Wednesday, 30 September 2015

pacing myself

Tidying up the daffodil lawn isn't taking as long as I was afraid it was going to.  That's a welcome change, since I generally err in the opposite direction, optimistically assuming that garden tasks will be completed by lunchtime only to find that they stretch out over two and a half days.  The Systems Administrator has managed to do a pretty thorough job with the power scythe, so that when I rake the cut grass off there aren't too many tufty bits underneath that need finishing by hand.  The fact that the Eleagnus hedge has spread out so far the lawn is only two thirds the size it used to be might have something to do with it as well.

The bank along one edge of the lawn still has to be cut entirely with shears.  In desperation once I tried using an electric hedge trimmer, but nowadays I stick with cutting it manually.  It's more peaceful.  Last year I managed to sprain my wrist quite badly through doing too much at once.  I remember the date and how I discovered I'd done it, because it was December 10th, and I did a woodland charity talk that evening.  As I tried to push the plug of my extension cable into a rather stiff wall socket my wrist twinged, and I realised to my horror that I'd done something to it.  I had to rest it until after Christmas.  Even using my finger to play Sudoku on my tablet hurt.

So this year I am being very careful and not spending all day on it, or even all afternoon.  At one end of the scale, by way of a change I sowed some pots of home harvested Leopard Lily seed. That's Belamcanda chinensis, only it's changed its name to Iris domestica.  It's the one with the charming yellow and orange spotted six petalled flowers, of which I planted half a dozen and only one came up the following year.  That one must have been self fertile, since the flowers were followed by bulbous seed pods, and these have opened in the past few days to reveal fat black seeds.  They looked like the sort of seeds that ought to be sown at once, before they could shrivel up, and so I did.

At the other end of the scale I have made a start chopping around the conifer stump with the pick axe.  It's fairly brutal work, but it probably uses different muscles to the shears.  So far all I have to show for my efforts is a pathetic little trench around the sawn off trunk, but I shall keep at it.  An hour of shears, an hour of swinging the axe and I'll be there in no time.

Once the lawn is cleared there comes the real brute of a job, which is reducing the back of the Eleagnus hedge.  A lot.  I got away with taking the front hard back last autumn, so let's hope that my second assault doesn't kill it.  There is a very funny little book by journalist James Bartholomew called Yew and Non-yew, in which he conclusively demonstrates that whatever your hedging conundrum, the correct answer is yew.  It is all tongue in cheek, but the worrying thing is that he might be right.  Sitting drinking tea today on the terrace (or patio), contemplating the swirls of dead brown Eleagnus leaves that have already accumulated on the paving even though I swept it quite recently, and the semi-disappearance of the daffodil lawn, I fear he was.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

home cook

I have volunteered to do the cooking this week.  Or perhaps the Systems Administrator volunteered me, having remarked wistfully on holiday that it was nice not to have to cook for once.  I actually like cooking, especially in the darker months when it doesn't eat into so much good gardening time. I just need due notice, so that I can think about what to make and what I need to buy for it.  Faced with the question in the supermarket Could you cook tonight? my mind becomes a complete blank. Then we end up with chicken stewed in tomato with rosemary, but there's only so many times you can dish that up before it begins to seem like a nervous tic.

I decided that this week I was in a retro mood.  On Sunday night we had roast chicken, with saute potatoes.  And cauliflower au gratin.  I can't think when I was last in a restaurant that offered me cauliflower au gratin, certainly not a London one.  I think the only time I've seen it in years is as part of a medley of vegetables served to a large group booking at club events of the sort where you have to choose your menu in advance.  I turned to the ever reliable Good Housekeeping Cookery Book to remind myself how to make both.  Good Housekeeping is still the single most useful cookery book I possess.  Not the prettiest, or trendiest, but for telling you how to do something you might actually want to do, like making saute potatoes, as distinct from something you like the sound of but won't actually do, like spit roasting a whole suckling pig, it is the most comprehensive and reliable source.

The cauliflower came out rather solid, but that was my fault for not measuring any of the ingredients, and using up the whole of a small piece of cheddar that was sitting in the fridge on the grounds that keeping half of it would have been silly.  You evidently don't need that much cheese in a cheese sauce.  The basic white sauce was lump free, though, and it's ages since I made a roux. The saute potatoes worked perfectly.  I used butter as the book said, cooked them gently and refrained from poking at them before the first side was done, and they stayed in whole pieces and went a beautiful shade of golden brown.  I have never stopped cooking with butter, because I like it, but the recent about turn in public health advice that it will not clog your arteries and indeed might be better for cooking with than vegetable oils means I don't have to feel guilty while I do it.

Last night was a veal ragout from Gretel Beer's Austrian Cooking.  I loved my mother's copy of this book when I was learning to cook as a teenager.  So did my mama, who showed no signs of giving it up, and I was delighted to find it available as a facsimile reprint by Andre Deutsh in the early 1980s.  I was pretty pleased that Waitrose actually had veal in stock, since they don't always and I'd gone shopping with a contingent list of the vegetables I wouldn't need if I wasn't doing the ragout, and the extra ingredients I'd need instead if I was doing something else.  One of the things that puts me off the idea of internet grocery shopping is the impossibility of making contingent choices.  The substitutions you hear about are bizarre enough, but there's no hope of stipulating that if you can't have veal, you don't want a cauliflower.

The ragout was very, very old fashioned, and made me feel quite nostalgic, though I'm not sure what for, since my central European ancestors would not have been dining on veal ragout in an apartment on Vienna's ringstrasse, but supping on cabbage in a shtetl in rural Poland.  Never mind, there is something delicious about the idea of bourgeois pre-war Vienna that veal ragout encapsulates.  You simmer the veal with onions, celery, cauliflower florettes and carrot, then discard the first two which are there for flavouring, and keep the carrot, slicing it up and putting it back at the end.  The cauliflower meanwhile has disintegrated into a sort of vegetable thickening agent.  Then you make a roux (another one!), add the juice from the meat to the roux, put the sauce back on the meat with some mushrooms you fried earlier and some frozen peas, and finish it off with an egg yolk beaten into some milk.

The quantities are all fairly approximate, since how big is an onion or a carrot, and when Gretel Beer talks about half cups I think she meant half whatever teacup you have to hand in your kitchen, rather than American measures, and the packets of veal in Waitrose weren't the same weight as that given in the recipe.  And I wasn't sure how runny the end mixture was meant to be, so lost my nerve before getting to the egg stage and used a teaspoon of cornflour to thicken things up a bit.  I was slightly dubious about adding the egg mixture, since the sauce already seemed rather liquid even with the cornflower, but stuck to the method (always a good idea for the first run through of a new recipe) and I'm glad that I did, since it had a transforming effect.  The sauce suddenly became far silkier, and the faintly worrying taste of cooked flour vanished.  Again, I can't think when I last ate a meal out that featured a flour thickened sauce.  The smell of it cooking took me back decades.

The main thing that caught me out was the cooking time for the veal.  I'd assumed that as it came from a little baby animal it would be ever so tender and done in three quarters of an hour, but the packet said one and a quarter to one and a half hours, and it needed the full one and a half before it lost its faintly rubbery texture and fell into melting pieces.  I should have read the instructions at the outse.  We ate rather late, but fortunately the SA has fallen into the same trap, and is anyway a forbearing sort of person.

As I said, I like cooking from time to time, especially in the darker months.

Monday, 28 September 2015

cutting the long grass

We have cut down the long grass in the back garden.  The daffodil lawn still needs tidying up by hand, as it's impossible to get the lawn tractor on to it, but this afternoon the Systems Administrator put the power scythe over the daffodil lawn and the bottom lawn, while I raked until my arms ached, and we carted away the long grass to the bonfire heap, then the SA gave the bottom lawn a final cut with the normal lawnmower.

It is a job the SA absolutely loathes, because the power scythe is such a beast to steer and vibrates so much, and the work has a sort of never ending quality as you can't tell which of the fallen grass has been cut through and which tussocks are merely lying down, so you have to go over it again and again.  Still, it's done now, and it only has to be done once a year.  Long grass is in general pretty labour saving, but like many garden features that don't require much routine maintenance it does need one annual burst of effort.  If you don't cut grass at least once in the year the old dead stems look very tatty, and over time tree seedlings and brambles would take over.

The power scythe, although it's a beast, is a big improvement on the previous method, which was that one of us would go back and forth with a petrol driven strimmer, swinging it in front of us in an arc.  I don't think either of us could manage that nowadays.  The twisting motion is very hard on the back.  I sometimes toy with the idea of acquiring a real manual scythe and cutting the long grass by hand a la Poldark, but was put off by my failed experiment with a lightweight scythe bought from an ad in a gardening magazine, that was incapable of cutting anything but merely knocked it down, which only made matters slightly worse.  There are people nowadays who run scything courses (numbers have probably leapt since Poldark*), so perhaps I should go on one of those and try out a scythe before buying one.  They are supposed to be set up to take account of your height anyway.

I like long grass in a garden of our size.  It cuts down on the mowing for most of the year, which is a good thing, saving time and petrol.  Petrol driven lawnmower engines are much more polluting, gallon for gallon, than petrol cars, so cutting down the hours makes me feel we're doing something for the environment, and the long grass is an excellent habitat for all sorts of wildlife.  And it is very attractive, while I like the contrast between the areas of regular mown lawn and the waving seedheads and flowers of the long grass.  It is a slightly ambiguous space in design terms, not quite mass because you can see over it, but while it gives a feeling of openness you feel inhibited about walking through it, so it is not quite pure void either as mown grass or paving would be.

Now that the bottom lawn is cut I can get on with planting the pots of ox eye daisies I've got sitting in the greenhouse, and some more Crocus tommasinianus should be arriving any day soon when my Kevock order comes.  It's good fun, long grass gardening, only of course I don't have to drive the power scythe.

