Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Even crosser!

I wish I could have shared with you the spectacular sight today of two cock pheasants fighting in the snow! They met on the garden wall, and immediately took offence at each other, fluttering down to the ground where they leapt and struck out. This went on for several minutes while I alternately watched in delight as the sun shone on pristine snow and the rich russet of their feathers as they jumped and curvetted, and cursed while I tried unsuccessfully to make the phone camera work. Wretched thing, it refused to load, and the pheasants disappeared into the hedgerow.

Now that I really want to photograph the pheasants before the snow disappears, the sun probably won't shine tomorrow. But for now, at any rate, I like this picture.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Cold and cross

Well, not quite as bad as that really, but the kitchen blackboard on which we note things for the next shopping trip looks as though someone just threw letters at it, so many things are needed. When we buy next year's calendar I'm going to make a note on the October pages that we must stock up on chicken corn, dogfood and prescription needs...that's snow shovels, down the bottom because Younger Son and I could have done with one as we lurched along the track last Friday (with me pushing the car). Lemsip is there, too, because I got home from London that night with a cold which I'm still recovering from, and which is responsible for the lack of blogging here in the last few days. I've been saving my energies for the daily trip outside to clear the gutter where the broadband connection comes into the house, to feed the wild birds and to take the hens their bowl of warm porridge. Instead of demerara sugar on top (which is how I like it), they have a generous sprinkle of dried mealworms.

There's no immediate prospect of getting out. We're not completely cut off, as the neighbours have just managed to get their 4-wheel-drive out this week, but our cars won't manage the mile up to the road until the snow clears a bit, and more is still coming down every day. This is the view from our French windows - that black thing on the left-hand-side is the gutter, which came down last winter as well. There should be some hills in the distance, but I haven't seen the Cheviot for a week. We won't be desperate for supplies until the milk goes off or the bread flour runs out, but today I came in from the outdoor jobs and made a honey and ginger cake for comfort eating (and to use up the older eggs). As you can see from the rather blurry picture, it wasn't long out of the oven before YS and I succumbed to the lure of hot cake. While I was making it I spotted half a jar of marmalade in the fridge - I know what I'll make next! If the milk goes before we can get out to replace it, having cake should help to offset the horror of drinking my tea black (though there will be much gnashing of teeth if this becomes necessary, since I am a tea addict, incapable of working without a regular supply).

Oh, our post has just found its way here by tractor! YS is happy as he was expecting something - we rely very heavily on shopping by post here - me, less so, as the parcel posted from Devon last Tuesday still hasn't arrived. Ho hum. I'll keep hoping for a thaw, but meantime a huge load of snow has just slid off the roof outside my window!

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Winter visitors

Photo taken in Rumia, Poland by Adam Kumiszcza

They're back, the fieldfares, and my heart gave a real leap when I saw them in the ash trees at the top of the garden this morning. They are much later than in some areas of the country, but I've found that to be the case every year. There will be no shortage of berries for them this year.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Mellow fruitfulness

We went recently to Priorwood Garden, in the Borders town of Melrose, on one of our occasional "old peoples" trips. Next to the graceful ruins of Melrose Abbey is a small orchard containing apples dating from medieval times to the present. We'd waited to visit until the apples were ripening, so that we could be tantalised by the prospect of one day picking our own apples. We'll have to be patient for a couple more years, but I'm persuaded that we might add a Victoria plum to our tiny orchard, along with a couple of unfussy cherries. Our old crab apple, though, is covered in fruit, and younger son has plans for making jelly.

Priorwood, a tiny garden, has a dried flower shop where you can see the drying process taking place (and buy dried flowers, of course), and holds an apple day in October (I think possibly on 2 October - for anyone interested there is a phone number on the website). It's a lovely place to visit at this time of year.

