Friday, 18 June 2010

The Naked Gardener

I’ve been incredibly busy with work just recently, hence my inattention to Somerford Rambles amongst other things…
So a quick catch up is probably in order.

As I went out this evening – about ten to seven, just in time to catch the shop to pick up the paper – I noticed a small person of the naked variety, squatting down among the pebbles on my neighbour’s drive. There wasn’t anyone else about, so I asked her where Mummy was.

“Doing Ouija,” came the reply.

I must say, I didn’t have Kerry down as an experimenter in the occult, but I suppose you never know what goes on behind closed doors in a sleepy English village. Images of Britt Ekland and The Wicker Man sprang to mind.

I was in two minds whether to leave it at that – the shop would be closing in ten minutes – but fortunately Kerry came dashing out, looking for a stray absconder from bath time.

“Doing Ouija,” the little person explained again.

“Yes, I think that’s probably enough weeding for today,” suggested Kerry, who was obviously more in tune with the small person’s turn of phrase. Much to my relief.

* * *

I got down to the shop just in time – Malcolm was already totting up the till and Debbie had a pile of unsold papers on the counter, ready to put out for collection the following morning.

“Don’t you like getting up on a Friday morning?” asked Malcolm as he handed over the now-almost-out-of-date paper. I realise this must now be a regular occurance as I try to get all my work sorted out before the weekend, which will be filled with chores like washing school uniforms and plying my family with something approaching regular meals.

“Well, not until about five,” I explain nonchalantly. Not wanting to burst the bubble of an impression of myself as some kind of lady of leisure idly lounging around in a lilac negligee watching daytime television and perhaps doing a little light nailfiling or somesuch until teatime.

“So what are you up to between five and nearly seven, then? Enjoying a leisurely breakfast?”

I take my paper with what I hope is an enigmatic smile, picking up a packet of all-butter shortbread fingers as I leave, for good measure, keen to prolong an image of someone unsullied by the vulgarian world of work, someone who knows the finer things in life when she sees them. On the way out, unfortunately, the image is shattered as my wellies snag in a piece of bailing twine just outside the door, sending me staggering Dick Emery-style...

* * *

On the way home, I take a detour through the allotments. Too much work has taken its toll on the intensive weeding programme I had planned before the NGS Open Gardens event this weekend. I am manning the welcome table for a couple of hours – well, I sincerely hope someone is coming to relieve me – and make a mental note to position myself well away from my allotment so no-one makes the connection between me and the sorry spectacle of pigeon-mangled cabbages and rabbit-nibbled runner beans.

If anyone reading this is labouring under the misconception that gardening is a gentle activity, man working hand-in-hand with nature, let me put you straight right now. It’s a veritable battlefield. Nature pitted against man and man pitted against nature. Constantly. If it’s not the weeds, it’s the rabbits. If it’s not the rabbits, it’s the slugs. If it’s not the slugs, it’s the fact that we’ve had no rain for weeks and weeks. And if it’s not any of the above, it’s forgetting to make a note of what you planted where and accidentally hoeing them all up under the mistaken impression that they were weeds.

To add insult to injury, someone has misguidedly pulled up the clump of nettles I had in the corner of my allotment. No doubt they thought they were doing me a favour, but it was my one attempt at biodiversity. Now if they’d thought to pull up the marestail growing in between my onions and what remains of my cabbages, it might have been a different matter…

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Beetroot, Body Parts, Blogging Woes... and a Beatification

Well, it’s been a while since my last post – for a number of reasons: And in the meantime, Spring has turned to early summer, the blackthorn blossom has come and gone, the cuckoo is back somewhere down by the Red Hatches (doubtless pushing plenty of unsuspecting young chicks out of their way in their bid to find a foster mother for her own, but nevertheless, we’re always pleased to hear her), we have a brand new government at last and the cows are out in the fields again.

Well, I’m not going to bore you with all that’s happened in the meantime – that would take far too long – but here are the highlights (or lowlights – it’s not been an easy couple of months).

