Thursday, 15 December 2016

Fibonacci Socks Pattern

I finished these short-legged, squooshy lounge socks a while ago and put the pattern details on my Ravelry 'Midnight Fibonacci Socks' project. 'Midnight', because of the sparkly dark blue yarn, and because I tend to still be knitting at midnight. The pattern of knit and purl rings on the leg, and in fact the rib sequence, was Fibonacci inspired, although there are also elements of perfect numbers, repeats and mirrors. Then I got a bit busy packing, moving house and so on, and forgot to test the pattern out a bit by making another pair, checking and writing out the instructions here. So now I've caught up with that, please feel free to try these out and let me know how they go.

Both pairs pictured were made in Alpine Spark, which is theoretically DK, but it’s quite thick, more like worsted weight, so the result is roomy even on my very wide feet. With the same number of stitches, smaller needles and a lighter DK yarn, they would probably fit an average-width foot.

These are knitted cuff-down, using a set of 4 x 4mm dpns.

Cast on 48 sts; I have the 24 heel/sole stitches on needle 1, with 12 stitches each on needles 2 and 3.
12 rounds knit and purl rib in the following pattern:
K1, P2, K3, P1, K2, P3 (repeated 4 times)

Fibonacci sequence leg (38 rows in total):
8 rounds purl
5 rounds knit
3 rounds purl
2 rounds knit
1 round purl
1 round knit
2 rounds purl
3 rounds knit
5 rounds purl
8 rounds knit

Priscilla Wild’s short row, no wraps heel:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zu5YAKsAEpY
has a nice, clear demonstration by Charisa Martin Cairn.
Note, I don’t know whether it’s the way I do K2tog, but I find I get a neater finish by doing SSK followed by the M1L on the knit side, although the purl side is always neat with P2tog and M1L which is then purled.
Naturally, you can substitute your favourite way of doing a heel. 

40 rounds stocking stitch foot (for my size 6/39, although obviously, this changes depending on foot length).

Toe decreases:
Next round (R1), decrease by 4 stitches in total, 2 at each side of the toes as follows:
Needle 1 (sole); SSK, knit to last 2 sts, K2tog
Needle 2; SSK then knit remainder of stitches on needle
Needle 3; knit to the last 2 sts, K2tog.

R2 knit all the way around.

Repeat R1 and R2 three more times (= 32 sts).

Then repeat R1 decreases on every row for the next 6 rows, leaving 8 sts in total.
Cut the yarn and either Kitchener graft the stitches together (which is what I do), or thread the yarn through the stitches to gather the toe. And then do the other sock.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Belly Dance Costume on a Budget

It was with a deepening sense of gloom that I watched the coverage of the Autumn Statement. The forecast is that low and middle income 'households' who are the JAMs - a nice new acronym, the 'Just About Managing' - will find themselves worse off as a combination of inflation and welfare cuts take hold.

When you are just about managing (and especially when you are actually not managing but determined to have some belly dance space-time), it can be really difficult to justify money spent on costume for a performance, especially if your time and money is so short that this may be once a year. The temptation is to go for something cheap, preferably something which will do double duty as everyday clothing, perhaps something you already have in your wardrobe. This can be really difficult; costume should ideally look like costume. There are few instances where you can get away with everyday wear, unless your everyday wear is somewhat bohemian and full of rich fabrics, colours, textures and bling! So, bearing in mind that I'm considering amateur performances in relatively 'safe' spaces, such as local haflas, here are some tips on what you might look for, what you might get away with, and how not to waste your money.

First, bear in mind that your costume should:
  • Suit the dance style. Think about the dance - is it more cabaret or folkloric? A distinct style, or fusion? You might get away with jeans and a T shirt for Shaabi, or summer skirts for something folky or fusion, but not for something more classical.
  • Fit you. Not so loose that the movements can't be seen or that it slips around or down, not so tight that it looks like you might spill out or it rides up, not so long that you trip over it, nor too short.
  • Flatter you. Maximise your assets, minimise your faults, cover up anything distracting, such as large, scarred tummies and bingo wings, and look as though you are wearing the costume and not the other way around.
  • Provide some visual interest and look like a unified group. I'm all for individuality, but if everyone just wears what they have or like, you can end up with every style of costume in every colour (which is what happened for the Imago dancers' first show piece. Ah well, it's all experience!). Costumes don't have to be identical, but should have some sort of richness, either in their decoration or the blend of colours and perhaps textures or fabrics, and if not all the same, then a limited set of styles can bring a group look together.)

The first thing is to assess what you have, or can borrow.
  • Skirts. A skirt should be long and move nicely. Long means down to your ankles, or onto the instep of your foot, rather than calf length. Try turning in the skirt and twisting your hips to see how it moves. Ideally, you should have a skirt with a hem at least 3-4 metres long. A circular skirt will have a hem 6-7 metres long. A half circle skirt with godets (triangular inserts) can also work well. Tiered skirts used for folkloric or tribal style dance often have hems at least 9.5 metres long, roughly equivalent to a circle and a half, but if the top tier is too long, onto the thigh, it may not move well. This is often the case with tiered 'broomstick' skirts sold as summer skirts, which often do not have enough fabric gathered into the tiers to move well.
  • Tops. A good basic is a close-fitting vest top or strappy camisole of fine cotton, poly-cotton, polyester or viscose jersey. This can be paired with a cropped-length tie-top of some sort, in a matching or toning colour. Make sure the tie top is big enough so that it does not ride up over the bust, and you can get a sleeker look with a top which has ties long enough to cross in front and tie at the back. Any T shirt should be close-fitting, with a deep and preferably decorated neckline. The only time I would suggest something 'blousy' would be a folk top with a gathered neckline, full sleeves and some embroidery.
  • Trousers. I've seen a lot of trousers described as 'harem pants' recently, but they are really just pull-on trousers with pleating at the waist and a narrow ankle. These can work if they are made in a drapey fabric, otherwise choose some made from a decorative fabric (and more of it!), with elastic at the ankles (and long enough to cover the ankle bone). For tribal fusion, flared jazz pants, perhaps with a small over-skirt, can work well.
  • Dresses. Depending on the cut and decoration, an evening gown could double as a cabaret dress. (And a dress galabeya could double as an evening gown.) A simple column or A-line summer dress with a beaded neckline might also work when worn with a matching coin belt.
Now you're in a better position to consider what you need.

Do:
  • Think ahead; the earlier you start to plan and put a costume together, the better.
  • Be prepared to spend some money at some point. Start a costume fund. It is possible to get a dress galabeya, which could see you through several styles of dance, for around £50.00 (although the way the currency is going at the moment, not for very much longer!).
  • Be prepared to have more than one costume if you are going to continue!
  • Know your size/measurements and look carefully at descriptions and pictures when buying online.
  • Resist buying the first thing which catches your eye because it's cheap and looks like it will do.
  • Support your local dance events and buy from souk/bazaar vendors. You get to handle costumes and try them on, and you are often effectively supporting small businesses. If the vendor travels to Cairo (for example), have a chat about the sort of thing you're looking for, what you can afford, size and colour preferences.
  • Have a look at internet sites selling professional costumes. With the change in exchange rates, these are far more expensive now, but you might get lucky with a sale, and it will give you ideas.
  • Keep an eye on eBay, there are bargains to be had, especially if you happen to be the right size for another dancer's second hand, quality costumes.
  • Keep an eye open in charity shops for evening dresses, skirts and tops which could be adapted, and outrageous bling in terms of jewellery, providing it suits the costume you are putting together.
  • Reality check. If you sew or can have someone sew for you, re-purposing clothing can work out cheaper, but there is a lot of work in a belly dance costume and you may spend more on the beads and sequins than you'd planned. Have an idea of the cost of fabrics per metre and how much you would need to make a garment from scratch, which is sometimes quicker than making alterations. You might be able to buy a lot of sequins more cheaply than salvaging them off another charity garment. Blingy jewellery which could be used as costume decoration needs either to be removable or in a mount which won't rust.
  • Remember that even professional quality costumes often need some adjustment to fit your unique body!
Avoid:
  • Harem pants, skirts or dresses with metal coins on as part of the decoration; they will be difficult to wash.
  • Costumes which claim to be 'professional' but do not look like anything which, say, Eman or Hoda Zaki, Hanan or Bella would produce.
  • Anything marked as one size fits all, unless it really can fit you.
  • Anything which seems to have an identity crisis. A quick look through eBay this evening resulted in a lot of yoga, Bollywood and ballroom costumes tagged as belly dance.
  • Anything which looks like lingerie/underwear. This includes bras with a decorated front, but still with the stretch straps at the back. (You might get away with it peeping out the front of a tie-top or deep-fronted galabeya, but don't spend money on one unless you are sure it will fit!)
Really Don't:
  • Go for Carnival, Halloween or other dress-up costumes - they're not usually designed to be danced in. Yes, that includes that set of  'endless wave' style harem pants with small clusters of beads on the points, halter top and belt smothered in coins and sequins, all for under £18.00. What a bargain, so difficult to resist, even when you suspect that the halter top will not fit (as they even point out that it won't provide full coverage for a B or C cup bust). Shown on a tiny model, it looks lovely. I know someone who bought the pants, and the loosely woven chiffon tore under the weight of the bead clusters (not that they were heavy!) and kept on tearing, before she'd even started dancing. The same goes for cheap 'tourist tat' costumes, especially if the bra cups are shaped like cones or as two circles joined half-way up by a short strap. These often also have some sort of flower, target shape or a tassel on the nipple. Just don't go there.
  • Start with accessories. However tempting it is because they are cheap, little elasticated wristlets with coins or a jingly ankle bracelet are the least of your needs and may not suit the style of the costume you're putting together. If anyone wants to buy these for you, encourage them to put a few quid into your costume fund instead!

