Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Cycling the Avon & Kennet Canal

As mentioned in my last post, I'm keeping to my promise and telling you about Kevin's and my cycle trip along the Kennet & Avon canal in Wiltshire. Be warned, it's a tale of woe...

The idea of the trip was to be a gentle cycle ride in the early spring sun over a couple of days. We were to do the trip in two stages: Hungerford to Devizes, then Devizes to Bath. It didn't quite work out that way. It helps to know that Kevin, my dearest love, is a keen and regular cyclist. He cycles 23 miles daily to/from work, and thinks nothing of a 90 mile day trip. His idea of fun is cycling from Oxford to Edinburgh, via Wales (he did this in 2005 for the Make Poverty History cycle ride). I, on the other hand, pootle about in Oxford on my lovely lecky bike (electric bicycle), if I'm lucky doing 23 miles in two weeks. Therefore, the suggested route, about 35 miles per day, seemed quite reasonable to Kevin. I was concerned whether I could really do it and suggested we stick to about 20 miles per day. But Kevin had no doubts. Bless.

What we got was almost constant rain from Hungerford to Devizes, getting heavier as the day went on. Ok, it wasn't all bad. Here I am on my smart lecky bike, cycling alongside the canal at Little Bedwyn in a moment when the rain held it's breath for a few seconds.

Ok, more than a few seconds. Here is a lovely picture of Little Bedwyn 5 minutes later (below).

What I like about this picture, is that it has the medieval church, the late 18th century canal, and the 19th century train line, within its borders. Clearly the cycling about wasn't all bad. However, the rain got heavier, I got tireder, and then bugger and blast, 3 miles outside Devizes my battery died. ugh. I wasn't a happy bunny. I was having an Anne of Green Gable's depths of despair moment. After much grumbling and the using up of the last remnants of my pitiful strength (woe!), we got to our B&B, Rockley House and was welcomed by the friendly owners, who didn't bat an eye at us coming inside soaked and dripping. Amazing how getting dry and a warm cuppa makes things seem so much better.

That night I got little sleep. My legs were killing me. Woe was me. 35 miles?! Kevin was starting to feel a little concerned that maybe 35 miles was a bit much for me. 35 MILES! Ok, now Kevin realised 35 miles in one day, in the rain, was definitely too much for me. Thank you dear.

On Saturday we wandered around Devizes dodging bursts of rain. I'd really wanted to go to Devizes to visit one of the key strongholds of Queen Matilda. Matilda should have been queen of England after Henry I died in 1135, but that evil Stephen nicked her crown. Bloody men. She had an amazing life, including an incredible escape from Oxford Castle whilst surrounded by Stephen and his army in 1142, in the middle of winter, and walking straight through his army and on to safety in Wallingford to fight again. I think she is pretty damn wonderful. So I was chuffed to be in Devizes, walking Matilda's steps, even if I couldn't visit the castle as it is now a private residence (when the revolution comes it will be returned to the people and then I'll be able to visit), and the fact my legs were achingly painful, AND the rain just wouldn't bloody stop. If all else fails and I'm not in a garden, nothing like English history to keep my spirits (woe) up.

There is a positive turn to this pathetic tale of woe. Sunday we woke to blue skies! Wow, blue skies, remember those?! Ok, my legs were still aching, but my lecky bike battery was charged up and I was ready to cycle Devizes to Bath. Well, that was the idea.

Just outside of Devizes is the Caen Hill Locks, 16 canal locks in a row going down, or up, a steep-ish hill. Apparently it can take a canal boat between 3 to 5 hours to get through all 16 locks. You would have to have patience and lots of spare time. My picture doesn't really do them justice. Not just because they are working on them at the moment, but also coz, well, I couldn't really do them justice and you cannot see the full effect. Suffice to say we were impressed, and of course it was down hill all the way. Wheeeeeeeeeeeeee. See how happy I am in this pic. Blue sky, going down hill, let's pretend the legs are not aching...

Kevin had fun playing with the locks. As a canal boat was going through one, he just had to have a go at opening and closing the lock gate. The boat owner was rather pleased and Kevin got his moment of canal glory.

cycling by the 'Barge Inn', near Trowbridge

But it wasn't all blue skies and fun. By the time we got to Bradford-on-Avon, I realised that me cycling from Devizes to Bath by the canal was a cycle-dream. For another day. So we changed our plans and decided to lunch in Bradford, wander around, then catch a leisurely train on to Bath, and from there, home.

Bradford-on-Avon is a lovely town and has some good history that kept my mind occupied. For example, the lovely Saxon church that the town managed to 'lose' for several centuries. As you do. And the enormous 14th century Tithe Barn. To get an idea of scale, on the right is a little Kevin in the middle of the big barn.

We made it to Bath and then home. Our fluff-ball (Merlyn) welcomed us. Well, I suppose he was wanting dinner, but we decided he must have missed us. The time of woe was over. And Kevin agreed that cycling 20 miles a day in future would be quite enough for this Gwenfar.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Jobs and courses

I realise that I've been rather silent the last couple of weeks. That's because I've gone from being an unemployed bum 2 weeks ago, to be a full-time worker with 2 part-time jobs, and a new course starting, in the the same few days...! Hence, that's why you haven't heard from me for a little while.

