Saturday, 21 July 2012

We won't See It's Like Again

OK, so a week away from the Olympics.

Normally, I would be looking forward to it unreservedly, but if you live and work in London, you are in no doubt that this event is being put on AT OUR EXPENSE.  Granted, assorted poison manufacturers (be they so-called edibles, nuclear power junkie energy suppliers or out in the open toxic chemical vendors) and sweat shop exploiters are "sponsoring" the games, the vast majority of the funding is via our taxes.

More than a week to go and there was evidence the transport system had the clear potential for meltdown.  I am lucky in that my journey between home and work can be by suburban overground or tube.  I suspect that for the foreseeable future I will have to rely on the latter.  My two journeys by tube this week had me witnessing three near miss accidents involving tourists unable to work out what the direction signs pointed to, overly large trolley cases and packed escalators.  We've had weeks of patronising messages asking us not to expect to be able to use the transport system that as season ticket holders we've paid up front for, but to walk to work.  Yeah - 12 miles up and down hill, and be fit and well enough to put in a day's work?

Oh - and all the security guards at Kings Cross station have been transferred to Stratford.  Retailers are already resigned to a shoplifting epidemic over the next few weeks.

And word has gone round work that we're expected to arrive on time, or early, not take any leave (unless already approved, like the month my manager has taken), and not be sick without a certificate - even for half a day.

Yet authorities chastise anyone who shows anything other than blind enthusiasm.

Ho bleedin' hum.

I have no doubt it will be a great sporting event, and that there will be phenomenal performances, but how it will follow what has come to pass this weekend is questionable.  Bradley Wiggins - avowedly clean triple Olympic champion cyclist and mod.  And now winner of the Tour de France.  To have held the yellow jersey for so long takes an unimaginable mix of strength, stamina, speed and tenacity takes some doing.  To put it in perspective - Howard cycles a ridiculous distance to work each day, but the total for the week is the same as the distance of most daily stages.  No, Wiggins deserves the plaudits.  One definition of being a mod is "Clean living in difficult circumstances".  What more needs to be said?

Although it didn't impinge on my life to such an extent, I felt underwhelmed by Jubilee fever too.  I started to weekend by doing exactly what the Queen did.  Though I watched the Derby in the comfort of my room, dressed in my gardening gear as opposed to being at Epsom all dressed up.  The weather, of course, played its part on putting a damper on the mood, and the one thing I looked forward to - the flypast - was cancelled due to low cloud.  That said, we did have a mad dash round North London and Hertfordshire, trying to see the Jubilee Beacons.  Not a flicker.  In 1977, I was able to see the Harrow-on-the-Hill beacon from the front of our house, and the Windsor Castle beacon was an orange dot in the distance from the back window.  I felt let down.

I confess to buying one Jubilee souvenir - a tasteful shortbread tin from Marks & Spencers.  But then I like biscuits, and it was made sense to have something better than half a packet rattling round the desk draw.

Of course later in June was a royal event I had more time for - Ascot week.  Some great racing, but the fireworks of the last day - the arrival of the unbeaten Australian sprinter Black Caviar - were more of a flicker than an explosion.  Whether she did perform well despite injury, or she is in fact just on a par with some good European horses, we will never know.  But in all honesty, the search for the highlight of the week was over before it had really started.  Frankel - superb as ever, took the first race by a distance, and everything else was the aftermath.

Next Friday is my birthday.  It is also the opening ceremony.  I may watch some of it, we may drive up to the Ridgeway to see the fireworks, I'll see what mood I'm in on the day.  On Wednesday, the torch relay passes nearby, curtailing both bus routes I need to get home, so I've booked a half day rather than get stranded at a crowded bus stand the wrong side of a roadblock.

I do feel I should be swept up in a wave of enthusiasm, because the Jubilee and Olympics are unlikely to happen again in my lifetime.  But as Howard often says, there a few things more depressing than "organised" fun.  Am I the only one who feels imposed upon?

