Tuesday 22 March 2011


Just seen yesterday afternoon, flying over the fen.  A beautiful, sleek, female Hen Harrier - well, a ring-tail bird, anyway.  What a stirring sight.  She must be heading north to breed.  A first for us on this particular fen.  We've had several Marsh Harriers. All we need now is a Montague's.

The PG's shot, today, of Tulipa fosteriana 'Madame LeFebre' aka 'Red Emperor' out in our garden.  

Winter is done and for once, the weather has played the game and given us a delicious taster of spring. 'Simpsons' type clouds are scudding playfully across the azure firmament and with days now longer than nights, we can feel the sap rising and our little hearts going pit-a-pat with the crazy excitement of it all.

Sparrows are making a racket in our roof; there's a song thrush nesting in our shelter belt and we've seen several male brimstone butterflies desperately looking for love. The greenish white females are so fat and lazy, sitting around, barely bothering to fly, waiting for their hyperactive, sulphur-clad Lotharios. It's a wonder that species breeds at all.

The garden's full of joyous rapture - no wild thyme, but 'oxlips and the nodding violet' by the million. Some of my rare and special daffodils are emerging and in the mini-meadow, yellow rattle is germinating like cress.

All should be a transport of delight but I'm a bit cross and I'll tell you why.

On Sunday, the PG and I decided to celebrate the first day of spring with a walk in one of our favourite local nature reserves known as Thurlby Fen Slipe.  (A slipe is the strip of land which borders the raised banks of a river.)  

This little reserve, only about a kilometre long is extremely narrow and follows the course of the River Glen.  Some interesting flora grow there but the slipe's most endearing feature are the tiny grass meadows which skirt the river and which are thickly carpeted with cowslips in spring and common spotted orchids in summer.

We heard the first chiffchaff of the year calling in one of the small spinneys, watched a single corn bunting trying to distance itself from a couple of closely related yellow hammers.  Two stock doves were canoodling - a bird species for which I have a totally irrational soft spot.  I think it's the exquisitely blended shades of slaty grey and the fact that you almost always see them in twos.

The cowslips at Thurlby Fen Slipe  Nature Reserve shot by me a couple of years ago.

We didn't expect to find any cowslips in bloom - though there was a single precocious stem that had bucked the trend and opened early, a little taster of the glories to come.  But we could see the rosettes of cowslip leaves, wrinkled and dead flat, keeping their toe-hold in the short turf.

Wanting to have a closer look at this part of the sward, and to see how many plant species i could spot, along with the cowslips, I dropped to my hands and knees and that's when it happened:

Suddenly, I was nose to turd.  A massive coiled dogshite insultingly and damagingly dumped in the middle of the exquisite meadow flora. And once I was down on the ground - and with my hip being so useless, that in itself is something of a major operation - I realised that the whole place was a minefield.  There was barely a couple metres between craps.  I stood up in disgust and we moved on.

And the further we travelled, the more dog crap we saw.  So instead of watching for marsh tits, or looking to see whether the willows were busy with hungry bumble bees, we found ourselves on a sort of turdicular treasure hunt.  'Look, two more by that tree, and another - watch out, it's right in the path.' etc. etc.

I love dogs.  They're adorably filthy-minded animals with absolutely not one shred of pride, constantly ready to shag, if they're males, and eager to swear undying loyalty and friendship, until a rival offers them a titbit. A bit like blokes, really.  But I hate irresponsible dog owners.  The should be frog-marched back to the scene of crime and forced to clean up the mess.

 I wonder if the owners of these dogs realise what damage this constant shelling of the natural ground with nitrogen-rich excrement actually does.  In a vast land area, I don't suppose it matters that much.  But in a little nature reserve like this, the harm is more significant.  Enrichment feeds grasses at the expense of most broadleaved plant species, so every time a dog evacuates - and some, particularly Labradors seem to have more coming out than there is food going in! – the balance is skewed further in favour of grasses and nettles.

Cowslips smell a little like freesias, but its a fainter, gentler scent. If you analyse their beauty, it doesn't add up to much, but because they are the very essence of spring, you can't help but adore them.

On our way back we passed one of the perpetrators.  He had no fewer than six dogs with him, not one on a lead - despite the notice on the Slipe entrance which states that dogs are to be on leads.  In a moment, the mutts had spotted the PG and me and, despite his commands that they stay, they were all over us, jumping up, licking our hands and being generally rather sweet and soppy.

Coward that I am, I couldn't make myself remonstrate with this man.  He had a slightly scary glint, and worrisomely cropped hair and stubble, like something out of a Dickensian prison.  Part of me didn't want to spoil his and our afternoon with distinctly un springlike acrimony.  But most of me was just plain chicken about causing a row and possible punch up, or being licked to death by his soppy dogs.

So we went home.

I'm listening to Benjamin Britten's Canticle 'Abraham and Isaac.'

