30 April 2013

two swans, six eggs, one hundred pages

Sometimes I feel negligent.  Deviate for a few days, a week, maybe longer even, and things move on. I hadn't even noticed, for example, that the swans were building a nest - this one just next to the bridge that crosses the canal between Mile End Park and Meath Gardens, where they normally nest. It was last Thursday that I saw it.  The pair were feeding and the six eggs were exposed, neat as can be, unlike the general messiness of the nest with plastic bags and packets tucked into the reeds. I was on my way to the market and had planned to sit in the sun for a while on the way home with a cup of coffee from the corner cafe and read a book.  And that is exactly what I did.  The coffee was good, the sun was hot and I was on a mission to finish a book that was due back at the library.  

I like Meath Gardens for lots of reasons, not least because it has lots of exits..  There are some allotments nearby, a small play space for children, a sprinkling of spring flowers, some very old black poplars and a eucalyptus tree, planted to commemorate cricketer King Cole that leans at an impossible angle. It's busy enough, but not too busy, even when the local secondary school is using it as a playing field. There's a particular bench that I like because it gets the sun full blast and you can actually put your feet up as it's more or less guaranteed that nobody else will want to share the space.  On this hot, sunny day, a few people ambled by with their dogs, a thrush pecked around, a young woman - Italian maybe, put up a poster for her lost cat and asks people whether they have seen him.  (Oh Hernesto, Hernesto, I hope you have gone home by now.)

And that's how I spent a delightful hour reading my book and eating sticky unwashed red grapes with none of the guilt I usually feel if I read novels in the middle of the day. I didn't manage a hundred pages  but I made some progress. Then my son found me and we cycled home together, only stopping to look again at the swans and share the news of the six eggs to another passer-by. 

I felt like I'd been on holiday,  I even got a little sunburnt.  And I finished the book before the library closed.

28 April 2013

the 2013 asparagus post

The last time I looked there was nothing to see. Judging by the length of the spears today, they must have started to come through about a week ago, around a month later than last year. I gave half to Emily of rhubarb fame, and promised some to the lovely Chinese lady who brought me some lettuce plant.

Tea today: eggs on pureed nettle tops and the sweetest asparagus dippers; rhubarb crumble for pudding.  Very good indeed.

27 April 2013

thirty minutes in april

There are times when April can be unforgiveably fickle, but this year I think we can overlook the way the day changes from sunshine so strong that the lime green of the euphorbia hurts your eyes to...

View from the shed, West Ham allotment

quickly abandoning the tools to hide in the shed among the ivy, sheltering from the hail storm and the blast of cold. 

Pea plants and hail, West Ham Allotment

It has been such a pleasure to be out and about in the open air these past few days.  If the pea plants are happy today, so am I.

16 April 2013

five and a half miles

View from One Tree Hill

It was Easter Monday, ages ago now. We'd been promising ourselves for ages that we would walk the River Wandle one day, but you really need to get up and away more quickly than we are used to on cold Bank Holidays. So we checked London's Lost Rivers, and settled on the River Peck. Five and a half miles it said, easy for us to reach on the Overground, manageable on a cold day when sunshine was promised later. We thought it would be a breeze to follow the river from the Thames to the source, the opposite way to the instructions in the book.  We might even get to the Hornimaan for a cup of tea before it closed. Little did we know...

It wouldn't be a proper walk without lichen and barbed wire

There is something very familiar about the old Surrey Docks - it's a sort of non-identical twin to Wapping and Limehouse on the north side of the river where we come from. Only sort of, and I've been trying to understand why. It is something to do with "home", the way we look differently at the places we know well, even when they have changed and continue to change almost immeasurably, that familiarity with long-inhabited space. Somehow your own litter and urban chaos is more acceptable. Even before we reached the sluice where the Peck and its cousin the Earl's Sluice meet the Thames, with the north easterly cutting across our noses, he was halfway into old monologues: the fiasco of the unimaginative architecture built around the old dock, the ridiculousness of planters filled with dying plants on houseboats, the irritating tinkling from boats in the marina, and, oops, the treachery of badly-laid paving stones.  I know his indignation is justified but I just laugh out loud because I've heard it all before.

Tide Gauge House

Around half an hour after leaving the station and inspecting the remnants of the docks, little buildings scattered here and there and fabulous bits of engineering, we actually began to follow the back to front route: down back streets and past the Earl Pumping Station, along past the magnificent railway arches to the road that cuts through...except it's blocked off and we didn't have a map, just the plan in the book - so we had to retrace our steps and take a long cut that takes us up an ugly road that goes on forever swimming against the tide of Millwall fans on their way to the Den.  Reader, I confess I nearly caught a stray bus. Some time later - minutes, hours, weeks, who knows - we reached the main road, bought some chocolate in case we never found our way home, passed some lovely villas, a green, Asylum Road. We turned the book this way and that as we tried to reverse the instructions in our head and finally found our way out of the labrynth and back on the path to the Rye, Peckham Rye where William Blake saw those angels.  The nearest we had come to any sign of a river was the pumping station.  Not even a manhole cover in the road encouraged us with the promise of a hidden river.

