Archive for May, 2020

The Smallest Things …

Don’t know if it’s something to do with the coronavirus lockdown shenanigans, my age or just simple old-fashioned normal. We’re spending a lot more time up at the allotment, that’s for sure and that is, most certainly, down to the “new normal”. I am really pleased, if not a little smug and ashamed of it, that we have the allotment as a bonus-bolthole. That the government, apparently making so many other things up as they (and you and I) go along. Making mistakes, inevitably, owning up, rarely.

But I’m squatting on the plot, making holes with a trowel in which to drop sweetcorn plants. And I’m drawn to the patterns in the stones around my knees. They are mostly smooth, so from a river or sea bed. But, beyond that, there are so many different shades, sizes, types and I am wondering how that happened.

A beach full of rainbow rocks: Geologist puts pebbles under the ...

Dropped by melting glaciers?

For sure, I remember from my own schooldays, we sit on the boundary of the Staffordshire Coal Measures and the Bunter pebble beds. Almost next door to the allotment site is Campions Wood sand and gravel quarry.

And, in another direction a tile works that grew up using local clay from the ground when coal was also being dragged out of deep or opencast mines.

Possibly, some of the stones were raised out of the deep earth by mining activities.

But I am also driven to consider the nature of the soil. Over the decades we have been on these plots we have never ceased to put organic matter into the ground. We have three side by side compost bins, always at one stage or another of rotting down. And the soil just looks a wonderful-to-the-eye dark colour. A lot of the larger stones have been taken out, but smaller ones are important in the structure of the soil. There are scraps of dried out tree leaf, scraps of straw, bits of pottery, a few bent and burned, twisted nails left from fires, some ash, some potting compost dropped, no doubt from our planting out of seedlings and – every now and then – a bit broken off a plastic plant pot.

And what I first took to be bones of birds. Small, delicate, white hollow pieces; I seem to recall that birds have hollow bones, it makes them lighter, helps them fly. But, now I have time to spare a second thing hops into my head.

Maybe they are not bones at all, but the stems of clay pipes that were once used to smoke tobacco. I remember seeing, before pubs and restaurants necessarily closed down, a framed display of clay pipes in the somewhat exclusive confines of the “committee room at the local sports and Social club (previously the Working men’s Club). That sparked what little I knew of the things and another memory of using a clay pipe for blowing bubbles as a child. Can anyone remember such a thing (or is it the figment of a deranged imagination)?

I seem to think, before my curiosity was piqued, that they were around in the time of Nelson’s navy, the wars against Napoleon, the early 1800s. A non-smoker all of my life, I have never really stopped to think about it. When Raleigh brought tobacco (and potatoes) to England from Virginia in the New World, was it immediately turned into cigars and cigarettes?

Walter Raleigh in popular culture - Wikipedia

Or did pipes come first? Indeed, how did the native tribes in South America use tobacco? And did we just follow their lead?

My head full of these questions, as usual I get just a bit carried away. The questions, combined with the strength of the morning sun, soon have me weaving up the steeply sloping roadway to the top gates. Stopping to unlock the heavy metal gates, I spot Colleen, erstwhile secretary. Now, I know that according to Covid19 lockdown rules, I’m not supposed to stop and “chat”, but I cannot resist a reality check.

“Quick question Colleen, do you know whether any other plot holders have found clay pipes, the smoking tobacco kind, on site?”

Colleen adopts the usual strained, not-sure-what-you-mean face that is meant to buy time and sympathy when someone is asking a tricky, political question (about the long-running boundary dispute, for example). I miss a beat, wondering whether I should have just motored on home and ot stuck into a search engine.

“Over here!” a voice calls out. I look across to the neighbouring plot and see a hand, waving an empty seed packet. My eyes, drawn to the movement (Runner Beans, Scarlet Emperor) travel down the long arm, To the shoulders of a guy sitting on a home-made stool. A trowel dangles from the other hand.

“Found lots of bits of clay pipes up here,” his seed packet hand sweeps around his well-manicured plot (all of our plots are looking well maintained at the moment, not so much an obsession, more about the time we have to not do other things, like work and travel). He’s got some lovely yellow poppies and broad beans and …

“Yeah, yeah, quite a collection. Took ‘em home, kept finding more bits and pieces, day after day, like.”

“Got them all cleaned up, they’re on the mantel piece at home now. A bit of a display, like.”

So, I am not going – completely mad – then. Or, if I am, this is not exhaustive proof of the fact.

“Oh,” Colleen has processed the question by now and is attempting to join in. In a fashion. “Yes, pipes, yes … hmmm.” The head swivels to the man on the stool and back to me, “That would seem to be it, then, wouldn’t it? Hmmm, pipes.”

But typing in the phrase to Google I am bombarded with a range of much better, more appropriate information. Including the fact that, shortly after tobacco was introduced to England, a number of entrepeneur farmers and land owners had a go at growing it. This was actively discouraged by the crown and laws were passed. growing in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire continued, illegally. Crops were said to be mildly hallucinogenic! But the need for labour lifted many families out of the poverty trap.

Frankly I am embarrassed by my lack of historical knowledge. Clay pipes were, once upon a time, the very best way to partake of tobacco and were in use from the time the leaves became popular in Europe (early sixteenth century) to the beginning of the twentieth century. Those with longer stems (churchwardens), gave a cooler smoke, but were more easily damaged. They were made in moulds, apparently, with wire placed in to make the hollow stems.

Pin on The 17th-century

Then I come across this photograph, taken in the 1920s (about a hundred years ago, I have to remind myself, but still far, far more recent then my thinking and taken outside the Yew Tree public house that once stood in Cannock (in fact where I often put myself on the outside of a pint or two of brown and mild). The pub was, as is the way of things if you live long enough, demolished to make way for a supermarket in ninety eighty something.
 Most of the men (different times for sure!) would have been coal miners and smoking seemed very much in vogue (again, different times!)

So the pieces of pipe that I find in the soil were almost certainly cast off by men working their plots, whistling, digging, leaning on spades, chatting, swapping expertise or sharing a joke. I am lucky enough, during the current pandemic, to have an allotment and for working the allotment to be seen as legitimate exercise. It is my belief, however, that I am simply guardian of the ground I work; that it’ll pass on to somebody else when I have – one way or another – had my fill of the effort – and I am in a line of people that stretches out from me back into the past. To the man, or men, who, cursing their clumsiness, broke the stem of a pipe and threw it down. Or mislaid it. That line, hopefully, carries on into the future.

Who knows what odds and sods some future allotmenteer might find that I, accidentally, left behind. I hope it might give them as much pause for thought as the bits of clay pipe have given me.

Post script; I also start to wonder what archaeological finds might have been made on other allotments: anything to share?


One Man’s Waste …

Phew, there has been some overnight rain.

It is just past six of the morning. I got up, looked out and the pavement was damp, with a light rain still falling. Our front drive looks good. So far removed from the absolute wilderness (a.k.a completely neglected) corner it was last year. The paviours shine dully, the drops glisten on the sword leaves of the phormium that was generously donated by Mr Plummer. And the topping – not your standard gravel, but rather “recycled” ground down bits of old-style television tubes. I imagine the factory; it employs former rock and roll stars, a scaffolding tower with a lift and a balcony at the top. My one-time, all-time hero Keith Moon would have loved it. (OK, you’re right, of course, he never would have been satisfied to keep doing the same old thing and would probably have set about felling the tower with mini explosives.)

