Category Archives: My Garden

It’s the Witching Hour : Story Number Eleven

Number 11

“E pur si muove” : “And yet it moves” (Galileo Galilei)

When my father, Fred, died in hospital at the age of eighty, his wristwatch was found to have stopped at 11.04. I went round to his house a couple of days later to check everything was all right, and I found that the old brown wooden clock in the sitting room, which had been a wedding present some fifty or more years earlier, had also stopped at that very same time of 11.04. This is like his sitting room clock, but the time is wrong:

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Towards the end of his life, Fred had been both blind and bed ridden and his house had become very neglected. During the period after Fred’s death, both my wife and I spent a lot of time cleaning and redecorating all the different rooms.

As we did this, day after day, on more than one occasion, we both smelt what we thought was my mother Jean’s perfume. It was as if she were watching over us in approval as we dusted and hoovered. I suppose that if that were the case, then it should not have been too surprising, given that Jean was a typical 1950s housewife, always cleaning and re-cleaning, and immensely house proud.

At this time, my brother, Ken, who had always been so firmly convinced that the house was haunted, refused to go into the empty property on his own. He had always had the idea that spirits, whether good or bad, are pushed into the background by human activity, but that when potentially haunted houses are empty, then the ghosts will begin to claim them back as their own. Ken certainly believed in the story of the little man who had lived there in the 1940s.

Similar feelings were expressed by my daughter Lauren. As I mentioned above, during that period immediately after Fred’s death, my wife and I were readying Fred’s house to be put on the market. We were spending all of our time cleaning, painting and decorating.  Meanwhile, Lauren sat upstairs in the smaller of the two bedrooms revising for her imminent GCSE examinations. She spent all of her time sitting with her back to the wall, scared stiff as she worked. She felt that there was somebody else in the room with her, but that they really did not like her being there. These disquieting feelings only came when she was on her own. As soon as anybody came into the room to see her, all her fears disappeared.

It is easy to dismiss ideas like these out of hand, but it is a little like the difference between walking through a graveyard at three o’clock on a sunlit afternoon:

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as opposed to three o’clock in the cold, dark depths of a winter’s night:

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With this idea in mind, on the very last evening before the contracts were exchanged and Fred’s house passed out of my possession forever, I decided to do an all-night vigil in an effort to experience something ghostly.

To cut a potentially long story short, I saw or heard absolutely nothing. But, at the same time, though, I was, throughout the entire night, so scared that I never did manage to switch the lights out. I really was very frightened. And, just like Lauren, I too spent all my time sitting with my back to a wall.  Read into that what you will.

There were other strange happenings as well as the stopping of the wristwatch and the old wooden clock. We were experiencing them, I suspect, because we were clearing out Fred’s house after his death. It is very frequently said, for example, that building work, and many other types of physical change such as painting or wallpapering, are extremely good for provoking a strong reaction from any ghosts that may be present.

One day, I had been cleaning and painting the living room. This was the downstairs room where Fred had spent the last two, painful, years of his life, except for his stays in hospital. He had a bed, an armchair, a commode and a television, so he was self-contained in a sad, forlorn sort of way.

That particular day, we had reached lunchtime, and my wife and daughter were outside in Fred’s old summerhouse, finishing off their fish and chips from Renée’s Fish Bar. For some reason I now forget, I was alone. Suddenly, I had the strangest feeling that Fred was there in the room with me. I called out to him,

“Are you there, Dad? It’s me, your son, John. If you are there, give me a sign.”

Straightaway, the curtains in the window looking out towards the garage and the concrete drive where Fred had parked his cars for so many years, began to shake and move. Then they stopped. I waited a few seconds and then called out for a second time.

“Is that you, Dad? If you are there, then make the curtains move again.”

Without delay, the curtains again began to move. I went outside, and called in my daughter, Lauren. I told her to come into the living room and just to stand still and watch, and not to say a word. I called out to Fred for a third time,

“Are you there, Dad? This is your granddaughter, Lauren. If you are still there, give her a sign. Make the curtains move like you did for me.”

