The North Wind doth blow…

Yesterday was the first day I felt a little cold wandering out on the way to Brussels. After a summer that could best be described as ‘meh’ , neither really terrible or particularly good, we’ve had a rather nice little space of sun and blue sky in early October, but while the sun itself is warm enough the breeze accompanying it whispers ‘October’ in a way that is hard to ignore.

In Brussels it seemed even more bitter, and a big contrast to only a few weeks ago where it was still very much T shirt and shorts friendly. But autumn appears to have arrived and you would assume that winter will follow, although on the basis of recent year’s maybe that is an assumption that may or may not prove accurate.

Back in the late 80s the rock band Marillion put out an album titled ‘Seasons End’. The title track put a fair amount of emphasis on the blending of the seasons in the face of the (then) still vary nascent views on global warming, on Seasons ‘we would never see in England’. Since then we have had a few slightly harder winters (unhappily for me while training for my last London marathon) and the odd hot-ish summer, but there is a nagging feeling for me at least that we are going through a period where if we do have a cold spell it will be short and sharp, but otherwise it will just be nondescript grey and a bit damp and chilly.

What I wrestle with personally is whether I think this is important enough for me to wory about. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not discussing global warming. Fact is that the planet has warmed up and cooled down many times and long before we came along, although the question as to whether we are impacting on the natural process in a significant way is one that will perplex us for some time (and whether those impacts are local or global, or short or long terms adds additional complexity that I do not think will allow me to do justice to the subject in a few hundred words).

But I do wonder what the young folks today will think about as they grow up. Personally I have very vivid memories of heavy snow falls and massive drifts and ice incrustations, but then I grew up in the North East and the 70s. These days for a kid to see snow where I live now they probably have to go to the nearest indoor winter sports centre and indulge in a little bit of artificial icy fun. Possibly just as well as even the pathetic snowfalls we have had seem to cause increasing levels of chaos in our growing inability to be able to manage them. We live on the commuting route to the station and watching from the window can be interesting, with a never ending supply of inappropriate shoes and clothing and worse, terrible driving in adverse conditions. I feel allowed to say that as I am well aware that in snow and ice I am a liability, unlike the Lovely Wife who has far more technique and patience in such matters.

For all the frustrations it causes I am hoping we will have some kind of recognisable winter this year. I appreciate that is very selfish but there is something special about each of the seasons and you can feel a bit cheated. A hard winter makes you love spring all the more I think, and those short days and long nights build up the excitement for the long days of summer. We once discussed what it would be like to live in the Caribbean where the days are more or less consistent in length and decided that we would soon get bored with the monotony of that all the year round.

I guess I’m just awkward.


Yeast’s Lament

When you look into a beer glass, or indeed a wine glass, and consider what has gone into the making of the product you increasingly realise how complex that process is. Having had a go over the years at brewing homemade wine from the excessive amounts of Bramley apples that come off our tree – a tree that is probably older than the house, and which amazes me every year by not dying and seeming instead to get more productive, to my consternation with what to do with the produce – I can testify that as well as care and skill, a fair amount of luck is also needed when working on a small scale with limited resources and space. At least the luck is needed to produce something that might be considered drinkable.

I was trying to think about what is particularly interesting to me about the production of alcoholic beverages and came down to the fact it is an unequal partnership between me and another living organism. I think that people have a tendency to forget that yeast, whether used for baking or brewing, is a living organism, a unicellular fungus. Brewing is not just adding substance A to substance B, throwing a bucket of water and some sugar into a vessel and watching a chemical reaction. What we are doing is creating a temporary environment for yeast to feed and multiply, and the alcohol is the by-product of that activity. Or rather one of the by products, as while that nice glass of Pinot or pint of London Pride may look clear and enticing in the end it is a cocktail of interesting organic chemicals of which ethyl alcohol is only one, and many of the others are (like alcohol itself of course) toxic in one way or another, or rather would be in sufficient quantities. But it is this mix that also provides the flavour and texture to the drink that takes it beyond an attempt just to get drunk and making drinking the pleasurable experience it can be if managed carefully and individually – as everyone’s body works a little differently and that includes processing and management of chemicals.

