Friday, 30 September 2016

a garden visit

I went this afternoon on the garden society's last garden visit of the year.  Places on the visit were limited to twenty, mainly because the garden is not very big, and possibly also (having seen it) because parking in the lanes nearby is pretty limited.  A clipboard was going round at the dahlia visit for interested people to put their names down for the grand draw for places, lucky winners to be announced at the next garden club meeting.  I wasn't at the last talk, but assumed the friendly and energetic visits organiser would email if I'd won a golden ticket.  She didn't, so I assumed I hadn't got lucky this time and rubbed the visit out of my diary.

When I saw her at last Saturday's Plant Heritage meeting she cheerfully said You are coming on Friday, aren't you?  I said that sadly I hadn't drawn a place and she said No, they hadn't had to do the draw as they hadn't had more than twenty members apply, probably because a lot of them had seen the garden before. perhaps she had better email the other people who'd put their names on the list to let them know.  I thought that would be a good idea, but it just goes to show the value of cheerful conversation.  If she hadn't happened to mention it I would have spent the afternoon clipping my yew, and would have missed out on a really good garden tour.

Missed out fairly terminally, it turns out, because the owners have decided to stop opening to groups.  One of their specialities is snowdrops, and after one garden club visit they discovered that a clump of a rare named form was missing.  That is deeply depressing.  I mean, it is depressing when people damage or nick things at all, but especially when they have got access to a private garden through their membership of a society, when you would hope people would know and be able to trust each other.  So we were on the last group visit ever, unless the owners change their minds and relent.

It was a cottage garden near Lavenham, not huge though not tiny, on a south facing slope and what looked like stiff soil, though that can always be overcome for small and precious bulbs with raised beds and added grit.  Fairly sheltered, south facing slope but near the bottom of the hill so cold air tends to roll downhill and settle in the garden.  They have lost some things during the winter that have survived with us.  Lavenham is significantly further inland than here and I'd guess winters are on average slightly colder.

The owners aim to make it a three hundred and sixty five days of the year garden, which is as gardens should be.  On the last day of September after a very wet June and three extremely dry months there were asters, all varieties with small and dainty flowers, many colchicums, some true autumn flowering crocus, the last of the Amaryllis and Nerine, lots and lots of cyclamen (much better than mine), some tender salvias in pots (all varieties I grow here so I awarded myself one point for plant connoisseurship), some cheerful annuals though our host did apologise (needlessly in my view) for the brashness of the Tibouchina (tall and orange, and the other annual I asked about was grown from seed supplied by Derry Watkins' Special Plants Nursery, none of your Thompson and Morgan came-free-with-a-magazine happenstance).

The owners were very knowledgeable and very kind, answering questions, offering advice without the slightest hint of patronising, and scooping seed into tiny envelopes for those who asked or simply looked wistful.  After being given tea and a very nice piece of home made sponge cake I found myself looking on while our hostess scooped seed of the uncommon and expensive Tulipa sprengeri into an envelope for me, and then marched off to fetch a long handled trowel with which she dug up half a dozen bulbs.  The seeds she suggested scattering now where I want them to flower, and I am under instructions to see how the bulbs compare with the ones I have just bought. They don't look anything like them, and I know the ones she gave me must be the true thing, because I saw them being dug up by an expert right in front of me.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

music society

The first part of the morning was taken up with the minutes of yesterday afternoon's music society committee meeting.  I always like to write them up the next day if possible while my notes remind me of discussions I still remember rather than being the only thing I have to go on, and events are equally fresh in everybody else's minds in case anyone wants to query anything.  And there's a certain theatrical flourish to producing and circulating the minutes the next day.  To my mild annoyance someone has spotted a typo this time.  Oh well.  As long as you understand what I mean it doesn't matter how I say it, Discuss.

You will see periodic bouts of hand wringing in the newspapers about how the British do not have the same attitude to philanthropy as the Americans and do not support the arts to the same extent. It may be true that hedge fund managers aren't queueing up to bail out the ENO or pay for extensions to the V&A or do whatever it that arts editors and politicians would like them to do on a grand scale, but in the little world of chamber music in the provinces sponsorship is a vital part of keeping the show on the road.  I for one am immensely grateful to the local retired professionals and business owners, by no means mega rich, who quietly write out cheques for three and occasionally four figures, not multi millions but which make all the difference to societies like ours being able to sometimes book the sort of artists who play at the Wigmore Hall and feature in the Radio 3 lunchtime concerts.

That's not to say we don't support young artists as well.  The fact that they are cheaper helps balance the books, but there's always the exciting prospect of finding somebody really good at the beginning of their career who is going to be famous.  The glory of having booked Alison Balsom when she was just starting out has barely faded in the minds of those committee members who were there at the time, along with the fact that they once had the Belcea Quartet.  This time round we are trying to get a young accordionist.  I was one of those vociferously in favour, my argument being that as he was further on in his career than most of the other young artists on the scheme he might be better, and it was a chance to try something different to our usual fare at low financial expense.  My closest friend and natural ally on the committee agreed, without any prior collaboration, and I could see that the Chairman was itching to discover what the classical accordion was about, so we carried the day.

Colchester's annual music festival had Nicola Benedetti last night.  I have heard from two sources that she was very, very good but alas, I don't pay a sub to entitle me to priority booking, and as I don't volunteer for them either I never got a sniff of tickets for that concert.  Never mind.  The music society has a highly distinguished American string quartet visiting the weekend after next. We are one stop on their European tour which otherwise runs Frankfurt, London, Paris.  I said we should have t-shirts printed.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

trimming and cutting back

All five compost bins are full.  This is a problem, since there will be loads more to come off the garden.  The Systems Administrator could not understand why they were so full.  Had stuff not rotted down?  Was there more woody material going on the heaps than of yore?  I thought there probably was.  The garden is pretty mature after more than two decades, and there are a lot of woody plants, bits of which get pruned out or trimmed off every year.  I suggested hopefully that it would be nice if the SA could build another bin, but I'm afraid there isn't any wood going spare to build an extra bin out of.  The old decking kept things going for a while, but that's all used up now.

Meanwhile the latest pieces of ivy I cut off the hedge around the long bed are destined for the bonfire.  Most of the section I was working on this morning was truly woody, since the ivy has run up to flower.  Parts of it looked very bald and bare, not to say dead in places, by the time I'd finished cutting it, but it's no good, it has got to come down.  I wondered briefly though not for the first time if I should have used box, while knowing that I could never, ever organise myself to cut that much box hedging, besides which large scale use of box is a slightly hazardous enterprise now that box blight is endemic.

About five plants in the box hedge in the neighbour's front garden have died entirely, though the cause of death is a slight mystery to me because one bush remains resolutely green and healthy in the middle of the dead section.  That doesn't look like blight, though I haven't stopped the car and stepped into her garden to take a closer look.  But blight generally leaves a widespread impression of unhealthiness from what I've seen, with brown patches, dead leaves, bare twigs and a generally sickly aspect.  It doesn't seem to pick off some plants entirely while leaving their neighbours untouched.  When the first plant failed I assumed it must have been undermined by ants.  Now several have gone at that end of the row I'm not so sure.

I had to stop cutting ivy for the day because I'd filled up the trailer, and anyway the stems are quite tough and as I've mused previously it's better to spread these jobs out.  I switched to trimming the bottom layer of one of the two topiary yews.  Our visit to Levens Hall confirmed my belief that I would never want to own a large scale topiary garden, since they seem to me to be gardens to look at and to employ somebody else to maintain.  There must be people whose idea of garden bliss is managing acreages of clipped evergreens, but I'm not one of them.  Two topiary yews are sufficient.  I quite enjoy doing the two, and noticing each time how different in character they are.  The plant at the south end of the bed which I was doing today has a much softer and laxer growth habit than the one to the north, which holds its twigs more stiffly.  Both made prodigious quantities of growth this year and it was quite difficult at first working out where the solid shape of the topiary was supposed to be under all the fresh twigs.  I suppose I did feed the bed back in the spring, and then we had that wet June.

It's handy that they've grown well this year as I want to merge the top two tiers of the northern one.  I am not vastly imaginative when it comes to topiary shapes, and they are both classic forms with a big, slightly domed cylinder at the bottom and a layered cake stand above, overall height limited by how far I can reach from the step ladder.  The tree at the north end of the bed annoyed me as I looked at it from the kitchen window.  Something about the top of the cake stand looked mere and twitty.  Looking at a magazine article about Arne Maynard's own garden where he uses topiary to great effect I suddenly realised that the top dome needed to be much bigger, wider and deeper and more solid.  Given the overall height is fixed the answer was to fuse the top two sections into one properly large and substantial dome, and allow the sides to grow out a bit.

I have yet to tackle the upper tiers of either tree, being well behind the Levens Hall gardeners. Cutting the tops is more of a fiddle because you have to find the space to wriggle the step ladder into the bed, and then keep coming down and looking at the shape from a distance to check what you're doing.  It's on the list, though.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

mending and breaking

I am going to have to resume watering the borders.  As I was weeding this morning I snapped the middle tine out of my hand weeding fork in the hard earth under the crown of a large cotoneaster. I think it failed along an existing line of weakness where I bent it previously catching it on a root and the Systems Administrator had to straighten it.  This time it's gone, broken as easily as snapping a multipack of yogurt cartons apart.  Welding stainless steel is not a skill either of us have mastered.

