Never go back?

We knew we had a fairly hectic summer of garden openings so we thought a short holiday in early August, joining up with the large Lloyd clan in the Isle of Wight, would be a nice break and relive, for me, many happy childhood holidays. Rosie, being a loyal soul, although not too keen on the prospect of endless games of beach cricket, went along with the plan thinking that Osborne House, the Garlic Farm, Ventnor's Botanical Gardens and exploring the island might provide some relief. So off to Seaview we went. As I remembered, it looked like this:

It still does, sort of. Except that instead of a few yachting types coming to enjoy a week or two’s sailing there’s been a mass invasion of tourists bringing their cars (especially chelsea tractors), motor boats, jet skis and surf boards along with an inevitable lowering of standards of behaviour. And if this sounds like the moanings of an old(er) man, well, I’m afraid it is. 

Still, there were compensations: beach cricket was fun, Osborne was interesting, the countryside was lovely, the dogs discovered the sea, we found a wonderful nursery (Eddington House), the Solent was endlessly fascinating, the garlic farm lived up to expectations and the weather was great. 

Nonetheless, where once a holiday on the island in August was a pleasure it’s convinced me that it’s best now to go out of season.

For amongst other reasons August is the month when home grown vegetables are at their most prolific and pot plants need a good drink every day. And even if you find someone kind enough to do the watering and pick the veggies there’s no guarantee that they’ll remember to do it. So my answer to it all is stay at home, pretend you’re on holiday, over-indulge on the food and booze, put your feet up, read a good book and let the weeds grow. It’s cheaper, you’re helping to save the planet and you’re not having to mix with the riffraff. Above all, you can keep your memories intact.

The magic of summer.

It’s been a disappearing trick…the last seven weeks have sped past and suddenly we’re almost into August. And the garden has changed from the perfection and optimism of early June to the blowziness of late July in the twinkling of an eye. I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s the trouble with opening the garden so frequently…we’re so busy keeping our heads down with the weeding, mowing, dead-heading, watering, cake-making and general organisation that we hardly have time to notice the subtle rhythms of the summer. But when I thumb through the photos of our visitors this year - four groups from Holland, one from Austria and one each from Eastbourne, Westhumble and Wimbledon plus of course the public opening day - it becomes much easier to spot the languid but inevitable changes.

But now we can relax a bit. No more visitors this season. We can - at least till yesterday’s rain and wind which flattened them - enjoy the hollyhocks. We brought one black flowered plant with us when we moved and thanks to the bees and The Long House conditions they’re thriving here.

And late July is the time of year when we’re asked to do a butterfly count. How many painted ladies have we seen? Well, none yet despite the apparent mass influx of them. And sadly also a total lack of any blues. Perhaps last summer’s heat, when there were hundreds in our meadow here, disturbed their breeding patterns. It’s also glow-worm spotting time too now. They’re on a decrease for sure…four years ago we found a few but haven’t seen any since. So for old time’s sake here’s a picture of each of the three.

Talking of our meadow, here’s how it’s changed in five weeks. The early season ox eye daisies and grasses have been replaced by a proliferation of wild flowers and thousands of bees, butterflies and insects…now that really is magic.

Dogs and art.

Hurrah. Rain at last. Not just a piddling drizzle but today the real McCoy. Which come to think of it, is an apposite term because Elijah McCoy, born 1844, invented amongst other things a very efficient lawn sprinkler. Other companies tried unsuccessfully to copy it but people, wanting one that worked properly, insisted on the real McCoy. Hence the expression. And talking of torrential rain, we’ve recently returned from Crete (again) where in February the island had in just a few days 4 times the monthly rainfall, causing billions of euros worth of structural and physical damage and considerable loss of life. None of which was reported in the British press because of bloody brexit. Here’s what we saw for ourselves in May:

But back to the subject in hand: dogs. As I was walking them a couple of days ago and idly musing about Taz’s recent injury, the horrendous vet bill and how it could have been even worse had he needed not just a few stitches but a total member replacement, when the other damn dog broke into my reverie with a series of quite blood curdling screams. What now? Broken leg? Cruciate ligament damage? Impaled on a branch? The two of them had been tearing round the forest and anything could have happened. Luckily for our bank balance it was nothing worse than a collision at high speed with a tree stump but dear Inky managed to milk it for all it was worth. They’d both like you to see how brave they’ve been:

And art? It always amuses me how the art world takes itself so seriously. One of the events at this year’s Charleston Literary Festival was a lady promoting her book on the surrealists. She spent over half an hour giving a po-faced account of the birth of surrealism and the painters and writers like Man Ray, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali without once admitting that they were really a bunch of piss-artists who were enjoying the louche Montparnasse cafe life and seeing what they could get away with in the name of art. Of course the surrealists produced some amazing work but pomposity about the subject has led inexorably to some quite dreadful installation art, about which laughter is the only recourse. Says me. Meanwhile Rosie, sculptor second only to Michelangelo, has an exhibition in our greenhouse, while her oil painting is improving daily under the tuition of England’s leading landscape painter after Gainsborough, Constable and Turner, Michael Cruickshank. See here and be amazed (bids welcome).

As it’s still pouring outside and in case you misread ‘Dogs and art’ for ‘Dogs in art’  I googled to see how many times they have featured in paintings. Here are just a few of the, literally, hundreds of occasions they’ve inveigled their way in. Almost certainly to help the artist pay his vet bills.

Mainly about rabbits.

I like rabbits and deer. To eat. But not alive, especially not in the garden. Roe, fallow and muntjacs have been seen in the forest behind our paddock and we were unfortunate to inherit a rabbit warren when we bought The Long House. It took me a couple of years to rid the place of the blessed things using ferrets, traps and slightly less humane methods and involved putting chicken wire around the existing fencing to keep them out. But recently I could see them all at dusk, lurking and planning a mass invasion so it was obviously time to reinforce our defences. Before and after pictures below, as well as Darren and Kelvin of Wynne’s Fencing taking a breather - well, wouldn’t you if you had to dig 19 three foot deep holes through flint and chalk in a heatwave.

Meanwhile Taz and Inky (the dogs) have been making their own contributions to the demise of the local animal population: Taz has caught a couple of rabbits while Inky has a penchant for pouncing on unsuspecting field mice and tossing them into the air until they are lifeless. They are also quite fond of squirrels, swooping on the bodies of the occasional victim of my air rifle but then having a silent stand-off to decide who owns the corpse.

Talking of rabbits reminds me of my favourite cricketing bunny, Barrie Lloyd. A Grasshopper, Barrie regularly played against my club, Oatlands Park, in days of yore, and he fell for my sucker ball every year. Tim in the slips and Graham in the gulley were usually the happy recipients of his generosity. Oh happy days, happy memories. For old times sake, here he is though sadly not in his flannels:


Still on the subject of rabbits, our dilapidated garden gate also needed replacing lest they crept in or, for that matter,Taz hopped out. Luckily our neighbour Chris Pinner is a master joiner and within a couple of weeks he’d designed and built a new one. I also discovered he’s a master topiarist. His artistry reminded me of the amazing but bonkers statues at the Italian garden at Bomarzo and that convinced Chris he needs to plant a few more box bushes.

I’ve only briefly mentioned mice. Rabbits are a latent threat here but the blasted mice are rampant…somehow they’re getting into the greenhouse at night and decimating Rosie’s seedlings. Inky, your expertise is required.

Hail Spring...then Spring hail.

Just as we were rejoicing in Spring (and desperately trying to forget the B word) along comes something else to dampen our spirits, smash down the daffodils and annihilate the embryonic figs. Not that, to be fair, Theresa conjured up yesterday’s arctic weather though judging by the glacial faces that emerged from 10 Downing Street last evening she’s obviously rather good at emulating Boreas (jolly well look him up if my erudition is above you!). 

But hail and snow are as much part of April as is warm sunshine so why is it a surprise every year, I wonder. Perhaps because us gardeners are a race of optimists, always convinced that somehow slugs will avoid the hostas, that mice won’t devour the sweet pea seedlings and black-fly the broad beans, that the grass won’t need mowing till tomorrow and that the bloody dogs won’t behead every precious narcissus by running full tilt through them. Luckily I’d spent Sunday afternoon taking a few pictures of those that remained before they too were flattened last night.