Down on the allotment, the rake’s progress has been mighty slow. The weeds seem to be coming up faster than the things I’ve planted and the Great Beetroot Experiment has all but ground to a halt. And I spent so much time selecting the right day, getting the soil ready and raked, working out when the tides were so I could plant the blighters right at the optimum time.

“But you forgot to organise rain,” said John, whose tiddly crop of beetroot sprouts are hardly bigger than my own.

I knew there would be something.

I came down to the allotment one day a couple of weeks ago to find what looked like several shoots of some exotic pinkish asparagus coming along nicely. Must have been something left over from John D who had the allotment last year – funny, I never had John down as an asparagus man. Closer inspection proves the mystery plant to be marestail – it seems John was very much a marestail man. His perpetual spinach, too, seems to be living up to its name, springing up everywhere just when you least expect it. This year, he appears to be growing tyres.

I tend to tackle my weeds on a need-to-hoe basis, letting a few odd ones sprout up where they’re not doing too much damage. I think it’s important to have a bit of biodiversity, despite the stern looks I occasionally get from other allotment holders who run their plots with military precision. Yes, my potatoes aren’t exactly in a straight line, either, but I ran out of string when I was planting them.

* * *

We were driving back from Cricklade the other day when something that can only be described as a girt big chunk of metal dropped off from under the car, clanking and scraping along the road as we ground to a noisy halt. I peered underneath the chassis to see if it was anything important – it was hard to tell: it was a kind of plate-thing with some holes in, dangling half on, half off and making an irritating sort of dragging noise.

One good thing about breaking down in the country is that you’re never too far from a length of bailing twine, and true to form there was a handy piece, just about long enough, sticking out of a nearby hedge. We managed to hoist up the offending bit of metal and tie it up to the bumper where it stayed just long enough to get us home.

I fervently hoped Richard would declare the car unfit for purpose, thus necessitating the purchase of something new that wasn’t quite so green and rusty, and that I wouldn’t need to park round the corner out of sight when I pick Alex up from school, but as usual he grappled around underneath the car, came out looking slightly sootier, shrugged and said, “well, it’s not as bad as it looks.”

Which is probably just as well, because it looks bloomin’ awful.

* * *

Ah yes, the blogging woes. I’m afraid I had to close my other blog on account of having put someone’s nose out of joint with my forthright ways. It was bound to happen, I suppose. I should be thankful it was just one person excommunicating me from their Facebook page and not the entire town of Melksham or the local Green Party bearing down on Great Somerford with pitchforks and flaming torches. I didn’t actually think what I said was that bad, but I’m trying to take my mother’s advice, as she was so often telling me as a child to “think on”. So I guess I'll probably be thinking on for a while. I don't mean to upset anyone, really I don't.

But on the bright side, I do have some admirers, it seems. I bumped into Miles the other day while I was out walking the dog.

“Have you heard your new nickname?” he asked me.

I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to, but before I could say anything he told me.

“St Jill of Compostella.”

I like it. I like it a lot.

The picture at the top is by my fabulously talented friend and neighbour, Adam Lloyd.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Beetroot Day

“Husband been knocking you about?” asks Bernard, not unreasonably since I am sporting an impressive black eye.

“Freak handbag accident,” I explain briefly. To Bernard’s evident confusion.

I try, perhaps for the millionth time this week, to explain about Janice’s evil red satchel and a hapless visit to Lydiard Park, but he just looks perplexed. Frankly, I think it might be simpler to blame it on the husband.

* * *

The big Beetroot Day has finally arrived, and John and I have been liaising via email following detailed consultations with my Moon book. Gardening according the phases of the moon is helluva complicated, but I think I’ve finally worked it out, and it seems that the 7th, 8th and the morning of the 9th are ideal for sowing root crops with the moon ascending in the constellation of Taurus. It's a particularly fortuitous time for planting root crops apparantly, Taurus being an earth sign as well as the sign of the Moon's exaltation.

