A Peculiar Pursuit? Listening In On Star Land


It was a frequent and rather sinister feature of my childhood: Sunday afternoon drives around the Cheshire lanes. Always winter. Flat fields empty of their dairy herds. Neat hedges and the metal railed fences typical of this county. Then the sudden glimpse of it – the great grey dish in the sky: the disturbing scaffold-like armature that held it aloft – sometimes the dish tilted one way; other times in quite another position. So that the first sight of it across the flatlands would always be a shock to the system. Science Fiction in action then. Scenes I remember only in black and white.

But if the sight of it aroused feelings of vague anxiety, as a five-year-old I was also quick to register the awe and excitement in my parents’ voices. It might be worrying to me but, I concluded, this monstrous machine was clearly ‘a good thing’.

This, the Jodrell Bank steerable radio telescope, had only just been completed. It was the largest in the world back in 1957 – the dish 250 feet (76 metres) in diameter. Sir Bernard Lovell – a radio astronomer at Manchester University – was its creator. He had worked on the development of radar during World War 2, and now wanted to study cosmic rays. The gun turret parts of two British warships were apparently re-purposed to drive the telescope.

It became operational in time for the launch of Sputnik 1 in October 1957. This was the world’s first artificial satellite launched by the Soviet Union. My parents were very excited about this too. While Jodrell Bank tracked the path of Sputnik’s booster rockets, my parents were staying up into the small hours, standing in the garden of Love Lane House, Sputnik spotting. They saw it too, and got their names in the local paper. Whizzy spinning sputniks on strings were, for some time to come, the toys to have. I received several. Cardboard ones came free in Cornflakes packets. In fact Sputnik was a frequently uttered word in our house. Perhaps it’s what predisposed me to want to learn Russian a decade later.

In 1966 the Soviet Union actually asked Jodrell Bank to track their Luna 9 moon lander spacecraft. Thus it would seem that the Cold War had its lukewarm moments, although relations were not so well fostered afterwards when the British Press got hold of, and published the Jodrell Bank photos ahead of the Russians giving their permission.

Later, in concert with US surveillance, the telescope was used to monitor Soviet spy satellites. And yes, in between spying activities, there was also some serious scientific research – time spent observing those esoteric out-of-space entities – pulsars, quasars and gravitational lenses. And please expect no further explanations of these matters. My studied viewings of the TV programmes by the very excellent theoretical physicist Professor Jim Al-Kalili have left no residue of knowledge in my brain cells, or at least none that I am aware of.

Today, the Lovell telescope has been joined by several others on the site – all part of Manchester University’s Jodrell Bank Centre of Astrophysics. It has a visitor centre, and all manner of exciting things going on there. This photo, by the way, was captured by chance last year when I happened to look out of the window of the Manchester to Crewe train. A veritable blast from the past then, but this time in full colour. I still find it worrying though – that great grey dish eavesdropping on space.

And before I go, there’s also a literary connection with Jodrell Bank. As a pre-teen I was a huge fan of Cheshire children’s writer Alan Garner, and in particular of his 1960s titles The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and its sequel The Moon of Gomrath. Garner didn’t think much of the first book, and it was only in 2012 that the third volume of the originally planned trilogy was published. But then Boneland is not for children. It is a fusion of science, prehistory, fantasy and psychotherapy whereby Colin of the first two books is now a professor at Jodrell Bank, trying to resolve the loss of his twin, Susan, and the loss of his memory. It’s a haunting work with many layers. Perhaps, like me, Alan Garner found Lovell’s Telescope a disturbing sight on the Cheshire Plain, raising more questions than the ones it was intended to answer.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell


For more Thursday’s Special posts please visit Paula at Lost in Translation. She asks us to pick a word from the following: Pursuit, Veneration, Effervescent, Personal, Peculiar. And then post a photo or photos. I think I’ve scored the 3 ‘p’s’ in this post plus a bit of veneration for Alan Garner.

