29 July 2010


oniscus asellus

In Britain there are at least thirty five species of woodlice. Worldwide there are several thousand species with new species still being discovered. The most populous British species are the common shiny woodlouse (oniscus asellus), the common rough woodlouse, the common grey pygmy woodlouse, the common striped woodlouse and the common pill bug (armadillidium vulgare).

Fossil evidence proves that woodlice have been around and little changed for over three hundred million years whereas the best estimate for homonoid type beings is ninety million years with recognisable modern man only being around for the last 250,000 years. These figures are of course debatable but it is very clear that woodlice were here long before human beings evolved.

Our humble Sheffield house has a not so humble garden which I estimate to cover around 4,500 square feet. Much of this is grass lawn - not the best territory for woodlice who enjoy damp, dark places. Lift any brick, pot, stone, dead weed, leaf, compost bin or watering can in our garden and you will find a woodlouse party going on. Lots of them, of all ages. They are all over the place. Despite the lawned areas, I estimate that there are ten woodlice for every square foot of our garden - that's 45,000 on our property alone. It wouldn't surprise me if my guesswork was wildly conservative.

Some say that woodlice can damage young plants and several English councils' environmental departments offer advice for getting rid of them. However, in my experience as a gardener, observer of nature and former allotment keeper, I have never had a problem with them. In fact, in chomping through dead plant material and dead timber, woodlice are most probably making an invaluable contribution to overall soil quality.

They are right under our noses and fascinating to watch even though they are principally nocturnal creatures. You could say that this is their planet. They were here long before human interlopers arrived and are perfectly evolved to undertake the jobs that Nature requires of them. If there were a need to begin a "Save The Woodlouse" campaign, I would be one of the first to join it but thankfully, though some sub-species are threatened, worldwide woodlice numbers remain bountiful beyond our wildest imaginings.
bathynomous giganteus

27 July 2010


The unpromising claypit in 1998
Mr Rhymes and Ms Blawat, cousins residing in our American colonies, have both asked me for a little more about The Eden Project. Well here goes.

First of all, it's easy to access The Eden Project's website. Just type the name into Google and you'll find it. What I am about to write is off the top of my head with no reference to the guidebook we bought there or the website I've mentioned.

Just outside the town of St Austell in England's remote south west there are china clay deposits which have been mined for at least 150 years. Sometimes the claypits become exhausted and so it was with the pit near the village of St Blazey. In 1998 it was an ugly, barren hole in the ground with no future until it was spotted by a dreamer - former music producer Tim Smit and his growing team of environmental and botanical enthusiasts.

Their dream was to turn the pit into a sort of garden which would remind the world of humanity's relationship with nature, especially the plant world. It was to be a project that would celebrate, educate and inspire, perhaps altering mindsets in the battle to cherish this wonderful yet terribly abused planet.

Smit and his team set up The Eden Project charity and before too long, trucks were bringing load after load of soil, compost and sand to the site. The sides of the quarry were made safe and irrigation plans were put into practice. Two enormous greenhouses or biomes were constructed- the biggest in the world - looking like giant bubble wrap from afar.
Sculpture made from detritus of the modern world
Gardeners were employed - only men and women with genuine passion for the project. Plants were located all over the globe and transported to Cornwall.

The rainforest biome is now well-established with mature tropical trees, shrubs and creepers. There are pineapples growing inside it, bananas, coffee, cocoa, coconuts and beautiful jungle flowers. There's a waterfall and authentic rainforest huts. The humidity was sweltering on the day we visited.
Shirley through a misted lens in the Rainforest Biome
The other biome accommodates "mediterranean" plants. Growth is of course less prolific. There are cacti, vines, sunflowers, olive trees, tobacco plants and several complementary sculptures including a horse made from driftwood.

