Thursday, 10 December 2009

Carry on grazing

I do like old plates. But I do think they look better with a couple of hobnobs on. Or perhaps a piece of freshly made flapjack. Or some chocolate fridge cake.... Ok, I'm stalling for time here. Apparently I'm scaremongering about the houses - it's only a consultation document. But isn't that how things start out? Anyway, all the information is in the public domain, so I'll leave you to make up your own minds. Find it on or pop along to the exhibition at The Activity Zone in Malmesbury. OK, I'll shut about houses now. The sheep can carry on grazing.

* * *

Down in the relative safety of the allotments, things are burgeoning - at least they are on my plot, despite my stalwartly No Dig approach. Some strawberry plants have appeared (thank you, Henry) and a lovely blackcurrant bush (thank you, Philip). I must say, I wasn't too sure about this no-dig business, but it certainly seems to be working for me.

"You need a mound for the strawberries," John points out helpfully.

"And you'll need to dig a trench if you want some raspberry canes," suggests Philip.

I busily dig my trench and construct my mound, carefully planting each strawberry plant along the ridge of the summit. Then I pop back home to fetch some vegetable peelings from the compost pot to line the trench, and I'm feeling quite pleased with myself until John points out that my mound and my trench are too close to each other and I won't be able to pick my raspberries without standing on my strawberries.

"I could always pick them from the other side," I point out. But John's expression tells me this isn't the Proper Way, and besides, it would probably entail treading on the other John's carrots. So I spend another hour carefully un-planting my strawberries and painstakinly moving my mound six inches to the West. Much to the amusement of the other gardeners.

* * *

Elsewhere, life carries on pretty much as always. Arthur seems to be making an amazing recovery from his car accident last month and is already home from hospital and getting about the house. The Little Somerford tree is up and draped with sparkly lights and everybody seems to be getting ready for Christmas. Everybody except me, that is. Better start mixing that Christmas cake. Might just treat myself to a couple of hobnobs first...

Monday, 30 November 2009

Where sheep may safely graze?

But not for long if our local council has anything to do with it, it seems. This is one of the sites earmarked for 40 of the 116 new houses that appear to be planned for Great Somerford as part of Wiltshire's ambitious 2026 development strategy for delivering the 44,400 new homes John Prescott in his wisdom has decided we need. That's quite a lot of houses squished together onto a site this size.

Where all these people are going to work, park their cars, do their shopping and spend their leisure time, John doesn't appear to have mentioned. 116 houses will mean at least 230 more cars - the roads are only wide enough for a single line of cars and I can't see any mention of any extra bus services or plans to reopen the railway line that was sold off years ago. Villages don't need more commuters, they need people who are going to live there and make a contribution to the community. I've been sniffing around, as dogs do, but oddly enough, no one seems to know anything about the village's development plans.


Now, I'm all for a certain amount of carefully planned expansion to keep the community vibrant, keep the school and shop going, bring people into the local pub. But 116 extra houses? Better get stacking those shelves, Debbie.

Find out more on Wiltshire Council's website or go straight to the map (you have to scroll down a bit and zoom in on Great Somerford) to see where else the affordable homes the council seems to think we're so keen to have might be popping up.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Calm after the storm

It's a beautiful Autumn morning in Great Somerford, and what's left of the coppery golden leaves hang from the trees like cascades of brightly polished pennies. A sharp contrast to the last few days of high winds and lashing rain. The river is right up to the banks – in places it's lapping right over – and just yesterday, I heard a dog had to be rescued by his owner after finding himself in a rapid current, unable to make his own way back to the shore.

Radio Wiltshire somehow picked up on Adam's Bank Aid escapde and asked him to come over to the studio for a drive-time interview. Sadly, Adam's car had other ideas and was last seen with a plume of smoke coming out of the engine somewhere along the hard shoulder of the M4. At least I'm assuming it was the engine and not Adam's ears. Understandably, he was not best pleased. Mike somehow managed to get to the studio, though, and was great (although I can't say the same for the snatch of music they played) - I have an MP3 of the interview if anyone missed it and would like a listen.

Those people who managed to brave the weather to Katie Mayhew's fundraising coffee morning for the Sondeza Youth Camp were not disappointed. Not only were there a fabulous selection of cakes to be drooled over (I wish I hadn't had so much breakfast) but it was also an opportunity to see some of Katie's breathtaking photographs featuring images from Botswana, Northumberland, Lacock and her own back garden. Believe me, watch this space. That girl has serious talent.

There was also a Jazz and Poetry evening at Startley Village Hall last night featuring my dear friend T and several other poets from the Somerford Scribes. Unfortunately, I was unable to go – I was sorry to have missed it; it promised to be a great evening.

* * *

I know I've expressed some views that not everyone agrees with, but honestly they were sincerely held, not personal in any way, shape or form and I really had the best of intentions at heart. They say you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs... Trouble is, I'm not altogether sure I actually like omelettes all that much...

Although it's been nice today, I understand the storms are coming back next week. We're not out of the woods yet...

Friday, 6 November 2009

Bank Aid. In which I appear to be chanelling Adam. Scary...

Well we're nothing if not topical in Frog Lane. So with the breaking news that RBS has just reported record losses at a cost of an average of £30 to each taxpayer last month, local philanthropist Adam Lloyd (aka The Twisted Omentum) decided he had to do something. So he invited a few celebrity friends round to his Frog Lane studio one evening with the promise of a free drink... (And we all know there's no such thing as a free drink...)

Could this be the next Christmas No 1? Possibly in Great Somerford. But only if The Fruitbats don't realease something first...

Ain't no stopping us now - Adam's already talking about scratch super-band(Keb)Abba recording a Wiltshire version of Portaloo. (Well, Sweden, Swindon - it's only a difference of a couple of letters...)

