Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Counting Beans

Pathetic I know, but from the moment I press a seed into the soil I've got my eyes peeled for the first emergent shoot.

Look! There's one - and later 2 and 3, then four, five and six. Pretty soon, with luck and fair weather, we're into double figures. Still a few gaps but, eventually even from a distance, the little seedlings can been seen as a row.

48, 49 - I'm still counting, welcoming the stragglers and hoping that the local pheasant population isn't as keen to see them as I am.

As weapons of plant destruction pheasants are up there with Agent Orange and Powys County Council's Highways gang.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

A tree's fate

Rob the Tree Surgeon has been round today. We have a sick Sycamore.

'Yeah's not good.....' says Rob in his antipodean drawl 'Gorra go. Down. Fell it.'

We stand around, the three of us, scuffing our toes and jabbing a knife or a key intermittently into the tree's soft blighted bark (as if to prove a point). The tree has given up on us, shedding bark, underbelly exposed - it looks worse by the hour. It's an old 'un, this sycamore - a remainder of the hedge line that ran from the cow house into the dingle, a handsome thing too - with a branch which promised a swing for grandchildren yet unborn.

'Well if it's got to go, you'd better do it quickly,' we say - as if we were discussing the kindest end for the family dog. We add considerately 'When you can , of course.'

'Yeah right' says Rob. ' As soon as I can.' He's keen to be home watching the Rugby which started 10 minutes ago.

We'll miss it. I know we will, but here's an opportunity to plant afresh. A tree for the future.

I wonder - in one hundred years from now - will a wife, her man and a tree surgeon be plotting the demise of a beech or oak? Or will they hear the happy squeals of children peal out as they swoop and soar on the swing which hangs from this - as yet unplanted - tree?

I wish I knew.

Friday, April 25, 2008

There's treasure in them thar hills...

Maureen and I are working on the Village Treasure Hunt scheduled for Sunday May 4th.

There's no actual treasure to be found of course. Seekers will have to be satisfied with the warm and cosy glow of a plate of supper eaten at the right destination and won by following 70 of the dodgiest clues known to man or beast.

We have a plan - a route - and we follow it through the winding lanes, noting potential clues as we go. Maureen has decided that doggerel will be our motif and thus it is that we can be found sitting with pencils poised and mouths open trying to whistle up a suitable rhyming couplet using the words 'humpbacked ' and 'bridge'.

We have great fun. It is a nosey-parkers' charter, the opportunity to stare over fence and hedge. Surprisingly we were only asked what we were doing 4 times today - the euphemism for 'Why are you staring at my front garden?' being 'Can I help you, are you lost?' Eventually with nearly the right number of clues and nearly the right number of miles on the clock the opportunity arises to address the day's other burning issue: the potential closure of the Post Office, and in its wake, the loss of the Village Shop. A shepherd on a quad bike shares his views with us on this potential blow to the community. He has, bless him, already written to his MP but asks that we drop off some leaflets at his house across the way. He'll make sure they get distributed.

We take a sharp right up a lane lined with cherry trees towards a neat and prosperous looking farm where we leave a campaign leaflet and a questionnaire. The lights are on but there's no one home. Our shepherd's farm, a stride away, tells a different story. Here, tumbledown shippons with slipping slates and barns wearing rusted corrugated roofs like crazy drunken hats edge a muddy yard. (Wonderful, wonderful buildings - terrific potential. My inner property developer can already see the sales' particulars...) A shiny horsebox is parked incongruously amongst this dereliction.

We pull up at the back of a cottage. Maureen has some morbid fear of farm dogs - once bitten twice shy I imagine - and elects to stay in the safety of the car. I am sent to the door with the leaflets.

This low red brick building, an amalgam of additions and subtractions, is timbered here and there. It reeks of rust and rot. The short back path is dank and shaded and on the damp mossy pebbles lies a dead starling. The key plate on the door is upside down.

'Is she blonde?' shouts Maureen from the car when I say there is someone in the house watching us. She may well have been once I guess but the figure that shuffles to the door is spectre-like and grey. 'I'm out of sorts' she says through a suspicious crack. 'I can't hear very well. I've got bronchitis.'

The crack widens as I explain the reason for our visit and the door is thrown open when she realises who Maureen is. I relay a shouted dis-jointed conversation between them. Maureen, bright and jolly and Mrs J shouting ills and woes, bereft of companionship, snatches sympathy from company perhaps. Her gaze follows us from behind dark frames as we pull away.

However, on with the motley; we have 2 final clues to devise and head for the main road leaving this shaded little house in the shabby concrete yard and its lonesome and wraith-like inhabitant behind. It's been a curious detour. Its almost as if in the midst of all the silliness there is something deep, dark and profound going on. To coin a well known phrase or saying: an 'Et in Arcadia ego' moment.

