Monday, 30 November 2015

digital dinosaur

Mark Kermode does not possess a single Apple device, as he reminded us a couple of times during the discussion of the new Steve Jobs film in the Kermode and Mayo Film Review programme.  The Systems Administrator and I both have iPods, but no other objects from the great temple of Apple, and the only reason we have iPods is that there isn't anything else on the market that's as handy for storing and playing digital music.  But ye gods, iTunes is annoying.

My iPod is very old, so ancient that by now it probably qualifies as a piece of retro chic and I ought to flog it on eBay.  The reason it still works, apart perhaps from luck, is the fact that as I loathe wearing earphones it lives in a docking station in the kitchen, and I only use it when I'm doing anything in the kitchen that would benefit from some musical accompaniment.  Cooking, or cleaning as I was today, but not using the kitchen table as an office space when the study is too cold or my actual desk buried under a layer of mess.  My old laptop was very ancient as well, and updating the iPod was a hit and miss affair, so I hadn't bothered for about two years, but today as I cleaned the kitchen I decided it would be nice to have some new stuff on the iPod.

I explained to the Systems Administrator that I wanted to tackle the iPod question and would need help, which would count as the last part of my birthday present, and the SA bravely rallied to the cause.  It was not Steve Jobs' fault that it was so long since I'd synched my iPod with my music library that I couldn't find the connection cable, or that the first cable I managed to find in my very untidy cupboard did not have a USB connector at the non-iPod end, but something else so vintage it was not compatible with any computer still being made.  But apart from those aggravations, everything about iTunes is designed for digital natives and not to be obvious to a middle aged non Apple fan who hasn't attempted to update their digital music library for over two years.

I don't even buy music as digital downloads, being a complete dinosaur.  I like CDs.  I like having a physical thing that I own, can lend to people or bequeath to my heirs, that will play when put in any stereo system, without my having to remember a password or work out how to transfer my rights to it from a practically dead laptop to a new one.  Since CDs first came out there have been dark mutterings that they would physically degrade with time, but all of mine are still working so far.  There's the odd technical mishap, generally when you open the case and discover that the CD isn't actually in it, but it's a pretty foolproof system.  Meanwhile the Systems Administrator's computer has lost part of the SA's digital music library, or rather hidden it.

We soon gave up on the idea of transferring the iTunes library from my old computer to the new one.  The old computer was so slow to start up, goodness knows how long it would have taken to copy the data over or how corrupted it would have become in the process.  It was getting fairly garbled anyway, and it seemed better to start with a clean sheet and copy CDs I want to listen to now on to the new laptop, wipe the iPod clean and synch it to the rebuilt library.  iTunes do not make it easy to do any of this.  It did not want to download CDs.  Why would it, when I could be buying music from iTunes at 79 pence per track?  Through a combination of trial and error and checking on internet forums the SA established that I needed to open file manager after inserting each disc to prompt iTunes to recognise its existence, then must use the eject function in iTunes to remove the disc after copying, not press the release button on the end of the laptop, otherwise it wouldn't know the disc had gone or have anything to do with the next one.  As to how you synch your iPod with iTunes, you just synch it.  There is no help button, no explanatory phrase that comes up as you hover your cursor over the right icon on the screen, nothing.  Younger people have grown up knowing this stuff, and middle aged women who want to listen to the Talking Heads while cleaning the Aga have no business trying to operate a last model but thirteen iPod.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

ten thousand steps

I don't think I reached my ten thousand steps today.   It drizzled and spotted with rain all morning, and while I got out into the garden in the afternoon it was too dark to see what I was pulling up or treading on by a quarter to four.

I don't actually have any idea how many steps I take, since I don't possess a Fitbit or any other fitness tracker.  I yelped with laughter at David Sedaris' account of his adventures with a Fitbit, but afterwards felt even less inclined to own one than I had before.  I'm not sure I want to take something as simple and pleasant as moving about and turn it into a target.  I'm left deeply sceptical about fitness trackers by the reports showing divergence of up to thirty per cent by different trackers measuring exactly the same day's worth of activity.  I don't suppose it could cope with measuring crawling about and standing up and getting down a lot.  I don't particularly want to share my personal and medical data with the makers of fitness trackers.  I can think of lots more amusing ways of spending fifty or a hundred quid.  I expect there are some more reasons, but that'll do for starters.

Out of interest I counted the steps to the post box when I walked up to post a letter yesterday morning, or rather, I lost track of the number of hundreds I'd notched up on the way there and counted the steps back, curling up a finger at each passing hundred.  I can see why rosary beads came in useful, trying to keep track of all those Hail Marys.  It's around six hundred paces from our front door to the post box, presumably fewer if you're taller, so the round trip of twelve hundred steps was equivalent to roughly an eighth of all the movement I needed to do all day.  That didn't seem very demanding, since it doesn't take long to walk to the post box.

From the front door to the bottom of the garden is a hundred steps, give or take, so that's another two per cent of the daily target each time I get as far as the ditch bed and realise I've forgotten my bucket or left my secateurs in the hall.  It's about seventy from the front door to the compost bin, so emptying the green waste caddy to make space for tonight's potato peelings added another 1.4 per cent.  I haven't been up to the beehives in the last couple of days to count the steps, but it must be at least twice as far as it is to the bottom of the garden.  I could be pushing ten per cent of my daily target just doing the bees, as soon as I needed to do any to-ing and fro-ing with equipment.

The Systems Administrator does not have a Fitbit either, and is not getting one for Christmas, but thought that ten thousand steps sounded a lot.  Expressed as the time you would need to spend going for a brisk walk it does sound quite a lot, as we worked it out to be around an hour and a half.  Anyone with a full time job and a commute would be hard pressed to fit in an hour and half's walk seven days a week.  But as I understand it the ten thousand includes all steps, including simply moving around your own house or office, which could come to as much as five thousand, leaving only five thousand extra or four trips to the post box to get to ten.  Though if you are David Sedaris the ten thousand target doesn't stand for long before you start upping it.

If you carry stuff while walking I'm sure that should count as extra.  A hundred steps uphill to the compost heap carrying a builder's bucket full of wet leaves has to be worth more than a gentle unladen stroll on the flat.  Anyway, I am still not going to get a Fitbit.  As long as I keep on gardening and wandering about outside when it's not raining that should be enough exercise.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

rain stopped play

Winter looks so much more inviting when the sun is shining.  I returned to cutting the edges of the lower lawn, and disentangling the remains of the yellow flowered climbing Dicentra scandens out of the Magnolia stellata in the ditch bed.  The Dicentra bloomed for weeks, well into the autumn, but two frosty nights finally put an end to it.  It isn't a plant you often see for sale, suggesting it is not easy to keep in pots, but several catalogues offer the seed, which is how I got mine.  It dies back completely each winter then makes yards of growth pretty rapidly in the spring, and I can imagine that in a garden centre setting it would busily grow into its neighbours then break when anybody tried to move it, making it physically difficult to sell.  It can't be that nobody else likes it, since who would not like a climber with dainty glaucous leaves generously studded with lemon coloured lockets usefully late in the year?  People who don't like yellow flowers, I suppose.

It was a disappointment to realise that after the morning's promising start it had begun to rain while I was eating my lunch.  I knew rain was forecast, but not until after dark.  That could be the last I manage to do in the garden for a while, since the rest of the Met Office five day forecast is for rain.  So much for dreams of finishing cutting the edges.  Admittedly I didn't just do edges this morning, I picked leaves out of the ditch bed and raked more leaves off the lawn, and weeded out rogue Herb Robert seedlings and scraps of grass from the ditch bed.  The pointed snouts of the snowdrops are already showing above the soil, and the sooner I can get everything done in that bed, including cutting back the overhanging willow branches, the better.  If only it would not rain.  The Systems Administrator trying to cheer me up pointed out that the forecast might be wrong, and I suppose it might be.  Here's hoping.

Instead I turned to the thorny task of tidying up my desk.  Step one, which was to literally tidy the desk, was easy, as I simply took everything off the desk and put it on the floor, then wiped the accumulated dust and fluff away with a clean dishcloth.  Step two, which is to sort out the pile of mess on the floor, is taking a little longer, though I'm making progress.  We have a great many A4 envelopes.  I don't know why we have so many, but put them in a box which made me feel better. Manuscript notes of past music society committee meetings which have since been typed up and circulated could go in the paper recycling, along with a couple of 2005 magazines that I'd been using to adjust the angle of my projector until somebody showed me how to use the screw under the projector table, and an invitation to a FTSE 100 company AGM that had already passed and that I wouldn't have attended anyway.  That made me feel better as well.

I found two more stashes of seeds, including two packets of Hesperis matronalis.  More sweet rocket, just what I don't need, but some fresh seed of Cosmos 'Sensation' mixed will be useful, though one packet would have been sufficient and I unearthed two.  I wish garden magazines would vary their free seeds a bit more.  There was another packet of oxeye daisies, and I grew some this summer from seed that came with Amateur Gardening, while I've got more packets of sweet pea seed than anybody could use unless they were going in for commercial cut flower production.

Some things I was hoping would turn up haven't yet.  I bought a birthday card at one of the London galleries that was just right for somebody, and even showed it cock-a-hoop to the Systems Administrator when I got home, but it isn't in my box of greetings cards or the top drawer of my filing tray.  Their birthday is fairly soon so that's a bit of a nuisance, since my chances of finding anything as good in Colchester are slim.  And the hard work of filing things I need to keep has barely started, since all I've managed so far is to punch holes in them for the lever arch files.  Still, if it does rain for the next four days I'll have plenty of time to sort it all out.

