Sunday, 25 December 2011

Routines, rituals and ceremonies

Sitting here waiting for the kettle to boil for another cup of tea.

Most years around this time I'd be brewing a tea, but nearly always over the allotment.  No chance of that this year, or of the other thing I always do on Christmas day - walk down to the lake, round to the woods and then back.  Out of the question - too many steep slopes and uneven paths to risk me shuffling down there.

Managed my first walk out of the house yesterday, with Howard escorting / propping me up.  Took the bus into Enfield, but walked along the street and caught the bus from the next stop along rather than walk up the steep hill (and slippery path) to the nearest stop.  With the exception of M&S food, things were far more quiet than either of us expected - mind you, the local Rotary Club playing "jolly" festive songs from Des O'Connor may has caused the mass exodus.  No sign of the usual panic and hysteria in Waitrose either - not even a queue at the cheese counter.

So I got through my first outing wearing the cast and using one crutch unscathed.  Next stage is to tackle a Tube journey ahead of returning to work in the New Year.

In all honesty, when there's just the two of you, going through the whole routine of Christmas seems pointless.  We exchanged cards and presents as always.  This year I've had more reason to be grateful for the things Howard has done than ever, and with little chance to find things for him outside of the house, have found everything online.  Wrapping paper was a struggle, so I relied on my old favourite - brown paper and brightly coloured Nutscene twine.  Trust me - it looks good in a "crafty" way.

Our take on the dinner is one step away from the traditional - duck, roast parsnips, cavali nero kale and mashed and baked sweet potato.  I usually do a steamed chocolate sponge pudding, but will leave that until another time, as I'm not yet active enough to justify that many calories.

Christmas itself lies midway between things that really matter to me.  Tomorrow there'll be horse racing to watch - the King George chase from Kempton.  That's a race chock full of memories, of the legendary horses who've won it, and of memories closer to home - sitting down with my Welsh grandfather to watch it and shutting out the domestic hubbub, or the times in the early 90's when I watched the race and hurtled down the street, across the Great North Road and made it to Underhill in time for the Barnet FC game.  Those matches had an atmosphere that seems to have been lost.  One year the Barnet fans behind the goal kept singing the theme from Rainbow, another year they brought squeaky toys along.

Above all, just before Christmas, there is the time that is most important to me - the Winter Solstice.  This house more or less faces west, and every year I light a candle in sight of the last rays of the setting (old) sun on Solstice Eve.  I then place this candle in a lantern and put it on an east facing windowsill overnight, to act as a beacon to guide the rising (new) sun the following morning.  A very simple act, but one that serves to focus my mind on the fact that days will soon start to lengthen, and it is time to seriously focus on preparing for growing next year's crops.

So why do I even begin to "do" Christmas?  Well I recently discovered that prior to the change in calendars, the Winter Solstice fell on 25th December, so it could be said the day is earth sacred anyway.  I like the day as it is a day when you have to take a step away from normal - no transport, no shops, TV schedules out of the window - you can't just go about your normal routine (OK - except for dealing with the chickens.  They were up & yelling at the same time as ever).  It's also a day for recalling your best memories of previous years.  The time I was jogged while adding brandy to my home made stuffing, and almost created an internal combustion goose, or when the roasting tin I cooked the turkey in expended in the heat of the oven and wedged itself in there so tight we had to wait until the bird was cold to release it.  Or back to childhood when my great uncle arrived in a bubble car - the model where the passenger sat in the front, and took me and my cousins in turn for a ride round Ladbroke Grove.  Best of all was the time we stayed at my mum's parents and my granddad (the one I watched the racing with) persuaded my dad to go into the loft with him and stomp about, pretending to be Santa and his reindeer.  We had snow on Christmas morning too that year.

Have fun, and take time to be happy.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Time to Think – Time to Plan

Well I’m still at home, though there has been some progress.  Went to the hospital to have the cast removed and a check to see how far the bone had healed.  

There’s something unnerving about having someone wield a miniature angle grinder perilously close to your flesh.  I could feel the disc tickling my skin.  I don’t care what the nurse said – that was more than just vibration.

The bone is mending, but not so much for me to get the all clear.  Having now seen the X-Ray, it's a much bigger break than I originally imagined.  But then when it first happened I didn't realise that the terms broken bone and fracture were interchangeable.  I honestly thought that the latter was a less serious injury.

I have now been put in a weight-bearing cast.  It’s a plastic contraption, somewhere between a ski boot and Darth Vader’s helmet. It is lined with a spongey material that acts almost like a sling for the foot, so I can stand in comfort, and with a couple of weeks’ more practice, will be able to walk without doing damage to anything.  They are made in different shoe sizes, though they don’t seem to make allowances for the stubbier of leg – it goes right up to my knee, though from the illustration on the package it was taken out of, it looks like it is meant to be calf length.

So it looks like I’m at home, gradually expanding my territory beyond the bedroom and bathroom, until the New Year.  At least I now have become accustomed to spending my days resting and recovering.  After such a shock, I wasn't prepared for the the restrictions my injury put on me.  I couldn't just pop to the garden, wander to the kitchen and put the kettle on, check in the larder or look through the bookcase.  Everything I did, ate or drank had to be planned and laid out for me by Howard before he left for work.  After a few days he bought an electric kettle and put it on the landing so I could at least make my own tea.  But with 95% of my day spent sitting in bed with my leg propped up, my only entertainment was the TV and my choice of books for the day.  With help, and eventually by dragging myself propped up by the wall, I could make it to the desk, but the weight of the cast made sitting painful after a short while.  After a few days moping, frustrated and bored and railing against my imprisonment, I resolved to spend my time reading and making plans for the next year.

We all have to accept that hard times are here for the foreseeable future, made harder by a government hell bent on punishing anyone who is not already rich.  So careful use of resources will be essential.  Living as if rationing was in place may be on the extreme side, but the less excess spending at the moment, the better.

So I’ve taken the opportunity to write down assorted plans.  Initially plans for the allotment and the garden, but also for other aspects of our life.  I’m putting together lists of things we need in the house, from medications, through groceries and household goods, right through to office stationery, the magazines and newspapers we read, the shades of paint on the walls and various other places.

While I’ve been laid up, Howard has been forced to take on all domestic tasks.  He has no issue with that, having lived on his own.  But he lacks confidence in one aspect of cooking – the evening meal.  He will happily bake, make breakfast lunch and pudding, but as I normally arrive home ahead of him, I take charge of this.  So I have been writing down step by step instructions, shopping lists and follow up meal plans (using the leftovers).  As these may be useful in the future, I have kept them neatly in a file.

Going back to the lists, I know many view magazines as a luxury, but being stuck in bed most of the day for several weeks now, light but instructive reading has proved essential.  I’m not much of a fiction reader, so even “worthy” literature is of little interest to me.  With the exception of the Barry Pilton Abernant books (which could easily be Welsh roman a clefs), the only fiction I will gladly read contains illustrations by E.H. Shepherd.  So to save money on magazines, we’ve been taking advantage of Smiths money off vouchers, and lately I’ve been taking out subscriptions whenever I see a really good offer.  Getting them sent to the house rather than going out and buying them saves impulse buying through boredom.

The past few weeks I haven’t had to worry about what I’m wearing either, with the exception of trips to the hospital and a couple of days out.  I’ve spent my time in warm sweatshirt tops and fleeces, with baggy tracksuit trousers instead of smart office wear.  It has given me the time to take stock of what clothes I have, what needs replacing, what can be relegated to gardening wear, what can be donated to charity and what has reached the end of the road.  I know for certain I don’t need to buy another dark brown jumper for a couple of years, but my sock drawer needs a drastic sort out.  Especially as up until today I’ve only been wearing one at a time.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Never-ending Harvest – Compost

Finally got out of the house at the weekend.  Howard hired a small van and we went to a couple of garden centres that hire out wheelchairs to customers.  We also got over to the allotment.  There wasn’t anything I could do, but I sat and watched as Howard topped up our compost bins and leaf mould bin with what has accumulated over the past month.