Firstly, and rather excitedly, I have got a freelance job working for a local community garden, Barracks Lane Community Garden. It is 60 hrs per month (for 3 years) between March and November, then 20 hours per month between December and February, when the season is quieter and the garden not open that much. My role is a mix of admin, coordination and organising events - all around gardening and local food. The garden is located just over behind Cowley Road, near the Oxford Community School (if you know the area). Local residents turned a space full of concrete and burnt out garages, used by drug users (and even one death), into a beautiful community space used by all, from local children's groups, to Asian women's groups and the local permaculture group. It's brilliant - someone is paying me to organise gardening and local food related events etc - FAB!

So that takes up about 2 days a week. My other role is 3 days a week as Faculty Administrative Officer at the University's History Faculty. This is a maternity cover job, so will be between 6-12 months. I started last Thursday with an induction with Louise who is going on maternity leave, downloading as much info as I could in her last couple of days. So very busy but engaging, and the staff all seem very friendly. One of the first historian's I met was Felicity Heal, who I referenced/footnoted when I was studying history (early modern England) at University. So in a funny way, my two favourite things, gardening and history, have come together. This is basically senior admin management role, managing a couple of staff and many processes involved in the History Faculty's undergraduate programme. The job is job-share, hence me working 3 days. It complements my freelance hours well, and gives me really good experience working at a senior admin level in the University, using all my project management and organisation skills until the cows come home.

And finally, I started the Permaculture Design Course on the weekend. The first day was great, lots of interesting and engaging people and fascinating ideas to put into practice. However, I was so exhausted by the end of Saturday that I couldn't attend the course on Sunday, and instead slept the day away. I could barely stay awake at all - I guess my body was telling me something. Rather annoying, as I wanted to be there, but I think the starting of two jobs and trying to do a course all in the space of less than two weeks, caught up with me. So I'll need to catch up on what I missed on Sunday. The course is over 7 weekends throughout the year, so I've only missed a tiny bit of it (I hope!).

So that's why I've been absent from my blog for a couple of weeks. I've got to write up a recent long-weekend trip cycling the Avon & Kennet canal in Wiltshire, which I plan to do soon, along with pictures. And need to get back to the lottie. The poor negelected lottie rather ended up low down the 'things to do' list in the last few weeks. I guess for good a reason, but really, I need to get back to it - those potatoes need planting!

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

My front garden: the new design begins

Now that I've pretty much finished up tidying up the back garden, I'm finally working on a major redsign of the front garden. This is how it looked about this time last year, not long after we moved in.
Apart from the planters, which I brought from our previous resident, everything is as we found it. It has some lovely bulbs and good sized rosemary and purple sage bushes, but otherwise was just a piece of soil with some plants dumped in it. The tree to the left is a very large Prunus (flowering cherry). In fact, rather too large and not been pruned in a long time.

The Prunus actually figured in to how I could redesign the front garden. My original plan was to remove everything, including the tree, so I could make it a vegetable garden with some perennials, as it is south facing and gets very warm. However, to remove the tree would be a major undertaking in practical terms, and perhaps a shame given how beautiful it is, as per this picture from April 2009. So I wasn't sure what to do.

Speaking to a local gardener, Susan Heeks, who lives up the road from me, she made me realise that my first design (A - not to scale. I cannot do scale!) was way too complicated with too many raised beds, which meant lots of paths and not much space for planting. I was also trying to fit in too many fruit trees. On top of that, with the Prunus so large, its roots would reach quite far and make it difficult for growing veggies particularly as they needed lots of nutrition which the tree would be using up.

So I had a rethink and came up with design B. In this design, I've decided to not make this a veggie garden, as something I realised was that there are many many plants I love (grasses, salvias, heleniums to name a few) and would like to grow and that this would be a perfect space to put them. As they will be mainly perennials and not particularly deep rooted, the raised beds with addition soil should give them enough 'breathing space'. Also, I've made the plan much simpler, with one central large bed, where I'll put my beautiful obelisk, which if you click on the link, you will see is also a sculptural piece of art in its own right. I saw this at Chelsea Flower Show several years ago and was excessively enamoured, to the point that I kept talking about it and Kevin got the hint and brought it for my, I think 39th, birthday. I emailed him the web link to be helpful...

I will still grow some veggies and salads in the front, but mainly shallow rooted ones, like lettuce, kale, chard and French beans. I've just bought Alys Fowler's new book The Edible Garden, which encourages you to grow veg and salads with your flowers. I haven't got far into the book yet, so will have to report on it later. Suffice to say, lots of inspiring pictures.

The damson tree has been moved to the back garden, and I'll move one of the pear trees up so they both have more room. I'm keeping one of the rosemary bushes (the other I'm giving to my neighbour, Frances) and the sage. Everything else is going, apart from the prunus.

