Saturday 29 October 2022

Fen bog oak table, Ely Cathedral

We often go to Ely for shopping and related tasks, but this week we were meeting friends, visiting from Harold Wood on the Essex/London border, for lunch. This provided another opportunity to spend time in the wonder that is Ely Cathedral. On this occasion we saw the black bog oak table that was built especially for the Queen's Jubilee this year. It stretches for a full 13 meters in length.

Bog oaks are a familiar phenomenon to those who live in or know the Fens. You can sometimes see them placed on field edges as you drive by arable fields. Black bog oaks are essentially fossilised trees that have been preserved in the acid, waterlogged marshes from 5000 years or more ago. As the Fens have been drained, resulting in the peat shrinking, bog oaks come to the surface. They have been a common source of fire wood for local inhabitants. For arable farmers they can be problematic and have to be dug out, once by hand, now using tractors. Sometimes dynamite has been used to blow them up to help with the removal of the very largest bog oaks.

In 2012, at Wissington Fen, South West Norfolk, between Ely and Downham Market, a bog oak was found which was a spectacular 13.2 meters in length. Not only that, the trunk was more or less uniform in diameter and also straight. Perfect for a table top 13 meters long. 

This black bog oak was milled into planks, five of which were used to make the Jubilee Table. The bog oak wood is about twice the age of Stone Henge. It is a very impressive sight in Ely Cathedral. There can't be many buildings that would be able to accommodate it.



Thursday 27 October 2022

Common beauty

In odd rough patches and uncultivated corners one plant seems to shine out at this time. This is the white dead nettle (Lamium album). It is very common but easily ignored. In fact, during much of the year I regularly weed it out from among the fruit bushes and elsewhere. It is not where I want it to be. It can be a little invasive, too, and has proved virtually impossible to eradicate from the strawberry bed once it took hold in unguarded moments.

However, if white dead nettles are allowed to grow where they present no conflicts they are actually very attractive plants when in full bloom. This is certainly the case now and their creamy-white flowers catch the eye, particularly on dull, overcast days. 

Tuesday 25 October 2022


Buzzards are a very common sight here. Most days, when the weather is not inclement, I see them. They are around the whole year so I presume they nest in the various tree breaks and spinneys that are dotted around. Their persistent cat-like call is unmistakable and alerts you to their presence. On a sunny Autumn day like today I see them soaring on the thermals in wide circles against a blue sky. Buzzards don't seem to soar particularly high from what I have observed, so you can usually get a good view of them. They only seem to flap their wings when they break from their circular flight and head for the trees.

No doubt there is plenty of food opportunities for them in our smallholding and the surrounding fields. They seem to be thriving here and it is reassuring to see such a large bird of prey locally resident.  

Photo courtesy of

Sunday 23 October 2022

Camellia flower buds

We have an established (but not very large) camellia growing against a wall. In the Spring, usually early March, it is dotted with pink flowers. I don't think it is the widely grown and reliable Camellia williamsii 'Donation'. The flowers are smaller and a darker pink. There is, in fact, a variety called C.'Shocking Pink'. Perhaps that is what it is.

The williamsii varieties are hardy enough for the UK so the fact that it flowers so early in the year is not usually a problem. However, the advice is not to grow it on an East-facing boundary because the rising early morning sun following a frost can spoil the flowers.

When I passed the camellia yesterday I noticed quite a few flower buds which are full of promise for next Spring. They develop during the Summer and overwinter protected in the leaf axils, patiently waiting for their moment to flourish the following year. Hydrangeas, among others, follow the same pattern.

Established plants should be able to look after themselves, but given our camellia is planted between patio paving and a wall, during the second half of the Summer I like to give a few waterings to help flower bud formation. As camellias prefer a slightly acid to neutral soil, I use rainwater from a nearby water-but, although this year this source dried up because of the drought and I had to resort to the tap.