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Owl post

“What you need there is an owl box,” suggests Gerald, looking at our poor paint-peeling excuse for a garage door. He’s right – up by the roof pitch just under the bit where the ivy hasn’t quite reached there’s a space that’s just the right size for small-ish owl.

What Gerald didn’t know at that point is that we actually have an owl. I heard him to-whit to-woohing in the small hours the other night when I couldn’t get to sleep. (I know it’s a him, because he just does the “to-whooh” bit. The object of his to-woohing, however, seems to elude him, since there is no hint of an answering to-whit. Perhaps if he had a des res, perfectly placed in the pitch of our garage roof, he might find himself more popular with owls of the opposite persuasion, gender-wise).

I saw him, too. The other night when Paul rang me to say his bike had broken down and would I drive over to Chippenham to pick him up, he flew out of the hedgerow just in front of the car and I found myself following him for a few yards. It was one of those perfect moments just as dusk was settling in for the night, in the silent hour when everything on the radio is rubbish (it’s either a totally unfunny Radio 4 “comedy” show, The Archers or some football phone-in programme featuring a lot of northern men who clearly should have all been football club managers, but for the fact that they woz robbed) so for once in the car, it’s silent. A milky white form, silent wings carving the still night air, claws poised, eyes peeled...

I must find out what you need to do to make an owl box.

* * *

I haven’t posted for a while because – as well as being away for a few days (Belgium. On Eurostar. Very nice, thank you, although not nearly enough chips or chocolate for my taste) – I’ve been suffering from writers’ block. Which is rather inconvenient when you’re a writer.

Although I can’t say I’ve actually found my mojo yet, I think I know where it is. I’ve just got find a good time to pull out the sofa and have a proper rummage under all the cushions…

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The plot thickens...

It’s perfect autumn weather here – cold, misty mornings gently giving way to clear blue skies and strong, low rays of golden sunshine that warm the soul. And as the afternoon sun spreads out across the landscape like clear Little Somerford honey on a thickly buttered English muffin I’m beginning to regret insisting Alex wore a vest for school this morning – he’ll be baking.

I’ve finally managed to get down to the allotment for a spot of digging. The digging John D kindly offered to do seems to have consisted of rolling up the damp bits of carpet that have been covering up the plot for several months, then sitting on a bench, taking a large handkerchief out of his pocket to dab his forehead and say, “By gum it’s ‘ot!”

But that’s fine. Digging is good for the soul, and in a Spartan sort of way I think that many of the world’s problems would be solved if we all started doing a bit more of our own digging. Metaphorically speaking, I mean. Every time I put my wellies on over the last few days it's started to rain, but I can now see the value of rain, and the time all that water has had to soak into the unyeilding, sandy loam breaking it down into soft, crumbly chunks. I think I’m finally starting to become a gardener.

I hadn’t realized, though, how political life on the allotment is. They all seem so nice and smiley down in the pub, but out on the allotments of an October afternoon it’s a different matter. I’m between Dick and John D – two of the most experienced allotmenteers on the plot. Dick is huffing and puffing about a large pile of damp weeds that have suddenly appeared on his bonfire. It suddenly occurs to me that they’re probably my weeds, which John D has put there because he doesn’t hold with having bonfires on his part of the allotment. I think my best bet is probably to keep quiet.

Henry strolls by and offers me some beetroot. He asks me how I’m getting on.

“Well, it’s quite hard work,” I tell him. He looks up at the tall hedge of ash trees which plunge nearly half my plot into deep shade.

“John told me it would be nice to have a bit of shade in the summer, “ I explained. “He said the other part of the allotment gets really parched when it’s hot.”

“Oh, he did, did he?” says Henry. Not looking entirely convinced.

Phillip comes over to join the conversation and tells me the trouble he’s having getting anything to grow under the shade of the ash trees and points out a mole hole and a little pile of slugs eggs I’ve missed.

“Oh, well,” I say. “I can ask the Parish Council to get them pollarded at the next meeting.”

I have a feeling this is all going to be a bit more involved than I’d imagined.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Sales shopping

It’s been a busy weekend here in Great Somerford. I counted seventeen horseboxes on my walk down to the shop this morning – there may have been more, but Brown Dog was distracted by one that seemed to be whinnying rather loudly, and I found myself wondering what villagers of past centuries might have made of horses being shipped around the village in motorised metal boxes on wheels. Of course they were all bound for the Dauntsey Park Horse Trials, which are held here, at Brook Farm, and down the road in Dauntsey.

In addition to all the horse boxes, the roads were also lined with tractors and pick-ups with trailers bound for one of Graham Singer’s famous sales in the show field at Great Somerford. And as if that wasn’t enough, someone had decided this would be a good weekend to cut the maize. Heaven help anyone who might be trying to get anywhere in a hurry.

Graham Singer’s sales are fantastic – but be prepared for disappointment if you were hoping for a pair of killer heels or this season’s latest handbag. Whenever I see the sign go up, or hear the familiar trundle of ancient tractors and clanking trailers trundling down the road, I perk up and find some excuse to go down there and have a quick shufti.

There are tractors, trailers, mowers, sprayers, discers, spreaders, mixers, feeders… Contraptions for weighing pigs, charming little henhouses, horseboxes, toolboxes full of tools, rusty old milk churns, bits of cattle grid, wheelbarrows, girt big stone water troughs that could only have got there by magic or the brute force of about 30 neanderthal henge-builders; an ancient plough, a once-loved painted pony trap (without the pony)… There are several things that look like – well, I can’t seem to work out exactly what they look like…

“What do you suppose that could be?” I ask Julian, who seems to be examining something that looks worrying like some kind of medieval instrument of torture. Julian looks as stumped as I am, but just then a burly looking farmer who looks as though he might know comes striding over.
“Is there a catalogue?” I enquire, trying to look as though I could well be in the market for a 1950s tractor or a few lengths of fencing.
“Catalogue?” he asks, looking slightly perplexed.
“Yes,” I’m trying to sound like a serious salegoer. Someone who knows the difference between one end of a combine harvester and the other. Which I don’t.
“We were wondering what this – er – thing was…”
Julian looks at me as though I’m trying to rope him into some kind of transaction he had no intention of getting involved with.

