Seen at The Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Monday, 31 December 2007

2007's New Year's Resolutions


I'm finishing off my posts for this year by reviewing my NYRs for 2007.
I'm happy to report that the pictured exercise bike purchased on New Year's Day did not become 'a clothes horse within a fortnight' as predicted by the delivery man, but has been regularly used all year.
I've also recycled more and told you what I've found out about plastics recycling here in Wiltshire.
I've also lost weight - not as much as I'd have liked, but the lost weight has stayed off all year, so I'll still count it as a successful resolution.
My only lack of success was my resolution to start swimming again. Yes, I bought a new cossie on New Year's Day, but I don't think its solo outing at Centre Parcs 2 weeks ago really counts - this one will have to be carried forward into 2008.

Post Christmas Traditions


My family's always maximised the value from the traditional Christmas turkey. That all important Christmas dinner, through turkey sandwiches for tea, turkey curry, turkey pie, and finally my mum's rib sticking turkey stew a few days later complete with dumplings.
Our routine's slightly different now, but I can't pass up the opportunity to make soup using the turkey carcass, so here's one I made earlier today. The carcass was simmered for a couple of hours yesterday and left to cool overnight. There was no fat to skim off the top of the resultant broth this morning, so I went straight into stripping off the meat from the bones. I then added 2 large carrots, 1 large onion, 2 large cloves of garlic, a handful each of Puy lentils and pearl barley, plus freshly ground black pepper and fresh herbs from the garden - bay leaves, sage, thyme, oregano and winter savory. That little lot was left to simmer for half an hour and eaten for lunch today- yum, yum!

Plastic Recycling 2


My posting yesterday covered plastics recyclable at Wiltshire's main household recycling centres. This posting concerns the perennial problem about what to do with all those pesky plastic bags. Unfortunately I don't live in Tisbury, where they're going plastic bag free from tomorrow (hurray for Tisbury!), the first place in Wiltshire to do so. However, I do spend lots of my time in shops saying 'no thanks, I've bought my own bags' - supermarkets and most shops handle this remark very well, but my local garden centre thinks I'm mad.
In spite of all this, I still accumulate lots of plastic film (plastic type 4, or LDPE) - from cat food wrappings, vegetable bags, subscription magazine wrappers etc etc. I asked Sainsburys earlier in the year just what could be put in their plastic bag recycling boxes. Luckily, all of the above can be put in there, so I now do so after removing any labels or sticky ties first. I suggest you do too if your local supermarket has the same facility - if it doesn't, you can still recycle your clear plastic film by sending it to Polyprint Mailing Films, full details can be found here.

Sunday, 30 December 2007

Know yer Plastic

Further to my recent posting on plastics recycling, I've realised that I didn't explain the plastics categories that well. Also, plastic recycling facilities differ widely in the UK, indeed in the world. Therefore, I need to make it quite clear the recycling I refer to in this blog is applicable to Wiltshire, England only, unless stated otherwise.

I wrote about plastics categories 1,2 and 3 the last time which are recyclable at all the main household recycling centres in Wiltshire, apart from the mini centres in west Wiltshire and Salisbury. These categories are usually shown on the plastic itself as the appropriate number within a solid or dotted line triangle. The base of the item is usually where this is located, and/or it may be shown on any paper labelling on the packaging instead. Another possibility is the plastic name may be shown - PET (type 1), HDPE (type 2) or PVC (type 3). More information on these labels and the types of plastic may be found here. So if your plastic shows one of these numbers or the equivalent lettering, you can get a glow of satisfaction from recycling it.

Infuriatingly, manufacturers have not really made it easy for even keen recyclers like myself when it comes to recycling. For example, they use mixed plastics for the packaging e.g. the top may be a completely different plastic, often a type that can't be recycled. This includes the ring of plastic left around a bottle from the top when it's first opened - this must be removed from the rest of the packaging. Another common fault is the tiny lettering or numbering used - often almost unreadable to me, never mind an elderly person.

I'm also annoyed that a lot of day to day items come in type 5 packaging (shampoo bottles for example), which doesn't seem to be recyclable anywhere in the UK at the moment. I did ask Yeo Valley earlier this year why they'd chosen this plastic for their packaging, and they replied they'd been assured that facilities were going to be built for this type of plastic when they chose it, but it hasn't appeared yet. Why can't they and all the other companies using this kind of plastic switch to one of the other types that can?

Monday, 24 December 2007

Seasons Greetings


A very Merry Christmas to you all and a special thank you to those who have made a comment or stopped by for another look.
I'll be offline for a few days, as I expect you will too. Have a most enjoyable time. I'm off on another northern odyssey and will be back just before the new year.

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Feed the Birds 2



I put these teasels outside after the SUP wreath making session. This was before the bird feeder was put out the other day. The frost has added to their beauty, but it looks like all the seeds have gone now.