As part of her talk on Saturday Marina Christopher brought some Asian garden tools.  She cuts down her herbaceous stems with a very sharp, short bladed slasher rather than using secateurs, and says it's as quick as strimming by the time you've factored in the clearing up time.  She contracted carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists in the course of barrowing multiple loads of grit when she set up her nursery, and post surgery can no longer use secateurs all day.  It was another reminder of how easy it is to do oneself a permanent mischief gardening, not from any spectacular accident but simply from overworking joints and muscles and tendons in the push to get things done.  It was forecast to rain hard on Thursday but that's been downgraded to a light shower in the middle of the day, meanwhile soil so hard it snaps tools can't be doing my wrists any good either.  Time to reach for the hose again.  I don't fancy myself using a very sharp cutting blade in the open borders, though.  It feels too much like an accident waiting to happen, possibly involving a cat, or else my legs.

The Systems Administrator did buy me a new pruning saw for my birthday.  I was touched that the SA had registered my grumbling about the old saw.  The new one is marvellous in the way of new saws, much, much sharper, and today I chopped through a great lump of elder that was sticking up behind the veranda without a second thought.  I shall keep the old saw for dealing with roots and those old or dead stems at ground level that it's very difficult to cut through without jabbing the end of the blade into the soil.

Today we patched up the greenhouse as the sheet of replacement acrylic from a different plastics supplier arrived.  It turned out that the reason why one pane of glass fell half way out until it broke and two more were slipping was that some of the roof timbers had become detached from the sides.  The SA screwed the woodwork back together and seemed very bullish that the greenhouse could be kept limping along for a good few years yet.  The frame of one of windows in the roof had pulled itself apart as well in the wind, but the SA was able to repair it with a spare piece of teak that was lurking in the workshop.  I am afraid the truth is that the greenhouse is getting old.  I bought it not long after we moved here, and that's quite a long time ago.

Monday, 26 September 2016

kittens grow up to be cats

After four and a half months of litter trays we have reclaimed the study.  It is no longer kitty city: the trays have been cleared away and the kittens are now being fed in the hall where the cats have always been fed since we've lived here.  When we got back from holiday we looked at Mr Fluffy and Mr Fidget and realised that they had grown, and were in some intangible way young cats rather than baby kitties.  Their serious brother Mr Cool had started staying out at night anyway, because he would not come in for the house sitters, and it was time to steel our nerves and give them all access to the cat flap twenty-four seven.  This, I suppose, is one reason why Colchester Cat Rescue would not let me have any of their kittens.  They guessed that I was lying when I ticked the boxes on their form to say that my cats would always have access to an indoor litter tray and would always be kept in at night.

It is nerve racking, with the foxes, but I have to tell myself that we have never had a kitten or young cat disappear overnight in all our years of cat ownership, and the fox problem is probably no greater than it was before, it's just that in my attempts to work out what the rabbits were doing I obtained more photographic evidence of the foxes.  The trouble is, cats like to go out.  By their nature they are crepuscular animals, and trying to stop them slipping out each time we want to open the door after dark, to shut the chickens or fetch in wood, is going to get on everybody's nerves.  And Our Ginger is used to coming and going as he pleases so the kittens can't just be kept in the house overnight, they have to be shut in the study.  And while modern cat litter is pretty good, still we don't want to live with trays of it full time for the next fifteen years, and most cats (apart from possibly Mr Fidget) would far rather go outside anyway (the late and still sadly missed grey tabby, who had problems with her pads, insisted on plodding outside on her post operative bandaged feet to go to the loo rather than use the tray provided for her in the house).

So after our holiday we stopped shutting the kittens in the study, and reduced the three litter trays down to one.  That was scarcely being used, and yesterday the Systems Administrator cleared away the final tray, removed the layers of newspaper and vacuumed the room.  There have been no accidents or dirty protests yet.  With any luck the withdrawal of the indoor lavatory facilities was so gradual that the transition will be seamless.

The kittens took to being fed in the hall like ducks to the proverbial water.  Actually, they are such greedy animals they would be happy being fed pretty much anywhere.  I put down some paper in the hall, and when they saw the familiar dishes descending they were there.  So was Our Ginger, who sat determinedly in the middle of the paper and did not seem to want to go and have his supper alone in the kitchen as he's been doing since the arrival of the kittens.  A fourth dish was set down, and Our Ginger ate his supper down with the kids, the only difficulty being that they eat much faster than he does.  They are used to rushing into the kitchen once we open the door to see what, if anything, is left on his plate, and I wasn't sure how they would behave being fed alongside him. With quite good manners turned out to be the answer, as they all eyed up his remaining food but didn't push him bodily off it.  Instead Mr Cool advanced cautiously, and for a minute they both ate from opposite sides of the same dish.  That is not something I'd have expected to see back in May, when we first tried to show the kittens to Our Ginger and he howled and tried to escape from the room.

So there we have it.  It will be some weeks before I don't feel a certain sense of relief each morning when I come downstairs and find all three black and white cats still alive and well, but as far as introducing kittens to an existing adult cat goes I should say we have cracked it.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

new concert season

Hot on the heels of the resumption of the Plant Heritage garden lectures comes the new concert season.  I am trying a new series this year in addition to the concerts at East Bergholt.  New to me, that is, for Studio Music is now in its twenty-sixth year.  I've been meaning to go without ever quite getting round to it for about the past three of those years, and this time I've finally organised myself and joined.

You do literally have to join, if you want to go to more than one concert.  Membership will set you back the princely sum of ten pounds, and is a requirement of the planning regulations, since the concerts are held in somebody's house, or rather the art studio attached to his house, right at the bottom of Brightlingsea overlooking the marshes and the creek.  The ticket desk is in the kitchen, and the audience files through into the double height room that forms the studio, where there's a choice between an eclectic collection of chairs downstairs, or an upstairs landing, or a little room off the landing with a restricted view.  Some folk who wanted to see opted to sit on the stairs, and those who arrived in time to bag front row seats were no more than six feet from the performers.

Today's guests were a German piano trio, the Klaviertrio Wurzburg, who had driven all the way from Wurzburg in Bavaria and then caught the ferry in order to perform in Brightlingsea, along with the pianist's husband and their three month old baby.  It was there in the list of gigs on their website, Wittlich, Grossbritannien, Neustadt (that's where Emil of Emil and the Detectives came from), Wurzburg, Rheinburg, Wurzburg again.  Grosbritannien was Brightlingsea.

I liked the concert very much.  I liked the repertoire, Schubert, Saint-Saens and Brahms, and I liked them.  That doesn't count for a much in that I don't have a great ear, let alone an educated one, but they sounded pretty good to me.  And they were very serious and charming, and never spoke once through the whole proceedings.  The pianist, who was very tall, darted a dashing and intense smile from under her fringe at sister on the violin each time they were ready to begin a new movement, while the cellist reminded me of John Singer Sergeant's portrait of the young Gabriel Faure.

The society has a new piano.  Their old one was on its last legs, to the point where 2016-17 was going to have to be the last season with a piano because it had got so bad it was embarrassing asking professional musicians to play it, then one of their supporters bought a small grand piano for them to use as long as they needed it.  Really classical music outside the big urban centres totters along on a wing and a prayer plus the kindness of strangers.  I don't understand how it's possible to bring three musicians all the way from Bavaria just to play to such a small audience, though clearly it is because Studio Music has been doing it for a quarter of a century already.  Long may it continue.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

autumn lecture season

Now it's September the Plant Heritage lectures in Suffolk have started again.  I like the Plant Heritage talks.  They get speakers of national stature, and with gossip, plants for sale and the opportunity to eat home made cake, really what's not to like?  The car park is the answer, which is barely large enough to accommodate a hall full of plant enthusiasts' cars, let alone on days when the sports field behind the village hall is in use as it was today.  Stowupland is a very linear village with a moderately busy road running through it, and if there isn't space in the hall car park it's not immediately obvious where else you could leave your car, short of trespassing on the high school's drive.  I got a space, though.

The lecture was by Marina Christopher, author of a book on late summer flowering perennials which I have read, though today she was talking specifically about choosing plants to attract insects.  She had driven all the way from her nursery in Hampshire in her van full of plants, and didn't arrive until two thirty when the meeting was due to start, after a bad passage round the M25.  The organisers must have nerves of steel to have looked so outwardly calm as the minutes ticked away with still no speaker, though the blank space at the front of the room was a giveaway that something was wrong.  It seems to me that the traffic in the south east is so unpredictable and potentially so bad that the only way to reliably commit to doing a talk in Suffolk when you live in Hampshire (or vice versa) is to aim to be several hours early and fill the time doing something else when you arrive if you aren't caught in a jam, but I suppose busy people don't have the time to spare to keep being that early for things.

I was heartened by her view that many of the new varieties of Echinacea released in the past decade with flowers in exotic shades of pink or yellow were inherently unreliable and apt to die during their first winter, and to hear this view echoed by the voices of other people around the hall.  It's not just me, then.  Granted, our soil is meagre and our rainfall pitiful, but the consensus is that most of them are not good doers.  Apparently the RHS is now conducting a five year trial aimed purely at assessing longevity, before even starting to worry about how pretty or garden worthy any of them are.  One promising red variety died in its pot before ever making it into the trial ground. They like their own space too.  Enough of Echinacea.  Life is too short to keep buying (at vast expense) and planting things that will go into a decline and die if any of their neighbours lean on them, then probably die anyway come the winter.