But, we just liked the concept and now these little gems twinkle like paste gewgaws. And I bet they keep the slugs away, one hundred per cent!

Across the road, however, something doesn’t look quite right. At number one. It takes a moment or two to figure out: something missing? A space where a space hasn’t been for weeks, a gap in the streetscape.

The skip. Of course! The family at number 1, having a massive downstairs makeover: new kitchen, multi-fuel burner, flooring, re-wiring, a wall taken out, the garage included as a living area, have had a succession of skip-after-skip skip on the drive since late in February. I have scrounged firewood, terracotta pots, the blade of a digging spade, umpteen square metres of corrugated cardboard and twelve square yards of waterproof membrane out of it.

And eight whole 60 by 60 centimetre ceramic tiles. These, in particular, demonstrate what is both best and worst in our current society. Beautifully smooth light grey in colour with a deep glazed effect. I think they are wall, or possibly floor tiles used in the new kitchen, and made in the United Arab Emirates. They have been expertly made, packaged, transported (imagine the journey – if you can), warehoused, picked out, lorried out to our little avenue, discarded as surplus to need and would have ended up in landfill somewhere. Earth to earth. But the carbon footprint of those simple molecules of what were once grains of sand/rock in a faraway land. The first info that comes up when I ask Google is either as-the-crow-flies 37230 miles or “land transport” 4340 miles. The internet calculates this as a journey taking 4 days, one hour and four minutes. Now that’s brilliant; the family across the road (any of us in the road, for that matter) can choose (and afford)tiles from a truly international shelf. And can choose (and afford) to cast any left overs into a skip. The down side of this, of course, is the cost in pollution and, just possibly, the loss of local jobs. An hour’s drag up a usually busy M6 motorway is Stoke on Trent. Once known as the Potteries, this was the centre of the world’s clay industries when I was a child. From the crème de la very crème of best china tea sets to earthenware garden pots and everything in between was produced in and around the five towns; trades, livelihoods, training and jobs for a whole community.

I snagged these tiles and – at least – put them to use. They now disguise the ugly concrete panels at the base of the back garden fence. Not glamorous but used.

But, back to my original chain of story, this morning the space where the skip stood is empty. I can no longer balance across from our bedroom window to see if I can scavenge anything useful from it’s depths. The skip, was also the more-than-virtual bar of the Skippers Club. See, if you stand at the mid-point of a side you are at least two metres away from anyone standing at that point on any of the other sides. First to sign up was Ronnie’s dad and the Carpenters (from number 1) over there. Each bringing their own beers (though Mrs C had a gin). Then Number4 joined in. And so did I. And the slightly battered, yellow sided metal skip provided the physical reality of a bar; you can lean on it with hand or elbow, tap it with a finger to make a point or rub your shoe against it to help you listen.

It has become an early evening ritual. It brings people who live in the same street together; different ages, different roles in life, different outlooks, but together. Some sharing of concerns, sifting through rumours (more people with diabetes are affected by Covid 19?), some tall stories, some revelations, some reminiscing. Community in action.

Seems Number four have a number of paving blocks they want rid of. We were planning to extend a border in the back garden; take away some lawn that is over shaded by the new fence (and is mostly moss anyway), these could be the edging, make a new path? The better half approves. We spend a good couple of hours barrowing the weighty blocks up one garden (social distancing please), out of the drive, across the cul-de-sac into our garage, then out into the back garden. We stack them on a couple of pallets sourced from number 1’s generous skip and start to prepare the groundwork: route and edges, pattern of blocks and check we have enough.

Seems they were, at some point or another, destined for an airport project, can carry a load of a hundred and ninety something tons. It sounds impressive, but, is it correct? Maybe that’s not important, you should just think that the edging to the lawn was once dreaming of being a taxiway, bearing the weight of planes coming in from faraway climes.

Planes? Not many o’ them about at the moment come to think of it. Lapwings, yes, crows, certainly, sparrows that chatter incessantly and entertain us as they gyrate, open beaked in the birdbath. Regular high-flying Royal Air Force planes, definitely. But commercial traffic: fewer than four a day.

An app on my mobile buzzed last night. The International Space Station proximity alert. I stepped outside, looked heavenwards and waited. Sure enough, serenely sailing above; going about its marvellous day-to day (during each twenty four hours it orbits earth fifteen and a half times at an altitude of four hundred and some kilometres) business. We’re in coronavirus lockdown/social distancing mode, their world is a sealed tin can made of a thousand and more little inventions knitted together.

We will get through this (and I’m not just talking about the back garden project).

Our small avenue has a different issue: that something peculiar feeling I had as I looked out? The last skip has been taken away. Just where do we assemble now?

Long Grass and Little Rain

It’s the usual annual argument. And, the fact is, I know it’s important that I cannot win. About our back lawn. She says it needs cutting. That it is just too long. I disagree. The same discussion occurs at around this time every year.

For several good reasons I resist. Longer grass is good for wildlife. We have frogs, toads and newts in the pond, they prefer long grass. There are wildflowers, cowslips – that have self sown in the lawn; they are beautiful, bring back childhood memories (of visits to a great aunt’s house in the Worcestershire countryside) – big moon eyed (if left to grow) ox-eye daisies, ladysmock, common daisies (with their eyes-open-in-sunshine, closed as dark approaches), red clover and campions. These are good flowers for the bees. Not only the hard working honeybees, but also the harder working solitary bees and other pollinators I love to see in the garden. And, dammit, they just look pretty, don’t they?

The greater variety of wildflowers (and indeed, garden species proper) we can provide, the greater the variety of insects and minibeasts we will attract, be able to watch and help survive. Whole food webs arguably start with plants. And they can look so pretty, so delicate, so charming in a sea of grass.

And – did I mention it: I can be lazy.

There’s a whole shedload of ornaments that need rescuing from their over winter haven (a.k.a the shed) so I can even see the lawn mower. And then I will have to find the grass box. Why is it never where I think I stored** it?

Then I have to find a way to plug the lead in and there’s all manner of debris (think I was saving stuff for the grandson to play with “when he gets bigger”) and my Black and Decker Workmate and a toolbox to shift so I can reach the double socket, several jars with congealed paintbrush cleaner and dusty, web fringed paintbrush handles protruding. And any manner of meant-to-be-finished, “good idea at the time” projects.

Eventually we agree we’ll leave it for another day. I manage to stretch this out for several days, in fact.

Up at the allotment, things have never looked so tidy. There’s cold weather coming, bringing overnight frosts, but grass paths are strimmed, vegetable plots dug and raked, either with plants ensconced (broad beans, potatoes , two rows of Hurst Green Shaft peas, radish, Japanese greens, onions, shallots and beetroot) or prepared for plants (the bean canes artistically and architecturally pleasing structure sits astride the manured bean trench). Even the surrounds of the compost heap have been tidied away. It is absolutely brilliant that allotments are accepted as a form of exercise during the corona virus lockdown. Easy enough to social distance, good place to keep in touch (as long as we social distance, of course). Full credit to the committee, who have set up soap and kitchen rolls by the standing taps, so we can wash once we are through the gates. (If stuff is to be believed the action of soap on the virus is effective in controlling it).

In order to have some form of protection against that predicted cold snap and overnight frosts we earth up the burgeoning potatoes, and cover the other crops with a range of corrugated card (scrounged from the skip of a neighbour who is having a new kitchen fitted), tattered fleece and debris netting. To the neighbours in the house with artificial grass lawns it must look truly weird (if they notice it at all).

