I’ll name that tree with tea

‘How do you know what tree that is?’ The young dad with his wife and children had spotted Noel circling a fine old tree with string as I held a home-made sign. Beech, it said. And it was.

‘I’m not clever or owt,’ he said ‘I don’t know what tree’s what, so how do you know?’ I wanted to tell him it was nothing to do with cleverness, in fact as far as I’m concerned, I have PG Tips tea to thank. The tea of trees.

We were in our local Calverley Woods, part of which is owned by the Woodland Trust and designated ancient woodland. We’re very fond of our woods, we’ve walked there, run through them, even climbed and abseiled in the quarries, though the green, slippery rock hardly made it classic climbing. I love the woods and feel quite protective towards them, they are for everyone to enjoy. I’ve regularly plogged there, chuntering and tutting as I’ve picked up litter, which included more than its fair share of Red Bull cans, and mounted my own little arty protest with litter mosaics

During lockdown it’s been a regular haunt for us, as it has for many others, including quite a few who have never been before. There are children discovering what it is to be explorers and adults enjoying all the delights offered by the woods including wildlife ranging from honey bees and badgers to roe deer. And the trees, not forgetting the trees.

I’ve always loved trees and wild flowers and know many of them by name, thanks to Brooke Bond adding little information cards to its 4oz boxes of PG Tips, the loose leaf type, none of your new-fangled teabags. For about 40 years they produced collections on everything from cars to famous people. But it was the trees and wildflower collections that taught me most of what I knew and spurred me on to learn more. The little cards had a colour picture with a description on the back . You could put them in an album, or stick them on a chart, oh the sheer joy of sticking a rowan mountain ash on the corresponding empty space and revel in that exotic name. I dreamed of seeing one and was thrilled when I did.

As we walked through the woods and I spotted a little rowan I asked Noel, who wouldn’t want to know the name of a tree or wildflower? Yes, there are apps, but wasn’t the idea of a woodland walk to escape from gadgets, looking around at nature and not down at screens. Wouldn’t it be good to add a few name labels to inform people? I recognised the look of resignation on Noel’s face as he realised that the only way labels would find their ways to trees and flowers would be for someone to put them there. He had a sneaky feeling he knew who that someone was. He was right.

It wasn’t difficult to make a few labels, slightly more so to fasten them in the relevant place, some trees are VERY big. It was as we were hugging the beech tree with string that the dad and family saw us.

‘So what’s that?’ he asked pointing to an elderberry. ‘And that?’ waving at the nasty invasive Himalayan balsam. I had labels for those. ‘And this,’ I told him, pulling the skinny stem off my leg, ‘is goose grass.‘ And then looking at the children I told them in a serious voice ‘or sticky willy’. The youngest sniggered, so did I, that wasn’t one in the PG Tips collection.

A tough time for extroverts

I’m on first name terms with every cat on my regular run route, apart from Mr Fluffybottom at no 17, he insists on his full title, he told me that himself. I also have a nodding acquaintance with Biffo the St Bernard, who sports a trendy harness which confirms he’s Friendly, and there’s a parrot that squawks at me as I wave at her through the window, she’s yelling ‘hello’ and ‘dig IN!!!’ The cheek of it.

I’ve not yet struck up a conversation with the plants and trees as I pass, but give us another couple of weeks of lockdown and I’ll be there, debating with the daisies, chatting with the cherry tree, laughing with the lady’s mantle.

Of course I exchange a word or two for every person I socially-distance pass, usually to comment on social distancing, or the strange times we’re living in. If I had a euro for every time I’d used the words ‘strange’ and ‘times’, I’d be buying that alpine chalet in Chamonix.

It’s a tough time for extroverts. We’re gregarious, chatty, we love being with other people, going to parties, where we are usually the life and soul, it gives us a buzz and irritates the life out of everyone else. Being isolated and alone doesn’t work too well for us, we get bored easily, mardy even, we need people, real people, not Zoom people, we need NOISE, we need ACTION and MOVEMENT!