The Plant Heritage organisers are looking for people to grow rare breeds of daffodil, to keep them in cultivation, but I didn't volunteer.  Our garden isn't ideal for daffodils, being dry, crowded, rooty and with shifting patterns of gradually increasing shade as the trees grow.  By a process of experiment and winnowing I have ended up with some areas where a limited number of daffodil varieties cope, and even those are topped up every other year, while my spreadsheet of things planted in the garden bears painful witness to the many types of Narcissus and locations that have not made the cut.  You would not want to entrust rarities to my doubtful keeping.

Instead I answered the appeal for somebody to arrive in time to put the chairs out at the start of the meeting.  I thought it would be friendly to make myself mildly useful, and getting there an extra quarter of an hour early should guarantee me a parking space.

Friday, 23 September 2016

a lightly shady corner

On the last Friday of our holiday a scant inch of rain fell at home.  I have this from three sources, our rain gauge, which is not great at picking up really small amounts but not bad by the time you get to an inch, a Guardian blog by somebody who works at a garden not far from here and mentioned it, and a local weather enthusiast who publishes data for his house at Elmstead Market. Unfortunately there must be an error in whatever software package he's using to aggregate his data, since his historic rainfall records show a total metre and a half over the past year, which is roughly three times what it should be, but his daily readings generally sound sensible.

There is no direct evidence of the scant inch, since the borders are dry and hard as ever.  Next year if we have a dry end to the summer I think I will splash out financially as well as literally and water the beds a few times.  This year I only did the areas where I'd planted new things earlier in the summer, plus the driest section of the long bed when I thought the occupants were actually going to die, and one soaking of the ditch bed after all the hydrangeas had collapsed.  It's tough on the plants, and leaves the garden looking pretty rough.

Today I watered the top end of the sloping bed in the back garden as I pruned and weeded, prior to filling in the gaps from last spring's revamp with more Kalimeris incisa and some Digitalis x mertonensis that are languishing in a cold frame.  I grew them both from seed.  The Kalimeris is a sort of small flowered daisy, and why the botanists decided it was a Kalimeris and not an Aster beats me, though three quarters of the asters are no longer Aster either after the last burst of reclassification.  I planted a patch of several, and only one came up.  I don't know what happened to the others, and suspect them of having been grazed to death by rabbits, since the one that's taken looks reasonably happy.  It would probably be happier if I'd watered it a couple of times over the summer, but it seems to be intent on living rather than toying with the idea of dying.

It makes a nice partner for my rare Aster 'Vasterival', bought from the plant stall at the Plant Heritage monthly meeting.  Lectures resume tomorrow, so I must tell one of the organisers their efforts to get this variety into wider cultivation are bearing fruit.  It is showing me what it thinks of the drought by not getting anywhere near the one metre to 1.2 metres that Knoll Gardens' website tells me it should achieve, but it looks quite cheerful.  I think it might even have started to spread at the root.  The flowers are dainty in construction and a soft pink, held on darkish stems, very tasteful.

Digitalis x mertonensis is a foxglove of medium height and moderate longevity, with flowers the same shade of pink as crushed strawberries.  It is a hybrid, but comes true from seed, which is confusing when you start thinking about it.  I am planning to put it next to the pink flowered sweet briar rose 'Anne of Geierstein', and if they can manage to both flower at the same time that will be highly satisfactory.  The rose ended up on its own roots by a slightly peculiar method, in that I bought a grafted plant in the normal way from Peter Beales, and after a few years the original plant became very sad and sick and died in short order, but meanwhile a low growing branch had layered itself and grew away like mad.  Years later it lives on, but six feet away from where I originally put it.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

competition issues

Today I started sorting out the far rose bed in the back garden.  I have still not finished the eleagnus hedge, or the herb bed, or tidying under the kitchen window, but fancied a change of scenery from all that gravel, and since there are various things flowering in the back garden I thought I might as well spend some time in their presence.

One regular job is to remove the tentacles of rambler rose that advance through the bed from the rose bank.  I am not sure the rose bank is so good as it was a few years back, as the most rampant of the ramblers, all with white flowers, have overwhelmed the other roses to varying degrees.  I'm not entirely sure adding honeysuckle into the mix was an entirely good idea as it tends to overwhelm everything as well.  On the other hand, the flowers are so pretty and it smells wonderful.  It is the way of gardens to simplify themselves as the most vigorous and spreading species and those most suited to the site gradually squeeze out their less robust neighbours.  For inveterate plant collectors, especially those subjected to the temptation of working in the business of selling plants, this is not necessarily a bad thing, up to a point.  It is easy to end up with a garden that looks bitty, when you love plants, and bitty is not generally a good look.

A one-off job this autumn is to remove some of the non-flowering Baptisia australis.  Having preached the virtues of repetition and unity in design, here am I wanting to make the far rose bed bittier by taking out two of the three clumps of Baptisia so that I can replace them with something different, probably Geranium 'Rozanne'.  There are two problems with the Baptisia, firstly its refusal to flower, and secondly the fact that it grows too big and muscles its way all over the roses, the late flowering Aconitum, and everything else at that end of the bed that is still trying to do anything by late summer.  The non floweringness is a bit of a mystery, since it used to flower perfectly well and I used to like it.  I tried asking Rosy Hardy at the Great Dixter Plant Fair, and she hazarded a guess that it might have used up all the nutrients in the vicinity and need feeding, but she didn't look totally convinced as if this was an issue she had encountered personally and overcome.  I haven't come across any mention of it in any book or article I've read either.  I fed the whole bed in the spring with fish, blood and bone, but it hasn't made any difference to the Baptisia.

I started off by cutting down the patches of Baptisia I thought I didn't want, so that I could see how open the bed looked without them.  Much more open and much better, was the answer, and the roses and aconites looked glad to be relieved of their late neighbour and as if they were hoping it wouldn't be back any time soon.  I decided to leave one large patch at one end towards the back, where it wasn't crowding anything, slightly out of sentiment because I grew it myself from seed and would be sad to junk all of it, and out of pique to see if I could discover how to get that clump to start flowering again.  Then I ran the hose on the chopped down patches to soften the soil so that I could get a fork into the ground, loosened the edge of the first patch of roots, and pressed down on the handle of the fork, which promptly snapped.

I dug the rest of the clump out with a pick axe.  I have noticed that pick axes seem to feature more often in my gardening efforts than they do in most published accounts or on TV (my favourite ever non pick axe television moment was Monty Don and Joe Swift digging with spades through the last root of an enormous evergreen shrub they were going to move, that had already had a trench dug 99 per cent of the way round it, presumably by the production team and almost certainly not just using a border spade).  The Baptisia had formed a very dense, almost woody crown and I wondered whether simple old age was responsible for the lack of flowers.  In that case, though, wouldn't you expect it to still flower from the younger growth around the edges of the clump?  I also wondered whether it would prove to be one of those plants that is adept at regenerating from any remaining roots.  My hunch was that it wouldn't, but what is that worth, when I don't even know why it isn't flowering?

The ground cover of plain blue Viola cornuta has entirely died down with the drought, so I hope the roots are still alive.  I was heartened to see some low shoots of sweet woodruff reappearing.  That put on a lovely display about two years ago, but in more recent times has been grazed down to nothing by rabbits, so I was not sure if it had survived.  I have not seen a rabbit on the top lawn for some weeks now, and am beginning to hope in a very cautious sort of way that the Systems Administrator's sniping out of the bedroom window might have finally cleared the colony that used to live under the far deck, or that the presence of the new and energetic young cats is starting to act as a deterrent.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

problems with shade

The three Roscoea x beesiana I planted down in the ditch bed in the spring did not do at all well.  I bought them as dried bulbs from small bulb specialists Broadleigh, potted them up individually and grew them on in the greenhouse before planting them out in the summer.  The bulbs are strange, fleshy, multi-fanged things, more like an Erythronium than anything else I'v handled, and I was careful not to let them sit too wet after losing pots of actual Erythronium to rot through over zealous watering.  They made slightly sad little tufts of leaves, and then I read that they should be planted four to six inches deep to protect the bulbs from frost, so I had to virtually bury the leaves when I planted them out.  This may or may not have set them back.

I am partial to Roscoea.  The plant centre used to sell a rather brash purple one, but R. x beesiana is subtler, pale yellow with purple streaks.  The flowers are quite exotic, vaguely reminiscent of some sort of orchid with lower petals that hang down like the falls of an iris, and upper petals that stick up like perky rabbit ears.  They are supposed to grow in partial to full shade, and flower later in the year than most woodland plants, and I thought they would bring a welcome touch of summer interest to the ditch bed.

Things didn't work out like that.  Nothing ate them so far as I could see, but the leaves remained small and spindly, and the plants never rallied their energies enough to flower.  Looking at the spot where I had them I had to admit that nowadays that end of the ditch bed really is dark in summer. In late winter and spring before the leaves on the trees are fully out it's fine for snowdrops and primroses, but by the middle of the year it has turned into a very gloomy tunnel as the trees have grown, with three river birches on one side and my seed raised Zelkova carpinifolia on the other. There's shade and then there's shade, and this seems to be too much shade.  A willow leaved gentian I tried nearby after seeing one flowering one September at Wallington in Northumberland has done equally badly

So this afternoon, before the pathetic leaves could disappear entirely and I lost track of where the bulbs were, I very carefully dug them up again.  The soil in the ditch bed was quite dry, which may not have been to the Roscoea's liking either.  The bulbs weren't actually too bad, with modest signs of growth in the form of a few knobbly white protuberances.  I potted them into modest nine centimetre pots for the while, mainly to keep them from drying out, reasoning that as Broadleigh sold them in their spring catalogue they presumably weren't doing much in the autumn, and put them in a propagating case out of reach of the mice with a note on the label to pot them deeper next spring once they were in active growth, and a mental note not to over water them in the meantime.  Next year, if they survive the cold and damp and mice over the winter, I'll need to find them a new and lighter home.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

tidying the herb bed

Today I tidied quite a lot of the herb bed, though not all of it so I couldn't cross it off the list of Things to Do.  Once the postman had been I could have dragged the Henchman platform out from the middle of the turning circle and gone on with cutting the hedge, but I suppose I just fancied a change from great piles of eleagnus clippings.  And although much of the herb bed tidying consisted of chopping down the old stalks of mint, lemon verbena and oregano, their stems are so soft they require no effort to cut, whereas the hedge is a bit harder on the hands.

