The Piccotts End Blog Years 2007-2010

December 2010

Winter sunset over Gadebridge ParkUp to now I can’t remember two successive white Christmases. But we’ve just had them – even if it didn’t snow on the day they were certainly white. Snow stories, which didn’t really exist throughout most of the Nineties, have become commonplace this past few years. Everyone can tell you of that nightmare journey home, the one that took four or five hours. This year it came rather earlier, around 2pm on December 18th. I thought I’d risk a quick trip into Hemel town centre, a journey of less than a mile. I should have walked, I know. Two hours later, having progressed about half a mile, I abandoned the car opposite the council offices and went into town on foot. Everywhere traffic was at a standstill. Amazingly Marlowes was packed with Christmas shoppers many of whom probably got there before the afternoon blizzard. Snowfall always makes a wonderful sight, if you’re not trapped in it that is. Here is one such, of a beautiful pink sunset over Gadebridge Park.

November 2010

The PERA fireworks party was revived this year and it was great to see so many families come along and enjoy pork rolls, hot dogs and fireworks. It’s always good to meet villagers you didn’t previously know and there were certainly plenty of those. The event raised about £400 and I hope some of this will go towards the plantings under the village signs, a lick of paint on the one on the Leighton Buzzard road exit and even a revamp of this web site, which is now in need of a makeover.

The Park View Farm site, which has been the subject of an Enforcement Order, has thankfully closed. Let’s hope that’s the end of the eyesore and the land will be returned to the pretty walled enclosure it used to be, but I doubt it. Whoever owns it will just leave it in its current derelict state until some other planning application is sought.

October

Very impressed with the Red Lion at Water End. We have eaten there a few times now and think it has a better ambience than the Marchmont Arms. There’s nothing wrong with the Marchmont, the food is always good, but the Red Lion is a bit more homely. Its pork and apple rolls are delicious, and they’re only £4.95. You can find them in the bar snacks menu. Talking of Water End it’s always sad to see so many HGVs thundering through this pretty string of cottages. Talk of by-passes come and go and the lorries continue to create mayhem. Can’t they at least declassify the road from an A to a B and force the lorries to take an alternative route?

September 2010

The Marchmont Cottage harvest has been plentiful, the pick of the bunch being about 20 ripe and sweet peaches. I planted the tree 4 years ago and this is the second year in a row that it has produced a bumper crop. I’ve added an apricot tree this year but as the last one died on me I’m not so optimistic about the results. Runner beans, potatoes, raspberries, blackberries and courgettes have also done well. My first attempt at growing melons was a minor success. I managed to get one to grow to the size of a table tennis ball but that was it. I’ll start much earlier next year as I think the secret is to get the fruit set by June in order to make the most of the warm weather,

August 2010

Hilliers must have read my July post. The tarmac lorry appeared the following day to re-lay the entrance. Much smarter. Now what about weeding the new border! A peaceful hot and sunny Saturday afternoon is disrupted by a lot of squawking in one of our apple trees. Looking up I spotted something green and feathery helping itself to the crop. Using binoculars this turned out to be not just one but half a dozen parrot-like birds which I later found out were parakeets. They have apparently been spreading from their London habitat and Piccotts End seems to be their latest staging post. You had to admire their camouflage. I managed to get this photo before the took off again in a whirl of green. Haven’t seen them since.

July 2010

Begonias can withstand most things but the current heatwave has reduced my plantings under the Piccotts End signs to a sorry state. But all is not lost. The sign by the Marchmont is now sporting a new planting of geraniums, begonias and fuchsias purchased from Hilliers Hemel Hemsptead. Pethaps I’ll ask them to sponsor the next planting. They need a PR boost to atone for the dreadful potholes around their entrance!

June 2010

The Piccotts End summer garden party is a great success. It was organised by Maggie Chandler and Sue Leach helped by a handful of residents and a heapful of sunshine! A tombola, raffle and a wet sponge stocks all helped to raise more than £800 for Maggie’s favoured charity Help for Heroes. Well done to everyone who made it happen.

