Discovering the Five Senses in Lockdown

It sometimes takes a crisis to make us re-evaluate what is of importance in our lives and the present one of Coronavirus/Corvid-19 surely has to be the greatest that we will collectively face. Now, several weeks into lockdown we have all been developing new patterns to our daily regime, one of which may well be taking more exercise. Never before have we placed so much value on fresh air and being able to walk freely whether it be in our parks, gardens or open countryside.

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                           Riverside path, Higginson Park, Marlow (before social distancing).                                 The river is the River Thames in Buckinghamshire

Living where I do in the Cotswolds surrounded by fields and with woodlands and the river close by it is relatively easy for me to enjoy the open space. For others able to take advantage of their enforced free time, it may involve a longer walk and I have certainly noticed an increase in the numbers of walkers and cyclists here in the valley. I have also noticed that for many of them one aspect of their lives hasn’t changed: as they walk their eyes are glued to the screen of their mobiles and headphones are clamped to their ears, seemingly unaware of their surroundings. It has made me think all the more of our five senses and how we use (or should use) each one of them when out exercising.

Nr Fingest copyright

Cycling in the Chiltern Hills

SIGHT For those of us blessed with the gift of vision, perhaps sight is the most important sense we use and perhaps the one we most take for granted.  Without it, it is still possible to enjoy one’s surroundings for the other senses become heightened but I doubt if anyone would deny the pleasure of seeing the beauty that surrounds us on our daily walks. Even within cities there is much nature to be enjoyed although I admit that sometimes it has to be sought with more vigour and awareness.

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Look everywhere – self-sown violas peep out from overhead guttering!

At this time of year, more than any other season, there is much to see. Tight leaf buds unfurl into an explosion of vivid green foliage, iridescent wherever sunlight filters through; young ducklings tumbling into the park pond to take their first swim. But it isn’t just the natural world to be seen anew, there are other things too. Although it had been there for more than a hundred and forty years (and I’d walked past it very day for twenty) the date scratched into the stone on this wall had gone unnoticed.

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Who scratched this date into the old stone wall and why?

HEARING Along with sight the second most important sense we use on our daily amble. Apart from the glory of birdsong there are other sounds that bombard us when out walking. The wind flurry that makes the catkins tremble and shed their pollen, the stronger breeze that make the twigs and branches clatter gently against one another. Then there’s the rustle in the undergrowth. Stop and wait silently and with patience you may be rewarded by the sight of a little field mouse going about its daily chores or a rabbit venturing out to feed.

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patience was rewarded when this little field mouse ventured into the open

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… and also this rabbit

The sound of the river alters constantly. The smooth, barely audible glide of the water changes to a tinkling of soft musical sounds, its flow interrupted by a fallen branch. A few yards further downstream they rise to a crescendo as they crash and tumble over the old millrace before returning to silence as the flow stills in the calm of the millpond.

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The old millrace 

Radford Mill watermark

the calm of the millpond

TOUCH   In the present crisis we are sensibly being discouraged from touching things unnecessarily. Out on walks perhaps care may be advisable when opening gates or climbing stiles but, if you do, take a moment to think about what you feel. Heed the cold steel of the metal five-bar gate and the way it slowly warms beneath your hand; feel the rough timbers of a stile worn smooth from much use over the years. Of less concern health-wise – and all the more pleasurable for that – become aware of the softness of new horse chestnut leaves; later in the year they will become as harsh as sandpaper. Run your fingers across the twisted, grooved bark of the sweet chestnut tree and stroke the furry softness of the aptly named ‘Lamb’s Ears’, the favourite garden herbaceous plant Stachys byzantina.

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The deeply grooved bark of the Sweet Chestnut tree

Stachys byzantina  Lamb’s Ears

SMELL   The scent of spring is everywhere at the moment and to be delighted in. However, the sense of smell is also a powerful trigger of long-forgotten memories. In a few weeks’ time the sweet scent of drying hay in the meadows may recall childhood farm holidays but for now there is the unique smell of new-mown lawns. Both start off as freshly cut grass yet their scent is so surprisingly different. Likewise, compare the subtly differing fragrance of apple and cherry blossom, both in their full-blown glory right now.

Drying hay before baling

The smell of freshly-mown grass…

Without even leaving home, squeeze the leaves of the herbs on the kitchen sill and notice their variation in scent, their colours and textures too. Early morn in the woodland, especially after warm rain, the delicate perfume of bluebells quickly disappears as the sun becomes stronger. Half-close your eyes and glory in their colour, in the silence and in their perfume and leave all cares behind you – if only for a while.

discover the different textures & scents of herbs

The vivid greens & blues of an English beechwood in spring

In town, the scents are also there just waiting to be noticed. Rain falling on roads and pavements or scorched by hot sun both produce delightfully tarry smells, one mild, the other strong. In the formal beds of the local park flowering bulbs stand in regimental rows; each have a unique scent which rises in the air to mingle with the vanilla fragrance of wallflowers. The wallflowers, their dull green foliage barely noticeable throughout the winter, now shout out the arrival of spring through the colours of their flowers of brick red, orange and yellow.

