Gardens with Benefits

July 29, 2021

If you ignore the fact that the magnificent towering pink flower spikes to the left of this picture are, in fact, willowherb and hence, technically (but who decides these things anyway?), weeds, the garden is looking almost … gardenish from certain angles.

Garden in July

Much of my gardening activity in recent weeks has been in the form of making piles, moving piles and occasionally removing things from piles and putting them in their final home. It’s hard to tell whether any of this is ultimately going to be productive or not, but it gets me outside and keeps me happy and that’s the main thing. Today was the turn of the large pile of weed roots outside the fruit cage, some of which have rotted down sufficiently to be put in the compost (or would be, if all three compost daleks weren’t full) and some of which have sprouted and had to be pulled up anew.

raspberry canes outside fruit cate

In doing so, I noted that we actually have more fruit outside the fruit cage than within it, as the top half of our garden is rampant with wild raspberries, while I’ve just excavated the wild strawberries out from under some more rampant plants in the flowerbed beside it and they have been producing a steady trickle of delicious little berries. None of these have troubled the kitchen at all, as they tend to go straight into the gardener. There have got to be some perks to the job, after all.

wild strawberries

In other news, our neighbours report that they have had rabbits in their veg plot. This is bad news for the neighbours and turned out to be quite bad news for the rabbits, once they’d been caught. It will ultimately be bad news for us once the rabbits work out that there is another garden down the hill a bit with some southern townie softies who are unlikely to be as free with the shotgun but for now it is good news as it turns out that the rabbits ate their pea plants. The neighbours have been generously leaving surplus eggs on our doorstep at regular intervals, which is extremely welcome but has created an imbalance in the rural favours calculus. However, as we have a massive surplus of both peas and mangetout, I’ve finally been able to tip the scales back a little in our favour (as well as keep on top of the picking which has been getting away from me somewhat in recent weeks).


In other news, the Hare’s Toothbrush, given up for dead for the second winter in three years, is … not.


This would be better news if I hadn’t just planted what will be a massive cardoon right next to it.

Ever Decreasing Circles

July 22, 2021

It’s a feature of living in these parts, where the local tourism board’s motto is, apparently, ‘shh, nobody knows we’re here’, that every so often you will discover – usually quite by chance – that there’s some feature or site that in a normal place would have at the very least a brown sign from the nearest road (if not a gift shop, tea room, opening hours and, if you’re really unlucky, a Twitter acccount), will here just sit unremarked in the corner of a field. We already run bike rides to a number of these hidden attractions, including Bigtown’s nearby stone circle – allegedly the largest* in mainland Scotland – so I thought I was reasonably on top of the local antiquities.

But then someone mentioned in passing that Bigtown has a second stone circle which I’d never heard of in my 12+ years of living here, and I just had to go and check it out. So yesterday evening, with the heat wave continuing, I and a fellow cyclist, who is generally up for a bike ride even if it means a possible wild goose chase, set out to see what we could see.

view of church from the hill

Naturally, although marked on the map, the stone circle is almost completely unheralded on the ground. We knew that there was a path from the church, which is signposted from the road, and once you’ve ridden up the steep track to find the church, itself tucked away in a pretty hollow in the hills, a sign does point you towards the ‘7 Grey Stanes’ stone circle.

sign pointing to 7 Grey Stanes

The path itself was somewhat notional, and after passing through a couple of gates, we lost our bearings for a while. Having made the mistake of following our instincts (and also leaving both Internet connected phone and Ordnance Survey map with our bikes, which we’d parked by the church) our attempt to find the stone circle through the medium of heading for the sort of spot where we thought people might want to build a stone circle was not particularly effective (although we were rewarded with some incredible views).

view from the hills

Fortunately it was a nice evening to be wandering around on a hilltop squinting at various stones (and a few very convincingly stone-like cow pats) to see if, from a certain angle, it could be argued that this might be a stone circle, but failing to persuade even ourselves.

view in other direction

Eventually, having admitted defeat and retreated to the path, we found a gate that led us to a more convincing path and finally round a corner to what was undoubtedly a stone circle, albeit a rather small one – and what was, in all senses of the word, a magical spot.