*I did not watch Poldark, but Aidan Turner's polished torso was all over the media, with accounts of his topless scything.  I would not scythe toplessly myself.  It sounds itchy.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

an autumn afternoon in the garden

We've been making the most of the last light evenings to let the hens out for a run.  It is still just about warm enough for the Systems Administrator to sit on the terrace (or patio) standing guard while they fossick about in the Eleagnus hedge.  The pots of Cosmos have a dishevelled, last gasp of summer air about them by now, and the dahlias are telling me that I should have staked them better, but it still looks pretty in the late afternoon light.

I learned something useful about dahlias in yesterday afternoon's talk.  The books say that you should leave them standing until they are blackened by the first frost, and I'd never understood why.  I often do, because there are always so many jobs to do in the garden that cutting down the dahlias ahead of time isn't generally top of the list, but it wasn't a rule I followed with any conviction.  According to Rosy Hardy the onset of cold weather prompts the dahlias to seal off their tubers from the remains of the stems.  Cut them down prematurely and you risk water running down inside the hollow stems and setting off rot in the tubers.  The hollow stemmed Salvia uliginosa, which I grow, should always be left to die down naturally and not chopped down while still in growth in a fit of premature tidiness, for the same reason.

There are still flowers to come in the island bed in the back garden.  The asters are just hitting their full stride, though after the botanists had their latest go at categorising the constituents of the vast daisy family most of them are not asters any more.   The taller asters (which are no longer asters) can go very bare and leggy at the base, and their gaunt, straight stems can look odd shooting up right at the front of the border, so I tend to put them behind other things.

One is a generous patch of Kniphofia caulescens, an exotic evergreen (though sadly battered in a hard winter) red hot poker, with clumps of lax, silvery leaves resembling a relaxed yucca.  Mine was planted during 2002, so has survived a fair few snow falls and plunging night temperatures, even if it looked dreadful at the end of them.  It is only now coming into flower, with pinky orange poker shaped flower clusters developing on fat grey stems.  It has spread a fair way from its original pot full, and must be a full yard across by now.  I was pleased to see the buds, since I'd forgotten quite how late it flowered and was starting to wonder if it was going to this year.

We'd been congratulating each other on how well the chickens were flocking together, only to realise this afternoon that there were only three in the hedge.  I found the fourth alone at the very bottom of the garden, scratching vigorously among the primroses under the Zelkova.  I chivvied her back up the hill to join the flock, while she ran rocking from side to side like the hens in Chicken Run, and shrieking her indignation at being herded, or mounting panic at being separated from the other hens.  She won't last if she goes sneaking off like that.  Charlie, you see, is in the tree line.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

autumn flowering perennials

The new season of Suffolk Plant Heritage lectures has started.  Living in Essex it would have been logical for me to sign up to the Essex group, but I joined Suffolk because I was scooped up by a couple of energetic members.  They have a well organised annual programme, and living so close to the county border it's as easy to drive to Stowupland as Chelmsford.  Anyway, I have as many gardening friends and acquaintances north of the border as this side, after a decade of working at the plant centre.

Today's guest speaker was Rosy Hardy of Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants, multiple Chelsea award winner as seen at Chelsea and on TV, talking about autumn flowering perennials.  There are some very good plants that flower in September or later, and they need promoting, though probably less to a Plant Heritage audience than the average gardener.  The reaction of the friend I visited the Hepworth with to the fact that I'd just been to the Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens was to ask whether there was anything to see at this time of the year (he recently went to the Abbotsbury swannery, but the Systems Administrator's reaction on being told that it had a thousand swans was that when you've seen twenty, you've seen them all).

Rosy Hardy gave exactly the sort of talk that I like, telling us about the growth habit of each plant and its preferences regarding soil, light and moisture.  And she told us how to propagate them. Commercial growers have nothing to fear from telling their customers how to make more plants, since a real plant enthusiast will merely use any savings to acquire a new and different plant, while anyone who isn't pretty keen won't bother to try.  I love messing around with seeds and cuttings and divisions, and was always amazed when working at the plant centre by how many people who considered themselves keen gardeners seemed happy to buy all their plants, showing no interest in propagation whatsoever.

Rosy Hardy had brought enough pots for sale to cover several large trestle tables but I held off, conscious that I already had a backlog of home grown stock waiting to go out as soon as I can clear a place in the ground.  I took copious notes, though, and Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants has a website so if I find I have spaces for things I can always order them later.

Such discipline does not come easily.  I am still itching that I should have snapped up the very nice little plants of pink Gaura on sale at the Cressing Temple Barns at two pounds each.  My existing ones are doing so well in the gravel, I should rather like some more.  I had better try and find out how and if I can propagate from my two clumps (does the pink come true from seed, which is how I raised my original white ones, or will they split?).  In general, though, I am an increasing fan of internet shopping for plants.  There's no risk of being seduced by how attractive the plant is now, at this minute, in its pot, and there's all the resources of my bookshelves and the worldwide web to check what conditions the thing would like, and if it has any nasty habits I should know about before introducing it to my garden.  Of course you have to buy sight unseen, and there's the risk that the nursery could fob you off with something substandard, but I don't believe that reputable growers who have been going for years are going to do that.  It isn't a tactic you could deploy very often before word would get round, and your business would collapse.

Friday, 25 September 2015

festival music

I went this evening to a Roman River Festival event, a recital by the Sacconi Quartet at Colchester's Firstsite.  I'd arranged to go with a friend from the plant centre months ago, so long that by the time the concert came round I'd forgotten what it was that we were going to hear.  I was none the wiser once we'd found each other and bagged a pair of seats, since Roman River don't do programme notes for the individual concerts.  They do do a large and splendid and correspondingly expensive book covering all the concerts, but if you're only going to one event and are too mean to buy the book then you don't get anything.  It has been suggested to them, but apparently the organisers are resistant.  Not wanting to undermine book sales, perhaps.

The festival's chief architect welcomed us to the space, and told us that we were going to hear Nielsen, Sibelius, and a world premiere of a new work by someone called Gwilym.  From the first violinist's introductory remarks I gathered that it was early Nielsen and late Sibelius.  Whether it turns out to be early or late Gwilym Simcock will depend on how long he keeps going.  He looked very young when he came forward to introduce his piece (along with policemen, vets and finance directors), but Mozart had written everything he was ever going to write before he was thirty-six, and Sibelius lived to a ripe old age but stopped writing music.

I enjoyed the Nielsen and the Sibelius, in a lyrical, periodically spiky, romantic sort of way.  The World Premiere was sandwiched in as the second part of the first half, as is the way of concert promoters.  Give the punters something they'll like first to warm them up, but don't risk programming the new music last, or half the audience will leave before it.  I listened to it with quite a lot of respectful attention, once I'd grasped that it had actually started and the quartet weren't just engaged in a protracted tuning exercise, but I'm afraid I couldn't get into it.  Honestly, I'd have been happier with a nice bit of Haydn.

Firstsite has a couple of drawbacks as a classical music venue.  One is that the bass line of the music from a nearby nightclub was came through the walls loud and clear, and the other is that it is at the scuzzy end of town and so the walk back to your car afterwards is not very nice if you're by yourself.  Nobody did bother me at all, but I wouldn't make a habit of walking around that part of town alone after dark.  The Festival's big book has a drawback in that audience members who don't find the music sufficiently engaging may start reading it during the concert.  There was a wretched woman sitting in front of us who kept flicking through the pages during the Sibelius, and I found the movement at the edge of my field of vision quite distracting.  There's no excuse.  If you go to a classical concert you should know roughly what to expect, and if you find one of the pieces not quite to your liking it won't hurt you to just sit still for twenty minutes.  You can practice cultivating an expression of polite interest while thinking about something else, a skill that might come in handy in all sorts of future situations.

I looked up the evening's programme when I got home and discovered that I'd been listening to Nielson's String Quartet in G minor and Sibelius' in D minor, Op. 56.  The photo of the quartet showed two ladies and two chaps, as does the Sacconi's own website, but tonight's cellist was definitely a bloke.  Nothing was said about there being a stand-in cellist, and there's no mention of a substitute on their website, so his identity remains a mystery.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

down the microscope

It was the beekeepers' monthly club meeting this evening.  The hall we use has been pretty good about remembering to let us in for some time, but as I drew up into the car park I saw a gaggle of beekeepers standing about in front of the darkened windows, and realised the place must be locked.  There used to be a yoga class that met before us, and the caretaker didn't lock up between them leaving and us arriving, but it must have closed, or moved, or switched days.  Being extremely British we all stood politely in the car park, remarking to each other that at least it wasn't raining, until somebody arrived with the key.

The subject was microscopy.  I went on a beekeeping beginners microscopy class, years ago, and didn't especially take to it.  With my eyesight, glasses and general lack of coordination I find it quite difficult to see anything down a microscope, just as I struggle with binoculars.  Practice would probably make things better if not perfect, but there is something inherently depressing about a field of study where you have to start by killing your subject.  And while the insides of bees are not nearly so unpleasant as the insides of mice and rabbits, still I prefer the look of them when their heads haven't been ripped off and the rest of the bee magnified by a factor of forty.

There are two bee diseases that you can test for using a microscope.  One is a tiny bug that lives in the bee's breathing tubes, which you can inspect if you remove its head and the end of its thorax to reveal the tubes.  Healthy ones are gleaming white, infected ones discoloured and brown. There is no specific cure if you find signs of infection, though if you treat your bees with a thymol based vapour treatment marketed for varroa mites, you will kill the bug at the same time.  The GP giving tonight's lecture had pulled the heads off lots of bees and never found any bugs in their breathing tubes, so it seemed to me that if you had a colony of bees that were failing to thrive you might as well treat them for varroa, which you would probably want to do anyway, and could hit any breathing tube bugs at the same time while you were at it if you used a thymol based treatment.