Friday 21 October 2022

The leaves have yet to fall

The last couple of days have been classic Keatsian. It is only just beginning to get light when I do the early morning round tending to the livestock and it is distinctly cooler first thing. The leaves still cling on and are only just beginning to fall, but we have had no strong winds yet, nor frosts, to send them on their way. The morning dew lingers depending on whether the sun comes out later in the day. The season of wellington boots. 

Some regular Autumn jobs have been accomplished: sorting the sheep and putting in the tup; confining the poultry (surely now a regular task); trimming the boundary hedge; tidying the vegetable beds ready for their Winter compost blanket; starting off some Winter crops in the greenhouse; much late harvesting and preserving. There is lots more to do but without the sense of Spring and Summer-time urgency.

Yesterday I picked all of the remaining Bramley apples and also the Blenheim Orange. The latter is quite a large tree so this involved standing on tip toes on the top of a step ladder to reach the not so low hanging fruit. There was a rather large rosy apple high up where it had been exposed to the sunshine, but too far out of reach to pick. This morning it was on the ground having dropped of its own accord. Bruised, alas, but large enough to still make use of.

Anchors amidst the turbulence.

Rosa rugosa hips in a nearby trackway

Thursday 20 October 2022

Making walnuts last

We are blessed to have an enormous walnut tree on our property which this year produced a very large crop. Its tempting to think that this was the result of the long dry Summer. That might have contributed to it but the reality is that the walnut tree follows a pattern of biennial cropping. Every other year there is a big crop.

We make a lot of use of the walnuts. When they are still green in June we make pickled walnuts. In their mature abundance, which they reach at this time of the year, some are used to add to various cake recipes. But mostly we have the luxury of a handful of walnuts, or more, every day. I add them to my morning porridge, plus dipping in to a bowl in the kitchen when I pass by.

It is fair to say that Janet is the overseer of our annual walnut harvest and through trial and error has worked out the best way, in our experience, to ensure that they remain edible well into next year. She also has the resolution to prepare them ready for consumption, the nutcrackers never far off.

What we have found works best is to collect up the freshly dropped walnuts each morning and each afternoon. They are too high up to pick off the tree. A breezy day is a source of excitement. Collecting those nuts that have only just dropped appears to be important. The walnuts are then rattled about in a garden sieve to remove any soil, debris or husk remnants and then placed into stackable vegetable trays. This year we have collected ten of the trays in the picture below. These are stored in a cool garage. If they are stored in an environment that is too warm they are likely to turn moldy. 

The walnuts are then only cracked open and the kernel removed as needed at periodic intervals, a bowlful at a time. We have found that drying them, which is often recommended, is counterproductive. Also the shelled nuts will store in a fridge for a few weeks but eventually they will go off as the oil in the walnuts will turn them rancid. So, leaving the walnuts in their shells until needed seems to work best. 

Tuesday 18 October 2022

Avian flu - its not looking good

Avian flu is continuing its relentless course and is expected to intensify still further as the Winter migratory bird season gets underway. The Defra map shows why a regional housing order has been put in place for Norfolk, Suffolk and some of Essex. Each ring represents an individual outbreak. The outer rings represent a 10km Surveillance Zone around an outbreak and the inner ring a 3km Protection Zone. There is a dense cluster around Attleborough where there is a concentration of commercial poultry units. Many thousands of birds have had to be culled. 

Apart form the legal requirement to house captive birds there are a range of biosecurity and record keeping measures that also have to be adhered to with more stringent ones for the inner zone. 

Its not looking good for the poultry industry nor poultry keepers generally. Nor indeed for wild bird populations.

Sunday 16 October 2022

Rams come into their own

Today was the day earmarked for putting the rams with the ewes. This involved a bit of sorting out, so the first task was to get all the ewes and lambs into the barn. Our two rams have been grazing in a separate field.

Once in the barn the younger ram was allowed out and the older ram stayed put. He also need his hooves trimmed - a tricky job on your own as he is a strong lad. Job done. Next the first group of breeding ewes were let out of the barn to join the older ram. This was followed by the second set of ewes who were let out to join the younger ram and then led to their field. 

