A murmuration…

If you have ever been lucky enough to see a murmuration of starlings – where the birds swoop and swirl in amazing aerial ballet creating patterns in the sky – it’s not something you are likely to forget. But have you ever wondered why it is called a ‘murmuration’?

You were probably too enchanted by the magical sight to notice the ongoing background murmur – or murmuration – as caused by the beating of 10,000 pairs of wings at once. And that’s where the term comes from. Most of the collective nouns we use date back to the mid-15th century. But the origins of most collective bird and animal nouns are not always as straightforward as they first appear.

Some are named after specific habits, such as ‘a descent of woodpeckers’, possibly due to their penchant for dropping down from great heights onto ants or ‘a leap of leopards’ or ‘a busyness of ferrets’ while others focus on a personality trait that we believe them to possess.

For instance, the number of sinister sounding nouns for crows, such as murder, mob and horde, probably come from medieval peasants’ fears that the mean-looking birds had been sent by the Devil or were witches in disguise.

Similarly, ‘an unkindness of ravens’ could stem from an old misguided belief that the birds were not caring parents, sometimes expelling their young from their nests before they were ready.

Many bird species have more than one collective noun. As with crows, there are many terms to describe finches (charm, trembling and trimming) and geese, depending on whether they’re flying (skein, wedge, nide) or gathered on water (plump) or land (gaggle).

A book by Chloe Rhodes An Unkindness of Ravens: A Book of Collective Nouns is fascinating. In it she explains that, unlike proverbs, rhymes or homilies, many of these delightful names endure because they were recorded and published in ‘Books of Courtesy’ – handbooks designed to educate the nobility. So an early sort of ‘one upmanship’ to ensure you made it plain you belonged to the ‘right’ set, something like the Sloane Ranger speak of the 1980s perhaps!

Here are some of my favourite bird terms:

  • A wake of buzzards
  • A commotion of coots
  • A murder of crows
  • An asylum of cuckoos
  • A swatting of flycatchers
  • A prayer of godwits
  • A conspiracy of ravens
  • A parliament of rooks
  • An exultation of skylarks
  • A murmuration of starlings
  • A chime of wrens
  • A booby of nuthatches
  • A quilt of eiders
  • A mischief of magpies
  • A wisdom of owls
  • A committee of terns
  • A descent of woodpeckers
  • A scold of jays
  • A charm of goldfinches
  • A fall of woodcock
  • A deceit of lapwings
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And so, September…

The trusty hydrangea, attractive whatever stage it’s at!

I always feel September really is the turn of the year. There’s that Autumnal nip in the air, the earth smells different – richer somehow – and the days become noticeably shorter. It’s a time of year when you could start to feel melancholy if you weren’t careful. But rather than feel a gathering gloom, reflect and take a moment to savour… and then think of it as a time to plan ahead. The children have started their new school year and it’s harvest festival time, so that means home made harvesting projects like jams and preserves – so there’s plenty to do!

I used to find my garden looking rather forlorn at this time of year. To counter this, I made a point of ensuring I had plenty of plants that come into their own in the Autumn.

Fuchsia, always so pretty.

Hydrangeas became terribly unfashionable a few years ago, but I have always loved them – they are such good value! They go on and on flowering well into September and, nowadays there are so many stunning varieties to choose from, you are spoilt for choice. Allow the final flower heads of the year to stay on the plant, to provide winter interest… and I am sure I don’t need to tell you how wonderful they are dried in arrangements, or sprayed silver and gold for Christmas.

Fuchsias, so very pretty (I thought they looked like ballerinas when I was a child) cannot fail to brighten any garden. Make sure you choose a late-flowering variety such as ‘Marinka’ and you’re guaranteed extra autumn colour.

Japanese anemones.

I have become a recent convert to Japanese anemones, they look so elegant and delicate, yet they flower from August until late October and look fabulous at every stage. Whether tight bud, long-lasting flower or neatly spherical seed head, the Japanese anemone manages it perfectly. There are lots of lovely colours to choose from they are a really uplifting choice!

Try not to be too enthusiastic with the shears and secateurs (I know it’s tempting!) there are lots of flower heads you can leave on over winter to add interest. Here’s a few to leave and admire:

  • Hydrangeas (obviously!)
  • Teasels
  • Nigella
  • Nigella seed head.

    Echinops

  • Eryngiums
  • Artichokes
  • Poppies

And if you are still looking for positive things to do… start planting your spring bulbs!

 

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Squeezing through the Corinth Canal

Here’s a final holiday blog for you… some pictures from the island of Sifros and our journey through the Corinth Canal. I hope you have enjoyed some of the highlights of the trip.

One of the main reasons we wanted to do this journey was to see what it was like for a medium sized boat to squeeze through the Corinth Canal. The really big boats can’t make it but we did last night and wow it was spectacular. With only a foot or two to spare each side we took about 45 minutes to cross through this gap carved through solid rock. If you can’t take this shortcut then it’s a 180-mile trip round!

We were guided by a pilot boat and sailed through at a constant 5 knots, excuse me if I don’t regurgitate the mass of techy information the captain gave me about pressures and constant speeds… I just smiled and nodded!

The island I wandered round today was called Sifnos. The guides are all lovely and each one insists their island is the best. I have been trying to be friendly and learn a little Greek and smiled at everyone saying “Calamari!” (Good morning) till the guide politely pointed out that I was yelling “Squid” at everyone and I should have been saying kalimera not calamari. I thought they were looking strangely at me!

