The trials and tribulations of a life of leisure...


Thursday, December 28, 2006

Christmas at Todheugh

The Gipson's have a tradition that the main opening of presents does not begin before lunch has been finished and the washing up done. Stockings are allowed and one present may be opened by each person, but that is it. I remember my first Christmas at Paul's parents and being mildly upset by this revelation, but I must admit that now I like it. We informed my sister of this when they arrived, and was met by general moans but we held our ground. We were told that one of the nice things about Christmas was seeing all the kids out on their new bikes etc. Well, that was not going to happen here anyway.

On Christmas eve morning we packed Daniel and the dogs into the car and drove down to the field. Daniel soon found out that he could not run as fast as Jen. Susan came with us on the afternoon walk to Edrom. In the evening Paul, Susan and Daniel played the Business Game (also known as Mine a Million) - Daniel won. I was happy watching TV and doing some Su Dokus.

We awoke to a white Christmas - the temperature had dropped to -6C overnight and there was a very thick frost. It looked beautiful. Paul and I opened our stockings, and then Paul got up to take the dogs out and start preparing the turkey. Daniel was already up and downstairs with his stocking when I came down. I decided to go out with my camera to take some photos.

Paul had asked Susan to help with the morning dog walk as he was busy in the kitchen. She didn't want to come as she wanted to watch the Robbie Williams concert on TV. She volunteered to peel the potatoes instead which meant that Paul could come on the walk, everything else being under control at this time. We decided to walk the dogs down to the field rather than defrost the car and drive. We walked halfway down the field before letting Jen off the lead. Shortly afterwards we saw two deer in the next field running from left to right in front of us. Poncho was jumping and jarred Paul's back. Jen was transfixed. The deer ran out the side of the field, across the road into the next field and then disappeared from sight. Jen ran to the bottom of the field and then was trotting back and forth looking. I got her back on the lead. We continued walking to the other end of the field and I let Jen back off the lead. She continued running on to the far corner, and then just turned round and headed back to where we had come from. She then disappeared under the fence and by the time I got there was trying to find the best way down the bank. There was a small stream at the bottom, but that did not deter Jen - she loves water. And then she was up the bank the other side and into the next field. Paul volunteered to try to follow her, but I thought that was not the best idea in the world. I headed to the gate in the field, climbed over and walked up the road to the next field. Once I was there she came slowly looping towards me, looking very pleased with herself. We decided that was enough of a walk for the morning and headed for home.

The sun had come out and the lit up white trees against the dark grey clouds looked stunning. I headed back out with my camera. For anyone who is interested Paul has put all the photos on our website.

Paul asked Daniel to lay the table, but Daniel said he would only do it if he was allowed to open a present. Paul said no, but was immediately undermined by Susan telling him he could open a present anyway...

Lunch was ready by about 1.30 p.m. and we were all stuffed by about 3 p.m. I had wanted to watch Narnia on the TV but eventually gave up the attempt as the presents were being distributed. Susan brought down an enormous bag filled to the brim for Daniel. I waited until he had opened them before I brought down what we had bought him. The rest of us opened our presents - I thought I had done quite well with Paul as he had done his normal 'I don't want anything' routine. I had raided one of the charity shops and picked up Trivial Pursuit, Super Mastermind and another game for a fraction of their new cost. Paul had also done well for me with a set of Winnie-the-Pooh paint them yourself garden label figures.

Paul and I then cleared the dishes and did the washing up, and had just got back into the lounge when enquiries were made about tea. Neither of us were particularly hungry, so after a short break just put out a few things for a help yourself buffet.

We settled down in the evening to watch Dr Who, Strictly and the Vicar of Dibley, and generally chill out.

Boxing day and Paul was back in the kitchen. He had done a ham last year that was a great success and decided to do another one this year. Susan came with Paul and me on the morning walk, and then they settled down to watch Chelsea draw with Reading. Lunch was ready at half time. In the afternoon we played Cluedo - Charlie was a bit clueless and kept showing his cards and letting us know what people had shown him. We then decided to have another go at the Business Game, and we all played. Charlie was better at this, but I was victorious. In the evening we played the Sherlock Holmes card game, and Daniel won after showing no aptitude for the game when we played a hand at the start to let them get the hang of it.

Susan and Charlie were just getting up when Paul and I took the dogs out on Wednesday morning. They still had not finished packing the car by the time we got back. They had eventually sorted themselves out by about midday and headed off for Nottingham where they were breaking the journey at a friend's house.

The dogs had been very well behaved on the whole over Christmas, other then Jen's adventure. Daniel had received a few warning growls when they wanted some peace and quiet and had backed away from him only to be followed. Poncho, however, has since blotted his copy book. There was the loud crash of a plate smashing yesterday evening. I leapt up and found him heading back to the lounge with the remains of the turkey in his jaws.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

'Tis the Season to Eat Too Much

A week last Saturday our neighbour Margaret came round in the evening with fish suppers for us all. This was repayment for shortly after we moved up here when there had been a powercut and we had gone to the chippy when the power was still off in the early evening.

The following evening we went out to The Wheatsheaf in Swinton with Anne and Neil. We had a very enjoyable meal - the restaurant won the 'Best Tastes In the Borders' award and was very highly commended in the Scottish Hotel Informal Dining awards this year. We were quite late home which meant the dogs had been left longer than usual. We took them straight out when we got home, and then checked for any damage. Not too bad - there was an empty ramekin on the floor in the kitchen. It had been full of dripping mixed with birdseed, ready for my bird feeder. We know it was Poncho - the evidence appeared the next day...

On Thursday evening it was the Berwick Bridge Club Christmas Party. There was a two course dinner followed by 'fun' bridge. I had not played a hand since winning the Berwickshire Congress pairs with Paul earlier in the year. I played with Reg, who very kindly agreed to play my system. It was a very pleasant evening, and I don't think I played too badly. When we got home we found the presents under the Christmas tree had been joined by the beanbag, 2 pillows and one of the dog's rugs.

