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Pan In The Park
19th November 2012 - 0 comments

Statue of Peter Pan (c) D G Jones

There are times I catch myself being a preternaturally middle-aged loser – such as playing ‘identify that tree’ from a fast moving train. What next? Being disappointed most of the time? Being jealous? As Megan, Awen and I sped down from York to London for a long weekend, I let my mind wander, and soon only noticed crimson-berried hawthorns.

About ten years ago, I went to a work friend’s party, where nearly everyone there was in their mid to late thirties. When my friend was drunk, he took it upon himself to translate what was going on. “Those two are successful,” he said, picking out two, forgettable faces. “And you know what, I’m f*&ing jealous. I’m in my late thirties and what have I done?” When I tried to point out the good things – his family and the fun we had at work, he gave me a hug. “Yeah, I know,” he said. “But I’m not who I wanted to be.”

The first full day in London was a daddy and Awen day. Off we went through damply autumnal streets, busy with Xmas lights, stopping briefly in cafes for Awen to scream and sick milk over me. Even though I was keeping to the most cosseted parts of the city, around Chelsea and Notting Hill, I was on edge. With a baby, everything seems to become a potential accident – a jostle into traffic, beams falling down from a building site. Awen couldn’t care less. She goggled at shop window displays. We found a particularly disgusting one, where purses hung from the taxidermied beaks of robins. Yards away, in a smart garden square, a living robin sang from a laurel bush.

In Hyde Park, later that day, normality returned. We were back in the countryside, albeit one with ring-necked parakeets in ornamental trees I could only guess at, and a skyline of high rises. Awen nodded off almost at once and stayed asleep as I walked the length of the park and through Kensington Gardens. We stopped at the Peter Pan statue. It's a strange story and one I never liked as a child. Opposite the bronze boy, gulls perched on every post across the Long Water; masters of their quiet sea.
Seven Blank Sheets
07th November 2012 - 1 comment

Looking through the larches

Tonight, Bonfire Night, and the dale barely stirs. Heading out to my shed to get a pad of paper, just one firework goes off, limply, across the river. A thin mist lies over Pateley Bridge; little more than the vapour trail of heron wings. The stars are especially clear. I stop my automatic path back into the warmth of the house and make myself look at them, one by one, until my eyes hurt and I'm freezing cold.

The last couple of weeks have been bloody. Two unexpected stress fronts barrelled in, catching us unawares. Since then, everything has been a cold, drizzly descent into winter and the simple pleasures of autumn in the countryside have passed me by. I didn’t notice the larch trees become golden, or get excited at the arrival of fieldfares (one of my favourite birds) from the east. We’ve started to wonder about jacking in the dales and starting again in a flat in London or one of the university towns. There’d be all the things we miss: friends, museums, posh cafes and somewhere to go for a proper curry. And there wouldn’t be a crumbling house to worry about, or ten acres of land to battle.

But then there wouldn’t be a dream to bring into reality. One summer evening I see Megan, the children and I all setting out from our lovely family home and taking a walk through our own little haven of wildflowers, studded with the trees and bushes that we’ve planted. There’ll be perhaps twelve strong bee colonies in the hive site and the streams that currently dive in and out of thickets will have been opened up just enough to make water a feature of the land. Lots of labour and lots of money would good at this point. Right now it’s just me, some of the wonderful Nidderdale AONB volunteers if I’m lucky, and the Italian rights advance on my book (which isn’t huge). And most of all we need a plan for the land - landscape gardening on a big scale.

The ten acres naturally break into seven areas, starting from: the bottom field (full of streams, trees and brambles), three acres of good grazing, a boggy acre parallel to the house, the garden and orchard behind the house, an existing two acre wildflower field and above it a small enclosure of trees and bushes, then finally an acre of thistles, ragwort and brambles.

The idea has always been to create a site which can provide pollen and nectar sources all through the year and, equally, one that is sympathetic to the existing areas. So, the lower field will become a spring wood, full of crocuses, snowdrops and other early forage. The field above it will be sown as a classic wildflower meadow. We can turn the boggy area into a pond – the single best feature for attracting wildlife. Around the house will be fruit trees and flower gardens, full of bee favourites such as salvia, catmint, borage and lavender and then above our existing wildflower meadow I want to fill the enclosure with a colourful border of trees and bushes. The final field is a mystery to me. I don’t know what to do with it.

As the stars brighten over Bonfire Night, I tear seven blank pieces of paper out of my pad and lay them on the dining table. I know next to nothing about landscape gardening, but plenty about an empty page. There’s nothing more terrifying, or more exciting. Awen and Megan are next door in front of the stove, watching a film. Despite everything, we are happy here. I pick up my pen and start laying down the bones.
A Family Of Trees
01st October 2012 - 1 comment

Awen's horse chestnut, with sycamore in background

We’re paddling around in a northern bog here, under layers of grey clouds. Grey and green and splashes of off-white sheep seem to be Nidderdale’s only colours. The river, that burst its banks so spectacularly a few days ago, is retreating. At one point, there were roads that only tractors could ford. Pateley Bridge playground vanished, except for the bandstand, the pavilion and the tops of swings and slides. Because Nelly, our inexhaustible dog, demanded walks and most of her favourite romping grounds were underwater, we spent two days exploring a local wood.

Sheltered from the rain and high enough to avoid the floods, White Wood lies in the same small valley as its more glamorous neighbour, Skrikes Wood. I’d been to White Wood all my life. I used to ride in there, bottling up my courage (and ignoring my rubbish horsemanship) to jump a four-bar gate. Recently, we’d made endless trips to drop Nelly off with her true love, Joanne the dog-sitter, who lives at the top of the wood. But for some reason, I’d never stepped off the beaten track and seen what White Wood has to offer.

There is something curiously human about trees. In the countryside, they seem to form their own communities. Woods are like towns, populated by families of birches, hazels, beech and hollies. Coppices and hedgerows form hamlets and those solitary oaks, ashes or sycamores become detached houses. Unlike wildflowers, which appear en-masse in one season (lovely but alike) and are gone the next, trees age before our eyes: from saplings, to mature adults and then pensioners, mottled by age and disease. In my lifetime, the sycamore in the field in front of Sparrowhawk Farm has lost a branch and the split at the base of its trunk has become alarming. But it still flourishes, and on summer nights often plays host to a pair of little owls, who make a hell of a racket.

Fifty feet from the sycamore, I have planted Awen’s birth tree. In the days after she was born, we would wheel her in her plastic cot into the maternity ward conservatory. There was a horse chestnut tree just outside. When the wind blew, its leaves reached towards us, slapping the glass in a sort of greeting. Happily for Awen, her grandmother knew the former dean of Christ Church college in Oxford. Growing in the college garden is a famous horse chestnut. Seeing this very tree in the 1850s, the author Lewis Carroll imagined a cat lazing among its branches. And so the Cheshire Cat of his novel, Alice in Wonderland, was born. Before he left his position, the dean had given my mother a cutting from the Cheshire Cat tree. When I told her that I wanted to plant a horse chestnut for Awen, this foot-tall offshoot, still in its pot, was delivered to Sparrowhawk Farm.

Like the sycamore, Awen’s horse chestnut is a recent immigrant to England. Native to the Balkans, the first horse chestnuts were brought to England via Constantinople some time in the late sixteenth century. It’s possible that just a few generations back, the ancestor of Awen’s tree spread its canopy over a tiny patch of the Ottoman Empire. Sycamores arrived here from the continent a hundred years earlier. But while sycamores continue to be viewed as weeds by many country people, disliked for their sappy leaves, horse chestnuts have charmed their way into English culture. Their wood may be too soft for carpentry and make poor firewood, but who can resist a tree that gives us exotic, candle-like blooms and, best of all, the game of conkers?

Sycamores were plentiful in White Wood, but I didn’t spot any horse chestnuts (although they must be there). The relentless rain kept our eyes mostly on our feet, as we made our way along the little tracks; scarcely more than sheep paths. We came across a clearing formed by three huge beeches. For all the world, they looked like a family: the tallest was dad; mum was next to him, a fraction slighter; and up a bank was granddad, older and stockier than the others. Arriving on these shores around six thousand years ago, beeches just squeak into the native English tree category. They are still considered invasive in northern England. But if these three beeches in White Wood were ever in danger of being uprooted, they are surely safe now. They have muscled out a home for themselves; their canopies pushing away rivals and blocking light to saplings below. We wandered around, admiring them, then walked away into the rain.
Awen - The Once and Future Queen
10th July 2012 - 1 comment

Megan and Awen

In a beehive, hormones are the elixir that holds everything together. As a queen moves over the comb, she releases a pheromone that keeps her constantly in touch with her worker bees. But if the hive becomes over-populated and the queen’s scent can’t reach every bee, this may trigger the workers to take drastic action. A new queen is raised, and either she, or the old queen, will lead part of the hive away in a swarm.

