Archive for November, 2016

“The Thing About Land …”

 

“That’ll be your mother,” my wife guesses. It’s this “game” we play: trying to guess who is calling when the landline ‘phone rings. It is not so difficult to guess, in point of fact as so few people use it; most sending texts, e-mails or using the mobile numbers.

But, this time she’s wrong.

It’s Margaret: sometime caller and supplier of horse dung. From the seven or more Shetland ponies that she keeps as a labour of love, now that her daughter has left home and out-grown the habit (and the ponies). Only seven now? I will ask her … and she confesses that she has “let the others go.”

I was going to nip up the allotment for a spell of winter-digging anyway, so meet her up there to open the gate. She is a hardy soul, struggling to shovel the stuff out of the trailer. She needs a hip replacement she tells me, but the first doctor said she had to lose weight … and the second is trying a course of – painful – injections before recommending the bone masonry. It’s not just her hip, its her back too … but it doesn’t stop her wielding a mean shovel.

“Is the allotment ready for winter?” she wants to know. Truth to tell, on our site there’s probably only the perennial prize-winning brothers who could truly answer yes to that one (and they probably, modestly, wouldn’t).

I haven’t quite got used to the sight of the missing fence panels at the end of the path, and alongside the Plantation owner’s Wife’s plot. This morning there is a pair of brightly painted yellow construction wagons parked in the house garden (The house owners are involved in the building trade apparently). A striking, cheerful colour, JCB yellow!

I am struck that taking something out of the landscape has a dramatic effect (power station cooling towers for example – or fence panels) as much as adding something (the aero generators springing up around and about). Speaking of which, from the top of the slope the two new “windmills” (they are definitely not mills – but pick up the name so easily) outside Penkridge are slowly turning, and to their left the chimney at Veolia’s Energy Recovery Facility that produces energy by incinerating waste is emitting fumes (doubtless monitored and safe). This is energy production in its latest form. I have a friend who believes in wind power, but reminds me that “on the coldest day of the year (when you want your kettle for a cup of tea, your electric radiators on etc.) there is zero wind.”

 

Since I last noted the “boundary dispute” the house owner and I have had a couple of friendly exchanges: him saying there is nothing personal in what is going on; me saying that I do not have a role to play in the dispute, that we just pay rent for land and want to “dig a bit and grow potatoes.” Essentially correct, though I feel the loss of the hedgerow will remove a wonderful habitat for wildlife and a corridor linking various other wildlife friendly areas. And there’s such a wonderful variety of species growing in the hedge too: shrubs and undercover plants like foxgloves and campions. A lot added by us as we repaired the hedge damaged by the fence erectors. Oh and the log pile where we found the great crested newts is in the hedgerow.

A line from a book (completely unrelated as its a New York crime story) springs into my mind:

“… thing about land, son, is they’re not makin’ any more of it …”

He’s moved his fence panels, because he can … and “my independent surveyor” (not sure if that’s an oxymoron) “has put in some posts where my land ends.”

The rest is really up to the authority I tell him. The parish council own the allotments, though it is run, on their behalf, by an elected committee of plot holders.

As I am barrowing the muck along the path, a job to warm the body and pump the heart, others arrive. Why not? It is a warm day, high, dry blue skies, little wind and a bright sun. Cold weather is predicted – and we surely cannot have many more days like this one. It is nearly December after all.

And a jaunty little robin hopping from noticeboard to fence to dung heap takes the chance to grab a take away. She (or he) sings that instantly recognisable thin tune in the sunshine; easy to become anthropomorphic and imagine that this bird is happy with the world.

We all stop at one point and stare at a massive Emirates (obvious from the logo spread across its belly) plane, gracefully curving across the skies. An Airbus A 380, either beginning its approach to Birmingham International Airport – or just leaving. It is genuinely enormous, weighing 566 tons and seats for nearly seven hundred people, but is whisper-quiet, seeming to float through the air as it gently turns and moves away, edges of the wings sparkling.

What clever creatures we are: moving from wondering how birds fly to designing and operating these machines. Aircraft never cease to amaze me: the forms, the science, the adventure, the scope. But this is a really beautiful beast of a craft: functional but stylish.

After shifting all of the muck I spend forty five minutes forking over the soil. With the few annual weeds popped into the barrow and perennials dropped onto up-turned bread trays to dry out before being burned the soil feels good; dark and fine. This is single digging this year, with a fork, then ladling garden compost over the surface so that weather and worms can work it into the ground over time. It will need some lime on it too, but that is better done in spring. I get as far as the last few leeks before deciding to call it a day.

