Monday, December 31, 2007

Box-fresh

The tiniest of bleets greeted me this morning as I went out onto the field to feed the hens. Over the rise and at the top of the dingle, standing small and all alone, was this little scrap. His mother was tucked into a thicket of blackthorn a few metres away with two more lambs. Triplets then, obviously born in the early hours and all a good size too.

My shepherding - though largely vicarious - I take very seriously. I picked him up and reunited him with his mother who didn't seem over concerned that a third of her new family had gone missing. (But then she wasn't overwhelmed at his return either - a quick sniff and a grunt was all the welcome he got.)

What a good omen it seems, new life for the new year.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Seasonal flim-flam.....

Is it safe to come out yet? What do you think? Dare I peek out over the parapet in the hope of spying some normality?

I've tried. I've tried very hard - and I think successfully - to pay lip service to the niceties of the season, (trees, cakes, pies, presents, goodwill to all men etc) - but it's not my natural habitat. I love the lights and the twinkling, the visit of my 3 wise young men and, sceptic that I am, can even find time for the Christmas story. I'm sorry folks, for me, bring on 12th night and The Last Day of the Sales.

Fortunately Welshpool does not appear to be in the thrall of the retail frenzy gripping the nation - cut price steaks vied with half-price Christmas cards in the town's new Sainsburys store. There didn't seem to be much of a rush for either. Further down the road in Cheap Charlie's Christmas Store, last week's forest of artificial spruce where ersatz polar bear and reindeer roamed in ersatz snow, is now a barren waste. Lawn mowers wait in the wings while desultory shoppers pick over baubles, reduced napkins and angels with broken wings. Perhaps the townsfolk have gone further afield or are glued mouse-in-hand to a computer screen and Curry's CutPriceSale.

I'm patiently waiting for the radio and the TV to be back to normal too. In the meantime I'm reading Byron Roger's biography of RS Thomas: 'The Man Who Walked into the West'. More of that later. Maybe.

Monday, December 24, 2007

'tis the season....

In the field the 'dogged old ewes' have turned their backs against the rain and stand, stock-still as statues, facing east. I watch the rain driving across the dark conifers of Badnage Wood. It's not so much falling, but surrounding us and all pervasive.

If there can be a plus side to this sodden day when the landscape's colour is reduced to a sombre palette - then I find it in the flash of red on the woodpecker outside the window and the extra sparkle of the Christmas tree lights in the gloaming. Small pleasures.

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

What we did on our holidays.....

We're now back at the top of our low mountain after a few days in London. At the risk of sounding like 'a hick from the sticks', when you're more accustomed to the plod of rural life it's a busy old place isn't it? We pounded the streets with the best of them, shopped and ate for England and got an injection of culture as well. Hmm, is it any wonder I'm exhausted?

Our hotel, The Montague on the Gardens' is an artefact's throw from the British Museum - which must be one of my most favourite places. Its proximity means that it's easy just to drop in for a quick browse and a gawp at all that wonderful STUFF. Such a treasure trove. Forget 'Supermarket Sweep ' - I'd like 5 minutes with a shopping trolley in the BM.....or perhaps a block and tackle to liberate an Assyrian statue or two.....

We had tickets for 'The First Emperor' exhibition staged in the Reading Room in the Great Court. Whilst not particularly large it was certainly worth a visit. The chance find of a terracotta head in 1974 by a Chinese farmer whilst sinking a well resulted in one of the archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century - the tomb of China's first Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi. His own burial mound remains unexcavated but archaeologists have uncovered a wealth of material in a vast underground complex which surrounds the tomb. As well as c.7,000 terracotta soldiers, pottery entertainers, officials, musicians, horses and bronze birds have been found in an area 56 km sq. The scale of this one man's quest for eternal life is staggering - and any exhibition can only ever show a fragment of its magnificence.
These little clay figures made by schoolchildren, standing in lines like the real warriors, caught my eye. Each one similar to the next, but each one, like the originals, an individual. Good work girls and boys.

A taxi ride across London in the early evening to Battersea took us across Waterloo Bridge. Lights twinkled in all directions; the London Eye and Westminster to our right and the City, London's financial hub to the left. Below us the inky Thames magnified those lights a thousand times. It was both a pretty and an impressive sight. We supped champagne at a friend's new riverside apartment which enjoys equally impressive views across the city - envious? Moi? We dined on fish in Mayfair - at Scotts.

More good food was eaten at Moro in Clerkenwell, where we met the Eyechild who stumbled out of the darkness from the seamy side of town. Good hearty food here - just right for a cold December evening.

On our final night we took our seats at the ROH for Rossini's 'La Cenerentola'. While we were unfamiliar with this opera it's essentially a reworking of the story of Cinderella. In spite of a convoluted plot involving characters changing roles it was remarkably easy to follow - the sur-titles did help! I don't know whether I would go out of my way to see it again - it seemed to lack oomph. I was longing for some spectacle; mice and pumpkins, smoke and mirrors - a grand ball, but this was not to be. We got a swish blue car, a girl in pretty dress for a few minutes and some good tunes. Jacopo Ferretti's libretto - its word play - was great fun. As ever, wonderful to hear music for real - I never fail to feel a frisson of anticipation as the orchestra launches into the overture before the curtains part and the drama begins. Bliss.

There was just time on Friday morning to go back to the British Museum and take a quick look at some of the objects in the European Galleries.......hoards of gold and silver, tools and coins and wonderful things. Interestingly there was very little on display from this part of the world. .....Perhaps that means it is still here, still buried, just waiting to be discovered! (note to self: dust off metal detector and spade. Enlist help of Doreen.)

Then finally, shoe-horned into seats 29 and 30 in coach C on the 12.40 from Euston we hurtle north to Birmingham. It seems many others have the same idea. They and their fantastic amounts of luggage + frail carrier bags of jolly presents, are going home for Christmas. Young and excited, back to Mum and Dad. I imagine the same scenario is taking place in the other direction too. (I am always amused by the thought of this annual people exchange - north to south, south to north and presumably east-west, west-east as well.)

Miracle of miracles. The local train not only arrives in Birmingham, but it departs on time. We are home. Released from travel's enveloping time capsule where there is neither night or day or reality we discover fresh air. Cold frosty air, which as we climb out of Welshpool onto the side of our low mountain, becomes thick and foggy. Long Mountain is swathed in mist and covered in crisp hoar frost. Beautiful.

Oh - and these are my new shoes:


Now all I need is an invitation to the ball.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Tree of Lights

The lights on the village Christmas tree went on last night. The 'ceremony' - a prayer and the flick of a switch took only a few moments and was the cue for everyone to rush indoors out of the cold: a) to grab a seat and b) to have a glass of hot mulled wine. In that order. And what a crowd there was in the Village Hall. There wasn't room to slide a mince pie between the gathered folks. Under the glow of the room's primitive electric heaters heads got hot, coats were shrugged off and bottoms shuffled on the hall's serviceable chairs. Children wriggled. Rosy faces, bright with anticipation and wine, keenly awaited the promised 'Christmas Entertainment.'

Up front, whoever's holding the curtains together on the stage has a whispered argument, 'sotto voce', with someone else unseen. 'No' 'Yes' 'Not now.' 'Get on with it'. Finally the curtains part to reveal a scratch choir of village ladies and some judiciously placed scenery - a chimney, a wall and somewhat inevitably - Santa's sleigh alongside that other potent symbol of Yule-tide, a Post box. With a flourish the Vicar at the piano launches into 'Winter Wonderland' and we're off. A bell rings festively and a sack-carrying Santa enters the room - to loud applause. Santa Claus is coming to town! Hurrah! Everyone under the age of 10 gets a present and there follows much rustling as wrapping paper is torn away.

