Saturday, 29 June 2013

Battleaxe domestic dramas - oven cleaning, computers...

Let's get this straight from the start, I'm no domestic goddess (concept now discredited. It puzzles me why that Nigella just didn't lamp the old bully with a cast-iron skillet.). Anyway, if there was a Slut of the Year competition, I'd be among the entrants.
     We have lived in this house for exactly one year.  Part of the refurbishment exercise before we moved in was a new kitchen from Magnet, with new oven. Needless to say, I have not cleaned the oven for a year. The other day, Philosopher commented that the eye-watering fumes in the kitchen were getting perhaps a little oppressive...
     The oven has some high-tech pyroclastic, pyrotechnic in-built cleaning mechanism, so I thought I'd give it a go. The thing heated itself up to a million degrees and roared away for one and a half hours, sounding like the Vulcan bomber (of which, as with the Red Arrows at last year's Pirate Day, we had an excellent view as it flew past our house). Lights dimmed all over the South East, the decommissioned nuclear reactor at Dungeness was reactivated to give one last boost to the flagging grid - but at the end of the time, oh miracles, a clean, as new, oven, with thick black gunge replaced with a dainty little heap of white ash. Philosopher cleaned all the racks etc., and wow - what a sight!
Was that Battleaxe's oven roaring? No, it was the Vulcan bomber flying past the house..
     Apart from standing staring at the oven, I have been very busy. The new Hastings Writers' Group website is almost ready to go live. Local web designer Nick Weekes has done the basic design, but I have been putting in loads of the content. Photographer and HWG member John Cole has provided images, as has the Philosopher, and indeed, me.
     Lots of writing : two of my posts have been published on Hastings On-line Times (HOT), the Byzantium piece, and the Garden Centre Review.  In this week's Hastings and St Leonard's Observer, two out of the four published 'Club News' pieces are by me also - the HWG and Hastings Ore WI write-ups.  Will soon have a stranglehold on all local media....
     Have also been working hard on the new HWG 'Animal Writes' Anthology.
     Talking of the Philosopher, he has been having a terrible time with his computer. His old one died, and he got a new one with Windows 8. Well, say no more. The thing is a nightmare. In Birmingham we had this fantastic guy who came to the house, called Marish. A Hastings equivalent has been recommended to us, and he has been out to visit, but computer persons are like hairdressers and dentists. Building up a relationship with a new one is intensely anxiety-provoking. However, this guy (selfishly, am not publishing his name in case he gets so busy he would never have time to come out to us again), seems fine so far.
     I will shortly do a Bombastic blog about the current Microsoft travesty. My computer is at least four years old, and still runs Windows XP and Office 2003. It is a bit slow now, but does what I want without complaint. I am dreading replacing it, but the time must come..... Suffice it to say that Microsoft seems to have no interest whatsoever in pleasing its customers, it just removes perfectly good stuff which works well, and replaces with stuff that does not.
     What else?  Am helping with the up-coming WI Bazaar on 6 July, on the bric-a-brac stall. Have got loads of stuff from neighbours etc., and am now pricing it all up. We are also supplying an ex-Retro Bizarre rail for the vintage clothes. Philosopher said this morning that his life seems to have been spent wrestling with clothes rails - not quite, I say, only about the last fifteen years...
Hurrah - new beach cafe....
     To change the subject completely, we went for a walk to St Leonard's today, and what did we find on the sea-front by Warrior Square? A new beach cafe, in part of the toilet block. Battleaxe has being saying for ages that more sea-view cafes are needed, and now, one has appeared.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Livingstone Lodge Safari stay, Port Lympne

Just back from an overnight stay at Livingstone Lodge, the top-rated 'Safari' experience at Port Lympne (or Limm, as us locals must learn to call it) Wildlife Park, near Hythe. Did we enjoy ourselves - yes, very much. Would we rate it as a peak experience - no. It was a joint birthday treat, and for me, a gesture towards the fateful Tanzania trek that never happened... but that's another story.

