Monday, June 14, 2021

I Do Like Green Spam

I refuse to apologise for a second post basically spamming you all with images of beautiful places, green and growing things. It's that time of year. Come back to me in winter if bleak and grey views are more your thing. 

There is merit in both, of course. 

But June birthdays basically insist on lush greeness and sunshine. We'll just have to cope with it.

 

Yes, I did say birthday. It was N's last Tuesday (it was also the Kid's but he is hundreds of miles away in Sunderland so had to make do with a northern beach and 24 hours access to my credit card for his birthday. There was a spend limit, don't worry - I'm not going to be presented with a bill for thousands). 

Anyway, back to the green spam. It being N's birthday, I took him to one of my favourite places, obviously. In my defense, when asked what he'd like to do on his birthday, he seemed astonished that there was another option other than "working" and then shrugged. So. 

Behold! Hidcote Manor Gardens...

 

 Green everywhere! Wisteria on entry! Of course I brought a guidebook. I would have done on my first visit, years and another lifetime ago. Back when I was married and the Kid was small. Really another lifetime. 

Anyway, the original guidebook has long been lost in a house move or during one of my ruthless clear outs.

 

If you've never been, and know nothing of Hidcote, it's a garden set in rolling Cotswold hills (are there any other sort? I mean, come on Cotswolds, enough with the rolling). Owned back in the distant mists of the early 20th Century, by one Lawrence Johnston and his formidable mother, Gertrude Winthrop - frankly, a name that instantly makes you think of back boards, no children at the table and a disdain for untidy emotions. 

It's held up as an example of an Arts and Crafts garden. I'm not really sure what that means outside of Art and Architecture, beyond knowing that William Morris was your main man for that sort of thing (he's also one of my heroes) but I'm hoping things like that will become clear when I start my horticultural training later this year.

 

 

Whatever it might mean to gardens, what it really means to the visitor, is a garden that is so beautiful, your eyes ache with looking, your neck from the constant turning and your legs from adopting what I call the Heritage Walk. 

If you've ever been in a museum, you know exactly what that is. That specific sloooww way of walking and bending and looking that we all adopt when we're on National Trust territory. It's tough on the old muscles. Culture is the hard core workout no one ever talks about.

 

 

N had never been to Hidcote before, so this was a treat for both of us. As I reminded him on several occasions.

There were newts and potting sheds and meandering paths that sometimes echoed the stream but mostly didn't. The sun was glorious, shining down on our rapidly burning shoulders all day. The queue for the socially distanced cafe was long and the woman your standard NT level passive-aggressive.


We both got serious succulent envy, decided we need more orange flowers in our life and wondered how the neighbours would react to bare breasted statuary suddenly turning up in our garden. Possibly a little too well, so it won't. 

Besides, I can still remember similar such things that took pride of place in my grandparent's garden, along with a (un)helathy collection of gnomes, concrete animals, mottos and the occasional plastic bird. When they moved, I was suddenly presented with a great number of them. It took 2 house moves to finally "lose" the last and I'm not introducing more.



 As I type this, I'm looking down over our own, small, garden. Very much not Arts and Crafts but the honeysuckle is trailing over the makeshift arch, the wisteria is about to burst forth and the whisper of the sweetcorn leaves in their pots is very satisfying. Mabel is lying in the centre of the handkerchief-sized lawn, waving at flies with her eyes half closed. 

There are no cats at Hidcote. They really are missing a trick.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

In which there was walking









So. Much. Green. 

A couple of friends and I went for a long brunch and a decent meander across Bringsty common on the very last day of May. 

There was a feeling, at least with me, that we were chasing away the sogginess of the past few weeks. Beating the rain back. 

Buttercups and bluebells and cow parsley and red clover and all sorts behaved themselves, put on their best clothes and danced genteelly in the sunshine. Rather like the participants of an Austen ball. 

Somewhere, in the rolling woods and grasslands, a peacock’s eerie cries were rather startling. 

At the very top of the common, distant hills, usually dark and full of boding up close, became blue and vague around the edges, like your granny trying to recollect where she left her wool. 

There were little dells, streams, an oddly placed Methodist chapel. 

There were conversations that meandered on behind me as I focused on moving forward. The urge to move is quite strong at the moment. 

And then there were pauses as views insisted on being regarded with due reverence. I sat on the grass to better appreciate them and quite wanted to take my boots off and plant my feet in the ground. 

