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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Spring is in the air – sort of!

Oh, how we long for spring!

We had some blissfully fine weather last week, and got very excited.  All sorts of spring activity is starting to take place.  The washing is being hung out again (for the first time for goodness know how long).Washing out againSmall plants are beginning to appear in the flower beds – Irises … (I just love the way they are so tightly and neatly scrolled as they poke out of the ground).Iris buds to comeSnowdrops …snowdropsLittle Daffodils …little daffodils in bloomCrocuses …CrocusesLittle pots on the terrace are more confident in the sun. Flower pots on terrace These marigolds (seeds from my cousin Polly) have splendidly flowered all winter.Flower pot flowersAnd there are outdoor chores calling for attention.  The raspberry canes are sprouting and will need cutting back soon.Raspberries sproutingAfter a miserably wet and windy winter, we are enjoying walks out and about again.walks in spring sunshineHow good to see the gorse flowering again.Gorse is outA couple of days ago we had a truly wonderful walk further down the coast from Beadnell to Low Newton (you can see the route we took in the Searching for Sanderlings blogpost, almost exactly a year ago).  Shadows still long, warning that it is early spring and the sun is very low in the sky.  Just in the distance you can see Dunstanburgh Castle.Walking along Beadnell bayInside, thoughts are turning to spring too.  Poe is starting to moult, and needs regular grooming again.  I think she’s a bit unwise to start casting her coat so soon, but perhaps she knows something I don’t.Poe starts moulting againSeed catalogues come out, and we begin to get excited about summer flowers.  Stephen has plans to build a pond this year ….Seed catalogues come outStrangely, inside our flowers are mostly flaming scarlet-red, which is kind of weird, – but gorgeous too.scarlet flowers insideAnd despite the cold outside, we are still getting salad crops in the greenhouse.salad leaves in greenhouseLast weekend, I was in London, and things are rather further on there than here in the north.  Just look at these positively Wordsworthian daffodils at Alexandra Palace!Daffodils at Ally PallyThere was spring blossom too.Blossom on tree at Ally PallyThen – just as we are starting to take this beautiful spring weather for granted, the weather turns and we get snow – or is it sleet, or perhaps hail?Grey and cold againEvery year, it is the same, and every year we get over-excited with the first signs of spring warmth and growth.  Back to normal for Northumberland.snow at SeaviewIn Moominland Midwinter, Tove Jansson tells the story of how Moomintroll wakes up early one winter (rather than hibernating right through as Moomins usually do) and thus experiences cold, snow and wintry wetness for the first time. Moonmintroll gets rather fed up with it, and comes up with this wonderful grumpy little poem.

Listen, winter creatures, who have sneaked the sun away,
Who are hiding in the dark and making all the valley grey:
I am utterly alone, and I’m tired to the bone,
And I’m sick enough of snowdrifts just to lay me down and groan.
I want my blue verandah and the glitter of the sea
And I tell you one and all that your winter’s not for me!

I’m with Moomin on this one!Grumpy Moomin

Christmas

Yesterday we put up our Christmas tree.  For many years, we had a proper natural tree, and I loved the excitement of getting the tree,  but it is a relief now, in retirement, to have an easy little synthetic tree that just comes down from the attic.  And anyhow, it is the decorations that give me most pleasure.