Immediately, again the curtains began to move, and then stopped. I turned to Lauren, and asked her if they had actually moved, and that it was not just a coincidence. She replied that she had seen the curtains, and that, yes, they had moved, and that apparently, it had been in response to my request.

So, for a fourth, and final time, I called out loudly,

“Are you still there, Dad? If you are, make the curtains move again.”

And sure enough, they did. I have no explanation for these events other than the supernatural.

There was no window open. No door was open. The central heating radiators underneath the window were switched on throughout the entire episode, but this would not explain the fact that the curtains actually came to a fairly abrupt stop on four separate occasions. Neither was it my imagination or wishful thinking. That was one of the reasons why I asked Lauren to come in and be a witness to events. And to this day, she maintains, Galileo-like, that, yes, the curtains did move.

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Not surprisingly, perhaps, for quite a while afterwards, Fred was to appear in my dreams. There was one that stood out among the rest.

This dream took place on a huge luxurious ocean liner, standing around a grand piano which stood at the meeting point of several long and wide corridors:

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Fred was standing there, listening to the pianist who was tinkling away at the ivories in rather desultory fashion. I was talking to Fred, and was trying to trap him into giving me details about the afterlife.

“Where do you live now then, Dad?”, I asked.

“You know that already.”, he said with a slight smile.

“And where you will you go tonight ?”, I asked. “Where will you sleep after we’ve left ?

He did not offer any reply.

“Well, Dad, will I be able to come and see you sometime?”

“Of course you will come and see me…..one day,” he replied, with a strange, wry look, and then walked off for ever down one of the corridors.

I have had no real contact with Fred since, but deep down, I am sure that this will not be the end of the story.

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Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History, My Garden, My House, Personal

A peaceful dove in the garden

One regular visitor to our garden is the “Stock Dove” whose scientific name is columba oenas. This bird is a kind of pigeon, but a very unusual one for a city.

Normally, Stock Doves live out in the countryside and may congregate in their hundreds to feed in fields or on stubble which has been recently harvested. They also like to live in the parkland which surrounds large country houses. In England there are some 260,000 breeding pairs of Stock Doves but they are certainly an unexpected bird in a city suburb full of traditional 1930s houses like our own. Apparently, there has been an isolated colony of Stock Doves in suburban Sherwood for at least the last seventy years. They might even date back to the period before the houses were ever built:

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First of all, let’s eliminate the Wood Pigeon with the prominent white mark on its neck. This bird is a fantastic flier. It is the Lockheed Hercules of the bird world:

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It can easily manage sixty miles an hour or more, and it can easily do vertical take-offs, but its facial expression is permanently that of a slightly apprehensive, brainless, gormless idiot:

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Stock Doves are not feral pigeons either. Stock Doves have dark eyes, whereas the feral pigeon’s eyes are often red. Feral pigeons frequently have diseased feet. A group of feral pigeons will never have any real uniformity of plumage. Any dark marks they may have on their wings will be a lot longer and more extensive than the markings on the wings of a Stock Dove:

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The markings of a Stock Dove are consistent. An iridescent green patch on the neck and two dark marks on the ends of the wings. As well as dark eyes, they also have pink legs and feet:

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Like all birds, they have a nictitating membrane to protect the eye, in this case as the bird feeds with potentially harmful plant leaves to contend with:

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These are probably male and female. In birds of prey, the female is larger than the male, but otherwise, in almost every other species of bird, the female is 15% or so smaller. You would normally not notice this, but when the two are together, it can be quite obvious:

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Unlike feral pigeons, Stock Doves are quiet, almost shy birds and can be very self-effacing:

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Filed under History, My Garden, My House, Nottingham, Science, Wildlife and Nature

As promised, a beautiful bird in the garden

In a previous blogpost I extolled at great length the many ways in which a fascinating plant called the teasel was extremely beneficial to wildlife. In the summer therefore, our garden played host to a number of lovely butterflies:

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The teasel also kept us human beings interested by drowning passing insects and slowly absorbing the chemicals from their bodies. Here is the teasel in flower:

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I hope you have not forgotten though, how I made a solemn promise that, when the seeds had matured, the seed heads would play host to one of our most beautiful birds, the Goldfinch.
They should have been here in autumn, but now, at last, they have finally made their long awaited appearance. I, of course, missed them on their first visit, but my daughter and fellow blogger saw them and took a few photographs. Here are some of them.

