Tuesday 24 February 2009


Crocus tommasinianus  - a selected form, unnamed but lovely.

Oh the shame of it all!  The horror!  The appalling neglect!!  I thought I was only a week late but discover that there has been not an entry on this blog, not a single one, since 10th February. How can I live with it?   How can I make amends?

Excuses?  Well, I've got a couple.   First, family illness struck, when my father, who'll be 93 next month, was suddenly hospitalised.  That means much mileage, since I live a fair distance away, and of course my mother, who is also frail and unwell - though mentally, she's a veritable Titan - needs extra support.   Many a happy hour, therefore, spent on the M25, A1, M11, M2 and all the other bastard Motorways.

I've also had a rush of work - I mean actual paid work - since I'm taking up the regular pen for a certain National Daily as of this coming Saturday.  And there was extra copy to write there, too, so that one could be ahead of the game.

But enough of all that.  Let's move to something gardenish at once.  Brrrrrhhhhhh - mmmm! Pull yourself together, AT ONCE!    Now then, off we jolly well go!

Part of the Alpine Display House at Wisley.

I had to go down to the the RHS Garden at Wisley a week or so ago and since we wanted to do a little photography in the Alpine department, I was permitted to wander about behind the scenes. 

What a magnificent collection it is, and what a perfect time of year to see the plants.  While remnants of snow still lay outside, there we were,  looking at all the exquisite little treasures nestling in their sandy plunge beds and flowering con brio.  Cyclamen were there, amazing South African rarities such as Massonia, intense blue Tecophilaea, saxifrages, hoop petticoat narcissus and, firm favourites of mine, the crocuses.  

Crocus sieberi, a form which grows on Mount Vardousia, in the Pelopponese.

First to strike me was a magnificent form of Crocus tommasinianus. (top picture)  Like nothing I've so far spotted, and infinitely superior to the widely grown C. t. 'Whitewell Purple,' this one positively glowed with the sunlight shining through the translucent tepals making them light up like neon. 

Then there was the soft, lilac blue, rather floppity and creased up Crocus sieberi, gathered from the Pelopponese.  I've seen its close relatives on Mount Parnassos, before, piercing the snow to flower as soon as the white has crept a little further up the mountainside.  Nearby, beneath the firs, we found Fritillaria graeca and Scilla bifolia - but that was all a few years ago.

Romulea tortuosa subspecies tortuosa - a South African native.

Romulea is another genus of surpassing beauty which, like gladiolus, occurs both in the Mediterranean and South Africa.  The black and yellow flowers of R. tortuosa ssp tortuosa of seemed almost like shellac or enamel, especially when one looked closely at the individual petals.  These are plants of the sandy flatlands in the Cape, flowering in September, over there.

Detail of Romulea described above.

Most startling of all was the colour of another somewhat floppy crocus whose tepals were a pure, pale Cambridge blue - never a trace of mauve or purple there, absolutely in the precise blue spectrum but pale, like a gentian that has been mixed with whitewash.

Crocus baytoporium - a pure shade of blue not seen in other crocus species

The beauty of such things helps one to forget sick fathers, angst-ridden mothers, the vagaries of newspaper editors and the absolutely mind-boggling, exasperating, staggering, gobsmacking level of nincompoopery that seems to have affected everyone in the government, banking or industry.  We're all doooooomed, I tell you!  But why worry, when there's  Crocus baytoporium to wonder at?  And when the smell of Daphne laureola is calling from the woods round here?

This day last year  I was poring over my presentations for Green With Envy - the show I did with James le Chapeau.  We had some good laughs on that job!  The apotheosis of our theatre career was at Barrow in Furness where the nuclear subs nuked James's computer.

I'm reading Martin Chuzzlewit - yes, still!  About 40% through and it's brilliant!!

I'm listening to Wagner's last music drama Parsifal.  Well, I'm in that sort of mood.

Sorry to have taken so long to post.
Toodle ooh!  Stay well everyone!!!