Melrose Abbey

Crab apple, John Downie

This damson has rooted partway along its stem

Cooking apple, Dr Harvey

Eating apple, Miller's seedling

Friday, 10 September 2010

The old ladies sunning

The Bluebells do like to take advantage of good weather - it was very wet most of the week, so they didn't get out much. Today is warmer, if a bit windy, so they can enjoy it. Here they are - scraggy old dears!

For most of the past two months my dressing table has been home to various bottles which might make you wonder about my toilette regime. Alongside the delicately packaged Calvin Klein 1, Paloma, something with such a pretty box that I can't bring myself to start it, and the usual prophylactics against ageing that we over-50s allow ourselves to be conned into buying (though mine are distinctly closer to the cold cream end of the market than the designer labelled kind - indeed, they would be cold cream if it weren't that I don't much like the smell!)...I digress, alongside these fancy bottles are white containers stating "Total Mite Kill!", "Poultri-Drops", and "Just for Scaly Legs!". It comes of living in a small cottage - when you unwrap a parcel there is nowhere to put anything down, and the last line of resort is always my dressing table - things there are out of the way but easy to find. They should, of course, be on their way to the bin where all such items are kept, but the scaly leg treatment needs to be applied regularly, so it's good to keep it where I notice it from time to time.

I'm happy to report that the Bluebells and I are recovering nicely from our scale problems, but this has been the worst year I've known for pests and unpleasantnesses. We made the mistake, too, of moving the girls into a wooden house - we had to move them from their wheeled Eglu, a wonderful beast known here as the Vardo, because Steerage is rather feeble, and stopped being able to flutter up the ladder. We tried customising the ladder, to no avail, and for several weeks younger son and I took turns at crawling into the run to pick her up and put her into the house each night, but that was less than ideal on several counts: first, she also tended to take a nose dive (beak dive?) or her way out in the morning; second, it was frequently a horrible, muddy task and very difficult in the dark, taking both of us, one to hold the chicken and one to hold the torch; and third, it meant at least one of us had to be here, since OH is, like Pooh Bear, a trifle stout, to put it kindly. The wooden house was a cheap option, but by mid-summer we were fighting mite infestations (and more earwigs than you've ever seen, yeuch!). The roof blew off in a summer gale, too, leaving three rather ruffled and indignant ladies, so a necessary accessory ever since has been a large bag of potting compost on top. I expect you know that if you heave a bag of compost off a chicken house roof and onto the ground, it tends to split?

We got tired of the wooden retirement home (not as tired as itchy hens, I'm sure) and the new retirement home is a handsome latest-style Eglu Go. I think with two Eglus we are probably producing the most expensive eggs in the history of humanity (best not to mention this to OH!), but they taste wonderful (the eggs, that is), and we do love our girls. We do manage to be pragmatic up to a point - one was despatched when she became ill: the vet might have been able to prolong her life at the expense of her comfort, but it seemed much kinder to get her misery over and done with. As long as the girls take pleasure in strolling round the paddock, and stretching their wings out in a dust bath, though, we are happy to clean them out, chat to them and provide quantities of dried mealworms for their delectation. Boy, do chickens love mealworms! How do they know they're so good? Betty runs across the paddock shrieking with excitement when she sees the tub. Yesterday, she flew half its length (possible slight exaggeration, but it was an impressive feat for an old lady).

Off now to check that the buzzard isn't anywhere to be seen - regular readers may remember Betty's nasty experience? Her confidence is entirely restored, but when they are out frequent checks are necessary, and if it's about, the girls have to go in. If we're in the garden, of course, it's a different matter, and then they really enjoy the company.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Millefleurs barbus d'Uccles

Since I am in chicken mode - still besotted with the new girls, who are so keen on mealworms that taming them is going well - I thought I would post a picture of the prettiest breed of chickens we ever kept. I was going to use the picture from Wikipedia, but it really doesn't do them justice, so I thought that perhaps the British Belgian Bantam Club might be glad of a bit of extra publicity, and so wouldn't mind if I used one off their site.

