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!