It’s been a tricky couple of days. Yesterday’s winds prevented us from going out to the cinema to see the very appealing movie ‘What We Did On Our Holiday’, which I really wanted to see and last night was, well, the last night. Maybe it will come round again in a couple of months. We like to go to the delightful small independent cinema in Aldeburgh, on the coast about ten miles east of home. This gorgeous little place has the air of an intimate movie club where it appears that all the movies are selected for you alone. If you happen to be in the area the list of films being shown over the next two months or so can be seen here: http://bit.ly/1rurg3B

But as I said, the storm winds blowing on the east coast were pretty threatening and our route takes us along too many tiny country lanes lined with some mighty trees that I’m sure wouldn’t hesitate to fall on us if we ventured out. And how stupid would we feel if we ended up dead for a movie? You don’t really have to answer that.

The other matter that made yesterday less than perfect was the news that our beautiful village pub, The Crown, has been put up for sale. It closed in August while we were holidaying in America. Devastated doesn’t quite do justice to how I felt, I don’t mind telling you. But sadly, I have to admit it was kind of inevitable.

It was bought just over a year ago by a guy who promised to be our salvation, and before that it was owned by an imbecile. But at least the imbecile kept it open for five years or more, despite a list of scandals and cock-ups that would make you gasp.

The current owner made a wonderful job of refurbishing the interior, including a Suffolk pamment floor, opening new fireplaces and furnishing throughout with beautiful antique tables and chairs. That’s his trade actually, antique furniture restoration. But sadly not a publican. He’s a well meaning guy with boundless enthusiasm for country pubs and real ale, but not for giving the customers what they want.

You can get frequent glimpses of the place on a new BBC4 sitcom shown on Thursday evenings called ‘Detectorists’, as the pub was chosen as one of the interior locations when filming began in the summer. We were all very pleased at the time. But now it’s all a bit mournful seeing our pub on TV as it used to be, filled with jolly customers (well, maybe jolly is pushing it a bit in this case. They are detectorists after all).

Anyway, after opening the pub last summer we found that he had no enthusiasm for selling food, essential in a rural pub, and only sold beer that he liked, most of it hoppy yellow stuff that tasted of kumquats. He refused to sell Guinness or any well known brand of lager or cider, which alienates half his potential customers at a stroke. So slowly trade drifted away while the owner ploughed on regardless, refusing to see the folly of his ways. Eventually he was left with no customers and common sense prevailed when he closed the doors after just one year of trading. Daft, really.

So now he’s trying to sell it for the ridiculous sum of £550,000, having bought it for £350,000 a year ago, and that was probably too much. I think the poor guy might have to take a loss. Ho hum.

Still, tomorrow my good friend and I may well venture off to find a local pub that’s open and discuss the meaning of life over a pint or two of Earl Soham Victoria. Lovely beer.


Autumn Leaves

Well the winds outside our window are picking up, and I guess this is the early part of the remnants of hurricane Gonzalo, which has caused a fair amount of destruction on the islands off America’s east coast, and is apparently heading this way. The trouble is that the leaves are still green on the trees here in the UK, which makes them top-heavy and likely to fall if the gusts get big.

A few years ago I was helping friends cut down a poplar plantation just down the road, and the work was started a bit late in spring, which meant that no matter how we cut into the trees the major influence controlling the direction in which the trees would fall was the wind, simply because they were in leaf and therefore top heavy. That was a tricky job, but I learnt a great deal about the influence of the seasons.

Right now we’re getting autumn winds. Quite right too. They’re nature’s way of blowing the dead leaves from the trees. They’re not unseasonal, unlike most of the weather we’ve experienced in recent years due to the very obvious effects of climate change. However, what is different is the fact that the leaves should be golden brown by now. It’s October. The Germans call it Goldener Oktober, I do believe. But the only trees turning at the moment are the horse chestnuts, which really should have changed in September. They’re always the first to go.

In a few weeks time it will be firework night here in the UK. Remember, remember, the fifth of November… Well I remember ten years ago we were watching the firework displays wrapped up in scarves, woolly hats and thick coats with two pairs of socks. It was always freezing. Cups of soup were served, and we’d make the soup last as long as possible just to keep our hands warm. Breath was properly steamy. These days we wonder if it’s even worth wearing a coat.