The farmer sucked his teeth for a minute or two.
“If you don’t know what it is, chances are you don’t need it.”

I suppose he had a point.

Other little bits of local news

 I popped over to see Jane and Guy the other week in Draycott Cerne. They’re in a lovely cottage in a most picturesque spot, and I must say I can’t remember either of them looking so relaxed and happy.

 Charlotte the spider’s babies finally hatched – what looked like about 50 of them. I must say, I let Charlotte disappear beforehand. I read in Alex’s spider book that the baby spiders often eat the mother if she’s not quick enough off the mark, and poor old Charlotte only had five legs, so I didn’t altogether fancy her chances.

 John tells me they were his bees. I thought they were…

Tuesday, 29 September 2009


Sorry it's been a while - I've had a lot going on: the rest of the potatoes to dig, several barrowloads of fruit and vegetables to deal with, a visit from my mother, a christening, and a Very Big Wedding Indeed. It's a good job I managed to pick some blackberries yesterday, as after Michelmas the Devil is supposed to spit on them. Or worse.

Lovely John D showed me my new allotment yesterday. At least I think there was an allotment there somewhere beneath all the weeds.

"How much to you want?" he asked me.

I tried to plump for an amount somewhere between a size that wouldn't be too daunting, yet wouldn't seem ungrateful. It wasn't easy. Anyway, John in his kindness has offered to dig it over for me. Just this once. But after that, all that mares' tail will be mine, all mine.

The new landlords moved into the Volly last week (although I'm not sure Arkells has got round to updating the website yet). Francois is French and used to be a chef on the QE2, so I have high hopes for the food. Olives and dipping oil have been mentioned... Mike comes from just over the border in Gloucestershire, but I don't think we should hold that against him. He has a working cocker spaniel called Eddie with a full tail, so he must be all right. Actually, it probably means he's a bit mad.

Alex, who's not quite eleven, spotted Adam walking down there on Friday evening to check it out, and grabbed his bike.

"I'm just popping down to the pub with Adam, Mum."

I've made Mike promise not to serve him for seven more years. Which may well be an improvement on previous service.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

T0 bee or not to bee?

Are these John's bees? I was convinced they were - they seemed to have just the right kind of cheeky-chappie look that I imagine bees of John's might have. And they seem to have made themselves right at home, about thirty of the little blighters, among my sedum. I was feeling quite pleased with myself that John's bees seemed to have found their way into my garden. But, having spoken to John this morning, I'm now not at all sure they're not hover flies. Which is slightly disappointing.

"You have to look at their eyes," John says. "And their bottoms might be a bit more pointed. And their wings might not be quite so tucked in".

I'm not sure I'm up to bee identification. So what do you think, John? Are they the bees knees?

This little episode put me in mind of a wonderfully evocative poem by New Zealand poet, Amanda Eason.

The Beekeeper's Granddaughter

I thought my grandfather's bees flew everywhere
and I could prove it. Twenty miles away in Manurewa

I'd cup a bee in my hands - amaze the kids next door.
Wings whirred against my palms, I heard them

but they didn't sting because they knew me -
because they were my grandfather's bees.

Amanda Eason, 1992

Thursday, 10 September 2009

As I walked out one September morning...

Well, the big news is, I’ve finally got an allotment. Yes, after all this time, and just as I was beginning to come to the conclusion that I didn’t really need an allotment as every time I venture over there I’m plied with courgettes or runner beans or a few raspberries – yes, and not always of the rude variety – without having to do any of the hard graft. This is just last Friday’s little haul.

* * *

It’s amazing what you can get done on a dog walk. And as it was a most glorious September morning and we’d run out of tea (and I wasn’t exactly managing to knuckle down to anything very much at home – well, you can’t really get much done when the sun is shining so brightly and without a ready supply of tea, I find) I set out across the Glebe field to the shop. On the way, I bumped into Sue and, after having a conversation about bees and the pros and cons of top-bar hives as opposed to Warrés, I suddenly remembered her son was a tree surgeon and we needed a tree or two chopping down – perhaps he could advise. Then, further along I met Jon who does the Village website, and it suddenly occurred to me that he would probably know of a computer bloke who might be able to set us up with a new pc and sort out some cabling for the office… Coming into the allotments, I ran into John and Henry, who were discussing raspberries. I now know how far apart you need to plant them “About this far,” John shows me with his hands spread wide. About five times as far apart as I planted mine.
“And if they’re summer ones, you want to cut them back about this much, but the autumn ones don’t want cutting back until about February” Or was it the summer ones?

“Do you still want a bit of an allotment?” John asked, evidently sensing a latent interest in gardening that obviously needed an outlet. “I’m nearly seventy-one-and-a-half and I'm not sure I’ve got the energy to keep up with all this.”
Well, I supposed I did. It’s going to be a bit of a challenge being up by John, Dick and Phillip, though – probably three of the most experienced allotment holders on the site, apart from Bernard and Arthur, of course. Oh, and Aubrey and Trevor. (Have I missed anyone out? Probably.)

