Friday, 28 November 2014

Greenhouses and gulls

Last week I welcomed autumn - this week it feels as though it would have been more appropriate to have welcomed winter. The temperature has plummeted and we have had our first hard frost. As I mentioned last week, the greenhouse suffered in the wind and that means everything was exposed to that cold which is a pity. I had sown a few things in late autumn (notably sweet peas) with the idea that they would be that much ahead come spring. Well, we can forget that idea and now need to take some decisions regarding that greenhouse.

Working on the principle that you would not wish to see pictures of a damaged greenhouse, I thought I'd offer you photographs of three Dartmoor Tors taken at this time of the year.
Being honest, it is way beyond economical repair and is there any point? When we moved in I had no idea of just how that corner of the garden would be hit by the wind. I should have realised. There are two 'internal' hedges in the garden which I assumed were there for decoration or, possibly, to make parts of the garden more private. Not so. I am now convinced they are there to protect the house from those winds but, as I am sure you will have guessed, the place where the greenhouse was erected is on the wrong side of one of those hedges and the other one is not long enough to offer it much protection. We both feel that we need something more sturdy but the question is what. Cheap - well reasonably cheap - would be to take down what is left of the greenhouse and put up a polytunnel. I have been trying to find out how sturdy they are and it seems from what I have read that these are actually sturdier than greenhouses.

Well, we shall see what will happen. The polytunnel should be here next Friday and then it will have to wait until Ben (who helps us in the garden) can find time to come and put it up. I shall keep you informed.

Meanwhile in the field behind the house there is something very odd going on. Two herring gulls are behaving as if they are intending to breed. We are, of course, quite a long way from the sea but you will always see gulls in Totnes (at the head of the tidal part of the River Dart) and there is a small flock that comes up here most days. Now, there is nothing unusual in that – they forage in the fields for whatever they can find – but a flock of herring gulls is just that: a group of gulls in which there is usually a typical ‘pecking order’ but in which the individuals tend to keep themselves to themselves getting quite cross if any other bird invades their personal space.

One of these two gulls on the lawn a few weeks ago.
Not so the two in the field. It seems they want nothing to do with that flock which, in any event, rarely comes into that particular field although it does visit the fields below the house. Added to that they are displaying most of the time and often touching (although I have yet to witness any mutual grooming). To make things even odder, neither appears to be at all submissive to the other – in other words a part of their usual display (where the hen bird crouches in front of the male in the hope that he will (a) not attack her and (b) will regurgitate some food for her to eat) is just not happening.

It is, I suppose, possible that they are muddled as to the time of the year or that they are two very mixed up youngsters (but in their adult plumage so not that young) engaging in a bit of experimental behavior. Perhaps it is just as well that we do not know the answers.
This chap was in the market place and you couldn't really see him against a very muddly background so I did away with it.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Hello Autumn

The River Dart upstream of the weir.
The autumn has arrived here on the River Dart and at Dartington Hall with temperatures dropping (but not that much) and some periods of nasty cold showers. Worst of all has been the wind which has been quite something - even though all the photographs here were taken on very quiet and still days.
We are now well south of Totnes/
If you walk down the path at the end of the lane, passing a couple of fields on your left which were planted with barley this year and are now lying fallow, you will find yourself on the banks of the River Dart. I would like to suggest that we all boarded a boat and I took you down the river but that is not possible: not far down stream there is a weir which maintains the water level above it. Once it provided a constant flow of water through a mill leat which fed Totnes Town Mill. Now there is a plan to build a small hydro-electric generating plant alongside it. Today it means your journey must begin on foot.

There is a delightful path that runs alongside the river which will take you down to the weir where you will find me waiting to pick you up in a nice safe work boat (of the sort that Roger uses when we go out together so that I can take photographs). Obviously I am assuming that we have agreed the time because it needs to be just about at the top of the tide.

A glimpse of Greenaway where Agatha Christie once lived.
The river winds a bit and I am not sure how far the journey is in terms of miles but it will take us about an hour and a half to reach the mouth of the river. Then as we head out to sea and clear the Mew Stone we shall see, away on our left to the east, Berry Head topped with a tall edifice that looks for all the world like a chimney. It’s not – it is called the ‘Day Marker’ because it carries no light and was built about two hundred years ago to make it easier to find the entrance to the River Dart. I have been delighted to see it on a number of trips.

All of which is only of interest because the other day the wind speeds as recorded on Berry Head exceeded 90 mph and some of the gusts when they hit us here were not far short of that. Thankfully no more trees came down near us but there was some damage done – our greenhouse took a battering and is in need of extensive repairs.