Winter Sunflower



Today's freezing fog has given an almost sculptural quality to the sunflowers I left on the plot to help feed the birds this winter.

The leeks and carrots harvested today were frozen, but it didn't harm their flavour for our (early) Christmas lunch!

View from the Plot




Christmas Lights



I couldn't resist taking this picture of nature's own decoration of our outdoor Christmas lights this morning.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Playing with my Food 2



The BBC's been looking at sustainable food this week in a series of special reports. A recent survey suggests that the British public is thinking much more about where their food is sourced from when out shopping. Whilst I applaud this upward trend, I'm unsure whether the high percentage (57%) found in the survey is actually reflected on the High Street - I'm sure that price and affordability are the key factors for most people.

Part of the sustainability debate is around food miles and our appetite for year-round availability. The Soil Association is considering whether to withdraw its organic label for food airfreighted from abroad, though there are also counter-arguments about how this helps the developing world stand on its own two feet. A good article on the pros and cons can be found here. A recent commercial response to this is the setting up of a vast greenhouse just outside Middlesborough for the production of year-round tomatoes. Waste heat and carbon dioxide from a nearby ammonia plant are being used for heating. It's being touted as a neat solution to utilising industrial waste products (and reducing the UK's carbon footprint) whilst cutting down on those pesky food miles. Initially it sounds great, but I'm worried about how good the solution actually is. Around 7,000 tonnes of tomatoes will be produced annually - how does this fit with the UK's total consumption? UK manufacturing is in general decline, what happens if the ammonia plant closes, never mind about its environmental impact in the first place? What's used to light the greenhouse, is this also sustainable? It cost 14 million pounds to set up, so it doesn't sound commercially viable to me. I've tried to find the answer to these questions, but failed so far.

Another approach of course is to concentrate on eating seasonal foods only, which is one of the reasons why I took on an allotment. However, NAH and I like to have salad for tea during the week - whilst I can supply a good selection of leaves for our salad for most of the year, I can't see NAH agreeing that readily to change from the tomatoes, peppers and cucumber he likes to have. So, I'll probably make these the tomato of choice when they start appearing on the supermarket shelves, but it will be with the reservations noted above.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Green Shoots of Recovery


Tonight is the Winter Solstice - when the North Pole is at its furthest from the sun and we have our longest night. In spite of Christmas to come, it's easy to feel quite gloomy at this time of year. So I'm glad I found these daffodils poking through the frosted leaves today, as a reminder of better (and lighter) days to come.

How Did my Garden Grow?



After my allotment assessment here's my review of my gardening year in 2007:

What's Hot

Clematis obelisks - 3 new ones 'planted' last year, plus 13 new Clematis plants. All flowered prolifically this year

Gravel planting - a totally new (for me) experimental planting of herbs, alpines & Cyclamen in the gravelled path edges and side garden

RHS Membership - my Christmas pressie from NAH last year. A new monthly magazine to drool over, plus visits to Jekka McVicar's herb farm in May and the RHS Great Autumn show in October were inspirational

Willow weaving - learnt at Lackham College in the spring and now brightening up various garden spots as well as the allotment

What's Not

Trees blown down from the public land - see picture. I nearly lost several shrubs and an apple tree whilst we were on holiday in Wales in June. However, the Rosa 'New Dawn' and Hydrangea have appreciated the additional light in this once shady corner

Vine weevil - adults were seen much more frequently this year and in the front garden for the first time. Thankfully no sign of root damage by grubs - yet

Rain stopped play - for days (and what felt like weeks) at at time

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Plastic Recycling


I've become totally confused at what can and can't be recycled in the plastic line in North Wiltshire lately, so for the sake of clarity for my fellow local readers, here's the edited highlights of what I've found out (NB, the numbers I refer to are the numbers you can find inside a small triangle stamped on most plastic packaging):

My e-mail to Wiltshire County Council yesterday:
I'd like some clarification on what can and can't be recycled at the household waste centres, such as my local one at Stanton St Quintin. The guidance in Wiltshire Wildlife Trust's directory, says any plastic labelled 1,2 or 3 is recyclable. Until recently this guidance seemed to be in line with the helpful display board at the recycling centre showing examples of what could and couldn't be put into the plastics skip. That sign has been removed and replaced with a sign saying plastic bottles only. Now plastic bottles can be labelled either 1 or 2 - are both these types still acceptable? If they are, does this also mean that other plastic waste labelled with a 1 or 2 is also acceptable? Examples I have in my current rubbish include - milk bottle tops (2), Vitality yoghurt drink containers (2) and Sainsbury's vine tomato packaging (1). If these are not acceptable, can you explain why this is, when it's the same base material as the plastic bottles.
Can you also confirm whether plastic type 3 is still recyclable? If it isn't, why was it earlier, but not now?