This time last year, the weather was not conducive to gardening.  Last November was one of the wettest on record, then in December, we froze.  I had a long list of things to do over the Christmas and New Year break, but the weather put paid to that.

But at least we were able to complete one task at the allotment which has reaped rewards – constructed a new set of compost bins.

If soil health is the key to good gardening, then good compost is crucial to ensuring soil health.  One of the keys to good compost is getting a good balance between carbon rich (brown) material (dry material, such as shredded paper & cardboard and straw) and nitrogen rich (green) material (most other plant material, including kitchen waste and manures).  Having the hens has provided us with a near perfect mix – their bedding providing the “brown” material to add to garden and kitchen material.  The chicken manure boosts the nitrogen level and is also a perfect “activator” – helping everything break down quicker.  As Howard likes to make sure the hens are clean, he changes the bedding at least once a week, and removes soiled areas daily.  This means that, when combined with vegetable peelings and garden trimmings, we have a substantial amount to compost each month.

When we started at the new allotment, we made a stop gap composting system from wooden stakes and chicken wire.  But this wasn’t robust enough to cope with the amount of material we were adding once the chickens arrived.  The time had come to make a properly built composting system – solid, decent sized (cubic metre or so), three bay traditional compost bins.  A few years before, we had bought a couple of redundant potato crates with a view to such a project, but the opportunity never presented itself.  At the old site, a system of two bins made from pallets and wire was adequate.  But the time had come for the vision to be realised. 

If you ever get offered potato crates to re-use, accept them with gusto, providing you have the space to store them.  They have a volume of over a cubic metre, are made of strong, good quality, long lasting wood, and they are very securely constructed.  You know how you can break down a pallet to useable wood in a matter of minutes using a mallet and a cold chisel?  Well, not so a potato crate.  You’ll need heavy duty tools, including a saw and a drill.  And allow a whole day to complete the job.

So dismantling the bins was day one of the project.  Once we had four intact sides from the crates, these were put aside to be the sides of the compost bins.  The back was made mostly from feather edge planking, with more sturdy gravel board along the base, plus a batten over the top of each bay for added stability and to provide something for a cover for the bins to rest on.  The front slats were again feather edge, tacked in place, with the less perfect boards from the crates used for the lowest slats.

Deciding where to site the bins is always an issue – they need to be somewhere accessible without eating up too much growing space.  We had the perfect spot – at the very top of the plot, against the fence, near where we store the wheelbarrow, but not too close to the shed.  The fence would act as additional support at the back of the bins, and once we removed the lowest branches of the oak and sycamore trees, it would also get enough light, heat and rain.

Moving the bins to their new site also provided a better view from the shed window, better space to work in (we paved the area in front of the shed with slabs we’ve reclaimed and reused at the old plot) and more growing space for my rhubarb and comfrey.

Having taken final measurements, I have calculated that once fully operational, the bins will hold up to  5 cubic litres at any one time.  That, along with the compost and manure delivered to the site, and any leaf mould we make, will provide a good amount of mulch and compost to build up the raised beds through the year, for a minimal outlay.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Time for a rethink

It's a gorgeous day here.  Bright sunshine, blue sky with no clouds in sight, and dare I say it, almost warm.

Of course, I can't get outside to enjoy it - I'm sitting at the desk, looking out, my plaster casted leg propped up on a bag stuffed full of clothes due to go to Oxfam, the next time I'm fit enough to pass by.

Howard is out in the garden, hanging out the laundry, tending to the hens, and planting my Spring bulbs.  As I usually do all the planting and sowing, I wrote him out step by step instructions for flower bulbs, alliums and overwintering broad beans and peas.  This included information on the potting compost mixes for each.  Now,  I'm not one for precision, but Howard, being a graphic designer, is used to working in millimetres.  So three parts compost to one part grit or Perlite to me means for every three scoops of compost, add some grit.  If it doesn't feel right, add a bit more of what's lacking.  Howard measures things EXACTLY.  Mind you, I should have known.  When we started at the first allotment, ten years back, he used a ruler to space the seed potatoes.  And the completion of the pruning of the Southernwood along the front path will wait until I am fit to do it myself - without a ruler.

I can't complain really.  He's had to everything around the house since I've been laid up, rather than just his usual tasks.  Every morning before leaving for work, he's made me a packed lunch plus healthy snacks to keep me going through the day.  Until buying a spare electric kettle late last week, he was also making a couple of flasks of just boiled water so I could have tea throughout the day.

As I'm relatively immobile, I'm not expending the usual amount of energy.  Therefore, I don't need the usual ration of carbs.  But if you're bored, frustrated and being punished with daytime TV, what lifts your spirit?  Cake.  Or biscuits.  It's a struggle to get downstairs to the larder, and I need both arms to brace myself when I drag myself back up the stairs, so I have to make sure my ration for the day is eked out.

This has meant a re-think of my diet, concentrating on lean protein, vitamin rich fruit & veg, plus good sources of calcium.  So lots of fish, chicken, vegetables (especially brassicas) and good quality cheese.  Any bread we eat is the best quality - sourdough, rye or sodabread.

It has been enjoyable sitting down together and planning what we both will eat.  We try to put thought into what we eat anyway, but having to adapt meals for someone who needs to build up strength without adding extra calories has meant we cannot fall back on traditional simple comfort foods.  That said, as a reward for so much hard work, I ordered a pizza on Friday so Howard didn't need to cook.  I ravenously knocked back my share and had heartburn till the morning.  Lesson learned.

Howard is a good cook, though he does prefer the reassurance of instructions.  I have no complaints about the catering.  Last Sunday he made a Spanish style casserole of chicken, tomatoes and butterbeans.  He managed to stretch it to make two lunches by setting aside the chicken thighs and pureeing the rest of the dish to make a soup and a salad.  Last night we had a panfried fillet of Mackerel, with a warm salad of bacon, fennel & carrot.   The rest of the carrots and fennel, along with some onions, leeks and celery, will be finely chopped and turned into a soup to last us for a couple of lunches.  The first day it will be finely chopped veg in a broth with pearl barley, the second day it will go through the blender to make a thick soup.

Once we've had a successful new meal, I'm trying to write down the details and keep it on file, along with the written instructions for garden tasks.  Howard is going to do the same for the various tasks I delegate to him, plus emergency info, such as the location of stopcocks in the house.  So if both of us are indisposed, the poor creature who has to look after us will know what to do to keep the house ticking over.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

I was a sickly child.  Asthma often kept me at home, stripped of energy, though rarely bedridden.  These were the days before daytime TV as we know it - just news, Watch With Mother and sometimes a film.

So days at home we spent reading or playing with my Britains farm models - especially the horses and riders.

I still read vocariously, though now not always because it's the only thing that doesn't sap my strength.  Those farm animal toys are now collectable, and I have probably more of them than I had as a child, though some elude me.  Little gifts my Nan bought me to cheer me up - the chimps tea party and the milkman, pony and cart for instance, now go for huge sums on eBay.  There are even scale models made  especially for collectors - I think a spin off from war games scene makers, and I confess to adding to my collection from those.  I mean, if some grown men can get away with train sets.......

So here I am. Stuck at home, immobile for the next few weeks.  Much of my time will be spent reading and writing, but I also have tv, dvds and the internet.  Even so, I feel frustrated by being stuck indoors.  I feel like I have been separated from the real world.  Looking out of the window at the woods, listening to neighbours in the street if anything makes it worse.

