Tuesday, 30 June 2015

honey harvest continued

As I'd promised, straight after breakfast I started extracting my two supers of honey, beginning slightly tangentially by vacuuming the kitchen floor, as I didn't want to find any tabby fluff or ginger and white hairs floating in the buckets when I'd finished.

Amateur honey extraction is a fiddle, taking an amount of time and effort in no way reflected in the five pounds a jar that seems to be the most the public is happy to pay at the Tendring Show. You clean the floor before you start, spread newspaper over the kitchen table to catch any drips and smears of propolis, and fetch the supers.  It's a door and windows shut job, because you don't want any passing bees to find you, or they'll be back presently with half the hive and you will be in big trouble.  If you run an Aga through the summer months, as we do because otherwise we don't have anything to cook on, you're in for a hot morning.

When honey is ripe and ready, concentrated to a low enough level of moisture that it won't ferment in storage, the bees cover the comb with a wax capping.  If you are an amateur like me you slice this off with a sharp serrated knife, one side of one frame at a time.  And if you are an amateur, like me, you probably have a hand cranked centrifuge.  Mine holds two frames at a time, so after slicing the cappings off four sides it's time to put them in the wire drum in the extractor.  You try to match their weights, otherwise the extractor wobbles and starts to walk across the kitchen floor as you spin.  Then you turn the handle like mad one way, hanging on to the body of the extractor with your knees if it doesn't want to stay put, and if you are me you turn the handle the other way for good measure, before taking the two frames out, turning them over so that the opposite side is facing outwards, and spin them again.

The extractor has got a tap in the bottom, so when the level of honey in the bottom starts to reach the level of the wire cage, you run off a bucketful.  The bucket should be of food grade plastic, with a tightly fitting lid.  I run the honey through a sieve as it goes into the bucket, to remove any fragments of wax, or more gruesomely bits of bee.  Any remaining fine particles of wax will tend to float to the top over the next few days, and can be removed by laying a piece of cling film over the surface and taking it off again, the debris stuck to it in a fine layer of honey.  You waste some honey that way, but achieve a better finish.  And that's all the processing I bother with, unless it starts to solidify in storage, in which case I might heat it very gently until it becomes liquid again.

There is a lot of washing up, the board and knife and sieve and spoons and the plate you needed to put the spoons down on, and it is all very sticky.  The metal basket unscrews from the body of the extractor.  Both need to be cleaned, and both are too large to fit in a domestic sink.  However careful you are there will be drips of honey on the work surfaces, the floor, and other places you hadn't thought of but will gradually reveal themselves over the next couple of days.  You wash the metal basket in stages, getting one section of one face under the tap at a time.  You wash the main body of the extractor, and put it upside down on the draining board, where it leaves no room for anything else.

There are the cappings to deal with.  It is impossible to cut off the wax covering without some honey coming with it, however shallowly you try to angle the knife.  If you put the capping to drain in a colander, preferably somewhere warm, a useful amount of honey will drip off them.  You wouldn't jar it up and offer it for sale, but it is perfectly good for cooking.  The simmer plate of the Aga is ideal for this job, only then of course you can't risk opening the door or window until you've dealt with the cappings, in case any bees smell them.  And then you have to wash the colander, and the pan you stood it in while it dripped.

The commercial beekeepers are much more efficient.  They have a bee proof room for starters, where they can leave the supers until they're ready to deal with them, instead of having to seal off a room of the house which basically commits you to getting on with the job at once.  They have electric heated capping knives, and motorised extractors that hold many more than two frames at a time.  They do not have to do the whole exercise while avoiding bumping into the kitchen table, and I imagine hygienic stainless steel easy to wipe surfaces and big commercial sinks of a size to hold anything they need to wash in them.  I do not picture them having to wipe dribbles of honey off the front of the boiler while being careful not to reset it to a daft temperature by mistake.

I only actually had one spare empty honey bucket, and was obliged to decant the last bit from a 2011 batch into jars to free up a second bucket.  I didn't aim to have a bucket of four year old honey hanging around, but found it hidden away behind other buckets and boxes, and while the flavour has lost its subtleties and I wouldn't serve it to spread on toast, it is still perfectly good for cooking.  I've been using it in honey and sultana loaves, and they have tasted very nice.  This latest extraction is a mid brown, medium if not dark in show terms (almost certainly not technically dark.  Our honey judge says he never sees dark honey).  It has the complex flavour of freshly extracted honey, but with a distinct overtone of toffee.  I like it, and can imagine it would be very good in savoury recipes calling for Greek honey, but I'm not sure it will be widely popular. Prototypical, ideal, Ur honey isn't supposed to taste of toffee, and when in novels characters are said to have honey coloured skin we aren't meant to visualise flesh the colour of dilute marmite.

Monday, 29 June 2015

honey harvest with interlude

I put a clearer board underneath a couple of really good heavy supers on Saturday morning.  For those of you who don't keep bees, and are completely lost after the first sentence of today's blog post, I started getting one of my beehives ready to harvest some honey.  Obviously you don't want to take a load of bees into your kitchen along with the honey, and the clearer board is a way of clearing (the clue's in the name) bees out of the top part of the hive.  Little metal flaps let them go out, but not in again.  If you leave the one way devices in place for too long they tend to cease being one way as the bees find their way back through, so by this morning I needed to go and get the honey.

When I looked in the top of the hive there weren't many bees there.  A few, but not many, which was probably as good as it was going to get given how many there had been there to start with.  I lifted the two supers into a wheelbarrow and left the apiary at as brisk a pace as I could manage with the barrow.  I could hear a certain amount of buzzing from the boxes.

Unfortunately, and long before I knew I'd be putting the boards on last Saturday and need to get the honey off by today, I'd arranged to meet a friend at Audley End  We've been talking about going to Audley End for about two years.  She lives in north London, and is a really committed Londoner, venturing outside the M25 only very occasionally to visit family, or friends who have escaped from the Great Wen.  The nature of her work, and far flung family, mean that London's departure lounges are home from home, but after more than thirty years' residence in the UK I'm guessing that she could count the places in England she's visited outside London on the fingers of both hands and maybe the odd toe.  A summer visit to a Jacobean stately home and landscaped grounds sounded like a pleasant change from lunch in central London.

I put the boxes down on some newspaper I'd already laid out on the study floor, and shut the front door before any passing bees could scout out the honey bonanza in the house.  There was a fair amount of noise coming from them.  I peered inside, one, two, six, oh botheration, a couple of bees, if not more.  I opened the back door in the study and shook one of the combs outside.  Two or three bees flew off, circled, then made away in the direction of the apiary.  I did the same with a couple more frames, then managed to brush a small handful of bees off the inside of one of the boxes outside the door.  If you are trying to imagine what several dozen bees look like, about thirty will fill a matchbox.  Bees started to fly round the room, and as they landed on the window I was able to catch them one by one by putting a glass over them and sliding a piece of paper over the mouth.

Once it got to the point where when I opened the study door to release a bee, another flew in, I thought I'd better keep that door firmly shut.  I put another half dozen bees out of the front door, and by then it was time to go out.  I had warned the Systems Administrator that I was going to have to leave the supers in the study for the day with the door shut, and promised faithfully I'd deal with them first thing on Tuesday morning, and the SA had said that that was all right, but I still felt mean going out for the day leaving the room moderately infested with bees.  In theory they shouldn't sting, not having a hive to defend, but you never know.  They might simply have been feeling irritated about being kidnapped.  The really key thing was for the SA to keep the doors and windows shut, so that we didn't end up with about a quarter of a million bees that weren't going to leave until they'd finished robbing out the supers, but the SA knows enough about beekeeping to understand this.

Audley End was very nice, once we both got there.  I managed to take a wrong turning and did an unscheduled circuit of Braintree, then had to stop twice to consult the map at Finchingfield, a village so ridiculously quaint that the authorities must have decided that allowing any road signs would ruin the effect.  My friend got held up by multiple roadworks in Hackney.  I've been to the garden at Audley End before, but not previously toured the house.  It is a large and imposing Jacobean mansion, which according to one of the room guides was an anachronism even before it was finished, but fortunately for posterity the owners never attempted any wholesale remodelling. The grounds are a palimpsest, all sorts of landscape designers having had a go at them at one time or another, and since I arrived first I had time to go and look at the parterre and the ornamental lake and admire some of the trees.  There is a large and good tulip tree, and some extremely fine oriental planes.  We never got as far as the kitchen garden, but we enjoyed the dairy and the servants quarters.

I like that part of the world.  The whole sweep of countryside from Braintree across to Saffron Walden is extremely pretty, and Saffron Walden has the Fry Gallery and a turf maze, with the splendid Beeches nursery just up the road at Ashdon.  There's easily enough to do to fill a whole day, instead of messing around with bees first thing.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

change of plan

We were planning to go to Kew today, to visit the steam engine museum, which only steams at the weekends, and then go on to the gardens.  We put the date in our diaries about three weeks ago, after checking on the Abellio website that there weren't any rail engineering works planned.  As we arrived at Colchester station this morning the Systems Administrator's eyes, alert as they are for anything to do with trains, instantly clocked the intercity stopped in the wrong platform.  I was rather slower on the uptake, but it did strike me as vaguely odd for there to be two double decker buses parked outside on a Sunday morning.

The Systems Administrator declined to pay for a day's parking until we'd found out whether the displaced intercity and the double deckers meant that there was a replacement bus service.  I opted to stay with the car while the SA went to check, having no confidence that a uniformed NCP attendant wouldn't appear the moment we left the car with no ticket on it and slap a hefty fine on it.  The SA said that there would not be a car park inspector, and was right, and right about the engineering works.  Replacement buses as far as Shenfield.

