Archive for the ‘Home Front, Back and Sides.’ Category

Solstice Plus One

 

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I’m working locally on Friday. So very locally that I drive home in five minutes. Listening, as is my wont, to BBC Radio 4*. All kinds of weird and wonderful information on there sometimes. I hear a weather report. Apparently after low temperatures overnight we’re in for a couple of weeks of warm (if not hot), dry weather.

Three things leap into my mind: watering: the allotment will need, at least,  some water. That, in turn, will mean, filling water butts (a long job involving linking three differently coloured hoses together and man handling the resulting snake across paths and around crops. But the plants in the back garden are showing signs of flagging, so I was thinking of putting the hose sprinkler on. England play panama in Russia in the FIFA World Cup finals on Sunday. Around dinner time. I want to be in good shape to watch that.

So far, so sensible, but I also have a crazy desire to sleep in that very same back garden in a tent. Not wholly sure why but something to do with an idea I abandoned last year, to do with spending time in the environment and “knowing it” at a time I am not usually there. What’ll it feel like? Sound like/ Can I even still manage to put a tent up, never mind actually sleep in one?

I have a tent. It was one a friend needed a home for as he moved house. And a sleeping bag.

Plantation Owner’s Wife asked at the time (imagine I got home with a bag of golf clubs, the self-assembly tent folded down into the shape and space a rock drummer’s gong might take up, thirteen cans of 16 mm film, a wooden wine box and other “interesting” odds an’ sods. And I didn’t have an answer. Partly to do with the inspiring talk given by naturalist Simon King at the Garrick Theatre, Lichfield on Thursday night. Not directly, but he was talking about photographic hides, being “in nature” and it hooked me.

Oh –and, of course – why not?

So my plan, by the time I get home, is to brave the predicted cold tonight, sleep in the tent, put the sprinkler on the garden tomorrow (I don’t fancy sleeping on a dampened lawn), then sleep soundly over Saturday night so I am properly refreshed for the game. It sounded logical at the time, trust me.

So we pull out the fire-pit. I set it up on a piece of unused kitchen work surface to protect the grass from the heat and sit outside in the lovely evening sunlight. A procession of common wasps visit the table, slow motion creatures intent on taking wasp paper back to build a nest somewhere I guess (though isn’t it  a bit late for nest building?).

 The tent, literally pitches itself. I unzip the circular bag and, tension released, metal rods spring and flex and, voila, there is the tent. Bigger than I had expected. It’s only been used once, I was told, for some music festival. A good looking, well-constructed Norwegian tunnel. Plenty big enough. The sleeping bag disappears in there, some cushions, a torch, book, camera, mobile phone …

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Just a few pegs for belt and braces safety (but not really needed).

.  Half a dozen swifts are high in the sky. Still in the sun, it seems, as every now and then they turn and catch the light, feathers suddenly becoming fish scales and reflecting light. The pair of bats that we watched a couple of nights ago are not to be seen.

Ten o’clock and this is what the Scots would call “the loaming”.

“When night fully owns the lower ground, but the skies are still bright.” At 10.30 there are few stars visible, but those that are shine fiercely along with the half-moon blazing down.  No streetlights are visible from the back garden.

“there is no dark side of the moon,” pops into my head, “matter of fact it’s all dark.”

I install myself in the canvas cocoon at eleven – ish. Now I can see only the walls of the tent. Close to me. The roof quite low. The soundscape beyond  is a siren, diminishing, a dog barking in a back garden, traffic in the distance. Last night was Mid Summer’s Night and it would have added a certain something-or –other to have done this last night. But, getting home from the theatre it was cold … and got colder. And, anyway, will twenty four hours really make that much difference? How many seconds less of daylight can there be? What would Will The Shaking Spear say?

I am not sure what I am expecting (other than not getting much sleep): cats, dogs, snails creeping their slimy way up the tent sides, ear wigs, hedgehogs, a fox?

