Time, Tide And Cyclists Wait For No Man.

October, and our world quietens with the long sigh of autumn as we prepare for the fierce gasp of winter that must surely follow. This is a time of reflection, as Hever returns to some semblance of what used to be. Air traffic reduces, the season of events is largely over and even the vast packs of predatory cyclists reduce to small, scavenging, groups struggling to survive the inclement weather. Even so, on a trip to Edenbridge, around three miles, on the first Sunday of the month we encountered a hundred and thirty five of the little darlings strung out in packs of between five and fifteen. On the way back, after the leader of their particular group waived us to overtake into oncoming traffic, one of these highly regarded creatures thought it a good idea to punch my friend’s car as we passed, whence he was  gently chastised and encouraged to appreciate the error of his ways.

The calls of arriving fieldfares on the nineteenth (A huge flock of some 250+ individuals passed over my house on 27th) and jays everywhere, collecting acorns, once again tell me its time to put the garden to bed until spring. I don’t grow much throughout winter and mostly take the opportunity to rest and plan for next year. I clear the veggy plot, dig in the compost, and leave well alone for the duration.

Having tidied the borders and pond area I generally defer any major clear-up, here, until late winter so that it may serve as refuge for invertebrates before transferring any cuttings to the now empty compost bays. Here I keep things lightly packed, in order that they may emerge unharmed as things warm up.

Managed in this way a great deal of work can be avoided. Winter itself will do much to clear up the years debris. Worms will pull down huge amounts of leaves and other vegetable matter to enrich the soil, while the frost and rainfall will break down the rough dug sods of the vegetable plot to a fine crumb long before spring, leaving only a light tidy round before planting once more, ready for next years growing season. A little guile and knowledge can save many an aching back, in much the same way that refraining from punching passing vehicles can avoid an aching jaw.

Just as I had decided that my friends across the road were seeing brown rats, rather than water voles, so my neighbours directly opposite them, who also have a large pond to the rear of their property, have reported sightings of an odd rat with a rounded face and a short tale. This sounds exactly like the illusive beast. It seems that we may yet have a colony of these once common but increasingly rare critters right on our doorstep after all.

Another mammal that always catches me out at this time of year is the grey squirrel with its low squawking alarm calls. I always confuse these with some sort of unfamiliar bird until I remember. Also on the nineteenth the countryside was absolutely alive with the sound of rutting fallow dear as I walked back from The Kentish Horse in the evening. Punctuated with the insistent calls of tawny owls, the grunts and groans of the males were everywhere on the half mile stroll home. I have never before heard them with such intensity, it just serves to underline how rapidly their numbers are increasing. Like us there are rather too many of them for the habitat available.

I understand that the recently revealed outline local plan, drawn up by Sevenoaks District Council, has again been adjusted upward, on the insistence of central government, from a requirement for an extra 12,400 new dwellings within the Sevenoaks catchment over the next twenty years, to 14,000, while world population continues to increase by over 80,000,000 souls every year. Draw your own conclusions.

In a previous incarnation, once long ago, I monitored and analysed viruses for a living. I was, therefore, both interested and concerned to read that myxomatosis seems to have jumped the species barrier and is now starting to affect hares, which have long been thought to be immune. Populations in Suffolk seem to be the worst hit, although the national population has already declined over time by around 80% due to other factors. Ask most locals and they will probably say that we don’t get them around here but we do, in limited numbers. I’ve seen them at Bough Beech in the past and there was a dead one in the road at Marsh Green only last year.

As you may suspect, if you have read this blog on a regular basis, I’m quite possibly not the warmest or most outgoing of individuals. I was born without a lonely gene and hugely value solitude as one of life’s greatest luxuries. With the world becoming ever more insane I increasingly retreat to the relative tranquility of my back garden for long periods of time, yet even this haven it seems will soon be lost to me as there are now signs that my dear neighbours to the rear are about to initiate their building project to convert the stables/barn which forms my rear boundary into a house, with all of the attendant noise and mess that this will entail throughout the build period and which, on completion, will ruin that aspect of my property forever.

In truth I shall be glad to see this completed as at least the planning blight hanging over us will be lifted and I shall be able to get it on the market with some degree of confidence. Not that much is selling locally, mainly I fancy as the majority of vendors still seem to be living in cloud cuckoo land and are asking ridiculously inflated sums for what were after all, in the main, agricultural labourer’s cottages.

In truth I sometimes think that I should have become a monk, God knows I’m already blessed with a natural tonsure, if only the lifestyle didn’t involve endless prayer and no sex. Were this situation ever to be reversed I for one would sign up like a shot and fancy that monasteries everywhere would enjoy a hugely improved uptake.

That aside, I cannot understand why so many seem determined, these days, to waste their lives chasing rainbows, concerning themselves with self image and accruing ever more worthless nonsense without ever finding any real meaning to their lives. I thought, therefore, that I might use a bit of analogy to advance my standpoint and try and convince the world that there may be some value in taking my unfashionably scruffy, relaxed, stance after all.

That’s analogy by the way not an allergy, which is something the wife seems to increasingly suffer from and is generally the result of becoming sensitized to a food or substance over time. In the wife’s case this may be quite a rapid process. Only recently she had a bacon sandwich for breakfast but was allergic to pork by teatime! Her condition is even more complex where curry is involved. Uniquely, she has become sensitised to its absence and should a promised takeaway fail to arrive on time she experiences a range of alarming symptoms, including mood swings and debilitating bouts of breathlessness. This has only recently been diagnosed as ‘late curry syndrome’. In her case, fortunately, the victim is quickly restored to normality by administering an emergency infusion of chicken korma and a few onion bhajis.

Moving swiftly on, to analogy: If you suffer from self importance, or feel the need to worry unduly, consider this: Were the known universe to be reduced to a sphere the size of planet Earth our entire solar system from one side of its extreme outer reaches to the other would measure no more than the thickness of a piece of paper. On that scale our whole world would be virtually undetectable by any current technology available. Not only do you not matter, if push comes to shove neither does your entire planet.

Quite frankly you’re not too well off for time either. If we convert this into distance, on the scale of my back garden, a trip from the very beginning to the back wall of my house starts on the southern outskirts of York. As current scientific thinking suggests, with one enormous bang which created everything, including time itself, out of absolutely nothing and I thought the religious explanations were far fetched! If we head south our solar system begins, appropriately enough, in the bar of The Eagle public house in Cambridge where on February 28th 1953, real time, Francis Crick disturbed the startled patrons by bursting in to announce that he, together with James Watson and co, had discovered ‘the secret of life’ with their proposed structure of DNA.

On leaving Cambridge it is a surprisingly short trip to the origins of life, almost as soon as Earth becomes cool enough, somewhere around Royston, but it will be a lot, lot further down the road to the evolution of multi-cellular organisms at the top of Crockham Hill, between Oxted and Edenbridge, with the first dinosaurs arriving at Edenbridge Town station and becoming extinct between Hever Castle’s gates and The Henry VIII pub. From there we trek along footpaths, across the fields behind The Greyhound, through the rise of the mammals, towards my back fence. With around fifty five yards to go to my rear boundary Australopithecus stands up, it is one of our earliest ancestors and perhaps the first to discover bipedal locomotion. We climb over my back fence and discover something astounding. It is in itself by no means impressive unless, if you are a weirdo like me, you might measure it and, upon finding it to be precisely eighty three feet and four inches in length, are completely awestruck. By incredible coincidence, on a scale of one inch to a thousand years, my garden is precisely one million years long.

At the end of my patio the first of our own species, Homo sapiens, evolves. Less than a third of an inch from my back wall the industrial revolution begins and, aided by our newfound fossil fuel consuming technology, we start to excel as the most destructive creature of all time, capable of engineering not only our own extinction but, perhaps, even the sixth great extinction event since life first began way back at Royston.

With less than a fifth of an inch to go things take another dreadful downturn with the invention of the bicycle. In itself fairly innocuous it was not until coupled with Lycra, which first became widely available in the sixties, that all manners, consideration for others and The Highway Code were condemned to history forever.

Let’s just pause here for a moment and, remembering that I am primarily a naturalist, reflect on the fortunes of just one species other than our own, the budgerigar. I am old enough to remember these as free flying miniature parrots of Australian scrub-land and well remember how they first migrated to Britain in the fifties to a new habitat, small wire cubes, where they flourished in the front rooms of virtually every granny in our nation. At first they were available only in green but were soon to be had in many other shades, due to selective breeding. They were to be found everywhere back then, in huge numbers, but once Lycra became commonplace this versatile creature rapidly underwent a further period of evolution to become a flightless, symbiotic, inhabitant of Lycra codpieces. No longer the ubiquitous chirpy pet of yesteryear it can now only be seen as an indistinct black sausage, hovering over the crossbars of those hideous machines.

Think me wrong? When did you last see a budgie?

And so again to you. If you are fortunate to live until your hundredth birthday, on this scale of time, travelling on a train from the beginning at York to my house, you have just one tenth of an inch, maximum, to gaze out of the window, from birth, until you hit my back wall. All that you are or aspire to become must be played out in that minute fraction of time.

How much more of your minuscule share of eternity then are you prepared to waste in worrying about how others perceive you, or how much beyond your true need you can stuff in the bank or otherwise stash away by spending the rest of your life in endless toil and struggle? Personally I have long deemed myself to be massively wealthy already, in real rather than pecuniary terms, given my apparent immunity to the ‘must have dictates’ of the media that now pollute every facet of our existence. I am surrounded by a few valued family and friends and am generally content with my lot, which is ultimately all that should ever truly matter to anyone who considers themselves even remotely sane. By 1979 I was already sick of the way the world was heading and dropped out, irrevocably and forever, to become the happily contented, if highly critical, crusty old bum that I remain to this very day.

Perhaps in the final analysis we and our planet do matter after all. Statistics suggest that with around four hundred billion galaxies, each containing perhaps a trillion planets, in all probability there must be other life out there in our (just one of an infinite number according to Brane Theory) universe but as far as we actually know for sure we appear to be alone. Even if there are other sentient beings out there our universe will only be capable of supporting life, any life, for around a billionth, billionth, billionth part of its total existence. That wall’s getting awful close! How much more of your remaining thirtieth of an inch or so are you going to waste chasing those rainbows?

 

 

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Christmas And Boxing Day.

The kids sad return to school and the parents ecstatic return to normality marks the end of the peak holiday period and a substantial reduction in air-traffic over my house. The world is mellowing, with the smell of autumn already hanging heavy on the misty morning air. This is September. In what passes for normality these days we usually have only the final, main, Hever Triathlon event and the follow up Commando nonsense to endure before relative peace returns and even the plague of noxious cyclists reduces from outright plague to merely severe annoyance levels. This year however things have so far been different.

We first became aware of the erection of four huge, linked, wigwams in a field round the corner one Thursday but stupidly thought little more about it, having dismissed it as some group having a camping weekend, since we had not been advised of any significant event in the area.

Wrong again. Once more on Saturday evening our peace was shattered as the walls started to vibrate and our internal organs danced to the rhythm of thumping bass beat. At first we blamed  the site of our usual tormentors but a quick recce in the car revealed that it emanated instead from the now glaring, blaring, wigwams.

We suffered it for a while but with the arrival of my mate down the lane we again took off into the night. This time we drove into the site, parked, and walked around unchallenged by any of the surprisingly few revelers. We returned home but on the way encountered two extremely suspicious, hooded, characters walking a small dog. No matter how many times we crept past they would turn their backs to us so as not to reveal their faces.

Back in my drive my wife was monitoring the racket with an app on her tablet thingy. By then it was gone midnight and registering fifty + decibels in our drive. Another neighbour arrived and said he had our two dog walkers on CCTV. At this point we phoned both the police on 999 and The Environmental Health emergency number. Environmental Health said they already had a team on route to us following other complaints. The police were rather less interested and as yet are still to express any further interest, let alone arrive.

After a firework display at 1am the row was finally turned off a little after 2am. We have since heard that this was actually a wedding reception (really?!). While not wishing to moan about everything, this type of bash is really starting to get a bit tiresome and underlines the need for vigilance in challenging such events and likewise unrealistic planning applications, since once a precedent is established it is nigh on impossible to stem the flow thereafter. For us it is already too late I’m afraid.

Has Christmas been moved? A visit to a pet shop on 16th revealed it well underway already, with festive gifts, appropriately wrapped, already on the shelves. It seems to start earlier every year and by my birthday on the twentieth of the month supermarkets are now well stacked with cards and seasonal packaging. Garden centers are, by then, bursting with tinsel and decorations and no doubt Easter Eggs are lurking in storerooms  everywhere, waiting to be put on display at the close of Boxing Day.

Jesus Christ. Yes I know its his birthday but we don’t know exactly when that was. Almost certainly not on 25th December which historically approximately marked the celebration of the mid winter feast held to cheer everyone up in time of gloom. Now, even I’m not proposing that we should ban Christmas but must it go on for four months? Can we no longer get the attendant greed, over indulgence and debauchery out of the way in six weeks or so? There should even be time to chuck in a few Carols.

