It has changed. The day length has changed; the darkness is winning.  It’s the fastest rate of daylight change. The air has changed, the leaves are changing. Autumn has arrived.  Even the word “Autumn” is believed to come from the Etruscan word “autu”, meaning change of season.  I used to think that I enjoyed all seasons equally; no favourites as a policy. I was wrong, this is it; a winner by a mile.

Now I feed and water the chickens with a head torch on and the air around the cottage has the faint smell of wood smoke.  With the darkness the evening sky is now my seasonal clock as I walk down the lane.  Cygnus, the swan, is beginning its annual migration across the night and, if its dark enough, marks the arc of the milky way. The swan reminds me to keep an eye out for the skeins of birds in the sky. I usually spot the during the commute to school.  Sitting in the static traffic gives me a chance to look up.

It’s strange to have an autumn without bees.  No syrup feed, no honey harvest. The hives were left empty in the hope that maybe a stray swarm might move in; no joy.  To add insult to injury I found a wasp nest in one of the old spare hives.


Then there is the apples. The trees are older and the pruning, feeding and weeding is beginning to bear some fruit. James Grieves, McIntosh Red, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Katy, Russet and some other unknown varieties. Although the Russet is not really a Russet. We bought it five years ago and planted it as a thin sapling.  Five years latter and we discover that it had been mislabelled. Should I have kept the receipt?  This is the consequence of growing trees, proper slow food.  The taste and textures of the apples are quite different and we eat apple and cheese sandwiches, baked apples, fried apples on toast (which is quite nice; thank you Nigel Slater), apple crumble and simply eat the apples. We have even filled a couple of boxes with apples individually wrapped in newspaper and hidden away in a cool dark place.  Yet, a little while a go I went looking for apples to buy at the market.  I wanted Russet apples as they add to the flavour of autumn for me.  I intended to buy them for my A Level class to try and convince them to branch out (sorry) and try other varieties that the supermarket keep hidden from them.  The market didn’t have any.  Later that day there was a knock on my classroom door in the middle of my A Level lesson.  It was a past pupil with a bag of twenty five russet apples. She works part-time in a fruit shop and when they arrived in, she knew I would like them; a thoughtful and wonderful gift. After they were distributed there was still one or two left to set on my desk.  Although it is nowhere near as neat as the clichéd teacher’s desk.

It’s hard to describe the busy nature of life with three little people to look after.  After a long day at school I arrived home just after the lovely Sharon; also just home from a long day at school.  We hit the ground running; the dinner needed made, the little man’s homework needed to be supervised, the little lady demanded that I listened to the debrief of her nursery school day, and the littlest man simply demanded my attention with duplo. The lovely Sharon and I juggled these tasks with no time to ask each other how our days had been.  As if to demonstrate how our priorities and perspective on life has shifted; it was only about half an hour later that the lovely Sharon remembered to mention, “Oh, yeah, I forgot to say that our school was on fire today.  We were evacuated and the fire brigade had to put it out.” At that point somebody screamed.  It might have been a duplo block that wouldn’t fit, a spelling written back to front, or someone needing to go to the toilet.  I can’t recall the details, but that was the end of the small talk.

In ancient times we think that people believed their metal tools were alive, and had souls. I am currently reminding my students of this while we learn about smelting copper and smelting iron. We take all these metals for granted and I want to give them a hint of the magic of it all, the wonderful leap in our technology. We, thousands of years ago, even went as far as burying metallic tools and weapons as if they were people. We now know that these things aren’t alive, or are they…..

Tonight I arrived home a little later and wanted to get some wood cut before darkness arrived. I have come to the conclusion that working with a chainsaw in the dark is a little dangerous. I got all the wood out, the chainsaw out, the safety helmet out, and the cutting horse all set up. The saw was revved up and I started cutting while the little man pottered about on his tricycle shouting “NOISE! NOISE!”. I didn’t get far with the cutting before I realised that the chain was blunt and needed sharpening. I have a special tool for this somewhere…..

