Thursday, 22 January 2015

And Yew and Yew

On BBC Winterwatch they've just been talking about yew trees and I was reminded so suddenly and strongly of Miss Toomey, the dinner lady at my 2nd primary school (in Highnam, Glos). Very old but agile, woolly beret'd, fluffy coated, speccy, and thin as a stick, she'd have climbed up the bank from the dell and would suddenly appear from behind the trunk I'd repeatedly climbed to an enormous height and in an old-lady screech she'd shout,

Get down, Stewart, them berries is poisonous! [No-one else has ever called me Stewart, but realising quickly that it'd help me avoid further trouble, I didn't complain].

And again I remember - it'd be probably 7-8 years later - clouds of gnats dancing in the glare of the setting sun when one late autumn evening my dad and I were voluntarily doing surgery on the old yew trees in the churchyard at Cantref. And the chainsaw blunted so quickly on the steely branches. And we'd forgotten the sharpening file. So we left the job in a bit of a mess. And next evening it was raining and we had to come back to finish off.

And because we like things in threes

I'm wondering why it was that my dad, ostensibly a peaceful man, then a Liberal but nowadays Green-voting, a fourth generation vegetarian, chapel-going but later a Quaker, should enjoy so much and so often telling me about the bloodthirsty Battle of Crécy (and others), in which much killing of the French was done by the English armed with longbows of yew, when after all it was 280 years since the Norman Conquest and WTF were we doing being a bloody nuisance in someone else's back yard? Again.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015


Joanne and I have just watched The Grand Budapest Hotel on DVD. It's great, really very enjoyable and, because I haven't yet been any nearer to Budapest, it made me want to go back to Ljubljana (What a name! I don't know what it means, but it sounds so beautiful), and dodge the wasps around the fruit stalls on the outdoor market by the river, stroll across the bridge with the padlocks on it, eat outdoor cafe lunch and listen to real, no, real real gypsy jazz, then to stroll along photographing elegant bicycles parked in the sun for no other reason, I'm sure, than for people to take photographs of them.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Soggy Old Xmas Cards

So instead of recycling old xmas cards from home, I thought I'd take them to WH Smith. In full waterproofs (yes, a proper 100% waterproof '70s-style Helly jacket, etc.), I rode the rusty steed into the little city through some pretty good quality rain only to be told our WHS hasn't done xmas card collections for 4 or 5 years, but that TK Maxx were doing it. In TK Maxx I was told Boots were doing it.
In Boots I had a good old natter about cycling, France, creaking necks, etc with Ian Johnston, then the staff there wrongly suggested the photo department were taking old xmas cards. It was busy, but a nice shelf-stacking woman nearby said, No, Sainsbury's was the place.

So I went to Ye Olde John O'Gaunt, once Lancaster's very best and busiest music pub, and drank a half of some local beer and scoffed a packet of crisps. Around 2pm customers numbered me, then three, then two as I left.
In Sainsbury's I dropped our soggy xmas cards into a cardboard box for the FSC (not knowing how responsible they are, but hey-ho), swerved my trolley around great clumps of Chinese students, bought some organic veg and some very heavy tinned stuff, man, and cycled home mostly uphill in rain so wet you'd have thought it had come from Wales.

Anyway, no harm done, and even though I've cycled about five miles only, I feel as if I've almost had an adventure.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

The Nonchalant Log.

I once mentioned that because I cut and collect all our own firewood, I recognise many of the logs when a year or more later they finally come into the house. I really do remember quite clearly where they came from and when. Some folks seemed to think that that was cool and zennish, but I thought it was just because I have a good memory for that sort of thing. Well, it's honest, hard and tiring work and leads to a feeling of achievement at the time, and right throughout the autumn and winter, and whenever I choose to smirk at our little gas bills. But a few of the logs we're burning today are slightly less than honestly acquired.