I won't inflict too many of Marton's festivities on a fragile world - only about 44 seconds worth of the '12 Days of Christmas' as performed by 2 local farmers. It's just as well that the audience were not too bothered about a polished performance - in fact the more gaffs and pratt-falls the better. This was definitely a work in progress. How we laughed! This is the village comfort zone, the well worn, much loved and innocent - and as somebody said on the way out 'Only in Marton.' Dave sings 'When a Child is Born', softly and a little self-consciously. He is a farmer and I suspect has rehearsed by singing to his cows at milking. We are all proud of him and applaud loudly. Well done.



Finally the vicar picks up his piano accordion and everyone sings carols very thoroughly, verse after interminable verse. Maureen, sensing that at this rate we'll be here until morning, hisses loudly and authoritatively through the curtain 'Get on with it. Top and tail 'em'. That seems to do the trick. 'Silent Night' is abruptly silenced. The serious business of munching mince pies, drinking tea and talking about the woes of farming can now begin.

And that's it really for another year, bar the totting up and submitting expenses.

The little tree and its cloud of white lights twinkles outside the Hall at the edge of the Village. If you're coming through Marton I hope you'll like it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Dear Me,

I've been tagged by Snailbeachshepherdess. I must write a letter to my 13 year old self. Hmm.... (Scratches head, chews metaphorical pencil). Here goes............
















Dear Felicity,

I know, I know - that’s not what you want to be called. (A bit too different when you’re in a class with all those Helens, Heathers and Kathleens – to say nothing of the Annes, Lesleys, Rosemarys and Alisons. Ooops, nearly forgot the Margarets…) You stand out when you want to blend in and long to be called something like Janet.

Your nickname – Topsy – is not entirely conventional either. It’s the name you’ve been known by since you were a teetering toddler – and it was fine in the rough and tumble world of home but in the more sophisticated surrounding of Kings High School it’s not quite right either. Keep your thumb over the name on your bus pass – it’s one thing for your friends to give you a nickname – but when bus drivers replace ‘Hello muy duck’ with ‘Hello Fliss, Flick or Fizz’ it’s time to be assertive. You will be assertive won’t you? And Felicity? You will grow to like its difference.

And how is school? Hockey? I didn’t think you’d get much pleasure from hurtling up and down a muddy field on a foggy afternoon in pursuit of a small wooden ball. I quite understand that you could never see the point. I am glad you gave it a try though. I suspect you will always avoid anything remotely sporty involving teams and ugly clothes. How are the other subjects going? Hopeless at maths? That’s unlikely to change! When you have children of your own try to sound convincing and encouraging about the importance of the sciences.

Art though, that's a different matter - I’m sure you’re in your element in the Art Room. I think that’s all you ever really wanted to do – make marks and play with colour and shape. Don’t give up on Latin – believe me, in years to come what seems like a pointless exercise now will later pay dividends.

I imagine that you wish you lived in the town like most of your school friends. The concept of ‘cool’ hasn’t been invented yet but I think we’ll agree that living surrounded by what your mother describes reasonably accurately as ‘a sea of mud’ is not ‘cool’. You are drawn to those beckoning city lights. I know that deep down the countryside’s slow and regular pace has entered your soul and taken hold of all your senses. There will be sights and smells and sounds in 40 years time that will suddenly transport you back to Warwickshire – leafy then before Dutch Elm disease took its toll – and you will feel you’ve come home again. You will eventually learn to love, and live with, mud. And poultry too believe it or not.

I suppose I should advise you to heed the wise words of your parents – but I can’t do it very convincingly. As B Dylan will shortly bring to your attention - ‘The Times they are a-changin’. His words will speak for your generation:

'Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond
your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin'.
How lucky you are to be young now. The country has finally shaken loose from the privations of wartime and the austerity which followed. The social order is changing. By the time you reach adulthood - and don't laugh - the fact that you're a woman shouldn't hold you back either. So get out there and seize every opportunity. Throw caution to the wind. These are such exciting times.

What else can I add? Travel, see the world. Measure twice, cut once. Enjoy.

With love and best wishes,
F x

It is an interesting exercise - if you're up for a challenge consider yourself tagged!

Morning Sky














'Red sky in the morning - shepherd's warning?'

This dramatic dawn greeted me when I woke this morning. Surprisingly there are only short moments between the two pictures. The fieriness disappeared and was replaced by a rather uninteresting golden glow.

News for lovers of sheep....'The dogged owd ewes'

John and Heather fetched up the other night with a lorry load of sheep for our field. 20 plus ewes, extracted from the flock over at Fir House, stumbled down the ramp and off into the darkness. They are all due to lamb in January and need a bit of tlc; extra food and such. (3 troughs arrived with them.) They are indeed a sorry bunch and remind me in a way of one of those wartime regiments where some wag, to while away the hours, had gathered together groups of men with similar characteristics - red-hair or facial scars for example. It may be an apocryphal tale, but I would like it think it true. These unfortunates mostly have bad feet.

John described them as ‘dogged owd ewes’ – I wouldn’t have thought doggedness was an ovine trait – but what do I know?

The prospect of food, any food, excites them though and bad feet or not they come running. Here they do show determination. There was much pushing, shoving and head butting in order to snarf a mouthful of hen food yesterday. Today they are enjoying the sun.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Hoping

Marton was all a-twitter this morning when the news came in that our Lottery bid to fund a new Village Hall had gone forward to the next stage. This is good news indeed - we are now amongst the final 104 projects waiting to discover if we will be one of the lucky 'good causes'. Last Friday we were one of 541, so the odds have shortened considerably.

Everyone who has worked so hard preparing the bid and raising funds - fundraising which basically covers professional fees and maintenance - is much encouraged. I am too but with my cynic's hat on wonder if we should instead have encouraged the Modern Olympiad to return to Shropshire - funding would have poured into our hands and we would have facilities, a transport system and affordable housing that was the envy of west midlands and Welsh Marches alike. (Look what's happening in Hackney and see, further afield what the Guggenheim Museum has done for Bilbao.) Instead money trickles awfully slowly into our coffers, coffee morning by coffee morning and our ultimate success will be, well, a lottery. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the scale of the project and the little impact we make on the final target figure.

'They' have appraised our project so far by paperwork and telephone interview. Now 'They', the über-powerful great and good, will leave their London offices and pay a visit to Marton to view the hall. Usually we try to show its best side to visitors but this will be one occasion when its dilapidations will be an asset. Asbestos? Tick. Rot, wet and dry? Tick. Wheelchair Access. None? Tick. Possibility of repairs or refurbishment - see asbestos - none. Tick. We expect a final decision some time next year, late summer perhaps. And what if the bid fails? There is no plan 'B'.

In the meantime the Fundraising sub-Committee continue to plot events - anything to keep the money coming it. There will be a Burns Supper in January with all the trimmings; haggis and whisky and, if the floor will take the strain, some Country Dancing.Before that though, a bit too close for comfort and back by popular request will be 'The Tree of Lights'. With the flick of a switch and a short prayer from the vicar (for those that like that sort of thing), the tree's little white lights will twinkle into action - a welcoming and festive site on a dark stretch of road at the edge of the village. With the lights officially lit everyone trudges indoors for mulled wine, mince pies and Entertainment.

