Babies Everywhere

Everywhere I  look at the moment there are babies – it’s that time of year.  I’m not talking human babies although quite a lot of my friends seem to be having new grandchildren, yet another sign of our ageing.  In the secret valley animals outnumber humans by dozens to one so it isn’t surprising that all around us there are signs of new life.

Lambing starts later here than in many places, for the spring grass is also later, so it is with impatience that we wait to see them skipping in the fields and chasing one another up and down the  river banks.  Of course, that was some weeks ago – now they are grown quite large and, as I write this, very noisy as they call for their mothers who have been separated for shearing. It will be a few hours before they have all found one another and normality returns again; the sound of contented and playful bleating telling us that all is well.

Calves can be born in spring or autumn.  Beyond the secret valley is a beautiful herd of Red Devon cattle and they make good mothers.  I first came across this gentle breed when I worked on a farm as a teenager on Exmoor and they have been a firm favourite ever since.  Bred for beef, we used to hand milk a few for the farm’s own use and the milk was very rich and creamy.   Large enamel basins of it would be placed on top of the Rayburn stove (fired by the peat turves I have recently written about, click here)  and I would watch fascinated as the cream would rise in large clots to be skimmed off  to be eaten with afternoon tea, that most traditional of West Country meals.

The bantams – Lavender Pekins (Cochins) – are all rapidly going broody.  I find that they are only good layers in spring, the rest of the year they lay fewer eggs.  We always set some of these under them so that we have a new supply of youngsters: if we get too many there is always a ready home for them but mostly they are there as ready-made meals for Mr Fox who is a far too regular visitor.  I’d rather see the bantams having a short but very lovely time wandering about the place than cooped up in a pen somewhere.  When left to free range it is amazing just how far they travel up and down the field which does make them rather vulnerable.  As the fox usually visits in the early hours of the morning I try to always remember to shut them away safely for the night.  In the cold weather earlier in the year a fox visited the garden regularly during the day – at one time actually peering through the glass garden door at us.

 
We don’t keep duck but that doesn’t stop us from seeing them in the garden.  Usually one raises a brood of ducklings somewhere secluded: often under a large clump of oat grass or, before it rotted away completely, a few feet up on top of a rotten tree stump at the foot of a hedge. As soon as they hatch, she leads them away down the field to the river below the house.

Every year, there are many pheasants that survive the shooting season.  Last spring we had one nest in a planting trough beside our kitchen door.  Despite the constant activity, she sat tight and none of the dogs, visiting or resident, discovered her.  I have read that, when sitting on eggs, the hen pheasant can supress any scent so as to avoid predators.  No sooner had the chicks hatched than every dog in the neighbourhood was investigating the planter but by then, of course, she had led them all to safety.

Partridge also visit the garden but are much more wary.  When their eggs hatch the chicks are not much bigger than bumble bees and swarm about their mother.  They are so tiny they appear to have no legs moving as if somehow they are fitted with wheels instead!

I almost certainly won’t find it necessary to blog about the next ‘hatching’ for an eagerly waited event is the royal birth.  When Kate has her baby it will make world news – you won’t need to see a photo of it here!

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The Day I Became a Mother!

I have kept poultry since childhood ever since returning with my parents from a farm on Exmoor with a box containing half a dozen bantams smuggled into the back of their car. When one laid an egg en route and started cackling, my mother was furious. Fortunately we were too far into our journey for them to be taken back.  In time, she became equally fond of them and even allowed them to wander into the house to be given scraps of food.

The original bantams were farmyard mongrels but since I came to live in the secret valley I have kept Lavender Pekins.  These are allowed to wander the fields, even though they become supper for the fox, for there is nothing more delightful than to see happy hens striding down to the river or up the valley and (hopefully) back again. 

Bantams – or Cochins, as they are called in Canada and the USA – are ideal as garden birds for they do very little damage unlike their full sized relatives.  We keep those too but they are – with difficulty – kept firmly beyond the fence. I have written about the bantams in an earlier post and this can be seen by clicking here.

