Cats and birds

Alas, our sweet little kits have turned into ruthless killers …When Eggy and Ilsa arrived here some two years ago, they were completely unused to country ways – and pretty useless at birding. They didn’t quite get the concept of self-concealment …But, with practice, they got better at it …Our old cat, Poe, had never been very interesting in birding – she was a serious mouser, and would go out in all weathers …Bringing back special mouse gifts …When Eggy and Ilsa arrived, she even gave a masterclass in the catching of small furry animals.  I think this was the first time Ilsa (on the right) had ever seen a shrew, and she was absolutely fascinated …And Eggy and Ilsa learned to become dedicated mousers, proudly …leaving appreciative gifts …And tackling their mousing with enthusiasm, even in tight corners …Because Poe had shown such lack of interest in the birds, we’d always felt free to put food on the path as well as the hanging feeders on the house wall.  This meant we got a range of birds into the garden who could only feed at ground level. Through winter …spring …and summer …we continued to feed the birds on the ground.  Eggy and Ilsa watched from various vantage points. Upstairs windows …And the conservatory offered particularly good view points …But alas, last year they shocked us out of our naïveté, making us realise how stupid we were to think they were too slow and silly to catch birds.  They brought in a beautiful song thrush. We managed to get it away from them, and set it loose in a safe place, only to come upon it dead later on.We were deeply upset – particularly (and irrationally I admit) because it was such a beautiful bird.  We’d seen it feeding on the path, and had taken great pleasure in its presence in our garden.

So Eggy and Ilsa got collars with bells on them – and not just standard bell-collars. I added extra bells. They were very good about them, submitting to having them put on every morning before they went out.  And – by and large – the bells worked.Eggy and Ilsa seemed content to get their kicks from bird tv …So this spring we expected to do the same.  But, of course, it’s been horrible weather, what with the Beast from the East and its vicious relatives.  The cottage has been truly snowed under …And some days it was nigh impossible to even see out …The cats really didn’t want to go out at all …And we were able to feed the birds lavishly – after all never had they needed food the more than in these horrible recent snows …We could tell from the footprints that we were hosting a great company – and some rather large birds …During all this cold and wintry period, we were delighted to have a family of four yellowhammers visiting us regularly – we’d never had yellowhammers here before, but how pleasing that we were to be able to sustain them through this harsh spring … (this photo below actually taken in the sun on Easter Day) …But one day, we came back from a long day out in Edinburgh to find this horribly unwanted gift.  Aaaagh – such a little beauty, such a loss, especially as we know that yellowhammers are on the RSPB Red list of dangerously declining populationsTime to face the facts: our little cats are actually very clever killers – that is what they are programmed to be, and we were being very stupid in ignoring it.  Just look at Eggy hiding in wait for birds to feed on the path …Can’t see her?  Well, come along the path with me, and you can see how perfectly she is placed to pounce on any unwitting bird …So we’ve put planks in place to make it harder for the cats to spring onto the path …And we’ve moved the bird food, no longer spreading it on the path, but rather along the edge of the flower bed, which with a small shrubbery nearby is much more in the birds’ natural comfort zone anyhow …These are very poor pictures, taken on a miserably cold Easter Monday through upstairs windows, when snow and sleet were tipping down, but there are our little yellowhammers feasting away in their new feeding ground. If you enlarge the pics you will be able to see how many of these little birds there are. The young are far less yellow than the parent birds …The amazing thing is that in the few nice days midweek, the yellowhammers started to appear in abundance in our garden …At one time we counted 17 yellowhammers feeding there!Could it be, could it just be, that during that first vicious attack from the Beast from the East, when we’d just noticed the yellowhammer presence in our garden, they were nesting in the locality, and it is those young we are seeing in the garden now? I haven’t yet been able to find out dates for yellowhammer first spring nests, so I just don’t know.

So, wish us luck – it isn’t easy accommodating cats and birds, and nurturing both.  We now shut the cats in when we go off on long days out – they don’t like it at all, but if it will help keep a few more of our little yellowhammers alive, it’s definitely worth it!

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Making a Northumbrian piper’s plaid

When we moved to Northumberland in 2010, one of the things on Stephen’s list was to learn to play the Northumbrian pipes.  I won’t go into the Northumbrian pipes in detail (you can find more about them here), – just suffice it to say that unlike the Highland pipes which are blown, the air in the Northumbrian pipes is produced by elbow action. And they aren’t easy to learn to play!

