Category Archives: Bugwoman on Location

A Visit to Mum and Dad, and the Dreaded Blandford Fly

Dear Readers, every time I come to visit Mum and Dad, I find myself in a flurry of activity – pulling up long grass, getting rid of plants that haven’t made it, trying to clean up the stone plaque (though I definitely need to speak to the stonemasons about the best way to clean it up – I don’t want to pollute the surrounding area with caustic chemicals, but I do want to be able to read their details). Then there’s the putting the old plants on the compost heap, getting rid of the dreaded plastic pots, positioning the new plants, and finally I slump under the cherry tree and feel a great sense of peace descend. This really is the most serene spot. All you can hear is the cooing of woodpigeons (plus the occasional ‘clap’ as one of the males demonstrates his strength by ‘clapping’ his wings at the top of a rollercoaster flightpath), the chinking of the many, many house martins, and the wind in the yew trees. I bring Mum and Dad up to date with my latest news – my retirement, all the medical tests that I’ve had since I ‘saw’ them last. I find myself telling them about my heart valve defect, and telling them not to worry. When I mention my retirement I can almost hear Dad saying ‘What took you so long?’. It might seem funny to talk to people who are dead, but I also know that I’m far from being the only person who does it.

I take a walk to see how my favourite lime tree is getting on (it was blown down in a storm last year), and it seems to be doing fine. It will take many years to reach its former splendour, but I love that it is hanging on.

The lime tree today

The Lime Tree in its full splendour

Now, when Mum and Dad first moved to Dorset I remember Dad telling me to be very careful that I didn’t get bitten by ‘the Blandford Fly’. How I laughed! However, following my walk down by the stream yesterday I have picked up about five nasty bites, and although I suspect that they’re merely mosquito bites, I have been casting my eye over information about the Blandford Fly, and I think that I owe Dad an apology.

The Blandford Fly (Simulium posticatum) is a species of blackfly which lives as a larva in the weeds alongside slow-running rivers. When the females emerge, they, much like midges, require a blood meal in order to for their 200-300 eggs to mature. Along comes a handy human walker or angler or someone wearing shorts and the fly is in heaven. The bites seem to be particularly irritating and painful, and because of this are prone to becoming infected. In the worst case people are hospitalised, and the name ‘Blandford Fly’ comes from an outbreak in the 1972 when over 600 people were so badly affected within a four week period that they needed treatment at the doctor or their local hospital.

At first (as was always the case), the treatment was to spray the riverbanks where the larvae lived with a chemical biocide. This resulted in the death of many other species of blackfly (important for fish and for other invertebrates such as dragonflies) and a disruption to the ecology of the river. However, in the 1980s another way of doing things became available. River ecology expert, Dr Mike Ladle, suggested that a newly-discovered bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (found in the Negev desert in Israel) could be used to target the Blandford Fly specifically without endangering any other species. The river was first sprayed with the bacterium in 1991, and Dr Ladle suggests that  ‘this is probably the best example of the use of a biological agent to control a pest, in an ecologically friendly fashion, anywhere in the world.’ It does seem to have been a remarkable success – in 1980 there were 1400 recorded cases of bites, but by 1999 it was down to 45 cases. 

All the more reason, then, for alarm in 2014 when disagreements about who should fund the spraying, and new EU legislation about licences for river treatment meant that the bacteria might not be used in time for the emergence of larvae in 2015. An 80 year-old Blandford resident, Pat Ashworth, went shop to shop, street corner to street corner, with an old-school petition, and managed to get nearly 2500 signatures to say that the treatment must go ahead. I suspect that many Dorset towns and villages are basically run by feisty retired ladies who won’t take no for an answer, and more power to them (and I also suspect that this phenomenon is not limited to Dorset).