Tulips & wallflowers – a favourite park bedding combination

TASTE   In shaded places where the soil stays moist you may be greeted – even before you arrive – by the pungent scent of wild garlic. A prolific carpeter of the woodland floor its leaves and flowers make a useful ingredient to spring salads. Wild garlic or Ramsons to give it it’s country name, is fickle where it will grow. In some places that would seem suitable, not a single plant can be found. A less common member of the onion family to be found in the wild are the chives of our gardens, they grow along road edges and field boundaries locally. It is thought that they were spread by the old drovers of centuries ago so that they could harvest them along the way to liven up a bland meal. There is no doubting its identification, disturb the tubular green leaves and the familiar scent is immediately released.

Ramsons grow in damp, shaded places

It is not only the onion family that can be nibbled en route. Richard Mabey in his book Food for Free, published many years before foraging became a ‘craze’, suggests nibbling on the half-open buds of hawthorn. Many a country child has done so over countless generations and perhaps that is how they got their old name of Bread and Cheese. To me, they only have a slightly nutty taste and texture.

Hawthorn leaf buds are not really worth eating!

As a boy, brought up close to the River Thames, the hollow stems of the common reed were a regular source of pleasure for the soft pithy centre could be drawn out by pulling the stems through clenched teeth. Close to my present home there is also a small reedbed. These tall reeds have something to offer every one of the other senses too: sight – the pleasure of watching petrol-blue damsel-flies sunbathing on the stems; hearing – as they sway and rustle with the slightest breeze; touch – the coarseness of the leaves, a contrast to their smooth stems; smell – those of the river as it seeps around the roots, a heady mix of wet mud and wet greenery.

Only the male of the Beautiful Demoiselle damsel-fly has petrol-blue wings & body

So, within the bounds and restraints of the Covid-19 advice when out on your daily exercise, remove the earphones, place the phone in your pocket and use, really use, every one of your senses. Not only will you notice more, you will wonder how you never managed to notice them before. Stay safe, stay alert and take this unique opportunity to discover a new world on your doorstep.

Finally, one word of warning. Only try tasting wild plants if you are confident they have been identified correctly. If you decide to forage, do so responsibly and only pick a few leaves at a time. Make sure that all plants for consumption are free of pesticides and other contaminants, especially those growing in or near water.

 

 

Dreaming of a White Christmas – again

When Irving Berlin wrote the now immortal lines, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones we used to know” he was pining for colder weather for he was staying in California (or Arizona, for both states lay claim to the fact). The original version of the song actually began with a complaint about warmer climes: “The sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway…”  How, as a child I could relate to that – well almost.

My childhood home was not in the Cotswold Hills but at the foot of the Chiltern Hills, along the banks of the River Thames which thirty or so odd miles downstream flows through London on its way to the sea. The microclimate of the river meant our village had a much milder climate than the higher villages just a few miles away. Although nowhere near warm enough for oranges and palms to survive we very rarely had any snow at all. The village wasn’t renowned (or so it seemed as a child) for its sunshine either and the grass remained obstinately green all year round. Searching through old photos, I can only find one where our garden had turned wintry white and that was only a heavy frost. The winter of 1963 where we had to push a car through a small snowdrift was such a rare event that it is still talked about some 56 years later.

Hawthorne Cottage Xmas 1970 watermark

When the time came to leave home and buy my own house, I moved to the far side of the Chilterns where snow was more common. Within a couple of months of my arrival, I had to learn to master wintry driving conditions that a Canadian or American driver would barely think twice about. For in the UK an inch or two of snow causes major panic, road closures and travel disruption.

Watlington 1982 (3) copyright

Fast forward to 2001 and my move to the Cotswolds. Until then, I had to go for my snowy ‘fix’ overseas to Norway, Switzerland, Austria or Canada. Never a great sportsman it seemed rather bizarre that I had hit upon a sport – Langlaufen or cross-country skiing – that not only did I love and turned out to be rather good at but one that I couldn’t practice easily in my home country. However, the Cotswolds are far snowier than anywhere else I have resided and in 2010 I actually manged to ‘live the dream’ by skiing from the back door of my home and along the secret valley.

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Living the dream in Norway

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Snow in the secret valley

So why am I, like poor old Bing Crosby, singing that same old dirge? Is it because snow here rarely falls before Christmas and quite often doesn’t fall at all? The only white Christmas I have photographic record of (and I can’t remember any other) is of 2017 and even then, by Christmas Day nearly all of it had melted.

Snow Dec 2017 (10) watermark

Just occasionally, the snow does finally fall deep and crisp and even. When it does, much of Britain hibernates, nervous of venturing out. However, we still have horses and other animals to feed and tend to. And when I’m out in the four-wheel drive I feel rather satisfied that I have mastered the elements, satisfied in a smug way that only the English would understand for those used to snowier climes would wonder what all the fuss is about.

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Driving to the horses

Christmas 2019 is proving to be mild and green yet again. It has been a bizarre year weather-wise for we have had the wettest autumn on record and the fields surrounding our cottage are under water once again where the little winding river has burst its banks. In Australia, bush fires are burning out-of-control under fierce, all-stifling temperatures. Friends in America have already had to cope with exceptional winter weather. Perhaps I should, rather than have a little moan about the lack of a white Christmas, be thankful that I live in a country where extremes of weather are unheard of.  On the other hand (and trying not to sound to whiny), it would be nice if we could have…

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Floods rather than snow for us this year 😦

Wishing you all a very peaceful, safe and happy Christmas – and may the weather be kind to you.  John.