When we lived in Scotland, we had a trio of these chickens, who were extremely tame, and liked to sit on people's shoulders (my mother-in-law was not keen). Unfortunately, they were really a bit too tame, and also liked to go for walks. In those days we lived opposite my sons' primary school, and it was a regular occurrence for the Barbus to turn up in the playground, at which point elder son was usually deputed to bring them home. Sometimes, they would set off straight down the hill through the village, and I am afraid that one day someone seized both opportunity and chickens; the someone is question, of course, might have been the fox, but we searched high and low and there was no sign of anyone, not so much as a feather, so perhaps they went to a new home. I was very sorry to lose them, they were tiny bundles of personality.

I don't think I would want to keep them on our clay soil here, they would get very weighed down in the mud. And I don't think that one of our neighbours would be frightfully keen on having a cockerel next door! It is exceedingly quiet here, and we're always rather embarrassed when the dogs choose to demonstrate their guarding qualities: a chicken shrieking his head off at 3.30am might not be popular!

Saturday, 4 September 2010

New girls

 The Bluebell girls are getting quite elderly, and we only have three left, so we decided it was time to add to the flock. We're delighted with the four new girls - 1 black rock and three speckeldys. As with the Bluebells, where the original leader of the flock was one of the two white hens (succeeded when she died suddenly by the other one), the black rock has immediately appointed herself Chicken-in-Charge, and is living up to her name, Pocahontas. (Well, it suited her.) The others are just a little younger, I think.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Angel eyes

My mother and I each have one of these, a pelargonium called Angel Eyes, which seems to be a very prolific flowerer, My plant is only a baby, and survived a hot airless journey home from Devon last month.

Next week is going to be purgatory, with four windows being replaced on Thursday. This means that half the contents of my tiny office space will have to be packed up and moved, including of course my computer. So three days disruption for one day of actual work. Meanwhile, the ongoing broadband nightmare means that the router which is sitting beside my desk absolutely must not be switched off, and the track is being dug up to try to address some of the also ongoing water supply problems. Oh, and someone should turn up to replace the oven element for the third time. The last two weeks have seen BT out goodness knows how many times, a surveyor for the windows, the lawnmower repair man, the oven man, someone to cut the hedge - considering that I can go for whole weeks seeing no-one but the family and maybe the postie, it all feels a bit overwhelming.

All I want is a hermitage with good broadband - too much to ask?

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Sleeping dogs

As a rule it's almost impossible to take a picture of Senior Dog upside down and relaxing. Point a camera at her and, quicker than a flash, she's the right way up and four-square in front of you with an expression of eager anticipation. On occasion, you would swear she had managed to conjure a ball out of nowhere, too (what this really means is that she's gone to sleep with one tucked away beside her, just in case...).

So, this afternoon, it took real artfulness - I noticed her upside down while I was putting away the things from the dishwasher. I crept off to collect and switch on the camera. On my return, I picked up the pile of plates and clattered across to the dresser with them, then slid my hand oh so quietly out from behind the dresser door and click! she was caught. Silly old thing! That cushion is just where she likes it. It takes a lot of effort to get a chair just right.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Monday, 24 May 2010

Eggs everywhere...

I'll never make a food blogger! For a start I don't cook very often - I earn the living, OH does the cooking. But he's been cooking practically every day for the last 18 years or so, and I feel it's time he had the occasional break. So the idea is that, when I'm home, I'll cook on Saturdays, and younger son thinks he might do a regular slot as well.

Unfortunately, this week I pretty much forgot about it and spent most of Saturday in the garden, cleaning chicken houses and planting strawberries - I did offer, but the thing that needed using up was sausages, so OH very nobly made toad-in-the-hole with ratatouille - it was very good. Since I offered to take up the spatula again my contributions have mostly involved eggs, since we have a glut, and I do a mean soufflé, if I say so myself. Last weekend I did potato and fennel soup, thanks to the River Cottage May newsletter and to our local Green Shop, which had lovely fennel and excellent spelt bread, followed by Scotch eggs. In the past I've always made these by deep-frying them, something I'm not entirely happy about - it uses a lot of oil, the end result is a bit greasy for my taste and it no doubt ups the calory content. This time, though, I baked the eggs in the oven and we all really liked them.

