Author Archives: Bug Woman

A Tale of Two Birds

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)

Dear Readers, it is not often that you find Bugwoman bounding out of bed before it’s even light, but a few mornings ago I was roused from my slumber by a strangely familiar sound. The dawn chorus has already started here in East Finchley, but most mornings it’s the sweet song of the robin, and the ‘teacher, teacher’ call of the great tit, and that’s it. However, on Thursday there was another, very loud song. I lay there trying to work out what it was. Not blackbird for sure. And gradually, I remembered the words of Robert Browning, from his poem ‘Home Thoughts From Abroad’:

That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!’

And indeed, it finally clicked that what we had in the garden was a song thrush. It took me a few days of listening to finally get some shots, but here, for your delectation, is this fine bird, announcing his presence to the County Roads.

Once upon a time, every suburban London lawn would have had some song and mistle thrushes among the blackbirds, scouting for earthworms, but no longer – the song thrush is now on the RSPB’s Red List. It is estimated that song thrush numbers in the countryside were down by two-thirds between 1950 and 1995, largely due to intensive farming, the removal of hedgerows and the degradation of soil, leading to a reduction in the number of earthworms (this last, incidentally, is bad news for all of us, not just song thrushes). However I was heartened to see this bird so close at hand today. There is often one singing his head off in Coldfall Wood, but I have never had one come to visit the garden before.

For those of you who haven’t heard a song thrush sing (and my attempts to capture this myself have been outwitted by squealing starlings and the rumble from the North Circular Road), here is a link.

It appears that ‘my’ bird is attempting to establish a breeding territory, and is singing both to attract females, and to warn other males off. I hope he has more luck than the Coldfall Wood song thrush, who continued to sing all through the summer a few years ago, a sign that he hadn’t yet found a mate.

One song thrush habit that has always intrigued me is their habit of creating a ‘snail anvil’ – a spot that is used for hammering the shells of snails, so that they can extract the unfortunate mollusc. Along with hedgehogs, frogs and toads, song thrushes used to be important agents in the control of snails and slugs, but apart from frogs, all of these creatures appear to be in decline (and slug pellets are thought to be part of the problem). All I can say is, come back! My frogs have no chance of keeping up with all the slimy critters in my garden. I am hoping that the song thrush is a promising sign.

The beginnings of a possible snail anvil?

Now, when I was in Tony’s Continental this week, I got into a conversation about the pied wagtail. S/he was first spotted when we had some snow a few weeks ago, marching about in typical perky fashion outside Kentucky Fried Chicken , but s/he has since been spotted in various locations, largely involving the food outlets of the High Road. I am delighted to say that s/he has moved away from the fast food (and potential cannibalism) of KFC and is now munching on discarded gozleme outside the Turkish cafe Yasar Halim, and picking up chips outside the Paradise Fish Restaurant. Lots of people seem to have noticed the bird, who is always alone. I feel as if we are all rooting for a future mate for the little loner.

Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba)

Like many wagtails, pied wagtails are partial to wet environments, and can often be found hanging around sewage farms and river banks. In Birds Britannica by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, it’s suggested that many of their vernacular names, such as ‘nanny washtail’ and ‘Polly dishwasher’ may have arisen because, in the days when women washed their clothes out of doors, these birds may well have been constant companions, and maybe the rhythmic motion of their tails reminded the women of what they were doing themselves.

These birds have a long history of interrelationship with humans. In Birds Britannica, one man reported that

‘I work for the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson, Fareham, in Hampshire, and we had a family of pied wagtails nesting in the barrel of an 1894 battle cruiser gun’.

Another person related this incident:

‘When waiting at my local car wash, I noticed a pair of pied wagtails flitting in and out. They were eating the dead insects washed from the front of each car. Most surprisingly, they wouldn’t touch any insect from a car that had received the full wax treatment’.

Wise birds indeed.

Although wagtails are often seen as solitary birds, this is not the case when it comes to roosting, and an enormous roost of over 3000 pied wagtails has been long established on O’Connell Street in Dublin.The warmth of inner-city areas seems to attract these small, vulnerable birds, and I hope that the East Finchley bird has either found a warm place to spend the night, or is flying off to roost with lots of friends elsewhere.

Photo One by Redgannet at

Pied Wagtail roost at Heathrow Terminal Five (Photo One by Redgannet – see below for link)

And to round off this story of two birds, here is a poem by Thomas Hardy that seems to capture the very nature of the wagtail.

