Now, what does a lilac sky at night mean?
Now, what does a lilac sky at night mean?
I love allotments; those little patchwork plots in cities, like here on the edge of Bridgwater in Somerset, where people grow vegetables and flowers; where they build sheds and scarecrows out of discarded materials; where they go to relax and unwind by toiling on their actually not so little patches of earth. Turning the overgrown, run to seed dirt into neat rows of sprouting vegetables and fruit.
I think it’s the variety that you find on allotments that appeals to me: neatness, abundance, rot, abandonment and nurture side-by-side in equal measure. I love the textures of the ground, of the buildings, and of the things that are grown. I find them just as satisfying to look at at this time of year as in the fullness of harvest time.
I don’t have an allotment or even aspire to having one, having just one mouth to feed these days, but they’re still very pleasing to look at. It’s like looking at a microcosm of the countryside: tiny little fields, sharing water, battling to outdo each other yet doing completely different things, their keepers annoying each other with their varied methods of cultivation and outcomes.
What do you think? Have you got an allotment or do you want one? Or are you one of those who find them a messy eyesore on their horizon? Are my glasses totally rose-tinted?
When Nora arrived she was small enough to slip under the gate to the back garden from the little contained area immediately around the house. Fortunately, that didn’t last long and for a few months it was safe to let her out of the back door knowing that she wouldn’t be able to run off and get lost.
Then she became a teenage dog and discovered exploring. Through the hedge she would go, unerringly finding the one section where there was a break in the ancient wire netting embedded in it. Terrifyingly, she would run out into the lane and then stand stock still in the middle of the road ignoring all calls for her to return. Heart stopping, knowing that people bomb down here fairly fast, although it’s often quiet for hours, lulling you into a false sense of security. Then she got even naughtier and started to jump over the ridiculously low back fence and go off foraging for things in the field behind the cottage. The fence was deliberately low, having been put up by my predecessor who favoured the view. Oddly, at that time the field was used for cattle grazing, which was brave or foolhardy of her, depending on your point of view, as she might have had a ton of cow land on her while she was sitting out in the sun. Worse than the possibility that Nora would leave an occasional poo among the growing crop was my fear that she would be seen. In the hills, you can see an animal from a long way off when it is the only moving object in a field, so I worried that the farmer would be annoyed that I’d let the dog loose on his land.
So, off I went to buy some wire fencing to temporarily (I hope) constrain her adventurousness until she is old enough to listen when she is told to wait and come down. It’s ugly, much harder to put up than I thought and knackered my hands completely, but it does the job and I hope to be able to take it down in about eighteen months or so.
Yesterday I noticed that it wasn’t windy or rainy for once. What a relief it is to see things drying out, even a little! The leak that began after Christmas seems to have stopped (my fingers are tightly crossed). Despite two professionals from the building trades coming to look at it, neither noticed nor pointed out that one of the tiles on the porch had slipped down a little – both were perhaps focused closely on their own line of work and source of income.
But the other week, I was staring up at the porch wondering how it could have sprung a leak so suddenly, when I noticed that the tiles in the top row under the flashing weren’t quite aligned, so I got up on a kitchen chair with Nora bounding around my feet with excitement, and tapped the tile back into position. Since then things have improved. I won’t say more than that as it hasn’t rained particularly heavily since then and it may be premature. But I’m hopeful that this will have fixed it. It makes sense: the porch was used as a support for one of the scaffolding poles during the chimney repairs last year and this may have loosened things.
This morning the clouds were gathering again as we walked up on the coast at Stolford. We walked along the sea defence, the Bristol Channel on one side and flood water on the other. A couple of fishermen crouched behind a bright red windbreak on the top, patiently tending their rods and lines, obviously made of stern stuff.
To get out of the wind’s buffeting, we headed down onto the beach and strolled along the shingle, noting an outflow pipe pouring into the sea. The concrete construction bears the initials S.D.B. – Somerset Drainage Board perhaps?
Sandy brown waves churned back and forth as the tide went out. The waterline showed it had been right up to the top of the defence but hadn’t overtopped it. Very little manmade detritus had made it onto the beach today, which was good, but I really needed my “leave it!” command when I was photographing this washed-up sheep’s carcass and Nora bounded up intent on examining it. I wonder how it came to be in the sea, poor thing.