We entered the park through a side electric gate, parked the car and checked in at a special Reception hut.
The other members of the party rolled up, 20 in all - two older couples and the rest very earnest young couples, armed with big cameras and binoculars. We met our rangers, led by a brawny South African guy who had done the real stuff in the Kruger Park, and all clambered aboard an authentic looking rusty old lorry for our African Experience Safari trek. Spent the next hour grinding slowly through the park in a haze of diesel fumes, with stops to photograph rhinos, an elephant eating its supper, various antelopes etc etc.The biggest stir of interest was caused by the appearance of several foxes - the only authentically wild animals we saw.
Giraffes come to call
     Eventually, the lorry dropped us at the Livingstone Lodge camp, a line of posh tents with wooden verandahs, a loo block and what they called the 'laapa' - a reed-roofed restaurant/bar, all inside a fenced compound in the middle of the African park. The tents are on a ridge, with a fantastic view down across the expanse of the park, over Romney Marsh to the sea. The tents also overlook the waterhole, with only a fence and a metal railing separating us from the animals.
Our tent
      We got a beer from the laapa and settled on our verandah in the early evening sun to survey the scene. It was lovely. We could see a little herd of wildebeest standing in the lush grass, swishing their tails, a few giraffes cropping the trees in the distance, some zebras dozing under the trees, two rhinos and various antelopes comfortably grazing, an ostrich nibbling at the grass. It was all very peaceful, but, the longer we looked - too peaceful. As one watched the animals, it was easy to remember that they had been born in captivity. They had no worries about finding food, no injury or disease, no fear of predators, and presumably, no fear of us.
     After a bit the giraffes strolled up to the tents, looking half-heartedly hopeful. Maybe once someone had managed to slip them a tasty Pringle, but of course to do such a thing would be condemned as a major crime. 
Then, along came the rhinos, huffing at us officiously, like a pair of slightly camp old schoolmasters inspecting the dormitories. They have a surprisingly delicate, mincing walk.  It was nice to see the creatures hanging out so close to us, but were they wild, exotic and exciting - I don't think so. It was more like watching cows and sheep. The giraffes were in fact a band of neutered males - presumably kept solely to add authenticity to the environment.
     Later, at dinner, which was, by the way, enormous and delicious, I asked the ex-Kruger ranger whether the wildebeest had any urge to migrate like they do on David Attenborough programmes. You know, where they surge across the plain and swim across a huge fast-flowing river and get eaten by waiting crocodiles.  The bloke said not - they only migrate to get food.
     Our fellow guests were very earnest about the animals - one woman said to the Philosopher that it was a
Wildebeest at the water hole
'privilege' to see them. Sure, it is good that they are not kept in little cages, but a privilege? Am not sure of that.  They are living in what must be animal heaven, and we were all paying an arm and a leg to look at them.
     Talking of animal heaven, another thing that puzzles me is the current practice of breeding the creatures over here and then returning them to their natural environment, only for them to starve, get eaten, shot by poachers or whatever. Philosopher and I imagined them all claiming asylum at the Ecuadoran Embassy to avoid getting extradited to some diasagreeable place where their animal rights would not be respected. 'We're not African, we're British', they would cry, 'We were born here'.
     We didn't sleep much, although the beds were very comfortable. The tent flapped, as tents tend to, in the
breeze. We had eaten far too much, some wildebeest thing was grunting and belching outside, and at dawn loads of ducks, seagulls and crows descended on the waterhole, quacking, shrieking and cawing. We were supposed to get up early to see the animals come to drink, but by the time we lurched blearily out they had been and gone.
     Had a good breakfast in the laapa, during which a ranger came and threw a load of pellets down, which brought all the animals rushing up to the railing. We then gathered up our things and piled back into the lorry again, to drive round some more bits of the park.
     After we were deposited back at Reception, we strolled round looking at things we had missed.  I always like lions and tigers, and gorillas. However, they had such big enclosures that you couldn't see a living thing apart from greenery.  Also, by this time, it was drizzling. I said 'Where are all the kitties?'  to a keeper who was doing something with the smaller cats. She looked at me askance. 'Well,' she said, 'you can't expect them to come out in this weather.'  Well, actually I can.... Talk about a dependency culture, surely they ought to earn their keep a bit?
     We did see a couple of gorillas, briefly, and then came across one silverback chap sitting looking out at us
through a glass window, deep in thought, one finger in his ear like a hairy folk music lover.  He examined us with all-too-human eyes.  I found myself apologising to him for taking his picture.
Deep in thought?
      I suppose our generation were spoilt when it came to encounters with exotic animals. We grew up in the days of elephant rides and chimps tea parties.  I can still remember the feel of the bristly skin of the elephant at Dublin Zoo, and the surprising strength of her trunk.  She was called Sara.  My sister fed her a lettuce leaf - she got it stuck up her trunk and then blew it out in a rain storm of elephantine snot.
     Was it cruel and undignified for the animals then? Personally, I don't think so, provided they were treated with kindness and looked after properly.  It was their job. Working is supposed to be good for us and to enhance our human dignity, we encourage dogs and horses to have an occupation, so why not the same for these animals?
     So, finally, here I am, posing with the chimps back in those less enlightened days.

