Saturday, 28 March 2009

Hyacinths on the Fen

For one weekend only, timed to coincide with the clocks moving forward, a small fenland farm on the outskirts of Cambridge opens it's doors to the public.

Stretching out over a 2 acre site, the row upon row of Hyacinths lie like candy sherbet, earthed up against the black fen soil.

Old Mr. Ship holds the National collection of Hyacinths, some 200 varieties, some of which are hanging onto their very existence, thanks to the efforts of this one man.

In a cold wind that whistles across a flat patchwork of fields, long straight farm tracks and deep ditches, a small group of people follow the old boy around like lovelorn puppies, hanging on to his every word.

Stories, knowledge and passion flows out of Mr. Ship in abundance, a rare breed amidst a field of rare breeds, stopping periodically between the rows, he picks a few flower stems to pass around, making sure we have all noted the shape of petal, the history of each cultivar and the subtle differences in the perfumes.

Dutch nurseries cultivated 2000 varieties in the 18th century to service the flamboyant needs of the Victorians, today only a small remnant of those original cultivars remain. Who would haver thought that a windswept 2 are plot in the Cambridgeshire fens would hold such beautiful gems, teetering on the brink of production.

Every word Mr. Ship speaks is snatched away in the wind, melting with the rain into the damp dark earth beneath our feet. It's all in his head, no books, no thesis, no dreaming spires.

Between bouts of hail and heavy showers we take shelter under the corrugated metal roof of an outbuilding, drinking tea out of polystyrene cups, chatting and buying plants off the back of a tractor.

A small group of Linnets bounces across a loose hedge at the far end of the field. A few brave souls brace the elements, walking between the lines of flowers, marking down their 'wants' on a yellow order form.

As we leave with armfuls of gaudy blooms, the dull thud of a shotgun scatters the crows and we back track along an endless narrow farm track deeper into nowheresville.

Looking over my shoulder I see the ribbons of Hyacinths receding into the dirty puddles and slanting showers, until all I see is wet ditches and a rough road slicing through the black fen.

Monday, 23 March 2009

The flower man cometh.

As we fill our barrows with fresh mulch, a tight muscle of darkening cloud hustles in on the strengthening wind, whipping the loose wood chip and dry soil at our feet into a dizzy whirlpool. Propping ourselves against our shovels momentarily, we look up and nod, murmuring with begrudging gratitude the arrival of a period of scrappy weather, the wet release of a sudden downpour, the west flank of the mainland shouldering a series of nagging westerlies pulsing in off the Atlantic.

The north west through the mid west U.S is beginning its week with a taste of severe weather, thunder storms, flooding, snow and possible tornadoes. How's that for spring weather? From this point on in the gardening calender we will be seeing multiple plant species coming into flower. Over the past week or so, carpets of Anemone 'blanda', white Wood Anemones, neat cushions of purple and white Violets, statuesque Crown Imperial Lillies warming against the white brick buildings, and over this weekend a rash of Snakes Head Fritillaries have come up through the old orchard and into the little path side meadow.

Planted in the mid 80's, each year they expand their range a little bit further afield. One of the jobs that I carry out on a weekly basis is to pick a bunch of flowers for the Presidents office. Today I went for the spring posy option, nipping out the long flower stalks from the established clumps of Primroses, cutting the fresh growth from the flowering Current (Ribes), the pink and purple flowers of Lungwort (Pulmonaria), and the cream and yellow trumpets of miniature Daffodils.

The result is very pleasing, fresh, and above all else hopeful.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Southern Magnolia Blues.

Resting up in the dappled shade of a handsome Magnolia grandiflora, a retro style 'easy rider' found a perfect partner in this stunning tree. Native to the South Eastern United States, it can reach up to 30 meters in height, and it's cream flowers open up to to a whopping 30cm across, intoxicating the thick summer air with a sweet perfume. Here it is, our pride and joy, on UK soil, on a bright March morning, the state tree of Mississippi. I think it deserves some Delta Blues to make it feel at home. On the top is John Lee Hooker with 'Boom Boom', and below is Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones with 'Hootchie Cootchie Man'. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Drab, moi?

Clouded Drab

Ever see a man cycling along the road pulling a moth trap behind him in a bike trailer?, you have?, well that was probably me. I've set my nocturnal base of operations up in the gardeners compound, and my little actinic light trap is at this very moment dueling it out with the adjacent car park lighting and the low temperatures. Fingers crossed!

