Monday, 22 December 2008


Mistletoe growing in Oxford Botanic Gardens

Travelling south on the train near Bristol I was surprised to see trees festooned with quite large quantities of mistletoe (Viscum album). I don't know why I was surprised, since it's not uncommon in the south of England, but I've spent so much time in the north that I just don't expect to see it, I suppose. With my interest in folklore it's not surprising that I've always rather wanted to grow it, and always lived in the wrong places.

I think most people know about its pagan associations and have a mental picture of it being sought by druids in oak groves for use in their rituals, where it had to be cut with a golden sickle to preserve its qualities. Such images probably arise from Europe, since in England it's rare for it to grow on oak, being much more common in old apple orchards, and therefore somewhat under threat, as our old orchards are a dying breed. Mistletoe is difficult to get established, which is why I'm not wasting my time trying to persuade it to adopt one of its alternative host plants, although I would be happy to see some of our hawthorns supporting this particular parasite. Not, I might add, that any plant in our garden is allowed to bear its berries for more than a day or two, before hoards of marauding blackbirds descend to strip them.

Here for your delectation is a link to a mistletoe blog – who would have thought there was such a thing? It, and the accompanying Mistletoe Pages will tell you far more than I ever could about this fascinating plant. As usual, though, Christmas in our house will be mistletoe-free.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

What I like about Christmas...

A simple thing, but I was enjoying my contemplation of this basket of goodies, and reluctant to end the pleasure by actually starting to wrap presents. However, final posting dates loomed, as does my imminent departure for southern climes, and yesterday I thought I had better make a start. Now, thank goodness, various parcels should be en route to friends and family, a bag sits ready for the Devon visit, and even the family packages are enveloped in tissue and tasteful silk plissé ribbon (well, apart from those that are still on their way from Amazon). Because, of course, I have been utterly stupid, in committing myself to a filial visit the weekend before Christmas - what was I thinking? When am I going to make the mince pies and sausage rolls required by my own dear children? What about the Christmas cake? (Yes, indeed, it's much to late to even contemplate now, it should have been steeping in brandy for the past month.) Because on Christmas Eve, when I get back, I am going to be hoovering, making beds, tackling endless quantities of washing and cleaning out the chickens. The gentle ritual of making cheese straws while listening to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols - you're joking, I shall to be rehanging the bathroom curtains. Ho hum (bug).

Friday, 5 December 2008

The Children of Lir

These creatures of the mist are whooper swans - cygnus cygnus - the Children of Lir, and winter visitors from Iceland and Scandinavia. I first saw them in Perthshire when I was eleven or so, when we walked across the hills to see them on Loch Moraig (you can see a photo of them on the loch here). It was a special day, and I fell in love with the romance of the swans on the water, and their wild wailing.

Last weekend, however, it was on a misty loch in the Scottish Borders that I took this picture. Sadly my camera battery was failing, and I was too slow to photograph the group that flew past mere yards away, just as I was too slow some days later when five flew past our kitchen window, honking mournfully. Nearby Berwick is famous for its huge wintering flock of mute swans, and I love to see them, but the whoopers are special, second only to unicorns. Fated to spend 900 years as swans, the Children of Lir were transformed by their stepmother Aoife, but were allowed to retain their human voices when she felt some remorse for her dreadful act:

And the Sons of the Gael used to be coming no less than the Men of Dea to hear them from every part of Ireland, for there never was any music or any delight heard in Ireland to compare with that music of the swans. And they used to be telling stories, and to be talking with men of Ireland every day, and with their teachers and their fellow-pupils and their friends. And every night they used to sing very sweet music of the Sidhe; and every one that heard that music would sleep sound and quiet whatever trouble or long sickness might be on him; for every one that heard the music of the birds, it is happy and contented he would be after it. (Lady Gregory, The Fate of the Children of Lir)

Monday, 24 November 2008

Happy dogs

I woke yesterday morning to that peculiar silence that denotes snow. It didn't last long: two delighted dogs announced their intention of spending as much time as possible playing snow ploughs, so could I please get up now, and get my boots on?

Admittedly, it wasn't a great deal of snow, but the dunes were almost deserted, and the girls rushed about like puppies. I honed my tracking skills - lots of activity here at Rabbit Central (a large windswept thorn bush): while no-one had been up the main path before us except for a solitary fox:
By the afternoon it had all thawed, and there was the sound of dripping all evening. The Cheviot, however, remains white, and today there have been several squally hailstorms. Brrr. I hope the fingerless gloves I've ordered arrive soon, my hands get cold when I type. The dogs, meanwhile, are stretched out in front of a warm stove, basking.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Flower of the week

Not much time this afternoon, but it's wild and windy, exactly the sort of weather I dislike most, so I thought we might briefly revisit some of the best moments of the past year:

Made with Slideshow Embed Tool

Friday, 31 October 2008

The Prize Cat

Franz Marc, Two Cats

This is the day when Cat Musings, usually a rather doggy site, celebrates its namesake, the Cat. This is on behalf of T., and since I can't put flowers on his grave, this year it's a poem.

The Prize Cat

E.J. Pratt (1882-1964)

Pure blood domestic, guaranteed,
Soft-mannered, musical in purr,
The ribbon had declared the breed,
Gentility was in the fur

Such feline culture in the gads
No anger ever arched her back--
What distance since those velvet pads
Departed from the leopard's track!

And when I mused how Time had thinned
The jungle strains within the cells,
How human hands had disciplined
Those prowling optic parallels;

I saw the generations pass
Along the reflex of a spring,
A bird had rustled in the grass,
The tab had caught it on the wing:

Behind the leap so furtive-wild
Was such ignition in the gleam,
I thought an Abyssinian child
Had cried out in the whitethroat's scream.

