May All Who Come As Guests Leave As Friends

I may have mentioned before that two of our rescue cats prefer dining alfresco irrespective of the weather and that I usually am the one to sprint onto the patio to present them with the Table D’hote menu usually just after 5am when I’m getting ready to depart to work.

Hobo has always been a fussy diner but Charlie is not quite as discerning although I think it’s fair to say that he possibly may just love food more than life itself. After wolfing down his own platter he will usually sit inches away from one of the others drooling until they submit and walk away leaving him to the spoils.

The other morning I’d dished up the day’s specials when both Hobo and Charlie shot into the kitchen as if they were being pursued by the Hounds of Hell. I thought that perhaps a fox or badger had slipped into the garden and went to investigate.

Imagine my surprise when I spotted the cunning culprit gripping the edge of one of the bowls happily munching away. It was a little hedgehog!

As some of you may remember a couple of years’ ago I purchased a hedgehog house on a whim which was eventually placed between two of the larger lavender bushes because it was sheltered and protected from the cats. It became something of a standing joke with my family as they were certain that it would never become occupied but I remained optimistic.

Last summer I couldn’t help but notice the rustling in the lavender bushes and the cats lying in wait for hours but I didn’t explore further fearing a rodent encounter. I should just mention that Milo is the biggest scaredy cat of all, Hobo’s best friend is a house rabbit whom he sits alongside for hours, hasn’t much time for other cats unless they’re kittens and Charlie’s first and only love is a tin of Felix. I even caught a baby magpie using him as a step-ladder last summer to reach the bird feeder whilst he napped (his other favourite occupation).

Since then I have noticed a mother and baby hedgehog wandering around the lawn scavenging for peanuts and slugs. My Dad’s delighted with the presence of his little “Gardener’s friends” as they protect his precious dahlias by keeping the pest population at bay.

As I suspect the hedgehogs are fattening themselves up for the big hibernation, they have become regular supper and breakfast guests lining up alongside our feline family for both breakfast and supper. Of course, at Dyson Abbey we operate an open house policy and a twenty-four hour running buffet so we’re only too happy to oblige.

It’s hard to imagine these precious little creatures which have been such a large part of countryside folklore are under threat; fifty years’ ago there were thirty-six million now there are less than a million. With the hedgehog population in dramatic decline rest assured there will always be a welcoming dish of cat food for any of these enchanting wee folk here at Dyson Abbey.

Want to help the hedgehogs in your neighbourhood? Then you’ll find some useful information over at the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

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In All Things Of Nature There Is Something Of The Marvellous

As most of you know I have always been an early morning commuter frequently travelling before sunrise but those hideous Monday morning blues have always been made a little more bearable with a lone Heron flying home above me so low in fact, that I can hear the soft beating of wings just like an angel passing by.

Hedgehog Des Res Dyson Abbey Style

Hedgehog Des Res Dyson Abbey Style

In those quiet times as night makes way for the morning an urban fox also used to troop pass me pausing only to sniff the air before hurrying on about her business and squirrels would expertly trapeze in the trees overhead. There’s nothing more magical when in the light of dawn mother nature reveals her secrets just for you alone. Sadly my early morning companions are all gone now as a new housing estate has sprung up almost overnight on the fields that they used to occupy leaving them with a rapidly shrinking environment and nowhere else to go. No doubt, when the new householders take up residence many will complain about the nuisance foxes who rummage through their refuse on what would have been fox territory long before it had ever been theirs. Whenever I’ve been fortunate to have an unexpected encounter with a wild creature I feel that I’ve been blessed with a tiny miracle and it saddens me that our children’s children may never experience the joy of seeing many of our indigenous wildlife within their natural habitat during their lifetimes.

Thinking of renting it out as a summer let!

Thinking of renting it out as a summer let!

