Bedding In

January and early February have seen an upturn in postive thoughts around here.  The early morning walks are punctuated by the sound of thrushes singing their hearts out from the tops of trees while woodpeckers drum on hollow branches and robins argue noisily below; all trying to claim their separate territories with spring just around the corner.

My attempts at my own territorial improvements have centred on transplanting the Acer from the pot at the back of the house, where it was looking rather sad in the atutumn.  It has now taken the place of the unsightly cotoneaster, which took some uprooting from the front garden.  The removal of the cotoneaster has naturally been delayed until the blackbirds had taken their fill of the red berries, just as my father would have insisted.  I follow his advice more now than I ever did when he was alive.

Elsewhere, I have been tinkering with some of the borders: pruning roses and cutting back the autumn bliss raspberries – though the latter was mainly to ensure that I could get to the hen house more easily.  There had been the usual hiatus in egg-production from Agatha (although she still claimed her free board and lodging).  Supervision of the hen house had become rather intermittent, so when I did finally check on the 20th January, I was astonished to see eight eggs in her nesting box.

Since then we have cleared the path to the hen house and check on her regularly to collect any more eggs, while they are still fresh.  But this hen has a sense of humour, it seems, and there has not been a single egg layed since the 20th.  It’s probably her way of protesting over her recent exclusion from the flower garden – a ban imposed on her after she destroyed some of the nascent daffodills.  Not all birds are welcome in the borders.

The main piece of garden preparation I have managed is to spread two tons of Viridor Revive compost on the raised beds.  Thirty-eight wheelbarrow loads to help improve the clay topsoil and top up the beds.  So far my efforts have simply created the biggest, most luxuriant cat litter trays in the village.  The feline equivalent of Andrex triple-ply quilted, they are soft and very deep, and not even my labrador is able to consume the quantities of cat-poo that are likely to be interred on my refurbished veg patch.

Last weekend storm Ciara blew her way through the country leaving us to pick up the pieces of her trail of destruction, although the greenhouse managed to remain intact (despite losing one pane of glass a few weeks previously).  Today I am sitting inside as storm Dennis repeats Ciara’s performance of a week ago.  It is the type of weather my old head of PE once described as so bad “I wouldn’t put a cat out in it”.  To this brown-fingered gardener, it is precisely the type of weather I would willingly evict any defacating feline.




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Potato Daze

Get in Line…

The gardening year – or more pertinently the planning thereof – starts for me with Potato Day at Caryford Hall.  The marquee event of January, Jules and I delayed the start of our golf round to make sure we could be there to select our first chitters of the new decade.  Always a red letter day in the gardening calendar, I made sure I was there soon after opening but was stunned to see barely a space in the car park.  Surely the horticultural fraternity was not THAT desperate to get first dibs on their desirees?   I deposited my car on the last spare bit of gravel and only then did I realise that there was a junior football match in progress nearby.  Honestly:  Cary Rangers and Potato Day being scheduled at the same time?  I’ll have a word with local traffic control.  It’s the CAry equivalent of scheduling Merseyside fixtures at Anfield and Goodison at 3pm on a Saturday.  Total madness – took me nearly five minutes to find a parking spot and, as I left, they were parking in the front of the school and ALL the way down Maggs Lane.  Honestly – it’s enough to make a neigbour post on Facebook.

I swam my way against the tide of Ugg-booted mums and gum-chewing dads and washed ashore in the hallowed sanctuary of Seed Potato Heaven where the hushed voices of woolly-hatted gardeners lent an ecclesiastical air to proceedings.  But the reality was not as calm as it seemed.  As I lined up, there was a clear undercurrent of competition to get to the best coloured trugs laid out before us.  Choosing potatoes should be a well-ordered activity, with everyone collecting their brown paper bags and sharpies (for labelling) before queueing, starting at A (for ‘Abbot’ and ‘Accent’) and moving along in a patient, well-orderd shuffle to the end of the row (‘Wilja’ and ‘Yukon Gold’).  But this year there seemed to be a faction of more serious hard-edged gardeners moving into the line, blocking off movement as they delved for the potatoes they particularly wanted.  It was subtle and deliberate with an air of what Simon Barnes called the “Bull Elephant Syndrome”.  These determined gardeners eased their way to the trugs like the dominant elephant at the watering hole, while the rest of the herd made way and moved along in their orderly line, waiting without complaint.

I smiled at the seriousness of the mood amongst some of my fellow horticulturalists, but there was light relief to be had at the stall with secondhand garden tools, where there was an impressive array of refurbished secateurs and hardware.  A cheeful chap was offering them at discount prices so I picked up a particularly vicious hack saw which I was jovially told had a japanese blade.  When I put it together with its bamboo-style handle it had the feel of something from the set of The Bridge Over the River Kwai.  Any POW armed with this tool could have reduced the infamous Bridge to sawn lengths in minutes.  I asked the price and was delighted to walk away with a Samurai Saw for three quid.