This week's film was Jane Campion's Bright Star.  I had looked forward to this story of Keats' relationship with his neighbour, Fanny Brawne, with feverish anticipation. Certainly a film worth seeing, if only for hearing fragments of Keats poetry so beautifully read, but I was disappointed and it's hard to nail down exactly why.  The costumes - all 1820s 'Empire Line' stuff and big hats - were super and I loved the setting. I think the two main problems were the screenplay, which really didn't work, for me, and the casting. Keats (Ben Whishaw) just didn't do the poet for me.  He seemed utterly wet, and I've always imagined Keats as being more gutsy, despite the tuberculosis.  The story limped and I had to keep reminding myself that this was one of the greatest stories of thwarted love and tragic early demise in history.  Oh Lord, how I do ramble,  Sorry, sorry.

This time next week with luck, I'll have had my hip replaced and as a result, will be less grouchy.  But don't bank on it!

Toodle ooh and happy Springtide!

Friday 11 March 2011


You'll be deeply relieved, I suspect, when you discover that this post is to be light on words.  I was going to rant a bit about various things but when this morning's news broke about the Japan earthquake, even the most pressing problems at home suddenly seemed so trivial as to be barely worth a second thought.

I can't imagine how awful it must be, when your little world - the solid ground at your feet - suddenly starts jiving and rocking like a 12ft dinghy in a swell.  What do you hang onto when concrete is behaving like jelly and your personal space is suddenly filled with falling masonry.

I'm trying to imagine, too, what our local town's shopping street might be like, suddenly converted into a raging torrent of debris-filled water with ocean going vessels capsizing at the point where one normally catches the bus or nips into the pub for a pint of real ale.

We've had too many earthquakes, recently.  Let's hope there won't be any more for a while.

Scilla bifolia with weeds in my woodland garden.

About 15 years ago, I was wandering up Mount Parnassos, in Greece, with Kew orchid expert and botanist Philip Cribb and a party of fellow enthusiasts.  Phil was searching for wild orchids, but I was being bowled over by anything in flower.  As we neared the summit, where the snow was receding, I gasped with excitement and awe at the sight of spring flowers popping up in the damp  turf.  They weren't even waiting for the snow to melt but were thrusting through the pristine, crystalline slush at the margin of the snow field.  Crocus sieberi were the most obvious but the plants that won me over completely were Fritillaria graeca and Scilla bifolia.

The blue is as intense as that of Gentiana acaulis - not reproduced too well here.

The intense blue of scilla bifolia has to be seen to be beileved. They're shortlived and, frankly, not very gardenworthy, but for the few days that they are in bloom, they're an absolute joy. Back home, I quickly got hold of some bulbs and now have a thriving little colony.  

Among my seedlings, this pale pink form showed up.  I hope it multiplies.

Enjoy them - their beauty cannot be denied- but while you take in the blue, in my rather inadequate and rushed shots, please think of people who have suffered in recent natural disasters.

You may recall I mentioned hepaticas recently here.  Well, I'm glad to report that the rather tatty pink job originally bought at an RHS London show, has spawned some pretty babies.  Enjoy those too.  Sorry the photos are substandard, but I did them just now, on the run, in wind and lousy light.

Hepatica triloba - tatty but still going strong after weeks in flower.

The colours all look similar, online, but I can assure you they are all quite different.

A clean, dark blue.

Soft cerise with darker veins

Best of the seedlings a mid blue suffused with white.

I'm listening to a Tchaikovsky Piano Sonata and not enjoying it very much.

This week's film was Tirez sur le Pianiste - translated as Shoot the Piano Player.  Francois Truffaut getting dangerously close to awful 'New Wave,' but still a fine little film of just over 70 minutes.  Charles Aznavour is so perfectly cast as Saroyan/Kohler, the timid little musician who screws up his life because of excruciating shyness, and who is also caught up in some dark, weirdly plotted gangsterish thuggery which is never really explained.  Thankfully he doesn't sing much.  Oh, sorry to offend Azanvour fans. Wonderful to see the magnificently nosed Albert Rémy who most people remember from The Train.

This day in 1992 I was writing my first novel, The Kirkland Acres and complaining about the bitter cold wind and sparrows ruining my pulmonarias, wisteria and clematis.

Hepatica transsylvanica. More petals, you will note.

Thanks for reading - byeee!

Friday 4 March 2011


- I said I wouldn't be writing a post this week, because of an impending hip replacement, but that was before BLACK MONDAY.

This Monday -  BLACK MONDAY - the seven of us who turned up, starved and apprehensive, at 6.45am at the Orthopaedic Ward of Peterborough City Hospital - shiny, new and extremely friendly - were invited to sit and wait while the staff clacked about on the new, immaculately clean floors trying to look efficient and cheerful, rather than the usual disillusioned and mildly confused NHS manner.