(But they produce an enchanting light sound. According to organologist Anthony Baines, they are “perhaps the most civilized of the bagpipes …”)

Most impressively Stephen did learn to play them, and joined the Alnwick Pipers group, later setting up a local group, the Spittal Pipers.  These groups play for pleasure, and also at shows and exhibitions. In 2016, for BBC Music Day, the Spittal Pipers were asked to play on the Union Chain Bridge. They assembled early on an exceptionally cold June morning …All wearing their fine Northumbrian plaids – bar Stephen, who didn’t have his own, so was lent one … err, a lady’s one.  The difference is that the lady’s plaid is a short shawl, while the gents wear a magnificently long piece which sweeps right round the body.This year I decided it was time to give him his own plaid, and approached a fellow member of the Tweed Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers, Janis Embleton of Flight Weaving for help because I knew she’d woven a shepherd’s plaid before.

However, Stephen didn’t need a thick plaid designed to keep you warm and dry in all-weather shepherding work.  He need a formal  Northumbrian plaid to match in with the other plaids in the Spittal Pipers’ group. So we turned to Stephen’s fellow piper, Lyndon, for advice – and the loan of his plaid.  Here he is being fitted in Lyndon’s plaid as a guide for length …When we knew exactly what we wanted (more or less a copy of Lyndon’s) and had a set of measurements for Stephen’s height, I went back to Janis to ask her to make the plaid.  She came up with a most generous plan.  She would weave the plaid, and I would finish it off – tassel, wash and pleat …

Janis works on a vintage Ulla Cyrus Loom, passed on to her by a fellow weaver some years ago.  To my ignorant eyes, it is a most beautiful – and very complicated – piece of woodwork. Parts are worn smooth and darkened from repeated handling, but it carries a story of the love and care it received from one weaver – and now another.

She sent me these fascinating photos of the loom when it was first set up to weave the black and white Northumbrian plaid. My goodness, what meticulous hard work is involved in setting up the loom for a large piece of woven cloth!Later, she welcomed us to her studio to see how the weaving was progressing. By this time there was a substantial piece of cloth already woven …She invited me to have go with the shuttle, and I can assure you it’s not as easy as it looks!I was struck by the complexity of the loom – all those interconnections …And in many ways, it felt as though there was an organic integrity between loom and weaver …When the plaid was completed, I visited again for a lesson in tassel-making. First Janis showed me how to remove the cotton bands which edge her weaving …Then the fringing was trimmed to the length we wanted …Starting to make the tassels with her dinky little tassel-maker …I finished the tassels off at home, and then came the terrifying moment when I had to wash the plaid …Despite testing for colour run before she started work, Janis had discovered the black wool was leaching colour onto her hands, so I was advised to handwash the plaid first in cold water – it did indeed come out quite black …Then it went in the washing machine for a 30 degree wash. Scary! How relieved I was to have it out blowing on the washing line, soft, clean and slightly shrunken!Now for pleating. Lyndon’s plaid was pleated with narrow folds over the shoulders, fanning out to wider folds at the hem of the plaid. Hard to find a clean floor long enough to lay out such a huge piece of fabric …Tricky – especially when I got help …Now for some very careful pinning and tacking all the way down the pleats.  I copied Lyndon’s plaid and machined the pleats in place at judicious intervals (over the shoulders) …Finally the whole process was finished off with some very damp ironing using a white vinegar/water solution.  I discovered this pleating trick from a very helpful website on historical sewing .  Apparently this was the old-fashioned method to secure pleats in place.  (My solution was 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water.) And yes – the room did smell like a fish and chip shop, but the smell has now vanished!Time for a fitting. Here’s my Northumbrian piper in proper piper’s plaid! Just magnificent! And here he is playing the pipes!This has been such a happy project.  The plaid isn’t just a beautiful piece of work by a very skilled weaver, it’s a record of history – and in particular, for Stephen and me, the lovely folk who helped bring it together.  Thank you so much Janis for so generously allowing me to work on this project with you – it truly made it memorable.  And we can’t thank Lyndon and his wife Heather enough for their patient advice every time we needed to consult on some technical aspect of pipers’ plaids.

Spinning a cat hair comforter …

Two funny little cats, Eggy and Ilsa, came to live with us some 18 months ago …Unlike any other kits I have had (and I’ve had quite a few in my time) they need constant grooming. This isn’t surprising really as they are half Persian and half Exotic Shorthair, inheriting from their Persian father a gloriously luscious outer coat and a dense, soft undercoat. Left unchecked, this undercoat matts badly – so they need the regular grooming to keep their coats shiny and silky.