Firstly, it may actually be a case of “Spot the bird”:

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Not always an easy decision to make:

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Yes, at last, a Goldfinch:

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As far as I know, the males and females are the same:

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At least, they look it:

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Be like Mary Poppins! Feed the birds!

Now is the time in this cold weather when you should be feeding the birds, even if you have done very little so far. You can save the life of a robin just by buying a packet of digestive biscuits. Every day, take two biscuits, crunch them up into a powder in your hands, and put that powder down on the ground in an area where he might come and eat it.

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If you can, try to put food out in the same place every day, and you may well find that the robin becomes really tame. Apparently, robins evolved in the forests of Stone Age England to follow great huge fat wild boars around the place, so as you might imagine, I am having great success with my new little feathered friend.

A wild boar in autumn forest

After only a week, “Rockin’ Robin” sits in the bushes and waits for me to go out in the morning and feed him. As I arrive he seems to cheep a three syllable greeting which I have taken to mean “Good-Mor-Ning”. When I leave, he manages two syllables which I hope are “Thank-You”. I may however be mistaken in these interpretations. The little chap, though, is certainly very tame and I think if I had the time I might be able to train him to perch on my hand and take the food directly from there. Anyway two digestive biscuits is not a lot to ask.
If you want to go any further then you could refer back to my blog post about erecting your bird table. It was called “The five golden double entendres of buying a bird table”. Even if you do not have a bird table you can still put food down, perhaps a few feet or so away from where you feed the robin.

It is best in my opinion to buy ready-made specialised food rather than your own food scraps from meals. After various experiments, we have found that the best value is Wilkos where the bird food is cheap and seems to be of a good enough quality for the birds to eat it quite happily. If you have bird feeders, the best thing to buy is sunflower seeds which are cheap, and birds such as blue tits seem to absolutely love them. Alternatively, seed eating birds and robins and dunnocks all seem to like the finch food.

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Of course you can still buy peanuts and put them in your peanut feeder. Do not eat them yourself.

Robins enjoy small bird food and any suet-based product.

The great thing about Wilkos is that you can order delivery at a specific branch and then you go and pick it up. It’s free. And no, I am not paid to advertise Wilkos. It’s just that I know from my own experience that they are cheap and the birds like them. There are lots of companies on the Internet who will be only too pleased to send you bird food (“Our special blend”) but you will pay enormous amounts of money for the privilege. Among ordinary bird watchers, this is a very well-known method of separating  a well intentioned nice person from their hard earned cash.
The finch seed does not contain wheat or grass seeds. A lot of the foods sold in shops seems to contain these two and it means that in the spring you will get a lot of unexpected grasses growing up, probably where you don’t want them. On the other hand if you have always wanted your very own mini wheat field they are absolutely excellent.

Unfortunately many bird foods may also attract wood pigeons and squirrels, both of which will behave like living vacuum cleaners.  They are quite capable of eating every single bit of food that you have put out in about ten minutes. When squirrels or wood pigeons arrive you should chase them away if it’s the early part of the day and then the little birds will get their chance.

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Once it gets towards late afternoon though, the squirrels and the wood pigeons will do quite a good job of clearing up any surplus food that might otherwise attract our nocturnal little ratty friends. The same can be said about the special squirrel proof cages which can be put on the ground over the top of your bird food. We don’t have one of these but somebody told me that they work very well in the sense that squirrels are too big to get through the holes in the cage, but unfortunately, the holes are small enough to let in rats.
Overall I would encourage you to experiment in the way that you feed the birds. More or less anything that you do will be appreciated by them. Every year the people of north-western Europe save the lives of hundreds of millions of birds who otherwise would die in the cold. And on a less elevated level, the birds will soon become your friends and you can spend many a happy hour watching them and if you feel so inclined, singing to them. You may even have the time to learn the words to a well-known song in Hungarian:

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Next door’s cat, Secret Agent 007

To his neighbours, this individual always used to be regarded, quite simply, as “next-door’s cat”.

