The White House Farm Murders

In the early hours of 5th August, 1985, a horrible gunshot massacre took place at White House Farm in Essex. The killer apparently planned to despatch householders June and Nevill Bamber, and their six-year-old twin grandsons Nicholas and Daniel Caffell, asleep in their beds. As a precaution, the kitchen phone was left off the hook to disable the upstairs extensions and prevent calls for help. Then, using a ten-shot rifle fitted with a sound-moderator, (‘silencer’), a single close-range shot was fired into the head of each child. Both died without waking. The remaining eight rounds were emptied into their grandparents. Both initially survived, obliging the assailant to run downstairs to reload, pursued by a badly injured Nevill Bamber. While June, shocked and bleeding, struggled to reach the telephone on her husband’s bedside table, he was in the kitchen, fighting desperately for possession of the gun. Struck repeatedly with the barrel, he tripped and fell awkwardly by the Aga, where he was executed by four shots to the head. Rifle fully re-loaded, the murderer returned to the master bedroom and killed June Bamber with three shots to the head and neck, then pumped another six bullets into the twins. The rifle was subsequently found lying on the body of Sheila Caffell, the Bambers’ adopted daughter and mother of the boys, who had died from two shots to the throat.     

Local police were called to the scene by Sheila’s adoptive brother, Jeremy Bamber – according to whom Nevill had phoned around 3 am to say that she was ‘going mad with a gun.’ Officers arrived braced for an armed siege, only to find an apparent murder-suicide. The resulting investigation was biased towards supporting the senior officer’s unshakeable belief that Sheila Caffell was responsible – notwithstanding her unusual double wound, the absence of trace evidence/blood other than her own on her nightdress, the paucity of her fingerprints on the weapon, and complete lack thereof on the bullets. Opportunities were therefore missed to seek vital evidence, such as blood- and gunshot residue-spattered garments worn to commit the murders, or signs that she had ‘ritually cleansed’ herself after shooting her family. Furthermore, the question of whether it was physically possible for her wounds to have been self-inflicted was – and never could be – convincingly answered, because the bodies of Sheila and her parents were cremated soon after the inquest.  However, forensic evidence suggests otherwise, since the rifle had to be re-loaded again, and the sound-muffler removed, to inflict her second, fatal wound.

Today, matters would be handled very differently – partly as a result of the painful lessons learned by police after the debacle of White House Farm. Firearms involvement would mean an automatic presumption of homicide, and the victims’ bodies would be retained accordingly. A thorough search of the crime scene would reveal clues overlooked at the time, including the bloodstained sound-moderator put away in a downstairs cupboard, and Nevill’s bedside telephone hidden under a pile of papers in the kitchen. Ballistics, forensics and blood-spatter experts would minutely reconstruct the course of the shootings. Jeremy Bamber, as the last person to see his parents, sister and nephews alive, face-to-face, and having ample means, motive and opportunity, would be the prime suspect. His clothing and body would be examined for trace evidence and signs of injury from fighting with Nevill. His car, cottage, (where June’s bicycle was found), and the likely routes between his home and the farm, would all be searched; as would the home of his then girlfriend Julie Mugford, who might have told the full truth from the outset rather than risk being charged as an accessory. DNA analysis of the sound-muffler might conclusively show the presence of Sheila’s blood, thus (since it was not found with her body) proving that she was murdered. Conceivably, faced with such a strong prosecution case, Jeremy Bamber might have pleaded guilty (and would probably be time-served, rehabilitated and free by now); otherwise, the weight of evidence would likely have ensured a unanimous verdict from the jury, and provided better closure for the bereaved families and friends.  

As it was, a month later and following the break-up of their relationship, Julie Mugford cracked under the strain of a terrible secret. In a shocking statement to police, she revealed how her ex had discussed plans to kill his family, and had long known a way to enter and leave the apparently secure farmhouse. Her information, combined with additional physical evidence, led to further investigations by a new, more rigorous team and the subsequent arrest of Jeremy Bamber; tried and convicted of all five murders by a majority 10:2 verdict in 1986, he was duly sentenced to life imprisonment.

Bamber has stayed in the public eye ever since, protesting his innocence, backed by many supporters who believe he has suffered a gross miscarriage of justice. However, his defence has yet to supply any fresh concrete proof, relying instead on nit-picking irrelevances, (like the play of light on a window which caused a twitchy officer to briefly believe he’d seen movement – ‘evidence of life’ – inside the farmhouse), searching for legal loopholes, accusing the police of everything from incompetence (valid, up to a point) to corruption and evidence-tampering, and the prosecution witnesses of being mistaken, if not lying outright.

Most recently, the case came to renewed, wide public attention thanks to a major TV series, White House Farm, starring Freddie Fox as Jeremy Bamber. It fired my own interest to such an extent that I bought Carol Ann Lee’s book on the case to find out what had really happened, and whether the drama had portrayed events accurately (it had).

Having previously read One of Your Own, Lee’s biography of Moors Murderer Myra Hindley, I was not disappointed by The Murders at White House Farm. Just as meticulously researched, scrupulously referenced, and narrated in the same lucid prose, it sets the scene with a prologue describing Colin Caffell’s ominous journey to take Sheila and their sons on what would be their last visit to his former parents-in-law. The main narrative then opens with a family history which goes some way to explain why either of the young Bambers could have been driven to murder: a troubled background of well-intentioned but inadequate parenting, emotional repression, recurrent mental illness, and excessive, controlling religiosity. On the face of it, Nevill and June should have been ideal parents. An attractive, intelligent couple, each had a distinguished war service record and devout Christian faith, and enjoyed a prosperous business, a comfortable home and a well-off middle-class lifestyle. But at the time of their marriage, post-war society was extremely conservative, with any deviation from the norm disapproved of, or even – like homosexuality – illegal. Divorce was frowned upon, as were pre- and extra-marital sex, and illegitimacy was considered so disgraceful that many single women were forced to procure illicit abortions or give up their babies for adoption. Even infertility was a stigma, with childless women the objects of pity, suspicion and scorn, and a pain deeply felt by June when the longed-for babies failed to arrive.

She received medical treatment for the resulting severe depression, which was in some ways exacerbated rather than cured by the adoption of two new-born babies. Although the children were desperately wanted and loved, the Bambers remained painfully conscious that they were not biological parents; and while they enjoyed relaxed, natural relationships with their nieces and nephews, (of which Sheila and Jeremy were deeply jealous), June remained insecure and awkward as a mother. Ever fearful of censure by the adoption agency, she may have raised her daughter and son literally by the book – the notorious Dr Spock method of strictly regimented routines – explaining Sheila’s early memories of being left to cry for hours in her pram in the garden, watched over only by the family dog. And ever anxious to give their children every possible advantage, she and Nevill packed them both off to boarding school at a relatively young age – another baffling rejection to compound the abandonment by their blood-parents. Predictably, both suffered; Jeremy was bullied by his schoolmates as ‘the bastard’ and by his cousins at home as ‘the cuckoo.’ The resulting low self-esteem arguably contributed to Jeremy’s psychopathy and Sheila’s mental breakdown, especially as June’s religiosity increased; dismayed by an increasingly permissive society, she was terrified of the male attention attracted by Sheila’s growing beauty, and applied every kind of pressure to control her daughter’s sexuality (and her son’s, to a lesser degree). Predictably, in their teens, both rebelled against parental strictures and expectations, and struggled to live their own lives – often with painful consequences all round, including an abortion for Sheila and problems thereafter with carrying a baby to term.

The second section examines the eight months from New Year 1985 to the night of the murders, by which time Sheila’s marriage to Colin Caffell had failed and her mental health become precarious, while Jeremy tried to reconcile himself to farm work and eventually succeeding Nevill in the family business. Meanwhile, finding Sheila’s mental state hard to handle, resenting the financial aid June gave to her and the Church, he began thinking, and talking to his girlfriend, about how he might become sole inheritor of the estate. Sheila’s arrival with her sons provided the opportunity he had planned and waited for, and the section closes with a description of the family’s final hours on the evening of 4th August: an argument, causing Nevill and June to sound tense and distracted when talking on the phone; and Jeremy roaring home in his car at 9.30 pm, then phoning Julie to tell her words to the effect, ‘It’s now or never’.

Part Three picks up with Jeremy’s report to police in the early hours of Wednesday 7th August. Allegedly woken by Nevill’s panicked phone-call, abruptly cut off, Bamber rang Julie Mugford at around 3.15 am before calling local police rather than dialling 999. He then drove so slowly that the police overtook him and arrived first at the scene. According to Jeremy, he’d been afraid of what he might find – thereby removing an automatic degree of suspicion, with police to witness that he did not enter the property, find the bodies or tamper with evidence.  Based on his story, the lead officer became so focussed on the murder-suicide scenario – despite peculiarities like the two shots needed to kill Sheila – that he failed to pursue the only other obvious line of enquiry. Luckily, others kept more open minds, working with relatives and uncovering further clues until Jeremy could be arrested and charged on all five counts of murder.