The conditions are vital. The vessels need to be clean; the sugar source, whether grapes, apples, grain or whatever needs to be the right quality for what you want to achieve. The sugar, the water, the temperature and the type/strain of yeast to be used equally need to be chosen carefully. Get any of that wrong and the end product will be at best below par. Poor sterilisation might result in natural strains of yeast and other micro-organisms getting into the mix and becoming dominant – and while this is sometimes the actual aim, the results will be extremely variable in comparison to a brewing yeast.

In a commercial operation of course this is crucial and cannot be left to chance as consistency is a priority. Get it wrong and at best you have wastage, at worse the business might be undone. I do not have to worry about that, and it is just as well, as I do not have the ability to control conditions sufficiently in the space I have. In particular I cannot keep the temperature correct and consistent for optimal fermentation; and so my little yeast friends do their best, but like any of us working in a poorly heated office, our product and productivity is impacted.

So when it comes out OK, I feel quite pleased. But sadly, my poor yeast friends do not get to enjoy the triumph of a half drinkable apple wine, or a slightly less winky wine from my mother in laws vine. No. They are left first to starve themselves as they happily convert most of the sugar to alcohol (also eventually poisoning themselves), and then I effectively make sure by murdering them all by the process euphemistically referred to as ‘stabilisation’. Still, they have had food and lodging presented to them on a plate for many generations by this point so perhaps I should not feel too guilty. Maybe instead I’ll just raise a glass of our dodgy co-production in their honour. Cheers!

I wasn’t expecting that

Do you have moments when the way you see the world changes, if only a small way? I’m not thinking so much about the Road to Damascus kind of moment as much as those times when reality proves that something you always believed was true is, in fact, wrong or at best an oversimplification of the truth. It can quite seriously shake you.

For most of my life I thought I was Mr Immunity. Unlikely to join the Avengers any time soon admittedly, but I had absolutely convinced myself that somehow through an accident of birth or development I was immune to most known child’s diseases. This somewhat low grade superpower meant that I could sit in the middle of a bunch of infected kids and somehow manage not to contract the various dreaded lurgies that seemed to afflict anyone else. Nothing could touch me. Measles, chicken pox, mumps… No problem for Mr. Immunity. True, there was a slight wobble with a very mild case of what I guess I should now call rubella, but that was clearly a special case and quickly dealt with.

Not that I was not ill as a child. Like any good superhero I had my weakness. Until I had various small parts of me surgically removed at the age of 8, I had tonsillitis pretty much constantly (there’s a clue in the condition as to what was removed). Incidentally that was a weird experience to be in a children’s ward in the 1970s; in my head it has a nightmarish quality now, including a hatred of soggy Rice Crispies (about the only thing you could eat post operation for several days) and what I recall as the mysterious disappearance from the ward of the girl in the next bed down out of the mixed ward I was on; although that may have been because she seemed obsessed with lifting up her nightdress to all the boys at every opportunity. Anyway, it all was made better by the blatant bribe from my parents of a Dinky Space: 1999 Eagle which probably is still favourite toy, if a little battered. (sadly, instead of the ships in the actual series the toy version did not have an unlimited supply of spare parts/pilots. Seriously, where were they keeping all those Eagles? The number of times that Eagle One gets totaled…)

Digressing again, back once more to reality shifts.

So, we were having a lovely holiday on the Island of Lundy, and we were just waiting for the boat back to Devon. I felt a bit ill, but put it down to a bit too much sun the day before (no, really, even off the Devon coast) and he fact I had managed to brain myself on a metal stairway while exploring the Island’s old lighthouse. That does not make you feel particularly well. But it was not until the next morning that I found the rash and found, after all, that my super powers had failed me. I had chicken pox. A good friend of ours had had shingles so maybe that was the source or maybe coincidence – in the end it did not matter. I was not immune after all. Immediately my world view had changed just a little bit. The obvious conclusion is that if I could catch this, then what about the others… And almost all common diseases of this sort are worse as an adult. Oh goody. Thankfully for me it was a mild case (the nurse on the end of NHS Direct line seemed actually relieved when my description of symptoms was not half as terrible as she might have been expecting) and even the recurrence – yes, folks, I have shingles at the moment as the damn virus is with you forever, is proving more an irritation (pun intended) than anything else. So maybe I am not after all Mr Immunity, but I’m certainly blessed in this case.