The other disease you could uncover under a microscope is a bug that lives in the bee's stomach. To test for that one you need to pull the abdomens off a sample of thirty adult bees, mash them up and look at the resulting mess for little white bodies like grains of rice.  There used to be an antibiotic product available but it's been withdrawn.  But you can feed them syrup with a tiny bit of thymol dissolved in it and that will do the trick better than the antibiotic used to.  So if you had a colony that was failing to build up you could give them a booster feed, which you might want to do anyway, and slip a litttle thymol in to see if it improved matters.  Or you could let nature take its course, winnowing out the weak colonies.

So the main reason to do microscopy is that you like it and find it interesting.  Certainly it is a great way of learning more about the anatomy of the honeybee, should you want to.  Our lecturer is fascinated by the innards of his bees, and how their legs work, and their compound eyes.  He is a nice chap, and it was a perfectly interesting lecture.  For myself, however, I would rather watch my bees buzzing around with their heads and abdomens intact.  I treat annually for varroa with oxalic acid, as tutored by the commercial beekeeper who reminds me each winter, but I'm cautious about thymol.  Friends who used it said their bees hated it so much they absconded.  I'm afraid that colonies that can't sort out their own breathing tubes and stomachs might just have to fail, and free up some equipment for swarm control in the colonies that are going from strength to strength.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

where do you buy button thread?

My gardening trousers went through at the other knee.  The Systems Administrator remarked that they made me look like a Confederate soldier at the end of the American Civil War, but I queried whether they wore pink tee shirts.  The SA said no, not my top half, but the southern troops had worn brown trousers which by the end of the fighting were that patched and worn.  Fortunately Lands' End supplied the trousers on the basis that their customers might be over six feet tall, and so there was plenty of material left over to make another knee patch.  I should really have chopped the bottoms of the trousers off before, instead of idly rolling them up, since grit and soil used to collect in the turn-ups and periodically fall out in little piles on the bedroom carpet when I was changing out of my gardening clothes.

Sewing knee patches on to my gardening trousers, I have practically run out of thick button thread. Ordinary sewing cotton is no use at all as it wears through after a few days of use.  My first impulse was to turn to Amazon.  Tap connectors, fishing line, electric rat zappers, cake tins, it seems there is no domestic requirement too mundane for Amazon to satisfy it.  A search for button thread did indeed yield several suppliers.  The top ranked would sell me a reel for the grand sum of £2.35 including delivery, and rated an average five star review.  There are people out there who spend their spare time reviewing button thread on the internet?  One of them lamented that haberdashery was so expensive nowadays.  I mean, two of your earth pounds and thirty-five whole pence.

Then I noticed that the top ranking Amazon button thread vendor despatched from the United States, with an estimated delivery time sometime between 2nd and 22nd October.  I thought that I needed to mend my trousers earlier than the end of next month, but the next button thread seller on the list was also US based.  In fact, they all were.  What is this global trade in button thread, and why can't anybody in the UK send me some?

I tried to think what bricks and mortar shops might stock button thread  I could go to John Lewis while I was in London, on the other hand I wasn't planning to visit Oxford Street.  John Lewis from The National Portrait Gallery is a bit of a step, and I was tired after my two exhibitions and wanted to go home, while for the cost of my Oyster journey to Oxford Circus I could have the thread sent from Charlestown, USA.  The Co-Op in Colchester used to sell sewing thread, but is no more, while the closure of the useful remnant shop was announced a few weeks back, and I wasn't sure if it had already shut.  Williams and Griffin, Colchester's premier department store and now part of the Fenwick Group, is being revamped and I couldn't remember if they had a haberdashery department or not.  I checked the website of a UK based fabric company I've looked at in the past, though never bought anything, but it wasn't clear whether any of their sewing thread was the thick sort I needed.

In the end there was enough thread left on the old reel to sew the patch.  Now the immediate rush is over I might as well send off to Charlestown, and save myself some running about.  And who could resist the product description:  coats clark dual duty xp heavy weight thread. this thread was designed to meet the needs of sewers when it came to denim double knits drapery fabric faux fur felt fleece leather and faux leather quilted fabrics sweater knits ticking twill upholstery canvas duck and sail cloth. recommended needles machine 14 90 16 100 or 18 110 hand sizes 1 to 6. this thread is ideal for bold topstitching cording and stitching hand worked buttonholes. obtain a smooth beautiful finish consistent tension balanced twist excellent stitch formation low breakage color fast and weather resistant with this unique polyester wrapped core spun thread produced using a new advanced spinning technology. spool features the dual trap system for a more secure storage without the spool unwinding. 125 yards 114 meters. imported.

All that for £2.35, delivered to your door.  Maybe I'll have to pay customs duty, though.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

back on the culture trail

I'd fixed to meet an old friend in London today for lunch and a dose of culture, which turned out to be fortuitous timing since the Systems Administrator tells me that it poured with rain here until about four o'clock.  I still hadn't seen the Barbara Hepworth exhibition at Tate Britain, and it closes in only a month's time.  The Tate keeps close tabs on its supporters, and sent me an email just the other day urging me not to miss it.  In fact, I did try to organise our trip for before the holiday, but my friend had relatives staying, and the timings didn't work.

I adore Barbara Hepworth's work, or at least great chunks of it.  The exhibition starts with relatively small, figurative sculptures by her and several of her contemporaries, and I must admit that at the end of room 1 I'd have been hard pressed to match the artwork to the maker.  There are also some graphic works by Ben Nicholson, which I suppose is fair enough since they were sharing a studio at the time and exhibited together.  But the real excitement comes later on.  I have coveted Pelagos for years, and joy of joys there are more in the same vein.  I wish I could work out what it is about Hepworth's sculptures that makes them so perfect.  They are so balanced and exactly the right shape.  The only pieces I didn't take to were the ones with rectangular notches taken out of the edges, because they interrupted the flow and bizarrely put me in mind of vine weevil damage.

I liked it so much, I'll probably go back in a couple of weeks' time after meeting another friend for lunch.  Indian textiles at the V&A and Celts at the British Museum can wait.  In fact, if I lived or worked in the area I'd go every week.  I don't really understand why I haven't been before, except that July and August are such sticky months and a bit of a lost cause.

From Tate Britain it's a short yomp along the Embankment and up Whitehall to the National Portrait Gallery.  In Whitehall I noticed for the first time a large equestrian statue of Field Marshall Douglas Haig, and remembered his pronouncement I read in the Bovington Tank Museum, made in 1925, that there would always be a role in warfare for a well bred horse.  If you want to know about the future I guess you shouldn't ask the experts on the recent past.  The first Earl Haig was born six years after the charge of the light brigade.  By the time of his death, three years after his horse remark, the tank and the machine gun were battlefield realities.

The National Portrait Gallery is showing an exhibition of photographs of Audrey Hepburn, closing fairly soon, which I wanted to see since I like Audrey Hepburn.  Actually, that's not strictly true.  I know almost nothing about Audrey Hepburn, even after having been to the exhibition.  I can't think of a single thing that she said, and I haven't watched most of her films.  Rather, I like looking at Audrey Hepburn because she was extremely pretty, in a gamine style that I admire, at a point in history when they made good clothes.  It isn't a very big exhibition, and was so crowded the gallery weren't selling tickets for immediate admission.  The cheerful man on the ticket desk apologised, and blamed the rain for driving the punters in, which puzzled me in as far as the Tate had been rather quiet and I'd blamed the rain for keeping the punters at home.

Never mind.  Three quarters of an hour wandering around the Portrait Gallery is never wasted.  I went and communed with the subjects of the early twentieth century room, where it is nice to see real life friends Clement Attlee and Ernie ('You get yourself down to the Palace, Clem') Bevin hung side by side, but I am not sure what George V and Queen Mary did to deserve Oswald Moseley.

The Audrey Hepworths were lovely.  I know that feminists grumble that she helped set a largely unattainable ideal female form for the twentieth century and that her tiny frame was partly down to semi starvation during her teenage years in the Nazi occupied Netherlands.  But I really don't mind.  I like Audrey Hepburn.

Monday, 21 September 2015

tidy tidy

I was planning to go to the dump today.  The need for a run to the household waste recycling centre (see how neatly I slipped in that POV)* arose indirectly as a consequence of our holiday.  I had to clear the spare room of clutter before Mr and Mrs Smith could sleep in it, resulting in rather a lot of stuff being deposited around the edges of our bedroom.  Specifically, my screen, projector table, box holding the projector and extension cable, bag of woodland charity leaflets, several boxes and bags of beekeepers' library books, the beekeepers' cash boxes, some past year beekeepers' accounts that nobody will tell me I am definitely allowed to throw away, some freshly made up brood frames, two packets of foundation and some unassembled frames, a disintegrating jumbo pack of egg boxes, the honey extractor, a large plastic box of assorted and possibly redundant electronics, a packet containing assorted artworks by my nephew and nieces, a bag of wrapping paper and another of used padded envelopes.

It seemed a waste of an opportunity to simply shove everything back in the spare room when we got back, so I decided to go whole hog and tackle the other spare room as well.  It doubles up as an overflow library, so it would be nice to be able to get in there.  Access was OK while we only had boxes of cheap plates and glasses stacked on the bed, left over from when we had a party and kept in case we ever wanted to have another party, but then when the Systems Administrator sold the boat everything out of the boat that was not sold with it ended up in the middle spare bedroom as well.  That included our oilskins, life jackets, assorted fleeces, scarves, hats, gloves (not necessarily in pairs), sleeping bags, a bosun's chair, assorted charts (by now several years out of date), a chart case, several torches, a crate of cheap plastic plates and a couple of saucepans, a handheld GPS, a thing that might have been something to do with radar, a brass thermometer and clock (never installed), a stuffed cloth parrot which used to hang from the grab rails of our previous boat (it was a good idea to avoid looking at it too much in rough weather, when it used to swing about so violently that it made the motion of the boat seem even worse), ordnance survey maps of the Falmouth and Plymouth areas, string, a short piece of rope, and underneath it all a mysterious sticky patch on the carpet (though that might have been something to do with the honey extractor).

