SEPTEMBER 2019 AND THE NIGHTS ARE DRAWING IN.

The month started with a few days to myself as Richard was attending a conference in Sheffield. I missed him of course, but found it liberating to run on my own timetable – to eat – sleep- read – walk and attend to the garden as and when I wanted.
Among other things I planted lots of Mexican Fleabane – Erigeron karvinskianus all along the edge of the drive. This pretty daisy-like flower has been a favourite of mine since I first saw it growing on castle walls in Kent in the early 1970’s. I didn’t see it again for many years but latterly it has become popular and is available in many garden centres. I am hoping that it will seed into the cracks and crevices all around the garden paths.

An Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillar surprised us by feasting on Purple Loosestrife in the river garden. We had seen them on Rosebay Willowherb in our Islay garden and Purple Loosestrife doesn’t appear on our list of food plants but this one was definitely eating its way along the petals.

Five days of solitude were more than enough and Richard returned just in time to give his talk – Our Life in the Hebrides – to our local Hanwood WI. He then took me to The Cotswolds, an area completely new to me. We paused at Tintern Abbey but I had a wasp sting on my ring finger and failed to take any photographs because we had to make a hasty retreat to find a chemist. I always react badly to wasp stings and, foolishly I had failed to pack antihistamine medication. Luckily I remembered to remove my ring as when the same thing happened to me years ago my finger swelled so badly that the ring had to be cut off. Even with the medication I had a couple of disturbed nights and a week before the effect began to wear off. Wasps are wonderful creatures but they have made me suffer so many times that I am very wary of them. And a sting always reminds me of Dylan Thomas who, in his list of useless presents in ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ included ‘books which tell me everything about the wasp except why’.

A cottage at Kingswood made a convenient base for five days of exploration. I had heard about the beauty of the villages with their watercourses and pretty cottages, but, like so many attractive places, they were crowded with visitors and a brisk walk around was more than enough. Newark Park with an adjacent field of poppies was more to our taste.

Richard ventured into Uley Long Barrow, a partially reconstructed Neolithic chambered mound that overlooks the Severn Valley. It’s known locally as Hetty Pegler’s Tump, after Hester Pegler who owned the land in the 17th century.

On the outskirts of Cirencester we walked round the remains of one of the largest Roman amphitheatres in Britain. It took a great deal of imagination to conjure up those scenes of long ago when the terraced sides of the arena were filled with 8,000 spectators.

A walk up a hill and a climb to the top of the 111 foot high Tyndale Monument gave far-reaching views in all directions. The tower was built in 1866 in honour of William Tyndale, a translator of the New Testament, who was born nearby.

The fourteenth century wool stores of Arlington Row in Bibury were converted into weavers cottages in the 17th century. They were much admired by William Morris and are reputed to be the most photographed houses in the England.

They are indeed picturesque but there were so many tourists that it was not easy to take photographs. We were surprised that the majority of visitors were Japanese, but later learned that the village is famous in Japan because Emperor Hirohito stayed in the village during his European tour of 1921.
We walked away from the village along the river Coln, a tributary of the Thames, and were delighted to see our first ever view of a grass snake swimming

Bourton-on-the-Water, on the banks of the river Windrush, is undoubtedly beautiful but, once again, it was hard to see the details for the crowds of people. I know we would prefer to see it in the middle of winter when the streets are empty.

I don’t often buy myself a present, but once in a while, when on holiday, something catches my eye. I found this giraffe, made by Ocean Sole Africa in a lovely little shop in Wotton-under-edge in the Cotswolds. Ocean Sole’s mission is to turn flip-flop pollution into inspiring art to promote marine conservation and to provide employment and opportunities in underdeveloped countries. So far they have collected and upcycled over 450 tonnes of discarded flip-flops from Asia, Middle East, India and Africa where over 3 billion people wear them. Each item is hand carved after the flip-flops have been bonded together.

On the way back to Shropshire we enjoyed a walk round the terraced gardens of Snowshill Manor.

