Friday, 4 January 2013


Bonne Année! – as they say over the Channel.  May your 2013 be a regular beauty with a little less rain, a forward but gentle spring, a more gorgeously lounging summer than last year and hopefully,  fewer political and administrative omnishambleses than we had to endure over the past twelvemonth.

 The recently thinned woods, near here, on a rosy afternoon during the festive break.
(Click on pictures for a larger view.)

I'd planned a spanky re-launch of this rather amateurish blog with a fresh, sexy design and so on, but after spending an afternoon fiddling with the wretched thing, found that I was quite unable to make the picture at the top stretch the whole way across the page.

So, thanks to the template being horribly inflexible, and to my hopeless inadequacy, we'll have to stay as we are.  I don't like it, and I'm not that fond of Google any more, but there it is.

After an association of one sort or another over thirty years, I've sort of retired from doing things for the RHS on a regular basis.  I expect to be judging at some of their shows this year but days of pomp and self-dignification are gone at last.

I've loved almost every moment.  The RHS is a wonderful society and much of what little I know about horticulture and gardening stems from it one way or another.  We exhibited at RHS shows, when I ran a small nursery and later, writing up Chelsea for The Garden, in 1987 was one of my earlier journalistic tasks.  Until then, the only national magazine I had written for was Country Life and even then, it was as more about agriculture and the countryside than gardening.

So I'm deeply grateful to the Society for all the fun I've had with them.  And as a parting gift, from the lovely Tender Ornamental Plant Committee, and through the illustrious offices of the mighty Jim Gardiner, I was given a bumper bundle of plants which included this clivia, a disturbingly tumid Hippeastrum, a flowering Christmas rose and, joy of joys, an absolutely gorgeous Camellia sasanqua.  It was in flower, of course - they bloom from late autumn - and the fragrance, faintly reminiscent of gardenia, flirted with me all the way home from Wisley.

Clivia miniata - a prezzie from the RHS, blooming its head off in our south-facing window.

Recently in London, the PG and I found ourselves in want of coffee and, after looking in vain for a non-chain, independent trader, fell into a ersatz olde worlde, clacky wooden, floorboardy establishment which calls itself, a bit pompously, Le Pain Quotidien.  A jolly coincidence, that, because recently, I'd read somewhere that the English word 'quotidian' means daily and was thus able to swank that I knew the meaning.

A-a-anyway, having agreed mortgage terms for three coffees and two Danish pastries, the boy quickly returned with sizeable soup bowls, each full of an ocean of steaming, aromatic coffee but both sans handles.  'How much more would we have had to pay, for handles?'' I asked.

'But this is the way the French always drink coffee,' he retorted, looking, I thought, rather scornful.

Looking back, on countless French breakfasts, emergency stops at roadside bars for shots of espresso, asking for coffee mid afternoon because the French are so hopeless at tea – nursing a 'demi-tasse' after dinner and so on, I have never seen coffee drunk from a vessel without a handle.  I've even seen French persons dunking their  croissants into huge cups at breakfast, but even those, I'm sure, had handles.

The bakery stuff,  at Le Pain Quotidien, was delicious and the coffee superb, but if there is a next time, I must remember to take a soup spoon.

 Two coffees to swim in, at Le Pain Quotidien.

Joyous sights on our fen and in the garden.  The first aconite, below, showed yellow on New Year's Eve.

Barn Owls have been hunting on the fen, ethereal and ghost-like, in the afternoon gloaming, but so cheering to see.  Their triangular faces look so wise and their ability to hover in absolute silence is amazing.

And yesterday afternoon, the PG and I stopped our bikes to watch what at first we thought were greylag geese, flying quite low and heading for us from quite a distance.  But as they got closer it was clear they were swans.  Closer still, and it was also clear they were not galumphing great mute swans but migrants overwintering from the Tundra - but which?  Bewick's or Whooper?  Oddly, they were flying in complete silence but despite that, the extra long necks and light build suggested they must be Whooper Swans.  Sevenbirds, in perfect, geometric formation, flying south-east of us and probably heading for the Ouse Washes.  A lovely, lovely, heart-surging moment.  And I didn't have a bloody camera!

The first winter aconite Eranthis hyemalis, in our garden, beneath a witch hazel.

THIS WEEK'S FILM  was The Help - a story set in Jackson, Mississippi, about the brewing storm over Civil Rights in the southern states, in the late 1950s and early 60s.  I was living in upstate New York, during the 60s and remember, vividly, the riots, the unrest and the fact that a close friend of mine was involved with the marches.  It got pretty nasty with massive riots in Newark NJ, closer to home, in 1968.

Kathryn Stockett's  novel was deftly transposed to a perfectly paced screenplay by Tate Taylor and made a powerful story, wonderfully shot.  Small-town Mississippi looks so claustrophobic and yet, I'd love to see some of those places.   Oh, and they played a Johnny Cash/June Carter duet, bless them!

I thought our recent extensive trip to less trodden parts of America would sate our curiosity, but it has had absolutely the opposite effect.   I've even re-read that chap Sam Clemens's kiddie novel Tom Sawyer - first time since I was about ten.

I'm listening to Elgar's Piano Quintet.

This day in 2004 the PG had 'flu and I was using a pickaxe to cut a trench into our yard so that I could plant a hornbeam hedge.

Happy New Year everyone.  Bye bye!


  1. Breakfast at the stalag luft-like school (it had bars on the windows) we stayed at on a school trip to Paris in the 1970s consisted of bread, jam and coffee served in enormous bowls. Not a sniff of a handle to be found anywhere.

    Your header problem is easily solved, but is rather long-winded to explain here. Email me (vegplotting at gmail dot com) and all will be revealed...

  2. Glad to see you back.

  3. Yup, good to see you back. Sounds fantastic seeing the swan formation. Not to mention the barn owls. Pickaxe - still have a big forsythia root that needs to come out, sigh.

  4. Don't you start updating your blog layout! I will be the only person left with their original layout soon and it is beginning to make me feel like I ought to change it but I'm too lazy. If it ain't broke. Etc. I've been to a Pain Quotidien in Paris, Madrid and London and wasn't served coffee in a bowl at any of them.

  5. Hip hip hooray! You are back -I'm so glad as I've been pining down here in Oz. If you want to go on holiday again, no one but no one does small town America better than Carson McCullers. I suspect you have read her but if not rush out right now e-euphemistically (fav online bkshop)and purchase.cheers Tina

  6. Oh Nige, what bells this blog rang with me & MrB who got rather over-excited on reading it. We have visited a number of Pain Quotidiens (does that make it a chain) the first time being on a pootle round the SouthBank on a chilly morning. I was delighted to be able to warm my hands on a huge bowl of delicious steaming coffee. My enjoyment was slightly marred by MrB muttering throughout about not having a proper handle to hold. BTW the company was founded in Belgium.

    I love your photo of the rosy wood.

    I loved the book The Help; one of those I couldn't put down so have been wary of watching the film. I shall now dip so.

    Looking forward to more ramblings.