Category Archives: My House

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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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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Nearly a thousand years ago

In  a recent blogpost, I told the often harrowing tale of how what appeared to be a small army of men descended on our hitherto tranquil house, and after a period of some four days, managed to install both a new central heating system and a multi-fuel stove. Most interesting, though, was the tiling revealed in the back bedroom, when the old radiator was taken off.
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There was no trace of a fireplace ever having been behind this tiling and we were told that it appeared to be a practice exercise, perhaps carried out by a young apprentice, and placed on the bedroom wall in 1932 to echo the fireplace in exactly the same position one floor below. In the 1960s, we think, the house was given its first dose of central heating and the young man’s work from thirty years before was covered over and lost. Being a sentimental and nosey old fool, I always wonder about the ordinary working men and women who laboured for such brief moments in endless time and whose work may, paradoxically, then sometimes go on to last for so many years, long after the deaths of the people who made them. Working men are born, live their lives for good or bad, and when they are gone, they leave little trace behind them. And once their grandchildren pass on, those men are then banished for eternity to “Trace your Ancestry” websites, as just names on forms, too far back in history to connect with. Did this apprentice tiler go on to fight in the Second World War? Did he survive? And the man who gave him the job to do – had he come back from the Somme a mental wreck of what he had previously been?

Nearly ten years ago, I went to visit Lincoln Cathedral, which has a fascinating parallel to the tiling exercise, except this one is getting on for being a thousand years older. This early medieval practice exercise is for carving lots of little squares with decorative flowers in the middle. Even twelfth century boys will be boys, though, and instead of a flower, one bright spark has carved a bird’s nest, complete with baby birds.
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On the right, somebody has carved one of the adults, arriving with a worm in its mouth.
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And on the left, there is the other parent flying away, its beak empty, in search of more food for their hungry offspring.

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Those inventive young men of the twelfth century, however, were not to realise that one day, a tower in the very cathedral that they had had the privilege of helping construct, was to play host to its very own parent birds, a pair of Peregrines.
They are not easy to film!

This is “Lincoln’s Falcons” by Mark Taylor

Not everything always goes to plan! This is called “Peregrine falcon chick saved after fall” and comes from the local newspaper, the Lincolnshire Echo.

Even more interesting, though, are the medieval man’s opinions of his bosses. Asked to carve decorative heads onto the rood-screen, the stone carvers have obediently done so, but at the same time, they have taken a golden opportunity to transform important people, such as their foremen, into cartoon figures, with big noses and stupid expressions. I cannot believe that these carved faces were unrecognisable to the stone carvers’ contemporaries.

Martin, always over eager, with his big fleshy lips…

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Will with his big nose…

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Jack, what a chubby little chap!

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Greedy Tom with his pig’s ears…

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Stupid Henry with his donkey’s ears…

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Harry, turning into a mouse…

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Walter. metamorphosing slowly into Satan, complete with horns…..

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The priest with his buck teeth and drooling tongue…

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Even the bishop looks as if he is about to explode, with either anger or constipation…

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In the ancient castle nearby is the religious graffiti carved by bored guards during a long forgotten night around 1350 or 1400, as they waited to take the condemned man out to be hanged the next day…

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Most of all though at Lincoln, I love this old ring, set into one of the internal walls of the cathedral. This is where Oliver Cromwell’s troops tethered  their horses, when the Roundhead cavalry was stabled inside this lovely old cathedral during the English Civil War.

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What a magnificent building.

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For a short period in the Middle Ages, when the towers had their spires, it was the tallest structure in the world.

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Builders and plumbers transform the house

Last week we had the builders and plumbers around to our house to put in a new central heating system. At first it felt exactly as if the whole building had been hit by a tsunami. Not quite as dramatic or as destructive though as this one…

The problem was that every one of the six men was armed with his very own Mjölnir, his very own Hammer of Thor, with which he was capable of sending thunder echoing round the house whenever he felt like it.
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In actual fact, it was more that the jobs they had to do in the first couple of hours were by far the noisiest of the entire four days. Believe me, a dining room is no is no place for a pneumatic drill.

In 2013 we had the same company come round and put a multi-fuel stove in our living room. We were sick and tired of the money guzzling gas fire, to which the only other solution was to switch on the central heating for the entire house.  Here is our first stove which was put in last September.

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Over the course of the winter therefore, we lit our new multi-fuel stove in the late afternoon, and after feeding it sparingly with coal for the evening, we then discovered that it would then keep the room pleasantly warm for the whole night and for much of the next day. In addition, it also kept the bedroom above equally lovely and warm. Only very infrequently were we using the central heating.
We soon realised that having a second stove fitted in the dining room at the back of the house might have the same effect and save a great deal more money. So, as well as having our central heating revamped, we were having a second stove put in.

In the dining room, we had a ten or fifteen year old gas fire. It always seemed to remind me of somebody, perhaps a character out of Wallace and Gromit.

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First of all they removed the gas fire. Here is just a small selection of the rubble that the builders created. Notice though, that it is neatly put into special plastic buckets, so that nothing whatsoever remained at the end of the day.

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Here is the old gas fire, and the old radiators, gone for ever…

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The majority of the old radiators had to go. They had been there since probably the mid-1960s. Here, plans are being laid to put the new boiler in the bathroom where an old cabinet had been.

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In the loft, the old boiler had come to the end of the road. The fat lady really had sung for the last time.

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Unfortunately, here and there, the wallpaper will need repair, but there are very few things that a Pritt stick will not be able to remedy. In actual fact, in some places, a number of different layers of wallpaper were revealed.

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The top pale green one, I think, was our responsibility but the green leafy pattern looks to me to be either 1940s or 1950s, and the relatively bright coloured wallpaper to its left dates from the more optimistic days of the 1980s.
Here you can see not only Mjölnir, the hammer of Thor, but also the pneumatic drill which caused all the scariest noise for the first half hour or so.

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The chimney had to be inspected. Would an eighty year-old chimney be up to the job, or would it require extensive and expensive repairs? Well, what do you think?

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This hole, drilled in the bathroom wall for the new slimline boiler, gave a view over the garden which could be enjoyed for only twelve or so hours in nearly eighty years.

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The princess of boilers is now in place.

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Meanwhile the new fireplace will need some imitation bricks. The builder works so fast his trowel is just a blur. Behind him is the Safety Superintendent.

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At last everything is ready. The stove is connected up. And then, the all important test firing.

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All those lovely warm happy flames. I do so love flames and lovely warm fire. Flames and fire. Fire and flames.

In the loft, originally christened “Ice Station Zebra”, there are now two radiators, one of which unfortunately takes up four shelves of what would have been my CD collection. I will have to look very carefully at where I can put my Captain Beefheart, Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel, Klaus Nomi, Jefferson Airplane and my Procul Harum.

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With two radiators now though, there will be no repetition of that unfortunate business with the polar bear.
In the bathroom, there is yet another radiator. It will now be impossible for me to put my Stahlhelm on and re-enact “Showering Facilities on the Eastern Front”.

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Best of all though, is the fact that I took advantage of all this building work to have a new, much more powerful shower installed. No more problems now with having to wash like this…

Every single morning now, I’m in the new shower just like this.

 

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