Monday, 28 December 2009

A last post for 2009

Poor old Cat Musings has been much neglected of late - when I finally got home from Devon I had so much work to do that I had to be really strict with myself about time spent at the computer: if I wasn't working then there were other priorities than blogging, like reminding the dogs who I was! But over the last few days I've had a little time to myself, once I had caught up with the necessary Christmas-sy tasks. No decorations this year, I put up the cards and bought a poinsettia (quite the most pathetic one you've ever seen, unfortunately, but there wasn't much choice left). Just before the holiday we'd had a complete new bathroom suite including shower installed, and I ought to be clearing off the remains of the tiles ready for redecorating before the floor is done, but it can wait a little longer.

Time to myself meant that I've installed Google Chrome on the computer, to see whether I prefer it to Firefox, and played around a bit on YouTube. After some searching, I found this wonderful piece of music, The Second Spring by Chinese singer Tsai Chin, which I loved when I was small - it was the B-side of a 78rpm record, and I couldn't remember what it was called:

Friday, 16 October 2009

Home again

I am back home, and hope I am not tempting providence by saying so. The APs are managing with some help from the neighbours and FD, true to form, is out and about again, welcomed back by the surprising number of people on the dogwalking circuit who had missed him. And That Dog is fully recovered and as rambunctious as ever. My real crisis is averted for the time being and I am chained to my desk attending to correspondence.

I suppose it's not surprising that I am now having a mini-crise, a crisisette. I'm fretting about eveything: neglected work, neglected garden, the fact that there is nowhere in this house to out anything down any more, and I can't think what to do about it...even my neglected Other Half, since at the start of the summer I had promised that we would have an occasional day out (we can't go far as he has CFS) in our new (to us) car. We have managed a total of two outings all year; most years we make an off-season trip to Seahouses, where we share delicious fish and chips with the dogs and walk on the sands, before a quick stop in Bamburgh on the way home - high excitement in this household, I can tell you, but we haven't got that far. Not that I mind outings when the weather is colder, and the dogs don't care at all, but I just don't have time.

Instead, I've wasted time today dithering over when to go back to Devon - I'll have to go close to Christmas but I can't leave it until then. It's all getting very expensive, but this is absolutely my last whingeing session. Back to writing about nature, I promise!

To which end, I think we'll have a random armadillo to cheer us up (the last was on Geranium Cat's Bookshelf), since I find them very appealing:

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Oh glory

There are small consolations from time to time. This morning glory is a joy to behold in the mornings - I pass it on my way to the washing line. FD is out of hospital (we won't talk about the state in which they discharged him) and now feeling a little more cheerful - amazing the difference eating can make. The dog is feeling better too, which means disruptive and demanding and generally infuriating, blast him.

The late evening sunshine on the church tower is pleasing too, but I'm not going to take its picture. And coming back from shopping I saw an egret sitting in the topmost branches of a dead tree, surrounded by 4 rooks, 3 magpies and a buzzard. It looked entirely untroubled by such company, and finally the rooks went off to mob the buzzard, which was obviously much more fun.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

A small hiatus

Not much time for blogging around here this past week. As I have mentioned, I am in Devon because both the Aged Parents had suffered injuries - unfortunately, FD's enforced bed rest turned into pneumonia and I found myself inexpertly nursing someone who was becoming seriously ill; though that didn't last too long, thank goodness. The doctor arrived and mercifully said FD needed to be in hospital, the dog - who had been looking increasingly uncomfortable all day - fell over, and the vet was sent for. Vet's nurse arrived, loaded dog into car and drove off, ambulance arrived, loaded FD in and drove off, my mother and I looked at each other...

FD is somewhat better, thank goodness, but now we are on hospital visiting. Or rather, my mother is, while I look after the dog, who is subdued after a severe attack of gastritis, but recovering his bounce. I haven't done any work for days and am beginning to panic slightly. I'm also wondering when I will get home again (I am missing my own dogs dreadfully, of course) and thanking the various gods of small domestic disasters that OH is having a good patch, and that I'm not needed at home. I'm trying to leave this rambling old house in a better state than I found it, so I'm falling into bed at night utterly exhausted, but when I have time I shall be looking for fellow bloggers caring for elderly parents, I think, in search of a bit of moral support and someone to share the anxieties with. Any recommendations, anyone?

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Of mice and ....