Frogs, slow worms, shrews, moles, badgers, weasels were all an integral part of my country upbringing and I realise now that I was indeed fortunate to be raised in a rural community with nature on our doorstep. In fact, much of it was taken for granted and it was always assumed that there would be plenty of horse-chestnut trees during conker season but these too have now been felled to make way for yet more houses wiping out even more wildlife habitat. So how can you help? The hedgehog population has fallen by 37% in the past ten years which in real terms is a faster rate of decline than tigers in the wild. Want to know how you can make your garden hedgehog friendly? Then pop over to Hedgehog Street, the British Hedgehog Preservation Society website for some really useful tips on how to help these delightful creatures. Remember, remember the 5th November and please check all bonfires for sleeping hedgehogs before lighting them.

When the last tree has been cut, when the last river has been poisoned, when the last fish has been caught, then we will find out that we can't eat money

When the last tree has been cut, when the last river has been poisoned, when the last fish has been caught, then we will find out that we can’t eat money

The Great Escape (Part Two)

If you missed Part One you can catch it here

The following day Barbs and I discussed strategy over a hearty breakfast at the local organic café as my mother insists on giving us porridge, muesli, prunes to keep us “regular” but superheroes can’t march on granola alone and neither would it help hone my cat-like reflexes ahead of our stealth invasion.

As soon as we had finished our Big Girls’ Breakfast we returned home to gather “intel” for the covert mission ahead. Two discarded Toy Story walkie talkies were retrieved from the loft where the kids had left them a fair few years’ ago. The fact that they were now in my possession suggested that they were some toys you never outgrew and some adults who never grew up.

With the batteries replaced they were as good as new and the range so clear that I could probably have safely guided a Boeing 747 in to land on my Dad’s lovingly cultivated lawn.

Barbs’ late mother used to knit balaclavas which would have been ideal for the job in hand but sadly as she was no longer with us I had to make do with one of my Dad’s old gardening hats but as I picked up the scissors to insert eye holes my mother snapped “Deborah, don’t be using my good scissors for those” As opposed to the naughty ones!

We spent the next couple of hours assembling our outfits for the covert mission ahead and agreed on our radio pseudonyms; Barbs would be “Roller Chick” and I would be “Lawn Mower Girl” for use over the airwaves. We giggled as we finalised the details of our cunning plan and envisioned victoriously retrieving all our lost booty. We waited until midnight or the witching hour, which as you know is when Barbs and I do our best work.

It was a clear crisp night with a full moon and having disconnected our security light we snaked over to the privet hedge. I tried to persuade Barbs as the littlest and most lithe to venture across the great divide but she wisely declined which meant that I was going to have to be the one to defend the family honour.

“Now be careful with that garden shed; it was put together on a wing and a prayer like all his other DIY projects. One slight tap and the roof’ll fall off” hissed Barbs.

As I struggled to heave my ample bottom over the hedge I couldn’t help but think it would have been a damn sight easier if we’d got the local WICCA coven (one of the members makes jam with the old dear at the Women’s Institute) to create some potion or other for us; one that involved a good deal of discomfort, of course.

Sitting astride the hedge with the blackberry brambles ripping me to shreds, Barbs handed me the walkie-talkie and as I slid down into enemy territory, I nodded “See you on the other side” as they do in the movies.

Having landed safely on Turbo’s decking, I crawled across to the shed. Crouching I gingerly reached up for the handle and carefully opened the door.

“Lawn Mower Girl calling Roller Chick, come in Roller Chick” I hissed into the walkie-talkie “I’m going in”.

I sneaked into the shed to retrieve as many familiar items as I could and handed them across the hedge to Barbs who was stood on tiptoe on the other side. After locating my Dad’s last spade, I whispered into the handset “mission accomplished Roller Chick, I’m coming home”. However, my excitement was short-lived as suddenly there was a creak followed by a large groan and the shed collapsed leaving me holding just the door handle.

Immediately the light in the upstairs window came on and I hightailed it back to the safety of the hedge. Across the airwaves, Barbs dulcet tones screamed “abort, abort”.

Well aren’t you a little late to the party, my little vertically challenged friend I thought as I scampered over the top of the hedge. I was literally one minute away from being undetected when the bedroom window swung open and a torch was shone in my direction.