5 minutes later we have composed the 2 lines of dreadful verse which will lead our Treasure Hunters to their supper. Sorted, as they say. Job done.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I want to sow peas...

Peas. I want to plant peas: Kelvedon Wonder, Hurst Green Shaft, Rondo, Starlight or Twinkle. Doesn't matter which. I just want to be out there laying those wrinkled little seeds into a bed of warming soil. It's getting to be something of an issue - not planting things. The weather has been so vile and cold.

Today would have been a good opportunity; the wind swung round from the east and the sun eventually burnt through the cloud cover. Result? A mild and beautiful spring day on which sweet birds sang and all was well with the world.

And where was I? Not planting peas but seated in the 'gods' of Shrewsbury's Music Hall at a WI meeting. There by default and not by choice I add. (Note to self: must learn to say NO!) It was a virtual repeat of last year's gathering - dreary business and speakers - and I was able to reacquaint myself with my (stroppy) teenage alter-ego.

However, the new High Sheriff of Shropshire, Mrs Ann Gee gave an interesting 10 minute spot on her role and its history while Major General Andrew Farquhar spoke about 'The Army in Society'. (He referred to 'the' Army as 'Your' Army throughout his talk - shame that, with this in mind, we couldn't have had more say in its deployment in recent years...) I noticed that Mrs Gee was one of only two women in the Hall wearing a hat - a blue and flouncy creation with a white feather but I suspect this was part of her blue velvet and lace sheriff's costume - and there I was looking for a pin-on badge. The other hat-wearer had what appeared to be a knitted tea-cosy on her head. The Major General had the shiniest shoes.

Our man from Yorkshire Tea (providers of tea bags to the nation's WIs) wittered on about how Taylors of Harrogate were virtually single handedly saving the planet. Perhaps they should have invaded Iraq rather than HM Forces.....

The afternoon's speaker was a hunky TV vet with a heart which cheered up my inner teenager somewhat, but not as much as striding out into the sunshine at the end of the day.

I came home and stood in the late afternoon sunshine, scanning the southern sky for swallows, which God willing will be with us soon. I watched a thrush building a nest in the crook of a sycamore - not a very secret place. The hunting dog, Chester, brought me another putty coloured pheasant egg from in the grass somewhere.

The sun went down hours ago now. Dusk was soft and slow and milky at this end of the Long Mountain. The air is bright and tangy - it smells of green. The haziness augurs well for tomorrow. Maybe it will be the day to plant peas.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Patent Lick-o-Meter

I know, I know. Very bad practice indeed. Dogs should not be fed at table.

But sit and drool they do. Their patience is sometimes rewarded with a tasty snack from above which makes it all worth while.

The tastier the titbit the more licks scored on the Patent lick-o-meter.

Tonight's chicken and goat cheese wrapped in parma ham sent tongues licking off the scale.

We thought it pretty good too.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Fragile wilderness

Revisited this garden, a fragile wilderness.

The day is cold and wet. The past week has been cold and wet too. On cue, as if this interlude has divine approval, some benign force begrudgingly squeezes 2 hours' of sunshine into an inhospitable afternoon. Later as I leave, sleet falls again. It seems appropriate.

We visitors make a polite circuit of the garden, stepping daintily to avoid the pools of coloured flowers, unsure of what there is to admire in this wild place. Gaudy garden cultivars have met their delicate country cousins - the cowslip and primrose. They've interbred and spread across lawn and plot - so yellow, orange, red and rusty flowers are strewn underfoot between the pretty Bird's Eye Speedwell making a jewelled and mossy carpet. We watch our feet but forget, at our peril, to look out for the branches and briars that whip and snatch at shoulder level.

No change in the garden; nature continues to reclaim this once productive plot. It is green, chaotic and uncontrived. Its elderly keepers hover uncertainly amongst their curious visitors. One brother confides that this will be, perhaps, the last......maybe.......and his faint 0ld-man-voice trails away. Will the brambles and the beautiful earth reclaim him too?

That said, we go and drink our tea and buy raffle tickets under the watchful photographic eyes of sepia ancestors.

A clock ticks.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Wot we did on our holidays.

I'd rather hoped for a nice round figure, but as we turned into our gate from the lane the mile-ometer read an undistinguished 602.7 miles. Now, almost as much as a palindrome I like a good hearty number - preferably a large one. (Most satisfying watching the miles clock up, a good way of whiling away those motorway hours - and possibly my only numeric preoccupation.) Actually if I deduct the circuit of Wadebridge on the way to Padstow and the twice-round-the-roundabout in Bristol detour en route to Costco then I think we would have been close to achieving my neat and tidy goal. Ditto if I added the miles done in our host's car on Friday as we meandered through Cornish lanes then I might have achieved a glowing 700 miles for the round trip.

Whatever. This week has been a case of 'places to go, people to see'.