Climbing rose 'Meg' is looking very sad.  I gave her a dose of blood, fish and bone at the start of the season and another handful mid way through the summer and even watered her a couple of times, but it was evidently not enough, and by now most of the leaves have dropped off.  She did not make any new shoots at all this year from low down, while some of the old branches died.  This is clearly unsustainable.  Roses need to keep renewing themselves, or there isn't a lot left, given a few years.

There is an ash seedling growing up through the roof of the chicken run.  I have cut it down to roof level every couple of years but not grubbed it out entirely, because that seemed too much like hard work and because the chickens like a bit of shade and shelter anyway.  After this year's rain in June the ash raced away, and I was thinking that it really was too much and I must make sure to cut it back in the winter, then a few weeks ago it suddenly began to look sparse and thin.  I'm not sure if the problem was simply drought, and the sand is too mere for ash in very hot weather, or if it means the disease has arrived.  Many of the leaves went brown, but did not display the brown staining down the central vein that I've seen in pictures, and the bark of the trunk has not cracked below the affected branches.  But the disease is coming, make no mistake.  We have seen dead young trees in Suffolk.  It is rather gloomy, looking up at your trees every now and then and wondering when they will fall sick, knowing that most of them will.

The herb bed is infested with at least one species of creeping grass, and possibly two.  It (or they) have crept through the roots of the mint and the lemon verbena and the oregano, so it is impossible ever to dig them out entirely.  Experience teaches me that even when the grass has not gone through the roots of other things it is very difficult to dig it all out.  The odd little bit always runs down really deep, ready to recolonise the area even after it's been dug over repeatedly.  I managed to winkle out quite a lot of the roots, and the herbs coexist with the grass.  Once they shoot up in the summer they hide the odd grass stem, and I yank off the tallest bits and try to make sure that at least it can't seed itself.

There is bindweed as well.  I have never worked out how bindweed chooses where to live, and why it is a nuisance in some beds and absent from others.  Is it particular about soil?  Is it spread by birds who don't favour all parts of the garden equally?  I just pull off the top growth and whatever root I can get out with a hand fork, resigned to the fact that I am never going to get all the roots.

The clematis on their tripods are looking OK so far.  I watered them quite often when I had the hose out to do the greenhouse and the pots on the concrete.  The very small bay tree bought as a truly tiny plant in a nine centimetre pot from a garden centre's herb range is finally growing, after a very slow start.  When I first bought it I moved it to a bigger pot and grew it on for a while before planting it out, but once planted it did not like the winter cold or the summer droughts.  Now it seems as though it might have got its roots down at last and be ready to do something.  It would be nice if it was big enough for me to dare to remove the odd leaf for cooking.  So far it hasn't looked as if it could spare any.

Monday, 19 September 2016

getting back into the swing of gardening

I was surprised at how stiff I felt this morning after yesterday's efforts.  I thought we had quite an active holiday walking around gardens and exploring ruins, but clearly time spent shuffling through stately homes doesn't provide an equivalent workout to hedge cutting, not to mention all the hours of sitting in the car.  And my hands were tired enough last night for me to think that even though I've just had my secateurs sharpened and they are the best swivelling handle Felcos, still I had better pace myself with the pruning and alternate between that and other jobs not needing the secateurs so that I didn't wake up one day and find I'd knackered my grip and wouldn't be able to do anything for a month.

So I made tomato soup, since we have tomatoes.  I told the housesitters they were welcome to eat any of the tomatoes as they ripened and asked that they pick the rest of the ripe ones and put them in the fridge, but they don't seem to have done either of these things, to judge from the quantity of ripe and in some cases overripe fruit on the plants and absence of picked ones.  They probably didn't notice the instruction about the tomatoes in the welter of advice about the cats.  My basic tomato soup method is to sweat onion and carrot in butter, then add the tomatoes and simmer until everything's soft, then liquidise, pips and all.  It makes quite an acceptable soup even if you don't have any stock, with a sprinkle of Marigold powder and a herb of your choice.  At the moment I'm using dried basil, which works fine.  If you don't happen to have grown any basil, and I haven't, it negates the idea of a cheap basic soup if you have to go and buy a packet or pot of the fresh stuff. If I am feeling lavish I might add some tomato puree and a tiny bit of sugar for extra tomato taste, or some cream if I have any.  I might progress to tomato and lentil soup now it's autumn, in which case I could switch ground cumin for the basil.

I tried to ring the plastic company about my acrylic sheet, but nothing happens when you ring their number and their website doesn't come up any more, so I think they have gone bust.  I have lodged a claim with PayPal and am waiting to see what happens next.  In all my years of internet shopping this is the first time I've had a supplier fail so the PayPal compensation scheme is a whole new uncharted territory.  It is a nuisance.  We'd used that plastic distributor twice before and they used to be very good.  There again, plastics stockholding is not a high quality business.  In my small company days I don't think I'd have expected it to be on a very high rating.

After lunch I went to the dump with another five bags of long grass from the lawns, and a box with the broken glass from the greenhouse roof.  Ah, the glamour and excitement of gardening.  I thought I would treat myself to a new large propagating case for this year's pots of dwarf bulbs, after having to seal up the old cases last year with gaffer tape where the corners had chipped and the roof vents had dropped out, and the two years before that where I didn't manage to shut the cases sufficiently and the mice destroyed almost every bulb.  However, the Clacton garden centre had run out of lids, and I had to make do with a new pair of gardening socks.

Something has been burrowing in the largest pot in the conservatory, excavating quite a pile of compost and bits of chewed root from the Eriobotrya 'Coppertone'.  I suspect mice, having not found any cat poo in the pile of dug-out compost.  I was all set to lay an electric rat zapper but found that one of my traps, the one that got rained on when the pane fell out of the greenhouse roof and has been drying in the laundry ever since, did not show any signs of life even with four new batteries, while the batteries in the second had rotted and dissolved two of the terminals.  The Systems Administrator kindly switched the intact battery holder from the defunct zapper to the trap that had not been watered, and it is duly charged with fresh batteries and baited with a peanut.  I shall see what I catch, if anything.  The SA thought one of the cats might have mistaken the giant pot for a conveniently situated litter tray, but I am sure it's mice.  There is a hole.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

hedge cutting

I spent today cutting the eleagnus hedge.  What started as a welcome thickening after its severe reduction last autumn and the odd wispy shoot growing out into the drive was starting to get out of hand, to the point where visiting delivery van drivers were beginning to eye it up cautiously.  And it was doing that infuriating thing that hedges made out of fairly lax plants do, and flopping out at the top.  Cutting it has been on my list of things to do for some time, until post holiday and with the weather being cooler it bubbled up to the top.

The hedge is just coming into flower, and as it seems a shame to remove every bud and I don't want another winter staring at bare stems I am leaving it fairly shaggy rather than trying to clip it back to a billiard table finish.  The theory is that it can have a second clip over in the spring, just as it's coming into growth.  Even so I was worried before I started about how long it was going to take. Last year's big cut seemed to take up weeks of gardening time.  I started before we went on holiday and as far as I can remember the job lasted the rest of September when we got back.  Happily this time the job is going rather faster: I must have cut over half the side facing the drive, and shredded quite a lot of the prunings as I went along.

The point of shredding the debris is two-fold, so that I can add the trimmings to the compost heap, and so that they will not hang around the bonfire area for ages.  Whole dried leaves of Eleagnus x ebbingei are astonishingly leathery, and seem to last for ever without rotting.  Last year they all fell off the great pile of prunings before the Systems Administrator got around to burning them, and it was another job in itself gathering them up and disposing of them.  Shredded and mixed in with other types of garden waste they disappear in a more reasonable timescale.