Their quick response, today:
You are still able to recycle types 1,2 and 3 plastics at the Household Recycling Centres (it is only at the mini recycling centres, located in West Wiltshire and Salisbury where there is a limitation of plastic bottles only). I have notified our recycling contractors, Hills Waste Solutions and they have advised me that they are re-vamping the signage to make it clearer as to what can and can't be recycled. But as far as they are aware the signage has always said 'plastic bottles only'. However, plastics type 1,2 and 3 can definitely still be accepted at the Household Recycling Centres and the signage will be changed in the near future to make it clearer that types 1, 2 and 3 plastics can be accepted.

I hope this clarifies the situation. For more information on recycling in Wiltshire visit here

Allotments in the News

Our local newspaper has a story this week concerning a disabled lady who was trapped at her allotment in Calne. Some local developers are using the site to store their tools and have changed the lock from the usual padlock to a combination one that she couldn't open. The poor woman wasn't rescued until after 9pm and it's been rather chilly round here lately!

Her ordeal reminded me that I failed to report my all-time allotment lowest of the low in yesterday's posting. I managed to get the car stuck up there last February. I'd only popped up there to get a few leeks and before doing so decided to turn the car round at the far end, so I could make a quick getaway. How naive! There'd been constant rain for the past few days, so the car slithered half way round the turn and one wheel ended in the edge ditch of Plot 22. I'd also forgotten my mobile (typical :0), so sat there and had a good think about what to do. Inspiration struck - I'll use my carpet stash from the shed to put under the wheels to get some traction (see Allotment Society, there are good reasons for having carpet on site)! Try as hard as I might, it wouldn't quite budge. Now what to do? I know, I'll walk over to the Office Park over the road and ring NAH. It turned out that all but one (the last one of course) of the offices had secure doors, so I couldn't get into them. I entered the last office, only to find that very day they were having the entrance carpet refitted - a lovely, clean off-white colour, so I had to stand on the 1 piece of plastic sheeting available at the entrance, in my muddy wellies, looking like a creature beamed in from a totally different planet, shout my plight to the receptionist 20 feet away and ask her if I could borrow her phone. Phone duly obtained, I phoned NAH, only to find he wasn't at his desk at the time. I left a pathetic, female in plight voicemail and trudged back to the allotment to await my knight in shining armour.

He didn't come by the deadline I'd given him of course - half an hour as it was freezing cold and getting dark by then, so I trudged the 25 minute walk home, with said leeks, so it wasn't a completely wasted journey. Of course, when I got home, NAH had left a message on our answerphone saying he was at the allotment, but couldn't get in because I'd locked the gate. By now it was dark and NAH's hometime. Duly home, his advice was to call the RAC. They did come out an hour later, but couldn't get the car shifted either. Luckily, NAH has a colleague with a Land Rover, so they went up to the allotment the next day and got my car towed out. Naturally, a couple of other plot holders saw this happen, so I've had much leg pulling over my exploits since then!

Feed the Birds



I've been a little tardy in putting out the bird feeders this year. This was partly due to the quiet late Autumn and prolific berries on the trees and shrubs close to the house. I usually have 6 feeders on the go, but have only put this one out today owing to the large increase in squirrels visiting the other feeders (yes, even the 'squirrel proof' ones!) last winter. This culminated in us having squirrels nesting in the loft a couple of times this year, so I've not wanted to encourage them back.

This feeder seems to be the only one in my current possession where the pesky critters haven't worked out how to get at the feed, so it'll have to do for now. I'm hoping Santa brings some more in time for the RSPB Garden Birdwatch at the end of January.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

My Allotment Year






Well, it's the time of the year when we all engage in a little navel gazing and decide what went well, what could be better, jobs for next year etc. etc. So in this tradition, here are the highs and lows for Plot 14 this year.

Highs

Strawberries - 23 punnets (peach sized punnets that is) in 10 days (5-15 June, our holiday to Wales halted the count). I reckon the warm Spring weather gave me 100% fruit set

Potatoes - allotment old hands were amazed that I was the only plotholder left with a maincrop growing at the end of June, courtesy of a blight resistant variety, Sarpo Axona

Carrots - carrot fly free for the first time thanks to the use of the holey galvanised bucket I found in the ancient ditch bordering our site

Fennel - self-seeded on the plot, producing plenty of seeds for our pizzas and pots of fennel tea

Robins - they returned to nest in my shed this year and helped keep down the mega slug population explosion thanks to the summer wet

Firetongue beans - my new crop for this year and grown up my lovely self-made willow obelisk

Lows

Tomatoes - even my insurance crop on the garden patio failed

Pears - 1 tree succumbed to scab

Sweetcorn - just 18" high and little cob formation to speak of

Parsnip - not 1 seed germinated

Compost bin - I think a rat's got in there

Carpets - they've been banned from all Chippenham sites. They've been my weed supressant measure in previous years until I got round to planting all the beds up

