Saturday, 26 October 2013

Garden schmarden

The garden at Tense Towers has not appeared in these pages very often of late. Various factors have combined to bring about this lamentable situation, so I thought I would offer an explanation and a brief update ('brief' as in I've just spent five minutes at the lounge window).

Not an up-to-date shot, I admit

As much as I would like to think that the focus of attention in the garden is our diminutive, wildlife pond, even I have to admit that dragonflies and newts aren't the be all and end all. Shocking, isn't it? The intricate food web in this small suburban space is dominated by its top predators, just like any other wild place. At Tense Towers, these are variously-sized bundles of feathers, with a penchant for invertebrates, seeds or other bundles of feathers. I am obviously ignoring the presence of the neighbourhood cats in this reasoning, as they are an unnatural invasion upon the scene.

For many years, we have been supplying an assortment of foodstuffs for the birds that visit our garden, or probably more accurately, the birds that visit our garden due to the amount of food available. This round-the-year load and the increasing number of visitors really began to take its toll last Winter, when it became apparent that something had to give. The lawn wasn't coping with the footfall from numerous Wood Pigeons. The lack of space meant that even moving the feeders around wasn't giving the grass any respite through the cold, harsh months. On top of that, the er... mmm... how can I put this... the... other end of the problem led to a build up of guano that wasn't healthy for anyone, birds or humans. Possibly the plants appreciated it!

So come Spring, once natural sources of food had appeared, we took the decision to curtail all feeding. We stopped putting out sunflower seeds, peanuts, fat blocks and over-ripe fruit, until gradually all feeders were empty. Our neighbours are reasonably bird-friendly (despite their cats!) and also put out food, so we weren't overly worried that 'our' birds would survive.

As it has turned out, what with our impending move, this was probably the best way to phase out the supplemented supply that attracted flocks of birds to Tense Towers. It would be highly inadvisable to carry out this task now, as we approach the lean months of another Winter, as the effects would be much less benign.

So, for these reasons, the garden has received less attention this year. We have noted that the quantity of bird species present has reduced dramatically, as has the quantity of each species. I guess this underlines how artificial the feeding regime actually was.

However, of late, a few signs of the changing seasons have been apparent. There's a little more birdsong to be heard at dawn and dusk (this is more likely to be a result of us being either awake or around at these times as the day length* reduces). This morning, over breakfast, we noticed that there was a fair bit of activity outside. Birds were taking advantage of a brief lull in the weather to feed, drink and bathe in relatively calm conditions.

For five minutes stood at the window, we were rewarded with a snapshot of the new order. No surprises, but still delightful to witness. Several Blackbirds were foraging on the lawn and in the borders, searching out 'tasty' morsels. Half a dozen Blue Tits pee-oing-ed from stem to stem across the garden, as they investigated the seed heads of Purple Loosestrife, flag irises, Pyracantha and ornamental grasses for tiny invertebrates. A Wren did much the same, but kept lower and in denser cover, before flying up into the Ivy which lines the top of a fence panel. There were a few Wood Pigeons and Collared Doves sat about, whose main reason for hanging around seems to be the bathing opportunities presented by the pond. Dunnocks hopped about in the damp edges of the lawn, never too far from the safety of a thick bush, and (predictably) a couple of Robins were fighting over whose garden it was anyway.

Overall, it's a quieter place though. No squabbling flocks of finches, no raucous Starling behaviour, no feisty Great Spotted Woodpeckers or cackling Magpies.

Coincidentally, those last two species will be in short supply in another place. And that thought makes me wonder what sort of wildlife garden awaits. A blank canvas of wall-to-wall lawn, a strict regime of straight-edged borders and clipped bushes or something more natural where the wildness flows seamlessly towards our back door?

*I know, I know, the day length is always the same-ish, I was referring to amount of actual daylight. Jeez, you people are pedantic. Er... lighten up?

Monday, 21 October 2013

Top bloke

Dunno if this is available all around the world? It ought to be...

