Friday 29 November 2013


Oh dearie me - another embarrassing gap between posts.  Please forgive.

Field Poppies Papaver rhoeas, on set-aside land in Thurlby, Lincolnshire circa 2003
(Click Pics for a larger view.)

 I posted these pictures a couple of weeks ago because I had intended to rant about politicians, celebrities and public figures who began piously to wear Haig Fund charity poppies several weeks before Armistice Day or Remembrance Sunday.

I can't understand why I found such low key demonstrations of personal worthiness so offensive but the whole thing put me off wearing a poppy at all, this year.

It seemed as though there was a contest of some kind, to show who cared most about the millions of  young lives thrown away because of awful policies, mostly devised by old men.  And with people still dying in unnecessary wars or at the hands tyrants, the whole idea of remembrance seemed to me to have become cheapened by turning the poppy into some kind of uniform or a badge of virtue.

Then, after reading Robert Fisk in the Independent and Harry Leslie Smith in the Guardian I realised that there were far bigger minds than mine reacting to such behaviour.

And when, by mistake, I tuned to that puerile television dancing contest on the BBC, last month, I noticed that absolutely everyone wore poppies of one kind or another.  Some even appeared to have small red enamel and gold ones.  How distressing, to link chic items of costume jewelry with more than a million boys and young men who died hideously and agonisingly in Flanders where Papaver rhoeas happened to grow in the shell-ravaged battlefields.

That November badge – cheap plastic imitation of a field poppy – has become even cheaper and shoddier.  In future, I'll still make an annual donation to the British Legion but won't be wearing a buttonhole.

Natural variation, spotted in a field of poppies.

The poppy itself could never be besmirched.  Such peerless beauty is everlasting and one of the great delights of the summer is to see the poppies, individually at first – a scarlet roadside flash – and then in profusion.

It's difficult to analyse that beauty.  Is it the pleated petals, pressure-packed like a tiny parachute in the gooseberry-haired bud?  Is it the rapid expansion, like a butterfly from its pupa, from wrinkled blob to silken perfection?  Or is it that the flowers don't really fade.  They emerge, they're fresh and lovely, they fall.

A true Shirley Poppy, with yellow stamens.

Field poppies, both wild and garden forms, breed and mongrelise all over our garden.  Some are semi-double, some plain scarlet, some pink, some cinder-grey with red undertones like the poet  Hopkins's 'blue-bleak embers' which 'fall, gall themselves and gash gold vermilion.'

A semi-double field poppy in my garden

Stamens.  How many flowers have dark grey ones?

An unlikely blue tinge on Papaver 'Beauty of Livermere'  It's a perennial, probably just a good form of Papaver bracteatum.

Welsh Poppy, Meconopsis cambrica

Meconopsis are wonderful, too, but they lack the charm of the big, pepperpot central capsule.  There's nothing better, for cool shade or semi-shade, though, than a stand of Welsh poppies. 

 And finally - a Himalayan blue job.  I think it's 'Branklyn' but a meconopsis of one sort or another.

I'm listening to Benjamin Britten's Friday Afternoons, song arrangements for children.  It being the great man's centenary, I'm working through my collection.  Grimes is being saved until last.

This week's exciting event was the Garden Media Guild Awards Lunch.  Everyone was extremely jolly and the food was delicious.  Awards were presented.  We consumed six cockles each among other things as an appetizer and ate blue-grey potatoes with tender lamb, followed by a tiny tarte tatin. 

That's it for now. Bye bye.  

Thursday 19 September 2013


From time to time, between more general posts, I'll be publishing selected  extracts from my diary which may be of general interest.  The text has been  edited, to remove personal or private material and to avoid offence where it is not intended.  

Accompanying pictures, as always, may be relevant but are more likely to be included just for relief from the awful prose.

A storm builds over the North Sea at Holkham Bay in early August 2013.  
Is a storm gathering over food supply versus sustainability in Britain?

21st August 2013, at home.
After lunch, the PG and I walked the fields above the Fen.  It was what Norfolk countrymen would call a 'fine, soft day' with pearly sky, gently filtered sunlight and exactly the right level of warmth.

Much of the wheat is newly harvested.  Land is cleared within hours of the huge, high-tech combines feeding their way into the crop.  Straw was processed into big bales – not for bedding or fodder, I suspect, but for bio-mass fuel to feed power stations.  The baler follows the combine; fork-lifts and trailers follow the baler and within 24 hours a 50 acre field is cropped, cleared and part-way tilled with heavy disc harrows or a spring-tine drag.

