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.

April 2018 – and spring is truly here.

The water level finally fell, the sun came out and the cherry tree in our river garden came into bloom.

A pair of goosanders frequented the Raebrook – providing an interesting contrast with the red-breasted mergansers which we often saw on the sea at the bottom of our Islay garden.

As her birthday fell in the Easter holidays  our daughter Caryl was able to come over for tea and her favourite chocolate orange cake birthday cake.  As you can see I had trouble with the icing. Luckily the wonky finish didn’t affect the taste.

Signs of spring come in the form of lambs in the fields opposite the house. We  hear the constant contact calls between ewes and their offspring although these twins seem happy enough to snuggle up together under an old tree trunk.

And this view of one of the entrances to the badger sett reminded me that spring is a time for spring-cleaning. Old bedding is scattered across the spoil heaps. Perhaps I should follow suit!

 

March 2018 – and the usual mix of mad March weather.

A little snow at the beginning of the month enhanced our river garden but soon turned to rain. Water crushed  down from the Welsh hills to flood the Raebrook – and our garden.

When the floodwater receded a moorhen ventured under the footbridge to forage among the debris. We often see them on the brook and in the river garden but this was a first for the main garden.

Winter visitors were still around – especially redwing and fieldfare. They’re easy to distinguish when you get views as good as these.

I’m sure that some of the nine blackbirds were visitors too as we don’t normally see so many together.  They feasted on the fat balls which they could reach from the terrace balustrade.

We had a  great treat when we went to a Youth Orchestra concert in the Birmingham Symphony Hall. Granddaughter Cerys played several percussion instruments. She even played the big bass drum which was quite a feat as she’s only just tall enough to see over the top.

Richard celebrated his birthday and, as always, I made his favourite cake – toffee walnut with a vanilla fudge topping.

So, Spring is officially here. Lesser celandines are popping up all over the garden. Blackthorn is in flower and soon there will be blossom on the trees in the garden.

February 2018 – and more snowdrops

On the 2nd of February we woke to a heavy frost, a little more snow and the Raebrook covered in a thick layer of ice. A cormorant was a welcome but unexpected visitor to our river garden.

Unable to keep away from snowdrops, we made three more visits to the valley of the Cound Brook. Each time there were more flowers in bloom and we both took dozens of photographs.

Neither of us had ever seen such a wonderful display over such a wide area.Then it was time to make a start on renovating the garden. It had been badly neglected and we knew there was a lot of work to do because the borders were slipping into the paths and the paths were slipping into the borders. Richard started to edge the borders with timber in readiness for laying landscape fabric and gravel on the paths. I suspect it will be a long hard job as there are lots of paths and little available time.

The bird feeders continue to be busy with a steady stream of blue, coal, great and long-tailed tits, nuthatches, robins, and even a goldcrest. Blackbirds and house sparrows, dunnocks, starlings and a jackdaw are frequent visitors too. Song thrushes seem to be very scarce. We miss them because there were lots on Islay, so many that I once counted seven singing in the short distance between our house and Kilnaughton Wood.

Wanting to get back into a writing routine I had offered to co-ordinate a new U3A Writing Group and we had our first meeting in the Pontesbury Community Library. The intention is to meet on the 1st and 3rd Thursdays of each month and to develop our writing skills though prompts and discussion.

 

2018 – a new year dawns

Morning walks are a joy – and this one in the fields above the house agave me a lovely view of the valley pooled in mist. Another great joy came from feeding the birds, especially the daily visits from a flock of long-tailed tits.

Ben of ‘Wood Matters’ came with his team to chop up the fallen willow and remove a decaying branch.

But the exciting part was the removal of the fifty foot Leylandii which, if it had ever fallen, would have demolished the house. The skill involved was fascinating to behold. And what a difference it has made to the garden! We now benefit from an extra hour of sunshine.

My birthday arrived on the 22nd January and it was lovely to have a visit from Caryl, Joe and Cerys – something that never happened on Islay. It’s hard to believe I’m 77! When I was younger I thought old people felt old. Thankfully I don’t – well, not most of the time. It’s just when I look in the mirror that I get a reminder!

When I was a little girl I had a distant relation who was a nun at Stanbrook Abbey in Worcestershire. Every year, for my birthday, she used to send a few snowdrops from the abbey gardens.  On Islay, over the years, the ones I introduced into the garden multiplied into hundreds and I always had a few in bloom on my birthday. I knew I’d miss them when we moved so as soon as we bought number 46 in 2017 I brought some and planted them around the trees. There was no sign of them on my birthday, so Richard  was determined to find some for me. He checked the Flora of Shropshire and took me for a walk along the Cound Brook where we found the first ones coming into bloom. It was such a lovely walk that we went back a week later when we found them all along the brook.

