Tuesday, June 30, 2009


...that's cleaning out the hen house. Now with added mites. Urgh!

This surely must be one of the most hateful jobs, especially on a hot and humid day in a confined space. On a scale of 1 - 10? Probably in the minus figures along with my personal bĂȘtes noirs, filling in the tax return and tackling those 'soaked-in-the-sink-overnight pans'. Neither of those come with mites though- they bring an extra nasty element to the job.

Firstly analyse the task. One empty hut with a layer of straw on the floor and shavings in the nest box. Not too bad a prospect. A quick 20 minutes with the wheelbarrow and shovel and the job will be done. I tentatively lift up the perch and see dozens of minute mites scurrying from the sudden light. Little tiny things almost invisible to the naked eye. Bugger. The job now takes on another dimension. I eat a sustaining lunch and plan my assault. To be clothed or not? I'm not suggesting this is a task to be carried out naked but it is a hot day and from experience I know that my clothes will go straight to the washing machine afterwards. I decide on shorts and tee shirt - a decision I am soon to regret. I find my shower hat.

By the way, is anyone itching yet? Finding a hand sneaking up to scratch an itch which seems to be creeping through their hair? Just the suggestion usually has that effect. (I remember a talk by the school Nurse about Head Lice that had everybody in the audience scratching discretely...but that's another story.)

Anyway, 10 minutes later I am crouching at the door of the hen house, cursing the fact that I threw in whole straw as litter rather than chopping it first. It is proving a pain to shovel and I'm too idle to go and fetch a fork and do the job properly. I'm beginning to itch too. I just know that mites are on me and around me. There's a tickle on my eyebrow and something is creeping around my ear. Any skin uncovered is crawling. Ugh.

Well, pretty soon the house is empty and swept out and I set to with a blow torch, paying particular attention to all the nooks and crannies. I do this while squatting in the house itself. It is a confined space and is heating up by the minute. If you ever imagined me sylph-like, graceful and elegant that illusion must surely be shattered now. I am a small hot, itchy person in a hen house, in a shower cap, with a naked flame.

The next stage of my vendetta involves spraying with something stinky. Its horridness envelopes me so that stinkyness can be added to my list of current attributes. I read on the bottle afterwards that it is in fact only a deterrent. No good enough. I want these critters dead.

However, the job is done. I feel absolutely vile as I scratch my way back to the house, cursing all insects - a shower is an urgent priority. Alan backs away as I come near; though I assure him they only really bother poultry and birds, I can see he is not convinced.

I later place an order for Necromite - a silica-based product, a Diatomaceous Earth - which promises death to red mites by dessication. It sounds suitably deadly. I shall treat this newly cleaned house and the other two which are in use. This will involve the cleaning circus all over again. Oh. Doom. Despair. Even then I doubt if I shall be rid of them completely but hope to get them to a fairly low level before they become too much of a problem to my small flock.

Off now to rebuild my shattered image; smell roses and stroke kittens...anything but come into contact with poultry housing for at least 24 hours.

Friday, June 26, 2009

This. That. And the other

Thursday and a long awaited flying visit to Manchester to see my old friend Joan.
Joan is Head of Art at Loretto College, Manchester and on Thursday evening her A and AS level students put on a show of their course work and sketchbooks. (Both pieces above are by Textiles' students - and both warrant a click to enlarge to see the detail in the work - as does the fish, below, by one of Joan's Art students.)
Wow! What an impressive display of work it was - accomplished, lively and imaginative. Mature too. It was hard to believe that these young people were still in a sixth form college environment and had not yet entered the world of Higher Education. Joan tells me that a number of them will opt for direct entry to a degree course rather than go down the traditional route of an Art Foundation course first. Seems like a good thing to do - these are people with ideas just waiting to be developed and unleashed rather than be held back another year because that's the way it has always been done.

Who said that education is wasted on the young? How I wished I were amongst them in that exciting creative atmosphere exploring materials and ideas. OK - I did it years ago but my art education was staid and stodgy in comparision. Small moan over. Well done Joan - they did you proud.