I do expect not to fall immediately asleep. What would be the point of that? But I have a quiet moment of thinking when I realise that the leather hat I treated with some aerosol concoction a couple of days ago is in the enclosed tent with me and I recall the instruction not to breathe in the fumes when spraying as they are toxic. Could the hat be giving off poisonous fumes even as I fall asleep? Murdering me?Rubbish – of course. If that were the case it would mean many a person being deaded by leather clothes in all kinds of surroundings. And I’ve never heard of a single one! I smile, in the dark, at myself.

What I get is constant noise. Usually defended (is that the right word?) by efficient double glazing, I hadn’t realized just how very noisy the night is I am given the impression of  a game show conveyor belt, sounds being wheeled past: a constant machine hum, low. The ear becomes accustomed to that. But what sounds like someone stacking scaffold planks, the wind chime, a crane loading cargo containers, wind chime,  the emergency take off flaps of a startled wood pigeon (cat nearby perhaps?) yet another motorbike, the high revving of the engine at a corner, a roundabout. Wind chime. A cat landing on the wood store, scuffles, sniffles, a train hooter, small apples falling on the tent. A wagon reversing, car horns, Wind chime!!!

That wind chime is annoying! I fall asleep, but at around what my phone screen tells me is 3.10 I am awake. The wind chime? It is still ringing. I had promised myself I would just observe, just experience whatever was out there, but I need some sleep. I gradually unwrap, unzip, disentangle myself from this unaccustomed prone, horizontal floor position, pull on trainers and, fetch the thing from its branch. But once I have done that, and look around, the garden is certainly a different place. Robbed of colour; monochrome: tones, textures not colours. Black, white, grey. Shadows. Gaura, foxglove, a galaxy of ox eye daisies,  scent of honeysuckle scrawling in conference pear tree feverfew, astrantia, Damp grass, the feel of the wind. The sky light and sunrise is not due for another thirty or so minutes.

It takes some time to get back inside, zip up the two doors, re arrange the sleeping bag and bits and pieces, get warm again, the handy thermometer I found swinging on the tent was reading something like four Celsius! – I lie down – and can hear the first of the birds. A robin, close by. The pre-dawn chorus?  An avian orchestra warming up? In fact it is late in the year for the full dawn chorus: usually heard in spring time, a preamble to nesting, territory staking behaviour. A song thrush further away. Then the staccato chatter of a magpie, and perhaps a wren.

I sink away and back to sleep (which, later, will  surprise me). I wake later (about seven o’clock. Shadows of the apple tree are across the tent walls, that of the shed too. I pitched the tent here deliberately so that I would not get disturbed too soon this morning by the early sunrise. I open up the doors. There’s a house sparrow just going into the nest box on our  house. It looks surprised by my appearance.

It wasn’t part of the original plan but, as my wife is still asleep upstairs I steal around the kitchen, get toast, orange juice and a cup of tea, light up the fire pit and sit outside for a little longer. The first bumble bee of the day buzzes past, into the flower of a fox-glove. It’s part of a spell that bleeds warmth and colour back into the surroundings.

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The garden is wearing it’s everyday  clothes now: no longer the space for Titania, Oberon and a common man with and ass for a head (or something of that nature); the sun has gone around again, the clocks have moved along. This is June twenty third, two thousand and eighteen: the world of ordinary mortals again.

I am pleased with the experience. I managed a longer sleep than I was expecting, saw a different aspect of the garden and, as I quietly smile to myself I make a list of jobs to do:

Thin out the apples on the tree (there should be no more than two to a cluster, this will ensure good-sized apples).

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Get the grass clippings up to the compost heap.

Put the tent away and get the sprinkler on the lawn (but, hey, those tasks can all wait while I drink this cuppa, right?)

Oh, and … put the wind chime back.

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Lessons Sans Pressure.

All the wonderful wall to wall media saturation surrounding the marriage of the dashing Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the stunning, nobody-does-it-better-than-the-Brits pageantry is history now. But, walking around the botanical gardens at Samares Manor (on Jersey) I suddenly realise neither Harry nor Meghan had a single bloom, fruit or vegetable named after them at the Chelsea Flower Show (which also featured extensively on BBC TV).

