Now, what does a lilac sky at night mean?
Now, what does a lilac sky at night mean?
Nora and I went for a little walk along the Thames Path from Chiswick to Barnes today. It could have been somewhere quite rural at first but it got more urban as we went along. So we just turned around and went back again. London’s full of these quiet little spots. You just have to go a little off the beaten track and explore.
I’ve always longed for a garden trug but new ones are really expensive and it’s something you can easily do without. After all, a cardboard box or a plastic basket of some kind work just as well for holding picked flowers until you bring them indoors. Also, until I came to Spring Cottage I didn’t really have any flowers to pick so a trug had to wait. Now, however, Spring brings loads of daffodils and other narcissi, and I also plant all kinds of seeds in my cut flower beds specifically to grow things to bring inside. So I’m enjoying a clapped out old trug that I bought last summer at a car boot sale for three quid. It’s a bit brittle and won’t last for ever but I’ve waterproofed it a little by painting it with Danish oil and it now looks as thought it’s a family heirloom, which I much prefer to things being brand new. It kind of goes better with the ancient nature of the cottage, looks suitably rustic hanging in the woodshed, and I can spend the money saved on seeds instead.
The main flowerbeds here are in the front garden, which is at the side of the cottage, if that makes sense. Being at the side, at the gable end of the house, there is no window overlooking it. So I have to bring flowers in if I want to see them more than in passing on the way to the car. Many of the daffodils have also been planted under the various hedges. Well, they would have originally been under the hedges but now they are in the hedges, the hedges having grown widthways as well as in height over the years. So the daffs need rescuing before they are forced to bend over by the branches sprouting above them.
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.
As a child I visited Boston Manor Park frequently with my father but nothing apart from the children’s playground had stuck in my memory. I often catch sight of the Jacobean manor house when driving along the M4 motorway’s elevated section; the bit that links Heathrow airport with London. If you’re travelling towards London, the house is visible on the left-hand side at around the same time as the shiny GlaxoSmithKline monolith appears ahead of you on the right.
Curious to see what it’s like, I decide to take Nora for a walk there. Expecting more or less an ordinary park, I am first rather disappointed and then surprised. Disappointed because the grounds appear very small, with only a small lawned area and a large pond immediately behind the compact house and stable block. I almost regret having paid for an hour and half’s parking. But we are surprised and rewarded by the discovery of a ‘nature trail’ leading down under the motorway into a mysterious other world that co-exists with the impatient roar of the traffic over our heads.
The trail is really only a hint of a dirt path that descends out of a flowerbed into a boggy, overgrown mass of ivy and untended greenery. It’s quite off-putting. However, we persevere, with me cursing a lack of waterproof footwear, until we see what I suspect is the Grand Union Canal but turns out later to be a canalised bit of the River Brent, complete with barge and lock (I’m not showing you the side of the lock with the graffitied penises all over it).
Despite the filthy water, a swan swims up to greet us and we are surrounded by the echoing calls of hidden waterfowl. Nora finds the inevitable pile of human poo and what looks like the skin of a fish and evades my attempts take it away from her. The smell makes me gag and I worry that she will get ill from eating it.
A cyclist passes on the other bank where there is a well-maintained path but our side seems utterly desolate until a brown-haired man in his thirties wearing a striped tee-shirt wanders by looking aimless. I wonder if he’s a part of this place where nothing looks official or managed. There’s a ramshackle, padlocked, chicken wire gate that leads to more wasteland littered with old bits of tractor and more rubbish. It seems odd to fence in such abandonment. I wonder if the barge people have claimed it for their own since no-one else seems to care.
Beneath the motorway itself stretches an underworldly tarmac paradise, spacious and deserted. It feels strangely liberating to be somewhere so hidden from the mainstream of city life. It occurs to me that I should feel frightened but I don’t. However, I also don’t investigate further under the motorway. Not on my own with a rather unpredictable young dog.
Looking at a map later, it appears that we might have found more open parkland had we gone on further towards the Glaxo building but, drawn in by the atmosphere of dereliction and isolation amid the busy-ness overhead and in the light industrial areas round about, this seems enough for one day.
We resurface and return to the car, feeling mildly astonished to have been so close to tennis courts resounding to the noise of a game and council employees working in the children’s play area.
