Thursday, 31 March 2011

2 Birthdays and a Funeral - what a week

A week of many contrasts is coming to a close. Maybe as today, being the very last day I'll be 46 on this earth, I'm reminiscing, or is it because it has been a surreal week.

It all began last Sunday. Julie had her Birthday, she's a fellow Aries. Though as she says to me she has some non fire signs in her birth chart so this makes her a well rounded and likable person, whereas I am fire signs throughout my birth chart, which makes me an intimidating uncontrollable Aries man apparently (my interpretation of her explanation of my birthchart). I can agree with the former, she is a wonderfully well rounded person, especially after agreeing to the surprise birthday treat I'd planned for her on Sunday...........

..... no not the opening of a bottle of fizzy alcoholic beverage.... complete with artistically framed washing billowing in the background....... no..........

............. helping me build a shed I'd had delivered during the week (that's me by the way, not George Clooney, an easy enough mistake I know)

So after a hearty Birthday breakfast of 1 and a half slices of toast, marmalade and a coffee, we set to. First of all we needed to clear the area the shed was going to be erected on......

........... then we set to with a vigour and a vengeance positioning the base. This was crucial. Should the doors face east, west, north, south. Discussions emanated from the garden and eventually a decision was reached, south..... which was good as north or west would mean looking at a wall or a fence.

There you go, the fruits of an hour's work, one shed base in-situ

Needing a rest after all that activity and brain work, I went for a lie down and left Julie to make a start of the building. Within an hour, after I'd had my nap and a cup of tea, I popped out to see her and she did seem to be enjoying her birthday enormously... and doing well, a bit too well with that drill I think..... should I be worried?

So I thought I'd better come out and lend a hand with my trusty hammer............. mind you I wouldn't like to meet this chap in a darkened alley would you!

....... but soon then it was on with the roofing felt, job almost done .........

........ before a well earned cup of tea in our new shed cum summer house!!

Which was immediately inspected by my resident Collared Dove, who is very tame and wandered about the roof while I was still faffing about fitting locks and bolts. They may be common, but I do like these birds, good fun to watch.

So that was Sunday. Tuesday saw me at Yeovil Crematorium for Thelma's funeral. Quite a traumatic day for me but I'm glad I made the effort to go, it's always good to say goodbye in such circumstances. I hope now after her 7 years of suffering with horrid cancer, she is finally resting, and probably laughing too, as I was when I entered the Crematorium and they were playing 'Hot Legs' by Rod Stewart, that really summed up Thelma wonderfully well. Life, Vitality and Fun.

After the funeral I made my excuses and was going to come home but we never know how we react to such things after the event, suddenly I needed someone to be with, so in the late afternoon I drove over to Julies. She said, you need a treat so I'm going to take you out for a meal and off we pootled to The Seven Stars in a tiny hamlet in the Vale of Pewsey called Bottlesford.

We had a fabulous meal there prepared specially by Mr Regan the chef in charge. Apparently the menu was changing the next day and his vegetarian options were limited, so for Julie he prepared a lovely leek and goats cheese gratin. And for me? bangers and mash, which was a great end to a difficult day.

And tomorrow it is my Birthday, yes an April Fool. I've nothing planned, but looking forward to being 47!

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Jones's Mill, Wiltshire

Events after last weekend stopped me writing about my first visit to a wildlife reserve near Pewsey in Wiltshire. Wiltshire is still a new county for me to explore and so after 5 and a half hours pruning a gargantuan rose pergola for one of Julie's clients on the Wiltshire / Berkshire border, on Saturday evening I needed a bit of relaxation and to stretch the legs after all that time standing up on a ladder.

I also fancied a cider. So as the nearest shop to us is the co-op, 7 miles away in Pewsey, the town which gives its name to the Pewsey Downs, off I pootled in the old Suzuki. To get to the co-op I have to pass Jones's Mill, one of Wiltshire Wildlife Trusts reserves. I'd not been before and although the sun was setting, it seemed as good a place as any to walk the legs back into action.

Interestingly no one really knows why it has this name (I read the notice board). But back in the 1500's there was a mention of a house by the River Avon, but since then this has been agricultural land. This reserve wasn't at its best in mid March as it is being managed for flora and invertebrates, with many areas being grazed by Galloway cows.

I did though see a couple of early marsh marigolds in flower

and the alder carr and oak woodland is covered in lichens, such as this Evernia prunastri

Anyway it was a very pleasant half an hour stroll by the River Avon, a few birds about, a green woodpecker and a wonderfully clear song thrush singing it's double phrases into the dusk, but not much else. I'll leave it a few months and return in May or June to see how it has changed. I enjoyed the cider later as well.