My sister and family arrived early Saturday evening. Paul did most of the cooking while they were here. He had been very organised with lists and menus. I did make soup for Saturday evening and an apple crumble for Christmas eve, but all the rest was Paul. I will cover Christmas in more detail in my next blog entry.

They departed late this morning, and peace has descended once again on our household. Daniel really likes the dogs, but I think they were somewhat disconcerted with the amount of attention they were given. They are now contentedly flaked out on their beds.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Winter Is Here

We have been 'frosted' in for the last three days. Indeed, the frost is so heavy that it does look like snow in places. The temperature has not risen high enough for long enough to clear it during the day, and has dropped as low as -5C at night.

The river is now visible from our house up to the bend in the road past Margaret's, at what we call the view point.

The wind was so strong last week that quite a few trees are down, so our washing line didn't really stand a chance...

There is still some colour in the garden. It had been so mild up until last week that I still had the odd rose flowering, and even quite a few flowers on the osteospermum. The cyclamens that I planted in the autumn are now in full flower...

and the mahonias, and several shrubs are bright with berries...

Monday, December 18, 2006

Poncho On The Mend

I took Poncho back to the vet on Friday evening for his bandage to be removed. He had been very well behaved and not attempted to chew it off himself.

There was a spaniel in the waiting room when we arrived. I allowed Poncho to say hello, and he was very good - just sniffing noses and tail wagging enthusiastically. Just after the spaniel was taken in to the treatment room a man came in with three small terriers. This was not quite so successful. A series of growls and barks ensued from all parties. The man decided that he would come back later...

The vet removed the bandage and cleaned up his foot. They had had to remove the stone from between his toes and have shaved his foot. It looks very sore. I got shown the x-rays - they showed nothing wrong other than the first stages of arthritis in his ankle and the small stone in his foot, so they hope that that was the problem. If it is muscular or a ligament it could take weeks to get better.

It does, however, appear to be what the problem was which is a relief. He is walking a lot better now, although we have not done any long walks yet. There was a slight set back yesterday when a hare suddenly ran out barely two yards in front of us, causing great excitement and leaps in the air. He may have re-opened the wound as he spent a lot of time lovingly licking his paw when we got home.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Poncho's Paw Update

Paul took Poncho back to the vet on Wednesday evening, as it had not improved and if anything was getting worse again. They could not find anything wrong, so arranged for him to go back in this morning for an x-ray.

We are assuming the first diagnosis of it being a problem with his elbow was down to the vet being over zealous and squeezing it too hard. The standard way of trying to find the problem with a greyhound is to poke and prod until they yelp, as they have a reputation of being drama queens and will quickly let you know if something hurts...

Jen was not impressed again as Paul and Poncho went out without her at about 8 a.m., but eventually stopped whining and lay back down on her bed. Paul got back about an hour later.

We had a phone call in the early afternoon saying the x-rays showed nothing wrong with his shoulder or elbow, but had shown up a sharp stone lodged in his foot. They had taken it out, and hoped that that had been the cause. He has also got the first signs of arthritis in his ankle.

I drove down later in the afternoon to collect him. The stone had been more like a flint that had splintered, and had been very difficult to get out. The vet has given him some pain-killer for the next few days. He needs to be kept in for the next 24 hours, just having pee breaks. No running for the next fortnight.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Mainly Poncho...

Poncho's leg is still giving him trouble, although this afternoon it seemed a little better. He is not helping himself. He still gets very excited when it is time to go out, leaping up from his bed and rushing out to the lobby. He then twirls and hops about with his sore paw in the air. He is using it when we are walking on soft surfaces such as the lawn and verges, but he is still hopping a lot of the time when we are walking on the road. Strangely it doesn't seem to bother him at all if there is something interesting to sniff. He also still wants to be first out the door and leading the way, and is amazingly adept at rushing onwards on three paws.

We have taken them both up to the field again a couple to times, letting Jen run around but keeping Poncho on the lead. It has helped to release some of Jen's excess energy as our walks have short to say the least.

He finished his course of tablets this morning. Luckily they are like treats, so we had no problem getting him to take them. On the contrary, Jen looked quite upset that she was not getting them as well.

We will see how he is tomorrow. If there is no more improvement I think it will be another trip to the vet.

I spoke too soon re the garden. I had been forewarned as Paul noticed J Parker had taken another payment from the credit card. The Japanese anemones turned up the next day, along with the missing cultural instructions. I read them avidly to find out what I should have done, but other than telling me the preferred location of the plants there was no clue to planting depths so I am still none the wiser.

I braved the wind and cold, and planted the anemones in one of the cleared seed beds in the long bank. Hopefully I will be able to transplant them next year into the high bank. I also covered the crowns of the paeonies with a layer of compost, as a hard frost was expected and came to pass over the weekend.

I have been keeping the bird feeders topped up now that there is less for the birds to eat in the hedgerows. I am competing with all of my neighbours - we must have some of the best fed birds in the country. The feeders are located so that I can see them from the lounge, and on most days I am rewarded by various tits and robins. On Saturday, however, I was totally stunned to see a woodpecker at the peanut feeder.

Preparations for Christmas are progressing well. My sister (Susan), her husband (Charlie) and son (Daniel) are coming for a few days. We have put our order in at the butcher shop in Chirnside. All the cards have been written and are ready to post. Most of the presents have been bought, including Paul's after a trip into Berwick today.

Scrabble revision has also been progressing. I have completed the top 6500 one solution eights. I had always stopped at 6000 in previous sessions, so have added a few new words to my repertoire. I am now going back through 4000-6500. I think I have been over-ambitious in my target of 500 in 50 minutes, but I am definitely getting better.

