Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Hot stuff and other, erm, things.

Who remembers the Biggest Fungus in Trelystan? Nobody? Well me neither. I'd completely forgotten about it until today when at hen-letting-out-time I noticed Wilson (the most handsome bull terrier in Trelystan) tucking into something at the base of the beech tree with great enthusiasm. It turned out to be a chunk of the now dessicated remains of that fungus. I shooed him off and went in for my own breakfast. Stupid dog.

Toast and coffee for me.  So far so good. A quick look at the crossword and then I shall have to be off and away. Today is my Christmas present day. I am going glass blowing. I am quite excited.

Then in fairly rapid succession something very nasty comes out of both ends of the dog - both of which I flick with a shovel over the wall and into the lane. He begins to drool alarmingly. (Use your imaginations, detail would be superfluous.)

This does not look like good news as I have vague recollections about the evilness to this fungus and although Alan now tells me it is not the skull and cross-boned Trametes versicolour but the innocuous Meripilus giganteus, the dog looks sick and I still fret. The vet will see him asap and we decide that I should, nonetheless, go and have my day out. Wilson - your timing is impeccable.

Thus it is that I find myself a couple of hours later, in a car park in Stourbridge, having a telephone conversation about the quality, quantity and consistency of dog sick. The Glam Ass armed with that vital information does a great job with Wilson at the vet's - although I will not know this until I get home.

Glass blowing then?  I'd been inspired by Kirsty Allsopp making baubles in the run-up to Christmas (how easy-peasy it looked) and I really, really, really wished I could have a go too. I wished really, really loudly....What a wonderful present that would make etc etc.  ....

The Glam Ass took the heavy hint and found a glassblower with a studio in Stourbridge; a town which was once, in the days when this country still made things, a centre of the glass industry.  I went to Martin Andrews' studio at the Ruskin Glass Centre in Stourbridge for a day's tutorial. Martin is a glass blower who not only makes his own wonderful pieces but also teaches students at Ruskin College which is on the same site.

This is the 'hot end' of Martin's studio; on the right a roaring furnace containing a vat of molten glass, 2 'glory holes' in which to re-heat the glass which has been 'gathered' from the furnace and, on the extreme left, an annealing kiln.

There are pipes and puntys - the first used to blow glass and the latter a steel rod to gather glass and hold it for shaping and working:

To get the feel of molten glass and of handling unfamiliar tools
we started with the simplest techniques; a blob of glass on a punty stick to shape and form.

The door of the furnace was slid open and in its searing heat we learned to 'gather' glass on a punty stick - dip it in at an angle, push away and turn, turn, turn and bring out the captured blob like getting Golden syrup from the tin. Keep it moving, keep it moving - keep turning the rod so the blob of red hot glass on the end doesn't droop and remains central. While it is still plastic roll it in your hand - well, in a hand protected by a wad of soaked Yellow Pages that is. All too soon the heat has gone out of the glass - although it would be impossible to touch - and it must be reheated in order to work it again.  The process is repeated again and again until Martin is satisfied that our blobs are well shaped. Then we must use 'jacks' to cut into what has become a cylinder. We make a row of marble-like balls each and are very pleased with ourselves.

Using these newly acquired techniques and with a little help, my fellow pupil and I each make a paperweight. I can't do a picture yet as it needs to spend 12 hours in an annealing kiln where the glass can slowly cool down. It is the sweetest, prettiest blue and green paperweight I have ever made. I am puffed out with pride.
The afternoon session involves glass blowing. If the morning's working of solid glass seemed involved to us beginners - think rubbing tummy and patting head - then this process is doubly so. We gather, roll, shape, paper, blow, stop, puff, pant.....and then the blasted thing has cooled down so it's time to reheat and start all over again. I am unable to blow down my pipe with my thumb in my mouth - and I need my thumb in my mouth to put over the hole in the pipe when I've finished blowing so the air is trapped and goes down to form a bubble in the glass rather than escaping willy-nilly. I splutter and huff and the glass goes cool over and over again. Somehow we overcome this - Martin is such a good and patient teacher that I don't feel like a terrible dunce at all. I get a good bubble of air into my blob of glass and do manage to blow it out to a reasonable size. Several new techniques later, most of which would be easier if one had 4 arms, my bubble of glass has become a dear little bowl. It is the best little bowl I have ever made. I love it and can hardly wait for it to be annealed and posted home to me.
At 5 o clock Martin asks if we would like to make something else - he got distracted for a short while with a customer and feels perhaps he should make up the time. I'm all blown out - done enough for one day. It's time to head for home and see if Wilson is still with us.