We've got the route to the south west down to a fine art; taking the wiggling road through south Shropshire and the orchards of Hereford and on to Worcester where we join the M5. Something horrendous had closed the motorway and we were diverted onto lesser roads adding nearly 2 hours to our journey. (Time enough to complete a comprehensive survey of the roadsides, gutters and gullies of the Tewksbury area anyway.)

It took us 7½ hours to reach Padstow and an indulgent meal at Rick Stein's 'The Seafood Restaurant' was our reward on arrival. As the name suggests, fish and seafood dominate the menu - in much the same way as the man himself seems to dominate the town. For starters we chose crab and scallops, which I followed with Dover sole in a buttery sauce. Alan had fish and chips. Fantastic, fresh, cooked to perfection and beautifully presented and served - we had an excellent meal. The restaurant is newly refurbished - its clean contemporary lines would not look out of place in an urban setting. We stayed that night in Mr Stein's hotel above the restaurant - our room seemed a day's march from reception, along winding corridors, round corners and up flights of stairs. No surprise here, we invariably get the most distant room and usually one with a view over the air conditioning units. On this occasion we could see the harbour too. Bonus.

The following morning we headed south to St Austell and the Eden Project. We'd been before when it was still under construction - the first time I've ever paid to look round what was essentially a construction site. And now, with the build finished and the site planted - impressive or what? Full marks for the most imaginative use of a sterile china clay pit - well done Tim Smit and team. We steamed gently in the humidity of the Tropics Biome, glad of its warmth on what was a bleak day outside. We followed the path through rain forest plants up into the mists. Birds warbled up in the tree canopy and the occasional small and feral child shrieked like a howler monkey. Most atmospheric. The Warm Temperate Biome was cooler and this, after the oppressive humidity of the Tropics, was quite a relief. It was familiar too, here the smell of maquis and over there, familiar Mediterranean plants. Intermittent squalls of rain made looking round the outdoor planting a bit of a hit and miss affair - I'd certainly like to go back and see those in more detail.
The Eden Project's remit is educational:

'Eden is all about man's relationship with and dependence upon plants. Much of our food, our clothes, our shelter and our medicines come from the plant world. Without plants there would be no oxygen for us to breathe, no life on earth.

The Eden Project is a showcase for all the questions and many of the answers. But Eden is not a worthy, over-serious, guilt-ridden place; nor does it preach. It is about education and communication of the major environmental issues of the day, always presented in an engaging, involving, even humorous way.'

Yep, I'd agree with that.

We finally made our way east to Plymouth to stay for a couple of nights with friends in the Tamar Valley. Leaving the thunderous A38 behind we wound our way down narrow, steep sided lanes to the silver slick of the river. The Valley is sheltered and damp and has a microclimate that in the past supported a thriving horticultural industry the remains of which can be seen today in the area's flora. Daffodil bulbs were tossed to the field edges when the land was pressed into use for food production and now flower where they landed with a bump in the hedgerows. Florists' greenery - silvery Eucalyptus and wavy leaved Pittosporum are incongruous bedfellows amongst our more familiar native plants.

Gorgeously shaded dank lanes are lined with primrose and violet bedded in mossy nests midst sappy grass. Ferns, Toadflax and Penny Royal hang in cracks and crevices of lichened walls. The delicate Stitchwort has just started to flower, Lady's Smock too. Red Campion will be next in spring's unfolding. It's spring. It's e e cumming's 'in just spring when the world is mud luscious....'

It's cold though and driving rain leaves us loath to linger out of doors. At our destination we take shelter in a large greenhouse where peach and apricot have already flowered and tiny green fruit are clustered on the branches.

We pass through Devon, Somerset, Worcestershire and Herefordshire and cross the invisible border between Shropshire and Wales before arriving home in the small mountain kingdom of Trelystan. We have watched the season wind backwards on our journey. Leaves unfurled in the soft south-west have curled themselves ever tighter as we drove up-country. We've a way to go yet. It will happen. In a way we'll be getting two bites of springtime.

And what's more - it's good to be home.

Sunday, April 06, 2008


I'd just got my head round bits of green appearing on dead looking sticks when, literally, out of the blue comes snow; more than we have had all winter. Not unheard of I know but worth a mention.

I took the opportunity to make a few graphic marks for the files - who knows when an ice cold heart will come in handy?

I snapped a chilled and serene landscape before the warmth of the April sun melted the whiteness away.Beneath this cloak of diamante snow there lies a brilliant and a burgeoning force - I notice the larches that fringe Badnage Wood are already a haze of green and that little phallic snouts of asparagus poke above the soil too. These things and more - there will be no stopping them now. Up on the hill, beyond the little triangular field across the lane, a curlew cries into the blue forever sky. A lonely sound, the sound of wide open spaces and a sound which sends a shiver - which is nothing to do with the weather - rolling down my spine.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

At The John Rylands Library

It's hard to know what to do for the best sometimes isn't it? Stay home and do digging or get on a train and ride.....