I got to the shop; predictably I’d forgotten my purse, so I tried to have a sneaky look through the Western Daily Press, an activity which garnered one of Gizzy’s Hard Stares. I couldn’t blame her really – there was a bit of a queue and Henry was trying to read the paper over my shoulder so we were taking up about half of the counter and there were people behind us wanting to buy things. I sauntered out again and collected Brown Dog, who’d somehow acquired a ball, and took him up via the old school field in West Street as I had a few letters I needed to drop off. Unexpectedly, there were cows in the field, so we went up to Shipton’s Lane and down to the river through Shady Lane – the quiet end of the village. I don’t often do the river walk in summer, precisely because there are usually cows down there. There seem to be fewer cows this year – I’m not sure whether there are, or whether they’re just somewhere else, but I was told earlier this year that there are no longer any milking herds in Great Somerford, which is sad after so many hundreds of years.

Coming up to the river I caught a flash of iridescent turquoise from the corner of my eye – the kingfisher was there. I stood stock still for about ten minutes, waiting to see him again, but he was somewhere up in the willow tree, out of sight. It’s a bit like the Pleiades – you can only really see them out of the corner of your eye; look at them straight and you won’t see them at all. I sometimes wonder whether happiness is a bit like that – an unexpected flash when you’re not really looking. I stopped on the bridge by the hatches to watch a water boatman skating gently towards the weir while what looked like a late honey buzzard wheeled high in a leisurely arc over the ripening corn. Brown Dog had found another ball, so he was happy. He always seems to find balls. It occurs to me that he’d be the ideal sniffer dog if ever the Police needed to hunt down the evidence in a mass tennis-ball robbery, although realistically it's unlikely this skill will ever be required. We can but hope, though. It would be nice to think he might be of some use that doesn't involve rolling in something unpleasant or irritating the neighbours.

* * *

During the course of the day, I find myself in the shop no less than four times, having once forgotten my money, and the other three times forgotten various other things. I’m beginning to wonder whether this might be a sign of some worrying mental-health problem so I ask Malcolm, as he’s ringing up my bread whether anyone else comes into the shop so often.

“Well, Debs is just as bad,” he reassures me. “Mind you, she does work here.”

Wednesday, 9 September 2009


Dispite the gloomy forecast, the weather was actually fine for the big allotments birthday-party picnic this weekend, and everything went - well, better actually - than expected. That morning, under a glowering September sky, Sid, John, Jackie and I had hoisted up a couple of gazebos in case of the odd shower, and later that afternoon, over a hundred allotment-holders and villagers turned out bringing hampers, rugs, bags, rucksacks - and in one case, a picnic in a wheelbarrow - to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the oldest allotments in the country.

The birthday itself had actually been a couple of weeks earlier - an even gloomier day, as it turned out. I didn't even go down to the allotments that day, but managed a blustery walk with Brown Dog past the old rectory, where the reverend Stephen Demainbray would have arrived back hot and tired, no doubt, after his long ride from the Angel Hotel in Chippenham where he'd signed the papers which assigned over eight acres of land over in perpetuity to those poor cottagers, parishioners of and residing in Great Somerford otherwise Broad Somerford, due regard being had for the number in family of such poor exactly 200 years ago.

It was a lovely afternoon, and all the better for being quite informal, without any speeches or ceremony, and we ate and drank and talked among the waving trees and fat cabbages until the sun went down.

Cake was shared, sandwiches passed round, someone found some cricket stumps, old friends were remembered and in one case, a friendship of over 30 years was renewed...

I think Stephen Demainbray would have approved.

Friday, 14 August 2009

No business like show business

Locals among you will know it was one of the highlights of our year in the Somerfords last Saturday, and I'm sorry I haven't got round to reporting back before now, but I've been – well, rather busy, one way and another.

It had been raining just about continuously for the three weeks before, and Emma, the Horse & Pony Secretary's, phone was hot from people ringing in from Hampshire, Herefordshire and Hertfordshire to find out whether it was still going to be on.

"Of course it'll still be on," she told them all blithely. "Well, you know that field..." It's true, there's something a bit magic about the Show Field. It can be bucketing down with rain for weeks, but somehow the water just drains away.

"It's always nice for the Show," said Debbie in the shop (mind you, I thought to myself, it wasn't last year...)

Anyway, it turned out that neither Emma's nor Debbie's unbridled optimism was misplaced, for Saturday morning dawned clear and bright and, apart from a bit of a puddle near the gate where the horseboxes had been coming and going since the crack of dawn, all was dry and the going, as racing people say, could not have been better.

Entries for the Industrial and Horticultural sections started arriving long before eight, and there was hot competition, particularly in the Men Only Sponge Cake class – I don't think I've ever seen such a large collection of Victoria Sandwiches in one place – big ones, small ones, supremely airy ones, ones with generously jammy fillings – and I'm beginning to wonder whether there aren't rather a lot of men about with perhaps a bit too much time on their hands. Either that, or a few with a very strong will to win...

John was looking confident as he arrived with his giant marrows, which had just been modest courgettes before he went away on holiday – it's amazing what three weeks of rain can do – clouds and silver linings and all that.

Onions were arranged, beans were assembled, jams, pickles, flower arrangements and pasta pictures were all brought along to impress the judges....

The little funfair was set up and before long sausages were sizzling and pink clouds of candy floss was being whirled round sticks sending sticky, sweet, savoury smells mingling with a top note of diesel as the dodgems were cranked up.

The door of the Horticultural tent was zipped firmly shut and everything went very quiet while the judges perused, deliberated, measured and compared – for what seemed like hours. And then, and then... Finally, the door was unzipped again and the crowds surged in to find out who had won the perpetual cup (Ross, as it turned out, and well-deserved, too), whose jams had passed muster and of course who had managed to produce the biggest marrow...

(sorry, Adam).

So much jam and so little time...

...and some very confused alpacas.