This weekend, the middle of October, just a week or two before the clocks go back, and the sun is shining, pub gardens are still full and the east coast towns here in Suffolk are enjoying a late run of trade. It’s hard to knock it.

But tomorrow evening the TV news will be full of stories of early hurricane damage. Sensational images of a cheap wooden fence blown over in Farnborough, a tree fallen on a car in Kirby Lonsdale, tiles missing from a roof in Romford, and a mountain made out of a molehill in Minehead.

I’ll admit that I certainly didn’t fancy taking the dogs out this afternoon, and they may be lucky to get a walk at all tomorrow. We are surrounded by oaks and ash trees in full leaf just itching to fall on me. And Tuesday will be even worse.

Anyway, sleep well.

It’s a living.

October 16, 2014

I’ve spent the greater part of today packing our possessions into the car and transporting them through four miles of meandering, single-track lanes to a delightful cottage on the outskirts of a beautiful village in the loveliest part of Suffolk. My wife Mo and I will be living here for the next three weeks, looking after the house and three small long-haired dachshunds, while the owner, I’ll call him Justin, is working in Uzbekistan selling oil pipelines.

When Justin returns we’ll head back home for three weeks or so until the next tour of duty. It’s a living, and I love it.

It’s one of a number of occupations that bring in a trickle of income and prevent my brain turning to mush. For slightly less than thirty pounds a day I am required to do no more than feed and walk the dogs twice a day, and clear up the occasional indiscretion left on the living room floor. The cottage is warm and cosy, with a glorious garden of around a quarter of an acre stretching away to a wild flower meadow and bordered by high hedges on either side.

When we first came we found the trio of little shit machines to be undisciplined, ill tempered and sullen. The deeply unpleasant next-door neighbour, a crusty old lady who fancies herself as some kind of dyed-in-the-wool countrywoman, but is in fact an opinionated old busy-body who moved up from Essex in search of peace and quiet, hated them, perhaps not without good reason, for their incessant barking. She has, for good measure, a foul-mouthed thug of a son who arrives once a week to mow the extensive lawns surrounding her ugly little bungalow, and to hurl disembodied abuse over the hedge. Her unyielding, relentless complaining to Justin made his life a misery, as if his life wasn’t made awful enough by the death, just over a year ago, of his beautiful wife, Carla. For some time that was the downside of this idyllic commission.

But we’ve been coming here for nearly a year now, and in that time the dogs have transformed themselves into adorable, fun-loving companions.

ImageSometimes I feel that words are unneccesary.

yomping through the mist

March 15, 2012

There was quite a heavy mist when I set out this morning, but the sun was already showing signs of breaking through. There is something special about walking through the fog on an early Spring morning. The landscape makes its appearance almost reluctantly but what you can’t see you can certainly hear. The sky seems full to bursting with the sounds of Skylarks, very early in the season as I normally regard larks as the harbinger of high summer. And the woods are alive with birdsong amplified through the mist’s acoustics. Every so often signs of other wildlife appeared; a young muntjak lurking in undergrowth, the unmistakable smell of fox and the large hoof prints of a red deer recently following the same path as myself.

But by the time I reached the top of the hill at Benhall the sun had broken through and I was beginning to feel uncomfortably warm in the coat I’d chosen to keep out the morning’s cold and damp. But that was all soon forgotten as the view from up here is wonderful looking down into the Alde Valley. I approach the river through the meadow which, later in the year, will be sprouting giant puffball and parasol mushrooms, then cross the bridge through White House Farm and home. Brilliant start to the day.

ImageI have recently begun a regime of morning walks in an attempt to both kickstart the day and to lose several pounds of unsightly fatty substance that somehow seems to have accumulated, uninvited, about my midrift. The truth is that I’ve been quite neglectful of my body for some time, and whilst i can never claim to have treated my body as a temple I nonetheless rarely had weight problems in the past. But that’s all probably due to the fact that I used to be naturally active and would unthinkingly leap up stairs or ride my bike to the pub instead of drive. And there you have it in a sentence. Driving to the pub has been my downfall. And I can only partly blame that on the closure of my local which was a reasonable half mile walk away. Not exactly marathon training.