It's another of those 'am I really here?' moments for me..........but it will be fun. Goodcleanvillagefun amongst friends who know each other well and appreciate each other's party pieces. It has a sort of innocence from before the days of rock 'n' roll.

After much head scratching I re-worked the 12 Days of Christmas for two farmers to 'perform':
On the twelfth day of Christmas,
My true love sent to me
Twelve John Deere Tractors,
Eleven loads of silage,
Ten tanks of diesel
Nine Polish workers
Eight cows in-calf
Seven Aussie shearers
Six Vets’ visits
Five bull rings,
Four tractor tyres,
Three bags of sheep nuts,
Two forms from DEFRA,
And a copy of Farmers’ Weekly!
Give us the money and we'll all stop making fools of ourselves!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Chill factor

I've just fired up the stove - piled it high with kindling and hawthorn logs - and am waiting for the warmth to kick in. It's been a dreary old day with little to recommend it. Clouds akin to grey flannel drape the hills. Things drip. Damp pheasants hunker down in the hedge bottom keeping out of the drizzle, emerging only for a desultory peck at anything green that grows (damn them). The killer sheep in the field across the lane nibble their way across the field and back. (It's difficult to say if they notice their surroundings at all.) Shortly after four o'clock the hens go to roost and I light the fire.

Fond as I am of the Long Mountain's low and rolling contours, clefts, humps and dingles, I have to admit this season does not show it in the best light. Extremes I think are good; hottestcoldestblowyfreshgreenicesnow - whiteover..........whatever.

I have been reading - courtesy of The Eyechild - John Christopher's 'The World in Winter'.

I'm not a great fan of Sci-Fi - my inability to suspend belief perhaps - but having run out of other words to read it was this or nothing. First published in 1962 - this Penguin edition dates from '63 - this novel is the story of an arctic winter ushering in a contemporary Ice Age and, as the blurb says 'a cold cold nightmare'. 'Solar radiation decline' brings permafrost to the northern hemisphere and London's familiar cityscape becomes one of ice and privation where society as we know it has broken down. Think frozen Thames, ice floes beyond Tower Bridge and omnipresent thuggery. Scary. Brrr. A recognisable London appears to be populated by 4 named people and 'the mob beyond The Pale'. Refuge is sought in Africa - Nigeria - from where, eventually, a sort of reverse expeditionary force sets out to England - in erm, a fleet of hovercrafts.

It's a bit of a period piece - lots of smoking - and its characters more than a little two dimensional, naively and literally black and white. It's uncomfortable reading in these post colonial, multicultural times.

The notion of cold weather being the enemy sends - no pun intended - a chill through me though. There's nothing we can do about the elements is there? They are ultimately all-powerful - as anyone who has watched a little stream become a raging torrent will testify. This winter when the world outside gets a little cold and crispy, white all over, I shall be looking out of my window with a frisson of unease. Just in case.

PS Did covers get better than this, by Bruce Robertson for Penguin Books? Simple, stylish and understated. A lovely bit of design.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Moon walk

Up on the field this evening, when I go to close the doors on roosting hens, the grass is already crisp underfoot with frost. Over in Badnage Wood the last pheasants are going up into the sanctuary of the trees, their alarm calls loud in the cold still air. Their night is terrifyingly dark - Brer Fox's teeth and claws an ever present threat.

The sky is clear, on the horizon the palest pink melds into aquamarine which in turn becomes inky black. The moon, which may or may not be full, has risen and hangs over the trees of our dingle. As my eyes become accustomed to the darkness I find I do not need a torch such is the brightness of the silvery light.

I make my way back through the field towards the house with moonlight falling on my back. But what's that? There - on the ground in front of me? Oh, most wonderful. I have a moon shadow.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Killer Sheep

We need some sheep on our field. Just a few, to keep the grass in order.

'I've just the thing' said Heather 'The killer sheep - the ones on the Triangle field - could do with moving on. You can have them. No problem.'

It turns out of course that these aren't Uzi toting ewes with attitude but some poor old gals, short of teeth, destined for the cull.

We can rest easy in our beds knowing that.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Silence

Extremes of weather here mean powercuts - a line goes down and we are in darkness. While this dusting of snow can hardly be called an extreme it's obviously been enough to interrupt supply. A couple of lights glow for a couple of minutes then fade to black. We look at each other - or rather we look at the blackness where we assume the other to be - before groping for candles and matches. We eat the remainder of our dinner by candlelight.

How quiet the room has suddenly become - the ambient and electric sounds are missing - but not I think, missed. Fridge, Aga, heating, lights, TV, computer, phones. Gone. The Kitchen Clock marks time - we have not noticed it before - but now its tick is like a heartbeat. The night is serene and dark and peaceful. We glow in the silky warmth of candlelight and hear the wind whisper beyond the door. A log tumbles to ashes on the fire - we hear that too - and the crick and crack of cooling appliances cut off from their electric lifelines.

It wouldn't do forever, but tonight surrounded by snowy fields, candlelight and the fire's glow this silence is quite a magic thing.

Snow.

We've been to Chester today; Alan to his icon painting class and me to a rather mediochre Bead Fair held at the Racecourse, followed by a mooch round the shops.

I'm sure Alan was snug and warm as he sat in Stanley Palace applying gold leaf and egg tempra but outside it was a different matter. Chester City centre, twinkling with Christmas lights, was cold and crowded - a miserable place to be - and I for one was quite glad to get back in the car and head for home.

The temperature dropped as we drove south down the A483, the road that straddles English/Welsh border. From a distance we could see the bulk of Long Mountain blurred by grey cloud. As we rose up the lane that leads to home the drizzly rain, which had fallen all the way from Chester, turned to sleet and then to snow - which continues to a fall. A couple of hours later the landscape is white-over, punctuated by black skeletal shapes that are trees and hedges. It's a monochrome world out there.
We've shut the night out and lit the wood burner - the dogs have already found the warmth and are sprawled on the rug, toasting their bellies. How cosy is that?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Stirring stuff?

Here in the small mountain kingdom of Trelystan I've been mulling over the idea of a national motto. Is it something we might adopt ourselves perhaps?

I guess when our esteemed leader G.Brown proposed just such a thing he was thinking along more aspirational lines than ‘Dipso, fatso, bingo, asbo, Tesco - one of many mottoes suggested on the CommentCentral blog. But isn't it a corker? What an apposite and pithy use of 5 words to sum up the state of the nation - encapsulating the sort of seediness that seems to permeate television, town centres and retail parks of late. Judging by many of the suggestions we're a pretty jaded and cynical bunch of citizens too.
Even though they were written in jest they make pretty depressing reading.

Do the British need a motto though - we seem to have managed quite well without for long enough. The last thing we need is this nanny state telling us what to think as well as what to eat and drink.

Ah well, 'Mustn't grumble'. That'll do nicely.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Not a happy blogger I'm afraid. Broadband has gone walkabout again - as mysteriously and inexplicably as ever. I am cast into the technological wasteland where there is much wailing, moaning, gnashing of teeth and calls to the BT help desk on the Indian sub-continent. And anyone who's been there knows that the will to live will shortly be lost.