I have an appointment booked on Wednesday to get my typhoid jab for Bangalore...

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Last Gardening of the Year plus Poncho's Paw

A package arrived at Friday lunchtime. I eagerly opened it to find the rest of my plant order, minus the Japanese anemones.

The weather wasn't too bad in the afternoon, although a little cold, so I had to take the opportunity to plant as much as I could. I climbed up to the top of the high bank and planted the tricytris - again looked like bits of root to me. I then decided to tackle the paeonies, one in the rockery bit of the long bank where I had removed the lupin, three in the new area between the climbers and the last two in the high bank. I decided that was enough for the day - my hands were covered in mud and very very cold.

I got back out after the morning dog walk on Saturday. Having looked at the weather forecast this looked like my last chance - storms and gales on the way. Firstly the tradescantia - at least these looked like plants - two under the honeysuckle and four under the buddleia in the long bank. Next the blue poppies - three fibrous blobs - at the top left hand side of the high bank. I have no idea how deep I was meant to plant them, but hopefully I at least got them the right way up. Lastly the remaining bulbs, tulips and alliums, in the high bank around the other plants. I had a few failed attempts here - kept finding more clumps of snowdrops where I was digging. I still have five lilies, but they will go into a pot.

I must say that I was not impressed that no planting instructions were included for anything other than the bulbs. It will be interesting to see what comes up and what is lost forever.

By the time I had cleared/cleaned up - myself included - it was time for the afternoon walk.

Poncho seemed to have recovered from his run last week, and had been walking very nicely until on our way home we saw Florence, an old golden Labrador, running towards us wagging her tail. Her owner, Mr Gore, and his son were luckily not far behind. The son carried on with Florence around the corner, and Mr Gore stopped for a chat. Unfortunately Poncho could still see Florence now that the hedgerows have lost most of their leaves, and was still barking and leaping intermittently. It was starting to get dark when we continued on our way home.

We noticed Poncho was hobbling a bit again, and over the next couple of days got worse. It is especially bad when he gets up after lying down for a while. The poor little soul has been hopping, holding his right paw in the air. We reduced the walks to just enough for the requirements to be met. I have taken Jen a little further on a couple of occasions, but as the weather has been very cold and windy she is not being to obstreperous when I have turned around to come home.

This evening Paul took Poncho to the vet. Jen was much more put out when they went out without her, running backwards and forwards between the lounge and the lobby, and whining. It turns out that it is actually his elbow that he has hurt, and will now be on anti-inflammatory tablets for the next six days.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Visitors and Dogs

We have had Paul's parents, Alan and Lillian, staying for just under a week. They arrived last Thursday evening - slightly later than planned after being held up by a traffic accident near Newcastle. The weather was surprisingly good for their visit, which meant we had a few trips out around the locality.

On the Friday we all walked the dogs to the church at Edrom in the morning and then headed over to Kelso after lunch.

Saturday we went to Eyemouth in the morning where Paul bought some very nice honey glazed smoked salmon for lunch. In the afternoon we wandered around Coldingham and then drove down to the bay. Despite the cold wind there were still a lot of people walking their dogs there, and a fair number of surfers. We then continued on to St. Abbs, but stayed in the car there as it was far too cold and windy to get out for what little there is to see there.

On Sunday we went to a Christmas fair at Paxton house. We had been there last year, when it had not been very busy. This year, however, it required people to organise the parking. Also it seemed far better organised, with a route to go round to see the house before getting to the fair itself. Fortuitously for me there was a stand there manned by the wife of the man who made a bespoke iron-work banister and door for our neighbour Anne. I picked up a card and left my details, and in the evening the chap phoned to briefly determine what I was wanting. I am hoping to get some gates made for our new back garden when it eventually gets redeveloped - current estimates are March at the earliest. We had invited our neighbour, Margaret, around for dinner in the evening.

On Monday Paul, Alan and Lillian went to Edinburgh to visit Pam, the mother of their other daughter-in-law. I stayed behind to look after the dogs and wrap up the Christmas presents we want taken back down south.

Tuesday I drove Alan and Lillian to Dunbar, where I had never been before. We wandered down to the harbour where we were delighted to see a seal. At first I thought it was a rock sticking up out of the water, and then its head popped up out of the water. We then meandered back to the town and browsed in the shops before heading home for a late lunch.

I think all the fresh air and walking tired them out. Lillian said she has not felt so relaxed for ages. I think a good time was had by all. They set off back home on Wednesday morning. My scrabble study and diet suffered a little whilst they were here, but I am trying to get back into both now.

Margaret has a field near us where she had said we can walk our dogs as she is not planning on ploughing it until the spring. We have walked the dogs on their leads around it a few times. I mentioned on Sunday that we were considering driving into the field and letting the dogs off the lead in there if she didn't object. She said she thought that was a good idea. We decided to go for it today.

We drove a little way into the field, so that the dogs would have a focal point to head back to if needed. We were a little fearful as we opened the back door of the car. We weren't sure what would happen.

They both jumped out and went charging to the end of the field. They do look magnificent when running flat out. Jen then came bounding back to us, but Poncho carried on around the edge of the field and disappeared out of sight. This was a little worrying. He had run all the way to the other end of the field, but when he saw us coming over the brow of the hill he came running back which was a great relief.

We then walked around the field again, and both dogs stayed close to us. I think they had tired themselves out with their initial bursts of energy - both were panting quite heavily. When we said it was time to go home Poncho ran straight to the car and jumped in the back. Jen decided she didn't want to get in, so I drove Poncho home and Paul walked back with Jen.

