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shape is blurred and merges into one, no defined hills, no defined trees, no defined river bed, even the clouds have been replaced by a heavy, all-oppressing  blanket of grey.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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Writing Words of Silence

I have exchanged a couple of comments recently with ExmoorJane after one of her posts got me thinking.  I spend a lot of my time thinking, it goes with the day job.  Now these thoughts are not usually high powered for I don’t spend my working hours in a dynamic office environment; I spend them – often on my own – in the real, green environment.  And that’s the problem: there are so many things to distract me.  A few days ago it was the fault of the jackdaws – they suddenly had realised that spring is around the corner and were in full display flight, tumbling and diving and generally making an awful lot of noise.  So I spent far too long wondering why I hadn’t noticed their courtship before.

Yesterday it was the fault of the snowdrops and the winter flowering aconites.  They are to blame because they are in full flower a few weeks earlier due to the unseasonably mild winter we have had so far.  Some years ago I organised a visit to some gardens renowned for their display of snowdrops and we had to search hard to find one in flower – that was the 10th February.  Nature, like some people, can  be fickle.  The photo below shows a different garden’s snowdrops: it is the garden of what I call the ‘reincarnation’ house.  They are at their best now.

The aconites were more fully to blame. Seeing the hundred or so yellow blooms staring up at me from the foot of our garden hedge made me decide to take a walk as, not far from our little cottage, further down the secret valley lies a very special woodland.  At this time of year it is a yellow carpet of flowering aconites, an extremely rare sight for they are not native to this country.  No-one knows by whom or when they were planted for there is no sign of there ever being a house nearby; they are of no value as a commercial crop unlike snowdrops that were sent to London in bunches for selling once the age of steam made it possible to transport them quickly.

But all this pondering can most squarely be laid at Jane’s doorstep.  In her post on writing she mentioned that she sometimes writes just for the sheer pleasure of seeing words and thoughts on paper.  Then, satisfied, she destroys the work for there is no need or desire to share it.  I thought only people that were mad – or, at least, people that were a bit dotty – did that.*  And, insecure person that I suppose this shows me to be, I thought I  was the only one that ever fitted this description and did such a bizarre thing.  This is why I started writing a blog: I came to the conclusion it would be quite nice to keep my work somewhere secret so that I could look at it from time to time.  I decided Blogger would be quite a good place to store it, along with a few favourite photos.  I knew, of course, that the world in theory could see it but why would anyone want to stop and read something that I had written?  It never occurred to me that some of you might do so and some even come back regularly for more.  So on my way back from the aconites I was visualising Jane and myself scribbling away and ceremoniously (for it always seemed to be part of the ritual) tearing up the sheets of paper with our precious words on them.

I had walked along our little winding river to reach the wood but struck off over the hill for the return home.  This route always fascinates me because, from the top, the valley is totally invisible tucked away deep within the folds of the landscape.  One moment the ground almost appears flat and then, suddenly you are looking down into the secret valley.  The slopes are steep and grazed only by sheep, wild deer and rabbits and are, later in the year, awash with wild flowers of all kinds, including rare wild thyme, the subject of one of my earliest posts.  I sat myself down to admire the view, for I never tire of it despite seeing it every day, and pondered on what gives a person the desire to write, to play around with words, arranging them and rearranging them for hours on end.

And then this thought came:  what do you do when words just aren’t adequate to describe the sights or the emotions?  How do you describe the indescribable?  Take a photograph – after all, a photo is supposed to say a thousand words.  But what if a thousand words still aren’t enough?  What if ten thousand words still aren’t enough?  Besides, an image only allows the viewer to create their own words, it can never convey those that the writer might be thinking.  How do you describe the intangible?  So I sat on the bank, looking across the secret valley, muffled up against the chill east wind and came to this simple conclusion – the only way out of this conundrum of how to express these silent words is to write a post about it.

* Well, I thought she did but I can’t see it now.  Perhaps I am dotty, after all :-{

PS Don’t forget you can find me on Facebook now and get regular updates from the secret valley

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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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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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