I do all the things required by Ranjeet's checklist, change micro filters, switch off, switch on, unscrew test sockets, unplug this, unplug that.........everything bar examining the entrails of a slaughtered goat and all to no avail. I am utterly, utterly convinced it that fault of BT feeble infrastructure - not due to be updated until autumn 2009 - and they, on the basis of a few checked boxes in India, are convinced that I've got my wiring in a twist. Stalemate. I try asking a few theoretical questions: 'What if...? 'Could it be...?' but Ranjeev is not for leaving the comfort of his checklist and I am hastily put through to the 'Fault Line Department' - or it might be the 'Line Fault Department'. Whatever. We do the checklist again. The call ends inconclusively except I receive two calls late in the evening promising that an engineer will visit on Tuesday.

This time might be different - but going by previous experience, Broadband will mysteriously reappear - a bit like a cat which has decided to go and spend some time lapping cream with the neighbours and returns all innocent to take up its place by the fire again. That is the 'best case scenario'. This time it might not. I've not given a thought to plan B yet. It will probably involve spending money. It usually does.

So - 3 million boos to BT and a long, loud, resounding 'Hurrah!' for 'Switch on Shropshire' - the project which lets me sit in the local shop on a Sunday morning and reconnect with my cyber world. Normal service might be resumed....

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Ballot Box.

Well...it's a ballot box. Nul points to anyone who says 'Nah, it's an ice-cream box covered with some old-school bathroom wallpaper'.













It's a ballot box. It says so. Not only that - it's Marton WI's ballot box. It's been taken to the AGM down at the Village Hall on the first Wednesday in November for many years. It has seen the rise and fall of many a committee. There's never been the need for a better, 'designer' one. Who am I to come along all smart and knowing? It's OK. It does the business.

Now if this were an artefact brought back from an Amazon-deep expedition we might be a little bit in awe - and instead of it spending 364 days stashed under a table it might be spending 365 days on a subtly lit shelf. We'd blether on about the workmanship of its primitive makers, their ingenuity in using such everyday materials to craft an object both functional and pleasing in its simplicity.

It's not anything of the sort of course. It's an ice cream box covered in wallpaper, a bit of late 20th century decoupage. However, I'll argue long and hard with anyone who cares - and stop sniggering now - that it's in the spirit of Folk Art.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Fungus.

Just to prove I don't spend all my time with my nose in the air looking skyward at the clouds scudding by, here are some things from ground level:

Strange beauties. I'm ashamed to say I haven't a clue what any of them are called though I suspect the phallic one may be a junior Shaggy Ink Cap. I've studied the field guide at length; it comes with many instructions and warnings in bold type but does draw the line at 'skull and cross bone' type symbols to denote toxicity. The words CAUTION and POISONOUS occur too frequently for my liking.

It may be that these weird critters are totally innocent, but until I know that for certain I'm off to Sainsbury's when I fancy a mushroom risotto.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Dog. Brains. Possibly......not.

The brown dog, Chester is nearly 5 years old. He has lived here for nearly half his life and in those 2½ years has spent quite a lot of time on one side of the door or the other. If he's in, he wants to be out - if he's out he wants to be in. You get the picture; he is no stranger to our glass doors.

I have just watched him spend a good 5 minutes investigating the wire-haired Pointer standing just inches from his nose on the other side of the glass. His reflection of course. Ears were cocked as he viewed it from all angles. A low throaty growl began to rumble. The other dog wasn't going away. In fact it began to look quite aggresive. He gave one tremendous bark. I let him out and of course there was no dog there.

As far as he was concerned he'd seen it off and there was much strutting round the garden. A sort of canine 'Victory Roll' methinks. What a hero.

Dumb dog. Bless 'im.

A weather report from the Kingdom of Trelystan

I think I knew there was going to be something special about today when I woke at first light to the sound of birdsong. A wren had flown into the bedroom and stood, bobbing and tweeting only a couple of feet from where I lay. We studied each other for a few seconds before the little bird flew back out of the window. What a tiny, delicate and perfect thing it was. Surely a good omen? Coincidentally, the previous day a robin had flown in too and perched on the dressing table before crashing frantically against the windows in an bid for freedom. It didn't seem to have the wit to go out the same way that it came in.

We've had a number of birds coming in recently - Chester had great sport earlier in the week when he discovered another wren perched high on the beams in the kitchen - he is a hunting dog after all. Judging by the little splots and splashes left here, there and everywhere, the little bird had flown through the house and roosted overnight in the study, having come down from upstairs the day before. (I should add that small birds are fine - but anything much larger- pigeons, pheasants, ravens or buzzards for example - just aren't welcome. The mess. Imagine the mess. And those big scary beaks.)
Enough of birds - save to say the wren flew out into a shimmery shiny morning. All looked well with the world. It was one of those mornings when living on the top of a mountain has its advantages - we were bathed in sunlight, the sky clear and blue with only a wisp or two of cloud. Cool but not cold. In the valleys, dips and dingles below us however, swirling grey mist hugged the contours - indeed as we went down the lane an hour later we could have been entering another world. We left our sunlit uplands and entered Stygian darkness and gloom.......where people were talking about the 'terrible fog'.
And now it's a golden afternoon, glowing in fact. Long shadows are already stretching across the field. There's probably just enough time left before the light drops to shuffle through the leaves in the dingle and take the dogs out onto the field. Boots on. Jacket on. Off I go.....

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

1812 and all that.

As any fule kno 1812 was quite a year. On the international scene the US declared war on the United Kingdom and the Napoleonic wars continued; the pivotal and bloody battle of Borodino took place and Napolean's army both entered and retreated from Moscow. The words 'gerrymandering' and 'Luddite' entered the vocabulary, the latter acknowledging the destruction of machinery brought in to mechanise the cloth industry and which stirred social unrest especially in the mill towns of the north west.

Closer to home, on the slopes of the Long Mountain and in the meadows and leasowes of the Rea Valley, the natives were a little restless too. The feudal system of land ownership and farming was drawing to a close. The Lords and Ladies of the Manor, their tenant farmers, Freeholders and cottagers alike were getting to grips with the new Enclosure Awards. Land previously held in 'several' was now to be divided up and fenced. Boundaries were redrawn and Commons and wastes - over which villagers had grazing rights - came into private ownership.
In the archives yesterday I summoned up a yellowed sheet of paper - an Account for clerical work done on behalf of Mr WM Jones, the Commissioner appointed to oversee the Enclosures - and what a story it told. (I don't know who the writer was - a surveyor or even a magistrate perhaps.) Nobody finds change easy - and the villagers of Marton were no exception. This 'ere enclosure was regarded with much suspicion - and reading between the crumpled lines I gather that sulks and hissy fits were the order of the day.

Our unfortunate man sets about his task - if not with enthusiasm then with an administrative thoroughness that is still recognisable today. It is the usual story of meetings convened and letters sent ,'i's dotted and 't's' crossed, Leets attended etc. There are parchment and stamps to be bought, drafts and copies made and advertisements placed. A hellish amount of paperwork - though they drew the line at hand bills. (Not necessary.)For travel expenses read 'a day's horse hire'.
A Perambulation of Marton Mountain draws a crowd of villagers equipped with maps - following which, a Mr Perkins refused, inexplicably, to sign the Agreement. Grrr. One senses the growing frustration of the writer.

He has become even more irritable 2 years later when he writes to the Commissioner saying 'it's high time this Marton Mountain business should come to an end' AND hinting strongly that he should get on, make the Award and pay him what he's owed - in the region of £60. The affair drags on and on. The final entry is on October 30th 1815 when the Award is finally Executed. Hoorah! With a flourish the grand total of £41-8s-11d is scratched onto the parchment. This flamboyant ending is spoiled slightly by a miscalculation. The sum due for 3 years work is actually £38-8s-11d. I suspect our man is now past caring.

