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.


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.

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!


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.

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?

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.,_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!

Leisure Outdoors

Flowers and Butterflies Magog Down

On the 22nd of July we went for a short walk on Magog Down. This area of chalk downland is on the south west side of the A 1307 opposite Wandlebury Country Park and the Gog Farm Shop. It was our first visit and the combination of plants and butterflies was absolutely stunning. The slopes of the down lead up to an area of woodland (first photo) that is edged on one side by a steep slope (second photo).

These are the butterflies that we saw:

Essex skipper, Small heath, Brimstone, Large white, Small white, Marbled white, Peacock, Hedge brown, Meadow brown, Comma, Common blue, Red admiral, Small tortoiseshell, Ringlet.

The plants included marjoram (which was humming with bees), mignonette, kidney vetch and clustered bellflower/campanula (which we have spent some time identifying, and disconcertingly it is not on the Magog Trust list of plants so have we made a mistake?).

The photos below show both plants and butterflies (which, as in real life, you will need to look closely to see).

The blue flower below is what we think is clustered bellflower.

Magog Downs is designed for people to enjoy with seats, paths (mown areas, fenced paths and a board walk), parking facilities and a picnic area.

There is also a relatively new scrape to encourage chalk species.

This downland is managed by the Magog Trust, and the next link is to their map showing the extent and variety of the area. Note that north is towards the bottom left hand corner of the map.

It is well worth a visit.

Crafts Leisure

Birthday Flowers

Patrick decided to buy some flowers 2 days before my birthday. He visited our local greengrocers then an excellent interflora shop about a mile away. Shop 1 had a poor selection that were mainly orange and yellow and shop 2 was shut despite a large notice saying they were open! So back he came and decided to have another look at shop 1. And bingo, they had new stock that had just come in. So he bought masses of beautiful flowers that he then put into a flower can of his grandmother’s.

Here are the flowers after I had taken the freesias out of their cellophane.

My plan was to cut the bottom of all the stems then to arrange the flowers in vases the following day. The next three pictures show this in progress.

And here is a better view of all the flowers waiting for me to arrange them. They are wonderful all together like this.

Many of the flowers were surprisingly tall so I chose large vases.

The first round of flower arranging was only semi-successful. Patrick had bought some gladioli, slightly against his better judgement so I arranged them with garden foliage to disguise the ‘spikes’.

After 5 days the gladioli were amazing as you can see below.

In all but one of the other vases, the stems appeared leggy rather than elegantly tall as you can see in the photos. I therefore decided to use foliage from the garden with them as well to fill out the arrangements.

This photo below is of the arrangement that seemed OK first time round. The freesias were beautifully scented and went well with the purple alstroemerias.  But it turned out to be the vase that dropped petals first.

The next 6 pictures are pairs, before and after foliage.







These flowers turned out to be a great success lasting for over a week despite high temperatures, often over 33C outside.


Dvds and their books

Over the spring and summer we have watched a number of dvds that are either film or TV versions of books we have (or have not yet) read. The photos below of the dvd covers, pages from my kindle and some actual books, are pretty third rate. I snapped them on my phone, trying to avoid wobbling or problems with reflections etc – not a great success but better than text only.

Our viewing has stretched over many most enjoyable evenings especially the TV programmes with several episodes. We are not avid television viewers and can be choosy about what we watch. These dvds have given us a chance to laze in front of the television if there has not been anything ‘live’ that we have wanted to see. The usual situation is that one or other of us has read the book so the film has inevitably been accompanied by a verbal commentary comparing the ‘real’ story with the screen version… It has applied the other way round in the case of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. We watched the TV series first then I read the book. As I worked my way through the novel Patrick had to hear my views, whenever I thought of something to say, on how the two compared. Surprisingly, these comparisons, whichever way round, have been interesting rather than inconvenient. The jury is out as to whether it is always best to read the book first.

We started with Middlemarch by George Eliot. This was a 6 episode BBC TV series in 1994 that we had not seen.  

What prompted us to watch it was that Patrick had recently read the book in this very early edition.

It is always fun to see how screenplay and acting, in this case designed for viewers in 1994, compares with the way that we think 19th century characters would have spoken and behaved. One of our regular comments is ‘they wouldn’t have said that – surely no-one used that phrase?’.

It was lovely to see both Stamford as the fictional town, Middlemarch, and the filming in Rome, the ‘honeymoon’ destination.

Our second dvd was the 2005 film of Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy. My sisters gave me a complete set of Hardy’s works as a 21st present. Once I had ordered the dvd from Amazon, a month or two ago, Patrick decided to read the book. We waited until he had finished to watch the film. I read the book decades ago and had forgotten a lot about it so the story felt pretty new to me.

Here is the book, from the 21st birthday present set.

The location of the film was mainly in Jersey and fairly convincingly suggested idyllic rural ‘Wessex’. The plot of course has all the usual communication and emotional complications typical of Hardy. After watching the film, we spent some time running through the extras including interviews with actors and the producer. Memorable moments included when James Murray, the actor playing Dick Dewy, likened being a carrier in those days to being a ‘white van man’ now, and another when Ashley Pharoah, the screenplay writer, explained why he had changed the plot by using (complicating) situations from Far from the Madding Crowd.

Several years ago one of my sisters recommended reading Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles. They consist of 5 books starting before the Second World War and ending in the 1950s. The books are The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off and All Change. I enjoyed reading them, discovering that they were heavily autobiographical so reading Elizabeth Jane Howard’s memoir and Artemis Cooper’s biography, which I did later, included a lot of familiar territory.

The BBC’s 2001 series ‘The Cazalets’ covers the time span of the first two books and part of the third, up to 1942.