Goodness knows why Abellio can't make these things more obvious.  I suppose the moral of the story is, don't bother trying to catch a train on a Sunday without checking on the day whether they're running a normal service, but we checked when we planned the trip.  Surely Sunday engineering works are planned more than a month ahead?  I passed through the station as recently as last Thursday, and if there were notices up they certainly weren't designed to be eye catching, because I didn't see them.  We went home.  A day out in West London ceases to be fun by the time a replacement bus service as far as Shenfield has been thrown into the mix.

Instead we went to the Boxted Airfield Museum.  It only opens once a month, and today was the day.  Boxted airfield is actually at Langham, but there was already another Langham airfield in Norfolk, and the authorities thought it would be too confusing to have two.  In fact there is at least one more Langham, near Bury St Edmunds, where the gardens of Langham Hall were opening today, complete with walled garden, sunk garden, teas on the lawn and the national collection of alpine campanulas.  We'd thought we'd be able to combine that with the airfield, until we looked at the postcode and realised it was a completely different Langham.  Bury St Edmunds is a long way to drive to see some alpine campanulas.

We were at the museum by ten, and I predicted that we would be the only visitors.  There were already two cars in the little car park, but they turned out to belong to the volunteers, and we were indeed the first tourists of the day, and the volunteers seemed thrilled to see us.  The museum sits in two Nissan huts, one rebuilt and the other a reconstruction, and both with an inauthentic layer of insulation that means they don't freeze in winter, cook in summer and drip condensation as much as the originals.  After the war, when the base was decommissioned, families lived in the original huts right up to the 1950s.

It is a good little museum, with plans of the original airfield, photos of aeroplanes and some of the airmen who were stationed there, and reminiscences from locals and aircrew.  Boxted was a US bomber base for much of the war, though the RAF had it at the end of the war, and the first aircraft to land there was a spitfire that was running out of fuel even as the men busy clearing orchards from what would become the runway hastily dragged tree stumps out of the way.  The maps show the full extent of the base running into present day Colchester, and you have to remind yourself that the town is much larger now.

One of the prize exhibits is the rear third of the fuselage of a Martin B-26 Marauder.  It was chopped up for scrap after the war, and this piece survived under a pile of other metal until somebody recognised what it was and salvaged it, one week before the scrap yard closed down.  Once the SA had told me that was the sort of aeroplane they flew in Catch 22, and that when Yossarian hated being in an aeroplane because there was no place to go except some other part of the aeroplane, that was the sort of plane he was talking about, I was quite impressed by the B-26.  It was absolutely tiny.  Even multiplied up by three it was tiny, and a crew of five men fitted into that space.  I thought about the young airman hit by shrapnel inside his flak jacket on one of Yossarian's missions, and then tried to put the image out of my mind.

One of the volunteers, now with a bar of medals stretching half way across his chest, had been a rear gunner with the RAF.  He was significantly shorter than I am, and I'm only five foot four.  Even allowing for the effects of age he couldn't ever have been very tall, and looking at the small space in the back of the B-26 where the rear gunner had to sit, the display about one of the US airmen (from Queens) that was assigned rear gunning duties on account of his stature made sense.  It was a job for short people.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

it's too dry

The lack of rainfall is starting to show across more of the garden.  In the long bed in the front garden, plants in the two areas where the soil is particularly light and starving were looking wilted and half dead, when I checked on them today.  Centaurea hypoleuca 'John Coutts', which is a mouthful of a name for an unassuming little plant with pink, feathery flowers, lay shrivelled and defeated on the dust-like earth, and even the self sown Verbascum nigrum, which have volunteered to live in that bed, unlike the Centaurea, and normally take summer in their stride, were drooping pitifully.

I ran the hose on them while weeding and deadheading in the vicinity, and realised that could be how it's going to be until September.  And September is often a dry and sunny month, albeit cooler, so it could be as much as three months before the garden sees much natural respite.  When I think about all the things I want to do in the garden and plan when I'm going to tackle them, I seem to forget that in July and August often all I manage to do is weed and trim, in between getting up every few minutes to move the hose.  Come September it will be time to help the Systems Administrator give the long grass its annual chop, and we're going on holiday.  Throw in another session with the Eleagnus hedge, and it will be October before I know it, leaving me with a haunting feeling that I haven't done anything beyond tidying and watering for three months.

That is the nature of summer gardening, especially in a dry county like Essex.  Garden centres and plant nurseries hate it, as plant sales grind to a halt, but there you go.  There isn't time to keep planting, what with trying to keep the existing plants alive and happy, and anything newly planted runs the risk of quick death by thirst.  It is chastening to come upon the dessicated remains of a cherished new acquisition half hidden by the foliage of its more established neighbours, and realise you forgot it was there, and haven't watered it.  But the ground is rapidly achieving the consistency of concrete anyway, and the prospect of scraping out anything except a small hole is getting less attractive by the day.

I planted my final three alpines in the railway garden, the last of my Pottertons order and an odd rooted sedum cutting.  The ground was like dust, and I gave each of them half a can of water after planting, which should keep them going for a while.  It is so difficult to spot the newly planted in the railway gravel among the old hands that have already survived a year or two that I've been watering the entire area, and most things are looking OK, but as the dry spell stretches on the list of areas that need watering is getting longer.  As well as the long bed there's the Italian garden in the middle of the turning circle, where I've noticed a variegated myrtle and a small tree, Albizia julibrissin, looking distinctly stressed.  I'm particularly fond of the latter because I grew it from seed.  One of these days it should bear fluffy pink flowers, but at the moment its little leaves are folded together with a pleading air, while the brick red flowers on the Watsonia I got from Beeches last year are undersized and shrivelling so quickly that rather than a gleaming spire of lustrous terracotta trumpets, there is only flower per stem, with buds above and faded flowers below.

Meanwhile, in the back garden there are a lot of Campanula I planted recently, and a couple of things I moved because they were completely invisible at the back of a bed.  And then there are the blessed vegetables.  I'm afraid my great stash of pots of plants raised from seed and cuttings, that I have just arranged neatly on the concrete outside the greenhouse, are going to have to stay there for some time.

Friday, 26 June 2015

deer damage

Our internet and my laptop seem to be working again.  I was out yesterday, and left my computer switched off, good little energy conscious eco citizen that I am, so when I got home and switched it on, it wanted to do a day's worth of updates while all I wanted was to be allowed to reply to my emails and write a quick blog post.  Add to that the fact that according to the Systems Administrator our internet connection had been on-off all day, and the blogger website became practically unusable.  In the end I was so fed up with staring at my screen for two and a half minutes while it refreshed itself, and being told that an error had occurred while it tried to save my post, that I wrote the blog in Word and copied it over at the end.  Which messed up the font, but by then I wasn't willing to spend any more time fiddling with it.

I have dropped brick sized hints (well, put in more of a blunt request) for a new laptop for my birthday.  I am sure my computer ought to be able to run updates while still allowing me to do other things as well, but like Gerald Ford unable to walk and chew gum at the same time, it can't. It isn't even that I've taken up computer gaming that's really heavy on processing capacity, or developed a passion for doing extremely advanced things with Photoshop while eating my muesli.  I am still just trying to read the papers, run rudimentary spreadsheets, write the odd Word document and browse through online plant catalogues, exactly the same as I was five years ago, but in that time the websites I visit have begun to demand more and more processing capacity, and my poor old laptop can't keep up.  The SA, who does like playing complicated games and watching films on the small screen, ran a test and told me that my machine was running at about two per cent of the capacity of the SA's bigger and newer one.

The internet connection seems to have settled down today, but whether that was thanks to BT, or due to the SA spending a chunk of yesterday fiddling with settings I do not know.  We have a complicated array of boosters so that the domestic wifi will reach all the way from the bottom of the garden to the workshop and the blue shed (which is handy as the zone encompasses my greenhouse) and this morning a box of bits arrived to upgrade the booster system.

Out in the garden, muntjac have eaten almost every plant of Rudbeckia subtomentosa 'Henry Eilers' to leafless stumps.  I am cross about that, since it has left a nasty hole in the bed, and poor Henry is normally a useful late flowerer but the damage has put paid to any hopes of quilled apricot yellow petals for this autumn.  If the muntjac would eat things that have already gone over that would be less irritating, provided they stuck to the flower stems and didn't defoliate the plant. They've had half the spent heads of a pink polygonatum, and I don't care about that in the least. But as well as the Rudbeckia they've grazed down some chrysanthemums, though luckily not taking out any patches entirely, and stripped every flower off a couple of Knautia macedonica.  The Knautia is a scabious relative with small, dark red, scabious like flowers over a long season, and might come back this year.

I am pretty sure the damage is down to deer and not rabbits this time round, from the height at which it started, and the fact that pieces of nipped off stem up to six inches long were left scattered around the plants.  Rabbits would have had to stand on a box to reach, or make a rabbit pyramid like something out of a Nick Park animation, and they don't generally snip out whole sections of stem and then leave them on the ground.  This is a set back, in that I'd treated all the damaged areas with more than one dose of Grazers.  It has been so effective against the rabbits, I was hoping and assuming it would work against deer as well, but it doesn't seem to provide anything like the same level of deterrence.

I had rather discounted the possibility of keeping deer out of the back garden.  They can jump higher than rabbits, and I'm a long way off fencing the meadow to a standard that would stop muntjac getting in.  At the moment it isn't even rabbit proof.  And muntjac used to come in through the gate, so fencing them out elsewhere was pointless.  Pinning my hopes on Grazers, I hadn't bothered to check the fences around the back.  But then I thought that they probably couldn't jump the rabbit gate, and weren't actually very likely to come clip clopping across the gravel and right past the house to get from the meadow to the back garden.  They skulk in undergrowth, muntjac, from what I've seen of them, and don't look like creatures that would choose to take long walks out in the open right by human habitation.