By the end of the month the ones in the garden were beginning to push their tiny green spears through the grass. Hopefully they’ll soon start to multiply and with a bit of luck will bloom for my next birthday.

December 2017 – another year draws to a close.

Snow snow snow – In the Hebrides snow was such a rarity that my eldest pupil made her first snowman at the age of eleven!  We abandoned school for the day and made footprints and snow angels and we had the inevitable snowball fights.

Here, the first fall came on the eighth and continued until the eleventh. It wasn’t much fun for people who had to go out to work but we were able to enjoy the garden and walks into the nearby fields. I took dozens of photographs and here are three of the best.

We loved everything about it but he best part was being able to follow badger footprints and to know for certain that they were safe inside their sett. 

On the 14th, no doubt brought down by the weight of snow, one of the willows in the river garden lost a branch and as the snow melted the river flooded

We made our first visit to Attingham Park where we enjoyed the display of decorated Christmas trees. There was one in every room and they were all splendid but my favourite was the one decorated in white origami peace doves.

For the first time in years we were able to have all our family together at Christmas. On New Year’s Eve we woke to an unusual  stripey sunrise – and a hope that 2018 will be a good year for us all.

November 2017 – the first full month in our new home.

It’s lovely to be here at last and to know that we don’t have to face another long journey up the motorway and across the sea to Islay.  Winter jasmine in bloom around the front door seemed to welcome us to our new home.

We are surrounded by boxes and will be for a very long time but we are making progress with essentials – mainly erecting bookshelves. A very expensive set back came from problems with the central heating boiler . On inspection it was condemned but  we were able to get it replaced surprisingly quickly.

The garden is going to need a vast amount of work but there are still flowers in bloom and the Liquidamber is showing that autumn is here

The Bramley apple tree is bearing well and it was lovely to have our grandchildren helping with the last of the apple picking. Now that they are only an hour away we are looking forward to seeing a lot more of them.

We have joined the Shropshire Badger Group and are learning more about these lovely creatures.  Across the Raebrook, the badger sett is in use and there are ample signs of tracks and footprints across the fields. The hedgerows are heavy with sloes and it was lovely to find a spindle in berry not far from the house.

Determined to make time to explore we had a walk from the house, across the fields to Bayston Hill where we had a meal in the local chippy before walking back. Another walk took us beside the old ill-fated Potts Line that ran between Shrewsbury and Llanymynech. A view from one of the bridges provided some lovely reflections.

We are enjoying leaving by the garden gate and crossing the little footbridge into open fields. Although much of the area is under arable, there are sheep in the field nearest the house. And in between the cultivated fields there are wide hedgerows with mature trees and a good range of shrubs. We are looking forward to familiarising ourselves with very different habitats from the ones we knew on Islay. No doubt this picture of Richard will be one of many in which he records the wildlife and scenery of our new location in Shropshire.

October 2017 – and it’s farewell to Islay

Twenty seven years, almost a third of our lives was spent in the Hebrides. The tiny island of Colonsay was our first Hebridean home and the larger island of Islay our last. From those bases we had holidays on almost every inhabited Hebridean island and we have memories and photographs aplenty. The islands inspired my three children’s novels as well as the poems in my two poetry collections. And, through Richard’s botanical knowledge, it brought us work with Bruichladdich Distillery in the development and production of The Botanist Islay Dry Gin.

Our last visit to the distillery was full of surprises as we were presented with a special bottling of The Botanist, and a Quaich engraved with – In gratitude of everything you have done for The Botanist and Bruichladdich Distillery.

Colleagues gathered to wish us well in our new venture and to share the most delicious cake decorated with a life-size bottle of The Botanist.

And an article about our involvement appeared on The Botanist website along with several photographs.

https://www.thebotanist.com/articles/richard-and-mavis-retire

We enjoyed a very splendid cake last week, beautifully baked by Katie to mark the retirement of our botanical scientists Dr Richard and Mavis Gulliver. Richard and Mavis have been an integral part of The Botanist story since the inception and creation of our first, and still only, Islay Dry Gin. They started working with Jim McEwan over a decade ago, when the husband and wife team introduced our then master distiller to a range of local botanicals which they had hand-picked from the woods, marshes, hills and hedgerows of our remote Hebridean island home. Jim was then able to systematically assess them for flavour and aroma before selecting the iconic 22 which would go on to provide the floral ‘top notes’, the island melody that overlays The Botanist’s rhythm section of nine core berries, barks, seeds and peels.

