Big knickers and The Archers Omnibus

All going well, by the time you read this it will be 24 hours since I’ve had my surgery and I’ll be recovering in hospital. I’ve never had an operation before. I’ve never had an anaesthetic and apart from when I was ill as a little baby, I’ve only been in hospital twice – with glandular fever when I was seven, and when Lily was born, six and a half years ago. I remember the monumental boredom of being in hospital when I was seven. And giving birth in hospital was unexpected and unplanned, so I had no time to prepare. After 46 hours of labour (oh yes, folks!) I don’t remember much of the less than two days I spent in hospital after Lily was born.

This time, I’ve had time to prepare. I’ve little idea what I’m going to feel like after the surgery. I’m expecting pain and grogginess. I’ve been told I’ll be kept in for two or three nights. But one thing’s for sure, I’m not going to be twiddling my thumbs wishing I had something to do to pass the time.

I’ve starved myself of the last three Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review podcasts and saved them up for my hospital stay. Ditto the last three Archers Omnibuses. And I’ve downloaded the podcast of Seamus Heaney’s Desert Island Discs. I listened to it only recently but loved it so much I wanted to hear it again.

I’ve saved my two favourite radio stations onto my smart phone – BBC Radio 4 for Woman’s Hour and pretty much everything else; BBC Radio 2 for Chris Evans in the morning and Simon Mayo in the evening.

So much for listening. I’m currently reading David Guterson’s East of the Mountains and I’m unlikely to have it finished before Thursday morning. I’m also packing Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which I’ve been saving up.

Then there’s writing. I’m on the fifth draft of my book, and chapters 16 to 30 are in need of revision (I’m not expecting to revise 15 chapters! I’ve been getting through this re-write at a rate of one chapter every two to three days). And I never go anywhere without my journal and a selection of pens, so I can write to my hearts content.

I realise I will probably indulge in few or none of these. But they will be there, if I need them, to save me from boredom.

As for the titular big knickers? When my very practical mother came to visit a few weeks ago she brought me a pack of big white knickers (size 14) which she says I will need after my operation. One of my friends suggested they could also be used as bed sheets and I thought I could fly one as a Kildare flag!! Thank you Mammy. As if having my uterus removed wasn’t unsexy enough!

From familiar to strange

Around this time twenty-five years ago, in October 1990, I attended my first anthropology lecture at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. A fresh-faced 17-year old, I was immediately hooked on this new subject I had chosen to study at university. In that first lecture, Professor Eileen Kane, the glamorous Irish-American head of department, told us that by studying anthropology the strange would become familiar and the familiar strange. We would soon see the cultural logic and appropriateness of far flung habits and customs that might on the surface seem weird and bizarre to our Irish sensibilities – polyandry, witchcraft, the Kula Ring – and we would start to see the weirdness in cultural practices we took for granted – Christmas, school, organised sports.

It was a memorable first lesson in anthropology and I’ve thought about that phrase – making the strange familiar and the familiar strange – quite a lot over the years, especially when I’ve found myself returning home having lived abroad and experiencing what might be termed reverse culture shock. Japan, Nunavut and the UK became normal and ordinary to me and, when I returned to Ireland, life, customs and habits felt strange and unfamiliar.

I’ve been feeling the same way this summer, having returned to the UK, the country that has been my home for a decade. The feeling of strangeness and unfamiliarity comes partly from living in a house in suburbia for the past few months and partly because as I revise the book I’m currently writing I reflect on how moving onto and living on a boat at one time seemed such a strange and exotic thing to do. But now the boat is our familiar life and life on land, in a house, has become strange.

Perhaps the thing that most encapsulates that strangeness is my altered perceptions of space, and in particular how much space an individual or family require and how that space is utilised.

By anyone’s standards, our home is tiny. Carina is 36 feet (11 metres) long and at her widest 11 feet (3 metres) wide. Four of us live in that space, including one who is 6’2” and built like the proverbial brick s**t house. But it no longer feels like such a tiny space to us. We have adapted to it and transformed it into a home. We have space to stow our belongings and space to eat, sleep, play, work, relax and even entertain. We have adapted to the space and made it work for us.

So I’ve felt like a visitor from another planet at times this summer when people have, with reference to what seem to me to be incredibly spacious homes, made comments such as ‘It’s not big enough’, ‘We need a bigger house’, ‘It’s not much’. I look around at these spaces that are huge in comparison to Carina and wonder what exactly people need more space for.

I’ve also been hyper-aware of the utilisation of space. Or, to be more correct, the under-utilisation of space. Given her size and our number, each space on Carina has a purpose or multiple purposes. Most people here in suburbia own sizable gardens. But few home owners make productive use of those gardens. One of my few regrets about living aboard a regularly moving home is that we don’t grow any food. I’ve always enjoyed growing food (with varied success) and this summer I find myself looking longingly at ample suburban gardens, transforming them in my mind into attractively productive food plots.

Other things feel alien too – the length of time and distance people commute to work; how success is measured; how often people feel the need to shower (you think I’m kidding!); how complicated and full of time-consuming activities many peoples’ lives seem to be. But the thing that has bothered me more than anything else this summer (I need to stop saying ‘summer’. I realise we are now firmly in autumn) is waste.

Sure, we produce waste aboard Carina – plastic packaging, tin cans, paper – but the quantities of waste we produce are far less than what we are currently producing in a house in suburbia. Aboard Carina we buy little and often. I realise that our consumer choices are partly dictated by geography. Living in southern Europe probably has as much to do with the amount of waste we produce as living on a boat. We buy fresh bread from the baker (unpackaged), fresh fruit and vegetables from the greengrocer (unpackaged), meat and cheese and dairy products from the general store (packaged). And in certain places on our travels we’ve been lucky enough to forage fruit, vegetables, herbs and shellfish and we’ve fished or been given fish by friends and other boat owners.

With our small living space and frugal environmentally-orientated lifestyle, we are conscious of the waste we produce. In suburbia, certainly in this particular suburbia, waste is pernicious. Food in supermarkets is far more heavily packaged than in the greengrocers, butchers and bakers. And, where we are currently living, without a car it is difficult to shop at places other than supermarkets or chain stores.

The cycle of plastic waste is disturbing – in the front door, through the house, out the back door and into the recycling bin. I think I am less disturbed by the amount of waste than by the fact that it’s taken for granted. Recycling has become normalised, but reducing is more difficult. Having lived around other frugally-minded sailors for the past year or more, I have grown used to minimal waste. The disposal of waste from the boat is annoyingly cumbersome. Certainly on smaller boats there is no room to store separated plastic, glass, metal and organic waste, and carrying it ashore by dinghy in search of bins in which to dump it is a royal pain in the ass. It’s far easier not to produce the waste in the first place. So we opt for unpackaged or minimally packaged produce. It’s easier on us and easier on the environment.

We have now set a date for returning to Carina. When we step aboard the girls and I will have been away for five and a half months. I’m sure UK suburban living will have seeped into my bones and I will find life afloat strange all over again and it will take some time to readjust. In the meantime I will continue to seek out strangeness in the once familiar and familiarity in the once strange.

On blogging

I started blogging at the beginning of 2012. I’d been working on the blog for a couple of months prior to that, getting it ready to ‘go live’. My blogging, at first, was inconsistent. Whole months might go by when I wouldn’t post anything and then three would come in quick succession. Once we set sail in summer 2012 I had limited internet access and limited electricity to power our slightly old laptop. I had lots to write about, but was frustrated by my lack of opportunities to blog. About a week before we set sail for France in summer 2013 our laptop broke and we didn’t buy a new one for four months. I quickly gave up trying to blog on public computers in France, as the French keyboard drove me towards insanity and I couldn’t think slowly enough to type.

At the start of 2014, with a new laptop and a permanent move onto Carina imminent, I made a New Year’s Resolution to blog ten times per month. I’ve generally stuck to that with only a few blips here and there. Lack of electricity or Wifi no longer cause problems. Carina’s solar panel and an energy efficient current adapter means quick and easy recharging of the laptop battery no matter how long we remain at anchor (this might be put to the test when we return to Carina for the winter). These days I write all my blogs as Word documents and, when I get an hour of Wifi, copy and paste up to five blog posts a time to my WordPress site, and schedule them to come out at three day intervals. That way, there’s never a break in my blog posts due to being anchored somewhere remote or on a passage at sea.

I’m generally not short of material to blog about, and indeed I have quite a few posts written as Word documents that have never (yet) seen the light of day on the blog. Julian sometimes criticises my broad reach. Maybe he’s right. Maybe I should stick to stuff about sailing and life aboard Carina and our experiences in foreign places. But the way I see it is that I blog about what happens to me and my family and what inspires me or amuses me or gets my goat. So I blog about sailing, living aboard a small boat, the places we visit, the encounters we have with humans and other-than humans. I blog about our experiences home educating the girls and about simple living, and I blog about things that spark ideas or thoughts or memories of other things.

We’ve been away from Carina for four months now, back in the UK while I await my surgery. Being away from Carina is part of our live aboard story too. You could think of it as an interesting experiment of sampling life back in what used to be normality but now feels decidedly abnormal (blog post on this theme to follow!). It’s also about trying to maintain a sense of continuity and normality for the children when we are away from home and our lives are very much up in the air.

The truth is, I love blogging. I enjoy putting my thoughts out there and I enjoy reading comments from people who make the time to share their thoughts and ideas about what I (and occasionally Julian) have written. Since January 2012 my blog following has grown by slow increments. I don’t have the tens of thousands of followers that other bloggers have. In fact, I don’t even have a thousand followers. But with every new blog post I usually get one or two more and when I’ve had some media coverage I pick up a few more. I’m happy with that.

But a strange and unexpected thing has happened since returning to the UK. I usually write at a great distance from my readers. Few of the other sailors and live aboards we meet have any idea that I write a blog. Amongst our fellow live aboards our family is much like everyone else’s. We’re just one of the thousands of families out there on the world’s oceans, sailing to our own compass. In fact, many of them are probably writing their own blogs too. In the course of Skype conversations my mother or mother-in-law will occasionally comment on the content of the latest blog post, and a few people comment via the blog itself or on Facebook. But generally I’m oblivious to readers’ reactions to what I write and I rarely think too much about who I write for.

Since returning to the UK, however, friends, family members, friends of friends, friends of family, have told me they read my blog. My reaction is always terrible embarrassment hidden behind mumbled ‘oh really?’s and ‘thank you’s! But now that I’ve discovered some of the readers of my blog, I see their faces as I write and have become a little self-conscious, imagining their reactions to what I write. Some censorship has crept in. I’ve always censored my writing. There are subjects I will not write about and subjects I’ve avoided writing about in particular ways. But now I’m censoring as I think about how specific individuals will react.

Silly me. Because the truth is, I’m delighted that people take an interest in my blog, and enjoy reading what Julian and I write. I just don’t react to the face-to-face reality of my readers’ existence very well. I’m sure once we’re back aboard Carina my self-consciousness will wane and I’ll once again forget who I am writing for.

But for now, thank you all so much for continuing to follow my blog!


by Julian

I have been interested in foraging for a long time. I often went blackberrying with my parents as a child but my enthusiasm really kicked off when I was about thirteen. I had been looking for information on poisonous plants, drugs and witchcraft. I was intrigued by deadly nightshade and opium poppies. Books such as Culpeper’s ‘Complete Herbal’ appealed to me, and then I found the book ‘Food For Free’ by Richard Mabey in the school library. It was early February and there was very little wild food about for the novice forager. I ended up making dandelion root coffee which I had to throw away. My foraging progressed as I took ‘GCSE Home Economics: Food’ as one of my eight school subjects. I remember going out early one morning in desperation to find some good stinging nettles to make a soup with. It turned out to be more difficult than I thought, and I eventually settled for some next to a path where people commonly walked their dogs! I learnt to make a roux with flour and butter and actually ended up with a smooth and fairly palatable bright green soup to show to my teacher. On a visit to my grandma’s I found she had a copy of ‘Food For Free’ which she gave to me and I still have it today, over 25 years later.


I have had a small (Collins Gem) mushroom and toadstool identification book since before I can remember, it says 1982 in the front so I must have been about eight. However, much as I desired to collect and eat wild mushrooms they were always an alien thing. I would never have dared risk it. The exception was the giant puffball, unmistakable from anything else and I was eager to try it, but for some reason all those puffballs I remembered seeing suddenly evaded me, or else I discovered them after someone had played football with them.

When Martina and I moved to the Cambridgeshire countryside, surrounded by old fields and woodland I made a determined effort to find and eat my first wild mushrooms. By this time I had two much more substantial mushroom field guides, one illustrated with photographs and the other with excellent drawings. I also had ‘Food For Free’ for backup, which gives ideas about the safest mushrooms to collect and some of the specific pitfalls for wrongly identifying each one. Those first forays produced mixed results. I made some rules for myself. I had to be cast iron sure on the identification in both of my field guides, using various techniques, such as spore prints. I then went online and thoroughly researched the species I had picked, looking over pictures time and again. Only then would I cook up a bit of the mushroom and try a very small quantity, about half a saucer full, or less, and wait for the results. As it turned out on all three occasions I wasn’t at all ill. One of the mushrooms (the Beefsteak Fungus) was tasteless and not really worth it, as my books had already suggested. Another was a type of ‘boletus’ but I found only enough for a tiny taste anyway. The third was a roaring success. The ‘Shaggy Parasol’, what a mushroom! What a delicious taste! Once fried in butter it is just big enough to cover a slice of toast and then to perfectly house a poached egg on top. The flavour would lead anyone who likes the taste of mushrooms to be forever disappointed with shop bought buttons. Martina ate them and loved them, my mum ate them and loved them, all too soon they were nowhere to be found and the season was over.

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Shaggy Parasol frying in butter and the water is ready for poaching an egg

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Poached egg on shaggy partasol on toast

I have done a lot of foraging since then, particularly when travelling aboard Carina looking for shellfish and seashore plants. I even found and enjoyed ‘St Georges Day Mushrooms’ in Plymouth. Now, working in the grounds of Warwick castle in autumn, I am pursuing fungus with a renewed vigour! I identified my first ‘Field Mushrooms’ the other day. Very similar and closely related to our standard shop bought mushrooms, the taste is not markedly better but it was a mini triumph, real free food. I was so nervous, this was my first normal white mushroom. The St Georges didn’t count because they come so early in the year that they can be positively identified as a non-poisonous species, but the field mushroom cannot. When young there are deadly poisonous species that could be easily confused with them. Even on maturity there are similar species that could give you a nasty stomach upset. I checked for all of these and finally tried a few pieces fried in butter (my mum even tried one piece). The taste was good. I made a soup and had it at work one day, but I unfortunately managed to leave in a tiny bit of grit which ruined the enjoyment of the flavour, lesson learned. Next I found ‘chicken of the woods’ growing at the base of a beech tree on a river island, an unmistakable, large orange/yellow fungus. It uncannily resembles chicken in both colour and texture and when broken has a good mushroomy flavour. A real gem of a find. It can be used in most chicken recipes and tastes better than the standard shop bought mushrooms. With stuff like this in the wild my thoughts turn to all of those vegetarians eating factory processed Quorn and I wonder whether they would ever do this if only they knew.


Some red and yellow boletus I have collected. I didn’t try the red because of suspision it may not be good. Also some common field mushrooms in the top right corner.

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Some of the yellow boletus dried like porcini. It tastes really good.

So finally last night Martina cooked a wild mushroom risotto. She used some dried yellow pored boletus that I had collected, which is a close relative of Porcini, and garnished the dish with Chicken of the Woods, Field Mushrooms and Shaggy Parasol. It was delicious. Martina was a little nervous and therefore limited the quantity of wild mushrooms used, but the fact that I had already eaten a little of all of these mushrooms with no ill effect certainly helped.


My mushroom harvest

For breakfast this morning I fried up some of the leftovers and had them on toast. To be honest I am all muyshroomed out at the moment but look forward to collecting a few more over the coming weeks.

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My breakfast. Chicken of the Woods, Shaggy Parasol and Field Mushrooms fried in butter on wholemeal granary toast with a little white pepper. YUM.

Of hawks and wild places

I’ve retreated into myself in the past few weeks, unable to write, unable to communicate. The time of year, the news stories on the television, morose thoughts about my upcoming surgery. Early September hits me like a train every year. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, the anniversary of my father’s death comes around and knocks me down all over again. It takes time to pull myself out of that hole.

This year my grief has been compounded by images of new born babies, small children, old men fleeing in desperation from their homes and searching for hope in an unsure Europe. I feel helpless in the face of such misery and desperation, yet tearfully grateful for the crowds of welcoming ordinary citizens, opening their hearts and their homes to refugees.

So I retreated inward, grew maudlin and morose, became unbearable to live with. But during my late summer hibernation two books have pulled me through, dragged me back to the world again. Both concern the interactions and engagements between humans and non-humans, wildness and domesticity, love, awe and wonder. And both perhaps not coincidentally are written by fellows of Cambridge colleges, who are friends and who have contributed in one way or another to each others’ books.

H is for Hawk is Helen Macdonald’s powerful and moving story of training a goshawk. She and I were contemporaries at Cambridge and we met a couple of times. We shared an interest in the relationships between humans and animals and I was in awe of her knowledge and passion for falconry, mesmerised by her intellect and eloquence. Little did I know, as we stood drinking a cup of tea in her college garden sharing thoughts on hawks and polar bears, that she was deeply grieving for her father and living a half-wild life with her goshawk Mabel. Her book is an uplifting memoir of how training Mabel helped drag Macdonald out of her grief. But it is also a fascinating account of the history and culture of falconry. By the last page I wanted to walk through fields in search of rabbits and pheasants, to get my skin scratched and my hair messed up from pushing myself through hedges and into woodlands, to feel the weight of a bird of prey on my hand.

From H is for Hawk I picked up Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places. From his Cambridge home MacFarlane sets out to find the wild places of Britain and Ireland, places devoid of humanity and human history. But in his search he comes to the slow realisation that such places do not exist. The wild expanses of the Scottish highlands or the west of Ireland were once filled with people before Clearances and Famine swept human life aside. He discovers that ‘the wild’ cannot be separated from ‘the human’, they exist together. He discovers wildness in a weed pushing up through a crack in a pavement, in a spider web in the corner of a room, in an abandoned factory. The book takes the reader to the far reaches of mainland Scotland and the Isle of Skye, to Anglesey, Dorset, the Burren, even to Essex. In writing the book, he travelled to places I have been to and love and to places I have never heard of. His evocative writing carried my thoughts away from Leamington Spa to these magnificent parts of the archipelago and my soul soared.

By the end of these two books I felt ready to write again, able to communicate again, ready to return to the world. These books helped the dark places in my mind open up to the continuities between past and present, human and other-than-human, life and death.

Next on my list of uplifting books? Wild by Cheryl Strayed. It’s awaiting me on my bedside table right now.

Life’s big questions

A couple of weeks ago The Pixelated Parent sent me a Liebster Award. It’s a kind of blogger chain letter which, in a fun way, allows bloggers to draw attention to the work of other bloggers they like. Having already accepted a Liebster challenge earlier this year I was about to turn down The Pixelated Parent. But something prompted me to read the questions she posed. They made me smile and I couldn’t resist answering them, together with ten facts about myself. I’m not passing this on, but I want to say thank you to The Pixelated Parent for helping to pull me out of a recent writing slump. Here goes:

What is your ‘signature dish’?
Vegetable stir fry with noodles, refined and improved over many years and now, depending on what’s in the cupboard, served in lime or satay varieties. And, though not strictly a ‘dish’, I make a mean soda bread.

What initially inspired your blog?
Alun Anderson, former editor-in-chief of New Scientist magazine! I met him when I was an academic through our shared interest in the Arctic, and when I told him about my plans to buy a boat, he advised me to blog about it.

If you could go into Space, would you?
When I was a child one of my heroines was Valentina Tereshkova, Russian cosmonaut and first woman in space. I so wanted to be an astronaut. But, given the environmental footprint of each rocket launch and the insane amounts of money spent on space exploration when there is so much poverty here on planet Earth, space travel now seems morally and ethically questionable to me.

What is the most important thing you want to pass on to your children?
Kindness. Empathy. Wonder. Enthusiasm. Comfort in their own skin.

Where is the greatest place you have ever been?
Croke Park, late summer-early autumn when the GAA championship is at its height. More specifically, Croke Park, August 2nd 1998, when Kildare became Leinster Champions for the first time in 42 years. If I could relive one day in my life again, it would be that day.

What is the last book you read?
The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane. Finished it last night. Beautiful, poetic, and helping me to re-imagine the meaning of wilderness.

If you could be anyone in The World for a month, who would it be?
I’d like to inhabit the body of Ellen Macarthur, so I could absorb her sailing knowledge and skill and return to Carina and my own sailing life more confident and experienced than I currently am.

Do you have any pets?
Sadly, no. I grew up with dogs and cats and I thought it would be impossible to bring up children of my own without having dogs in the family. I know a few live aboard dogs, and maybe one day we will add one to our family.

Do you have any weird and wonderful skills?
I can skin a caribou, flense a beluga whale and gut a fish.

In a dream universe, what would you be doing ten years from now?
Sailing in the South Pacific, flitting from one idyllic anchorage to the next with my husband and teenage (yikes!) daughters, and earning a comfortable living from writing.

Ten things about me:
1. I hate marmalade.
2. ‘You’re so vain’ is my karaoke song.
3. I played the taiko drum when I lived in Japan.
4. I have a humpback whale tattoo.
5. ‘Thunder Road’ and ‘Born to run’ are my all time favourite songs.
6. I am a devoted disciple of the Church of Wittertainment.
7. I’m scared of frogs.
8. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is my favourite book. I’ve read it four times.
9. I don’t get Star Wars.
10. I had a Sinead O’Connor-style shaved head for two years in my mid-20s.

Autumn in the air

There is, without doubt, an autumnal feeling in the air. I took a walk yesterday afternoon and got soaked to the skin and chilled to the bone in a sudden and heavy rain shower. My hands were like blocks of ice by the time I returned home and I contemplated hot chocolate. But I convinced myself that it’s still summer and I passed on the hot chocolate. This afternoon the girls and I went to town to meet another family of home schoolers. Again, there was a chill in the air and that palpable change that comes with the turn of the seasons. Katie and I were cold. Lily, I think, is made of sturdier stuff than us.

When we flew back to the UK, in late May, summer was upon us and the contents of our luggage reflected the season. I brought clothes that I could layer – but they were summer layers. Those clothes all seem so flimsy now. Thankfully, I’ve found some winter clothes in a drawer at my father-in-law’s house that I forgot I still had, including a jumper, a dress and a few pairs of tights and a wool coat. The girls have mostly outgrown their summer clothes and their wardrobe has been evolving over the past few weeks, as too-small, worn at the knee clothes are replaced with bigger, warmer and decidedly less threadbare ones.

And at last, an end to our separation from Carina is in sight. My surgery is scheduled for October 1st. Now that we have a definite date we can start to think about booking flights on the other side of my six-week recovery period. Mid-November doesn’t seem so far away now that it’s a definite thing. We can make plans for twelve or so weeks more weeks we will be in the UK and we can start to make plans for what we will do once we are back home aboard Carina.

I never imagined we would still be here in autumn, but here we are.

Buzzy bees

I gaze through the glass, mesmerized by the activity inside. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of bees, all moving – the proverbial hive of activity. ‘What’s going on there?’ I ask the tall, grey-haired gentleman beside me, pointing to one bee laboriously carrying its comrade against the force of gravity, up through the hive. ‘It’s removing a dead one’, the man tells me. He explains that fastidious bees carry the dead from the hive and he shows me the drawer that he clears of dead bees on a regular basis.

This is an ingenious set-up giving people like me a rare glimpse into the lives of bees. The hive is encased between two panes of glass and the bees have access to the outside world through a long narrow drainpipe. But because of the pipe, the dead cannot be completely removed by other bees alone, so the bee-keeper lends a hand by collecting them in the little bee-cemetery and removing them regularly.

The woman in the Glasshouse is worried about the bees, but the bee-keeper assures her they’re looking good. There was an unfortunate die-off last year and she’s hoping the same won’t happen again. But the bee-keeper tells her if he sees any sign of trouble he will capture the queen, creating a swarm and the start of a new healthy colony.

‘How do you know which one is the queen?’ I ask, expecting him to say that she’s bigger. Turns out she’s not noticeably bigger. She has a white mark on her back. But it is the behaviour of the other bees around her that distinguishes her from everyone else. The others clear a path around her, don’t get in her way. I reminded me of the way everyone maintains a respectful space around Usain Bolt! We try to find the queen, our heads close together, our noses pressed to the glass. I think I see her, but I’m not sure.

It seems bees are everywhere these days. And they’re not. The more they disappear from the world the more they are part of the zeitgeist. One of the libraries I visit has an entire bee section, with books such as A world without bees by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum, about one of the many crises currently faced by honey bees, and Sean Borodale’s moving book of bee-keeping poetry, Bee Journal.

There seem to be a profusion of bee-related activities in the places we’ve been visiting all summer – libraries, museums, art galleries all devoting space and energy to educating people about bees, nurturing children’s enthusiasm for bees, providing information about how to revive tired bees. There are wildlife organisations and activitists devoted to and campaigning for the protection of bees, television programmes focusing on the importance of bees and the threats they face, and artists inspired by bees. Even Sainsbury’s, the big supermarket chain, is singing the praises of bees, encouraging customers to install bee hotels in their gardens to encourage the solitary bees so necessary to the pollination of garden plants.

Wandering around rural Spain and Portugal and suburban England this summer I could have been forgiven for thinking that bees are doing just fine. On the hillsides along the Rio Guadiana the buzzing of bees fills the air, the land is awash with wild flowers, and beehives pepper the slopes. In the English Midlands, the constant buzz of bees around lavender and jasmine, honeysuckle and clover fills the air. The sight of fat round fuzzy bumblebees (there are 13 different species of bumblebee and 260 species of solitary bee in the UK alone!) flying from clover to clover always causes me to stop and smile.

But the reality is bees are in serious trouble. And because bees are in trouble, we are in trouble. One-third of everything we eat is pollinated by honeybees.

Do you eat any of the following foods? Kiwi, onion, celery, mustard, broccoli, rapeseed, cauliflower, cabbage, anything in the pepper family, coffee, coconut, anything in the melon family, tangerine, coriander, cucumber, pumpkin, lemon, lime, carrot, oil palm, fig, strawberry, sunflower, apple, mango, alfalfa, avocado, most beans, cherries, almonds, peaches and related fruits, pears, blackcurrants, redcurrants, raspberries, blackberries, sesame, aubergines, cocoa (i.e. chocolate), blueberries, cranberries, tomatoes, grapes. Yes, they all rely, to a medium or major extent, on pollination by bees. And do you wear clothes made from cotton or linen (flax)? They too are pollinated by bees. So, without bees, or with much reduced bee populations, many of the foods we eat and clothes we wear cannot be produced.

There has been a sharp decline in bee populations over the past decade. In some instances bee numbers have declined by more than 40%. Colonies are collapsing, queens are dying, foraging behaviour is changing. Mass deaths are related to stress and disease. One of the biggest problem facing bees comes from neonicotinoid pesticides, used on arable crops and, in some cases, on household gardens. A ban on their use in the UK was recently lifted despite expert scientific evidence supporting a continued ban. Bee numbers have gone into spiralling decline, linked to these pesticides. Bees are also threatened by loss of habitat as meadows and wild flowers are displaced by monoculture and as home owners decorate their gardens with non-native plant species incompatible with the feeding habits of local bees. And a warming climate has made bees more susceptible to parasites. In combination, that’s a lot of stress for such complex creatures.

All my life I’ve been interested in big animals – dogs, polar bears, whales, elephants. But this summer I’ve developed a great respect for and awe of bees. And with that comes a great concern that these magnificent animals, with their fascinating life cycles, means of communication and sensory perception are in deep deep trouble. And if being awestruck with wonder at their very existence is not enough (although it should be), then we need to remember that our survival depends on their survival.

Forty years ago we were called upon to Save the Whale. The whale zeitgeist – the books, the films, the love poetry to whales – brought about a sea change of action. Today, many whale species are recovering from the ravages of 150 years of commercial whaling, with some sub-populations being removed or down-graded on the IUCN Red List. Perhaps the current bee zeitgeist will lead to a similar upwelling of action, that our growing awareness of the importance and wonder of bees will help us to open our eyes, change our habits and give these more intriguing of creatures a chance to survive.

The Royal Horticultural Society has a useful information page, with ideas what we can all do to nurture healthy bee populations.

Working at Warwick Castle

by Julian

As Martina mentioned previously, I have taken a seasonal job at Warwick Castle as a ‘Litter Assistant’ to see us through the summer until we can return to Carina. The job doesn’t pay much but it fits in well with the time that we will be around here and I cannot see any adverts for summer geophysicists!

I started at the beginning of July, only a couple of weeks after returning to England and my first early morning shifts were lovely. Entering the castle grounds before the public and walking to the top of ‘The Mound’, which was built by the Norman’s in the 11th century, you get a beautiful view across the Warwickshire countryside. I wore a pedometer for an 8 hour shift, to find that I had walked over 22,000 steps.

My job involves walking the grounds of an historic monument all though the summer and getting really fit doing it. I can understand why people actually volunteer to litter pick at some National Trust properties! Other lovely views are from the peacock garden, along the Capability Brown landscaped grounds, to the bend in the river and also along the river itself, looking up at the walls of the castle. I have seen areas of the castle not generally accessible to the public, including the lovely ‘Ladies walk’ that looks down on the old ruined bridge over the Avon, the Mill Street gardens and over a row of old houses.

I have also had the opportunity to learn local history as part of my job. The ‘History Team’ do some entertaining and informative tours which are at no extra cost to the visitor. Unfortunately some people dismiss the castle as an amusement park, due to it being run by ‘Merlin’ who also run the UK’s biggest theme park ‘Alton Towers’. However, even without the history team, I have the major points of the the castle’s history imprinted on my mind by the ‘Horrible Histories’ stage show ‘Wicked Warwick’. The show is primarily aimed at children, but from this show I now know the names of the first 8 earls of Warwick and an interesting fact about each of them, I know what side Warwick took in the English civil war and about all of the major construction phases the castle went through. Some people get a bit sniffy about the castle entertaining families, but it is odd for people to dislike history being brought to life for children. I think that is one of the highest aims we can have for our heritage, one which will ensure it survives and flourishes in the minds and hearts of the next generation.

I have one admission to make. Of course I am a little partisan. I learned to sail from the age of 5 on the River Avon, looking up at the majestic walls of this castle and anyone who has regularly read this blog knows where that has led to in our lives. A place like this can be with you for a lifetime. Returning to the castle and keeping it clear of litter, however briefly, has been fun and an education for me, strange as that might sound. I hope I can make the most of my remaining time here.

Blackberry picking

Temporarily leaving Carina this summer to return to the UK was tinged with sadness for, among many reasons, lost foraging opportunities. At anchor on the Rio Guadiana, Julian often returned home with bags full of sweet oranges from an orange tree he’d found growing wild along the river bank. We ate them fresh, juice running down our chins, squeezed oranges to make juice for breakfast, and combined oranges with wild lemons and rosemary to flavour chicken for our dinner. We snacked on loquats plucked from a tree growing on the side of a street in Alcoutim, and made fresh mint tea from leaves growing in abundance on the sides of the roads in Sanlucar. As we prepared to fly back to the UK, I gazed with longing at plums only days away from ripeness, and hoped we would return to the river in time to forage the figs, almonds and grapes that grow in wild profusion on both sides of the river and would be reaching ripeness in summer.

Alas, the months have slipped by and autumn is almost here, and still we are in the UK. But even in the urban Midlands of England we are blessed with wild and cultivated food and the harvest spoils are upon us.

A few weeks ago, Jim and Jean, who live next door to Grandma, invited Lily and Katie around to pick raspberries. Grandma went with them, and they returned with bowls full of raspberries and extraordinarily sweet blackcurrants. We ate them as they were, straight from the bowl, our fingers and faces turning red with their juices. We had them with yogurt, added them to muesli and porridge for breakfast, turned them into crumble for dessert, and used them to make cupcakes. Grandma had plans to make jam, but she never got the chance – we devoured them all far too quickly.

The produce grown in the sensory garden at Jephson Gardens in Leamington Spa is there for anyone who wants it. There are herbs and raspberries, courgettes and Swiss chard. I’ve left the courgettes for others, as we’re growing our own here at Grandma’s house, but the chard has become a regular feature of our meals. Each time I walk through Jephson Gardens I pick three or four giant leaves. We substitute them for baby spinach in salads, slightly cook them for dinner, chop them into stir fries and add them to vegetarian lasagne.

But what thrills me most is the wild food we have found growing in the city’s green spaces. It was Lily and Katie of course who first found the blackberries. They’re like trained sniffer dogs. Every summer and autumn of their lives has been spent blackberry picking. This time five years ago Lily and I were picking blackberries from the hedgerows of Boxworth until the day before Katie was born and we were back out there again the day after she was born, this time with Katie in her sling. They’re blackberry picking experts – and addicts.

A couple of years ago in Plymouth I discovered new and unexpected uses for a boat hook. Carina’s hook became an essential tool on our blackberry foraging expeditions along the Southwest Coast Path, allowing me to push aside thorny briars and nettles to reach the succulent out of the way blackberries inaccessible to the casual rambler. I did come a-cropper one evening, however, when a large nettle I had pushed aside sprang back and whacked me full-on in the face. But as I tell the girls, the nettle stings and thorns are the price we pay for such a splendid harvest. We can’t expect blackberry bushes to give their fruit away for free.

We’ve discovered a huge blackberry patch in Leamington and we share it with wasps, ladybirds, butterflies and many other small creatures. This morning, when we arrived with tubs and bags, we were thrilled to find a new resident in – or rather, under – the briars. In the few days since we were last here a badger has moved in. There is the tell-tale excavation of a sett, with the red earth fanned around in a wide semi-circle. We were very thankful to the badger, as it had also made forays into the briars, and the tramped down nettles and thorny branches allowed us to forage more deeply into the briars than before. There are moles here too and, given that our current bedtime reading is The Wind in the Willows, we are all very pleased that Mole and Mr Badger are hereabouts.

Seamus Heaney knew the temptations of picking too many blackberries, and each time I go blackberry picking I try to limit what I pick, but inevitably I can’t stop myself. This morning, with our tubs and bellies full of blackberries, we climbed to a hill-side meadow and the two plum trees we recently discovered. The grass grows taller than Katie here and we have to wade through it to get to the two trees, one bearing yellow plums and the other red. I warned the girls to be careful of wasps, who are also enjoying these ripe fruits at this time of year. People walked past on the path as we picked the plums. Two couples stopped, curious as to what we were doing. Some of the yellow plums are already overripe, so we left those to the wasps, but we filled a shopping bag with small sweet fruits from both trees, and brought our bounty home to Grandma, snacking from the bag as we walked along.

Back home, Grandma brought out Mrs Beeton and a couple of other cookbooks and we’ve been pouring over recipes for jams, jellies and chutneys. Grandma knows the whereabouts of a wild apple tree, heavy with fruit – we might have to check it out in a couple of weeks.

Julian’s itching to go mushroom picking, and behind the plum trees I found a big sloe bush and if we’re still here after the first frost, then we’ll be gathering sloes to make sloe gin and sloe jelly.

There’ll still be plenty of foraging to do when we return to Carina. But for now, I’m so happy to gather some of my old favourites, and looking forward to some busy days of baking and preserve-making ahead.

Blackberry picking
By Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.