Wood mouse

The other day my mother and I were mystified when she took some boxes out of the kitchen cupboard: three open plastic boxes each contain bird seed, peanuts and dried dogfood, but that morning the peanuts and dogfood were all muddled up. Now, in the general run of things that would mean that while feeding the birds, FD had dropped one or both boxes, swept up and dumped the whole lot back into approximately the right place. That would explain the fluff too, stuffing from the dog mat that sits next to the cupboard door. The puzzle, of course, was that FD is tucked up in bed with an injured back, and definitely shouldn't have been feeding birds. Had him come downstairs while we were asleep? He can walk with a stick, but it seemed unlikely. However, the whole question seemed best left alone, and I sorted the dogfood out from the peanuts and the boxes went back into the cupboard.

This morning, however, the same thing had happened again, and we realised that a mouse - not behind a skirting board - has taken up residence in the cupboard (not very surprising in the circumstances, it must seem like paradise!) and is systematically sorting out preferred foodstuffs for a long hard winter ahead. I'm afraid the mouse's days are numbered, once FD is on his feet again - peanuts are for birds, not mice and squirrels. In the meantime, my mother likes mice and will igonore it provided it focuses its activities on that cupboard and not elsewhere. I'm somewhere in the middle - I generally use live traps at home, and take invading mice on long journeys when I catch them (though I think I have mentioned before that I reckon they usually beat me home) since I prefer them outside.

A couple of weeks ago a met a mouse in the downstairs loo one evening. It was an enchanting creature, no common housemouse, but a wood mouse, with huge expressive ears and liquid brown eyes. It stared at me thoughtfully for a while, before ambling off through a small gap in the door frame. I haven't mentioned it to Father Dear.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

The halt and the lame

Walking the dog this afternoon, I was thinking about families, and responsibilities, and so on: I have now spent more time this summer in Devon than at home, since my stepfather added a crushed vertebra to my mother's badly sprained ankle, rendering them both incapacitated at once. The dog, though comparatively elderly now himself, is unfortunately an out-and-out lunatic, who has both Aged Parents so firmly under his paw that he dictates every household routine. He views me with the jaundiced eye of sibling rivalry, and I suppose, if I'm honest, I view him much as I would do a spoilt toddler, though I try to be patient.

At one stage in the walk I was composing this post in my head (by way of explanation for my lack of blogging activity) and, as I said, brooding on families in general. I could, I thought, introduce my parents, FD (Father Dear) and MM (Madam Moth); we all, I would have to explain, tend to refer to each other by silly names, though I have been circumspect about using them, ever since OH took exception to my referring to him as The Playboy of the Western World. Honest, it was meant to be a mildly ironic allusion to a man not greatly given to garrulity and extravagance, but I think he took it to mean that he wasn't very exciting. Anyway, back to the other half of the family. FD was coined by my late stepbrother, himself always referred to as The Seventh Earl, named as he was after Titus Groan (yes, we knew the Earl of Groan was the Seventy-seventh of that ilk, but we couldn't quite compete, dynastically).

I was just congratulating myself on being the only one who didn't own a silly name, when I remembered that my mother's infrequent letters to me during my childhood began, first: Dear Baby Bird, and later, Dearest Bird Bath, after I had protested that the first was soppy. Madam Moth, of course, which appeared during my early obsession with Hamlet, was short for Madam Mother, but the overtones of Puccini pleased me, and I still begin letters that way. MM, on the other hand, still doesn't write many letters, which is just as well as no-one but me can ever read her writing.

Anyway, the sprained ankle is recovering slowly but satisfactorily, though the back injury is newly done and there are some weeks of recuperation to go. I have said I will stay for a couple more weeks, since in theory I can work from pretty much anywhere. In practice, of course, by the time I have delivered breakfast on a tray to one, it's pretty much time to offer morning coffee to the other, then there is lunch to prepare (they like a proper lunch, something to look forward to), then there is That Dog to walk, followed by afternoon tea….if I get up early I can have a couple of hours uninterrupted then that's about it for the day. Fortunately, I've been able to commandeer a son to do some of my work for me…

I can hear a mouse behind the skirting board. They are all moving in for the winter. I expect they will want breakfast on trays, too.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

The Day Job by Mark Wallington

Well, I said in my last post that I had wanted easy reading, and this book certainly met that requirement. The Day Job is the story of a year in the author's life before he and his partner managed to sell a script idea to Not the Nine O' Clock News. Since then he's written quite a few things I've never seen, though I note that he adapted one of my favourite travel memoirs for the BBC (Terry Darlington's Narrow Dog to Carcassonne - review coming up sometime soon, since I am about to start re-reading it). Unfortunately, I can't see any sign of the film having been finished - rats.

