All is Safely Gathered In?

The air is heavy with the scent of harvest.  Is it the summer heat that produces the heady smell of fresh straw or the act of cutting it?  Probably a combination of both but the result gives mixed emotions for, whilst there is something very comforting about knowing that the corn is safely stored and the livestock will have plentiful winter bedding, there is also a tinge of regret for it is the first sign that autumn is rapidly approaching.

Harvest is one of the few events in the modern farming calendar which gives an insight into the ways of country life of generations ago.  These days, for most of the year, farming is a solitary occupation with a skilled tractor operator carrying out the tasks of many people.  Now the fields often seem empty, quiet places, devoid of human life or activity. Even fifty years ago there were more people working there but go back even further, say another hundred, and there would have been the sights and sounds of dozens of people working from dawn until dusk, racing against the weather.  A poor harvest then meant months of hardship and hunger for many.  Modern harvesting, albeit for a much shorter time is when the fields seem alive once more with combines, grain trucks, straw wagons and the like. 


The image below is taken from a nineteenth century farming manual belonging to my great, great-grandfather, and it demonstrates just how many people both men and women, were required for harvest. There were the mowers with their scythes, the gatherers, the bandsters who bound the sheaf together and then set them in ‘stooks’ to keep dry. Finally, the raker would clean up all fallen straw and grain for none could be afforded to be lost.  Harvesting by hand was surprisingly speedy for a skilled mower could cut over an acre of wheat in a day.  However, by the 1880’s virtually all corn was harvested by horse drawn machines.

Many attempts were made to design a harvesting machine throughout the centuries – the earliest, using oxen, is described by Pliny two thousand years ago.  The binder – as seen in the wonderful engraving also taken from g-g-grandad’s book – which cut and tied the corn into sheaves in one operation, first came into use in the 1850’s; it continued to be used for another hundred years: by 1979 when the photograph below was taken it was an eccentric rarity. 

the binder can just be seen on the middle right of the photo
 
Combine havesters are giants compared to the binders of old and when they travel through the secret valley they take up the full width of the lane with very little room to spare.  First to be cut is oilseed rape, the crop that turns vast swathes of the British countryside bright yellow in spring.  The resulting stubble, unlike that of corn, is sparse and sharp and makes for uncomfortable walking on.

 


Barley, oats and wheat – which in the UK are collectively referred to as ‘corn’ – then follow with each crop (and its straw) having its own requirement and characteristic.  Modern technology may have shortened the number of days it takes to bring in the harvest but the working day is just as long as it ever was for the combines work from early morning to late at night, providing the crop doesn’t become damp with dew or rain. 

Harvest has always been dependent upon the weather so it is not surprising that upon completion celebrations take place.  Although the traditional Harvest Supper is now mostly a thing of the past, the Harvest Festival church service is still one of the most popular.  On Exmoor – where I helped with harvest in my early years – and typical of a remote, tightly –knit community, every window ledge and the altar of the church would be decorated with flowers, fruit and vegetables.  Pride of place was given to the first stookof corn cut from the field. Packed with families that had been too busy to meet one another for several weeks the hymn ‘Come Ye Thankful People, Come’, written by Henry Alford in 1844 a line from which the title of this blog post is taken, and a great favourite of the farmers, was sung with gusto.

Exmoor church

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The Earliest Signs of Spring

As I write this the rain is lashing against the window panes and beating down upon the glass roof of the conservatory; unrelenting, its endless patter has been sounding since before dawn.  In the last hour the wind has risen and the silver birch, its downward hanging branches blowing first this direction and then the other, sheds its brittle twigs, nature’s way of pruning out the dead wood.
The silver birch silvered by frost

There is no way of casting yourself free from the weather on a day like this.  From every room of the house the rain calls, the views of the secret valley are as montone as the sky; all shape is blurred and merges into one, no defined hills, no defined trees, no defined river bed, even the clouds have been replaced by a heavy, all-oppressing  blanket of grey.  It is as if the life-force has been drained from the landscape.