And, of course, I can't not mention the dog show (in which, yet again, there was a terrible travesty of justice in the Dog With the Waggiest Tail class, but I'll try my best to rise above it...) Best In Show was a very smart Grand Vendeen Griffon all the way from Oxford, and there was a well-deserved third in Most Appealing Eyes (well, if I'd have had two, it would obviously been a first...)

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Feeling smug as a slug in a spud

It’s almost been like Spring Watch at our place this week, although admittedly it’s the wrong time of year and we haven’t got Bill Oddie in a hide down the bottom of the garden. Alex’s friend has got a hedgehog in his garden, and she’s just produced a couple of tiny, prickly babies. As far as we can see, there’s at least two, although we don’t want to get too close.

And as I walked over to Little Somerford to pick up my car from Richard on Friday, I noticed a pair of velvety ears poking up through a sea of barley in one of the fields by the railway line. A young faun, which could only have been a couple of meters away, suddenly noticed he was not alone and turned tail, bouncing gracefully away towards cover. The dog, at silly mid-off, gave chase, but he wasn’t nearly quick or tall enough – his wildly flailing ears bounced ridiculously through the long grass before he reluctantly gave up the ghost.

Later that day, Alex found what looked like a very fat tube-web spider under the sofa. We spooned it up into his magnifying bug viewer where it obligingly laid an enormous egg, which it wrapped up into a parcel. I’m not sure how the baby spiders are supposed to get out when they do eventually emerge – it says in our spider book that spiderweb is stronger than steel rope, once it’s had a chance to harden. Still, I suppose it must know what it’s doing. We’ll keep you posted.

Down on the allotments this evening, several dusky black swifts were skimming the veg patches while I dug up the last of my early potatoes. Swifts are only here for a few short months and apparently never land on the earth – if they did, they wouldn’t be able to take off again, they even sleep on the wing. I’ve been growing veg for a little while now, but I still never cease to find it amazing how just four little seed potatoes tucked away in a corner of Adam and Cheryl’s allotment can somehow manage to produce all this. I really didn’t do an awful lot – just popped down whenever I remembered and raked up the soil a couple of times.

I pedalled back home, feeling slightly smug and wobbling slightly under the weight of all my spuds, where I rustled up a courgette quiche (thanks Cheryl for the courgettes and Suzy for the eggs). I popped some of my freshly dug potatoes on to boil with a couple of sprigs of mint, marvelling at how clever I’d been to rustle up such a quick, delicious meal with just about everything sourced from less than a mile away (ok, the flour and the butter did come from Somerfield). This, surely, was what the good life was all about. It was only towards the end of supper when the rude awakening came. I’ll give you a clue – what’s the one thing that’s possibly worse than finding a slug in your dinner? That’s right: finding half a slug.

I take a little comfort from Dr Mark Porter’s comments on Case Notes earlier this week to the effect that stomach acid is actually stronger than car-battery acid, and therefore better at dissolving things. However, I’ve suddenly gone right off home-grown veg.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Hard rain's gonna fall

Well it didn’t rain on St Swithun’s day, as it happened – which is just as well as Coffee Pots had scheduled their annual summer outing for that day. However it has rained at some point every day since, and the forecast is – let’s say – less than hopeful. There is, however, a silver lining to these dark grey and billowing storm clouds as far as I’m concerned; our friends the Joneses have decided not to camp at Womad this weekend, so that means we don’t have to. We can’t camp without the Joneses, because they have a portable stove and we don’t. They also remember to bring things like towels and coolboxes and torches and spare inflatable pillows, which we invariably forget.

I’ve been treated to mutinous faces at breakfast every day this week as it gradually got wetter and wetter, and I pointed out that I really didn’t think it was a good idea to pitch a tent five miles up the road if we really didn’t have to. Apart from anything, there’s the hygiene facilities to contend with. For some reason, the words ‘swine’ and ‘flu’ keep popping into my head every time I think of the combination of 20,000 people from all over the world and about 30 portaloos with no running water or proper handwashing facilities. I know it’s wrong of me and probably hugely politically incorrect, but I do. It's no joking matter, though - someone from one of the villages nearby died of Swine Flu last week.

It’s interesting, though, how localised the weather seems to be. The forecast for Friday was hard rain all day, yet when I looked out, the garden was dry and there was barely a cloud in the sky. By the time we got to Malmesbury, though, there was rain of biblical proportions gushing down onto the roads and welling up in the gutters. When I got back to Lea, about 20 minutes later, the roads were bone dry and there was no sign of anyone even with an umbrella. The rain did get here, eventually, though. I was cleaning the church with Anne later that morning, and the most humungous storm broke out, gushing through the roof at the font-end and cutting off the electricity for a few minutes. It was all very dramatic until Anne produced a plastic bucket from the cupboard behind the pulpit and the gushing dwindled to a sporadic clattering.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

St Swithun's Day

A removal van turned up this morning. I thought it must have got lost, at first, and taken a wrong turning down our lane, then I remembered our neighbours, Jane and Guy were leaving today. Guy has been the rector here for nearly 27 years. They’re not going very far – to Draycott Cerne, Kilvert country proper – but I’m sure it’ll be a wrench. It seems the Church has rules about clergy – once they’re retired, they have to move at least two miles from the benefice. It doesn’t seem to matter that the village isn’t getting another rector; at least not one who lives here – rules is rules. It’ll be odd not having them around. I know that life goes not backward, nor tarries with yesterday, but sometimes I wish it would tarry just a bit.

