Category Archives: Uncategorized

First Walk of 2022 in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, you might remember that St Pancras and Islington Cemetery has been something of a haven during this past few years, and it’s still one of my very favourite places to walk. Today was a chilly but bright day, with a low, blinding sun, and the hedges and treetops were full of very uncooperative birds. Here, for your delectation, is a photo of a male chaffinch’s backside. You’re welcome.

Not all the birds are quite so shy, though. Close to the chapel/public toilets, there is always a family of rose-ringed parakeets. I suspect that they have already picked out their nesting holes for the season, and seemed to be spending their time picking the buds off of the plane trees, and possibly chewing off twigs for their nests. They look so exotic with their bright-green feathers against the blue sky! They certainly brightened up my day.

The winter heliotrope is in flower – it’s said to have a strong, vanilla-like scent, and if I inhaled very deeply there was something in the air. It’s closely related to the native Butterbur, but is fragrant. It’s taken over a whole area close to the chapel.

Winter heliotrope (Petasites pyrenaicus)

A sea of heart-shaped leaves

And right alongside is the memorial to William French, who lost his life trying to save a dog in Highgate Ponds in 1896. Someone always loving decorates the grave, and I thought the dog was looking particularly fine today, which it should do as apparently it survived. You can read the whole story on the Studied Monuments site here – it’s by Bob Davenport, and I highly recommend it. I shall be looking around for some of Bob’s other featured monuments when I next visit the cemetery.

And finally, I wanted to include a shot of the sun through the yew trees on Harwood’s Path. As usual I was teased by the goldcrests, who are always twittering around here but are never still enough, or close enough, to photograph. Still, it’s always lovely to hear them going about their business. Can spring be far off now? Let’s hope not.

The Twelve Days of Christmas Quiz – The Answers!

The music for ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas (Photo by Grover Cleveland)

Well Dear Readers, first of all congratulations to Mike from Alittlebitoutoffocus, and Fran and Bobby Freelove, who went the distance and managed to complete the whole of the Christmas Quiz, which was quite a marathon this year! Mike got a magnificent score of 43 out of 48, but the winners, with an astonishing 46 out of 48, were Fran and Bobby Freelove, who are clearly champions this year, though Mike, Claire, Sharon, Rosalind and Anne have all given them a bit of a run for their money during the year. And a special mention to Sharon, who got 100% for her answers on French domestic animals on Day Three. Thanks to everyone who’s taken part during the year, and normal Quiz service will be resumed on Sunday next week.  

Here are the answers to the Christmas Quiz.

Question One

The Photo is of The Partridge Family, a popular show when I was growing up, not least because of David Cassidy, a real teen idol.

Question Two

Turtle doves are called turtle doves because of their call, which sounds a bit like ‘tur, tur’.

Question Three

Photo 1) is C, a Bleue du Nord cow

Photo 2) is A, a Baudet de Poitou donkey

Photo 3) is B, a Percheron horse.

Question Four

1) C) – a red-winged blackbird

2) D) – a great-tailed grackle

3) A) – a common raven

4) B) – a ring ouzel

Question Five

1) Goldcrest

2) Golden Eagle

3) Golden Oriole

4) Goldeneye

5) Golden Plover

Question Six

1)D) Greylag goose

2) B) Brent goose

3) A) Pink-footed goose

4) E) Barnacle goose

5) F) Greater white-fronted goose

6) C) Bar-headed goose

The bar-headed goose is the high-flyer, seen flying over the Himalayas from a plane window.

Question Seven

1) B) – The Black swan is from Australasia (though sometimes now seen in ‘the wild’, having escaped from a wildfowl collection.

2) C) – Black-necked swans are found in South America

3) A) – Trumpeter swans are found in North America (including the chilly parts of Canada) (which is most of it :-))

Question Eight

1) E) Bindweed

2) B) Birdsfoot trefoil

3) A) Cowslip

4) D) Cuckooflower

5) F) Greater stitchwort

6) C) Wood anemone

Question Nine

1) B) – Ladies’ Bonnets is another name for Aquilegia/Columbine

2) E) – Ladies Smock is another name for Cuckooflower

3) A) – Lady’s Locket is another name for Solomon’s Seal

4) F) – The Lady’s Slipper orchid

5) D) – Lady’s Mantle is another name for Alchemilla mollis

6) C) – This is the Autumn Lady’s Tresses orchid.