Siskins are exotic looking winter visitors
A flash of colour reminds us that this is not the case.  The colder air travelling towards us from the north has driven before it birds desperate to find slightly better conditions.  Far too exotic looking with their bright yellow bodies and sooty black head and bib to be outside the tropics, siskins have arrived to feed on the nut feeders.  They prefer the tiny, black niger seeds but the goldfinches are having none of it; they want to keep those for themselves.  Flurries of feathers, a mix of yellows, golds and reds fall as they scrap – the delicate lttle goldfinch is obviously tougher than it looks.  From time to time, flocks of long-tailed tits descend too to take their place in the food queue; they usually prefer to feed high up in the trees, their search given way by the soft, contact calls they make to keep together.
Siskin vie with Goldfinch for the niger seeds
Long-tailed Tits only visit the feeders in bad weather
It is the birds that tell us that spring is really not so far away.  First it is the robins, their sweet, melodic song sounding as if it should come from a bird twice their size, perhaps a blackbird.  Then it is the turn of the giant sized birds, the raven and the red kite, not with song but with the aerial acrobatics of their courtship displays.  Buzzards follow too but they are more content to circle ever higher, mewing to one another, attraction enough it seems.  All three birds have been rarities for most of the twentieth century but the reintroduction of the red kite in the 1980’s helped protect the buzzards from persecution.  The ravens followed later, arriving in the secret valley with the dawn of the new century – now all three are seen daily.
The forked tail is the easiest way to recognise the red kite
Winter aconites are the first of the flowers to appear, their yellow button flowerheads opening on fine days to prove that they are closely related to  wild buttercups both in flower shape and colour.  Nothing will hold them back and if they become covered in snow or rimed in frost it is of little consequence to them: they are back as pert as ever once the thaw comes.  Snowdrops quickly follow, also uncaring of the weather although they do bow their heads as if allowing their shoulders to take the brunt of it.
Winter aconites flower early whatever the weather
Every tree and shrub show signs of life too.  The hazel, its catkins stubby, hard and green for many weeks begin to lengthen, to grow brighter and looser until they live up to their old and descriptive country name of lamb’s tails.  Knocked back and discoloured by frost they soon restore or are replaced by others threefold.  Others are less precocious and prefer to show the signs of spring more discreetly.  The hawthorn leaf buds show signs of swelling and take on a brighter hue; the blackthorn and cherry flower buds also are clearly visible promising snowstorms of white and pink petals in a month or two.
Buds start to swell slowly at first

In the flower borders, life is stirring.  The hellebores lift their heads in shades of mournful maroons and creamy whites; the daffodils show their buds too almost as soon as they push through the soil waiting to open once they have reached their full height.  The day lilies are the earliest of the herbaceous plants to send out their leaves, their bright lime green shoots creating an attractive foil to the showier spring bulbs weeks before they send out spray after spray of exotic looking flowers.  Spring is just around the corner…

Hellebores flower early in the year

The day lilies won’t flower for some months but their leaves are amongst the first to show

In the meantime, the rain has turned to snow.  The countryside is turning white and still the wind howls.  Another day of winter to be crossed off the calender before we can relax and say “Spring has come”.

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A Year In Review: 2012 The First Six Months

One of the signs of getting older is that the days, weeks, months and years go by ever faster – this seems rather unfair as you are likely to have relatively few ahead of you.  Not that I plan to leave this world just yet (well, not if I can help it), it is just that 2012 was the anniversary not just of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee but also of mine which has focussed the mind, rather.

As the time has sped by so fast I thought I would review the year, if only to remind myself what I’ve been doing the past twelve months.

January:  To London for the New Year.  Whenever we visit ‘The Smoke’ (I wonder if anyone still calls it that now that the days of dense smog have long gone) it always ends up rather ‘foody’.  That trip was no exception; we ate our way up the Kings Road, ate our way around Sloane Square and finally ate our way to Fortnum & Mason arriving in time for afternoon tea.  Fortnum’s is the most wonderful grocery store on the planet – whereas, most people, especially those from overseas, visit Harrods, Fortnum’s is the one place you really shouldn’t miss.  Everything about it is delightful and its afternoon teas are legendry.  We did squeeze in a visit to the National Portrait Gallery but why show you images of great works of art when you can see photos of Fortnum’s?  Add it to your list of ‘places I must visit before I die’.