The other day I came across a couple of abandoned bantam eggs put them into a basket, kept them warm and waited to see what happened.

What a result!  An hour later it was dry and fluffy ….. and making even more noise!

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Gardening With Weeds

Much has been written about creating wild flower meadows in recent years. Many gardening magazines infer that somehow you must be lacking in something if you don’t rush out there and then and rip up your precious lawn to create the daisy and orchid studded turf depicted in medieval tapestries. There is much to be said for doing this (and I’ve done a few in my time too). However, the reason why most of us don’t do it is purely down to lack of space and time, and also most of us still like to see a reasonably weed free patch of green grass at the centre of our gardens. Now don’t get me wrong, anything that reduces the amount of chemicals used and encourages wildlife has got to be a good thing and our gardens, collectively, could – and should – make one vast nature reserve.

But why restrict yourself to wild flowers in grass? Very few articles suggest using them in herbaceous borders, or amongst shrubs, but I have been planting them like this for some years now and the results can be terrific. This flower border in the photo was taken 14 months after planting and looks very much like a traditional, English flower border. But there are some differences and those are the wild flowers intermingling with the more usual garden plants.



Purple Loosetrife, Lythrum salicifolium, grows wild in boggy places and by stream edges so seems an unlikely candidate for the border. I have found it to be a great choice which copes well with ordinary soil conditions. In the hot, dry summer we have had this year they have only grown to about half their normal height of 3-4ft but their cerise colour and longevity have still made them a worthy addition. In the photograph above they are the bright pink ‘blob’ in the centre, growing separately to the surrounding plants.

Here they are being grown as a companion to a bright pink ground cover rose, a combination that I’m not so keen on (even though I did plant them myself). They are a bit too strident and close in colour for my taste but others have stopped and admired them so there they remain.

I have also experimented growing them in containers where, of course, you can easily give them the moister conditions they would naturally prefer. Here, their colour makes them quite an exotic addition to the matching colour petunias, the purple leafed coleus and tropical looking (but hardy) palm.

Another reason for growing wild flowers is that, of course, they are great attractants of the local insects. A clump of the herbaceous St John’s Wort, this one is Perfoliate St John’s Wort, Hypericum perfoliatum, always are covered, when in flower, with bees and other beneficial, pollinating insects. The flowers are miniature versions of the shrubby Hypericum ‘Hidcote’ and all the better for being small. In the wild, they grow (as many wild flowers do) quite happily amongst grass and other plants. In the garden, I find they combine well with Wormwood, the tall, shrubby Artemisia.

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The pale blue flowers of the Field Scabious, Knautia arvensis, continue for months on end and combine well with most other colours. Growing them in the garden gives you the opportunity to notice them in detail. In the wild, it is less likely that you would see how the outer petals of the flower uncurl before the inner ones. Grow them with exotic looking Icelandic poppies or, like here, with tall, purple, Salvia.





Wild flowers often are generous with their flowering, not only in the quantity of blooms and their exuberance. Sometimes, they offer a ‘sport’. The most common variant from the norm is white and this pure white version of scabious was a delightful bonus. I like the way the buds start off a creamy colour.



Recently, I have tried growing Lady’d Bedstraw, Galium verum. It is working quite well and the rather acid yellow looks good with lavender. In fact, this flower is all the better for propping itself up against its neighbours as it is a bit inclined (in an unlady-like way) to sprawl, otherwise.



One word of caution about introducing wild flowers into the garden: sometimes, they like garden conditions just too much. If in doubt, plant a small number of plants in an area where you can control them should they take off. I didn’t do this with one of my childhood favourites, Toadflax. It took me three years of painful weeding to extract the final pieces from more delicate plants. I have gone back to admiring it where it belongs – along roadside verges and on waste ground.



