Sunday 29 September 2013

Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

(Apologies to John Keats, I guess). All the people round here that I know of who were interested in the blackberries have long since taken their fill from the hedgerows, made their wine, jam, cassis, desserts and pies and moved on. There are still many many left in the hedges for the birds and these are now being joined by equally bountiful crops of elder berries and hawthorn haws. The birds and small mammals are going to go into this winter very well fed and good luck to them.

Let's hope they don't need it too badly - so far we are enjoying another 2013 warm spell. Our first two complete years in Ireland really have shown us the extremes of what is possible for the warmer seasons - from the absolute unrelenting drenching of 2012 when we always seemed to have puddles and standing water, to the droughts of 2013 starting with our 19 rain-less days in February. We can't believe that it can do either wetter or drier and we are assuming that all our remaining years will be in between; we think we will be always saying "Ah well, it's wet alright, but do you remember 2012?" Never say never, of course.

The season too for gentle slowing down, die-back, decay and mushrooms. I've been enjoying these guys who come up in their delicate dozens where ever I have spread calf muck about. They are a real early riser of a fungus. At only about an inch across and 3 tall, they stand proud with their new white caps at 07:00 as I do my early morning feed and release rounds, but by 09:00 or so the caps have auto-digested to a blob of black ink atop the stem, presumably dribbling their spores away, their job done. By the time the sun touches them they have collapsed and shriveled back to nothing.

I have no idea of the name but they are a lovely thing to find on these misty moisty mornings. For a while we were also getting edible field mushrooms in the lawn but these now seem to have finished and the bigger mushrooms are all now centred around a long-since sawn off tree stump.

These look a bit parasol-ish so might be edible but I know enough about mushrooms to know that their identification can be tricky to the non expert, sometimes involving detail of cap colour, gill shape and colour, detail of whether there is any kind of skin-collar left around the stem and even the colour of a spore-print left overnight to form on white paper by the spores falling from the cap laid on the paper. Pud Lady used to be very good at it and knowledge-able and we all survived her cookery experiments but we tend to leave them be.

It is also the season when we can start 'harvesting' our meat products so we have been enjoying some meals of young rabbit and also of this La Bresse rooster who was starting to be a problem for William the Conqueror and some of the ladies. He was 22 weeks old and a hefty lad, so that he came out oven-ready as this fine 2.475 kg carcass, at the time, the biggest poultry lump we'd produced. Liz actually jointed him up and just cooked the legs and wings on the day but even that was more than we needed so Liz left a drumstick and me the wing on the side of our plates for cold left overs.

I said the biggest "we'd produced" meaning up to then. We have since had another young goose unexpectedly up and die on us for no obvious reason (possibly another victim of the in-breeding problem we already know about). This one cleaned out at 3.605 kg, not huge for a goose, but not bad for one at still only 4 months old.

On other news, our lambs continue to thrive and we are sure they must be approaching the target 50 kg weight but we have not heard a whisper from sheep mentor, Kenny about coming to weigh them and decide on their dates. Here they are joined at the feed trough, rather cheekily, by some of the Hubbard chicks, our other thriving babies who are 60 days old today. They are reckoned, in a commercial set up, to need only 90 days but we are looking at their huge feet and thinking they might go a bit longer than that and get huge. We should probably take advice from Anne on that one - huge and late may not be good attributes in terms of tenderness or flavour.

Finally we have one of the mini-horses, Falabella 'Cody' back with us for a while. You will remember that we had him and the other two amigos here in the spring time, keeping our grass short and doing a favour for Charlotte and Carolyn when fodder was hard to come by. Cody is the stallion of the gang, being the only one who is still 'entire'. Not for long, it seems. He has been making a nuisance of himself escaping and going in search of mares. The market for miniature foals, along with most other Irish markets has collapsed so that nobody needs the boy at stud at present and his fate is sealed.

He can't have his 'op' just now because the current hot spell has brought the horse flies (locally 'creabhars' or 'craws') out again en masse and it is not fair to create an open, healing wound on a horse with those about, so he is waiting till mid October for his visit from Aoife (Rhymes with Deefer). Our field is secure though, he loves it here because we fuss and spoil him, there is loads of grass despite the 5 sheep, and he is, we are told, OK with sheep. He likes the company, apparently. So he's back among us for now.

That is about it. We are ambling along happily doing lots of tidying, weeding and some planting as well as all the muck spreading in this lovely warm dry weather.

Wednesday 25 September 2013

Of Sliabh Bán and floating hens

We have always loved reading local papers and freebies full, as they sometimes are of amusing really LOCAL stories - not quite 'man bites dog' but generally pieces on the local Flower Show, the Post Office window getting broken (and then repaired in next week's edition!), or small children catching a 3 pound fish in the lake or winning a painting competition. There is always a wealth of pictures of who ever the local dignitaries are - in the Faversham Times you could not get away from Bryan Mulhern, Tory Councillor and a manager in local brewery Shepherd Neame. Here it seems to be local TD (equivalent to MP) Ming Flanagan though we wish he'd release a better picture of himself - he looks both anxious and tight lipped in the current 'everywhere' picture.