Even though the forecast promised near perfect spring weather the temptation to indulge in an 'away-day' was too great; by 9.00am I was watching the countryside rush by as I headed north to Manchester. Pretty skipping lambkins petered out as we approached suburbia somewhere near Alderley Edge and a familiar landscape of cramped back gardens with the skeletal detritus of last summer's barbies hove into view. Home ground this - I note that, from my seat at least, little seems to have changed. A little further down the line and the city's skyline, spiked with cranes, comes into view.

I meet friend J - for what will turn out to be an excellent day - at Piccadilly Station, a place I remember as a cold, dank and filthy place with the ever-present throb of loud and stinking engines. It's now a shiny temple to the Gods of travel and shopping - an edifice of soaring glass and steel. OK, there are still trains and the travelling public and I doubt it's squeaky clean but it feels a better place to be.

Our destination is the John Rylands Library on Deansgate. I am ashamed to say that in 30 years+ of living in Manchester I had never been through its doors. A degree in graphic design and an interest in print, typography and calligraphy never got me there. My only excuse is that it was on the doorstep and there was always tomorrow - and somehow I never made it. (We've all been there haven't we?) And after today I ask myself 'why?'

It is, as it says on the wall outside, a library - a working library. If you were after the latest bonk-buster or who-dunnit then you might courteously be directed to the Central Library up the road - but books and printed materials it has - enough, when shelved to stretch the 10 miles from Deansgate to Stockport. Old, rare and beautiful of course but the archiving of electronic communications are considered too. As part of the University of Manchester its primary aim is to support the academic study of students and staff but a policy of accessibility means the collections are open to researchers, schools and the public.

The building which houses the collection is fantastic - a Gothic construction of red sandstone, dimly lit corridors, with much ornate dark wood in the Reading Rooms. In contrast the recent extension to the side and rear is light and airy. The juxtaposition of the two is not uncomfortable at all. A recent Lottery funded restoration project has also breathed new life onto the old stones but removed none of the magic.

A small notice taped in the lift advertised a short tour of the building and the opportunity to look closely at some of the Library's 'objects'. As it happened we were the only people to take advantage of this so we had a very personal guided tour. Though a door just off the Reading Room a selection of books were laid out for us on those wedge-shaped foam pads beloved of conservators. Understandably this was to be a 'hands-off' experience. Our gloved guide turned the crackly vellum pages of a medieval illuminated manuscript - the colours still bright and crisp and the gold leaf brilliant. We moved on to an early example of printing using movable type - an innovation which enabled mass production, mass communication and ultimately the dissemination of knowledge to the Common Man. (Look where that's got us.....)

Then on to a slightly gruesome surgical treatise followed by the diary of an lady writing in the late c18th. She describes her society life and the occasion of the first hot air balloon in London. Other reports of this event exist - but here is a very personal account. A sort of c19th 'Vogue' is next. Bound in tooled leather the pages inside show the fashions of the day - swagged curtains, fashion a la mode, and for the gentlemen, the latest market reports.

We read a hastily composed letter from publisher Charles Dickens to novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, excusing some changes made to her manuscript of Cranford. (I believe she was not best pleased.) Finally we saw the elegant script and colourful illustrations of a Persian book. Its library stamps and book plates give some idea of its history and the route it had taken before coming to the shelves here in Manchester.

In due course we leave this hushed academic paradise behind and are out on the street again, to be swallowed up by the chaos of city life.

It's all been most marvelous and memorable. Simply looking round the building would have been a treat but seeing these wonderful artefacts was the icing on the cake. It cost us £2.50 each which must represent the bargain of the week.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Big spending...

I've just filled the pick-up with diesel. Unless you fancy a 12 mile detour to take advantage of Tuffin's 'Spend £60 - get 10p off per litre' offer, the nearest fuel is in Welshpool - where there are no real bargains to be had. It's £1.19 at each of the town's 4 filling stations. Drive up, fill up and cough up.

JEEEEEEEEEZ! My bill was £72.47. Eek!

The tank was admittedly very empty but it is obviously very big too. As the numbers on the pump's dial whizzed round ever-upward I became more and more incredulous - to the extent of gazing down at my feet to see if instead of filling the tank I was in fact filling my boots. But no, diesel continued to gurgle into the truck, stopping with a splutter at £72.47.

The woman in the kiosk had obviously heard it all before; observing that things didn't often go down did they? We agreed they didn't. In fact another increase in price is due shortly.

5 minutes later I spent another £71 on dog food and worm tablets. That's £143.47 in a little over 10 minutes - on some of the most uninteresting things in the universe.

Going for a little lie down......