Hard boil as many eggs as you want, cooling them as soon as they are done and peeling them - I like to do it under a trickle of water from the cold tap, which helps to loosen the shell. I used sausages for the coating, splitting the skin and peeling it off - it took about one and a half sausages per egg. Wrap the sausage meat round the egg, sealing all the cracks, then dip the egg into beaten egg, and then into fresh breadcrumbs. The bake in the oven at 200 C for about half an hour. Let them cool a bit before serving, it intensifies the flavour of the sausage - best with salad, but in my student days I liked them with baked beans.

The other reason why I'll never make a food blogger is that I don't take pictures of things. I'll try to do better in future.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Poorly puppy

The Bolter isn't very well today. She ran full-tilt into Senior Dog a month ago and since then has had bouts of limping after she's been running. She's on rest and anti-inflammatories at the moment, but yesterday I thought she was feeling a bit off-colour and this morning she was sick - quite unusual for her, she has a pretty cast-iron digestive system, trained by years of eating every disgustingly dead thing she can find! She has clearly decided, though, that poorly tummies should be kept warm, and has retired to bed (mine) for the day.I expect the pills have upset her, so we may be in for a couple of days of this.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Salad days

Reading John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure for the Cornflower Book Group last week provided a good deal of food for reminiscence. Early in the book its horrible but compelling narrator, Tarquin Winot, talks about first experiences of restaurants:
One’s first restaurant is not or need not be one’s literal first restaurant, the place where one ate in public for the first time and paid for the experience (the forgotten motorway service station on a trip north to auntie’s, the first good-behaviour rewarding teashop scone), but rather the place where one first encountered the blinding, consoling hugeness of the restaurant idea. Stiff napery; heavy gravity-laden crockery; pristine wineglasses, erect and presentable as Guardsmen on parade; an expectant Commando of pronged, edged and expectant cutlery; the human furniture of other diners and the uniformed waiters; above all the awareness that one has finally arrived at a setting designed primarily to minister to one’s needs, a bright palace of rendered attention.
I got to thinking about my own experience of eating out and came up with a trio of memories, mostly by no means as grand as those which Tarquin is thinking of. The earliest is when I was six, in Scarborough, where my mother was working at the gloriously opulent Royal Opera House, in those days a proper repertory theatre and sadly now demolished, despite the fact that it had been refurbished in the 1970s. Rep companies tend to be very familial, so it was a fairly regular occurrence for a large group to descend at Sunday lunchtime on Scarborough’s first Chinese restaurant, where chopsticks and chop suey (which I adored!) were a novelty. I remember a large, light, upstairs dining room, leisurely meals accompanied by the sound of laughter.

My second recollection of eating out as a small child involves that largely-defunct institution, afternoon tea which, in the 1960s, could still be ordered in most hotels around the country – station hotels being particularly reliable in this respect. Sunday trips out in my grandparents’ car occasionally ended with tea (I recall a slightly undignified visit to the Loch Rannoch Hotel in Perthshire* when I had just fallen into a bog and was rather damp around the nether regions). Hot toasted teacakes or marmite on toast seemed much more of a treat than they could ever do at home: the toast was crisper, the butter sweeter…in those far off days, hotels seemed like heaven to me.

