Desperately seeking ninja

It’s a bit embarrassing, really, but I have a confession to make. Something that’s been nagging at me for a little while now, and that I feel I ought really to bring out into the open. Daylight being the best disinfectant and all that. So here’s the thing. I appear to have, well, sort of misplaced a small ninja. Continue reading

A sense of place

It’s the question that I dread above all others. A conversation starter that stops me dead in my tracks. Four little words that confuse and conspire. An innocent enquiry that sends me spiralling into an abyss of self-doubt. I’m thirty seven years old and I’m still not able to answer that most simple of queries: ‘Where are you from?’

I want to say that I was born in Suffolk, that I grew up in Dorset and that I went to university in Staffordshire. That I have lived in England, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. That I currently reside in Somerset but have no idea how much longer I’ll be there. But all that comes out of my mouth is ‘Oh, all over, really.’ And what I mean is ‘I haven’t a clue’.

We all have many attributes that define us, from our gender and our physical appearance to our taste in music and our choice of career. But our geographical heritage lies at the heart of who we consider ourselves to be. Whether we’re a northerner, a southerner, Yorkshireman, Cornishman, Liverpudlian or Bristolian, these are still the ties that bind.

I can see why this was such a big thing in decades and centuries past, when people rarely moved more than a few miles from where they were born. But in this age of cheap travel, insecure employment and wide-eyed globalisation, what does it mean to ask someone where they are from? Do we mean where they were born? Or where they live now? Or where they have lived for the longest period of time? Can any of us, in fact, now even claim to be from anywhere at all?

I think we can. But it’s not as simple as it used to be. Some of us have a clear idea of where we are from. It might, for a privileged few, be the ancestral family home in Oxfordshire or the Scottish highlands. For others it is the house in which we grew up and where our parents still live. Indeed, I have several friends in their thirties, all with houses and families of their own, who still refer to visiting their parents as ‘going home’.

Others of us, meanwhile, lead a more nomadic lifestyle, moving from place to place in response to the demands of family, career or simple curiosity. We collect addresses and residency permits like our childhood selves used to accumulate stamps or football cards. Some places pass fleetingly through our consciousness, but others leave an indelible impression on our soul. They become part of who we are.

I challenge anyone, for example, to spend time in the wilds of Scotland and not develop a sense of awe at the majesty of nature. Or in Russia and not learn to reflect on the darkness of the human condition. Or in rural Provence and not long for the simplicity of a life built by one’s own hands.

Just as scientists can tell from our bones, our hair and our teeth much about when, where and how we have lived, the places we have called home all make a difference to how we think, feel and behave. We absorb a tiny part of that place’s culture, traditions and values, adding them to the ever-growing repository of ideas and attitudes that we call ‘me’.

So if you want to learn what makes me tick, ask me about the things that have influenced me the most. Ask me about the people I have known, the things I have done and the places I have been. Ask me where I have lived, where I have loved and where I have felt most alive. Just don’t, please, ask me where I’m from.

Welcome to the microfarm

I’m always a little bit jealous of people who work full time as farmers, growers or gardeners. Sure, the pay is terrible and they can’t put things off just because it’s raining. But they get to devote themselves to what they love. They can do what needs to be done when it needs to be done, rather than putting it off for weeks at a time because other things get in the way.

I appreciate that I’m perhaps idealising the horticultural life a little too much here. I also recognise that such a career has more than its fair share of ups and downs. But in the last couple of weeks, I’ve tried to introduce some of this ethos – of working to the plants’ timescales, rather than to my own – into how I relate to my own little patch of earth. I’ve stopped thinking of it as a tatty greenhouse and a few raised beds, and started thinking of it as a micro-farm.

I started off by making a list of all the jobs that need to be done at the moment. And I mean everything that needs to be done, not just the things I want to do. Even things like emptying the slug traps and weeding around the shed. Needless to say, it was a fairly long list. And I’ll keep adding to it as successional batches of seeds need to be sown, seedlings need to be potted up and shrubs need to be pruned. (I’ve got my list on a little A4 whiteboard, so it’s easy to keep it up to date.)

My next step has been to devote an hour each morning, as soon as I’ve got back from walking the dog, to working through some of the tasks on my list. So far, this ‘little and often’ approach has been rather enlightening, giving me a real feeling of satisfaction as I storm through the huge number of tasks that have been bugging me for ages. It also leaves the weekends, which I’d usually use to try to catch up on absolutely everything I needed to do in the garden, for larger projects, like building a new cold frame.