All in all it was a very successful outing. Poncho has been hobbling a bit since on his right paw, which we think he has broken in the past, but not so badly that we won't do it again.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Eights - part 1

I hate doing eights - they are so much harder than sevens - but a certain amount of study is an unfortunate necessity.

I have started with the single solution sets in probability order. I was not impressed with my progress after completing the top 2500, but I was pleased to get quite a few of the ones that normally trip me up or take what seems like an eternity, so it is not all doom and gloom.

I started over again. The second time through is a lot better, but this is probably short term memory. I think the key to eights for me is repetition, repetition, repetition. This can be extremely boring and the danger is that I just switch off. However, the quicker I get the less time to get bored. My target is that a set of 500 should take up to 50 minutes - this is a good time for concentration as it is the length of a game.

In a game you do not have someone tapping you on your shoulder saying 'hey - you've got an 8 with that A on the board'. Unlike sevens, when all the tiles are sitting in front of you, with eights you have to mentally anagram your rack with what tiles are 'floating' (i.e. available to play around) on the board. This makes eights even harder to find and play.

According to the book 'How To Win at Scrabble', written by my friends Andrew Fisher and David Webb, 82% of eights will be played from the top 40% probability, 89% from the top 50% probability.

I freely admit to being very lazy with eights at the board - if my tiles do not look promising (i.e. not high probability) I will often not even look to see if there is a possibility of one if I do not desperately need one. I may lose the occasional game from this strategy, but I think I may also win some by better general rack management to steer my tiles to what I have studied, and time saved in searching when there is none to be found.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Scrabble Revision Results: 7 letters 1 answer

I have just finished revising the top 8000 probability sevens with one anagram. I failed to get 194 of the answers. Embarrassingly some of what I missed a complete novice would get. It is not that I do not know the words (in many cases) but because of how I test myself - at least that is my excuse. I am trying to get to almost automatic recognition of the alphagrams and their solutions. There is no point staring at the alphagram for 5 minutes to get the answer - you will lose the game on time penalties...

One problem is I often see a non-word immediately that should then trigger the actual word. However, sometimes I do not recognise the phony as being a trigger. It does help if it is an obvious nonsense word but that is not always the case. A couple of examples where I failed to recognise the trigger for what it was:


And an example of a trigger that works:
CENRSTU - trigger very rude = ENCRUST

Another problem is that I can get into a mindset. If I have had a run of two or three words that follow a pattern, then frequently when the next alphagram pops up my brain just follows that pattern and comes up automatically with the wrong answer.


Hopefully this would not happen in a game situation...

I also find words that do not fit to the standard 'scrabble players' way of anagramming incredibly hard to solve. They can be 'everyday' words that just throw you completely. Amongst those I failed dismally on were ACHIRTU and BCEHIOR... HAIRCUT and BRIOCHE. Hopefully they will come screaming at me from now on.

Sometimes the problem is a muddling of known words: PECTATE SPECTATE SPECTATOR SECTATOR therefore logically SECTATE.... missing the everyday word CASETTE.

I also find it fascinating that changing just one letter can give amazingly different word structures. Take AAISTT? This rack yields the following nine very different solutions:

aBattis astatiC satiatE saGitta astatKi tataMis attaiNs stRiata and ataVist

The English language is a truly amazing thing...

Jen and Poncho in Disgrace

The weather is generally becoming a lot wetter and colder, but it is the days when we have strong winds that are the real killers. It is very difficult to hear cars when the wind is gusting through the trees. Getting ready for walks is taking longer - hats, coats, scarves and gloves for us, and coats and muzzles for Jen and Poncho. Our schedule has now changed to 'long' walks in the morning and afternoon, but the extended walks are less frequent now as they are less enjoyable. It is also getting dark quite early now - on grey/rainy days it can be getting dark at around 4 p.m. - so the start time of the afternoon walk is gradually being pulled back.

We had started undoing the dog's leads as we came up the drive, and they would bound up to the front door and wait for us. However, on Tuesday they obviously saw or smelt something up the high bank. Poncho stopped and started sniffing, and then Jen just jumped up quickly followed by Poncho. They spent five minutes running up and down and along the back of Margaret's barn, showing none of the trepidation and care that I had when working up there. They obviously didn't give a damn about the plants...

I was worried that they would run around the side of the barn to Margaret's - having seen the nettles, brambles and hogweed there they could have done themselves a lot of damage, not to mention what would happen if they saw Margaret's cats.

As it was lunch time I went and got their bowls and clanged them. This did the trick - the promise of food got them down. They had obviously thoroughly enjoyed themselves, but a severe telling off did make them look slightly abashed.

Monday, November 13, 2006

A Day in Edinburgh

I at last got round to filling in the visa application on Sunday for my trip to Bangalore.

Today, as the weather forecast was for dry and sunny, I went to the Indian Consulate in Edinburgh to get it processed. I drove to the park and ride at Newcraighall and got the train in - much less hassle than driving into Edinburgh itself, especially as I didn't know how long I would be.

I knew roughly where I had to go - it was in Rutland Square at the opposite end of Princes Street to Waverley station. I had a quick look at a bus route map, and saw I should turn left onto Lothian street, and it should be further up there on the right. I set off and wandered down Lothian street. I remembered that I had not dated my form - was not sure which day I would actually go to Edinburgh - and a quick check revealed I had no black pen in my handbag. I dived into a newsagents to buy one. I continued walking, but did not see the square. Luckily there was a traffic warden nearby, who very kindly directed me to an underpass under a building opposite which came out in the square.

It was about 11.15 when I found the consulate. As I was about to enter a man called out if I was enquiring about a visa to go to the basement. I enquired whether there was a ticket system, but no - everyone just shuffled along the chairs everytime someone was called to the counter. Just like the DHSS in Dundee as I recall, except the chairs weren't bolted to the floor...

