Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Always carry a camera....

Somewhere beneath this foggy blanket lies the small mountain kingdom of Trelystan - hidden from view like some earthbound Atlantis. It's down there, tucked into its cleft at the end of the Long Mountain, but not as we know it - otherworldly today.

My photograph does not do justice to the fantastic cloudscape which presented itself this morning. So breathtaking I stopped and reached for the camera. I am standing in bright sunshine and the valley below is lost from view. A few skeletal trees poke out. Corndon can be seen to the left. The temperature is still well into the minus figures.
I take few pictures - the camera shows signs of running out of battery - which may be because of the cold. I snatch a few more - knowing what I want to capture but uncertain of what I have got. What I have got turns out to be decidedly mediocre and I should really go back and take some more.

But there are sticky toffee puddings to be made and home, although swathed in fog, is enticingly warm. I stay in. By mid afternoon the fog has rolled away and we are bathed in sunshine. Now as I type this the light is fading and a thin white mist is creeping up the dingle to close us in. Tomorrow will be much the same I think and I'll take the camera and my party-tired head out for some wholesome creative fun.

New Year's Resolutions? Just the one and achievable I think. Get to grips with the Nikon.

Monday, December 29, 2008


As I changed beds this morning - hauling duvets into clean duvet covers and debating with myself if this less frequent ritual is preferable to the daily and now out-moded performance with sheets, blankets, bed spreads and eiderdowns - the radio prattled on amiably on the bedside table. As I bustled between airing cupboard and bedroom I found myself slowing down in order to listen. Each pillow got an extra 'plump' and the duvet was straightened to within an inch of its life...

Women's Hour's Martha Kearney was in conversation with Beth Chatto at the latter's garden in Elmhust, Essex. As a keen gardener I found it a compelling bit of radio and wandered with the pair through the now famous 'gravel garden' and onto the wood, water and scree areas which Beth has developed over the last 40 years from an unpromising piece of wasteland. I remind myself not to moan about the wrong environment - just find the right plants. Her chance remark that gardeners not so many years ago had fewer plants available than we do today did make me stop and think. The cornucopia that is today's average garden centre would make a latter day gardener weak at the knees - a thrill for them may well have been the arrival of a newspaper wrapped bare-rooted perennial or something now we might consider quite ordinary. Chrysanths, Gladdies or Montbretia for example. Bor-ing.

Let's say that when the Thompson and Morgan ('Experts in the garden since 1855') catalogue dropped into the post box an hour later I was in a receptive mood. The year is at its coldest and darkest - the earth is hard as iron and the hens are chipping their beaks on water like a stone*....and here is promise of fruitfulness - strawberries as big as babies, blight resistant potatoes, carrots to piss off the carrot fly, beans, peas, giant pumpkins, flowers bright and beautiful and apples to put the garden of Eden to shame. The slug - that bane of our lives is corralled by nematodes. The family feeds off the contents of the window box! It's sweeter, less stringy - tastier! It's New! Improved! Free? What optimists we are. Dream on.

But how can I resist? Even now I'm twitching to order seeds and reaching out for that little piece of plastic with which to pay. There are old favourites to re-order and the temptation of the new - just to try. (There's so much promise in those little packets.) Who knows what will grow on the top of a low mountain in Wales? And 2009 will have the perfect summer won't it?

* I exaggerate to make a point of course. I've changed their water twice today already.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The time in Tokyo?

Well, in case you are wondering, it's 7.50pm. New York loiters at 5.50, while Paris (ever the front-runner) ticks over an hour ahead of GMT - that's 9.50pm as I type this.
Courtesy of the eyechild I now have a handy multi-coloured, multi-continental clock over my desk. Alan observes that it looks as if it might have come from the Lehman Brothers 'knock-down' sale. Me? - I suspect it comes from the Lehman Brother's crêche 'clear-out'...but who knows? I love it to pieces. It ticks and reminds me that 'tempus fugit'....must crack on.

I've been indulged and showered with lovely gifts this Christmas - for which many, many thanks to all. I see sybaritic times ahead.