Good to see some old familiar faces too, to catch up and gossip on a long hot summer evening; we chattered into the night. I eventually fell asleep in my attic room looking at the sky through the roof-light. A strangely comforting orange glow - the colour of the Mancunian night - was cast on the clean white walls. I was vaguely aware of the incessant hum of traffic and the wail of a siren in the distance, the voices of carousing revelers rolling home. All this was once so familiar but now these sights and sounds, the crush of humanity around me, are strange and mysterious city ways.

What else?

Don't get me wrong - I do like (no, make that love) life on the top of my low mountain. I love the air, the sky and the silence. I love my space and birdsong and the creatures on the fields and in the hedgerows, the flowers, the trees and the twists of cloud that wind in front of the conifers of Badnage Wood. I love Badnage Wood and the buzzards and ravens. I love the seasons, each special and perfect...etc etc... You get my drift. I wouldn't swap it for urban or suburban life ever again. But oh, I do wish we had a John Lewis within striking distance.

Sad? Yep. I was that shopper drooling ever-so-slightly in front of the bed linens and the artful display of towels. I checked out every department - except the white goods and the curious gift-ware section full of odd objets. I poked cushions, opened handbags, tried shoes, sprayed perfume, wished we needed curtains/blinds/carpets/lighting and generally just enjoyed an afternoon's retail. I bought blusher, a metre of muslin and a Nicole Farhri shirt. No big deal but quite satisfying none the less.

Then home again to the small mountain kingdom of Trelystan. There has been rain. The air is thick and heavy, thundery, though we have had no storms here. It is, my car thermometer tells me, 12 degrees cooler than it was in Manchester but still feels pretty warm to me.

Warm with a bit of wet is what the garden needs. It's very slow this year - I feel growth is about 2 weeks behind. I do notice that my second sowing of peas are through and that the French beans have overnight emerged from the ground and stand over an inch high. The brassicas on order from Thompson and Morgan arrived last week. (Damn them.) There is still nowhere for them to go so, rightly or wrongly, they have been potted on.

The flowers borders are exuberant and generous - and in need of some attention. There's stuff to be hauled out (the ubiquitous creeping buttercup), cut back (oriental poppies), dead-headed (roses and geraniums) and staked (delphiniums in particular). There is the joy of scent too at this time of year, especially on these warm still evenings. What can beat a clump of pinks? I can forgive Mrs Simkins all her straggly unruly habits, she smells divine. Lastly - and I'm not particularly proud of this. Ugh - it's 'the ugly corner'. Something is very wrong here. I blame the yellow Sedum. Or the petunias. It is fairly low on the list of priorities but I really should start again shouldn't I?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A fool

Gooseberry and Elderflower Fool it is then.

Alan, who has dreams of making Elderflower champagne, generously offered to bring me some flowerheads when he went a-foraging for his own - that'll be 5 for me and about 24 for him then. Thanks.

He's a 'hunter-gatherer' at heart and never happier than when creeping through the hedgerows on the q.v.for something to snarf; 'food for free' might be his motto. While I might have skipped down the lane with a dainty little wicker basket and some itsy-bitsy scissors - my man is equipped and tooled up. It's a dangerous beast the Elder Tree.

By mid afternoon I have my flowerheads and gooseberries in the pan - a couple of spoonfuls of sugar, lemon zest and a splash of water later and we're ready to simmer. (Thanks to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for the recipe.) A 'splash' I think is rather vague - one woman's splash is another's deluge. I am to regret my generous nature when the cooked fruit is very obviously sitting in too much liquid. Never mind, a little gelatine along with the whipped cream assures a set and if it's more of a mousse and less of a fool, well, so what? Hard to believe that the dessert in the glass above is a subtle melange of summer fruits, flowers and cream isn't it? Looks more like Polyfilla. Food photography is a difficult thing n'est-ce pa?

Sunday, June 21, 2009


'It's only the hairs on a goosegog that stops it from being a grape' (anon.)

