Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The North Wind doth blow ....

Winter and the snow has arrived - well at least for a few days.  The UK Midlands has been as cold as the North of Scotland while the surrounding areas have been at least a couple of degrees warmer.  So we have turned up the heating as well as wearing extra layers.

After a night of snowfall, we woke to find the garden transformed into a winter wonderland - well that is the most snow we've seen for a while.

While most plants were flattened the Quake Grass was able to take the weight of the snow, in spite of its fragile appearance.

 B made the most of the opportunity and built a mini snowman - I don't think she feels the cold.


And of course we make sure to feed the birds.  As well as the sunflower seeds, sprinkles, bird seeds and suet blocks, they get to feast on the cooking apples that we have grown.   The freezer is loaded with Bramley cooking apples and  friends and neighbours have been supplied, so the birds make good use of the surplus, when the conditions turn wintry.

The usual small garden birds and blackbird population were joined by  winter visitors from Scandinavia - Fieldfares.  This photograph is hazy because we were inside, taking the pictures through the kitchen windows.

And of course, today it has rained so most of the snow has disappeared!  But we shall still put out food for the birds, because it is still very cold.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Making the most of the weather

The weather has settled down and we are enjoying a spell of dry, bright, 'very' cold weather.  Combining this with B's work shift this week, she completes her shift by noon or a little later, we decided we would take advantage of the weather and go for some winter walks.

On Wednesday, B and I visited  Shugborough  a stately home about four miles from our home, and run by the National Trust.  Because we are members of the NT, we get free admission to the hundreds of sites they are responsible for in the UK  (The Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland is another site in their care.)  We decided to enjoy a meal at the cafe before we went for a walk.  We chose to look at the Formal Gardens, designed centuries ago and neatly manicured in comparison to the rest of the grounds.  With the Sun coming from behind the clouds as the afternoon progressed, it was ideal for getting photographs of the Autumn colours.

A Bridge over the lake which was created to be viewed from the House

Another view of the 'lake' overlooking the parklands, many of the trees still with their Autumn colours.

On Thursday, B and I chose a different type of environment, two different wildlife sites. 

First we travelled to Doxey Marshes, a site managed by the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, sandwiched between a large housing estate and the M6 motorway.  The only reason it has remained free of building developments is the nature of the land - it would be tremendously expensive to drain, and not very attractive for residential development so its safe for the flora and fauna for the moment.
In spite of the noise of the traffic, it attracts a large number of wetland birds. 

    A grey heron waiting patiently to catch its dinner.

                                          Swans , hoping we had some food for them!

B and I then travelled to another wetland site, Aqualate Mere, cared for by Natural England.
A large shallow lake, about one mile long and averaging 3 to 4 foot deep, it is surrounded by reed beds and natural woodland and attracts large numbers of birds and mammals. We particularly wanted to see a Starling Murmuration, so we timed our visit just before sunset. In the Autumn and Winter, tens of thousands of starlings accumulate and put on a spectacular aerial display as they look for a roosting place among the reed beds.

I took still photos so it's hard to imagine the fluidity of the movement of the great mass of starlings.  B took a video using her Smartphone.  We are planning to visit again next week, and this time I intend to take a different camera and hopefully sort out how to take a video.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Highly Recommended - subjectively of course

For several years F. and I have been season tickets holders for the Keele Concert Society.  Keele is a University based about 20 miles from where we live, so it is easily accessible, being closer than Birmingham, where we would need to go to attend  classical music concerts.  Throughout the Autumn and Spring terms, a series of concerts is offered, covering a wide range of styles and all performed by  professional musicians. 

This season started with Foden's Brass Band performing several pieces including the Planets Suite (Holst).  After the performance the audience was invited to visit the University Observatory (  The intention was to look at Planets through the 31cm refractor dating back to 1874.  This telescope is not used for current research, the department having more up-to-date telescopes, but members of the public are welcomed at set times during the week to look at the skies with this ancient equipment.  On this night, because the sky was clear and the Moon was almost full, it was too bright to see  the only planets that would have been in view, so the telescope was trained on the edge of the Moon. It was the clearest, most close-up view of the moon that I have experienced, so it was worth the walk to the Observatory, even though it was cold.

This week, the concert was given by an ensemble named Voces8.  If you enjoy 'a capella' music then it is worth looking up their website to get an idea of their travels throughout Europe, North America and AsiaYouTube provides many videos of their music.  They sing a wide variety of styles including jazz and musicals.  The 'highly recommended' is based on my own enjoyment of the evening - one of the best concerts I have had the privilege of attending.

P.S.For those on the  U.S. East Coast, Voces8, have close connections to Harrisonburg VA, where they are giving a concert at the Eastern Mennonite School at the end of February, 2018.

Monday, November 6, 2017

How times change

It's that time of year when in the UK Guy Fawkes is remembered with bonfires and fireworks.

As a child I recall children going round the streets and knocking at doors asking for a 'penny for the guy', hoping to get enough money to buy some fireworks.  They would have an effigy of Guy Fawkes which they dressed in old clothes, usually transported by pushchair, awaiting his fate on the top of the bonfire.  There were no laws forbidding the sale of fireworks to youngsters. The 'celebrations' were usually a family affair, organised bonfires were a rarity.

We carried on the tradition when we had our own children.  F. took charge - preparing a bonfire in the back garden, buying as many fireworks as he could afford, and being chief of the proceedings.  I had the job of keeping the children safe while the fireworks were being let off, and cooking suitable snacky food - baked potatoes and sausages.  Sparklers were a must and the children enjoyed waving these through the air, watching the patterns they made.  There were some organised firework displays and as we lived on the opposite side of the valley from the local raceway we had a good view of their firework display from the bedroom windows.

