Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Blogging Fail

Well, . . . in 2014, I told myself that I was definitely  going to post more on my blog . . . and I didn't.  I used to put something up on the blog almost every day.

I have not given up on my dear blog, but I certainly suck at posting regularly.

I've had a very mixed year.  I've had some wonderful high points and with one or two sucky low points.

Let's see if I can put this right.

I predict 2015 will be the year of the "do over"

I already know that I will be trying to lose weight.  After losing my job in June - I know, I never said a word on here!  The weight has started creeping up again.  It got worse in October when returning from a trip to visit my son in Chicago, I found that my dog, Polly was lame.  She has surgery scheduled for the 15th of January and is not to go on any walks until after she has healed.  This means that since October,  I have gone on far fewer walks.  I guess I knew that me walking the dog was good in theory, but I actually got more benefit from it than I realised.  Since I can't walk my dog, I've put on loads of weight.  I needed those daily walks as much, if not more than she did.

So, goals for the upcoming year are:  Have a better vegetable garden.  I was given a Rotavator for Christmas to help with this.  That will help with the bulk of the heavy digging.

Get a new job.  It would be nice to have a job that I like and does not cause me quite so much anxiety.

Get back in shape

Post in the blog more

Let's see how we get on then.  :-)

I hope you have a safe and sanitary New Year.  I am probably going to ring in the new year at about 10:30 in my pajamas.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Ringing Our Birds

The swallows who have made nests in our tool shed have produced two broods this year.  Three cheers for a successful breeding season!

In a related note, I was delighted to discover that my friend Sybil is part of a program to ring birds for the British Trust for Ornithology or BTO.  Sybil and I have been having conversations about birds.  She's been telling me her tales of ringing house martins and sand martins and taking field trips out to Bass Rock to ring gannets. I had mentioned that our swallows had a second brood on the go but I don't know how big the nestlings were.   She came yesterday with her tiny little leg rings and notebook and we got this second batch of four swallows ringed and recorded.
Here's how you ring nestlings:
1.  Have a terrific trained up friend who knows what they are doing.  She gets on a ladder and sticks her hand into the nest and grabs the baby birds one by one and puts them in a cotton bag that draws close with a string.
Sybil gets the birds from the nest 
Record the number of the ring in a notebook and place it in the clamping pliers. Ensure that the number is the right way up so that it doesn't go onto the bird's leg upside down.  Once it is on the bird's leg you can't take it off to switch it the right way round so . . . don't make a mistake!
These numbers are TINY
Write down the number and clamp the number onto the nestling's right leg..

Clamping onto the thin little leg
We had four nestlings to ring.  Both Sybil and I agreed that if we had left the ringing another day, these birds would have been gone.  They were just moments away from leaving the nest.
The proper way to hold a bird for ringing
Once the ring is on the bird, you have to ensure that the ring can move freely and is closed completely.  After that has been done, place the young bird into a second bird bag.  One bag for unringed birds and one bag for birds with leg rings.

Back in the nest it goes!
Then it is back to the nest for our little birds.  Here's a weird thing you have to do when putting swallows back in the nest.  You have to spin the little guy around in a circle a couple of times (to make it dizzy?) before placing it back in the nest.  Once you've put the bird in the nest, you have to keep your hand there and gently hold it down as a mother bird would do for a bit.  Nestlings that have been put back in the nest this way are less likely to hop out again.
Holding the bird down so it won't jump out
Now I have some properly ringed birds!  If any birds come back to the place next year, I can record and report back to the BTO.  

Now that I have had four birds ringed, I am keen to get more of our birds ringed so that their movements can be recorded.

Friday, July 18, 2014


Last year I wrote about the return of a very common bird to our garden, the sparrow.  I now have even better news to announce:  Because of diligent and non-stop feeding and organic grooviness I now have a full FLOCK of sparrows in the garden!

Sparrows  (not my photo)
There have been a number of fledglings over the last two weeks.  It has been fun watching the adults feed the little ones.  Yesterday, I counted twelve sparrows in the vegetable patch at one time.  I am counting that as an actual flock!  I'll keep feeding them in the hope that they continue to thrive and breed.