Wagtail And Baby
by Thomas Hardy

A baby watched a ford, whereto
A wagtail came for drinking;
A blaring bull went wading through,
The wagtail showed no shrinking.
A stallion splashed his way across,
The birdie nearly sinking;
He gave his plumes a twitch and toss,
And held his own unblinking.
Next saw the baby round the spot
A mongrel slowly slinking;
The wagtail gazed, but faltered not
In dip and sip and prinking.
A perfect gentleman then neared;
The wagtail, in a winking,
With terror rose and disappeared;
The baby fell a-thinking.


Much like the baby, I too  ‘fell a-thinking’. The East Finchley wagtail seems delightfully unconcerned by people, waiting until the very last moment to fly, but I’ve noticed that in Dorset, the second I raise my camera to take a picture everyone flaps off in a panic. I suspect that in the hunting/shooting/fishing West Country, animals have learned that a human raising a metallic object is not at all a good thing, and behave accordingly. In ‘The Peregrine’ by J.A. Baker, a strange masterpiece but a masterpiece nonetheless, he talks of how humans ‘stink of death’. I fear that, for most animals, this is absolutely true.

Photo Credit

Photo One by Redgannet at







Wednesday Weed – Pieris

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…..

Pieris japonica

Dear Readers, this week my plant of choice is one that I have never attempted to grow, though I have admired it in many a front garden. This is Pieris japonica, known as Pieris here in the UK, but with the delightful names Japanese fetterbush or Japanese andromeda in the US (to find out why, read on!). There are seven species in the Pieris genus, and they have a wide distribution through the mountainous areas of eastern North America, eastern and southern Asia and Cuba, though it is the japonica species (which, as the name suggests, comes from Japan, Taiwan and eastern China) that  is the most widely seen here. The plant is a member of the Ericaceae or heather family, and its liking for acid soil is one reason for my not attempting it in the claggy, clay-based soil of London, though I suppose I could try one in a pot.

The close relationship to heather is clearer when the buds open and become little bells. You can see why yet another name for the plant is ‘lily-of-the-valley shrub’. And apparently the chains of flowers were a reminder of the fetters that bound Andromeda to the rock in Greek mythology until she was rescued by Perseus, hence the American names for the plant.

Photo One by By First Light at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0,

Pieris japonica in full bloom (Photo One)

The new spring foliage is often a different colour from the older leaves, and the plant is evergreen, making it a good choice for year-round interest in a small garden.

Photo Two by By Stephencdickson - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

New foliage on a Pieris (Photo Two)

For some delightful close-ups of Pieris japonica, have a look at the Microscopy UK page for the plant here, which is full of wonders.

Although not native to the UK, Pieris has become the foodplant of a subtle but elegant moth known as the engrailed (Ectropis crepuscularia). Incidentally, ‘engrailed’ means ‘to have semi-circular indentations along the edge’.

Photo Three by By ©entomart, Attribution,

The Engrailed (Ectropis crepuscularia) (Photo Three)

Pieris is said to be a good plant for those plagued by visits from hungry deer ( I should be so lucky!), and this may be because all parts of the plant are said to be toxic to animals and to people. The plant has been implicated in ‘mummification of the fetus’ in goats , and honey made from the nectar of the plant can be poisonous (such honey is known as ‘mad honey’, and the same results can be produced when the nectar comes from rhodondendrons).

Apparently the plant features as a poison in the TV series ‘Breaking Bad’, but as I haven’t seen it I can only call upon those who have to see if they remember an appearance. By the strange synchronicity that often attends this blog, I went to see a production of ‘Network’ at the National Theatre yesterday, starring none other than Bryan Cranston, the star of ‘Breaking Bad’. I’d give the show as a whole 3.5/5, but Cranston was outstanding, and it’s worth going just for him (if you can get tickets at this late stage).

Anyhoo, back to Pieris japonica.

As you might expect, there are few recipes that include pieris, and few medicinal uses that I could find, though the plant is apparently used as a pesticide and a parasiticide in its native Japan. However, in the course of researching this post I found a very interesting blog called ‘The Hospice Gardener‘, by a delightful man called Jim Nicholson. He was very much cheered up by a Pieris japonica back in April, and who can blame him? There is so much love in a garden like this, and I’m sure that it brings solace to many, many people. Sometimes a plant’s beauty is more than enough.

It was certainly enough for the people of Japan, for Pieris japonica features in many poems. In 985, a group of Japanese gentlemen were admiring the blossoming Pieris (translated here as Andromeda) and decided to write Wakas (poems of thirty-one syllables designed to capture a moment of fleeting beauty). The event is captured in The Art of Japanese Gardens, by Sandra Kuck.

The first poem was by Otomo no Yaka-Mochi:

The pond water reflects

Even the shadows of blooming Andromeda-

Let me take it carefully

In my sleeve.