Anyway, back to The Day Job. Unable to sell his scripts, Mark Wallington decided that the best way to earn a modest living while keeping enough time available for writing would be to take up gardening. He didn't seem to know a great deal about it, but was fortunate in his first client, who needed help because her arthritis had become too sever for her to manage her large garden alone. Under her guidance, Wallington seems to have managed to wing it, doing mostly maintenance work during the summer, gaining clients by word of mouth and being lucky enough to find Mr Gold, owner of an extensive string of properties let to non-gardening tenants. Mild excitement is provided by his rivalry with Powergardeners and by the author's lack of any real knowledge about gardening - will he be unmasked as an imposter?

I was kept reading by the fact that there is nothing to object to - Wallington and his friends are an amiable bunch, and his adventures mildly amusing. The writing is chatty and eveything moves along at a fairly rollicking pace, summer reading if ever I saw it.

Mark Wallington has written a better known book, 500 Mile Walkies, about a journey along the Pennine Way with a dog. It has, I see, 2 sequels, so perhaps he has found his niche as a writer (and explains his interest in the Narrow Dog book). I think I might give the first one a try...

Friday, 28 August 2009

The Tides of Time: Archaeology on the Northumbrian Coast by Caroline Hardy and Sarah Rushton

The trouble with ordering books from the library is you don’t always know what you are getting. I had hoped for a good solid book on coastal archaeology, but what I got was a hybrid funded by the Countryside Agency and published by Northumberland County Council that isn’t really quite sure what its audience is. The large format and glossy pictures suggest a coffee table book for tourists, while the blurb on the back cover promises that: "If you have an interest in the past, this book will supply all you need to develop that interest through visiting archaeological remains and perhaps even finding new sites for yourself!" (Therein lies the problem, I think: the County Council couldn’t simply produce something to read, it has to fulfill a need.)

The book is organised chronologically and thematically (resources, defences), starting with prehistoric remains, but at 96 pages, there’s not room to cover much more than the obvious landmarks, while “Finding new sites for yourself” is dealt with in less than half a page. The photographs are attractive and alongside the site descriptions are useful notes on access, while for each section there is a good “pull-out block” with a list of further reading. It is this last, with the aid of the library catalogue, which might provide me with some serious reading on local archaeology, so for that, at least, I owe it some thanks. At the reasonable price of £8.99, though, this is a nice book for visitors to take home

Thursday, 27 August 2009

We plough the fields and scatter

Photo: Chris Miles

Occasionally, living in the country is not all bucolic pleasures and the ripe fruits of harvest. In recent years we have been beset by what my son calls "the smell of death" - not the rotting corpse smell which sometimes happens if a mouse dies under the floorboards, and which is literally the smell of death, but the awful miasma created by the pile of sewage waste that lives a quarter of a mile down the track, and which is ploughed into the fields at this time of year. At such times, it's an undescribable, but utterly pervasive smell, with a background whiff of ammonia, and it catches at the back of your throat, causes headaches and nausea and OH is having nosebleeds (though they were probably started by the chaff that flew at the beginning of the week when the grain was being cut).

People living in the countryside are sometimes divided over the issue of smell - many people aren't keen in living near a pig farm, for instance. With the exception of hen batteries, I would say that the aroma of living animals is generally tolerable. This, however, hangs in the air for days (in fact, the pile at the end of the track has been there for some months, so there's often a lingering smell when the wind blows in our direction) and is impossible to escape. It's the first thing you notice when you wake in the morning and it can seem to hang even more heavily in the evening air. We are told that ploughing it straight in to the fields will cut down on the odour, but it doesn't while the ploughing is going on, and that has been for several days now. Worst of all, I think, is that you can taste it all the time. Today is lovely, fresh and breezy, but I have just realised that I don't want to put my washing out, because the air is full of grey dust.

I do accept that returning human waste to the soil of much preferable to dumping it in the sea and using artificial fertiliser, and that the lime treatment which makes the ammonia smell worse is necessary to reduce pathogens; I don't want to run for the city to escape, nor do I wish country life to be sanitised for my convenience, but oh, I shall be glad when it stops.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

My Country Childhood by Susy Smith (ed.)

This is a collection of articles from Country Living magazine (which, I should add, I don’t read, since I generally avoid magazines and newspapers of all kinds), reminiscences, mainly by writers and actors, about growing up in the country. My interest was mainly in its guise as social history, since many of the contributors are my age or older, and I was amused to find some similar memories to my own:
I grew up in post-war London. We had a terraced house in Chelsea with no garden. Ten houses along, there was a bomb site. The walk to school, past the bomb site, took twenty minutes. On ‘smog’ days, my sister and I were told to tie handkies around our mouths, and by the time we got to school, the handkies would be grey. London then – even Chelsea, which has always had pretensions to smartness – was a poor, dirty city. (Rose Tremain)
I spent my first few years in Bromley, which was a little less grey than the city, but the effects of the polluted air nearly killed me, and I was fortunate to move to the Highlands, where I became disgustingly healthy. I remember the bomb sites from trips into London, where my grandfather had a pharmacy – walls which suddenly stopped, exposing a fireplace or doorway and, in summer, blown fluff from the plant I then called fireweed, and only later learnt its prettier country name of rosebay willowherb.

