We’re Digging the Spring

Part of the master plan when we bought Fishponds Cottage was to try and achieve some level of self sufficiency. I realise that this may result in us all becoming vegan if we see it through completely, as I don’t think I’d be any good at milking cows, killing pigs or making cheese. But we’re making a start.

Back in November, I had some very nice men come and fence off an area of one of the fields as a designated vegetable patch. We have hundreds of bunnies in that particular field and have spotted deer on a few occasions, so it’s pretty much the Fort Knox of veggie patches. The rabbit fencing has been buried deep and the deer fencing is about 6 foot high. Only time will tell if this is enough to keep those determined little rabbits out!

They marked out four good sized plots, roughly turned it over and dug in some manure from the old muck heap. From a distance it looked ready to go. But on closer inspection it became obvious that a lot more elbow grease was needed before we could get down to the exciting business of planting.

So with the sun shining last weekend, we set about digging.

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If I’m honest, Stu did most of the backbreaking work. Once he’d turned it over and pulled out all the big roots, I went through it again, picking out all the nettle roots and weeds. Maddie and Saffron collected all the stones in their wheelbarrow and then threw them into the “pond”. The pond is actually a ditch used by the previous owner to practise riding her horses through water. Sadly it doesn’t appear to harbour any interesting wildlife ; there are have been no signs of frogs, and no frog spawn. There haven’t been any newts, or even any pond skaters. It really is just a muddy ditch filled with stagnant water and so the long term plan is to fill it in. In the meantime, throwing stones in there has provided hours of fun for the girls.

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It was about 5pm on Sunday by the time we’d finally finished. I carefully raked the newly dug and weeded soil level. And I have to say, despite the aches and pains from all that digging, it felt good.

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Now, I’m no expert in the garden – we’ve inherited a gardener here, so I haven’t needed to tend to the garden, although I will pull out the odd weed every now and again. I have phases of real enthusiasm but this always seems to dwindle, and packs of seeds remain in their packets, and bedding plants start to wilt in their pots.

But I’m determined to make a go of this veggie patch. I’ve read a book and flicked through a couple of gardening magazines. But to make sure I’m doing it right, I’ve enlisted the help of Granny.

Granny has a proven track record in the vegetable growing field, even if she her crops always tend to be a bit courgette heavy.

A few weeks ago we paid a trip to a garden centre and mum told me all about seed potatoes. I bought some in anticipation of having somewhere to plant them. My choice of variety was made in a similar way I choose a horse for the Grand National – solely on their name. So when I spotted a potato called Osprey, I knew it was the spud for us!

Mum showed me how to chit the seed potatoes a month or so ago– basically to stand them on their end to encourage shoots at the top. And as luck would have it, they were ready to plant this week.

So with Maddie and Saffie in tow, we learnt how to dig a trench and carefully plant the potatoes with their shoots at the top. Maddie and Saffie were great. They listened, and followed the instructions and seemed as pleased with our efforts as I am.

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So, the first crop is in. Now to dig the other three beds and decide what other lovely vegetables we fancy eating later in the year.

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There Snow Chance!

IMG_0690_3_SnapseedEver since Maddie can remember, winter has involved proper snow and serious sledging sessions. We were lucky enough to live right on one of the highest points in Essex at the old house, and although the sacred slopes were a long trek through snowy woods, or a short drive, all bundled up in the car, it was always worth the effort. We would spend many a “snow day” or weekend at the top of Langdon Hill or One Tree Hill with hoardes of other locals, all desperate for a run down the best hills for miles.

So when we first brought Maddie to view Fishponds Cottage, and she saw that one of the fields had its own hill (we call it hilly field), she was thrilled. There was actually still snow on the ground that day so it was easy for her to picture herself sledging down her own private hill; no queuing for a turn, no rushing out first thing to get the best of the snow, and hot chocolates on hand close by.

In fact, it is probably fair to say, that for Maddie, her own sledging hill was one of the main selling points of the house.

So as winter approached, it was with a sense of excitement and anticipation. The sledges we brought out of storage, new salopettes were purchased and we waited.

And we waited.

We noted the classic sign of an impending cold winter, according to the old wives’ tales and commented on just how packed with berries the trees were this year. There was even talk of a cold snap on many of the weather forecasts.

But Christmas came and went, and not a single flake was seen.  I can’t help feeling that the rather awesome “snow scooter” that Stu and I bought Maddie for Christmas may have been the final nail in the coffin of a snowy fun filled winter. Such a brilliant gift – if it had snowed.