Crouching and crawling under a shrubby honeysuckle I worked my way to the corner of the fence where the wood meets the ditch, and sure enough there was a broken stretch where a willow branch had toppled on to to the fence.  Fetch the pruning saw, the bow saw, wire netting and green garden wire.  Fetch a stake and a lump hammer.  Be careful not to drop the hammer on the cat, who had come to investigate.  Realise you have left the wire cutters on the lawn and crawl back through the honeysuckle.  Saw up and remove the fallen branch, haul the wire back upright, plug the gap in the corner with more netting.  Bish eventual bosh.  Get the SA to set the wildlife camera up on that corner, and we'll see whether anything comes in.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

music and sculpture

Addendum in advance  Apologies for the peculiar font.  There have been technical problems all day chez cardunculus.

I went to LSO St Luke's today, for the last in the current series of Radio 3 lunchtime concerts.  The season ended with a flourish, with a performance of Mozart's violin sonata number 21 and Beethoven's violin sonata number 9 by Nicola Benedetti and her regular piano partner Alexei Grynyuk.  I know the performance has been sold out for at least the last couple of months, because the people behind me in the queue at the last concert I went to were lamenting that they hadn't been able to get tickets, and I felt rather smug, having sent off for mine before Christmas.

I must admit that the big draw was the chance to see Nicola Benedetti live, after seeing her do the last night of the Proms a couple of years ago on the TV.  If I were to compile my Desert Island Discs top eight I’m afraid that neither Mozart nor Beethoven would make it into the final selection, even if I were to limit myself to classical.  I know they are the two titans of western classical music, but there you go.  My affections leapfrog from Bach and Haydn to Schubert.  I keep hoping that if I persist in listening to Beethoven I will learn to love him, and there are moments when I think I’m getting there, but on the whole he still inspires my respect rather than unreserved adoration.

It was a very good concert, though, and if anybody could make me love Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ sonata it would be Nicola Benedetti.  It will be broadcast on Friday 9th July, and if the sound engineers don’t manage to clean the two outbreaks of coughing off the final edit, it wasn’t me you can hear.

Then I went to the British Museum’s exhibition on the body in Greek art, which finishes in early July.  Despite that it was not packed.  It has been on for some time, so maybe most people who really wanted to see it already have, or maybe classical sculpture doesn’t have the pulling power of Chinese terracotta warriors or the grisly relicts of Pompei.  Quite a few of the exhibits are Roman copies of Greek originals, but I decided not to worry about that and just go with the broad aesthetic flow.

How much is what we like determined by what we’re used to?  I like the Parthenon marbles, and quite often pop by to look at them anyway when I’m in the museum (you could say it was a swizz including some of them in a paying exhibition when they’re free to view the rest of the time), and by extension I liked the other plain marble sculptures, more than the recreated painted examples, even though originally many of them would have been painted.

I tend to feel that once I’ve seen six brown and black terracotta vases I’ve seen them all, though it would have helped if the curators had used slightly shorter plinths.  At five foot four I had to stand on tiptoe to see the pattern at the top where the vases curved in, and I was by no means the shortest visitor.  And the storylines of some of the vases come as a shock, when you have a broad view of ancient Greece as being the cradle of democracy and western civilisation.  The labours of Hercules are all very well, but King Priam being clubbed to death on an altar using the body of his grandson?

My only real criticism is that the air conditioning was too fierce.  I don’t know if the space had to be like that to preserve the artefacts, though the rest of the museum isn’t, or if it was just that the British Museum has got brand new air conditioning in their swanky new exhibition space and thought they might as well use it on a (fairly) hot day, but after an hour and a half I began to feel quite uncomfortable, and decided to call it a day.  I never have liked air conditioning very much.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015


We watched the first episode of Dan Snow's series on the Armada last night, on catch-up.  It's pretty good, almost no expenses spared with historical re-enactments and CGI galleons, and an impressive line-up of historians, one of whom had uncovered new and relevant documents from the Spanish side.  The idea of having Dan Snow sailing up the English channel so that we could see the site of the action wasn't bad either.  My only quibble was when he claimed to be in a 'howling gale' like the conditions at the time, and then ten minutes later did it again.  It didn't look like any sort of a gale (moderately high waves with breaking crests forming spindrift.  Well-marked streaks of foam are blown along wind direction.  Considerable airborne spray), at most it was a bottom end five (moderate waves of some length.  Many whitecaps.  Small amounts of spray).  The Systems Administrator said that probably the BBC's insurance wouldn't have let them send the camera crew out in a gale.  Or maybe there wasn't one when they were scheduled to film.

I digress.  It's worth watching, and at least with Dan Snow in a boat most of the time he wasn't walking around flapping his hands at the camera.  Take three paces, hands fly apart, next pace, press fingertips back together.  Repeat spasmodically.  So many documentary presenters and news journalists do it, I think they must be taught to on some course, and I find it unbelievably distracting.  I digress again.

As the final credits rolled I saw something flit by outside.  The SA thought there had been something as well, and suggested it was a bat.  We waited, and the thing flew by again, followed by another, or the first going back again.  It, or they, were tracking back and forth parallel to the house and quite close, at around the level of the first floor.  Once one flew towards the house, then did a spectacular about-turn and flashed away.  They looked huge, and we wondered what species of bat they were.  The pipistrelle is the most common, but I thought they were tiny.  Certainly the ones I've seen at the Tendring Show on the Essex Bat Group stand looked very small.  On the other hand, I've just looked up their vital statistics on the Bat Conservation Trust website, and see that although they only weigh 8 or 9 grammes, their wingspan is given as 200 to 235 millimetres. Twenty centimetres, or eight or nine inches in old money.  That's not so tiny.  Of course when I have seen them at the show their wings have been folded up, and some of them were babies.

We went outside to try and watch them close up, but either our presence disturbed them or they had finished with that bit of the garden, because all we got was one sighting parallel to the wood. We stood anyway for some time, looking at the roses in the moonlight and the outline of the Metasequoia and the Cedrus deodara.  This close to midsummer, it's still not properly dark at half past ten, and I can see why popular tales had the fairy folk riding abroad at this time of year.  The outside seems strange and wild, dark and still light at the same time.  The mythic, Tam Lin atmosphere was slightly punctured by Our Ginger who had followed us out and was rubbing around our legs and squawking, puzzled why we had suddenly decided to go into the garden in the middle of the night.

I once asked somebody who had a bat detector how easy they were to use, and as I feared the answer was, not that easy.  They don't come with the different species of bat marked on the dial, tune in, squeak squeak, result, we have pipistrelles.  They just play the ultrasound to you, transposed to a pitch audible to the human ear, and you have to identify the species from the sound.  The same species will emit different clicks in different types of surrounding.  I thought my best chance of identifying what sort of bats we had was probably to ask someone who knew how to use a detector to come and listen to them for me, if I ever happened to strike up a friendship with a bat enthusiast, but to date none of my friends have revealed a hidden talent for bat detection.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

a trip to the hairdresser (not using the park and ride)

I went into Colchester this morning.  Six weeks seem to have rushed by in a flash, and I needed a haircut.  Strictly speaking I could have done with one about ten days ago, but once every six weeks is as much as I run to.  My hairdresser knows this, and does her best to cut my hair accordingly so that it just about lasts that long without looking completely like a giant pom pom for the final week.  She is also very organised about booking my next appointment for six weeks hence, so that I don't let it slip out to seven or eight.

Booking miles ahead (by my standards) I get the choice of times, and generally go for the 9.45am slot to let the traffic die down before driving in.  Colchester's traffic is extremely hit and miss, but if you avoid the rush hour it's normally fine by then, and today I sailed round the inner ring road and was parked in the multi storey within twenty five minutes of leaving the house.  There were so many empty spaces on the upper deck that I could drive through to my preferred, outward facing without reversing, central space without a wing mirror eating pillar on either side.  There weren't even any other cars on either side of me (otherwise one of them would have bagged the central slot.  People always do).

And that is one of the problems with the new park and ride scheme.  The councils, borough and county, have made much of how the town is being choked by cars, but if you are sensible about what time you go in it normally isn't.  The parking bit of the park and ride is up on the A12, near the football stadium, and I reckon it would take me as long to drive there as it does to get into Colchester.  Add in the time spent waiting for a bus, and length of the bus journey, and there is no reason for anybody living in the villages east of the town to use the park and ride.

Unlike Cambridge, which has a park and ride terminal on every one of the main roads leading into Cambridge, Colchester just has the one, which cuts down the scheme's catchment area considerably.  Nobody from the Tendring peninsular is going to flog up the A120 and along the A12 to reach it.  People living to the south of Colchester, on Mersea Island and the villages from Rowhedge across to the Tolleshunts, aren't going to drive half way around Colchester so that they can enter the town from the opposite direction.  Those living to the north ought to be natural supporters, except that the B1508 from West Bergholt doesn't connect with the A12, but sails right over it on its jaunty blue bridge, and before you know it you're already at the north station roundabout.  The park and ride is handy for those out to the west, but they could also go shopping at Stanway, or get the train from Mark's Tey up to Westfield at Stratford.

This could be one reason* why in the scheme's first seven weeks of operation, an average of 240 people per day used the park and ride, translating to five per bus.  The last park and ride bus I saw had two people in it, at six in the evening, and the Systems Administrator saw one with just a single passenger.  The council's spokesman said that new schemes always took time to build momentum, but I can't see that anything short of pushing the cost of parking up to Cambridge levels would make me take the park and ride.  In fact, I wouldn't even then, for the most part, but with great regret find myself another hairdresser not in central Colchester.

