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Bugwoman on Location – Cake-Making and Bird Spotting in Milborne St Andrew.

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Dear Readers, it has been something of an exciting week for Mum and Dad. On Sunday, they were walking up the steps to their front door (which have two very sturdy handrails) when it appears that one of them slipped, and the other one tried to save them (the story varies somewhat according to who you talk to). The end result was that they both ended up laying in the front garden, unable to get up. Fortunately Dad had his mobile in his pocket, and was able to ring a) an ambulance and b) one of their neighbours/carers who lives just down the road. Dad had hit his head, and Mum had a bad pain in her hip, but Dad managed to get himself up with some help. Mum, however, was stranded in the garden, because no one wanted her to get up if she’d potentially fractured something. The lovely neighbour wrapped Mum up in blankets and made her as comfortable as possible.

Two and a half hours and several calls to the ambulance service later, an ambulance arrived from Swanage (some distance away), and took Mum and Dad to the hospital for observation. A few hours, an X-Ray and a CT scan later, they were released and got home for a well-earned cup of tea, and a rest.

So it was no surprise that when it came to making this year’s Christmas cake, Mum wanted to supervise rather than stand up and actually make it.

‘And then you’ll know the recipe’, she said, ‘And it can pass on down to you’.

And so I creamed the sugar and butter, taking Mum’s advice and using a fork (‘Much quicker’). I added the eggs and the flour a bit at a time, taking the mixture in for Mum’s approval (‘Add a bit of milk, that looks too dense’). And then in with the fruit (‘Cut the cherries in half!’). And then, into the oven at 140 degrees (‘It’s supposed to take four hours, but it never does, so let’s check on it in two’).

Just enough time for Mum and Dad to have a nap in their reclining chairs, and for me to go out for a walk. The fog had finally lifted, and the sun streamed in through the window of the bungalow.

I felt a bit sad. All these years Mum had been making the Christmas cake, and she prides herself on being the one to bring it to the Christmas feast. It felt like a bit of a defeat, but at least we’d have a cake. I put on my walking shoes. A trot through the countryside always cheers me up.

I noticed a fine spider’s web on the doorway of their house as I went out.

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I headed down towards the church on the other side of the main road through Milborne St Andrew. I had done this walk back in September, before Mum and Dad’s party, and I wanted to see what difference six weeks had made.

The spiders’ webs were thick in the hedges, and so white that I had to check them  to make sure that they weren’t something leftover from Halloween.

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One of the houses is for sale, and very fine it is too. I loved the hanging basket holders, shaped like a wren and a robin. If anyone is looking for a house in Milborne I would definitely have a peep at this one.

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The horses were in the field, as usual.

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But there were some new inhabitants in the field opposite.

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They looked like so many clouds scattered about the hill.

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A rook called out from the top of a tree.

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Last time I did this walk, there was Himalayan Balsam and Comfrey in full flower. But today, the prevalent colour was green, from new nettles and goosegrass and feverfew.

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All the plants by the little river had been cut back, but the hedgerow was alive with wrens and flocks of tits.

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The cabbages on the field on the other side of the track were gone, but something new had already been planted.

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The last of the cabbages, missed in harvesting

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New crop. Of what, I have no idea. Maybe it will be clearer next time I visit.

At last, at the top of the field, I find a few things in flower. There is the odd dandelion and hogweed still blooming, but then there is the ivy. It’s the main nectar source at this time of year and I must have seen a dozen red admirals stopping for a quick sip and then hurrying on as I did this walk, not one of them hanging around long enough for a photo.

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A lonely dandelion

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The Sputnik-shaped flowers of ivy, with a lone honeybee

At the end of the track I stop, and look at my watch. Still an hour and a quarter before the cake needs to be looked at. I have three choices: right, diagonally right, and left. I decide to go up the hill to the right, and just see where it goes.

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The first thing I notice is how hot it is on this south-facing hedgerow – I’m sorry I’ve worn a scarf. And then I notice the sound of insects, a persistent drone every time I get close to the abundant ivy. I look around for bumblebees (and do see an enormous queen disappearing back into her hibernation burrow in the grass) but the noise is actually coming from some hoverflies.

