut just as they're thinking about flowering.  The trees are steadily shading out the grass, though, and the moss is taking over, so maybe when I look at the corner again I'll decide to leave it.  Moss studded with cyclamen is very lovely, and of course doesn't need mowing, but there's the issue of the cow parsley and geum like weed (or wild flower, depending on your point of view) whose name I don't know, not to mention the herb robert, which all like seeding into the lawn (or moss) as well.

I don't mind it not being a white Christmas at all.  In fact, white Christmases seem to me to be pretty much a nuisance when lots of people have made arrangements to travel to see their friends and relations over the festive period.  One of the signs that you are definitely middle aged is when you begin to think that snow is over-rated.

The SA has just bounded up the stairs to run through the list of everything that's cooking, scientifically organised by category.  Vegetables, four: sprouts, carrots, parnips, potatoes.  Meat, two: chicken, ham.  Processed meat, two: chipolatas and bacon.  Stuffing, two: chestnut and sage-and-onion.  Pudding.  I agreed that I couldn't think of anything missing from the list, but if there is I won't be able to grumble.  I made my contribution to lunch (apart from doing the supermarket shop and remembering to order the pudding) by peeling the sprouts.  I bought a stalk this year because the individual buttons keep better, drawing moisture from the stalk.  A brussel sprout stalk is really the most unlikely piece of vegetation, when you think about it.  And I have just fed the cat to keep her out from under the SA's feet.

I hope that everyone else is likewise having whatever sort of Christmas suits them.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

let them eat cake

I made a stollen this morning.  Or at least, I started making it this morning and finally pulled it from the oven two minutes into the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.  I haven't done a Christmas cake this year.  They aren't the easiest thing in the Aga, though after two successive years of burnt offerings and messing around ineffectually with brown paper tied around the tin I discovered that the answer was to move the cake after the first half hour to the simmer oven, and leave it there for longer than you would believe a fruit cake could be cooked for.  I am quite fond of traditional Christmas cake, but they are pretty solid objects when there are only two of you, and I wasn't sure I wanted it lingering into next week and beyond when I might have had enough of eating and be starting to think about fitting back into my jeans.

The stollen is smaller and lighter, and if we don't eat it up fairly rapidly it will solve the leftovers problem for us by going mouldy.  I followed the recipe in Andrew Whitley's book Bread Matters.  To hear him talk about the Chorleywood bread process you would think that supermarket sliced was only marginally less dangerous than heroin, but his recipes have been reliable, those that I've tried. I had a go at his stollen once before, though I think I turned to the wrong page of the book for one part of the recipe and ended up with a hybrid.  It seemed fine anyway.

His stollen recipe uses a sweet festive bread dough which is made in two stages, starting with a ferment, that is some flour, milk, sugar and yeast that's left to activate itself until it's flopped back down again.  I was so keen to get the process moving along, I put the ferment on to start fermenting before I even ate my porridge, and it was only when I came to mix the ferment into the main dough that I realised I should have put the dried fruit to soak with the brandy or fruit juice several hours previously, or better still the night before.  Ah well, tough.  I put them to soak in plate warming oven, thinking that a bit of heat would speed things along.

The main dough uses more flour, the ferment, an egg and some butter, and does the magical thing that dough does of transforming itself during kneading from a sticky mess to something that feels quite smooth.  Both the ferment and the proving took longer than the one hour each that Andrew Whitely says.  I don't know why my bread keeps taking longer than it should.  I've bought a new pack of yeast and the kitchen is pleasantly warm.  There again, the book said to use 10 grammes of fresh yeast, but I didn't have any fresh (I never do) and used a teaspoon of dried, so once I'd altered the type and quantity of raising agent Andrew Whitley could quite reasonably say that all bets on timings were off.

It rose eventually, and by lunchtime was ready to go to the next stage, so I ate my lunch while staring suspiciously at the bowl by the Aga in case the cushion of dough suddenly collapsed.  You mix the fruit into the dough, roll out some marzipan (which I bought.  Grinding my own almonds felt like a step too far), pull the dough out until it is slightly larger than the marzipan, put the paste on the dough, roll it up like a Swiss roll, and brush it generously with beaten egg (which feels like the waste of most of an egg but hey, it's Christmas).  Then it has to be left to prove again, though the book does not say for how long or what it should look like when it has finished, and finally cooked at 180 Celsius for half an hour or a shade longer.  When it comes out of the oven it receives a final coating of melted butter, and once cooled a dusting of icing sugar, which will have to be repeated each time it is served, if you want it to look dusted.  Apparently the everlasting icing sugar on the shop bought stollen is fortified with 'strange additives'.

I have now eaten a piece with most of a cup of tea (the rest of it got tipped over the baking book and my tablet in an altercation with Our Ginger) and it is very nice, with one criticism.  If you roll up a soft yeast dough containing a generous quantity of dried fruit, some of the sultanas and raisins come to the surface.  I was fairly sure that they were going to catch if cooked for as long as half an hour at 180 C, and they did.  I picked the worst ones off, and you couldn't see the scars under the icing sugar, but it seems a design flaw.  Would it be better to sprinkle the fruit over the marzipan and roll it into the loaf?  It would form a discrete layer more like a Chelsea bun, but would be encased and wouldn't burn.  Or should I have reduced the cooking time by a couple of minutes?  The dough needs to be cooked through, otherwise it would be horrid.  Ah well, I don't think I'll be auditioning for the Great British Bake Off just yet.

Addendum  The electric rat zapper in the greenhouse caught another mouse last night.  The mice in the Systems Administrator's blue summerhouse have eaten three pots of model paint, the white, the dark and the light blue.  They have also chewed holes in about ninety out of a bag of a hundred empty pipettes.  Why?  And goodness knows what happens to barn owls that eat mice that have been eating plastic paint pots and blue paint.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

countdown to Christmas

I relocated the electric zapper to my greenhouse, standing it next to the trays of violated Muscari, and it caught a mouse last night and another the night before.  The mouse problem is getting out of hand.  The Systems Administrator appeared this afternoon chattering with indignation and clutching a bottle of acrylic resin that had been chewed in the workshop.  They are everywhere, and what sort of mouse eats acrylic anyway?  Buying each other electric traps for Christmas, gift wrapping available as highlighted on the News Quiz but you read it here first, is beginning to seem not such a stupid idea after all.

Fortunately it is now too late to buy anything.  Or at least, if we suddenly realise we are short of some vital component of Christmas lunch then one of us will have to brave the scrum in the supermarkets tomorrow, but it's too late to post anything.  If any cards arrive tomorrow from people we didn't send one to that's tough, nothing to be done about it.  Likewise gifts.  The Christmas tree is decorated and gently shedding needles, the pot of hazel twigs is up, the cards are arranged around the sitting room, and the house is as clean as it's going to get.  Tomorrow the SA will bring in the holly and ivy, which must not be done before Christmas Eve, and I will investigate whether the new tablecloth needs ironing before we can use it.

And that's it.  Barring emergencies we're in lockdown until Saturday.  My parents have been to lunch, and friends are not due for supper until next week.  Tomorrow we will eat steak and listen to Christmas music.  On Thursday we will open presents, eat chicken, and listen to Christmas music, and the SA will have to watch the Christmas Day episode of Downton because it will be impossible to avoid plot spoilers on Boxing Day.  On Boxing Day I might go and trickle oxalic acid on the bees if the weather's right, and maybe prune the grape vine before the sap can start to rise, though this has been such a mild autumn that goodness knows what the sap is doing already, but I don't intend to go anywhere.  On Saturday the SA is going to the rugby and normal life resumes.

