High Summer

Both Kim & I resolve to sit quietly and enjoy the garden without feeling compelled to do anything therein. Reading helps in my case (Checking out potential ghost stories for future touring, so it’s still work related. Oh dear.) Ears gradually open to the natural world around us. Standoffish blackbirds skirting the boundaries with warning cries. They are sampling the blackcurrants (That prompts me to gather the fruit today for jam making) The parent birds seen with their beaks full of worms and insects so assume their brood in whole or part have safely fledged. (There was no sign of eggshells under the empty nest discovered in the spinney wall (pictured) so I wondered what had passed). Our pair of resident pied wagtails quarter gravel and grass bobbing up and down as they go and I saw one the other day remorselessly bash a moth in its beak until it ceased to flutter. Their nest is hidden in the deep folds of the prolific Clematis Montana on the west end corner of the house. The swallow family now sometimes skate the skies in company with others. Planning migration in a month or so I wonder?

Neighbours sheep are all shorn and the handful of tups in our field spend a lot of time sleeping so you forget they are there beyond the fierce chomping of eating or creaking of gate as they rub their itches bare. Other distant flocks raise occasional bleats. One day a Hercules transport plane wheeled and turned at the forest’s edge with more agility than you might expect of such a large military craft and with only a whisper of engine noise; quite ghostly, flying low over the land in the exercise of radar evasion before gliding out of sight. Later we do not see, but clearly hear, tawny owls calling one to the other, very close by. One day a male sparrowhawk flew by, just inches off the ground, gone in an instant.

The studio border is a virtual firework display of colour and texture. The white & grey livery of Lychnis, lime green of Nicotiana, the floating finery of yellow Ridolfia intertwined with white Ammi Majus; Crocosmia Lucifer an erupting volcano, Eryngium and Alium with their brilliant spikey heads; showy delights of purple Phlox; Echinops and Leucanthemum too, with Sanguisorba about to flower…The contrasting, competing, coasting forms at their most fabulous. The presence of Ragwort, a beggar amid the beauties, does not distract. Quite the opposite. Insects are everywhere; from harvestman, winged beetles and flying ants to all manner of bees, wasps and hoverflies feasting on the flowers.

Our much cherished new greenhouse has courgettes and cucumbers on ground level with shelves presenting a riot of flowering tomatoes. A sight never seen here before, so very exciting. Have to make sure we are not away on holiday when all the fruits start to arrive, probably all at once!

City Country

St. Dunstan’s -in-the-East with the ‘Walkie-Talkie’ building in the background

This family visit to London centered on an all day excursion to the original settlement. The famous square mile since deregulation in the 1980’s has since sprouted a gaggle of ‘iconic’ office buildings, each vying with the other to dominate and define the skyline. Threading between these glass and concrete monoliths are narrow ancient thoroughfares which give clues that help understand the city’s development as a global hub of finance and commerce.

We immersed ourselves in the well curated foundation story at the Museum of London. Lots of fascinating scale models recreating Londinium, and we finished with a look down at a fragment of city wall from that era still surviving, now defining a boundary of open space at the edge of the post war Barbican residential development. After lunch we made our way south along the course of the former Walbrook river – now a drainage tunnel beneath our feet – to its junction with Lower Thames Street. In following the wide highway east we diverted up little cobbled lanes, free of traffic, for a nose about. Discovered a fine Georgian vestry, now a private business address, with a flower filled formal garden bordered by mature plane trees hanging over its iron railings and brick walls. The three ancient city parish churches we came across provided respite, quiet reflective havens in the canyons of Mammon. Most poignant and blissfully redemptive was St Dunstan’s-in-the-East. Of Saxon foundation, built by St Dunstan in 950 AD, destroyed in the great fire of 1666 and rebuilt again as a Wren church. Today only the impressive tower from the last reincarnation of 1697 remains. Badly damaged by enemy bombing in the blitz it was formally re-dedicated as a garden and open space in 1967. Cool, calm and restorative; children playing, people sunbathing or sitting on the grass, in quiet conversation, picnicking, playing guitar, reading…

Later we double backed at the Tower of London, becoming part of the steady flow of visitors and office workers on the Thames Pathway. Stopped at one point to enjoy wide views across the sunlit river with its crisscrossing multi-decked boats full of tourists and commuters riding the high tide. The seats we sat on were comfortable wraparound wooden ones and the planting scheme behind us a softly verdant linear companion to a wide elevated section of walkway zig-zagging between institutional buildings.