We have had some lovely stories, lively discussions in the letters pages almost to feud level. Most recently a 'Letters to the Editor' story caught my eye where the protagonists are actually debating heatedly which is the 'front' and which the 'back' of Roscommon's highest peak, Sliabh Bán (pronounced Sleeve Bawn). One side believes that the 'front' must be where the sun rises, the East face, while the other says that, on the contrary it is the West. When you walk towards a person, opines Mike de Jong, you look at their front and then, only when you are past, do you turn and look over your shoulder at their back. The sun rises in the East, he says, and 'walks' past the mountain and is then looking back, as it sinks in the West, past the mountain. The East has become the back. That seemed to be the gist of it. I will await next week's Roscommon People eagerly and report back! Sliabh Bán, incidentally is not much of a 'mountain' being only 262 m but it is the highest 'peak' in the county and does have a significant landmark (a stone cross) on top. It is, inevitably, also site of a planned wind farm, the turbines being 131 m high - half the elevation of the hill itself.

So here are my own 'local, entirely non world-shattering, stories'. First up, Chickens can swim! (Shock Horror!). We know this because on one of the recent hot days we had been sitting out by the pond with the three dogs lashed to our chair legs on their leads while various poultry strolled about, never coming too close. One Sussex Ponte hen coming out of the 'allotment' then made an odd decision making her way back to the house. She turned off her perfectly safe route and tried to nip though between Poppy and the pond. Poppy had been watching her closely and hearing my low warning commands... "Poppy! Nooooo!" but a chick coming that close had her seeing the red mist. She lunged at the chook to the point where her lead snapped tight, but the charge was too much for the hen and she took off almost vertically, clucking in alarm. She fell back to 'earth' but was by then above the pond, so she splashed down into open water. Of course I jumped up to rescue her but she struck out for the bank swimming like a clumsy duck and then flapped another take-off and scrambled up the bank to dry land, shouting all the time. William and the La Bresse rooster reacted to the noise by charging towards her to protect her, so we briefly had 3 chickens going mad with noise till they all realised that the danger had passed, the hen was just a bit wet underneath and nobody was about to die in the jaws of a Westie bitch.

The local Herberts fashionable form of mischief in the joy-riding line, seems to be turning 'doughnuts' on the roads at any junction capable of fitting a spinning, tyre-burning car. You know they have been 'playing' because the junction is covered in the circular 'skid marks' like those pictured. We used to see a lot of this on the main N5 out to Castlebar when we were running out there for building materials. We were told that groups of these lads gather after dark, then post people as look-outs on these long straight roads before doing the doughnuts at the junctions. Well, now in 'local news' we have our own skid marks on the road at the end of the lane, at the crossroads known locally as 'Shannon's Cross'

Meanwhile, the garage has finally received my carburettor service kit from parts supplier '2CV City' in the UK so they have asked me to bring the car back in today. This service kit includes the fine tapered needle valves and jets (as well as gaskets) which should restore my carb to being able to create the correct petrol/air mix in the engine which will get me back inside the tolerances on the NCT's emissions test. I am hopeful that this may, at last, be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Monday 23 September 2013

Lake View

We are having a bit of a pleasant surprise mini heat-wave to go with our autumn Equinox, blue skies, temperatures up to 25 degrees C (very warm for us here!) and a warm gentle breeze. We sweat real sweat when working and I was even perspiring a bit when just walking the dogs down the lane. Definitely not complaining.

Well, the 'All Ireland' is now come and gone and Liz, Sparks and K-Dub are all happy because Dublin won the famous 'Sam Maguire' trophy by just a point. It wasn't a particularly good game, low scoring but close enough. Of course Tony, in the local Post Office, is not happy but today he was waxing philosophical saying that "for all their crowing, they only bate us by a point!" At the far end of the village (Lough Glynn) is a small group of houses lived in by Dublin-born families and these guys have great fun putting out all the pale/dark blue Dublin flags and bunting like a small blue island in a sea of green and red Mayo flags.

One of the Dads is a really nice, funny bloke and he was straight on the phone to Tony this morning asking if the post office would be open, or closed for mourning. Tony assured him it would, indeed, be open, so the guy nipped along the main street in his normal clothes but with a big bag under his arm. Tony says that when he got to the PO he hid round the corner and changed into a huge array of Dublin gear - silly hats, huge gloves ("He looked like bloomin' Jeronimo!") - so that he could burst in on Tony and tease him for a while. Then he nipped back round the corner, changed back and went home wearing his 'civvies'. Crazy dude!

