Wednesday, 5 March 2014

My Boy Cecil

It all started when my friend DodoWoman rang about two weeks ago.
'Can I put you in charge of the snake?' she asked. She was up to her eyebrows in feathers, beads and over-sized potted palms at the time, preparing for the Great Twenties Speakeasy.
'Of course,' I said, kissing goodbye to the intensive week of Reclaiming My Veg Garden, which had been on the cards.

I haven't had much experience with snakes, but on the few occasions when I have been up close and personal with them, I was quite surprised to find that I wasn't panic-makingly frightened.

Up close and personal

We even had one visit the Market recently. Her name was Cinnamon and no one knew she was present - curled up inside her owner's jacket - until suddenly there she was, in the arms of his small daughter instead.

Cinnamon visited the Market

But I digress. Cecil was to be the new snake in my life. Cecil the Snake.
That had a nice ring to it.
I thought about him quite hard for a day or two, and put in several requests for vital equipment, but then I put it all on the 'long finger' as we say in Ireland. Which turned out to be a mistake, as come Thursday evening I was frantically trying to make up for lost time and get organised for imminent Cecil-dom.

On Saturday morning, I loaded the car with everything I could think of that any large snake worth its salt could possibly need, and set off for Beltra Country Market. There was barely room in the car for me. But lots of eager people were waiting when I got there (most of them under 10), but all potential Cecil-fans, and we set about the serious business of preparing for the advent of this slithery creature.

By the time I got home, I was shattered, but we had created all the accessories a snake could desire.
Now we just had to wait, as patiently as possible. One more vital process had to be undergone.

But it wasn't until the following Thursday that another Beltra friend - the Upcycler Extraordinaire - and I were able to get together to complete the gear that Cecil would need. Assisted by her lovely new dog Feena, we launched ourselves into the final stage of reptile-preparation. We sewed, snipped, shaped and stuffed, pausing only to eat a delicious salad at lunchtime.  It was a tiring day, but we both felt quite excited. Cecil was finally about to put in an appearance.

He turned out to be a good deal larger than I'd really anticipated - more anaconda than adder - and although he was still rather sleepy, and not yet totally 'with it' when I finally got him home, I had some difficulty in transferring him from the car into the kitchen on my own. The In-Charge had not yet returned from college, and I couldn't risk involving the dogs in case Cecil was hungry after his long day.

The kitchen table proved to be the only surface big enough for his huge, sinuous body. But that was fine, as it meant that as he was up high, so I could keep an eye on the cats down below. I wasn't sure whether he'd go for the cats, but he didn't show any interest in them at all, even though Hobbes, our big ginger boy, was foolishly curious about him.

He lay there for days, happily curled up enjoying the warmth of the stove while I tended to his scales and his eyes. His scales had been in a sorry state when I first got him home, half of them missing altogether, and he looked blind, I don't think he could see at all. But it didn't take too long to rectify those problems, and the following day the TalentuiGoddess came by and dropped off some lovely shells that she thought he might like.

I got rather fond of Cecil. He had a sort of bashful air about him, more like a dog who's hoping to be noticed than a snake, I thought. But it was not to be - our house wasn't his Forever Home.
On Monday the order came from on high, and Cecil moved on to greater things.
The In-Charge and I carefully loaded him into the car - we couldn't risk damaging any of his new scales - and I drove him into Sligo. The TalentuiGoddess has organised that Cecil will live in the windows of the Sligo Tourist Office for the whole of March, by way of saying 'Happy St Patrick's Day'.
I suppose St Patrick must have missed Cecil when he got rid of all the other snakes in Ireland.
I'm quite glad really, as he's very beautiful, and extremely placid.

But I do worry about him.
Will they look after him in the Tourist Office? Will they talk to him?
Will they remember to feed him? He was looking nice and plump when we delivered him, but that won't last for a month.
He's not hard to please, he eats almost anything.
Speaking of which, where is Hobbes? I haven't seen him for days...

