Saturday, October 21, 2023

Mr Richardson

Mr. Richardson was our part-time gardener when we lived at the Green Walk in Chingford, north London in the 1940s.  He used to come round a couple of times a week for an afternoon’s jobbing work.  As a small boy I would often ‘help’ him with his rather set routine.  He would cut the large back lawn with a huge push mower that purred over the grass leaving it beautifully striped with silvery and darker green.  He would weed the herbaceous borders with their helianthemums and Michaelmas daisies and the vegetable patch towards the end of the garden.  He had a compost heap and a shed down there too, the latter filled with all sorts of intriguing objects like trowels, trugs, spades, sieves, forks, rakes, hoes and long, buff horsetails of bast.  This was raffia bast, used for tying plants and binding taller stems.  There were also boxes and drawers of assorted nails and screws and a strong smell of creosote used for painting the close boarded fences around the garden.

The compost heap was enclosed by large broken lumps of concrete.  These must, I think, have come from a demolished World War II air raid shelter.  Behind it, the remotest feature of the garden, was a mature laburnum tree which I regularly used to climb so that I could survey the back gardens of the houses in Mount View Road.  I remembered these from when a V2 bomb landed nearby in about 1944 and blew the backs of several of the Mount View properties, leaving them like dolls houses with one side removed. I  fell out of the laburnum once when a dead branch broke, but made a soft landing on the compost heap though I grazed my head slightly on one of the sharp edges of a concrete boulder.

One of the finest features of the garden was four or five pear trees on the fences to the east and west of the large lawn.  These had been trained as espaliers, with lateral branches reaching out horizontally, herring bone style against the fence.  In winter the year’s growth would be carefully pruned back to retain the shape of the trees and generate fruiting spurs for the summer’s pears.

This reminds me now of the well-known passage from Czech writer  Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

One night, for example, the tanks of a huge neighbouring country came and occupied their country [a reference to the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia]. The shock was so great, so terrible, that for a long time no one could think about anything else. It was August, and the pears in their garden were nearly ripe. The week before, Mother had invited the local pharmacist to come and pick them. He never came, never even apologized. The fact that Mother refused to forgive him drove Karel and Marketa crazy. Everybody's thinking about tanks, and all you can think about is pears, they yelled. And when shortly afterwards they moved away, they took the memory of her pettiness with them.

But are tanks really more important than pears? As time passed, Karel realized that the answer was not so obvious as he had once thought, and he began sympathizing secretly with Mother's perspective--a big pear in the foreground and somewhere off in the distance a tank, tiny as a ladybug, ready at any moment to take wing and disappear from sight. So Mother was right after all: tanks are mortal, pears eternal.

Halfway through his afternoon stints, Mr Richardson would come indoors for a cup of tea and one of my grandmother’s rock cakes.  He usually wore a waistcoat over a striped shirt and would take his flat cap off.  He sat on a heavy slat-backed carver chair at the end of the wooden kitchen table and I was always intrigued by the fact that he had lost a finger on one hand so that he held cup and cake in an unusual way.  The chair followed us for many years, but gradually fell to pieces and finally expired on a bonfire, the kind of  bonfire Mr Richardson would have approved of, in about 2010.

Mr. Richardson, a kindly straightforward man who left a strong impression on me, lived  with his wife  (I remember no children) in Willow Street, Chingford, a small suburban road with terraced houses on either side built after the railway reached Chingford.  It was about quarter of a mile from our house. 

Friday, October 13, 2023

A trip to Glen More, 1954


My first trip to Scotland was when I was sixteen.  At the end of the summer term I was asked not to return to Lancing College, my boarding school, as I was deemed ineducable.  My parents didn’t really know what to do with me but, somehow, my mother learnt of adventure training courses run by the Scottish Council of Physical Education (now Sportscotland) at Glenmore Lodge a Highland centre near Aviemore. The Glenmore Lodge I stayed in lies some seven miles east of Aviemore, and was formerly a Victorian hunting lodge.  It became a hostel when the Central Council for Physical Education acquired it in 1947. It later became the Loch Morlich Youth Hostel, and then the Cairngorm Lodge Youth Hostel (which is its name today) after a newly built  National Outdoor Training Centre was opened nearby in 1996 and was named Glenmore.