February:  A visit to Snowdonia staying at a friend’s isolated chapel house on the side of the mountains.  The weather was quite kind to us considering the time of year so we were able to do a lot of walking.  To our dismay, our favourite spot that we had christened ‘The Enchanted Forest’ because of its lichen encrusted trees and great mossy hummocks had been clear felled and all signs of it destroyed.  This may sound like wanton vandalism but the trees had been planted for timber production regardless of the impact they had on the scenery.  Now years later, there is a move to restore the mountains back to their original state which is, I’m sure, admirable and an ecologically sound thing to do.  The trouble is that we loved this silent, brooding woodland that no-one, it seemed, apart from us ever visited and now it is gone.  And with it has gone our desire to return but, who knows, perhaps we shall one day.

March:  Recording the life of a hedgerow seemed like agood idea at the time.  It was supposed to have become a month by month photographic notebook of the changes that took place during the year but sadly March turned out to be the first and only entry.  As April arrived I took more photographs but when it came to blogging them they had disappeared (reappearing months later – one of the mysteries of computer technology).  Then came the rain – and it has rained ever since – and the project was abandoned, apart from a vain attempt in May.  The hedge, which is in the little lane that leads from our cottage up the hill out of the secret valley, is an ancient relic from the time of the Wychwood Forest, cleared in the very earliest days of British history.  It is mentioned in the Domesday Book, that great list of the plunder of William the Conqueror, written in 1086.  Although the forest has retreated by many miles there are still some fine trees standing and wild flowers that would normally be found in woodland still grow on its grassy banks.  I shall make a resolution to resurrect the project in 2013.
April:    Part of my everyday job as a practical gardener is pruning, a subject which is a mystery to many people and often fills them with terror at the very thought of wielding secateurs to a treasured shrub.  Mahonia is one of those useful winter flowering plants that so often look dreadful as they become ever more gaunt and ungainly.  This was the case with one in a client’s garden so it seemed a good idea to photograph the process of restoration and blog about it.  That post has rapidly become my most read and I am glad to be able to report that the plant is thriving.  Now covered in new flower buds and almost ready to open, it will welcome the New Year with the scent of lily-of-the-valley.  If you have one in your garden, cut a few flowers for a shallow vase to fragrance the house.

May:   Despite the rain that seems to have fallen incessantly since April, we had a fine, dry day for the most important day in my social calendar of 2012 which was also an important one for the Queen too.  The Pageant of the Horse was held in the grounds of Windsor Castle and celebrated the Queen’s sixty year reign through her association with and love of horses.  Horses, riders and other performers representing every country from around the world that the Queen has visited gave us a show that both we and she will never forget.  It was a quite remarkable and memorable experience; apart from the showmanship and being so close to the Queen and Prince Philip, we had a private ‘Haka’ from the Cook Islanders when they noticed us still seated after the bulk of other visitors had left.  Very exciting!

 
June:  The Jubilee celebrations continued withthe River Pageant held in London on the Thames in pouring rain, this time.  A much smaller river, the Coln, featured in a post ‘The Most Beautiful English Village’ about the exquisite Cotswold village of Bibury.  With its clear, trout-filled waters fast running past ancient stone cottages, it is hardly surprising that it is protected by the National Trust and much visited by sightseers.  It is said that visitors often don’t realise that it is not a living museum and sometimes walk into people’s private gardens or houses to be surprised to find the owners eating their lunch or watching television.

 


To read any of the posts mentioned above, just click on the links in green.  July to December will appear soon.

 

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Heading for the Sky

The west coast of Ireland is renowned for its beauty for the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean, with nothing to slow them down from the shores of America, have created inlets and pools, islands and crumbling rock face.  It is a wild place with mile after empty mile of high cliffs, sandy coves and sheltered bays.  Like the shadows that play on the surface of the water, the weather is forever changing as rain and sun alternate produce the contrast of lush green against granite outcrops.  All along this coast there are ruins of the old crofts, now long deserted as the population left to find work and comfort elsewhere.  Those that remained moved into more modern homes that look as if they have been dropped into the landscape for they sit at all angles, some looking out to sea, some with their backs firmly set to it as if hunkered down waiting for the next battering storm.  
 
