Still Falls The Rain

The title of this post is taken from the poem by Edith Sitwell, that most eccentric of twentieth century English poets.  I am using it for its literal sense, for the rain just won’t stop falling, whereas Sitwell wrote Still Falls The Rain as her response to the London Blitz in the 1940’s.

It has not been an easy gardening year.  We were bracing ourselves for the coldest and snowiest winter ever, for after two years of freezing temperatures and snow at greater depths than for a decade or more, we were warned of worse to come ….. it didn’t.  Instead we had a relatively mild time of it but with virtually no rain whatsoever.  Then came March:  temperatures in the 70’s and day after day of unbroken sunshine and the garden couldn’t work out what to do next.  Some plants flowered earlier than normal whereas others refused to break out of their winter dormancy.  And still no rain; the little river that winds its way through the header of this blog and the secret valley ran lower than midsummer and by the old sheepwash it was almost possible to walk across it in hiking boots.

Then came April and the day water shortages and a hosepipe ban were announced.  All the hose reels were wound up to be stored away and we worried about how we were to keep the parched ground alive.

We did not need to worry for, reminiscent of the day in the 1980’s when Michael Fish, the weather forecaster said “What hurricane?  We don’t have them in this country….” (the next morning half of England’s trees had been flattened), the rain started to fall.  And it hasn’t stopped falling.  We have the occasional sunny interlude when you could almost think it is spring but, for the most part, the skies remain leaden and heavy.  Day after depressing day it is dark and gloomy with a cold northerly wind blowing and the rain lashes against the window panes.

The ground, so hard from months of drought, could not absorb the deluge and the water, so desperately needed, runs down the lanes and over the fields and banks into the river.  Our pretty little tinkling stream has become a torrent and the sheepwash island, coloured golden with  its Kingcups in full bloom, has disappeared from view completely.  Opposite the sheepwash on the other side of the lane, the water is running off the hill and new springs have appeared where they haven’t been seen in years.

The secret valley is flooding and looks more like how it should have appeared in winter.  The sheep and their lambs have been moved to safer pastures and the pastoral scene of a few weeks ago has all but gone.  Gales have accompanied the worst of the downpours creating their own havoc and the old willow pollards, heavy with top growth are splitting and falling.  The damage, although it looks devestating, will not affect them too much for they will regrow once the broken timber has been cleared, for this is nature’s own way of pollarding them.

In the meantime,  we watch the flood water rise all around us.  Our little stone cottage, built in the 1850’s, sits safe, high above the river, which snakes around two sides of the building.

As for gardening, weeds continue to grow for they have adapted to the extremes of the English climate over millenia.  The nurtured plants of the flower border struggle and produce some oddities.  The tulips that usually look bedraggled after just one shower, have remained resilient and daffodils that have normally finished weeks ago are still in bloom, thanks to the cool conditions.  The wet weather has also benefitted the cowslips and the bluebells and they seem even more intense in colour if, in the case of bluebells, that is possible. A quick look around the secret valley at the trees also shows contradiction:  some are in full leaf and others – almost 50% of them – are still to show their leaves so have a wintry look about them.

Tulip ‘Peppermint Stick’

It has been a dry and sunny day today and tomorrow is also supposed to be quite pleasant.  The forecast is for more rain to come and the cool conditions to continue at least until the beginning of June.  And when I wake up on Monday and hear the rain hitting the bedroom windows, as forecast, my first awareness will be to hear in my mind the haunting voice of Edith Sitwell saying “Still falls the rain, still falls the rain ……”

To listen to Edith Sitwell reciting Still Falls The Rain click on the link below:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6_2x948EEw

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Hedgerow Update 1

When I wrote my initial post on the ancient hedgerow that leads uphill out of the secret valley I intended to update it on a monthly basis (click here).  What a failed idea that has proved to be!  For March 10th  was as hot a day as any summer’s and that, coupled with a very dry winter, created the worst drought for many years.  The day that I had intended to walk the hedge (and also the day that a hose pipe ban was announced) the heavens opened and we have had torrential rain ever since.  I have been soaked to the skin most days because of work – I had no intention of a second soaking whilst carrying out hedge surveying upon my return home.