But were very disappointed with those at Hidcote. We had heard so much about them that we expected something spectacular. So it was sad to see thay they appeared somewhat neglected with bare patches in the borders and a lack of deadheading which would have prolonged the display of flowers. Being used to the immaculate ground of Powis Castle we had expected Hidcote to be even more spectacular and we were glad that we had spent most of our time at Snowshill which definitely warrants a further visit.

Back home again, Richard’s talks are becoming increasingly popular as people spread the word that he provides excellent illustrated talks. The 23rd found us near Dudley presenting a talk entitled Our Life in The Hebrides. The journey was difficult though. We were due to arrive at 6.30 but an accident en route kept us in a traffic jam for half an hour and when we reached the outskirts of Dudley another accident caused a diversion. There were no parking spaces at the hall and Richard had to drive round the neighbouring streets until he found one. We are relatively new at giving talks and every venue is different so in future we will request a reserved parking space near the entrance as we have heavy equipment to carry. The talk went down well but unfortunately, with all the hassle, I forgot to take a photograph.
That was remedied on the 26th when we gave a talk about The Botanist Gin to the Sandbach Cottage Garden Society.

Determined to be in good time we left home in the morning, took a picnic lunch and explored Beeston Castle during the afternoon.

An unexpected bonus was joining the group who were celebrating the completion of their bronze age round house; an impressive achievement constructed entirely by hand using traditional tools and materials.

As we reach the end of September the garden is looking increasingly autumnal with the Liquidamber turning red and many of our wild plants going to seed.
Heavy rain has filled the river but it is managing to keep inside the banks. The random fence we constructed along one boundary of the garden is already partally covered with climbers and a recently planted Clematis tangutica, although still small, is flowering beautifully. But my greatest success has been the Cosmos which I grew from seed. At 1.5 metres in height its flowers, in shades of pink, continue to bloom and there are may buds still to come.

AUGUST – A FLOOD OF MEMORIES

In need of a short holiday we packed the car and headed for the village of Braunstone just outside the town of Oakham in Rutland. It was close to the area where Richard and I first met, where we shared our love of wildlife and where we decided to embark on a life together. That was way back in 1976 and we hadn’t been back in the interim so we expected, and found, many changes.

Memories, not all of them pleasant, flooded in, and I find myself wanting to recount something of the two unhappiest years of my career. Forty years on I don’t think it can do any harm and I certainly won’t mention any names but it concerns an Infant School and it has been at the back of my mind for years. Superficially the displays of children’s work were outstanding but it didn’t take me long to discover that the meticulous writing came from repeated copying during missed playtimes and that the paintings of flowers were copies of the teacher’s art work and not from observation. As one of three teachers, along with head and deputy in an open plan classroom, I was powerless to make changes because the three ‘classes’ worked as one. Each teacher rotated, on a weekly basis, from areas used exclusively for Language, Maths and Art . This limited curriculum was bad enough, but even more horrifying was the fact that the teacher sat at a table while the children queued for assistance. The queue was never allowed to exceed six – and woe betide the child who found him or herself at number seven. Because of this rule the children would grip the edge of their seats in readiness to make a dash for the sixth place. The other two teachers seemed oblivious to the anxiety that this bizarre ruling produced and no thought was given to the fact that children wasted time while waiting. I refused to sit down and made myself extremely unpopular by walking from child to child as the need arose. The only positive contribution I was allowed to make was to introduce nature by planting a complete range of native trees

We made a return visit and I was looking forward to seeing how the trees had grown. The school and field were still there but, despite a careful search, we found no trace of the trees that I had planted. I almost wept. It would be too awful to imagine that they’d been removed in a fit of pique when, in my parting speech, I told them exactly what I thought of their way of running a school. But the field was large, the trees were not obstructing anything and I could think of no other explanation.

Luckily, other memories were full of joy. Apart from three small showers we had a sunny week and it was good to revisit the places we had walked all those years ago.

Rushton Triangular Lodge was our first stop. A fascinating building with religious significance where everything represents The Trinity – three floors, three sides, triangular turrets and windows designed by Sir Thomas Tresham and built in the 16th century.

We made a particularly poignant visit to Newton Field Centre, an old church on the site of a deserted medieval village where Richard had presented sessions on woodlands and grasslands. As a a student I had been delighted to find that, in addition to the botanical aspects, Richard talked about the uses of plants as well as their place in folklore and literature. We were on the same wavelength and the rest, as they say, is history.