Friday, 27 November 2015

taking stock of the seeds

Today was a cold, damp day.  I decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and did not go and finish cutting the lawn edges, instead spending the afternoon sorting out my accumulated packets of seeds.  A slight snuffle and catch at the back of the throat, and vaguely aching neck and a sensation of clamminess, left me with the nasty feeling that I was a hair's breadth from going down with a cold, and since I had the option of keeping warm and dry I thought I might as well take it.  The Systems Administrator admitted to feeling the same, so I think we both have a touch of something.  Perhaps we are just turning into a pair of hypochondriacs.

Many of the seeds came free with magazines and are by their nature a mixed bunch.  Some will come in useful and I'll sow them next year.  Some are of plants I like but already have growing in the garden.  I may not need more, or the ones I have may self seed so generously that I don't have to sow them again.  Sweet rocket is great, but when you've planted it once your future interventions will probably be to weed out unwanted plants, not to raise more.  Then there are some varieties I wouldn't give house room to.  Everything that's worth keeping is now packed away in a mouse proof plastic storage box down in the cool of the garage.

I saved my own seeds from two sorts of Watsonia, the splendid bright red Papaver bracteatum, and Cephalaria gigantea.  I harvested some Belamcanda seed as well, but have already sown them since they were huge, fleshy, and looked as though they would dry out before the February sowing. Garden centres and catalogues will try to sell you brown paper packets with cute designs on for your home collected seed at some exorbitant sum for ten envelopes, but I simply keep the return envelopes from catalogues and charity mail shots.

Some seed is not worth keeping.  I chucked out this year's parsnip seed, since fresh germinates so much better than year old, and any packets dated earlier than 2014 other than poppies.  Magazines keep giving away poppy seed, and I've accumulated several varieties each of Papaver rhoeas, the common field poppy, and P. somniferum, the opium poppy.  Next year I should simply chuck them all down on the gravel and see what comes up.

There are a few packets of things I've bought and not sown.  That's annoying, since as the saying goes they won't grow in the packet.  The problem comes with seeds meant for direct sowing, when it seemed a good idea in January to order them, and then the place where they were meant to be sown was not ready come the summer.  Tiny seeds tend to last longer than bigger ones, but apart from the notorious short lived species like parsnips it's generally worth trying seed next year if you didn't manage to sow it this.  I got a generous crop of Verbascum chaixii var. album this year from a packet I opened in 2014 and sowed half which totally failed to germinate.  I must have got the watering wrong at some key point.

My tiny bulblets of the suicide lily, Gladioulus flanaganii, are safely tucked away in an envelope as well.  The foliage began to die down as autumn approached, so I let the pots dry out to avoid rotting the bulbs, but had visions of going out to the greenhouse one morning and finding mice had excavated the dry pots and eaten the bulblets.  I will repot them and start them back into growth next spring, probably mixing some extra grit into the compost to make absolutely sure that it drains OK.  About March seems to be the consensus for when to do this.

In the meantime everything has been entered on to a spreadsheet sorted into perennials, hardy annuals, half hardy annuals, biennials, and vegetables and herbs, along with a note of the seed source and age.  It should prevent me from ordering things only to realise that I've already got a packet, and with any luck will discourage me from ordering too much by reminding me how many packets I already have.  It is so easy to get totally carried away with seed catalogues, overlooking the fact that every packet requires space in the propagator for a pot to sow it, then a tray to prick the seedlings out, then room to stand the young plants when they need potting on, and time to do all that sowing and pricking and potting.  But it's a very pleasant way of passing a few winter evenings, imagining all those plants.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

echoes of war

Today the Systems Administrator and I played London tourists, and went to see the Churchill War Rooms.  We've been meaning to go for a while, indeed in April of last year we got as far as the pavement outside, and were so put off by the length of the queue that we decided to leave it to another day.  November, we agreed, would be our best bet, after half term when the days are short and dark, and people might be thinking more about Christmas than military history.  We slipped a year, but we made it.

The rooms form an intricate basement network underneath what was judged in the run up to WWII to be the most solidly built office in Whitehall.  They had barely been kitted out by the time Germany invaded Poland and we were at war, and so Britain's war effort was planned and directed from a spartan rabbit warren beneath Whitehall.  After the end of the war they fell into damp and disuse, before being resurrected as a museum in the 1980s.  The core of the complex is the Map Room, where pins stuck in world maps on the walls were used to chart the progress of hostilities on all fronts, and you can see the room where the cabinet met, and the small room containing the secure telephone Churchill used to speak to the US president.  Playing rather brilliantly on the English sense of embarrassment, that was disguised as Churchill's loo to discourage staff from loitering outside.  There's the switchboard, Churchill's kitchen and dining room, bedrooms and offices, and odd details like a frame on the walls where a description of the weather above ground was posted.  'Windy' meant there was an air raid going on.

A dedicated Churchill museum has been tacked on the side, opened more recently by the Queen. That starts with the years of the second world war, then backtracks to his early life and postwar career.  The WWII section is frankly confusing since the war was simply too big and too complicated to address in so little space or time, so there are some good Churchillian bon mots but very little sense of what was going on, apart from the fact that Churchill was a great orator, which most visitors would know anyway.  The early and late years section is more interesting.  I did not know that when our present Queen attended Churchill's funeral she was the first British monarch to have ever been to a commoner's funeral.  And the early years section bring it home that Churchill was a Victorian, born in 1874.  If sometimes he sounds like a dinosaur or a boor I must remember that he was a Victorian upper class Englishman, and that the past was indeed another country.

The war rooms are part of the Imperial War Museum, and from there we went to the main IWM site in Lambeth.  The museum has recently had a major refurbishment, and seems jolly good once you get past the initial confusing lack of signs on the way in.  We thought it had to have a cafe, but had to ask where it was.  A keen and enthusiastic man who I think must have been a volunteer tried to press a membership leaflet upon us, but I explained that the SA already was a member, and the leaflet man positively beamed.

Our first stop after the cafe was the exhibition of Lee Miller's war photographs.  I was keen to see them since encountering Lee Miller in her role as surrealist muse in the National Portrait Gallery's Man Ray exhibition.  It seemed a long step from hanging out with surrealists in Paris to becoming a Vogue photographer to war photography.  She had an interesting life.  The SA could not understand why nobody had made a film of it, and somebody should.  I nominate Cate Blanchett for the mature Lee.

Then we went around the First World War galleries, which are extremely well done, managing to present the fighting war and the home front as parallel but connected threads.  There is much more there than anybody could really absorb in half an afternoon, but entry to the permanent galleries is free.  Of course the trouble with exhibitions that are both free and permanent is that there seems all the time in the world to go and see them, so one doesn't as visits to exciting temporary exhibitions rise to the top of one's list of things to do.

I recommend the Imperial War Museum.  It has a double handicap in image terms, what with the negative connotations of both 'imperial' and 'war' but it is very interesting, or at least the bits we saw today were.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

a garden room

It was not raining, and I let the chickens out after lunch.  It was cold, though.  While we were eating lunch the buzzard soared lazily past over the ploughed lettuce field, and we thought that it was pretty good to be able to look out of your kitchen window and see a buzzard.  I'm not sure the hens took the same view.  They were slow to come out of their run, and scuttled almost immediately into the shelter of the Eleagnus hedge, where they amused themselves scratching among the dead leaves.  I couldn't always see them, but I could hear them burbling to each other. It was a relief to be able to get on with weeding the gravel along the bottom of the hedge, a job which needed doing, instead of having to play hunt the hen around the garden as one or another wandered off.  I might have the buzzard to thank for that too, since I could hear the occasional faint, wild cry from somewhere downwind.

Meanwhile the neighbours are going to have a summerhouse.  Or at least we think that's what they're planning.  A couple of days ago a digger appeared and scooped out a rectangular area of soil in their field, about as far from their house as it's possible to get and just the other side of our hedge.  We wondered at first if it was going to be a wildlife pond, but apart from the fact that nobody would make one rectangular, the flat bottom and lack of any attempt to level the sides made it look more like the base for a building.  They were scrupulous about putting in for planning permission for their garage block, so we assumed that whatever it was going to be must fall into the permissible temporary structures category.  Unless the aggravation of dealing with the local planning department was so bad last time that they decided they couldn't stand doing it again. There are lots of temporary structures in the gardens of the various houses dotted around the farm, some of which probably sail quite close to the wind in planning terms, and we have all adopted a live and let live attitude.

Today, just as I was about to go out, a low loader appeared in their field with a large black box on the back of it.  I eyed up the lorry with some misgivings and a feeling of You don't want to put that there, mate.  When I worked at the plant centre a lorry got stuck after reversing over grass to the polytunnels to unload, and finding itself unable to return up a much more modest slope than the one in our neighbour's field, and we managed to get our old builders' truck spectacularly stuck in the edge of the wood, trying to retrieve firewood.  Lorries do not operate well on wet grass and any kind of a slope.

I decided to escape quickly before they discovered that the lorry was stuck and the lane filled up with rescue vehicles, and when I got home a couple of hours later learned that my dark suspicions had been right.  The lorry had indeed been unable to get back up the grass slope to the farm track, and was eventually towed free by a couple of the tractors from the farm, the lads from the farm apparently finding rescuing lorries much more exciting than lettuces, and the lane had been blocked for chunks of the duration.  The mysterious black box was still sitting on the grass several yards from the levelled ground where it was supposed to go.

