Sunday, 29 November 2015

Village Christmas Drinks At The In Laws

Beeswax cakes (in case you were wondering. Can't tell you how heavenly they smell- just like fresh honey)

Kidney Vetch, still flowering at the end of November. Crazy!

We're just home from my in law's Annual Village Pre-Christmas Drinks Party. Every year, they host what feels like the entirety of their village's population of elder statesmen and women in their house, only for the whole process to be repeated again next Sunday at someone else's house, and so on every weekend until Christmas Day arrives and they're all heartily sick of the sight of one another.

We go every year and every year I find I have forgotten 90% of the names, something I mostly get around by volunteering to Be In Charge Of Handing Out The Wine. This has two benefits 1) you have the perfect excuse to keep moving (unless you happen to stumble across an Interesting Tale), and 2) watching everyone getting steadily more tipsy and wobbly on their pegs as the afternoon wears on is it's own brand of amusement. I am generally known to all of them as M's wife (and he is often known as B's Boy, despite being almost fifty and having grown up with them all), so I figure my own memory lapse is forgivable.

M and I have a competition to see which of us can spot the man with the hairiest ears and nose (I won this year) and I frequently have to stifle giggles at the complete lack of Political Correctness that is confidently aired.

Uncle Charles was on Good Form. He was loudly telling M (and everyone else within a twelve foot radius) all about his recent sojourn in hospital where it turned out that the man in the bed next to him was an undertaker who'd got tired of his job and decided to become a magician. This was a more entertaining story than the one which consisted of asking a bemused-looking woman which was her favourite short-cut key on a computer keyboard.

Uncle Charles is an institution in our family. He is deaf as a post and has terrible balance, but he is relentlessly cheerful with the sort of laugh that, when they were younger and still deigned to come to these events, the children would try and secretly record on their phones.

He is now so wobbly on his pegs that standing for any length of time is perilous, never mind the addition of a glass of red in one hand and a suspicious-looking prawn on a tiny circle of pastry in the other as well as his walking sticks. He has hearing aids, which are so ancient they are doubtless worth more as antiques, but despite the fact they don't work he refuses to update them, so we all have to yell at the top of our voices into one of two black boxes he wears round his neck while he attempts to lip read. 

I was deriving Great Amusement listening to he and Mark attempting to have a conversation about Microsoft Word when I was hailed by a jovial chap with a shock of disobedient white hair wearing a bright red waistcoat that perfectly matched his cheeks who boomed cheerfully:  'At last! A pretty blond barmaid bearing wine!' Fortunately, I possess a sense of humour so I just grinned at him and refilled his glass. I then had a conversation with another old boy whose right eye dripped continually onto his cheek (it was hard to ignore the urge to hand him a hanky) all about his time in Colonial Africa. It reminded me so much of the French & Saunders sketch that I got the giggles and had to rush off to the loo to compose myself.

To reimpose a sense of reality, when we got home I made a batch of beeswax and olive oil lip balm as Christmas gifts for friends, and a frankincense and olive body balm for Ma who has requested some. I am now looking forward to roast beef with all the trimmings for supper, because it turns out that tiny circles of pastry with suspicious prawns atop a dollop of something white, little bits of salmon clinging to ovals of cream cheese and miniature sausages on sticks with dips may look very pretty but do not necessarily fill a person up, no matter how much G&T you consume as part of the survival process.

Hope you are all well?

CT :o)

Friday, 20 November 2015

Do You Spend Much Time Thinking About Worms?

No, I thought not. But you might after reading this.

Worms, also known as Ecosystem Engineers, are my latest obsession.

I confess to not spending particularly large amounts of time considering worms before, but now I am thinking about them a lot.

The reason for this new interest is a talk I went to yesterday, which was aimed at farmers improving their soil but which also has ramifications for the world of ecology, particularly the world of ecology that wants to work more productively with the world of farming.

It is fair to say that there has been a degree of mutual distrust between farmers and conservationists over the years, but if we really want to secure a better future for wildlife and ensure we have enough food to feed everyone, we have to find more productive and less suspicious ways of working together.

The little worm, so easily overlooked by so many of us, may just provide the perfect opportunity to begin opening dialogues of this kind. Because is turns out that worms are fascinating creatures, valuable creatures, quite astounding creatures in many ways.

Here are some juicy worm facts.