Walks and Memories.

There’s a lovely walk on Cannock Chase that stretches from the German Cemetery (with a salutary memorial and the graves of German, Commonwealth and Allied soldiers who died over here) past the Katyn Memorial Stone (commemorating the massacre of Polish intelligentsia and influential by the NKVD, a Soviet secret police organisation) in April and May 1940.  to the Springslade Lodge which we did on Friday.

Image result for german cemetery cannock chase Image result for katyn memorial cannock

The eleventh day of the eleventh month on which in 1918 peace was signed in a railway carriage somewhere near Paris at eleven in the morning. Armistice Day … when all went quiet on the western front.

Bright skies, plenty of space. Walking alongside the well-manicured lawns and graveyard I feel sorry for the single Polish guy buried there – but at least he is remembered I guess.

Just after eleven we are approaching a pair of noisy crows that have a juvenile buzzard trapped in a silver birch. On is sitting on a flexing branch above the bewildered young buzzard; bouncing the branch, getting closer and closer to the bird’s head, aiming vicious pecks at the head, at the eye.

The second keeps mobbing from different points, keeping the victim guessing. A smaller bird of prey such as a sparrow hawk would have the agility and power to make a getaway, but from a lumbering take off this buzzard can only end up nearer to the ground. Nature is red in tooth and claw, buzzards are not the cleanest of birds but this one has my pity. Crows are always there when there is trouble, or seeking it out. And, as this pair scream their defiance and threats, no doubt others will be drawn in.

We sit inside the tea shop, wonderful wood burner warming the brightly decorated room and the tea is just the job.

This morning (Remembrance Sunday) we stroll up the Walsall Road to attend the ceremony at the War Memorial (opposite the chippy). Yesterday was rain, rain and more rain but this morning is again warm and dry. We manage to pass the scouts HQ before the parade sets out and, meeting my mother, get a place beneath the lime trees, behind the rope.

Image result for war memorial great wyrley

There are people there that I recognise, chat with or nod to. I am impressed that there are a lot more younger people turning up. This has, pleasingly been the trend over the past ten or so years, reversing what had been a fall-off in numbers – at the very same time that those who survived the wars were passing on. A wholly good thing; that and the increase in the number of charities championing ex-servicemen and their families and the inspiring developments at the National Memorial Arboretum at nearby Alrewas: planted and built on land once quarried for gravel. I have been lucky enough to see this place from a pipe-dream to the spreading acres containing so many tangible memorials with a – sadly – wonderful centre piece listing the names of all servicemen killed in action since the end of the Second World War.

Image result for national memorial arboretum

Memories, of course, come along. Jack Plant, my schoolmate’s father who had been a P.O.W. in the Death Railway camps. And our girls either in the High School Band (Great Wyrley) performing or on parade with 196 Bloxwich ATC. And, further back the parades I attended myself as either a short-trousered cub or scout.

Memories are also affecting another man, who stands nearby, tears quietly running down a cheek from behind spectacle lenses. He is alone and I am, embarrassingly, torn; on one hand I feel I should approach him, speak with him, see if he wants to share his thinking. On the other hand perhaps he just wishes to spend a few quiet moments remembering … well, whatever it is that has brought him to this point. I have no tissue to offer him, by way of subtle introduction and, being English, I am a million miles away from the respectful, but somewhat brash – to them absolutely acceptable – approach of people in the States who warmly approach veterans and shake them by the hand*, involve them in conversation. But it is a poignant moment, and by the time I have collected the nerve to move towards him he is already moving away – and I am intercepted by a friend.

There is a second memorial now, inside the original wrought iron gates (the posts of which have the names of locals lost in the two world wars on them). And wreaths and tributes are laid here – or by the tree that commemorates the Japanese Campaign veterans.

This is the weekend of the “super moon”. Literally the nearest the moon has been to earth, or will be for the next forty plus years. Unfortunately the weather forecast suggests we will only be able to see it, if at all, through November rain clouds.

Image result for super moon october 2016

Later, digging at the allotment I pause for a moment. Instantly there is a tiny robin landing close by my elbow. He (or she) cocks the head, looks into my eyes. Very smartly plumaged, though not bright breeding colours perhaps this is a young one. Any road up most welcome on the plot, to take out pests. A thrush is also busy in the hedgerow bottom, hopefully also tucking into slugs and snails.

