Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A Gardening Tourist.

Gardening is international, but of course climate is not.  I have encountered with great pleasure a variety of formal and informal gardens in various parts of Europe, from the huge acreage of Versailles to the tiny but attractive  herb garden of Loches Castle in the Upper Loire region. One my favourites was Parc des Moutiers (left) a beautiful piece of old English countryside charm that just happens to be in Normandy.

Inevitably one meets with the occasional disappointment.  I can understand why financial concerns  might encourage people  to open to the public a new garden that is not ready or an old garden that has been allowed to fall into decay, but I do wish they wouldn't.  The loss of time thus entailed is a hazard of horticultural visits.

By contrast, at the high end of the garden hospitality spectrum, I can only admire the proprietor of Le Chemin des Roses at Doue la Fontaine (right), who gave a discount because my visit did not coincide with high season even though his gardens were still beautiful.  The proprietor of the outstanding collection of hydrangeas at Varengeville-sur-Mer, who speaks perfect English, was kind enough to give of his valuable time to answer the enquiries of a visitor who insisted on speaking in less than perfect French.

When given free time in a city I am often to be founding hunting for the municipal botanic gardens or arboretums.  Helsinki (left) was an interesting example of the former, because it offered a plant selection suggestive of a similar climate to Sliabh Mannan, and as usual gave ideas for plants that we should love to introduce into our own garden if only we could locate a local supplier. By and large it does not make a lot of sense to mail-order from the south of England if you entertain any hopes that your plants may be induced to survive a winter in Sliabh Mannan. Somebody should send perhaps local garden centre owners to Helsinki in search of suitable new varieties.

I enjoyed the arboretum at Villa Taranto (right,) on Lago Maggiore too.  The problem with being inspired to plant trees of course is the need for the foresight of Capability Brown.  One just has to try and use one's imagination.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Bernkastel - Kues

Some wise 14th century citizen of a little Moselle wine town should be credited with real foresight for devising one of the best marketing ploys ever invented for a 21st century wine.  All you have to do is have your product save the life of the Elector Palatine as he lies gravely ill.  Now some might question why the Elector became ill in your town in the first place, whilst others might argue that if he was so easily revived he cannot have been all that sick.  Nevertheless the legend adds a quality to Benkastel wine that can hardly be improved upon.

Some of the wine can hardly be improved upon either, as you can establish for yourself at an excellent tasting establishment in Kues on the opposite bank of the river.

The river turns out to have been important in local history for more than just economic reasons.  The plague broke out in Bernkastel but not Kues in 1627 and in Kues but not Bernkastel in 1641.  The first bridge was not built until 1874, which allowed the merger of the two communities in 1905.

Bernkastel is a very picturesque little town, with beautiful half-timbered buildings, especially around its market square.  The remarkably narrow Spitzhäuschen is a famous example of the type.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Scottish Debt

The only surprising thing about the UK Treasury statement that it will honour all UK debt, including Scotland's notional share, in the event of Scottish independence is that the statement needed to be made at all.

A gilt-edged security certifies a contract between a lender and the UK as a sovereign borrower. A contract cannot be unilaterally amended by one of the parties.

It is fair criticism to say that I should not have used the word default in my articles on this subject back in November, since that word might be understood as suggesting that the lenders risked not being repaid at all, rather than not being repaid by the beneficiary. Legally the UK government is responsible for its borrowing, irrespective of whether the whole of the UK or only a part is in receipt of the resultant spending.

The point that I made in November is still valid. The divorcing partner who refuses a fair share of the joint debt behaves immorally. Suspect behaviour raises the spectre of default in the collective mind of the market and that raises interest rates for the irresponsible partner's future borrowing.

Friday, 10 January 2014


Members of the crow family are to be found on Sliabh Mannan in considerable numbers. 

Probably most numerous are rooks (Corvus frugilegus), whose noisy flocks build villages of untidy nests in the tops of the tallest trees in the surrounding woodland.  They are very sociable and commonly go around in large groups.  Quite often we see a collective search for food in grass fields, with several birds all speaking at the same time.  The uproar sounds just like a session of parliament and it is easy to imagine votes of censure being passed by the assembled birds against farmers who regard them as pests and shoot at them in the lambing season. 

Rooks (above left) are easily distinguished from the similar-sized carrion crows (Corvus corone) (right) by their grey beaks and grey patch of skin on the face. 

The crows tend to appear in much smaller numbers, often ones and twos. They are very hard to photograph because of the uniform blackness of their plumage, from which it is very difficult to pick out clear features.

Magpies (Pica pica) do a very good impression of being always dressed for dimmer, but since dinner is likely to include small birds and nestlings they are not often welcome guests. They are rumoured to harbour larcenous intentions as well.  From a bird photographer's point of view however they do offer at least the potential for better compositions than their all-black relatives.

There is at least one pair of ravens (Corvus corax) in the neighbourhood, but so far I have seen them only in flight and photographed them poorly.  The easiest distinguishing features of this bird are the wedge shaped tail and 'cronk' call note.

Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) families have moved into a couple of disused chimneys of our house, which seem to be large enough to contain nests for these smaller members of the crow family.  This was not too much of a problem until the night when one fledgling fell down the chimney and landed sootily in the bedroom!  Fortunately I was able to release it without too much difficulty or damage.   The jackdaws, with their shorter overall length and stubbier wings seem to be capable of some remarkable aerobatics.

I have mentioned in an earlier post how good the crow family are at mobbing buzzards.  Usually the aggrieved raptor will just lumber stolidly away, doing its best to appear unconcerned.  Recently however I observed an interesting variant.  The buzzard simply climbed in a spiral until it exceeded the operational ceiling of the mob, all of whom promptly dropped away and descended again to the tree tops.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Ask a Silly Question

It is annoying that the standard of the independence debate remains low.  Such an important issue deserves better.
For example, we are told that most people agree with the proposition "decisions about Scotland should be taken in Scotland". What a surprise. Surreptitiously sliding emotional bias into surveys is a standard method of distorting results.
Suppose we consider a few other questions formatted in a similar way. For example, do we agree that "decisions about banks should be taken in banks"? Is it purely a matter for bankers to determine whether our deposits should be invested wisely or repaid on demand? No? Thought not.
Perhaps the Northern Isles might care to claim that decisions about the Northern Isles should be taken in the Northern Isles? How would Edinburgh respond to the assertion that "It's Shetland's oil"?
Let us pursue the logic further. Can anyone think of any reason why decisions about me should be entrusted to anyone but myself? What's all this nonsense about having to obey laws?
It should be fairly obvious that it is almost impossible to take decisions affecting one part of a community that do not affect other parts of that community, sometimes very seriously. For any society to be viable, its members must sacrifice some of their individual freedom to the greater good. The real question is therefore whether the value of the greater good is more than the value of the sacrifice.
Now let's think. What would be a good example? How exactly did Scottish banking get bailed out during the financial crisis? Who is placing the warship orders that could keep the Clyde shipyards open? Who decided to give Scotland a bigger share of UK public spending per head than England?
Or perhaps these are the sort of decisions about Scotland that should be taken in Scotland?