Marton Mountain has been successfully parcelled up and the villagers appeased - they have been allotted small parcels of land on which they will be able to grow some food. It is a small democratic concession. A victory of sorts.

Later, I drove home along the lane which winds up Marton Mountain. It is no wider now than it was 200 years ago. The pattern of fields is much the same too, pasture and ploughland is still divided by hedges of hawthorn, hazel and field maple, amongst which twine woodbine and dog rose. They have a certain uniformity now of course, being lopped by a mighty machine rather than by a man with a bill'ook. To all intents and purposes these are the same boundaries which were argued over in 1812 when a grumpy crowd assembled, maps and measures to hand, to pace, point and demand their rights.

A crumpled piece of paper seems to have revealed so much - I half expect to see the ghostly figures of ancient Gentlemen and farmers as I wind my way home. I feel as if I would know them well by now.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

...a dog in the dingle

One of my greatest fears is that one day some bright spark will say: 'Let's film the Archers'. It would make sound business sense and give Emmerdale a run for its money. I dread the outcome. I do not want to see the Archers, Ambridge or Borsetshire. I've been through the trauma before - in my formative years - with an 'A' Level set text - and the film of 'Wuthering Heights'. Suffice to say Lawrence Olivier did not do it for me as Heathcliff. Too mannered. Far too creepy. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Where was the wild tormented feral soul that Emily Brontë's words evoked? Merle Oberon, Vivien Leigh....no. No. NO. The pictures that radio - and the written word - conjure up in our minds are far better than anything that the cinematographer can devise.

So with this in mind - and hoping I do not disappoint one very dear friend in particular - here is a picture of the white dog, Wilson on the very edge of our dingle. This friend has a picture of a dingle in his head. I can't imagine what it is like but can say this is our reality. (For the uninitiated a 'dingle' hereabouts is a wooded valley - I suspect there's usually a stream involved too.) This dingle is to be found at the end of our field, the conifers of Badnage Wood rise darkly beyond and the little stream which rises mysteriously beneath the beech tree flows down through the larger Beach Dingle to join Marton Pool in the Rea Valley about a mile away to the east. (And Beach in this context is a topographical description - not to be confused with, as here, its planting of Beech trees. Confused? Me too.)

The dogs and I rambled round the field in the low late afternoon sunshine. I am beguiled by the light which catches the leaves of oak, ash, beech and birch and turns them to shades of burnished gold. Dogs follow noses, finding information in blades of grass and the damp worminess hidden beneath a mossy log. The brown dog, built to run, lopes around the field and Wilson, agenda unknown, wanders hock deep in wet musky grass. I do not like to think what he has found and eaten. Dogs!


Save for a wisp of cloud the sky is the clearest blue. Above us a couple of ravens roll and tumble, making their strange and 'gronking' call. A buzzard mews. Then silence. Whatever the picture in your head, take it from me, this is one fantastic afternoon

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

'The Cries of Manchester', etc.

Manchester. Noise is everywhere. Yattering and traffic. At each turn we hear the bleat: 'Big i-shoooo, beeg i-shoo'....no matter how many times we decline the vendors' offers the refrain will be repeated again and again on every corner. It's the Greek chorus in the drama of urban life perhaps....white noise.



We have been away, and now we are back.

Now, the dogs are lying like spoons in front of the log burner. The little white one is cradled in Chester's long brown legs. We say 'OK dogs?' There is no reply but two tails thump in unison. We take that as a 'Yes'. They're back from Kennels. In front of the fire. Only a bone would make life better than this.

Unfortunately a few days away for us means incarceration for dogs - so kennels it was while we went up to Manchester on Tuesday. Places to go, accountants to see....

Four years ago - almost to the day - we'd made this journey in reverse having handed over the keys to the family home in Stockport to head southwards to a new life on the slopes of a low mountain on the Shropshire/Powys border. An absence of 4 years makes changes easier to spot; the wholesome, middle-class sensibilities of Heaton Moor have given way to a hipper set of values. Where the suburb's ample matrons with lumpen, sullen and sensibly clad daughters in tow once shopped for sensible wholesome produce we find bars, tequila slammers, tapas, deli's' and estate agents. The grocers, greengrocers and fishmongers have long gone - following the haberdasher, whose cards of knicker elastic, suspender buttons and darning wool gathered dust before selling out to a sandwich shop. It is now possible to get good food from more places than I have fingers to count on in Heaton Moor. There's even an Ikea within striking distance....

In Manchester too - with a ruck of new build dominating the skyline - there is an air of vibrant prosperity. I do my very best to adopt an urban persona - but feel very much like a monkey with a piece of glass. I notice retailing's subtle shift from here to there......King Street isn't quite as select as once it was. Retailers have headed towards the newest 'hot spot' - which seems to be as close to Harvey Nic's as possible. The hoi polloi still congregate on Market Street - this I find reassuring. I can avoid both. The open space between Selfridges and the Triangle - landscaped by no less a person than Martha Schwartz only short years ago - a terrific scheme - is now cluttered with street furniture and an imposing ferris wheel which overwhelms and cramps the area. Ugly. Ugly. Why? Why?

There is Stuff in abundance, mountains of it; fashion, accessories, home wares, electronics. Christmas crassness this way comes. Much is covetable and life-enhancing - after all, what's there not to like about a cashmere sweater or some frivolous lingerie? But much is dross and, to my untutored and cynical eye, looks as if it has come from (or will shortly be going to) the next car boot sale. So, so much. Again, overwhelming. This is the 'white noise' of consumerism.

As the Selfridge's assistant said of the music which was the aural backdrop to the Computer department - music which made any conversation or transaction difficult:

'White noise, gets in yer head. Yer block it out. Innit.'

Quite.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

In the shape of a heart....

I've stalked this little tree as one might stalk a wary animal. From one angle only and for a few short days it is a perfect heart. A breathe of wind now and those golden leaves will be gone. Sic Transit Gloria....

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Off-roading......

Isn't it just the best thing when you discover that somebody else likes to go 'off-roading' too?

High streets, main roads and squares are fine, sucking in shopper and tourist alike for bread and stamps and photographs. But not when there are alleys, allées, shuts, passages, snickets, ginnels, jiggers, green lanes and back ways to be explored that is......A narrow space between two buildings beckons, a lane winds between overhanging hedges, where does it lead? What's over that wall? Smile at the old fellas with rakes and spades, stroke cats and whistle at blackbirds.... to take these twists and turns is to become involved in the world about you. We should get off-road more often.

So yesterday to Clun, an ancient south Shropshire town which still carries with it some of the old ways. You might call it sleepy. I'd call it half-awake but there's nothing wrong with that. It's a handsome small town built of stone and brick. A river runs through it, crossed by a pack horse bridge under which a motley flock of ducks dabble. There's a Spar and a gifty/craft shop, some pubs and a cafe or two. Matt Fothergill has a leather shop here - we have only once found it open so my handbag cravings must usually go unsatisfied. Small cottages jostle with grander buildings; the medieval street pattern still survives I believe. The ruins of the castle built in the 13th century rise over the town with a commanding view up and down the valley, reminding us of less peaceful times.