The Systems Administrator's theory was that the black box did not contain the neighbours' new summerhouse, it was their new garden room.  The box had a sliding panel on one side and a white logo on the other, and the SA had looked up the logo and discovered it was part of the fashion company the neighbour works for.  The SA's best guess was that the box had been previously used as a pop up shop, or on fashion shoots, or something, and our neighbour had got it cheap to recycle it as a room in the garden.  Which is quite ingenious, not to say ecologically sound, if that's the case. Once it's in place (however they manage to do that) we'll scarcely see it, except that we'll have to ask them if we may paint over the logo or cover it with black plastic, otherwise it's going to be distractingly visible through the hedge all winter.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

style icon from the ankles down

I have discovered that for once I am near the forefront of fashion, or at least ahead of the Guardian's fashion pages.  I don't look at those so often since the reliably entertaining and caustic Hadley Freeman went on maternity leave, so it took me a few days to notice the article Snow business: how weather proof boots went high fashion.  Celebrities have finally embraced the notion of wearing outdoor shoes that don't leak, specifically the Sorel brand.  Cue much cardunculus smugness, who bought a pair of Sorels, specifically some 'shorter and more subtle' ones, that are now being worn 'all day and in the city by celebrities and street-style stars'.  Blimey.

Admittedly I only heard of Sorel because they were mentioned in a newspaper article about weatherproof footwear, quite possibly in the Guardian.  I checked their website and while some of the boots looked too much as though I'd come in from the ski slopes or just put my chainsaw down for a minute, some were subfusc enough that I could imagine wearing them in the West End.  And buying winter boots by mail order is easier than it would be to buy court shoes or sandals, because you are going to wear them with socks anyway, so you can adjust the final fit to the last couple of millimetres by choosing socks of the right thickness.

It is a long-standing gripe of mine that so many women's shoes are designed and manufactured on the basis that women do not need to walk any further than the totter up the red carpet from the taxi to the dining table.  It annoyed me that when I worked in an office I ended up having to wear court shoes, because that was what looked the part with the suit or the tailored dress, and that however carefully I chose them the ruddy things gave me corns.  The day I ceased working in an office and never wore court shoes again except to rare formal functions like weddings, I ceased to have corns.  I rest my case, it was the shoes.

I would sometimes ask the Systems Administrator, or male friends and colleagues I knew well enough to have that sort of conversation, how far they could walk in their shoes before their feet hurt.  Or got blisters, or bled.  They would look at me oddly.  Apparently men can walk around in their everyday office shoes all day and not get sore feet.  And how much did it have to rain before their shoes leaked?  Most women's shoes leak as soon as it rains.  Even brands like Clarks that I thought of as sensible to the point of dullness (apart from their desert boots, which are classics) put disclaimers on most of their shoes that they were not guaranteed weatherproof.

The thing is, in the UK it rains quite a lot.  It rains even on days when it is not forecast to rain.  And most of us do not travel door to door by limousine, and some of us even enjoy walking.  London is a great world city, and one of the finest ways to see it is on foot.  Liverpool Street to Trafalgar Square takes about three quarters of an hour, and gets you a lot closer to your ten thousand steps than taking the bus, but it is no fun in wet feet.  I made this mistake the last time I went to London, when it was not forecast to rain and I did not wear the Sorels.

I had independent endorsement for the Sorels during our holiday, as I stood in a car park feeding change into the ticket machine, and the woman behind me in the queue said that she liked my boots.  I thanked her, and told her the brand name.  Sorel, I said, they are Canadian.  You can buy them by mail order.  And now they have been endorsed in the Guardian as well as the Blandford Forum public car park.  I'm on a fashion roll.

Monday, 23 November 2015

winter's preliminary blast

Winter is here.  There's been frost on the grass for the past two mornings, and I've been shutting the greenhouse and the conservatory at night.  The colder weather takes some getting used to.  I turned the radiator on in our room a couple of days ago.  The central heating is on a timer so it gives a burst in the evening and early morning, to take the chill off as we go to bed and get up again.  I have added an old Musto base layer thermal polo neck to my gardening garb which was standing at two t-shirts, and a pair of clean thermal leggings to my evening attire.  They are different to my gardening thermals, which I live in for all except the warmest months partly for the extra padding when crawling about.  The indoor thermals are not any smarter or more glamorous than the outdoor ones, but it is off putting as you relax in front of the stove after a hard day's gardening to realise that a vague smell of earth and vegetation is rising up from your nether regions.

The cats have responded in their own way by suddenly doubling the amount they eat.  Having a larger surface area to body mass ratio than us they are sensitive to cold, and become ravenous as soon as the thermometer drops.  I wouldn't say they were sitting in front of the Aga more than usual, as they'll do that any time, apart from a heatwave.

The chickens just look miserable standing in their run.  There is something intimidating about the thought of letting them out to roam round the garden at this time of year, and knowing that once they have come out you are irrevocably committed to staying in the garden with them, however cold it gets, until dusk approaches and they choose to go in again.  But in reality I'm going to stay in the garden until it gets dark anyway, if it's not raining.  I should let them out.  They don't want to have to stay in their run all the time until next spring, poor things.  It seems pretty rubbish being a hen in the winter.

And this is just the beginning.  There's another three or four months to go.  I'm hoping my hypothalamus will kick in soon and crank up my metabolism, so that it can start converting food to warmth, and I can eat more like the cats while feeling toasty warm instead of simply becoming fatter.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

a concert

I went this afternoon to the second of my music society's series of winter concerts.  We had a string quartet, very nice, joined for the latter part of the performance by an extra violist.  I am not sure I knew that somebody who played the viola was called a violist, but that's how he's described in the programme.  The quartet were the Eeden Quartet, formerly called the Wu after their first violin, Ms Wu, who has left.  First violinists do seem a starry lot with a tendency to move.  Far better if you are a young up-and-coming quartet to name yourselves after a composer who is safely dead, or their birthplace, or some moniker you can stick with notwithstanding changes in personnel.

The Eeden all looked absurdly young, which is merely a sign that I am getting absurdly older since they are well established musicians who have performed at the Wigmore Hall and in the BBC Proms and all sorts of places.  The extra violist Graham Oppenheimer was even better established, having played with the likes of the Lindsay, and holding several music management and teaching positions. It was a great treat to hear them in a church in Suffolk instead of having to schlep up to London. They played Haydn's Dream Quartet, Mozart's String Quintet in C, and Brahms String Quintet no 2 in G major.  I love Haydn, who always sounds so cheerful about life, and was grateful to the committee member who is nudging his way towards becoming Concert Secretary if the Chairman has anything to do with it for the inclusion of the Brahms.  Maybe I should start lobbying for Franck's Violin Sonata, I don't mind whether the violin version or the arrangement for cello, but I think I sit below the salt when it comes to programming.

The church was very cold, and at the AGM that followed the concert the verger warned us that it was likely to be even colder by the time of the next concert in January.  The original system was to use the church for the first and last concerts of the season, and hold the others in the village hall where there is some hope of the heating nudging the hall close to what would normally be considered room temperature.  In the church there is no hope at all, even with the central heating on.  I did feel it was rather a waste when I had changed out of my gardening clothes into a quite upmarket black polo neck sweater, tunic dress and natty black jacket, that all anybody could see of my outfit for the entire evening was my polo neck and my boots, because I never took my greatcoat off.  I kept my hat on for the actual performance, only removing it for the interval tea and the AGM because it seemed to be making the point too emphatically that the room was freezing to stand there drinking tea in a hat.

The village hall presents two difficulties.  One is that as the fire regulations have tightened the effective capacity has shrunk.  We'd have barely fitted tonight's audience in the hall, and it would be sad to have to turn people away at the door.  Besides, we need the gate money.  Rising quartets and internationally respected violists cost more than we'd get if we sold every seat in the village hall at full price, which we don't because there's a loyal core of season ticket holders.  Sponsorship plugs the gap, but the music society still needs bums on seats, and sometimes those seats need to be a freezing pew.

I took the minutes of the AGM, since taking minutes is one of the few tangible things I actually do on the committee, beyond making cheese straws and helping move chairs about.  They will make perfect sense once the Chairman has helped fill in the gaps for the real names of some of the proposers and seconders.  Seconded by the wife of the tall, thin man who lives in Lawford won't really do.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

a lecture

Today was the Essex branch of Plant Heritage's big annual lecture, the Helen Robinson Memorial Lecture.  It was held at Writtle College, in a lecture theatre that wasn't there in my time.  I wasn't entirely sure whether to go, since Writtle is on the far side of Chelmsford and the A12 is a horrible road, too small to cope with the volume of traffic and with slip roads that are too short for joining traffic to merge safely with the flow.  The resulting litany of multi-vehicle collisions and long tailbacks is reported in the local papers with grim regularity.

If it had been a nicer day I'd have probably stayed at home and got on with the garden, while if it had been a nastier day I'd have decided not to bother with the drive.  But as it was a Goldilocks, not too dry but not too windy and wet sort of forecast, I decided to go.  The speaker was Keith Wiley, who was for many years head gardener at the wonderful Garden House on the fringes of Dartmoor. The Systems Administrator and I visited it more than a decade ago, during a storm-bound sojourn in Plymouth, and I thought it was one of the best gardens I'd seen.  After Keith Wiley left there he created his own garden out of four acres of field, which from all that I've read was quite something, but alas, we have missed our chance to visit.  Having opened it is now closed again to the public, as he and his wife reshape it into something they stand a chance of maintaining in their later years without, as he put it, killing themselves.

I have got two of his books, one on his ideas for taking aesthetic inspiration for gardens from the natural landscape, and one about shade gardening, and enjoyed them both, but didn't actually know the title of today's talk.  It turned out to be more about mining the landscape for garden ideas than any particular group of plants, shade loving or otherwise, though his suggestions on copying ideas from overseas were tempered with sensible advice on considering your respective growing conditions before copying blindly.  Agapanthus look great underneath olive trees in Italy where light levels are higher, whereas in England they probably wouldn't flower in that much shade.