Common Quaker

Last night was my first go this year at running my trap overnight, and I was pleasantly surprised this morning to discover three moths resting amongst the egg boxes inside the trap. Actually I nearly missed one which had cunningly hidden itself between the base of the light fitting and the underside of the trap lid. Lesson 1, check everywhere!

The amazing invisible moth turned out to be a 'Clouded Drab', great name eh? One of my favourite moth species actually, and in my opinion not so drab. Your first thought is of a dark, unremarkable moth, but it has some nice fine line work, a rich chestnut bloom to the wings, an indistinct grey dusting (clouded?) and an overall rough texture which belies it's comical name.

The other two occupants were both Common Quakers. Both photos above were taken in March 2006. I'll try to post this weeks shots over the next few days.

Monday, 16 March 2009


Small Tortoiseshell on plum blossom.

Well it's officially sprung, that most eagerly awaited of seasons is upon us. Today was a day for parading about in our t-shirts, and a day for feeling in much need of a tidy haircut. The lawn mowers hummed in the sweetly scented Spring air, and professor Yaffle chuckled loudly to himself as we mulched, weeded and spruced.

Crocus fire!

During the lunch break I disappeared down to the orchard and compost heaps to try and stalk the first butterflies of the year, of which their were a fair few. Fluttering about on the warm dry ground and up in the plum blossom were Comma, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Brimstone.

Tiny pollen coated beetles inside a sun warmed Daffodil.

I crawled along on all fours, squirming on my belly, tut-tutting at the restless Comma's as I attempted to get near enough for some decent photos, but they were having non of it. At one point a Comma landed on my head, I felt it's wings beating, and as I looked on the ground in front of me I could see my shadow, a camera in my hand and a butterfly on my head!

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Last night's catch.

I had the moth trap running for a few hours last night. With these mild overnight temperatures there is always a chance of catching something, even this early in the season. This was the result of my efforts. One moth, I wasn't disappointed as I didn't expect to catch anything in such a short space of time.

This little guy is a 'Hebrew Character', so called for the distinctive markings on the wings.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Favourite books - part 2.

Christmas 1976 I opened my 'big' present to reveal a green plastic banana board with narrow roller skate trucks and red wheels. Other small presents scattered beneath the fairy lights and glowing pine needles contained the safety gear, a bright yellow helmet and a crude elasticated set of pads.

An old photo of this momentous childhood memory exists in one of my parents photograph albums. I can just about remember doing 180 degree kick turns on the sloped driveway, lying down on my back and whizzing downhill, 'coffin' style, or looking on in horror as the ball bearings trickled out of the wheels and onto the rough tarmac.

In 'The Answer is Never', Jocko Wayland charts the skateboard's history, from crude toy with clay wheels in the 1960's, through to the huge global industry that it has become today. Part document of skateboardings evolution, from the search and destroy antics of the Z-Boys, a bunch of renegade surf rats who patrolled the dirty water breaks of Venice and Santa Monica(Dogtown), to the mass media frenzy of the X games, and part personal journey from the wilds of Colorado, where Weyland began riding a wooden half pipe with only the birds and animals for company, to the 33 year old attempting to jump a set of steps on the streets of New York.

I suppose for me it was a guaranteed interesting read, but because skateboarding has helped mold and change popular culture in so many ways, be that in music, design, art, sport or fashion, there is much to enjoy in this book for everyone.

A lot of heart has gone into putting this book together, and Weyland's passion and understanding for the subject matter breaths through every page. Even if you never step on a skateboard or attempt to paddle into a breaking wave, you can always connect with the reckless immediacy of youth and dream of what it must be like to fly, to break the bonds of gravity and exist completely in the briefest of moments. No history, no future, just water, air and concrete.

I still ride today, even at the age of 41, kick turning back and forth on the concrete quarter pipe at the local skate park, where my young son puts me to shame as he 'drops in', launching himself down a six foot wall of sloping concrete. I can only marvel at such fearlessness and accept what these old unforgiving bones refuse to do.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

A handful of weeds and a head full of tunes - episode 1.

Another day working in the garden, and another 100 tunes, here is a wee slice from today's playlist....

The high lonesome spiritual 'Drifting too far from the shore', taken from the little known album 'Old & in the Way'. Recorded live in 1974, with the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia on banjo. This has some lovely close part harmonies sung into a single mike. Warm timeless bluegrass at it's best.