Happy costume hunting!

Further reading:
You might want to look at a previous post when I was thinking about costuming a couple of years ago.
Shira's website is full of superb information, indispensable reading!

Friday, 4 November 2016

Renewed Energy

Last week was half term, and with no classes to teach and the offer from a local friend to look in on my cats, I went away for a couple of days to see my friend S. She has IIH (as a primary condition, there are other problems!), and moved into a little semi-detached council bungalow set up for disabled living at about the same time I moved last year. Since she moved, she has successfully fought for her disability welfare payments (which were stopped after her re-assessment, where some incompetent jackass didn't document the issues correctly and they decided she wasn't disabled enough to qualify). The payments were backdated, too, so she has been able to go from overdrawn-and-what-the-hell-am-I-supposed-to-do-for-money to being able to get by well enough to be able to get by while concentrating on managing her conditions. She was also lucky in having good neighbours, who look out for each other. The pub at the bottom of her road even delivers her Sunday roast lunch, (we went there for lunch on the second day, and the food is good and reasonably priced!). The little bungalow is just right, with a little patio area and low maintenance flower bed out the back, so her Chihuahua can do his business and scamper around a little. He's evidently settled in well too! He's a complete sweetheart, so cute, especially when he sings along to the Family Guy theme. Well, 'sings' might be the wrong word, it's more like a howl and it's extremely funny.

S spoiled me rotten, giving me her old mobile so that I now have a working mobile phone again (not only that, but a smart phone too!). And, as we did occasionally when she lived down this end of the country before she became ill, we decided to have a spa afternoon. After scouting around, she decided we should go a little further afield and booked a couple of packages at the Celtic Manor.

We arrived only a couple of minutes late. S had been directed to the underground parking, where disabled spots were available near the entrance door to the spa level. They may have been close to the door, but weren't wide enough to allow easy access (such as opening the car door all the way to get the walker out easily, or space to use it past other parked cars!) and the parking charges were rather a rude shock as well. The light lunch was nice, although the lobby level which contained the bars and restaurants was a maze of changes of level, not ideal for someone using a walker. Good job we didn't take the wheelchair! There was a way through without steps up and down, but it wasn't obvious. The facial and back massage were utter bliss; the pool, crowded with kids and parents at half term, rather less so. The communal spa pool/jacuzzi was really not accessible unless you could manage a large step up and the pool surrounds were rather slippery. Even the women-only jacuzzi was not easy to step up and down into and rather noisy, as one of the jets was really strong and gushed water up the corner of the pool.  Not what I would expect from a 5 star hotel, and I think our old haunt at The Cliff in Gwbert does it better, feeling much more like a sanctuary, and with heated loungers too!

My drive to Pengam took longer than the couple of hours suggested by the AA, causing S some consternation that we would be late for our spa date. However, my drive home took even longer. Not only was I in my usual 'where on earth am I?' mode, trying to drive and navigate in a strange place in the dark, but having successfully got back onto the Heads of the Valleys road and settled into its groove with 21 miles to Neath, I found the road closed with a diversion taking us down the A470 onto the M4. It seemed to go on forever, taking me past signs which pointed to places close to where I'd started from, a good 3/4 hour previously. Once on the M4, the first sign I saw announced that Neath was 30 miles away. Not that there were many work-arounds for that road closure, but the Maps app on the phone will come in useful, as it will act as a satnav for those occasions where I had previously followed my nose and continued in ever decreasing circles until I found my destination.

I got home to find the cats a little clingy after my night away from them (the first since we moved) but none the worse for having been shut in for a couple of days. The next morning, far from feeling fresh from my spa treat and break, I felt tired out, my knees painful from the driving. I spent much of that day just sitting, knitting, binge watching Strictly It Takes 2 to catch up before the weekend's shows. I started a pair of socks to test out my 'everyday socks' pattern just before going away, and finished them on my rest day (so must write up that pattern!).

The day's rest was just what I needed, and since then I have been steadily reducing the laundry pile, doing a first read-through of a friend's novella (a compelling read, must send the notes back!), which prompted me to blog a little (because I've hardly written anything this year!), applying for a couple of jobs, getting a new sim for the phone and my old number ported over, and generally trying to learn how to use it without my head exploding. In a couple of months, it will probably become a natural part of my everyday existence to the extent where not having it will feel like I'm missing a limb, or something.

Having started to knit again, I was rummaging through my stash of yarns for some sock yarn I thought I'd bought, in order to test out my everyday socks pattern in a smaller size than my hefty, wide feet and ankles.  I didn't find it, probably because I thought I had better finish some WIPs before I indulged in more yarn or started another project. I found some other yarn I'd been looking for and, yes, more WIPs, although since they'd been packed away since I moved and I'd forgotten about a couple of them, perhaps they are UFOs until I pick them up and start working on them again.

I'm rather glad of this renewed energy. The To Do list never seems to get any shorter, and I suspect this is subconsciously deliberate on my part as I'm always happiest with lots to do. #NeverBored!

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

The OPAL New Zealand Flatworm Survey

Emptying the compost trug onto the freestanding heap the other day, the contents cascaded down the front and sides, missing my legs and feet only because I stepped briskly back out of the way. It's big enough to possibly fill two of my compost bins. The front garden now has its own heap in the centre, since anything I dig up in terms of grass and weeds will eventually have to be either brought through the house to the back garden, or left in place to rot for long enough that it can just be spread as mulch over the front garden. As far as the freestanding heap in the back goes, something will have to be done. Perhaps if I turn the top of it over to lean against compost bin #1, as there doesn't really need to be any space between them? I've another trug-full to empty now, not to mention disposing of the remaining tomato and courgette plants, now showing the effects of the cold nights we're having. I decided to have a look in my compost bins, after all the emptying, turning and refilling I did a few months ago.

Bin #3 is the next one to be emptied, and looks like it's almost ready to go. It has avocado stones growing in it, sending up pale, elongated shoots. Tempting though it is to transplant them and try to grow them on, using etiolated seedlings is not a good start and I know they really will not grow to a size to yield fruit in this country, short of being patient for a number of years while they grow in a heated glasshouse. I used to work with a chap who had an avocado tree in a large pot in the corner of his office. Last seen, it was trying to get through the ceiling and out of the window and although at least 10 years old, was still nowhere near ready to start producing flowers.

The other two bins seem to be rotting down nicely, (the compost accelerator seems to be working) with bin #2 being the most recently filled. I topped it up a few months ago with a forkful of stuff from the bottom of the (then newly-started) freestanding heap. Although it has space now for more to be added on top, I'm loath to do it, as the weight might reduce the air in the existing contents and lead to anaerobic conditions, which will stop it rotting down.

When I was turning over compost back in June, I was quite worried over the lack of worms, both in the compost bins and in the garden. But now, the bins are full of worms of all sizes, and I'm finding plenty of earthworms where I've been turning over the front garden. More significantly, in the time I've been gardening here, moving aside stones, pots, bags of compost and so on, I have looked for, but not found any New Zealand Flatworms. Thank goodness for that! Which reminded me that I'd had a card asking for results for The Opal New Zealand Flatworm Survey.

Having forgotten about that for a few months, I wondered whether it would still be ongoing. I went to the website to submit my survey results and it is! There has also been a soil and earthworm survey going on, although November is rather later than ideal to be doing that and it requires things like test strips and mustard, neither of which I have in the house. However, there was the most awesome guide to the common worms. Yes, I know, not everyone's idea of a thing to contemplate, but take my word for it, it's very well done and I shall doubtless use it sometime to study which worms have chosen to make this garden their home.

Oh well, that was the easy bit. At some point, I shall have to go out to empty and turn the contents of the bins; #3 into an empty compost bag if I've no bare soil that it could go onto, #2 into #3, #1 into #2 and the best rotted stuff from the freestanding heap into #1. At least now I have a lot more worms in the garden to help it on its way to lovely compost!

A Creative Mind?

I would like to think that I'm creative, but I stand in awe of some of my friends. Artists, designers, crafters, musicians, dancers, writers, who just seem to have an idea on an in-breath and a few out-breaths later produce art, craft items, music, choreography, books and poetry or a kitchen which looked as though it had been completely redesigned by adding a couple of shelves, a few tiles, and repainting everything.

Of course, I know it's not as simple as that. I was thinking about how to increase my creativity and productivity as I sat down at my desk this morning, musing about why I feel compelled to multi-task rather than focus on a single job or project. Earlier, I had been looking for some yarn I thought I had and instead found a project I'd started, packed away unfinished when I moved, and completely forgotten about. I was flicking through my design book with a friend last night, and wondering how and when I was ever going to make some of them. Maybe the number of projects on the go means I have plenty of ideas, it's the productivity which is an issue.

As I sipped coffee, filed a broken nail, updated and prioritised my To Do list, looked up some yarn, checked and answered email while opening what had come through the post, added updates to my accounts while opening the choreography notes to prepare for tonight's class, Facebook pinged up a post from one of my awesomely creative friends.

It was a meme, something along the lines of, 'If you want to know what having a creative mind is like, imagine a browser with 2,867 tabs all open at the same time'.