I looked in the toolboxes, and on the workbench, and around the workbench and in the wood shed, and on the potting table. Then I looked in the toolboxes, and on the workbench, and around the workbench and in the wood shed, and on the potting table again. The light was fading. I started getting desperate. Inside the house I looked in the kitchen, in the living room, and around the computer desk. Nothing. At this stage it was nearly dark, so I angrily gave in. All the wood cutting equipment was put back in a very grumpy manner.

Finished with the wood, and finished with any thought of doing any kind of work for the night, I went to close up the garage. Just as I was about to walk out the door my eye caught a glimpse of the tool. I reached over and pulled a fallen piece of cardboard away. I stared at the tool. We stood in silence for a few minutes just staring at each other, and under my breath I vowed that someday I will bury the dark soul of that tool so deep in the earth that it will never hear the noise of a chainsaw ever again.

About a week ago I looked at the calendar and realised that I would be at the cottage in the Mournes close to the full moon. Such a syzygy between the moon, the cottage and me is usually deliberate, but this time it was purely coincidence. At lunch time on Friday I tried to herd the pupils into the minibus to head to the mountains. There are usually a few pupils who are the sort that are busy. The sort that are quite well organised but seem constantly preoccupied because they are doing so much, doing so many worthy things. There are usually one or to of these types, but somehow most of the pupils were like this. They all seemed to have meetings to attend and I found myself having to be patient and wait on them without being able to be justifiably angry with them.

Eventually we piled into the bus and headed for the mountains. A few hours later they unfolded from the cramped minibus and loaded themselves with their backpacks before heading up into the heart of the Mourne Mountains. Their task was to arrive at the cottage before dark and they achieved it with time to spare.

The evening was spent sitting around the old cottage fire and route planning by candle light before trying to get some sleep before the cold night set in. For a couple of brief moments between laughter around the fire I spotted the nearly full moon through the cottage window. We tried to read a few ghost stories but we totally failed to take ourselves seriously and stories were started but quickly ended in laughter.

Saturday found us all awake very early. At half eight we had our feet on the hills and heading up into the Annalong Valley. Our route stretched the legs and gave the students a chance to remind themselves what hiking and camping involved, a change to enjoy the wild country and the air.

***CAUTION:  Do not read if you are of a squeamish disposition***

The chickens are loving the cool spring sunshine.

They wander around the whole garden and keep sneaking up on my when I am doing the chores.

I imagine the bees have also been loving the bright weather, but they are all early to bed and on these evenings I only ever seem to catch a few late ones fly home.

The eggs have only three days until their due date.  I was chatting with one of the school caretakers about the eggs hatching and he told me that the first time his brother-in-law tried to hatch eggs it did not work quite as well as expected.  He told me that a lot of them hatched with their bowels on the outside.  I did not thank him for that erasable mental image.

It is ten in the evening and I have just had dinner. Sometimes going to get medicine for a little man’s chest infection puts insignificant things like dinner time way down on the list of priorities.  Having dinner so late is just a minor part of a mis-synchronisation I have been feeling over the last few days.  Yesterday I arrived back into my home time zone from a ski trip.  I set my clocks back an hour after having moved them forward the day before due to the spring leap forward of summer time, then I let the plane and coach journeys drift through me.