I joined the queue at the end of row three of three - 17 people ahead of me. Two Indians immediatley in front of me realised they were in the wrong queue, and left. 15 people ahead of me. I shuffled along. As I sat there I realised the form I had filled in was different to the one on display. Mine was a London form from the web, theirs was an Edinburgh form. I decided for safety sake to fill in an Edinburgh form as well - I had plenty of time and a new black pen. At 11.50 there were 7 people ahead of me - so, about 5 minutes per person. At this rate I should just about make the 12.30 cut-off. Didn't look good for those who had come in after me...

And then a new man took over at the counter. Suddenly we were shuffling along at break-neck speed, and it was my turn. I handed over my Edinburgh form (definitely a shrewd move as I observed people frantically filling them in when the web form had been rejected), passport and the £30.00 fee. The bottle-neck came waiting to get our receipts for our passports - man number one had taken over this task. I was out by 12.15, having to go back between 16.00 and 17.00 to collect passport and hopefully visa.

I headed back to Princes street. I had £30 of M&S vouchers that Paul had won in various bridge tourneys, and the nearest M&S to us was here. I managed to spend them and more without too much of a problem, and also managed a little more Christmas shopping. By 2 p.m. I was beginning to flag, and stopped for lunch.

I still had over an hour to fill, and continued trudging up and down and in and out of shops, but my enthusiasm for the task had long since lapsed. I decided to wander back to the consulate early and wait - and found there was already a queue. They eventually opened the doors about 5 minutes late, but the process of retrieving the passports was a lot quicker. I collected mine plus visa, and headed straight back to Waverley station.

As I waited on the platform I attracted the nutter, or maybe I am just paranoid. I was the only person there at the time, and then this youngish lad arrived and sat on the same bench as me. I thought it odd. He then asked if I had the time. I wasn't wearing a watch, but pointed out there was a clock not far from us. He then started muttering a bit and whistling. I felt slightly better as a few more people had arrived on the platform by now. Then he moved into the seat next to me. I was fastidiously ignoring him. I was very relieved when he then got up and wandered further up the platform, and I ensured I got into a different carriage to him when the train arrived.

Anyway, only 2 months until I go to Bangalore. Flights booked and visa sorted. Need to sort out typhoid jab at the start of December...

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Dogs, Scrabble, Gardening

Saturday night was a bit of trial for me. I think most people had decided to have their bonfire night a night early this year. Paul was away playing bridge again. Jen does not like bangs at the best of times, and she was absolutely terrified with the sounds of the fireworks going off. I think only one of our neighbours actually had a bonfire party, but sound travels amazingly far around here. She was shaking and panting, and for once when she climbed onto the sofa I let her stay there. Luckily Poncho did not seem to be bothered in the slightest, and all in all was a little angel with no signs of jealousy as I tried to keep Jen calm. Luckily there was a lull at around 7.30 p.m. and by 8 p.m. she was relaxed enough to go outside for a pee break. As we were out there were a few more loud bangs, and Jen pulled me back to the house.

Poncho is nowhere near as good at playing with squeaky toys as Jen. For him all the excitement is actually going to get them from the 'secret cupboard', grabbing one and racing back to the lounge. He is not as good as Jen at getting them to squeak and soon loses interest. Jen can keep up squeaking ad-infinitum. However, a yoghurt pot gets his full attention...

Now that I have less to do in the garden I have got back into the flow of word study. I am revising my sevens yet again. I have completed the couplets - alphagrams with two solutions (there are 3161 alphagrams in this list) , and am now doing the sevens with a unique solution (just under 21000 in total). I do them in probability order, and am currently on 4001-4500. I will not do them all - diminishing returns and all that. The theory is that the more often I do them the less time they should take. I am currently at a success rate of just under 99%.

I also discovered some time back that I cannot play for Scotland in the next WSC. Even though they changed the residency rules they decided this was not retrospective. However, there are two 'floating' U.K. places that I can go for - one for the highest ABSP rated player at the end of this year and one for the highest placed finisher in next years BMSC, who has not already been selected for a U.K. country. I am currently way ahead for the first floating place - keeping my fingers crossed...

The rest of my plant order has still not arrived. I have completed clearing out and digging over the small beds I used for annuals along the bottom of the long bank, and yesterday finished digging out the new bed along the trellis. I am now twiddling my thumbs...

Sunday, November 05, 2006

A dreadful year for UK Scrabble

I at last got around to reading my scrabble magazine yesterday. Inside was an obituary of Karl Khoshnaw - best known around the scrabble world as the world record holder for playing CAZIQUE for 124 points on his opening move. I had first met Karl when he was a member of the Richmond club. I used to play in the East Berkshire team, and the Richmond v East Berks match almost always decided which of us would win the Southern Counties league for that year. He had died whilst awaiting a liver transplant when he contracted pneumonia and septicaemia, aged only 57.

I logged in to the uk-s scrabble mailing list to write an email regarding the '5 minute challenge' inside the magazine. This is a regular feature, containing 4 sets of 10 anagrams, the first set supposedly for beginners, increasing in difficulty and the final set for experts. I had been thinking that David (who sets the challenges) was losing the plot. David has come into scrabble with an excellent and exotic word knowledge, and definitely not what most people would call a scrabble players vocabulary. Scrabble players tend to learn words in probability order of the tiles, but David's challenges do not seem to take that into account.

(answers at the end of this post)
Group 1 contained ABGLMOU
Group 2 contained AILMPRU
Group 3, which according to David should be known by players with ratings 151-175 (n.b. I have a rating of 193) contained the following: CCEEIOR, ENRSUY and BEIIMNNR
I won't even tell you what was in group 4...

I sent my email.

I checked half an hour later to see if it had arrived and whether there had been any response.