Which I would be sorry about, since I like my hairdresser and she has an absolute talent for cutting my hair.  Thick, curly and unruly, it has struck fear (if not actual loathing) into the hearts of lesser stylists, who have on occasion made absolute dogs' breakfasts of cutting it.  Today's session came with a bonus tutorial on the technique of thinning.  It was done for the trainee's benefit, but when I said this sounded really interesting and it was a shame I couldn't see, my hairdresser invited me to put my glasses back on since she didn't need to trim any more round my ears.  The point of thinning with thick hair and a short cut is apparently to remove volume so that the hair will go on lying the way it is supposed to as the cut grows out, rather than forming clumps.  As she pointed to different areas of my scalp in turn, explaining to the junior how the different texture and direction of growth in various bits of it dictated where the hair needed thinning, I thought that this was uncanny.  She had pinpointed exactly the spots where, three or four weeks after a haircut, I have suddenly seen great lumps sticking horizontally out of my head.

Many stylists, my hairdresser said, getting into her theme, did not thin enough, especially with short crops.  It can be done with either normal scissors, using the tips, or serrated scissors.  You had to be careful with the latter not to leave lines.  Control of the scissors was everything, she stressed, repeatedly letting them dangle from her thumb and twirling them back on to her finger like a gun slinger in a western.  The trainee had got to practice her scissors control.  After the young girl had left us my hairdresser told me with some pride that the junior had natural talent.  She had picked up a graduated bob (whatever that is) solely by watching the experienced stylists.  She was already a good colorist, and would be finishing her college course in a few weeks' time.  Even then, though, it would be a couple of years before she was let loose cutting customers' hair, my hairdresser concluded severely.  The college did not teach them nearly enough.

*Other reasons include the fact that the park and ride does not call at Colchester General Hospital, despite the fact that parking there really is dire.  Essex County Council say they are not responsible for providing transport for NHS employees.  Hands up who feels even vaguely optimistic that we are going to help solve the problems of the NHS by successfully integrating it with social care.

Monday, 22 June 2015

another attempt at lemon drizzle cake

So this is midsummer.  Whichever of the newspapers was bleating on at the end of May about how we could have a blistering June has gone very quiet.  Yesterday was the summer solstice, but apart from the fact that the hens wouldn't go back into their run until nearly eight o'clock you wouldn't have noticed.  It keeps blowing half a gale, and today kept being interrupted by pulses of rain, not enough to do the garden any good but just enough to send me scuttling to put my tools under cover.

Still, we are making progress.  The sound of a vacuum cleaner came from the Systems Administrator's workshop for much of the day, while every so often an unwanted cardboard box or piece of expanded foam packaging was cast out of the door.  I was relieved that one of the things to come to light in the workshop was my number 4 Felco secateurs, which I hadn't seen for ages. Once I'd tidied up the garage and the pot shed and still not found them I was beginning to wonder what had become of them.  I knew they weren't in the compost heap, because I've turned all the piles recently, which left the nasty possibility that I might have left them in a flowerbed and would stumble upon their rusted remains years hence, or worse still dropped them by mistake in a bag of stuff going to the dump.  Instead of which they have been restored to me, and in remarkably good nick, rather as if I might have had them serviced not long before they disappeared.

As the rain kept driving me indoors before lunch I thought I'd make a cake, and give Julie Duff's recipe for lemon drizzle cake another go.  The Mark I version was more of a lemon drizzle biscuit, because it never rose like a cake should, merely crawling over the edges of a too small sandwich tin and depositing some of itself on the floor of the oven, while what remained in the tin was distinctly flat.  Since then I have bought a larger and better tin, so armed with that and the decision in the light of experience to crank up the effective oven temperature, I tried again.  I like lemon drizzle cake, I like baking, and when things don't work I want to know why.

The mixture did look jolly solid as I spooned it in lumps around my new tin, not what cookery books would describe as a soft dropping consistency (which sounds revolting when you think about it.  A good thing in cake mix, perhaps, but scarcely anything else).  Still, I had followed the recipe and everything else in the book had worked.  The guide cooking time was twenty-five minutes at 180 degrees celsius, so I set the timer for twenty-two minutes intending to see how things were going at that point.  Once a cake has had ninety per cent of its indicated cooking time I reckon you ought to be able to take a quick look without it collapsing, so long as you don't slam the oven door.  The all round heat of the Aga ovens sometimes cooks things surprisingly quickly, so I tend not to leave things for the full time in the book before checking them.

After twenty-two minutes the cake did not have a nice, gently domed top like the photograph in the book.  It was at best level, with a slightly uneven surface.  I touched it very gently with one finger and didn't get the amount of resistance you'd expect from a cake that was done, so left it for another three minutes, by which time the edges were dark gold and starting to pull away from the tin.  They were clearly done, even if the middle wasn't, but a skewer inserted into the centre came out clean.  I took the cake out of the oven, and as it cooled it began to sink, until the top was a gently inverted dome.  The drizzling syrup I made with icing sugar and lemon juice turned out to have lumps of undissolved sugar in it, which only became visible as the rest of the syrup soaked into the cake.  So that was the Mark II lemon drizzle cake, AKA lemon drizzle biscuit, sunken and covered in small white lumps as if a bar of soap had exploded nearby.

The SA was consoling, saying that he liked biscuits.  We tried some with cups of tea in the conservatory, and it tasted perfectly nice and was not particularly heavy, though very sticky.  The SA suggested getting some cream, and treating the rest of it as pudding.  In line with this week's PM food challenge I am sure that none of it will be wasted.  This time round I'm less inclined to blame myself, though.  I know it wasn't the flour, because everything else I've made from the same bag of self raising has been absolutely fine.  The raw mixture did seem very stiff, with just one egg to four ounces of each of butter, sugar and flour.  I looked up the quantities for Victoria sandwich, which does fine in the bottom of the lower Aga oven, and that contains two eggs for the same quantity of dry ingredients.  Out of curiosity I looked up lemon drizzle cake in Geraldene Holt's Cakes, and she simply used a Victoria sandwich base with lemon syrup poured over it, including the zest in the syrup and not evening bothering to flavour the cake base with lemon.

The internet has all sorts of variants, with extra ingredients like ground almonds and even white rum.  I'm not after anything that complicated, just wanting a risen sponge that is slightly and gratifyingly sticky and tastes of lemon.  I might run to a sprinkling of poppy seeds, like the one they used to do in Pret a Manger, but nothing more, though I can imagine the Julie Duff version morphing into quite a good pudding with the addition of some ground almonds.  But I am not convinced that the ratio of ingredients she gives are capable of turning into a well risen cake.  I shall have to try the Victoria sandwich route and see how it goes, once we've eaten the Mark II version.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

tidying the shed

I have been tidying up my shed, a really proper tidy involving taking everything out and putting it in again.  The Systems Administrator and I had a mega tidy several years ago of the sheds and the garage, in which we took everything out of all of them and it swilled around in diminishing piles for several days until each thing in turn had been allocated a place, or been judged useless and taken to the dump.  That lasted us well, and my shed hadn't got to the stage of advanced muddle it reached last time round, but it was getting there.

Sheds (and spare bedrooms) are heading rapidly for the critical stage of hopeless clutter once you can't get in properly, and resort to dumping things just inside the door.  They are then useless depositories since you can't find or reach anything in them, so if you actually need something out of them you will be reduced to buying a duplicate.  The final stumbling block for my shed this time round was the collection of bamboo canes down one side, that tangled around my legs each time I tried to get down the left hand aisle, and the heap of cracked flowerpots, rolls of chicken wire and a nameless bag of some sort of organic conditioner bought many years ago, that completely prevented me getting in down the right hand side or reaching the shelves with the pots on.

The chaos extended outside the shed since when we had the problem with the rats and needed to lift the end floorboards I removed a lot of the used black plastic pots from plants I've bought over the years (many years) I've been religiously saving in case they Came In Useful.  I never put them back in the shed because I could see the shed needed sorting out and there didn't seem much point, so they have been lying on the concrete for months, along with two half used rolls of Mypex that didn't have anywhere else to live.

After removing the contents of the shed I removed the floor boards.  After the episode with the rats it occurred to me that if there weren't any boards the rats couldn't live under them.  The floor, which was quite substantial, dated from when the shed was intended to be a garage, but I couldn't see that flower pots and chicken wire needed a wooden floor particularly.  Bare earth would be perfectly OK, and offer no hiding place to rats in future.  Besides, they were fine, heavy boards, and I had my eye on them to replace the rotten ones around the vegetable beds.  I was rather crestfallen when, as I began to clear the shed, my foot went straight through several.  The leaks in the roof a couple of years ago had evidently caught up with them.

Removing the boards would have been easier and less nerve racking if Our Ginger hadn't insisted on prowling around the shed while I was doing it.  It made me wonder if he could tell there were still rats in there, for a start, and I felt a sense of relief as I lifted each one without finding anything horrible underneath.  But as he then spent a long time staring intently through a crack in the wall at the chickens I began to suspect he had just been pretending that there was anything under the floor.  At least once he was safely sitting at the end looking at the hens I didn't have to worry about accidentally squashing his feet.  Once a floorboard has rotted through the centre, it bounces every time you step on it because it is no longer resting on two beams, and Our Ginger was very obtuse about keeping away from the moving parts.  I put him out of the shed several times, but he kept coming back in, and I couldn't shut the door because then  I wouldn't be able to see, and I needed to take the boards out.