The problem comes with the smallest and sappiest growth, which tends to wrap itself around the insides of the shredder instead of chopping into neat bits.  The trick is to feed an older and woodier stem through the shredder every so often, which sweeps the sappy bits along with it in its progress through the machine.  This time the balance of soft regrowth and older wood was not quite right for optimum shredding, and I was left with a pile of twigs that wouldn't feed through the shredder. I snipped some up with secateurs as a last job to do while the light failed, but some may end up on the bonfire.  Home made compost is good stuff, but there's a limit to how much time you can invest in making it.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

two museums, one castle, a waterfall, an old railway station, and part of a garden

We spent Friday touristing closer to the cottage, to give the Systems Administrator a break from the A1 before the journey home, and because it was forecast to be the greyest and dampest day of the week and we wanted to visit The Bowes Museum.  It is supposed to have one of the finest collections of decorative and fine art in the country, tucked away in the relative obscurity (from the point of view of London and the south east) of Barnard Castle.  I'd long been aware of it, without knowing exactly where it was except that it was in the north, and as we firmed up on this year's holiday I realised we'd be staying ten miles down the road from it.  It turned out to be a very, very good museum, and if we lived close by I'd go often, especially as I get in for free with my Art Pass.  We looked at eighteenth and nineteenth century French furniture, and a splendid collection of porcelain, and a great many pictures and sculptures spanning the Renaissance to the late nineteenth century, including an El Greco and a vast, extraordinary Italian alter piece.  We looked at glassware and silverware and coins, until after two hours our brains were bursting and we could not absorb any more art.  This was a slight shame, since the piece de resistance of The Bowes Museum is their mechanical silver swan, a twin to the one in The Hermitage Museum, and it operates once daily but not until two.  Still, we have seen its trick of swivelling its neck and devouring a silver fish from the rippling crystal stream on television, and probably lots of people would have wanted to see it move and we would all have had to stand a distance from the cabinet, but we were able to have a good look at it when it was not moving and marvel at the delicacy of its construction.  The museum was the creation and gift of a local landowner and his French wife, and occupies a handsome building styled along the lines of a French chateau designed and built for the purpose.  Sadly, they both died before it was finished.  Other donors have continued to swell the collection, and it is absolutely superb, and very uncrowded and quiet to visit compare to the latest London blockbuster.  I really liked the Bowes.

Then by way of a change we drove up Teesdale to High Force.  Local tourist marketing mythology has it down as the tallest waterfall in England, though according to its Wikipedia entry it isn't.  It doesn't matter, tallest or second or third tallest it is spectacular.  The whole of the Tees, not just one side tributary, has carved itself a gorge in the upper part of Teesdale, and at High Force it rushes over the Whin Sill, a great layer of hard igneous rock lying across the north east.  It crops up again under some of the Northumbrian castles and parts of Hadrian's Wall.  The path to High Force is rather sedate, being neatly graded and gravelled by the Raby Estate which owns the falls, but you can scramble out on to the rocky beach below the waterfall if you so choose and sit on a boulder while you contemplate The Sublime.  It is very impressive and quite loud.  The waters of the Tees are stained a rich brown by the peat.  We noticed that further downstream, and it gives High Force a cappuccino tinge.

We wanted to see more of Richmond before the holiday ended, and took the scenic route over the moors via Brough.  The north Pennines are magnificent and brooding, the striped poles two metres high that run along the verges giving you an idea of what it might be like in the winter when it snows.  Compared to the Lake District the landscape is vast, the moors stretching wider and further than any fell, the valleys broader and more intensively farmed.  It is a great part of the world if you like big, open landscapes and wandering about looking at stuff.

One of Richmond's medieval churches has served since the 1970s as home to The Green Howards Museum which tells the history of the local regiment.  It has recently been refurbished, and seemed to me to be very well done.  This was confirmed by the SA, who as a keen military historian has more of a framework on which to hang the sort of information in the museum, and is more likely to spot any errors.  Then we went and looked at the inside of Richmond Castle, built as a royal castle not long after the Norman invasion but which never saw active service.  It is quite large with a well preserved keep, and good views of the town from the top of the keep, including a glimpse down into the delightful garden of Millgate House.  English Heritage a few years ago sponsored the creation of modern gardens at several of their castles, presumably wanting to increase their general level of visitor interest, but meaning they are now saddled with the maintenance expenses of features that are nothing whatsoever to do with the main historic element.  At Richmond this takes the form of quite a lot of whiskery yew hedges and modernist blocky topiary, all on a sloping site making it impossible to stand a simple platform.  I predict the management will regret this in years to come, now they are supposed to cover their own costs as visitor attractions.  The man on the door tried very hard to sell us a guide book and then to persuade us to join English Heritage.

Finally we strolled down to the old railway station, since it is not in the SA's nature to visit a town and not inspect the station.  The line ended on the opposite bank of the river to the main part of the town, and Richmond is the only town in England where the railway company paid for a bridge that had a road on it rather than the railway.  The station is now used as an art cum bijou leisure centre, with a cinema and cafe plus various shops and galleries, and we ate a late tea while thinking that it would be nice to go to the cinema there, if you lived in Richmond.

And today we saw a little part of one garden as we broke the journey home at Anglesey Abbey, to give the SA a break from driving and so that we would not arrive home too early while the housesitters were still having their lunch and before they had loaded their car.  The gardens include a great dahlia border, which ought to be at its peak in mid September, and was.  It is colour graded, moving from pale yellow at one end via orange, red, purple and mauve, to pink and eventually white.  They are all good gaudy doubles, cactus and pompom forms, none of your subdued good taste not-really-like-a-dahlia singles, and the effect is striking.  We drove over specially to see it a few years back, and only discovered after someone in the visitor centre had sold us a guide to the individual varieties for fifty pence that access to the dahlia walk was closed at both ends to save the grass.  After that and a similar experience when we drove over to see the snowdrops I rather went off Anglesey Abbey, but it might be time to forgive them.  We did not have time to look at most of the rest of the garden or the watermill, but did discover a truly impressive display of Cyclamen hederifolium under the trees en route to the dahlias.

When we got home we still had four cats and six hens, which was a relief.  I was worried about how the kittens would react being left with strange people for the first time, and whether the serious kitten would refuse to come in at night, and it turns out he did stay out at night a couple of times but survived the experience.  Mr Fluffy and the ever energetic Mr Fidget both seemed to have grown in the week and looked much more like cats than when we went away.  They all remembered who we were and were pleased to see us, which was nice.

Friday, 16 September 2016

two gardens, a viaduct and a museum

Wednesday was forecast to be brighter on the Cumbrian side of the Pennines than in the east.  I was keen to make a return visit to Levens Hall, which we last visited in 1984, and the Systems Administrator wanted to see the Ribblehead viaduct from the ground having previously ridden over it in a train, so Wednesday seemed the obvious day to head west.  Granted, it is a fair drive from Barnard Castle, but still a lot closer than starting from north Essex.

The gardens at Levens open at ten, but the house doesn't open until one.  Four hours seemed more than enough time to spend looking at topiary, so we decided to start off with the gardens at Holker Hall near Grange-over-Sands.  We stopped there once before, on our way to visit friends in the Lakes, and after an hour or so the Systems Administrator said we could not stay any longer or we would be so late it would be rude.  I liked the gardens so much the first time round I bought the owner's book about them, and was eager to see them again.  They are medium sized in grand garden terms at around twenty five acres, set in extremely beautiful countryside.  Near the house are formal gardens with topiary, and bedded out blue salvias still putting on a bright show in mid September.  As you go further from the house the garden gets wilder and more naturalistic, as you'd expect, until suddenly you come to another formal garden, sunken and paved with a little stone garden pavilion romantically overgrown with vines, pond and waterspout, and pergola, and at this time of the year quantities of small flowered, late clematis rambling over and through the other plants in the borders and the stone wall along the back.  It is such a good trick to confound visitors' expectations by altering the usual running order of garden features, and I liked the sunken garden very much.  There are all sorts of interesting trees in the grassy areas away from the house, including the Holker lime, a leviathan 7.9 metres in girth.  New since our previous visit is a grassy bowl designed by Kim Wilkie, which has a strangely soothing quality as sun falls on its opposite sides at different angles so changing the apparent colour of the grass.  We didn't bother with the hall, but the garden at Holker is a delight.

At Levens Hall we started with the house, to make a change after just viewing a garden, and because the house closes earlier and you never want to feel you are looking at things against the clock.  The house as now seen was mostly constructed between the late sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  It still has its original Elizabethan oak panelling and plasterwork and some marvellous leather wallpapers, and is largely furnished in the dark and massive Jacobean style.  I really like that sort of thing, while seeing why it was that by the Georgian era people were ready for a change.  It seems a miracle that Levens survived so unaltered and unmodernised, but when we asked one of the guides why this was and whether it was because the money had run out she said no, the family had been wealthy enough, but Levens had ceased to be their main seat and had been occupied by a series of long-lived widows who liked it as it had always had been.

The famous topiary garden was laid out at the very end of the seventeenth century.  What I had not reckoned with when I requested we add Levens Hall to our itinerary was that in September they would be cutting it.  This meant that one corner was cordoned off, and there was some noise, on the other hand it was so interesting to see how they did it.  A gardener was tackling the top of one of the large yews with a battery powered, long handled hedge trimmer, working from a cherry picker he could operate from the platform.  Between cutting sessions he spent a long time flicking away the cut ends with a long bamboo cane.  That must be tricky, since freshly cut yew on yew is quite difficult to see, but it dries to a deep brown that would show up badly, and by then the hydraulic platform would have gone back to the hire depot.  The beds surrounding the clipped yews and box are always bedded out, this year in a bright combination of vivid yellow and purple, which was still looking extremely colourful despite the lateness of the season.  Maybe it is easier to make things last in the west where they get more rain.

Then came our pilgrimage to the Ribblehead Viaduct.  The Settle and Carlisle line was one of the last major trunk routes to be built, the viaduct being completed in 1875.  It is an extraordinary feat of engineering when you consider where it is, hundreds of feet up in the middle of a moor. Coincidentally I had just finished reading a book about railway navvies picked up on our last holiday the very night before we went to see Ribblehead, and the final chapter was about the Settle and Carlisle, so I know that apart from dealing with ground so boggy that barrows had to use barrels for wheels or they sank into the ooze, the soil the navvies had to excavate was largely boulder clay. Dry, it was hard as cement and you could scarcely drive a pick axe into it, wet it turned to slurry so sticky it wouldn't tip out of the wagons used to shift it.  The workmen spent a year building one embankment without advancing a yard, the loads of clay they tipped running everywhere across the slope except where they were wanted.  More recently Ribblehead makes an appearance in Ben Wheatley's black comedy Sightseers about a couple on a caravan holiday that turns nasty.