There were two other small groups that had to have their own separate sections. These were three ram lambs and five ewe lambs  (plus an older ewe we are not breeding from) respectively. The latter had an episode of mastitis when she lambed this year and it is very likely that the affected teat is now non-functional. She still managed to rear two healthy twin lambs but it is not a good idea to put her nor any potential twin lambs at risk if she were allowed to lamb next Spring.

Having four groupings in this way is a little complicated. I had to ensure the correct ewes were with the right ram. Feeding and watering them each day will also be a bit involved. However, this will only be for four weeks after which we will separate them into two groups: boys and girls. Restricting the tupping period to four weeks will allow us to know more or less exactly when lambing will be completed as well as confining the process to a four week period. 

There are a couple of reasons for the four groupings. One is that our abattoir of choice is fully booked until January so we have more lambs than usual to carry through to next year. The second reason is that we are running with two rams. This might appear excessive for the number of breeding ewes we have but we want to generate two bloodlines which will have some advantages for future breeding. This is probably the last year for breeding, at least with our flock, for the older ram but his blood line will live on from his progeny.

Ewes and lambs about to be gathered in



Thursday 13 October 2022

Jupiter in the October night sky

Every evening over the last week or so, when I shut up the poultry after dark, there is a very bright 'star' in the sky. It is in fact the planet Jupiter. After the moon, which was a full moon on the 9th, Jupiter is by far the brightest thing visible in the evening night sky at the moment. 

I gather Jupiter is at its closest to the Earth for 70 years, a mere 367 million miles away. Even if you have no chickens to shut up, if you look south east and quite high in the sky you cannot miss it.   

Jupiter by NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, August 2022 

Monday 10 October 2022

Polytunnel puzzle

Yesterday I joined three smallholder friends to help another smallholder couple put up a polytunnel they had been given. They live in a remote location in the Fens, a couple of miles along a track from Prickwillow, a village not far from Ely. We were blessed with some fine Autumn weather and, crucially, no wind.

The polytunnel was secondhand and in bits with no instructions. That did not deter us and we eventually worked out how to put it together with no parts left over. We had feared some components might be missing among the heap of tubes and fixings, but this proved not to be the case. The plastic cover was noticeably  past its prime but still serviceable for at least another season once a couple of holes were patched over with some spare plastic and gaffer tape.

Our reward was an enjoyable time with others who have a shared outlook, and a very appetising home cooked lunch. 

Sunday 9 October 2022

Avian flu in Norfolk and Suffolk

Yesterday we were notified that an avian flu housing order has now been announced as of this Wednesday. It was not unexpected. At the moment it applies just to Norfolk, Suffolk and parts of Essex. I suspect a national lockdown for all poultry and captive birds will follow in due course. 

East Anglia has been particularly badly affected by on-going incidents of avian flu through the Summer, especially around Attleborough, where there is a concentration of commercial poultry units, and in an area a little north of Bury St Edmunds. In both locations there have been multiple cases in the last couple of weeks.

There appears to be mounting concern within Defra, as well as the poultry industry, that we are now having year round cases of avian flu rather than being confined to the migratory Winter months. It has now become endemic among our native birds which seems to account for the persistence of the disease. I gather large numbers of swans have recently died along the River Stour in Sudbury. This makes it rather problematic in respect of long term control and management and any other potential knock on consequences.

I note that some experts point to the problem of disease 'spillover' from highly concentrated poultry production units, many of which house tens of thousands of birds.

Here, we anticipated a poultry lockdown this Winter and so during the Summer I have been making preparations to improve our lockdown arrangements. This has involved roofing over a substantial area of a fenced run in place of netting. The surrounding 6 foot chain linked fence has been overlaid with wire mesh (25mm is the maximum gauge allowed under the regulations). The main benefit of a solid roof is that it keeps the area dry and ensures food and water is under cover. So, although they have a decent amount of space, the chickens will not be able to free-range. I have also carried out the improvements so as to be able to keep different types of poultry (in our case hens, ducks and turkeys) separate, which is also a regulatory requirement.