 
One of the most picturesque towns on the coast is Clifden in Connemara whose population swells threefold during the busy summer months to 6000 or so.  The region described as Connemara is undefined, being part of County Galway, but is generally accepted to be the remote, westernmost area, where mountain, bog and sea all jostle for space and attention.  This remoteness has helped to save the Irish lannguage and Connemara has the highest percentage of Gaelic speakers in Ireland.
 
 
 
 We – my partner, myself and some friends – had come to stay high on the cliffs outside Clifden specifically to visit the annual Connemara Pony Show, where the native ponies are put through their paces over three days.  I have written of this in my last post (click here) and also mentioned how we came expecting rain and cool temperatures only to be blessed with such hot weather that we actually swam in the sea.   The fine weather meant that we were treated to some spectacular sunsets.
 
There are two roads that lead west out of Clifden, the Beach road and the Sky road.  The first only goes a short distance but the Sky Road is an 11km loop that is a popular destination for both tourist and local alike on a clear evening.
 
 

  
As the light begins to fade there is little to prepare you for the spectacle that will come later.  A greying of the sky with just the merest hint of colour as if an artist has slashed the palest of pink washes in a quick ‘Z’ shaped stroke. 
 

 
 
As the sky darkens further it would appear that the sunsets we have been promised will not materialise.  The sea changes in appearance at this point and becomes almost glassy or mirror like.  The dark line stretching across the water in the photo below is made by fishing nets stretched across the bay, invisible at any other time of day.  Trees, too, standing on the edge of the water cast their reflection in the stillness.
 
 
 
 
 
A shaft of light suddenly appears along the horizon, lightening up the landscape once again only to be hidden by a bank of seafog rolling in, determined to spoil our evening display, leaving just a hint of gold cloud rising above it.  But, just as quickly it disappears again to reveal the sun disappearing over the horizon beyond the islands.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
We stay until the sun disappears completely and drive on imagining that the show is over  but nothing has prepared us for this last finale seen as the road rounds a bend.  The combination of cloud, light and darkness, of navy blue, black and pink, mirror imaged in the still water is quite breath taking.  It seems unreal, as if it should be the backdrop to a Wagnerian opera; we stand on the sand speechless for no words are adequate.

 

 
I had to share the sunset with others but waking early the next morning I stepped outside to be greeted by an almost equally spectacular dawn.  And what phenomenon created this vertical shaft of colour coming straight up from the sea? 
 


      

     

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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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Where’s The Snow in Snowdonia? (Only in it’s name)

We have been back to Wales for a week’s holiday staying in a remote converted chapel belonging to a friend.  It is good to be back for the isolation is complete – no cars, no houses, no roads, no broadband and no television.  Well, there is television but being rather impatient with non-living things (and also quite a number of people that just might fall into that category) I cannot be bothered to work out just which of the several remote controls switch it on.  But best of all – and rather surprisingly considering all the dire warnings we have been given by the weathermen – no snow.


Last winter when we were here, a blizzard struck the day we arrived.  Gradually, as the supply of logs and oil for heating dwindled and the water supply froze resulting in our collecting it from the stream outside, our resolve and sense of fun also started to diminish.  Put it down to advancing years: in my twenties or thirties I would have considered it to be ‘quite a laugh’.  Not so these days – I could cope with the water and lack of central heating but I am not so good when the wood burner isn’t blazing away.  However, we saw Snowdonia last year as few visitors do; a snow covered landscape with more falling so thickly that it was difficult to see, when out walking, where either my partner – or more importantly She-dog – was even though they were just yards ahead of me.


This year it was different, we left home with the (as it turned out, innacurate) knowledge that we were driving into blizzards and we hoped that we would reach our destination before being marooned, despite having to travel over two high passes and up a track steep enough to make a mountain goat think twice before tackling it. This time we came prepared with a vast amount of food and with three times the amount of warm clothing that any two people could wear over an entire winter.  As we reached the town of Shrewsbury the forecast rain began to fall; it would only be a matter of time as we entered Wales and gradually climbed in height that it would change to snow.  The rain grew steadily heavier and the road ever steeper until we reached the first summit and, surprise, there was not a hint of whiteness anywhere.  The second pass, higher still, was similar although the surrounding peaks did have a dusting of snow. We reached our destination with the rain still falling and the temperature ever rising – it was now fifteen degrees warmer than when we had left home in the Cotswolds, further south and many hundreds of feet lower.