Where land is worked, gigantic half-track or double-wheel tractors pull tine-disc combinations, sometimes turning stubble to drillable tilth in a single pass.  I'm reminded of H G Wells' 'Land Ironclads' – though those were military tanks.  The land is bludgeoned into submission by these mechanical giants whose size makes their drivers look like little plastic toys .

The romance is gone from arable agriculture.  No mammals – short tailed voles, harvest mice, field mice – will pick through stubbles which are left for less than a day.  Few farmland birds will forage for grain fragments.  Arable weeds – if they germinate at all – will be zapped with residual herbicides and a rushed treatment with slug pellets – probably methiocarb – deals with the molluscs.  Thus, the rich fenland, east of the village, becomes more barren than a desert.  Kestrels, buzzards and barn owls, though they survive here, have slim pickings and the only refuge from machines lies in the narrow field margins, occasional trees and the few dyke-sides or road verges which have not been mown.

Considerably more than four tonnes of milling wheat can be harvested from each tilled acre, here – more than double the national average for when I farmed in the 1970s.  In real terms, the price of the grain has not increased by much, so arable farmers need those big yields to stay profitable.  But on such bountiful land, do they need generous taxpayer subsidies?

The payments are for 'land stewardship' we're told – but little or nothing is done to protect the varied habitats surrounding the intensive cropping.  Thus, by default, biodiversity is reduced.  And even where there are extra stewardship schemes, also paid for by taxpayers, biodiversity can be almost as poor.

I don't think this damage is caused by wantonness or spite. As with so many cases of unnecessary damage, ignorance is the main cause.  With learning, better understanding of how the natural world works and small, low-cost – or even cost-free –  changes in many common farming practices, biodiversity could be sustained and enriched – and without yield loss.  With that kind of care, the beauty of these flatlands would be spectacularly enhanced.

There are outstanding exceptions.  Even among the most efficient and industrialised farmers, some are fully in tune with sympathetic land use, with assisting natural diversity and thus, with creating greater concomitant beauty.  (Beauty being far, far more than just what you see, when viewing the landscape.)

But in spite of everything, our Fen does not lose all its beauty.  It remains a place to be cherished for its calming flatness, big skies, constantly changing light, moody water courses, low-level mists, rampaging thunder storms – even for its keening, penetrating winter winds.  That is so even as, day by day, month by month, a little more life-richness is lost. Plink, plink, plink – one by one the lights of life go out, the bulbs fuse, the filament snaps, a fairy dies.

With land ownership – whatever the acreage – comes a deep and binding responsibility, not just for now but for coming generations.  And that applies to those of us who garden, as well as to big arable farmers.

This is not about saving bitterns or re-introducing ospreys; it is not about grants for planting pointless hedges or digging isolated ponds.  This is about teaching everyone in the countryside how to live and let live – that is, to let the rest of life on earth live.

At a guess, I'd say that biodiversity is greater, now, in Peterborough than on the fenland which surrounds that sprawling city.  And yet, 200 years ago, the lowlands of Eastern England had some of the richest and most diverse habitats in the British Isles.  
How on earth did we allow that to happen?

 BIG SKIES: part of our fen, at the end of the settled weather period in early September.

Monday 16 September 2013


A disturbing and distressing story caught my eye in this fortnight’s Horticulture Week.  

 Aster laevis 'Calliope'

Brussels Bureaucrats, apparently, are about to smack us about the head with a particularly ill-judged and potentially damaging piece of looney-toons legislation.  Believe me, this one makes the outlawing of curved bananas look sane and reasonable.

 As part of proposed EU legislation to regulate ‘plant reproductive material,’ Brussels wants all plant varieties to be listed on an official register.  To implement that, they want every variety to carry an officially recognized description which could run to two pages.  Such descriptions would give details of such life-threatening features as the length of the hairs on a plant’s stems.

This would be part of a plan to force nurseries and individuals to sell only registered plants.

Registration, because of the exhaustive information required, multiplied up by all the red tape necessary to keep the maximum number of EU civil servants employed, will cost a great deal of money to implement. And presumably, each registration will have to be approved by the Eurocrats.

It could therefore become illegal for anyone to sell non-registered plants.  This system already applies to vegetable and agricultural crops, greatly reducing diversity.   

We do NOT want this to happen to ornamentals – preferably not anywhere but absolutely NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES in Britain.

 British gardens are among the world's most diversely planted.  How many of these modest plants might be lost, if registration becomes necessary?  Would registration condemn them?