Outside the biomes, the botany is equally interesting and Shirley and I especially enjoyed the little vegetable garden with its quirky ideas and scarecrows. We were seeing it in early July when everything was fruiting - I guess it would look much less impressive in say November.
Foxtail lilies
In this world it gets easy to yawn, to be cynical and dismissive but I must say that is not the feeling I had about The Eden Project. It was and is quite brilliant. To have had the dream and to have seen it through - Tim Smit and his team have once again proven that human beings are capable of amazing things and this project is certainly not about personal financial gain. Ten years down the line - I was so pleased to have seen the Eden Project at a level of maturity that visitors would not have seen in the first two or three years.

There - I think I have said enough. One last memory I want to share. In "The Core" building on the site there is a 70 tonne block of Cornish granite that has been skilfully carved into the shape of a seed pod. I believe that it is the biggest single block granite sculpture in the world. Perhaps it's saying that from seeds big things can grow. Certainly true of The Eden Project.

26 July 2010


Apologies for this self-indulgence. Five more holiday snaps:-
St Ives Harbour at low tide
At Dartmouth
The Eden Project
Porscatho harbour
At Land's End - First and Last House in England

25 July 2010


After our holiday in the south west of England I submitted several photos to the laudable Geograph project. Every week there's a competition to find the best Geograph picture of the week. Yet again I had another photo in the top fifty out of some 6826 submitted. The judge singled it out for special mention - praising the colours and reflective elements.

Here it is:-
It's of King Harry's Ferry. For hundreds of years a ferry has crossed the River Fal at this very point, taking people and their vehicles to and from the Roseland Peninsula, saving a round trip of over twenty miles. The name of the ferry may possibly relate to King Henry the Eighth who - it is believed - honeymooned with Anne Boleyn in nearby St Mawes. Other investigators think the ferry is more likely named after Henry the Sixth.

The River Fal is very deep at this point and I noticed several ocean going ships laid up even higher up the river. The Fal boasts an exceptionally good natural harbour and historically played an important part in England's development as a major maritime force.

22 July 2010


The Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield
Paul was only sixty two but this week I found myself sleeping in a room with three men all over eighty. There was John who once ran two successful off-licence businesses with his wife and made enough money to plan a comfortable retirement on the east coast near Bridlington. They even bought the house and stayed there at weekends but sadly she died before the retirement plan could come to full fruition.

Quietly and in intricate detail he described how he had cut his lawns for the first time, making neat parallel lines up the slopes - just like Wimbledon - then filling thirteen black plastic bags with grass cuttings. After relating this tale, he shuffled to the lavatory holding an aluminium walking frame with a support worker holding up his green pyjama bottoms. He laughed when I told him to stop running.

Albert lay in another bed. Five feet tall with devilish blue eyes, this wiry little fellow had been a joiner for fifty years and in that role had served with the British army in Singapore and Malaya. He had eight children and several grandchildren but oh dear - he was losing his marbles. There was the battle of the locker key. "One key! There's one key!" he kept saying. It was gripped tightly in his right fist and he wasn't letting anybody else have it even though another man's belongings were in the locker. Later he seemed to suspect a staff conspiracy against him. "They're all acting as one!" he confided. But he took a shine to me and acceded to some of my requests for him to lie down or take his pills. The staff were grateful as Albert seemed to soak up far too much of their precious time.

Then Sammy strolled in in his chinos and sandals with a stripey shirt and a shoulder bag. He was eighty three years old and had lived in northern California for twenty years. He had loved it there - "Oh! Yosemite!" - but his Sheffield-born wife was homesick so finally they returned. She died eight years ago. What a lovely man he was. His face was full of sunshine. He sat by the window without reading glasses, engrossed in Tom Stoppard's play "Rosencrantz and Guildenstein are Dead" and he kept engaging me in conversations about Sheffield's history, the existence of God, California, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkeagaard and his "lovely girl" - the wife he had lost.

If only our Paul had made it to eighty. Another eighteen years at least, like these men. All so different. Different pathways. Different results. Heading so differently for death's exit doors. I promised to take Sammy out in August to show him a couple of historical sites that he had never heard of in this Un-Californian city - assuming of course that, like me, he survives hospital.