The housing order is also accompanied by a number of bio-security requirements and record keeping. These are legal requirements and because of the much heightened level of concern about avian flu, I suspect that there will be more energy given over to inspections compared to previous years. 

Saturday 8 October 2022

More on the new Government's climate policy

Graham Stuart MP, Minister of State for Climate:-

Following the issue of 100 new licences for oil and gas exploration off the Lincolnshire and Norfolk coast, it is "actually good for the environment".

Marcus Aurelius, former Roman Emperor, philosopher and Stoic:-

"If it is not right, don't do it. If it is not true, don't say it".

Thursday 6 October 2022

Preparing for leafy greens over Winter

I have some Tatsoi and Winter Gem lettuce ready to plant out once the greenhouse border has been prepared. Today, a little later than intended, I sowed in modules Chinese cabbage 'Wong Bok', Little Gem Lettuce and Cos lettuce. I have not grown Cos lettuce nor Chinese cabbage as Winter crops before so it will be interesting to see how they do under cover at this time of the year. 

I have grown Chinese cabbage as a late Summer crop in the past and it tolerated cold and a degree of Autumn frost but by that time they were well established plants. The ones I grew this Summer were only partially successful because of the dry conditions and although we were able to pick some leaves they did not heart up.

We grow Cos lettuce because it makes a good substitute for pak choi and Chinese cabbage for stir frying in oyster sauce because the leaves are sufficiently robust to cook this way. In fact we had some this evening with our dinner.

Little Gem Lettuce from last Winter which
helped keep us in fresh greens through to March.

Monday 3 October 2022

Border troubles

With the Summer drought it was a challenge trying to keep the long border going this year. This was its second year and it did not meet the expectations of at least matching its inaugural year, even with regular watering.


Flowers went over more quickly than usual and it was difficult to keep up with the dead-heading which is usually needed to prolong flowering periods. There were too many days when the sun blazed so hot that wilting, scorching and running to seed overcame many plants. 

Some of the tender annuals did well and the late Summer/early Autumn flowers, also, after some rain and cooler weather eventually arrived. With the border in rapid decline there are still flowers to pick for the house. 

Sunday 2 October 2022

Last of the peppers

I have been gradually clearing the greenhouse as plants run out of steam. Today I picked all the remaining sweet peppers so that they won't be lost in any cold spells. There are still some aubergines but they don't look to be growing any larger. There are also a few tomatoes coming through still. 

At some point soon I will clear the lot as I will want the space for some winter crops. I will need to freshen up the beds, once cleared, by giving them a good soaking and then incorporating some quality compost I hold back in reserve for this very purpose. I'll give the glass a quick clean, too, to improve light levels as the days shorten and turn grey. 

Last of this year's peppers. One refused to turn red.

Saturday 1 October 2022


Quince trees are known for being tolerant of dry conditions and this seem to be the case with our tree. It has produced a fine crop of quince fruit which are turning from green to golden yellow which means that they will soon be ready for picking. This is not surprising given that they originate from the Caucasus region. Quince also produce very attractive white flowers with a pink flush early in Spring. They need cold conditions to produce flowers. Unlike our apricot tree which flowered well but failed to fruit because of late frosts, the quince tree was untroubled.

Quinces are known for being hard and very tart so not to be eaten straight from the tree however inviting they appear.  A bit of processing is needed before they can be deemed edible and I suppose for this reason they are not popular fruits here. We have previously used them as an added ingredient to apple crumble which adds a fragrant flavour. We have also had them baked. 

The oft recommended way to use quince is to make quince 'cheese' which is a firm, sliceable fruit jelly. In Portugal quince is called marmelo, and was used as the original marmalade. In Spain quince cheese is known as  membrillo and is very popular there. We are going to have a go making quince cheese this year and  will report back later as to how we get on.