I didn’t though. Company. There are limits to what you should subject your friends to. 

Monday, May 31, 2021

May Reading

Calloo calay, oh ball-free day! It was a happy moment when I realised that all but the Europa Football league had drawn to a close and the telly need no longer be slave to FIFA timetables. Or whoever the hell it is has the job of setting the timetable. We have enjoyed nearly a week free of "YESSS!" or "what were you thinking?" or "call that offside?" and, my favourite, "bloody bloody VAR, goddamn it, I don't, but, arrgh, hmp *insert sound of stamping*"

Given that N's team had been knocked out of the aforementioned Europa, he has no interest in watching it, so we have had blissful evenings where we knock off work, grab a drink together and then sit, in silence, reading. I've been feeling over-noised just recently, so it's been nice to have no screen, no external noise just the sound of pages turning and, on a series of evenings, me snorting with laughter. 

David Sedaris is the cause of the laughter. Have you read his books? I cannot recommend another author so highly adept at making you snort, draw in breath, tear up a little and then snort again, all in the space of a page. I tore through the 3 I have and added his back catalogue to my birthday list. 

I finally tackled Hamnet after putting it off for a couple of months. I was too raw to deal with more grief until last Monday when I screwed my courage to the sticking place and opened the cover. 

Well, it is entirely worth the plaudits it gained and the only surprise is that it didn't win more awards. This is Maggie O'Farrell's masterpiece, a work that brings a hidden woman to light, gives her autonomy and balance in a misunderstood relationship, gives grief and love centre stage, all the while weaving a world so removed from ours, it could be another place entirely. And yet those themes are so universal and endless, so familiar to every one of us, that the 16th Century past blurs with our own world. Nothing jars. Every word, every comma is perfectly placed and it is breathtaking. 

"Her husband takes her arm as they reach the gate; she turns to look at him and it is as if she has never seen him before, so odd and distorted and old do his features seem. Is it their long separation, is it grief, is it all the tears? she wonders, as she regards him. Who is this person next to her, claiming her arm, holding it to him? ...

She is hollowed out, her edges blurred and insubstantial. She might disintergrate, break apart like a raindrop hitting a leaf. She cannot leave this place, she cannot pass thorugh this gate. She cannot leave him here."

 I was glad I'd read Sedaris after her, and Gilead before. Gilead is always an exercise in slow reading. You simply cannot let your eyes race ahead, but allow them to linger over the page, slowing you down and settling into this exercise in a life lived quietly. It's wonderful. 

Susan Hill and I disagreed on a lot of her thoughts on books, but the name-dropping alone was worth it, even if her non-alphabetizing of books makes me tense. Osman's Thursday Murder Club was great, a lot of fun to read with characters that made me grin. MacCarthy's Bar an entertaining blunder around Irish bars in search of roots I think a lot of us wish we had. 

The Lost Garden's of Heligan...umm...not the best bit of writing I picked up in May but I did enjoy the development of this tourism megalith, now only overshadowed by the Eden Project. Say what you like about Smit (and I imagine many have), the guy has vision. And brass neck by the yard.

All in all, that was a greater number of books than I suspected. My concentration still wanders very easily and I'm more likely to put one aside after only a handful of pages. I read more magazines than I did as they have short articles that I can be done with in 2 minutes. As with all things, it's a case of the right book unlocking you, drawing you in and insisting you Pay Attention or you'll miss something extraordinary. 

So for that, Robinson, O'Farrell and Sedaris, I salute you.



Sunday, May 23, 2021

Patience is not my virtue

Oh the rain, the rain. It raineth every bloody day. Or so it feels. And I do remember, insufferable wise woman of the woods that I am, saying back in March that it had been too dry all winter, we were overdue rain. 

Next time I feel moved to say such a thing, N has permission to throw a bucket of water on me, yelling "ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?" a la Crowe in Gladiator, but damper.  


I did manage to get up there once this week, for about an hour and a half. I finished edging one side of the top-long bed, carting the mass of grasses, roots, dandelions, sodding-bindweed, bramble roots and other assorted plants that have No Place there down to the compost heap (aka the place behind the pile of fallen elder that's holding back the Japanese knotweed - the knotweed that the council and the CRT are currently arguing over who's responsibility it is). 