Before getting to this fine place we visited  the wonderful Jersey Zoo, so quietly dedicated, yet modest, in its role as conservation  model par excellence. Particularly since it is one of the first of its kind. Certainly a fitting tribute to its founder, the school-shy Gerald Durrell, who made wonderful mountains out of molehills back in the day. When it was possible to succeed just by determination, positivity and ignoring those who said it couldn’t be done. I remember reading his books (particularly My family and Other Animals and The Overloaded Ark) as a young teenager. Still remember the passages in which as a young boy/naturalist living in Corfu he put a scorpion into a match box which was opened by his older brother when he was about to light an outdoor cooking fire. Finding, to his surprise, no matches but a scorpion inside he dashed the box to the floor, exclaiming:

“It’s that bloody boy again!”

The animal enclosures are massive, well equipped and the creatures inside seem relaxed and  so at home: gorillas (always) and orang-utans being my favourites on this visit. So taken by the atmosphere were we both that it wasn’t until the evening that, in discussion, we realised there had been so few species there. We hadn’t missed the elephants, big cats, crocodiles and camels. It was enough to bask alongside (so it genuinely seemed, the otters, meerkats and tiny tamarind (that eventually appeared if you were patient enough, for long enough)).

 

No lecturing, just straight forward enthusiasm and a why-wouldn’t-you-care attitude that was as stunning as it was simple. The warm weather helped, the keeper talks added interest and information (the silver-back gorilla in the group of five was originally from France and spoke no English. Really!)

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On another day, the bus trip to Samares Manor shows a property from Norman times that has  been thoughtfully converted into a successful botanic gardens. Successful, by and large, for the very same reasons: no lecturing, good value for money and leading by quiet example. For us there was nothing new to learn, no strident attempts to inspire with new ideas. Just good old-fashioned horticulture and the confidence that the plantings and themed areas will speak for themselves. Places in which you can simply relax. I enjoyed the willow tunnel, the two hundred year old tulip tree, the Japanese gardens and the “conservation meadow”. And lunch in the unhurried (how that word sums up the break!) Herb Garden café was wholesome and unfussy.

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But there was too the sense of fun that I like to think is a feature of the best gardening. It is possible to take things too far, too seriously. But not when you are faced with a photo opportunity like this one:

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And, for a moment, I am hard pressed to remember the names of any varieties of orchard fruit: Granny Smith – easy enough then I struggle. And am reduced to music hall/Carry On double entendre:

A nice pear ?

Before swiftly – and ashamedly – moving on to the Harry and Megham query I opened with.

A Different Point of View

Forgive me if I start this post with reading. Forgive me and, if you please bear with me; I hope all will become clear. You have to understand that I love reading: Marvel* comics, gardening manuals, Sherlock Holmes, biographies, fiction, non-fiction, new books, classics and poetry. And, having read most of the books that immediately appeal to me in our local branch library I decided to try a “travelogue-stylee” effort  titled Walking Away from poet Simon Armitage. It’s not poetry, but a commentary on a walk he made, interspersed,, I seems, with readings en route at various – and varied – venues. And it contains this passage, which chimes so readily with an experience I detailed in Ravens? https://wordpress.com/post/mucktwineandthinker.wordpress.com/3294

“Montbretia has colonised some of the streams. Natural England don’t approve because it’s non-native, but Sir Hugh doesn’t mind it and neither do I. One species that he does object to, however, is ravens. They were here earlier in the summer and made such a din it could be heard from the Abbey, he says. It seems like an unreasonable prejudice, and also an unlikely story, but I keep nodding in agreement as he explains how his workmen have installed a height restriction at the top of the track to keep them out, like heavy duty goalposts and a crossbar, and only when he mentions that it took days to clear up the cans, bottles, needles and condoms do I realise that ravens aren’t the source of his irritation, but ravers.”

Then, back to our own back garden where we sat on a ten years old and more, repaired, repainted and patched wooden bench listening to a pair of tawny owls calling back and forth, somewhere in the dark, friendly warm and darkening distance. Weather has been delightfully warm, this is the third night we’ve been able to sit out, fire pit roaring. Stars are clear in the high skies by the time we creep back into the house which is, somehow colder than the great outdoors. The owls have been hooting for about a week now, new visitors to the area, and welcome.