A break in the clouds, however, allowed me to sprint up the lane snapping away with the camera moments before the next deluge. No time to marvel at the way nature responds to climate or to look carefully to see what species of plants might be new to my eyes.  The only wildlife I saw was a solitary snail, pale lemon in colour and rather pretty – if you can describe a snail as such – which dropped off it’s grass blade perch the moment I got the camera in focus.  I’m sure I heard it giggling in the undergrowth.
Here is what I did see.

Cowslips
Cowslips (Primula veris) are a great favourite of mine bringing back memories of early school for ours had a play area that was carpeted with them.  Years ago no-one worried about picking great bunches of them or digging some up for the garden which we all did yet the numbers there didn’t seem to diminish.  However, overpicking (or perhaps spraying roadside verges) meant that the cowslip became a scarce plant.  Happily, they are now seen sporadically along the Cotswold lanes although not on my old school playground which became a high density housing estate in the ’80’s. Along our hedge, cowslips appear in small numbers which, hopefully, will increase over the years.  Further up the valley a field grazed only by sheep and never sprayed is a yellow carpet at this time of year and on warm, still days, the faint smell of honey wafts around transporting me back more years than I care to admit to.

    Cowslip meadow in the secret valley

Primroses

The last few primroses are still in bloom, quite late for this time of year and no doubt, like some of the daffodils, lasting longer because of the cool, damp weather.  Primula vulgaris, their botanical name, sounds like a misnomer for their is nothing vulgar about them, for every part of a primrose is pretty, whether it is the palest lemon of their petals, the deeper yellow throat or the fresh green of their leaves.  Even the ribbing and lines of their veins create attractive patternss and textures.  Vulgaris does, of course, mean common – there is nothing common about them in appearance either!

The hot March had an odd effect on plants. Some revelled in it, throwing caution to the wind and paraded their summer finery early, whereas others seemed to remember the old saying about not casting a clout ’til May is out. Proven right, when cold returned in April, they now seem reluctant to even expose a leaf and, as a result, the hedgerow is bright green  in places, yet bare and wintry looking in others.

 Field Maple

Field Maple is a classic old hedgerow plant.  Left to grow untouched it makes a medium sized tree of, to my mind, simple but great beauty.  However, it is usually trimmed to make a reasonably dense, twiggy barrier.  Like all maples the flowers and leaves emerge together but I had never noticed before the rich mahogany colour of the leaf buds. Acer campestre.

Ground Ivy

 A plant so common and so small as to be overlooked, Ground Ivy (not related to ivy but to mint)has to be viewed on hands and knees to see its quiet beauty: tiny, mauve, hooded trumpets darkening at the throat.  According to my old herbals it was used for all sorts of ailments from the uterus to inflamed eyes and everything in between.  Glechoma hederacea, in a greyish variegated form is often used in hanging baskets where it is seen trailing in ugly, thick ribbons.  Leave it where it belongs – trailing over the ground at the foot of a hedgerow.  Perhaps it should be used in the garden in this way? 

 Jack-by-the-Hedge

Jack-by-the-Hedge or Garlic Mustard is a common plant and quite a useful addition to early spring salads for its shredded leaves have a mild garlic taste.  In the photo above it grows along with stinging nettles and the fine leaves of Cleavers or Goose-grass.  It is the food plant of the Orange Tip Butterfly which is quite regularly seen throughout the secret valley, although scarce so far this spring due to weather conditions.  Occasionally they fly into the house and require rescuing – not always as easy as in this photo!

 Orange Tip Butterfly – only the male is coloured orange

Bluebells with White Dead-Nettle

Bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scriptus, are another of the ancient woodland indicators (click here for more details of this term) and they flower the whole length of the hedgerow.  In the Chiltern Hills, the area where I spent most of my life, the beechwoods are renowned for their Bluebell carpets (photo below).  Here, they grow more sparsely, with the occasional white flowered sport growing amongst them. In the photo above, it is the white flowered dead-nettle they mingle with.  The dead-nettle, Lamium album, is not related to the true nettle and has no sting, just an unpleasant smell when the leaves are crushed.  In the garden it is a nuisance with a white, running root, quite thick and brittle unlike the stinging nettle’s yellow, fibrous root system – a useful way to tell them apart if uncertain, apart from the sting, of course.