If this legislation is forced through, it will kill small, independent nurseries – the lifeblood of British horticulture and the main reason for our unique horticultural diversity.  How many other nations can boast more than 70,000 cultivars and species commercially available?  Holland?  I don’t think so! 

Dotty legislation like this could also clobber plant breeders.  The big guys may be able to carry the cost burden, not to mention the mind-numbing paperwork, but the little chaps?  No chance!

Professional and semi-professional breeders have given us so much in the past.  I’m talking about people who tinker with specialist plant groups, often in back garden nurseries.  They have bequeathed British – and therefore world – horticulture some wonderful varieties.  You may remember Woodfield Brothers’ spectacular lupin exhibits at Chelsea year after year, back in the, er, 1990s. Many of us still grow the late Hector Harrison’s fascinating diascias.  And what about Elizabeth Strangman’s pioneering work on hellebores?  Think of amateur and semi-professional dahlia breeders, too, not to mention iris nuts, saxifrage enthusiasts, fuchsia breeders – the list is long and diverse.

Fuchsia 'Rose Fantasia'  Fuchsia enthusiasts have raised thousands of cultivars.  If each has to be registered, most could be lost to cultivation.

 So what happens if those unelected Brussels Sprouts have their way?  What will that mean for the diversity of planting in good gardens?  Do we really want our planting schemes limited to what is approved for registration by those self-perpetuating grey scrubbers? 

Currently, anyone can offer plants that they've bred - either to give away or to sell.  Many are also happy to let their progeny go into cultivation without protecting their intellectual property, ie, without breeders' rights of any kind.  I love that kind of freedom.  It is part of our gardening heritage, just as it is also reasonable that professional breeders should have the right to protect or copyright their commercial progeny.

Let’s say, for example,  that a perennial enthusiast has developed a gorgeous late flowering aster, with bright, rosy-purple flowers and elegant, darkly marbled foliage which is never disfigured with so much as a speck of mildew?  Most British gardeners might give it little more than a cursory glance.  So if big horticultural marketeers  fail to see any potential, that plant is overlooked, no one registers it, so good-bye!

But if you happen to be an aster nut, and have a nicely planted autumn border, that variety could become an object of intense, insatiable desire.  So imagine how you – or that person – would feel, if all the breeder can say is, ‘Sorry, love, I’d give you a root or two, but I’m forbidden. I'd be breaking the law.’

The Begonia 'Sherbet Bon Bon' – a highly commerical plant. 
Great, but I want esoteric, wispy things in my garden as well as big brassy jobs like this.

So what will British growers, breeders, gardeners and in particular, plantsmen do?  Will we fight such insane legislation, if it looks like becoming law?  Will we march in the streets, waving placards?  Will we distract our MPs from worrying about their emoluments and get them help us out of our miserable situation? 

And what will the Royal Horticultural Society do?  Let's hope they're going to raise an almighty stink about this.  If they don't, they dam' well should, and now and without ceasing until the nonsense is nipped in the bud.

We know that DEFRA will probably be supine and continue to snooze gently while the legislation goes through.

And probably, as gardeners, we’ll just moan a bit more, and then carry on muddling through, somehow. 

And in time, the less mainstream plants will quietly disappear.  Or, they’ll be flogged, one at a time, at garden fêtes or from Women’s Institute stalls, or exchanged among garden clubs until, like Gardeners Delight tomatoes, they’ll become denatured, variable, of dubious provenance and no longer so desirable.

In time, we could see our gardens – both public and private – lose their uniquely rich diversity and become drearily uniform.  And this won't happen just from Penzance to Inverness, but also from Britain to Bulgaria.   

How bloody awful, to have one of our richest treasuries – our wonderful plant heritage – watered down to a few hundred crappy cultivars which look OK in garden centres but have limited garden value and are exactly the same, anyway, as what grows in every garden in the street and in every park as well.  What a terrible thought!  I hope I'll be digging in God's little acre, by the time that happens!

 Anemone nemorosa 'Parlez-Vous' - a cultivar of quiet beauty, probably only of interest to a few gardeners.  But I wouldn't be without it, or without a dozen other wood anemone cultivars.

I'm listening to Benjamin Britten's extraordinarily bouncy-rhythmed festival cantata Rejoice in the Lamb.

This week's film, in honour of the recent date was Battle of Britain.  When released in 1969, this film was unkindly received. But it has lasted well and is a reasonably accurate telling of Britain's invasion crisis, in September 1940, averted by our gaining air supremacy over the Luftwaffe.  Olivier's portrayal of Dowding was, for once, under-played and utterly convincing.