I set off by myself from home in Robertsbridge, East Sussex with rucksack and walking boots on the 600 mile train journey, mostly through the night and was met by coach with others in that fortnight’s mixed group of students.  These fellow travellers mostly came from Scotland or the north of England but, being fresh out of boarding school, I settled in straight away.

From Aviemore station we drove through Inverdruie and Coylumbridge then followed the valleys of the rivers Druie and Luineag to Loch Morlich on the 7 mile journey to the Lodge itself in Glen More.  The road ran through pine forests both natural and planted with areas of rough brown grass, moss, bilberry and heather.  Some of the drier parts were close planted with conifers of even age giving an almost scandinoir film dimension and there were scattered boggy areas of pale green and fawn. The occasional patches of the old Caledonian Forest were characterised by the open branched Scots pines quite different in shape from Scots pines elsewhere in Britain and sometimes distinguished as Pinus sylvestris subspecies scotia.

Coylumbridge is often said to be a newly built hamlet but it features on many maps of over a century old.  Today there is a four star, modern hotel there opened in 1965 on land granted by the Rothiemurchus Estate and many new buildings housing various sports and holiday activities.

On past the grey stone of the Aultnancaber hunting lodge, now a clay pigeon shooting centre, past the layby at the start of the track to what was the Cairngorm  Sled-dog Centre opened around 2001 at Moormore.  Among the conventional sled dog options, floodlit sledging was available.  The centre closed in 2020 due, according to the owners, to global warming though they claimed that snow was not essential for sled dog action.  This heavily forested area with its rows of evenly aged Scots pines is shown on the map both as the Queen’s Forest and Glen More Forest but there are often many layers of naming in the Aviemore area.  In one of the more open areas to the south of the road there is the placename Rinraoich over open, boggy ground with a small 1,000 foot summit nearby.  Rinraoich is thought to have been the location of a heather shieling, once an area of heathy pasture.

Where the road turns south towards Loch Morlich, there is the start of track on the northern side that leads to the Badaguish Centre established by The Speyside Trust in 2006 and catering for people with disabilities. This is essentially cabin style holiday accommodation with a range of appropriate activities at a site in a remote part of the Queen’s Forest. 

Visiting the web sites and other marketing manifestations of the various attractions in the area a curious paradox emerges.  The primary offer seems to be the opportunity to relax and stuff yourself with food and drink in tranquil and beautiful places, whereas the social intention of the tourist resort dimension seems to be on activity and vigorous sports and pursuits both outdoor and indoor. The centre also offers a Speyside Kitchen with a wide range of conventional restaurant dishes and a few specialities such as locally made boerewors sausage, popular in southern Africa, with sticky onion sauce.  Elsewhere fancy names have been coined for new facilities, the Pine Marten Bar and Scran for example (scran is a Scots word meaning, among other things, take away food) at the Glenmore Centre. Then there is a car park near Glenmore Lodge strangely titled the Wanderparkplatz (perhaps to make German visitors feel at home). It is as though the lovely but unpronounceable local place names in Scottish Gaelic like Cnap Coire na Spreidhe weren’t enough vocabularic variation.  A short distance further east of the Youth Hostel is the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre. To add to the etymological circus ‘reindeer’ is a word deriving from the Old Norse ‘hreindyri’.

Not far along from the road from the Badaguish turn is the sign for Rothiemurchus Centre under Castle Hill some distance from the Glenmore road.  It offers cabin and chalet accommodation to members of the British forces and associated people and organisations.  There are also picnic sites, fishing opportunities, cycle trails and orienteering facilities on or near the shores of Loch Morlich and a large sandy area called Loch Morlich Beach, said to be the highest beach in the British Isles.  One intriguing feature is a monument marked at full stop size on the map just north of the road and the western end of Loch Morlich.  The Highland Historic Environment Bureau are aware of this  but claim to know nothing much else about it – what in commemorates and how old it is.  Neither do they have a photo or drawing of it.  However, using StreetView an object like a sundial cam be seen among the pines in more or less the correct position and is apparently known as ‘The Queen’s Forest Pillar’ a name presumably connected to the fact that the surrounding area is shown on the map as The Queen’s Forest.