There was a plant stall in the lobby outside the lecture theatre, which threw me at first with its professional printed labels, so different to the handwritten ones at the Suffolk Plant Heritage plant stall, before I worked out that it was Keith Wiley's nursery and not Essex Plant Heritage.  I scooped up an Origanum dictmnus with tiny, furry leaves that was crying out to be planted in the gravel by the railway.  Apart from the pin sharp drainage, the Clacton coastal strip has some of the highest light levels in the UK, according to our neighbouring lettuce farmer on Radio 4's Food Programme. The Origanum is clearly concerned about conserving moisture in the face of drought and scorching sun, since as well as felted leaves the plant smells distinctly of aromatic oils, and I should think it will probably like life in the gravel better than in a plastic pot on the fringes of Dartmoor with 60 inches of annual rainfall.  I eyed up a very small seedling of a white flowered Watsonia as well, but dithered too long and somebody else snapped it up.

Addendum  There were tea and biscuits after the talk, but I made some toast when I got home to plug the gap until supper, having gone out too early to feel like much in the way of lunch.  I now know that the smoke alarm in the hall is still working, because it began to shriek as one edge of the toast caught very slightly.  What I don't understand is why it is so sensitive to burnt toast, when failed attempts to light the woodburner that fill the entire ground floor with a light miasma of wood smoke produce no response whatsoever.  The house could be burning and it wouldn't care, but we won't be killed in a toast fire for lack of warning.

Friday, 20 November 2015

safely gathered in

The first frost of the year is forecast.  Managing the greenhouse and conservatory is always a juggling act between providing good airflow, to combat mould and botrytis, and keeping the plants warm, but tonight the doors are closed, and I've shut the louvres in the greenhouse walls, and dropped down the glass side panels that have been propped up since May.

I brought most of the dahlia pots inside.  I was going to leave them until the first frost had blackened the leaves, as Rosy Hardy said in her lecture, but it got too difficult trying to guess how much space to leave for them in the greenhouse.  Half the stems had died back naturally, and I compromised and cut the other half to leave stubs several inches long.  I'll be keeping the pots dry over the winter so there's little risk of water getting inside the hollow stems to rot the tubers, and I told myself that the stubs were not so very different to what happened in the growing season each time I dead headed them.  Probably the stubs don't make a blind bit of difference.

I moved the last fuchsia in too.  It only got left out until now because I switched to doing other jobs, and while the weather was so mild and the plant was still in leaf there didn't seem any rush to cut it down.  I left the dwarf pomegranates outside deliberately in the hope that they would naturally defoliate before it got really cold, to avoid them dropping their leaves in the greenhouse. They obligingly did, and all four are now safely tucked up under cover.  I grew them from seed, and they flowered pretty well this year, and even produced a few small fruits that I didn't attempt to eat but which looked pretty.

They seem susceptible to root aphid, alas, and all received a dose of vine weevil drench at the start of the summer, which improved their health visibly.  I checked them again before putting them back in the greenhouse, and one was lightly infested so got another drenching.  As the evidence against neonicotinoids grows I don't know what the horticultural world is going to do about insect pests on roots.  I keep bees, I am well disposed to wild insects and I adore my garden, so I'm torn.  I don't want to cause harm to bees, but I don't relish the idea of being unable to raise or keep plants in pots due to root aphid attack.  The active ingredient in Provado vine weevil drench is thiacloprid, and gardening will get much more difficult if it is withdrawn from sale.  Treating foliage pests with a fatty acid or similar is easy enough, and anyway if you have plenty of birds and ladybirds insect pests on leaves aren't usually a problem, but insect pests on roots are another matter, and potentially a big issue for commercial growers.  The herbaceous plants you buy from your local garden centre or DIY store have probably been potted in a compost containing a vine weevil killer.

There wasn't room under cover for all the pots of hardy perennials.  Being hardy, they should survive the first few frosts, but I don't really want to leave them outdoors all winter.  Life in a plastic pot, freezing solid and with only the holes in the bottom of the pot for drainage, is tougher than life planted out in well drained soil, and hardy is as hardy does.  But after leaving myself the merest sheep track of a path down one side of the greenhouse I really am running out of space.  I'll just have to keep madly weeding and clearing in the meadow so that I can plant some more of my stash.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

a damp day out

I went to London today, and had a very nice time apart from the fact that I wasn't expecting it to rain all day and ended up with soggy feet, having worn a pair of suede boots from Cotton Traders with a remarkable ability to wick water straight through to the sock, and which I fear are now salt marked for evermore.

It was the last in LSO St Lukes series of lunchtime concerts featuring the music of Georgian London, with a Netherlands ensemble called Musica ad Rhenum.  I'd never heard of them, but bought tickets for a couple of the series as I am very fond of Haydn and his fellow composers of the well-mannered, cheerful, twinkly Baroque.  Today we heard music by Haydn plus Clementi, J C Bach, and Graf.  I hadn't heard of Friedrich Hartmann Graf either, but was happy to make his acquaintance.  Musica ad Rhenum are a trio consisting of flautist, cellist and keyboard player. Today he was playing an eighteenth century forte piano borrowed specially for the occasion, but I gather it's often a harpsichord.

As the musicians took to the stage wearing dark grey suits I realised I'd already seen two of them, since they had been queuing for their lunch like ordinary concert goers down in the crypt cafe.  Not at all starry behaviour from a group which according to the programme notes has released more than thirty CDs and played around the world to major critical acclaim.  LSO St Lukes does not permit photography, and I am no photographer and don't travel with a camera, but there was a moment when I wished I did, as the forte piano player held the stage alone for a sonata by J C Bach while his fellows sat at the edge of the room.  Sitting straight backed in their neat suits, their attention fixed on the stage which would have been to the side of the photograph, the flautist holding his instrument upright, the stripped brick wall of the church and simple black chairs providing an almost stark background, it would have made a great picture.

It was a lovely concert, and I was sorry that it wasn't better attended.  The management had done a good job of disguising the fact that it was by no means a sell-out by moving the stage forwards from the back wall, and setting out only two rows of chairs between the stage and the raked seating, so that the musicians wouldn't be looking out over half a dozen dispiriting rows of mostly empty chairs.  The Colchester Arts Centre performs the same visual trick for less popular folk artists by setting up cafe style tables and chairs just in front of the stage.  I'm afraid Baroque music is a minority taste even within the minority interest world of classical music, which is a shame.

From Old Street I squelched my way to the British Museum to see Drawing in Silver and Gold, their exhibition about metalpoint drawing.  It is only on until 6 December, so I knew that if I didn't go today I was unlikely to go at all.  It took some mental juggling, looking at what else was on and where and for how long, to work out how many trips to London I was likely to make during that time, and whether I'd be able to see all of them or was going to have to prioritise, but in the end I decided I would like to learn more about metalpoint and would probably just about manage to cram everything else in, unless this Saturday's forecast snow was the prelude to two months of train-stopping snow, in which case all bets are off.

Metalpoint is beautiful, subtle, and laborious.  It works on the principle that silver and gold are soft metals that will leave a mark when drawn across a rough surface.  You take paper or vellum, prepare the surface so that it is rough enough, traditionally done with crushed roasted bones and glue, equip yourself with a metal stylus, and draw.  Each individual line is fine and soft, allowing the creation of marvellous shading and visual texture.  Peak metalpoint was in the latter fifteenth to seventeenth century, with something of a renaissance in the nineteenth.

One reason why I nearly didn't go was concern about whether I'd be able to see properly.  It was hard enough seeing some of the exhibits in the Celts exhibition, and knowing that strong contrast is not a feature of metalpoint I wondered whether in the dim light the British Museum might deem necessary in order to preserve the drawings I'd be able to see anything at all.  But in fact everything was brightly lit enough for middle aged eyes, though the detail is so fine one could do with a magnifying glass.  It's a shame the BBC aren't doing a documentary about it, then we could see some of the pictures expanded and wonder at every last little piece of cross hatching and how from a distance it marvellously blends into the contours of a face, or the texture of a fur hat.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

two flypasts

Storm Barney had blown through by this morning, to be followed by sun drenched calm.  I was relieved as I peered out of the bathroom window to see that all the trees were still standing where they should be.  After breakfast I went to check that none of the beehives had blown over, but they too were fine.  In fact, apart from the downwind side of the Eleagnus hedge bulging at the top, the only damage I could find were the two panes of plastic that had popped out of the greenhouse roof, and they were unbroken and easy enough to slide back in again.  There were several moments last night when the whole house shook to its core, and I'd been worried about what I'd find in the morning.

I returned to chopping out brambles by the wildlife pond in the meadow.  A strange, wild, harsh cry made me look up, and there were two buzzards, flapping slowly as they hung on the wind.  They cried again, and disappeared out of my line of sight behind the trees.  It would be quite something if they were to decide to set up home in the wood.  Some of my older bird books don't show buzzards as being found in East Anglia, as they have only returned in the past ten or fifteen years.  I love to see them, and as for their call, it's enough to put the hairs up on the back of your neck, but they don't seem to score highly in the birdwatching snob stakes, perhaps because they are largely carrion eaters rather than skilled hunters.  I used to visit my parents in Wales when they lived over there, and the general status of buzzards seemed to be Not a red kite.  I'd like to see red kites over the garden, too, and I may yet.  They're on their way, well established as far east as Rutland Water, and a friend has seen the odd one around Stowmarket.

Later in the morning a heavy throbbing sound made me look up again, as an army Chinook lumbered into view above the trees.  Chinooks are the big transport helicopters with two sets of rotor blades, and this one was dangling a load beneath it, which the Systems Administrator later told me looked like a heavy artillery gun.  Colchester being a garrison town with army ranges at Fingringhoe, and the mysterious explosives testing grounds of Shoeburyness not far down the coast, we're quite used to the sight of military helicopters flying overhead and the sound of weaponry, from the rattle of automated gunfire to the kind of deep booms that make the front door vibrate.  I don't mind them, and they don't carry the visceral chill of the buzzard's call, but they form an odd background to peaceful rural life when you think about it.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

death of a grower

Browsing through the pages of the East Anglian Daily Times online as I ate my breakfast, I saw the sad news that John Woods had gone into administration.  The name probably doesn't mean much to most people, but they were wholesale growers of ornamental plants for the horticultural trade. The company used to be part of the Nottcutts group before a management buyout in 2007, and has been struggling for a while, since the EADT article said that in October of last year it attempted an agreement to pay its creditors just 49 pence in the pound over five years.  Now the administrators are going to auction off its stock of plants, starting very soon.  The staff will lose their jobs, the management presumably put their own money into the MBO and have lost that, and the creditors may not get as much as 49 pence.  Gardeners and garden centres around the UK will find cherished varieties of plants suddenly unavailable.  A sad story.