Here are memories of hard winters, of milk collected in churns. Of cottages by the sea and huge, cold rambling houses. Richard Adams recalls a childhood learning the wildflowers and birds of the nearby Watership Down that made him famous, while Laurie Lee anatomises the country year through seasonal games. Tom Paulin admits to boredom in a coastal cottage, but horses provided entertainment for many. There is the exotic, too:
In Bengal our town Narayanganj’s river was the Lakya, part of the vast network of the Brahmaputra and the only direct way into town, There was plenty of life in and on the river: a life of crocodiles and fish, of porpoises that somersaulted in and out of the water, of herons and egrets wading in the shallows and kingfishers perched on marker posts. (Rumer Godden)
Fifty contributors offer little snapshots, mainly of the British Isles - though I found Scotland and Wales under-represented – in the sort of book that might make a good Christmas present. The line drawings throughout add a nice touch.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009


This is the time of year when I fret about butterflies! Earlier in the year there seemed, yet again, to be very few in evidence, but in recent weeks there have been good numbers of red admirals, painted ladies, peacocks and large whites around the garden (especially on the buddlejas), with smaller numbers of small tortoiseshell. In the lane there are ringlets and meadow browns as well, although not in such large numbers as in good years. At the weekend I was delighted to see a small copper - pictured below - which isn't very common on our patch, and this made me think idly about keeping some sort of more formal record of the species I see.

The thought led me to the site of the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, from where this picture comes, and where I discovered that there are two people recording species locally (which is done by walking the same route every week for six months of the year). One of them is on Lindisfarne, and the other just a few miles north. They are both recording all the species that I see regularly, as well as a couple more, such as the green-veined white, a butterfly I may well have seen without realising it. I must start looking at the white butterflies more closely.

It would be quite an undertaking for me to walk the same route every week at the moment - I'm away too much - so I am not going to join the scheme, but I walk our track most weeks and it would be interesting to get into the habit of using the recording methodology. Then, if I ever get the chance to retire, I can start doing it properly! Before I got so busy, I used to record for the Nature's Calendar Survey, which tracks wildlife in relation to climate (and ties in to the Spring and Autumnwatch surveys) so my observations will still be useful and I'll be able to compare them with my own records on that site. And maybe I can get younger son interested in taking part, as he takes the dogs along the lane most days (he was with me when we saw the small copper, and wanted to check on its identity as soon as we got home).

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Swallows again

The infant swallows are getting bigger, and their parents are busy from dawn till dusk collecting insects (which is much appreciated by me!)

Sunday, 19 July 2009

You Spotted Snakes...

...with bright blue eye
Your pains the Bugloss will repay

The viper's bugloss is out again on the dunes, where it will last for some weeks. It's a striking plant with its vibrant deep blue flowers. It likes bare and scrubby ground, often growing near beaches or on mine spoil tips, where its roots go down deep, and is one of those fascinating plants whose flowers emerge one colour (a deep rose) and then change. In classical times it was thought to be effective against snake bite, and its spotty stem probably gives it the first part of its name, but "bugloss" comes from ox's tongue.

In her Modern Herbal, published in 1931, Mrs Grieve tells us that it is a diuretic and can relieve inflammation and fever, though I wouldn't want to pick its hairy stems without gloves! Alternative names, according the Geoffrey Grigson, include Blue Cat's Tail, Snake's Flower and Our Lord's Flannel! I wonder if this last is because of the reddish spots on the stem, which may look like flecks of blood?

Friday, 17 July 2009

Baby swallows in the rain

These small black dots are baby swallows sitting on the lawn, waiting to be fed - I think it's too windy and rainy for them to fly, so their parents are making regular sorties with laden beaks. The picture was taken through the window because it's raining too hard to set foot outside, and anyway, I didn't want to disturb the poor things.

Rather better is this picture, taken by younger son at the beginning of the week, a much later brood of babies. Three heads, I believe, in a delightfully warm and feathery nest, some of the feathers, I rather think, contributed by the Bluebell Girls.

