Archive for November, 2012

Weekly Photo Challenge - Reflections

My first submission for the Weekly Photo Challenge – stepped right into it – wandering locally with my recently acquired digital “mini” – took some shots – this one is of an abandoned fishing stage built over a lake that’s fed by a stream that used to be drainage fromt he local colliery at the beginning of the last century (how spooky it is to type that!). The “slag heap has been dismantled to fill limestone caverns in the Black Country and there is a lovely, if muddy, walk there these days.

Got back home, opened the mailbox and – voila – “reflections” – hope you like it.

30/11/ 2012


Late With the Canes

Had a plan last night. Seemed perfect – in the way that plans always will (or should do – or change the damned plan you fool!). Get up, drag the last bags of lawn leaves and the kitchen compost thingy (caddy is the currently fashionable term, but our caddy is a reused margarine container!) into the car, zoom up to the allotment – do some digging, pull up and strip the bean canes and dismantle the fruit cages.

The night happened, as nights will … and with the darkness came the first real frost of the year. Beautiful sight then this morning when I opened the curtains. Tiles and slopes of roofs powdered with the frost. The usual 5 a.m. jackdaws are doing their usual dance on the roof opposite. Are they feeding or drinking ? I am not sure, but it appears to be coordinated and occurs regularly.


 One of the bird feeders in the back garden needed filling and I had to wait for another plotholder to come to the house (it’s an admin thing, connected with the seed order we do as a group).When he got here I decided, on his advice to leave the allotment visit to the afternoon. Set myself to clean the windows (really to get a better view of the bird table).

Great views of the birds and their approach strategies. The wren, so confident comes across the rim of the bird bath, from the left as I am watching. The robin from the ground, where he (she perhaps?) has been feasting on the bits dropped from the feeders. Six bulky starlings, almost certainly from Scandinavia, with gambler’s waistcoat plumage swarm like fighter planes, wheeling on an airborne sixpenny piece, than cannot manage to settle together on the perches, bustle, grab beaks full of pellets and flap away. The coal tit, the first visitor to the table this year is typically fast … lands, picks something up, then scurries to the cover of the pieris and, presumably, eats it. Further down the garden, there’s a cock blackbird, pecking hard at the red windfall apples I left under the Beauty of Bath tree. Suddenly I notice a dark form in the pear tree (festooned with honeysuckle drapes) and focus on the sparrow hawk resting, purposefully there. I know this bird has been a visitor; last year I watched him atop a dead pigeon at the end of next doors garden and there have been feathers strewn across our patio. But I have never noticed the bird so close to the house before this. I guess he is observing the bird table;  building up an appetite.

After a dinner of casserole (home grown carrots, potatoes, parsnip, celery, swede and onion in there) a drive up to the plot. Frost still everywhere.  Hopefully it will do something to naturally reduce the slug and snail population that has devastated crops this year. Tunnels and tents of debris netting, green or blue straddle plots like some kind of science fiction special effect colony,  protecting brassica plants from marauding woodpigeons. A new plotholder has a Harris hawk, apparently and he has promised to fly it over the plots in order to move the “rats with wings” to somewhere else. I am late taking the bean canes up this year and waste no time, getting all three rows up in record time. In the spaces below the triangular tents the weeds have been protected, are still growing and the soil is warm and very friable. In some places the wood chip mulch has piled up and the randomly planted sunflowers have finished and dried.

And I am pleasantly surprised, becoming  aware of the pot marigold flower eyes, still looking at me, from the raised bed with the parsley. I am amazed by how long these sturdy plants have been flowering and the fact that, even today they have bright eyes nodding in the sub-zero gusts.

Talking of wood chip, there has been a delivery and I change another part of the plan to load up ten barrows and mulch up the raspberries we planted in spring. The chips come from holly; there are still complete leaves in all their winter-gloss splendour and the beautiful shock of startlingly pale sapwood of the trunk.

Time to take the fruit cages down another day. Another plan needed.