I’ve now got all of my seeds planted, except for the ‘sow in mid-May’ ones, which are on the list for this week. Here are just a few of them.

Seedlings

The courgettes and squashes are just starting to sprout their first proper leaves, so they’ll be off out into one of the cold frames soon, to toughen them up prior to being planted out into the garden.

Courgette seedlings

In addition to my regular range of flowers, fruit and vegetables, I’m trying a few more exotic things. Below are dahlia seedlings, freshly pinched out to encourage them to be short and bushy rather than tall and lanky. (My garden, being long and narrow, has the characteristics of a wind tunnel.) I’ve read in James Wong’s book ‘Homegrown Revolution‘ that you can eat dahlia tubers, so I’m keen to try this out. At James’s suggestion, I’m growing cucamelons, electric daisies, inca berries, alpine strawberries, elephant garlic, quinoa, mooli and watercress, too.

Dahlia seedlings

I’m also trying to give my regular outdoor vegetables a bit more of a chance against the slugs by starting them off in little plugs, which I’ll plant out once they’re a decent size. And with the winter here lasting until about two weeks ago, planting out directly hasn’t really been an option. I can sow a second batch directly into the beds now, though, and can see how they compare with the plugs.

Vegetable seedlings

I have a slight tendency to focus on my vegetables at the expense of my other plants, so I’ve been careful to look after the non-edibles, too. For example, I’ve trimmed the dead leaves off my ferns and have potted up the little offshoots that have sprung up.

The ferns

I’ve also taken the significant step of pruning the older stems off my Euphorbia rigida, a rather messy job that I’d been putting off for several months. Needless to say, once I’d found my gloves and dug out the secateurs, the pruning itself only took ten minutes. The feeling of achievement that accompanied it, though, lasted significantly longer.

Euphorbia rigida

Ditto for having tidied up and potted on the various Euphorbia and Hebe cuttings that I’d accumulated at the bottom of the garden. I’d taken loads of cuttings about two years ago, potted them up and then left them to go feral on the gravel between the willow hedge and the shed. I’d felt really bad about neglecting them, but clearly not bad enough to actually do anything about it. Well, now it’s done. I had to ditch some of them but the rest are looking good, even if I do say so myself.

Hebes

I’ve even made seed bombs.  Yes, seed bombs. I bought a book on making wildflower seed bombs (‘Seedbombs: Going Wild with Wildflowers’, by Josie Jeffery) some time ago, together with a bag of clay powder that has been sitting in the living room ever since. So one morning last week, I put on an old jumper and got my hands (and the jumper, the shed and the dog) dirty making seed bombs. (And yes, I was careful to use native, non-invasive flower seeds.) Here are some of my inaugural batch.

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And here’s my first test subject, nestling into the bark chip underneath one of the apple trees by the vegetable garden. I’ve also cautiously ‘planted’ a few on some of my regular dog walking routes around town, so that I can see how well they fare. Exciting stuff.

Seedbomb

So while I’m not a farmer and probably won’t ever be a farmer, I’m trying to bring a little of the farming ethos into my life. Nothing excessive, just a small amount of planning, a tiny bit of coordination and a little hard work every day. Welcome to the micro-farm.

Hot buns

Having had a nice long weekend over the Easter break, I decided to do a bit of baking. And the logical thing to start with was some hot cross buns. So I got out some of my baking books, found a recipe that I liked the look of and got on with it. It took a little while, as the dough needed to rest after I’d done anything with it, but pretty soon I had some fairly respectable buns ready to go in the oven.

I even made a flour paste to decorate the tops. But I got bored with crosses after the first couple, so splurged a variety of letters and random shapes onto the rest. This means, I guess, that they’re technically not hot cross buns, but rather just hot buns. But I can tell you one thing: once they’d come out of the oven, they smelled – and tasted – delicious. The floppy anaemic ones we get from the supermarket quite literally paled in comparison.

Oh, and here are the finished articles…

Hot 'cross' bunsClearly, they’re long gone now. But, mmm, they were yummy. Even if I do say so myself. Next up: croissants. Anything that involves battering a block of butter with a rolling pin (honest, that’s what it says in the book) has got to be worth a try.

Snowtime!

