Monday, November 29, 2010


Winter wonderland time. The garden has transformed itself from the browns of early winter to Narnia, with frost glittering on every branch and the small scattering of snow lying all day in places the sun didn't reach.

The post and the electricity meter reader arrived here with no problem, so the roads are clear at the moment. Our difficulty arises when we have a fall of snow which half melts then refreezes. No gritting of the roads round here, so the hills in particular become impassable.

Part of me longs for the snowfall that's forecast for the east of the country, but the other half wants 'out there' to remain accessible. Perhaps we'll have to do what a friend did last winter when we were in India away from the last big freeze - he carried a bag of grit and a shovel in his car boot, so could grit himself out of a wheel-spinning standstill.

More photos of the garden - an antidote to the bad numbers being reported endlessly on the radio.

The polytunnel hasn't lost its layer of snow from the weekend, leaving it cold inside even when the sun is shining, but I'm assuming there will be an insulating effect too, so maybe it'll be a little warmer at night that it would otherwise have been. I've covered the strawberry plants in there with dry bracken, so they'll be ok.

I also covered all the pelargoniums (more popularly known as geraniums) with agricultural fleece - I lost all of them last year, in spite of them being in the glasshouse. These look as though they're off to a wedding.

Today the house has been filled with Christmas smells. I made the first lot of mincemeat and took a photo of it. They're not maggots in there, really they're not. It's vegetable suet. The mince pies with the cup of tea were delicious and not in the least maggoty.

The Christmas cake has been in the oven for the last four hours, the tin wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string to stop it burning. I'm going to go and check it now to see if it's done. This is the first check. It usually takes several as it always takes longer than I expect to cook. Hope it's not burned having said all that.

Nope. Not done at all. Another hour I'd say.

A mouse ran along the base of the cupboards in the kitchen today in full view of Joe and I. The dogs noticed nothing.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Trying to catch the shot

The haggard is full of blackbirds busy at the apples. Whenever you go out there they cluck hysterically, judgementally. How dare you disturb their feast. There are fieldfares too. I was glad to see them back, right on time. End of November every year they appear, winter visitors from Scandinavia. I've seen three so far in the garden, but up the track this morning towards Jones's eighteen or twenty flew over. I was out with the camera just now, trying to catch a photo, but there was silence. Not a one. I'll have to try earlier - there was a good crowd feasting this morning.

Then I was trying to capture a coal tit on the seed feeder, also in the haggard. Here's the result of that one:

 Then I went for the easy option. The bird table outside the kitchen door. Only not so easy. The buggers all disappeared of course, and it's freezing cold today, so no fun sitting there with the half door open. But eventually the great tits, blue tits and goldfinches reappeared. Busy times at the table.

I have such admiration for wildlife photographers who sit for hours in freezing and wet conditions to get the shot they want. I haven't the patience for that at all. I can probably manage ten minutes. Maybe twenty when the weather's good.
I seem to be on the road to Galway a lot at the moment. I was asked to read poetry at a fundraiser for the Galway Rape Crisis Centre tonight - much to my amazement. It's at the Crane Bar and should be a good night - not because of me, I might add. It's a night of entertainment by women artists of various hues - official name An Evening Celebrating Women in Action. I find I'm getting a little nervous, but nowhere near as terrified as I would be if I were playing flute - which they also asked me to do. I suffer from the most appalling stage fright with the music if playing solo. It's deeply annoying and is self-fulfilling. I'm nervous I'll make a mistake, and because I'm nervous I'll make a mistake I make a mistake. So I'm nervous I'll make a mistake. Ho hum.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Oedipus and antlers

We went up to Galway last night to the Town Hall Theatre to see Pan Pan's production of Oedipus Loves You, a play by Simon Doyle and Gavin Quinn. It's described as 'a new work based on and inspired by the Oedipus the King plays of Seneca and Sophocles and the writings of Sigmund Freud'. It was the Oedipus story told within the setting of a modern (and fairly disfunctional) family mixed with punk songs. It was wild and full of energy. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it. The opening scene was particularly striking.

We stopped at Paddy Burke's in Clarinbridge on the way back with Erin for a debriefing drink. I always find plays take a while to assimilate enough to be able to talk about them, but we managed it pretty well. I'm still thinking about it though, and whether it really worked or not. Great night out regardless. But wild weather on the way home. Horizontal rain and gale-force winds. The electricity was out when we got home. One of those nights when we'd no torch with us, but at least we knew where to grope for one just inside the door. And most of the candles were still in place from Thursday night last when we had the previous power cut. Bed by candlelight. Could be romantic but it wasn't. Just Very Cold. The range was still lighting when we got home but no central heating.

The wind from last week may have knocked the antler sculpture flat, but we had a great view of the real thing yesterday. Three female deer and a fine-headed stag in the field at the back. They all cantered off across the field when Joe opened the door. They're probably the same ones who've been tramping about in the Hollow across my newly cleared beds and the garlic and eating the swiss chard.

The deer in the photo was captured on film the other day, but it's the same field.

The garden is full of fallen apples and leaves. The blackbirds have made a good start on the apples, and I'm expecting the flock of fieldfares any day now - they usually arrive towards the end of November for the apple feast - although I'm a little fearful there won't be any. So many were killed in the January freeze. 