Even further up the moors along really tiny roads is England's highest railway station.  Dent Station is 1,150 feet above sea level, annual rainfall around ninety two inches.  The old station is now a holiday let, and while trains still stop it looks as though you have to buy your ticket on the train with not even a ticket machine on the platform.  The Systems Administrator, who is a mine of useful information about railways, told me firstly that the Settle and Carlisle had not overall been especially expensive to build, despite the incredible engineering works of the viaduct and the tunnels, because the land the route followed was so cheap to buy, and secondly that nowadays it is largely used for freight when it hasn't been partially blocked by landslips like it is at the moment, providing useful extra north-south capacity.

And that was Wednesday, and supper is not yet ready, so I shall press on, though the internet connection in the cottage is rather dodgy.  On Thursday we went to Beamish, the great museum of life in the north east just north of Durham.  Again, it was not the closest visitor attraction to where we are staying, but it is a fabulous museum and the cottage was picked to be strategically handy for the A66 and A1.  We visited Beamish four years ago, and it was vast, with more to see and do than you could ever see or do in a day.  They have moved endangered buildings from their original sites to create a pit village and pit head, town of the early 1900s, Georgian valley, and 1940s farm. Vintage trams and buses take you around the site if you don't feel like walking, and in almost every building there is something being made or working.  The hundred and fifty year old engine at the colliery (which I now know was not a beam engine but a vertical piston A frame engine) was in steam so we could see its mighty flywheel turning and piston rising and falling.  Cakes were being made and sold in the bakery, heavy horses stood outside the livery yard, and in the 1940s farm we found to my great joy a vast and patient pig.  Since our previous visit they have finished the reconstructed 1820s restoration of a medieval church, with a nice set of Georgian box pews coming from a church in Somerset, and a photographer's shop complete with dressing up costumes and vintage dark room has appeared in the 1900s high street.  We didn't have our photo taken, but we could have.  From Thursday to Sunday they were holding their annual agricultural fair, and while we missed the brass bands going on a weekday, we did have a long and instructive conversation with a clog maker about the uses and qualities of different woods.  We were into Beamish at half past ten, by the time we'd queued for our tickets, and didn't leave until nearly five, and still hadn't seen everything there was to see.  The tickets are valid for a year, but sadly I don't think we're likely to be in county Durham again that soon.

And two days of touristing is quite enough for one evening.  I forgot to say, Barnard Castle has a very good curry house, the Bengal Merchant.  If for some reason fate or choice takes you to Barnard Castle then that's the place to go.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

more sightseeing

We have seen too many things since I last blogged to list them all in the title, for Tristam Shandy-like my life is unfolding faster than I can write about it.  So I will see how far I get this evening, before I get fed up or it's supper time.

Monday's first wildlife sighting came before we had even left the cottage, as there was a wren flitting about on the shrubby honeysuckle outside the kitchen window.  Our first stop was Thorp Perrow arboretum, which I have long wanted to see.  It is supposed to be one of the best collections of trees in England, and covers eighty-five acres, including a pinetum planted in Victorian times when seed of many north American species was first introduced, and a collection started by the present owner's grandfather in the 1930s.  Thorp Perrow turned out to be wonderful, with all sorts of nice and interesting trees and shrubs and a very tranquil atmosphere, and one of the best garden guide books I have ever bought.  Rather than putting nice printed name labels on their trees, which tend to get stolen by visitors who would like a record of something's name and haven't remembered to bring pen or paper to write them down (one hopes the rise of the camera phone is gradually putting an end to this particularly annoying practice) the Thorp Perrow trees have numbers.  The guide book lists all the numbers (or at least everything planted up to 2014) with name, family, planting date where known and region of origin listed against every number, then a list of species in the arboretum at the back of the guide grouped by genus.  And it included data on soil types in different parts of the arboretum, plus annual rainfall and hours of sunshine.  And it will serve as a reference guide to what has successfully grown for how long in the relatively testing conditions of north Yorkshire.

And the tea shop was nice.  I liked Thorp Perrow very much, but eventually had reluctantly to admit that I was not going to be able to inspect every tree personally in the course of one visit.  By way of seeing a completely different way of playing with trees in a designed landscape, we went on to Hackfall Wood, somewhere else I've been aware of and wanted to see for years.  Hackfall Wood is interesting on two counts: it is an ancient woodland, and in the eighteenth century was used as the basis for creating a landscape garden of follies and eyecatchers.  After a period of neglect and decline in the twentieth century it was rescued, the Woodland Trust acquiring the site and a garden trust being formed to take care of the buildings, which are now Grade I listed.

The wood sits in a steep valley with a stream romantically tinkling down it, occasionally helped to tinkle better by some artful stonework.  Ferns thrive in the damp air and the trunks of fallen trees periodically span the little gorge, the older ones themselves fringed with more ferns.  All is extremely picturesque, and having not looked properly at the Ordnance Survey map before our walk it came as a complete surprise to me when suddenly the view opened to reveal the valley dropping down below us to a substantial river, the Ure.  It was all very, very pretty.  The newish car park at the Masham end is not very big, and in high season must be rammed: a Monday afternoon in mid September is probably a better time to visit.  The view from the car park is stunning, across the top end of Wensleydale and right over to the vale of York and north York moors.

From Hackfall we returned to Richmond and a third approach to the designed landscape in the form of a town garden belonging to Millgate House.  I think I read about it on the Richmond town website, and saw that it had received glowing reviews from all sorts of people and clutches of awards.  Ever curious about gardens, it seemed worth a visit when it was right on our doorstep and only two pounds fifty to get in.  Reader, it was superb.  If we'd driven quite a long way with the main purpose of seeing it I wouldn't have felt cheated.  The houses in Millgate present a continuous facade, and you reach the garden by opening a door with a notice on it instructing you to open the door and go down the passageway, the first part of which leads through someone's house.  Both sides of the passageway are planted with ferns and roses.  There is an honesty box for your two pound fifties.  You turn through an opening in the wall and suddenly you are in the garden.

And what a garden.  It is not very big, and sits on quite a steep slope, parts of which are terraced. There are no lawns, just narrow paths and plants.  The back of Millgate House extends further down the hill than its neighbours, so that from the garden you have no sense of being overlooked except by Millgate House itself, which is a grand Georgian building with yet more plants tumbling from the first floor balcony.  There are roses, clematis, hydrangeas, ferns, hostas, cheerful self seeding wanderers like Welsh poppies, phlox and all sorts of flowers growing into and around and through each other.  There are topiarised hollies and box, and at least two magnolias, and clipped yews, and I found a choice little daphne unexpectedly plopped down in one densely packed bed.  There are cheerful frilly fuschias in pots and little pots of succulents.  There is a trough with water trickling into it from a wall spout, and lots and lots of places to sit down.  It is absolutely superb, deeply atmospheric, and horticulture of the highest order.  You could not ask somebody who didn't know quite a lot about plants to do anything to help you in that garden.  Taste and judgement ooze out of every cranny.

And then we walked around the outside of the castle, but did not have time to go in because although the castle was open until six, we had put ourselves in a short stay car park with a maximum of two hours and our ticket was due to expire well before then.

Tuesday was earmarked for the North York Moors Railway, since it was forecast to be hot and we thought we might as well be sitting down on a train looking at the scenery rather than walking miles in the boiling heat.  We got on at the Grosmont end, and were initially intimidated by the number of people wanting to get on with us, and the number of people already on the train who had got on at Whitby.  According to the Systems Administrator there was some concern within the railway when they began to extend to service to Whitby, since the track from Grosmont to Whitby is part of Network Rail, and they have to pay a hefty access fee and have network accredited drivers to cover that stretch.  But the enthusiasts for going to Whitby believed that it would boost the railway linking it to a main tourist destination like Whitby, and they seem to be right.  We did get seats, and after the first stop we managed to bag window seats when some people got off, but the NYMR seems to be doing very well.  It is the most heavily used preserved steam railway in the country, with 350,000 visitors a year, and even on a weekday in mid September they had five different locomotives in steam.  A few years ago you'd only have seen that at a gala weekend.

One of the locomotives was a rare freight engine, and another was an American design shipped over here in the last war by the US army, so the Systems Administrator was happy to have seen some unusual locomotives.  I have said it before but when the SA and I look at a steam train we don't see the same thing.  So on the steep hill leaving Grosmont as the engine struggled to keep moving the SA knew that it was not short of steam because a fine mist of rain had fallen past the windows, a sign that the boiler safety valve had opened to release excess pressure, ergo it had full pressure.  I hadn't noticed.  At Grosmont are the engineering sheds, where we saw one of the engines that had been working earlier standing over an inspection pit while a man hit part of it a lot of times with a hammer.  Then the rare American engine arrived, and we thought first that it was going to take on coal and then that its insides were going to be raked over, but instead a man advanced on it with another hammer.

From Grosmont we went to Saltburn-by-the-Sea, which we'd been thinking of doing before thinking of going to Whitby, and then almost going to an ironstone mining museum, which would have been a case of Saltburn doing itself out of two tourists, since we read about the museum on Saltburn's website and it is not at all close to Saltburn.  The last minute return to Plan A was prompted partly by the fear that Whitby would be absolutely jam packed with tourists, and indeed there weren't many spaces in the car park at Saltburn.  Saltburn-by-the-Sea was built as a tourist resort by the railway company, so our visit followed on very nicely from Sunday's trip to the Darlington railway museum, but the biggest draw was the funicular cliff railway, as featured by Michael Portillo and John Sergeant (and apparently in an episode of Inspector George Gently, but we never watched beyond the pilot episode).

