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!

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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”.

#TheArchers: a bunting tragedy

It’s been a fascinating couple of days. The Archers, that national institution which is broadcast twice a day, six days a week on BBC Radio 4, celebrated its 60th anniversary on Sunday 2 January.

The double-length, much trailed episode, broadcast just after 7pm was a ‘bunting tragedy’ to quote Twitter’s @AmbridgeView. Well I guess she ought to know, since @AmbridgeView is scribed by Charlotte Martin who plays that doyenne of the community shop, Susan Carter, in the radio soap.

For weeks leading up to the anniversary regular listeners were aware that something ‘shocking’ was going to happen on 2 January 2011. The programme’s editor, Vanessa Whitburn, had forecast some time ago that events in the anniversary episode would ‘shock Ambridge to the core’. The Archers and Twitter are now inextricably linked, with genuine BBC tweets intermingling with totally fictitious (unauthorised) impersonations of characters in the programme. There is a Twitter ID for virtually every cast character, including @HenryArcher2011, just two days old at the time of writing!

Perhaps I should come clean here.  I tweet in the name of two well-loved characters (suffice to say I’m getting well acquainted with regional dialects), but unlike @AmbridgeView I very much regret to advise I have no official connection with The Archers!

As the big day approached the tweets became ever more speculative as regards what was going to shock Ambridge to the core, with the hashtag #sattc being usefully added so that avid fans could keep track of what the latest thinking was. And then the BBC itself, that august organisation we love and admire in equal part to often believing it is mammon, inflexible and unimaginative in large part, realised the power of Twitter as an excellent medium for channelling listeners’ interest in the anniversary events and plot.

The Archers 60th ‘tweetalong’

At the end of last week trailers started to be broadcast encouraging listeners to ‘join the conversation’ and to add the hashtag #thearchers to their tweets. They even told us that on 2 January there’d be a tweetalong to the broadcast of the landmark episode and an analysis conducted of the tweets made with that hashtag before, during and after the broadcast. Listeners were positively encouraged to listen to the broadcast AND tweet along or just follow the progress of the hashtag via the various search features in Twitter.

It was, indeed, absolutely riveting. Whether that’s from the perspective of the unfolding plot or simply the level of interest in the programme and its general storyline, or the sheer fascination of the speculation as to what would happen (or happen next). I listened to the radio programme and I tweeted along like so many others, but I was also wearing the hat of a digital communicator. Beyond the basic premise of an online conversation I was fascinated to see the way the conversation moved and the amount of traffic that was generated. It was, in short, a fascinating social media experiment run in real time.

The results are indeed fascinating to study, whether you have just a passing interest in what happened or something a little more specific in terms of social media development. The Archers‘ blog published a brilliant page yesterday which showed all the tweets from just before 7pm on Sunday until a little beyond the end of the broadcast. A ‘heartbeat monitor’ takes the pulse of the Twitter conversation throughout the playback, so that one can see the peaks and troughs. A tag cloud shows common words that people are tweeting, and mentions of characters’ names is shown in percentage terms in expanding/contracting bubbles.

If you’ve not already seen it, do take a look, (link opens in new window/tab), and be sure to run the tweets run through so that you can follow the conversation as the plot unfolded. To make that happen you need to click the solid right arrow (or ‘play’ button) at the top right corner of the page under the title (see image to right).

Other applications?

I believe there are lessons that can be learned here by all parties interested in the general development of social media and Twitter in particular. I applaud the BBC for embracing Twitter as a communications medium with a difference. As I see it they’ve harnessed the power of Twitter to directly involve their listeners with the unfolding storyline of the anniversary edition. Furthermore, by producing the post-broadcast timeline they have a wonderful source of material for seeing what the audience thought about the storyline, including countless totally wrong predictions of where the plot was leading. If the scriptwriters should be short of copy for future plotlines the listeners have given them a wealth of ideas to work on, and some strong signals about the affection or dislike of specific characters.

This excellent model could be used in a political context, either at local or national level.  I’ve not reached a firm conclusion as yet but whilst the subject’s still ‘of the moment’ I thought I’d put down some initial thoughts.

There might be a council debate taking place. The council could promote the televising or webcasting of the event and encourage local people to tweet along and share their thoughts. Obviously the topic of the debate would need to be sufficiently engaging (or perhaps contentious) in order to generate a broad range of listeners, but the subsequent analysis of that conversation would doubtless provide a good indication of the public mood or buy-in to both the subject under discussion and/or the democratic process generally. Maybe someone has already tried this, but if they have I’m not aware of it.  Oh, and yes, I’m the first to concede that a council debate is highly unlikely to have folk hooked quite as firmly as the BBC managed on Sunday evening, but hopefully you get my general drift.

So, there you have it, my thoughts on The Archers and Twitter. And now before I close, I’d like to share a selection of my favourite tweets from Sunday’s episode and its aftermath (still unfolding):

@potterwigham: Thanks Helen #thearchers for bring us back from our slough of despond by going on about expressing milk.