YES! Yes, that's me! And it looks like I'm not the only one. Maybe I do have a creative mind after all!

Monday, 10 October 2016

The View is Still Here

At least, for now. A decision hasn't yet been made on the planning application for the new close of 'affordable housing' on the field behind me, but I see from correspondence that the various authorities have effectively said they have no objections, subject to various conditions. I see that the people who were coordinating the campaign to get the plan rejected appear to have given up, having sold their bungalow.

Popping back up to the bedroom to fetch some laundry on 13th September, I could see some goings-on in the field.
Zooming in, I could see they'd dug a hole (looks like the same reddish, stony soil I have in my garden - hardly surprising!) and were pouring water down it. From the position, it looks like this might be where the planned road in will intersect with the existing drain. Checking the existing drain, huh? Presumably it drained okay - by lunchtime, the hole had been filled in.

It seems the various conditions are being worked on, thus eroding any reasons why it shouldn't go ahead. I don't think residents' personal objections carry any weight at all. I'm not impressed.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Season of Mists and Musings

It's the start of October already, and 'tis the season for dark evenings, finding the winter woolies and snuggling in front of the TV to watch Strictly Come Dancing! The Autumn Equinox came and went, and with it a review of my quarterly To Do list, which is as long as ever. Will I ever achieve my goals? The project to reclaim my sewing desk and sort out my sewing notions has been ongoing for a few months now - nearly there! But I'm still getting cross at the chaos, and particularly since there are items I still haven't found (and some bits which I unpacked before I had a place to put them, and now I can't find them again!)

Summer flew by in a whirl of belly dance festival, covering LIFT classes, summer school, gardening, planning classes and workshops for the Autumn term and an absence of beach time, because whenever I was up for it, the weather was not. Most of the time I seemed to be either dripping with sweat (having exercised/danced/gardened) or feeling a bit chilly.

There have been comments on Gardeners' Question Time and Gardener's World about it not being a very good summer, weather-wise (again!), which is some consolation - it's not just my imagination. There's a tub-trug in the garden which I haven't been using for weeding, instead leaving it to gather rain water so that every so often, I can dip plant pots or my watering can into it. It got down to a quarter full before it was topped up again, and is now brim-full. I've been loving the hour-long Gardener's World programmes, and shall miss them when they finish for the season.

The pink rose is definitely a keeper, just not where it's currently growing. The scent is better than I thought and it's growing strongly. It sends up shoots nearly as tall as I am, which bend over, and then new shoots 'break' from the stem in the style of some of the older roses. It's rather sprawly and would probably grow up and through another shrub. I'm still researching what it is, while wondering why that matters to me!

The Buddleia under the washing line obviously got its roots down this year and grew terrifically, in some places over two metres of growth in one year. This is without any feeding, so the soil must be quite fertile (everything in the garden soil grew quite lushly this year, must have been a bit of relative warmth and wet). Some of the flower spikes were roughly half a metre long! In mid to end August, the flowers were frequently covered in butterflies; beautiful fresh Large Whites, Small Tortoiseshells, Peacocks, Red Admirals, and Painted Ladies. I so enjoyed having a cuppa, sitting on the swing seat to watch them, or standing next to the flowers and listening to the butterfly wings as they fluttered around. Sheer joy!

The Buddleia made so much growth that it was summer brittle, with shoots breaking every time there was some wind. The last blow brought down one of the very large main branches; split at the base, and is now wilting drunkenly across the patio. I suspect the way it's been growing means that transplanting it may be difficult, but I'll probably pot it up for the winter just to get it out from under the line, as I really need to plant out the herb bed before it gets too cold and wet. Some of the marjoram, thyme and the fennel rotted off in their nice, free-draining pots this summer. I already have a bag of horticultural grit to work in, and some stone to top dress as well. While I've been digging it over, I keep coming across pockets of richer soil with pea gravel, presumably where things have been planted in the past.

The other thing blocking progress of the herb bed is the Crocosmia. I had seriously considered putting the whole lot on the compost heap, but a couple of friends said that they would like some plants of that and anything else that was going begging from the garden. Then, I saw it against the purple Buddleia, and the bees going in and out of the tubular flowers, and decided that some can go in the front garden.

The bit of digging I have done in both the front and back gardens has revealed stony clay soil, not the easiest thing to work with. I rather like doing a bit of digging (or perhaps it's weeding and turning over, considering that I have to use a fork!) and find I can manage an hour before really needing a sit-down. But that's when the soil's not horribly wet from rain in the preceding days. It makes me wonder how plants which like a nice root run, such as the roses, will cope. My plan to have raised beds for vegetables now seems like a necessity.

The mellow fruitfulness is a bit lacking. The young gooseberry plants were completely defoliated by sawfly larvae which I didn't notice until they had done their worst, as if they appeared one day and stripped the plants overnight. I've had some good courgettes, but many seem to have suffered from some kind of blossom-end rot and the ubiquitous slugs and snails. The aubergine had trouble flowering, because every time it grew one, its stem was bitten through by the marauding molluscs. The first few 'snack size' cucumbers were surprisingly good, since when the molluscs have devoured all the developing fruits. I didn't get any spinach or lettuces. Other gardening friends have commented on the apparently huge numbers of slugs this year. Something will have to be done! I've picked the French beans as they've been produced, but the plants weren't very bushy or floriferous. The outdoor tomatoes have had real trouble ripening and it looks like I'll have to pick the remainder (which is most of them!) while green and see if they'll ripen indoors. At least the plants haven't succumbed to blight, and the ripe tomatoes I've had have been wonderful! Only a couple actually made it back into the kitchen! I'll have to look up the variety of the yellow cherry tomato, the flavour was superb.

I was awoken at dawn on 1st September by a skein of geese honking overhead. Misty mornings, shorter days, a new school term and fat Garden Spiders Araneus diademata crouching in the centres of their dewy webs; all signalling the change of season. There has been a noticeable drop in temperature in the past week, and today's east wind combined with no sunshine means the house is fully 5 degrees colder than it was. I'm wearing layers in an effort to delay putting the heating on.

The swallows have gone, of course. I was aware of them leaving for a while, feeding as they went. Each time I saw them, I wondered if  it was the last until they return next April. In fact, the last time I saw some was nearly a fortnight ago on 24th September (the latest I've ever seen any), silhouetted against grey clouds and blown sideways if they dared to deviate from their course in the hope of catching an insect. Making wishes for their safety, I watched them as they flew east over the fields, until the black specks merged with the sky .

The Hawthorns are loaded with berries. I've heard several people speculating that the berry load means that it will be a hard winter. In the past few weeks, there was a day when the media (including the BBC) was full of headlines stating that it was the 'hottest day of the year' (and there have been a few very hot days this year). Well, it might have been for London and the home counties, but it was pretty miserable, overcast and a little chilly here. I went out and drove back in heavy rain, so I stayed in the car, listening to the radio for a few minutes, (complete with swearing at the 5.00 pm news headlines 'It's the hottest day of the year!'), waiting for the downpour to ease off  rather than get drenched in the few metres between car and front door. The water was coming off next-door's roof in a sheet. I scurried into the house and up to the office, to find friends in the West Midlands and north west England posting photos of flash flooding and talking about dramatic thunder and lightning.

Here are some garden highlights from mid August to early September, as a reminder of the warmth and colour; Scented Geranium flower, Crocosmia, Red Admiral on Buddleia (the colour difference on the wings is because one is a little back-lit), Evening Primrose, a cluster of at least 35 buds and flowers on the pink rose mentioned above, Small Tortoiseshells on the Buddleia, the Campanula posharskyana flowering again (I cut it back after its first flush of flowers to tidy it up), a fuzzy buzzy bumble bee in a Campanula flower, and one of the long Buddleia flower spikes against a blue sky while a flock of Jackdaws swirled around.

9 pictures from the August garden; scented geranium, crocosmia, red admiral on buddleia, evening primrose, cluster of pink roses, small tortoiseshells on buddleia, campanula flowers, bee in campanula flower, buddleia flower spike against a blue sky with jackdaws flying over

Bye-bye Summer! Welcome, Autumn!

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Tutorial - covering a button for use as a flower centre

I've been preparing for a series of workshops making various fabric flowers, so while I was thinking about tutorial sheets for flower kits, I thought I'd do a little tutorial here too.

As I prefer to sew rather than glue, the flower centres need to cover the inner ends of the petals well, and buttons are often better than beads for this. I also find that buttons can sometimes look a bit plain, depending on the fabric used. Then, there's the problem of finding one in a colour which works well and which is undamaged. Layering buttons can work well - a larger, but damaged one can go under a smaller one. But the law of the stash is that however many you have, there's never exactly what you want. Covering a button can be a good solution.

First, decide how large a centre you need and find your button, and a scrap of fabric big enough to wrap around it. I'm using a circular button, as that's easiest. So, a circle of fabric at least twice the diameter of the button. The heavier your fabric, the bulkier it will be, so allow a little more.

Here's the button (these are 1 cm squares on the cutting mat). It's not a bad colour, but has been damaged by the button machine when it was attached to the garment.
I'm going to cover it with stretch panne velvet. It doesn't fray so much as lose bits, but for this purpose, I don't really need to turn the edge under as I take small running stitches around the edge of the fabric circle.

Pull the thread to gather the edge slightly and with the fabric wrong side uppermost, put the button in the centre.

I want a 'domed' rather than 'dished' centre, so I've placed the button with what was the top towards what will be the back of the button.