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This is a drone fly (Eristalis pertinax), and its resemblance to a male bumblebee is supposed to give it some measure of protection from predators. It certainly sounds like a bee, although its big eyes and shiny body are much more fly-like. It loves farmland: the larva is known as a ‘long-tailed maggot’, and it thrives in nutrient-rich, polluted water, which can often be found where there is nitrate run-off. The larva breathes via a breathing tube, which is how it got its name. The adult lives on nectar and is one of the few hoverflies that can be found all year round. A tough creature, indeed.

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A drone fly on yarrow. In this photo you can just about make out the rust-coloured patches on the fly’s ‘hips’ which identify it as Eristalis pertinax

And then I look up.

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I have been waiting for years to actually get some photos of a buzzard (Buteo buteo). They are not rare in Dorset, but I still find them magnificent as they ride the thermals, searching for a rabbit to pounce on or a carcass to investigate. They are adaptable animals, able to hunt for themselves or scavenge, and they’ve even been seen marching over a ploughed field and pulling up worms.

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This one is an adult (you can tell from the mostly cream-coloured underwings). Last time I did this walk I got a distant view of three buzzards, an adult and two juveniles. Today, it was just this one bird, effortlessly soaring over the fields, changing direction with the merest twist of a tail. I wondered if it was enjoying its freedom now that the fledglings were off-hand. There certainly seemed to be a kind of joy in its flight.

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I realise that the track isn’t actually going to give me a short-cut home, and so I turn to retrace my steps. At the bottom, I decide to take a chance on another track, which seems to head back towards Milborne.

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And who is this handsome chap/pess, perched on the telephone wires?

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I wonder if it’s some kind of thrush, but it’s not until I get home that I am able to blow the photo up and identify this as my first ever meadow pipit (Anthus pratensis). How do I know? Well, the general look of the bird, but the clincher for me was the description of the bird as having a ‘long back claw’. Furthermore, the bird is described as ‘near-threatened’. I have a new spring in my step.

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I pass a derelict barn hidden  in the woods. How I would love to explore it! I bet it’s home to bats, or owls.

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The farm buildings and machinery are a playground for pied wagtails and sparrows.

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And a horse looks like he or she wants a chat. Or an apple.

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I know I’m nearly home when I see the stag on Stag House, a private dwelling that was once the house of a Mr Cole. The stag was a gift from Earl Drax, for ‘support during an election campaign’. The Drax estate is still a major land owner in these parts.

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As I reach Mum and Dad’s house, the smell of baking cake and mixed spice reminds me that I’ve had no lunch. I put my key in the door, and something catches my eye. The sunshine is low, shining through the spider’s web that I spotted on the way out. It is making rainbows.

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It reminds me that there is always more than one way to look at a situation. Looked at one way, this is a simple spider’s web. With a tilt of the head, it becomes magical, a scintillating interplay of colour and light.

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I am sad that Mum is no longer well enough to make the Christmas cake on her own, but how good it is to work together to create something. I am reminded that I don’t know everything, and that I could, if I chose, be a little less inclined to try to do everything for Mum and Dad, as if they were helpless. Instead, I could allow myself to receive the many things that they still have to offer – wisdom, experience, love.

The cake looks as if it will be delicious. We’ve pricked the top so that Mum and Dad can feed it with brandy over the next month, until I return in December, and then we’ll put on the marzipan and the icing. Together.

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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.

Bugwoman on Location – Coming Home

Coming home….

Dear Readers, this week I thought I’d share my train ride from Mum and Dad’s home in Dorset back to the Big Smoke in London. I’ve taken one picture at each station, through the window (because heaven help any one who gets off – there would have been many pictures of my train disappearing out of the platform with all my luggage on it). I start from Moreton (down in the bottom left hand corner) and end up at Waterloo.