He is, thank goodness. I'd like to think he's a little chastened but I think his subdued manner has more to do with belly ache than embarrassment over being a stupid greedy-guts.

It's been a pretty good day: the Glam Ass has made Caesar Salad for supper, the chicken fencing has been delivered and a mountain of books - 'Marton the story of a Shropshire village' - sits shrink-wrapped in the garage. Cows are out on the fields up here and the swallows are back too. I have some strange white medicine to squirt down Wilson tomorrow which will be fun.

And so to bed.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Roast Rhubarb Tart

I have yesterday's Times food supplement. I have rhubarb in the garden and I have eggs in abundance. Flour and butter are staples. By some miracle the fridge contains a pot of crême fraiche. An opportunity presents itself - we will have Roast Rhubarb Tart...

It is ridiculously easy to make. Make pastry, line flan tin. Scatter base with rhubarb and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 20 mins. Make a custard with 3 eggs, crême fraiche and melted not think of calorific content. Pour onto rhubarb in flan tin. Put back in oven and bake again until puffed and firm.
Cool, trim off excess pastry and present on best white plate.
Cut slice. Pour a little cream. Eat. Enjoy.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In which I try to overcome my irrational fear of the horse

They do say that even a fish wouldn't get caught if it kept its mouth shut. How true. Almost as soon as I had said 'Of course, no problems - I'll come with you' I regretted opening my trap.

'You'll be fine' said my lovely neighbour Di, briskly and firmly sealing the deal.

I quickly added '...but I'm not going to be much use to you' and my voice trailed off as I muttered something about not being much good with horses, terrified of them in fact.

"That's OK' she said 'I'll deal with Rocky. I need you there In Case.'

So there I was committed to a day with a horse - and as it turned out hundreds of them and their besotted owners, minders and associated hangers-on. My role was, I think chief spur carrier, wrist watch bearer, confidence booster and potential horse box driver should Di damage herself in one or other of the horsey challenges.

I am a stranger to the world of the horse - the horse-loving gene is absent. Frankly the things scare the pants off me - all hooves and teeth. I make lengthy detours to keep a field and a fence between us and being in confined spaces....well, we won't go there. You can understand then that if the Eventing programme at Sapey in Herefordshire was a challenge for Di and Rocky it was equally so for me. (Not helped by the fact that when looking for this link I find that a young rider was killed on the cross country course a couple of years ago - dangerous stuff. I rest my case.)

The drive down there was wonderful. Sitting high up in the lorry, as a passenger, I looked out on the spring countryside. We ticked off the counties; Shropshire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire. A gentle rolling landscape of bosky valleys, rich red ploughland and fat contented lazing lambs. A rural idyll.

Old fruit trees, sadly many are neglected now, were coming into bloom; there are many orchards here. Fresh green leaves and frothy white blossom unfurled in the sunshine. Sapey is near Tenbury Wells where the mistletoe auction is held in the late autumn - many of the orchard trees have clumps of this strange plant high up in the branches.

We leave this world behind though and enter the world of British Eventing.
Lorries are parked up and range from modest trailers towed by a sturdy 4 x 4 to massive vehicles bigger than a lot of houses (and probably better equipped).  I am hardly able to stop gawping at the opulence and the amount of kit and caboodle needed for...well, a horse.
Horses of course are everywhere. Polished and shiny like conkers, manes plaited, tails bandaged and hoofs probably polished. Their riders are similarly turned out. How very smart everybody is.

There is Dressage. To me, an outsider, it's absolutely incomprehensible - and try as I may I couldn't make head or tail of the trotting about in a confined space. Is it to do with control and discipline? In a warm-up ring a couple of dozen horses and riders circled, each in their own 'bubble'. I was reminded of the Red Kite Feeding station at Rhyader - the circling birds and the circling horses were very similar. I found a sunny spot in the lee of a hedge - out of a bitter wind, drank hot chocolate, ate flapjack and tried to make sense of it all.