By 1967 my mother was working in London as wardrobe supervisor for a large organisation, overseeing productions both at home and on tour, and that summer she was asked to go to Bournemouth, where a summer show was opening next week at the Winter Gardens (to my horror, also now demolished – we used to joke that theatres my stepfather went to always burnt down; now it seems that all the theatres of my childhood proved surplus to civic requirements). I went too, and the team for getting the costumes ready for a show starring Tommy Cooper and Frankie Vaughan (big names then!) comprised my mother, the elegant and charming designer, two dancers from Bournemouth’s other theatre, the resident wardrobe mistress and me – there were 12 dancers in the show and I can’t remember how many costume changes (at least six, it was a lavish affair), but by the end of the week I was a dab hand with a staple gun and was practically on first name terms with the assistants at the haberdashery counter of Bournemouth’s department store. Yes, really, sixty yards of elastic, please.

The designer stayed in the rather splendid Royal Bath Hotel, while my mother and I went to a hotel next to the theatre, so that if I got tired (which I didn’t, it was all much too much fun) I would be near at hand. The evening we arrived though, we all sailed into the Royal Bath, where it was agreed that although the dining room was officially closed, the chef could probably rustle something up if we didn’t mind a lack of choice. I don’t remember what I ate, but vividly recall the pleasure of sitting by an open window on a warm summer’s evening, and watching several slices of melba toast float gently upwards in the breeze. The head waiter, who attended single-handed to our needs was stately, but not unbending. Several nights later, following the show’s opening, our wardrobe “team” returned to the Royal Bath dining room at nearly midnight – the centre of the room now taken up by a long table sparkling with silverware and glass – for a celebratory dinner, the head waiter, now an old friend, again presiding. This rather blurred photograph, the best I could find, shows that the dining room hasn't changed much in 40 years!

If I'd known then how much time I would spend in hotels now, I wouldn't have minded in the slightest – actually, even now, I don't mind it much, finding them to be places where you can retreat behind a closed door. I prefer them medium-sized, not so huge that you are completely anonymous, but not so small that you feel constantly on display. I generally eat elsewhere, though I could easily be tempted back by mid-afternoon toast and marmite!

* Edited later to add that the Loch Rannoch Hotel's website makes it quite clear that afternoon tea is still served there - nice to see they have got their priorities right. I must go back there one day.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

And seeing visitors

 Photo: RSPB website

Rather exciting to see one of these walking across the lawn this afternoon. It's a ring ouzel, presumably on its way into Britain and heading for the nearby moorland and summer nesting ground. I was hoping to get a photograph of it, but the resident blackbirds were very agressively seeing it off even as I spotted it. The population is in serious decline in here, so I count myself lucky to have had even a fleeting sight.

The jackdaws, meanwhile, are frantically flying in the most bizarre collection of potential nesting material, bits of fluff (deer and dog?), spare feathers - even an unattached pheasant wing, which was proudly conveyed to the nest site. Ten minutes later, it was lying on the lawn - rejected? too heavy to stay put? A little later still, it had disappeared again, replaced, I assumed, but then I saw one of the jackdaws flying away from the nest with it. I'm not sure whether it was a strange bird, poaching, or a disenchanted partner ("It's not hygienic, dear!") Five minutes later, and its proud finder was back again with the wing firmly clutched in its beak. I guess it has now been cemented in!

Monday, 19 April 2010

Watching the neighbours

Jackdaw by soikha

My new neighbours are a very industrious couple. They spend most of the day nest-building, having chosen a desirable site in the ash tree opposite my window, and I can't help watching when I'm supposed to be working. I can't see the nest itself, as it is deep in the ivy I've been threatening to remove - every spring when I decide to start work in the garden, the birds have beaten me to it and I resign myself to waiting until the nesting season is over. Somehow, come the autumn, nothing gets done.

This morning, Cor and Cora (as I am beginning to think of them) are prowling about the lawn collecting clumps of grass mowings, as well as venturing further in pursuit of sticks from around the field margins. Every few minutes they return with beaks full of spiky additions, sometimes flagging under the weight of a particularly choice item. One nearly fell off the branch just now. They are being watched beady-eyed by a pair of wood pigeons, who have previously raised the odd brood in the depths of the ivy (not very sucessfully, the squabs have a distressing tendency to make fatal descents from the heights), and there may yet be some nest-nabbing! Judging by the amount of sparrow activity in the ash tree, there are a number of smaller homes too - that's the excuse for not removing the ivy, it does offer such excellent habitat, though I do worry about the weight of it when the winds are high.