It's gooseberry season in the small mountain kingdom of Trelystan. The 3 bushes planted last summer have fruited prolifically; the viciously spiked branches are laden with hairy green berries.

Sizewise the individual fruits are pretty good too, although not quite worthy of one of those cut-throat gooseberry competitions held by the old Gooseberry societies. Sadly my fruit have succumbed to mildew - which is Not a Good Thing.

I've picked a colander full anyway - each fruit a reminder of what an unpleasant thing it is to harvest. It was a job we were always given as children.'Because you've got small hands...' Yeah right. We also got to 'top and tail' them too - and that's as boring a job as jobs get. I've a sneaking suspicion that even when cooked up into the inevitable pie they were not popular with the Cross children either.

I think I'm going to make Gooseberry and Elderflower Fool - the two things coming into season alongside each other, albeit on either side of the garden fence. I bet my Glamorous Ass. will complain that it's sloppy stuff. Tough.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Eating our greens...

Here it is, the Cavolo nero - aka black cabbage, a native of Tuscany. It even has its own website. Just how hard does a vegetable have to try to gain acceptance? It's a really attractive plant with textured glaucous leaves - I think even if it's lacking in the taste department I could find it a place in the flower garden.

Here's tonight's supper - minus the pork chops which are still in the fridge. Cavolo nero, salad potatoes, the last few spears of asparagus - and a handful of eggs thrown in to fill up the picture - all grown within a 100 yards of the stove.

The Cavolo nero I cooked with onion, garlic, chilli and the juices from the pork until tender but not overcooked. As a first attempt it was OK - there's potential there. It's the sort of vegetable you feel must be good for you. Any suggestions out there for extending my recipe base?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Kitchen garden - 15th June

Here's the garden photographed this morning, June 15th. At best it's looking more productive than it did in April. The soil is now warm and welcoming; things are growing at last after a slow start. We've had hot. We've had cold. We've had wet and we've had windy. Now it's warm again, let's hope it stays that way. Rain is allowed in hours of darkness.

( If you click the picture all will be revealed in greater detail. Those with keen eyes will note the new pizza oven just to the left of the green house complete with a fleeting glimpse of its builder, my Glamorous.Ass. More on this at a later date.)

Turning back this blog's pages I do get a sketchy picture of my gardening year - well, at least I get an idea of when the garden's green and when it is brown. I'm very keen on produce, the fruits of my labour. I've pictured a myriad of fresh fruit and vegetables in a myriad of arty poses but have only the vaguest memory of what the varieties were. I should make a record of what has gone where, and when, in order to improve in subsequent years - or at least not waste time and money on seeds which will never thrive in our 'overcoat colder' mountain climate.

All the beds are planted up - just waiting for a bit of vegetable action now. (I'm not too sure where the young brassica plants I have on order from Thompson and Morgan are going to go yet - perhaps by the time they arrive in the post the autumn planted onions will be ready to harvest thus freeing up a bed.) We've feasted on asparagus and are eating the early potatoes started in pots under glass. There have been a couple of cauliflowers, some wonderful cabbage and spinach, lettuces and salad greens too. It's good to put our own food on our plates again after a winter of vegetables from Morrison's.

The cavolo nero is looking good - there is a lot of it too so I hope we enjoy it. Climbing beans (White Lady and Cobra) are starting to twine up their sticks, but not with any degree of urgency. The broad beans (Express and the wonderfully named 'Bunyard's Exhibition') are full of flower and a magnet for bumble bees. Peas (Hurst Longshaft), leeks (Porvite) and squash (Avalon, Hasta la Pasta and Mixed Winter), even some sweet corn (bred for the northern climate) are underway. We'll gloss over the pathetic bed of roots, which even before the carrot fly takes its share looks dismal. But onions - I hold out great hope for the onions and garlic.