Friday, 24 October 2008


Photo by

This week's flower is yarrow, mainly because at this time of year it is one of relatively few plants still blossoming on the dunes. Also known as milfoil, for its feathery leaves, achillea millefolium is named for Achilles, as this has been a wound herb from early times, used to staunch bleeding (it may also help that, like willow bark, it contains salicylic acid). However, it is also supposed to promote bleeding – one of its common names is nosebleed, and this characteristic led to it being used as a cure for migraine – I don't know, having a nosebleed might take your mind off a mild one, I suppose, but I don't think I'd want to try it as a cure when suffering from one of those three-day affairs. A kinder local tradition says that if you stuff the leaves up your nose, you will bleed if your love loves you – a bit more dramatic than picking the petals off daisies and, presumably, all the truer for it. Alternatively, just place it under your pillow and you may dream of your lover.

The word yarrow comes from Old English, gearwe, and its use in medicine is discussed by Dioscorides in his De Materia Medica. Not surprisingly, perhaps, for such a
n old and valuable herb, it has magical properties too, for divination (yarrow stalks are used in casting the I Ching) and as a protection against evil. Hang it up on St John's Eve (23 June) to ward off illness (oddly, there is a folk story that says there is a fern which flowers only on that night, which can give the power of second sight – it occurs to me that yarrow has very ferny leaves, though it flowers a good deal more prolifically). In Scotland, where it's also called Moleery tea (from the French millefeuille, perhaps?) it's also a dye herb, giving a pale yellow colour. Gardeners should plant to attract useful predators like hoverflies and ladybirds, but it also has a reputation for soil improvement so it makes a good, and attractive companion plant. There are cultivated varieties in deep pinks and oranges, but one of the things I like best about the wild white plant is the occasional rose pink flower, unexpected amongst its white sisters.

I will pluck the yarrow fair,
That more benign will be my face,
That more warm shall be my lips,
That more chaste shall be my speech,
Be my speech the beams of the sun,
Be my lips the sap of the strawberry.

May I be an isle in the sea,
May I be a hill on the shore,
May I be a star in the waning of the moon,

May I be a staff to the weak,
Wound can I every man,
Wound can no man me.

from Alexander Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Just looking in

I wish I had been able to capture the moment of her arrival but I was quite surprised, as I sat here at the desk, when this young person arrived on my window sill. I think the windy weather may have had something to do with it - I was very glad it was a successful landing.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Quick, before it goes...

Where we have had autumn colour there are now very few leaves left, but for a couple of weeks the view has been brightened by splashes of russet, yellow and orange. This combination of planting isn't necessarily permanent, not least because the eupatorium (the thing with mauve flower heads, known in the US as Joe Pye Weed) is a bit of a thug. It was planted there for the butterflies, but it comes out so late this far north that they have all gone by the time it's in full bloom. In Devon it's a joy in late summer, a living mosaic of red admirals, peacocks and silver-Y moths. For Nan's benefit, that straggly bit of grass in a pot bottom right is a day lily - pathetic, huh?

I'm annoyed with myself for forgetting what kind of spiraea this is below, and I haven't been able to find it online. Back to the old-fashioned book for a bit of research, if I can lay my hands on it. This is its second appearance here: in June I photographed it covered in frothy white blossom. You'll note from the picture, incidentally, that my gardening style is "riotous". The potentillas are still flowering determinedly - I do approve of their fervour.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Flower of the Week

Since some of the posts on this blog which have provoked most comment have been of a botanical persuasion, I thought we'd have a new feature here, a plant of the week. I'll try to make them seasonal, and either native, or garden cultivars of native plants, although in winter that may need some lateral thinking. And, having decided this, I made a rather poor first choice, in that I expected one of my favourite plants to have a more accessible history!

I was determined to write about the flower that features in the header on my other blog since its blooms have been giving us pleasure for so much of the summer: the cottage garden plant, Astrantia major or great masterwort (this one, I think, is Ruby Wedding, though a rather inferior specimen - they can be very variable). Common names are Hattie's pincushion, mountain or black sanicle, and melancholy gentleman. The name "masterwort" (meaning a universal cure-all) is actually applied to a range of the umbelliferae, and the plant that Gerard refers to in his Herbal was a different one, Peucedanum ostruthium; there doesn't seem to be a great deal of evidence for the use of astrantia major itself as a specific, though it was thought to be a diuretic and various constituents have been identified by modern analysis, including steroids, which may mean it will yet prove to have potential as a medicinal herb.

Astrantia major is not included in Geoffrey Grigson's Englishman's Flora, but Keble Martin (Concise British Flora) lists it with its English name of melancholy gentleman, as naturalised in Shropshire, giving a bit of credibility to the claim that it has been cultivated in Britain since the 16th century. The flowers, which are papery like everlastings, dry well, and it's a good cut flower, relatively unfussy about growing conditions. The subspecies "involucrata" has long bracts, giving rise to one of its varietal names, "Shaggy" while, in recent years, the reds have become deeper and richer, some with crimson stems. It's possible to cut them back just before flowering, to give late colour, but I find that they have such a long flowering period that I'm not sure it's worth it. Perhaps further south, where they would normally flower earlier, it may be more effective? All in all, a thoroughly desirable plant, even if its apparent place in the pharmacopeia turned out to be undeserved.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Aga saga

Last week I visited the Aged Parents (not an appellation that they would approve but, since I came down with a cold while I was there, I'm not feeling exactly spritely myself). Every afternoon I retired to my room to sniffle and catch up on my email, or a bit of typesetting, only to find that the super high speed connection which should be provided by my Vodafone gadget would only offer something akin to the speed of light through treacle. So instead I spent a good deal of time gazing out of my drafty attic window and watching the rooks, jackdaws and the occasional raven in trees that have achieved quite terrifying proportions in the 100 or so years that the grounds became a proper garden. On each of my visits my mother and I embark on a sort of Royal Progress: she with stick for swiping the "brimbles", and secateurs to stem the encroachment of the laurel bushes (a losing battle), while I follow behind like a footman, carrying any other necessaries (bag for fir cones destined for kindling, camera to record goodies, the odd armful of prunings destined for the compost heap) and murmuring agreement to such pronouncements as "I think that branch needs to come out" or "That azalea has done very well since I rescued it". The weekend Progress was limited by awful weather and, by Sunday, a pathetic disinclination on my part to move from the warm spot by the Aga.