I promised not to mention James Hannaway in this column for 3 months but time won’t stand still for Berkhamsted’s own one-man show. During that time he has stood unsuccessfully as an MP, printed the ‘C’ word in the Rex magazine (rather gratuitously in my opinion) and got away with it, and saved the St Albans Odeon. I was always one of the doubters about this project but have been proved wrong by the tenacity of James and the generosity of his supporters. There is still a long way to go but the projected opening in 2012 will be a shining example of people power. All this hasn’t quite gone to his head but there seems to be a new stridency in James’s rants in the Rex programme. This month he is hitting out in all directions, Tesco, the Daily Mail, BP, Dennis Hopper and the United States all come under the Hannaway hammer. He should add the names of the local petrol stations who are currently ripping us off with skyhigh prices. Shame on Texaco, Jet, Total and the others in Hemel who are charging 120p a litre when at Shell near Redbourn it’s a mere 113.9p.

May 2010

I haven’t heard a cuckoo for some 40 years, not since leaving the rural hills of Buckinghamshire for the townships of Harpenden and Hemel. But going into the garden at about 7am one morning this month there it was, in Gadebridge Park. Unmistakeably a cuckoo rather than say a pigeon, whose coos can sometimes sound similar. I was so moved by the experience that I wrote to Gazette asking if anyone else had heard this endangered species. I should have known I was wasting my time. The Gazette are not interested in cuckoos. If my experience is typical they’ve probably never heard one in the first place. Still, I heard a cuckoo and no one can take that away, even if they are ten-a-penny in Ashridge.

April 2010

We’ve had enough of Eric and his late deliveries. On the recommendation of our PERA neighbours Penny & Martin, our new paper boy is a man from Boxmoor who seems too good to be true. The papers are arriving at ten to 7 every morning. Now that’s a real service!

March 2010

Our new paper boy Eric is proving an even bigger disappointment than Joe. Our usual 7am delivery is anything up to 9 and sometimes not at all. No good if you need to leave for work by 8.30. Reading the paper at lunch time or the evening isn’t quite the same.

February 2010

A reader takes me to task for devoting too much space to the fortunes and misfortunes of the Rex boss James Hannaway. Well you have to say that James is one of the more interesting characters in this part of the world, and to be honest this isn’t exactly a hard news area! Anyway I shall defer to her wishes. I promise to make my blog a James-free zone until at least May! Instead I will pay tribute to some other local heroes, like the extremely helpful and courteous Fergus who serves at the Texaco-Co-op shop in Grovehill and Yvonne who makes the best teacakes in town at Berkhamsted’s Sportspace.

January 2010

It seems my concerns about our paper boy Joe were misplaced. Far from getting his dad to drive him on his paper round, I discovered it was actually the Old Town newsagent Mr Patel at the wheel! Mr Patel explained that Joe didn’t fancy getting cold during the snow spell and asked him for a lift. Joe has since given up the round and we now have Eric.

I see from his latest programme that the Rex boss James Hannaway has banned babies from most of his matinees. Despite a light-hearted warning in the programme ‘May contain babies’ it seems his more elderly afternoon audience are voting with their feet. All that screaming is putting them off. I’m sure his reasoning is perfectly sound but I wonder how long it will be before this controversial decision reaches the European Court of Human Rights!

January has only just begun but we are already experiencing some of the lowest temperatures for 30 years. Gas supplies are forecast to run out. Or is that just another Daily Express scare story? Watch this space.

December 2009

Joe, our Piccotts End paper boy, has dropped in his Christmas card earlier than usual. He cheerily he tells us he’s off to Spain for Christmas on December 20th. The hint is thus dropped that we should give him his Christmas tip in good time. A fiver is duly despatched before he goes (it’s normally a tenner but Joe has only just started his round). What sets him aside from the usual paper boys and girls, who arrive on foot or by bike, is that he comes by car. Not his own judging by his age, but dad’s! I haven’t worked out the net deficit in this arrangement, I am just grateful to get my paper at 7am every morning!

We had snow before Christmas last year but not nearly as much as the heavy fall which brought everything to a standstill on December 21st. My three-hour trip back from Luton was mostly boring except for one moment. Descending the main road into Hemel off the M1, someone nudged me in the rear. Getting out to see if there was any damage I noticed my car gently sliding down the incline! I got back in a hurry and jammed on all brakes.Luckily no harm done at either end. There was no snow on Christmas Day but I can’t remember as white a Christmas as this one. Happy New Year!

November 2009

Plans have been announced for saving the St Albans Odeon. The white knight behind the scheme is the Rex saviour James Hannaway. I have my doubts about this. Not just because of all the millions needed but because I wonder if it will be as well supported as the Berkhamsted Rex. That HSBC tv commercial about local knowledge being so important rings bells. I’ve seen businesses which succeed in one town fail in another. You can never quite put your finger on why, and on the face if it, there seems to be plenty of people in favour. But St Albans isn’t Berkhamsted. The Rex succeeded because it was a David and Goliath kind of battle which people in a small town greatly applauded. St Albans is more streetwise and chavvy than Berkhamsted. James’s quirky, ‘my way or the highway’ style may not go down so well in the big city.I hope I’m wrong. I will watch developments with interest.

