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Books that I have read during 10 months of lockdown

I normally read quite a lot, mainly fiction, whether on kindle or hard copy. I am a member of a monthly book group which keeps me supplied with titles that I would not necessarily have chosen myself which is interesting. Otherwise I read favourite authors and books that come my way via recommendation. Friends quite often lend me books too. So I am never short of something to read. Also we have enough books in our house, collected over the years, to last me for the rest of my life!

Since the first 2020 lockdown I have continued reading and from mid-March 2020 to mid-January 2021 I read 57 books. Of these 9 were chosen by my U3AC book group, all fiction based in a real world context so no sci-fi or fantasy. 10 of the 57 books were non-fiction or mixed (for example Christmas anthologies) and 7 were children’s fiction.

When and where do I read?

It is a total luxury to read during the daytime. Sometimes I manage it especially in the autumn and winter as the days get shorter. It is also something I do on holiday but this year holidays have taken the form of three weekends away during the summer non-lockdown periods so not much reading time in total then.

Usually I read in bed before (or while!) going to sleep. Recently I have read first thing in the morning while drinking a cup of tea before getting up – a good way to start the day. The photo below includes a lovely picture of an albatross, taken by Will when he was in the Falklands. The bedside table is laden with books several of which I have yet to finish such as Clive James’s version of Dante, and Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 objects.

During the daytime the conservatory is a good place to read. There are comfortable chairs there, the place is full of plants so the air is often fragranced with hoya and scented-leaf geraniums, and most importantly, the light is good.

In winter the conservatory is too cold to sit still for any length of time so I retreat to the sitting room. The selfie below (a mirror image – one day I’ll learn how to stop that happening) shows a favourite spot on the sofa, adjoining the piano. Note the lockdown hair – hairdressing salons have been out of bounds off and on for months.

Now for the books……

I keep a record of the books I have read with a comment/note to remind me what each was about. It’s very easy to forget the authors and titles of books I have read and also the subject matter, hence the list!

Book group

Kate Atkinson, A God in Ruins

Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Violins of Saint Jacques

Simon Mawer, The Glass Room (my choice and presentation to the group)

Simon Mawer, Prague Spring

Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings

Hannah Rothschild, The Improbability of Love

Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire

Olga Tokareczuk, Drive your plow over the bones of the dead

Salley Vickers, Grandmothers

Children’s Fiction

Monica Edwards, Wish for a Pony and There’s No Mistaking Corker

Anne Stafford, Five Proud Riders

These three pony books were ones that I had as a child and the paperback copies are on the tatty side as you’d expect after 65 years!

And at Christmas, regular favourites:

Raymond Briggs, The Snowman, Father Christmas and Father Christmas on Holiday

Shirley Hughes, Lucy and Tom’s Christmas

Non-fiction

John Julius Norwich, An English Christmas

Rosemary Sutcliffe, The Iliad

Ed: Simon Rae, Faber Book of Christmas

Aida Edemariam, The Wife’s Tale

Bill Bryson, The Body – A Guide for Occupants (serious content but really good fun to read!)

F. Mistral, translated by George Wicken, Memoirs

Howard Goodall, Big Bangs (a fascinating read about five major developments in the history of music)

Jan Struther, Try Anything Twice

Mary Anne Ochota, Hidden Histories

Ann Baer, Medieval Woman

Fiction

Here are a few snippets of information about some of the fiction books I have read.

Location is very important to me so I really enjoyed:

Anne Cleeves, Dead Water and Thin Air – two detective stories set in Shetland

Donna Leon, Death at La Fenice

Salley Vickers, Miss Garnett’s Angel (also set in Venice)

Rory Clements, Corpus (a thriller set in Cambridge)

Fiona Valpy, The Skylark’s Secret (1940s and 70s Loch Ewe – the naval base for the Russian convoys)

Classics

Elizabeth Gaskell, North & South, Wives & Daughters. We have dvds of films/TV series of both of these books so I read them before watching the films.

George Eliot, Mill on the Floss. I first read this in an abridged version aged about 9. It is definitely an adults’ book – I have no idea why anyone thought it was suitable for children.

John Galsworthy, Forsyte Sage vols 1, 2 and 3. I bought my paperback copies after the TV series in 1967, with photos of Susan Hampshire and Eric Porter on two of the covers. We didn’t have a television and this was the start of my habit of buying the book of the series I had not seen on TV!

