Thursday, 27 December 2012

On your marks, get set .... duck! The Bibury Duck Race, 2012

One of the highlights of the year in Bibury is the annual Boxing Day Duck Race. In practice, this takes the form of two races: the first involves plastic decoy ducks, and the second the sort of yellow rubber ducks that you put in your bath. Well, perhaps not in your bath, but you know what I mean.
The river that flows through Bibury is the Coln, a typically fast flowing chalk stream. Yesterday, thanks to weeks of rain, the Coln was at its highest-ever recorded level, so the yellow rubber duck race was abandoned. There were fears that hundreds of little ducks would jam what space was left underneath the bridge, causing the river to overflow into the neighbouring cottages.
The local cricket club organises the race, and by 10.30am yesterday morning, there was a long queue to sponsor the decoy ducks. For £10, you had the chance of winning £100, or a bottle of champagne or whisky. The sponsor of the winning duck could also choose which charity would benefit from the money raised.

This is Terry, the local builder and a member of the cricket club committee. I haven't seen Terry play cricket but I can attest to his building skills, because he has just built a walkway connecting the two terraces at the back of my house. It's beautiful.

The little ducks were raffled instead of raced, much to the disappointment of the smaller children. They cost 50p, which is pretty good for a chance to win £100!

The duck race draws crowds from neighbouring areas as well as locals.

Setting up the net to catch the ducks at the finishing line.

While back at the start, the ducks were still being snapped up by punters.

On occasions like this, it helps to have friends in high places. Or in high balconies.

And they're off!

The real ducks were very confused by the race.  They'd gathered to watch what was going on but the minute the decoys came sailing down the river, they took to the air.

Nearly there! There was a clear winner, which was number 20.

At the finishing line the ducks are gathered up ....

... and put away until next year. They look like they're glad of the rest.
Merry Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

A little light reading

When you give up your office job, as I have, you expect somehow to be restored to miraculous vigor and to have enough energy simultaneously to prune the garden and decorate the house. This doesn't happen. The removal of the routine of work, you will find, also removes the routine of rest.
"I'm not doing anything," you think, "so why am I always so knackered?" It's because you are probably pottering around non-stop, and pottering - particularly if it involves unpacking and putting away, and the installation of various lights/curtains/bookshelves/bits of furniture - can be very tiring if you are doing it all day long.
You need to establish a new timetable with clearly marked breaks, where you sit down with a book or watch Judge Judy or just stare into space. My own preference is to sit down with a book, because much as I love Judge Judy, I feel guilty about watching daytime television. In any case, daytime television does not, in my opinion, include enough Judge Judy, but includes far too many programmes such as Bridezillas, which involve very silly people making a great deal of noise. (As you can see, I have done my research.)
On the other hand, I've never felt guilty about burying my nose in some volume or other - I got over that by the time I was seven and had mastered the art of reading a book, undetected, under my desk at school.
There is plenty of reading matter for the novice country dweller, but I was given two books which turned out to be rather different from my expectations. VP gave me a copy of Mike Dilger's book, My Garden and Other Animals, illustrated by his partner, Christina Holvey, and my mother gave me a copy of Roger Scruton's News From Somewhere.
Dilger is an ecologist and television presenter, and his book describes how he and his partner adapted to country life after moving to their first house with a garden. It's set in Somerset, near Bristol, which is where the BBC's Natural History Unit is based. Scruton is a philosopher and author, and lives in rural Wiltshire.
The title of Dilger's book is a light-hearted play on Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, while Scruton's title is a rather loaded reference to William Morris's News From Nowhere.
Morris's "preposterous" book, says Scruton, envisaged an "English countryside purged of real people, inoculated against religion, and sprinkled all over with a kind of medieval star-dust" and it was while hunting near Kelmscott, Morris's home in Gloucestershire, that Scruton apparently decided to move to the country, bringing with him "a library, three pianos and four horses".
Scruton is a famous proponent of hunting - indeed, he describes how he fell in love with his wife after seeing her "poised aloft in the Beaufort colours". (The Duke of Beaufort's Hunt dress is dark blue and buff, while the huntsman and the whippers-in wear dark green, not the usual hunting pink (ie red) coats. Still with me? Good).
I didn't expect to be impressed by Dilger's writing style, which was just as well, because his prose is peppered with hanging clauses and dangling modifiers. I think - I hope - this is a televisual habit, which demands that the subject of each sentence comes at the end rather than at the beginning in order to keep the viewer's interest piqued.
For example, instead of saying: "X and I started work on the pond while Christina weeded the new border", or even "Christina weeded the new border while X and I started work on the pond", he says: "With Christina weeding the new border, X and I got to work on the pond." Almost every single sentence is constructed like this.
You'll probably think I'm being extremely pompous when I say I found this incredibly irritating. Perhaps I am, but then I'm used to editing copy, and I found my fingers itching for a blue pencil with which to amend his grammar.
I was prepared to forgive him, however, because this is a fascinating account - by someone who really knows their subject - of observing wildlife in an English garden. Dilger has access, thanks to his background as a TV wildlife presenter, to all sorts of kit which enables him to track bats, film animal activity or record birdsong.
The results are described to the reader with such passionate enthusiasm that you almost find yourself whooping along with him as he ticks off another species that is new to the garden.
I turned to Professor Scruton's measured prose in the expectation of finding some respite from Dilger's misuse of English, so I was rather astonished to find a spelling error in the first sentence. (He refers to "presumptious" Icarus, rather than "presumptuous".) By page 6, I'd found another one! ("I meakly [sic] conceded.") And there are others - a neighbour is described as "cussid" (surely cussed?).
The professor appears to fare no better in German - "Man ist was er isst" he writes on page 106. Does he mean "Mann [Ger] ist was er isst"? Does he mean Man [Eng] "ist was er isst". Or does he mean, to quote Feuerbach more accurately, "der Mensch ist, was er isst"?
What is it with publishers these days? Can't they afford proof-readers or copy editors?
Luckily, there is the occasional philosophical joke - the sort of thing that would elicit wheezy chuckles at High Table - to distract the reader from the errors. At one point Scruton says that while his long-suffering neighbour Stephen is a farmer, he, Scruton is a meta farmer. "That means, I would have gone on to say, had we both belonged to the frivolous world of the university, that we are both of us farming only my farming is meta than yours." LMAO, Rog.
Dilger's book effervesces with detail eagerly inscribed, while Scruton's account is more sedate, like a shaft of sunlight through a dusty library window. Yet they are both, in their way, a hymn of praise to the life of the English countryside, whether it is Scruton on the subject of Vaughan Williams and the Anglican hymnal, or Dilger on soprano pipistrelles.
I was going to restrict this post to these two books, but a couple of  days ago, I took delivery of In A Gloucestershire Garden by Canon Henry Nicholson Ellacombe, which had been recommended to me by the wise and wonderful Carol at May Dreams Gardens. I won't bore you with yet another review; I'll just say: "Thanks, Carol, it's fab!"