It is quite nice to take a few days off.  I contemplated going out into the garden today, after calling on a beekeeping friend for cheque co-signatures and walnut shortbread, but it was very windy, and I told myself that for the sake of one afternoon's gardening I might as well give my sprained arm an extra couple of days to recover.  The truth is that I was in idle holiday mode.

Monday, 22 December 2014

half remembered things

It is strange and rather worrying how mutable and unreliable long term memory can be.  Mine had placed my childhood meeting with Jeremy Thorpe in our house, and yet both my parents agree that he never visited there, and that it was probably in Exeter's St George's Hall, where the late Liberal leader had come to rally the local fund raising troops at the annual fete.  Instantly my mind recast his gaunt face to the cavernous heights of the hall, and that seemed entirely convincing too.

I used to enjoy the Liberal Christmas Fair, which might make me an odd child.  Every ward had its speciality, which was the same every year, so far as I can remember.  Topsham ran the White Elephant Stall, which yielded an entertaining array of stuff, and Alphington's stall had crocheted toilet roll covers in the shape of dancers' skirts, and bars of soap fashioned into swans with pipe cleaners and netting frills.  Or at least, that's how I remember it.

My father dug out the Isca Fayre LP and gave it to me, on the grounds that he never listens to it, indeed, he no longer possesses a record deck.  We played it last night when it formed a retro West Country counterpoint to Bellowhead, which may have been the first time anyone listened to it in thirty years, and was certainly the first time I'd heard some of the songs over the same period.  I still like it, but again my memory has played tricks, since one song which I was sure they did, would have sworn blind that they did, was not on it.  I could hear the tune in my mind's ear, and the slightly whooping rhythm of the parts coming in beneath in the chorus, but whoever's record it was on, it wasn't Isca Fayre's.  Puzzled, I had a look down the track listings of my Watersons CDs, conscious of the gaps, and there it was, the first track on For Pence and Spicy Ale.  Watersons discography is complicated by the fact that they didn't preserve a one-to-one relationship between the tracks on their vinyl albums and the re-releases on CD, but there the song was, not by Isca Fayre at all.

Sometimes memory runs the other way.  I rack my brains from time to time trying to remember the name of a made for television play I once saw, set in the Fens, as evidence for my theory that the Fens are only ever portrayed as unremittingly sinister in all books and dramas in which they appear. Waterland, The Rainy Day Women, The Nine Taylors.  This play was about a foxy but middle aged teacher of English language to adults, who had married one of her pupils, a considerably younger and definitely hot working class young man.  The body of a local girl is found murdered, and she is gradually seized by the horrible conviction that he did it.  I was reminded of it yesterday when I saw that Billie Whitelaw had died, because I'd thought that she might have been the actress who played the teacher, only I couldn't find any such TV play in her IMDb entry.  So why can't I remember the actress when the play made such a vivid impression on me?

Sunday, 21 December 2014

an excellent thing

Today is the shortest day.  From now on the days theoretically lengthen, though as sunset slips later than today's 15.47 over Colchester, sunrise gets later as well, so that by the end of the month we'll have only five minutes extra daylight.  By the end of January we'll have an hour and twenty minutes more, and by the June solstice nearly nine hours of extra light.  It's a turning point in the year, to be celebrated if you like being outside.  Not that evenings by the fire aren't very nice.

The pudding worked fine and I can now reveal that it was a Lancastrian lemon tart, taken from a clipping out of the FT that I've had stuck in my cooking file for many years without ever having made it before.  I failed to write down either the date or the name of the journalist, but I recognise it as being the Financial Times from the pink paper, and the general house style.  You didn't get a colour photo of a detail from a still life with game fowl, fruit and vegetables by Juan Sanchez Cotan in the Evening Standard.

It is a multi-layered pudding, but very straightforward as long as you can start long enough in advance to allow for all the stages, and it has the great advantage for entertaining that it is good cold, so can be made in advance.  You line a ten inch flan dish with shortcrust pastry and bake blind, then allow to cool completely.  I pricked the bottom of my pastry all over with a fork like Long Lankin pricking all over with a pin, and the bottom still ballooned up in cooking.  Following which I poked a hole in it to allow the steam to escape and tried to push it down, then worried that the filling would leak through the hole and I'd end up with a soggy bottom.  The recipe suggests six to eight ounces of pastry for a dish of that size, which is about right.  I used seven and a half, being five plus half of five, and wouldn't fancy my chances lifting the sheet of pastry intact if I'd gone down to six ounces in total.  All of these amounts are finished weight of pastry, unlike some old books that give the weight of flour to use in making the pastry.

You cover the cooled, cooked pastry with a layer of home made lemon curd.  The recipe is emphatic that it must be home made, for both taste and texture (I am beginning to think the author must have been Philippa Davenport.  That sounds like her).  Lemon curd is not difficult, although as the article doesn't tell you how to make it you need a book, or the internet.  I halved the quantities given in The Good Housekeepering Complete Book of Preserving, and used two lemons, two eggs, two ounces of butter and six ounces of caster sugar.  Grate and squeeze the lemons, add the juice and rind to the other ingredients and cook gently in a double boiler until it looks done.  Which is when it coats the back of your wooden spoon.  I think gently is the key word, otherwise I'm not sure what I'd do with sweetened lemon flavoured scrambled egg.  You put it through a sieve before it cools, which gets out any stringy bits of egg white or lumps of rind, and it sets as it cools.

On top of the lemon curd you add an almond sponge made with four ounces of unsalted butter, four of caster sugar, four of ground almonds, two eggs, and the grated rind and two teaspoons of juice from another lemon.  I disobeyed the injunction to grind my own almonds, on the grounds that life was too short.  You dice the butter, just melt it, stir in the sugar and then the almonds and finally the eggs and lemon.  The tart is cooked in a hottish oven.  The recipe said thirty-five minutes at 200 C or gas mark 6, but we don't do gas marks or degrees, and I thought that over half an hour in a fairly hot oven sounded like a recipe for burned sponge, so our tart got twenty minutes at the bottom of the top Aga oven, and another ten towards the top of the bottom oven.  The surface was a shade darker than I'd have liked, and could have done with a minute or two less, but it wasn't burned.

Lemon curd keeps for up to a month in the fridge, so I made the curd on Friday and the rest of the tart on Saturday for lunch on Sunday.  It is a good tart, and as I said very handy if you want something you can do in advance.  The other recipe in the same article was for a Belvoir lemon pudding which included the last minute addition of beaten egg white with diced dessert apple stirred into it and cooked for three minutes until just set.  Which all sounds very nice, but when I invite people for lunch I'd like to talk to them, not disappear for ten minutes in the middle of the meal to mess around with meringues.

Addendum  The electronic mouse zapper in the garage didn't catch anything last night, so I moved it to the greenhouse where mice have eaten the leaves off all my pots of Muscari.  I had caught one in the greenhouse, though, which drowned in the watering can.  I found its floating corpse like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

don't panic

Today apparently was Panic Saturday, but I must have missed it.  I had an errand to run in Colchester, and needed to go to the supermarket to get tomorrow's lunch (I haven't got as far as Christmas lunch yet) and was apprehensive about what the traffic would be like.  Colchester has not really got the hang of traffic.  The blame doesn't lie entirely with the council (though they don't help), in that Roman walls, a surviving Medieval street plan, a river and a bifurcating railway line all crammed together do not make a happy home for motorists.  However I needn't have worried.  Traffic in Clingoe Hill was running freely, as it was along the inner bypass and around the dreaded North Station roundabout, and wherever people were panicking and shopping, it wasn't Waitrose.

