February 2019 – and a dramatic change in the weather

Last year we had the ‘beast from the east’ – snow – melt-water and a flooded lower garden. This year temperatures reached an unprecedented high and dry weather allowed us to make progress in the garden. Clad in summer clothes, and with Richard’s help, I marked out a bog garden, stripped the turf and began the long job of extracting heavy clay, mixing it with sand and compost and adding it to sunken borders. A very fat frog appeared on the lawn, obviously ready to spawn but we don’t yet have a pond and don’t know of one near by so that is now added to our ‘to do’ list.

The lower lawn was scarified and the other lawns had their first cut of the year. We have had a change of plan for the river garden. We had intended it to remain wild with just a cut in early spring and autumn. But it soon filled with Cock’sfoot, Creeping Bent, nettles and creeping buttercups so we will mow the central area and leave wild borders around the edges and on the river bank.

We made three further visits to Stevenshill to see the snowdrops.

The last on a glorious day alive with bees and with the unexpected appearance of two comma butterflies, a red admiral and a small tortoiseshell.

There are many flowers that I could call favourites but snowdrops must be at the top of my list.

Their appearance at the beginning of the year always lifts my heart and I’m delighted that the ones brought from Islay are thriving on our lower lawn. However, despite some welcome rain and lower temperatures for the last few days of the month they faded faster than usual and by the end of the month were all but over.

The Prunus pissardii burst its buds on the 14th and primroses and tiny daffodils brought from Islay soon followed

The number of birds visiting the feeders dropped dramatically but a very persistent grey squirrel foiled all our attempts to stop him from taking peanuts. He demolished one new feeder but we have just replaced it with a squirrel-proof cage and seem to have foiled him at last. He can still access the fat balls and we think he must be a dominant male as he is the only one venturing up to the feeders.

The greatest joy of our location has been the river garden. Mallard and moorhen are around most of the time, two pairs of goosanders are frequent visitors while cormorant and heron appear occasionally. But the highlight is the male kingfisher which regularly uses the perch we provided. The loan of a portable hide enabled me to get a much better photograph and to show the brilliant stripe down his back as well as his orange breast.

Visits to bookshops in Church Stretton and Shrewsbury mean that my books are now available in Shropshire and I have a list of other independent bookshops to contact.

A day at Bishop’s Castle Arts Festival for a poetry workshop with Jean Atkin gave me the opportunity to attend a willow weaving workshop. It was fascinating to see the skill of the tutor and I came home with a mini-obelisk. Sadly I won’t be repeating the process as my arthritic fingers made the process both difficult and painful.

So, as the month ends it’s back to work in the garden. Soon it will be time to sow seeds, plant perennials and a row of thornless blackberries and loganberries. I may lose some of the fruits to birds and passers-by because the site for the latter runs between the river garden and the public footpath. But it seems to be a good use for an otherwise bare fence and as long as they save a few for me I’ll be happy!


January 2019

January has been so busy that February was well underway before I realised I hadn’t written my January blog. It’s good to be busy – but sometimes I wonder how I ever found time to go to work.

My U3A Writing Group is going well and the nine members are keen and talented. Devising a varied programme of stimulating exercises is stretching my imagination as well as theirs. And there was some preparation of specimens for a talk which Richard gave to the Shropshire Botanical Society. This was about The Botanist Gin and the twenty two plants which we had suggested and supplied.

Work in the garden continues although wet weather has been a hindrance and there were some days when the ground was frozen so hard that it was too cold to do anything at all. The kingfisher continues to use the branch which we dragged across the brook and I managed a photo although, as it was taken through the window, it’s not very good.

Birds in the garden continue to delight and Richard has set up a much better feeding station on the edge of the terrace. Last year we had ten regular long-tailed tits but this year have only had six. Sadly, great-spotted woodpeckers are not tempted to the peanuts but they occasionally venture into the field maple in our garden.

When we left our glorious south-facing sea view on Islay I thought I would really miss it but I can honestly say that I don’t. Having seen it on a daily basis for twenty years it’s engrained on my memory and I will never forget it, especially its contrasts between rosy dawns, silvery moonlights and turbulent storms. Here in Shropshire our view is more varied as the trees change throughout the year and the flow of the brook rises and falls. Even this early in the year, hazel catkins are dangling and some of the roads around Shrewsbury are lined with them.