We bought a new bench, self- assembly job, back in autumn in a sale, using a harvest of garden centre vouchers collecting from various birthdays, Christmases and grateful colleagues. The original plan (“it is better to have a plan than to have faith; you can more easily change a plan”) was to take this faithful, slightly rickety old friend up to the allotment. To sit on and view work completed, work in progress, to sit and think. Or, more likely, on some days, to simply sit and drink tea.

And, today, after a fine day spent up at the plot, putting up runner bean canes, weeding and sowing salad crop lettuce, we decide to put the new, all-white bench together. It is apparently a “New England” bench, the five pieces tied together in the cardboard packing with soft twine and a pack of eight Allen and four shorter self-tapping screws. Not forgetting the Allen key itself. This is Ultra-IKEA meets Lego. The only tool I have to supply is a screwdriver. The instructions are simple, straightforward and we get it set up in record time, with – surprisingly for me, no bruised fingers and no pieces left over. As idiot-proof as is possible then.

It’s simple white appearance is such a contrast to the warm wooden tones of the one it is replacing and those of the wood on which it  stands, obviously not only new, but newly born. But once it is settled in place on the freshly swept  “decking” (made from cargo pallets) above what we, laughingly, refer to as the “beach” it looks great. And it is comfortable – and, er, it actually fits (my measuring has never been reliable).

Sitting on it, with the ubiquitous cuppa, we are able to look across our back lawns and gardens, various sculptures and souvenirs on show after coming out of cold-weather storage, sit n sunshine, see sunrises, watch stars and moon; in short: watch another year unfold. No doubt in the process spotting the jobs that need doing and planning holidays, adventures and planting.

But, now we have a quandary. The three old high backed plastic beach chairs we have been using down in dell for fire-pit watching have been degraded by sunlight and have become unsafe and dangerously cracked and broken. The one I was perched on, unwisely leaning back on two legs, yesterday evening, broke in another important place and remaining on it introduced what must surely be a new yoga position to the world. That displaced  wooden bench is the perfect answer and means I don’t have to feel quite so guilty about replacing it with its brash new sibling.

So we lug it, feeling very heavy after the lightweight new one, into its new position. I promise myself that I will set to with wood glue to bind those loose joints at some –for now satisfyingly unspecified  – time  in the future.

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 I have to log out some of the timber down there to make space, but it is good exercise and my mother is a grateful recipient of the ash, damson and willow logs.

 

*Other publishers are available and just as good.

The Death of Boots?

Sure enough, as predicted: rain. I make my own way to the site this morning but, even with a faster car, I am a little late in getting there (in my own mind at any rate). I change into rougher, site wear. There’s a wonderfully heavy high vis, waterproof coat to cover my layers and waterproof trousers too (thanks boss). The offer of wellington boots which I decline. We clamber purposefully about. The hole we dug yesterday is, unsurprisingly, full of water: field drainage and rainwater (essentially one and the same thing) because the neat excavation is, after all, a sump in the thick, stone-free red clay. We pump the water out, fidget the tank about, level it. Need to pump out the water again – that’s how fast the water is filling it!

Fret, discuss (not sure I’m much help in this) and plunge planks in to hold/keep the beast level. Start the infill tipping. Slowly, steadily; dry mix concrete will lap up the ground water. We nervously keep checking those essential levels. The electrician is back: cheerful, busy and focused on his role.

Swaddled in layers, trundling barrows of stone and sand, shoveling, climbing, I am definitely warm enough. And then some! My boots become at first caked, then encased in the thick gruel of clinging clay, cement powder and stones. The tread in the soles is filled in; traction is tricksy at best, maneuvering in the laps of the site gods. My boots become huge and force me to walk something like a pantomime version of Frankenstein’s creature. Slow me down. They refuse to be cleaned, kicking them on the ground, against the kerb, wiping them on longer grass does nothing at all.