And here’s a fairly unremarkable fossil, which I’m always pleased to find, although I leave them behind where they belong.
Postscript: if anyone is having trouble seeing the pictures, or enlargements of them, please let me know and I’ll see if I can report it. One reader reports not being able to open them. Thanks.
This is Seven Sisters on the top of Cothelstone Hill in the Quantocks. I can see it from my bedroom window and when I’m up there I can see the cottage in the distance, poking its roof up over the hills.
The view from Cothelstone is wonderful; a full 360 degrees, on a good day, of fabulous countryside in all directions, with sights ranging from Minehead and Exmoor to the Bristol Channel and Wales on the other side.
Seven Sisters itself is a very useful local landmark by which to orientate yourself as you move around the Quantock area. You can see it from so many places and it makes it very easy to tell in which direction home lies. Comforting even in these days of GPS.
Only three of the original seven ‘sisters’ remain – they’re the big trees on the right of the picture. Exceedingly tall for this exposed location, they are very old and bend distinctively away from the prevailing wind. They will eventually die or be uprooted in a gale as is the way of things. The plan was that when they did, the smaller beech tree circle would be left to replace them… only now that won’t happen. For the mound of earth on which they are growing is special. It’s called a ‘pillow mound’. That means it’s thought to be an ancient rabbit warren (presumably from medieval times when large rabbit warrens were cultivated as a source of food).
English Heritage have decided that this unremarkable low, grass-covered rise is more important than the newer group of trees, planted some 40 years ago to augment the older tree circle. They will therefore be removed over four years to protect the mound on which they’re planted.
How the newer circle of trees is to be taken out without damaging the precious ground hasn’t been explained, but I noticed this morning that one of them has already been cut down. Presumably once the stump and root system have rotted sufficiently, they will be pulled out carefully. Then, eventually, there will another blank grassy mound with a wooden fence around it, as there already is a little further along on the hill, and that will be ‘history’.
New trees will be planted slightly somewhere else and it will be many, many years before there’s another Seven Sisters up on the hill big enough for people to remark upon from a distance.
I can’t help thinking that a living monument is being sacrificed for one that has been long gone. Let’s just hope that the original trees survive long enough for the latest circle of trees to establish itself, or else this familiar landmark will vanish for more than one generation. By then, those of us who love this place will also be history and its memory lost forever.
Postscript: An informed view – http://www.quantockhills.com/blog/view/conservation_conversations/
Just thought I’d try a bit of positivity today. I’ve dashed around for much of the day cleaning and basically making myself feel more in charge of what’s happening to the cottage. The rain has stopped and, while the water is still seeping through a bit across the whole of the south-west wall, it is starting to dry out.
Having improved my mood a bit, if not my now chapped hands, I took Nora for a walk. Intending to drive to the shops first, I had to turn back as the road to Bishop’s Lydeard was flooded. Even in a 4×4 I decided not to risk it as it looked quite deep. I’ve had enough disasters of late.
Here are some shots of my almost completely private walk with Nora – only once we had reached the top of Cothelstone Hill did we meet some people and their dogs. Lovely!
On the way home we met toothless Graham from the farm on the road. He said we’d had 30mm of rain last night, which would explain a few things.
Rather like when a new baby is brought home, a puppy requires adjustments to your lifestyle that can sometimes be frustrating, even though the new arrival is longed for. We’ve worked out how to do most things now but I’ve only managed to go riding once and, when I got home again, Nora didn’t seem very happy. So I haven’t ridden since and I really miss it. It’s one of the only times I get together with anyone local and it’s a wonderful way of being in the countryside.
Even when it’s cold and rainy, riding through the woods under a canopy of beeches and oaks festooned with long strands of ivy that damply brush your face is very special. It’s so quiet when you ride along bridle paths, the ancient green roads that linked villages before wheeled transport, that the modern world recedes and it’s possible to imagine how life might have been in the past. On horseback you can also go much further than you would on foot and penetrate areas inaccessible to cars or bikes. In the relative isolation that this brings, the countryside’s smells and sounds become clear and vibrant.
