Thursday, 30 December 2010

New Year : New Blog - an invitation to view

In June 2010, I was engaged professionally to write a monthly on-line newsletter for the long-established seed company, Dobies of Devon, for 'keen and dedicated gardeners'. Last month, I was asked to extend what I have been doing and write a weekly blog as well, covering a mix of gardening topics, along with recipes from my Cotswold kitchen, inspirational gardens to visit, book reviews, and much else. I am really excited about all this, for they are such a lovely, friendly company to work with, and this new blog will in no way be a 'hard sell'. Other team members will be contributing as well, so it should be a fascinating mix of topics and information.

The 'Dobies of Devon Gardening Companion' went 'live' for the first time this morning; please click on the link - it would be wonderful if you would leave a comment.  The layout isn't perfect yet; it's the first time I've contributed to a team blog, so their may be unintentional hiccups at my end. And if you'd like to learn more about the company itself and what they offer, please click here - you can also access my newsletter ('a helping hand' lower left of screen on the Dobies website).

creating a new bit of garden for two of the grandchildren, nearly seven years ago

I am passionate about so many things, and one is to pass on  to future generations the joy of gardening, wildlife, food, history, literature, and creating with ones hands. And, in case you are wondering: no, I haven't been asked to promulgate this new blog; I just truly love what I do and want to share it with others.

A very happy new year to all 'bloggers' and all the best for 2011.

Friday, 24 December 2010

On the eve of Christmas

With love and best wishes from me, the 'Wild Somerset Child' (Ann Somerset Miles) and the 'man-about-the-house' (my husband Ray Quinton, whose photo this is) a peaceful Christmas and a Happy New Year - all the best for 2011.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Winter Solstice Story

"Ann's Tree" - my gift from Jackie of 'Blissfully Imperfect', because I had the temerity to say her tree-post inspired me to spill a poem (perhaps a better phrase would have been a 'tree-whisper')

It is amazing how blogging draws people together from around the world, generates online friendships that otherwise might not have happened, if it were not for what one posts. So it was with me - not my post, but that of Blissfully Imperfect; I left a somewhat flippant comment - well, it wasn't meant to be flippant, but Jackie's response challenged me to deliver words inspired by her tree-post. And so, as so often happens, you set up a dialogue through emails and sometimes snail mail. I wrote Jackie two tree-whispers, and to my astonishment, and absolute delight, she sent me not only the fabric tree that had so inspired me, but a beautiful hand-made card as well.

And look closely: what had been Tree 4.00 and then 4.1 is now inscribed as "Ann's Tree"! I had to know more, how and why did this series of beautiful fabric creations come into being?

Jackie is a 'process explorer', and recently, as she says in her blog: "several somethings have clicked together to result in my trees: a desire to create on a more daily basis; a need for completion; a growing pile of fabric surface design explorations; a fascination with 3D constructions; a love of minimal form."  Right now she is creating her 12th tree and all - except 'mine' started out as white fabric which she "dyed, over-dyed, painted, stamped or batik-ed in layers to get the final look.  Sometimes I'm cutting and pasting, sometimes I"m strip-piecing, sometimes I create the fabric specifically for the project, sometimes I stitch in layers and cut back to reveal beneath." 'My tree' is fashioned from Bali and African batik fabrics which is why I think I loved it so; Jackie says she was "drawn to them by their visual texture and colour".

So much skill, such imagination. I study this magical creation, and more words spring to mind, a final tree-whisper, to say 'thankyou'.

Tree 4.1 ("Ann's Tree") is dancing, pirouetting, like leaves blowing in a wind coloured as rainbow

And so "Ann's Tree" - a gift, and for me a celebration of the winter-solstice - sits on my desk, takes on a personality of its own, and has prompted so many poem spills and word-whispers that my notebook overflows with forest scribblings. And all because bloggers the world over trigger a wealth of creativity, and friendship.

P.S. Did anyone see the total eclipse of the moon this morning (7.40am GMT) - evidently the first time for 400 years that this has occurred on the solstice. It was too cloudy here. I went out to shovel snow instead!

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Snow Birds

You might not think this was taken in colour, so fast fell the snow, until you spot the bird feeding on the bird-table - taken through a somewhat dirty double-glazed window.

We awoke to a light dusting of snow, knowing that more was forecast. Gradually, as the light grew, a few light flakes, like gessoed drizzle. Birds approached the bird-table: robin, chaffinches, tits - great-, coal- and blue-, then a flock of greenfinches. And almost unawares as I de-cluttered our kitchen shelves, a thrush: not one but two, chasing each other off. At first, he - I assume it was a he, ATE snow, sitting low within an evergreen shrub. 

Snow-crystals descending in a whirl as, imperceptibly, the dusting became a frozen deluge, a white wonder. And the thrush moved under the shelter of an overhanging box-bush, gorging on the red berries of Cotoneaster horizontalis. Suddenly he is on the bird-table, attacking the suet fat-ball; he feeds for a whole half-hour, defending the territory against all comers. Unusual behaviour, this; and both birds feed, taking turns - differentiated by the slightly different markings on their breast.