And here we are, back at Dartington Hall again.
But, wind or not, we are seeing some wonderful colours now. They do not compare with those you living in Canada will be enjoying but I am sure you will agree they are pretty gorgeous. Oddly, our native sycamore – a close relative to the Canadian Maple – offers no real visual delights in autumn: the leaves just turn a dull brown as the wither and fall.

This time last year we were without a real fire and we really did miss having one. Not so now: there is a cheerful fire in the sitting room in front of which, as soon as I have posted this blog, I shall sit as I enjoy a toasted tea-cake and, of course, a cup of tea.

All of which is making life very difficult for Marcia. In the other world in which she is presently spending most of her time it is late in spring with the result that when she decides to pay us mortals a quick visit she is shocked to find that nothing looks the way it should. 

These two whippets, Jet on the left and Minnie, belong to a budding young photographer called Thomas Freeman. They are seen here playing on the beach known as Slapton Sands near Torcross.

Friday, 14 November 2014


As some of you probably know, for most of my life my main physical activity has been messing about in boats. Usually these have been small sailing boats, sometimes motor boats of various sizes. Shortly after Marcia and I were married, I decided to take a bit of a plunge into the unknown. At the time I was writing a column for Yachts and Yachting which came out on a fortnightly basis – but was not providing enough to enable us to live. Then I signed a contract to write a book with David and Charles (a publishing house that has, I fear, gone the way of all flesh). This meant we could just about get by but the question was, how?

Well, the answer was to go afloat and spend the best part of the next year on our forty foot ketch – a very old, very rotten boat that needed a good deal of tender loving care to keep her afloat. The book was written in the tiny fore cabin on a triangular desk that at its widest was about thirty inches with a depth of about the same at which point it had no width at all.

It was great fun and despite many interesting moments I think neither of us regretted it – nor will either of us forget the first bath we had when we eventually went back to living ashore. It was at about this time that I started to write and present a short (fifteen minute) slot on Radio Devon all about what was happening in the sailing world. Some of the people I interviewed for that were extremely interesting – and some were disabled.

As a result, two things remain important to me: giving young people the chance to experience what it is like to be afloat and giving disabled people the opportunity to enjoy sailing.

Tony Sutton on the steps of the Himley Hall Sailing Club's cluhouse.
One friend of mine, Tony Sutton, is presently Commodore (the title given to the boss of all sailing clubs) of a very surprising sailing club. 

The lake with the hall in the background.
This club sails on what is known as “The Great Pool” in the grounds of Himley Hall, which stands on the site of the old manor house, once the home of the Lords of Dudley (and the place that Charles I spent the night before the battle of Naseby). In the 1740’s, this house was demolished (as was the entire village of Himley complete with the church) and a great house built. 

It was ‘Capability’ Brown who landscaped the gardens around the house which included what was then called ‘the great lake’. In passing, I suppose I should mention that the village and the church were rebuilt at the same time – but at a discreet distance from the house.

The clubhouse - and this is what Tony has to say about it. "Our clubhouse was the Earl of Dudley's boathouse and the very building where Edward, the Prince of Wales, and Mrs Simpson started their love affair. Older members say that they carved their initials into the ceiling beams but they have since been covered over with plasterboard. I keep meaning to find out where they did the carving. remove a sheet of plasterboard and put a sheet of glass in its place.
Then, after the second world war, the property came into public ownership (it is owned by Dudley District Council) and is used for a wide variety of events, conferences, weddings and so forth – and the great lake has become the home of Himley Hall Sailing Club (only being a modest bunch they call it a pool and not a lake). Certainly in terms of water surface area they must be one of the smallest clubs in the country and it would be difficult for them to be further from the sea as they are situated bang smack in the middle of the Midlands of England.

Having said that, they have a well-earned reputation for introducing youngsters to the water and in training them in all the things that matter when you are afloat. Indeed, the club is a recognised Royal Yachting Association training centre. My very best wishes to them: may they continue for many years to come.

Bruce in his natural habitat: on a boat - any boat - on the River Dart.
Then there is another friend, Bruce Symes. We used to sail together on the River Dart in years gone by and the greeting in his last Christmas Card says it all. ‘Still sailing – but very slowly’. What the card failed to say is that Bruce is heavily involved in ‘Dart Sailability’ which owns boats which have been modified to enable disabled people to sail in them and has hoist facilities for them on the pontoon at Noss on the River Dart where these boats are moored.