Question Ten

1) Ring-tailed lemur

2) Red Squirrel

3) Vervet Monkey

4) Springbok

5) Humpbacked whale

6) Verraux’s Sifaka

Question Eleven

1) C) Ruddy Turnstone

2) E) Purple sandpiper

3) D) Whimbrel

4) A) Black-tailed godwit

5) B) Avocet

Question Twelve

The bird ‘drumming’ is the Common Snipe


Dear Readers. there are some plants that other people seem to be able to grow in abundance, but which are a fail in my garden. I’ve always liked the idea of growing some of the single- flowered dahlia varieties because they are so good for pollinators, but they get eaten to death by slugs in the back garden, and blasted to oblivion in the front garden, however often I water them (my front garden is south-facing and gets the sun all day). When I read in the plant catalogues that a particular variety is ‘one of the very best dahlias for pots, flowering without cease for four months at a stretch’ I could cry. I wonder why it is that I always yearn most for the plants that are the most reluctant to be happy in the garden.And in spite of planting numerous bluebells, in the ‘green’ and as bulbs, last year this was the only one that flowered. I know they’re slow to establish, so maybe this year I’ll have two.

English bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)

I’ve tried this cow parsley relative, Ammi majus, because I thought it might be as shade-tolerant as the ‘real’ cow parsley, but it wasn’t – it grew but was a bit weak and wobbly, put out one sad flower and then capsized. This year I am going to grow some ‘real’ cow parsley (something else that I suspect I’ll never have to plant again), but more of that tomorrow.

Ammi majus (Photo by H.Zell)

I am definitely going to have yet another go with nicotiana this year – I grew a few in pots and they were very popular with the pollinators. Protecting them from the slugs in the garden is another thing altogether, but I refuse to be defeated, especially as the woodland variety is said to be extremely shade-tolerant, smells wonderful and is very attractive to moths.

Nicotiana sylvestris (Woodland tobacco plant) (Photo by H. Storch)

And finally, and most surprisingly because it grows like a veritable weed in other local gardens, I cannot get Mexican fleabane to thrive. What a pain. It self-seeds in cracks up and down the road, it bursts out of walls, I even have one tiny wild plant growing in the darkest part of the alley by the side of my house, but give it tender loving care and what should be an ideal position and, in my garden at least, it expires like La Dame aux Camellias in the opera. Ox-eye daisies do something similar – when we first moved into the house we had a magnificent showing of the plants beside the pond, but after they died back they never appeared again.

Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus) (Photo by Forest and Kim Starr)

I have generally been remarkably lucky with my garden – plants often grow in places where they shouldn’t, and many of them are very accepting of my ineptitude. I wonder if every gardener has plants that ‘should’ thrive in their gardens, but which just refuse to ‘take’? And do they become the plants that the gardener most wants to succeed with, or does it make more sense to accept it and move on to something that will be happy? Let me know your personal experience, dear readers – gardening is definitely a learning experience, and a communal one too.





Snakeshead fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris)

Dear Readers, I’m looking back at what happened in the garden last year, and am trying to decide what worked, and what didn’t. It’s fair to say that the garden looks pretty good in the spring. Lots of the bulbs do well – the snakeshead fritillaries are naturalising under the trees, and the grape hyacinths usually do pretty well too. You might remember that I’ve planted some wacky varieties of the latter this year, but I have forgotten where I planted them, so hopefully I’ll be in for a nice surprise.

Muscari amongst the fritillaries.

My lovely friend J gave me some forget-me-nots, and they are gradually advancing across the garden, which is no problem to me.


In the pond, the marsh marigold always provides a splendid show of yellow flowers, and I’ve even indulged myself and bought a cream-coloured one this year. Let’s see how it gets on.

Marsh Marigold

And I mustn’t forget the flowering currant. This starts flowering in March, and is an instant hit with the hairy-footed flower bees.

Flowering currant

The figwort did well, and was appreciated by a wide range of insects, including this splendid rose chafer..

Rose chafer on young common/water figwort

One of the triumphs of the year, though, was this wild angelica. It grew to nearly ten feet tall before keeling over. Sadly it’s a biennial, so it won’t be around this year, but I’m hoping it will have self-seeded. I shall be keeping my eyes open for any seedlings.