But, I mean, just look. Yes the grasses are beautiful and dance merrily in whatever meagre shaft of sunlight we're granted but it's So Bloody Long. Seriously. Knee high in places and the strimmer can't get through while it's this wet. Trust me on this.  I have strimmed before in the rain, for a summer when I worked for my Dad and needed the cash: strimmers don't like doing it in the rain.  

However, all this wet has meant that the soil is easier to turn, shake loose from roots and rake to a beautiful fine tilth, almostly exactly the consistency of a properly crumbled cookie. There is a strange satisfaction to be had from getting your soil to this state. As I rehung the rake in the shed, it was with a feeling of a job well done. 


 The anenomes have proved themselves to be the gift that keeps on giving this year. Red ones at home are surviving the deluges, and even this delicate little purple one has thrown out yet another bloom. In fact, the sloping space at the top of the plot is being furiously productive. Aquileiga, antirrhinum, a magnificent fennel, poppies, marigolds and nasturtiums are all throwing out buds.

But the undoubted stars of the sloping space are the Japanese Wineberries. They were here and spreading triffid-like all over the place when I took on the plot. Not entirely sure they were safely edible, I left them the first year. Last year I cut them right back in an attempt to tame them. This year, well...

 

 There are 4 of these. Shall I make jam? Compote (runny jam)? Wine? Gin? Or just eat them, ripe from the branches, warm from the sun, watching the clouds scud overhead and listening to the birds. 

Very possibly just that. 

In other plot news, the beetroot have been planted out, the onions still aren't ripe (how long do these lazy things need??), the potatoes were showing leaves until I earthed them up again, the rhubarb has tiny adorable stalks and the raspberries are small but gamely producing leaves and little buds. 

At home, French climbing beans, borlotti beans, chard, tomatoes, courgettes, lollo rosso, spinach and rocket are all waiting for the sun to claim dominance over the skies again. They are strong and healthy, clamouring to be OUT, but as more than one person has told me how their tomatoes have been smashed to a green pulp by hail and torrential rain, the seedlings will just have to wait. 

Patience, I keep telling them. Patience, I tell myself as I stare at the rain, gripping a coffee mug too tightly for comfort. Patience, N tells me. Patience, rustles my plot neighbour's wisteria; a few years and everything here will be as magnificent as me.

 

Show off.
 

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Lightly living

Okay, so I have a confession to make. 

Brace yourselves. 

It is May and

Deep breath 

I have been putting the heating back on every now and then. 

Oh my parsimonious northern ancestors must be spinning in their coal dust filled graves, beating their spectral be-clogged feet against the boards but it had to be done. 

For, my dears, it is so cold and wet and recent news events so very saddening that a little joy must be got from somewhere. And for me, that somewhere is in having a warm living room. Just putting on another jumper wasn’t going to cut it. 

Heating scandals aside, the past 3 weeks have been mostly about work. One project has just kicked off with a flurry of activity and another, shorter-term one, has involved many tech frustrations, so my attentions have been focused on the laptop. 

That said, I managed a shop and a lunch with a friend the other day, during a short burst of sunshine. 

Today I discovered that the best music to knead gluten free pizza dough to is Fontaines DC. And then I realised that gluten free dough needs no kneading because there’s no gluten to make it lovely and stretchy. God only knows what sort of rock-like substance it will turn out to be, even with the addition of yeast and xanthan gum. I shall report back from the culinary front line. 

N and I have taken the leap and finally got round to booking: 

1. A man who can to build us a pergola. Which we’ve nicknamed the Degoba System

2. A new sofa to get rid of the second hand one i brought with me. It has held me comfortably but I’m tired of owning furniture that looks like it would be more suitable in a country house hotel in the 1980s. Instead of the sleek young hip thing that I actually am, obviously. 

Side note: do the young people still say “hip”?

3. A weekend away. The cats are booked into the cattery, we’ve gone all out and splurged on a Premier Inn (don’t even go there - I’m just grateful not to be self catering) and The Kid has been warned as we’ll be in his neck of the woods. 

The piano was sold. The Kid brought it with a small inheritance over 10 years ago and it’s sat, unplayed, in the last 4 houses we’ve lived in. There’s only so long you can hang onto something that big in the hope they’ll open the lid and start playing again. As Sunderland is a bit of a trek for a Sunday morning tinkle on the ivories, and neither N nor I took it up during lockdown, it was time to say goodbye. The room suddenly looks bigger, lighter somehow, so I’m refusing to be sentimental about it.