And one final plea: please grow and enjoy our native, wild flowers but do source them from a reputable nursery. Apart from being illegal to dig or uproot a plant in the wild, as gardeners we are supposed to conserve plants ……

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Anatomy of a Flower Arrangement

How often does a garden plan go awry only to find that you have something equally as good, if not better, instead? This is what happened to one of my designs, a large area taking up almost one quarter of a walled kitchen garden.
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Formal beds, surrounded by box(wood) hedging and topiary, were planted to create what was to be a tisane, or herbal tea, garden. All the plants were supposed to be suitable for making infusions for either medicinal or culinary use. Something went wrong and, for reasons unknown, half the plants either died or refused to flourish. In desperation, we turned it into a cutting garden where flowers could be harvested for arrangements for the big house – actually, the mystery house I used to dream of as a child. I have written about this house before and the tale of my arriving there two hundred years after I had died….

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Concentrating on those plants that survived the initial planting, I decided to see how they would cope with being used as cut flowers and the result was much better than expected. The flowers were cut in the middle of the hottest day of this year so far – not ideal conditions – and then plunged up to their necks in water for the rest of the afternoon. They looked poorly and drooping when first arranged but perked up overnight and now, ten days later, look as fresh as ever.

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Much of the structure is created with a framework of Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’. I find that to get the best results it is necessary to prune this shrub down to ground level each spring. They then produce long wands of stunning silvery foliage. A bitter herb used for all sorts of ailments, I would have to feel very ill before I would consider drinking a tea made from this!
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At this point, I should stress, that I am no herbalist so I do not recommend that you try out any of these plants without deciding for yourself whether they will do you good or kill you instead.
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Hemp Agrimony, Eupatorium cannabinum, is a British native plant, normally found growing in damp places but quite happy in the garden border. The Joe Pye of America, it is claimed that it is good for many different ailments but especially good for gout.
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A big surprise, was this Spearmint. In the cutting garden it has grown exceptionally tall (and like all mints, proving rather invasive) with attractive, fine flowers. This is, of course, one that I can safely recommend for use as a culinary herbal tea, very refreshing on a hot summers day and good if you suffer with indigestion.
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Lavender needs no introduction. Oddly enough, because of soil conditions, I thought they would struggle in this garden. Instead, they have thrived.
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Marjoram, another common herb that grows wild in England on sunny banks, also needs no description from me. It is our best bee and butterfly plant in the garden, even outrivalling Buddleias. We grow it in huge patches throughout the garden.
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Leaving the best to last and the biggest surprise of the lot! Marsh-mallow, Althaea officinalis, another UK native. This was the first time I had grown it and it is now one of my ‘signature’ plants that I try to incorporate into every design. Related to Hollyhocks but only about half their height and very much more delicate in every way, except one – they are as tough as old boots!
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Beautiful, downy, soft-as-velvet leaves and the merest hint of pink flowers, they require no staking, suffer from no pests or diseases and grow year after year, getting ever stronger. And, of course, you can always make marshmallow sweets to eat from their dried, powdered roots.
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This recipe comes from my old herbal, although I have never tried to make them:
2oz marsh mallow root, 14oz fine sugar mixed with gum tragacanth and enough orange flower water to bind altogether. Quite what you do after that I have no idea – perhaps just eat them?
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Cooking: Cherries and a Tongue Twister