I rather look forward to young jackdaws - they will undoubtedly be noisy, and may be destructive, but I suspect they might prove amusing, if young starlings are anything to go by. The sparrowhawks, by the way, are back as predicted, and telling everyone about it at the top of their voices!

Monday, 12 April 2010

Reaction sets in

 Photo: angmac

* I've been working really hard for the last couple of months, setting up and running a conference. I'm lucky, really, the people I run it for are nice, the college where it took place last week was comfortable and the staff couldn't have been more helpful, and my wonderful younger son has been my conference assistant for 10 years, not only working hard during the event, but driving us both there and back (have I admitted it here before? I don't drive - and if I did, at conference time, I'd probably kill us both.)

As of Friday afternoon, I'm back, and I enjoyed the weekend. I indulged in the only form of retail therapy that remotely interests me - I spent rather too much at the garden centre, and spent yesterday afternoon up to my elbows in compost. Today, however, despite lovely weather, and a cast-iron (you'd think) excuse to take time off (I am due at least 5 days in lieu, since I worked most weekends in the last month), I turned on the computer - a grant application looms, and I thought I'd better spend some time clearing up the outstanding email, at least. Only to find that the deadline for a second grant application has been brought forward a month, and I now have to prepare 2 submissions in the next three weeks. So now it's 8.15pm and I have alienated both husband and aforementioned wonderful son by losing my temper in an entirely manufactured way. I feel very unkindly towards the world.

Normally, one of the few things I like about being 55 is being much more equable. Most of the time these days I pass pretty convincingly for cheerful, and if I mention a tendency to moodiness people look surprised. Tiredness is my undoing, though, and a conference causes more than just a energy dip. I ran on pure adrenaline for several days, and now I'm suffering the consequences. And I'm afraid the growly black dog may be around for some time, because I hate grant applications more than anything else I can think of. Grrr-r-r.

* This wasn't at all the post I was planning. I was quite cheerful until half way through the washing up...

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Blackbirds and thrushes

The blackbirds and thrushes sang in the green bushes

goes the folk song. Our garden is full of them at the moment, all intent on feathering their nests and nurturing their genes. At this time of year one of my amusements is watching sparrow fights, in which a horde of shrieking fluttering little brown birds rampage round the garden, like small boys in the school playground. This morning, though, it was blackbirds – five of them whizzed past me and into the hawthorn hedge, where I wondered if they would escape without getting spiked, so intent were they on each other.

Now that I’m at my desk, two very handsome song thrushes are stalking round the lawn, while overhead two buzzards soar. They too have been very active in the last few days, with some aerobatic displays more readily associated with some of the more agile raptors. This year I think we are going to have the buzzards nesting in the wood at the foot of the garden, while the sparrowhawks will probably be back in their usual tree just beyond the paddock. With both lots of fledglings screaming imprecations at their parents it could be a noisy summer. If you haven’t heard a hungry young sparrowhawk, believe me, it can shriek for England!

It’s pretty noisy already, in fact. There is a rookery here, and now that the rooks are convinced that spring is here, activity is non-stop. They wake at about 4am, with sleepy squawks and grumbles, and by about 5.30 the air of full of creaks and groans as they gear up for another busy day of collecting twigs. It’s not just picking of sticks (there’s another folk song – I’m as bad as the birds today) from the ground, the trees are full of rooks bent on that perfect twig, tugging away with dogged determination. On the fringes are the jackdaws, but they can’t compete for noise. Rook activity goes on all day, foraging for food and sticks, then as dusk falls those who aren’t nesting gather in our ash trees in great flocks like a flight of broken umbrellas, before rising all at once in a black cloud, streaming overhead on their way to their night roost in the woods.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Ornament and comely grace

Spring in Northumberland isn't very far advanced yet, and I am swamped with work, so this morning I took a detour via the Garden Centre on the way back from the bank, and bought two deliciously scented sweet violets (viola odorata) - I wish Blogger had a scratch-and-sniff function, because they are quite delectable. They will do nicely to assuage my immediate need for spring flowers. With luck, they should also self-seed themselves around the place, which would be delightful.