And water keeps disappearing from the back garden wildlife pond at an amazing rate. Not a leak, not entirely down to evaporation, but the amount that is sucked up into the enormous leaves of the skunk cabbage. We have to get rid of it. It was planted, unwisely, as a wildflower, but has been placed on the invasive strangers list (a heavy metal album title, if ever there was one!).

And, the slight stink gets into the nostrils as we linger by the pond to watch taddies and pond skaters and the whizz-about antics of what I think are diatoms. We hack off the stalks but they continue to “bleed” sap. That is coming from the pond.

After I’ve cut the lawn – we both knew it was inevitable, didn’t we? – we take action.

Should be simple: lift out the basket containing the insatiable monster, leave it on a grille over the pond to let living critters move out of the drying basket back into the pond, then take the plants out.

No chance! The roots of plants have emerged from the lattice work sides of the basket, grown new plants and extended down and out into the wider waters. They cling on to the black sides and base of the pond as if their existence depended upon it. Oh, er, yes, they do. And the weight is far greater than optimistically expected. Not to mention the awkward stances we need to take up to get access to the area.

At the front edges of desperation we take the blunt kitchen knife and chop and saw at the offending roots, they slip and slide away, refusing to be parted. It’s hard trying to hold the weight, reach down and around to where you can’t quite see and rip material apart. Between us, we manage to lift the whole squirming, squamous mass up high enough to get the grille underneath it. Fill two bags with the big giraffe eared leaves. Compost heap fodder, mixed up with the grass cuttings (resistance, though noble, was eventually useless*).

Then we heave the secondary bunch of separated roots out. A leech squeezes out of the mush between my fingers! Not quite as heavy as the basket, it slaps down onto the grille, white roots like dead fingers and Canadian pondweed leaves like Celtic stitches. And tiny particles of mudlark ooze, glistening in the evening sun.

A couple of days to let it dry out, then the garden waste bin with this monster.

Anybody suggest any British pond plants to replace it with?

Something that’ll leave water in the pond for the frogs and, who knows, one day, maybe even dragonfly larvae.

*And, of course, I mow around certain of the wildflowers, and the lawn does look better for that first cut; there, I’ve admitted it!

Pulling the Pin

This Is A Job For A Couple Of Grenades (Close-up) – Comic Art Website

Imagine that one day, innocently going about your business at work, you come across  a grenade*!

Assuming, of course, that you are not in the armed forces, where such an encounter might be expected.

What would you do?

This actually happened to a friend of mine. He works at the local Waste-2-Energy plant run by a multi-national company. Now, in older, less enlightened days, we might have called it an incinerator. But, apparently this word has poor connotations, meaning, essentially that diligent market research pointed out to the big wigs, pollution, black smoke and toxins raining down on your washing line, pets and children.

Fight against Hamilton incinerator is reignited - Daily Record

It is far more acceptable to have a unit (with a green, living roof and Space Odyssey filters and scrubbers in the chimneys, monitored by computers) that burns household waste and converts it into energy. But, hey, let’s just not call it an incinerator. It is, after all, so much more.

It gets my seal of approval; I’ve had the tour, and it is impressive. Something has to happen to all of the stuff we get rid of. Sure, we have garden waste. That goes in the green bin, appropriately, and gets trucked off to be composted locally. There’s the recycling bin for plastics, paper, card and certain metals (though, peculiarly not all).

Biffa may lose South Staffordshire bins deal | Express & Star

That leaves the generic household stuff. The stuff that doesn’t fit into the above obviously eco-friendly bins. Cooked food, broken glass, polystyrene, black plastic bags and plant pots and a plethora of other stuff that was going into landfill. Companies like this one came up, marvellously, with the technology to burn it thoroughly and use the heat to produce electricity. Several birds with the same stone.

Wagons roll in, dump their loads and move out. Next, next and next. The waste is inspected by eye, dozed into piles and mixed by a gantry crane that can, if necessary be operated by a robot. It tips mixed waste onto a conveyor that passes it over a burn chamber. This is monitored, by said computer. When efficiently and fully burned, the conveyor moves on, the crane loads more. Then repeat.

But in the chaos of one tipped stack of broken furniture, bubble wrap, white goods, ash and dust a mark-one eyeball spotted … the grenade!

Phoned the operations manager, in an office-eyrie who promptly issued the orders that closed the site and had lorries diverted to another site in a neighbouring area. Forget the logistics, we have a bomb here!

And follow the emergency procedures.

The top man rang the police, explained the situation.

“Not our department,” the police person said, “this is the police, 999 calls, for emergencies, like!”

“Then, who do I need to contact,” says the head honcho, almost certainly biting back the comment I -and most probably you – would have produced.

“Er, bomb disposal, obviously, that’s Ministry of Defence. Not. The. Police.”

“Can you give me their contact number please?”

“Ah, no. That’s subject to the Official Secrets Act. We cannot go giving that kind of information out. Terrorists, you know?”

“So, I can’t look it up in the telephone directory then?” maybe a sardonic tone creeps in here (I like to think so at any rate).

“So, if a grenade appears at my workplace exactly what would you advise me to do?”

Somebody else, on site, thinks they know where the bomb disposal unit are likely to be based. At a local barracks which, apropos to nothing, also houses the county’s regimental museum.

Second person, in the Offices, rings up. The police respondent is, presumably trying to come up with a reasonable reply. Doesn’t have the opportunity.

“Yes, bomb disposal, that’s us; we’ll send somebody over. Immediately!”

Meanwhile they are, from what they consider a safe distance, but curiosity is what it is – you know, it killed the cat an’ all – they study the cause of the alarm: that distinctive shape, recognisable (if you are from my generation) from umpteen Commando war stories and Typhoon Tracey (he of the Ragin’ furies, no less, observed by his mucker, the indomitable ‘alf pint) and his clones. The one in front of them is painted a light blue colour and lacks the “Pineapple” texture. But they are a hundred per cent certain it is a Mills bomb. Except blue. And smooth.

Within half an hour a nondescript car appears at the barriers. No markings, ordinary registration plate.

The manager asks for some form of identification. To be met with a sigh and a sideways glance.

“You serious? You called. Here we are.”

The “we” was in fact a single, skinny guy, dressed in denim jeans and a pale yellow shirt, open at the neck.

He drove in, took one look at the object in question, lifted it up, lobbed it, underarm into the back of the car, waved to the crew and drove away as quickly as he had appeared.

The pale blue paint and lack of texture, he knew, meant this was a practice grenade. The colour making it easier to find once recruit A had lobbed it inexpertly at first at a practice target. The ribbing on real hand grenades, obvious when you think about it, allows the metal case to fragment when the contents explode, forming sharp jags of shrapnel, causing an effect a million light years from what the seeds inside this little eco-friendly package are intended for.

The team at the plant, meanwhile were impressed, relieved and just a little embarrassed. But they had done the right thing.

I am reminded of this tale, which flashes through my mind in less time than it takes (for me, at any rate, to type even the title of this post (if I ever send it up to the ether) when we receive a morale boosting delivery from our daughter. In these Covid 19 times, we are of course missing our families, video Teamapp chatters notwithstanding.

So, she has sent us a BeeBom.