Goldie the Rabbit has now got a full time job. She is our mower for the path round the pond, so we are thinking of renaming her house 'Lake View'. As she eats each box of grass we pull her round to the next bit. She particularly seems to like the plantains and clovers - these always vanish first. She grazes off the grass when there is nothing else left. Amusingly there is a real house just down the lane called Lake View because, presumably, when it was built it had a good view down to Lough Feigh, our local lake. Like so many other houses here it was built in a corner of one of the fields of the family farm, and Mum moved in. Now the farm has prospered and they have built a huge new cattle shed and feed-silo opposite Mum's house, completely blocking any view of the Lake from her windows or garden. I bet that went down well!

Accidental crop
Picture here is an accidental crop. In 2012 we grew, deliberately, some decorative gourds but then forgot that we had and tried to eat one of the two-colour, light-bulb-shaped "squashes" in a casserole. Luckily for us the chunks of squash in the stew were so bitter that we quickly realised that these were not edible and have since found out that they are actually quite poisonous.

This year I have tried to stick to courgettes, pumpkins and custard squash but I have somehow mixed up some growing plants and planted (or transplanted) another of these lightbulb gourds into one of the kitchen garden beds where it has done very well. We left it be, and have now cut these weird looking gourds, now big enough to have sprouted warty lumps all over, for purely decorative reasons and they are attracting much comment from visitors, drying as they are on the front windowsill.

Liz has bravely gone off and found a very good, new (to us) hair dresser in Balla-D, this one a lady called Noelle in a shop called Halo. Liz had been getting quite shaggy having not had a decent haircut yet in Ireland and was getting fed up with it. She was looking longingly at a photo we have of her from 10-15 years back, framed in the spare room. She took the picture out of its frame and carried it along with her to Halo where they were happy to oblige and Liz is delighted with the restoration of an earlier look. I like it very much. I like it too, especially because there was talk at one stage of me having to have a go with my scissors. I can't think I'd have been able to produce anything as nice as this!

Out in the allotment I am mad into some autumn tidying. I had grown some marigolds and nasturtiums this year intending them as a companion plant to a row of new raspberry canes, to attract in a few insects and help with pollination. In the event they went completely mad burying the poor raspberries under a forest of 2 foot tall marigolds and rampaging nasturtium stems, covering the ridge and flooding sideways and down into the trenches either side. While they were in full flower they were quite a picture, blazing with the hot oranges and yellows or the marigolds and the deeper red of the nasturtium which was a stated variety I have now forgotten.

 Now, though, they are an over blown mess which needs tidying up, so I have been in there yesterday and today clearing the trenches and finally being able to scythe off the shaggy grass of the edge-path and then mow right to the edge. I know it is only mid September and very warm, but I am hoping that the grass will soon start to slow down a bit and this will be nearly the final mow for some of these areas; that they are now tidied and 'put to bed' for autumn. I doubt it somehow. We are pleased with the artichokes pictured. These plants were grown from seed only this spring so we were not really hoping for any crop this year, but these guys have obliged us with a couple of small tennis-ball sized heads which will go nicely with supper tonight.

We took a nice phone call today, from Mentor Anne. She and Simon are, rather excitingly, going to build a straw-bale building as a broody house for their quail. They have done this before using the technology to create a real actual human house in which they lived in one of their previous Irish small holdings. They end up being quite a sophisticated building perfectly habitable for modern families with all the mod cons. For this one, Simon needs a lend of our cement mixer which we bought during our own build. I will  check with Anne whether she is happy for me to provide links to her own blog where the build is described and depicted in pictures, or possibly if I might borrow some images. It will be nice for the mixer to get some use. It did very well for us during our own works but has since sat in the shed gathering dust.

Saturday 21 September 2013

Back in Lay

I was out changing the geese's indoor water for fresh and clean, and noticed the top of a white egg part hidden in the little bit of hay which has been in that house since lame-goose Fotherington Thomas ceased to need it. A quick rummage found me two more eggs - we had three and one of the geese is obviously back in lay. I had not seen any mating behaviour and was not aware that geese laid eggs except for the spring time mating season but, no, apparently they can come into lay if the weather suits, pretty much any time from February to September, so says Mentor Anne. Anyway, we had another last night and we are delighted with the extra kitchen supplies. These eggs will be used up as eggs. Regular readers will know that we are no longer breeding geese with the almost certainly brother/sisters combination we currently have, so if she goes broody then we'll just have to discourage her.