Hang onto your fancy plants - the grey men are coming to get them!

Friday 6 September 2013


Sorry but, yes –  yet another butterfly picture.  But but he who tires of such darling winged jewels must surely be flyered of tife.  Get yourself outdoors, now, while there are still a few on the wing and admire their co-ordinated colour schemes and the gliding flight that some of them manage. And what about those intricate, watch-spring probosces which coil and uncoil and can be inserted into the tiny Buddleia flowers with such alarming accuracy?

 Small Tortoiseshell Aglais urticae sips nectar from Buddleja davidii 'Nanho Blue'

Winter will be here soon enough and then we'll dream of butterflies.  Some of us will long to see buddelias bloom again, and to enjoy their slightly cheap, Fry's Chocolate Creme fragrance. 

(Sorry, but I really hate calling the Rev. Adam Buddle's plants 'buddlejas.'  I've even heard people pronounce them 'bud-lee-jiahs' which really won't do.  It's worse than calling 'scones' 'scones' or  'vahses' 'vorses' – or vice-versa.  The correct genus name, arrived at by some pedant or other, may be Buddleja but everyone calls them buddleias, don't they?  Besides, Latin lacks the letter 'J' doesn't it?  Hence the schoolboy rhyme:

Caesar ad sum iam forte,
Pompey ad erat.
Caesar sic in omnibus,
Pompey sic in at.
            . . . though it only works if you use the anglicised name for Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus)
A-a-anyway . . .back to butterflies.  Like so many people on the look-out for nature, this summer, the PG and I have been bowled over time and again by so many joyous butterfly sightings that it seems wrong not to mention them again.  Stars for us, this year, were more White Admirals than I've seen in a lifetime; a Green Hairstreak, Clouded Yellows, Graylings and in our own mini-meadow –  after missing them for a year – Common Blues of both sexes.  We hope they've bred but have no idea whether there was any of the necessary hanky-panky.

Also 'on the pin' in his collection, my brother showed me a number of aberrant Camberwell Beauties.  These would have been caught, killed, set and then mounted in an insect cabinet.  But that was in an earlier era when collecting Lepidoptera was a noble pursuit.  How I would love to see that gorgeously cream-edged, purple beauty, Aglais antiopa, on the wing.  One day, perhaps.

A not-too-brilliant shot of one of the white admirals, Limenitis camilla,
 feeding on hemp agrimony in Holkham Pinewoods, Norfolk, in early August.

Butterflies punch above their weight, in the line of beauty.  Few other insects cause the heart to sing  so joyously – especially when one spots an unusual one.  Some are herald insects, too.  The year's first Orange Tip tells us that spring is truly come; Ringlets appear in the first week in July, usually when it's close and thundery; peacocks hang about my potting shed when autumn days lose their charm but fly out again, if the late sun coaxes.

Most of us admire only the adult butterfly or imago but the pupa of a Peacock which hangs from its tail, is an object of intricate loveliness.  And a Large White chrysalis, which props itself upright with a thin silk girdle attached to at vertical surface is also to be admired even though the caterpillar has probably ransacked your broccoli. 

A world without butterflies would be a hellish place.  We should strive to preserve such vulnerable insects.

The rose 'Compassion' and Clematis viticella 'Betty Corning,' both of which are fragrant and both of which produce flowers for much of the summer.  These adorn the arch which leads into our tiny woodland garden.

I'm listening to Neil Mackie singing Benjamin Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.  There are worse ways to enjoy Tennyson et al and the music is sublime – Barry Tuckwell is the fruity tooter.

This Day in 2006  the PG and I were in South Africa and flew to from Port Elizabeth to Nelspruit for a few days in the Kruger.  We stayed on the banks of the Crocodile River, looking into the National Park. Elephants were at the river edge, two species of bee eater were nesting in the banks, as well as goliath heron.  Hippos serenaded us with their grunts each night and gave us a reveille every morning, often accompanied by the haunting calls of African Fish Eagles.  What a wonderful place it was 

Here's a brief, unedited diary extract.  
After our arrival and a rushed lunch, we joined with two other people and boarded an open vehicle for our first game drive to the Kruger.  Our guide, David, who was born in Zimbabwe, turned out to be as good as any we’d had and managed to find plenty of game. We began with the fairly obvious antelope, wart hogs, elephants and rhino and soon found a large male lion, bloated with a recent kill and fast asleep with all his legs in the air.  We saw Lilac Breasted Rollers, Tawny Eagles and a Pale Chanting Goshawk.