It has been a good year for cherries. Despite the hard and late frosts, which continued well into May, there has been a bumper crop. And, for some reason, the birds have been kind enough to leave them for us humans to harvest. There is the appearance of something exotic, or even of decadence, in the cherry’s shining, red orbs hanging in profusion. Perhaps because we see it all to rarely.
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One rather plump bird has developed the taste for cherries. Henrietta, the tamest of our Lavender Pekin bantams just can’t get enough of them! Fortunately, the others show no interest and, not being the brightest of creatures, Henrietta hasn’t considered flying into the trees to eat even more.
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Today was a cooking day – I love cooking but have no patience when it comes to following recipes, occasionally with unfortunate consequences. Luckily, today was one of the better days. Having picked the cherries, I had no idea what to do with them, so sat outside in the sunshine stoning them, waiting for inspiration.
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So much juice came from the fruit that it was necessary to strain it off. I thought of jam and other weird and wonderful ingredients to add to them. In the end, I just cooked them gently until their skins were tender, then added sugar and stirred in some mixed spice and some cinnamon. It made a pulp that will go down a treat with vanilla ice cream or with some natural yoghurt for breakfast tomorrow.
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So what to do with the juice? First thought was to throw it away but, apart from the waste, I knew that Rhonda from down…to…earth, would not approve. Her blog is so inspirational, I highly recommend it to all that want to try and live -even just a tad – more simply. Warmed through with sugar, a few chilli flakes (I only wanted it to have a slight kick, not blow my head off) and some vanilla essence, it has become the basis for several potential options. Below it was poured over crushed ice and topped up with chilled tonic water to make a beautifully, refreshing drink for a hot, summers day. The colours were an unexpected and added bonus.
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Next, the tongue twister: Geviklte Kichlach. I have had the great fortune of having a Jewish grandmother – if you have never had one, I suggest you find one that you can adopt. For apart from spoiling their grandchildren rotten, they are the most superb cooks. Geviklte Kichlach, which translates approximately, to ‘twisted little cakes’, Grandma would make for my every visit.
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The recipe is more a pastry one than a cake recipe and it is very simple. I use spelt flour and baking powder as my partner has a wheat intolerance – spelt, despite being a type of wheat, is often ok for people with digestive problems.
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Mix 4 oz butter with 4 oz curd cheese and 6 oz flour (if not using self raising, add two teaspoons of baking powder). Roll out thinly to an oblong and spread with jam. Then sprinkle currants over the top and some ground cinnamon and roll into a sausage shape.
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You can elongate the sausage, if need be, by rolling it with your hands like plastacene. Cut into thinnish slices. Place on an ungreased baking sheet and bake at 190 until golden – about 10 minutes. Once cool, dust with icing sugar (it does need this additional sweetness, so don’t be tempted to leave it out). The undusted, currant free version, sitting on the marble slab is a special treat for She-dog!
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You don’t like it? Well, as Grandma would have said, “You will like mine – now eat!”.
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Please remember, overseas visitors, that the measurements are in British ounces and the oven temperature is in Centigrade.

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Coronation Chicken, Anyone?

According to one tradition, the first Pekins were smuggled out of China and presented to Queen Victoria in 1837, the year of her coronation. Whether this is true or not is immaterial – it just makes for a nice story. The first Pekins (I have read that in the States and Canada the breed is known as Cochins) presented to me were a gift from a friend several years ago and we have been breeding them ever since, concentrating on the more unusual lavender coloured variety.

Pekins are a breed that is only found as bantams – which is fairly unusual in itself – the majority of bantam breeds have a ‘full size’ chicken version as well. Recognised most easily by their feathered feet they are friendly, almost cuddly, as the hens especially are rounded and dumpy, another recognisable feature.

The cockerels, too, are reasonably lacking aggression (some bantam breeds I have kept in the past would attack at every opportunity). They do, however, have their moments, especially at this time of year. I have found that the way to deal with this is to arm yourself with thick gloves and ‘teach’ the cockerel that you are not intimidated. As he attacks, I catch and pin him to the ground, holding him there for a few seconds: he soon learns that he is second in the pecking order to me and the only thing to be hurt is the cockerel’s pride. We have a number of cockerels (too many) and, surprisingly, they show no aggression to each other.

Penned away safely at night, during the daytime we release them when they have the freedom to roam the fields of the secret valley. It is extraordinary the distance they travel in the course of the day as they cross back and forth. With the odd handful of corn to entice them back, I try to keep them reasonably close to the house for safety but, even then, the fox takes them from time to time.

