Monogramme your dibber

Hopefully if you went to the Chelsea Flower Show this week you made a point of visiting the Toff’s Garden that I had specially designed. It was inspired by the Labour campaign in the Oldham East by-election last January; I’m confident it provided lots of ideas for the keen amateur gardener.

As one passed through the entrance with the sign saying “Trespassers Will Be Horsewhipped”, elegantly inscribed in poker-work on the cross section of a sustainable tree trunk, you will have noticed the row of top hats I used as hanging baskets. I alternated grey and black toppers and I think they set off the blooms most effectively.

Riding boots also made amusing plant containers. Just drill a few holes in the sides for the plants to emerge. They were placed strategically round my garden. They are ideal for growing strawberries. In these times of austerity it’s a good idea to cultivate one’s own vegetables, so I included half a dozen very handsome Lobb boots in which I planted potatoes and tomatoes. These were at the far end of the garden, just beyond the rockery – which, incidentally, contained many chunks of stone that had been in my family for several generations.

All my bedding plants were privately educated. They were therefore much hardier, having been through a regime of daily cold baths and lots of Latin. I had the bright idea of planting my petunias in diagonal stripes of different colours to correspond to the ties of some of the smarter regiments. This is something anybody can do – provided you know your regimental ties – and it also works wonderfully well in a window box.

I was especially proud of the lawn in my Toff’s Garden. Hopefully you’ll have noticed the way I broke up the conventional rectangle shape by laying down Rolls-Royce tyre tracks across the far right-hand corner. It gave the impression of some careless toff guest having reversed his vehicle across the lawn at the end of a party for old school chums. Of course, you don’t have to own a Rolls-Royce to achieve this effect. Most decent garden centres now stock the Trakmasta, a neat device for printing the tyre tracks of your chosen car on any lawn. It costs £29.99, including VAT.

I also poshed up the garden shed by the simple means of digging a moat round it and adding a tradesmen’s entrance. Speaking of moats, I know we have all gone mad for water features these days, but why not try something a little more original? In a secluded area of my garden where people could go to stitch up deals with fellow members of the Establishment, fix a place at university for a son or daughter, or organise a peerage, I installed a Pimm’s feature, in which that delightful beverage trickled over cleverly arranged cubes of ice. It was nothing too ostentatious; just discreet, in keeping with the whole atmosphere of that spot.

It’s always a problem, with seedlings, to find a way of scaring off the birds and the lower orders. I find champagne corks are the answer. Ideally, you should pop them roughly every two minutes, but you can also just string half a dozen or so together and hang them over the plants so they swing in the breeze. I find Veuve Clicquot corks best for intimidating most types of garden bird.

The only way of dealing with slugs is to make them socially ill at ease. Just stick two or three copies of Tatler in the soil near your most delicate young plants and most slugs will just want to slink away and the rest will shrivel up with a sense of inferiority. On the other hand, it is time to accept that there is nothing you can do about greenfly. The only thing you can do is ensure that the greenfly on your roses are upper class. Breeders can now supply batches of greenfly from privileged backgrounds which you can place on your roses to drive out the more common aphids. This is the natural, class-war solution to the greenfly problem.

I am convinced that the Toff’s Garden is the future, so don’t delay a moment longer. Sprinkle cigar ash on your compost and get your dibber monogrammed.

By the way, I turned down a Gold Medal for my garden as I feel they are dished out to any old Tom, Dick or Harry entrant these days. There’s a certain cachet in NOT having one on display.  Thus I was delighted to learn that it was subsequently bestowed upon my old favourite, Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants, instead. I knew Rosy and Rob when they first started their business in the old walled garden at Laverstoke Park, Whitchurch, about 20 years ago. Lovely people, fabulous plants!

Nature’s timetable

I’ve been up to London on the train several times this week; well, someone’s got to keep South West Trains in business haven’t they?

Yesterday’s trip was enlivened with an unscheduled stop at Micheldever, next to the oil terminal siding. That, and the sight of a pheasant poking around the track edge, brought back memories by association of that great but sadly neglected naturalist Jim Sidings. Jim worked for South West Trains.

It was Sidings who discovered a new species of egret which was the result of interbreeding with the redshank. To his great pride, these hitherto unknown birds became officially recognised by ornithologists as South West regrets.

“One of my favourite creatures,” he once wrote, “is the dung beetle. The attractive thing about this little chap is that he keeps his personal belongings with him at all times. Then there is the sleeper beetle, so-called because it makes its home next to the sleepers on railway lines. The sleeper beetle has an amazing ability to disguise itself as a crushed Irn Bru can and thus deter predators.”

Sidings wrote a whole book about snails. “I don’t know why, but I’ve always been attracted by their slowness,” he once told me. “You feel pretty sure that they will get where they are going, but you couldn’t say when.”

The most remarkable native gastropod must be the giant wozere snail. It is often to be found near railway lines where its dark, slimy trail leaves most extraordinary elaborate swirling patterns on walls, sometimes almost resembling words. Some naturalists believe they can make out actual groups of letters saying “woz ere,” and this is how the snail got its name.

