Seen at the Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

ABC Wednesday 5: X is for...

... Xmas

In the run up to Christmas last week I'd been pondering where the abbreviation Xmas came from and today's ABC Wednesday is the perfect excuse to find out a little more. According to the entry about Christmas in Wikipedia:

The word Christmas originated as a compound meaning "Christ's Mass". It is derived from the Middle English Christemasse and Old English Cristes mæsse, a phrase first recorded in 1038. "Cristes" is from Greek Christos and "mæsse" is from Latin missa (the holy mass). In Greek, the letter Χ (chi), is the first letter of Christ, and it, or the similar Roman letter X, has been used as an abbreviation for Christ since the mid-16th century. Hence, Xmas is sometimes used as an abbreviation for Christmas.

My parents and school always suggested using the word Xmas was rather vulgar and such was this air of disapproval dinned into me from an early age, even today I find it rather a difficult word to use!

The picture's a scene from our family Christmas walk in Batley Park on Boxing Day, where we had great fun in the snow, though the poor ducks and geese on the lake were finding it a little difficult to land ;)

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Merry Christmas!

Some suitably festive decorations in my garden
Seasons Greetings to you all and here's to a cracking 2010. Like many of you, I'm taking a break until the New Year, though ABC Wednesday will pop-up on the allotted day and hour next week to see what's what for the letter X.

To send you good cheer, here's the Gower Wassail from me and the rest of the Wiltshire Wailers at Stourhead last Sunday. Update: sadly this video is no longer available :(

In the meantime until I return, you might also like to have a look at everyone's contribution for this month's festive edition of Out on the Streets. Do also follow the link if you're ready to add your own contribution to the list :)

Since September's OOTS, Leamington Spa station's garden has been voted Britain's best, Ken Livingstone has had a go at Boris Johnson over London's public spaces, Jakarta is giving its petrol stations a green makeover, Karen over at Greenwalks has been looking at street trees and National Geographic has showcased some mouth watering green roof photographs.

Last but not least, Garden Wise Guy says It's Time to Unite in the Name of Ugly ;)

Happy holidays everyone and see you soon!

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

ABC Wednesday 5: W is for...

This post is especially for Helena and The Constant Gardener, who both commented recently when ABC Wednesday stood at S for Secateurs.

Helena asked the question:

How do you keep yours from going rusty? I'm sure I dry them off but when I come back to use them again in the spring they are stuck fast and at least a little rusty and never the same again! I wonder if rubbing a little olive oil on them would work....

The Constant Gardener kindly answered:

Helena - WD40. Spray, preferably, all over the blade + joint when you put them away for the winter.

Though I carry on using mine all winter long these days... and just a few drops of 3 in 1 [a brand of oil which claims to have rust inhibiting properties - Ed] on the bolt that holds everything together from time to time seems to keep everything in tip-top working order.

Because this conversation concerned tools, NAH (who was peering over my shoulder at the time) couldn't resist joining in. Apparently his dad used to use the oil from the end of his car's dipstick, so it looks like most kinds of oil will do the trick. I've even heard of baby oil being used. NAH also added that if you can bring your secateurs indoors over the winter, then there isn't really the need for oil nor WD-40, assuming you've wiped the blades dry after using them and your house has a dry atmosphere. However, if it hasn't or if your shed or garage is where they'll be over the next few months, then WD-40's the way to go. I'd still use the oil too, so the blades are ready to get cracking when you start winter or spring pruning.

NAH then also told me the name WD-40 is the shortened form of Water Displacement - 40th attempt: apparently the inventor had 39 attempts before he hit on the formulation which actually worked! As soon as he told me that, I immediately knew what I was going to use for W today. I for one am very pleased the inventor persisted, because a can was part of the required toolkit for my old-style Mini when I owned one. The merest hint of rain and my car would refuse to move: one spray with the can and off it would go again. It's a known problem with them and all kinds of protective covers were made to go under the bonnet, but nothing worked quite as well as good old WD-40 :)
Update: Soilman's quite rightly pointed out in the Comments that the use of engine oil's a no-no, so let's stick with Constant Gardener's original advice!

Why not visit the ABC Wednesday blog, for a Whole feast of Ws?

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

OOTS: Chippenham's Christmas Lights

In a slight change to the advertised programme, I'm not going to show you our Christmas tree in the market square, nor the 'corporate-style' decorations from our two small shopping centres*. Instead, I thought I'd show you just those festive lights which makes Chippenham the unique town that it is. Apologies for the fuzziness of the pictures, but they were taken at 10 o'clock at night and are hand held to boot. I was also on my way home after a GNO, so a fair amount of wine had been consumed beforehand ;)

The first picture shows you a couple of the key features. Firstly, a simple shape attached to a lamppost, usually of a single colour outlining a typical Christmas symbol, such as an candle, star or bell. Some are multi-coloured and a few are vaguely animated, but the pictured angel shows the most usual fayre. Secondly, lampposts without shapes usually have a string of lights wound around them and you can see a couple of them in background of the above picture.

