The month started with a sunflower called Frank and it's also going to end with him. He was a handsome chap when he was at his dapper best, a surrogate sun when the real thing deserted us, and now when his fine regalia has dropped away, he performs his final bow this summer by donating his seedy fruit to a loaf of Debbie's bread.
In the background of this picture is Darwen Tower on Beacon Hill. It was built in 1898 to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, though at the time of its completion the local townsfolk had just won the right to freely access the surrounding moors in an action dubbed The Battle for the Moors and the Tower came to represent their victory. Some websites state that the Tower is called the Jubilee Tower and also mention that it is sometimes referred to as Darwen Tower. I've lived in its shadow for nearly 43 years and I've hardly ever heard a local call it anything else but Darwen Tower. Harry doesn't care what it's called. He doesn't know either that if the landowners had got their way all those years ago he wouldn't have been able to spend so many hours enjoying himself on the Darwen Moors.
Here's Harry desperate to find out if he's qualified for next year's sticks collected while swimming team at the Canine Olympics. Notice how he makes sure nobody makes off with the sticks before they can be counted and verified.
My dad handed me a book he had recently picked up from a charity shop. It was Green Guide's Birds of Britain and Europe. Not a book that will ever compete with my beloved Collins Complete but still a nice one to have a look through. I shouldn't really be surprised to find on opening the book that the artist providing the illustrations is Martin Woodcock. He's a prolific and highly respected illustrator of birds. You could say that his bird pictures got me interested in birds in the first place. In the late 1970s I used to use his illustrations to sketch from. His pictures have a wonderful clarity to them that aids the eye in picking out the details so vital in identifying different species. They aren't photo-realistic or artistically posed but are drawn with angles and colouring that show off what makes the bird best identifiable. Whenever I had some free time at school the pencils would come out and I would try to duplicate his work. I was probably about eleven or twelve at the time. One day a teacher came in who I didn't really know, asking who was the boy that was drawing all the birds. I showed him my folder, which had over twenty sketches in, including a half completed Sea Eagle. He told me he was mad keen on birds and proposed we team up to create a Young Ornithologist Club for the school. I agreed. He sent away for all the YOC bumf, most of which he snaffled along with all the issues from the very nice Bird Life quarterly. We gained quite a few members but not many were actually very enthusiastic. Most of the kids who joined only joined so they wouldn't miss out on free trips to Martin Mere. We managed to organize several trips which were big successes. Everybody had a great time. That place is a paradise for duck lovers. So that is how Martin Woodcock may have sparked a love for birds in me at such an early age. I kept up sketching birds well into my college years, buying the magazines of the time, often illustrated by that man again. Getting back to the book my dad gave me, I noticed that the previous owner had pencilled in ticks next to pictures. Sparrow - tick. Robin - tick. Nuthatch - tick. Treecreeper - no tick - oh shame, he missed out there then (one of my favourites - and my mums). I had to laugh as the Mistle Thrush had a question mark next to it. I'd seen one in the front tree last week and spent ten minutes trying to positively identify it, rifling through the pages of my Collins Complete. All these years of watching them and drawing them and I still can't identify everything at first glance. The birds have been doing their annual hiding session recently while their new feathers moult in so I haven't had much to look at for a fortnight or so. Today a Coal Tit turned up on the fat balls and the feeders, resplendent in his newly minted colours. The dearth of bird activity must have shorted my brain out, as for about five minutes I was convinced it was a Willow Tit, until reason returned and I realized that a Willow Tit wouldn't be seen dead on a garden nut feeder. It was a Coal Tit - but a very smart Coal Tit. Hopefully all the rest of our regulars will be back soon. The dynamic duo of Nuthatches are sorely missed.
The sky cleared up early Thursday morning so I had a look to see if I could see some of the Perseid meteor shower. We are currently on our annual passage through the debris left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle. Before I saw any meteors the first thing I noticed was how bright and big Mars was. Later on this month Mars will be as close to Earth as it has been for nearly 60,000 years. It looked really close now so I don't know what it will look like in 12 days time. Then I saw the first shooting star; a quick line of light turning red. It was hardly there for a fraction of a second. I opened the window to lessen the glare and saw some more meteors, fainter ones this time, some so quick they were gone before my eye could centre on them. Then something spooky started. Carried on the wind I could hear singing, like crowd noise from 50-100 people. Sometimes you can hear crowd noise from Ewood Park, half a mile down the road but not at 03:00 a.m. in the morning. It didn't sound like noise from a loud tv - it sounded just like a large group of people chanting a cheerful song. The next day I told my family and they told me that the local news had run a piece about a large gathering of folk that had formed on the moors to watch the Perseid meteor show. It must have been them singing, the voices carried down on the warm night wind.