As autumn rolls round we are thoroughly enjoying the fact that we are using almost exclusively our own vegetables. The meal of sausages pictured was one of my 'roll your own' specials cooked while Liz was off at Knit and Natter. It has our own onions, peas, yellow French beans, kale and new potatoes. We are also doing very well for herbs like parsley which Liz notes is the best parsley we have ever grown. The magnificent mound of green was started from a supermarket pot which we had taken all the leaf off for cooking but were loath to throw out so I heeled it into the kitchen garden. Tonight we had gammon, spuds, beans and leeks and Liz was able to make a gorgeous 'boat' full of parsley sauce to go with. Irish Heaven.

Yesterday was a day for neighbourliness, visiting and being visited. In the morning I was off to little ol' lady down the lane, Una where I'd volunteered to clear fallen Leylandii 'needles' off her gravel drive, clip a hedge and dig out the ditch to her 'swolly hole'. The needles thing was interesting - she was worried that I'd sweep up a load of gravel with the needles and she wanted that 'back', so I invented a way of dibbling wads of the needles/gravel mixture in a bucket of cold water so that the gravel would sink and the needles would float. "I never would have thought of that!" said she. Ha ha, I thought. That's probably because you were raised as a sweet young lady, and I was down there playing mud pies and puddle ducking! A 'swolly hole' turns out to be where nameless household liquids drain away. We ended up in her lovely rustic farmhouse kitchen drinking 'tay' and eating homemade fruit scones with homemade blackcurrant jam. Heaven.

We were just about to sit down to supper, rice cooked, table laid, plates warmed all ready to go, when neighbour from the other side, John Deere Bob rocks up. We love him. He is completely unfazed by us being about to serve up and plods in in his boots, sits down in his chair and accepts a glass of blackcurrant cordial. He's going to do the standard half hour chatting anyway. We burble away happily about village stuff, the imminent Referendum on getting rid of the Senate (equiv to House of Lords), geese, sheep etc till his mental half hour is up and he stands up with a 'Well, Good Luck now!' (he has a strong local accent, so he says it 'Good Luck No') and he's back off down the drive to his tractor, parked at our entrance. The supper (curried bunny) was no worse for the wait.

I love all this stuff and I always take it as reassurance that I have not fallen into the 'ex-pat' cliché trap of seeking out and only associating with other Brits. Plenty of our friends are actually Brits and I am delighted with that, but that is more by accident than design.

Thursday 19 September 2013

Sheep Tracks and Milestones

Growing up in Sussex with regular access to the chalk Downs and being able to watch a bit of sheep farming in action, I was always taken by the fact that sheep will all use very definite regular paths from A to B across a field, not wander willy-nilly. They soon wear definite tracks across the fields which are clearly visible on the short-grazed turf of the steep scarp slopes where they are actually a lot easier to walk on as a human as they are like a leveled out ledge along the hillside. I was amused to note that our 5 are now doing exactly that in our small, one and a half acre sheep field, so that we now have a series of definite worn tracks radiating out from the feeding station and gate area. If they are way away in a corner of the field when you whistle them up for supper, they will canter across to you but in line-astern within one of these tracks (or two, in the case of this picture). Curious things, sheep.

I recently posted on the subject of Liz's recent 'milestone' Birthday. There's a lot of it about at the moment, this mile-stone, significant age thing. Ginny's and Padfoot's baby bunnies hit the 3 month stage on 2nd September. Not a one of them has sold for pets, so I am afraid the freezer beckons for these guys but because they are only 'pet' rabbits, rather than any meat breed, they are still tiny. You'd need one each to make a decent meal, so there are no plans to do anything with them yet except let them keep on mowing the lawn, which they are doing very nicely at present. This did, though, steer us into a definite decision NOT to do any more pet x pet breeding. We may put G and/or P to a meaty buck, as we did in 2012, which gave us very nice carcasses at 3 months in that year, but other than that they will just get to live as pets seeing out their natural, as it were.

La Bresse cross cockerel at 21 weeks
On the 11th, Goldie's remaining babies (2 bucks) hit the 3 month stage and these, being meat breed, are doing a lot better, but regular readers will know that these keep on popping their clogs for no obvious reason, possibly a developmental issue to do with blockages in their urinary tracts. One is albino white, the other a dark wild-rabbit style brown. If either one survives, we may actually keep him as our breeding buck and try crossing him with the pet does but they, too, are currently doing a good job as lawn mowers.

The '8-Ball' chicks, hatched at Easter under Broody Betty, are now (today, 19th Sept) at a very significant milestone. They are 21 weeks old, the date by which even the difficult-to-sex breeds should traditionally make their minds up and either lay an egg or shout cock-a-doodle-do! We were expecting to get to today and have to cull out the roosters from the group because there might start to be fights between William the Conqueror and any young pretenders, or between the boys themselves and the 8-Ball roosters might start to harass the ladies. Certainly we might be going deaf from the amount of crowing. In fact we have only had to 'off' one, a Sussex Ponte 'roo'. Only the La Bresse cross has done any crowing and his is a rather yodeling comic shout. He has tried treading a few hens but he generally gets chased off by one of the Sussex girls. Most of them are now bigger than the Sussex anyway. with only the Mini-Buffs being smaller. 