But eventually the rain eases of. Becomes a warm, gentle fall. We are able to shed layers. The gloves we wear to protect our hands steam, drying out from the body heat we are generating. The house martins venture out once more and about their aerial ballet/dog fights again.

The tank, internal sections filled with ballast water, is holding steady by the time I have to leave. I need to get to my Reading Group meeting (Instruments of Darkness, which gets an overall average score of seven out of ten) and a lot of queries about why I appear so ruddy

“Aussi rouge qu’une pivoine,” says one member, born in France, then helpfully translates the idiom “as red as a peony.” Er, did she know, I wonder that the peony was one of my maternal grandmother’s favourite flowers? That we used to salute its rise from dead ground every spring, marvel at the cushions of petals?

Back at home, I ease my not-surprisingly aching joints with a bath, and then set to, fetching the accumulated stiff, dried-porridge debris off my boots with a broken-bladed butter knife. I wonder whether the boots will actually survive the punishment/treatment.

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But they do. And so are ready to go up to the plot on Thursday, where strimming the grass paths can be deferred no longer.  In fact the footwear now feels so light in contrast to the deep sea diver’s boots I was dragging around yesterday. No wonder my knees and hips are giving me some stick! The strimmer is reliable, though it eats up plastic line at a rate of knots, and is defeating the sudden spring growth of grass, comfrey, brambles and assorted annual weeds in warm sunshine. There is a lot of land to bring under control. The spaces around the blackcurrant bushes, the margins of gooseberry and Worcester berry plantations and the four paths. I decide to leave a decent “headland” by the hedge, nettles will surely be used, I hope by butterflies for laying eggs. It is all looking good, when …

The line in the self feed mechanism jams beyond my mobile capacity to clear it. It will need the tools and strength I have after a cup of tea and some Digestive biscuits. So I traipse about the plot, feeling reassured by the overall tidiness of the vegetable plots, the emerging potatoes, the broad beans, pegs where radish and lettuce have been sown and the row of dogwood and hazel pea sticks that show where Hurst Green Shaft peas will eventually, late frosts permitting, pop up. But, while casting about I notice a piece of jewellery on the ground. By the pallet bench on the edge of, as yet unstrimmed grass. It is clearly not an expensive piece, brooch or whatever, but how did it get there?  There have been some thefts (mainly of timber) on the site. Is this evidence of some sort? At least it shows that trespass has been committed, doesn’t it? 

I decide to track down a committee member to let them know. Strolling up the slope I spot Cliff, deep in conversation with another plot holder (who is busy hoeing up annual weeds to tidy up his ground). As we excuse ourselves and move away a confident male blackbird hops down onto the soil; very close to the working end of the hoe.  This can be typical learned, opportunistic behaviour on gardens, the blade turns up food for the bird, the bird, symbiotically clears up pests and weed seeds. I think as we wander away, just who is taming who? That conundrum of the laboratory rat training the scientist to bring it food whenever it rings a bell echoes somewhere in what passes as my mind.

<b>Soil</b> is amazing – honestly, it is - Scottish Nature Notes ...

Cliff takes the information on board, but, in reality there is little hope of finding out who the thief is … less chance of this moving the allotment committee (proving toothless and apathetic in the main) or the parish council to get the “boundary dispute” settled so that a wall/fence/hedge can be put in place to add some semblance of security to the area.

About to leave the site I stop to talk with Tadpole Bob. I mention our theatre trips to the Nikolai Tesla presentation (very good, if overly educational) and Blood Money. He has just had some arthroscopy carried out on a knee. A follow up trip to a specialist has him believing the operation was unnecessary, that a knee replacement will be needed. But he is stoical about the prospects and we can smile about things (at least in public). Leaving him I bump into Richard who, it transpires has just had a knee replacement.

“Talk to Bob,” I tell him, “he’s just had some arthroscopy on his knee.”

“Oh,” says Richard, “I had that a year ago.”

Conspiracy theory? Case rested, surely?

Hedgehogs and House Martins.

