Thursday, 29 April 2010

Killer Bees, Election Fever and Bungo Womble

There was a report in today's paper about a colony of bees that turned on a bee keeper and stung him to death.

'I think,' said Andy, 'that we should go and buy bees suits on Saturday.'
'This bee keeper was tending his bees bare chested, with no protective clothing whatsoever,' I said.
'Even so,' said Andy. 'And I think we should also go for the more expensive, thicker and therefore more protective option of bee suit.'
'He was being bit devil-may-care in his bee keeping,' I said.
'Even so,' said Andy.
'The report suggests he was tending them wearing little more than his bare skin,' I said.
'Extreme bee-keeping,' said Andy.
'Like extreme ironing?' I said.
'I think not,' said Andy.

So on Saturday, we are going to buy bee suits.

The second thing that is causing slight friction at the Manor is the forthcoming General Election. There are three candidates - General Motors, General Custer and General Misunderstanding. Of course, I jest. But Andy is disappointed that I like David Cameron. It is something he cannot get his head around and he looks at me reproachfully during party political broadcasts and prime minesterial debates, like I am going to waste my vote in some unlawful way. Equally, I am disappointed that Andy insists on sitting on the wobbly LibDem fence built by someone called Nick Leg. Still, we'll muddle by until next Thursday and then all will return to normal.

And the third thing that caused a mild contretemps this evening was the existence of Bungo the Womble. And Wellington the Womble. Now I remembered them very clearly, being an avid Womble fan when I was a child. But Andy was very suspicious.
'I don't remember them,' said he.
'That's because you're from up North and telly hadn't made it past the Watford Gap back in the 70's,' said I. 'Because of the risk of the annode ray tube shattering in the cold.'

(I like to get a Northern jibe in occasionally. It bolsters the feeling of superiority in my more advanced Southern brain.)

Anyway, via the medium of the Interwebbly, I proved the existence of said Wombles and a Womble identity crisis was thus avoided. It reminded me of the time I had to convince Andy that Barney Magrew from the Trumpton fire station was only one person and not two.

We really should get out more.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Chasing the Bumble

Yes, we did much digging and weeding at the allotment yesterday. Yes, we planted lettuce, carrots and basil, and pulled some rhubarb and found a stray carrot still hiding under ground from way back heaven knows when. And yes, we earthed up potatoes and got ridiculously smiley over the fact the strawberries are flowering and the gooseberries have many, many more flower buds on them this year because I actually remembered to net them before the birdies got a good gooseberry bud feast. We even plucked a good bag full of dandelion heads in order to set a brew of dandelion wine on the go.

But the best thing about allotmenteering yesterday was pursuing bumblebees about the plot in an attempt to identify them. Did you know there are 24 species of bumblebee in the UK? But that 6 of these 24 are cuckoo bumblebees that parasite other species? And that 3 species that were are no longer as they are extinct, and more are threatened with extinction? And that the reason I know these things is that I am now a member of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust?

Oh yes, I have a full colour bumble identification poster, a magazine, a car sticker, a cute little bee badge and a packet of wild flower seeds that I shall scatter forthwith when I can decide on a suitable spot of ground. So at the allotment Andy leapt around like a wild thing, pursuing with his camera phone the bumbles that strayed across our plots. And when we got home we studied the poster and decided we had seen an Early Bumblebee, a Buff-Tailed Bumblebee and possibly a red-tailed cuckoo bee but we weren't quite sure on account of the picture being a tad fuzzy and bees being a tad fuzzy so there was a little too much conflict of fuzziness to be absoultely certain.

And it was whilst reflecting on our very busy, very productive, very satisfying weekend that I had a mini-epiphany. Actually, I was thinking about the week of work ahead of me. Anyone who is a teacher will be aware of a certain sense of doom that descends around 6 p.m on a Sunday evening. And my sense of doom is ALWAYS accompanied by the feeling that I cannot teach. I do not have the wherewithall, the talent, to be a teacher. And then I go to work on Monday, and as soon as the first group of students pitch up in my classroom (in this case, Year 11) I find I can teach and I get on with the day. And then as soon as I leave school and I'm walking home I catch myself thinking, 'How did I do that? How did I teach those classes today?'

And my epiphany was that it isn't actually me who is teaching. It is some kind of auto pilot alter ego me, who goes into teacher mode and walks the walk and talks the talk and somehow survives the day.

Because the real me is the me who digs and weeds and plants and grows. And talks to chickens and stares at blossom and is becoming more and more engrossed in bees and everything they do. The person who loses herself in books about rearing quail and the possibility of top-bar hives and who wants to register her interest with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust following their plea for people who are interested in leading Bumblebee walks in 2011.

You know I lost my voice last week, for no obvious or apparent reason? Well, it came back over the weekend. But within 4 hours of me being back at work, it had gone again. My TA said, 'It's stress, you know.'

So on the way home I dropped into the allotment, watered the plants and seedlings, pottered a bit, watched a couple of bees, and then went home. I still couldn't talk properly when I got home but now, a couple of hours later, my voice is coming back.

It can be tricky living with two different aspects of yourself. You want to do the right thing for your family and you want to do the right thing for yourself. You want to be responsible and financially secure, yet you want to be happy and fulfilled, too. I know I've got to pack in the teaching. I'll probably sign up with an agency to do a day or two of supply a week. And I can do tutoring which I've always enjoyed. Especially as Andy is cutting down his hours at work so he, too, can spend more time at the allotment and learn how to bee-keep properly. But life has got to be slower now; it has got to be more about health and happiness than profit and possession.

Maybe it is something to do with growing older. Maybe it is to do with a shift in priorities. Maybe it is to do with wanting your world to be smaller...

After work tomorrow I'm stopping off at the allotment to plant beans. Maybe the bees will have something to say on the matter.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Up in the air

'Why has Cluckinghen Palace become high rise?'

This is the question posed by Mrs Miggins on seeing the Eglu pod perched atop a table top in the garden.

'Think of it as penthouse rather than high rise,' I say. After all, we do have certain standards to maintain here at the Manor.

'Penthouse schmenthouse,' says Miggins. 'What's our house doing on a table? And,' she adds, with a withering stare, 'what's more to the point, how are we supposed to reach it?' And she cocks a leg to prove the point that the distance between her outstretched toe and the top of the table is at least, ooooh, 36 inches. Miggins manages to balance for all of five seconds before keeling over onto her back. And there she lays in the grass, struggling like an upended beetle to right herself.

'I think you may be over-reacting to the situation,' I say.
'I'm proving the point that I am two and a hlaf years old and as such am too ancient to able to jump THAT high,' says Mrs Miggins.

Well, I think, I saw you wrestling a worm from Mrs Pumphrey this morning, no holds barred, so I think there's some energy in the old bird yet. But I don't say this because if there is one thing I have learned from my two years of chicken keeping and that is never to argue with a tetchy hen.

'You haven't answered my question,' says Miggins. She hauls herself to her feet and brushes off her Telly Tubby costume (she's running the London Marathon later dressed as Dipsy but only because her first choice of La-La was already out on hire).

'Well,' I say. 'We're going to instal a ladder...'
'A ladder???' interrupts Miggins a la Lady Bracknell.
'And you can climb the ladder...'
'A LADDER????'
'It's very simple,' I say. 'Hugh F-W says so. All I need to do is train you...'
'What do you think I am?' demands Miggins. 'A bloomin' Labrador??'
' placing food at strategic places up the rungs,' I say.
'What kind of food?' says Miggins.
'I was thinking layers pellets,' I say.
'Think again,' says Miggins.
'Sunflower seeds?' I say.
'Snail sushi?'
'Now you might be talking,' says Miggins. 'But I shall have to go and consult Betty and Gloria. I mean, I might be too old to climb a ladder, but Mrs Pumphrey is too fat and Mrs Slocombe is too mad. There are Health and Safety issues to consider. ' And she gives me one last and sinister look before stropping off to find the others. Well, as best as one can strop in a Dipsy costume.