The snow continues to fall all day, a soft white blanket, ever-deepening as the hours proceed. Everywhere so perfectly quiet; and best of all, the sound of silence; nothing is moving, only the hungry birds outside our kitchen window, and me, photographing them through the window.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Phasanius colchicus

terrible pic - read on, and you'll see why!

look very closely: you can just spot a disappearing tail

This pheasant-tale is but an interlude in all that has been happening here in this old and crumbling house. So much to tell, from the bursting of the 40-year old boiler and it's replacement which took Raymond a whole month for one reason and another (but that's another story). And then my laptop has been 'playing-up'. Cannot get internet access reliably in the evening, which is when I catch up with blogging and bloggers. Without the camaraderie of posts, I feel bereft and lost; and so tonight am sitting late in my office (the new heating's gone off now) wrapped in a fleecy-white dressing gown typing away on the G4. I'll make cocoa in a moment and return to read what I have been missing. The radio is on in the bedroom next door so I know R. is almost asleep.

Monday, 29 November 2010

More frost than snow - as yet

I've not been able to access the internet on this laptop for days now, which stops me from reading other people's lovely blogs and leaving comments, or writing my own (I just don't have time during the day; it's an evening activity and one to which I so look forward). Suddenly I can get on-line and up popped one of my earlier posts, with a snowy pic; so I copied it! Lazy I know but by the time I rush upstairs, access my photos in the unheated 'office' - once a child's bedroom, and come back downstairs, the connection may have disappeared.

So all I can say for now is I hope the cold and snow is not causing you problems (UK readers), unseasonal as it it. Minus 9C is not really so cold - we're used to it, so long as the electric blanket does not fail and we can get to the hens to feed and water them. The 'up' side is lack of traffic roaring past the house, which is bliss, and like the old days, when snow-drifts used to block the roads and reach high above the road signs. We would walk our daughter the three miles to school, where luckily she could stay overnight until the lanes were cleared by snow-plough, so we only had to do it the once! That was, let me see, early 1980s.

We haven't had snow here yet, just icy winds from the north-east and frozen locks which R. decided to thaw with a blow-torch! It's forecast for tomorrow. We've chopped up blocks of eucalyptus from the one felled in the summer (still a little green), bits of oak offcuts from the door frames R. is making for our daughter and son-in-law, and a dead apple tree from the orchard; but hopefully we will have the new oil-boiler commissioned on Friday. It's been a month since we started looking for a new one and installation has been tricky as all the pipework R. used in the 70s for the original, now defunct boiler, was of course still imperial and now we are metric and nothing quite 'matched'. He's done a wonderful job and fortunately, until this week, the weather was kind.

It's a good time for working indoors, or catching up on research, hence this pile of books (another replacement pic). Sorry.

Herbs are my passion, but this research isn't all work; I am planning a fabric 'herbarium' and have been doing so for some time.

P.S. I think I need to change the blog heading to something more wintry; the birds have eaten all the elder berries! In fact I took a photo of golden leaves on a silver birch all ready or a late-Autumn heading, but the branches are now bare. Lovely though; I may try them instead.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010


view from our bedroom window

This  picture has nothing to do with the promulgated subject of this post; those that I have taken associated with the topic are too boring and you might switch off - you might anyway but I'll take a chance on that. Normally, at the time when I took this photo, I would have been at my desk, writing; but I am 'between years' and re-organising myself, at the same time as (supposedly) downsizing. Whilst I was in the throes of so doing, right outside our window flowed The Hunt (our house is so old and low-set in relation to the present road that the huntsmen can look right in to our upstairs windows). 

Baying of the hounds, the followers behind in decrepit cars, muddy land-rovers and even quad bikes with trailers in which rode chaps in ancient tweeds and caps the like of which my grandfather would wear, pretending to be a gentleman farmer, which he wasn't, though he was a gentleman. And all those sprightly men and women, young and old, spic-and-span upon their horses; the women with netted hair below their hard-hats. They congregated outside the pub (The Norman Knight) milling around, dogs barking. I decide to record this moment, for any second they will be up and away. Only vantage point is our bedroom window; I lean out precariously regardless of my feet already slipping on the polished wooden floor. If I fall, I'll break my neck for sure, landing on the flagstones below. Hence, the photo has a) camera shake, b) a telegraph pole that appears at a rakish angle and c) the mist and rain of a typical November day. I close the window against the rain, and continue with downsizing. Later, as dusk falls, the huntsmen return, clattering up the hill to where they have no doubt left their horse-boxes. One young man (is he 'master of foxhounds'?) rides back and forth alongside the village green, hallooing. Have the hounds gone missing? One elderly gent rides past, out-of-breath and red in the face, his horse a slather of sweat.