In the tapestry series The Hunt of the Unicorn, one of the flowers surrounding the captive unicorn is viola odorata, because the sweetly-scented blooms are symbolic of fertility:

and in the Herbal, Gerard says:
very many by these Violets receive ornament and comely grace: for there be made of them Garlands for the heade, nosegaies and poseies, which are delightfull to looke upon and pleasant to smell to...Gardens themselves receive by these the greatest ornament of all, chiefest beautie, and most gallant grace; and the recreation of the mind which is taken heere by, cannot be but verie good and honest...
They amongst our oldest medicinal plants, containing salicylic acid among the active constituents, and were used by the Athenians "to procure sleep", while the Anglo-Saxons used sweet violet as a wound-herb and a cosmetic. The Romans made wine with the flowers, and of course they have long been used in perfumery. Crystallized violets were a popular delicacy, and in the time of Charles II "violet sugar" was a favourite.  The leaves can be used in salads (although they have a laxative effect) and were used in poultices. You could try using the fresh leaves on bruises, for a cooling and soothing compress. Or, if you like a seriously sophisticated treat, what about these?

To crystallize violets, dip the flowers in beaten eggwhite, or paint the flowers with a small brush. Then dip them into caster sugar, or sprinkle it over them if the flowers are very delicate. You can do the same with primrose flowers to make pretty decorations for an Easter or simnel cake.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Spring Bluebells

It was a lovely morning, and while I cleaned out the chicken house, the ladies took a stroll. Betty has entirely forgotten her horrible experience with the buzzard, and investigated every nook and cranny under the ash tree, but the Bluebells preferred to bathe in some nice soft, dry soil. Bliss all round.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Buzzard attack!


Along with a lot of other people, I have always believed that buzzards won't attack chickens, so it was a considerable shock to find that while I was away recently, my favourite hen, Betty, had been attacked. She's the smallest of our girls, so it was very fortunate that the attempt was unsuccessful, leaving her bloodied and shocked, but basically okay. The girls had been free to wander in the paddock, which they loved, but have now been relegated to their covered run again, unless there is someone out in the garden to keep on eye on them. We were all outside on Sunday, and it was good to see that she's entirely recovered from the experience (or forgotten all about it). That's a very youthful Betty at the front of the picture - she's not at all pretty, but she is very sweet. When they were free to roam she would rush up the paddock to greet anyone who went out there.

A quick Google search suggests that it's not, after all, uncommon for buzzards to look beadily at chickens, but it does seem significant that it happened at the end the winter, with snow having lain for a much longer period than I've seen for years. When we came to live here about 15 years ago, there were no buzzards at all, but now we have quite a large population. We also have plenty of small creatures as a rule, on which they can feed, but this winter the voles were snug under a couple of feet of snow.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Spring flowers

Spring has certainly arrived in Devon, though there's still not much sign here in Northumberland - since I got back on Thursday it has been cold with a smattering of snow. I may go and buy some flowering bulbs to cheer up the garden!

Thursday, 4 February 2010

A blousy wench

I can't remember which variety this is - it's the first time it's flowered, just in time to cheer everyone up post-Christmas.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Automatic writing

I wish! Finding time to write blog posts is always something of a struggle (and of course it was idiotic to land myself with two blogs to keep up) so I find myself eagerly seeking new ways to make it easier. I already travel almost everywhere with a laptop, but evenings in hotel rooms or long train journeys are often spent working rather than relaxing. Posting by phone is beyond me - I am a slow texter, writing words in full and scrupulously correcting mistyped letters.