A bluebell wood in the Chiltern Hills in Spring

 Burdock leaves
The large leaves of Burdock, Arctium minus, are already forming rosettes.  It will be a while before they send up their spikes of lilac flowers, reminiscent of those of the thistle and even longer before the troublesome round seedheads, the burs, stick to clothing and She-dog.

The secret valley in flood
It was at this point that the heavens opened once again giving me just time to take a snap of the little winding river.  It’s clear, sparkling waters have been transformed by rain to a swirling, brown muddy spate that has now burst its banks spreading out across the valley.

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When Greens Defeat the Blues……

We all go through periods of our lives when plans are thwarted, futures unravelled and forgotten pasts unfortunately remembered. It is something we have to come to terms with for, after all, if there were no ‘lows’, we couldn’t have ‘highs’ either.

It has been a difficult couple of weeks although, in the grand scheme of things, I should not complain too much. My partner, who has suffered considerably and silently with a debilitating heart problem the past two years, has finally had the op long waited for. And it seems, a great success with glimpses, already, of the old energy that was there before.

At the same time, the first anniversary of my mother’s death has weighed far more heavily than I expected. We were close and talked frequently about all sorts of things and, in her last few months, of dying. As she often said, she had a great and happy life and reached 94 despite hating being old (“it’s no fun being in your 90’s, you know”). She was ready to go.


So here I am, feeling a bit ‘blue’ and why? My partner is recovering, my mother is at peace. And suddenly, I have no need to be rushing hither and thither. I am like a train that has run out of steam or, if you want to be less kind, moping about like a wet rag, if they can mope and I can mix metaphors.

Without love there can be no loss and without illness there can be no recovery. And without fall there can be no spring. And it is the spring that renews, not just our gardens and the landscapes that surround us, it renews the spirit inside us. And so it was back to the Chiltern Hills, where I grew up and spent most of my life, that I returned to be revived by the extraordinary lushness of their beautiful beechwoods.


The Chilterns are barely 30 miles from the Cotswolds, the two being separated by the low lying Oxford vale. So close yet so different in character. The Cotwolds is a landscape of gently rolling hills, little rivers, big vistas and skyscapes. The Chilterns is a secretive land of steep combes – the beech woodlands clinging precariously to the valley walls. Few rivers, for this is a chalk land, a dry place with few views and no large skies for the forest hides them all. Yet the light is magical and nothing is as blinding as the intense greens of the unfurling beech leaves.


How can one walk here without being uplifted spiritually and mentally, whether holding religious belief or not? And if the beech is struggling to kick start you then the sight of the tens of thousands of bluebells, with their gentle scent, cleanse the body and renews the energy within.


Life is good and I’ve only got one attempt at it. I feel refreshed. I’d better get on with it.


Yes, life is good. No complaints. Honest!

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Cotswold Cowslips

I never did get to see the fritillary fields of Oxford and the Upper Thames. Perhaps next year. If fritillaries are the flowers of the lowlands (albeit rare) then it has to be the cowslip that can lay claim to the title for the hills of the Cotswolds. These little, short stemmed wild primulas (Primula veris) have a simple beauty – they look good growing in the garden but even better in the fields and hedgerows where they belong.


Cowlsips grow in plenty in the secret valley and I have noticed this year that they abound along the old drovers road, as do bluebells – don’t they look good growing in combination? Is this because these green lanes are never sprayed with chemicals and the thick hedgerows that line them prevent any spray drift from reaching? The field below is at the top of the secret valley and is a haven for wild flowers – soon there will be orchids showing. The farmer likes to see them so has never tried to ‘improve’ the ground in the agricultural sense and, as a consequence, the field is also full of birds and bees and butterflies.


However, to see the truly stunning cowslip meadows, you have to travel out of the secret valley. Just a few miles up the road is this field where the cowslips grow in the tens of thousands, so dense that it is impossible to walk without trampling several plants at once. Few people see them as they are ‘off the beaten track’ which is a pity in some respects, for they should be enjoyed and marvelled over.