Ashworth was obviously worried about people getting sick, but she also had other concerns. Hospitals and GP practices in the West Country are under a lot of pressure in the summer due to the influx of tourists, so bite treatment would be one more thing. She also cited the name of the Blandford Fly as being a deterrent to tourists, and suggested that it could just as easily be named ‘the Wimborne Fly’, passing the blame on to another Dorset village. She was absolutely right that the fly was present along most of the river Stour downstream of Blandford, so there are a number of other towns and villages that are affected.

Spraying with the bacterial agent recommenced in 2016, so at least in Dorset the risk of a nasty bite is much reduced. However, the fly is spreading, with cases in Herefordshire and Oxfordshire, and I note with some interest that ‘garden water features’ are thought to be a factor. Well, as the insects require slow-running rivers I suspect that the average garden pond can be exonerated. Always beware of articles on invertebrates in the local and national press, these guys frequently illustrate articles about bees with hoverflies so we can assume that the level of entomological knowledge is not what it might be.

I think we forget that although the UK isn’t tropical (yet) we do have all manner of biting insects, from your average mosquito to the terrifying midges of the west of Scotland, to cleggies in Devon and horseflies more or less anywhere. As I’m sure you know, it’s the anti-coagulant that the insects inject when they bite you that is the main irritant, and if you can avoid scratching you will greatly reduce the risk of infection. I generally use a hydrocortisone cream for a brief period until the itching subsides (calamine lotion can also work and is safer). If I fear that the irritation will keep me awake I might also take chlorphenamine maleate (the active ingredient in Piriton and many of those other antihistamines) but again just for a day or so. Comfrey ointment and comfrey tea have also been recommended to me, and the ointment certainly works. I’m always open to hearing about things that work for bites, as all manner of invertebrates seem to love me just as much as I love them, so fire away!

And just for the record, as Blandford flies normally bite the lower leg, and are most active from May to June, I am pretty confident that my bites are just from a mosquito, and that they’ll be sorted out within a few days. But apologies to Dad. The Blandford Fly does appear to have been a menace historically, even if it is now more of a minor nuisance.

Incidentally, Woodhouse and Hall, the local brewery, created an ale called Blandford Fly, flavoured with, among other things, ginger, which is said to be a helpful treatment for a bite. I do love how something so unpleasant can be turned into a marketing opportunity.

The story of the Blandford Fly (with a rather unnecessary dig at EU ‘bureaucracy’ ) is here. There are some photos of the redoubtable Pat Ashworth too.

Return to Dorset

The streamside pathway in Dorchester

Dear Readers, as you might remember my Mum and Dad’s ashes are buried in the churchyard of St Andrew’s church in Milborne St Andrew, a small village just outside Dorchester. So, three or four times a year I go to visit them, to tidy up the grave and to tell them what’s been going on. It might seem silly, but it gives me comfort to bring them up to speed with the news, and to let them know that they’re not forgotten.

First, though, I spend the afternoon and evening at Westwood House, a guest house in Dorchester. It was recently taken over by a new couple, Jocelyn and Karl, but the welcome, the breakfast, the rooms and the hospitality are just as good as ever. Plus, there was a new little visitor in the room.

This little cricket/grasshopper was a very determined critter. Before I went out for a walk, I managed to catch him/her, and put them outside on the balcony.

“There”, I thought, “That’s that”. But when I got back after a trot along by the stream (of which more later) there s/he was again. I caught them and put them out for a second time.

And then today, there they were again. Clearly I needed to translocate them to some better environment. But how? I used the wooden carved box that was in the toilet, but the cricket got out of the carved holes at the top and sat there grinning. Then it jumped onto the floor. Eventually I caught it in yet another box, and this time I managed to find a nice grassy area on a tiny alleyway where there was hopefully lots to eat and plenty of other little crickets to play with.

If it turns up again tonight I will be completely freaked out.

Anyhow, off I went for my usual walk, down to the stream and past the allotments and the little nature reserve. I spent a lot of time watching for fish: there were lots about (as two anglers would seem to indicate) but I couldn’t quite catch them in a photo. Here, to get you in the mood, is some water weed though. I always find it very relaxing to watch.