That said, yes, I look forward to some great sport.  I hope I can celebrate medals for the likes of Wiggins, Greene, Murray, Tweddle and the British Dressage team.  I hope a few arrogant bubbles get burst, and hope above hope that a certain elected buffoon of a mayor is forced to keep a low profile and not embarrass the city I live in more than absolutely necessary.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Catching up - again

The Sunday evening ritual once again.  Long soak in the bath while dinner cooks, then checking the weather forecast for the week to decide what clothes I'll need to have ready.  Looks like rain for most of the week after tomorrow, so nothing that will suffer if the hems get soggy.  Hang a few pairs of trousers in the bathroom to take advantage of the steam to loosen any creases, and don't drain the bath, as the water will be reused to soak some seed trays overnight.

Have had a busy weekend in the garden, catching up on the seed sowing.  The showers this afternoon provided a few natural breaks in the proceedings, but I'm getting happier with my progress.  Hopefully 24 different varieties of tomatoes will provide for our varying needs, from salads to sauces.  Because of the cold spell over the past couple of weeks, things have been slow to germinate, but hopefully there will be enough to plant at the allotment as we get the beds ready.

The allotment is undergoing a total revamp, restarting most of the raised beds after our miserable year in 2011.

At the end of March, we went to the Grow Your Own day at RHS Wisley, and attended a talk by no-dig vegetable growing expert Charles Dowding.  This was on one of the last warm days of March, and we'd been walkling round the gardens prior to sitting down in a sill, quiet, darkened room for the illustrated talk.  I tried hard to pay attention - I wanted to take in the information.  I made notes, I concentrated as best I could, but even so I nodded off a couple of times.  Fortunately, Howard drifted at different points in the lecture, so we were able to garner enough knowledge to tackle to couch grass plantation with renewed vigour over the Easter break.

We knuckled down to clearing the beds, starting with the one in need of planting first - the potato bed.  When the rain eventually arrived, we retreated to the shed and resolved to get that sorted for the year as well.  First thing we did was purchase some new pans for the camping stove.  Up to now we'd been using a couple of aluminium camping mess tins, but I wanted something a little better.  Ironically, the answer was found in Ikea (a set of three steel saucepans) for less that the cost of the old mess tins.  Next move - curtains for the window.

The council are starting flood prevention works in the park next to the allotments, to hold back the brook when it bursts its banks.  If all goes to plan, it should mean less flooding on the plots, but the neighbouring golf club is up in arms as the lower reaches of their course will become a temporary lake during deluges.  Boo bleedin' hoo, I say.  I know the area of the course this involves, and I've never seen anyone using it.  The one downside of the flood works is that one of the best Blackthorn bushes will disappear under an embankment.  But I'm sure that are plenty of others nearby that will survive and we'll still look forward to gathering Sloe berries in the Autumn to enjoy in gin for the rest of the year.

The little raised beds in the garden have started to yield a decent amount of salad leaves for our lunches, and I pulled a huge amount of rhubarb last weekend.  This has been turned into a chunky compote, which in turn has become crumble for dinner, and added to yoghurt, a welcome addition to weekday breakfasts.

The hens are now laying regularly, and we're starting to share the eggs with neighbours again.  The Ramsons in the back garden and growing nicely, and I've found loads of seedlings which I plan to transplant and maybe share.

Yes - everything in starting the grow again, and so far I'm just about keeping pace.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Back on my own two feet again.

So as of tomorrow, life goes back completely to normal.  I need to be at my desk, logged in and ready, at 9am, so when the first alarm goes off at 5.30am, I need to hit the light switch rather than the snooze button. I will be leaving work at 5.30pm instead of 4, which means travelling at the peak of the rush hour and not getting home until almost 7pm.

That is what I'm dreading most.  I'm sticking to using bus and tube for the moment rather than risking using the staircase at our local overground station.  In the morning that works out fine, as I get on near the start of the route, and there are plenty of seats.  Come peak time travelling back on the tube, I used to rarely got a seat until a few stops before I alighted.  Until my ankle to totally healed and pain free, I need to be sure I can rest up and not be thrown here and there.  I'll be taking my stick with me for the next couple of weeks at least.