On a serious front it is a reminder, if I needed it, that complacency is one of the biggest things we need to worry about. Just because it has been fine for thirty odd years does not mean it is going to be fine tomorrow, so I’m taking it as a lesson to enjoy when the sun is shining a little but more, as it might not be shining tomorrow.

A Model Village

There are some things that are just too quirky or silly to admit some affection for them, not if you want to retain any credibility that is. Luckily, since I have never really had any credibility to start with there is nothing much to lose to say I have a fondness for what I think is a very British bit of weirdness; that massive contribution to world culture that is the model village.

If you’ve never been to a model village, or do not understand what I mean, first I should explain that this is model in the sense of a small representation of a larger original, as opposed to an ideal example of what that should look like, although there is an element of the idealised in their design (incidentally, my ‘perfect’ village is Bamburgh in Northumberland, which has every element that any good village should have, including nothing at all to do if you are a teenager).

No, model villages of whatever size are where buildings and other structures are created in reduced scale (usually something like 1:25 ratio) and laid out in pattern so that the visitor can, Gulliver – like (or, if, you prefer, more like a very careful Godzilla) wander through the landscape admiring the level of detail. Sometimes the buildings are copies of real examples, others are fictional ‘examples’ of what, say, a thatched pub should look like. In the more sophisticated sites, there is often electrically operated features; a train always makes a good impression, or a windmill with slowly revolving sails, or a bridge that lifts to let and equally miniature boat sail through, doomed to repeat the journey many times a day on its underwater line.

All this is very twee, and sometimes it might be difficult to see the appeal. But what I like most about most model villages is the attention to detail and sense of humour. No opportunity is ever missed to get a little joke in there somewhere so miniature posters, bill boards or banners are always worth reading. My personal favourites have been the tiny model workman who’s miniature van proudly has ‘no job too small’ emblazoned on the side and a house where a man clings onto the roof dressed only in spotted boxer shorts while an angry husband remonstrated with his sheet covered wife in the window below. This latter one was actually in the Mini Europe attraction in Brussels so probably should be disqualified, but considering the scene is pure British farce it must get an honourable mention. In fact this place is very weirdly British, as a tiny Tardis next to the House of Parliament shows as even in these days of the revitalised series Doctor Who is still something I tend to believe is largely a British phenomenon.

There are a mere handful of Model Villages in the UK. Probably the most famous is Bekonscot in Buckinghamshire ( where the aforementioned helpful tiny workman can be located. They cost a surprisingly large amount of money to maintain (being outdoors and small and detailed are not good bedfellows for longevity) and are something we should cherish. Go visit and take children with you (although if you are short of them, as we are, then your own inner child does just as well).

Running Reflections

I guess my interest in running partly revolves around finding a form of aerobic exercise that I could do in my own mediocre manner and not let anyone else down, and does not involve swimming (which I don’t dislike as such but takes so much time to organise, involves fighting off everyone else in an overfull pool and, to confess, I needed remedial swim lessons at secondary school – if I ever manage to avoiding drowning at some point, I have a lot to thank a certain Mr. Gibson, who took the time to show me that water was not, actually, that scary and was willing with others to spend their lunchtimes helping those of us who were frankly useless to doggy paddle towards competence) and cycling – which I never learned to do as a child, and has therefore held me back ever since. For goodness sake push then and let them fall off and hurt themselves. They’ll thank you later.

A few years ago I did the London Marathon for the wonderful charity Mission without Borders, having been, um, persuaded by a friend in our church congregation. At that point I was the reluctant runner; something some friends of mine thought was a bit strange, as I run regularly. But, let’s be clear, there is a difference with running a few miles regularly in a desperate attempt to try and compensate for calorie intake and running a blessed marathon. I hate marathons. They are just too long to be fun and just turn into a boring parade of pain. I have limitless respect with those with the strength of body, and perhaps more importantly, strength of mind who are able get round those 26.2 miles and the time is a matter of semantics for me. I didn’t want to do it and the race and the training was not fun, even if the achievement was. This is the difference. It will take another whole level of persuasion to make me attempt a marathon again; I suspect that I have learned better now to duck when the ‘opportunity’ comes my way.