Ramblers dogs are also a threat – it is amazing the number of people that seem to think it is acceptable for their animals to chase livestock when they are in the country. She-dog, our lurcher, a type of dog specifically bred for hunting, had to be taught that chasing certain animals was unacceptable if she wished to remain living on a farm. From the earliest age she was made to sit amongst sheep and also the bantams, which made useful training aids, with the consequence that now she totally ignores them. It didn’t stop her stalking them when a puppy if she thought we wouldn’t notice!

Would I recommend Pekins? Only with reservations. If it’s egg production you want, they are fairly useless although they lay enough for our requirements and the eggs are full of flavour with rich yolks. If it’s meat, then there isn’t much food on a bantam! If it’s just the lovely sight of a group wandering about the open fields, scratching in the hedgerows and dust bathing in the sunshine then yes, they win hands – or even feathered feet – down every time.

Coronation chicken? We don’t eat our bantams but I bet they would taste good and coronation chicken has to be one of my favourite dishes. If you want the recipe you will have to ask……

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Plant Combinations in the Summer Border

When I designed the summer border (featured in the last post) I made a conscious effort to experiment with plant combinations. Mostly, the results were pleasing – to my eyes , anyway – and sometimes surprising. The brief from my client was to keep the planting relatively low and to give the border a cottage feel rather than, say, the new ‘prairie’ style. They were not plantsmen or even keen to garden themselves: the only plant they really knew they wanted, and in quantity, were lavenders. This gave me my starting point.

The lavender hedge not only gave me plenty of lavenders, it also softened the curved and hard edge of the stone path that extended the whole length of the border. An unforeseen bonus was with the reflected heat from the stone – it seemed to heighten their scent, filling the air along with myriads of bees and butterflies that were attracted to it. Another good bee plant was Purple Loosetrife, Lythrum salicifolium, a native plant normally found in damp places and by pond edges. This is a garden cultivar ‘Robert’, which is shorter than the type and was quite at home in ordinary garden soil. The ground cover rose ‘Magic Carpet’ was a close match in colour, the result quite strident but tempered by the lighter centre of the rose flower. I wouldn’t describe this as me at my most subtle!

A much quieter planting and taking cottage style to it’s extreme was this combination of Icelandic poppies and scabious. I didn’t notice the bumblebee at the time but it really ‘makes’ the photo! The Magic Carpet rose looks much easier on the eye planted against lavender and red sage.
Climbing roses are a passion – no garden should be without at least one. This is a David Austin variety called Snow Goose and is one of my signature plants: it goes into many of the gardens I work with. It is easy, disease free, relatively low growing (about 9ft) so ideal for all sorts of odd corners. It sadly lacks scent which normally would rule it out for me. Certain plants such as roses, sweet peas and pinks, for example, have to have scent, for surely that is their ‘raison d’etre’. Here Snow Goose is growing through Photinia davidiana ‘Palette’ which is being trained as a wall shrub. I love the way the tiny white flowers of the Photinia mimic the rose and the white splashes on the leaves are emphasised by the flower colour.

Rosa glauca is another rose that I use regularly. It is grown mostly for its wonderful foliage although the flowers are pretty, if somewhat fleeting. This shrub rose will grow to 6ft or more but to get the best foliage and stem colour it is best to prune it hard. Cut back severely it sends out these long, dusky wands which are perfect for cutting for use in the house. Here it is teamed with the Oriental poppy ‘Patty’s Plum’. The poppy was planted inside a trio of the roses which hides the poppy’s leaves as these tend to become rather shabby. The thorns of the rose also hook the floppy stems of the poppy flowers which means that there is no need for staking and tying in: why bother with a chore like that when nature can do it for you?

A combination of blues against a blue sky using Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella), Salvia nemerosa ‘Rugen’ and two Iris, ‘Jane Phillips’, pale blue with a pleasant scent and ‘Deep Blue’ with its dark, almost black flowers. The tall, ferny foliage in the background is the giant scabious, Cephalaria giganteum. Its pale yellow flowers give a complete colour variation to this part of the border as the iris fade and the Cephalaria opens to glow like moonshine behind the nigella and salvia.

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The House My Parents Built: 200 Years ago….