September in my garden


This year, for some reason, the Japanese anemones have decided to take on their close neighbour, the Japanese crab apple tree, in a ‘let’s see who can grow tallest’ contest.

Admittedly, the tree is a small one,  three metres at most, but some of  the anemones are already two metres tall.

This is the kind of gardening I love: where the plants come up with their own ideas. I did not plant the anemones directly under the tree. They seem to have moved in there by themselves, and now use the tree’s protecting arms as they grow ever taller.

Nor is this a colour scheme I would have thought of concocting – pale pinkish-purple, russet red and green. But somehow it’s very pleasing, and especially on the dull days we’ve been having lately.

Every day, too,  I see the tiny crab apples turning a deeper shade of red: perfect Garden-of-Eden miniatures,  which reminds me of a comment made by Melanie at My Virtual Playground. One of the times I featured my crab apples she told me they were called pommes sauvages in French – wild apples – an altogether much prettier name. I agree. Although my ‘wild’ ones have been much inbred, and don’t have quite the same sense of abandon of the truly wild ones found in our field hedgerows.


The tree is Malus Evereste by the way. It is glorious in spring too. (You’ve seen the picture). It’s growing in a tall bed which gives us an all-year good view from the kitchen French windows.


Elsewhere in the garden things are  looking a little dreary round the edges, but there is still some stalwart blooming going on. The red geraniums look bright in the garden pots despite the recent downpours, as does this lovely penstemon:


I think it’s my favourite version of this most obliging plant. If you cut down the stems after flowering, in a few weeks time you get another showing, perhaps more vigorous than the first. This variety is called Apple Blossom, but it makes me think of raspberry ripple ice cream – a rather shivery thought on this gloomy day.

Growing in the bed just behind Apple Blossom, you can see Teasing Georgia. She’s in bud again too. This is such a lovely rose, and opens into dense whirls and whorls of pale gold.

I’m hoping she’ll open before the weather turns weirder than it already is. Forecasters are now promising us the coldest winter ever. But endlessly prone to optimism, I’m further hoping that this is the same order of forecast that in March promised us a barbecue summer and drought. (Hands up all of you in England who managed to fit in more than one barbecue between the wind and showers).


Our garden is all over the place and on different levels. This is because circa 1830 the house was built into a steep bank between the field behind, and the road in front.  Later occupants then dug out a rear yard, and added a tall terrace bed, and behind it, a high retaining wall.

I have yet to get to grips with gardening in so many dimensions, which is why I rather depend on the garden to follow its own design. I also notice that it is devising its own timetable. For instance, what does this June-blooming foxglove think it is doing amongst the late summer rudbeckia?


Just to the left of the foxglove is the dead head of meadowsweet. It has a pink flower, which also surprised me this year. This is something else the garden has come up with: creating (somehow) a very vigorous hybrid from the original wild, and cream-flowered meadowsweet that I originally planted.

I shall definitely encourage the new version, and plant out any seedlings. It is a statuesque creation, very tall, and softly scented. Also Meadowsweet, apart from being used to flavour beer and deserts, has its place in Welsh legend. In the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, the 11th century transcription of age-old tales, there is the dark story of Blodeuwedd (flower-face), a beautiful woman created by the magicians, Math and Gwydion from the flowers of oak, broom and meadowsweet. The tale does not end well. Blodeuwedd (pronounced: blod-EYE-weth) is also the name for owl, a fact, along with a reworking of the Mabinogion story, that was famously explored in teen fiction by Alan Garner in The Owl Service.

And thinking of  flower-faces, here are two growing in a pot by the old privies (now our two dysfunctional  garden sheds – i.e much head-banging on lintels, followed by standing in one’s own light so you can’t see what’s in there). These sunflowers have taken ages to come out, but it’s nice to see them at last, and especially now the real sun has gone away. It’s hard not to smile back at them, isn’t it?


Happy Wednesday!

Inspired by (but with added fruit)  Cee’s Flower of the Day