For weeks now, I have been regularly woken at dawn - about 3.30am at the solstice last month - by liquid bubblings and churrings just outside my open window: the swallow babies waiting for their breakfast. They line up on the guttering and wait for a bristling beakful of flies. At least when I look at my untidy garden I can console myself with the knowledge that it's a excellent hunting ground, helping to provide for good numbers of babies each year - swallows, flycatchers, wagtails, bats, and the ever-present and garrulous sparrows.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Martagon Lily

Gerard mentions the martagon lily in his list of garden plants in 1596, and it was much loved in Elizabethan gardens. Common from Eastern Europe to Mongolia, where its bulbs were dried and eaten with cow's or reindeer milk, it probably only grows in the wild in Britain as a garden escape, and is another plant of woodland edges. It doesn't appear in our British herbals, probably because it was never common in the wild, but the (poisonous) bulbs were used medicinally elsewhere for heart complaints and as a diuretic.

It's not a fussy plant, growing quite happily in our heavy clay soil yet also thriving in lighter, sandy soils, and it will take both semi-shade and sun. The flowers, fragrant at night, attract moths, so it is a plant that has had a place in my garden for 30 years. I love its reflexed flowers - its other common name is turk's cap lily - and its muted purples.

(It has been suggested that martagons are the Biblical 'lilies of the field', but it seems likely that this is a confusion with lilium chalcedonicum, the scarlet martagon).

Friday, 10 July 2009

Hedge woundwort

Stachys sylvatica

I grow within the lowly hedge;
My cousin at the marsh's edge.
And each, as shown within our name,
For healing wounds is known to fame.
Less famous is our second feat -
Our roots are very good to eat.

This pungent wild herb grows very happily in our garden, though no doubt my efforts to transplant it to the paddock will all prove in vain. Here it is growing across a path, and ought to be cleared away, but it's a cheerful soul and I shan't do so while it's in flower.

Despite its name it is not very highly rated as a wound herb - if its cousins, marsh woundwort or betony are to hand they are preferred; nonetheless, it was supposed to make a very good poultice (who, these days, remembers the agonising relief of a hot poultice on a recalcitrant splinter?) and styptic, more often collected from the wild than cultivated, since it grows readily in hedgerows across much of northern Europe. Gerard advised mixing it with hog's grease, much as I used to make comfrey ointment by heating comfrey leaves in lard.

Mrs Grieve, in her Modern Herbal, reports that a yellow dye can be made from the plant and it is suggested that there might be commercial uses for the fibres. Young shoots can, apparently, be eaten like asparagus, and the roots are said to be very nutritious, although the smell does little to persuade me.

There are good reasons for encouraging this plant in the wild areas around your garden, however: bees and moths both love it, and we should be doing all we can to provide habitats for both. Encouraging moths will also provide food for bats, and our long-eared bats regularly hunt over the woundwort patch (also the nettle patch, we have a very messy garden, although we claim that it is intentional).

Wednesday, 8 July 2009


Something quite special this week. One of my favourite gardens is at Hill House Nursery in Devon. Much of the attraction for me is that it feels like a family garden - it's not very big, but it's great for plantlovers, while the greenhouses combine working space for propagation with a wonderful collection of stock plants, some of them truly exotic. It's a proper working nursery, too, run by people who know about plants. It's no good me going there to shop, everything is much too tender for Northumberland, but I love to wander around the garden and greenhouses with a camera, before visiting the tearoom, but my mother sometimes does quite well out of a visit, if I find something utterly irresistible.

I thought this passion flower (Passiflora x caponii 'John Innes') truly lovely, and was intrigued to discover later that there is a story attached to it.

The embothrium at the back of this bed is the offspring of one in my mother's garden nearby. There's quite quite a long history of two-way traffic between the two gardens. If you look hard you can see its cousins in this view from my bedroom window:

The hydrangea walk is a recent addition at Hill House. I want this one!

And this is just glorious! A deutzia, I think, but I don't know which variety.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Flower of the Week

Convolvulus cneorum, or silverbush, June 2009

This is a plant which likes warm, dry conditions, and should be struggling here, but I've got this one through two winters in this pot, and it flowers quite prolifically. It's in the most sheltered part of the garden, and protected by reflected warmth from both the woodern deck on which it stands and the wall behind it. Unfortunately, the ophiopogon in the pot beside it is not thriving here, but it does better elsewhere.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

The joys of compost!

Common thyme, May 2009

Last weekend we emptied one of the compost bins. Some of it will be used to enrich the mix I use to pot up the tomato plants, some has gone around the newly-planted courgettes, and one container-full has been used to plant some salad leaves for cut-and-come-again cropping before other salads are ready. With such a rich growing medium I am hoping to get two crops out of a deep container.