Which is shaped like a Mills bomb. The irony and marketing going into this make me smile, at least inside. to be fair it is smaller, and made of compressed paper.

The bland militarisation of beautifying the country side with names “guerrilla gardening, bee bombs,”  shape (Green Day’s American Idiot cover?) and so on perhaps gives it some adventurous, anti-establishment buzz (pun intended); makes it masculine, soldierly, heroic to generations that only really know of war (gods be praised) from films, books and documentaries and, just perhaps, family legends.

Me? I don’t actually get it.

The bio-degradable (it’s papier-mâché) shell contains a good handful of wildflower – and possibly grass – seeds.

The instructions tell how to soak the whole until thoroughly wet, then throw the “bom” onto the area “in need of beautification.”

Put like that it is so simple. But – of course – I decide I know better. Not just better, but much better. We pull up some going-over forget-me-nots, fork over the now bare ground, slop some water over it from a watering can, tip out the seeds, cover with a layer of recycled compost and water again. This method will, I hope give rise to wildflower seeds germinating over a wider area.

It is a wonderful thought, by the way: the sending of the total-surprise gift. Unexpected. And I am, absolutely’ cynical in this detailed reaction. Of which I am ashamed. Sorry Daughter, sorry New Kid on the Block.

And, being blessed with a slightly unique (some close to me might use the word “warped”) sense of humour, I do actually think of planting (I don’t spot this pun until I’m reading it through, by the way) the shell in one of the plots up at the allotment. Sailor Dave’s plot. He’d recognise it immediately; blimey, he’s got the Eagle cutaway drawing of an Avro Lancaster bomber in his shed), mark and Tracey, Posh Shed Paul?

(Once discovered, if reported to secretary Collen, I have no doubt the site would be closed, local houses evacuated, public transport diverted, the garden centre closed, the police (let’s not go there, OK?) informed. I imagine me, cool as one of the Expendables, hero of the hour, wandering down, picking it up,lobbing it into the back seat of my car and driving away … some kind of deja vu?

But, no, in the interests of keeping the allotment open, I decide to take some photos, write a blog and put said grenade case into the compost heap.

They also sent a wonderfully colourful bouquet of flowers. I have nothing even slightly negative to say about that.

*The Mills Number 36 was the standard British infantry grenade of World War Two. Its operation was simple. The pin was pulled and the grenade thrown to explode seconds later and be forgotten about… or at least, that was the idea. But one particular grenade would never be forgotten by the men whose paths it crossed – a grenade that seemed to have a mind of it’s own!


The Usual Suspects

A.K.A. Recognise Anybody?

A gentle pressure on the left hand brake lever slowed the ancient but well-maintained cycle down, just outside the Muffin Man public house (currently closed).  Rumour had it that the new licensee, “Mutton Geoff” Dixon chose the new name after mishearing the name of the road the hostelry stood upon. And the national reaction to the coronavirus pandemic that had, sensibly, closed pubs, theatres, cafes and restaurants had – at the very least – delayed Geoff’s plans to open his Haywire Five Oh night club. Further along, as the roadway started a gentle descent,  Father Brown-Hale put his full weight on the left hand pedal, stood up, passed his right leg over the saddle and as the bicycle reached walking pace he stepped onto the pavement, taking a wholesome breath of Mudsummer parish air.

Woodhouse Allotments | Information about Woodhouse Allotments for ...

A perfectly cleaned and polished large white vintage car parked in the Jury Lane entrance to Mudsummer Allotment Gardens made him slow down. To a measured stride, a thinking stroll. A white Daimler V6, if he wasn’t mistaken. How wonderful to see such a magnificent car still on the roads!


Lord Peter Wimpey-Holmes? It had to be, but here, at the allotments? Now, everyone in the parish knew that it was his Lordship’s name on the tenancy agreement. Just as everyone also knew it was his butler, Buster Keystone, who did all of the spadework. Yes, all of it!

What had happened to the doughty manservant, that had the whimsical aristocrat calling on site?

“Good morning my lord,” he said, as he came closer. His voice, as he knew it would, caused the tweed jacketed man some small degree of alarm. The reverend gentleman smiled a little, but only inside. He hoped.

“The passenger in the car?” he enquired, giving Wimpey-Holmes time to recover.

“Ah. Yes. Father Brown-Hale, isn’t it? Indeed, good morning to you father. May I introduce Herr Kule-Borow. A member of the European Parliament. Perhaps unfortunately finding himself a guest at the manor during the corona virus lock down.”

Hands behind his cassocked back, Father Brown-Hale returned the curt bow.

A foreigner, indeed: Belgian? Prussian? He’d ask his housekeeper, Mrs McMartyr, when he next saw her. If she didn’t know she’d soon find out. Wonderful curiosity and a wide network to help with her “research”. Invaluable, at times; as it could also be infuriating at others.

Walking ahead of the Daimler, Father Brown-Hale noticed the association’s somewhat pompous secretary, Colleen, in earnest conversation with a suited figure, which he immediately recognised as police inspector Vera Barnaby. Their paths had often crossed over the years.  And, indeed, with her two erstwhile predecessor, from the same family. And where there was an Inspector Barnaby was … there would be, inevitably, constables Cockney and Casey … ah, yes. Trudging down the hill towards the bottom gate. No doubt on a mission for the keen-minded detective. Bullshire police force at its very finest.

Police officers | Sussex Police

“I understand,” Vera was in full, heavily accented flow, “that you were formerly a salesperson?”

“Yes,” Colleen, replied, voice a tiny bit strained (she didn’t like this – or any kind of – confrontation),

“I travelled in men’s underwear for ten years or more. Then, as fashions changed, switched to transgender cosmetics.”

As usual, the inspector made no notes. She had the strange knack of seeming incompetent yet knowing far more than she let on – and of being seriously concerned about the weight of the world she was carrying. And, somehow reminding you of a parent you met once while the teenagers were having a party “down the road”.

“I’ll need to get statements from those people who knew the victim,” she said, “and to talk with plotholders who seem to be involved. We know that there are forensic traces in fourteen of the wheelbarrows on site, traces on the road outside the Wexford Road gate and there is substantial evidence on twenty of the compost heaps here on site. As well as item or items disposed of in what, I believe, is called a “bean trench” and as mulch on at least two others. If you could let me have names, addresses and so on?”

Phrased as a question, everyone who heard it knew it was a command.

“I’ll do my best,” Colleen replied, on a long outbreath. “But it won’t be easy. You see …”

“I’m sorry,” Vera snapped, eyes intense, “I was given to understand that you are the secretary; that one of the roles of secretary is to keep in contact with all who have a stake in the allotments. My father had an allotment. The secretary of those allotments, let me tell you, would have known every name and address by heart. And would have been able to tell you who had had breakfast with who!”

Her voice changed.

“Listen pet, I know these are trying times; covid 19 and the shock of – well – all this. But I need those details. Look into it for me. Let my sergeant, George Carton, have them as soon as. Okay?”

Without waiting for an answer, she turned away, the brim of her ill-fitting hat tipping in a sudden breeze.

“Father Brown-Hale” she said as if noticing him for the first time (both knew, however that she’d seen his arrival), “what are you doing here? Have an allotment, do you?”

Father Brown series news | Tea Time Tidbits | MPT Afternoon Tea

“Inspector. It might interest you to know that I have often considered taking on an allotment, but do not believe that I have the time that would be necessary to do it justice. God’s good work is served by those that work the soil, as you know, as much as it is by those who seek justice here on earth.”