Humans have their own version of the queen scent. Oxytocin, otherwise known as the ‘love hormone’, is released in massive quantities to help mother and baby during labour. For the first hour after a baby is born, oxytocin levels between mother and baby peak. In this magic period, helped by skin-to-skin contact, a family bonds.

Our daughter Awen Persephone was born on a hot night at the end of June. No amount of fans and breeze from the open window could cool delivery room 3. Immediately after the birth, Awen was placed on Megan's chest. Then Megan needed medical help and I was given Awen and she lay naked on me. When the doctors finally left, Awen slept in a plastic cot next to Megan’s bed and I lay on the floor, with a bag of sweets and clothes for a pillow. With the lights and most of the machines switched off, the heat in the room began to lessen. The sound of a woman giving birth in a nearby room became a peculiar lullaby. We were in our own little fug of oxytocin; Megan and I were now worker bees, under the pheromone spell of a new queen.

It wasn’t until a few days (and a good sleep) later that Awen’s powers were revealed. There is a conservatory in the maternity ward, which looks towards the Stray – the acres of flat grass, with avenues of trees that stretches across Harrogate. I wheeled Awen into the conservatory, took her out of her plastic cot and lowered her under my shirt. She lay on my chest, head wedged into an armpit, just as she had done moments after her birth. The warmth of her body came first. And then the most euphoric, giddy sensation I’ve ever known. All the emotions of falling in love, going on a first date, making love, being perfectly drunk, the euphoria of winning and of being out at night on the sea... all wrapped up in the heat of Awen’s chest against mine.

Drugged, I sat with her in the conservatory. Outside, the wind picked up. The branches of a horse chestnut reached towards the windows, stretching out its thick, leaf fingers. Further back an avenue of beeches turned in our direction. The grass of the Stray was now the tide coming in. I lifted Awen a little, to let her see the world and the world see her. Her eyes were barely opened and not at all focused, but she may just have got a glimpse of her first tree. I made a promise to them both that I’d plant a horse chestnut in the field in front of the house.
Farewell, My Dark Girls
22nd June 2012 - 3 comments



Dotted all around Nidderdale are gates that do not open into footpaths, or open fields, but into narrow, overgrown places – disused tracks between stone walls that are pressed tight with long grass, or gorse, or blackthorn. Every so often I come across one of these closed gates, think about doing a bit of trespassing and walk on. I’m not bothered about meeting an angry farmer. No, I’m preserving these tracks for my imagination. However alluring the closed gate, can what lies beyond it be more exciting than what I’m capable of imagining?

In all the dale, there’s only one of these pathways that nags at me. A mile above and to the west of our house, where Silver Hill meets the top road, there is a five-bar metal gate. On the other side, a grassy track runs upwards to a distant second gate, shaded by two sycamores. And that’s it: no field, not a jot of green. Because of the way the track rises up, from the road nothing is visible beyond the second gate other than the clear northern sky.

This week I lost one of my two swarms. It was the second, smaller swarm of dark bees which I had taken from a local beekeeper and housed in the blue and white ‘Button Moon’ hive. It was a sad moment, but in truth the Button Moon bees were in a bad way. They were riddled with varroa and probably wouldn’t have survived the year.

After humans, the parasitic bee mite, Varroa Destructor, is the number one enemy of honey bees worldwide. This small red creature, which looks like a tiny helmet on tentacles, lives off honey bees and their brood, making them susceptible to disease and deformation. Unless you live in Australia – one of the few varroa-free countries – the chances are that if you keep bees, they will have varroa. So most beekeepers monitor for varroa, keeping a close eye on how many mites fall to the bottom of a hive. A drop of over ten mites a day in summer starts to become worrying. I was counting forty mites a day from the Button Moon hive. The yellow and white ‘Sun Hive’, was showing only one or two mites.

At this point I was faced with a dilemma – to treat or step away and let nature take her course. Many natural beekeepers don’t treat for varroa, the logic being that the stronger chemical treatments are both harmful to bees and stops the species building up long-term resistance to the mite. Besides, the hives favoured by natural beekeepers, in particular the Warre hives that I use, are meant to be much better at combating varroa than conventional hives. Their small size and thick walls help the bees easily regulate the temperature of their environment and the natural comb that the bees build in these hives is smaller than in conventional hives, leaving leaves less room for the mites to crawl into brood cells and feed off infants.

But even though my swarms were in Warre hives, the rate of infestation in the Button Moon Hive and risk of spread to the Sun Hive was too great to risk. So I treated both hives on a warm evening and walked back through the meadow, feeling pretty ambivalent about what I had done.

The next afternoon, I caught sight of a group of bees flying past the house, heading towards the wood opposite. I guessed it might be the queen on a mating flight, surrounded by male drones. It wasn’t. My next trip to the hive site coincided with a visit by Don, a neighbouring beekeeper who had agreed to be a mentor. We crouched behind the Button Moon Hive and I opened the viewing window, expecting to show him a ball of dark bees. What he saw was an empty hive, a few confused stragglers and lots of dead varroa mites. Because of the treatment I had given them, or another reason, the Button Moon bees had gone.

I was gutted, I really was. I had grown attached to this dark little swarm, that had arrived in a Pinot Grigio half-dozen box and had scuttled with such comic eagerness into the blue and white hive. The beekeeper who had given them to me had warned me of their vicious tendencies, but these bees had always been gentle around me. They were curious creatures. Whenever I sat by the hive entrance and watched them, unlike the Sun Hive bees (who minded their business), the Button Moon bees used to land on my arms or hands, have a bit of an inspection and then fly off.

That night, I spoke to as many beekeepers as would listen about what had happened. Most of them, even the natural beekeepers, said it was a good thing that the Button Moon bees had departed before the healthy Sun Hive had become infested with their varroa mites. It was still swarming season. Once the hive was cleaned, I could go hunting for new bees to replace my dark girls.

Even though I knew I wouldn’t take them back, I wanted to try and find where the Button Moon bees had gone. So I followed the line they had taken, wondering what sort of place these bees would pick for a new home. In the sycamore wood, I scanned branches and hunted around the piles of old quarried stone. It was futile. The bees had vanished.

There was one more place to try. If the bees had kept going on the same line, they would have passed through the wood and fields beyond, eventually hitting the top road somewhere close to the metal gate with its grassy track that I had never explored. Megan and I drove up there. No bees, just warmth and Gouthwaite reservoir like a glittering postcard in the distance. And it’s stupid, but in my imagination, I saw the Button Moon bees heading up the track, to the second gate and the sky beyond. They would have liked what they found. There was red and white clover for them, buttercups and foxgloves newly opened on the left hand wall. The sticky sap of the sycamores waited as a last treat before their journey into the sun.
New Arrivals!!!
12th June 2012 - 0 comments

The first bees, walking into the sun hive

After months of waiting, preparation and (recently) some anxious moments, we’ve had girls. Lots of girls! Yesterday, two swarms of bees walked into their new homes and now, finally, both my hives are full. I walked out into the field just now to see them. Opening the viewing windows on each hive, there they each were, clustered inside like sleeping newborns, sheltering from the day’s drizzle. The heat they were generating made the hive warm to the touch.

Having both colonies is a huge relief. My hive site wasn’t ready until a week ago and I missed a rash of local swarms that appeared during the May heat wave. Two washout weeks followed, in which no bees swarmed. By the end of last week, I was starting to get twitchy about my lack of bees and increasingly jealous of the swarm my friend Mark had picked up. Apparently his bees were doing brilliantly. I was starting to consider the possibility of being in the idiotic position of writing a bee blog without actually having any bees.

What is a swarm? If you think of a colony of bees (one queen, a few thousand male drones and around fifty thousand female workers) as a single organism, then a swarm is essentially the child of that organism. Many factors trigger a swarm, but the most common are over-crowding in the hive or an old queen who is no longer laying strongly. When either of these happen, the workers create new queens by feeding chosen larvae a special super-diet of proteins, vitamins, sugar and fatty acids known as ‘royal jelly’, which will turn the larvae into queens. After sixteen days, the first new queen hatches and kills her rivals. Now, either she or the old queen will leave the hive, taking a collection of drones and workers with them. This is a swarm. To begin with the swarm will assemble close by, while scout bees go in search of a permanent home. As soon as that home is found, the swarm will head off for its new life. Of course, bees being utterly unpredictable, there are many permutations of what I have just described. But that’s the general idea.