* * *

The allotments are looking particularly lovely this year. More plots than ever are being cultivated, the clover’s up and everything is growing like crazy. I think the prize for the prettiest allotment at the moment goes to Sarah, in the corner, with her waving hedge of cornflowers and Californian poppies – clouds of cobalt, red and gold – and a tubby little wigwam of sweet peas. Clare’s at the top – at least I think it’s Clare’s – is lovely, too, with its gold nasturtiums and scrambling runner beans in scarlet flower. And I do like Janice’s bunting. Funny how it’s the girls I’ve picked out. Philip’s very good at dahlias, usually but I think the slugs got to them this year.

There’s been another attack of Asbo animals. Bernard had had a mole, which he’s been trying to divert towards Trevor’s plot with an ingenious plastic-bottle device, but the mole’s having none of it. Up he keeps popping between Bernard’s cabbages. Meanwhile, Dick came down to his plot one morning to find a grass snake wedged in one of his wire cloches. The snake seems to have spotted a toad among the lettuces, dived in through one of the holes in the chicken wire, guzzled the toad, only to find it was now trapped by dint of a large, toad-shaped bulge too large to slither back through the chicken wire. Dick somehow managed to squeeze the toad out of the snake’s mouth and freed the snake, who took one look at what was left of his breakfast before slithering off. I'm not at all sure I'd have fancied any breakfast after that, either.

* * *

St Swithun was a champion of the poor and needy who lived in ninth-century Wessex.

I wonder whether it’s going to rain today?

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

With cordial thanks...

I finally got round to making my elderflower cordial. I would have made it earlier, but could I get citric acid either for love or money? I scoured the length and breadth of Malmesbury High Street – even good old Knees was sold out. It seems everybody had the same idea. The situation was even worse in Chippenham. I discovered there are other, more nefarious uses for citric acid and it's been withdrawn from sale from most of the high-street pharmacy chains.
“Do I look as though I'd be using it to cut cocaine?” I feel like asking. “I'm a respectable middle-aged woman!” Mind you, I'll be looking at those doughty matrons flocking along to the home preserving section at Knees in a different way, now.

Anyway, moving swiftly on... There really is nothing quite like home-made elderflower cordial. Infused with the fresh, delicate and slightly fruity scent of newly opened elderflowers in their very first flush, it's something that can only really be drunk in June. Wait until the flowers are fully open and perhaps just starting to go over, and it will just taste of – well, there really isn't any nicer way of putting it – wee. It doesn't keep, either, even when spiked with a liberal shake of citric acid you've got to drink it up in under a month.

I could have drunk all mine in one sitting, but that would just be greedy. So I've bottled it, and taken it round to say thank you to some of the allotment holders who've been plying me with asparagus and allowing my potatoes squatting rights on their beautifully-tended plots.

“Can you mix it with vodka?” was Adam's first question.

Here's the recipe - if you can find a sheltered elder on a north or east-facing slope, you might just be in time...

25 elderflower heads
3 litres boiling water
900g granulated sugar
2 unwaxed lemons, sliced
50g citric or tartaric acid

Carefully rinse the elderflower heads, picking out any small bugs and place them in a non-metallic bowl or a clean bucket with the sugar and sliced lemons. Pour the boiling water over the top, stir well and leave to cool. Once cooled, stir in the citric acid, then cover the lot with a clean tea towel and leave in a cool, dark place for 24 hours, stirring occasionally.

The next day, strain the cordial through a muslin-lined sieve and decant into sterilised bottles.

Keep it in the fridge for up to a month.

* * *

Mad as a bag of frogs

There are frogs in Frog Lane – at least there were last night. We were just doing a spot of gardening when my other half shouted over to come and look at something that was shuffling about in the bottom of a bag of compost. There they were, two little frogs looking very hot and slightly distguntled.

“They'll boil in there,” I said, and dragged the bag over to under the bench where there was a bit of shade.

Next morning, it was still hot as hot, and Brown Dog being particularly well-endowed in the fur department was skulking around the garden disconsolately looking for a spot of shade.

Ah yes, I could almost hear him thinking. Under the bench. And he flopped down squarely on top of the compost bag.

Friday, 26 June 2009

There Will Be Mud

The rain is coming down in stair rods this morning and Frog Lane is already a river, so I don't imagine there will be much gardening going on – well, for several reasons, really. The Garden Club – all twenty-something of them – have just set off for their annual gardens tour. This year the destination is Wales; Caernarfon, Penrhyn, Porthmadog, Bodnant and the famous ffestiniog steam railway... They'll just be tucking into their strawberry breakfast now, I should think, whilst whistling along the M4 towards the Severn Bridge. There was a lot of strawberry picking going on yesterday.

And for those of us left behind, what better day for tuning into Gardeners' Question Time, where there'll be some familiar voices amongst the questioners – Bernard, with his credit-crunch vegetables and my father-in-law with his unyielding blue clay. 3pm today, 2pm on Sunday, and for the rest of the week you'll be able to pick it up on the BBC iPlayer.

* * *

The National Gardens Scheme Open Gardens event at the weekend was a huge success – over 350 people came to visit and they all but ran out of cakes at the Mount House (although I think that may have had something to do with the fact that word had got around about Diane's fabulous cakes – and I can confirm, they were indeed fabulous, and I'm not given to easy praise where cakes are concerned). The gardens were of course spectacular, too. I wish someone would show me how to do a proper herbaceous border. Mine always just look like odd bits of plants dotted around interspersed by bits of earth the dog has had a bit of a dig at and flattened clumps of catmint that the cat has sat on. Ah well, maybe one day...

Monday, 22 June 2009

The secret life of beekeepers

A swarm of bees in May
is worth a load of hay
A swarm in June
is worth a silver spoon
A swarm in July
ain't worth a fly

I thought there were a lot of bees on Mrs Jones's geraniums at the NGS Open Gardens event this weekend. "Oooh," I thought. "John will be pleased." But I didn't realise quite how pleased until this morning, when I opened my monthly BeeMail.