It occurred to me last summer that I might well be able to spin this undercoat. Why I had quantities of it available! The very cream tones are from Ilsa (on the right above) and the darker colours are from Eggy (on the left).But it’s not exactly a long staple, being just a couple of inches at most.  Sometimes there are guard hairs too, but mostly what I was getting from grooming sessions was the soft grey you can see by my fingertips below.I decided the best thing was to blend it with some of the Cornish alpaca I still had spare. This is a beautiful creamy lustrous fibre (once washed – it was almost grey with dirt and dust when I first acquired it), but similar in texture to the cat hair, so I expected the fibres to blend well. On with the alpaca to the carders then …Followed by the rather grubby cat hair (this I didn’t wash – full explanation to follow) …It carded very well together …Giving a beautiful silver grey rolag …Actually there were lots of tones in the rolags, reflecting the different colours of the cat hair.  I rather like this variation, being true to the original cats …What did the kits think of my work?  Were they at all interested in this processing of their hair?  After all it must smell of them … And they were about much of the time as I was busy carding and spinning …Ah yes! Look at Ilsa in seventh heaven padding away at my rolags!  Can you see the little bits of alpaca fluff floating up and catching in her whiskers? And Eggy keeping a sharp eye behind?!Eggy had her heavenly moments with the rolags too.  This looks like pure cat bliss to me too …Happy summer days …Why I was even tempted to card straight from source (as it were) …!Time to start spinning my rolags …With my not-so-helpful kitty companions … I spun the mixed cat hair and alpaca fiber very fine with lots of twist to hold the cat hair and fluffy alpaca in place.  Any relaxation of the twist and the yarn easily broke …Then the cat hair/alpaca strand was plyed with pure alpaca …Giving me a yarn that was 25% cat and 75% alpaca … (pure white alpaca in picture here to show the colour difference) …Time to get knitting! I wanted a very simple pattern, so adapted my knit from this Viewfinder cowl in Alexa Ludeman and Emily Wessel’s Road Trip. I’ve knit it before as a cowl, but this time wanted to knit a comforter ….. Are you familiar with the term?!  Well, it is the best word – in my opinion – for a shawl or scarf.  Time to consult our wonderful 1891 Webster’s! A knit woolen tippet, long and narrow. Just so – thank you, Mr Webster.  Only I would add: something to offer the physical warmth of succour … a woolly hug, perhaps … You see this comforter was planned as a gift for my daughter whose cats these really are.  They no longer live with her, but with the unwashed (now you see why the cat hair wasn’t washed!) comforter, she could wrap herself in comforting almost pure cat … So effective was it (and so pleasant to knit), that – having plenty of yarn still – I knit another comforter …You can see the catty variations in the spin quite clearly …And laid out you can see how the lacey stitchwork has distorted the rectangular comforter into something quite shaped with pointy ends …I decided to dye the second comforter, mixing up a vibrant fuchsia colour from my Easyfix AllinOne Dye powders …Such a pleasing result!Was I influenced at all by the colours of the season ….?You can see quite clearly the distorting effect of the lacey stitches as the comforter dries …The resulting knit matted a little bit in the process – but that’s not a bad thing as it stops the comforter shedding cat hair so much …And boy, is it cosy and comforting to wear!(Not mine for long as it’s off to give comfort with its predecessor …)

A lament for litter …

I’ve been meaning to write about the litter that we see in our locality for several years, but everytime I started it got pushed out of the way by another topic.  As a result what started as a gut-reaction to the rubbish pollution we saw on the beach sort of took off.  And I started looking for rubbish – and found it all too easily – everywhere (actually I think know I became a little obsessed with looking for it).  Our cities are full of it. Nobody seems to think twice about leaving empty food and drink packaging around, even in the most iconic places – here captured at the impressive Scotsman Steps, just off Edinburgh’s Waverley Station.Sadly neither does the beauty of Durham’s Peninsula Walk beside the River Wear deter people from ditching their empties …Durham rubbishI suspect everybody is all to well acquainted with this sort of sight – a  casual disposal of something that one shouldn’t have had in the first place – here seen along beside one of the roads into Edinburgh.rubblish driving into EdinburghI could go on and on – but there’s no need, because all of us are just too familiar with these sights.  Come back to Spittal then, and our home beach and local paths and what do we find? Take the tracks leading to the beach …

