a happy interruption

The last thing you need when you’re up against a deadline and you feel like there will never, ever be enough hours in the day is an interruption.

Unless it’s an interruption like this.

Sixty weeny but perfect plugs of organic salad plants.

The instructions said to plant straight away.  The autumn sun was shining in the garden, there was fresh compost waiting to go in the raised beds – how could I refuse?

Well, I could have argued that this semester’s module in Victorian Literature is eating up all my time. Dickens, Gaskell, Eliot – I love you all but why did you have to write such long books?

Or I could have protested that I was behind on a major writing project that is currently earning me about sixpence halfpenny an hour and needs to be sorted out if the Dobson family is going to eat next year.

Nope, none of this was worth the sacrifice of these gorgeous little promises of winter greenery. In just an hour or so I had cleared the miserable looking courgettes (oh 2012, what a dreadful growing season you were) and the overgrown rocket, dug in the latest lot of crumbly, chocolatey compost from our bin and planted everything out.

Now we can look forward to winter purslane, corn salad, land cress and wild rocket to cheer up our winter meals. There were also two varieties of lettuce – ‘Winter Density’ and ‘Arctic King’ – that I am assured will be able to cope with the worst of the Sheffield snow, although I might tuck them up in a bit of fleece if it looks like being particularly harsh.

It’s amazing what an hour of sun and soil can do for one’s energy levels. Last week the new economics foundation recommended that we should all work shorter hours and spend the extra time in the garden. Judging from my experience today, if we took their advice we might actually end up being more productive, not less. Not to mention healthier and better equipped to cope with soaring food prices.

Incidentally, my plugs came from Organic Plants. I’ve not used them before but so far the service has been brilliant.

season of change

My lovely daughters have made it possible for me to get my hands on a digital SLR. Miriam handed it down to Susanna when she upgraded, and Susie has lent it to me because of a forthcoming Very Exciting Trip.

I’m still just practising and haven’t really got the hang of all the knobs and twiddly bits, but I’ve been having a great time capturing the shift from summer to autumn round here.

I’ve always loved September and seen it as a time of new beginnings. I’ve worked in education, and of course my children’s big milestones – nursery, primary school, big school and (gulp) university – have always come at this time of year.

Now that I work similar hours all year round and my children actively discourage me from accompanying them to their places of study, I was afraid the excitement might dim a bit.

That was before the aforementioned trip came up! I’m very excited to say that I shall be travelling to Bulgaria tomorrow to stay with some dear friends for a week, see some amazing work they’ve been doing and even talk about a possible shared writing project.

What with passing a big birthday recently, along with watching the ‘children’ become ever more independent, I’ve been really aware of the seasons of life changing as well as the seasons of this particular year.

In many ways it seems like a time of loss. Of course we are glad to see our teenagers growing in independence and making their own decisions. But there is still the wrench and a sense of disorientation as they move further and further away from home.

This trip’s been good for reminding me that I can be more independent now too! As the season changes outside the window, I’m getting quite excited about the new horizons that might open up.

naturalists of the sidewalk

I have only just discovered the phrase ‘botanist of the sidewalk’. Apparently it was coined by the French poet Charles Baudelaire as part of his definition of the flaneur, the one who strolls the city streets observing modern life.

Baudelaire mainly envisaged his ‘botanists’ watching people but I like to think there is also a role for the flaneur who seeks places where the natural environment encroaches on the city. Flowers, yes, but other plants and wildlife too.

We had a day of ‘flaneuring’ when we travelled down to London to catch the end of the Miro exhibition at Tate Modern. We walked from St Pancras, keeping in the general direction of the Tate but stopping to explore the secrets that you can always discover if you tackle London this way: a quirky sign, a historic building, an unusual street name.

Our best discoveries this time, though, were all to do with the natural world. The first was a garden, tucked away off Clerkenwell Road in a courtyard forming part of the Museum of the Order of St John. The order gave birth to the St John Ambulance Brigade and has been connected with this site since 1140.

It is always a thrill to discover a new, quiet place in the city but I found the garden less than successful. The layout is geometrical and suggests formality, but apart from a couple of box hedges, the planting, with its sprawling herbs and unruly hardy geraniums, was more suited to a cottage garden.

Our second find was another garden, this time at Christchurch Greyfriars. Unlike the first, it is stunning in both concept and design, an incongruous explosion of greenery amid the sterile concrete and glass of the City of London.

The site of the garden has a truly turbulent history. In 1225 a group of Franciscan monks from Italy set up a monastery there. After the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII it was converted to a parish church, but in 1666 that was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. Christopher Wren rebuilt it, but everything except the west tower was bombed to destruction in the second world war.

This wonderful garden has been laid out to match the floor plan of Wren’s church and blends magically with the stone ruins. The central paved aisle is in the place of the nave and the box-hedged beds on either side are in the original position of the pews. The master stroke is a series of open wooden towers wreathed with climbing roses and clematis and representing the pillars that supported the church roof.

Our final surprise came just as we arrived at Tate Modern. We’d been passing numerous artists painting on their easels and attracting a few scattered onlookers but suddenly we found a crowd around a set of telescopes. A hugely enthusiastic RSPB volunteer accosted us and asked if we’d like to take a look at the peregrine falcons.

Yes, peregrine falcons! There are less than 1500 breeding pairs of these magnificent birds of prey in the UK and I had never seen one before, not even in the wild and remote places we like to spend our holidays. However, two of them have chosen to hang out on the chimney of the Tate. The RSPB had trained their extremely powerful telescopes on exactly the right spot and the view was breathtaking.