Such an English scene, never mind what the Hunt had convened for; I could write plenty on that, but end the evening with the sound in my ears of another English tradition: the ringing of church bells - for Tuesday is practice night. It takes my mind back a few years to the Millennium when Raymond and I went along with others from the village to see the final two of eight bells cast (at a bell-foundry in Loughborough), and subsequently transported here and hung in the bell-tower. That was in my pre-digital-camera days, but somewhere I have negatives and prints of the whole process; when - in my downsizing - I find them, I'll post them on this blog. Of course, if I was wearing my journalist hat, I'd have ferreted them from wherever they are stashed, along with my photos of the Church, and even, perhaps, those of our village Millennium celebrations when we turned a farmer's barn into a feast house for a medieval gathering. Ten years ago; it seems but yesterday.

But that's another story, as is 'downsizing'; and the bells are lulling my senses as I turn back the years. I'll leave you with the photo that begins my saga of de-cluttering this old 16th century farmhouse. It's surprising the unfulfilled dreams you uncover when you reach below the surface. Just the two of us now, rattling around in so many rooms, so many nooks and crannies; and all filled with memories that have to be disposed of - or at least the visible evidence of so much of our life here.

beginning downsizing (I'm rather ashamed of this)

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Northern Ireland magic

a place of pilgrimage - Slemish Mountain, and old volcanic plug where it is said St Patrick herded swine as a boy

Moving on from my last post - a belated 'second serving' of our June week in Ireland with the Caravan Writers' Guild, I come back in spirit to the part of the visit that covered Northern Ireland. Of course, Ireland is one island and whatever I may think personally of the political and religious divisions that divide the country into two parts, my dual-accounting is simply one of expediency, so as not to make any one offering too long.

You might like first to read what I posted in June (just click on the month-link to the left of this post; and also on my two other blogs. I could not then (in June) recount the whole story, for I only had limited time, and that courtesy of the ferry company Stena Line who offer free WiFi to passengers. Since then, other things have been on my mind, and good intentions frequently fall foul of circumstances beyond one's own control.

The 'Whale' stand at the NEC

Fast forward again, as in my last post, to the here-and-now (actually mid-October when I began writing this post at the NEC in Birmingham: the 2010 International Caravan & Motorhome Show). We stopped by the Whale stand to say 'hello' to Patrick Hurst (MD), steadfast Kate (his PA) and the indefatigable Sarah (marketing). Whale specialise in "heating and water systems for recreational vehicles." Technical subjects are not my forte; but I will never forget the hospitality of Patrick and his staff when the Caravan Writers' Guild was given a conducted tour of the Whale factory, in Bangor (just outside Belfast) during our summer visit.

June 2010: a CWG presentation to the Whale staff outside their factory in Bangor, Co.Down

Whale hosted much of our time in Northern Ireland and took such care of our well-being with much delicious food and a hamper of local Irish specialities when we left at the end of the week. We had arrived late at our campsite, having driven from the one south of Dublin to the Camping & Caravanning Club site on the shores of the idyllic Strangford Lough. We were cold and tired (we had stopped off for a motorhome picnic and dawdled the rest of the way). As we pitched, our first sight was of an on-site marquee alongside, with a number of chaps in white coats and black-and-white chequered pirate-style bandanas cooking the magnificent barbecue that was to be our evening meal. That was the first time we met Patrick and some of his staff. It isn't often that you are catered for and served by the MD and fellow directors of a successful firm, but this first evening was to be indicative of the care that was lavished upon us by Whale and their staff.

Whale directors prepare a delicious barbecue for the Caravan Writers' Guild

(It didn't escape our notice as to just how hard all the staff worked - Raymond spent a whole day at their request photographing their exhibition stand at the NEC; the directors and staff hardly sat down for a minute. A long day and a long week.)

seen from the Antrim coast road

Back to my memories and June notes. We covered much milage in Co.Antrim, and were all shepherded around in a very modern and comfortable coach. One of the coach drivers had a fund of anecdotes: do you for instance know why the cows dance in Antrim? (Because they are fed on potale - the spent grain left over after the distillation process when making Irish whiskey! Or so we were told.) We ate well at Bushmills, and I was asked to participate in a whiskey tutorial. In fact we did a lot of drinking one way and another in Ireland visiting two distilleries and three breweries. Those who were not on the whiskey inspected another caravan park which seemed to meet with everyone's approval.

sampling from these bottles of smooth, soporific whiskey was an education and a delight

The drive down the Antrim coast road was spectacular - 100 miles or so along the high coastal north-facing plateau, past the the Giant's Causeway, then winding in and out of the seaward mouths of each of the Glens (nine in all) and so gradually, seemingly, downhill to Belfast, as if the whole plateau was gently sliding into the sea. I had been blase about the Causeway - and anyway it was raining so pics were difficult, but I was captivated by the wild-flowers growing between the huge hexagonal chunks of stones. Sixty million years old and forty thousand stones; though their geological importance did not seem to impress a party of teenage schoolchildren who spent the time leaning against the rocks in a long line sending text messages to each other!