I have not only finished my shopping, I have wrapped it up.  The task is made easier by the fact that I don't have many people to buy for, but I didn't start until the second half of November.  A few edibles were bought in person, but almost everything came courtesy of the internet.  Three cheers for search engines.  Apart from the sheer horror of battling your way the length of Oxford Street on the Saturday before Christmas, most of the Systems Administrator's presents are hobby or interest related, and I doubt there's a high street in the land where I could have bought them.  And since they are supposed to be a surprise, I can't say any more about them.

I haven't usually finished my wrapping this far in advance, and the only reason I've already done it this year is that I thought I might as well take advantage of a day when the SA was out to use the kitchen table and wrap in comfort instead of crawling around on the bedroom floor getting a stiff back and fluff on the sellotape.  And I was looking for lightweight, wrist-saving jobs because I couldn't garden with my sprained arm.  Which is now much better.

Panic Saturday still hadn't really got going in Colchester's out-of-town stores this afternoon, or at least the SA went to Homebase to buy some cheap wooden bookcases, and returned in record time, barely longer than the duration of Dvorak's string quartet in G major.  I know that because the SA came into the kitchen to say that he was going out just after I'd blasted out the opening bars at an unexpectedly high volume, and his car rolled up outside the kitchen window barely into the first movement of the American quartet which comes next on the album.  I assumed that the SA was returning empty handed after such a short trip, and that Homebase must have run out of bookcases, but it turned out that there was still virtually no traffic on the road and that the SA had been almost their only customer.

I was in the kitchen to make tomorrow's pudding, but I can't say what that is either in case my mother is reading this.  It's a surprise.

Addendum  The electric zapper got a mouse last night, and another the night before.  That's three on consecutive nights.  The garage must have been absolutely overrun.  Perhaps it still is, three down and who knows how many more to go?

Friday, 19 December 2014

two festive trees

We put the Christmas tree up today.  We were able to find the stand in the garage, and it appeared not to have sprung a leak since last year.  Neither of these things can be taken as given.  We got the tree upright in its pot, tightened the screws, and I cut away the netting tube it travelled home in, which was oddly reminiscent of unwrapping deliveries of plants from Italy.  I gave it some water, and we left it until the afternoon to shake itself out, and so that I could decorate it while listening to the Radio 5 film programme.

I love the smell that comes off a newly brought-in Norway spruce.  The needle-fast Nordmann fir is all very well, but it doesn't smell like a Christmas tree should.  No, Picea abies is the thing, if you are buying one at a garden centre where there's a choice.  The fact that it starts shedding leaves on the floor the second it gets into the house is besides the point.

I read an article in the newspaper about how choosing and installing a real Christmas tree is better for you than getting an artificial one, because they represent Nature and contact with Nature helps you withstand stress better than if you are in an entirely man-made environment.  I'd like to know more about the experimental methodology before taking that proposition at face value.  Did they randomly assign people with different types of tree?  Otherwise it might be that the self-selecting group who like living for a fortnight with a piece of sawn-off vegetation dropping needles all over their carpet are naturally more chilled than the tidy souls who choose plastic trees.

The tree seemed quite small when we bought it, compared to the Ents we've become used to, but looked large enough once it was in the house.  I can just reach the top while standing on a chair to attach the lights and the angel, whatever height that makes it, say eight feet or so, and it's got no more than six inches of headroom when standing as far in front of the window as its width dictates that it has to.  It absorbed both sets of lights (which worked as well) and most of the existing decorations, and now looks very festive, except that a couple of bulbs need changing.  I found the spare bulbs, which were actually in a box with the decorations if you can believe that, and like a coward have left the Systems Administrator to switch them over.  I have visions that if I do it I'll remove the old bulbs and the string will then never work again.

The SA did suggest we could get a tree for the study as well, since the main tree would not be so large this year.  I wasn't utterly convinced, having a more realistic idea of how much Christmas trees cost from normal shops, and thinking that needles on the carpet were one thing but in the bookcases quite another, so made a counter suggestion that we could put some twigs from the wood in a bucket and hang baubles on those for free.  We removed a large hazel branch that was slated for the chop anyway because it was crowding a magnolia, and selected a couple of stems. The idea of a bucket was substituted with a terracotta pot, and I wedged the stems in with some cobbles borrowed from the garden for the duration.  The SA got a string of white LEDs a couple of days ago in B&Q, where they were the last box on sale and massively discounted since Christmas is over at B&Q.  With a week to go they are already dismantling their Christmas displays and replacing them with something else.  No matter, one string of lights was all we needed.  I couldn't fit all 240 lights in the twigs, but wrapped the surplus around the base of the pot, where they hide the plastic bag it's standing on.  I've a fancy to use them after Christmas in the conservatory.

The SA leaves tree decorations to me, and indeed interior decoration in general, on the grounds that I have stronger feelings about how it should be done.  This a very good system and I recommend it to all couples.  The SA's role is to say that it's very nice when it's finished, whatever it is, just as the SA remembers to say Good haircut when I return home from the hairdresser.  The SA's verdict on the twigs were that they were very modern.  I'm not entirely sure if they are, or more late 1970s disco, especially when they're set to twinkly mode.  Either way I like them, they make the study look vaguely decorated for the festive season, for evenings when we don't feel like trying to crank the sitting room up to operating temperature.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

war of the rodents

The electric rat zapper has still not zapped any rats in the shed.  Our Ginger left another in front of the TV a couple of weeks ago, but so far the rat score is technology zero, plump middle aged mog two.  I know that the machine works at least a bit, because it caught a field mouse.  I was mildly sorry about that, since while I object to them living in my greenhouse and eating my plants, I don't have any beef with them going in the shed.  They make pathetic corpses, too, dying with their huge eyes wide open.  The discovery underscored our anxiety that using rat poison is not safe, because too many other things besides rats will eat it as well, which may in turn be eaten by the local owls, or Our Ginger.

I was taken aback the other day to lift up a bag of orchid compost in the garage and find myself face to face with a mouse.  The mouse seemed pretty startled as well, and scuttled off.  On the strength of the success against mice in the shed I decided to invest in a second electric rat zapper, since I haven't taken to the new design of mechanical mousetrap any better than the old one.  They are horribly fiddly to set, going off when you don't expect them to and firing the peanut bait across the room, or refusing to latch and stay set, and I don't trust them to perform a clean kill every time.  Killing rodent pests is one thing, but torturing them is another.

The new rat zapper had only been down a couple of days when yesterday I found the light on top flashing, and a mouse stretched flat out inside.  Victory.  I dropped the body into the back of a flower bed where it can provide plant nutrients over the winter, and re-baited the trap.  When I checked it this morning there was no flashing light, but when I looked more closely I realised that in the excitement of my first kill I had forgotten to switch it on again.  I know we still have at least one mouse in the garage, though, because all the peanuts had gone.

Before declaring martial war on the mice in the garage I did try the softly-softly, deterrent approach, and installed a sonic rodent repeller.  It has now been in place for over a month, and we still have mice in the garage, so I think we can conclude that was twenty pounds down the drain. When I bought it there were a number of favourable reviews on Amazon, but there is only one now, from somebody who gives it one star and says it had no effect on the mice whatsoever.

Our Ginger knows there are mice in the garage, and sometimes goes down there and stares meaningfully at things, but he lacks staying power and five minutes later he's given up.  For now the electronic zapper seems my last and best hope.  If only it would work on the rats under the shed as well, we'd be home and dry.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

three exhibitions

I'm behind with my arts reviews, because I saw three exhibitions yesterday but was busy writing about Paul Downes who I saw on Monday.  I was originally hoping to get up to London for a culture fix at the end of last week, but dropped that idea when there was a Met Office amber rain warning for Essex and London.  I don't trust the rail service not to collapse with overhead line failures, signal failures and flooding when there's an amber warning about.