Water Load of Carols

Well, we finally did it. The Wiltshire Wailers got together on Monday night and sang their hearts out at the Neeld Hall for Christmas and Water Aid. The time just flew and the audience (composed of friends and family, so a nice sympathetic one) were really appreciative. The most frequent comment I heard was that the concert was too short, so we can't have been that bad! In the best concert traditions, we even had a support group, The Harmony Junkies - 12 people who get together to sing close harmony songs ranging from blues, through pop and even a song in Spanish based on a shoe box label! Then it was our turn and we sang:
  1. The Holly and the Ivy - to a much better tune than the traditional one
  2. Aka si rekisho - traditional Georgian song, Bradford on Avon Choir only
  3. Shedrik - Ukrainian New Year's carol, currently being used for various advertisements
  4. Careless Love - Blues song, Hullavington Choir only
  5. Gaudete - 5 of us volunteered to sing the 4th verse
  6. Under the Boardwalk - our choir's solo piece, we subversive sopranoes managed to get the Bridge right for once!
  7. Patapan - originally French, sang the descant on the last verse
  8. Field Mice's Carol - the lovely poem from The Wind in the Willows, with us all decked out in hats, scarves and general Christmas bling!

The best part is we've raised over £300, which is enough to provide fresh, clean water for nearly 500 people in Zambia.

Got Me!

Hurray, hurrah, harrooo - I'm jumping up and down with glee after being tagged by Lisa yesterday. I've seen this on other people's blogs and have wanted to play ever since, now I can!

Firstly the rules:
  1. Each player starts with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
  2. People who are tagged need to write a post on their own blog (about their eight things) and post these rules.
  3. At the end of your blog, choose people to get tagged and list their names. Or don’t. Who’s going to check?

So without any further ado, here's my eight totally random factoids:

  1. I'd like to be able to play the saxophone
  2. I used to keep lists of new things I'd done/experienced in a year. This was to reassure myself I wasn't getting in a rut
  3. I've swum with a duck-billed platypus
  4. I collect stamps (First Day Covers), so I must have an anorak hidden in me somewhere. I've even written a piece about it for my blog, but don't want to bore you that much
  5. I want to see a volcano erupt
  6. My first memory is being wheeled in my pram, wearing a bright yellow knitted romper suit
  7. I had a holiday job as a student involving testing peas for their tenderness and breaking a 10 tonne block of ice into (relatively) smaller pieces with a pickaxe
  8. I met NAH at a swimming pool in Whitley Bay. I liked the cut of his gib (so to speak), he was impressed by my GB print Speedo swimming cossie. The rest is history...

Here's my tags:

Jess, because she's the one who inspired me to give blogging a go; Judith, because of all the coincidences conspiring to make us meet; Simon, for his thoughtful posting/comments and awesome shed; Bare Bones Gardener, for making me stop and think

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Small World

It's been a strange old week for VP. A casual look at My Tiny Plot's comments early last week took me to Everything in the Garden's Rosy. I left a comment on her Lacock posting and blow me after a couple of exchanged e-mails we find we're based in the same town, live on the same estate and both have an allotment on the same site :-0

After that we had to meet up and inspect each other's plots and duly did so yesterday - yippee! We then retired to my house for a chat in warmer climes and found we not only come from the same city, but also went to the same school. Our attendance overlaps by a couple of years and we'd both been sitting there thinking the other was slightly familiar. It seems very spooky, but according to the 6 degrees of separation phenomenon, it shouldn't be as surprising as it feels. This was successfully re-tested via e-mail in 2003 - however, it looks like our blogging version comes well within the 6 steps:

1. I find the Bath Crafting Cranny, enjoy it so much & decide to blog
2. I set up my own blog
3. The blog's linked to My Tiny Plot (MTP) - found via Bath Crafting Cranny
4. Find Everything's in the Garden's Rosy on MTP's All Change Please comments and voila!

Can you beat this? What's your most spooky coincidence?

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Pampered

I'm feeling all floaty and marvellous at the moment following a GDO* to Center Parcs' Aqua Sana on Friday for a Pamper Day, my first ever. Noooo, this didn't involve nappies as NAH seems to think, but lots of lounging around in dressing gowns, relaxing on water beds, the odd steam room/sauna, swim outdoors, healthy lunch, squishy cake, plus an hour long treatment. The others chose the Stress Relief facial/massage option, but I went the whole hog and went for the Indulgence option - a Frangipani (or Marzipan as my mate Hils calls it, thanks also for arranging our day Hils) bodywrap. This unknotted all those knots I didn't even know I had and I feel a whole 2 inches taller, with lovely soft skin to boot.

Seven of us went for the day, so I guess there was lots of chatting and setting the world to rights as well. It was a fabulous break away from the Christmas mayhem. We're set to repeat the experience at a local healthclub in the New Year (yippee!), so our 'My Body is a Temple' New Years' Resolution intentions will be maintained for one month at least.