But it’s not quite as simple as that. Apparently, despite being about forty miles from the coast, it’s important to plant the seeds when on the tide is receding too, to balance the effect of the ascending moon. I have forgotten to tell John this, but hopefully this will not hamper the growth of his beetroot too much. Unfortunately I have missed this morning’s receding tide and will now have to wait until 9pm this evening. More importantly, I realise, I have forgotten to actually buy any beetroot seed.

Never mind, if I leg it down to the shop now, I should be able to get my seeds ready and soaked in time for tomorrow’s receding tide at 9.45. Unfortunately, tomorrow is exactly the day I have to wait in for the delivery of a shower part from Screwfix. If I don’t manage to get my beetroot seeds in by lunchtime, I may have to wait until midnight tomorrow for the next tide, which will be pushing it a bit with the moon stuff – did the ancients have all these problems to contend with, I wonder? At least a midnight planting, I suppose, will avoid searching questions about my black eye and give a certain resonance to the theory of moon planting. Although with a waning moon there won’t be much light, and I may find myself either A) planting them in the wrong allotment, or B) tripping over one of the other John’s many garden implements, thus risking the chance of a second black eye.

If the worst comes to the worst, I suppose, I could always chuck them in anyway and call it a control sample.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Compost Queen

Friday night and the lights are low
Wond’ring if there’s time to go
Down to the allotment, need to do a bit of digging
I need to fill that bin

Anything you want to throw in?
Teabags, socks and cardboard, that last splash of gin...
Gotta lotta peelings, piled right up to the ceiling
I’m in the mood for weeds

And when I get the chance…
I am a compost queen,
Young and sweet, only forty-three

(well, give or take a year or two… I’m sure I could pass for forty-three on a dusky night with a following wind, if you weren't looking too closely…)

* * *

“If I was something in the garden, what would I be?” I made the mistake of asking my husband a couple of years ago, angling desparately for a rare compliment and hoping he would come up with something flattering along the lines of a fragrant rosebush, an exotic pot plant or a pretty spray of honeysuckle.

“A compost heap,” was his reply. “Just chuck everything on, give it a good turn now an again and Bob’s your uncle.”

I have to say I was not best pleased. Well, honestly – who would like to be compared to a large pile of rotting vegetation? Romance has never really been my other half’s strongest suit.

However, I’ve since changed my view (that’s not to say I’ve stopped sulking, though). A compost heap is actually a wonderful thing. You chuck all your grass clippings onto it, your old apple cores and potato peelings and eggboxes and banana skins – even old T-shirts, holey socks and mankey old bits of carboard box... and in the fullness of time everything is magically transformed into a wonderfully fertile, nutritious, odour-free growing medium.

It’s so easy, even I can do it. Everything that’s ever lived can go into compost – admittedly if it’s meat or dairy or if it’s been cooked like bread, you do need something called a garden digester (if you’d like to know more, please don’t hesitate to contact me – I can point you in the direction of something small and discreet enough for any type of garden, and at a very reasonable cost…).

Yes, having completed my training, I am now officially a compost ambassador for Wiltshire, dispensing weeds and wisdom to all whether they like it or not, on the subject of composting and decomposing vegetative material.

Of course, in the olden days, they didn’t need compost heaps or digesters – there was something called the Wiltshire pig. All your peelings, leftovers, mouldy crusts, old deformed bits of veg went in one end and perfectly balanced garden fertiliser came out the other.

‘Pig’ by the incredibly talented stone carver and artist Judith Verity of Startley, who drew this in about 45 seconds

...Feel that heat, watch that steam, I'm having the time of my life (well, I don't get out much)
Oooooooh, See those peas, clock those beans, I am a Compost Queen

Monday, 22 March 2010

Froggie came a-courting

The frogs and toads are out and about – and not just in Frog Lane. The warmth, the rain and a new moon around the time of the Spring Equinox all seem to have combined to bring them out of their hidey holes under rocks and in the damp, cool earth along the banks of the streams and ditches along the sides of the fields. The evidence is all around – sadly all too often in the form of a squished little splayed green shape on Winkins Lane or halfway across the Dauntsey Road as they hop and wait and jump along from where they’ve been overwintering towards their breeding grounds in the lakes up at Broadfield farm.