“To answer your question, though, I am here as a favour to my neighbours, the Baskervilles. They have underlying medical conditions and, some eight weeks ago received the letter that they should self-isolate completely. They asked me to look in each day on their chickens, feed and water them, clean out the pen and make sure they are locked in each evening.”

A sudden thought struck him and he smiled a wide smile.

“The hens of the Baskervilles, you might say.”

Twelve Utterly Bizarre Chicken Breeds | PetHelpful

“Not funny,” retorted Vera. “But, if you are a regular visitor, you may, indeed be able to help. Particularly as, at the moment, no muck seems to be sticking to you. In a manner of speaking. Join me at the bottom gate when you have, ahem, tended the your neighbour’s livestock.”

                        *******                                                   ********************                                    *************

”A most mysterious crime, you see,” Inspector Barnaby was explaining, “we begin with theft. But can add fraud, littering and trespass to the list, possibly handling and/or receiving stolen property, And, more serious is that the allotment shed has been broken into. All tools have disappeared. As has the wheelbarrow.”

“A most curious aspect of the case is the appearance of a sizeable mound of remarkably similar material in the place where the owner usually parks his car.”

Farmyard manure © Philip Halling :: Geograph Britain and Ireland

“He was last here, he maintains, with a small wheelbarrow, receiving a ten ton load of what is described by Farmer Stiles as “well-rotted manure”. Having seen some of the material, I remain certain that my father would maintain that the goods did not merit such a glowing description, so Cockney, you get on to Stiles, check his bona fides.”

“My husband, Harve, he’s from the States, Queen’s in New York.” Cockney replied, words tripping over each other. “Hey, never thought of it before, but isn’t that appropriate in a totally non-politically correct way: Queen’s I mean?” he laughed, nervously.

“We’ll ignore the attempt at humour,” Vera said, patiently, “come on luv, what would Harve have said?”

“He’d have said, the trouble with farmers is they think they own the countryside!”

He caught the look Vera dashed him.

“On it now, ma’am.” He fished out his mobile ‘phone and walked, purposefully, away, shoulders shaking ever so slightly.

“Casey, Carton, anything more from the A board?” she pointed to a dilapidated A-frame board; part chalk board, part notice board. On it was pinned an A4 sheet with the message



“No ma’am, no fingerprints, the lab says, common paper, used in most offices and schools. Similarly with the pins.”

“The CCTV then, any footage of the theft. The camera is right there, should have the best views of person or persons taking the stuff away. Come on, somebody; give me something, help me out here, yes?”

“Sorry ma’am, nothing.  It’s the chairman’s job, apparently, to make sure the camera battery is charged. He hasn’t been anywhere near it since Hallowe’en.”

“The chairman, eh? That’ll be Lee, then. Used to work in education. Finished as a headteacher, went on to OFSTED. Looking at standards in schools. An Ofsted inspector. Lee Strade, lives in Spotland Yard now.”

“And P.S.P? any leads there. A name? Plot number 6. Number six?”

“Number six?” came a voice from the other side of the parking spaces. They all looked up. Standing up from behind a bank of raspberry canes, holding secateurs was a pale looking gentleman.

“Number six indeed! I’m not a number, I’m Freeman, Templar Freeman. Can I help?”

Sergeant Carton hurriedly whispered something into his superior’s ear.

“Sorry Mr Freeman, my mistake. Poor memory. I meant to say number five. That’ll be the plot next to yours I take it?”

“oh yes. Yes, yes, yes. Old hardhead himself. I’m sure he was a good businessman. ‘swhere he made his money. Engineer. Owned and ran a factory in the Black Country. With his partner Tony Spark. Iron men. Another story for another day that one.”

“But the man himself, hard as nails, wouldn’t say ungenerous, but he wouldn’t sneeze in case he gave you a cold. And no sense of humour. Not a scrap. But, good as he was in striking a deal, he was rubbish at gardening. Couldn’t keep a tidy plot. Not to save his wife’s life. She’s Italian by the way. In fact me and him, on that plot, Dirt Harry, we were so surprised that the committee let him back on. He was thrown off, officially, six years ago: untidy plot. Had all the warnings, did sweet Eff Ay about it.”

“That’d fit in with what another gentleman, a Dr Rippon said,” Sergeant Carton was flicking through his notebook. “Ah, yes, here it is. Not known for being polite. Generally unpopular. The weeds on his plot were always a concern to those on nearby plots. A lot of ‘em had reported this to the committee since, if they approached him directly he’d give ‘em short shrift.”

“Dr Rippon?” mused Brown-Hale  “isn’t he the gentleman who lost his wife on a holiday in Switzerland. Something to do with a waterfall? Heard about it first on the radio, I’m sure.”

“Maybe,” Carton affirmed,” but seems he’s settled in with a Scottish widow now. Younger woman, has a son of six or seven. Jock. Jock the Nipper. Seems the young ‘un had a run in or two with our hard headed businessman too.”

“What’s going to happen to this then?” asked a newcomer, pointing with a crutch at the woven nylon sheet that had once covered the heap. “if it’s going spare, then I’ll have it to keep the weeds down on my plot. He owes me that much. Not to mention his heap of whatsname taking up my parking space.”

“I never saw the sign, by the way,” he continued. “Kind of wish I had done. I’d have had the lot on my compost heap quicker than you can say Posh Shed Paul!”

“It’ll need a year, mind, before it’s any use in the ground. I know Johnny Stiles. Bit of a wide boy from way back. He’ll have said it’s good stuff. Said “oh yeah, we’re putting it on the ground now; it’s really good stuff, some o’ the best you can get.” When what he really meant was he’s a farmer doing growing on a massive scale, will add extra fertilisers and stuff as its needed. That much nearly fresh straw on the ground, why that’d steal most of the nitrogen away that the crops need.” Nah, only Johnny Stiles, he wasn’t born yesterday. Wanted to shift this fresh stuff off the top, so he could have the better stuff underneath for his taters.”

He looked over Carton’s shoulder. He was writing speedily.

“Name sir?” he asked when he’s finished.

“Nunt,” came the reply, “Mr G Nunt.”

Another couple of ladies, mother and daughter, work half a plot down by the hedge, they seem to think he could just’ve shared the stuff. Said he didn’t have enough room for all of it. He only wanted enough to cover the weeds on his plot so the committee’d  think it was well looked after. But the daughter, a Miss Grey, May Grey said he was too mean spirited to do such a thing.”

“Inspector,” this was the smooth clear-cocktail lounge voice of Lord Peter Wimpey-Holme. He’d been a silent, thoughtful observer to the proceedings thus far. I remember now, my man Buster, had some dealings with this character. Name of Marble, I believe. Married to the winsome Jessica Marble, heiress to the Columbo Copper and Coffee franchise. New money, but rather a lot of it!”

 “If, however, I might venture, as Justice of the Peace, and as I’m always saying to Keystone, he was my batman, you know during Desert Storm;

“Why so serious?”

“I mean, it’s hardly like some major crime has been committed. Some joker has pinned up a fake notice, others – or maybe, being very thorough, the perpetrator himself – spread farmyard manure of limited immediate value about on the allotments.   Might even have saved the lazy bounder some effort in the process. Seems he was in no hurry to do the job himself, what?”