And just look at this. This is a male Banded Demoiselle, the only UK damselfly with a parti-coloured wing. They are found in lush vegetation alongside rivers and streams, and the females (who are metallic green or bronze, with a white spot on their wings) lay their eggs by injecting them into the stems of fleshy plants. What beautiful insects they are, especially earlier in the year where the males display by fluttering those black and blue wings.

The allotments are looking great too. Someone is obviously very keen on marigolds, which are excellent companion planting and good for pollinators too!

And someone has a fine crop of sunflowers too. If the heads are left, the goldfinches will have a feast later on.

And then it’s time for a little wander through the nature reserve. During the winter the boardwalk can be inundated with water from the local streams, but it’s much drier in the summer. You can almost guarantee that as you round the corner, someone will be sitting at the picnic table smoking ‘something or other’ but on one memorable occasion a few Christmases ago, it was two teenagers, one in a lion onesie and one dressed as a cow, both high as kites and giggling furiously. Well, I suppose it was the festive season.

The streamside pathway in Dorchester

This time it was just one guy with earphones looking pensively over the field, so I left him to it, and went on to admire the mass of Himalayan Balsam that has grown up in the past few months. What a pretty plant this is, and what a pain – it’s very clear that it’s taken over half the reserve, and will be taking over the whole thing if a way to contain it isn’t found.

Still, it was a fine walk, and it’s one of the reasons that I love Dorchester – unlike so many towns, it hasn’t been ruined by generic developments, and has managed to hold on to many of its historic buildings. It’s clear, however, that the pedestrianised High Street is travelling, with many shops shuttered. Marks and Spencer pulled out a few years ago, and with it went the underwear and socks of the people of Dorchester, not to mention the ready meals and the rhubarb yoghurts. Still, it looks as if the building might be turned into a spot for ‘mini shops’, for people who can’t afford the high local rents. What a great idea! I shall be interested to see how it plays out.

Obergurgl Day Six – The Rotmoos Valley

Dear Readers, after a week of not feeling very well and having weather that was thundery and grey, today dawned in perfect walking weather (sunny but not too hot) so we pounded up the steep service road towards the Rotmoos valley. This is one of my very favourite walks in Obergurgl – at the start of the walk there’s the Schonweissehutte,  which was renovated a few years ago but which still serves a decent goulasche soupe.

From here, you edge past the reservoir, with it’s rather confusing warning sign. I imagine it freezes in winter, so maybe it’s a warning to intrepid skaters that this might not be the best spot. If anyone reads German, feel free to correct me.

Then it’s off along the path towards what’s left of the Rotmoos glacier. In 1872 it came to the location of the boulder with the red and white stripes in the photo below. Today, as you can see, it’s barely there at all.

So this adds a sombre note to this bright and shiny day. I remember the glacier being much more developed when I first came here in 1994. It’s shocking to see how diminished it is. The University of Innsbruck has one of the world’s most important centres for the study of glaciation, and the weather station in the valley has been here since the 1930s, continually recording data.

The weather station

But still, the flowers and the insect life here are absolutely stunning. I saw my very first gentians of the holiday…

This orange plant looks rather like our Fox and Cubs, but is a closely-related species, known here as Golden Hawksbeard (Crepis aurea).

There is the delightfully-named Crimson-Tipped Lousewort, a member of the Figwort family…

…Kidney Vetch, which we have in the UK, though I’ve never seen it in such profusion…

There are no true ‘trees’ at this altitude, but there are these little prostrate willows (Salix retusa), who survive in the poor, thin soil.

Further along the path there’s Moss Campion (Silene acaulis), hunkering down close to the ground to survive the cold and the scouring wind (even today there was a chill breeze blowing from what’s left of the glacier). The Alps are a paradise for members of the Pink family, I must have seen at least eight species.