On Sunday we were doing some more gardening for Julie, this time for a wonderful old lady near Wooton Bassett who has basically a field to cut every 2 weeks

But in a corner of the field is an ancient plum tree, which had just come into blossom. The whole tree was buzzing with solitary bees visiting the flowers. A wonderful reminder that even after a worst winter for 100 years, insects and invertebrates just emerge as normal and begin their life cycle once again. Sadly my rushed photos of the bees were all blurred.

However one person who is not emerging yet is Molly. As she seems to be developing a bit of a fan club on this blog, here's another picture of what Molly does best. Basically hogging the radiator (it is on by the way) and not moving too far, maybe as far as her food and back again but that's all. Warmer temperatures will need to be in the offing before she goes very far.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011


It's a funny thing, but a death of someone we were close, either at the time of death or in my case in the recent past, brings out all sorts of emotions. With me this week, one emotion, has been searching through old photographs. Not for anything or anyone in particular, I'm just in a bit of a retrospective mood and its comforting to sift through some history. I came across these two today and thought I'd share them with you.

This is my father playing his banjo in the back garden of his favourite aunt in Essex. I'm not sure of the exact date but my guess is late 1940's or very early 1950's as he still has some hair remaining on his head, but, like me, was bald by 21. He's sitting under an apple tree in her garden which every member of the family had their photograph taken, next to, sitting on or climbing on, from the 1930's until the tree died in the 1970's (I think). My family have lots of photographs from her cottage called "Hopecrag" in Rickling Green as it was a favourite summer destination for the family from the North East of England before and after the Second world War. My father loved it there and remembers watching the 1000 bomber raids taking off during the war, and walking the fields with his uncle Bob, a real countryman who was born and died in the village. 4 years ago the house was demolished and now a new house sits in the garden and no longer will the family go there.

This photograph is much more recent. This is apt as it it the Avondale Garden's Silver Jubilee Street Party in 1977. I was brought up surrounded by fields, a golf course and market gardens in a tiny hamlet called South Boldon in County Durham. In fact very few maps actually show South Boldon, but it does exist and was formerly the houses along a private and gated road. My bedroom overlooked the first green of the golf course, we were that close to it. The next village was the much larger West Boldon (famous for the Boldon Book - the Durham Prince Bishops version of the Domesday Book ordered in 1183). In 1963 a cul de sac of 18 houses was built in West Boldon on what had been Harry the farmer's dairy farm fields, and named Avondale Gardens. Being new houses, they were bought by newlyweds, and as a result this was where a lot of my school friends came from.

Avondale Gardens decided (like many villages will do this year) to hold a street party, and I and my parents were invited as honorary Avondale-ites. This was possibly a ruse, as my father had a commercial printing business and so for 6 months before the big day the whole community descended to his printing works in the evening to design and print, tee shirts, banners, stickers, make bunting and so on. It was a fabulous time and I can still remember every moment of the day. And there I am as a 13 year old in the photo above, back left by the shrub (click to enlarge) next to my father in a fetching blue woolly hat. Looking towards the camera is Mrs Holcroft, and to her left her husband. They were honorary guests as they were both in their late nineties, and lived in the cottages which had once been surrounded by fields.

My parents still live in another village, East Boldon, but these days the whole area is surrounded by and being slowly consumed by the massive Tyneside conurbation. All of the market gardens have now been built on and many of the fields. The golf course is still there, but that's about it. I left that area at the age of 16 and have never returned, save to visit my parents, it is hardly recognisable now.

In both these photos, there is, I feel, a simple message; The physical aspect of life always fades, but the memory lives on.

Monday, 21 March 2011

RIP Thelma

Just a short posting today. For those of you who read my early blog postings, will know that at that time my partner was Thelma and I spent my days down in Dorset. We met in 2000 on a holiday in Italy and despite the age difference, she was 17 years older than me, in many many ways she was a lot younger than me. Back in 2004 she contracted small cell Lymphoma and was given a good chance of recovery. Sadly this wasn't to be and on Friday 19th March she passed away peacefully I'm told by her daughter. Thelma and I spilt up in 2009 and while we weren't together we still kept in touch occasionally.

She was a wonderfully up beat person who had had a lot of disastrous things happen to her over the years, but each time she came through smiling and laughing, laughing her infectious laugh. The last time I spoke to her she was more worried about the snow and getting to hospital than her treatment, which summed up Thelma up so well.

RIP Thelma, you were one of life's gems.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

World Sparrow Day : March 20

This Sunday is World Sparrow Day, organised by Nature Forever Society who are one of the partners in this event along with the RSPB and the BTO. Link to the event can be found here World Sparrow Day.