There is a favoured spot for parked cars on the sea-cliffs above the beach. Such a fine view. Young and old, we regularly see people sitting in their cars here, eating takeaways, smoking (no comment on what exactly they’re smoking).  And then they drive off and leave mess like this – bottles, food packaging, toilet roll, plastic bags.  Just horrible – and I cannot understand it, because what is the problem with putting all this detritus in a plastic bag and driving with it just a couple of hundred yards or so to the council rubbish bin?  Or – how about taking it home with you – it’s not going to foul your car if it’s in a carrier bag?  rubbish during Spittal festivalThat photograph was taken during Spittal’s Seaside Festival in August this year (you can see the marquee and the entertainments behind on the promenade) so perhaps one could excuse festival visitors who don’t know the area well … (I’m making every effort to be charitable here) but actually such a picture is not the exception – it is more or less the rule. Almost every time we walk past this spot, we see sights like this ..Spittal festival rubbishrubbish spoiling the viewrubbish ditched from carsCouncil workers and locals pick up this rubbish here – we have met them and shared their irritation.  Nowadays we arm ourselves with disposable gloves and large plastic bags before we set out from the house.  Disposable gloves, I hear you say?  Well, yes, because another horrible aspect of the rubbish we find ditched in the locality is dog poo bags …dog poo in hedgedog poo chucked asidedog poo and bottle rubbishLook carefully in the lower picture, and you will see several nasty little packages lurking right at the back of the undergrowth.

No words.  There just are no words.  It’s so unpleasant.

I’m going to be charitable with the dog poo glimpsed in this beach picture, because I’m assuming these carefully places little pink packages were waiting for somebody to deal with after their walk …dog poo bagsOf course, all of this – unpleasant as it is – is just a sideline to my real beef: the rubbish on the beach. Here there is rubbish – and rubbish.  There are days when the beach is littered with leaves washed down the neighbouring river Tweed …natural rubbishThey make magnificent compost, so we (and others) can be glimpsed regularly bagging up goodies to take home …collecting rubbish for the compost heapCompost, of course, is the operative word here.  Mostly what we see on our local beach looks more like the coloured pieces here and does not decompose …washed up rubbishOr this …collection of beach rubbishHud's head beach rubbishYup. Bottles and plastic.  And we all now know where this is going. According to an article in the Times newspaper a year ago close to 36 million plastic bottles are used and discarded daily.  Of those almost 16 million are not recycled.  Some will go to landfill, some will just get ditched on beaches and in the countryside. A plastic bottle ditched on the beach will erode, battered by the winds and the waves, until you get a sort of plastic flower like this …fragile plastic bottle flowerThere’s a terrible sadness in that beautiful flower because the missing plastic bottle erodes into smaller and smaller particles of plastic.  Eventually they are small enough to be ingested by fish and other marine life.  Recently I read that microplastics are so pervasive in the environment that you are hard put to find sea-salt that does not contain tiny particles of plastic.

Other materials eventually degrade.  Curiously we found old car parts on the beach below Huds Head. old car partscar part rubbishThere is a sort of sculptural fantasy in these rusty pieces … (coupled with the reassurance that they will eventually degrade – not that I’m recommending the disposal of old cars off the cliffs!)rubbish caught in old car rubbishAll this littering is just awful – it’s ugly, it’s wasteful, and it has terrible consequences as the pelleted plastic story demonstrates. Alas, I cannot but blame my baby boomer generation particularly for its cavalier attitude to the abundant materials we have had from this planet.

The grim news is that there’s no magic way to deal with all this plastic pollution.  Of course we can take heart that this sort of behaviour is no longer acceptable …image from yesteryearAnd it is encouraging to see authorities such as Transport Scotland putting out this message on their electronic noticeboard just over the border at Lamberton: Keep roads tidy and take your litter home ….Road sign about rubbishLet us roundly applaud CalMac Ferries for their strong message seen on the ferry between Largs and Cumbrae earlier this year …Calmac sign about rubbishProbably best of all more and more ordinary folk are joining in beach clearances.  We saw this on the beach at Holy Island. It’s jaw-dropping to see what sort of rubbish they’ve collected! Car wheel hubs!  Garments!Holy Island rubbishI guess too there’s some very small comfort to be taken from the UK Chancellor’s commitment in the Budget earlier this week that he will consult on taxes for throwaway plastic. It’s a very small step in the right direction.

Before I finish this blogpost, I want to acknowledge all those people we see picking up rubbish – on our local beaches as well as in my Instagram feed. (check out #2minutelitterpick). And I also want to apologise for the rant – if you are one of the souls who always picks up your dog’s poo, who loves to sit savouring the view from your car parked above Spittal Beach and never dreams of leaving any rubbish behind – I apologise to you.