On the 21st we took my birthday walk to Stevenshill where the Cound Brook meanders through multitudes of snowdrops. Although not fully open, a few were already hanging their heads and we knew there was the promise of more to come.

There has been a lot of wet weather and the higher ground has seen snow but we have only had a few stray flakes. I had hoped for a decent fall so that we could follow animal tracks but it was not to be. However, we enjoyed several good walks including one to Poles Coppice and one around Church Stretton. And we finally climbed up to Bromlow Callow. I find this tree-topped hill fascinating and wouldn’t be at all surprised if it appears in another work of fiction which I’m hoping to write. Surrounded by a fence it is roughly circular in shape, has a path running through the centre and gives good views of the surrounding land.

Letting go of characters is hard. Merryn and Hamish of The Hagstone Chronicles are old friends. I lived through their adventures with them, and they have moved to Shropshire with me. I don’t yet know what their adventures will be. I’m exploring the countryside and waiting for something that triggers my imagination and leads them into new adventures.


December 2018

Another month dominated by Christmas is over. We don’t indulge in lots of extra shopping, eating or drinking but we always display Christmas cards, have candles and decorate a real tree with trinkets that have been collected and treasured over the years. Seated at our dining table we have had a lovely view of both the tree and Reabrook.

We enjoyed the 1940’s Christmas display at Attingham Park where each room had a different themed tree. There was a vast difference between the trees in the family rooms and the one in the staff dining room which was decorated with hand knitted bunting.

The buffet for guests was a far cry from the 1940’s Christmases that I remember and the display of one person’s rations made me wonder how we ever had enough to eat. It was, however, obvious why we weren’t fat! The display of toys and Christmas baubles brought back memories too.

Venus, at its closest to earth has been spectacularly bright on the few cloud-free mornings. So bright in fact that it cast shadows and was reflected in the wet tiles on the terrace. The moon and winter solstice almost coincided – just a day between them, and although I watched the moon rise on the 21st it didn’t manage to appear above the trees because of heavy cloud cover. Jupiter in the south east was visible, but the sky was too cloudy to pick out Mercury which was in close proximity.

My sister Glen came up from Guildford for a few days and we all went to Birmingham Conservatoire where Joe was playing his French Horn in the Christmas Concert. A visit to Leicester to catch up with Richard’s cousins ended with a walk round the University Botanic Gardens, which, although small, really impressed us. A happy Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were spent in Birmingham with daughter Caryl. On our way home on the 25th we had a very quiet walk around Much Wenlock. There were only a few dog walkers about and it was good to be able to stand back and admire the variety of buildings in the almost total absence of traffic.

It has been unseasonably mild, reputedly the warmest Christmas Day on record. Quite a lot of plants are flowering and we are recording them for the BSBI New Year Plant Hunt although I don’t like the system of having to record for 3 hours on one chosen day between December 29th and January 1st. A far more comprehensive list would have emerged from the several walks we did during the period. I’m sure this would have given a truer picture of what’s really happening.

Fleeting glimpses of a kingfisher prompted us to cross the brook to place a fallen branch so that its tips hang over the water.

It worked – the very next morning the kingfisher used it as a perch, returning to it three times in quick succession. Unfortunately we didn’t get a photo but we’re sure he’ll be back. That’s something to look forward to in the New Year.




November 2018

This month has seen me making a concerted effort to get back into writing – something that has been proving difficult since our move from Islay.

Jan Fortune, my co-author for ‘Slate Voices’ (Cinnamon Press, 2014) has just created a new on-line course entitled ‘Becoming Your Story’. It was the incentive I needed to commit myself to writing every day. In addition to journaling it involves 12 Units and over 100 exercises designed to inspire. It has already given me a focus and in addition to the course work I’ve started a diary of writing about ‘The View from my Window’.

The first highlight this month was a meeting of The Marches Meadow Group where we learned about the excellent work being done by the Monmouthshire Meadow Group and drooled over photographs of meadows full of cowslips and green-winged orchids. After a picnic ‘lunch’ in the car we enjoyed a quiet walk on a spectacularly colourful carpet of fallen leaves in Beechfield Woods.