Tolkien, The Father Christmas Letters

Historical and/or political

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light. I read the first two in the ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy a few years ago and lockdown was a chance to read the third.

Victoria Hislop, Those who are loved (Civil war in Greece). I enjoy Victoria Hislop’s books partly because they are set in southern Europe in specific political periods.

Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings (USA, anti-slavery and feminism). I read this for my book group and was fascinated by the fictional representation of the abolitionist sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké.  

Robert Harris, Pompeii; Archangel. These two historical thrillers are set in 79 AD and modern, 20th century Russia – quite a contrast.

Simon Mawer, Prague Spring and The Glass Room (Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the 1920s-50s) both pf which I read for the first time before my book group chose them. 

Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire (Islamic radicalisation based in London)

Books ‘floating’ in the sitting room to dip into

What to do Today? – an account of zoom based studio activities from April to August 2020. I was involved in one of the ‘studios’, My Outdoors.

Future – a Scottish Book Trust compendium of writings; it is a free book with an introduction by Val McDermid and the first entry is by Annie Sturgeon.

Birds in Norfolk – Andy Brown and James McCallum. This is a gorgeous book beautifully illustrated with James McCallum’s lovely paintings. The text is written by Andy Brown and provides a wealth of information.

Shetland Wool Week 2020 annual. This is a fascinating book all about wool in Shetland and includes a brilliant selection of knitting patterns. The model this year is our daughter-in-law, Jenny Sturgeon.

So this blog is a whistle-stop tour round some of my reading matter in lockdown. Being stuck at home for most of the time has not been that arduous for me because I enjoy doing things myself, like writing this blog, as well as reading.

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Crafts Outdoors

Advent Wreath

A few years ago I signed up for a course at a local church on making an advent wreath. It was brilliant. We started from scratch with a bale of straw from which to pull handfuls that we steadily twisted and bound (with wire) into a ring about 30 cms in diameter. The next step is to cover the ring with greenery, using ivy, yew, holly etc as long as it is evergreen and fairly pliable. The idea is to lie the stems in the same direction to give a tidy look.

This process is quite time consuming as the stems have to be secured by sticking the ends into the straw ring and binding them down with wire. The ring must be totally covered so when it sits flat no straw shows.

After 4 weeks or more the greenery can become rather dry and dull but regular spraying with water helps to keep it refreshed. When the festive season is over the advent wreath has to be dismembered and the reusable ring, decorations and wires put away for next year.

So that is where I started this year.

In the photo above you can see the straw ring, spare wire, red ribbons and 4 new white candles. The strong wires in the base of each candle are from the original candles that came with the wreath making course. I use the wires most years, pulling them out of the old candles, heating the ends over the gas cooker and forcing them into the new candles. Sometimes this has been tricky to do, depending on the nature of the candle wax, so in 2019 I bought a set of spiked candle holders that I used instead, as can be seen in the final photo in this blog.

I chose a fairly dry day to cut greenery from the garden – we have far too much holly and ivy!

The evergreen below was bought as a tiny plant over 30 years ago. We keep it well chopped and it is excellent as the first layer on the straw ring. Each short stem curves easily over the ring. After two or three circuits, tied down with wire, the ring is covered.

Below the greenery is piled up on the floor.

Unfortunately I was so carried away with covering the ring with evergreens that I forgot to take any photos.

The course leader all those years ago was very keen that we should divide the ring into four – 4 advent candles and between them red ribbons. Last year I tied the ribbons below each candle and added decorations between.

I decided this year to put a Christmas Day candle in the middle so, for the first time there are five candles. Thinking about it, the central candle should be taller than the four advent candles so I may stand its holder on a small block of wood.

This photo below is the 2019 advent wreath with all candles burning. So that means I took the photo on the fourth Sunday in Advent.

The candles are different heights because the one that is lit first (on Advent Sunday) is lit again on each of the successive Sundays. The same applies to each candle in turn and the tallest is the candle that was lit for the first time on the fourth Sunday in Advent.

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Cooking Home

Making Mince Pies

Mince pies are wonderful in November. We often start making and eating them then as the weeks around Christmas are overloaded with other traditional (and substantial) food.

