Combination of warmth, dryness and lengthening days throws up the first signs of Spring’s arrival which in turn stirs us and the natural world into life once again. We attempt to identify the two types of snowdrops that are doing so well all over the garden this Spring. The simpler taller one seems to be either ‘Mrs Macnamara’ (Named after Dylan Thomas’ mother-in-law) or ‘Wisley Magnet’ while the the more compact and complex bloom is almost certainly ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’ (named after a committee member of the RHS). Earliest I’ve ever started the lawn cutting season was yesterday, the 23rd February. It looks better for it, on a higher cut, and will save labour later, but it still felt odd. The cuttings get fed to the pregnant ewes with their single lambs on our field. I then set to with trowel and bucket to weed the grass and other trespassers in the swathes of gravel around the house. Kim gets stuck into finishing her studio border one day, the semi-circular bank border the next; cutting back and clearing. In doing so she unearths, in a pile of moss dead leaves and stalks, a hibernating hedgehog! It stirs in its deep soft confinement but she carefully covers it back up. We are very happy to have this iconic creature on our patch. Having over the years created spaces and provided lots of insect and invertebrate cover to encourage them this is the first time we’ve evidenced a dormitory presence. I lift a stone by the pond and a young frog dives into the water. Driving home outside the village this evening another frog crosses the road in front of us. This is an annual mating migratory route, heading up from river to field ponds, but I don’t remember it being as early in the year previously. We’ve been spotting barn owls too of late on our nocturnal travels and they’re always a beautiful entrancing sight. Also, out on the porch at night, we hear the tawny owls making their interactive presence known down in the north burn valley, a chorus of calling and answering. Our friends at Southridge Farm are in the government’s Higher Stewardship Scheme (HSS) and nothing gives them greater pleasure than to plant native hardwood trees – hazel, alder, ash, oak etc – an ongoing extension of existing mature woodland in the steep valley of the southern burn that cuts through their land. The young trees are grown in a nursery further down the dale. Here’s our neighbour with his brother-in-law putting them in with stakes and guards amongst the dead fronds of last year’s bracken. A whole new ecosystem in the making and a heartening example of good husbandry & custodianship.
A spell of mild dry weather combined with lengthening daylight hours is a wake up call for gardeners everywhere so we gladly succumb to the urge and get out there, preparing to meet the Spring rush. Yesterday Kim made a start on the borders and I concentrated on clearing and re-sighting birdboxes. One of the three I checked or re-sited yielded a blue tit’s nest and an abandoned tiny egg. Put the box back under garage eaves, lapped by evergreen honeysuckle, and hope it will attract another tenant this year. I also sharpened most of the tools in readiness for another season. This afternoon’s activity centered on weeding the heavy clay bed around the pond watched by a dozen of Southridge’s Texel/Mule gimmers, pregnant with single lambs. In the few weeks they’ve been put on to our crags the flock have made short work of bonfire scraps like the Christmas tree and have (literally) stripped the willow. The only thing that’s defeated them are the pyracantha clippings Kim dumped there after tackling the long border outside her studio. Some thorns are just too tricky to deal with, even for these voracious consumers. All looks a lot better now on both the borders we concentrated our weekend efforts on. Last year’s clearings, combined with muck spreading seem to have done wonders for snowdrops whose numbers have tripled this Spring. Their cheerful presence in the beds, along with aconites in the spinney and wall side daffodils on the roadside, never fail to bring a smile.