The greatest treasures at this time of year are the cyclamen which carpet the ground, to be replaced in spring by crocuses and snowdrops. In a garden which still contains the occasional plant so exotic that no one can remember what it is, these tiny jewels still give the most pleasure.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Distant hills

Over the years we have lived here I have found it enormously difficult to photograph our view from the garden – it's all wide and flat, with lots of fields and few features. Today, in the lengthening shadows of late afternoon, I have a picture I am reasonably pleased with, recording the autumn landscape, with the Cheviot in the background. On many days each year, the Cheviot is simply not there, hiding behind rain or snow clouds, and its smooth green curves are rarely sharply defined; usually, as here, it's a misty presence against an expanse of sky. A good Protestant upbringing has left me with a store of psalms that are in my head whether I want them or not, and my favourite begins:
I to the hills will lift mine eyes
From whence doth come mine aid...
It was the luscious red of this cherry that drew me away from the accounts today. It's very tiny – both in habit and in size, so the impact is relatively small, but I'm growing very fond of it. In spring it has delicate bronze-tinged leaves and a scattering of tiny pink flowers, so it's a delight all year round.

(prunus incisa Kojou-no-mai)

Sunday, 14 September 2008

A-Z of Homemaking

I found this meme on Codlins and Cream, where it had arrived from allybea's blog. I always enjoy these little insights into other people's lives (I find it very hard not to look through windows as I'm passing houses – at the very least I content myself with a good stare at someone's garden), so I thought it would fit here, though I don't think I would ever have described myself as "homemaker". "Slut" would be more to the point!

If you decide to have a go, do please leave a comment and a link here.

A ~Aprons--y/n If y, what does your favourite look like? If I can find it, red and white stripes; more often these days it's a teatowel tucked into my waistband.

B ~ Baking--Favourite thing to bake? Puddings, although we don't eat them very often, maybe once a month. The thing I make most often is apple crumble, both at home and at my parents' house – my stepfather loves puddings, but the range is limited because he is diabetic. Oh, and I love making soufflé, it's just so satisfying to take it out of the oven all golden and risen.

C ~ Clothes line? No, it's usually too windy. I hang things over the fence on good days.

D ~ Donuts--Have you ever made them? Once, and they weren't bad, but I resent using all that fat once only, so I haven't made them again.

E ~ Everyday--One homemaking thing you do everyday? Bleah, washing up. My husband cooks, so I have to do the clearing up after a meal, it's only fair. Oddly, if I cook, I still get to wash up.

F ~ Freezer--Do you have a separate deep freeze? Just a fridge-freezer, and it's always so full I can't get anywhere near it, which is a pity, because I make passable ice-cream.

G ~ Garbage Disposer? Yes, 5 chickens, 2 dogs and a compost heap. Oh, and a bin full of reluctant worms.

H ~ Handbook--What is your favourite homemaking resource? That depends. I have various favourites among my cookery books – Mary Berry's Fast Cakes is one of the most frequently used, and there are several books of farmhouse cooking I like very much. Best of all, I think, is a gardening book: Creative Vegetable Gardening by Joy Larkcom. It has beautiful pictures and she's an inspiration.

I ~ Ironing--Love it or Hate it? Or hate it but love the results? Hate it, don't do it, except for absolute necessity, i.e. for work.

J ~ Junk Drawer--y/n? Where is it? Junk everywhere. I'm quite tidy, my husband categorically not

K ~ Kitchen--colour and decorating scheme. Our kitchen is tiny, and open-plan with the living-room, so it's cream walls to match. Which reminds me that I never finished painting the cupboards. I'll get round to it one day.

L ~ Love--what is your favourite part of homemaking? Cleaning out the chickens! Obviously, I prefer it in good weather, but they are so appreciative, and sing delightful little crooning songs to me while I do it. I used to like making butter, but I don't do that any more because we can't get farm milk.

M ~ Mop--y/n? No, dog towel.

N ~ Nylons, machine or hand wash? Only wear them when I'm in the office, so they mostly get handwashed in hotel rooms.

O ~ Oven--do you use the window or open the oven to check? Using the window would mean cleaning it first.

P ~ Pizza--What do you put on yours? Tomato, basil and mozzarella.

Q ~ Quiet--What do you do during the day when you get a quiet moment? Usually, read, or if it's warm I take the dogs to the other end of the paddock and just sit quietly.

R ~ Recipe Card Box--y/n? What does it look like? Yes, my card index box has been on the go for over 30 years, though these days it is supplemented by a file on the computer. My sons and I share recipes with each other, so if one of us can't find something it just takes an email.

S ~Style of house--What style is your house? It's a farm cottage and much too small for 3 adults, but I would rather put up with lack of space than move because I love where it is. We did some refurbishing a couple of years ago, and there is still work to do, but it causes so much upheaval (my husband has chronic fatigue and finds the process very stressful and tiring) that we can't face finishing it, so we live in a degree of chaos that I can't quite cope with. Ho hum.

T ~ Tablecloths or Placemats? Tablecloth.

U ~ Under the kitchen sink--organized or toxic wasteland? Tottering piles of baking tins and trays, but sort of organised.

V ~ Vacuum--How many times per week? Not often enough. Senior Dog sheds constantly and I sometimes wonder if the dust clumps won't spontaneously transmute into a third dog.

W ~ Wash--How many loads of laundry do you do per week? At least one a day.
X's--Do you keep a daily list of things to do that you cross off? No, but if there is anything urgent I have to leave myself a reminder. List-making is reserved for work.

Y ~ Yard--y/n? Who does what? Husband does the grass-cutting and hedge-trimming and has sole access to the garden shed, so obviously he's "in charge". This extends to the pruning because he thinks I don't cut things back hard enough, so he always does it when I'm not here and can't protest (come to think of it, that's true of anything he thinks I won't like). I do the vegetable garden, with help from both sons, and all the fiddly stuff – sowing seeds, potting on, planting out and so on.

