I spent an enjoyable hour completing the RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch this weekend. Since 1979 The RSPB has asked people to count the birds in their gardens for research purposes. You record the highest number of each species you see at any one time during your hour. By collating the results the RSPB is able to monitor trends, understand how birds are doing and take steps to put things right. It has been found that Starling numbers have declined rapidly since the early 1980s. House Sparrow numbers show dramatic decreases. Greenfinch numbers increased from the late 1990’s until 2004, but there has been a national decline since 2004 due to the fatal disease trichomonosis. The silver tongued Song Thrush’s beautiful song is sadly becoming rarer across the UK. Collared Doves, Coal Tits and Woodpigeons on the other hand are thriving.
I have actively tried to make our garden wildlife friendly. I love bees, birds and butterflies. It gives me a lot of pleasure watching the great tits landing on our old apple tree and having a tasty snack from the bird feeders. We had a pair of great tits nest in a nesting box last year.
Birds require food, cover and nesting sites to survive. The more varied you can make your garden, the better for attracting wildlife. Inclusion of shrubs, a hedge, climbers and trees create habitats which suit many different birds. Herbaceous plants and a lawn are valuable features in a garden to attract birds. We are lucky in that our garden backs on to farm land so we have had a few interesting visitors including a pheasant and numerous squirrels. Mr Smiles is not so keen on the squirrels as they are greedy guts and eat a lot of the food I put out for the birds. However they are quite entertaining as they run along the fence. We put up a trellis for climbing plants and this has provided a good spring board for the squirrels to leap from.
I have tried to plant a selection of shrubs to provide insect food and berries for birds to eat. I have grown massive teasel plants in an attempt to attract goldfinches. However our birds seem lazy! They much prefer an easy ready meal of sunflower hearts which are already dealt with in a bird feeder than my teasels or sunflower seedheads which require a bit more effort! In previous years goldfinches flocked to our Nyjer seed feeder but this has not been used this year. I think the new `squirrel proof’ feeder is putting them off! I’ve read that it may be a good idea to sprinkle nyjer seeds on to the teasel seedheads to make temporary feeders.
I have been taking part in The Big Garden Bird Watch for a couple of years now and have been amazed by the number of birds I see in my hour. It is a real pleasure to take an hour out of my busy schedule to watch and observe.
W. H. Davies
WHAT is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?—
No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
In the last couple of years there have been a few surprises with a Reed Bunting, a Great Spottted Woodpecker, a Nuthatch and a pair of Jays. This year there were no surprises. However my faithful brave Great Tits were out there swinging on the sunflower heart feeder even when the rain was beating against the kitchen window and the wind was buffeting them about!
So here are the results of my garden’s Big Garden Bird Watch:-
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I enjoyed sketching my birds and even became quite fond of the Starling as I saw how many beautiful colours I could see in her feathers. I also quite like my big chubby Woodpigeon. They are very greedy! My favourite are the Tits as they are so chirpy and inquisitive.
I’d love to know if you took part this year and which birds you spotted.
I recently needed a new Professional Portrait of myself. I wanted photographs which would show me in my best light and I knew just the man for the job. Who better than our Wedding Photographer?! Steve Hicks, otherwise known as Squib Photography, did a brilliant job of our wedding photography. He was able to capture those all important moments of our wedding day which we will cherish. We really are smiling in all our wedding photographs and Steve managed to capture those tears of joy without being intrusive.
Steve and I had fun back in December capturing me at work as an artist and then as a nature photographer. My brief to Steve was to show that I live up to my name and that the photos should be light, bright and cheerful! I think he succeeded!
Patsy Smiles – Artist at Work
Patsy Smiles – Nature Photographer
I must admit it was the depths of Winter and little was in bloom in the garden where we were shooting. I managed to spot this pretty Viburnum shrub with clusters of small, fragrant flowers which fade from pink to white. There are very few outdoor plants that flower from Autumn through to Spring and this pretty pink Viburnum was enchanting. I thought I’d include my shots of the pink flower clusters for you to see.
My most favourite holiday destination is Cornwall. The sea is definately in my blood and I adore the rugged Cornish coastline. One place I keep coming back to is the lovely traditional fishing village of Cadgwith. I stayed in a cottage called `Seawatch’ to celebrate my 40th birthday a few years ago with a few close girlfriends. I have since introduced Mr Smiles to Seawatch and we decided to come back again for Christmas as we both now love the area so much.