We took another of our Sunday strolls early in Feb. Seeking to strike out from home to tread previously untrodden paths and bridleways that fill in missing pieces of our local landscape picture. A chance remark lodges with me from a passing conversation with our neighbour at East farm. It sparks further interest in the settlement’s rocky crags, which the lane shepherd crook’s around. ‘Chap told me it was a fort once’ says the old farmer. Later I’ll ask around and look up archeological websites which yield terse but intriguing information about local ancient sites and monuments. Discover that the crags in question was the site of a village first recorded in 1279 but abandoned by 1811. The last building being East Farm. There are sunken tracks, insets and bumps in the grass indicating foundations and traffic of some sort. The map names the surrounding big open fields we cross as one time common, which it would have been before enclosure in the 18th century. Today, with recent snow still lying in places makes it easier to see evidence of ‘rigg (ridge) and furrow’ – recalling days long gone when climate and/or economics saw what is now permanent pasture put to the plough to grow cereal crops. On this rain lashed freezing day we venture, for the first time, on a muddy by-way under phone lines linking two metalled roads (pictured). The view of the crags from this opposite side reveals a distinctly rounded cliff edged position between the valleys of the two burns, with a small tributary stream rising on its flank. Seductively reasoning its way to potential as a site for defence or associated settlement of some kind. Later circling on another short cut footpath, returning road to road, yields more views, although the weather’s too poor by now for a decent photograph.
Not so much a new year resolution but a gradual climb back to form for Kim post the ankle injuries sustained last year. We’re also conscious of not exploring our immediate neighbourhood as thoroughly as we could do. Hence an afternoon combining new ground and old in a rewarding circular. Peeled off from the long distance path, heading for North farm. Here huge step slabs of carboniferous rock , laid down 300 million years ago, are exposed in the bed of the burn, making for small waterfalls along its course. To a not unfriendly chorus of barking dogs we brave the yard and pick up signs for the byway heading cross fields to the forest’s edge. Much has been cleared here in recent years and replanted. Part with conifer, part with deciduous. Ground plants, new exposed to light, along with bird and butterfly habitation that follow, have a window of a few years before the conifers grow and close serried ranks once again. Love the views from here. The sky so vast and clear offering totally new views of otherwise familiar buildings and features. Eventually we come to a large stell (sheep enclosure) made of timber and rusted corrugated sheets. Lots of red plastic tubs, magnesium licks for the flocks. A good wooden footbridge carries us over the higher reaches of our northside burn; the chocolate brown swill snaking swiftly into its widening vale, banked with alder and willow. From here we rejoin the road on the watershed of our sill ridge.
It’s but a short stroll downhill to a signpost leading us over rough grazing to reveal the core of a 16th century bastle (fortified house) converted by the 18th century into a regular holding. Alas, today trees grow out of its roofless outbuildings and great cracks run through the dilapidated tin roofed farmhouse. Originally such a site, high above a steep ravine and stream, would have provided good natural defence in lawless times but eventually that precipitous siting proved its undoing and the complex seems to have been abandoned as a place of continuous occupation by the 1830’s. However, we’re told that barn dances were held here in living memory. The unique feature though – for which it is famous – is set neatly in the boundary wall a few yards from the ruins. Restored and gated by the national park in 1994 ‘The Long Drop’ is a netty (toilet) that projects some 40′ feet above the wooded gorge below. After a good look around we take the down path to cross the vigorous Southridge burn, rising to reach a ruined cottage with a massive holly tree in the garden. Behind the river broadens into a deep pool, reputed to be ‘a bottomless linn’, its still surface and peated colouration giving the romantic belief credibility. It’s on Southridge farm land and the younger members of the family paddle and swim here in the heat of Summer. On the last leg of our perambulation, having pushed labouriously through rushy bog, we discover a section of cliffs & near vertical slopes fecund with trees & bushes, ferns and bluebells etc. Only here are they safe from the remorseless grazing of sheep and cattle. Fine clump of old oaks too in one sheltered corner and a well constructed double sectioned stone stell add distinction to the scene. Across the narrow valley another neighbour’s densely replanted and well fenced boundary hedge attracts our praise. Picking up the long distance path again we’re back on familiar territory, dropping to recross the Southridge burn footbridge before a winding climb up the other side. A good viewpoint to marvel at the river’s action over millennia working through the sandstone to form deep water catchments overhung with trees clothed in lichen and moss. We remember our old friend at Bastle farm telling us she regularly sees mature homecoming salmon resting up here on their epic migration each autumn.