 The second highlight was the Shrewsbury Literary Festival where my piece ‘Why Literature Matters’ was the first reading of the evening – and which ended with not one, but two of Richard’s poems. Here are Richard’s poems

Golden Light – from World War 1 to Present

Transitory – are the golden flashes
from the big guns.
Permanent – is the golden sunlight.
Cannon fire extinguishes
the perception of light forever
yet words live on.

With Mary Webb as guide

With Mary Webb as guide
we too can know
the ancient roads
in the leaf of a nettle;
and the secret highways
revealed in ‘The Secret Joy’.

With her words in mind
we too can bathe
in the blue profound
of a speedwell petal
letting the wonders of the natural world
flow -through the prism of her words and ours.

Foot note – elements of the original 12 line poem ‘The Secret Joy’ are shown in italics.

And here we are looking suitably pleased with ourselves.

An extremely well presented session with Paul Evans, author of The Guardian’s Country Diary was followed by a Sunday morning workshop in Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery where participants were each given an artifact and half an hour to write about it.

Here’s mine…

There is instant recognition. Something about its colour and form tells me that this broken lump of stone is a fossil. It takes me back to when, as a small child, I collected crinoid stems from the limestone walls that surrounded our back yard – small cylinders from the days when deep seas drowned our house. A revelation that spoke of the history of a world which, until then, had been restricted to today, tomorrow and a few insignificant yesterdays. Saved as treasures in an old tobacco tin, my crinoid stems were tiny. Although commonly known as Sea Lilies, I had been told that they were animals with arms for catching food and a stem for attaching to a suitable substrate.

I don’t know what this fossil is but I know it has been part of something much larger than a crinoid. I feel its weight, breathe in its unfamiliar scent – a scent unlike most scents in that it reminds me of nothing. But I know that if I smell it again it will take me back to this moment so that I will recall how it fits my hand, how my fingers curl around its curve and how its broken edge sits snug against my palm. It grows warm in my hand, begins to pulse as if there’s something of its 400 million year past that is still alive. Something that can’t be lost despite the change on change that year on year has wrought.

Animal, vegetable or mineral? The old game comes to mind. It’s mineral now, nothing more than a rock-like copy of its former self. But what was it when it was alive? I note its pock-marked skin, the regularity of evenly spaced depressions that form a pattern of spirals. Could it be the branch of a long dead tree, the stype of an underwater coral or the tentacle of an octopus-like creature that haunted the seas of long ago?

I close my eyes and ponder on images depicting man’s impression of the earth as it was before dinosaurs, before birds, before mammals, before man came to lord it over all and disrupt the balance. I evoke the Carboniferous era where warmth and water give rise to luxurious vegetation. I see tree-like plants towering into steamy air. Regular depressions spiral their way up green trunks that are crowned with fronds or terminate in long grass-like leaves that plume from the tips like the headdress of some exotic feathered bird. The picture in my mind’s eye fits. The fossil finds a name – Stigmaria – part of the underground rooting system of a Lycopsid ‘tree’ – maybe the most famous all, the Lepidodendron that towered above its neighbours in the primeval swamp.

After the workshop we walked along the Severn from Shrewbury’s English Bridge to the Welsh Bridge and saw where the Raebrook (the one that runs through our river garden) meets the Severn.

There were goosanders and a brief glimpse of a kingfisher. Both these species frequent our small stretch of the Raebrook and it was good to have the goosanders back after a few months absence. The males have been on their moulting migration to Norway while the females reared the goslings and had a shorter ‘holiday’ on some UK estuary.

Now there will be the run up to Christmas although we don’t celebrate it in extravagant style. We will get together with the family at some point and the only preparations that we should tackle in the next week are Christmas cards and our annual newsletter. I still have mixed feelings about this yearly account of things that have happened since the previous Christmas but so many people have said that they look forward to catching up with our doings that we don’t feel we can stop.

October 2018 – gardens, gardening and memories.

Dry weather for most of the month meant that we made good progress on the rustic fencing along the boundary to the east of our garden. I don’t like solid barriers. They look unfriendly and boring to me – unless you are lucky enough to have a walled garden. The one we’ve erected is wildlife friendly and our neighbour will be able to share the beauty of the blooms of the two varieties of Clematis montana that I planted along it – C. montana rubens and C. montana rubens ‘Tetrarose’.