As ever artists say it best. I just love the expression of lashing-out rage Pinky MacLure captures in this amazing stained glass lightbox which we saw at the Barony in West Kilbride earlier this summer. She’s called it Landfill Tantrum. She writes:

“The dustmen complained about the used needles poking out of the bin bags. They buried them, along with all the other stuff.We’re overwhelmed by all the buried rubbish, it’s everywhere, it pushes its way back up and it’s killing the ancient birds and beasts.” Pinkie Maclure 'Landfill Tantrum Stained Glass

(Many thanks to Pinkie for giving me permission to reproduce her image here).

A final garden fling

It’s a strange time of year, no doubt about it. So many signs of summer lingering and not really proper autumn …

Over the last few weeks, we’ve had days when the garden bench is still inviting …When it is good to sit and smile at the sun …Or find a quiet sunny spot for a bit of punch-card preparation …The cats are still in playful summer mode …There is still plenty of colour to be enjoyed …Still flashes of intense green …Lots of red fruits and red flowers …The rose is having a wonderful second flowering …And there are still butterflies about, enjoying the flowers …The sweet peas continue to amaze …! why only yesterday I picked a bunch as good as this!So I’m still deadheading like mad  …But the shadows are long …And I’m beginning to clear up and cut back …The compost heap is filling up. The compost on the right will be going out on the flower beds soon (when I’ve hardened my heart and uprooted that fine poppy).Our big beds show well the mix of the seasons: summer flowers jostle next to autumnal seedheads …There are days of weird and beautiful light …Sparkling sunny days …But we’re starting to get proper misty-moisty days as well …Which throws everything into a strange new perspective …Not that a bit of mist could dim the glorious oranges here …I love the fabulous new silhouettes the misty garden is throwing up …Spiders’ webs everywhere!But we’ve had the first of the autumnal gales blowing the pots around …Some days it’s better to be inside …Where we are putting on extra layers of cardigan …Time to put away the summer duvet cover …And get out the quilt …Or perhaps Stephen’s knitted blanket … ?Yes, I think Ilsa prefers the blanket!And over these last couple of weeks, the fields have changed from brown, brown, brown …To green again!Weird and wonderful …

Summer views

I am constantly drawn to the view here. It is like a drug, a fix, a yearning, a longing.  Wherever I’m at home, I find myself coming back to the windows and looking out.This summer – perhaps because of the less-than-perfect weather we’ve had? – I have been particularly fascinated by the interplays of light and shade on land and sea …The colour changes, sometimes in the sky …But also over the land …And of course  over the sea …Almost all of these photographs were taken from our bedroom window, looking south-east over the fields of north Northumberland to the North Sea.  You may be able to make out the gantreys of the main eastcoast railway line and beyond them the castles of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and Bamburgh in the very distance …. oh, and that’s our always-wonky washing line, keen to be part of the view too …Let me a bit more orderly, and look back through the months to the green fields of June.  Here’s a classic early June day and it’s all green and white and blue …Some days are cloudy, but they have a different sort of fascination …Nights too have colour shifts and amazing tones  ….This photograph was taken about the summer solstice, when the nights are long and light and full of promise.  9.30 in the evening – the one above of the moon taken at 10.42 pm.But then we’re in July – the summer galloping away;  a classic British summer day with the clouds scudding about …July 3rd I was up very early indeed for me – 5.35 am. It was worth it to see this beauty of a day starting – and oh, those long shadows on the green! Sunrise (to the far left of the picture) was almost exactly an hour earlier. A couple of days later (July 6th) illustrates so well the quick changes in this place …This photo was taken 3 minutes later than the one above, at 9.26 pm. I found this so extraordinary that I had to check it out – but it’s true, the camera and the very helpful EXIF data recorded with each image don’t lie.The next day (July 7th), at roughly the same time of the evening, the light from the setting sun is far more intense. It creeps through holes in the fence to highlight the odd old coping stone. My July 8th photograph captures an almost full moon a couple of minutes after sunset.  The colours are muted, but magical in their own way – especially that faint pink hovering over the horizon …You can see in this day time pic of July 11 that the field colours are still green, but I think they’re just edging to that acid-green that heralds the change to harvest gold …July 15th – and a run of fascinating evening photos, starting at 7.33 pm. It looks interesting in the sky, but not particularly dramatic …Followed by some sharper light at 9.04 pm …9.17 pm … it definitely dramatic! – and yes, that’s a rainbow creeping in on the right!9.32 pm … calming down a bit …Lastly – 10.18 pm …. things are beginning to settle down for the night …The next day – a sparkling day at 10.27 am …And something very unusual happening amid these intense evening colours at 8.02 pm.  There’s a rookery in the group of trees on the horizon – and something has set the crows off –  I wonder what on earth it is?The evening of the 17th of July – cloudless, but oh that gentle pink haze on the horizon …By complete contrast, July 22nd is misty and mysterious!July 24th is in many ways unremarkable – but it’s still misty (you can’t make out Holy Island) and look at those angry white waves crashing on the coast!We’re drawing on to the end of July with this picture of the 27th. It was actually taken at 9.26 in the morning, but is so dark that it could well be later in the day – until you look at those extraordinary light patches on the sea and on the horizon … Now we’re into August – and if you’re still with me, you’ve certainly got staying power!  I have to warn you that there are more pictures of August views than any of the other months put together.  Why?  Well, I think it has to do with the colour change.  The growing gold of the fields, and the interplay of the light on and around them is just irresistible …