The fourth and final section, from 30th September 1985 to July 2015, covers the trial. Bamber’s defence maintained that Mugford, and other prosecution witnesses who gave evidence of Jeremy’s dislike of his family, were lying, and otherwise relied on some highly doubtful speculations: that Julie Mugford, while visiting White House Farm with Jeremy, had discovered for herself a faulty window which could be locked from the outside by banging the frame; that Sheila Caffell, (only known to have fired a gun once in her life), had developed a proficiency with the murder weapon to the extent of knowing how to fit the sound-moderator, clear a jammed cartridge, and reload repeatedly under stress; that despite the debilitating effects of her medication, she entered a homicidal frenzy so unstoppable that she could overcome the wounded Nevill Bamber in a physical fight, and execute her entire family by shooting them in the head; and finally shot herself not once, but twice, in order to take her own life. Defence witnesses were obliged to concede that none of these things were impossible, no matter how unlikely they seemed individually, or how ludicrously improbable when considered all together. The jury eventually reached a majority verdict of guilty, and the remainder of this short section gives an outline of the aftermath, Jeremy Bamber’s life in prison, and his ongoing campaign for release, steadfastly proclaiming his innocence as the only means of getting what he wanted from the start: family money.

The epilogue rounds off the story with a summary of what happened next to various people whose lives were deeply affected by the tragedy, including Julie Mugford and Colin Caffell (whose impassioned plea for Bamber to remain incarcerated appears as Appendix 2), while Appendix 1 gives the best reconstruction possible, based on all the evidence and expert opinion, of the murders as carried out by Jeremy Bamber.

What the book doesn’t – and has no reason to – do is examine the alternative scenario which Bamber and his defenders would have the world believe: that while her family were sleeping, a deranged Sheila Caffell rose in the small hours, stripped naked, (explaining the absence of high-velocity blood spatter or gunshot residue on her nightgown or any other clothing), went downstairs, loaded the rifle and fitted the sound-moderator – having first put on gloves, since none of her fingerprints were found on the cartridges, and none of her long nails were broken or unduly chipped. Leaving the kitchen phone off the hook, she then crept upstairs to remove her sons from June’s baleful interference, and save her parents from the misery she felt responsible for causing. After failing to kill the adults outright, she fled downstairs and was in the midst of re-loading when Nevill staggered into the kitchen. Shot twice in the mouth and jaw, he nonetheless managed to ring Jeremy, without getting blood on the phone, to say that she had ‘gone crazy’. With the gun partially re-loaded, Sheila (a slender 5’ 7”) then got into a violent fight with her father (a robust 6’ 4”), overturning furniture and taking a gouge out of the Aga surround as she beat him around head and shoulders with the gun-barrel – all without sustaining a single detectable injury herself.

After executing Nevill then fully re-loading, she cleared a jammed cartridge on her way back upstairs, finished off June, and fired six more ‘overkill’ shots into the bodies of Nicholas and Daniel. For some unaccountable reason she then hid Nevill’s bedside phone in the kitchen, ‘ritually cleansed’ and dried herself thoroughly, put her nightwear on, and returned to her parents’ bedroom. Lying on the floor with June’s Bible beside her, she shot herself in the throat with the last bullet. The clumsy shot was not immediately fatal. Sheila recovered, removed the moderator and put it away downstairs, loaded another bullet, returned to the master bedroom, shot herself again under the chin, and died.

It seems incredible that a woman sufficiently disturbed to murder her whole family could be, at the same time, so coldly calculating – and an amazingly good shot under high-stress conditions, hitting a target with all but one bullet. Jeremy Bamber, on the other hand, had learned to shoot at school and was a proficient, experienced marksman, familiar with/having access to a murder weapon purchased at his instigation; he stood to inherit an estate worth more than £1.5 million in today’s money; and knew how to get inside the locked and bolted farmhouse at a time when all the people standing between him and a fortune were together under its roof. He therefore had more cause to lie than any witness, could easily have provoked a family argument to cause tension on the eve of the murders, and fabricated ‘Nevill’s phone-call’ to add plausibility to his account and place the blame on Sheila.

His guilt seems inescapable when Lee’s book is read in conjunction with one of her primary sources, Colin Caffell’s moving memoir In Search of the Rainbow’s End. Like Lee’s book, this is divided into chronological sections, although Caffell’s boundaries are looser and his narrative flows back and forth in time between chapters. In Search opens with forewords from the two editions, (1994 and 2020), and a prologue summarising his early life, meeting and love affair with ‘Bambs’, and impressions of her parents. Part One then begins on 7th August 1984 with the immediate aftermath of the murders, and Caffell’s painful recollections of the last time he saw his ex-wife and sons: Sheila medicated and monosyllabic, vegetarian Daniel afraid of being scolded for not eating his meat, both twins anxious about being forced to kneel and pray – and both so desperate not to be left at White House Farm that they seem to have had premonitions of disaster. A second short section covering the lead-up to Bamber’s arrest describes Jeremy’s grossly inappropriate behaviour, sniggering over (then trying to sell to a tabloid) explicit nude photographs of his late sister, and stripping out the twins’ room in her flat/dumping the contents into bin-bags instead of offering their father the chance to carry out such a sensitive task. Caffell endured the further pain of seeing Sheila’s name dragged through the gutter press with wild and lurid speculation, then the sickening discovery that he had been deceived and bereaved by Jeremy, the brother-in-law who once callously referred to his beloved boys as ‘millstones round his neck.’ The third section continues the story of Colin’s life with and without Sheila, as he strove to come to terms with his overwhelming loss and gradually reached a place of spiritual calm and deep philosophical acceptance. Reserved, ladylike June Bamber emerges as a terrifying ‘house monster’ in a series of disturbing drawings – only described by Lee, but reproduced here – by Daniel Caffell, to illustrate a (sadly forgotten) story. The twins loved, but were also clearly frightened of their grandmother, disliked her preaching and forcing them to pray, and were upset by her distorted mind-set which perceived their naked bodies as ‘dirty’, and the innocent fun of their bathing together as ‘sinful.’ Colin Caffell’s observations flesh out his son’s portrait of a repressed, unhappy woman feverishly pursuing good works to the detriment of her family and health, to atone for her own sterility and the sins of her adopted children; furiously puritanical and beset by harsh concepts of sin and punishment; frequently cruel and manipulative towards Sheila; and unhealthily preoccupied, to the point of obsession, with controlling the sexuality of others while Nevill stood by, a hapless pig-in-the-middle. The toxic emotions Caffell experienced within this ostensibly ‘normal’ middle-class family make it easier to understand why White House Farm became the breeding-ground for a psychosis which resulted in such appalling tragedy. The last two brief sections tie up loose ends, and conclude on a positive note with Colin Caffell, having come through his traumatic ordeal as a stronger, wiser, more deeply enlightened and compassionate person, now happily remarried and established in Cornwall as a successful sculptor and ceramic artist.

Because Caffell writes from personal knowledge rather than objective journalism, his book fills in gaps and answers questions left by Lee. Two highly significant revelations are the reason for Nevill Bamber’s uncharacteristically low mood towards the end of his life, and why he began putting his affairs in order: he feared that Jeremy planned to kill him in a ‘hunting accident’, and may have been compiling a dossier of supporting evidence to present to police; and an anecdote from someone who saw Jeremy trying (and failing) to persuade Sheila to load the new rifle, presumably to get her fingerprints on the ammunition, a clear indication of pre-meditated, first-degree murder (subjects omitted from the trial as hearsay or too prejudicial). Subsequent spiritual revelations suggest that Nevill feared only for himself, not suspecting that other family members were also in danger of death; and whether or not one believes in communication with the spirit world, this is entirely consistent with Nevill’s reported actions and state of mind during his last months.

The combined effect of these two fine publications leaves me firmly convinced that Jeremy Bamber is guilty of the murders at White House Farm. I find it impossible to believe that Sheila Caffell was mentally or physically capable of doing half the extraordinary things she must have done in the murder-suicide scenario – and given the way it was staged, there is only one other viable suspect. However, I’m equally convinced that Bamber has suppressed the memory of his crimes to such an extent that he genuinely believes himself innocent – the comforting fantasy to which he must cling in the hope of release and recompense for thirty-five years of wrongful imprisonment. In this respect he is like Myra Hindley, unable to accept that the only path to rehabilitation and release is full confession, co-operation, demonstrable remorse, and efforts to atone; and I trust that as long as he persists in this futile denial, he will stay locked up where he belongs.   