I've got leave booked for the week after next - so I can watch most of the Cheltenham Festival, as I do every year.  It's when I really get serious about seed sowing too.  As I don't have a proper greenhouse, or anywhere to put seedlings over heat, I need to wait until the weather is turning.  I have a row of mini greenhouses lining the south facing side of the garden where to suns hits for the longest time, so the seedlings get the most warmth and protection they can.

But even there, we have a snag this year.  Next door's fence is disintegrating.  We have agreed to help replace it, and indeed have a batch of fence panels ready to use when the job gets started, but as yet their landlord hasn't stumped up the funds for the job.  We may just have to get started and hope for a refund, as the length where my mini greenhouses are has started leaning badly too, and there is a danger it may send my seedlings toppling.

There is also far too much to contemplate at the allotment. Seriously thinking of just sheet mulching the lot and starting new beds on top.  Not only did we lose one third of the year because of my ankle, but the two months before that were restricted by Howard's leg infection.  Still nothing wrong with a clean slate.  The fruit tress and bushes are still there, and I've ordered more, so we have a structure to work with, and a shut to shelter in.  Oh - and plenty of compost.

Yes - four months have gone by since I ended up in Chase Farm A&E.  A whole third of a year.  I missed Autumn and Winter in effect.  Yesterday on the way home from shopping, we stopped by the lake.  It was the first time I'd been there since an unseasonably hot Sunday in October.  I'd missed out on my customary visits on New Year's Day and when the snow fell.  I don't know if I missed seeing any rare migrants or Winter visitors, but my visit yesterday made me feel like I was reclaiming some of the more invigorating, wild parts of my life.  The birds were certainly aware of the approaching Spring - territorial squabbles among ducks, geese pair up, and possibly the noisiest Mute Swan I've ever encountered.  Quite a few of the Black Headed Gulls were gaining their Summer plumage too.

The Wheel has turned with one almighty clunk.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Midwinter wobbles and the last leg

I am sitting here with shoes on both feet.  In the greater scheme of things, this means nothing, but tonight is three months and one week since I broke my ankle, and since then I have been wearing a cast - first plaster, then plastic - on my left foot.  I have what should be my last hospital appointment in three weeks, after which I should officially be back on my own two feet again.

In the mean time, I have been advised to gradually get used to walking around "normally" indoors at home.  To begin with, it was a real struggle, as I didn't realise how much strength I had lost in my left leg.  I have been forcing myself to lead with my left leg going up and down stairs.  I still need both hands to steady myself, but I'm starting to notice an improvement.  At work, I can hobble about the office and immediate vicinity with reasonable confidence now, but still need a stick for walking to other wings of the hospital, and most certainly outside.  As for public transport, the stick is essential, especially for buses that race off before I can sit down or attempt handbrake turns mid route.  Travelling by other public transport is restricted to stations that I don't need to use a staircase to get to the platform.  Hence my only commuting option at present being Southgate to King's Cross, though even that got snarled up on Friday when the down escalator was taken out of action.  This meant that station staff had to find a wheelchair for me, and push me to the alternative entrance, several minutes away, then take me in a lift down one level, then another marathon push to another lift to get me to the platform I would normally descend to in under 2 minutes.  Any "step free" access the transport system has is aimed at tourists, NOT to aid the disabled.  Little thought has gone into the positioning of the lifts in the newly built part of King's Cross.  If they genuinely had disable access in mind, they would have hidden the lifts and forced you to walk five minutes to get a further level down.  And in terms of emergency evacuation - don't get me started.

In spite of the snow on the ground, I have managed to get too and from work fairly easily.  Mostly thanks to the good sense of people in ours and the next street in keeping paths clear of snow and ice.  It appears we weren't the only households who stocked up on rock salt in case of bad weather.  Once the local children, dogs and more than a few parents had fun romping in the snow on Sunday morning, people got down to shovelling and scraping a safe way clear for every one.