I went with a fellow blogger, Snailbeachshepherdess and her partner in crime, C, and together, in the autumn sunshine we explored some of Clun's by-ways, paths and tracks.

Stepping off the main street, through a gateway, we entered both the grounds of Trinity Hospital and another world. A small garden, surrounded on three sides by low buildings of soft grey stone, showed a little autumn colour behind close clipped box hedging; pansies and the like. This little group of almshouses and their chapel were built originally to house 12 old men of good character from the parish of Clun. These days the rules have relaxed a little so couples may now be accommodated too. The little chapel, reached by arched cloisters is simple and tranquil. Box pews of polished oak, with knobs and hinges of gleaming brass work, will seat two persons. Good characters? I don't know. The almshouses themselves are small in scale. I believe that some of them retain their original 'miniature' four poster beds. Maybe comfort was not an issue. It was certainly the proverbial oasis of calm, the only sounds being birdsong and far distant traffic noise.

Outside the gates again to a Clun which is marginally more frantic. A small cat washes its back leg and a car creeps past. We amble here and there, down lanes and alleys, peeking over hedges and behind walls, through the windows of empty houses. My head holds a hotchpotch of images: the swirling blue roses of stained old wallpaper, geese, quince, glasses and bottles, plough and churn, green men. Cabbages.

We took the back way to the castle 'twixt back gardens and sports field, and climbed the motte to stand amongst the stone work of the ruined tower where the wind rushed through, to look down over the town. Beneath us the landscape was a neat patchwork of green, russet and brown, in the distance a tractor ploughed a field, below us sheep grazed. A buzzard probably mewed.

Finally, via the curiously named Buffalo Lane, across the bridge and up the hill to St George's Church. A big old place dressed in harvest festival finery - the displays dwarfed somewhat by the building's scale. Some careful restoration has taken place but the Norman origins are there to see in massive pillars in the nave. We wander through the graveyard where stones stand like old teeth, propped and crooked, their inscriptions melting in wind and rain. (Read them while you can.) Ahead of us are the graves of playwright John Osbourne and his wife Helen. Their memorials are matching slabs of slate, simply and elegantly incised.

Behind these two stones - but not in their shadow - is a memorial to a young girl; a monolith of slate with the legend 'Bless her spirit'. On the reverse a moon-gazing hound sits under gilded stars, captured in eternal contemplation of the night sky. Too young. Too young. Even I, who never knew her, feel the pain of her loss and the vastforeveremptiness of without her.

My visit to Clun might have ended there and with the drive home had I not on my return gone down a few more untrodden tracks, albeit metaphorical ones.

I wandered off in pursuit of the letter-cutter's art and my search lead me to the work of the late David Kindersley and that of the pupil who became his wife, Lida Cordoza. Would that I were eloquent enough to describe their skillful transformation of the symbols that are letters into lasting poetry that delights both eye and ear. I recall my love for letter forms....I have an idea for a sun dial.........

Secondly, having looked unsuccessfully for 'The Hurst' earlier in the day, I 'googled'. We will all be pleased to know that it was the home of John Osbourne in the years preceding his death and is now one of the four Arvon 'writing houses' - and it's just down the road, in Clun. I feel better for knowing that.

Monday, October 15, 2007

If I ruled the world....

A couple of weeks ago I watched the wonderful 'Passport to Pimlico' - one of Ealing Studio's finest. Stanley Holloway and Margaret Rutherford, a cast of Cockney stereotypes, bomb craters and plucky post-war Brits. Children being clipped round the ear without a social worker in sight - you know the sort of thing. On reflection - and seeing how it all panned out in the end - it was probably an exercise to demonstrate that deviating too far from the machinations of Whitehall was not a good idea. A great film though. Much food for thought........

I've mulled it over for the past fortnight and well, I've got the germ of an idea! And what a great idea it is methinks! Stop taking things for granted and declare independence. I could be King - or Queen - of an empire of approximately 6 acres. This could be the sparsely populated 'People's Republic of Trelystan'. (I think we'll shade our nation pale blue on the map. I like pale blue.) Can anyone think of a good idea why I can't be head of my own independent state? Is there any sound reason why I have to be part of England or Wales?

There will be a few practical implications but none insurmountable. We will harvest our own water (before we generously allow the surplus to drain downhill and supply Severn Trent). We will have sculptural windmills to generate electricity and a compost heap of municipal proportions. Other stuff; sewage, rubbish and the lane we seem to sort out for ourselves anyway - and we've not seen a policeman or streetlight since we arrived. So no change there then.

Foreign policy? We won't be having an army and A. has been told to keep his catapult in the gun cabinet. I expect we'll invade a Greek island periodically - but we come in peace and expectation of kalimari and cold beer.

What would my nation be like? I quite like it as underpopulated as it is - so visas would be very difficult to obtain. (DNA matches or historical precedence necessary perhaps and sheep welcomed as migrant workers.) Paperwork will be kept to a minimum. I have a very nice rubber stamp of a dove which I might use to endorse the odd document. The arts will be funded generously and infinitives split only rarely. It would be a peaceable kingdom too.

Once a year - at the state opening of parliament - I will put on a posh frock and my most gorgeous pearls, invite our friends to dinner and make a speech - the words of which will be scattered by the 4 winds onto the fields and flowers. My speech will begin:

......Floreat Trelystan!
Edward Hicks - A Peaceable Kingdom

Edited to add:
'Simple Gifts'

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.'

When true simplicity is gain'd
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.'

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Short night walk

The white dog Wilson (he of the noble profile), would I thought, benefit from a late night walk. And me too. In fact any exercise at all would be beneficial. Leads and boots are fitted to man and beast - or dog and woman. Whatever. I grab the torch - it's dark outside.

Indeed it is. Barely a cloud in the sky and moonless too. The air is crisp yet dank. The torch will be useful when manoeuvring the pitfalls and potholes outside the gate.

It takes a while for our eyes to become accustomed to the darkness. I don't think animals need their eyes to see in the dark as we do. I may be wrong. Wilson makes his way unwillingly, by smell. Individual blades of grass are particularly fascinating tonight. I sense inertia and the call of the warm. I haul him up the lane into the darkness where the beech trees over hang the road. Without torchlight I make my way up past the old quarry - now stacked with plastic wrapped silage which exudes a sweet reek - by feeling the squashymossy centre of the lane with my feet. Reaching the top at last, and with my heart pounding, we emerge from the tunnel of trees and into the most exhilarating of open spaces. Here the sky is vast above us and hills fall away to south and east, rising again in the distance lit by pinpricks of light. There's a bright glow which must be Shrewsbury - way over there - maybe 20 miles away. Nearer, some other orange and ugly lights are perhaps in Minsterley and should be shot down immediately. Below me, nearer still and nestled cosily like some birdie's home in a fold of the hills, are the lights at Lower House. We live there, it's home, but still too bright I think.

I follow the grey slick of road and the spectral white dog trotting a lead's length in front. It's a great time of night to lean on a gate and breathe in. Above is that most wondrous panoply of stars, the Milky Way - the lot - and passing through with only the quietest roar - a jet plane. ('Get out of my most perfect sky' ) Otherwise it's very quiet. Tonight nothing scuttles, snorts, hoots or yelps. No eyes flash as I scan the field with the torch. I do some wondering about being scared of the night and its mysteries. Perhaps this is what being grown up is all about, no longer being afraid of the dark.

The white dog has by now done a volte face and is up for a mega-walk, a four miler round the lanes. Sorry Wilson. Time to turn round and head for home. I've done stumbling around in the dark - for tonight at least.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Badly drawn world

'How much is it?' I asked.