Without riding to look forward to I have sometimes felt reluctant to leave London and come to Somerset ‘just to be in a different place’, especially in winter. Of course it never is just being in a different place, as I’m always busy with things like the hedge-cutting once I arrive and happy that I came. But with the amount of effort involved in getting two cats and a dog and all our bits and pieces here, I do sometimes feel like not bothering. Yet while I’m always trying to resolve the tension between the two places, I think I also thrive on it because I both depend on familiarity and need new things to learn about.
Anyway, to get back to the point of this waffle, tomorrow I’m going to get up extra early and let Nora have a big run outside to exercise her properly before I go riding. I’ve cooked her some mashed potato which I’ve mixed up with some softened kibble and squished into her Kong toy and frozen, so that she has this to play with and eat in her crate while I’m out. This sounds disgusting but she loves it. This is after all an animal that thinks nothing of eating cat poo.
Today’s photos were taken at Hawkridge Reservoir, a couple of miles away, where we went for a walk today and Nora discovered duck poo. Yum.
My car parking spot is in the mostly disused entrance to the field behind my house – sometimes known as Three and Four Acre – usage rights over which now belong to Spring Cottage but whose ownership is the farm’s. Consequently, the farmer has been round on his annual hedge topping and trimming exercise, which has revealed an old sign on a gatepost that was previously hidden. Or perhaps I just wasn’t looking in past autumns.
I’m very intrigued by what it says. I’ve tried to examine it in Photoshop and all I can make out are a B and an E. It looks like it was a red sign with white letters highlighted in black, but I could be imagining that.
Spring Cottage was once known as Ivy Cottage but it doesn’t seem to say that. It also isn’t the name of the farm, which doesn’t have a B in it. It could say something very prosaic like ‘Do not obstruct’, I suppose.
I quite like its mystery and the way it points to a previous time. It reminds me that I live in a place that didn’t get mains electricity until 1962 and drew its water from the spring running behind the house until around that time as well. One day, I too will be gone from here and I wonder whether I will leave behind anything for others to discover.
Having a puppy around means that taking photographs has become rather difficult, even when Nora is off the lead when we’re out. Many of my pictures now look something like this:
Almost inevitably, in the logistical nightmare that is leaving the house with a puppy — patting myself down for the whistle, treats, poo bags, gloves and, oh crikey, noticing I’m still wearing slippers — I usually forget to take the big camera and end up taking photos with my agéd phone. Combined with the wintry low light, this is a recipe for disaster. And, as my point-and-shoot has gone to Brazil and I’m not up to playing with the Leica-like, even though it is small, I just have to make the best of it.
There’s also not much variation to blog about as I spend most days walking, tiptoeing around or talking about the dog, but this is slowly getting better. But today, after a trip to Taunton and a walk up the road in Broomfield on the way home…
I returned to my pre-puppy self and did a spot of impromptu hedge trimming, spurred on by the beautiful, freezing weather. I say ‘spot’ but the hedge is very, very long and my electric trimmer runs out very, very quickly, meaning that a lot had to be done with the manual clippers, so clearing up will have to wait until tomorrow. But it’s wonderful feeling to have done something practical again. It’s been an awfully long time of me fitting around Nora, rather than the other way around. And Nora loved it too, bounding around safely inside the gate, while I was on the outside of the hedge, and clearing up (ahem) my clippings when I was doing the inside.
I’m not even going to look at what’s happened to the flowerbeds.
Before she goes on an epic five-month trip around South America, the Girl graced us with a weekend visit. She’s been working in London for the last year saving up for the trip and will be setting off in a couple of weeks. Even though I know she’ll have many fantastic experiences, I’ll obviously miss having her around. It will be the first time neither of my children have been in the country. Another rite of passage, I suppose.
With rainclouds looming, we set off on Saturday for a day out up the north Somerset coast. I’d been commissioned to buy some lambswool insoles at Home Coming on Dunster High Street for my Canadian friend, with whom I visited a couple of years ago. This sounds desperately middle-aged and pedestrian but as Dunster is a lovely medieval village it is always worth a visit.
Displayed in a huge open basket on the street, the insoles are invaluable liners for wellies, keeping your feet snug and warm. At only £1.50 a pair, they can easily be replaced when they wear out after a couple of years, and they’re also available by mail order if you’re too far away. Home Coming’s staff are delightful – I imagine them as husband and wife owners of the shop but maybe I’m wrong. As we were leaving, the lady rushed out into the street after me to offer a posting bag as I’d explained to her husband that the insoles were heading overseas. So kind and typical of the helpfulness that often strikes me as unusual because I’m used to London manners.