Another thing we made sure we had good stocks of before any bad weather was bird food.  Not just for the chickens, but for wild birds too.  The usual feeder fare of fatballs and mealworms was expanded to include sunflower seeds, barley flakes, suet nuggets and dried native berries.  I found a spot to put out a tray of food that would attract thrushes, but be too tight a squeeze for magpies and woodpigeons (who could continue to benefit from anything the chickens kicked out of there runs) and was very soon rewarded with the sight of redwings and blackbirds.  But best of all was the sight of a goldcrest and male and female blackcaps feeding on the berries of the honeysuckle that cloaks the fence above the pond.  Normally I cut that back to stop too many leaves falling in the pond, but I've not been able to do any of my usual pruning this autumn and winter,  Sometimes it pays to be a little less tidy.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

The view from my other window

Got good news on Wednesday.  The doctors are now happy with the way the bone is healing, and over the next six weeks I am to gradually get used to walking without the cast - indoors at home for an hour or so a night to start with, until by the end of February I just need it when out doors.  After that I should finally be back on both feet - wearing matching shoes at last!

So that's the second week back at work done.  Due to demands for space, I'm back at my own desk on the top floor from Monday.  Will mean I'm back doing all my duties bar carrying stuff and running around between offices.  Still working shorter hours to avoid rush hour though.

I've been arriving home as it just starts to get dark, and the first couple of nights I spotted a bright star in the south west and wondered what it was.  A quick bit of research and I realised it was Jupiter, and on Saturday night we dug out the binoculars and had a good look.  Even with an old pair of army field glasses I was able to play about with the magnification to get a good view of the planet, and a fleeting glimpse of one of the moons.  As the night wore on, it swung round until it was in the western sky, and we could look at it out the bedroom window.

I don't know how many of you were watching Stargazing Live this week, but it was also mentioned that Saturn follows through slightly lower in the sky in the early hours, and should be visible in the west just before dawn.  Now I set my first alarm for 5.30am, and get up about 6, but since they gave out that info it's been cloudy every morning.  The binoculars or at the bedside ready for the first clear morning.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

The View From My Window

Just having a quick afternoon tea at the desk while Howard does the cleaning and replenishing the chickens’ bedding.  It is the most glorious weather.  Not a cloud in the cornflower blue sky, and the air is drenched with bird song.  The gulls are doing their snowdome impression over the lake, and starlings are gathering and chattering in the trees before finding something less organic to roost in overnight.

Now I’m back at work, I need to savour these moments.  I’m heading off just after sunrise, and arriving home as dusk fades to dark.  I’m so grateful that today the weather is so good and I can take it all in, even though I wish I was fit enough to enjoy it even more.

The last two nights have been clear, and we’ve woken to a proper frost.  My walk from the bus stop to my perilous front path has been guided by the dazzling bright evening star in the south western sky – Jupiter I think, and in the morning, just before the alarm goes off, the moon swings round to shine through our bedroom window, amplified by the sparkling frost on the garage roof.  It almost seems like winter has arrived.  Notwithstanding my injury, it was a long, slow Autumn.  And since the Solstice, the weather has been so mild it barely counted as Winter - until today.

Our clumps of Snowdrops were a little sluggish this year, but started flowering last week.  My hellebores are bursting forth.  Most are laden with buds, but my precious yellow one is already in full bloom.  I counted seven flowers fully open, and many more buds.  But there are flowers out elsewhere that really shouldn’t be.  One house I pass by on my revised walk to the bus stop (avoiding steep paths and slippery slopes) has a Thrift and a French Lavender in flower!  Granted, it is sheltered and south facing, but even so, it seems wrong, and something that should be saved for the summer. 