The stone circle, with views beyond

The views here were also stunning.

The weather undoubtedly helped, but even on a dreich day I can imagine that this site, in its little hollow in a hillside with its commanding views, would be well worth a visit.

hillside and hawthorn

Selfishly, I suppose that it’s nice to live in a place with a stone circle so unvisited that the path to reach it has all but disappeared. And to be able to have it to ourselves (and without so much as a sign, let alone an interpretation board, to tell us what we’re seeing). But I do wonder sometimes if we could make a little more of our local attractions to encourage a few more visitors to the region … if only there was a way of ensuring that they only came by bike.

* as in, largest diameter. Ring of Brodgar or Stonehenge this is not. But still …

It’s Hard to Overstate …

July 20, 2021

… Just how amazing the weather is we’re having at the moment. I’m even feeling somewhat guilty about it, with all the extreme weather events going on apparently everywhere else on the planet, but with amber heat warnings creeping across the south of the country the only concession I’m having to make to this summer weather up here is heading out a little earlier on my bike to avoid the afternoon heat.

Indeed, this morning’s outing was just about the perfect summer bike ride, considering all I was really doing was going down into town to fetch the paper. Setting off before ten, there was still a cool pocket of air waiting where the road dips down through the trees to the burn on the way out, and the sun was not yet too hot on the ride back, although I did find myself actually welcoming the slight headwind as a cooling breeze across my skin, not something I could have ever imagined saying a couple of months earlier.


And as the weather has got into its stride, the harebells – already one of my favourite flowers – have excelled themselves. I’ve finally, after two years of careful nurturing, managed to grow a handful of these from seed for my little patch of meadow, but I’ve got a long way to go before they will ever reach the casual exuberance of the ones in the verges right now which lift my heart whenever I see them.

It’s the beauty of a bike that I can stop to admire such things, and also forage for gooseberries, having finally remembered to bring along a tub to put them in. This makes up for the failure of my own goosberry bushes – I’d say due to neglect, but I doubt the ones in the hedgerow get any more care and attention and they’re absolutely laden with fruit this year.

Gooseberries growing wild

As I’ve said many times before, I chiefly ride a bike for short journeys like those into town because it’s one simple way of helping get us out of the mess we’re busy getting ourselves into with the climate, or at least not making it worse. There are days in winter when that feels like a penance, the hair shirt option. And then there are days like today when you honestly couldn’t pay me to do the trip by car.

I suppose you could say I’ve earned them.

A Rose between Two Thorns

July 17, 2021

As I may have mentioned, after double booking myself with work in the first half of the year, I’ve taken July as gardening-and-cycle-campaigning leave (and I can only marvel at the breakdown of the Weather Gods’ system for detecting when I’ve got time off and coming at me with all the rain and hope that they don’t notice for at least another fortnight).

So far the gardening side has been all about tackling some neglected corner of the garden, realising guiltily how overrun with weeds the plants I’d actually planted were, spending all afternoon clearing out the weeds around the survivors and then moving on to the next victim. So far I’ve managed to bring some sort of order to the gooseberry bushes (unsurprisingly gooseberry-less), one flowerbed where I discovered that a tiny plant bought at a plant sale years back and then somewhat given up on had grown into a bit of a monster (I suppose the name ‘tree peony’ might have given me a clue there), and excavated one rose I only have the vaguest memory of planting but which has been valiantly flowering away among the brambles.

Rose bush that had been submerged by brambles

I’ve also filled one compost dalek completely from a standing start, and have been reduced to leaving piles of weeds dotted around the garden to be wait until the magic of composting makes some room for them. Hopefully this will happen before the piles have grown a new crop of weeds of their own, as appears to have happened on the patio where the chunkiest bits of root and tangled stem from clearing around the sitooterie have taken on a bit of life of their own.