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We did not know that he was a deeply placed secret agent. Fifteen years ago, he was an inhabitant of London, the abandoned offspring of unknown feral parents. He was saved by his present owner who took him in as a very tiny kitten and fed him milk through a pipette hour after hour, day and night, until he was big enough to feed himself. And she continues to feed him generously, every day, and he sleeps in her house every night. He is, we all presume, her cat.
Occasionally, when her little boy gets a bit boisterous, and feels like a good chase game, the cat, who rejoices in the name of Ying Yang, will come over to our house for a few hours. His favourite occupation is lying on the very same wooden bench which used to be in the garden of my parents’ house, and on which their own cat, Sam, loved to sun herself.

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Imagine my wife’s amazement, though, when she went up the Avenue to check arrangements with our neighbours about where our visiting builders’ van might park. Not only was Ying Yang there, but he had his very own food bowl. The neighbour sincerely believed that he had taken in a stray cat, which now belonged to him, because he fed it copiously on a regular basis. He did not know where his cat went to at night, but that didn’t matter because lots of male cats like to wander around during the darkness hours and then return in the morning.

The most amazing thing, though, was that Ying Yang himself quite clearly recognised my wife, but pretended not to. He ignored her totally. That may sound a little anthropomorphic, but she is absolutely certain that that is what he was doing.
You can imagine how pleased his real owner was when she heard of Ying Yang’s secret life, as somebody else’s cat.

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The amazing thing, though, was that even on a minimum of at least twice the meals he should be getting each day, he doesn’t really seem ever to put on too much weight. That makes me feel very jealous indeed!
How many cats do this? How many spend part of the day and the night with one owner, and the rest of the time with what we must consider the victim of a very slick confidence trickster?

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Neonicotinoids: a disaster about to happen

Man’s most faithful insect friend is the Bee. Not everybody may like bees. Some people might be frightened of their sting. But everybody respects their industry and their willingness to work hard for the common good. That’s why we have all been saying “As busy as a bee” for the last five hundred years. Buzz, buzz, buzz…

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Unfortunately, though, there’s a new type of insecticide around. They are called Neonicotinoids, and appear to be killing indiscriminately vast numbers of  insects which are helpful to Man.

I really do hope that this is not the reason that I seem to be seeing so few butterflies, bees, wasps or any other insects in my organic, insecticide and pesticide free garden.

Recent research in Holland has revealed, though, just how catastrophic the widespread use of Neonicotinoids may be, not only for bees and other helpful insects, but for birds and then for animals higher up the food chain. The story in full is revealed at greater length here, but I have selected the most important elements for you here:

Have the patience to read about this grim scenario…

“Neonicotinoids are causing significant damage to insects, and now a new Dutch study has revealed that these pesticides are having a significant negative impact too on birds.
Insects form a large part of the diet of many birds during the breeding season and are essential for raising offspring. We investigated the most widely used neonicotinoid, which is called “Imidacloprid”. Here in the Netherlands, local populations were significantly smaller in areas with high surface-water concentrations of Imidacloprid. At concentrations of more than 20 nanograms per litre, bird populations declined by 3.5 per cent annually. Additional research revealed that this decline appeared only after the introduction of Imidacloprid to the Netherlands, in the mid-1990s. The birds most affected included Starling, Tree Sparrow and Swallow.
The overall impact on the environment is even greater than has recently been reported and is reminiscent of the effects of insecticides like DDT in the past.”

dead bees
The BBC News Environment Correspondent, Matt McGrath, has several times reported similar worries about the declining numbers of valuable insects. In one report, it was argued  that the process of evolution might lead us into some very bad places indeed…

“Neonicotinoids are causing great damage to a wide range of beneficial species and are a key factor in the decline of bees…..the evidence of damage is now conclusive, and the threat to nature is the same as that once posed by the notorious chemical DDT.

