Category: Nature


I’ve been so busy with work the last two months that I can’t relax properly yet. I’m so used to being busy, it’s hard just to sit and read or watch TV. I keep wondering what I need to do next and the answer is really ‘nothing.’ I might be called upon to do some more extra work in September but that’s optional. I’ve shown willing because an outright ‘no’ wouldn’t go down well but I’m hoping they don’t call on me. I don’t want the July thing running into the November thing. We shall see.

Yesterday I was so free I was able to go out for a walk and check out a wildflower meadow that has been planted up along a grass verge by a road. It’s just coming into high summer flower. It was alive with bees, butterflies and other insects enjoying the food the flowers provide. Formally it was something of a green desert when it was just mown grass. They should do these meadows everywhere.

There was a huge marquee on the lower lawn. It was where amateur gardeners could bring things that they had grown in their own gardens and have them judged. I say ‘amateur’ in that they are not paid for their hard work but they are very professional and very accomplished at what they do. Certain plants seem to have more passionate interest in them than others. 

Roses are one of them. They are not a native of the U.K.. The Romans brought them to these islands to decorate the gardens of their villas, possibly from Asia. They have escaped from the gardens and wild roses are found across the country in woodlands and hedgerows. Over the centuries they have become interwoven in our culture, especially the red rose of Lancashire and white rose of Yorkshire. We have changed them over the centuries, raising different varieties for different forms, shapes, colours and perfume. People devote their lives to producing the perfect rose and like to bring them to shows, such as this, to have it judged. Similar shows will be occurring all over the country at this time of year from small village shows to the huge extravaganzas at places like Chelsea and Tatton. It’s lovely to go to Tatton and Chelsea and see what can be achieved by famous gardeners with £million budgets but I enjoy the charm of local shows. Here’s some of the roses that I liked…

Sweet Peas are another plant that people are passionate about. It grows wild in the countryside but has been changed by gardeners to create hundreds of varieties with myriad colours and a wonderful perfume. It’s especially popular in the north of England where the working men in the factories, with not a lot of money or space, could grow this plant…

Chrysanthemums are another flower that excites plant enthusiasts. They were very popular in the last century but then fell from favour with their gaudy colours and shapes. But they are having a comeback now…

It wouldn’t be a garden show if the Woman’s Institute didn’t have a stand. The Woman’s Institute is a venerable organisation set up in the early twentieth century. It was set up in 1915 to allow women to get involved in food production in World War I. It had a reputation for producing food and pushing Christianity, ‘Jam and Jerusalem’ and was the province of forceful, middle class ladies with agendas. Of late it has changed, though it still won’t admit men. It still does great jam and cakes but has been involved with more serious issues affecting women and their families. Famously, they became involved with a project to raise money for cancer research when the husband of one of the WI ladies in Yorshire died of it. They wanted to raise some money for a bench for the hospice where he died. They hit on the idea of doing a nude calendar. It shocked the more staid members of the WI but the calendar was a huge success. It became a play and a movie that was a huge hit around the world. We are lucky enough to know the writer, Tim Firth. On the original calendar the WI ladies, who were all of a certain age, spared their blushes with strategically placed domestic items. My favourite line from the film was when one lady was having her picture taken with her modesty preserved by two cherry topped buns. One of the other ladies says ‘I think we’re going to need considerably bigger buns!’ Sunflowers also appeared in the pictures and, since, have become associated with the Women’s Institute.

Some more spectacular vegetables grown by amateurs in the own gardens, including some of the biggest leeks I’ve ever seen. All beautifully presented…

More random plants I liked…

I liked young William’s vegetable/fruit dinosaur that won him first prize…

And a flower filled train…

This tank was part of a garden designed to bring the injuries that some of our soldiers have suffered in recent wars to people’s attention…

The county of Lancashire has something of an image problem. It’s seen as the home of big cities like Manchester and Liverpool. That’s true. And it’s seen as a place filled with decaying, old industrial towns with social problems and high unemployment. True, but 30 years out of date. The continuing success of Manchester and, increasingly, Liverpool is giving these old towns a new lease of life. People visit Manchester to enjoy the city vibe and then head north to the Lakes. If they slowed down they would see how beautiful Lancashire can be. Here views across the stunning Ribble valley…  

Below the house in Astley Park, there is an ornamental lake covered in water lilies, sadly not in bloom in late July, and the home to noisy ducks. On an ordinary day there is a permanent path from the house, round the lake to the lower lawns where there were more exhibits to enjoy at the flower show.

