Time out of Mind

Tall and Slim

Day 8 of lockdown and we wake again to a changed world. People are talking of a “New Normal”, which is a fair description, although some of us have been living with a New Normal for a while now.  What has clearly changed – coincidentally with the restrictions on movement – has been the weather.  This morning was bright and still, with a dusting of frost on the newly dug veg bed.  It was the sort of morning we had yearned for all winter as the rain kept falling.  Today feels like a crisp winter’s morning as I set out with my ever-keen Labrador for my allocated exercise.

There are many issues surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic which anger me and, like many people, Mrs B and I try to ration the amount of news we take in as the Goverment hide behind “the science” to pretend they have a well-prepared plan which they are implementing with intelligence and honesty.  The daily walk is a time for reflection and re-charging of emotional stability.

As I walk down the lane Tim passes me:  a doctor on his way to man the front line at YDH.  I clap him as he passes and he replies with a suitable gesture.  Although it is reassuring that we appreciate “our” NHS, it feels, in some respects, a little patronising to be doing it now.  After all, some of us have been grateful for the professionalism of our doctors and nurses for years.  This morning Mrs B and I were marvelling at the amount of medication I have acquired and take on a daily basis, addressing my various physical infirmities.  I feel perfectly fit, and to all intents and purposes I am (if I keep taking the tablets), but as I head out on my walk, an ironic thought crosses my mind that if I did fall victim to this virus I could quite easily be noted as a “57-year-old man with underlying health problems”.  So no big deal.

And with that happy thought in my head I continue on my way to take a look at Josh’s Tree.  Our good friends in the village purchased it in his memory and it now stands alongside one of the footpaths that are used by an increasing number of villagers these days.  On the advice of Richard, we selected a Tulip Tree: Liriodendron tulipifera. I haven’t mastered the pronuncation as Richard has.  Too many r’s and l’s.   It will grow tall and slim, like our boy, so we thought it apt.  It also has the most stunning flowers (tulip-like, would you believe) when it reaches a certain age, which is perhaps less apt.  But we were drawn to the thought that in decades to come it will stand tall and proud and people may wonder at why such a stunning tree was placed there.  Some will know.  Some will not.  Perhaps they will have to dredge up this blog to know the story.

After I have paid my respects, Ella and I continue.  Despite the frost, it feels as if spring has sprung.  Chiffchaffs call, the woodpeckers continue to drum, and the rooks sit in the tree tops cawing noisily next to their partially constructed nests.  In the garden we have blackbirds searching for a ‘des res’ in the honeysuckle and the starlings are attacking the chicken wire, put there last year to prevent them nesting under the tiles.  I was surprised to see a Jay in the garden the other day.  It’s a handsome bird, if a little blousy, but it has a reputation for stealing nestlings of other birds – such as our house-hunting blackbirds.  So it might not be too welcome.

Around the lanes the wild garlic is looking grand and the horse chestnuts are coming out.  As a child I remember getting hold of the early buds – ‘sticky buds’ we called them.  I’m not sure what we did with them, but the tackiness was probably something you could terrorise your friends with.

We have not seen any deer recently but on the last part of the walk I spot a couple grazing at one of their favourite spots facing the morning sun.  Ella sees them too, and is preparing to make a frontal attack – from a distance of over two hundred yards, across open ground.  Like the Light Brigade, she does not understand the futility of such an effort, although at least the deer are not armed with cannons.  The charge is cancelled.

Only as we are about to move on do I notice that there are four deer.  Two others are lying down, blending in with the vegetation.   We leave them in peace and return home, enriched with the sense of being at one with the world and the spirits that inhabit it.

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Lockdown: You’ve Got to Roll With It

The sweet smell of DB No.5

When I was young, quarantine was for dogs.  Specifically, those coming from abroad.  A stay of six months was the norm, although that was increased to twelve months for a while when a dog named Sessan died of rabies in Newmarket.  These days quarantine is for humans – and it seems that dogs are our best way out of it, as it has been accepted that they need two exercises a day while we are allowed just the one. 

Our Labrador Retriever celebrated the first day of lockdown by rolling in something unspeakable during our single excursion from the house.  We have various names for the fields that we walk in, based on previous sightings and happenings.  There is the Old Deer Field, the New Deer Field and the Ducking Pool (where Ella wades and slurps water before coughing like a Covid patient).  There is also the Manor field, and the more descriptively labelled Dead Badger Field.  To that list we can now add the Second Dead Badger Field (DBF II).  We had to keep the dog down wind from us as we strode home.

I was deputed to put on my own Personal Protection Equipment, consisting of rubber gloves and an old anorak, which is not dissimilar to what the Government is supplying “our” NHS, it seems.  The dog herself could not understand the fuss and took it all as her own PPE (Personal Pampering for Ella).  So, after anointing herself with the odour of badger carcass, she now got to choose from a range of shampoos, left over from the Christmas hamper, with which to have a wash and shake.  She went for ‘After the Rain’ (from Arran Aromatics) and she looked gorgeous on it.  Fluffy and happy, smelling like a Highland Hunting party:  notes of heather and gorse, with a hint of rotting cadaver on the finish.

Ella does not see Lockdown as a problem and does not understand the concept of Social Distancing either; wandering out into the lane every time another villager walks past on their daily exercise.  It is not that she is being sociable – she is simply checking their pockets for biscuits. 

Self-isolation is something that the hen has decided she is going to rebel against too, as she escaped from her run twice yesterday and attempted to scratch away at the flowers coming up in the cold spring sunshine.  We sent her packing with a warning – next time it will be a fine, or perhaps a really hard stare from our Prime Minister. 