I have included the next four photos, pages from the books on my kindle, to indicate the time period covered by the final two of the Cazalet Chronicles. For those who enjoyed reading about the fictional Cazalet family these books provide as much information as is available and the TV series that ‘left out the end of the family story’ had the potential to disappoint. However we felt it was not just entertaining but though-provoking too, despite being abridged.

These next two photos are the covers of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s memoir, Slipstream, and Artemis Cooper’s biography, A Dangerous Innocence, referred to above.

Our most recent dvd is the 2004 TV series based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, North and South. There are a number of striking aspects to the film starting with the depiction of the three main and totally different locations, Harley Street in London, a vicarage in the village of Helstone in the New Forest and Milton, an industrial town in the north.

Elizabeth Gaskell had plenty of personal experience of ministers and industrial towns which is reflected in this and other books that she wrote.

Now I have read the novel I think that, in the TV series, the depiction of the main female character, Margaret, matched the book very well. In the case of Mr Thornton, had I read the book first I would have imagined a slightly different person from the actor in the film. The pages of discussions in the novel about 19th century issues such as religion and industrial relations were, not surprisingly, omitted in the screen play.  


Making Bread

I have made bread since I was a teenager. It has always been by hand following the same basic method.

Grease tins, weigh ingredients, mix, knead for 10 minutes, rise for an hour or so, knock down and put in tins, prove for 15-20 minutes, bake until the loaf sounds hollow when you tap it.

I always remember being given advice, especially about kneading, by the daughters of a family in Apperley who sold us eggs and chickens. They were very good at this sort of thing and always won prizes at local shows for jams, cakes and of course bread.

These tins have come from a variety of sources – I don’t think I have ever had to buy bread tins, but I did buy new clay flower pots when there was a fashion for flower pot bread and chicken bricks. I line the tins with greaseproof paper to help when it comes to tipping out the loaves.

The mixing stage below shows what the flour and dried yeast (plus a small amount of salt) look like once I add warm water and some oil. At the stage in the photo the flour etc combines with the liquid to produce a creamy mixture and as you can see, the yeast has already started the fermentation process. In the background there are some scones that I had made earlier – a baking bonanza that day.

The next photo shows the dough set to rise in a warm place protected by cling film. I stopped kneading when the dough started to pull away from the side of the bowl. I won’t say that it was no longer sticky – in theory that is the case but in practice I have always found it sticks to my fingers and has to be scraped off.

The next photo shows the dough after it has risen and I had knocked it down. It goes into the tins in fairly lumpy pieces that smooth out surprisingly well in the proving and baking stages.

Proving in the tins, prior to baking, happens in a warm place, again covered in cling film.

And once the dough has risen again it goes into the hot oven. As I had quite a lot of different things cooking I used the top oven as well as the lower one.

I don’t time the baking but make sure I notice what the smells from the oven(s) tell me and from time to time I have a look at how brown the loaves are. On this occasion they were slightly too brown!

This was the collection from the day’s baking, two Dundee cakes, scones and bread.


Beans on the allotment

The beans that we sow first are broad beans. The allotment shop sells them loose during the autumn and we bought an envelope full and sowed two rows before Christmas. By the end of January they were looking good with plenty of healthy leaves, and a month or so later they were about a foot tall.

Here they are on the 17th April with flowers and a few bean pods starting to form.

At that time they were the greenest plants on the allotment as you can see. Patrick was talking to a neighbour (at least 12 feet apart) as a break from his never ending digging!

First picking 9 May – and so far no black fly

Then there are french beans and runner beans. The packets hold a huge number of seeds/beans and I normally sow about a quarter of them in modules. The rest are for successional sowing straight into the ground over the summer. The risk is that the later sowings catch up and all the beans will be ready at once. However in the past we‘ve just about managed to stagger the harvest so let’s hope it works this year too. And the good thing is that they can be frozen and taste fine especially in the winter when it’s a novelty to eat home grown beans.

29 April – Labels go in first then the seeds/beans. I put several beans (too many?) into each module pressed down into multi-purpose compost, lightly covered and then patted down. These photos look a bit of a mess – compost spilling out onto the green plastic covering the conservatory carpet but the beans don’t mind.

Then I covered the trays in cling film and put them in a warm place to germinate. This year I had a garden table set up in one of our bedrooms under a north facing window in front of a radiator which worked well.

These were the first to sprout on 5 May

They were ready to plant about a week later amazingly. But we had a spell of cold weather in mid-May with frosts at night so I kept the beans under cover over night until the weather changed. Here they are in their daytime spot outside, getting rather leggy, on 17 May

The next day I took them to the allotment. The first thing to do was to water each row where the beans would be planted. This is because Cambridgeshire is very dry – I often regard our climate as semi-desert which it certainly is in terms of average annual rainfall. It is only the moderate temperatures plus non-stop watering in spring and summer that allow us to grow English veg etc. I built the cane support for runners and climbing French beans as the canes went a reasonable distance into the now-damp ground followed by the bean plants. They needed a good watering. I know from experience that the slugs will go for them overnight so out came the pellets. The cane support seemed wonderful when I built it but as the weeks go by (and it’s the same every year!) I realise just how wonky it is especially compared with the meticulous constructions on other allotments.

To plant the dwarf French beans I dug a trench and poured water along it. Then I put each plant into the soggy bottom of the trench, digging out a decent sized hole with a trowel so they were planted quite deeply. Again they had a sprinkling of slug pellets to make sure they weren’t demolished overnight.

By the 6 June they looked like this……..

And they were in flower by 26 June

The weeds are very keen on the conditions that suit beans and lettuces as you can see below……

The dwarf purple French beans have a lovely flower. If you look carefully you can just see some miniature beans forming. I started picking in the first few days of July. And, as with so many crops, I’ll try to keep up to date with harvesting so the plants are encouraged to produce more.