Not really a huge fan of Robert Louis Stevenson, apart from one small passage in Treasure Island, when Ben Gunn is asked what he has done with all the time spent alone and he replies "Dreaming of cheese, mainly toasted", and this poem.  I can identify with both, fully.:

The Land of Counterpane
When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.
Robert Louis Stevenson

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Confined to quarters

Forty nine years and three months.  All that time I could proudly say I had never broken a bone, thanks to including quality dairy rich foods in my diet.

Well that's over.  Last night I slipped in the dark on the way home, and turned my ankle so badly I have fractured it.  Spent most of the evening in A&E, before being sent home with a temporary plaster cast.  That was taken off today, but due to the ligament damage I'd also done, my foot was too swollen to have the proper cast, so I have temporary cast No. 2 on for a week.

Been given crutches which are impossible to use on a slope, so stuck indoors for now.  Actually, stuck upstairs, and the stairs are near impossible to negotiate alone.

Suspect I may do a good impression of Jack Nicholson in The Shining before the six weeks are up.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Seasons Change - All Too Soon

Well, I think we can safely say we've put this Summer to bed.  What little there was of it.  A few stiflingly hot days in August, and then October.  What a let down.

 It all started our so promisingly with such a warm Spring, but by June mild turned to disappointing.

Not a great year on the allotment.  Tomatoes hardly ripened, and the foxes decided to make a playground of our root and allium beds.  We managed to harvest a few decent onions and shallots towards the end of the season, and found a vast seam of garlic cloves (the papery skin meant to enclose them melted by the assorted downpours) which need preserving for us to use them through the year.  Decent potato crop, as there were so few hot & humid days for blight to hit before harvesting time.  I subscribe to Blightwatch message service, and I think there have been less than half a dozen texts since May, when it messages are usally in double figures for the year.  The few tomato plants that flourished had been picked clean before the telltale blotches on the leaves could do any damage.

We had a good year fruit wise.  More apple & pears for a long time, and enough soft fruit to sacrifice a few to curious chickens.  Elly the Welsummer has a thing for anything red, in particular Japanese Wineberries.  She also made light work of the parts of the container grown redcurrants before I moved the pot.  Chunks of sweetcorn or windfall apples are the current favourite seasonal treat.  Katy eating apple has a lovely red skin, so is easy to find in the run.  Egremont Russet skin looks too much like the floor of the run, so often gets lost.

The birds have started moulting, and Elly, being more "fluffy" that the rest, is shedding profusely.  There's a rather large hole in her "frilly knicker" feathers, and every time she shakes or flaps her wings another clump falls off.  No consolation to her, but it all makes great compost.

Worldwide, this has been a traumatic Summer.  Earthquakes that should hopefully make governments think twice about nuclear power, floods, hurricanes, the mine tragedy of the past week, regime change attempts of varying success in North Africa, and the usual multitude of mindless acts of extreme terror.  But one event that put a damper on the whole Summer was much closer to home.

I first met Michel Terstegen some thirty years ago, on a day trip to Amsterdam to see The Jam.  Paul Weller was having one of his "out of it" nights, and the band were nowhere near top form.  Even so, it was a great night.  Brian, my partner through until the end of the eighties, had been in a mod band, and was recognised by various Dutch mods.  Among them was Michel, who was more interested in talking about record collecting and music in general than in Brian's career.  And so began a great friendship.   For the next few years we visited each other on more than an annual basis, and Michel opened our eyes to some incredible music.  Before meeting him, I had no concept of there being a thriving music scene outside the UK & US, with the the few overseas music hits being viewed as flukes.  Within a matter of months of being introduced to the music by him, I was overtaken by e near evangelical fervour for all things "Nederbiet", in particular Q65 and the Outsiders.  Michel played us one particular rare, somewhat shambolic single, and I said I would love a copy.  He found one for me, and hid it from everyone until he brought it to London for me.

I lay credit for my love and fascination with worldwide beat, folk and psychedelia solely at his door.  And I seriously doubt I'm alone in that.

Michel worked in a record shop, and would in time form a band, start a record label, open his own record shop and publish a music magazine.  He built up a vast array of contacts all over the world, and because of his character, it's pretty certain most of those contacts would also count him as a friend.  He made his business a success through his enthusiasm and reasonableness, not through bullying and sharp practice.  He was able to turn something he loved into a career that benefitted many others.

I must admit that over time our lives changed and we saw less of each other.  I met Howard and moved to the outer reaches of London, Michel found work and family life left little time for recreational travel.  In fact, the last time I saw him was on his first trip to London with Saskia, who would in time become the mother of his son and his wife.

Then in April I got a message to say he was seriously ill.  One afternoon in July I arrived home from work to a message that he'd died the previous night.

For someone who set so much of a good example to so many, who was successful on his own terms, had a happy and loving life, to be taken away far too soon, shows what a cruel disease cancer is.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Gardeners always say never - but never mean it

For someone who doesn't "do pink",  I seem to have quite a lot in my garden.

At the start of the year, I have assorted hellebores.  Mostly in my default colours of purple and yellow (as in shed photo), but there are a few that err on the side of rose coloured.

Hardy geraniums started off with the darkest flowered g. phaeum I could find, but now there are white and cerise as well (the latter albeit bought for its near black/purple foliage).  Above all, I have allowed Herb Robert to pop up in gaps as it sees fit.  I forgive the girly pink flowers as they are loved by insects, but equally for the red stemmed foliage.

Not all my Heucheras have white flowers.

Then there are my Hepaticas and Anenomes - mostly white, but some have a pink flush to their petal, as does my new Clematis, not to mention the Erigeron I am coaxing into nooks and crannies in the brick paved area inside the raised beds.

Barring one yellow flowered alpine, all my Sedums are pink flowered, as is the Bergenia that I rescued from the sorry display in the front garden when we moved in and replanted in a more suitable position.

Come late Summer, Echinacea purpurea will join the display, if the Cepholaria (in my more favoured buttermilk shade) hasn't smothered everything by then.

Add to that assorted Thymes, Sage, Turkish Rocket, Betony, Ragged Robin and self sown Aquilegias.

Finally, there are Foxgloves.  Granted, I have a parviflora, but in the main, they are pink.

So, for all my protestations that I won't include the colour pink in any of my planting plans, on reflection it seems to be the most prolific shade.

Maybe if I actively include it in the garden, my favoured shades of cream and purple will actually take over.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Look of a Wet Weekend

Well after the 40 days & nights without rain, the past few days have more than made up.  And to think one evening at the start of the week, we watched two Buzzards wheeling on the thermals over the lake.  Fortunately on Friday, Howard had made lunch for both of us to take in, so I didn't have to venture far from my desk during the thunderstorm and torrential downpour.  Maybe it's the Welsh ancestry, but I am less downhearted than my work colleagues when it rains.  One of them is obsessed with roller skating, and goes into near drama queen mode at the slightest hint of precipitation for fear his ball bearings will rust.

Today, however, the rain did put a damper on plans.  Not practical to undertake the tasks planned for garden or allotment.  But hopefully the plants are drinking it up, and maybe the rain will discourage the foxes from rummaging in my onion bed.  Maybe it will even be heavy enough to drown out the wasp nest that has taken up residence in my straw bale stash.

Not that is stopped the Magpies.  Their favourite trick of old was to rummage in the guttering for things to drop on us as we sat having tea on the deck.  This year's new generation are a particularly delinquent bunch.  They have taken to fishing stuff out of the compost pile and having a picnic on the roof of one of the hen houses.  Not just stuff from our garden either - white bread, pizza crusts, disemboweled tea bags end up there.  Happens to be the hen house where Giggy, our Leghorn resides.  This small white feathery Ninja likes nothing better than to square up to anything passing by, so I would have loved to see her chicken martial art moves during the week.