The day wore on a little.  More staff came in and greeted each other, and us, smiled sweetly and went about their business.  Then, a more authoritative staff member turned up and regretfully informed us that due to an excess of week-end admissions, they had no beds for any of us.  Our operations were therefore cancelled and they'd contact us within 28 days.  I guessed that we'd be dumped back at the bottom of the waiting list.

Narcissus bulbocodium: nothing to do with the text - just a spring piccy to cheer you up.

That was a kick in the goolies all right.  If you've ever had surgery and if, like me, you're of a timorous disposition, the prospect of being hacked about and your bones sawn up by muttering, masked medics in strange green clothes, is just a little daunting.

In fact it's ever so slightly bloody terrifying. And if you've seen many episodes of ER or worse, House, you can't help but imagine the aforementioned medics chatting about their sex lives, or slagging off absent colleagues in a distracted way, seeming to have forgotten they're delving into someone's living brain or kidneys while they natter.

So it had been a somewhat sleepless, edgy night.  Plus, I'd been forbidden ibuprofen for a week before, so it was also pretty dam' painful.

But enough moaning already!  I was pleasantly surprised on BRIGHT WEDNESDAY by a courteous call from the Orthopaedic Big Cheese's secretary who mentioned a cancellation. I now have a date for surgery on 25th March.  It's a Friday afternoon.  I'm trying not to think about 'Friday Afternoon Cars!'

'Marconi' peppers.  Sweet, aromatic, delicious but rather un-British. My Grandmother would not have approved.

NOW THEN!  Ahem ahem!
I glanced at a page in Saturday's The Times Magazine which quoted Michelin star chef Daniel Clifford as having said:

'The days of crunchy vegetables are over. You want them cooked through so they can be cut with a fork.'

'Well EXCUSE ME!' I yelled, hurling down the magazine and profoundly startling both cats and the PG, 'but I'll cook my vegetables any way I damn well want.  I do NOT need some lah-di-dah Cheffy-pants telling me how to live! SO THERE!

Overcooked vegetables are criminal, abominable, obscene, disgusting and dangerous.  HOME GROWN vegetables overcooked are like murdered children. 

This chef, I decided, must be too young to remember the terrible old British method with vegetables which went like this:
- Harvest when really old.
- Peel - regardless of whether peel tastes OK or is nutritious.
- Put in  saucepan half full of salty water.
- Boil for two days before serving from a cold tureen to ensure that they are luke-warm as well as mushed.

My prep school Brussels sprouts, done like this, had the consistency of used tea bags and smelt like farts, as well as being flatulence-inducing.  School cabbage was worse, and whiffs of mustard gas pervaded the chilly corridors for days on end after a cabbagey lunch.  Turnips, which Mr Clifford appears to champion, were worst of the lot.  They had the consistency of cricket balls as well as that repellent brassica pong.

And on top of all that culinary stench, there was what we nutritionists call the Gaseous Product of Digestion (GPD.) This issued loudly from the pupils and more discreetly, but just as devastatingly from the teachers.

In fact, if Kaiser Wilhelm had thought of deploying ranks of small prep school boys on all-brassica diets, instead of heavy artillery, the Great War might really have been over by Christmas 1914.

Truly British vegetables!  But I wish my onions turned out like these beauties!

But I do Mr Clifford an injustice, and must ask his pardon.

I took his comment out of context.  I assumed he was trying to suggest that the fashion for crunchy vegetables was over.  But what he actually said, when I bothered to read the whole article, was that late winter vegetables need thorough cooking, when compared to baby spring and early summer ones.  And anyone but a mug would agree with that.  He cooks his in chicken stock and other goodies including butter. Mmmmm!

He also included a delicious-looking recipe for Root Vegetables en Papillote.  But I noticed they were all baby ones - hard to come by in March, especially if you rely on home grown - and involved 300 grammes (about 11 ounces) of diced, smoked belly bacon.  Is that supposed to be a healthy option?

We had something even healthier last night: fish and chips, or, as they might say over the Channel, Poisson et frites en papillote.  Well, chips are vegetables, aren't they?  And there can't be that much difference between cooking lah-di-dah root veg in a paper thingy and wrapping up a chippy supper in EU & 'Elf and Safety-approved non-newspaper paper.

Luckily, our local chippy is quite the best I've ever frequented.  Their fish is the freshest, their chips are lovely and the staff are utterly charming as well.  Plus Thursday nights have a 'Pensioners' Special' price. I think a little Chablis was justified, to help the banquet down, don't you?

I'm listening to Schubert's Quartet Number 14  'Death and the Maiden.'

This day in 2008 I was in Malaysia, in the Taman Negara, nature-watching.

This week's film was Shutter Island directed by Scorsese and starring Leonardo di Caprio.  Not a great film, and with a predictable outcome, though a nice little denouement.  Di Caprio can certainly act, as can co-star Ben Kingsley.  Though the latter has been more glitterily scary in other things. Sexy Beast, for example.

Bye  bye, and don't forget to eat more home grown vegetables!