A pilgrimage to the John Clare museum in Helpston was high on our list. Clare remains a great favourite with both of us and seeing his handwriting, walking through rooms where he had lived and finally seeing his grave made for  a humbling experience.

Visits to the nature reserves of Castor Hanglands and Barnack Hills and Holes were wonderful with flowers at their best and a positive plethora of butterflies including Marbled Whites which we hadn’t seen for a very long time.

After a week away the garden needed a lot of work as everything seemed to have doubled in size but we had promised to man the Cottage Garden Society display at the Shrewsbury Show so that had to come first.

Then we took advantage of dry weather and headed for The Lawley, part of the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It was quite a steep climb but the view from the top was reward enough for the exertion. We descended on the Caer Caradoc side and walked back to the car via the wooded lane along the base of The Lawley.

After lunch we visited 14th Century Langley Chapel with its early 17th century interior. Abandoned before the end of that century, the box pews, pulpit, reading desk and carved faces remain.

Making the most of the lovely weather we went on to Acton Burnell Castle, a 13th century fortified manor house set among some magnificent Atlas cedar trees.

Our last stop was Cantlop Bridge, a single spanned iron structure over the Cound brook. Built in 1813 it was part of a network of bridges built to improve trade around the county.

It was an excellent day and a relief to find that, after all the health problems I was fit enough to enjoy a five hour walk and to learn more about the history of the area.

A few days later found us on the top of Corndon with views across to tree-topped Bromlow  Callow in one direction and The Vale of Montgomery in the other.

A final August treat gave us memories of our first holiday together – in Poland in 1976. I had written a daily diary and, day by day,  we read it together as we re-lived fourteen magical days of walking, climbing mountains and botanising in a very different country.

We had joined a Botanical Society of the British Isles expedition and were not sure where our relationship would lead. Well, here we are, still together, still botanising and still, thankfully, able to enjoy our walks in lovely surroundings.

 

 

 

 

July – out and about in Shropshire

JULY 2019

The lower garden is still suffering from the June flood but, thankfully, there haven’t been many losses. Two Flowering Currants, including the fragrant yellow flowered variety definitely didn’t like their roots in water and failed to survive. Philadelphus, Escallonia, Deutzia and even a small Fig seem to be all right but we will have to research which shrubs can tolerate the change from flood to baked clay.

Clearing up the debris continued but the borders that did survive have been a joy. Three Yuccas bloomed beautifully. Crocosmia Lucifer, contrasting with deciduous Ceanothus and arching stems of Carex pendula put on an excellent show throughout the month and seems set to continue well into August.

For many years I have tried to grow Erigeron karvinskianus, a plant that I first saw adorning the walls of Walmer Castle way back in the early 70’s. Finally I seem to gave found the ideal place for it and I’m hoping that it will seed and spread on the paths and steps around the garden,

We joined granddaughter Cerys for her 18th birthday, taking her out for meals on Friday and Saturday and visiting Birmingham’s impressive little Museum of The Jewellery Quarter.

We also spent a couple of nights with her after collecting her from a late night flight after her holiday in France.

An excellent Marches Meadow Group visit to Pennerly House, courtesy of David and Janet Paignton rewarded us with Greater Butterfly orchids among other grassland flowers. It gave us the chance to meet and chat with other meadow enthusiasts although we’re still trying to find someone who can advise on our flood meadow situation.

Richard gave talks about Garden Wildlife to the Cottage Garden Society and one on The Botanist Gin at The Staffordshire Association of Garden Guilds where we were able to show many of the plants used in the gin.

Exploring Shropshire is always on our agenda and it’s good to visit new places. Boscobel House, famous for its role in harbouring Charles II after the Battle of Worcester in 1651 was an interesting place to spend an afternoon.

The oak tree where he hid is not in a very good state but there are several younger specimens nearby.

Not far from Boscobel is the Priory of St Leonard, a much quieter location popularly known as White Ladies Priory because of the habits of The Augustinian Prioresses who lived there in the 12th century.