Anyway, on our return from Bee Keeping Part Three, I find a note attached to the back door. It is headed - 'OUR DEMANDS' and looks like it has been written in Mrs Pumphrey's 'Flaming Sunset' lipstick. It says :

1) Ideally we would like a stairlift. We have ordered some suitable brochures for your perusal and someone called Darren from 'Stairway to Heaven' is coming round Wednesday fortnight to give you a quote.

2) If stairlift proves financially contraining, i.e you don't think we are worth the money even though we have kept you amply supplied in eggs and entertainment for the last two years, then a set of three graduated mounting blocks might a be suitable alternative.

3) Mrs Slocombe is keen to have a basket and pulley system. Betty and I are giving this dubious idea some thought because mad as it seems, it's still better than your stupid ladder idea

4) Mrs Slocombe is also keen on pogo sticks. However, she is going to have to work really hard to convince us of that one, but ditto above.

5) We shall consider the ladder idea provided the angle of ascent is no greater than 15% and each rung is padded with velvet to protect our feet.

6) Have you thought about a ski lift? We suggest you do.

7) Or put the pod back on the ground. We know it's human nature to insist on mending something that isn't broken, but we are chickens and we know when to leave well alone.

8) If food bribery is to be used, we have agreed universally that nothing less than canapes of Royal Garden Party standard will be acceptable.

I put the list of demands on the kitchen table. I think, I hope 60,000 bees aren't this demanding. Three chickens are bad enough to cope with, but 60,000 bees might well send me over the edge.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Vegetarian Triumph - not!

Being away on holiday encourages one to make some strange decisions. And one of the decisions I made whilst stranded 'pon the top of Exmoor was that I should return to being vegetarian. Whether this was because we shared our holiday with friends who are vegetarian, nay vegan even, or whether it was the near-kidnap of a lost lamb I do not know, but I do know I carried home with me a determined resolve to be vegetarian. And I have bought two books and a vegetarian cooking magazine just to prove it. I even went on the Vegetarian Society website which was very informative and only a teensy smidgeon evangelical.

So last Saturday, I started a week where I endeavoured to eat only veggie food. Andy said, 'I'll be veggie, too; it'll be good for my health,' and then he pulled the kind of a face that suggested he'd rather die young and happy and stuffed with a nice Cumberland sausage than old and miserable choking on lentils.

I said, 'You don't have to.'
He said, 'But I want to.'
I thought, I am not convinced, dear husband, because you have a meat-eating gene therewithin, but for the sake of ease, what with me being main chef and back to work this week, I decided he could join me for the inaugural veggie ride. (Although I did give him tuna sandwiches half way through the week because I started to feel sorry for him.)

Anyway, this morning I was feeling pretty triumphant that I'd managed a whole week without roasting a chicken. Actually, thinking about it, it's the chicken thing that's done it for me. Seeing Misses Miggins, Pumphrey and Slocombe going about their daily business whilst I am, at the same time stuffing a chicken, or dismembering a chicken, or dicing a chicken, well, it all seemed very wrong. I kept thinking, 'Miggins looks like this under her glorious ginger feathers. All pink and dimpled and puckered.' And I wouldn't dream of eating any of our egg laying ladies, so why would I eat one of their non-egg laying relatives? It suddenly became very hypocritical.

I know some people keep 'egg birds' and 'meat birds' and to be honest, I was almost convinced we would do the same, when the land came our way and we could expand our self-sufficiency. But now I think that a chicken is a chicken is a chicken. And chickens are all the same under the feather and should be treated thusly. I rest my case, m'lud.

So, a whole week of veggie eating! Aha!! But then...

...I kid you not, I woke in the wee small hours this morning and thought, 'I put Worcestershire sauce in the homemade baked beans...damn!'

And why damn? Because Worcestershire sauce has anchovy in it, doesn't it? And anchovy is fish, isn't it? And fish has a face and is therefore beyond the veggie radar. Damn, damn...DAMN!!!!

You see, it's little things like that which will catch you out. You've got to be ON YOUR GUARD ALL THE TIME.

Still, onwards and upwards. Andy has planted some melon seeds (vegetarian), which have grown about a foot in the last week. Well, okay, maybe not a foot, but given they were only planted last weekend they've shot up PDQ; whether their seedling enthusiasm goes on to produce melons remains to be seen, but with the glorious weather we've been having, I won't be surprised if we are knee deep in melon sorbet by the end of the summer.

And it's bee-keeping part three tomorrow, my two Marina Lewycka books arrived yesterday for a weekend of indulgent reading activity and McVities Dark Chocolate Digestive Biscuits are suitable for vegetarians - hurrah!!

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Penthouse Chickens

The eucalyptus is now gone. It is an ex-eucalyptus. All that remains is a stump around eighteen inches high and a foot wide. Heather reported that the tree surgeons took approximately 45 minutes to do the job, and there was much flinging of branches and dangerous swiping of chainsaws.

But now, light floods the garden, and the fear of the roof being dented by falling branches is gone.

On his arrival home, Andy perused the stump. 'I reckon we could put the Eglu on top of that,' he said.

I had visions of wobbliness on a grand scale.

'Hmmmm,' I said.

'No,' said Andy, sensing a tremour of doubt in my voice. 'If I build a frame to encompass the base of the Eglu, we could raise it off the ground and they could have a ladder to climb up at night.'

I was slightly comforted by the word 'encompass.'
'Like a penthouse?' I said.
'Exactly!' said Andy.
'Who's having a penthouse?' said Mrs Miggins.
'You are,' I said. 'Andy is going to build a frame and put the pod on top of the eucalyptus stump.'
'Oh, he is, is he?' said Mrs Miggins. She is not as easily convinced by words like 'encompass' as I am. 'And what does he think, exactly, is going to happen when the things that go bump in the night start?'
'The what?' said I.
'The things that go bump in the night,' said Mrs Miggins. 'Or, to be more precise, the things that go kerwhallop in the night. We need to be on solid ground when the kerwhalloping starts, I can tell you.'
'I have no idea to what you are alluding,' I said, making the effort not to end the sentence with a preposition,
'I don't suppose you do,' said Miggins. 'Because chickens are mysterious creatures and humans will never fully understand the enigmatic and myraid facets of their personalities.'

There is a bit of a silence.

'So what is the kerwhallop in the middle of the night?' I said.
'Mrs Pumphrey falling out of her bunk,' said Mrs Miggins.
'Mrs Pumphrey has a bunk?' I said. 'I rather thought Mrs Pumphrey would have a four poster with full curtainage and a floral bolster.'
'Oh, she does,' said Mrs Miggins. 'It's a four poster bunk. Because of the spiders.'
'But Mrs Pumphrey loves spiders,' I said. 'Especially in pate with crudites.'
'Yes,' said Mrs Miggins. 'But she doesn't want them crawling over her face in the middle of the night, does she?'

She didn't actually say the words 'you moron', but the implication was there.

'Well,' I said, 'if Andy builds a penthouse for you, there will be even less risk of spiders because you'll be way up high.'
'What pie?' said Mrs Slocombe. She was wearing a lumber jacket and pair of climbing boots. A shred of sawdust was nestled in her comb.
'Did you get up in the tree with the tree surgeons?' I said, severely.
'No,' said Mrs Slocombe. 'Where's the pie?'
'What pie?' I said.
'You said you were weighing pie,' said Mrs Slocombe.
'I think you'll find your hearing has been affected by chainsaw noise,' I said. 'There is no pie.'
'Well, that's a disappointment,' said Mrs Slocombe.