Keeping the button centred on the fabric, pull the threads tight and take several stitches to finish off. I like to leave the thread tail with the knot loose, and then tie both ends of the thread together when I've gathered the fabric, then sew some stitches to keep everything secure.

There, finished!

Finger Cymbals/Sagat/Zills

Finger cymbals, also known as Zills (from the Turkish Zilleri), Sagat/Sajat or Sunouj (Arabic), or Zang (Persian) are instruments used by musicians and dancers, particularly with Turkish, Ghawazee, American Cabaret (AmCab) and American/Improvised Tribal (ATS/ITS) styles of dance.  Played well, they can add a layer of shimmering, ringing, percussive sound to match or embellish the rhythms as a musical accompaniment.  Played badly, they create a clashing wall of sound which might still be useful for driving out demons, ex-boyfriends or other undesirables.

I started playing with finger cymbals almost from my first lesson. Not that I was really learning to play them, and I would still not say that I can truly dance and play finger cymbals well, but then I was always one for trying to run before I could walk. They are a fun prop for class when you feel like making some joyful noise, but some people really dislike the sound or having to try to coordinate another layer of movement, or both.

Finger cymbals for Middle Eastern music and dance usually come in sets of four, two for each hand. They are different to Tingsha bells, which are a pair of thick cymbals joined by a cord often used in Buddhist prayer and rituals, and often available in shops selling ethnic/world gifts and clothes. They are also not to be confused with finger cymbals sold by music shops, which often sell only one pair.

Finger cymbals come in a range of sizes, the most common having a diameter of about 5 cm (2 in), although some are quite tiny and others fairly large. Take a look on YouTube at Egyptian percussionist and dancer Karim Nagi and his masterful playing with large finger cymbals. They may be (sand) cast or pressed from various metal alloys. Makers commonly use brass rather than the bronze used for larger cymbals, but they may also use other alloys such as 'German silver'. Finger cymbals vary in appearance and may be shiny, dull, plain or engraved. Some may be plated or have some other surface finish in order to give a silvery colour or a brighter surface. The shape may vary, from almost flat with a very low dome in the centre, to a high dome and/or a raised rim. They may have a single, central hole for the elastic, or two slots. The different sizes, shapes, production methods and alloys will produce sounds that differ in pitch (the musical 'note'), tone, volume and resonance. The 'German silver' alloy cymbals often have a higher tone than their brass counterparts because of the different weight and nickel and silver content.

A dancer performing with an orchestra will need larger cymbals with more volume, whereas a cabaret dancer may want a more delicate sound. American Tribal Style dancers typically use larger cymbals with a more mellow or deeper tone. Dancers may select the cymbals for a particular piece according to their pitch, so that it suits the maqam of the piece of music. Or they may use sets of cymbals which produce different pitches for their right and left hands so that they can replicate and play with doum and tak sounds.

I was under the impression that zill and sagat were interchangeable names for finger cymbals, just in different languages, but I've learned from a Facebook discussion group that in general, sagat have one hole and zills, two slots. I'd also previously been told that the one-hole cymbals weren't 'professional' quality (implying the two-slot cymbals are) but I have a heap of cheap and nasty two-slot cymbals which I use for class practice, and have since learned that the one-hole cymbals can be high quality. However, the one-hole sagat tend not to have the prolonged ring of the two-slot zills and the playing technique differs a little, as they can be harder to control, especially if they have a loop of round, rather than flat, elastic. I've been given a set of sagat, and was pleasantly surprised at how well they ring and sound, but I find I cup my hands slightly more when playing them to keep them from wobbling so much on my fingers.

The cymbals are worn on the thumb and middle finger of each hand, just below the base of the finger nails. They need to fit snugly so that they don't slip around or come off . (As my friend Rose put it recently, there are two settings; cutting off the circulation or flying off the fingers!) This can feel very strange; so strange that it interrupts your normal physical feedback while you are dancing, so that at first you feel as though you can either move your fingers, or your body, or feet, but no two at the same time. The different sounds, patterns and drills are for another post, but it's important to get used to moving around while wearing and playing, even if at first you only do isolation and movement drills while wearing the finger cymbals but not playing them.

What did we do before we had elastic?
However they used to be secured, the usual method now is to have a short length of elastic threaded through the hole or slots. White gets dirty very quickly, so I use black for preference, although the teacher of one of the workshops I've been to likes gold lurex elastic, as it's appropriately shiny and less obvious than black. I liked the idea, but I couldn't find any to buy, so experimented with some off a gift box. I found it a bit prickly and irritating.

In fact, the teacher of every workshop I've been to has their own favourite type of elastic and way of  fastening and adjusting it; knotting it, sewing it, using safety pins, using metal or plastic adjusters (the same as used on bras and suspenders). I played with the latter a bit. One of the problems with this is finding an adjuster which is the right size for the elastic. Another problem is that it's a fiddle to get the elastic in because of the tight fit,  and despite this, it seems to slip. I used these for one performance and as I was putting them on just before going on, the elastic came pinging right out of one of the fasteners, and there wasn't the time or the light to get it back in again. I just had time to take them off and leave them on the sound desk before going on. Luckily the dance wasn't about them, they were just to be an accompaniment. After the same happened at a party recently, I've decided to stick with the little brass safety pins, which allow quick adjustment for different sized fingers and thumbs and a bit of tightening as the elastic loosens as it ages.

Having adjusted your elastics, you may find a noticeable difference between the loops for the thumb and finger cymbals. On your own set, you might want to mark which is which, although I don't bother. I've seen suggestions involving putting a dot of (bright) nail polish on the elastic on the 'inside' of the thumb cymbals, or use different colours of thread to sew the thumb and finger elastics, which is fine if you have some light, not so good in darkened wings. A more tactile solution is to sew a smallish bead to the thumb or finger elastics.

While I was writing this article, I was cleaning zills (removing tarnish and spots of corrosion with a metal cleaner and a soft cloth), checking and replacing elastics ready for the new dance term.  It's a good idea to have a safety pins and a set of spare elastics (4 pieces of 12 mm wide x 75 mm long elastic - braided is nicer than corded, if you can find it) in your 'emergency kit' for workshops and performance, but at a push, you can use a narrow hair elastic, looping it around a finger or thumb until it's tight. It works, although being a round elastic, is prone to wobble a bit. A Facebook belly buddy found this blog post using jersey hair elastics and this seems to be a good solution if you find elastics too uncomfortable, assuming you have or can find jersey hair elastics. It makes me wonder whether you could improvise some of these by cutting narrow rounds from the ankle of an old sock, or whether they would be too large. Maybe worth a go!

A dozen sets of finger cymbals of various types, shapes, sizes and metals

The photo shows a dozen sets of finger cymbals.
Top row, my Saroyan zills. Left, my originals, Arabesque II, awaiting a clean and new elastics. If you click on the photo for the large version, you might be able to see that one of the safety pins had corroded, leaving just the spike in the elastic. I found that the hard way as I fished these out of my performance case. The middle set are my 'newest' ones, not used yet, bought a couple of years ago (when Harry Saroyan announced his retirement and triggered a spot of panic buying! Fortunately, Saroyan are still going under new ownership. I can't remember which these are! Small Grecian, perhaps?).  The 12mm wide elastic is a snug fit and the trick is to put one corner up through the slot first, and use that to pull the elastic through. I played with using a hair elastic in one of them, just to see how it worked. Right, my Nefertitis with the offending slide adjusters.
On the middle row and bottom left, my latest acquisitions, second hand from another belly dance teacher who has thrown in the towel as far as teaching goes. Middle left, in the middle of cleaning - the brass ones seemed to tarnish and corrode more than the silver-coloured ones next to them, which need new, wider elastics. And middle right, more slide adjusters to be removed. Bottom left, I rather like the two-tone copper and brass. The elastic had totally gone. Bottom row middle, the single hole sagat with their raised rims. Bottom right, 4 assorted sets from my class zills. You can see spots of nail varnish on the elastics of the set on the right, used to differentiate my class zills from those of another teacher during a workshop where lots were needed.

What to look for when buying
The perennial question is, 'As a beginner, should I buy a cheap set or professional quality finger cymbals?'.

The main argument for buying a cheap, basic, first set is to save your money for finger cymbals to match your preference, once you've danced enough to know what that is! I would normally encourage a beginner to borrow some in class until they decide they want their own (hence my sets of 'class' zills). There's nothing wrong with buying cheap zills if you want some to play with at home. Little boxed sets of pressed zills with a little booklet and a belly bindi are often given as presents.  Most of my class zills are from these.  They sound pretty terrible, frankly, but these are perfectly good enough for a bit of fun and to find out whether you like playing finger cymbals.

Professional quality finger cymbals are generally larger, heavier gauge, and louder. The heavier gauge is more tiring to play with, so practice to strengthen and 'condition' the hands is a good thing. The louder tone means that mistakes are easier to hear! I found my first 'professional' zills deafening, compared to the cheap set I had. At 2.5"/6.5 cm, they were also about as large as I would like to go, considering that I have wide hands with short fingers. (The standard advice is not to get anything larger than slightly smaller than your palm, in which case I should be able to manage 3"/7.5 cm cymbals, but I find finger length makes a big difference.)