The NT are funny about journalists taking photos on 'their' properties - you almost have to sign your life away! They will supply stock photos, but then you are using images that have appeared over and over again, rather than ones that are unique to whatever you are writing about. We were only allowed to use a camera if we had the permission of any people we photographed; these fellow photographers said they didn't mind. I took lots, but all the others were of plants and geometric shapes, like a three-dimensional patchwork quilt; a bit cold and heavy! And it was raining.

Belfast had its moments: I posted back in June about the new Titanic museum that is due to open in May 2011. That as you will read (click back) was particularly poignant and we were privileged to be given a preview. But I would have liked to visit Belfast City Hall where in 1966 my father (Maurice Miles) was appointed conductor of the Ulster Orchestra. There wasn't time, and instead the coach drove us around the location of 'The Troubles' - the Falls and Shanklin roads. I felt we were intruding; and it was sad to see two small girls hefting lumps of mud at each other. Perhaps animosity is ingrained from long before birth.

murals in Belfast; there's a whole wall of them, and on the sides of many of the houses as well

Raymond and I have actually been back to Northern Ireland since June, in connection with a magazine commission - a feature that is due out next year. (BBC Countryfile magazine, April 2011: 'Discover the Antrim Coast and Glens').

You can fly to Belfast City Airport with FlyBe, on the site of the old dockyards) from many UK regional airports; they operate jets as well as turbo-props

I promise myself I will return yet again, one day, if for nothing else than my 'fix' of Dunseverick Harbour! Pied wagtails tail-flicking on the slipway; golden and seal-grey lichen clinging to the rockfaces; the pull and pluck of the tide. Memories. Sunshine on the hills, the sea, and flooding down the green and fertile glens. Wherever we have been in Ireland (four visits in five years) in mist, sun or the soft gentle rain, we relish the space, the quality of the light, the peace, and the welcoming and friendly people. North, South, East or West, it matters not, for the "spirit of the past lives on and remains all around us”. 
Dunseverick Harbour, on the north coast of Antrim

a rather indifferent photo I took in 2005 in one of the Glens when I was out 'motte-hunting'. Double-click on the pic so as to enlarge it, and right in the middle you should see the mound upon which Doonan Castle sits (at least I think that's it's name)

Time to leave this magical country. The aircraft climbs away into the setting sun, over Belfast docks and the slipway where the fated Titanic was launched in 1911 from the Harland & Wolff shipyard, one hundred years ago. I peer into the growing dusk, hoping to catch a last glimpse of the uplands and coastal road, but the pilot has turned south, the sun has gone and it is too dark. I can almost feel the tug of the land and the pounding sea willing us back, but know it is purely my imagination. 

Thursday, 21 October 2010

'Forty Shades of Green'

our ferry which bore us in comfort from Holyhead to Dublin port

Memories: all in the mind. The summer months since we returned from Ireland have been so busy that my promised 'Irish Journal' has been on the back-burner, until meeting again some of the people from the Caravan Writers' Guild with whom we shared that marvellous journey prompted me to continue. In essence, I was back with our motor home, boarding the Stena Line ferry (so quick and easy, so smooth a crossing, free WiFi; and so simple the disembarkation when we arrived in Dublin port). Approaching the Irish coast, I am looking again for THAT GREEN - a green peculiar to Ireland that I remembered from previous holidays - but it's evening and instead I am captivated by the misty blues, greys and purples of the Wicklow Mountains, silhoutted against the pearl of an early evening sky.

our fellow journalists are a friendly crowd and soon made us feel welcome (for this was our first CWG trip) - soon we were all sitting down to a bring-and-share supper - but another time, we must remember to take a folding table as well as chairs

That week in June had been jam-packed with activities and places to visit; some organised, others of our own choosing. I'll not forget the superb campsite and the hospitality of Edward & Nuala Allen at their award-winning Moat Farm, nor the camaraderie of fellow journalists, welcoming us as soon as we arrived. Nor meeting the marketing director of the Irish Caravan & Camping Council, Norah Heraty, and talking to her about those 'forty shades of green' that I had determined would be the title of a piece I had been asked to write about the tour. It subsequently appeared in the CWG magazine, 'In Touch'.

