Friday, 23 December 2016

Christmas holidays

A strong wind blows; nothing to what's happening in the Highlands, but enough to blow even more glass out of a rickety greenhouse on Plot 66 on the Victoria Jubilee Allotments.  Being there, I picked it up, piece by piece, and put it in the back of the HHH van. Later I wrote a note to the site secretary:
Dear G. Don’t read this until after Christmas, but I popped up to the VJA to check that these high winds hadn’t blown away the polythene sheet we spread on Plot 78, and found yet further panes of glass shattered and thrown over the ground from the frail greenhouse on the neighbouring plot. Shards had been blown almost as far as the entry gates (see attached photo). This structure is a hazard. I ask the VJA committee to let me and Winnie remove its glass, ideally with the permission of the plotholder, but otherwise without.  I collected the shattered glass ... glad no-one was around when this glass went flying.  I could do this work  - removing the glass from the greenhouse - on the same basis as we are doing other work with Committee approval. It would hardly take 10 minutes ... anytime after Christmas day. Happy Christmas. S 

At last I have a brief to start tidying abandoned plots on the VJA.  Phil, our Hon.Treasurer, agreed to let Winnie and I clean up Plot 78 opposite the site gates. A week ago we set to with a will.
Plot 78 Victoria Jubilee Allotments - before tidying
The plot had been abandoned after its tenant was evicted for leaving his tap running overnight in the middle of the summer, a breach of rules that brings penalties at any time of the year. I'm pretty sure this tenant was glad to see the last of the plot anyway. They left owing a year's rent.
I was ranting away to Vanley about why 'some people' treat their plots as tips.
As I recall, the person working plot 78 was working happily away some two years ago, building terraces to accommodate the gradient of their 200 square metres. Something went wrong. They lost interest. Not just like that; rather a gradual decline of enthusiasm, during which the site accumulated the detritus of waning intention; a mess, whose detail became more unpleasantly clear as we began tidying the vacated plot. Soft drink, beer and cider cans, plastic and glass bottles, sacks of domestic rubbish, broken glass mainly from discarded window panes brought in to build a glass house that didn't happen; spare off-cuts of wood, brought in for a purpose, allowed to rot; pointless levees of soggy plastic sacks filled with clay-mud and roots, entwined with lugs of couch grass from which extend rhizomes fatter than spaghetti, beneath which, embedded, we find more rubbish, flattened seams of black polythene that have to be scraped up to get closer to the earth.
"You know" I said to Vanley, who stays calm on these things, but listens attentively, as I stoke pious frustration at other people's errancy, their downright feckless lack of talent as gardeners
"You could donate someone a studio, give them paints, brushes, linseed oil, palette knives, canvases, size. Everything a painter needs. Come back in a year and all you have, instead of a parade, as you hoped, of creative work, of art - chaos! The materials not just abandoned, but squashed, mingled, smeared, with unrecognisable pieces of rubbish that might have been easels, chairs, frames...."
Vanley, who's famous, said to me ages ago "Allotments are a metaphor for life".
Embedded black sacks overlapping the plot boundaries
Odd-and-ends to no purpose

A cleansing fire for combustibles
Half a ton of rubbish to go to the tip
Well how did someone manage to leave an original plot in such a mess? It's not just fallow. It's a tip. Instead of  being cultivated, it's been used. With the worst and most of the waste removed Winnie could strim the plot to about 6" all over and then I spread 200 square metres of black polythene held down with bricks and stones. The uneven ground, caused by the terracing and the original intention of divided-up beds, made it tricky to keep our footing.
There had been an attractive small oak tree at one corner of the plot; killed after a heap of fresh manure was dropped on a corner of the plot. I left the manure uncovered, so other plot holders could help themselves. The trunk of the oak made a good stake. Someone will use it.
Plot 78 Victoria Jubilee Allotments - after tidying



Phil and the VJA Committee were pleased with our work on Plot 78 and have now asked us to tidy 11 more vacant plots.
On Friday we began on four of these - 54 to 57.
Tidy all the plots that have a tick on them


By midday the van was half full of cleared waste. There's more to come - a large pile of red bricks and over twenty five sheets of double glazing stacked at the bottom of the slope between the allotments and the houses.
Starting on the tidying of plots 54 to 57

The most visible rubbish was consigned to cleansing flames - the smoke blown north by a steady breeze. Later the wind changed direction, blowing smoke towards one of the houses. I knocked on the door, apologised and found it was someone I knew and was 'forgiven'. The wind changed again. As the fire heated up, the flames grew stronger, the smoke lessened. Winnie strimmed, I carted rubbish, again having to work through a blanket of couch grass to ease out layers of plastic sacks, lino, carpet and chipboard, in one area a layer of broken glass...

