Wednesday, 14 June 2017


I think / hope I am a good gardener. It’s in my genes, so I ought to be, but I have one serious failing, and it is that I simply cannot remember the names of plants. And this week it’s been a bit of a problem…

My neighbour, who has a heart condition, has today gone into hospital for a remedial operation. This procedure is usually very successful, but like any other it has its risks. In her case, it is risky not to have the operation, so she has been in that horrible limbo of ‘do I, don’t I?’ for the past two to three weeks.

This last week has been one of ‘getting everything in order’ and making all kinds of arrangements, including for her garden and plants. Two plants had special needs. One, an exotic-looking daisy-like thing, is a gift I brought her back from France to cheer her up. I had no idea of its identity, only thinking it was bright and cheerful and bound to be easy to look after. I had an inkling I had seen one in her garden in previous years, and it turned out that I was right. ‘It’s a Gazania!’ she commented, delighted. I had already re-potted and watered, and it was doing well in my greenhouse. It continued to thrive in her little summer house, and all was well.

A second friend had a similar idea, and soon my gift was sitting beside another, beautiful deep orange… daisy? But then my neighbour asked me to look after both plants while she is in hospital. She didn’t want to leave them inside the summer house because they need watering, but she was loath to leave them outside where the insects and snails might attack them. ‘In your greenhouse…?’ came the request. ‘Of course!’ I replied.

On Monday she brought them round, accompanied by her gardener who was holding one aloft, grinning at me as he followed her towards the greenhouse, almost as if he knew what I’d let myself in for.

Everything was fine until the weather changed. It keeps doing this. One moment it’s raining, gloomy, depressing and November-like; the next we have blazing sun and it’s more like August than June. Which is exactly what happened yesterday! The day dawned like a smile, with no hint of just how hot it might become as the morning sun climbed up in the sky. I opened up the greenhouse, where both plants looked very happy sitting on the bench in the sunshine. I then went out for several hours, returning during the afternoon. 

Calamity! The orange daisies looked terrible, apparently dying of heatstroke. Miraculously the Gazinia was fine – which is lucky, because I can’t possibly replace it with another from France. I whisked the orange daisy out of the greenhouse into some shade and waited for the day to cool down before giving it some water.

Today the temperature is even hotter, but I’ve positioned the orange daisy in a shaded part of the greenhouse and it looks fine. It’s lost a couple of its flowers, but the others have recovered. I decided that I really need to know exactly what the plant is, so that I can investigate its care. A Google ‘image search’ helpfully informed me: ‘best guess for this image: flower’ which is great. But it also showed similar images, so I have managed to identify the plant and now I know that it prefers a shady spot in a greenhouse – which is exactly where I have placed it.

So… fingers crossed for both the plants and more especially for my neighbour. One thing is certain: she will receive far better care than I have so far given the large daisies!

Oh, did you want to know the identity of the orange daisy? Hold on a moment, while I look it up again… 


Thursday, 20 April 2017


- or ‘… through a glass, darkly’.

Someone in a supermarket coughed a cold over my husband and the result has been a few weeks of ‘life on hold’. I’ll spare you the details, other than to mention that when I inevitably catch any germ which comes into the house, as an asthmatic the results can be very boring. This time the doctor prescribed what amounts to a blast of steroid tablets to clear the asthma. The resulting improvement in my lungs was so fast it almost – quite literally – took my breath away. But the shock to my metabolism has been an episode I would prefer not to repeat.

When you read the ‘leaflet’ which unfolds from the box of tablets like one of those pocket maps, the information is shocking and depressing. You can research these drugs on the internet and there are forums in which people complain about side effects. Nothing can quite prepare you for the sudden, total exhaustion which felled me like a tree the day after I finished the course of steroids. More sinister still was the insidious darkness which penetrated my thoughts and put paid to any writing I had lined up. And it’s taken me a couple of weeks to get back on track, although even now I’m not quite ready to continue with my current book.

 I had forgotten how chemicals change one’s way of thinking. Let me try to describe it. The whole world shifts very slightly so that a different facet is presented. It’s a bit like looking through a window at dusk when the view is shadowy and incomplete. Instead of standing directly in front of the window, it feels as though one is positioned far to one side of it, thus foreshortening the frame of vision and blocking most of the outlook.  Colours and scents are falsely displayed. The mind races to exaggerated conclusions, following a path in the wrong direction, from which there is no apparent way back. The effect is stifling and paranoia sets in.

Days pass and I am on the road to recovery, my brain gathering together its severed parts and putting them back in order and my exhaustion less severe. I’m lucky – I have wonderful support in my life and time in which to fester. Others have neither of these vital components and it seems, right now when there is so much talk about being positive in our attitudes towards mental illness, as though there is a huge gap between what we say and what we do. This is not all the result of a chronic lack of resources, as we are so often informed. I am more inclined to consider the way in which our lives race out of control so easily in these pressured times. There is never ‘enough time’, and we cannot find spare hours in the day – let alone a couple of days - for the luxury of ‘recuperation’, a vital part of recovery which used to be taken for granted.

Last week I was looking at photographs of railway stations and happened to remember a wistful little song by Flanders & Swann called ‘The Slow Train’. This highly nostalgic piece dated 1963 laments the loss of many small stations and railway lines due to the so-called ‘Beeching cuts’ in that era. It started me thinking about choices and how they have been slashed from our lives. We no longer have time to take the ‘slow train’ – and even if we did, it no longer runs. If we find time for leisure, we become frantic in our desire not to waste it – which misses the point. How often have you longed to have ‘just one more hour/day/spare moment’? 

