Climber Part I: Hops

Over the past six years, I've concentrated on getting the slow-growing tree layer into my edible forest garden as fast as possible. Sometimes this has meant having to reverse hasty decisions.We've planted over a dozen fruit trees and another dozen bushes, as well as a hedgerow. This year I'm about to finish covering every inch of soil with year-round herbs and ground cover, and it's time to think vertically.

Inspired by the hops growing at 57°N in our friends' garden, I took a cutting last autumn.

I'm hoping to train them over the roof of the sunroom and my husband is keen to make beer.

I love it when tools are beautiful.

Hop screw and twine erected over winter,

I just have to wait.

New Reekie

First Date with Titan Arum

I wore a dress I’d bought especially
to meet you since you’d gone to such great lengths,
but in that steamy love shack, sweating bees,
we don't need clothes; we taste each other’s breaths.

Your fish head soup is not the best perfume,
a starter for the mains of well hung meat;
the side of boiled cabbage fills the room
but still you woo with promises to eat.

Six seven and two metres fifty-five –
not much between you both except for me –
two titans in the gardens in July:
a blind date and a flower, like a tree.

I ask you if you’re looking for someone;
You say: ‘I think I’ve found her’ and it’s done.

John Muir Way Coast to Coast: Balloch to Helensburgh

John Muir Way Coast to Coast: Strathblane to Balloch

This final leg felt like we were on holiday. Balloch is a gateway to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park and the Highlands. The Loch Lomond Shores development even has a Valvona & Crolla Foodhall for god's sake. If you're walking west to east and finishing your first day here, you could do some serious damage.

But we had only walked a mile so couldn't really justify stopping. Instead we continued up the Stoneymollan coffin road. Again, if you were walking west to east then you'd have a gentle climb into the hills followed by a steep descent here. How anyone ever slogged up that incline carrying a dead body in a wooden box is a mystery to me. I'd have been championing burial at sea (loch).

This is a lovely section of the first/last leg, across the heathery hills, and we even had (intermittent) blue skies.

The views of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs are fantastic. 

Unlike the West Highland Way, this section was almost entirely desserted on a Bank Holiday Monday. We only passed a few people all morning, and none at all on the hills. JM would have approved.

Eventually the path goes through pine forest

and possibly my favourite trail of the whole route (if we leave out John Muir Country Park's pine trees on sandy beaches on the first day):

a dark, pine-resin scented path winding up through moss-draped trees is the way to my heart.

Water strikes terror into it.

I have collected a lot of these signs en route. This was by far the most blunt.

After what seemed a very long slog through Helensburgh - admittedly down immaculately manicured cherry blossom avenues, but I was HUNGRY - we arrived at the overcast coast and the markers of the walk's terminus:

'The sun shines not on us but in us' is probably the best attitude to have about the weather on the west coast of Scotland.

Public art in homage to Dunadd.

Our route from Dunbar on a representation of Muir's cabin at his eponymous glacier. It feels good to know that on this crowded island you can still walk safely and easily from one coast to another. And, from points along this route, continue on the West Highland Way and Southern Upland Way north and south, and from there onward, and so on. Walking is important. It's as near as I have to a religion.

But more importantly: sustenance. I can recommend Lido's for fish and chips. Essentially I walked 134 miles to hear someone ask, 'Salt and vinegar?' like they do in London, rather than the abomination that is, 'Salt and sauce?' which they insist on in my adopted hometown of Edinburgh.

Dino's for ice-cream, because - as my son insists - you might be full in your savoury stomach but you still have a sweet stomach available. He has walked 27 miles this weekend so I'm willling to go along with it for once.

Dino's actually do ice-cream eating competitions but thankfully not the day we were there. Nevertheless, a Knickerbocker Glory and some sort of nougat sundae were consumed by the menfolk, who apparently revel  in all things pink.

Greetings from Helensburgh!

John Muir Way Coast to Coast: Strathblane to Balloch

John Muir Way Coast to Coast: Kilsyth to Strathblane

The penultimate leg of the walk - for fellow rebels going east to west - is the longest at eighteen miles which, given the lack of peaks, is no problem.

(This is the first time I have ever seen a pub with such a sign. Usually they say the opposite. Shout out to the Kirkhouse Inn, Strathblane whose loos were lovely! I would have stayed for a pint but this was the starting point and I can't help feeling drinking at 10am might not bode well for the hike.)

Ten of the eighteen miles are shared with the West Highland Way which runs from Milngavie (non-Scots might like to know that's pronounced 'Mul-guy' as a shibboleth) to the foot of Ben Nevis at Fort William. We passed a couple of inns/shops catering almost exclusively to hikers it seemed, which was a novelty. 