In an experience that makes good drama, but sucks in real life, I’ve both been on standby for Megan to go into labour and for the phone to ring with news of a swarm. Since her waters broke three weeks ago, Megan has been keeping her hospital notes on a chest of drawers by the front door. Two drawers down, I had stashed my bee suit and swarm-collecting notes. We took bets on which would come first. I bet on the baby. She bet they would come at the same time. I made a joke about dropping her off at the hospital and, if things weren’t moving along, making a dash for the swarm. Megan, naturally, was amused and delighted by this.

On Saturday, the weather was fine and was expected to last through the weekend. If bees were going to swarm, now would probably be the time. At RHS Harlow Carr, there is a bee supply shop. I wanted to get a skep (a straw container for catching swarms, or in the old days for keeping bees), so we drove there and while Megan and the bump looked at plants, I went shopping. I ran into Sue, who mans the local swarm hotline. Mid conversation, her mobile rang. There was a swarm, but it was a long way away. She put her hand over the receiver and asked if I wanted to go all that distance to fetch it. There was always the chance the swarm might have flown off before I got there.

I’d be lying if I said I remained cool and calm. Megan was fished out of a cafe queue and bundled into the car. A rubbish expectant bee parent, I’d left all my swarm-catching gear at home. Back at Sparrowhawk Farm, I loaded up the car, stole the camera from the hospital bag and set off, northwards. I’ve read all about taking a swarm and spoken to people who have taken scores of swarms. Mostly it’s a straightforward endeavour: there are a ball of bees hanging off a tree, you shake them into a skep, put the skep on the ground to allow the stragglers to find their way in, then wrap up the skep in a sheet and stick it in the boot of your car. It looks easy, joyful even, but so does birth on the hypno-birthing dvds Megan and I have been watching.

Leaving Nidderdale, I was met with a black skyline. I’d be taking the swarm in a storm. Now, I know that swarms are usually gentle and a bit of rain makes them gentler still, but a storm? I had no idea how that might affect them. My imagination, over-active at the best of times, began to take me off into bee doomsday scenarios. I think I was more worried about making an idiot of myself than having a catastrophic allergic reaction to bee stings, but there wasn’t much in it. As I drove, I practiced hypno-birth breathing. In: one...two...three...four. Out: one...two...three...four...five...six...seven...eight. By the time I got my out-breaths up to twenty, the car was enveloped in rain. When a tractor and trailer blocked the road, I fished out my swarming notes and did some last-minute cramming.

Fortunately, there were midwives at hand. Janet and Kevin have kept bees for the past three years. This swarm had come off one of their hives and because they had no new hive for it, they had rung the swarm hotline to offer it to another beekeeper – me. Hearing that I was a novice, they kindly gave me a lesson in taking a swarm. The bees were hanging off a branch, just above head height, with no branches below them. I’d read enough books to know that is was an absolute dolly of a swarm to take. And so it was. While Keven held the skep under them, I stood on a bench and gave the branch a hard shake. The bees fell, plop, into the skep. Just like in the books, we put the skep on the ground to let the stragglers rejoin the swarm. Half an hour later, encouraged by a little smoking and the heavy rain, all the bees were in. I’d been all for just wrapping them in a sheet and hoping for the best, but Kevin and Janet boxed them beautifully for me.

I drove home with exaggerated care, radio down low. After a year of planning, finally I had bees! Finally I was a beekeeper! My bees were coming to live in a beautiful hive site, with a high wall to keep the wind off and surrounded by fruit trees and wildflower meadows. Ok, this is all still a bit under construction, but it’s half way there. What is 100% ready though is their warre hive, with its thick red cedar walls, quilt filled with sheep wool and fancy upgraded mesh floor to keep varroa mites at bay. This swarm would be going into ‘sun hive’, painted in sunflower yellow and white, with Megan’s sun symbols on the roof. Bees apparently recognise shapes – when I have many hives, the symbols would help them recognise their home.

Nidderdale was cold and wet when I returned and evening was coming. My only option for housing the bees that night was to open up a hive and chuck them in. Now I don’t have any idea what goes on in bees’ minds, but I can’t believe they would be happy about being shaken into one box and thrown, convict-like into another all in one day. So I took the skep out to the hive site, laid it next to the sun hive, wedged a brollie over it to keep off the rain and prayed everything would stay put until the morning. Job done for the day. Or so I thought.

There was a call waiting for me when I got in. A local beekeeper had a small swarm. Did I want it? Yes! Could I go get it? I wanted to, but couldn’t – Megan and I were due to go to a friend’s for dinner. I’d just have to hope the swarm was still there tomorrow.

A fierce wind picked up in the night, coming out of the moors at the head of the dale and hitting the west wall of the house. By seven in the morning, I had been awake for an hour, worrying that the skep would have blown over. I went out to the hive site and was relieved to find that everything was as I had left it. There was a muggy warmth in the air, the sun moving behind light clouds. A good day to walk the bees in to their new home. A few bees were already emerging from the skep, heading into the meadow. Would they find the pockets of red clover, a bee favourite, amongst the sorrel and pignut? Would they come back and report, with a waggle dance, that their new home was worth a try?

Walking bees into a hive is the traditional way of doing things. What you do is put a ramp of sorts up to the hive entrance and lay a sheet over it. Then you pick up the skep and shake the bees onto the sheet. As bees generally move upwards, they will head up the sheet into the hive. So that’s what I did. The bees landed in a big, buzzing dollop on the sheet and I sat on a nearby stone, camera in hand, to watch. Having lived in Africa for some years, I’ve been on countless safaris. The best thing I ever saw were mountain gorillas in Rwanda. For an hour, I sat watching the youngsters play tag, while the mums brushed past me and dad sunbathed like a drunk. It was the way the gorilla family communicated that was so magical. You could see everything going on in their heads. This, too, was what was so special about the march of the bees. First, scouts were went up the ramp to investigate, then a small platoon. I moved closer, hoping to see the tell-tale sign that the bees were giving the thumbs-up. And there it was – a number of them were fanning their wings, bums in the air. At the end of their abdomens, their nasonov glands were shining, giving off a pheromone which tells the other bees that a good home has been found. And, on cue, the main body began to make their way up the ramp. Soon, there were thousands clustered around the hive entrance. In a small dance floor just outside, a group were dancing in a circle – the traditional bee dance to tell the others that forage (or in this case, a good home) was close by.

Of course, a few bees ran off back to the skep and had to be tipped over the entrance and some others started crawling up the hive and were gently brushed down. The best method, I found was a few light squirts with a mister. Thinking rain was coming, the bees scuttled inside. And although they buzzed around me and sat on my hands, not one of them stung me. As an experience it was right up there with the gorillas. And, a little intoxicated by the experience, I couldn’t wait to pick up the second swarm and do it again.

The bees of the second swarm were darker, more akin to the native English black bees that are now basically extinct. They had already been housed in a small wine box, so there was little to do other than put them in the back of the car and take them home. These bees were destined for the ‘Button Moon’ hive – blue and white with the resident artist’s designs on the roof. It had meant to be the moon hive, as chic as its solar brother, but Megan’s deep space extravaganza prompted a title change. Once again I set up the ramp and sheet and tipped out the bees. And whether I was getting better at it (parenthood is easier second time around?), or whether the button moon bees could sense the rain in the air, they fairly dashed inside in a great excitement of shiny fanning and circular can-cans.

As the rain began to fall, I sat on a stone, gawping at the hives. Now it was all done and the bees were inside, it seemed like the easiest, most natural thing in the world. My gittery car ride into the storm now seemed absurd. Yes, these bees would sting me at some point and they may clear off tomorrow, but it had been a beautiful start to our relationship. I found myself talking to the two hives, telling them about the wildflower and trees I was going to bring to them... then Megan was calling and the rain picked up, as if to slap me for being such a loon.

At home, I was met with an irate pregnant lady, who had no intention of listening to more of my bee reveries or letting me put my feet up in front of the French Open final. Family number one had been sidelined for the weekend and wasn’t happy. I was ordered to drive family number one to Baby’s R Us in Leeds, an hour and a half away, where I would buy a very expensive push chair.

(For a gallery of all the action see here).
Waiting
28th May 2012 - 0 comments

Bluebells in White Wood

At the start of the week our dale put on its best impression of Asia, becoming so sweaty and close that even the Turkish waiters at the local pub were complaining. Then the winds came; not strong, but just enough to clean up the skies and let the sun through. The result has been spectacular. White is in the ascendant. Every hawthorn is in flower; something I’ve never seen. Even the tree facing the baby room has given up years of green stubbornness and burst into white. Cow parsley and stitchwort fill the hedgerows with lace and stars. On Sunday we took Nelly into the bluebell wood past Bewerley and it was like stepping into a painting. Whether it is a trick of the sun, or a trick on ourselves, neither of us can remember Nidderdale looking so good.