I wrote recently of my disappointment at finding, despite my youthful good looks, fabulous physique and awesome fitness, I was deemed to be too old to enter a boxing ring after a brief lapse of slightly less than half a century. Worry no more. My mate Nick down the lane’s son Harry goes to Sevenoaks Boxing Club so with the discovery that they hold a ‘Fat Dads Club’ on a Sunday morning what could be more natural than to persuade him that we should give it a try?

Like lambs to the slaughter we duly attended last month, comforted by the idea that we would be surrounded by overweight, middle aged, fathers seeking to trim down a little and maybe increase their fitness to a level where they could stand throughout a session at the local rather than having to rely on a stool to maintain station at the bar.

The first obstacle, of course, was my age, but assured by my revelation that I was just fifty and some months (204 actually) and that I was happy to sign a disclaimer and a form about my medical history, which seemed to indicate that I had been dead for ten years already and was, therefore, unlikely to suffer any further damage, the trainer was happy to take a subscription and sign us up.

Excellent, the only point of concern at this point was an apparent dearth of ‘Fat Dads’ arriving at the gym. Without exception in fact everyone else appeared to be super fit hard looking bastards of around thirty, apart from a couple of girls who were definitely not ‘Fat Dads’ but doubtless also capable of knocking us stone cold sparkers should they so desire. No matter, the trainer would probably treat us separately to the rest of the group and work us gently while assessing our level of fitness before building us up to the moderate level expected from the rest of the group over several weeks.

Wrong! Utterly, horribly bloody wrong! The session began with thirty seconds of easy jogging on the spot, which even my well worn knees were capable of. This was followed by thirty seconds of jogging with knees high and flat out at the end. Ropes! Came the command and we all dutifully grabbed a skipping rope each. One minute skipping followed by another absolutely flat out. This didn’t trouble us too much as neither of us were capable of clearing the quarter inch thick leather thong once let alone several hundred times. What we did achieve was a great deal of tripping and cursing.

A one minute break followed, to mimic the rhythm of a boxing round, for this is a three minute world punctuated by single minutes of respite. We were both breathless but managed a little under statement. “Harder than I expected”, I wheezed, but there was no time for more. “Thirty seconds press ups”, said the jolly instructor, smiling at us with a knowing wink. This was followed with thirty seconds of crunches, then squat thrusts, then star jumps, then burpies and finally running flat out on the spot until told to stop. About half way through this, only the second, ’round’ it occurred to me that I couldn’t carry on and that I would die if I tried. I tried.

From here on conversation was limited to occasionally looking at each other in disbelief, through eyes burning with sweat, during the one minute breaks, and uttering a well known, four letter, Middle English sexual expletive while each hoping against hope that the other might crack and beg to go home. Foolishly, neither of us did, machismo gripped us and the torture continued.

All manner of horrors were inflicted upon us, always in thirty second sets, totaling three minutes in all. Einstein was first to realise that time is variable and here was the proof. Every three minute ’round’ lasted at least a week, while the one minute breaks passed in a split second.

Both of us were by now sweating buckets and probably foaming at the mouth. By the fifth I knew for sure that I was going to die. At this point our tormentor shouted “Glove up” and we all tottered off to put on boxing gloves. A couple of rounds belting away at the heavy bags, interspersed with press ups, crunches, and other exercises from Hell followed.

By round ten I’m convinced we had actually passed to the other side. Beyond that I no longer cared. I began to become dizzy and hallucinations took over. Images of frothy pints of ale, comfy chairs, hot relaxing baths and my warm cosy bed filled what was left of my mind.

Suddenly I was snapped back to this mortal coil by the second instructor shouting our names and beckoning us to the the ring. Surely they weren’t going to hit us as well, were they? We were almost unconscious by now so it mattered little anyway. Mercifully I noticed he had the pads on. It was, in the event, only a small relief as we were then expected to deliver every conceivable type of blow, from all angles, flat out, for three minutes before returning to the floor for a final couple of sessions before time was called.

Although no one had actually hit us we had effectively gone fifteen rounds flat out. Not bad for starters. I’d done all this before of course, when I was actually young and stupid enough to have like minded people batter me into the bargain. I had even continued with a number of broken ribs on one occasion but this felt harder. Could a break of barely forty two years make so much difference? Surely not, I’m still only a lad.

OK, so it may be a couple of months, rather than weeks, before I turn pro. At least no one was disrespectful (we could have done sod all in this company if they had been). It was a great friendly atmosphere with no attempt to humiliate us. No problem as we had at least done a spectacular job of achieving that without any assistance whatsoever.

So there we sat in pools of our own sweat and congealed fat, struggling, without any conviction, to make smart arsed remarks to each other. None would come. Exhaustion was total. At least my knees were cured, the pain in them masked by the agony in every other part of my anatomy.

“Enjoy that then?” queried our jovial instructor. “Yes. Really good” we both eventually managed to lie. “You may ache a bit tomorrow but that’s natural for a first session” he offered. “No shit” we replied in unison as we hopelessly tried to stand on rubber legs.

Eventually as I raised my creaking carcass from the wonderful haven of the cool wooden floor a seven foot wall of tattooed muscle, heading for the door, tripped over one of my wrinkles and knocked me flat again. Luckily for him he quickly apologised or I should have thrashed him where he stood.

I kid you not, it took over an hour before we stopped sweating buckets. Relief finally delivered by standing in front of a cold cabinet in Tescos for some considerable time, although a degree of paraplegia persisted until Wednesday.

Will we keep it up? Muhammad Ali once said “If you find yourself on the floor there is only one thing to do. Get up”. I would argue that it is equally possible and far easier to simply stay there. More inspiring, he also said, “A great champion is not the man who always wins, he is the man who, should you smash him to the floor a thousand times, will still, somehow, struggle to his feet”. So then, are we champions? With only another 999 sessions still to survive, not yet, but we shall be!

On the 22nd my son and I travelled to Wembley to see some of those who ‘already are’ in action as part of my 67th birthday treat. Top of the bill was Anthony Joshua’s mandatory defense against Alexander Povetkin for four of the five current versions of The Heavyweight Championship of The World. The atmosphere was absolutely electric. A terrific evening and a timely reminder that boxing remains what it always was, one tough old game, far easier to watch than to take part in.

 

 

Head Bangers And Double Clangers.

Believe it or not I wasn’t going to write about ‘The Neverworld Festival’ this year but as it turned out it was all quite interesting and worthy of a few lines.

What we were expecting, from our perspective, was music from 10pm on Thursday until 1am on Friday then from 10pm until 6am on Saturday, starting again at 10pm until 6am Sunday and from 10pm until 6pm on that day, when we could expect the hordes of revelers to depart until our next four days of torment fall due in 2019. To sum up, in simple terms that means loud music for four consecutive days, from 10pm on Thursday until 6pm on Sunday. Effectively, we get a generous nine hours respite from 1am – 10pm on the Friday morning, with just four hours respite per day, in the mornings, from then until Sunday evening.

The first twist was that, in a masterpiece of liaison and organizational skills, Kent Highways turned up and, just as everyone was arriving, despite dozens of signs marking the way to the festival, promptly closed the access route and dug the road up. In this age of media and communications, with Neverworld advertising their intent for the past twelve months and supposedly paying huge fees to traffic consultants to ensure everything runs like a well oiled clock, that alone defies belief. Traffic chaos naturally ensued with lost hippies going in all directions, including hundreds passing my house. Cars were abandoned in every available lane and passing point, further jamming the works and compounding the situation, although I must point out that the organizers insist that this was purely coincidental and nothing to do with their event, which I of course wholeheartedly believe, yet strangely this never happens at any other time of the year. I have to presume that all was ultimately resolved as the revelers eventually parked somewhere and the event got underway.

Now in truth, once everyone has arrived and things have begun, for the past two years we have heard very little from our side of the event, so long as we stay put in our sadly beleaguered homes with the windows shut. I understand that things have been very different on the Trugger’s Lane side and many of the residents there now decamp for the duration rather than endure the assault on their senses. This year it seems, from what I’ve been told, they got a battering on Thursday evening but, for them, things were better thereafter.

Not so us. Throughout Friday evening we were aware of the thump of bass from across the fields. Not hugely loud, but irritating nevertheless. Saturday dawned bright, with temperatures reaching around 32c by the afternoon. Once again we were aware of the bass thumping away like a hangover in the background but then at 6.30pm our world exploded. Conversation was drowned out and the walls shook as the volume was cranked up, and remember we live almost a kilometer (that’s five eighths of a mile in proper measurement) from the event site as the crow flies.

Our tolerance finally snapped at around 8.30pm and I phoned the event control team to let them know that we could take no more. To be fair they passed my message on to The Environmental Health Team who were monitoring the situation and they arrived at my house around fifteen minutes later.

These guys are unsung heroes and seldom get any credit for their efforts, working horrendously long hours to keep tabs on situations like this while remaining impartial and recording sound levels from points all around the event. These were supposed to reduce after 11pm and again after midnight. My understanding is that ours remained above the permissible levels throughout most of this period and one stage was forced to close completely as a result, although any reduction in noise levels was barely discernible, with every word spoken by those on the other stage/stages still clearly audible during lulls in the so called music.

With temperatures still in the high twenties sleep was impossible without the windows wide open, and equally so if they were, for the racket outside. At 1.30am, with the lounge window tight shut and the TV on, the insistent thump of the bass could still be felt through the walls and in ones own vital organs. Eventually at 2am the actual music seemed to stop but we were still treated to a further half an hour of the gimpies hooting and screaming their appreciation for what had been.

My understanding is that ‘Neverworld’ has received a great number of complaints this year. I pray it is their last. Were I to believe that it would stop at one horrendous night, even one every year, I would say little but fancy that if this is not nipped in the bud we shall enjoy two or three days of misery next year as the situation is allowed to deteriorate year on year.

Now then, anyone into Christmas cracker riddles? Like, Q: “When is a door not a door?” A: “When its ajar.” Hilarious eh? Oh my aching sides! Here’s another, Q: “When does a democratic vote, with a majority of four and a half million in favour of leaving the EU mean we’re not leaving the EU?” A: “When its called Brexit.”

I can’t believe all the never ending kerfuffle surrounding the obviously insoluble conundrum that this has raised. Now, I’ve explained this before so pay attention while I go through it again: The problem is that people do not understand the British system. The gullible believe that we live in a democracy, ruled by Parliament. What that actually means is that you are allowed to say whatever you like so long as no one listens or takes any notice. If anyone sits up and takes notice and your views are contrary to those of our true system, ‘The Establishment’, then you will be discredited and your opinions will be very efficiently crushed into the dust.

Without campaigning for it, we were in this instance, offered a vote, simply put as stay in the EU or leave it, under the assumption that a government campaign of terror and negativity (just as bad from the other camp in all honesty) would result in the masses voting overwhelmingly to stay, thus ending all argument for ever more and ensuring the continuance of the status quo.

What apparently went so horribly wrong was that the the majority of us are too thick to understand the difference between stay and leave and foolishly put an X in the leave box by mistake. The two forces at work here are vastly different in the power that they wield, at least on the home front. Government of any flavour is a fluffy sop to us plebs, occasionally moving slightly left or right to keep the masses happily believing that they can change anything more than skin deep by voting, while ‘The Establishment’ on the other hand is the immovable, unchanging, institution that underpins our society and makes sure that nothing ever really does, no matter which party pretends to be in power at any given time. It is this ‘Establishment’ with its massive vested interests that finds our stupidity so intolerable and is still frantically searching for ways to fudge the issue completely, to the point where leave really does mean stay, in order to rectify our original wrong thinking. Clear now?

Like ‘The Establishment’ I am starting to wish the government had never pretended to ask us for our views and had saved the money in order to build ever more houses all over our once lovely English countryside to ensure a continuing supply of cheap labour for the future. Well away from where they live of course.

Speaking of which. Back around the middle of last month the wife and I decided to take a jaunt around some of our old stamping grounds in Surrey. This was all fine and we found The Surrey Hills little changed and as beautiful as ever, except for one thing. For mile after mile along the A25 beyond Dorking, towards Guildford, there were yellow signs every few yards informing the subservient car driver that on 29/7 Prudential Ride London in conjunction with The London & Surrey Cycling Partnership would be closing the road completely for a cycle event and this whole route would be a tow zone i.e. leave your car here and it will be removed and impounded. Not only were the signs all along the main route but also extended off to the villages along the way. At least back home they only officially impose one way traffic restrictions upon us, leaving the swerving, cursing, gobbing, litter flinging competitors to make the other side of the road equally impassable.