The next morning we woke to sunshine, having no guilt about not getting out of bed in darkness at some ridiculously early hour as every other day of our lives.  Looking out of the bedroom window, the surrounding mountains still wore their apology of snow – it was a scene from the end of March or even April.  The calls from concerned Cotswold friends telephoning (we still have one piece of technology that works here) to confirm our safe arrival quickly turned to irritation when they discovered we were fine and they were blanketed in five inches of overnight snowfall.  It was hardly our fault that they had to work twice as hard at looking after our chickens and horses in our absence and, it seems, my suggestion that carrying buckets of unfrozen drinking water out into the fields was a good daily exercise did not help.


Last year She-dog had a thoroughly enjoyable holiday here as well.  Like most dogs, she revels in human company and snow and her days were spent in a mix of snowy walks and long uninterrupted periods of sleep in front of the fire.  This time we are here on our own.  It has been commented on that She-dog has not featured much in recent posts – all that is about to change for she has  gone away on an adventure of her own: if all goes well, in about ten weeks time she will be having puppies once again and, this time, we might just keep one for ourselves.

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First Build Your Bank ….

Some time ago I was asked if I could plant a hedge.  Straightforward enough, I thought and as it was to be a native hedge, I was especially keen to do it.  Using only native species is always a pleasure for not only are you maintaining a tradition that is centuries old, it is also excellent cover for twentyfirst century birds and animals.

It was only when I went to visit the site that it was mentioned that it would be rather nice if the hedge could be planted on top of a bank, reminiscent of those that are found in the West Country counties of Devon and Cornwall.

West Country banks use large amounts of stone in their construction and were built to protect livestock from the gales and snowstorms that sweep in from the Atlantic.  Over time they become encrusted in lichens and mosses with ferns, primroses and other wild flowers sprouting from every crevice.  They are usually topped with a beech hedge or, sometimes, gorse (or furze, as they call it on Exmoor).

The bank that I had to build was to be similar but faced with turf which would not be as strong. As it was to divide two halves of a garden and (hopefully) not have to keep out determined sheep or cattle, this didn’t matter.  The thing that did matter was that I had to build it in a way that would prevent it from falling down …..

I’ve always found that if you want to create an impression bring in a digger.  There is a morbid fascination in watching a digger at work for the destruction can be immediate and swift.  It certainly would have been if I had been in charge of the controls but, as is so often the case, when you need an expert it is better to bring one in.  I know where I am when it comes to shovels and forks and trowels but it is best not to let me loose with all those knobs and levers.

The ground cleared we were then able to lay out and start building the bank.  We imported the rubble and clod for the base which after being well rammed and compacted could then have a top layer of better quality topsoil spread over the surface.  All was held in place by large mesh chicken wire netting.

Next came the turf and this was laid direct onto the netting and held in place with hazel twig ‘pegs’.  These would gradually rot but not before the turf had grown its roots through the wire.   The netting, too would quite quickly rot (we didn’t use galvanised for we didn’t want it to last for years) and, by then and fingers crossed, the bank would be quite stable and self supporting.

It was with some trepidation when, a few weeks later we cut the top of the turf and the wire out so that we were able to prepare the bank for planting the hedgerow; especially so as we had had some torrential downpours giving me anxious moments about landslips and mudslides.  All, fortunately was well.

Having plants delivered, I find, is always an exciting moment.  It reminds me of when, as a child, I waited for Christmas morning and couldn’t wait any longer to open my presents.  Despite knowing what is coming out of the van, each plant or variety is met with little gasps of delight.   The thrill of knowing that, with luck, they will thrive and continue to grow for many years and may even be there long after I’ve been buried and forgotten is great.

The hedgerow was not the easiest thing to plant but the end result was pleasing.  The final combination was Hawthorn, Field Maple, Wayfaring Tree, Hazel, Dog Rose, Spindle and Hornbeam  with an occasional Honeysuckle to fill the evening air with perfume.  The birds took to it straight away and, in my imagination at least, mice and voles shelter amongst the trunks hiding from mirauding stoats and weasels.  Best of all is the knowledge that, a few years on, the bank is still standing!