Megan’s waters broke a week ago, we think. Our regular scan on Wednesday was going fine, until the consultant appeared, looking tense. ‘Did you know your waters had broken?’ she asked. ‘What?! No. What does it mean? Is the baby ok?’ Many tests later, we were told the baby was fine. It’s rare, but not unheard of for waters to break without being noticed. When it happens, if the mother doesn’t go into labour soon after, she can often not go into labour until term, although that carries a risk of infections. The baby is at 33-weeks, so three weeks from being in ideal shape for appearing. The best bet, our consultant said, was to give Megan all the relevant drugs, monitor the baby closely and hope it stays put for a little longer. But it could come at any minute.

So, we’re waiting. After the first sleepless night, Megan was possessed by a strange calmness. In the hot, beautiful weather, she’s been nesting inside the house and out. The laundry room and the hall has been emptied and cleaned and the back garden has been given a makeover. I can’t say I’ve reacted quite as well. There’s been some panic equipment-checking, car-filling, googling, but after a while this has been curbed. You feel a bit of a plonker, freaking out when your very expectant wife has turned into a Zen master. There’s been nothing for it but to give in to the uncertainty and the heat.

Slow, methodical tasks are good. While Megan potters in the garden, I’ve been painting my beehives. One hive is mint and white, the other a pale sunflower and white. The sheepswool to insulate the hive rooves, delivered au naturel by the farmer, has been washed in the bath and laid out in the sun. Our days have taken on a dreamy quality, as if our bodies have put us on auto-pilot, resting us for what lies ahead. Is this why the dale looks so once-in-a-lifetime incredible? If we were in a normal state of mind, maybe we wouldn’t think it was special at all?

Some time in the next three weeks, Megan will be on the maternity ward in Harrogate hospital. It could happen tonight. We’re both scared, but overwhelmingly exited to meet our baby. We are longing to be parents, just not quite yet. Fingers crossed we’ll be waiting a few weeks more.
Spring's Siren
10th May 2012 - 0 comments

The wood opposite the house, home to sycamores and (somewhere) a cuckoo

There’s a cuckoo in the woods opposite the house. It began calling last week, mostly from mid morning to early afternoon, as distinctively cuckoo-like as you could want. And it seems crazy, but I’m sure I’ve never heard one before. I’ve racked my brains, remembering every late spring sound from childhood in Norfolk, through London, Kent, Berkshire, Yorkshire, Edinburgh and then any number of countries until back to Yorkshire – you should try it, it’s incredible what reappears – but there was no cuckoo calling. The closest I came was a wood pigeon in Kent; my memory opening onto a warm afternoon, standing in the garden next to the fence, when I asked and was told what bird was making the noise. I’m still a bit bowled over about being given this memory, to the point of being suspicious. Can this little chocolate box really be true? Does it matter either way? For ages, if I could only hear one bird, for the rest of my life, I would have plumped for a wood pigeon. Now, having heard a cuckoo, I'm wavering. And I'm longing to hear her siren song again.

So Nelly and I have incorporated cuckoo hunting into our morning walk. At the woods, I find a dry patch to sit while she disappears off, every now and then sending up pheasants. The trees here are mostly sycamores, their trunks wide apart on the steep, stony floor. Scanning them, hoping for a grey and white flash, I notice how tactile sycamores are with each other. Like children, their branches reach out to hold hands with other sycamores, but are less friendly to neighbouring beeches and hollies. Every day this week, I’ve staked out the wood but haven’t seen or heard the cuckoo. Nelly has become bored. Last time, she put a paw on my knee and gave me a look that said: ‘river, now’.

At home, with only two months to go, nesting activity is on the increase. One bedroom has been turned over into a storage dump of all the things we need, all the things it’s vital we have and the ‘you’ll thank me we got this now’ stuff. Meanwhile, in the main nesting site, a carpet is going down, double glazing is being put in and I’m painting up tired bits of furniture. Mrs cuckoo has a hassle-free alternative. She just dumps her chick in another bird’s nest. It’s not polite, or nice (especially when the newborn chick kills off its rivals), but there’s no housekeeping and she jets off on holiday a few months afterwards. There’s something of an F. Scott Fitzgerald character about Mrs Cuckoo; glorious and feckless and ruthless.

I’m going to give the woods a few more days on the off-chance that she shows up. She won’t, of course. I’m looking for wind and listening for shadows. And I’m almost regretting having heard her at all.
Unfamiliar Voices
04th May 2012 - 0 comments

A typical Yorkshire farm, one damp morning

The house I grew up in was opposite a pub; which is less fun than it sounds when you’re five years old and trying to get to sleep. Sleep was touch and go, until the last noisy hooray (it was one of those parts of Thatcher’s London) vanished into the night, calling to his mates, a cab, or just for the hell of it. Because my room was at the back of the house, I couldn’t see the pub. Craning out of the window only provided a view of a section of street. My tormentors were invisible.

Over many nights the calls became more familiar, until I was even starting to recognise one hooray from another. I found a favourite – Mr Swear. If you’re going to go about waking up small children at least give them something to smile about. He never left the pub in any fixed direction. I’d spot him occasionally, swearing into the distance, with his long, combed-back hair and heavy gait. He never turned back to show me his face, so I imagined him as a cross between Mr Twit and Charlton Heston’s Moses - but swearing.

7am, a Monday morning some thirty years later. The overcast, flat landscape outside Harrogate was soaked green. I had got up early to drive to a livestock farm. Young cows in the barns were pressing over metal gates towards the morning, in that curious, fearful way that always saddens me. Around the back of the outbuildings was a quarter acre patch where the farmer stored his junk. The piled-up doors, fridges and odds and sods of stone were screened from the rest of the farm by wet hedges and wet trees.

Everywhere there was birdsong. Not short, warning calls, but full on singing, as varied in tune and tone as if half a dozen national anthems were being belted out. It was easy to pick out the descending notes of a chaffinch, the noisy ‘tsee tsee’ of blue tits, chiffchaffs with their namesake calls, and the tenor voices of blackbirds – are there finer singers? Yet for all the noise, there was something not quite right about this farm. The birds were making lots of noise, but it was just the same small handfull of voices, over and over. It was like turning up to a party in full flow, and slowly starting to realize that lots of your friends who you expected to be there, haven’t turned up.

This is a story that’s being played out not just at this farm, but at farms across the UK. Since the late 70s, our farmland bird populations have plummeted. And this is not just happening in the UK. A recent pan-European study, looking at bird species in 25 European countries demonstrates that birds living on farmland (the largest single habitat for birds in Europe) are by far the most threatened and in decline.

Once common species such as the turtle dove, grey partridge, corn bunting and tree sparrow have declined in the UK by over 80% from 1970-2004. Linnets, who rely on seeds to feed their young have been hit by herbicides and winter stubble and are down 49% in the same period. The quintessential farmland singer, the skylark (popularised by the composer Vaughan Williams, has seen numbers fall by 53%, while lapwings are down by 46% - both due to loss of habitat from autumn sowing. And so the list goes on – yellowhammers (down 54%), song thrushes (down 50%) and starlings, whose wheeling flocks are one of the great countryside spectacles are down by 72%, their young dying from a lack of insect food.

Increasingly intensive farming practices lie at the root of these declines. There is more information here, but essentially increased use of chemicals, changing harvesting times, urbanization, and a loss of habitats such as verges and hedgerows in both normal and the American-style prairie farms has all affected farmland bird numbers.

In 2008, in a typical example of food demands vs good environmental practice, following poor harvests the European Union waived its 20-year rules on set-aside land – which in the UK had previously ensured about 8% farmland was left alone for wildlife. Conservationists, not surprisingly, were horrified. Farmland birds need three basic things for survival: a safe nest site, food in spring and summer for their young, and food and shelter over winter. The 2008 EU policy was as good as going into a wheat field with a shotgun and a pack of dogs.

Tackling the decline means both effectively charting it and getting farmers actively caring about the birds on their land. Since 1999, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has been sending its volunteers out to survey farms across the UK during the breeding season. The birds are recorded on a map and given to the farmer, along with a detailed report and advice on how farmers can seek agri-environment grants – schemes whereby farmers are paid if they improve wildlife habitats on their land.