And I'll never forget being given the opportunity to visit an organic Irish smallholding specially arranged for me because I had expressed an interest in gardens; discovering what makes a place alive - the people and what they do.
early on a damp morning with clouds scudding across the backdrop of the Wicklows (I posted about this organic smallholding on my 'gardening' blog, post dated 14th June, 2010)

Then touring Dublin in the rain and drinking my first Guinness at the Dublin brewery, tramping through the wholesale market, riding on a tour bus, and shopping for fabric because I wanted something of Eire in the journal I was constructing; our three days in Eire went by in a whirl of discovery.

drinking Guinness at roof-top level - a pub in the sky at the brewery (the 'Gravity Bar' from which can can enjoy a 360-degree view of the Dublin skyline)

We headed north, over the border, for Strangford Lough, Belfast and Antrim for the second part of the visit (which will be outlined in my next post) but returned south to Eire for our last night in preparation for catching the return ferry from Dublin port back to Holyhead. By then we were on our own and I planned to write about the Boyne river and the battle of 1690 which still holds such implications for Ireland in the present day. For some reason, I forgot to take a photo of the actual site - we had stopped for a motorhome picnic - or perhaps it was because by then we were experiencing a little more of the soft, gentle Irish rain. So instead, I am including another photo taken in the Wicklow Mountains which hold their own magic and are beautiful rain or shine.

Blessington Lakes with the Wicklows in the background

Mind-mapping, remembering, is so different to reality; processing my notes so often puts a different perspective on what we have done and where we have been. Talking again to Norah only last week at the 2010 International Caravan & Motorhome Show in Birmingham, we realised just why we must go back. For out of the blue, she says she is sending me a book on Irish gardens (it's evidently in French, but no matter). I can't wait; we check our guide to Irish camping parks - I am planning already! To be let loose in gardens beyond these shores will be blissful enough, in Irish gardens I can see that words will flow; I'll be snap-happy, whilst creating poem-spills.

Raymond says he wants to visit County Donegal; I likewise, but also the Achill Islands (Co.Mayo), for I recently discovered my great, great grandfather was posted there as a coastguard sometime in the 1800s. Nora asks if we would cover Westport house and gardens; she has marked it in the book, which has now arrived. I discover there is a caravan site within the park; and it's not that far from the Achills. I'll have to persuade Raymond that Co.Mayo rather then Co.Donegal should be our next Irish destination! Now when shall I book the ferry?

Monday, 18 October 2010

Birthday Girl !

Today I am 73 years young, amazed to have survived another year after many a trauma and yet so much hidden happiness and joy. The tiny champagne candles say it all - they signify the last three years; the previous 70 receding day-by-day into the mists of time. It has been such a gentle celebration, from the early morning mug of tea brought me when I was scarce awake to this evening's candlelit three-course meal prepared for me by my dear, long-suffering husband. Champagne to toast still being around (actually a cheap Spanish Cava) and finishing our supper with sweet muscat grapes from the greenhouse - the vine survived the time in 1999 when I set the greenhouse on fire. I seem quite good at the pyrotechnics! (see last post).

A trip into town to post letters allowed me to treat myself to a quantity of antique canvas-backed maps (practically as old as I am!) from which to make concertina travel journals. At such a knock-down price, I could not resist them; have in fact been buying the odd one or two for months; but today I was told they were all to be thrown out and would I like the lot ?? You bet; twenty have been added to my stash. I can hardly bear to re-purpose them, for they tell such a tale of social history, how places have altered and grown .. I will not spoil my birthday by bemoaning creeping suburbia, the loss of landscape, or the sanitising of the countryside.

The sun shone; leaves scuttered across the road, swirling in the chilling wind. I think on how lucky I am to still be alive, after two previous health scares; and contemplate even more on all the pictures I will shoot with the lovely new camera Raymond has given me, "so you can take photographs of a professional standard." It won't be the fault of the camera if I don't. I learn how to switch it on (!); am terrified of damaging it. Realise it will be brilliant, once I have mastered its intricacies and made it do what I want it to do. Which is far more arty than Raymond would like, but I will try to live up to his expectations. As the light fades I take my first photo - more grapes (ones suitable for making wine); I've set the camera on auto and (which is brilliant) it somehow stops the fruit and leaves from being blown every which-way: my usual problem, for you would think we live here in an aeronautical wind-tunnel. The moment I decide to take pics, up springs half a gale!

And so to the end of a perfect day, with flowers from my daughter's garden, emails and an e-card from one son, a phone-call from Iceland from the other, and 'happy birthday' sung to me down the telephone by three of our grandchildren. As I enter my 74th year, I make a birthday resolution - one which I hope I am sufficiently strong-willed to keep. This time next year, I'll tell you if I have succeeded.

And so to bed ... and I send love and best wishes to all my blogging friends and acquaintances, indeed to bloggers everywhere; for blogs have added immeasurably to my life and I do not know where I would be without such friendship.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Setting the house on fire!

walnuts in their pungent green casing, picked from our tree

There are all kinds of shenanigans occurring in this household at present; noises in the night, properties toppled over, strange rustlings and whisperings - unaccountable dreams just before waking. I do not know whether to put it down to overwork or the fact that a whole summer seems to have passed me by; tasks negelected or overlooked. Today could have been disastrous - it's not the first time we have almost set the house on fire. Just an ordinary Saturday morning; Raymond cooking weekend breakfast, me feeding the hens. I walk back up the garden with a bucketful of pungent walnuts (a typical October day, with a grey Cotswold cloud-cap overhead, mist in the trees, the grass wet and new weed seed germinating everywhere). I am greeted by an acrid fog, clouds of smoke, which my husband seems not to have noticed.