October 2009

With Marilyn’s resignation as secretary the Piccotts End Residents Association seems to have folded up. I’m sure everyone is very grateful to her and Derek, helped by Sara Barber, for running it for as long as they have. Hopefully someone else who values the village and its community will step forward to fill the breach. Any volunteers? In the meantime I will continue to run the web site because a) I enjoy it and b) I can do it when I like, unlike running PERA which requires much more time and effort.

September 2009

It’s good to see the Crown and Sceptre pub at Bridens Camp doing so well again after its closure last year. Jim & June, helped by Martin & Shirley are mine hosts and having sampled their Sunday roast it’s highly recommended. I’ve always wanted to be able to drop into a pub on the way home from work & despite the ribbing I take for my car conscious tipple of a half of IPA and a packet of crisps, I count myself as one of its regulars. It’s a small, quiet country pub in the best tradition. Give it a try.

August 2009

August has been a dull month, enlivened only by the third meeting of the Book Club. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan was this month’s choice. Opinion was very divided between those who like his crisp writing style and graphic descriptions and those (including me) who think that his writing is often superficial and relies too much on research and not enough on soul-search.

A business sage once remarked that he knew that 50% of his advertising worked, the trouble was that he didn’t know which 50%. For AKA Travel, the answer is more straightforward – it’s the 25% of their advertising campaign which Dacorum council workers have put upside down on the Link Road roundabout!

July 2009

The PERA garden party is the highlight of what turns out to be more of a rainfest than the promised barbecue summer. Carole and Del Cohen’s lovely garden was just the ticket for our gathering. It was a shame Marilyn couldn’t be there to see it. A family commitment prevented her organising it this year and she was relieved to have a willing group of volunteers step in to save it. Special thanks to Paul, Sue, Maggie, Ruth, Andrew, Vanessa, Graham, Penny, Martin, Vicki, hang on I’m naming the entire village here! But that was a measure of how many of us wanted to keep the tradition going. Anyway the rain held off til the early evening and nearly 60 residents turned up with burgers, bottles and some lovely cakes.

My fears about Angels & Demons turned out to be totally founded. It was the biggest load of rubbish I’ve seen for a long while. Unfortunately my next two visits to The Rex this month didn’t get much better. Comedy Night veered too much towards music and not enough stand-up. There was one amusing gag about a jar of mustard, a greyhound and a school sports day but that was about it. I had great expectations of Looking for Eric but that also failed to deliver. When I recall that other piece of football whimsy, the hugely funny An Evening with Gary Lineker, this wasn’t in the same league. Eric Cantona was a great footballer and he is a good actor. He deserved a better script than this disjointed effort.

June 2009

What a fantastic month! One of the hottest, driest, sunniest Junes I can remember. Our garden looks at its best with penstemons, lupins, campanulas, geraniums and delphiniums all adding a splash of colour in front of philadelphus, escallonia, deutzia and potentilla. Hemel Hilliers Garden Centre has done very well out of me this year! However I’m less than impressed with their entrance on the Leighton Buzzard road. Here’s an opportunity for a colourful shop window of flowers and shrubs to attract passing trade. Instead it’s a mixture of potholes, drab brick walls and signage clutter. Not a flower to be seen! Come on Hilliers, surely you can do better than this.

The PE book club has been well received with two successful meetings and a third planned for late August. The second meeting discussed Island Madness by Tim Binding, a story set in Guernsey during the German occupation. Apparently Hitler was so determined not to relinquish his little piece of England that he fortified it with a ring of concrete bunkers built by 16,000 captive workers from Eastern Europe. Mad indeed. It will be interesting to see how the next choice, On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, is received by the largely female membership. I haven’t read it yet but I’m told the subject matter is not for the shy and retiring!

Having failed to get through to The Rex by phone last month I couldn’t believe my luck at succeeding at the 53rd attempt while sitting on a cross channel ferry! The trouble is that when you do get through, you get carried away and book all sorts of things you don’t really want to see, for example Angels & Demons. I hope it’s not as bad as everyone says.