It's a bittersweet moment, the point at which you realise that your nerves, your finances and the state of your back are no longer up to keeping a boat, and I could understand why the SA had preferred to unload the contents of the cabin and shut the door on them.  I'd been thinking for months that I had better sort out the middle spare room at some point, so while I had the contents of the end room in flux was clearly the time to do it.  I took the sailing gear and spare crockery out of the middle room and put them in the sitting room.  It was, as Len Deighton put it, beginning to shape up nicely.

Then it seemed a waste not to tackle the cupboard in the end room that had got to a point that when you opened it piles of used padded envelopes and wrapping paper fell out, so I took everything out of that cupboard as well, discovering our walking boots, a long walking stick I thought we lost years ago, our padded gloves (that I couldn't find when I went on the RSPB birdwatching barge trip, and I would have been jolly glad of them), another oilskin jacket, our gaiters but not the crampons, an extremely ancient packet of Kendal Mint Cake, a wall poster of British Sheep Breeds and one of the topography of the Lake District, two squash rackets (neither of us play squash and I expect racket technology has improved in the past twenty years), a portable easel, two air rifles (superseded by the SA's current air rifle) and an air pistol, a rather shaky camera tripod, an electric and two manual typewriters, two inflatable mattresses that might or might not be air tight, and my woodland charity volunteer speaker of the year 2008 framed certificate.

Then I found somewhere other than the middle spare bedroom to store the things I wanted to keep, though the projection equipment, egg boxes, beehive parts and beekeepers' books did end up back in the end bedroom.  I don't know why I'd collected so many padded envelopes.  I must have been nourishing subconscious fantasies of setting up as a mail order second hand book dealer.  The Systems Administrator gallantly tackled the electronics, and between us we ended up with a lot of bags and boxes to go to the tip.

Then I went to put my suitcase away in the cupboard under the eves in our bedroom, once the door wasn't blocked by the beekeepers books, and while trying to make space for the extractor discovered a gigantic television under a heap of old cushions, holdalls and rucksacks.  I am quite embarrassed to think we ever had such a monster, but I suppose that is what TVs were like about a decade ago.  I had to summon the SA to help me get it out of the cupboard, and getting it downstairs is going to be interesting.  I'm not even sure how we ever got it into the cupboard, but we must have been younger and fitter in those days.

So I was going to load up the car and make a trip to the dump first thing this morning.  But then the lead story in the East Anglian Daily Times and the two local papers was of traffic chaos in the area following a collision between a lorry and a tractor on the A120.  It even made it on to the R2 morning traffic bulletin, and we agreed that we could live with the mess for another couple of days.

*POV stands for Popular Orange Vegetable, a phrase coined by a journalist to avoid repeating the noun 'carrot' within the same paragraph.  If there isn't a handy synonym it might just be better to use the original word again.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

the eye of the beholder

Walking around the garden this morning I reflected on how differently I see my own garden compared to other people's.  It compares perfectly well in terms of seasonal interest, with enough things that are supposed to flower now like the cyclamen and Japanese anemones, and promise of things to come, since the asters have barely started  The crab apples and cotoneaster berries are colouring up, and there's some decent foliage.  The dahlias and cosmos are still battling along.  The maintenance isn't up to Mapperton and Athelhampton standards, but there's only me to do the weeding, and we aren't charging people ten or fifteen grand a time for weddings.

The difference is that when I look at my own garden I'm always considering what needs to be done. It doesn't stop me enjoying the Japanese anemones, but part of my mind is simultaneously considering how hard to prune the neighbouring rose 'Fritz Nobis', and whether to make a wooden tripod for the rose for next season to prevent it flopping over the other plants.  I also noticed the pile of fallen rose leaves and petals that had collected on top of a small conifer, and made a mental note that I'd better pick them out fairly quickly before they killed the centre of the conifer.

And so on all round the garden.  The autumn sunshine made the stems of the slightly lopsided coppiced willow in the ditch bed glow an attractive shade of yellow.  I liked the effect.  That's why it's there, for the colour of its stems.  It got rather overshadowed by the native willow trees growing along the ditch, which is why it grew lopsided as it reached out towards the light and some of the stems at the back of the coppice stool died.  Even as I admired the gleaming ochre coloured bark I was noticing how far over the lawn one branch had grown, and considering how hard to cut it back, and how low the boundary willow branches had sagged over the summer, and how they'd need pruning this winter.

It's not that I don't notice maintenance issues in the gardens we visit.  Weeds, poorly looking trees, patches of wear in lawns, desire lines tracked through borders, broken labels, labels next to little blank spaces that ought to be visibly occupied at this time of the year if the plant were still alive, dead heads on dahlias.  I see them.  That doesn't mean they necessarily spoil my enjoyment of the garden.  During my time at Writtle I once mentioned to another mature student that I'd visited Great Dixter, but when her response was that she'd visited too and been disgusted by a great sow thistle in one of the borders, the number of gardeners they had, there was no excuse, I knew that we were not going to be buddies for the rest of the course.  The essence of Dixter was about so much more than whether or not there was one sow thistle in one border.

The great thing about other people's weeds and pruning issues is not that I can't see them, it's that I don't feel compelled to do anything about them.  Indeed, there can be a certain tranquillity in contemplating a problem which is not yours.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

technical upgrade

Anybody can give somebody a new computer.  As long as your credit card will bear the purchase price you can offer up a box from PC World or Amazon or where you will, nicely wrapped if you like.  The most precious part of the gift is the follow-up, getting the recipient's data off their old computer and safely installed on their new one.

It took most of the day to download all the files from my ancient laptop on to a memory stick.  The Systems Administrator wasn't actually standing over the machine for the entire time, and the process took so long partly because it ground to a halt each time the download ran into a problem, and had to wait until the SA came and told it what to do next.  I didn't dare touch anything.  It also took that long because the old machine was running at literally (in the true Radio 4 sense) two per cent of the speed of the new one.

I'm beginning to think that I ran it to the wire insisting on waiting until my birthday for the upgrade.  Some of the files are so corrupted that I can't work out what they originally were, and the SA can't even tell me what type of file they used to be.  Word, Excel, jpeg, Adobe?  The description in the file manager just says File.  Fortunately all the important ones I use regularly seem intact, though the new laptop won't actually run my income tax spreadsheet, and the SA is going to have to upgrade the machine to the current version of Excel.  Upgrade me too, since I'm still using the 2000 version and I gather things have changed a bit, but as I said to the SA, if I've got to learn to use a different version I might as well go on to the current one rather than upgrading to one that's only nine years out of date instead of fifteen.

I don't know how people manage who haven't married their help desk.  Learn more themselves about how computers work, I suppose, or ask their children, or a friend.  Or take a chance on the little repair shop in the village being run by an honest geek and not a crook who will steal their data.  Or refuse to have a computer and stick to using a mobile, or at a pinch a tablet.  The Treasurer of my music society keeps the accounts in a beautiful red hardback accounts book.  But I find Excel a fabulously useful way of keeping data and performing basic computations.  From the beekeepers' accounts to my own finances to my long list of all the things I've ever planted in the garden and where, a spreadsheet is my go-to solution.  What I've bought for who for Christmas, gardens and museums to visit while we're on holiday, lists of bulb orders arranged by season and supplier, films that reviewed well to borrow from Lovefilm, what art exhibitions are on where and when they close, it all goes on Exel.  Plus Word for letters, house sitting instructions, lecture notes. I am a Microsoft Office junkie and the phone is no substitute.

We will continue with the great setting up of the new computer tomorrow, and the SA is going to teach me how to save things to the cloud.  While aware of the need to make back-ups in case of laptop disaster, faced with the discipline of finding a suitable memory stick and downloading my data, making regular copies is a practice I've honoured better in the breach than the observance. Pressing a button and sending work off to the cloud would be much easier (and less clunky than the emergency method of attaching the document to an email and sending it to yourself).  Besides, the SA warned me that the new computer will want to save things there anyway, so I had better know where to look for my data, if I suddenly can't find it on the computer's own drives.

Friday, 18 September 2015

and not forgetting Lyme Regis

I forgot to mention Lyme Regis.  I don't think that was an instance of Freudian repression, since I liked the place perfectly well.  Rather, it's what happens when you take a few days off instead of blogging each evening, or at least writing about what you did the following day.  We tagged the trip to Lyme Regis on to the visit to Mapperton, as we were already on the right side of Dorchester and the Systems Administrator who had never been there wanted to see it.

I had been to Lyme Regis, ages and ages ago, and seen The French Lieutenant's Woman, also a long time ago, and Lyme Regis was not quite as I visualised it.  The front is quite strung out along the coast, and I'd imagined the harbour with its famous cobb more overhung by the town than it is.  It was a windy afternoon, and we only walked along the first third of the cobb because waves were breaking over the top further along, not hard enough to look especially dangerous, but wetly enough to soak our trousers and stain my new raincoat with salt.  I'd have liked to go the full Meryl Streep hog and stand mournfully about at the end, but after years of sailing I know what to expect from a bucket of salt water down the back of the neck.  Later on in a shop window we saw a photo of what the cobb looks like in a real onshore gale, and it is terrifying.