...to be picked up shard by shard by hand and dumped in the van...
The four plots are already looking better ...
Plots 54-57 strimmed
...but there's more to be done, before we can finish ...

...by laying the weed suppressing fabric which Phil has managed to buy in volume on ebay.
The trickiest stuff to clear as there's so often more plastic sacks beneath, usually falling apart

I suspect those bricks were collected to help terrace the plot's slope.

Glass intended for a home-made greenhouse






Later that evening I dropped by to make sure the fire had died down to embers. In the morning I picked out metal parts and raked the ashes flat, while Winnie with the brush-cutter cleared all four plots down to 5 inches, leaving a few fruit trees and a line of broom between two plots.
"We've got a lot of work done today" she said.
"And we've done lots on Plot 14!"

Meanwhile Plot 14 is being prepared for 2017

Last year and a few months we'd made the plot manageable by making more, and wider, paths between smaller beds that could be dug from all sides without need to tread on the working soil. Now I'm reclaiming some of the walking space for beds at the top of the plot.

We needed a mattock to break up boulder-clay soil in an area of our allotment that had been used for parking cars and a van. On the rest of the plot - except the paths - I can get a spit's depth with even a spade. Getting closer to the original soil back in 2010 when I signed up to rent this plot, even a fork wouldn't go down more than inches. Winnie and I, with Dennis helping, used the mattock to get some depth, removing a familiar collection of glacier-smoothed stone embedded in clay. Picking up a fist sized piece, it squeezes together and stays that way. After we'd got the depth - about 18" - we mixed the soil with 'black gold' compost making the beds a little higher, and loamier. I sprinkled and raked in several handfuls of garden lime. Worms aplenty in the compost continued our work.
Bed E0 - planned for main crop potatoes
In two beds I planted garlic in early November - breaking into cloves garlic bought at a local grocers. They've benefited from frost, and should be ready to harvest when their beds are needed for broad or runner beans.


The shed veranda has been leaking. I repaired it on top with a patch of felt over a thick coat of bitumen...
My grandson was wondering where I'd got to

 ... cutting a rectangle of plywood to sit underneath, held between the supports with brackets.
Redrafted bed plan. 'E' stands for 'English side', 'G' for 'Greek side'. 
*** *** ***
Christmas day in Ano Korakiana....Χριστούγεννα! ... την ηρεμία του πρωινού, the tranquility of the morning...

Χριστούγεννα με ολίγη συννεφιά...Αρκετός ο κόσμος στη Λειτουργία στον Άη Θανάση. Η συνέχεια ανήκει στα παιδιά της Μπαντίνας που θα περιδιαβούν τις γειτονιές για να παιανίσουν τα Κάλαντα, ενώ την ίδια ώρα τα μέλη της Διοίκησης θα αναζητήσουν την οικονομική ενίσχυση του Συλλόγου στις οικογένειες του χωριού. Τα εορταστικά γεύματα μεταξύ συγγενών και φίλων θα ακολουθήσουν...Και οι κάπως μεγαλύτεροι σε ηλικία απολάμβαναν την ηρεμία του πρωινού.


*** *** ***
27th December - work continues. Was someone planning to build a house on one of these plots?




...and another load of rubbish. On the weighbridge at Holford Depot it was 3/4 of a ton
...and to finish off four more plots, two large rolls of ground cover...