Next up was Show Jumping - I understand that. A change of costume and a chance for both horse and rider to let off a bit of steam.
The final event is Cross Country - and first we must walk the course - but for heaven's sake we are walking it and other competitors are using it. There are thundering hooves and there is jumping and there is abject terror as a huge, snorting, galloping beast is way too close for comfort. Di is completely unconcerned while I (actually doing very well at keeping most of the fear at bay elsewhere) am close to panic. I leave Di to walk the 'other loop' alone and retire to somewhere safe where I can watch people fall in the water jump and someone get stretchered off.

Di does very well. She and Rocky are not placed but she is pleased with his first performance of the season. I am brave enough to hold him while he has a nibble at some grass so am quite pleased too. I do not have to drive the lorry either - phew! It has been a long day. My face is sunburned and I am generally windswept. I probably wear a delicate whiff of horse too.

I've really had a very interesting day. I'm still baffled and no nearer understanding why grown men and women should be so obsessive about horses though. Any less scared? Nope, not much.

Would I go again? I heard myself saying, as I got out of the lorry when we reached home, 'Anytime Di, anytime' - and you know?  I think I meant it.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

My week....

...mostly in pictures:
Look at this heap of floppy puppies. There were eleven in total; 10 week old fox hounds. (Are we allowed fox hounds these days? Perhaps they were only hounds.) I have never seen such a soppy, floppy bunch as these three, just chillin' in Sunday's sunshine.

Well, I didn't go to buy pups I went to buy some hens. I wanted Rhode Island Reds - a good dual purpose bird and a breed which isn't as readily available as I had hoped. We found some eventually on a farm up in the hills up beyond Llanfair Caereinion. Puppies, hens, geese, ducks and peacocks seem to co-exist quite happily if a tad chaotically. All the stock seemed  healthy and I came away with 4 young layers and a mighty cockerel.

We all know how difficult it is to get a good photograph of a hen - let alone a penful of the critters - it's a bit like photographing a group of children. There is always somebody gurning, scratching or turning round. See what I mean here? Backs turned, heads down and even when I manage a head shot it's such an evil visage I rather wish I'd not bothered.

Daniel came and stayed for the night en route to some arduous, mountain trail. It was his birthday too - 30 - and the many kilometres he planned to cycle were his way of celebrating. Me? I'll settle for cake.

We've had some beautiful weather too; it's now possible to see a tinge of green in the trees and hedges. On lower ground I've noticed the hedges are almost in leaf. Shrewsbury's unlovely by-pass was almost pretty on Thursday morning with young fresh greens and frothy white blackthorn. I wonder how many of the motorists rushing by noticed just how beautiful the embankments were. Thursday was a day for 'me' - a restorative visit to the hairdresser and a mooch round the shops. My shopping mojo had deserted me though and I came away empty handed. Something it helps to buy something - anything - to set you off on a spree, but even trying to break my buying duck by purchasing a note pad and pens didn't work.  Perhaps it was the combination of the last days of the Easter holidays and the rails and rails of flimsy summer clothes that were unhelpful. There was a distinct chill in the air and bikinis and strappy tops made me shiver.

I've planted broad beans and peas outside and the penalty for any marauding pheasant who fancies scratching for supper will be severe. The first few spears of asparagus are through. How quickly they grow. Again, you pheasants 'Watch it or Else'.

The brave hunting dog, Chester found the beginnings of a pheasant's nest; a single egg on a bed of leaves in a patch of long grass and daffodils. For once he didn't rush in and eat first but stood patiently waiting for me to check it out. That's progress perhaps.

 We have a man on a roof - the Glam Ass's latest project, a field shelter nears completion. I will soon be able to stop worrying that he will fall off before he's able to do some of the jobs which need doing on the ground.
And flowers - colour at last. (Though white blossom can hardly be said to be colourful.)

The pink primroses are a bit of an oddity - in reality not such a horrid pink as my photograph makes them. We're not sure if they are a wild variant or the result of a bit of primrose promiscuousness. Anybody got any ideas?

All welcome none the less.

Then there was a Jamie Oliver Party (think posh Tupperware), Granny T's funeral and the next instalment of fettling the Village Hall Garden.....