What I really wanted, I mused, was a device that would transcribe my thoughts as I look out of the train window. This reminded me of a Russian short story I read many years ago, about an inventor and writer who developed a machine that would record his thoughts. With such a device, he thought, he could write masterpieces! So he settled down with his machine to compose his magnum opus, only to find later when he looked at the tape, that it read something like, "Sitting by the blue Black Sea...why is the Black Sea blue?...why is it called the Black Sea when it looks blue?..." and so on, at great length. I did wonder about a dictaphone, since I already use voice recognition software, but that requires privacy, and is consequently of limited use. Other people may regard it as okay to sit on the train and talk into a recorder - I don't. (Actually, there is something of a problem with the voice recognition set-up, as I always forget to turn off the radio, and my voice, dictating, gets muddled up with Jenni Murray talking about female innards, or Martha Kearney sounding like a slightly benign terrier as she makes some politician squirm.)

Well, late last year I took the plunge and bought one of these. There was a bit of a setback the first time I took it away with me - no longer attached by an umbilicus to the computer, it ceased to function, so that I found myself at a meeting, ready to take minutes, with nothing but digital paper, so I had to scrounge. Some protracted chasing of the supplier followed (I was put off buying it from Amazon by people who had trouble getting replacements, but in retrospect, I'd as soon fight with them as anyone else) and the new one eventually arrived just before Christmas, just when I didn't want to play with it.

The smart pen, which is a little on the fat side for comfort, writes on "dot paper" which you can even print yourself (though given the price of printer ink, I can't imagine there's much saving) or which can be bought in variously-sized numbered notebooks. When it's docked after writing, it uploads the used pages to your computer, where you can save them. As well as recording writing it can perform some computational functions and record sound (which is disconcerting when you turn it on by mistake and hear yourself wittering away).

One of my concerns was that the charge might not hold up for more than a day's meetings, but on a recent London trip I used it for several days without having to recharge. I could have recharged it with the laptop - it's just a USB connection to the charging "cradle" - but it's not really set up to use with more than one computer at a time, and I didn't want to compromise it on my first trip away from its parent. In fact, it can connect to more than one - you just have to remember that you must upload its information to both before deleting anything. Once the data is uploaded there is a web-based desktop to store it so that you can access it from anywhere. I must admit I haven't used this very sucessfully yet, but that may be a function of my hopeless broadband rather than a software failing. Social networking is available through this site, but that's not something I am likely to make much use of. Much more practical, from my point of view, is the associated OCR software which translates my scrawl into text that can be transferred to Word.

I've written a couple of blog posts with the pen - not this one - and minuted a number of meetings. My minuting style will have to undergo some change for me to turn the uploaded text into a proper record: I am having to remember not to use the abbreviations I spent years honing, and to write more clearly than I tend to: unlike the voice recognition software, the OCR doesn't learn my personal idiosyncrasies. (Of course, it wouldn't be any use at all if I wrote in shorthand, but happily, I never learnt.) Despite the fatness of the pen, I didn't notice my hand cramping more than usual after a day of writing. One thing you do have to watch - it rolls very readily. A number of reviewers reported having pens roll onto the floor, but this can be combated by wrapping a small elastic band round the top (unaesthetic) or just Being Very Careful (my preferred option, until it does barrel its way off a table, at which point I'll regret ignoring the advice).

Altogether, I'm reasonably pleased with it so far. Perhaps I should add that the pen comes in black (to match my clothes) or silver, with 2 and 4GB memories. I have no idea how the latter works in terms of everyday use, though I went for the 2GB version. I don't plan on using audio recording much, so I can't imagine it will be an issue. I'll try to remember to post an update later in the year. One caveat: they are pretty expensive, and I shouldn't think they are going to come down in price anytime soon. And I wonder if the new Android/Google phones might start to fulfill many of the functions before long.