And there’s some Round-Headed Rampion (Phyteuma orbiculare), another plant that I associate very strongly with Alpine meadows.

We were surprised not to see any marmots, though there were a few whistles from the other side of the valley. But there was this female Northern Wheatear with a beak full of bugs – clearly she has a nest somewhere near, and kept a very close eye on us. The birds spend the winter in Africa, but in summer they spread out across the rocky places of Europe. Here in Austria they often make their nests in disused marmot burrows. I’d never been able to identify these birds before, so it was lovely to be able to do so with the assistance of the European Bird Identification Facebook page.

And of course, the paths are full of butterflies and moths. Have a look at these blue butterflies, feeding on a patch of earth that I suspect had been peed or pooed on by some passing creature, leaving behind minerals that the insects needed.

And then, there is a sight that has lifted my heart every time I’ve visited Obergurgl. The local Haflinger horses spend the summer in the meadows around the village, pleasing themselves about where they go and when, and only coming back to their stable if they sense an oncoming storm. They are all palominos, and are led by an experienced mare who knows the territory and calls the shots. I honestly believe that they are some of the most beautiful horses on earth. Once I’ve seen them, I know that I’m truly back in the Tyrol.

Obergurgl Day Two – Zwieselstein to Solden

Dear Readers, our go-to walk when we first get to Obergurgl is to get the bus to Zwieselstein, a little village located at the pinchpoint between the Obergurgl and Vent valleys, and to walk into Solden. It’s only a few miles, but it takes us alongside the Gurgl river and through the pine forest, so it’s cool and undulating without being too challenging. First up, though, we get off the bus a stop earlier than we should have (as usual) and so we walk past the eighteenth century church known as the Maria Hilf Kapelle. You can see the onion-shaped spire in the photo  below.

Then we come to a covered bridge dating from 2006. They definitely like a covered bridge around here.

I love all the wood piled up for the winter. The whole of Obergurgl is now powered by a district heating system using wood – previously many buildings were oil powered, which involved tankers travelling huge distances to get to the village. While I’m not overall keen on biofuels, they seem to make much more sense here, where there’s wood in abundance, than in many other places (like the UK for example, where the Drax power station uses wood imported from North American old-growth forests). Let me know how that’s sustainable.

But enough, I’m on holiday!

There is a very nice drinking fountain close to the main hotel, and I notice how the various ‘weeds’ prefer the splash zone. Very sensible.

Then it’s on, into the woods…

Alongside is the River Gurgl, milky with glacial run-off and looking quite the challenge for anyone into white-water canoeing or rafting. There are enormous boulders the size of houses, a testament to the power of wind and water over time – there are several huge areas of landslip too.

Some of the boulders are ecosystems in their own right, covered with moss and lichen and Alpine plants such as houseleeks.

There are a few patches of yellow foxgloves (Digitalis luteum) here too.

Then we suddenly come out of the wood and onto the long tarmac road into Solden itself. En route, we pass one of my favourite chalets – the front garden is always full of eclectic sculpture and it’s interesting to see how it’s changed since our last visit four years ago. I wonder if it’s a change of ownership, or just of taste?

Garden in 2023

Same garden in 2019!

Then it’s down into Solden while we consider whether to head up to the top of the Gaislachkoglbahn lift. Our Oetzal card (free to all visitors) gives us one up and down trip on each lift in the valley everyday, and as the weather was clearing we thought it was worth a shot.

Underneath the lift here’s a mountain-bike trail which is immensely popular with young cycling enthusiasts, though it looks pretty hair-raising to me. Cyclists load their bikes into the cable car and go to the first station (2176 metres) and then career all the way down again. I am always impressed at their daring, while being a little worried about what happens if you come off your bike midway down the trail.

The Gaislachkoglbahn heading up the mountain.