We walked on a Saturday again in order to have the husband drive us to the start, park at the end and then walk back to meet us halfwayish. The West Highland Way was notably busier than previous rural trails and we saw lots of through-hikers with big packs and tents. This made our day hike feel more like a stroll to get an ice-cream from Loch Lomond.

 Eventually, the John Muir peels away again and follows country roads for most of the rest of the route. 
A deer ran across our path and there was cuckoo-ing everywhere.

There's an unofficial option across farmland but we didn't take it as my son wasn't wearing boots and it was described as boggy even before the previous fortnight of rain.

We met the husband  and stopped for lunch by the river.

I am a big fan of Tupperware but I wish the makers of portable food containers would understand the difference between porting something in your car and in your rucksack. I have never found one that is actually watertight. And I like a lot of dressing on my salad.

The sides of the road were absolutely beautiful with spring flowers and uncurling ferns.

And there were horses everywhere.

Our progress was definitely slowed by the need to snuzzle them all.

Eventually we came to Balloch Castle Country Park and Loch Lomond and drove home again, only to return on the Bank Holiday Monday for the final leg.

COMING SOON: John Muir Way Coast to Coast: Balloch to Helensburgh

Most Loved Pigeon Chick

I walked in the door last week to find my son's girlfriend, who had been home alone, aghast and cradling a scrunch of kitchen roll. Atticus my half-tabby-half-tiger had turned up - as he usually does either during children's parties or when I am away and someone squeamish is looking after the house - with a mouthful (nestful) of tiny wood pigeon chicks. He relinquished them, no doubt awaiting much praise and admiration but receiving only horrified shrieks and curses, and she swept up their poor little bodies. It was only in the dustpan that she noticed one was still alive and desperately tried to save it.

When I unwrapped the kitchen roll there was a motionless chick that could only have been a day old, even newly hatched, and was very cold and with a small wound on one side but still breathing. I set up the brooder and made him a little nest from a quail feeding bowl lined with fleece. I didn't expect him to last more than a few minutes but at least he could be warm.

Half an hour later he was not only still alive but wiggling around madly so I put some gentian violet on the wound, and started giving him Life Aid from a little paintbrush.

When he was still alive an hour later I called Hessilhead Wildlife Hospital and arranged to bring him down the next day when we would have access to a car. They have big brooders with whole nests of every species of baby bird and, if he survived the night, he could be hand-reared with other pigeons and re-released, understanding himself to be a bird and not a person - something we couldn't offer. Unlike many baby birds who hatch wide-eyed and gaping-beaked - squawking for food - pigeon squabs have their eyes closed and very few feathers and are fed by their parents regurgitating a slop called 'crop milk'. For this reason, it's much harder to hand rear them, though they can be fed on Kaytee parrot formula through a crop tube. I have both but no experience of using them and you should never feed wildlife at all until it is properly warm and rehydrated so we decided to wait for Hessilhead the next day.

I didn't really expect him to make it through the night anyway. Cats jaws are pretty unsavoury places, plus he had been dropped on the floor and got really cold.

But we took turns giving him Life Aid through the night and he made it. I was just sorting out a hot water bottle to keep him warm for the two hour drive to Hessilhead when my son called through that he'd stopped breathing.

Trying to save an injured, day old, pigeon chick must seem a pointless endeavour to most people - even those who love birds. But there is something about the strength of life force in a young, wild creature that compels me to collaborate in its survival. Something newly born, whose head was the size of my fingernail, lived twenty-four hours with nothing but a heat lamp and rehydration solution.

My son's girlfriend asked if we should put him on the compost heap with the other dead birds and I said, no. Because compost heaps are for animals that come to us dead; those that come to us alive, that come in the house, that are cared for all night - get names and graves. So she gave him both.

Companion Eating

This is the biggest vegetable I've ever grown: second year nine star broccoli (looks like cauliflower), self-seeded (and one of ten  transplanted rhubarb crowns behind).

Now broccoli cheese and rhubarb crumble.


We went to Rome because it's Rome and you don't need a reason to go there. (If you did, one of the reasons might be that it's twenty degrees warmer than your northern European city in May.)

It's always gratifying to see so many of the obscure vegetables I grow in my garden are sold in Italian markets. Salsify, courgette (zucchini) flowers and bitter greens are almost never on sale in Scotland and artichokes are rare.

We had chicory or broccoletti with dinner every night

and rocket (arugula) with every lunch, as well as asparagus, ahead of the British season.

Artichokes were eaten three ways: Roman style, deep-fried

and creamed.

My courgette seeds have just germinated and I'm hoping to grow them on in the sun-room-cum-greenhouse (along with tomatoes and basil), just for the delicious, stuffed, deep-fried flowers, though in a lighter batter than this.

I came home to a lot of rain and dandelions but inspired, at least.