Out come the boxes of old and new.  There are the felt stockings my mother made us when we were children, the American Thanksgiving paper turkey, sparkly decorations, the Christmas mobile, and much, much more.Christmas stockingThese are old glass balls that came from my grandmother.  These are so fragile that they could be cracked with just a squeeze of the hand.Granny's glass ballThe box (much repaired) alone is a delight.Ancient Christmas decorationsOdd little things have come into the Christmas collection – and stayed.  I love Zacyntha’s little card of wishes (including the wish that all her cats were with her from the old house …)  Not sure why we have mementos of Truro and Winchester Cathedral …  The golden Catherine Wheel (from New York) was a gift to me, of course!Old Christmas tree treasuresSome ornaments truly are treasures.  My American sister-in-law gave me this beautiful glass ball from San Jose’s Museum of Art.San Jose baubleAlas, there are always breakages.  We bought this charming couple in Krakow a couple of years ago.Christmas breakagesThere are new things to join the collection.  We already have Mary, Queen of Scots, so thought we should add Elizabeth I.  Some delightful freebies from the British Red Cross, a Mexican angel – and a happy memento of Jak and Ellie’s wedding earlier this year.New Christmas treasuresThe pièce de rèsisistance for me is my knitting angel.  How could I not find a knitting angel enchanting – especially when she was made for me by the dear, dear friend who taught me to spin in Devon a good few years ago!Eileen Seddon's Christmas fairyChristmas is often a time of looking back – memories are particularly poignant and powerful at this time of year.  Over the last few months I’ve been scanning the family photograph albums, so I’ve been looking at Christmas through family recollections.

These lovely pictures of my father with his parents in Melbourne are the oldest Christmas pictures I can find.  Here is my grandmother with her 9 month baby, Christmas 1926, taking him for his first dip on the beach at Cowes.  She looks enchanting – so happy, so proud.My father's first Christmas dip 1926, CowesIn 1928, they were again at the beach at Cowes.  It’s my grandfather on the left, she’s in front, holding their little boy’s hand.  They are clearly having such a happy time.  I do wonder what they are looking at out to sea?  My father’s holding his mother’s hand – for reassurance?  He looks a bit worried – perhaps just that deep thinking of a child who is struggling to understand what the adults are telling him?My father at Cowes Christmas 1928Sadly, my grandfather, Vin, died in 1933.  He had got amoebic dysentery in Gallipoli, and never fully recovered.   Dora, my grandmother, later married an Englishman and moved to Leicester with her two little boys.  So these are the only photos I have of the hot Australian Christmases that my father would have known as a child.

The rituals of big English Christmases that my mother’s family liked gradually took over.  Here we all are at my grandparents’ table for Christmas Lunch, 1961.  My parents are there with their four children (err – yes, that’s me the bossy one with her arms folded at the end of the table), together with all my other aunts and uncles.  There are still a few grandchildren to come …. This photo records a rare family get-together.  My father (the photographer here) and uncle were both British diplomats so spent much of their working lives abroad.  My uncle Bow (on the far right) lived in California with his family.  No wonder my grandfather looks so pleased – truly a grand-paterfamilias moment!Christmas lunch Paddock 1961Aaah – those reprehensible 1960s habits!  Here is my father smoking a pipe – and, oh dear, holding the baby at the same time!!  It’s really an archetypal Christmas picture of its era.  The paper hats, the gathered family in their Christmas best, the well-behaved children, my cousin in his short trousers …. this could well have come straight out of a Ladybird book on Christmas.Christmas Paddock 1961 - sitting in drawing roomMy mother’s family always got a visit from Father Christmas.  Here is my patient Uncle Harry wearing the family Father Christmas costume with great aplomb (my mother’s the helpful elf behind).Father Christmas visit 1961A few year’s later, my father’s work took us back to Japan.  He was Head of Chancery (sort of Embassy Personnel Officer) during this time, so he felt very much that is was his job to look after the waifs and strays at Christmas.  This meant a formal Christmas lunch in the dining room, cooked (as usual) by our Japanese cook, Mori-san.  We were waited on by our two lovely kimono-wearing Japanese servants, Hisatsuni-san and Mitsuko-san.  There were always spinster secretaries and batchelor diplomats who joined us for lunch (during which we children obeyed the old adage to the letter of being seen and not heard).  Afterwards, my father would get us all out to play football on the lawn.  The fun was to see how poor Miss X from the secretarial pool coped with the garden mud in her unsuitable suit and heels.  How I wish I could find photos of those Christmases!

One Christmas – one awful, awful Christmas, – there was the disaster of the Chancery Guard’s lunch.  All the Embassy staff enjoyed a Christmas holiday bar one person –  the Chancery Guard.  He had to be on duty in the Embassy offices in case an important telegram came in, some crisis in Whitehall etc.  In his Head of Chancery role, my father promised that we would supply lunch for the Chancery Guard as the offices were just round the corner from our house.