29th November, 2012


Partners in Grime

Too crisp a day to go to the allotment yesterday. Took a fine walk instead. Started off in warm low fog, the sun a pale white disc occasionally visible. Water pooled in the ruts left by the massive tractors that rule this agricultural landscape looking somehow beautiful in the mists, reflections, floating leaves and depths.

Along the canal towpath and a low level wind started to frog-march the wisps of fog across level ploughed land, the horizon seeming to sparkle gloriously, high blue skies visible at last. There is a fine quality to light on days like this and it was good to be walking.

But a new day today and things to catch up with on the plot.
More digging. Carefully around the winter vegetables- the distorted roots of parsnips, tasting lovely after some early frosts have worked some kind of chemical magic on the sugars inside them. Celeriac, which hasn’t really flourished but we will leave in to give a little more time. Last of the carrots (most successfully grown in a former incinerator filled with sieved soil. Beetroot that lean over to one side as I dig alongside them and fetch young foxgloves out of their row. Japanese mooli radish: we are growing these for the first time and take our first harvest today. Leeks rather smaller than last year, but Dave says we can take one of his. He’s always a friendly guy, grows good sized plants and very modest with it.
The remains of pumpkin and courgette plants are pulled up and piled onto the compost heap, along with annual weeds cleared from the digging. This year I’m adding compost to the top of the soil as  a dressing rather than double digging it into trenches. But where I’m digging layers of compost put into trenches last year remain. The digging will mix this in with the regular soil of course. But here and there, colonising these layers are brandling worms.
Elsewhere earthworms are abundant. The day is pleasantly warm, the earth too. I am happy to see so many of my co-workers, fellow tunnelers. They stretch unconcerned as I turn them on to the surface, take some time to push and pull their muscular frames back into their element.
We have our seed order completed, the association runs a “shop” and seed potatoes, onions, garlic and shallots can be ordered through this – with a hearty discount.
Pot marigolds spill delightfully out from the borders and spaces we put them in (to encourage natural insect predators) and forget me not plants are spreading in the raised beds. Lovely bright, cheerful plants to have around – but we are going to have to pull some of these up –and, with a wry smile- I realise there will be many self-seeded marigolds around the plot next year.
But the full bright orange target-eyes of these old fashioned hardy plants in November? A blessing indeed.
It’s a good morning’s work, getting routine tasks under way. There is the psychological tipping point to reach, where there is less to dig and tidy up than has been done. I do believe that this year I am near to the tipping point much earlier than I have ever been … but just a minute: we have a project to take up a large patch which has been raspberries for six or more years. That will take some work as they are growing in strimmed grassland, autumn fruiting raspberries appearing to thrive on neglect.
I remind myself that one of the things I love about being a plotholder is that here is always something there to get on with.

As we prepare to leave there is an energetic robin bouncing on the raised bed where the courgettes and out door tomatoes have been cleared, and on the extreme back-bud-already edges of the dominant ash tree across the road a bridge of patient starlings wait for us to leave. I have no doubt they are there to snatch whatever remains on the surface when we are  gone: worms beware!

Remembrance Respect

Remembrance Sunday - crosses in church yard

Remembrance Sunday – crosses in church yard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the lych gate, Corley. Remembrance Sunday.

I’m late setting out. But I walk fast. can cover the ground. My camera? Think I’ll need it? Yes. Double back, wasting time I didn’t have in the first place, smiling to myself. Locking the front door I decide to take the car. Detour to avoid the parade. park. Good decision; time made up.

The road and grass verges are buttered with strong, low autumn sunshine. The stronger winds from yesterday that piled up clouds in interesting forms and colours have abated. Deep and wide tractor ruts scar the verges, left soft by heavy rain. Puddles reflect the acrobatic geisha-complexioned aspen leaves clinging to the whip thin ends of high branches. But today is clear. Big skies, pale blue.

Amplified voices, with pauses for emotion, fill and re-fill the spaces below and between the trees that surround the memorial stone. Black coated people, an impatient dog, unsettled perhaps to be in such a crowd, surrounded by the unusual stillness. A man wearing a bobble hat in the colours of the German flag (but upside down) a stray fallen leaf atop balancing like a random piece of accessorizing.