It turns out that I don’t even actually remember the playground.
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.
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.
Bad luck, chaps, it appears that I’m going to write a blog post every time I go for a walk with Nora, the puppy.
My preference would always be to walk to the local park, Ravenscourt Park in Hammersmith, when we’re in London, rather than drive somewhere. The trouble is that, at the moment, Nora isn’t very good at walking on the lead. Everything is so new to her that she has to look at every discarded cigarette end, bit of dog poo, and sniff every smell going. This means zig-zagging back and forth across the pavement so that I end up going round and round in circles trying to disentangle myself from her lead. It’s very slow. She also greets everyone we meet and is often a little offended – or perhaps I am – when people don’t find her utterly charming and want to say hello back. But for every person who recoils from her, there’s another who says how lovely she is and stops to chat about her.
So, I’ve taken to driving to places where the parking is free and we don’t have to walk very far to where Nora can run about. She’s only allowed about 15 minutes’ exercise at the moment (to prevent the development of arthritis in later in life, although this is just a theory), so it’s nice if she can spend that time actually in a park rather than on the way there.
Today, we had a lovely time. The sun shone again, although it was chilly, and I rediscovered Gunnersbury Park in Ealing, which I haven’t been to since my children were small and I was equally in need of somewhere that would divert them.
I’d really forgotten how lovely it is there. The position of the house on the hill and its breadth reminds me very much of Kenwood House in Highgate although I haven’t been able to find out if they are in any way related yet. We met lovely people while we walked: a chap with a dalmatian puppy and a woman walking an old, grizzled labrador, who asked Nora to sit and then gave her a treat.
By the way, I refuse to capitalise the names of dog breeds that are named after places. They aren’t proper nouns in that sense – you wouldn’t capitalise spaniel, would you? Or perhaps you would?
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.
The Countryside Stewardship Scheme was still operating properly when I first moved here just over four years ago. Then, as local authority cuts started to bite in the aftermath of the meltdown in the financial markets, my neighbour over the road commented that he was going to close the permissive paths across his land maintained by the scheme. He had been warned that no further money was likely to be forthcoming, meaning that he could no longer afford to maintain the paths appropriately for public access, and he was afraid of insurance claims from people injuring themselves.
Last week, however, I thought I would make my way down to where I knew there would be some early (for here) blackberries. John had said that I wasn’t to mind the ‘closed’ signs on the gates if I wanted a walk, but the undergrowth now had other ideas. The paths, once clear and wide, were almost completely overgrown by nettles and brambles.
If I hadn’t known the route, I would definitely have turned back. As it was, I did almost give up a couple of times, boiling in the heat of my windcheater pulled down close over my hands for protection, and exhausted by tramping down shoulder-high nettles and unhitching myself from the brambles that caught and re-caught me at every turn.
But it was worth my efforts. At the lake, ducks quacked as they paddled away across the still water between the water lily leaves. Lovely spots of cool widened out here and there beneath the canopy and the sudden rustling of the undergrowth, as rabbits lolloped away and horses came nuzzling up on the far side of the beeches to see who was passing, signalled the creatures that live here.
I came home with not very many blackberries and a lot of sadness. I just have to consider myself lucky that I arrrived in time to experience these neglected byways at their best.
There are other paths to the lake and across the land and I will have to content myself with those in the future.
I realise that it’s got dark outside. It’s almost nine o’clock but a combine harvester is still making its way backwards and forwards over the field next to the cottage. I can barely hear it when it’s at the far end but when it’s at this end, it’s deafening, although it must be over 100 feet away. I wish it would stop. It’s been going since just after lunch. I bet the guy driving it wants to go home for his dinner as well.
Life has changed since I left work at the end of July and I’ve been getting used to the different pace of things, which is partly why it’s been uncharacteristically long since my last post. My memory is starting to improve as I begin to feel less stressed and the days have stopped zooming by quite so fast, which is lovely. But it’s not been in the least bit quiet as I’ve been busy with the Boy, who has been here on holiday from Australia, where he’s been working for the past year. Such a joy to see him after such a long time!