Monday, 10 December 2012

Comings and goings at Awkward Hill

The sweep came back to Awkward Hill on Friday, to clean the other chimney ready for the arrival of a second wood-burning stove for the study. This was a thrilling moment for me - I love seeing the brush emerge from the chimney and rushed outside like a big kid to take a picture.

The new stove has made the prospect of sitting down at the computer more bearable, because for the first time since I moved in, the study seems warm and inviting. It has two outside walls, and three big windows, so it needs something a bit more radical than just one measly radiator. But like the rest of the house, now it has warmed up, it seems to retain the heat quite well.

Talking of heating, the new range also arrived. This was another moment of great drama - it is cast iron, so it took quite a lot of skill and muscle to get it off the truck and into the kitchen. The range provides hot water and central heating (oil-fired) and is also what we cook on. With this model, you can have the heating and hot water on without having the cooker on, and vice versa, so it's very flexible.

The chap in the foreground is Dave Keenan, who is a heating engineer. He came recommended by Cast Iron Range Cookers where I bought the stoves and the range, and he has been absolutely wonderful. He's patient, reliable and good-humoured and is an endless source of advice about anything to do with heating a house. When the temperature is below zero and snow is forecast, he's a useful guy to have on your contactst list!

Right, that's the stove in the kitchen. Now all we have to do is to put in a new flue, sort out the pipework and connect her up...

Here's my niece Roisin, who turned up this morning with her dad, Paddy, to do some work on one of the bedrooms. She was a huge help, and she looked incredibly professional as she got down to taking off the skirting on the landing.

My friend Ollie, putting up the Christmas lights. Ollie is a freelance theatre production manager who specialises in arena events. He's spent most of the year working on either the Diamond Jubilee Regatta or the Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, so I now consider him suitably qualified to take charge of the decorations on my house. Under supervision, of course.

My son Rory and his girlfriend Alison, who came to stay for the weekend. I don't know which they enjoyed most: the bonfire, the fresh country air or the huge Sunday lunch we had in the local pub. One thing is for sure - I wasn't the only one behaving like a big kid over the past few days.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Chill December

Chill December brings the sleet,
Blazing fire and Christmas treat.

(English nursery rhyme)

It's the first day of December, and as if to mark the day, the weather has obliged with a thick frost and bright sunshine. I can't believe that only a few weeks ago, I viewed the cottage in the heat of a late summer day.
Despite all the chores that moving house dictates - the unpacking, the fixing of shelves and changing of lights, the frequent trips to B&Q, the daily discoveries (oh, is that where that screwdriver/knife/breadbin/chair/bookcase went!) - I've managed to do a bit of sorting out in the garden. In weather like this, it seems a crime not to be outside.
I put up bird feeders yesterday, and this morning, there was a bustle of small birds who were obviously delighted by the December bonus. The tits, I find, are always the first to discover the feeders, and a robin has been taking a proprietorial interest in the proceedings, but it will be interesting to see what else turns up. 

This moss-covered apple tree is the perfect place to hang a squirrel-proof feeder.

On a winter morning, the light changes minute by minute, which means interrupting your breakfast every five seconds to rush outside and take pictures.

As the sun got higher, it highlighted the frost on the trees in the meadow next door.

The next moment, you could almost believe that spring was on its way.

After a while, though, the cold drives you back indoors, as Luigi (above) will tell you. Those of you who have asked how the cats are settling in may like to know that they have already put their paw of approval (not to mention cat hair and pawprints) on the woodburning stove, the range in the kitchen, and my new bed.
They went to a cattery while I was packing up and moving, and it was interesting to see how it changed their behaviour. They shared a pen while they were there, and they seem much closer now. Perhaps they've realised that cuddling up together means they stay warmer.
They have been out in the garden for the first time, and I think they're going to enjoy life here immensely. It's hilarious watching them explore. Intrepid Luigi, despite his cuddly, cute demeanour, is always the leader in any expedition. Mario, who looks more athletic, is actually much more cautious and follows a couple of paces behind.