Tuesday 10 February 2009

JUGGLED BETULICIOUSNESS - was A Betulicious Excursion.

THIS post is now in the right order.  Huge thanks to Victoria and Joanna for showing me how to juggle posts.  If' you've already read the original, sorry to clutter you with a repeat!  But at least the blogsite is now tidy - sort of!

I can't tell you how good and virtuous I feel! Gardening was out of the question, this week end, everything being covered by snow or frozen slush, so I set about cutting up the remnants of our three, recently felled whitebeam trees.

With a simple bow saw, that was blooming hard work, but Oh the sense of virtue and satisfaction at the sight of a beautiful heap of logs, all split, stacked and stored! They'll be ready for burning in 2011 and I tell you, I've derived more joy from that than from putting down a case or two of Bordeaux!

Open woodland at Holme Fen Nature Reserve, Cambridgeshire.
BUT. . .
now for something more profound. No more jokes, please. No rants, no wisecracks about effete southerners or dysfunctional transport - just a note or two, with piccies, of a rather wonderful recent experience.

My good friend and critically acclaimed blogger recently asked why we seldom visit spectacular places if they are on our doorstep. We keep on saying, ' must go there one day,' but for some reason that day never comes. Well, over the recent Christmas break, along with the few members of the family who could be unglued from the festive decanter and dragged from the log-crackling stove, we bucked the trend and explored an absolutely mega local spot. OK, so it was a walk in the woods - but these are not just any old woods

Holme Fen, which contains England's largest natural birchwood, is a place I've had the best intentions of visiting these past 33 years! If you ever travel on the Edinburgh-London railway, look out of the port side windows (left hand side facing the direction of travel) about five minutes after leaving Peterborough. The billiard-table flat, industrially farmed fenland gives way, all of a sudden, to an impressive forest of our native birch, Betula pendula which runs along the railway track for a mile or so.

I know those woods from the outside because I frequently travel down that line. Every time I pass them, they look different.

Green and silver - the pattern of trunks rearing up from a carpet of mosses and ferns.

In winter, the silvery trunks catch the low sun and shine vividly above the tawny bracken; in early summer, bright, fresh young leaves shade a diverse and special range of fenland plants as well as foxgloves and more familiar woodland flowers. Come the autumn, and toadstool nutters would freak out at the diversity of the fungi – some edible, others deadly and many of ambiguous identity, just to keep them on their toes!

Birches, drawn quickly skyward, in a race to the light.

The quality of light, even where the trees are densely packed, is extraordinary. In typical British woodland, grey-barked ashes and craggy oaks tend to have a darkening effect, bringing twilight forward by an hour. But birches are different. Their pale, reflective trunks bump up the ambient light and the branches and twigs in the woodland canopy, are so thin and wiry, that daylight penetrates far more easily than with other trees.

In wide view, a ghostly quality results; when viewed close-to, each trunk is marked with fascinating patterns. On old trees, dark fissures and cracks contrast with the silvery skin, often dusted with algae or crusted with lichens and mosses.

The bark, on aged trees, becomes fissured and cragged;
colonies of lichens and mosses make harmonious colour schemes.

These woods are more dynamic, than any I've seen. Fallen branches lie everywhere and it is soon obvious that the life cycle of the birch is shorter and more intense than for more mighty forest species. Growth is fast, seed production copious and each tree seems to be on borrowed time. Even the fenland ground feels unstable, here. Peat, on a high water table quakes as you walk, almost as if the earth was a giant waterbed but more subtle and slight in its movements. This is not a little unnerving! Carpets of mosses reinforce the sense of unreality - a soft quilt, tempting to lie on, though not in January!

Birch Bracket Fungus, Piptoporus betulinus on silver birch trunk.

Holme Fen is managed by Natural England and you can find more detail about it here. As well as birchwood, there is acid heathland - a rarity in these parts - and fragments of sedge fen.

Interesting wild plants include climbing corydalis Ceratocapnos claviculata, an annual which we found as moribund winter dregs, but which, in summer, is pretty enough to encourage in any garden. You can find pictures and details here.