When I woke up this morning, I glanced out of the window and thought for a moment that I’d sleepwalked into the wardrobe and been transported to Narnia. The street lights were glowing and there was a carpet of smooth, velvety snow covering the ground. But then a man in a bobble hat skidded past, towed along by a massively over-enthusiastic border collie, and I realised that I was still at home. But, boy, was it snowing.

Nailsea or Narnia?

By the time I was up properly and listening to my porridge bubble away on the hob, what had been a paltry two inches of snow was a fairly respectable four. And still it was falling, great big flakes tumbling out of the sky like leaves from a tree.

Snow in the garden

We wasted no time in getting dressed in our coats, hats, scarves and mittens (Natalie and me) and outdoor hooligan harness (Molly) and heading out to the nearby fields. It had just about got light by now, though the falling snow made it a bit difficult to see where we were going. The schools were shut, none of the buses were running and it was clear from the absence of tyre tracks that most people had given up on the idea of going to work.

Natalie in the snow

Out on the hills, the snow made everything look so clean and new. If it hadn’t been for the trees, with the snow clinging to their branches like frosting on a wedding cake, it would have been difficult to tell where the ground stopped and the sky started.

Snow-covered tree

Needless to say, Molly loved it. She’s a big fan of the snow and had a great time chasing snowballs and barrelling into the few other dogs that were around. And while I’m a big, grown-up adult kind of person, I must admit that I enjoyed playing in the snow, too. (But only a little bit.)

Playing snowball with Molly

What Molly couldn’t understand, though, was why the snowballs I was throwing for her kept disappearing. She’d leap into the air, catch the snowball in her mouth and then find that all she got was a giant slurp of water. But rather than explain to her the basic laws of physics, I just kept chucking more.

Hunting for snowballs

And she kept racing around like a lunatic.

A high speed hound

With me tagging along behind her. (You can just see me here on the right.)

Molly racing through the countryside

As we headed home, we came across an army of little groups heading the way we’d just come. Each group seemed to contain a very harassed (and very well wrapped) parent, a sledge, a grinning dog and eight (or more) very small, very excited (and also very well wrapped) children. All off out to enjoy the snow.

Sunrise

One of the best things about winter is that the sun comes up sufficiently late for us to catch the sunrise. Molly and I were taking our early morning walk the other day and the sun was just coming up over the hills. The colours were stunning. It was like normal life, but with the colour saturation cranked up to the max.*

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* Please excuse the large volume of photos on my blog that are of this part of Somerset and taken with my cameraphone. But I walk along here several times a day and there’s always something new to see. I really do live in a particularly fantastic part of the world. And no, I don’t work for the tourist board. Though perhaps I should.

And then the rains came

Until last weekend, it had been raining here non-stop for the best part of a month. Now, we’re quite used to a bit of bad weather, but when a significant part of your annual rainfall arrives over the course of just a few days, things don’t always work as they should. Which is why much of the area around here has been a little bit on the damp side.

In some places, it has been quite dramatic. I drove into Bristol just as the worst of the floods had started, and was a little surprised to see torrents – and I mean torrents – of water gushing down the hillside and onto the main road. And when I returned a short while later, this and several other roads had been closed by the police, as they were simply impassable.

Some of the lower-lying villages have been practically cut off, such has been the scale of the rainfall. Because it has been so wet for so long, when the rain falls there’s just nowhere for it to go, so it forms huge pools wherever it gathers – on field, on roads, in people’s houses. Not great. And for the third time this year, too.

When the rain finally stopped last weekend, Natalie, Molly and I took a stroll down into the valley to see how things were doing. Here’s the team ready to start…

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The sports field across the road was half covered with water, which made for great photos and fantastic paddling, but probably wasn’t much good for football.

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We could also see some brand new water features dotted around the landscape. See the lovely lake behind the trees in the picture below? It’s supposed to be a field (and a road). I’m writing this a week later, and the water’s still there.

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As we walked across the field down towards the road, Molly found a very exciting stick, so we had to take a short break.

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Which turned into a slightly longer break.

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Which became longer still when one of Molly’s friends (Bud) arrived to share in the action.

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But we eventually made it down into the valley, where our town almost meets the next village. And where the train station is. Only two hours (direct!) to London – not bad, huh? Anyway, this is the lowest lying part of the town, so it was no surprise that there was a lot of water. This is (I think) a glacial valley and is essentially a flood plain, so there are numerous rhynes that drain the land and keep it usable.