This year Christmas has started really early with lights in people’s gardens, prolific online present buying and other jolly activities which are all part of cheering things up in the middle of the second English lockdown. It is not clear that we will be doing much with family and friends over Christmas as travel restrictions are in place at present. No-one knows if it will be wise (even if it is allowed) to hob nob with all and sundry. Forecasts of another peak after Christmas make a nonsense of anything that allows us to share germs more easily, although people who believe they are immune wouldn’t agree.

Back to mince pies….

The ingredients are so simple – mincemeat from a jar and shortcrust pastry. I make the pastry using these proportions. Fat (butter or marg) 2 : caster sugar 1 : self-raising flour 3. Stir flour and sugar together; rub fat into the dry mix until it resembles breadcrumbs. Mix with small amounts of cold water until it forms a firm ball. Then dust a flat surface with flour and roll out quite thinly. Stamp out large circles of pastry to line the bottom of the pie containers.

This is the first time I have used paper cases – it solves the problem of getting the mince pies out of the tin (especially if they have boiled over slightly and stuck). Each pie needs a decent dollop of mincemeat. The jar I used had ‘booted up’ written on the outside which means I had added more dried fruit and some brandy a while back, to upgrade it.

I normally stamp out slightly smaller circles for the lids. In theory they should be sealed by damping the rim of each lid. I just plonked them onto the mincemeat and gently pressed down round the rim of each mince pie to seal.

They go into a fairly hot oven. You can see the dimples round the edge of each pie where I had sealed it.

While they were cooking I did the washing up! This included the mincemeat jam jar and its lid – I have a huge collection of them waiting for the next lot of home-made jam, jelly or marmalade.

After 15 minutes or so the pies were getting slightly beige/brown on top which means they are done.

The pastry cools quickly but the sticky mincemeat stays very hot for quite a long time – warning for anyone who wants to tuck into one straight out of the oven!

Once I could handle the tins I put the mince pies on a wire rack to cool properly.

At this stage it’s a good idea to give them a dusting of sieved icing sugar, especially if they are going out on a plate to offer to friends and family. Ours were destined to go into a tin ready for us to eat over the next week or so, and icing sugar loses its good looks then.

We both tried them with a cup of tea in front of the fire. The paper cases are doubly convenient – ‘look no plate’!

Mince pies make a good seasonal pudding too.  Patrick and I both like them warmed and served with brandy butter (there’s a new batch in the fridge which we have already tasted).

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Leisure

‘The Glass Room’

A novel by Simon Mawer

I belong to a book group that meets once a month. We take turns to choose and present a book and my name came up soon after lockdown, for the May 2020 meeting. The book I chose was Simon Mawer’s ‘The Glass Room’ that I first read, and very much enjoyed, in 2019.

Normally we meet for a face to face presentation and discussion in a church hall, but since March 2020 everything has been online. To make things easier, presentations go out to the group via email about a week before the online meeting. Knowing this, as I re-read the book I made notes, not on paper but in the form of an email to myself. This formed the basis of my presentation much of which is included in this blog entry.

I chose the book because I had enjoyed reading it and because I am fascinated by the house, a real house, in Brno. The modern construction appeals to me combined with the sloping site, looking west across the city towards the Spilas fortress, with the entrance upstairs and open plan living area downstairs. Of course from the novel we don’t know the real details, just what Mawer has introduced. Where the idea for this house (the ‘Landauer house’ in the novel) came from, and who had the technological know-how to make it work, are questions that the book answers, but are they true in the context of the real house? Unlikely.

The real house is Villa Turgendhat in Brno, Czech Republic.

The Wikipedia entry on the house gives plenty of details and includes photos. Its history is replicated one way or another in the novel so it is hardly surprising that the family who built it, the Turgendhats, took exception to much of what was written in the novel.

It is now a museum.

THE BOOK

The story starts with an introductory chapter set in the 1960s, then goes back to 1929 and ends in 1990.

Some of the characters:

Hana  ‘That woman’, married to Oscar a Jewish lawyer. She was a perpetual, close presence, worldly wise, modern, and a survivor, obsessed with relationships and jealous too. During the German occupation she met Stahl in a cafe (1941), chatted him up and was invited to be ‘surveyed’ at the Landauer house during which she made witty/provocative and even subversive comments. Later Hana was ‘the woman from the heritage committee’. Hana’s focus was on love, but she came over as a complicated mixture.