I’m out in the garden early this morning: 6.30 a.m. To put a few scraps on the bird table. To check the garden for hedgehogs. There were, surprisingly, two of them yesterday, one either attacking the larger, curled up one, trying to mate (complete lack of subtlety in this case) or administer some animal form of first aid. Eventually the smaller, more feisty one bumbled off, across the greenhouse slab and into the border. The other – was it suffering/dying? – casually uncurled and headed off n another direction. But not before I snapped a couple of shots. Not super wildlife photography perhaps, but enough to show our neighbour; she for whom I built a hedgehog hibernation chamber last autumn.

And, in the trees there’s a dark presence. A crow. Big, confident giving the impression of being easily able to muscle through and past the burgeoning leaf growth on the silver birch. New opened leaves that are particularly resplendent as the low spring light penetrates each of them like an X-ray machine. A glimpse of the soul of a leaf. In which case it is too, too easy to see the crow, perched now where a sparrow hawk sat yesterday evening, as a manifestation of darkness and a force of evil. But, imagination aside the crow is welcome and plays its part in the garden life.

There are the remnants of a grass frost, low temperatures last night, not totally unexpected at the end of April, usually a capricious month. And some fear about peas up on the plot. Hurst Green Shaft, susceptible to frost, so I’m hoping they haven’t germinated yet, or at least not got above ground level. Potatoes are hoed up. Thanks to the Plantation Owner’s Wife.

I’m trying my hand at helping (I use the word most advisedly) to install a septic tank. Went well yesterday and the weather was much better than expected. This morning I’m out in the early sunshine waiting for my lift. Blossom is everywhere; pink, white but matched by the light, fragile fresh leaves in this sunshine.

My mind flicks back again to the hedgehogs. I watch from the upstairs bedroom window with my wife. A frog erupts from the border, launching itself across the grass, then freezes. It seemed injured. I go out to check, a little grateful, at least,  that the pair of intelligent crows that were so adept at fishing them from the pond and butchering them on the lawn, didn’t get them all. And that there is spawn in the pond, now hatching to release wriggling commas of life. But as I step out of the house that hedgehog reappears. Perhaps it spooked the frog. We all freeze. I watch the frog blink. Very slowly. The hedgehog brushes past the amphibian. I believe frogs are standard hedgehog prey. But this one has the secret. Or I have, in my turn, spooked the hunter. The hedgehog disappears and I return to the house.

The white van’s arrival interrupts my reverie.  The journey takes us, coincidentally, past a pub named The Hedgehog. An hour and a half later I am on site, taking a breather.  The lawn turf, full of ground beetle larvae and leatherjackets, is re-laid atop the drainage piped trench. The house is in a rural setting (hence the septic tank) and the road to the golf club next door is busy: small, self-important silver BMW Minis. Each to their own as the electrician said yesterday as we both sniffed the air by the extractor fan: a faint whiff of something not quite legal hanging in the air. I am sitting with a cup of sweet coffee from the couple next door sunning myself, studying a pale blue starling egg that had been dropped on the lawn. A magpie is my guess. And a reminder that not everything survives.

Across the lawn the impossibly bright yellow JCB (what else?) is using hydraulic sorcery to fetch curls of red marl from the depths below the one-time meadow topsoil. It is operated with skill and finesse born of long practice and a knowledge of mechanics, the three limbs mimic the human arm. Incredible flexibility, making short work of the jobs, crawling slowly but steadily and surely.

Eating our sandwich lunch we are pleasantly surprised by the screaming, joyful aerobatics of three pairs of house martins. They wheel, spin and side slip around the gables and eaves of the house. They weren’t here yesterday. They have arrived and taken up, probably, the nests they had last year. Under the unprepossessing roof of the house we sit outside. Stunning little birds, less famous than their swallow and swift shape-alikes. But here after long, arduous migration and such beautiful performers.

 

Siting in the van cab, craning our necks to watch we joke about house martins as building inspectors, here because they approve of the work we are doing, the levels, the drainage falls, the mixing-concrete-with-the-digger and the painstaking way we have lowered, changed, tweaked and settled the bio-disc fibre glass tank into the  red clay.