Before I start, however, here is a brief interlude on the party planning for Mum and Dad’s 60th Wedding Anniversary in September. We now know pretty much who is coming, and people are starting to let me know their menu choices. We met with the events manager at the hotel who is very obliging, so now we have Deadlines and such. There is some debate over whether or not to have a champagne toast after the main course and before dessert, with Dad saying this is what normally happens at Weddings, not Anniversary parties, and Mum and I  saying that there is never a wrong time for a champagne toast. I suspect we shall have our own way in the end. The flowers are sorted (roses, freesias, whatever else is in season), the table decorations and layout are agreed and the harpist is booked. In short, I am planning it like a military operation, minus the amphibious landing craft and trebuchets, though I shall have these in reserve in case of any shenanigans.

And then, there is the  vexed question of presents. Mum and Dad maintain that they Don’t Need Anything and even if they did, it would be rude to ask. On the other hand, lots of people have asked me what they should buy for Mum and Dad. I maintain that if you don’t give people some hints, they will get what they think. So, we have (finally) agreed that I will let the guests know that their presence is present enough, but if they do want to get something, we’ll go for garden centre gift vouchers. That way, Mum and Dad will have something to look forward to after the party, when I suspect their spirits might slump a bit after all the excitement. The autumn is a great time to buy perennials and get them planted, and every time they look at the plants, they’ll be reminded of their special day. An outing to the garden centre, plus lunch, will be just the tonic required to restore optimism I hope.

Moreton

Anyhow, back to my train journey. Dad gave me a lift to Moreton station, the first time he’s felt able to drive there for over five years, so it just goes to show that even when someone is in their eighties they can still recover from illness – it’s not an inexorable, one-way decline. And as I was standing on the platform, I noticed this fluffy character. I love the antennae, and the ‘furry’ legs. And then it was time to throw myself onto the train and settle back for the two and a half hour ride with my sandwiches.

Moreton Station – a white ermine moth (Spilosoma lubricipeda)

The journey from Moreton to Waterloo is wonderfully varied. The first part goes through farmland, with Jacob’s sheep grazing in the fields and deer nibbling at the bushes. The trackside vegetation is a mix of self-seeded sycamore, and buddleia. Lots and lots of buddleia.

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Wool Station – a cheeky buddleia.

The first station is Wool, presumably named for it’s sheep-farming heritage. Today, it is the closest stop to Bovington army camp and the world-renowned Tank Museum. More importantly,  it’s home to Monkey World, a sanctuary which, despite its name, mainly specialises in rescued chimps and orang-utans from the despicable tourist photography trade in Europe and Asia. Some of these creatures arrive at the sanctuary completely bald from stress, and the last member of their species that they saw was probably their mother. Recently, Monkey World rescued a large number of capuchin monkeys from a research centre in South America, and they also have many small monkeys who were previously kept as pets. I only wish my friend Robin had been here long enough to visit it, though we’d probably never have got her home again.

I think that the buddleia pictured above has something of the dirty old man about it, but maybe that’s more a reflection on the sad state of my psyche.

Onwards!

Wareham

Wareham – more buddleia.

Wareham – some broad-leaved ever-lasting pea

Wareham is the next stop. It was probably founded by the Saxons, and is a great spot for anyone wanting to tour Dorset, with Studland Bay and the Purbeck Hills close to hand, and the Jurassic Coast (where Mary Anning found her fossil ichthyosaurus) close by. On a more sinister note, it was one of the spots where the notorious Judge Jeffries held his Bloody Assizes following the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, and five rebels were hung, drawn and quartered on the West Walls of the town. I had no idea that this barbaric practice was still going on in the seventeenth century.

And a note to for the poor traveller; Wareham is the only spot on this stretch of line that you can get a cab, in the event of your train misbehaving. As my journey to Dorset was delayed by over three hours (thank you, Woking signals) this can be extremely useful. The company I used was called Elysium Taxis, and although the ride did not remind me too much of the resting place of dead heroes, it was certainly extremely efficient and friendly.

Wareham station itself is a little bleak, but it’s always nice to see some interesting ‘weeds’ bursting forth, as seen above.