Natural England has worked hard, but with a light touch, to preserve and manage these remarkable habitats. It's hard to believe that they are bordered by Britain's most intensely farmed agricultural land and could so easily have been lost, a sacrifice to food production.

A felled ash - too alien to be allowed in a birchwood?
Tree and scrub management is carried out by Natural England.

This nature reserve is part of a magnificent plan to restore 3,000 hectares – almost 7,500 acres – of a unique landscape to its original, pre-drained state. Known as the Great Fen Project , it will connect Holme Fen with a second great reserve, Woodtwalton Fen.

Common reed, Phragmites australis,
crucial for the survival of so many fenland species.

At almost 3 metres below sea level, this is also Britain's lowest point. A place of reeds, dykes - the local word for ditches - unstable, blow-away peat soils, complex drainage systems and staggeringly rich wildlife. When the Great Fen Project is completed and the area known as Whittlesea Mere is 'un-drained,' we can expect breeding bitterns to be commonplace, in the vast reed beds. Ospreys will hunt over the open water and a substantial part of the pre-17th century fen character will return.

It's good to feel that although I won't be here when the project is completed, wildlife will benefit for future generations.

And what on earth, you ask, has all this to do with gardening? Well an awful lot, actually. The colours, shapes, textures, smells, natural harmony and downright eeriness of this place would inspire even the most lumpen horticulturist. Birches are widely grown, as garden trees, though many gardeners go for the more spectacular Asian or American species. Whatever your tastes, it is inspiring to see this splendid genus in a natural habitat, and to derive inspiration from that.

So if you ever pass that way, pay Holme Fed a visit. You will find yourself in a strange but exhilarating and exciting world.

But enough! Enough! Desist! Stop, now!! As ever, far too long a post and I thank you deeply if you have read this far down.

I'm listening to . . . my wife playing a clip from the film Doubt with Meryl Streep - apparently about naughty things in a convent. (I always thought it was a given that naughty things happened in convents.) Her computer is drowning Beethoven's Trio in C minor Opus 9 on mine.

I'm reading . . . Martin Chuzzlewit. Still!

This day last year I was . . . In the garden with my 5 year-old granddaughter who staggered me by recognising and naming witch hazel. She shows all the signs of becoming a keen gardener, poor love.

Thursday 5 February 2009


Just the briefest of footnotes on the snow postings.  Have a look at these snowpeople, shot with my swanky new iPhone camera.  Well, the iPhone is swanky but the camera, frankly, is a pile of pants.  (The rest of the iPhone really is phenomenally wonderful.)

First, meet Lugs!  Something of the cowboy about him.  Note the ears, legs, necktie and belt.

Now say 'Hi!' to Mr Carrotconk.    He has his own igloo (below) on our neighbouring village green.   Eat your heart out, London!  This is where the real snowguys hang.


I thought we'd have afternoon tea in the garden! (Shot today at 10.09am.)

I had a slightly eerie feeling, while ranting in my last post, that things would sneak back and bite me in the arse.  (Or ass, if you hang out on the west side of the Atlantic.)  And they have.

I woke up ludicrously early this morning, full of joyful anticipation of today's Press Event at the Royal Horticultural Society's Lawrence Hall, London.  I had several rendez-vous (?vouses?) arranged and was expecting a jolly and informative day.   Duly, I set off for the 24 mile drive to my nearest railway station noticing, in passing, that it was snowing hard, with a few inches already accumulated.  'This won't bother us up here,' I muttered to my wife, as I left.  'We're not wimps, like that lah-di-dah Home Counties lot.  Anyway, it'll probably melt as it falls'

Nearly three hours later, after avoiding ambulances, jack-knifed lorries and little old ladies in Fiestas cruising at 10mph sideways, I managed to turn round and get home again.  My car computer helfpfully informed me that I had averaged almost 11 miles per hour.  

The main road resembled a scene from the Coen Bros classic film Fargo - yer actual Arctic white-out. There were even rumours of polar bears and I'm sure I spotted some twitchers looking for such rare vagrant species as snowy owls or ptarmigan.

