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July 2017 - a mixed month

The July weather was changeable. On Islay a few hot, sunny days were interspersed with showers and occasional heavy downpours. In Shropshire it was noticeably warmer. The wonderful Oak trees were showing Lammas shoots - so called because they appear around the time of Lammas, the Celtic Harvest Festival on the 1st of August. Possibly an evolutionary strategy to compensate for insect damage, they were early this year, appearing fully-grown in the middle of July.

Ten days in our new home allowed us to make progress on both house and garden. Further bookshelves were fitted and filled and, more importantly, the central heating boiler was replaced. But on each visit we find something else that needs attention. The huge Bay Willow in the river garden had split and its branches are now covering a quarter of the garden.

Its base is on the boundary of a narrow strip of land that leads to the river and we are trying to find out if we are responsible for felling it and making it safe.

Banded Agrion damselflies settled on the Iris leaves in even greater numbers but larger dragonflies moved too quickly for us to identify. Many Small White butterflies flitted about the garden along with Meadow Browns, Ringlets, an occasional Comma and one Skipper. Bees were still busy on the Lavender and the Yucca continued to look spectacular. Two wildlife sightings were added to our growing total - hedgehog and frog. Both of which were welcome.

Back on Islay for the last half of the month meant more grass cutting and an attempt to keep house and gardens tidy between packing boxes which seem to multiply every day. Viewings of the house started and we have set 17th August as the closing date for offers. We have several expressions of interest but it’s now a waiting game. Our fingers are well and truly crossed as we hope for a satisfactory and speedy outcome.

The garden is at its bonnie best. Heather and Bell Heather in bloom contrast with Honeysuckle and the white of Moon Daisies and Wild Carrot.

The orchids are over but the Elecampane, Inula helenium is in bloom. We rescued several plants from an area of Kilnaughton Bay when building work threatened to decimate them. We transplanted some to an adjacent area on the bay and after about 6 years of growing vegetatively they are thriving too.

Also known as Horse-heal and Elfdock or Elfwort the plant was sacred to the ancient Celts. It has numerous medicinal uses and can also be used as a condiment. Our biggest specimen is nearly 2 metres tall and I am planning to take one or two of the smaller ones to Shropshire.

The last few days of the month were taken up with sorting paperwork and loading the car so that we can head to Shropshire on August 7th. It will be a quick trip this time as we have to be back on Islay for The Botanist Academy sessions - and for the closing date for offers on the house.

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June 2017 - Another month of to-ing and fro-ing.

While we were suffering rain and cool weather on Islay, England was experiencing a heat-wave. We drove south with the windscreen wipers set at fast but before we got to Shropshire we were experiencing a different world. Desperately in need of rain, lawns were yellowing, cracks were opening in the grain fields and the golden barley was giving off a rich, nutty scent.

Despite the drought, most plants were coping well although some that I planted on our last visit had died. By the 28th we had rain - warm, gentle rain scenting the air and giving the daisies in the lawn a sudden boost. Water in the brook was low but plants were flourishing in our river garden and our plan is to introduce more wild plants by collecting seed from the locality. Alien species will be banished. So the abundant growth of Himalayan Balsam, despite its pleasant scent, attractive flowers and seeds that are such fun to pop, has been uprooted.

Although we’ve only been resident for four separate weeks, we’ve now owned our Shropshire house for three months. So what do I now feel about our choice? Delighted. That’s the word that comes to mind, the word I find myself using again and again. I don’t intend to detract from the Hebrides. I have loved the wildness, the vagaries of weather, the vast open vistas and the familiarity of otters. For twenty-five years I’ve reveled in walks by the sea, frequently having an entire beach to myself, but I am no longer the person who chose to head to the islands all those years ago. A lot of ageing comes with the passage of a quarter of a century. Solitary walks over rough moorland and scrambles over bouldered shores are no longer sensible options. A large, carefully managed wildlife garden, while a pleasure to walk in and a pleasure to look at, is now far too time-consuming and back-breaking.

It is a stunning location but it no longer provides the wholehearted enjoyment of earlier days. So, rather unexpectedly I found myself yearning for gentler options.