Life is like that, I thought, heading back to the house, to enjoy the massive flood of light in the kitchen. Sometimes you want pie, sometimes you end up with a bit of dried bread.

I have no idea why I said that. Philosophy? Or perhaps the result of another long day at work trying to teach a bunch of children with no voice. (Me, not them. A bunch of children with no voices? Aah, a bliss to great to contemplate...)

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Quiet at the Back

I have lost my voice. This, some might say (especially horrid school children), is a good thing. No more ranting, no more bossy-booting, no more dodgy singing in the kitchen at 6 in the morning.

I have no idea why my voice has gone. This is the second time in 4 months it has happened; I'm thinking, perhaps I ought to go to the doctor and get him to check out my nodes in case I have some horrid, incurable disease. Of course, I know deep down that I DON'T have some horrid, incurable disease, but I'm having one of my hyponchondriac weeks where every little thing is pointing to having a horrid, incurable disease of some description.

It started on Sunday. I was able to talk at bee-keeping, and I was okay for the rest of the day. I was okay when I went to work on Monday, although I was feeling a bit scratchy-throated. And then Monday evening I was coughing like a dog with kennel cough. And then a sort of cold arrived, which didn't really feel like a proper cold, so this morning when I got up, I was in come-and-go squeaky squeaky mode. And now, after a day of trying to teach, I have come home voiceless.

The children at school thought my voice-come-voice-go efforts were hilarious. There was very little evidence of sympathy for my plight which confused me as when I did a course on human development a few years ago, I was under the impression that skills in sympathy developed in children at around eight years old and the children I taught today were at least three years older than that, some of them eight years older. And the course also said that if chicldren don't develop the ability to sympathise at eight years old, then they are lost forever and will likely become sociopathic nutcases who pull the wings off butterflies and laugh whilst they kick defenceless puppies into ponds.

So there's no hope for the youth round our way then.

My dilemma is, do I go into work tomorrow? I feel fine. I am capable of doing all non-speaking related aspects of my work. But I have to speak when I teach, even if it's only to say 'Come in, sit down and get on with your independent exploration of the wonderful world of education and development of personalised learning skills,' as teaching is called these days. If I do that, it will end up with me staring at the students whilst they stare back because they are actually incapable of independent learning and really do want me to talk at them and impart my many, many words of educational wisdom.

Oh, what to do? One of my colleagues (the one who didn't find my non-voice hilarious) reckons I have 'tracheitis' - inflammation of the trachea. She recommended gargling with salt water, or vinegar, or lemon juice. Not molten chocolate, unfortunately.

And tomorrow is the big tree chop down day, when our eucalyptus will become no more and sunlight will once again flood our tiny patch of garden. So perhaps I ought to be home to supervise that, in case any chickens are concussed in the process. (I've already had to confiscate Mrs Slocombe's copy of 'The Lumberjack Song,' because she was getting over excited at the thought of shinning up a very large tree and christening her 'My Little Chopper' kit.)

We'll see. After all, I did manage to get up last night at one in the morning and summon enough voice to yell at four foxes who were having a screaming match in the middle of the main road just outside our bedroom window.

Have you ever heard foxes screaming at each other? It's a frightening sound.

But not as frightening as I shall sound when I am once more full-voiced and telling my students exactly what I think of their non-sympathetic, embryonic sociopathic ways.

Monday, 19 April 2010

New Best Writer

I have found a new best writer. You know how when I discover a writer I have to read EVERYTHING else they have written until I find a not so good apple in the barrell of their oeuvre? Well, last week, on holiday, I discovered Marina Lewycka. I have been aware of her as a writer ever since she claimed a best seller with a novel called 'A History of Tractors in the Ukraine' or some such title. (I ought to know because I've just ordered it from Amazon along with her second novel 'Two Fields' or something; again, I ought to know, but my memory is on shut down - it was first day back at school today after all.)

Anyway, the book I took on holiday was called, 'We Are All Made of Glue.' And this I remember for certain because it was a stonker of a read. I read it in under 24 hours, and finished just in time to join in with Andy, Richard and Sian in a drunken game of 'Who's in the Hat?' which I was best at because I was the only sober participant. It was one of those books that I'd put off reading for no other reason than it had 'glue' in the title; it had been sitting on my pile of books to read for AGES, sandwiched between a book on bees and a biography of Beatrix Potter. I flung it in the suitcase thinking I would have to read it as we'd be stuck in the middle of nowhere with little else to do. Once on hols I kicked off my reading with a book called 'Snobs' by Julian Fellowes, which was mildly entertaining in that it made me snort with amusement once. Then I skipped through an unknown chick-lit by an unknown writer which was banal in the extreme and made me snort with rage that SHE got published whereas I haven't (thus so far).

And so I made it to Marina's offering. Aah! Now THAT'S how to write! A plot just this side of the weirdo wall as to be believable, characters that were well-defined, colourful and sometimes fascinatingly disgusting. The narrative rolled along at just the right place. There was an ease of style that made writing look, well, so easy.

An all-round excellent read. I am a convert.

So I wait agog for my Amazon parcel, that should arrive in time for a weekend of decadent reading of a double dose of Marina Lewycka. In fact, I am going to have to plan the weekend very carefully. The allotment will need tending - the potatoes will probably need a first earthing up - and there is Part Three of Andy and Denise Go Bee-Keeping on Sunday. Also, I have a shed-load of summer bulbs to get into the ground and another shed-load of seeds to plant in the greenhouse which I STILL haven't cleaned out from last season.

PLUS I am on a mission to get us as close to being a vegetarian household as possible so need some time to experiment with recipes that will prevent Andy from feeling deprived of the eating of dead flesh. This is also on the back of last week's holiday when Andy and I had another of our 'we-need-to-be-more-healthy' anxiety moments. And the almost rescue of the little lost lamb.

It's good to find new things, try new things, learn new things. Marina Lewycka, vegetarianism, bee-keeping. They certainly keep one on one's toes.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Bee Brave, Queen Bee

Ooooh- hoooo! Part Two of the bee keeping course today, and, donning our bee-suits (low crotches are de rigeur this year), we tripped up the garden of Scott and Geraldine and into their seven hive apiary. Bee-veils veiled, zips zipped, velcro velcroed, trousers tucked in wellies, marigolds tucked into sleeves, we ventured forth looking like a couple of highly unfashionable spacemen.

Being beautifully sunny, it was an ideal morning to open a hive. Besides, Scott was at a highly tricky stage in his queen rearing and needed to get into a particular hive to set up some artificial queen cells.

'In we go!' he called cheerfully, puffing smoke hither and thither. The pitch of bee hum rose perceptibly, as the bees objected to the interference of their morning business. The hive that was opened was at around two thirds capacity i.e 40,000 bees. We were on a hunt for queen cells (or play cups), and the queen herself. This bit of bee-keeping is way beyond our current understanding, but we were able to identify drones, see some pheremone fanning, and watch the interaction between the bees as they came and went about their business. We also saw eggs in cells, larvae in cells and bees bottoms sticking out of cells as they did a bit of cleaning and polishing.

I had difficulties spotting the queen. I think it was the lack of tiara and ermine cloak that flummoxed me.
'There she is!' said Geraldine.
'Where?' I said.

And yes, once she was pointed out to me, I could see she was bigger than the others and more pointy in the body. Andy was better at keeping an eye on her than me. Geraldine got distracted into dispatching a couple of wasps that had been attracted to the hive by the syrup feed. Us bee-keepers don't like wasps. Bees don't like wasps and will sting a waspy invader to death if one invades the hive. But a stinging bee is a dead bee, so we felt we'd saved a few bee lives by getting rid of the wasp ourselves. It's all part of the circle of life - wasp attacks bee, human interferes and wallops wasp in a terminal kind of way.