Ahead of that the BTO have released new and exciting results from the last world Sparrow Day, which I'm posting in it's entirety here from a BTO press release.

World Sparrow Day: new results The British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO’s) Garden BirdWatch survey has provided exciting new results for World Sparrow Day. House Sparrows are increasingly being lost from gardens between summer and autumn. However, House Sparrows have only really struggled in English, not Welsh or Scottish, gardens.

House Sparrow populations are no longer considered to be secure across Europe and, on the 20th March 2011, World Sparrow Day will highlight the plight of this charismatic and confiding bird. To coincide with the big day, BTO’s year-round Garden BirdWatch has provided illuminating new results, charting the House Sparrow’s decline.The results, which have been welcomed by wildlife expert Chris Packham, show big seasonal and geographical differences in the downward trend of this species. Overall, however, almost one in four British and Irish gardens that hosted a House Sparrow in 1995 no longer have any visiting. Summer and autumn: critical times.

The number of householders who have lost their House Sparrows between summer and autumn has doubled since 1995, supporting the theory that this is the crunch period. The BTO’s Nest Record Scheme shows that brood sizes of House Sparrows have declined steadily since the 1960s, with a shortage of invertebrate food with which to feed young in urban areas thought to be an important factor. Food scarcity can also cause chicks to fledge in poorer condition, thereby reducing their survival prospects. With increased demand for off-street parking and so called ‘garden grabbing’ (development of gardens for housing), feeding areas for urban sparrows have been reduced. Moreover, use of pesticides and planting of non-native evergreen vegetation are likely to have diminished invertebrate availability for these birds further. Regional differences.

The House Sparrow’s demise has been most marked in England, with an average of 86% of gardens visited between 1995 and 1998, down to 66% over the past four years. Over the same period, however, only around one in 20 Scottish and Welsh householders have lost their House Sparrows, with 74% and 78% of gardens still occupied in each country, respectively. Preliminary results from gardens in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland suggest that House Sparrows may be faring quite well here too.

Having read this I can't see much of a decline in my own garden which is visited by 20 - 30 house sparrows each day (as witnessed by my vanishing seed and peanut stocks). I long to see a tree sparrow at home but while they are in the area, they are only in single figures, sadly. But both species of UK sparrow are delightful to look at, with their chestnut backs.

House Sparrow above, Tree Sparrow below

In response to Shysongbirds comment, here is a link to a DIY sparrow terrace nest box

Friday, 11 March 2011

Memory like a sieve..

Back in the dark days of February, I posted a visit to see brown hares in Hertfordshire and I promised to let everyone know when it was to be broadcast. Well I forgot didn't I, and it went out on February 27th, at a time when I know you'll all be up and about, 06.35hrs on a Sunday.

Well all is not lost, as this programme, and others from the series, is available on the BBC i-player - Living World Hares, made by my colleague.

I only say this as I'm now enmeshed in the research for the next round of The Living World and it is the part of the job I love, hunting down new stories and new species which would make a good programme. I can't divulge obviously what is in the pipeline for the next 18 programmes but we'll be recording again soon, hopefully with some blog postings if I can, depending on the sensitivity of the location or subject.

I hope in the meantime you'll enjoy this photo of Molly the cat, which has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with this posting, but this morning I picked up a new cat flap for her at Argos. It's a rock and roll life in the media, I tell you!

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Stop the cull of crows petition

I don't often get onto my soap box for a petition, but this one I feel is a just cause. There is a group called the Songbird Survival Trust which purports to be a legitimate wildlife conservation organisation, but in fact has hidden agenda's. That's fine, all organisations have hidden agendas. It's part of life. However under the auspices of research, they are organising a culling programme of corvids, in the belief that this will prevent further songbird decline. Is it me, but if we decide that in our countryside, one group of animals should prosper at the expense of eradicating another, then we're on a slippery slope back 100 years, especially when in this case all the evidence suggests that while crows has some impact, farmland practices, human development, disturbance and habitat loss are the biggests problem facing songbirds.

I fully understand the need to regulate corvids in some circumstances, and have no problem with landowners controlling their numbers. After all the whole of the UK is managed to a greater or lesser extent. However... for a so called wildlife group to plan and execute this cull seems very dubious to me. So a petition has been set up to try and stop this. I have no involvement with any of this, just want to spread the word. A link to the petition is here.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Sums up life wonderfully....

I was sent an amusing e-mail today which included this representation of life, something I've long thought of being intriguing, we start and end life being wheeled about. Well it amused me anyway.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Ahh now then Mr Herriot....