Enough of gardening. I’m sure you’d like an update on the mysteries in the forest, particularly the so called ‘oven’. Well, that turned out to be part of an old sewage works though whose sewage was disposed of and where it went is still a mystery despite numerous emails to people who should or might know. But a fellow dog-walker - a lady with a saluki - revealed another bizarre practice, straight out of the Gwyneth Paltrow songbook: apparently several women have, in recent years, planted trees in Friston Forest using their placentas as fertilisers to symbolise their child’s journey through life. Needless to say, I googled it and discovered that’s only the start: there’s recipes for placenta pizza, placenta lasagne, placenta spag bog, even placenta cocktails. And if that doesn’t take your mind off Brexit then nothing will.

Here’s some spring-time relief from both:

Enough mysteries...what about the garden?

Being side-tracked is sometimes fun, sometimes interesting, sometimes born out of necessity and sometimes just for the hell of it. But after a winter of musings mysterious I feel it’s time to return to matters horticultural. So here’s how the year began in the garden:

That was January in Westdean, a few hoar frosts, a smattering of snow but mostly mild and bright. Then came February: first the delicate snowdrops accompanied by the heterogeneous hellebores and then that extraordinary heatwave which advanced and confused plants just as much as the rest of us. And yet curiously the first daffodils in the paddock appeared on precisely the same date as the previous year though, to misquote Eric Morecambe, in a completely different place. But once they’d arrived was no stopping them and the early ones came and went in a flash because of the heat. Here’s a sample of the best of February:

Madame Frog was an early arrival in March together with her numerous offspring though lying in wait and circling hungrily were a couple of predatory golden orfe ready to gobble them up. It’s tough being a tadpole.

It’s tough being a trachelospermum too. Not only are you charged with providing winter colour but expected to produce the most divine smells in summer as well…see what I mean:

It’s also quite tough being a plant: at this time of year you’re aroused from your winter slumbers by being dug up, attacked by a couple of forks, split asunder and then plonked back often in a quite different bed. Here’s Rosie doing the dirty work while I was elsewhere, almost certainly still obsessing about ovens, circles and Friston Forest mysteries. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose as my old French master used to say while I was gazing out of the window. 

One enigma resolved (perhaps). Another looms.

Our strange circle has led us a merry dance. False trails came and went but in the end a feasible suggestion was provided by one of Rose’s friend’s husband Edmund - an architect and a self-confessed nerd who specialises in model train sets - who told of similar circles in Savernake Forest. That led to an email to the Forestry Commission whose reply corroborated Edmund’s thoughts and the final confirmation was provided by a Litlington local’s brother in law. For it was the base for a circular sheet metal fire pond, to be used in case of forest fires. Hope you’ve followed all that…in case you haven’t here’s a photo of a similar structure:

But just as I was congratulating myself and proudly updating a fellow dog walker on that mystery I was asked if I’d ever noticed the oven in the forest. Oven, what oven? Oh, it’s amongst the thickets and undergrowth not far from your circle…not easy to find but it’s there all right. And it sure is, but it’s not an oven. No scorch marks, and an earthenware water pipe (broken) connects it to the disused mains water pipe from the pumping station to the hamlet of Westdean. But what is it? Any suggestions?

Another Friston Forest mystery.

When we first moved to Westdean and I began walking our elderly dog, Inky 1, around Friston Forest I spotted what I took to be a threshing circle. Now in case you don’t know what that is, here’s a couple of photos of one being used in Crete in 1970:

Sorry about the quality but you can see enough to realise that it’s a primitive method of separating the grain from the chaff and was used before threshing machines were invented and long thereafter too in poorer countries or in inaccessible places. Before Westdean was surrounded by trees the Downs were used for sheep grazing and growing cereal crops as you can see below:

So it wasn’t unreasonable to think that my threshing circle was just that. However over the last eight years it has become even more overgrown with brambles and stuff so before it disappeared for ever I thought it ought to be uncovered and preserved as some sort of ancient monument. As is my wont I inveigled a couple of helpers and here are the before and after pictures:

At which point my theory was blown out of the water. Note the strange sump-like pit in the foreground…that would have tripped up any cloven-hoofed animal and rendered threshing impossible. But clinging desperately to my prognosis I turned to the internet and found this:

Maybe the pit housed a log and the stoops were manually thrashed. Or maybe not. At this point the mystery became an obsession and emails were bashed out in every direction to anyone that might have an answer. It was a dew pond (no, it wasn’t), the base of a charcoal burner’s oven (unlikely), an anti-forest fire water reservoir (not deep enough), something the military used in WW2 (possibly). The base for a searchlight, an ack-ack gun, a fuel storage tank perhaps. Sadly the nearest wartime aerial photo I’ve found (below) hasn’t revealed anything because it doesn’t quite stretch westwards enough, but it does show the temporary airfield at RAF Friston ( if you’re interested).

So the circle remains a mystery…the map reference is TV 53561 99136. To put me out of my misery any suggestions would be gratefully received.

The many riddles of Friston Forest.

Funny how dog walking leads quite unwittingly to things mysterious, sorrowful and touching. During the thirteen months we’ve had Taz (the dog not the postman) it’s usually a passing hello to Smudge, Mouse, Maisie, Willow, Roy, Claude and their owners (whose names one seldom knows) but it’s the little things one observes that are really much more interesting.

Why, for example, did a couple choose to declare their love like this?:

And who planted, and why, a trail of cyclamen corms that run alongside the mile-length of the Charleston Valley Ridge path all the way back to the forest car park?

Why do the elderly couple drive all the way from Peacehaven to tramp round the forest regularly? What about the lone gent who walks the same route every day and never says a word? And how sad it is to see the memorials left by relations to their loved ones.

Most touching and enigmatic of all though is a secret glade that was obviously once a favourite stopping point. It used to have a distant view of the sea but the trees have now grown too high. On one of the two benches is carved a tender message ‘Vo3 My Love 4 ever SJ’ and over the years around have been planted spring bulbs, polyanthus, cyclamen and a couple of hellebores. All lovingly if occasionally tended. But a few weeks ago another addition: a heart shaped scattering of human ashes. Today, as I passed, I noticed one more thing: carved in mirror form on the side of one of the benches was ‘Shine on you crazy diamond’. Click on this link, listen and wonder:

Who says dog walking is boring? And by the way, happy new year to you all.

A partridge in a pear tree.

Isn’t Instagram a useful tool. Much better than Facebook with its the asinine messages flitting back and forth between people who plainly have nothing better to do. Anyway, it’s run by that arrogant young man Zuckerberg and that alone is reason to be rude about it. Enough of that. It was thanks to Instagram that our very old - and I don’t mean very ancient - friend Kim Yashar-Bish alerted us to one of her latest finds, a small Persian Qashgai folk art rug. This one:

As you can see, the bird is a partridge (Keklik in Turkish and a funny squiggly thing in Farsi) and the Farsi writing (more squiggles) to the left says ‘welcome guest’ with the name ‘Ya Ali’ who is one of the 12 Imams and nephew of the Prophet. If you look carefully you can spot a hunting dog which in Turkish is called Tazı (note the lack of a dot over the i), which by a strange quirk is the name of our senior dog (though with a dot over the i). And all those trees are obviously pear trees so what with Christmas around the corner we had to buy it. For any of my readers who don’t know about Kim and Mahmut’s wonderful shop in the North Laines of Brighton just click on this If you’re stuck for presents to give or receive it’s the place to look. Here’s a taster:

Amongst the many oriental rugs, runners, cushions and textiles you could also find patchwork and that’s what our newly re-turfed lawns now look like. This summer was so hot that great swathes of grass were killed off and re-turfing became the only answer. Fortunately a local firm - C B Winter and Sons from Berwick - not only supply excellent turf but do a re-laying service as well so I enlisted their services. Ian Winter and his pal Paul braved the elements earlier this week and here from start to finish is how the grass went from scorchwork to patchwork:

Happy Christmas everyone!