Thursday, 3 November 2016

On Bell Hill

I had been looking forward to being at Rock Cottage. A solace for leaving beloved Greece. Amy had already sent us a photo via Facebook.
'We can finally see Ross after 4 hours of motorway hell 😆YAY!' Amy and family approaching the Forest of Dean


On FFriday evening of half-term week Lin and I joined the family in a cottage already warmed for two days.
"The heating's working a dream. Your shower is just brilliant" said Guy.
I begin to feel that Rock Cottage, so neglected for over five years, is becoming a home again. Our children knew it as babies and toddlers and now our grandchildren are sleeping here. Our dear friends Martin and Sandra and their son Adam and his fellow workers have transformed the place, which was not only suffering our neglect, but also the cod-work of our ill-chosen builder, Royston, with whom I parted company over two years ago over a series of new windows that he...why go on? The windows are fine now, frames sealed with improved opening. The kitchen and bathroom are in almost full working order, as ditto bedrooms and sitting room.
Amy's second photo - Oscar curled by the wood stove at Rock Cottage

In the morning I inspected Craig's strimming, lopping and uprooting in the garden - clearing a jungle of weed shrubbery, brambles and saplings back to the older contours of three dry-stone walled terraces. We're getting back to the half acre allotment that surrounds us on the steep sides of Bell Hill. I'm bathing in unashamed nostalgia, hoping that we will make this our 'place' again. As enjoyed and loved as Handsworth and Ano Korakiana, by the whole family. So - yes - I was pleased when my son Richard, just back from Vietnam, phoned and asked for the keys so he could come down with E on the evening the rest of us returned to Birmingham.
The grand-children are a challenge. Playing, arguing, noise and mess-making with unabatable energy. On Sunday morning I set out to walk with Oliver - 'wear him out' I thought - up Bell Hill, the tree covered slope that ascends the west side of Lydbrook.
"First we get sticks. You can't go for a good walk without sticks"
I cut and tidied two - smaller for Ollie - from a hazel cluster by our path, as we set out up through the tall slender beech trees on the margins of the forest, the houses of the village receding below.
Oliver, 4 years old now, on Bell Hill


The steeper slope levelled off as we passed the old ruined house. Recalling past stories told me I told Oliver of an old lady used to live there.
"Every day she went to the bottom of the hill and came back with a pail of water. Old Mrs Cook"
He asked questions about her which I dodged and invented. Rather he ask questions than be uninterested in things I point out, or he notes, on our walks. I frame my answers, to keep our conversation going; Chinese whispers over time, amplifying, distorting and confusing, but conveying seeds of history, a scent of madeleines, 'the echo of great spaces traversed'.
Next time we make this walk I'll suggest to Oliver that Mr. Cook was a 'bodger'.
"You see these tall trees. Beech trees. See their leaves all around. See the little nuts, Beech mast. They used to cut these trees before they grew so big to make chairs - wheel-backs, Windsor carvers"
We came to a level stretch, narrow beside a wire fence, broken in places, with, on the other side, the remains of dry stone walls, then, almost hidden behind the remaining greenery of Autumn, the tiers wrecked cars that Nigel Aston has long stored up here, sinking mossy and rusting into the landscape. Then we're onto a lane high above the village with a few houses...
"It's called Uphill Road"
"Why?"
"I'm not answering that, Ollie!"
...before taking the narrow path that leads on up the rest of the hill. Here the trees become forestry spruce, occasional chestnuts, mixed with birch - their small brown-yellow leaves falling like snow when, for my pleasure and Oliver's, I tap the sapling trunks with my stick. Along the path are the prickly husks of fallen chestnuts, marked by the rooting of wild boar. The forest population of wild boar has increases vigorously since the haphazard introduction of about 40 farmed boar to the Forest in 2004.
Two people with dogs on leads walk towards us.
"Get Oscar and Cookie on their leads!"
They pass us with smiles.
"Nice morning."
"Yes it is"
"I'm earlier than I expected. Forgot the clocks went back this morning"
At last we're at the top of the hill, looking over fields, one with sheep; in the far distance horses grazing and a tractor pulling a plough on the slope below English Bicknor. I take my grandson through the rules - the gate rules, the sheep rules.
"A dog that worries sheep can be shot. Always watch out for sheep and other farm animals in the fields"
We see a herd of Welsh cattle - black bullock, or perhaps heifers, silhouetted in a field on our left as we start to walk downhill towards Eastbach.
"Come up! Come up!" I shout and they raise their heads and consider investigating us.
"Can you smell them?"  I can sense their rank from here on a small shifting breeze.