Another was by Ikako no Mabito, who wrote:

Under the rocks

The transparent pond water

Has become the bright colour

Of young Andromeda leaves.

Must these things die?

And finally, Prince Mikata no Ohogime conjures up another inhabitant of the garden:

In this, your island

Home of the mandarin duck

I see today also

the Andromeda


I don’t know about you, but I can almost see this garden, the red leaves and white flowers of the Pieris reflected in the water and a mandarin duck passing by at a stately pace. There is something about a plant in total harmony with its surroundings, growing in its native land, that feels somehow profoundly right and congruent, like a meadow full of buttercups and ox-eye daisies here in the UK, or a bluebell wood. It’s wonderful that we can pick and choose from plants that are native to other places in the world, and certainly some of them help to prolong the season for our birds and insects, but there is something so special about a natural and complex ecosystem, its parts in harmony with one another. As we all know, however, our climate is changing, and it will be interesting (and probably terrifying) to see how our native habitats change with it. I suspect that it will be the adaptable creatures and plants that survive, and the treasures that thrive in narrow, specific niches that will be lost. Let us hope against hope that the peoples of the world will wake up in time to mitigate at least the worst effects of our presence on this planet.

Photo Four by By Buiobuione - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Male Mandarin Duck (Photo Four)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By First Light at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0,

Photo Two by By Stephencdickson – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Three by By ©entomart, Attribution,

Photo Four by By Buiobuione – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,




Bugwoman on Location – Hampstead Village


The Wonky Chimneys of Flask Cottages, Hampstead

Dear Readers, this week I was in Hampstead, delivering an enormous bag of knitting wool to a charity called Knit For Peace who match keen knitters with good causes. I am a great believer in the healing power of crafts of all kinds – it’s hard to stay angry and resentful when you’re trying to work out how a Fair Isle pattern is supposed to work. And look at the excellent use that your master(mistress)pieces can be put to once the many hours of work have been completed!

Willow the cat and my blanket.

Being in Hampstead gave me an opportunity to explore. I started off on Flask Walk, where I am always intrigued by the wonky chimneys in the first photo above. Why are they so eccentric? My delving into the internets has produced nothing on the subject, so feel free to chip in with any suggestions.

Hampstead seems such a quaint and attractive area, rather Bohemian you might think, a great place to bring up a family. However, as average house prices for the area are over £1.6m (and a ‘detached family dwelling’ is getting on for £6m) I don’t imagine the average family will be moving here any time soon. In the meantime, however, I spent some time admiring the water droplets on the leaves and plants, and trying not to look too suspicious, what with my camera and all. There are a lot of security teams around here, as you might expect.

One reason for advancing along the road is that this is the location of Burgh House, the site of Mr and Mrs Bugwoman’s marriage in September 2010. Sadly, the building, and hence the delightful cafe, was closed until 10th January, but I recommend a visit for both food and edification, as the Hampstead Museum is also here. I took a few photos and remembered some of the details of the day – for example, when my dad and I got into the vintage Rolls Royce we’d hired to get to Burgh House and he said ‘I suppose I should be giving you some advice, but you know it all already’. Well, I was forty.

Burgh House, Hampstead

This was all very splendid but I hadn’t seen any animals yet, apart from one of the many blackbirds who have popped out in the past few days to make the most of the muddy conditions and the superabundance of worms. Incidentally, I was walking in the cemetery today with my most excellent friend A, and we observed a similar blackbird.

‘I don’t like to dwell upon blackbirds eating worms in a graveyard’, she said.

But when you think about it, how wonderful it would be to be recycled as a blackbird!

A Hampstead blackbird

I decided to pop over to the other side of the village and have a look at the churchyard. The church itself is the Parish Church of St John at Hampstead, although I note from the website that it wasn’t initially clear which St John was intended – it was only in 1917 that it was declared that it was the St John the Evangelist. The current church was consecrated in 1747, although there have been religious buildings on the site right back to 986.

The Church of St John in Hampstead

As you might have expected by now, I was drawn to the churchyards. There is one around the church itself, and a second one across the road.

The churchyard around St Johns

I was not exactly dressed for muddy paths and bird watching, what with my bright red coat and boots and all, but I slithered around nonetheless. There is an atmosphere of melancholy under those dark, ancient trees, and sitting on a bench right in the middle of the churchyard was a young man, deep in thought. How these places support us when we need peace and solitude! I sneaked past as quietly and unobtrusively as I could and noticed how the robins have suddenly started singing, just in this past few days. How sensitive their clock is to the length of days.