I went on an outing with Writtle College to visit John Woods when it was still part of Nottcutts.  It was a well invested business, with big, shiny, immaculately clean, fully automated glasshouses full of rows of green, glossy, identical shrubs.  A few years later I went on an Essex Hardy Plant Society to another wholesale grower, one that had bought the nursery facilities out from a branch of another household name garden centre chain.  It raised plants on a far smaller scale than John Woods, in a series of ramshackle polytunnels with slimy patches on the floor and weeds growing in the pots.  It went bust some time ago, but all of John Woods' investment did not manage to buy them more than a few years grace.

Towards the end of my time at Writtle I had a meeting with the careers adviser.  I don't remember it being at all useful.  We discussed commercial ornamental plant production, and I expressed my view that it was not a healthy industry to get into, and he told me irritably that I was talking nonsense.  Sorry, mate, but twelve years on it's ex small companies fund manager one, horticultural college careers adviser nil.  In my time in the City nobody ever even attempted to float a grower of ornamentals, but if they had it would have struggled to get away on a price earnings ratio of six (market average twelve to fifteen depending on how things were going at the time).

Demand is highly seasonal.  Poor old John Woods blamed increasing seasonality of demand as a factor in their downfall.  Demand is highly weather dependent.  Stock is highly perishable, and doesn't even sit around perishing quietly like a box of bananas on a supermarket shelf, but requires daily nurturing by fairly skilled staff.  Demand is linked to the housing cycle, which has been virtually flatlining for a decade.  Gardening is no longer trendy.  End customers are acutely price sensitive, and people who would not blink twice at paying thirty quid for a haircut or lunch for two in a pub grumble about paying half that for a shrub that took two or three years to grow to its present size, during which time somebody had to think about its welfare every single day.  The actual customers are mostly financially flaky, being the nation's network of garden centres which are for the most part small, private, and probably undercapitalized businesses relying on their tea rooms and gift shops to stay afloat, and themselves only a year's bad trading from shutting up shop.

Maybe the UK cannot support medium sized growers any more.  Maybe the real specialists will struggle on, the people who eat, breathe and live plants, working long hours and keeping their fixed overheads down.  Maybe the mass of the public will be perfectly happy with less choice, filling their ever smaller gardens with a limited palette of reliable plants grown by the Dutch. Maybe the keen hobby gardeners who are interested in plants will increasingly rely on plant stalls and swaps through garden clubs and societies.  Or maybe I am being too pessimistic, and John Wood will rise from the ashes.  After all, I don't know the whole story as to why it failed.  Perhaps it was burdened with more debt than it could carry after the MBO and would be viable with a different financial structure.  I hope so.  They used to produce some lovely hellebores and daphnes, and unless they can be resurrected then many customers are going to be disappointed over the next couple of years, when the garden magazines tell them to plant 'Jacqueline Postill' and there are no plants to be had in their local garden centre.

Monday, 16 November 2015

another load of brambles

Abigail's barely been and gone before Barney's on the way, with Met Office yellow wind warnings for tomorrow afternoon.  But this morning it was neither raining nor particularly windy, and I returned to cutting down and digging up Rubus cockburnianus in the meadow.  I'd got a trailer load by the end of Andrew Neill's guest spot on Radio 3's Essential Classics, and the Systems Administrator kindly agreed to stop soldering tiny couplings onto model railway wagons for long enough to come and help me drag it to the bonfire heap.

I told the SA that I was getting towards the end of the bramble stems, and the frequency with which I needed a hand with a trailer ought to start dropping soon.  Famous last words, I'd filled it again by lunchtime, having underestimated the sheer quantity of stems that were growing round the pond.  Tucked in among them was a shrub with slender green leaves which I took to be an evergreen, though it might just be very late turning colour.  I didn't recognise it as any wild plant that I knew, and tentatively identified it as privet of some sort.  I'll have to check my records of what I planted by that pond, and see what else comes to light as I clear round the edges.

I am worried that the water level seems low given the amount of rain we've had, and that something (probably the bramble) might have punctured the lining.  But maybe the water level fell over the summer and there hasn't been enough rain to top it right up.  Again, I'll have to see how it looks once I've cleared the undergrowth and can get at it properly.  If the water level doesn't drop further then I'll know the liner is intact below the current level, and only have to check the parts I can see.  If I refill it and the level drops quickly then stabilises then the new level would give me another clue.  Of course none of this would have happened if I'd maintained it properly in the first place.

In the afternoon I had a Pilates lesson, which did seem a waste of a dry day.  I am beginning to think that my progress with Pilates is reaching a plateau, and that perhaps monthly lessons are ceasing to be worthwhile.  Since my teacher does not read my blog I can safely ruminate in semi-public.  It does eat into the day, having to scrub the earth out from under my nails and drive to the other side of Colchester.  The exercises are great and I am committed to them for the long haul (unfortunately, since they are about as dull as flossing one's teeth, but they work) but maybe I don't need to pay somebody else to watch me do them.

By the time I got home from my two o'clock lesson it was practically dark.  It's less than five weeks to go to the shortest day.  I am back on chef duties until Thursday, or possibly Friday if tomorrow's beef curry does two nights, but still managed to run slightly late with supper.  I always forget how long it takes to chop things up before I can start cooking.  I made Rose Elliot's butter bean bake with a cheese and crumb topping, which is partly why I needed a loaf of bread yesterday, so that I would have some crumbs.  It really is cooking from scratch, baking a loaf because you want breadcrumbs, but the beans were tinned, because Waitrose didn't sell dried ones the last time I looked.  The SA was enthusiastic about the bake, so our meat free Monday was a success.  The Bramleys in the apple pudding came out a bit crunchy even though they were cooked for ages.  I did think while I was slicing them up that they felt very hard indeed.  I'm not sure they were ripe.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

home baking

The wind arrived in the night.  It was not a real howling, wondering if the roof is going to stay on wind, but strong enough when I got up for me to go down and move the chairs off the deck outside the conservatory, just in case they blew through the windows.  Once outside I thought the wind probably wasn't that fierce, but how strong does a chair-window smashing wind feel?  It only takes one unlucky gust.  As a chap once said on radio being interviewed about a particularly vicious storm in Scotland, he didn't have an anemometer with him, but if it was any help his Land rover had just blown over the cliff.

The old saying goes in umpteen variants, 'Wind before rain, tops'ls can remain, rain before wind, tops'ls you must mind'.  Apparently it is based on sound meteorological theory to do with where you are relative to the low pressure system that's causing the wind and rain, whether catching a passing squall on the fringe of it, or right in its path.  It did rain a lot yesterday, and today it was pretty windy for several hours.  On the other hand, I can think of lots of times when it has rained all day and the following day not been especially windy, so the saying doesn't work as a wind forecaster, maybe just a warning that if the wind starts to get up after a prolonged period of rain then you're likely to get a proper blow.  Anyway, I minded my garden chairs.

It seemed a good day for pottering around close to the Aga.  I made another bara brith, as the last one was nicer than I expected.  That makes it sound as though I made the first one expecting it to be nasty, which is not the case, but I did make it partly in a spirit of curiosity without really believing that a fat free cake would stay moist for more than about thirty-six hours.  In fact it kept very well for several days, and I can only think the reason for it lasting so much better than soda bread or scones was down to the effects of having soaked the dried fruit overnight.  If you want to try it yourself you need to soak four ounces of currants and two of raisins in cold tea.  The drained fruit is added to twelve ounces of self raising wholemeal flour, four of soft brown sugar, two of mixed peel (which I have just noticed in the recipe and forgot to put in), a teaspoon of mixed spice, a large egg, and enough of the tea (which you have kept having strained the fruit into a bowl and not down the sink) to make a dropping mixture.  The mixture fits nicely in a two pound loaf tin and takes about three quarters of an hour to cook at 180 C.  I used a loaf tin liner (John Lewis is excellent) out of habit though the book doesn't actually say to line the tin, the book being Julie Duff's Cakes regional and traditional, which I have found utterly reliable so far apart from the ruddy lemon drizzle cake on page 254.

After the bara brith I made a conventional loaf using Elizabeth David's recipe in the posthumous collection At Elizabeth David's Table, compiled by her editor Jill Norman.  I am instinctively cautious of collected works presented after an author's death, as some turn out to be rehashes of previously published work one already has in their earlier books plus previously unpublished articles that weren't honestly very good, leaving me darkly suspecting that the final book was produced entirely for commercial gain.  The same charge can be levelled at some posthumous album releases.  But At Elizabeth David's Table is a nice book, with some magazine articles I hadn't seen before and attractive photos, and it probably does help introduce a younger generation of cooks to her work who might not be inclined to pick up the densely written, photo-free originals without encouragement.  And Jill Norman has picked out recipes the modern cook is relatively likely to cook, not requiring impossible to obtain ingredients.  Opening my copy of French Provincial Cooking at random, the first fish recipe I saw instructed the reader to obtain slices of a fleshy fish making sure the fishmonger gave them the heads and carcasses.  And teal, thrushes and hares are unlikely to form part of the average shopping basket.