Deefer at 7 years old.
These boys will probably get a stay of execution all the time they do not cause us problems, until such time as we have no meat in the freezer.

On 17th Sept was Deefer's 7th Birthday, so Happy Birthday Deefer. In this land of no raw pork ribs, where 99% of pig meat seems to get salted into bacon before the public can get anywhere near it, her 'Birthday Cake' came in the form of a pork and leek sausage. Happy Birthday, too, to her brother Archie and sister Ellie-Bez back in Kent. 

The Hubbard chicks at 50 days
The Hubbard chicks, meanwhile, them of the Operation Fowl-Switch of an earlier post, made 50 days today. They are doing well and growing fast but give a definite impression that they will get HUGE, that they need to grow into their legs which seem out of proportion to their bodies. These guys, in any commercial system, are reckoned to be 'ready' at 84 days. I think ours, fully free-range, are possibly going a bit slower than that and may take longer. We will try to weigh them at day 84 (23rd October) just for the sake of getting live weights to compare with Mentor Anne's 8 organic, outdoor-penned birds, but these guys will also not hit the freezer any time soon. 

It's all go.

Saturday 14 September 2013

Sarpo Mira (Main Crop)

I am taking advantage of a nice few days of dry sunshine and getting into the autumn tasks, specifically, lifting the main crop potatoes. This year, these are the Hungarian variety, Sarpo Mira. We had not heard of these before coming here despite 20 years of successful spud-bashing in Kent, but Mentor Anne recommends them for their blight resistance  and they are very popular in these parts for just that reason.

These went into one of my ridges on 1st April and, from the start, looked like being a do-er. The tops were always huge and a healthy dark green, swamping the ridge and the trenches either side so that I struggled to get access to them for weeding. The first earlies / salad potatoes in the ridge next door (Varieties 'Ratte' and 'Foremost') came and went, their haulms succumbing eventually to drought, exhaustion and a wee bit of blight, but the Mira soldiered on. In fact the Foremost did show a few blighted tubers and the Ratte are a bit disappointing - although the outsides look a bit marked, many of them show dark brown lesions below the skin which may be early-stage blight. We are having to sort through them hard and the rejects may end up getting fed to 'our' pig. More on him/her in a future post.

The haulms were still a very healthy green as I dug them today, prompting some Facebook friends to tell me I should have left them in the ground, but I think they did OK. We got this huge barrow load from the 14 m row and some of them are well up into the 600 g weight range. We cannot compete with Mentor Anne's two-pounder which she has adopted as a pet and named David Cameron, but we can almost do some meals out of a single spud!

Ah well. The crop is now safely gathered into the barn, with wind and heavy rain forecast for tomorrow morning so I am pleased that I have also been able to mulch up the ridge with a good 4 inch layer of John Deere Bob's calf muck (well rotted) and put it to bed. The worms will enjoy pulling all that down into the soil of the ridge through the winter. There were plenty of them. I was turning up some big fat ones while digging the spuds and the accompanying chickens were hoovering them up till, belly-full, they had to go off and have a lie down in the sunshine.

Good gardening! Lovely Harvest.

Wednesday 11 September 2013

A Long Weekend in the UK

I am safely home from my adventures in the UK. I enjoyed myself and had a great time. First stop was to head for Hastings and the Pud Lady who, at 86, is still very well and zipping about the house on the wheelie zimmer cracking out superb suppers for returning sons and beating them soundly at Scrabble. The latter mainly by flexing the rules as required, like when Ovaltine will fit across a treble word. Ovaltine is now not an actual brand name, by the way, but more like the word 'hoover' which have gone into 86-year-old "standard terminology" meaning any malted night time drink in general...... it says here. Mum is always right, as you know. We had a great time swapping news and catching up on things, later joined by elder brother, Tom and gossiping late into the evening. I stayed around for the following morning too, departing after lunch.

From Hastings off up into Kent, seeking out 2CV Llew who, as well as having a spare carburettor for my 2CV, also wanted to take me for a drive in his restored Citroën 'Light 15' (Traction Avant) of which he is rightly proud. This is a lovely car, the car of choice for Hercules Poirot in the TV programmes where Hercules was played by David Suchet, of whom more later. It has grey leather seats and wooden paneling on the dash etc. It is 5 years older than me, being built in 1952 and sounds as sweet as a nut.

Our route took us from Herne Bay, out by Reculver then through Grove Ferry and Preston (near Canterbury) to Llew's workshop, so we were bowling along country lanes with the long nose pulling us round the corners and Llew occasionally greeting people with the Mr Toad style klaxon horn, Parp parp!