Finally the news that Doreen and I have been waiting for - our book 'Marton, the story of a Shropshire village'  should be with us at the end of next week. I'm always a little reticent about mentioning real names in this place but feel now, as our names are going to be on the front cover it's hardly an issue. We also need all the publicity we can get as we need to sell, sell, SELL. 800 books are going to take up a lot of space somewhere.

 So that was my week - never promised it would be interesting. Let's see what the next one brings.

The Young Farmers' Dinner Dance is on the horizon - better go and look out my dancing shoes.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

In which we sing in celebration of the life of Granny T

We went to a funeral once at Bangor crematorium which scored highly on the contemplative side; much 'wissy' music and private thoughts but little audience participation - by which I mean no hymns or prayers. OK, that was the family's choice.  Communing with whatever I believe in I'm happy to keep a private affair but I've come on such an occasion to share and make sense of loss with my fellows and support the bereaved family. We sat, for three quarters of an hour, each in our own little bubble - and left feeling something was missing - we had been 'gathered together' but there had been little sense of gathered togetherness. No sense of a coming together to either mourn or celebrate a friend held in common.

At a Thanksgiving service held today for the elderly Granny T. our community gathered with her family and sang their hearts out. The Chapel was full and those in the packed village hall heard the service relayed. We rose to our feet and raised our voices to the roof. I was rather hoping for 'Abide with Me' but at a proper Welsh funeral there was, as there surely must be, 'Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah'.

I bet you could have heard us in the next village. I have never been part of that before - even when as a schoolgirl 600 of us would assemble to sing on a daily basis. Brilliant.  Singing it seems, even for those of us tone deaf souls, still hits the spot. Faith? Well, that can still remain a private affair but I'm sure the Minister's words were truths and a comfort to many. 

And then there was a proper funeral tea - mountains of sandwiches and cake and a bottomless teapot. Granny T - rest assured - it was a right good do.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Record keeping or The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

This morning I have mostly been sowing runner beans; 'Lady Di'.  I think I've grown this variety before. I think it's about the right time to sow them indoors too. To check this I did what I usually do; rummaged through my pot of used plant labels and looked to see if I could find one from last year or the year before. This blessed pot is my planting guide. I reckon that if the variety and the sowing time worked then it should be OK this year too.

I sense you all sighing and muttering 'stupid woman should keep a proper record.'

You are all right - of course I should. Better than relying on a plant pot of muddy labels or my dodgy memory. I would know where the snowdrops and daffodils were planted when I come to plant more in the autumn; I wouldn't be surprised when I discover a Peony already growing where I want to plant a Peony this year.....and I would know which varieties have proved themselves worthy of a seed drill.  For me it's a counsel of perfection keeping a written record - this doing things properly. I know I should have a Garden Book, a Hen Book and a Deep Freeze Book. When there were bees there should have been a Bee Book, but there never was. I would have known what to do when, and where. I have ambitions and good intentions but somehow it peters out after the first page.

There is a lot of nonsense sloshing around in my brain - some vivid memories surface apropos of very little.......I can tell you exactly where I was when I heard that Kennedy had been assassinated (sitting on a grey hearth rug in front of a rather nasty log-effect electric fire with a ill-tempered, long haired cat called Tinkerbell) - or where I was when I heard of John Lennon's death (taking the boys to school and crossing the bridge over the Stockport - Manchester railway line - the same bridge incidently where I heard that Freddie Mercury had died too. Henceforth it will be known as the Bridge of Rock Star Doom....) I can only hazard a guess at the year, never mind the day, that Harry Nearly Burned The House Down. Details of that evening are engraved on my mind and include the spoonful of vanilla ice cream en route to my mouth when a complete stranger broke in and rushed up the stairs shouting 'Fire!'  What use are those arcane bits of information? Even to me. I need facts and dates, times and temperatures not vague sensations to make my garden grow.