That is what I have found in Shropshire. Yes, the county can be busy, but our bungalow is on the edge of a village and can’t be overlooked because of its proximity to the Reabrook and the lie of the land beyond. I can take solitary early morning walks and between bursts of bird song there is often silence. Infrequent trains to Shrewsbury sound their whistle briefly and an occasional helicopter passes over, but traffic noise is no more than a distant hum on still days. Surprisingly, the nights are darker than on Islay where lights from the ferry terminal, the streets and distant lighthouses are magnified by reflection from the sea. The only light I will miss will be that of the full moon sending a silver pathway across the bay.

In this new location there is the constant excitement of discovering new or unusual things. A range of habitats fosters a more diverse flora and fauna than that on the islands. We are reacquainting ourselves with former favourites and encountering unfamiliar ones. Most fascinating this month have been the Banded Agrion, Agrion splendens, - iridescent damselflies that flit about in a whir of wings and settle on the iris leaves in our river garden. Unfortunately, a still photograph gives no hint of their mobile beauty.

Hive or Honey bees and five different species of bumblebee gather nectar and pollen from the Lavender in the main garden. On our next visit we will bring our bee book and try to identify them. In the meantime I can enjoy the sound of buzzing and the heady scent of flowers. 

Islay otters have been replaced by Shropshire badgers and I love searching for signs of their presence in the surrounding fields. I haven’t yet tried to watch them, but there is definite satisfaction in recognising  their activities. Finding dung pits on the edges of the fields and seeing heaps of discarded bedding outside their setts gives me a thrill. I love following their narrow tracks through long grasses until they squeeze through hedgerows where I am unable to follow.

Abundant in our Islay garden but lacking in our Shropshire garden are orchids. We left over 200 in bloom when we headed south. Among them was a spectacular hybrid - Heath Spotted-orchid x Northern Marsh-orchid, Dactylorhiza maculata x Dactylorhiza purpurella. At 50cms tall it dwarfs both of its parents and would grace any garden.

We are returning to Islay at the end of this month. Our house - Carraig Mhor, Emerivale, Port Ellen, Isle of Islay will soon be for sale with Stewart, Balfour and Sutherland, rightmove and OnTheMarket. It has been a wonderful place to live and whoever moves in is in for a treat. The Home Report has given us Category 1 for every aspect of the property which means that no immediate work is needed - and the view is spectacular.

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May 2017 - Two gardens to tend.

If there were nothing else to do this would be fun. As it is, gardening is being fitted in between journeys from one house to the other, decorating both, picking and processing plants for The Botanist, packing on Islay, unpacking in Shropshire, making arrangements for selling our Islay home and organising repairs and renovations for our Shropshire house. For the second time the car was filled to the roof and we reckon that books alone will need another three journeys.

There was little time for writing but my Letter from Islay can be found at http://theislandreview.com/content/letter-from-islay-spring-moves-on-apace-mavis-gulliver and an old poem had a new airing on https://keeppoemsalive.com/

Savant

His world is literal.

Metaphors a mystery

he cannot comprehend.

Facts flood

from his wrongly wired brain.

Ten thousand books,

each read in an hour,

imprinted on his memory

are placed upside down to show

he has no further need of them.

Zip codes, dates and places

fill his head.

He can tell you the route

to almost anywhere

but cannot go alone

to the end of the street.

He recalls every tune

he ever heard, can pick them out

on the piano with fingers limited

in their flexibility.

Simple tasks elue him.

His father cleans his teeth

buttons his shirt

links his arm as they walk,

everywhere

together.

He does not kno

that the fact he states

repeatedly

is pure poetry.


‘We share the same shadow.’

Before we headed south I spent two days in cutting paths through the areas of wild flowers although I knew that another cut would be needed as soon as we returned.