As outlined above the Glenmore Lodge I stayed in in 1954 is now the Loch Morlich Youth Hostel.    It later became the Cairngorm Lodge Youth Hostel.  A new build, Scotland’s National Outdoor Training Centre, a short distance to the east of Glenmore Lodge, was opened 1996 and appropriated the one word name Glenmore.  This complicated nomenclature means that many of the maps and other manifestations of the area’s geography are incorrect and/or out of date, ironic for institutions one of whose major aims is to teach hill walking visitors how to use maps.  The web site of the Reindeer Centre at Glenmore also claims that SatNav directions will take you to the wrong place – all part of the magic of the Highlands no doubt.

When we rived at Glenmore Lodge males were separated from females and we were allocated bunk beds in dormitories of half a dozen people.  Very utilitarian with bland pale blue and cream walls and rough blankets.  We all had to stow our walking boots and other outdoor accoutrements and then assemble in the dining room for our first meal for which we sat on benches on either side of long trestle tables.  Then we were mustered for briefing before outdoor activities began.  This walking, climbing, sailing and kayaking I will cover in another chapter

On some of the evenings there were social activities and I particularly remember everyone singing this song with its words and tune ringing through the ceilidh on the last evening of the course.

From Perth up to Dalwhinnie
And on to Aviemore
The hills and aw there splendour
Would set my heart a glow
You’ll make the open highway
And head for old Glenmore

The tune appears to be The Lights of Lochindaal a Scottish dance tune about Islay and I like the version on YouTube by Jack Sinclair's Television Showband.  The words I knew are thought to have been written to the tune perhaps by someone at Glenmore Lodge.  The song is a couple of lines short but the last two lines can be repeated at the end of the verse,  The hills and aw there splendour should perhaps be The hills and all their splendour.

Despite the healthy and invigorating activities, the young people on the course soon tended to form into male/female pairs.  Somehow, by the end of the first week, I found myself increasingly involved with a girl from Edinburgh called Faye.  We had very innocent, fully clothed wrestling matches on her bunk bed.  Being an only child and at boys boarding school from the age of twelve I knew very little about women either mentally or physically and, I am sure, Faye knew very little about men in those far off days when sexual relations were still very restrictive and contraception unreliable or non-existent.  I had never had a sex education lesson or a biological chat from my mother or father.  Faye was a lively and warm young woman with a posh Edinburgh accent and now, after all these years, I particularly remember the soft and fluffy very feminine pink jumper she often wore and her bright scarlet lipstick.  After we returned to our respective homes from Glen More we wrote love letters to one another from time to time and hers would always be drenched in perfume and have SWALK inscribed in that bright scarlet lipstick on the back of the envelope.

Monday, April 17, 2023

The Ribes Ramblings

For details of varieties I am growing see end of this post

Ribes is the scientific name for plants of the currant and gooseberry family.  Ever since I was a child I have had an interest in these plants.  It started at The Green Walk in Chingford (north east London) where my grandparents lived and to which I was a frequent visitor, staying there for much longer periods after my father went into the army in the early 1940s.  I no longer visited The Green Walk and its gardens when, as a family we moved in 1951 to Bush Barn Farm on the outskirts of Robertsbridge, East Sussex.

The Green Walk had a large garden behind the house and towards the end of the plot there were tidy rows of red and black currants and gooseberries, all of which were regularly pruned by our gardener Mr Richardson and bore reasonable crops of fruit in summer which were welcome in those lean, wartime and post war years.  I remember sitting on the kitchen table helping my grandmother top and tail gooseberries with their green, oval fruit veined with white.  The dark brown remains of the petals - the front end of the gooseberry - was pinched off between the finger and thumb nails and the operation repeated on the remains of the stalk at the rear of the fruit.  They were used to make gooseberry tart and jam.  

I also spent much time crawling around and beneath the bushes and towards the end of my days at the Green Walk spent much time looking for currant clearwing moths whose larvae bore in the stems of the plants.  I saw the adult moths on one or two occasions drifting like smoke, or large mosquitoes, among the currant stems. 

