Monthly Archives: September 2017

The Party

Dear Readers, many of you have been following the tale of my Mum and Dad’s 60th Anniversary Party for the past year, with all its ups and downs. Regular visitors here will know that neither of them are in the best of health, and indeed just a fortnight ago, Mum was in hospital following a suspected heart attack, so it has been stressful for all of us. But on Thursday the day finally arrived. This is the scene in the Sealy Suite at the Crown Hotel in Blandford Forum just before all the people arrived to make it untidy.

The calm before the storm…..

You can get a message of congratulations if you’ve been married for 60 years, and so the postman was very impressed when the ‘by appointment’ envelope arrived on Wednesday. Mum noticed that there was no postage on it, so I pointed out that it’s not called the Royal Mail for nothing. Mum was absolutely delighted, and everyone got a chance to admire the card.

Mum and Dad on their wedding day in 1957. And The Card.

A local lady called Eva made the most spectacular pair of heart-shaped cakes, one coconut and one lemon, with individually-created sugar flowers on top. The real flowers included apricot roses and mum’s favourite, freesias.

And then everyone started to arrive – we had 49 guests, and everyone was in a celebratory mood. There was a palpable feeling of affection in the room which it was lovely to be part of. I had worries when Mum and Dad upped sticks 17 years ago, to leave London and live in Dorset, but I had underestimated how welcoming Milborne St Andrew was, and how adaptable and friendly my parents are. They became involved locally, but they never tried to take over, a mistake that people sometimes make when they move somewhere new. And now, it feels as if they really are part of a proper community. It makes me very happy.

Dad stood up to give a speech. He’d lost his reading glasses, which didn’t help when he came to read his notes. Then Mum joined in, and she’s a natural comedian. I honestly think she missed her vocation. And everyone cheered and clapped, and it didn’t matter that it wasn’t quite as Dad had intended, because people understood the spirit in which it was intended. And my brother made a speech celebrating those 60 years together, and everyone clapped and cheered again.

And then, we had the cutting of those beautiful cakes.

Mum, Dad, my brother John and I at the cake cutting….

And the following day, Mum said it was the best evening she’d ever had, even better than her wedding. So it was worth all the sleepless nights and the playing with spreadsheets and the organising of menus.

I’d better make the best of the break, though. Mum and Dad are now talking about her 65th Wedding Anniversary party.

A Tale of Three Spiders

Dear Readers, many of you have been following the story of my Mum and Dad’s 60th Anniversary Party last Thursday. It went very well, and for some photos and a few more details, have a look at my second post today called ‘The Party’. On the other hand, if you come here for the wildlife, read on……

False Widow Spider (Steadota sp.)

Dear Readers, I know that autumn has arrived when I can’t get to the shed without walking through a web, and when the children returning from school always stop to point at the many, many spiders who are making their homes in the lavender in my front garden. However, it is surprising to see how many different habitats these creatures can make use of, and how thoroughly at home they can make themselves with the slightest of encouragement.

Apologies in advance to any arachnophobic readers. You might want to move on at this point. No spiders next week, I promise.

if you want to create a wildlife reserve actually inside your house, I can recommend nothing more than a disinclination to dust and some old-fashioned sash windows. For, at the back of my house, guarding the kitchen and gobbling up all manner of small insects is a rather splendid False Widow Spider. I have no idea of the species, because this can only be determined by killing the spider and dissecting her genitalia, and I have no intention of doing any such thing. Instead, I am watching the spider (who I have named Beverley on the basis that this can be a male or female name, and his/her sex is yet another thing that I don’t know) as s/he goes about the business of repairing her web.

For most of the day, s/he keeps a low profile in the little hole that used to house a window lock.

Yoo hoo Beverley!

But sometimes she ventures out to see what’s going on. Her web reminds me rather of Stratford Bus Station (or maybe that’s just me).

Photo One (Stratford Bus Station) - Whohe! at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Stratford Bus Station

False Widows have been the subject of many overwrought headlines in the more distasteful parts of the British press, and I dread to think how many perfectly innocent spiders have been squished to ‘save our children’ from being bitten. Just persuade little Johnnie not to stick his finger into the spider’s house and all shall be well. Even the mention of ‘Widow’ can be enough to put some people into a flap, in spite of  the word ‘False’ at the start. But it’s probably just as well not to get me started, or we shall be here all day.

Apparently a female False Widow can live for up to five years, and as I’ve had a spider living here for a while, I’m guessing that she may turn into a long-term companion.