We didn't bother with the museum, judging from the outside that it dealt mainly with the town's literary associations.  I've read both books, and seen the film of the John Fowles book and the TV adaptation of Persuasion, and the SA wasn't that fussed.  Instead we walked along the sea front, admiring the play of light on the cliffs to the east and the rainbow as a large shower passed by, narrowly missing us.  Looking at the buildings I felt as though I were only forty or so miles from east Devon where I grew up.  There's a lot of white painted plaster, black painted window surrounds, and the overall jizz of the houses and pubs reminded me of my childhood home.  We noticed through the week as we drove around Dorset how much the landscape changed in only twenty or thirty miles.  Around Swanage it is intensely green, with little fields predominantly laid to pasture, while back at Blandford Forum there was much more ploughing, the earth throwing up white lumps of chalk or flint.

We broke our journey home at Braintree, having told Mr Smith we'd arrive in the early afternoon and not wanting to get back in the middle of his lunch or while he was still packing his car.  The SA had never seen the Cressing Temple tithe barns.  I had, but was happy to see them again, and besides they have a tea room.  The barns are absolutely magnificent, built in the thirteenth century by the Knights Templar, and some of the largest and best preserved in the country.  The tea room is pretty nice as well, run by Wilkin and Son, the jam makers of Tiptree, so we had one final cream tea as we were still on holiday, and walked around the recreated Mediaeval garden.

If either of us had been keener on shopping we could have stopped at Braintree Freeport instead. As it is my souvenirs from the entire week's holiday amount to one fir cone, picked up at Athelhampton, two cuttle fish from the beach at Durdle Door, three stones with holes in spotted in the National Trust car park at Kingston Lacy, a second hand paperback book about railway navvies which set me back fifty pence at the Swanage railway, a seedling of Corsican violet rescued from drowning in a tray of water outside the Blandford Forum museum (which was shut, all plants fifty pence, please put money through the letter box), and a copy of the Mapperton garden guide plus a rooted cutting of geranium 'Joy'.  It was a good holiday.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

and everything else

We stopped off at Portland Castle on our way back from garden visiting.  It is a Tudor castle, or more accurately gun emplacement, built by Henry VIII.  We are both suckers for castles, and had seen this one in a TV series about them.  Television can be a deceiving medium, and the programme played down the fact that Portland Castle is now surrounded on its landward side by light industrial units and empty buildings.  Not so romantic as Dartmouth Castle, that's for sure. Still, it is very well preserved, and you just have to use your imagination to strip out the Victorian breakwater, modern marina, left-over segment of Mulberry Harbour and other post-Tudor accretions, and visualise how it would have looked when it had a commanding line of fire out over the approach to Weymouth, with a flanking gun placement on the opposite shore.

We also stopped at Maiden Castle, the iron age hill fort south of Dorchester.  It made a great impression on me when I visited with my parents as a child, though for decades afterwards I believed it was in Wiltshire.  Association with Stonehenge, I suppose.  Getting to it is slightly confusing because there is no exit from the main road as it sweeps around Dorchester, and you have to head into town then drive out again, passing through a residential suburb and over the A35. Access, the English Heritage site says charmingly and vaguely, is at any reasonable time during daylight hours.  According to the interpretation boards at the site, Iron Age people actually lived there full time, which left me wondering how they got their water supply, and why they chose to live somewhere so perishingly windy and cold.  The earthworks are very impressive, though, every bit as good as I remember, though neither of us were taken with the view of Poundbury, which looked, as the Systems Administrator observed, like a gigantic Travelodge.

Yesterday we visited Salisbury so as to be able to look at things under cover, as it was forecast to rain heavily for most of the day.  We started with the cathedral.  I'd visited once before, on a cycling holiday with friends when I was in the sixth form, but since then I've only seen it in paintings by Constable and angry newspaper articles about plans to build on the Salisbury meadows, plus a brief, tantalising view of the spire as we drove past on the way down at the start of the holiday.  It is a very fine cathedral, and remarkably all of a piece because it was completed in less than four decades from 1220, while the nineteenth century restoration under Wyatt removed later additions (including some Medieval stained glass which we'd rather he'd kept).  It boasts the tallest spire in England and the world's oldest clock, as well as all sorts of obscure but interesting details like a memorial to a family  killed in the Sepoy uprising and a young officer who died from wounds sustained in the Charge of the Light Brigade.  And it has a copy of the Magna Carta.

Unfortunately, the week we were able to visit coincided with a flower festival.  I am not at all a fan of modern floral arranging, and duck past it hastily at Chelsea.  Traditional big church arrangements of flowers and foliage are great, especially put somewhere to the side and out of the way, but not swathes of orange fabric with strings of Physalis lanterns hanging down blocking the view of the north window, and a block of white banners with flowers stuck to them hung slap bang in the middle of the nave so that you can't get a clear view along the entire length of the roof.  The roof of Salisbury cathedral is one of its glories.  I wasn't keen on the floral pillars blocking the nave either, or at the memorials being half hidden behind panels with over-engineered vegetation stuck to them.  The organisers were terribly proud of it, and I'm sure it was great fun for the participants, but the answer to the question Does a Medieval cathedral look better with floral gew gaws dotted all over it? is No, it does not.

The Magna Carta was on display in the Chapter House, and my immediate thought was that it wasn't very big.  It is only about a foot square, and covered in tiny writing I knew I wouldn't be able to read, which is why I didn't bother going to the British Library Magna Carta exhibition.  A one foot square of unreadable vellum wouldn't make much of a display by itself, so the Cathedral authorities have bulked it out with a display on how vellum is made, a translation of the charter, and some thoughts on how modern ideas of civil liberties spring from it.  The translation is available on the British Library website, if you want to read it for yourself.  Some of the clauses are surprising, as it includes the standardisation of weights and measures, a couple of undertakings concerning forests, and clause 50 specifically bans Gerard de Athee and all his kin from holding offices in England.  I didn't think much of clause 54, which says that No one shall be arrested or imprisoned on the appeal of a woman for the death of any person except her husband.  So on the whole I'd take the recent fanfare about Magna Carta being the cornerstone of liberal democracy in the free world with a healthy dose of scepticism.  It has some good bits in it.

Then we went to Mompesson House, a beautifully preserved Queen Anne house in the cathedral close, a National Trust property whose existence we only discovered the previous day while looking up something else in the handbook.  It has a fine collection of Georgian drinking glasses, and was used as a location in the Ang Lee version of Sense and Sensibility.  Then to the museum of the Infantry regiments of Berkshire and Wiltshire, which is a typical jumbly regimental museum, lurching backwards and forwards between wars and with a stuffed dog in a case in the hall.  It is housed in another fine old building in the cathedral close.  Thence to the Salisbury Museum, in yet another historic building in the close, where we saw a temporary exhibtion about Turner's paintings of Wessex, and learned that Salisbury used to have a big textile industry as well as being a market town, and paraded a twelve foot guy around on special occasions as recently as the coronation of Edward VII, but by then our brains were full, and we did not give the neolithic finds the attention they deserved.

Today was the last day of touristing, and we started at Wimborne Minster with a trip to the Minster, which is a delightful, solid, squat, Norman and early English building made out of a lovely muddle of building stones, and has all the atmosphere of dignity and peace that was slightly lacking from Salisbury Cathedral with its flowers.  Then I persuaded the SA to follow the signs to the model town, on the grounds that it couldn't be very far away and we didn't need to go in if it looked horrid.  It turned out to be just around the corner from the Minster, and to be a one tenth scale model of central Wimborne as it was in the 1950s, built at the time by a local architect and the town surveyor.  It is very cleverly done.  Visitors can walk in among the buildings and look close up at the shop fronts (including a gas showroom advertising cookery demonstrations, a laundry (as distinct from laundrette) and rival bookshops).  The proportions of the buildings were absolutely accurate, the roofs were fully realised with slates and chimney pots, but other details like downpipes were stripped away and it didn't matter.  The SA, who is chary of naff models, was impressed.

The National Trust's Kingston Lacy is near Wimborne.  It has a fine park in the English landscape style with some really good mature trees, and formal gardens near the house, of which I thought easily the best bit was the fernery, an enclosed  garden shaded by trees, with winding paths among raised stone edged beds planted with ferms and small shade loving flowers, and a Victorian cast iron fern patterned pteridomania period bench to sit on while you admired it.  The house was built in the late seventeenth century by the Bankes family to replace their family seat of Corfe Castle, which had been sacked by Cromwellian forces, and revamped by later generations of the family. They were avid collectors and decorators, though we got the impression that the Continental art dealers had seen some of them coming on their Grand Tour, as there seemed to be rather a lot of pictures not by the artists they were supposed to have been by.  The cream tea wasn't bad but the scone was a touch dry.  Eight out of ten to Kingston Lacy, garden and refreshments wise.

Knoll Gardens are just the other side of Wimborne.  They have won clutches of Gold Medals at Chelsea and now have them stuck up in rows behind their till.  I have long wanted to visit their garden and was not disappointed.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised, since their speciality is grasses and I'd imagined a prairie style garden using a lot of grasses plus tall perennials in the Continental New Perennials style.  There is some of that sort of thing but much else besides, plenty of shrubs, some excellent trees including a large and well grown specimen of the unusual Quercus phellos, a spectacular fallen Eucalyptus being allowed to grow on lying across a pond, gravel plantings, and just enough calm expanses of close mown lawn for the whole thing not to feel cluttered.  It is a lovely garden, and cleverly laid out to feel bigger than its four acres.  Ten out of ten.