In front of the house at Bush Barn Farm there was a field of currants and blackberries about 10 acres in extent.  In our first year of residence a group of local pickers was employed to harvest the fruit, but the bushes were subsequently dug up and the area converted to grass pasture.  I was allowed to drive an old Fordson tractor during clearance operations and the two farm hands would attach a lentgth of chain to each bush which I would then haul out of the ground with tractor power.

I thought little about currants and gooseberries until we arrived at Pomfret Avenue in Luton.  There was a tiny back garden here and one of the things I thought I might grow was one or two cordons of red or white currants.  For some reason the appeal of cordons had lodged in my head somewhere along the way and I had developed an enthusiasm to create them.  But we left Luton before I could do anythink g about it.

My next currant memory was during the years at the start of this century when I worked as a consultant ecologist.  Many of the sites I visited had currants (usually redcurrant, Ribes rubrum) particularly along stream sides.  Once though I discovered a bush in fruit (see below) close to the old keeper's cottage near Brede High Heath in Brede High Woods, owned and managed by the Woodland Trust.  This was possibly a cultivated survivor from the time when the cottage was lived in during the late 1920s or early 1930s.

Apart from this my currant encounters were confined to one or two rather  neglected bushes in pots in the garden, brought by Tana when she moved from The Green in St Leonards. And then in 2023 at the age of 85 a sudden enthusiasm for the genus, or at least its fruiting members, arose in my brain. I think, because they seemed ideal plants for patio pots, especially as most had one or more dwarf forms, for outside my French windows where I could see them.   I took some cuttings too from one of these St Leonards bushes and they rooted well over the winter giving four more plants to experiment with. I also potted up a layered branch of a wild gooseberry I found many years ago in Churchland Wood.  It has rather large leaves and vicious prickles.

Ribes-watching became a major preoccupation after this.  Another spur was my purchase, in summer 2022, of a dwarf raspberry called 'Yummy' which seems to have overwintered very well in a pot.  Partly too I liked the idea of them because I think my two year old grandson Remi, who visits often, might enjoy the development of edible fruits on reachable bushes.  It also gives me the opportunity to train some cordons or double cordons if I have long enough left.  If not other members of the family will be able to inherit the plants..

During March and April 2023 I really started to get into ribesology.  First I bought a white currant, then a dwarf gooseberry called 'Giggles Red' , a dwarf blackcurrant, and a much praised variety of redcurrant called 'Rovada'.  These came from different nurseries via Amazon and the leaves were mostly in bud, or just breaking.  I wondered it the nurseries that supplied them had some way of holding growth back.

One of our first problems was with the blackcurrant as a family of voles (see below) insisted on tunnelling into the soil of the pot, though they didn't touch the currant itself.  The problem was solved by Tana spreading a mulch of urine-impregnated cat litter over the soil.  The voles fled.

Some of the St Leonards redcurrants down the garden are coming in to flower.

And I photographed this wild, self-sown redcurrant bush also down the garden.  These are quite common in the Sussex countryside here but rarely, if ever, bear fruit.

I continued my researches on 19 April in an attempt to find out why the Giggles series of gooseberries had been so named.  The best guess was that it somehow related to 'goggles', an old-fashioned name for the fruit.  When I was a boy we often used to refer to gooseberries as goosegogs and one source said that 'gooseberry bush' was a 19th C term for pubic hair, hence the idea of finding babies 'under the gooseberry bush'.  The Giggles Series is closely associated with the nursery firm Thompson and Morgan and I think the variety name may have originated with them.

Below I have listed our current currant collection and will add to it as occasion demands.

Blackcurrant 'Summer Pearls Patio'  Early April 2023.  Thompson and Morgan

Gooseberry 'Giggles Red' 24 March 2023.  Thompson and Morgan

Gooseberry from Churchland Wood

Redcurrant from The Green, St. Leonards

Redcurrant 'Rovada'.  10 April 2023.  From Fruits of Perthshire.  One of the most popular varieties, .  Rovada was developed in 1980 in the Netherlands by L.M. Wassenaar of the Institute of Horticulture and Plant Breeding.  It is the product of Fay's Prolific x Heinemann's Rote Spatlese.

Whitecurrant 'Summer Pearls White'.  23 March 2023. YouGarden