Kind folk have been popping out with buckets and bowls to help them over the road – it always happens about the same time of year over the course of a week or s0 – but all too many just aren’t quick enough. Nature seems so wasteful sometimes. How do they know when to come out? Or remember where to go?

It’s actually a huge problem countrywide, as tens of thousands of frogs, toads and newts get squashed on the roads each springtime. Visit Froglife to find out what you can do to help.

“Look,” said Alex. “That one’s giving one of the others a piggy back.”

It’s nice to think of frogs with an altruistic streak.

* * *

Meanwhile, down on the allotments, John and I are gearing up for our great Beetroot Challenge. We’ve been preparing our seed beds, and I’m eagerly waiting for my copy of In Tune With The Moon to arrive. We’ve chosen beetroot, because they’re supposed to be pretty easy to grow, and I’ve been told the circles in the centre correspond with each new and full moon. We’ll keep you posted.

Saturday, 13 March 2010


There’s one day in the year when you suddenly realise that Spring has arrived. That day was today. And not before time. It’s been a long, cold winter and it’s about time we saw some sunshine. Although we’ve had a few sunny days lately, it’s been jolly cold, but this morning was appreciably warmer, birds sang louder, people were out and about without their coats and as the day wore on I became distinctly aware of that emblematic sound of approaching summer: the distant – and not quite so distant – hum of lawnmowers. Even though the clocks haven’t yet gone back, already the evenings seem lighter. I’m not sure it’s time to put the potatoes in just yet, though.

* * *

We’ve had a weird series of unfortunate – and apparently unrelated – events with our plumbing over the past week. What started with a small leak in the shower quickly turned into a burst radiator on the landing, then the water softener started to make a strange roaring sound – so much so, I had to turn the water off at the mains every time I wanted to make a phone call. On Thursday morning I came downstairs to a distinct damp patch on the kitchen ceiling, and an ominous dripping sound outside. This week I’ve seen more of Erik the plumber than I have of my own husband. It doesn’t look good.

“I can’t ring Erik again,” I said to Paul as he disappeared off to work, “he’s going to start thinking I’m stalking him.”

Thankfully, I was on Erik’s list of house calls, and he disappeared up into the loft to sort out the pipework, reappearing again to sort out another problem with the shower and fix another radiator valve that had inexplicably gone wrong, probably wishing he hadn’t popped round in the first place. It seems we’re not the only people in the village to be suffering an unexplained rash of plumbing problems at the moment – another symptom of the relentlessy long, harsh winter – and Erik’s services are much in demand.

Erik is tirelessly cheerful and efficient (and thankfully he doesn’t whistle, unlike the plumber we had at our last house. Whenever Tony came round to fix something or other, this eerie whistling sound would echo and reverberate spookily around the house through the copper pipes. I used to think to myself that, if the plumbing work dried up he would always be able to find work providing soundtracks for Spaghetti Westerns). Still, every cloud has a silver lining – even plumbing-related ones. I’ve now learnt how to fix recalcitrant radiator valves (you give them a swift tap with a hammer) and get stubborn limescale stains off a shower cartridge (boil it up in a pan of Sarson’s White Vinegar), and I can now find my way confidently around the plumbing section of the Screwfix catalogue. But that’s probably enough about me and my plumbing…

* * *

The allotment is beckoning. At the moment, it looks a bit bleak and sparse. I’ve given up trying to dig all the weed roots out, but I went out for some more seed potatoes from Nurden’s Garden Centre in Malmesbury (excellent cafe there, too, if you ever find yourself feeling peckish on the A429) – if you haven’t already got yours, I suggest you nip down there pretty sharpish, they’re nearly all gone – and I’m ready to go with my onion sets if I get a chance amid all the doubless lavish Mothers’ Day activity my family has doubtless got in store for me tomorrow…

And it’s the annual Allotment Inspection on Tuesday, April 6th – a time-honoured tradition enshrined in Great Somerford's Enclosure Act of 1806, when it was laid down that the allotments should be allocated Yearly and every Year on the Tuesday in Easter Week.