Noel doesn’t know what all the fuss is about, when we did our Myers-Briggs he was as far on the introvert scale as I was extrovert. I can go out for my chatty run, head off to the allotment to talk to the fruit and veg, bother a few strangers on the way home with cheery words and a comment on the strange times, stop for a conversation with all the new friends I’ve made on my well-trodden path through the village, burst through the door and call out ‘did you miss me?’ only to be met with the clicking of computer keys from the Man Cave. No, he didn’t, nothing personal, he was programming, he was In The Zone, the same as he did before lockdown, is doing now in lockdown and will continue when the drawbridge is lowered.

‘But didn’t you go for a little walk, or phone a friend while I was out?’ I ask. The computer keys carry on clicking. ‘Or have a potter around the garden and chat with the neighbours?’ More clicking. ‘Maybe dance a jig to the radio tunes….? Converse with the cats….? Sing along with an online choir….?’

The clicking stopped, an eyebrow raised, Simon Templar style. I think he must have run out of curly brackets, 1s and 0s. No, he assured me, none of these. In fact, not only had he not spoken to anyone, he hadn’t moved from his Programming Seat, not even to stop the cats fighting and he was absolutely fine with that. More than fine in fact, he was happy, in a way only programmers know how, happy on the inside.

I was clearly flabbergasted. He did that Simon Templar eyebrow thing again. ‘It’s a tough time for extroverts, isn’t it?’. It certainly is, I said, it certainly is, then went down to the greenhouse to chivy the tomatoes along.

Noel’s blue phase

Noel looked serious, he’s always serious, even when he’s laughing on the outside, he’s serious on the inside. But his words weren’t serious, in fact they were downright frivolous, I had to lie down afterwards with a severe case of the vapours.

I remember the date, time and place, it was Wednesday 29 April, 10.30am, he was in his Man Cave doing clever programming with his two screens full of coloured text with lots of 1s, 0s and curly brackets. He’d had his first double espresso of the day and I can only assume the caffeine was hitting his neurones hard, it’s the only explanation for what he said next.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said. O-ohhh, I thought, he’s going to explain to me what that line of code is he’s just written. He’s done it before, it didn’t end well, I fell asleep instantly and hit my head on his Java Script book, it’s a big thick book and it’s not about coffee.

“Do you think people would pay to see me with blue hair?” he asked. That latest batch of coffee is REALLY good. “For charity, for Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders)….and because it’ll shock people…”

The blue hair idea didn’t just come out of the blue, he’d talked about it many years ago when we went climbing with our mates. It was the sort of thing climbers did then, though not that climber, he remained blond. And serious.

Of course people would pay to see you looking silly, I said, It doesn’t happen very often, in fact it never happens. Until….now.

He set a modest target, a Covid 19 nod plus a zero, £190 would be enough to persuade him to take to the hairdresser’s chair. Not that he’s actually ever sat in a hairdresser’s chair of late and he’s never had anything to do with hair dye. It’ll wash out quickly, I told him. In fact it’ll fade by evening, how my nose grew, just call me Pinocchio.

It took a little while, well there was programming to do and more coffee to drink, but he drafted a social media post, doubting anyone would pay for such silliness, he is very serious after all.

Within hours I was ordering the dye, denim blue for starters, but as the £190 target had been achieved, more colours were called for, so I added alpine green, turquoise and plum.

Even the cats sniggered as the colours started to go on, and within half an hour Noel’s head was cooking under clingfilm and then it was back to the salon, I mean bathroom, for a rinse, shampoo and set.

Noel couldn’t believe his eyes. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The neighbours couldn’t believe their eyes. The cats thought Noel had been replaced by a member of a 70s new romantic band, they know their music.

The good news, particularly for MSF, is that people have been more than generous, the original target has more than doubled and there are still friends reaching for their credit cards (thank you). Quite a few say the blue look suits him. But her remains serious, in a silly kind of way.