May 2009

A record three trips to The Rex this month and none more enjoyable than The Damned United. Not only is this just a terrific portrayal of Brian Clough’s 44 days at Leeds United – as David Peace said about his book of the same name, it’s a portrait not a photograph – but it evokes a unique response from the audience. I first saw it at the Vue at Garston & noticed that unlike any other film I’ve seen, the audience clapped at the end. Amazingly exactly the same thing happened at The Rex. It must the male, football mad instinct which prompts this salute to a fallen hero.

My journey to work through the pretty lanes near Gaddesden Row & Markyate is jolted daily by all the potholes. Meanwhile I see that Herts Highways have been busy resurfacing miles of little used country roads that don’t need resurfacing. This is presumably much cheaper than having to carry out proper repairs to the patchwork quilt of potholes that is Red Lion Lane and looks good in their maintenance reports.

April 2009

The last Sunday of the month is a beautiful day followed by a beautiful evening. It’s clear and the night sky has some amazing sights, none more so than the tiniest sliver of a crescent moon brilliantly illuminated along its bottom edge. As it gets darker the whole disk becomes visible. Despite so much light pollution the skies over Piccotts End are remarkably dark and this is great for stargazing. Through our telescope you can pick out the Pleiades star cluster just above the moon, Mercury just below it and way up in the southern sky the rings of Saturn.

Visits to The Rex recently have been curtailed by its popularity. However in trying to get tickets for its May programme I must have set some sort of record. Between 10.30 and 11.30 on Saturday morning I dialled the Box Office more than 1,000 times, every one engaged! That’s based on setting my phone on redial and making a call every 3 seconds. In the end I drove to Berkhamsted, queued for an hour with everyone else and got my tickets the hard way. It was reassuring to see James Hannaway and his team dispensing teas, coffees and programmes to us all.

The inaugural Piccotts End Book Club meeting was very enjoyable. We were the guests of Emma who chose Blackmoor by Edward Hogan as our opening read. The novel, set in a Derbyshire mining village during the pit closure, sparked a lively discussion and we all agreed the club seems like a good new addition to the social calendar.

March 2009

An intriguing email arrives from Australia. It’s from a Geoff Milne, who lives in Sydney. He asks: ‘James Hannaway? Is this the man who ridiculed Elvis? Conquered Ivan the Terrible and broke many hearts in the French Riviera? If so could you pass on my contact details ….he owes me a beer!’ Thanks Geoff. Judging by the bevvy of beautiful girls always at James’s side, he sounds like your man! We’ll have to see if any readers come forward to confirm your theory.

The Piccotts End Book Club is launched with keen anticipation. Ten members gather at the Marchmont to discuss the format and meet our inaugural chair, Emma Sweeney. Emma nominates Blackmoor by Edward Hogan as our first read. More of this next month. Meanwhile I am enjoying The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. My version is an audio book adaptation narrated by Kerry Shale. Mr Shale’s rich range of Indian accents, from the young and innocent to the deep and sinister, gives an extra dimension of enjoyment to this dark, irreverent but hugely entertaining take on India in the 21st century. If Slumdog Millionaire shows how life can be transformed by a TV quiz game, this novel shows you how much easier it is to step out of the darkness and into the light by the simple act of murder. Listening to it again I’m reminded of The Talented Mr Ripley.

We are very fortunate in having Hemel’s Old Town Theatre on our doorstep. It’s just a short walk to see some excellent dramas and comedy. The latest is Lola, the story in words and music of the life of Lola Montez, a 19th century Irish-born courtesan in Spain. You needed to be there to see how this tour de force of acting & live flamenco music fizzed with energy. A big well done to Trestle Theatre for the production and to the actors, who must have been exhausted by the end.

February 2009

The month begins with more snow than most of us can remember. I go into the village to take some photos. It’s white and silent, like a ghost town. Then I spot Vicki sweeping the snow off a neighbour’s steps. It reminds me of one of those deserted villages in a movie where the only inhabitant doesn’t realise she is the last person left alive! However the illusion is rather spoiled by the appearance of Simon Baird also sweeping away the snow. On the way home I’m approached by a couple of ear and eye-pierced hoodies opposite the Marchmont. ‘Nice camera mate.’ I tell them it’s not worth very much and beg them not to mug me. After some good-natured banter they show me a window across the road at the Marchmont which they’ve just broken with a snowball. I decide it’s time to leave. A few paces down the road a snowball bounces off my head.