You can also find finger cymbals which are a good compromise; reasonable quality, but not as expensive as the 'high end' cymbals, with a much better tone than the cheap sets. In the UK, the best place to find these is through vendors such as Zara's Zouk and Farida Souk. Everything Egyptian no longer seems to sell online, but you can contact them if you know what you want.  Bellydance Boutique is now stocking some of the Saroyan zills as well. (This is correct at the time of writing, and no, unfortunately, I don't receive anything for these recommendations!)

When buying zills, you will want to check them for size, weight, tone and finish. I find it annoying when sellers do not have a 'test set' with the elastics set up, so that you can sound them out. Ask - a good vendor will oblige. Check the finish - some have rough or sharp edges, or surface damage from the casting or engraving which could snag on your costume, though I've never found this a problem with the high end zills. If you are buying online and concerned, just ask the vendor to check for you. The ones linked above will all be happy to help.

Then it's just a matter of learning to play and dance at the same time! Have fun!

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Big Butterfly Count 2016

You would think, would you not, that a period of three weeks at the height of summer (15th July to 7th August) would be ideal for seeing loads of butterflies? Yet again, this year was, for me, a bit of a wash-out! I did lots of 15 minute observations with no results. Not a single butterfly! I know the 15 minute time-slot is to limit the potential for counting the same butterfly twice, but when they're scarce, it's so frustrating!
I attempted my first counts down in Neyland on 19th July, a really hot day (I hung a thermometer on the washing line and it was showing 30 degrees by late afternoon, even with a breeze!). I started at Brunel Quay and went up past the Yacht Club to the car park right at the end, checking each Buddleia or patch of grass or scrub. Not a single butterfly! Not one! A friend down in Surrey visited Clandon Park to do a count and there were loads of butterflies, including Silver-Washed Fritillaries, Marbled Whites, Purple Hairstreaks and White Admirals. I think I would just about die from excitement if I saw any of those here!

Over the weeks, I had a couple more sessions watching for butterflies in my garden, but apart from the occasional white, too restless and distant to be able to tell large from small, there was nothing. Not even on the splendid Buddleia in the front garden a few doors down. Perhaps they were all there once I'd gone away, but I doubt it. I let the Ragwort in the garden grow and flower to increase the sources of nectar (and in the hope I might get Cinnabar Moths) but nothing seems to want it very much, so that's my next job - onto the compost heap with it, before it seeds!

I left the Buddleia growing under the washing line to see what colour it would be. It got its roots down this year and grew ridiculously long flower spikes which opened into the usual lilac-coloured flowers right at the end of the three-week period. On the last day of the Butterfly Watch, it was nice and warm and I was rewarded by visitors:

3 Large White
2 Small White
2 Red Admiral (very fresh and gorgeous!)
1 Peacock

A result to record, at last!

True to form, as soon as the three week period was over, I've seen loads of butterflies. There must have been a hatching of Small Tortoiseshells, with Peacocks and Large Whites, all enjoying the Buddleia in the sunshine and impossible to photograph because of the stiff breeze blowing!

I'm leaving and encouraging any caterpillars I find (although sadly didn't notice the Gooseberry Sawfly until they had completely defoliated my two small gooseberry bushes!) and plan to have several Buddleias around the garden, as well as other nectar rich flowers. We all need more butterflies!

Belly Dance Choreography (for Beginners)

'Traditionally', Belly Dance solos are improvised, created in the moment, the reactions to the music differing each time you hear the same piece, depending on your mood or what you hear or reflect from the music. Improvised performance can be a daunting prospect, so many beginners prefer the relative security offered by having a choreography to follow, and sooner or later want to create their own.

Creating choreography can be a challenge for any dance style and belly dance is no different. It's even more of a challenge when you're a beginner. My first solo went down well, but looking back, it was overly stuffed with moves and I didn't manage my spatial use and placement very well. If you're starting with your own solo or group choreographies, here are my top tips and things to think about!

Start with the music, not the moves! As a beginner, it can be difficult to know where to start when you only know a few 'moves', but you can get away with half a dozen moves in a simple choreography. Although 'belly dance' is an umbrella term covering many styles, in general the dance form is intensely music-driven. It's about interpreting the music and rhythms, more a way of moving than a set of steps. If you're working in a more contemporary or fusion way, you might want to start with a concept or theme, or even a prop. But music is still right up at the start of the process.

Choose music you like, which moves you, stirs something in you, makes you want to dance. You are going to be listening to the same piece over and over again. What is the mood of the music, what emotion does it stir in you?

What style of music is it? It's a good idea to match the style of your dance to the style and rhythms of the music.  Try to get a translation of any lyrics (but resist the temptation to mime them!).

Really listen to the music, the rhythm(s), the form (intro, verse, chorus, outro, repeats, call and response - labelling the different sections, e.g. Intro A Verse B, Chorus C, Bridge D, Outro E, you may find you have something which looks like ABCBCDBCE), the length of notes and phrases, changes in rhythm, tempo and other dynamics (loud/soft, stops/starts, flowing or percussive).

Improvise. Seriously, just dance without stopping or judging yourself and see what comes up. You might find that after dancing to the music a few times, the same moves come up in the same places, or you feel compelled to do a certain move at a particular point.

'Map out' the piece. From your notes on the form and dynamics, and observations of moves or phrases which you liked or found yourself repeating during your improvisation, you can start to do a rough choreography. It can be useful to set down the parts which seem obvious, such as an intro, big finish, and any repeats or chorus. Some people prefer to work from start to finish, but working in a non-linear way can help to prevent you getting 'stuck'.

Keep it simple. Restriction can be great for creativity. Use your favourite 'go to' moves and the moves you can do  technically well and suit your body to try to make the music, its rhythms and melody, visible; meet silence with stillness, reflect the length of notes in the duration of movements, solo instruments danced on the spot, using the noisy, joyful music to travel. But remember that less is more - you don't need to pack in lots of different moves.

Use repeats (wisely!). The usual thing is to repeat a dance combination when the music repeats. It can provide an 'anchor' for the audience and dancers alike, but it can get a bit tedious to do and to watch. Tricks to change it up include:
  • Doing things 'on the other side', i.e. right and left sides.
  • Passing the move up or down the body (e.g. hip circles, chest circles or shoulder shimmy, hip shimmy.
  • Limiting or alternating repeated phrases.
  • Repeating whole phrases instead of individual moves.
  • Recognising call and response, reflecting them in different movement phrases.
  • Working different directions, both in terms of facing different ways (it's surprising how different a move can look when you turn it side on, but be aware of how it looks from the audience point of view!) and of using different pathways in the space.
  • The power of three; when you have a similar musical phrase repeated four times, you do the same thing three times and something else the fourth time.
So you could create a combination of phrases which you repeat, e.g. facing one front diagonal, repeat on the other side to the other front diagonal, back to the first side with your back to the audience, and a different combo to finish facing front.

Use your space. Don't forget that you can manage space by taking longer or shorter steps. If your choreography is for a duet, trio or group rather than solo, look at your spacing and pathways; even if you plan to do everything in unison, think about mirroring movements, changing formations, the details of movement which allow you all to look the same (such as how high an arm is raised, which way a hand turns), and the potential for not working completely in unison!

Work on your transitions, linking moves to make them flow smoothly.

Dance with your whole self. Put your heart into it, dance with expression, both through the dynamics of the moves, the use of gestures, and through your face.

And finally, ENJOY IT!

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Cardigan Belly Dance Festival 2016

It seems impossible that that only a fortnight ago, we were mid-show at the 6th (yes, 6th!) Cardigan Belly Dance Festival. Our guest teacher Zara bravely took on a last minute challenge to do a children's workshop in the afternoon, as friends and family had descended unexpectedly on my dance-partner-in-crime Rose a few days before the weekend (so we were both having meltdowns!). The noise added a counterpoint to the rehearsals for our other guest teacher Siluria and her 'pop-up troupe'. Both sets of dancers were sorted out with costumes, ready to perform that evening. A last minute drop-out due to illness was replaced by a last minute drop-in, enabled by not working a shift after all. I had managed to organise a running order which enabled repeat performers to change costumes without being too frantic as well as roughly balancing the two halves, despite other last minute unknowns - a dancer with a very ill father, would she perform and how many pieces, and whether the children would want to perform. In the end, I ditched any thought of performing a solo piece, as I found myself frantically busy covering for another LIFT leader who gives four or five classes a week and who was off training for the middle two weeks of July. I also had to ditch any thoughts of going to the Foundation for Community Dance summer school, which clashed with the preparation week before the festival, and besides which was more than I could afford.

The show went without a hitch, thanks to our tech who has become used to working with us and, having received running order, start on/off cues and music, is a master at getting the most out of the limited lighting rig so we're well lit.

The children were so cute and could have taught the adults a thing or two about ditching the nerves and just getting out there to dance. Two of the girls had a bit of a costume malfunction where their skirts tangled as they turned, and they just stopped and sorted it out with no fuss, then picked up their cue from Zara again. What stars!

Still from Lazlo's Bar
Lazlo's Bar
The pop-up troupe was a bit different this year. Working with Siluria and her husband Andy on live sax, the music and theme was taken from a piece called 'Lazlo's Bar' by their band, Rogora Khart. All of the Imago dancers also did the pop-up troupe. When I arrived at the theatre after lunch, it was great to see that they'd already got the choreography down and were sorting out costume and rehearsing in the afternoon session. The performance was great, the choreography picking up on the lyrics and creating the atmosphere of the bar.

Siluria's other two solos also used music by Rogora Khart. She has great flow and expression; her Sunday workshop was about getting more expression into the dance, and more connection with audience and other dancers.