* = Girls' Day Out

Blog for Thought

Bare Bones Gardener raised an interesting issue on his blog yesterday. He's on dial-up and is constantly frustrated with blogs using a multitude of images and/or white space and thus taking a long time to load. If this happens, then he simply won't look at those blogs at all. This is an issue for any website, but as a blog newbie I've no idea what impact my site has on potential readers like him. I've learnt that linking to other website pictures can seriously increase download times, so I use these as a last resort. I'm also using an ancient digital camera for my own picture illustrations, so my jpg files will be relatively small and will therefore load more quickly. However, this may still not be enough to help those on dial-up. So can anyone out there answer the following questions or point me in the right direction?
  • What proportion of web users are on dial-up vs. broadband? This will probably vary by country, so a breakdown by country would be useful, if available
  • If I make my site mainly text based, is this going to put off those readers who don't have download issues?
  • Where can I get information on download times for my website? How do I tell if these are good or bad?
  • Where can I get a simple, non-technical guide to website optimisation?

Looking at and learning from other people's blogs, I'd been thinking of a re-design of mine to include more pictures per posting and/or put more pictures in the sidebar. I was also considering upgrading my camera so that picture quality would be better, especially for close-up shots. Bare Bones Gardener's made me think again!

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Pursed Lips


Well, the deeper dig into my purse revealed:
Goodies - £18.93 in cash, £2 Boots voucher (from a shower gel market research session in Brum last year), Wiltshire Wailers ticket & Artist Pass, allotment manure supplier phone number, 2x 1st class stamps, 8x 2nd class stamps, 3x phone cards (2 BT, 1 Spanish - to be relegated to the Baddies section if they don't work), 1 passport photo of a much younger me
Baddies - 1 work security pass (the building closed 7 years ago), 27x rail tickets, 3x underground rail tickets (1 London, 2x Stockholm used in 1997), Springfield Centre Gym Pass (Corsham, dated 5/2/1995), 2x advert cards (Bath restaurant & employment agency), 2x sales vouchers (rail and charity shop), 1 newspaper cutting for the Complete Guide to SIPPS (I must have been worried about pensions at some point)
Sentimental value - 2x Cardiff Uni photocopier cards (last used in 1994), a business card from Judd Howell of the US Dept. of the Interior, California Science Center (I volunteered on his small mammal/vegetation research project in 1996), Water Research Centre Booklet - Safety precautions for those working in contact with Sewage (needed for when I splashed about in rivers doing fish/invertebrate research in 1994 and subsequently kept for local river monitoring with Wiltshire Wildlife Trust)
As you can see from the picture, I've now cast out vast slabs of rubbish from my bag. My walk to the station will be much more skippity skip next week!

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Stargazing Time

It's time to turn your eyes heavenwards again after last month's Comet Holmes. Tonight and tomorrow it's the turn of the Geminid meteor shower. It's predicted to be the best yet, and previous years' have been pretty spectacular in my experience. I actually saw a couple of shooting stars last night whilst looking at Orion at about midnight, so I've started early this year.

What's in my Bag?



A post I found on Turquoise Lisa's site made me reach guiltily for my rucksack the other day. She'd cleared out her bag and is now skipping around much less laden and carefree after getting rid of all her detritus.
I'd been feeling that there were a couple of extra bricks in my bag lately, so I guiltily peeked in there. It was a bit like an archaelogical dig into my life from the past decade or so. Here's what I found:

Common sense things - keys, purse, raincoat in a bag (for summer emergencies when I don't have a coat), glasses, credit cards, cheque book, mobile phone, deodorant, tissues, emergency sewing kit, 3x 'Bags for Life' (so I can say 'no' to all that plastic on offer at the supermaket checkout), dentist's appointment card for 12/12/2008, work security pass, National Trust Volunteer pass, biro, 1 minty lipsalve

What how many? - 2x pairs sunglasses, 2x open packs cough sweets (not furry luckily), 2x open packs paracetamol, 50 x rail tickets (Jan 2006 - May 2007), 2x rail season ticket holders, 10 till receipts (rail tickets, restaurant, hairdresser, charity shop & 1 completely illegible), 6x out of date appointment cards (3x dentist - as far back as 2002, 2x hairdresser, reflexologist), 2x train timetables (current and the last one), 2x building society deposit slips (from last year), 18x various tourist information leaflets (Somerset, Cornwall, Gloucestershire, Bristol & Bath)

Just plain daft - 3x empty garden gift voucher cards (I like the pictures!), a skittles game from a cracker, work pool car driving permit (expired 2/2/2006), lots of crumpled purple Post-it page markers (for marking up my coursebooks ready for my Business Analysis Diploma exams 2 years ago), hairdresser loyalty swipe card (defunct at least 2 years ago), contact numbers for my fellow work Special Olympics volunteers from 4 years ago, an unopened letter from work (open it, it won't bite you!), local garden centre newsletter (July 2006)

I haven't even begun on my purse yet, I'm saving that for tomorrow...