The two gardens are very different. Our Islay garden, a semi-wild stretch of 1.2 acres, encompasses cliffs and an expanse of shore that is subject to wind and salt spray.The view is extensive, taking in Northern Ireland in the south-west and Kintyre in the south-east. At night, four lighthouses warn of danger - Rathlin East and Rathlin West off Antrim’s northern coast, Mull of Kintyre and, close to home, Carraig Fhada across the bay from our house. A few trees survive, notably Aspen which we introduced 25 years ago, but self-seeded Rowans and Willows frequently suffer from wind-damaged branches.

Our wealth of wildflowers, introduced via seed collected locally, has increased from an expanse of bracken and bramble to include 212 different species. Some have taken years to establish to the point of setting their own seeds. Ironically, it is just as we are about to leave, that some of my favourites have really taken hold. Among others, Bush Vetch, Meadow Vetchling, Great Hairy Willow herb, Red Campion, Bloody Cranesbill and Wild Carrot appear in unexpected places - and the twin leaves of Common Twayblade, which has steadily advanced across the front lawn, are almost too numerous to count. A ten year old Guelder Rose is flowering for the first time and the Clematis montana has finally formed a complete barrier between our house and the one next door.

Our Shropshire garden, small in comparison, is a greenery of trees. Long established Ash, Hawthorn, Field Maple and Cherry border the lower lawn where there are younger specimens of Rowan, Apple, Liquidamber, Whitebeam, Japanese Maple, Silver Birch and others yet to be identified. Between the trees are glimpses of the Reabrook with a hillside beyond where huge, mature Oaks punctuate hedges of Blackthorn, Hawthorn, Holly and Yew.

Higher up the garden are hedges which include Forsythia, Weigela and Cherry Laurel and there are borders between paths which run up and down and from side to side. A variety of small shrubs chosen for their foliage rather than flowers dominate the borders but many need pruning and several need removing altogether. Perennials grow between the shrubs and I spent many hours on my knees removing a ground cover of weeds and a profusion of Lesser Celandine and Ivy-leaved Speedwell.

A trip to Shrewsburys Recycling Centre (a revelation after our tiny tip on Islay) enabled us to get rid of all the debris which the previous owners had left behind. Instead of clean boxes of books the car was loaded with dirty items such as rotting wood, dead shrubs, broken plant pots and lumps of concrete.

The highlight of our trip was going to our daughter’s for a day and hearing our grandson Josef playing his French Horn in The Birmingham Symphony Hall. The Birmingham City Choir joined the Birmingham Schools Orchestra for an excellent performance of Belshazzar’s Feast by William Walton. It was wonderful to experience such talent and to feel proud of Joe who will start his studies at the Birmingham Conservatoire in September.

We had a brief treat on the way home, spending a night at The Inveraray Hotel and exploring the area around Poltalloch House, a wonderfully overgrown ruin with an approach that reminded me of Manderley. During our visit, a raven, on the topmost tip of a tree, complained bitterly at our presence. We soon discovered the reason when we caught sight of three youngsters in a nest on one of the house windowsills.

When we returned to Islay the bluebells in the garden were reaching the end of their flowering but everything else had flourished and the neatly cut paths were white with daisies. I was reluctant to mow them as they looked beautiful, but another trip is pending and if I had left them the grass would be knee high when we return. We have a busy time ahead but I know that we are incredibly lucky to have two houses at present. It doesn't seem right when so many people are homeless but it is enabling us to continue work on Islay while preparing our Shropshire house for the final move. Indeed, so much work is needed there, and so much has to be packed and transported that it would have been impossible to move in one single trip.

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April 2017 - back on Islay

We left our new home in Shropshire with blossom everywhere. Cherry trees were blooming in gardens and blackthorn was covering hedgerows in a froth of white.

Back on Islay I felt that I’d stepped back a month. Blackthorn was still in the grip of winter and our garden trees had yet to break their buds. 

As the days passed growth accelerated. By the end of the month we were surrounded by leafing trees and a ground cover of bluebells and wild garlic.

In addition to the glorious sight, a good handful of wild garlic leaves thrown into the food processor with olive oil, walnuts and Parmesan cheese brought the taste of spring into the house.