So, here is where the garden is at...

Thanks to Susan Heeks for digging out most of the plants*, and of course my Kevin for then digging the paths and beds that you see above. I'm now in the process of ordering some old scaffold boards from Oxford Wood Recycling so we can build the beds. Then I can get onto the best bit, the planting!

*when it comes to serious digging, I try and get help and thereby make my visits to the chiropractor less frequent.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

What's a lemony?

It was all cold and wet for a week or so after my last blog post, but now the sun has come out again and being a 'balmy' 6 degrees, just right for getting outside again. In the last two days I've been focusing on tidying up the paving area next to the house, in the back garden. Here it is all tidied up.

I cannot claim credit for the layout and paving, this was done by the previous owners of the house. Kevin and I rather like it, though there are some things that need amending. Unfortunately the previous owners put the brick paving straight down on dirt, and being north facing, it means that it stays damp in winter, the soil comes up through the cracks and weeds and moss grows all over. It was looking rather bedraggled. The long-term plan will be to raise up all the bricks and put down a permeable membrane and sand, then reapply the bricks in the same pattern. It isn't a top priority, getting veggies growing at home and the lottie is the top priority, so this will be in a couple of years time.

The picture above is how it looks after I had cleaned it all up. I forgot to take a 'before' piccy, but trust me, this is a massive improvement. The other work I did was pruning the fig tree and rose bush, tie up the honeysuckle and plant some Digitalis 'Pam's Choice' to grow up the lemony wall. I still need to move the left over greenhouse parts that you can see behind the chair. They will be going down to the lottie when it's cleared and will be used as cloches etc.

Given the garden is north facing, making the paving area next to the house the coolest and least likely to get sun, it may seem surprising that we have a fig tree growing up the lemony wall. Does it fruit? Well, yes, in fact it does. It surprised us too when we moved in, but by mid-March through until mid-October the fig gets direct sun, and the lemony, having a perspex roof and thick brick walls, really retains the heat and it makes the wall very warm. Last year we had quite a bit of fruit. Although need to learn about the optimum time to pick them, figs seem to have only a 2-day grace period of when they can be picked before they go over.
Looking back towards the kitchen, with the fruitful fig
growing up the lemony wall on the left.

So the lemony, what is it? When we moved in, this was a garage. A large garage, but one that was falling apart, AND had an asbestos roof. eeek! Kevin and I wanted to make it a proper storage space for our bicycles, a bit of a work shed for Kevin, and a potting shed for me. After getting the asbestos roof removed professionally (believe me, you wouldn't want to do it yourself), and the dangerously unstable garage door removed, our clever labourer Nick suggested, why don't you put on a perspex roof. It's tough, and will give you lots of light. Yes! Bloody brilliant idea. So the garage door end was bricked up with a door put in, so easy to get our bikes in and out, and the roof turned the garage into a Lemony. Lemony? Well, it wasn't a garage anymore. But it wasn't a shed exactly either. I had a small lemon tree which was now happyily growing in the new space and it hit us. Other people have orangeries, we have a lemony. Part potting shed and greenhouse, part work shed, part bicycle store, occasionally wood store (for wood fire), but always with lots of light. A lemony.

The following photo is a picture from the kitchen wall looking down the full-length of the garden. The paving area being the darker part of the garden, particularly between November and February, has plants like hellebores, including a Harvington double red which I transplanted from our previous residence. I have also planted some more unusual types of bergenia which I picked up when I visited Beth Chatto's garden with Audrey (Kevin's Ma) a few years ago. I have Admiral and Wintermarchen, which have delightful purple-red leaves. I'm rather fond of plants in the purple-red range.

In fact one of the delights of taking over this garden from the previous owners is that they also liked purple plants, so I've inherited a few lovely plants including the beautiful Cerci Canadensis 'forest pansy', a medium-sized tree, stunning in autumn, and a favouite grass of my own, Sanguisorba minor (salad burnet). These are in the circular 'sunken area', beyond the paving. I need to do quite a bit of work on this area, not the least being Kevin's help with fixing some of the surrounding circular stone wall, which is falling down now rather regularly. This area predominantly  has purple and white plants. I want to add in some reds, blues and strong pinks, along with some grasses to help give it structure in winter.

The very back end of the garden, which you cannot really see from this picture, is what will become my kitchen garden. It is where the raspberry canes I mentioned in my last post were, as well as a massive strawberry patch. This end gets sun all year around, so my plan is to redesign it, creating a group of raised beds that will contain salads and other summer veg. The ultimate idea is to put up a pergola along the back wall and grow grape vines up them, with a seat underneath, making it functional and a place of rest.

It's been a lovely couple of days fixing up the paving area. Listening and singing along to Crowded House and Bic Runga whilst pruning and tidying. Being visited by my friendly robin who always turns up when I'm in the garden. Waiting around to see if I dig up any worms for it to quickly snatch. Tomorrow looks like sun again. I think I'll head down the bottom end of the garden and get back to digging out more brambles. ouch!