The family – father Viktor Landauer, mother Liesel, two children, Ottilie and Martin who were brought up speaking German and Czech (and later became through and through Americans). They were not religious, but Liesel came from a Catholic family (hence her church wedding and the christening of Ottilie). Viktor was Jewish by background so he moved ownership of his company, Landauer cars, into the hands of his father in law when Jews were threatened by the German invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Lanik the chauffeur and general factotum, was devious. Once the family left, he was the caretaker still living in the house in the mid-1940s. He hoarded potentially valuable items such as food that formed the basis of a black-market business as the Soviet invasion occurred. By the late 50s/early 60s Lanik was Chairman of the district committee with responsibility to the party in the local district.

Viktor’s first meeting with Kata/Katalin Kalman, subsequently his mistress, was in Vienna, followed by visits to the flat where she lived with her daughter Marika. The coincidence of Kata being one of the small group of refugees that visited the Landauer House was not realistic nor was moving in as the nanny, but it is a story.

The house:

My main interest when I read the book was the house itself, the Glass Space, der Glausraum. It was known in the book as the Landauer house but also referred to as the Glass Dream, the Glass Tranquillity.

The windows of the open plan living area could be lowered down into the basement, ‘Viktor pressing the button to lower the windows’. But there was only one further mention of these amazing windows.

The house was described as a work of art, but traditional views were that it was ‘like an office, not like a home’ in contrast with older style towered and turreted houses, similar to the ones where the Landauers lived as the glass house was being built and in Switzerland.

There were interesting construction details – load bearing steel girders, ‘angle beams riveted back to back to make pillars with a cruciform cross-section’ like a factory; modern materials and heating from a boiler in the basement. Then there was the onyx wall ‘polished like glass’ – very expensive and with amazing light reflecting properties. This wall really exists and amazingly, given the actual history since 1938, is still intact.

Mawer also described interior fittings (tiles, white paint, ivory linoleum, fitted items) and furniture (specially designed chairs eg the Venice chair, the Landauer chair, the Liesel chair, and an extendable circular dining table). Apart from black and natural shantung curtains, woollen rugs and a sculpture of a female torso there was no decoration.

After the family left, the house was appropriated by the council, then transferred to the Third Reich to be a laboratory/biometric centre with 12 scientific staff investigating racial characteristics. It was visited, in the story, by Heydrich SS3 (who was assassinated in May 1942 – Wikipedia). The lab was closed down and machines taken to Auschwitz, then draughtsmen from Messerschmidt lived there for a year. Russians took over the house and after the war it became a gymnasium for children with physical disabilities providing recuperative physio.

The State committee for Architectural Heritage wanted to turn the house into a museum.

Place:

Mesto was the name Mawer gave to the city where the house was built, and where much of the action takes place.

There are some lovely descriptions of scenery, cities and journeys, as well as the weather (misty, raining and damp when visiting the site of the house; heat in Cuba; November fog and snow). 

The flight to Switzerland involved no check in, no hanging about before boarding, just an announcement ‘will be departing in 15 minutes’ and a walk across tarmac. Then there was the noise as the aircraft took off, shaking etc.

The family lived in a villa in Zurich then, after a week or so, in Geneva. To travel/escape to Cuba they left Switzerland by train through France to Spain.

After 20 years we meet the family again, in the US, near Falmouth, Mass. (Gardiner Road, Wood’s Hole which can be found on google maps!).   

Time:

Mawer gives very little detail on when events took place. However, much of the book is closely linked to real history and it is possible to pin down dates eg. Chamberlain’s 1938 speech. The family leave Mesto during the first half of 1939. The architect who designed the house visits them in Switzerland – it has to be late 1939 or 1940, inconsistent with a later reference to the fact that he apparently ‘fled to the United States in 1938’.

The only chapter with a date is ‘1990’, the last. This is when Marie Delmas, Marika, who was brought up by ‘sisters’ and lives in Paris, visited post-Soviet Czechoslovakia. Liesel tells us some dates when she is invited to Czechoslovakia and writes to Hana. The family became American citizens in 1948 and Viktor died 1958 in a boating accident.

Politics:

Politics underpin the whole book. The characters are caught in the ebb and flow of different powers during the first half of the 20th century, and beyond for those remaining in Czechoslovakia. Before the Second World War the women lived in a ‘protected world’ while the outside world ‘battled with recession and political unrest’. Oscar and Viktor talk about pogroms.