REFERENCES:

Caffell, Colin, In Search of the Rainbow’s End, Hodder & Stoughton, 2020

Lee, Carol Ann, The Murders at White House Farm, Pan Books, 2020

Plastic Pollution: how one household can make a difference

Once upon a time, the weekly supermarket shop often sent me into meltdown. The weird woman sobbing in her car on Asda car-park, or on her front drive the second she got her ton of bags-for-life home? Yup, that was me. I never quite fathomed why it upset me so badly…  that is, until Hubcap and I ‘woke’ to the issues of plastic pollution, palm oil, and the havoc that gross over-consumption is wreaking on the planet (not to mention human health).

So, determined to reduce the amount of non-recyclable packaging we used and the amount of palm oil we ate, we did a shopping review.  As committed long-term micro-consumers and recyclers, we’d always felt pretty smug about our frugal housekeeping and wholesome, largely home-cooked diet; but that soon changed to horrified shame when we realised what bad habits we’d fallen into, the staggering amounts of palm oil we were inadvertently ingesting, and the equally staggering amounts of avoidable waste we were generating, week in and week out. For instance, we’d developed a routine of Tuesday Kit-kats and Friday night treats consisting of a bag of crisps or nachos and a confectionery bar  each; and since discovering Hubcap’s gluten sensitivity, had both become addicted to ready-made gluten-free cakes and biscuits, (essential high-calorie additions to the snap-tin of a labouring bloke) – much of it laden with palm oil and wasteful packaging.  For our lunch sandwiches, I bought tubs of hummus and packs of sliced deli meats, plus disposable bags to put them in, supplemented by individually-wrapped and boxed fruit/nut/cereal bars, multi-mini-packs of raisins, ‘shot’ tubes of nuts and seeds, and individual bags of pulse- or corn-based savouries.  Around the house, we routinely used plastic bottles of hand-wash/cream and body-wash; and I’d  taken to buying those seductively convenient disposable wipes for the kitchen and bathroom, (even flushed some of the supposedly flushable ones down the loo). And so it went on…

Gulp. At least now, having recognised the extent of the problem, we could do something about it – PDQ. The first, and simplest decision, was to kick out all the palm oil. That knocked a huge range of items off my shopping list in one fell swoop: almost all the big-name confectionery products, breads, gluten-free baked goods, cereals, margarine, solid vegetable fats and gravy granules, to name but a few. It was well worth making lifestyle changes to eliminate this noxious, environmentally-damaging substance from our diet; I duly switched back to good old butter and lard wrapped in paper or foil, and made time in my schedule for baking. Ever since, instead of plastic-packed, mass-produced stuff containing a list of additives as long as your arm, we eat flapjacks, biscuits, scones and buns freshly-made from a handful of traditional, wholesome ingredients – much cheaper, better tasting, better for us, and makes the house smell like heaven!

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Then, bidding a sad farewell to our beloved Nakd and Palaeo bars, we kicked out all the individual packaging. I bought plastic containers for lunch-box portions decanted from single large packs of salted nuts/pulses, dried fruits and unsalted nuts, jumbo tubs of yoghurt and so on; made my own hummus using fresh lemon and garlic, and chickpeas and oil from recyclable containers; and substituted childhood favourites like Spam, potted beef and Sandwich Spread in tins and glass jars for the plastic-encased sliced meats (I find a single tin of thinly-sliced Spam does us for a whole week’s butties). To eke out my home-baking, I made delicious, economical and relatively healthy rice puddings, jellies with home-grown berries or tinned fruit, and chocolate blancmange from semi-skimmed milk, cornflour, sugar and Fairtrade cocoa powder. To our mutual surprise and delight, I discovered that baking gluten-free bread is a piece of cake, (so to speak), with results infinitely superior to – and far cheaper than – the dry, cloying, badly-mixed mass-produced brands. I religiously saved all film and polythene bags for re-use as sandwich wrap, bit-bin liners or when I went shopping for loose fruit and veg, (the latter supplemented by as much organic produce as we can grow or glean). Instead of taking away, we took to dining in the restaurant (more fun and less washing up); and for our regular Saturday ‘convenience’ stir-fry, I substituted hand-chopped loose veg for packs of ready-shredded, dried rice noodles (two servings apiece in a small packet) for fresh noodles (one serving apiece in a large pack), and sauces in glass jars (or home-made) for plastic sachets – and by doing so, found I could make two nights’ dinner for the price of one. Even Henry Wowler did his bit, happily switching from plastic pouches, expensive (and useless) ‘lite’ biscuits in a plastic sack, and plastic-bottled spring water, to tinned cat food, bog-standard biscuits in paper sacks, and rainwater from the water-butt (when he’s not drinking soiled muck out of the bird-bath, that is). The garden birds were also happy to help by changing from commercial to home-made fat blocks (lard, flour, crushed peanuts/sunflower hearts/mealworms and nyger seed, melted together and poured into plastic moulds saved from the mass-produced versions)!

Around the house, we’ve gone back to paper-wrapped soap and old-fashioned washable flannels and dish-cloths, with coir or loofah scrubbing pads to replace synthetic sponges; and are phasing out toiletries in plastic bottles or aerosol cans in favour of solid shampoo bars, eco-friendly deodorant sticks in cardboard tubes, tooth-powder in glass jars, hand-cream in tins, bamboo toothbrushes, and traditional razors with disposable/recyclable metal blades. For the laundry, I abandoned plastic bottles of eco-liquid and invested in an Eco-Egg containing mineral pellets, supplemented by a small amount of washing powder in an economy-size cardboard box (lasts at least a year) for large or heavily-soiled loads; I also wash some small loads by hand using old-fashioned soap flakes. As for the washing up: we don’t (and never will) have any dishwasher except our own hands, which now use concentrated eco-liquids we dilute in re-usable bottles, or solid dish-washing soap.

And lo! Within a week, our household waste output fell by two-thirds, thanks solely to a little more thought and planning and some minor housekeeping adjustments. I saved so much money by making more vegetarian and vegan dishes from scratch, and cutting out plastic/palm-oil infested snacks and unnecessary disposables like the ubiquitous wet-wipes, that we could afford to buy pricier eco-products, occasional treats like quality Fairtrade chocolate wrapped in paper/tinfoil and local free-range meat, and get milk and juice delivered by a milkman – thereby supporting local farmers and reducing our waste even more. (It’s wonderfully encouraging to hear that milkmen are making a huge comeback everywhere, with a correspondingly huge drop in our national consumption of plastic bottles and tetra-packs).

The other instant result: no more crying in the car-park.  The weekly supermarket trawl immediately turned into an interesting (if often frustrating) challenge, rather than a depressing burden, a satisfying lifestyle hobby of seeking ever more ways to reduce our carbon footprint, and shop more ethically and sustainably. Although we’re still far from zero-waste, I’m thrilled and amazed by how much we’ve achieved over the past three years for very little effort and no real sacrifice; I don’t even miss former favourite chocolates, Nutella and biscuits – in fact now I’m ‘woke’ to their flavour of orang-utan blood, rain-forest smoke, the sweat of child slave-labour and the tears of indigenous peoples, I find them more repellent than tempting.

Best of all, it’s not rocket science. Although the compromises involved in making the most ethical shopping choices are often highly complex, you can make a massive difference to your consumption/waste output simply by reverting to traditional ingredients in minimal/recyclable packaging, and doing things in traditional ways (like carrying a re-usable container of squash instead of buying a can or bottle of soft drink every time you go out!).

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And to illustrate just how massive that difference can be, I’ve quantified these examples of plastic packaging our small household now saves per annum:

Cat: 365 pouches, 12 sacks, 12 bottles = 389 items

Birds: c. 300 fat-block trays

Chocolate/confectionery: c. 100 Kit-kat/200 other wrappers = 300 items

Savoury snacks: c. 400 crisp, nacho and ‘shot’ packets

Sweet snack bars: c. 1000 packets

Ready-made hummus; c. 100 tubs

Margarine: c. 12 tubs

Deli: c. 150 meat packs/50 pate tubs = 200 items

Individual yoghurt/dessert pots: c. 500

Gluten-free biscuit/cake trays: c. 100

Gluten-free bread bags: c. 75

Takeaway containers: c. 50

Stir-frys: c. 50 sachets/100 bags = 150 items

Shampoo bottles; c. 10

Toothpaste tubes: c. 12

Hand/body wash or lotion bottles: c. 30

Wet-wipes: c. 24 packets/1000 wipes = 1024 items

Synthetic sponges: c. 50

Laundry liquid bottles: c. 10

Washing up liquid bottles: c. 10

Milk bottles: c. 120

Grand total: c. 4842 items

Whew!  That’s a lot of wheelie-bin-loads. So if you loathe wasteful consumerism as much as we do, take heart: you could make many of these improvements too, with or without the support of your nearest and dearest. And next time someone says, ‘Oh, there’s no point making an effort, one person can’t make any difference’, you can respectfully contradict them by sharing this blog!

