How we met Bob and Bob.

Dog walking is a great way to meet people. Dog walkers, like cricketers and gardeners, are generally good eggs and a quick natter whilst the dogs sniff, wag and chase is a relaxing way to pass a few minutes. Usually it’s the weather, the conditions underfoot or probing the behaviour and backgrounds of our respective dogs but every so often talk gets more serious and veers onto whether Arsene Wenger should go or the pros and cons of T20.

But yesterday was different. For a start I was in the garden, the dog was asleep and the grass desperately needed mowing. But encouraged by my daily prattle with my doggy pals and slightly concerned that a couple of walkers the other side of our beech hedge might be digging up the primroses (last year I had to severely reprimand some loon who was gouging out an aquilegia from our verge) I gently enquired about their intentions. ‘Don’t worry’ said Bob, ‘we’re on the look-out for aphids and it seems you’ve got some unusual ones on this vetch.’ ‘And I’ve got some good shots of them too’, said Bob (not the same Bob).

Apparently there are over 600 species of aphid in Britain. Not many people know that. But Bob and Bob do and they are amongst the leading experts on the subject in the world, where there are over 4400 species. Not many people know that either. If you look on their website http://influentialpoints.com you'll learn about horseflies, ticks, lice, mossies and midges as well and even more about Bob and Bob and the things they study. Like, for example, Tsetse control in East Africa, Trypanosomiasis - where are we now? and How to avoid and detect statistical malpractice.

But back to aphids: here’s a charming photo Bob took of a mother Macrosiphum Euphorbiae and two of her many babies on a lime leaf in our greenhouse. You may be interested to know she gave birth live, that she needed no help from her male partner and her common name is Mrs Potato Aphid. 

If you can’t wait to know more about aphids do have a peep at the Bobs’ website. It’s about the most comprehensive, academic and unexpectedly fascinating site I’ve ever found. However, after last year’s obsession with butterflies I think I’ve learnt my lesson and had better stick with mowing, weeding and musing. (Or else, says Rosie.)

The idleness of March.

Virtually nothing happened in the garden this month. Two doses of the Beast from the East plus a fair amount of rain and wind meant we were for the most part housebound. And there’s only so much lounging, dozing, shilly-shallying and pottering one can do before stir-craziness sets in. So, while watching the snow fall, my scanning machine and I went to work, digitally converting hundreds of negatives onto my iMac. Mostly the pictures were taken in Crete and many were of the potteries we dealt with during our time running Pots and Pithoi, so today, instead of wittering on about matters horticultural, I’ll tell you how those wonderful pots are made.

There are small potteries in several villages on Crete but Thrapsano, south of Heraklion, is the real centre of pot-making.  Pots have been made here for centuries and almost nothing has changed in the way they’re made. Local clay is laboriously sifted and mixed with clay from a couple of other Cretan villages and then hand thrown on three different sorts of potter’s wheels: the kick-wheel and the electric wheel (a modern invention) for the smaller pots and the hand-turned wheel for the larger ones. Apart from the very smallest all the pots are built up in stages, a few inches at a time. Once the first layer of clay has been thrown it is allowed to harden sufficiently before another sausage of clay is added and thrown until the whole pot is, layer by layer, and in the case of the big pots, wheel by wheel, complete.

Once the body of the pot has been finished the handles and decorations are added, either by scraping the clay with bits of wood or metal, or by adding bands of clay and prodding with their fingers and thumbs to produce a pattern. Then the sun dries them until they are handleable and ready to be lifted into the kiln.

The kiln is fired, initially with sawdust and olive pips, with the main fuel being grape pips which because of the oil within the pips, produces a heat of around 1100 degrees centigrade. This ensures that the pots are as tough as old boots and as frost proof as any terracotta pots can ever be. After around 24 hours of this fierce heat a huge flame engulfs the inside of the kiln and scorches the pots to give each one its own individual ‘antique’ look.

Once the firing is complete and the temperature inside the kiln matches the outside, the pots are unloaded and left to cool. Then they are filled with water (the impurities in the water ‘sealing’ the pot to give it extra strength) and left for a further 24 hours. Only then are they truly finished and ready, when we were Pots and Pithoi, to be loaded into 40 foot containers and brought to the UK.

If you’re interested Pots and Pithoi is still going strong, now into its third owner, David Dodd. Have a look at their website: www.potsandpithoi.com . As for me, I’m all scanned out …time for a snooze.

Boris would know...