The cliff railway has two cars, one going up and one down, and uses water to adjust their relative weights.  We were pleased and surprised to discover it running on a weekday, since the website had made it sound as though it might only be running at weekends, but it was not only running but extremely busy.  The man in charge of letting us on at the bottom told us that this had been their best and busiest season ever.  It would not in fact be very hard work to walk up from the beach to the town as long as you were in normal health, since it's only a hundred and twenty feet, but the cliff railway is very fine, with stained glass windows in the two cars and a splendid Victorian waiting room at its foot.  The town centre is laid out on a grid, being planned, with fine tall Victorian houses and guest houses near the sea front, some with cast iron, glass topped canopies stretching out over the pavement in front of them like those at Llandudno.  The former railway station, now redeveloped for bijou retail use, is in the Italianate style.  There is an Italian garden towards the back of the old town, tucked down in a valley with a promenade walk leading back to the sea front.  Finding the Italian garden was the only point where Saltburn's tourist infrastructure let us down, as the previously frequent town maps petered out in one done to a different scale that didn't show the garden, while the next information board we found after that had no maps, just photographs of three buildings none of which we could see from where we were standing.

Back at the seaside, Saltburn has a pier, the most northerly public pier in England.  It is not very big, but once you've passed through an unobtrusive amusement arcade at the landward end the rest of the pier is wonderfully uncluttered, with nothing but happy people walking about or fishing.  I discovered afterwards that we'd been lucky with our tides, because it was surrounded by water as we walked to the end, exclaiming at how clear the sea was compared with the gloop of the Thames estuary, but when I saw it on breakfast TV as a backdrop to the weather presenter it was standing surrounded by golden sand.  Which is very nice, but a pier should let you out over the water.  The beach at Saltburn is vast.  It must stretch for miles up the coast, and as I discovered at low tide it goes out a long way as well.  The promenade is refreshingly uncluttered by advertising signs, stalls with plastic merchandise or other tat, and the general effect is more Southwold than Clacton-on-Sea.  The locals don't seem to mind not having the chance to buy a plastic windmill or ice cream every six yards: the beach was good and busy with folk of all ages.  According to the waiter in the Indian restaurant we went to the following day, Saltburn-by-the-Sea has always been nice.

And that has caught me up one day so I'm only two days behind, and is more than enough for one evening.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

a railway museum and two castles

I'd assumed we'd be staying in north Yorkshire as we're near Richmond, but when we arrived we found the place was just over the county boundary, in County Durham.  The distinction isn't entirely arbitrary.  Richmond is on the river Swale which joins the river Ure and eventually ends up in the Ouse, flowing out into the North Sea at Hull.  Barnard Castle, the nearest town to the north of us, is on the Tees which enters the sea at Teesside, between Hartlepool and Ravenscar.

We started our tourist efforts in Darlington at the Head of Steam museum.  Darlington used to be a great railway town.  I hadn't realised how big the railways were there: Swindon, yes, or Doncaster, but in my mind Darlington's association with railways stopped at the building of the Stockton and Darlington railway.  Not so, it went on to become a major engineering centre, and suffered badly as the railways began to wind down in the second half of the twentieth century.  The town centre was horribly hacked about by planners in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving odd examples of fine Victorian architecture marooned among dual carriage ways and brutalist concrete buildings, but the vibe we got on our visit was that it was doing OK now.

The Head of Steam museum has got one of Stephenson's original engines, the Locomotion.  The Stephenson engine everybody seems to have heard of, myself included, is the Rocket, but Locomotion was built four years earlier, in 1825.  I was quite touched to think of the great engineer George Stephenson perched on the little seat to the side of the engine, driving it on its maiden voyage, with two of his brothers acting as firemen.  The museum is housed in Darlington railway station on the line of the original Stockton and Darlington railway, which represents one of the pivotal feats of the industrial revolution.  Altogether we liked the Head of Steam museum.  Note to councils everywhere: try to keep your museums open even in these difficult times, they encourage tourists who bring hard cash to your area.

In fact we did not have to part with any hard cash to get into the museum since we went on Heritage Open Weekend when it was free.  It is not very expensive to visit anyway, but the main bonus of going during the Heritage Weekend turned out to be that visitors were invited into the shed, a former railway foundry, where the North Eastern Locomotive Preservation Group have one of their two workshops.  It was only under the Systems Administrator's guidance that I began to grasp that preserved steam railway operations and steam locomotive ownership are quite distinct. Preserved railways don't generally own their engines, they hire them from whoever does own them, be it a group of enthusiasts or a rich individual like Pete Waterman.  NELPG has four locomotives, the volunteer who showed us around told us very proudly, the most of any group in the country.

The one in the shed at Darlington was in for what had turned into a major overhaul, since besides needing the usual ten yearly boiler certificate it had turned out to have a cracked cylinder case.  A replacement had been cast: the pattern alone cost fifty thousand, for what will probably be one-off use since no other engines remain to that design, and the new cylinder case weighed nearly three tonnes.  It was lucky it didn't weigh any more since the heaviest weight the foundry could handle was three tonnes.  There aren't many foundries left able to do that sort of work.  The wheels had been to Devon and Belfast for specialist repairs.  I couldn't work out how a society with six hundred members could remotely begin to afford any of this, until the SA reminded me that they were getting the hire fees from the other three engines that weren't in for repair.  This overhaul had taken five years so far, and the volunteer hoped they might finally finish next year, and make room in the shed for the next engine.  Our glimpse into the locomotive workshop was jolly interesting, and I now know how I would diagnose hot running in an axle (put tallow on the end and see if it melts during running).

From Darlington we went to Raby Castle, which didn't open until later in the morning.  Part of the art of touristing is planning your running order for things that open late, shut early, or don't open on Mondays or Fridays and Saturdays or whenever it might be.  Raby Castle is close to Barnard Castle, and the great merit of visiting on a Sunday was that we would be allowed to go round the castle at our own pace and not be limited to a guided tour.  It is a splendid castle, steadily modified from being a defensive fortification to being an extremely grand house with a medieval vibe.  The castle was originally in the possession of the Nevill family, was confiscated by the crown after they unwisely took part in an uprising in the sixteenth century, and was bought along with Barnard castle (the actual castle, not the whole town) by Lord Barnard in the seventeenth century.

Wikipedia's entry on Raby Castle is rather sniffy about the extent to which the Barnard family altered the medieval fabric, on the other hand three centuries on, Raby still has a roof on it and is a functioning family home, whereas Barnard castle is a ruin.  Raby in its present form is great fun, highlights including the Victorian octagon drawing room done out like a Paris salon of the middle of the century, which is quite fabulously ornate.  We were interested to note that the replacement silk wall hangings fitted as part of the restoration a few years ago were woven in Sudbury.  There is a decent art collection as well, a great hall complete with carriage entrance and carriage as the nobility could be driven right into the building and not get wet getting out of the carriage, and a very large library complete with a young pianist playing a Steinway grand.  And there were helpful room guides and quite a lot of fresh flowers.  And some odd touches like a rug made out of a skinned spaniel, head still attached, and a stuffed fox.

Raby has a deer park, with deer and long horn cattle and an extraordinary number of geese, and an eighteenth century walled garden cunningly positioned on a south facing slope a little way from the castle and sheltered from the worst of the wind by the ridge the castle stands on.  I'd have liked to learn more about the original purpose of the garden, and whether it had originally been entirely for produce or included a pleasure garden.  Nowadays there are some good bulgy yew hedges said to be over two hundred years old, trimmed in such angular planes they made me think of a brutalist concrete sculpture of the 1960s reenacted in yew.  The most remarkable feature was a White Ischia fig, said to have been planted in 1786, which took up the whole of its own purpose built heated glass house.  I paced out the house and it was fully twenty-one of my strides long, and the fig was attempting triffid-like to burst out of it, leaves pressed up against the glass and slithering out where the windows were cracked open for ventilation.

After Raby we went to look at the castle in Barnard Castle, now in the care of English Heritage.  It had a brief period of glory when it held off the great uprising for five days of siege in the sixteenth century before surrendering, but by then it was already becoming obsolete.  It sits dramatically over the river Tees, but is hemmed in by the town, and Lord Barnard preferred to make a home out of Raby and used the town castle as a source of stone for his building works.  It is pleasant enough to walk around now on a fine day, and looks just like a ruined castle ought to do, complete with round tower, but there isn't all that much of it any more.

And after all that and our drive up from Essex the previous day we were tired and went back to our holiday let, which is some sort of converted agricultural building rather than a quaint cottage but perfectly pleasant, being clean, quiet, warm enough, and with a straightforward cooker that stays on when you turn it on.  And that was day one of our touristing so I am now two days behind and the holiday is unfolding faster than I am writing about it.

Friday, 9 September 2016

ready to roll

Cleaning is one of those projects that sucks you in.  I was so impressed by yesterday's newly clean and tidy cupboard that today I tackled the accumulation of tiny bits of fluff in the ends of the divided cutlery drawers.  They had been gently annoying me for months, just not enough for me to take all the cutlery out of the holders, and take the holders out of the drawers, and wash them. But other people's bits of fluff are like their elderly wooden spoons or spatulas with a dent branded in them where they got rested on the edge of a too-hot pan.  You may not mind your own gnarly spatula or fluff, but you don't want anything to do with anybody else's.  It did not objectively speaking take very long to remove the cutlery or wash the drawers, and I was left with the faint feeling that I should have done this ages ago.