Anyhoo, we get to the first station without too much excitement. For the second leg (up to 3,040 metres) we share a gondola with a German family, where the Dad is clearly nervous and spends the entire 15 minutes joking about how much fun it will be if we plummet to the ground. I am glad that my German isn’t any better. I have noticed though that when people are afraid they often talk inanely about the very thing that they’re frightened of, so I have some compassion. It’s nice to get a gondola to ourselves when we go back down, nonetheless.

The view from the top is spectacular.

And for this trip at least, we resist the charms of the Ice Q Bar and Restaurant,  which featured in a James Bond movie ‘Spectre’ (and indeed there is a James Bond museum at the top). I’m sure we’ll be back for strudel and an eiscaffe later in the trip though. During the winter you can have dinner at the restaurant on a Wednesday evening, but they don’t do it in the summer. Harrumph.

The Ice Q Bar and Restaurant

And just to remind us that it’s not all fun and games in the mountains, there’s a rescue helicopter zooming about, and the lift complex is halted for a few minutes.

And then it’s time to head back down for lunch in the village. Of all the lifts that we use, this one has the most precipitous drop from the top station – it feels as if you’re thrown over the edge, which is quite unnerving. Just as well we can have a small scream in our empty gondola without disturbing any children or others of a nervous disposition.

Around the University of Toronto

Dear Readers, such was my yearning for green space today that my husband  suggested that we have a little walk around the campus of the University of Toronto. We got off at the Museum subway stop, where the boring old pillars have been replaced by Indigenous North West figures, like the one above, Doric columns (below)


.,…the Egyptian god Osiris…

and a Toltec warrior.

…all in honour of the Royal Ontario Museum upstairs. It makes a change from the boring tiled pillars in other stations for sure.

Upstairs we pass some of the University buildings, and I notice a preponderance of what I think are hostas. Holy Moly! Don’t Canadians have slugs and snails? Every time I’ve tried to grow these plants they’ve been reduced to a sad nibbled stem within a week, and yet here they look splendid. I do hope they aren’t using slug pellets.

This is the Law School, and very splendid it is too. I was discussing how I’d found the law module of my accountancy qualification the most boring part of the whole thing, and was wondering why, when generally I like subtle distinctions and problem-solving. Maybe it’s because it was accountancy law and not something juicier.

The Law School

There’s a striking new extension too.

The Jackman Law Building

Right opposite is a largish park, and the inhabitants clearly like to pop over to the University in search of easy pickings. My husband says that the squirrels on campus are notoriously friendly, and certainly we were approached several times by rodents with hopeful little faces.

Plus there are lots of North American robins, sparrows, starlings, cardinals and even the odd red-winged blackbird.

North American Robin

My husband’s aunt Rosemary was Head of Food Services at Hart House, which is part of the University campus, and which hosted a dinner for the G7 back in the day with Reagan, Thatcher and Helmut Kohl. John used to spend many hours in her office when things weren’t going well: Rosemary was one of those people who are a kind of compass point, someone that you turn to and know that they will be there. This ‘holiday’ has been particularly tough for John, what with his aunt now being dead, and his mother slipping ever deeper into dementia. But at least here it’s easy to remember Rosemary.

The window of Rosemary’s office at Hart House

The sports field has been astroturfed. You can imagine how delighted I am.

But there are still lots of pockets of green, and I can feel myself relaxing as we walk through them and past them. The bulbs are coming up, the trees are coming into leaf, and spring is definitely on the way.

Plus, look who’s arrived to take advantage of all that lush green grass! It’s unusual to see a goose all on their own – maybe this is a young-ish individual, as by the age of 3 they’ve usually paired up, and will stay with their mate for life (20-25 years). Or maybe the goose’s partner is nearby but hidden away. At any rate, in about a month there will be dozens of goslings about, and then we’ll know that summer isn’t far away.