Weeds growing through piles of roots and sticks

Despite all this neglect, there are some corners of the garden that occasionally look – well, almost garden like. Occasionally my tactic of throwing plants at random in wherever there’s a space in the hope that they’ll outcompete the weeds does sort of work.

mallow and lychnis flowering together

And the little rose rescued from the sitooterie site is flowering away in its new spot; it was obviously quite used to being overwhelmed by way more vigorous neighbours and wasn’t going to let a little sticky Willie get in its way.

rose flowering

I’ve been inspired by this to plant some more roses, as I do love them, and the more highly scented the better. This might be a fool’s errand; when Gardeners’ Question Time last came this way and the panel were asked for their suggestions on growing roses in this climate; their advice (after much sucking of teeth) amounted to ‘why not embrace the inevitable and grow Himalayan poppies instead’. But, nothing daunted, I asked Twitter instead and got something much better than a list of possible varieties:

… A whole rose garden that needed rehoming. You don’t get that on GQT

Meanwhile, with the Weather Gods’ backs turned, we actually had to put up our garden umbrella to shade us from the sun for the first time ever this afternoon (it’s rescued a couple of barbecues in the past from passing rain showers).

garden umbrella and bench

I’ve been calling this corner of the garden the Mediterranean garden largely as a joke, but if this weather continues, it might stop sounding quite so ridiculous an idea.

St Swithin’s Day if Thou be Fair

July 15, 2021

In what I think is a first since we moved up here, it has been absolutely gorgeous weather on St Swithin’s Day. Lord knows we need a fine summer in these mad pandemical times, so I’m choosing to put some faith in the fact that this is one of those meteorological legends that has a grain of truth to it,* even if we’re unlikely to actually get 40 days of fine weather from now on.

On the other hand, St Swithin was a mardy bastard who was more into inflicting 40 days of rain on people than 40 days of sunshine, so we also decided to make the most of the fine weather while it lasted, just in case. So a gentle cycle into Bigtown, lunch (and even a glass of wine) in the dappled shade of a cafe terrace garden, and then a swim at the river on the way home. Close your eyes and squint a bit, and we could have been on holiday.

Bike with swimming towel draped over it

If it wasn’t for the fact that I loathe the word in general (and the people who get upset about it being used ‘wrong’ in particular), I might even have called it a staycation.

* As the more accurate version goes: “St Swithin’s day if thou be fair / For forty days, a northerly jet stream might result in some fairly decent spells / But then again it might not”

Cycle Campaigning: The fun part

July 11, 2021

I try not to bang on TOO much about cycling on this blog, and particularly the campaigning side of it (no really, this is genuinely the non-banging-on version) but the truth is it’s effectively a full time job (on top of my other full-time jobs, which include, if the last week is anything to go by, gardening). Yesterday was a case in point. We’ve recently heard that Highways England for some reason has responsibility for maintaining a number of bridges that take roads over disused railway lines and it’s decided to ‘maintain’ them by effectively filling them in with gravel and then concreting it over.

railway bridge arch

This is a serious campaign issue as it would put a giant spanner in any attempts to reopen the old railway line to Stranraer either to trains or, failing that, walkers and cyclists. It’s also extra annoying that an English body can apparently do this to Scottish bridges and the council’s response has been to roll over and let Highways England tickle its tummy.* More to the point, one of the bridges was only a few miles away and we decided a recce would be in order. So yesterday three of us headed out to check out this bridge that was apparently in need of drastic work so that it could support ‘modern traffic levels’ including 40-tonne vehicles.

Along this road.

narrow rural road

Note the heavy modern traffic levels (e-bikes do weigh a fair bit, it’s true, but tend to come in kilograms rather than tonnes …)

e-bike and rider on otherwise empty road

After a gentle ride untroubled by any modern traffic at all apart from one speedy cyclist who needed to overtake us as we bimbled along three abreast, we came to the bridge and did a spot of exploration (they don’t tell you you need advanced fence climbing and bank scrambling skills at cycle campaigner school).