The Imago piece was possibly the best we've ever performed it. It seems to have been a struggle this year, despite being shorter and simpler than the previous two pieces. It really confirmed to me that classes on only the first and third Wednesdays of the month (which was all the dancers felt they could afford and commit to) just isn't an effective way to learn and retain a choreography and sort out the technique, if the dancers also don't practise at home. We'd spent about 21 hours on the choreography and supporting technique over seven months, which proved long enough to have forgotten all the phrase-by-phrase break-down we'd started with and for bad habits and blocks to creep in. There must be something in the immediacy of learning a piece on the day, without having to commit it to long-term memory. How you can spend months on a piece and feel under-rehearsed, but not feel so under-rehearsed on a piece you learned (but don't really know!) in a day, just boggles my mind. Anyway, I was proud of everyone for their commitment, hard work and performance, and had some lovely feedback from the audience on how good we were, how nice we looked (all different bits of costume, but linked by top, bottom or both in shades of blue) and how much they liked the piece.

I was intensely proud of one of my dancers, who choreographed and performed her first solo. We'd had some rehearsal time, in which I'd given feedback and tips, but this was her creation and expression, a fusion piece which had the crowd clapping along. She worked extremely hard on it, with a quantum leap in improvement each time she rehearsed with me. It just goes to show, when you dance from the heart, you can perform and produce something that an audience can enjoy watching, without having good, much less perfect technique. (Although of course, we should all be working towards that, but just think what you and your audience could miss out on if you wait to perform until you or others think you're really quite good! But that's a whole other discussion and I digress!)

Juliana came down from north Wales to perform her fusion sword piece, one of those times when the dance ends and you feel as though you've just been released from a spell.

I admire my dance partner Rose greatly; she does separate choreographies for her handful of different groups and gets the best out of her dancers with some beautiful pieces. This year, one of her groups ordered made-to-measure galabeyas from Cairo via Zara's Zouk and they were gorgeous, and left me green with costume envy. Some of her dancers are now creating their own solos and duets, some of which had been shown for feedback at Yvette Cowles' weekend of workshops relating to dance drama and performance, and the polish which had been put on them since that weekend at the end of May was fabulous to see.

Tribal Unity Wales did a fast piece in the first half and a slower set in the second half, including a Puja to the most beautiful guitar music (although I still don't know what, or by whom, it was).

Zara also did a set comprising a high-energy raqs assaya, where her cane became a blur of silver, baladi which revelled in the music and a drum solo to top it all off. She brought the same energy to her workshop on empowerment through the dance the following day, where we walked around like divas, shouted across the space and found our centre of gravity and the source of our feminine power in our pelvis.

As it always does, the weekend flew by and it took me a few days to come down off the high.I still haven't unpacked and dealt with all the bits and pieces and operation 'reclaim the sewing table' has stalled because ... ah, that's a different post!

Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Interloper

For a while now, there has been a black and white tom cat who comes visiting almost every day. He comes in, eats all the food, sprays in the house, sprays in the garden and runs away from me. I have no idea where he lives, nor to whom he belongs, and the few neighbours I've asked don't know either.

He is a little larger than Greebo, but not as fat, and Greebo won't fight him. That might be a good thing, considering the fights with the interloping black and white tomcat we had back on the farm were the major cause of vets' bills a few years ago. It also tells me that Greebo doesn't yet feel secure in this place as his new territory. I've seen a couple of stand-offs in the garden, where Greebo has ended up walking around the 'interloper'. The tom calls (and 'talks' to my two cats with a variety of meeps, prrps and miaows). I've seen him and Greebo touch noses, and I was sitting in the lounge one evening when I heard a conversation and saw Xena preparing to walk the tomcat upstairs, the little hussy! I managed to get a picture from the bedroom window of them all lying on the path. The tom is giving out 'I'm not a threat, look, totally relaxed!' while my two seem less convinced.

Interloper tomcat with my two on the path Since then, I've been out in the garden to find all three of them lying separately in the long grass, spaced out like points of a triangle about three metres apart. As I stooped to stroke Greebo, the tom cat got up and went off through the fence. Definitely a cat who doesn't like or trust people!
I've tried being nice, and tried chasing him off, but the only difference it makes is the speed at which he disappears. I went out to call my two the other week, only to find his face appearing around the corner of my side passage/extension roof from his perch on my next-door neighbour's adjoining side passage roof. Still keeping a safe distance, but alert to the possibility of more food. I've tried a variety of names on him, but none make him react in any way.

the interloper tomcat, just lying around
A nuisance? Me?
His poor face looks a bit bashed up, with one eye darker than the other and half-closed. Otherwise he looks in fine fettle. (I should think so too - I wonder who else's food he nicks?)

I'd like to think he leads an idyllic tom cat lifestyle, with a loving family whom he visits every few weeks for a spot of luxury, in between tours of his territory, where he comes and goes and does as he pleases.

I love cats, but he is a mystery and a nuisance! Which reminds me - I need to go out and buy more cat food.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Gardening Therapy

With the EU referendum resulting in a Leave majority (by less than 4% of votes cast, which shows just how divided the country is, and doesn't seem like a good basis for a major decision - but then, I voted Remain and doubt I would have said that had the vote gone the way I wanted!), it has been an emotional and eventful end to June.

It's a shame the weather is so changeable - it normally starts to rain at midsummer here, but it started early this year. The occasional fine days are interspersed with several days of showers and rain. When the sun comes out, I have been getting in some gardening therapy. I am slowly clearing the grass and potting up plants worth saving, some for a couple of friends to add to their gardens. As the fine days are few and far between, they are also laundry days, which makes working on the herb-bed-to-be (partly under the washing line) a little challenging.

Since my last post only a few weeks ago, the garden seems to have gone completely rampant and looks like an ungrazed meadow, which is essentially what it is. That cats have been loving sitting or lying in the long grass as I work, creating tunnels where they've been hiding, which turn into great, lodged sheets of grasses in the rain.

I have had to start a free-standing compost heap which is at least the size of one of the compost bins now. The plan is to dig out bin #3 into the top of bin #1, turning and aerating it. I'm just (still!) waiting for both bins to settle; they don't appear to have done much in the past few weeks. When I dug out bin #1 in May, the top went into bin #2 and is roughly the same age as the stuff at the bottom, but there is a filling of more recent stuff in the middle, so that will benefit from being dug out and turned into bin #3. I've just started to use an accelerator in the bins and the new heap, hoping to speed things up a bit. Then some of the free-standing heap can go into bin #2. As things are going, I'm going to have to start a second free-standing heap very soon!

Before tackling the compost bins, I was waiting for the Early Bees to finish with their nest, which they did a couple of weeks ago. A lack of buzzing and visitors made me take a look, and all that was left was a matted handful of composting grasses and soggy pollen. When I first discovered the nest, I had to wait a while to spot one or two bees visiting flowers. A few weeks ago, it was easy to see three or four at a time. Now I can sit and count half a dozen or more at a time working over the clumps of Campanula portenschlagiana and C. poscharskyana (I decided it wasn't C. garganica, based on the height and length of the sprawling stems of flowers) which they are completely mad for. It may be a garden thug, but the bees just love it. The odd honey bee and a few other bees visit as well, including one of the white-tailed bumble-bees. Their gentle buzzing lulls me into somnolence as I rest on the swing-seat between bouts of digging and potting-up. Despite the noise from neighbours' lawnmowers and various power tools, it's been lovely just to sit and watch, as I follow the advice to 'sit down before I need to' so that I can work without too much pain. Drink in hand, planning my next spot of work, watching life going on around me, is all very relaxing.

Mr Blackbird has been neglecting his preening as he feeds a chick. The Jackdaws in my chimney fledged. The first two chicks came out and begged for food from next door's roof. A couple of young Magpies joined them, evidently not bothered about who fed them, although the Jackdaw parents were not about to do any such thing. There were confused looks all round (if it's possible for birds to look confused) until the Magpie parents came and called their two away. The youngest Jackdaw chick emerged a few days later. A terrific rumpus from several Jackdaw families alerted me to the chick which, unable to fly very well, was hopping and fluttering around the patio, trying to gain some height. I rescued it from the curious cats and went to let it out of the landing window so it could fly off with the rest of the family. Having calmed down, it perched very happily on my finger while I gave it a quick check over, stroking and speaking softly to it. Even once the window was open, it just sat, sharp claws marking my finger as I tried to cajole it onto the window ledge. As I murmured sweet nothings, it watched me with its aquamarine eyes and cocked its head from side to side. The family came back onto the neighbour's roof, calling, and it flew off to join them. The sparrows squabble and twitter, teasing the cats, until Greebo could stand it no longer and caught a chick, which I then rescued from him and released into an inaccessible part of the privet hedge. On another day, a Sparrowhawk descended out of the sky and crashed into the other privet hedge to catch a sparrow. No warning - no alarm calls or mobbing from the other birds, it made the cats and I jump out of our skins. One of the neighbours told me there was a Sparrowhawk around, but it's the first time I've seen it.