Oliver runs down the sloping road to Eastbach.
"Oi! Watch out for cars!" I shout.
He pauses, sensible. And indeed a few cars edge by us on the narrow road until we come to the old milestone that says, in carving. 'London 122 miles. Gloste'r 17'


We wwalk by Eastbach Court, a house of enviable elegant beauty, about which Lin says "When we win the lottery..." I lift Oliver up to see the manicured lawn, a bronze hind, and swings hung from a tall fir branch.


A public footpath beside the house's northern boundary turns off the road, curving back up to the top of Bell Hill.
"We've come about half way"
There's a small air strip with hangars on the hill top. We can see a wind sock stirring in the distance. At the gate the dogs go on their leads. I half hope Oliver will see a small plane come bouncing in at 40mph. They often fly on Sundays. As it is I let him peer through a tiny gap in a hangar door.
"I can see an aeroplane!"
Another stile brings us to the last meadow before getting back to the cottage. I lift the dogs over; let them free again. They listen to my voice and note my whistle, and seem utterly at home, getting soaked nosing in the tall grass. It's still a time of year for ticks, so remember to check when we get home...
 ...Oliver, fooling around, falls over and cries.
"Get up and stop that noise" I say, giving him a momentary hug. So we come to a steep part of our walk as the fields re-join the hanger woods. In my old age I have to take this part carefully less I fall arse over tip. My stick helps.
"When your mum was about 12 years old she persuaded me to walk home from Monmouth - ten miles away. When we got to this field the light had gone. I couldn't see a thing. She held my hand for a hundred yards."

Oliver and the dogs descend heedless to the lychgate that leads into the path that takes us, in a few yards, to Rock Cottage, where the dogs get a good towelling before drying themselves in front of the fire.
*** *** ***
Richard Pine's latest Irish Times article from Greece:
'....It’s actually surprising that life continues at all, since the heartbeat seems to have gone out of the country. But it is the resilience of the Greek spirit, and its resistance to external pressure, that keeps that heart ticking over, even imperceptibly.
One can only conclude that this is not a brave new world but a global pandemic of fear-driven entropy. To paraphrase Seán O’Casey, observers can confidently say: “The whole world’s in a terrible state of stasis.” To paraphrase Seamus Heaney, politicians can safely adopt the maxim: “Whatever you do, do nothing.” '

Friday, 28 October 2016

Departure - Arrival

Last Monday afternoon, a bright autumn day, Linda and I were among many - it seemed like the whole village - attending the funeral service for Andreas Metallinos, son of the laic sculptor Aristeidis Metallinos, at St Athanasius Church in Ano Korakiana, Corfu. Of course I took no photo but the church for Christmas carols gives an idea of the beauty of the setting...

The close family waited as we came out of the church, including, Anna - wife, Aristia, and Angeliki - daughters, Maria - sister to Andreas and her son Anastasios - nephew. Andreas was taken in burial procession to the church of Paraskevi accompanied by the solemn and beautiful music of the Spyros Samaras Philharmonic of Korakiana. He will lie by the graves of his father, Aristeidis, and mother, Angeliki.
** **
I half expected Stamati with his joinery on the Ano-Kato road to turn his nose up at so small an order. I cycled down from the village with the old window frame.
He looked at it. Understood without words what I wanted
“Come back tomorrow to collect”
Lin and I walked up the next day. There was our window amid other projects, new transoms cut; inserted as on the original. We were very pleased. Stamati rested the old frame on a bench, noting how an old scarf was warping the frame; an obstacle to glazing. In seconds he’d clamped it against a hardwood splint, brushing glue into the opened seam.
Stamati in his workshop below the village

“This window may be 200 years old. Bring the clamps back tomorrow”
We carried the window home.
Taking the clamped window home
Next morning I cycled with it to Pyrgi, where in no time a bus arrived and carried us with bike and frame to a glazier on the outskirts of town.
“You don’t want to try bringing it back on the bus” said Lin “On Friday when we have a car we’ll collect it on the way home”
I went home via Sokraki, over an hour on the Green Bus, shedding school children on the way up to Spartillas, in Sgourades and Zygos, where the bus misses building by centimetres. I treated myself to a garlicky dried sausage and a chunk of fresh bread on the journey. As he took my bike from the hold, the bus-driver scolded me for my crumbs on his floor. He swept them up with a brush and dustpan. Lesson. His bus. I think I might have done this inconsiderately before. Descending from Sokraki I got a puncture. I inserted another inner tube, checking the inside of the tyre for thorns or glass. It went flat again in hardly 50 metres. Knowing it was shot, I drifted the rest of the way on the flat and once home fitted a new tyre and tube.
So we have nearly finished the cupboard and shelves - our latest bricolage; from discarded wood to something useful again...
Recovered from beside wheelie bins