To cope with the crowd they put in a temporary pontoon bridge across the lake. A perculiar thing happened as we were crossing it. Back in 2000, they opened a footbridge across the River Thames in London. It connects St. Paul’s Cathedral to the Tate Modern Gallery on the South Bank. It’s rather elegant and cost a fortune. They opened it and, almost immediately, had to close it down. When people cross a bridge we do a strange thing. We unconsciously match our steps to the steps of everyone else on the bridge rather like a platoon of soldiers marching. The steps set up vibrations and the vibrations caused the bridge to sway alarmingly throwing people off their feet. They had to close the bridge for months and add features to stop the movement. Before they reopened it they had platoons of soldiers march across it to see what would happen. It stayed still. Crossing the bridge at Astley Park on Saturday, the same thing began to happen. It felt like being on an unstable boat in bad weather. On the way back we used the other path.

Before we checked out the other marquees we had a drink. There was a pop up theatre surrounded by street food vans. The concept of street food has moved way beyond the big metropolitan areas like London and Manchester and every festival in the smallest of places has vans selling artisan this and small batch that. We wanted a drink. It was a choice between the Presecco Van….

….or it being Pimms-o-clock from the bar made out of a butchered classic Mini…

We went for the Pimms. It’s Pimms mixed with lemonade with ice, cut fruit and cucumber added. It’s a staple of the English summer and drunk by the tanker load at places like Wimbledon…

We listened to this young lady singing. She is a local girl with a good voice. Throughout the festival different, local, amateur acts entertained people. She sang an eclectic mix of songs from the likes of George Michael to Katy Perry. Then she did a little speech. She’d promised a friend she would do something. Her friend had been injured in the attack at the Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena a few weeks ago. She said she wanted to sing a song as a tribute to her and the others. One of the victims who died was from Chorley and the youngest victim who died, just 8, was from a small village not far from the town. She did a beautiful rendition of ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ by Oasis. It’s become an anthem for the city this year. Good girl.

The Red Rose flag of Lancashire was flying proudly reminding us where we were. Sorry Yorkshire…

On the lawns, just outside Astley Hall, they had erected the Flower Marquee. Here specialist growers displayed their finest produce in the hope of getting a Gold medal. Silver Gilt wouldn’t be bad. Silver or Bronze they would be disappointed with. An honourable mention would be as bad as an insult. I’ve been through this process myself. The problem is you don’t know exactly what the judges are looking for. Perfection crossed with imagination gets you a Gold I think. Points get knocked off for little slips but, once you have your medal, you can’t find out what let you down. I got a Silver Gilt and blame the slugs for decimating some of my plants. A few days later, in the slug free zone that is St. Ann’s Square, the plants had recovered and I might have got a gold.

Here are some of the displays at Chorley. Some spectacular chrysanthemums…

Acers…

Oriental lilies…

Alliums. I grew some of these for the first time this year. I was impressed with them. So I’ve bought some bulbs to add to our display for next year…

Cacti and succulents….

Random plants…

A spectacular display of vegetables…

Some more close up pictures. The onions were particularly impressive…

The Chorley Flower Show is held in the grounds of Astley Hall, a handsome Jacobean mansion that is on the edge of the town centre now but, when it was built, was in the countryside some distance from the, then, village of Chorley. The front façade is Jacobean but I think the back is older, it looks Tudor to me. But what do I know?

Behind the hall is a walled garden where fruit and vegetables were grown to supply the house. The walls shelter the garden and create a microclimate that is often warmer than the surrounding countryside. This means the growing season is longer than in the fields outside so more can be grown. And the red brick of the walls tend to store heat from the sun which means that crops like grapes, apricots and peaches can be grown even this far north. The garden has been recently replanted. It’s been a good year for apples as you can see here. The ones in our garden are also doing well.

These raised beds are full of vegetables and herbs.

Big houses owned by rich families would extend the growing season by building a conservatory. The glass would trap heat and there might be, like in this one, a coal fired heating system to heat it. I’m not sure what method they use these days. The rich could enjoy tropical fruits like pineapple.

I always get excited when I see citrus fruits growing. Here is a lemon tree or, as it’s known in our house, a Gin and Tonic tree.

This is a Echium Pininara. There were two spectacular specimens in the garden. They look a bit prehistoric, something a dinosaur might have snacked on. They are natives of the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, hundreds of miles away and considerably warmer than Chorley. They grow well here because of the walled garden microclimate. 