Wild angelica plus bees.

The mock orange did well as well.

Philadelphus with bees!

And oh, the joy of planting something in a pot and forgetting what it is until it comes up. This honey garlic lily was probably my favourite plant of last year. I loved everything about it, especially the way that, when pollinated, the seedheads rise and look like the turrets of a tiny castle.

As usual in a wildlife garden, not all the wildlife behaves itself. How adorable are these two, though? Their mother rears at least one litter of babies in the whitebeam every year.

And they weren’t the only babies either. No one used my nest boxes last year, but both robins and great tits have been inspecting them already this year, so fingers crossed.

The lavender in the front garden attracted the usual range of pollinators, including this very fine wool carder bee.

And I grew teasel for the first time though not, judging by the amount of babies that have seeded themselves around the garden, for the last.

By mid-summer the hemp agrimony was in full bloom, and I started to notice the tiny spiders who lay in wait amongst the flowers. This has been such a good plant for pollinators – everyone from bumblebees to hoverflies seem to love it, and it comes back every year. It is a bit floppy though, so this year I’ve got some plant supports to try to keep everything more upright. Let’s see how we get on!

Oh and did I mention the teasel?

And I forgot that the leaf-cutter bees had been hard at work on the leaves of the enchanter’s nightshade, a ‘weed’ that just popped up. At least it was appreciated by somebody.

And I’m still very impressed with the bittersweet that’s entwined itself with the honeysuckle. To my surprise, it wasn’t just bumblebees that buzz-pollinated it last year, but some of these tiny solitary bees as well. Hopefully next year I’ll be able to get some better photographs and actually identify them.

The water mint did very well last year, and I suspect I will never be without it again either.

And by the autumn there are a few sedums to enjoy.

So, there were quite a lot of successes in the garden last year. However, there were a few failures as well, that I’ll be taking a look at tomorrow. How did your planting go in 2021, if you’re fortunate enough to have a garden/balcony/few pots? If you’re like me, it’s easy to remember the things that didn’t work, and forget about all the many plants that quietly settled in and made themselves at home. After all, a garden is always a work in progress, but it’s those moments of stunning, unexpected beauty that remind me why it’s always worth trying something new.

What’s That Big Bright Thing in the Sky?

Dear Readers, although December in London was decidedly milder than usual (with 31st December being the mildest ever recorded), it was also decidedly dismal, with lots of rain and heavy grey skies. Couple that with the shortest day of the year, and it was a recipe for general misery. However, although today was cold we also got sunshine, and it feels as if all the birds are celebrating.

The starlings are clicking and singing away at the top of the whitebeam, as if in celebration. They have already cleared out two suet pellet feeders, and are decidedly fed up because I’m having my lunch before I refill them.

And then the goldfinches fly in. They are remarkably speedy for such small birds. And look at that fine red face! This bird is in full breeding fettle already.

And when I look at the twigs on the whitebeam and the hawthorn, I can see that there are buds already.

I can’t believe that the birds have missed the berries on the whitebeam. All the rest are gone.

And so it’s cold, and crisp, and altogether more wintry today. Long may it continue. It’s bracing, but definitely good for the soul to see the sun peeping through, and a few hints of spring.

The Ninth Day of Christmas – Nine Ladies Dancing

From a greetings card sold on Redbubble and designed by Lexa Strong (

Dear Readers, for my Mum and Dad’s generation, dancing was something that everybody did. My Mum and Dad only had to hear the first few bars of ‘Rock Around the Clock’ on the radio to start jiving around the kitchen, Mum twirling around, Dad whistling along (tunelessly as always). They were always the first onto the dancefloor, and if Dad got tired, Mum would find someone else’s boyfriend to take up the slack. No wonder she was always so thin! She could dance all night and still be fresh as a daisy in the morning. Have a look at Bill Hailey and the Comets in action and see if you can stop your toes from tapping….