But now, at the beginning of March, and with temperatures this weekend forecasted at 17 degrees, I think we’ve finally all given up hope of an arctic cold snap.

And the garden seems to be saying the same thing. There’s been an amazing carpet of snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils beneath our huge oak tree. The vivid colours are a welcome sight after this wet and dreary winter. Watching to see what delights emerge from the sodden soil has been one of the great things about the last few weeks at Fishponds. All the spring flowers had come to an end by the time we moved in at the end of April last year so all these little beauties are a revelation. And Fishponds hasn’t disappointed. Beneath hedges, in flowerbeds and under trees we’ve had a veritable rainbow of colour. There has been blossom on a couple of the trees and the hedgerows are just about to burst into leaf.

There’s still some disappointment that the snow never came, but the promise of summer is enough to fill us with anticipation of what’s to come. And in the meantime, we’ve been lapping up the impressive show that spring has given us.

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I think it was probably in 1994 that I first really sat and watched a sunset. I was eighteen and sat outside the Café del Mar in Ibiza with a bunch of friends.  I’m not sure we really knew why we were watching it – that’s just what people did at sunset there.

But a strange thing happened. As the sun started it’s slow descent into the sea, people stopped chatting and gazed out towards the horizon. The music mellowed and without prompting silence fell. We watched with a new found awe at this daily spectacle. And for me, that sensation hasn’t dulled.

Until we moved to Fishponds Cottage,  watching the sunset was still a spectacle to be enjoyed mainly on holiday though as our old house was positioned so that we could enjoy sunrise and not sunset. And to be honest, I’m not that keen on getting up early enough to watch the sun rise.

But that’s all changed since arriving here. The garden is perfectly situated so we can enjoy the setting sun every night. The view is only slightly obscured by the stables which will soon be demolished. And then we will be able to enjoy the final few minutes as the sun disappears behind the rolling hills from the house.

In the meantime, we have a perfectly positioned bench down in one of the fields. Most evenings are spent wandering down to that bench so we can all soak up the last few moments of day. And the silence that fell over the revellers outside the Café del Mar back in 94, falls over the Petersen Family in 2013. Even Saffron will stop cycling and chatting and watch the sun; admiring the myriad of colours in the sky. Friends and visitors head down there at dusk  with a glass of wine or a cup of coffee and are also captivated by the setting sun and the huge skies.

Even if the day has been overcast , the clouds nearly always dissipate enough that the setting sun is able to break through and reveal it’s daily colourful show.

I suppose it is one of the benefits of the nights drawing in and the clocks changing, that this captivating  spectacle happens earlier in the day and the girls don’t have to stay up late to watch and appreciate the vivid colours on the often dull winter days.

Inevitably, the iphone comes out of my pocket on most evenings and I snap away, recording these amazing sunsets in all their glory. As a subject matter it’s perfect. No two are ever the same, and the colours and patterns so vivid that they need no tweeking on photoshop.

Here are a few, straight from my phone. I hope you enjoy and I’m sure they won’t be the last.

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Fairies at Fishponds

There’s a huge oak tree in the middle of the garden at Fishponds. I think it is truly magnificent, and it has provided us with much needed shade throughout this fabulous summer.  It is now however, providing us with the endless task of raking leaves and acorns. The number of acorns is astonishing, and watching “Countryfile” at the weekend it seems that this year the trees are providing a bumper crop for the squirrels and birds. I can concur.

It’s a job that needs doing but thankfully one that I quite enjoy. As I was filling the fifth or sixth wheelbarrow last weekend I really felt that these wonderful acorns were wasted in the compost bin and my mind started wandering to all those imaginary little people that might make use of an acorn cup or an oak leaf.

I’ve always liked fairies. Not many people know that, but those who were at our wedding might remember the Brian Froud illustrations we had on the invitations. As a child I also loved Jill Barklem’s “Brambley Hedge” books. The detail in the illustrations is wonderful and provided me with many hours of entertainment as I studied every millimetre of those pictures. Her interest in natural history and rural customs is evident and this has stuck with me.

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Bluebell

So it’s been unsurprising that as we’ve explored the land at Fishponds I’ve often noticed little mossy spots, or interesting tree trunks and have remarked to Maddie and Saffie that the fairies or mice must live there. As we’ve been toadstool spotting, we’ve noticed fairy rings, fuelling their (and my own) imagination even more.Acorn fairy enchanted treeIMG_3055

Inspired by the fruits of our oak tree, I collected up a bucket of acorns. I also foraged some pinecones, beech nut cases, sycamore seeds, honesty seed heads and a few other twigs and leaves. With the help of my hot glue gun, and a little inspiration from the internet, I let my imagination run wild and created a family of autumn fairies.