Holton Heath

Ribwort Plantain at Holton Heath

Holton Heath is the next stop, and the only plant life visible was some ribwort plantain on the other side of the chain-link fence. I wonder why one plant has grown twice as tall as the others? Is it genetic, or is there some source of water or food here?

Holton Heath was the site of the Royal Navy Cordite Factory during both the First and  Second World Wars – cordite is a propellant used in guns, and replaced gunpowder. One of the key ingredients is acetone, and to make this requires a source of starch, usually grain. As grain ran short during 1917, local children were asked to gather horse chestnuts (conkers) as an alternative source. They were so ardent that eventually six enormous grain silos were filled with the chestnuts that the children had gathered.

However, such dangerous manufacturing lead to accidents, with the worst being in 1931, when an explosion occurred in a nitroglycerin preparation chamber, killing 10 and injuring 19. Three buildings were destroyed and a storage tank was ruptured, spilling sulphuric acid in to the area. The explosion, which occurred at 10.45 am, was heard 20 miles away and people working outdoors 2 miles away were knocked over by the blast wave. Houses situated on the main road approximately 1 mile from the blast suffered extensive damage.

These days, Holton Heath is a ghost town, with industrial units and razor wire. I have never once seen anyone get on or off the train at Holton Heath, and the wind whistles through the grass and the ribwort plantain.

Hamworthy

Sycamore keys at Hamworthy

On we go to Hamworthy, another ‘ghost stop’ where tall, self-planted sycamore trees are heavy with their fruit. This was an Iron Age settlement, and is situated on a peninsula, making it ideal for ferries and cargo to France, Jersey and the isle of Wight. A rather elegant new bridge has opened recently, to work alongside the existing bridge, and ensure that traffic can always get from Poole town centre to the ferry port.

Photo One (Bridge) - By Chris Downer, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18372969

The Twin Sails bridge at Hamworthy (Photo One – see credit below)

Poole

Groundsel at Poole station

As you head to Poole station, you pass wetlands and sailing ponds with gigantic plastic swans on them, but at the station itself my spirits were barely lifted by some struggling groundsel and a few leaves of grass. There wasn’t even a seagull. The train meanders through the middle of town, and you can gaze out at some of the most expensive real estate in the world (on Sandbanks in Poole), and also see the mixture of holiday-makers and locals waiting patiently for your train to pass so that they can get on with their shopping.

Bournemouth

Ironwork at Bournemouth station

For the traveller, the fine Victorian station of Bournemouth is important because this is where the refreshments trolley boards. Sure enough, I had some sandwiches, but  this is where you can avail yourself of what passes for coffee on South West Trains. Plus, the driver changes over, so I had five minutes to survey the scene. They certainly don’t want any pigeons nesting here: I have rarely seen such prolific anti-pigeon measures, though I suspect that from the occasional feathers and droppings some such avian trespassers haven’t read the rules.

But how my heart lifted at the sight of a few weeds who had, miraculously, managed to find a root-hold. Life will always find a way, I see.

Buddleia on the roof at Bournemouth station

A fern making itself at home on a ledge

Another happy fern at Bournemouth

Christchurch

The next part of the ride is through the New Forest, which is neither New (it probably dates from about 12,000 years ago, after the last Ice Age) nor a Forest (being mostly heathland these days). However, it was William the Conqueror who called the area the Foresta Nova, and reserved it for hunting purposes.  It is one of the largest remaining tracts  of unenclosed land left in south-east England, and ponies, pigs and other domestic animals still have the right to roam here. It is a biodiversity hotspot, and I often see grazing roe and red deer from my train window. Several of the villages and towns on my route are in the New Forest, and there seems to be a new enthusiasm for making the stations pretty.

Tub at Christchurch Station

Here is a splendid tub at Christchurch station – the town has one of the oldest populations in England (with 30% of its residents being over 60). Maybe a preponderance of people with time on their hands makes for a pretty platform. However, they have strong competition from the folk just along the line at New Milton.

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New Milton – winning the prize for the prettiest station so far. But is it my favourite?