The new country, Czechoslovakia formed in 1918, contained a mixture of people, Czech and German in particular leading to tensions. Kata, from Hungary, was trapped in Slovakia and ran away with no papers to Vienna, which she was forced to leave when the Nazis invaded, so she became a refugee in Mesto. In the book there was an awareness, by some of the characters, of what was going on but irritating naivety by others about the reality of potential disaster.

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Home

Double glazing throughout

Regrettably for years our 1930s house did not keep us as warm as it should. So we have steadily made improvements.

We had a loft conversion 16 years ago that involved a new properly insulated roof and double glazed veluxes, so that was a start.

After some thought we decided not to do anything to the walls, no outer insulating layers slapped onto the bricks or cavity wall insulation. But we have tried to sort out draughts which is not easy with two original doors that expand and contract according to the weather and we have changed the windows.

As the house faces south at the front the windows take a battering, with desiccation in the summer contrasting with damp etc at other times so the window frames had started to rot. We replaced them with (nearly) matching wooden framed double glazed windows. The first thing we noticed was the lack of condensation on the inside of the windows – fantastic!

Our second window improvement was to the landing window which is quite large and leaded with frosted glass plus a 1930s purple border that we did not want to lose. The leaded panes do not fit well so if the wind was in the wrong direction rain would leak in and dribble onto the windowsill. This, combined with single glazing, meant that we had a huge heat loss. The firm that had rebuilt our conservatory advised fitting a large sheet of glass into the window recess outside. So they measured and estimated, then re-measured. Eventually the glass was ready and two fitters arrived. The problem was that the landing window is very difficult to access. It is high up and faces our neighbours across a narrow path bordered by a wall, and to add to the complications there is a gate across the path. With the help of a small scaffolding tower (or was it just some ladders – we can’t remember) they lifted the glass and fixed it in place. Recently one of the fitters reminded me about the difficulty they had balancing such a large pane at that height – definitely scary! So far so good – nice and cosy indoors, original window undamaged and a glistening sheet of glass on the outside that keeps the weather at bay.

In the 1990s we had our kitchen extended which involved new windows (but not double glazed astonishingly – clearly insulation regulations were lightweight compared with now). That was fine until we found, at an early stage, that the frames were susceptible to rot. Over the years various repairs were done but the rot always came back.

The two north facing bedroom windows have always behaved very well with no sign of rotting frames. But they looked as though they were the original glass with some slight waviness in some of the panes. The downside was that they were cold and condensation was always a problem.

The firm that so successfully installed the landing window glass has always done a very good job. The plastic framed double glazed conservatory has been a great success and has converted us to plastic rather than wooden frames. So this autumn we decided to double glaze all the remaining single glazed windows and install secondary glazing in the bathroom where the leaded paned window and its wooden frame are, for some reason, in good shape.

We cleared the area near the window in each room and covered bookshelves, beds etc with our own dust sheets. The plants from the kitchen windowsills as well as equipment, were parked in the conservatory.

The two fitters arrived, dead on time, in their van full of windows, double glazed units etc.

Front and back doors were all left open all day (coronavirus times) with a large dustbin for rubbish just outside the front door.

The fitters immediately laid dust sheets up the stairs and started knocking out the two bedroom windows.

It was quite dramatic and noisy but very controlled – just a few chippings landed on the conservatory roof (!!) and they were sucked up by the firm’s industrial vacuum cleaner.

Below are the blue window frames from the larger bedroom.

In what seemed like a very short time the new window frames were installed.

Below is the view from inside the conservatory with dust etc on the top of the glass.

The two fitters had a most efficient division of labour – one removing the old window then the other putting the new window frame in place as the next window was knocked out.

They had moved on to the kitchen by 10.30 am.

And by 2.30 pm the work was finished and they had left.

All very efficient and we now have a much warmer house than we are used to.

Categories
Leisure Outdoors

Autumn Fun

Summer extends into October and the garden gets a second flush of flowers.

The new grass seed germinates.

Rain helps.

