December 2011

This is boxing day for us.  Yesterday was the actual boxing day, but we had two days of Christmas in a row; two days of unwrapping and the eating of grand festive meals.  Today we lazed about, cleaned up a bit, and relaxed for a time.  I sat for a few minutes in front of the bees.  This is something I have not done in quite a while as the bees have been quite inactive.  Today was mild enough to prompt one of the hives into some action.  Some foragers were heading back and forth, probably for water.  The other hive was all quiet and not bold enough to venture out into the winter.

The chickens got curious when as they watched me set up my tripod and take pictures of the cottage.  I took pictures from the front garden in a full circle.  After that I threw myself into the world of panoramic software to try and stitch them all together.  My head spun (a full 360 degrees) with all options and strange nomenclature of manipulating images on the computer.

Eventually I got it to work with the cottage sliced in two at either end of a full circle image.  Then I had to dig deep into the unknown again to turn the clouds transparent.  There was an intended purpose to all of this, several actually.  For a long time I have wanted to have the cottage background as the backdrop to the software I use very often on the computer; Stellarium.  The other reason for facing the frustration was that I had never done it before and saw it as a challenge.

Eventually the clouds were removed and it was dropped into stellarium to give a proper setting for the sun, moon and stars.


Orion rising out of our neighbour’s garage.

The sun rising over the apiary.

To be honest, the north, south, east and west, are not aligned properly.  Also, the ground is a little high.  I can live with these things for a few days; my geekness will only go so far.

We did not mark the solstice by getting up before dawn and watching the sun roll slowly out of the ground. We did not spend the night without electricity and lit only by candle. Instead we celebrated by heading to the big city and pottered about among the pulse and throb of Christmas. We did find ourselves having a leisurely lunch in the cathedral quarter among office workers. They were obviously on a Christmas lunch and very much full of festive cheer. They were merry and we merrily dined beside them and fed off their laughter and joy (and fumes maybe?). However, I did insist on connecting with the solstice somehow; by reading, out loud, chapter one of ‘Findings’ by Kathleen Jamie, on the drive from culchie land into the big city. It is a chapter all about the solstice, darkens and Maes Howe.

On the way home I was reminded about the significance that is carried to us by places like Maes Howe. I was reminded of this as we passed a grand old hill near to us and our journey home. This hill/mountain has a mound on its summit so obvious that it can just be seen by its silhouette against the winter night sky. In the daytime it stands out like a sore thumb; a lump of a thing that sits half molded into the earth and half folded into time itself. Yet, it has never been surveyed or excavated. I feel the need to share this observation with the lovely Sharon. Instantly she retorts that I always say this as we drive past. Slightly wounded by this harsh observation of my own dotting personality I reply in the only way I can, “it’s always true.”

I once heard a sermon about Christmas which began with the overhearing of a conversation. The conversation was between two shoppers who happened to see a nativity scene in a shop window, “look, they try and put religion into everything these days.” The congregation laughed because obviously the shoppers had got it wrong and possibly missed the true meaning of Christmas. I wanted to throw up my hand and call out, “but, hang on!” The lovely Sharon tells me that this is not the done thing to do in church.

It is true that Christmas has been warped, twisted and crushed by consumerism. However, there is an even older meaning to what is now Christmas. Before Christianity, even before the paganism that Christianity shone a light on; there was a Christmas of sorts. All over Northern Europe there are old stones from a time before bronze and iron. Old stones placed in specific places to time out the year. Close to the cottage here, there is such a set of stones. Thousands of years ago the local people would have stood at the lower standing stone and stared up at the stone on the horizon and waited. They would have waited for the sunrise and on the solstice, tomorrow morning; they would have seen the sun rise at the stone on the edge of the hill. This was cause for celebration, for it marked the turning of the winter. From then on, the sun would begin to claw back at the dark nights, a little at a time. It was a time to break the strict rationing of resources and eat well. It was a time for families to gather together and share stories, laugh, sing and dance at firesides.

Winter Solstice by Henrik Djarv

Merry solstice everyone.

Resources are low here at the cottage. Most of the honey disappeared soon after it was jarred. The blackcurrant jam was steadily given away to friends before most of the rest of it was sold; it has been reduced from ninety jars to only about ten. When we sat down last night to see what was left that can be made into little hampers for Christmas presents. The intention was to make up a little selection of five jars in each hamper. When we looked at what was left we could only scrounge together two. The limiting factors were the crab apple jelly and the redcurrant jelly.

Only two hampers seems disappointing, but it simply means that the two people who receive them should feel all the more special.  Especially as it took two kilos of crab apples and a lot of time to make those two tiny jars.  I don’t think I’ll try and make crab apple jelly again.

a brief history of santa

All is frozen.  The chickens are bunched together as close as they can on their perch in the shed.  The bees are clustered in a tight ball and are slowly eating their way through their winter stores, their finite gamble of the summer’s hard graft.  Around these pockets of warmth and life, all is frozen.  The ground around the cottage is a sheet of icy glass, beyond that; frozen earth.  Tonight I took a little time to look at the winter sky.  The moon is waning at the moment.  This means that it is hidden away on the other side of the world, and it means the sky is dark and the stars are out.  Orion dominates the winter sky with Taurus.  Cygnus the swan is still there but we forget about her when Orion arrives.  Earlier tonight we fought our way around the town and eventually left it as we spotted Venus and Jupiter as the only lights in the sky.  Tonight Jupiter was still hanging about, a dedicated planet, with her moons visible with the help of binoculars.  The Pleiades were a joy and the red of aldebaran was strangely warming. Not warming enough to linger though, houses are warm in these dark winter nights.