I’ve discovered someone to rival James Hannaway as the person who has done most to put Berkhamsted on the map (that’s excluding Graham Greene & myself, whose achievement in introducing football to rugby-playing Berkhamsted School back in 1961 has been sadly under-recognised). Ed Reardon’s Week, on Radio 4, has worked its way into my affections as a rather whimsical and appealing slice of English humour. The fictional, Berko-based Ed is a failed writer whose weekly diary charts his descent into near dementia (or so his ex-wife believes). In the final episode of the series our hero is facing the prospect of being moved into sheltered accommodation. (Is there a Charterhouse Court in Berkhamsted?) We’re left in suspense but another series is promised later in the year. My other discovery this month is that James Hannaway is a Daily Mail reader. I know because I spotted it in his Waitrose shopping basket! No surprise really. James’s Rants & Pants column in the Rex programme is straight out of the Mail’s ‘why oh why’ genre of middle-class whinge!

January 2009

The 12th Night drinks party at Charlie & Lori’s in Mill Close is well attended. We meet Emma who’s just moved into one of the white cottages by Piccotts End Lane. She is a lecturer in creative writing and so joins a growing band of scribes in the village. She may also be nurturing the next J K Rowling! Before we can get into the deeper meaning of The Secret Life of Bees, Robin gets up to make a speech and the chance is lost (probably much to Emma’s relief!). Still, I’m hoping she will take a lead in helping us start a village book club (see the News page). My monthly blog wouldn’t be complete without mention of The Rex cinema, Berkhamsted. We went twice this month, to see I’ve Loved You Too Long (superb) and Quantum of Solace (lacking in fun and gags but fast-moving and entertaining nonetheless).

November & December 2008

The Christmas Lights switch-on in Hemel Old Town draws a big crowd. I didn’t see many faces from PE but with carol singers, majorettes, hot dogs and mulled wine, it’s a very festive occasion. The Old Town is such an asset but with many shops boarded up it was clearly suffering even before the recession. Occasions like the Halloween Night & Christmas Lights should remind everyone what an attractive place it is.

September & October 2008

October continues to bring more economic gloom but it’s all in the media. We still get up and go to work, watch football and do the shopping. I’ll worry when Debenhams closes. Meanwhile a fall of snow, the first in October around here since the 1930s so we’re told, brings a frisson of excitement. I remember when we first moved here 5 years ago and there was an unexpected blizzard one late afternoon at the end of January. Everyone was stranded. My wife was stuck in Chesham and I arrived home without any house keys. Not knowing anyone then, I walked down to our favourite restaurant Alberto’s in Hemel Old Town and found a throng of refugees in a similar situation. Alberto was very welcoming, allowing us all to sit in the warm and wait until help arrived.

Just as the weather takes a turn for the better the banking crisis rains on our parade. For most of us life goes on but if you have a pension fund it’s probably best not to look at it right now. There are plenty of reasons to be cheerful. There is a bumper crop of blackberries in the hedgerows, my autumn raspberries have produced several pots of jam (much quicker and easier to make than marmalade) and the runner beans are a daily evening treat even if peeling them is a pain. There must be a gadget that does this, so my wife can gleefully add it to the growing list of items labelled ‘Used only once.’

July & August 2008

James Hannaway?James Hannaway’s fame is spreading to the outer reaches of his cinematic empire, though his most distant citizens can’t quite put a name to the face. ‘We need the gentleman from The Rex to come and rescue the Odeon in St Albans’ writes a correspondent (to the Herts Advertiser) who has just discovered that Berkhamsted has a cinema any town would welcome. I have bad news for him. I believe James has already made plans to leave Hertfordshire and make a new life for himself in Cornwall. As my photo shows I’m sure it was him I saw outside the gaily painted Regal cinema in Wadebridge while I was on holiday this month. He’s even gone native, swapping his smart new seersucker jacket for a smock of the type favoured by the artists, poets and celebrity chefs who live in this part of the world.

What a wet dismal month this is. Luckily the PERA Garden Party chose one of the few dry days for the annual get-together. One of the problems is always finding someone kind enough to lend their back garden for an event where the liquid intake inevitably involves a number of visits to the to rest room. Either you pop home to your own loo or depend on the good nature and understanding of your hosts. One of these years we should try to get a road closure for the afternoon and spread the event into the street. Plenty of other villages do it and Piccotts End Road isn’t that busy. You just need to choose 100 metres where the fewest houses would be affected. Volunteers please!