This morning I did not know where, or when, I was.  I woke up thinking I was in Norway and began to think about the day ahead on the mountain.  Then I mentally shook off the sleepiness and reminded myself that I was at the cottage and ready to go to school.  Sidereal time helps the readjustment.  The clockwork of the sun moon and stars helps me relax into real time, not watches, clocks and mobile phones.

a moment captured before going off-piste

I am glad, and surprised, to say that the stars did not feel like home in Norway.  The trip and the experience were amazing, and the chance of a lifetime.  I am not saying that I felt out of place, it is just interesting that the stars were positioned differently and were an unexpected extra experience to be enjoyed. The pole star and its turning companions were slightly shifted, being higher in the sky and out of there usual tilted seat.

the Norwegian jupiter, venus and moon on Saturday evening

The moon was no different though, it was a reminder of the steadiness of this turning world. It is this sidereal time that I try to set my internal clock to.

jupiter, venus and the moon last night at the cottage

Often I see an imbalance in my students in the classroom. To learn and develop in any subject, two things are needed; knowledge and confidence. Too often my students have too much of one and too little of the other. Over-confidence without knowledge is dangerous, but the reverse is frustrating. Half a teacher’s job is to slowly, and delicately, build our pupil’s belief in themselves while realising it can be shattered so easily. If I am being honest, I have to admit that my own balance in the learning curve is weighted down by too much confidence, with the exception of fruit trees.

When faced with a fruit trees I really do not know what I am doing. I know they need pruned but I have a deep seated fear of killing the tree. It feels so wrong to let me loose with a set of loppers on a tree that must be decades old. Over a year ago I read the books about pruning fruit trees. I read dusty old books found in second hand book shops and shiny new books dispatched from the monstrous book machine that is Amazon. I read and absorbed. I looked at the diagrams and I inspected the trees with the book in hand. I did all this before taking the loppers in hand and…… doing nothing. Fear gripped me and my own confidence drained away as I approached the trees.

Last spring I watched the oldest of these fruit trees suffer. It bloomed and began to blossom at the edges of its old branches until a cruel set of winds blew through the end of spring. The tree was too stretched out with its untidily long branches, the leaves began to curl and die. In the summer it found the energy to recover a little, but it was clear that it was suffering, and it was my fault.

This morning I decided to go for it. Over confidence can be brutal, but then again; confidence must be gained by experience. I grabbed the loppers, and the ladders, and the wood saw! I threw myself into it and the plum tree did not look like itself by the end of it. Time will tell.

Later in the morning I found out some good news. As it was such a lovely spring day the bees took advantage of it. They were very active with lots of big wheeling and spiralling flights around the hives. This is a sign that some of the bees were learning the hives location. This, in itself is a good sign; however the really exciting sight was that of big wads of pollen being brought into the hives in large amounts. Lots of pollen means lots of baby bees to be fed, which probably means that both hives contain healthy laying queens. Now that temperature of spring, and my bee fever, is beginning to rise, my mind is drifting to the characters of the seasons. The willow is releasing its pollen, but when will the dandelions start to take over the fields and verges. When will there be the first ‘flow’?

I tried to use the computer to write my reports…

…but I was put in my place; and my place was the little man’s seat.  It turns out that computers are for watching In the Night Garden.  God bless CBeeBies.

Over five thousand written comments, over thirty thousand pieces of numerical data, and over six hundred merge fields.  Over the coming days all these strings must mesh together seamlessly to create the school reports. There will be seams, there will probably be tears (rips), and maybe even tears (me crying).  The sever that handles all this magic coughed and spluttered today.  I had been working for over half an hour on getting all the merge fields working properly on one particular report when a colleague burst into the office dramatically, “The sever is down!”  Straight away I saved my work.  No error messages popped up.  It seems that it was still working away but not taking any new incoming connections.  I think I know how it feels.  I turned it off and on again, but it still remained stubborn.  Our ICT technician stepped in and tried his technical wizardry.  He turned it off and on again, but it still did not work.  With all our sophisticated options exhausted, we rang the IT gods that govern the system.  I am not joking; they turned it off and then on again and it worked.  I left the server up time/down time, and the merge fields and data.  I went back to teaching until the end of the day when I ran out into the rain to get the climbers all filled into taxis and on their way to the wall.

