Road to the Isles

The north-west of Scotland in a heat wave is a rare and marvellous thing. Midge activity thankfully on the lower end of the scale. A first ever visit here for week’s holiday with extended family & having a thoroughly enjoyable time. This deeply rural place has huge distinctive character, with physical contrasts that constantly surprise & delight the senses. From the pointillist effect of cotton grass on raised bog to endless vistas of rocky mountainsides, plunging valleys dense with ancient deciduous woodlands, sweeping wild moorland; all incised and framed by craggy sided deep sea lochs fed by tumbling waters of short rapid rivers. And those truly wonderful views out to the small isles – Eigg, Muck & Rhum… What better way to see all this in compressed form than from the window seat of a scheduled Scotrail train on the West Highland line from Fort William to Mallaig. A morning return trip Morar/Glenfinnan took all these terrific sights in and more…. Impressions of a red deer silhouetted in a wood, steel netted cuttings securing against rockfalls, tiny patches of snow glistening on the highest mountains, bright green leaves waving violently in the vortex of our rapid passing along that single track line. Fascinating too to appreciate hawthorn in full blossom, bluebells dotting the unfurling bracken and primroses, tormentil & thrift, all of them overlapping in their Spring into Summer flowering.An earlier expedition had us all on the big Calmac ferry from Mallaig across the Strait of Sleat to Armadale on Skye to discover the spiritual home of the Clan MacDonald. This peaceful centre of a 20,000 acre estate has Immaculately maintained early nineteenth century woodland gardens with impressive specimen trees (redwoods, Chilean pines etc). Perfect setting for a ruined neo-gothic castle and the graceful well curated ‘Museum of the Isles’. Bluebells, hostas and other shade loving woodland plants border a canalised stream and informal ponds, further enhanced by cool meadow ground cover. Lounging on the wide lawns, in dappled shade, we had a magnificent view over the calm waters to the remote mountainous mass of the Knoydart Penninsula. Back at base on the mainland, beach hopping between Morar & Arisaig, we are beguiled by lush contrasts: – the glowing yellows of gorse & broom next the delicate violets of the at home escapee Rhododendrons; white hot to the feet crushed shell strands below sinuous green stands of sculptural Scots pine. When this awesome topography is bathed in sun under an unclouded sky the whole effect is positively Mediterranean.

West/East

A trip back to my old home the west side of the north Pennines last week threw up some interesting contrasts. A more advanced spring there meant grass already being cut for silage while back home our neighbours fields are only just beginning to grow once the flocks of ewes and lambs are off. Cattle are out though, both sides. Below Hadrian’s Wall drove by my first sighting of a true meadow, full of emerging points of colour, which was encouraging. Looking up an old friend in Lancaster, from my time working in the day job, we fulfilled a long held promise of a walk to Bleasdale Circle on the western edge of the Forest of Bowland. An approach uphill from the church with lapwings circling and uttering their plaintive ‘peewits’ in the still warm air. Glorious soft evening light lit up the natural bowl of hills in which the neolithic circle is so perfectly set. It would have been a wooden, not a stone, henge with ditch and today concrete plinths have replaced oak posts. An outer (now lost) post from 4,000 years ago is believed to have marked the summer solstice. The site has also been planted heavily with pine trees by the 20th Century, many of them upended now by recent storms. In its isolation and magnificent natural setting the site is a very special one and may yet, if properly restored one day, have real meaning for future generations.

Tadpoles & Snails

Water snails. Last year they were a novelty in the pond but this year they’re a plague. On the plus side the water has been clearer because this hoard of active gastropods have grazed the cloying blanket weed clean out. On the down side attractive floating plants like brooklime and water hyacinth have also been devoured. (Oddly, but thankfully, the newly emergent bronze coloured leaves of water lillies remain unscathed). Brooklime is a tough and prolific cover plant, escaping to stretch above surface level so will survive but the freshly formed floating leaves of the water hyacinth provide on their underside the ideal surface for transparent egg clusters to grow unseen and they in turn become the feed plant of the tiny emergent snails. Took the decision to play God and had a cull of all the snails I could find, popping sixty or more into jam jars and releasing them into the big mature roadside pond bordering East Farm. There they can trawl the muddy depths to their hearts content, living carrion like on the accumulated detrius that is their regular diet. Walking back from my mission I paused at the roadside hard by our house and spied with joy the unmistakable wriggle of tadpoles in the shallow waters of a marshy field pond framed with rushes. Will follow their progress and may even lift a few later to take their chances in our pond. Adult frogs were regulars in the pond last year on their own accord and seem to co-exist happily enough with the resident newts that have thrived there since the pond’s creation two Summers past. (Library Images)