The Systems Administrator, not to be outdone, fell upon the sinks with Viakal and removed vast deposits of whatever strange mineral residue it is that our water leaves on any surface it touches even briefly.  I don't understand our water.  This is not a chalky area, and we don't have classically hard water, but something in it solidifies into ferocious white and green mounds around the bases of taps and round all plugholes.  The kettle doesn't just have scale inside it, it has dribbles of scale down the outside as well.  I wipe and scrub fairly ineffectually, and make periodic efforts with the limescale remover, but I didn't have time to do more than clean the kitchen sinks before the last lot of visitors, and was tempted to do the same again today.  Thanks to the SA's good offices suddenly they're back to bare metal.

I did however clean the glass divide between the inner and outer halls with glass polish.  I have read that you can achieve a perfectly good finish with newspaper and vinegar.  I have also read that your entire house will then smell of vinegar.  And I crawled around the wooden floors wiping off the odd rings where one of us slopped a drink, and various stains left by the cats into whose nature it was better not to enquire too closely.

You could consider it rather pitiful that we end up spending forty-eight hours cleaning the house before we can go on holiday.  But cleaning has to be done sometime, and we'll get most of the benefit when we get back since the house sitters will clear up after themselves.  The trouble is that if house cleaning is not very far up your list of things to do, the main thing that concentrates the mind is the prospect of visitors, and people who are going to live in the house for a week are going to see a lot more of it than guests who are only round for the evening.  As you usher them briskly through the hall they might not notice the alluvial deposit on the telephone table.  By broad daylight and given a week to consider the matter they probably will, and they will need to look in your cutlery drawers.

Now the place is fit to leave our thoughts can turn delightfully to the pleasures in prospect in north Yorkshire.  Ruins, lots of ruins.  And stately homes.  And steam trains.  And the Dales scenery.  I will blog about the best bits in due course, but not necessarily every day, since part of the point of being on holiday is that you don't have to do anything.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

before the holiday

I sometimes wonder whether the people who design domestic white and brown goods ever consider how they are supposed to be cleaned.  I know that at least in theory they are tested, because back in my small company investment fund management days I went on a company visit to Kenwood, and we were taken to the product development department.  But does testing extend to using the product over a sustained period and then trying to wipe it clean?  Or just making sure that it doesn't blow up when switched on, and asking which design of handle a focus group prefers?

I thought this again as I tried to clean the filter of the dishwasher.  It's been leaving little brown specks on the plates recently, even though I topped up the rinse aid, and the general idea of a dishwasher is not that you have to wash everything again as you unload it.  The filter was completely revolting, and actually rather put me off the idea of having a dishwasher at all.  Do I want water that has been in contact with this filter sprayed over utensils I'm going to eat with? Even once I'd disassembled it to the smallest parts it would break down to without actually breaking, I was left with inaccessible interstices with brown goo stuck in them.  What was I supposed to use to clean it with?  A small bottle brush like the ones you get with some upmarket bird feeders?  A pipe cleaner?  In the end I managed with my finger, a nail brush, and the skewer I keep by the sink for poking earth out of the holes in stones, plus a great deal of washing up liquid. The Systems Administrator was entirely unsympathetic about the state of the filter, saying that I did not have to clear the drains.

Cleaning the cupboard with the glasses and the overflow fridge in it was more rewarding, as I discovered a whole box of tealights I'd forgotten we'd got, and enough Price's white wax candles to last this Christmas and probably the next.  The bottle of cream soda I'd been thinking we really ought to use sometime, except that I was afraid it might be too old, turned out to have been best before March 2015.  In theory running a second fridge is a wicked waste of electricity, except that it is so useful for chilling drinks and holding overflow food when entertaining.  I sometimes wonder if we should manage without it, but so far have resisted being that hair shirt about it.  We'll need to make room in the kitchen fridge for the house sitters to store food, since they can't live here for the week without one, so our supplies of butter, cheese, and all those jams and pickles that ought to be OK at room temperature since jamming and pickling were supposed to be ways of preserving food, except that the modern versions do seem to go mouldy unless refrigerated, will have to shift into the other fridge.

I have started a list of things we need to pack, to remind us to take them and then to act as a checklist when we are packing to come home again.  A decade ago I left a bath robe hung on the back of a holiday cottage bedroom door, but I've got more systematic since then.  Reading lights. Some holiday lets are well equipped but some aren't.  An extension cable in case we need it to plug the reading lights in.  Basic spices so that we don't end up buying yet more mixed herbs and chilli powder when we've already got multiple pots of both.  A sharp knife.  One decent saucepan, and a flat edged wooden spoon in case the spatulas in the cottage are as revolting as our dishwasher filter was.  Your own old wooden spoons are one thing, but other people's are quite another.  An astonishingly large array of electronic equipment, laptops, tablets, phones, and chargers for all of them.  The National Trust guide, which also has our car park sticker in it, plus the church guide, the tile guide, and several garden guides.  My garden visiting notebook.

The owners of this year's cottage, or rather converted outbuilding, live on site.  That could be very handy in case of difficulties, like the flat two years ago where we couldn't get the cooker to work. It was a ridiculously sophisticated cooker with an elaborate timer and an instruction book an inch thick.  We both pored over the book, and neither of us could persuade the cooker not to randomly turn itself off in the middle of cooking.  We ended up microwaving everything when we were not eating out, and by the end of the week neither of us wanted to see another pasta bake ready meal again for the foreseeable future.  This time round we can just go and bang on the owners' door. Help, how does the cooker work?

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

almost away

I potted the daffodil bulbs this morning.  I was rather relieved that I had enough compost left after potting on the seven and nine centimetre pots.  Daffodils start making roots early in the autumn, as you will know if you have ever dug one up by mistake in late summer, and the first week of September is none too soon to be planting them.  And now they can get on with starting to grow while we're away, probably a fortnight before I'd have got round to planting them otherwise.  One of my favourite pieces of gardening advice is from Sir Walter Scott's Heart of Midlothian: Jock, when ye hae naething else to do, ye may be aye sticking in a tree; it will be growing, Jock, when ye're sleeping.

And that was my last bit of gardening until after we return from holiday.  I will refill the brown bin once it's been emptied on Friday, so that the next load has plenty of time to settle and I fit as much in as possible, and I must make sure I move my last bags of long grass cuttings from the lawn so that they don't sit there for the whole week marking the grass, but there won't be time for anything much else before we go, and once we get back we'll already be into the second half of September. Really there is no good time for gardeners to go away.

I hope it rains while we're off.  Here, that is, not in North Yorkshire.  The box of bulbs also contained a bag of a hundred Crocus tommasinianus for the bottom lawn, and I don't fancy dibbling a hundred holes until the ground is softer, while the stash on the concrete includes dozens of seed raised mallows and knapweeds for the daffodil lawn, and I'm certainly not planting them until I can dig comfortably.  The human wrist is a engineering marvel, but if there's one sure way to knacker it for a month it's persistently trying to push a trowel into hard ground.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

air soup

We are back in air soup territory.  The humidity when I got up was ninety-nine per cent, and I could feel my skull teetering on the edge of a headache.  At one point I'd vaguely hoped to get myself to the Dulwich Picture Gallery today to catch the Winifred Knights exhibition before it closes next weekend, but by last night I'd decided that probably wasn't going to happen, and this morning there was no way I was going to go to Dulwich and back.  The exhibition has reviewed very well, but when I reread the reviews it seemed there were only actually five of her paintings in it, with the rest being preparatory sketches.  I'd have liked to see them and add a little known and neglected early twentieth century British artist to my tally, but not at virtually an hour's travelling time per painting in this weather.  You can't do everything.

I did finish potting on the seven and nine centimetre pots on the concrete, and cleared away various weed infested dead plants that had never made it out into the garden in time, poor things. That's the trouble with propagating your own material.  You start off with good intentions and high hopes, months before, and by the time they are ready to go out you hope the planting site will be ready.  Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't.  Drought, brambles, rabbit incursions, colds, backache, incurable optimism.  It's difficult to set a strict timetable in advance.

Some of the pots had recycled themselves into other things that could be useful.  A crop of seedling artichoke plants died in their pots, because with the best will in the world I never managed to clear a bed for them in what is supposed to be the vegetable garden.  Some pink Linaria 'Canon Went' raised for cutting likewise remained stuck in its pots because I didn't manage to get what was supposed to be the cutting bed under control either.  I think those Linaria I didn't manage to redeploy in the back garden may have died in their pots after flowering but they have left me with a crop of seedlings in the defunct artichoke pots, so I can try again next year.

I had a brief moment of excitement yesterday when an email arrived informing me that my DPD parcel would arrive today, and another email this morning narrowed the time slot down to between 16.19 and 17.19.  I am expecting some much delayed acrylic sheet to mend the greenhouse roof, and it would be nice to get that sorted out before going away.  At 16.23 the DPD van drew up, only it did not have my plastic sheets but a large box which the driver assured me was heavy before putting it down solicitously in the hall for me.  It was my bulbs from Peter Nyssen.  Now it is good to get those before the holiday, so that I can open the box to let them breathe and check them off. Who knows, I might even pot up the daffodils tomorrow morning.  However, the plastic company had promised me my acrylic would be arriving on Tuesday, the last time that I rang.  I am beginning to get deeply annoyed with them, and can feel a one star review looming.