Up until recently, I felt comfortable with half marathons. Actually, that sounds as though they are easy. They’re not. On Sunday I completed the Great North Run and had to walk one mile of it; the unexpected sun and heat, and two nights of strangely disturbed sleep had sapped all my energy. In the last few miles I saw three or four men – younger and fitter looking than me – collapsed and being tended to. Tragically someone died. It is not a minor thing. But until this weekend I’d kept up an illusion that it was something I’d be doing forever.

As I stood at the start line – with 50 odd thousand others – I was struck by the number of young people and first timers. And I felt a little jealous. For them this was the biggest deal; for me, it was, in the end, a number and another finisher medal. There were no surprises on route, I’m never going to get close to my 1998 (oh God, so long ago!) personal best and while it is nice to revisit things you see as important, at the same time there is a point where you have to ask is it really worth the pain and the hassle to do something you have done so many times before? So this will be my last Great North Run – while I still love it. I’ll do it again maybe in a decade for old time’s sake; I’d do it again if any of my younger friends wanted to run and felt like having an old hand along. But I think it is generally time to call it a day on this particular part of my life which is absolutely stuffed with happy memories (oh, the pain fades, don’t you know?). I’ll probably do half marathons again. But maybe it time for my running adventures to take a different course.

Hey Small Spender

I’m not terribly good with money. Actually I’m terribly bad with it. My mother, I am fairly sure, realised this from an early age and rather than use with me ‘a fool and his money are quickly parted’ generally referred to my attitudes towards pecuniary matters as like a man walking along the edge of a cliff whistling and not looking particularly where he is going. So generally, things look and feel OK, until you put a foot a little too close to the edge, when you can probably guess that the results would be less than ideal.

She probably felt confident in make this judgement on one of her son’s many deficiencies because – for one – it was clearly true and – for two – she shared some of the same ‘something will come up’ attitude that I have, much to the mild annoyance of my much more careful father (who, I am pleased to see, has since thrown caution and thrift to the wind and is happily, as we joke, ‘spending the inheritance’ and getting things the way he wants them at home and garden. Coming through cancer certainly gives you a different view of life). 

 The problem I shared with mum is what I might call expenses creep.

 Rarely will any money go out from me on a big purchase. Those are a different world closely negotiated affairs in collaboration with the Lovely Wife, who will make sure that we’re getting the best fit at the best price, a counter check I value and need. No sudden new TV or tablet, and the car I drive away in will be the same one I drive home in.

 No, the source of the problem is the little purchases, the ones that could not possibly get you into any kind of financial trouble. You know what I mean, the ones that cost ‘less than a pint’ (although I understand that what this means in London in particular might be different to one, say, in Wetherspoon’s in Coventry). It might be a book. Maybe a second hand CD or three from Amazon or some other virtual or indeed real outlet, or a cheap wood carving set (A recent, as yet unused instant purchase. I found an interesting stick).

 However this is only part of the story. The other section could be headed ‘he never learns’. So despite the fact that my jaw can drop at the end of the month when the credit card bill arrives bringing with it the unpleasant news that all these little purchases do actually add up – I was never any good at maths concepts – I still can fall into that same trap month after month.

 Why this weakness keeps manifesting itself is a question I sometimes ask myself. Certainly like many well off people in the West I’m fascinated by stuff and the acquisition of stuff (most of which I do not need). The fact that if you take a step back and look at that behaviour in the context of people who cannot afford to eat it may be bordering on the obscene is something I can conveniently overlook a lot of the time – with a lot of other people. Second, I’m honestly suckered most of the time by the innocence of spending small amounts of money. Increments always literally creep up on us, whether it be my Amazon spending, the annual train fare increase or the final (of many) tiny annoyance that marks the end of a relationship. I do not beat myself up about it too much, apart from on my own blog – after all this also comes out of trait I have of spontaneity that is very much part of what makes me, me, and brings lots of other things that I am much happier about when I reflect on what I do. But it is just as well that the Lovely Wife is patient with me; in that sense I am very glad to be in debt to her forbearance.