Alas, we forgot!  It must have been about tea-time when we realised.  My father turned black with anger and mortification – how could he forget and fail!  A deputation of children was roped in to trail round to the Embassy offices with cigars, bottles of spirit, crackers, chocolates – and I guess some cold turkey.  But my father never forgave himself – a pall of black hung over the day.  Memories of the Day we forgot the Chancery Guard’s lunch remained with my family for a long, long time.

Christmas 1966, and I was given a camera for Christmas – a very nice Japanese Minolta.  These are some of my first photographs.

Here is my father, amid the detritus of Christmas paper and presents, in our huge Department of Works furnished sitting room.  Diplomats entertained regularly and – in those days – were provided with large, elegant houses and regulation Government furniture. RHE Tokyo christmas 1966I also photographed my Christmas presents in my bedroom. I was 12 – on the cusp of the teenage years, so I’d been given a smart black patent handbag (must have been my first “proper” handbag), and there’s a sewing basket I can see there, along with quite a few books.  How arid and unexciting that would seem to today’s 12 year old! My bedroom Christmas 1966Actually, I was quite contented with my Christmas presents – but I did have a rather big paddy later on those holidays about the endless old-fashioned hand-me-down dresses I was expected to wear.  My mother finally took me to one of the fantastic Japanese department stores and bought me a couple of Mary-Quant-style dresses so I felt better equipped for the parties of the season.

There were lots of parties in the Embassy world over Christmas.  I didn’t go to this one, of course.  It’s the 1964 Imperial Court New Year party – that’s some dressing up!  My father is standing at the top right, very smart in his diplomatic uniform, and my mother is second from the right at the bottom of the picture.  She looks gorgeous.Imperial Court New Year party 1964 Tokyo EmbassyIt was also during these holidays that my parents took us Christmas shopping to the Ginza shopping street – an incredible glittering Christmas experience.  They bought each of their four children the Christmas ornament of our choice.  This snowfamily was my choice – a bit worse for wear now, but still very much treasured.Christmas snowmanBy the 1970s we were back in England, and, his Australian summer Christmases long forgotten, my father settled into comfortable paterfamilias mode.  There’s even a spinster secretary (on the far left) who has joined our family Christmas dinner.Christmas 1975 FarninghamThere were no Japanese servants working for our comfort any longer.  Here the kitchen is staffed by family: three generations (my mother, grandmother and sister) making brandy butter together.Christmas 1970 Tasting brandy butterOne year (1970) we had proper snow.  How opportune! That’s one of my Australian cousins clearing the steps (as though he had done it all his life) and my Californian aunt is standing on the left of the picture.  A really proper picture postcard English Christmas laid on just for them.Clearing snow Fanringham 1970We walked to the church through the charming snowy English village.Christmas 1970 walking to churchAnd we sang carols around the piano over the holiday (my mother playing).   It could almost be out of the same Ladybird Christmas book that I mentioned earlier.Christmas 1970 carol singing round pianoJust when you think you’ve got this Christmas thing sorted, along comes a complication.  Yes, it’s a delightful complication – but not at all what I expected.  I had a Christmas baby!   I still have the letter in which my mother wrote to me in the days before James was born, telling me that I must make sure not to give birth too close to Christmas – it just wasn’t kind!  (He was 10 days early.) James' Christmas birth in Express & EchoA Christmas birthday puts a whole new complexity on the celebration of Christmas.  There were yet more presents for James (at tea-time), – and there were special cakes.  I worked so hard to make this gingerbread cake!Gingerbread cake for Jam's 3rd birthdayIn 1981 Father Christmas started visiting us.  James is definitely very intrigued  – does he know something about the person wearing the costume that we don’t?Father Christmas visit 1981He visited again in 1985.  I think it may be my brother wearing the Father Christmas robes.  By now the children seem to be taking Father Christmas rather more for granted.Father Christmas visit 1985 FarninghamA Christmas birthday was, of course, a great excuse for a children’s fancy dress Christmas party.  Here we are in a rather cold and draughty Devon village hall.  It’s 1988.  Judging by the costumes, I think I must have asked the girls to come as Christmas fairies and the boys as Christmas decorations. Shobrooke Christmas party 1988Skip through the years quickly, and I’ve been through a divorce and embarked on a new marriage.  I have four step-daughters – we are a step-family!  Perhaps the hallmark of stepfamilies should be flexibility.  We certainly were open to change.  One year’s Christmas lunch was Shepherds’ Pie, Star-gazy Pie and Angel Delight.  Hmm … an experiment never repeated.