Now the family has grown up we don't bother with fireworks and F. sees bonfire night as a good time to burn the garden trimmings that are too large to compost down.  Fewer people have home bonfires and fireworks (a consequence of gardens in new homes getting smaller? ) and organised firework displays complete with funfairs and food vans are well attended.

This year bonfire night happened at the weekend  so there were three nights when people celebrated.  We went shopping to our usual supermarket on Saturday evening and arrived at the car park just as the  people were leaving the display organised by the local Scouts.  The supermarket car park which usually has very few cars at that time of day was crowded with cars that had been parked there by people attending the firework display.  Now families were piling into their vehicles - it wasn't quite mayhem but it was an entertainment watching the manoeuvring as everybody tried to get their car out of the parking space and back onto the road.  We stayed still, watching and waiting till the car park was less busy before we tried to park. 

On Sunday, F went on a journey to the other side of town.  He had to cross the road which runs past the County Showground.  On the return journey, he made a detour because the traffic on the road to the showground was one long traffic jam - people attending the organised fireworks display at the showground  - he didn't fancy driving several miles in slow-moving, bumper to bumper traffic.

It's easy to watch spectacular fireworks displays on the television nowadays for New Year's Eve or Royal Weddings, but I think you don't get the same atmosphere as watching fireworks live. Of course, the best firework display I've attended was the one put on at the Oshkosh Airshow - that was spectacular - but I don't have to photographs to prove it.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

A birthday treat

It was B's birthday this week, and she has a week's holiday so the family went out for the day to a National Trust property called  Biddulph Grange Garden , a large Victorian Garden, but with lots of different planting styles.  It was created by James Bateman  who travelled the world collecting plant specimens for his large garden.

The weather was quite warm, but drizzly, and the grounds looked lush - the garden is on a hilly site and the different styles in the garden are connected by paths, tunnels, high hedges and rock-work - JB was fond of geology too. 

Just a few of the photos taken on the day.

This is a view from the terrace of the house, the borders being very formal plantings in a Victorian style.

The lake, complete with large areas of water lilies, lies beyond the formal borders and is stocked with large carp and waterbirds.

The stumpery has been renovated with new supplies of oak tree stumps - ferns establish themselves among the stumps.

If you use your imagination you can find all sorts of creatures amongst the stumps - we thought these looked like two birds.

The Chinese garden - the temple is being renovated so  surrounded by scaffolding it didn't take a good picture.  This bridge is painted in the same colours as the temple will be when the renovations are complete.

High above the bridge is a small shelter, in the same colours. 

We spent a couple of hours walking around the garden but still didn't manage to see all the different features.  We plan to visit again, perhaps in a different season.

On the journey back we stopped for a birthday meal and dined at an Indian Restaurant - another place we plan to visit again.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Spring is here

There have been a few flowers in the garden since January, but they are tucked away in the borders and are not always easy to see from the house.
Two months later we have lots of brightly coloured spring flowers, and to make sure that I can see them from the kitchen window when I am washing up the dishes or preparing vegetables, B has come up with a solution  - put some in pots, on a garden table outside the kitchen window.

We cheated a little. The hyacinths and pansies B planted up, but we bought the daffodils and snowdrops ready planted from the clearance section of the  garden centre.  I even managed to get myself in this picture.

These spring bulbs were planted at the front of the herb patch, which is opposite to the kitchen window, so there is plenty of colour still to come when the tulips are ready in  a few weeks time.

F did the major pruning jobs taming the larger shrubs and cutting the Apricot trees to a manageable size.  This year we are hoping for fruit - we lost last year's crop to a late frost.

G mulched the rhubarb patch with leaf mould last autumn to protect the crowns from the worst of the winter weather and the rhubarb s almost ready to harvest.  Some will have to be frozen as it is producing lots more stems than usual - I think the leaf mould fed as well as protected the plants.

We are looking forward to a more settled summer than in 2016, so that the plants don't get confused. B has made good use of the small greenhouse and it is filled with flower and vegetable seedlings ready for planting out in a few weeks time - hopefully. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Taking Stock

I am always surprised that being retired seems busier than when I was working full time. One of the many ways my time gets consumed is  studying with the OU, and the last two years have been demanding of more time than I can find so I have decided that I will take a break from my studies.

In trying to find more study time over the past two years I have cut down on taking part in the book club at the local library - I can find an hour once a month for the meeting but reading the chosen book from cover to cover is something that I did not always succeed in doing.  I meet up with colleagues for a pub lunch once a month and I've managed less than half the meetings in the past twelve months.  Other friends , I know I am neglecting, because I don't contact them for a chat or to meet for coffee.  I haven't attended all the concerts this season run by University of Keele Concert Society, even though I have a season ticket.

The things that take up my time are looking after home and family and that is too important to cut down on.  I also have a volunteer role delivering library books to housebound and that also matters to me.

So,taking time out from studying is my way of achieving a better work life balance.  I hope to read more novels, garden, meet up with friends, have more hours sleep, and post on the blog more often.

It may sound perverse, but the day after I informed my OU tutor of my decision to take a study break I enrolled with 'FutureLearn' to study for three hours a week, over the next six weeks on the topic of the six mass extinctions, a free course run by the University of Cape Town.  It somehow fits in with the studying I have been doing since 2009.