Light at the end of the tunnel
Then it all changed.  The west end of Peckham Rye becomes a flat iron of green which widens out into the park.  The sun came out, and there in the distance, an oasis, a cafe. Never has coffee and carrot cake tasted so good. We'd been walking for hours in an enchanted back-to-front maze and we knew we were soon going to find our stream, our river, not far away. And there it was, just inside the gates of the park, a bit slack at first, then as we moved along, a tiny gurgling splashy stream.  You'd have thought we'd found the source of the Nile.  No wonder Blake saw angels.

The Peck

We followed the stream river through the park until it disappeared again, then started to climb uphill, at first gently, past the waterworks, a neat little estate of brick cottages, then, yes, another litter strewn manhole, across the road and into the woody nature reserve.  The path became steeper and steeper as we walked up through the woods and finally came out on top of One Tree Hill with its view across south London towards the Thames. And of course we got out our binoculars and scanned the horizon for familiar landmarks: Tower Bridge became our surrogate for home.

Six hours. Half an hour later we were back in Mile End.  Honest to goodness, there are times when you might envy a crow.

15 April 2013

forty thousand bees

Spot the queen

"The bees might not be very happy today. It's been a tough winter for them", this from the expert beekeeper to the novices - not me, I was just there to observe, appropriately suited and booted.  As it happens, the bees weren't angry. I think that just like the rest of us they were glad to see some sun and feel some warmth in the air, though in their case a little puff of smoke tends to have a soothing effect.

There was a sense of apprehension nevertheless. Many hives  have lost thirty to forty percent of the bees this winter, and there had been little visible activity in these four hives.  The novices were told to look for the queen, drones, and brood and weren't quite sure what they might find when they looked inside the hives.  Then the work started.

Smoking the bees

The idea today was to move purposefully so that the bees weren't upset by the fiddling around in the hives, but in spite of this the atmosphere was calm.  The frames were checked systematically then each was returned in strict order. They needed to work quickly, which needed confidence and knowledge: some had more than others. 

Capped cells - sign of brood

Some old frames were taken out for burning, and other super frames which had been left in with last year's honey were also removed. Queens were identified, some more easily because they had been marked with a blue spot. Nobody claimed to see any drones or princesses. Redundant frames were removed, replaced by clean ones.

Now spot the queen

By the time the frames were back in the right place, there was no more than a gentle buzzing around the hives while the church bells clanged in the background.  The beekeeper still looked anxious.  "Has anyone been stung? No?  Well it's about time you were, don't you think?" Then he looked round the garden at the trees: wild plum, - they'll like that; hornbeam - when will that flower?; daffodils - not much use.  If it's a good week and the fine weather keeps up, those bees will multiply.  They'll check next week.

Bees buzzing by

We dropped into the Mudchute plot on the way home.  No asparagus yet, but plenty of flowers for a posy for a friend.  On the way back to the car, we saw a thrush and a pretty little wheatear in Millwall Park on the grass, a summer migrant perhaps on his way to find a mate.

Allotment posy: hyacinths, narcissus, ivy, wild plum, aspidistra leaves

In the late afternoon, on the bus to visit my friend, we could see that the park was heaving with people making the most of the warmth. The scent of the hyacinths overwhelmed the upper deck and I got to talking to the man next to me about his twenty years living in Japan, how the people celebrated cherry blossom time with parties and drinking, the reflection of the mountains in the pools of gardens where he lived, the calligraphy competition on which the children spent an hour a day for one week a year.

Later that night when we got home, I asked John what it was that he liked about the bees.  Well, they're amazing, he said, forty thousand bees, one organism.

11 April 2013

twenty thousand years

As I have been pottering about these last few months in a house that has times seemed at times to be as cold as an ice age cave, I have thought about the twenty thousand year old pieces we saw at the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum: the swimming reindeer; the lion man; the small carved pictures of animals on bone; the fat, fertile women; tiny little pieces that to an untutored eye looked like any old piece of stone. Lump-in-the-throat moving and mysterious. What impelled those people to go beyond the sheer practicality of finding food and staying warm?   Were the depictions of fat, fertile women celebratory or appellant? What comfort did they get from their work?