Another task to add to the to-do list:

Buy nuts and “stuff” and start feeding the birds!

*This is not, in any way criticism of that, rather a cooler, traditional English habit that sits with me – sometimes good, sometimes not so.

How To Start A Fight In Sunderland ?

As a child it always seemed much colder after bonfire night. I don’t know but maybe gathering wood from the local hedgerows and copses was the last real excuse before building snowmen for venturing outside. After the communal friends-and-relatives-fire maybe I just hunkered down in the house – habitually spreading out on the floor in front of a roaring coal fire – until the snow came … and I missed the gradual turning from one to the other.

But we are now faced by about six weeks of “longer darknesses”: then the sun gradually getting higher in the sky. Christmas is coming, snow will make the world seem brighter with reflected light of a different quality.

Meantime there are tasks to get done.

Clearing up the bonfire after a few days of rain (and work) gets priority. The brilliantly efficient fire has, inevitably, left some metal ware (door furniture, six inch nails, part melted beer cans and discarded sparkler wires) that need picking up. The sad sticks of expended rockets and the plastic cones that held fireworks to the ground too need to go into the bin.

While I am doing this I am treated to the spectacle of modern agricultural hedge maintenance. Two massive road-blocking tractors each with attached machinery versus the holly/hawthorn borders of the fields and the taller trees (alder and sycamore) along the edge of the wood. Skilful manoeuvring by the drivers; back and forth and adjustments to the cutting (flailing heads of the cleverly articulated long-reach arms that do the brutal work. The first tractor, clean blue,  sides, tops and then puts a neat, uniform batter along the hedge. I can only approve but marvel at the speed. This hedge, maintained by my grandfather (and I) back in the day would have taken a couple of weeks by hand. Although we would also have done the then-traditional clearing and upkeep of drainage ditches (now seriously neglected).The work was always both warming and satisfying.

Image result for hedge cutting england

But the second machine leaves broken, scarred ends to branches. It is not tidy and looks unpleasant. There is a chain of thought that says, for example the when “pruning” soft fruit it is naturally beneficial to break off the branches to better stimulate new, productive growth. I have no proof of this, but maybe it is correct; looking at the battered, jagged edges of the trees I am both shocked and unconvinced. Surely these are places for disease to enter?

The ash tree my aforementioned grandfather planted escapes any treatment: just a little beyond the limits. It still threatens the telephone cables that zig and zag from pole to pole. Each twig already tipped with the typical black, tight buds. But the leaves have fallen across the road. Tempting, so as I did last year I bag them and take them up to the plot.

Here, things seem to be afoot. The fence panels between allotments and neighbouring house re removed. The owner of the house is currently seeking to extend his land onto the allotments. There is a stand-off with the parish council. We have been told as plot holders affected that if we notice anything we should contact the parish council.

This is definitely urgent – and somebody needs to know. I ring my wife: she can get on the ‘phone. Meanwhile there’s a possibility I can get to the Parish Clerk before she leaves for the weekend. The offices are being tidied up by the caretaker. She is brilliant; reassuring. She contacts the councillor directly. Within fifteen minutes I have arranged to meet representatives of the parish council (who own the land) at the “top gate” in the morning.

I have gently mentioned this “threat” to our borders in earlier posts; this is the latest, and most direct sign that ups the challenge to the boundaries. Earlier, the fence panels – which belong to the house owner have been removed and the four or five burly guys told the Plantation Owner’s Wife that they were moving the fence. An intimidating situation as she was alone on the site. She reported it to the allotments committee chair. Who, in turn notified the land owners (the parish council).

Between then and now there have been stirrings, but this seems an attempt to escalate (following a “complaint” from the house owner to the parish council that they were dragging their feet on confirming ownership of the land). The council’s position was it seems that he had not provided sufficient documentation – and that he should be providing the proof!

Saturday morning is damp but we meet the pair up at the gates. I am, frankly surprised that the parish council don’t actually have a key to the site for such cases: they own the land after all. We stroll down … sure enough the four fence panels are still missing, but there is no sign of any other work: footprints, damaged bushes (we have replace the ancient hawthorn, privet and elder that were destroyed when the fence was built) with soft fruit and wildlife friendly species – and thickened the hedge with hazel , oak and a laburnum that has grown from a seed dropped by a tree my grandfather planted in my grandmother’s hedgerow.