Some months back, I’d signed up to be a RSPB farmland survey volunteer. There was a training day in March, in faraway east Yorkshire, where on an icy walk around a farm I quickly discovered that my twitching skills were miles behind most of the other volunteers. A smudge, flashing behind a hedge was immediately recognised as a male sparrowhawk. A chaffinch was calling, but there was some debate as to whether it was a male or a female. I was back in my childhood room, hoping for a voice I could definitively recognise – an avian Mr Swear. My party trick among lesser twitchers (yes, it’s a party you want to be at!) is identifying the rasping call of a goldfinch. At the faintest sound of this finch, I planned to shout out – ‘female goldfinch!’ – a devilish ruse given that males and females look almost alike and appear in groups. Here would be my moment of glory, when these master twitchers would realise that an equal was amongst them. But as it happened I was eating a Mars bar when we came across goldfinches and yellowhammers in a hedge and someone else got in there first. So for the rest of the walk, I kept silent, growing progressively colder and grumpier.

Thankfully, new RSPB surveyors are generally sent out with someone experienced in their first year. I was lucky enough to get paired with Ian, a real birding pro. Over an initial chat in the pub, he claimed not to be that great on identifying birds by sound. But standing with him, in the damp early morning around the back of the farm, he knew every call and every burst of song. Ten minutes with him was worth more than hours listening to bird calls on the internet. It’s all a little bit of a riddle – hearing the call, figuring out what tree the bird is in, where in the tree it is hiding and if it’s alone or among friends. Ian admitted that it had taken him years to get to where he was, partly, he thought, because he didn’t have a musical bone in his body. I nodded, empathetically, not owning up to all those childhood violin lessons, and kept up my irritating: ‘Is that a...? And that’s a...?’

Leaving the farm buildings, we set off for what would turn out to be four hours of trudging alongside hedgerows and picking our way through cattle bogs. It’s a slow, methodical business, doing a bird survey. And probably one best done alone; when you can envelop yourself in thoughts and let the landscape shift and blur into whatever your mind wishes. Besides, there’s little time for talking when you’re busy listening. We walked in silence for the most part, finding little other than blackbirds, chiffchaffs and chaffinches. Underfoot the grass bore the signs of too much treatment; it was mostly coarse and free of herbs. When we left the farm area and walked through a neighbour’s field, the change was immediate. Cuckoo flowers, dandelions and celandine lay over grassland dense with herbs. It may well be pure coincidence that it was at the further reaches of the farm that we saw some of the rarer species we’d been hoping for. A single linnet on a telephone wire was a precursor to a pack of these pretty finches, who swarmed out of a tree to eat seeds. We saw rare redpolls, and greenfinches, albeit in a neighbouring garden.

It was close on midday and the overcast sky had finally begun to spit down when we returned to the farm buildings. We planned the next survey and then went our separate ways. It had been a long and for the most part uneventful morning, but now I might just be able to recognise sweeping flight of a linnet and pick out a wren in a chorus line of similar-sounding robins and dunnocks. In the countryside, the joy is in the detail, in the long, slow learning. It took me months to pick out just one voice coming out of a pub. Mr Swear has stayed with me, in all his foul-mouthed glory. He’ll never know how much pleasure his memory still gives.
All About The River
22nd April 2012 - 1 comment

The Nidd, a short way downstream from Glasshouses

Swallows are back in the dale. I saw a pair in Wath at the start of the week, fast and low over the river meadows. Yesterday, again by the Nidd, four more were engaged in what looked like furious pursuit until there came a brief mid-air collision and I knew I had just seen the female swallow take the pick of her three suitors.

It’s the river that the returning swallows seem to favour. I’ve been keeping a look out, but seen none on the hillsides. Probably I’ve simply missed them. Or perhaps it’s because of the relentless rain and cold we’ve had all week. If I had just come from South Africa, I’d probably hole up in barn close to the Nidd.

Apart from being the most sheltered spot in the dale, the river bank is also the most sociable. The birds there are hiding under sodden branches, but singing hard – their equivalent to a night down the pub. Setting out from Glasshouses this evening and walking with the current into lower Nidderdale, blackbirds and chaffinches led the chorus, with the odd squawk from goldfinches. A pair of dippers chased each other up and down stream – yelling abuse or trying to get it on, I couldn’t tell.

Our baby’s eyes are open now and we’ve been having a debate about shining a torch at Megan’s tummy. Megs thinks it’d be a nice way of saying hello. I don’t. I reckon the poor little mite would feel like a dingy caught in a lighthouse beam. Right now he or she is tucked up and protected from cold and rain, the wind that seeps off the hill into our house and the sun that always seems brighter in a wet landscape. We don’t need a torch to communicate. A prod produces a prod back. Blowing a raspberry results in disgusted stillness.

The Roman poet Pliny the Elder wrote that swallows feed celandine to their young, to improve their eyesight. The meadows alongside the Nidd are packed with celandine. But even if I had picked a bunch and fed them to Megan after a torch infringement, they wouldn't have worked. Our celandines are the wrong sort. Pliny was talking about greater celandine, and in Nidderdale we have the lesser variety. Pliny's celandines are a sort of poppy, ours are squat little buttercups.

Anyhow, the foul weather this week has done for Nidderdale's lesser celandines. It's time for the next wave of flowers to take over. In the meantime, the lock-in continues by the river and the baby hopefully stays where it should be, sheltered and warm, until mid-summer.
A Weekend Down South - Part 1 - Yurt Love
04th April 2012 - 1 comment

Photo (c) Yurts Direct

At the end of February, I drove two hundred and fifty miles south, to start putting our wildflower meadow dreams into reality.

I had arranged to see a yurt importer, a seed supplier and then spend a weekend on a biodynamic beekeeping course. It was a long way to go, but at least all three were close to each other; in south London and East Sussex. As a bonus, the weather down south was forecast to be unseasonably warm. Half way down the M1, the clouds rolled away and the sunshine poured down. I stopped at a service station, shed my jumper and called Megan to gloat.

That night I stayed with friends in north London. The next afternoon, I found myself in a race against dusk, heading for a show yurt across town. When I was twenty five and back from Africa looking for a journalism job, I had worked for a few months as a minicab driver in London. I was possibly the worst minicab driver in London. I had no sat-nav and no sense of direction. My Olimpicars call number was 007 – licence to get lost. Once, a fare jumped out of the cab at some lights and ran off, swearing. Another time, I was threatened with refunding a business-class plane ticket. Old habits die hard. Two and a half hours later, in the growing dark, I pulled up in residential street in Croydon.

I love being in tents; feeling the wind shake the canvas, hearing the rain and watching the sun pass over. Our dream is to have a permanent tent on the land to be part writing hut, part workshop space and maybe even part guest room. There’s onl y one problem; the Yorkshire winter. A Mongolian yurt is the obvious answer. These squat, round tents are designed for one of the toughest climates in the world, with temperatures ranging from a bone-chilling -40C to +40C during summer in the Gobi desert. Tim Scarlett, who runs Yurts Direct, appears at the front door. He’s in his forties, more reserved than I expected from our phone calls and married to a Mongolian woman. In 2005, they set up a factory in Mongolia and have been importing yurts to the UK ever since. Tim leads me to his back garden, and... there it is... all the way from the steppes of Asia to a narrow, uneventful, south London garden.

On the outside, it was disappointing – lower and smaller than I had expected. But bend down to go through the carved door and step inside and the yurt grew in every sense. It wasn’t just that it was tardis-like, with acres of room for a bed, tables, cupboards and a stove; it was also painstakingly pretty. There was detail everywhere; on the carved central poles and painted doors and lattice frame. The frame rose to a crown wheel with glass windows. I watched a plane’s lights in the sky, probably heading for Gatwick. It could just as easily have been heading for Ulan-Bator, with Mongol me looking up from a camp at the empty heart of somewhere.

Tim explained the costs of transport and the costs of building a base. My sensible self grew adamant: Yurts are expensive, they're a bit of a nightmare to set up, I haven’t sold my book yet and we’re having a baby. And yet, and yet... I couldn’t overcome the thought of this yurt perched next to the stream in front of the house. It didn’t just belong in the meadow, in a strange way it was already there. It had been there for weeks, ever since Megs and I had drooled over the pictures online. We’d imagined dinners outside it, the rubbish spare room bed we’d install inside and walking over the clammy early morning grass after a night sleeping out.

So I shook Tim’s hand and told him I’d be calling him within the year.
A Weekend Down South - Part 2 - Into The Woods
03rd April 2012 - 1 comment

Ashdown Forest. Photo (c) Mick House Photography

Creating a 4-acre wildflower meadow on a south-facing site in the Yorkshire Dales sounds easy. It probably is. After all, we already have wildflower meadows behind the house. If we only grazed the new site between October and March, and otherwise let it be, chances are that nature would do the work for us. The only thing is that nature doesn’t like to be hurried. She might create a wild garden for us in twenty years. But we want to see something in full flower in 2014.

This is where things can get complicated. And expensive.