But the BEST bit was being amongst a colony of bees on the wing and not feeling the urge to run around flapping my arms screaming, 'THE BEES! THE BEES!!' I was so busy watching all that was going on that I felt totally unfazed by the whole experience. (This probably means I shall be stung many times in the not too distant future for feeling so cocky. Buzz comes before a sting, and all that.)

And then we went inside for tea and cake and a lesson in frame making, which I managed with the insertion of only one wonky nail. Luckily, there were two men at hand to take the frame from the useless female and bash out the wonky nail so she could bash in a new nail in EXACTLY the same position as the original.
'Ah well,' said Scott. 'The bees won't mind.'

Back home, we were met by one chicken with a glint in her eye and another up the far end of Cluckinghen Palace dressed as David Bowie and doing a dance to 'Ashes to Ashes' in celebration of the Icelandic volcano eruption (more of which tomorrow if I can remember the brilliant idea I had about it this morning.)

The chicken with the glint in her eye (Mrs Miggins) approached me.

'You know Mrs Pumphrey is running for Prime Minister?' she said.
'I do,' I said. 'Although I was quite disappointed that she didn't appear on the Leaders' Debate on Thursday.'
'Oh, she was there,' said Mrs Miggins. 'You just couldn't see her behind the podium.'
'Then how do I know she was REALLY there?' I said.
'Well, every time Gordon Brown smiled that weirdo smile...' began Mrs Miggins.
'Yes...' I said.
'...that was Mrs Pumphrey goosing him in the hustings,' said Mrs Miggins.
'That explains a lot,' I said.
'Anyway,' said Miggins. 'We've decided to call Mrs Pumphrey's party 'The Bustin' Tea Party.'
'Yes,' said Mrs Slocombe a.k.a David Bowie, 'coz we're gettin' down wiv da kidz, innit?'
'And lots of people are often busting for a cuppa, aren't they?' said Mrs Miggins.
'Amongst other things,' said I.
'Don't you think it has a nice ring to it?' said Mrs Slocombe.
'It has a certain je ne sais quoi,' I said. 'Where is Mrs P, anyway?'
'Recovering her beak after all that goosing,' said Mrs Slocombe. 'Apparently, Mr Brown is made of rigid stuff.'
'Really?' I said.
'Like the Christmas carol,' said Mrs Slocombe. 'You know, 'Earth stood hard as iron, Gordon like a stone.'

And there, dear reader, we shall leave things.

It's probably for the best.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Even More - Here We Are!!

More of Andy and I have arrived home from holiday than went on holiday last week. I think this is because the primary sources of nutrition in North Devon are pasties, fudge and clotted cream teas. Not a whiff of a vegetable in sight. Not one that wasn't covered in local Exmoor Extra Strong Cheddar, anyway.

However, to counteract some of the effect of the pasty/fudge/ clotted cream diet North Devon had thoughtfully intergrated some extreme hills and valleys of deep incline and gradient in every direction leading away from the holiday cottage we were staying in. This meant that on Sunday, when we thought we'd walk to the nearest seaside village of Lynmouth (approx. 2.5 miles) OR SO THE MAP IMPLIED), we found ourselves yomping up and down and round and round some twisty turny windy hills (that's 'windy' as in back 'n' forth on hair-pin bends, and not 'windy' as in Force 10 gales although it was a bit breezy as it happens) to the point that we actually found ourselves further away from Lynmouth than when we started off and nearly died walking back up the hill to the holiday cottage over an hour later.

It seemed that wherever we went, we encountered hills. Steep hills. Thigh burning hills. Breath -gasping, heart-pounding, calf-wobbling hills. So this dose of holiday excessive baggage has gone straight to my stomach. Still, it'll come off quick enough when I start on the broccoli again.

We nearly brought home a lost lamb. I sent postcards on Tuesday, including one to Grand-daughter Kayleigh, when I jokingly said that there were so many sheep hereabouts I'd see if I could smuggle one home. Well, on the evening of the Icelandic volcano eruption (see what the rest of the world gets up to when you turn your back for 5 minutes to go on hols??), Andy went up the hill to see if he could see the 'magnificent volcanic ash induced red sunset' promised by the weather forecasters. And when he came back (no such sunset to be seen) he said, 'I found a lost lamb.'
'Where?' I said.
'In a field at the top of the hill,' said Andy. 'On its own. Barely moving.'
'Oh,' said I, thinking where could I find a box big enough for lamb-back-to-Kent transportation mode and do they like clotted cream?
'And in the next field there was a Mummy sheep, also on her own,' said Andy. 'So I picked up the lamb and put it in the field with the Mummy sheep. And they took one look at each other and shot off in opposite directions.'
'Oh,' I said. 'Do you think we should initiate a lamb rescue mission?'
'Yes,' said Andy.

So off we went.

But as we stepped into the farmyard of where we were staying, we bumped into the owner of the holiday cottage who was putting her varied collection of hens, cockerels, ducks and geese to bed. Andy consulted her re: the lost lamb.

She pulled a face. 'I'd leave it where it is,' she said. 'If it's on its own there's probably something wrong with it.' And then she wittered on about failed rescue missions, vet's bills and dead lambs with a look on her face that said something like, 'Bloody sentimental holiday-makers.'

I'm afraid I scowled a bit at this point. I refrained myself from saying, 'But Andy IS a vet,' and 'All living things deserve a chance at life,' and 'Just provide me with a lamb-sized box and I'll make a decision thank you,' but she must have picked up the vibes because she concluded her speech by saying, 'I'll get my husband to telephone the farmer; see if he wants to do anything about it.'

Great. For the rest of the evening I was bogged down with thoughts of going on a lamb rescue mission and being accused by the farmer of stealing one of his sheep, and trying to plan out where we would keep the lamb if we managed to get it in the back of the car to take home. The night ended with me taking the wimp's route i.e sending up a prayer to God to look after the lamb and hoping it was still safe in the morning.

Okay, maybe I was being a pathetic, unrealistic sentimentalist. Maybe the neighbours, thus far tolerant of our hens and our bees-to-be would have drawn the line at a lamb appearing in the greenhouse, but we'd have found a way around it. And, quite frankly, if a farmer is so blase and cavalier about his livestock, he has no right being a farmer in the first place.

Holiday rant over. Time to hit the Wii Fit and lettuce!

Friday, 9 April 2010

Have they gone yet?

'Have they gone yet?'
'I don't think so. I can still hear the wails of an angst ridden soul emanating from the bathroom.'
'Why does she do that do you think?'
'Blowed if I know. She should try eating a few worms. Then she' d know true suffering.'
'And do I have to type this with a cat on my lap?'
'No. Kick her off...'


'Look,' says Miggins. 'If you two are going to hijack the Manor blog for a week whilst Andy and Denise are on holiday, you've got to be subtle.'
'Subtle? I don't do subtle,' says Mrs Pumphrey.
'So I see,' says Mrs Miggins. 'Your hat says it all. Who kicked the cat?'
'She did!' say Pumphrey and Slocombe, pointing accusatory wings at each other.
'Or possibly Mrs Bennett from beyond the grave,' says Mrs Slocombe.
'Don't you be dragging Mrs Bennett into this. She would NEVER kick a cat,' says Miggins. 'Her legs were far too short for a start.'

An awkward silence ensues. Upstairs, the wailing has stopped and been replaced by the far more cheerful sounds of someone singing 'Dancing in the Moonlight,' and going into the loft to retrieve suitcases.