Season’s End

No, this is not about the Marillion album from 1989, good though it may be.

The weather here – at least in South East England – has been pretty poor the last few weeks – dark and raining and feeling increasingly more and more like Autumn, and not even the Indian Summer situation we have been blessed with in some recent years but that dank, depressing, turn on the lights by 4pm kind of autumn that just makes you want to curl up back into bed, because in essence the day just seems, in the parlance of my generation, just a bit naff. Not terrible. Not blizzard conditions. Just a bit nothing, replacing the forlorn hopes of long warm summer evenings sitting in the garden (admittedly getting eaten to death by various biting insects), sipping the cider, smelling the Jasmine and waiting for the shift to change from the swallows and martins (the swifts have long packed and gone in disgust) to the bats – sadly absent this year from our garden it seems. Maybe it is the rain that puts them off too. Perhaps this is some sort of protection from the inhabitants of our common wasp nest in the roof, who have not really bothered us, mainly because we have not been around to be bothered but have instead been hiding in the lounge and wondering what holiday next year might look like.

Seriously, I’m worried about the bats. With the mild winters we have had recently there certainly is enough food around in masses of insects, but this supreme insect eater had been pretty absent where we live while they were pretty reliable visitors before. But while there is disappointment that they have been missing I’ve taken solace in the species of insects all over my herb garden; in particular I have never seen Meadow Brown butterflies in our garden (says something about the state our lawn has achieved, increasing biodiversity at expense of neatness) so that was a lovely surprise this year. We have had a regular gang of four… Juvenile blue tits, that have amused us no end by their boldness, their ability to actually perch (albeit briefly) on the washing line (before slipping and hanging upside down in a surprised but still accomplished manner) and at one point walking on water. They weigh that little when they fledge, bless them. I’m also pretty sure that the Great Tit family that were in our toilet exhaust pipe have come back to feed.

One of the few things that autumn and winter bring that actually keep me happy (other than of course it is almost Christmas, favourite time of the year, and I am including this comment just to annoy the Lovely Wife. Everybody knows that it is not really Christmas until Noddy Holder tells you it is, loudly and brashly….) is that the shyer wild life start to emerge a bit more regularly as the natural foodstuffs become rarer. Suddenly the goldfinches that have pretty much snubbed us all year will rediscover the joys of Niger seed. The foxes will spend more time picking up what they can get and who knows who else will follow their eyes and/or nose and wander into our territory in hope of a meal.

Actually I’m suddenly feeling a lot better about the change of season; there is so much to look forward too, if I just look.

Weighty Problem

I have always had a bit of a weight problem. It came partly out of having three grandmothers.

No, I was not part of a weird early seventies genetic experiment. I had the normal two (if you are lucky enough to have grandmothers – despite what follows they are wonderful things) but I also had a Great Aunt who lived across the road from us. As she had no children of her own I became surrogate grandchild and was expected to pop in every day to see if she was OK. Inevitably she would have been baking – she seemed to be baking all the time – and so the visit was usually into a heady atmosphere of freshly based scone, sandwich cake or, perhaps best of all, apple pie. I have still to find an apple pie its equal. I am not a great one when it comes to regrets but I so wish I’d been as interested in cooking as I am now as she has taken the recipe with her; but (un)fortunately I ate so much of it as a child that maybe I had already used up my universal quota by my early teens. So my parents fed me. My grandparents fed me – they’d grown up in times of hardship and were not going to see their only (or one of very few) grandchild starve (perish the thought). And on top of all of that I had the delicious baked goods production line across the road. I did not have to sneak the sweets and the chips into my diet they were more or less forced on me in some belief I was about to starve.

Those of a certain age will also know that eating in the seventies for a child is not a matter of choice. You eat what you were given on your plate that of course was non-negotiable. But on top of that you have the offerings of additional food, whether it be the freshly baked scones (can you resist? I think not) or the Sunday tea of sandwiches and cake that arrives on Sunday only about an hour and a half after Sunday dinner. On Christmas day, that was just about bearable. But to have that every Sunday, well, it was a bit much. But if you refused, however politely, it was clearly intended by you (and taken as) a deep personal insult. So you stuffed down a mini sausage roll and a slice of egg custard (my grandmother was not up to her sister’s ability in scones or apple pie but her egg custard was a fine thing) and try not to move too much for a while.