ZZZ's--what is your last homemaking task for the day before going to bed? In summer, letting the dogs out and shutting up the chickens. In winter the chickens can be shut up much earlier, so it's just the dogs.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

One fine day...

...and only one. Amid the rain the sun emerges for the occasional brief spell. Monday afternoon offered a brief respite, during which I planted spring cabbage and winter lettuce, praying that the ground - which I had protected with black plastic - would not be too waterlogged. We shall see.

Today there has been a drying breeze, and the grass could be cut, though not the paddock, which is too wet. The chickens are sick of the rain and welcomed the chance to get outside and luxuriate in a bath of dry sawdust.

I expect rain at this time of year anyway: my hibiscus Blue Bird has struggled all summer to produce a few buds in our northern climate, and as soon as its flowers open, so do the skies, battering it into a bedraggled blue wisp. This year I thought I would celebrate its efforts by sharing a picture with you. There are more spectacular blossoms in the garden, but nothing else has tried so hard.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

After yet more rain, the morning dawned bright and welcoming, even if everything underfoot is soggy. I celebrated the last day of my holiday by setting off once again with the dogs for a walk on the dunes. Since much of my normal route was going to be underwater (I know this because I have had wet feet every day for a fortnight) I decided we would be dropped off to walk on one direction only, and mostly along the track. I've been walking on my own for several weeks as OH is going through a bad patch and is resting up to take over again next week while I'm in London.
The most dramatic of the wildflowers are over but the burnet rose is still pretty with its dark hips, especially growing - as below - amongst the delicate eyebright, and red clover, harebells and bloody cranesbill provide colour, while lousewort makes pinky-white drifts which are much more attractive than its name suggests.
Creamy froths of meadowsweet scent the air on hot days (if only!) but I must admit I like this golden invader:
I must try it in the garden! Walking on the dunes one is less conscious of the dire state of our butterflies and moths, as the air of full of furry brown skippers, and the striking six-spot burnet. I wish I could photograph these, but they all move too fast, especially when a canine nose comes into view. Fortunately the canine nose missed this early morning walker on the narrow path:

but when I spotted a common lizard sunning itself on the stile the girls
arrived as I raised the camera and it was gone in a flash! There must be snakes, too, but the closest I've seen is this wonderful viper's bugloss. The London streets will seem greyer and grimier than ever, I fear, after my brief spell of freedom!

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Bridle Paths by A.F. Tschiffely

This recent acquisition is in the nature of a historical document since it describes a countryside that, even in the Highlands, had disappeared before I was born. I count myself lucky to be able to remember a local farmer ploughing with horses, while one of the great treats of childhood was the arrival of the smith to shoe a horse, which he did using the equipment in the smithy that we owned (we bought the property with resident elderly blacksmith, who lived out his days brewing tea at the forge and chatting to his elderly cronies; we inherited the smithy cat, too). In Bridle Paths, my childhood hero, A.F. Tschiffely, set off in the early 1930s to ride round the rural byways of England and Wales. He made the journey with a bay mare Violet, "of no particular breed" who, coincidentally, since he borrowed her for the occasion, shared her name with his wife.

My admiration for Tschiffely began when I was about 10, and read his book A Tale of Two Horses. This recounted the story of his famous ride from Buenos Aires to Washington (1925-28), from the point of view of his two Criolla horses, Mancha and Gato. Pony-mad, I absorbed every word of their story in countless re-readings. So this later book was irresistible.

I said that it is a historical document – this is true not only in its depiction of Britain, but also in the author's opinions and writing style. His habit of surrounding with quotation marks anything "slangy" nearly drove me "mad", though happily he stopped doing it with "Violet's" name after the first chapter (possibly because he came up against the same punctuation difficulty that I have just done!) Anyway, "pub" is treated so throughout and, as he stayed in many, it was pretty irritating. The following passage is representative of his writing (both here and elsewhere):

Let poets write about balmy tropical breezes, waving palms, silvery moons and myriads of [sic] bright twinkling stars reflected on tropical seas with their phosphorescent flashes, in their fits and spasms of "inspiration," or owing to total ignorance of facts, omitting to glorify mosquitoes, gnats, sand-flies, suffocating heat, poisonous plants, fever and disease. Let them forge words and juggle with them, but give me the cool breezes and clear streams of temperate zones, fields of green and gold; the only paradises fit for gods, and the men who made them.

Actually, I can't argue, though I wouldn't express it quite like that. The photographs, incidentally, are wonderful – six tiny black-and-white images to some pages, showing virtually indistinguishable features of English countryside (my particular favourite is three bands of grey, indicating foreground, distance and sky, captioned The South Downs). There is an account of a local carnival in Evesham, attended by 'Char-à-bancs filled with thirsty people from the "Black Country"' and a considerable number of complaints about the increasing traffic on roads and through villages – Tschiffely was generally very conscious that England was undergoing rapid change. At times, though, he underestimates just how fast:

Here I must remark that if road engineers took the trouble to study the question carefully, a great deal of unnecessary animal suffering could be avoided if roads were built of suitable materials.

Thousands of horses are still hauling loads over roads throughout England. Since most of the pavement is very hard and slippery, the unfortunate animals' tasks have not only been made extremely difficult, but also a veritable torture.
I remembered, reading this book, that I had preferred A Tale of Two Horses to the book commonly published as Tschiffely's Ride, precisely because it focused on the horse's point of view; while commentary on human characteristics is ever-present, it is quirkier in its expression. I would have liked more about horses and the countryside in Bridle Paths, though there's a good passage on Fell Ponies – he would have been delighted to see the work of the Fell Pony Society in keeping the breed going today. In case his readers would care to emulate his journey, at the end of the book there is a list of the equipment he took, and an exhortation to pony clubs to produce maps of local bridleways and back roads. I don't know whether this was ever done, but a bit of googling tells me that there is an organisation which promotes long distance riding.