A walk along the top of Lyth Hill gave us a different view of the Wrekin. It’s a name that I associate with my dad who used to recite Macauley’s ‘The Armada’, a poem he had learned in school and committed to memory.

‘Till streamed in crimson on the wind the Wrekin’s crest of light’

Because of that line I had heard of The Wrekin long before I knew anything about Shropshire.

We also visited Lilleshall Abbey, its sandstone ruins still standing after it was besieged and severely damaged by Parliamentarian troops in 1645. I do love the old buildings with their arches giving views of trees beyond.

More time was spent in the garden, mowing and weeding,  as we prepared to take a trip down ‘memory lane’ during the first week of August.

This is Summer. This is June.

This is Summer! This is June!

As soon as I settled my new plants in the garden the heavens opened. On June 10th, torrential rain converted the Raebrook to a rushing torrent. Overnight it overflowed, swept under the footbridge and immersed our bottom lawn and its bordering flower beds in a swirl of muddy water.

The floor of our new potting shed, although erected higher than its predecessor, was inches deep in water – and still it rained.The current was so strong that our kingfisher perch was moved out of sight and we will have to venture through the remaining bog to locate and return it to its carefully chosen place. The footpath that separates our main garden from the river garden was awash and the the brook was pouring over the brook so rapidly that I was glad of the handrails to keep me on my feet.

 

Ten days later we managed to mow the grass although mud and silt clogged up the mower after each short run. Plants were bedraggled, their leaves coated in silt that no amount of spraying could dislodge. There will be casualties I’m sure and many will have to be moved farther up the garden.

I wanted a river garden and am still glad to have it, but this, the third flood since we moved, in was the worst, we are told, for many years. So plans for how to manage the garden have to be reviewed. All thoughts of constructing a pond are abandoned and we have to learn to accommodate an area that changes from a lake to rock hard clay in high summer.

Mud left behind on the step down to the brook gave us proof positive of the fact that otters visit our garden. We know that they use the brook because of the spraints they leave on a rock under the bridge – but it is good to know that they come ashore in the garden too. I think we must be among a very small group of people who have had otters making use of our gardens in two very different locations. On Islay we had regular sightings but here, with so little water visible from the house, it’s unlikely that we will ever have a sighting. Still, it’s good to know they’re about and perhaps we’ll install a camera to prove it.

Despite the wet garden we had a pair of Scarlet Tiger moths mating on the path near the house.

May 2019 – and an absence of cuckoos.

May brought a tremendous change to flowers and trees in both garden and countryside. Worryingly though, things weren’t going so well for  bird life. We didn’t hear a single cuckoo. Swallows, swifts and martins were noticeably absent too. But, to my relief, on the 30th,  we watched house martins collecting mud from a puddle at the car wash at Pontesbury Co-op!

Kingfisher sightings were few too, but mallards produced ducklings and a fully-fledged family of great tits spent a lot of time around the fat-ball feeders in the last days of the month.. Adult goosanders were on the brook from time to time but I’m still waiting for goslings to appear.

We have enjoyed exploring  new locations in Shropshire and revisiting old favourites. One particularly exciting day brought back childhood memories of fields full of cowslips. These lovely flowers were so thick on the ground at Llynclys Common that it was hard to walk between them.

It was also pleasing to find Goldilocks among bluebells and Yellow Archangel at Earl’s Hill.

Hedges round Venus Pool were covered in White Bryony and wild roses and I enjoyed  a close view of a Great Crested Grebe.

Work in the garden progressed but several weeks of my ‘having to be careful’ meant that there was a backlog of weeding, especially of forget-me-nots which have been spectacular but are a pain to remove because their seeds attach themselves to every item of clothing, including socks.

We customised the short stretch 0f larch-lap fence by attaching bamboo canes as support for newly planted honeysuckle and summer jasmine. Hopefully these two climbers will intermingle and add colour and interest to this corner of the garden.