John, for those of you who don't already know, is our local bee man. What he don't know about bees, ain't worth a swarm in July – heck, the man even makes his own hives. For the last couple of years he's been trying to establish a local bee colony, but as with the course of all things true-love related, it hasn't gone altogether smoothly. It was a bit of a struggle, I gather, finding somewhere for the bees to live – surprisingly, not all that many people seemed to be all that keen on having honey-producing yellow-and-black-striped neighbours who buzzed a lot. Monthly BeeMail updates have have featured details of some of John's ingenious ways of outwitting the dastardly varroa destructor mite (a swift dusting of icing sugar, apparently), the perils of pesticides and tricking the queen into laying eggs. Anyway, this month's news was that John had collected two swarms - without wearing gloves, apparently – one which looked as though it was on the brink of death following a stormy weekend and another found hanging from the roof of a bird feeder in Chippenham.

Over 5,000 bees in the second colony, he reckons. I wonder how many jars of honey that translates into...

My other news is that Brown Dog has a new hairstyle - very Didier Drogba, don't you think? No, he hasn't been to an expensive salon – I may be daft, but I'm not that daft. His new orange ball rolled accidentally into the river this afternoon and, being heavy, it sank to the bottom. It took him a while to realise I wasn't going to wade in and fish it out for him, and slightly longer to work out that he had to hold his breath if he was going to dive for it, but persistence payed off in the long run. The hairstyle was a bonus.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Green Shoots of Recovery?

Not in my house, I’m afraid. Brown stumps of doom, more like. I was so relieved to see my neighbour’s car back home from holiday yesterday. I wasn’t sure how long I was going to be able to be able to keep this poor vestige of a living thing, living.

Before he set off on holiday three weeks ago, Mr A (who I’m not going to name since it feels a bit disrespectful, and some people are more careful of their privacy than I am) came over with three tiny root cuttings which he’d lovingly nurtured into something that looked vaguely like independent life. Tiny stalks stood up proudly in what looked like better quality compost than I normally use, and the almost imperceptible first leaf buds were almost visible. Almost. Mr A looked pleased with this progress. Could I possibly look after them until he came back?

The trouble is, ever since the allotment book (which I’m not trying to plug in any way – although have you got your copy yet? I only mention this because I noticed they’ve only got two left in the shop and I wouldn’t want anyone to miss out… ) people assume I know about plants. Well I’m afraid I don’t. Or rather, I do sort of know a bit about vegetable growing – in theory, at least – however I seem to be cursed with the polar opposite of green fingers and everything that comes within my reach, er, dies. Sorry to be blunt about it, but there really isn’t a more tactful way of putting it. My husband calls me the Plant Butcher of Great Somerford. And that's when he's being nice.

But somehow it seemed a bit churlish to say no.

I sat it on the windowsill, watered it whenever I remembered, even tried a spot of conversation occasionally. It started to whither almost immediately – virtually as soon as the sound of Mr A’s car disappearing down the lane faded away. Not enough sun, I wondered? Moved it to the south-facing kitchen window… a leaf promptly fell off. The days ticked by, any hint of green the plants had once had gradually dwindled away and, short of sticking it on a life-support machine I couldn’t realistically see a way of prolonging its life any further. Perhaps it was life, Jim, but it was certainly not as we know it. You can imagine my relief when I spotted Mr A’s car neatly parked back on his drive this morning.

I dashed round bearing the pot, the plants possibly performing their few last acts of photosythesis and rapped on the door. No answer. Rapped again, a bit louder. Still no answer. I really didn’t want to risk the twenty-yard dash back home – it was drizzling slightly and I wasn’t at all sure the plants were up to the journey. Finally, Mr A appeared at the door in his dressing gown, looking not best pleased. I’m not sure whether it was the sight of his beloved plants or the fact that I’d just got him out of the bath.

Had a good holiday? I ventured…

(Actually, I'm exaggerating as usual. 'Mr A' was actually very nice about it. I could tell he was a bit disappointed, though...)

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Inspired by travel

There's something rotten at the heart of Little Somerford... At least, there was last night. The ladies of the Embroiderers’ Guild had to reconvene in Joan Wigmore’s sitting room for the monthly embroidery talk, as the Village Hall was mysteriously plagued by a terrible smell. Ian and Gordon were dispatched to investigate - closer inspection revealed the source; the decaying corpse of a badger under the floorboards. As neither Defra nor the rat man from the Council seemed to be particularly interested, Ian and Gordon came to the rescue with some woodworking tools and their spades, while Joan somehow managed to find enough seating for – well, rather a lot of ladies.

The Speaker, Christine Harley, took the assembled gathering on a fascinating tour as far afield as possible from the offending badger – South East Asia, as it turned out. Samples were passed round – such fabulous colours, such tiny stitches – a whistlestop armchair tour taking in exquisite baby carriers, shoes and jacket panels – a delicate, multicoloured embroidered magic-carpet excursion to Southern China, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, accompanied by plenty of colourful travellers’ tales (one of which involved a pig. I won’t lower the tone by relating now – suffice to say, it involved a lavatory and was in much the same category as the badger. Only the pig wasn't dead - I'm sensing a feeling of too much information already...).

It’s a beautiful evening cycle ride back to Great Somerford, with the dipping sun turning the sky pink over hedrows dripping with cow parsley and elderflowers and flower-filled meadows which looked just perfect for an evening picnic. Exotic, colourful and fascinating though this evening's tales were, there’s no place like home. I think I can feel a spot of elderflower cordial-making coming on...

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Village fate

Friday's Church Fete at Mills Farm went off without a hitch - well, not one that anyone would notice - and was a great success if exhaustion levels are anything to go by. Beans are being counted, but understand things are looking good, and we may be on track to rival the record takings of two years ago. Watch this space...

