Today the damp, mild weather continues. It is Monday and therefore it is only Aideen and I outside. Aideen takes on the not inconsiderable task of mowing the front field with a push mower! I used to mow this area with a push mower before we acquired a ‘ride-on-mower’. Sadly, we are still waiting for our big mower to be repaired and we are lost without it. Apart from blades for cutting grass, it also has brushes so it can gather leaves. At the moment, we are having to gather leaves by hand and therefore we have only gathered about half of the leaves for leaf mould. Before she starts, we check the edges of the grass for daffodil growth because some leaves on the sunny side are coming through.
I have decided to continue bulb planting. I still have some of last year’s bulbs to replant and I have yet to plant the 150 Ipheion Uniflorum mixed bulbs. Today, I concentrate on the fruit tree border; planting bulbs (which are mainly tulips), weeding and clearing as I go. It is good to get away from the heavy lifting of yesterday!
A Good Hair Day
By some miracle our very good friend Emma, who is also our hairdresser, was available to do our hair today. This could not be more fortuitous (despite our complete absence of planning) because there are a lot of concerts over the next few days, including two Christmas Celebrations at Westminster Cathedral. It will be lovely to look respectable for these special occasions! Today we received an email from someone who found us on Google who moved away from Harefield in 1962 but knew Connie Johnson (the previous owner of Church Gardens) up until her death in 1970. They had very fond memories of her and Church Gardens and they were extremely interested in our work at Church Gardens now. Very sadly, they are not well enough to visit, but it is always lovely to hear from people who know something of the history of our home. We offered to send them one of our remaining guidebooks and we will ask them for any information they want to share so we can include it in our new guidebook. Rewriting and updating the guide book is another ‘little’ job that we need to get done over the Winter!
For dinner, we have a sweet and spicy pork, sausage and bean casserole which includes the last sweet peppers from the polytunnel.
Today I am not going to get any gardening done because it is the first of the two Westminster Cathedral Christmas Celebration Concerts and I will have to leave to catch a train to Victoria early in the afternoon. Aideen suggests that we should pay a visit to Harefield’s amazing fishing tackle shop to look at waders before I leave. I have been thinking for some time that a pair of waders would be very useful for working in the ponds…it is not always suitable to go in wearing a swimming costume!
Aideen has decided that this will be a good Christmas present from her to me and I agree, although it did occur to me that probably not many daughters buy their mum waders for Christmas!
The fishing shop really is superb and has quite a range of waders. I had presumed that I would get something like what Monty wears on Gardeners world. These look like waterproof dungarees with boots attached. I was given a pair to try on and I soon realised that I needed assistance from Aideen. I also realised that these garments are obviously designed for men and they were not going to accommodate my ample bosom!
This was annoying as I was hoping to have a waterproof chest for when I bend down to attend to a plant. After a slight struggle, we removed me from the dungaree style waders and then tried some separate leg waders. These come up to the top of the thigh and a strap at the top then loops onto a belt to hold them up. These were much better and also quite reasonable in price. Reassuringly, we were also told that these waders would withstand quite neglectful treatment, meaning it would not harm them if they were just thrown in a cupboard after use…this would obviously suit us!
We then head home and I head off to London. It was lovely to be back in the Cathedral and lovely to listen to the wonderful choir and orchestra. I pray that all the Christmas performances can continue despite new Covid variants. These occasions mean so much to people.
Whilst sitting in the extension this morning, I saw a ‘V’ formation of very large birds flying towards us. “Are they swans?” I asked the girls. I am always excited to see and hear swans in flight. It is comparatively rare to see and at the most, I have only ever seen a pair in flight. Patrick phones from the office saying, “Have you seen the swans?”. We rush outside and watch them circle over us and three appear to land in the orchard. We run in that direction whilst watching the remaining two swans circle back around and land as well.
To our complete astonishment, we now have a family of swans (mum, dad and three juveniles) swimming majestically in our new pond.
Meave creeps forward to take lots of pictures and we gather by the workshop transfixed. The swans plunge their heads down into the water and beat their wings. When they were ready to come out of the pond, they exit via our stepping stones and pebble beach. We still cannot believe our eyes as they walk around the pond plucking at the grass and making funny little swan noises at each other. I decide to retrieve some bread from the kitchen and soon I am surrounded by very hungry and over confident swans snorting softly like little pigs!
To our amazement the swans stay with us for several hours exploring the area around the pond, swimming, preening and sleeping. I felt like we were being treated a little bit like a motorway services and they were taking a break from their journey. However, this did not stop us from discussing what we would do if they moved in…we decided it would probably not be very practical as they might chase the visitors!