Cupboard, shelves, drawer on Lin's side of the bed
There's some fine tuning when we come back to Greece, hinges and other edges. Fillings and getting the drawer to go in and out smoothly.
*** *** ***
October morning '...to ease my regret' 

To ease my regret at returning to England soon I think of things I enjoy - treating myself to a pinch of lemon and red pepper with each of half a dozen oysters at Pearces...

...in the Bull Ring food market, tasting the fresh sea water first;

or...having a baked potato salted with lots of butter from the stall at the entrance to the Rag Market; cycling along the canal towpath in and out of town; being on our allotment next to Handsworth Park tended by Winnie, perhaps getting some honey from the bees this year; seeing the grandchildren; going to Rock Cottage where there’s a lot of wood to cut and split for the stoves and walking in the forest of Dean in autumn; a pint with Dave and Pete in the Old Joint Stock; ...
The Old Joint Stock

...to London by train and cycling there, to have supper with Ziggi and keep up with the digitisation and editing of my stepfather’s ‘Out of Town’ 16mm films and sound tapes; sleeping in our big Brittany bed with the softer mattress than ours here;

...having a flu jab at the GP’s; giving blood at the Donor Centre in New Street; taking part in the latest 1000 Elders study of protein intake - an influence on muscle mass and function, which lessen and weaken with age. Despite popular attention to ‘dieting’, science still knows relatively little about people’s protein intake. So mine – based on keeping a three day diary of what I eat - will be compared with that of younger groups. A second invite asks me to be the subject of a study into the effects of Nicotinamide Riboside, a vitamin supplement supposed to boost the mitochondrial functioning of old muscles - two tests over three weeks, with one using the vitamin and the other a placebo; double-blind where, until the testing is over, neither researcher nor subject knows whether a placebo or the NR is being used. As I age I’m supposed to become frailer, more susceptible to disease because the ‘power houses’ of my cells – mitochondria – that give energy to my body become weaker because molecule called Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide (NAD) drops with age. The hypothesis – but perhaps hype - is that taking the NR vitamin supplement makes up for this. I wonder.
“Hm! I’d like some of that” said Lin
“Yes but suppose it works on me and I go in for the Tour de France couldn’t I be in trouble like Bradley Wiggins?”
“No he was taking a TUE. A drug. This NR is a vitamin supplement”
“It gets a lot of publicity on the internet. It’s what I like about the 1000 Elders project. You get to see if things do or don’t work by going through procedures in controlled conditions. There are so many ways we fool ourselves without intention.”
We see others getting old and know that barring accident the running down to being bed-ridden may await us, worse - senility, dementia and decrepitude – the seventh age. I can either pretend to ignore my fate or have at least some understanding of the process.
A second invite comes from the 1000 Elders project; to keep a diary over three days to study my protein intake - its influence on muscle mass and function, which lessen and weaken as I get old. Despite popular attention to ‘dieting’, science appears to know relatively little about people’s actual protein intake. Mine will be compared with that of younger groups.
A third invite come via my blood donating where I’ve just completed the ‘Intervals Study’ testing – in a sample of 50,000 people - the safety of giving blood more frequently. Will I take part in the CARRIAGE study? This is run by researchers at Cambridge to investigate why some people carry the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) in their nose while other people never do. S. aureus is a common bacterium carried by one in three people, in their nose or elsewhere on the skin. For most people carrying S. aureus is harmless, but it causes life-threatening infections in hospitals in patients with serious underlying medical conditions and weakened immune systems. Understanding why some people are carriers while others are not will help design new treatments to prevent such infections. I’m asked to take three nasal swabs – a week apart - and complete a short online questionnaire at the start and end of the study. My pack of swabs, labels and envelopes arrived at home just now.
I have also been involved in the PROTECT study led by Kings College, London. This goes on for a decade, gathering data from 20,000 volunteers on the ageing brain and how and why some people get dementia. I will provide a DNA sample, and information about my habits – drinking for instance - also, my exercising and blood pressure (measured by my GP) as these could affect my risk of developing dementia. I also do online assessments to measure such abilities as memory and reasoning. These assessments are repeated annually so that the study can check how I change over 10 years. And I'm one of 500,000 people registered with the UK Biobank.