We are speaking too soon.  Just as we are congratulating ourselves, the water inside the tank to hold it in the soaking mix shifts, the tank overbalances and we are reduced to lifting it out and dislodging stones with a hose and a broken hickory axe handle. Rain is forecast for tomorrow. We’ll have to do the task again in wetter, less favourable conditions.

Therapy?

Drama can hit you without warning; take for example a massive iceberg floating in the darkness in the path of an “unsinkable ship” on a maiden voyage.

But it can also creep up on you bit by bit. So that when it actually happens you realise that you knew all of the pieces were there … but didn’t see the consequences; a bit like the denouement in all of the Sherlock Holmes stories: so obvious in retrospect.

Our drama was of the latter variety, beginning with a delayed take-off (result of wonderfully courteous behaviour from Lufthansa, giving up our slot to a KLM flight to Amsterdam with umpteen onward connections). Late arrival at Frankfurt with a typical efficient airport transfer to the gate across the tarmac (thus avoiding a fairly stressful, many minutes of stairs, escalators, and corridors and looking for gateway signage) and off – on time – to Bucharest.

Not so our luggage!

On arrival at the Henri Coanda airport we got the expected call from our pick-up driver, but, waiting for a suitcase that didn’t make it, missed the bus. Some hours wait in the arrivals lounge (was there ever such a misnomer?) and several texts later we are on the next minibus. Stressing somewhat at the delay, that our friends are waiting at the hotel, that we still have two and a half (count ‘em, Henry, count ‘em!) hours of travel before we arrive in Brasov.

Two and a half hours which stretches to four and a bit hours as the one and only two lane road is being re-surfaced (a mile at a time) and traffic has to wait. And wait some more.

Eventually we make it. And, relief, the hotel staff are welcoming and friendly. Our friends understanding … and we head out for a welcome meal. And a beer!

The holdall that got through has underwear in it and, arrangements made at the airport reassure us that the suitcase will be delivered to the hotel some time tomorrow. That we need to be at the hotel to sign for it.

It’s reassuring – in a way, but I never find it easy to sleep in a strange room – and it is hot with the kind of heat that takes some getting used to.

So, the order of the day next day must be not to be too far away from the hotel. Our local friend takes us to a stunning fortified church (begun in 1211) at Prejmer. Getting out of the car we are greeted by the sight of an occupied stork’s nest atop a roof of a house in the street. Exotic enough to tell us we are away on an adventure. That, with the breezeless, easy heat and the absolute absence of hedgerows.

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The fortress itself  is wonderfully preserved and cared for, the “family rooms” used in times of siege accessible and it is an evocative and spiritual place where we linger for some time.

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Then Sorin has the brainwave. On the way back to Brasov we can visit his “garden”. I had heard about this but knew  few details.

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Would it be something like our allotment? Surrounded by similar plots in the same way? What would be growing? We were visiting Romania at the peak of the cherry cropping season, and delicious strawberries were also abundant. The beauty of knowing local people is that you can enjoy the real country and its traditions … this might be one of them. We drive, turn off, then turn off again, enter Bod and drive around, off onto a track that leads between houses, down a little used farm track, turn across and unmown hay field, sticking to some preordained path to avoid humps and bumps. Then we are at the garden. A football pitch sized piece of land, fenced (and hedged) off in the middle of a hay field. Sorin’s garden. A wired gate is unlocked, a dog turns up, seeking affection. There is a solid, single storied building in the garden where Sorin “keeps his tools”. There are some flowering plants and rows of fruit trees: pears, apples and cherries, growing from a thick carpet of

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meadow grasses and wildflowers that is buzzing with insect life. The sun beams down and I begin to feel relaxed. Open spaces are therapeutic: it is the very nature of being outside. Having spent just a few short hours with Sorin we have a good relationship (thanks to a great extent to his ability to speak my language of course) and here, where he feels comfortable, it is easy to let worries drift away. It is never any good to worry about things you cannot affect; the company and the hotel have our ‘phone numbers, we are near at hand … just let the air, the quiet and the friendliness work their magics.