This closer shot gives you a better idea of what's been done. I think these lights are of the old type, so I don't know what will happen when the bulbs start to fail. I suspect they can't be converted to the newer energy efficient bulbs, so perhaps we won't have these any more, or else we'll go to the colder looking LEDs, which other towns have begun to adopt. I actually like the way these lights have been done, partly because it's different to anywhere else, but also because it's making something of one of the more boring (though necessary) features of our streets.

The other main kind of decoration is the use of small real Christmas trees attached to the upper floors of each building. Again, a simple idea, but one which can look really effective. Until recent years, the entire high street was decked out with them and it all looked very jolly. However, each business had to pay for its own tree and in recent years, more and more of them have elected not to join in. The busiest part of the high street has hardly any at all and the odd one here and there now looks a little forlorn. However, the businesses at the less busy end of town still have their trees, so my walk home from town ends on a high note. I'm pretty sure these trees used to have multi-coloured lights, does anyone else remember, or have they always been white?

Finally, here we are at the end of my walk home and we find the lights displayed by our immediate neighbours. Other parts of the estate may have many more lights on display, but this photo shows a common theme to much of what's appeared this year: there's still blue LEDs, but the warmer looking animated white icicle style lights of previous years are making a comeback :)

* = code for I haven't taken the pictures yet

Monday, 21 December 2009

You Know It's Winter When...

A very chilly Stourhead, yesterday morning

You know it's winter when...
  1. The TV and radio are full of talk about the state of betting on whether there'll be a white Christmas this year
  2. There's the lightest dusting of snow and the traffic is in chaos (yes I know there's much worse around at the moment, but you know we're not truly geared up for it like our continental and north American cousins are)
  3. The local garden centre brings in a couple of real reindeer for its Santa grotto
  4. Singing Christmas carols outdoors with a windchill factor all day really brings home the meaning of Winter Wonderland and the Field Mice's Carol (see photo for where we were yesterday)
  5. It might be the shortest day of the year, but search very carefully in the garden and the first tiny shoots of next year's daffodils can just be seen :)
  6. You can't get the lid off the compost bin because it's frozen solid
  7. You're still behind with all your gardening jobs
  8. However, garden reality is rapidly being replaced by dreams of garden and allotment perfection next year
  9. You're not at all worried by any garden pests and diseases
  10. You're giving everyone a jar of pickles, chutney or jam for Christmas because you realise you can't eat it all before next year's preserving marathon commences
  11. You're really pleased with the free Christmas wreath/ garland/decorations (select which ones apply) you've made from garden trimmings
  12. Jack Frost is leaving the loveliest of patterns all over the garden, windows and your car (see Threadspider's recent post for an example)
  13. You're awake half the night because there's a robin singing on the lamppost nearest the house
  14. The cats are on permanent central heating duty
  15. The ground is too wet (or frozen) to dig - the rest of the autumn digging will have to wait until the spring
  16. You're proudly displaying the Cyclamen you've brought back to life for the 15th year (add the year number of your choice and replace Cyclamen with whatever traditional flowering Christmas present you're still managing to revive)
  17. You're happy to be out planting garlic - doing anything gardeny or growy at this time of the year is a bonus
  18. You realise you've forgotten to protect your tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica) for the winter (substitute frost tender plant of your choice)
  19. You haven't seen your neighbours for weeks
  20. You love curling up with your favourite garden books and loads of seed catalogues
  21. What else can you add to the list?

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Things In Unusual Places #8: Santa

This amused me last Thursday whilst we were waiting for the Sandbanks ferry back to Poole. The staff have decorated the natural vegetation surrounding the toll booths with baubles and tinsel, plus this rather surprising view of Santa. It was a welcome injection of humour on a very cold day.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

OOTS: Poole's Festive Tree Controversy

Little did I know when we ventured south to Poole on Thursday that we were entering the nation's hotbed of Christmas tree controversies. NAH's aunt soon filled us in on all the details: there were complaints that last year's real Christmas tree looked rather ugly. It was spoiled by the boards surrounding it and the guy ropes needed to secure it to prevent it falling on passers by. So, the shopping centre's management decided to have a fake tree this year, complete with hidden speakers to play carols to shoppers at a cost of £14,000. Naturally, this also led to howls of protest with the replacement tree being described as an astroturf witch's hat.

This local news story had all the key ingredients needed to make it go national: members of the public raging against decisions made on their behalf by faceless local management; the health and safety angle; rather a lot of money being spent, possibly at public expense [however, the press says the local shopping centre management has stood the costs]; lots of choice quotes from incensed passers-by and local shopkeepers; the use of social media to start a one-sided protest campaign [5,000 followers on Facebook]; plus lots of opportunity to have punning headlines like Why get needled over Poole's Christmas Tree? It made most of the national newspapers as well as the national TV and radio news. This link gives you a flavour of what's been said as well as showing the artificial tree by day and night. I also rather like the local paper's response to all the national publicity which tries to get it back into proportion.

So the shopping centre management replaced the witch's hat last week with a real tree at a further cost of around £4,000: £400-500 for the tree, plus £3,500 erection and decorating costs. The replaced tree has gone for repair because it was damaged by vandals. Naturally, I had to go and have a look for myself and as you can see the new tree is being largely ignored now that it's gone back to looking just like last year's.

