Archive for January, 2014

Impatient to Plant ?

Struggling against a suddenly-powerful wind while crossing a canal bridge in Nottingham on Saturday made me realise how different things are to this time last year. It is so much milder this year, we have had (and are still having) rain by the bucketful and many parts of the country are flooded. The Somerset Levels for example, shown on TV news clips filmed from helicopters,  as absolutely and extensively inundated. Sewage treatment works are underwater and houses, farms and businesses – not just there but elsewhere – are damaged and will take months, if not longer to recover. Some local protestors claim it is the policy of not dredging the rivers that is to blame. Politicians promise glibly to sign off on submitted plans (in six weeks’ time) if they are viable. So … not everything is different then eh?

Last year if I remember well enough we were overcome with snow. Schools were closed, railways, air travel and motorways affected by the savage depth of snow and cold.

At home this year we have blue tits carrying nesting material into the nest boxes (one out front, one in the back garden) and other birds in what appears to be full “courtship” plumage. I remember my grandfather always saying that 14th February (Valentine’s Day for romantic humankind) was the day birds paired up with some wry affection. Up on the plot our ground, at the bottom of a slope is soggy, digging unthinkable and the soil is heavy and waterlogged. The November-sown broad beans are shooting up: two disciplined, double rows and the third I sowed to use up the seed unruly by comparison. The autumn planted onion sets are doing less well, but have time to recover. But rhubarb is showing – and looks so delicate  in the powerful low sunlight.  Weeds are germinating, wouldn’t you know?


And my “allotment brain” is maybe getting carried away by the warmth. I am impatient to get seeds into the ground. Surely it’s warm enough?Surely it won’t turn cold. Not now? And another part of my brain argues back: “What’s the rush? It’s only January. Give it time: let’s see what happens.”

I have a raised bed to build … but my excuse is that it’s too wet, that our daughter has borrowed the rechargeable drill I will need to make an elegant job of it. Jim, you should know laughed and advised me to put elegance aside, that even when I try for it I fail. (Thanks Jim!)

There is, you see good quality topsoil left over from the community area building project – and it needs moving. Our raised beds do need some work so … the wooden sides having rotted over the seven years they have been in place.


We have the slabs to install a decent path down the side of plot 4D but the soggy ground ahs so far prevented any real work on this. Incredibly there are still pot marigolds, scabious and pinks in flower at the allotment: they haven’t stopped since the summer!

A couple of weeks to go until fees are due to be paid. Hoping for another rain free couple of weekends. Get the money in, give out the seeds and seed potatoes, free bacon butties reward for early payment and me in charge of the fire-pit that acts as an excuse to kick stones and talk over things that people talk about around fires (but can’t always remember afterwards). Er, does that happen to you?

But yesterday I satisfied myself with a bit of tidying up. We had four crates of “between houses” strawberry plants for our daughter, who won’t be able to use them (long story about landlords and gardens). So I carted these up the plot and popped them in. That’s when I realised how cold the soil and the wind are. It was good, however to be doing something positive. I moved some self-sown Maltese campions and marjoram into the bed to fill it. I am always happy to fill in the odd little corners with flowering plants and herbs. For me they add a welcome informality, play a role in attracting insects (natural predators, pollinators or just simple wonders like butterfly species).

The very dramatic storm In Nottingham which had lightning-and-thunder seen and heard at the same time, heavy horizontally blown hail, that caused us to seek shelter in the lee of some canal-side industrial warehouse and lifted crisp packets and debris from the road in mini-whirlwinds actually ripped roofs off garages and houses in other nearby Midlands towns, soaked the Notts. County pitch and for health and safety reasons meant the match was played without ball boys. The game and events around it are another story. For another day. Another blog?

Images: www.