The island is so pretty and some of the walls were from 1500BC… so something like 3,500 years old… amazing and the flowers were beautiful, mainly bougainvillea and, as always, tons of olive trees. Lots of locally made bits and pieces, honey, olive soap, amazing ceramics and the ever present wine.

I bought some honey yesterday when I visited the site of the Oracle of Delphi. Apparently, the honey is made from local bees who all use pollen from the calm, positive atmosphere of Delphi and so the honey will bring positive vibes every time it is used. Ok, so I was persuaded…. but it tastes nice so what the heck!

Sadly home again soon, but it has been a very educational but fun trip, will it influence my work, no probably not but it has given us a wonderful rest!

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Tasting olive oil and rocket fuel!

Continuing my holiday adventures…

Yesterday, we docked at a town called Kotor in Montenegro. It was quaintly medieval in many places and very beautiful. I will admit to complete ignorance about Montenegro, the only time I have heard of it was as part of the Eurovision Song Contest but that’s faintly embarrassing! The tour we chose took us around the town and on to a small family olive oil producer.

Left to right: Here I am taking a wander around the old town of Kotor. Ruschka and Mischka the weed control management team. The olive grove.

Our first stop, once we arrived on the farm, was to meet Ruschka and Mischka the weed control management team. Mischka is 18 (on the right) and expecting a baby donkey soon and we shared some of the little welcome doughnuts we had been handed. We didn’t share the welcome drink we were given, I took one sip and immediately passed the rest of the glass to Richard… 50 per cent proof home made brandy… made variously from grapes, apples, plums or, I suspected, any fruit they had handy. It wasn’t unpleasant but wow it blew your head off! They didn’t call it rocket fuel for nothing!

We then moved on to the 300-year-old olive press and machinery, so beautiful, and lovely that it has been preserved. There was a careful explanation of how the oil is extracted. The rubbish/paste left over they reuse as compost material and animal feed. They had goats and sheep for cheese and rabbits for… OK, I will gloss over that one but I kind of assume they may not have kept 20 or so rabbits as pets. They showed us their brand new modern machinery, much less work for the donkeys than the old version, hence their transfer to weed management!

Then we had a lesson on how to taste olive oil and a serious lecture on how the stuff we are all buying is very unlikely to be proper olive oil as most of the supermarkets sell oils that are hugely blended and taste nothing like proper olive oil. Well having tasted some I suspect he was right, it was far fruitier and a little more peppery than the big bottles I buy in Tesco… and a 100cl bottle cost 3 euros direct from the farm, so that is about £25 a litre. Hmm, now what do I pay, about £4.99 at most for a litre. So I may change my ways, I’ll look more carefully when I get home.

Left to right: The old and the new olive presses… and the finished product.

They then gave us a gorgeous lunch, with cheese from their sheep, prosciutto ham made at home by the mother, eggs from their chickens and some lightly battered courgettes. Followed by apple cake (yup made by Mum) and Turkish coffee (fab if you like strong coffee). The cheese was interesting. One was a pale soft cheese which tasted like a mild Lancashire or something along those lines. Then they take some of those cheeses and place them in wire mesh cages and hang them over the patio (!) for three weeks. This dries them out and they then immerse them in olive oil. The resulting cheese was quite firm and almost had the strength of a Parmesan.

Then back to the ship where we found an invitation to eat with the captain tonight, aha … maybe I can persuade him to try card making, he already does various crafts like wood carving etc. in his spare time… so who knows!

The photo at the top is of the beautiful fish filled river and ponds in the town of Kotor.

 

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The Proof is in the Pudding

Hold on to your hats – the fourth and final instalment of the Swaddlecombe Mysteries will be available from mid-October! In ‘The Proof is in the Pudding’, Christmas comes to Swaddlecombe and, as the decorations go up, so does the body count. Victoria and Albert have their work cut out to identify ‘who dunnit’ in this frenzied festive free-for-all.

My partner in crime writing, Julia Wherrell, and I have had a lot of fun re-visiting our fictional village of Swaddlecombe and seeing what Victoria and Albert, the Reverend Ruminant, Jean and pub landlords Roger and Trudy and have all been up to since the last instalment! It’s both exciting and scary as you never quite know where things will take you, the characters definitely develop minds of their own.

This fourth novel opens in the run up to Christmas – Victoria’s first country Christmas in deepest Devon. Everyone’s getting festive, especially Trudy and the triplets and Victoria finds herself on a Christmas wreath-making course – ooh, I wonder where that idea came from?! Julia wanted to write about dastardly doings with a glue gun, but I managed to talk her out of that – I am too squeamish!

Dear old Albert is busy cooking again and ‘feeding’ his Christmas pudding. A local vineyard ensures there’s plenty of wine to lubricate the proceedings, but does it also contribute to two ‘accidental’ deaths? You’ll have to try and work that out for yourselves…

All your messages of encouragement (and nagging!) have been much appreciated and have helped keep Julia and myself motivated. We’ve both had a difficult couple of years and, while the writing project did take a while to come to the top of the ‘work’ pile, it was always in our minds. So, a big ‘thank you’ to all of you who love the characters and have been so patient in waiting for book four.

‘The Proof is in the Pudding’ will be available in Paperback and on Kindle mid-October and I promise to keep you posted on an exact launch date.

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