Around St Lawrence, and a Patch of Green

St James's Church, Toronto

Well Readers, it’s another murky day here in Toronto but spirits are high because the local ice hockey team, the Toronto Maple Leafs (sorry about the incorrect plural but hey, I didn’t invent it) have won in the playoffs against Tampa Bay Lightning and are through to whatever happens next for the first time since 2004. There was so much blowing of car horns and cheering and general carry-on last night that I was delighted that we were on the 20th floor, but it’s nice for people to have something to celebrate, even though the sport is something of a mystery to me. All I know is that it seems to involve a lot of padded clothing and people whacking one another with sticks. In the next round the Maple Leafs appear to be playing against either the Bruins or the Panthers, so I expect a lot more excitement next week.

Today, one of the lifts at the hotel was out and the place seemed to be packed (mainly with people watching not only the ice hockey but the baseball (Toronto Blue Jays in case you don’t know, as I didn’t). When we got on, there was a chap wearing only  shorts and a towel who’d been to the sauna upstairs and was attempting to get to his room on the eighth floor. The lift stopped at every subsequent floor until we packed to overflowing with suitcases, children, sports gear, backpacks and various other paraphenalia. By the time we got to the eighth floor the poor semi-clad guy was looking more flushed  with embarrassment than I imagine he’d been in the sauna. We all tumbled out on the ground floor looking very dishevelled.

And then it was off into the rain. We were heading for the antiques market at St Lawrence, but first we passed the third of the great yellow stone churches of Toronto, the Cathedral of St James. I rather liked this photo of it caught in a web of streetcar lines. It’s in gothic revival style and is built with Ohio sandstone, which gives the churches around here their distinctive yellow colour.

On one side there is a children’s playground and some rather fine maple trees, much needed in this nature-deprived downtown. At the exhibition about neighbourhoods that we went to earlier this week, many people had commented that the centre of town needed some more greenspace, although I did find a rather lovely spot later on this walk.

The cathedral as seen through the park

Some maple leafs!

We walked on towards St Lawrence Hall, which has been the home of the food market for years. Just around the corner there used to be the antiques market, but alas this has now moved to Missisauga.

There is some building work going on just across the street, but the trees seem to be being well protected, something our councils at home should definitely look at. Notice how all the trees are wrapped in two layers of plywood.

There are very strict signs about what should and shouldn’t happen in the vicinity of the trees.

And here is the road in all its glory. I imagine it is a very shady spot when all the trees have leafed up, something that will be very welcome during the baking, humid Toronto summer.

Today, though, the rain is pretty persistent…

…and fairly gloomy….

And then, in the rain, we find this little park, right in front of where the court house used to be. How welcome these spots of greenery are amongst all this concrete! It reminds me of how delighted I used to be when I found some green in the City of London when I was working there. Even on a damp and dreary day it lifted my spirits, especially as it was filled with the chirping of yet more sparrows.

And finally, how about this, an actual gas lamp! It’s all that’s left of the 1841 gas-lighting system that used to brighten up Toronto. I’m not quite sure why it’s on during the day, but then we need all the light we can get when it’s as dank as today. It certainly cheered me up.

At The Beach(es)

Dear Readers, if you were to get on a 501 streetcar on and head east, you would, after about 30 minutes on a good day, end up on the shores of Lake Ontario in a district called The Beach (or The Beaches depending on how old you are and what social pretensions you have). You might almost think you were at the seaside, except that there isn’t that briney twang in the air. There are certainly lots of gulls and a few terns, and many, many dogs, including this enormous harlequin Great Dane.

The air is full of the cries of red-winged blackbirds, which always makes me sad these days, because it reminds me of time spent with my beloved departed aunties.

But there is something about a brisk walk that always lifts the spirits, and of course there’s always something to see, like this Olympic swimming pool which is being renovated, and which has sparrows nesting in the defunct lights.