I tried to get on with some bulb planting but kept feeling drawn magnetically back to these magical creatures. We kept Bella inside the house, but Minxy viewed the visitors from the safety of the Kitchen Garden wall. Needless to say, when Pip discovered the newcomers she dropped down in the grass and started to stalk them! Pip is a small cat, even the juvenile swans are about six times her size but this did not deter our intrepid hunter! When she came up close to one of the juveniles he hissed fiercely at her, which stopped her stalking but she didn’t run away, she just changed to a nonchalant “Swans, what swans?” position! Eventually I had to tear myself away and get ready for my concert.
Christmas Concerts Cancelled
This morning we had to take the sad decision to cancel our church Christmas Extravaganza Concert scheduled for tomorrow and also our choir performances in the Nine Lessons and Carols service on Sunday. The Covid situation is escalating rapidly and members of the band and choirs were having to drop out of the performances due to illness, positive LFT’s or anxiety about picking up the virus before Christmas! There is a limit to how many people you can manage without and also, the audience numbers were expected to diminish, so in the end we were left with no alternative.
At least this year we have managed some Christmas events; the lighting of the village Christmas tree, the Harefield Hospital Carol Concert, it was brilliant that Westminster went ahead and I still intend to take the choirs to carol sing outside our village pubs on Monday. However, it is very sad that this weekend of Christmas music is not going ahead as it means so much to so many people. Maybe we could re-stage the concert after Christmas so all that practice isn’t wasted.
After letting everyone know, I go outside to cheer myself up with some bulb planting…yes, I’ve still not finished!
One positive thing that happened today was the arrival of a long, thin, cardboard box for me from the Agroforestry Research Trust. This contained a large bare-rooted Juneberry, a little bare-rooted small leaved lime and a pot containing a Burnt Jelly plant.
These are replacements from last year’s order. The Juneberry and lime were previously sent out as mislabelled Rosa Rugosa. When I realised that the plants were not what I had expected, they promised to send replacements next season. Last year’s Burnt Jelly plant disappeared without trace so I’ve decided to keep this plant in the tunnel over Winter and plant it out in the Spring because it isn’t particularly hardy. Last year, I did the same with the Raisin tree which arrived as a twig in a pot and it is now thriving and will hopefully overwinter successfully this year. It was nice to spend some time in the forest garden, which will need a good tidy up and mulching in the coming weeks.
Winter Wonderland Mark 2
Today should have been the day of our Christmas Extravaganza Concert which has had to be cancelled due to Covid related issues. I am now quite relieved that we decided to cancel the concert because each day the news becomes more grim and larger gatherings are being advised against. We have so many vulnerable people involved in our church choirs, band and audience that it is simply not worth risking their well-being. I would never forgive myself if something happened as a result of our concert.
We are determined to put the day to good use and the plan is to get the Christmas lights working. We put up many of the lights last weekend, using our new outdoor socket boxes but unfortunately we had problems with them tripping the electricity supply which meant they haven’t been switched on since! Recently we’ve had massive issues with our power supply tripping and our friendly electrician thinks our fuse box has become too sensitive and needs changing. There could also be a problem with some of the lights as some are quite a few years old.
Meave and Diane set off in the morning to try and pick up certain types of lights to replace the ones causing trouble. As usual, we are choosing the wrong time to buy Christmas lights…late as usual…when stock is low. As a result, the girls are gone for hours! Patrick and I plod along trying to clear up the parking area which involves shovelling up piles of ballast, sharp sand and normal sand and shovelling them into sand bags in a neater area. There were also pebbles, slices of tree trunks and more rubbish to move. When the girls finally return, more than four hours later, they have managed to buy seven sets of white and gold battery operated curtain lights, batteries, indoor garland lights and two magnificent reindeer!
We then spend hours (soon in the dark) setting things up and gradually the lights come on. They are wonderful and the two new reindeer are gorgeous. We now have six reindeer, I think we need another three to reach the full total of Donna, Blitzen, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Comet, Vixen, Cupid and Rudolph. Maybe we will get them next year!
The battery powered netting lights were not powerful enough to successfully replace our faulty curtain lights but in the end, Diane decided to put them up on the hedge that edges the driveway, this was a stroke of genius and they looked lovely. Eventually we had nearly everything up and switched on when…the power tripped!! Diane commented philosophically, “Well at least the battery lights are still working!”.