Friday night Christmas dinner with the lovely Sharon’s work.  A massive amounts of food was consumed, it feels like enough to last me till Monday.  A cold night and a frozen dawn.  Saturday pancakes are even nicer when shared with visiting family.

A little chess was played between my nephew and I after breakfast and before a snow ball fight.  The little man joined in the chess and the game was then forfeited to him.  Neither of us could find a way to defend against the little man’s aggressive attack.  Little man’s choo choo train to B3 taking white’s bishop, pawn and knight, and also black’s queen.  I had never seen anything like it.  Such a creative flare that even a Grand Master would never think of.

I will be the first to admit that the pastoral side of teaching is not always my strong point.  I see myself more as the geek than the caring kind.  As a result, form periods are always an issue for me.  There are resources provided in abundance, it’s just that they are not always appropriate.  Recently we had some time dedicated to bullying.  We had a word search on bullying.  These are intelligent sixteen year olds, so I had to admit (in a sarcastic voice) how nothing can stop bullying like a word search.  Instead I told them a story about a cat, our little cat.  She was destined to be put down due to her tendency to urinate everywhere.  This seemed a little bit harsh in my eyes and we asked the vet if we could take her home for a while to see if she got on with our own cat.  Of course she didn’t, cats tend to be grumpy with each other at the best of times.  We kept her anyway and discovered that she did not pee everywhere as expected.  In fact she was perfect, apart from a bit of anxiety.  It turns out that she used to be the bottom of the pecking order in a house full of cats.  She must have lived in permanent fear from bullying, scared to even venture anywhere even for the toilet.  From that story I swiftly moved on to the social structure of baboon groups.  The baboons took it all to a new level of geekness but eventually some sort of anti bullying message hopefully got through.

For other ideas for form periods I approached the lovely Sharon.  Being a year head, she is a little more experienced in all things pastoral.  To be honest I did not actually approach her, it was more a curiosity as to why we were going to charity shops looking for board games.  She revealed to me that they were to encourage bonding and socialising in a constructive way during form period.  Genius!

Today I tried it out with brilliant results.  We had fun, we played games.  One group discovered the ancient game of ‘Go’.  This two player game ended up with two teams of spectators seemingly engrossed in the game.  Another group threw themselves into scrabble while yet another group asked me, “what is Pictionary?”  Seriously!  Minutes later we were all shouting, “monkey?” “Cage?” “Monkey in a box?” “Monkey in a cage?”

Board games are good.  How often do we have the time to play board games, to get together with friends and be a little challenged while having fun?  I will, of course, never admit to the lovely Sharon how amazing her idea was.  Don’t worry, she does not seem to read this blog very often as apparently it is enough just to have to listen to me, but I will steal her idea and run with it.  I have drawn up my own little list of board games and will soon begin trawling the charity shops.

I really did not want to write about it, but so many people were asking.  Curious townies perhaps?  So, this is it, this is how the chicken passed on…..

It was a dark and wild night with the wind howling like a banshee.  The innocent chickens were all in the shed, in their warming cluster.  I closed and locked the hatch, they need not be part of what happened next.  I approached the solitary confinement coop and quietly, gently, opened the hatch to find her, the egg eater, guiltily sitting in the wood chippings.  I lifted her as slowly as possible without shining my head torch in her eyes.  She was so warm and so quiet that we both knew she had given up, resigned herself to the inevitable.  She had accepted her fate and I hope she accepted my role in it.  At that exact moment all hell broke loose in the chicken shed.  The others knew what was happening and wanted to be out.  So I let them all out to watch.  They all hopped out in time to see the cloud arrive down.  I set her on the cloud with a little yogurt and chopped apple to see her through the journey, it was her favourite (actually, maybe second favourite after her own eggs). The chickens and I just watched with tears in our eyes as she moved up into the winter sky and off to chicken heaven.  Not a word was spoken between any of us after that.  They silently shuffled back into the shed and I closed the hatch before pausing and looking up into the air.  I don’t know how long I paused and thought about her.  No matter how long, it could never be long enough to honour her.

It has been done. I did not like it, but it had to be.