Next week we will have lived here for 4 years exactly. We started work on the garden the year before that - building raised beds anywhere that the builders wouldn't reach. So happy 5th birthday kitchen garden. 'Gro-more' all round I think.
The story so far:
Summer 2002Autumn 2004
Summer 2005

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Click go the Shears

'You take off the belly-wool clean out the crutch
Go up the neck for the rules they are such
You clean round the horns first shoulder go down
One blow up the back and you then turn around'

Click go the shears boys, click, click, click
Wide is his blow and his hands move quick
The ringer looks around and is beaten by a blow
And curses the old snagger with the blue-bellied joe'

In the days before rock 'n' roll - when the earth was fresh and green - we country children at Moreton Morrell School acquired our musical knowledge from Miss Charles at the piano (a stately old upright) or from the Schools' Broadcasts on the BBC's Home Service. A little research has reminded me that the programme was called Singing Together'.We sang from a little booklet like the one above - which predates me by a few years - but serves to give a flavour of those innocent pre-plastic days. Back then I don't suppose we gave it much thought; Miss Charles tuned in the wireless and we sat at our desks in 'the big room' and sang our hearts our as bidden by the presenter. Now I realise we were unwittingly and probably unintentionally, being given a good grounding in the folk songs of Britain and Ireland - with occasionally one from the Commonwealth thrown in for good measure - 'Click go the Shears' for example has its roots in the Australian outback. It was a favourite of mine. I find myself humming it at this time of year as strangely naked sheep stare back at me across the hill. It's shearing time again.

SBS and her shepherd have a rule of thumb; wait until the dog roses bloom before shearing your sheep. It's a bit of old country lore based on common sense. Wait until then and the chances are the poor things won't be left shivering when divested of that heavyweight fleece. Well, the dog roses are just about flowering up here on the Long Mountain but I think today's shearing activity had more to do with the fortuitous alignment of antipodean shearers and a day of sunshine than an old wives' tale.

This morning, with much whooping, shouting and baaing, there was a great round up of sheep. I watched part of the huge flock - a veritable river of sheep - make its way up to Fir House to be shorn. The shearers - three muscular New Zealanders - had arrived, not completely unexpectedly, and were ready to shear.

By the time I fetched up to take a look they were well into their stride and averaging about a minute per sheep.

What looked like chaos was in fact a pretty efficient system; a sheep was hauled from a nearby pen and the clippers buzzed swiftly over it to neatly remove the fleece without wasting a stroke. The fleece was thrown aside to be bundled up and bagged by Dan and Phil. The sheep, now strangely lightweight, was pushed off the boards to its freedom - which was generally celebrated with a tremendous jump - I'd like to think those jumps were jumps of joy but suspect they were just obscure sheep behaviour.

With a click of their counters and not pausing to take breath the lads grabbed another sheep and began all over again. Those counters are an essential piece of kit when you are paid by sheep shorn.

I don't know how many they would have got through today - 5 or 600 perhaps and I think the going rate is around 85p per sheep. (You can do your own sums.) Over the course of the season, moving from farm to farm it must be quite a lucrative, if back breaking, business. From the farmer's point of view it is hardly financially viable - the wool cheque will barely cover the cost of the labour but it is a job that must be done for the welfare of the animal.

When we were children shearing always seemed to be a high point of our year, probably because it was a break from routine and we were always amused by the comical appearance of the newly shorn sheep. (Simple pleasures eh?) We'd hang on the gate and watch the noisy bustle, the pushing and shoving in a dusty barn. If we were lucky someone might let us fold a fleece. I suspect one of my brothers might have tried shearing but as a girl I doubt if anyone offered to teach me. Mens' work see? My father taught his students to shear - I gather the method he used has now been superseded as has the rather precise art of folding up a fleece I learned back in south Warwickshire. So much remains the same though - the oily boards, the sheepy smell, the buzz of the shears. I'd rather hoped that the shearers would be wearing shoes fashioned from sacking - all the better to keep a grip when man handling a feisty ewe I suppose- but lightweight trainers do the job these days. I wondered if their hands were soft and smooth too - lanolin from the wool makes a wonderful handcream.