Danish singer songwriter, Tina Dico, sings the title track from her album 'Count to Ten'. Great voice that washes over you quite nicely in a late night coffee in hand kind of way.

Cracking stuff, sounding great on the headphones. '(I'm not your) Steppin' Stone', the Monkees give it some heartfelt spite on this track, taken from the album ' More of the Monkees'

"Scotland gets it's brains from the Herring, said grandpa, and we all nodded our heads in complete incomprehension." The brilliant deadpan humour of the late great poet performer, Ivor Cutler. From the album 'Jammy Smears' comes 'Life in a Scotch Sitting Room Vol.2 episode 6'. You won't be able to eat fish soup in quite the same way again. If you haven't got any Cutler, all I can say is,why?

Let the banners fly!

15 feet off terra firma a gardener checks his angles before securing a crossbeam bearing a six foot long silk banner. Like a mountaineer striking an heraldic pose on the roof of the world, spearing the thin air in a timeless moment, he offers his fragile thoughts at the edge of space.

Hazel rods scratching the sky, drag against the prevailing winds.

Cloud and silk traveling together

The point of absolute understanding. Balance.

Thanks must go out to Phil for these great images.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Favourite books

Okay, so Chris Priestley and Paul May have ploughed a furrow that I'm just going to have to follow in my own inimitable style. No photos of much cherished books gathering dust on portly book shelves here, just cold crisp web images of books that I have enjoyed not just once, but have returned to for second, third and sometimes more helpings.

Sara Wheeler's 'Terra Incognita' comes under the second helping category, I would have probably read it more times had I not lent it out, and not surprisingly I didn't get it back. The book follows Wheeler to Antarctica under the Writers and Artists programme,where the lone writer(Woo1) spent six weeks living with, and observing the various international teams based in this most inhospitable, beautiful and thought provoking of landscapes that this overpopulated planet has to offer.

Wheeler offers a funny, moving and detailed description of her experiences, and for me the most interesting and effecting are the passages that hark back to the golden age of Antarctic exploration. She effortlessly opens up a chilling portal to the ghosts of the men who strived to conquer the most challenging environment on Earth, wearing little more than what you or I would wear on a nippy winters day.

Inspirational, sad, and truly barking mad! This and her other book 'Cherry', about the life and adventures of Apsley Cherry Garrard, who wrote 'The Worst Journey in the World', kept me riveted, entertained, and always wanting more.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Last weeks comics.

New Avengers - The Reunion no.1 (of 4)

Last Thursday my comic book bill came to about £18. Is that a lot?, it certainly felt like it. My hard earned cash got me eight floppies, three of those broke the £3 price tag. However, every time I set out with the intention of reining it in I invariably come back with something new that I've been hearing about online or from the podcasts, eg..,,, and from comic book bloggers like

My risky buy this week was 'New Avengers-The Reunion', part one of a four issue mini series from Marvel. I know nothing about The Avengers, yet I was drawn in by the Jo Chen artwork on the cover and by some helpful exposition on the first page.

I really enjoyed it, despite my ignorance. I liked the sound of humans being abducted by aliens and replaced by alien impersonators, I liked the artwork and the colours, and I especially liked the bit where Mockingbird practiced her darts skills with a deadly syringe. It just goes to show that all that time spent playing darts in the pub as a student wasn't a waste of time. Don't start screaming at me for making things up, I'm only hypothesizing.

Echo no.7

Next up is Echo by Terry Moore. I have allowed myself to break the spine of issue no.7 now that I have bought issue 10, I have to say that this thing just keeps getting better and better. The story whips you along, time melts away and all too soon you find yourself at the end of the book. I had to go back to look at the artwork because I hardly noticed it on the first read through. That's not to say that I don't like it, far from it, I love Moore's deceptively spare line work and each panel deserves the time it takes to fully appreciate it.

By the way, this issue has a mean monkey with a painfully accurate pitching arm!, and, 'ello 'ello things are beginning to spark between Julie and Dillon.

Echo no.7

The Superman books are really starting to hot up, with Superman: World of New Krypton no.1 seeing the start of a story arc that will run through 2009 and into next year, through 4 separate books that will make Superman in comics a weekly digest. According to the podcasts huge events are set to take place over the next two years in the Superman family books. I haven't read last weeks issue yet, but like any self respecting surf bum would say, I'm stoked!

Also on my stack for last week were.. Madman Atomic Comics no.14, Echo 10, Buffy the Vampire Slayer no.23, Secret Warriors no.2 and Jersey Gods no.2.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Cette vie Rustique!