 

Shadow King: the Life and Death of Henry VI

Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI by Lauren Johnson
Head of Zeus Publications, 2020, paperback, 700 pages, £12.00
ISBN 978-1784-979645

Henry VI has gone down in history as one of England’s worst kings. Not for being cruel or despotic; on the contrary, his nature was kindly and pliant, peace-loving and deeply devout – qualities that made him likeable as a person but hopeless as a monarch, a faint wavering shadow of his shrewd, martial father. His life would have been very different, and he may have become a better ruler, had he grown to manhood under the guidance of Henry V, this perfect model of the medieval warrior-statesman. Instead, by the latter’s untimely death in 1422 with his French kingdom far from pacified, the infant Henry only received the dire legacy of an unwinnable war, and perpetual bitter conflict between members of his family over the implementation of the late king’s will and their respective powers on the minority council.

Such is the context for the opening chapters of Lauren Johnson’s sympathetic new study, which sets out to ‘explore Henry VI as an evolving individual struggling in an extraordinary situation. In short, to consider him as a man.’ Recently released in paperback, Shadow King is a handsome volume, illustrated with 24 colour plates, family trees of the Houses of Lancaster, Beaufort and York, and three helpful maps, (France 1415 – 53; Wars of the Roses battles 1455 – 71; and 15th century noble landholding in England and Wales).

The well-referenced text falls into logical sections: Henry’s minority 1422 – 37; adult rule to 1453, including his marriage to Margaret of Anjou; political and mental breakdown, culminating in his deposition by Edward IV at Towton in 1461; his fugitive years, short-lived re-adeption, and eventual fate in the Tower of London. A brief ‘Afterlife’ and epilogue conclude the sad, strange stories of this unfortunate king and his queen, followed by two appendices, ‘Where did Henry VI die?’ and ‘Key Characters’, 68 pages of notes, and an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Stylistically, some passages read like an historical novel: ‘The inky waters of the River Thames rippled and slid beneath the wherrymen’s oars. In places the peaks of the waves glistened, light falling from the windows of Winchester Palace as bursts of laughter and music echoed out.’ (Page 45). Such imaginative touches bring the text to life for many readers, although my own preference is for Johnson’s straight prose, which I found admirably clear and refreshing. Why gild the lily?

As for content, I particularly enjoyed the first two sections. Johnson makes excellent use of some seldom-used sources to paint a convincing, detailed picture of Henry’s early life. Her exposition of the complex political situations in England and France, (riven by its own civil war between the Armagnacs and Burgundians), and the equally complex personal war between Henry’s kinsmen, is lucid and easy to follow; and she offers some perceptive analyses of the likely effects on an impressionable child of having to perform the rituals of royalty surrounded by such constant conflict and tension. Theoretically wielding absolute power but practically powerless to control his feuding councillors, it’s no wonder that Henry grew up hating discord, and wishing only to please and appease the people closest to him, emotionally or literally.

However, as the story moved into more familiar territory, I felt some disappointment. Plainly no fan of Richard, Duke of York, Johnson gives short shrift to his justifiable reasons for expecting a primary place on Henry’s council/in his confidence, and justifiable chagrin at being passed over for lesser men. York’s assumption of pre-eminence was based on his royal pedigree: descended from the second and fifth sons of Edward III via his mother and father respectively, he was one of England’s wealthiest magnates with a claim to the throne arguably stronger than Henry’s. This was not lost upon the king’s beloved Beaufort kin, a legitimated line sprung from John, Duke of Lancaster’s affair with Kathryn Swynford, who, (along with sundry other jealous rivals), persistently undermined York in Henry’s malleable affections. Had Henry managed to keep his powerful cousin on-side, the Wars of the Roses might never have happened; instead, he progressively alienated York, and wounded his pride, by showing an unfair and obvious partiality for the base-born Beauforts . It seems a shame that Johnson doesn’t extend her even-handed approach to Duke Richard, or treat him as another ‘evolving individual struggling in an extraordinary situation’ who, no less than Henry VI, deserves to be viewed ‘as a man’ trying to do his best for his country, his family and himself.

I was also disappointed by the brief, conventional accounts of the battles of Wakefield and Towton, the great Lancastrian victory followed shortly by the catastrophic defeat which cost Henry his crown, changing his life – and the course of English history – forever. In a work of this magnitude, it’s inevitable that some areas will be less well researched than others; nonetheless, for such a crucial episode, it was frustrating to see some old Wakefield myths perpetuated and enlarged. Like other commentators unfamiliar with the place, Johnson describes Sandal Castle as ‘majestic’ when, as castles go, it’s quite small (Sandal would fit inside the truly majestic Pontefract Castle several times over) and utilitarian. Interestingly, the ‘meagre’ household expenditure of £4 6s 7d for the Christmas – New Year period is cited to show that the castle was poorly provisioned, whereas to me it says precisely the opposite: it was already so well provisioned that little further spending was required. (I say ‘little,’ but the sum in question represents around 18 months – three years’ pay for a labourer, or six months’ pay for a liveried archer – it’s all relative!). This debatable interpretation is then used to present a version of the battle of Wakefield which simply doesn’t make sense: York, Salisbury, Rutland and their men, driven by hunger to hunt in the deer-park ‘north of the River Calder,’ ambushed by the Lancastrian army and slaughtered. Said deer park wasn’t just north of the river – it was the Outwood, some three miles north of Sandal and two miles north of Wakefield city, with its chantry chapel of St Mary perched on the Calder bridge; an unnecessarily long way to go when Sandal Castle had its own deer-park to the south, literally on its threshold, and miles of nearby river for fishing and wild-fowl hunting. (For my personal take on the battle, see http://www.helencox-herstorywriting.co.uk/publications/4539280721 ) I also found her treatment of Towton somewhat superficial, and lacking reference to more recent studies such as those by George Goodwin and Tim Sutherland.

Suffice to say, if I wasn’t such a pro-Yorkist anorak about this period in Wars of the Roses history, these criticisms wouldn’t have occurred, and I would have read the whole book with the same relish as I devoured the earlier sections! So, on the whole, I’m happy to recommend Shadow King as a worthwhile read, an enthralling tragedy which left me moved and thoughtful, and which will make a valuable addition to my bookshelves.

Amazingly Fat Cat

This week saw our Henry Wowler’s least-favourite day of the year: the day he gets poked about by a stranger then jabbed in the neck. Yes, it’s annual medical time!

We heaved his cat-basket into the van with considerable effort, braced for a scolding about his heaviness; and in the vet’s waiting room I read a poster, ‘How to Tell if Your Cat’s Overweight.’ Can’t feel its ribs? Check. Saggy dewlap? Check. Lack of interest in playing? Check – sort of. As soon as Henry learnt to kill things, he went off toys, although he still enjoys savaging his Christmas catnip mouse, playing ‘knock on the patio window then run away when they open it,’ and chasing the odd leaf or twig round the garden; but on the whole, if it doesn’t bleed, he deems it not worth bothering with. Lazy and lethargic – um, how do you tell with a creature that spends 18 out of 24 hours asleep?

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With Wowler, it depends on the weather, (when it’s fine, he spends more time outdoors doing cat stuff ), and whether anyone’s at home, (Mummy and Daddy-cat’s arrival means dinner, irrespective of how early we finish work – cue for him to wake and start prowling round hassling for food). So no check here – I’d call him averagely active for a cat of his age and temperament. Hesitates before jumping up onto furniture? Check. Mind you, Henry does like to consider the pros and cons – often at some length – before he acts, to avoid any taint of slavish obedience when invited to jump on the bed or onto Mummy-cat’s lap for a cuddle. I’m not sure if that counts as ‘hesitation’ – he’s perfectly capable of jumping without it when the occasion demands, and agile enough to make a standing leap onto the kitchen worktops (attested by the trail of small muddy rosettes I find after rainy nights). And he still has a visible (if substantial) waist, and no problems with flexibility or grooming his hard-to-reach areas. How overweight can he be?