 “I heartily concur,” chipped in Brown Hale, shifting his wire rimmed spectacles on his nose, “ there’s always a joker in the pack. Furthermore, it might be said that a certain sort of justice has already been served, don’t you agree?” “And the waste of police time, not to mention, dare I say it talent, is criminal in itself.” He waved away the beginnings of a protest from the ill-dressed detective, “… and theft you say? I might suggest that the missing items will be found beneath the mysteriously appeared pile of brown gold in the fellow’s parking space, what?”

“And I certainly wouldn’t want to rush you  but, if you intend to make a police case of this, you may need to think of what you will say to the press, because, even as we speak I am sure the mild-mannered Clark Bent and that young photographer Peter Barker are on their way.” He steepled his fingers, as if in thought.

“As we speak, inspector,” he smiled, pointedly. ” I can almost imagine the headlines, can’t you: Manure Most Fowl, First Degree Manure,”Murder Plot Incident”?”

“Don’t get me started on the press,” Vera smiled icily, “and those two, in particular, are a whole different genre.”

Seventy Five Years Ago?

This all started, perhaps, seventy five years ago. The signing of the surrender of German forces in Europe. It may also be said that it started six years earlier, or in 1933 or in the terms of the !918 Treaty of Versailles.

GALLERY: How Black Country and Staffordshire celebrated VE Day in ...

“Actions have consequences,” you must have heard this mantra in school assemblies, if not at some patronising gathering at work. That phrase or its second cousin “Choices have consequences.”

Whatever, in a surreal, but very community minded effort at a street party to celebrate the total surrender of the German Forces at what was the beginning of the end of World War Two, we sit in our front gardens and drink. Tea for us, we are determined to go for a walk, so alcohol is a no-no. And anyway it’s only three fifteen on an early May Afternoon. Time for a beer later.

A celebration of the community spirit and wonderful realisation that, with Winston Churchill’s memorable 1945, May 8th speech, the world could welcome a new dawn. V.E. Day.

VE Day: Watch Winston Churchill's iconic victory speech | UK News ...

Back in the 2020 street, inevitably, not everyone is out. Not the former biscuit salesman, who was ten on V.E. Day. Neither is the parent in the corner doesn’t want the children tempted to mingle (and doesn’t feel she could explain the reasons to them), our neighbour hasn’t spoken a word (of any kind to us since the Plantation Owner’s Wife asked the team putting up the back garden fence not to tread on ground where we were awaiting the arrival of naked ladies (look it up!). And the old guy on the end who is out, but only to hoe weeds that blight the end of his short driveway.

The walk is tricky. Most of it is cross country, but the bit that isn’t is a slalom between marooned nests of street party islands. Keeping the recommended two metre distance is not easy. And, sitting in their chairs they raise glasses of various brews and colours and say “cheers”. There’s only so many times you can reply in kind without going just a little bit cuckoo (you try it). And, someone said later, that living within stone-lobbing distance is a member of an eighties band that once had a Top of the Pops appearance. Was he the one playing the single snare drum on his lap, the one strumming chords on a guitar or the singer bending down to read lyrics on a laptop?

VE Day 75 in pictures: Britons bring out the bunting | Ayr Advertiser

Our street party was largely instigated by The Lady at Number One. She delivered cakes and – ever so casually – mentioned the event. Glad she did. Good to celebrate something, even if in a very weird fashion.

Number One family chose the most awkward time to have the tradesmen in: they are having internal walls ripped out, new kitchen, garage extension, electrics, new lawn, garden summer house … and work was under way when …

KABOOM! The lockdown commenced. The tradesmen have been both adventurous, bold and brilliant. Working in some routines that mean the family moves, temporarily upstairs, they work, keeping social distancing and using their own tools.

Slow but steady.

Like the filling of the umpteen skips they’ve had. Concrete blocks, floor tiles, polystyrene packing, cardboard boxes, window frames, garden soil, conduit, gin bottles. Because the skip has become the meeting point for the avenue. Beer cans, Red Bull cartons, crisp bags, cigarette ends (who knew the guy smoked so dammed much?).

Taylor Brothers Skip Hire Sizes

And, joining the evening Skip Club bar, I participate in light, friendly banter (so much part of life, didn’t quite realise how much I’d missed it until this rendezvous) I ask if I can take some of the stuff out of the skip.

“Take whatever you want pal,” is the reply.

I want the large patches of cardboard, principally. Because the temperature is, according to the weather witches, going to plummet over the weekend and frost is not only possible, but likely.

Cardboard, in my mind, will make great temporary cloches, keep off the frost and then add to the compost heap.  But Blinky Bill has packed the skip like a Tetris game. The cardboard is visible, tantalisingly so, but precious hard to wrestle out. At least the sizeable bits, that is to say, the useful ones, are. But there is also timber, loosely nailed (how infrequently are things nailed together these days, no, really?) and pieces of plastic window edging that’ll, maybe, waterproof the edges of the allotment shed windows; vulnerable since I clad the shed with corrugated metal.

A few leaning-on-the skip beers later, with the swaggage, secreted away in the back garden, I return home. Sit for a good half an hour. Reflecting. There is time to do this during the corona virus lockdown/social distancing more than ever before.

It is a shame that we couldn’t congregate in a proper bashing elbows sense of a party, a community barbecue, bunting across the street from our house to the “other Walsall supporter’s house” opposite. Clinking glasses gently together. But maybe, in a strange way, this is more memorable. All those years ago, after dark times, freedom from threatening human tyranny overwhelmed a large part of the world. The stories are celebrated on BBC television in a way that lacked the usual pomp and pageantry that we, as a nation, do so well. Replaced by a more sensitive, thoughtful and very nobility-of-the-common-man way. Exceptional!

The world made choices, took action. And, out of the conflict came the new order. Victory In Europe Day. A day on which the world, in a very real way changed. The start of alliances, the taking up of technologies, developed in the intense heat of war, in everyday life, the new role of women in society. New habits established. Personal relationships, integration, the setting up of the political geography of the modern world. The expansion of some nations, the diminution of others, medical treatments, nuclear power, the desire for peace. Time to come to terms with the new habits, to find ways to get over shock and rebuild populations and industry.

Not the same; in fact completely different, yet I cannot help that when all of this pandemic stuff is sorted (we’ll come up with a vaccine, with ways to live with the risk of catching it, or it’ll run its allotted course and disappear) the world will need to be changed.

To recognise the need to value those who have become the heroes of the hour. Not least those working in the health services, but also those involved in food production, delivery drivers, staff at the shops and garages, teachers. To have become more community minded, including observing, thinking about and acting positively within the local area. For sure, it will be some time before holiday destinations in other countries are accessible. But, alongside this, people also seem to be more actively engaged with their own areas. They may live and work in separate areas (a car or train journey away) but for some weeks now have (brilliantly!) restricted themselves to local walks and exercises.

Less car journeys. There may be a whole move towards the work-from-home culture. Businesses will, for sure, be taking a long hard look at where money can be saved, having lost ground, lost money, given up plans that depended on uninterrupted production (of goods or services) during the past month or so. And office overheads could be cut. “work from home works,” they might be saying to themselves, finding out that output doesn’t suffer, that they don’t need to keep a beady Big Brother eye on their workforce (who, having got into the habit/discipline of working from home) can be trusted to crack on.

The knock on effect, unsurprisingly (to me at any rate), is that air quality has improved in cities. A no-brainer, surely?