'Talk about mood swings,' says Mrs Slocombe.
'When are they going?' says Mrs Pumphrey. 'Only Tango Pete called. He wants to know when he can arrive to start setting up the portaloos for 'HenFest 2010.'
'Not until mid-day tomorrow,' says Mrs Miggins. 'They're supposed to be leaving at 10, but you know what she's like. Reckons she's all organised, but then spends an extra half hour running around doing pointless displacement activities like hoovering the cupboard under the stairs or repointing the chimney.'
'Okay,' says Mrs Pumphrey, 'I'll call him back and let him know. '
'And you've bribed our chicken sitter?' says Mrs Slocombe.
'All inclusive week to see Michael Buble in concert seven times,' says Miggins. 'The muck will hit the fan only when the credit card bill arrives, and then I say we meld into the background until the shouting is over.'
'She'll never suspect us,' sayd Slocombe. 'After all, it's a well known fact that chickens have no idea about how to use a credit card.'
'Quite,' says Miggins.
'Actually, I'm surprised at how well I can manage this keyboard,' says Mrs Slocombe. 'Especially now I've got rid of the cat.'
'It's because you've got nimble toes,' says Mrs Pumphrey. 'I have nimble toes, too, but they are more suited to the ballet.'
'Perhaps I should develop a career in keyboarding,' says Mrs Slocombe.
'There's no such thing,' says Mrs Miggins.
'Really?' says Mrs Slocombe. 'What am I thinking of then?'
'Snowboarding?' suggests Mrs Pumphrey.
'Ironing boarding?' says Mrs Miggins, who, quite frankly, would like someone else to do the sheets and duvet covers every once in a while.
'No, no,' says Mrs Slocombe. She pauses in her typing to have a think ...



'You'll have to start again,' says Mrs Miggins. 'Or we won't get any further.'
'Sorry,' says Mrs Slocombe. 'Well, whatever it is I'm trying to think of, I'm sure it will come to me soon. So, HenFest 2010, here we come, eh?'
'Yes,' says Mrs Pumphrey. 'I'm very excited. I've got a new head scarf in Parisian Pink chiffon, and a tambourine.'
'And I've left the outside tap running so we'll have a good pile of mud,' says Mrs Miggins.

Upstairs, the sound of suitcases being dropped fromt the loft hatch has stopped.

'What's she doing now?' says Mrs Slocombe.
'Decanting shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and moisturiser into handy travel-size bottles,' says Mrs Miggins.

'The sign of a deranged mind in need of a good holiday,' sighs Mrs Pumphrey.
'Exactly,' says Mrs Miggins. 'But at least they can go away knowing Much Malarkey Manor will be in good hands. Or rather wings.'
'Is that a good thing?' says Mrs Slocombe.
'Of course!' says Mrs Miggins. 'Just you wait and see.'

The Trainee Chicken Keeper

Not everyone at Much Malarkey Manor is keen on our livestock expansion programme. And by 'everyone' I mean Heather. On discovering that bees were on the way, she said, 'I suppose I shan't be able to have my bedroom window open now.'

Quite what makes her think that 50,000 bees would suddenly want to access her bedroom I do not know. I suppose she has a good selection of DVDs and some interesting theatrical-type posters to peruse. But given the choice of staying outside and roaming the skies for pollen and nectar, and sharing a room with someone who would be screaming loudly at their appearance, in order to watch 'Michael McKintyre Live at the Apollo,' I think a bee would probably opt for the former.

Added to this trauma, Heather has been designated Chief Chicken Keeper for the next week whilst Andy and I have a holiday in Devon. In order to keep the chickens to my exacting standards (i.e make sure they don't drop dead) I took Heather to Cluckinghen Palace yesterday afternoon to run through the 'putting the chickens to bed' routine. I thought I'd sneak in the 'getting the chickens up in the morning' routine as we went along, as it involved getting up at some ungodly hour in the morning.

'So,' I said, 'firstly you will need to enter the grounds of Cluckinghen Palace. You cannot get away with flinging food and stuff over the fence at them.'
'Right,' said Heather. I glanced down and noticed she was wearing totally unsuitable footwear, i.e not wellies.
'You will need to excavate the front of the pod or the door won't shut properly,' I said. 'This is because during the day the chickens dig all the bark chippings up into a heap in front of their front door. They do it to annoy me. I've left a shovel by the door with which to excavate.'
'Right,' said Heather.
'I will clean the pod out before we go tomorrow, which will be okay for the week. But you'll need to empty the bottom tray mid-week so there isn't a build up,' I said.
'A build-up of what?' said Heather.
'Poo,' I said. 'Although mid-week poo clearing isn't too bad during the spring and summer as the girls don't spend so much time in there pooping.'
'Why's that then?' said Heather.

Here we go, I thought.
'Because they get up at 6 a.m and go to bed at 8 p.m, thereby spending around 6 hours a day less inside than they do in the winter,' I said quickly.
'I'm sorry,' said Heather. 'But what time did you say they get up?'
'6 a.m,' I said.

I don't know why Heather needed telling this. She knows what time they wake in the summer because she sleeps with her bedroom window open and there's been many a time when she's complained about clucking hens waking her with a dawn chorus. Still, this won't be a problem when the bees arrive as I suspect the bedroom window will remain firmly shut.

'So how do I get the poop tray out?' said Heather.
'If you put your hand under the pod, you will feel a metal catch,' I said. 'Press it up and it will allow the tray to slide out. Pull out the tray and shovel contents into compost bin. You'll need to take the lid off the bin beforehand because it's a tricky operation to hold a poopy tray with one hand and try and get the bin lid off with the other.'

'I HAVE POO ON MY HAND!!' said Heather. Still, she gamely followed my instructions and managed to get poop into bin with no further ado.

'And in the morning,' I said, 'I hold a double hand of pellets for the hens to eat first because they sometimes take a while to realise they have two feeders in the run and don't really need my help. It's a bonding thing.'

Heather is not good with hand-feeding hens. I think it's the sharp pointy beak meeting soft flesh she objects to. Still, she got a handful of pellets and held them out. Mrs Miggins approached, because she is the most human friendly.

'Aaaaargh!!' said Heather, as Mrs Miggins, usually a very gentle pecker, ignored the food and went straight for Heather's thumb nail.
'It's because you're wearing red nail varnish,' I said. 'Chickens go for red spots because they think it's a nice bloody wound they can pick over. It brings out their cannabalistic tendencies.'
'Nice,' said Heather. 'That's coming off this evening, then.'

'Change their water twice a day, especially if the weather's hot,' I continued. 'And collect eggs, and change their bedding a couple of times a week, especially if it rains.'

'Anything else?' said Heather.

'Did you tell her that Tuesday night is curry night, and that on Wednesdays we'll need her to make up a four for bridge?' said Mrs Miggins.
'And that we're half way through 'Bridget Jones' Diary' for our bedtime story?' said Mrs Pumphrey. 'And if we miss a week we'll forget what happened and have to start all over again?'
'And that we go to yoga on Fridays and will need a lift this week because Tango Pete's campervan's off the road with its head gasket?' said Mrs Slocombe.

'You're joking?' said Heather, staring at the chickens, who were staring back, no doubt wondering if it was worth another lunge at those nice shiny red bits on the ends of her fingers.

I gave a shrug. It's all part of chicken-keeping to me. I'm used to it.

'So, do you think you'll be okay?' I said.
'Yes,' said Heather, because one of her finer points as a human being is that she is determined never to let anything beat her.
'Good,' I said, as we went back indoors so Heather could disinfect her hand of poop. 'Now, about the cats...'
'I'm not doing bees if you go on holiday next year,' Heather said. 'No way. Never.'

Ah, I think. Never say never. It's a dangerous thing, tempting Fate.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Educating Us

It is said that you learn something new every day. Yesterday, for example, I learned that Scott and Geraldine, our bee mentors, make exceedingly good cake. And today I learned that if you try and balance on one foot in your polytunnel after four and a half hours of digging in the hot sun and try to change your wellies and socks for pumps and bare feet in order to begin the half hour walk home, you are bound to over-balance and put your naked foot down into the pile of horse manure you put in the polytunnel two days ago.