A trip to the delightful Dingle Garden Centre near Welshpool resulted in yet more plants to add to the garden. Erigeron karvinskianus, commonly known as Mexican Fleabane replaced the forget-me-nots in one of the stone troughs and I have high hopes of it seeding itself into all the cracks between the paving. It’s a plant that I have wanted ever since I saw it, about fifty years ago on the walls of Walmer Castle. As far as I’m aware it’s only in the last few years that it has made an appearance in garden centres. Although, while on Islay ,these were not places that I ever frequented, so I could be mistaken.

By the 31st when daughter Ashlyn and family came for her birthday weekend the garden was looking  at its best with Ceanothus bushes  abuzz with bumble bees and damsel flies on Yellow Flag in the river garden.

The ‘meadow’, our tiny area of lawn which we seeded with green hay last year is so impressive that we think we will extend the area to the main lawn. The Yellow Rattle has been amazingly successful, once again reminding us of the meadows of our childhood.

We have finally been allowed to fence the river garden although the gate mustn’t be locked as we have to allow access to the bridleway which was the only means of crossing the brook in years gone by. For about fifty years a footbridge has made the bridleway obsolete but, as it is still recorded in legal documents, it has to remain. In practical terms this is nonsensical as the footpath officer agreed that the route which crosses the brook is unsafe. Furthermore, many years ago, the farmer who owns the opposite bank obstructed the continuation of the route by  erecting barbed wire fences and padlocking the gate The bridleway only crosses a narrow area  of our land but the gate inevitably allows access to our main river garden and we have had incidences of people fishing and leaving litter.

For us, it’s  a place for encouraging wildlife and that includes leaving the fish for kingfishers and goosanders even though we own the fishing rights. We will continue to introduce more examples of native flora by collecting and scattering local seed. Hopefully, very few people will find it necessary to tramp, along with unleashed dogs,  through an area, which is essentially a nature reserve.

 

 

 

 

April 2019

Thank you to all the people who have sent good wishes following my health problems. I’m somewhat recovered but still undergoing tests to find out exactly what went wrong. In the meantime I’ve been trying to make the most of life and all the joys that April  has to offer. Butterflies have been welcome with Comma, Brimstone, Orange Tip. Small White, Peacock and Holly Blue all visiting the garden.

It has been a month of mixed weather, hot days interspersed with rain and one day of really strong winds that damaged the Hydrangea buds. But Spring arrived with lambs in the field across the Raebrook and forget-me-nots in the garden between shrubs and perennials. They have been beautiful, tying twelve borders and beds together in a swathe of blue. But now it’s time to take them out so that other plants can grow and fill the spaces.

Last year after collecting green hay from a flower-rich meadow we spread it on some areas of lawn and are delighted to have yellow rattle seedlings appearing.

  1. Already we have white clover, selfheal, ladies smock and dog violet and Richard has set up some quadrats to monitor what else appears. I’m letting dandelions flower as the bees love them, but I’m removing them when they start to wither. There will be no shortage of new plants from those sending seed from the river garden

Birds are nesting and bluetits took advantage of Leo’s fur which I put inside an old feeder.

A carrion crow spending a lot of time on the lawn could be a problem for the smaller birds but the woodpigeons don’t seem to be phased by him, even visiting the terrace to look for seeds underneath the feeders.

We are not seeing much of the kingfishers but goosanders and moorhens are regular visitors – and a pair of bullfinches put in a welcome appearance. Particularly voracious blackbirds are feasting on the fat balls and enjoying a few bruised apples.

We cut the grass in the river garden, leaving the river bank and borders along the fences for wild plants to colonise. Among others we have Ladies smock, teasel, purple loosestrife. meadowsweet and ground ivy along with a vast numbers of ramsons and dandelions. Himalayan Balsam was removed last year before it had time to seed so I’m pleased that only a few new plants are appearing. It will be an ongoing problem though as there will be a further influx of seed from higher up the brook.