Back in the day at least when you were under ten you did not really care too much about the fact you were turning into a little balloon – especially as a lot of children grow by rounding out and then shooting suddenly up. But as I got into my teens and was conspicuously not getting any taller – I reached my adult height at about 12 – I started to have the slow but unerring realization that I was expanding at what I would later think of as Mr Creosote proportions. I think it was one particular day labouring back from the more distant rugby pitches at school that the thought struck me that I was fifteen and weighted fifteen stone. Thinking back to a physics lesson a year before the unpleasant fact dawned on me that at that point I had been fourteen and weighed in at fourteen stone – and even my slightly dodgy maths could see that this was not a tenable progression.

From that point on I started off on a more healthy path – one less sausage roll on Sunday and politely asking before she cooked it that maybe Grandmother could give me pizza rather than pizza and a huge plate of chips – and a lot of walking at college helped (together with no money). The best things that ever came to me in this area were (1) the concept of portion size and (2) one weekend afternoon when some very good friends (Tim, Phil – thanks guys) suggested ‘going for a run’ – and suddenly I found I had an exercise outlet I actually kind of enjoyed and was good enough at that I did not feel embarrassed doing it. And finally I started to feel a little better about myself and if not stop the universe like expansion then at least delay it; aging and the problems that brings is largely inevitable so I’m not even going to look like the person on the front of Men’s Health (but then, very few people do, and I bet he’s not over forty for a start!)

However, there is a darker side to this. I still think of myself as fat, and I think I always will. It does not matter how much weight I lose or how much exercise I do. I’m still ‘fat’. For me, that wound happened as a child and it will never fully heal.

These days I think it is far, far worse, and I see children who you can barely see in profile thinking they are ‘fat’. It is a real problem we have, to try and help people be more healthy and not set them up for problems in later life – and help enjoy the many physical delights that the world offers – you cannot and should not see everything ‘by car’ for instance, there is a real sense of achievement when you find something out of the way because you’ve <gasp> walked to it – but at the same time not make people feel that they are ugly. Because the reality is we are all gorgeous and we should be revelling in that and not always comparing ourselves to others. I really believe that and each of us should think of the people we love and wonder – when was the last time I told them they are beautiful?

[Important Note: The Lovely Wife consistently tries to help me think better of myself – it is what keeps me from despair in my own inabilities. I wish I was able to listen better.]

The Countryside, naturally

One of the most enjoyable things for me about living in the UK and being able to walk pretty much anywhere and – aside from a few hills – do so with a minimum of preparation (never good to be without a waterproof, some water and emergency nuts, but beyond that you normally do not have to go). As was pointed out to me recently there is also little danger of running into any dangerous beasts, although I would be careful of wild boar in the Forest of Dean and at the wrong time of year you could get at least a hard stare from a stag. Usually the most dangerous animal you come across in the British countryside is a farmer’s dog. Although they certainly should not be messed with, the only times I have felt threatened by a dog in adult years has been from working dogs and farmers views on walkers across their land can be variable, although providing you keep to the rights of way on the whole I have had more positive experiences and no one has come after me with a shotgun bellowing ‘ARRRR… Get off me land!!’ yet, although there is always a first time I guess.

 The countryside is an endless source of fascination for me. As anyone who has mistakenly read any of these things before will know, being out and observing nature is a particular pleasure for me and even doing walks you have done many times before always has the opportunity to throw something at you, whether that be startled deer, a fox vanishing into the bushes just as you come around a corner or a cloud of meadow brown butterflies (there seem to be a lot of these particular species around this year, which is no bad thing). But the other thing is that you cannot walk far in the UK before finding something interesting. It might be an earthwork, or a nice cottage or a Second World War pill box, but the countryside is literally covered in things to look at. Because there are only tiny parts of the country where the hand of man is not present, very, very few places indeed.