1. There are three main worm types: the compost worm, the earthworker worm and the root dwelling worm.
2. Compost worms are not the same as the worms that live in your garden soil. If you put compost worms on to your soil, they will up and leave and make their way back to the compost, which is where they like to be. They don't want to eat soil, they want to eat compost.
3. Worms like mild, damp conditions. If the weather is bad they dig deep into the soil and wait it out. Or they die if it's really bad. But the good news is their populations recover fast.
4. Moles chew the bottom off a worm then push all the grit and soil along the worm with their paw and out of the hole, so they can eat the worm without damaging their teeth.
5. Worm babies hatch from cocoons.
6.Big worms can live for 8-9 years in the wild, but have been recorded living up to 20 years in captivity!
7. If you cut a worm in two close to the tail it will survive, if you cut it closer to the head it can't.
8. The presence of earthworms in soil at a good frequency increases crop yields significantly.
9. Worms like a high pH and lots of organic matter to thrive.
10. You get more worms in phosphorous, calcium and clay soils.
11. They don't like sandy soils because it scratches their skin when they move through it.
12. Worms improve nitrate availability in the soil (important for growing crops and preventing it polluting our waterways).
13. 12,000 worms per square metre is the biggest number recorded.
14.The Green Worm lives in manure heaps and mineral rich environments.
15. Aristotle called them 'the intestines of the earth' and Darwin doubted any other creature had played a more important part in the history of the world.
16. Worms can be grey, red, green or stripey.
17.There are 27 UK worm species, 8 of which you are quite likely to find just in your garden.
18. There are 4 species of Compost Worm (they also live in manure and muck heaps) and they work in the top 12cm of topsoil where they love a rich diet of rotting vegetable matter rather than soil. They don't build permanent burrows or tunnels but prefer to just wander randomly wherever there is food. If it gets very cold they burrow further down the soil profile, curl up into a ball and hibernate in a lovely covering of protective slime.
19. Earthworms (2700 species worldwide) are the ones you'll see most often in your garden, especially the big chaps Lumbricus terrestris (a 12cm long worm also known as the Lob Worm or Common Earthworm). They make the soil airy and better for plants to grown in and they create long vertical burrows (up to 3 metres deep) with their poo (casts) on the surface at the top of the hole. They eat soil and especially like leaves. They pop up to look for food at night (go out with a torch especially on a damp mild night and you'll see them all on the surface, but they move quickly and once the light's on them they'll whizz back down their holes) and Darwin noted they will search out the best shaped leaves to bung up their burrows with. Small claim to fame here- apparently, he carried out this research in one of our neighbour's gardens! 
20. Root Dwelling Worms are deep burrowers that are widespread in farmland. You're unlikely to see them as they don't come up to the surface. They live among the roots of vegetation.
21. All worms help aerate the soil and recycle rotting matter by tunneling through it and breaking it down (eating it) so that fungi and bacteria can release valuable nutrients and return them to the soil. Where there are larger numbers of worms there will be larger numbers of these essential bacteria and fungi. They also help prevent flooding as water can drain down into the soil through their burrows and help plants to grow as their roots use worm tunnels too.
22. In once acre of land there can be more than a million earthworms.
23. A worm stuck in the sun for an hour will become paralysed and dry out and die, so if you find one help it back to a patch of earth. 
24. Worms have tiny bristles on each of their body rings to help anchor them in the soil and crawl along. This is why blackbirds and robins are seen tugging them out, because they can hold on!
25. Worms eat: soil, manure, decomposing organisms, roots and leaves.
26. It takes 500 years to make 1 inch of topsoil and nearly all the antibiotics we use have come from soil organisms.
27. 1 tbsp of soil has more organisms in it than there are people on earth.
28. Worm killing products have been banned for a number of years.

Great stuff, don't you think? Yay for worms!

If you want to know more, have a look at The Earthworm Society's webpage.

I also made two new farming friends yesterday, one who has acres of wild flower meadows bordering some local Chalk Downland and is keen for me to do some wildlife surveys on the farm next year and advise him on how to best manage the land for maximum wildlife benefit, and another who is about to take over a local farm and is likewise keen to find out what she's got living on it so she can look after it. A really interesting day and I met some great people.

Hope you're all having a good week?

CT :o)

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Crisis At Christmas

Every Christmas since he was a tiny wee person, L and I have chosen two charities to donate to at Christmas. We do one animal one and one person one. L usually chooses the animal one and I choose the person one. For the past few years we have donated to Crisis, the homeless charity.