“Who’s there? Dallas, is that you?”

Cringing with embarrassment I recovered quickly informing him that we were doing a little blackberry picking as a surprise for the old fella’s breakfast. He asked if I’d seen any intruders and with a sharp intake of breath I shook my head unconvincingly.

Hedgehogs” I exclaimed “loads of them around this time of year looking for somewhere to hibernate”

Without missing a beat that’s when my partner in crime piped up “they’d have to be ninja hedgehogs on steroids to bring a shed down”. After throwing me under the bus, she giggled softly “told you to be careful, didn’t I.”

Turbo scratched his head and said “Can’t understand it but the instructions were in Japanese so I just bodged it when I was putting it up. I’ll get your Dad to give me a hand with it in the morning.”

Relieved that we’d dodged a bullet, I  realised I was in dire need of  some fortification so we had a shot of my Dad’s dandelion wine but after Barb’s flagrant display of disloyalty I decided to save the good stuff until she’d departed for home.

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No Hedgehogs were harmed during the writing of this post

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?

Most of you will know that the garden and the old fella’s allotment are wildlife havens although my Dad has had to install deterrents for the Herons arriving to lunch on his Koi carp. Anyone on either two or four legs is guaranteed a meal at Dyson Abbey, even the birds eat A La Carte on the rare occasions when any of my mother’s homemade baking is left to go stale.

So one unbearably humid evening last week as I was trying unsuccessfully to grab some sleep before my alarm clock woke me at 5am, I heard this rather loud snuffling sound coming from the garden directly below me. I thought it might be one of the cats being ill, as we live in the countryside and it’s not uncommon for cats to fall foul of rat poison that farmers have distributed to eliminate the growing vermin population.

I grabbed my trusty old Star Wars torch (another classic birthday gift from the old fella) I reluctantly left the comfort of my bed to pad downstairs and opening the patio doors I crept into the garden. I quickly scanned the garden with my light sabre to determine where the noise was coming from and whether I would be making a mercy dash to the local veterinary hospital.

I refrained from switching on the industrial security lighting which my Dad had installed mainly because it had enough power to light Wembley Stadium and I didn’t want any low-flying aircraft mistaking our lawn for a runway.

To my amazement there was a mother and baby hedgehog eating the remains of Hobo’s supper. To our intense frustration Hobo insists on dining al fresco during the summer months and I’m guessing with the lack of rain that we’d had the soil was probably rock hard preventing the little folk from foraging. My Dad is always pleased to see a Hedgehog who after all is a gardener’s friend and it may well have been that this adorable duo had been visiting our garden for some time completely undetected.

I was totally enchanted by these fascinating creatures and even more thrilled when I opened another small tin of cat food and the baby, obviously very hungry, boldly ran across the lawn to dine on chicken and vegetables. Mum who was three times the size, was a little more reticent and hung back until I made my way inside the house.

Since then I’ve noticed that they arrive regularly every night to dine at the four star Dyson Bistro and arrive in crocodile formation walking the same route up and down old railway sleepers and eventually onto the patio to partake in the evening’s menu. As our rescue bunch who as strays were accustomed to scavenging bins have developed champagne and caviar taste since coming to live with us, we always have a substantial amount of surplus cat food and can usually accommodate the most discerning palates.

The past few evenings the little folk have out foxed me by arriving at different times but the other night I noticed that there were four of them so clearly our reputation as a four star wildlife catering venue has reached the rest of the local hedgehog community. We’re not complaining though as there’s something very special about hedgehogs and its a privilege to be able to share our time on this earth amid such enchanting creatures.