Standing just above Cadgwith Cove is a row of terraced Coastguard cottages, built in the 1880s to combat smuggling. Seawatch is one of those cottages converted into a beautiful and tastefully furnished house, with the extensive sea views that the coastguard needed. Seawatch is the best holiday cottage I have ever stayed in. Mr Smiles and I dream of a place like this – away from it all with a short walk to the friendly local pub The Cadgwith Cove Inn.
When we move house we would like an attractive entrance area like this where you can comfortably take off your muddy boots and coat or contemplate your next walk with the useful map hanging above the chair.
The house is decked out with a tasteful nautical theme and I liked looking at the many paintings by local artists hanging on the walls. Our bedroom had sea views and a pretty Victorian fireplace. The original look-out is furnished with a chair and telescope.
As it was Christmas we spent many a cosy hour cuddled up with a book or a game of scrabble with a glass of mulled wine or Belgian Beer in front of the roaring fire. Mr Smiles was very contented!
The house was even furnished with a small illuminated `Christmas Tree’ for us to arrange our Christmas presents round. The housekeeper had left us a bottle of sparkling Cava for Christmas day and a festive poinsettia plant. It’s the little touches like this which make a holiday special. I must admit though I was glad of my running head torch when we arrived as we had a power cut and I needed it to unpack and find the candles!
The house enjoys a long, south-facing garden with fantastic sea views. This time we didn’t take advantage of the outside seating as it was Winter, but I have fond memories of the garden in previous Summers. I spent a very relaxing afternoon sketching the `Idyllic View’ and numerous afternoon teas were consumed outside with my girlfriends for my 40th birthday celebrations. We had all bought home-made cakes with us on that occasion.
As it was Christmas Mr Smiles was very happy to put his feet up. I on the other hand tend to get stir crazy if I don’t get out in the fresh air. On our second day I took myself off for a run along the coast path to Kennack Sands and back. I took up running last March and love it! I may not be the fastest runner out, but I adore the exhilaration of running cross country with the wind in my hair. I adapted a published walk to make a slightly longer circuit.
Cadgwith to Kennack Sands Circular (5 miles)
I started in Cadgwith walking up the road as it curves past The Cadgwith Cove Inn.
I took the first turning on the right and followed the coast path onto the cliffs towards the old coastguard signal station (known locally as the huer’s hut). I continued along the coast path climbing up to Kildown Point. The path curved around the deep hollow of Kildown Cove and then up to Enys Head with views of Kennack Sands in the distance. I must admit the Cornish coastal path has much more of an incline than the gentle rolling hills of Oxfordshire so my run consisted more of a gentle jog/walk, sliding in the mud and being buffeted by the wind. Exhilarating at the top though!
I turned right down the steps and over a bridge and out amongst the ruins of Poltesco serpentine works at Carleon Cove. The Poltesco works operated from 1855 until 1893 on the site of former pilchard cellars. The round, roofless, building housed a capstan, a man powered winch used for hauling boats up the beach. The ruined buildings are the remains of the Victorian serpentine factory, which made ornate polished stoneware, including mantelpieces and vases. This was once a bustling and noisy place, employing 20 men, with workshops, showrooms, a forge, boiler house and water wheel. Flat bottomed barges ferried goods out from the quay to waiting ships.
The serpentine pebbles,rocks and boulders on the beach at Carleon are beautiful with lovely greens, red, yellow and white lines running though them. It was a magical moment. The sun was shining and surfers were enjoying the waves. I had a little sit down to take in the view.
After my sit down I missed the coast path so did a little unneeded detour up to Poltesco and back down the valley and onto the coast path. Oh well a little extra exercise meant I could have a mince pie with a big dollop of brandy cream when I got back! The coast path skirted the golf course of Sea Acres caravan park. The views from the top down to Kennack Sands were breathtaking.
I must admit Mr Smiles and I didn’t really take to Kennack in the Summer. It was packed with loud unruly holiday makers and we prefer a bit of peace and quiet. In the Winter it is a different story. There were a few dog walkers and surfers but the vast sandy beach was largely unspoilt and there for me to enjoy in peace. Stunning!
I then climbed up the wooded valley to Gwendreath Farm and then over the fields to the hamlet of Kuggar. My route kept to the footpaths so avoided the road to Kuggar. I did encounter an enormous stallion which seemed to be rather attracted to my flourescent yellow jacket and seemed to want to charge at me. I decided that calmly walking at that point was probably the best course of action. I did check my route and I was on a clearly marked footpath. I think in hindsight perhaps the horse thought I would feed him, but I had nothing to offer!