Just when we need it most, our county council seems to have run out of grit/salt which is hardly surprising, since they've been spreading it almost nightly since October, whenever there's been the slightest whisper of a possible frost.  Clearly, the geezer in charge of transport is not a Wise Virgin.   Anyway, by the time I'd got home, the snow lay very deep, moderately crisp and surprisingly even.  I'm glad to be home for bonus free day but sad to miss friends I hoped to bump into in London.

But the main reason for this interim post is to say 'Sorry!'  To those at whom I scoffed, down south, I offer a heartfelt apology.  You clearly aren't wimps - but I still can't understand why the Tube conked out and why schools stayed closed for two days running.

I really will post the story about the birchwoods - possibly even later today!!   Meanwhile, keep warm!

Tuesday 3 February 2009


I'm absolutely shocked, horrified, appalled, amazed, gobsmacked!   My ghast is truly flabbered and I have to admit, too, that my shame runs deep, dark and bitter.  

Firstly, the shame.  It's been so many days since I dipped a toe into the wonderfully Oz-like nation of Bloglandia that other people's posts have built up to a terrifying backlog, on my home page. (That's Wizard of Oz, by the way, not the big, beautiful country 'down under' which claims to have a slight talent at Cricket.)   I must read them all - the posts, that is -  the moment I've finished this.

Secondly, I can hardly believe that so much time has gone by since the last bout of frenzied ranting, so politely referred to by certain persons as 'colborning.'  Well, I'll soon put that right! Here goes:

The consequences of yesterdays 'Major Snow Event'  
Our shed roof was partially covered with snow!  Shot at 8 am today.

So that was what the Met Office call a 'Major Snow Event?'  ARE THEY HAVING A LAUGH??? A snowflake falls. And then, before it has a chance to melt, another one lands on top of it and suddenly, everything south of Watford comes to a juddering standstill. The entire London Underground stops, in case a flake might blow into one of the tunnels and fuse the electrics.   Aeroplanes are grounded, buses are locked in their garages, Schools, everywhere, take a day off so the kids can sit at their computers at home. (My broadband ground to a halt yesterday, as if to prove the point.)  

Meanwhile pressmen with cameras scour the parks, downs and uplands of the Home Counties in the hopes of finding some of the aforementioned children having been frogmarched outdoors by parents - prevented from working by the collapsed transport system - to go tobogganing or snowballing, or building really crap snowmen. None of the snowmen I saw would have a hope in hell of flying, with or without the help of Raymond Briggs or Aled Jones.    

So the evening news bulletins were full of jolly snowballers and chirruping children on sledges. Aaah, bless!!!    Mmmmmrrrggghhhhhhh!  They should have been at school, doing Double Maths and their parents should have been hard at work, beating the Credit Crunch and helping to rescue my beleagured pension!   And to cap it all, on Channel Four News, not only were we treated to wise utterances from the current Mayor of Lunnon - he who resembles a bit of a snowman himself - but also his newt-loving predecessor.  Neither was very edifying; neither could explain why a little winter weather had brought the World's Financial Capital to a juddering, quivering, shivering standstill.  

No wonder people in Switzerland, Canada, Upstate New York and other snowy places laugh at us.  If the amount of snow that hit Surrey, yesterday, had fallen in Buffalo or Milwaukee, the locals would wonder what had caused the winter drought.

I'm going to calm down, now, and read all your lovely posts.  Then I'll get back to something loosely connected with nature and gardens.  If you've read this far, you're an absolute saint and I love you for your patience.

I'm listening to Charles Mingus, live, at Cornell University - recorded 1964 - and it isn't helping my mood one bit.

This week's film was Clint Eastwood's absolute cracker of story Dirty Harry.  'Do you feel lucky, Punk?

This day last year was a Sunday and we dined on Roast Pheasant - a geriatric bird, apparently, which appeared to have been shot at 12 feet range.  We also ate the last of the Christmas cake.