'Don't know,' he said, 'I'll have to ask Mother.'

Mother was disciplining a small and excitable Jack Russell which sported a natty but unnecessary tartan coat. The dog was called Willy and rushed snappily at the ankles of anyone foolish enough to get within a lead's-length. Mother, sniffing a sale, quickly bundled the dog into the boot of the car and said she could 'Do it for £2.00.'

'It's old,' she added to clinch the deal. I could only agree and didn't feel like arguing anyway. I handed over a couple of coins which disappeared into the pouch strapped to her generous belly.



It's another little treasure from the car boot sale at Tuffins in Churchstoke. Not profound and not great literature - drivel in fact. I'm not sure I'd want to expose young children to Enid Blyton's 'imaginings' and the crude line drawings of Olive. F. Openshaw. Seen with our eyes it's an unsophisticated period piece. I expect 60 years hence the things that today's children flick through will probably seem equally ridiculous.

A weird world indeed - and badly drawn too. Scary. Don't go there.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The most handsome dog in Trelystan?

For lovers of Bull Terriers everywhere, here's Wilson sitting in the sunshine. What a noble profile......what a poser.

Monday, October 01, 2007

We've got a man on a roof...


Only short days to go now until the luminous green roof of this little building ceases to be a landmark visible from space. From closer to home it's a bit of a blot on the landscape too - and I'll be oh-so-happy when it is clad in slate.

The man on the roof - our nimble footed son Dan - is tapping the slates into place even as I type. It won't be long now until we have the summer house of our dreams - we only have to wait for the year to go round again before we can use it comfortably.

It formed part of the old farmyard here at Lower House. We converted the sturdy stone-built barn into a dwelling and the yard itself into a formal garden. This little hovel with its one stone wall and timber frame was a calf house perhaps or home to a couple of overwintering beasts. I've heard it called the 'bull shed' too.

It's not an important building by any means - but it is a reminder, as is our barn, of the days when agriculture was practised on a smaller scale. No mechanised means then to scoop out the muck from a shed full of 50 cattle - just a man with a fork and barrow - the same man who shook in some fresh straw from a bale and hang up the sisal twine from a nail under the roof of random slates. The floor was of slate too - big chunky slabs which we found under a layer of fruity rich manure. Doors were smaller, roofs lower. I can relate to this scale.

Alan stripped the building back - much could not be salvaged. The wood was largely worm eaten and the roof slates crumbled. The floor slabs will be returned in due course. Eventually only the wall was left standing and this too was close to disintegrating - a weak mortar mix barely held the stones together. But with time and patience it was re-pointed - leaving holes for nesting birds. (Work was held up for a while last year when Redstarts moved in and reared a brood.) Using the original construction as a model and the summer house in the Font Garden at Wollerton Old Hall as inspiration Alan put the timber work into place. Square oak posts hold the roof up in the front - which will be open so we can sit and enjoy the last of the sun on a summer's evening. Roses will ramble up the stonework and fragrant flowers scramble in the border alongside. There is a weather vane to sit on the roof too, made by Alan at welding classes. What a handy man he is.

At last it is nearly complete - only the garden side to slate now. Excited? Moi? Yes, very. I see an opening ceremony taking place in the very near future....

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Local news

It's a mish-mash of reports: Interesting Talks - 'Coconuts to coir- the history of the product', listings of Community Courses - from Aerobics to Yoga, with all things wacky in between. Toss a few plucky pensioners, tragic toddlers, fund raising coffee mornings, used cars and amateur sport into the mix and we have local news. I must also mention the Presentation of the Giant Cheque as there is always a picture of a giant cheque being handed over. Without fail.

The bizarre, the banal and the humdrum, that's the minutiae of life that finds its place in the pages of the weekly newspaper. What wouldn't merit a mention on a national scale is writ large here.

Our local 'rag': The County Times is no exception and declares itself 'Proud to be Local' above the masthead. It covers a large part of mid-Wales - Powys, and slips across the border into Shropshire here and there. It's an area so large that one would think it could sustain a publication as thick as a telephone directory, stuffed with news and comment. But no, it's a slender little paper - its pages plumped up I think by the duplication of some ads and columns which are printed both in English and in Welsh. I suppose if your 'turf' is home to more sheep than people this paucity of news is hardly suprising. It relays the sort of snippets you'd hear if you leaned over a gate and gossiped with your farming neighbour for half an hour. The price of sheep, petty crime and - as everywhere - house prices.

The front page this week featured a petition against plans to convert an old toilet block into a food outlet and the truly tragic story of a local man crushed to death when his tractor overturned. (Farm man died 'doing the work he loved'.) Our MP - Lembit Opik is relegated to page 2 where he wholeheartedly supports an exhibition of geology. In the adjacent column we learn that 50% of those who voted in a County Times poll believe Mr Opik to be right in thinking that the world's population will be wiped out by an asteroid one day. I suppose that could be earth shattering information.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Changing season

Bit of a chill out there tonight. The season is in a state of change, the landscape looks weary.

There's a big full moon hanging in the southern sky, pearly bright against indigo blackness. I didn't stay out long enough to tune my eyes into stars. That's a treat I'll save for later - I'll open the bedroom window and look out into the blackness, suck in the freshness of the night, wonder what's creeping and crawling, mewing and squeaking. Above, if the sky is clear, will be the greatest show on earth - the circling planets winging on their way. ('On earth' is not strictly true - but you get my drift.) Sometimes there will be a shooting star. I feel excitement but also regret at this planetary demise. I will wish upon this falling star.

Today has been a day of putting the vegetable garden to bed for the winter, tidying and mulching. A day with a golden sunrise and rosy sunset. There are plenty of berries in the hedgerows and the little trees in our new orchard are hung about with apples. It's a fruitful autumn - a sign, I always think, of an earlier mild spring and not necessarily a predictor of a bad winter to come. As I haul out old roots and weeds then fork on something well-rotted, I muse that it only seems brief moments ago that I drew shallow drills in the warming spring soil and sprinkled seed with hopes for a bumper harvest.

For us, here at the end of the Long Mountain, gardening hasn't been terribly rewarding this year. But with the optimism that keeps growers everywhere growing we note the changing season and turn to our seed catalogues and begin planning what will go where, next year.

2008 will be the year I grow a swede bigger than a tennis ball - and oh! I've just remembered, 2008 will be the year when we can harvest our first asparagus. Hurrah! Bring on the Hollandaise, shaved Parmesan and melted butter.......

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Michaelmas Fair

Blimey - testosterone rush or what? Talk about something for the boys!
How much rubbing, buffing and polishing it took to get these babes up to steam I can't imagine. These throbbing engines are more cosseted than any woman could ever hope to be. There can't have been a man in Bishop's Castle this afternoon not salivating at the sight of these puffing, panting beauties.

The Showman's engines led the cavalcade of vehicles through the narrow streets of Bishops Castle this afternoon. They were followed by the road rollers (proper steam rollers), traction engines in diminishing sizes, lorries, tractors and classic cars. The air was filthy and loud with smoke and noise from the massed engines. We coughed and spluttered but even I had to admit these were majestic beasts.

...and some things, thankfully, will always remain a mystery.