We soon find out – 6.9 kilos! Amazingly, despite receiving exactly the same diet all year – a half-tin of meat and two handfuls of biscuit a day, plus his ration of toothy-bics (ie the dental-care type) – he’s gained 500g since his last weigh-in. Oops. Henry Wowler is, once again, officially Too Heavy; although to my great relief, he hasn’t topped his highest weight of 7.2 kg, recorded three years ago. But despite being a big, solid cat, he should weigh nearer six than seven kilos; so we discuss his intake with the vet, who recommends that I weigh the handfuls and cut back to no more than 30g of dry food per day.

OK. Next morning I duly chuck two heaping handfuls onto the scale, nervously wondering how much we’ve been over-feeding him. It weighs 35g. In other words, the absolute maximum he’d get on the rare days he succeeds in whingeing extra breakfast out of Mummy-cat and conning his bedtime biscuits out of both cat-parents, is a paltry 5g more than the vet’s recommendation. I reduce it to 25g, which looks more like his average daily portion. Phew. I’m delighted that we generally give him less than the recommended 30g – but amazed that, notwithstanding, he’s still managed to put on a pound. How did that happen?

Um. I guiltily recall the odd scraps of Spam or chicken he gets off our plates; doesn’t happen often, but that’ll have to stop – as will giving him any chance to steal scraps I put out for the birds. Plus I suspect he recently went through a phase of pinching a feline neighbour’s food, because he kept coming home in the afternoon looking smug and suspiciously fat, (but still demanding his usual dinner). Luckily, if that was the case, I think the neighbour must’ve got wise and either stopped leaving food outside, or started locking the cat-flap when they feed their own cat. And we can’t control the number of rodents he pogs overnight, (or even necessarily know about it, unless he leaves bloody remnants in the kitchen) – but however good the hunting, it never stops him demanding his full daily ration of cat-food. (Perhaps he thinks mice contain no calories, like chocolate eaten in secret).

Whatever, the upshot for Henry Wowler is no more unscheduled treats, and no more than a measured 25g biscuit and 12 toothy-bics with his meat every day. I’ll also try to make him run about a bit more, (although that only seems to sharpen his appetite). Then I’ll keep my fingers crossed that when we take him to have his teeth cleaned in the New Year, the vet will find our amazingly fat cat has shed a few ounces…

Animal Costumes = Animal Abuse!

Imagine I have a small child who can’t communicate with me verbally, or prevent me from physically abusing them. Imagine I buy that child a hot, uncomfortable, ludicrous comedy costume for my personal entertainment. Imagine I force it onto the child’s body, and when they wriggle and struggle and cry, I say, ‘Oh, never mind, you’ll soon get used to it.’ Imagine I then take photos of their baffled, miserable little face, or videos of them struggling to move around in said ludicrous costume. Imagine I splatter these all over social media, inviting the whole world to mock and laugh at my child, and inspiring others to torment their own helpless children in similar fashion.

What would you think of that? You would, I hope, be horrified and disgusted, report me to social services, get my child removed to safety, and me banged up in prison.

Now substitute the word ‘pet’ for ‘child,’ and suddenly it’s all OK. ‘Oh, how cute, how funny, how precious!’ you may cry when you see images of unfortunate pets suffering in ludicrous costumes. ‘Just look at the expression on its face! Oh, I must share this with all my friends! I must torment my cat/dog/hamster with one of these ludicrous costumes so I can get lots of likes on Facebook and YouTube!’

Well, you certainly won’t get any ‘likes’ from me – in fact, if costuming pets to make them a laughing-stock is your idea of fun, I want nothing to do with you. I deplore, loathe and detest this stupid fad. It may be pretty low down on the continuum of grotesque cruelties humans inflict on animals every minute of every day; nonetheless, it is a cruelty, part of a mind-set that believes animals exist purely for our pleasure and entertainment, so it’s fine to do whatever we want to them irrespective of the effects on their well-being.

Don’t get me wrong: I completely approve of clothing and/or shoeing animals when it’s necessary for their warmth or protection, or as part of their work. But this silly, growing dressing-up trend has nothing to do with animal welfare, and everything to do with human whimsy and fundamental misunderstanding of animal needs and rights.

For instance, yesterday I was particularly appalled to see a Hallowe’en costume for cats that makes them look like a giant spider. Sure, on the most superficial level it does look very funny, and lets you play hilarious practical jokes on people; but if you stop to think from the cat’s point of view, it’s a total disaster. Even if the cat is placid and doesn’t overtly object, once it’s been put in this costume, it’s stuck. It can’t scratch if it gets itchy. It can’t groom without choking on synthetic fibres. It can’t remove the ludicrous costume when it gets too hot. And if (like the cats in the advertising video) it’s allowed to go out and about, it’s in constant danger of getting caught up, injured or killed – especially if someone freaks out at the sight and attacks it. What a great Hallowe’en decoration: your cat-tarantula kicked to death on the street outside your house, or dangling, strangled, from a tree in your garden – just imagine how your kids would love it!

No. Animals are animals, not small furry people; they deserve to be respected and treated according to their nature, not hurt and held up to ridicule. Animals don’t want, don’t understand, and seldom need, clothing. Animals don’t ‘get into the spirit’ of human festivals; they don’t understand what’s going on, and are more likely to be frightened or agitated than to enjoy wearing a festive sweater or having a pair of foam reindeer antlers strapped to their head. They don’t understand – nor do humans who dress up their pets understand, or apparently ever stop to think – that apart from being uncomfortable, these ludicrous costumes are terribly dangerous, that they can catch on objects, or brush against candles/heaters and burst into flame. Imagine how well that’d go down at your birthday party: a terrified, agonized cat in a blazing tutu doing the wall of death round your lounge, or your dog’s elf costume snagging on the Christmas tree and pulling it down in a great smash of baubles on top of itself and your children.

And I don’t understand why anyone would wish to torture a beloved animal companion by inflicting this kind of thing on them. Animals are, in their own right, beautiful, cute and frequently very amusing; they need no artificial embellishment. As readers of my blogs and Facebook posts will know,  I love to share the doings of our Henry Wowler with the world, and many people seem to enjoy hearing about them – but it’s all his own, pure feline behaviour while he is, and always will be, dressed only in his own fur (oh, and a microchip, the only thing we’ve ever succeeded in making him wear – he won’t even tolerate a collar). I mean, look at him: I wouldn’t dream of insulting such a perfect being, demeaning his natural dignity, or making him unhappy/uncomfortable, by forcing him to wear some ludicrous costume for foolish people to laugh at.

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Last but not least are the environmental considerations. While our planet is on fire and we’re facing a massive global climate crisis, pet clothing companies are wasting untold resources of energy, water, petroleum by-products etc on producing this pointless, non-biodegradable novelty tat for people with more money than sense. It’s the kind of consumerism that has GOT to stop if humanity, collectively, wishes to survive into the next century.

So I implore you: please, please, if you care about your pets, don’t dress them up! Boycott these harmful, wasteful products, delete images of them from social media, and discourage other people from buying them. If you’ve got that sort of money to spare, give it to an animal welfare charity instead – and do join me in campaigning to at least raise awareness of the dangers and undesirability of pet dressing, and at best, getting these horrible products taken off the market altogether.

‘Green Gardening’: My Top Five Tips!

When I was a child in the 1960’s, gardening was, literally, a very green activity. Every summer weekend, every suburban neighbourhood would buzz with the quiet shirring sound of manual lawnmowers, and the gentle snip-snip of hand-shears as hedges were cut and shrubs pruned – the pleasant, soothing sounds of gardeners using only their own muscles,  with the days of deafening power tools still lying well in the future.

Of course, the advent of petrol-driven mowers and leaf-blowers, petrol or electric hedge-cutters, strimmers  and so forth was a great time-saving boon for folk who were busy, had big gardens to care for – or, like us, worked as professional gardeners. Despite our eco-aspirations, we often can’t afford not to use these noisy, smelly machines, otherwise we couldn’t get through our workload in the allotted time – customers don’t want to pay for the extra hours it would take to do everything by hand.

However, we’ve made progress in greening our gardening business, thanks largely to technological improvements which have brought a whole range of excellent battery-powered machines onto the market. Our first such acquisition was ‘Little Red,’ a Mountfield domestic lawnmower with a folding handle I can carry in my hatchback. All plastic, with no engine to break down or need annual servicing, it only weighs as much as a bag of shopping, making it easy to manoeuvre around fiddly garden features; it’s so quiet that I don’t need ear-defenders, gives a lovely cut, and has enough juice to mow all the lawns of a standard council-house garden if the grass is dry (cutting wet and/or very long grass uses more power).