Quiet, solemn brass tones of background music, respectful and balanced support the ritual lowering of standards.

The silence. Eleven a.m.

Light winds bend the branches closer to the people. Leaves, lantern-flame yellow lime and dry leather toned oak – shiver like clouds of benign spirits. A few fall, mimic-ing earlier loss of life and energy. It’s appropriate, this falling through time towards shadows. I feel the gentle, insistent gravity pull of generations. We are all falling towards shadows.


I am alone at a Remembrance Sunday parade for the first time in many years. her at my hometown memorial for the first time in as many years. No official duties. It is liberating, giving me time to think. I notice familiar faces: those I was at school with. Equally I notice spaces where stood those who have been here in previous years.

Ceremony over. Poignant as always. Ritual done, the standards lead the procession back to church. I walk away, the opposite direction, needing some time to look at waters.


Full Dark Harvest

Full dark falls so quickly now that it’s November. In the countryside away from streetlights it is quickly complete. Driving my warm-cabin car I am surprised to see lights where I expected none – on a road I have been walking and driving all of my life. In addition this is a dropped temperature evening and the clear sky is showing a wide array of stars.

Fireworks, my brain answers, before the question was formed. (This is England; it’s that time of year.

But my brain is wrong. This is a pair of machines like something from a future-shock science fiction action movie set on another world. Hugs agricultural monsters that intimidate, dwarf and obliterate the crop of maize that has marched in all it’s life stages across these fields since spring. Sweet corn plants rank and file like Roman legionaries arranged in battle order; plants that loomed high over the mixed species hedges.  Maize plants like the cereal equivalent of the Swiss army pen-knife crossed with the high technology multi-purpose weapon staff used by Predators in the film series: sharp, smooth, thin, thick, flexible, strong, and adaptable.

And agricultural work being done after the sun has set by these mechanised robot crustaceans with their intense arcs of light and a remote driver so small and high above the cutter bar, the walker floor and the gears and guts of the machine. The lights are arrayed over the cab, facing forward and down, making visible the limits of the stage-wide mower; and forward to light up the path that must be followed, slavishly through the standing crop. From where I stand, in the dark on what used to be a bridge, the driver in his dimly lit cabin appears to be being turned by the wheel, not the other way around.

It’s like watching H.G. WellsMartian tripods stalking contemptuously across the countryside imposing difference and dominance. Three metre tall corn plants reduced to shredded chaff by the second in enormous amounts then screwed up an auger pipe and flung into a slave trailer, something the size of an upturned garage with mighty prison-steeled sides. The relay of trailers that pirouette and twirl alongside the mother ship harvester move away, with orange flashing beacons sending cars scuttling, cowed onto the uncut grass verges. There is precision in the driving. The dust and chaff thrown pell-mell from the the snout of the pipe is lit by more high-powered lights. This is a vast, industrial scaled harvest waltz. Before my eyes, fields that took two days to combine wheat from are turned into deep-rutted patches of wet earth from which short splinters of cane protrude.


In previous years, when conditions have been far better for growth the maize has been harvested while still green. This crop is dried out, stalks and leaves becoming pale cream and lifeless.

I am not sure what use the harvested debris will be put to (animal bedding perhaps?) but, aware of how small I am alongside these behemoths I creep back into my car and depart.

Perhaps this apparent, wanton destruction is purposeful after all.