What little Summer we had came to a close earlier than has been usual of late, but a couple of sudden hot spells meant the start of Autumn proper took even longer.  When I broke my ankle on the 1st November, many trees were still in full leaf – late even by recent standards.  By mid December, most trees had shed their leaves, although a few, in particular Oaks, and the Hazel in next door’s garden stubbornly hold on to their foliage.  Now even those have gone.  Next door’s Hazel is now dripping with golden catkins, which sway as the assorted Blue Tits, Great Tits, Wrens, Dunnocks and Robins launch themselves off its branches towards our birdfeeders.

As over the past couple of months I’ve only been able to sit and watch a limited area, I’ve been able to really observe Autumn, even if only from a distance.  When I first became incapacitated, most trees were only just starting to turn gold.  The one tree ahead of the game was the Field Maple on the road to the lake.  It had gone from deep blue green to crimson, then a burnt coral orange.  By the time most other trees had started to turn colour, the Maple had shed its leaves.

My last trip out of London before my injury was to North Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire.  Although a relatively short distance north, there was a distinct difference in the advance of the seasons.  The trees were a mass of reds, corals and gold.

The trees are only part of what I have been able to observe from the window.  The Canada Geese from the lake herald Spring and Autumn by flying in flocks rather than pairs.  The flocks started forming in August – worryingly early.  The Swifts had already disappeared, but this year the Swallows and House Martins stayed longer.  I even saw a bat flying near the houses in late October.  The redwings and fieldfares have arrived, though as yet not in the usual numbers.  I can’t get down to the lake to see if there have been any unusual migrant arrivals to add to the little Call drake who tries to mingle with the much larger Mallard males.  We’ll have to see if he has any affect on the population next year, like the white farmyard ganders who this year mated with some of the Canada females and produced hybrid offspring – Canada goose marked heads, but chunkier bodies and yellow legs.

I often see the Herons flying between the local lake and the ponds in parks further afield, and I see the flocks of gulls taking off from the lake and looking like a giant snow dome.  The Ring Necked Parakeets around here usually fly round in twos and threes – they are yet to be the nuisance they are in other areas, but last week I saw a flock well into double figures.  I’ve noticed more Blackbirds recently than I have for some time.  Howard has put more bird feeders out in the garden, which has brought in Robins, Blue and Great Tits in particular.  Yet to see anything unusual, but I didn’t get to see any Waxwings until the very end of last Winter.

And then, when it gets dark, I can hear the Tawny Owls, calling to each other as they fly between the trees.

Once I am fit and able to get outside under my own steam again, I will relish being able to get close to nature properly.  I look forward to watching Winter take hold, and then melt into Spring again.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Normal life is starting to be resumed

Started back at work last Tuesday after two months at home with my broken ankle.  Doctors aren't totally happy with the healing of the bone, but are giving me two weeks up and about, then if the bone is still slow to close up, I'm back in a plaster cast and on bed rest again.  Hopefully if I take care and rest when I can, I'll retain my freedom.

I'm working part-time (avoiding rush hours) whilst still in the plastic cast, and using a ground floor office for the same reason in case of fire evacuation.  Some of my usual duties involve running between offices with files and paperwork.  As this is not practical for me to do at the moment, my colleagues are doing this for me, and I'm covering  them in some of their tasks.

One of the best things about my return was knowing how much I was missed - not just by my immediate colleagues, but also by everyone from the canteen staff through to senior managers, who stopped to ask how I was and wished me well.

Because I'm still not mobile enough to rush around in the lunch hour, I have to make sure I take lunch in with me.  And due to the logistics of getting to and from a room with a microwave, for the foreseeable future it will have to be salad, sandwiches or soup in a flask.  This will hopefully save me some money over the next couple of months, which can be channeled into "productive" home based projects, such as more fruit trees and maybe later on this year adding more hens to the flock.

It's back to normal with the hens too.  After spending the late Autumn moulting, they are now all feathered up again and laying regularly.  We're starting to almost have a surplus of eggs, so this Saturday morning we had a six egg scramble for breakfast, and midweek Spanish omlettes are back on the menu, maybe even taking some in with salad for lunch.