And in another dramatic act (remember I got rid of my to-be-read pile?), I threw out my diaries. This was the one change that made N hesitate and say "you sure?" And yes, I'm sure. My diaries were my regurgitation of a day's event's or life's happenings and it felt suddenly vastly unfair to leave them for the Kid to deal with when I'm gone. 

They were incomplete (only lasting a handful of years) and private. And, importantly, mine. I read through pages at random and confirmed that my decision to get rid was the right one. I am no David Sedaris. So into the recycling they went. No dramatic burning in the grate, a la Alec Guinness.

In case you're wondering if I'll regret it in a few years time, I can honestly say I won't. This is not the first time I've got rid of diaries and, should I take it up again, it probably won't be the last. Write it down, write it out, then get it right away. 

Live light, sez I. 

Besides the Kid will be happier with the collection of interesting stones and maybe-fossils he'll inherit. And in keeping with my philosophy, I use the term "happier" very lightly indeed.  

So long, old joanna, you were tuneful while it lasted

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Bechamel Smechamel

I have no idea how the title for this post came about. I often have ideas for posts without having the time to write them, so I drop a title into a draft, fully intending to come back to it some point soon to finish my rambling, usually nonsensical thought. 

This time I didn't. Bechamel smechamel? Clearly I was making my famed (in my own kitchen) sort-of-bechamel sauce at the time, and clearly something had been said or occurred at the time of making it. Can I remember? No. And I've been wracking my brain for weeks. 

Oh well, we will no doubt learn to live without my pithy and no doubt witty conclusions on the topic of bechamels. A sad conclusion but we soldier on. Instead, I feel it's time for a book update. 


Oh yes, I have started reading again. After being genuinely concerned that I may never do so again.  Hallelujah. Praise be to whichever deity you prefer. 

It was Twitter what did it. On that entirely rational (not at all a shit-show of crazies crawling out of the woodwork *rolls eyes*), Joanne Harris was tweeting about Chocolat and I realised I hadn't read that in years. 24 hours later, I was still thinking about it, so I picked the book up and started to read. 

Hurrah for Chocolat! What an indulgent read that was. Harris herself has said it's not the best book she has written but it is so very evocative nontheless. I could smell the food she described and see the characters. Obviously having a pre-sleaze, pre-greasy-looks-like-he-needs-a-wash-and-a-good-talking-to Johnny Depp as your point of reference for Roux is always going to help. 


 I then decided I wasn’t ready to leave Europe and headed off to Italy with Extra Virgin and Ripe for the Picking, both of which I’ve read multiple times before (I find it weird when people only read a book once - “oh, it completely changed my life, here you have my copy, I’ll never read it again.” Bizarre. ) but needed for the sunshine, good food and a life that is completely removed from mine. I am now seriously considering an olive tree.

While N watched an umpteenth game of football one evening, I read Cold Comfort Farm. This is my lovely Folio copy with illustrations by Quentin Blake. How perfect are these? I love the book without them, but they are the edible-gold-covered-cherry on the light and fluffy cake. 

I then disappeared to run a bookshop, grow up on a sheep farm, catch up with a journalist/recipe blogger, follow Death's assistant around and laugh my self silly at the monstrous Poppy in The Unfortunates. She may be my favourite appalling character.  

"I said 'We'll probably put you in the Pomegranate Rum, unless the P of W is expected, in which case you'll get bumped to the Willow Rum. And Bobbity will be determined to find you a congenial horse, but you must stand up to her, because no such animal exists. Tell her you have an allergy. I'll tell her. Also, she makes unspeakable soup so be prepared to fill up on bread. And when we have people staying to hunt, be sure to take your bath early. If you don't there'll be nothing left but a miserable trickle of lukewarm water.'"

All of the books are on my Bookshop.org affiliate page (see that link there, no not there, there - top right of this blog...there we are, well done), apart from Ripe for the Picking and The Unfortunates. 

 I've already started reading The Lost Gardens of Heligan. A very small to-be-read pile has been allowed to creep back in. It consists of this, a Susan Hill and a PG Wodehouse. That's as many as I'll allow myself just now.  


As I type, the rain is absolutely throwing itself at the window like tiny watery kamikaze pilots. I've taken a quick break from work which has taken off like a rocket thanks to some work from quite a large organisation. My intention to take my foot off the accelerator has been forgotten and I'm pinging from one email to another. But I'm loving it.What bliss it is to schedule my days to my best times of day (note: not between 2 and 3pm). 