It got me thinking though. I can understand why last year's tree wasn't liked: most of the outdoor real Christmas trees I've seen thus far are awash with guy ropes and boarding for health and safety reasons which rather detract from the tree itself, especially during the day. It seems Poole can't win really. Erect a real tree and there's complaints; install an artificial one and there's a vigorous campaign to get it replaced. I suspect what everyone really wants is the kind of unfettered real tree + decorations seen everywhere else around town in the windows of shops and offices.

I've come up with a third way: why not plant a real tree instead? The natural vegetation surrounding Poole is heathland, so a large conifer or silver birch would bring a sense of that back into the heart of the town. I believe it would be far cheaper to plant, maintain and decorate each Christmas than the costs quoted for a six week temporary display and if planted correctly it wouldn't need securing like the current tree does. It would give year-round pleasure and help to clean the air a little. Come to think about it, why don't we do that in all of our towns and cities and call them our celebration trees?

Friday, 18 December 2009

OOTS: St Laurence School

Regular readers of this blog know that one of the reasons I've got such a bee in my bonnet about public planting is because the roundabouts in Chippenham are very uninspiring. All too often they're a motley collection of the same dreary shrubs with the odd tree, plus grassed areas mown to within an inch of their lives. I've seen some really good examples in Taunton and Poole, but have yet to have been there on days conducive to taking pictures so I can show them off to you.

So I was taken by surprise last Saturday when I visited St. Laurence School in nearby Bradford on Avon for the first time. We had an extra choir rehearsal arranged there for the morning as our choirmaster felt we needed it ready for Tuesday's Christmas Cabaret*. The road leading up to the school entrance has a large roundabout with the pictured planting. There were a couple of off-centre columnar conifers to give some height to the arrangement, surrounded by lavender and rosemary to give flowers, scent and attract wildlife, especially bees. All this was edged with a wavy grass to add some movement. Euphorbia were beginning to poke their noses through the soil and a (self-sown?) Verbascum was getting ready to bloom next year.

It might not be the absolute best example of a roundabout planting I've seen, but I felt this one's much better than usual owing to a more exciting combination of plants, some of which aren't used that much around these parts. I was so pleased to see something which not only had year-round interest needing minimal maintenance, but also changed with the seasons. It cheered me up on a gloomy Saturday morning and I expect it'll look even better in the summer, just like Patient Gardener has shown us with the planting by her local library.

* = Saturday mornings aren't that conducive to a good rehearsal as we were a bit tired and grumpy, plus the acoustics in the school hall were dreadful. Thankfully, the actual concert in Trowbridge on Tuesday evening went much better :)

I'm still collecting my photos together of Chippenham's festive tree and lights to show you later, where I suspect I'll give Carrie a run for her money. If you have your neighbourhood's festive sparkle or your town's tree to show off, or even some public planting at this time of year for us to look at, then do post about it over at yours and then add your Out on the Streets contribution to the growing list here.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Hurrah - Recycling's Just Got Easier :)

Our latest recycling leaflet with the dates for our fortnightly black box kerbside collection's just been delivered. Just as well, as the actual collection days for us over the festive period will be anything but our regular Friday, owing to various Bank Holidays.

I looked inside at the guidance on what can and cannot be recycled via our collection and was pleased to see the source of much bickering between myself and NAH has just been removed. We both agree that recycling is a good thing, but our main bone of contention has been over the relative difficulty with recycling paper. NAH believes it should be made easier for us, almost to the point of not recycling some paper on principle because the job of separating out coloured paper and the removal of windows from envelopes is rather time consuming and tedious. And don't get him started on the type of glue used for sticking down envelopes!

Luckily having an allotment means I've been able to shred our brown envelopes and paper of other hues, plus self adhesive envelopes to use as some of the 'brown' waste component in my compost making. And I have to say, it's mainly me who's been diligently removing any windows from envelopes on Thursday evenings prior to their collection the next day.

However, that's all in the past now as coloured paper and envelopes with windows will be collected from now on, as will our hefty Yellow Pages tome. Previously our old copies of the latter have lain idly around for months whilst we accumulate enough rubbish (i.e. recyclable items which aren't kerbside collected) until we have a full car load to take to the local recycling centre. Any staples in papers don't need to be removed either. Needless to say, NAH is now a much happier bunny about the whole thing.

It's also excellent timing, because of course our quotient of brightly coloured envelopes increases dramatically at this time of year. This change of circumstances applies to Wiltshire, but if you've had similar restrictions on what can be collected in the past, it'll be worth checking to see if your local authority has also changed its rules.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

ABC Wednesday 5: V is for...

... Vacant

I was feeling pretty vacant about what to post for V this time around until a couple of days ago when I was reviewing which photographs to feature in my walk around Bristol. I'd also been pondering how best to introduce the concept of Quirky Offices to you, then Voila! the perfect match was found :)

I'm wondering if they're using Quirky in its architectural sense, as I outlined for Q's ABC Wednesday. It's possible, but for some reason I can't get the picture of rather oddly shaped rooms out of my head...