Bridle Paths was a diverting – and quick – read, and I thoroughly enjoyed the sense that I was renewing an acquaintance with an old friend. While I don't think such a dated piece of writing would be everyone's "cup of tea" (oh dear, sorry, I'll stop doing that now), I think visitors who return to this blog – and therefore must share some of my interests - might be amused.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

All fluffed up

There was a tremendous kerfuffle in the garden this morning. OH had taken the dogs out and I was just switching on the laptop and thinking reluctantly about starting work, when I heard indignant shrieks and flappings from the Bluebells. I couldn't imagine what was causing such consternation but when I squinted out of the window there was a strange dog in the garden. I rushed out, wincing as my bare feet (I never wear shoes indoors) hit the gravel, shouting as I went, and a young and enthusiastic springer spaniel made a beeline for the gate. She belonged to one of the builders working on the farmhouse next door, and I am afraid I was distinctly frosty as he retrieved her.

The chickens had all disappeared into their roost (they were perfectly safe, they have a heavy wire run to protect them from the foxes, which would have no qualms about helping themselves during daylight hours), but when I looked in on them, they were all crowded into the nestbox in a heap of quivering feathers and dark mutterings: "Shouldn't wonder if no one can lay for weeks", they opined, "but yes, a little fresh lettuce may help. Mind you put the stalk in too, for a nice dose of its soothingly narcotic sap." They are well-versed in country lore, those girls.

You can be sure that I shall glower at the builder every time I pass, but I can't help remembering a very young springer who chased next door's ducks, and everything else he set eyes on, to my intense mortification. Lovely dogs, but fluff-for-brains and great sufferers from selective deafness, so I have never wanted another. Not that Senior Dog and The Bolter are saints, but TB is asleep under my duvet at the moment, so all is quiet.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Froth on a daydream

Over the garden wall...

The lanes are bordered with foam – hedges here are mostly hawthorn, or may (bringing to mind the country saying about ne'er casting a clout till may be out, particularly apt yesterday, when wind and rain had moved in after Saturday's glorious sunshine), while along the verges a froth of Queen Anne's Lace dances in the gusts, its delicate heads weighted by raindrops.

My recent post with its picture of heartsease reminds me that country names here and across the Atlantic may differ. In North America Queen Anne's Lace seems to refer to the wild carrot (daucus carota) whereas I was brought up to use the name for anthriscus sylvestris, also known as cow parsley or, most unattractively, kecks, which according to Geoffrey Grigson in The Englishman's Flora, refers to the hollow stalks (presumably for the same reason that in some parts of northern England "kecks" also refers to trousers, and even knickers).

Anthriscus sylvestris is listed as a culinary herb, although not one of great value, with dire warnings about not muddling it up with the somewhat similar hemlock (conium maculatum) – though, since hemlock stinks of mice, it's hard to see how anyone could. Grigson points out that the similarity between umbellifer flowers has led to much overlapping of names, hence the different usage in the US, where they attach a legend to the appearance of wild carrot: Queen Anne was a great lacemaker, and challenged the ladies of the court to make something as delicate as the flowerhead – none except the Queen could, but she pricked her finger, and that's why the wild carrot has a drop of red at the centre. Grigson, more prosaically, suggests that the plant is named is for Saint Ann, sister of the Virgin Mary.

Anthriscus sylvestris has strong associations with the Devil and witchcraft, too, reflected in some of its other names: devil's oatmeal and hare's parsley, oldrot and gipsy's curtains. Perhaps the prettiest, however, is its Wiltshire name of moonlight - think I might start calling it that. The maytree too, has attractive alternatives, but I'll save them for another post.

This pretty spiraea echoes the effect of the Queen Anne's Lace and mayblossom

Monday, 26 May 2008

A long weekend

I was particularly glad that in the north we escaped the bad weather this weekend; the funeral of a close relative last week left me feeling exhausted and demoralised, and desperate to get out into the garden, and it was with a sense of relief that I woke each morning to sun. Despite a cold wind that limited work on the vegetable beds (netting broad beans in a high wind is a thankless task, but the thought of all those pigeons waiting until I gave up kept me going) a reasonable amount was achieved: the tomatoes now stand in regimented lines in the greenhouse, accompanied by aubergines and peppers, while trays of salad leaves have been sown. The intention is to keep not just the family supplied with leaves, but those voracious eaters of greens, the chickens.

The enthusiasm of sons for gardening is limited to edible plants, but they can be persuaded into a certain amount of heavy work, so I managed to mix compost for various pots and containers so that I could at least start the planting of pelargoniums, fuchsias and annuals for summer colour. I am pleased with two strawberry pots, one of which contains a convolvulus cneorum in flower above what will become a froth of dark blue lobelia (the convolvulus will be long over by that time, but its arching silvery branches are attractive in themselves). The other pot has more of the lobelia, and a single sky blue brachyscome, or Swan River Daisy, at the top. Not very showy, which is how I prefer it – I'd rather fill pots with a single species as a rule, but that doesn't work so well with strawberry pots, and OH has a tendency to bring home trays of mixed plants. I think I talked my mother into pots of white osteospermum this year (I love the darker underside to the petals), but couldn't get any myself, only some rather brash orange ones which I passed up on.

By today, the Bank Holiday, though, my energy had run out. I feel as though I've been through a wringer, for those old enough to remember such things, over the past couple of weeks, and the thought of being chilled for another day had lost its appeal, so I decided that reading about plants would be enough. I have a book to review, Salal by Laurie Ricou, and am amazed to discover the extent to which a plant I had barely heard of is being grown commercially in British Columbia. As well as being offered by nurseries as a native plant for groundcover (it has lovely deep green leaves and black berries) it is used in huge quantities by florists, who like particularly appreciate the way its foliage will display a bunch of roses). It can cause problems in southern England as a garden escape, apparently, though I don't think I've ever seen it there. British gardeners may be more familiar with its close relative Gaultheria procumbens, the wintergreen. The book is unusual in choosing a single, relatively unremarkable, plant as its subject, and three chapters in I'm intrigued to see where it will take me next.

