And, talking of dogs, we had a visit from one last night. He had been out on the river, paddling down from Glasbury with a couple of minders, and had picked Aspen House as his destination of choice for yesterday’s overnight stop.
About mid afternoon, the front door bell rang, and there they were – two men in a boat, to say nothing of the dog.
He was dressed like a border terrier, but was also wearing a really funky padded overcoat in day-glow orange, in which, with just that hint of arrogance that challenges you to make a ribald comment, he posed on the doorstep. Obviously designed to keep him visible as well as afloat, it was even equipped with a handle on the top, presumably to make it easy for one of his man-servants to retrieve him from the river should an untimely collision throw him off the prow.
Personally, I would find it difficult to look commanding if I were wearing a padded fluorescent suitcase, but this young pup carried it off superbly, striding into the house to inspect his quarters, while his two men tagged on behind, carrying his bedding and evening wear.
Anyone who knows us will also know that dogs stay at Aspen House only if they have been cleared by internal security (I was going to say ‘vetted’, but then thought better of it . . .). They are welcome so long as they are well behaved, bring their own bedding and can get under our height-control bar without ducking. It has to be said, however, that any endearing young terrier that turns up looking like a fashion icon might find that designer outerwear is a boon when it comes to bending our rules.
Sunday 28th May
Spot of sad news to report. We heard from Fleur over at the New Harp that Frank’s dog has moved to the Happy Boning Ground in the sky.
Frank’s dog was not an observer of the Highway Code. Frank’s dog was from an era before such things. He seemed oblivious to anything that moved at speed. To Frank’s dog, all traffic was invisible, and the centre of the village, between the pub and his old home was his personal territory, around which he wandered at leisure and at his own pace, simply ignoring the fact that a monster truck or a large orange tractor might hurtle into his territory at any moment.
This canine immortal has managed to survive, despite the volume of traffic that rushes through Hoarwithy on a daily basis, including not just tractors and monster trucks, but horses, walkers and a homicidal (or should that be ‘canicidal’?) bus driver. Where the local moggies might enjoy the benefit of nine lives, Frank’s dog seemed to be on an unlimited supply.
When Fleur told us that he had shuffled off the old mortal coil, we assumed that he had stepped into the road just once too often. But no. Frank’s dog fell into the stream next door at four o’clock in the morning and died from what we understand was hypothermia. It seems such a sad and ignominious end for a village character with an utterly disdainful attitude to all road users. Still, we have no doubt that his spirit now wears the mantle of immortality and will spend eternity wandering around aimlessly in front of cars.
Sunday 21st May
Despite running the risk of being accused of xenophobia, I can’t say that grey squirrels are on my list of favourite creatures. I would go as far as to say that our English woods would be better places without them, to say nothing of our bird table. Let’s face it, they’ve got no manners at all. Not only do the selfish greedy little ticks get onto the bird table and hoover up everything in sight – they also pee all over it when they leave. I ask you, is this the way to behave? No, of course not.
So, it was a happy moment for me when I heard from Sally that one of the squirrels had been quietly minding his own business on the bird table, gobbling up some bread that we’d put out for the birds, when along came a couple of starlings. Seeing the squirrel for the unwelcome guest that he is, they proceeded to turf him off the table. Like a couple of nightclub bouncers, they indicated their intention to see him off and then, with wings flapping, forced him to topple off the edge. Without a doubt it was, to break into modern parlance for a moment, a result.
Saturday 20th May
Oh, the perils of being under too much pressure in the kitchen!
Last night, roast ham was on the menu. I normally simmer the ham for half the cooking time, then finish it in the oven with a tasty glaze on it, in this case, for those of you taking notes, a honey and mustard glaze (with just a smear of Seville orange marmalade – home made of course). Cooking for 10 people, the joint was quite large. It produced a few pints of glorious stock, which I strained and put to one side, thinking to divide it into pint measures it when it had cooled so that I could then freeze it for future use.
These things are all very well in theory. If, however, one is floating like a zombie and moving around the kitchen on autopilot, the fact that one has set aside a pan of stock tends to slip quietly from the mind, like a wraith leaving the churchyard at dawn.
Later on, with the meal out of the way and Sally loading the dishwasher, I was tackling the pile of pots, pans and other sundry non-dishwasher items (oh for a kitchen toto!) when I came upon a pan in the corner of the worktop. Lifting the lid, I wondered why the pan was full of liquid. Coming up with no answer, I simply emptied the contents down the sink and then washed the pan.
It was only later, when the kitchen had been completely cleared up, that I remembered where I had left the stock . . .
Tuesday 16th May
The editor would like to extend an apology to all our readers for the absence of diary entries of late. We know that all four of you have been getting a bit tetchy about the fact that life at Aspen House seems to have ground to a halt around 16th April.
So you will all be pleased to know that the gaps in the diary have now been filled in and you have a month’s worth of reading to catch up on (So that’s about two pages then . . . )
Monday 15th May
Out in the garden again today, finally digging the last patch of ground destined for vegetables. With Sal’s tiny radio, I was able to keep abreast of progress in the first Test. Sri Lanka were slowly, but very surely, adding to their overnight score as the day wore on. England were helping them by dropping catches. The match should have been all but over by now and, in the tedium of waiting for a breakthrough that would precipitate the win that England were looking for, my mind began to wander.