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I then set about hiding them on a wonderful, twisted, mossy tree trunk in the corner of one of the fields. It looked truly enchanted with it’s new inhabitants. I let Maddie in on the secret and together we enticed Saffron out to hunt for fairies. As you can imagine, she squealed with delight when she saw them and insisted on bringing a couple back to the house with her.

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I’m sure there were more productive things I could’ve been doing with my time. Do we really need acorn fairies when I have huge piles of both ironing and filing? Judging by Saffie’s reaction, yes we do!

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Not Mushroom in the Garden

I would be lying if I said I haven’t been a little put out by Maddie’s new found ornithological knowledge. Until we moved to Fishponds she was a pretty amateur twitcher. She could recognise a magpie and a jay, and could tell a blue tit from a great tit at a push. But since we’ve been here her expertise has soared. If she isn’t reading one of her many books about birds, then she’s flicking through a magazine, browsing the internet or checking the  “Birds of Britain” app on her ipod.  And rather than being the font of all ornithological knowledge, I’m now constantly astounded by the fascinating snippets of information she bombards me with.

So I’m giving up on birds and trying my hand at fungi instead. Over the past month or so I’ve been snapping all the different toadstools and fungi I’ve seen out in the fields. And today I happened across a Collins Nature Guide to the Mushrooms and Toadstools of Britain and Europe while out shopping. I was all set to become a master of the mushroom world. But it’s actually quite difficult to identify toadstools, even with a book designed for “easy identification.” It transpires that I need to inspect the gills, lift them out of the ground and compare several at a time, not just snap arty photos. From now on I will be a bit more conscientious and take more notice of the individual characteristics of my mushrooms, not just check I’m in focus. I certainly don’t feel confident enough in my new found skills to try eating those marked as edible.

So I’m going to share some of my snaps with you, along with my amateur conclusions. Please feel free to correct me if needed, as I’m sure it won’t be long before Maddie discovers my new book, highlights my mistakes and fills me in on the facts I’ve missed.

photoDRYAD’S SADDLE

IMG_3281SLIMY MILK CAP

IMG_3203Some kind of PARASOL MUSHROOM

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IMG_2585IMG_2797GLISTENING INK CAP

IMG_2780 IMG_2775I thought this would be the easiest one to identify but I have no idea what it is.

IMG_2770GERANIUM SCENTED RUSSULA

IMG_2766BEECHWOOD SICKENER

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IMG_2757Again, I have no idea what this one is.

Fishponds Firestarter

I know it’s another month until Bonfire night., but this afternoon we got smokey down in the field. David the Gardener had burnt a cracking bonfire on Thursday and while I was down at the compost bins today, I wandered over to the ashy remains and realised it was still smouldering. I think there’s a small pyromaniac lurking in all of us, and it didn’t take much prodding with a stick, and stoking with a few fallen leaves to get it going again. And it didn’t take long for the girls to get involved too.  They found a couple of rakes and eagerly filled the wheelbarrow with fallen oak leaves and encouraged me to keep the flames going. photo 1_Snapseed There’s a hypnotic quality to smoke – we were all transfixed and spent a couple of hours down there, watching the smoke drift across the valley. It was a lovely way to spend the afternoon; embracing the onset of autumn, and clearing up the garden at the same time. photo 7_Snapseed And I couldn’t help myself. I popped back down there at dusk, purely to make sure it was dying down, but gathered just a few more leaves and got those flames blazing one last time. I’m now looking forward to the colder days so I can practise my firestarting skills on the log burner in the living room.

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BBM ; Blackberry Mess.

I was tidying up the kitchen the other day, lamenting the fact that summer is slipping away and that there is a noticeable chill in the air. Even when the sun has forced its way through the clouds, the intense heat we’ve enjoyed over this glorious summer, has gone.

My gloom soon passed though as I spotted my two girls running up the garden towards the kitchen, their hands and faces stained purple with blackberry juice, excitedly asking for a bowl as they had found a hedgerow full of blackberries along the side of one of the fields.I found a bowl and followed them down to the bottom of “hilly” field, and was thrilled to see the hedgerow bursting with gorgeous ripe berries.

Busy in the hedgerow

Busy in the hedgerow

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Although a fabulous sight in itself, it warmed me even more, as there are no fruit trees to speak of at Fishponds. The garden at our old house was tiny in comparison to here, but we did have a number of fruit trees that we’d planted over the years, and harvesting the home grown fruit at this time of year had always been a highlight for us. It is probably the only thing I’ve missed so far (apart from our neighbours!).