I left them taking a break, straightening their backs and flexing hands and wrists before the next few hundred ewes. John told me later he had about another 1600 to shear. I ache at the thought.

Right now as dusk falls out there on the hill it is incredibly noisy - ewes are bawling for lambs and lambs are crying for their mothers. Everybody's mixed up and confused; those familiar rounded and maternal figures that started the day swathed in wool have morphed into bony big-eared strangers. 'Oh woe,' those lambs bleat pitifully, 'Mother where art thou?'

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Homage to an orchid

.....and I don't even know its name.

What a beautiful gift this has been; given to me at Christmas by H and S it has bloomed elegantly until now when only one pure white flower remains. That's very nearly 6 months worth of pleasure. Thank you.

The brown furry shape on the RHS is Chester. He's putting his great brown nose in where his great brown nose shouldn' t be. As usual.

I must add that when that last flower final withers and plops to the ground my Christmas orchid will go to the Orchid Rest Home - aka the kitchen window sill. A little benign neglect and with luck I will be rewarded by another spike of flowers.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

A bit of wet

June. Don't ya just love it? Thank goodness I wasn't getting married, holding a village fete, a pop festival or camping. If I had been, any plans to emigrate to warmer, drier climes would have been much accelerated.

The garden did need a drop of rain, but not a deluge combined with a chill, biting wind. I've taken the positive view that it will toughen up my infant vegetables but past experience has shown that, rather than shaking their little leaves in the face of such adverse weather, they shrivel up their roots and die.

For most of the day a thin twist of cloud has drifted across the conifers of Badnage Wood, gauzy swirls of wet air which alternately veil and reveal the dark trees and never fail to fascinate - I can almost forgive the foul weather which accompanies this balletic cloudscape. Yesterday's thin curtain of drizzle gave way to 'stair rods' of rain and now a brief respite in which the sun has come out. (Above is the view from the kitchen window - something that is all too easy to stand and gawp at rather than getting on with the job in hand. Click on the picture for daisy heaven.)

Wet hens, sodden sheep and a curious 'nest' of cows and calves in the most sheltered corner of the new field....who would be outdoors if they didn't need to be?

Not us. We lit the woodburner and with our lovely visitors, sat and basked in its warmth. One dog in particular - Wilson - saw an opportunity and Took Advantage.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Row 1, seat 23 (that's 3rd from the end...)

Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.'
Samuel Johnson
The sleepy green shires have slipped away. We've left silage being cut and sheep being shorn. Our train with its creaky 'out-of-mothballs' carriages lurches through gentile suburbia, through Betjemin's 'metro land' and eventually after a number of jerky false stops, into Marylebone Station.

Mindful of The Gap, our feet meet solid ground again - a grimy platform encrusted with the muck of ages. The air is warm, foetid and fume-y. We are deafened by the din of throbbing diesel engines and the babble of strangers. We are travelers in a strange land.

To step off the train and onto London's streets is to step into a world of infinite possibility. I can forgive this city most things in exchange for the treasures it holds. I feel like a cat mewling at intangible and uncatchable birds from behind the glass of a window.

Today D. and I have a mission and there is no time to dip into galleries and museums and shops...we must go to the Royal Albert Hall where the WI are holding their AGM. We have a cup to collect. We must be on time. 14.22 precisely.
I drew the short straw and will go on stage to receive the cup and am seated on Row 1. D has a seat elsewhere - in the circle - where she, unlike me, is not be under the stern gaze of the Board of Trustees and where, if she doesn't want to clap or stand for a standing ovation - (which, it transpires, are quite popular) she won't have to. On best behaviour then....

We'd missed the morning session - no doubt our Shropshire Federation representative will send a report back about that. The afternoon began with our presentations. The Lady Denman cup was presented to a lovely lady from North Wales who had written a ghost story. She posed with her trophy - a large piece of silverware not dissimilar to the FA Cup. Now that is something to take home and show the gals. Big clap for her and cheers from the Clywd and Denbyshire ladies in the far distance.