New Milton dates back to the arrival of the railway in 1888. It, and the surrounding villages, were the centre of the seaborne smuggling trade, and a detachment of armed ‘Coast Guards’ were stationed here to try to stop them. These days, we think of the main job of the coast guard as being the rescue of folk who drift away on their lilos or of fishermen who get into trouble in heavy weather, but in those days they literally ‘guarded the coast’. Some of the offshore sea routes were actually named after the main smuggling families. I Imagine it was a time of intrigue and double-dealing. These days, it’s all a bit more sedate.

Brockenhurst

Some floral decoration at Brockenhurst

At last, a seagull

Brockenhurst is the most popular stop in the New Forest – you can hire a bike here, there are many small hotels and bed and breakfast establishments, and lots of walking trails start here. However, they need to pull their socks up with the floral decoration, as I would say that New Milton and Christchurch are currently in the lead. The town itself has a long military tradition, with a hospital for Indian and New Zealand soldiers wounded in the First World War. The woods around Brockenhurst were used for jungle training for soldiers destined for the Pacific during the Second World War. I imagine they weren’t much of a substitute for the environment that the soldiers were soon to face.

Photo Two (wounded soldiers) - PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12300298

Wounded New Zealand soldiers on the platform at Brockenhurst station during the First World War (Photo Two – credit below)

Photo Three (trainees in the woods) - By Oulds, D C (Lt), Royal Navy official photographer - http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//31/media-31047/large.jpgThis is photograph A 27308 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25076005

Trainees learning jungle tactics in woods around Brockenhurst (Photo Three – credit below)

Southampton

I was at university at Southampton. It wasn’t a particularly happy time for me: I missed my home and family. Also, it was the first time that I realised that I was a different class from everyone around me: one of the ‘posh’ girls told me that ‘when I first heard you speak, I thought you were common, but actually you’re ok’. Gee, thanks. But it was nice to see happier students sitting at the station, although their floral decoration could definitely do with some work.

Floral decoration at Southampton station

Southampton Airport Parkway

Strangely enough, though, the planting that I like most is at Southampton Airport Parkway. Someone has taken a tiny strip of ground behind the fence and in front of the boxes for the telephone exchange, and has turned it into a little spot of insect heaven. Technically, i suppose it isn’t even in the station, but hey.

The guerrilla garden at Southampton Airport Parkway

Winchester.

Ah, Winchester. How prosperous. How pretty. How august. But what on earth is happening on your station platform? Surely there is room for a pot or two.

I must admit to having a dislike for Winchester, having been knocked into a bramble patch by a completely naked man whenIi was a student here back in the early eighties, but I am prepared to be converted. Just sort out some pollinator-friendly plants and I’ll reconsider, I promise.

Some nice pillars, but no planting at Winchester station

Basingstoke

I rather like this planting at Basingstoke. I am wondering what on earth the fruit is? Could it be nectarines, or is it just some small, colourful apples? Help me out here, gardening friends.

A splendid bed at Basingstoke station

Although we think of Basingstoke as a new town, it is probably on the site of an Anglo-Saxon village settled by ‘the people of Basa’, Basa being the tribal leader. The word ‘stoke’ probably derives from the word for a stockade.

Clapham Junction

And now, I’m eight minutes from Waterloo and, if all goes well, about forty minutes from East Finchley. Clapham Junction is the busiest station for trains (though not passengers) in the whole of Europe, with 200 trains passing through per hour. However, what it is not is plant friendly. There are some isolated buddleia plants, and a few sad weeds, who look as if they have been sprayed (this is often the case if the plants would impede the progress of the trains). However, maybe the seeds from the willowherb below will find more inviting ground – there are huge drifts of them all the way along the edge of the lines.

A sorry willowherb at Clapham Junctiion

The Entry into Waterloo

It’s funny. You’d think I’d love the countryside, and yet my heart lifts at the sight of the building work on the way into Waterloo station and the little glimpses of the London Eye. I’d like to share a few of the final moments of the journey with you below. And then, I’m off. Home, a cup of tea and my husband await!