At Dublin Zoo in the 1950s

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Best Garden Centres and Plant Nurseries near Hastings

Battleaxe visits many garden centres and nurseries at this time of year - we have some very nice local places - these are some of my favourites.
More like summer...?

We have had to find lots of plants for our new garden, especially at the front, where the previous owners had ripped up most of the vegetation (except for the array of eye-popping Barbie pink azaleas mentioned earlier) and replaced it all with, would you believe, terraces of pink tinged granite chippings, with the odd clump of, ooh, you've guessed it - pink heather.  'Looks like a pink graveyard' sniffed one of our neighbours. Anyway, the chippings are gradually disappearing under greenery. 'Are you entering for Ore in Bloom?' asked the same neighbour recently.
   I have had some plants from kind friends, but inevitably, garden centres are visited.
   Battleaxe says beware of buying plants from car boot sales. I got some fuschias from the Icklesham sale last year and they all had some horrible disease that would have infected all my existing ones if I hadn't noticed and chucked them out.
    So, here is my garden centre and nursery selection. I know I have missed some, but I can't be everywhere...
No order of merit.

Hastings Garden Centre, Bexhill Road, St Leonard's.  This is part of a national chain. Has already found Battleaxe fame has the winner in the Good Scone Guide.
     Scones are still as yummy, as are all the cakes. The cafe is clearly a favourite haunt of older Hastingas, as meals are very reasonable and sustaining, and it has a pretty outside seating area among the plants.  Toilets are OK, parking is fine.
Those scones again!
    Nice Garden Centre cat. Has a reasonable, if fairly standard, selection of plants that are always bright and healthy, at average garden Centre prices, and also usually a selection of tattier half-price offerings that still get up and grow OK when planted. Quite a lot to look at under cover if wet. Will order plants in if not in stock. Good selection of tools and normal garden centre lifestyle tat.
    Avoid home delivery - we bought a birch tree from them and nearly collapsed at the cost.  They have a good loyalty scheme and send us lots of members' offers, loyalty points etc. We visit this place often - partly because it is on the way to places like the tip and the retail park, but also because it is pleasant - and am lured in by the smaell of the scones....

Blackbrooks Garden Centre, A21, opposite Sedlescombe turn-off. This is apparently, owned by the same family that keep Winchester's hardware stores in Ore. A very large, very busy independent garden centre that has set out to make itself a life-style destination for the aspirational homeowner (eh? what am I on?). Has loads of books, food,  house stuff, large pet and garden bird store, vast gas-fired barbies, garden furniture, fountains, gazebos etc. Has a nice, but very busy cafe, with large, faintly bleak outside seating area, which seems to do particularly popular full English breakfasts. Toilets and parking fine. Standard garden centre selection of plants some of which, to my eye, are not always in tip-top health. Prices for everything on the expensive side. We like Blackbrooks for an excursion on a dull morning but not for large-scale purchasing.

Harborough Nurseries, A259, Guestling Thorn. This is at the other end of the size scale. No cafe, no toilets, a few pots and garden ornaments, but mostly plants - lots of them. They have a very good selection, including some quite unusual stuff, and things like scented-leaf geraniums in their inside houses. The plants are all beautifully strong and healthy, and attractively displayed. We never leave empty-handed.
     On our last visit we found a rose - Double Delight - which I have only ever seen once, blooming in a garden in the Old Town, and I thought I was going to have to order it over the internet from a specialist rose supplier. The owners and staff are both knowledgeable and pleasant. An excellent place.

Rother View Nursery, Ivyhouse Lane. Another place with no fancy facilities, tucked away on the quiet lane to Westfield.  They are familiar because they run a plant stall down in Hastings town centre which is open most days.
     The nursery is peaceful and pleasantly shambolic, with areas of plants that have run wild. Two lovely black labrador dogs live here. They make and sell attractive tufa troughs for alpines. Good selection of plants if you can prise them out of their niches! The people who run it are very pleasant, knowledgeable and full of good advice. Prices are very reasonable. We would visit more if it was not quite so out of the way.