May & June 2008

Looking at the assortment of eaux de toilette on my bathroom shelf led me to an uncomfortable thought. They’re stacking up faster than I can use them. If people don’t stop giving me them as Chrismas presents they’ll still be here after I’m gone. I have decided to address the problem Even though I’m not in the habit of needing to smell fragrantly fresh every day, I’ve started on a daily blast of Bulgari, Paco Rabane or Drakkar Noir. My calculation, based on moratoriums on things like nuclear weapons, is that if no one gives me any more, and I get through a full canister every six months, I should have exhausted current stocks by 2011. The price I pay for this is some peculiar looks in the office every morning. But I tell myself it’s worth it just in order not to be outlived by Ralph Lauren.

March & April 2008

Waking up to a snowy Sunday morning was a nice surprise. It couldn’t have happened on a better day, no work so time to enjoy. We get so little snow these days that the brief inconvenience it brings is more than compensated by the beauty of the landscape. Gadebridge Park looked a real picture postcard at 8am before walkers and sledgers got going over the pristine, unbroken surface. It was a substantial fall, quite unexpected but not enough to cause any real problems and very considerately timed on a Sunday. Deciding to make the most of it I quickly donned a fleece and trousers and took some photos of the park and PE. One garden snowman later, the thaw had set in and by mid-afternoon the snow had all but disappeared.

January & February 2008

Having been woken up by a late night phone call, I couldn’t get back to sleep one night and decided to read. Sitting in an armchair around 1am I suddenly felt a movement as if someone was trying to lift it. The floorboards creaked. Thinking that it might be the cat which had got stuck under the chair I got up expecting to see it. I walked round the room looking for the cause. Eventually it was revealed. An earth tremor in the Midlands felt all the way to Piccotts End!

I get very cross at the sight of so much litter thrown into our beautiful hedgerows. It’s not a New Year resolution as such but this second Sunday of the month I resolve to do something. Gaddesden Row is my target. A lovely country road but this past week strewn with McDonalds cartons. I take a black plastic binliner and remove them along with sundry crisp bags, beer cans and whatever. I don’t like to be seen doing such a fogeyish activity so I keep my head down. I should be wearing a flourescent council jacquard but Dacorum don’t do many litter sweeps out this way, and certainly not on a Sunday morning. At least it will look tidy when I drive to work in the morning. Next time I’ll send all the cartons back to McDonalds with a letter suggesting that the culture of fast food has created a generation of slobs and litter-louts. Buoyed up by my public-spirited actions I also clean up some of the rubbish on the corner of the Marchmont roundabout. Perhaps we should all adopt a stretch of road and keep it tidy. There wouldn’t be many takers for the Leighton Buzzard road. It always looks worse in winter when the bare hedgerows reveal a year’s worth of beer cans.

January is marmalade-making month. Along with damson and raspberry it’s one of the few jams I really enjoy on a slice of toast with a cup of Earl Grey. A couple of kilos of Seville oranges will produce seven or eight jars. Last year I overcooked the mix and the whole lot set solid! This year it’s about spot-on. The first spoonful tastes good, sweet but slightly tangy and with that distinctive marmalade flavour you can’t get in the shops.

February 2007

Went to The Rex cinema in Berkhamsted this week (wb Feb 26) to see the excellent Miss Potter. Some beautiful shots of the Lake District. When the credits rolled it turned out to be the Isle of Man! Well part of it, at least. It seems the film-makers had to go there to capture the authentic turn of the century scenery. Before the film, the Rex’s founder James Hannaway takes centre stage for his customary and entertaining address. He ambles on, blue-jeaned and jacketed, clutching a sheath of notes which he proceeds to drop as he mutters a stream of consciousness about this and that. It’s almost as if he’s talking to himself. On one memorable occasion he slagged off local estate agents, much to the disgust of one in the audience who vowed never to return. Mr Hannaway doesn’t seem to mind whom he offends. That’s part of the appeal. In which other small town would you find a single-screen cinema where people queue round the block to see films months after their general release? Mr Hannaway is fast becoming Berkhamsted’s cinematic equivalent of Rick Stein. How long before we see the opening of a Planet Hannaway restaurant?

Reports of 3 metres of snow in New York this week (wb Feb 12 2007) make me wonder if it’s on its way here. After last week’s unexpected fall anything is possible. Perhaps it will just arrive as yet more heavy rain. Gadebridge Park is under so much water that a lake has appeared for the first time in years. My photo here shows a pretty picture from the bridge. It seems amazing that the hosepipe ban has only recently been lifted. Meanwhile last year’s drought seems to have claimed two poplars in the park, just below the new block of (as yet unsold) flats by Gadebridge Lane. The leaves turned brown and dropped in midsummer. The next few months will show if by some miracle they have survived.