Knoll Gardens was virtually the only place we visited that didn't have a tea room.  Every garden and museum has at least one nowadays, and every other farm you drive past seems to have a board up advertising teas.  I don't see how they can all make a go of it.  Even as dedicated cream tea eaters we can't manage more than one a day.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

four gardens

I am very happy that I have finally been to the Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens.  They sounded great in various magazine articles, and Roy Lancaster is a fan.  They sit tucked into a valley behind Chesil Bank, protected from the winds by the lie of the land as well as shelter planting, and are close enough to the sea that hard frosts are rare.  The planting is lush, exotic, and as jungly as you can get while still in Dorset and not the tropical forests of Borneo.  There are lots of rare things, plants with huge leaves, pools and ponds, and areas of drought adapted sun lovers at the top of the hill where the light and wind are strongest.  It has an absolutely magical atmosphere, the cafe does good cream teas, and well behaved dogs are allowed on a tight lead.  We don't have a dog, but I think they add to the ambience.

I found a gardener who was willing to be interrupted from his work in order to tell me about the soil, which is an odd outcrop of acid laced with iron ore among the predominant limestones of the Jurassic coast.  I thought it had to be because otherwise how did they grow all those species rhododendrons?  He also identified a succulent carrying the magnificent remains of a twelve foot flower spike as Furcraea.  The spike was fascinating, carrying little miniature plants where each flower had been, plus a scattering of seed pods where it was giving sexual reproduction a go as well.  He told me it would die now it had flowered, which I guessed, and had taken twelve years to reach flowering size.  They'll be potting up the babies for sale, for customers prepared to wait.

So Abbotsbury got top marks, ten out of ten for garden, refreshments and general all round helpfulness.  Then we went to Mapperton, which I'd never heard of until discovering a link to it on a Dorset tourist website.  The Systems Administrator, meanwhile, had picked up on a newspaper article, because Mapperton has just featured as Bathsheba Everdene's farmhouse in the latest film version of Far From the Madding Crowd.  We haven't seen the film yet, but I can't believe they used the top part of the garden because it is a delightful 1920s Italianate creation, with a beautiful and dilapidated orangery added in the 1960s but which we guessed might have been rescued and recycled from some other property.  The film money might come in useful for repairing it.  As the SA said, the interwar period is surprisingly late to be building a garden of that type on that scale. It is absolutely lovely, and I can't understand why Mapperton isn't more famous among garden lovers. Maybe because nobody very famous lived there.

Beyond the formal gardens is an arboretum, with some rare and good trees, including a mature Tedtradium daniellii.  I wouldn't have guessed its name, but the guide book said they had one, so I looked it up afterwards to see if the description matched the plant.  The standard of garden maintenance is high in an unobtrusive way, so cultivated plants are allowed to spill out over the paving and very generous amounts of Erigeron karvinskianus have been left to seed into the steps and paving, but there are very few weeds, and enough dead heading to keep the borders looking spruce for September.  And it turned out to be an RHS partnership garden, so I got in for free, and spent half my savings on a rooted cutting of a very pretty geranium with ruffled, rose pink flowers with a pale eye.  We didn't have room for more tea, but could have had some if we'd wanted.  Ten out of ten to Mapperton, with the proviso that we didn't test the refreshments, but my guess is they'd be good.

Nobody gets lucky all the time, and we didn't fare so well at our next garden.  I had hopes of Kingston Maurward, another RHS partnership garden with National Collections of penstemon and tender salvia which I wanted to see.  Their website said they were easily accessible from the A35, but they weren't signposted sufficiently far in advance, and the Satnav sent us up a tiny lane leading to an even smaller one signposted No Access To Kingston Maurward.  When we eventually got there after a detour we found they were very close to the A35 indeed, so much so that you could hear the traffic clearly from the garden.

Kingston Maurward is the home of a college specialising in land based courses, and the gardens share the site with an animal park.  The gardens consist of a restored 1920s Italianate (again, but on a much larger scale than Mapperton and without the latter's Arts and Crafts influences) formal garden superimposed on to an older Capability Brown style (ie not by Capability Brown) park.  The garden approach lacked a sense of entrance, visitors being sent across a yard with full view of the goat pens and up a yew passage with a businesslike modern wooden gate half way along, and side view into a dilapidated herb garden.  As we toured the main garden I sensed a desperate lack of resources to keep something of that size and degree of formality going, plus a moderately severe rabbit problem.  Brave efforts had been made with planting in some beds, but would have looked so much better if anybody had had time to go round deadheading them regularly, while ivy twined perilously round some of the stonework and bramble stems grew through the yew hedges.  The penstemon collection was largely over, which at least made me feel better that most of my penstemons have finished flowering by mid September, whatever the books say about late colour. Labelling in the salvia collection was sketchy, and the some of the architectural features were curiously disjointed, flights of steps leading straight on to steep grassy banks that didn't seem designed for walking on.  I'm afraid Kingston Maurward only gets five out of ten tops, though looking on the bright side as it was another RHS partnership garden we only had to pay for the SA's disappointment while mine came free.

All was redeemed at Athelhampton.  I'd seen an article in Gardens Illustrated, and made a note that it had good bones, and so it has.  A series of garden rooms enclosed by the local stone are laid out within a horseshoe curve of the river Piddle.  There are formal ponds, fountains (all working), topiary and clipped hedges (all healthy), pleached lime walks, understated but interesting planting, and a splendid Magnolia grandiflora up the front of the house, which had one great scented goblet within convenient smelling distance.  The maintenance is superb and we saw as many gardeners as visitors during our (weekday, September) visit.  The atmosphere is of calm, order and romance.  It is shut on Fridays and Saturdays for weddings, though if I were invited to a wedding there I'd duck out of as much of the forced conversation with strangers as I possibly could and just wander round the garden.  The cafe has been ingeniously tucked among some outbuildings so that you don't see the glass roof of the covered area at all.  The cream tea came with good scones and a generous pot of cream (clotted, not whipped.  If it's not clotted it doesn't even count as a cream tea).

We didn't buy a guide book because it seemed so heavily slanted towards the house (which we didn't go into) that it didn't add to what I'd already got in Gardens Illustrated.  We were gently puzzled by the date of the garden, as all of the restrained, faintly rococo stonework seemed of a piece. Looking it up afterwards on Wikipedia I found that the reason for that is that it is much younger than the fifteenth century manor house, being laid out for an antiquarian owner in the early twentieth century.  Heading for its centenary, then, but certainly not an historic renaissance garden.  That doesn't matter, it is absolutely delightful.  Ten out of ten for Athelhampton, or maybe 9.99 because there were no plant sales, and the cafe smelt somewhat of disinfectant.  One review on Tripadvisor does say This was an awful place to visit, yeah good for wedding pics but not much else.  But I am guessing they didn't much like gardens.

I wonder if for next year's holiday I should volunteer my services in an experiment to discover what happens to the human body if it lives entirely on cream teas for a week.


Tuesday, 15 September 2015

what we did on our holidays

We are more than half way through our holiday, and we have not heard from Mr Smith.  That's good.  If he rings on the first day it might be because he can't get the telly to work properly, but after that it means there's been a catastrophe with the house or another cat has died.  We have been extraordinarily lucky with the weather, given that on Sunday night the forecast seemed to be for rain for the rest of the week, and I am equipped with a shiny new computer that doesn't take so long to download a page that I've got time to go and make a cup of tea before it's finished.

On the way down to Dorset we stopped at The Hillier Gardens.  I've wanted to see them for ages. Sir Harold Hillier was one of the great UK nurserymen, and the Hillier manual of trees and shrubs is still a bookshelf staple for gardeners with any serious interest in woody plants.  His one hundred and eighty acre garden near Winchester was gifted to Hampshire County Council and is still run by them.  We duly admired the recently revamped gigantic double herbaceous border, but my favourite bit was the trees, including a small pinetum.  Conifers have been out of fashion ever since being done to death in the 1960s and 70s, but I like them.  I was also greatly taken by the rock garden near the house, which is a real period piece of mid twentieth century design.  If I lived locally I'd get a season ticket and call in every couple of weeks.

We spent a happy morning trundling up and down the Swanage Railway.  This is a preserved line running between Swanage and just north of Corfe.  It very sensibly runs a pretty regular service all week, so that visitors to the area can use it as a method of transport to get around, instead of all trying to park in Swanage, and the Systems Administrator was pleased and surprised that on the Saturday we went they had three different steam engines in service, as well as a vintage diesel. You can break the journey as many times as you like if you buy the right sort of ticket, and so we combined the railway homage with a visit to Corfe Castle, which was picturesquely ruined in the course of the Engish civil war, and is now in the keeping of the National Trust, plus a ball clay museum.  You don't know what ball clay is?  No, neither did we, which is why we needed to go to the Purbeck Mining and Mineral Museum.  It is an extremely malleable type of clay that was used in all sorts of industrial processes, from fine china manufacture to cleaning piano hammers. Transporting it involved an industrial light railway, so the SA was doubly happy.  Swanage town museum is really just an extended display area at the back of the tourist information office, but it brings it home how important the quarrying industry was to Swanage, with great piles of stone awaiting transport by sea piled along the water front into the nineteenth century.

We happened to visit on the weekend of the folk festival, so there were rather a lot of people dressed like gigantic walking rag rugs, and folk costumes of dubious historical accuracy.  No wonder English folk still struggles to be taken serious as a musical form.  Would Tilda Swinton or Dame Judi Dench parade in public in a home made tabard with the contents of the local remnant shop hanging from it in strips?  I think not.