Garden Gems

 Wakehams Farm Shop and Garden Gems, on the road from Pett Level to Fairlight. A small set-up with a plant centre attached to the farm shop. However, the selection of plants is amazing for its size - especially for old-fashioned perennials, and the prices are some of the cheapest I've seen. Nice cat and pleasant people. Again, we never leave here empty handed. It is the best place I have found for stocking up my new borders.


Merriments Garden and Nursery, Hurst Green, signposted from A21. This is not exactly on the door step, but I have included it because of its stunning selection of plants. This is a very large place, specialising in unusual plants (all very healthy). They have a truly excellent range of things like perennial geraniums. There is also an extensive show garden attached - you have to pay to go in there - we have not as yet.
     Has a cafe, shop, large bird care centre, good parking. An excellent place for an outing.

Great Dixter

Great Dixter, Northiam. What can I say about this place? Gardens, breathtaking, nursery, slightly shambolic but has some interesting and unusual things - sometimes grown a bit wild and rooted in to the bottoms of their enclosures.
     Plants are expensive and sometimes a bit temperamental when you get them home, but darlings, they are divas. Currently I have a crocosmia which I planted last year and has grown precisely three leaves this year. It is so brittle that it has to live in a protective stockade of sticks. Nice cafe, loos, shop etc. etc.
     Not a cheap outing but totally worth it. We are lucky to have such a beautiful place near us.
Athelas - topiary ship

Athelas Exotic Plants, Hooe. Now, here is an unusual and wonderful place. As its name implies, it specialises in exotic plants, including very large and unusual specimens. Huge palm trees, hundred year old olive trees costing a thousand pounds, waiting to be craned in to the gardens of the very affluent. They have smaller things, too - to be afforded by us on a good day. Last year we bought an Australian Mint Bush, which is doing surprisingly well on the pink chippings, and a palm tree, which, as mentioned in my last blog, not so well.
     The nursery is laid out beautifully, with a surface made of white seashells which shine in the sun - you could be on the Riviera. It is next to a nice farm shop and cafe. Easy parking, and toilets. This is a really lovely place to visit.

   That's enough for now, I think. Of course, our very closest place is B&Q in Ore (closing shortly, one understands, to be replaced by an Aldi. I don't mind the thought of that - it is not as bad as Tesco...). I don't dismiss these DIY places - many times I have trotted out with a wilting tray of something reduced to 79p, only to see the stuff revive and grow happily.
    For May 2014 update, see this post

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Byzantium Review and other stuff

There is still time to catch Byzantium in Hastings!
We went down to the Odeon on Friday night. I must have had the seat with the stickiest patch of carpet in the entire cinema - at the end of the film my feet were superglued to the floor...
     Anyway, vampire films are generally not my thing, but I actually enjoyed Byzantium, even without the local interest and trying to spot anyone we knew appearing as an extra. I have never seen any of that Twilight stuff and wouldn't want to, but I would guess this film is more adult, arty and tasteful. Years ago I saw 'Nosferatu' with Klaus Kinski, and this had a bit of the same dark, languid eroticism. It was, naturally, very violent. Two people were actually decapitated, not particularly realistically, and there were gallons and gallons of blood, mostly to be scoffed up by the thirsty vampires. We did wonder why the Hastings Police were not more curious about the spate of bloodless bodies which would have been left lying about the town. The two vampire stars, Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan, did a good job, the one fiercely pneumatic, and the second fey and sensitive.
     The Hastings locations, mostly filmed at night in the rain,  looked very atmospheric - the film makers seemed very keen on Bottle Alley - much frenetic rushing up and down along there.
     As well as the 'Byzantium' hotel front, which is that lovely old building on the seafront near the Heart Foundation furniture shop ( I forget what the building is called) there were lots of views of the fishing beach, the pier, the seafront, the amusements, the West and East Hills and the Azur Pavilion transformed into a palm court restaurant - it looked quite good!
     Our friend Joe Fearn (who has now moved to Hull) was an extra, but they cut all his shots except for one, apparently, of him shuffling down Bottle Alley as a down-and-out. We didn't notice him, unfortunately.
      The film is well worth seeing. Reviews were generally OK too.
      What else? We made a flying visit to Birmingham at the weekend for our old friend Alan Wenban-Smith's 70th birthday party. It was a lovely day, so we were all out in the garden drinking too much wine. Nice to see people we hadn't seen for ages. I made one boo-boo. Alan's sister is married to Vince Cable. I encountered this man who looked terribly familiar so I assumed he was a friend whose name I couldn't remember. 'Hello!' I crowed. 'How are you - how lovely to see you'. The man greeted me in a polite but distant fashion. I returned to my group and asked what his name was. Vince Cable, of course - I expect he is well used to that sort of thing.
      Yesterday we made our annual visit to the Winchelsea Open Gardens - we missed the Saturday session but were pleased to discover they were open again yesterday.  Lovely, lovely, lovely. I did a blog post about it last year. This year everything was much less advanced in the gardens - very few roses, but beautiful clematis and wisteria.
      We will have been in this house a year on Friday!
Beautiful Winchelsea