My route followed the road and then through the wooded valley back in a loop to Poltesco. I passed the medieval Poltesco Mill and then up a steep hill to Ruan Minor. I remembered the hill from the previous Summer. I was walking with Mr Smiles and needed a lot of encouragement to keep going as I was unfit and overweight. It made me feel good that I was jogging up the same hill now! My run then took me past the chapel and to Ruan Minor. I then followed the wooded valley back to Cadgwith and my longed for mince pie!
The inn is at the heart of the community in Cadgwith. It’s the kind of pub we like – where the locals are still welcome and not pushed out by invading tourists. If you like fancy gastro food then it may not be for you. As the Inn is at the heart of a fishing community fish does feature strongly on the menu. I really like freshly caught fish and the atmosphere is friendly and welcoming. I came back from a bracing Winter walk one day and tucked into a fantastic seafood chowder. We even had a Christmas dinner with all the trimmings on Christmas Eve which was excellent. We felt slightly self-conscious pulling Christmas crackers and wearing party hats in the middle of the pub when others were just having the regular menu. However after drinking a glass of wine we felt at home! In previous years we have chatted to one of the former fishermen Sharkey and heard his tales of the sea. The Cadgwith Singers meet one night a week in the pub and there is folk music on another.
We really appreciated the fabulous Nautical Christmas lights all around the bay. On Christmas Day there is an annual Christmas Day swim in fancy dress. This year the sea was far too rough to swim but the whole village turned out in fancy dress and then had a swift pint in the pub to warm up. What a lovely atmosphere! Mr Smiles felt the real ale was well kept, but there could have been a bit more choice with a Guest ale.
I loved the mulled wine and found it very warming whilst taking photos at dusk down on the beach.
On Christmas Eve we enjoyed Poldhu and Church Coves. The sun was shining and the sea was making waves of sea foam which had the appearance of festive snow. We warmed up with coffee and a cake in the handy cafe afterwards.
I also have fond memories of Coverack Harbour. Before I met Mr Smiles I used to take myself off to Coverack YHA on a weeks windsurfing holiday with Robin Hobson at the Coverack Windsurfing Centre. I no longer windsurf but it brought back memories walking round the bay.
I was amazed how calm Coverack was compared to the rough sea at Cadgwith and Poldhu. Sadly Roskilly’s ice cream shop was shut for the Winter. I always had an ice cream as a `reward’ for a days windsurfing. I’ve just found my diary for June 2001 ` I’m getting into the habit of having a yummy ice cream every day. The ice cream shop is just up from the windsurfing centre and sells amazing ice cream made at a local farm with 30 different flavours to choose from. My favourite is orange and mascarpone with a dollop of cornish clotted cream on top for good measure.’ My love of ice cream hasn’t changed then! For my 40th birthday whilst staying at Seawatch I was photographed enjoying a delicious ice cream too!
However that was high Summer and this was Winter. We had a roaring fire to get home to and a nice meaty sausage with red wine gravy and mash. Yum! I hope you enjoyed my pictures of our Cadgwith Christmas. Happy New Year!
There is something about getting out in the garden in January which fills me with excitement and hope. I must admit I have been dodging the showers today as I have raked up the apple tree’s soggy fallen leaves which have been strewn all over the borders and veg patch. However January always gives me a sense of a fresh start with a new Gardening Year. Already daffodil leaves are starting to poke up through the sodden ground giving me a sign that Spring is on the way.
My New Year’s Resolution for the garden is to get control of the vegetable patch. We have two reasonably sized raised vegetable beds and two smaller ones. We also have a moss-covered unheated greenhouse and some serious quality gardening tools which were a gift from Mr Smiles last year. There is therefore no excuse not to get to grips with growing vegetables. My Dream is to be like Felicity Kendal in `The Good Life’ and become self-sufficient. I love the idea of an allotment. I have visions of Mr Smiles and I living in an idyllic village where I pedal off on my Pashley Bicycle with her smart wicker basket and bring back mountains of wholesome fresh vegetables I have grown effortlessly and then whipping up a quick and easy tasty meal! The reality is so different.