The earth has music for those who listen – William Shakespeare

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Bon Voyage Jingle Bells

On Bank Holiday weekend Dad and I had made arrangements to spend a few hours tidying up the allotment; Dad as the Director of Operations and me as the general labourer. Now some of you may already know that my Dad’s allotment shed is the luxury hotel version and it has always been a bone of contention with us, that my Dad insists on leaving the shed key under one of the plant pots. Over the past few years a “gentleman of the road” and his Lurcher has had the odd overnight stay there during some of our harsh winters. Many years ago he was one of the migrant seasonal workers that helped out as a farm hand but still continues to roam the county eking out a living doing odd jobs for a meal or a few pounds. Both he and my Dad were born in an age when a handshake was as good as a signed contract and whilst I don’t think they’ve exchanged more than the odd word, they acknowledge each other with a nod of the head which is enough for the old fella. His guest is always long gone before any of the other gardeners arrive and everything is left as tidy as he found it. To be fair Dad has enjoyed playing host ensuring there’s plenty of gas for the stove, batteries in the radio and my mum had grudgingly allowed him to launder a couple of old blankets in her precious new washing machine. He’s left the odd flask of tea and packed lunch there and I also suspect his part-time tenant is one of the few that truly appreciate his homemade wine.

As we pitched up for a spot of weeding, it was apparent that someone was still in residence and my father fearing the worst asked me whether I’d brought my mobile phone with me but we needn’t have worried as it was a different guest altogether. My eccentric uncle Bill, or Jingle Bells as my nieces had called him when they were very young, was holding his own pyjama party. Apparently my long-suffering aunt had had enough and thrown him out. He’d clearly spent a few nights sleeping rough in the shed and as his biting sarcasm rubbed others the wrong way it was unlikely that many would be laying out the welcome mat for him, my mother included.

As is the Dyson way, tea was brewed before a conversation started in earnest and as my Dad poured it out into three mugs my uncle proudly revealed that he had sold his estate car without consultation and invested their savings in a beast of a motorbike which had left my aunt less than impressed. To be fair his children had long ago grown up and moved away so a family size car was no longer an essential but not to include his wife in the decision-making process was a big mistake and one that he was currently paying for.

I couldn’t help but notice as my vest-attired Uncle finished his shave in an old hand-mirror that he appeared to sporting a new and very sore looking tattoo proclaiming “King of the Rode”. When I pointed out the misspelling, my uncle, always quick to save a few quid, explained that he’d had it done cheap by a Romanian tattooist; clearly a wise move! He quickly remarked that he was going to have it amended to say rodeo at which point I enquired whether he would be trading in the motorbike for a mustang. I was also pretty sure that whilst this wasn’t my uncle’s first rodeo I suspected it would be his first and last tattoo.

“Well, she’s got another thing coming if she thinks I’ll go crawling back and now that I‘ll be able to entertain the honeys in my new love shack…”. As we surveyed the “love shack” which currently included a make shift wardrobe and a small television with set-top aerial hooked up to an old car battery, I pondered whether insanity was hereditary. In view of the fact that he had also been married for the past thirty years one wondered if there were many women out there who were equally as mad as a box of frogs and would be happy to be romanced a la allotment style.

“In fact, as I am so contented here” he said surveying his surroundings “that when I go don’t bother burying me, just nail up the door and torch it” as that had been my Dad’s backup plan, I knew that this situation would now be resolved with lightning speed. Before the sun had settled over the yard-arm that day, my Dad acting as a go-between had negotiated a temporary stay of execution and my uncle resumed residence at the family home.

I have since been reliably informed that a compromise has been reached and a customised camper van named Priscilla, has been purchased for a round Europe road trip a deux.

The open road is the school of doubt in which man learns faith in man
Pico Iyer

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Memories Are Timeless Treasures Of The Heart

Most of our village shops had closed gradually over the years having been undercut and replaced by the more competitive supermarkets springing up on retail parks all around the surrounding area. At one time there had been a furniture shop, optician, cobblers, women’s outfitters and an elderly dapper gentleman called Mr Coles owned the sweet shop. I can still vividly recall the sparkling glass counters, polished wood and even now the smell of beeswax and cough candies will transport me back to that sunny little shop with the old bell over the door to alert him to a new customer. The row upon rows of tantalising sweetie jars full of pear drops, toffees, gobstoppers or winter mixture which were ceremoniously removed from the shelf and the tinkling sound they made as they were carefully measured out into the old-fashioned metal weighing scales. I remember being able to be able to buy two ounces of any sweets wrapped in a small triangular paper bag which accommodated my meagre weekly pocket-money. The more expensive and luxurious cellophane wrapped boxes of chocolates, adorned with floral pictures, were kept on the top shelf and no supermarket box to this day has ever been as desirable or as opulent.