I dithered over what to go and see, since there were no fewer than seven exhibitions I'd made a note of because they sounded interesting that close before the end of January.  Should I choose those I wanted to see most, in case I only managed one trip to town by then, or should I see the ones that were due to end most imminently and take a view that I'd probably manage a second excursion?  In the end I started at the British Museum, since their celebration of China's Ming dynasty is one of the first to finish, and one I particularly wanted to see.  It ends on 5th January, but plenty of tickets seemed to be available despite that, and the fact it has reviewed well.  General Chinese art and history obviously doesn't rock the British public's boat in the same way as terracotta warriors (which I missed.  By the time I got round to trying to book a ticket it was completely sold out).

Ming is well worth a visit, assuming you are at least vaguely interested in Chinese history and aesthetics.  There are some beautiful things, and nothing that is boring even if some are not so beautiful.  There's a limit to how long one can spend looking at calligraphy while being completely unable to read Chinese characters, and the second half of a fifty foot long scroll depicting bamboo leaves does look quite like the first half.  The British Museum has got itself organised in the new visitor space since my disappointing experience with the Vikings, and there was no queue to get in and very little queuing to see individual exhibits.  I'm glad the BM is back on full song, since it is one of my favourite museums.

From there it was a short walk to Tottenham Court road and a few stops down the Northern Line to Embankment, then over the Hungerford Bridge and a brisk walk along the river to the Garden Museum.  They have a small exhibition on Gardens and War which finishes very soon, on 19th December.  It has a collection of photos I'd never seen before, largely about troops growing vegetables not far behind the front lines once the realisation struck that they might be there for some time, and other curiosities such as the popular floral shrines to war casualties that started in the East End.  They bore a remarkable similarity to modern day roadside tributes to traffic accident victims, though the exhibition didn't make that point.  The Garden Museum occupies an old church in Lambeth, and is a charming place, though the trouble with their temporary exhibitions is that they are staged in an airless box inside the church, which yesterday was distinctly too warm and smelt unfortunately as though some of the previous visitors had farted.  The museum is all set to expand and improve its facilities with the aid of some lottery money, and I hope they can retain its charm while making it slightly more airy.

I wouldn't have minded looking at the Guildhall Art Gallery's free exhibition on images of Tower Bridge, but from their not awfully clear page on the City of London Corporation website it looked as though the entire gallery was now shut for refurbishment.  I didn't feel sufficiently strongly about it to enquire further, since I wasn't going to have time to do everything anyway, and instead went to the National Portrait Gallery to see the exhibition on the work and influence of William Morris.  The NPG has just revamped their website, so that the saved address I had and the link from the Telegraph review no longer worked.  I found the new site, but it seemed to be suffering from teething problems and didn't mention the Morris exhibition at all.  On the basis that it was almost certainly still on and that if it wasn't I'd call at the Courtauld on my way back to Liverpool Street, I yomped up Millbank and Whitehall to Trafalgar Square.

Rowan Moore claims in his book Why We Build that when London's planners and officials try to come up with schemes to make Trafalgar Square less boring, what they don't realise is that it was designed to be boring.  The large fountains are allegedly to reduce the space for people to congregate in large crowds that might turn ugly.  I don't know if he's right that it was done deliberately, but he's right that Trafalgar Square is an anodyne space.  There was an extremely good bagpiper playing outside the National Gallery, but it is a dull square.

William Morris was still there, and while the exhibition (as the Telegraph reviewer points out) can't do more than skate over his life and work, it draws some thought provoking links to later artists who were influenced by him.  From my point of view it followed on nicely from our mini tour in September of Arts and Crafts houses in Gloucestershire.

After that my brain was full and I did not think it would a good idea to try and cram in Egon Schiele as well, so I schlepped back to Liverpool Street, admiring the Christmas lights en route.  Bow Lane always looks especially quaint.  The 5.18 Ipswich train was nowhere near full, although I could have done with the man opposite me not picking his nose so ostentatiously, and ran to time, as did the morning train, so all in all it was an extremely successful expedition.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

memory lane

I revisited my youth last night, or it revisited me, in the form of an appearance at the Colchester Arts Centre by Devon based musicians Paul Downes and Phil Beer.  Phil Beer scarcely figures in my past, since the first time I ever saw him was as one half of Show of Hands at the Ipswich Corn Exchange a few weeks ago, but Paul Downes used to drop in to my local folk club occasionally in the 1970s if he didn't have a gig that night, when he was an up and coming professional musician and I was young.  I still have an album of his on vinyl, Life Goes On, which is a collector's item nowadays, or at least unavailable at the present time on Amazon.

I was surprised when I saw their names on the Arts Centre website, since I was sure they hadn't been in the September brochure, and the reason for their sudden billing turned out to be a sad one.  The wife and touring companion of John Kirkpatrick, who was due to visit with his Christmas show, had been rushed into hospital for emergency surgery, causing John Kirkpatrick to cancel all his gigs, and had later died in her sleep following a second operation.  Poor things, we saw his Christmas routine Carolling and Crumpets at the Harwich Electric Palace last year (very good it was too) and she was there, sitting a few rows back and helping with the CD sales.  She did backing vocals on the Christmas album, too, so we'll be listening to her at some point on Christmas day.

Having the Arts Centre booked for a day two and a half weeks before Christmas, and suddenly having no artist, must be every concert promoter's nightmare.  The way that you solve it is to ring round the other folk acts of roughly equivalent fame and seniority who are appearing somewhere in the area later in the week, and ask if they are free on the Monday and can help get you out of a hole.  So we got Downes and Beer because they were already booked to appear tonight at the Dartford Folk Club.  The Colchester Folk Club organiser repeatedly referred to them as her heroes, prompting the riposte from Phil Beer that if he'd know he'd have worn his underpants outside his trousers.  I was delighted at the unexpected opportunity to revisit my musical past, though sorry about the circumstances.

Paul Downes was and is a good guitarist, with a pleasant voice pitched somewhere in C of E hymn territory i.e. slightly too high for me to join in the choruses all the way through.  When I last saw him thirty something years ago he had curly hair, and a considerable amount of raffish charm. Three plus decades on the hair remains, now somewhat grizzled, and the charm, though his outline has broadened and he seems to have modelled his dress sense on Jeremy Clarkson in the meantime, but who am I to criticize?  My own hair is pretty grizzled nowadays, and as I am typing this wearing very ancient M&S jeans, a turquoise fleece, purple socks and Birkenstock clogs I haven't worn any better sartorially speaking.

You can't expect artists to stick with the same repertoire unchanged year after year.  Indeed, some like Martin Simpson (or David Bowie) perpetually reinvent themselves, but Paul Downes did enough of the old songs to make me very happy.  And name checked the a capella trad foursome Isca Fayre.  I remember them.  My father still has their album (I hope).  The Jolly Porter got a mention, I went to the folk club there.  The pub is boarded up now.  And there was a joke about the village where I grew up, and a banjo joke I hadn't heard before.  How do you tell when a banjo is in tune? Nobody knows, it's never happened.  So I had a whale of a time.  Fortunately the friend who came with me on the strength of it being one half of Show of Hands and my vouching for Paul Downes liked it too.

Monday, 15 December 2014

card time

Suddenly it's gone from feeling very early to be doing Christmas cards to feeling as if I might be behind the curve.  Four more arrived this morning, bringing the total to eleven, or ten if you don't count one from a mail order plant nursery I bought some alpines from earlier in the year.  They were very nice plants, but I don't think that makes the proprietors my friends, and I knew before opening the envelope that it was not a regular card, because it was addressed to me by my baptismal name.  Only my credit card company calls me that.

