From David Maughan Brown in York: Hedgehog Autumn

October 4th

Our allotment is exuding an air of untidy and slightly weary fecundity, as though all the effort to produce its varyingly successful harvests in the face of the summer’s topsy-turvy weather has been just a bit too much of an effort, and it is looking forward to a good long hibernation.  The bean wigwams, still fully clad and leaning drunkenly towards the East under the influence of this year’s often very strong prevailing winds, are passively drying any bean-pods we were too late to pick when green. The slowly withering stand of sweet-corn stalks is making a better job of standing, with half the cobs, their outer garments shredded and stripped bare, providing glaring evidence that the rats that infest the 180 odd Low Moor allotments got to the cobs before we did.  But only half the cobs.  It is a fine judgement as to when to pick them before the rats get there, with one night being all it takes for all the ones that didn’t seem quite ready to pick to be gnawed clean.  The rats clearly don’t draw such fine distinctions.   

The main crop, potatoes, particularly good this year, have been lifted; the gem squashes, vines withered, are lying hoping for a last bit of sun; the asparagus, grown tall, is grateful to have been staked against the wind; the leaves on the trees and the berry bushes are starting to turn.   Our agonising about what we did so wrong that the tomatoes started blackening and rotting just as they began to ripen – too much shade? too much watering? not enough watering? too much fertiliser? etc. – has been stilled by the BBC’s Gardner’s World assuring us last week that the weather has been ripe for tomato blight and that it wasn’t anything we did wrong.  So the plants have been stripped and significant quantities of green tomato chutney made.

The main reason for the allotment’s overall look of dishevelment probably lies with the fact that it hasn’t been strimmed for several weeks.   There are two and a half good reasons for that.  The half reason being that strimming with a heavy-duty petrol-driven, but theoretically self-starting strimmer, is not entirely compatible with degenerative spondylolisthesis – but it can be done, and was done earlier in the season, so it is only half a good reason – or perhaps one half-good reason.  A better one is that the strimmer itself has a degenerative fault – not caught from me, I hasten to add – and is going to have to be replaced.  A small plate designed to restrain the medium-duty strimmer line from unwinding itself and disappearing in a dangerous flash into the undergrowth, or, more worryingly, into the face of someone walking along the public path a few yards away, has fallen out and disappeared into the undergrowth itself.  Having been obliged over the past few weeks to focus intensively on the Health and Safety for those in the population who have attained the often dizzy heights of the Third Age, it wouldn’t do to decapitate a slow walker with a couple of feet of lethally rocketing strimmer cord.  But much the best reason is that we are, it turns out, proud landlords to a hedgehog family.  The family bit we have to take on trust from Harry who cultivates the next door allotment and tells us he has seen mother and baby – we have only seen the mother.

The mother is an eccentric – which probably suits the allotment, and may well be her reason for choosing us as her landlords.  I first met her walking towards my shed along the path down the middle of my allotment several weeks ago in the middle of the afternoon on one of the few seriously hot days we had this summer.  I told her that I presumed she knew that she was supposed to be nocturnal, and that I had to assume that she was very unwell.   She paused for a few seconds to eye me, rather more frostily than the weather dictated, and proceeded to divert from the path and lie down for a siesta next to one of my thus far unpatented rhubarb-forcers, an old metal dustbin which must have been radiating an unseemly amount of heat.  I assumed she had chosen that as her final resting place and that she might be trying to get on with the cremation part of things as well as the dying bit, but decided that putting an accessible container with some water near her was probably the best I could do.  

I went back early the next day half-anticipating that I might have to be a one-person burial party, but I was delighted to find that the water container was empty, and there was no sign of her. Susan and a friend spotted her a couple of days later heading up the path at a surprising rate of knots, and both Harry and I have seen her separately since.   As excuses for not strimming the allotment go, two facts are salient.  The first is that July 30th saw British hedgehogs being included for the first time in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List for British Mammals, i.e. it is now regarded as seriously vulnerable to extinction. 

“Goodbye Mrs Tiggy-Winkle” is not a phrase anyone wants to hear. From an estimated total of over 30 million in the 1950s, the number of hedgehogs in UK is now down to fewer than one million. Our allotment’s one is the first live hedgehog I have seen in 15 years. The second salient point is that I have it on good authority that, in 1066 and All That terms, hedgehogs regard strimmers as very definitely falling into the category of “not a good thing”. What better reason could there be for a somewhat dishevelled allotment?

British hedgehog now officially classified as vulnerable to extinction

from John F. in Tadcaster, UK. August in North Yorkshire.

Post no 14.  August 17. We are well behaved in this rural part of the country; masks are universal and even in the little village shop when the postmaster hands me my morning paper, I don a face shield. So far there is no sign of the virus erupting again, as it has in West Yorkshire, not so far away. The local hospital has not had a death since June 18th.