It doesn’t end there. This event affects a huge area and also means road closures around my cousins place in Merton and also our friends in Hampton Court. Perhaps I shouldn’t object to the main event, inspired by the 2012 Olympics but, like The Hever Triathlon, it attracts thousands to follow the route throughout the year. Not riding solo or in pairs, but in groups or huge pelotons, by no means all well mannered or of the best humour.

Why must we continually kowtow to these uninsured, unregistered, road tax exempt, light jumping, finger gesturing Philistines? Of course I get the charity and fitness angle, over 27,000 competitors took part in this years Ride London and the two day event apparently raised more than ten million pounds for charity but it does not stop after just one or two days if it is anything like our experience at home. Once the route has been discovered it continues in perpetuity on every day of the week, being ridden by cycle clubs holding ‘sportifs’ or practicing en mass, winter and summer, causing misery for residents and visitors alike. The main reason that this blog has strayed so far from its intended original content of country issues and wildlife is that, quite frankly, it is no longer possible to walk our lanes and their environs without being confronted, and often abused, by literally hundreds of cyclists.

We had not even considered relocating to Surrey, as property prices are just prohibitive, for our pockets anyway, but it still came as something of a shock to realise that it too has fallen beneath the iron fist of these pneumatically supported chain cranking despots. Watch out Poland, you could be next!

Having pedals and a slender saddle stuck up your arse seems to indemnify you, not only against the traffic laws by which the rest of us abide, but clearly absolves one of many other laws of the land also. Should I, for instance, walk naked down the road I would undoubtedly, and quite rightly, be arrested under the public indecency laws. Yet many of our major towns and cities now permit massed, naked, cycle events. If I, likewise, take up this noble pastime will I too be deemed above the law I wonder? The rear view of a large sweaty bum, clad in Lycra, is quite bad enough. Imagine then the horror of going for a quiet drive in the country with the wife and kids, looking to spend your share of quality down time indulging in a relaxing luncheon at some idyllic country inn, only, upon rounding a bend, to come up behind some vast mass of naked riders. A veritable ocean of jiggling brown bullseyes and greasy genitalia. Enough to put you right off your chicken in the basket and give the kids nightmares for months I would suggest.

Believe it or not I don’t dislike ordinary cyclists (no, really) who come to enjoy the countryside. Stop at a country pub, relax and enjoy themselves. Likewise walkers and ramblers who we welcome with open arms. They don’t come because they need a challenging new raceway but because they love our countryside just as it is, and God knows it needs all the love it can get if any of it is to survive. The Lycra brigade are, however, a different breed. Its the attitude. With them its nothing but aggression and stress. There appears to be no joy, whatsoever, in their hobby. They all seem to imagine that they are on the final leg of The Tour De France and woe betide any who dare to get in their way as they thunder past, flinging empty drinks bottles and other litter into the hedgerow in their wake as they ooze urgency and arrogance from every pore while straining every muscle in pursuit of a new PB. I should, of course, learn to love them too. Its a big ask.

The owner of the property down the lane, who decided to build a tarmac dam across her front gate rather than clear the ditch opposite with ten minutes of digging, also owns the field behind her house. A footpath runs for a couple of hundred yards across said field, previously owned by a friend of mine. Just an open expanse for as long as I have lived here at least. Suddenly it has been deemed necessary to ‘canalize’ the footpath, by erecting ranch style fencing with additional electric fencing tacked to the top and middle rail on either side to keep out livestock and jolt errant dogs and ramblers back onto the straight and narrow by rattling their fillings with a high voltage reminder not to deviate from their route. This leaves a walkway of about four feet in width, replete with warning signs. It may be a small issue on the scale of things but it now looks about as rustic as an underpass.

The weather has broken now but for me this is a welcome change. Cool bright spring weather is my favorite but the hot humid situation of the past few weeks is simply too much for me. True its been a great year for butterflies and insects in general and in my garden at least several species of bee including the honey variety have been showing in good numbers. Conversely the weather situation has accentuated the deficiencies of our modern specialised farming systems with the dairy industry now polarised in the west and arable in the east. This means that the bulk of straw and fodder must be transported from one side of the country to the other where it is needed.

You may remember that my neighbours across across the lane thought they might have water voles in occupancy around their rather large pond. A close examination has failed to produce further evidence, such as burrows with a close cropped ‘lawn’ around the entrance or additional sightings, and they now accept that my original suspicions that the observations made by themselves and their friends were more probably of brown rat were correct. This is an easy mistake to make as brown rats are also quite aquatic and will not hesitate to take to the water if disturbed or in pursuit of food.

Better news is that the tadpoles, kidnapped from the same source, may have survived in my tiny version. My friends told me that the spawn they observed was in globular masses (frog) rather than long strands (toad), however during the recent heavy rain I noticed dozens of both juvenile common frogs and common toads hopping around my lawn. It seems the grass snakes didn’t get them after all.

 

 

 

Green, Lean And Mean

July, once quietly defined hereabouts by the arrival of soldier beetles on hog weed and the emergence of gatekeeper butterflies, now declares itself hereabouts with the blare of loud speakers announcing the first of the castle’s triathlon series ‘The Hever Festival of Endurance’. The competitors, nothing if not enthusiastic, start at 5am with a dip in the lake and later emerge, like a late hatch of mayflies, to clog our lanes with their massed cycles while over enthusiastic marshals clad in day-glow vests, without any official road closures in place, stand at every junction trying to prevent the resident population from going about their business with a clipboard in one hand and a legally impotent stop/go sign in the other. By the fifteenth of the month the blackbirds will have ceased their song to be replaced, later in the evening, by the chirrup of crickets. These are in the main; oak bush-cricket, dark bush-cricket, speckled bush-cricket, with a few Roesel’s bush-crickets thrown in and, less commonly, the odd long-winged conehead.

Saw a red kite just up at the crossroads at Marbeech on 12/7. We see far more buzzards around here and the RSPB are often criticised for promoting raptors to the detriment of our songbirds. I’m sure they have an effect but must agree with Chris Packham that domestic cats are having by far the greatest impact on both these and our small mammal population although, this year, they have been far less of a pest in my veggy plot than the near impossible situation which faced us last year. Some I fear may have passed from this veil of tears to spend eternity doing hedgehog impressions on the ever busier Uckfield Lane.

What have been anything but rare this year are horse flies. The hot dry weather seems to have favoured them hugely and they have seized the opportunity to appear in their thousands. I have been bitten loads of times already, mainly around the ankles, and spend many happy hours scratching at the septic scabs which invariably develop as a result of their sharing blood samples around the district, not only between humans but several other equally tasty species, possibly even lower life forms such as cyclists. Beyond the irritation I have a few concerns about this in that if such diseases as hepatitis and HIV can be passed from an infected hypodermic needle what chance a horsefly bite potentially having a similar effect?

Also, stung by my neighbours comment about my house being unsalable and unfit for purpose, I thought that perhaps the time was right for a degree of self examination:

I accept that my humble cottage is due a certain amount of updating and redecoration, whether or not we are able to fly the coop in the near future, despite it and its domestic systems having served to keep us in adequate comfort for over 35 years. At the core of any debate is probably the question of heating. We are one of the few dinosaurs in the area still burning coal to stay warm. Obviously this means we are thoughtless, polluting, scumbags with no thought for the planet or future generations, much like the government who, with air traffic having supposedly risen by 40% in the last five years, are vigorously promoting the need for an extra runway at Heathrow in order to facilitate another 250,000 flights annually, generating volumes of CO2 equivalent to many hundreds of thousands of coal fires every year thereafter. Surely by now we should be reducing air traffic with all of the electronic communication systems such as video conferencing that are now available to us rather than having to travel to the ends of the Earth to see each other in the flesh?

They are also crowing that our population growth is down from 538,000 in the year to the middle of 2016 to 392,000 to the middle of 2017 and only 282,000 in 2018. That’s great then, only a bit more than a million extra people on the island every three or four years rather than every two. I really doubt we’ll notice any extra pollution, traffic, or drain on already failing resources if we carry on at that rate, except that I notice that over the past five years an extra two and a half million cars have taken to our roads. Any connection?

Anyone remember last winter? Quite harsh as I recall, ‘The Beast From The East’ etc and, aside of the snow, the wettest March since 1981? Since then we’ve had a couple of warm/hot dry months, which we used to call ‘a nice summer’, and already there is talk of hosepipe and sprinkler bans and the need to use only untreated water to wash cars and water the garden in the future. Households are being urged to install water butts. I have two, holding fifty gallons each, but they are soon depleted when not recharged by rainfall. I worked in the water industry for a number of years and well understand the treatment process and the costs, but without laying a separate supply to every property in the country or setting up realistic individual collection and storage systems, which would involve some really huge tanks being installed at every property, I don’t see any realistic alternative, much as I agree that using treated water to wash cars and water the garden is an awful waste.

This has little to do with climate change and everything to do with the impact of our, here I go again, massively increasing population. According to the environment minister Dr Therese Coffey “every person uses 140 litres every day” if available statistics are to be believed. Even if we could build the dozens of extra reservoirs that this will necessitate, how, even discounting any climate change, can we make it rain sufficiently in order to fill them from our already over burdened rivers, or maintain a good level in our boreholes? One other radical suggestion remains unexplored. Could we not ask the water companies to reduce their chief exec’s massive salaries by a million or so each a year and put this towards fixing some of the leaks which allegedly continue to waste three billion litres of treated water every single day, or will restraint in watering my geraniums be sufficient to address this too?

*On 28th we had storms, torrential rain, and temperatures fell to the seasonal norm and below. By the 29th we had gale force winds and horizontal stair rods for the whole day. Headline due any day now: “Flooding Of Biblical Proportions Now Afflicting Our Nation Is Blamed On Climate Change”.

All my fault obviously. My outdated downstairs bathroom offends the neighbours sense of propriety and clearly uses too much water. If I had any sense of responsibility I would die pretty damn soon in order to stop being a burden on the society I’ve paid so much into for around half a century in order to make some space for all the bright young ‘right on’ kiddies to get on with creating their dreadful ‘brave new world’ before they too expire from thirst, hunger or some epidemic favoured by their packed hordes and sheer, mind numbing, bloody stupidity.

The heating system we inherited is, admittedly, ancient and burns a mix of coal and logs on a grate with a back boiler which serves 7 radiators and provides all of our hot water throughout the winter months. In an average winter we use around a ton of smokeless coal and a similar amount of logs. We have only one child, haven’t flown in years and I worked for 26years, for free, for a conservation body. We have no mains drainage, which we were promised when we moved here in 1983 would be installed by the millennium at the latest. They must have meant the next one then as the last passed without event. Instead we still rely on a cesspit which, be assured, acts as the most unforgiving water meter ever devised. No dial or digital readout can ever replicate the stark horror of a month old turd thrusting insistently skyward though the plughole in the bath as a reminder that the dunny man and his lavender lorry are once again overdue.

We are then vile unthinking fossil fuel burning morons. So what are our options. We have no mains gas supply, which nowadays is still of fossil origin as was the old coal derived ‘town gas’ of my youth which did at least provide a few useful, if less than green, spinoffs such as coke, tar and creosote. This leaves electricity, cylinder gas or oil, discounting renewables such as wind or solar which inevitably need alternative back ups. Both oil and gas are also fossil derivatives and the bulk of our electricity is still generated from them with a large energy loss in the transmutation process.

So who’s the hypocrite here? We now hear that electric vehicles have a larger CO2 footprint than diesel when production, materials and the means of generating the massive amounts of extra electricity to recharge them (which takes hours if you can find a point at all) are taken into account, which has always been my argument against them. Doubtless renewables are the way forward but for the present, until pretend technology catches up with reality, I would argue that we are no worse than the rest of the population after all.

Dinosaurs we may be but they dominated our planet for at least 150 times as long as we have managed to date and according to best evidence were terminated by external forces not of their making. Like them we too will soon be extinct but our demise will be born of our own greed and fecundity. We can either wake up to this unwelcome home truth PDQ or humanity is history.

Anyway, about our downstairs bog and why it would make my decrepit abode unsaleable. Accepted its a bit of a journey in the middle of the night to take a pee but I go far more in daylight hours and on grounds of total energy expended in going up and down stairs I would argue that pee for pee its better where it is than my fancy neighbours who are so confident of their superiority in peeing upstairs. In any case at night I can always go out of the bedroom window if necessary. Full of nutrients, my golden shower falls on our roses beneath, thus enhancing my credentials as a gardener, water conserving guru, and all round nice guy. Surely a selling point to any potential, conservation minded, buyer, so there.

For the past two and a half years I’ve been putting my youthful, soon to be 67 years old, body through a fairly rigorous workout regime, at least three times a week, consisting of weight training, sit ups, press ups and a modicum of yoga for suppleness. This has taken me from the thirteen and a half stone slug that I had become, in a year of retirement, back to the magnificent specimen that I always was, aside that is from my dodgy knee which still doesn’t want to come out for a run with the rest of me.