Definitely Playing Catchup



I'm catching up on my jobs this week - my garlic usually goes into pots in November. In my defence the local garden centre had sold out and I'm still awaiting my first mail order of the Cristo variety. An emergency order with Suffolk Herbs at the end of November yielded 3 large bulbs of Thermidrome, ready for planting. They promised a minimum of 18 cloves, I planted out 25 lovely big, fat cloves today.
I'm still experimenting with planting times. My plot's too clayey for direct planting for overwinter, hence the potted approach. These have been put by my coldframes in the garden to shiver away there until the spring. I'll also plant some out directly onto the plot in February - hopefully the Cristo will have turned up by then as it really is the best variety to grow. My results with this belt and braces approach have been variable - some years the pot sown win, others the plot sown. It seems to depend on the amount of rain/frost we get. I had an almost total crop failure of February sown this year because of the warm weather. There was no frost to get the bulb/clove formation, so all I got was green stem. So last November's planting was definitely this year's winner.

Trip Down Memory Lane


NAH and I 'went abroad' to Cardiff yesterday evening to see Jeff Wayne's musical version of War of the Worlds. This was a double reminisce for me as we parked outside the lab where I spent mant a happy hour in 1993/94 on my masters course in Applied Hydrobiology.
Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds itself dates from my undergraduate days at Newcastle, where I often played it whilst studying in my room. I loved the combination of music and story, utilising such 'greats' as Richard Burton (the narrator), Justin Hayward, Phil Lynott and Chris Thompson. Almost 30 years later, last night's performance didn't disappoint, utilising many of the original artistes, including Richard Burton's voice via a projected head looking rather like Ewan McGregor. A 45 piece orchestra, the Black Smoke Band, a martian monster (see picture courtesy of Flickr via the War of the Worlds website linked from above), CGI animation, lights, smoke and fireworks all combined to make a spectacular evening. NAH wasn't so enamoured ('not my kind of music'), so I think that makes up for my similar experience at the Dixie Chicks concert at the NEC a couple of years ago.

Oops



I came across these in the airing cupboard today. I'd forgotten I'd put them in there to dry after the autumnal plot clearing last month. Needless to say they're now in a nice clean jar ready to be added to my 'allotment soup' or made into hummus.

They're the firetongue bean - a first on the plot for me this year. I'm planning to grow much more of them next year.

Finished!

I put the final touches to our Christmas decor yesterday by putting the outdoor ones up. These are probably the cheapest decorations you can get, but I really like the way they brighten up the apple tree and they don't seem to mind what weather gets thrown at them.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Playing with my Food



This has got to be one of my best web finds in ages - a combination of 2 of my favourite things, vegetables and music. Unlike the rest of us, the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra use their veg to make instruments such as celery bongoes, carrot flutes, pumpkin basses and leek violins. Do checkout their website, particularly the video of them shopping for, preparing and then performing on their freshly made instruments. I do hope they come and perform in the UK, in the meantime I'm off to try my hand at making a cucumberophone...

Thanks to the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra for the image used in this posting.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Deck the Halls III




Here's some of the results from today's SUP Christmas decoration session. We managed to create an amazing number of decorations, bearing in mind the vast amount of supping, chatting and eating we also managed to pack into the afternoon! These are now wending their way to Bath to help brighten up the scene over there.

Cooking Marathon


I ventured into major cookery domesticity yesterday - usually an unfamiliar territory for me. I produced an authentic Spanish tortilla (learnt at the elbow of Margalida in Mallorca) for last night's wine and tapas evening at our friends in Corsham, plus a lamb shank casserole for lunch today.
As you can see, I also produced a 2 dozen clutch of mince pies. It felt a bit strange not producing my usual dozens to take into work, but I wanted a smaller production for today's SUP gathering at my house, plus enough for NAH and I to ensure good luck for next year. I made rough puff pastry, but as usual modified the recipe, using half white and half wholemeal flour in the vain attempt to convince myself it's a healthier option. I also use self raising flour instead of the usual plain - a habit learned from my mum.
If you want to make the tortilla, then Delia's recipe is the closest I've found to Margalida's. Ideally the onion should be omitted. On no account add any other extras than onion (e.g. peppers, chorizo, mushrooms etc.) to the recipe. I did this once in Mallorca and then made the mistake of asking my Spanish friends' opinion of the result. Their response was 'it's an interesting interpretation', so I don't think they were that impressed with my tinkering with a Spanish tradition! The lamb shank casserole is my own invention, so you'll have to improvise for yourselves using lamb shanks, shallots, garlic, carrots, mushrooms, bay leaves, rosemary, black pepper and water. Let me know if you want me to recreate what I did for this yesterday and I'll leave a Comment. Alternatively you could use this recipe instead.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Ballroom Blitz

I'm amazed at how the revival of ballroom dancing has taken off in this and many other countries through programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing. The only low point of our Christmas trip to Australia a few years ago was just how bad Australian TV could be. This was epitomised by championship ballroom dancing being touted as the highlight of Christmas Day's televisual entertainment. Now ironically, the same may happen here soon.