I’d better get my spade out, then.

And some more good news – I’m going to be a Compost Ambassador for Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. Well, let’s face it – it’s probably the only kind of ambassador anyone will ever ask me to be. The allotment holders are probably finding it difficult to contain their excitement at the thought of the Ambassador spoiling them with news of new and improved compost containers, ways of avoiding embarrassing ‘compost slime’ and getting tiptop compost out of even the least promising bits of garden rubbish.

Don’t ever say there are no perks to having an allotment in Great Somerford.

* * *

PS I’m afraid it seems I was misinformed about the would-be shop robbers – it turns out the Police didn’t catch them after all, but at least they didn’t get away with anything, and I guess it’s unlikely they’ll be back in a hurry.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

The Archers

People sometimes ask me whether my life is like The Archers – well, living in a village in the depths of the English countryside midway between a couple of market towns, I suppose there are superficial parallels, but I usually put them right straight away. For one thing, I can’t imagine people round here would have very much time for that ludicrous storyline about Helen wanting to have a baby via sperm donation. And I particularly don’t understand why there aren't any dogs on The Archers. At least none that you ever hear. Most farmers I know round here have at least three dogs and most of them are far from silent, but on the radio, doorbells ring and visitors enter the house unmolested, folk go on holiday without having to make complicated arrangements with the kennels, postmen bring letters without being in fear for their lives, bin day comes and goes with some trusty mutt tipping everything up and rooting through to see if there’s anything worth eating… Hmmm, I think our next dog might have to be a radio dog...

And apart from anything else, I can see that I would be the obvious candidate for the insufferable Lynda Snell, the nosy incomer with a poor, downtrodden husband and several fingers in every conceivable pie, which is just too upsetting to contemplate. I suppose if I really had to be one of them (and let’s face it, that’s far from likely), I possibly wouldn’t mind being Caroline. But the chances of us ever being able to afford Grey Gables or the Dower House are pretty slim to say the least. Dour House, more likely…

Not that I ever listen to it, you understand…

* * *

Of course we don’t need The Archers, because we have our very own real-life archers here. Down in the field next to Hector’s forge at the bottom of the hill in Little Somerford on a Sunday (if it’s not raining too much) or on a summer’s evening after work, you can see them under the boughs of the ancient oak, lining up their sights, fleet arrows buzzing swiftly through the air before piercing one of the targets with a soft thud. Well, at least Hector’s do. Alex perhaps needs a bit more practice. But he’s not doing badly...

Hector is one of our local heroes. Standing over six feet tall with flaxen hair and strong workman’s hands, he looks as though he could easily have been transported here from Saxon times in his softly-timeworn leather apron as he stands with his bow and a quiver of handmade arrows, or at his forge, puffing the bellows until the coals glow red hot. A master arrowsmith and archeological ironworker, he’s a leading authority on historic smithing techniques, his expertise is frequently sought out for TV programmes such as Time Team, and he was responsible for the magnificent ironwork gates at nearby Highgrove. As well as being incredibly skilled and talented, Hector is immensely generous with his time, too – guiding and encouraging young archers and arrowmakers locally with his unstinting patience and enthusiasm.

As you come down the hill from Malmesbury into Little Somerford’s grassy valley, the sight of soft grey puffs of smoke rising gently from the chimney of the forge at the bottom confirms that Hector’s in his forge and all’s right with the world.

* * *

Unfortunately, all was far from right with the world this week when our little village shop was targeted by robbers who threatened the shopkeeper with a knife, demanding cash. Luckily another member of staff was able to raise the alarm and the man ran off empty-handed. I’ve since heard that he was subsequently caught by the Police. It’s thankfully very rare to hear of such things in our quiet little part of the world, but it would be so sad if this incident were to make us all suspicious and untrusting of any visitor.

But perhaps it’s as well to know that bad things do sometimes happen in unexpected places and understand that things are not always as peaceful they look.