Elizabeth David does not sound particularly enthusiastic about home bread making, saying that it is not her intention to make even a slight attempt to persuade people into baking their own bread, simply to tell them how to set about it if they feel they must.  Despite that lukewarm introduction I have so far found her basic loaf entirely reliable.  She did write an entire book on the subject of English bread and yeast cookery so perhaps her comments written for the Queen magazine in 1968 were meant tongue in cheek.  Or she was writing for her audience and knew that many of the readers of Queen were not going to take up home baking.  As she warms to her subject she does say that home made bread will be better than much of what could be bought in 1968, she just doesn't want the reader to feel guilty if they stick with shop bread.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Christmas shopping

I dismissed storm Abigail too soon.  A week after the first rash of newspaper headlines about how the UK was to be lashed by fierce winds and rain, it finally was.  Or at least the north was.  A friend who lives in the Lake District rang about something else and mentioned that it had been raining a lot, and the film footage on the internet of bobbles of sea foam blowing over an unnamed sea front are pretty impressive.  They didn't sound so fussed about Abigail in the Scottish islands, though.  Some houses lost power but the general view seemed to be First storm of winter arrives, usual strong winds.

In north east Essex it rained all day, but I wouldn't say it was hard enough to count as lashing.  I put my coat on when I went to open and shut the gate and the hen house, and a puddle formed at intervals in the driveway, but that was about it.  The Systems Administrator was out, probably being rained on, alas, so I took the chance to get on with some Christmas shopping without having to make sure I didn't leave any incriminating screens open or hide away in a locked room when I needed to make a phone call.

It's in the nature of Christmas shopping that you can't really blog about it until after the presents have been ceremonially handed over, just in case your nearest and dearest reads what you've been up to and it ruins the surprise.  But I will say that the Systems Administrator's hobbies are all fairly technical, and it took a great deal of Googling and head scratching to get as far as I've got.  I'd like to think the SA would be touched by the gesture regardless, while having a dark suspicion that what the SA would really like is for the stuff to be right.  Which is fair enough, since that's my view on plants, earrings, shoes, flower pots, and most other stuff.

I have some feedback for small specialist online retailers.  A secure online payment facility is essential.  Paypal is good, Sage Pay is fine, nobody sensible puts their credit card details into a web page that lacks that reassuring padlock at the start of the address.  I don't care if it's got the word secure in the URL, I want to see a padlock.  And for bigger online retailers, please do not include a telephone number on your website that eventually connects to a call centre that after keeping would-be customers on hold for a long time puts them through to a member of staff whose knowledge of the products is limited to what's already on your website, and has nobody else to ask, because you have outsourced your calls at weekends.  I mean, who does any shopping on a Saturday five weeks before Christmas?  We are not talking really hard questions here, just Roughly how big in inches is L and how big is XL?  The sizing guide on the website is no use, because while it tells you how to measure yourself, it fails to supply any table linking measurements to sizes.

The Christmas pudding will be coming from the Barn Owl Trust as per usual.  It is a very nice pudding, and we always have one every year, and always make the same joke about how it was made by barn owls.  I hunted through the rest of their online shop in the hopes I'd find something that would fall into the useful or beautiful category in someone's eyes, but couldn't see anything, so it was just the pudding.  I feel as though I ought to know someone who would like a barn owl pellet dissection kit, but can't think of anybody who'd want one, or at least not anyone in the limited circle of people with whom I exchange Christmas presents.  The Systems Administrator did not at all share my enthusiasm when I found an owl pellet on the deck under the dawn redwood.

Friday, 13 November 2015


I went today to the Goya portraits exhibition  at the National Gallery.  It really is in the National Gallery, tucked away down in the basement of the Sainsbury wing, and not the National Portrait Gallery, even though it consists entirely of portraits, but there you go.  I have never worked out how close the working relationship is between the two institutions, or if there might even be antipathy.  I once enquired at the NPG about the likelihood of industrial action stymieing an exhibition I was thinking about travelling up to London to see, and the person on switchboard duty that day told me conspiratorially that it was unlikely as they were not so militant at the portrait gallery as the other lot round the corner.

It doesn't matter how the Goya portraits have ended up not in the portrait gallery.  They are wonderful.  I knew virtually nothing about Goya before this show came around, and couldn't have guessed his dates (1746 - 1828) to within fifty years either way.  I had a vague feeling that his output included agonising anti-war paintings and drawings of grotesques, and no idea at all about his portraits.  It turned out that he painted royalty and the Spanish aristocracy, as well as fellow members of the artistic community of painters and writers.

They are fabulous paintings on two counts.  Goya was brilliant at textiles, lace and embroidery, velvet and silk, but more importantly he was brilliant at faces.  There is an art to find the mind's construction in the face, and render it in paint, and Goya had it.  His people practically speak, solemn, sparky, warm, approachable, or wary.  Some kings and aristocrats seemed surprisingly friendly when I would have expected Spanish royalty and senior nobility of that era to be as haughty as anything.  An educated and cultured female aristocrat looks every inch the clever radical underneath her gigantic Eliza Doolittle hat.  Some of the young gentlemen look complete handfuls that you wouldn't trust an inch.  The baby looks like a real baby, while the possibly emblematic pet cats eyeing up a little boy's magpie on a string look like the Cheshire cat.  Goya himself appears to have been a short, serious man, frowning in concentration in his own self portraits, perpetually worried even at the height of his successful career.

So hats off to the National Gallery and Francisco de Goya y Lucientes.  Between them they have piqued my interest and I want to know more about Goya and about Spanish politics in the second half of the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries.  Which painters did Goya most admire, and was he a fan of Rembrandt?  And how did Goya influence following generations of artists?  One of the last works in the exhibition seems to prefigure Manet.  And what was he like as a man?  Many of his subjects are described as friends, and my companion today was sure that Goya had liked women.  Male artists don't always.

The exhibition is on until 10th January 2016, which sounds a good long time until you remember that Christmas is coming up, with all its attendant pleasures, duties, and rituals, including the withdrawal of train services from Colchester to London between Christmas Day and the New Year.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

winter flowers

The winter flowers are starting.  There are a few blooms on the row of Iris unguicularis in the narrow bed along the south wall of the house.  If I were feeling keen I would go through the bed with gloved hands and a bucket, seeking out the snails that lurk among the iris leaves and eat holes in the buds before they can open.

In the ditch bed at the bottom of the garden the first flush has appeared on Viburnum x bodnantense 'Charles Lamont'.  These hybrid, deciduous viburnums are good value in the garden, provided you have somewhere not too dry to put them, since they go on throwing out successive sets of flowers for months and if frost spoils the display there'll be another following on.  'Charles Lamont' has pale pink flowers, said in the Hillier manual of trees and shrubs to be a purer pink than those of 'Dawn'.  I have yet to see the two of them grown side by side in a garden setting to make the comparison.  Both have the RHS Award of Garden Merit, and I have a sneaking suspicion I ended up with 'Charles Lamont' because that was what happened to be in stock at the point when I wanted to buy one.  I like viburnums as a tribe, and would grow more if I didn't have such a dry garden.  As it is my tally stands at a measly four.

Rather to my surprise the Mahonia japonica by the lower lawn is also opening its flowers.  I think of it as following on from M. x media 'Winter Sun', but Hilliers reminds me that it is supposed to flower from late autumn to early spring, and I guess the twelfth of November counts as late autumn.  I don't think they can mean it will flower continuously from late autumn to early spring, because the display doesn't last that long, but when it does flower it will do so within that time slot.  The flowers are lovely, fragrant little lemon yellow globes studded along long, lax stalks.  My plant is coping valiantly with quite heavy shade, though it did try to grow sideways into the light and I ended up staking some of the floppier stems.  When it was younger I got almost no flowers one winter because something, presumably muntjac, ate the buds, but I'm hoping it's got to the height where they won't be able to reach.

The prize for floral persistence in the face of impending winter goes to Salvia involuctrata 'Bethellii', which is still producing its vivid pink flowers on five foot stems.  The plant is not entirely hardy, but on our sharp drainage mine has come though a few winters now.  I did lost a plant, but that was because ants undermined it, nothing to do with the cold.  In theory I could have taken cuttings as a precaution against a hard winter, but I haven't.  I never got round to it, and the greenhouse is already bursting at the seams, while I don't find salvias the easiest thing to keep through the winter under glass.  They seem prey to every outbreak of fungal disease going.  That said, I've got two plants in the greenhouse bought at the Great Dixter Plant fair while I saw them, one which is only ever destined for a pot as it is tender, and the other intended for the gap opened up by taking out the Coronilla varia, but not until the spring so that I can have another go at the coronilla as regrowth appears.  And Salvia confertiflora with its little burnt orange flowers made it through last winter in the conservatory, albeit I did have to prune some fungus infested stems out.  I fell in love with it at Kiftsgate and bought one from their plant sales area, which while small had more unusual things than the National Trust shop at Hidcote.  Now I know what it is I could buy a replacement from a salvia specialist if needs be, but I'd rather keep my souvenir plant going if I can.

Second prize for unexpected floral interest goes to the honeysuckle in the rose bank, that's producing a complete second set of flowers.  They make the back garden smell very nice as I crawl around doing the edges.  The honeysuckle is rather rampant and strangling, and as the years go by I'm afraid I'm losing species from the rose bank, until eventually it will contain nothing but honeysuckle and the rambling rose 'Sanders' White'.  I think I had better reduce the honeysuckle in places to give the roses a chance to breath, but might as well delay doing that until it's finished flowering.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

the deceiving image

We have just watched a documentary about the creation of the garden at Hidcote.  It was not part of a hot new garden history series that you have somehow failed to hear about.  No, the programme was made in 2011 and we missed it at the time, but there's all sorts of good stuff available now on catch-up.  I'm happy to have held off watching until we'd visited the garden anyway.