Diamond and John. 1st Anniversary bouquet.
From there back to Faversham and Diamond's for supper and an overnight, which none of us copped when we set it up, meant I'd be there 'gate crashing' Diamond and John's 1st Wedding Anniversary. Never mind - we all coped and Diamond laid on a lovely supper of chicken, ham and mushroom pie followed by her speciality home made lemon ice cream. A lovely comfortable bed too and bacon rolls for breakfast. I took John down to his almost-complete, restored town house down in town to admire the lovely new woodwork, windows and fittings. It is going to be gorgeous when it is all finished and they can move in.

Time then to return the rental car to Gatwick Airport and find my way through the Gatwick Express to Victoria Station and then via Circle line to Tower Hill and thence to St Katharine's Dock where 'our' sailing barge, SB Cambria was to go on static display as part of the Classic Boat Festival, part of the Mayor's Thames River Festival. I am a bit of a country bumpkin and these trips into the big smoke are always scary adventures for me. They say, though, if you want to know the way, ask a policeman and there were hundreds of them about because they had just broken up a National Defence League march trying to recreate a Moseley Black-shirts demo. Which way to St Kat's, Officer? They were queuing up to help me!

The barge was only just 'locked in' to St Kat's and had been moored up by the crew from Sea Change Sailing Trust, who use it for sail training charters ("Making a real impact on the lives of disabled, disadvantaged and socially excluded young people and vulnerable adults") . That crew (Skipper Richard, First Mate Hilary and 3rd Hand, 'Stretch') had handed their youthful charges over to their land-based responsible adults, tidied up the barge and handed the 'keys' to our 'Boss of Volunteers', Basil B. We had to get on board, fine-tune the tidying and ready the boat for a likely onslaught of visitors - this was a sunny Saturday, yards from the Tower of London and Tower Bridge and we had a bloomin' great 'advert' up in the form of our huge red-ochre topsail with its Rotary Club logo, glowing in the sunshine, 75 feet up! We were expecting 'busy'.

We weren't wrong. The public started arriving way before we were ready and kept on coming - queues and queues of them non-stop from mid morning till we could start to close the 'shop' with relief at 6pm. We were a bit disorganised  and short staffed and did not get our 'clicker' head-count thingy out, so we can only estimate but it was definitely a record, and might have been as many as 900 or 1000 but they all got a proper show round, a chance to photo themselves by the ship's wheel, for the kids to try out a hammock and to see the (107 year) old restored Captain's Cabin aft, and the "new yachty bit" (accommodation) for'd. We talked them through the history of the barge and the restoration and present use as both the 'Sea Change' boat, but also the Rotary-sponsored Respite-for-Young-Carers role. We encouraged them to drop a few quid in our box, write a comment in the Visitors' Book, and buy books, pens, book marks etc from the shop.

We were so busy that a number of pots of tea were made but then went cold and stewed where nobody had time to stop for a cup, and most of us had abandoned mugs of cold coffee or tea 'parked' around various bits of barge. At one stage I was bounced by a lady from a local radio station who asked me to give her a potted version of my spiel in 3 minutes into the microphone. I did OK, managed it without stumbling and she said she liked my 'rich' voice, but I have no idea which radio station I was on (West of London Radio?) or whether it was ever transmitted. It was meant to be going out on the Monday.

It was mad, too, on the Sunday but by then we'd been joined by 2 more staff so we were able to properly man the gangway and count people on board, as well as controlling the flow a bit. We know that we had 919 souls that day and sometimes 48-50 on board at once. It was thick and fast again but great fun. After 6:30 pm each evening the boat was ours and we could relax and recover. The marina had set up with the marina-side eateries, for boat 'owners' to get discounts, so we ate in a lovely Italian (20% off) on two of the nights and a Wetherspoon's on another night. The marina also has a lovely office building with showers and loos for the berth-holders and a restaurant upstairs

The Monday was a whole different kettle of fish. It lashed with rain and it was, anyway, a Monday, so all the kids were back at school and grown-ups back at work, so we had a big fat zero visitors before lunch and only 6 all day. They got luxury treatment, of course, but we were able to 'lay off' three of our staff mid afternoon to let them get home prior to the rush hour. We watched old barge videos and kipped in the hammock. At one stage, Cambria Trust Patron, David Suchet (yes - he of the Poirot role) phoned the barge. It turns out he has a flat at St Kat's, overlooking our berth so we all rushed out onto the deck to wave at him up at his window. We could hear his wife in the background telling him not to be so silly!