Colin Slator, the (sadly) outgoing conservation ranger for Nidderdale, came up with the cheapest and easiest solution. We just chat up a woman across the dale who has a wildflower meadow, get hold of her cuttings in late summer and throw them over our site. It’ll probably work, especially if we scarify the site first. But it’ll be tricky to get enough cuttings for four acres and it’s bound to be a bit hit and miss.

That’s the thing about creating a wildflower meadow. Get it wrong, especially over a large site, and you’ll end up hundreds, if not thousands of pounds poorer, with little more than a muddy field to show for it.

It’s a nerve-wracking experience, for sure. If you’re creating a perennial wildflower meadow, you won’t see much in year one. I can see myself, on the second spring, sitting with some friends on the wall overlooking the field, reassuring them that something will happen soon. And inside, I’ll be a little sick with fear, wondering whether all that money we could have spent on baby things, will come to nothing. The solution was to seek expert help.

I’d come across Steve Alton in a circuitous way. Late last year I’d contacted the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI) at Sussex University. LASI is run by Professor Francis Ratnieks, one of the world’s leading bee scientists. I was wanting to find out if the unit had a list of pollinator-friendly plants. Admin put me in contact with Ratnieks’s research fellow, Dr Karen Alton. When I explained my plans to her, she said I should speak to her husband, Steve. A former conservation officer, he went on to run the UK Programme of the Millennium Seed Bank Project at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, before setting up his own consultancy, Sussex Nature.

Steve and I met on email and talked through the project. Not only was he full of good advice, he could also supply wildflower seed mixes at good prices. And happily, Steve was based in East Sussex, just around the corner from the biodynamic bee course I had booked to go on. We made a plan to meet for tea.

But by the time I left Tim Scarlett's yurt and headed out of Croydon for the M25, it was dark and I was three hours late for my meeting with Steve. He’d suggested we switch to a pub. I have him some wildly optimistic ETA, he (reading between the lines) told me not to rush.

Thankfully, the M25 was almost clear. I turned on the radio and let the exits go by, starting to relax for the first time in days. The stress, then joy, of a twenty-week scan had been followed by the flurry of finding an agent to represent my book and a meeting in London that had left me at sixes and sevens. People liked what I had written?! They were certain I’d get published across territories. Really??!! A baby and a book; neither had been easy journeys. Megan and I had grown used to bad news. It was too unreal to imagine that both dreams might finally come true.

The Gatwick turn appeared and I took it, entering Sussex. To my mind there is something old fashioned about this corner of England. It may be because the only people I knew here were of my grandmother’s generation. Perhaps it’s to do with the countryside hereabouts that feels permanently damp and viewless; like the many small roads that were once river-ways, or the old, low houses that look lovely on the outside, only to be dark and close inside. Whatever it was, Sussex always made my heart sink.

Tonight was different. Even driving through the darkness, I was aware of the woods. The road was entering the fringes of the Ashdown Forest, the largest wood in South East England. I guessed at oak, birch and beech and wondered about the wildflowers and shrubs that grew in the black spaces between them. The countryside I had seen as damp and dull now grew in my mind into somewhere lush and interesting. I’ve written before about the transformative effect that learning about bees has on a sense of place; you start seeing the landscape in terms of nectar and pollen. It’s only a tiny window into the ecosystem, but for the first time I found myself growing to like Sussex.

The Gardener’s Arms was a nice pub without too much themed tatt, other than photos of TV gardening hotties in the toilet. Charlie Dimmock watched me pee, which isn’t what I wanted, to be honest. Steve and I found each other and sat down over a pint. Somewhere in the forties, Steve was both very knowledgeable and not remotely business-like (in the best possible sense); he was an enthusiast. I talked through my pollinator-sanctuary dream and biodynamic beekeeping plans (which raised an eyebrow and a mutter about disease control) and he outlined how he’d be able to help. Once I’d sent him pictures, a site map and soil ph results, he’d put together a detailed plan of what species we might sow in different areas, costs and a step-by-step guide on how to prepare the site and then maintain it after sowing. Crucially, Steve would look to augment the native Nidderdale wildflowers (which have a shortish flowering season), with plants which would provide nectar across the seasons. To that end, we talked about dividing the site up into three areas; a wooded area with spring plants on the lower field, rising through a classic dales meadow area and through a gap in the stone wall into an acre of long and late-flowering perennials. The hives would be placed in this last area, close to a boggy patch that I’d dig out to create a pond.

It was an elegant, simple plan. And the nice thing was that nothing was going to be rushed, or set in stone straight away. Steve would put together recommended lists of species for the three areas and we’d pick what we wanted, or find others. Steve agreed to let Megan inflict her grand planting designs on him – lucky man! We fixed a very reasonable price and I drove off, deeper into the woods, in search of my B+B, wondering what exactly Steve thought of the whole scheme. I hadn't been on my best form in the pub. I had been tired and a little rambling, forgetting the names of wildflowers like a senile host at a family gathering.

To wake myself up, I wound down all the windows. The night was becoming clear. I followed low lanes, deeper into the woods.
A Weekend Down South - Part 3 - The Sun Hive
02nd April 2012 - 1 comment

The 'Sun Hive', with the Natural Beekeeping Trust's Heidi Herrmann holding the lid

A few steps inside my B+B and the love I was starting to feel for Sussex was put to the test. The house that lay at the edge of a quiet village was as respectable as its owners. The landlady, clocking my rural address, asked how many acres my farm had. Evidently satisfied by the low figure I gave her, she informed me about the swathes of Suffolk her family once owned. I am apparently a magnet for posh B+B landladies. At the Hay literary festival a few years back, I spent a breakfast with an eye numbing hangover, having to say nice things about the landlady’s tatty old curtains that once hung in some Irish castle. Not hungry enough to brave the highly recommended village pub, I skipped dinner in favour of a bath and bed. The room was hot; hermetically sealed. I opened every window and soon the room became a nice place to be. Throughout the house, taps turned on and off and on... and off. I heard the landlady's husband moving about, accompanied by a wordless murmuring. On, off went the taps.

The first time I came across ‘natural beekeeping’ was watching a documentary last November. The Vanishing of the Bees told the horror story of colony collapse disorder (CCD) in the United States, an event where, for no apparent reason, bees desert their hives. It appeared that commercial beekeepers, who transport thousands of hives on flat bed trucks from one vast pollinator site to the next, were particularly affected. Rightly, or wrongly, the finger of blame for CCD was pointed both at neonicitinoid pesticides and also at the dubious bee husbandry of commercial beekeepers. A sage old man appeared, in the form of Gunther Hauk, who advocated a more holistic approach to beekeeping; one which focused on helping the bees, rather than exploiting them.

As someone who has spent many years as a hard news journalist, my instincts rebel childishly at anything with the whiff of hippy. I find myself itching to ask: ‘what are you selling?’; ‘are you in a cult?’; ‘one wife or five?’. Basically, I’m repressed and a cynic. But despite this, I found what Hauk was saying seemed logical. A good hunt around the internet and some months of research and I found myself strongly drawn to natural beekeeping. What is ‘natural beekeeping’? A fuller explanation can be found here and here, but in essence the aim is to mimic the conditions of honey bees in the wild, to try as sensibly as possible to adopt a hands-off approach, and to only take honey that the bees can absolutely spare.

Is this approach controversial? Yes. The primary argument against natural/biodynamic beekeeping is disease control. The hives used by these beekeepers are often trickier to check for disease than conventional hives. Additionally, because natural beekeepers believe in a hands-off (and mostly chemical-free) approach, the belief is that their practices can lead to the spread of disease. In response, natural beekeepers would argue that their beekeeping husbandry produces stronger bees, which don’t need much, if any, chemical treatment. And so the debates go on.

As a total novice, learning about beekeeping can be a bit confusing. Even on a well structured British Beekeepers Association (BBKA)–approved course (incredibly useful for any beekeeper of the natural or conventional variety), a lot of the information comes with the caveat: ‘ask four beekeepers the same question and you’ll get four different answers’.

Bees are unpredictable, and beekeeping is a lifetime of hands-on learning. From my BBKA course, I was just starting to get my head around conventional beekeeping. But I wanted to learn about natural beekeeping – definitely not part of the course syllabus. Which is how I came across the Natural Beekeeping Trust and signed up for one of their weekend courses.

That first morning in the B+B began with a (deliberately) stone cold shower. The rush of the past few days – a good 20-week scan, getting an agent for my book and racing around London – had made sleep impossible and I wanted to get myself in shape for day one of the course. The only other B+B guest was also doing the course. Over breakfast, our conversation headed from natural beekeeping into the foothills of the esoteric; which is about as far as I’m able to climb. Our landlady hovered nearby, her face a picture.