In the days long before Health & Safety became paramount, come rain or shine, a huge fluffy ginger tom cat called Duke spent his days sleeping in a padded wicker basket in the corner of the shop stirring only to greet customers especially the children whose legs he would wrap himself around leaving them giggling with delight. A trip to the sweet shop was never the same for me unless I stopped to tickle him under the chin and listen to him purring like my Dad’s old lawnmower. He seldom left the shop although on occasional sunny days he would lie across the doorstep to ensure that he never missed welcoming a patron.

My mother’s birthday was imminent and it was inevitable that I wanted to give her one of Mr Cole’s boxes of chocolates and I reckoned that if I only bought my sweet rations every second week I could save enough with the rest of my pocket-money to buy a small box of chocolate truffles as a birthday present. So determined was I that I ventured into the shop one afternoon after school, my grubby ten-year old fingers counted out my pennies carefully onto the shop counter but Mr Coles said that unfortunately I hadn’t got enough but he could put the chocolates away for me until I did. We agreed that would be the best thing to do and each week I would call into the shop just to check that he still had my box of chocolates and hadn’t sold it to someone else. Of course, now that I’m all grown up I realise that few people would have indulged a young child with a smile, courtesy and endless patience.

Cycling through the village one afternoon after school with my friends I noticed a dirty orange fluffy mound at the side of the road. I stopped to investigate and was surprised to discover that it was Duke who sat trembling in the kerb, terrified of the passing cars, so I propped my bike up against the wall and scooped him up into my arms. He mewed piteously once he recognised a friendly face “It’s alright old fella, I’m taking you home” I reassured him. Duke allowed me to gently place him in the basket on the front of the handlebars of my bike and I was able to guide us both back to the comfort of the little shop with one hand on the handlebars and one gently restraining Duke.

Poor Mr Coles was beside himself with worry when I eventually arrived at the shop but his relief was all too evident when he realised I was returning his companion and it was worth every second of the cautious walk back to the shop. As I left them to enjoy their emotional reunion, Mr Coles hung the closed sign on the door and locked up for the afternoon overwhelmed to have his chum return home safe and well.

A week later as I’d saved enough to pay for the chocolates and I proudly called in with my pennies jingling in my pocket. Mr Coles smiled a greeting whilst disappearing to the stock room as I was reacquainting myself with Duke. He came back with chocolates beautifully wrapped and as I went to count my money onto the counter, he placed his hand across mine and said “Put that away young lady, your money’s no good here today”. Taking the pencil from behind his ear he wrote across the receipt with a flourish “Paid in full with grateful thanks from your friends”.

Of course, the shop has long ago been replaced with a fish & chip shop but the echoes of that one kind act have remained with me throughout my life and whenever I am given a box of chocolates I think of that little shop and my good friends Mr Coles and Duke.

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Hi-Yo Silver, Away!

One of the most legendary characters in our village is a gentleman by the name of Roger who has lived alone since his wife passed a few years ago. He’s an independent soul despite being fairly disabled and reliant on an electric Mobility scooter but that hasn’t clipped his wings any.village 002 He’s a great friend of my Dad and often pops up the allotment for a glass of Dandelion wine when his mobility scooter can be seen weaving unsteadily across the pavements on the return journey to his bungalow.

However, his greatest achievement is the weekly shopping trip he makes to the local supermarket; a mere ten-mile round trip from our village on his mobility scooter. It is nothing short of a miracle that he safely negotiates the winding country lanes, glorious in the summer less so in the winter, avoiding the thundering juggernauts headed for the same industrial park. These country roads were no doubt, designed for horse-drawn carriages of a bygone age and anyone who has tried negotiating them during the height of the tourist season whilst crawling behind village 010a slowly driven tractor, will no doubt be able to testify as to how treacherous they can be.