Bank leading down to railway bridge

Having taken photos and extricated myself from a barbed wire fence, we then decided to take the scenic route home.

person looking down over bridge parapet

Because that’s what being a cyclist is really all about.

looking down into a narrow valley from a hillside

(top tip, don’t let the mountain biker suggest the route if you’re not comfortable riding on gravel, which my bike handles like an arthritic giraffe in two-inch heels despite supposedly starting life as a mountain bike back in the 80s. On the other hand, do stop to forage when you find a massive patch of wild strawberries on the way)

stopping to pick wild strawberries

Of course, that still left the actual campaigning part: the social media posts, writing it all up, promoting the petition, raising the issue with local politicians, and also annoying your regular blog readers with cycle campaign chat. So that was Saturday gone, albeit mostly enjoyably. And today will be taken up with ride leading – also a lot of fun – so that’s the weekend gone. It’s worth it, and I think it’s important, but the next time someone asks me why I took over a decade to write my new book I might point them to this post…

* What makes it even MORE annoying is that the other bridge they’re planning to fill in will block a landowner’s access completely to half his fields and they can apparently just do that with no consultation, whereas a single objection by a landowner to any proposed cycle path which might mildly inconvenience their farming activities kicks the whole scheme out of touch for ever.

Visiting Committee

July 8, 2021

Looks like my attempt to catch up with a six month gardening backlog this month is going to happen under supervision …

cows watching over the garden fence

Apart from the return of MooI5 (possibly temporarily – the farmer sometimes puts them onto the field for a few days after cutting it for silage, presumably so they can hoover up anything left around the edges), I’ve also had my annual visit from the garden inspection committee, aka my gardening pal from Old Nearest Village who likes to keep an eye on my progress and make sure I’m not getting too fancy with my notions. This time he did ring ahead so I was forewarned, although not by enough time to actually make a difference.

vegetable beds

A week of time off work has borne some fruit, and fortunately for me, he’s mainly interested in growing food rather than the decorative aspects of gardening, so I did squeak through by the skin of my teeth, bolstered by the fruit cage and the other half’s custodianship of the greenhouse (although it’s rather chastening to look back at last year’s inspection and see how far I am behind even by my own low standards – and I thought I was doing badly last year).

It was also good to catch up with the latest village news. It seems that the coronavirus has mostly passed it by; the oldest inhabitant is still going strong at 101 and undoubtedly getting ready to sweep the board once more at the village show.

With the inspection hurdle out of the way, I can now concentrate on finding the rest of the garden, which I think is in there somewhere. Step one: making room in the compost bins.

When Summer Calls …

July 2, 2021

.. You answer

Road in summer sunshine

Having somewhat prematurely celebrated the end of a big job of work, which promptly returned, with bells on, in the manner of the monster in the final act of a schlocky movie rising up from the apparent dead, I finally completed it on Wednesday lunchtime and this time nailed the coffin down properly AND put a stake through its heart.

Amazingly, despite this gap in the workload, the Weather Gods have not yet caught up with me and with an unexpectedly free afternoon, the sun shining, and some vouchers of the other half’s to spend, we plotted a magnificent afternoon escape.

coffee and cakes on outside cafe table

I have a massive backlog of things to do, and no doubt there would have been more productive ways to spend an afternoon than pootling along back roads on our bikes, refuelling with coffee and cake, buying All The Cheese at the attached organic dairy farm shop, and then topping it off with a paddle in the river on our way home, but I’m struggling to work out how (apart from remembering to buy cheese biscuits to go with the cheese).*

Bike on river bank

For the next month I’m going to be a different kind of busy as I take a month off from work work to catch up with all the work-shaped stuff I do when I’m not working. It’s not exactly what I envisaged when we ‘downshifted’ all those years ago, but I suppose it will have to do.

And at least if summer does call again, I should be able to answer…

* I did do penance when I got home by spending an hour or so going through planning applications, because that’s the banging way we cycle campaigners like to unwind.