Experiments continue this year with our strawberries. Some are tasting sweet, some are tasting tart, some are tasting of nothing more than the rain that feeds them and some are being tasted by tongues unknown. From one side this strawberry looks all ready to eat but from the other it's clear that something has already begun the feast.
I love a good ghost story. M.R.James is one of the best at the short form of the genre. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is packed with some of his best. All the stories here were written between 1894 and 1904 and were originally read to the author's friends at Christmas at Kings College, Cambridge, where James was a noted British medieval scholar. I'd guess the best way to experience these chilling little stories would be to have them read to you on a dark night, in the depths of winter, perhaps on Christmas Eve itself. It is probably easier to imagine, listening to the words, that the story is being told to you by someone who has heard the story from another, and that such a tale might be true - just for a short time anyway. James usually cleverly distances the storyteller from the actual protagonists who are often of a scholarly type, quite sanguine (at least at first) in their rejection of the supernatural. More recently in the 60s and 70s the BBC started a tradition of filming a special ghost story ever year for Christmas and they often turned to the stories of M.R.James to supply the source. Lost Hearts, The Ash Tree, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, Number 13 were all used. My favourite story from the collection is Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad which was also adapted by the BBC and features the brilliant Michael Horden in the lead role demonstrating what a wonderful character actor the man was. All five of these stories are from this collection. BBC4 has revived the tradition over the last few years. A new adaptation of a classic ghost story is usually part of a season of ghost stories, shown over the Christmas fortnight along with most of the vintage M.R.James being included with other classic stories like The Signalman by Charles Dickens.
If you own one of these things - a VW Camper Van - and you happen to be driving through Blackburn you might just encounter a red headed woman with a big smile on her face. Oh and she'll probably be waving at you. Well no, she won't be waving at you, she will actually be waving at your van. She loves them. She doesn't have one herself but she does dream about owning one. Camper Van monthly actually takes precedence over Gardener's World monthly. Her guru is a guy called Steve Nolan who restores VW camper vans. If you haven't guessed by now, the woman I'm talking about is my sister Debbie. The van in the pictures was just minding its own business on a forecourt carpark when it was spotted by Debbie. Out came the camera and she buzzed around it like paparazzi around Angelina Jolie, snapping away from every angle. One day she will own one of these things and we will all pile into it, drive to Loch Ness after following directions supplied by a spooky old man predicting doom and muttering about pesky kids, and when we get there Harry will discover that the monster was just a carefully planned hoax to scare tourists away from some pirate's treasure.
While Mark was out of commission Debbie took me on a drive to Grassington in the Yorkshire Dales. Harry had to stay at home because we couldn't take the walk along the river he usually enjoys. That route is way too steep and the path too rough for me to navigate. Instead we made our way into the village. Near the car park is an ancient dead horse chestnut tree. Instead of cutting it down the local tree surgeon has turned it into a monolith. The branches and upper trunk were cut away leaving the just the dead trunk. Dead trees support a wide range of wildlife like owls, bats, woodpeckers and insects. The weather was actually quite good for a change and it had brought a multitude of hikers and dog walkers to Grassington. If Harry had come the day would have probably been filled with a lot of dog-meets-dog confrontations. We settled at a pub for lunch and a drink. Along with our sandwiches we ordered a bowl of chips which were about as rubbish as it is possible to make chips. Above the narrow street a confusion of swifts swooped and flitted crazily from beneath the eaves. Two Japanese tourists seemed to echo the exuberance of the birds, posing in front of as many quaint shop fronts as they could find, snapping away happily with their cameras. Somewhere there is a blog covered with Grassington shops and grinning Japanese.
There is only one sunflower in the gardens this year. Here he is presiding over all. He's no respecter of privacy either as he can often be seen glowering over the fence. I don't know why I'm calling it a he either. They just look like they should have a personality. Maybe I should give him a posh name like Vincent, but then again I think he looks more like a Frank. Frank is standing in for the real sun this summer so we are making the most of him while he is here.
In other news, the woodpecker was seen again recently. He landed on the lamp-post at the front of the house. I, of course, missed everything. We were also happy to welcome a garden warbler to our front tree this year, though I think he might have just been passing through. After the frenzy of the spring and early summer, the birds seem to have gone very quiet. Barring the odd sparrow and blue tit there is very little bird activity going on this week.