Circa tempore


An everyday story of Devonshire folk
We have two female pheasants nesting in the orchard. Dad, or Harem Team Leader, is around too, a rather large fat fellow, who is more than aware of how striking he looks, except when he slips on the veranda rail which leads to the bird table and falls off. Rather inelegantly. Plop.

He usually reappears, feathers ruffled, has a bit of a shake and you can clearly see him thinking, Tommy Cooper fashion, "Just like that… ha ha. Not like that – like that!"

The ladies are more careful and cautious, and obviously blessed with better balance. They nibble delicately at the bird seed, take their fill then discreetly disappear back to their nests.

On a sadder note, we’ve not had many chaffinches recently, one or two where we used to get them in their tens. This is a result of a nasty disease which has been attacking them and spreading these last few years – not Avian Bird Flu (although that has not helped) but a sort of foot rot which gnaws at their feet leaving the poor little things with stumps, which in turn makes it hard for them to perch anywhere. It seems to only affect finches. Let’s hope it stays that way. We’ve deliberately kept feed on the table throughout the year in an attempt to help our little local flock, but alas we don’t seem to have succeeded.

On the other hand, the sparrows and tits of various kinds have more than doubled and we’ve had a few pairs of yellowhammers visit, as well as the dunnocks, woodpeckers, blackbirds and the bloomin’ squirrel (which I promptly chase off).

A pair of barn owls are nesting in next door’s barn – wonderful to see them back, let’s hope they, and their young, thrive. We saw our first barn owl a couple of weeks after we moved here, then the occasional one now and then, but sadly not regularly enough to know that they are thriving. Fingers crossed this will change.

On the neighbour’s pond there are ducks, moorhens and every so often I spot a heron. (He’s big enough and slow enough for me to see as he wanders along the shallow edge.) Oh, and the buzzards. I love the buzzards because they too are big enough for me to see, especially when they are silhouetted lazily soaring against a blue sky. (And shhh… it actually IS a blue sky today! A rare treat!)

Our hens are amusing as well. They are not as bright as wild birds though, especially, it seems, the little reddish-fawn pekin hen that lives with the others in the front garden up near the stable yard. Just by chance I heard her clucking away to herself in Lexie’s empty stable – Lexie being away for four days competing (showjumping) with Kathy in Wales. Hen had made herself a nest deep in the straw. I found four eggs, which would have become somewhat scrambled when Lexie returned to her stable.

Back in February Kathy happened to hear some cheeping tucked within the hay bales stacked in the barn. She found several chicks – in all fourteen eggs either just hatched or about to. Obviously, the hens had been secretly laying their eggs there with one of them finally deciding to sit and brood. We knew she was missing, but had assumed that she’d made a tasty dinner for Mr or Mrs Tod.

As a by-the-by, Kathy and Lexie did well in Wales at David Broome’s Cricklands Showjumping Centre, taking several wins and a few high places, cumulating in Silver for the overall place. I’m so proud of Kathy going off, driving the horsebox, on her own. She has also completed and graduated from her Centre 10 coaching course, so is now a qualified Centre 10 coach, in particular for showjumping or general equitation. She specialises in regaining confidence, whether from a temporary small wobble or an all out loss.

But back to the birds: I recently heard something quite delightful (hilarious? Annoyingly addictive?) on Radio 4’s Today programme. It was April 1st so the presenters didn’t believe it either, but then the proof came in and I can 100% confirm… birds (in our case a blackbird) actually do whistle the first few notes from… I’m A Barbie Girl.

Although one has to wonder; are the birds copying the song or did the song writers copy the birds? No longer is it, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" but "Which came first, the Barbie or the Blackbird?"

Listen out for it in your own bird community! (Fair warning again; the tune is addictive.) "I’m a Barbie Girl…"

Until next time.
A quick heads-up: the fifth episode of my Jan Christopher Cosy Mysteries – A Memory of Murder – will be available soon. (e-book for pre-order now, paperback to follow mid-month). You can find details here.
Little lambs are everywhere. They do look so cute skipping about in the fields playing tag, cops and robbers or King of the Castle, while their long suffering mums look on with heavy sighs and compare notes with the other ewes about just how to control the naughty children. I wonder, like us, do these mums think their offspring are cute? There is also something lovely about hearing a mummy sheep softly baa to her babies.

We have discovered that the local dialect is ‘oos. Not ‘yews’ for female sheep. And down here a hog is a sheep or a pig, whereas other places, hogs are pigs. Little lambs also love their bottle feeds, especially our very little lamb, Daphne. (Don’t ask!)

I’ve just this moment come back from the spare stable where I’ve been feeding the two littlest lambs with their bottle of formula milk.