Mice & Lizards

Sitting in the living room one evening our attention caught by movement on the birds peanut holder outside in the front garden. The wood mice are back. I last saw them perform this trick, in a different location, two years ago. These nocturnal creatures are super acrobats and make their way up trees and bushes along branches to secure a vertical hold of a prize like these peanuts. They pause to assess the potential danger from us and then continue to nibble. A wood mouse’s tail is as long as its body and the little creature uses it with astonishing speed and agility to feed and escape its many predators. Today’s treat was to sit reading in the sun on a bench on a gravel path at the back of the house and to catch sight of a female common lizard just feet from me on the other side of the path. It shares the mouse’s speed and concentration. Can see it’s heart beating as it threads between vegetation and wood block edging. Suddenly spies a large spider and gives chase into the tangle of greenery which shakes with the subsequent tussle. The little reptile emerges a minute later and does the vivarious version of licking its lips with its forked tongue. This is the first time I’ve spied a lizard on this side of the house. In the past I’ve encountered them at the front and believe they live inside the stone wall there; the crevice secure, warmest and driest part of the property. Here they can safely see out the winter months in a state of hibernation, only waking with the better weather. Lucky them.

Planting Out

Spring has been waiting in the cold northern wings like a nervous actress, going over her lines so as not to forget what to say on appearance. The bank holiday weekend provided a cue, and on she came, in warmth and hurry, flustering damson blossom and unfurling new lime green leaves and opening every tulip at once. This was our own cue for planting out. Pots had been queuing by the railway hut, in the cold frame, under the popadome, and in individual seedling tubes. Fortunately the weekend saw us at home. As head gardener I would normally be out there, grubbies on for days, happily creating alongside Steve. But while building a rockery I slipped and broke one ankle and fractured the other, so am frustratingly on the sidelines with a pair of ‘moonboots’ and crutches. Left to direct, I sit on one bench after another, waving crutches to point “There! No, a bit left…That’s it….A bit right,” while he doggedly goes about with spade, compost, watering can and labels, setting the stage for the mini-theatre of this season’s growing. After many hours we finally sit in the evening sun with our wide open view, survey the plants in their shy new settled state, raise a toast and smile.

Summer Song

A perfect British bank holiday weekend of fine weather. A day in the garden yesterday marked by a rotating cast of avian songsters. Awake to swallows swooping & twittering, an afternoon highlight of the distant skylark’s song; curlews liquid embellishments by teatime succeeded by our resident blackbird’s long sweet improvised riffs as the sun sank in the west. All their notes and tones suffused the still warm air & big blue sky, accompanied by the lambs chorus of soft bleats & occasional distant mooings of cows and their calves. Today we took a stroll by the river above the village, indulging in a read of the Sunday paper and a coffee on the bank. Swarms of fry in the warm shallows – trout or salmon, I can’t tell which – fanning out en masse into the brown depths as our shadows crossed their milling multitudes. Across the water a wide steep bank, the subject of years of erosion, is alive with a colony of sand martins recently flown in from sub-Saharan Africa, who have their traditional nesting holes here a safe and secure height above the waters. Above our heads, I spy a treecreeper working its way along a sycamore overhanging the wide lazy waters, the bird’s tail counterbalancing its rapid upside down progress, the long beak assiduously working cracks in the bark for grubs. Around us daffodils are finally dying away whilst the bluebells, responding to the long awaited heat, are just starting to reveal here and there. Hundreds of locals & visitors will be coming to enjoy their display as May unfurls, when the large wooded island in the stream will be swathed in their dazzling blue flowered haze under ancient trees freshly greened to greet the long awaited Summer.

Arrivals

At last, today on Mayday, the swallows have returned. Had word of their arrival from a good friend in Devon over three weeks ago. The nest remains in the railway hut and the adult birds soar over the garden as of old. Another Summer returnee I spied one morning recently in our field round the crags was a wheatear. A welcome common sight on UK moorlands where these thrush sized migrants prefer to breed. A handsome runner over the grass, looking for insects and worms. I like the old descriptive country name for it – the whitearse – which our Victorian forefathers changed to the inoffensive moniker it bears today. Crows have seen off the magpies and taken up residence in the high branches of a pine in our eastern spinney. Nearly every time I exit the garden doors it swoops off low into and beyond the field. This super cautious behaviour marks its relationship to man. Whether they will do the same when the young are in the nest I don’t know. Only note the presence of one bird at a time in the nest area, but the dense needle cover prevent me from seeing much. The presence of corvids does not seem to deter the male blackbird who pitches up at the pine’s pinnacle to deliver his famously beautiful song. Across the yard pied wagtails explore the wood shed’s log wall. I’ve created possibilities for nesting sites there so will watch with interest to see if they’re taken up. Pip, our pretty little black and white cat, is getting on in years but not proving any less an adept killer. She brought a male chaffinch in to the house this morning. The male birds have been fighting recently and in quartering the ground beneath the feeder so have been more vulnerable to predation by our resident feline.