…why snow has settled on some of these paving stones and not on others. After all, he sorted out the border crossing between Camden and Islington so nothing’s beyond him. And if he doesn’t know he’ll quote Shakespeare to divert the question: ‘That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow. How shall we find the concord of this discord?’. 

Does anyone know the reason?

The Beast from the East: Boris, Barnier or Blizzard?

Let’s not talk about Brexit. It gets the old blood pressure soaring and it might offend the precious darlings who voted to take control of our affairs, stop those nasty foreigners taking all our jobs and make the NHS richer by £350 million a week. The fools. But not only the voters but the sanctimonious politicians who witter on, claiming that the British people have spoken and their will must be obeyed. As for the negotiators on both sides, they’re enjoying their moment in the spotlight, spinning the drama out for as long as possible. For crying out loud, isn’t it blindingly obvious that the whole thing is a disastrous mistake. Let’s admit it and have another vote. Better still, let’s not talk about Brexit.

What about the Beast from the East though? Here in Westdean it’s just been a spot of normal winter weather. Nothing to get aerated about. A sprinkling of snow, a chilly wind and a few days of being confined to indoor jobs. I suppose it’s the effect of the sea combined with the shelter that the coastline gives us from the worst of the wind and the fact that the village is in a shallow valley in the downs. So apart from having to walk the morose dog every day and Rosie venturing outside to feed the birds and check the greenhouse temperature we’ve been happily housebound…I’ve been glued to my computer and scanner and Rosie’s been practising her oil painting skills. Thank goodness for central heating and wood burning stoves (though we’ve learnt to our cost that double glazing shatters if there’s too much heat inside when it’s very cold outside).

One thing this cold weather has done is put a stop to the premature spring. Last week the blackbirds were nest building, the snowdrops were flourishing and the daffs nodding happily…now the tits are blue with cold and the flowers have gone to bed. And inside, it’s time for a nice cup of tea. How do you take it Boris and Michel…with milk and strychnine?

 

Colds, whistles, buttons and plywood.

January seems to have gone on for ever. It’s always a sombre month but this year in Westdean it’s excelled in dreariness. No snow, no floods, no hurricane force winds, no sun…in short nothing dramatic to complain about nor any joyful days to lighten the gloom. Just unrelenting melancholic low cloud, mist and cold. And to make matters worse everyone seems to have had the lurg, not helped by the local GP cheerfully saying ‘ah, you’ve got the 90 day virus’. So venturing into the garden for anything more than opening the greenhouse door or getting logs in for the fire has been a non-starter.

Luckily we’ve got Taz (the dog not the postman) to cheer us up (Taz the postman is always cheery despite his shorts and frozen knees). He (the dog, luckily not the postman) is also more cheerful now that he’s had his - how can I say this delicately - I won’t bother - his balls removed. Not that he was happy on the day itself…we’ve never seen a dog so miserable, but then, I suppose so would I have been. 

But now that he’s recovered he’s off to dog training lessons and that’s where whistles come in…one blast for sit, two blasts for wait and three blasts for come back you little bugger.

Staying with us for a few days, granddaughter Bay was mesmerised by Rosie’s collection of old buttons. I suspect most grandmothers have a button box though I doubt that custom will last much longer as haberdashery, sadly, is a dead duck for today’s young.

Having been disparaging about January’s weather it was actually quite pleasant today so I trotted into the garden to see what’s what. The oranges in the greenhouse are looking almost edible, the hellebores are blooming, the garlic and broads are poking up and the snowdrops and bulbs are, I reckon, about a fortnight ahead of last year.

But what about plywood? Have a look at this: http://www.themoderncarpenter.com/  It’s our son Sebastian’s latest passion, alongside his cycling. His wife Gemma climbs rocks but her real passion (Sebastian apart) is making curtains and blinds www.themoderndraper.com.        Creativity, you see, is not dead after all. Hurrah.

Happy Christmas Everyone!

For better or worse, Christmas is here at last. The cards have been sent, the presents bought, the decorations are up and the food’s in the larder…it’s all set to go. But today it’s the calm before the storm because no-one arrives till tomorrow. So today we’ve been out for a morning trudge, taking faithful hound for his first walk towards the world famous view of the Seven Sisters, beloved especially by east asians for whom it’s their number one screensaver. (NB to all my Korean readers: if you want to see this view for real, don’t get off the bus at Exceat Tourist Centre. Just saying.)