As a result of my restored vigor and as a lifelong student of the fistic arts I felt it was high time I made a return to the ring. After all my exceeding brief career as an active pugilist was concluded prematurely, only a little over forty two years ago, after I developed an allergy to intense pain which precipitated a medical condition commonly known as abject cowardice. There should, therefore, be no issues with ring rust after such a short break, and with only that little wimp Joshua standing in my way I thought it would be a simple matter to mop up the opposition and make a few bob to supplement my pension. What could possibly go wrong?

Imagine then how insulted and disappointed I was to find that even the senior’s division is closed to those over fifty five and that the maximum qualifying age for The Olympics is now just thirty four. Far less than several, still reigning, professional world champions. George Foreman regained the heavyweight title at the age of forty six, twenty years to the day after he lost it in Zaire to Ali. Archie Moore, who knocked out more opponents than anyone else, ever, before or since (131), went four rounds with an up and coming Muhammad Ali at an age somewhere between forty nine and fifty five (no one seems sure) while the great Jem Mace, first officially sanctioned heavyweight champion of the world and father of the scientific style, fought exhibitions until he was sixty eight.

I feel utterly deflated, like Brando in ‘On The Waterfront’ after he was forced, by the mob, to throw the fight with Wilson; “I could have been a contender. I could have been someone, instead of just a bum”. Oh well, bum it is then.

Anyway, despite what the neighbours think I am not entirely without funds but must confess to being a little cautious when it comes to parting with my few well preserved coppers. So, as small consolation for my thwarted return to form, I was well pleased to find that, as a result of my physical exertions, many pairs of ancient trousers (decades in storage awaiting a return to fashion) still fit me after well over thirty years. If you’ve got it flaunt it I say, and so much more satisfying if its cheap! Role on the return of the Lionels.

I’m having less luck with my house which whether we go or stay needs the ground floor decorating and a new kitchen, replete with washing machine, as the current one passed away around thirty years ago and has resolutely remained where it died, like some poorly designed tin cupboard, ever since. Throughout the intervening period my wife has travelled to the launderette in East Grinstead, around eight miles away, on a weekly basis, spending thousands of pounds more than the cost of a replacement and further de-greening our reputation in the process.

It is a sobering thought that we have shared our home with a dead washing machine for most of the time that we have lived here. Far more than half the forty seven years in total (on Sept 3rd this year) that we have been together, almost half of my entire life in fact. Throughout this virtually geological period of obsolescence we have, like a pair of rampant white goods necromancers, assiduously continued to make a beast with two backs atop its defunct carcass at midnight on every full moon since its demise, forever hopeful that The Dark Lord would look kindly upon our sacrifice and may imbue it with renewed life, to once more spew forth spotlessly clean undies across the kitchen floor. Yet even my faith is beginning to wane and I fancy that a trip to Tunbridge Wells Currys could be the more realistic answer.

Something has to give but I’ve discovered some slight damp problems lurking behind the paper in the living room which needs to be professionally sorted out. The kitchen will also cost a few quid but the hall and bathroom just need a tidy up, which I can cope with. Both are tiny so perhaps potential buyers may not even notice we have a downstairs bathroom after all, although those reluctant to piss out of the bedroom window on a regular basis, once they realise there is no upstairs version either, may, of course, use this as a bargaining chip, if indeed I can find any takers whatsoever for our pitifully outdated ruin.

Left to my own devices I could get a lot worse. I hate the way in which property has become an investable status symbol and would love to return to pure functionality. A simple log cabin (no more redecorating) with an earth closet, on a remote section of coast would suit me fine, so long as I could stay warm, dry, and had a facility to get clean. Water for drinking would not be a problem as a simple solar still, consisting of a polythene sheet stretched over a pit, with a stone weight to make a downward cone and a suitable catchment vessel beneath for the resultant condensate, would provide sufficient volumes of potable quality. Larger quantities for bathing would be more difficult, but rainwater from the roof, stored in closed tanks, could be heated by a simple back-boiler constructed from scrap copper tubing with an open log fire and delivered using a hand pump. An open invitation to Legionnaire’s Disease if ever I saw one.

Being by the coast a fish weir would easily provide a good source of protein. This consists of a substantial, sturdy, fence, at least a hundred yards long with a small mesh weave built in a large ark from high water mark down towards the low water mark and back so that it is well covered at high tide but left dry when it ebbs. Fish swim over the fence, to feed, at high water and become trapped as it subsides and drains, it is then a simple task to go and pick them up at low water. I have a pretty detailed knowledge of edible plants so foraging for these, and also cockles, winkles, razor shells etc, would be no problem and I could easily construct a few traps for rabbits, grow a few crops etc. It all sounds wonderfully simple yet I wonder, how long would it be before I ran screaming to the nearest estate agent seeking a modern bungalow (what! no upstairs loo?) with a supermarket close at hand.

With the withdrawal of two of the three festivals threatened for this summer I detect a certain softening in attitude to the original by some of those who have campaigned long and hard against it alongside me. I can only think this is due to some sort of relief, along the lines of being told you must have all of your limbs amputated and later finding you just need to have a leg off. I have christened this ‘Hever Syndrome’ a condition akin to ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ but for country folk. Similarly it afflicts weak, feeble minded, people when placed under stress.

Oh dear! My blog has wandered, or perhaps ‘evolved’, a long way from its original purpose. It was initially the brainchild of my cousin Marion, a professional editor of longstanding, intended to showcase my authorship on rural issues. I saw it as a tribute to two of my great heroes, Gilbert White (A Natural History Of Selborne) and Jack Hargreaves the long time presenter and author of TV’s ‘Out Of Town’. God knows what they might make of it now, were they still alive. Sadly I fear it has become more like a monthly trip to Royston Vasey. That it remains predominately ‘a local blog for local people’ is perhaps significant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

35 Not Out———Yet.

No sooner had I clicked on Publish for last months blog on 31/5 than an invitation plopped on my front door mat to attend a meeting at Markbeech village hall with the organisers of Leefest/Neverworld on 6/6 to discuss how the event might be improved. As venting one’s spleen in merciless bloody slaughter is, apparently, still illegal and I’ve already said as much as I can on the issue, albeit before determinedly deaf ears, I saw no point in further debate, especially with those who have a vested interest. I did not, therefore, bother to attend as I felt that to do so would only be seen as supplication to their dictates and would lend a degree of unwarranted validity to their cause, when any further discussion should in fact be between the local population and the licensing authority. However, some good news (speaking personally) has emerged in that Hever Residents Association has revealed that this will be the only event held at the site this year with Into The Wild and Veganfest having decided to pull out and Into The Wild relocating to a site at Chiddingly near West Hoathly in East Sussex.

3/6 most notably marked the 2nd anniversary of the passing of Muhammad Ali and, of somewhat lesser significance, the end of the 35th year since of our arrival in Hever. Longer by far than I have previously lived anywhere before.

Back when we arrived, having paid the enormous sum of £41,500 for our end of terrace cottage, there were no mobile phones or personal computers, no Hever golf club, no local music festivals, no triathlon, no floodlit urban palaces, not too many overinflated egos and very few cyclists. Fireworks were only once a year not every weekend at midnight throughout the summer with a few midweek specials for the hard of hearing. What we did have were a few larger houses, a modest number of small cottages and some old shacks, many finished in the colours of the Hever Castle Estate, under the Astors, of grey render with pale lemon gloss for the woodwork.

We had a real feeling of community, still do to some degree but this was on a far grander scale. It seemed that everyone from miles around would cram into The Kentish Horse, not then the extended, soulless, giant it has become but one tiny single bar, on Friday night and Sunday lunchtime. It was, in those days, impossible to call in to any local hostelry without being confronted with several friendly, familiar faces. In short everyone knew everyone else. This was an age when people actually wanted to live in the peace and quiet of the English countryside and were content, nay grateful, to live in humble cottages, without feeling compelled to extend them massively or tear them down completely in order to replace them with some gleaming monstrosity which might fit well enough in posh suburbia but in this environment looks about as attractive as John Merrick without his makeup after a rough night out.

In short most folk were friendly and had good taste back then and nothing much changed during the first twenty odd years of our occupancy. Yet only the other day one of my neighbours, who to be fair replaced what was only an asbestos shanty with a fairly traditional oak framed structure, took the trouble, unasked, to tell me that no one would buy a property like mine these days as it is no longer fit for purpose. They may be right. Perhaps I should crawl away and die of shame at the unworthiness of my sad dwelling, yet I fancy I still shan’t struggle to get my money back plus a few coppers when the time comes to sell, while they well might!

Speaking of money, I hear on the grapevine that my dear friends beyond my rear fence have run out of cash (would that they might run out of breath) and, at least for the minute, cannot proceed with their ambition to build a house at the bottom of our garden, although of course this still leaves us with planning blight. Conversely, a little further beyond, there seems to be no such pecuniary restraint with the old farmhouse which disappeared with such a crash a few months back. All that can be seen now is a huge crater and an army of digging equipment surrounded with security fencing. Rumour has it that this will ultimately house a subterranean swimming pool and gym. Better I suppose than flaunting your wealth above ground, although it remains to be revealed what exactly will project skywards on completion.

While all those years ago most of us were paupers, in my case burdened with an unspeakably enormous mortgage of almost 30k, some, even back then, were very rich indeed. This, however, was mainly ‘old money’ which somehow seems not to erode good taste or inflate the ego to the same degree as ‘new money’ and, despite their wealth, the rich of those days even managed to talk to the rest of us as equals without feeling any need to sneer with contempt at our very existence. Many were, and of course if they are still around remain, titled, with Sirs and OBE’s two a penny, and bear the surnames of their Norman ancestors, knights who fought at Hastings and were apportioned land in recognition. These days It is quite entertaining, on occasion, to see a self important newcomer looking down their nose at one of these clearly inferior individuals, many of whom drive battered old vehicles and can be even scruffier than the rest of us in their daily attire, only to melt like a lolly in an oven when discreetly advised that poor, dopey, old Bob, Liz or whatever might still be running around in a thirty year old Ford Escort but they could buy them, and the rest of us, many times over and should, incidentally, were they of a stuffy or officious disposition, actually be addressed as Viscount Bob or Lady Liz.

My neighbour tells me that they heard a cuckoo call the other morning, while their daughter who works in the castle gardens says they hear one regularly there. I at last heard a single call on the morning of 5/6 with nothing since. They are nowhere near as conspicuous as they once were. Indeed it seems that many common species have melted away in recent years until we suddenly notice they’ve gone. Sparrows have staged a bit of a comeback but starlings are fading fast and when did you last see an earwig? My other neighbour is a keen dahlia grower and, in days of yore, these used always to be plagued with them. I well remember my grandad making traps out of old flowerpots stuffed with hay and left inverted on a garden cane. Invariably they would be seething when checked but I can’t remember when I last saw one. Likewise my neighbour’s daughter apparently has a nightingale singing just around the corner where she lives. We once had three. One at either end of our lane and a third on the walk home from The Kentish Horse. Coppiced woodland is critical to this species, with hazel between the fourth and seventh year of its cycle being ideal. With poles of this size no longer required for hurdles, bean sticks etc their preferred habitat is simply growing out to serve the demand for fuel for wood burning stoves on a longer twenty year rotation.

No mystery any longer surrounds the frog tadpoles fostered from my neighbour across the road. I’ve not seen a single one since I released a hundred or so into my pond last month but what I did see the other day (22/6) while watering my garden was a very contented young grass snake of about a foot in length sunning itself atop the pond weeds. This may well be one of many, possibly hatched from my own compost heap last year.

Jackdaws are still very much in the ascendance, with our resident chimney-pot pair presenting this year’s four fledged offspring to the world on 10/6. Buzzards and roe deer, unseen before the millennium, are now a common sight but our little owls, once a common adornment to telegraph poles when I departed for work early in the morning are no longer around, at least not in their previous numbers. A shame, as they are one of very few introduced species that appear to have little adverse impact on their environment. One of their earliest release sites was only a mile or so from my house at Stonewall Park back in the eighteenth century. Foxes have also become a rare site locally. Oddly numbers seem to have decreased dramatically since hunting with hounds was banned a few years back. Perhaps they have left, due to the lack of excitement?

I know I’m always banging on about change but a few months back we received a survey form from the council asking about our housing needs. It was pretty obvious that this was just another ruse to see how many more houses they could stuff into the district but what threw me was the question; “Are you LGBT?”. Now I may be a bit naive and mean no disrespect to anyone but I had no idea as to what this meant and assumed it to be some kind of sandwich. Like a BLT with a dash of garlic perhaps?

I have since been enlightened and I’m fine with that. Each to his or her own, so long as it causes no harm to the planet or other sentient beings and doesn’t frighten the horses. What I do find a little odd is the current trend towards wanting to be ‘gender non specific’ and for individuals being offended by being addressed as he/him or she/her. I know that a minority of people feel unhappy in their original skin and take steps to change gender but nevertheless the vast majority end up as one sex or the other surely? Good luck to them all. I can’t, however, help but feel we are becoming a little over sensitive on this and a number of related issues. I’ve been happy to identify as male for the past 67 years, due to my whiskery chin and the undeniable evidence contained in my underpants, but please feel free to call me whatever you like in future.