Grateley station

I remember the time many moons ago when Jim Sidings kindly took me on one of his quiet zone nature rambles. It was very early on a cold, drizzly day when we crouched with our binoculars under a dripping bush adjacent to Grateley station. Unfortunately, a selection of snacks and hot and cold beverages was not available, Jim whispered, due to staff shortages.

He then briefed me on what glories of nature we could expect to see. “The elaborate courtship ritual of the pied wagtail has been cancelled,” he said. “This is due to an earlier plumage failure. I regret any inconvenience this may have caused. You are advised to remain under this bush and await further announcements.”

After half an hour he said: “Due to essential engineering works in its sett, there will be no badger today. Customers wishing to see a badger should take the buzzard replacement service.”

I don’t know why the buzzard never showed up, but after another 40 minutes Jim said he had a “special” announcement which was obviously something exciting. It seemed that the sight of fox cubs playing, timed for 7.17 that morning, had been delayed and would now be combined with the 7.23 viewing of stoats mating to form the 10.48 glimpse of a rather tired off-peak rabbit.

“It’s a pity there is not a river near here or we might have been able to see some deer coming to the bank at dawn for a cold beverage,” Jim whispered knowledgeably. “Or perhaps a kingfisher rushing past without stopping.”

As we waited under the dripping bush Jim regaled me with his fund of stories about wildlife ways. He let me into the secret of the extraordinary mating habits of the corn bunting. In spring the male corn bunting starts to sing his special “mating announcement”. This is a confused and garbled song which bewilders the female corn bunting. Gradually, she edges closer to the source of the announcement, hoping to make sense of it. The song becomes more garbled and she moves even closer. And this is how the male corn bunting attracts his mate. A good place to hear this ritual unfold is at Waterloo.

He told me about the migratory birds that in winter take advantage of special offers on eight-month saver returns to warmer countries and how rabbits have white patches on their tails which they can use as a warning in case of emergency. Obviously, improper use of the tail is regarded as a serious offence.

It was a truly fascinating day out under that bush. I got home later than intended, but this was because of something really dramatic, an example of the cruel side of nature. Unfortunately I’ve no idea what it was, save for a typically vague announcement that “British Transport Police were in attendance at Andover”.

It’s great to get home!

Many people tell me that the most difficult part of returning from holiday is actually stepping through the front door. What should you do first?

Do you trample or slither over the post on the doormat as you rush to empty the suitcases into the washing machine? Or do you tuck the post under your chin as you carry the suitcases to the bedroom? Do you unpack immediately – or gradually over 12 weeks?

Some people sit on their suitcases in the hall and read the post before doing anything else – even before they have closed the front door behind them. This is when the cat (which neighbours have been coming in to feed) arrives home.

So, do you now stop sorting the post into piles of junk, interesting-looking letters and bills and concentrate on begging the cat’s forgiveness? Or do you go out to flaunt your suntan at the neighbours?

Wait a minute. Has anybody checked the telephone answering machine? And the e-mails? Before that, it is essential to see if any of the houseplants can be saved from death and to go to say hello to the lawn. Make a proper cup of coffee. Go to the loo. Go all round the house and check on the burglar situation.

There is a card from the postman saying he failed to deliver a pkg. There is a message on the answering machine, from someone I have never heard of, asking us to ring him urgently. The cat refuses to be mollified. How long has this ham been in the fridge?

I am going to have to face up to it and check if the odd-shaped bottle of fierce damson liqueur, with the gnarled twig in it, has leaked in the zip bag and made everything sticky. It was supposed to be a present for the neighbours who were looking after the cat. Better check the television news and see what has been happening. The television isn’t working and the cat is scowling.

OK, the television is all right now. I unplugged it before I went so that a surge of lightning wouldn’t make it blow up in the cat’s face. What is the crisis in Estonia? Have I said hello to the lawn yet? Right, so chuck all the post in the washing machine, go flaunt your suntan to the lawn and beg forgiveness of the postman.

It says there is also a crisis in Guatemala, but the situation in Chad has eased. There is just a chance that one of the houseplants can be saved. Someone ought to go to the neighbours and flaunt the cat and put the zip bag in the washing machine. I don’t think I should trust the ham.

Why would the burglar steal a duvet? If he had the run of the whole house – and even the television set had been unplugged for him – why would he take only the duvet? And move the table lamp three inches to the right? There is also a situation in Inverness, according to the BBC News, but Lymington is now under control. The cat has gone to say hello to the lawn.

Why would the burglar take the duvet to the cleaners and then leave the ticket on the table, held down by the lamp? Did he think there was nothing worth stealing?

Maybe I should flaunt the post, give the dry cleaners’ ticket to the neighbours and ask the postman about the situation in Chad. For goodness’ sake, don’t put the cat in the washing machine; it has still not forgiven me for going away. I have a funny feeling that when that mystery man left the message on the answering machine he may have mentioned that he was in Lymington.