That was when I received the dreadful news. Graeme Thomas, a former chairman of the Association of British Scrabble Players, had been involved in a fatal car accident on the early hours of the morning. There had been a severe frost, and it was thought that his car failed to take a sharp bend and hit a tree.

As with Pete earlier in the year this news has been greeted with shock, great sadness and a sense of disbelief. Emails have been coming in from around the world expressing people's sorrow and passing on condolences to Graeme's family.

Graeme was a one-off, which is saying something for an identical twin.

With respect to Graeme, moderator of the uk-s scrabble mailing list
As is customary on uk-s there follows a spoiler space for the quiz answers
Graeme also had an exotic and extensive vocabulary, and was well known for berating us on our lack of education. I was wondering whether I should include the quiz in this post, but I think he would approve
LUMBAGO. Although a common word I would not expect the majority of low-rated players to get this.
PRIMULA. Again not an obscure word, but not high up on the probability stakes of scrabble.
CICOREE - certainly not a word on everyones lips and very low probability
SENRYU - 6-letter words are the least valuable to scrabble players and as this does not take an S would not have been learnt even as a lower-probability 7. Add to that it is an American import...
RENMINBI - enough said...

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Plant Man Cometh - part 1

On Tuesday afternoon the doorbell went, and there was the man bearing a box from J Parker. I signed for it, thought it looked a little small considering all I had ordered. I was quite right, only part of the order was inside. Unfortunately, mainly the wrong part...

The tulips, hyacynths, alliums, erythronium and campanulas were enclosed. What I really wanted to do was plant up the shrubs/perennials and then plant the alliums and tulips around them.

There were still some things I could get on with, so on Tuesday afternoon when it had warmed up a little I planted ten of the tulips into the rockery and set about the five erythronium under the buddleia. And it started to rain... Back inside. Half an hour later it stopped, so I went back out and planted the remaining twenty grape hyacynths from my Aldi packs. I also decided to plant the hyacinths in the garden rather than pots. I have a small bed that I used for summer bedding which would be ideal for them.

This afternoon I ended back up at the side of the house. I sort of knew I would. The thought of leaving those brambles until the spring was beginning to knaw away at me. Armed with my gloves, secateurs and fork I worked my way back up and round. The ground up there was covered in conifer litter, last years autumn debris of sticks and many stones, which I cleared as best I could. I pulled out/cut down as many of the brambles as I could but attempts to dig out the roots were only partially successful due to their positions and the stony ground. It was too dangerous to dig/pull too much - I did not fancy losing my balance and falling into the alley. I think that area will be a matter to control rather than tame...

After bagging up all the rubbish I decided I deserved a cup of coffee and a ciggie on my bench, enjoying the late autumn sun and views. My bench is one of my pride and joys. I had a work colleague who did wood-work as a hobby, so I commissioned him to make me my bench - oak, seats three easily and the arms are wide enough to put your coffee cup on with room to spare. It weighs an absolute ton, and hopefully will last my lifetime.

Views from my bench:

The autumn colours are really looking glorious now, but after the strong wind on Tuesday a lot have already fallen.

The river is just becoming visible again from the garden.

I decided I had time to plant some of the campanulas. On opening the packet I found roots with small shoots, and no planting instructions. I knew roughly where I had planned to plant them - around the pampas grass. I planted four, eventually deciding they should be buried rather than the shoots poking out. No idea if this is right or not, but working on the principle that they are root cuttings therefore should be underground. If anyone knows if this is wrong please tell me what I should do - the good news is that I appear to have a lot more than the six I expected, so can try again...

Weather is supposed to remain good according to the five-day forecast, so I hope the rest of my order arrives soon.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Responding to Comments

Well, the weather today is as predicted. Very strong winds. Wicker Pig made another dash for freedom, despite his ground pegs, as I was looking out the window. By the time I got my boots on to catch him he had scarpered down the bank and across the road...

I didn't actually lose too much available gardening time yesterday as we had decided to take the dogs to Duns castle grounds for their morning walk. There would have little point in starting in the garden prior to taking them. The later blog was written after I came back in when it was dark...

The size of our plot including house, garden, cowshed and back barn is about half an acre - small in comparison with most of the houses around here, but enormous compared to Sandhurst. It does not take into account the slope though, which adds quite a lot to the banks' surface area.

Responding to anonymous regarding rose pruning and insects in the garden. At the start of the year I went on a half-day course on pruning fruit trees at Floors castle, but they also covered roses and other plants. I have forgotten a lot of it. The thing I do remember re rose bushes is that they didn't have time to prune in summer/autumn, and only pruned hard in Spring after St. Georges day. I must say that your gardener seems wildly overqualified for the job - maybe that is why he charges so much :)

Fauna in and around Todheugh

I am by no means an expert on such matters, and the lists may not be complete. They only cover what we or neighbours have actually seen/heard/recognised.

Badgers - there was a dead one on the road to Allanton. My friend Allan at Coldingham, about 9 miles away, had some living in a waste pipe in the bank of the stream over the road from his house.
Bats - saw lots at dusk in the summer
Deer - Roe deer are becoming more common around here, and we see them quite often on our walks
Foxes - Surprisingly, considering the number of rabbits, I have only seen one early one morning up the hill from Margaret's farm
Hares - fairly common
Mice - we started the traps again in the loft last week. Count so far is 11
Moles - common. Had one in our lawn last year. Mole hills in the high bank this year.
Rabbits - ubiquitous
Rats - roadkill again
Voles - caught some this spring. Can see the holes in the lawn and in the long bank

Toads - lots. See earlier post re Poncho and the toad
Probably frogs too, but I would find it hard to tell the difference.