Gorse had an early flowering. Often at its best in late May, this year it s bright blooms were evident all over the island at the beginning of April. We had to embark on picking for The Botanist gin as we couldn’t risk missing this important part of the recipe. It’s an unenviable task as each small flower has to be grasped between finger and thumb and it is all too easy to suffer pricks and scratches. After several days of picking my hands were very sore indeed.

Primroses dotted both cliffs and woodlands and there were so many self-seeded in our lawn that I put a couple of dozen into pots to take to Shropshire. They grow in the wooded valley close to the house but I plan to put them under the trees to follow the snowdrops which I planted on our last visit.

During that visit we had to cut the grass but back on Islay there was little evidence of growth. It was the third week of the month when we finally got out the mower to cut the paths which allow us to walk round the garden without getting wet feet. In between the paths, the bluebells leaves are growing, but in this exposed situation it will be a few weeks before we have our last experience of their glorious scent and colour.

For the moment we can enjoy the delicate pale lilac flowers of Lady’s Smock which have self-seeded all over the garden. Also known as Cuckoo Flower or Milkmaids it is the most delicate member of the Cabbage Family. Shakespeare, in Love’s Labors Lost, wrote of lady-smocks all silver white painting the meadows with delight. This puzzled me for years until I saw a swathe of blooms by moonlight when they did indeed acquire a pale silvery glow.

The pattern of the next few months will be keeping up with the garden in between packing books, removing bookshelves and decorating walls which have been hidden for a good number of years. There will be many trips to the tip and to Re-jig, our island re-cycling store, as we try to weed through the accumulation of a lifetime. It’s a daunting task, but a necessary one because we have less space for storage in our new home. 

As we grow older I think it’s vital to consider our children. They lead busy lives and it is unfair to leave them with the task of clearing out our belongings. Besides, I have reached the stage where I want to enjoy the present instead of hanging on to things from the past.

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March 2017 - and a change of direction.

March 2017 - and a change of direction.

My Letter from Islay appeared in The Island Review http://theislandreview.com/features/

- an account of spring on the island, but I am away from Islay at the moment.

After many months of searching for a house in rural Shropshire we finally took possession of our new abode on 27th March. Needless to say there has been little time to think of anything else.

With an obligation to remain on Islay until our work for The Botanist Gin is completed we only had 10 days to settle in and explore the immediate area. Between now and the end of the gathering season we will make short visits, each one with a car laden with books and other necessities. Until the final move we will be camping out inside. Richard has been erecting bookshelves and I have been planting hundreds of snowdrops in drifts under the small trees. I am hoping that they will love this garden as much as the Islay one. When we moved there 21 years ago there were no snowdrops in the garden and they have multiplied so much that even though I have dug up about a thousand, there don’t appear to be any less.

Islay has been wonderful but we feel the need to be closer to the rest of our family. It is time for new places, new people and new experiences while we are still reasonably fit and well. We knew Shropshire many years ago when our first holidays together were spent in this lovely county. The bungalow is not perfect but we will adjust to it, and as with our Islay home, it is chosen for its location above all other considerations. It is at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac so there is no passing traffic. We have an open aspect and access to many footpaths from the bottom of our garden. We have exchanged our sea view for one of trees and our own small section of river bank.

We even own the fishing rights, but will not be using them. We are more than happy to give our share of small fry to the pair of goosanders which parade up and downstream several times a day.

A bridge over the Raebrook leads to a kissing gate and from there we can walk in several directions. There is no traffic sound to drown out the plentiful birdsong. There are mature trees and hedges of blooming blackthorn, hawthorn in leaf and evergreen holly and yew.

On my first early morning walk I was delighted to hear a great spotted woodpecker drumming, to find a cherry tree in bloom on our riverbank and, just up the hill, to find the most extensive badger sett that I’ve ever seen. Heaped earth covered in discarded bedding and upwards of a dozen entrances indicate that there is quite a family.

As I write, the French windows are open and a green woodpecker is yaffling. It is tempting to venture out to catch a glimpse of him, but today we are steam cleaning the carpets and Richard has just returned with the hired machinery - so it’s back to work as we strive to turn number 46 into our future home.