With this in mind no actual crime has been committed. Either the guy is replacing – or treating both sides of his fence panels – or testing to see what reaction (if any – it was only by chance that I was visiting the site) he provokes. No reaction at all: push a bit harder; some reaction: nothing actually done wrong – at this stage.

During the visit, however, we split into two parties and I’m having a warm conversation with the councillor. Is that a Geordie accent I detect? Before I can ask he’s volunteering that his father had an allotment, somewhere near Sunderland. His punishment for wrongdoings as a child was to be sentenced to “dig the allotment”; not surprisingly he hasn’t taken on an allotment himself since then. But he tells of the pride the plotholders had in raising the champion show leeks.

Image result for mammoth leek

“No good for eating,” he remembers, “but enormous!”

And the raids perpetrated on allotments by ne’er-do-wells.

“The worst insult you could use was to call somebody a leek-slasher,” he tells me.

“You can insult my mother, my wife, my work, but if you call me a leek-slasher I’m goin’ to belt you one!”

“it’s the quickest way to start a fight in Sunderland!”

On the way out the secretary of the allotments committee is very tentatively reversing his 4X4 into a parking space. I fill him in with what has been happening. His reaction is somewhat muted.

I wonder aloud if the committee might have a spare movement-activated camera they could rig up. His comeback was that they had considered putting one up when the pears were swiped ( http://www.mucktwineandthinker.wordpress.com/2016/10/26/theft-the-plot-sometimes-sickens ) but could only think to put it on the trunk of an apple tree:

“… and what if they came to take your apples, they’d surely have taken the camera as well eh?”

I’m quietly wondering what would be the point of pointing a camera at a stripped-of-all-fruit tree, but refrain from voicing my thoughts.

In the meantime we agree that we will monitor any further developments and keep in touch. My paranoid fear is that by then the hedge will have been damaged beyond repair and it will be more difficult to regain control of the situation. However I am unable to think of another solution.

But this has been a feel-good, community-in-action very supportive response from the parish council.

Long may it continue.

What to do with the Blown-Down Leaves?

While the weather has been wonderfully warm extending a late summer magically into early November (what an unexpected delight the tall cosmos flowers still waving in the home “sunny border” still are even after a couple of light overnight frosts) of course it cannot continue forever.

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But so far there haven’t been the strong winds that blast all of the leaves from the trees. Wonderful but also frustrating: our back lawn is carpeted with butter yellow leaves from the small leaved lime. Living in a house built in the late 1960s/early 70s we are, happily surrounded by gardens that boast mature trees. Now it is possible to see again the three year old magpies nest in the twin trunked silver birch, apples still left on a couple of trees over the eight foot wall and cones on the Korean pine. But as I well know I’ll clear all this fall of leaves up , put ‘em into bags and the next morning the wind’ll have me doing it all over again. I have some notion of the – now frightfully dated – middle class family in the Ladybird Books which was part of my primary school reading scheme in which the father, smoking a pipe, raked up leaves from the lawn, wheelbarrowed them to a pile and set fire to them.

This confused me somewhat. At our house the leaves were always added to a trench in the vegetable garden. But burning them was better? In what way? Certainly I have always loved a good fire but surely this was a natural benefit to the soil to add the leaf mould?

These books, so set in time and place, have been spoofed by recent publications (The Ladybird Book of the Shed, How It Works: The Husbaand) and some performed a couple of years ago on the BBC Radio programme chaired by the Late Sir Terry Wogan.

Image result for ladybird books

It is also worth mentioning in passing the original wonderfully illustrated Ladybird series What to Look for in Winter. A book for each of the seasons, which a friend cuttingly said had posed pictures “because it just wasn’t possible that so many species would ever be in the same space at the same time.” I think the artist was C.F. Tunnicliffe, who, if memory serves also designed stamps for the Royal Mail.

Image result for ladybird what to look for in autumn

Speaking, or rather more correctly writing, about reading (well it was kind of, wasn’t it?) I have still to get started on Salar the Salmon, but have been pondering why I enjoyed it so much the first time I read it (as a child) and why, even when I watched the film I didn’t see all of the story: the context of social structures, the evocation of seasons and landscapes. I wonder what the story would mean to a youngster reading it in this, the twenty first century (where and when few things are as they were). Maybe Richard Adam’s animal fable Watership Down, or the adventures of The Animals of Farthing Wood might mean more?