The wide border in front of the fence yielded an almost unbelievable 18 barrow loads of stone, rubble, broken glass and other bits of debris. It took most of the month to clear it all and I now have 40cms of good soil, enriched with compost. I have  planted some perennials but will add more next spring. We have already had a few cold nights but, despite heavy frosts, the Liquidamber is still at its beautiful best.

I’ve re-instated the fatball feeder. It’s on the terrace railing close to a Ceanothus so the visiting birds aren’t too exposed. It’s squirrel-proof with food in the middle of an outer casing. Long-tailed, blue, coal and great tits, house sparrow, robin and a nuthatch are visiting; and a dunnock, after much hesitation has plucked up courage to join them.

Unfortunately a health problem is necessitating hospital appointments, some as far away as Stoke on Trent and Wolverhampton. But we always manage to add a treat to these enforced days out. Thus, we visited Shugborough Hall where we had fun taking photographs of The Botanist.

Trentham Gardens impressed us and we will definitely be back next summer. I loved the amazing wire sculptures of fairies and giant dandelion seed heads.

Most of the formal flowering was over but a delightful prairie planting was still a joy to see.

I’m finding creative writing difficult although thoughts on WW1 after an exhibition in St Chad’s Church, Shrewsbury inspired me to write a poem about Wilfred Owen. This will be read at a memorial event at our local Community Library.

Lost Words

Wilfred Owen –
Shropshire lad –
shoes blessed with gold of buttercups
could not save him from
the shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells.
or the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle.

So many poets lost.
Words they might have written
locked inside the pen
sealed in the earth
like barren seeds
that should have grown
and bloomed.

The golden shoes struck a cord with me because, way back in the mid 70’s, Richard referred to these in the blurb for a weekend course. I knew that I would have something in common with this very observant gentleman, so I went along and we fell in love and started our life together. It’s been a busy and varied life and although we’re happy in Shropshire we are finding it hard to let go of our involvement with The Botanist Gin. Having spent ten years of our lives in developing the recipe and providing the botanicals for every distillation up to December 2017 we amassed a great deal of information. One of the highlights of the work was giving talks and demonstrations to Brand Ambassadors from around the world.

We miss contact with these enthusiasts so have decided to give some talks in Shropshire and surrounding counties. Hence, a new Facebook Page – The Botanists of The Botanist Gin. We already have two bookings and the local WI have asked for a talk on ‘Our Life in the Hebrides’. It seems that we are unlikely to have a conventional retirement. The article written about us when we left Islay ended with these words –

‘May we add our sincere thanks and very best wishes for a long and fulfilling ‘retirement’ if that be the right word in these circumstances.  It is hard to think of Richard and Mavis slowing down much, let alone stopping !

I am still writing articles and enjoyed researching the life of Murdoch McNeil, the Gaelic speaker and botanist who, almost a hundred years ago, wrote a book about Colonsay. My article was published in Scottish Islands Explorer along with a picture of the original book and The House of Lochar reprint.

Finally, on the last day of the month we went over to Birmingham for a day with Caryl, Joe and Cerys. Unfortunately Olive wasn’t able to join us so we sent this photograph.

September 2018 – apples, visitors and a surprise Hibiscus

The garden continues to surprise us. Finding a flower on the ground beneath a tangle of shrubs led to a search and a great deal of thinning out of intermingled branches.  This beautiful Hibiscus, covered in blooms was revealed in all its glory.

Grandson Joe passed his driving test, bought a car and brought granddaughter Cerys to see us for the weekend. We had a walk round Shrewsbury and were impressed with the Quarry Gardens by the River Severn.

My sister, Glen, came for a holiday and we visited the museum at Ironbridge. As a member of the Surrey Industrial Archaeological Society, she had been involved in rescuing a turbine which was given to the museum. It was disappointing to find that the staff knew nothing about it.  We eventually found it, in pieces outside the building without any indication of what it is or how it came to be there.