I made a start on our cards yesterday, but hadn't got as far as posting any apart from one I delivered, and that was only because I needed to drop off a concert ticket for tonight.  I made good progress up until lunchtime, when I ran out of cards.  I think I must have vaguely thought that as I wouldn't have to give one to everybody in the staff room at the plant centre, where there was an absolute unspoken rule that everyone gave everyone else a card, even the people who hated each other's guts, I wouldn't need as many this year, but now I think about it I ran out last year as well, and had to buy emergency extra supplies at Tesco, which were so horrid I was embarrassed by them.

It is a sweet and sobering experience to go through your address book once a year.  We are middle aged and old fashioned enough to still have a physical book, instead of keeping everything on our smart phones.  I write quite lightly, in pencil, but you can still see the ghost entries where couples have become singles through death or separation, or where nascent friendships have failed to develop and I've decided there's no point in those names still cluttering up the book.  In the cases of several former colleagues where one or the other of us keep in touch the names of their children are pencilled in to avoid difficulties at card writing time.  I'm not good at names, and it seems as though twenty years ago every third girl child was called Eleanor while now every other one is Olivia or Lucy.  It's hard to keep track.

Some people get a letter.  Who does is a movable feast, driven by how well I know them, how much I like them, how often we meet in the year and how recently I've seen them, and whether or not I think they'll like a letter.  It feels as though you are impinging on somebody else's time writing to them, and making the presumption that they'll be interested in your news.  Some years I've put letters in with some cards and then worried that I shouldn't have done that, we don't know each other that well and they'll think it odd.  I've kept in touch with an old school friend for over thirty years through her career as a partner in a City law firm and three children largely by dint of letters.  We are pleased when we do see each other, and as I said in this year's missive, one of these years she'll retire and have time to come to an art gallery with me.  I am touched when she writes, because I know that she truly does not have very much spare time.

I bumped into someone recently that I know via one of my societies, who wished me a happy Christmas and said obliquely that she was cutting back on cards this year, from which I inferred that she was not sending us one, after having us on her list for the past two or three years.  It's a nice question, how many to send and when to stop, which in turn raises the issue of why you were sending a card in the first place.  Blood relatives get cards, even if you only see each other at weddings and funerals.  Neighbours likewise, if you have managed to discover their names, which we haven't yet in the case of the people with the log cabin in their garden.  The Systems Administrator even took a wrongly delivered package round for them once, but they weren't communicative.  Maybe we should seize the spirit of the season and go and ask them.

Close friends get cards.  Not necessarily letters if we see each other regularly.  Former colleagues we were mates with outside work get cards if we're still in touch, even if we only see each other occasionally and via work based reunions rather than on a one on one basis.  If I've been invited to consume food and drink in somebody's house during the year in a private capacity rather than as part of a club event then they probably get a card, at least for this year.  Then there are people that I've met through shared interests, whose houses I don't visit and who don't come here, and that I wouldn't expect to see outside the club or society, but when we do meet we gravitate towards each other and I like them.  They get cards.

It's the hinterland that's the puzzle, the people you aren't quite sure whether you know privately outside your roles as colleagues or fellow members of an association.  And the people you used to know well, but now don't seem to hear from so often or get on so well when you meet.  Apart from the deaths and divorces, going through an address book acts as a shock audit on your relationships. Which friendships are stronger and better, which are drifting, and which ones have gone downhill since last Christmas card time?  And if the latter is there anything to be done about it, or should you apply the Buddhist precept that everything changes, nothing is constant, and some things you have to let go, even friendships?  In which case at what point do you stop sending a card?  I suppose it's a real world equivalent of the dilemma of when to defriend people on Facebook, which is one reason why I'm not on Facebook.  Human relationships are too complex, graduated and messy to be neatly divided into Friends versus not Friends, and at least with Christmas cards you only have to confront the issue annually.

I have every sympathy with people on very low incomes who genuinely can't afford to send many cards, less with those comfortably above the breadline who grumble too much about the cost.  It only seems like a big expense because they all come at once in December, when really a pound isn't that much over a whole year to tell somebody that you are thinking of them, and like them enough to spend at least a pound and five minutes of your time to tell them.

I went to the Post Office with the cards I'd done so far and had to wait for a long time behind a man who was posting a dozen parcels all of different weights and lengths.  At first I though he was sending Christmas presents before deciding he was a small trader of some sort.  That is, I suppose, the downside of internet shopping.  Parcels containing books and air brush spare parts arrive for us with minimal effort on our part, while in a post office somewhere the queue is waiting while they get sent off.  After the wait the post office manager had run out of Christmas stamps anyway.  He'd run out last year as well, so either I should have bought them earlier, or he doesn't bother stocking them.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Sunday concert

The woman from the Colchester based falconry company called back this morning, not too early it being a Sunday, to ask whether the escaped hawk was still about, but we hadn't had sight nor sound since the last clank of bells at ten past one yesterday lunchtime.  The Systems Administrator did find a scattering of freshly plucked pigeon feathers outside the workshop.  We can't be absolutely sure they had anything to do with the bird I saw given we regularly find piles of feathers, and there are sparrow hawks about, but the falconer thought they were probably linked.  From my rather scanty description she had guessed the lost bird was a Harris hawk, and they are natural pigeon catchers, not rabbiters.  But one pigeon would not last it long, and by today it would be hungry again, and Harris hawks are a Mexican species  not adapted to spending frosty nights out of doors.

If it was the bird she thought it was, it came from Wivenhoe and this was the second time it had gone on the run.  Her team managed to catch it before, but were obliged to return it to its lawful owner.  This time it had been out for several days, and she was very keen to retrieve it before it tangled itself up or froze to death, though I sensed she was rather less keen to give it back a second time to somebody who seemed incapable of looking after it.  I promised we'd ring her if we heard anything more of it.  She had primed a falconer who lived extremely locally to come round at once if we made the call, but I don't think either of us were very confident we'd see it again.  As the SA pointed out, if it's been loose for several days it must be moving around, because this was the first time we've seen it.

In the afternoon there was a music society concert.  Last time we had an internationally famous quartet who gave almost exactly the same programme a few days later at the Wigmore Hall.  This time it was the turn of a young cellist.  Her first pianist had to withdraw for personal reasons after we'd printed the annual programme.  Today's substitute pianist was suffering from a gastric bug and had been very sick earlier in the day.  The Chairman warned us at the beginning that he had been poorly, and might have to leave the stage during the concert.  He made it through to the end, but I have never seen a piano played in concert before by somebody looking wan to the point of being positively green.  When taking his bows between numbers I did wonder if he was actually clinging to the piano for support.  Still, the show went on, which was extremely game of him.

The Chairman had emailed us before the concert to say that she'd found someone to set the chairs out and put them away again for twenty pounds, which seemed to me a bargain given the music society is solvent.  I don't know who it was, but they had ignored the instruction to put out all the chairs and instead filled the hall up with chairs, which is not the same thing, so before the concert started there was a great deal of shuffling of rows and frankly elderly men hurrying back and forth with extra seats.  There were no mishaps, but after the news about the pianist it would just have rounded things off if somebody had collapsed.  My contribution to the festivities was to help organise the mince pies.  You don't get those at the Wigmore Hall.

I'm beginning to see why The Archers editors and scriptwriters have steadily abandoned touch with reality.  An everyday story of country folk as it actually happens includes days and days when nothing happens.  There was a stray bird but it went away again.  Somebody sprained their arm.  A man felt sick but played the piano anyway.  Some chairs were in the wrong place but people moved them.  The end.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

an unexpected visitor

It is cold outside, and I've managed to sprain my right wrist.  I feel an absolute idiot to have done that, given how self-righteous I normally am about the importance of not over-doing things, switching between jobs, avoiding lifting anything too heavy or cumbersome but finding another way to shift it and so on and so forth.  It happened after spending last Wednesday cutting the grass on the daffodil bank (with shears) and raking up and picking out oak leaves.  I didn't think I'd done that much work with the shears in aggregate, since the days are only short and I was busy collecting leaves as well, but by the evening my forearm felt ominously tender and my wrist gave a warning twinge as I tried to plug the projector extension cable into a trailing socket that felt unexpectedly stiff.  The next morning confirmed the bad news, soreness from my wrist to below the elbow in a diagonal line from the fleshy base of my thumb to my outer arm.  I've overdone it, sprained it, nothing to be done now but hold off activities that require any sort of grip or pressure until it feels better.  Oh bother, damn, fiddlesticks, ruddy hell and all the rest of it.