My son is more modern and free thinking in his outlook. He tells me that it is our human right to be known by any identity we may choose. Good for him. He is going to inform the other workers in his office that henceforth he will be wearing a cap with a rotor blade on top, plastic machine guns under each armpit, and wishes to be addressed as gender non specific Apache Attack Helicopter in future. They can’t touch you for it. I don’t know where the boy (sorry person, oops! I meant helicopter) gets it from!

Now the last week of the month was an absolute boiler. A perfect time for everyone to enjoy the great outdoors, even cyclists, most of whom, despite my previous mild chastisements are at least polite as they block our local thoroughfares in their thousands. A few, however, are anything but and will not hesitate to offer all manner of abuse or kick your car as you try to overtake. Some even threaten violence as with my helicopter when it hovered at home and dared to try and get out, albeit well after the unwelcome curfew effectively imposed during Hever Castle Triathlon and it’s associated events had officially ended. As he (can’t keep up with the crap) tried to turn right at the T junction by the local pub he had his car thumped and was generously offered a ‘bloody good kicking’ by a group of late riders.

What an inconsiderate lot us country folk are in peacefully trying to go about our business as we always have. We really should just curl up and die. Its not as if we pay council tax (which out here, effectively, entitles us to have two sacks of very specifically defined refuse collected on a weekly basis and precious little else), road tax or car insurance is it? Just a minute, actually we do although I’m sure it can’t be as much as the invading cyclists as they clearly now own the entire district, as a recent experience demonstrates:

On the penultimate Sunday of June I went for a stroll with my mate (name withheld to protect the innocent) from down the lane and his dog. We had walked our usual circuit of around two miles and as we approached a busier section our canine friend was placed on his lead for safety. There was no traffic in any direction, save for a single cyclist coming up the hill. As he passed us the dog put out his head and sniffed the air but in no way impeded his progress. At this the cyclist felt moved, to say not ‘good morning’ but to shout ‘f— off’, for no apparent reason, in the same way that I fancy the same individual, had spoken to my friend’s wife and child under similar circumstances when we were walking only a few weeks previously. She had, with admirable restraint, only replied “That’s charming, in front of a child” so he probably thought that he might get away with it again without risk of any harsher rebuke.

Perhaps riding a bicycle somehow alters you visual perspective. Maybe he thought my friend was a chap of average build accompanied by a small child, as I was wearing a silly hat to stop my bald head from burning in the sun. In fact, I am of average build while my chum is rather larger than most peoples houses. He patently did not expect the response that the got this time to his cheery greeting.

With veins the size of water mains bulging from his purple brow and plumes of live steam issuing from both earholes my little friend, quite justifiably I felt, exploded like a bad day in 1940’s Hiroshima with several interesting ideas to assist the cyclist in improving his manners. These included internalizing his entire bicycle via the anus which, although I felt it was not a good time to mention it, seemed physically rather impractical to me, what with the spoked wheels, Lycra shorts, and all.

The chap on the bike did at first stop for further debate but as my friend accelerated towards him, offering many options for therapeutic dismemberment and a master’s course in Middle English expletives, his sense of scale seemed to return and, mercifully, as I knelt silently praying for his soon to be liberated immortal soul, he took off like a nitrous burning dragster. Doubtless in a hurry to courageously abuse women, children and frail old men elsewhere. Sorry, that should be vulnerable, gender neutral folk of varying birth years.

Back when we arrived all those years ago Hever was deservedly referred to as ‘rural England at its Tudor best’. For more than twenty years little changed and to the casual observer it all probably seems much the same today but from the perspective of a long time resident the Hever of yesteryear bears scant resemblance to that which confronts us today. It is fast becoming little more than a cycle track for foulmouthed thugs and a dumping ground for disenfranchised urbanites in need of constant entertainment and the facilities of a large city on their doorsteps. I used to love the place with passion and I accept that there are still far worse places to live, but after thirty five years I’m afraid the romance is over.

 

 

 

The Beast Looks East.

What we saw on our recent foray to North Norfolk was too say the least ‘hugely encouraging’. The part of Norfolk that we visited has survived, thus far, pretty much as I remember it in my youth, in the main because it continues, like much of East Anglia, to function as working countryside. This is the nations bread basket. Not so pretty as our current locality perhaps as here the dominant vista is of large open fields full of barley, wheat and sugar beet interspersed with the occasional pig, turkey or chicken farm. It is a fully functional landscape, possessed of its own charm and not so easily surrendered to development, as it retains an enduring value in its own right. Prevailing economics seem to afford it a level of protection that the feeble and apparently unenforceable ‘Green Belt’ and ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’, that we pretend to enjoy at home, cannot begin to approach. Even the huge coastal marshes, now beloved of birdwatchers everywhere, owe their survival to a working past, of wild-fowling, reed cutting and grazing. The old adage ‘Money talks’ is sadly, but invariably, true and never more so than where the environment is concerned.

By contrast in my part of West Kent it is now difficult to identify any meaningful scale of specific agriculture. Here, by contrast, there are virtually no identifiable crops, save for one gigantic prairie on our side of Edenbridge and the plastic monstrosity at Penshurst. Likewise, apart from a few sheep, a little dairy farming, and the odd horse, there is no livestock to be seen. We have become a theme park where nouveau locals are no longer content with the area’s intrinsic beauty, peace, and wildlife nor are they happy to tolerate any inconvenience from our relic farming heritage. Instead they find it boring and require constant entertainment. Hence we are now plagued with so called ‘real football’, hoards of cyclists, music festivals, triathlons and numerous related events to the point where hardly a single weekend throughout this summer will remain untainted. At times we will be effectively penned in our own homes by road closures or literally hundreds of cyclists, who now afflict us throughout the year, even on weekdays if the weather permits, swearing, giving us one, or two, finger salutes and even threatening violence if we dare, for even a moment, to impede their progress by daring to walk or drive in the lanes which now clearly belong exclusively to them.

Do I wish to continue to live in Dante’s World of Adventures or some warped version of rurality from the mind of Hieronymus Bosch? First instincts if asked whether I would take a risk on moving back to real working countryside, to swap Hever for Norfolk, is if I could go tomorrow it would take too long. Yet we must, I suppose, be cautious and, at our age, even boringly sensible. As I have said, it would be foolish to come to any lasting conclusions on the basis of a four day re-acquaintanceship. The realities of living full time in a locality are vastly different from those encountered on a short-break holiday.  There are inevitably pros and cons in any situation:

Hever = Music festivals, triathlons and other endurance events impinging on daily life, greedy gits and their endless planning applications, cyclists, heavy civil air traffic, general overpopulation, excessive road traffic, shops, restaurants, medical facilities, friends and relations. In all there are many cons these days and a few conveniences rather than major pros aside from our friends and relations whom it would cause me considerable agony to leave behind. Not least is the issue of my mother, who at almost 96 relies heavily upon me for virtually everything, whom I could not abandon yet would find almost impossible to relocate, and, of course my son who lives locally at present.

Norfolk = Dry summers but cold weather in winter, space and tranquility with few people or cyclists (I say ‘or cyclists’ as I do not consider these to be people, they are a vile composite of flesh, rubber, and metal tubes concocted by Satan and wrapped in Lycra, often entrapping innocent budgies in the process, for dispatch back to the outer reaches of Hell where they surely belong), huge coastal marshes unlikely ever to be developed, very little traffic, the only air traffic is an occasional military jet, fewer pubs, restaurants or takeaways (I’m showing my towny side in these concerns), fewer medical facilities and shops (aside of a disproportionate number of pet shops) would likewise be a problem and friends and relations would be a long way away. These are obvious cons, but friends could come and stay, particularly given our potentially enhanced facilities, and even a miserable, insular, couple like us might eventually make a few new ones, or we could travel back to visit. One bonus is that there appear to be plenty of crematoria in the county so we would be well catered to for the final fry up.

Joking aside this is an enormous decision for us. We have to face the fact that we are not getting any younger and any thoughts of a return, should things not work out, would be unrealistic. In truth a large house and garden is the last thing we, sensibly, need as we don’t want to end up unable to cope with maintaining our lot. Ideally a small detached property with a garage and small garden, or even just a patio, would be quite sufficient to our needs.

My wife seems convinced that I will die within days of our move and leave her alone in the wilderness, however, as I constantly reassure her, ‘only the good die young’. Her repost is ‘you’re already bloody old’, bless her, but our eventual location, and obtaining provisions on a regular basis, without too much traveling, is another concern although I’m sure that some enterprising individual/supermarket chain will already have spotted this niche market and filled it.

Much consideration, a good look at The Norfolk Local Plan for the next twenty years, and a few more trips east are obviously essential, although an initial look at the local plan through to 2030 revealed no obvious horrors and looking at the 2000 and 2010 census results for several of the villages where we are considering settling show, surprise, surprise, a reduction in population twixt the two dates of around 15%. Could this reflect the buying up of property for second homes/holiday lets which my friends warned me of? The figures certainly match. I shall dig deeper but it does appear that the population of this part of the world is, for the moment, not growing in the same way as the south east.

Speaking of the, already full to bursting, south east; we are now simultaneously told that we must be much more careful with our water consumption and that The Office for National Statistics is predicting that England’s population is set to rise by over three million in the next decade. At a conservative estimate we are said to consume 40 gallons of water, each, every single day in drinking, bathing and flushing the loo. That means that we shall require a minimum extra 120,000,000 gallons of water on a daily basis by 2028. That’s 43,800,000,000 gallons per annum, which equates to around 20 extra reservoirs the size of that presently local to me at Bough Beech. We cannot, of course, increase rainfall accordingly to fill these and at some point the authorities will need to wake up and smell the coffee if we have sufficient water by then to brew any. I suspect it is already too late but without dramatic measures to control population growth Armageddon is now perilously close at hand.

A few days after we arrived back any remaining doubts about it being time to move on were swept away when a very personable young lady arrived at our door waving a leaflet and craving support in resisting this years wave of festivals, so far announced as;

Vegan Weekend 13-15th July, projected attendance so far unknown.

Neverworld (ex Leefest) 2-5th August, projected attendance 4999.

Into the Wild (which caused such problems last year) 24-27th August, projected attendance 4999.

Factor in the traffic associated with each event, together with the heavy stuff necessary over several weeks each side, for the build and tear down needed on every occasion, plus several lesser events to be held on the site, coupled with The Hever Triathlon and its ever multiplying associated events, their attendant road closures and the cycle traffic attracted to our area at all times, and it becomes clear that any pretense of peace no longer exists for us as residents throughout the entire summer and beyond.

Another lady was also touting support by email. Both have my contact details, yet neither has been in touch since. So then, is it worth fighting on? The blunt answer is ‘absolutely not’, I previously spent the best part of a whole year vociferously representing my views to the appropriate authorities with every fibre of my being, to continue further would be akin to reopening objections to The Norman Conquest.

Where were these noble protesters two years ago when they might have made a difference? An irrevocable precedent was set back then with the granting of permission for Leefest/Neverland and a degree of local patronage has since made its position pretty much unassailable and opened the way for many more similar events. The objections of the majority have been repeatedly ignored and in my view all further debate is now futile. As I’ve said before, both on this issue and with local development, there is no point in getting up at eleven in a boxing match and hoping to win. It is now time to leave the ring.

At least it appears that common frogs have returned to Hever. That is to say that my friend’s pond across the lane is packed with both adults and tadpoles this year. On swiping (with permission) a packed net full of tadpoles I was both surprised and pleased to have an adult frog’s head pop up to greet me as I liberated them in my own tiny pond. Until now I have seen very few in our direct neck of the woods for many years. Numbers crashed dramatically from a situation where every local pit, puddle or pond held hundreds in the breeding season and it was often impossible to mow the lawn after a summer shower left it seething with emergent froglets. This changed dramatically with the advent of chytrid fungus which arrived following the discovery of upwards of 40,000 American bullfrogs which were first found to be breeding in a couple of ponds near Cowden and were later diagnosed as carrying the fungus which is deadly to many amphibians.

This outbreak of escaped or introduced aliens (Many pet shops and garden centers used to sell the gigantic tadpoles as pets. This is now banned), less than two miles from my house, was not only the first locally but also nationally. Bullfrogs and also the clawed toad, used for many years in pregnancy testing, are less affected by the disease but act as carriers. In this case the bullfrogs were quickly slaughtered by all available means, including shooting and freezing, and the site is still monitored annually for any resurgence. Hopefully things are again on the turn. Perhaps a new generation of more resistant common frogs has emerged that will repopulate the area.