We also took her to the 1st century Roman City of Viroconium. It began as a legionary fort but grew to be the fourth largest city in Roman Britain. The site is quiet now and it needs a great deal of imagination to visualise the noise, bustle and smells created by its 5000 inhabitants.

Blackbirds have been feasting on the amazing crop of Bramley windfalls,  but there were plenty left for making puree. The freezer is now well-stocked in readiness for an assortment of pies and puddings. Local blackberries were abundant too and I made Bramble Syrup and added some to The Botanist to make Bramble Gin. I also made Bramble Syrup and Elderberry Rob, the former for topping ice cream, and the latter for adding to hot water as a cure for colds.

The most exciting wildlife sighting came from a sparrowhawk. I saw it bring a woodpigeon to the ground adjacent to the road at the front of our house. It was so engrossed in plucking its kill that I got quite close for a series of photographs. We live at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac so I was able to watch it for several minutes before a car appeared and caused it to drag its prey into the bushes.

Despite the huge number of windfalls the Bramley is still laden with apples We are picking the ones we can reach and although we’ve stored enough to last for several months we’ve had plenty to give to neighbours.

August 2018 – lots of gardening but time for a few outings

This month we had our first holiday since 2016. Last year was taken up with the move to Shropshire, and, with eight trips, before the final move, we had no time for anything else. So an invitation to stay at ‘The Keeper and The Dell in Norfolk’ was not to be missed.

This is a wedding venue, and the owners, friends of Ashlyn’s, were going on holiday and needed someone to keep an eye on the site and feed the goats!  There’s a campsite as well as cabins  and the large marquee can accommodate a hundred people.  There’s a fire pit for evening gatherings and fairy lights around the buildings. It’s all very pretty although this night time view of one of the buildings is somewhat obscured by smoke from the fire pit!

We spent a week there with Ashlyn, Matthew, Olive and the puppy, Luna. Caryl and Cerys joined us for four days. When Ashlyn and Olive had to return to London for a day’s appointment  we took Caryl and Cerys to Wells-next – the-Sea. So we had our first sight of the sea since leaving Islay!

Back home, a new addition to the insect species for our garden was an Oak Bush-Cricket. It’s an arboreal species, mainly living in mature trees, but this one had landed on the top of our garden gate so was easily photographed.

Common Blue butterflies mating was another pleasing sight. We have them in the garden but this pair was photographed at the Shropshire Wildlife Trust’s Dolgoch Reserve  near Pant. Unfortunately, the plant in the background, Cotoneaster, is rapidly colonising the site to the detriment of native species.

Richard, as usual, spent a great deal of time lying on the ground. Often this posture is in order to take photographs but on this occasion he was checking for glandular hairs on an Eyebright!

Entertainment of a different kind came when we went to an open air performance of The Tempest in the grounds of Shrewsbury Castle. It was performed in the traditional Elizabethan style by an all-male group ‘The Lord Chamberlain’s Men’.

My article on Alien Animals appeared in Scottish Islands Explorer magazine – but unfortunately the caption about problematical alien animals was superimposed on the photograph of a hare instead of on the one of a mink. The text states clearly that hares don’t have an adverse effect on our native species in the Hebrides.

Making use of our National Trust membership we had a walk around the grounds of Erdigg where we saw a Purple Hairstreak on the gravel path and found a few Violet Helleborines flowering under trees in a rough woodland area. My favourite photograph of the day was this view down a long tree-lined avenue.




July 2018 – and the willow drops another branch.

This time, instead of falling on the river garden, an enormous branch dropped across the public footpath and over the footbridge into our garden. An urgent phone call to Ben of ‘Wood Matters’ brought a speedy response and by bedtime he had cleared the path. A few days later he came back to cut up the wood and we followed behind to clear the debris and mow the grass.

Several times, Richard has seen the flash of a Kingfisher as it follows the curve of the burn on its way downstream. I have never been lucky until now but my patience was rewarded with far more than the usual brief sighting. I saw the splash as the bird dived into the water and I watched it emerge and fly to a twig among a clump of grasses. There it stayed for several minutes, the only frustration being the blades of grass which obscured what should have been a perfect view. However, I was able to get this shot from the dining room – just enough to prove that it really happened.