There is no milk for the proper cup of coffee. Go and see the neighbours. Don’t ask for milk straight away. Inquire about the Chad situation. See what the situation was in Lymington before it was under control. Ask tactfully about cat. Has it been behaving oddly? Could it have been traumatised by the sight of the burglar leaving the house with the duvet? Then raise the subject of milk. Maybe this is not the time to flaunt the suntan.

Isn’t it wonderful to come home refreshed?

A children's book every child (and maybe adult) should read

Have you tried using Plinky? Its great for inspiring the written word. Visit to find out more.

The trials and tribulations of a community of rabbits living in the Hampshire countryside. The book explores the themes of exile, survival, heroism, political responsibility, and the “making of a hero and a community”.

What many who read Watership Down do not realise is that it is a real place and well worth visiting once you’ve read the book.

Watership Down is a hill, or down, at Ecchinswell in the civil parish of Ecchinswell, Sydmonton and Bishops Green in the English county of Hampshire. It rises fairly steeply on its northern flank (the scarp side), but to the south the slope is much gentler (the dip side). Ordnance Survey grid reference SU497570.

The area is popular with cyclists, walkers and rabbits. A bridleway runs along the ridge of the Down which lies at the south-eastern edge of the North Wessex Downs Area of Natural Beauty. Other nearby features include ancient tumuli and earthworks, including Beacon Hill.

Watership Down is accessible via the village of Kingsclere. There are no signposts nor guide boards on the Down itself, and there is no official guide or visitor information. This is partly because much of the area is privately owned (by Lord Andrew Lloyd-Webber).

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Blood will out

bloodI have to have my blood tested regularly, so I consider myself a bit of an expert. I wear that strip of Micropore plaster on the inside of my elbow like a campaign medal.

You could say, when it comes to the needle, my arm is an old hand, if not a pin cushion. They do a very good blood test at the Royal South Hants Hospital in Southampton; indeed it’s so good that the queues start forming half an hour before the department opens. I swaggered in at 2.15pm this afternoon and I was 33rd in line.

They have numbered tickets, like the delicatessen in a supermarket. We sit, arms folded in the waiting area, watchful, in case anyone sabotages the system, and give withering looks if anyone’s mobile rings.

The jabber on duty is usually quick and efficient and the whole thing runs very smoothly. Well done, NHS. When the blood is being taken, I affect nonchalance while I stare out of the window at the trees.

Occasionally, however I run into a few problems and my arm is jabbed several times without success. Rather like getting blood out of a stone; my veins seem to disappear (according to the jabber on duty).

Today was one such exception. “It’s not you, it’s me,” I said to the operative. “I’m being stingy with my blood today.”

I made a few other expert observations, explaining that my blood was like double cream, not like the easy-pouring stuff. She could squeeze out only a droplet, which wouldn’t satisfy the needs of the people in the lab.

All the same, I thought, looking at that meagre amount in the phial, it would be ample for a television crime scene. “Get this around to the lab for DNA testing, Golding,” the detective would say.

“And put out an all-ports alert for a shifty individual with Elastoplast on his arm.”

Oh happy day!

I can’t remember the last time I saw my cousin Stephen and his wife Sara. They live in New York but came over to England a few weeks ago for the birth of their eldest daughter Claire’s second child.

They made a special trip down from London to the New Forest today to visit me and Marion. We met them at Brockenhurst railway station and after a circuitous drive through the forest we arrived back home and enjoyed a lovely, impromptu, picnic in the garden conjoured up by Marion seemingly from nowhere.

Afternoon tea followed, served on a tablecloth and with Marion’s grandmother’s 1928 Royal Winton ‘Marguerite’ china tea service which was brought out in their, and Teacosy’s, honour.

And a good time was, I think, had by all concerned. Until, that is, the weather broke and raindrops started to fall.

For myself I overdid it a bit today and have paid the price in discomfort terms this evening. I was unable to join Marion on the run back to Brockenhurst station when Stephen & Sara departed back to London. Which was disappointing.

It was so good to have them visit, the first members of my family I’ve seen since Christmas.

Breakfast with The Queen

FX helping TC take a picture of TSM taking a picture of them!

FX helping TC take a picture of TSM taking a picture of them!

After the Travelling Teacosy’s return last night from a weekend in sunny Dorset, it was allowed a jolly good rest overnight, and then awoken from its slumbers at the ungodly hour of 5am and drive two miles down the road to Calshot Spit.

Whereupon, right on cue at 6am, came Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 – home again from New York after a six day trans-Atlantic crossing.

I arranged the general ‘arrival’ shots, plus pictures of Chorlkie taking pictures of our valued guest meeting The Queen, so do pop over to Chorlkie’s blog to find see the close-up pictures of their historic encounter!

Just click each image to see a larger version.

And then it was back home at 6.15 for our own breakfast and a jolly good rest after our early morning exertions.

This afternoon I’ve two American cousins visiting us for the day, so we’ll take the opportunity to show them around the New Forest, and Teacosy will be coming along for the ride.

We hope they’ll enter into the spirit of the occasion and partake in the general silliness (but who knows)!