Noel’s Just Giving page is here.

The Cauliflower Queen

We Yorkshire folk are famed for our cheery disposition and sunny outlook. Oh how we chuckle our way through life, and if we haven’t had at least one full-blown belly laugh a day, the neighbours are round to check we’re not slumped in a heap in the coal hole. Don’t let that dour ‘appen as maybe’ and ‘HOW MUCH? exclamation fool you, Yorkshire is full of Mr and Mrs Chuckletrousers and our families and whippets.

Some have said that Yorkshire folk have short arms and deep pockets, we’re stingy, tight even, but that’s missing a very important point. We’re careful, looking after the pennies so the pounds can look after themselves, wasting not and wanting not, making do.

It’s thanks to these much cherished Yorkshire attributes that I can exclusively reveal my new titles, bestowed on myself by me. I am the Cauliflower Queen, I am the Tomato Tsarina and it’s all down to my full Yorkshireness in matters horticultural.

There’s about 150 tiny cauliflower seeds in a packet. When you plant them in trays in the greenhouse, once they’ve germinated the idea is to pick and choose the best ones and throw the rest away. THROW THE REST AWAY? When I’ve gone to the trouble of sowing them, sprinkling them with water when they were thirsty? Singing them a lullaby each night? They’ve all grown and all deserve to fulfil their cauliflower destiny. Plus, I’d paid for that packet of seeds, well technically I paid for the magazine they came free with, but you can’t just chuck ’em, it’s a waste and we don’t like waste in Yorkshire.

So that’s why I have a greenhouse bursting with healthy-looking cauliflower plants. There’s enough to feed the village. Enough to feed the neighbouring village. And that’s not counting the row of fancy cauliflower seeds I planted directly into the ground at the allotment, so make that enough for the city and there will be plenty left to make a rather fancy cauliflower crown, fit for a queen.

It’s the same with tomatoes, they come in seed packs of six or 15 if you’re lucky, and no-one wants to waste those precious seeds, they work out as much as 40p each, that’s eight shillings in old money!

Some say you can never have too many tomatoes. They are probably right. At the last count I had 45 tomato plants in the greenhouse, conservatory, up the stairs, on the bathroom windowsill, in the cat’s basket. I think I may have overplanted. The idea was to grow extra for the village plant sale, but a few fellow gardeners had the same idea and many of mine are surplus to our requirements.

Plus I don’t have enough room to grow so many plants, it’s getting to the stage where we can’t see out of the windows for all the foliage and the cat needs his basket, but I can’t just throw them away, can I? It’d be a waste and we can’t be wasting anything, oh no, not in Yorkshire.

I intend to keep them growing and give them a bright tomato future, which may involve me setting up a table in front of the house with a ‘free to a good home’ sign. I’ll even stick a few cauliflowers on there, I think there will be some spare.

That kindness buzz

The bread of kindness!

At the risk of being all sentimental and mushy, can I confess I’ve spend the better part of the past week blubbing like a big baby because I’ve seen such goodness and kindness in people? Such strange times when I don’t know what day it is and have forgotten how to fill the car with diesel…or is it petrol?

I blame Captain Tom Moore for turning on my tears tap. He’s the 99-year-old who wanted to trot 100 times around his garden to mark his upcoming centenary and raise a bob or two for NHS charities. A bob or two? More like a few million, plus a number one in the download charts singing You’ll Never Walk Alone with the wonderful Michael Ball. He’s from Yorkshire, so he’s playing it down, though.

Out of the blue I received a email from a parkrun friend. He’s is another of life’s good ‘uns. There’s no age secrets in running communities, everyone knows how old you are to within four years thanks to the age categories we’re all in. Jim is older than 70 and younger than 75 and will represent Great Britain in the seniors’ half marathon, yes, he’s that good.

Anyway, he wanted to know how Noel was, he always asked, right from the Bastard Cancer diagnosis last June through treatment, surgery and recovery. I was able to report that Noel continues to get better every day and is running at least once a week, slowly but surely – the only time I’ll ever be ahead!