Image result for animals of Farthing Wood

Back to gathering up the leaves however. The skies overhead remain optimistic and bright; fantastic however in the week leading up to November 5th (British celebrations of Bonfire/Guy Fawkes Night) suggested that the actual day (Saturday for once this year) will have a dry, cold evening: a perfect night, in other words for a fine fire and fireworks!

So, my small quandary is whether to take the leaves to the allotment for the usual pile-of-leaves mound or take ‘em down to mom’s to add to the bonfire. Any advice Janet? John?

5th November is also my brother’s birthday and so, living as a child in the Staffordshire countryside these two facts were wonderful reasons for celebrations. Neighbours, friends and relatives (sometimes all one and the same thing!) joining together to build bonfires of epic sizes and organise a firework display; by the by each of us children were given responsibilities (“You’re old enough to light the fireworks now … but be careful what you are doing.”) and, in turn these duties have been passed on to our own children.

A couple of years ago, sadly we lost a marvellous friend (of many years and bonfires) who was killed literally buying fireworks for that year’s bonfire. Stewart Staples (God bless yer mate, we miss you!).

It is, of course, more complicated now. To get everyone together (we live so far apart) but we have been able to keep up the tradition: bonfire at my mother’s house, food and drinks at our house. Preparations have to begin early; clearing the weeds – mainly nettles that grow in the “bonfire patch”, collecting the fuel (skip-diving, hedge trimmings, casual walks along the lanes, old cast-out furniture) … then building the pile on the morning (current wisdom says building it earlier may have hedgehogs – a species in some danger of extinction, building hibernation dens in it and being killed when the fire is lit.

I drive down the November morning roads and, with brother-in-law Geoff, stack up the wood. There are also umpteen sacks of papers from next door (what are neighbours for if not to do each other favours?) that need burning. They go into the bottom of the pile. My brother doesn’t make it to this part of the process; he and I were in Leamington Spa the night before at an Ian Hunter (and the Rant Band concert – and he’s never been famous as an early riser, let’s face it (my brother that is, not Ian Hunter)).

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He is, however, properly on time to get us to the Walsall F.A. Cup game against Macclesfield. The less said about the game the better the beer as once the respectful Remembrance silence had been observed it all went downhill in a pear shaped fashion. This is our last home game before November 11th (Armistice Day) –  a day dedicated to remembering those who lost their lives – or had their lives affected – by the Great (and subsequent) Wars. The symbol of this, as I was taught, is the field poppy. Because, it is said these were the first flowers to show on the battlefields when peace returned. (Confusingly in a recent pub quiz the answer to a question revealed that the French use a “cornflower” (or should that be a bluebell?) as the symbol of remembrance. Discussion over this takes some time and passes the boring passages of play during the game (and there are more than a few of those … unless you are a Silkmen* fan

Then, with darkness and star ridden skies beckoning, avoiding the massive influx of cars and associated poor parking we dodge the Star Bonfire crowds, head down the road and get ready to light the fire.

The fire lights very easily – why not, it was built by self-confessed experts? -, burns well, beers are passed around; new people join the group (strangers are only friends who haven’t yet met each other) and fireworks crackle and fizz. Some spectacular rockets, though the descending carcasses I will discover next morning, miss us only by a couple of wide strides.

 

The skies above are beautifully clear, constellations visible with a low, less-than half moon. As usual the side of me facing the roaring fire is too hot, but my back is cold. Maybe this is the real purpose of bonfire night: a reminder that there is going to be cold now and indoors is a good place to be. I remember ,as a child, having the thought that I could keep a bonfire going for a whole year; lighting next year’s fire with a spark from the previous year’s fire. I knew that, if I could steal fifteen minutes before going to school I could add enough fuel to keep it alight until school finished, then add more to keep it going over night … Reality cruelly kicks in at some point, but memories crept in while I was watching the fire (as they will I guess).

Back to the house for the cornucopia: burgers, hot dogs, salads, dips, bread, a choice of cheese, biscuits and … birthday cake – of course.

Oh yeah: what did I do with the four bags of assorted leaves? I trucked them up to the allotment where we will leave them to decompose and add them to the soil as a conditioner in spring (usually spread on top of dug soil so that earthworms will drag them down into their burrows. Couldn’t bring myself to waste the potential.

 

* Why are Macclesfield known as the Silkmen?

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