18 July 2010


Home again after ten days in the south west of England. Old friend and former teaching colleague, Mike and his wife Jan have retired to Kingswear in Devon. They live on a precipitous slope with fifty steps up to the back gate and fifteen down to a little lane that winds down to Kingswear Marina with its ceaseless ferry service to Dartmouth. The view from their living room has a genuine "Wow!" factor. It's like a giant framed picture with a myriad of boats bobbing by the foreshore, colourful quayside buildings on the west bank and Dartmouth Naval College formidable in the middle distance.
View from Mike and Jan's living room
We stayed with them for twenty-four hours which included a very lovely boat trip up the river and a delightful evening meal taken on their lofty terrace. Mike and Jan should be on the cover of a brochure for retired teachers. They made it through the educational jungle with health, happiness and financial comfort. Though their working lives were spent entirely in Sheffield they have quickly become active Devonshire villagers and seem to know most everybody. It was a delightful way to start our little holiday.
Mike and Jan - enjoying retirement
Though she'd been to America, Hong Kong, Morocco, India and several European countries, Shirley had never before visited the ancient kingdom of Cornwall with its strange placenames, wind-stunted trees, winding lanes and wonderful coastal scenery. When I was a litle boy, my family would trek down to Cornwall each summer - always to the village of Pentewan with its magnificent sands. For the first time in forty five years I went back there and saw the very stream where my brothers and I would luxuriate in white china clay mud before romping in crystal clear Atlantic waves.

A thin rain started to fall so Shirley and I headed for "The Ship Inn" in the village for pints of bitter shandy and I recalled vaguely how as boys, my brothers and I would sometimes play outside this pub on August evenings for we were not allowed to follow our parents over that hallowed threshold reserved exclusively for those tall and venerable beings known as "adults".

Highlights of the week were the brilliant Eden Project, strolling round St Ives, homemade Cornish pasties, walking by beaches and ancient hedgerows, pints of St Austell Brewery "Tribute" in "The Punchbowl and Ladle", our peaceful residential caravan in Penelewey, a cream tea in St Agnes, a kestrel hovering expertly in a gusting wind at Land's End, The National Maritime Museum in Falmouth, old churches and a Kellys' ice cream cornet. Cornwall or as some prefer in the Cornish language - Kernow - the land that time (almost) forgot.
Porthbeor Beach, Roseland, Cornwall

13 July 2010


I'm in the public library in Falmouth. We've had four great days so far. First night - stayed in the village of Wadeford, Somerset - in "The Haymaker Inn" and went for an early evening walk through summery lanes and rolling hillsides to Combe St Nicholas and back. Second day we sayed with an old teaching colleague who has retired to Kingswear in Devon. He took us - with his wife Jan - on a boat ride up the Dart River to Tugenhay. A real treat.

Third day we arrived in Feoch, Cornwall. Dinner then a couple of pints in "The Punchbowl and Ladle" before - on Sunday - a gorgeous walk around the Roseland Peninsula. Fourth day - the amazing Eden Project which is now ten years old so many of the plants have grown to maturity. The Rainforest Biome was quite incredible but we also loved the quirky vegetable plot which gives visitors so many little ideas for their own vegetable gardens. What a wonderful venture The Eden Project is - to have had the vision and to have seen it through.
The weather is turning a little iffy with some grey clouds thickening so that's why we're in Falmouth today. I doubt I will get another chance to blog before the weekend. Think of this as a seaside postcard. Wish you were here.
Love - Mr Pudding (Yorkshire).