The clocks change – lovely light mornings, and ‘cosy down indoors’ evenings

The gazebo has a battering in wind and rain so on a dry day, down it comes to sprawl in the conservatory as it totally dries out. The garden takes a good deep breath and the light levels indoors rise without the huge green barrage balloon sitting just outside. Plans for more hard standing, new pots etc – exciting winter projects.

From the end of September chrysanths have been flowering on the allotment and during October more and more come into flower there. Patrick’s chrysanths in the garden start to flower – beautiful large blooms in the most splendid colours. So we have plenty to pick. They last for at least two weeks indoors – brilliant.

Here are other activities – piles of books, ready for the next book group and borrowed from friends, a cabinet full of music, games on the left and a rug to keep warm on the right.

And the next picture shows a visor and masks, bottom right – typical of pandemic times.

Halloween

Pumpkins, real and emoji; will there be trickers and treaters? Probably not and anyway we don’t want to encourage them this year (helping yourself to a sweet or two out of a large tin might be a good way to spread germs….). Highlights – a glittery spider’s web card from 2 great nephews, lovely pumpkin soup for lunch, and the ugliest jack o’ lantern ever.

Categories
Leisure Outdoors

Allotment Life

Having an allotment is a lovely way to get away from normal busy home-based activities. Of course it includes a lot of physical work. Even pickling fruit and harvesting vegetables involves bending and stretching, while digging and weeding (often both together) are more strenuous. So we have regarded the allotment as a way to tick the government’s exercise box during ‘covid summer’! However it isn’t all hard slog and the photos below are meant to highlight some of the more pleasant and less muddy aspects.

Allotment holders are often on their plot for a bit of peace and quiet, so long conversations are not always the norm. However over the years we have talked quite a lot to the people with allotments near us. We also talk with friends who have allotments in other parts of Cambridge, sharing ideas, comparing notes about water supply, how things are growing etc.

A friend with two allotments on a different site from ours gave us wildflower seeds that he had bought in Germany. We set aside a fairly unproductive patch as it would be ideal for wild flowers (relatively infertile with no grass to compete with the flowers). Here they are in mid-June. I am writing this in September and there is a second flowering for some of the species.

Below are typical summer crops. The potatoes are mainly pink fir apples, with a few charlottes that escaped the first digging. Weather during peak potato growing time was far from ideal – dry and warm to start with, a late frost, very high temperatures later in the summer and hardly any rain – so we were pleased with what we found. We grew several varieties of French bean and for the first time we have had a successful tomato crop (ie no blight). Behind our shed is a cultivated blackberry that has produced fruit for weeks. We grow mainly autumn raspberries and they have done quite well although they were set back when temperatures topped 30C. However the crop has carried on and there are promising signs for more fruit as we move through September into October. Sweet corn and parsley have been feeble – not enough rain is my guess.

The next picture is of one part of the site where we have successfully grown bronze fennel, more ornamental than anything else. We also had a small patch for peas (under the netting – now cleared and replaced by a sowing of chard) and successional sowings of beans that were still producing in September. In the foreground are new patty pan plants. The first plants are on a different part of the allotment and never properly got going. It seemed a good plan to try a second planting – but maybe shorter days and lower temperatures will conspire against us. The plants are much bigger, a month on from when the photo was taken in August, with plenty of growth and we have already harvested some.

I recently weeded the brassicas. As you can see below, it meant opening up the tight mesh that we use to cover the plants to stop white fly, cabbage whites etc attacking the plants. The mesh provides a micro climate which combines with the pest protection to make a good growing environment for not only the crops but also weeds and self-set potatoes (a few of them in the punnet). The Italian kale is one of three brassicas under this mesh. The others are purple sprouting broccoli and cabbages. These three should be ready to harvest in late autumn, winter and early spring. We have parsnips and leeks for autumn/winter harvest, and rampant self-seeded spinach and chard.

There are leisure and social aspects of the allotment which add to its attraction. One of them is that when we are there for an afternoon we always take a flask of tea and some cake. Pretty much the first thing we do is put the chairs out! When Will stayed in August we had our usual nice relaxing cup of tea as you can see below.

A finally there is quite a lot of sharing. Patrick makes a comfrey oil balm to rub on aching joints and limbs. Comfrey was called knit-bone and it has miraculous properties we find. P has used it before going to bed when his knees are playing up. The pain disappears very quickly so he can relax and go to sleep. Our allotment neighbour (Italian) has knee troubles and Patrick gave him some of his home made comfrey oil. As a thank you the photo below shows what was in our shed next time we were on the site!