He is a regular customer of this supermarket and after an early morning phone call they will always have one of their own scooters available for his use within store and whilst he’s shopping will charge his battery ready for the homeward journey; now how’s that for customer service!

I noticed recently as I passed him en route to the supermarket that some joker had placed a sign on the rear of his scooter which said “The Lone Ranger Rides Again”. As this is one journey that he alone can make, I don’t suppose that burdened with his shopping there’ll be much room for a kemosabe.

In Deepest Darkest Devon No One Can Hear You Scream

A few years’ ago having tearily (not) despatched my nieces for a Sea Cadet camping weekend, my sister and I set about driving to Torquay, the English Riviera no less, for a spot of lunch and some shopping. We made some serious dents in our credit cards and lunched in our favourite pub. By the time we had finished with our Irish coffees we were fit to burst but clearly not so much that we couldn’t continue on our shopping spree.

It was fairly late when we returned to the car park and it was beginning to get dark so we loaded up the boot with all our swag and headed off home. On the way my sister who was driving, said that she knew a short cut so we headed off the beaten track across country.

For some reason she decided to tell me that these remote country lanes reminded her of the horror flick “Wrong Turn” and proceeded to talk me through the plot. My sister and the girls are die-hard horror flick fans through and through but me not so much. In fact, I’m ashamed to admit it but I still hide behind the sofa when Doctor Who is aired and on the odd occasion when I’ve been channel hopping and come across a vampire movie I’ve spent a sleepless night with the lights on, a garlic bulb and a framed picture of the Pope (in the absence of a crucifix) trying to keep demons at bay.

Beginning to feel slightly uncomfortable I decided to phone Dyson Abbey to alert them that we were homeward bound to discover that we had no mobile signal. Now distinctly uneasy, particularly as my sister continued to talk me through the slasher part of the film, we realised that we were hopelessly lost and hadn’t passed any other vehicles for some time. We identified a couple of figures ahead in the fog so we pulled over to ask directions. Believe me when I tell you that these good old country boys resembled the mutant family of cannibals from the Hills Have Eyes. Never before had my Grandma’s phrase of “you see some sights when you’ve not got your gun with you” seemed more appropriate.

Regretting our decision to stop we politely asked directions to be met with rousing laughter. The older one of the two spoke first and leaning into the window “You’m lucky to have caught me and my boy, we’re just on us way home, lost are ye”? He said grinning from ear to ear with a mouthful of rotten teeth.

The “boy” cadetswho would never see forty again and clearly shared the same dental plan as his father chimed in “Them fancy sat navs no good out ‘ere, girl; got yerself an ‘usband”?

I admitted to being spoken for but my sister …… before I could finish that sentence she had accelerated away leaving the Star Wars Bar regulars behind in our rear view mirror. In fact, we got the Hell out of Dodge burning rubber with a speed that would have impressed Rover who had manufactured my sister’s ropey old car sometime in the previous century. Who’d thought we would have got 70mph out of that bad boy!

As a safety precaution and just in case we were followed by the Adams Family, I climbed over the rear seats to retrieve my new titanium knife set which I had bought earlier from my favourite shopping outlet of TK MAXX. As it was dark and it was particularly awkward to recover said items from the boot with my ample bottom firmly wedged over the back seat whilst the car hurtled along those winding English country lanes at breakneck speed, sadly I was only able to salvage the potato peeler.

My sister enquired about the effectiveness of my choice of weapon and I pointed out that it could probably take out an eye in the event of an emergency. I gifted it to her as a wedding present and suggested that it could double up as a stiletto for the nights when her intended was howling at the full moon.

Fortunately, a little further along the lane we came to a crossroads and a signpost guiding us back to home and normality. We have since retraced our journey a number of times, but we have never again seen those strange folk and try as we might we’ve not been able to find that turn off either leaving my sister pondering what might have been and hankering after an unrequited zombie love.

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