Most of the lovely friable compost has gone towards building up the raised beds. Our soil here is heavy clay, and frustratingly difficult to break up, so a lot of effort goes into trying to improve it. It's only recently that we started a vegetable garden again so there's along way to go, but there's already a full compost bin ready to provide the next batch. And this year, for the first time, I am hoping to have the liquid from the wormery to feed the tomatoes and courgettes. I can't wait!

I suppose I might spare a little compost for OH's fuchsias, too.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Precious things

I've been away from my blog again recently because my grandmother died, aged 98. She'd been in a nursing home for some years, and I hadn't seen her since last year, but a couple of weeks ago her health deteriorated and we were warned that she wouldn't last long.

She was a woman of considerable character and it's strange to think she is no longer here. For some years I lived with my grandparents and she was very important to me while I was growing up. Her ashes are now interred in a woodland burial site, not too many miles from the Isle of Wight which she remembered and loved from girlhood.

When she had to part with her household possessions to move to the nursing home she was pleased that I wanted the willow pattern china which was part of my early memories.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Flower of the week - cowslip

Cowslips (primula veris) on the dunes. Not in quite such profusion as last year, but you can see they grow quite thickly in places. Once upon a time, people must have made excellent cowslip wine around here, but I'm glad that we just enjoy them for their beauty now. Some of its old names are Fairy Bells, Paigle (which I've heard it called) and St Peter's Herb, as well as Palsywort because it could cure paralysis, it was thought. I can't find much reference to a Northumbrian name, but a Notes and Queries from 1898 says it was known as cow-stropple (throat). A charming habit was to make cowslip balls from the golden flowers, thus:
Down we make our cowslip-ball. Everyone knows the process; to nip off the tufts of flowerets just below the top of the stalk, and hang each cluster nicely balanced across a riband, till you have a long string like a garland; and then to press them closely together, and tie them tightly up. We went on very prosperously, considering; as people say of a young lady's drawing, or a Frenchman's English, or a woman's tragedy...To be sure we met with a few accidents. First, Lizzy spoiled nearly all her cowslips by snapping them off too short; so there was a fresh gathering; in the next place May overset my full basket, and sent the blossoms floating, like so many fairy favours, down the brook; then when we were going on pretty steadily, just as we had made a superb wreath and were thinking of tying it together, Lizzy, who held the riband, caught a glimpse of a gorgeous butterfly, all brown and red and purple, and skipping off to pursue the new object, let go her hold; so all our treasures were abroad again. At last, however, by dint of taking a branch of alder as a substitute for Lizzy, and hanging the basket in a pollard-ash, out of sight of May, the cowslip-ball was finished. What a concentration of fragrance and beauty it was! golden and sweet to satiety! righ to sight, and touch, and smell!
(Mary Russell Mitford, Our Village)
I think you can judge from the description that the grass was thickly carpeted with the golden blooms. I am trying to establish it in our garden, without much success until this year, when I found a seedling flowering in a pot that usually holds a hosta. It is very welcome there, and encourages me to persevere.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers...

If Spring came but once in a century, instead of once a year,
or burst forth with the sound of an earthquake,
and not in silence, what wonder and expectation there would
be in all hearts to behold the miraculous change!
So says Longfellow. My own heart, however, never fails to lift a little at this time of year, and I am constantly aware of a sense of purpose all around me, the air of full of twitterings and the rushing of wings. It's another bright sunny day, albeit with a chill wind, and I would much rather be out in the garden than working. My plan is spend some time outside this afternoon, if only I can get ahead with everything I need to do - faint hope, I suspect. It will be necessary to do some watering, though - we've had no real rain for some time, and things are getting very dry. That's the downside of growing plants in containers, I suppose.

In the woodland around the farm the gorse is out, and warm evenings are filled with an unexpected aroma of coconut. Around here it isn't too invasive, and can be enjoyed for its rich colour and long-flowering period - I don't think there is any month in the year when there isn't a whinbush flowering somewhere about the place - but I've noticed that on Dartmoor in recent years it is becoming all-pervasive, no doubt because the numbers of grazing sheep have been been reduced since foot-and-mouth.

The woods are full, too, of the delicate blossoms of gean, or bird cherry. Alongside the blowsy cultivated cherries, this native tree has a tendency to pale into insignificance, but it can be un unexpected joy in northern woodlands and, later in the year, the birds enjoy the small fruit. It's one of the native species I want to plant in our paddock.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Thinking vegetables

Choosing a gardening book is a very personal thing, I think. My mother quite often gives me books she thinks I will like, and I now have several very attractive books that lurk, unconsulted, in dark corners. She got it right last birthday, tracking down a copy of Roger Phillips' Roses, which delighted me. The odd thing is, I can't find it, and am now beginning to think I imagined the whole thing! My current favourites, though, focus on vegetables, so it's not surprising that they are both within easy reach at this time of year, as I plan how to amuse the pigeons and deer for another season.