Much like Aunt Ada Doom. There be a countin' coming...


Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Shed Makes An Appearance

Saturday was a very momentous (can something be "very momentous"? Surely the "momentous" cancels out the "very"? I'll stop now before I tangle myself in linguistic knots) day - for it was Shed Day. My brother-in-law - owner of the only van in the family and a man who seems to have forgotten the purpose of Saturdays (i.e. that it is probably the law that people are not forced to leave their houses before 8am) was arriving at 8.30 with necessary help. 
 
Thank god I know him of old and was in fact already at the plot and ready to rock when he arrived at 8.15 (we are a family who can't bear to be late - or even on time - to any appointment). I'd actually been there since 8, ferrying stuff down from my car and pausing to appreciate the quiet and the view. 


 
The skies over the city were beautiful, that wispy blue that promises bearable heat later, the Malverns crisply outlined. As all normal people were still in their beds, or their pyjamas at least, it was so quiet, nary a car or a clang of deliveries to break the spell. It was so quiet and early, the plot fox trotted unhurridley along his regular route home without even giving us a second glance. 
 
One big downside about my plot is it's location. It's at the bottom of a steep slope down to the canal (the shortest route) and a good 500 metres from the main car park (the flattest route). We opted for the shortest and then spent 20 minutes (it felt like much, much longer), lugging shed panels, fruit cage sides, bags of tools etc down. And then going back up it a further 3 times as the need for different screws/nails/opportunities to prolong the agony arose.

 
It is funny listening to boys constructing things though. The chants of "to me, to you" which never gets old, the gentle ribbing about the right way up to hold a shed panel, the banter around roofing felt and the nailing down thereof, the bordering-on-heated discussion about the right way round to put the fruit cage...
 
While they bantered and "discussed", I stayed out of the way and got on with putting a small fence made out of tree stakes and green-covered wire at the top of the plot. This is for the sweet peas that are currently running rampant at home as we wait for the frosts to be done, to climb over. Then I used my new edging tool (new tools!) to edge the beds and try to halt the gradual grass takeover.
 
Luckily, the work I'd been putting in in digging the area, raking, digging it again, raking it 500 times more in an attempt to get a flat space on sloping ground, really paid off, as you can see from the jaunty angle the door of the shed is leaning at. Bugger it all. 
 
 
But actually, I don't mind too much. I'm just so pleased to have a shed! Finally, a place to store tools so I'm no longer carrying them around with me. A place to store a deck chair so I have somewhere to sit, instead of plumping down to the ground and then trying to lever myself back up again. A place to store a little camping stove so I can brew myself some coffee! 
 
By the time the boys left, we'd been there for 3 hours, and I spent some time afterwards just sitting and smiling around myself, strangely reluctant to leave, enjoying the peace and quietly making plans. 
 
 
The first plan is to paint it. Bless my Dad, he was a man of practical thinking and his practical thought had been to paint only the bits of the shed that people could see, not the bits of shed that were inconveniently against the hedge. This is a school of thought I fully subscribe to, but as it's completely exposed on all 4 sides, I need to paint them. I've managed to find a Cuprinol wood paint of the same shade he had already used for the front (a rather subtle Green Orchid), so I spent a happy half hour yesterday painting the left side. I shall be away up there again this afternoon to do more. 


I haven't gone mad with populating the inside just yet. I want to paint the interior and put up a handy potting shelf before I do. I'll also get a sowing guide up in there as I'm quite bad at remembering when things are supposed to be sown. 
 
By the way, if you're looking for allotment inspiration, I can do no better than recommend this episode of Gardener's World. Our allotment Facebook page quite lit up after it's airing and there was a healthy debate about whether we'd like little doors and closed off plots, or whether we'd miss the chatter of other plot holders. I do like the chatter but sometimes, after the 14th person has said "you need a rotavator on there" to me, I can see the appeal of a little hedged off, door closed area. 
 
It's amazing how much happiness this 6x4 wooden structure has brought me. I'd rather have not had it and still had my Dad around, that much is never far from my head, but having it here feels like having him here. Not in a creepy looking-over-my-shoulder way, but in a reassuring way. He's not there but a piece of him is. And that's quite nice.

I Do Like Green Spam

I refuse to apologise for a second post basically spamming you all with images of beautiful places, green and growing things. It's that ...