The side of the swimming pool, in new brutalist concrete

The sparrows’ nest in the light fixture

There are some small species tulips in one of the dune areas, which are currently being protected to enable milkweed and other plants for butterflies to grow. The tulips aren’t native but they are rather pretty.

I always forget that Lake Ontario is still a transport hub, so I was surprised at the size of this ship on the horizon. And how delighted I was to find this website, which shows which ships are currently on the Lake and where they’re going. I believe that the ship below could be the Robert S.Pierson, which is a self-discharging bulk carrier. So now you know.

And I think that this has to be the most enigmatic lifeguard station I’ve ever seen. It looks like a short story just waiting to happen.

And finally we’re back on the long and varied main drag of The Beach(es) and it’s time for a coffee. We get into The Remarkable Bean just before the cycling club, whose members are mainly older than I am and definitely put me to shame. I can recommend the lemon and blueberry scone if you’re passing.

And finally, as we head back to the street car, we pass a small park with a magnolia tree that is whiter than the whitest snow, a real showstopper. The photos don’t do it justice, but you get the idea.

And finally, here are some Crown Imperials. In the UK, it’s a plant that is sometimes now pollinated by blue tits, who have taken to drinking the nectar. I wonder if the chickadees in Canada will get the same idea?

A Change in the Light

Dear Readers, yesterday was mostly a drab, dank day in Toronto, with everything in shades of grey. The buildings are often painted in a colour that I can only describe as ‘bottom of a stagnant pond’, and the chill winds whistle between the skyscrapers so that you feel like an ant in a ravine. We went for dinner at the Queen Mother Café, which is a big hit with local students, and even as we sat eating our chocolate pecan pie, the sky lightened and everywhere lit up with spectacular evening light.

We went for a quick walk to Grange Park, which is where you get a view of the Ontario College of Art and Design, with its Will Alsop-designed extension, the Rosalie Sharp Centre for Design. This ‘box’ is cantilevered above the existing college building, and has won numerous awards, but also seems to be popular with students and Torontonians alike – a serious effort was made to include all the major stakeholders in the design, and the playfulness of the structure seems to have won everybody over.

At the other side of the park is the Art Gallery of Ontario. In the photo below you can see the original buildings, from the 1840s and 1885, and above it the South Gallery, designed by Frank Gehry,  with its protruding spiral staircase and blue glass and titanium panels. The gallery is surprisingly integrated inside, but looks almost shocking from the outside – the blue panels remind me of tarpaulins and seems to give the whole thing a rather unfinished look.

At the corner of the Art Gallery of Ontario, I found this chap.

He is constructed entirely from old leather sofas.

The artist, Brian Jungen, was inspired by the story of a circus elephant called, inevitably, Jumbo, who was killed by a train in Ontario in 1885. The work is called Couch Monster: Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill. ‘Couch monster’ refers to the breaking of the animal’s spirit that is required to make it work in a circus – it becomes a ‘monster’ created by human beings for their own entertainment. Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill comes from the Dane-zaa language of the Athebascan Native Canadians, and means ‘my heart is ripping’, speaking to the sadness and cruelty of keeping  living beings in captivity. I was very moved by this diminished creature, balancing on its little legs on a ball, wrinkled and powerless.


It just goes to show that you never know what’s around the corner in Toronto!

Back In Toronto, Vertical City….

Dear Readers, so here we are, back in Toronto for a visit to catch up with my husband’s Mum, who is 95 next week and has severe memory problems. Normally we would have caught up with my favourite aunties who lived out in Collingwood, but they both passed away last autumn, so this time it’s a very city-centric visit. Still, I like Toronto, though they can’t seem to leave anything alone – every year there are more skyscrapers, more building sites and more cranes.

It has always been a bit of a vertical city – there are spires aplenty.

This is the Metropolitan United Church, one of the largest churches belonging to the United Church of Canada. It was built in 1872 in a neo-gothic style, and houses a carillon of no less than 54 bellths, which probably explains why I can hear it from my hotel room. It also has Canada’s largest pipe organ. It’s been cleaned up recently, and the yellow stone is really rather fetching.