For other posts on the subject of V, have a look at the ABC Wednesday blog.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

GBBD: Green Shoots for December

Click to enlarge picture if needed. From left to right and top to bottom: 1. Potted Violas 2. Clematis 'Elsa Spath' 3. Rosmarinus officinalis 4. Rosa 'The Fairy' rosehips 5. Clematis 'Freckles' 6. Shivering Anthemis tinctora 'E. C. Buxton' 7. Cyclamen 8. Iris reticulata shoots 9. Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve' - in flower since April 10. Rosa 'Celebration' - a silver wedding anniversary gift this year 11. Cornered Campanula 12. Self-sown surprise Lobelia 13. Primula 'Cottage cream' 14. Snowdrop and Crocus shoots 15. Eryngium surprise 16. Clematis 'Crystal Fountain' sport seedhead

After the rainiest November since records began, December has been much colder and drier thus far. As I write this, a ‘continental block’* is heading our way from the east. This means days of clear weather straight from chilly Siberia, and with luck, some much needed sunshine. Snow is also forecast over the next couple of days, which might put paid to some of the blooms on show today.

As well as the expected flowers of the season, I’ve found some surprises and hangers on, plus some green shoots of recovery: a promise of spring to come and much needed in these darkest days of the year. This time next week, whilst our thoughts really need to get to grips with Christmas, it’ll be reassuring that these are nestling out there and at last the days will be getting lighter.

* = high pressure settling over Britain which extends from colder, continental Europe blocking our prevailing low pressure (rainy) systems coming in from the south-west. When this happens, the clash between the high and any low pressure systems trying to extend over Britain, often leads to an initial period of snowy weather in the south-west of England. Once the high pressure system has established itself (assuming it does), it usually leads to many days of calm, cold and clear weather over the entire British Isles. These are the best of days to wrap up warm and head out for a brisk winter walk.

Garden Bloggers’ Blooms Day is hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

Monday, 14 December 2009

OOTS: Bumbling Around Bristol

My first festive contribution to this month's Out on the Streets is a little short on public planting, but is long on festive sparkle. For some reason my feet took me in totally the wrong direction on the way to Borders bookshop last Thursday, but once I'd realised what had happened, I relaxed and decided to take the more scenic route. After all, I had plenty of time before meeting my friends later and besides, this direction took me to some of the more interesting parts of the city centre. The following pictures are clickable for your enhanced viewing pleasure...

My first festive stopover was the aptly named St Nicholas Market: here's the Glass Arcade area with it's simple lights of stars and greenery. However, I felt these were in keeping with the place itself, and the florist on the left was doing her best to ensure there was plenty of real Christmas greenery around. Her wreaths in particular were adorning several other stalls.

Further on was another seasonally aptly named spot. These steps date from 1669, but how they got today's name is hard to tell. At one time this area was part of Bristol's quayside and was full of brothels and public houses. Today, just one of those pub remains: The Three Sugar Loaves which this street sign is adorning. I was standing close to one of the nation's oldest fish and chip shops when I took this photo, reputed to have been frequented by a certain Cary Grant, until he emigrated to the States to seek his fortune.

At the foot of Christmas Steps is a florists, who was making an effort to jazz up her outside display to make it more seasonal. There's a chance that fake snow might be replaced by the real thing this week.

This is half way up Christmas Steps and shows its simple decorations plus a hanging basket with flowers. As you can see it's a quaint steep alley way with small independent shops either side. Sadly some of these are empty, but there are signs that artists are again coming back to this area as I spotted a couple of new galleries. Update 16/12: I've just found out this area of Bristol was designated as an Arts Quarter in 2008 - a great way to start to rejuvenate this lovely part of the city.

After my buying frenzy at Borders, I walked down Park Street underneath its rather cold looking white LED icicles with blue LED snowflakes, to College Green. Most of the mature trees in this area had been decorated with simple strings of lights, which looked most effective in the descending dusk. The odd blue LED decoration could also be seen in the distance.

This took me back into town where I found my first outdoor real Christmas tree of the day. This is in The Centre, right outside the office block where I used to work. Like Chester's tree it's simply adorned with twinkling lights. I'm not showing you the whole thing though, because the bottom of the tree had rather ugly fencing around it and no lights.

Then I walked to Broadmead, where white and blue LEDs again ruled and formed 'nets' of lights above the shoppers. This arrangement reminded me a little of Strictly Come Dancing (aka Dancing with the Stars).

The Broadmead area was also hosting a traditional German Christmas Market, complete with wooden stalls and a central structure resembling those ornaments which you put over a candle or radiator so the whole arrangement revolves in the warmer air. This giant version also revolved and was accompanied by oompah band music. Most of the stalls seemed to be selling either German sausages or hot nuts, though there was the odd one selling little wooden houses and traditional decorations. The German Christmas Market in Birmingham is much better.

And finally to Cabot Circus where the decorations are on the grandest of scales. Here we have one of the bauble arrangements on the ground floor. And yes, I'm not doing any trick photography to fool you, that arrangement really IS BIG.

There's also giant reindeer sculptures, some reaching the same height as the first floor of the shopping centre and with a rather cheeky one peeping over the first floor balcony.

As always I'm more captivated by the photographic and design possibilities of this place, rather than buying anything. Here I'm exploring reflections and slow shutter speeds in the fading light. This was also the end of my walk around Bristol, as it's where I met my GNO friends for dinner and a gossip :)

If anyone would like to retrace some of my steps, with details of lots of other things I found on the way, you might like to try this guided walk.