This week's film was Cloud Atlas – a strange, multi-genre, multi-age tale of love crossing the the ages.  Parts were trashy action movie, others were grisly, futuristic Scifi; much of it was spectacular.  If I had to give an Oscar, it would be to the make-up and prothesis artists.  I enjoyed it greatly, but can't quite understand why.

Oh, and our elder twins are 40 today.  Happy birthday to them.

Bye Bye - and thank you so much for reading this aimless ramble.

Wednesday 21 August 2013


Well goodness me!  Hullo!

Wheat, heavy in the ear and ready for harvest on Hacconby Fen.
(click on pix for a larger view)

Now then. . .
The more observant among you will have noticed that this blog has been inactive since April.  No doubt, you'll have leafed through the back posts – for lack of anything else to see – and probably sighed with disappointment at the absence of any new material.

It has been an inexcusable neglect, caused by long-running industrial action leading to a lock-out by the SILVERTREEDAZE production team who complained that their pay of £0.00 per hour, coupled with a zero hours contract was NOT a basis on which to develop a happy working relationship.
But I'm delighted to announce that after lengthy negotiations, much beer and sandwiches and a re-shuffle, their Union Leaders have agreed to accept a 50% increase to the hourly rate with a minimum number of hours guaranteed.

As a result, this blog is to be relaunched in EARLY SEPTEMBER.

Unlike the Norwegian Blue Parrot,  it will not be dead.  It will not have ceased to be.  A phoenix-like fiery birth, from the ashes of neglect, will excite, inspire and enthuse you.

 Eryngium giganteum and Digitalis lanata looking pretty in our hot, dry zone.

We'll post PRETTY PICTURES –  maintaining the tradition of the images being completely irrelevant, much of the time.

We will talk gardens, fads and flarze.  And we'll keep covering nature, wherever we find anything interesting.  

This has been a bountiful summer for butterflies.  Peacocks are flocking, in our garden and the common blues are back in the mini-meadow.  But the peacocks above hatched in Norfolk and were feasting, early in August, on wild hemp agrimony, Eupatorium cannabinum.   

There'll be a brand new, occasional feature: 
 Hot extracts from my personal diary will appear, from time to time, as separate posts

There will be more RANTS, of course.  There is, after all, plenty to be cross about!

For instance, it was recently announced that fresh Eggs will no longer be served in the Houses of Parliament. 'Elf and Safety' have banned them from Westminster Palace's eateries, unless they have previously been removed from the shells, in a factory, pasteurised, blended into a disturbing yellowish gloop and re-packaged for caterers. That, apparently, is safer and more wholesome than nature's exquisitely sculpted ovaloids, dropped fresh, pure and seamlessly packaged from the chicken's bottom.

Those of us who are neither peers – manufactured or born – nor elected MPs, may continue to eat fresh eggs, cooked in any way we want.

The ban raises a couple of amusing questions:  If fresh eggs are unsafe, as Elf 'n' Doodah suggest, why is it fine for the rest of us to eat them?  Is it because MPs all lead pure, uncorrupted and irreproachable lives within the sanctified environs of Westminster, whereas we peasants and plebs are accustomed to wallowing around the the cack?

Either way, the ban seems to be bloody silly.  Besides, you'd think Parliament would avoid the subject of eggs altogether, after the 'Curried Egg Fiasco' of earlier, Tory years.

 An amusing 'coleus shelf' on a wall at the magnificent Easton Walled Gardens, Lincolnshire.

Please, please, please be sweet enough to give us all at SILVERTREEDAZE another visit.  And keep on coming back.

Posts will be announced on Twitter – @plantmadnige – and your comments, rude or otherwise, will be eagerly awaited.

The  fun begins in EARLY SEPTEMBER.  Be there!

Please!  Please!  Oh, go on, please!

Friday 5 April 2013


So much for that brave 2013 resolution to write regular posts, perhaps even weekly. 
I'm told that if you don't feed a website or blog on an almost daily basis, no one comes.  But if I've learned anything, in a relatively long life, it's that 'received wisdom' is not always wise. So I'll bash on regardless.  But sorry, if you've missed these insane rants.  Abnormal service will be resumed forthwith – possibly.

Ice on our mini-pond at breakfast time this morning.  Disgraceful weather for April

First, the weather.