But what is the rush all about? Yes, we have deadlines to meet, rules to which we must adhere and expectations to fulfil. Would it be the end of the world if we took a few hours or even a day off to take the slow train, to walk along the beach or simply to sit in the sun and do nothing? Perhaps not. And perhaps such moments in time are what we need, as human beings, to make our lives better.

Well, if I’m rambling on a little, you’ll forgive, I hope, the fact that I haven’t quite got there yet….

If you are interested in listening to 'The Slow Train' - here is a link (be warned - it's a little sad):

Sunday, 12 March 2017


Imagine if you will a rather different take on ‘standing at the gates of Heaven’. In this scenario - which is more of an interview - you are deciding whether to live on Earth as a Human.

Let’s build on the idea. The interviewer – let’s call him/her ‘The Manager’ is a cross between a travel agent, an overworked corporate boss and a psychiatrist. You both run through a basic description of the planet, its geography and features, the locations you might choose – and then more serious matters are discussed. You have decided to be born in the United Kingdom.

The Manager: You have chosen quite a tough planet. You may not find it easy to settle down. You’ll be vulnerable right from the word go if your physical appearance doesn’t meet certain standards. 

You: What standards? 

The Manager: They make them up as they go along. Then there’s intelligence.  You need to be bright, but at times you’d be wise to hide it if you are.

You: So far so good, I’ll play along. Any other difficulties?

The Manager: I would say one of the problems is the frailty of their bodies. They are very poorly designed. Humans haven’t evolved very well, and they are not good at looking after themselves. Even when they do, they can be struck down by physical and mental illnesses which they tackle in all manner of ways, none of which are particularly effective. It won’t be possible to choose a design, I’m afraid.

You: I’m well aware of that. 

The Manager: Explain to me why you think you would be suited to this planet?

You: I’m passionate about some of its beautiful features and the way in which Humans interpret them through art, music and other forms of communication.

The Manager: Huh! If you think your lifetime there will enable you to devote yourself entirely to philosophical matters, you really haven’t investigated it properly at all! The odds of you being born into – or, for that matter, working to achieve such a life are far too long.

A pause ensues.

The Manager: You may find yourself emotionally ill-equipped to cope. You understand that you may form attachments to people; that those people may let you down or die. You may produce children:  burdens of responsibility and emotional ties. Could you handle this?

You: I’m prepared to try, willing to learn, keen to contribute. Will these qualities be sufficient?

The Manager (with a sigh): I think you may be in for a rather rough time. Go ahead, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Oh, and try to remember not to take sides.

You: Which side shouldn’t I take?

The Manager: Heaven only knows…



Friday, 17 February 2017


Ten years ago we were living in our 300-year-old Mid-Devon Cottage and waiting to have the roof re-thatched. It was in a poor state. People often question how long a thatched roof will last, and the answer is not clear-cut. It depends on so many factors: the location of the house and its exposure to the elements; the wind, weather and temperatures across every season of the year; the type of material used, the pitch and height of the roof; and so on. You could estimate as a broad rule of thumb that a wheat-thatched roof in Mid-Devon might last for twelve to fifteen years, maybe more. On the other hand it could only last ten, which would be unfortunate because the cost of re-thatching is not cheap. 

Costs aside, this article is really about how two men, father and son, carried on this age-old tradition over a period of eight weeks in the early summer of 2007. During that period we came to know Richard and Marc pretty well. Aside from the obvious things which you find out about people working on your house: how much tea, coffee etc. they drink in a day; at what intervals; sugar, milk and biscuit requirements… we learnt about the physical demands of this type of work. Thatching is heavy, skilled labouring combined with artistry and a wonderful sense of balance. We discovered the arduous nature of working on your back in an awkward space when it’s raining. And we could see for ourselves the physical effect it can have on a body, when the Richard gritted his teeth against the pain of the onset of arthritis, probably caused entirely by his job. 

The government is expecting people to be able to continue to work long beyond what might be considered a reasonable retirement age – but can a man of seventy honestly be expected to be as nimble, as strong and as well able to balance on scaffolding or a roof in wind and sleet as a man half that age?

These two thatchers are descended from still more thatchers. The firm has passed from father to son over five generations. 

We already knew that Richard had been born in our cottage, but we did not expect the effect of this to be a regular inspection by his own father, now ‘retired’ and checking up on the work being carried out in his name. The two on the roof were not very happy with this – it unnerved them somewhat every time they glimpsed the grey car driving slowly up the road past the house, but they could do nothing to prevent it.

Equally disconcerting for me was the odd occasion when I spotted Richard making business telephone calls to arrange other contracts, materials and such, from a position high on one of the ladders, leaning back against the thatch and gesticulating with his free hand. This might have seemed second-nature to him, but it was not easy to observe!

Right at the end I climbed up on to the scaffolding to take a look at their world, to appreciate the beauty of the finished result and to marvel at their competence. It was easy to examine the thatch, but when I turned round to appreciate the view it was the sheer height at which they worked with such apparent ease, the gaping spaces between the footboards and the ever-present possibility of tumbling off this perch if one lost concentration for a moment, which left a lasting impression.

 And here is the finished result. A beautiful, eyecatching and iconic representation of the craft of a thatcher. So many thanks to Richard and Marc, this was worth every penny. I passed it again recently and although not quite as pristine and much darker in colour, ten years on it is still looking good...