Once you’ve enjoyed the convenience of battery, you never want to go back to noise, petrol fumes or awkward, dangerous electrical cables again. We duly bought ‘Little Hedgey,’ a Mountfield domestic hedge-cutter with an even longer-lasting battery, and most recently, ‘Big E-GO,’ (see below), a superbly-designed professional-grade mower for bigger lawns. These user-friendly lightweight machines are all future-proofing for our ageing, aching bodies, and environmentally-friendly too,  (the batteries only cost about six pence to fully re-charge, and will cost us and the planet nothing when we finally get round to installing solar panels).

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We’re also doing what we can in response to climate change and the worrying decline in biodiversity and insect biomass. Last year’s severe drought prompted us to install more water-butts and encourage customers to do likewise; and on our smallholding, Hubcap dug a cistern to hold over 2000 litres of rainwater – enough to keep our orchard alive through several dry months, trapped in the ground by a thick layer of turf and hay mulch round all the trees. This magic mulch also supports the micro-organisms needed for healthy soil, and, supplemented by un-mowed strips of ‘beetle bank’ in the orchard and numerous areas on site left to grow wild, provides habitat for a great range of insects including crickets, grasshoppers, and many varieties of butterfly and moth.

Contrary to popular belief, Lepidoptera need more than just flower-nectar to feed on, they need long grass to live in (making me feel like a vast home-wrecking juggernaut every time I mow a lawn). Unfortunately, even green gardening often disturbs, and sometimes destroys, this small fauna; but in view of their drastic reduction  in numbers, we try hard not to hurt them, never kill anything deliberately, and are forever rescuing stray worms and snails from our paths, involuntary swimmers from bird-baths, and cold, exhausted bees. We extend this policy to the house, too, where no insect has been sprayed or swatted (except by the cat) for the past several years – we’ve even perfected methods of ushering unwelcome flies out.

Encouraging insects and invertebrates pays tremendous dividends. By going organic, planting insect-friendly flowers, and putting up ‘bug hotels,’ we’ve turned our small garden into a fruitful, self-supporting eco-system complete with biological controls for pests . We don’t need or use slug pellets because we have at least one resident hedgehog to gobble them up; wasps and small birds eat our aphids; and our apple trees are beautifully pest-free thanks to the jam-jar full of ladybirds we collected round the house over winter, put to hibernate properly in the cold dark loft, and released onto each tree in the spring. Our tiny, gin-clear pond on the smallholding is filtered only by a fresh-water mussel, naturally oxygenated by aquatic plants, rainfall and an occasional top-up from the water-butt, and any mosquito larvae in it are devoured by amphibian tadpoles and a large fat stickleback. Meanwhile Henry Wowler deals with the rodents, although his unfortunate tendency to bring live ones in through the cat-flap causes us more mouse problems than it solves.

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As for weeds, where we can, we tolerate – even enjoy. I hate mowing out dandelions, buttercups, daisies and red or white clover – they add such colour and jollity to a lawn, as well as feeding our precious pollinators. Plenty more so-called weeds, like purple loosestrife, could be considered perfectly attractive wildflowers, and are frequently useful – for example, dandelion leaves can be eaten in salads or used to brew a diuretic tea, while young tender stinging nettles, boiled, make a tasty, iron-rich substitute for spinach. Where we can’t tolerate them, we hand-weed or hoe if possible; or in the last resort, break off flowering heads before applying weed-killer to minimise the risk of poisoning pollinators. (I still have some weed-infested patches I can’t bear to treat because they’re so full of insects).

Altogether, this gentle, holistic approach to our business makes us feel we’re doing as much as possible to protect and improve the small parts of the world we directly control, working to minimise our negative impact and maximise the positive – with some very heartening results. Our own garden and smallholding are veritable nature reserves, where we regularly find plants, insects and birds we’ve either not seen for years, or never seen before. The endangered hedgehog is thriving in the gardens of numerous neighbours and customers; the rain has brought back goodly numbers of worms, slugs and snails, and made all vegetation grow hugely – a refreshingly verdant contrast to last year, and a great boost for carbon capture!

More than ever before, in these perilous times, our fragile planet needs gardens and gardeners. Green gardening plays a crucial role in providing habitat for threatened wildlife , cool shade to help us withstand heatwave summers, vital soakaway ground to absorb extreme rainfall, compost to nourish the soil and its organisms, a bounty of fresh, organic, plastic-free produce literally on our doorsteps – and in the process, absorbs countless tons of atmospheric pollution. Cumulatively, the world’s gardens make a gigantic difference to the environment; and between Brexit and climate change, gardening is surely the best occupation or hobby to have – because in the not-too-distant future, we may all be forced to conserve every drop of water, and grow as much food as we can, to reduce pressure on resources  and avert shortages and rationing. So I’ll close with five of my favourite ‘green gardening’ tips to prepare for the challenges ahead – get out there and enjoy!

  1. First and Foremost: Do It! Gardening is wonderfully therapeutic, as healthy for you as it is for Planet Earth. Even if you have no outdoor space at all, you can still enjoy seasonal flowers and a vegetable garden: spring bulbs, miniature roses, geraniums, cress, radishes, bean-sprouts, herbs and chili peppers all do well in pots on a window ledge or other suitable location.  Window-boxes, hanging baskets, tubs by the doorstep and climbers on trellis make a lovely display on terraced houses whose fronts open directly onto the street, as do container plants on apartment balconies, and all provide welcome nectar sources for urban insects. With a little imagination and the right sort of plants for the conditions, any outdoor space, no matter how small or unpromising, can be turned into a beautiful living asset to your home. For instance, our back garden is the smallest on the estate, yet we still find room for a fig tree, a grape-vine, raspberry canes, a salad bed, assorted herbs, a greenhouse for tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers , a twisted hazel, various flowers and shrubs, a small lawn, and a patio with numerous container plants – as well as a shed, two water-butts, and a wood-store. As a result, it’s a riot of colour, alive with birds, bees and bugs, (and bats by night); full of interest all year round, and an absolute joy to sit in or enjoy through the window.
  2. Shun Artificial Grass! The antithesis of green gardening, this horrible product is as bad for wildlife and the environment as it is for people, and inferior to the real thing in every way. Living grass remains cool even in baking hot weather, an important consideration as we face increasingly extreme summers; it absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen through photosynthesis, improving air quality; and, of course, it supports a huge range of organisms. The fake stuff is completely devoid of, indeed discourages, any sort of life; it photo-degrades into micro-plastics to pollute the air, soil and ground-water; and it can become dangerously hot, reaching temperatures in excess of 50 degrees Celsius under strong sun – enough to give first degree burns to your children or pets when they go out to play on it, and I won’t be surprised if it’s banned for domestic use within the next five years due to injury claims. So if you want to enjoy your lawn safely in the midst of a heatwave, either stick with real grass, or find a sympathetic, natural alternative to plastic, like bark chippings or a different ground-cover plant. Camomile lawns, for instance, don’t need mowing, produce pretty white flowers you can use to make camomile tea, and give off a heavenly scent when you walk across them. If maintenance is your big issue with real grass, forget about trying to achieve a weed-free billiard table and embrace informality: only mow every two to three weeks, and appreciate the daisies and pretty yellow miniature chrysanthemums  (as the bees surely will). Longer grass looks attractively natural, is much better for carbon capture, and much healthier for the grass itself – our lawn stayed green, and blessedly cool to walk on, throughout last year’s brutal summer simply because it had missed a cut before the drought really hit, whereas short, newly-mowed lawns fried to a crisp in no time and took months to recover. Further lessen the workload and enhance the effect by leaving uncut wildlife areas; tall waving grasses and flowering weeds look delightful, especially if you toss in a wildflower seed mix, and make a great haven for butterflies, moths and beetles. DSCN5344And for the ultimate in lawn-labour-saving, ditch your old, cumbersome mower and switch to a battery model. They’re cheaper to run than petrol or mains electric, light enough for a child to use, and make grass-cutting a positive pleasure (the fragrance! the nice stripy effect! the satisfaction of a job well done!) – not to mention good healthy fresh-air exercise. How can nasty plastic compete with that?!
  3. Have As Many Water Butts As You Reasonably Can. Rainwater might be a renewable resource but it’s an unpredictable one, as we saw last year to great cost – yet still we take this vital asset for granted and squander it in disgraceful quantity. So it’s prudent to future-proof against drought by maximising your rainwater catchment, whether in water-butts or sunken tanks – it’ll help keep your garden alive in the event of severe shortages and water rationing.
  4. Encourage Biodiversity. Mother Nature really needs a big helping hand, so plant your garden to provide year-round shelter and food – nectar, berries and seeds -for as many creatures as possible. Around ours, as well as front and side hedges, big ivies, and several  trees or large shrubs where birds can nest, we’ve put up bird-boxes and a wren-pot, plus a hedgehog box and several bug-hotels. And since Hubcap was so surprised and delighted to see swifts back on the estate this summer, for Christmas he’s asked for two swift bricks which our neighbour will install in our gable wall in return for a brick for his own house. Then with any luck, next year the swifts will spot these new nesting sites and set up a little colony – or if they don’t, we’ll buy a swift-call lure to entice them! We also provide year-round fresh water and good-quality food: for the birds, sunflower hearts, mealworms, fat blocks and fat balls (always in a proper feeder, never the individual plastic nets in which they can become entangled and die), and Spike’s semi-moist pellets for the hedgehog. Meat-based cat or dog food does just as well, but never give hedgehogs milk, (they’re lactose intolerant and it can kill them), bread, or mealworms, (which prevent them from absorbing vital nutrients). The result? We’re blessed with a miniature Garden of Eden, teeming with wildlife great and small. The downside? Blackbirds pinch our soft fruit, mice gnaw our best hessian sacks, and there’s bird-splat (spectacularly purple in elderberry season) and hog-poop everywhere – but we wouldn’t have it any other way. We feel privileged to help struggling species, and in return we get to watch all the wonderful drama  of their lives, every day, played out in front of our windows.  Yes: the more biodiverse you make your garden, the more you’ll help nature – and the more you’ll enjoy it!
  5. Don’t Freak Out Over Stingy Things. Swarm of honeybees trying to nest on your house or in your garden? Don’t panic! Above all, don’t kill them (or call in a pest exterminator to do it). Bee numbers have taken such a battering in recent years that we can’t afford to lose any more of their precious little lives – just ring your local Beekeepers Association, and someone will gladly come and take the colony away for you, free of charge, and find it a good home. What about wasps? Again, don’t panic! Shrieking and flailing about are sure-fire ways to scare or annoy a wasp into stinging you.  And please don’t kill them in the mistaken belief that it’s essential – humans and wasps can co-exist quite safely and happily. (Hubcap and I have both lived for years with a wasps’ nest in either our loft or garden without either party being aware of, or bothered by, the other’s existence; we find that, by and large, if you leave wasps alone, they leave you alone). Besides, they’re an essential part of any green garden’s eco-system, and valuable workmates for any gardener: ferocious hunters of pests like aphids, and ravenous scavengers who clear away rotting fruit and carrion, bit by tiny bit, to feed to their grubs – all tremendous fun to watch, too. So do tolerate these amazing insects if you possibly can – you may even learn to love them, as I do – and look out for my forthcoming blog in praise of the much-maligned wasp. Happy green gardening!