Too wet to chase the Magpies off.  Instead, we had a domestic day.  Or rather Howard did.  My sciatica decided to come back to haunt me this morning, so I reclined and did research while Howard gave the cupcake maker I'd bought him for Christmas a test drive.  It worked a treat, and we now have a stash of banana muffins tucked away in a tin, plus some extra special ones cooling down.

When I was little, my mother used to bake all sorts of wonderful things.  Family meals may have been predictable, but afternoon tea was always a treat.  One of her special treats was "Home Made Jaffa Cakes".  These were plain fairy cakes with the middle scooped out, filled with jam and sealed up with melted chocolate.  I was miffed to see a well known chef publish a recipe under that title.  Far less homespun than the real thing though.

Anyway, this afternoon, we decided to have a go at our own version.  I approached the cakes with trepidation, and carefully made the first cone shaped incision.  Having removed the lid, I then sliced it so it was flat.  After that, I spooned a small amount of filling into the hollowed out cake - some apricot jam, others with Dulce de Leche.  Then I replaced the lid and covered the tops with melted chocolate, making sure the lid was sealed in place.

A cup of tea is brewing, and the Blue Shed version of Proust's Madelaines moment awaits.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

How Positive Was Your Week? (Mine was - included new cheese discovery)

I'm sitting here listening to the rain, wondering of it will stop for long enough for us to follow our usual Sunday routine - over the allotment for a few hours, plus some garden work (mostly seed sowing).  Truth is, the rain is most welcome, as it will soften the ground to help Howard prepare more beds for planting, and will top up the pond with water that doesn't need to sit to release the chlorine before being added.

Tomorrow sees the start of the first full five day working week for what seems like an age.  Only three weeks for me, but for Howard much longer as he was off sick prior to the Easter break.  Fortunately he's recovered fully from the chest virus, but he's discovered he now has sciatica as well (almost a year to the week since I had the work accident that triggered mine), and his cholesterol levels are slightly elevated.  That last problem has meant he temporarily took the role of food police in the house and out shopping, but having read the ingredients and the processing methods of so called "healthy" spreads, he has decided to stick with butter, use slightly less and up his tomato, apples, and oats intake.  He also uses the bike he brought down from his parents for solo errands in the local area.  We're lucky to have an excellent GP at our surgery, who advised doing everything possible before prescribing pills.  We'll see how things go in a few months.

The last two extended weekends have allowed us to get plenty of time in at the allotment, as well as run a few errands and have "adventures".  The rhubarb bed has finally been extended onto one half of the site of the old compost bins.  We picked a prodigious amount from the existing crowns, and ended up swapping some with another plotholder who had an excess of asparagus!  So over Easter weekend we had asparagus for dinner three days out of four - steamed, griddled and finally as a puree.

The other half of the old composting area (included the site of my old leaf mould bin) has finally been turned into a new raspberry bed.  The old canes I had taken from our previous allotment didn't thrive in the move, so I bought some more this year.  When I was removing some of the canes from the pot I bought them in, a little newt popped out!  I gather it up and placed it in the damp undergrowth in the wood.  Hopefully it will have made its way to the brook or a pond, and maybe return once we have our ponds in place.

Having little interest in staying to two people we don't know personally get married, we spent the day at the allotment.  Howard admitted that like me, he would like to see the flypast, but as we live on their usual route out of London, we could see in from the shed.  Just our luck that this year they flew so low that the were the other side of the woods, below the treeline.  Still, I have the memory of an evening last February when the helicopter carrying Obama flew over our house.

The Friday morning had started in spectacular fashion.  Just before 8am, I was sorting out the hens, when I heard a commotion in the next street.  Unidentified high pitched bird shrieks, and then the cause came into view - a Red Kite, being mobbed by a Carrion Crow and a Ring-Necked Parakeet!  Last year we saw a Buzzard above the garden, high on the thermals, and we've seen Buzzards a few miles away in Cockfosters & Potters Bar.  But the Kite was flying low enough to see its markings, let alone identify it by the tail shape.  It may well have been roosting nearby, and just taken to the air.  Eventually it flew off in the direction of Chase Farm and the M25.  Don't know if it was a one-off, but a couple of days later I saw another Kite low over the M25 between London Colney & the A1.

Kites are a special bird to me.  As a child, my family holidayed mostly in mid-Wales.  I saw Kites in the wild when their population was at its lowest.  One of my classmates' fathers worked for the RSPB, so he knew seeing Red Kites at that time was a big deal.  When we travel "out west", we try to keep count of the number we see on our journey, and we have had to start the counting earlier on each journey.  Let's hope they keep advancing.

Last Saturday we set out on one of our regular jaunts - the first Sarah Raven open day at Perch Hill for this year.  The equivalent even last year was cold & bleak, with very few of the feature plants - tulips - more than in bud.  This year it was warm, brilliant sunshine and the alliums had taken the baton from all but the late flowering tulips.  We were both very taken with a Clematis growing over an arch - Clematis montana "Elizabeth" - pink flushed white flowers, with a gorgeous vanilla/chocolate scent.  Made a note of it for the future, then had an excellent lunch of frittata and mixed salads.  Despite having an excess of eggs at home (total 95 from 4 hens for April), we still plump for a healthy egg dish when dining out.

By now it was too late in the day to make for the coast, so we took a detour to another garden spot nearby - Merriments, an excellent garden centre, with display gardens and a tea room.  Last time we had been there was on the way to Bexhill to see Band Of Horses in February, when there had been storm force winds that kept us under cover.  This time we sat outside to have afternoon tea, before strolling round the plant sales area.  First thing we passed were the Clematis, and I found the variety we admired at Sarah Raven!

May Day proper we were off on another jaunt - to the Grow Your Own show at Loseley House, near Guildford.  A gorgeous setting and a good mix of stalls - some of my favourite seed suppliers (Thomas Etty & Pennard Plants), useful bits of kit, poultry and livestock to admire, and good food.  Our lunch was an Ostrich burger, followed by Losely ice cream.  The exotic burger stand was also selling Kangaroo and Zebra burgers, but I'm not sure how many of them were sold.  As is our habit at country shows such as this, we replenished our sausage stock (having brought a chiller bag with this in mind).  Also sampled, and then splashed out on some gorgeous chocolates, flavoured with fruit and herbs grown or gathered by the maker, plus honey from her own hives.  Howard was allowed to try her "special reserve" - Seville orange zest left over from marmalade making, crystallised and coated in dark chocolate.  He's already counting the days till mid-January so he can have a go himself.

There was a cheese stand, stocking product from local producers, including the makers of my current favourite British cheese, Saint Giles - High Weald Dairy.  Tried their newest addition, Brother Michael, a more pungent version of Saint Giles.  Another top notch cheese - lovely texture and a good kick to it.  Ideal for a restorative nibble after a hard day's commute.

Bank Holiday Monday was spent over the allotment, including me managing to cook a Full English Breakfast (including mug of tea & toast) on a single ring camping stove!  had a mid afternoon nap in the van we'd hired, and on waking spotted the first Swift of the year.  Summer IS a coming in!

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Playing catch-up

Eight o'clock and all's well.

Have spent another Sunday afternoon busy in the potting shed, sowing seeds.  Had to stop because I was running out of space to put the seed trays.

Spring this year was colder than usual to start with, so I held back on sowing, as I don't have anywhere to put heated propagators, let alone a heated greenhouse.  Then, just when I was fretting that I would have to buy in tomato seedlings, the weather warmed up and the frenzy started.