Yuk! Still, no-one bothered me on the way home...

So yesterday evening, Andy and I began our bee-keeping course. Scott and Geraldine are independent bee-keepers, not affiliated to any local association. All they want to do is pass on their considerable knowledge to embryonic bee-keepers like us, and avoid the cliquey attitudes and behaviours that can happen in some clubs and societies. And that's fine by me. I've lost count of the number of times I've tried to contact our local bee-keeping association and been roundly ignored. You'd think, with the state of bee populations at the moment, they would welcome people keen to learn the art. Apparently not.

But we're off and running now! We've signed up for a block of ten 2 hour lessons, theory and practical, half-time tea and cake included. And what a lot there is to take in! Bees are a lot more complex and crafty than I ever thought. And managing a colony is a tricky art. Things to look out for, things to avoid, strategies to put into place to prevent swarming, and all the horrid diseases to which bees are susceptible. It's like being back at university.

But we enjoyed ourselves enormously. So much so that Andy said, 'We should find something else to learn about in the evenings. What else could we do?'
I stared. It was gone ten p.m. I was trying to remember what the name of the other type of brood frame was called - one was a Hoffman, the other was a ...??
So, quite randomly, I said, 'Cheesemaking.'

'We'd need a cow for that,' said Andy. 'Think of something else.'
'What's the name of the frame that's not a Hoffman?' I said. It was cheesemaking or nothing for me, I'm afraid.
'Manley,' said Andy.
'That's it!!' said I.
'I know,' said Andy. 'See, I was paying attention.'

There was considerable bee activity at the allotment this morning. I stopped periodically to watch them going about their stuff. And that's something else I learned today - that bees have the potential to be as good time wasters as chickens. There was also some wire worm activity, but I hoisted them off the plot PDQ - no wire worms wrecking our spuds this year, oh no!

And then I planted some carrots, beetroot and strawberries and netted the gooseberries to stop the birdies getting at the flower buds which I think is what happened last year, thus resulting in a total harvest of 7 gooseberries. Hardly a pie.

And then I staggered home, smelling slightly whiffy and feeling more than a bit achey.

If I was a bee, I thought, as I made my way up the slight incline towards the Manor, I would be able to fly home. But I fear I am even less aerodynamic than a bee; I'd never get off the ground.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010


Or muck, or manure, or droppings, or dollops - however you wish to view the substance.

We have located a source of poo. Other than the chickens, of course, who have been providing copious poo for two years now and have done a sterling job (pardon the pun!) of making our home compost bin wilt down at a highly satisfactory rate. And you have to be careful where you chuck neat chicken poo as it is very strong and not all our plants would appreciate the acid burns.

So it's ridiculous how something like finding another source of poo can make you feel wildly happy and at one with the world. Our friend, Jean, has a friend called Sue, who has a horse called Dennis, who is liveried (is that the correct term? I don't know - it's a long time since I rode a horse) at a stables way up high on the Downs. And where there's horses, there's poo.

'Come and take as much as you like!' we were told.

So yesterday evening we took many empty sacks and a shovel and loaded up our car (sans its seats to give us more space) with poo from the stables. It was nice poo. Two years old, nicely rotted, full of worms. But when we took it to the allotment and spread it out, it didn't do very far.

'This is when we could do with a trailer,' said I. 'So we could get great wodges of poo in one hit.'
'I'd like a trailer,' said Andy. 'But where would we store it?'

This is the problem, you see. We are running out of space to do the things we want to do. By the time we've squeezed in our beehives times two, we're going to be full up. And we still want to do things like keep more poultry, maybe a goat or two. A couple of pigs. A cow.

And grow more veg so we can keep not only ourselves stocked up with food but more of our extended family, too. And I suspect that once we get going, we shall end up wanting a couple more hives.

So, pushing aside the frustration of not having enough space, we shall concentrate on collecting more poo via many mini-trips twixt stables and allotment. And make the most of what we have.
I had to nip to Sainsbugs early this morning to get cat food. Three hungry cats staring at you makes you do things like this.
'I can't believe you've run out of cat food,' said Tybalt, reproachfully.
'Me neither,' said I, reproached.
'What if we starve?' said Phoebe the Fat.
'I think that's highly unlikely,' I said.
Pandora declined to comment; she was too busy chewing a table leg.

So Andy dropped me off at Sainsbugs on his way to work. Actually, he dropped me in the middle of a three way set of traffic lights, which added a frisson of excitement to the morning. And because I made several other purchases and didn't want my knuckles dragging on the ground by the time I'd walked home with very heavy shopping bags I decided to catch the bus home.

There was only me and one other on the bus. And the driver, of course. So we got on, and sat, and waited for the bus to leave. The other person was a young girl. She sat at the back of the bus, plugged into her i-pod. And bearing in mind she was sitting as far away from me as she possibly could, I was able to hear her i-pod quite clearly. Which only went to prove my theory that in ten years time there will be a whole generation of people draining NHS resources with their self-inflicted hearing problems. But that's another blogsworth.

After 5 minutes, it became apparent the bus was going nowhere fast. I was okay, I had a newspaper to keep me occupied. But the young girl was getting tetchy.
'How long are we going to be sitting here?' she yelled down the length of the bus. I thought, I hope the driver doesn't think that was me shrieking like a common fish wife.
When no response came forth (perhaps the driver was i-podding,too) the girl got up and stomped to the front of the bus.

'How long before we leave?' she said.
'Well,' said the driver, 'there's a jam at the end of the bus lane consisting of four buses. As soon as they sort themselves out, we can get going.'
'Only I'm going to be late for work,' said the girl.
I thought, perhaps you could make a bit more time for your journey in the morning, thereby avoiding potential traffic stress. That's what I do. Factor in extra travel time. Ah, the youth of today. They could learn a lot from me.

The girl stomped back to her seat. The bus sat still for another five minutes. From the back of the bus there elicited a series of sighs and humphs growing ever more grumpy. The i-pod got louder.

And then off we went. The driver drove like a maniac. I stopped reading my paper because reading on a moving vehicle makes me nauseous. And then the bus stopped to pick up a man who, by the aroma of alcohol that followed him, was clearly more than a bit tipsy. He just about managed to state his destination, and then proceeded to pay his fare with a large collection of very small change, holding up the bus even longer.

I thought the girl was going to launch off her seat and clump him. However, she reigned herself in to a loud exclamation of 'OH MY GOD!'

I thought, I know what that girl needs. Poo, that's what she needs. She needs to get her wellies on, grab a shovel and spend an evening at a stables shovelling poo into bags, marvelling at its crumbly texture and the proliferance of worms and thinking how marvellous it will be for her vegetables.

It would have been nice to talk to her about these things. But something told me not to risk it.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

General Eleggtion

Firstly, an apology to Mrs Pumphrey.

'Well, about time too,' says Mrs Pumphrey. She is sitting opposite me, perched on the beehive, as I take up residence at my writing desk (a long since missed seat since returning to teaching.)

'I'm sorry,' I say. 'Look, I'm on the interwebbly now, ready to make amends.'
'You've been on the interwebbly TWICE since it happened, and ne'er a mention,' says Mrs Pumphrey. 'This seat is very comfy by the way. What's it made from?'
'It isn't a seat, it's a beehive,' I say. 'And I don't think you'll be finding it so comfy when the new residents arrive in a few weeks. It's made from cedar. And zinc.'
'That'll be why it's warm,' says Mrs Pumphrey. Mrs Pumphrey, unfortunately, has been returned to her pink pants status by Mrs Slocombe. When sitting down, she needs all the warmth she can get.