NB If you have a contribution for Out on the Streets, or would like to know more, then this month's kick-off post is the place to head for.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

VPGGB #12: Borders Books

Last Thursday I bumbled along to Bristol for a GNO get together, but beforehand I decided to visit the soon to close Borders bookshop in Clifton to join the other vultures customers to see what they had left in the way of bargain books. The occasion reminded me so much of this time last year, when we all descended in a similar fashion on Woolworths in particular, to pick over the remains of that once popular store.

There were only a couple of shelves of gardening books left: long on volumes by Alan Titchmarsh, plus lots of RHS guides on succulents and irises. However, closer inspection revealed a number of gems were still left: quite a few of those pictured have been on my To Read list for a while and the rest looked so interesting (and cheap) that I couldn't resist adding them to the pile. I'm rather glad there weren't even more to choose from, because I suspect I would have simply bought them all. These were all half price, with a further 20% taken off on the day.

Looking at that pile of books in my garden, I can see a distinct shift in my reading tastes. Once it would have been full of design manuals, how to guides, reference books and inspirational works. Inspiration still figures in my choices, but as you can see I'm now tending mainly towards garden writing plus plant and garden history texts. I wonder if that would have happened anyway as my gardening experience matures, or does blogging and the ready availability of garden advice and reference materials on the world wide web have a part to play?

The answer to that question doesn't really matter for now because the more pressing problem of what to do with all those long dark evenings is sorted for a while :)

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Seasonal Recipe: Chocolate Spice Cookies

A yummy traditional Christmas biscuit from Switzerland. However, if you want the recipe, you'll have to look here as I'm guest posting there today :)

Friday, 11 December 2009

Ooooh Christmas Tree :)

A couple of weeks ago I told you about my free Christmas tree trial which didn't work. I'd also contacted Ian at Dobbies to see what they'd like to do next and received the following reply:

I am so very sorry and embarrassed that your tree had a non functional transformer and in every thankfully rare instance where things like this happen we do our upmost to make amends. In that spirit we would like to offer you a replacement tree – one that works !

Please confirm if this would be ok or if you wish to either return or just leave it as is we will of course respect that.

If you also let me know the order number for the lights when I pass this on to the customer service team I will ask them to do a good will refund toward those.

Thanks for your patience and understanding.

In the meantime the lights I'd ordered on the strength of Karen's review had arrived (ordered Sunday evening, received Wednesday, so well within the 3-5 day delivery promise) and were twinkling merrily outside. I had a think about Ian's kind offer and decided it would be rather greedy to accept both a replacement tree and the lights, so I emailed him back to say I'd just like the lights and also asked whether he wanted the tree returned to enable things to be sorted out with his supplier.

Then I went up to London for my very exciting day out and came home knowing I'd have to wait a wee while for NAH to return so I could tell him everything that had happened. First thing I noticed was a mysterious twinkling going on in the lounge. It was the faulty Christmas tree! And very pretty it looks too - I've taken the picture at an angle (and apologies for the camera shake, but this kind of shot won't work with flash) so that you can see more of the effect. Each branch changes colour as the wheel at the base of the tree circles round.

Later on NAH confessed all: he'd taken apart the transformer, found a loose wire and soldered it back into position. He'd then left the lights on to welcome me back to our empty house. What a lovely man :)

So now I have both a working tree and outdoor lights, plus a bit of a (nice) dilemma as I'd accepted just the lights. I did film the tree twinkling away, but its picture quality on YouTube is rather poor. However, the film of the lights is slightly better with an interesting soundtrack later on ;)

Note: this video is Veg Plotting's first!

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Unusual Front Gardens #6: The Hanging Gardens of The Barbican

Most people associate The Barbican with its many arts activities such as drama, dance and film. However, the area's also home to around 4,000 people in just over 2,000 flats and maisonettes. The buildings rose from the ashes of a severely WWII bombed area in central London: its architecture is a prime example of Brutalism, a post-war movement which gloried in the wonders - and the relative speed and cheapness - of concrete.

Like most rebuilding projects at the time, city planners envisaged a Utopian new world for the Barbican area. Their finalised concept is rather like a walled city within London, containing spacious raised pedestrian walkways, a lake, plus numerous 'secret' communal gardens to soften the gloomy concrete. Building work commenced in the 1960s, with much of the residential complex completed in the 1970s. The Queen officially opened the Arts Centre in 1982 and the entire complex was awarded Grade II listed status in 2001.

I don't usually go for this style of architecture, but there is something different about The Barbican. I think it must be the plentiful public open space which helps to take away the usual oppressive atmosphere which I associate with this kind of development. Until a couple of years ago my job often took me to London where I worked with people based in Gresham Street and Old Street. The Barbican is on the way from one to the other and I used to relish my walks through this area on the way to meetings. I was always struck by how most of the residents made sure they planted up their balconies with something colourful to spill and trail over them.

Even on a wet morning in December last week, that planting's still very much in evidence and brought the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to mind. This link has oodles of information if you'd like to know more about the area: including its history, architecture, gardens, and a peek inside some of the flats (aka apartments). A one bedroom flat will set you back between a quarter and half a million pounds at today's prices.