I haven't been quite so organised with my sowing schedule as in previous years.  My seed packet collection wasn't in perfect order, so I had to go with what I could find.  A few of my favourite varieties were missing, so I'm going to have to get new packs and sow them over the next two extended weekends.  Good thing pay day is just before Easter this year.

What with Howard bringing stuff home from Yorkshire, and us deciding to ditch the expense of storage, the house is looking like  a glorified shed at the moment.  Never mind, as a boss many years ago had emblazoned above his desk - Tomorrow, we are going to get organised.

Despite this chaos, I have managed to sow 18 varieties of tomato for starters.  Because of the late start, I focused on tomatoes and their relatives for the first few sessions.  Having splashed out on a small polytunnel for the allotment last pay day, I'm hoping that we will get a decent crop and can preserve some. Home made pasta sauce is one of Howard's targets for this growing season.

One of my plans is to make my own coffee substitute.  I can't drink much coffee anymore.  Not because of the caffeine content - I find it too acidic nowadays.  So I have been using a coffee substitute, Barleycup.  I really like it, and have been getting through shocking amounts of the stuff.  With the rise in grain prices, the price of a jar of Barleycup has rocketed.  Getting through a jar in less than two weeks, and not being able to locate catering sized versions, I decided to look for an alternative.

Plants For A Future lists multiple plants as suitable coffee substitutes.  This may mean that they taste bitter and a little muddy, but they won't kill you.  I'm going to concentrate on a plant that is a known palatable coffee substitute, which has other valuable uses - chicory.  The leaves make a good salad crop during the Summer, then the plants can be "forced" for use during the Winter.  The roots are cleaned, dry roasted and ground to make the "coffee".  Also,  the blue flowers are worthy of growing in a border, and are much loved by bees.  Finally, my chickens love a chicory leaf or four as a treat.

So it's a good multi-purpose crop.  Looking forward to the three different harvest parts of the experiment.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Recycling - slight return

Even on my way home from work, I'm on the look out for items to rescue and re-use.  My walk from the hospital to Kings Cross station is along a busy road, and as commercial waste is often not recycled but sent to landfill, regardless of its usefulness, I am not embarrassed by getting my trusty string bag out, sticking my head round the door of a shop of restaurant to get permission and gathering stuff to take home for a further productive life.

The blue plastic trays that are used to deliver salad leaves and mushrooms to sandwich bars and restaurants are a prime example of what can be claimed.  As they stack, they are easy to store and use as storage.  Being perforated, they make great seed trays, especially when lined with a couple of sheets of newspaper.  The card egg trays I rescued from the work canteen last year still act as backup storage to my Eggskelter.

But sometimes, however much you want to, however perfect the item is for a project you have in mind, you have to walk by and let it go to waste.  Such was the gem I let go tonight.   There's a photography studio on the Gray's Inn Road, which I think is undergoing refurbishment.  Outside their door, ready for the refuse collection, were several sheets of perspex.  All seemed to be in near perfect condition, and I could have given them a second life as shed windows and cold frames, and possibly other things I have yet to imagine.  But the building was closed, and the sheets were in all honesty to big and unwieldy for me to carry up the road, down the escalator on onto a crowded tube train.  So I had to walk by, sad that I couldn't use them for something productive, and equally sad that no-one in the building had the forethought to keep them for another time.

Just have to keep looking.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Reconnoitre, Request, Rescue, Reimagine, Reuse - Revel in Recycling

Just down the road from where we used to live,  a family bought a Leonburger puppy called Oscar.  When I saw him in the street, he was always pleased to see me.  Being a Leonburger, he grew and grew, remaining as friendly as when a puppy, which could be alarming to his owners when he cleared a 3 foot hedge to say hello to me one day.

Anyway, Oscar's owners decided that he needed more room in the house, so they took up their old patio and built a conservatory for muddy days.  The paving slabs went in a skip, and we asked if we could re-use them at the allotment.  The owners agreed, so we took several wheelbarrow loads of paving slabs down the road to our allotment.  We used them as paths between beds and they served us so well that when we moved we took all the paving with us.  Some of it now forms a path in our new garden, with the rest stored at the allotment.  This weekend we finally put them to use, creating a paved "apron" around our shed.

A few doors further down from Oscar, a family decided to knock through the wall between their downstairs reception rooms.  As we knew them to say hello to as well, we asked if we could take some of the bricks to re-use.  They too were happy to let us.  Another house was remodelling their kitchen and allowed us to rescue a Belfast sink, in perfect condition which was skip-bound but for us.  That now sits in our tiny front garden, hiding the base of the clematis, planted with achillea and Verbena bonariensis.

Over the past few days, some of the bricks have found another new use.  Inspired by the Brick Garden in the lovely Carol Klein tv series Life In A Cottage Garden, we have turned them into paving in between the raised beds at the top of the garden.   (Just below the deck made from boards their owner let us rescue from their skip!)  The soil in the garden is a mix of builders' rubble and clay subsoil, so a whisper of rain can turn it into a Somme like glop.  It's no fun hanging out the washing and slipping about, dropping half the clean stuff in the mud.  We had tried using layers of woodchip, but that eventually rots down and gets just as slippy.  So we perforated the soil, laid a thick layer of sand, then a weed membrane before laying sand for the bricks to sit on.  A few gaps have been left, and a few engineering bricks used, which will be planted with thyme, chamomile, sempervivums and a few other low-growing fragrant plants.  We've just laid the bricks into sand, so we can move them around if we change out mind, and take them with us should we move house.

A few more bricks have been put to use for a less decorative purpose.  Elly the Welly, our once nervous but now exceedingly bumptious Welsummer hen, has taken to digging under the edge of her run, to the point where she can poke her head out the other side.  Much as I would love all my girls to be able to free range, it can't be done, as we're both away from the house 10 hours a day, and we have foxes close by.  So I've been wedging bricks into the gaps she's made, in the hope that she will be discouraged, or at least slow her tunnelling.  Earlier this week, we also saw her catch, kill and eat a mouse.  Sheba the cat also saw this event, from the safe vantage point of the shed roof, clearly horrified that the monsters had discovered her mouse vending machine (the hedge by the fence).

We took this past week off as leave with the view to getting started on all the essential Spring garden tasks - seed sowing, final pruning, clearing, digging and bed making.  Because of the weather we didn't really get that far, but the sunny hours this weekend have seen us complete tasks that provide a link with past gardens and put us on a literally firmer footing to get on with things over the next few weeks.

However frugal you are, you have to spend some money on gardening materials now & then.  I've just had to buy a new bag of vermiculite, and was horrified by the price rise.  So when we see items we can see a use for, we ask nicely, emphasising that we will be reusing in a non-profit way, and pointing out that by freeing up space, they may not need to spend money on an extra skip.  You get just as much, if not more, operating this way than by furtively skip-diving under cover of darkness.

As mentioned,  I was at a local garden centre today.  We decided against Crews Hill (what Las Vegas is to casinos, Crews Hill strip is to garden centres)  as we suspected it would be manic, instead heading to one tucked away next to the M25.  As we were loading up the van, we noticed two Buzzards wheeling in the sky.  I'd seen this earlier in the week, north of Ware, but was surprised to see them so close to the urban sprawl of North London.  My old college, Capel Manor, has a motto - "where the city meets the coutryside".  Seems like that is coming true two junctions west on the M25.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Building up to Spring

Over the past few days, the new moon has been turning from a sliver of pristine fingernail moon into the cheesy grin of a quarter moon.  A week from now will see a ful moon that reportedly will be the biggest and closest to Earth for almost two decades.  Then it will be the Equinox and Spring will have finally arrived.