 I blame government incompetence, for the current freezing conditions and demand a Parliamentary inquiry, now.  I want to see weather forecasters – except the incomparable Liam Dutton – made to squirm in front of stern questions from indignant MP committee members who are desperate to make themselves look angry, superior, sorrowful, scandalised and televisual, all at the same time.  (It was a dark day for democracy, when they decided to broadcast parliament on TV)

I append snowdrops, shot this morning - and about as appropriate in April and Christmas pudding is in July.  Shocking and outrageous.

Snowdrops - Galanthus plicatus on 5th April in my garden.  Outrageous weather!

And now this. . . .
On a more serious note, a remark or two about the Neonicotinoid Issue.  Almost everyone now knows that there is increasing scientific evidence that neonicotinoid-based insecticides adversely affect bee populations by altering their behaviour patterns.  However, no one has demonstrated how this actually happens and although evidence is mounting, full, unequivocal proof is still wanting.  (Please don't get cross until you've read to the end of this section.)

That  bees are  ailing is beyond all doubt.  And it is highly likely that neonicotinoids are one of the causes of this disastrous problem.

But it's important not to make the assumption that if the chemicals are banned, all will be well with the bees.  That is dangerous territory.  There are so many other contributing causes of decline in pollinator populations, including the serious biggy, habitat loss.  And there are still a great many unexplained population crashes in other species - a prime example being the urban house sparrow.

It seems blindingly obvious that in light of increasing evidence, neonicotinoids are far to risky to use, both in agriculture and in private gardens.  It makes no sense at all not to suspend their use forthwith, until the picture become clearer.  

To prohibit their use in gardens, while permitting them on farmland suggests either profound ignorance or, and more likely, a pot shot at a weaker target than the disproportionately strong farming lobby.  Bees will be feeding extensively on oilseed rape flowers next month, for example, and will be greatly at risk to neonicotinoid exposure.

While a ban is in place, researchers can continue to search for provable links between the chemicals and the bee problems. And when  there is conclusive proof one way or the other, the chemicals could be reinstated or permanently banned. 

Organic growers and some environmentally minded people will, of course, disapprove of their use regardless of possible impact on bees.  But it is important to bear in mind that most of Britain's farmers will continue to use pesticides.  And if they do not use neonicotinoids, they will turn to other products which may be less harmful, but could also be worse.

The Ypres Salient – Tyne Cot Cemetery, Passchendaele. Monochrome seemed a better medium.


I'm listening to Delius - A Walk in the Paradise Garden, in the hopes of forgetting how absolutely poisonous the weather is outside.

Just over a week ago,  I was with my younger son in Belgium.  We stayed in Brugge and made a brief pilgrimage to Ypres to visit some of the battleground sites and the magnificently restored Cloth Hall, in the centre of the town.  The hall is now home to the In Flanders Fields Museum. We wept, a little, particuarly at the Essex Farm Cemetery, over the grave of a boy killed in action.  He was fifteen years old.  And we wept more, after the deeply moving Last Post ceremony at Menin Gate.  Mawkish?  Probably, a bit, but . . . well, more on this, possibly one day later.

An iPhone picture of people gathering for the Last Post memorial ceremony under Menin Gate, Ypres.  Several hundred people attend daily, as they have for almost a century since 11th November 1918

Instead of the week's film - this: 
The collection of early Flemish paintings, in Brugge's Groenigemuseum  is utterly, mind-blowingly wonderful.  If you ever go to Belgium, this is an absolute, utter must must must see.  And I'm talking Bosch, here, but not absolutely not bosh!

Thanks for reading this.  Sorry for such a long absence!

Monday 28 January 2013


How lovely it was, to see a proper snow cover in such soft, pearly light earlier this month.  The skies over our fen, on 21st January, were almost as featureless as the ground and certainly darker in colour.  How often, even on a sea-scape, is the daylight sky darker than the ground?  Part of the ethereal effect was caused by the lightest and most uniform of mists.  Calming, dreamy, heavenly!

  Snow round our way 1.  Hacconby Fen on 21st January.

Glad tidings. . .

According to Michael McCarthy, Nature Correspondent for The Independent newspaper, the tiny policing unit which, until recently, had a keenly honed axe poised above its skinny neck, will not be part of the current round of token austerity cuts.  (More detail here as a tail piece to his delightful article on fieldfares.)

The budget for this little policing unit is minuscule when you consider what policing can cost.  But its function is of incalculable value to wildlife conservation and therefore of great importance to everyone, including nature-haters and even economists.