The Natural Beekeeping Trust (NBT) was founded in 2009 and has as its patron the UK Poet Laureate Carol Anne Duffy. It’s set in the grounds of a fine Victorian house, with gardens that dramatically overlook the Ashdown Forest. A clue that this house is a little out of the ordinary were sheep in its conservatory and the ornately-painted beehives placed in groups around the grounds.

Despite the incredible warmth of the past days, the morning was cold. A stove was burning inside the large, wooden teaching hut, where the other participants and the trustees of the NBT were gathered, drinking tea and coffee. There were about fifteen students, in their thirties and upwards. We introduced ourselves and it quickly became apparent that by and large this was a bunch of regular citizens, who were curious about an alternative way to keep bees. If there was any common factor it was that it marked the end of a journey and the start of something completely different. There was Steve and Frances, who had sold their home a few years ago and set off around Europe and planned to wind up in Portugal and keep bees. And Vanessa, an American, who lived in Tuscany with her husband and found herself responsible for hives in a forest of chestnut trees. Vanessa had come all the way from Italy for the course.

I’d love to have a book with entries written by every beekeeper for the last hundred years, in which they describe what truly motivated them to start working with bees. When I’ve been in a learner group and we’ve been asked to give our reason for being there, most people either say that they want to do their bit to help bees, or they want to get lots of honey, or that a friend or relative has left them bees. Nobody says the truth; most likely they don’t know themselves. Why do we want to become warden to thousands of souls? We’ll get stung, lose money and put our backs out lugging hives around. For my part, the desire to keep bees has probably come from putting down roots in the dale after so many restless years, and now hopefully starting a family.

There are male trustees of the NBT, but I got the impression that it’s a woman-dominated show. Our tutors were all women, and would each teach specific classes. Heidi would deal with the practical side of beekeeping, Penny would cover the technical stuff such as disease and hive choices, while Chantal’s talk would be on planting for bees. There were fairly strict timings and extensive hand-outs. There was a huge amount to get through in the two days, Heidi explained. She asked if we wouldn’t mind coming half an hour earlier the next day.

This set the tone for the course. As it unfolded over the two days, I was continually struck by the passion and dedication of the tutors. They wanted us to learn as much as we could about natural beekeeping, in a clear, logical way. We weren’t lectured about the overriding virtues of natural beekeeping; in fact the tutors were open and pragmatic about the imperfections of their system and some of the hives preferred by natural beekeepers. Despite their best efforts, colonies were lost. Ideally they didn’t want to use chemicals to treat for varroa (which, Heidi said, occurred at a very low rate in NBT hives), but on occasions they would.

We talked about taking honey from the bees – an area where natural beekeepers generally differ from their conventional cousins. The message here was to only take what the bees can spare. And while there is some commercial biodynamic honey on the market, this was frowned on by the tutors. Honey should be used sparingly, as a medicine not a food, Penny told me.

If I learned anything on the course it was that there was no magic trick for ensuring healthy colonies. Bees today in the UK are beset by disease and parasites. As beekeepers, the best thing we can do is to help the bees help themselves.

Conventional beekeeping is concerned with controlling bees – segregating the queen in the hive; limiting drone (male bee) numbers, preventing swarming and so on. For me, the great joy of natural beekeeping is its desire to let go of this obsessive control. Allowing bees to swarm (and therefore reproduce) encapsulates natural beekeeping in a nutshell; the delight of the swarm followed by the rigmarole of capturing and re-homing the bees. Heidi, not surprisingly was a bit of an expert at collecting swarms (you can see her at work here).

An abiding memory of the course was the hive hanging from beams in our classroom. The ‘Weissenseifener Haengekorb’ (‘hanging basket’) hive, was invented by the German sculptor Guenther Mancke. Its egg-shape was intended to perfectly replicate the way bees build comb in the wild (see here) and its design allows it to be hung high off the ground; again replicating the natural preferences of honey bees to be high off the ground, away from predators and close to the sun. Heidi had already christened it the ‘sun hive’ and saw it as the future of natural beekeeping. We all crowded around the hive, marvelling at its beauty and simplicity. One the one hand it may have been a technological breakthrough, but equally the ‘sun hive’ was just a modification of the traditional skep; Mancke had glanced back to take an elegant step forwards.

As the course ended on the Sunday afternoon, we had more coffee and cake, were given more handouts and swapped contacts. I got in my car and began the long journey north, hoping the daylight would hold until I was on the motorway. It’s not often I come away from a course, a play or a film with such a sense of excitement and time well spent. It had been a great weekend. A new chapter was beginning, finally.
Our Wildflower Wedding
21st February 2012 - 0 comments

Our wedding marquee, full of wildflowers from around the farm

Here's a blog entry I did for gardening website Fennel and Fern, telling how our wedding day bees set me on the path to creating a pollinator paradise at Sparrowhawk Farm.
A Wildflower Tradition To Live Up To
19th February 2012 - 0 comments

Snake's Head Fritillaries in Ducklington Meadow. Photo (c) Ducklington Parish Council

One spring evening, three years ago, Megan, my sister Harriette and I were walking through meadows in the fading light, wondering if I was in the right place. All I had to go on was my father's directions: 'follow the track to the river past your grandfather's poplars and bear left. Can't miss it.'

Neither Megan or Harriette had been to these meadows before. My father told me that I had visited them when I was growing up, but to my mind there was nothing familiar about the landscape. As an expedition leader, I was completely ignorant. Then again, I'd been ignorant about the magic of these meadows all my life.

My father's mother, granny Peel, was a keen watercolourist. The flowers she most loved were snake's head fritillaries. These speckled lilies nodded down at me from glass frames on the staircase. I never wondered why they were there and I don't remember liking them very much. My first favourite flowers were lupins, pansies and sedums (for the rock garden I fiddled around with).

The Peels were originally Lancastrians, but for years had lived in Oxfordshire, in the village of Ducklington, on the river Windrush; that comes down from the Cotswold hills and flows into the Thames. They owned a wood and some meadows. At the time my parents were living in London, but kept a link to Oxfordshire in the form of a tiny, damp cottage in Charlbury. I remember a few trips to the Ducklington wood; trailing behind my father through thick undergrowth on unsuccessful expeditions to shoot pigeons. But if we visited the meadows, they made no impression on me.

Either I was plain thick, or I was never taken to visit the meadows in late Spring. For then, like the clock striking thirteen in Tom's Midnight Garden, something special happens. These ordinary meadows become one of the best sites in Enland for snake's head fritillaries. Every year a picture of the meadows appears in the Oxford Times and, on Fritillary Sunday, they are celebrated in a festival organised by Ducklington church.

That evening, three years ago, Megan and I had picked up Harriette from her Oxford college and headed in search of the meadows. Fritillary Sunday was the next day, but whatever signs and decorations there might be were nowhere to be seen. I was starting to think about the pub. We went through a gate and walked out into a meadow. We wandered a good thirty yards before realising that we'd arrived.

At first, you barely see them. Then, slowly, as your eye becomes focused, the grass recedes and the purple and white flowers seem to appear all over the meadow. Even so, I felt slightly disappointed; there was nothing very special about our family wildflower field. I remembered my father's advice and, somewhat reluctantly, lay down on the damp grass.

Finally, I understood the magic of this place. At eye level, the fritillaries were breathtaking; their shape and intricate markings more Indian than English, to my mind. I lay there for a long time, not caring that the wetness of the meadow was soaking into my clothes.

A piece of my family made sense at last. My grandfather died before I was born and I'd only known my grandmother as a child, never talking to her about the flowers she loved to paint. But I know that they must have both lain down in this very meadow, to look at the fritillaries. It had taken me too long to join them.
A World Of Honeys
06th February 2012 - 0 comments

The rowan bank behind our house last summer

One of the greatest pleasures in studying honey and beekeeping, has been that it has forced me to really learn about flowers and trees.

If I am going to put bees on the land around Sparrowhawk Farm, I need to understand what their nectar and pollen sources will be. How pollinator-friendly are the flowers and trees here? What can I sow more of to make this patch of Nidderdale better for the bees?

Gradually, my knowledge of Sparrowhawk Farm is growing. I now know the trees by name in winter as well as summer, and don’t often have to peer at a book when an unexpected flower pops up. I’ve learnt which flowers and trees are favoured by which pollinators and birds, and I’ve started to uncover a little of their history and medicinal value.

In the past, I despaired at how our land was so much scruffier than the pristine, sheep fields on either side of the farm. It was as if Sparrowhawk Farm was the dirty urchin of the dale. But now I’m proud of our little wildlife haven, that teems with birds, bees and butterflies like an oasis in a desert of close-munched green.