Around the side of the church, a tombstone had split and weeds were growing in the cracks, a metaphor for life’s persistence and resilience if ever one was handed to me.

And then I headed off across the road, to the ‘overflow’ graveyard that was opened in 1812.

The place was full of birds. Robins sang from the gravestones and, as I nearly went flat on my bum under an alder tree, a gang of long-tailed tits came along to have a good laugh.


A long-tailed tit, no doubt laughing his head off

There was a small flock of redwings in the yew tree, and when one flew out to perch nearby, I was able to capture this candidate for Wildlife Photographer of the Year (not)


Redwing! Honestly!

I found this exquisitely beautiful tomb, with an angel kissing the forehead of a small child. It is the last resting place of Eve Hammersley, who lived locally and died in 1902.


I found a gorse bush in full flower, and noticed for the first time how the petals at the base of the bloom have a little hole in them, like a jawbone.


And, in addition to the long-tailed tits (who aren’t really tits) there were blue tits and great tits, which are.

And so, as the rain started, I turned and headed for home. There are lots of interesting graves here: Hugh Gaitskill and Peter Cook are among the luminaries buried amidst the yew trees and the moss. And yet, as always, it’s the life that intrigues me and lifts my spirits in a cemetery, not the death. The call of birds and the bursting forth of new green life always reminds me that there are other cycles beside our day-to-day artificial bustle of Christmas and New Year, accounting year-ends and sales. For the birds, and for the plants, spring has already put a twinkle in their eye. If we stop and breathe and listen, it will do the same for all of us.



A pathway in the second churchyard







Wednesday Weed – Crab Apple

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…..


Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris)

Dear Readers, when you see all the different varieties of ‘domestic’ crab apple, such as this splendid one on Durham Road in East Finchley, it’s easy to forget that this is a native British tree, now vanishingly rare. This is partly due to interbreeding with the domestic apple (Malus pumila), but also because this slow-growing tree has a high light requirement, which means that it largely survives on the edges of woods and as solitary trees in hedgerows.In ‘Flora Britannica’, Richard Mabey mentions that these lonely crab apples were often used as boundary markers, and are mentioned in nearly 10% of the 658 Anglo-Saxon and Welsh charters examined. It may also have been used as a plough marker, something for the farmer to line up with when setting out to turn the soil. These little trees have been part of the landscape for a very long time indeed.

In its wild state, the crab apple has tiny yellow-green fruit and white blossom. Domesticated varieties can vary in colour from the crimson of the tree on Durham Road to the bright orange of the one in my garden, and the blossom can be every colour from pure white to darkest maroon.

Photo One by By H. Zell - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Fruit of the wild crab apple (Photo One)

Why ‘crab apple’ though? I wondered if it was because the fruit was so lip-puckerlingly sour ( the genus name ‘Malus‘ means ‘evil), but most sources think it’s because the tree itself looks rather twisted and elderly even when relatively young (crab apples can live to 100 years), and also because the stems can develop spines. When we talk about someone being ‘crabby’  we mean  that they are irritable and quick to take offence, and I imagine that this is what’s intended by the use of the word ‘crab’ here. However, crab apples are wonderful trees for the small garden, with their blossom in spring and fruit in the winter. I do note, however, that it is one of the last types of fruit to go from my garden. Maybe even the thrushes find it a little harsh to stomach. However, it’s sourness was seen as a benefit by the Anglo-Saxons, who included it in the ‘Nine Herbs Charm’ as ‘a cure for the bite of another poison’.

Photo Two - by Judith Wakelam at Mildenhall Air Force Base (

Blackbird feeding on crab apples at Mildenhall Air Force base in Norfolk, UK (Photo Two)

These days, crab apples either fall to the pavement and make a mess/feast for wasps, or they end up in crab apple jelly, which can be a most delightful pale pink colour. I always think that it looks better than it tastes, but maybe that’s my sweet tooth talking. Crab apples are a very useful source of pectin for jam making, too. The Woodland Trust have a collection of three recipes here, including the ubiquitous crab apple jelly, but also featuring crab apple liqueur, which makes my eyes light up somewhat. Then, there is a recipe for crab apples turned into toffee apples, which sounds like a way to surprise small children, and not in a pleasant way either.

Photo Three by

Crab apple toffee apples. I have my doubts, gentle readers…..(Photo Three)

In Shakespeare’s time crab apples were sometimes added to warmed ale or winter punches, hence this from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:


And sometimes lurk I in a gossip’s bowl

In the very likeness of a roasted crab

And when she drinks, against her lips I bob

Typical Puck. What a naughty boy he is.