For anyone unfamiliar with the concept of the programme, here's some history.

Unsure who Chris Packham is?

I would hesitantly suggest that this is 45 minutes of audio gold.
OK, I'm biased. The guy's the same age as me and the Beeb broadcast this on my birthday.

In the interests of balanced reporting, I can't stand poodles.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Simple question, tough answer

Whilst visiting family in the North East of England last weekend, we spent a pleasant evening in the company of my brother and his wife. Their two daughters and partners also put in an appearance, and we had our first chance to meet Noah, the youngest member of the clan, at four months old.

During the evening, my brother innocently asked what memories I would take with me from our time in Milton Keynes. There was a huge pause, before I mumbled a bland reply about there being too many to contemplate, and that we would be looking for a few souvenirs before leaving. However, the simple truth was that the enormity of the question, or at least the answer, was something I hadn't even begun to think about. Where to start?

Whilst I still haven't devoted sufficient time to the subject, I have certainly given it some thought in the few quiet moments there has been this past week, so here goes.

We have lived in Milton Keynes for twenty three years. We came here after a spell in Germany (actually, West Germany, as it was then!), where we had been impressed by the open space of the towns and the amount of green places available within an urban setting.

So it was little surprise that when I found work in the South Midlands, Milton Keynes was the stand out candidate for a place to settle down. A new town, a self-proclaimed city, based on a grid systems where the main roads and the places where people lived were separated as much as practicable, so that few folk had to have traffic thundering by their front doors. In fact, I think that this probably led to one of the criticisms of the place, that it was soulless, you could drive through it, a conurbation of over 250,000 people, and not see anyone. This misses the point that you can drive through it with relative ease and 250,000 folk are safe from being mown down.

And there were roundabouts. Lots of them. Which has led to a bit of leg-pulling. And a few concrete cows, which has led to an awful lot of mickey-taking. And several huge dinosaurs, which no-one ever mentions.

But in amongst all the infrastructure were also green spaces. Linear parks along rivers, brooks and a canal, old woodlands, lakes, formal parks, wild places, fields and paddocks. Life-enhancing greenery, full of birds, mammals, insects, flowers and trees. The cows may have been concrete, but within yards of the excellent regional shopping centre you could find sheep grazing in Campbell Park.

During our time here, we have lived in three different areas: Fishermead, near the city centre, with Campbell Park as the go-to greenery; Heelands, north of the centre, adjacent to the mature majesty of Linford Wood; and Giffard Park, in the north east corner of the city, sandwiched between the M1 motorway and the Grand Union Canal, but with Hanson Environmental Study Centre just a stone's throw away.

I've also worked for three different firms, each with a very different commute. From incessant motorway snarls to a pleasant country drive, via a spell where I could cycle or walk if I so chose (only if it was warm and sunny!).

As befits a new town, only begun in 1967, Milton Keynes is a young and vibrant place, with modern facilities and an excellent approach to recycling. Yet, tucked away amongst the grid roads, it is possible to find traces of several pre-existing rural villages, so that every now and then you can feel like the clock has turned back and you're standing in a time warp of thatched roofs, village greens and manor houses. This is just one instance of the expectation-challenging character of MK.

But to have all of the above, plus some stunning wildlife and then an extra helping of close up nature watching too, is why Milton Keynes will stay in our hearts.

I can take you to the tree where I saw my first (and so far only) Turtle Dove. About 25 yards from there, the whole family witnessed a young Badger cub foraging in broad daylight, from less than 6 feet away. I vividly remember First Born and I sitting in a field, watching as a Brown Hare ran straight towards us and passed with a few yards of our mesmerised, hardly-daring-to-breath, amazed selves. And a similar experience with Second Born and a Barn Owl. There are orchids, an occasional Osprey, grass snakes, water shrews, all manner of wildlife. And, of course, it was in MK that I fell hopelessly and completely in love with dragonflies.