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What A Difference A Year Makes

The British are always going on about the weather and I’m no exception.  My very first words upon waking are “What is the weather doing?” and my final words before sleeping are “What will the weather be doing?”.  I make no apologies for this: it’s part of our make-up as a nation.  It’s because, I was once told, that whereas other countries have seasons, Britain just has weather.  It’s not quite that simple, we do have seasons – Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter – just like any other temperate country, it’s just that in the UK they get a bit muddled up.

I write this, snug in front of the woodburner – not that much heat is getting past She-dog who thinks this has been lit solely for her pleasure and comfort – listening to a gale rattling the window panes and whistling around the eaves.  The rain is lashing down and there is absolutely no need for me to ask what the weather is doing this evening.  However, I have been told that I have said “Listen to the weather” several times. I could have said how remarkable it is that only yesterday I had my lunch sitting in the garden.  Yes, really.

I should admit that I am a hardy sole as I work outdoors all year and so am less affected by cold than most and I also should admit that I was wearing a coat and gloves and sitting in a sheltered, sunny spot. Regardless of those finer details, yesterday I commented how last year to the day we were up to our necks in snow in the worst wintry weather the Secret Valley had had for years.  And, even more remarkably, the snow came when you would expect it  –  in midwinter but (and there’s always a ‘but’ where British weather is concerned) in the Cotswolds we rarely get snow before January …..   But it was still rather remarkable to be sitting there, surely and remark worthy?

What is even more remarkable is that all of this week I have been planting out herbaceous plants and laying turf; late even by our odd climate standards.  We have had frosts: there were three quite hard ones in October, then none until the last week of November and then a couple more last week and none since.  In between, we had two weeks of warmish air and thick fog which was enough to make even me depressed. 

The spirits, even on those damp, grey days, were uplifted by the huge array of flowers that have reappeared.  There are always a few late roses hanging on determinedly until Christmas Day, looking bedraggled and ragged but not this time.  Some of them have given up but others have almost as many blooms as midsummer.  There are pots of herbaceous Salvia nemerosa ‘Mainacht’ that have regrown after their end-of-season haircut and are in full bloom once again.  Primroses and cowslips are showing colour.  Today I counted over twenty different summer flowering plants still going strong.  That’s a bit of an exaggeration, I really mean showing the odd flower or two.  All the plants have become muddled so we have Winter Jasmine as you would expect but not alongside spring flowering Forsythia.  And we have evergreen, flowering shrubs such as Viburnum and Sarcococca as we should have at this time of year – but not alongside the newly unfurling purple leaves of Cotinus cogyggria.  Where, or more to the point, when will it all end?  Possibly quite soon.

It isn’t just the garden that is confused.  On the farm the cattle are still out grazing the fields.  They should be inside by now but with plenty of grass still available in the fields they can be out for a little longer. 

While I am here writing about a bit of wind and rain, the north of England and Scotland, in particular, are bearing the brunt of 100mph gales and heavy snow.  Perhaps we are quite fortunate, after all.  The rain here is only supposed to last a few hours and tomorrow is forecast unbroken sunshine once more.  Which reminds me, I  really must start talking about the lack of rain we have had in recent months.  The little winding river is running lower than it ever has and can be easily walked across in places in just walking boots where the water flows over gravel .  It should look, at this time of year, like the photograph I use on the header to this blog.  Instead it looks like midsummer again with the water, where it flows deeper, still choked with watercress.  Oh well!  I suppose I should be grateful that I am still able to go out and pick it in December – I can make a store of some delicious hot soup to drink when the weather realises it is winter.

All the photographs, except for She-dog in the snow, were taken over the past week or two.  When the frost has been hard the Secret Valley has looked at its best.

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A Very English Day Out


Last Sunday turned out to be a glorious day after twenty four hours of much needed rain. Thank goodness it did for a friend had organised that most English of traditions – a posh picnic on the lawns of a large country house, followed by a concert in the music room.


And so we found ourselves eating smoked salmon sandwiches, coronation chicken, salads, ending with strawberries and cream, all washed down with an endless supply of champagne. But our friend didn’t just do us proud with the picnic, she had invited an eclectic mix of guests. There was an art historian, an art restorer, an explorer, a porcelain restorer, myself a garden designer amongst others. And we were international as well, for amongst the guests was an American, a Persian, myself part Polish – but the pure bred Brits did outnumber us….


