Ker-ching! A Penny drops!

There were some lovely comments on my last post about the blanket I was making to use up those little balls of wool that every knitter accumulates. The ‘granny squares’ are not all the same size necessitating strips and stripes and extra rounds to make them fit together and the colours are multiple and varied – yet the effect is cheerful and lively and most of you loved it as do I. Why?

Looking around my home and at the assorted handmade blankets in my cupboard I realised that the pieces I like best are the scrappy ones – the patchworks (usually fairly random) and the multicoloured. Partly this is because they will fit in with any colour scheme, adding both pattern and a hit of colour to the space. So in that sense they are very practical – change the decor? No problem!

Musing during a dog walk (as you do!) two memories from childhood came into my head.

The first concerned my childhood heroine; the woman I wanted to be like when I grew up. My Mum’s eldest, and much older, sister Aunty Nan. Nan and her husband Francis were childless (not by choice – as she said ‘In our day if it didn’t happen it didn’t happen and there was nothing you could do about it’) which meant that she had not given up work to raise her family. By the time I was old enough to remember them they were both lecturers at Alsager Teacher Training College near Newcastle-under-Lyme and lived in half a very long Nissen hut on the campus left over from World War 2. Francis headed up Rural Studies and Nan taught Craft. I found Francis slightly intimidating and when we visited he and my Dad would talk bees which they both kept. Nan would always find something crafty for me to do so that she and Mum could cook and talk. Later they bought 3 adjoining building plots where a new estate was being developed and had a bungalow built. Nan was furious that the architect would only talk to Francis even though she was the more artistic and better at design! She was even sidelined during the discussion of the kitchen! It was a beautiful home, very up to date in its furnishings and, of course, with Francis being an expert gardener, set in a fabulous garden. But what I really loved was their very early VW Dormobile.

Francis’s passion for bees meant he was not content with keeping a few hives of honey bees. He was really a thwarted academic and one of his good friends was Alan Gemmell (If you are old enough and live in the UK you may remember Professor Alan Gemmell of Keele University from Gardener’s Question Time. Prof’s passion was potatoes). So every summer he and Nan would spend the long vacation travelling Europe so he could collect wild bees and identify them. He had a cabinet of shallow drawers in his study with serried ranks of bees filed according to their latin name.

To make these expeditions easier, especially when he had exhausted Western Europe and started exploring behind the Iron Curtain, they got the Dormobile. To me it was a playhouse on wheels! And in it were blankets made by Nan on those journeys. She would take a pair of double pointed knitting needles – the short ones used for socks – and odd balls of wool so that she had some knitting to do in the evenings or while she was sitting in a field somewhere half watching Francis stalk his prey. Squares were easy to carry around or store in the van. Some were plain but lots were stripey or half and half. Sometimes the wool was thinner than she would have liked so she would use 2 colours together making a tweedy effect. Those blankets were part of the magic of the van for me. So very different from the contents of her house or of any of the other houses I knew.

The second memory was of a couple whose names I cannot remember but they were members of the Manchester and District Beekeepers Association, of which my Dad was Treasurer. The Association met once a month for most of the year. In the winter they rented a room somewhere for an evening and had ‘talks’ about bees and related subjects. But in the summer there were ‘Apiary visits’. One member would host the rest for an afternoon wherever they kept their bees. One of the more experienced members, often my father, would go through the hives explaining what they were doing, what they were looking for and why. If the bees needed extra space or a super full of honey needed to be taken away then that would be done. So winter was for theory and summer for practical. And on Apiary visits families were invited along too. There were a couple of single women who kept bees, a couple who did it jointly but most of the keepers were men. So the families consisted of wives and a few children who would sit around on deckchairs as far away from the hives as possible and chat. Everyone would take a picnic tea and once the hives were safely put back together again the beekeepers would join us and the host (or more usually the host’s wife!) would make cups of tea. It was a nice way to spend a summer afternoon and most of the gardens were delightful.