Some of the restrictions are proving frustrating. I saved Rishi Sunak £100 by taking all my grandchildren and parents to a wonderful tapas restaurant last week on a Thursday, just missing the £10 a head gift. The food was excellent as always (far better say the Spaniards whom I have taken there, compared to what they get at home) but the complex ordering system made me cross.

The menu was on the internet, so I printed off copies for everyone to save time. However we could not simply tell the shielded waitress what we wanted, but had to download the menu and an ordering system from a mobile app. As we were spread over two tables there had to be two orders and drinks were also online. The whole ordering process took 45 minutes but the waitress finally relented and accepted a drinks order before we had entered it on the mobile. Payment had to be made before the order could be sent to the kitchen; later the whole process was restarted for the ice creams etc that the children wanted.

Sandsend Beach, north of Whitby, UK

Like many people I am still a little uncertain about the regulations; I may well have been breaking them when my wife and I went to the beach at Sandsend, a little village north of Whitby. On a lovely sunny day we joined our grandchildren for a light lunch on the terrace of their holiday house and then in deckchairs on the beach. But what a wonderful orgy of nostalgia it was, as I used to go to that same beach 75 years ago just after the war.  However the young now have 21st century equipment such as wet suits and surf boards and are far more active than I ever was.

The weather has been far cooler than in the south of England and as a result our harvest has barely started. However those farmers that have combined, report low yields of poor quality barley – fit only for cattle feed rather than milling for food (or beer). Straw is very short and stubby so the income from this will be negligible. Wheat has still to be harvested and the potatoes are being drenched by huge irrigation pipes.

As ever, our local church has been slow to restore normal operations. It provides one Zoom service on Sundays for all four parishes in its benefice and a live one in the biggest church; it then lets the local churchwardens open up their churches for private prayer an hour once a week. No plans are given for full live services in the three smaller churches.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Cherry Ripe…

the harvest

July 3 ‘Cherry Ripe’ is a great example of the interpenetration of polite and popular culture in Britain.  The seventeenth century lyric poet Robert Herrick based his famous poem on the cries of costermongers (whose successors featured in Henry Mayhew’s study), selling fruit in the streets of London.  It became part of the literary canon:

Cherry-Ripe, ripe, ripe, I cry,
Full and fair ones; come and buy.
If so be you ask me where
They do grow, I answer: There
Where my Julia’s lips do smile;
There’s the land, or cherry-isle,
Whose plantations fully show
All the year where cherries grow.

In 1824 the composer Charles Horn set the poem to music, and the song immediately became a hit in London.  It was particularly associated with the contralto Madame Vestris, who as both an actor and a theatre manager was an influential figure on the Georgian stage.   A year later, the immensely successful comedy Paul Pry began a record-breaking run at the Haymarket Theatre.  Its popularity was enhanced by inclusion of Cherry Ripe, sung by Madame Vestris, although it had nothing to do with the plot.  From the theatre, it escaped back into the streets.  In 1841 the writer Charles Mackay, reflecting the growing sensitivity of middle-class householders to street music, gave a jaundiced account of the inescapable presence of Horn’s song: 

“About twenty years ago London resounded with one chorus, with the love of which everybody seemed to be smitten. Girls and Boys, young men and old, maidens and wives, and widows, were all alike musical. There was an absolute mania for singing, and the worst of it was, that, like good Father Philip, in the romance of “The Monastery,” they seemed utterly unable to change their tune. “Cherry ripe!” “Cherry ripe!” was the universal cry of all the idle in the town. Every unmelodious voice gave utterance to it; every crazy fiddle, every cracked flute, every wheezy pipe, every street organ was heard in the same strain, until studious and quiet men stopped their ears in desperation, or fled miles away into the fields or woodlands, to be at peace.*”

The popularity of the song owed much to Horn’s attractive melody, but it also reflected the perennial attraction of the subject.  Nothing speaks more eloquently of the wealth of summer than the pure red fruit.  The picture above is some of the crop from our garden this year.  The larger bowl contains sweet ‘Stella’ cherries.  They grow on a large tree we planted more than three decades ago.  It is too tall to net, so we just share the crop with the blackbirds who nest in the adjacent hedge to ensure the shortest journey to their breakfast each morning.  The smaller bowl has sharper morello cherries from a fan-trained tree on a wall, now carefully netted after the birds stripped it bare last year.

The sweet cherries became a clafoutis earlier this week, and the remainder we eat between and after every meal for as long as they last.  The morellos were bottled yesterday and will be cherry brandy by Christmas.  At least we have something to look forward to amidst the collapse of all plans and expectations. 

* Charles Mackay, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, 3 vols. (London: Richard Bentley, 1841), vol. 1, p. 336