Richard III: Bound by Loyalty?

What do you do if someone you love marries someone you think is, at best, deeply unsuitable, or at worst, deeply despicable?

The only answer, if you want to remain close to your loved one, is to put your feelings aside for their sake, and try to develop civilised relations with your unwelcome in-laws – especially if said loved one is an absolute monarch, and their unsuitable spouse your new queen.

Such was the situation in which the 12-year-old Richard, Duke of Gloucester, found himself in 1464, when news broke that his eldest brother, King Edward IV, had secretly married a Lancastrian widow, Elizabeth Grey (née Woodville). While other, older members of his family (with good reason) openly opposed the match, Richard was apparently wise, tactful, or perhaps simply devoted enough to Edward to keep his own counsel – history records no evidence of hostility between Gloucester and his Woodville in-laws prior to 1483, whereas his kinsman and erstwhile tutor Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, was killed in rebellion against the king in 1471, and his elder brother George, Duke of Clarence, was executed for treason (possibly at the queen’s instigation) in 1478.

Richard’s unswerving support throughout Edward’s life is entirely consistent with the famous motto he adopted as an adult, Loyaulté me lie. Most commonly translated as ‘Loyalty binds me,’ this has an alternative and less well-known translation: ‘Justice rejoices me.’ (See Sutton & Visser-Fuchs, p. 271 – 74, for a fascinating discussion of Richard’s mottoes). Both meanings fit well with Richard’s documented interest in the law, and his attempts to emulate his revered late father Richard, Duke of York, in meriting high honour through the exercise of good lordship, fulfilment of obligations to superiors and inferiors, maintenance of the king’s peace, and dispensation of impartial justice.

Richard may well have known and used Loyaulte me lie earlier than 1483 in sources either lost or yet to be discovered, but its known survivals all date to the period from Edward IV’s death through to Richard’s own reign  – including its appearance, bracketed with his signature, on a scrap of paper also bearing the signatures of his nephew Edward V, and his then ally Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham.

To me, this casts another, far more sinister light on an innocuous phrase, akin to the undertones of ‘A Lannister always pays his debts’ in Game of Thrones. Loyalty might have bound Richard to Edward – but it had also bound his hands, rendering him incapable of acting against the Woodvilles unless and until his brother died. Richard’s actions after this unexpectedly occurred on 9th April 1483 suggest that he had always hated and distrusted the queen and her large, acquisitive family, and longed to take revenge for their presumption, the attendant loss of prestige to the House of York, and the execution of his brother Clarence; he may also have blamed his brother-in-law Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, in particular, for hastening Edward’s death by encouraging him in debauchery. Certainly, within a few months of the latter’s demise, Richard had arrested and subsequently executed both Rivers and Richard Grey, a nephew from the queen’s first marriage; attempted to capture another brother-in-law, Edward Woodville (Lord Scales); deposed one nephew, and possibly disposed of him too, along with his younger brother, Richard, Duke of York.

So I find it hard to believe that Richard, a subtle and highly intelligent man, was not aware of, (and secretly amused by), the dark sub-text of his chosen motto – because clearly, the loyalty that bound him from April 1483 to the end of his life on 22nd August 1485 was not to his misbegotten nephew, the uncrowned Edward V. It was to the House of York and his own blood family, while the justice that rejoiced him was giving his rapacious in-laws their just desserts, and saving his country from the rule of an illegitimate Woodville king.

References: Anne Sutton & Livia Visser-Fuchs, Richard III’s Books, 1997, Sutton Publishing Ltd

Cat-sick

Today, 4 am: ‘Waaoow!’ The gentle patter of rain is rent by mournful cries as Henry Wowler yells his ‘wet-wah’ up at our open bedroom window. ‘Waaoow?’
Hubcap sighs. ‘Shall I give him his breakfast?’
‘If you like,’ I reply.
Hubcap returns in due course. ‘Soaked, starving and hysterical,’ he says. ‘There was half a mouse and a big pile of mouse-vom in the middle of the rug – It’s a wonder I didn’t step in it.’
It makes such a nice change for Hubcap to rise first and deal with one of the early-morning horrors our cat-son regularly presents me with that I laugh in the dark. ‘Welcome to my world.’

4.25 am: ‘Waaow! Waaaooow!’ Oh God, not again… it’s going to be one of THOSE nights. Before he wakes the entire neighbourhood, I stumble out of bed and say, ‘I’ll go downstairs and sleep with him.’
To my surprise, I find Henry isn’t particularly wet – but he claims, loudly and repeatedly, to be insufficiently fed. Guessing that Daddy-cat forgot to give him dessert, I administer his daily ration of dental biscuits and a little extra cat-food, then tuck myself up on the couch. Normally, Henry would leap aboard in great delight and sleep in my armpit for as long as I’d let him – but not today. No, today he prises the living room door open, scratches noisily on the hall carpet and thunders upstairs.
In a vain attempt to stop him disturbing Daddy-cat again, I follow, return to bed and invite him to lie on my chest. Henry tramples it briefly then retreats to lie on my feet in the most uncomfortable position possible. I move to make space for him at the foot of the bed. For five minutes it seems he’s gone to sleep. Then thu-dub! He lands on the floor and starts shouting again.
‘*%!?@*!!!!’ Daddy-cat shouts back. Henry flees. I follow him down to the kitchen, (good grief, he thinks he’s going to get more food), shut the door on him, go back to bed and callously shut the window against further outcry.

6 am: The alarm goes off. Feeling jaded and irritable, I head downstairs to make our breakfast and discover that Henry Wowler, in great chagrin, has scratted up the duct-tape repair on the old lino ripped by previous scratting (roll on retirement/installation of new kitchen with tiled or laminate floor) so that I struggle to open the door between living room and kitchen. Threading dangerously between my feet, he pleads loudly for yet more food. On the basis that he had, after all, sicked up last night’s supper, I relent and give him a little – for which Daddy-cat rebukes me. It transpires that actually, as well as a generous breakfast, he HAD given Henry his dental biscuits – so as well as both of us being disturbed and sleep-deprived, I’ve been conned out of extra extra food. So when the cat-pig finally settles down in his accustomed place on our bed and goes smugly to sleep, I take revenge and apply spot-on wormer to the back of his head – and laugh when it makes him get up and go off in a huff.