Manning the Bosun's Locker stall to raise money for Dart Sailability.
All of this costs a great deal of money and Bruce’s ‘thing’ is called ‘Bosun’s Box’. The idea is that they collect all sorts of boaty bits and pieces (even boats!) which they then sell – after refurbishing or whatever as required – at auctions and on eBay.

One of the fleet of boats owned by Dart Sailability out on the river.
So it is that while I spend most of my time hitting the keys on my computer there are two friends who are really doing things that are so worth while. In a world where there is so much going on that makes us want to weep, it is good to read about people who are doing something positive for their fellow men. I give you a toast: Tony and Bruce.

The blog dog this week answers to the name of Jago. Probably. Sometimes. When it suits him.

Friday, 7 November 2014


Today, I fear, we are into zoology and in an area that I know is not one of your favourites: beetles.
It really has been an incredible year weather-wise. All our tubs and borders had 'gone over' and Marcia had given most of the plants in them a haircut. Then, suddenly, they were all in flower again - and the sun was shining - so here are a few November photographs from the garden.
When I was a boy, I suppose I was about fourteen at the time, I convinced myself that I was going to become a beetle expert and so I asked people for books on beetles when they wanted to know what I had in mind for my birthday. This was the first time I had expressed an interest in insects of any sort and so I received An Insect Book for the Pocket by Edmund Sanders which I though was rather good as I already had A Bird Book for the Pocket by the same author. Indeed, I have them still – the latter a poor over-used and battered edition whilst the former could well be described as “used but in excellent condition”.

The reason is simple: the official list of British Birds (which is maintained by the British Trust for Ornithology) has something in the order of 600 species (the figure changes as the list is kept up to date) and Sanders limited his collection to the more common of these. This degree of complexity fell within my abilities (only just but . . .).

The companion on insects however was a very different kettle of fish (not, perhaps, the happiest of phrases to choose in this context). As Sanders says in the Preface, ‘The “Books for the Pocket” hitherto issued in this series aim at describing all species as are of reasonably common occurrence in Britain. This meant about 200 birds, 50 beasts, 70 butterflies and 850 flowers. The insects present a totally different problem and nothing of the sort can be attempted’. An understatement if ever there was one. I was soon to learn that there are over 22,000 insect species living here of which at least 2,000 are beetles.

Clearly I was intended a bird watcher and not a bug hunter. Even so, I was tempted to buy a copy of Beetles in Colour by Leif Lyneborg when it was published as a part of the Blandford Colour Species. Here we are at least in the world of the possible as it restricts itself to the most common 475 species: possible is not the same as simple and I remain almost entirely ignorant when it comes to beetles (despite the fact that if I happen across one when ‘going equipped’ I am unable to resist the temptation to take its photograph).
Standing in the corner of the porch is my old hiking stick which has a leather wrist strop as you can see. Flying all around and sitting in ones and twos all over the house were the Harlequins but this little collection caught my eye and this picture shows how different they can look.
All this is simply because we here, on the Dartington Trust estate, were engulfed in huge numbers of beetles last week as they turned from pupae to adults. This lot are not all that welcome: they are the notorious Harlequin Ladybird (because their colouring is very varied) or, more properly, Harmonia axridis. In the US they are also known as the Halloween Lady or the Multi-coloured Asian Lady Beetle. Their larva are the ones that do most of the damage to other insects since they are rapacious carnivores who will eat anything – including both the larva and adults of their own species – not that their parents are much better.

Since they spend about a week as a pupa, I was surprised to see one of the larva walking down the stick. He (or could it be a she?) is out of focus - sorry about that - but was hurrying away and I only managed to get the one shot.
This is one of those examples of man interfering in nature: they were imported into the US from Asia in order to control aphids (especially on soya). As it happened the first introductions failed to become established but then the population exploded: these ladybirds have now colonised most of the globe which, if we are honest, they would no doubt have achieved without any direct help from us. With so much international trade and so many people travelling from one country to another it was bound to happen one day. Still, they don’t do much for our native ladybirds and other insects: gardeners in particular are always looking for ways of controlling them and so are housewives as they have a habit of hibernating in soft furnishings and curtains in particular. Me? No, I just take pictures of them.

The dogs are Eddie and Teddie. Like many spaniels who have been brought up properly, they proved to be incredibly obedient, alert and totally at one with the boss. Having said that I suspect they are as mad as teeth. I say that because all spaniels are as mad as teeth although some (Springers for example) are madder than others (such as Clumbers).