Daphne is the smallest of five. Yes, Mum had five lambs. And when I say smallest, I mean tiny, like a fluffy, woolly toy. Her four sisters are enormous compared to her, and it was touch-and-go whether she’d survive at first, but a warm stable and plenty of bottle feeds and she’s doing well. Far too soon for her to go out in a field yet, but Mum and family are quite happy in our spare stable. Of course, we’re bound to end up keeping Daphne and probably her next smallest sister, Eloise.

The thinking is that maybe they’ll become field buddies with the colt, Raf. I guess keeping them won’t be a problem, not now that Kathy regularly helps with the rest of the flock and can help with the essential shearing come the summer.

I don’t understand these people who condemn shearing as cruel – the equivalent of not shearing would be forcing you to walk around in a heatwave wearing a thick, very heavy winter coat. Sheep don’t naturally shed their fleece so it has to be sheared. The great shame is that the value of fleeces has plummeted because of artificial fabrics (which are made from plastics, which are made from oil) so if you want to do a bit for the environment, buy good quality woollen products.

Shortly before we moved to Devon in January 2013, I had a fancy to restart knitting. I say restart… I decided to knit something way back in the 1970s when I was an avid Tom Baker Dr Who fan. Can you guess what I knitted? Yes, a long, long, long multi-striped Dr Who scarf. The thing is, I hadn’t intended for it to be quite so long (about eight feet!) but I’m not a very good knitter. I only know plain stitch and had no idea how to cast off, so kept knitting.

I had no idea what to knit in 2013, but hit upon doing various sized squares in various colours. The ultimate goal – to have enough squares to sew them together to make a warm, colourful throw for a bed or settee. So far, all these years later, I have a couple of dozen squares in a box and a pair of wooden needles with the next square half-finished. Whether I’ll ever get as far as sewing them together is anyone’s guess. I suspect I won’t, but I dig those needles out every so often when listening to something good on the radio and progress by a few more rows. At least I can now claim that the several holes were made by moths and not let on that they’re my fault from dropped stitches.

I wonder if I’ll ever get far enough with it to enter it into our annual Flower, Vegetable and Craft show one summer? (I’ll have to disguise those holes somehow. Maybe obtain some cute patches and sew them on… flowers or bunnies, or little lambs maybe?

My next-but-one Jan Christopher Mystery will centre around a village show. This one will be Jan #6 A Mischief of Murder, where all sorts of shenanigans take place over rivalry to win the annual village Best In Show trophy. I’ll not let on who the murder victim is to be, but it’ll be an odds-on bet that one of the judges will cop it.

Meanwhile I’ve nearly finished Jan #5 A Memory of Murder. I had the murder and the victim planned from the start, but wasn’t sure who the murderer would be. Apparently, Agatha Christie was often not sure either, which is why any one of her many characters could be the guilty party. She’d decide which one was the ‘whodunit’ when she reached the finale denouement. I like that idea!

Until next time.
Written 18th February 2024

My best friend, Hazel, would have been seventy-five today, had she not unexpectedly died back in 2001. That’s twenty-three years ago. I still miss her. A lot. She went to bed on 30th October and did not wake up the next morning. I’ll never forget that day. That awful phone call. The disbelief, the shock, the deep, deep pain. I had to drive my daughter, Kathy, up to the stableyard – the horses still needed doing and the farrier was coming, but how I drove there and back I don’t know.

I worked with Hazel at South Chingford library for many years, we were friends almost from my first day, 4th August 1969. I was sixteen, she was twenty and not long married. Even now, after all these years I can’t believe she’s gone.

Before I married, I shared holidays with Hazel, her husband and her mum and dad Joy and Gus. They were like adopted parents for me, lovely, fun people. After I married Ron, and my Kathy came along, still our families holidayed together, mostly to the Lake District where the walking was worth the hard work for the reward of a view, and where the pubs always seemed to be open. For our children these were real ‘Swallows and Amazons’ holidays, complete with boats on the lake, cooking sausages on the shoreline bonfire and riding bikes with the freedom of few rules. Many of those holidays were in February to encompass Hazel’s birthday (and cottages were cheaper in February than later months.) Valentine’s Day also often fell while on holiday and dear Gus would leave a little present by our breakfast spots at the table – presents for all his ladies and the children. Oh, the laughter we shared! The memories that remain!

Our friendship continued even though, as mums, we eventually had different part time jobs. I remember one particular weekday morning. I’d dropped Kathy at the stables as usual then called round to Hazel’s for a good gossip and lunch. We sat in the garden and talked about a particular radio programme, Home Truths which was hosted by John Peel who, sadly, passed away in 2004. This was a talk show on the Saturday morning 9-10 a.m., where ordinary people told of their extraordinary stories about life.