Can we get back to work on public transport and maintain safe social distancing (this has to be a priority as we return to the new normal, right?)? Doubtful. So: work from home, get a job closer to home, within walking/cycling distance* and – whoopee! – get to spend more quality time with the family. Win-win every time.

And there’s a winner, too: the social adaptations made in having the breadwinner at home for sustained periods of time have worked magic, in some cases stressful black magic, but have bought families closer together. I hope. So the desire for more of this may have been planted. Again: hopefully.

And schools? Into a rigourous routine conveyor belt system that has had testing, testing and more testing beginning at the tender age of four, children are seen as products to be evaluated rather than beings to be developed. But Covid 19 has thrown a spanner into those works. There will be no tests/exams this summer. Instead children’s progress will be based on some form (as yet being considered) of teacher assessment. Systems and number crunchers will worry and sort the data until a governmentally passable system emerges. But what may also evolve is a fresher system that considers an all-round education, with an end product that recognises its role in the world whatever strengths and weaknesses each may possess (and let’s face it, we’re all good at some things and not so good at others, aren’t we?).

And the enforced being-at-home culture has bred a new pride in people’s gardens. Street party participants sat or waved from colourful, cared for front gardens that some had passed through on the way to – or from work on a daily basis, but now benefit from being noticed and tended. Allotmenteers are special, visits to allotments, given that we observe social distancing and wash hands with soap and water thoroughly after each visit, have been permitted. Who knows, perhaps there will be a new call from the new, garden-loving public for allotments after this.

Whatever occurs, the world will, in ways both large, small, long and short term, social, economic and political, be altered by the experience. respond to the global threat. perhaps in ways I cannot imagine, or have not begun to consider; but change, I believe, it must. Happier days ahead? I believe so.

* As I type this I am conscious of adults when I was a child heading out on sturdy bikes; to the foundry, the mine, the office (cycle clips de rigeur for these types) or the factories. Meeting up with muckers, laughing and chatting en route. Not sure we can get to that level, but maybe past the London Underground stereotypes that has earphones in and reads a paperback.

You Only Know What You Been Told.

And, er, I was told that everything you have been told isn’t always true.

And, spreading our metaphorical wings the other day, we decided to take a different route for our “permission granted” exercise walk. To walk down to “the Brook” (across the rough pasture fields), across the Watling Street, to the lakes created initially by coal opencast workings and later by the construction of the white elephant in my backyard M6 Toll Road, round the lakes as far as possible and return up the “sunken path”.

A walk we had taken (and cycled) many times back in the day. For the joy of it.

On that first part of the route I heard clearly a sound which took me right back to the days of my childhood. Days when lapwings (pee-wits by their call) were regular and numerous summer visitors, nesting craftily on recently ploughed land, feeding in meadows and the edges of the marshes.

Identify a Lapwing, Vanellus vanellus

Their agile in-flight display (courting, exuberance or aggression, I could never tell) was always a marvel to behold. Especially to one who – at the time and now – loved the flight of Spitfires, built tiny aircraft from Airfix kits and flew kites.

The lapwing's unearthly sounds fill the fields | Environment | The ...

And, somehow, that late-spring/early summer flight-and-sound combination  was quite spiritual. The pee-wits haven’t been around here in recent years. A change in farming practice; draining of boggy grounds, later sowing (usually fodder maize) and expansion of out-of-town developments (so called logistics centres, including the one that, nominally, challenges my sister: the sortation centre!).

But, on this walk, in a field not four hundred yards from our front door I see and hear the once-familiar lapwings. Wing-overs, rolls, stall turns. That silhouette, the apparently (misleadingly) two tone colour scheme. And the not-from-a-bird, surely? calls. Wonderful to witness, though I am not sure whether they are here as a result of the effects of the lockdown. Or just naturally expanding their ranges. Again.  Any road up, it lifts my spirits.

In the ever-expanding world of Airfix models I came across a United States Navy Air Force plane, the Chance-Vought Corsair. I fell in love with it. The name, in the first place, but it had tilted wings and – in my mind, at least – resembled that distinctive silhouette. And the dihedral in the wings must be to increase manoeuvrability*. So it could fly like the peewits?

<img src="; alt="F-4U Corsair<br>By John Young <br> $50

We ignore the “Danger of Death” notices, climb a short fence and make our way along the service road. It leads to a settlement pool (“Danger, Deep Water.”) that feeds into the main body of water. Now a private-angling lake and surrounded by Norfolk reed and wild plants. Indeed, the surrounding fields were purposefully seeded with wildflower seeds and now exhibit constellations of cowslips nodding in the breeze.

Courtyard Farm Cowslips – The Fairyland Trust

On the water are mallard, coot, great crested grebe, Canada geese and – yes, swallows. The first I have seen this year. We are not – completely – alone. A lady stands with a camera on the pathway. Absorbed. Has she seen something special?

“No,” she admits, “just getting some shots of the …” she points at the Canada geese. Well habituated, they have come to see if they’ll be fed.

“There were some oystercatchers here,” she tells us, “but they seem to have gone …”

How likely is that, I – mentally – sniff. Some woman with a camera, who doesn’t know the name of Canada geese/ Oystercatchers? Well, really. Anybody with a grain of sense knows they are shoreline birds.

We move on. There are magpies and another four or five lapwings. And starlings in the horse pasture, along with the six stocky cobs in there. The sun is bright. We walk and notice pussy willow, silverleaf, tormentil, kingcup, water mint, a scrum of mallard ducklings. Count the swallows: six, seven … no, nine and more.  So: it is summer then?

And, out of the wind, the banks reflecting the sunshine it is warm. It can’t last, can it, and the gardens need rain, but lovely to feel that promise of summer on the cheeks. Okay, so I noticeit mos on the way back; and, just maybe, the stretching of the legs on this four mile trek has something to do with it. We pause, before hopping over a fence by the settlement pond and I look, about to make a snide comment (I expect) about the woman who thought there could be oystercatchers here. here.

And …see, with unmistakeable clarity the oystercatcher: black and white, bright red bill, sitting on the pebbled top of the island. So, not just here, a second is wading in the shallow water at the edge of the pond, but nesting?

Oystercatcher | Bird Identification Guide | Bird Spot

So, now who’s the clever one then**?

M’lord, with respect, may I refer you to my opening statement?

 * I later, disappointingly, learned that the dip was put in the aircraft wings so it could mount a bigger airscrew to transfer all of the power from the mighty Pratt and Whitney engines. (oh and the correct term is anhedral for “inverted gull wings”. So not lapwings then?

** … and can I get custard with that humble pie?

The Lyrids

A shooting star is not a star
It’s not a star at all
A shooting star’s a meteor
That’s heading for a fall

A shooting star is not a star
Why does it shine so bright?
The friction as it falls through air
Produces heat and light

They Might Be Giants

Last chance to see shooting stars in 2017 is this week ...

The last time I tried this it was a warm August. I was seduced by warm, balmy days and all of the information about how easy it was to observe the phenomenon of meteors. I hadn’t really even known that they were predictable, thinking, rather,  because my maternal grandfather (grandy, I called him, never knowing if that was because I couldn’t get my toddler-lips around the sounds of “grandpa” or whether it was some family tradition) told me it was lucky to see one. That if you could make a wish while it was still in the sky, the wish was bound to come true.