This magnificent procession was only apart of a weekend of events in the small south Shropshire town of Bishop's Castle; the Michaelmas Fair. Bishop's Castle is a town with a certain je ne sais quoi - what it lacks in shops and facilities it makes up for on the feel-good factor scale. Perhaps it is on a fortunate ley line or the feng sui is right. I don't know.

With this in mind, even intermittent drizzle didn't dampen the enthusiasm of the many visitors this Saturday.
Music was medieval or ethnic, food nutritious and plentiful, crafts - well, craft-y and on the whole - this being Bishops Castle - quite tasteful. The Shrophire Bedlam danced and clattered their sticks - a most English thing this Morris/Moorish dancing. (Don't tell anyone - but I do quite like it..) I guess, once upon a time shepherds and milkmaids would have come to a Michaelmas fair - a hiring fair - such as this in search on employment but these days it's in search of entertainment and imported olive oil from the delicatessan's stall.

We could have stayed longer - festivities go on into the night with dancing and revels - and tomorrow will see the streets packed again. Well worth a detour. Bishops Castle, Shropshire, just off the A488.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A moment on the lips...

.....a lifetime on the hips. This was not a size zero situation.

Rarely has so much whipped cream been seen in the same place at any one time - the tables at Marton Village Hall bowed under the weight of puddings of every description. Fruit and chocolate nestled 'midst cake and pastry. And cream, lashings of it; piped, plastered and poured. No room for dairy intolerance here. A cookery demonstration was the latest Village Hall fund raising effort. Chef Peter Gartell from the Sun Inn in Marton cooked pigeon breast, venison and a number of accompanying sauces - plum, cherry, chestnut and shallot. All of which, I'm delighted to say, we could run up at home. They tasted delicious too.

The audience were keen to taste everything Peter prepared. I was surprised how many of these country women, many of them wives of farmers, gamekeepers and shots were unfamiliar with game and more than a little suspicious of the humble pigeon. It's good and lean - what's more it's abundant and cheap.

The cooking over, and with lips licked the audience could get interactive with the puddings - for some surely the highpoint of the evening. Bowls were piled high, try one or two or more - there's room for a profiterole on top. In true Village Hall fashion cups of tea were available but Maureen on the Bar seemed to be doing a roaring trade too. Belts were eased out a notch as we made our way home. Plenty of time to detox and diet tomorrow.

PS We're so lucky to have a chef like Peter almost on our doorstep. Don't all rush at once to get a table.......

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Currant

Come on, how many of you ever give more than a passing thought to the humble currant? Very few I imagine. The eager beavers at the Currant Marketing Board obviously have their work cut out to raise the profile of this most inconspicuous of dried fruits.

But what's this? A book in praise of the currant, that's what. Apparently it was something of a latter day super food and recommended by eminent physicians and analysts. The late Sir WM Gull, the great Physician always advised his patients when on a long journey to carry with them a Plum Pudding, and no less an authority than Sir Francis Laking the (late) King's Physician noted that 'many are the ways in which currants can enter into daily use in the household, with great advantage to health and pocket.'

















The virtues of this little dried grape are extolled and a tour through Greek Currant country recommended. It is a trip not to be despised by travellers - not least because of the light-hearted, picturesquely-garbed Grecian peasantry, to whom the currant harvest is is the crowning of the year, and whose cheerfulness and courtesy is legendary. Don't even think for one moment that those cheery smiles might be sniggers of derision at a whey-faced, Plum Pudding toting Englishman abroad....

This little treasure fetched up in a pile of papers at Harry Tuffin's Car Boot Sale at Churchstoke this morning. As Car Boots go it must be one of the best - amongst the obilgatory plastic tat, old board games and gimcrackery nestle some real finds.

I'm off now to knock together a Nelson Pudding (requires currants) which I shall serve with currant sauce and a side order of currant fritters. It's 'hello' cleansed, enriched blood and clear, bright complexion and 'goodbye' waistline methinks.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

A week on Paxos

Legend has it that around 2,000 years ago an Egyptian sailor, Thamus, when passing the island of Paxos was becalmed. In the ensuing stillness a voice, divine and thunderous, was heard to proclaim 3 times: 'The great god Pan is dead'. This news was greeted with much lamentation and marked the passing of the classical world. The genii of the sacred sites, the nymphs of the wild places, the fauns and satyrs and centaurs,and all wild things fell silent. The Lord of the Wood was dead, and the new king's domain not earth but heaven. Old Pan became Christianity's devil, be-horned half-man, half-goat.
It's a tale which always sends a shiver up my spine - not least because sometimes, in the silence of whichever wilderness, one wonders if these genii are not just waiting in the wings.

Paxos rises out of the blue Ionian, its eastern coastline broken by headlands and bays, while cliffs soar in the west. The island's gentle contours are blanketed with olive trees - a legacy of the occupying Venetians. The olive groves mask an unforgiving rugged and stony terrain which must be back-breakingly coaxed into production. Summer brings heat, drought and tourists. The cold winter months bring the olive harvest and rain to fill the cisterns. And fishing; year in, year out, there is the sea to harvest too.

It's hardly the archetypal playground of the gods but for a 21st century gal it's as fine a place as any to spend a week.

We arrived safely, with luggage intact despite Servisair's very best efforts to separate me from my suitcase. Yes, the case lying forlornly on the tarmac where it had fallen from the laden baggage truck as it hurtled towards the plane was mine. How our bus-load laughed as we came across it as we too hurtled plane-ward. We agreed it was a good job I'd not packed any eggs. Laugh? Liverpudlian humour is quite special isn't it?

Paxos had had rain earlier in the day - the first for many months - after a summer which has experienced heatwave after heatwave. The Paxiots were understandably quite pleased at this much needed contribution to the island's reservoir. We were less enthusiastic but decided it was good to be there anyway and pulled on sweaters. Cats' paws slapped on the dark sea, the sky was hung with cloud and over to the east the mountains of the mainland were in sharp relief. 24 hours later the storm had passed and all was well with our holiday world again.

We sat and basked in the sun. We sat and watched the world go by, met old friends and acknowledged small changes. The island bus took us from Loggos to Gaios and brought us back again. Small zephyrs flicked the pages of our holiday reading. Sigh.

We ate shaded by olive trees - lunch of calamari, whitebait and Greek Salad at Spiros' Kantina on Levrechio beach - surrounded by cats and an assortment of kittens. Erasmus, at 'Taverna o Gios', cooks a robust dinner: a chunk of octopus - to be dressed with a flick of vinegar, seasoning and the fragrant local oil - accompanied by chewy bread, crisp of crust, from the village oven. This might be followed by a slab of grilled meat or fish, or something 'from the oven' - a hearty 'stifado' or 'pie' more suited to a winter's day. Good island cooking this. Elsewhere may be daintier dishes but here is food to fuel body and soul.

In the 20 years we've known it, the island has changed. Of course it has. It is busier now, more prosperous. The donkey's have gone. More cars and scooters and visitors are in evidence. The old brightly painted fishing boats are gradually being replaced. Smart craft anchor in their place in the small harbour at Loggos. Land now changes hands for staggering sums of money and prestigious villas rise amongst the olives. Roads and facilities are better and, one suspects, so is the quality of life for the people of Paxos and who would deny them the right to enjoy the comforts and conveniences we take for granted? God forbid this place should turn into some Grecian themepark.

It is evolving gradually and if not gracefully, then very Greek-ly. The sunsets and sunrises are still, and ever will be, breathtakingly beautiful; the Paxiots and their landscape warm and welcoming. A week was just perfect. We'll be back.