We have a good variety of birds around here as we have farmland, woodland and the river. We are also not far from the North Sea coast, can see the Cheviot hills to the south and are fairly close to the Lammermuir hills in the north. This list will definitely be missing some, despite me having my book of Scottish birds...
There are several birds of prey - buzzards, sparrowhawks, kestrels
Owls - I have only actually seen one, but you can hear them in the daytime as well as at night
Pheasants - the dumbest bird ever
Various tits (although I find it difficult to tell the difference between some of them) all come to my bird feeders -there is a definite pecking order amongst them
Robins also come to the feeders, and have been following me around as I have been digging
Swallows, swifts and house-martins - all very similar
Sparrows - food for the sparrowhawks
Blackbirds, green finches, crows/rooks, thrushes, wagtails, woodpeckers (heard)
At the river kingfishers (seen by neighbours), ducks and herons

Bees - various. Iona and Hedley keep bee hives. They were feasting on the clover in our lawn this summer
Beetles - various unknowns
Butterflies - glorious year for them. Cannot identify them all but orange-tips, common white, tortoise-shell and red admirals
Centipedes - don't know what they actually are, but black and squiggly ones all over the blackberries at the end of September
Earthworms - enormous great big juicy ones
Flies - various. Plagued by them on our walks on still warm days this summer. Was enthralling watching the swallows catching them.
Midges - but not as bad as further north
Moths - lots. Probably why so many bats...
Slugs - all 3 British natives: white, brown and black
Snails - but not as bad as Sandhurst
Spiders - seen more in the house than outside, but when there was a heavy dew the whole of the high-bank was covered in webs. A lot of small white ones on the elderberries.
Wasps - had a nest in the lawn

What has been more of note is what we haven't got that plagued me down south.
Roses are amazingly bug-free. May account for not having ants too. In Sandhurst my roses where covered in aphids/greenfly, and ants nests underneath farming them.
Lupins - not a woolly-aphid in sight
Lilies - apparently lily-beetles not made it here yet either

Monday, October 30, 2006

Autumn Gardening

A week last Friday I was browsing a plant catalogue from J.Parker when I noticed they had a website. I logged in and began browsing in earnest - before I knew it I had started adding stuff to my basket. They hook you with some excellent offers - 12 mixed hyacinths for £1.95, 5 Starfighter lilies for £1.75, 25 Allium Purple Sensation for £2.45. In they went. I had clocked up the first free gift of 6 Campanula Glomerata Superba the moment the first plant hit the basket. Next target - spend £40.00 and get 30 free Apricot Beauty tulips - well, that shouldn't be too much of a challenge. In went the blue Himalayan poppies - should love it in the left hand side of the high bank. Next came the pack of 6 Japanese anemones - I had already planted some of these last year (a gift from Janet), but only 2 had survived from the weed attack. Tricyrtis Hirta - now they look interesting, lily-like flowers, white covered with red splotches, and they like shade - will be great at the top of the high bank. Ooh - a collection of double paeonies - buy 4 and get 2 free. I'm sure I'll find somewhere for them. A pack of 6 mixed Tradescantia - they like wet or dry soil, sun or part shade so will be ideal for my garden. Lastly a pack of 5 Erythronium Dens Canis - Dog's Tooth violets - for under the buddleia in the long bank. Proceed to checkout. Total £58.75, savings £39.50.

Now all I have to do is get the garden ready for them.

I still had the 2 packs of bulbs and pots from Aldi to sort out. There was no way I was going to cram 50 bulbs into those small pots, but they would be fine for the hyacinths. I set about clearing out the weeds from the 3 tubs along the edge of the lawn - I thought I may be able to put some bulbs in them but found they were already pretty well bulbed up. I topped up the compost level, re-located a mint plant to a separate pot and planted the crocuses from the packs around it. I replaced the mint with a small pot of chives I had brought up from Sandhurst.

As a separate project I had also bought 2 packs each containing 3 climbers from Aldi several weeks ago - an absolute bargain at £3.99 per pack. I had 4 clematis, a solanum and a jasmine still waiting to find a home. I had plans to plant them along the other side of the drive to the long bank rockery. There is trellis up already, with the garden sheds on the other side. I managed to clear enough to plant 3 of the clematis last Wednesday before darkness and rain forced me to stop.

The next job was to clear the small area along the side of the rose-bed area. There are a few plants self-seeded into this narrow patch, but mainly the lawn, clover, docks and thistles seem to want to claim it as their own. I planted the sparaxia, puschkinia and allium moly from the bulb packs in here. I still need to weed the rose-bed itself...

Moving on to clearing the debris from under the buddleia. The alchemillas (Lady's mantle) had taken over under here. I remember when I first arrived up here being very pleased on finding these in the garden. A short walk over the road and down to the river soon showed me that they were growing everywhere here, as are geraniums which I love. Now, why couldn't they have invaded. I also started clearing out some of my annuals from the small beds I had made along the bottom of the bank.

Yesterday I was back to the high bank. There was a very weak small potentilla in there which was doing nothing - that needed to be pulled out. Also a few branches on a shrub (no idea what it is) slightly higher up that were growing outwards instead of upwards that were ready for the chop. This would clear quite a large area ready for planting. Those jobs done and back up with a rubbish sack to remove the debris (mainly moss and twigs) and a fork to dig it over. It was nowhere near as muddy as I had expected, and surprisingly not as stony as other areas. I found more autumn crocuses and snowdrops up there as I dug it over, and these were relocated to under the shrubs. I planted my last clematis just below the shrub - hopefully it will grow up into it. Feeling pleased with how well this went I carried on around the front of the pampas grass. Then I got over-ambitious. The high bank continues around to the side of the house - there is actually a small alley between the house and the bank that houses the dustbins from before the council switched to wheelie bins. I had never made it round that far in all the time we have been here - finding a route had not been possible before, but now that I had cleared the pampas grass and brambles I could see a way up. Off I set with my loppers, gloves and fork. Firstly to chop the dead and annoying branches off of yet another buddleia. Now I could make it to the bottom of the conifers. Next chop off some of the lower branches of those so that I can work my way past them to get to the side. I was greeted by another giant hogweed, but on its last legs for this year. I could get past that okay - to get to another forest of nettles... and another of brambles... I pulled out as many of the nettles as I could, throwing them down into the alley. I hadn't the heart or the time to start on the brambles. That job can wait until everything else has been done.
On bagging up the rubbish I rediscovered my wicker pig hiding in the alley. He is looking a little worse for wear (needs some new wicker I think), but I decided to give him his freedom. He was locked up before because he kept blowing away, but I had found some ground pegs, so hopefully he is now going to behave.