As for spuds, I tried to keep my spending to a minimum,with Mrs B’s warnings in my head to go for only earlies (“The main crop never keeps” she told me) so I started out by doing that, before giving in to tempation and buying a bag of Sarpo Mira (“they’re blight resistant” was my excuse).  For a variety of earlies I went with my favourtites – Belle de Fontenay, Duke of York for topicality (small, pink and very tasty – the way the Duke likes them).  There was also the compulsory Arran Victory and this year’s untried, left field choice is Piccolo Star.  It’s the Samuel Beckett chitter:  apparently it’s good in tubs, so I might plant up a couple of dustbins.  And then just wait…



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A Country Walk

In the Slot

On Saturday we wake up back in Somerset after Christmas in Liverpool.  It is still mercifully dry overhead as I take the dog out for her walk.  She seems as happy to be wandering the lanes as I am.  Once into the fields the first thing she does to celebrate is to roll in the remains of a dead badger.  Sometimes it is only way to celebrate life – digging your shoulder into the soggy remnants of a badger carcass, going back to back with what is left of the festering spine.  With the great smell of Badger to get her going, Ella is enervated, as I yell “Off!”, she sprints away as if this is all some party game.

Apart from stinking canines, it is an unexceptional but peaceful walk.  I pause by a stile and watch as long-tailed tits twitter their way along the hedge rows.  Starlings swoosh across the sky, returning from their overnight roosts on the levels.  Regular bands of them in their small foraging parties heading south east, in a hurry to get to their pre-ordained destinations.  Fieldfares chuffle in the orchards as redwings – slimmer and slighter than their co-migrants – loop between the apple trees too.


I look at my feet in the soggy verge of the ploughed field and see deer slots.  ‘Slots’:  it’s a term given to me by my mother.  I always think of her when I see these tracks.  I take a look, like I am some sort of tracker and see another, tiny paw print that I cannot recognise.  Too small and dexterous for a badger or even a rabbit or mole.  I take a picture to enable identification at home.  I hope I still have my ‘Collins Guide to Animal Tracks and Signs’.  It is another remnant of my childhood and I am pleased when Mrs B – as my mother would have done – knows exactly where it is when I get home and I take a look to ID the paw print.  It is not easy, but I think perhaps either a stoat or even a hedgehog.  I’ll never know – unless a reader actually has a clue from the photographic evidence.  Do tell.

Back on the walk I am eyed by the rooks in the trees.  The air remains still, but is filled by the distant cawing of the crows, the background noise of trickling water and always the grey aural wallpaper of the A303 holiday traffic.  Yesterday we were fighting our way through the metallic sludge that was the southbound M6 / M5.  It was a relief to get home and next morning we once again reminded ourselves how lucky we are to live where we do.  We have always counted ourselves fortunate to live here.

Except that we do not really trust to luck any more, do we?

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A Town Walk

The day after boxing day and everyone is feeling a little woozy and bloated – even the dog.  It has been a relaxing and comforting Christmas in Liverpool in which the presence of Ella in VB’s city centre apartment has encouraged us to get out and take regular exercise during the festive break.

Christmas day included a trip to Formby Beach, where we were pleasantly surprised by the number of dog walkers getting a breath of sea air instead of lazing in front of the TV while another significant member of the family cooked the roast.  I had been led to believe that we might see Footballers and their Wives walking in the dunes.  Instead, the beach was brimming with regular scousers with their dogs – which came in all shapes and sizes, from air-headed setters to a suave black Labrador called Max who took quite a shine to Ella, who flirted outrageously in return.  Elsewhere there was a dachshund who trotted around on the sand quite happily till it saw any other dog, trundled up to each one in turn and barked in their face (well, more at their ankles really).  In human terms, it was the equivalent of running up to strangers in the street to stadn in front of them just shouting “FUCK OFF! FUCK OFF! FUCK OFF!” over and over again.  It did not phase Ella (or any other dog, for that matter) and she just looked slightly bewildered.  She probably didn’t understand the accent.

On the 28th, the morning walk for Ella requires either a nip across the road to a patch of sodden, litter-strewn grass (which Ella is not keen on) or else a ten minute stroll up to Liverpool Cathedral where St James’s Garden sits in a former quarry-cum-cemetery underneath the hulking presence of the cathedral.   We visited it a few times in September as we waited in vain for Josh’s recovery.  Then, we even lit candles for him in the cathedral.  So returning to the garden is a bittersweet moment, like so much of our stay in Liverpool.