Heartsease, May 2008

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Chelsea season

Gardens R Us

As Gardener's World on BBC2 has already embarked on the flower show circuit, I found myself wondering how a dog would design the prefect garden. It would be interesting amid the wire daisies and softly splashing water features, I thought, to create the ultimate in canine cool. Perhaps the Dogs' Trust would like to sponsor it for Chelsea next year? I consulted the experts...

It begins with an enclosed space – any self-respecting dog has got to have something to defend. The girls reckon a mailbox at the gate is ideal, you can both shout at the postman not to come in and wag at him approvingly for obeying instructions. A 5-bar farm gate is perfect, by the way, convenient bars for resting the front paws on combined with good visibility. A mixed boundary is handy – hedges make good habitats for various creatures as well as handy gaps for quick and unpredictable exit, while fences can be jumped or tunnelled under. Continuous walls are far from ideal unless you are very athletic, but can encourage ivy, which is good for snuffling about in. The next priority is a good big lawn. This mustn't be too tidy, you want your people to throw lots of balls about, and overlong grass is excellent for cooling tummies in hot weather, and for a good roll in any weather.

For the male dog an ornamental conifer bed is always a plus, plenty of uprights for widdling on, while for any dog a nice dense shrubbery comes in useful when brushes or flea powder are mentioned. The Bolter, who likes a little privacy at certain moments, advocates hedges within gardens. Senior Dog doesn't care, she'd rather it was obvious that she's ready to come back in now, especially in wet weather (when gravel is the surface of choice).

Planting within the garden may be largely left to the whim of humans, provided they realise that wilderness and trees are preferable to the manicured look. A little control is necessary though - nettles, for instance, should be controlled, since they cause itchy paws, but a nice patch of long grass can provide cover for rodents, and offer hours of gentle exercise. For a work out first thing in the morning, a patch of catnip should be considered, while a well-dug vegetable bed, or even a child's sandpit, provides the ideal repository for bones. An accessible water feature, if there is space, is desirable, but Senior Dog advises that a boggy patch will do at a pinch, especially when you are hot at the end of a game (mud sticks well to the undercarriage and offers better cooling properties).

Finally, both dogs recommend that fashionable accessory, an area of decking: wooden planks warm up quickly in the sun and are reasonable comfortable to lie on for long periods. If you are very fortunate, your people may regard deck railings as a handy place to air bedspreads and similar items, in which case they can be readily pulled down for extra comfort. They point out that the dog-designed garden is low-maintenance (most of the work can easily be done with one hand while throwing a ball with the other), wildlife-friendly (did you know that woodpeckers like bones, too?) and organic (the only garden pests are cats and squirrels and they are FUN). In short, why would a human want any other kind of garden? You haven't got a dog? How sad for you, but we can soon sort that out...

Game, anyone?

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Manual Labour Redux

Following up last week’s question about reading writing/grammar guides, this week, we’re expanding the question….
Scenario: You’ve just bought some complicated gadget home . . . do you read the accompanying documentation? Or not?
Do you ever read manuals?
How-to books?
Self-help guides?
Anything at all?

There are three adults in our household, and three completely different, and largely incompatible, approaches to a new piece of "kit". My husband settles down with the manual before he unpacks anything else, reads it in depth and, if necessary, identifies every component part of the purchase, counting screws and checking boxes. I will have a cursory glance at the manual and then embark on setup, following the instructions reasonably closely and despairing almost immediately because it won't work. Younger son leaves the manual in the box. If you gave us the same object simultaneously and told us to get it working, he'd probably win hands down.

How-to guides? Well, if you count cookery books, then we all read – and use - them. I like gardening books, too, and wouldn't contemplate pruning a fruit tree without reading up\ on it first. When I was growing up my parents had a wonderful book, passed round as a great treasure, which was a compilation of handicraft leaflets published by Dryad Handicrafts (an interesting offshoot of the Arts and Crafts Movement, see here for information). We learnt to make all sorts of things from these: lino cuts (potato cuts for the children), raffia mats, stencilling, french knitting – there was even a leaflet on bookbinding, and one Christmas my stepmother made me an elegantly bound marble-covered notebook, possibly the beginning of my stationery addiction. I often borrow how-to books from the library, particularly books on petit-point and lace knitting. And there's the Access manual, of course. I've spent hours with that. Aargh!

Lastly, self-help guides. These don't loom large on my horizon. I'll borrow them from the library to find out how to deal with something specific – migraine, for instance, and browse them, making the odd note of anything that might prove useful. Really, I use them in the way I use all reference books, to find the solution to a specific problem. I know some people find them irresistible, but I lack the staying power for self-improvement.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Pass the dictionary, please

I missed this week's Booking Through Thursday but since it seemed made for me, I decided to post on it anyway. The question was:
Writing guides, grammar books, punctuation how-tos . . . do you read them? Not read them? How many writing books, grammar books, dictionaries–if any–do you have in your library?
I think I've only got one "writing book" on my shelves, Philosophical Writing: An Introduction, which was a set book for my Master's course. I don't think I would have bought it otherwise, but I did read it, and you
never know, it may come in handy one day, if only for swatting wasps.

As for the others, there are too many to list, but my copy of The Chicago Manual of St
yle is my treasure. I can't tell you how often that gets taken down. It's regarded the The Book in this household, and when I gave a copy to my elder son last Christmas he was delighted. It sits beside Fowler's Modern Usage, Roget's Thesaurus (a fourteenth birthday present from my parents - we're a funny family, I suppose) and a line of dictionaries: for work there are the Oxford English and Harrap's New English/French, for fun there are various dictionaries of slang, quotations and symbolism, pocket Italian and Latin dictionaries, books on grammar . . . I use online versions too, with a subscription to Merriam-Webster, and shortcuts to Chambers and several others. And they are only the tip of the iceberg of the books I regard as essential aids to writing, the stack of encyclopaedias and other reference books I couldn't live without - on science, mythology, heraldry, history. If I could only rescue one from a fire it would be Chicago, which is daft, because it's online now, but I know the layout and can find what I want in it, and anyway, it's there, just where I need it.