Spent a couple of sun-warmed hours building the bonfire. Kindling from the hedgerow, bigger stuff from gardens of various relatives and some wrecked-as-therapy furniture from my brother’s house. Going for the usual classic pyramid fire, settled in and balanced with some apple and oak logs eight plus feet long. When finished aesthetically pleasing and satisfying. Just the will it rain/will it light questions to be answered.
We’ve been having some kind of family bonfire for as long as I can remember and various friends, neighbours and acquaintances putting in appearances.
Tonight is no exception. The fire lights fairly quickly, with the assistance of some heavy-duty cardboard bike packing boxes. The chill air is soon warm and filled with floating sparks and pale ash flakes. The fire throws a friendly light around too, coats are discarded and fireworks lit and enjoyed. Conversation and the crackling flames; happy sounds of celebration and comradeship.
Seems odd, of course, that we celebrate treason (or actually it’s discovery and failure) and burn an effigy of one of the conspirators (though, I believe one of the least important, politically speaking), one Guy Fawkes (an Anglicisation of his Spanish name). The Gunpowder Plot was meant to kill the Protestant king in the Houses of Parliament and set up a Roman Catholic monarchy. Failed. The final stages of the captures and killing of the last of the plotters took place here in the English midlands.
I wonder as the fire topples in on itself, whether this counts as early terrorism.
The stunning light and sound spectacle of the fire and the explosions and bright temporary constellations flung across the skies are remarkable. This fire is on Saturday, there will be fires and parties over at least the next week, and with luck I will see more displays. I love fireworks!
But, standing apart from the group, usually one of the last to leave the scene, I hear rolls of explosions beyond the high tree-lined horizon. It’s gunpowder. Some huge bursts. Modern fireworks are hurled into the sky like mortar bombs. The technology is modern and sophisticated. There are repeated crack-crack-cracks. Harsh. Fast. From our own display spills the smell of chemicals used. They are explosives after all. They are missiles. They burn at fantastically high temperatures.
It could be the sounds of battle. Very close. The sound of rifle fire, bombs, mines. The flashes that dazzle and shadow the sky.
It will be Remembrance Day (11th November here) and I am transported momentarily. How do serving soldiers react to firework celebrations? Does it set off some nerves? Some memories? And for veterans of conflict, whether military or civilian? There are wars being waged at the moment – the moment in which I am enjoying the more positive sides of gunpowder – lest we forget.
Moments later, the embers raked out, I am in a car, listening to Mumford and sons, heading back to my home where there will be welcome laughter, warmth, jacket potatoes, sausages and beer.

Tomorrow, no doubt the air will feel colder.
4th November, 2012

Ash, Whichever Way You Look at It.

Collecting fuel for our annual family bonfire this morning. Collect it the day before building it. Light on the day it’s built. Hedgehog friendly. Some heavier stuff for the heat and tokeep the fire going. Some light kindling – to get it started. Good to be out and walking, noticing the fungus, the high wheeling gulls and autumn birdsong. Newly arrived migrants announcing their arrival perhaps.

But also scraping up piles of leaves for the allotment.  I suddenly notice that all of the leaves I am pushing into the big plastic bag (once held compost from the allotment shop) are ash leaves.

My, my, my, how the tree profile here has changed I realise. In former years there would have been mostly alder (now past their prime and into slow decline), oak (nowadays seeming to hold the dry brown foliage until spring winds sweep it down) and the ubiquitous sycamore (still here with gorgeous flaming yellow leaves still pinned onto branch and twig).

My grandfather planted the one in the wood near to where I am working. It was a small sapling he rescued from the walled garden at the hall. Now it is quite mature. So much so that it’s own seeds have spread, germinated, grown and are now scattering the leaves, complete with feather-quill like stems. The leaves, from the edge of the country lane are damp and muddy (so should decompose quickly when added to the three meter diameter wire “cage” I have rigged up on our plot. I will add them to the apple, pear, rowan and lime leaves that came – four weeks ago – from our back lawn. The weather will break it down to make a good leaf mould – no nutrients but good for soil structure and adding beneficial micro organisms.

Coincidentally, the national news is talking about a fungal infection that is fatal to ash trees spreading (apparently from continental Europe) into East Anglia. Trade and global warming may be putting an end to the trees that I think of as native British – and, while change is change and quite necessary, I hope some of these fine trees will survive in our landscape.

Practically I also collect some of the windblown branches of these trees for the fire, long straight whippy branches that will be good to get it lit.

“Ash seer or ash green

Makes a fire fit for a queen. “

(Ash which, incidentally, I also plan to collect to add to the ground at the allotment.)



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