Summer, Autumn, Summer, Autumn

It is said that the English, compared to those from other countries, always talk of the weather and, I have to admit that it is true. I have also heard it said that, whereas other countries have ‘climate’, we just have ‘weather’. And it is weather that has shaped the nation’s psyche, especially those of us that earn our living standing outside in it.

It has been an odd year. The hardest and earliest winter for years gave way to a lovely spring, March and April being mild and sunny. We were then hit by the hardest May frost that anyone could remember and here, in the secret valley, many of the trees had their newly formed leaves and flower buds blackened. The horse chestnuts and oaks seemed hardest hit, although oddly enough, not all of them and not even all of the leaves or flowers on the same tree. Those damaged leaves fell and bare braches remained until July when, suddenly, they sprouted fresh leaves with the same verdent intensity as you would find two or three months earlier.

One moment bright green growth, the next ……..

…….. dead from frost

A similar thing with the weather has happened again over the last couple of weeks. Late summer proved to be rather disappointing with few really warm days and none where you could sit and relax in an evening with friends, wining and dining under the stars. Autumn seemed to be arriving early. Then, just as October arrived and our thoughts turned to log fires and bowls of soup for supper, summer returned with a vengeance. The temperature soared to 30C, breaking all records, the wind dropped and, for a week, we sweltered under cloudless skies and relentless sunshine. As the leaves on the trees began to crisp and garden pots started to die (I refused to start watering them again at this time of year), out came the garden furniture once again.

But what has happened now? Three days ago, we returned to chill, and with a drop of nearly twenty degrees it suddenly feels more like November. Some leaves have begun to turn colour but others have fallen, too exhausted to give us their fleeting pleasure of golds and yellows. Snow is forecast up north in Scotland and every day the news is full of gloomy stories of an even harsher winter than the last one.

One place that always gives good autumn colour is the Chiltern Hills that rise so dramatically from the Oxford plain. It is a special place for me as I was born and lived most of my life there, a country so different from the Cotswolds where I have been the past ten years. Now I live in watery valleys with far reaching views and open skies. The Chilterns, although no more than fifty miles away, is the opposite – dry, chalky and steep, a secretive place where the clouds and views are hidden by beech woodlands. It is the beech which give the best of autumn colours.

When the M40 motorway ripped a great chunk out of the chalk ridge, no-one anticipated it would alter the climate somewhat. But it is here, where the beech hang precariously to the edge (and sometimes topple over it) that the earliest signs of colour start. And even less did we think that one day Red Kites, one of Britain’s rarest birds of prey, would become so numerous soaring above it and feeding on the road kill that the motorway ineveitably produced. If the view of the chalk cut looks familiar it is because it was used in the opening shots of The Vicar of Dibley, the much loved comedy series on television that was filmed in the nearby village of Turville.

So, we Brits have suddenly become wrapped up and stand huddled together talking about being too hot and too cold and will there be snow. Who knows? One thing, however, is certain: if there is snow down here in the south, it will be the chalk cut on the M40 that will get it first and it will also be the first motorway to be blocked by traffic trying to climb to the top of the ridge.

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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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There’s no Business like Sloe Blusiness…..

…..or should it be There’s no Blossom like Sloe Blossom?

This winter was long and cold and, by the standards of southern England, very snowy. Spring has not been much better with little in the way of warmth for, even on sunny days, there has been a chill wind blowing from the north or east. Frosts have been commonplace and are still occurring – our last one, a hard one, was only a couple of days ago: in recent years we have had our last frosts in early April. This was the view of the entrance to the secret valley not so very long ago.

Now, just a few weeks later – and despite the efforts of our friend Jack (Frost) – the secret valley has been transformed by the best blossom for many years. Whether any fruit will set is another matter altogether.

One of the first trees to bloom is the Sloe, Prunus spinosa. The second half of its Latin name gives a hint of its nasty thorns, as does its other common name, Blackthorn. These thorns break off as you touch the plant, entering the skin and festering readily. The old country folk talk of “Blackthorn Winters” as, when it blooms, the weather always turns very cold once again. This year the tree has been caught out: it is flowering five weeks later than normal and the weather has been cold all the time with no warmer spells to fool us into thinking summer has come.

The Sloe is one of those remarkable species which flowers on bare wood in such profusion it gives the plant the appearance of being snow covered (photos above and below).

However, country people hold it in affection not for its early blossom or for making impenetrable, stockproof hedges. They even have a reason to forgive it for all the painful splinters it inflicts upon them, year in, year out. And that reason is alcohol. For despite being incredibly bitter when picked, its blue-black fruits, the size of a marble and equally hard, give rise to that most delicious and sweetest of drinks, Sloe Gin. Traditionally, the drink of hip flasks to be passed around amongst friends on a frosty shooting or hunting day, it is a good drink at all times – which is why I have none left to show you here. I have had to make do with a picture ‘lifted’ from one of the commercial makers of Sloe Gin, for it really is a business venture for some .

Nothing beats home brewed and our recipe, made each year, is below. The Sloes are picked after the first frosts, which softens them and brings out their flavour, although a couple of days in the freezer works just as well. And if Sloes aren’t available where you are, don’t despair: damsons or plums would be just as potent. Cheers!

Recipe:
* Frosted or frozen, then thawed, sloes – weight not too important, probably about a pound.
* Place in a bottle/bowl and cover with gin (or vodka)
* Add a similar quantity of sugar
* Shake well every day until sugar has completely dissolved
* Top up with more gin (we add, at this stage, a quarter bottle of brandy as well – our secret weapon for making fellow imbibers ‘legless’. It also helps to give much needed courage when jumping a big hedge on Barney!
* Leave for several weeks, then strain and enjoy

PS. The fruit will now be sweet and full of alcohol – absolutely delicious eaten with vanilla ice cream.

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