I am passionate about flowers so spend a lot of time tending the flower borders and mowing the lawn. Often I find it is getting dark and I have failed to tend the vegetable patch. As it is dark when I put down tools it is too late to pick vegetables. Mr Smiles says `don’t grow so much!’. There is some truth in this. I need to learn to grow what we like to eat and make sure we don’t need to harvest all our runner beans etc all at once so they go stringy. With this aim in mind I have bought a fine selection of seeds from Sarah Raven called `Year Round Veg’.Sarah says ` these are the top 15 varieties of outstanding, everyday vegetables, chosen for delicious flavour, long steady productivity and ease of growth.’ The seeds are based on her philosophy of not growing everything. The aim is that `I will spend my precious time available for vegetable growing and my precious vegetable space growing highly productive, long season crops which will give us delicious things to eat without taking over my life.’ This seems quite a lofty ambition to me. Nethertheless I am expecting great things! I have booked a course with Sarah Raven in May so I will be asking lots of questions if my vegetable growing isn’t successful! (True to form though I have not picked the course on year round vegetable growing. I am doing the growing and arranging cut flowers course. May be this was a mistake and I should be doing the veg course…)
I have had some success with growing vegetables. Last year I decided to grow tomatoes with basil in the greenhouse. I also grew a couple of courgette plants alongside. It seemed a bit excessive putting courgettes in a warm greenhouse but the previous year my courgettes had failed to fruit or had got blossom end rot due to the wet and damp weather. The courgettes in the greenhouse were much more productive than the ones I grew in the open air. We also had some tasty potatoes although not a vast quantity.
I have battled with nature. Last year I actively encouraged bees and butterflies into the garden as I know they are good for pollination. Without pollination vegetables fail to grow. We did have a very buzzy garden full of bees and butterflies and lots of colourful flowers. However we had flights of cabbage white butterflies all over the garden. Unfortunately they are clever creatures and seem to be able to get through netting. We did build a cage with a net but the little blighters got through and had a good munch on my cabbages. I do need to source fine netting which is inpenetrable. I found the netting cage a nuisance. The cabbage whites still got through and it made it harder for me to weed. The cabbages are hanging in there even though they have been well and truly nibbled and are not forming big hearty vegetables. I chopped off the nibbled leaves to see if they will still carry on to form edible vegetables. I had big hopes for my cauliflower plants. They were starting to form nice white heads. The next time I looked the heads had gone brown. I am unsure whether this problem will rectify itself? Maybe I need to investigate the soil structure and need to invest in manure? Maybe the weather has been too wet? So many questions. It’s not easy this vegetable growing lark!
Other vegetables I won’t be growing are onions. My onions were in the ground for a long time and really didn’t grow very big at all. This seems to be a waste of valuable space.
I did have quite a bit of success with rainbow coloured chard and had some amazing flowers on my globe artichokes. However we were a bit daunted by how to cook them so they went to seed not eaten.
Apart from the vegetables in Sarah Raven’s collection I am planning on growing sugar snap peas and broad beans this year. Now I have already come a cropper when I thought I was being clever by planting some of my peas and sweet peas in the Autumn. It is a good idea to get them planted in the Autumn as it gets them going and leaves more time to plant other seeds at peak time. I used toilet roll cardboard tubes as planters. These make ideal long thin pots. However I am not entirely sure which of my plants are going to be flowering sweet peas and which will be edible! I have also put a vague label saying `Peas’. Not sure if this means sugar snap or mange tout peas or regular peas which you shell! The first lesson of the year then is to make sure I put enough detail on my labels.
I grew broad beans `Aquadulce Claudia’ as this is one of the best broad beans for autumn sowing, for an early harvest the following spring. I have read that it is worth growing broad beans with summer savory to help repel black bean aphids, a common pest of broad beans.
I do have a very lovely Christmas present to encourage me in my vegetable growing experimentation. Mr Smiles bought me a traditional Sussex trug to gather all my crops. I was a bit dismayed earlier in the year when Mr Smiles said my economic metal trug from a well known DIY store was not up to scratch! He said it was going rusty and really didn’t convey the correct image! This has been rectified with a beautiful gift of a traditional hand-made Sussex Trug.
History of The Sussex Trug
The `trog’ was a wooden vessel hewn from solid timber in the shape of the Anglo-Saxon round coracle boat. They were used by Sussex farmers to measure grain and liquids and were made in several sizes for different measures. They continued in this form until the mid -1600s. Thomas Smith re-invented the trog designing a lightweight basket using Sweet Chestnut and Cricket Bat Willow. The trug was an essential tool for farmers. In 1851 Thomas attended The Great Exhibition held In Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, London. It was there that Queen Victoria visited his stand and was so impressed by his trug that she ordered some personally as gifts. After the Second World War traditional farms underwent a massive change with mechanisation. Trugs were no longer needed to collect eggs, sow grain or pick up vegetables because this was done by machine. Trug makers adapted their sales marketing the to the gardening industry.