Update 28/6/2014: Today's Guardian has a fascinating feature on one of the residents and his gardening endeavours, who also refers to the "hanging gardens of Barbican".

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

ABC Wednesday 5: U is for...

... Up in the Air

The photographer Yann Arthus-Betrand spent many hours up in the air taking the amazing set of pictures which forms the Earth from the Air exhibition currently showing in Bath. I first came across these images in a Sunday supplement around a decade ago and was blown away. I found them even more impressive when they went on display in the middle of Bristol 5 years ago. There's 120 giant photographs on show and each one was taken from between 100 to 10,000 feet.

This street exhibition has been on tour for a number of years. It's aim is simple: to raise awareness of the issues facing this planet simply through the power of these images and their accompanying narrative. I gave up eating tiger prawns 5 years ago, simply by seeing the damage done to the places in Asia where they're farmed intensively. The city of Bath is using the exhibition to raise awareness of climate change and is aiming to get many people to pledge to make simple change(s) to their daily lives in order to tackle this problem head-on.

The exhibition is free, open 24/7 and can be found around the Abbey and the newly opened shopping centre until January 10th.

Do visit the ABC Wednesday blog for more in the way of U.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Out on the Streets: Sparkly Festive Edition

It's time to bring some bling to Out on the Streets (OOTS) and for you to show off your neighbourhood's festive decorations. I realise I'm a little late with kicking this off for December, but I've been waiting for it to stop raining so I could show you Chippenham's simple decorations and tree. This is unlikely to happen for a while, so I've dug into my emergency archives to bring you Chester's decorations as seen late one November afternoon in the historic Rows shopping area. If you click on the image to enlarge it, you'll see Chester has a rather nice real tree decorated simply with multicoloured lights.

What's it like where you live? Do you have a tree in the centre of town? Is it real or artificial and how is it decorated? If it's a real one, where does it come from? I still remember Kate's horror last year over how a massive tree from Montana gets to adorn the Capitol's lawn. Perhaps your town has other festive displays such as street lights - are they different this year, or the same as always?

I'm also interested in your neighbourhood. Do you and/or your neighbours decorate your gardens in some way? Around here a number of people put lights in their trees or shrubs. Until last year they were usually a tasteful white, but for some reason the collective consciousness decided to have a mass change to blue LEDs.

I'd still like to see your public planting this month too, though of course many of you in the States and Canada will probably find this impossible owing to the snow that's started falling. However, I have a winter example from my trip to London last week to tell you about and of course those of you in the Southern hemisphere will have summery scenes to make us green with envy. One of my strongest memories from my last trip to Australia was how everyone decorated their hedges with tinsel, so I'd welcome any contributions showing us this year's scenes.

Mr Linky is here at the foot of this post waiting for your contributions. I'll keep him open for a bit longer than December to give you plenty of time to post something, especially as I'm sure most of you will have a bit of a blog break this month. I'll also put up a link in the sidebar, so you can get back here easily to add your links. Remember to add the URL of your OOTS post to Mr Linky, not your blog, otherwise everyone will miss out on your contribution as soon as you add a newer post to your blog.

When I started Out on the Streets in the spring I thought it'd only last a year. However, I've been cheered by your responses and I get the impression from last time that a number of you would like it to continue. I have an even longer list of potential posts about public planting than when I started, so I'm more than happy to continue with OOTS if you are. I'd also welcome your feedback: do you think quarterly is about right or would you prefer a different timing? Is there anything which OOTS isn't covering which you think it should? Anything else you'd like to say or ask about OOTS?

Those of you who are new to OOTS might like to have a look at the link in the previous paragraph which explains a bit more on what it's all about. I also wrote wrap-up posts for March, June and September's editions, so you can see the wonderful variety of contributions everyone's made to this topic so far. You really can write anything you like, as long as it's about public planting. The Out on the Streets label will give you all the posts I've written for OOTS and the Public Planting one will also give you these, plus everything else I've had to say so far about our public spaces.

See you soon, Out on the Streets!

Monday, 7 December 2009


This year is the 250th anniversary of Handel's death and to celebrate his life, the BBC declared yesterday as Sing Hallelujah day. Various events were held up and down the country for singers and choirs of various standards to get together to sing the famous Hallelujah Chorus from the Messiah. I've always wanted to get involved with this work in some way ever since I was a student: I was grounded in the university sick bay late one Christmas term and whilst there I heard my grandad's cousin singing one of the solo parts on the radio.

Our local BBC region had decided to mark the event with the gathering of a massive scratch choir to open their BBC South West Sports Personality of the Year awards ceremony held at the University of Bath yesterday. A rather strange mix in my view, but an opportunity not to be missed. So I duly sent off my email application and promptly forgot about it. 2 weeks ago I finally got a reply back to tell me I was in :)

Team Bath at Bath university is the south-west's regional sports centre of excellence and hosts quite a few of our national squads such as hurdles, bob skeleton and the modern pentathlon, so it was exactly the right venue for the day's events. Needless to say everywhere we went there were lots of rather fit looking young people training for all kinds of sports. Grenville Jones was our choirmaster for the day: some of you may remember him from TV's Last Choir Standing, where his Bath Male Choir did rather well.