Beating the Heatwave: my Top Tips for Garden Survival

This summer has been hard on us gardeners, sweating out in the merciless sun every day; but it’s been even harder on our poor scorched gardens. Instead of our usual grass-cutting work, which has literally dried up, we’re mainly clearing the dead leaves drifting down in this super-hot, pseudo-autumn – and doing our level best to help plants and wildlife survive it. So I thought I’d share with you a few top tips to help your garden beat the heatwave:

Plant Survival Tips:
Lawns: if it’s got any green left, don’t mow it! Our completely un-watered pocket-handkerchief lawn is still remarkably lush because, luckily, we didn’t give it ‘just one last cut’ before the extreme heat really started to bite. Shaggy green patches with daisies and clover look pretty enough, they’re providing food for insects and birds, and above all, they’re keeping your lawn alive – if you mow them down it’ll all simply frazzle to uniform brown and take longer to recover when the drought finally breaks. Meanwhile, don’t bother trying to keep it all green with sprinklers – it’ll use a colossal amount of precious water which would be better deployed on your herbaceous borders.

Hedges and Shrubs: help reduce their need for water and energy by snipping back spindly ‘water shoots,’ dead-heading, and removing yellow/shrivelled/diseased leaves. Don’t cut anything back hard – the cut leaves will dry out and look unsightly because the plants don’t have enough water for re-growth.

Borders: despite the long dry spell, our gardens are currently infested with self-set tree seedlings and various weeds, all competing for scarce water – so pull ‘em out! But you might make exceptions for hard standing; some flowering weeds are pretty little plants which can brighten up dull bits of paving, and their seeds – including grasses – are food for the birds.

All these measures will help your garden and its population of creatures weather the extreme weather; but in the continuing absence of rain, plants also need to be watered. This is far from wasteful or frivolous – entire ecosystems depend on your garden’s survival. Equally, during a drought it behoves us all to conserve water as much as possible – so here are some tips for making the most of this much taken-for-granted essential:

Watering Tips:
Water in the evening when the soil is cooling – this maximises the time for overnight absorption before the sun rises again and water evaporates off the surface – or failing that, in the early morning. On sloping ground, apply uphill of the plants so that the water runs down onto/through them.

Water selectively. Prioritise food plants (it’s a great year for soft fruit!), flowering plants and shrubs whose nectar feeds the insects which feed the birds, bats and hedgehogs, plants in containers (especially small pots, which dry out fast and need watering daily), and the most wilted or tired-looking things in imminent danger of death.

Water in rotation if there’s too much to do all at once – it’s better for a plant to be watered once a week than not at all, and even trees or deep-rooted shrubs will appreciate a drink in this weather.
Water hard, baked ground in small repeated doses, allowing time for water to soak in before the next application (or it’ll run off and pool where you don’t want it). When the soil has softened enough, break it up with a fork or hoe to facilitate penetration, then water again. As well as stimulating earthworm activity, for which the blackbirds will thank you, this prepares the soil to receive future watering, and the rain, when it comes, will soak in rather than bouncing off a compact surface.

Apply mulch! Water the ground, not the foliage, around the main stems or in the centre of a clump, then immediately cover the wet earth with a mulch of grass clippings, leaves, bark chippings, turf – you can even use newspaper or cardboard to trap the moisture in. We find a mulch of grass clippings covered by dead turves (soil-side up) works a treat in our orchard; originally applied to stop the resident pheasants from taking dust-baths round the saplings and exposing their roots, it’s enabling the trees to survive and fruit nicely on a half-gallon of water a week – we just lift up a section and pour it onto earth that’s often still perceptibly moist from the last application.

Avoid guilt about watering the garden by saving water in the house! We try never to waste our clean water or take it for granted, and have stepped up our efforts to save it since the Big Hot started. Taking brief showers, never baths – and if I’m not particularly dirty I just scrub myself down with a basin of water and a flannel. Not flushing the loo for a few tiny tinkles, (luckily no-one in Helmickton is grossed-out by this!). And we’re both obsessive about saving the water from rinsing hands, glasses, vegetables, running the tap to get hot or cold and so on – it collects in a washing-up bowl to be poured in turn on the raspberry canes, blackcurrant bush, apple trees or whatever looks most in need. (We don’t use washing up water containing detergent; some sources say it does no harm, but Hubcap fears it may kill essential soil bacteria.

Finally, remember the birds, bees and beasts struggling to find food and drink in these arid conditions. Fill your bird-baths daily, keep the feeders topped up, put some appropriate food and a shallow dish of water (never milk!) out for hedgehogs, pray for some meaningful rain… and with care, everything in your garden will survive until it comes!

Why I’m Not Watching That Wedding

Today I will definitely not be one of the zillions of people worldwide sitting glued to a screen to watch the royal wedding.

It’s not that I have anything against Prince Harry. On the contrary. I’ve always thought he and Prince William seemed like decent young blokes – refreshingly normal, free from the stiffness and strangulated vowels that make some of their relatives painful to hear and behold, and so confident, relaxed and media-savvy that they’re the only royals I’ve ever really enjoyed watching on TV (their double act is particularly amusing).

I don’t have anything against Meghan Markle, either. On the contrary. She seems like a decent young woman, she’s used to being in the public eye, and she’ll doubtless make the most of her position to do good for the humanitarian causes she and her new husband care about. Plus I’m glad that their marriage is a nice smack in the eye for the ‘ain’t no black in the Union Jack’ brigade – and that now there IS some black in the Royal Standard. Ha ha hurrah.

Nor do I have anything against the Queen or royal family as a whole – though I do find the institution of monarchy a bizarre anachronism, a medieval throwback as outdated as the Doctrine of Signatures and completely superfluous to the running of a country. It might be part of our history and heritage – but so were public executions, bear-baiting, ducking scolds and committing unmarried mothers to Bedlam. The idea of being ‘subject’ to the Crown is repugnant to me; like Hawkeye in ‘Last of the Mohicans,’ I don’t consider myself subject to much at all (apart from the law). Our monarchy has caused enormous personal unhappiness to many of its members including Princess Margaret, (prevented from marrying the divorcé she loved), Diana, Princess of Wales, (driven into despair, eating disorders and suicidal impulses), and Prince Harry, (an able, well-liked and respected officer, forced to give up a promising career in active service because his royalty made him too great a target for terrorists and thereby too great a risk to his men) – and Prince William obviously doesn’t relish the prospect of becoming king one day, although no doubt duty will constrain him to it. So no, I don’t like the monarchy. I’m sure Britain would rub along just fine without it, and that tourists would still come to gaze upon our palaces and castles and spend their precious dollars and yen on tacky souvenirs and picture postcards. Still, we do need a Head of State, and the perils of electing one are horribly plain in today’s world; so since (alas) we can’t have Justin Trudeau, I guess I prefer a member of the House of Windsor than risk having Britain’s whimsical, unpredictable electorate inflict a self-seeking muppet like Nigel Farage, some moronic reality-TV ‘celebrity’ or a barely-articulate sports ‘personality’ on the nation.

But what I really, REALLY hate is the obnoxious cult of royal-worship whipped up by our cynical, sycophantic mass-media. I’ve always loathed having things rammed down my throat (that’s why I’ve never to this day been able to watch the movie ‘E.T.’) – there’s nothing more likely to infuriate and turn me off than endless advertising and saturation coverage. I don’t feel like celebrating something which is costing so much money at a time of so much more pressing national need. I’m not interested in the nuptials of people I don’t know and never will, much less in watching hours of incredibly boring preamble, the footage of gathering crowds and tedious vox pop interviews. I don’t give a flying eff about sad gits who travel hundreds of miles to camp for days on the pavements whence Windsor’s homeless were recently evicted in the hope of glimpsing, for a few seconds, someone famous as they drive past. And I can only pity poor Thomas Markle, a quiet, private individual now linked by his daughter’s marriage to one of the most famous and most scrutinised families in the world, and sucked into the ghastly media circus which will surround her, prying, praising and decrying, for the rest of her life.

Bleah. It makes me puke. I don’t know which I despise more, the media or the pathetic nosy obsessives who like to think of themselves as royalists, but whose appetites for the ever-more candid (ie intrusive) exposé fuel the paparazzi – the people collectively responsible for killing the woman who should have become Meghan’s mother-in-law today, and for plunging Britain into its morbid, breast-beating guilt-trip back in 1997. I refuse to be a part of it – so while the ‘fans’ lap up every last drop of the media drool, I’m off to do something more constructive with my day.