Is there such a thing as reincarnation? That, or do ghosts exist, is a question that crops up fairly regularly over dinner with friends. My answer is ‘I don’t know’ – then I tell them about my childhood recurring dream……

I walk up a long driveway and turn around a bend and there it is in front of me: the most perfectly proportioned house, typical of the sort a small child might draw. Then, in that disjointed but alright sort of way of dreams, I am at the back of the house. There are two arched windows with soil silted halfway up their frames.

I wriggle through the opening and drop to the floor, a few feet below. Standing up, I see I’m in a small circular room and, above me, see that the ceiling is cloistered like in an old abbey building. And then I wake up and feel so warm and good inside that I’m happy all day.

Year after year, I dream of this until my late twenties when, one day, I decide to draw the house, but I can only draw it as as a child would. The spell is broken and I never dream it again. And then 17 years later I go for an interview for a position as Head Gardener and find myself walking up a long driveway, turn around a bend and….I get the job.

Supplying pot plants and cut flowers for inside the house is all part of everyday working life and I find myself in a small circular room looking out of the half windows with their arched tops. The ceiling is plain plaster. ‘How disappointing’, I say as I tell the owner about the cloister. The ceiling is false, the house, after tragedy, had become a convent, the adjoining room was a chapel, who knows what is above the ceiling?
Apparantly, the son, an only child, died just before the house was completed. The obelisk at the front of the property was built to commemorate him and the parents moved away. And so, in the 21st century, so did I – reluctantly in some ways – to be with my new partner to live in the Cotswolds and a new career as a garden designer.

The house won’t let go. Several weeks later I am asked to return on a regular basis as an adviser and I have been travelling there ever since – the last time to supervise the planting of lavender hedges and, when I return, I still get that warm, contented and happy feeling. Do I believe in reincarnation? I’m far too much a sceptic to say ‘yes’ but there are too many coincidences to give an emphatic ‘no’…..

Update June 2014: an even more bizarre twist to this tale has arisen – read about it by clicking on the link here
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The Long Distance Painted Ladies

Butterflies are the most extraordinary creatures – so delicate to look at, yet they must be as tough as old boots to cope with the rigours of an English summer. For weeks now they have had to endure cool days and heavy rain but, with every burst of sunshine, out they come. And this year there seem to be more than ever.

And it’s offical: it started in Spring when the BBC reported (so it must be true!) that clouds of Painted Ladies had been seen off the English coast, soon to arrive from annual migration from Africa. And sure enough, just a few days later, the hedgerows of the secret valley suddenly had dozens of them resting on the fresh new leaves and, every so often, stretching their wings to absorb what warmth there was.

Then just as suddenly they were gone! They had laid their eggs and, I assume died, their purpose in life over. Now they are back, or if I’m correct, their offspring are, feeding on the late summer nectar of the wild flowers and, in the garden, on the lavender and buddleia bushes.

The Peacocks, too, are plentiful but these we see all year round, for in the winter they come into the cottage and hibernate in between the folds of the curtains or some other dark place. Periodically, when the log burner is set on high and the house warms up, they fly around before settling down again for another long sleep. The one below is feeding in the garden on Phlox ‘Hesperis’, so called because of its similarity to the Dame’s Violet – and just as beautifully fragrant.

It is the smaller butterflies that I especially like, the subdued markings of the Speckled Wood have the loveliest ‘eye spots’ on their wings, the colour of Devonshire clotted cream. The Gatekeeper is a much livelier and brighter coloured one, the one in the photo conveniently stopped for a moment on a wild scabious.



The ‘blues’ are the trickiest to identify. The two photographs below are of the Small Blue (I think), the female not looking very blue at all!


And soon all will be gone! Some migrating back to Africa or hibernating in a log pile or other sheltered place but the majority dying with the frosts,their species overwintering as pupa below the leaf litter to emerge as adults in the spring – which is, perhaps, the biggest test of ‘as tough as old boots’ of them all.

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