Consequently at the weekend I stayed out of the way, as Spring Cottage was besieged by young people – 13 of them – and we only have two bedrooms, one of which is tiny! They managed somehow, without any of them camping, leaving behind a reasonably tidy house but a recycling nightmare. So today I grumbled my way through a wheelie bin full of randomly chucked rubbish, knowing full well that the binmen (binpersons/people?) won’t take it unless it’s sorted perfectly for recycling. Lovely… food remains several days old and lots of not quite empty beer bottles and cans to plough through. But I’m not really complaining, it doesn’t happen often and it’s been such a pleasure to have a happy son enjoying himself with all his old mates. Besides which I like nothing better than sorting things out and moaning about doing it.
Then I worked my way around the garden, ‘gently’ cutting a bit here and a bit there. And before I knew it, I’d attacked the old overgrown barrel that I’ve been meaning to deal with for months. The wood is completely rotten as I thought it would be and will shortly be replaced by a new one so that I can train something new up the trellis. There’s another barrel (also rotten) under the hedge, so I hope any wildlife living in it will make their way to new homes over there. Or perhaps I’ll move the whole thing down to the end of the garden where I don’t have to see it, beetly things and all. When I have the energy and have replaced the punctured wheelbarrow tyre, &c.
The garden is still producing some flowers, both from the cutting beds (pleasingly as I thought I’d had the last of these) and from elsewhere, particularly the herb plots. Two fuchsias, a ‘fuchsia’ coloured one and a pale pink one, are providing a bit of colour too while everything else is starting to die back or develop seeds and berries. There’s definitely a hint of autumn in the air and the slant of the light.
Oh, and I think the combine has finally finished.
So this is what the field is looking like now. Maize, I think, or ‘cow-corn’, as my Indiana-raised friend, Beth, calls it. So, in a couple of months, my view will have vanished for half a year. It’s quite hard to imagine these innocent-looking little seedlings being so tall.
I’m a bit annoyed with the farmer this year. They put in some water tanks to tap the spring which means they’ve lost some growing space. Consequently, they’re ploughing closer to the field margins by about 12 inches. That doesn’t sound much but it’s bad for the wildlife and bad for the amount of light coming into my kitchen.
Being on a hill, when I stand in the kitchen, I’m about four feet below the level of the field out the back.
I’ve always thought of Bridgwater as rather a dump. Useful for shopping but still a dump. There are few nice places to eat and even fewer decent shops, unless you count superstores – there are plenty of them. Last Thursday I went there to meet the Girl who was arriving by coach. A very delayed coach because it was Eastertime and the roads were busy. So I parked the car at Asda next to the coach station and did some shopping and found a new smoke alarm without trying. And managed to buy yet another lightbulb that didn’t fit the lamp it was meant for. Excellent.
When she texted that they were going to be even more delayed, I went for a bit of a walk and found that there are some bits of Bridgwater, that when photographed – if you Photoshop out the plastic bags blowing in the wind and crop judiciously – can look quite appealing.
So that now we drive around the centre from one ugly retail park to another and miss the only architecture worth looking at and the town centre that has so much history nearby, but is now neglected and showing signs of dereliction.
I’m probably being unfair in many ways. I know Bridgwater has a vibrant annual carnival and has one of the south west’s best motorcycle dealerships. I’m sure there are people who love living here and many parts that I haven’t seen. So, if this offends, I’m sorry, but it’s what I see when I come here.
I said I’d do a separate post about the cafe we went to while we were in Oxford in my last post.
Despite it’s traditional English exterior, the Grand Cafe struck me as fundamentally un-English, although it was serving creams teas and the like. There was something about the unhurried nature of the service (one poor waitress – they were terribly understaffed on the day we were there), the elegance of the surroundings, the lack of muzak and the hence conducive atmosphere, and the slightly dishevelled nature of it all, that called to mind Viennese cafes in which you can while away the afternoon, without being harried for your next order, or chased away by crowds of pushy shoppers with packaged sandwiches. From seven o’clock, they do inexpensive cocktails. Go there, if you can.
As an aside I have to say that while my new Panasonic LX-5 is slightly driving me mad with not having a viewfinder – I just can’t really adjust to having a slightly second-hand view of things, compared to a DSLR – I totally love its ability to take pictures in low light. I’m only pointing and shooting at the moment in order to get used to its capabilities. It also helps that I love grainy pictures, I suppose.