When I was first married and we were poor and had to make our own entertainment, we used to play games with the dictionary - usually just "I'll pick a word and you guess what it means" but occasionally a version of Call My Bluff, where you actually invent definitions - very good for the vocabulary, and great for playing with children, too.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Back again

Well, the conference happened, the potatoes got planted, and I plunged into weeks of typesetting and grant applications, from which I'm only gradually re-emerging. I spent one of my regular weekends in Devon, where there was both joy and sadness in the garden: some lovely flowers and much glorious greenery to enjoy, while sympathising over the azaleas and camellias which had come out only to be blasted by frost. I took my mother to the garden centre and bought her two orchids on special offer to cheer her up - the wonders of micro-propagation! My retiring President sent me one, too, pictured above and still being enjoyed, though I have no confidence that I will ever manage to make it flower again.

The high point of the weekend past was moving the bird feeder. For over a year it has been in the same place in view of the sitting-room window, attracting a flock of "regulars" while affording them good protection from cats, kestrels and sparrowhawks. My resident flock of sparrows appreciate the hawthorn hedge just behind the pole, to perch in while they wait impatiently for food to arrive, to scold me from while I fill feeders, and to flee into if a sudden threat interrupts their feeding. The woodpeckers like the corkscrew willow near the pole, varying their diet with insects while they await their turn at the peanuts. The collared doves, woodpigeons and blackbirds all feed on the gravel underneath, amply supplied with seed by the sparrows who fling most of it out while searching for particular delicacies. The robins help with the filling of the feeders, perching in the garden bench until I put a tiny handful of seed on the seat for them. Happily, the feeding station could be moved to a similar position near another willow, and the residents have adjusted without difficulty.

At this time of year the day-long clamour of birds just living their small lives is staggeringly loud. Recently a small flock suddenly swooped into a tree next to me, all following two sparrows who were oblivious to everything but their conflict over, I imagine, some especially lovely lady. The noise was tremendous – I am sure that the followers were all shrieking "Fight! Fight!" like the "big boys" who used to scare me in the school playground. At night I have been surprised by the noise made by lapwings, nesting for the first time just over the garden fence – they swoop and squeal until well after dusk. As soon as they stop the owls take over, and sleep is punctuated by screeches. Elder son, enjoying a brief respite from the honking taxis and pubs of Edinburgh, commented that it was pleasant to enjoy the comparative quiet of the country, but those sparrows did make quite a racket!

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Displacement activity

Two minutes free before lunch to air my frustration at not being out in the garden! It's a beautiful day and if it weren't for the now-looming conference I would take an hour off to go and plant the potatoes. As it is I may have to send a son to plant them, as my weekends for the whole of April are all taken up: conference this weekend, then as soon as I get back I've got a book to typeset – 13 days for 16 chapters, and the punctuation has to be anglicised too. Then a Devon visit, and that's April over. No time to garden, and very little time to tend my blogs, or to read other people's. Please forgive me, all you lovely people who comment here, if I am neglecting you, I promise to catch up with all your news whenever I can.

This morning, sitting at my desk in the window and looking out at a bright – and untidy – garden, while I'm supposed to be creating hyperlinks in a book to be viewed online, I admired two goldfinches in the ash tree, and tried to avoid a pair of collared doves which were full of the joys of spring. They look so prim in their Quaker plumage, too.

Ah well, back to the grindstone – last year's AGM minutes to be done for next week (heaven only knows where my notes are...)

Sunday, 30 March 2008


My new colour scheme reminds me of these lovely hellebores seen recently at the Oxford Botanic Gardens – that slightly washed out red is so subtle and alluring. It's perhaps not so readily associated with spring, but for me is as characteristic of this time of year as the deep yellows of daffodils.

A quick trip to check out potential conference venues had offered enough time between visits for a leisurely, if chilly, walk in the gardens and glasshouses, recalling a visit many years ago when my infant son decided that the water hyacinth was insufficiently labelled, the sign being beside the barrel within which the plant dangled its roots into rather deep water. We removed him before the gardeners realised that the label was now at the foot of the barrel. We must also have seen these lovely mulberries – black and white – but on this occasion early spring showed them in all their sculptured glory. I also had time for a quick coffee with Simon from Stuck In A Book, which was delightful.

At home there are leaves appearing on the trees (apart from the old ashes which dominate our garden). There are delicate buds on the amelanchier, indicating that it will soon disappear under a flock of happy blackbirds, who strip them off with great glee. Later in the year they repeat the process with anything that escaped their springtime attentions – last summer was the first time I had ever found a ripe berry on the poor thing. No Saskatoon berry pie in this house!

Yesterday, to celebrate my son's birthday, I sowed tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and courgettes. Three varieties of potato are chitted and ready to plant, though goodness knows when I'll get it done. I hate to go away at this time of year – by the time I'm free of work demands everything has already run riot and I spend the entire summer trying to catch up.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Easter eggs

Today's "new look" post is specially dedicated to Nan, of the wonderful Letters from a Hill Farm which I always read with pleasure.

I think I have mentioned before that one of the Bluebells approaches egg-laying with a good deal of enthusiasm. This was her Easter offering: you can see beside it a normal egg, which weighs 68 grams. The big egg weighs 102g and has a shell which looks as though it might suitably house a baby ostrich. Recalling Walter Wangerin Jr's Book of the Dun Cow I wouldn't be surprised if it would hatch a basilisk – be prepared to read in the newspapers that Northumberland has been laid waste!

Faced with such largesse I have been baking. I had been planning to whisk up a few peanut butter cookies, as recently made by Cornflower, but my son – briefly home for Easter - mentioned peanut butter brownies so, between cleaning windows, watering houseplants and generally trying to prepare for a frantic week, I went for speed, and measure-not-weigh.

Being so proud of the Bluebells' achievements, I had to photograph the eggs as I added them:

Turning the mix into the tin I got carried away: the chocolate sprinkles happened to be in the cupboard, although I can't imagine why!