There have been assorted hints of the change of season all through February, interspersed by days when Winter's grip was tightened.  But the past few days that grip has relented and the first blossoms on the flowering cherries have emerged and the hazel catkins are giving way to the first leaves.  Of course, with the events of yesterday, the sight of cherry blossom is even more evocative of Japan than most years, prompting thoughts and wishes for recovery from yet more unimaginable devastation.

The most definite hint that Spring was close came from views out of my back window.  There's a Magpie nest in a nearby tree.  As with every year, the Winter storms took their toll on the construction, leaving only a few inches at the base of the nest.  Bot over the past 10 days or so, the pair of Magpies have been flying to & fro with assorted twigs, until the nest resembled a three foot high approximation of Amy Winehouse's beehive at her most caned.

Never the neatest or prettiest nest, it's clearly secure and desirable to other members of the crow family.  The resident pair have been repelling magpies, jays and carrion crows, all intent of squatting.  Right now, it looks as if the birds have finished building and have started sitting.

I managed to tick a huge gap in my birdwatching list last Thursday morning, while I was waiting for the bus to the station.  I noticed a bird in the tree opposite the bus stop, a slightly deeper shade of pinky brown to a Jay.  It turned slightly to reveal a crest, and I realised that at last I was watching a Waxwing.  I then realised the tree was full of them - upwards of 20!  A car drove past and they took flight, and I was able to catch sight of the flashes of red and yellow on their wings.

All this Winter I've been on the looking for Waxwings with renewed intent, making a point to look out for them in car parks planted with the berry bearing shrubs they feed on.  And when I thought the season was over, and I stopped looking, they appeared, almost on my doorstep.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

The Joy of Spuds - & Stationery

Of late, there have been several days with a definite spring-like feel to them.  And much like Mole in Wind In The Willows, I do feel a sudden need to "get things done".  Though not so much housework, more likely busying myself with garden tasks.
This post is partly inspired by a post on the Down to Earth blog- “Are You Growing Food This Year?”.  Obviously the situation in Australia is far more extreme than anyone would wish to face, but worth taking into account, as the main market garden areas were hit by the flooding, and the impact will be long term.  We may have only a few days of icy weather, but road transport was sufficiently disrupted to leave shop supplies running low.  With recent fuel price rises, my mind goes back to the fuel blockades of 2000.  Best to stock up now and be prepared ahead of any shortages.
Now that the garden is showing signs of life again, I’m gearing up for my mad marathon seed sowing sessions in the potting shed.  This also means I’m having to retrieve the bog roll inners from the recycling bag and hide them away before Howard notices and puts them back.  He doesn’t mind me using them, it’s just that we haven’t decided on an appropriate storage place for them.
I’m also scavenging the blue plastic trays that restaurants and sandwich bars get their salad leaves delivered in.  I carry a spare shopping bag with me on the off chance of more of these very useful items that are needlessly chucked out by the unknowing.  They make great stacking trays for transporting module trays of seedlings to the allotment later in the year, in the autumn for storing onions and apples, but right now I’m after them to chit my seed potatoes in.
Five weeks from now, I’m taking my traditional mid-March holiday, and the frenzy really starts.  I started getting into the habit of taking time off for the Cheltenham Festival years ago, when I worked somewhere that everyone booked leave in the summer, forcing me to take my holidays at less popular times of year.  The way it goes now is that I’ll spend the morning in the garden seed sowing , then in the afternoon sit in front of the TV watching the racing and writing up my sowing records.  Even now, I’m looking at the calendar, working out how many allotment days we have available before I need to plant the First Early potatoes.
For the past 10 years I’ve aimed to have the first batch of potatoes in the ground on the Sunday after the Cheltenham Gold Cup.  I have vivid memories of 2003, when that weekend coincided with the anti-Iraq War protests in London .  I fully expected the rest of the world to place trade sanctions on the UK , so planted extra batches to see us through.  Last year we missed the usual target date, but the weather being so grim at the time, it wasn’t such a bad idea, especially as the ground became so sodden that the water table rose above ground level in certain patches.  One of those patches being where the spud bed was being prepared.  

This year, the last weekend of March will see the mass rally against public service cuts.  These cuts will plunge the most vulnerable into even more dire circumstances, many others will lose jobs and essential services, and the gap between rich and poor with become unbreachable for a generation.   This country was at its strongest and healthiest in the wake of WWII, in the wake of universal free secondary education, building of decent social housing, widening of welfare provisions and the creation of the National Health Service.  These served as a shining example of how a government should serve its electorate, by putting the country on a sound footing to build a new economy.  This latest shower are hell bent on selling what they can, and ensuring any dissenters are weakened, with avenues for redress closed.

Let's hope that the backpedalling over Natures Reserves and Forests can provide hope that a good fight by the majority can save the national asset that set an example worldwide.
Anyway, back to spuddage.  Eventually, all the seed potatoes were planted in sequence, and with near enough the usual gaps in time between varieties.  As the old gardeners’ reassurance goes, they all did catch up, and we had a decent crop, only losing a few Second Earlies to blight.
For several years, I grew the same varieties – Rocket, then Kestrel, Desiree and finally Pink Fir Apple.  But recently, I’ve experimented with First and Second Earlies.  On the whole I prefer waxy textured potatoes, but when I can locate them, I love Shetland Black.  One of the tastiest, but also so floury that they are best cooked whole.  For the past couple of years I’ve favoured Red Duke of York over Rocket, and after an unexpected blight wipeout, I now grow Yukon Gold instead of Kestrel.
So that’s the planting plan for the first phase of my rotation planting plan sorted.  I use a six year rotation, on account of the way our first allotment was laid out.  When we started with the current allotment, I kept to the same plan.  Funnily enough, when I was doing my Organic Horticulture course at Capel Manor college, one of the first assignments our tutor set us was to devise a 6 year rotation and planting plan.  As I already had one worked out, I tweaked and expanded what I already used.
It goes like this:
Year 1 – Potatoes, followed by celery and overwintering onions, garlic & shallots
Year 2 – Root vegetables, plus spinach and / or chard
Year 3 – Three Sisters crop – legumes (peas & beans), squash family & corn
Year 4 – Brassicas
Year 5 – The rest of the Nightshade family – outdoor hardy tomatoes, peppers, aubergines etc.  Grown distant from the potatoes to lessen the chance of spreading blight to each other.
Year 6 – Anything else – mostly salad leaves, but also takes in sweet potatoes, okra and artichokes if grown as an annual.
With two extra beds for fruit and perennials, this system has worked for us for nearly 10 years. 
The new plot is an awkward shape – a lopped off triangle, so planning the layout has not been as straightforward as with a conventional shaped allotment.  Once I had taken as accurate two dimensional measurements as possible on a plot that slopes diagonally and dips in the middle, I marked these out on my special tool – squared paper, and worked out a rough layout.  I think I've said before that to be honest, I'm no good at art.  I have professed an inability to draw a straight line with a ruler.  Howard is the artist, but leaves garden planning to me, offering words of praise and encouragement, as I labour with graph paper, propelling pencils and erasers.
When I’m happy with the layout, I start colour coding the beds to show at a glance what will be planted there.  I may be no good at art, but I can draw up a decent plan or sketch map.  And I have an almighty stash of pens, paper and allsorts with which to do so!
Once beds have been prepared and planted, I draw up a plan of each bed on squared paper, so I know what plant is where year by year.  It also allows me to have a fair idea of what should appear in the rows that the local Magpies have stolen the labels for.
I have to confess to being a tad nerdy when it comes to plant labels.  I have a huge stash in various colours, each colour to be used for one type of plant.  I have a set layout when writing up labels – plant and variety on the front and date on the back so the date can be crossed out and the label reused.  Also serves as a good way of comparing from year to year.  And woe betide anyone who misplaces or damages my ultra-fine permanent markers!
All that remains is for us to translate those plans into plants!