I really wanted to buy this lovely looking squash for sale at an organic veg stall in a little covered alleyway (with a sign asking you to please help yourself and pay in the café next door) but, not knowing how I would cook it, I opted for some rainbow carrots to have with our sausages instead.
On the way home, we stopped off at nearby Blue Anchor to walk the dog on the lovely beach at low tide. And, of course, we couldn’t leave without having fish and chips at the Driftwood Cafe on the seafront. Quite the best I’ve ever tasted, I think, helped by being eaten in the café’s bustling, good natured atmosphere with huge cups of tea and coffee, alongside steamed up windows overlooking the sea. If there’s not room inside as there almost wasn’t for us, there’s a line of benches in the covered porch where you can sit out of the wind, if it’s warm enough.
Postscript: the dog ate the rest of this post… I think I was going to say sand and pebbles.
Coming up to the coast clears my mind whenever I doubt what on earth I’m doing here in Somerset – just me and various animals. It’s not exactly sea air but there’s something about being by water that’s relaxing. Its skies are wide and bleakly bright and, over the other side of the Severn Estuary, you can make out the Welsh coast on a clear day. While England isn’t very big and you’re never further than about 70 miles from the coast, it’s nice to have it within 20 minutes’ drive.
The nearest spot I like is Stolford; a hamlet of a few buildings clustered at the point where the tarmac road ends. You can drive on but only as far as the beach car park or down an unpaved road leading to a couple more cottages. As so often around here, hens and duck eggs are sometimes for sale at the side of the road, alongside other bits of surplus garden produce. Around the backs of the cottages, small herds of cows graze in fields that are sit low down alongside the grey stone of the sea defences and someone keeps a couple of Shetland ponies in what looks more like a large garden than a paddock; perhaps in place of a lawnmower. There used to be a chap here who sold fish and prawns from a garage that opened onto the road but this was closed and I wondered if he had given up fishing but I hope he was just out for the day.
There was also a beautiful dovecote in one of the front gardens, but I couldn’t spot it this time. I snapped it on the day I first visited Spring Cottage, while I was trying to get a feel for the lie of the land.
Other changes round here are of more than local importance. There’s been much in the news in recent weeks about Hinkley Point, site of one of the UK’s nuclear reactors, a couple of miles along the coast. The government has taken the decision to permit development of a new nuclear reactor, Hinkley C, to be built up here, temporarily providing jobs and creating a lot of traffic in and around Bridgwater, virtually at the junction of the M5 motorway. So Stolford and the whole of the surrounding area will continue to be dwarfed by its vast building blocks and the huge chain of pylons taking the power away for consumption by us and the rest of the country.
Finally, I felt brave enough to pack up the crate and the dog, plua about a million toys, and head off to Somerset. I left the cats behind, partly because they don’t much love travelling in the car anyway (although they love being at the cottage) but also because I really wanted to introduce Nora to her, er hem, second home gently. Nora is still at the stage of ‘inviting’ them to play by growling at them and going down on her front paws. Percy, who is the only one who bothers to interact with her, isn’t sure what to make of it.
I didn’t bargain on the fact that Pauline, my lovely gardener, would arrive just after us, creating even more excitement and, in all the palaver, Nora ran up the steps to the front garden and straight into the thankfully shallow pond. Hearing the splash, I turned around to see her sleek, little otter-like head and surprised face rising up as she pulled herself out of the water. Being a labrador – they have quite webbed feet and are quite at home in water, generally – she didn’t seem to mind at all! So much for her gentle introduction…
But, all in all, it went very well. There’s not much at the cottage to damage by chewing, other than the usual cables and flexes, and a lot more space outside to run around and play, which she loved.
The vet said that she could go out three days after her second vaccination, so I let her into the back garden only on our second day, as I know it’s visited by foxes. She loved running about in the grass and being called back on the whistle.
We also went up to Cothelstone Hill and after a short introductory walk on the lead, we headed into the woods, where I let Nora off. I gather many people don’t dare do this with a puppy but they have an instinct between about 9-12 weeks, which means they constantly return to you, and I wanted to make the most of this to train her recall.