Hazel and I talked, too, of the future, of how we both looked forward to retirement when we’d have as much time as we wanted to sit and read all the books piling up on our ‘want to read’ list. I remember laughing with her and saying “Being bed ridden when we’re old could be a good thing – a different book every week, and the library delivery service coming to us. I’ve already started my suggestion list!”

Do I remember all this because it was not to be? Would we have remained friends had Hazel lived? I like to think so, even though she had a pretty rough time when Gus was taken ill and Joy then developed dementia. I wish, now, that I’d done much more to help ease the stress, but none of us realised how it would affect Hazel. She was, or so we thought, fit and healthy. Walked almost everywhere, ate salads and good food, but she liked salt. Was it the salt that cause the pulmonary embolism? A blood clot that blocked and stopped the blood flow to an artery in the lung. The one comfort, she knew nothing about it.

I often think of her coming here to our new life in Devon. Of the Christmases we could be sharing, of the highs and lows, of the laughter and tears. When I watch the birds squabbling over the peanuts and fat balls on my bird table I think of Joy and Gus who loved the birds. They would be able to identify every one of them. I can picture Joy and Gus sitting in my study looking out the window, or resting on the garden swing chair, enjoying the peaceful view. Hazel coming back from a walk and putting the kettle on. Of the chatter around the dinner table, of happy evenings up at the pub.

I miss Hazel and, on her birthday, I shed a few tears for the retirement that we didn’t get to share after all.

Enjoy the things you want to do now, not tomorrow. Share the present with the people who matter, for tomorrow doesn’t always come.

Until next time.
Dateline: 21st January 2024.

I’m not keen on winter. Let me clarify that. I dislike winter. It’s cold, dark, wet, miserable – and did I say cold? The days are short, the nights are long. If I could I would be more than happy to stay in my warm, cosy bed and hibernate beneath the duvet with Mab the cat curled on top of me, hotty-botty hot water bottle at my feet and Teddy Bear snuggled beside me. (Teddies are amazingly warm!)

The butler (husband Ron) can bring me bacon sandwiches and cups of tea, and the biscuit tin will always, magically, stay filled with chocolate digestives. And while I’m creating the wish list: lots of good entertainment on the TV. The last wish is sadly lacking at the moment.

I diligently take my Vitamin D tablets to ward of S.A.D – Seasonal Affected Disorder. The medication works, sort of, but sitting here at my desk looking out the window as Storm Isha comes rampaging in from the west, like the wicked witch in the Wizard Of Oz, the feeling of deep gloom cannot be entirely overcome. I’ll dig out my red shoes and hope a house (empty and not mine) falls on Isha before she does too much damage.

The hills over the back beyond the Taw Valley are rapidly disappearing into a thick mist of pouring rain. The wind is sounding like a train hurtling through a railway station, the trees, especially the huge Silver Birch at the lower right-hand corner of the orchard, is doing a fair imitation of an over-enthusiastic aerobics tutor determined to get that bend more supple. I hope the ash trees and oaks do okay, although they should be all right without their canopy of leaves.

Question: how do birds manage to fly in a gusting, bordering on gale-force wind? The fat balls and peanuts feeders outside the window have at least twelve long-tailed tits on them at the moment, the woodpecker comes in every so often; the blue tits and great tits have their turn. The sparrows and dunnocks and blackbirds prefer the goodies on the bird table, all partaking of filling their tummies as evening draws in earlier than usual because of the rotten weather. As dusk falls there is a lot of twittering and squabbling going on outside. Birds vying for the best sheltered spots I assume.

The full force of Isha is yet to come. Candles: tick. Matches: tick. Water carrier filled: tick. Log fire lit: tick. Hatches battened: tick. I think the idea of hibernating sounds a good idea.

Apparently,when the ground is frozen with frost and ice, to save the embarrassment (and pain) of a fall, one is supposed to walk like a penguin.

I don’t think this means do a Dick van Dyke as in Mary Poppins by pulling the trousers down to half mast and performing a waddle-dance (unless you want a laugh, that is.) The idea is to keep the centre of gravity over your feet as much as possible, so bend the knees slightly and point your feet outward, hold your arms out to the side. Keep flat footed and waddle along.

In theory you won’t fall. Please don’t complain to me if it doesn’t work.

Penguins outside of zoos, live entirely in the southern hemisphere, so no worries about them being eaten by Polar Bears.