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This one here is usually a babbling little brook, but today it was quite a lot more than that. I half expected to see some teeny weeny kayakers whooshing down it.

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You can see the footpaths across the fields, as these were the first bits to fill up. The water’s just not draining away, so if there’s any more rain, then the field will disappear.

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You see the grey barn in the middle of the picture below? And the small cottage immediately to the left of it? Natalie and I used to live there. We remember, during a similar bout of torrential rain several years ago, standing on the doorstep, watching the flood waters creep their way slowly across the field towards the house. Luckily, they stopped several metres short, but it was not a good feeling. Unsurprisingly, we have since moved quite considerably uphill.

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The nature reserve on the other side of the road was similarly drenched. Usually a little lake with a small drainage ditch running alongside it, the site was now a large lake with a tiny peninsular of land running down the middle.

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The local wildlife was clearly loving it.

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But, for everyone else, the whole episode was a bit of a nightmare. As I mentioned before, this is the third time it’s happened this year. And still, we insist on building housing estates on flood plains and ignoring the warnings of scientists about climate change and extreme weather. Honestly, how much more of a sign do we need?

In the gloaming

The gloaming is that fleeting, magical time just after sunset but before darkness. We hardly notice it in the summer because it stays light so late. But as the days get shorter, the gloaming’s nearly-night-time arrives ever earlier. Our bodies tell us that it’s time to hunker down for the evening. But our watches, sadly, tell us that it’s only half past four and our to-do lists point out politely that there’s no chance of slumping onto the sofa for at least another couple of hours.

Which is why, at this time of year, Molly and I invariably find ourselves taking our evening walk in this odd half-light, when the daytime is over but the night-time proper hasn’t really kicked in. Now, you might argue that a moonlight stroll is a perfect, even rather romantic, end to the day. But when (a) it is cold, (b) it is muddy, (c) one of you is tired after a day’s work and (d) the other one of you is a nuts Labrador, romantic is not the first adjective that comes to mind.

The views over the valley at this time of day, though, are pretty spectacular. Which is the main reason for this post. Because it has been raining here all day, but as the sun went down the rain stopped and we had a brief moment of calm as the moon rose in the sky and the world prepared itself for bed. As usual, though, I’d forgotten to take a proper camera so was forced to rely on my very rubbish camera phone.

Anyway, here’s the moon over the valley. The three bright points of light in a little row are the floodlights at the football pitch in the next village along. Must be soccer practice tonight. Most of the other lights are street lights along the main road, with some houses mixed in.

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Here’s the view looking west, where you can see that the sun has only just gone down. You can see the lights from a couple of remote cottages in the valley below, but there’s not really much here between us and the sea.

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OK, so the zoom on my camera phone is fairly awful. But I just loved the colours in the sky; the way it goes from pink to blue so delicately, silhouetting the hills below and the clouds above.

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On our way home, we passed the local church and the porch light cast this welcoming glow across the graveyard. I know it’s wonky and blurred (the photo, not the church), but given that I was holding my camera phone and the end of the dog’s lead in the same hand, I’m just glad you can make out anything at all.

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And then, as quickly as it had arrived, the twilight of the gloaming was replaced by true darkness. In wintertime, this ephemeral period is most definitely my favourite time of day. Or is it night? Whatever. Here’s to the gloaming.

Yoga and fresh berries in the morning? Not so much.

I was reading my wife’s copy of Red magazine yesterday evening* and came across a short feature in which various contributors gave readers an insight into their morning routines. Yoga, soothing cups of tea and granola with fresh berries featured strongly. So much so that I could imagine the fluffy white bathrobes, the designer breakfast bars and the tall shiny fridges full of healthy and nutritious ingredients.

Now, I don’t know about you, but my mornings bear little resemblance to this. (And I doubt the contributors’ mornings do, either, if we’re being honest.) So in the interest of fairness and balance, here’s what a regular morning looks like in the real world. Namely this morning. In my world. Please try to keep up. And don’t read any further if you’re eating.

I wake at 5.21am** when the boiler comes on and the pump lets out its usual screech as it warms up. I spend a couple of minutes worrying about whether today’s screech is longer than yesterday’s, meaning that I might have to do something about it, but conclude that it’s about the same and go back to sleep.

I wake again around an hour later when I feel a nuzzling against the back of my neck. I turn to greet my lovely wife, the presumed source of the nuzzling, and come face to face with a  slobbery, grinning Labrador, who has somehow managed to wiggle her way (unnoticed) up to the pillow***. I fend off the dog as best as I can and try to go back to sleep.