Binding off - at last

I thought about all this as I sat next to the fire in the back bedroom on those freezing afternoons and increasingly, as I could not face getting out on the bike or walking in the biting wind, I took my own comfort in fabric and yarn: knitting a fat scarf for my brother, the quilting on a small piece I started months ago, making a hussif with instructions from Merchant and Mills, cutting out and sewing a dress at a local class under the tutelage of a teacher straight out of the May Martin school of perfection.  I learned how to adjust a pattern so that it actually fitted me across the front and the back. I started to read more - lazy, undisciplined, comfort reading for the most part, but it was good all the same - and much as I hated reading the Hobbit, I at least learnt the difference between goblins and pixies and elves.  On those days when even I couldn't find an excuse to stay indoors, we went out and about to look at drawings, sculpturesphotoscollagescuriosities. I went to the ballet and a musical for the first time in years.

Cutting out lining - incorrectly as it turned out

I know I won't forget this winter for years, but as it finally segues into spring, seedlings come up, coughs ease, moths wake up, blankets and woolens are washed and stored and it's impossible to ignore the grime on the kitchen windows, I want to be able to remember when I look back that it wasn't all bad.

07 April 2013

ten degrees

It's quite remarkable the difference that a day's sunshine  makes. Yesterday, within a couple of hours of arriving, we had tidied up this plot, dug out the bits of couch grass that had invaded from the paths and forked the soil over to get it ready. Today we went back and planted the potatoes, five beds worth - is that too many, I wonder?  Sharpe's Express, Rocket, Pentland Javelin, Wilja, Charlotte, Marfona, Cara, Colleen, and some mystery spuds that had lost their labels. And there are some more of last year's colourful ones to go in too - the burgundies, blacks and Vitelotta. We shall be eating spuds for ever. With parsnips, I hope because those seeds have gone in too.

Once the hard graft was done, we admired the intensive growing of mustard greens and broad beans by our neighbours under green netted tunnels and agreed we couldn't be arsed with all that faff, listened to our friends' plans to make soup from a swede that looked remarkably like Worzel Gummidge's head, decided to let the nettles grow just a little longer between the raspberry canes - nettle soup perhaps, good for the blood, I hear, checked on the purple sprouting broccoli.

Each year I wonder whether it really is worth the effort.  Then the sun comes out, the deck chair is set up, a bit of reading or knitting or dozing happens, hateful magpies lurk like gangsters, parakeets squawk, and a robin sings; and deja vu snapshots are taken of tools against the door, watering cans hanging off the railings, a rhubarb forcer waiting on some decent rhubarb. In due course, the asparagus will come up, the first green leaves of the potatoes will poke through the soil in neat little rows, the seeds of lettuce and rocket will sprout, weather forecasts will be checked and cursed, and we'll know the answer.

03 April 2013

short and sweet

Tucked away downstairs in one of my too-large collection of cookery books is an old letter I found when I brought a book home from a local second-hand shop, long since gone. Sent in the early days of the war from an address on the other side of the park, the little note, neatly handwritten with fountain pen, tells of toothache, the goldfish and how fearful the writer is of the blackout, hence the rush to get to the postbox. At least that's how I remember it - I may be wrong, for I am not quite sure where it is.  I think of this letter, the importance of post cards, and how we will forget those short notes we text, or tweet, or write on people's blogs.  Lost, as so many things are. So, because I  belong to some project that is preserving blogs, I hope that this exchange between my friend and me may not be lost quite so easily:

Her (20:39): I think I've put my glasses in the washing machine.

Her (20:49): Just stopped machine.  Drained it out. Searched through sopping washing. No glasses!!!!! Not sure if I am relieved or not.  You see what happened was I bent down, glasses fell out if (sic) top of shirt where I always tuck them.  I remember thinking must pick those up.  But can't remember where I was. One time was in the washing.....the other time the fridge....

Me (20:51): Why does this sound so familiar?

Her: (20:52): Thank God I saw you today so we could share such traumas. So... I am now going to take your advice and relax.  Use my spare glasses and wait for my memory to come back x

Her (20:55): Well I have retraced my movements approximately 3 times and keep feeling my face to check they are not on my face and frisking myself to no avail. (Husband)  has sat down again onto sofa with a deep sigh and I am going to join him.... Until I do the retracing thing again...

Me (20:57): Have you laughed? This is so funny

Her (20:58): Yes I laughed a lot when you replied.  Why does this all sound so familiar? And actually to (husband's) credit is up again looking.  We could be here all night! x

The following morning, we resumed:
Her (08:17) Just about to go to hairdressers and resigned myself to the fact that I would have to wear comedy glasses and the I FOUND MY GLASSES! They were on top of a pile of books in the hallway.  I have absolutely no recollection at all of putting them there.  Lucky I'm not in charge of 24 five year olds!!!X

This makes me laugh so much, I can't tell you.  Which is just as well, because shortly afterwards I found my own specs...

02 April 2013


The potatoes have been chitting for ages.  They would normally be planted on Good Friday, but it doesn't seem warm enough yet.  In the meantime, I've decided that it really is time to sow my tomatoes and peppers.

A lovely way to spend a sunny hour. And who'd have thought a bathroom could be such a multifunctional space?