Blissful Bees will have two honeys to start with. The first honey will come from our fields. It’ll be poly-floral; in other words, wildflower honey (made from the beautiful and sometimes rare wildflowers I have come to know and love). The second will be heather honey, from our moors and the neighbouring moors.

Really good wildflower and heather honey are two of the most delicious honeys you can buy. But they only represent a tiny fraction of the varieties of honey on the market. If you ever thought honey was just that golden, sugary stuff that you squeezed from a plastic bear bottle, think again. Honeys vary wildly in colour, in texture and in taste.

There are hundreds of different honeys around the world, either mono-floral (from bees feeding on a single tree or flower type, e.g lavender), or poly-floral (a mix of wildflowers or blended honey).

In some ways, mono-floral honeys are like wine. There are the rich, fortified wines: heather, sidr, buckwheat and manuka. The amber-coloured reds: blackberry, chestnut and hawthorn. The full-bodied whites of: lavender, clover and orange blossom. The sweet whites of: acacia, willowherb (fireweed) and borage. Not forgetting the rosés: raspberry, cranberry, rhododendron and thyme.

Here is a list of some of the mono-floral honeys on the market. Many of them can be bought in health food shops, selected supermarkets or online, for not much more than the generic blended honeys. And you’ll be buying the equivalent of a great wine, instead of forgettable plonk.
Pigs To The Rescue!
01st February 2012 - 0 comments

Half and acre of brambles, with the old slaughterhouse in the background

I grew up to the sound of pigs. On Tuesday mornings Mr Weatherhead delivered them to his small slaughter house, half way up the lane to Sparrowhawk Farm. I could hear their grunts and their hooves leaving the trailer from my bedroom. Later came the sound of the pigs being killed. Even though it wasn’t nice, I never dwelt on it. Besides, I loved pork pies too much. I would get them warm from Weatherhead’s butchers in the mornings and eat them for breakfast. They were part of every long walk in the dale and every car journey back to university. We had a pork pie wedding cake; a hundred and twenty pies (one for every guest), stacked high on a silver dish.

On a warm night, last summer, Megan and I had sat out late under the stars, amazed at how quiet the dale was. It had taken us a moment to realise that the lambs, who had been noisy in the fields all around us for months, were gone. They were off to market. The next day, I stopped eating meat. My last meal, which had hitherto been a pork pie, became something involving char-grilled artichoke hearts. My friends were surprised. I was a little surprised myself. I get a bit grumpy watching friends tuck into Mr Weatherhead’s finest, but in every other way being a vegetarian is brilliant.

Down the lane from Sparrowhawk Farm, opposite where the old slaughter house used to be, is a small field. We used to graze ponies on it, but that was over ten years ago. Today, the field is a half-acre jungle of brambles and willowherb (good pollinator plants, but not at the expense of everything else). My plan is to clear the central part of the field and sow it with wildflowers. I’m not going to use chemicals on the chaos, but nor am I going to attack it with brushcutter and shovel, as I have been doing elsewhere on the land. There are just far too many brambles. I didn’t know what to do, until a farmer suggested pigs. Stupidly, I asked what breed of pigs. ‘Them that root’, came the incredulous reply.

I had long heard rumours about pig intelligence, but until I stopped eating them I hadn’t wanted to face the truth. I’d closed the curtains, blanked out the noises down the lane and concentrated on those lovely pies. Every study into pigs finds them to be among the most intelligent animals on earth, at least as smart as dogs. And, as I’ve been discovering, they are also the best bramble and bracken destroyers out there. In Alderney and Wales, to give but two examples, pigs are being used to clear overgrown fields. Aside from not having to use chemicals, the bonus of pigs is that their rooting prepares the soil perfectly for sowing seeds. They’re careful rooters too; they tend not to eat wildflowers.

Since we moved up to Sparrowhawk Farm, Megan has been campaigning for us to get pigs (as well as chickens, goats and a donkey). She has given all of her future animals names already: Oatey the donkey (Donkeyoatey – geddit?!), Hypatia, Mimizola and Zeta the chickens, Darth and Vader the pigs and I forget the names for the goats. I was already caving in on Hypatia, Mimizola and Zeta, but was adamantly against Darth and Vader. Until now. My task for this week is to find pigs to hire and if that’s not possible, pigs to buy.

Pigs are coming back to Sparrowhawk Farm. Not to be slaughtered this time, but to be put to work by me (and pampered by Megan). She's already talking about girlfriends for them; Maggie and Boudicca...
Hackfall Wood in Winter
10th January 2012 - 0 comments

Hackfall Wood, with Mowbray Castle in the distance

On the way across fields on a dreary Sunday morning, we find an intimate scene. An ivy-clad oak has been uprooted in the recent storms. But instead of toppling to the ground, it has fallen into the arms of its neighbour. There it rests, in an embrace of interlocking trunks. Left alone, I imagine the standing oak would have the strength to hold its companion for decades. If the field were mine, I would encircle the trees in a fence and leave them be.

We are following a path that has been trodden enthusiastically by tourists since the mid eighteenth century. In 1749, William Aislabie began transforming the wood that his politician father, John, had bought, into an ornamental landscape, complete with ‘ancient’ ruins. Did the tourists gossip, as they walked through these same fields, about John Aislabie? As Chancellor of the Exchequer, John had taken a bribe worth £20million in today’s money from the South Sea Company in a deal which saw the company take on the national debt in exchange for government bonds. After the South Sea Bubble burst in 1720, a disgraced John Aislabie was sent to the Tower of London.

Fifty years later, the wood his son artfully landscaped, helped restore the family name. Scenes of Hackfall Wood were painted on the Green Frog dinner service, created by Wedgewood for the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great. The wood was hailed as one of the most beautiful in England. Turner painted here. Florid descriptions appear in numerous travel guides of the nineteenth century.

The splendours of Hackfall begin with a whisper. The fields end with a dogleg around a holly, a hop over a stile and then we are walking downwards, crossing from one muddy path to the next. At a fork, we find a red campion in flower. It is anything like a picture of health, its leaves pocked and dull. We are looking for the fountain pond. I had been to the wood many times, but never come across it. In pictures, it spouted a jet, forty feet high. When we arrive, all is silence. The water is all colours of green. Crows watch us from their nests in the tallest firs. After ten fruitless minutes trying to capture the true colour of the pond with a camera, the fountain comes to life. Seconds later it has stopped and we are glad to be rid of it.

In winter, I find Hackfall’s follies too obvious, too brash. But come spring, when the wood is heady with ramsons and anemones and the hand of man is hidden in the green, I can think of no place more beautiful.
Putting Down Roots
02nd January 2012 - 0 comments

Twenty four Queen of Sweden roses

For Xmas I gave Megan a rose hedge, to put in front of the house where a 'white' border of white foxgloves, love-in-a-mist, snowdrops and raiding yellow poppies had grown tatty with couch grass and trampled by dog paws. Only the snowdrops had been any good, fighting their way through last year's snow and then staying in flower for weeks longer than they should have. I managed to save two buckets of these little warriors, a few good foxgloves and some seed heads.

As the border was shallow, too shallow for rose roots, it was time for the iron stake and hours, on my knees, dragging out stones from the base of the border. Nelly, our dog, tried to help and was sent to the back field. She tried to crawl back under the gate, failed, then stuck her big liver nose through the rails and whined.

In the country, buying a dog means permanence: you're here to stay for the long term. When we took Nelly to the pub for the first time, regulars who'd never done more than nod a greeting for the past year, began talking to us. We were no longer passing through the dale, on our way back to London, we were here to stay.

Megan and I do plan to stop here permanently, giving up ideas, if we ever had them, of returning to London. Lack of decent work and lack of good friends are big issues, but we hope to start a family and hate the idea of doing that in London.

On the one bright morning, the roses went in. Twenty four expensive green stumps, as deep and as well spaced as I could make them. Now they need mulch and netting to keep Nelly out. And care. And luck.
The Bee Carol, by Carol Ann Duffy
25th December 2011 - 0 comments
(Taken from Carol Ann Duffy's 'The Bees', Picador, 2011)

The Bee Carol

Silently on Christmas Eve,
the turn of midnight's key;
all the garden locked in ice -
a silver frieze -
except the winter cluster of the bees.

Flightless now and shivering,
around their Queen they cling;
every bee a gift of heat;
she will not freeze
within the winter cluster of the bees.

Bring me for my Christmas gift
a single golden jar;
let me taste the sweetness there,
but honey leave
to feed the winter cluster of the bees.

Come with me on Christmas Eve
to see the silent hive -
trembling stars cloistered above -
and then believe,
bless the winter cluster of the bees.