Natalie’s alarm goes off and a startled snort emanates from the pile of duvet next to me. A hand reaches out and presses the snooze button. Everyone lies expectantly, and completely awake, for four minutes until the alarm goes off again. The dog’s tail starts to wag uncontrollably. Sleep time is clearly over, so I roll out of bed. I land squarely in my slippers (result!) and then walk confidently into the wall next to the door.

The dog and I spend the next ten minutes wandering around the garden. I’m glad that I remembered to put my ‘outside’ Crocs on, but wish that I’d remembered my dressing gown. It reminds me of the time, back before we’d repaired the fence (and, luckily, before we’d got a dog), when I wandered out into the garden in my dressing gown and met my neighbour, also in her dressing gown, who’d clambered in to retrieve her chickens. Such is life around here.

The dog starts to dig up one of the vegetable beds. I wrestle her out from among the raspberry canes and encourage her to go to the loo so that we can have breakfast. (Oops, that doesn’t sound quite right. I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant that I can’t go in and get breakfast until she’s… Oh, sod it. You know damn well what I mean.) The dog catches a scent and tries to climb over the fence. I hustle her indoors before she realises how high she can jump****.

I weigh out the dog’s breakfast and make myself a quick coffee (using my Nespresso machine) while Molly hoovers her way through the kibble and Pedigree Chum. I feel briefly like George Clooney as I lean against the counter and sip my java. Then I realise that I’ve got dog slobber down the front of my pyjamas. And mud from the vegetable bed. I’m sure George doesn’t have to put up with this.

We still have a bit of bread left, so I make myself a honey sandwich for breakfast (no granola here, I’m afraid) and munch through it while I wait for Natalie to vacate the bathroom. Natalie wanders out and the dog queue-jumps me to get at the water bowl next to the shower. I bet George doesn’t have to put up with this, either. To be honest, I’m not sure why I put up with this.

Once everyone’s washed and Natalie’s headed off for work, Molly and I set out for our walk. We return an hour later well exercised and, predictably, covered in mud. Molly thinks this is excellent, so I grab her and wipe off the worst of it with a towel. She wipes off the rest on the settee. I put a throw over the settee to cover up the mud and the dog hair.

It is now 8.50am. Time for work. I put the kettle on.

* Yes, I read Red magazine. It’s important to be in touch with one’s feminine side. And it’s actually quite a good read. Get over it.

** It’s really set for 5.30am, but the clock’s wrong and I can’t be bother to go through the faff of resetting it for the sake of a measly nine minutes.

*** Yes, the dog usually sleeps on the end of the bed. It’s winter. It’s cold. What are you going to do? Report me to the RSPCA?

**** She can easily jump a six foot fence, but I’d really rather she didn’t figure that out.

An early morning wonderland

I’ve just got back from taking the dog for her morning walk across the fields. It was a little nippy first thing (about minus two degrees when we first went outside) and the mist was hanging over the countryside like something magical, as if the Earth was still waking up and hadn’t quite got dressed yet.

I only had my cameraphone with me, I’m afraid, so my photos aren’t very good. But hopefully you can get some idea of what it was like. Here’s the ‘bottom field’. You can see that someone was here before us. And you can just make out Molly on the left, following a scent. Just after I took this photo, she had a mad puppy moment and ran right up the hill, around the tree in the patch of sunlight at the top and then back to me. No idea why.

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The sun was just coming up over the hills on the far side of the valley and it was so beautiful as it shone through the trees. The photo doesn’t really do it justice. I must remember to take at least my (sorry, Natalie’s) Nikon Coolpix with me next time.

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Here’s the view over the valley. Where we live used to be an island in the middle ages, so you can almost imagine what it must have been like to be surrounded by water. If you look carefully, you can see the church in the next village just looming out of the mist in the distance. What you can’t see, but I wish you could, is the tiny wisp of smoke coming from one of the little cottages among the trees on the far hillside. It made me smile to think of someone (possibly just like me) stoking the fire to make their first cup of tea of the day.

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Here’s the other way down the valley. Somewhere beyond the mist far off to the left is the city of Bristol. You’d never think we were only a twenty minute drive from the city centre.

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Here’s my favourite photo of the morning. It truly does, to my eyes at least, look like an early morning wonderland. Well worth getting out of bed for. Even at minus two degrees.

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