At least there are wrist-easy jobs to be doing inside.  I sorted through assorted boxes of old seed packets, noting regretfully how the free offers with magazines repeat themselves.  There is a limit to how many packets of Verbena bonariensis one needs, especially if you've already got it in the garden.  Last year I offered unwanted varieties to my colleagues at work, in the faint hope they might come in useful for a school garden or similar project, but there were few takers.  This time round things I know I am never going to sow because I wouldn't want the end result went in the bin, together with anything with a sow-by date of earlier than 2014, apart from poppies and foxgloves whose tiny seeds can last for years, which is how they can lurk unseen then pop up when the soil is disturbed, if a tree falls in a wood, say, or on a battlefield. I also kept some unusual Nicotiana I bought at a flower show and never got round to sowing, in the hope that their equally small seeds might likewise be long lived.

I went out just before lunch to feed the hens, and was startled by a large, dark coloured bird with a white flash rising from the edge of the wood, a skinned rabbit clasped in its feet, jingling like a morris dancer.  It had to be an escaped trained hawk with bells on its jesses.  It perched in a tree, then dropped down out of sight.  I was utterly taken aback, and then worried about it.  It was not about to starve to death given that it was demonstrably capable of catching its own food, but I didn't think it ought to be wandering about in the woods indefinitely.  Its harness might get caught in a tree, and I didn't know how it would fare in the cold nights.  But where do you report a stray hawk?

I tried the local animal rescue centre.  They probably wouldn't want to try and catch it themselves, but I reasoned they might have a phone number for someone who would.  The boss was out, but the person I spoke to in the meantime suggested I call Stonham Barns where there is a bird of prey centre.  If you Google Stonham Barns you get details of a restaurant and shopping experience, but I worked out after a while that what I wanted was the Suffolk Owl Sanctuary, so I rang them.  After listening to a recorded message about what to do if I found an injured bird of prey I managed to speak to a real person, who gave me the phone number of a Colchester based hawk display team. The search was closing in.  I rang the Colchester Bird of Prey Centre, who hadn't lost a hawk but did know the drill for reporting one.  It turns out there is a national register, and they said they would ring that at once to log details of my sighting, and call me tomorrow if they hadn't managed to track down the owner with a view to coming out to look for it themselves if there was any evidence it was still around.  She said that if it was hunting successfully it might stay in the area, but there was no point in trying to lure it to her when it had just had a rabbit, as it wouldn't be interested.

Since lunchtime I haven't heard any more jingling from the wood, so who knows where the hawk is? Perhaps it has been having a sit down and digest after its rabbit.  Perhaps it has moved on.  I hope somebody finds it before it comes to a sticky end.  I probably have an overly romantic view of hawks after reading TH White at an impressionable age, but I don't like to think of the creature dangling upside down from a tree by its jesses.

Friday, 12 December 2014

wearing my treasurer's hat

The trouble with banks closing branches from a customer service point of view is that customers who still need to go to the bank have to go to one of the remaining branches.  I had some beekeepers' money to pay in before the end of the year, and as the branch I used to use in Brightlingsea no longer exists I used one in the suburbs of Colchester, where I'd be able to park for free and could incorporate the trip into a visit to the supermarket, albeit by a strange and looping route.  When I arrived there were a dozen people ahead of me in the queue, which reached to the door, and it didn't get any shorter all the time that I was waiting.

Banks and big businesses are keen on us moving to a cashless world, but there are situations where you need cash.  Maybe one day I'll be equipped for free with an electronic card reader, and the beekeepers will be able to swipe their pre-paid cards to pay fifty pence for their tea and biscuit or a pound for a strip of raffle tickets.  Maybe, but not yet.  Phone to phone payment is just beginning to take off, but there's absolutely no way we're using that for tea and raffles.  There are situations where cash is the clear and obvious thing, except that then somebody has to take it to the bank.

I had made life very slightly more arduous for myself by taking the opportunity to swap the beekeepers' one and two pound coins, so useful for car park machines, for our accumulated stock of one and two pence pieces, so heavy to carry around that they collect inexorably in pots and boxes in the bottom of the Systems Administrator's wardrobe, which is where I found them while clearing up during the Great Moth Disaster.  And then failed to pay them all in to the bank, because they were so damned heavy to lug about.  My wrists were aching by the time I got to the front of the queue, where the bank teller remained admirably unruffled by the fact that I wanted to pay in over thirty pounds in coins with a maximum face value of fifty pence.  They were properly counted and bagged up, so it didn't really take that long, on the other hand the queue was still stretching back to the door when I left.

The annual Gift Aid declaration was more of a fiddle, since according to the County Treasurer the Inland Revenue needs to know the name and address of all members making a Gift Aid declaration, plus the date of payment.  Why the exact date?  Run a list of names and postcodes through a database possibly, to check that these people exist and are taxpayers, but what earthly difference does it make if their subscription went though the bank on the seventeenth of January versus the twenty-ninth, or the third of February.  Is anyone from the Inland Revenue really going to spend any time checking that?  If so then why?  And if not then why do I have to spend my time reconciling membership forms and bank statements to produce the information?  I am quite in favour of Gift Aid, since charities that receive more public support get more from the taxpayer, which seems democratic, but it has a terribly high ratio of administrative faff to tax relief policed.

Somebody on the Today programme this morning was suggesting that the value of voluntary work should be added to measures of GDP, to make it a more accurate reflection of activity in Britain. The argument seemed to go that now we included drug trafficking and prostitution, why exclude volunteers?  And that policy tends to focus only on what's measured.  I wasn't really listening, as I was hanging up the laundry at the time, but I didn't feel in my bones that it was a runner.  A beautiful idea, maybe, to dignify voluntary work and give it more prominence in public policy by counting it as part of economic activity, but how do you measure it?  It would just be a big made-up number.  Economic data isn't very accurate and people don't believe in it very much as it is. Adding ever more estimated and frankly invented data would only make the problem worse.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

farewell trucking days

The truck departed yesterday on the first leg of its voyage to the great breaker's yard in the sky. After years of scraping through its MoT with just a bit more welding, the garage warned us this time last year that it was going to be difficult to patch it up again.  Or at least, not cost effective. Ah well, it was good while it lasted, but we did not honestly need a truck any more, and certainly not enough to pay any serious money to have it fixed.  It was a relief when it started, and made it to the scrap merchant's yard without breaking down en route.

It was a flat bed Ford Transit, that had already travelled the equivalent of many times around the globe before we got it at umpteen hand, definitely pre-loved, still with a clip on the dashboard for holding delivery notes.  It was very useful when we had the boat and the Systems Administrator needed to transport scaffolding up to the boat yard for fitting out in the spring, and if you live in the country you find there are all sorts of situations where a truck comes in handy.  We used it to collect spent mushroom compost in bulk from the mushroom farm up in Suffolk, and to buy large sheets of plywood for whatever shed building project the SA had on the go at the time.  It quested the lanes north of Colchester to buy straw bales for the hens, and each December it brought the Ent-like twelve foot Christmas tree back from the plant centre.  A couple of years ago it transported the sawn sections of an entire fallen poplar tree back from the spinney, getting stuck in the process and having to be hauled out by a friend's Landrover.