This picture of August 2nd is my earliest picture of the day.  It was taken at 4.25 am. Sunrise followed in nearly an hour (at 5.17), but the light is already twitching over the sea …I was up a little later on August 5th.  You can see so clearly the way the sunlight is streaming in from the left of the picture. This was taken at 6.37 am (sunrise at 5.23, nearly an hour earlier).  And you can see what I mean about those golden fields, can’t you?This photo below – one of the most dramatic in the whole set, I think – was taken in late afternoon – 5.09 pm … it’s raining heavily over the sea …. and it looks as though the pot of gold at the foot of that rainbow is on the beach just below us …But by 8.50 pm, everything’s calmed down, and there is just this intense pink glow behind the farm on the horizon ….9.05 pm – and the pink has moved over the sea …9.21 pm …cloudy ….21.43 pm … a clear moonlit night …Angry skies on the night of August 6th – the first photo taken just before 9pm and the second a few minutes after …By contrast the evening of August 8th (at almost the same time of day) was magical.  Sunset is to the right of this picture, but here the sun’s rays are catching the light clouds in such soft pinky golden tones …August 9th was a special day here because it’s the day the combine harvester arrived to start work on the fields around us.We both get excited when this happens … vying with each other to get the better picture ….Clouding over a bit as the tractor arrives ….This is dawn on August 11th – 4.58 am.  Well, it’s actually pre-dawn (often the time for the best sunrises) at 5.34 am …Sunrises (this at 5.22 am) speak for themselves.  As the earth tilts on its journey from the summer solstice to the autumn equinox, sunrise appears at more and more southerly points of the horizon.  So this is a view we would never see in May or June – but it is full of promise for us as we progress into winter, because then the sunrise will appear clearly on our southern horizons.  Check it out here in my very first ever blogpost!August 20th is overcast and dramatic (but it’s 5.34 pm) and the combine harvester is in our field! It arrives in a great dust cloud of chaff and the greedy young house martens swirling around.  The bugs stirred up by this great monster provide the most fantastic feast for the birds.  They are about to set out on their migration travels and need to bank up their bodily food stores.So dark the tractor’s actually got its lights on!It’s a very exciting moment as the combine harvester powers past right in front of the house …As they come to the end of their work for the day, a golden cast falls over the field from the setting sun, but the lowering grey clouds are deeper and darker …The next day it’s an odd feeling to wake up to the partially shorn field … and in sympathy (as it were) there is this curious light over the sea …Unusually the harvester left the field unfinished for several days. However the balers moved in and dealt with the part of the field that had been cropped.  One bale, right outside our house, split. It remains – a strange marker under this misty sky …But the next day (the 23rd) they started ploughing the lower field – look how red that soil is! a whole new colour added to the palette …He’s back finishing off the ploughing the next day.  This is one of my favourite pictures of this summer – I both love the silhouette of the tractor against the sea, and the scudding blue/grey skies.  And I also love the astonishing gleam on that freshly-ploughed earth!Time to feature the clouds alone.  Everything else is low key – the light is elsewhere, but the clouds know this is their turn to shine …A slight variant of our view here because this photograph, taken earlyish in the morning (at 8.22 am) shows the flowers in our garden, standing proud with the sea behind.And that’s it folks. The last day of August, and the farmer and his men are sorting out the broken drains in the field before they plough (which, as I write on September 4th, they still haven’t done).   That’s a little strange, but not unpleasant as this lingering gold with that fast-changing sky is very beautiful indeed.If I were to meet that wish-granting Genie of the bottle, I would wish to be a painter …

Garden History

I was in London for a very brief visit at the beginning of the week, planning to meet up with my Instagram friend, the artist Louise Cattrell. We have a shared love and interest in gardens, so when I read that there was a exhibition at the Garden Museum called Tradescant’s Orchard: A Celebration of Botanical Art, it sounded just perfect for us.