When seeds are routinely coated in these chemicals, the resulting plants will then grow up with an inbuilt ability to destroy many species of insect.”

Manufacturers deny totally, of course, that these pesticides are harming bees or any other species (surprise, surprise). Scientists, though, are extremely worried about their use. Professor Goulson, one of a team of 29 researchers, has developed this nightmare scenario one stage further…

“”The more neonicotinoids are used, the likelier it is that pest insects themselves will then become resistant to them. Using them like this is absolute madness.”

The situation is worryingly reminiscent of the crisis described by Rachel Carson in her book “Silent Spring”.

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The Los Angeles Times recalls…

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“Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” kick-started the modern environmental movement, it suggested that better protection for pollinators and plant life was required for healthy people and healthy agriculture. Without her intelligence and eloquence, we would already be living in a world of unspeakable impoverishment, one with silent springs and fruitless falls.”

 

 

Opposition to Neonicotinoids is already enormous.

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In addition to protests, there is a large number of petitions you can sign. 363,258 supporters signed this one, which has now closed. There’s another petition for Ontario that has 54,984 supporters . Some other petitions are just starting up, with only 180 signers so far… This is not, though, a cranky minority issue. Another site has a staggering 331,872 signatures…. The comments on this particular petition are even stronger….

“The chemical companies are all and far too powerful – they have friends in high places, they lobby very strongly and are nothing more than drug-dealers. Just research the companies that ex-MPs work for after their stint in public service – that’s who runs the country…..”
Laurie Allan

“Of course the farmers are denying that they are the problem yet again, just like they claim poverty, always seem to running around in big fancy cars, polluting the atmosphere just like they pollute the earth, and the price of food spirals all the time”
William Thom

We need to do something about this, or the world will be a much, much poorer place without bees. And a  considerably hungrier one. Up to one third of our food is produced by bee pollination.

And then we will all start to be on the side of Alan Partridge.

 

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Teasels: the best plant in our garden

This amazingly spikey plant is called a “teasel”, and it is easily the most fascinating plant in our garden.
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It is a very thrilling plant from an English point of view, for, alas, we just do not seem to have the same exciting inhabitants in our gardens as they have in the USA…..
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These American killers are deadlier than wolves or bears.
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Our English plant, though, can consume a reasonable number of insects, medium sized mammals and small children.
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It performs this valuable service by drowning them, and then absorbing their nutrients. Equally well, you can easily feed the plant yourself by tipping in the dregs from your cup of tea or coffee. On this caffeine based diet, our plant has now reached an amazing twenty seven flower heads. Here are two of them….
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The biggest flower heads are now in bloom. They provide a fabulous source of nectar for all kinds of interesting flying insect, especially butterflies….

This is a Peacock…
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This is a Red Admiral. Its Latin scientific name is “Vanessa atalanta”, which sounds a little bit like one of the old Admiral’s girls in every port…
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The flowerheads are a lovely bluey-pink colour…
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Eventually seeds will appear. Indeed, in our worryingly early autumn, many have already arrived as early as the fifth of August.

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The seedheads are an absolute magnet to England’s most colourful bird, the improbably beautiful Goldfinch…
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The population of these splendid birds is gradually increasing, and teasels are an excellent way to entice them into your garden.

This could easily be your garden…
goldfinch on teasel
I would be very surprised, though, if you managed to attract as many of these beautiful birds as Gunnar Fernqvist has done, although, to be fair, he does seem to have a VERY large garden.

Interestingly, the Goldfinch has always been of great symbolism in medieval European art. According to Wikipedia, because of the thistle seeds it eats, and the spiky nature of the adult thistle plant, the goldfinch is associated with Christ’s crown of thorns. When it appears in pictures of the Madonna and child, the bird is thought to represent the knowledge both Mary and Jesus had of the latter’s Crucifixion.

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Teasel seeds can be found fairly easily on your local brownfield site in late summer or early autumn. Otherwise, it’s another expedition up the Amazon.co.uk….

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