We get a tour of the garden, eat a few cherries and hear how the land (everything is relative, but this is –literally – dirt cheap) was bought. The land may be somewhat blighted, in former times (during the Communist regimes) took contaminants from a paint factory higher up the river. The pollution is still in the soil and, counter-intuitively worse nearer to the river so that the closer plants are to the banks the less well they grow. And it is difficult – lack of money, networks and tortuous bureaucracies – to complete the building of a house on the land: the ultimate goal.

But, just wandering around the garden, thinking – I could not help it – what I would grow, how I would manage the land (get manure in first is always my instinct) – had a healing effect. And by the time we are climbing into the car again (reminding myself which is the passenger side, of course) I am feeling quite at home.

This “garden away from the house” is not, by any stretch, an allotment. It isn’t rented. There are less than no regulations and an easy going sense of right and not-right. But in many ways it serves a similar purpose: an escape, a place where time has less meaning and a place for simple mindless thinking. Crops of course and plans to make, things to do and to organise.

But a garden in any sense of the word is a restful place – give it a chance and it’ll get to you; even when you don’t expect it.

 

Post script: Needless to say the luggage duly arrived, we had a fantastic time with friends old and new in Transylvania … and when we returned the weeds were making their annual presence felt on the plot, the boundary dispute is still going on … but the strawberries are tasty and our first new potatoes well worth the growing.

Foster Parenting?

Home after a satisfying day’s work in Tamworth.

Something not right in the back garden. The logs piled against the bottom wall (fire-pit fuel) are tumbled down. And the ruins of the nest built by robins inside it are strewn across the floor, nearby three dead nestlings. What caused the slippage? A cat? Searching for the nest, on the prowl or just using the pile as a route over the wall? But I would have expected a cat to take the chicks. Or maybe the unexpected downfall scared it away. A hedgehog? A rat? Something else?

We are truly sorry for parent birds, remembering our neighbour saying when she saw the secretive pair flying in and out of the narrow space (the nest was truly invisible) that there would, inevitably be danger, at least, from cats.

Later, we sit outside watching a pair of pipistrelles hawking the spaces around the small leafed lime tree and, so much higher swifts doing the same. Listening to the chatter of magpies and the evening songs of blackbirds.

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The following evening, we are enjoying another outdoor sit-down.  Hanging baskets planted up, seedlings in the greenhouse and those hardening off are all watered, newly planted out plants up on site watered in. It is hot (20 Celsius!) and these plants need settling down. The skies are pink as the sun lowers itself toward the roof top horizon. As we sit, quietly observing we notice three blue tit fledglings in a pieris by the fence. Clearly they have successfully emerged from the nest box in the tree. Each sits in a different part of the shrub: so well-camouflaged that I only notice them by following the circuitous flight of a parent blue tit as it brings food for its youngsters. This is parental dedication at its greatest: the exhausting search for more and more and more food, necessitating perhaps journeys further and further afield.

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We marvel at what we are watching, but the wonder turns to something else as a robin also begins to feed the youngsters. We do a double-take. Maybe one of these nestlings is a robin? Clearly not, they have the trade mark blue tit plumage.

Then, perhaps over-anthropomorphising, I come up with a theory:

This robin is one of the recently bereaved parents and is, either compensating for her own loss by feeding another species, or is simply programmed after so long brooding to respond to the ”feed-me” calls of young birds – even of a different species.

Now I know it is not good practice to assign human values to wild-life; their circumstances and “hard-wiring” are so very different so I don’t get too carried away with my theory.

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But the robin (or maybe it is two robins) continue to bring food until light is all but gone and the youngsters are falling asleep on their very perches.

Are robin and blue tit diets similar? I have the impression that robins (being thrushes after all) feed on worms and ground insects and that blue tits feed their young with caterpillars, greenfly and the like. So will the fledglings survive on the mixed diet they are, currently, being fed?

Will there be any conflict between the species co-parenting? Robins, particularly are aggressively territorial, so will they drive the natural parents away?

Certainly this behaviour is something I have never noticed before – unless, of course, it involves cuckoos.

 

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