One afternoon in autumn 2013 I was driving in a lane east of High Newton, Cumbria when the road descended to a bridge. Over a drystone wall by a wooded stream I saw a good long length of ash wood. I thought it had probably been blown down onto the road a few months earlier, tidied up by a contractor, and thrown over the wall. I reckon I had no right to it at all, but there is no better wood than ash for burning, so I backed onto the verge, listened for approaching traffic and hearing none, climbed carefully over the wall. The log was very long, 6-7ins in diameter at the thick end and very heavy indeed. I found a midpoint for balance, lifted and staggered a short way across the steep slope to the wall where I only just managed to lift the log over the top to let it flump down onto the verge. I climbed back over, picked up the log again and walked very unsteadily towards the van. Hearing a vehicle coming I urged myself into a situation where I could drop the log out of sight between the van and the wall. I emerged onto the roadside empty handed and only just managed not to do a suspiciously nonchalant whistle as a Discovery went slowly by. Discoveries always seem to me to be off-comers' vehicles, not to be taken quite as seriously as locals', so I flattened the bed in the van, spread out a couple of old jackets, waited for no more traffic noise, and slid the log inside. It was so long that it ended up next to the gear lever and I could only just shut the back door.

l drove up out of the little valley and only then, but almost immediately, noticed a gated driveway on my left and evidence of much clearing and planting of shrubs. Clearly I had just taken "my" firewood from someone's woodland garden! But that log was too damned heavy to replace, so I drove on. Nonchalantly.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Collected Wood

This evening, as usual now, we are burning mostly well-seasoned ash from Yealand Storrs, a little holly too, some dried-enough beech from that big tree blown down last winter in Greaves Park, and the occasional oddments of driftwood from the tideline on the east side of the Lune between Aldcliffe and Conder Green. With Johnny Howlingale striding past, the draught on the stove is turned to almost nothing, but we're warm.

And a friend has just phoned - it's his wife's aunt who owns the woodland where we get our wonderful ash - and he's given me persistent giggles by describing how last week he went to that same woodland on his own with his bow saw (because he's scared reluctant to use his chainsaw when he's on his own), and had carefully chosen an "oak" with "no branches and therefore dead", he said, only to find that it wasn't dead at all. Except it is now, because he cut right through it. So we'll get it next winter. No less daft is the fact that I know which tree he's talking about - and it's a wych elm.

Wych means pliant, referring to branches, from the Old English wic(e) from a Germanic root meaning bend, related to weak. (And then you remember your German O level and that weich means soft). Those old folks knew their wood allright though, didn't they.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Shouldering the Responsibility

On Monday I did a couple of hours chainsawing. I'm right-handed. Chainsaws are designed for right-handed people and most of the weight of the saw is taken by the left arm. The saw isn't a big one, but I thought it felt unusually heavy.

Tuesday I woke with a thickly nasty pain high up in my left shoulder, but I cycled twistedly to the hospital for pre-arranged physio on one ankle and two Achilles tendons. The physiotherapist, he's a good lad, isn't allowed to do anything for my shoulder because it hasn't been referred by a GP, but he put a heat bag on it and worked away on my good blessed feet. He said, If the shoulder's no better, go and see your GP.

I cycled twistedly home, took the maximum Ibuprofen and for most of the day I walked around with a hot water bottle parroting on my shoulder.

On Wednesday morning my shoulder was still bad, but a 2 week waiting list is quite a disincentive when it comes to making appointments with doctors, isn't it, so I didn't phone the surgery. Instead, about to prepare Joanne's breakfast, I thundered down the cellar steps to the freezer. At full gallop I stepped onto the cellar floor to find that between it and my foot was a door hinge grubbed out of the ashes in the woodstove on the previous day and carelessly chucked there by me. Three rusty screws were pointing upwards. It would be true to say I whimpered as I pulled out the screws, dug out the stupid frozen sausages and hauled myself back up the stairs, grabbed two plasters, hauled myself up the next stairs splishing not insignificant dots of blood all over the place, grabbed two wet wipes and asked my nurse to make it all better.

Mid morning my mate called in. He was on his way back from the hospital. He has been through some awful hard times recently and was in much worse shape than I am, so I agreed to go wooding with him today. But this morning he has phoned and postponed. Phew.

Today I have phoned my healer friend - he makes house calls, and the call taker at the doctor's, and my friend Nick, the osteopath. He's the only one who has returned my call so this afternoon I'll drive 10 miles to Garstang (of all places), and he'll fix the shoulder. Things are starting to look up. Perhaps the GP will even call me back......