Val Robus's wonderful picture of Cecil in pride of place

The children and Nancy making Cecil's scales

They made hundreds!

Cecil - you're surely not thinking of eating the Upcycler Extraordinaire!

Cecil turned out to be a bashful boy. He liked hiding under his tail

More anaconda than adder - he took up the whole sofa, but we didn't mind

Monday, 3 March 2014

Laid Bare

I remember, on New Year's Day, saying to the In-Charge: 'I wonder if anyone, a hundred years ago, knew what kind of year they were welcoming in?'
For most people, it was probably a New Year like any other - Auld Lang Syne, the coal and the bread on the doorstep, a few jars too many...
When I said it, both of us sort of  - paused - hindsight being what it is. The In-Charge numbers war heroes amongst his ancestors, a father and son who died together at Passchendaele in 1917, so his genetic memory (as it were) of the First World War runs very deep.

Having studied various aspects of that war at college, and, more recently and far more poignantly, having visited Ypres, Tyne Cot and many of the other Passchendaele war cemeteries to mark the 90th anniversary of that terrible battle, it runs pretty deep with me too.

There were no graves for the In-Charge's relatives to visit, just the knowledge that the bodies of their beloved men had been lost forever in Flanders mud. But we found their names - at long last - carved on the great wall at Tyne Cot, where 12,000 soldiers are buried and another 35,000 have their names inscribed on the wall, because they too were never found. It was a naked moment for us all - a raw, vulnerable sensation of being laid bare, feeling the loss of them, the waste, all over again, despite the years, despite the generations.

I say us, because our son was there as well. He had been asked to make a speech on that memorable occasion. The Queen was present, and Prince Philip, and the Queen of the Belgians (their King was in hospital at the time), and representatives of all the Allied armies, and Governments. It amounted to a lot of Big White Chiefs and scrambled egg on shoulders.

I am lucky enough to have a DVD of my son's speech, as one of the many cameramen present sent it to me afterwards - a kindness I greatly appreciated. I also found it on YouTube recently, to my surprise, and if you'd like to watch it, you can, via this link:

(The coverage starts 40 seconds into the recording, and finishes 4.40 later)

He was magnificent. Neither the In-Charge nor I could have uttered more than a couple of words without breaking down completely, but No 1 Son did a fantastic job, which only served to make me cry even more.

Ypres, totally destroyed during the battles of Passchendaele, was identically rebuilt after the War. The Last Post has been sounded every evening since the end of WW1 at the town's Menin Gate - except during Hitler's occupation

The next day, we were taken to the battlefield where they died - and someone who knows a great deal about military tactics and even more about Passchendaele, explained just why the In-Charge's great uncle Ronald was killed.

It was a quiet field, sloping gently upwards to a small knoll of trees, and planted with cabbages.
Such an innocent-looking landscape. You would never guess how many men lie beneath it.
Beautiful boys, just like my son, most of them.
It was the slope that killed Ronald - he'd been given the almost impossible task of leading his men up the hill to take the German position at the top. There was nowhere for them to hide, and the Germans just picked them off.
His father, Harry, died because when Ronald was brought into his headquarters, mortally wounded, Harry insisted on going to find a doctor to try and help his son. Lieutenant-Colonels weren't generally cannon-fodder in the First World War, but on that occasion Harry, a veteran soldier, was in the wrong place at the wrong time; and the saddest part of all is that no doctor could have saved Ronald at that stage, anyway.

We found their names, at last

Melancholy thoughts for a Monday afternoon. Thoughts prompted by the year that's in it, and by the fact that - just two months into2014 - every time you turn on the radio or the television, the Ukraine is teetering on the brink of something potentially explosive, potentially disastrous.

I was in Sligo Town earlier on, and the chap behind the counter of a shop I visited spurned my platitude about the gloriously sunny day.
'I wonder what will happen in the Ukraine?' he said.
We talked about it for a few minutes.
'The guy I work with is Polish,' he commented. 'He says if anything happens in the Ukraine, Poland will probably get involved, and he will have to go home and join the army - all his family are in Poland.'

Who could blame him?
When the politicians and financiers and economists string us up in the tangled webs they weave, what option are we left with but to defend the values, the people, the land - all the things we love most and hold most sacred.
I came away feeling that, collectively, we have all been here before.
And perhaps, collectively, learned very little.

The memorial at Tyne Cot, bearing Kipling's words: 'Their Names Liveth For Evermore'

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Love in a Wet Climate

Snowboard Cross at Sochi. Pic taken from the Internet

When I was at school, athletics was like outdoor maths to me.
A recurring blight on my weekly calendar - something to be avoided at all costs, or else endured with gritted teeth. Oh, how I loathed them both.
I think that's probably why the Summer Olympics just don't do it for me.
I know it's not all athletics, but there seems to be an awful lot of running involved in summer sports.

Despite what people may tell you, running is not fun.
Believe me - I know from all those ghastly afternoons on the track.
The only thing worse than athletics at school (apart from maths, of course) was Cross-Country running.
Ye gods and little fishes! Running, combined with cold, wet mud.
What is point?
I took the bus once. I was last (surprise, surprise) - I didn't think anyone would notice. Detention, detention, detention, not least because I obviously hadn't been properly attired:  girls out of school in public places had to be wearing that hideous accessory, the passion-reducing School Hat.

To this day, I never run.
Apart from anything else, 'it makes the ice in my glass chink.' (A wonderful line from a birthday card)   My sister runs - even, as far as I can make out, in the dark, after work.
Mad fule, as Molesworth would say.
If you need to get somewhere in that much of a hurry, hop in the car.
(I daresay she will live to be 94 and I'll keel over in about a fortnight, but there you go.)

Lovely Yulia skating - pic taken from the Internet.

Anyway, I digress.
I may spurn the Summer Olympics, but the Winter Games are wonderful, and I'm currently in the throes of withdrawal symptoms from Sochi.
All that figure skating, and snowboarding and ski cross. It was all brilliant, it was wonderful, it was completely enthralling. I even got into curling, which in previous years I have eschewed as Pointless, Aimless, Feckless and Graceless (rather like Adam Lambsbreath's cows).

Team GB. Pic taken from Internet

It was all terrific, and a great way to forget about our own dreary winter.
I did a bit more forgetting on Saturday night. My clever friend, the TalentuiGoddess had dreamt up a plan, and together with another mutual friend, DodoWoman, they put on a Roaring Twenties Speakeasy for our Market regulars and friends.

The TalentuiGoddess

DodoWoman pouting 20s style

Our lovely old Beltra Hall was transformed for the night, the place was packed, Gin Rickys and Woo Woo cocktails flowed and everyone was dressed to kill. I don't suppose the old place has ever seen so many beads and feathers, or molls and gangsters for that matter, and all to the strains of 20s music and live jazz.

Old silent movies played on a screen on one wall

The bartenders had guns in their belts and handcuffs on the bar - obviously expecting trouble

The place wasn't busted by the cops - it was busted by the nuns instead! Two of them came marching through the door exhorting the assembled company to repent, do away with the hooch and moonshine and go home. No one paid much attention - they'd all got used to nuns at school - and in the end the two stayed and had a cracking good time. One of them even set up a card table and took on all comers at Black Jack - and no one managed to break the bank, even if was only Monopoly money.

A mean hand at Black Jack, our party-loving Sister

The evening was a fundraiser for Headstrong, the Irish National Centre for Youth Mental Health, a much needed organisation in Ireland where teenage suicide is frighteningly common these days. They raised €1000 - a fantastic sum, and everyone had a fabulous evening.

Now, thank goodness, February is almost over, and hopefully so is the constant wind, wet and sog.
I lay in bed last night and listened to the rain on the roof and the windows - a constant lullaby these days - and when I woke this morning, it was still coming down. At least we aren't flooded, even though half the garden is a marsh.

I went out at lunch time, when the sun finally appeared. As I came to the vegetable garden, I could hear splishing and splashing in the pond, and see the water surging about in little waves. It's like that every day at the moment. The first time I saw it, I thought one of the cats had fallen in, and was frantically thrashing about, trying to get out.
It turned out to be frogs - or are they toads? - having what can only be described as an orgy.

Love in a wet climate

Usually they dive out of sight as I approach, but today the sunshine was too beguiling, or perhaps they were just enjoying themselves too much.

Very smart striped legs - or are they his bathers?

The frog spawn has been spreading exponentially over the pond weed the last few weeks. Now I know why. I counted 27 huge frogs, their heads all sticking out like some weird sort of Stargazey pie, some of them chortling to each other in their ecstasy.
In the clear water below, the fish were circling lazily, no doubt fat with feasting, and with the delicious promise of endless more banquets to come.
How ever many they eat, there will still be a bumper harvest of tadpoles.

I left the frogs to their romancing.
Icy water and bitter winds obviously have an appeal that has inexplicably passed me by.

Monday, 17 February 2014

The Blue Screen of Death

About ten days ago, when I opened up my computer, I was confronted by the Blue Screen of Death.
I quickly turned it off again, to give it a chance to pull itself together.
Computers are like that - what won't open one minute opens the next; it's as if they're still asleep, or have forgotten what page they're on. You sometimes just catch them on the back foot.
When I opened it again, alas it still hadn't woken up.
I turned it off and left it in the corner to ruminate on its misdeeds.
'The In-Charge will fix it,' I thought.

He tried, but nothing doing.
Death of a hard drive. 'It happens,' he said.
'But what about all my photos?' I wailed.
He wasn't totally sympathetic. 'I bought you an external hard drive for Christmas,' he said. 'And you should use Dropbox.'

I haven't had time to deal with the hard drive yet. I know it's now mid-February, but I was away, and there's been a lot to catch up with since then. And I don't know if I totally trust Dropbox.
There's something unsettling about the concept of my personal filing cabinet floating around in cloud-storage-space with lots of other filing cabinets. Who's to say it won't strike up unsuitable relationships right, left and centre, and share the innermost secrets of its soul? And with totally random, nosey people of dubious intent. Like that girl I loathed and detested at school, or that loud twit I'd cross the road to avoid, or the NSA.
I mean - you just don't know
After all, there's nothing else to do up there.

The In-Charge loves his Dropbox. He uses it all the time.
But then, the In-Charge would join the queue to go to the moon.
I asked him once. 'If all the chips were down,' I said, 'you know, blood pressure boiling over in the far-off Pentagon, someone's shaking finger approaching The Red Button, would you de-camp to the moon if it were possible?'
'Of course,' he replied.
He's a man of few words, by and large.

Decisive, but not wordy.

He likes screen Sci-Fi too.

I don't like Sci-Fi. Fantasy, yes - but move it into all space and you've lost me.
And I definitely wouldn't be in the queue for the moon.
I like my moon large, silver and romantically far away, preferably with the Evening Star in the same frame, a balmy breeze wafting by and a glass of something delicious in one hand.
Following that conversation, our extremely ancient wedding vows had to be retrospectively altered to accommodate this new position: 'Until death or the Red Button do us part'.

However, as usual, I digress.
Once the death of my laptop had been diagnosed, our friend, the GeekWizard very kindly came and looked at the lifeless corpse. He poked and prodded it and then opened it up and surgically removed the hard drive. You will not be surprised to learn that the helpful commentary accompanying these manoeuvres went largely over my head, but finally he took it all away to his own personal ICU.

Yesterday was discharge day. The In-Charge went to bring the patient home and de-brief the GeekWizard. I would have gone myself, but What is Point? I don't have an Enigma Machine to decode the feedback.
Instead, I stayed at home and made the most of the first Spring-like day we've had for as long as I can remember. The sun was shining, the wind had gone, the rain had abated and all was well in my garden. In a weird sort of way, this is one of my favourite times of year in the gardening calendar, but that's because I love snowdrops.
Well, OK, it's not just the snowdrops. I'll be honest. It's because I still feel in control. When I weed a bed, it still looks weeded the next time I go out, nothing has rampaged all night to fill the convenient space.
I can breathe in my winter garden, it's not permanent catch-up time.

The Winter Potager

I was out there for hours, happily weeding the potager.


Henri, who is staying with us for a few months, doesn't weed - it makes his elegant paws dirty - but he graciously supervised. The TeenQueen was too poorly to help - she lay on a mat and looked quietly sad. She had had a Bad Day. One of the headland horses kicked her in the face when she raced over to say good morning.
We have tried to warn her, but on this occasion she refused to listen, and wouldn't come back when called. Poor baby, she has learned a hard lesson. I bathed her closed and massively swollen eye, cleaned the blood away, gave her arnica and Rescue Remedy, administered some of the painkiller that had been prescribed for Under Dog's back injury and cuddled her lots. Once in the garden, Model Dog volunteered to look after her - the best nurse anyone could hope for.

The best nurse anyone could hope for

So we were all out, enjoying the sun and the crocuses when the In-Charge returned.
'He's managed to retrieve all your files and photographs,' he said. 'They're on the new hard drive he's installed.'
Oh GeekWizard, you are a marvel. A fantabulous, wonderful, geekily-clever marvel!
I cannot tell you how grateful I am.
And he even helped me find a way of getting back into my blog last night when I discovered that the nice, welcomingportal to its innards had closed when the old hard drive died.
Joy of joys!
Thank you, GeekWizard!
Poor TeenQueen

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Dark and Delicious

Would you even recognise my rescued girls - clad in their chesnut plumage, they are quite beautiful

As soon as the In-Charge left for college this morning, I heaved a box load of oranges into the sink and left them soaking in a solution of cider vinegar while I went out to deal with the hens.
Poor hens.
My happy hens are not quite so happy as they used to be.
Their little paddock has turned into a marsh.

Lots of people's fields have turned into lakes - not just Somerset, where the In-Charge hails from, but many places in Ireland too - so I know we are luckier than some, but even so, there is something unbelievably depressing about walking through a paddock and sinking into swimming mud up to your ankles.
I would have knitted all the hens wellington boots - but with 20-something birds out there, all with different sized feet, it's not really an option.
Also, it's largely their own fault. They have trashed their little paddock - every inch of grass has been scratched up, and - even without the rain - mud prevails.


In fact, it's so bad that I've had to give in - perhaps not gracefully, but at least with resignation.
I've opened the gate and let them into the beautiful green expanse of the orchard.
They are now busily trashing that.
The Great Escapees are the worst of all. So overjoyed are they at being able to use their feet as nature intended, they never stop.If this weather carries on for another month (God forbid), we will need mud-sledges, or flat-bottomed boats, or adapted snow-shoes.

The TeenQueen and I look on

The dogs and I stood in the orchard for a few minutes this morning and watched the hens gleeful surge through the gate. You'd think it was the stairway to heaven.
They were so busy rootling around in the soil beneath my lovely intact grass, that they didn't even notice the dogs set off on their daily death-or-glory-chase. One or two did scatter as the dogs hurtled past, but the Escapees were oblivious. I watched in awe as my two winged hounds skirted past them, narrowly missing one who shot sideways at the last minute.

The TeenQueen solemnly regards Florence, Constance and the YahBird 3 of the Escapees

Who would have believed it? SuperModelTeenQueen, Scourge of the Poultry Yard, named and shamed as co-respondent in the tragic slaying of the Golden Princess; the Biter of Goldilock's Bottom, the Tormentor of Ms Sussex - caught in flagrante delicto no less - that very same hound paying no heed to loose chooks, flittering and fluttering on her own private race track! What a student! What a girl! What a star!

Warmed to my cockles, I immediately promised them both an outing.
But oranges first. As soon as I'd squashed them all into the huge preserving pan and turned the gas on, I donned as many clothes as I could lay my hands on, including scarf, gloves and my woolly hat, and we set off to the headland for a brief encounter with the elements.
Goodness, was I glad of the hat.

The woolly hat - a picture taken at Christmas

Whenever he sees me wearing it (regularly these days) the In-Charge enquires when the Arctic Expedition is setting off, but cold ears are Too Much to Bear, and although today isn't particularly cold, down at the headland it was - well, invigorating. The howling gales of last night have temporarily  abated, but the tide was high and rough, the rain was starting to spit, and the wind coming in off the Atlantic acted perfectly as high pressure sinus douche.

The In-Charge had warned me that the sea has wrought havoc and he was right. Part of the road has gone and tons of stones have been flung up from the shore. The fairway has been cleared, but it looks a bit like a battlefield, and a few chunks of the headland have disappeared forever. The poor Connemara ponies looked a bit like my hens - not very happy. I can't help feeling sorry for them, even though the In-Charge assures me he's seen the owner feeding them and he and other horse-wise friends tell me that these beautiful, tough creatures are bred for just such exposed, inhospitable conditions. There is no grass for them, and certainly no shelter, but at least they don't look thin, and several beady eyes other than mine are on the lookout for them.

Headland horses

It was good to be blown around for a short while. The TeenQueen went mad as soon as she felt the wind under her and tore around, desperate for someone to chase her. She even swung past the ponies in the hope that they'd take the lure, but they know her well and were having none of it - they know how fast she is. Model Dog wasn't taking the bait either, and she and I pottered along the sea-edge, looking at all the stuff the waves have washed up. Stones, seaweed, hundreds of shells, unedifying bits of rubbish.

On the way home, thinking of my oranges simmering on the stove, I wished that my lovely Frenchman, Hugo was here. We made the marmalade together last year, the endless chopping and mess relieved by company and chat. Sadly he's not, but it's good to have memories. As soon as I entered the kitchen, my reminiscent mood and the sharp, lovely tang of the boiling fruit brought back other, older memories - of  the oranges of my childhood. They used to dip them in the sea, in the West Indies, and eat them while swimming, the salt mixing with the rich sweetness of the juice. I don't think I'll add any salt to my marmalade, it will perform its dark and delicious magic without saline assistance - but it made me smile nostalgically nevertheless.
My gorgeous son is in the Caribbean at the moment - he's been working there all winter.
I wonder if he dips oranges in the sea before eating them?

The marmalade making is underway

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

A Vintage Year

I have been standing watching the rooks dancing in the dusk. It is a sight that never fails to move me, even though it is repeated every 24 hours. Their morning flights are wonderful too, but at twilight they circle and turn and flood across the sky like waves rushing up the sand, and I am always left wondering how each rook knows which move is coming next, where he is supposed to be, which way to turn.
Who, I wonder, is the lord of their particular dance?

I was thinking, as I closed the shutters against the coming night, that tomorrow will allegedly be a whole new dawn, a fresh-minted world, a slate wiped clean and ready to be rewritten.

New Year has never been my thing. I love Christmas, with its lights and twinkle, well-worn traditions and cosiness,  but he idea of setting out on a pristine, crystalline adventure doesn't always fill me with eager anticipation.

I was listening to a very interesting documentary on the radio today as we drove into Sligo. It was about sound - music, notes, all kind of sound. Apparently when some people hear sounds, they see colours or shapes, or both, and, as everyone knows, sounds come across differently to each of us.
I think the year is like that. For lots of people, the year is like a circle, so December melds seamlessly into January - it is all a continuous whole.

For years, I didn't think about it at all, until someone described their vision of this circle to me. It was only then that I realised that my year was a long, straight line, and when I got to the end of December, I sort of metaphorically fell off, and had to flail around trying to find the start of the next year to grab onto.

It isn't quite as bad as that anymore, but I certainly see the year in colour, and I guess part of the glitch for me is that December and January are starkly different, and don't meld together at all. December is multicoloured with warm, golden overtones - but January is a pale icy blue, hard and light. There is a definite break between the two swatches, almost a chasm that has to be leapt, and let's face it, it's hard to leap when you're full of Christmas cake and chocolate.

I'm not great with the New Year Resolution bit, either (though I do have something in mind this year), but perhaps the best thing about the end of December is taking a moment to look back over the months gone by. They seem to fly more and more swiftly - if that's possible - and sometimes one can only be glad to see the back of them. Only yesterday a friend said it had been a ghastly year for her household, but I feel very blessed because, looking back, 2013 seems to have been a wonderful year in so many ways.

Not as far as the economy is concerned, it's true. Most of us in Ireland have had another really tough twelve months, but I've given up thinking about it - I've certainly given up worrying about it - which leaves a lot of head-space for all kinds of other things, most of which bring happiness in their wake.

It's been the year of the Wwoofers' return. Our gorgeous Frenchman came in January; lovely Heather and Aaron brought their adorable baby Gavin to meet us in April, and my beautiful Chloe returned in July. It was wonderful to see them all, and we felt honoured to still be part of their lives.

 And we've met a whole new batch of Wwoofers who came to help us in the garden this summer as well. Olivia and Marie Christine, sweet Jil and Marko. A new set of lives entwined with ours. 

Amazingly, we had our first holiday in years - we went back to one of our most favourite places of all, Paris, thanks to our friend, Sarah.

A vast 'family' of dogs playing in the Seine

And the In-Charge went to Berlin in the spring and Venice in the autumn on 'School Trips' with his college.

Plus we had a brief but wonderful weekend in Dublin for the opening of a friend's sculpture exhibition - a quick reminder of the joys of cosmopolitan life. Thank you all over again, Jil and Marko, for looking after all the dogs and cats and hens and household while we jumped ship!

Dublin's wonderfully quirky, but boringly named new Theatre

I've spent more hours gardening than I care to catalogue, but it repays me, over and over, for all the time I put in. And other peoples' gardens are all the joy with none of the work, so it's been great to see lots of those this year, as well as visit garden shows.

Sadly, my parents have both been quite unwell recently, but it's meant that I've spent more time with them in Suffolk this year than in the last I-don't-know-how-many. I was with them for my brother's wedding in August.

And at home we celebrated the In-Charge and dear DodoWoman's birthdays in style, with a wild, windy, wonderful party. The greatest compliment of the day came from the ten-year old son of a friend. 'Great Venue!' he said, nodding enthusiastically. It still makes me laugh now.

Moreover, I've learned to crochet, found my old knitting needles, have taught 6 people to knit, and have been immersing myself in colour during every spare moment of the year. Heaven! I've even made a few extremely bright throws, and actually sold some of them to raise money for Irish animal charities.

Two friends and I helped an animal rescue re-home a load of battery hens back in September, and as a result, in November the three of us set up Creating Creature Comforts on Facebook to raise money for Animal Charities. Just this morning I  worked out that already we've raised over €500 each for two charities (with our Animal Calendar), and passed on donations of €100 each to two further charities. There are a lot of animals in serious distress in this country at the moment, so it feels good to be doing something to help.

Best of all, No 1 son came home for a brief visit with a gorgeous young lady. Alas for us, but not for him, he is currently working in the Caribbean, so we haven't seen him since. His beaches are even more beautiful than ours, but hopefully he won't be there forever and we'll see him again soon.

We haven't been lucky enough to see No 2 son this side of the Pacific this year, but he's well and happy which is what matters most, and can be found on a slackline somewhere down under in Oz.

And - hard to believe - in 2 days time, we will have had the SuperModel TeenQueen for a whole year! It barely seems possible, but what a difference the year has made to all of us. She is so much more relaxed and happy, so much fatter and fitter, and she has helped to fill the enormous gap left by our sweet boys.

A good year!
A vintage year, even - to be laid down and re-tasted often.
I hope 2014 will be just as wonderful - for us, and for you, wherever you may be.