Boarstall, where the concert took place, is a fourteenth century moated gatehouse. Of course, a building with such a long history has seen many changes and events, a major one being during the (English) Civil War when it was besieged for ten weeks. Damaged by cannon fire, ( the bricked up ‘patches’ can still be seen), upon its surrender the main part of the house, church and village were all destroyed by the victorious Parliamentarians. The mansion and the church were rebuilt but only the latter remains, the house being demolished once again in 1778. Since that time the tower has remained virtually unchanged. Now owned by the National Trust, it is lived in by tenants who organise the concerts.

We had come to hear a young soprano, Luci Briginshaw, sing arias from the great operas, accompanied by Peter McMullin on the piano. Luci’s story is rather like an opera plot in itself – a nice one fortunately rather than one where everyone gets murdered or dies of consumption! Busking in Covent Garden market, Luci was heard singing and invited to perform at Boarstall.

The music room at Boarstall is on the top floor of the tower and is reached by ancient, spiral stone staircases. Light and airy, it holds about 100 people so makes an intimate space where you can really relate to the performers and fellow audience. Luci’s singing was delightful, a pure clear voice, she obviously will – or deserves to – go far. Not just a wonderful coloratura soprano, for her encore, she accompanied herself on the piano singing a great blues number.

After the concert, Luci joined us all with a tour of the tower (how cross I was that, by then, I’d taken the camera back to the car) followed by afternoon tea, where she proved that she had a great personality off stage as well as on.

You will find a link to Luci’s website here, for Luci should be heard far and wide. And if, by a remote chance, Luci you should read this post, thank you for a memorable day out. Can’t wait to hear you again. Bravo!

Sun, Drought, Frost: at last, Rain…..

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It has been difficult to remember, sometimes, that it is still only spring time. After the unusually early, bitter and snowy winter weather we experienced, 2011 came in cold but dry. It remained so until the end of March when, wham!, summer arrived.
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With temperatures soaring into the mid 80’s, many plants struggled to open their buds (and the ash trees still haven’t done so properly). I had planned to write about this battle but became – as you may well know – rather obsessed with puppies ….
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However, many plants did rather better than normal. Tulips, especially the fragile doubles, were better than ever with no rain to spoil their petals, as have been the paeonies. Perfume has wafted about the garden in the warm evening air – can there be anything more lovely on both eyes and nose than this paeony and wisteria combination?
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The trees, later than has been usual for many years, finally started to come into leaf. Now the countryside is awash with May, cherry and Horse Chestnut blossom. It is all quite stunning. Or was.
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Out of nowhere, on Monday night, we had frost. The first for over five weeks, this was no slight touch of cold but one that turned the secret valley into a white valley of death. Well, I admit, that is rather an exaggeration but, I imagine it is due to the very hot temperatures immediately before, some plants – and especially the trees – have been decimated. One moment their new leaves hurt the eyes with their iradescent green, the next they are brown and shrivelled. Some, depending on how the cold air lay, have come through unscathed whilst their neighbour has been hit badly. Will they recover? I expect so but, possibly, too late to help the insects and birds that rely on the food source at this very moment. Time will tell.
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Just when our feelings were at their most depressed, the weather gave us another surprise. Rain. The first for many weeks, we have been desperate for it. The ground has been cracking, the river getting low, plants wilting and, worst of all, the farm crops not growing. In places, the young corn has started to go yellow. And when we least expected to get any, we awoke to the sound of rain on the windows. Our only neighbour, the farmer whose corn was suffering, and I were standing in the field below our homes, getting soaked and almost hugging each other with joy. It gave me just the slightest awareness of how people in countries that really suffer from prolonged droughts must feel. And it also made me aware of this rather primitive reaction of wanting to literally dance in the rain when it first arrives.
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. The old mortar in the garden is beginning to fill once again!
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The paeonies have been ‘knocked for six’ but, who cares? Apparantly, we have only had 1.5mm of rain during March and April compared with the 40-50mm in an average year. Let it rain for days now to restore the balance. But – as a gardener speaking – please only at night and only fall gently……
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