But the boat went last year, and it is possible to get plywood delivered for much less than the cost of road taxing and third-party insuring even a very ancient builder's truck.  I discovered that the garden centre round the corner sells mushroom compost, and that I can fit eight bags in the back of the Skoda, not so many as would go on the truck, on the other hand Elmstead Market is a lot closer than Suffolk, and the compost from the garden centre seems to be better rotted and drier.  We no longer have any connection with the farmer who sold us the straw, since he ceased keeping company with the friend who provided the social link, and got the last lot of straw from a beekeeper who has a wheat field and a trailer, and was kindly willing to deliver.  The SA has bought some roof bars for the car, and we will content ourselves with a normal sized Christmas tree, which will save me perilously wobbling about on the top rung of the stepladder trying to hook the angel on top of the Ent.

The SA was rather amazed to get some money for the truck, having privately had visions of ending up hawking the thing round a string of progressively dodgier scrap yards.  Not very much money, but some.  I hadn't been so pessimistic, since there was value in the vehicle.  The engine and transmission system still worked, and the tyres still had some life in them, the problem was the rust in the bodywork getting beyond the limits of what was economically repairable.  I was amazed when I discovered payment had come in the form of a cheque and not a handful of greasy tenners, but I'm behind the times.  The law has at last tightened up on scrap dealers, at least legal and licensed ones, and they will only pay you by cheque or bank transfer, and you need to produce photo ID before they will take anything.  Which is a very sensible move and not before time, although as the SA pointed out, while the train service is still diabolical, cable thefts don't feature much nowadays in the litany of excuses.

The scrapyard was patrolled by four yard cats, who were sitting in a neat row when the SA called in, and had beds made out of cardboard boxes.  As well as being a scrap yard it is still a working farm, as the SA discovered because the girl he spoke to hadn't done a vehicle scrappage before, and had to phone someone called Ben for instructions on how to do it, who was said to be with the cows.  That's very Essex, cattle and scrap.  So the SA handed over the truck's documents and on production of a passport was given a cheque and the paperwork that proved that we were no longer the registered keepers of the vehicle.

Sic Transit gloria mundi.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

talking trees

I gave a talk for the woodland charity tonight to the Friends group of one of their local woods. Talking to a specialist interest audience is a mixed blessing.  On the plus side, at least I know they're into in the topic before I start, while with a general social club some people might be utterly indifferent to trees, and just be there for the company and the biscuit.  Against that, I have to avoid boring them into a state of hostility by telling them too many things they already know.  I need not have worried, since this turned out to be a very nice, friendly group, keen and involved without any hint of having seen and heard it all before.  Their village hall had a rather snazzy ceiling mounted projector that must have taken some serious fund raising or grant applications, though I stuck with my familiar table mounted kit.  It's set up to run off a memory stick rather than a laptop, which minimises the potential for confusion under pressure, since with only one presentation on the USB it's that or nothing.

As Christmas is coming I'd added some extra twigs to the intro, and after trotting briskly through some past uses and assorted biological facts about my usual oak, ash, birch, alder and sweet chestnut, I threw in the holly and the ivy, the cherry tree and the willow for good measure.  I like the twigs as a warm-up routine, before starting on the slides.  I borrowed the idea from one of the best Writtle tutors, who woke up a dozy post lunch class by dropping a piece of rosemary on every desk and commanding us to smell.  People expect slides at an evening talk.  They don't expect to have clusters of terminal buds waved under their noses by somebody who has just been miming the outspread habit of a mature hedgerow oak.

They certainly weren't expecting the cherry and the willow.  Everybody knows one or another version of the holly and the ivy.  There are lots, some tunes far superior to the others, but there wasn't time to go into that.  I was genuinely surprised, however, when a cultured and church going friend claimed never to have heard of the cherry tree carol.  Joseph and Mary are walking together while she is with child.  Joseph is rather grumpy about it, and when Mary asks him to pick her some cherries he says that the father of her child can jolly well gather cherries for her, whereupon Jesus pipes up from within his mother's womb and commands the tree to bend down to her.  It does, and she picks herself some cherries, rather smugly.  You can see why it didn't feature in the hymnal at my school, but you get it on lots of Christmas albums.

The Bitter Withy has definitely been excised from the Christian repertoire.  I have it on the reissue of a splendid 1960s recording by the Watersons, and have not found it anywhere else.  The infant Jesus goes out to play and is snubbed by some rich lords' sons, so takes revenge by building a bridge out of the beams of the sun and tempting them over it, whereupon they all fall into the stream below and drown.  Their mothers complain to Mary, who punishes Jesus by whipping him with a willow branch.  He in turn curses the willow.  Oh bitter withy, oh bitter withy, that has caused me for to smart.  And the willow shall be the very first tree to be rotten at the heart.  Which is well observed, arboriculturally speaking, since willows are very ready to rot, but theologically dodgy to say the least.

After that we talked about indicator species, and planted ancient woodland sites, and ash dieback, and the ecological value of woodland edges, and proper subjects.  I think they enjoyed the digression, though.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

let there be light

Suddenly since I was last out after dark the Christmas lights have started to spring up.  The house in the lane where our temporary dog lives has sprouted two spirals of red lights either side of the front door, and in Elmstead Market and Wivenhoe people are expressing themselves in their various and particular ways, from low key clusters of white LEDs threaded through in shrubs in the garden to full blown multi-coloured strip lights, stars and Santas covering the front of the house.  A terrace of three or four (it was difficult to tell in the dark) houses in Wivenhoe had a co-ordinated display running all the way across their combined frontages, while the church, more restrained, had a white star on the tower.  I think it's the same star every year.

We haven't got anywhere near that far.  The Systems Administrator has bought a set of roof bars for the car, since the truck's Christmas tree collecting days are over, and we have an agreement in principle to get two trees now that we won't be getting a hugely tall, albeit gaunt tree from the plant centre, one for the sitting room and one for the study.  The idea was to have room for all the decorations we've accumulated in the years of having twelve footers, and it may yet be scaled back when the SA sees the normal price of trees.  If we go ahead with this plan we need to remember we only have one Christmas tree holder.  And we need to check fairly soon and before the shops sell out that the lights still work, in case they don't.

And that's it.  We have received three Christmas cards and sent none so far.  I have bought most of my presents and not wrapped any of them yet.  It still seems a long way off, nearly two weeks, but Christmas is not really that complicated when you are middle aged and don't have children.

I like the Christmas lights though I can't see the point in us bothering here, given that we are at a dead end half a mile up a farm road, and there are absolutely no passers by at all to see them. Even Google Street View only makes it a third of the way up the lane before realising that it's trespassing on private ground and grinding to a halt, which is fine by me.  Once in a while I check it hasn't got any further, and I expect the lettuce farmer does too, as it's his road.  So we exist in privacy, unmapped and unilluminated, and I enjoy looking at other people's decorations when I go out.  It's a one sided bargain, but their lights need an audience.  If Santa glows and nobody sees him, does he really shine?

Monday, 8 December 2014

another hedge

Progress on cutting the boundary hedge is coming along nicely, partly because it is such a sad and spindly hedge that there isn't all that much growth to cut off.  With secateurs, loppers, pruning saw, bow saw and the long handled cord operated lopper that I somehow managed to carry back from Hampton Court Flower Show on the train, I'm facing it up into a level, hedge-like surface.  A thin, see-through hedge, but a hedge.  Its constituent parts, hawthorn, hazel, field maple and spindle, seem hell bent on making long growths that shoot as far away from the hedge as possible. I can see where I've cut them in the past, and instead of making bushy growth in response to tipping back like a reasonable plant would, they have regrown with a fresh supply of long shoots.