My turn next. My cup, The Elizabeth Bell Trophy, is about the size of the average champagne glass. Of all the curious thoughts which go through one's head when really one should be concentrating on not tripping over is the vague recollection that champagne glasses were modeled on Marylin Munroe's breasts. Can anyone confirm this? It's a thought which preoccupies me later. Anyway, I blink in almost-disbelief. We've come all this way, rising at dawn, new frock, new hair, new shoes, blah-blah. For this? Ah well, it must be the thought that counts. A few inane grins for the camera - remembering to breathe in and present slenderest profile. Then down the steps and to my seat. The meeting continued.

The speakers were mostly entertaining. Eve Pollard, who made some particularly pertinent comments which the WI might like to heed; the man from Taylors Tea, Jonathan Wild who hardly mentioned his products at all; and Richard Stilgoe who spoke and then performed with some apprentices from The Orpheus Centre.

More talking and business and I'm losing the will to live - or at least behave myself in my front row seat.... Hoorah! At last it's time for the singing - or mumbling when it came to 'Land of My Fathers'. 'Jerusalem' raised the roof. It was our school song too so the words are familiar. (the ghostly voice of Miss Wallace the music mistress implores us to keep our hands by our sides and 'DON'T BREATHE YET GIRLS. WAIT... NOW!) And then 'The Queen' and we are free to hop and skip and jump out into the sunshine. Free at last. I have remembered to pick up the blessed cup from under the seat.

Oh dear. I don't think I'm a very good member do you? This is supposed to be a tremendous privilege and all I really want to do is Not Be There and be somewhere else instead. I won't bore you with a list but I'm thinking exhibitions, music, cashmere and a shoe shop on Marylebone High Street. Culture's fine and dandy but a girl needs to shop too.

Some 7 hours later we are back in Shropshire. The train trundled out of the city and we watched the ragged suburbs disappear in the gloaming and the sky turn dark through it's windows. A rosy sunset bodes well for tomorrow. It's been a long day - not particularly tiring because a lot of it has been spent sitting down and indoors. Regretfully, we've not seem much of London. How tantalizing it is to know there is so much to see and do left undone by us today.

It is nearly midnight as I drive back up the narrow lane to Trelystan. A few moths flutter in my headlights and a sole badger scuttles into the hedge as the pickup approaches. Half a moon is bright over my shoulder, a few clouds gib across its face. How still it is here. How quiet.

I offer up a short prayer to the god of lost opportunities. Here's to next time.

The cup was awarded for our entry in the 'One Step Further' competition. This was part of an initiative to promote healthy living. Members were asked to devise a walk (walking + healthy!) and produce an A4 leaflet describing it. Marton's 'Stapeley Hill Leg Stretcher' won first prize and its production was very much a team effort. It describes an 11 mile circular walk in Shropshire's Blue Remembered Hills - which I'm ashamed to say I have not yet walked. I am very familiar with it on paper though, where it appears nice and flat and easy. I think the real hills will come as a big surprise.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Let's go spy a Kite*

Powys has a logo - it's on everything; Council stationery and publications, the fleet of refuse wagons, uniforms; you name it and if it belongs to Powys the silhouetted image of the Red Kite is there.

This bird of prey was once very common - common enough in the 16th century to be regarded as vermin, a threat to agriculture. So-called 'Vermin Acts' required them to be killed. The persecution continued throughout the 17th and 18th centuries and towards the end of the 18th century their extermination was almost complete in England and Scotland; a few pairs managed to survive in rural mid Wales. An unofficial protection programme saved the Red Kite from extinction and now, over about 100 years the birds' numbers are slowly increasing.

Apart from on Council property they're still pretty rare around here. I've seen more in the Chilterns than in our part of Wales where it has come to represent the County. A sighting is still worth a mention and I keep promising myself a visit to the Red Kite Feeding Station at Rhayader.

However, today I saw my first Red Kite sweeping and soaring in the skies over the small mountain kingdom of Trelystan. I hope it is the first of many.

Excellent. Well worth a mention in dispatches.

*Couldn't resist the title