Photo Credits

Photo One (Bridge) – By Chris Downer, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18372969

Photo Two (wounded soldiers) – PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12300298

Photo Three (trainees in the woods) – By Oulds, D C (Lt), Royal Navy official photographer – http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//31/media-31047/large.jpgThis is photograph A 27308 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25076005

Home Again

Dear Readers, two weeks isn’t very long, but how things can change! As I stagger off the train after my fortnight in Austria, laden down with sweaty laundry and in need of a cup of tea and a cuddle with the cat, my mood is much brightened by how splendid East Finchley station is looking.  I suspect that those good folk at the N2 Community Garden have been hard at work. A range of containers in pastel colours are chock-full of plants and buzzing with bees.

And there is even more fun to be had once you’re through the ticket barriers.

The banner is made of buttons, and I love the upcycling of the boots and the globe. It goes to show that, with a bit of imagination, many things can be transformed from useless to useful.

Well, once the laundry was on and the tea was drunk and the cat was cuddled, I headed off to see what else was going on. The little garden beside the station was looking particularly splendid.

I adore the seedheads on the alliums, they remind me of a firework display, but without all those annoying bangs.

My old friends the opium poppy seedheads are growing fat.

The Florence fennel is a huge draw for bees and hoverflies.

The marjoram is proving popular too.

Furthermore, some of the plants are making a bid for freedom and are advancing along the gutter towards the coffee stand. And who can blame them?

Buddleia and fennel making a bid for freedom

Across the road, outside the children’s nursery, the lavender is in full bloom, while the fine Victorian building that used to house the GLH taxi company now stands forlorn behind a plywood barricade, waiting for its imminent demolition.

I wrote in the Wednesday Weed this week about my discovery of a patch of lucerne on Park Hall Road, but I am still amazed today. Where on earth did it come from? It certainly gave me lots to think about.

But then, as I walk home, I look up and am for a moment extremely excited. What on earth is this?

Well, I once saw a red kite drifting over Durham Road, but I have never seen a condor in East Finchley, and obviously I haven’t seen one this time either. I am a little puzzled though.

My guess is that the kite is to deter pigeons, although I would have thought that the four-inch pins around the edge of the roof would have been deterrent enough. Still, this is an imaginative and humane solution, and it seems to be working, as the pigeons are all still hanging out on the roof of the Bald-Faced Stag. I’m not sure whether this fine bird would provide a lightning rod in the event of a thunderstorm, so perhaps if there are any physicists out there someone could tell me. In the meantime, the bird soars on, perhaps dreaming of the Andes and surveying the streets for a defunct llama to eat. I would hate to be the one to tell him that the best he can hope for around here is some Kentucky Fried Chicken.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Manners are Tearing Off Heads (Ted Hughes)

Dear Readers, sometimes death visits the garden. It’s inevitable, I suppose – the number of birds feeding there is a magnet for a predator. Usually I just find the evidence – the sad body of a blackbird with his head removed, a sea-foam of feathers under the hedge, and once two tiny limp dove’s feet. But on Sunday last week death came for a longer visit, in the form of a female sparrowhawk, who killed a collared dove with icy efficiency and then dismembered it on the garden path.

She stood on the corpse, plucking great mouthfuls of feathers and throwing them away with a jerk of the head. Occasionally, she’d lift her foot and scratch her beak to get rid of the fluff. Every few seconds, she’d look up and around with those manic yellow eyes, before getting back to work. Her talons, like black steel hooks, were deeply embedded in the breast of her prey, and the bare legs kept her a little above the gore.

After a few minutes she started to feed, ripping at the meat, all the time looking around. I really wanted her to turn, and eventually she did, so I could get a look at her chest feathers, barred in white and chocolate brown. Her tail feathers looked a little sad and ragged, but she was generally in good condition. And she was bold, too. At one point she heard the lady next door come outside to hang her washing up, and the bird looked around and froze. But after thirty seconds she went back to her meal.