Gifts are easy stuff - time with our visiting sons is precious. There's not enough of it - but maybe sufficient for us all to welcome some more later in the year. (Paxos. Greek time. I am excited already.) And there are days and weekends in between to look forward to of course.

They leave; the trail of damp towels, unmade beds and beer cans in curious places now take on a peculiar charm as the car known as 'the shadow of the beast' heads off up the lane. (I'm sure they all once knew where the towel rail, laundry basket and rubbish bin were.) I am left muttering 'take care', 'drive safely'.....'watch out for....................' and they are gone.

Silence descends and Alan and I settle into our usual routines again. He's doing something mysterious and bendy with wood in his shed. I collect an egg from a hen. The brown dog catches the scent of a burrowing vole in the dingle while the white one frets at the field gate. How ordinary everything is. We're under a heavy grey sky. It didn't seem to get light until just before 8.00am and 4.30pm seems dark enough for a torch. Time seems to stand still.

Come to think of it I'm not even sure what day of the week it is either.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

How still it is...

Yes, how still it is. Not a breath of air twitches. This might be one ordinary night meteorologically speaking, starless and overcast - but it's heavy with extraordinary anticipation. Christmas Eve - 'special' is in the air. We've done cardspresentsparties, tomorrow we will dine, en famille, on roast duck. Crackers? yeah - there'll be crackers too.

But tonight, in the stillness, when it is not possible to buy, prepare or cook anything else it's good just to sit and drink in silence. This is my favourite moment.

Help yourselves to a mince pie - I made them earlier. They should still be warm.

Happy Christmas.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Crepuscular thoughts

'Crepuscular' - what a fantastic word to roll around one's tongue at the end of a gloomy December afternoon. My dictionary confirms that it means 'Resembling or relating to twilight'. I find it hard to shake off the feeling that it might be a good description for a pock-marked cartoon planet. Whatever. I am having midwinter crepuscular thoughts.

It's 4.20pm. Twilight and the light is fading fast; in fact the landscape is imbued with an eerie, curious and sulphurous glow. The land is sodden under my boots, our sticky clay oozes water. It's hard to love this time of year.

Across the field, in the dark fastness of Badnage wood, I can hear the panicked calls of pheasants as they launch themselves up into the swaying conifers and out of the reach of foxy jaws.

My hens - I have come to shut them into their huts for the night - have already taken themselves indoors. They are making what I take to be argumentative hen-talk - clucks and squawks - as they jostle for pole position on the perch. I have a stern word or two with the cockerels. They have been crowing at 5.00 in the morning for heaven's sake - a time when birds should surely have their heads under their wings. Dawn's earliest light is then still at least 2 hours hence.

Yesterday of course was the shortest day of the year - the day when the sun reached its lowest point in the sky, the Winter Solstice. The thought of the days now getting longer is a cheering one - although I suspect we'll get to February before we notice the difference.With hens shut in I trudge back up to the house. It's bedecked for Christmas with greenery and sparkling baubles. Our pretty tree's fairy lights are reflected into infinity by the glass of the garden room and the stove is set, ready to put a match to - soon orange tongues of flame will lick the darkness.

What bliss, the magic of fire in winter's deepest days - light and warmth. I shall sit for a while and watch the night descend before putting on my party frock to attend some latter day Saturnalian revels - the first of many Christmas parties. Mulled wine here we come....

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Time to Talk

And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don't stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven't hoed,
And shout from where I am, 'What is it?'
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

Robert Frost

Today I delivered our local Christmas cards and some newsletters too; a simple enough task. Shouldn't take all day... My route was planned and I laid them out in neat piles on the passenger seat of the car - a plan which failed at the first bend of our narrow lane when an 'emergency stop' sent my filing into the footwell and complete disorder. No matter - we'll busk it.

'Easy-peasy,' I thought as I slipped the first few cards through letterboxes - nobody's home. I was sniffed at by muddy farm dogs - which proceeded to pee nonchalantly but with purposeful dog-reason against the car wheels to spread their dog-messages the breadth of the parish. I was snorted at by beasts in barns, their heavy breath hanging in misty clouds before their kind faces - but I met no one. Marton could well have been the Marie Celeste of villages. Easy-peasy indeed.