We’d both visited the Museum before in the days when it was the Museum of Garden History.  I can’t quite remember when I visited – perhaps in the 1980s? – but I have very strong memories of a small dark and damp church completely dominated by the noise of the traffic swirling round the neighbouring Lambeth Bridge junction.

The Garden Museum is right next door to Lambeth Palace, on the southern embankment of the river Thames.In a former life this was the Church of St Mary-at-Lambeth. There were all sorts of ups and downs from the foundation of a church here in the days before the Norman Conquest, but by the 1970s the building was damp and damaged, no longer with a viable congregation thanks to London population shifts, and on the table for redundancy, and possible demolition.

However, this little church had a particular distinction which drew visitors, and among them its saviour, Rosemary Nicholson: it housed some very distinguished graves. There was the fine tomb of Admiral William Bligh, now a feature of the Sackler Garden.And more pertinent to our story, there was the even finer Tradescant family tomb, also in the central Sackler Garden.The Tradescants were a remarkable family of gardeners, travellers and plant-hunters. John Tradescant the elder (c.1570 – 1683) came from humble Suffolk beginnings to be head gardener to Charles I – and on the way did some remarkable plant-hunting which took him to the Netherlands, Russia and Algeria.His son, also John Tradescant (1608-1662), travelled to North America for his plant-hunting.They grew the plants they brought back with them in the gardens of their Lambeth house (here shown it as it was in 1798, much later than when they were living there).This wonderful tomb (Grade II listed!) was commissioned by the wife of the younger John Tradescant after his death to show the wonders of their travels.  Now where, I wonder, did he see a multi-headed Hydra!!  Methinks, the younger Mr Tradescant may have come home and over-exaggerated his travels a wee bit! Nevermind, it is truly a wonderful tomb (though not the original – it’s a nineteenth century copy, presumably because the original was so worn and damaged).Rosemary Nicholson visited in the 1970s to see the Tradescant tomb and was shocked at the state of the church. This prompted her to set up the Tradescant Trust, dedicated to care for this little church.  As indeed it has very well – culminating with a major lottery-funded restoration which was only completed earlier this summer. Now the church that I remember as dark and dank is light and airy and inviting.That which is left of the old church (like the small piece of tracery, below right) sits so well in the new space.Stairs lead to an upper story where most of the museum collection is displayed.All sorts of treasures here – lawn mowers, garden tools, curiosities like this Ancient Order of Free Gardeners regalia …But my eye was caught particularly by the cat-scarer, lurking behind the glass plant-protectors. Why it’s not unlike our very effective little Eggy!Pictures too. This painting, In the greenhouse, c 1930, by David Thomas Rose, took me straight back to my grandparents’ greenhouse with the vine and the geraniums and dappled light.  In my mind’s eye, there were tomatoes too, and I was so strongly reminded of the smell and the watery warmth (those huge pipes!). And the pottering …I particularly liked the Finnis Scott Gallery which is located in a separate room at the far end of the gallery. This couple – Sir David Scott and his second wife, Valerie Finnis, (shown in the painting below by Derek Hill) were expert horticulturalists – and also picture collectors. And it is their pictures that feature in this gallery. (My sincere apologies to the artists because I have had to use a degree of digital manipulation to make the pictures taken only on an iPhone 5S look decent for the blog).Such a variety of pictures, capturing so effectively the rich interests that are to be found in gardens and gardening. Look at the lush greens in Patrick George’s 1993 painting, The Vegetable Garden.And this gem of a photograph, taken by Peter Fryer in the early 1990s, of a man with his geese in his Newcastle allotment. Such joyous love.Downstairs then for the exhibition we’d actually come to see: Tradescant’s Orchard: A Celebration of Botanical Art.Where the scope of the pictures upstairs in the Finnis Scott gallery was almost unlimited, this gallery hosted illustrations of a very particular artistic discipline.  The exhibition was inspired by this leather volume, The Tradescants’ Orchard, dating from the early seventeenth century, and on loan from the Bodleian Library.So there were remarkable pieces like this Pomegranate (Punica granatum) by Heidi Venamore. She grew this actual fruit in her Jordanian garden. How rich is the inside of the fruit!And the medlar (Mespilus germanica) by Dick Smit – in all stages of its life.The detail of the damaged leaf and the damaging insects reminded me so much of the Maria Sibylla Merian exhibition I saw in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Gallery a couple of months ago. This is her 1702 watercolour of a Cotton-Leaf Physicnut with Giant Sphinx Moth – similarly greedy creatures eating the plant.  And similar exquisite detailing.Of course at the Garden Museum there would have to be gardens! Let me show you the new plantings in the Sackler Garden designed by Dan Pearson. I don’t think my photos really do justice to them, but Louise and I thought them wonderful – interesting and varied in colour and height – and marrying well with the coppery buildings about.Lastly, the Sackler Garden has a moving modern memorial to its benefactor, Rosemary Nicholson, and her husband John.So – that was London.