The NWCU was set up to prevent, or to catch the perpetrators of such calumnies as shooting and poisoning rare raptors, nicking the eggs of threatened bird species, ransacking protected habitats and a lot more besides.

We should, no doubt, thank some deity or other for the Unit's current salvation but according to Mr McCarthy, the decision came from Richard Benyon, Wildlife Minister at DEFRA.

That's wonderful news but a little surprising.  It was, after all, the keen field-sportsman Mr Benyon who, last October refused to outlaw the possession, in England, of carbofuran, a toxin popular among bird poisoners and already outlawed in Scotland.  It's good – though unusual – to see something worthwhile coming out of DEFRA, for a change

   Snow round our way 2.  Trees' were painted in starkly contrasting tones by snow  adhering to their limbs and branches.

Paradise lost. . .

Speaking of aquatics, I recall, as a boy, looking for the rare wild Water Soldier, Stratiotes aloides which grew in a neglected stretch of the Great Ouse known as the Old West River.  We never found it – though every time we tramped the riverside washes from Ely to where the Ouse parts company with the Cam, the wildlife we observed was constantly amazing.

I heard my first drumming snipe, on those wet meadows – I must have been about fourteen – and discovered meadow rue, water violets and once, green winged orchids.  These grew on the drier, higher stretches, not far from where cowslips bloomed in the turf of a long-abandoned apple orchard.

How much of that wildlife remains?  Not a lot.  Many of the meadows over which we roamed have been built on.  Some people describe such land as 'developed' but to me it's lost, wasted, gone.  Little, ticky-tacky boxes with neat fronts, Sunday-valeted cars and Sky TV.  And if a cowslip should dare to pop up, in the manicured verges, it will either be mown off or blotted out by well-meant but ugly splurges of big hybrid naff daffs.

Snow round our way3.  The view from our kitchen window.

Fudgetastic. . .

The PG and I visited north Norfolk for a couple of days, for a bit of punishing exposure to the north-east wind and in the hopes of spotting a few respectable birds.  We were not disappointed.  The very first I saw, for instance, at Titchwell RSPB reserve was a brambling and the most unusual, for midwinter, was a green sandpiper.

But the bird which gave a surge of Joy was neither – it was a fulmar.

The most wonderful coastal features, between Sheringham and Cromer, are the cliffs. These are not proper cliffs, towering majestically and holding the sea and bay with indestructible granite or steadfast slate.  No no.  These cliffs are tired, folded, collapsible and insubstantial – a bit like this garrulous blogger!  Made of glacial till, they have the consistency of fudge – not the bendy fudge that is offered, for example, at Sheringham's sweet shop Fudgestastic – but the crumbly kind you make at home.

You can dig out the sandy material of these cliffs with a lollipop stick – or, if you're American, a popsicle stick.  So it's not surprising that Sand martins colonise them every summer.  You can see hundreds of the small, brownish birds gliding and soaring up and over the cliffs.

The glacial cliffs at Beeston Regis, on the north Norfolk coast.  Many a Sunday afternoon was spent on this beach, in one's tender years, often in a glacial east wind.  (Beeston Hall School is a short walk inland.)

When we were young, fulmars also nested in the cliffs.  They're are related to albatrosses and glide on curiously straight wings.  They're grey above and white below – like so many sea birds – but unmistakeable in flight.  And if studied through binoculars, fulmars have the most exquisitely beautiful dark eyes.  It's almost as if they've dabbed a little eye-shadow on, just to look more alluring.

Every year, after I'd grown up and moved away from that part of the world, I'd try to get back from time to time, partly for nostalgia but also to see the fulmars.

And then, one year, they vanished. Sand eel populations in the North Sea crashed and those lovely creatures stopped coming.  Like little terns, guillemots, puffins and a number of vulnerable seabirds, their population suffered.

I gave up looking for them, after a while, but always felt a pang of sadness if we visited the Beeston or West Runton beaches in summer.  One would glance at every passing gull, in the hopes of seeing straight wings – but always in vain.

But this year . . . well, here's what I wrote in my diary on  9th January: 

The fulmars are back!  We saw two, cruising the cliffs above the grey, rising tide.  All so beautiful along the crumbling cliff edges which seem as soft as ordinary soil.  And the break-waters make a dark, hard, contrasting pattern along the waterside – strikingly beautiful because it echoes the line of the cliff but in geometric terms.  And with the waves showing how the timber dissipates their strength, the picture becomes perfected.  So lovely, so stark, so Norfolk.  I’d love to live here again.