In the grounds I noticed this tree – its bark is so pale that at first I thought it was a eucalyptus, but no, it’s a London plane, and clearly Toronto must have had extremely high temperatures and /or drought over the past few years for it to lose so much bark.

And here are some angels, just for luck.

Just down the road is St Michael’s Catholic Church, another fine building. Construction started in 1845, in gothic revival style. The building contains fragments of a pillar and some pieces of the roof from York Minster in the UK, sealed into the cornerstone – Toronto was known as York when it was first founded in 1793.

All in all though, the speed of building work is really something. There is plenty of what London’s  Gentle Author and Toronto’s Shawn Micallef would call ‘Facadism‘, where just the front wall of a building is retained and all of its substance is demolished.

Some interesting buildings have survived, though I wonder for how much longer – this wooden-clad yellow building has always  fascinated me. It seems to have been everything from a music venue to a shawarma house, and I note that in 2021 there was a campaign on Facebook to save it. Now, it seems to be closed so things don’t look good.

Our favourite bookshop in Toronto, Ben McNally, has found yet another new home, so I’m expecting to make a visit early next week.

And finally, how about these? They’re used to designate the bike lanes in the city, and are hated every bit as much by drivers as the various bollards that are used in London. These have been painted by various artists, and I particularly like the centipede one (surprise surprise). See what you think.

A Beautiful Day in Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers, today I went to Milborne St Andrew to tidy up Mum and Dad’s grave, and the weather was way more beautiful than I had any right to expect at the beginning of December. The mist was just clearing, and the view over the fields behind the graveyard was serene.

There’s a little crab apple tree behind the gravestone, and a cherry tree overhead, so there’s always something lovely to keep them company.

I’d brought a couple of winter hellebores and some cyclamen, but the rosemary and Achillea that I brought last time were still doing well, in spite of the flowering being finished. As usual, I tidied up a bit and then sat next to the grave for a while with my back against the tree. Fortunately I’d brought a ‘bag-for-life’ with me to sit on, as it was a bit on the damp side.

It is so peaceful. I am always sad when I’m here, but it’s tinged with gratitude that Mum and Dad are no longer in pain, and that they are in such a lovely spot. The church dates back to Norman times, so probably people have been being buried here for a thousand years or more, and there’s something about that long history that keeps me company and makes me aware of how universal my experience is.

As I sit, I hear the heavy drone of a bumblebee, who makes a ‘bee-line’ for the hellebore. Something else to be grateful for.

The blue tits and great tits are busy working the shrubs and trees for food, and the jackdaws clack away as they fly over.

The trees here have become as familiar as old friends. The Scots Pine looks particularly magnificent.

The avenue of yew trees frames the view of the fields.


And the beech trees are magnificent this year. I have never seen such colour.

But I can’t leave without saying hello to my favourite Cedar of Lebanon. It towers over the Rectory, which is a very impressive building, though no longer inhabited by the Rector who lives in a much more modest home.

And finally, here’s the stump of the lime tree that came down in the storms earlier this year, but which is clearly determined to survive and even thrive.

As I turn for home, I pass a blackbird looking for worms. Usually they fly off when I get too close, but this one just carried on regardless. I love the way that they just throw the leaves around.

I love Milborne St Andrew. It’s a working village rather than one that would feature on a calendar, or the top of a biscuit box, and it’s all the better for it. Mum and Dad had excellent medical care here, and good friends who would run out in the middle of the night if Mum fell out of bed, and who helped me sort out Mum and Dad’s bungalow when I needed to sell it to pay for Dad’s care. There are painful memories here, but they are outweighed by the happy ones. Coming here keeps me in touch with Mum and Dad and the place they loved. I always feel calmer when I leave, more integrated somehow. Mum and Dad were never ones for grave visiting, but it works for me.