On 5/5 I noticed a leopard slug / great grey slug racing across the top of my compost heap. I say racing as these are much faster than other slugs on which, as semi-carnivores, they sometimes prey and are able to overtake at breakneck speeds of up to six inches a minute. Were this their only prey I would bid them welcome, however, as well as feeding on various plant and animal detritus they are known to consume crops at a faster rate than they can grow which means they must still be regarded as a pest overall.

Having been forced, for the previous couple of months, to remove at least twenty pages from my daily paper and place them directly in my recycle bin, together with switching off each and every topical news program, I spent the day of 20/5 sitting in my garden to avoid all coverage of the nauseating nuptials taking place at Windsor, although I did refrain from flying my glorious 3 x 5 foot replicas of Cromwell’s battle standard on this occasion. It was well worth my self imposed political and social isolation as in the process I discovered that we have a potter wasp Ancistrocerus laevipes building its nest beneath our garden table.

Still in denial of all media releases and broadcasts at half past three in the afternoon I was alerted, by my wife, to a buzzard being mobbed by crows in the field opposite my house but although quite distant one glimpse of the wristed wings and obviously forked tail told me this was no buzzard but a red kite. I would say that at half a mile distant its jiz, which used to mean the overall feel of a beast or bird from its general attitude and behaviour, gave it away. Sadly that word, like gay and many others, has been hijacked and now means something completely different to the majority of the public.

Sadder still than the corruption of the English language is the lack of calling cuckoos. They have been in decline for many years. Both my wife and I did hear what we thought was a single, very distant, truncated call on 23/5 and hopefully there may be more to follow but this iconic summer visitor is now indisputably in dramatic decline.

If anything defined the end of the month (May) it was the unprecedented number of  storms which punctuated its final week. Some days were exceptionally hot and steamy and we enjoyed glorious sunshine, which encouraged several very enjoyable barbeques in the evenings, but invariably there would also be some of the most spectacular displays of lightning that I have ever witnessed making their presence felt on the horizon, sometimes bringing proceedings to a close with absolutely torrential downpours.

Thunder was never exceptional and on occasion the rainfall failed to materialize. It was the lightning which impressed and I must confess that I have never before witnessed such intensity. It sometimes seemed to be continuous and emanated from every point of the sky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another brief history of time and a trip to timeless Norfolk.

On just about the only sunny morning at the very end of March the insistent mewing of buzzards caused us to look up and there, directly over my house, were no less than ten individuals soaring on the early thermals to equal our previous record from a couple of years back. The scene was reminiscent of a scene from an old western where circling vultures indicate a stricken cowboy in the desert. Today they are by far our most common raptor, yet prior to the millennium they were unheard of this far east and, as our recent trip to Norfolk revealed, they have now extended their range right over to the east coast.

Last month was a bad one nationally for celebrities. We lost Trevor Bayliss, Stephen Hawking and Ken Dodd. They say that no one is irreplaceable, so just find me someone who can dream up something like a clockwork radio and much else in his garden shed, overcome unimaginable disability to become the greatest physicist of his age and work out how a black hole works on a piece of paper, or keep an audience in his thrall telling family friendly jokes at a rate of 500 an hour for five hours at a time throughout a career lasting over seventy years and I might agree. It sure as hell ain’t me.

In Hever too we have our problems. Thankfully no one died but on the last day of March came closure of yet another era in our local history, with the retirement of Steve and Rosa Gower after 48 years of tirelessly delivering our papers, seven days a week, in all weathers, without any holiday that I can remember aside of the odd day attending cricket matches near and far and the luxury of Christmas day every year. I among many others will miss them terribly but cannot argue that they deserve some time of their own for rest and recreation and wish them a long and happy retirement.

I know Steve far better than Rosa as I have seen him at our front door on an almost daily basis for the past thirty five years, as well as the occasional encounter in local hostelries. Strangely Steve is the third ‘Steve Gower’ that I have known in my life. The chairman of the students union at Ewell Technical College was a Steve Gower as was a chap at Thames Water Authority when I worked there, and then I moved here and found this one.

Originally a builder, he was always a keen sportsman and gave much of his spare time playing for Stonewall Cricket Club, coaching youngsters, or otherwise serving the local community in its many and various needs. I know part of Steve’s paper round as I worked a day or two, in an honorary capacity, for him last year while he took a little time out to listen to the chock of leather on willow. Despite the five O’clock start it was a pleasure to see how one of the last of the ‘old school’ local businesses functioned, with instructions as to how to find certain customers running along the lines of “You know that house with the huge oak tree outside it in Cowden?”. “Yes”. “Well if you come to that you’ve gone too far. You need to turn round and come back to the house where the old poacher blew his dog’s head off in front of the kids waiting for the school bus that time. Then go back towards the oak tree and its the second house on the right, with the bright red front door”. Happy days, country ways, now almost all gone forever.

Speaking of Steve, he is one of the last true locals to retain the harsh edge to his R’s that define the unique accent of this part of Kent. I can think of only around another half a dozen individuals, one of whom lives next door, where it lingers, totally different to the rolling R of the West Country. Indeed, accents are disappearing nationally, thanks to the homogenization wrought by TV, which I think a great pity as an accent is something only others can ever possess. We never have one ourselves.

Reflecting on the old ‘born and bred’ residents, what stands out is that they were all content to accept employment within, and serving, the community that surrounded them, such as driving the milk lorry, woodmen, farmers, gamekeepers and groundsmen. Not forgetting the wonderful Di who, long ago, used to deliver our fresh baked bread, still warm, from the Smart’s Hill Bakery next to the Bottle House, in her old matt red Escort van. Always with time to chat and share the latest extremely filthy joke with her customers. Sadly both she and her husband died all too young, shortly after the bakery closed, many years ago. Money mattered little to the old school, their wealth lay in the way of life and the simple pleasures that came with it. The fresh air, sun on your back and time for banter, with a smile for all and sundry. Perhaps a pint in the evening with a game of cricket, stool-ball or football at weekends.

These were friendly folk. They loved the area as it was, never tried to alter it, and seldom strayed far from it. The lovely Margaret Reynolds is a prime example. She was born in a room above The Kentish Horse and still lives in a cottage barely further than the length of a tennis court from the front door. They readily embraced like minded newcomers from all walks of life and were always happy to offer help in any way possible to all and sundry.

Perhaps the first sign of a change in attitude came when the husband of a newly arrived young couple, both in high flying jobs, was made redundant. As we all know a new mortgage is usually a large and fearsome burden and so it was here. Repossession was on the cards, but the community of those days rallied round and those who could all offered any support, including employment, that they possibly could. Stellar among these was Steve, who kept the young fella under his wing and offered a living, despite not really needing any assistance, until the time when, fortunately, he got a position back in his chosen field.

Imagine then how amazed we all were when, at a party a few months later, his wife was heard whining about what a tough year it had been and how dreadful it was that her poor husband had been expected to accept demeaning work in order to keep their heads above water. Now, most of those who offered help, myself included, had livelihoods dependent on a degree of manual labour and expected our new friend to do nothing worse in return for cash than we were happy to do ourselves on a daily basis. Let’s be clear; there is nothing demeaning in honest labour, neither it seems is there any gratitude in an arsehole!

The jackdaws have returned to nest once more in the disused chimney stack where they have bred for several seasons now. They replaced a previous pair that returned for many years before time or predators presumably caught up with one or both of them. We had a green tiger beetle scuttling around our patio on 13/4 which was somewhat of a surprise as these are typically a heathland species and I was greatly cheered to have my attention drawn to a huge numbers of frog tadpoles in my friend opposite’s pond. We used to have thousands of the beasts locally but since the advent of ‘viral red legs’ and chytrid fungus numbers have dwindled to near nil. Hopefully this may signal a recovery and I shall try and do my bit by transplanting a net full to my own pond.

One unwelcome type of wildlife in this area is the American mink. Our numbers of these fierce and indiscriminate alien killers were boosted some years ago by misguided animal rights activists who ‘liberated’ a great number from a fur farm somewhere near The Ashdown Forest. Nationally their numbers have now been greatly reduced by the introduction of raft traps although their complete elimination from our list of fauna is highly unlikely. I had not seen one locally for several years until my friend Emma returned from walking Ralph the other day with pictures of some young ones that he had discovered in their nest. He had actually got his head stuck down the hole and I can only say he was very lucky that mum was out at the time or he may well have had far less head to set free.

Not strictly a wildlife issue but thus far this season I have suffered less from the lavatorial attentions of the neighborhood’s cats in my veggie plot than last year. I won’t speak too soon.

I’m sure we all do our bit these days in trying to be green and kinder to our planet. Never mind that in my view we persist in ignoring the gigantic herd of elephants in the room, our unbridled population growth, which has been swept under the carpet for many decades and will ultimately end in a huge amount of suffering for all humankind. Unless we address this, however painful, we are doomed and all other measures are a little like trying to treat decapitation with an Elastoplast. Nevertheless, recent banner headlines in the press concerning our misuse of plastics and its disposal are, despite being long overdue, very welcome. I have always been of the opinion that plastic should be used in situations requiring long term high quality applications, not as a throw away packaging solution. Only now are we waking up to the fact that it does not decay in the manner of other organic substances and much of that ever produced is still floating about in our oceans.

My contention is that the answer must be front loaded i.e. alternatives must be found by those producing the stuff. Relying on the public to recycle is a huge waste of materials and energy at every stage of the process with only a small percentage of the population ever likely to adhere to any recommendations unless draconian measures are introduced and, most importantly, enforced. Likewise it should be set in law that all newbuild properties must incorporate state of the art energy saving/producing features rather than relying on individuals to update at a later date which inevitably costs more than if they were to be included in the initial design.

I was a bit unnerved before we even left on our exploratory house hunting trip to Norfolk. I was watching the ‘Move To The Country’ program and was more than a little concerned to hear a couple from the county, who wanted to move to Wales, say they wanted to get away from the development and traffic noise around Attleborough, despite this being well south of our intended destination. Lunch with some naturalist friends just back from a trip to the north coast was also less than encouraging, with tales of fast disappearing old cottages being converted or replaced with grand, modern monstrosities and reports that around sixty percent of all properties in that part of the world are now holiday homes.

Upon arrival, which we timed to perfection as temperatures soared to 24c, I have to say that my personal experience of the thirty by fifteen mile strip where I have always intended to end my days was far more encouraging. Sure a monstrosity of an estate is under construction west of Heacham and a great wart has been constructed to the rear of Wells Next The Sea. There is also some development around Hunstanton but the overall impression of this part of Norfolk is still of space and breathtaking beauty that has changed little in the over sixty years with with which I have been acquainted with it. I estimate that at least 98% remains much as I remember it in my youth. Granted most of the old tarred inshore fisherman’s cottages have gone or have been modernised and their flint walls stripped of tar, but such newbuilds as we saw have mostly been constructed in a style compatible with the architecture of the region and should blend well with their surroundings over time.

Our eventual return to the rush and tear of the hideously bloated south east was further cheered by news that London has now overtaken New York in terms of the number of murders carried out in each capital over the past year. What a great boon to tourism that should be, and free too. While, locally, breaking news is that permission is being sought to hold an Ibizan style rave over the weekend 13th -15th of July, doubtless to assist in the much needed enlivening of our parish.

Amid the space and tranquility of Norfolk it became clear that, given the nerve, it would be possible to exchange my humble end of terrace 2-3 bedroom cottage with tiny garden, for a detached property in a lovely location, set well back from the road, with 4 bedrooms, two bathrooms, huge conservatory, large mature garden, outbuildings and a double garage and perhaps even a substantial sum left over after all moving costs have been settled. Nothing much then to encourage me to stay put, but of course it would be a great mistake to come to any conclusion on such an important thing as relocation, based on the perspective of four days tourism. However, I have known this county all my life and all indications so far are encouraging. Prior to reaching any irrevocable decision we shall, of course, make a few more detailed forays to the area before committing to this huge change in our lives.

 

 

 

Spring’s here so why is it still snowing?

First a quick update on my friend’s struggle to obtain a bus pass for their two children: Although they were refused, the council has now addressed the anomaly of those living further from the school of choice and nearer to an alternative having been granted passes. Sadly this has been achieved by rescinding their privilege also, which serves to underline the need for caution when speaking out on local issues in a community like ours lest you inadvertently upset others. This is exactly why I am always so cautious and pay so much attention to remaining even handed and restrained in my comments, particularly regarding development and events in the area. I invariably take great care to ensure that I remain sensitive to the views and feelings of others, in order to avoid giving offense, and usually wear a stab vest for a few days after publishing.

I guess the situation, in this instance, could now be said to be fairer, although there are no winners. I still view the situation as mildly ridiculous and cannot for the life of me see any sensible reason to deny a few kids free travel on an empty bus which must pass their respective doors anyway.