The word ‘penguin’ first appeared at the end of the 16th century. European explorers discovering what is now known as a penguin thought they looked similar to the northern hemisphere’s Great Auk, so transferred the popular name for the auk – ‘penguin’, although neither species is related. (I know, it’s complicated!)

Popular myth (and the Oxford English Dictionary) assumes the word comes from Welsh (pen gwyn) meaning ‘white head’. One does have to question this though. I’ve always thought that penguins have black heads and white tummies so ‘Pendu’ would be more appropriate (black head). The Great Auk was first seen on White Head Island in Newfoundland, though to name a bird after its location is a tad lacking in imagination, I think.

Alternatively, etymology can link the word to Latin pinguis, which means 'fat' or 'oil' and the Germanic word for penguin is fettgans– 'fat-goose'. I like that one the best.

A group of penguins whilst on land is a ‘waddle’ but in the water they are a raft. Either way, in water or out, Welsh or Germanic, to suggest ‘waddling on ice like a fat goose’ does not, perhaps, sound quite so appealing.

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Until next time - unless I get blown away by Isha.

Late entry:
  Survived storm Isha. Now to battle the next one, Jocelyn,
  that's due to cause an unwanted nuisance…
So that’s it, 2023 has gone – and as far as I’m concerned, the first half of it can be buried in a deepest, darkest pit somewhere, along with the Covid year of 2020, neither of which have any memories worth preserving. We lost two horses within a few weeks of each other and prior to that, in the spring, were thrown into unexpected upheaval when daughter Kathy's ex, out of the blue, cleared off elsewhere causing much heartbreak, bewilderment and other such consternations. Divorce now complete, we need to look ahead not back.

The second half of 2023 wasn’t quite as bad, but it could have been better, so that can clear off as well. The only good things that happened were Kathy forming a blossoming relationship with Andrew, a neighbouring farmer, and our horse, Lexie, making an almost miraculous recovery from an illness that we thought would be the end of her. It might re-emerge, but so far, these months later, all is well. Kathy has taken to helping round a real farm like a duck to water, assisting with sheep and cattle and driving the tractor and Land Rover when required. Oh, that was another good thing, Kathy learnt to drive and passed her test first go with flying colours. I’m so proud of her.

More good things are Rafale, the colt foal who ‘joined’ us in late May (Lexie’s foal) and Yara, an ex-racehorse, bought because we’d lost our beloved Saffy and her son Franc. Yara is an absolute delight, a gentle mare willing to do anything to please – except race. She wasn’t suited to it, hence her ‘for sale’ status. At the moment she is still ‘chilling out’, putting bad experiences behind her and settling in nicely to the relaxation of the Devonshire countryside. Kathy will start work in earnest with her now the New Year has come and gone. Likewise, Saffy’s other foal, Phoenix, is now four years old, and ready to start learning grown-up things. She has already been lightly broken and backed, but now needs to move on to the next stage – although slowly and carefully, for she has the potential to be a cracking good horse, just like her mother was.

Being positive, what else was good about 2023? Not a lot. I had a stairlift put in, thanks to the approval of the County Council. It does make our already somewhat narrow staircase even narrower, but as I now get to ride up and down the stairs, the ‘breathe in’ requirement is no longer a problem. It is SO much better to go up or down without a struggle, or being in pain from the arthritic hip and knee, both of which were inclined to give way without warning. Add in my wonky eyesight, which causes a profound sensation of imbalance … well, you can see why my stairlift is a great hit!

It came fitted with a warning ‘beep beep beep’, like a reversing lorry. I had that feature disconnected. Sound carries through this old house, and who else is there to warn about an approaching up/down elevation vehicle anyway, apart from myself, my husband, two cats, the dog and a handful of resident ghosts? The safety seat belt made me laugh as well, but I suppose it has its uses.

I’ve been told that our ghost housemaid isn’t all that impressed by the stairlift. I think the noise and disruption of having it put in upset her a little. (Apologies Milly-Molly, but unlike me, you don’t have a problem with the stairs…)

Talking of ghosts, Kathy met a new resident shortly before Christmas. Coming back down the lane from giving the horses their breakfast one morning, Kathy saw a man sitting on the fallen tree trunk that has been in our little patch of woodland since before we moved here. He was dressed in a green Barbour coat and wore a flat cap. She thought it was Andrew. "What are you doing sitting there?" she asked. Then realised that, in fact, Andrew was on the other side of the lane by the house gate… Meanwhile, the man had vanished.

And no, despite the quote of the month, gin had nothing to do with it!

Let’s hope that 2024 turns out to be a really good, happy year for us all, and if there do have to be any hiccups, may they all be little, insignificant ones!

Until next time.