Sea defences.  The cliffs, composed of sandy glacial till, are weak and crumbly, hence the breakwaters, constructed soon after I had  moved away.  The cliffs' current outline bears no resemblence to the tucks and folds that I remember, back in the 1950s.  The coastline has retreated several metres in nearly 60 years.

I'm listening to  a concerto for Erhu and orchestra 'Gazing at the Moon' played by the Shanghai Chinese Folk Orchestra.  It is calming, lyrical and lovely.  The erhu seems to have the sweetness of a violin but the guts of a viola.  If you haven't listened to one, other than as background in a Chinese restaurant, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

This week's film was a cleaned up, Blu-ray edition of Gone With the Wind: four hours of Southern saga.  Recollections of the French and Saunders spoof made us giggle at inappropriate moments and I was struck by how much, at certain angles, Vivien Leigh resembles The Duchess of Cambridge.  But it's a fantastically glorious film and on Blu-ray the picture quality was quite good.  The sound was utter crap, though.

Bye bye, for now.

Friday 18 January 2013


Greetings to all!  This is an interim post - a mini-blog of spectacular worthlessness.

This afternoon, in a driving east wind with fine snow stinging our faces and a temperature of minus 2ºC nipping our fingers – despite Thinsulate gloves – the PG and I trudged for about a mile down to the fen, gave up and limped home. 

One surprising experience, while walking through the village, was to hear the 'teacher-teacher-teacher' song of a great tit.  They don't usually start tuning up, round here, until days are noticeably lengthening.  So to hear one in sub-zero weather an driving snow was hugely up-cheering.  But I couldn't help wondering whether the bird was singing in desperation, trying to forget that he was cold and hungry – a sort of 'not waving but drowning' situation.

The PG has made marmalade and we have a haggis penned up.  That equals total contentment, for January, provided one can skulk in the house and flirt with the wood stove all day.

I'm extremely worried - as we all should be – about bees. 

I listened to an item on BBC Radio 4's Farming Today recently about the government''s plans for addressing the crash in bee populations. It seems that the responsibility for honey bees, in Britain, has been handed over from  DEFRA –  the megaministry responsible for food, farming, fish, environment and what little is left of our wildlife – to, um, FERA, the Food and Environment Research Agency. 

But FERA - is a part of DEFRA, so it's hard to see what the transfer means.  If you want to be depressed, not just about the terrible situation bees and other pollinators are in, but about what DEFRA-FEERA seem to be doing about it, read the press release here.

FERRADEF's proposals are in the right direction, but pretty limited.  They'll increase efforts to manage the parasitic Varroa mite; they'll renew watchfulness for nasty new alien bee-pests and of course, there'll be more bossiness and interference or in their words, 'developing a welfare code for bee keepers.'

At the same time, they're going to reward good bee keepers by REDUCING the number of official  inspections of their premises.

Well done!

During the item, on Farming Today, not a single mention was made, of habitat loss.  We didn't hear anyone from DRAFE-EARF regretting the mindless destruction of wild flora by verge clipping, of the demise of other pollinators or of how land owners, local authorities, village busybodies, the CPRE and other well-meaning bodies appear blind to the desperate shortage of plants which carry nectar and pollen.

We are losing biodiversity all over the country, on roadsides, along railway tracks, in villages, in waste spaces – in all places where land is not specifically designated for a particular use. 

We all need to learn to love grotty corners, unused bits of space, scruffy hedges, self-generated woody zones, boggy spots, unkempt ponds and so on.Those are the places where bees and other pollinators can feed. That's where cuckoos can find caterpillars.  Grass snakes can lodge in such places, ragged robin can flower in the damp; herb Robert will bloom in the dry. When I was a boy, such places abounded and were teaming with life.  Since then, most of those little paradise spots have been tidied away.

I'm listening to my son having a video conference.

This day in 2006 I was interviewing Julia Clements, the flower arranger whose career was launched during World War Two and who, when invited to lecture in the USA, made herself a dress from old curtains.

This Week's Film was  Winter's Bone. Directed by Debra Granik who co-wrote with Anne Rosellini. it's a bleak story, set in the wilds of Missouri, in the Ozarks. A brutal tale and yet among the violence, a theme of goodness, kindness and loyalty.  The directing, photography, acting and screenplay were, I thought absolutely superb. 

Not such a miniblog, after all, but still spectacularly worthless.  More soon, meanwhile, thanks for reading!
Bye bye,

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!