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

A day-trip... to Waitrose

Yes, I know, this sounds really sad, but believe me, it isn't. What are we to do if the nearest Waitrose is 20 miles away?
A lovely sunny day, too.  First, we drove over to Battle to view the Burstow and Hewett general sale. We are after another small chest or similar for our bedroom. Usually, they have mountains of unloved brown furniture stacked to the ceiling, but just when we actually wanted something, there was nothing suitable.
Tennis lawn
     So, we headed off to Eastbourne and parked by the Towner Gallery.  We really like the Towner - there is always something interesting to look at, and they have a cafe overlooking the Eastbourne tennis ground. Today, preparations were underway for the big pre-Wimbledon competition, and the grass for the outside courts was just being readied - a vast, wonderful expanse of green, with a solitary tiny bloke walking across it, very slowly, pushing a mower.
     One small architectural niggle about the gallery, the walls have been built too high below the windows to make it easy for people to look out and take full advantage of the views - to see the the tennis lawn from the cafe, we had to sit on high stools to see over the sill, and the outside seating area is bounded by a chest high concrete wall. 
Towner - exhibition reading corner
     The Towner has a really excellent permanent collection - we were wondering, given that Eastbourne is a relatively small place, where it all came from. They are starting a series of sessions to enable the public to view the reserve collections - we will go along one time.  Today, we saw an exhibition of portraits - several Sickerts, about five Christopher Woods, Edward Bawden, Ravilious, David Bomberg - oh, loads of stuff.
     It is hard to avoid making comparisons with the Hastings Jerwood. Firstly, of course, the Towner is free. I do think they try a bit harder, too. Here is the little reading area they set up in the portrait exhibition, with books to look at, and some feedback and comment cards. I know the Jerwood has much less space, but they could do something like this without too much trouble.
     After the gallery, we usually either go for a walk on Beachy Head or cruise a few shops, but today we put the car in the Waitrose car park and explored the Manor Gardens, which are accessed through a mysterious doorway in a wall, across the road from the supermarket. Turns out the eponymous Manor is the old home of the Towner. The gardens were curiously spooky - slightly overgrown, and divided into hedged 'rooms' with interconnected paths - people kept appearing from around corners and vanishing again - perfectly harmless Eastbourne citizens walking their dogs, but the whole atmosphere was somehow unsettling and faintly sinister. Normally, when we visit such places I think to myself how nice it would be to sit under a tree with a book,  but I think being alone in these gardens would have been positively scary. It is hard to photograph a spooky atmosphere....
The Counting House
     Next, lunch at our usual pub - The Counting House, adjoining the Waitrose car park. Sat in the sunny garden and had a pint of Bombardier and some fresh sardines. Excellent, except that as usual, by the time we had finished we were almost too sleepy to totter round the supermarket aisles, which was what we had come for in the first place! Managed to collect our usual haul of items unavailable in Hastings, except, disaster, no diet Bunderberg ginger beer.

     On the way home we called at the Athelas Exotic Plant Nursery in Hooe - had a cup of tea in the Farm Shop cafe. I wanted to take some pictures for my forthcoming Garden Centre blog, but also to ask their advice. Last summer we bought a palm tree from them - everyone in Hastings has them in their gardens, often thriving in the most dismal conditions, but would you believe ours has started to turn yellow and looks sick. The bloke thought the clay might be causing a wet pool round its roots, so today Philosopher dug down and we have made a drainage trench for the ruddy thing - it didn't actually appear that wet though. The nursery is a beautiful place to visit - more later.
     So, a supermarket run taking the whole day? Impossible? Indeed not.