March 2007.

Another trip to the Rex, to see Pan’s Labrynth. The film is excellent, a real feast of imagination. It sets the bloody reality of the Spanish civil war against fantasy world of a little girl. While the brutal army captain metes out torture and death, grotesque monsters weave their own web of woodland intrigue for his step daughter. You don’t think you’ll like it, but you will!

There’s nothing like a week in the sun to blow away the winter blues. My trip to the Maldives last week was strictly business (of course). It should have been bliss but en route I read that this island paradise will be the first to go if global warming raises sea levels by much more than a few millimetres. It’s not hard to see why. None of the Maldives stands more than two metres above sea level. It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth but you couldn’t help thinking it could all be gone with the next big tsunami.

Pleased to see the daffodils I planted on the Link Road roundabout in full bloom. Not wishing to draw too much attention to myself when planting them back in January, I donned a council-style fluorescent tabard. This earned several appreciative waves and the odd toot from Dacorum Council vehicles.

April 2007

Spring has brought out the blossom and I have taken a few photos round the village. These are in the Gallery. It would be nice to get into a few more gardens so it was great to have opportunity to see round the back of Owl Cottage. This is the home of Julia Baird. It’s amazing how large many of the gardens in Piccotts End are. Julia, a PE resident since 1968, proudly showed me the primrose bed which her late husband John created.

Having seen the very funny Punt and Dennis play to a sell-out audience at the Old Town Theatre last month, a return visit there a couple of weeks ago produced a very different experience. A new theatre group called Nabokov brought their highly-charged play Terre Haute – a re-enactment of a series of dialogues held between the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh and the celebrated American author Gore Vidal shortly before McVeigh’s execution. It was powerful stuff and a credit to the actors and Hemel’s Old Town Theatre for staging it. Pity there were so few people to see it but given the subject matter hardly surprising.

With regular clear night skies April has been a great month for star-gazing. Venus has been the evening star for some weeks now as it shines brilliantly in the west. In the middle of the month it was side by side with the new moon. I took this photo from our garden.

May 2007

What is there to say about May? It rained most of the month. Saw Mark Thomas at the Old Town Theatre. He’s the man who’s made a living from staging one-man demonstrations in the area around Parliament Square and then writing and talking about them. It was quite funny but how many times can you laugh at the same joke? Mark needs to find some new targets. This month I’ve bought a narrowboat which is moored in a marina near Berkhamsted. Having walked alongside the GU many times and rather envied the laid-back lifestyles of canal dwellers I thought I’d try it myself. It’s clear that weekenders are not wholly welcome among the beads and beards of the inland waterways. I’ve already been admonished for going at 4mph instead of 3 and several heads suddenly appeared when I misjudged a difficult turn and accidentally jolted a quiet Sunday afternoon snooze. Apart from that it’s a very social pastime and my guests feel de-stressed by the experience.

I see someone called Jeremy has owned up to being my garden intruder. It’s very kind of him to take the blame but no one called Jeremy would do this sort of thing so the case remains open.

The two poplars in Gadebridge Park haven’t survived after all (see February). They’ve just been felled, leaving a hole in my skyline. I’m thinking of going up there one evening and planting a couple of replacements. Tree-planting doesn’t seem to figure in Dacorum’s plans, even though they seem quite happy to pour tens of thousands of pounds into sending empty buses round the town. The CO2 emissions, dirty diesel fumes, noise and traffic aggravation don’t seem to bother them.

June 2007

June is the last month this year when Venus appears as our evening ‘star’. One again it provided a dramatic sight when alongside the crescent moon. My new zoom lens arrived too late for a better photo. Venus’s next appearance is as the morning star. I can just about understand this. As the second closest planet to the sun it sort of makes sense that it should set and rise shortly after and before. If Mercury, the closest planet to the sun, were a little larger you could see that set and rise just before Venus. But when it is visible, you need binoculars. No such problem with Jupiter. This is now shining brighter than any star in the southern sky after dark. With binoculars or a telescope you can see its four largest moons quite clearly.