But then Dad, in one of those strange quirks of history, discovered reggae. Years later he would spend time as a gin distiller in Jamaica, but he must have heard this song on the radio a good decade earlier. Dave and Ansell Collins would be his dance music of choice for years, although it was more of a solo pursuit – I would catch him moving around the living room in a strange shuffle, clicking his fingers and nodding his head, but only if  he thought he was on his own. Here, for your delectation, is ‘Double Barrel‘ . I’m pretty sure that this is more of a shoulder-gyrater than a toe-tapper. See what you think.

I think Mum thought that she’d be able to dance forever, and she was certainly still jumping up for a dance into her early seventies. But  gradually, the peripheral neuropathy in her feet and the scoliosis in her back, coupled with Dad’s bursitis and his increasing dementia, meant that their dancing days were done. It was one of the great sadnesses of Mum’s life that she never had a chance to give line dancing a go. At the start of a brand new year, it really does strike me that if we want to try something new, we shouldn’t keep putting it off, difficult as it is what with Covid putting the kibosh on so many things. On the other hand, how wonderful that Mum was still interested in trying new things and ready to learn even after her physical faculties were gone. How sad it would be to finish our lives with absolutely everything done and dusted, with no more hopes or plans.

Mum aged about 16

Well, that’s the dancing done. But how about the Ladies bit? It won’t surprise you to learn that there are more vernacular names for plants including the word ‘Lady’ or ‘Ladies’ than for any other word. You could make up an entire wardrobe out of the words for clothes alone. So let’s do that! See if you can match the name to the photo of the plant. I’ve included the Latin name just to help you out (a bit).


  1. Ladies Bonnets
  2. Lady’s Smock
  3. Lady’s Lockets
  4. Lady’s Slipper
  5. Lady’s Mantle
  6. Lady’s Tresses (ok, so not really an item of clothing, but definitely important for a lady).
Photo A by Eric Hunt, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

A) Polygonatum biflorum

Photo B by By Ivar Leidus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 ee,

B) Aquilegia vulgaris

Photo C by Björn S..., CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

C) Spiranthes spiralis

Photo D by Trish Steel, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

D) Alchemilla vulgaris

Photo E by Tim Green, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

E) Cardamine pratensis

Photo F by CC BY-SA 3.0,

F) Cypripedium calceolus

Photo Credits

Photo A by Eric Hunt, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo B by Ivar Leidus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 ee,

Photo C by Björn S…, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo D by Trish Steel, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo E by Tim Green, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo F has no attribution information –  CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Eighth Day of Christmas – Eight Maids a-Milking

Photo One by U+1F360, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Anglo-Nubian goat (Photo One)

Dear Readers, first of all, Happy New Year to all of you – I hope that 2022 is a lot less worrying and stressful than it’s been for many of us. I wish you everything that you would wish for for yourselves.

Now, when I was in my twenties I worked on a City Farm in Dundee. We had pigs and chickens, rabbits and ducks, and two goats, one of whom was an Anglo-Nubian just like the one in the photo. The farm manager (the one who ran away from the goose back on Day Six) wanted to try his hand at making cheese, and so we got two female, heavily pregnant goats. Each had twin kids, all four of them males. This was extremely bad news for them, as we might have kept a female, but the males were weaned as quickly as possible and then hustled off to the abattoir aged a few months. There wasn’t much of a market for kid meat then either, so they probably went straight into pet food.

I remember milking Noleen, the Anglo-Nubian. To keep the milk coming, she had to be milked every day. In nature, once the kids were weaned they’d stop feeding, and the milk would dry up naturally. While the milk was constantly being taken, her body would think that she still had babies to feed. I remember sitting next to her, feeling the warmth emanating from her furry body, and admiring her endless patience with my ineptitude. Over time we got used to one another and everything stilled except for the sound of the milk hissing into the bucket, and the sound of Noleen chomping on some hay. Her babies were gone, so I wondered if being milked gave her some comfort beyond the merely physical.

Of course, Noleen gradually gave less and less milk, and eventually dried up, even with my ministrations. Soon, she would be on heat and would be off to see the billy, a monstrous creature twice her size. Billy goats pee on themselves to add to their olfactory attractions, and this one was kept in a shed at the goat farm for most of the time. He seemed to glow in the darkness, a penumbra of ammonia surrounding his body. His only purpose was to service the females who would be brought in to see him, and he glowered out at us, a look of justifiably malicious intent in his yellow eyes. Once Noleen was pregnant again the cycle would continue, until she was too old to procreate, at which point she would probably be pet food as well.

