Sunday, 15 July 2018

There goes the patch

If you ask me it was bound to happen. The Flats are dry as a bone, and people are remarkably stupid. I was in the greenhouse dozing off when I noticed the light had a peculiar golden quality. Odd, I thought, and went out into the garden to find I could hardly see for the smoke. One of the kids was desperately trying to close the windows - it being a warm day pretty much all of them were open. A grass fire on Wanstead Flats, and really not very far away from the house. Chateau L still stands you will be relieved to hear.

It burned for probably three hours, and at one stage the Fire Brigade had 40 engines here and over 200 firefighters trying to contain the blaze. They have done a remarkable job in breezy conditions, but the fire still managed to jump across main roads. Many local people went to rubberneck, but I was not one of them. Instead here is a photo nabbed from the Police helicopter (NPAS) that spent many hours circling round just above our house.

The main burnt bit is the SSSI, an excellent area for breeding birds but thankfully not for our endangered Skylarks. Nonetheless the damage is considerable - the area near the obvious dog-leg was once amazing scrub - it's where the second patch Wryneck was found, and we affectionately called the bush it liked to sun itself in the "Wryneck Bush" I've not been out, but I suspect it is now the "Wryneck Pile of Cinders". At one stage the smoke was so thick I couldn't see out of the window, and the inside of the house has a fair amount of ash in it. 

It also looks like the whole of the birch copse has gone, as well as the tree I saw my first patch Redstart in. Devastation. The houses closest to the road were evacuated. We didn't suffer that, but Mrs L had to go out shortly after it started to pick up a child, and what should have been a 30 minute run took three hours as the Police set up cordons that she could not get back through. In other words and barring the smoke it was a nice peaceful afternoon!

I'm dreading going out on the patch again. It was looking great the other day - more late August than mid-July, but full of insect life - butterflies galore and loads of flowers. 
Unfortunately some tosspot has, through either carelessness or malice, ruined the area for the next few months. The grasses will recover - I've seen them burn before albeit not as extensively, but the broom and the scrub will take many years to come back,and one of my favourite places for Warblers is no more. Long Wood has also been hit once the fire jumped the road. It looks like the trees are OK, but the fabulous scrub around the margins has gone - another great migrant trap exterminated - what the Corporation started someone else has sadly finished. I'll go out and assess the full extent of the damage later on, for now I think the Fire Brigade are still on site in case it flares up- big fires like this can actually continue burning underground. Such as shame, but we're all still here and we'll keep on birding it.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Celebrating 13 years and 7 months

It's not the most obvious anniversary I know, but we have been in Chateau L now for 13 years and seven months. How they knew is beyond me, but it was extremely gratifying to have what amounts to probably the whole RAF fly over the ancestral home earlier today. I didn't know today was the day, and first heard some helicopters close by and wondered what was going on. The next thing I know a whole flock of them went over, and soon after that some gigantic planes. I raced up the turret and grabbed a camera, and just about the first thing I photographed was this. 

Stealth my arse. Surely my camera should have been totally flummoxed by this thing with all its confusing surfaces? But no, I picked it up instantly and blasted it out of the sky. $85 million apparently. Rubbish. At the very end of what was a veritable procession came the Red Arrows. Who doesn't like the Red Arrows eh? This is one half of the "V", but the angle they came in on makes it look like they're stacked on top of each other. Anyway, nice to be able to finally write a blog post about things that fly....

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Tinkle tinkle

Back when I lived in Manorhouse L and before we upgraded to a castle, Mrs L and I had a fountain. My memory of exactly why has faded with time, although I do remember that the rocks I put in it fell to bits after a few years and the whole thing clogged up and died whereupon I threw it out. However it got there it was nice though, nothing fancy, just a small pump in a bucket really, but surrounded by lush foliage it added to the jungle atmosphere. My love of plants dates from this period I think - we moved in to a house with a conservatory that was empty, and I subsequently filled it with green things to the point we could barely get in there and had to move. I've done much the same with the new place according to Mrs L.