Then it was Tuesday and I was done, with my flight home from Gatwick to Knock leaving at 12:50. I helped with the breakfast washing up, stripped my bunk and packed. I bade them all farewell (they are there till next Sunday, 15th) and trundled my wheelie-case back along the pontoons to Tower Hill underground. No sooner was my back turned, apparently than rock legend Rod Stewart and wife Penny Lancaster showed up and had a look round, as well as nicely allowing 'us' to photograph them on board etc for our own Facebook stuff.

But now it's all over, and we have come to the end of this year's planned visits out, or in and we are on the comfortable chill-out into autumn. It's been a blast.

Wednesday 4 September 2013

Final Run In

I am now on the final run in to my short break in the UK. I should be packing a bag really, so this post is a displacement activity. Liz is out at 'Knit and Natter' so I have rustled up myself some supper, walked the dogs in the rain, shepherded the geese home to their house and I have some Christy Moore burbling away on the speakers. It's actually been a lovely day, breezy but very warm, cloudy but with no rain (up till this evening).

We decided to indulge ourselves in a bit of blackberrying. I had already spotted some superb looking berries on the western and southern boundary hedges of John Deere Bob's silage fields but was giving these a while because only the apical berry of each bunch had turned black. Bob was happy to let us plunder this crop having no intention of picking them himself. We also have access to Vendor Anna's berries but we have not started on those yet.

Sungold tomatoes from the Poly Tunnel
It was easy picking and lovely companionable entertainment. Both of us can remember blackberry picking missions in our childhood. Mine was mainly in fields alongside the road where we grew up; it is all built on now, of course! I remember we had hooked walking sticks to help pull down the higher up bramble stems. Liz recalls going into the 'scrub' behind Portmarnock Beach's sand dunes, the whole family going out including Mrs S as a baby in a push chair, who they'd park under her own sprays of hanging blackcurrants so that she could 'help'. "She'd eat her own weight" recalls Liz. I am not sure how many berries made it to the communal collecting bucket and the journey home.

We managed in an easy hour, to collect 5.142 kg of good, plump, black fruit and Bob came and found us (on his tractor, inevitably) when we were almost done. He invited us back to his house for 'tay' and told us to keep coming back for more berries as often as we want. He has diabetes, so the really sweet blackberry recipes would be no good for him, but he is looking forward to a low-sugar, sharp, blackberry tart which Liz has promised him. The rest of the fruit has gone into the freezer for now but will be used in baking and possibly some blackberry wine. I sidelined a few this afternoon to have with a block of ice cream. Superb.

Newest neighbour, this Charolais calf, only days old
My third picture here is of some lovely yellow/orange "Sungold" cherry tomatoes now coming ready in the poly tunnel. I have three varieties of tomato in there, including a red cherry tomato and some self-seed 'volunteer' plants of uncertain parentage, scrounged from Mentor Anne's poly tunnel. We did not get the poly tunnel erected very early this year, nor prepared for planting, so these plants all had a bit of a late start. They did well through the heat of June and July generating a good show of flowers but did not seem to set much fruit. Then when we went all cloudy and cool in August, they seemed to suddenly go for foliage and height rather than fruit. I gave them a good prune a week or so ago leaving plenty of set fruit exposed to the maximum light and this, in the case of Sungolds, is now ripening well, but I still have no colour break in any of the red tomatoes. I am not sure why this is, but perhaps we can do better next year with an earlier start, sowing in March or April, perhaps. We live and learn.

Post Match Punditry

As a quick rider to my 'GAA' story yesterday, we were both amused by the contrast in the post-match analysis depending on who you supported and how you saw the match. To Sparks, dyed in the wool Dub it had been a massive conspiracy of unfair refereeing which Dublin were lucky to prevail against. "All Ireland?", mocked Sparks - "More like 31 counties against one!" (Dublin, obviously). To our good friend Tony in the local Post Office it was the exact opposite. Not only had they deliberately selected a ref who was from the next county to Dublin (Meath) so that he'd be biased. He was allegedly very easy on the 'dirty' Dublin players, giving them yellow cards instead of reds (i.e. cautioning them instead of sending them off), but he let "two bucks who should have been sent off away Scot-free!" Tony is also convinced that the Dubs were 'on something'. The fierce mad intensity of them! It wasn't water they were drinking!

The above conversation was me talking to Tony while Liz, who I am sure Tony knows is also a Dub, stood quietly smiling, so it may well be that Tony was teasing and trying to goad a reaction out of her but if so, she wasn't buying. In the 'unfair reffing' at least, some things never change. Fans have always blamed the Ref when decisions didn't always go their team's way. I can remember friends at work in Kent when their team had been beaten by Manchester United saying, tongue in cheek, that the linesman's Man United scarf had blown up into his eyes, so he didn't see the foul. I can also remember Rugby-fan, Welsh comedian Max Boyce singing a song (The Incredible Plan) in which the punchline had gate-crashing fans trying to get into the match "dressed as Refs with dark glasses, Alsatians, white sticks and tin cans".