Today is another disappointing day. We will not be attending this morning’s church service and the choirs will not be performing their Christmas repertoire in the Nine Lessons and Carols Service. It is a sad and confusing time because the church is still open but we are being strongly advised not to gather in groups. I was quite confident until a few days ago but now I feel I am returning to my previous cautious state. Performances and services are being cancelled left, right and centre and even if I had gone ahead, I would have lost a large percentage of my players and singers making the performances unviable. However, this does not stop you feeling very sad at having to cancel carefully prepared and eagerly anticipated performances.
I tried to cheer myself up by making the Christmas wreath. This is one of my favourite Christmas tasks and although it is uncomfortable handling the holly, my creations get more and more adventurous each year. Almost all of the ingredients, apart from some roses, come from the garden. This year I collected two types of ivy (one with berries), holly with berries, eucalyptus, rosemary, a golden conifer like plant, hydrangea flowers and red and yellow chillies. These are all loosely gathered in a big blousy arrangement that barely fits on the door!
Last night I found a new use for cabbage. I baked salmon in a mango chutney, chilli, garlic, and olive oil marinade surrounded by chopped pepper, cabbage, garlic and butter. This was very tasty served with Lyonnaise potatoes.
Tonight, we are expecting to go carol singing with the choir because we will remain outside. This is a reduced version of our normal carol singing because we can’t go inside the care homes and one of the pubs we normally sing at has closed temporarily. I decide it will be nice to invite the singers back to us for tea/port, mince pies and sausage rolls that we can have outside by the Christmas light display. The lights are so beautiful that I thought it would cheer everyone up after Covid had caused the cancellation of our musical weekend.
We spend the day tidying up and I get to the chance to decorate the main tree in the living room. This is a beautiful tree, tall and fat with multiple branches. This is good for us because we have a lot of decorations. I love decorating the tree because so many of the decorations have sentimental associations. In the morning, I write and post the Christmas cards. Each card reminds me of people I haven’t seen for some time and memories pop into my mind. It is quite a cold day but it is dry, fortunate considering our planned outside gathering. After the carol singing, quite a few people join us at home and we sit outside for a surprisingly long amount of time considering the temperature. It felt very Christmassy and I’m glad we could share our lights with friends.
Today is a very important day in the McHugh calendar. It is the shortest day of the year, from now on the day light hours increase. This is a cause of great celebration in a household that spends most of their time outside!
Today the bricklayers are finishing the last bit of facing brickwork and the scaffolders have arrived to erect a 6m high tin hat over the new building. This is a very impressive operation involving two lorries full of scaffolding and boards. This edifice is very large and tall because it is built outside the foot print of the building to give us room to work and it is tall enough to cover the finished roof. The scaffolding comes very close to the garage making it quite hard for Patrick to get into his office. First, he nearly loses his office in the basement hole now he is practically barricaded in!
The girls and I decide that we will go Christmas shopping. None of us particularly enjoys shopping but I was looking forward to being able to spoil the girls a bit this year and I’m glad we managed to go.
When we returned laden with bags, the scaffolding looked very impressive and we squeezed into the office to check Patrick was OK.
Today I am down to one daughter. Meave and Diane have departed to visit their respective boyfriends before Christmas. Aideen is having to visit her boyfriend virtually because the poor chap has contracted Covid and is isolating until Boxing Day!
Aideen and I busy ourselves with final Christmas preparations which mainly involves trying to tidy up the house and finish the interior decorations. This is all very behind this year because we have been so busy with the building work. The scaffolders return and their amazing construction gets taller and taller and they start to fix a tin roof on the top. Watching them in their purple Christmas hats looks like a weird aerial Christmas pantomime.
Aideen and I pop out on some final Christmas errands and late in the afternoon I finally drag Patrick away from his computer (where he is ordering large amounts of wood for the roof of the new building) to visit the Harefield fishing tackle shop to buy him new waterproof boots which will be one of his Christmas presents. There is one pair left of the type we want but in a bigger size than Patrick requires. However, this make of boot comes up smaller than normal and Patrick requires extra space for his bad food. He tries them on and they are a good fit…Cinderella will go to the ball! I pay for the boots and a very nice pair of soft waterproof gloves and tell Patrick he might be allowed this present early for dog walking tomorrow!
In the evening, I sort out the fridge to make room for the turkey and I begin to feel that Christmas really is coming …if I could just remember where I have put Grandad’s tree!
I must remember to collect the turkey and other bits from the butchers today. The day soon fills up with lots of things that are probably not what we should be doing.
The scaffolders finish their enormous plastic covered scaffolding box which we can keep up for as long as we like…probably a good thing considering our inability to stick to Aideen’s schedule!