But it's not all about money. A lovely time was had by all - it didn't rain and Plum and James's garden looked gorgeous with its fabulous backdrop of clematis and climbing roses and the quintessentially English sound of the Wootton Bassett Brass Band. The animals were a big draw for the children - pony rides in the paddock and a clutch of fluffy two-week old chicks (who were finally rounded up into their box in the nick of time after nearly an hour trying to catch them all). A record number of books were flying off the shelves and some marvellous bargains were to be had on trinkets and White Elephant.

The older children from the Village School entertained us all with an interesting Lebanese-style dance, which went down particularly well with the children as it meant boys dancing with boys, girls dancing with girls and hand-holding with the opposite gender was kept to a minimum. There was a martial arts demonstration. A tug-of-war (I can't remember who won - it never really seems to matter and everybody always falls over at the end anyway), and it did not rain.

The Pimm's went down particularly well. Well, it did as far as I was concerned, thanks to Adam's determination to supply refreshment to the stallholders. Well, it's really just a bit of alcoholic fruit salad, isn't it?

Sunday, 7 June 2009


The rain came at last. Of course it did – it’s cubs’ camp this weekend. And I have a car-boot sale in Malmesbury.

“When d’you think it’s going to rain,” asked Bernard as I passed him in the allotments on Friday.
“About six o’clock.” I didn’t even need to look up at the gathering grey cumulo-nimbus clouds overhead. The cubs would just be arriving at the camp site in Bristol then. The rain came at 5.55.

I am not a happy camper – I hate cub camp. The only thing worse than being at cub camp under the endless rain, wind and drizzle, baked beans and billy cans and compulsory activities, is not being there and worrying about my 10-year-old boy who’s been looking forward to it for weeks. I’ve had two sleepless nights and made at least five phone calls, just to check he’s ok. He is – apparently he’s having a whale of a time, but I send over an extra blanket with Georgina’s husband Jeremy, just to be on the safe side.

To take my mind off it, I’m doing the car boot sale. My car is stuffed to the gunnels with what can only be described as a load of old cr*p. Unfortunately, there’s no room for a gazebo or an umbrella – I’ll just have to hope the rain eases off. Of course it doesn’t – it’s cub camp, isn’t it.

My pile of old cr*p looks less appealing than ever under the rain. A woman in a raincoat meanders over and picks up a digital camera.
“How much?” she asks.
“£4?” I suggest, without much conviction.
“I’ll give you two.”
I haven’t the energy to haggle.

Simon, who has the stall next to mine – ingeniously covered by an oblong of tarpaulin perched on two canes – takes pity on me and offers to buy me a coffee. I feel I need to reciprocate and fish in my purse for 50p to buy a bag of home-made biscuits from his stall. There's an ominous rumble of thunder, then a Cluedo game catches my eye.
“How much?” I ask.
“£4.” It’s noticeable there is no question mark after his answer. By 10.30 I’m 50p down.

I sell a stuffed sheep for 20p, and manage to somehow wangle 30p for some lipglosses disguised as cup cakes, and things at long last are looking up. Then I spot another woman selling plates, and it’s downhill all the way.

Back home, my husband asks how I got on.
"Umm, well - you know," I shrug.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Local Elections

You hardly need to have been following the news over the last few weeks to be feeling slightly jaded about the state of British politics. In fact, it’s hard to come up with the name of an MP who doesn’t look as though he’s had his (or her) hand in the till – whether it’s for an ornamental moat or a jar of Branston Pickle (although I still can’t quite understand how some people still seem to be able to argue it’s right for the great British public to be stumping up for salad condiments. Why Mrs Mitchell can’t pack her husband off to London with a jar of home-made chutney in his suitcase is beyond me. But would she still have charged us for a couple of pounds of shallots and a jar of pickling spice?).

But I still feel passionately about the importance of exercising one’s right to vote. After all, it’s not even a hundred years that women have had the right to vote – the mere blink of an eye in historical terms. People lost their lives so we could vote. To think, save the odd historical blips of rulers like Boudicca and Queen Elizabeth the First, the world as we know it was almost entirely run by men until 1918 – mind you, I suppose it might have saved us from Hazel Blears (who has, today, I notice, done the decent thing and finally resigned).

Anyway, I’ve been doing my homework and reading up about our local candidates and what they stand for (I don’t think we have to worry too much about the MEPs – it’s all done on proportional representation there, I believe, so you just plump for the party you like best). Locally, the Tories tell us they believe in “local democracy, efficient services at the lowest possible cost”, while Labour believes that “local people and communities possess the ingenuity and common sense to run their own affairs,” and the Lib Dems would like to see “a freer Britain, where people and communities are able to exercise real political power on their own behalf”.

Which sounds a lot like the others to me.

Or maybe I’m missing something…

Anyway, I will be going to the polling station tomorrow, and I know who I’ll be voting for (however that’s between me and my ballot paper, which is just as it should be).

See you there.

This week, I’ve been watching…
The Unsellables – another TV property programme, as if we needed one – with our family friend, John Rennie and Kirstie Alsopp’s younger sister, Sofie. Once you get over being mesmerised by John’s particularly mobile eyebrows and wondered idly whether in fact it's Nigella Lawson Sofie's related to, rather than Kirstie, it is actually quite entertaining, and Sofie is considerably more charming (in my opinion) and smiley than her bossy older sister. The formula is this: they visit a house that the owner can’t sell, Sofie wrinkles her delicate ski-slope nose at their décor and the number of stuffed toys in the bedroom, does a bit of tidying and gets the decorators in while John gets a feel for the neighbourhood and put the estate agent right on one or two things…
11am weekdays on BBC1, if you’re interested.