It was a really good chianti which we much enjoyed!

Categories
Outdoors

Making Compost

We have three compost ‘bins’ in the garden and three on the allotment. The structure for five of them is basically a frame (posts or old pallets) with wire netting sides. The sixth is slotted planks bought for the purpose. All six bins are in a fairly precarious state now as over time the wood has loosened and rotted and the netting has distorted. However the outcome in terms of well-rotted vegetation is always good by our standards.

The three garden bins operate on a three year cycle 1. Filling with peelings, old plants etc, 2. Covered with plastic sacks and leave to rot, 3. Ready to use

The photo below shows them with compost ‘ready to use’ in the foreground, ‘currently filling up’ in the middle and ‘covered in plastic to rot down’ in the distance.

You can see that the compost that is ready to use is dark brown and friable but it is not in perfect condition. Larger pieces ideally should be removed and returned for further composting. It is also obvious from this picture that the bins are in a slightly ropey state!

The three allotment bins, sited behind the shed, work differently. One is for current waste while the other two are turned and watered almost weekly by Patrick. This means that by the end of the autumn two bins are well rotted and ready to be spread on the allotment as mulch/fertilizer over the winter. Even the active ‘filling’ bin has the turning and watering treatment to speed up the composting process. Its contents will be ready later.

The photo below shows the two well rotted bins in the foreground/centre and, almost invisible, the active bin that we are currently filling. Because the front of each bin is relatively insecure loose material leaks out which makes them look pretty shallow compared with the garden bins – not the case, as we discover when digging them out.

Below is a picture of Will turning the active compost.

Apart from the seriously collapsed netting it is almost impossible to see clearly! The brambles, tree and water butt block the view.

As an aside, that water butt (old barrel inherited from our predecessor) is one of four that are interconnected by pieces of old hose pipe. The rain from the shed roof feeds one of the water butts via a gutter and down pipe. Then the water finds its own level in the other three water butts so we have a huge storage system that is a massive help during dry spells. We can fill cans under the tap on one of the water butts or dip into the old barrels from the top.

Back to compost – we happily accept that partially rotted twigs etc may end up being spread on the ground. However a recent visit to my sister Gilly and her husband gave a demonstration of what we ought to do once the rotting process is well under way. She had open ‘bins’ like ours but they have gone as she has moved the contents into two plastic bins, the ones that look like daleks, with a lid on the top and a door at the bottom to scoop out the compost.

While we were there she spent a large chunk of an unseasonably hot September afternoon improving her compost by sieving it. The photos below show this.

  • Compost into bucket
  • From bucket to sieve
  • Sieving into wheelbarrow – look at the lovely fine compost in the barrow.

All this seems quite calm and relaxing with the low sun and lovely tidy set up. But it was very hard work!

What was left in the sieve was tipped into a garden sack ready to be returned to the compost bin once it was empty.

So a few ideas on composting that seem to work well whether the starting point is ancient home-made bins or well contained daleks.

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Leisure Outdoors

The Gazebo

We bought two gazebos about 10 years ago and they have had intermittent use. Quite quickly one of them went to my sister Caroline as there was no way we needed two, although initially that might have been possible.  Ours was used at a street party in 2012, and friends have borrowed it for various occasions. Essentially it is too big to be conveniently put up and taken down and it uses up a large space.

Looking down into the garden from our loft conversion this is what we normally see – lots of lovely trees, an expanse of lawn and flower beds and a paved area with benches etc adjoining the conservatory.

This summer, 2020, we decided that the gazebo counted as ‘garden’ and could be useful for outdoor visitors so we put it up on the paved area. It will deflect gentle rain but is far from weather proof if conditions are stormy.

So the photo below shows the new view from the loft conversion – a huge green tent – and even from the garden it looks fairly large and obvious.

Once inside, however, it creates a totally different feeling. It is difficult to explain but perhaps one friend’s description ‘the sultan’s tent’ is best – the netting and curtain effect is pleasant and frames views of the garden which is attractive to see.