I am now on the home straight, having put most things back.  The clay pots are stacked up one side, with space left on the racks for the tulip pots.  I am going to throw a lot of the plastic pots away.  It feels terribly wasteful, and I know that I should advertise them on Freecycle or offer them to gardening clubs, but I have seen garden centres leave boxes of old pots out for customers to use, and how slow the take-up is, and I have seen enough plant stalls at open gardens to know that most people don't grow their plants on to the stage where they are in two or three litre pots. And round three inch pots are a terrible waste of space on the greenhouse bench or in the cold frame compared to square ones.  Anyway, once I'd filled as much shelf space as I had available for plastic pots the rest went in plastic sacks ready to go to the dump.

The homeless rolls of Mypex have gone on a top shelf, the bamboo canes on the one beneath it, and I've made space off the ground for the bale of sawdust for the hen house.  The cheap wooden shelving unit that probably started life as proper house furniture about a quarter of a century ago is now against the end wall instead of standing in the middle, to leave a proper central aisle.  I am avoiding standing so many things on the floor that I can't reach the things on the top shelves, and have been quite methodical about testing things before putting them back.  Two of the four hose end spray guns I discovered in there worked perfectly well, the other two didn't and are now in a bag with the unwanted pots.  A bag of very grubby fleece that looked as though it had had something unmentionable living in it is bound for the dump.  Fleece is not expensive, and I don't want to festoon my vegetables with rat droppings.

The Systems Administrator has promised to go through the floor boards with me tomorrow, or the day after if it rains tomorrow, cutting out the sound sections for reuse then the rest can go on the bonfire.  And now I've started on the shed I shall continue with the concrete, a tidal wave of tidiness advancing until it gets to the door of the SA's workshop, where it will meet the wave of tidiness coming the other way as the SA has been sorting the workshop out.  That's the plan, anyway.  And then at some point I need to repeat the same exercise with the spare bedroom.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

two gardens

I went to see a Yellow Book open garden today, and catch up with a friend from my Writtle days. She lives in a small village outside Sudbury, another of those spread out settlements where there doesn't seem to be a there when you get there, and the open garden was just down the lane from her house.  I've driven past it many times on the way to visit her, and wondered what was going on behind the elegant walls being painstakingly and expensively repaired, and the new fences, so when I saw that it was opening for the NGS I was curious to go.

It turned out to be a testament to how much can be achieved in a decade, given the will and the money.  A display in one of several rather smart garden buildings outlined the development of the current garden.  The owners have been there since 2005, and as well as sorting out the garden had to demolish and substantially rebuild most of the house, which turned out to be suffering from incurable subsidence.

I was probably not concentrating quite as much as I should have been, because my friend and I were catching up with getting on for a year's worth of news, and it was raining quite a lot, so I am not so precise as I should have been about the footprint of the demolished house, and how it related to the current walled garden.  Still, there was a walled garden, with raised vegetable beds demonstrating how vegetables should be done, and a handsome greenhouse used entirely for display with pots of geraniums, succulents and tender bulbs.  I'd been wondering how to support protective mesh over our beds, and imagining having to build frames, but the solution in this garden was to knock stakes in fairly close together then drape the mesh over, weighting the edges down with plenty of bricks.  Given how long it took me to mend the woodshed door, I'd sooner not have to make frames unless I had to, and the matrix of stakes method had the advantage that I could use any old stakes we had lying around, rather than having to buy wood specially, so I filed that idea away for future reference.

Some of the walls were covered with climbing roses that were smothered in flowers.  We must have caught them at their absolute peak.  The bog plantings around the series of ponds were looking pretty good as well.  Some of the other plantings still needed time to mature, for shrubs to grow up and the owner to do the last stage of tweaking and adjusting that raises schemes from the competent to the superlative, but they had already done a remarkable amount in ten years.  Fullers Mill at West Stow, a privately created garden I admire immensely, had been over forty years in the making when I saw it, so ten years is merely the starting phase.

The garden had come with two great natural advantages that might have provided the new owners with some consolation for discovering that most of the house they had just bought was unsalvageable.  One was the presence of some good, really large, mature trees.  I know that Capability Brown moved full sized oaks on occasion, but the best one can realistically hope for nowadays, even if money is no object, is to buy heavy standards from a specialist like Barcham Trees.  They will get you so far towards an instant garden, if that's what you want, but are no match for the likes of the huge horse chestnut we saw today, with a bole so fat that my friend and I together would have come nowhere near to spanning it with arms outstretched.

Another great natural advantage was the view out over the rolling Suffolk countryside to Sudbury, a moment of pure Gainsborough.  The owners had very sensibly kept that side of the site as a meadow, separated from the formal area next to the house by traditional park style railings, with the new specimen shrub plantings and borders concentrated on the other side of the house, where they were anyway more sheltered from the wind.  Actually, a third natural advantage was the presence of water on site in the form of a string of ponds, assuming the water source was natural.  I wished afterwards I'd asked, but I'd have thought they must have been spring fed.  It would be a huge volume of water to take out of the mains.

I felt sorry for the owner and all her helpers, getting such rubbish weather.  Rain was forecast, which always puts people off, and it did rain, a lot.  We went anyway, since neither of us mind rain that much.  We've walked around gardens in the rain before now, and we hadn't seen each other for ages.  But there weren't many people there, compared to what the owner might have expected on a good day, and it was sad to see the carefully picked posy of flowers on each of the rain drenched and uninhabited tables outside the garden studio where the teas were being served.

We visited the Open Garden first partly because they had a closing time, but afterwards my friend gave me a tour of her own garden, including the small field next to their house that she and her husband ended up buying to prevent any risk of somebody else building a house on it.  They have turned the field into a nature reserve, sowing it with a mixture of native grasses and wildlflowers, planting trees, and planting up the gaps in the hedges where Dutch elm disease took its toll.  As we walked around I was excited to see a hare, but my friend was quite blase about it.  They lived in the field, she said.  We certainly don't have any hares living on the lettuce farm, and I was thrilled to see one.  I'd have been pleased with the little owl they had in their owl box as well, but I think they are hoping for barn owls next time.

Friday, 19 June 2015

tribute to a life well lived

I went to a funeral today.  One of my beekeeping friends, a kind and lovely man, died slightly unexpectedly.  I haven't discovered the full details, but it sounded as though he took a sudden turn for the worse after some operation or procedure that was expected to be relatively routine.  He had been looking more frail the last couple of times I saw him, but so far as I know he wasn't suffering from a terminal illness.

His name was Geoff, and we met sometime in the late 90s when we both went to the same beginners evening classes in beekeeping.  He'd already tried keeping bees, and remarked benignly that he thought it was time to learn to do it properly, now he'd had a go under his own steam.  We all used to take mugs along to the class, so that in the break we could make tea, and I found out he had been a dentist because his mug was a freebie from a dental supplier.  Other than that he didn't talk about work very much, as the beekeepers tend not to do, but I am sure he must have been a brilliant dentist.  He had such a calm, gentle manner that any patient would have relaxed instantly, and believed that nothing he was going to do would hurt too much.

Colchester crematorium was packed for the service, with people standing at the back of the room and crowding out into the lobby.  His family filled a couple of rows at the front, but most were friends, people who were there simply to pay their respects to a remarkably nice and humble man they had been lucky enough to know.  Geoff was interested in all sorts of things, sailing and fell walking, botany and natural history as well as beekeeping, music and poetry.  If he recommended a book to me it was as likely to be about Jane Austen as bees.

He had a talent for friendship.  Some of the mourners were fellow dental students and colleagues from his time training and working in London over forty years ago, and had remained friends for all those years since, and been drawn into other adventures, like the sailing.  Geoff climbed Kilimanjaro once, I learned today.  I didn't know that.  And I finally discovered his age, eighty one. I would have put him in his eighties, since he was already retired by the time I met him, but he was always so active that some of the other beekeepers present had assumed he was younger.

The service captured pure essence of Geoff, with tributes from his wife of over fifty years, his son and his grandson, and the vicar who was also a grateful former patient.  There was Albinoni, Chopin, Vivaldi, Yeates, and the hymns For the Beauty of the Earth and Lord of All Hopefulness.  The coffin was made of woven willow.  The family have received so many cards that even the postman remarked that Geoff must have been a popular man.

He was a very, very nice person, and today was a celebration of a life well lived as well as a sad farewell.  I shall miss him, though, knowing that I won't hear his voice breathing hello behind me at the next Colchester Natural History Society meeting I go to, or see his face break into a smile as he comes into the room at our monthly beekeeping evening meeting, or his chair drawn up next to mine at the annual barbecue.  Always gentle, careful, calm, inclined to look for the best in ever situation.  In one of today's tributes somebody said that they never heard him say a bad thing of anyone, and in the case of Geoff, I think that is actually true.  I knew him for sixteen or seventeen years and never once heard him say anything harsh or horrid about anybody.  A kind and lovely man.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

out to tea

The Systems Administrator's old school friend, who resurfaced a few months ago after a gap of fifteen years or so but was about to go on holiday to Thailand, got back in touch again in due course, and today we went round for tea.  They have got themselves a house in a quiet spot outside Stowmarket, with a large south facing garden overlooking a golf course, and have acquired a new dog.

The dog is a springer spaniel, which is not surprising since all the old school friend's previous dogs have been springers.  The latest is only five months old, soft as butter, and well behaved other than that he has not learned not to jump up at people, and last Friday he ate packet of Ibuprofen and had to go and have his stomach pumped out and his system flushed with oodles of saline at vast expense to the management.  We are not good discipline-enforcing visitors for a dog that is supposed to be learning not to jump up at people, since we both like dogs and encouraged him shamelessly.  I have a few clothes I wouldn't want a large springer puppy jumping on, but it wouldn't occur to me to wear any of them for tea with the old school friend, not so much for fear of dogs as fear of appearing overdressed.  The old school friend's partner had made fresh scones, and got in a large pot of real clotted cream, which was nice of her and made me realise I hadn't made scones for ages.