And there's the clue to what Milton Keynes means to Our Lass and I. It is the place where our children grew up, where they inherited the new millennium and the future of the planet, where they appreciated not only 21st Century living, but also the natural world in all its many guises.

MK has been a great place to live, but this chapter of my life is now drawing to a close. From being as far inland as it's possible to be in the UK, Our Lass and I are moving much closer to the coast. Much, much closer. To Orkney, with its ancient history, its windswept beauty, a completely different biota and half a dozen ways to produce renewable energy. I suspect it will be as expectation-challenging as Milton Keynes. Stand by for comparisons and quirky juxtapositions!

Monday, 14 October 2013


refledgologist  noun  a child leaving home for the second time.
- ORIGIN mid 16th century: from the obsolete adjective fledge 'ready to fly', from Old English, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch vlug 'quick, agile'.

It's odd when children leave home. Our experience, so far, has been painted from the palette of one gap year and two universities. The range of emotions and feelings that short sentence encapsulates could fill a book. A book that I would find difficult to write, on many levels.

Sigh. One day, maybe. Then again, perhaps a raw painting would better express the mood.

First Born disappeared off around the world after sixth form, on various exciting ecological and environmental capers, before returning to the UK to study at Bangor University in North Wales.

Second Born journeyed to the other end of Wales to study at Swansea University.

By a quirky twist of fate, this arrangement cancelled out their age difference so that they both began their uni careers on the same weekend in 2006. No point in dragging out the trauma more than necessary, eh? Three days of mayhem and then several months of picking through the silent wreckage of our home. Weird times, they were.

Ramping up the quirk factor another few notches, FB then squeezed in a year's placement, so that her younger sibling actually left uni a year before she did. 

So whilst SB has been back at home since mid 2009, our impending move to Orkney has precipitated a refledging event, producing another bout of angst for all concerned. Emotions have been expressed through the veil of this angst, adding a layer of confusion and misunderstanding to our actions and resulting in the amplification of the effects of the roller coaster ride. White knuckles, blue language, red eyes.

Well, we're all flagging now... floating in a blissful reverie on the calm water beyond the maelstrom. SB has the keys to a new place, furniture is being redistributed and there's light at the end of the tunnel.

(We're in a tunnel now? I thought we were at sea? Or on a fairground ride? Is this one of those dreams? Probably too much cheese before bedtime.)

Perhaps this is just good exercise to prepare for saying goodbye to the aquatic life in our pond.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

One direction

You know when you hear a familiar song that you've not listened to in ages and a flood of memories suddenly spring forth from the recesses of your mind?

Well, there I was at the kitchen sink yesterday evening, washing up and listening to Planet Rock. It took a few bars and some stern staring into space for me to click that it was 'American Woman' by... oh, what were they called? Then all thoughts of the group's name were thrown aside as the tidal wave of memories gushed through my pondering mind.

This song was included on the original soundtrack cd to a television series from way back. It was compulsive viewing for the whole family and always saw us fighting for space on the sofa. Ah, heady days, indeed. When I managed to find the cd for sale on the internet, but on another continent, it was a special moment. The cherished recording finally arrived and spent much time living in the cd player, either in the lounge or in the car. In fact, long journeys and holidays weren't complete without it blaring out from the car speakers and the four of us trying to sing along as best we could.

A quick check of our cd library soon unearthed the disc in question and the mystery group were revealed as The Guess Who. No, it's not a question, they are called The Guess Who.

So what was the television series?

It ran through the mid to late nineties.

With sixty eight episodes.

It was a crime drama/comedy.

Though set in a particular city in a particular country, it was filmed in a different city in a different country.

Apart from the one episode that featured the different city, where the supposed city was used!

One of the three stars wasn't human.

This post title is a big clue. Oh come on, did you think I meant the boy band?!

Here's another clue...

A suavely-dressed Italian American?

A Husky?

A Canadian Mountie?

Yep, it's Due South!

And the odd thing...

The really odd thing...

The really, really odd thing...

about all this...


that's exactly the opposite direction to the one we're going in.