The first snow of winter, so late in getting here covers the ground between me and the table. I’m just sucking air, no place to go. Kind of thinking about enjoying the cold. But also kind of the opposite, know what I mean here?
But my eyes are filled with a commotion. They must be recent immigrants these guys. I don’t understand a squeak of their conversation. But they’re uniformed and the one piece boiler suits are nailed with badges and sponsor tags and rivets, well that’s how it looks. They’re young enough to bustle and push at one another, swap places in what might loosely be described as a queue in any other country but England. And this is England, so they appear brash and rude, spilling food onto the floor raucously. My guess is that they’re mechanics in the local tyre and silencer fitting place. That hey have travelled this far together and will look after one another.
But they are gone as soon as they appeared… and the space misses their noise and busyness.
The next visitors are just as confident, but smaller and far less mature. Like, again I’m guessing, like military cadets on a weekend’s residential camp. Staying somewhere near. Yes, they are wearing the same kind of clothes. Brown drab. Drab that is until you look more closely and see all the details where one tone, one colour links into another I recall being told by a high school art teacher that I should not need to outline the things in my paintings with black lines, because God doesn’t. They are still sorting out their own pecking order, some shuffle around the water feature, some race to the table, backing down when one or two more confident ones get too close. But even as I watch I am aware that each and every one has something to eat, despite the apparent chaos.
Less confident, but definitely attractive is a small single mother, who last year brought up her two children in a one-roomed flat above the garage. The rumour mill suggests the youngster’s father was taken by a serial killer who some have seen around these parts. Who’s to know. There were no witnesses … or at least none left alive to tell the tales.Where the children of the partnership have gone since then I am not sure. And I am almost certain she doesn’t know either. Does that make her a bad mother. It ought to, but somehow I keep failing to make myself think of her in that way. She is always energetic, but this morning with pale blue and bright yellow she seems to be flirtatious, as if actively joining the human race that looks for company. It is good to see. She picks up her food and takes it to a nearby bench where she sits and pecks at it, always flicking her head around to see the lie of the land – and more perhaps? She moves away when the black and white robed priest moves across her vision. Moves quickly as if more than just startled by his upright parrot like stature. I identify with her for a brief moment but my eyes are pulled back to the latest arrivals.
Four of them together. Three males, one female. Again long distance with the experienced presence and simple black dress. I am put in mind of the riders of big tourist bikes in the United States. They have authority because in their other lives they are professionals: dentists, airline pilots, university professors. They know their way around even if this is their first visit here. they know how these places work. They are efficient feeders. Nothing falls to the ground. They take their time. A little nibble at the fruit, then moving on. Perhaps they will be back … maybe with other friends. Perhaps not at all.
Further back, in the shadowed shelter of the trees sit three dumpy figures, seeming either to know better than visit this eatery or being unwilling to risk it. They move in unison, like three old grandmothers, looking first to the left, then to the right and he imagines them with knitting needles and balls of wool, nodding and tutting at the goings on and passers-by.
They are still on the lawn when the shy one appears. She reminds me of one of the women who works on the supermarket checkout tills. Red fronted uniform a little the worse for wear. As if she’s just nipped out for a snack. She is shy. But she can sing so perfectly. I have heard her voice and it brightens up the darkest of evenings, just before the sun goes down. But she lacks confidence and will not openly sing, so I hear her songs as if she is in hiding. She bobs and moves quickly but there is little food left.
He will have to go and dig out the bag of peanuts, mealworms and mixed seeds to top up the feeders on the bird table if he wants to see more and let his imagination play like this again.

still life of reeds and weeds on white

the hour of soft light...

still life of reeds and weeds on white

We also write to heighten our own awareness of life. We write to lure and enchant and console others. We write to serenade our lovers. We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection. We write, like Proust, to render all of it eternal, and to persuade ourselves that it is eternal. We write to be able to transcend our life, to reach beyond it. We write to teach ourselves to speak with others, to record the journey into the labyrinth. We write to expand our world when we feel strangled, or constricted, or lonely.


We write as the birds sing, as the primitives dance their rituals. If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it. When I don’t write, I feel my world shrinking. I…

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Chasewater Fossils ?

Chasewater. An expanse of water, which apparently way back in time was simply called Norton Pool, then somebody at the local council (I imagine) had the said brainwave of romanticising it (to make it more of a tourist attraction perhaps) and got some giddily-advised inspiration from the absolutely-different-in-all-respects  Lake District (Derwent Water, Wastwater) … and hey presto!

I do remember attempts to “beachify” the place, with a fairground and adventure playground with both a paddling and boating pool as attractions.