Not many people drove past us, but the ones that did saw three people trimming the winter hedgerows.  One of the three of us was attached to my back in his rucksack.  The two of us that were not reclining or being chauffeured along were carrying buckets.  We were carrying buckets full of holly.  Our long walk with buckets full of free Christmas decorations was eventually cut short as the sun began to set and a cold wind picked up.  The daylight is so short these days, the winter solstice must only be days away.  We can see why holly was used as decoration in times past.  Bringing the vibrant green into the home is a reminder of the potential of spring.  Although, on our dander we did find a random hint of spring.  Not the real spring, just some random bounce in response to the strange warmth of November; we spotted a wild strawberry flowering.

red alert

The darkness carries a certain strangeness.  The world is slowly turning, wobbling, towards the solstice.  We wake up in darkness, go to work in darkness, go home in darkness and fall to sleep in darkness.  There is a familiarity to it; we spent the first nine months of our life in darkness. There is a comfort to the darkness, and yet we are also comforted by the light.  Today I stopped an answer to a question mid-flow.  I halted it and left it hanging because I realised the bell was about to go.  I stopped taking and threw two sets of books into canvas bags to take home.  Bad lesson planning could be to blame, or bad time keeping.  Then I ran out to meet the climbers to roll call and ferry down to the climbing wall.  As I waited for them to congregate I had a celebration of light in the middle of this darkness.  The sky was blue and freezing cold and the moon hung in its arch.  It is fattening and growing close to full; the cold moon.  As we stood around, moaning and groaning about the cold, I asked if they could see the hare on the moon.  They all looked at me as if I was half mad, half ‘wired to the moon’.  No, they said their eye sight was not that good, they could not see the hair on the moon.  They were not on my train of thought at all.

Chicken number two, inmate number two, has been in the clink for over two days without producing an egg.  I suspect the eggs have been produced, then devoured in a peculiar sort of cannibalism.  Things are not looking good for number two, dark clouds are gathering on the horizon.  Fowl play is afoot. Sorry, I could not resist.

The rain was beginning to fall, moving from drizzle into fine droplets. The wipers began to do their thing for a few seconds until there was a clunking noise and the wipers stopped in the middle of their job. This is not the first time this has happened to me. I remember at least two occasions, as they stand out for their inconvenience. One was in driving snow and the other was when the wipers were frozen to the window. On both of these occasions I was able to rig something together using pliers and a head torch. It is possible that some finger blood and bad language was also used. One of these repairs involved removing the two blades and attaching the largest to the passenger side gear which was still moving. For a while I had a single wiper which never rested in the usual place at the bottom of the window. I amused myself by imagining myself to be driving an antiquated classic.  It was not a classic.

This time it was not one of my old, more than ten years old, cars. This time it was the Honda Jazz. Being only 4 years old and with low mileage I guess it was just bad luck. Luckily I was only a quarter mile from my parent’s house and the rain was trying to decide between drops and drizzle.

The culprit, as it was on all the other occasions, was a ball and socket joint that had worn down over time. These steel ball and nylon cup arrangements cannot be replaced individually. Usually the whole wiper system ends up being replaced. The cheapest 2nd had system that I could find on the internerd was £50 plus delivery. I refused to give up so easily.

This morning I stripped out the wiper system. It was symbolic that I leant over the engine and ignored it completely, the engine on this car is a mystery to me. Years ago I would have played about with the distributor, maybe strip it down to clean and dry it in damp weather. This engine is beyond me, beyond the amateur. The ball and socket I can have a blast at. I drilled out a hole, then a wider hole, and inserted a bolt.

Another hole was drilled in the nylon socket; bigger, to allow movement.

Two nuts locked it all together leaving more room for movement, but none for dislocation.

It is not a permanent fix, but it will buy some more time. Maybe it will last the winter and more. Even though it was a simple little job, it felt like a triumph over the solution of wastage and throwing money at a problem, money that could be better spent. It feels good to have fixed it, good until it fails, on a dark night, in the cold and driving rain and wind.

Tonight I picked up a second chicken and put her in prison.  Evidence revealed the first chicken, the loner, to be innocent.  I now feel a little sorry for her and will try and give her the choice treats of our leftovers.  Is it possible for me to be sentimental when I still intend to dispatch the egg eater?

After my duties as a poultry prison warder I walked around the cottage and down the lane to close the gates.  On grim nights of driving rain it is a job done swiftly.  Tonight it was at a slow and meandering pace.  Tonight the quarter moon hung with its winter friends Orion, Taurus and Pisces. Long stings of clouds obscured them just a little, but not enough to prevent catching, a glimpse of, a falling star.

As I walked around, I caught myself slipping into the habit of our cats.  I walked slowly through the paths of least light.  Paths that sneaked under and beyond the sensors of our security lights.  It’s instinctual, the desire not to spoil the stars at night.

The ‘egg eating chicken’ saga continues.  Last night I scooped up the chicken that is under suspicion and placed her alone in a specially prepared coop and run.  Each morning just after half six, I step into the winter darkness and open up the shed and collect any eggs.  Often they have just been laid and are heavy with a slightly disturbing warmth.  This morning I collected one from the prisoner and two from the others.  When I got back into the cottage I noticed little hole in one of the eggs.  She had started to eat it before I disturbed her, but who?  Was it the chicken in the cell?  I have no idea and therefore, no hard evidence.  With no head torch on I often just use the dim glow of the stars and the far away dawn to stumble about.  Darkness was my enemy this morning.  More time is needed and more evidence if I am to be judge, jury and executioner.