As the sparrowhawk fed, the garden fell silent, except for the blue tits who are nesting next door. They were frantic, and their whirrs and peeps of alarm sounded like a soundtrack to the sparrowhawk’s tearing and rending. The great predators of the world are attended by an envelope of sound, that travels with them as they move about, like the trumpets of courtiers.

I felt bad about the dove. They come to the garden because I feed them, and this should be a safe place for them. But the sparrowhawk might be incubating eggs, or have nestlings, and needs to live too. Plus, although it matters not to the poor dead prey, this is a wild bird, not some domesticated cat entertaining itself. Sparrowhawks have been killing other birds for millenia. Maybe this is the kind of death that an animal can understand, unlike the many endings that we visit upon them, with our guns and poison and traps and laboratories, our slaughterhouses and factory farms and many forms of ‘entertainment’. It was at least an honest death, one animal to another, for simple reasons.

I went upstairs to change my camera battery, and when I came back the hawk was gone, and so was the dove: the sparrowhawk must have carried off its carcass to enjoy in a more peaceful spot. The feathers were still drifting and settling in the breeze of her departure. And in her place there was a hawk-shaped absence, a delay in the return to normality, as if the bird had carved a space in the universe, and the atoms were reluctant to rush back in. Not a single dove or pigeon came to the whitebeam tree for the rest of the day, but today they are on the seed feeder again, pragmatic as all wild animals are. If the hawk fed yesterday, maybe she won’t need to feed today.

Look Who’s Been Interviewed on Cabbieblog This Week

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/18/London_taxi.jpg

I was asked to take part in ‘The London Grill’ on Cabbieblog, and I was delighted to contribute. This is a blog by a real London cabbie, and what he doesn’t know about London isn’t worth knowing. The blog is full of fascinating tales, intriguing facts and London trivia of the highest quality. Pop over and have a look….

http://www.cabbieblog.com/the-london-grill-bugwoman/

Just Before Christmas

img_9116Dear Readers, it’s a grey, blustery day outside, but inside the house Mum and Dad  have just finished tucking into their  mince pies. I’ve been in the kitchen making an orange trifle (the trick is the Cointreau poured generously over torn up madeleines with navel orange segments, orange jelly, amaretto flavoured custard and whipped cream). The starlings are gathering in the whitebeam tree, but they’re nervous – they can see that the bird table is full of suet and worms, but they can also see that someone else is on the ground, eating the suet in the ground feeder.

img_9141This tabby has developed a taste for Buggy Nibbles, and appears as if from nowhere whenever I put them down.

Once the cat has moved on, another regular visitor appears.

img_9123This little chap has been at work collecting every single peanut and then burying them somewhere in the garden.

img_9122img_9132img_9131I have no idea if peanuts can germinate in UK temperatures, but if they can I will have a peanut forest when spring comes. And, although it’s out of focus, I rather like this picture. It turns the squirrel into a kind of grey furry snake.

img_9127A little flock of chaffinches are also clinging on to the branches of the cherry tree next door.

img_9148The patience of wild animals always moves me. So much is at stake every time they risk coming down to feed, and so they wait, bright-eyed, until the odds are in their favour. Some of these chaffinches are this year’s fledglings, so I imagine that they are watching and learning. If a small bird survives its first year, there is a good chance that it will survive to breed. Who would not wish these little ones luck?

img_9152 img_9158Dear Readers, this time last year things were very different. As my regular readers will remember, Mum became very sick with sepsis while she and Dad were staying with me last Christmas, and although none of us realised it at the time, we came close to losing her. But today, as I write, Mum and Dad are dozing in their respective armchairs downstairs, safe from the elements, well-fed and warm. I cannot protect them from everything that may do them harm, just as they couldn’t always protect me when I was a child. But today, with the lights glowing on the Christmas  tree and the wind singing in the chimney, I am, just for a second, lit up myself with how lucky I am to still have them both with me, and to have the chance to care for them. It will not always be so, but, today, I am surrounded by those that I love.

img_9112Wishing a peaceful and happy festive season to all my readers, and hoping for a joyful, healthy and inspired 2017 for you all x