Nope. Not far up the road it appears this is not going to be the case. Up the road everybody was at home and everybody was going to be sociable:

'Coffee? Or tea perhaps? Go on - have a small sherry.....'

I can barely push open a garden gate or negotiate the pot holes on a lane before I am offered refreshment. I chat. I drink coffee - most welcome. I chat some more. I avoid tea. No, I won't come in thank you. More coffee? Sherry? - no thanks - later perhaps. Chatter. Lunch - No, no, I'll let you get on. Tea? Another time thank you. Finally I sit with the ancient Mrs T, who opens the door with hands floured from the pastry bowl and we talk for a while of this and that, her hands getting less and less floury as she winds them in her lap. It is very peaceable in her kitchen; a kitchen clock ticks and there's a vague electrical hum which might be the cooker or a fridge. I sense mince pies. I could sit here for quite a while. I could probably go to sleep. I am all talked out.

Talk - that's what I have mainly done today. Talked of nothing of any real consequence but made the chit chat that binds a community together - a bit like that farm dog peeing on the car tyre.

It doesn't matter, does it, that there are a hundred and one pressing tasks to do before dusk? Cliche or not, it's good to talk.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Ding-dong merrily...

Things to do today. Leaflets to print, parcels to post and, most importantly, Christmas shopping to be started. Everything on my list has a degree of urgency - a deadline - and I can almost hear the ticking of a clock as the countdown gets underway.....

The most urgent things on my list take me to the far side of Shrewsbury - the unlovely bit that no one would want to visit. Tourists on the town's Darwin Trail don't make it this far; the attractive town centre with its winding shuts and passages and half-timbered buildings gives way to the utilitarian, the business units, car show rooms, light industry and the sort of useful places that are handy to know about should you need a small obscure fitting for an obscure part of your life that is falling apart.

I fetch up at Sundorne Retail Park - the gateway to this development is guarded by an almost abstract (can there be such a thing?) sculpture. As I wait for the lights to change I decide it probably represents the sun, on a stick. It's a grey old place, unloved, devoid of cheer. The vast sheds, housing the usual suspects - DFS, Allied Carpets, Staples, Homebase wave optimistic banners urging us in, but on this dull morning they too are flagging. The car parks are empty and the municipal planting is ragged at the edges. There's a scurry of activity over at MFI whose closing down 'Everything Must Go!!' sale has attracted kitchen fitters from across the county. Those fitters can be seen hauling pieces of show kitchens into anonymous white vans, pausing only to light up or clamp a mobile phone to their ear. Nothing like a bargain is there?I wonder - and am seriously tempted - if I could do all my Christmas shopping here thus avoiding the crush in town itself. This is obviously what the retailers in Sundorne are hoping I'll decide to do. They have pulled out all the stops to entice me with what may not be traditional Christmas fayre but might be an interesting alternative. Homebase's purple and pink themed point of sale cards are a case in point: 'Oh look!' I hear some lucky recipient exclaim 'A Daisy Ironing Board!' or, and more curiously, how about some festive decorating filler? Great price! Fab!
I impulse buy a fitted sheet and some new lights for the tree. A can of de-icer seems a good idea too. It's stacked incongruously under some gross little decorated trees and some 'Good Girl' Christmas Cat Stockings. I ponder the grammar of this for a while before taking it at face value. I do not know any cats who would welcome a Christmas stocking filled with cat treats so they stay on the shelf. Things crossed off shopping list - nil.

In Staples I could do much better - I have a love of stationery and this is stationery heaven. Give me a paperclip and a ream of paper and I'm happy indeed. But I don't think my nearest and dearest share this love - so again nothing ticked off the list. Allied Carpets, DFS and Dunelm Mill? Nah. There'll be no carpets, couches and curtains under our tree this year.