Richard is embarking on a new venture. Wanting to put his knowledge and talents (the latter word is mine not his!) he is planning to give talks, one of which will be ‘The Botanist Gin – our part in a global success story’. I took this photo for him to use on his new Facebook page which is entitled ‘The botanists of The Botanist Gin’.  Although it’s now been pointed out to me that we should change it for a new photo which features both of us.

The garden continues to delight as well as provide endless opportunities for a very different kind of gardening. We had worked wonders on our 1.2 acres of wild, windswept, salt-sprayed garden on Islay. Now we have to work out how to contend with a rather heavy clay soil that is inundated by floodwater on several occasions throughout the year. it provides an interesting challenge and we are fortunate to have areas above the high water mark where we can also have conventional borders. Two Yuccas are in bloom and they are producing  several young plants which should add delight in the years to come.

June 2018 – more flowers and a magic moment with a dormouse

One of our most attractive trees flowered spectacularly throughout the month. It’s an old specimen of a dark-leaved Elder and has the most delightful deep pink flowers.

The Rhododendron has been removed. Neighbour Chris saw me struggling and kindly  took over the complete removal of the huge rootstock. This made way for renovating the border and replanting with perennials. Foxgloves and Campanulas  settled in well and came into bloom surprisingly quickly.

On her birthday, daughter Ashlyn came with Matthew, Olive and her Finnish Laphund puppy. It was lovely for us – but rather upset Leo! He spent most of their visit in the Field Maple tree. However, he was keeping a close eye on the proceedings because he was back in the house as soon as their car left the drive.

Incidentally, the Field Maple is not on good health. It has a hollow in the trunk and has produced a huge bracket fungus. Many of the tiny twigs  are dying and whenever there is a wind they break off and litter the lawn and border. It looks as if we will have to do something drastic with it – maybe cut it back to about 15 feet, kill it completely and grow a climbing rose up it. There are lots of Field Maples around and we have several in the hedge so it isn’t a conservation problem.

More work in the garden involved the removal of a derelict shed and the erection of a new potting shed. The windows will overlook two sides of the lower lawn and one end of the workbench will be an ideal place to sit and write. It won’t be as spectacular a my log cabin on the shore of our Islay garden but I’ll be very happy with it.

A success from Islay came in the form of a few Northern Marsh Orchids. They were abundant in our wild garden and several had seeded themselves into pots. We brought six of them with us and four  have flowered.

The river garden continues to be a delight although it is rather overgrown. Time is needed in the main garden so I haven’t been able to give it much attention. However, I pulled out all the Himalyam Balsam and removed a lot of nettles. Dragonflies were around on sunny days and we added a new one to our list – a Broad-bodied Libellula.

A final treat for the month was accompanying The Shropshire Mammal Group on a monitoring exercise. We had to make an early start as dormice spend the night in a state of torpor, so, until the weather warms up, they can be handled briefly without disturbing them. What a privilege to hold such a tiny rarity!

Lewis Carroll must have know a thing or two about dormice because a very sleepy one features in the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party when it wakes briefly to state – ‘You might as well say that  I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’


May 2018 – and suddenly the garden is blooming.

I’m finding so much pleasure in my garden. There seems to be a surprise round every corner as I discover what was left behind by the previous owners. Most are welcome but I have been waging war on a forest of Euphorbias which have seeded profusely and concern me with their copious amounts of irritating sap. The Rhododendron bloomed well but I think it was a case of making one last effort before it began to die – so out it came.

Now that the weather is warming up we are seeing more signs of wildlife. Two female goosanders appeared with eleven goslings in tow and they stayed  in the vicinity for several days. It was lovely to watch them from our dining room window.

While I was moving a heap of stones from a border I found a toad. It seemed unconcerned and I was able to re-instate its hiding place. It’s good to know that we have both frogs and toads making their homes in our garden.

The bird feeders are not used so much now and when they are empty I will disinfect them and put them away for the summer. However, an unexpected visitor came in the form of a long-tailed field mouse (sometimes known as a woodmouse). It made several forays to collect seeds before scurrying away under the decking.

Butterflies are visiting in larger numbers and it’s interesting to have species which didn’t occur on Islay. Holly Blues like the Ceanothus and a pair of mating Gatekeepers made use of the Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ leaves.