**** *** ****
 Amy, who’s looking after Oscar dog while we’re in Greece, says she thinks he’s getting senile – born 14th June 2002, he’s coming up over the average age for Jack Russells; spends time sitting in the middle of the room staring.
There’s the continuing campaigning in Sandwell to get housing back around Black Patch Park. Phil Crumpton’s been keeping me briefed, including his and Andrew Simon’s meeting with Cllr Steve Eling, Leader of the Council...a brief from Phil who I'll see next Friday...
PDF Friends of Black Patch Park meeting with Steve Eling and Richard Marshall on Tuesday October 4th. at Oldbury 
Andrew and I were delighted to be joined by ‘Matt,’ (surname not recalled as I type this/Borough Chief of Park maintenance and services - site manager). He was invited to take part as the support for making the hands-on case for the work being undertaken in Black Patch Park.
Our meeting with Steve was much longer than the one we had with Darren Cooper. In contrast to that starter meeting, in April, no-one was sitting in the take minutes. This was an enormous relief as it demonstrated that Steve wants it clear, he had got people submitting evidence and materials to help him carry on from where Darren started. It was the case that he had to acknowledge, too, he ‘..has been handed many tasks’. Another plus point. Richard did have many points to make about how he sees the current state of the park. Councillor Marshall (my councillor) wants it made clear to our group, how much he understands about the untness of the park - even though he confesses to not being a regular visitor. Give Richard the benet of our faith in him as he is clearly tired of seeing things just delegated and deferred over a number of years. We have made that case. We clearly have a coherent councillor, working in the interests of one of many, many Sandwell Parks and, in our case, a distinctive heritage site to boot. Richard also had a good grasp of one of the most inescapable circumstances that the ‘Patch’ still suffers from and as Steve mentioned on many, many occasions; “..Black Patch is isolated as a neighbourhood”. Few councillors have ever taken the time to put detail on this, in making the case for this inalienably-protected green space. All our work and lobbying since 2002 has seen to that remaining the same. But it was most interesting in how much SMBC’s policy message has moved on from the old, ‘institutionalised pre-2016 prognosis.’ Instead, now making the community of place ready for a Place of Community.
Matt made the effort to commit his SMBC department to pledge: ‘No More Disruption’ to the park’s badly needed upgrade to ‘Fit for Purpose’ status. Matt went on to state how this would be carried on, with the help of a break from so many illegal actions following on from the travellers’ regular abuses of the Park. He stressed how the newer obstacles to travellers - like the newer anti-lift or tamper-proof concrete bollards have made the difference to the opportunism that we have become so fed up with accommodating. Richard and Matt are to visit in the coming days to do a further check on the means by which they can demonstrate further action to check the cameras’ alignments plus inspect the old school gates site. This is because I showed them the photographic evidence of the newer fly-tipping hotspot, on the bend in Foundry Lane and where Richard is locating the heavy duty sunken bollards to block off the recess. Another outcome for the Friends’ campaigning..!
Councillor Eling did execute his right to say, on several occasions, “..Black Patch issues are not all about the Park”. He is right and I agree. He went on to use that word “isolated,” and he was still right; as much as the boundaries of three former counties met at the bridge over the brook(s); as much as the area has become a place where industrial expansion choked off access to the small residential area - it does not mean that it will stay that way. He did emphasise: “..we need to follow-up this meeting when we have your ‘Community Housing Project Proposal and Re-Zoning Plan’ as he is looking closer at the walkway along the brook-side - to the end of the allotment but he acknowledged the ‘whole allotment was as prime for redeveloping for housing as it is for closure’ ...! Another breakthrough..... See you all on November 1st. W
I must also draft the final report of Handsworth Helping Hands’ on our ‘Three Avenues Project’. Our next committee is at the start of November. We've more work yet with residents in Brackley, Putney and Crompton Avenues, focusing on their small green spaces and the continued challenge of services for ‘unadopted’ streets.
Then there’s Christmas in the city

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