None of this will come as any surprise to most people reading this: using animals for milk is as old as agriculture in the Western world at least (though not in large parts of Asia). But for me, a city girl who had her milk delivered in glass bottles by the milkman, it was a revelation. It seemed, and still seems, such a long-winded and callous way to get protein. I have continued to drink milk and eat cheese, but there is always, at the back of my mind, a discomfort with the cost to the animals who provide it. I find I’m gradually reducing my dairy products without even consciously thinking about it, and I’m going to try Veganuary this year, just to see what’s possible and how it makes me feel. I hope to get some new recipes that I can incorporate into my cookery routine, which has gotten a little stale, and who knows where it will lead? I do love an adventure.

Now, to return to the theme of the Twelve Days of Christmas (from which I seem to have strayed, as usual), it’s at this point in the song that it all seems to me to get a bit silly. After all, I can understand being brought partridges and pear trees and chickens and (possibly) blackbirds, but what am I going to do with eight milkmaids and, presumably, their cows? I only have a small house, after all. What might be rather nicer would be to receive a bouquet of the flowers below, that are all known as ‘milkmaids’ in one part of the country or another (many thanks to Roy Vickery’s Folk Flora for the details). I am guessing that most, though not all, of the plants got their names because of their white-as-milk colouration, while presumably some were associated with cows through their preferred habitat in meadows or fields.

Can you match the more usual common name to the plants below?


All of the plants below have been known as ‘milkmaids’. Can you match the plant to the name?

a) Cowslip (Primula veris)

b) Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)

c) Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa)

d) Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis)

e) Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis)

f) Greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea)

Photo One by brewbooks from near Seattle, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Two by Lawn Weeds, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Three byBjörn S..., CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Four by Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Five by Sannse at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Six by Mark Robinson from Williton, UK, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Credits

Goat photo by U+1F360, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 1 by brewbooks from near Seattle, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 2 by Lawn Weeds, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 3 by Björn S…, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 4 by Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 5 by Sannse at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 6 by Mark Robinson from Williton, UK, CC BY 2.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons


The Seventh Day of Christmas – Seven Swans A Swimming

Mute swan landing on the Grand Canal in Dublin (Photo by Steve H from Ireland)

Dear Readers, on the Seventh Day of Christmas the unfortunate lover has to find room in their already crowded house for no less than seven swans. Whilst  I always think that any water body is graced by the presence of swans, I’m not sure I’d want them in my living room, regarding me with a suspicious look and flapping at me every time I got up to make a cup of tea. The blooming geese are bad enough. However, I think that any body of water is much improved by the presence of these elegant, regal birds.  They manage to look regal and self-possessed even when taking off and landing, which is quite a feat. Have a look at the video below by Gary Saunders – this must be one of my favourites of 2021.

For most people, the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) is the swan that they’re most familiar with. The orange bill is a giveaway, as is the way that the Mute Swan often carries its head on an arched neck, unlike the straight neck of Bewick’s and Whooper swans. Mute swans are at the top end of the weight range for flying birds – there’s a trade off between weight and power when it comes to flying, and at a certain point, the weight of the muscles required to power the wings are too heavy for the bird to take off. Incidentally, although called ‘Mute’ swans, the wings themselves make a very distinctive noise in flight. This next recording really gives me the tingles. You can almost ‘see’ the swan flying over your head.

Both other swan species that we’re likely to see in the UK are migrants. Whooper swans arrive in Scotland, the north-east of England and Ireland in October from Iceland – it’s thought that they travel en masse over the North Atlantic and then disperse when they reach the British Isles.The distinctive feature of the  whooper swan is its voice. Some have described it as sounding like an old-fashioned car hooter, but  I think it’s rather wilder than that. Have a listen and see what you think. These are the calls of a group of swans on the ground….

And here they are in flight – my Crossley Guide says that whoopers often call three times while in flight, and that’s very evident here.

Bewick’s swans (also known as tundra swans) fly in from Siberia in the autumn, and can usually be seen on flooded fields, lakes and salt marshes. These are very localised birds, but the RSPB Slimbridge and Martin Mere reserves are good places to see them. These are our smallest swans, and Crossley suggests that they have a ‘mellow hooting call’, which is usually double rather than triple.