It wandered onto the pitch and thought about its 22-yard length. As a former land surveyor, I know that 22 yards is a chain, but I wondered how many kids today would understand what I am talking about.
I could really show my age by talking about rods, poles and perches. For the uninitiated, these are just different terms for the same measure, 5½ yards to be precise. Or, if you are talking chains, 25 links. A hundred links in a chain, you see. Four poles (rods or perches) equals one chain. Ten chains equals an eighth of a mile, or a furlong (a furlong was about the length of a furrow – one furrow long – simple, eh?). 80 chains equals one mile, or eight furlongs. Hmmm. Another sporting reference.
Then of course you had square poles (30 ¼ square yards) roods (¼ of an acre or 40 square poles) and acres, an acre being about the size of a good-sized football pitch. Ah, sport again.
Or perhaps we should go further back to find the shape of the original acre, to the time of mediaeval ploughmen using four yoke of oxen to plough a furrow and enticing them to do so through the use of an ox goad or rod, which of course had to be sixteen and a half feet long (5½ yards) to reach the leading pair. Our mediaeval ploughman with a team of eight oxen was required to till one acre a day. These beasts of burden could go about 220 yards before they had to stop and rest, hence your ‘furrow long’. So the acre was built up from a series of furlongs, and the ploughman measured his progress by using his rod. Four rods = one chain; one acre = one chain by one furlong.
So it’s all perfectly logical really . . . Logical if you understand its heritage and the way measurement began to be recorded (one inch = the first joint of the thumb, one hand = one hand span, one foot = one of those things on the end of your leg). Such logic has a certain simplicity and beauty to it. Some of the terms may seem foreign to us now, but only because they have been superseded by yet another attempt to homogenise our lives and take a bit more colour from our linguistic spectrum. The metric system is all very well, and even more logical in its approach, but it is bland, uninteresting and uninspiring. The standard system of measure in the UK building industry changed from imperial to metric over 30 years ago, but we still talk about feet and inches, pints, gallons, pounds and ounces. I don’t need to ask the question ‘why’. Variety is the spice of life, and it applies as much to systems of measurement as it does to our choice of indigenous apples. Just don’t get me started on decimal coinage or paper measurements . . .
Saturday 13th May
After several warm days and dry nights, the weather broke last night, bringing in rain around 9 o’clock in the evening. Although it was all over by midnight, the combination of warmth and dampness spawned a population explosion of what we assumed to be some kind of mayfly – you know the ones, those that swarm towards the light on the back porch.
Unfortunately, a couple staying with us last night left the light on in their bedroom and the window open . . . when we went in to clean the room this morning, there was a seething colony of microscopic insects covering the windows, the windowsill, walls, much of the bedroom ceiling and all over the ceiling and walls around the lights in the bathroom.
I could see this was going to be a long job.
Taking the precaution of plugging myself in to Sal’s tiny portable radio so that I could keep myself up to date with the Test Match between England and Sri Lanka at Lord’s (Sri Lanka on about 120-7, chasing an England first innings total of 551 for 6 declared . . .) I unleashed the Aspen House weapon of mass destruction, in this case a purple Pod vacuum cleaner. Much as I respect the sanctity of all life, I remained curiously detached as I wielded the nozzle, sucking up hundreds of tiny creatures with every sweep, whilst Sal dealt with the other mass gathering in the bathroom. By the time Sri Lanka were on 131-8, a whole colony of mayflies has perished. We can only hope that their sacrifice, and our spiritual discomfort, will be appreciated by our guests when they return tonight to an insect-free zone.
Tuesday 9th May
Under one of the berberis bushes in the garden, we have a small terracotta pitcher with a narrow opening, long neck, two handles and a rounded body. Working in the area of the berberis recently, I spotted a great tit coming in to land on the lip of this jug. He looked around as if checking for spies and then disappeared into the jug, emerging a few minutes later and flying off.
This behaviour has now been witnessed by Sally and her mum too, and all three of us have concluded that there must be a nest in there. If this is the case, then I can see it being featured on Grand Designs, along with the palatial home set up by the sparrows in our porch.
Thursday 4th May
Digging in the garden has given me the opportunity to get closer to our bird population. I am of course already on first-name terms with one of our robins (his name is Dave, surprisingly enough) but then you would expect that, as he has been out there helping me since the first spadeful of earth was turned.
The others, notably the blackbirds, are rather more wary. They have, however, learned to accept my presence a little more now and, in this relatively relaxed mood, have been quite open about revealing the location of their nests. Thus I have noticed that there are two pairs of blackbirds nesting in the same hawthorn tree. Judging by the way the males usually chase each other around our back yard, it surprised me to see them living so close to each other. I have witnessed an occasional stand-off up in the top branches, but generally they are tolerant of each other. And, in case you were wondering, neither of them has a gammy wing, so it could be that another year of being a singleton has been imposed on Upf’rit. Unless, of course, he is trying his luck at the speed dating club in Ross.
Meanwhile, I observe dozens of sparrows living in the south wall of Aspen House. There are nearly as many holes here as there allegedly were in Blackburn, Lancashire. The usual suspects are in residence in that most spacious and desirable of residences, the front porch. This is their third year now, but that can’t be a bad thing – after all, Aspen House thrives on repeat business.