Joy Larkcom's Creative Vegetable Gardening is a visual delight. A large format paperback that will almost lie flat while you browse through it, and written in a chatty tone of voice, it take its inspiration from gardens all over the world to create pretty vegetable gardens and potagers. There is a brief (I want to say, potted) history of growing for the kitchen, before moving on the Elements of Design, with guidance on how to plan your potager, and Dramatic Effects - how to make it even more beautiful. There is a whole chapter on fruit, which is followed by a useful one on Management, with good advice on improving soil fertility and watering. Even this chapter makes me itch to get outside, with its picture of the feathery green manure, phacelia tanacetifolia, glorious in its own right, or a potager bed with brick paths, covered in rich manure for the winter. There are an excellent sections on container gardening and small potagers, making this a book for those with limited space, full of ideas about how to cram in the most you possibly can, while creating interest with texture and colour, contrasting plants with dramatic supports and edgings, or choosing between hedges and fences. Photographs are sumptuous and inspiring. The final section is where I spend most time, especially at this time of year - the A-Z of vegetables, fruit, herbs and edible flowers. This is just as wonderfully illustrated as the rest, with an eye always to looks as well as taste - vegetables as objects of desire.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

I'm so busy at the moment that I am reduced to near wordlessness, but there are still moments of pleasure in a day, often triggered by my admiration for this blowsy pair. The butterfly orchid has been in flower since before Christmas, and keeps getting more dramatic. I'm also delighted that another orchid (also a phalaenopsis) that I was given last April is coming back into flower for the second time. I had been very disappointed that I accidentally broke a flower spike on it last year, reducing its total flowering time to a mere six months or so. I've given it special liquid orchid food and its leaves are a bit shabby but I am getting more confident with them, and have hopes of keeping them all going - I suspect this puts them into to "idiot-proof" category of houseplant.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Spring flowers

I can't take any credit for this hellebore, having just bought it, but I think the double flowers are lovely, with a greenish tinge on newly opened ones.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Monday, 16 February 2009

Spectrum days

Some time after, according to my OH, the rest of the world became interconnected via the Interwebs, he is groping to join the world of geeks.* Now, for him to be in this position is grossly unfair, because back in the dark ages, he was the one who dragged the entire family into computing. It happened thus:

First, my great-auntie Marie left me a diamond ring. My grandma told me about it when I was 12 or so, but that she would look after it until I grew up. Well, I remembered the story, but I never entirely believed in the ring (I hadn’t seen it) so I was quite surprised when, after Grandma died in the early 80s, my father said, “Oh, by the way, there’s a ring for you. I’d sell it if I were you” and handed me something enormous with 3 diamonds set in white gold. I couldn’t really imagine wearing it, and it sat in a shop window in Carlisle for several months, so that I was completely staggered when we received an offer for it: I’d never really believed that it represented money, in the same way that I hadn’t really believed its existence. But we left the shop in Carlisle on a Saturday morning with a large roll of £50 notes, and a couple of hours later we were the proud owners of a ZX Spectrum with 48KB RAM, a tape cassette player, a television set and a large yellow teddybear for younger son, who was too small to get to grips with BASIC.

I think it became clear early on that I had no talent for coding, but OH and elder son took to it happily, and my proofreading years began as I waded my way through pages of machine code looking for a missing colon. Meanwhile, OH was writing his dissertation with the aid of Tasword, an early and primitive word processing programme, younger son was helping Paddington to transport small animals across rivers, and the entire family quickly became au fait with computerspeak. In fact, we even attended an early computer fair and drooled over such unlikely objects as microdrives and, oh wonder of wonders, an early mock-up of the Sam coupé, a computer mostly famous for barely existing. Later we upgraded to an Amstrad word processor and the fact that I had learnt to use it was largely responsible for getting me my first post-childcare job.