Now, how do you tell a whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus) from a Bewick’s swan (Cygnus columbianus)? Both have yellow and black bills, but a Bewick’s swan is smaller and stockier than a whooper, and the patterns on the bills are different. On a whooper, the yellow reaches much further down the bill, and the bill itself is longer.

Head of a whooper swan (Photo by Wald1siedel)

Head of Bewick’s Swan (Photo by Jacob Spink)

The ID is, however, complicated by the fact that each swan actually has a distinctive beak pattern which can be used to identify it as an individual – I seem to remember that Peter Scott, the founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, kept a sketchbook with ‘portraits’ of all the swans who visited the reserve. These are long-lived birds that return again and again. How lovely to grow to know them as individuals.

Peter Scott’s illustrations of the Bewick’s swans that visited Slimbridge (Photograph by Martin Godwin for The Guardian)

The Guardian did a nice piece about Slimbridge’s 50th ‘Swanniversary’, and you can have a look here.

So, after Day Seven our song finally turns away from its theme of birds, and towards humans. However, I am allowing myself some latitude on the subject matter, as usual. Let’s see what ‘Eight Maids a-Milking’ will bring.


Below are some beautiful swans. I’m even going to tell you the species. But what continent are they from? Your choices are:

a) North America

b) Australasia

c) South America

1) Black Swan (Cygnus atratus)

2) Black-necked swan (Cygnus melanocoryphus)

3) Trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator)



6.30 a.m. – A Reminder

Dad December 2017 (post nap, before G&T)

Dear Readers, I published this last year just before Christmas, and I wanted to publish it again because I know this is not an easy time for many of us. We are still in the midst of a pandemic, trying to decide what to do for the best and how to weigh up the competing needs of those close to us. I am nearly two years an orphan, but some days it feels as if I lost Mum and Dad just a few moments ago. And I know that for some of us, this will be our first Christmas without someone that we love. I see you. Wishing you peace, and grace. 

Dear Readers, it’s 6.30 a.m. on a Saturday morning and I’m sitting in the office, listening to the thin, sweet song of a robin. Outside it’s still dark as pitch, but a runner has trudged past, taking advantage of the quiet street to jog up the middle of the road. And I have been thinking about Christmas, and how different it will be this year, not just for me but for many of us. This is my first Christmas as an orphan, and the idea is taking some getting used to.

Until a few years ago, the weeks before Christmas were frantically busy for me as I tried to get everything in place for Mum and Dad’s visit. We already had the stairlift so that they could get upstairs, but there was the commode and the reclining chair to get, the temporary registration of the pair of them with my doctor, not to mention the food and the presents and the cleaning. The wheelchair had to be rented and popped into the hall, ready for action. The night before they arrived I would be nervously eyeing up everyone who parked outside our house – we don’t have a car, but it’s a long tradition that you can ‘save’ a parking space by popping a couple of wheelie bins into the road, and with Mum and Dad unable to walk very far it could save a lot of worry.

And then they’d arrive, usually driven down by my brother, and the work would really begin. Everything had to be perfect, of course, just as it had to be perfect when Mum used to be in charge. I wonder why I didn’t learn from the way that she often had a migraine on Christmas Day from sheer stress? I remember one day when Mum was in a particular tizzy about something. Dad was sitting in the armchair with a purple paper hat slightly askew on his head, a gin and tonic in one hand and the cat on his lap.

‘Syb’, he said, patting the chair next to him, ‘Just come and sit down for Gawd’s sake. The brussel sprouts can wait for half an hour’.

‘No they can’t!’ she said, and burst into tears.

And so by the time Christmas was over, Mum was worn to a bit of a frazzle. So maybe it’s no surprise that I remember the days after the big event with particular fondness – the days of eating cold turkey, hot potatoes and pickle, playing Trivial Pursuit and watching the obligatory James Bond film with Dad.

And, strangely enough, it’s not the big things that I remember about the Christmases that I hosted either.

It’s the afternoons when Mum and Dad both had a doze, Dad in his recliner, Mum on the sofa, both of them snoozing along peacefully.

It’s the morning that the great spotted woodpecker turned up on the feeder and I gave Mum my binoculars so that she could see him properly.