She followed me very closely, occasionally wandering off to explore but always checking where I was and returning as I walked on.
For readers who may be dismayed by this blog having turned from country matters to dog tales, don’t be concerned, I think I’m starting to come out of this phase, which has been a very intense and quite isolating experience. I’ve been making jam from fruits foraged in the garden this morning and will write a post about that soon.
Have a nice weekend!
It’s a bit of an odd time. Every morning, I wake to the idea that I don’t work at ‘X’ all over again. So far, it’s just been one day feeling rather ill with a self-induced sore head and a day that would have been my usual Friday off. Tomorrow, however, it the first day of The Rest of My Life.
Well, actually, no, it isn’t. And I’m really rather annoyed with myself for being: a) a drama queen; b) self-indulgent; c) boring; and d) stupid. However, my brain insists on resetting itself during the night, so that the first two minutes of each day are boringly Groundhog Day-like. It will pass.
I’ve had some decent distractions. After I came home from my farewell do and crouched, keening, in the kitchen (having left my sunglasses and reading glasses in a taxi – let’s not get too dramatic about actual life events), the Girl rearranged a date and decided to accompany me to Spring Cottage (lest I finally did one of those satisfying crunchy chops with the secateurs and found my finger on the ground, perhaps?). But I really appreciated the thought, as I spend a lot of time there on my own, and going with someone else always makes me get out and do something different. Without other people, life would just be Sofa and Me: the end. Actually, that’s so not true but it’s what I fear.
ANYWAY… we went to Combwich, needing a breath of fresh air. For the benefit of everybody, that’s pronounced Cummidge, like Wurzel Gummidge. Oh, look it up.
It’s bleak up there on the Steart Peninsula – 15 minutes’ drive away, or about an hour if you go the long route via Dunball and end up on the wrong side of the River Parrett. Yes, well, bleak but lovely. Lots of herons, gulls, butterflies, wind and teasels. It’s also very ‘of the moment’.
Somerset has always been threatened by the sea. The Somerset Levels are so low-lying that they’ve been drained since King Charles II’s time. The water’s come in and retreated again and changed the fortunes of town and villages, like Bridgwater and Langport. And now, in times of climate change, the estuary on the banks of the Severn is seeing new developments as a result of changing sea levels again.
A major project to protect the surrounding low-lying area from the waters, with farms compulsorily purchased and sea defences built, has been taking place in the shadow of Hinkley Point nuclear power station, rather satisfyingly juxtaposing our ever increasing need for power and one of the effects of using it, in the same place. That’s Hinkley there, those two blocks over on the horizon below, and all its pylons marching across the countryside towards the National Grid.
But whatever your views on that – and mine are mixed – while we were walking into the wind, we spotted a moses basket on the riverbank. Odd, yes, symbolic, I’m not sure. Whatever – we passed it by, reluctant to disappear into the uncertain ground on the edge of the sludgy sand to see what it contained. Very interesting… Dr Freud might have said.
But I have arranged to see a labrador puppy in a couple of weeks’ time. Is there any meaning in that? For me, definitely, but more about that another time.
We went out for a little walk after the rain. The mist had cleared revealing a sharp view over the River Parrett curling its way inland from Bridgwater Bay.
Silly, black-faced sheep dotted the fields, the lambs now indistinguishable from their mothers.
Looking back at a meadow full of tall grasses and moths (and enormous black slugs) we entered an ivy-hung woodland whose canopy echoed with birdcalls as the day came to an end. Walking along a bridle path – one of the roads of the past – it was joyous to think that that small wood looks now as it has done for centuries.
I’m never going to get used to the simple beauty of this place and the respite it offers.
It’s been so very hot. Rising early before the heat of the day allows me a few hours’ activity but, even then, the effort dampens and frustrates my hair’s supposed straightness.
The plants are exhausted and thirsty. Some buds simply dry before opening. Others flower but quickly lose their petals, dropping wherever, confetti-like
Yet others twine joyously around despite their yards of dry branches, as if to say: you can’t catch me…
The grass yellows. I leave it long to keep it damp and pathways are trodden into its margins by animals I never see.
When cars pass dust rises and coats the bins –dustbins – by the side of the road, just as its cousin, the mud, did a few months ago but now the ground is cracked and hard.
It is summer, at last.