The common house sparrow population has been decimated by disease and new farming practices and chemicals.  We had not seen one here at the house in well over 19 years.
visiting Jay
The jay returned for a couple of weeks in June.  That was a special treat.  The red squirrels continue to visit daily.
Female squirrel peanut acrobatics
Eating peanuts upside down is their special skill.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Troll Activity in Dumfries & Galloway

At the beginning of the winter we had some ferocious wind storms.  The house managed to withstand all the storms and (amazingly) the greenhouses managed to survive.  Usually when we have high winds, there is much glass to clean up afterwards.

The most damage happened in the area where I walk Polly.
The trees took a major hit and it looks as though we have had an infestation of Norwegian trolls!
The trees were knocked down in a very random way.  I thought that when wind damaged trees, the trees all fell in the same direction.
This is clearly not the case.

I have taken advice from our dear friend in Norway.  She kindly forwarded me the slayed troll form. I don't know if we will have to go so far as to kill any trolls that have migrated to Scotland, but if they get out of hand, we're ready with the correct paperwork.

Since watching the movie Troll Hunter, we have realized that we can never be too careful when it comes to trolls.

In the meantime, spring continues to be a beautiful and abundant season.  The puddles up by the ponds are not only filled with wiggling tadpoles, they have a coating of tree pollen.  

The gorse is also in bloom.  I love gorse and have been known to stop my car so that I can get out and have a good sniff.  It still smells of coconut!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Broken Trowel

Now that we've got a couple of days over Easter, the Man of the Place and I are getting some outside jobs done.  We've had almost a week of really good (non-rainy) weather.  We can even walk on the grass without our feet sinking and there is no squelchy noise.

I was so weary of getting the garden dug over and weeded and ready for planting, planting it up and then watching as it never stopped raining all summer long.  This has been happening year after year.  It gets really disheartening.  Last year, I thought, "That's it! I'm not going on a fool's errand again!"  

pumpkins, courgettes and cucumbers
I didn't plant anything.  The greenhouses got tidied up but then ignored.  Wouldn't you know it.  That was the year that we had a lovely warm summer with a normal amount of rain.  So the lesson is. . . don't give up.  You never know when the good year is going to arrive. 

fuchsias showing life again
The winter, though wet was VERY mild.  I only remember scraping the car once and we saw some snow fall once but it didn't stay more than an hour.  This means that the fuchsias over wintered very nicely.  Out of 15 assorted fuchsia plants there are 14 survivors. That'll save me some money.  I will have lots of lovely flowers in hanging baskets this year.
Green house back in production
On the left side of the greenhouse, the mice can climb up on the staging.  They'll eat any seeds that are in seed trays.  They'll dig them out of the compost to do that too.  So, large plants and plants that mice won't eat to the left.

larger plants to the left
I also discovered they will eat some seedlings.  After resowing the cauliflower seeds, all vegetable seedlings are kept on the right side of the greenhouse.
seeds to the right where there are fewer mice
The trowel broke today.  I was planting out the sweet pea plants and it just bent.  I straightened it out but when it bent again, it snapped.  Time for a new one.

I have a grand total of four sweet pea wigwams and still have twelve plants left to put out.  I am giving those away.

Perhaps the label "Lazy" won't be so accurate this year.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Apple Trees

I'm really really looking forward to this year!  I have planted two new trees and this is the first spring that they will be in bloom.

A number of years ago I was given two apple trees as a gift. The varieties were Discovery and James Grieve. Those trees are Group 3 pollinators for Bramley's Seeding apples, (the best cooking apple ever).  The high maintenance Bramley needs two pollinators.  At the time the trees were planted, I knew that  I would be getting a cooking apple tree.  I thought I'd plant a Bramley tree a few weeks later, but I never did.

Years rolled by and I never got around to planting the cooking apple tree that these trees were designed to pollinate.  This year could see the (literal) fruition of my long term plans as I now have two young Bramley trees.  I planted them when my two grandsons were born.

I'll be stopping there.  There are now four apple trees in the back garden.  If I am lucky enough to get additional grandchildren, I will plant something else.
Lennox turned one year old on the tenth of last month.  Isn't he a darling?!  Jack is going to be one year old this week.  Here he is brushing his curls.