Around 250 of us gathered at 9.30 am in the Fencing Salle and Projectile [shooting] Room, where Grenville was assisted by the ever cheerful Francis on the piano, for the workshop to get us ready for our performance at 5.30 pm. It soon became clear we wouldn't be doing the 'straight' performance dowloadable from the BBC's website which I'd practised a couple of times. The final hallelujah's were to be interspersed with claps, a smaller choir would sing a couple of lines, and the fusion band the Zen Hussies would also perform.

A hectic couple of hours ensued with us only getting through the beginning and end of the performance accompanied by lots of scratched heads trying to make sense of who was meant to be singing what from the wordsheets we'd been given. Once I'd cottoned on the word Handels on the sheet meant the main choir things were a little clearer, but both major and minor adjustments to what the performance would actually be like were being made constantly, which meant our concentration could never flag.

At 12 and 3.30pm we decamped to the studio for technical and dress rehearsals respectively. This meant a long trek to one of the main sports halls. At 12 this was in complete chaos: wires trailed everywhere, cameras and lighting were being fixed onto the floors and temporary platforms, plus an enormous boom camera threatened to take off anyone's head who got in the way. Dozens of people were frantically hiding wires under matting or using what seemed like miles of gaffer tape to prevent them becoming trip hazards. Around 20 tables were being wheeled into positions with their attendant table decorations and place settings to seat the awards nominees and their guests. No-one was allowed onto the studio floor at this time in shoes: socks only - odd socks in the majority of cases - was the order of the day.

After lunch and an hour's rehearsing the middle part of the piece, the scene on our return to the studio didn't seem any less frantic at the dress rehearsal either. Our seating positions were changed for what seemed like the umpteenth time and finally we made 2 central bands of singers on either side of the audience seating areas. We rehearsed our cues and found we were also going to sing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: a big clue to the kind of team (Taunton rugby) that had won the Team of the Year award.

Dress rehearsals completed, we stayed in our places whilst the rest of the audience arrived and fitted themselves in around us. There was one final rehearsal for everyone as the warm-up man put us through our spontaneous applause and cheering paces. Then the sporting celebrities and their guests took their places, the TV presenters took theirs, the floor manager counted us down to the start of the programme, our first cue was called and whoosh we were off!

The performance itself was rather a blur, both in how well we performed and also because a couple of smoke machines were being used to add 'atmosphere' to the studio. Most of the lighting was rather dim too, except where a presenter was making an award or a TV interview recorded, so we spent most of the 2 hours recording time in semi-darkness. There were displays by Bath's rhythmic gymnasts and Team GB wheelchair basketball players to entertain us in addition to the 12 awards made.

I was particularly pleased the swimmer Stephanie Millward won the 2012 Paralympian Hopeful award. NAH has trained with her in the past and a 'phone link to Brazil had to be set up for her award interview because she was competing in the world championships there. She'd just grabbed a haul of eight medals, including four gold :)

Jenson Button won the main award, but wasn't there to receive it, so we had to make do with a pre-recorded interview. We then reprised the final part of the Hallelujah Chorus to close the show; received a quick thank you from Ali Vowles, the BBC presenter - and the wife of my former photography tutor - who'd joined us for the day (and also sang - she sounded rather hoarse on the news this morning!) on the way out and that was it. It was a great experience that's left me wanting to take part in the entire performance of The Messiah. There are regular scratch choir events for this - I must seek them out.

Update: The BBC have now put up their recording of our performance on their website :)

Friday, 4 December 2009

VP Does the Garden Media Guild Awards

Yesterday this country mouse found herself in the heart of the big city to attend the Garden Media Guild Awards ceremony at the [very swanky - Ed] Brewery. This is the annual bash for the great and the good from the garden writing, photography and broadcasting worlds. There was no red carpet rolled out for us, oh no. Instead there was a most appropriate green one flanked by topiary balls with a very nice man at the end doffing his hat and issuing cheery greetings to all attendees.

Of course I personally knew hardly anyone there, though pretty well everyone was a familiar face. However, I had an instant result as the first person I bumped into was Cleve 'most snoggable male' West. The magic words 'Psssst I'm VP' was sufficient to generate a satisfying hug and pecks on both cheeks and the invitation to 'come and meet some people'. I'm most grateful to Cleve for making me feel welcome instantly. After that it was a mad whirl of introductions with a fair number of smiles of recognition as soon as the real name on my badge was translated into that of my alter ego. Martyn was also there, sporting a very thin moustache and award winning hair, who made sure I met Lia, whose sparkly hat I have to say would have made Arabella (literally) green with envy.

Then at last, some people who actually know me arrived! The first was Jekka McVicar, who greeted me with 'Oooooh it's you' and allowed me to photograph her escort, the controversial gnome Borage. You may remember his presence at Chelsea earlier this year ended in uproar and Jekka confided that the subsequent publicity and his appearance (at around 4mins 45secs in the link) on Have I Got News For You has gone to his head rather and as you see from the photo, he's turning to the demon drink. Then Victoria greeted me with a massive hug and 'At last, someone I know', which was a surprise as I thought she'd know everyone. We had a chance for a lightning catch up, interspersed with me meeting Nigel (yay, at last) plus Valerie McBride-Munro, the Guild's chairwoman.