Their involvement did not stop there of course. Richard and Mavis then went on to shoulder the very considerable responsibility of ensuring that we had the botanicals available for ongoing distillations. This required enormous dedication coupled with a high level of organisation and local knowledge, because suitable quantities of the 22 need to be collected over an entire growing season. This can start in late March/April if gorse flowers earlier than May/ June when it is more usually at its spectacular best. Honeyed heather and aromatic bog myrtle complete the picking process in August and September.

Picking the botanicals is only part of the story however, because the whole process is both involved and time consuming. Following their collection, in the correct proportions and with due regard to obtaining them in optimum condition, the delicate plants have to be carefully dried, or tinctured in some cases, to preserve their individual characters.

Richard and Mavis have a profound love of the countryside and the diverse community of wild plants that form such an integral part of it. Conservation and the principles of sustainability are central to everything they do – and this is of course reflected in their responsible foraging of our botanicals. They ensured that none of the 22 we use are threatened in any way, with most being positively abundant here on Islay. The one exception is Islay juniper, a small, prostrate shrub which is quite rare. Only symbolic amounts of this are used in The Botanist and, instigated by Richard and Mavis, a re-introduction scheme has been under way which has seen planting of young junipers in suitable locations on Islay. This will continue into the future as we are preparing to introduce juniper plants grown from cuttings, propagated by the botanists, into what we hope will prove to be suitable locations on distillery ground.

Richard and Mavis were also directors and guiding lights of The Botanist Foundation, the Community Interest Company set up to ensure that the harvest of Islay botanicals continues in a sustainable way – and also that the wider community should be able to benefit from it. The Foundation supports a number of conservation organisations including the local Islay Natural History Trust with its biological records database, and the national charity Plantlife. It is also supporting a survey of insect pollinators on Islay which we hope will one day help with the reintroduction of native wild Black Bees to the island. The Foundation is also particularly pleased to be able to provide a bursary to assist young people who wish to pursue further education on the mainland. Richard and Mavis’ guidance and practical assistance with this work will be sorely missed.

The couple moved permanently to Islay 23 years ago, after having spent a number of years living on Colonsay, an Inner Hebridean island that is even more remote and difficult to access than our own. Richard was conducting his environmental consultancy work from there while Mavis was teaching at the tiny local school. One legacy of their time on Colonsay was an important long-term study of a rare wild orchid, the beautiful Irish Lady’s-tresses, which occurs sporadically in the west of Scotland, often in short-lived populations.

On Islay, and when not out picking botanicals, Mavis was able to devote a little more time to her writing and poetry. You can find out more here or follow her blog chronicling their move and changes in the natural history of her surroundings. Their new home will be in Shropshire in an idyllic rural location with the Reabrook meandering through the garden which contrasts markedly with their seaside location on Islay. Gardening is a big part of Richard and Mavis’ life, and the space they leave behind on Islay is a wonder to behold, with over 200 species of plant making it their home. Their new garden in Shropshire will be a softer, but no less interesting environment and Mavis freely admits that she will not miss the endless battles with wind driven salt spray that can be heart breaking for Hebridean horticulturists.

Our new botanist here at the distillery is James Donaldson who joined us in the spring and has been working with Richard and Mavis for a whole foraging season. Originally from Muirdrum in Angus, James has a degree in botany and a lively interest in all things botanical. He really appreciates Richard and Mavis’ “Generous and gracious provision of time and knowledge” while they have been working together. This has made the transition as smooth as possible.

May we add our own 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. In any event, we hope they will now find more time to spend with family and grandchildren, and we feel sure that their new location will be both inspirational and rewarding. Slainte!

It was with mixed feelings that we boarded the ferry for the last time.  Eight trips with the car loaded to the roof meant that the final move was less onerous than it could have been. Bringing Leo, our cat, on the final 14-hour journey was a concern but he behaved perfectly and has adapted to his new home with surprising speed. He spends more time out of doors, climbs trees and sits on the terrace apparently engrossed in the view of our sloping garden.

So, we are settling into a new life and making the most of all the opportunities that present themselves. We’ve already been to Theatre Severn and to the local Drama Group productions and Mavis has joined the WI, U3A and Shropshire Poets. We’ve both joined the Shropshire Badger Group and have plans to join the Mary Webb Society.

The garden outbuildings need replacing but the surrounding trees and large variety of shrubs are a delight. We brought lots of plants with us and are hoping that snowdrops brought from Carraig Mhor will soon make an appearance. Grey squirrels occasionally venture into the garden but we’ve installed several squirrel-proof bird feeders in addition to one which they can access. Already we are having regular visits from nuthatches as well as blue and coal tits. The brook at the bottom of the garden is a constant source of delight. The oak trees are laden with acorns and  and the hedgerows are bright with the berries of Black Bryony.