As a by-the-way, he mentioned he’d had a mild dose of Covid-19, just a little five-day stay in hospital, nothing to worry about, no ventilator needed, but oxygen went down fine…. A mild dose? Five days in hospital? Oxygen needed? That’s not mild in my book, but it was Noel he was concerned about. I cried. Such kindness.

Then there was the knock on the door. It was a bit like Mischief Night as I opened up and there was no-one there….the little buggers. Ah, but no, social distancing and all that, so there a couple of metres away was another parkrun friend, who’d run a few miles to bring me some bread flour because I’d run out and supermarkets were sold out. First world problem, there is no bread shortage, we won’t starve, but the lovely Jane had brought flour and yeast in her backpack and wouldn’t take payment, she was being kind. I cried. Again.

And another friend who called from the supermarket to ask what I needed and delivered it to the front door. More crying. People are kind, so kind.

There’s the kindness I see to others, like my allotment mates delivering plants to folk in the village who are socially isolated. It’s not so much the plants, but the two-metre-distance conversation, checking folk are OK, they are now. Betty, a widow, was celebrating her 90th birthday, so I made a two-metre-wide banner and two of use took it to her house, along with a plant and sang happy birthday. Neighbours came out and joined in, most of us were in the same key. Yes, I cried.

Each Thursday we’re outside on the front step, clapping and cheering for the NHS, my hands hurt so much with washing and scrubbing that I now use a ladle and colander.

I try to be kinder to everyone in these stressful times when people are worried, possibly frightened, thanking the supermarket workers and shop workers, applauding the bin men, I’ve even applauded the police as I was running, they waved back. Saying hello to fellow queuers, virtually hugging practically everyone, being patient (that’s a bloody big stretch for me, I can tell you!) But most of all, staying home so I don’t catch or spread the virus.

I’m taking part in a research project being run by University College London about psychological and social experiences during the pandemic. I get a weekly email asking how I’m feeling and coping, whether I have dark thoughts or feel that life isn’t worthwhile. Thanks to the kindness of others, and trying my best to be kind myself, it feels as if I’m doing OK. Thank you, kind people. Don’t stop being kind, you may never know how your kindness helps others.

It’s all gone quiet…

Socially distanced queue for the Post Office

The main road through our village is usually busy, very busy. Conversations in the garden are punctuated with lots of ‘pardon?’s, ‘eh?’s and the occasional ‘I CAN’T HEAR A WORD YOU’RE SAYING!’ as the number 30 bus revs its engine at the nearby bus stop.

Often there’s cars, lorries, quad bikes and the odd tractor queuing to the ring road or from the erratic traffic lights down at Greengates, with other cars rat running round our streets to get that little bit further ahead. Of course we have got used to it, though not so much so that we can sleep with the bedroom windows open, far too noisy for that, even at night.

But then lockdown. Lockdown and the world quietened down in so many ways. Birdsong is louder, outdoor conversations are quieter and the roads have emptied. It’s eerie and in any other circumstances would be warmly welcomed, but these are strange times and the quietness of our village life is in direct contrast to the chaos and activity orbiting our hospitals.

My car only goes out once a week now, and that’s so I can go queue around the supermarket car park leaning on my shopping trolley. I’d order online, but delivery slots are rarer than dancing trophies engraved with Noel’s name.

Many of our friends and family are also home-based, so cars are staying there too. Mine is looking at me longingly, if not pathetically, waiting for me to feed the hose pipe from the kitchen through the letterbox to give it a good wash. Ha, the very idea, washing a car indeed.

Some of the noisiest traffic now are the bikes who brake loudly as they hurtle down the hill and realise they are nearer to the junction than they thought. The looks on their faces….

Our Post Office has always been a community hub, with Waheeda and Asaf looking after us. Prior to the lockdown they were cooking curry on Friday nights, not something you can get at any Post Office. As well as the usual stamps, envelopes newspapers and groceries, there’s also regular deliveries from the Croissant D’Or, a rather good patisserie in nearby Rawdon, fortunately lockdown hasn’t shut down this weekly treat.