@jamspangle: At least hearing the news will mean Helen will talk about something other than babies for two minutes #thearchers

@Chainsaw_McGinn: If they’d only taken the time to write a good risk assessment and used correct ppe [personal protective equipment] #thearchers

@NickFitz: Nigel’s scream lasted about 3 seconds: given g=9.8m/s he fell c44m, or 144 feet. Buckingham Palace is 24m high. Big house 😉 #sattc

@jgmcintyre: #thearchers Advert for Thursday’s Borchester Echo: Vacancy for village idiot, Ambridge, following sudden change of circumnstance

@kmflett: Ambridge Socialist Update – questions about who will represent the Government at Nigel Pargetter’s funeral #sattc

@AmbridgeView: Who would have thought it? A bunting tragedy in #thearchers

@Stickings90: This was a dastardly plot by Queen of Capriciousness, Vanessa Whitburn, to instigate a 10yr family feud #sattc

@HistoryNeedsYou I think the banner was t ed with a spur lash. Nigel certainly landed with one … #thearchers

@Ecogray: “There was something of the Peter Pan in Nigel” http://bbc.in/edxl56. Shame it wasn’t the ability to fly. #thearchers

@PropertyJourn: So Nigel definitely dead. It seems to me, he lived his life like a banner in the wind. #sattc

@WorcsPaul: Health & Safety nannies visit Lower Loxley and insist “Beware falling Nigels” signs installed #sattc

@LyndaSnell: Nigel was the Peoples’ Dame

Please share your favourite #sattc tweets in comments in your feel so inclined. I hope you will!

2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

The average container ship can carry about 4,500 containers. This blog was viewed about 23,000 times in 2010. If each view were a shipping container, your blog would have filled about 5 fully loaded ships.

In 2010, there were 47 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 109 posts. There were 91 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 33mb. That’s about 2 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was December 5th with 272 views. The most popular post that day was 10 things you probably don’t know about Thomas the Tank Engine.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were twitter.com, search.bt.com, facebook.com, communities.idea.gov.uk, and search.aol.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for thomas the tank engine, painted lady butterfly, thomas the train, canapes, and st kilda.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

10 things you probably don’t know about Thomas the Tank Engine March 2010
9 comments

2

Butterflies: FAQ July 2009
3 comments and 1 Like on WordPress.com,

3

Latha Hiort (St Kilda Day), 29.08.09 August 2009
1 comment

4

Canapé binges: health warning August 2009
11 comments

5

Where to get your kit off this summer July 2009
11 comments

"The best road trip you've ever taken"

Oh that’s easy! It was in June 2009 and was a two-and-a-half week clockwise circuit of the far north of Scotland.

A road trip in Scotland is always a thoroughly enjoyable experience, though the presence of white camper vans and caravans on single track roads in the far north of the country can get a bit tedious after a while. But, hey, we’re all on holiday so let’s try and chill out!

We set off from Southampton, up the west side of England taking in Cumbria and the Scottish Borders, and then up the west coast via Glasgow, Fort William, Applecross, Ullapool, Lochinver and Kylesku all the way to the very top (Durness), then across to Thurso. A leap across the Pentland Firth to Orkney where we spent a thoroughly enjoyable day with the Stromness Dragon, and thence to Shetland, the land of the midnight sun.

A view of Muckle Flugga and its lighthouse (see picture), the most northerly island of the United Kingdom, was our turning point starting with the overnight ferry south from Lerwick to Aberdeen.

Muckle Flugga and its lighthouse

We then drove down the east coast of England from Northumberland through the Yorkshire Dales, Derbyshire (with a stop at Hardwick Hall) and Nottinghamshire to London, and finally home to Southampton.

You can read all about it at https://x333xxx.wordpress.com/2009/06/16/if-its-tuesday-it-must-be-thurso/

PS: I wanted to better it this year with a drive to Nordkapp up through Sweden to the far north of Norway. But that was vetoed by the management. I’ll be trying again next year ….

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A stupid question to ask

Land Rover Experience logoThis Sunday I’m going on an official ‘Land Rover Experience‘ adventure day in Devon – an off-road safari if you like. The joining instructions specifically ask that I check/confirm my insurance cover is valid.

Me to Land Rover Insurance: “Just a sanity check, please humour me! Am I covered for off road driving please?”

Land Rover Insurance telephone agent: “No it won’t be, but I can check what extra cover we can add on to the policy.”

Me: “Excuse me? Its a Land Rover. Its designed to ‘go beyond’! You are Land Rover Insurance. What do you mean “no it isn’t”? Why on earth are you insuring Land Rovers if you don’t cover them to go off road? Please confirm with a colleague that what you have told me is accurate.”

Returned phone call five minutes later …

Land Rover agent (same one): “The underwriters say that yes you are fully covered.”

Me: “Well given your initial doubt I’d like to receive a written confirmation to that effect please.”

Email received: “I am happy to confirm that you are indeed insured as standard on your policy for off-road use. I do apologise that I was unaware of this fact, and have taken your comments on board.”

Much relief, phew!