I'm not against ballroom dancing per se. I've even been known to take to the dance floor myself from time to time, so I guess I'm more pro the participation side of things than watching it. When I was 10, I attended the Maureen Lewis School of Ballroom Dancing on Saturday mornings. This was held near our house in a large, airy room above several high street shops. Maureen herself was a faded version of the professional dancers currently gracing our screens and seemed impossibly glamorous to me. The main problem with the classes was the lack of boys as partners - such an activity was deemed to cissy for them. Tell that to Anton or Brendan! I was often cast as the boy, or simply danced on my own. Maureen's solution was to include plenty of fun dances, such as The March of the Mods, which required mass dancing, not partners.

The weekly highlight for me was a single dance with a male partner. I don't know how it began, but after a while the Cha Cha Cha was always reserved for Clive (Maureen's dance partner) to dance with me. It must have looked distinctly odd to our audience though - a plump, awkward child dancing with an extremely tall, elegant gentleman. I didn't mind though - in my imagination I was wowing them at the World Championships. Since then, my only other major encounter with ballroom dancing was an invitation to the Finnish Embassy in London 10 years ago, where the evening's entertainment was to be an exhibition of Finland's national dance, the Tango. Finland - what about Argentina? Sadly, I was too much of a coward to go as I couldn't understand why I'd been sent the invitation. I'm sure I missed out on a real treat.

I did enjoy Strictly last week though, snuggled up cosily with my niece (10) and nephew (6) on the sofa, joining in with their running commentary on the proceedings. My niece gets so involved with it, willing her favourites to stay in the competition. I'm also rather envious of my neighbours, who've joined with the many others in the land now going to dancing classes. I doubt I'll be joining them though, as I still have the same partner problem as when I was 10: NAH absolutely refuses to dance unless very, very drunk. An absolute non-starter then.

Winter Colour



Most of the year this shrub lurks unnoticed at the bottom corner of my garden. However, it comes into its own at this gloomy time of year with its cheerful candy pink blooms and delicious scent. It's Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn'.

Deck the Halls II



Inspired by Saturday's wreath making at Nostell Priory, I've been gathering plenty of material today for the Stitched Up Posse's (SUP) visit on Sunday. They've been invited over for a Christmas decoration making session. They think it's going to be stuff like willow stars and reindeer. Little do they know what I've actually got in store for them - tee hee! Luckily for them I'll also be making an afternoon tea of mulled wine, crumpets, mince pies to keep them going.

Most of this little lot came from my friend Wendy in Lacock. There's a mix of willow, hazel, winter jasmine, rose hips and Euonymus all collected from her garden and hedgerows. The teasels came from the field next to Lackham College and are my alternative to pine cones as I haven't found any yet. Wendy's neighbour Barry told me they were there. I've got dogwood, ivy and conifer to come from my own garden.

Thanks very much guys and Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

It's All About U



Reading Metro on the train today, I found out it's UN International Volunteer Day. This was very apt as I was on my way to Swindon for my weekly day at Heelis, the environmetally friendly National Trust HQ at the time. I'm currently working in the Gardens & Parks department, sorting out some of their archives and also advising on project manangement for an exciting new project (more in a later post!). I need to gain more knowledge of plant Latin for my RHS course, the National Trust need someone with project management experience, so my current volunteer position provides a good match.

I'm passionate about volunteering and have had some of my best ever experiences as a volunteer in a wide variety of ways. I'll be writing about some of these during national Volunteers' Week next year. There's a rich variety of opportunities out there, so there's bound to be something that will float your boat. So do have a look at the Trust's volunteer or the itsallaboutU websites for more information.

Thanks to the National Trust for letting me copy their Volunteer flyer postcard to illustrate this posting.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

To Market, To Market

I'm off on a GNO* tonight to the wonderful Bath Christmas Market. This is fast becoming our traditional December alternative to our monthly cinema expedition. I don't know what we'll be buying from the many stalls available, but I'm sure some cheese sampling, followed by organic lamb & mint burgers, washed down with lashings of Gluwein will be on the menu!

* = Girls' Night Out

Cool!


I'm the proud possesor of my first ever Artist's Pass after last night's choir practice. This is needed for our 'Sing for Water' at the Neeld Hall on December 17th.

Deck the Halls

I've replaced my 'Bah Humbug' approach to life and I'm fully embracing the festive season. A trip to Nostell Priory on Saturday had an unexpected surprise - Yorkshire Wildlife Trust were holding a free Christmas wreath making session in the Orangery. I've always wanted to do this, but thought it would be too difficult. Noooo - it's easy peasy! I'm particularly pleased to have some yew amongst the more traditional holly and ivy as it's meant to ward off evil spirits. Do you think it'll do the same with those pesky carol singers?