I certainly knew it as a reservoir feeding the local canal system, including eventually the Shropshire Union Canal (Which runs from Birmingham to Ellesmere Port (I know I’ve done the journey on a narrow-boat). Other local people have told me that the water was originally used to wash coal from the pits that literally pepper and undermine the whole area. The mystery has really always been – for me at any rate – where the water came from to fill the reservoir … there is no land higher so no streams flow into the water to the very best of my knowledge.

More recently Chasewater, walled in with a concrete dam wall became part of a local conspiracy theory. The lake was drained. Apparently surveyors believed the wall might crack and the lower-lying land around it would be flooded – and that might include Lichfield.

(It was amazing to walk around the drained lake and be able to see the bottom – in which a number of walkers got trapped, curiosity being what it is! The bottom of the lake is clay, whether deliberately puddled or occurring naturally is irrelevant. A sunken metal framed boat was also discovered at the bottom and that lead to no end of salacious rumours (murder, elopement, illicit rendezvous … and the wry comment in a local newspaper that it would have been newsworthy if an aeroplane had been discovered, but a boat … in a lake ??))

Council appointed experts predicted that it could take up to seven years for the reservoir to re-fill and people began to believe that the council would allow the refilling to fail, then sell off the land. Rumours grew.

Until the rains started! The reservoir was very soon full :to its previous levels and beyond!  Rumours washed clean away! The Sailing Club now has more water than it can comfortably bob up and down in, tack around and across and the Water Ski-Club now has more ski-jumps and jetties than before, thank you very much.

The wildlife that uses the water didn’t need to spend too long finding alternative stop over or breeding sites and the scrubby willow and birch woodlands and upland heath remain in good nick.

I decided to take the car up there yesterday and walk around it. We have had so much rain recently and precipitation in the past twelve months starting with snow last January that I did wonder if the footpaths would be inundated. So, a real adventure.

And I was able to get all of the way around. There were quite serious waves along the one shore, raised y a cold wind. They have swept all of the flotsam and jetsam across the water: swan feathers, Red Bull cans, weed, twigs and cardboard jostling endlessly up and down.


Most of the mute swans were on the small pond by the North Shore Café, with mallard, coot and a solitary moorhen. A whole flotilla of  Canada geese (more than thirty) were trying to look graceful on the main pool.

Jays, a wren and blue tits bobbed from tree to tree in front of me in some patches and wagtails flitted on and off the puddle-strewn path. Joggers and dog-walkers were out in force. A guy with binoculars – quite a few “twitchers” are drawn to the pool every now and then – wandered absently past me. There were a pair of great crested grebes, tufted ducks together like a raft and squadrons of gulls : black headed and herring ,with half a dozen terns amongst them.

The path which I thought would be below water was, surprisingly not. There is a section which includes a wooden bridged section and a boardwalk. Freshly replaced and very passable. On this path, sheltered by trees the air was warmer too and I could hear myself breathe.

Across the heathland proper, with cotton grass and flowering gorse dotted among the heather. To the Chasewater Steam Railway track and back along the opposite shore back to the car park.

Where I saw through different eyes the pieces of salvaged track, concrete “sleepers” and railway paraphernalia that is awaiting reclamation. Reminding me of nothing more than some type of bones and mechanical remains in the process of fossilisation. Maybe because I am still thinking about the Pratchett book Raising Steam or for some other reason, but I sensed the life of machine and track as somehow sentient. Alive but becoming extinct. Or maybe the rain was finally getting to me.

DSC02108 DSC02109  DSC02113 DSC02118

But with low grey clouds, puddles in the making, these pieces definitely had a presence. The more pragmatic side of me was wondering about the history of the railway there. Was there a passenger line here once upon a time, or a freight line? Or did the enthusiast build a line where none had previously been?

A day or so later, I am watching A TV programme – Speed with Guy Martin – and bless my soul if they didn’t actually use Chasewater for some of the power boat section of the programme.


Photos: boat:   jetty:

Final four: my own.


New Boots … Wet Ground.

Brand new working boots (four little words that say so much more!) for Christmas. For the allotment of course. It’s an open secret that I bought them myself on behalf of our youngest daughter so that I got a pair that felt right. That’s a little bit more than just fitted, if you know what I mean.


And I felt like a cross between one of the Village People and a genuine rough-an’-tough steel erector* when I marched – as nonchalantly as I could manage – into our local Screw-Fix store to start looking. Is it a giveaway that I didn’t actually know where the place was?