A long drive through the rain and puddles found me home and data-less.  There is nothing better to shake off the merge fields and spreadsheets than chopping wood for the fire. There is the slow gentle search through the wood for easily split blocks for kindling, then there is the chopping that moves the arms and shifts the knots from a day spent in front of a computer.  The chickens and cats were then fed and watered.  The chickens are still stoically laying their one egg each ever day.  No one has pointed to them that it is not always normal to carry on through the heart of the winter darkness.  I can’t say it was totally relaxing, but it was strangely comforting to sit with the little man before he went to bed.  Ben Howard was blasting away over the crackling of the growing fire.  The little man sat beside me with his head nearly inside a box of blocks.  Periodically he held up a block to me with a look that said, “Look, look at that! That’s a block, wow!”  I agreed and carried on with a set of papers and a red pen ticking and scribbling away.  There are still about twenty four empty spaces in that database.

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.

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.

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Just more evidence that you can’t upgrade the brain’s firmware.  It’s disturbing that this cannot be overruled by conscious thought.  Then again, it’s just as mad when you realise what our eyes see and what we think we see.  That’s another can of worms.  I spent about ten minutes today trying to explain to my year 11 class that when we see yellow on the TV there is no yellow light coming from the screen.  It just tricks our brain into thinking it sees yellow.

Today was a particularly well balanced day.  It was the equinox.  On top of that, I got to teach some nice topics such as atomic theory.  It is always a joy to reveal, to students, how it was that mankind discovered an element on the sun before it was discovered on earth.  It was all discovered in a time before space travel and before computers.  These are not the things that discover truths, ideas are.

The A-level students are ready for the discovery of Helium (named in honour of the sun, Helios, where it was discovered), their minds are prepared.  A junior class are not as prepared but they are ready for the seeds of scientific strangeness to be planted.  I told them how time travel forwards in time is an aspect of Einstein’s theory of special relativity.  Of course they refuse to believe, and this is the bit I love.  I then tell them that it is true and proven.  I tell them that there are satellites with clocks on board travelling at speed around our earth.  They are travelling fast enough for time to slow down on board the satellites and the clocks now all out of sync.  I then tell them that, if they desire, they can walk down the street and buy a device that listens to all these clocks that are wrong.  It listens and thinks.  It realises that the wrong time of a satellite is due to its fast speed and it listens some more.  After pondering the problem for a moment it compares all the wrong times and figures out where it is on the planet.  Without this time travel effect GPS would simply not work.

After all this I arrive home on the autumnal equinox as the leaves are falling on the roads.  I arrive home and find the little man.  He is close to that time, close to completing his first orbit around the sun.  Tempus fugit.  Fugit irreparabile tempus

Our staff room cannot hold teaspoons.  They start off in healthy numbers and then, very slowly at the start, they begin to disappear.  The problem seems to creep up on us all and then suddenly we have to face it head on when there are only two spoons for a staff of nearly one hundred.  The yoghurt eaters, out of necessity, have to be a shrewd bunch.

People think I try to get in early so that I can get some work done or maybe beat the traffic.  The truth is that I like to eat my porridge with a tea spoon.  I try to get in before eight am to make sure I can get a spoon.

Today a kind soul bought a stir of spoons, a pile of them that seemed opulent.  I am ashamed to say that I got home from work today and ritually emptied my suit pockets of pens, keys and random bits of paper……and…… a teaspoon.  I am now wracked with guilt.

It wasn’t really a week as Monday was a bank holiday spent investigating forests with the lovely Sharon and the little man who took the form of a very animated rucksack that kept going “baa badaa badaa badaa”, and “doyi doyi doyi doyi”.


Tuesday morning found me standing watching the island of Ailsa Craig forming in the mist with the smell of sea and diesel fumes around me and the percussion of an Irish ferry below my feet.  A minibus was packed to the gills and we all headed for the Cumbrian Mountains in anticipation and apprehension of the expedition to come.