July 2007

If there’s one thing that makes my blood boil it’s seeing the words ‘Safety Camera Partnership’. These mobile speed cameras sneakily hide themselves in bushes and lay-bys to trap you. Of course it’s rarely the locals who get caught. They know where and how to avoid them. The money comes from the outsiders, once a year visitors like holiday-makers. That’s why the A303 is such a happy hunting ground for the Avon & Somerset ‘Safety Camera Partnership’. May they rot in hell! To pick up one speeding ticket in a month is unfortunate, to pick up two is careless. Luckily, as it’s now a month since it happened, the second camera which flashed me doing no more than 37mph in a 30 zone doesn’t appear to have been active. However the first came as a complete surprise. Having had a clean licence for the first time in quite a few years I’d been trying not to blot my copybook. When the penalty notice arrived I was baffled. Where? When? It turned out to be the A303 in Somerset, scene of my last ticket back in 2003. I should have been more careful. But I was still puzzled as to where I was caught. You can request a photo. This revealed a 60mph stretch divided into three lanes. My car was caught doing 71mph by a mobile camera. This stretch is uphill if you’re travelling West and isn’t very long. On returning to the location on a recent weekend, and taking great care not to exceed 60, I found I could barely reach even that speed from a standing start at the roundabout at Horton Cross. I’m probably guilty but there is a chance I may not be. I have requested further details regarding the exact position of the mobile unit. Watch this space!

August 2007

When you live in land-locked Hemel Hempstead, going to the Devon seaside is probably not something you’d consider as a day-trip. This is why the owners of the beach car park at Branscombe consider us quite mad when we arrive on any sunny Sunday morning. This has become something of a summer ritual for us, except that this August the number of sunny Sundays has been few and far between. Leaving around 9am, we travel down the very pleasant A303 across Salisbury Plain, arriving around midday. We’ve now achieved VIP status with the car park owners who wave us through to their private strip. Then it’s into the cafeteria to buy crab sandwiches and some Devon fudge. On to the beach where we stretch out, read the Sunday papers and enjoy a glass of champagne. After lunch it’s time to take a dip. The east Devon water is a little on the chilly side but once you’re in it’s beautiful. The Napoli shipwreck is still in evidence and there is some oil on the beach but it doesn’t spoil our enjoyment. After a teatime ice-cream it’s back to the car and the journey home. The roads are generally clear and we’re back by 9pm, refreshed after a really good day out. Being on an idyllic Devon beach like Bransombe gives you that sense of getting away from it all far more than, say, a day-trip to Southend of Brighton. It’s the effort that makes it all worthwhile.

I pay my speeding fine. Unless you’re wealthy enough to employ the lawyer known as Mr Loophole you’re wasting your time arguing the case. Next time I’ll opt for the Speed Awareness course in lieu of 3 pts. I read recently the story of the man who took the course only to have his conviction reversed. He’s now claiming several hundred pounds in expenses for all the time and trouble he went to in order to attend the course! I’m not surprised that thousands of motorists are on the brink of a ban. There are so many changes in speed limits it’s often hard to know which zone you’re in. Take Hemel for example. Approaching the town on the Leighton Buzzard road, as you enter Water End you go from 60mph to 40mph, then just past the Flying Corkscrew the limit goes up to 50mph for less than half a mile before reverting to 60mph for another half-mile before reverting back to 50mph up to the roundabout. There are probably the same number of changes on the other side of town. If you’re spending all your time wondering what speed you should be doing, you can’t be concentrating on the road. It would be better to impose a blanket 30mph limit across the whole town. It would cut down accidents and there would be no excuse for not knowing the limit.

September 2007

Jacob sheepThe sound of bleating sheep is not a familiar one around here. So it’s nice to report that the field to the left of the road into the Old Town is now home to a flock of Jacobs. As my photo shows, they are grazing happily in an abundance of grass. You can’t see their distinctive curly horns here – sometimes four to a sheep – and you wouldn’t want to get too close! Jacobs are treasured for their pretty brown and white fleeces, hardy nature and good lambing qualities! Now we have horses, sheep and the regular sirens of emergency vehicles there’s rarely a quiet moment in Piccotts End Road! Talking of wildlife we regularly see foxes and deer in our garden. The fox pokes about looking for scraps and regularly makes itself snug in a pile of grass cuttings. The deer are more of a nuisance, nipping out the fresh shoots of the Dogwood and stripping bark off young trees. Preventive measures have been taken. Squirrels are also a garden pest, mainly because they dig up newly planted bulbs for no apparent reason – they can’t possibly eat that many crocuses!