Anyhow, with the reopening of the Temperate House at Kew Gardens earlier this year, Famille L headed west for a day trip. I've been going to Kew for years, indeed if you look very carefully in some of the glasshouses you will find some plants labelled up with "LETH" - I donated some tiny seedlings about a decade ago and they are now significantly bigger than the ones I kept! The power of winter heat and gardeners who know what they are doing. The plants were incredible as always, but what struck us most was the landscaping within some of the collections, and the presence of water and how that tied in with the planting. We came straight back to Wanstead and installed a stream running throughout the length of the house, culminating in a waterfall out of the back door.

Actually we didn't. We bought a small pump and another bucket.

There is an element of chav I'll admit, especially as I hooked it up to one of those smart plugs so that the thing can be voice-activated, but equally there are few things more pleasurable than the soft tinkling of water in the background as the mirrored surface catches the light. When I win the lottery I'll do it properly, for now I am enjoying this very much.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Book Club

Bit of a change today. I read in fits and spurts, either not at all or voraciously. At the moment it is the latter, and I get through books in a matter of days. Most of the time I read books about travel or wildlife, at least notionally, but occasionally I pick up (or am passed) something completely left-field that I would be highly unlikely to have chosen myself. Here are the last three things I have read.

Beyond a boundary – CLR James
Described as the best book about cricket ever written, it seems both current as well as obviously written in a different era. The pleasure derived from watching cricket, as well as the skill needed to truly do so remains as current today as the 1960s when it was written, although it covers West Indian cricket from several decades earlier. Those West Indian cricketers around whom so much of the book revolves every keen follower will probably have heard of in passing, but have little idea of who they actually were and what they did - Constantine, Headly and Grace to name but a few - so it was interesting to fill in some historical gaps. I have rarely heard, even on my beloved TMS, cricket strokes described so perfectly. It has a clear political slant, and explores the racial divides in Trinidad and the wider West Indies, but also how cricket shapes a person. A must-read for any lover of the game.

Crossing Open Ground - Barry Lopez 
A fantastic read, exactly my kind of book. Wilderness adventure, exploring nature and the relationships between humans, animals, birds and the land. Set in North America and laid out as a series of essays, this is travel writing of the highest order, supremely considered and thoughtful, beautifully written and compellingly interesting. Set in North America he ranges from the southern deserts to the Alaskan coasts, delving into the past and present alike. Geology, geography, art, science and morals - an all-encompassing view into some of the special areas of the US that have shaped the history of the country and those who call it home. I've read this several times before, and about every five years I feel the need to return to it. This is the kind of book that makes me want to travel as much as possible, even if I could never describe remotely as well as this master of his genre.

The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng
This is the kind of book that makes Mrs L want to travel, which is a very rare thing indeed. She read this and declared an urge to travel to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. Who was I to argue, I had a frequent flyer 'magic voucher' to burn, and so we are off there later this year. I would not have said this was my kind of book at all, but I demolished it in under three days. Set alternately at a hill station in colonial Malaysia during the period immediately after the Second World War and then some years later, this is a story that weaves history and fiction together around the relationship between a Chinese Malay ex-POW and a Japanese gardener. I read it avidly, but remained slightly unfulfilled, feeling that the author had tried to blend too many strands into his narrative, leaving too many questions and stories open. There is also a somewhat ponderous rhythm to it that I cannot put my finger on - a bit florid perhaps? That said I found it impossible to put down, and it kindles an interest in the story of Malayan independence, the mixing of cultures and, once again, parts of the world hugely different from the London underground which is where I read most of it. I'm looking forward to visiting and drinking the local tea.

Sunday, 1 July 2018


I love that we now live in a country of shortages. Not at all embarrassing, no. There is a shortage of beer and various other things due to a shortage of CO2, and now there is a shortage of lettuce because of the heat. Even with the football this counts a slow news day. If however I were to have to choose between long sunny days approaching 30 degrees for weeks on end and going without lettuce for a bit, well.....