They are pretty close in age and development.  It is fun to see who does what first and watch as their personalities develop.  Lennox is the chatterbox.  He can't say words yet but he imitates the sounds and patterns of speech so well.  Jack isn't as vocal, but he has four teeth rather than two and seems to have a an encouraging trend toward tidiness.  He likes to put all his toys in one spot (an unused baby seat or empty basket) as part of playing.

So while these boys are busy with growing up, their Nana is tending her garden and  planning to make lovely things with the apples that grow in the garden.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sister Sarah O'Neil

One of my mothers best friends died decades ago in the early 1980's.  I wasn't living at home when she finally left this world.  I was in California going through the final months of a really rotten marriage and wasn't anywhere near my family.

When the phone call came, I was very sad.  I hated to be so far away from what had just happened.  Sister Sarah had been a very large part of my mother's life and my childhood for as long as I can remember.  My mother and Sister Sarah had been friends since college days.

I don't know or remember the details, but they met when they were both in the novitiate (convent).  Sarah went on to become a fully fledged nun and my mother left the convent to marry my father. 

Their friendship remained.  Sister Sarah used to visit us when we lived in North Dakota.  I even remember Sister Sarah's parents visiting us.   She was a bigger part of our lives when we moved to Minnesota.  Sarah's convent was in St Paul and she was able to visit us regularly.  We also visited the convent.  I actually liked visiting Sister Sarah in the convent.  It had a huge pool table in the basement and we would play for hours.  I also liked talking to the other nuns and novices. 

Sister Sarah was a gentle and loving friend to my mother and to us kids as we appeared in the world. When my first child was born, Sister Sarah sent handmade pajamas for him.  She made a white nightgown type garment that tied at the bottom. It was perfect for an infant whose bottom needed changing often.  My son Ian wore it to bed almost every night.  Later when he got taller, I pulled the bottom cord out and he just wore it as a nightgown.

I wish I had at least one photo of Sister Sarah.  I can't believe I don't have a single one.  I have been thinking about Sister Sarah a lot today.  Of all things, it was the death of Shirley Temple Black that brings Sister Sarah's memory to the front of my mind.
When Sarah O'Neill was a little girl, she wrote a fan letter to Shirley Temple, then a big movie star that was charming the United States with her dimples, and curls.  Here was the lovely thing, Shirley Temple wrote back!  Sister Sarah had a hand written reply to her letter. It was a bit bland and may not have been written by the child star but it was a kindness that Sarah never forgot.  I don't know how long she kept the letter.  I suspect she kept it with her things up until she left home. 

Isn't it funny how the memory works and what will be a trigger to a deeper memory?

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Belgian Chocolates

A few years ago, a dear friend of mine, Robyn and her partner Deidre started a chocolate shop in Minnesota.  They've been working so hard to produce beautiful, and delicious quality chocolates.  They travel all over the US to learn new techniques.  They stay on top of the latest trends, try to use local and organic ingredients when that is possible. . . .so mostly, they're pretty groovy.  I've had their stuff sent to me here in the UK and the chocolates they produce rival fine European chocolates.

I told Robyn that I was headed to Belgium.  As they will not be over here anytime soon, I said I'd take photos for her and investigate trends. I also picked up some brochures, but the bag with the brochures (and gourmet chocolate) was surgically lifted from my shopping bag in London by somebody who wanted it more than me.
Some chocolate shops were just that.  Chocolate shops.  They were part of a chain and there was corporate uniformity.  As pretty as it is, it seemed to lose something.  For one, there wasn't the overpowering chocolate smell that is present in the other shops.  These other shops were shops in front of the production.  The chocolates were made on site.  It was also telling that these shops had a lot more foot traffic.

If there was a window so that the customer could see the production, there was always somebody having a look.
One thing I noticed was that the bargain chocolate shops were less busy than the good ones.  Nobody wanted to buy less expensive and novelty items as the perception was that they might not be as nice to eat as the other delights on offer.

I believe that Bruges has over fifty chocolate shops.  There seems to be enough custom for them all to survive.  I am sure that those who have a reputation for excellence and a good location will do better than others.  This means, that if you don't know what you're doing or your chocolate is not good, you will not survive in Belgium.