Monday, 7 February 2011

A Weekend Less Ordinary (Flocks of starlings and a Band of Horses)

"A Holiday, A Holiday, the first one of the year"

Well, the first long weekend since New Year anyway.

Friday started like most days, with me shouting at a computer for being slow.  But instead of the usual info loading onto a database, it was me trying to book Fleet Foxes tickets.  Just my luck that the only UK show announced so far sold out in seven minutes.  Fortunately, a second show was added and we have tickets for that.

Now I don't get out as much as in the days of wild old Camden Town, so dragging myself out to see a band now is a Big Deal.  Friday was the biggest deal possible - the exquisite Band of Horses playing the De La Warr Pavillion in Bexhill-on-Sea.  I could have gone to see them in Brixton the night before, but getting south of the River and back on a work night was logistically draining.  Anyway, the prospect of a drive out to see a band I love at a building I admire was way too tempting.

The journey down was far better than it could have been.  The weather was unpromising - showers and high winds, and the prospect of getting caught in roadworks on the M25 was ever present.  But we got lucky.  There was in fact an accident on the M25 near a junction in the section where widening work is taking place, but we had driven down the through traffic lane and sailed past several miles of stationary traffic, mostly made up of lorry drivers on tight schedules to meet up with ferries, a few families starting their picnics early, and what looked like a troupe of acrobats, dressed in yellow blond wigs and sequins.

Left the motorway and continued down the A21, a regular route for us.  Stopped for lunch at Merriments, though weather prevented a stroll round the garden.  Instead concentrated on tea & cakes and the contents of the garden centre.  Stocked up on onion & shallot sets, purple asparagus crowns (for which I have a plan involving an Ikea carrier bag and the rakings from the hens' runs), a Mahonia and some dahlia tubers.  Maybe this year the slugs won't beat me.

Drove on through the Sussex woodlands, with Fleet Foxes as our soundtrack - a perfect combination.  We reached Bexhill around 5pm, just as everything was closing up.  High winds and construction work prevented a walk along the sea front, so we walked up the high street in search of life and a place for dinner.  As it was now dusk, a huge flock a starlings was wheeling around, forming breathtaking shapes and patterns - imploding ovals and rollercoasters above the charity shops.  When I was a child, this was a commonplace sight in every town.  They used to wheel around above the railway arches before roosting on South Harrow gas holder.  But now it's so scarce it is treated as something on a par with the herds of the Serengeti or the like.  In truth, it probably is, but to most people they're just screechy scruffy Starlings, not wild formation flying acrobats with sequinned feathers.

Scoured the street for suitable dinner venues.  Tonight wasn't the weather for fish & chips on the sea front, and there were several other "possibles" that didn't fit the bill.  The we happened upon a clean, unpretentious Italian restaurant, which seemed just right.  As we settled down to our meal, it was apparent we weren't the only people with the same idea - the place rapidly filled up, mostly with slightly unconventional fortysomethings starting a night out.  My suspicions were confirmed when we entered the venue, and I noticed quite a few fellow diners. We got chatting to one couple, who were in fact fairly local, and proud that the De La Warr was once again fulfilling its purpose as a quality leisure venue for all the people of Bexhill.

Support act, Goldheart Assembly, were pretty good.   Extra marks for using an autoharp on a song or two, though the singer played it flat like a keyboard rather than haring around the stage clasping it, Zal Yanovsky style.  Not so sure about the oil can as drum set up though.

I'd been wanting to see Band of Horses for a few years, but never quite managed to.  This was in fact the first time we'd been to see a band for a couple of years.  I was diagnosed with a mild form of epilepsy some years ago, and flashing lights can cause me to lose my balance at inopportune moments.  But I've resolved to stop dwelling on that and make the most of my remaining middle youth.  From the look of the audience, that was true of much of the crowd, plus the more discerning youth of the Bexhill and Hastings hinterland.  I managed to get fairly near the front, and with this not being a crowd for wild dancing (more like swaying gently and singing along), I got to keep a decent spot the whole night.

The band were excellent, as would be expected.  There's a warmth to them that is often a stranger to band dynamics, and it spills out to the audience.  You get the impression that they're sharing as much as performing their music.

It's hard to single out anything in the main set - all was wonderful, but the encore started with a very special moment - Evening Kitchen.  Just singer Ben Bridwell and guitarist Tyler Ramsey and an acoustic guitar.  Tyler Ramsey is tall & lanky, Ben Bridwell small & wiry - singing into the same mike must be something they've done countless times over the years, but still can't be easy.  At one point Ben stepped away from the mike but continued singing.  The hall was so quiet that he could still be heard perfectly.  It was as if time had stopped for the duration of the song - a moment that summed up a special night.

We drove home, the same route we'd taken down, now near deserted.  We kept and eye out for deer and badgers, but no sightings and we were home before 1am.

Saturday and Sunday were back to the usual routine - getting chicken and garden supplies, then to the allotment, but I felt more positive about things.  All helped by the news that Howard's mum seems to have made a slight improvement - he was able to talk to her on the phone.  Still a long way to go, but a start.

Also, my Welsummer hen has started laying, and in a matter of a week or two has gone from a nervous bird who picked at her food to a fine healthy bird, hell bent on tunnelling out of her run!

Sunday was the first chance I'd had to get over the allotment since the New Year.  That day we'd been confronted by the disappointment of a stray act of vandalism - our shed window broken, and the cloches over my winter crops flattened.  This Sunday, whilst not the most industrious, made up for it.

The sheer abundance of life at the allotment showed that the wheel was turning towards Spring.  I saw most of the usual birds that populate the site, including countless woodpeckers, both Green and Great Spotted.  I even saw ladybirds and a honey bee.  A heron flew over, diverted from its planned course by the high winds, and I even saw a Little Egret fly low overhead.  When you consider this was a species that not long ago was a twitcher's dream on the south coast in the Summer, and this was one which must have spent the winter near London, it shows how the climate must be changing.

Well, it's Monday and I've been at work all day, so back to normal.  But I 'm already counting the hours until this weekend, counting the days until our next trip out of town, and counting the weeks until the start of the many events of this spring and summer.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

It's been emotional (and it's going to stay that way for a while)

Difficult week or so here.  Aside of the everyday work based idiocies, and the destruction of a fair society in favour of a class based have and have not structure by the Tory dictatorship, life hasn't been too wonderful.

My journey to and from work is blighted by poor scheduling and communication most days, but of late, passengers have had to look out in despair at the wanton destruction of the mature trees and the understorey that flank the railway line towards Alexandra Palace.  Network Rail has been claiming it is for safety reasons, but the fact that embankments have been flattened and access from roads has been created telegraphs their plans to sell of what they can for development.  Know bat roosts have been destroyed, trees that owls nested in for years have been chopped down, shrub layers that provided shelter for mammals and nest sites for countless birds and insects have been stripped down to bare earth.  No warning, no consultation, and yet they wonder why local residents complain.  Management clearly haven't done their research.  Destroying trees and other woody plants will leave atrophying roots, which create space in the soil as they shrink.  Come the rain, these spaces will fill with water, and when the ground in waterlogged, landslips can occur.  We don't want to see lifeless walls and gabions as we sit at signals, we want to see wild flowers, trees, birds, butterflies and the occasional sleepy fox.  And we certainly don't want to see yet another sterile building site, blocking out the light.

The transport companies take enough of our money, either directly through fares, or indirectly through tax subsidies and kickbacks.  We should all write to them, asking if they could compensate us for the horror of their vandalism by buying us our own patch of woodland, to maintain for wildlife in spite of them.  In the meantime, if you know the address of a rail manager, or live near rail office, gather up some roadkill, or some fallen branches, and leave it on their doorstep.