The first day of the expedition found the groups weary and slow on their feet.  At this point I began to worry that their route selection did not meet their fitness.  The instructor and I wandered by the paths to meet the groups and, once I discovered that he was a wilderness survival expert, I bombarded him with questions; “what’s this?” “and this?”  “can I eat this?”  We nibbled sorrel that still had the remnant of its spring apple skin flavour and he taught me how to taste the leaf tentatively in case I might make the deadly mistake of picking the leaf of a lords and ladies.


In the evening the sky was clear and I found a lonely student bivvying beside, instead of inside, his tent.  Soon we were joined by the whole group and, when they should have been tired, they were learning to spot the big dipper, the pole star, Pleiades and the moons of Jupiter (with the help of my binoculars).  The questions slowly turned from science, to religion, to philosophy and then back to the stars again.  With all our heads swollen with difficult thoughts I drifted off down the path to my tent.  I crawled into my bag and zipped up the tent before I realised my stupidity.  Why spend the night under canvas when I could stare at the stars until sleep took hold.  I lay with my head outside and watched some shooting stars and a few satellites as the sky turned.  Eventually I fell asleep with a chilled face, then woke and retreated into my shell a few hours after that.


On the second day the groups seemed to find their mountain legs and speeded up a little. Near the end of the day, before leaving the group for a wild camp in a remote valley, the instructor encouraged me to join him in a run down the mountain.  In fairness, it took little encouragement.  With a steep gradient of a bracken coated valley below us I needed very little in the way of coercion.  We ran, and I was reminded of the joy and fear of running in the mountains.  A certain momentum is achieved and it felt like a kind of surfing of gravity and earth.  As it was over a year since I had done any kind of running in the mountains there was a price to pay.  The next day the pain began, and increased on the next, and the next, and the next.  For days I walked normally uphill and on the flat, but hobbled like a cripple on even the most gentle of downhill gradients.  Stairs required a steady grip on the hand rail and a measure of decorum to maintain a straight face.


The groups carried on their epic journey.  I am not being flippant when I say that the expedition will have been the hardest thing they have ever done and will probably remain so for some time.  On the third day they excelled themselves in terms of endurance and they encountered horrible grim weather in the morning and still summer sunshine in the evening.


On the final day we made them take the shorter foul weather route due to gusts coming from a risky direction.  The groups did not get upset but instead whooped with joy at a few tiny kilometres being sliced off the total.


Just after lunch they arrived at the end.  Exhausted, battle weary and in bits and pieces.  They threw off their packs as they were curses and collapsed in the sunshine.  In the morning they had dismal weather and they took on the appearance of drowned rats.


The next day I once again found myself on the Irish ferry passing Ailsa Craig.  This time we were all tired and looking forward to home and civilisation.  When we docked, we all shuffled down into the hull to fill the minibus for the final leg home.  The door slid open and everybody drew back.  It is hard to describe the smell of a minibus occupied by damp and dirty rucksacks and boots, and previously occupied with sixteen people for a very long journey.  All I can say is that we all made a shocked noise in unison that we all understood without the need for any kind of language.


I poured myself through the front door on Sunday evening and the lovely Sharon fed me stew that my father had made and I had just enough time to hold, feed, and put to bed, the little man.  The week had been a busy one and a difficult one.  Not the walking, the camping, or the sleeping on a one inch thick mattress that seemed to float on a bed of mud.  No, the hard part was being away from home and missing the little man and I told him this as he fell asleep and muttered “doyi doyi doyi doyi”.

They call it the great wind down, the last weeks of school term. This may have been true years ago but it exists only as a thing of the past now. The shift in my attention now moves away from my classes as they dwindle away and on to the massive puzzle that is the school timetable. In the middle of scheduling classes and playing with single and double periods, the electronic reporting also seems to eat away at huge chunks of my time.

Amid all these things little pockets of tranquillity appear as I head into the mountains with groups doing the Duke of Edinburgh Award. It is these random and amazing days that make it very difficult for me to convince the lovely Sharon how busy I really am.

the annalong valley today

unknown source

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