Can he not smell or see? He is grilling bacon, but it isn't that which is burning - for some unaccountable reason last night, I placed a plastic seed tray containing scraps for the hens ON TOP OF THE WALL-MOUNTED GRILL! R. did not notice it was there (why should he?); the plastic is melting and dripping down through the burners into the grill pan; the kitchen is filled with smoke. "Turn off the grill," I yell. We wait for the seed tray to solidify so we can peel it away from the metal. R. takes the grill apart ... he does not berate me for my stupidity in putting the tray where I did, high up where you could not see it. Two hours later, we sit down to a very late breakfast.

There was method in my madness of course; the need in this old house to put anything edible out of reach, be it scraps or candles or the bag of flour I left on the sideboard. It happens in phases, these episodes, a nightmare when it does. I will not spell out the culprits, but if I suggest you read - if you know it not already - the 'Pied Piper of Hamelin', all will be revealed. R. stands with a gun in the kitchen .... and I, by now completely phased (for I have not told the half of all the trauma), sit by the fire in the dark with a glass of wine and crack open and eat our own walnuts, fresh from the tree.

Monday, 4 October 2010

The Silk Worm Diaries - chapter two:

No cheating or peeking, or fast-forwarding! Read on (as Mr Bennett said in Jane Austen's 'Pride & Prejudice'), and then see my final entry written this evening (Monday 4th October, 2010)

Monday 27th September, 2010 (20.15): I put the babies to bed, swathed in my best American muslin (sorry, Kristi, all I could find in a potential worm-wandering emergency). Will they be OK? Believe me, living in a farming community, once breeding my own ducks, geese and hens, I am not sentimental about animals; but a challenge is a challenge and I am now responsible for these tiny creatures. And I want some silk!

Tuesday 28th September, 2010 (8.00 am): I draw the curtain (remove the muslin) from the 'oaks' and take the lid off the box containing the 'eris' - for I am not sure if they have sufficient air. Do the larvae sleep at night? For there's not much evidence of leaves having been eaten. There's a quantity of worm pooh in both boxes so at least they are still alive. I am convinced the eris have doubled in size since I bought them on Sunday, but that may be wishful thinking and they are still depressingly miniscule. Maybe I should photograph them each day for comparison.

Wednesday 29th September, 2010 (17.52): All is well, but then four of the Oaks went walkabout. One on the muslin; it would not release it's hold, took me 15mins to encourage it back to the hawthorn leaves. Then two more walked around the edge of the box and another squeezed its way down the glass jar and almost into the water, even though I'd padded that out with kitchen towel to guard against drowning. So now the end of the hawthorn twigs are encased in damp paper and the bunch laid in the box with a mesh pizza tray on the top. They've grown in size and seem to be very active during the day. The Eris are growing, too; must have doubled in size. Still in the little microwave box that the Oaks came in, but now not all bunched together. I'll have to find them a larger box in the next couple of days.

Thursday 30th September, 2010: It's box-cleaning day, and I am still obsessed by the pooh count! For that tells me whether they are eating - and supposedly growing - or not; don't read on if you are squeamish. The Oaks' pooh is as elephant dung compared with that of the Eris, "just as sweet and dry as tobacco dust" as the English poet Edward Thomas wrote during World War One not that long before being killed in action at the Battle of Arras. I don't know what brought this poem to mind but tobacco dust is an apt description of Eri pooh, at the size they are now - still so tiny, but alive. (ET was not of course referring to silkworm pooh when he wrote those words, but likening the state of the soil to tobacco dust - soil fit for sowing.)

Friday 1st October, 2010: the Oaks are feeding like crazy, their bodies swelling and looking formidable. Are they doing well? I know so little about the rearing of silk worms but am reminded for some unaccountable reason of visits to the health clinic with my first child. Each week weighed and figures entered on a chart. 'He's not gained much weight this week,' the nurse would say, or 'well look at his weight increase ...' I would worry, until I twigged that he did not appear to have gained weight if he had poohed his nappy before attending the clinic, and he did if he hadn't, if you see what I mean. Well this first fine son is now approaching 50, senior training captain for a UK airline, and has three thriving children of his own. So why did I worry - and why do I worry now, for all seems to be well with the young larvae.

Saturday 2nd October, 2010: I come down stairs to make our early morning cup of tea; the kitchen is cold; it's grey outside and remains so all day. Endless rain. The Oaks are torpid, nothing like they were yesterday. They seem to have shrunk.