So there was nothing for it but to head into town where the spirit was a bit more festive but ever so slightly subdued. Do I scent an air of retail desperation? Not even Woolworth in its cut-price death throes seemed busy - maybe everyone was slogging it out in the basement out of sight. With that clock ticking away I trudged the streets - everything started to look much the same after a while and my purse remained firmly closed. All this stuff - all this material flim-flam - all looking for a buyer. How much is really needed or wanted?

And the outcome of my trip? I bought a book (for me) and a DVD as a gift, and 3 packs of cards and an M & S Chinese meal. Not a very productive shopping trip was it? Which means I'll have to go back next week. With a list and a plan. Groan....

PS I'm easy to please - as I said above, a box of colourful paperclips will do nicely.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The brown egg of the little blue hen

Did I put out a call for eggs only a day ago?

Today in the nest box, on a bed of straw, hunkered up against the inspirational 'pot egg' was the sweetest little brown egg. This is the first from the new hens; one of the Blue Marans has come into lay. Hopefully it will be the first of many.The Cream Legbars should be next - that'll be blue eggs from little brown hens....

Sunday, December 07, 2008

4 new red hens

Got me 4 new red hens. (Thanks to SBS - and to Mr SBS in particular - his wish to see the rejects, runts, waifs and strays of the animal kingdom in caring homes made this addition to Trelystan's national flock possible.) They're installed in a clean hen hut on a bed of shavings and protected from the inquisitive pecks of their neighbours by a sturdy pen. We'll let them aclimatise to life on a draughty hilltop before giving them the freedom of the larger compound.

I've mentioned before that getting a good photograph of a hen is a very difficult - and it proved nigh impossible to snap the new foursome. So here's a picture of another, fairly new, red hen instead:Now all we need are eggs

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Stove and I.

The man from Scan and his side-kick Craig-our-fitter stand in front of our new and recalcitrant woodburner. It's not an unattractive thing, in a designery sort of way, and suits the room well. It's just that one or two minor glitches need sorting out - the thing wobbles for heaven's sake, the smoke stack is slightly out of true and I can't stop the glass from smoking up. (This last finds me on my knees like a true skivvy scrubbing at the soot with a damp cloth dipped in wood ash. How Victorian is that? You will be pleased to know I draw the line at black-leading - the Zeebo will remain in the cupboard. My hands are filthy enough as it is.) Oh, and finally, the door handle has found against returning to its neat closed position. This is a top of the range stove from a reputable manufacturer, for which we have dug deep in our pockets. I put on my best 'get it sorted or else' face .... and go to make a brew for the workers.

The wobble is resolved by a bit of lateral thinking; the adustable feet now hidden beneath the stove are adjusted by sliding a saw blade underneath the plinth, connecting it with the feet and, using the gentlest of sawing motions, turning them up or down until stability is achieved. A twiddle with an allen key sorts out the door - but I am left with the distinct impression this is something I should have done for myself. Sorry, Mr Scan at the price we paid for this critter we almost expect it to light itself. (I do though make a mental note to put tools within easy reach.)
Craig is let off straightening the smoke stack today - the weather is foul and the roof slippy - I'm not that hard a task master.We address the problem of the smoky glass - it's all to do with putting more wood on when the fire is at the right temperature, wood that is dry, wood of the right size. Little and often. I'm beginning to see that this woodburner - unlike the dragon we have in the sitting room- needs coaxing and pampering. It is obviously a prima donna amongst stoves, needing to be cajoled and fed only the finest seasoned dry oak or ash (of which we are lucky to have plenty) and supplied with copious gulps of oxygen. Don't forget to empty the ash pan either...The man from Scan assures me that all this should do the trick - assures me too that 'it's just a matter of getting used to it'. Sounds like an inordinate amount of bother too.

They gather up their tools and leave. Stove and I look at each other. 'OK Stove' I say, 'Just burn hot and clean with typical Nordic efficiency....'

I swear it said 'Ja.... måske.'* But that might just have been the sound of the door swinging shut.

* I hope it means 'Yes...perhaps.' Perhaps some passing Dane can confirm that.