So it is ironic that a household which took enthusiastically to personal computing from its earliest days has for so long had one member who was barely literate. I had put my old iMac at OH’s disposal, but it was hardly practical to bring it out for occasional use, and pre-broadband, it was quicker for him to ask me to type a letter, so nothing really came of it. But for the past year or so he has been nagging me to hand over my retired laptop, and I kept putting off, partly because it meant clearing everything off it, partly because it meant making time to be helpful. With a deep intake of breath at Christmas (which brought on a coughing fit), I duly reinstalled the network card, plonked it on the dining table and announced it was ready to go. It’s at moments like these you realise how complex some of the repetitive tasks performed daily actually are. When it’s a struggle to remember how to save a Word file to My Documents, setting up Headers and Footers becomes considerably more time-consuming. “Where did Google go?” he said this morning. A perfectly good question, if you haven’t got into the habit of always opening links in new tabs. Just to add to confusion, sons and I all use the same browser, but in different ways, so three sets of advice are available. I foresee conversations which go thus –
OH: I don’t think that’s the way I did it last time.
Either son: well, that way won’t work very well, why were you doing it like that?

OH: because your mother told me to.

ES: well, she’s wrong.
Bloodshed may easily ensue.

*geek: if you want to find whether you qualify, you can try this quiz, which made me laugh.
My results?
You are a geek liaison, which means you go both ways. You can hang out with normal people or you can hang out with geeks which means you often have geeks as friends and/or have a job where you have to mediate between geeks and normal people. This is an important role and one of which you should be proud. In fact, you can make a good deal of money as a translator.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Many waters

Around us is the sound of many waters - trickling down drains, squelching underfoot, dripping from eaves. A thaw is underway, and suddenly it appears that spring is, too. The rooks are flying back and forth with an air of purpose, no longer searching out food in unlikely places, but making determined forays into the ash branches at the top of the garden, and then struggling out laden with ungainly twigs. The ivy is full of rustlings and twitterings as birds and other small creatures seek out possible homes and the hens are preening and stalking round their run looking plump and self-important. I hope that all this confidence isn't misplaced - the late afternoon sky is full of geese, and seven whooper swans have just flown over, a sign that for some it is still winter.

Today's view of the Cheviot shows just how much it has thawed in the last twenty-four hours, and I have only now got round to downloading these pictures taken on Thursday by my younger son. The first two tell the sad story of a fox and a pigeon (and show why our chickens live in a run):

And here the girls seem to have found someone's hiding place. Senior Dog is supervising, as befits her age.

But, as usual, she takes over. It needs an experienced nose, you know.

So The Bolter may as well enjoy the snow. This second fall was lovely and soft to run in.

A deer in the next field:

And a winter sunset.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

In the snow

I wanted to share some pictures of the Cheviot while it was still completely shrouded in white, it has been so beautiful. This was taken the other evening:
It's very hard to take good pictures in the evening; my camera isn't really good enough. Despite the difficulty, I'm trying to take pictures of it in all its moods.
And here it is this afternoon.

All the snow on the trees and hedges has gone, but there is still some lying on the ground. And here, from the sublime to the faintly ridiculous, is our resident pheasant, taken by my son on a miserable day last week. Actually, he is exceedingly well fed, picking up any corn the chickens have missed and a wide variety of snacks from the bird table.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Deer in flight

I know that the record numbers of deer in Britain are causing concern, and over the last 10 years I have become aware that, from being a rare sight on my train journeys, I now see them from the train almost every time I travel, and not only in the north. Last week it was dark, so I couldn't look out for them but, on turning the last corner of our track before we reached the cottage, there was a young roe deer in the headlights. We often see them on the edge of the woodland that borders the track, and I may have mentioned here how indignant I was when they trampled my baby cabbages! The necessity for some sort of control does nothing to alter my pleasure on seeing them at close quarters, however.

When I read this poem, I see the hinds poised for flight on the edge of the wood, or ofJapanese paintings.

They Flee From Me That Sometime Did Me Seek

THEY flee from me that sometime did me seek,
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek
That are now wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown did from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small,
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, "Dear heart, how like you this?"

It was no dream, I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness,
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

Sir Thomas Wyatt

Monday, 2 February 2009

Adieu, sweet Amaryllis

For a couple of weeks this beauty has been gracing our sitting room. It catches the eye every time you enter the room, so huge and splendid is it. Although it's nearly over now, this is the fourth time this hippeastrum has flowered in the couple of years I've had it, and I think it deserves some loving care and attention during next summer, so I shall be feeding it assiduously, along with the two new bulbs which haven't yet started into growth. When they do start, they grow so fast you can practically watch it happening – there will be a perceptible increase in the length of the flower spike at the end of a good, sunny day, and then the bloom emerges, luscious and velvet-y, the richest colour imaginable. Next year I have promised myself one of the newer varieties, if I can find it – somewhere I am sure I've seen a deep plum coloured flower – and one of the multi-stemmed ones. You can be sure I'll post pictures if I'm successful.