The other poppy also turned out to be red.
The Geranium from behind the shed looks like G. macrorrhizum 'Album'.
I found a label constricting the base of another rose (planted too close underneath the lilac) which identified it as Scarlet Queen Elizabeth. I remember it being a bright vermilion-orange-pink last year, so the label at least makes sense!
Pink rose near patioThe rose near the patio is definitely not R. glauca. It has clusters of small (5-7 cm) semi-double, flowers, mid pink in bud,  the heart-shaped petals opening to show golden-yellow stamens in the centre and fading almost to white as they age. There is little scent, but with so many flowers open, there are wafts of light rose scent on the breeze. I've looked at all of my rose books and on a few websites to try to identify the rose, but it seems to be having an identity crisis itself. It seemed to be low-growing, but there are also a few metre-high, red-stemmed shoots, one with darker, matt leaves, one with lighter, one quite red. These look like suckers, and there's a flower coming on the tip of one of them. Depending on how tall the shoots grow, whether they are from the same rootstock, and whether I can free the plant from the encroaching grass and brambles without digging it up, it could stay where it is.

The bramble bashing I did last year seems to have stimulated growth, with small shoots coming up all over the place and growing fast from roots deep down.
The first wild strawberries are ready, their small, intensely-flavoured fruit a real treat. The other strawberries are showing a flush of colour; with this wet weather, it will be a case of racing the slugs to see who can get them first!
The rain has flattened the Alchemilla mollis (Lady's Mantle), the Chartreuse green froth of flowers flopping untidily across the path and needing to be cut back. It's only a matter of time before I cut back the sprawling Campanula, as well. They're both lovely, but the thought of all the seeds!

I brought some Common Figwort (Scrophularia nodosa) with me from the farm, and found a Water Figwort (Scrophularia auriculata) growing in the gravel bed. (See, the soil really is damp!) Taller (1.5 metres/5 feet high!), with bigger clusters of larger, dark red flowers, nice, broad, green leaves on red, winged stems, it looks 'garden-worthy'. It makes the Common Figwort look like a weed, and I've found a few nurseries who actually sell a variegated form of the Water Figwort. For some reason, the bees aren't attracted to the flowers at all, but wasps are. Neither fit with the plans for the garden, so they can go.

The amount of rain we've had recently meant that I did very little digging on the last fine day we had, because the soil was so wet. Investigating strange sounds like someone trying to break into one of my next door neighbours, I found that they had decided to lift their patio.  They were happy for me to 'reclaim' some of the paving, rather than have to take it all to the tip themselves, so I stacked 10 dozen x 12" (30 cm) square concrete paving slabs on my drive ready for reuse in my garden. The slabs are heavier than they look, so I really feel as though I've worked out, and it feels great to be able to reuse a load of paving for free, so I owe next door at least some beers!

According to a recent report from the BBC, there is a 'growing body of research that suggests gardening is good for both physical and mental health' and that 'pilot schemes for GPs to prescribe gardening are under way'. I would have thought it's obvious; gardening provides exercise, relaxation and an outlet for creative expression and being close to the beauty of flowers, plants and garden wildlife feeds the soul. In these politically uncertain and economically volatile times, we could all use some gardening therapy!

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Back into the Garden

It seems unreal that I have now been here for just over a year. And I am still unpacking, cleaning and sorting (albeit with varying degrees of energy and dedication to the task!) Now that the weather has improved and, in meteorological terms at least, it's Summer, I've been getting back into the garden. I am enjoying even the smallest fix of pulling a weed, potting on or emptying the compost trug and watching things grow.

I started digging over the front garden on a fine day in March, but the soil was still wet and claggy. With the amount of soft rush, pendulous sedge, milkmaids and buttercups which have volunteered themselves as I've left the 'lawn' to grow, (not to mention the way that water pools on the farm fields behind me), it's evident that this was once damp meadow. The digging being way too heavy going, I contented myself with pruning and tying in the rose by the porch. It had been pulled down by some of the winter winds, and I thought the roots had been broken, but only one root was damaged. It responded to this rough treatment by sending up another strong shoot from the base, which is now over a metre high, with lots of flower buds and great big triangular thorns. It may not be scented, but it's quite a tough rose.

As everything started to grow rampantly, I decided I had better transfer my attention to the back garden. I have lots of herbs in pots, waiting to go into the 'herb garden', which is based on a roughly half-oval arc, the base of which is the patio wall, and centred on the rotary washing line. (The fight I had restringing that line is a saga in itself!)

Lilac flowers against a blue sky
The lilac flowered beautifully in mid-May and the scent was lovely. Every time I took a trugful of bits to the compost heap, I held an armful of branches and inhaled deeply. I went out to cut some for the house, but got a bit distracted by its colours. Looking down from the bedroom, it looked mid-purple in bud, opening to a paler lilac, but close to, the buds had a dusky pink tint as well. It's a shame it's so out-of scale and in the way for any work to be done on the hedge and fence.

The drifts of strap-shaped leaves are up again. The sharp, keeled leaves which I thought were pendulous sedge (because sedges have edges) are indeed that and are all over the place. As I started digging, I found some of the strap-shaped leaves looked different to the ones I've decided are probably Crocosmia, and end in tubers rather than corms, so it seems likely that these are Day Lilies. Of the two oriental poppies which managed to send up leaves last year, one has flowered already and is red, and I am waiting impatiently for the buds on the other plant to open. At some point, I will need to pot them up. It would be better to transfer them to their new home, but I just can't do (or pay to have done) all the necessary work right now. Also to be saved are the Aquilegia. The seedlings skulking in the grass last year have grown into a lovely selection ranging from very dark purple to palest pink. A very small geranium behind the shed has developed a cluster of very pale pink flowers - so I need to look it up as well as pot it up. One of the roses which had been scalped to almost nothing, but grew strongly last year, has clusters of little buds. I thought last year it looked like R glauca, but I'm not convinced; this year's leaves are a fresher green. The first flowers are just opening and they are semi-double, pink, very pretty; I don't know yet if they're scented.

As soon as I started with a bit of daily weeding, compost bin #3 became full and now has about as much as it can take. The contents of bin #1 having sunk down from full to about 30cm/1' of mostly composted stuff at the bottom, I decided to dig it out. Rather than trying to dig the compost out through the little hatch at the bottom of the bin, I just lifted the bin off and removed the top few inches of unrotted stuff into the top of bin #2. (Oh look, there's still some of the woody bits of that rose by the porch, from where I pruned it last year! And lots of seedlings trying to grow - it obviously didn't get as hot as I thought.) A buzzing noise attracted my attention, and I gingerly removed another clump of compost to reveal a bumblebees' nest. I stood still as a few bees came out to see what was going on, then gently transferred the nest to a piece of roofing felt which had come of the shed, folding the rest of the felt over to make a loose tube to keep the nest dry. I put it behind bins 2 and 3. The move seems to have been quite successful; they settled down and are still there. I've taken to saying 'it's only me!' if I disturb them, and they start to buzz and whine. They seem to pipe down again. I spent some time watching for individuals to come out to visit the flowers. Facebook was full of exhortations to allow dandelions to flower as a food source for bumblebees, and this year I had hordes of dandelions (the soil is probably full of seeds!) and didn't manage to dead-head all of them, but noticed that the bees couldn't care less about them, and visited any other type of flower first. Now the garden thug Campanula poscharskyana is flowering (and I have some C. portenshlagiana as well) the bees love it, so I've managed to get a good look at them. They are Early Bumblebees, Bombus pratorum, small and sweet. However, several individuals today were covered with mites. I don't want to disturb a nest whenever I dig out a compost heap, so I'm wondering about some sort of pre-made nest site for them.

Meanwhile, the compost from the bottom of the bin filled a 60 litre compost bag and is now the base compost for the tomato and courgette plants. The courgette seedlings looked so wimpy that I sowed some more seeds, but after a week or so, they seem to have got their roots heading down into the rich stuff and seem to be creating a new leaf a day.

About a week ago, it was a lovely day, and I spent about six hours of it out in the garden, including plenty of stops to sit and have a drink, surveying my realm from the swingseat (although I still really ached the next day). I managed to dig over a strip 50 cm x 2 m; not very much really, as I found a hard pan about 10 cm down and really had to lean on the fork and wiggle it back and forth to break through. I'm hoping that it's not like that across the garden and only because it was near the path, where it may have been walked on, but I was told that the ground had been compacted a bit. There were also little pockets of compost, where things had been planted at one time (I found a buried label which read 'Happy Mother's Day'), but otherwise it seems to be quite a stony clay-based soil. Given the rampant growth, I would guess it's quite fertile, but there are altogether too many slugs and snails and too few earthworms for my peace of mind. I was expecting the compost I dug out to be full of brandling worms too, but they were very few and small. I'd brought some in some compost from the farm, to give my compost bin a headstart. The latest issue of RHS The Garden magazine came with a card for a New Zealand Flatworm survey. I haven't noticed any, but I shall have a decent look for them, in case they're the cause of the lack of worms. That would be a bit worrying.

Having had a week and a bit of dry weather, it's become changeable again. Oh well, it's nicer to dig on an overcast day than in the blazing sun! The trouble is, compost bin #1 is full, although it will settle down a bit. The bins are (I think) the Ecomax 220 litre type, but only 4 or 5 tub trugfuls fill a bin and they get all my veggie kitchen waste as well as the weeds and the weed-upon wood-based cat litter, which should act as an accelerator. Bin #2 still has quite a lot of work to do. Bin #3 was only started in mid-April and is quite nicely warm. In the meantime, I need to look into some compost accelerators and perhaps start a freeform heap. And carry on digging!

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Seasonal Update

Time is doing its thing and I haven't written much yet this year - busy with other things, I suppose.

We often have a period of cool but fine weather in Spring, but it doesn't seem to have happened this year.