The last two days of February and the first two in March, with a brief return on the seventeenth, saw the worst weather for a number of years, with blizzards here but more particularly across Scotland and The West Country. You may remember I did forecast a hard winter if the numbers of fieldfare arriving in October were anything to go by. Seems they were. It was quite bad for a while but it did make me smile to hear this described as the worst conditions ever. They clearly weren’t around in 63 when the Thames at Oxford (should that be Isis?) froze so thick that a car could be driven across it and one blizzard blew for 36 hours at up to 80 miles an hour leaving drifts 20 feet deep. Even the sea froze (for a mile out from shore at Herne Bay), with temperatures down to -19.4c in northern Scotland.

In truth snow and ice was usual in those days for at least two weeks almost every winter. Youngsters laugh at me when I tell them it snowed on 72 consecutive days starting on Boxing Day 1962. They think my ageing memory is playing tricks but its true. Not all day, every day, but for at least some part of every day for 72 days with snow laying over two feet deep even in the London suburbs. It then cleared briefly only to return for most of the end of March.

This was the first time that I recall seeing gulls as far inland as Mitcham, where I then lived. Great flocks arrived on Figges Marsh, an open area of football pitches etc, and were duly fed huge quantities of stale bread by sympathetic locals. This probably wasn’t great for their digestion but they seem to have enjoyed the experience as they returned every winter thereafter.

Things were doubtless tougher out here in the countryside back then and my mate Andy, who is Hever born and bred, tells me the lane past our local, The Kentish Horse, became a tunnel when the snow walls that had built up on either side collapsed to lean against each other.

Throughout this protracted Arctic blast my primary school (Gorringe Park) remained open except for three days when the heating boiler conked out. Otherwise we walked over a mile and a half each way, as expected of us, the boys clothed in flannelette shorts supported by button on braces, shirt, tie and grey jumper, black wellies and gaberdine mack, with a change of shoes stuffed one in each pocket to restore sartorial elegance on arrival. Back then boys wore shorts until their second year at senior school, come hell or high water. As well as permanently scabby knees, from falls and scuffs, in winter boys legs suffered from terrible chaffing and chapping and were usually bright pink, scaly, and sore from November to April.

The sole source of heating for our council house at this time was a paraffin stove (no telephone, washing machine or refrigerator prior to 1975) with fuel (either blue or pink) available by the gallon for two shillings a time (ten new pence) from a free standing, coin in the slot, dispenser machine round the corner by the margarine factory (it was half a mile away, in all weathers, can you imagine that not being torched nightly in this day and age?).

These heaters, the aroma of which is instantly re-conjured for me as I write, usually lasted about two years by which time the fuel tank would have rusted through. One was alerted to this minor defect when the whole appliance would suddenly burst into flames, encouraging my father put his newspaper aside and quickly throw the appliance through a hastily opened window onto the back lawn, where he would frantically shovel earth onto the fireball until the inferno was extinguished.

Other than this inconsequential design problem the only other fire hazard was my dog Yogi, who, on cold days, would sit so close to the stove that his chest would press on the safety bars (safety?!!!) until his fur actually began to smoulder. In 62 -63 the snow lay so deep that he was unable to cock his leg and if we were to drag him, reluctantly, outside for a comfort break it was necessary to trample an area in the gutter so that the poor little sod could relieve himself.

62 – 63 was the very worst winter in my memory (some say 47 was harder but not so protracted and I wasn’t there to comment) but most back then were pretty severe, with hard frosts and periods of laying snow. I was at Ewell College near Epsom at the end of the sixties and remember in either 67 or 68 making the 8 mile journey to and from the last ditch attempt to educate me on my trusty Ariel Leader in a foot of snow, at around ten miles an hour, with both legs splayed out like a kid’s learner wheels on a bicycle, all the way. It was not unusual to take some time to remove my scarf at either end, with fingers transformed into blue claws despite wearing lined gauntlets, as it had become frozen solid to my face. I was tougher back then!

We had some pretty icy winters throughout the seventies and the scientific consensus at the time was that we were slipping into another ice age. Truth be told we are still not yet out of the last one as the defining indicator of ‘ice age’ is that we have ice at the poles. Not until these fully thaw can we, by definition, say that the last one has come to an end.

This trend continued for the eighties and I well remember one of our neighbours at the time skating on the ice covering our car-park at the flats where we were living by then. We moved out here in 83 with the winter of 86 being the hardest since we arrived. We were snowbound for a full week, the only time that I failed to fulfill my contractual obligations in thirty six years of self employment, and ultimately the army arrived to make sure we were not starving.

On that occasion fine powdery snow fell for three solid days, before gales hit and effectively filled all of the lanes to the top of the hedges. Snow ploughs were of little use as the snow simply compacted against the hedges and everything jammed solid. Not until a Scandinavian blowing machine arrived, from up north, to blow the stuff back into the fields, were we liberated. On release I remember the heads of the short lamposts bordering Biggin Hill Aerodrome barely projecting from the vertical banks of snow on either side of the road as I drove through what was a pretty good facsimile of The Cresta Run.

We had only managed to survive, in fact, by our extreme determination in walking through the snow to The Kentish Horse to avail ourselves of survival rations consisting of copious amounts of beer accompanied by 16oz T-bone steaks and all the trimmings. It was tough but we all made it, despite one girl slipping and breaking her wrist and my then next door neighbour walking the three miles into Edenbridge along the center of the rail track to seek a refill for the large, empty, Calor Gas cylinder mounted on his shoulders. He was, not surprisingly, almost killed by a train, muffled by the snow, which crept up behind him, fortunately at low speed, before blasting him with its claxon which saved him from being run down but could well have precipitated a heart attack. He finally arrived in Edenbridge only to discover that all gas supplies had sold out days before. He duly walked all the way back, still carrying the cylinder, but a lot more alert than on the outbound trip.

The hurricane that hit a year later was far harder to endure as we personally lost all power for three full weeks, with others locally so afflicted for six, and the trees filling our lanes unlikely to melt. The air was filled with the sound of chainsaws for weeks and the teams, from power companies as far away as Scotland, were, I have to say, magnificent. They worked around the clock until the tangled mess of wood and wire was restored to normality, while we could not offer them so much as a cup of tea.

Less over excited assessments of this years situation are that this has been the harshest winter for 27 years, yet even as recently as 2010 we froze solid for virtually the whole of December, the earliest in the season that I have known such conditions to persist for so long. Should I move to North Norfolk I don’t doubt that I shall see harder yet as there is no landmass to intervene between that coast and The North Pole.

It seems that everyone I know watched, and loved, the three series of ‘The Detectorists’, about a metal detecting club. Quite what the appeal has been to such a broad spectrum of friends is hard to pinpoint but I think perhaps it was its gentle simplicity in a brash cut and thrust world. It has now come to a natural and seemingly irrevocable end. Much as I too loved it I hope there is no attempt to produce another series as it would only serve as a poor continuation of what has gone before. As ever it is better to leave ’em wanting more.

Locally it has spawned an embryonic detecting club and even some local dogs are now converted to canine excavators at the sound of a positive beep, frantically scrabbling earth in all directions, like demented badgers on steroids, without the least idea of what they are looking for. As a result I have been informed by a pair of very large chaps that I am now the elected president of ‘The Hever Metal Detecting Society’. While fearing that, should I refuse the honor I may find myself interred, together with an unseen Saxon hoard, in the corner of some remote field (an iron age collection of ten gold coins was found near Chiddinstone in 2016) it has been explained to me that the conference of this undoubted honour has been laid upon my unworthy shoulders, not because I have expressed any interest in the hobby, or indeed possess any knowledge of it whatsoever, but simply because I had the misfortune to be christened, Terry (not Terence by the way).

It should be explained that the president of the club in the TV series was also called Terry and it appears that my sole function going forward will be, like him, to suffer endless corruptions of my given name, such as Pterasaurus, Pterodactyl,Terrapin and anything else they may care to dream up. Horrific as this may seem I/we have suffered worse indignity in the past as my wife Marilyn and I were once collectively known as terylene to some other local smart arses.

Speaking of our community the recent harsh weather has at least revealed that our sense of local caring is still alive, at least among those within my own lane. Those that speak to each other on a regular basis all mixed in to walk dogs, get shopping for the elderly (us included) and kept the kettle boiling. I have to say that a little snow went a long way to restoring some semblance of the old feeling of the place. More hard winters needed I fancy.

Less good news, depending on your outlook, is that some mob called Bastille, a well known group so I am told, will be appearing at Neverworld this year. Doubtless we shall soon be hearing that an application to increase both numbers attending and the decibels permitted has been submitted. This will, of course, be granted. Am I clairvoyant? I certainly saw this lot coming from day one!

I shall make another prediction. By the end of this summer those who so love to crow about the massive increases in the value of their property will be singing another song, to the tune of ‘Oh bugger, everything’s gone tits up’. Property is already sticking. Whereas even humble abodes such as mine were once snapped up within weeks they are now near impossible to shift. The property two doors down was initially put on the market for £399,950 last summer, despite an initial advisory valuation of £450,000, to achieve a quick sale. Six months on even this was reduced to offers on £375,000 and still, another three months later there is not the least interest.

Although perhaps blighted by the possibility of another property being built to the rear, this, I would suggest is a bargain and about as affordable as you will find between here and the M25. ‘Affordable’ is of course the long running mantra spewing from the government’s ‘We must build everywhere’ propaganda department. On a trip to Biggin Hill recently we came across a huge new close of newbuilds, replete with postage stamp gardens smaller than my living room. At the entrance to the close an enormous banner proudly proclaimed ‘3, 4 and 5 bedroom detached properties for sale from £524,950′. Our local paper is full of newbuilds within twenty miles of my home priced between £450,000 and £2,000,000 for houses and upwards of £225,000 for a flat.

High time we stopped promoting the myth that we have an army of charitable builders out there, happy to operate at a loss or on cut to the bone margins. I repeat; “We have a population crisis that no housing policy can hope to solve. Address it or it must end in tears”. Our ostrich led government’s answer to this? Increase house building from the current unachievable target of 250,000 units every year (that’s 685 new homes to be completed every single day, including Christmas, for the foreseeable future) to 300,000 units per annum by 2025. Undoubtedly all available to first time buyers for around fifty quid a time.

Must end there, as I’ve just noticed a flock of sheep are eating my front garden. Some rurality remains,thank God!

 

Buses, Blazes And Boxes.

How’s this for nuts? I think I understand this correctly. If your kid goes to the nearest primary school available around here you’re entitled to use the local bus free of charge, if its over three miles away by either road or footpath for a child aged over eight (two miles for under eights), on a pass provided by Kent County Council. If however you select one further away you must pay in full. Fair enough I suppose under most circumstances.

From our part of Hever there is basically a choice of two, Hever or Chiddingstone. My friends and neighbours decided to send their two earthbound angels to Chiddingstone and therefore have to pay their fare in full as Hever is marginally nearer.

Them’s the rules you may say and of course you would be right, until you consider that some children living next to the school at Hever and others that I know of, who live in my lane but a hundred yards or so nearer to Hever Primary School, all of whom attend Chiddingstone, have been granted free passes for the bus.

The often almost empty bus to Chiddingstone passes the end of our lane and provides a far more convenient means of delivery for my friends, both of whom work, rather than having to drop off and collect said bless-hearts every day in term time.

Knowing the circumstances of others, who on the face of it are less entitled to travel free than their two, my friends took the horrendously felonious step of trying to slip their two on the morning bus with the rest of the privileged pass bearers. They were soon captured and, since the death penalty has long been abolished (wrongly in my view I have to say) their only recourse was to appeal to Kent County Council and travel to Maidstone for the hearing where, needless to say, they lost.

A small matter perhaps but, nevertheless, irritating. Under the rules they are entitled to purchase a season ticket valid for two terms at a rate of £165 for each child, provided there are vacant seats, which there invariably are in abundance. They would be happy to pay a reasonable amount but not quite so much. The result is that they must continue to take their children to school and collect them again at close of play. Everyone loses. They suffer unnecessary inconvenience and the bus remains empty and earns nothing. The wisdom of Solomon? That’ll be a no then.

On a perfectly still Sunday afternoon on the 21st January we were enjoying the fine weather and chatting in the drive with our direct next door neighbours when we heard the most terrific crashing, grinding noise. Investigation quickly revealed that a huge oak tree, at the back of my mate Chris’s pond, opposite, had simply fallen over into his pond which is thankfully more of a lake and well able to absorb such a catastrophe. The problem remains of how to get it out again!

A little over a fortnight later, on Monday 5th February, at around 10.20 in the evening we were quietly watching the evening news when we heard the dull crump of a large explosion close at hand. At first we stayed put, but when a series of smaller bangs rent the air my wife rushed outside and started shouting “Stop! Who are you!