Even closer to home, things have been difficult too.  We got a call to let us know that Howard's mum was in hospital, so he arranged time off from work and travelled up.  His mum is in a pretty bad way, and the hospital say they're instigating a "managed decline".  Sad fact is that it looks like she's given up too.  Howard's dad isn't in the best of shape, so he's had to arrange for care for him as well.  Hard work, especially as his dad is convinced that his wife will wake up and walk out of the hospital to make his tea, and similarly in denial as to his ability to look after himself.

After a week of running here & there, meeting various organisations to get care in place while it still exists, Howard is back home, exhausted.  He knows he needs to be ready to travel up at short notice, and is fully aware that more unhappy arrangements will need to be made.

What has been annoying about this is that neither of his siblings have bothered to travel up, including a sister who lives much closer and has no work or care commitments.  What he has been able to do has been appreciated by other members of the family, but it goes to show that people are all take and no give.

In his absence, I've had to take on all the house and garden routines, including getting the chickens ready before going to work every day.  So I've been out in the garden before daybreak, torch in hand, putting feeders and drinkers in place, often with the assistance of a cat shaped hurdle.  (Sheba took advantage of the extra bed space to stretch out on Howard's half, and however glad she was to see him, she wasn't happy about just having the bottom corner again on Friday).

Outside, there are signs of impending Spring amid the Winter cold.  The hens are back in lay, and Elly, the young Welsummer is maturing rapidly.  She "crouches" and spreads her wings every time I say hello, so I've added and nest box to her coop in readiness.  Having lost her original companion, Twinkle, in the Autumn, I'm going to look into getting her a couple of youngsters for company in the next few weeks.

In terms of wildlife, the foxes seem to have quietened down, including the vixen who spent several nights screeching her late night "come hither boys" at the front of the house.  One night it carried on until nearly 5am, at which point I got up and put the kettle on.  The Great Spotted Woodpeckers are more active - I heard the first "drumming" last Tuesday, and a Green Woodpecker "laugh" midweek too.  My Snowdrops are finally starting to bloom, and many of my other bulbs are breaching the surface.  I'm fully  aware that the next week or so are often the coldest of the year, but with Imbolc this Wednesday, and a New Moon, another cog in the wheel clicks over and the hope of a good Spring gets closer.

Then on Friday we're off to Bexhill to see Band of Horses at the De La Warr Pavillion.  Beautiful music in a beautiful building - should put me in the right frame of mind to deal with whatever life throws at me thereafter.  And it will give me an excuse to hide from the worries of Wales v England in the Six Nations.  Oh how I would love to see England winning a trophy - as long as it's the Wooden Spoon!

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Come and say hello

I was checking the postings on the various blogs I followed, and I idly clicked on the link to stats for my blog.  Seems like you like me best when I write about cheese!
When I looked at the info for audience, I was amazed at the numbers of countries I’ve had views from.  Places I can’t imagine having anything in common with me, and I wouldn’t in my wildest dreams imagine being able to visit.
So for those of you in Chile, South Korea, Slovenia, China – in fact, everywhere – leave a message to let me know how you came to read the blog, what you do, what you have in common, and any ideas you think I’d like to explore.
Two key actions we can take to help ourselves and other are communicating and sharing, be it objects, ideas, or information.  So leave a message, join in and keep in touch!

Monday, 10 January 2011

Goal 1 - Re-embrace creativity

So instead of grandiose New Year's resolutions, in the darkness of Solstice Night, I scribbled down a list of goals to work towards.

First one to leap from my pen was make an effort to be creative.  Vague enough to mean what I want it to, and as previously stated, something I can gradually work towards.  I now make sure I have a notebook and pen close by at all times.  So when I'm sitting on the train, musing on bringing down the Daily Mail and the government in one fell swoop, I can distract myself by deciding what varieties of potato to grow this year.  Or if in the evening I'm sitting watching TV, even of the only decent thing on is something from two years ago, repeated on Dave, I can sit with a pad of squared paper, working of different combinations of raised beds for the uncultivated part of the allotment.

I often have weird dreams.  Really odd ones, not always involving me.  But with the amount of cheese I eat I guess that doesn't come as a shock.  So I've started writing down the ones that don't revolve around me going shopping in my jim jams.

Speaking of cheese, finally got round to making some more soft cheese.  Our local supermarket has something of a reputation for reduced items, and Howard popped in the other night for a few essentials, and noticed cartons of goat's milk for less than half price.  Over the weekend I turned it into soft cheese, using live yoghurt as the cheese starter.  Some will be used at breakfast tomorrow, I'll take some in to work for my colleagues to try, and the rest will become a pasta sauce, along with spinach, salmon and maybe some peas.

Next plan involves me finding my tin of blackboard paint.....

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Just another day

I have to confess, I have come to hate the enforced "celebration" of New Year.  There's something about an arbitary cut-off point that begs me to rebel against it for starters.  The buying of supplies as if there was an impending rerun of the Siege of Leningrad  is so unnecessary too (though the amount of alcohol being carted out of Southgate branch of Asda would hint at mass production of Molotov cocktails).  Not taking part in this scrum, but still getting stuck in the traffic was even more frustrating.

So we reached home, shut the door and hunkered down for the night.  I was even asleep before midnight, though I was woken up by the volley of fireworks as the clock struck 12.  Didn't even bother looking out of the window at them.  I am firework phobic (with scars to justify it), but I think what forced me into a state of utter disinterest was the cavalier expenditure when those that need money are sliding into destitution.

The next few years are going to be hard, as this unwanted government punishes those who sport any shade of otherness to theirs.  From here on in, I will do my utmost to ensure that where possible my money goes towards making me less and less dependent on major corporations. 

We still need to be fed, shod & clothed, and until I have access to enough land to grow more crops and raise livestock, I will still have to use supermarkets for some basics.  Never likely to grow enough tea for us, so total un-dependence is out of the question there.  Sewing and knitting skills are still lacking, but aside of work I stick to jeans & plain tops most of the time.  Same with footwear - boots, 7 days a week, given half a chance.

Until such a time that I am confident enough to make my own, I will repair what I can myself, and pay to have mended what I can't manage.  My favourite brown boots, for instance, are on their third set of soles.  They're a bit lived in, but they fit my life.

Last year I spent several months in pain due to a back injury.  It took a while, but thanks to physiotherapy and planned exercise I now feel much more mobile than I have for years.  I need to stay that way - the poor and the sick will soon be on the receiving end of government cuts and I don't want to be caught up in that.  So regaining as near to full health as possible is another priority.

Looking back at the numbers of posts I've made this year compared to previously, I realised how much I've been slacking.  No more just good intentions - I need to take time to be creative.  I've spend too many nights just sitting down moaning and vegetating.  I need to make an effort to put pen or brush to paper, make useful or fun things.  Stop feeling like I've done nothing for hours.  I don't really have any artistic ability, but there are a few craft projects I'd like to tackle.  I know I'm good at making a mess, so that's a start.

I need to be better at growing my own food.  Yet again the summer ran out before all my crops were ready, but we're OK for some things, and the new back garden beds will give us a start in Spring.  Tomorrow we hit the allotment for the first time since the snow.  Hopefully it's not under water.  If it is, I'll just have to get enough gravel to make a drainage ditch at the bottom and build sturdier raised beds.

Are these New Year's resolutions?

Nothing of the sort.  These are decisions I made on the night of the midwinter Solstice.  I resolved that from the following morning I would make gradual changes, and review and add to them at key points of the year.

Gradual change is far better and easier than sudden shocks to the system.  I've cut down to three biscuits instead of four with each cup of tea.  Cutting back to one immediately would be too extreme.  And with the size of my usual teacup, totally miserly.

Onwards and ever so slightly upwards.