Today I moved back to the rockery end of the long bank. There were loads of linaria purpurea (I think) all over it. These could go. They will seed back in unless I clear the whole bank, but that will be fine once what I want growing there is established. I hadn't realised quite how many of them there were - I filled a sack and a half. The last job of the day was to dig out the old lupin - this also had self-seeded, and I had already transplanted the seedlings at intervals along the top edge of the bank.

Having looked at the 5-day weather forecast I will probably get a day off tomorrow - strong wind, but nowhere near as bad as the earlier predicted 40 m.p.h. It does seem to improve as the week goes on, but the temperature is now dropping. I just hope my plants arrive in the next few days...

Country Living

Back in Sandhurst, although we lived in a small cul-de-sac, we only knew about half the other people in the street, and out of those we were only really friendly with our immediate neighbours on one side. When we bought our house up here we made an effort to go round to all the other houses in the immediate neighbourhood that we knew about to introduce ourselves. We discovered there were a few more houses we hadn't known about when Ray and Janet, from the bungalow further up the hill on the other side of the river, stopped when they were passing to say hello. People wave when they go past in cars - and occasionally even complete strangers have stopped for a chat when they have seen the dogs. It is amazing how many people used to own greyhounds, whippets or just used to go to dog races.

Ray and Janet have been very good to me and my garden, a steady supplier of plants from when we first moved up here for good. Frequently when we walk past with the dogs they are waiting for us on our way back for a chat and to enquire whether I would like some x for my garden. We have also been provided with rhubarb and apples.

We have become good friends with Anne and Neil from 'the big house'. They now keep chickens, and we have had a good supply of eggs. We have also shared some gardening catalogues, which means we have taken advantage of the special offers and postage savings. Anne lent me her jam pan which meant that I didn't have Paul standing over me worrying about spilling sugary goo onto his hob for my last couple of batches of jam/jelly. Paul has set up their website for them - they are hoping to holiday-let their renovated basement flat -

We often see old John and Mary, who own a farm at Edrom, when we are out and about. They sell their own potatoes and Paul went and bought a couple of stones (imperial measurement - not small rocks) at the end of last week. We also got given another bag of apples. We should not need to buy any for quite a while now as long as they keep okay.

My main part in the community spirit has been distributing jars of jam - although I still have enough to keep us supplied until next autumn! I have also been seed collecting from my garden and should have a quite a few packets to give away. It was a particularly good year for giant poppies - all the better as they were self-sown and just sprouted up in all the areas I had cleared along the bottom of the long bank.

Well, I'd better get back out to the garden now. This looks like it might be the last good day for a while now, and I want to be ready when the new plants I have ordered arrive...

Monday, October 23, 2006

Long Bank

I was busy with my camera yesterday. We have been here for just over a year now, and there is no comparison with the state of the garden now to when we moved up here after six months of neglect. My job now is to try to keep it under control, and begin to replace the plants that I don't like or I do not think are 'right'. I think that large evergreen (possibly an aucuba) will be going...

This is the main 'rockery' area that has been completely planted up with spring bulbs...

Continuing on from the photinia ...

On to the end section where I have planted mainly grape-hyacynths and narcissi between the saxifrages. You can see the bank of red-hot pokers - these marked the end of the garden for the previous owners. However, we also bought the cowshed which can be seen at the end of the house, and the barn behind it. We have now been granted planning permission to knock it down and build an extension...

I am actually growing plant labels...

Buddleia after major surgery. The shrubs underneath can now actually be seen. I will be underplanting with some dog-tooth violets...

Sunday, October 22, 2006

High Bank

Joy! I finished weeding the high bank yesterday. I was foolish to think it was only another days work. In order to finish off pruning/culling the honeysuckle I decided the easiest way to reach it was to go round the back. As I ascended I was met with yet another thicket of brambles and nettles - Sleeping Beauty had nothing on my garden...

I decided to tackle the problem from basics, and continued climbing up to Margaret's barn at the back. Session one I removed all the brambles from along the back and between the conifers. Session two I started clearing those in front of the conifers and discovered two berberises, a forsythia and a rhododendron. We then had two days of steady rain...

Yesterday afternoon, with some trepidation, I set off back up the bank armed with my loppers, secateurs, gloves and rubbish bag. It was like climbing a mud bank, but with various shrubs to hang on to for purchase I got there. Yet another buddleia to attack, and the rhododendron can now see the light of day. I then had to gingerly start working my way down towards the honeysuckle, pulling out nettles and as much of the root system as I could from the mud, without sliding a***-about-t** down to the bottom. It then started to rain again...

Had a break to walk the dogs, and the rain stopped. I went straight back out on return - it would have been far too easy just to call it a day but I was so close. I had left the loppers up there, so it was slightly easier to get back up. I managed to work my way to the telegraph pole and this gave me a good footing.

Also from here I could actually throw the weeds and prunings onto the lawn, rather than have to try to pack them into the rubbish sack. Attempts to throw stuff from higher up had generally resulted in me having to do a scavenger hunt to retrieve all of the bundles that ended up lodged in various shrubs half-way down.

The honeysuckle after the war...

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