7 July 2010


John Speed's map of Cornwall 1676
Shirley's never been to Cornwall before. For alien visitors, let me tell you it is in the far south west of England and once had its own language and distinct culture. It's a very popular holiday region but I am so glad that we are going before the school holiday period begins. If I find an opportunity to blog during the next ten days I will do so, otherwise we will be home on Saturday July 17th. Below - a photo my late father took of Pentewan Sands, Cornwall in 1958:-


The view from Paul's house
How are we meant to live? How are we meant to be? For millennia, human beings were never city dwellers. We raised crops and animals. We hunted. We fished. We existed in small rural communities living interdependently with our neighbours with whom there were often blood links. When they became adults, our children made their homes in close proximity to us and our horizons were limited. Though we knew there was an outer world, what really mattered was the continual quest for survival and happiness within our rural microworlds.

The patterns that evolved from that way of living are imprinted like tattoos upon our very DNA. We were never "meant" to live in cities. Cities happened but the fundamental rural psychology of our species never changed. We jump in taxis, check our texts, flick through channels on the television, listen to our microwaves ping, book flights to Timbuktu, dance to the throbbing rhythms of city life but underneath it all we were programmed to wake with the sunrise and pursue country habits like sowing seeds, picking fruit and thatching the roofs of our huts.

It is estimated by demographers that it was only two years ago that the balance of the world's population switched to become more urban than rural. Just over 3.3 billion people now live in cities while just under 3.3 billion continue to live rural lives that are very often still about subsistence and those ancient quests for survival and happiness.

I was reminded of this as Paul's open coffin rested on wooden chairs in the living room of the isolated Irish schoolhouse where he and Josephine made their home. When people die in rural Ireland their wakes and funerals happen very quickly not just because of corporal decomposition but also because, for hundreds of years, the only attendees would have been family, friends and neighbours living within walking distance.

Now most extended families are fractured. We probably live far distant from the place where we were born and raised. We may well have important relatives living in Australia, Hong Kong, Canada or yes - Timbuktu. We may connect with them through telephone calls, emails, Christmas cards but it's not the same as walking up the lane and saying "Can you help me with my thatching?" or "I've brought you some spare logs for the winter."

We'll never get back there to that natural life. Most of us will continue to live in urban areas, sometimes with neighbours we will never meet, surrounded by strangers as sirens occasionally wail from the dark heart of the city. And you can never really escape to the country because it's not the same country that it used to be and your neighbours are more likely to be urban refugees like yourself than continual country dwellers or your second cousin's family.
Cait - Paul's only grandchild

5 July 2010


Paul at fifteen
Our upstairs phone has been out of action for a while so when someone rang at seven thirty last Monday morning, I knew I'd not have time to get downstairs before the caller was passed to the 1571 answer-phone service. We thought it would probably be Shirley's workplace asking her to come in early - but it wasn't - it was Josephine asking us to phone her. I knew immediately that something was wrong and the best that we could hope for was that Paul had had a heart attack before being taken to hospital.

When I finally got through, it was to Michael - Paul's oldest son and the last person to speak to him. He told me that his father was dead.

Has a week really passed by since then? In some ways it all seems like a horrible dream and in other ways it feels as if we have simply been actors in a film drama - various scenes, lines we had remembered so well that they just sprung from our lips.

On the morning of the burial, a moth of the night-time fluttered to Paul and Josephine's sunlit doorway before clinging to the stonework. Though a keen observer of Nature, Josephine had never seen such a moth before. She asked me to photograph it and I later discovered it was a "Light Emerald" - emerald for The Emerald Isle. Did it mean something? I don't know but all who saw it were left wondering.
I stood at the lectern in Kilfenora Catholic Church - packed to overflowing - and read from Paul's Letter to the Romans 12:9 - "Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor that which is evil..." I read it without faltering in my clear Yorkshire brogue, aware that through my voice I was reminding the congregation that our Paul - not Paul the Apostle - was born a Yorkshireman even though he had given his heart to Ireland.

Forgive me if it seems that this blog is threatening to transmogrify into Paul's tribute blog. Please be patient. Before too long, I'm sure I will return to my usual blogging pattern - i.e. no pattern at all! And besides, I know for sure what Paul would be saying to me right now - Don't be so maudlin ye daft bugger - stop wallowing in sorrow, fill yer pot and get on with the rest of yer life!