It goes without saying that exercising the dog in an urban environment is very different from home, but she adapts well.  She is good on the lead, but is incapable of getting any of her “business” done while on it.  So the ten minutes it takes to get to St James’s Garden is a very stiff-legged walk for the Labrador.  When she is finally released she runs to squat with demonstrable relief.  After that she is quite happy trotting around the tombstones, Huskisson Memorial and trees that populate the garden.

It is peaceful, as one might expect, and the morning of the 28th it is still gloomy and pre-sunrise as we wander around.  A blackbird is singing in one of the trees, seemingly for the simple pleasure that it brings for singer and listener.  I stand and listen for a while before moving on, passing a robin which I read recently is probably singing to defend its territory from European migrants.  Who knew Robins might be Faragists?

As we climb the slope from the garden we see a Peregrine flapping quickly and low overhead.  It completes a circle before returning to its perch high on the West face of the cathedral where its mate is screaming.  It is a moment to treasure.  The Peregrine is a bird that entranced me when I was young – not because I ever saw one (apart from perhaps once in the lake district) but because of their reputation as record-breaking speedsters and brutally percussive hunters.  To see them in Liverpool was special for me. I still get a buzz from seeing them and for some reason I thank Josh for the appearance of this one.   Anything that lifts the gloom is a moment for which to be grateful, and I feel that somehow Josh continues to provide them for me.

Ella and I continue our walk and head down to the docks.  The sky is brightening and is now tinged pink as the sun slowly rises towards the horizon.  The dank waters of the Mersey don’t hold the light but the clouds instead take on a rose tint.  A rainbow shows faintly to the West, its base resting on the Liver Building, the two Birds standing guard, one looking to the sea (Liverpool’s prosperity) and the other over the City (its people). There is a peace and stillness about the place and the few locals that are out are amenable and friendly – as is the default position for most Scousers.  I can see why Josh loved Liverpool.

Everywhere in the town evokes memories of our boy but they are, for the most part, happy ones – turned bitter post-September.  But the simple act of walking along the waterfront and taking in the views settles and calms me.  I return to Verity’s apartment with my head cleared and thoughts straight.  Just a little bit sad.

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The Long Days are Coming

The soundtrack for the past few weeks has been a combination of the Eurythmics and Bob Dylan:  Here Comes The Rain Again, and it’s gonna be hard.  The rain fell again in the night, like gravel thrown against the window. I knew that the timing and route for the morning walk with Ella would be dependent on the rising sun and the depth of the mud on whatever paths I opted to take.  The fields are awash and the lanes resemble waterways.

But we are finally at the shortest day of the year (the soltice is strictly speaking at 4:19 am on the 22nd).  I look forward to it, simply because I know that there is a lifting of the gloom, day by day, thereafter.  Conversely, in a weird kind of way I feel a bit sad when we reach the summer soltice in June because I know that days are getting shorter after that.  (Memo to self: discuss this with therapist at next session).

But Long Days are something which we as a family can start to look forward to, for more than one reason.  And it is all to do with my lovely colleagues at school.

My Head of Department (Katie) is the doting owner of a Dachshund called Basil (an excellent name for a dog).  By coincidence, Josh’s Head of Department last year had a Dachshund, Pablo (I’m loving these names) with whom Josh was smitten.  Josh told us that when he was settled he wanted to get a Dachshund himself.  We chuckled at the thought of our six-foot four inch son walking a sausage dog amongst the scallies with their staffies around the Liverpool parks, but he was adamant that that was what he would do.  The silly Southern Softie.

Skip forward a few months to Hospital in September and we were trying to keep our spirits up, hoping that Josh could hear us.  We promised him his Dachshund if he could only beat off this horrible infection.  We even gave his dog a name – “Mr Long” – as this was the label the tailor in Vietnam had given Josh to identify him when he returned for the suit he had been measured up for.  It has an ironic ring to it that Josh would have appreciated.

So we had it all planned, such are the mad cap ideas one has to invent to keep yourself going at the darkest times.  We were so desperate that Josh could hear us and somehow take extra motivation to overome his illness.  But it was not to be.

So, a few weels ago I was chatting about Josh with Katie who was urging us to get a ‘Dachs’ ourselves.  I was half drawn to the idea, as Ella has never been the same dog since Fudge died and we thought that she might appreciate a companion.  A Sausage Dog could be an ideal choice on so many levels.

“But” I said, “the price of dachshunds is crazy, there’s no way we can afford one”.  And I thought no more of it.  But my lovely work mates did not let it lie.

Skip forward to the school holidays and I am meeting up with Katie to swap Christmas cards over a coffee.  She hands me a card which I ‘must open now’.  She seems nervous for some reason.   Inside is a message from Katie and Deb telling me that after our conversation they decided to organise a “Mr Long” crowdfunding exercise amongst the staff, raising hundreds of pounds in the process to enable us to get our own Mr Long to commemorate Josh.  I tell Katie she is bonkers, but that it is the most wonderful thing to do.  I am humbled by the generosity of my lovely colleagues.