It’s the night that the International Space Station went by on Christmas Eve, and Mum and I watched it go sailing past.

This year will be the first Christmas in a long, long time where I don’t have anywhere to go, or anyone apart from my husband to cater for. I am lucky to have him, I know.

The losses pile up, and the difference between the Christmas gatherings on the television advertisements and my quiet, subdued bittersweet Christmas could not be starker.

But I know that I am not alone – for so many of the people reading this, there will be an empty space at the Christmas table that can never be filled. And so this is to say that I see you, and I’m holding you in my heart. Grief is the tax that we pay for loving people deeply, but  bereavement is a bitter path to walk, and attention must be paid to what we’re feeling at this time if we’re to bear it. There is a time for distraction, and a time for weeping, and only you will know which you need at any given time, but my advice would be to make room for both.

And unlike so many, many people, I don’t have agonising choices to make about who to see and how. I have not spent the year worrying myself sick about elderly relatives that I can’t see, children who haven’t been able to go to school, or who have gone and then been sent home because of a Covid outbreak. I’m still in work, and still housed. I see you too, trying to make this very different Christmas work because other people are depending on you. Please be kind to yourselves. The brussel sprouts will wait for thirty minutes while you have a cup of tea and watch something ridiculous on the television.

Outside there’s the slightest hint of a lightening sky, and the robin has stopped singing, duty done for another morning. In a few days time we’ll reach the winter solstice, the longest night for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, and the light will gradually come back, until one day we wake up at our usual time and hear the dawn chorus, not a solitary robin. The world turns whether we want it to or not, the bulbs are already starting to stretch and yawn in their loamy beds and life will carry on. Let’s take things both lightly and with deep seriousness, with a sense of fun and with a sense that what we do matters, because it does, more now than ever.

‘Tree with a robin’ drawn by Dad December 2019



A Christmas Crow

Dear Readers, when we say ‘crow’ we usually think of an all-black corvid, such as a jackdaw or a carrion crow. But the family also includes some very brightly coloured birds, including this Eurasian jay (Garrulus glandarius). Beginning birdwatchers sometimes mistake these birds for rollers, a mostly southern European and African bird. Well, the colours are similar, and I can well imagine the excitement involved.

Photo One by By Adam John Bourke - Adam John Bourke, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Lilac-breasted roller (Coracias caudatus) (Photo One)

However, Eurasian jays are quite interesting enough in their own right. Their species name, glandarius, means ‘of acorns’, and this is the bird’s main food during the autumn – it buries thousands during an average year, which helps to spread oak forests as some of the seeds will germinate if the bird doesn’t eat them first. In fact, jays are credited with the creation of the UK’s largest holm oak forest, in the Isle of Wight. A jay has been recorded carrying a single acorn for 20 km, and the birds are thought to have been a major contributor to the spread of oaks northwards after the last Ice Age.  This year has been a bad one for acorns, however, after last year’s extraordinary crop, so the birds are thrown back on their own resources. I have put out some peanuts in the hope of helping them out, though so far squirrels and parakeets have been the main beneficiaries. The bird in the photo, however, was looking most quizzically at the gutters of the houses opposite, probably in the hope of spotting some over-wintering insect.

Garrulus‘, the genus name, means ‘chattering/babbling/noisy’, and all jays are very talkative birds. They will sometimes mimic the calls of other birds, especially birds of prey, and the racket in the cemetery during the autumn is really something to hear. Just to give you the picture, here is a recording of the calls of a jay…

And here is a jay singing, something I’ve never heard. It sounds like a cross between a muppet and a viper, but is presumably sweet music to a lady jay.

Jays breed only once a year, and they form firm partnerships, essential as the fledglings are fed by both parents for up to two months after they leave the nest. One way that this pair-bond is cemented was illustrated by this study, which showed that male jays notice the food preferences of their mates, and will then bring them the food that they most enjoy – the male will feed the female during the courtship period. The more that we find out about these birds, the more I think that we underestimate them. Or maybe we just don’t have the time to notice? I am hoping to spend a bit more time noticing over the next few weeks, while I’m not working or otherwise filled with busyness. I wonder what I’ll see?

Photo and Sound Credits

Photo One By Adam John Bourke – Adam John Bourke, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Jay calls from

Jay song from