There is little doubt that the crab apple was an important ancestor of the ‘real’ apple, and as we have seen it hybridizes with domestic apples quite happily. Crab apples are often planted among eating apple trees because their blossom attracts bees who will cross-pollinate the apples, and if there is a shortage of bees, the flowering branches from crab apples might be brought into an orchard to encourage the pollinators. Crab apples are also sometimes used as root stock for domestic varieties.

Apple pips will often grow into trees when they’re deposited in suitable soil by birds, and because they never ‘come true’ from seed these ‘wildings’ can give indications of genetic ancestors long-since extinct. To quote Richard Mabey again:

I know a green lane near Bovingdon in the Chilterns, not far from an area of one-time orchard land, in which there are three wilding trees, one with apples like miniature Cox’s Orange Pippins, another whose fruit has a bitter-sweet, almost effervescent taste, like sherbet, and a scent of quince, and a third whose long, pear-shaped apples have a warm smoky flavour behind the tartness, as if they had already been baked. On the shingle beach at Aldeburgh in Suffolk there is a prostrate apple of unknown provenance which bears fully ripe fruit before the end of June’ (Flora Britannica pg 202)

What an extraordinary resource these wilding trees are. We are becoming more and more reliant on a tiny number of food plants, and, with the climate changing, it seems to me that we should be saving every variety that we can find, and diversifying, not narrowing. But yet again I digress. Back to the crab apple!

Photo Four by By Kilo22 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A flowering crabapple in Washington D.C. (Photo Four)

Crab apples are a popular food of many moths and butterflies, and you can find a complete list here. Here are a couple of the moths whose caterpillars have been found on crab apple, and what a varied and attractive bunch they are. They make me very happy to have such a useful tree in the garden.

Photo Five by By ©entomart, Attribution,

The brimstone moth (Opisthograptis luteolata) (Photo Five)

Photo Six by CC BY-SA 2.5,

Common emerald (Hemithea aestivaria) (Photo Six)

Photo Seven by By ©entomart, Attribution,

Cherry-bark tortrix (Enarmonia formosana) (Photo Seven)

Photo Eight by By jean-pierre Hamon - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Emperor moth (Pavonia pavonia) (Photo Eight)

Crab apples have a number of traditional and folkloric uses in the British Isles. They were made into a spiced drink at Lammastide (1st August), and young women used to lay out the fruit on a loft floor in the shape of their various boyfriends’ initials on 29th September each year. Those initials which were least nibbled by mice, kicked over by passing beetles or relatively undiminished by mildew were said to indicate the boy with the warmest feelings for the lady concerned. There is much room here for sabotage I’m sure, and also some scope for a comedic short story if anyone out there has the inclination.

For an even more entertaining evening, it is said that if you throw the seeds from a crab apple into a fire while intoning the name of your beloved, the seed will explode if his/her love is true. Just the thing for a winter’s evening!

I note that in the Bach Flower Remedies, crab apple is a cure for self-dislike, despondency, obsessions, fussiness, and anxiety.

The village of Egremont in Cumbria has, since 1267, held a crab apple fair, at which the fruit would be distributed to the peasants. No doubt they were overwhelmed with gratitude. These days, however, the fair is the site of the annual Gurning Competition, in which folk put their heads through a horse collar and see who can make the most alarming ‘funny face’.

Photo Nine by

The 2013 Gurning Championship winners, and what a fine selection they are (Photo Nine)

To start 2018 with a bang, click here for  a rather splendid poem by Vicki Feaver, called Crab Apple Jelly. This definitely makes me want to read more of her work. And here is a rather melancholy piece called ‘Crabapple Blossoms’ by Carl Sandburg (winner of no less than 3 Pulitzer prizes). It reminds me rather of the fading of blossom, and the passing of time, which is rather appropriate considering how quickly 2017 galloped past. Carpe diem, friends!

Crabapple Blossom by Carl Sandburg

SOMEBODY’S little girl-how easy to make a sob story over who she was once and who she is now.
Somebody’s little girl-she played once under a crab-apple tree in June and the blossoms fell on the dark hair.

It was somewhere on the Erie line and the town was Salamanca or Painted Post or Horse’s Head.
And out of her hair she shook the blossoms and went into the house and her mother washed her face and her mother had an ache in her heart at a rebel voice, ‘I don’t want to.’

Somebody’s little girl-forty little girls of somebodies splashed in red tights forming horseshoes, arches, pyramids-forty little show girls, ponies, squabs.
How easy a sob story over who she once was and who she is now-and how the crabapple blossoms fell on her dark hair in June.