Last nights rain folded a heavy drape across the orchard floor, droplets of water bouncing back the morning sun that was fast rising through a knitted canopy that runs along the Eastern edge of the college. Jays were rasping from the old apple trees, an invisible Wren propelled it's machine gun song into the still air and a crowd of rain soaked 'Tenby' Daffodils begged to be photographed, for which I was more than happy to oblige.

Today was going to be a craft day, building Hazel wigwams to grow the sulfurous Golden Hop. Taking a saw down into the old orchard where we have a decent sized Hazel copse, we were looking for some clean straight growths to use as stakes. The pieces we cut were a good fifteen feet or more in height and some of them could be aged up to 9 years by counting the rings on the freshly cut bases.

Lunch came and went, the ripe whiff of Rustique Camembert challenging the sanitized English nose. Oatmeal crumbs falling into loose overalls, a gardener eats roughly cut hunks of cheese and apple from the blade of a sharp knife, peasant style. Quietly seated, pondering the passage of time, ruminating, and as our Head Gardener pointed out 'from the dawn of time, man climbed down out of the trees and sat down'.

It was great fun plashing and lashing the wood, reviving ancient land skills, wielding a hatchet in order to give our stakes fiercesome spikes, deadly enough to slay any blood hungry vampires lurking in the trees. In situ, our first wigwam looked the business, a curvaceous corset of Hazel strapped and lashed into its garden setting. Tomorrow we transplant the Hop, and next year we plan to grow beer hops this way. A limited edition 'Bothy' conditioned ale is on the way!

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

That's a lot of bulbs!

Ever wondered what a twenty second silent movie taken from the seat of a moving tractor of a college frontage bristling with early spring bulbs looks like? Well that's what you can see in my little film here. It actually looks a whole lot better than this, I used an old digital camera, so the quality is not good, the colours don't stand out too well and I was probably moving too quickly.

I might try out this experiment again, so check back for future mini clips. In the past nine years we estimate that we have planted about 27 thousand bulbs. What you can't really see here is the variety. On this frontage we have planted about a thousand Primulas and about 9 thousand Crocus. The white pools you can see are Crocus ' Miss Vane', there is also Helebore, Lords and Ladies, tiny Scillas, Winter Aconites, Daffodills( still to flower), Cyclaemon and Anemone Blanda.

We have deliberately left a large proportion of the Autumn leaves to build up under the trees, which is more in keeping with a naturalistic approach and saves on the heavy work of shifting it to the compost heaps. The trees you see here are Horse Chestnuts. One late Autumn a couple of years back when we were bent into a bitter wind bearing sideways hail as we planted bulbs on the college front, a car full of dodgy characters asked us to give them the directions to the Court buildings, they also asked if we were doing community service!

No, we do this for fun, seriously! Lots of people passing by stop and take photos here which has been by far our biggest compliment.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Mood swings

A few weeks ago, a few days ago, a few hours ago and probably a few minutes ago, I was ready to ditch the blog, cease my faint twitterings in the vast shimmering electric pulse of Cyberspace. Why?, well for several reasons that I can only fully recall when such mood swings pass through me.

Why should I concern myself with who's reading this stuff anyway? People have been slaving away writing diaries for centuries, without needing to share their inner mutterings with anyone but themselves. Whole novels are brought into the world and yet the authors may never get to see their stories on any bookstore shelves.

Let's face it, people's lives are chocca block, stuffed with 'must remember to do' lists, responsibilities, work, families, etc. Whatever time they have is allocated specifically to what feeds their precious little spare time needs. I may be wrong but it seems that the more punchy and bite sized your blog content, the more traffic it produces. Nobody has any time!

Photo blogs were my first exposure to blogging, I found sites I liked that uploaded daily images with one or two sentences of text followed by the inevitable ream of comments, which has to be said were never very interesting. But who cares, at least there was interest! I have toyed with this idea, strip it right down, a few photos and there you have it, regular bite sized content with minimum effort. There would be no need to feel that I was putting heart and soul into a lost cause.

Then along comes Twitter. Perfect, run it alongside the blog for those time starved days, short snappy slices of daily happenings to share with your imaginary adoring readership. I love it. But, I have already felt uneasy about its effect on my blogging habits, which appears to be backed up here, check out this recent Tweet and link from Alistair Humphreys on the subject - wise words from @polarben and Ernest Shackleton on the inanities of Twitter. Right - off for a cup of tea.