Sunday 3rd October, 2010: I am beginning to wonder what has happened; I cut fresh hawthorn leaves for the Oaks (the tiny Eris are still not exactly active but are scything through privet leaves in a 'wrong-end-of-a-telescope' fashion). I'm not concerned about them; they are younger and their life-cycle is not the same as the Oaks. These seem lifeless, but some hours later, as the sky lightens, there is a little movement. Not much. I read all I can find on the internet but it hardly registers. Fresh food every day is perhaps significant: I've been giving new offerings every other day but the hawthorn is decidedly Autumnal; maybe insufficient food value. I read that as they grow (their size seems to have diminished), they should have twigs placed in a jar of water to keep the leaves succulent, as I did at the start of the week. I read about their skin-moult and wonder when and how often how this occurs, and how - skin splitting and a new larger larva crawling out? Or what?

Monday 4th October, 2010: We have to leave very early for an exhibition. I move the silk worm containers back onto the window cill, hoping the increasing light during the day will enliven the larvae. They appear lifeless and I am ashamed, for has my mismanagement caused their seeming decline, or perhaps their death? On the way home, whilst shopping in the supermarket, I buy a new home for the Oaks, just in case I am wrong about their apparent demise. "Not another container!" says Raymond as I emerge with a lidded bucket, sufficiently deep to hold a jar and upright twigs. "It was only 65 pence," I retaliate, "and it for the silk worms." Which seemed to satisfy him.

a potential new silk-worm home

Back in the house, sunshine is streaming through the kitchen window - they will have been cooked, I think, for sunlight is not good for them. Some were lying on the floor of their box; other hanging shrivelled within the hawthorn leaves. I gently prod one and it sort of twitches; I'm not sure if it is dead or not. Are they ALL dead? I fill a jar with water and insert fresh leaves through holes pierced in a cap of foil (to prevent drowning should some show any sign of life). Maybe they ARE in one of their five skin-shedding stages - in which case they should not be disturbed. I gently lift each twig holding a lifeless caterpillar to lay it into fresh growth in the new tub. And then I notice one lying on its side with flakes of dry skin curling away from it (see pic at the top of this post). There is a faint movement. Maybe they do not shed their skin whole, as snakes do; maybe they are OK after all. The morning will tell.

As for the Eris - well their size remains about the same, but I notice that some have changed colour and are now miniature editions of the magnificently large ones seen at Malvern. I feel happier, and look up the vendor's website only to find that some hybrid larvae are still available; ones more beautiful even after their emergence from the cocoon stage than the baby Eris I am counting on for white silk - but the hybrids will provide me with silk in varying shades. (Sigh as I visualise tiny fabric keepsakes incorporating handmade silk paper.) Maybe I will telephone in the morning; ostensibly to discover at what temperature the larvae should be reared, but also, perhaps, to make another purchase. Three 'incubators' .....

Monday, 27 September 2010

The Silk Worm Diaries - chapter one:

silk worms of the Chinese Oak silk moth

Begun this day, Monday 27th September; each chapter will appear as a weekly installment. The catalyst is my crazy spur-of-the-moment decision made yesterday at the Malvern Autumn Show to make my own silk-paper to incorporate into tiny fabric keepsakes. For the prologue to this project, please refer to my journaling blog - yesterday's post on purchases (final paragraph). From that you will see how one thing led to another and I am now the proud owner of twenty silkworms; not exactly a silk-worm farmer (yet) and if I ever arrive at the silk production stage, it will be a miracle.

you can just see the tiny 'Eri' silk worms in the lower box

Well, they survived the night in their plastic boxes within the confines off the motorhome cab. This morning they appeared totally comatose and I could not tell if they were alive or dead. They certainly weren't moving, nor eating the leaves that had been supplied with them; privet for the beautiful Samia ricini (Eri silk moth) and hawthorn for the less exotic-looking Antheraea pernyi (Chinese Oak silk moth).

the Eri silk moth (can be fed on privet) - more beautiful than this in real life
and the Chines Oak silk moth which can be fed on hawthorn, amongst other UK hedgerow plants

Back home, after feeding Raymond (husbands come first), and then the hens, I prepare a new home for the older and larger Oak moth - from now on I'll refer to it as that. I plod down the garden in the rain to cut hawthorn twigs, ploughing through a forest of wet nettles and goose-grass that deposit their clinging burrs onto my jersey. The clipped twigs are inserted into a jar of water, plugged with kitchen towel so the caterpillars (worms) do not fall in and drown themselves. Over this I place a defunct liquidiser jug and stand the whole contraption on the window cill. I transfer the torpid creatures onto the new leaves. They are supposed to eat themselves into cocoon stage within six weeks; I hope the hawthorn leaves in our hedgerow have not all dropped by then or I will have wasted my investment.

Just hope these 'oak' worms don't escape!