We were then called into lunch, where I found myself seated at the Marshalls table, who were also the main sponsors of Chelsea this year. I was sandwiched between Mark Gregory and Graham Clarke. It was great to talk to them about my trip to Chelsea in May and to get the insiders' view of what goes on there: I'll tell you much more in a later post. Lunch was lovely - full details over at Victoria's - then just as things were threatening to degenerate into a post lunch snooze, we were awakened suddenly by the PA system bursting into life to welcome us to the awards part of the ceremony.

Thankfully this was briskly handled and helped by very few people choosing to make an acceptance speech. I had a massive OMG moment when the names for the best blog award went up as Veg Plotting was on there. James won of course and rightly so, but I was really chuffed when he urged everyone in the room to read my blog during his acceptance speech. That merited an enormous hug afterwards. James' table was a most successful one, as the double award winning Mark Diacono was there, as well as Martyn, who picked up a fair few shortlisted mentions for his sins. Whilst there, I also bumped into Matthew Wilson, who told me he'd just put the finishing touches to his eagerly awaited TV programme, Landscape Man, now due to be aired early next year.

Then it was back to the reception area for afternoon tea, plus more meeting people, thanks to Victoria. I also managed to track down Emmat, whom I'm sure you'd like to know is looking very well - there's hardly any evidence of her bump, yet. Victoria and I decided not to go to the post awards party (nor the alternative pub venue), but to decamp to the nearest Starbucks instead for a really good gossip and catch up.

I had a brilliant time and I haven't told you half of it. However, that would entail lots more name dropping [yes, you've done enough of that for one day - Ed] and lots of compliments that were made about my blog. I'd rather stay up here on cloud nine and hug them to myself for now, if you don't mind :D

Update: As well as Victoria, Cleve, Jane, Mark, Nigel and James have now posted their versions of last week's event. Each gives a fresh perspective which in my view serves to highlight one of the strengths of blogging :)

Update 2: And in 2010, we did it all over again, only this time the bloggers surreptitiously snaffled lots of the other awards ;)

Thursday, 3 December 2009

How Advertising Works in Chippenham #12

  1. Think about well known phrases associated with finance and the financial crisis
  2. Choose one of these phrases to play with
  3. Dream up a whacky promotion which has nothing to do with your core product, beer
  4. Negotiate with companies to display the promotion in unusual places
  5. Wait for a blogger with a camera to notice what's happened to her supermarket trolley
  6. Et voila!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

ABC Wednesday 5: T is for...

.... Tree o'clock

Thanks to Juliet, I'm the proud owner of a eensy weensy hazel sapling (Corylus avellana) ready for Tree o'clock, Saturday's world record attempt for the most trees planted in an hour. Juliet's article linked to places giving away free trees and my local Homebase is one of them. You can choose from 6 of our native species: birch, cherry, field maple, hawthorn, hazel and rowan. All are good trees, varying in size, are attractive to wildlife and there's bound to be one of them which would look good in your garden.

I've chosen hazel because of its relatively small size, attractive late winter catkins and autumn nuts. Perhaps if I have one a little closer to hand, the squirrels might not get their paws on all of nature's bounty! In a few years time I'll also be able to coppice the tree so that I'll have my own supply of supports and poles for my garden and allotment.

If you'd also like to take part, then here's the list of places offering free trees. If my local store's anything to go by, then there should be something left for you, even at this late stage. You need to plant your tree between 11am and 12pm on Saturday 5th December, take a picture of your self doing so (make sure the time and date is set up correctly on your camera) and email your picture to the organisers by Friday 11th December in order for it to count towards the world record attempt. Of course you don't have to take part in the attempt itself, just planting a tree no matter how small, is a hugely beneficial thing to do for your neighbourhood :)

There's currently nearly 270,000 trees pledged for the attempt, which will also count towards UNEPS Billion Tree Campaign.

For more Treats Today, do visit the ABC Wednesday blog.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

GBMD: Christmas Song

Frosty Chippenham Station at Sunset - January 2009
The trees all are bare not a leaf to be seen
And the meadows their beauty have lost.
Now winter has come and 'tis cold for man and beast,
And the streams they are,
And the streams they are all fast bound down with frost.

'Twas down in the farmyard where the oxen feed on straw,
They send forth their breath like the steam.
Sweet Betsy the milkmaid now quickly she must go,
For flakes of ice she finds,
For flakes of ice she finds a-floating on her cream.

'Tis now all the small birds to the barn-door fly for food
And gently they rest on the spray.
A-down the plantation the hares do search for food,
And lift their footsteps sure,
Lift their footsteps sure for fear they do betray.

Now Christmas is come and our song is almost done
For we soon shall have the turn of the year.
So fill up your glasses and let your health go round,
For I wish you all,
For I wish you all a joyful New Year.

Source: Tune and text from the singing of the Copper family, Sussex: a family who've been singing and preserving songs for generations.

This was my favourite of the songs we learned at the Forgotten Carols Workshop in November. It's rather apt for today as we've just had our first hard frost of the winter. That's it for now as far as my Dahlias are concerned :(
Garden Bloggers' Muse Day is hosted by Carolyn Choi at Sweet Home and Garden Chicago.
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