'And who are these new residents?' continues Mrs Pumphrey. 'Not that squeaky pink thing that came and squirmed around on the floor yesterday, I hope. You'll never fit it in here,' and she taps the beehive with her foot. 'Not without a lot of squishing anyway.'
'That squeaky pink thing is my grand-daughter,' I say. 'Whom I have no intention of keeping in a beehive when she visits. The new residents are bees. Will be bees. When they arrive.'
'So what are they now?' asks Mrs Pumphrey.
'A glint in the Queen Bee's eye,' I say. For I have been reading voraciously about bees and know it takes three weeks for a bee to grow from egg to flight. So any bees that will be arriving at the end of May are still a couple of bee cycles away. (A bee cycle is nothing like a unicycle and should therefore not be confused. Unicycles might have more wheels than bees cycles, but the honey they produce is vile.)

'How many bees?' says Mrs Pumphrey. She is sounding rather suspicious.

'About 10,000 to start with,' I say.
'I see,' says Pumphrey. ' I'd better start knitting then.'

I think at this moment it will be unwise to engage Mrs Pumphrey in further enquiry vis a vis her knitting plans. All I know is that bees have 6 legs each, so if she's going for the bootee option, she's got her work well and truly cut out.

'Well, have you told them yet?' says Mrs Pumphrey, giving me a bit of a nudge.
'I'm just about to,' I say. 'Ahem...on Saturday 3rd April, Mrs Gloria Pumphrey maintained and extended her record of 'Biggest Egg Laid At Much Malarkey Manor' by producing a WHOPPER weighing in at 108 grammes. This is 15 grammes larger than the previous record, also held by Mrs Gloria Pumphrey. There, will that do?'
'Thank you,' said Mrs Pumphrey. (She's giving a little bow now, if you'd like to applaud.) 'Do continue.'

'And,' I continue, 'further more, based on her enormous egg laying prowess, Mrs Gloria Pumphrey would like to announce that she has today been to Buckingham Palace and announced to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II that she will be in the running for job of Prime Minister, given that Gordon Brown has finally flung in the towel.'

'Indeed,' says Mrs Pumphrey. 'And she was jolly pleased too. She said, 'One needs more sterling hens like you running the country.'
'Did she?' I say. 'DID SHE??'
'Not in so many words,' says Mrs P. 'But the implication was there.'

So there we have it. Mrs Pumphrey will be running for election to be Prime Minister of Britain. She is very excited. She is off now to begin her campaign in earnest ( a small village just north-east of the Manor). Mrs Miggins is her campaign manager (on the proviso that she gets to be Chancellor of the Eggschequer when Mrs Pumphrey wins.) Mrs Slocombe is making rosettes, and canvassing in Hotel Chocolat, Thorntons, and the chocolate aisles of most major supermarkets. She is angling for post of Minister for Eggducation. But I want that job so she'll have to arm wrestle me for it. (No pecking allowed.)

And although he doesn't know it yet, Andy will be writing the party manifesto (Mrs Pumphrey was very impressed by the speech he made at our wedding.)

And then, on 6th May, it will be up to you, the great British eleggtorate to return, via democratic voting, Mrs Pumphrey to her rightful post.

The one at the end of the garden. Next to the dust bath.

Monday, 5 April 2010

She's not Denise, she's a Very Naughty Girl

At the allotment this morning, I was, according to Andy, a very naughty girl.

Not because I spent three hours clearing the weedy patch which used to be the old compost heap before String Girl put her compost bins in the wrong place thereby forcing us to move our compost bins so our onions (or whatever) didn't become swamped in String Girl's nettles and other assorted weeds. And not because I shouted encouragement to Andy every now and then because he was in charge of potato planting and it was a very big job requiring much huffing and puffing and the occasional lie down on the ground.

No, my naughtiness surrounded the planting of the tayberry bush donated by Auntie Pollie.

Now, in my defence, everything would have been fine and no naughtiness would have ensued had not the old geezer from the allotment opposite arrived about half an hour before we left. You know, the old geezer who INSISTED our blackberry was a tayberry, and I INSISTED it wasn't, and he INSISTED it was and wouldn't BACK DOWN?

So, anyway, there I was heeling in the tayberry. It's a big tayberry. It smacked me around the face a couple of times like a frantic octopus, but I wrestled it into the ground without too much of a to do. And then the Old Geezer appeared.

'What's that, then?' he said, pointing his cigarette in the direction of the tayberry. I resisted the urge to go into one of my violent hacking fits as I am wont to do when in the vicinity of a cigarette (it's my way of showing displeasure at this awful habit. It's not very subtle, but I'm a granny now and grannies know no subtlety.)

'I don't know,' I said, with the air of an innocent, or possibly an imbecile. 'It was given to us by someone who's just moved into a new house and didn't want it in their garden any more.'

Andy, who was lurking near the polytunnel, let out a bit of a choke.

'Still,' I continued, maintaining a cheerful ambivalence to the whopping fib I just told. 'I'm popping it in the ground to see what happens.' And I carried on my heeling in.

The old geezer looked at the tayberry bush, and examined the leaves. Ha! I thought. Can't resist it, can you? Can't resist the urge to fling your aged wisdom around our patch, just to assert your superior knowledge over the young whippersnappers who turn up and do a bit of digging once in a blue moon.

'Looks like something from the raspberry family,' he said.

'Ummm,' said I, nonchalantly. 'That's what I thought, but hey ho, we'll just have to wait and see, won't we?'
'Probably one of them ornamental flowering varieties,' said Old Geezer, and he wandered off to plague some one else, trailing his superior knowledge behind him.

'You are VERY bad,' said Andy, as we loaded the car to go home.
'What???' I said.
'You know,' said Andy.
'All I know,' I said, 'is that at some point the Old Geezer is going to say, 'That's a tayberry bush you've got there,' and I shall get to say, 'Oh, but it can't POSSIBLY be a tayberry. THAT'S a tayberry - and I shall point to the blackberry - because you told us it was last year.'

'But they look totally different,' said Andy.
'I KNOW!!' I said, triumphantly. 'HA!'

'Like I said,' said Andy. 'You are a VERY naughty girl.'

And that is why, because I am very observant of the laws of karma, I NEVER buy a lottery ticket.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Bee Hives Maketh the Man

'So how's it going?' I call from the living room where I am hiding with a book about beekeeping. The living room is a safe distance from my writing room, where hive building is occurring in earnest. I say 'safe' because flying nails are generally unable to negotiate corners.

'**"!!&% ($%^&) **^&"' says Andy. '**&$!!**'

'Good, good,' I say. I return to my bee keeping book. The writer is regaling a story of being left hanging from a tree branch by one hand whilst clinging on to a swarm in a box he'd collected just seconds before his ladder skidded away from 'neath him.

I read on for a few minutes. The occasional curse emits from my writing room. Periodically, Andy appears in the doorway of the living room looking red-faced and annoyed.

'Everything okay?' I say.
'Humph,' says Andy.
'Can I help at all?' I say.
'Harrumph,' says Andy. He flicks a bit of sweat from his brow and returns to the hive-in-progress.

Sometimes I am brave enought to enter hive building territory. Having been raised by a carpenter, I know only too well that it is unwise to come between a man and his work space, especially where wood is concerned. I think there is something in the sap that makes them go slightly mental. And NEVER offer advice. Offer tea. And cake. Nothing else.

Sometimes I am summoned to offer advice. Andy tells me the problem; he tells me what he thinks he ought to do. And I agree. This is the most tactful and reassuring form of advice to offer if you want to come out of the other side of the experience with your relationship intact.

Personally, I am very impressed that Andy has cracked on with the hive building with such gusto. When we arrived home, he said, 'I'm not going to build it today.' Which is okay. I think it's the correct form, when buying anything that needs constructing from series of parts, to leave the parts sitting in a heap for a week or so, in order that they may glower at you and intimidate you from the corner of the room, so any thought of simple construction goes clean out of the window and you end up convincing yourself you've got a major building problem on your hands.