Let the lights of Broadway spangle and splatter-and the taxis hustle the crowds away when the show is over and the street goes dark.
Let the girls wash off the paint and go for their midnight sandwiches-let ’em dream in the morning sun, late in the morning, long after the morning papers and the milk wagons-
Let ’em dream long as they want to … of June somewhere on the Erie line … and crabapple blossoms.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By H. Zell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two – by Judith Wakelam at Mildenhall Air Force Base (

Photo Three by

Photo Four by By Kilo22 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Five by By ©entomart, Attribution,

Photo Six by CC BY-SA 2.5,

Photo Seven by By ©entomart, Attribution,

Photo Eight by By jean-pierre Hamon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Nine by

A Dorset Christmas

Dear Readers, you may remember that our Christmas plans had to change this year, because Mum and Dad both had serious chest infections and were not well enough to travel to London.  So, at the last minute we decided to take Christmas to them. What logistical challenges ensued! For one thing, there was the issue of sorting out the all-important Christmas Food. Fortunately there was still a slot for a Christmas delivery by Tescos, and so I ordered lots of brussel sprouts and chipolatas. Unfortunately, Mum and Dad’s carer went down with the lurgy on the day when it all arrived, and so they were confronted with about twenty bags of Stuff to put away.

Panic ensued, and I was phoned at 9 a.m. and asked where they should put it all. As I was not there, this was a bit of a challenge.

‘Put the frozen stuff in the freezer, in the bags, put the fridge stuff in the fridge and leave the grocery stuff and I’ll sort it out when I get there on Saturday’ I said, trying not to be too distressed by Mum’s description of the sheer volume of food.

I spent an hour worrying about what was happening. Had Dad fallen into the chest freezer? Had Mum done herself a damage trying to manhandle the all-important tonic water? I am not given to catastrophising (ahem) but by 10 a.m. I was convinced that they were both laying on the kitchen floor having simultaneously tripped over one another (there is precedent for this particular worry).

And then Dad phoned back.

‘It’s all put away’, he said, ‘And there’s even a bit of spare room. Now I’m off to make a cuppa’.

And so, that was that.

And then we arrived, and the rest of Christmas seemed to be made up of

  • Making tea
  • Making more tea
  • Making trifle
  • Eating Christmas Cake (which had been very well-fed with brandy)
  • Making Creme Caramel (Dad’s favourite)
  • Wondering how Creme Caramel and Trifle were going to fit into the fridge
  • Digging the chicken out of the chest freezer, and worrying about where the promised giblets had gone (AWOL as it turned out)
  • Making blinis with smoked salmon
  • Discovering that there are endless back-to-back re-runs of Father Brown on the Alibi channel (eight in one day)

And so it was that on Boxing Day, for a few brief hours, the sun shone, the torrential downpour stopped, and my husband and I stepped out for a walk. It was a relief to stretch the legs, and to look off to the horizon where there were some rather fine sheep. I love the black faces and black legs on this one, it looks like the ur-sheep, the quintessential essence of sheep-ness.

Further along the way, a statue of a lady was leaning against a weeping tree. She could even have been weeping herself. Possibly she was overwhelmed with chipolata preparation, and if so I know exactly how she felt.

I love the way that the veins of the ivy are picked out by the change in its colour.

And here is a very unimpressed cat, enjoying a little winter sunshine, and refusing to engage with passersby, in spite of their very best cat-attracting noises.

Up the hill we went. It was a pleasure to walk with John – usually I do this walk on my own, so it was good to have someone to show ‘the sights’ too, such as they are.

There’s always somebody working over the roofs for little insects, like the pied wagtail on the thatched roof below, and the sparrows on the tiles.

I could show John St Francis of Assisi, and all his little animal friends – the number and variety grow every time I visit, and it’s somewhere that I always stop.

There are a fine bunch of calves in the cowshed, curious as always.

And the hills stretch away, gentle and green. So we walked on and on, until we came to a farm. There were three motorbikes parked in the middle of the path, which wasn’t a problem. Then, I noticed that the derelict farm building next door and all the land around it were literally ankle-deep in beer and cider cans. Hmm. Maybe I was over-cautious, but it seemed to me that this might be a good point to turn round. I’ve seen Deliverance, you know.

On the way back, there were some unusual birds in the bare trees, but I’m not sure what they were. I’m thinking maybe Fieldfare by the size of them in comparison to the crow, but all comments gratefully accepted.

There were some corrugated roofs that were overgrown with ivy last time I took this walk, but they’ve now been cleaned up somewhat. Still lots of lovely moss, though.

The roof last time I was here……

And the roof now

And some attractive moss

We pass the calves again, and one little Aberdeen Angus calf in a field all on his own.

Back down the path.