We drove there via the back route through Hadleigh, since we weren't in a hurry and the A12 and A14 are not pleasant roads.  That part of mid Suffolk is almost insanely pretty at this time of year, like driving through an unrolling Constable painting.  The larger villages are charming, Raydon and Hadleigh looking like places I can imagine wanting to live.  As you penetrate further into the countryside they become more elusive.  Where exactly is Semer, or is there a there when you get there?  You pass a road sign that says Semer, then a mile down the road a wooden hut that proclaims it is Semer village hall, next to a single house.  Another couple of miles gets you to a handsome village sign with a ploughman, elm tree and church, but still very little in the way of a village.  I mused that it must be light soil round there, eliminating the need for cooperative ploughing with teams of oxen, and the SA reminded me that historically it was sheep country.  The village where our friends now live is so non-existent that it is called Onehouse.

They have acquired a useful collection of sheds, along with their house, and a slightly dilapidated but fascinating octagonal conservatory with a domed roof topped with a clerestory, and holes through the brickwork where the trunks of grapes were once led.  It needs some refurbishment, and we mused on the best way to get access to the roof, the SA favouring sliding the glazing out and tackling the woodwork from the inside.  Wooden shelves at intervals up the glazing bars looked as though they might originally have been intended to rest planks across to give access for maintenance, but as the old school friend said, they might have been up to the 120lb weight of the Edwardian garden boy, but would they take the twenty-first century middle aged man?

The neighbours so far have appeared friendly, and faintly bohemian despite the proximity of the golf course.  Golf in deepest Suffolk is maybe not the same as in Surrey.  That's just as well, since the old school friend has already parked a camper van in the front garden, along with a rectangular box shaped trailer with a fin on top which I realised meant he still owned a glider.  Many years ago, when the old school friend ran a despatch business, we got back from our summer holiday to discover that he had left a van parked in our garden after buying it at the nearby car auction site and discovering it had mechanical problems when he drove it away.  The people looking after our house that time had tried to protest, but been no match for the old school friend's assurances that he knew us and that we wouldn't mind at all.  People with a tendency to accumulate sheds and geriatric vehicles, like the SA and the old school friend, are wise to choose to live in faintly bohemian settlements, well away from conservation areas and neighbours who are overly concerned by MoT expired camper vans or ex builder's flat bed trucks, polytunnels and greenhouses, or new externally visible stove pipes.  Even if any of us could afford gardens this size in Hadleigh, which we couldn't, we'd lower the tone.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

if I were a carpenter

The Systems Administrator was in London today, catching up with old colleagues.  I thought that while the coast was clear I would have a go at mending the door of the woodshed.  It is a small and not very well built shed, bought from one of the DIY stores where it was hugely discounted on the grounds that it was slightly scuffed.  It's a garden shed, not a dining table, and a few scratches didn't seem to be a problem, so we snaffled it up.  It is bolted to the end of the house, since the time it blew over in a heavy gale, almost crushing a Haws watering can but thankfully not hitting any of the cats, and we keep kindling and coal in it, while it helps screen the dustbins and bags of stuff waiting to go to the recycling centre.

Its tongue and groove doors are only nailed together, and not screwed.  They would probably have been fine if we were tidy people who always shut both doors after fetching kindling and wood, but we are not tidy people and after a while the lock broke.  One door remained permanently shut, bolted at the bottom, while the other ended up open half the time, as the replacement latch the SA made kept slipping.  The door kept flapping, and as is the way of flimsily nailed together things left to flap in the wind, it broke, the two outer tongue and groove panels and the diagonal brace down the back of the door parting company from the three inner panels and the brace across the top.

I would occasionally ask the SA to mend the woodshed door, thinking it looked rather derelict to have it dropping to bits by the outside tap, just next to the kitchen window.  The SA was not that bothered by the door and suggested removing it.  The next time I mentioned the woodshed door the SA sounded even less bothered, and I got the impression that it did not feature in the SA's mental list of the top one hundred outstanding domestic tasks.  I didn't like to keep mentioning it, not wanting to descend into nagging.  Instead I thought, if you want a job done, do it yourself.

Up to a point.  I am not good with almost anything mechanical.  It is my own fault, I suppose. Lacking interest or confidence I haven't learned how to fix things, and that lack of competence becomes self-perpetuating.  Easier and safer to ask somebody else to do things, especially when the SA is a pretty good all-rounder at carpentry, electricals, and basic plumbing.  But I had a bag of assorted nails left over from assembling the beehives, and the afternoon stretched in front of me. How hard could it be to line up five pieces of tongue and groove and bang nails through them to reattach them to their original supports?

Only moderately hard.  I retrieved a claw hammer from the workshop without trampling on any baby robins, found a pair of pliers, and extracted the old nails.  Holding the door together while nailing the pieces in place initially seemed to require three hands until I got the hang of it.  I struggled with the bottom of the door where the end of the original cross piece had rotted, but improvised with an offcut from the workshop.  It is after all a garden shed, not a dining table.  I haven't yet discovered whether my repaired door will shut, since I haven't removed the columbine and tansy that have seeded themselves in front of the shed, but even open it looks tidier in one piece than hanging off in three parts.

I waited until the SA was out partly because I am so painfully slow at these things, and become clumsier if I think that anybody who knows how it should be done is watching.  And because I didn't want to appear to be engaging in a sort of active passive aggression.  Look at me struggling to mend this thing, when you could do it so much more quickly and easily.  I just wanted the door tidied up.

My success ended with the shed door, though.  This morning I bought two eight foot lengths of batten so that I could repair the temporary barrier we put up by the chicken house when we let them out, to discourage them from wandering up the side of the wood where the foxes are.  It's a low panel with plywood squares at both ends, battens top and bottom and wire netting in the middle, that the chickens could leap over if they really wanted to, but they don't bother, and top and bottom battens had broken so that the panel kept buckling in the middle no matter how carefully you balanced the ends against the hen run and a patch of nettles.  I'd asked the SA about that a few times, but we didn't have any spare battens in stock and nothing happened.  But nailing the new battens to the ply did not work.  The panel was too big, flexed too much when lifted, and the nails kept popping out, while the humidity climbed through the eighty per cent barrier and my head began to ache fiercely.

When the SA got home I asked, very nicely, if he could possibly mend the chicken gate.  The SA, presented with the materials for the job, agreed.  I don't think he was as impressed as he might have been by the woodshed door, but there again, it never bothered him in the first place.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

the discreet hand of the editor

The Systems Administrator went into the workshop with a heavy box of stuff, and was about to put it down when he saw a baby robin peering up at him from the bench.  Looking down, he discovered one foot was approximately three inches from another robin.  No wonder the RSPB estimates that only 57 per cent of eggs from completed clutches result in fledged youngsters.  Some of the other 43 per cent must be trampled to death by remorseful householders.  The SA retreated, being very careful where he trod, and the workshop is now off limits until the weekend, courtesy of the UK's favourite bird.  It is rather a nuisance really since the SA wanted to use the circular saw.

I have been fishing bits of honeysuckle out of the Amelanchier below the rose bank.  Sometimes I wonder whether it was a good idea introducing honeysuckle into the mix.  The flowers are very pretty, and smell wonderful, and moths like them, but the plants do have thuggish tendencies. Honeysuckle is a twiner, climbing by dint of twisting its stems around the stems of other plants, but as it tightens its grip it will form deep grooves in the bark of its host in time, if not strangle it outright.  And the varieties of Lonicera japonica and L. periclymenum I've used in the rose bank are so vigorous, they're almost smotherers as well.  Part of my maintenance routine in the back garden is to snip back their questing new stems fairly regularly, to help keep them from engulfing the roses.

This kind of apparently relaxed and natural gardening, with plants allowed and encouraged to drift into their neighbours and self seed across beds, in reality takes a lot of tweaking,  White bryony seeds itself through the borders, a native wild flower that climbs to twelve feet or more, using little coiled tendrils rather than the twining method.  The hairy leaves are attractively lobed, and the white flowers pretty in an unostentatious way, and it produces some very artistic effects.  I am particularly pleased with the one that has draped itself over the main trunk of the Metasequoia, its tendrils managing to grip the rough bark enough to cling on, and I like the swags hanging from the (rather floppy) yew lookalike Cephalotaxus harringtonia in the ditch bed.  But it can be too much of a good thing.  Plants are perennial, forming a big, knobbly white root that gradually increases in size, and mature plants send out a lot of stems, capable of squashing and smothering lesser hosts, and I'm regularly pulling off yards of unwanted growth, or grubbing out hopeful new roots while they're small enough to extract easily.

By now there's a lot of pruning.  Like most gardeners keen to see a result in their early years, and plant lovers with less than a score of acres to play with, the garden is over planted.  I am absolutely not a fan of the hedgehogs on stilts, trim everything to a neat controlled dome school of gardening. Clipped domes have their role, as a foil to the exuberant natural seeming growth of everything else, and to give structure in winter when most of the herbaceous stuff has disappeared (coloured hay, Russell Page called it).  Why, I even have two pieces of topiary, fashioned freehand from yew plants that started off at less than two feet high.  But the aim when trimming everything else, judiciously removing a branch here and there so that things don't oppress their neighbours, is to keep an open and apparently natural shape so that unless you looked carefully you wouldn't realise the plant had been pruned.