My short article about a visit to Finlaggan on Islay appeared in the current issue of Scottish Islands Explorer and reminded me of a magical day with poet Kenneth Steven. Here is the article –

When Kenneth Steven, writer and poet, came to Islay we planned to visit Finlaggan, the former centre of The Lordship of the Isles. We intended to cross the causeway in order to explore Eilean Mòr where the installation of the Lords of the Isles took place. As poets we wanted to linger, to feel the atmosphere and imagine what life was like when this small island was inhabited. Kenneth visited in a wet October when most people were content to stay indoors admiring the informative displays. As we walked down to Loch Finlaggan we were hugely disappointed to find the causeway under water and the burn in spate flooding the approach. Kenneth’s visit to Islay meant this was his only chance to set foot on Eilean Mòr. A few words with the custodian, Donald MacKenzie, solved our problem. To our surprise and delight, he carried us, piggyback style, across the flood. Not only were we deposited dry-shod on the island but were left to explore for an hour before he returned to carry us back. It was a privilege to have Eilean Mòr to ourselves and for that magical hour we wandered at will, took photographs and started our poems.

Kenneth’s poem can be found in ‘Coracle’ (SPCK 2014) while mine appears in ‘Waymarks’ (Cinnamon Press 2015).

We hope that our words convey the magic of a very special day.

Finlaggan by Kenneth Steven

It was a day in late October. All night the rain
Had chattered Gaelic round the house.
We drove through sheets of water
Skies tugging with the wind
Up to the north-east of the island
The last miles of Islay.
At Finlaggan we thudded the doors shut,
Went out under wet skies.
And the man in the museum came to meet us,
Came hurrying over full of stories.
For the walkway to the island had flooded,
There was no way we’d get there;
He read our disappointment,
Heard it in silence.
I’ll carry you out, he decided –
I’ll carry you to the other side.
And he did,
He waded the black water
That swirled about his knees.

Finlaggan by Mavis Gulliver
For Donald MacKenzie

High water levels
almost turned us back,
but you carried us through deep water
forded the swirling stream
waded the flooded walkway
set us softly down on Eilean Mor,
left us for an hour,
listening to the lap of wind-born waves
reeds rustling
watching rafts of leaves and broken stalks
reflections rippling
imagining days of endless rain
swamping the causeway
men stepping gently into coracles –
a weave of split willow, lashings of hazel, thin skins of hide –
or, borne on sturdy backs
Lords of The Isles arriving dry-shod
to feast and fight, to live and love,
make judgements, govern the people
unaware that one day their homes would fall
the island know this peace –
this solitude.

Richard was guest speaker at a Cheese and Wine event where money was raised for the Edstaston Church Restoration Fund. He showed photographs of Colonsay and Islay and spoke of our experiences of Hebridean life. So, for the second time in the month our thoughts returned to the Hebrides. We have no regrets about leaving. The memories will always be with us and it is good to keep in touch with the couple who bought our house and to know that they value the wildlife as much as we did.

We may no longer have sea at the bottom of our garden but are grateful to have found a house in Shropshire with a different, but equally lovely view.

 

 

March 2019 – The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley

Robert Burns was right – all I had planned to do in March came to naught. The excitement of improving the garden was halted by two emergency admissions to hospital. Thankfully I am recovering well although the future depends on the results of a whole battery of tests and investigations.

I’m so glad that we moved from Islay where even a short appointment entailed overnight stays in Glasgow. As it is, Shrewsbury Hospital, only 15 minutes away from home made it relatively easy for family and friends to visit and keep me cheerful.

I had booked a week’s holiday at Tywyn on the Welsh coast for Richard’s birthday. Fortunately we were able to go although I was told to ‘take it easy’. This meant missing out on long strenuous walks but Richard was brilliant at finding short walks in lots of lovely places. The weather was perfect. The sun shone every day and without a single drop of rain the whole experience felt like a summer holiday.

It was a week of waterfalls.

Woodlands were bright with primroses and violets and the sound of running water was punctuated by Chiffchaff calls.

   There were stark slate walls decked with the contrasting shapes of Wall Pennywort leaves.

Walls clung to impossibly steep hillsides and fields were enclosed by vertical slabs of slate fastened together with wire.

 

Whooper Swans at the end of their winter visit overlapped with the return of Ospreys and Little Egrets joined Shelducks on the estuary.

 

   Adjusting to various restrictions, including a ban on driving, is frustrating but I know the situation could have been much worse and I am so grateful to the NHS staff, including many from abroad, who were cheerful and helpful despite being overworked, underpaid and under- appreciated.

 

 

 

 

 

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.