At the point when it looked as though the only dry spell in the rest of the week was going to be Sunday morning we parked at Lulworth Cove, so that we could have a gawp at the cove and then walk along the cliffs for a view of Durdle Door, a natural arch at the next headland.  The Jurassic coast is very beautiful, and the bent and undulating rock strata are amazing when you stop to think about them.  The car park at Lulworth is enormous, and I was grateful to be were visiting early on a Sunday morning in September and not in the height of the holiday season.  Rather bizarrely, the green at Lulworth was forbidden to visitors for the weekend while it was used for some kind of Indian photographic shoot, and we set out on the first stretch of our walk to the accompaniment of loud Bangla music.  There was a dais, flowers, and a lot of chairs, all colour themed in a shade of pinkish brown that put me in mind of a surgical stocking, and the SA thought it must be a wedding, only there was no provision for what to do if it rained, as far as we could see.  Ernest Indian minders chivvied walkers away who strayed from the path and made darts at anyone who seemed to be taking photos.

Then we went to see the remains of the village of Tyneham, a casualty of the last war.  The MoD requisitioned the valley in which it sat for military training, and in 1943 the village was evacuated. The inhabitants were never allowed back.  On weekdays the area is still used for tank training: you can see the target numbers on the hillside above Tyneham, but nowadays the MoD allows access at weekends, and volunteers have got the roof back on the church and the school, and cleared the trees that were growing inside the buildings.  Each cottage has a display about the family that lived there, and there is an exhibition in the church, though I found the combination of black text on a dark wooden ground with a heavy grain, read inside a church without the benefit of any artificial lighting, pretty much unreadable.  On a Sunday afternoon the place was positively bustling with visitors.  I was rather surprised, but there's no reason why we should be the only people to be interested.
After that we went to the Tank Museum at Bovington.  It has a lot of tanks.  Fortunately it has a big introductory section putting the development of the tank into context against other military and political developments, which I found genuinely interesting.  Faced with nothing but a gigantic hanger full of tanks I might have struggled to sustain the requisite degree of interest in horsepower and gun calibres until the SA had seen as much as the SA desired to see, but as it is you don't have to have a boys' toys level of enthusiasm for tanks per se to enjoy your visit.  I was worried as we passed from the first room, which had a lot of tanks, to the gigantic hall further on where it had considerably more, that the SA might not have seen enough of them, but the SA assured me that many were duplicates of the collection at Duxford.

Then came some gardens, but more of them anon.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

happy holidays

We are almost on holiday.  The house is clean and quite tidy in places, my suitcase is mostly packed, and I extracted the six supers of honey that have been sitting in a pile in the study for several days.  They weren't doing any harm, but we've had a bit of bother over the past thirty-six hours with bees finding their way into a super I'd put down in the garage after extraction.  Spinning the frames in my hand cranked centrifuge never gets them completely clean, indeed, no sort of mechanical extraction does.  Some beekeepers put the supers back on the beehives after harvesting the honey, to let the bees clear out the last scraps.  I didn't, because by then I'd started feeding sugar syrup and I didn't want them storing it upstairs.  And because I am an idle beekeeper, or efficient depending on how you look at it, and I didn't feel like pushing the wheelbarrow up and down the meadow and disturbing the bees to put supers on the hives and then take them off again.

I often have the garage door open, and the bees normally ignore the pile of equipment, but yesterday one of us brushed against a stack of supers and dislodged the square of cardboard covering the top one.  A bee must have found its way in, and is the way of bees gone back to the hive to spread the news about the latest food source.  Soon there were a lot of bees, and nothing to be done about it except wait until it was dark for most of them to leave then shut the garage door and cover the pile of supers more securely.  I thought that if a bee somehow found its way into the pile of the boxes in the study, the housesitter would be dealing not just with a lot of bees, but with a veritable Hitchcockian blizzard of them.  Safer and tidier to clear the supers away before tomorrow.

They were back this morning, buzzing around the outside of the garage door as they searched for the bonanza which had been there yesterday.  There were fewer by lunchtime, and by dint of my standing by to open the door and then quickly close it again before too many bees could get in, the Systems Administrator managed to get the lawn tractor out.  Some did get in anyway, but a couple of hours later they'd all gone.  When the door is shut a crack of light shows along the bottom at one end, and I think the bees must head for the light and crawl out.  Just as long as they don't learn to crawl in we'll be fine.

As is my way on holiday, I'll blog about the sights when I have time, which may not be every day. Burglars, do not be misled.  The faithful Mr and Mrs Smith will be here and at home more of the time than we are.  I thought it was very sporting of him to agree to come again, since last year one of the cats dropped dead on his watch.  I have written them a list of instructions, including the name and phone number of a couple of beekeepers, and the advice that if bees do get into the garage he should ignore them until they go away again.  Though I suppose in that case he might have to go out and buy some more chicken food.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

pay attention

I went into Colchester today for a haircut.  Actually, I went yesterday as well, but they seemed surprised to see me and when I looked in my diary I found I'd got the wrong day.  I think that was a fairly spectacular example of directed attention, since I'd already looked in my diary before leaving the house to check what time the appointment was, without noticing the date.  My excuse is that I've had my hair cut on Tuesday for ages, ever since shifting to my current stylist who is both organised and persuasive and so manages to book me in for my next cut in exactly six weeks time every time I see her, instead of allowing me to wander off into the street with my shiny new haircut and then ring her up when I start feeling too shaggy.  This week, however, we were a week early because I'll be away on holiday, and so I was booked in on a Wednesday.  Never mind.

Directed attention is a powerful force.  I wouldn't have believed how powerful, if I hadn't taken part in the gorilla basketball experiment as a naive subject who didn't know what was coming next. You watch a group of people throwing a ball from one to another at speed, with the task of counting the number of passes.  Since I have great difficulty tracking moving balls, and a residual visceral horror of ball throwing games left over from being forced to play netball at school, I found it both cognitively challenging and emotionally charged.  I did not see the actor dressed in a gorilla suit running across the court, and nor did quite a few other people in the audience.  It's a famous experiment, so much so that the lecturer asked people who already knew how it worked not to stick their hands up if they'd seen the gorilla, and the result is the same every time.  Some subjects see the gorilla, but a lot of people don't.  I ceased to trust eye witness testimony at that moment.

There was an entertaining Guardian article on the theme a few days ago by Oliver Burkeman.  A US government study showed that while men do much more childcare and cooking nowadays than they used to, women still do the lion's share of cleaning.  Single men did half as much cleaning as women who lived alone.  Ergo, men have lower hygiene standards than women, or perhaps can't even see the dirt.  What we see is partly determined by what we think is important.  In our house the Systems Administrator does a goodly part of the vacuuming, partly because I hate it so much, but I can't think when I ever saw the SA take a dishcloth to the front of a kitchen cupboard, and dust is definitely an alien concept.  On the other hand, I am quite capable of driving around in a car that's starting to chew its own brake blocks, while the SA would notice the new noise and know to stop driving to avoid a hefty garage bill.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

unwanted growth

Today I chopped back the Boston ivy, Pathenocissus tricuspidata, from the end of the house and the floor of the veranda.  It wasn't planted by us but was already here when we arrived, on the other hand after twenty years we could have taken it out if we'd wanted to.  It is a beautiful climber, which is why I've never had the heart to trace its stems back to their origin and destroy it at the root, but it is rampant.  Really much too rampant.  The best way to display it would be growing up a large tree, where it could rampage to its hearts content and turn the tree in autumn into a waterfall of red leaves, but on a house it is a menace.

The tips of the new shoots look very soft and innocent, and so do the new little leaves when they are only the size of a ten pence coin, but they expand until they are larger than my palm, lobed and shiny in a pleasant shade of mid green.  In autumn they turn a vivid, flaming red.  The flowers are small to the point of being entirely negligible, but are attractive to insects so that in summer the plant hums with foragers.  It clings as it climbs, to anything that it encounters.  Walls, window frames, the very glass of the window, gutters.  The innocent new shoots quickly thicken, and if they creep along underneath window sills or in any other crack they can get into they will lift anything even vaguely movable and cause structural damage as they grow.  The little suckers it uses to climb with are remarkably persistent, and remain visible on brickwork for years after you've pulled the stems off.

I got most of the unwanted stretches off today, other than some which broke away from the main stems at the very top of the south gable end, where we can't reach it without erecting the scaffold we've got for painting the house.  The Systems Administrator managed to dislodge some by twiddling the waving stems around a hoe head while standing balanced on a step ladder and tugging, so at least there aren't strands of it hanging down in front of the dining room window any more, but the topmost parts eluded us.  Alas, the little suckers have stayed stuck to the wood cladding, and past experience has taught us that that's where they'll remain until the next time the wood is sanded and varnished.

The piles of Boston ivy stems across the patio and on the deck outside the study merely added to the other piles of prunings already littered around the garden.  The SA has promised to fire the old tractor up before we go away, and run around the garden with the trailer to collect the debris, and suggested I might as well get on with any other pruning that needed doing so that it could all be collected at the same time.  The old tractor does not start very easily, and has a slow puncture in one tyre which has to be inflated before use, so it feels more worthwhile starting it up for a proper clearing session than to haul one trailer load.  Though given how many wheelbarrow trips a trailer full equates to, there are times when I'd be happy to get the tractor out even for a single trailer's worth of stuff destined for the bonfire heap.

I took some more off the shrub roses that tilted out over the lawn this spring.  It wasn't a final, loving, shaping, definitive prune, but I was sure I didn't want that much long growth sticking out over the grass.  Escaping tentacles of 'Paul's Himalayan Musk' were added to the pile, and the seed heads of some clumps of Acanthus spinosus I know I want to reduce this autumn, purely to get them out of the way.  I took the top off an elder bush that had sprouted prodigiously by the conservatory, and was casting shade where it wasn't wanted and looming over the potted Fatsia jaonica (which is looking so much greener and better after several doses of fish, blood and bone).  It feels slightly like putting the proverbial cart before the horse to go round chopping pieces off shrubs in order to fill up a trailer, but they were all things that I knew needed reducing.  I've warned the SA, though, there's going to be a lot more where that came from this winter, once I get stuck into pruning properly.