Tuesday 3 September 2013

GAA Action

Don't Panic! Your old mate and blogger has not suddenly gone all sport orientated. Those who have known me for a while would probably KNOW that this was impossible or at least highly unlikely. I managed to survive the first 50+ years without knowing the first thing about soccer, my main objection being that the sport was (is) boring to watch and can happily go the whole 90 minutes of a game without anybody scoring at all, even at the top, professional levels. GAA Football (Gaelic Athletic Association), I am assured is a whole different kettle of fish being fast, exciting and high scoring. This time of year in Ireland is also when the "All Ireland" finals take place and our nearby county of Mayo (also the country where my lambs were born) got through their semi final a couple of Sundays back and this one just passed would see Liz's Dublin team in their semi against Kerry. The place has gone mad decorating gateposts with flags and houses with bunting in county colours. It is a regular subject of conversation - the barber's where I was this morning, the local post office and even John Deere Bob who drops by. My curiosity was piqued. This was an important part of the culture of my new life and friends.

Here then is the only sport related blog post you are likely to get for a while, borrowed from another web post.

"On Sept 2nd, I am woken up by Quoth, our local raven who swings by occasionally. He/she was shouting from the spruce trees and getting a bit of abuse back from the crows and magpies. The morning was spent gently bimbling in the garden, spreading calf poo on the cleared potato ground and picking beans. I walked dogs and got talking to near neighbour whose kids were in the middle of clothing a big cuddly-toy dog in a Roscommon GAA football jersey. Seems that as well as the 'big match' (an All Ireland semi final Dublin vs Kerry) there is an Under 21's ("Minors") match on at 13:30 featuring our own Roscommon and dodgy 'nordies' Tyrone. 

I came in early pm and caught Liz listening to the match commentary IN IRISH. I am in awe. Not only do I have no interest in sport, soccer, rugby and stuff, I also have no Irish worth a light and this guy was rabbiting away as only sports commentators know how. Wandered off back to my weeding. We lost narrowly by all accounts.

Later in the afternoon came the 'real match' in which Liz had more of a vested interest, being a 'Dub'. Out of nowhere we also suddenly had enough broadband to actually stream the televised match programme. Our BB is usually so poor that we measure it in kilobytes (700-900) as opposed to 'megs' and can only watch short Youtube clips without it going all stuttery or dying all together and refusing to perform. But No, here we were with uninterrupted visuals, so I decided to watch my first ever full GAA match.  I'd been told that GAA is a whole different kettle of fish and so it proved. For them as don't know, you can score in the goal below the cross-bar (3 points) or between the posts above the bar (1 point). This match had half a dozen scoring moves in the first 10 minutes. As boring as soccer it definitely wasn't. It stayed exciting all through and Liz was even getting a bit sweary at the midway point.

Her Dubs were looking a bit shaky at one stage and she was voicing those ol' '3 times' superstitions - Man U had lost, the Roscommon Minors had lost and now..... However, the Dubs put in a late surge right at the end and saved the day, winning 3-18 to 3-11, i.e. the two teams scored 35 times between them!" 

So there you are. The Dubs now play Mayo on 22nd and it will be all over for another year. In the two weekends in between now and the 22nd, the Hurlers get their turn - their game is even more mad, frenetic, crazy, fast and dangerous. They all run around armed with a hockey-stick 'club' (Camán) and the ball (Sliothe) seems to be a rock covered in leather. Face masks are almost obligatory these days.

Meanwhile it is all getting a bit Autumnal here. We retreat some evenings into our Living room where we either light candles or the real fire for extra coziness. The blackberries are turning black in the hedgerows and John Deere Bob is happy for us to raid the hedges of his cut silage fields. The sloes will also be red by now and turning black soon but ours out front were annihilated by the contractor hedge cutter so I need to take a stroll round the sheep fields to find some bushes with sloes still on them.

The front lawn has gone all 'Food for Free' on us and is now yielding a good supply of field mushrooms. The first of these took us by surprise under one of the big trees and had reached 8 inches diameter before we spotted it. This one Liz simply cut in half and fried like that, serving it up on its own slice of toast. Poor man's beef steak? More recent ones have been smaller. We are back into beetroot now and 'succession planted' radishes and, soon, peas.

For me, though, a weekend back in the UK looking up the Pud Lady and some Faversham Friends including 2CV Llew, before I head for St Katharine's Docks in London to help man our sailing barge Cambria. She is on show to the public as part of the St Kat's Classic Boat Festival which is , in turn, part of the Mayor's River Thames Festival. Liz gets to look after the 'farm' for a while so she is in training on livestock and the differences between milled barley and seed wheat. Wish us both luck. I will be 'off air' for the duration and will post again when I return.