We use it for relaxed cups of tea, reading, and also to meet friends. Not only has it made entertaining possible – ‘why not pop in for a cup of tea in the gazebo?’ – but it has also allowed some live music. Instead of playing flute duets over zoom (it works, but not perfectly) we can now play 7 feet apart ‘outdoors’, ie in the gazebo. It has made recorder quartets feasible. One memorable recorder playing session included rumbling thunder and during another a robin joined in as an additional top part. Even the ‘maximum of six with social distancing’ has been possible – a long table with three couples sitting in pods with a breeze blowing through has been sociable and fun.

The down side is what happens in wild weather. This photo below shows the effect of 40mph winds. The gazebo lifted with each puff and in no time it had moved across the garden. You can see the chairs and table still in position and the gazebo 8 feet from where it started straddling flower beds and lawn! It was exciting when it happened – we could just see it setting off from the kitchen where we were having lunch – like a light footed giant delicately hopping along. The very long pink rope (inherited from Patrick’s father – such a lovely colour!) was handy to tie it down temporarily.

As further winds were forecast we partially demolished the gazebo – just the top frame standing on half legs stood back on the paving waiting for the weather to calm down. Then back it went into full position but this time with some very firm ropes tied to nearby substantial shrubs. Below you can see two sets of ropes – the standard guy rope and the substantial pink one. 

There was so much of the lovely pink that we could tie it through the frame inside and string fairy lights through it. 

As the days have become shorter this has been totally gorgeous – eating outside on a mild evening under sparkly lights. The photo below of Patrick, me and cousin Elin, was taken by son Jim when he visited. We all love the gazebo – a massive plus side to the Covid months.

It will stay in place for as long as possible and next year will come out earlier, whatever the virus situation. Over the winter I will be planning the layout and planting so we no longer have flower beds under the canvas – a plethora of pots maybe?

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Leisure Outdoors

Devils Dyke and Chalk Loving Butterflies

On August the 21st we went to Reach, a village east of Cambridge, with Will, our Shetland son who was visiting.

It is a very interesting place, on the ‘fen edge’ with a derelict quay on the north west side of the village at the head of Reach Lode, once an important transport route to the rivers Cam and Ouse and out to the North Sea via the Wash.  On the opposite side of the village is the north western end of Devils Dyke, an 11 km Anglo Saxon earth rampart and ditch aligned north-west to south-east. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devil%27s_Dyke,_Cambridgeshire

Over the years we have visited Devils Dyke on many occasions and it has spectacular flora and fauna, particularly linked to its chalk soils. The google satellite view below shows the section of the dyke nearest to Reach. It forms a cross shape (lower half of the view in the centre) where the dyke was cut through by the Cambridge to Mildenhall railway. This line went through Burwell, the village on the east side of the satellite view.

We walked along the dyke until we arrived at the railway cutting. The photo below was taken looking along the line of the old railway towards Burwell (we could just see the church spire) and the position of Devils Dyke is approximately at the telegraph pole. The point of our visit was to find butterflies and their food plants (not to study transport routes from the past!) and the photo below is typical of Will and Patrick both looking out for anything interesting.

This cutting is sheltered and has a rich flora including many food plants for butterflies such as chalkhill blues. The next two pictures show Will photographing some of them. He is patient and experienced in wildlife photography. His pictures come out well as he knows how to get good close-ups. My efforts are pathetic by comparison along the lines of ‘that was where the butterfly was but it flew away’, ‘you can just about see it but I wasn’t really close enough’ etc!

And here they are checking the pictures.

The photos below are some of those that Will took:

Pair of chalk hill blues

And below a male chalkhill blue

This photo is a male brown argus

Our return took us past this signpost – it indicates that the designated footpath is ‘Earthworks Way’ not surprisingly given that most of it is along Devil’s Dyke, a dramatic earthwork.

Once we were on our way back to Reach we noticed plenty of interesting plants and this profusion of sloes (blackthorn). Normally we pick sloes in order to make sloe gin – but it’s too early in August. Ideally they should be frosted, but that’s not always possible unless there are early frosts in November. By January/February when there are more reliable frosts the berries have gone past their best.

The ditch on the south west side of Devil’s Dyke is very deep. This photo below shows the shallower ‘ditch’ on the north east side of the dyke. It was a rich area of plants, butterflies and ants – we saw at least two anthills.

This very pleasant outing achieved what we had set out to do, to see chalk flora and fauna, particularly butterflies. It ended with a drink in the Red Lion in Swaffham Prior, on our way back to Cambridge!