Monday, 7 September 2015

before the holiday

By the time we get away on holiday I'll need one.  I have washed all the paintwork in the hall, and sorted out the mess in the laundry which I'd been meaning to do for ages.  Going through the random collection of stuff that had accumulated on the shelf above the washing machine, I found that we possessed two sink plungers, three partly used bottles of auto screen wash, two bird seed feeders (one large, one small), and three sponges, while a very dusty container on the floor turned out to be premium car soap.  That must belong to the Systems Administrator, since my car is never washed with anything more luxurious than a splash of Ecover washing up liquid.  But I did find an electronic soil testing kit inside a shoebox, which must be mine.  I haven't yet worked out any way of calibrating it to see if it actually works, though if it told me that dilute vinegar or lemon juice were alkali that would be proof that it didn't.

I picked up a tartan wool scarf that the SA used to wear for sailing, thinking it might do for walking and wood cutting in the winter if I washed it, and found it riddled with holes, and the rectangular casings of some stage of the life cycle of some kind of wool eating insect.  That's bad.  That's very bad.  I put the remains of the scarf in a bin bag, and put the bag straight outside, and scrubbed the shelf with copious amounts of disinfectant, hoping that whatever it was had liked the scarf so much that it hadn't bothered colonising elsewhere.

This evening the beekeepers are supposed to be coming round for a committee meeting, though the Secretary hasn't sent the agenda out.  I got a phone call from the Membership Secretary at around teatime, asking whether there was a meeting tonight, and I had to tell her that my recollection was that we'd fixed on this evening at the last meeting, and certainly I'd told them they couldn't come next week because we'd be on holiday, but I hadn't actually received an agenda.  She hasn't rung back since to say that it's off, so presumably whoever else she spoke to also expected it to be tonight.  At least hosting it just before we go away means that we had to clean the sitting room anyway, but I didn't have time to make any cake and they'll have to make do with chocolate biscuits from Budgens.

Meanwhile it is an extraordinarily beautiful evening, with that rich, early autumn light.  I feel sorry for the chickens, because they would like to come out for a run and the SA would be willing to supervise them, but we can't have them milling around the drive just as cars start arriving for the committee meeting.  They aren't used to traffic, and we don't want them scattering and hiding in the undergrowth for hours, let alone getting run over.  As it is we have to be increasingly careful when starting our cars that the short indignant tabby isn't sitting underneath, because she's as deaf as a post.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

mass development plans

A leaflet about planning appeared on the doormat this morning.  It must have been delivered on foot, since I was around all the time and never heard a car, but I never saw anybody.  It's a slightly unsettling thought that somebody walked up the drive, left something in our hall and departed, pausing to shut the rabbit gate behind them, and neither of us noticed.

MASS DEVELOPMENT PLANS IN AND AROUND GREAT BROMLEY said the headline.  You didn't have to read the rest of the leaflet to know that it would be against the idea of housebuilding in Great Bromley rather than setting out ways in which mass development in Great Bromley could be made a creative response to the UK housing crisis.  As you drive through the local villages you can spot where housing developments are planned by the protest signs in the front gardens.  I don't know where the parents and grandparents live of all the people who can't afford to buy a house, or even rent more than a room in a shared house, but they can't live around here.  Nobody ever wants housebuilding, it seems.

Tendring is on the back foot when it comes to proposals for new housing, because it failed to adopt a local plan, and in some way that I don't fully grasp this has created open season in the district for housebuilders.  A new plan is underway, which is a revised version of the previous plan that failed to get adopted.  I did start reading it online, but found it so stunningly dull that I gave up at the point where I learnt that our village was regarded as unsustainable and unsuitable for more than very limited housebuilding.  Unsustainability in planning terms means that having no railway station, no school, no shops, virtually no jobs and a tiny village hall with parking space for no more than four vehicles constitutes a barrier to expansion.  It doesn't actually mean that the place is about to fall into the sea.

However there is now a proposal afoot for something called Tendring Central Garden Village, which would fill in the rectangle of land between the Clacton road, the A120 and the Manningtree road with two and a half thousand houses, and stick a new industrial area the other side of the link from the Clacton road up to the A120.  That's Option 3 out of four, the others being new developments at Weeley, north West Clacton, or increasing urban density.  The deadline for comments to the planning department is 13th October.

I was left scratching my head as to quite who had drawn up the list of options.  Did it emanate from the council, or were they merely summarising the proposals they'd had from private sector developers during the current Local Plan hiatus?  The leaflet didn't really explain, since its central message was that Great Bromley were against it, along with Clacton and Weeley.  Option 3 was in a non sustainable location because there was no infrastructure, no rail link, and it would result in a major loss of grade 1 and grade 2 agricultural land.  And be horrid for the people already living in what was currently a semi rural location, only the leaflet didn't say that.

I sympathise with them on the latter point, if it goes ahead.  Looking at the map I could see the triangle of land currently occupied by a beekeeper I know, living with his mother in the house his grandfather built back in the 1930s.  And it's a tricky thing, building on good agricultural land. Once it's gone, it's gone.

But there would be a good road link, and residents would be able to access the A12 and A14 without going through Colchester.  As for rail, there is no station at Frating Green or Great Bromley, but there is at Weeley.  Where, as the Systems Administrator said, there would be room to expand the car park and turn it into what is in train parlance called a Parkway.  Upgrade the through service to London, and as well as serving the new development you could take pressure off the traffic to Wivenhoe and Colchester stations.  As for schools, GP surgeries, community centres and the rest of it, I presume you build them when you are building that many new houses.

It's very difficult.  If Tendring Central Garden Village were going to be next to us I'd be horrified. I'd protest to the planning department and sign petitions and everything on purely selfish grounds (though there wouldn't be a lot of point in putting up posters because nobody except the postman and the odd delivery driver would see them.  And the dustmen).  But the suggested site is as far from us as Wivenhoe, and Wivenhoe doesn't bother us.  And people need to live somewhere.  We're OK in that we already own a house.  It was put up sixty years ago in a thoroughly unsustainable location that leaves us dependent on car travel, and we like the big garden and the rural location very much, thank you.  Is it right for us to protest against other people being given the chance to buy or rent their own houses with gardens?

Saturday, 5 September 2015

cleanliness is next to godliness

Today was a bit of a lost day in my life, because I spent it cleaning.  Vacuuming is so much less interesting than weeding the borders, or pruning (or practically anything that involves being outside with plants and not stuck inside with a vacuum cleaner), but it has to be done eventually.  Or in this case, by Monday because that's when the beekeeping committee is coming round, and then more thoroughly by Friday, because that's when the housesitter arrives, and he will see more of the house, and by daylight.  None of the committee should go through the laundry and down to the garage, not unless they've taken a wrong turning trying to find the loo.

In fact, vacuuming has to be one of my least favourite domestic tasks.   I don't mind ironing.  I can listen to music while I do it, and there's something quite satisfying about the growing pile of smooth and tidy clothes.  I enjoy cooking, especially when I'm allowed to stick to my specialities of baked and boiled things, with no attempt to coordinate a dozen different dishes to be ready at the same time.  Full roasts and all the trimmings I leave to the Systems Administrator.  I don't even mind wiping cupboard fronts too much.  Again, I can listen to the radio, and it doesn't take very much wiping to make cream coloured units look substantially better, so the results are almost instant. But vacuuming...

The flex always tangles round everything going.  My legs, the furniture, the body of the vacuum cleaner.  It would tangle itself round the cat if he didn't run for cover.  Just as I've got into some sort of rhythm the motor cuts out, red light flashing, because the dust box is full or the filter is blocked with cat fur.  The flap over the dust box does not open easily, and I'm always afraid I've pulled it too hard and snapped some little plastic tab so that it will never stay shut in future, while we attempt to hold it closed with gaffer tape.  Then the flap doesn't want to close again, and I'm seized with the same anxiety.  The cord decides to reel itself right in before I've finished.  And it's noisy so I can't listen to music.  The SA overcomes this problem by wearing earphones, and when we had the old vacuum cleaner which was really noisy would top them off with orange chainsaw ear protectors.  I don't like wearing earphones, so am left listening to the vacuum cleaner.

And it is an endless job.  No matter how thoroughly I think I've chased into every corner, round every skirting board and moulding, as soon as I stop hoovering I see more fluff, and even more as soon as I put the machine away.  Cat fur, pieces of gravel, dead spiders, odd leaves, fragments of firewood that fell through the bottom of the log basket, human hair.  Dust (which is largely dead skin).  Vacuuming is like the toil of Sisyphus.

Thrusting the nozzle (without the brush attachment) into the narrow gap between a CD rack and the wall, I heard an ominous rattle, and then the note of the motor changed.  It had sucked something up.  I switched it off and peered into the end of the tube, then prodded experimentally with my finger.  It was completely blocked about two inches from the end by something shiny and flat, that fitted so snugly it could have been made for the job.  I wasn't sure if it looked black because it was, or because it was transparent and I could see the inside of the nozzle through it.  I tapped it, and the noise was more plastic than glass, but I couldn't work out what the hell it was, or if it would matter if I broke it in the course of getting it out.  Indeed, I couldn't initially think how I was going to get it out.

You cannot rod a vacuum cleaner tube with an eight foot bamboo cane.  It will not bend around the curve in the nozzle, and if I'd looked at the problem properly I'd have been able to see that without wasting my time trying.  I tried levering the blockage out with a pair of scissors, which succeeded in scraping the top and lifting a triangle of foil to reveal a white, expanded plastic looking surface beneath.  I dug into the white plastic with a sharp vegetable knife, and eventually managed to extract what turned out to be the screw top lid from a bottle.

I hate vacuuming.