They put an advertising board on the top of the box but I don’t know who is going to see it…dog walkers?! Swans? Patrick is slightly concerned that from the fields it now looks as if we are building a block of flats! One slight issue, that was fortunately resolved, was a scaffolding pole had been positioned in front of the workshop door. This would have prevented us from driving out the tractor mower and I think it might have been tricky if we couldn’t access the mower for three months, even allowing for a more naturalistic mowing routine.
We did remember to collect the turkey and it did fit in the fridge – hurrah! Our friendly electrician visited to change the trip switch but unfortunately after he left the electrics tripped multiple times! We don’t know what is causing the problem, but it will not be fun trying to cook a turkey if the power keeps going off!
Today is likely to be a busy day. I get grandad up and Pip comes in to join him, she has been keeping a close eye on him recently and has spent the last few days in his house all day, sleeping beside him on the rocking chair. The company that supplies dad’s catheter equipment, who are normally very efficient, have run out of ‘bladder wash out’ kits. Worryingly, there appears to be a shortage and I’m re-directed to the district nurses who sound worried as well! I spend the morning wrapping presents and do a LFT because we are due to sing at a Christening at 1pm.
Excited that the ‘tin-hat’ is in place, Aideen and Patrick are outside organising things under its cavernous shelter. Aideen then spends the day adding cement to the top of the facing brick wall and Patrick fixes the wooden base plate to the top of the wall.
Meave moves her computers back to her office in the garage now that it is finally safe from falling into the basement. Diane and I continue to tidy up the house and wrap presents until I have to visit the GP for a blood test, a strange time for such an appointment. At tea time, we are visited by our friends with their little boy and Meave pretends to be Santa. This is great fun and causes much hilarity.
I prepare dinner for this evening and start cooking the giblet stock and roast gammon for tomorrow. Later on, the rest of the family depart for midnight mass leaving me to make the sausage meat stuffing. I love this time, just me, the cats, Bella and Grandad. Let’s just hope the power stays on! Then I realise I need sage for the stuffing and I will have to trudge in the rain and darkness to the end of the kitchen garden to retrieve it!
I am very tired when I wake up this morning and I would quite like to stay in bed a bit longer. I went to bed very late last night partly because Pip and Tig both had to go out after their supper, then we had a cup of tea after midnight mass and I do wait until the girls have gone to bed to put their stockings outside their doors even though they are 23 & 26! We take Christmas very seriously around here!
Today I have to be organised because we are playing in church for the service and need to be there soon after 10am. Before that, I need to get the turkey in the oven, get grandad up and hopefully have time for our traditional breakfast of smoked salmon and champagne. This bottle of champagne has nearly been drunk so many times in the last few months to celebrate various things but we’ve always let the moments pass but I’m determined we will have it today even though we are playing straight after!
The turkey is enormous, I still have not got to grips with kilograms. I realise now that I normally have a 6.5kg turkey (that sounded a bit small in the butchers) and the turkey I have purchased is closer to 8kg…will it even fit in my oven? Also, will the oven trays support it? I have a very cheap and basic cooker that we were forced to buy as a stop gap when my original salvaged cooker was condemned a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, we were not ready to purchase the cooker of my dreams, a proper range cooker, as we still had not built our proper kitchen. For some reason the kitchen has not been a priority in the last 25 years…well not for anyone else! I am still preparing Christmas dinners on a tiny work surface space. Frustratingly, I do now have my beautiful range cooker but it is still in its packaging on one side of the kitchen awaiting its final destination to be prepared and it is presently being used as a table/dumping ground!!!
My substitute cooker is such poor quality that the oven trays bend and pop out of their side supports when you put something heavy in to cook, which is alarming to say the least! Predictably, when I put the turkey in (it just squeezes in) the tray collapses and the turkey drops a couple of inches! I straighten up the tray and shut the door, as long as it fits in the oven and the power stays on long enough to cook it, that’s good enough for me! I then get grandad up and give him his Christmas bag of goodies…more of that later! We then put breakfast out, which Meave nearly misses because she was busy trying out her new Dyson Airwrap that she received from her boyfriend. We then splash off to church through the puddles.