There are cherry trees here along the edge of one of the fields, but we lost the race with the birds this year, who managed to gorge on them before we had a chance to pick them.  The number of blackberries also means that the birds will be well fed by the time winter sets in.

I found an old map of the land a few weeks ago, and one of the fields is marked as an orchard. We have big plans to eventually replant the orchard; another exciting long term project.

Over the next couple of days we paid a few visits to our bramble patch and in total scrumped a bountiful haul of about 10lbs of wonderful blackberries. I’ve frozen some, so we can have a taste of summer later in the winter. And I helped the girls make a blackberry cobbler and some blackberry biscuits

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Picking blackberries. Such a simple pleasure. Messy chins and purple fingers. Makes me think that maybe it isn’t so bad that autumn is creeping up on us afterall.

Happy after an afternoon picking blackberries

Happy after an afternoon picking blackberries

Strange findings at Fishponds.

Despite the cooler weather and more frequent rain that September is bringing, it hasn’t dampened the girl’s appetite for being outside, riding their bikes and exploring the fields. The hunt for feathers still endures, but sightings of butterflies and discoveries of new meadow flowers have all but ceased as the cooler weather sets in. Instead, we’ve been searching out nuts, acorns and pinecones. And it was on one such mission that Maddie noticed strange things on one of the oak trees.  It looks like some of the acorns are wearing hats.

IMG_2466 IMG_2473 IMG_2469The smooth, green acorns, have grown quite large, orange and red, peaked extensions. We don’t know what it is. We’ve only seen it on two of the trees, and they are on opposite sides of the fields. Any ideas on identification would be much appreciated.

As we were pondering this weird acorn mutation we noticed another strange sight in the long grasses beside the tree. It looks like some form of spider’s web and as we inspected it further, we were expecting to see it full of hundreds of spiderlings. Instead it was full of grass seeds. It is a truly amazing work of (I’m guessing) insect workmanship. The web looks so fragile but is holding safe the stash of seed.

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Two days later and it’s still holding strong.  I’m not convinced that it’s the work of a spider, as my limited knowledge of the natural world doesn’t know why a spider would need grass seed, but I can offer no other explanation to Maddie as so what it might be. Again, any suggestions would be welcome.

“Got to pick a pellet or two”

When our wonderful friend, Nic decided to leave the teaching profession in June, she must’ve breathed a sigh of relief as she closed her science text books for the last time and said goodbye to her final class of students. Little did she know, that less than two months later she would be taking a dissection lesson at Fishponds.

This time, however, the students weren’t cramming for their a-levels, but were two excited nine year olds.

When Maddie saw Nic briefly a week after she arrived back from Vietnam, she managed to persuade her to help in the dissection of an owl pellet. And she’s talked about little else since. So when Nic arrived last week with surgical gloves and tweezers, Maddie was beside herself with excitement. The fact that her friend Lawrence was here for the day only added to the hype.

Before Nic even had a chance to sit down and drink a coffee, they’d dragged her down to the barn to collect specimens.

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I set up a small table in the garden and the lesson began.

First, they soaked the owl pellets in a bowl of water and disinfectant. The pellets were ready for dissection once they’d sunk to the bottom of the bowl.

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And then the fun began.

Maddie and Lawrence sat for about an hour, under the expert guidance of Nic, carefully picking apart the pellets. They felt like real scientists as they put on the surgical gloves and used tweezers and toothpicks to carefully examine the pellets. And I have to say, that even I was impressed with their findings.

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Each pellet must have contained about twenty recognisable bones. There were skulls and ribs and legs. Each was carefully identified using the chart Nic had brought with her. Maddie also tells me that they found moth caterpillars, which actually live in the pellet once it has been ejected.

Some of the skulls had red dots on the teeth. Maddie and Lawrence surmised that this was blood, but actually they were shrew skulls. Apparantly, all shrews have red edges to their teeth. Next time, Bramble or Pixie bring one into the house I will try and confirm this.

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It was heartening to see that all the bones belonged to rodents. There were no bird skulls that they could see so I am happy to say that our bird feeders are not luring the unsuspecting finches to a grisly end. But instead, with the efforts of the barn owl and our cats, we are keeping the rodent population under control and I will have no need to call on a pest control service.

Our barn owl hasn’t been seen for a few weeks so there haven’t been any new owl pellets for a while. However, the kestrels are still resident and presumably leaving their pellets somewhere, so Nic can look forward to another dissection lesson when she’s back from Angola at Christmas!

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