 It made me laugh some years ago when there are suggestions that places should be put back to their ‘natural’ state. Most places in the UK have not seen its ‘natural’ state for a few thousand years at least, as this part of the country has been continually occupied since at least the Iron Age. There are very few bits of our countryside that are in a truly original state, and even in some of our national parks, looking a bit more carefully you see the old abandoned quarries, the cairns and manmade earthworks, never mind that those rolling grassy hills were originally forest. Now, don’t get me wrong – there are definitely places where there is a compelling argument to put back the type of terrain that was there originally, whether that be restoring wetlands or re-planting forests; but that is a conscious choice and the modification requires our input and planning.

If I want wilderness there are parts of the world where you can still find it if you want to make the effort. But while thinking about this I have realised that the reason I love the countryside here so much is that it melds in a very unique way two things that motivate me – nature and heritage. The two are combined in the landscape in both obvious and more subtle ways. But it is this impact that our ancestors have had and that we continue to have on the landscape that is just fascinating. Even from your armchair, looking at the larger scale Ordinance Survey maps, you can see so much. One of the things I really enjoy about holidaying in the UK is to look at the map where we are staying and try and unravel the story it is telling me, from the shape of streets, the position of the church and its relationship to some abandoned village (probably flattened by the local landowner to improve the view…) endless fun to be had with a little imagination. And it can help you avoid getting lost.

Tales of Intolerance and Inconsistency 

It sometimes strikes me just how inconsistent I am when it comes to nature. I want it there for me to enjoy but most of the time only on my own terms. So we have the joy of decent sized garden to enjoy in the brief fleeting moment that is the British summer. But it has to be on our terms. We decide what plants are supposed to grow in which place and – if we are being conscientious with our gardening at least – any interlopers are ruthlessly removed. Nightly, we participate in a massacre of gastropods as the seemingly unending supply of slugs fall foul of the minefields we have laid for them in protecting the less developed plants they seem so keen to munch. Even the lawn – which now has grass as one of the minority species – while turning up a number of meadow species is not allowed to do its stuff and has to be kept short and tidy – at least when we are expecting anyone to drop around.The fauna is equally invitation only, if we had the say on it. We just about tolerate the grey squirrels as they give me some satisfaction in their frustration that the bird feeder is in exactly the right location to prevent them getting on it via flying leap from any of the fences or trees. The fox that wanders through periodically is virtually welcomed with open arms or at least supressed squeals of delight. But if there is the slightest whiff of a rat, then the feeling is they have to be eliminated (actually I have a soft spot for rats. They are fascinating and intelligent animals, though the fear and loathing they are held in is entirely understandable practically and culturally. I also have trouble forgetting the time a poisoned rat lay, twitching, in the middle of our garden one afternoon. I tried to ignore it, thinking to clean up the corpse a few hours later, only to find the poor thing was still twitching. So I put it out of its misery with a spade. Not a great way to die for any animal.)

  We’re delighted with some of our herbs this year. The Lemon thyme has gone bonkers and flowering energetically, as a result attracting hordes of honey bees and for the first time in our garden Meadow Brown butterflies. Bees are very welcome. But as reinforced recently by a trip to the cinema to see a Ian McKellen masterclass in ‘Mr Holmes’ wasps are not. Especially as they are starting to get aggressive and definitely have a thing for beer (I’m not up to double figures quite yet in terms of wasp drownings but I’m sure I’ll get there by the end of the summer, I’d rather not kill them, but if they are persistent there is not much choice). I’m not a wasp fan. Which is a bit of a shame as they seem to have built/be building a nest up in our roof – at least it looks like that is what is happening based on the activity under the eaves. What happens now rather depends on the insects. As long as they stay out of the main part of the house I can live with the nest being there now and will remove it in the winter. If they start becoming a pest more direct action will be needed. I do not want a repeat of an unsavoury episode when I used to rent half a house in Wraysbury and came back from a weekend away to find that a nest in the roof had been fumigated; and my room was completely covered with dead or dying wasps. Not the best thing to get home to, but then at times that house was a complete nightmare – even more so than the flat I had in Reading which was in the Red Light district and where one weekend there suddenly appeared an illegal rave in the back garden. That was an interesting evening (and early morning) but for another day. At the moment, the latest animal neighbours are skating on thin ice. Time will tell if they fall through it.