Well here's a thing. We've been to Yorkshire for a mini break. And a wonderful break it was too, because Yorkshire has 2 things (amongst others) to recommend it - sunshine and proper cups of tea.

Last Saturday we drove up from Wiltshire (bathed in a monsoon of biblical proportions) to arrive at Harrogate in sun kissed February sunshine. Here we 'supped lad' at Bettys in Harlow Carr Gardens, 'eee it were reet grand' not least as my parents travelled down from Tyneside so we all met up for the day.

Harlow Carr for those interested in gardening is the RHS's northern climate garden, and even at the end of February, its winter interest was fantastic.

This winter glade was absolutely stuffed full of cornus, cornus of many colours.

Cornus 'midwinter fire' was especially vibrant

And then there were more........

......so much to see and well worth a visit if you're up that way. Especially as it gave us a goodly thirst for another cup of tea, mmmm delicious....

My parents then trundled off home leaving myself and herself to enjoy the delights of the Cedar Court Hotel in the centre of Harrogate, for 3 nights. I like hotels, they're anonymous and one can wander about at will, so we nipped out to a tapas bar in town and fed handsomly.

Sunday after a mighty Yorkshire breakfast we pootled off to York and did the tourist trail, coffee, then Yorvik centre (no queues), coffee, York Museum, coffee, York Art Gallery. By complete chance I discovered one of David Hockney's 'Trees' paintings was at the York Art gallery, namely 'Bigger Trees Near Warter'. I'd read about this change in direction by David Hockney, in that he's begun to paint landscapes of his home turf, the East Riding of Yorkshire. So it was a must to see these 50, 3foot x 4 foot canvasses on a single wall. Absolutely stunning and if you are up that way, make a detour to see this free exhibit which is on until June.... details here. When we returned from our visit to York, we rounded off the day with a trip to see the Kings Speech in Harrogate. A great film, and even better as the cinema was behind the hotel, such a treat just to walk to and from the cinema through the deserted streets late at night. We liked Harrogate very much.

Monday was a special day for me too; and Julie. We went to the World of James Herriot museum in Thirsk. I've loved the James Herriot's stories ever since they were published in the 1970's, they still make me laugh out loud now. Some reports had it that the museum had closed, but I'm glad to say nowt was further from the truth. And what an excellent 3 hours we spent in there.

The real Alf Wight (aka James Herriot) - copyright James Herriot Museum

And the real Quicksilvercountry at the same door... copyright, Yorkshire Probation Service.

What I loved about this museum was it covered not only the fictional character of James Herriot, but the real vet, a load of social history, actual sets used in the making of the TV series, and a veterinary museum. Best of all it was a hand on museum..........

........... what Julie had her hands on in this photo is anyone's guess!!!!

Yes well, err, this goat was quite obliging.... full of good health after I'd given it a thorough examination.

Exhausting work being a veterinary..... this was one of the TV sets......

....... as was this, with Julie about to dispense a potion in my direction.

I could even sit in the car used in the series, still in working condition (the car, not me) and if I could have done, I'd have smuggled it out. I've always fancied an Austin 7 to drive around in. Please go if you are in North Yorkshire, it would be a real shame to see this fantastic museum close down. Mind you it's thirsty work this museum visiting ..............

.............. time for another cup of tea then.

Tuesday dawned fair of face, which was good, as this was Yorkshire Dales day. After a bit of a drive around, and a coffee at Kilnsey near Bolton Abbey we headed to Malham to visit the Cove. I last came to the Cove on a school trip in 1977 or 78. A long long time ago. Strange how the mind plays tricks, as I remembered it as a long walk from the village to the Cove. In fact it is no walk at all, and these days on a gravel footpath. I must have had shorter legs as a child.

The weather was perfect, warm for the time of year, blue skies and we both loved the fresh pure air, clear water in the river and given this is out of the main tourist season, empty landscape.

We only saw about 10 people on the walk, possibly as they avoided the area following reports of a strange man loitering with intent.............

..........no wonder Julie had to have a sit down to recover!

One thing that was not in our favour was that I'd forgotten to bring the battery charger for the camera, so the photo above was the last one I could take, which left me with no option other than to use the Blackberry.

I left Julie to sit in the sun on a rock and walked to the source of the river at the base of the Cove. 2 rock climbers were on the face of the Cove, all I can say is better them than me, because when I stood under the overhang of the cove, it is quite intimidating. Any loose rock and I'd have been a gonner......

................ which would have prevented me from completing the walk with a coffee and a celebratory mint choc chip ice cream.