The end result was greeted with approval, and I still had time to do some serious work. I'll try the cookies next time.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

An Eeyore moment

He often thought what a good thing it would be if the wearing of masks or animal's heads could become customary for persons over a certain age. How restful social intercourse would be if the face did not have to assume any expressions – the strained look of interest, the simulated delight or surprise, the anxious concern one didn't really feel.

This excerpt from Barbara Pym's Less Than Angels struck a chord, as her lines so often do for me. This is a book full of sly digs at the foibles of academics and, since I am preparing to run a 3-day conference in April, I find it easy to identify her types among my delegates. It's a small conference – under 100 people – and so relatively easy, but it's three days of being at the beck and call of people who find their bedroom too close to the lift or to the place where staff gather to smoke, or who wrote their PowerPoint presentation on a Mac and find that the college's PC won't read it, or need to print their paper 10 minutes before their presentation is due. Relatives are taken ill, luggage only turns up on the last day; I hope it's not tempting Providence to mention it, but I've never had the ultimate horror of a death during the event, although it's happened to a colleague.

The current preoccupation is simpler. Apart from being ready – programmes and abstracts printed, badges bought and prepared, menus decided, rooming lists compiled, wine ordered (of vital importance!)- and checking the box of things every organiser should have - scissors, white tack, pay-as-you-go mobile (surprisingly useful), spare USB stick, marker pens etc - I am trying to prepare myself, practising the expression of open friendliness and interest, the warm and welcoming voice, the alert listening face I glue on at the conference dinner when I am so exhausted all I want to do is crawl into bed with a glass of whisky. And I'm hampered: my natural expression is just a touch on the gloomy side, I'm told, even when I am at my most tranquil, while my thinking expression tends to be a slight frown. Conscious of this, by the end of a conference I feel as if I've been grinning manically for days.

My inclination, like that of Pym's Alaric Lydgate, would be to retreat behind a mask. However, I shall try to channel the 3am frets into consideration of what I am to wear to alleviate the Eeyore tendencies; I remember arriving at one conference venue, hanging my clothes for the event in the wardrobe and thinking, "Goodness, it's a positive symphony of black!" Perhaps I'd better just pop out to M&S next week.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Booking through Thursday - Hero

You should have seen this one coming … Who is your favorite Male lead character? And why?

It's a good thing I've had all week to anticipate this question – heroines were so much easier! I suspect that I'm much less loyal to my heroes, a serial monogamist perhaps.

The first, and much the most enduring, is Winnie-the-Pooh. It's funny that a poor memory, a sweet tooth and an inclination to stoutness is so much more endearing in a Bear than a husband, but Pooh still makes me smile. My loyalty is strictly to the A.A. Milne and E.H. Shephard characters, though –later incarnations have never really appealed to me.

Now we get to the serious stuff. Hamlet is next, and the first of a list of Byronically mad-bad-and-dangerous-to-know types. He's followed by J.P. Donleavy's Balthasar B, he of the Beastly Beatitudes, and a young man of very loose morals. Next is Francis Crawford of Lymond, from Dorothy Dunnett's 6-novel series, The Lymond Chronicles. A sixteenth-century Scots noble, Lymond is very much in the Hamlet vein, exiled and hunted down by his family, living by his wits and sword, and rampaging across Europe and the Ottoman Empire to the detriment of friends and enemies alike. Lymond was to some extent followed in my affections by another of Dunnett's heroes, Niccolò, his great-grandfather, who has a similar capacity for both humour and destruction. Swashbuckling at its most entertaining. In this category I must also include Albert Campion, who just beats Lord Peter Wimsey for me, although I know many won't agree. You'll have noticed that I like my men to be funny, erudite and not entirely responsible. And they need to be better than average dancers (I'll exempt Pooh on grounds on girth). Loyalty demands that I include Titus Groan, although he's singularly lacking in a sense of humour, and it's a bit strange being in love with a man you've known as a baby!

Happily, a more mature taste brings me to Mr Knightley, my favourite of the Austen men, despite his infuriating tendency to be right. Nonetheless, he's the one I'm spending most of my time with these days, a serious, well-read man, and above all, restful, a quality under-rated in one's youth, but which I've come to appreciate.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Spring purples

I picked this glorious selection of leaves for dinner, and we had them just lightly steamed, with roast chicken and Rooster potatoes roasted in goose fat. The outer leaves went to the Bluebells, who greeted them with their usual enthusiasm. We were rewarded with five eggs, one of them the largest I think I have ever seen from a chicken - it will be a double-yolker for sure.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Booking through Thursday - Heroine

Who is your favourite female lead character? And why? (And yes, of course, you can name more than one . . . I always have trouble narrowing down these things to one name, why should I force you to?)

My intermittent attempts, during my teenage years, to launch my career as a novelist, were always first-person narratives, so I suppose it's not surprising that my thoughts immediately turned to three narrators. They have a good deal in common, including period. The first is Fanny Logan, quiet observer of the comings and goings of the Radlett family in Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. From the perspective of middle-age, Fanny relates the story of her cousin Linda's "relentless pursuit" of love, and Polly Montdore's disillusionment with it. The second, who ought to be another cousin of Fanny's, since she has much in common with her, is Amy Savernake, in Joyce Windsor's A Mislaid Magic and After the Unicorn. I suppose Windsor's writing is too really sub-Mitford to be well-known, but I find Amy's "voice" appealing and her comments on her thoroughly eccentric family are not without asperity. Last of the three – perhaps you've guessed by now – is Cassandra Mortmain. As an aspiring writer, she actually sets down on paper her desire to "capture" her family (and the castle, of course), and she's been like a sister ever since I first discovered her in my teens.

Less self-effacing would be Georgette Heyer's eponymous heroine, Frederica. She's witty, efficient, unfazed by irritable cousins and manages the affairs of her orphaned brothers and sisters with humour and commonsense. Of course, I like most of the Heyer heroines: like Austen's, you can imagine settling down with them for afternoon tea and a giggle at the foibles of the world, and Cassandra, Fanny and Amy would fit right in. I'm sure we could budge up on the sofa, too, for Lizzie Bennet, and Flora Poste and...