There is a hedge full of mahonia and lichen-encrusted twigs, and the colours are exquisite in the sunshine.

But who is this?

Fortunately, I have a picture from 2005 to reveal who is under the hat….it’s a very fine pig.

It’s a pig!

And as we get to the bottom of the hill, I become aware that the robins are singing all around us, announcing their territories and getting ready for the hard work of the spring. They’re a bit early, but maybe the sunshine warms their bones and tells them the world has turned towards the light again.

Back at home, all is peaceful. Mum and Dad are dozing in their chairs, Father Brown is solving yet another case, and it’s not yet time to peel the potatoes for dinner. I consider  sneaking off to read the paper and have a nap.There will be plenty of time to get back into the Christmas spirit in an hour or so, when everyone lurches back into alertness for Paul O’Grady’s programme about Battersea dogs, and the Strictly Christmas show, followed by a cut-throat quiz in which Dad beats everyone. In other words, it’s Christmas, as usual.

Dad wearing his Christmas hat at a very jaunty angle. And no, he hasn’t been at the gin 🙂



Wednesday Weed – Rosemary

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…..

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Dear Readers, here in East Finchley Rosemary is an extremely popular choice for the front garden. It is deliciously pungent if brushed against, and the tiny, complex flowers delight the bees. On a warm summer day the scent of the Mediterranean wafts up in a fragrant cloud. But on a cold December morning, it reminds me that the name ‘Rosemary’ comes from the Greek words for ‘dew of the sea’. It is also associated with Christianity: there is a legend that when the Virgin Mary threw her cloak over a white-flowered rosemary bush to dry, the flowers took on the blue colour from her garment. It was henceforth known as ‘the rose of Mary’.

In the Middle Ages it was said that a thriving bush of rosemary outside the front door indicated that the woman of the house wore the trousers, to which I reply ‘and your problem is?’. However, many men with such a botanical indication of their status right outside their living room window would sneak out at dead of night and cut the roots of the plant. A comb made from rosemary, however, was said to cure baldness, so maybe it was sometimes allowed to stay.

Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) had this to say about the plant:

“As for rosemary, I let it run all over my garden walls, not only because my bees love it but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance and to friendship, whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language.”

Rosemary is a member of the Lamiaceae or mint family, and numbers basil, sage, oregano and mint among its siblings. They all  share the intensely aromatic oils that are such a boon in cookery, and which were probably developed to deter pesky insects – rosemary has been used as a way to protect clothes against moths, and was one of the ingredients of ‘four thieves vinegar’  which was said to prevent a person from catching the plague. As the plague was spread by fleas, there might have been a germ of truth in the idea, as with many folk remedies.

Rosemary is well adapted for a hot climate, with its needle-like, waxy leaves, which protect against water loss. It is known for its tendency to bloom out of season, and one of the bushes that I spotted last week was bursting with flowers.

Any Shakespeare readers will recall that Ophelia strews rosemary ‘for remembrance’ shortly before her watery demise. There is a long history of associating rosemary not only with remembrance, but also with memory: rosemary oil is said to be good for those struggling to memorise facts and figures, or whose memory is failing. The Guardian reported that sales of rosemary oil were rocketing amongst revising students. A packet of Maryland Cookies used to do the trick for me along with vats of black coffee, but hey.

Ophelia and Laertes by William Gorman (circa 1880). Note the sprig of Rosemary drooping from Ophelia’s hand (Public Domain)

Rosemary was also much associated with marriage during the Middle Ages, and both bride and bridegroom would have worn it on their wedding day. The bride would carry a sprig of rosemary from a bush grown in her parents’ garden, to remind her of the love and protection that had been afforded her there. A bridesmaid would plant a sprig of the same bush in the bride’s garden as a symbol of protection and in due course, a sprig from this would be passed on to the bride’s daughters. I love the idea of handing plants down from one generation to another. I have a sudden  vision of a garden filled with plants given to me by my friends and family, and the possibility of passing the plants on in my turn. That would be a real garden of remembrance every time I stepped out into it.

Rosemary is a most popular culinary herb, especially with roast meat, but it has also been cropping up in desserts recently. If you scroll down through this article, you’ll find apple cake with rosemary crumble, for example, which sounds extremely acceptable, especially as I haven’t had my lunch yet. There is also a rosemary and chocolate brownie and, hallelujah, a cocktail made from lemonade, bourbon and rosemary. Just as well that there’s so much of it here in East Finchley.