Anyhow, as far as I’m concerned s/he is not just a spider, but is guarding the back entrance of the house from from evildoers like a trusty bullmastiff. As her web is stronger, pound for pound, than steel, I feel that this is only a slight overstatement.

But who is guarding the front of the house? Meet Frances/Francis.

Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus)

Fran has made a web the size of the entire windowpane, and seems to be growing bigger every day. I often wonder why there are no spiders about, and then suddenly hundreds of them, but it seems that it’s largely because, by the end of August, they’ve grown big enough for us to start paying attention.

I love the crucifix of white dots on the abdomen of these spiders, not to mention their little stripey legs. They seem, like caterpillars, to be creatures of childhood. My mother was terrified of spiders, but always managed to hide it from me, which meant that I found them delightful rather than horrifying. I always loved Charlotte, the canny spider of Charlotte’s Web, and would spend hours watching the spiders carefully spinning their webs.

Spiders seem to me to be something that we all have in common, for every nation that I know has some kind of spider that spins an orb web and has a whole mass of folklore about the creature, from the Ancient Egyptian goddess Neith (thought to be the precursor to the Babylonian Ishtar and the Greek Arachne) to Anansi in Western Africa, and the Lakota Iktomi. Spiders feature in Australian Aboriginal art, in the ancient mythology of Japan, and in both the Islamic and Judaic oral traditions. Who could not look at a spider and not marvel at her skill and her patience?

Francis/es and her/his reflection

But out in the shed, it’s a whole other story. The place is full of cobwebs, and the corpses of unfortunate flying insects who met their end amongst the bird food and the power tools. And, somewhat surprisingly, these spiders are the most ferocious of all, not to humans but to other spiders.

Cellar Spider (Pholcus phalangoides)

This creature is also known as the Daddy Long-Legs Spider, but that way madness lies. For me, a Daddy Long-Legs is a cranefly. In North America, a Daddy Long-Legs is what I call a harvestman. So I’m going to stick with calling these creatures Pholcus. They look like some kind of lunar landing module, or possibly a virus. You can tell you’ve found a Pholcus if you disturb it and it vibrates up and down  like some kind of very, very angry small dog.

For all their sinister appearance, these spiders are totally harmless to humans. However, they seem to be adept at catching and eating other spiders, even those that are much larger than they are. My friends on the Spiders of Britain and Northern Europe Facebook group report that Pholcus reduce the biodiversity in their houses by killing and eating all the other spiders. Furthermore, they breed rapidly when happy, and can soon outnumber all the other species. Some members of the group devote themselves to catching every Pholcus they can find and putting it out into their sheds. I feel that I have fallen amongst friends. I thought I was the only person who would put off getting the window cleaner in until the winter because of the spiders, but it appears that there are numerous other folk who are just as eccentric as I am. Which is something of a relief.

So, there we have it. I’m sure this is only a tiny fraction of the spider species in and around my house – I haven’t seen an actual house spider this year, for example, and I’m sure that there are lots of others hiding in the undergrowth and lurking under stones. Personally, I find them fascinating, and I’m only sorry that the jumping spider who sometimes creeps across my front door like a Special Forces agent on surveillance didn’t  put in an appearance. And soon, all these eight-legged wonders will disappear as autumn edges into winter, and all the adult spiders either die (many providing a meal for their offspring), or go into a state of torpor to wait out the cold. They represent a brief explosion of life, the last bloom before the stillness falls.

Wednesday Weed – Nasturtium

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Nasturtium (Tropaeolum sp)

Dear Readers, I found a tree pit full of nasturtiums in Muswell Hill today, and it occurred to me that I know next to nothing about this popular plant, except that it is often used as a peppery addition to salads, and that it is a favourite food of greenfly. As usual, the common name causes some confusion: Nasturtium is actually the generic name for watercress, and I assume that ‘our’ nasturtium got the name because of those tasty leaves. The actual genus name for this plant, Tropaeolum, was given because it reminded Linnaeus of an ancient Roman custom, where the armour and weapons of defeated enemies would hung from a pole called a tropaeum. The leaves reminded Linnaeus of shields, and the flowers of bloody helmets.

‘Our’ nasturtium is actually a hybrid of three wild species, all of which come from South America. It grows here as an annual, and seems to prefer full sun and poor soil – in rich soil, it produces lots of leaves but few flowers. It is much more of a scrambler than a vine, though it can overwhelm smaller, more delicate plants. I rather like the tumble of leaves above, and the variety of colours.