As it’s Christmas, and to get you into the spirit of things, here’s a cracker-type riddle: What have mince pie pastry, home-made muesli, lemon meringue pie and Christmas cake all got in common? If you’re stuck, I’ll give you a clue: Taz. No, not our postman, whose real name is Malcolm, but our wonderful freshly minted dog. And if you’re still clueless the answer is he scoffed the lot (not the postman, of course, but the wretched animal).

But still, he has redeeming features (the dog) and to prove it here he is helping to decorate the tree and making sure the birds are safe from the squirrels.

As for the garden, that can look after itself for a while. We’re inside for a few days having a glass of this and that, and eating whatever Taz has left over.

An addition to the family.

As if looking after this garden isn’t enough we’ve now saddled ourselves with a further complication. A dog. Dogs require walks. Dogs dig up flower beds. Dogs poo on the grass. Dogs chase cats. Dogs bark. Dogs bite postmen. 

But how could we resist? Just look at him:

His name is Taz. He’s already made himself completely at home. We must be mad.

November Days.

Some people complain about November and dash off to sunnier climes. Some complain and stay but just carry on complaining. Others, more philosophical, more stoical, accept November for what it is: mostly murky but with the occasional day of joy. Me: I love November because we get our Puckamuck delivered. Lovely stuff, Puckamuck. Good enough to eat. Have a look:

That’s my pal Matthew delivering two and half cubic metres of steaming stable manure last week on one of those joyful sunny days. Puckamuck and sun: double joy. 

And it means it’s the time of year to begin renovating the flower beds and tuck up those wimpish dahlias before the winter freeze does for their tubers. If they had their way they’d be off to sunnier climes too but because they can’t they sulk and turn up their toes at the first light frost. When the going’s good they look arrogantly wonderful but prick their egos with some cold and they snivel and expect sympathy. At which point we cut them down to size and wrap them up in, guess what, Puckamuck.

But today was one of those days when it’s best to be inside: dreary, dark, drizzly and chilly. Help, I’m beginning to sound like a dahlia.

 

Taken to task again.

This time by a brother: ‘if you’re going to quote Lonnie’s lyrics you might as well get them correct'.

I plead guilty. Having for years regaled anyone and everyone who unwittingly mentioned lilies I’d reply as I did in my last blog. As apologies are now all the rage I do so unreservedly and offer you the proper words:

I say, I say, I say

My dustbin’s full of lilies

(Well throw ‘em away then)

I can’t Lilly’s wearing them

If you feel nostalgic you can listen to the complete version of My Old Man’s a Dustman by clicking here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7GeZ3YmONw .

But the skiffle king’s real hit was Cumberland Gap. Watch and worship greatness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jWA997xM9MI

On the quest for clean pond water.

I got some stick from my sister for my last blog - “not convinced by your schoolboy excitement over matters sexual” - but this one too is a bit dirty I’m afraid. But, you’ll be relieved to know, not in that way. So in an effort to redeem myself let me tell you about Adam the Aquarius.

Here he is:

And here’s what he does: anything to do with ponds. We found him via the classified ads in the RHS Garden magazine as we were looking for someone to advise us on how to clean up our very murky pond water. As my regular readers will know, we’d tried various remedies to no avail so the expensive solution - a filtration unit - was the only remaining option. We were advised by Adam’s boss that a pair of Hozelock Bioforce Revolution 14000 units would do the trick for a pond of our size, so last week Adam arrived to install them.

But first he had to empty the pond, all 6000 gallons, remove the fish, all 269 of them, clean out the silt, about three wheelbarrow loads, trim the lilies (‘How do you know they’re lilies? Because Lily’s wearing them.’ L. Donegan, 1960.), and power-wash the pond lining. Here’s proof of Adam’s dirty doings:

That took him a couple of days. After which he had to install the filtration units: this meant digging holes to part-bury them and gouge trenches to take the cables and hoses to and fro the pumps in the pond. Half a day later he was able to give me the go-ahead to refill the pond, partly using the mains water supply (expensive as we’re metered) but mainly using water from our own well. The only snag with the well-water was that it kept running dry - the water levels of the local aquifers are so low because of GLOBAL WARMING MR TRUMP - so I had to adopt a routine of filling for half an hour then allowing two hours to top up the well before I could sneak another half hour’s worth for the pond. Still, in the end there was enough water for the fish to be re-located and the lilies reinstated. Here are pictures of Adam’s cleaner doings:

And here are pictures of the pond, before and after. Still looks murky to me but Adam assures me that patience is the thing…and trust that it’ll be clean in the end. Just like this blog.