My Dad when he was young with his bees

The couple I am thinking of hosted a visit every year but not in their garden – I never knew where they lived in winter. Every summer they would decamp to a field where he kept his bees and where they had 2 old railway wagons. One was where he stored all his bee equipment and extracted his honey – a dim space which I always tried to get into at some point to enjoy its scent of wood, wax and honey. The other was where they lived with two single beds arranged in an L shape at the end furthest from the door, each covered with a multicoloured, home made blanket, a small table and 2 hard chairs and a rudimentary kitchen with a camping stove. Outside was a compost toilet and another table with a washing up bowl on it and a tap on a post behind it. The field was on a hill and there was an amazing view over the valley. I knew of no-one else who lived like that – it was like being in a story!

One huge granny square!

I suppose that from those 2 experiences I came to associate blankets like the one I am working on with a simple life, being unconventional, having adventures but also with being cosy and self-sufficient. No wonder I like them so much – by making them I am constructing my very own magic carpet of the imagination, opening up possibilities of adventures and new ways of living!

Blessings #2 – B is for Bees

I was chatting to Chris from C&M Organics the other day when I was showing her daughter Anna my garden. We had got to the greenhouses and were admiring my apricot trees which were in bloom and noticed a bee working the flowers. I always make sure of a good set by dabbing them with a paint brush every couple of days just in case it is too cold or wet for the bees to fly. Chris told me that she had some broad beans in flower in the polytunnel for an early crop but had seen no bees on them so her husband Matt was patiently pollenating them all by hand. If we were to lose all the pollenating insects that is what we would have to do to every fruit tree and bush, all the crops where we eat the fruit and even the other crops such as roots and leaves are grown from seeds so all those parent plants would have to be brushed too. Only things like hazel nuts which are wind pollenated would be easy to grow. Can you imagine it? Presumably someone would invent a tractor attachment to speed the process up but it would still add a lot to the work and cost of food.

Between us the bees and I seem to have done a good job!

My paternal grandfather, who lived in Llanelli on the South Wales coast, was a founder member of the Carmarthenshire Beekeepers Association and known as Dai the bees. My father taught woodwork at a school on the Northern edge of Manchester and kept several hives of bees on a piece of otherwise unused land behind the school canteen. That would never be allowed now but at the time was seen as the perfect way to eliminate one of the hidey holes for smokers and other banned behaviour! During the summer holidays he was a seasonal bee inspector going round other peoples apiaries checking them for diseases. I have happy memories of going with him as a little girl and playing in some lovely gardens whilst he did his job. He was also treasurer of the Manchester association which had meetings at members apiaries during the summer. The beekeepers, mostly men, went through the hives and one of the more experienced pointed out things of interest whilst the wives sat in deckchairs and chatted and the children played. Each family took a picnic tea and the host provided cups of tea.

Granddad on the left and Dad on the right

When we moved here John very much wanted us to have some hives but by the time that idea got to the top of our list his health was deteriorating, I knew that I would have to do the bulk of the work and having helped my Dad knew that lifting heavy hive boxes singlehandedly on hot days whilst wearing overalls, veil, gloves and boots was hard work. I also knew that all our animals conspired to create their dramas when John was also having a bad day and I never knew who to deal with first. So I refused. Instead we let it be known that any beekeeper wanting space for an apiary would be welcome to talk to us. And so Ted and SUe came into our lives. They live a few miles away and had more hives than they could accomodate in their garden.

Ted and Sue’s hives in two different parts of the garden. I have cut the bottoms out of the pots in the picture on the right so the saplings in them can root down into the rather stony soil and create a hedge.

Their hives are still here so I get all the benefits but none of the work. Ted ans Sue make sure that any bad tempered bees are re-queened promptly so they are no trouble. We asked for no rent but every autumn a box appears in my porch with a years supply of honey and a large bottle of gin! Both are delicious!