3 July 2010


We buried him in an isolated rural cemetery that is known locally as "The Island" - probably because that little hummock of a hill was once surrounded by swampy ground. As is the tradition, only male family members carried the coffin. Feeling his weight on my right shoulder was a wonderful discomfort.

He had known each of the gravediggers. They had prepared a hole some five feet deep, snug against the limestone boundary wall with a huge pile of Clare soil beside it in what has been one of western Ireland's driest years.

Ned Crosby, the priest, who also knew Paul personally, said the customary religious words by the grave. And then everybody applauded my dead brother. By the stunted hawthorn bush where an ancient chapel once stood, musicians played familiar tunes on fiddles, concertinas and pipes with Paul's daughter, Katie, accompanying on her wooden flute.

All was quiet and then an old friend called Michael stood on a rock with his chin raised slightly to the sky and with great passion recited in Irish Gaelic a famous poem called "Pearse's Lament". Roughly translated, it begins:-

Grief on the death, it has blackened my heart:
lt has snatched my love and left me desolate,
Without friend or companion under the roof of my house
But this sorrow in the midst of me, and I keening.

As I walked the mountain in the evening
The birds spoke to me sorrowfully,
The sweet snipe spoke and the voiceful curlew
Relating to me that my darling was dead.

At the end Michael wove in some few Spanish words which connected Ireland's freedom struggle with the battles of Spanish republicans before the second world war - "Viva la quinta brigada! No passaran! Adelante!"

People began to drift away. Some stood amongst the graves exchanging thoughts about Paul. I took a handful of earth from the pile and threw it on top of his coffin. Soon the gravediggers removed the flowers and began their timeless task, quietly filling in the hole where Paul will rest forever - well not really Paul but his human remains - that same wax model I reflected on in "Hands".

It was the best of days and the worst of days. Has there ever been a more beautiful funeral? I doubt it. I was filled with pride for my lost brother who was so loved by the people of Clare - the old and the young, rich and poor, intellectual and moronic, pub landlords and priests. Although he was only sixty two, he lived his life to the full with such goodness in his soul. By far, I am not the only one who will never forget him.

2 July 2010


I always loved this haunting song but now it has been imbued with extra meaning. I've chosen an amateurish video version with the writer, Andy Irvine and his friend Donal Lunny in concert.

The West Coast of Clare
by Andy Irvine

Sorrow and sadness, bitterness, grief
Memories I have of you, won't leave me in peace
My mind is running back, to the west coast of Clare
Thinking of you, the times we had there

I walked to Spanish Point, I knew I'd find you there
I stood on the white strand, and you were everywhere
Vivid memories faint, but the mood still remains
I wish I could go back, and be with you again

In Miltown there's a pub, its there that I sat down
I see you everywhere, your face is all around
The search for times past, contain such sweet pain
I banish lonesome thoughts, but they return again

I walk along the shore, the rain in my face
My mind is numb with grief, of you there is no trace
I'll think of this again, when in far off lands I roam
Walking with you, by this cold Atlantic foam

Sorrow and sadness, bitterness, grief
Memories I have of you, won't leave me in peace
My mind is running back, to the west coast of Clare
Thinking of you, the times we had there

1 July 2010



Hands as warm as fresh-baked pies
Hands cool as fruit
Hands with fingers like sausages
Hands with slender digits
Smooth creamed hands
Hands gnarled by digging
Every hand a story
Hands with rings and painted nails
Arthritic hands
Hands as furry as a bear's paw
Hands that squeezed too much
Hands that clasped limply
A hand with a missing finger
Another missing two
Old hands with thin skin to cover the veins
Young summer hands moist with life
We shook them all
"Sorry for your loss"
One after the other
In the doorway of the parlour
Where, in the corner,
Lying in a wooden trough
Was a wax model of my brother
Badly done
His fiddling hands
Church candle coloured
And cold.

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