ImageHowever, a small leaf has now been turned and each morning will see me striding manfully across the beautiful Suffolk countryside calling to an imaginary dog and greeting passers by in my best ‘hail fellow well met’ cheery manner. Setting out from home I’m immediately offered a number of choices for the route to take. I usually set out northwards and then, after a mile or so,  either west via Hall Farm and take a wide circular route around the village and head home past the church, or east via Sweffling village and Dodds Wood, where I used to go beating in the winter, and back via White House Farm in the Alde Valley. Plus the many variations on those two.

And there is also a new added interest since my visit last week to London and the quite extraordinary David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy. To say it was inspirational is rather understating it. I now view every aspect of a quite familiar landscape in a completely new perspective, and my camera is rarely left at home, as the accompanying photomontages will testfy.

Also, as the weeks progress I can see myself returning to landscape painting again. So a morning yomp of maybe four or five miles is turning out to be good for body and mind. All in all very satisfactory.

This morning’s fine weather offered me a rare opportunity to take my camera for a walk with the intention of catching a few landscape photographs, an activity I’ve neglected over the last few months. I ambled between the chicken sheds and out over the parkland, criss-crossed with meandering sheep tracks, then plunged myself into the sudden darkness of the small chestnut wood on the other side. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom I became aware that I was standing within a few yards of a muntjak buck, which instantly bounded off, crashing through the undergrowth and disappeared into the trees.

Emerging once again from the wood and blinking in the bright sunshine, I followed a low hedge into a large field recently harvested of its crop of oil seed rape, the pungent smell hanging in the warm air heavy with dust.

This is familiar country to me and I’ve photographed the area dozens of times, but I’m always ready to be surprised. Today however, it was something I’d seen many times that caught my eye but in the past I’d kind of edited out. I found myself really noticing the dead branches of oak trees sticking out at all angles, known locally as stag horns, that scar every aspect of the landscape. On other occasions I’d either avoided these eyesores or simply retouched them out, but today I took a different approach. I recorded them and decided to find out more about this phenomenon that had damaged so many of the oak trees in this region, and that I realised I knew nothing about.

My walk took me in a wide sweep around the parish, through Street Farm and Hall Farm, then back around the church and into the village, arriving home through the woods at the back of the house, a total distance of maybe four or five miles. So I had plenty of time to reflect on what the possible disappearance of this beautiful tree would mean to this region.

Not far from where I live is the Stour Valley, a district known as ‘Constable Country’ or ‘Gainsborough Country’, two of our greatest artists whose paintings record the gently undulating landscape of Suffolk, abundant with Oak and elm trees. The latter have now disappeared completely since ‘Dutch Elm Disease’ decimated the elm population throughout the country. Are the oaks to follow?

When I got home I checked out what might be causing the damage to the trees, and after dismissing ‘sudden oak death’, something common in California and Oregon but yet to get a major hold in Britain, I searched Google for a cause to this slow but clearly quite catastrophic disease.

I soon found a couple of sites published by The Forestry Commission (here and here) that explained much of what I needed to know. ‘Oak decline’ or ‘oak dieback’ is a condition caused by a number of factors occurring in combination. Any healthy oak tree is perfectly capable of fighting off an attack from pests or diseases under normal circumstances, but in a period of drought it can become weakened and vulnerable to such attacks. After several years of dry summers in the East of England the current spell of ‘oak decline’ is thought to be caused by a beetle that attacks the bark, thus further weakening the tree and, in extreme circumstances, leaving it prey to honey fungus which will finally kill it off.

It is the drier areas of England, the central and eastern counties, that are worst effected by this decline in our native oak trees. So is climate change a factor? The Forestry Commission says, “Possibly, but it’s too early to know for sure whether it is playing a role in the current episode. However, we do know that most of the pests and diseases that currently affect British trees will benefit from the kinds of weather, such as milder, wetter winters, that we expect in Great Britain as climate change progresses.”

In the meantime I guess we can only sit and watch as the English Oak, a tree that has come to symbolize the very essence of Englishness, sinks into a slow decline.