I like Helenium. I like the shape of the flowers and the zingy, high summer colours. I need to get some for our garden.

Flower beds were laid out like this so the flowers could be cut to decorate the house.

These outsized deck chairs are a ‘thing’ this year. Great for selfies. I couldn’t persuade anyone to get in so you can see the size properly though.

The middle of June to the end of July (and tying up odds and ends into August) is always a crazy, busy time at work for me. I got called into the boss’s office today and was told it’s going to be even worse than usual and I’ve been asked to take on more. They have promised to cross my palm with more silver. I said I wanted enough silver to have a suit made at a tailors of my choice and some handmade shoes that have taken my fancy. Neither of these will come cheap. As people know me can testify, I’m practically walking around in rags and tatters. They said yes. 

All that extra work means my team will have to rearrange stuff we need to do, reschedule some, put some off until later, do what we can before the 19th. We went for a walk to clear heads, have a coffee and see what could be done. Most will be OK but I’m going to have to go back in, I think, and negotiate some temporary help. We spent the afternoon putting everything on the new calendar and made a list of stuff that can’t go on. We put that on a separate calendar and, hopefully, the extra person can do that. If you go in prepared with lots of flow charts you can generally get what you want I find. Especially if you threaten to take them through all your flow charts dull detail by dull detail.

We walked over to the Fountain Pool. I’m amazed how the camera on my iPhone catches the falling water. I’m told it’s not a great camera but really what more could you ask? I should upgrade my phone (9 year olds laugh at it) and am told that the phones on more advanced iPhones are head and shoulders better than this one. We will see.

The early summer flowers are coming out. These are Astilbes…

These purple flowers are a form of wild Geraniums. The bright red ones we see in pots and call Geraniums are actually Pelargoniums fyi…

These are Day Lilies. We grow them for their beautiful flowers but I was listening to James Wong on Gardener’s Question Time (when did I get so old?) and he said that where his family hail from in Malaysia they are grown for food as a salad crop. In my defence James Wong is a pretty cool guy…

I thought the Azalea season was over but I found this late one in a bed near the Fountain Pool. I’ll have to get one for our garden, I do like these beautiful, low growing, easy to look after bushes…

It wasn’t really a day for a wander in a garden. It should have been. It’s June and the summer flowers are coming in. But there were unseasonable high winds and heavy rain. Some parts of the country had all of June’s rain in one day. We did, at one point, wander into the woodland part of the garden but when branches started coming off the trees and we were pelted with pine cones, we beat a retreat to the safer part of the garden. Driving back to the city whole trees blocked the roads in places.

I’d like a garden that you have to go into through a gate in an ancient brick wall….

And leave by another gate in an ancient brick wall…

Peonies are in blousey bloom in all our gardens but these weren’t enjoying the wind…

They need a bit of a trim, but look carefully at these topiary trees and you can see two squirrels…

Rufford has a impressive, herbaceous border. It will be in full bloom later in the summer, lots of green today…

The tall purple/pink foxgloves and blue delphiniums should have been the stars of the show but, with their height, they were suffering in the wind…

A couple of cherubs (or are they putti?) having a rumble over a bunch of grapes…

I’d like a garden with a wildflower meadow with an orchard…

This rose is an ancient one that would have been in all Tudor gardens. Highly perfumed, it’s the red rose of Lancashire, appropriate for a garden in this part of the world. Put together with the white rose of Yorkshire and you get the Tudor Rose seen in paintings and buildings of that age…

Will have to try this. We have a big slug problem this year and I hate using chemicals in the garden…

Oversized deck chairs seem to be a thing this year. I only seem to see them on wet, miserable days though…

The Ariana Grande concert at Lancashire Cricket Club went on sale this morning. It sold out in 6 minutes! 50,000 people will be there. It starts at 7pm, UK time, this Sunday and the BBC will be transmitting it for the rest of us to watch. Apparently it will be shown around the world so check locally if you want to watch. Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Coldplay, Take That, Pharrell Williams, Black Eyed Peas, Katy Perry, Usher, Robbie Williams, Little Mix and others, along with Ariana Grande, are booked to play. We’re still waiting to hear if Oasis will play to sing ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, the song that has become an anthem for Manchester in the last few days. Rumours are flying about that Madonna will play as well. It’s going to be a big and emotional event.

But, life goes on for the rest of us, in spite of the unreal atmosphere in the city. My team went out for one of our outdoor, walking meetings to discuss stuff. The weather was fine so it was nice to get out of the office. It’s not just an excuse to get out of the office and have a coffee, we do actually sort things out. Honest!