The scent of cowslips is subtle but, when growing in these huge numbers, it wafts over in waves on gentle, warm breezes, a heady mix of hay and honey. This gives cowslip wine, a traditional drink, its characteristic taste and potency. Made from many hundreds of flower heads it is now rarely made as, fortunately, most people now understand the importance of preserving our native flora and fauna. This has benefitted the cowslips, which were once quite an uncommon sight, as they are left to multiply with these spectacular results.

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The English Hurricane: 20 years on

English people constantly talk about weather. It’s in our makeup, our genes – we can’t possibly walk past someone, even a total stranger, without saying something about it. We can’t help it, no matter how much we realise that the person isn’t that interested (or even doesn’t speak English). We rattle on about too much rain, too little rain, too much sun, no sun, cold for the time of year, how warm it is. And to prove the point, this post is about weather and, no, I’m not going to apologise about it. By the way, we had a fantastic sunset in the secret valley a couple of days ago.

I think the reason we may behave like this is because English weather is nearly always gentle. The landscape that makes up England is beautiful and can be dramatic but not in the way of so many other countries. Take the USA, for example. Where’s our Grand Canyon, our towering redwoods, our Rocky Mountains, our Great Plains and our Niagara Falls? We have them in miniature and, perhaps, that is just as well as we are such a small country. And likewise, our weather: we have heatwaves, we have floods, we have blizzards. But they are rarely anything truly spectacular (except to those poor people affected by them, of course). And so when we were told by the weather men in 1987 that reports of a hurricane were completely exaggerated, we believed them totally. And despite the fact that much of the country was hit hard by it when it arrived, my part of the Chiltern Hills where I lived at the time was not much affected, even though it is one of the most wooded parts of the country.

The night in January 1990 was different. This time we had winds, whilst not as severe as three years earlier, which created total havoc with the already weakened root systems of the trees. Great swathes of the magnificent beech woods that are the very heart and soul of the Chilterns were flattened in a couple of hours. (I am reminded by my partner, that as the rest of the world cowered in their beds as the trees came crashing down all around, I woke up to say “a bit windy out there” before falling asleep again). As dawn broke the true damage could be seen.

Fast forward twenty years to 2010 and the woodands are transformed. Those of us that remember the 200 year old beech know that the majority are gone and, in their place, are new trees of mixed species. It will be many years before the magnificence of the woods return but they are healing. This photo below is taken from the same spot as the one above. Some of the biggest old stumps have been left, too difficult to move – time has hardly changed their appearance apart from their ‘roof’ of mosses.


One of the unforeseen benefits of the hurricane is the increased amount of light reaching the woodland floor, for beech trees cast a dense shade where little can grow, other than where the canopy is lightest. Apart from the view to the valley below, which was unseen before, many wild flowers are better now than ever. Roll on April when we can see the blue carpet of tens of thousands of bluebells disappearing into the distance.

Oh! And I nearly forgot to say, the weather today is a mix of sunshine, cold winds, rain and sleet. Don’t forget to tell the next person you meet!

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Of Blue Skies and Blue Flowers

The sun is shining and the rain has stopped! The wind is still cool but it feels good not having to walk with head tucked low against the elements.

The lane outside our cottage is narrow and winding as it climbs out of the secret valley. To the right the river follows its meandering course below us and, on the left, the lane is bound by an ancient hedgerow, full of wild flowers.

Crane’s-bill is in full bloom there now and has been for a few weeks. This is the Geranium pratense of gardens and flowers so profusely in this part of the Cotswolds it could be our county flower. In places the banks and verges are dominated by this plant creating a sea of colour – and when the wind moves it, it has the appearance of rippling water.

In the garden I like growing it amongst shrub roses where it can hook onto the thorns and peep out amongst the more exotic rose flowers. Once the first flush of crane’s-bill flowers are over, I cut the whole plant down to ground level and within days new leaves and flowers start to appear again. And when the contractor’s cut the roadside verges it is always the crane’s bill that shows through first.

Blue seems to dominate this hedge. First the blue-purple of the dog violets and bluebells, now there is also wild scabious with its little powder puffs of flowers. It would be interesting to try to recreate this mixture in a meadow garden. I shall have to persuade a client to let me have a go!

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