It’s just a short, quiet walk down what used to be the busy main road to the Post Office. Usually I’d just walk on the pavement, but when the road is empty, there’s nothing to stop me dancing on the white lines, nothing at all. So, by gum, I’ll do it while I can because I can and then join the queue for the shop which snakes down the road, all of us two metres apart. It’s all very good humoured, we don’t even have to shout, because there’s no traffic.

In a few weeks, or maybe months, time, I’ll be back on the pavement and back to shouting in the garden, back to normal, whatever normal will be when the lockdown is lifted.

Mr Motivator, Mrs Rotavator

He has a chic designer unitard, I have sloppy, floppy, threadbare pants. He has a matching hat, I don’t. He has a co-ordinating bum bag, I have a 15-year-old rucksack with a 14-year-old banana assimilated into the fabric, it doesn’t smell too good, I don’t smell too good. He’s Mr Motivator, I’m Mrs Rotavator.

In lockdown Britain we’re having to get our exercise as best we can, with online becoming the new norm. The inspirational Mr Motivator, real name Derrick Evans, was all over our TV screens in the 1990s with a keep fit slot on GMTV breakfast TV. He’s been asked to come back to take part in BBC1’s Healthcheck TV to help us through this coronavirus crisis hopefully fitter, both physically and mentally.

M is 67, but looks and acts a lot younger, he’s also a very nice guy indeed. Many years ago he came to an Ageing Well event I’d organised aimed at keeping older people active. He turned up wearing a snazzy shell suit and a big smile, carrying a ghetto blaster and set to work motivating and charming us all.

His lockdown workout takes what are now everyday themes, such as standing in supermarket queues two metres apart, leaning on shopping trolleys, juggling toilet rolls, and bending over and grabbing the last bag of flour and holding it aloft’ alternating arms. They make a fun routine with added lycra.

My daily #staysafe exercise requires special kit, you can’t wear just anything to do Anne’s Allotment Workout. There’s the aforementioned threadbare pants and non-matching, equally threadbare hoodie and the cap to keep the flies away and prevent glare from my whiter than Dulux’s Brilliant White arms.

It starts with a warm-up, a five-minute walk to the allotment, socially distancing, hopping on and off the pavement and doing a twirl in the middle of the empty road even when there’s no-one around, because I can.

There’s a few hill reps as I head down the slope and then I’m into the routine, Radio 6 Music trickling from my tiny DAB radio. My current workout has a definite core strength focus, forking, digging, bending, planting, the falling over is optional, though in my case obligatory.

I’m getting so good at this, what with all the practice and all, that I’ve named myself after my new piece of kit and plan to market myself as a kind of dress-down personal fitness coach, with added vegetables.

The manual rotavator looks like a set of cowboy spurs on a pole. They make a satisfying jangling noise as they hit the soil and I move them backwards and forwards to break up the heavy soil. I am Mrs Rotavator™ . Thanks to this new piece of kit, I may even have abs of steel, or if not steel, some other metal, possibly lead, they certainly feel like that.

While I trip lightly to the allotment, I practically crawl back, that’s some workout.The jangling is soon drowned out by my heavy breathing and occasional exclamation to the assembled crowds of wood pigeons, crows, robins, deer, badgers, fox and the allotment cat, all waiting for me to unearth something they might eat. I dug up an egg the other day, a hen’s egg, fully intact and buried by the fox for later. I reburied it, you don’t take the fox’s egg, he may poo on your potatoes.

Yes, I think Mrs Rotavator™ could have legs, maybe I could market it as new kind of workout for those fortunate enough to have gardens and allotments. It’ll be an intense activity for the summer months followed by a harvest of fresh veg and fruit to be enjoyed while balancing something alcoholic on those abs of steel. Working on my business plan as we speak….