As mentioned above, the leaves of nasturtium can be eaten raw, but the flowers are also edible, and often show up in the dishes of high-end restaurants. In fact, there is a whole section of delicious recipes on the BBC Good Food website here, including one for caramel sticky toffee cake. It seems to me that the nasturtium flowers are not integral to the bake, but then anything with the words ‘caramel’ and ‘toffee’ in the title must be worth a look, regardless.

I have mentioned that nasturtiums attract a lot of aphids, and one reason for planting this exotic-looking interloper is as a companion plant,  as the aphids attract ladybirds, lacewings and other predatory insects. Some gardeners also plant them as a ‘trap crop’ , in the belief that  cabbage white butterfly caterpillars prefer nasturtiums to the broccoli and cavolo nero that has been planted for human consumption. I would love to hear what experience you intrepid vegetable gardeners have had.

Medicinally, nasturtium has been used to make cough medicine, and it is also said to have some antibiotic properties. In Germany there is a herbal antibiotic made solely from nasturtium leaves and horseradish root, for use in sinusitis, bronchitis and urinary tract infections. In a study it was comparable with ‘normal’ antibiotics, but had fewer side-effects. We will certainly need new antibiotics as bacteria continue to increase in resistance to our existing drugs, so this sounds most promising. On the other hand, as the article has been translated from the German, I do wonder if the ‘nasturtium’ is actually watercress. Such are the confusions of common names.

Nasturtiums were also caught up in a scientific debate over a mystery that became known ‘Elizabeth Linnaus phenomenon’ in the eighteenth century. Elizabeth was the daughter of the famed taxonomist Linnaeus. One evening in the family garden in Uppsala, Sweden, she noticed that, at dusk, the flowers of yellow and orange nasturtium appeared to ‘flash’. Although she was only 19 and had no formal education,  she wrote a scientific paper about this strange sight, published in 1762. It was long believed that the ‘flashes’ were a result of some kind of electrical activity in the plant itself – it was a time when everyone was getting very excited about electricity, and were inclined to credit it for causing more or less everything.  The idea influenced the poetry of Wordsworth, among others: think of his famous poem ‘Daffodils’:

‘They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude.’

Do daffodils ‘flash’? I’m not sure, and never have been, but the idea of flowers putting out little sparks of electricity was certainly on Wordsworth’s mind. And here is a quote from Coleridge’s poem ‘Lines Written at Shurton Bars’:

′Flashes the golden-coloured flower

 A fair electric flame′

However, in 1914 the idea was finally debunked by Professor F.A.W Thomas of Germany, who revealed that the effect was an optical illusion, caused by the eye’s reaction to the contrast of the orange/yellow flowers and the green leaves at dusk. What a shame. I rather like the idea of flowers producing their own lightning.

Elizabeth Linnaeus (1743 -1782)(Public Domain)

I am frequently surprised by the places that this blog takes me, and so it is again today. I found this picture of nasturtiums by the Romanian painter Octav Bancila, and immediately assumed that he was a painter of still-lives.

Panselute (Octav Bancila, 1872-1944, date of painting unknown (Public Domain)

Bancila was, in fact, mostly a painter of people: the poor, the dispossessed, peasants and the Roma people, who were much despised (and still are today, and not just in Romania). Following the Romanian Peasants’ Revolt of 1907 he painted a series of pictures showing the conflict, including his most famous painting ‘1907’ showing a peasant running into gunfire.

1907 (Octav Bancila, painted in 1907) (Public Domain)

Bancila was a pacifist, and during World War One used his art to comment on the bloodshed of the conflict. He was also an ardent opponent of anti-semitism, and a supporter of worker’s rights. In other words, I wonder why I have never heard of him, and am very glad that nasturtiums have led me to him today.

And finally, a poem. This is from Thom Gunn’s 1992 collection ‘The Man With Night Sweats’, which is largely a meditation on the impact of AIDS on the gay community in New York during the terrible decade when the poems were written. There is a sense of hopefulness in this poem, however, a dream of escape and freedom. And like all well-observed work, it conjures the spirit of the plant, and of all the ‘weeds’ that we overlook.


Born in a sour waste lot
You laboured up to light,
Bunching what strength you’d got
And running out of sight
Through a knot-hole at last,
To come forth into sun
As if without a past,
Done with it, re-begun.

Now street-side of the fence
You take a few green turns,
Nimble in nonchalance
Before your first flower burns.
From poverty and prison
And undernourishment
A prodigal has risen,
Self-spending, never spent.

Irregular yellow shell
And drooping spur behind . . .
Not rare but beautiful
—Street-handsome—as you wind
And leap, hold after hold,
A golden runaway
Still running, strewing gold
From side to side all day.