Once I'm mobile I may lapse if I have errands to run, but it's a habit I want to keep.

I also want to set more time aside for writing.  I would normally take an overground train to work.  Quicker but I have to stand most days.  At the moment I'm taking the bus to the tube station, which is slower, but as it's near the start of the line I can get a seat in the morning.  I'm going to make sure I have a notebook with me and make good use of the travelling time.

I must admit I do find walking on my own quite tiring still, and I have to be very careful as the pavements are nowhere near level enough to walk without looking at the floor most of the way.

But as long as I'm careful and take my time, I'll be back on two feet by the Spring.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

I would start how I mean to go on, but.....

At least I'm starting to get more active.  Howard picked up the hire van on Wednesday, and we've got out and about every day since.  Nothing spectacular, just a little light shopping, but it's more than I've been able to manage for the past 2 months.  I get tired very quickly, so I'm viewing my return to work on Tuesday with a great deal of trepidation.  Not sure how I'll cope with the journey, and especially the crowds.

Still, much of the shopping has been garden related.  I now have a full complement of my chosen seed potato varieties, and will be rigging up the trays to start chitting them in due course.  This is the earliest I have ever seen seed potatoes in the shops.  I'm sure that most years they don't go on sale until late January, but I'm not complaining.

We're going with the usual varieties for the bulk crop at the allotment - Red Duke of York for the First Early, Yukon Gold for Second Early, Desiree for early Maincrop "big" potatoes and Pink Fir Apple for late Maincrop "fancy salad" potato.  We'll also be growing a few more in containers in the back garden in smaller quantities - Home Guard (first early), and Charlotte and Shetland Black (second early).  If we make it to any of the upcoming Potato Day events, we may well get a few more exotic varieties to try in small amounts.

We went to Ayletts Nursery Garden Centre near St. Albans for most of the potatoes as they sell the seed potatoes loose, with varying size bags at a set price for you to fill with as many or as few as you need.  Every year I fill the bags with a nice round number of tubers, only to find Howard has sneaked a few more in before we get to the checkout.  Anything over an amount that can be divided by 5 (the ideal number per row in the allotment beds) gets planted in a container, so nothing is wasted.

Also managed to get some more shallot sets.  I often find I have more success with shallots than with onions.  Maybe because the manner of growing lends itself better to being rolled on than a traditional onion.

Also managed to get some useful items of "kit" - a new minimum/maximum thermometer, as I intend to be more diligent in tracking the weather this year, some rather fetching lime green knee pads, in case I fall over and land on my back, and one of those shepherd's crook shaped metal stakes, for hanging a lantern outside the shed.

Did some more girly indulgent shopping too in the sales.  Before I broke my ankle, I treated myself to a couple of lovely metal pens from Paperchase.  It's this year's little step towards sustainability.  I decided it would be better to use one or two distinct pens I loved than just go through a mass of anonymous plastic pens.  OK, the refills are still made of plastic, but far less than a normal pen.  Makes writing stuff more of a "me time" thing too.  I got Howard one of their pens too, with an owl motif, which he now uses when a pencil isn't permanent enough.

I also now have a veritable muted rainbow of pairs of skinny legged trousers, as these are the style that fits under the plastic cast contraption (when they start looking shabby, they'll be perfect for gardening as there's no spare fabric to trip over)  more long socks for the same reason, and a couple more polo necked jumpers in case we have a cold snap.  Also found something close to a perfect bag for me - tan coloured, reasonably large with several useful pockets.  It also has decent size handles to go over my shoulder whilst wear a coat, AND a strap to go across the body, the most practical way for me to carry a bag right now.  OK - I have loads of bags.  But I have had some of those for several years and they do get a fair amount of use without being wigged completely.  I have another favourite bag, but it's impractical whilst I need both hands to balance.  And a copper coloured nail enamel.  Sitting around doing not much has meant my nails have stayed presentable.

We'll see how long that last once I'm up on my feet properly and gardening again.