They’ve taken down some dull, 1960s buildings near our offices. Something more impressive and suitable for 21st century business will be built we are told. In the meantime nature has taken over. There were great splashes of yellow on the site. On closer inspection they turned out to be Bird’s Foot Trefoil, the food source of the (not so)  Common Blue Butterfly. I hope that when the buildings go up they find some space for a little wildness so these plants are their rare butterflies can thrive. No butterflies today but the bees were enjoying it.

We headed over to the lake (coffee shop is nearby). The Yellow Flag Irises are in full bloom now along the edge.

There were a few purple irises as well.

I spotted some purple/pink Field Orchids among the irises. They are quite happy in England, orchids aren’t restricted to the tropical rain forests.

These apricot coloured Rhododendrons are just coming into flower. They look great here but this plant can swamp a suburban garden.

 

The map above is a Google Earth map of Manchester. You can tell where the city is by how the roads converge on the city centre. And you can pick out the circular M60 ring road. What is striking is how green the map is. You can barely see the difference between the green of the surrounding countryside and the green of the city. We are a very verdant city. Apart from the huge number of parks and playing fields, this is partially due to how we like to live. While in some countries, people like to live in apartment blocks, we British prefer to live in a house, set in a garden on a tree lined avenue or road. Hence all the green. With all the trees and gardens comes a lot of wildlife that we share the city with. There are now more foxes living in towns and cities in the UK than there are in the countryside for instance. And I suspect that there are more trees per acre in Manchester than there are in rural Chrshire which is dominated by fields of crops or grass surrounded by thin lines of trees.

Not all of Manchsster is green of course. The centre, marked by the stars, is (if you strip the stars off) grey. Manchester city centre is intensely urban with streets lined with buildings. The stars, by the way, mark places in the city centre where new buildings are going up. We have the builders in big time at the moment. To the left (or west of, if you want to be geographical) of the city centre is a huge area of grey and white. This is the Trafford Park industrial estate, big on factories but low of trees. Ironically Trafford Park used to be the country estate of the well to do Trafford family, with a large house and a deer park. As Victorian Manchester grew the Traffords decided to decamp to another estate in Cheshire and allow this one to turn over to industry. The Trafford family are an ancient and wealthy one with a family tree that can be traced back a 1000 years. Across the map there are a few other areas where grey marks highly urban areas of the city but the dominant colour is still green.

I love trees. They are beautiful and important to the ecology of the planet and we need more of them. They are trying to introduce them into the city centre which is a good thing but it doesn’t always work. Our streets are relatively narrow and and buildings are disproportionately tall. Some streets have the canyon effect like you get in New York but on a smaller scale. We don’t have grand, wide boulevards like Paris with space to plant trees. We don’t have an arrangement of buildings with courtyards in the centre like you see in Italian cities like Florence or Spanish cities like Barcelona. In those cities, as you walk around, you get enticing views of the gardens hidden within. 

In Manchester we have narrow pavements which have to work hard to cope with the people who use them. We do have trees and they work well in squares like Albert, St Ann’s and Hardman. They can be planted away from the buildings and enhance them rather than hide them. But in some places they have planted them on the narrow pavement and they are a bit of a disaster.

Here is one. If I’m in the city centre on my own and feel like a snack I like to go to the Pret A Manger sandwich shop on Cross Street. And I like to sit at one of the high tables along the windows and watch the world go by and admire the architecture of Cross Street. On the corner of Cross Street and St Ann’s Street is this rather grand Victorian office block. It has one of the most beautiful façades in the city with this impressive entrance. You can see it clearly as you walk out of St Ann’s Square. The Frankie and Benny’s sign I’ll deal with another day. GAP, next door have done their signs well.

But from my stool in the window of Pret A Manger the view is completely different with this tree, the wrong sort in the wrong position, completely ruining the view of one of the best buildings in the city. I’d have it down!

Almost overnight, one of my favourite plants in our garden has come into flower. It’s the intensely purple/blue flowers of the Iris Siberica. I find the complicated arrangement of the petals, the colours and the details of the patterning beautiful and always look forward to them coming out. The bees were enjoying them as well this morning.

Last Autumn I picked up a couple of boxes of very reasonably priced allium bulbs from ASDA. Alliums are ornamental onions and the bulbs do look like small onions. I didn’t taste one though. I’d forgotten about them but they are just starting to bloom. You get a globe of little purple stars. I’m pleased with them and will get some more this Autumn for next Spring.