They were all on offer, Flemish bonded boxes in the yellow I will always associate with bananas, model aeroplane paint, Duplo bricks and JCB making a barricade between the entrance and the efficient camaraderie of the counter.

Casually I took the pyramid apart, finding the size that usually fits me (in normal shoes, trainers and walking boots at any rate) and tried a couple of pairs on. One pair didn’t feel comfortable around the ankles The next two pairs had steel toe caps (seems a sensible precaution when I may be doing more hard landscaping work). Not sure about the colour though. The next pair: great colour (as if it’ll matter when they’re plastered in mud and horse muck eh?) but too loose. So went for a size lower: perfect!

Wore them for the first time today. Just a cursory walkabout really … and I am surprised by just how big the allotments look. Partly because I haven’t been up here for a few days, partly because, this being winter, they are mostly bare, the bare minimum. A few small forests of sprouts, freshly savaged for Christmas lunches I imagine. Is that cruel?

The high winds have pushed our fruit cages over. Because I failed to include bracing struts when I, very proudly put them together from reclaimed timbers with my re-chargeable drill and screwdriver set. But at least they flexed in the gales. Others have lost shed roofs or had fruit cages wrecked, greenhouse glass broken and polytunnels are damaged. Winds can be strong across our plots, especially in winter.

My overall impressions are simply that the ground is absolutely saturated, little pools forming even on the freshly dug ground that usually drains away quickly. Beneath a shallow top soil built up with humus and compost by keen plotholders since 1892 there is sand; beneath that gravel. Next to the allotment there is a large sand quarry. And water usually drains away so quickly here. So this much surface water is truly unusual.

… and  that the grey-cloud caped horizon looks further away than usual. It is possible to see the chimneys now of a new waste incinerator power station. Mainly because they are marked by a very bright red light. This is part of the waste management strategy adopted by Staffordshire County Council and A French partner company.

Nipping in to see Jim I picked up our seeds but couldn’t remember whether we had ordered onion sets. Back home with the sun-setting sky turning shades of orange I sit and leaf my way through more than thirty packets of seeds. Did we really order Bull’s Blood beet? Jim was in charge of the massive seed order this year and, over Christmas had the task of sorting out the orders – his living room floors and tables had been covered with the packets and order forms as he manfully matched orders to packets. Easily more than a thousand packets … imagine that eh? We are all hoping he will do the same again next year, having had enough time to get over the upheaval this process creates.


From these packets we will – hopefully – produce mountains of produce* in the next seven or eight months: how cool is that?

*Nothing at all wrong with my imagination, thank you very much.

” … new Inspired …”

You probably will not recognise the two-word title as a steal from the amazing speech that William Shakespeare put into the mouth of John of Gaunt. Until now.

That may be because they were the wrong words ,or simply not enough of them. It’s not important. Really.

But bear with me … if you will.

It’s a new year. I have been involved in a flurry of – largely administrative – allotment action since lunch-time. Indeed I have yet to visit the plots at all in person this year.

But after the phone calls, consulting web-sites, making copious and untidy notes in my new diary I came across an intriguing invitation/ suggestion on the internet.  Prompting me, nay challenging me to find a nominated poet. Nominated by someone from Puerto Rico! Can you imagine. The background is something of a … OK, long story short then:

I “met” Deb on an on-line poetry web-site. She was a natural poet, I was trying hard: both with assumed names. I provided poems for a book, Silent Consciousness when “commissioned” and visit the site she now manages every now and then.

“Aleksander Pushkin!” she said.

What a great joy. Within half an hour and after seeking help from a friend in Romania (how marvellously helpful and incredible – in every sense of the word – the internet is!) had learned such a lot about this man and his works.

And became inspired: New year, new poet, new understanding.

So I give you the poem of his I enjoyed most (today):


I’m sitting by bars in the damp blackened cell —

The juvenile eagle, who’s bred by the jail,

My mournful friend, with his wings stretching wide,

Is picking at bloody food right by my side.


He’s picking and looking at me through the bars,

Like having a thought that is common to us,

Like calling to me with a glance and a sight,

And wanting to say, “Let us fly outside!


We’re free proud birds; it is time for the friends

To fly to the white of the rock in a haze,

To fly to the blue of the sea and the sky,

Where evenly dwell only tempests … and I!”



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