It was a mild winter, but although there were only a few frosts (probably because I'm now closer to sea level and the sea), it has been a relatively cold Spring. Storm Imogen in February damaged the garden shed (and those of my next-door and next-but-one neighbours) and tossed an empty compost bin across the garden. Storm Jake at the start of March continued the shed damage and tossed the compost bin across the garden again. We missed the worst of Storm Katie at Easter (an early Easter this year, soon after the equinox). We've had some other very windy times which have not been named storms, although with yellow weather warnings. The Met Office criteria for naming a storm is where there is expected medium or high impact of high winds. The vicious easterlies in the first week of April should have qualified, but strangely, not so. Apart from being very cold, it was also strong enough to move the garden store cupboard, turning it 180 degrees and tossing it onto its side a couple of metres from where it normally stands against the wall of the extension. Fortunately, only one of the ceramic pots stored in the bottom was smashed, although others now have chips in them. At least it didn't take long to pick up and return the rest of the scattered contents.

There were a few fine days in mid March, when I was training as a LIFT leader with Age Cymru and was either inside or otherwise too tired to do much else. One day after training, it was much too nice to go home straight away, so I went for a little stroll down 'Fortune's Frolic', a path by the River Cleddau between Haverfordwest and Uzmaston. It was a sunny but still chilly evening, with happy, smiley people walking happy, waggy dogs. As I got to the first viewpoint, there were a pair of Small Tortoiseshell butterflies flitting around, and a flash of blue as a Kingfisher disappeared up Merlin's Brook.

A mute swan glides upstream on a spring evening on the River Cleddau at Fortune's Frolic
The river Cleddau is tidal here. It was quite low as I walked to the end of the level riverside path, and sat on one of the benches to enjoy the river. A pair of swans made their way upstream, and a group of 50 or so ducks descended out of nowhere and started to preen and dabble near a shingle bank further downstream. Without binoculars, I couldn't see what they were; I wondered if they could be Widgeon, but they were more likely to be Teal. There was also a pair of Mallard, just getting on with business. Unusual ripples in the water close to the bank below me attracted my attention. The shallows were seething with small fish; the last time I had seen so many was in the river Cèze, in the Cévennes.

April brought a few more sunny but chilly days. I happened to be out and about on the 9th, so took sandwiches down to Gelliswick Bay and was rewarded with the sight of a very low tide.

A very low tide at Gelliswick Bay on 9th April 2016
It wasn't as warm as it looks in the photo! At tides this low, the wooden remains of some wrecked boats can be seen (although not from this photo!) on the rocky point just in front of the oil jetty on the right of the photo. I didn't walk out that far, not having brought footwear (let alone knees!) which could deal with the mud and rocks. I'm not sure what the angular concrete block, whether it's a gun emplacement left over from WWII or some sort of mount for some other bit of ship-related kit. Some visitors use it as a bird table, dumping a pile of stale bread on it and retreating to a safe distance while the gulls descend in a mob to squawk and squabble over their bounty. The other (east) end of the beach has the slipway and yacht club and is overlooked by Fort Hubberston. Built in the 1860s and last used in WWII, it is now disused and derelict. The tide was still retreating when I arrived and after a couple of hours, just before it turned, a JCB with a block and chain in its bucket trundled down the beach to a small cluster of people, and proceeded to put in a new mooring buoy.

Pottering in the garden on the 13th, I saw Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and Orange Tip butterflies, one of each just passing through the garden, since there's still nothing much of interest for them here. I also saw my first Swallows, although I'd seen a post from a garden centre the other side of Haverfordwest that they had seen their first the week before. Poor Swallows, arriving back in such chilly weather! It occurred to me that perhaps the first sighting of birds, butterflies and so on each year could just be a matter of luck; they happen by when you happen to be looking.I didn't do the Big Garden Birdwatch this year; every time I looked out, there were no birds to be seen!

Where did May go? Ah, yes, I picked up a vile cold in the last week of April and was still trying to get rid of it in mid May! The weather picked up a bit throughout the month, and various boats and yachts have come out of their winter quarters and onto moorings and marinas. It's all starting to look quite summery. Suddenly it's the end of May. I've now been in my 'new' home for a year. And I am STILL gradually unpacking, cleaning and sorting out. Incredible!

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Something For Nothing

For the past few years, I have been brooding over the issues of volunteering and the widespread perception that the arts should be free. A while ago, the Universe delivered three items for consideration within the same week: a dancer friend had a well-deserved rant over yet another person who wanted her to put on a show for free, and two Radio 4 discussions, one about whether we have a moral obligation to give a percentage of our income to charity, over and above volunteering or donations to charity shops, and another on whether we owe the arts and artists a living (which was primarily about taxes used to subsidise the arts).

Of course, as a dancer and crafter, I consider the arts as essential and life-enhancing, although I am aware of a few people (mainly men) who are all about sports and couldn't give much of a stuff about anything else. Don't get me started on the emotional blackmail inherent in most charity campaigns, especially those where you are asked to take a no-make-up selfie or film yourself being deluged in a bucket of iced water, and then post the resulting film/photo having paid a contribution. They raise a lot of money, but I notice many people are doing it under peer pressure, to avoid the adverse judgement of their friends and acquaintances. When I become a multi-millionaire, I shall take great pleasure in subscribing to all of the charities which tug at my heartstrings and will buy lots of arty, crafty presents. In the meantime, I mainly give in kind - I source some materials from charity shops, and give the occasional workshop or performance for 'free'. I admit, I do enjoy the 'feel-good' factor brought on by a spot of altruism, and charity events are often very sociable and fun. However, I earn very little and am not eligible for any benefits. Warm feelings are lovely but they don't pay the bills. A girl's gotta live on something, and to give back, you must first have received.

My brooding was originally triggered by another set of three events: there was a fresh round of waffle about the 'Big Society'  in the media, I attended a presentation by the Ceredigion Association of Volunteers, at which they stressed that volunteers should never be left 'out of pocket' but admitted that many charities, understandably, did not pay travel or parking costs if they could help it, then I received a flurry of requests for belly dance entertainment, none of which would pay even travel costs ('we can't afford to pay you but please bring your dancers, you can do it for the exposure/experience and advertise your classes', etc). I expect all dancers and musicians are familiar with this one. It seems that artists are not the only ones - writers and speakers are also expected to be willing to work for nothing.

Why do people think entertainment should be for free? Answer: Because they can usually find someone, somewhere, who will volunteer to do it for free. Occasionally, that includes me. But there is a difference between someone who wants work done for free because they don't really value the training, skills and experience which lie behind it, let alone the costs incurred in terms of travel, equipment, costume and so on (and when it comes to entertainment, don't regard it as work because, hey, you do it for fun, right?), and the third sector charity and not-for-profit organisations who rely on volunteers to be able to get things done.

It's amazing just how much voluntary work goes on and, in some cases, is utterly taken for granted. Last year, I saw a local charity advertising for a qualified accountant to be a voluntary, unpaid, full-time financial and administration officer. I suppose they might have got lucky and found someone qualified but retired and looking for a new interest in life. I also saw a job ad for a full time volunteer for another charity which would involve a lot of local travel, in your own car, for which they paid rather less than the current tax-allowed expenses rate of 45p per mile. Considering the poor state of many of the local roads and the increased wear and tear this causes, it hardly seems fair.

In fact, many people pay for the privilege of volunteering as they incur costs which are seldom, if ever, repaid.  You may give your time for free, but transport between home and a primary place of work is not an allowable tax expense, so you wouldn't usually get travel costs if you are based in one location such as a shop or office. You make some cakes or biscuits for a charity event for free, despite the costs of ingredients and fuel to cook them. You might perform at a charity event, but have to pay a concessionary ticket price for the evening on the basis that you'll be watching the other performers. If you organise an event, you may make phone calls and extra visits to a venue, create posters to advertise it and print them - for free.  Perhaps you buy cheap yarn or fabrics to make stuffed toys or little hats for premature babies. Most of the data collected on wildlife such as birds, butterflies and moths is done by by volunteers, giving their time and expertise, buying their own equipment, paying their own fuel and parking costs. Sadly, all of this support is not generally considered as 'giving to charity'. You do it for love, so it's dismissed as a 'hobby'. But time is money. It would be fascinating to know the total value of casual work done for charities in the UK.

I believe that money isn't everything and you should do what you love. You never know where these things will lead. I've done a few performances where we dancers were well looked after in recognition that we were donating our services while others were donating money, and we've had a wonderful time. I like to barter my workshops for others' workshops or services; giving and receiving time and services in lieu of paying or being paid seems like a fair exchange. Getting something out for putting something in, rather than feeling used, is what makes all the difference.

Last year, I found a local Age Cymru Over 50s gentle exercise class and joined in just so that I could meet some people in my new area. It was very cheap, huge fun, and finished with chat over tea and cakes. As a bonus, it has led to a couple of engagements to talk about belly dance. I was very impressed that the exercises were mostly seated, so properly low impact, safe and effective. The social side is also important, fostering new friendships and support networks. Then I had the opportunity to train as a LIFT (Low Impact Functional Training) leader for Age Cymru, so I took it. I've completed and passed the 4-day course, and also updated my emergency first aid during a volunteer day. The training course was extremely well put together and delivered, with very good supporting materials. I've already covered a couple of classes for other leaders who are on holiday, although I'm still waiting for my pack of props such as exercise bands. I may not be paid for my time, but I get to do something fun which can make a positive difference to people's lives. It's difficult to put a value on that.