For £22.29 you can give a homeless person a hot meal, a warm shower, a change of clothes, access to medical help, housing and job advice this Christmas.

Home is so important. Every time I see Crisis' information I can't help but think how lucky we are to have a safe, happy home that supports us and keeps us warm and secure year round. I can't imagine what it must feel like not to have that at all. If you're wondering who to donate to this Christmas can I enter a gentle plea for Crisis?

Click HERE to go to the website and find out more, or to donate.

Hope you are all well, and if you're UK based, surviving the gusty, windy conditions we have here at present. I'm hoping it abates soon.


Monday, 16 November 2015

Into The Trees


I went into the woods today. An Ancient Woodland. We didn't know each other, these trees and I, because it was off my usual stomping ground, so I made the usual polite request to enter, along with an introduction, a brief resume of me and what I was doing there.

Honestly, sometimes I feel I am more tree than girl. Especially of late. They seem to have reached out for me this year in ways more complex than I can express. I've always been drawn to trees and now I am starting to feel more at home in ancient woodlands than anywhere else.

This one is just about holding off the threat of new housing and ring roads. For all that, thousands of new houses will be built next year all along its edges. Thousands of new people may come to use it for recreation. Thousands of new dogs may begin to walk along its paths and run through its undergrowth, plunge into its ponds and in so doing cloud the water, disturb the soil and rake up the vegetation, making it certain that Great Crested Newts (or any other) will never live there.

Tracks and rides around the wood will be graveled in a brave attempt to mitigate the potential for destruction all these new people bring. In an attempt to keep them to paths and prevent them wandering into sensitive ecological areas where birds may be attempting to nest and raise young, butterflies to lay eggs, caterpillars to feed or beetle larvae to survive. Without the gravel, the tracks will turn to mud and expand ever-outwards into the margins of the woodland as people try to avoid getting their feet wet, and by so doing trample the violets that the endangered Pearl Bordered Fritillary butterfly needs to feed on, or the Devil's Bit Scabious that the even more endangered Marsh Fritillary butterfly requires, or perhaps the ancient woodland indicator plants like wood anemone, bluebell and dogs mercury which have been growing there undisturbed for five hundred years or more.

To get to this wood, you turn off the motorway and pass through a land of shiny new office blocks made of smooth, glinting green and silver glass. It seems incongruous that somewhere near here, somewhere very near here, is an ancient wood. You travel along new roads congested with parked cars. You go past a new housing estate and over a handful of roundabouts and then suddenly, quite unexpectedly, you turn off and there it is: the path into the woods opens up before you with a wooden gate, remnant of another age, standing across it to prevent cars accessing it.

You step into the wood, among the trees and instantly all the sounds of man cease. They could be a thousand miles away. The timelessness of forests wraps itself around you and you simply forget about the way our days are divided into hours and minutes and seconds. Instead, you track the sun, or the shadows it casts and you listen to the voices of birds that tell you whether it is morning still or that afternoon has come. The whole world of man fades completely. 

Nuthatches squeak from the boughs of an ancient oak; the liquid song of a Robin wells up from the depths of a beech; a Wren sings her heart out from among the branches of a hawthorn; a bee, unexpectedly, flies past my ear and heads towards an area of new coppice where Rough Hawkbit still blooms and the nests of violet leaves poke out of the leaf litter; a Comma floats down the path and drifts up to a pine where it rests, wings open to catch the remnants of the sun.

I imagine this place in summer- the oaks and sallow tell me that this is a land of Purple Emperors. The strands of honeysuckle twining delicately among the branches whisper of White Admirals. The whole feel of the wood with its ancient trees and open grassy rides sing of Silver Washed Fritillaries and Longhorn Beetles.  

I will return, perhaps, when the year has turned and the warmth and green leaves have come again. I will come back to see the butterflies, to look for beetles and hoverflies. But by then the houses will have been built and the wood may no longer be quite so free of the world of man - you may need to go ever deeper to escape it, and perhaps I will find that too hard, too sad, and so I will stay away and cherish instead the memory of this place from a time when it seemed to me so wild and free and ancient.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Wind, Rain, Sun



Today the weather decided to remind us that it is November. Here in the UK it's been unseasonably mild for the time of year. Too mild. Because, much as I don't like unending days of cold, I also feel this warm weather is all wrong, and I'm fretting over the small things that need a burst of proper cold to carry on next year. And thinking about all the germs that are rubbing their hands with glee at the perfect breeding conditions of warm, moist temperatures and rotting things.