But, a couple of days later, back in Northumberland, I looked again at our garden.  With the stories of the Tradescants travelling the globe to bring plants back to please their English patrons ringing in my ears, I looked again at the plants I grow.  And I was amazed.

Our garden sits on the Northumbrian coast, with the view stretching over golden grainfields to the North Sea and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.  It is windy, mostly sunny and very salty – but has the View.We inherited a field of a garden with no plants, no beds, and our planting decisions were entirely guided by the place.  Large plants in these little beds would restrict the view and struggle in severe windy conditions, so they are a no-no. Our little plant guide was to grow plants that merge into the lane and the wild field edges and the view beyond.

So I just love it when plants escape out of the garden, and seed and root themselves beyond.And I thought – in my naïveté – that we were growing plants that belonged in this landscape. But how wrong I was! That valerian in the picture was recorded in use by ancient Roman doctors, so it is believed to have been brought here by the Romans.

All along the little fence are crocosmia plants (what I used to call montbretia).  I’ve always loved this plant, particularly when found on old railway lines and other country tracks. I know it’s considered invasive, but I love those elegant fiery fronds so much that I’d forgive it anything.We grow both the common variety and scarlet Lucifer plants – roughly interspersed. To my mind it is just the perfect plant for this garden when the winter wheat is golden and heavy in the fields around. It sits so well just above our little garden fence, and even when the flowers have gone over, as it is dried and shrivelling up, it looks very fine.

Well, crocosmia hails from the grasslands of Southern and Eastern Africa.Mixed in with the crocosmia are poppies – mostly scarlet, but there are black, white, pink as well.  Now poppies are indeed native plants, hailing from the little field poppy so familiar from the pictures of the 1st World War. The poppies that we grow are extremely sophisticated carefully bred plants, but they remember their proper heritage and flourish in these country field borders.Just over the fence, there are a group of yellow hawkweed plants flowering on the field edge (far left of picture) – they are native plants.  But, alas, no native poppies accompanying them. I must remedy that next year.At the end of the small flower beds and standing tall against the fence are several golden-headed fennel plants.  They’ve been natives of our shores for a very long time.Against our little Northumbrian cottage wall, swaying in the breeze, there are hollyhocks, sunflowers (not yet in flower) and verbena bonariensis. The hollyhocks are natives of Asia and Europe, sunflowers are North American and the verbena bonariensis hails from Buenos Aires. Thank you Louise for the information about the verbena bonariensis – and, of course, the clue is in the name!  Further along the wall, there are all colours of dahlias. They are – most appropriately given their brilliant range of colours – originally from Mexico but were imported to Spain in 1789, only finally making a successful move to the UK in 1802.They must be comfortable with the cosmos plants we’re growing beside them because that also originated in Mexico. Aren’t these startling – though wonderful – colours against the very Northumbrian sandstone wall?And in pots at the foot of the taller dahlia plants, there are calendula plants.  They were introduced from the Mediterranean countries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.In the conservatory there are scarlet geraniums (actually pelargoniums), originally from South Africa.What an incongruous mix, you might say, with the fields of wheat running beyond the garden down to the sea!  But the growing of wheat as an arable crop is believed to have originated in the Middle East.And, of course, there’s another plant I should definitely list when speaking of the Tradescants. Why – the tradescantia! John Tradescant the younger brought the type species back to England in 1629. Here, in a gloriously overgrown muddle, are our variegated and purple tradescantia! What a joyously rich mix of plants from so many parts of the world!

(Incidentally, the cafe at the Garden Museum was lovely. But disappointingly, the Wolfson Ark Gallery containing 30 objects that once belonged to John Tradescant wasn’t open to the public the day we visited.  We will have to return, Louise!)