This year I shall try harder. Today I have sown those runner beans under glass. Potatoes are chitting (for variety click the picture) and the itsy seedlings are Basil - still sitting on the warm bench. Tomatoes were potted on 12 days ago and are looking good - roots nearly showing at the bottom of their pots when they will be ready to move on again. 96 onions potted on. Leeks (Porvite) ready to go to the cold frame. Ditto Sweet peas. Peppers, bless'em, such fragile seedlings, little tiny things as yet only 12 days old - keep warm and not too moist (Inferno, Thai Dragon, Anaheim and Tasty Grill). Melons have germinated. Lettuce sown - red Cos, Webbs and Little Gem. Broad Beans (Express) are in the ground planted 2 days ago. Also shallots. Cleaned out hens.
The weather has been wonderful.

I think this is a record.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The song of the Curlew.

In yoof-speak it was sooooo not a beautiful morning.

Not raining, but cool and decidedly overcast. Was I 'bovvered'? Yes, I think perhaps I was. I'm finding this spring, which shows no signs of being truly springlike, hard going. It's been a long haul since October and there's a way to go yet. There have been milestones; the snowdrops were welcome and the daffodils and primroses more welcome still. I've greeted each burgeoning green bud with enthusiasm - but the land is still so cold and wet. My boots bring in clods of sticky clay......

Sorry, I digress. Now where was I?

Ah yes, early one morning, under a cloudy sky, clad in boots and jacket trudging up the field to let the hens out. I've a feed bucket in one hand and an eye open for Chester - The Dog Who Cannot Be Trusted as he follows fresh morning scents in the dingle.

A sound stops me in my tracks - unmistakable and plaintive - a sound that is the very essence of spring, a sound so magical and musical and a sound so loud it might be coming from only a few paces away. I do not need to strain to listen - it fills the air, surrounds me - coming at once from here and then seemingly from over there. Loud liquid notes rise and warble - and there is a response too but it's not an echo from the wall of trees on the hill. There are a pair of birds.

How do I describe in words the cry of the curlew - a clear watery trill that fills the air? A burbling, bubbling glissando of notes? What an inadequte description that seems to be.

I cannot see them although I know they must be close, perhaps they are on the wing. Indeed they are - I now see them silhouetted against the sky, wheeling and spinning over the conifers of Badnage Wood. Spinning and swooping, unmistakably curlews singing love songs in the bright morning air.


Monday, April 05, 2010


.....diddly squat. No fluffy Easter chick-fest here......

The little incubator that hummed and buzzed beside me on my desk is now silent, empty and dissembled.
I'm sad to report that there were no chicks. Not a one. Yesterday, on day 22 having given up hope of a hatch, I cracked each one open and found that all were apparently unfertilised. I wonder what we thought we'd seen on day 9 when we candled them? Evidence of a vivid imagination perhaps.

Still, ever the optimist I take the view that as one door closes another will open. There will be other eggs to hatch. The cockerel's future is uncertain though.....will he end up as chicken soup or will warmer weather (and please, please, please can we have some warmer weather asap) perform a miracle with his fertility?

In the meantime I'm off to appease the household Gods. The ironing mountain calls.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

In which April 1st fools us into thinking it is still mid-winter...

Lambs skipping in the April sunshine, sweet flowers blooming.....dream on. We woke to a white world this morning and this was the scene at lunchtime as snow fell heavily on the small mountain kingdom of Trelystan. Who would be a sheep?
Weatherwise it has been disturbingly horrible up here for the past couple of days. We seem to be taking one step forward and 2 steps back. One moment whooping ecstatically over buds and shoots and the next glumly pulling on boots, hat and mitts to trudge to the compost heap. Sigh. English weather eh? Don't cha just love it? Always something to write about though.

On the desk next to me the incubator still hums. The 14 eggs it contains are due to hatch on Saturday. I am moderately excited but having lots of those 'don't tempt fate' moments and wondering if they are actually fertile eggs after all. Have I actually seen the cockerel at 'it' with the relevant hens recently? Answer 'not much' - but then I don't watch them every waking hour.

I am an optimist and have made preparations just in case a number of fluffy chicks do chip their way into the world on Saturday. The Glam Ass and I have rigged up a brooder with a heat lamp at exactly the right height so that they will be not too warm and not too cold. Here sod's law might come into play - having made the preparations will that mean that no chickens hatch? Whereas if I'd done nothing would I then have to make emergency arrangements when they all emerge into this cold damp kingdom?

As it is there is a lovely warm spot ready and waiting in the garage and if the weather continues to be so unkind I shall go and curl up under the heat lamp myself.