Currying Flavour



My trip to Somerset wasn't the sole gastronomic delight last week. My niece and nephew's school PTFA in Tingley had this rather imaginative fundraiser last Friday. I feel that you need to be a bit of a Stepford Wife to really appreciate Pampered Chef products, but the Curry Cuisine part of the evening was a revelation. Another good feature was the 'husband runner' available to take drinks orders and bring them to our seats - most civilised. A resounding set of raffle wins completed a perfect evening - my niece was most taken with her wind up torch. I went for the safer option and chose a bottle of wine, NAH for some strange reason went for the male grooming and radio gift set.

In addition to supplying yummy pickles and spice mixes, Pret from Curry Cuisine provides authentic curry cookery lessons in your own home - NAH was most impressed and I suspect we'll need to borrow my brother-in-law's house in the near future as I'm sure Pret can't be tempted to come down to the wilds of Wiltshire.

Monday, 3 December 2007

The Tickle Monster Returns

We quickly called in at my brother-in-law's on our way up North last Wednesday. We timed it perfectly to surprise my 6 year-old nephew by picking him up from school. It was worth the detour just to see the look on his face.

Once home we had the following conversation:

Nephew: I'm very ticklish, I'm the Emperor of Tickledom

I instantly turn into the Tickle Monster and administer a vast amount of tickling amidst flailing limbs...

Nephew: Heeee, heee heee, squirm, squeal!
Me: I see - you really are very ticklish aren't you?
Nephew: Yes, my sister tickles me a lot - for as much as half an hour at a time!

The Tickle Monster appears again!

Nephew: Heeee, heee, heee. Let's see if you're ticklish now Auntie
Me: No reaction
Nephew (admiringly): You're not ticklish at all - that's because you're very tough

These are moments to treasure...

Gastronomic Delights

An unexpected discovery from last week's visit to Jolly Red was the smokery next door. This was the imaginitive venue for our lunch break (included in the course fee) and proved to be a delightful find. Brown and Forrest are a traditional smokery, who started by smoking eels in 1981 and have progressed into smoking all kinds of meats and cheese, whilst collecting a clutch of foodie awards and accolades along the way.

Their busy restaurant was the perfect way of sampling their fares. I tried the smoked eel for starters, served on rye bread with a simple accompaniament of beetroot and horseradish. It was sublime and I now understand why eel is such a gourmets delight. I chose the pork loin with salad and garlic potatoes for my main course and this was also delicious. I'd forsaken (:-0) my usual liking for puddings in favour of maximising my sampling of the smokery's products. I was glad I did - the Bread and Butter pudding and Chocolate Judy with Chocolate Sauce chosen by my companions were generously portioned and looked deliciously calorie laden. I suspect I would have snoozed the afternoon away on the course had I joined them!

The restaurant is open at lunchtimes only and it's advisable to book - even for a late November Tuesday. It's also located close to a number of attractions, such as John Leach's pottery, Burrow Hill Cider Farm plus a number of National Trust properties, which would form a very pleasant weekend away. Failing that, there's always the website to visit, should your appetites crave delicious traditionally smoked fare.

Thanks to Brown and Forrest for letting me use their logo from their website.

Jolly Good


Prior to my foray into the wilds of the North-East last week, I ventured through a pea souper fog into the heart of the Somerset Levels to meet those jolly nice people at Jolly Red for a day's Beginners' Tapestry course. These types of courses are hard to find, so it was no surprise to find a mixture of 3 locally based participants, plus 2 other fellow 'incomers' who also drove over 60 miles to get there. We were a comforting mix of complete beginners through to experienced needlers, all wanting a day just for ourselves in convivial company.

I'm completely self-taught and consequently employ a number of techniques to complete my work. I have singularly failed to understand even the most helpful of diagrams supplied with tapestry kits and design books. Kelly, our tutor for the day and designer extraordinare of Jolly Red, very quickly dispelled all difficulties. She's improved things vastly on her diagrams by showing numbered stitches and work direction, thus enabling woolly heads such as me to finally work in a consistent manner - yippee!

A sampler showing good and bad techniques was quickly dispensed with and we progressed to stitching a very cheerful hen called Nerys, an exclusive design to Kelly's courses not to be found in the current catalogue. The brightly lit working environment with us all perched around a giant worktable surrounded by wool, swatch cards, plus sneak previews of Kelly's latest designs, made for a thoroughly cheerful and relaxing day. It was NOT a 'Dickensian Scene' as described by a gentleman caller to the shop that afternoon. The shop itself is a colourful warren showing off the completed designs, plus other 'must have' trinkets - a hefty 15% discount on kits on the day proved to be too much of a temptation for most of us.

We were joined by a previous participant from the Design & Stitch course. Her fantasy tea cosies and current mermaid project were a good advertisement, so I suspect I shall be heading back again in the New Year.
Thanks to Jolly Red for letting me use their logo from their website.
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