And, now, we’re in a surreal situation that would have both fascinated and appalled that self-same grandy* Corona virus, the partial lockdown and social distancing, schools closed, workers furloughed (essentially laid off) and fear, rumour, paranoia and heroic deeds** And, like many people perhaps, I am struggling to find something to do. Oh yes: the allotment helps. We are still permitted to leave the house (if we are careful and observe certain proper guidelines) for exercise. And there are few better therapies than gardening. It is purposeful, links with the natural cycles and the environment and is outdoors.

UK extends coronavirus lockdown for three weeks – POLITICO

And, lo and behold, my computer algorithms throw the Lyrids meteor showers at me. Metaphorically speaking, that is.

So, I almost go out on Monday. But, not sure why (there is no logical reason), I give it a miss. Usually, this is not a good idea: opportunity rarely knocks twice. Especially on the doors of those who can’t be bothered to get to the door first time of trying.

But on Tuesday, I spend a deliberately leisurely day (in this regime, all days are relatively leisurely to be frank), gently rearranging the garden. Bringing the faithful fire pit on to the lawn) My chosen observation station. Finding the torch, firelighters, the beanie hat I was bought for Christmas that has a sewn in headlight and the chairs and flaked-paint aluminium garden table. I even consider having a mid-day nap, but that is really a step too far!

And, totally by coincidence at just before 9 in the evening, I am on a live video link to our daughter when the Elon Musk Skyline satellites are mentioned. Never knew about this, but apparently they’d be visible in the skies at nine, give or take. I stepped outside. Still warm, unseasonably so. Over the house tops to the west, the beginning of sunset was crayoning the edges of the still-blue sky in pastel shades. Most notably pink.  One of the effects of the Coronavirus situation is that skies are mainly clear of aircraft traffic. None of the usual flightpath to east Midlands or Birmingham International riding the heights. But, eager not to miss time with my family, I didn’t have the patience to stay and wait for the number of satellites to train by overhead. Musk is, apparently, trying to pepper the skies with satellites in order to present everyone on the planet with free Wi-Fi.  If this is a genuine motive then I salute it as genuine altruism. The sort shown by (now Sir) Tim Berners-Lee when he made the internet free to one and all.

Not having the patience, I think to myself, as I’m stepping off the patio: doesn’t bode well for later, does it?

But, at eleven forty five, I’m bustling about outside. Well wrapped up, lighting a stick and log fire in the fire bowl. Taking the chair. Recalling what I have researched about the pieces of cosmic debris that’ll be brushing off our atmosphere. Visibly, if I’m lucky. And – er – patient.

The Power of Patience: 4 Tips for Self-Development - Wayne Elsey

Because meteors are simply bits of a comet that have been left behind to float in space. And, once a year our earth passes through their part of space. They are not visiting us, like science fiction flying saucers. They are there, our atmosphere butts up against them. And they fizzle, flame and flare as a result: tiny grains that are literally rubbed out by the collisions.

These particular particles and pieces of debris have been shed by a comet known, less than romantically, as C/1861G1 Thatcher (officially recognised in 1867, following work by mathematician Johann Galle and Edmond Weiss (but observed in 1861). It had been seen at other times, too. Most notably in 687 B.C.E. by astronomers in Ancient China who first recorded the spectacle:

“At midnight, stars dropped down like rain.”

Chinese Astronomy - History - Neolithic - 中国天文学 - 新石器时代

Those Chinese, eh? Marvellous civilisation: tea, china crockery, gunpowder, astronomers, paper, silk …

Currently, more famous as the country that this latest coronavirus originated. What happened over the years to this once mighty and elegant empire?

Outside, in the back garden, the temperature – it is only British April after all – has gone down a notch or two. Once I am sitting, the usually-annoying, back garden security light have no effect on my vision. The fire pit produces a warm (if only psychologically) glow. I get comfortable. Lean right back in the chair. Remind myself that, though it seems I am looking up, I am actually looking out. Into space. The stars that are reasonably familiar are, in fact, unimaginable distances away and apart from each other. The constellations, like the Plough, look mightily different from up there. The imaginations that linked those points of light and got, variously a Hunter, a Swan, a Dragon, Scales (my birth sign) whirred and clicked in times when stars were far more visible and believed to have a greater effect on man’s life.

Map of the Constellations -

Someone somewhere opens a door, lets a cat out. I hear the detached sounds. The moon has not appeared yet. And when t does it will be the most fragile egg-shell crescent of a new moon. The skies are as dark as is possible.  A single, very high flying aircraft crosses, recognisable by the winking lights so far away. The other fast moving objects must be satellites. Or those 1950s B movie flying saucers on reconnaissance missions.

The east wind, keeping the sky clear of cloud, also combs the new foliage of the garden trees: a rowan, a lime, a Korean pine. And it brings a cold bite to the air.

Some small traces of light flash. Shooting stars. Very small, very quick. Simple flash-scratches. I am pleased to have witnessed these. Of course I am. But also disappointed. I am expecting more: bigger, brighter, longer lasting; expecting maybe just too much. I settle down again. I am in sometime-instant contact by internet-phone tomtrickery with my brother, in Surrey and my sister on the Welsh coast. Are they seeing the same? At the same time?

I load up more pieces of wood and chipboard to the embers. They blaze, then settle down too. Patience. I know which part of the sky to look at now after all.

And, suddenly from somewhere else entirely , barrelling into view is the best shooting star I have ever seen. It is magnesium bright, lasts and burns and keeps rolling, leaving the track wide and still magnesium bright to mark a passage. As close and bright as some special science fiction film SFX. I see it, recognise it and track it and it persists. It is making no sound, but my brain, understanding there can be no such furious movement without spectacular, thunderous sound, seems to add its own, imagined sound track. A train, a rocket, a roaring, ongoing explosion.

It puts me – immediately – in mind of those November 5th bonfire nights I had as a child (when every family with a back garden built a bonfire and bought fireworks from any one of the local shops. I would march out into the garden (along with lots of other kids, I guess) to see who would light their fire first. And to watch out for the first firework in the evening sky. I always wanted to see every firework, but wanted to be the family that launched the very last rocket. But seeing that first firework lighting up the sky was always special’ Like this very special moment.

22 pictures of Bonfire Night in Liverpool from the 1950s to 1990s ...

I sit, amazed, open-mouthed (most probably). Just simply stunned, impressed and shocked. Yes, I was expecting bigger, bigger than the little scribbles earlier witnessed (though lucky enough to have seen even those when most (sensible) humans are curled up and unconscious in warm beds).

But this? Is far more than I had guessed. And I take time to let it all in. the cold, the dark, the contrast between airless space and my beautiful garden, timescales (the comet has a 415 year orbit) and my own insignificance in that scheme.

Yet I exist, and enjoy the chance to see the skies like this and have the thoughts inspired by them.

I pick up the torch from the table half an hour or so later. I am about to head indoors. I know I will have to read before I can sleep. To let my brain relax. The metal body of the torch is cold. I had forgotten that while I sat in wonder. The last word to Rush

Sundogs fire on the horizon

 Meteors rain stars across the night

This moment may be brief

But it can be so bright

* Just what would you have made of it, a man born in one century, dying in another and having the whole of powered flight from Kitty Hawk to the manned moon landing in your lifetime?

* * Captain Tom Moore, the ninety nine year old Second World War veteran vowing to walk a hundred circuits of his garden to raise a thousand pounds for the under-pressure National Health Service … and, ending up raising over fifteen million (count ‘em captain Tom, bless you!) before his hundredth birthday.

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