When we return, I head off to the kitchen garden to pull up a really big swede and pick sprouts. This is a real treat, I go to all this trouble to grow sprouts, growing little plantlets from seed in the tunnel in the spring, probably about 7 varieties. I plant them out, surrounding each plant with sharp sand to try and defend them from slugs and snails and stake them to avoid wind damage. We put various bird scaring creations in the bed to keep off the pigeons and then pick off hundreds of caterpillars when the cabbage whites get going! All of this effort leads to this moment, picking sprouts for Christmas dinner! It is a long bed of sprouts and they vary in their success. I’m a lot better at producing sprouts than I used to be but I will still have maybe a third of the plants with very small, fairly useless sprouts. This years winners appear to be Maximus and Crispus who have produced a good crop of decent sized, firm sprouts. There is still plenty of sprouts left for a few dinners, but this is the reality of vegetable growing, tonnes of effort, large areas of crops and quite a small harvest from some vegetables. To cap it all, two out of three of my girls do not eat sprouts! I spend most of the day making dinner which is Turkey, topped with bacon and stuffed with homemade sage/onion/sausage meat stuffing, roast gammon with a honey/mustard glaze (our bees), pigs in blankets, mashed swede and carrot, sprouts, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, parsnips and onions, bread sauce (homemade) cranberry sauce and home-made gravy using giblet stock. It is a feast that everyone eagerly anticipates but once consumed renders the family incapacitated for hours! We enjoy giving each other far too many presents and when I put grandad to bed not only has he eaten his Christmas dinner and Christmas pudding he is surrounded by chocolate wrappers having eaten more than half a box of Heroes!!!
Boxing Day Catastrophe
I feel slightly dazed this morning and I am up before 8am writing my blog in bed. I hear Patrick shouting for me to come and look at the pond. It has rained all night and the pipe that brings the overflow from the Church ponds is a gushing torrent. Our overflow on the big pond had become clogged with leaves and the pond was beginning to overflow. Patrick quickly cleared the leaves and the water poured over the pond wall into the overflow chamber leading to the drain, like Niagara falls! Patrick and I stand by the overflow looking at the fast flowing stream and then it changes colour to sandy brown. Patrick says that looks like sand and at that moment we see black flapping movement in the stream and realise that the stream liner has been swept away from the side of the channel by the force of the water. Our stream is in a ‘temporary’ state, the lengths of liner lay overlapping along the stream weighted down by a few flints. We only completed this a few weeks ago and we have not finished the job. We now realise the liner has come away in the top pool as well as the sides of the stream and the water is rocketing along under the liner and washing all of the stream’s protective sand into the pond. Patrick and I try to get to the sides of the stream to pull it back into place but we are hindered by the incredibly slippery conditions and neither of us has the best balance. Patrick starts to roar for Diane, I realise no one will hear us in the orchard and slip and slide back to the house shouting up to the girls who are still in bed to come and help. Down they come, no one is appropriately dressed. I’m in my PJ’s, the legs pushed up to the top of my thighs and Diane is in her reindeer onesie!
Then follows a two hour battle to save our precious pond. Diane is in the stream in her now soaking onesie and we are all drenched as we try to reposition the liner, weighting it down with slabs along the sides. We then realise there is water in Mayflowers hole and she is floating! The water has overflowed from the stream and poured down the service trench that is still open and into her supposedly ‘dry’ dock! What will this mean, will we need another crane to come in and reposition her…Aideen looks as if she will cry! We stop the water entering Mayflowers dry dock and hope the water will drain away and she will settle – we did put a soak-away in her hole. We then concentrate on the top pool where the problem has started. Patrick ingeniously suggests pushing a heavy duty drainage pipe into the clay pipe that is gushing like a geyser. This takes at least some of the water away from the pool and redirects it into the stream. Finally, we weigh all of the stream liner down and the big pond looks as if it is beginning to return to the proper level, although now the entire pond is the colour of milky sand!
Eventually, we trudge back to the house, wet through and freezing, satisfied that there is nothing else we can do apart from keep an eye on the situation and eat a large breakfast.
One thing we do resolve to do is to contact the council in the new year about the ponds behind the church. These are the original 16th Century fish ponds from the Harefield Place Estate. There are three interlinked large ponds that when overflowing, drain into the channel that runs through our orchard and into the culvert that is built under the kitchen garden. These ponds, set in a small area of woodland, have been completely neglected. They are overgrown and full of fallen trees and probably have never been dredged. I have always talked fancifully of perhaps a community project for the village that could work to restore this potentially beautiful area. However, now this neglect, especially with increasingly severe weather episodes, is causing serious problems for us, the church and the allotments further down the hill.
After this unwelcome adventure, we decide we may as well go back outside. Patrick and Aideen work on the building and Diane and I attempt to sweep the wet mud and leaves off the drive. Whilst it is so wet there is a chance we can clean off our incredibly muddy drive. Diane sweeps and I shovel, it is hard work and more than one passer by queries why we are working on Boxing day? Why indeed?