I teach at the school where I was also educated and where I first met Mrs B.  Both our children went there for sixth form and it is no exaggeration to say that the two years Josh was there were the making of him.  He got great A-levels results that set him on his way to Liverpool and to then becoming an excellent teacher.  I am blessed to be part of such a brilliant establishment from which my family has taken such benefit.  I am lucky to have such amazing, bonkers, thoughtful, empathetic colleagues who really do care.  They just GET it.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the Mr Long Fund.

Stay tuned in the New Year as the search for Mr Long commences……to be continued

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Food for thought

This week I finally managed to process my chillis and peppers. Most of the chillis went into a batch of sweet chilli jam with the rest being dried in the oven and then a radiator.  The green peppers were roasted and frozen.  I have been slow in getting this done, but life is a grind at the moment with thought processes struggling to remain focussed on any one thing without other matters barging in.   The dank wet weather has precluded much gardening getting done either so clearing the produce from the greenhouse was a little later than usual.

Another issue was the oven going “fut” the other week, just after we had put our Friday night meal in.  The pizza was, in Boris Johnson’s words, oven ready.  But rather like Mr Mendacity’s Brexit deal, when we came to eat it, it proved to take longer than promised and was dry and underbaked.

We got the oven mended last week with a fan that the engineer found knocking around in the back of his van.  It works, but sounds like a hovercraft when we are cooking now.  It will give us added motivation, if any was needed, to get the kitchen and conservatory overhauled.

But we have not eaten poorly in the meantime.  This is where good friends come in handy, dropping by the day after we had lost the use of the oven, with a Waitrose Thai meal ready to be cooked on the hob.  A lovely thought and just the sort of thing we appreciate.  Because we remain in a strange half and half existence in which “life” goes on in colour around us while in our minds we are still processing grief in black and white.  And between the two parallel worlds we sometimes find it difficult to make decisions or get our lives organised.

It’s not that we are short of offers of help.  “Just tell us what you need” people say.  But that is not easy when the simple act of dragging yourself out of bed after another sleepless night is a monumental effort or even the most mundane task proves to be bafflingly confusing.  It is difficult to specify what we need or want, so simple unsolicited acts of kindness are appreciated.  These have often taken the form of sustenance.  We have been the grateful recipients of marvellous shepherds pies, chocolate biscuit cake, a Riverford Organics meal box (whose kale put mine in the shade), duck eggs, frozen meals and enough apple cake to break a Tesla Truck.  And to all those generous and kindly souls:  Thank You so much.

In the meantime my garden this autumn has provided a lot of nutritional support for  caterpillars and woodlice which has left the Kale and Brussels Sprouts struggling to recover.  But I am prepared to wait for them to come good.


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Action Before Motivation

Last Saturday I tried to get out in the garden but the weather intervened.  We barely had enough time to drag ourselves out of bed and get the dog walked before the rain set in.  To be fair, if it was not for the dog each morning doing her stretches, pointedly limbering up for what she suggests is her God-given right to exercise, we would not have any motivation to get up and out.  Regular walking with the dog is our therapy, giving us an obligatory blast of fresh air to clear our minds, balance our thoughts and keep us moving.  Without our demanding Pavlovian pest we would have slipped out of the routine of regular perambulation and would probably be tucked up in bed from dawn till dusk like Charlie Bucket’s grandparents.

Sunday was a better day and I was able to fill pots with various bulbs, ready for some colour in the spring.  But even on Saturday, in spite of the inclement weather I did spend a happy hour or two in the relative dry of the potting shed, saving seeds from the summer’s annuals.  So I have now bagged (and labelled, I am pleased to say) little envelopes of Nigella, Honesty, Echinacea and Rudbeckia.  I even stored some Allium seeds, but I see that these are very much a longer term project and only likely to get to flowering size after a few years.  But maybe that is what I need:  it would be marvellous if the firework tops of the alliums were to be blooming in two or three summers’ time and we can see a waymarker on our recovery from the dark days of autumn 2019.

While I was out in the garden on Sunday, a neighbour passed on a nice little aphorism:  “Action Before Motivation”.  I understood it right away.  Simply getting out in the garden has always been an end in itself, even if I am not sureif I want to be there or what I need to do.  But once I am there I get drawn into something and am inspired to do more.  Last weekend was just such a weekend.  It was our life in a microcosm: getting on small stuff and hoping that at some point it will feel like it has some greater meaning and reason.  It might take till spring, or even longer, but we will keep on keeping on – however de-motivated we feel.

It’s what our boy would want us to do.




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