The Eri caterpillars are so tiny and look completely shrivelled. They go into a larger plastic sandwich box with fresh privet snipped from under a dripping willow that deposited water down my neck. That box too is placed on the window cill. The mustn't get too hot; little chance of that; our kitchen is always icy cold, even in the depths of summer. Half an hour after moving the thread-like creatures into their new home, half of them have migrated onto the fresh privet stalks. There are supposed to be 20 but I can only count 14; I don't intend to investigate. The 'oaks' have either found an appetite or prefer their semi-unconfined surroundings for they look as if they intend to go walkabout (which the man assured me they would not, unless they are hungry). Maybe they don't like my hawthorn; they stick their faces into the air and sway from side to side, as if mesmerised, but do not seem to be eating. I think I had better swathe their feeding jug in fleece or muslin overnight for there's no knowing where they might end up in this rambling house if they decide to migrate. I only have ten of these; can count eight ???

I'll be adding to this diary regularly, detailing how things progress; and hopefully - eventually - reporting the production of my first silk. Meanwhile, I guess the internet will reveal more on the care of silk worms. I just hope I am more successful than I was aged seven with my classroom mulberry/lettuce gobbling silkworms in 1944! It's two hours since the worms had their new home and time to prepare our own supper, but hurrah - they're all eating theirs: the 'Oaks' dispersed amongst the foliage, the 'Eris' clumped together as a crowd, one whole privet leaf consumed. And with all these mouths to feed, we dare not go away again!

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Such a day

Sunny, a chill Autumn day; but sunshine over the Malverns and such a joy to be here. Over the years, I have come to regard this place, this Showground, as somewhere that truly tugs at my heart. Why? It has to be the people; all who are involved. And exhibitors who have become to me so many fond acquaintances.

Yet there is always something new: the Good Life Kitchen Garden Stage designed by Mark Diacono of Otter Farm; the UK's only climate change farm and home to orchards of olives, peaches, almonds, szechuan pepper, apricots and a vineyard. I sat through one of his presentations, absolutely mesmerised, for not only did he impart so much horticultural knowledge, whilst throwing together a home-grown nectarine salsa, he even managed to outflank the ever-loquacious Joe Swift. Such multi-tasking warranted more stage time to him and less to the antics of BBC presenters. Were we at a pantomime or an RHS Show? I'll have to obtain a copy of MD's new book, 'A Taste of the Unexpected', and delve more deeply into topics that are becoming increasingly relevant to those of us who like to grow our own edible crops.

I'm agonising over whether to continue my 'gardening' blog - created in May because there seemed to be many Malvern-orientated bloggers out there. Some of us met at the Spring Gardening Show and I spotted quite a few alongside the stage today; some lack of communication I guess ... so I am thinking this one through. I had planned to garden-blog about 'Red Love' - announced last night that I would do so; but think I'll showcase this delicious new apple right here. It's a tenuous link into which I will not delve right now, but to cut an involved story down to it's fruit roots. 'Red Love' is a new red-fleshed apple, tart but sweet, with flowers the colour of deep crab-able crimson and a heritage story to go with it. Exclusive to Suttons but bred by Swiss nurseryman Markus Kobelt, whom I met at the UK launch a couple of weeks ago in Kent. 

I'll be writing more about this remarkable introduction in a forthcoming magazine feature on the Malvern Autumn Show, so will reserve more words for that. Meanwhile, my own Autumm journaling harvest is progressing in the motorhome cab, although the heating appears to have packed up so the duvet seems preferable to artistic endeavour!

Friday, 24 September 2010

Back at Malvern

Autumn squash and the epitome of a garden harvest

According to my classification of what I blog about, this post should by rights appear on my gardening blog. But that is in such a state of disarray, is languishing (or rather sulking) for lack of attention, and I am ashamed of it. So for the moment I'll continue to revisit Malvern under my wild child umbrella. It's the RHS Autumn Show (Sat 25th and Sun 26th) - billed as both 'a celebration of nature's harvest' and the 'autumn food and gardening show'. We arrived on site early this afternoon with motorhome and a bitterly cold northerly wind. At the Spring Show it rained and was also cold (it was the Spring Show that prompted me to start a gardening blog); today no rain but grey skies which are not conducive to good photography! WiFi press pass obtained and an advance copy of the show catalogue which I will read cover to cover this evening, the better to know where I am headed tomorrow, I make straight for the 'Good life Pavilion'. There's so much to cover.

It was good to bump into friends and acquaintances, particularly Claire Potter and Paul Hervey-Brookes, who are so much a part of my Malvern experience. Claire is not exhibiting at this show (and it's a long way from Brighton), but Paul is, and has created the most beautiful 'Living Landscape' focal point in the pavilion, alongside a number of other edible gardens. More tomorrow when I've studied the catalogue and talked to some of the designers.

the concept behind Paul's living landscape is subtle and fascinating - my photo does not do it justice

Right now I need a cup of tea with toasted teacakes, and some 'journal spilling' on papers I prepared at home late last night; autumnal colours all ready for pasting in my own vegetable and fruit harvest and adding words which will also spill out as the evening advances.

Taken in the motorhome cab (my away-from-home studio) - and this should be posted on my journaling blog, but isn't. I'd better attend to that, as well! Take a look, if you will - I have now done so, courtesy of a good generator to power lights and laptop.