It was a bit of a shock seeing how the camera can lie.  Hidcote is famously a garden of rooms, many of them quite small, but on TV some appeared closer to warehouse size.  As Chris Beardshaw walked around the perimeter of a circular pond as large as a fair sized swimming pool I was left scratching my head.  I remember that pond, partly because the motor running the fountain pump made too much noise and I thought that as part of their multi-million pound renovation the National Trust might have put it in a soundproofed box, and it was a normal size.  Bigger than your average garden pond, but nowhere near as vast as it looked on the telly.

I had a similar shock when I saw the garden at Barnsdale some years ago.  My Japanese friend from horticultural college was working there for a year's placement, so I went up to see her, and was thrilled to finally stand in the gardens where Geoff Hamilton had stood.  Thrilled, and amazed that they were so tiny.  When I saw them on Gardeners' World each compartment had looked the size of a reasonable modern back garden.  In the flesh several were diminutive, only a few paces across.  I was still very happy to see them, to the bemusement of my Japanese friend who had not had the joy of several years of Friday nights spent in front of the TV glued to Geoff's every word.  I still remember his obilisks made from lathes and ballcocks.

Hidcote is a funny garden.  It is so very, very famous and influential, though perhaps not quite as much in a league of its own as the programme suggested.  Sissinghurst has been massively copied as well, for starters, and Biddulph Grange was equally laid out as a series of discreet areas that cannot be seen at the same time, completed before Hidcote was even begun.  I think Chris Beardshaw put his finger on an important point near the end of the programme when he said that Hidcote was one man's garden, never designed to be visited by coach loads of people.

We have visited twice, last year after the restoration, and many years previously.  Our first visit did not entirely impress.  We drove out and back in a day, a birthday treat for me because I wanted to see this famous garden, and so I could never decide whether our lack of appreciation was entirely Hidcote's fault or just that it was too far for a comfortable day trip.  I found the planting so-so, and the Systems Administrator found some of the garden rooms claustrophobic.  On our second visit we liked it more, but still didn't love it, and the SA still found the smaller spaces cramped and fussy. Was that Hidcote's fault, or down to the sheer weight of visitors?  If we could have had it to ourselves perhaps we would have liked it better.

Or if we could have seen it in Lawrence Johnston's day.  Preferably not with him, since he seems to have been a painfully shy and socially awkward person, but if he'd let us go round while he was out (not that he probably would have since he seems to have been keen on people with titles, money and impressive gardens of their own). The National Trust does its best, and at least it has the esources to keep gardens like Hidcote going, but gardens in corporate ownership do seem to struggle to keep their spirit.  We visited Kiftsgate Court on the afternoon of our second visit to Hidcote, now gardened by the third generation of the same garden-mad family, and for us Kiftsgate had a certain magic that Hidcote lacked.  But maybe that was just because it had approximately one tenth of the number of visitors.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

voluntary work

I have sent the beekeepers' divisional Gift Aid declaration off to the County Treasurer.  Compiling it is a tedious and moderately time consuming exercise, because HMRC require the address including postcode of every member who ticked the box saying they'd like the association to reclaim Gift Aid.  This means I have to go through the folder of membership application forms and type the addresses into the spread sheet I'm going to send to the County Treasurer.  I cannot believe that anybody at HMRC will ever check and verify any of them, and if they do that's not how they ought to be spending their time, since the answer to the UK's uncollected £35 billion of tax is not to be found in the Essex Beekeepers' Gift Aid declaration.

I'm not entirely sure which elements of subscriptions are eligible.  Payments for bee disease insurance can't be, since that's a premium charged for the provision of an insurance service, namely compensation should your hives and bees be destroyed by a government inspector to combat disease.  The beekeeping association doesn't retain any of the premiums, but pays the whole amount collected over to the insurance company.  But what about extra payments made to cover the cost of posting out the monthly county magazine?  In 2015 the division gave the members the choice of paying for the magazine to be posted to them, collecting it at meetings, or foregoing the hard copy entirely and reading it online.  Quite a few people decided it was worth five pounds a year to have it posted to their home address, which doesn't quite cover the annual cost of postage. Is that eligible for Gift Aid?

Since I am stepping down as Treasurer at the end of the year I decided there was no point in spending any time trying to find out, and simply sent the County Treasurer a spreadsheet of Gift Aided subscriptions broken down into their component parts, leaving him to decide which categories he wanted to include.  A tip to all volunteer Treasurers: find out the format in which you need to present the accounts at the start of the year.  I didn't in my first year, and discovered at the year end that my accounts contained all the right numbers, but not necessarily in the right order.  By now I know better, and when each subscription was banked I broke it down at the time into the various elements of the membership and donations for specified purposes, so that at the end of the year I'd only have to total the columns to know how much we'd received for honeybee research, education, or whatever it might be.

To replace the void in my life left by not being Treasurer any more I have agreed to be responsible for updating the music society's website.  It should be interesting, and not nearly as time consuming as the Treasurer's role was.  Most of the content will be written by other people, and most of it won't change that often.  We are in the process of shifting to a new website, the old one having become obsolete to the point that it was no longer compatible with the hosting platform, while the man who wrote it for us had emigrated.  I would have very little idea how to commission a website, but the Chairman has done it before, and organised all that. The new website is so clever it will automatically switch concert details from forthcoming concerts to past events as the date passes. The Systems Administrator has agreed to stand by ready to help out if I get stuck, since I am not particularly good with technology.  I think that was one reason why I got the job, along with the fact that nobody else volunteered.

Monday, 9 November 2015

the unfocused gardener

My project to tidy the lawn edges is progressing but slowly, due to mission creep.  It started with picking up leaves.  It seemed stupid to crawl straight over the ones that had settled close to the lawn edge, and downright silly to pick up those lying in the gully at the edge of the border only to drop them back in the border or on the grass.  Then I thought I might as well rake up the drift of leaves from 'Tai-haku' before they could blow across the full width of the garden.  That's partly to keep things tidy, but mainly because I wanted the leaves for compost.  There are still a gazillion leaves to come off the wild gean and the oaks, and no way the top lawn is going to remain clear of leaves without some more serious raking, but while this lot were still almost in a heap it seemed a shame to waste them.

Then I got to some shrub roses that were suckering, and cut the suckers away that were impinging on the edge of the lawn, followed by the others because I'd got into a sucker-cutting rhythm.  I removed an old branch that was drooping across my face and that was it, I was into pruning as well.  By now the roses in the bed below the veranda fall into two broad categories, those which have got much larger than any of the books say they're going to, and those that have dwindled to a single stalk if they haven't died completely.  The plants in the too big for their boots category need reducing because the bed has become congested, and my theory is that the best way to do it is to remove a lot of the old branches at ground level.  I feel pretty safe starting to do that now.  OK, it's unseasonably warm but I do not believe the bushes are going to respond by suddenly starting to make lots of new growth.  If I'm wrong I'll let you know.  Once I'd made a large pile of prunings in the middle of the lawn I thought I'd better take them to the bonfire heap, which meant several trips with the barrow.

It seemed a waste not to pull out any horsetail strands and accessible weeds from the front of the bed as I was passing, so they went in my bucket along with the grass clippings and any bulges of lawn I felt the need to shave off with the half moon edger.  Then when I got to a box dome I clipped the whiskery bits of that, or at least the two thirds of it that I could get at easily without crawling into the bed.  The roses have partly defoliated but not finished dropping their leaves, so I scooped up the piles of old rose leaves that were easy to reach without being too fussy about collecting every last one.

The acers in pots have almost entirely dropped their leaves, so it seemed sensible to pick the fallen leaves up off the gravel before they could turn to mush.  Rather irritatingly the wild hazel behind them has not finished defoliating, meaning I'll need to go over that corner again.  I wish the trees in the garden could be more coordinated about when they think autumn is.  It would make maintenance much easier.  Since I was fossicking about in the area with a pair of secateurs I thought I might as well trim the whiskery ends of golden yew poking out over the lawn, and the wayward strands of cotoneaster that don't understand they are supposed to be providing ground cover.

By this stage I was stopping to dig out any especially large rosettes of weeds from the lawn.  Our lawn is full of all sorts of weeds, clover, self-heal, creeping buttercup, moss, if it's a lawn weed we've probably got it somewhere in the garden.  I have no ambitions to maintain fine turf, and the weeds with small leaves like clover don't honestly bother me, but I would like the lawn to be more or less even in texture.  Its role, apart from being walked on, is to act as a visual blank and foil for the surrounding planting.  Big patches of daisies, coltsfoot, plantain, and the odd thistle, spoil the effect of plain green blankness.  Sometimes they even annoy me enough for me to zap the largest and most noticeable rosettes with lawn weed killer.  It provides a certain cathartic relief when after a few days the treated weeds go brown, but there always seem to be more of them, so today I took the organic (and low cost) route and prised them out.  The ground is so wet, their roots slid through the clay as if through butter, but I confidently predict they'll be back.

It doesn't matter that I haven't stuck rigidly to the task of edging.  If I had I'd probably have finished by now, but it would not have been nearly so amusing, and anyway that's how one picks up repetitive strain injuries in the garden, or an enduring hatred of the job or plant that was the subject of the endless task.  I'm baffled when I read interviews with gardeners in senior positions with the RHS or National Trust, and they recount how in their first week they were given umpteen thousand snowdrops or primroses to plant, and hated snowdrops or primroses for years in consequence. Why treat your junior staff like that, instead of breaking the task up a bit? Presumably because the supervisors suffered in their youth, and wished their trainees to suffer in turn.  Anyway, last December I managed to knacker my right forearm for a month through over-enthusiastic sustained chopping with the shears.  Much better for muscles and mind to treat gardening as a kind of sustained pottering.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

edging the lawns

I am working my way around the edges of the lawn in the back garden.  The upper and lower lawns are connected by a sloping grass path, which it took me months to lay reusing turf lifted from the areas that became the rose beds, so there is only one gigantic, sinuous edge.  Although the basic layout of the back garden was determined before I took my single design module at horticultural college, I'd already grasped enough to know that edges make work.  When I started on the garden I was still commuting to London, and work on the garden was a luxury.  Lots of fiddly small beds with their individual little edges was never going to be an option.