Likewise if you encourage self seeding you have to edit.  The Strulch limits it nowadays in the back garden, and the fact that by now most of the borders have reached the state advocated by Stephen Lacey, where if you can see bare earth by June it means that something has died.  But Verbena bonariensis still finds a way.  And the gravel in the front garden there would be wall to wall Asphodeline lutea and evening primrose, if I didn't tweak out excess seedlings.  It feels terribly wasteful putting young plants on the compost heap when garden centres are charging up to four pounds for them in three inch pots, but I don't know anybody who wants that much A. lutea, and evening primrose doesn't transplant well.  If anybody wants some of that they'd do better to collect some seed.

Monday, 15 June 2015

pink and yellow

I went to the Clacton dump (sorry, domestic recycling centre) this morning, since the brown bin can't keep up with the volume of horsetail and shaggy lawn edges as well as the weeds coming off the poor, neglected vegetable patch.  I called in at the garden centre on the way home, to see if they had any trays of heathers left, and get some dwarf pinks I noticed the last time I was in there. It was about half past nine on a grey Monday morning, and mine was almost the only car in the car park.  The staff greeted me with almost as much joy as if I were an old friend, which I practically am by now, but I overheard one of them grumbling about the weekend's takings, fifty per cent down on the previous weekend.  There's still loads of bedding plants out there, I heard him say, I'd better tell him not to get any more.

There were a lot of Dutch trollies with bedding plants on, and I didn't help them out by buying any. It's mid June and I've done as many pots as will comfortably fit by the pond, and enough to go by the front door.  I'd make space to squeeze one more in if I found some unusual and charming plant I hadn't tried growing before, but I don't need any more bog standard geraniums or petunias.  Many other gardeners are probably in a similar position.  The trouble with selling bedding plants is that they have such a short shelf life.  At least with trays of heathers you can keep them sitting around for months, as long as you water them properly, until finally one of your customers decides they want some.

The dry weather doesn't help garden centres.  Obviously they want nice, sunny days to encourage people out into their gardens, and off to the garden centre to stock up on plants to fill those gaps and tubs and make the garden ever more beautiful.  Or at least, that's the gist of the Wyevale Garden Centre ads on Classic FM.  But once the soil is dry people hold back on planting, as I saw in my old job.  I haven't stopped planting yet, but I'm willing to pay to keep the water meter running while I drench the borders where I've been working, and if we don't get some proper rain then I'll be joining the ranks of the non-planters fairly soon.  At the moment I'm just keen to get things out of their nine centimetre pots.

Today I planted yellow flowered foxgloves into the island bed in the back garden, raised from a packet of seed that came with a magazine.  I only got seven plants, but that's enough to make a nice group.  The island bed has developed a sort of pink and pale yellow colour scheme without my really planning it that way, which I rather like.  A permanent dose of burnt ochre comes from the Thuja occidentalis 'Rheingold' at one corner, and the low hedges of Lonicera nitida 'Baggeson's Gold' by the steps at the other end.  The Thuja is a lovely shrub.  It has grown only slowly on our light, dry soil, but is marvellously solid and by now I have to tip it back lightly to keep it within bounds. Conifers as a group remain obdurately out of fashion since their overuse in the 1960s and 70s, but I have no truck with such blanket prejudice.

Phlomis russeliana does splendidly in that bed, so much so that if I didn't keep pulling seedlings out and reducing the size of the clumps it would happily take over.  The flowers are held in whorls at intervals up strong, vertical stems.  I have heard them described as dirty yellow, which I suppose they are, but I like them anyway.  Soft pink and yellow come combined in one flower in the tall bearded iris 'Chantilly', which I bought as part of a bare root offer from Peter Beales, and a self sown tree lupin.  I've had tree lupins in that bed for years.  They never live very long, but replacements always pop up.  All previous generations have been plain yellow, and I don't know how the pink element got in this time round.

There are shots of bright, pure pink from the surviving Cistus.  I am so exasperated by the way that cold winters finish them off, if they don't suddenly die after late frosts you wouldn't have said were that sharp, that I am using the gaps left by the last wave of Cistus suicides for other things.  Pure yellow comes from a Phygelius which is running around fairly happily.  Some detective work is required to decide which one, since I've planted several yellow varieties in the bed over the years and in growing conditions which can only be described as inhospitable not all have survived.  The purple-grey foliage of Rosa glauca pulls things together nicely.

Still to come are the white flowers of Romneya coulteri, finally established at the third attempt and now growing freely, the little purple flowers of Verbena bonariensis, another self-seeder, and the asters and chrysanthemums, and earlier in the season were a vivid red poppy, nominally Papaver bracteata, the forebear of the oriental hybrids (assuming my free packet of seed was the true species and not itself a hybrid) and the white flowers of Ashpodeline albus, grown from seed, so the soft yellow and pink scheme is only a passing phase, but it's pleasant while it lasts.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

bird brains

The robins nesting in the workshop have got four babies.  The Systems Administrator discovered the nest, in a small plastic tray intended for keeping screws in, and took some quick photos.  It was too dark for great bird photography, but the picture showed four little faces, with beady eyes and proportionately gigantic beaks.  The news as of this morning is that they have grown, and are starting to look more like robins.  According to the RSPB website their eyes are completely open by eight days, their bodies more or less feathered by ten, and they fledge at fourteen days but can't actually fly for a couple more days after that.

I warned the Systems Administrator that the workshop was about to contain some pedestrian baby robins, and the SA expressed doubts as to how they were going to get out of the plastic drawer if they couldn't fly.  I suppose the answer is that they flop down.  After all, they managed to get out of my greenhouse tiered shelving for the previous two years.  They are tended by their parents for up to three weeks after leaving the nest, especially the father, while the mother prepares herself for the next clutch.

One of the parents flew into the workshop when the SA was there, made it half way to the nest before noticing that there was somebody in the room, did a mid air one hundred and eighty degree turn, and went and fussed about at the opposite end of the workshop as if trying to persuade the SA that the nest was over there.  I suppose we can explain decoy behaviour designed to draw potential predators away from the nest without suggesting the robin has a theory of mind about the SA, though it would be fun to believe that it had.

The chickens have learned that they are not supposed to root about in the dahlia bed, and promptly hopped back up on the the rear wall when the SA noticed them in there, and stood on the wall trying to look very casual and as if they hadn't been ripping up my sunflower seedlings and young Eccremocarpus at all.  Chickens are quite good at learning stuff, even if they don't have a theory of mind, and know that the sight of the temporary wire barrier being put up next to their run to discourage them from wandering up the side of the wood means that they are about to be let out,  hurrying down to their pop hole the moment they see the barrier go up.

The broody hen, after a day and a half or so of not being broody, has reverted to broodiness and didn't come out with the others.  I thought some fresh air, exercise and green leaves would be good for her, and mercilessly hiked her out of the nesting box when I checked for eggs.  She stood for a few moments, digesting the indignity, then began to shout.  Then she was distracted by the sight of some waving grass seed heads, and alternated between shouting and pecking at the seeds, before going and standing in the middle of the gravel and shouting.  Then she went back into the run.  The SA went to see her and she shouted some more, before retiring to the nesting box.

The other hens have given up forming an orderly flock, and wander off in all directions when let out.  If they have a theory of mind it is not very advanced, because they haven't worked out that they are less likely to be let out into the garden if they make it a two person job to look after them.  I worked in the back garden, trying to look omnipresent and threatening to foxes, while the SA covered the front.  I was passed by one hen on a mission, who went and dug in the bog bed all by herself, while the old lady Maran appeared and stayed with me on the top lawn.  Maybe she likes Classic FM.  When the time came to usher them back into their run we still had five hens, or rather four free range plus broody already sitting ferociously in her box.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

quiz night

We have just got back from taking part in a quiz night.  A beekeeping friend is part of a group fundraising to renovate the garden by their village hall, and put together a beekeepers team.  I didn't fancy our chances particularly, since I didn't think that between us we'd know anything about TV soaps, celebrities, or football, but it's the taking part that counts.  And I enjoyed the last quiz I went to.

In fact the questions were set by the same person who did the previous quiz, and were designed for a rural, middle aged if not downright elderly demographic, so there weren't any football questions, and only one TV round.  That required us to name the programme or ad associated with various musical excerpts, and one of the ads was for Hamlet cigars, which shows you how current the whole round was.  I would have bet money on one of the questions being on the Hovis ad (Dvorak New World Symphony) and it was.

The theory of team decision making when I worked in the City was that the sum of the parts would be greater than the individual knowledge of any single member of the team.  That only seemed to work with the beekeepers up to a point.  It was lucky for us that the professional beekeeper turned out to have a good knowledge of geography and knew the capital of Bolivia, and handy that the only sports question was cricket, not football, and that the Systems Administrator knew the term for a score of one hundred and eleven runs (it's a Nelson).  Our pop and rock music expert, who saved our bacon last time round with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of 1960s B sides and early hits of The Shadows wasn't on the team this time, and I thought we would be doomed when it came to the popular music round, but the Chairman's wife turned out to be a wizz at Acker Bilk and between us we pulled through respectably.

But we were too nice.  Altogether too ready to defer to each other's doubts and opinions.  So the professional beekeeper talked the SA out of nominating Holland as the country due East of Tendring in favour of Belgium, but the SA overruled the professional beekeeper's wife when it came to her knowing the capital of Lichtenstein, and she rejected my correct answer of Lloyds Bank as the advertiser associated with one of the musical extracts in favour of the wrong answer of British Gas. The professional beekeeper tried to cast confusion on whether it was the King's shilling men took to join the army, or whether that was to join the navy, but the SA and I stood firm that time.

It's just as well I wasn't left alone to complete the facial recognition round, since out of twenty present and past actors and musicians I was only completely confident of one of them, and that was Telly Savalas.  Mind you, the picture of Forrest Whitaker looked nothing like him.  They were very small pictures, and not terribly good quality printing, but I do suspect that I'm not very good at faces.  That and the fact that most of the faces were definitely famous before my time.  But I knew that the book featuring the character Benjamin Braddock must be The Graduate, on the strength of having seen the film, and that the advice to keep your friends close and your enemies closer came from The Godfather and the line about being on a new diet for Paris was Emily's in The Devil Wears Prada.