Photo One (Brownie) by Yuki Sugiura for the Guardian

Rosemary and Chocolate Brownie (Photo One)

If you still have any rosemary left after all that cooking, you might consider knocking up some Hungary Water, which was a mixture of fresh rosemary tops and wine, and was used by Queen Elizabeth of Poland (1305-1380) to restore her youth and vitality when she was in her seventies (a ripe old age in those days). It is also said to cure gout and ‘paralysis of the limbs’. It had a brief spell of popularity as a perfume too, and no doubt all those courtly ladies (and possibly gentlemen) had great fun dousing themselves in the stuff.

Queen Elizabeth of Poland and her sons (1380). She looks very sprightly, I must say. (Public Domain)

And to finish, a poem. Elaine Feinstein (born 1930) is one of our greatest living Jewish poets, and this particular poem resonates deeply. It reminds me of the increasing frailty of my Dad, who was such a strong, vigorous man in his heyday. He still has his moments now, so it doesn’t do to underestimate him, but there is a poignant sadness in this work that moves me. I am breaking my usual habit of not pasting the poem because I want you to see it, but you can buy more of Feinstein’s work here.

Rosemary in Provence

We stopped the Citroen at the turn of the lane,

because you wanted a sprig of blue rosemary

to take home, and your coat opened awkwardly

as you bent over. Any stranger would have seen

your frail shoulders, the illness

in your skin – our holiday on the Luberon

ending with salmonella –

but what hurt me, as you chose slowly,

was the delicacy of your gesture:

the curious child, loving blossom

and mosses, still eager

in your disguise as an old man.

Elaine Feinstein

Photo Credits

Photo One (Brownie) by Yuki Sugiura for the Guardian 





Christmas on the County Roads

Dear Readers, it’s fair to say that Christmas has broken out all over the County Roads here in East Finchley, so, on a particularly damp and misty morning I went out for a walk to see what was going on. I am going to be away from home for Christmas for the first time since I moved here in 2010, and it feels a little strange: I haven’t put up the Christmas tree, the pink velvet reindeers are still in the box in the eaves, and several Father Christmases will be feeling very irritable if I don’t fish them out soon. But, somehow, I feel a need to let go of expectation and to simplify this year, and to that end I thought I’d enjoy what everyone else was doing rather than feel as if I had to do it myself.

The door wreathes, for example, are particularly splendid this year, and very varied. As with the Christmas trees, there are those who favour natural materials, and those who have an artificial one that lasts for many seasons.

  And then there are the decorations. I am very taken with the little glass creatures in the photo directly below.

But as I walked around, I quickly became aware that although much of nature is quiescent at this time of year, there is still a surprising amount going on. After all the snow I was surprised to see fresh spiders’ webs, bejewelled with mist.

And what is more festive than a shrub full of fruit?

The cotoneaster below was a mass of berries

The black fruits of ivy promise some respite for the thrushes if the weather turns cold again.

And I shall need a hand with this one, gardening friends. The fruit reminds me very much of spindle   but the leaves are different. Maybe it’s from the same family.

A relative of the spindle?

There is a strange beauty to the decay of plants. For example, I think I prefer the browning heads of the hydrangeas to the blooms in their fresher, more pristine state.

And in the insect-damaged leaves of mahonia and holly there is a flame of colour that the perfect ones lack. It reminds me that the beauty of a face that has been through trouble is often more profound than the picture-perfect features of someone who has not yet been tested by life.

And who should pop up when I was walking down Bedford Road but Bailey, the King of the Cats? He didn’t want to stop for a chat, but headed off down the road at a brisk trot, yowling all the way. He is a most determined puss cat.

To my surprise, some things are in flower, like the pink camellia and the clematis below. Although there are less blooms about at this time of year, the ones that there are seem all the more precious.

But what lifted my heart most today was not one of the more obvious things, but a tiny seedling. A few months ago, I captured a green oasis at the bottom of a wall along from Kentucky Fried Chicken. There were approximately ten species growing there, all ‘weeds’ to be sure, but tiny spiders were making their homes between the leaves, and there was even a caterpillar.

Then came the paving improvements, and, whilst the new paving slabs are delightfully even, there is not a blade of grass to be seen.

Until today.

I love that the natural world never gives up. Where there is a teaspoonful of soil, and a spot of rain, some plant will put down roots and throw up flowers. it gives me such hope to see that whatever we do, nature can circumvent us.

So, by the time this is published I’ll be heading off to Dorset for Christmas with Mum and Dad. It will be a different kind of celebration, but none the worst for that, and I’m actually rather looking forward to it. At least the parents will be snug and warm in their own home, and won’t have to worry about braving the Christmas traffic, or coping with the air quality in London. I wish all of you a peaceful and happy holiday, and hope that 2018 brings you everything that you long for most.