As quick as I could, dressed in slippers and dressing gown, I hurried out after her into the darkness where I could see a figure, in silhouette, running towards a great fireball a little down the lane. I gave chase, as quickly as I could given my attire, and soon caught up with what turned out to be one of my other neighbours also alerted by the ongoing commotion. In front of us was a hatch back car burning with unbelievable intensity. We tried to ascertain whether anyone was inside, not that we could have done much if there had been.

Both the police and fire brigade had been informed by then and other neighbours were emerging and coming to find out what was going on. The fire brigade arrived in about twenty minutes and in all the fire took around forty minutes to put out. Presumably it was the old story of joyriders torching some poor sods stolen vehicle to get rid of any evidence. They certainly achieved their objective and succeeded in melting a section of our lane which was closed to traffic for over two days, until repairs were made. Fortunately no one appears to have been hurt so I suppose we must thank heaven for small mercies.

A little further down the lane from the car incident a house that had been on the market for over a year has finally been sold and is now occupied. Never in the thirty five years of my residency has there been any issue with flooding or ingress of water at the property but in the brief time that the new owner has lived there it seems that there has been a problem as the new occupant at first felt the need to build a barricade of plywood across the front gate and has now had a tarmac bund built to achieve a more permanent result, which will fail as any water will simply run around the ends. All unnecessary anyway as the real problem is quite obvious. In swinging wide to turn in to the adjacent field, belonging to the house, the new owner or a visitor has pushed the side of the ditch opposite in and blocked its flow. Further; the tyre tracks have created a perfect furrow to guide any overflow straight across the lane and into the gate.

Had the new occupant had the wit to spot the true problem the solution would have been a simple bit of spade work, taking about five minutes. Better still, had they spoken to the farmer who lives almost next door, she would have been quite happy to drag a ditching bucket along the whole length of ditch and give it a good clear out.

Why don’t people talk to each other anymore or take an interest in the history pertaining to where they live? Not only does it make life more pleasant and help build a sense of community it can actually save a whole lot of grief.

I’ve banged on about hedging and ditching, or rather the lack of it, before and am convinced that it would go a long way to relieving the seemingly perennial flood problem which afflicts us nationally nowadays with every period of protracted rainfall. Precious little ditching takes place locally but at least our hedges in general get smashed back into shape in the modern manner using an all conquering tractor mounted flail. This is far from perfect as the result is split and shattered hedges and lanes covered in thorns and splinters which result in numerous punctures although I do appreciate that it is a means to an end, has to be done on some basis, and requires little labour against the old manual laying methods.

Locally, at least this has always been carried out using a fairly small tractor, resulting in little damage to the verges which quickly heal with the spring flush of new growth. This year, however, it has been performed by a true colossus, of the kind more commonly used to maintain the great prairies of East Anglia, wholly inappropriate to the small fields and close hedgerows of our part of Kent. The result has been the complete destruction of long stretches of our local verges. In some cases these have been pushed back fully six feet from the metaled surface.

Timing has also been a factor in this, having been carried out through the wettest period of the winter. Damage would have been significantly less were the ground firmer. I know that the nesting period must be avoided but this has always been achieved previously. More progress I suppose.

I have said before that our countryside has become largely obsolete but I start to believe that the younger generation actually hate its peace and tranquility and probably despise its very existence. I hear on the grapevine that our population of newcomers think it rather stuffy here and in need of livening up. Let me assure them they need have no fears. The wonderful philanthropist, and founder of Leefest has, according to a recent press release, selflessly decided to drop the Leefest title, so named after himself, and adhere henceforth to Neverland instead. He also promised that this year we shall be treated to three domains and eleven stages to enliven our otherwise dull summer’s evenings over August Bank Holiday.

If support were to be judged by the volume of vocalization it would seem that a fair proportion of our more recently arrived residents are now in favour of such events. No matter that I would be more than happy to crush the little shit (personal view) beneath my heel with less compassion than I would afford a sick cockroach, that is just my apparently outdated take on the matter with which a fair minority of our more modern inhabitants seemingly disagree and, having given him their ascent by previously either attending his joyous event or buying discounted tickets for friends and relatives, they have, however unwittingly, registered their support on his database forever.

Whatever one’s stance it is pretty much unarguable that the trend is now unstoppable and our previous tranquility is irrevocably doomed to be subsumed by the ever burgeoning influx of ‘events’ in what is now obviously perceived as ‘a soft area’ for all manner of developments. What I consider to be originally an urban cancer, of designer festivals (ask those living around Clapham Common), is quickly metastasizing into a full blown, and doubtless terminal, rural malignancy, made more than welcome by those seeking to put an end to our stuffy environment.

Thanks to this local support and the compliance of the well rewarded land owner we can look forward to at least a further two festivals this year, taking up three full weekends in high summer, plus numerous heavy vehicles clogging our lanes for a week either side of the events, for build and tear down. Together of course, with the Hever Triathlon down the road and the legions of abusive cyclists attracted to our area by it who now obviously believe that they own every last inch of the district’s highways, as they constantly remind us should we have the temerity to try and venture forth on any even remotely fine day. Finally we shall be treated to huge firework parties on most weekends and occasional weekday evenings, usually starting between 11pm and midnight, to celebrate————–well, just about anything—————even Guy Fawkes Night.

We are saved. At last this unnaturally peaceful area has been enlivened! For the period April – October we are now assured there will be no more dullness. No boringly quiet country walks. No long, peaceful, summer’s evenings in the garden enjoying a quiet drink and watching the stars above twinkling in jet black skies. Instead we can now enjoy the continuous rhythmic thump of a heavy bass beat drifting across the fields or the crash and brilliance of pyrotechnic mortars exploding overhead. We are no longer troubled by the freedom to leave and return to our homes at will, due to traffic queues or road closures, in fact very little peace remains at all. Let me promise all concerned, you have nothing to worry about, Hever is no longer the dull, stuffy, and of course idyllic, rural retreat that I moved to so long ago, progress has at last been made. God help us all!

I took a walk in the woods recently, while the calm of winter is still upon us, and there we discovered a couple of the largest logs, infested with the fungus Chlorosplenium aeruginascens (recently of course renamed Chlorociboria aeruginascens by some authoritative smart arse), that I have ever come across. The significance of this is that the fungus renders the timber a deep blue/green colour which when sliced into thin veneers was once used in the local speciality known as Tunbridge Ware, which now changes hands for considerable sums of money. This mainly takes the form of boxes inlaid with tiny marquetry squares of different colours. Those of a green hue were invariably derived from this source.

Tunbridge Wells library contains a fine collection of this local specialty, the production of which was driven by the arrival of the tourist trade. Early examples from the seventeenth century were painted, although the later marquetry form was produced for at least two hundred years. That it predates the age of rail is attested by the fact that it bares the earlier ‘U’ form of Tunbridge before it was altered to Tonbridge with an O to avoid confusion with Tunbridge Wells and prevent London visitors getting off a stop too soon in their quest for the restorative wells, once the age of rail arrived.

P1010242

The Great Exhibition of 1851 had three major producers on display but by 1903 only Boyce, Brown and Kemp remained. A similar style of product survived in the Rye area into the sixties and the example above, shown actual size, is of that origin.

I would have included some shots of the logs in the woods but by the time I returned to do the photography on 27/2 we had had around 3 inches of snow on the ground, following a bitterly cold week, and I was unable to locate it. This was a Tuesday and after a less snowy Wednesday we began March with two days of blizzards, the worst snow for several years. The old adage which says that this month comes in like a lion and goes out like a lion has often proved true in the past, lets hope it does not fail us now.

 

Start Again. 2018 Has Arrived.

Bleak, dull and cold but peaceful at this time of year. A time for reflection and planning for the future. For the moment I shall concentrate on keeping fit and decorating the living room. This will leave only a new kitchen and a tart up of the bathroom and our tiny entrance hall but I must get on with things as I want to feel that things are finished to a standard where I shall be content to stay until our planning blight is lifted and confident that we are spruced up to a point where we can sell fairly quickly once things are resolved. This of course also includes my ageing (96) mother. Not the least of my worries, by a long chalk.

First focus remains the northern half of Norfolk, with a short break planned for early April. Not only to suss out property but also to take in the bird life, including the passage migrants visiting the vast coastal reserves which extend for over twenty five miles along the North Sea from The Wash south.

For my part I would relocate anywhere and would, without hesitation, move to the most remote location that I could find, including places such as The Brecon Beacons or The Cairngorms, and call it a job. My wife, however, is a little more reserved and much concerned that I will collapse and die immediately we go, leaving her to struggle in the wilderness until starvation and hypothermia claim her too.

She probably has a point. Hever has always represented a comparatively soft, sanitized, rurality, with an international airport only an hour away to the west and central London likewise accessible, via fast rail link, in a little over forty five minutes. Probably gone too would  be any significant shops, currently only three miles distant in the case of Edenbridge with the larger centres of Tunbridge Wells or East Grinstead around eight. The days of convenient takeaways would also be gone and home delivery of curry or pizza, which are in fact only recent innovations in our present realm, doubtless out of the question.

However, also hopefully absent would be the thunder of overhead jets, now virtually continuous throughout late summer, endless armadas of cyclists with their Lycra clad arse cracks and two fingered salutes, pop festivals, triathlons, car parking wars and neighbours who no longer seem to understand what neighbour means but may condescend to speak if they judge your status to be sufficient or , of course, if they want something, when they instantly become best mates.

I’ve always been a dedicated naturalist which means I have ongoing concerns for the environment and my relationship with it. In my defense I very seldom fly as my options are limited with no passport and do less than 5,000 miles a year on the road since I retired. All much easier of course once you have no necessity to travel. Nevertheless, wherever we settle I should like to be a little greener than I am here. I am currently a coal burner, in conjunction with a predominance of logs for heating. This undoubtedly sounds horrific but living out here there are few alternatives. We have no gas supply and while we cook etc with electricity (how is that generated?) our only other alternatives are oil or bottled gas. Perhaps in a new location I may more realistically be able to institute some modern alternatives, such as wind turbines or solar panels, if I can find some that work in all weathers, but within the confines of my present environment this would be impossible without creating hugely dramatic and unwelcome visual impact.

I have always been something of a sceptic regarding man’s impact on global warming over normal rhythms, sun spot activity etc, although I have no doubt that we are working very effectively towards our own extinction due to filthy greed and hyper fecundity. One of my pet hates has always been the use of plastics for short term, throwaway, purposes such as unnecessary packaging and at last we do seem to be waking up to this as even our oceans are now becoming clogged with indestructible garbage, to the irreversible detriment of some of the most spectacular wildlife on Earth.

Finally, at the eleventh hour, we seem to be waking up to the issue, with the suggestion that paper bags and glass bottles with a returnable deposit could be used to replace our polymer pal in many of its short term roles. What a great innovation that would be, but hold on, didn’t we used to have all that when I was a kid over, sixty years ago. I seem to recall that back then every waif and street urchin, like myself, was possessed of an old pram or similar with which they would roam for miles collecting pop bottles and the old brown, stone stoppered, beer bottles to exchange for washing (not the high energy melting and re-processing favoured today) and reissue at a rate of reward around tuppence per unit (slightly less than one new pence today), big money for a youngster back then and well worth the risk involved in climbing into the rear yard of the local pub for masses of easy pickings, to be handed over the gate to my felonious accomplice and exchanged for profit at the front. Easy that is until the publican caught on to our nefarious enterprise and administered his own form of instant justice with a mighty clump alongside the earhole.

My contention has always been that plastic is great stuff in high quality, long term, situations. We simply undervalue its potential and use it for all the wrong, throwaway, purposes. Where the issue is less clear cut is in areas such as washing up detergent and the like. Trigger bottles and their ilk have come to the for over the past couple of decades for other cleaning and disinfectant products but as far as I can recall the squeezy plastic variety have been around for all of my life. Can we find a reusable alternative? I’m sure there must have been an alternative, further back in time, such as flaked household soap, as obviously washing up has been about for some considerable time. Certainly I can remember cardboard boxes for ordinary washing powders. In particular I recall that if one was engaged in an affair with a married lady (not me of course. I was always a clean living lad unversed in such smutty carry-ons) and spotted a box of OMO prominently displayed in the kitchen window, it was safe to call as this stood for ‘old man out’. Hopefully we are at last waking up to our dirty habits and can find a solution before we and our environment are finally submerged in non-degradable waste.

Its the deadest part of the year right now, when my energy and motivation always hit rock bottom. Its a dangerous time for gardening as any pretense of a fine day has the potential to lure the reluctant couch potato outside and send the unwary fool horticulturist scurrying off to the local nursery to purchase an unseasonable array of plants with which to cheer up the garden. To the consummate joy of nursery owners everywhere these will quickly succumb to the extremes of the season, paving the way for fresh sales when spring more realistically arrives in a few months time.

With all the wet, cold and gloom I have to admit I’ve hardly ventured beyond my drive either to check on my garden or to take a look at the local wildlife but I do have to say that if the number and volume of mating calls is anything to go by, we should be submerged in tawny owls by this time next year if nothing else.