In the end we won by a single point, after putting in a protest because we'd only been given seventeen out of twenty for naming the faces when we got eighteen of them correct.  Forrest Whitaker defeated us (but it didn't look anything like him.  I've watched him quite recently in Good Morning Vietnam and have more of an opinion on his face than most of the other nineteen), as did Jeff Bridges.  The Chairman came closest when he mentioned the Baker Brothers, and Jeff Bridges is of course in The Fabulous Baker Boys, but the main strand of opinion at our end of the table was that the photo looked like a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, and in the end somebody guessed Danny Dyer.  I have no idea what Danny Dyer looks like, knowing him only as the butt of jokes on the Kermode and Mayo Film Review.

In theory I despise random knowledge, but the truth of it is that I only despise accumulations of facts on subjects I'm not interested in.  Football, celebrities, plotlines from EastEnders or the capital cities of Latin American countries, why would I want to spend my evening being quizzed about such things (and scoring no more than three out of ten in every round?).  But as soon as a quiz moves on to territory where I know the answers to more than a smattering of the questions I'm all eager attention.

Friday, 12 June 2015

a visit to the Wallace

Today, for the first time ever, I visited the Wallace Collection.  It sits in a fine town house in a quiet square just behind Selfridges, where it has been for longer than I've lived in the south east, and entry is free.  Its twenty five galleries hold a world class assemblage of paintings, furniture and porcelain, and a covered rear courtyard holds a quite nice cafe.  Actually, I did go to the cafe once, over a decade ago, as it's a handy place to meet a friend away from the hurley burley of Oxford Street, but still, it's fairly pitiful to have never looked at any of the galleries until now.

That's because of the seductive charm of the passing and the temporary.  When a show of Rembrandt or Rubens or cuckoo clocks made out of papier mache gets a rave review in the Telegraph or the Guardian and a favourable mention from R4's Front Row, you think I must go and see that.  No time to be lost, it's only on until the nth of August.  When something is always there, like the permanent collections at the National Gallery and the V&A, it's easy to defer your visit until some unspecified later date when you'll be less busy.  Which is mad, as apart from anything else permanent collections are nearly always less busy than the visiting blockbuster exhibitions.  I have stood three deep trying to see Vermeer's paintings behind other peoples' heads at a temporary exhibition at the National Gallery, while at the Mauritshuis in Den Hague the Systems Administrator and I had his view of Delft completely to ourselves.  Totally to ourselves, as the security guard must have decided we weren't going to try to vandalise or nick it and didn't even bother following us into the room.

I was meeting up with an old work friend I hadn't seen for months, and she opted for the Wallace over the British Museum's Defining Beauty: the body in Greek art (on until 5 July.  Such is my anxiety about not missing any temporary exhibitions through oversight that I keep a spreadsheet of what's on and their closing dates, ever since missing something at the RA that I really wanted to see.  I highlight those with only a month or so to go, when I get round to it.  And highlight the ones I've been to in a different colour.  Make of that what you will).

The Wallace was really good, and now that I've broken my duck I'll be back.  The French eighteenth century is not entirely to my taste.  The paintings tend to be a bit mimsy, and some of the furniture is off the end of the bling scale.  You can see why they ended up having a revolution.  And I have no idea what the point of quite a lot of the things was, other than that when you have a great deal of money you have to spend it on something.  At least you can keep snuff in a snuff box, but what on earth do you do with a glazed platter with a three dimensional eel, a crayfish and a couple of small fish stuck across the bottom of it?  But the collection is absolutely fascinating, even the hideous stuff, and there are some beautiful things.  A Rembrandt portrait of his son, anybody, and a smattering of Gainsborough and Velasquez?  How about a Dutch seascape that is so recognisably the short chop of the North Sea it brings back vivid memories of landfall after bumpy North Sea crossings.  Or a graceful glass vase I would have guessed dated from the 1950s, if the label hadn't told me it was sixteenth century Venetian, the lines were so timeless.

The rooms are fun too, walls hung in very brightly coloured damask.  I'm so used to seeing that sort of thing shrouded in half light to preserve it (other than at Alnwick Castle where the family had presumably taken the view that when it wore out they'd replace it, as they have been doing for the past few hundred years).  It is all totally over the top, and not at all the natural habitat of a rural minimalist like me, but great to visit.  For one morning only, more bling than you can shake a stick at, free and gratis.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

summer pruning

Today I pruned the Paulownia in the rose bed.  This is an experiment, and at the moment it looks so awful and was so difficult to do that I'm not sure it's a project that's working or that I'll repeat, but that's how one learns in gardening.  The trouble was that it was a fair way towards developing into a tree.  There was not supposed to be a tree in the rose bed or that close to the house, as it would shade the roses and block the view, and Paulownia can get large in time.  Before they die, that is. There used to be one in the Beth Chatto garden when I started visiting twenty years ago, but it's not there now.

I grew the Paulownia from seed.  I planted several in the rose bed, intending to manage them as coppice and thinking that their big, dramatic leaves would provide a lift to the itsy bitsy leaves of the roses.  They started suckering after a few years, so by now I have more than enough.  Then one year I missed cutting down one hard to reach stem, and the following year I saw it had produced some flower buds and didn't have the heart to cut them down, and things went from there.  I enjoyed the flowers this year.  They are quite like a bluish foxglove, though not a true blue, held in erect panicles, and because the back garden slopes away from the house we could look straight at them from the veranda and see them outlined against a background of mature trees at the bottom of the garden instead of staring upwards trying to see blue flowers against a blue sky.

So that was jolly nice, but I was left with the matter of a tree rapidly pushing the twenty foot mark in the middle of the rose bed.  Last year I said I was going to cut it down, then I began to wonder if I could merely reduce it, and manage it as a lollipop shrub over the top of the roses.  That would be fun, as it flowers before the roses are doing anything and was attractive, if only it would have stayed at its present size and not kept growing.  I meant to prune it the moment the flowers had faded, to give it as much time as possible to recover, but it looked like a tricky job and I had lots of other things that needed doing, so I didn't get round to it.  Until today.

I managed to wriggle in to the centre of the bed with the long handled loppers, negotiating my way carefully around rose 'William Lobb'.  He is falling over again, and this winter I should try and build him a wooden tripod like Major Grahame uses at Dawes Hall.  He has a very fine collection of shrub roses, by the way, and a trip to Bures on a day when his garden is open would be worth anyone's while at this time of the year.  I cut back some of the lower branches using the loppers, with difficulty since everything kept getting tangled up in 'William Lobb', but some of the taller ones defeated me.  They were too high, too vertical, and I thought I wanted to cut back to main branches which I hoped would send out strong new shoots, not tip back the entire tree.

With great difficulty I manoeuvred the step ladder into the bed, and laboriously sawed through each branch in turn, wishing I had a third arm so that I could hold on to the saw, hold on to the main trunk so as not to fall off the stepladder, and break the fall of each branch as they crashed down on to the roses and Angelica gigas below.  Amazingly, there was no major damage, but I could see why gardens featuring pollarded trees in the middle of a tangle of shrub roses are thin on the ground.  I managed to get the step ladder out again without breaking anything, and without losing my pruning saw in the undergrowth, and stepped back to survey the result of my efforts.

It looks pitiful.  I left some leaves lower down, but the top part is a stump.  I did wonder as I was working whether I should leave cutting through the leader until autumn because it would look so drastic, but the point of the exercise was to try and get fresh growth from lower down, at a level where I would be able to reach to prune it in future years.  I realised as I considered my handiwork that one problem with the plan was that it left an almost leafless and mutilated trunk sticking up out of the bed just at the moment when the roses were reaching their peak.  Somehow the eye accepts drastic pruning more easily in November or February when most things are leafless and looking half dead than in June when everything else is burgeoning.

On the other hand, next year I might be able to deal with the regrowth using the pole lopper (assuming it makes any regrowth and doesn't simply concentrate its efforts on throwing a new shoot from ground level) and I might be able to shape it to something more reasonable, and now I've spotted the problem with it detracting from the rose display I could make sure I tackle it the moment the flowers are fading.  And then it might look fine, foxglove flowers and then an unobtrusive largish leaved lollipop small tree hovering unobtrusively above the roses.  I really don't know, but that's part of the fun of gardening, experimenting.

While I had the ladder and saws out I pruned a large hazel branch, dead in places, that was growing up into the Arbutus x andrachnoides at the edge of the wood.  It turned out to be a bit of a job, finding a spot where the ladder would stand without tipping, which didn't place me under the branch I was cutting.  Our Ginger came to see what I was doing, and I ended up having to lock him in the study so that I wouldn't accidentally drop the branch on him. Then the branch twisted as I got to the last inch or so, and took me ages to saw through the final section.  I kept thinking I must be almost through by now, and even went and fetched a rope to go over it so that I could give it a good tug to bring it down, but it wasn't budging.  Eventually it came down with a crash, and I was glad the cat was safely locked indoors.  He was very huffy when I let him out, rushed to his food dish, and then wouldn't speak to me for at least half an hour.

After that it was child's play trimming two birch branches that were starting to dangle down into the crown of a camellia, apart from the fact that to reach them I had to clamber up the pile of builder's debris by the conservatory through a large prostrate juniper, which turned out to contain a bramble and a dead pigeon.  Still, the Arbutus and the camellia both look better for being given some air space, and I've managed to keep the natural shape of the hazel and the birch so that you wouldn't notice they had been pruned.