It takes over a year to learn to produce an acceptable trug as it is a skilled craft. My trug originates from Hailsham, Sussex and the craftsman has signed and dated it for me. I look forward to filling it with tasty produce from the garden later in the year.
For New Years Day I served a wonderful dessert I found in the Christmas and New Year addition of delicious magazine. I do find at Christmas there can be an excess of rich dried fruit in mince pies, Christmas cake and Christmas puddings. This dessert was described as a `stunning semifreddo with rainbow-hued tropical fruits, sharp mascarpone and flavours of spice and sweet muscat. All the drama of a Christrmas pud, but with a lighter touch.’
250g mixed dried tropical fruits and nuts. (I used dried cranberries, papaya, pineapple, apricots, glace cherries and pistachio nuts)
2 tbsp mixed peel
150ml muscat dessert wine (any sweet wine will work)
3 large eggs, separated
100g caster sugar
300ml double cream
large pinch of ground cinnamon, freshly grated nutmeg and ground allspice
1. Line a 1 litre pyrex bowl with a double layer of clingfilm, leaving an overhang at the top. You need enough extra clingfilm so you can cover the dessert later.
2. Put the dried fruit, nuts, mixed peel and muscat into a small pan and simmer over a medium heat for a minute or two. Remove from the heat and leave to cool completely. I found that the mix was not cool when I needed it. I quickly put it in the freezer to chill as I didn’t want the dessert to curdle or separate if I added warm fruit. It would therefore be a good idea to simmer the fruit and leave to chill a few hours before needed.
3. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar with an electric hand mixer for 2-3 minutes until they have increased in volume and turned the colour of rich cream.
4. Add the cream, spices and mascarpone. Why is it that whenever I go to a supermarket to follow a recipe for a dessert there is some sort of creamy ingredient that proves elusive? In the past I have struggled to find soured cream, creme fraiche and fromage frais! It is always the ingredient that you need that hides in an unusual place with no shop assistant nearby to help. This time I have learnt that Mascarpone is a thick, creamy, soft Italian cheese. You will not therefore find it with the cream. However neither was it located with the cream cheese, but with the hard continental cheeses!
Whip into soft, billowy peaks. I have had a disaster with egg yolks and cream before where the whole thing has collapsed and gone watery again. I therefore made sure I had soft peaks and didn’t over whip.
5. In a separate, spotlessly clean bowl and with clean beaters, whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks. If the equipment is not clean you will struggle to whip the egg whites and they will go watery.
6. Gently fold 2 tbsp of the egg whites into the cream mix using a balloon whisk. Then gently fold in the remaining egg whites in 3 additions using a slow figure of eight motion. A whisk is gentler on the mix than a metal spoon. I made two desserts at one go. This was a challenge as I didn’t really have a big enough bowl to mix the ingredients and had to be creative with several bowls to prevent a tidal wave of cream mix all over the work tops.
7. Gently fold through the cooled fruit and muscat, ensuring the fruit is evenly distributed. (Big bowl!) Be careful not to be too vigorous or you will knock the air out of the mixture.
8. Carefully transfer the mixture to the lined basin and cover the top with the excess cling film. Put in the freezer for at least 12 hours. I suddenly had to rush to the shops the day before I needed the dessert, as it had to be made the day before not on the day it was needed due to freezing time!
9. To decorate you will need to prepare crystallised fruit a few hours in advance. In a small bowl gently whisk an egg white with a fork until slightly foamy. Use a pastry brush to spread a thin coating of the whites over fruit and nuts.
Drop each piece of fruit into a saucer of caster sugar, then toss gently to coat. Once evenly frosted leave on a a wire rack to dry for 2-3 hours. The recipe advised leaving in a cool place. I put my beautifully frosted fruit in a plastic tub in the fridge. This was a mistake! The fruit ended up sitting in a sugary syrup rather than staying beautifully frosted! I would also add that harder fruit such as grapes and cherries seemed to frost more successfully than softer raspberries. Never mind I have learnt a valuable lesson and will be able to crystallise rose petals in the Summer.
10. Thirty minutes before you want to serve, transfer the bowl to the fridge. Just before serving, open up the cling film at the top. Invert on to a serving plate and peel off the cling film. Top with crystallised fruits and nuts to decorate and serve.
So there you have it a lighter alternative to Christmas Pudding still packed full of Winter fruits and spices. Yum! It really was delicious. Good thing too as I eat it twice this week! I am thinking about adapting the recipe for Summer fruits later in the year….