Leaf raking is a great winter activity. Nothing like it for keeping you warm, and for being outside in winter sunshine. And wind. No end of wind at the moment. Joe and I raked/packed black binliners with leaves at the weekend. The binliner business is for making leafmould, a glorious substance for improving the structure of the soil. I haven't tried the binliner business before, but the usual container is still full of not-yet-rotted leafmould from last year. It takes two or three years to make really good stuff. I hope I've knifed enough holes in the black plastic bags so it doesn't simply turn to slime.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wrapped up boat and new van

All wrapped up. The photo was taken by Tom Bailey.
Our first trip in the new van took us to the tip of Cavan to Quivvy Marina and the boat. We needed to check on her and take out all removable things that will go mouldy (bedding, cushions, tea cosy, wooden spooons). This was the first time we'd seen her since she had her new winter cover put on. It is an amazing piece of stitching. With protruberances. Don't laugh! (even though I did).

We stood for a while in awe at the snugness of the boat compared to how she looked in previous years with flapping tarpaulins tied on with bits of string. Which zip to undo first? And how would we deal with the velcroed flaps where the fenders and ropes came out?

The cover is ingenious. The sections that cover the side decks come off altogether so you can have just the dog house and coach house roof protected - useful in summer when you have to leave the boat in the lashing rain for a few weeks. Then, in winter, on go the side deck sections.

It wasn't as difficult as we thought it would be to get in - you can make a door opening at the back - but you have to remember to bring a torch. It's pitch dark inside.

It was threatening rain and in all the rush to get everything off the boat I forgot to take any photos. The one with the half cover was taken by Nigel at Irish Spars and Rigging who made the cover.

The van was brilliant. I spent most of Friday working out where to put everything and packing her up ready for when Joe got home from work. The dogs wouldn't get out the whole day.

First stop Athlone. In the rain but it didn't matter. We were toasty warm and comfortable - great heater. It felt so spacious! Although of course it's not. It's tiny compared to our kitchen. Or sitting room. Or bathroom really. But kingsize for a van and so cleverly designed. Oh I'm smitten. No question.

The kitchen
There's a great advantage in knowing the waterways so well - there's always somewhere to park a camper van. We stopped beside the lock in Athlone in a car park next to an apartment block. Very quiet and close to the good restaurants and bars. They call it Athlone's Left Bank which is pushing it a bit (well, quite a lot), but it does have a feel of an artisan quarter, a castle and, of course, the mighty Shannon.

We went to Al Mezza, an excellent Lebanese restaurant we've been to before. Great food. Very expensive wine though. Really you need to go with a few people. Or at least Joe needs to go with another foody. The meze is fabulous - lots of small courses - but I'm always defeated way before the end.

The second night in the van we stopped at Shannonbridge - riverside again. The Shannon is in its usual state of winter flood - the jetty wall had disappeared completely. We went to Killeen's on the Main Street, a family run pub that's hugely popular with tourists and boaters. Great crack anyway and the Killeens are lovely people. There's a shop attached too that sells everything which was just as well. I had to send Joe on an emergency mission before we could have dinner - chopping an onion is no joke with the sort of knife you use for cutting an egg.

There was live music in the bar. Hmm. We thought we were going to be sitting in the shop when we saw Singer-with-Guitar and one of those boxes that do the chunk chunk noises and a woman in black leather trousers. But actually they were great. Okay they obviously do weddings and so on but she played flute, they had a repertoire that included jazz and bluesy stuff, and I have to report that I did end up dancing. Not alone! There were others dancing.

Can't wait to go off in the van again.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Halloween mice and stag's antlers

I came face to face with the mouse last night. I was in the pantry looking for the oatmeal when there was a flicker in the corner of my eye. I'd put everything into containers as soon as I realised the mouse (or mice) had returned - we get them every winter - but this lady had her eyes set on the giant Toblerone in the corner; the dark chocolate Toblerone Joe had given me on my birthday; the treat of a Toblerone I was not prepared to share with a mouse. Seconds later she was on the shelf in front of me where she paused for a second, not a bother on her, before doing a mouse-scoot along the shelf, onto another shelf and up the corner of the wall to upstairs where I later heard her at her housework.

At least this year it isn't a rat (or two). Not yet anyway. They have a much heavier footfall.

We managed a bonfire on Sunday night in spite of a heavy weekend of birthday celebrations (which were quite amazing). The weather cleared in the afternoon, Joe and I did some work in the garden (always a good Halloween activity) and I laid the lantern trail across the garden and lit the candles in this lad on the left.

The bonfire struggled for a while. Some of the wood was damp, we didn't have a huge supply of garden cut backs like we usually do, and it seemed for a while it wasn't going to go. Finally a couple of good branches caught and we were away, welcoming in the ancestors and all that.

Joe had built an amazing 'sculpture' over the fire itself thinking, at first, that it would burn. I'm glad it didn't. It's very appropriate - stag's antlers for Samhain. They're still there today. Probably will be all winter. I haven't the heart to dismantle them and they make me smile every time I go out to kick apples for the dogs.

Apple kicking is the favourite game of this time of year and Aoife and Frankie are terrible bullies when persuading you to play. Especially Aoife. You can only take so much of a dog repositioning itself so it is forever in front of your eyes and staring staring staring. The haggard is full of apples. We've shifted barrowloads of them to the edges, made apple juice and still there are more. The high winds of yesterday brought down most of the stragglers in the trees, so the lawn is covered again. What you have to do is kick the apples for the dogs to chase. Or rather Aoife chases while Frankie gets hysterical and makes a lot of noise while bouncing around in front of you, occasionally taking off after a high-flung fruit.

The camper van is home. The poor thing is very dirty, something I'm sure it isn't used to on nice English roads. Our track was the last straw for it, chucking up filth on to its pristine white sides. But no matter! It's lovely and we plan to go away this weekend for our inaugural trip.

Here it is: