10th January 2013
The Christmas cake's eaten, the trimmings are packed away back in the loft; yes, after the interminable, commercially-driven build-up, suddenly it's all over for another year - and time to wish you a Happy (if slightly belated) 2013! I hope your festive season was as pleasant and convivial as ours - we had a splendid time and were very spoilt with lovely gifts (my favourite from hubcap being the Breath of Gaia cover artwork he had framed for our living-room wall). As was Henry Wowler... there he is on Christmas morning, inspecting his magnificent new carrier-cum-cat-bed - very luxurious, complete with its own little duvet! A much-needed gift from his 'grandparents', since he'd well outgrown his last one... and plenty strong enough to carry the 5.4kg sack of spuds he's turned into (as opposed to the little featherweight bag of sugar we had last Christmas). Mr Wowler is also pleased to endorse Mark & Chapell 'Healthy Bites', little crunchy biscuits with a creamy centre, designed to remove plaque from his teeth and freshen his breath with clove leaf and parsley oil (and I'm pleased to say they also seem to have reduced his distressing morning flatulence!).
Then after all the over-indulgence in rich food, alcohol and sweet treats, we kicked the New Year off with some healthy walks including my first ever visit to Nostell Priory, a few miles outside Wakefield on the Doncaster Road. Even on a dull winter's day, it's massively impressive (see below): a huge Georgian mansion commissioned by Sir Rowland Winn in 1733, built by James Paine with interiors by Robert Adam, and now managed by the National Trust.
The house is closed now until early March, when we'll certainly be going back to see the period interiors with Chippendale furniture made specially for Nostell, 18th century doll's house and fine art collections; but in the meantime, the 300 acres of parkland and lakeside walks amply justify a visit in themselves, as you can see from the pictures below. And there's a very nice gift-shop and tea-room in the stable block, which is open even when the house isn't! (See the National Trust website or Nostell Priory Facebook page details for opening times and off-season events).
The Stable Block, with gift-shop and tea-room Aconite, a charming and rarely-seen winter flower The bridge over a lake made very turbid by all the rain
and run-off from the fields
So we are getting some snow this winter, after all - and how! Helmickton is once more transformed into a glittering white winter wonderland, making us extremely grateful for our solid-fuel heating system, currently roaring away full-blast in the kitchen: the wonderful Dunsley Highlander 8 multi-fuel stove (right). We installed it with the help of wedding-present money back in 2007, and it's been a god-send ever since - especially in these days of spiralling energy costs. Thanks to the tons of waste trees and other scrap timber Mick generates through his work, it gives us free heat during the autumn/early winter when we're burning wood alone (the only cost being the time needed to haul and chop everything up). And in weather like this, when we're burning a mix of wood and coke for maximum heat and efficiency, it still only costs us £60 - 70 a month for constant central heating and hot water - a mere bagatelle compared with the terrifying gas bills that so many people face at this time of year. Of course, there's a downside: it's labour-intensive, mucky, and our small garden has to be largely given over to storing/seasoning wood for next year... but for a couple both raised in the 1960's with open fires, the emptying of ashes, filling of coal-scuttles and periodic stove-cleaning is no big deal. And the advantages more than compensate: it's the perfect way of disposing of junk-mail and sensitive paperwork, and the flat top means I can heat a kettle of washing-up water, slow-cook pulses, prove bread-dough, warm the dinner-plates and do all sorts of other useful things. Plus we have the pleasure of the living flame and a bit of safe pyromania firing it up - I wouldn't be without it now.
Something else I wouldn't be without is our bird-life. Our feeding station with its fat-balls, seed-feeder and general scraps on the bird-table (left) has been alive during the past weeks of very cold weather, with all our usual visitors (blackbirds, robins, sparrows, dunnocks, wood-pigeons and assorted tits). But we've also had some rarer sights in the form of chaffinches, nuthatches and goldcrests - and for the first time, a gang of starlings (which usually live down the road on the allotments). The starlings have particularly taken to the white object on the left of the picture: we dub it 'the fat candle', but it retails as the CJ Wildlife UK Peanut Cake Tube with Insects. I find it irresistably amusing to buy a product that's deliberately full of mealworms and tiny crabs as well as peanuts, ground shell and charcoal - and it's a real boon for the insect feeders who usually have a thin time of it in this season. So we've both been having lots of fun watching the birds hammering away at it, and hoping that all these good calories will help them survive the present Arctic conditions. As you can imagine, Henry Wowler also takes a keen interest in ornithology, albeit for different reasons... so we've also had fun watching his abortive hunting attempts as he repeatedly rebounds from the chicken-wire screen Mick erected to protect our feathered friends as they dine!