One of the things that will pull customers (and me) off the beautiful streets of Bruges and into the shop is this:
Abundant chocolates piled up and just WAITING to be purchased and eaten immediately.  I mean look at that!
In the above photo you can see my reflection as I take a snap of the orange slices dipped in chocolate.  Seville oranges are in season right now.  The bitter oranges are best for marmalade AND the partially dried slices are perfect for dipping in super luxurious Belgian chocolate.  We bought those every day.  One slice for me and one slice for The Man of the Place.  If we buy more than one slice each, . . we'll eat more than once slice each.
Chocolates bought loose and kept in bags and the bag is in the pocket of your winter coat will not keep.  As you walk around magical and historic Bruges, you'll remember they are in your pocket. Before you know it, they have evaporated.

Even though it was January when we were there, February and Valentine's Day looms.  Some love hearts were already appearing.

There isn't a bit of hot chocolate powder in the city.  If you order hot chocolate (chocolate chaud) then this is what you will get:

A chunk of rich Belgian chocolate that is melted into steamed milk.  It isn't cheap, but it is warm and very decadent. They really do make a great effort with the service of hot chocolate, making the entire experience one of pleasure.

We didn't go there for the chocolates but it was fun to be diverted by them. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Birthday Trip

When the Man of the Place turned forty, we had a party.  When his fiftieth birthday rolled around, our son George and I surprised him with a trip to Paris. As we are still together, healthy and employed for his sixtieth I thought another birthday trip was in order.  This trip to celebrate the beginning of another decade saw us taking the train to Bruges in Belgium.

Neither The Man of the Place or I have ever been to Belgium other than to change flights at the airport.

I think the main industries are tourism, chocolate production and beer. It is a stunningly beautiful place.  We struggled to find a bad view within the walls of the old city.

Because it is geared for tourists, the centre of the place is expensive.  Even a beer is expensive.  Now I don't mind that the beer is expensive as Belgians are brilliant at making beer.  Most of those beers are quite a bit stronger than the beer we have become accustomed to, so you don't have to buy nearly as much.
One place boasted that they served 400 varieties of beer.  Can you imagine what the beer cellar looks like in that place?  From the few bars we went into, it seems that every beer made in Belgium has its very own glass.  Part of a new bartender's learning curve must be to know which glass goes with with which beer.

We stayed in a very elegant hotel.  I didn't know how lovely the hotel would be until we showed up.  Hotel Navarra was delightful and I cannot fault the hotel in any way.  

Here is a view of the place where we had lunch on the second day.  The white building over looking the peaceful canal.  Very good food but the service was slightly inattentive.  I felt as if we were a bit more elegant ourselves, we would have been treated with more deference.  Ah, never mind.  I wasn't there to have my ego stroked, we were there for lunch.  Beautiful food, good location and high price.  Birthday treats only for that place.

We walked a great deal.  One of the places that I definitely wanted to see was the beguinage.  On  the way to the medieval beguinage, we walked through this garden.

Walked past this lock . . .

and past this house next to the canal.

The beguinage was a peaceful oasis. . .

No loud voices. . .don't walk on the grass.

If you wish to take photos for a commercial reason, you must have permission from Mother Superior.

I wasn't worried about that so much.  I don't sell my photographs or use them to promote anything.

The daffodil shoots are beginning to pop through, telling us that winter, though miserable, will not last forever.

There is always a shop, even in the most peaceful and religious places.  Another little museum.  It was Sunday, therefore it was closed.

The main gait.  I am certain that it used to be more of a barrier, to protect those inside.

These ducks were just to the right of the gate.  "We've got wings.  We can get in anytime we want."

The bridge was beautiful as well.  Okay, there wasn't an ugly part of the entire walk.

The hard part was selecting which beautiful views to share.  I also didn't want to walk around the entire weekend, looking at Bruges through a camera lens.    Though it seems like I took loads of photos, the camera stayed in my pocket most of the time.

We stayed in the old part of the city, very close to Markt.  We found the city to be very easy to walk around.  Be careful if you are prone to tripping, as the streets are all cobbled.  It is a bit expensive but if you are sensible and have a budget, you'll be fine.   I would love to visit Bruges again.  If we do we would always go in the winter, I am told that in the summer, the crowds can be heavy. Big crowds are a drag.