The long handled cord lopper is a bit of a brute to use.  It is still pretty sharp, but not so sharp as when it was new, and although designed with a mechanical advantage that must compare favourably with a badger's jaw, you still have to pull the cord extremely hard to get through the thicker branches.  I found myself alternating between gripping the thick string as tightly as I could, and wrapping it around my hand, which rapidly became painful.  Note to self (and others), never, ever, ever wrap any cord or rope round your hand if the other end is attached to anything that could suddenly pull away from you.  I thought that I was pretty safe with nothing but a set of outsize geared secateurs at the end of a lightweight pole.

Even a thin hedge produces a surprisingly large pile of prunings, which mysteriously shrink to become very small once they have gone through the shredder.  After all my labours this morning and yesterday I ended up with just three small bags of shredded twigs to use as mulch round the compost bins, much less than a wheelbarrow of firewood, and a couple of big bins of thin, rubbishy stuff for the bonfire.  I'm working on the middle section of the hedge at the moment, which runs across a particularly light band of soil, and there'll be more to take off as I reach the stretch by the blue summerhouse, where the soil is better.  It's sod's law that, to judge from the relative growth of the boundary hedge along its length, we seem to have managed to choose to lay the concrete for car parking and site the sheds on what was probably the best area of soil in the front garden.

By mid day the slight overnight frost had melted, helped by a brilliant winter sun, and after lunch I let the chickens out for a run.  Cue the skies to darken and the wind to get up.  I switched from hedge cutting to weeding, thinking that I'd better take advantage of the thaw, and the hens performed their current favoured circuit of the front garden, along the eleagnus hedge, scratching around for a while in the awkward shaped bed by the entrance, and back past me through the railway garden to a final session scraping around outside the sheds.  The bed by the entrance ought to be the most pest free in the county at this rate, after the going over the chickens are giving it. They are doing quite a useful job on the concrete, since a lot of moss has grown in the grooves that our builder marked it with to make it non-slip, and the hens are busily scraping it all out, so I'll be able to go round and sweep it up later.

By half past three it was so cold I couldn't feel my feet properly, and at five to four I went and loomed over the chickens as they stood grooming and pecking at blades of grass outside their run until they went to bed.  I think I need some thicker gardening socks for the winter, or maybe sheepskin insoles to go in my wellingtons.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

changing times

I was listening to Radio 4 just now as I did a bit of washing up, and heard the first half of a documentary on Jeremy Thorpe, held back from broadcast until after his death.  Some of the material had been held back for forty years, and as I listened I began to feel as though I must be very old, that social norms could have changed so much in my lifetime.

I met Jeremy Thorpe as a child, because he was the MP for a north Devon seat as well as Liberal party leader, and my parents were liberal activists in east Devon.  He was as charismatic as the programme said, for I can still remember him once visiting our house, and his thin-faced intensity and burning sense of intelligence and purpose.  I don't remember the trial being greatly discussed at home.  That was in 1979, so I was in the sixth form by then.

But what jolted me as I scrubbed at this lunchtime's omelet pan was the reminder that within my lifetime, by the time I was at secondary school, the revelation that somebody was a homosexual would be enough to destroy their political career, with the fact that an Eton and Oxford educated political leader had had a relationship across the class divide running it a close second for scandal. Not in the pages of EM Forster some time in the dying days of Edwardian England*, but in my lifetime.  Barnstaple police kept a secret dossier on Jeremy Thorpe's private life under lock and key.

My mind boggled, absolutely boggled. and then I began to feel very thankful that, even though it meant I must be getting old, things had changed so much.  I thought of the gay couples I know, who come along to the beekeepers events and the music society, and how nobody gives a stuffed monkey.  It is so absolutely, completely, blisteringly normal when you see Paul to enquire where Lee is, and no-one bats an eyelid as they write Christmas cards or party invitations with two same-sex names on them.  And thank goodness for that.

There again, it makes me feel very old to remember that in the year we spent in the States when I was a baby, the Civil Rights Act had not yet been passed.  In the photographs of me wearing a powder blue coat and matching bonnet, or smearing ice cream joyously over my face, that baby was living in a country that did not give the same rights under the law to black people.  It's just a pity that fifty years on, black people in the United States are still regularly being shot, beaten, and suffocated to death by their own police.

*There again, Forster wrote Maurice in 1913-14, but it was only published in 1971 after his death.  In my lifetime.  He did not believe it was publishable before then.

Addendum  I am indebted to Wikipedia for that last snippet, and have just given them my five pounds to help keep them going and ad free for another year.  Please do likewise.

Saturday, 6 December 2014


There was a proper frost last night, an ice on the cars, chickens' drinking water needing a can of hot to thaw the basin out, white grass, silver crystals on the gravel sort of frost.  All credit to the Met Office, it was forecast, and I'd made sure to shut the greenhouse and conservatory doors.  It wasn't a very deep or hard frost, but then the day never got very warm, so that by dusk it was still lying in the corners of flower beds and other odd corners the sun hadn't touched all day.

Knowing that it would be frosty and that I wouldn't be able to walk on the grass or do any proper weeding, at least until mid morning, I'd already set my sights on starting to cut the boundary hedge around the front garden.  The leaves are finally off, and the birds have eaten the hawthorn berries (which seems very early.  What else do they eat instead for the rest of the winter?).  I felt a bit mean removing sections of hazel with developing catkins, when they are such a good pollen source for early-flying insects, but the hedge has got to be done periodically.  The branches of some of the field maples are nearly half way across the railway garden as it is.  Drawing a mental line about a foot outside the rabbit fence, anything the wrong side of that line is coming off.

It isn't a very good hedge.  It's on the hungry sand, almost completely lacking in nutrients and unable to hold on to water for more than about five minutes.  At its worst points you could have stood on the far side of it and we could have held a conversation over the top fully ten years after it was planted.  I have fed it periodically with fish, blood and bone over the years, but probably not as much as I should have, and the base has been invaded by grass which will have taken half the goodness from the fertiliser.  Encroaching grass is a great growth checker for woody plants, until they are thoroughly established, and with a young hedge it's a vicious circle.  The hedge isn't dense enough to shade out its own roots, so the grass grows unchecked, further stunting the hedge.

I have dosed the grass periodically with glyphosate as well, over the years, but you have to be careful with glyphosate around young stems.  It is mainly absorbed through green leaves, but can penetrate bark if it's only thin, or so I've read.  Plus the hedge is vast and that much ready mixed glyphosate would be very expensive to buy and give me RSI applying it.  Now I've got the knapsack sprayer I might have another concerted go at the grass, though in the short term I'll probably make do with sprinkling some bone meal around.

It was a very clear day, so that every detail of the distant houses around the farm appeared pin sharp, making them look closer than they normally do, and in consequence very large.  The log cabin that appeared in one neighbour's garden earlier this year looked positively vast, and yet I know it is exactly the same as it always is.  I drove past it yesterday, and it was its normal self, a home-assembly garden office about the size of a double garage.

I let the chickens out for a run after lunch, and they were slightly disobliging about wandering about and into the back garden, meaning I had to take a break from weeding the thawed-out gravel and follow them there.  While I slightly resented having my flow of work interrupted, it was cold enough that taking a periodic walk was not bad thing.  One tip I've read for losing weight is to turn down the thermostat for a few hours each day and chill yourself, which apparently stimulates your body to convert some of its stores of fat into energy-burning brown fat.  Whatever the biochemical mechanism, being outside today certainly felt as though it was cranking my metabolism up a couple of notches.  Whether I'll lose weight is another matter, as there were the Suffolk cakes when I came in, and as predicted, their slight resemblance to lemon flavoured bathroom sponges didn't matter in the least.