It's not hard is it? Bring on the sunshine. Normal english people melt and start moaning. Not me. I'm part californian, this is in my blood and I love it. I am up early to do the chores in the cool dawn hours, and then shorts and flip flops become the order of the day. I've watched no football, couldn't care less about it, and barely raised binoculars to my eyes. Watching the girls play cricket on Friday evening I picked out a Common Tern whilst drinking a soon to be scarce beer. This was a year tick but I didn't let it get to me, this was still June after all. My only other notable bird news came in the form of 16 Lapwing flopping over my house east at some point during last week. Failed breeders I suppose, either that or the parched fields have the consistency of concrete and feeding has become impossible. A rare June record here, but Waders are on the move I gather - I vaguely keep up with bird news still , and am sensing that for some of them autumn is beginning already.

Other than a brief foray to the Park to twitch a butterfly I've once again gone nowhere - exactly what hot summer days are designed for. Not for me shopping malls and traffic jams, you can keep all that. The garden holds plenty of interest. For instance I discovered that I have a leaf-cutter bee creating a den (nest?) underneath one of my plant pots. It's quite a handsome thing, and keeps returning with neatly chewed segment of leaf which it carries underneath its body in the manner of an Osprey with a fish. From my spot near the barbeque I can watch its comings and goings. I also discovered a massive ants nest in the compost bin, and gave the colony something to do when I inadvertently opened the lid to chuck in some clippings and scattered their developing progeny to the four winds. Sorry about that.

Rubbish photo but you get the idea. It could almost be surfing!

Tomorrow it is destined to be even hotter. The long range forecast suggests it just keeps going and going, smashing. My arid and tropical plants suffice it to say are loving it, and I'm fine with it too barring one small thing. My commute. There are no words to describe how grim the Central Line is at around seven in the evening. It has spend the who day heating up and reaches its peak just as I and the rest of the world need to get on it. It is so hot that it exceeds the temperatures where it is legal to transport livestock. The other day they actually started handing out bottles of water as people were getting on - I've never seen that, it must be bad. And of course with the heat come problems. Broken down trains, passengers collapsing, signal failures and who knows what else. Six minutes would be bearable, just - about the minimum I could spend on there if all were going well. Unfortunately it just crawls and shudders. You know that particular feeling when a bead of sweat slowly trickles down the small of your back? It rarely happens that I get so hot that I get it, but the Central Line wrings it out of me and there is nothing I can do. Suited up it is deeply unpleasant. Then again if I had to choose between a summer like this and dismal, wet and cold June and July, even with all the lettuce I could eat I'd be voting for exactly how it is now. Maybe the odd tropical downpour to save me watering, but that is all I would change.

Monday, 25 June 2018

The quiet life

The last few weeks have been marvellously quiet. I have set out to do very little other than some mild gardening, and have been spectacularly successful. Mostly of course I have been at work, I am hoping that the summer might bring some respite from the grind - when the important people all go on holiday this bizarrely coincides with a drop-off in super-urgent tasks that need doing. It helps that a great deal of Europe just disappears to their houses in the countryside or to the beach. I have two coping mechanisms with which to deal with intense periods at work, and I am guessing you know them both already.

The first is to go to an airport and bugger off somewhere. The trouble with this approach is that I usually return even more shattered than when I left. I have been feeling pretty knackered recently, and so I'm actually taking a break from going on holiday and staying at home for the next two months. The second tactic plays very nicely to this, as I just potter around at home annoying the family. They would rather I went on holiday apparently. I am too demanding, too bossy, and too grumpy. OK, so I'll just go and live in the greenhouse then.

I do spend a lot of time down there, it is a haven. There is water, warmth, and lots and lots of oxygen. As a result I end up monitoring my plants obsessively and can totally lose track of time. It is a busy place, endless jobs need doing. Watering, fertilising, spraying, cleaning, repotting, sweeping. Anything but sitting down and resting which I am very bad at. But at least there is nobody telling me what urgently needs doing. 

Here is another nice landscape shot ruined by a bird. I was hoping to take a photo of this thistle and then an Izzy Wheatear came and sat on it. I am still slowly going through them. Non-urgently.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018


Tawny - adjective - of an orange-brown or yellowish-brown colour. 

This describes the palette of this photograph perfectly, and was exactly what I was trying to achieve. Some Pipit or other has unfortunately walked into the shot and spoiled it, but as soon as I get some time I'll clone it out and publish the pure, smooth rendition of colour that I was after.