But within a couple of hours construction is underway. And by the end of the day...

TA-DAH!! A beehive!!

Andy is convinced he has put it together completely wrong. I examine the hive. It looks like all the pictures in all the books we have amassed. It stays together. It doesn't wobble. If I was a bee, I'd live there. I might put up a few curtains and pictures and have a rug or two on the floor, but yes, I'd definitely live in Andy's new build, detached, attractive des res beehive.

And this morning, whilst I was scaring myself about how to examine the status of a queen cell in order to stop potential swarming, he built a brood frame!

It's all going very well.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

A Hive of Industry

This morning we went bee hive hunting. We were recommended a bee farm which sold all the equipment needed for beekeeping, and which turned out to be not in the place the address suggested.

'Oh, we moved from there,' said the bee people when we pitched up. 'But we liked the name, so we kept it.'

Never mind, we found them. But only because Andy realised he passed by the place every day on his way to work.

The bee people turned out to be very helpful. Having decided to build our own hive (and by 'we' I mean Andy), the bee people suggested two options - cedar or pine. Cedar is more expensive.

'But we've heard it will last longer,' said we.
'Oh yes,' said the bee people. 'A hive made from cedar will far outlive your beekeeping needs.'

Now did they mean 1) we looked like the kind of people who would give beekeeping a go then give up after a year thereby rendering the hive e-bay fodder or 2) that we looked like the kind of people who enjoyed cake a little too much and had about 10 years left in the pair of us max or 3) that cedar hives are extremely hardy and in 2,000 years, an archaeologist will unearth a strange box from the depths of our garden and say 'Hmmmm...National beehive; 2010 if I'm not mistaken'?

We liked to think the latter.

Anyway, we bought the bits for the hive - about 300 pieces of wood and 6,000 nails. We also bought a bee-brush, a hive tool, super frames, brood frames and a Clanger dressed in a suit of armour and carrying a rucksack, I mean a smoker. In a couple of weeks we shall return for bee-suits, inverted sugar, a feeder, a mouse guard and some rather nifty goat leather gauntlets.

Before we went on our way, the bee people gave us a jar of their home grown honey. 'Call us if you need any help, no matter how big or small,' they said. They are nice bee people.

Back home, Andy rigged up his Black and Decker in a manly way in my writing room, because the weather was proving a bit diverse for outside carpentry. He's building away now, as I type. I've left him to it. There's a lot of banging going on, a bit of muttering and occasional swearing as hammer hits thumb instead of nail. But so far, so good - the roof is made and the brood box near completion. I've played a game of 'Robo-Clanger Attacks Cats,' with Tybalt, Pandora and the smoker. The cats weren't impressed and are now sulking on the back of the sofa. It's Pandora's first birthday today; I think she really wanted to go to Chessington World of Adventure and have cake for afters.

Another beekeeping book arrived in the post whilst we were out. This is book number 4 in the Much Malarkey Manor Library Beekeeping section and you'd think they'd all say the same things, but they don't. And the more I read about bees, the more I think it is important to find out as much as you can about them as possible. They are not the kind of creatures you can sling out a couple of hives for and expect them to move in and get on with it. Of course, you mustn't interfere too much, but knowledge is important if you are to be a conscientious guardian of bees. You are, after all, responsible for their health and well-being all the time they are living with you. Bees are not easy; bees are complex. The more knowledge the better, that's what I say.

And it's all very fascinating. True life-long learning.

The bee people said, 'So you've got chickens, and soon you'll have bees. What's next?'

I put my finger to my lips. 'Quail,' I whispered. 'But don't tell Andy.'

Friday, 2 April 2010

The Bees, the bees

So yesterday I placed an order for our first colony of bees. I have been doing much voracious reading about bees this week, which means I have been able to distance myself from the horrors of teaching. And I have come to the conclusion that bees are far more intelligent and interesting than many of the students I deal with. The future, it seems, is orange - with a few black stripes thrown in for good measure.

But hurrah! Two weeks of Easter break are upon me, and I can concentrate on important stuff like gathering beekeeping equipment and sorting out the allotment and garden. And being constantly amazed at the speed with which my rocket seedlings are sprouting on the kitchen window sill.

The bees are being collected somewhere around the end of May. This is good. This gives us time to get well into the one-to-one beekeeping course we have signed up for. And source the equipment we need. I am especially keen to investigate smokers because they look like Clangers in suits of armour. And as I write this, Andy is in the garden with his new Black and Decker practising sawing up wood and making basic joints (of wood, I hope. I shall be cross if I go out later and find him lying in the middle of Cluckinghen Palace in a drug induced stupor. 'So will we,' says Mrs Miggins. 'We'll have none of that malarkey here.')

As Olly commented a blog or two ago, if Andy is getting interested in carpentry, he can make a hive. I suggested this to him. Build your own hive kits are cheaper than ready built hives.

'Everyone says they are easy to make,' said I.
'Everyone?' said Andy.
'Well, Olly,' I said.
'I'll have a go, then,' said Andy, because he could detect a glint in mine own eye that suggested if he didn't, then I would.
'And you're a surgeon,' I said. 'If you can repair the shattered leg of dog, you can construct a beehive kit.'
'Remember that I have managed to staple myself to a dog before now,' said Andy.
'We all have our off days,' I said.

So this weekend, in between feeding my need to watch a Biblical epic or two, we shall be pootling around the countryside gathering beekeeping equipment.

Also, a tree surgeon came out to peruse our enormous eucalyptus tree. I liked him. He said, 'I see you keep chickens. Just the three, is it?'
'Yes,' I said, and regaled him with the sad demise of Mrs Poo. 'But she was a bit of a Stalin,' I finished. 'And taught the others some very bad habits.'
'I worked my way up to 180 chickens at one stage,' said the tree surgeon. 'But I'm back to three now. And four ducks.'

I didn't like to ask how he got from 180 chickens to 3. But I liked that he kept chickens and ducks. And that he did some teaching too. And that his wife was a teacher until she got fed up with it, and is now a paramedic which, he said, was far less stressful. Now that tells you something doesn't it? That people would rather deal with blood, guts, sick and poo than the youth of today.

Anyway, I digress. The tree surgeon quoted me far less to remove the tree than I was charged two years ago by another tree surgeon just to top out the same tree.
'How much did you pay?' he said, when I expressed surprise (pleasant) at his quote.
'You were robbed,' he said, when I told him. 'I'd have charged you less than half of that.'
'Don't tell me that now,' I said.

And we had a bit of a laugh and rolled our eyes at the unscrupulous behaviour of some tree surgeons.

So the tree will be dealt with by the time the bees arrive. The biggest parts will be left with us as logs for building, whittling, perching etc. And the stump will remain in the South Wing of Cluckinghen Palace as Mrs Miggins has requested a new seating area.
'It will be like a Round Table,' she said, squinting her eyes in a visionary moment. 'And I shall be King Arthur.'
'And I shall be Sir Laughalot with a big sword called Eggscaliber,' said Mrs Slocombe.
'You'll do as you're told,' said Mrs Miggins.

Andy is amassing a list of garden related woodworking projects he intends to build. Starting with a bird box, and a beehive, he plans then to move on to various assorted pergolas, mini-greenhouses,, herb troughs, cold frames, and then a massive revamp of Cluckinghen Palace.

'I think we should add a conservatory,' he said. 'So the hens can have the effect of being outside whilst undercover on wet days.'

This is a good idea. Especially as there is no more pathetic sight than a damp chicken. And it means their dustbath would stay dry rather than being reduced to a soggy quagmire every two weeks or so.

Also, and do not breathe a word of this to Andy, this revamp could be adapted to include my next livestock keeping plan which is quail. Quail are tiny. They wouldn't take up much space.

But don't tell Andy.