That should do it.

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Trees of Life

Two years ago this week it snowed.

I know that because it was the day my father died. It was the final freeze in a bitterly cold winter.  The Old Man had survived the Beast from the East but not the after-shock of the early spring snowfall on the night of 17th March.  The doctor had to trudge across the snow-filled fields with her dog to certify his death.

Two weeks ago they held the inquest into Josh’s death.  We have not, as yet, heard what the findings were but prior to it we had been sent the statements that formed the basis of the short inquest at which no witnesses were called.  The first item was a simple police confirmation of identity. 

The other statement was the hospital record detailing the treatment that Josh had received in hospital in those 27 days as the staff strove to save his life.  It made for awful reading: an account of his gradual decline which, like a movie to which you know the ending, felt as though the outcome was somehow inevitable, in stark contrast to our feelings of desperate hope at the time. 

So it was, last weekend we planted trees in Josh’s memory to start the construction of a part of the garden which will be dedicated to him.  We thought of Josh as we did it, but I was also remembering my father.  I have said before how my parents are often on my mind when I’m in the garden.  Trees evoke memories of my The Old Man, who invested in planting a good number of trees at the Old Place.  I particularly recalled the six maples that he bought – three copper, three variegated – for the end of the garden.  It must have been the school holidays, because my mother and I were the ones who sunk the not- inconsiderable trees into position.  When my father returned at the end of the day, his only comment was that they were not quite in the right position.  My mother’s response was to offer him the spade and suggest he move them himself, if he so wished.

The trees stayed where they were and flourished, providing a handsome screen.

So this thought was playing on my mind as Mrs B and I took a spade to the sodden turf and planted three Silver Birch (Snow Queen) and a Sorbus (of an as-yet-unconfirmed type).  I was naturally concerned that we planted them in the right place, which I think we did.  But a couple of concerns linger. 

Concern No.1: Have I left enough room for the stump grinder?  If not I am going to have to lift the trees when we come to prepare the rest of the bed by grinding out the roots of the old shrubs.

Concern No.2: Have I planted the right tree?  The Mountain Ash (Sorbus Aucuparia Cardinal Royal) is evocative of my childhood when a rowan tree adorned the church yard opposite my bedroom window.  I have a nasty suspicion that, in a labelling mix up, the nursery delivered a Whitebeam (Sorbus Aria Lutescens) but we had planted it before we realised the possible cock-up.  The nice lady at the nursery seems to think we have the right tree though it is difficult to tell when they are not in leaf.  But, as she said to me, we will soon know, won’t we?

And then there is every chance that, like my father before me, I will be wanting to shift all the trees I have just planted. 

I will keep my fingers crossed – and look forward to the re-birth of spring.

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Sowing the Seeds

When I started this post a week ago the immediate concerns surrounded the aftermath of another weekend bringing another storm – Jorge.  It seemed that our post-Brexit freedoms did not extend to naming our own storms with those Europeans coming over here, bringing their continental storms, messing with our rivers and flooding our golf courses.

Now we have the non-specifically named Covid-19 coming over here threatening to mess with everything and everyone we hold dear.  I wonder if we can comprehend the enormity of what we might have to face and the steps we can take to mitigate the the effects of the impending epidemic.  Back in 1976 when my father decided to buy a property with 6 1/2 acres of land it was, in no small part, because he wanted to be able to sustain a degree of self-sufficiency in case of a break down in the supply chain through either economic uncertainty of nuclear disaster.  I am not sure if he saw Opec or Russia as a bigger threat, but he was determined to be ready.

It seems many think we might be facing such a scenario now – which would explain the bizarre headline shortages in toilet rolls and hand sanitizer.  Really?  In his day, my father was concerned about shortages in proper essentials like, um, food.  So he grew vegetables on an industrial scale.  I cannot compete with him in the scale of my veg growing operation, but I have managed to maintain an element of self-sufficiency and am hoping that Mrs B and I will have a decent crop of vegetables for the summer.

This week we cooked the last of the stored squashes:  the recipe required “one large squash, 1 Kg”.  Half of my last Crown Prince squash weighed a whopping 2kg so perhaps it pays to grow your own.  We have almost finished the kale but the purple sprouting is doing as described (sprouting, in purple).  There are still leeks in the garden and the rocket has got its act together in the greenhouse, so we have green leaves.  And our hen – plucky Agatha – continues to lay eggs at regular intervals.  For the new season there are the green shoots of new garlic and shallots.  It might not be enough to ward off the prospect of self-isolation, but it is, if nothing else, pleasing to know that we can provide at least some of our diet for ourselves.

Most of the recent horticultural work has revolved around sowing seeds.  I have ordered all my veg seeds, which I will start sowing in trays this weekend, but in some ways the more emotionally rewarding work has been in planning the flower garden for the summer.  There will be a new border to be planted in Josh’s memory and I plan for the rest of the garden to be vibrant with colour and flowers for cutting.  Ultimately the new beds will be planted with perennials, but as these will take a year or two to mature, I am sowing more annuals than I have ever done to ensure the borders are more packed than the Greco-Turkish equivalent.  For flower seeds my go-to source is always Higgledy Garden and he includes old favourites such as cosmos, nicotiana and sweet peas, as well as newbies like Cleome Spinosa, amongst others, and a free packet of Godetia.

My father used to say that if you could not eat it, he did not want to grow it, but as I see the seedlings poking through and I look forward to sunny summer days and blooming borders in the garden it is a good time of year to remember Jesus being tempted in the desert and remind ourselves that we cannot live on bread alone.

Or toilet rolls for that matter.

 

 

 

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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.

Friday?

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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