I'm not just cutting the grass, but trying to sweeten the curves with a half moon lawn edger.  When we first made the rose beds the edges were cut in perfect serpentine curves, but over time the lawn has tended to creep and you can see the wobbles and bulges.  If I were drawing the plan of the beds as they are supposed to be I could buy a flexible ruler and bend it into the smooth curves that I wanted, but alas, on the ground I have no giant ruler to follow, and it's a matter of trimming the grass with the shears so that I can see the existing line of the edge, then taking the merest sliver off the lawn where the edge is in the right place, just to sharpen it, and cutting the excess away where it's crept over the border.

Of course when you are standing right over it with the lawn edger you can't see how it looks, so you have to take an inch or two off the worst lumps, then step back to view it properly, shave another inch off where it still looks uneven, and so on.  It's a bit like cutting topiary, in that if you take too much off you can't put it back, or at least not easily.  I know in theory how I'd do it if I had to.  The way to patch a lawn edge is to cut a square out of the lawn where the edge is damaged, reverse the square so that the clean edge faces the border and the damaged edge is within the body of the lawn, then brush earth into any gaps between the broken edge of the square and the rest of the lawn.  That's the theory, but it sounds quite a palaver.

As to what makes a sweet curve, you know it when you see it.  Of course a design based on straight lines would be easier to maintain, and one based on straight lines or circles easier to set out at the building stage.  There was a fashion in the 1990s for circular lawns, which are very easy to set out because you bang a peg in the centre and then run round with a string and a can of market paint. They seem to have gone out of favour now, along with armillary spheres and those stone balls that were all over the garden magazines about fifteen years ago.  And blue paint, though Titchmarsh blue never penetrated the upper echelons of garden taste.  Now straight lines are in, with box cubes, razor sharp edged paving slabs, and rectangular tanks of water.  Alas for all those people who have spent all that money on having their gardens professionally designed and made over in the prevailing post-modernist style.  I guarantee that in twenty years' time their outdoor living space will be as dated as an avocado bathroom suite.

Getting back to the lawn, edges matter.  Professional gardeners will tell you that if you've only got time to do one thing to tidy the garden, mow the lawn, and if you don't have time to do that, cut the edges.  I am not good at following this advice, finding the lawn less interesting than most of the other plants in the garden, but it's true, and I thought that before I started messing around with the borders I'd try and get the edges all tidy.  Sometimes as I struggle with my wobbly curves I fantasise about being able to fix them in their perfect shape for the next decade by fitting metal lawn edging strips.  There are proprietary systems on the market, one in particular advertising heavily in the garden magazines.  I know I won't, though.  The cost would be prohibitive, and even if I could afford it I wouldn't feel justified spending that amount on the garden, just I would never eat at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, because while I'm sure the food and ambience would be superb, no meal could be worth that much.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

first impressions

It has been a wet and a windy day.  I thought we must be at the forward edge of storm Abigail, but I gather the storm has not yet been officially named, and won't unless judged to have the capacity to cause medium or high wind impacts.  I feel there must be a more elegant way of expressing whatever it is that the weather pundits are trying to say than 'medium wind impact', but that's the Mirror for you.  It speaks volumes about the English weather obsession that when you Google storm Abigail a long list of newspaper headlines comes up well ahead of the Met Office home page. Sunday's forecast for Colchester is for gusts of no more than thirty-two miles per hour, and only a ten per cent chance of rain.  On that basis I should be able to get out into the garden, and Abigail will remain unnamed.  But maybe it is going to be worse further west.

I amused myself by sorting through some more of the piles of gardening magazines that had collected in heaps all around my desk, and are gradually being filed in date order in boxes in the garage.  I no longer subscribe to the Gardener's World magazine, but have my old copies dating back to the 1980s, and in total there's enough material to trace a detailed history of changing fashions in gardening over the past thirty years, should I ever want to.

I am rather abashed by Arne Maynard's warning in the November 2010 Gardens Illustrated that when someone visits your garden, their first impression starts right at the entrance.  The first thing anybody sees at our entrance is the dustbin, necessary to prevent foxes from ripping the bin bags open, and my brown garden wheelie bin.  I am too idle to carry the first up and down the drive every week when we put the bins out, and not prepared to drag the weight of the second a couple of hundred yards over gravel when it's full, so it lives close to the entrance and is filled in situ.  I have always hoped that anybody arriving at our garden would be so relieved to have finally found the place that they would not notice the bins.

At the moment the impression of having reached Rapunzel's castle is a little more realistic than I'd like because brambles are growing out over the single track lane that connects us to the farm.  I noticed them the other day, and thought I'd better go down the lane with secateurs and a big bucket and clear the way.  My car is quite small and very shabby, but I can see that not everybody likes to have bramble stems dragging along their paintwork.

The lane is gradually becoming enclosed by hedges which I suppose we will have to cut, since the lane only leads to our property and nobody else is going to.  On the lettuce field side there's a mixture of brambles, and oaks planted by the jays or squirrels.  The oaks are growing away much better than those put in by us or our neighbours, an indication of how little tap rooting trees like oaks enjoy being pot grown then transplanted.  On the other side our neighbours planted a mixed native hedge, to provide privacy to their field.  Or rather, they paid a contractor to plant it, but have not kept it clear of grass since, and it has struggled to get going, and died entirely in patches. I am quite relieved in a selfish way, since I don't suppose they'd have done much about keeping the side facing the lane clipped, and I already have enough hedges of my own to cut.

Friday, 6 November 2015

under the brambles

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the English are obsessed with the weather.  This could indeed be because we are a bunch of tongue-tied social inadequates, finding in the subject of whether it is raining, or was raining, or what time it is due to rain later, a safe topic with which to bridge those anxious moments of interaction with strangers.  It could be because we have so much weather, and not just climate.  Imagine living in the middle of a huge continental landmass where it is either extremely hot and humid, or else snowing.  You would feel pretty stupid commenting at the supermarket checkout that it is really hot today, when it was this hot yesterday and last week and will be until October.  Or it could be partly because we are a nation of gardeners.

When you are a keen gardener, weather matters a lot.  What is it doing to your plants, and can you get outside to work on the garden?  I managed to squeeze in two bursts of bramble bashing today, an hour after breakfast before the rain arrived, and another couple of hours after lunch when it had gone.  Lucky I'm working at the top of the garden where the soil is light, as even so it is churning to mud under my feet.  I tried to ignore the morning's rain when it first started, but it got to the point where I couldn't pretend it wasn't raining.  I badly want to get this entire area clear this side of Christmas, before the bluebells start coming through, then I can start planning how I'm going to replant it, but after last winter I would very much like not to go down with a cold that drags on for months.

I have found a box plant looking remarkably healthy underneath the Rubus cockburnianus.  It is a slightly paler shade of green than I'd normally expect with box, but bushy and not at all drawn. One spindly and solitary stem is all that remains of a Danae racemosa.  Still, one shoot proves it is alive, and the Burncoose website does warn it can be slow to establish.  I hope it recovers now it is not being over-run with ornamental bramble, as a replacement from Burncoose would set me back seventeen quid.  It is an evergreen shrub with leaves like slender bay leaves, which you might guess from its common name of Alexandrian laurel.  The BBC website (why on earth does the BBC run a plant finder website?  No wonder critics of the corporation say it has got too big) rates the required skill level to grow Danae as 'experienced'.  Oh dear.  I really should not have let brambles grow all over it.

There are two clumps of hellebores as well, looking somewhat unimpressed by the way things have turned out so far, but I daresay they'll perk up now they've been liberated.  There's a clump of plain green arum, but I'm not even sure I planted that, since I generally go for the variegated, spotted sort.  There are a couple of clumps of what I think are Tellima grandiflora, which is a rumbustious self seeder but pretty, and as the Crocus website says useful because it will put up with dry shade. The Tellima can stay for now, but the wild white dead nettle is going to have to go when I get to it.  It ran far too much last summer, smothering other plants in its path.  The primroses are happy enough under some ordinary brambles, and there should be some daffodils under the primroses, which are probably fine.  There used to be a few choicer woodlanders but it is probably safe to assume that they have disappeared without trace, though I might get a nice surprise next spring.

Do not plant Rubus cockburnianus.  That's all I can say, really.

Addendum  Last night's supper was not great.  No fault with Lyndsey Bareham's recipe for South African stewed lamb, which I've done before, but mine and Waitrose's for using what turned out to be absolutely rubbish stewing lamb.  Sometimes Waitrose have small packets of lamb steak that make great casseroles, but last time I visited they hadn't, and since the recipe specified stewing lamb I bought a packet of something labelled as such.  I could see that it had bones in it, but thought that since meat from close to the bone is meant to be the most flavoursome the stewing lamb would be fine once it was stewed.  When I opened the packet the bone seemed to go further than it had appeared to from the outside, and by the time it had finished stewing the meat had disappeared almost entirely.  Worse still, little pieces had fragmented off the bones into the juice. If there is one thing the Systems Administrator dislikes more than another it is small bits of bone swimming around in his supper.  I'm not madly keen on it myself.  Lesson learned, no more packets of bone-in stewing lamb.  If there are no steaks to be had I'd better revert to a menu plan B, probably chicken breasts stewed with tomato and rosemary.  It works every time.  Luckily there was plenty of apple pudding and custard left over from the previous day, which redeemed the situation since the SA likes apple pie almost as much as he dislikes floating bone fragments.