We woke to a blustery rain storm which soon turned into a full-blown gale interspersed with heavy driving rain and now the wind has dropped right down and the sun is out. A changeable mistress, English weather.

We've been into Winchester to get L's Christmas present (now all I need is to organise M's and four sets of stockings and I'm done, bar the wrapping) and I spent the earlier part of the morning working. By lunch time there doesn't feel much left of the day now it gets dark so early, but at least it's yellow outside instead of grey.

I've had a virus this week which knocked me out. I make a Very Bad Patient. No running :o( No walking :o( No college :o( and no teaching :o( I am starting to feel better which is a relief but now comes the uber sensible bit of Not Over Doing Things for another week or so to make sure the recovery is real. This I am also Not Good At.

I did manage to sneak outside and peer admiringly down the lane which was all washed clean and lit with sparkly sunlight glittering on what's left of the very colourful leaves since the wind spent the morning tearing them all down in a fit of pique. I admired and felt wistful and sighed, then shook myself and promised the lane I'd be back soon venturing down his ancient ways.

I also have a new TVBF whom I paste here for your appreciation/ approval/ admiration. It helps brighten up the long dark evenings. So far I have managed to keep him all to myself by sneakily watching The Last Kingdom before M gets home from work. Well, if I have to be sensible and remain quietly on the sofa there has to be an inducement to do so, no?

Other than that, not very much has happened here this week. How about you all?

I'll leave you with T and P who have also had a Very Boring Week, much of which has been spent asleep on the sofa with me (shh- don't tell M) or passed out in front of the fire. They have been sheeping today in the rain which explains why they both look like drowned rats. They enjoyed sheeping, apart from the part where they had to go past a herd of cows - apparently they were both very worried about this and M ended up having to carry them one past one at a time. Luckily there were no other dogs out on the Down to point and laugh. Brave Terriers.

Hope all are well,

CT :o)

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Photo Year Book & Ironbridge On Hols



I've finally got around to putting together the Family Year Book for 2014. Its a compendium of photos printed in a hard-backed book and I am late with it- usually I have this done and dusted by Jan/ Feb. In my defence, it's been a busy year and putting the book together takes hours which I haven't had spare until now.

Anyway, it's all done and the printed copy turned up a couple of days ago. Going back through a year's worth of photos and picking the ones that best represent the year is a long process and by the end of it I have usually had at least one sense of humour failure and vowed never to do it again. But it always worth it in the end as the record is something we all treasure. It is the story of our family.

I have now been uber efficient and picked the best 900 photos for Jan - Oct this year already. They are currently uploading to Snap Fish as I type. Only two more months to go. The 2015 book will appear hot on the heels of 2014's offering.

We spent a few days in Ironbridge this half term. Have you been? It's lovely and fascinating. I last went when I was 14. Too long ago. The B&B was the best we've stayed in yet (a lovely Georgian farmhouse, no fuss, very rustic, delicious fry ups), the weather was fab, the teens mostly behaved themselves and enjoyed it, meals out were delicious and I think I can safely say we are all sufficiently topped up with museums to the extent we most likely won't need any more until next year at least.

I made friends with the lady who works the Shire Horses at Blists Hill (a reconstruction of a Victorian Industrial town) and reminisced with her of my days on a working farm stud with these enormous creatures. One of mine (Arthur, aged 6 and standing about 19 hands) once took off across an abandoned air field with the farmer's son standing on a tractor tyre that Arthur was pulling (supposedly learning how to pull the dray) behind him. I ran back to the farm house to let the farmer's wife know and she grinned and said oh, he'll stop when he's made his point. Three hours later they returned. Another time I was grooming Arthur before a big show and he moved his bottom over to pin me against the side of the lorry. I yelled and flapped my arms and shoved him and told him to get over but he wasn't having any of it. An hour later everyone came back and fell about laughing at the sight of me pinioned against the wall with Arthur contentedly munching his hay and nonchalantly resting one hoof. He was extremely naughty with a very well developed sense of humour and he posed for photos in a way no other horse I've known has. Heavy Horses are very different to other types and once you've worked with them, you fall in love with them forever. They hold a very special place in my heart.

Hope you're all well. If you'll forgive me I won't reply to comments for the time being. But please know I appreciate every single one and will read them all.

Have a good week all,

CT :o)