Of course, what really changed in recent years is the abundance of photos – digital cameras make a big difference.  For the new step-family, there were ups and downs, comings and goings, swings and roundabouts.  Lots of happy Christmases in amidst all the changes, perhaps summed up with this lovely picture of four of our children in the fancy dress costumes that I had made them for Christmas.1991 Christmas fancy dress costumes editedJust as Christmas is a time of looking back, so it is a time of looking forward.  Dawn is a metaphor for hope, for blessings, for future promise of goodness.  So I leave you with this magnificent picture Stephen took of the sunrise this December solstice morning.Sunrise past Bamburgh CastleHappy Christmas to you all!

Field of the Cloth of Gold

As the seasons pass, the fields outside our house change colour – sometimes it’s because of the weather, sometimes it’s because of the crops growing there.   Sometimes it’s just the light.  It is extraordinary how different our view can be because of this colour change.

We spent our first night here in July 2010, and this was the view looking from our home out down the coast to Bamburgh Castle.  Gold – and a rainbow to boot!  The crops – wheat, barley, oats – were ripening.  One field had already been harvested and ploughed up for winter sowing.  You can see the reddy-brown soil of the locality.  But the overwhelming colour and feel of the place when we first arrived will always be gold for me.golden fields and rainbowBy October, the fields were green.  The farmer had sown winter crops, conditions had been benign, and the young crops were growing well.  There were still plenty of small creatures about for our cat Poe to hunt.Poe exploring green fieldsThen in November, and on through the winter, we got snow.  Sometimes, it was a white out.snow white outSometimes, it was that blue-white, picking up the colour from the brilliant sky-blue and sea-blue.blue white of sky and sea and snowIn other years, we’ve know that sort of semi-snow state where it’s not white or green or brown.Sunrise on snowy fieldsEarly spring is an intense green – and blue.  I just love days when the forget-me-nots pick up the blue of the sea like this.  (Think it’s a hare in the field).Hare running on green fieldAnd the plants get greener and bigger.   Field, garden, lawn – all an abundant luscious green.abundant luscious greenThen the crops start to  change in colour – they’re on their way to gold via a sort of fresh lime-green.   At the same time, stronger and bolder colours take off in the garden.lime green fields and the odd poppyThen back to gold again.Poppies in front of golden fieldOn light evenings the colours shift. Some nights a dense blue dominates.deep blue of moonlight Golden fields are harvested.Harvesting golden fieldsThe stubble turns a softer faded gold.Golden stubble fieldOne year the farmer had planted broad beans in the field nearest our house.  These were left until late, late in the season when the beans were hard as pellets, and then they were combine-harvested like the other crops.  Apparently dry beans such as these are sold to Pakistan.  A dirty scuffed brown view for a long time.Dirty scuffed bean plantsThere’s also spring muddy-brown , with just the hint of green as the new shoots burst forth.  We had had heavy rain just before this picture was taken, and then hot sun resulting in mist steaming off the fields.steaming brown fieldsThis is the best brown – the rich chocolatey brown of the freshly ploughed field.Chocolate brown field being ploughedIn the right light, a field will take on a completely different colour.extraordinary golden evening light on fieldThis year, the farmer has planted rape for the first time (that we have known).  It has just come into flower.  A Northumbrian field wearing a cloth of gold.field of the cloth of gold and double rainbow