Hydrangea Danger

My trips to London these days are inevitably more about leisure than business. For me that’s a bonus of quality time with the members of the family that live there. I’m happy to be in their company witnessing the urban environment slowly changing for the better. Much of this of course is due to increased awareness of climate change and a new wave of urban community activism that it has fostered. Such things help people cope with the stresses and strains of city life. In South London for instance, my cousin Quetta and like minded souls in the Forest Hill Society (FHS) have been engaged in putting a bit of the forest back on the hill. Centrepiece of their ongoing environmental improvement campaign is the railway station, through which thousands of commuters pass each day. It stands on a twisting elbow of the traffic chocked South Circular Road. Sadly the dignified Victorian station was demolished and rebuilt in the wake of WW2. it presents today as a soulless set of bare utilitarian platforms defined by boundaries of high spiked railings. Gradually its harsh metallic outlines and public furniture have been softened and enhanced by the green fingered FHS volunteers. The set back mini garden they created next the waiting room on platform one has bushes, an apple tree and shrubs that trail over the open section of the bleak brick lined underpass beneath. Back on the platforms purple petunias and orange marigolds in tubs under station signs mirror the corporate colours of Transport for London (TfL). Outside the ticket office hanging baskets add a welcome to the busy scene while the mature trees in the cramped concourse car park have been under planted with a range of seasonal bulbs. People still stub their fags out in the tubs and beds they take for ash trays, drop litter right next to the litter bin and even steal herbs and other plants, but nothing quite matches occasional outbreaks of officially generated vandalism. A couple of weeks ago, Quetta tells me, a visiting TfL official had a hydrangea in full flower in the little platform garden ruthlessly cut back. The reason? Nefarious human activity could be screened by such luxuriant growth. I was glad to see the hacked hydrangea sprouting new shoots. Like the determined foot soldiers of the FHS it remained bowed but unbeaten, alive to another day.

Summer Strands

Get out the stepladder to cut the best flower heads from our two big elders in order to make cordial. So enjoy the simple sticky fun of it. We freeze some and use the rest. This year the swallows have nested under the porch, above the wood shed. My office affords a good view of the parents comings and goings to feed the chicks and last Thursday, working at my desk, was rewarded with the sight of the fledglings bursting from confinement to launch themselves onto the wood partitions between wood and coal stores and later to roost on the porch lamp. The air full of excited activity as the parents returned, flapping wildly, to feed the three youngsters. Within days flying school was in full flight with the single power cable from house to garage their landing line and family mess.

At the pond red damselflies team up. The male standing sentinel on the neck of the female who bends her abdomen to oviposit her eggs on the lily leaf edges. I count three pairs at one time. Spot the odd dragon fly larva in the water, although the number seems down on last year. Still no sign of the newts. I get close up to one of the two adult frogs I know to be inhabiting the pond to take this photo.

Our neighbours are busy cutting, woofling (turning) and baling their hay. The large round bales lying askew all over the fresh yellow fields strike me as where art and agriculture meet. It’s a satisfying sight to see. Most of the sheep are finally shorn. There is muckspreading on the new cut fields once the bales have been taken off to barns. Sheep and their fat lambs about their endless grazing, suckler cattle herds with calves wade through lush green pastures in between.

Our domestic use of dried grasses is an infinitely more modest affair. I strew barley straw between strawberry plants ready to receive and cushion the ripening fruit. Soon we must net the raised beds to stop birds and mice getting too much of the crop. Returning to water I discover Pip our old cat gratefully snoozing on the improved bedding I’ve kindly provided her with!

Kim & I take a casual walk up the river from our main village here in the valley. Lovely old woods and flat pasture boundaries. We meet no-one once past the elegant late Georgian road bridge. Out of the oak trees blackcaps surprise us with their loud and confident singing. Further on maple keys present with a curious bright pink and cobwebs encase shrubs. Sand martins swoop over a wide bend of quiet water. A south facing steep riverbank full of meadow flowers; hawk weed, salad burnet, birds foot trefoil, spent pods of yellow rattle and many others. In the warm shallows shoals of agile trout fry move as one, forming scattering and reforming. This pasture a small part part of the 1,000 acre tenanted hill farm Kim & her family worked for 20 years and she had set a part of one of her stories, ‘One Summer Day’, at this idyllic spot.

Dyfi

The north of England/west Wales trek is a long one but it offers tempting diversions and when traversed over decades, as in my case, you get to witness key developments and social change. Two such positive and welcoming projects can be visited within a short distance of each other…

It must have been around five years ago that the old service station on the A487 north of Aberystwyth in the village of Tre’r-ddol closed and was taken into community ownership. The locals made such a success of the old premises, proving their case, that a successful funding bid secured a brand new cheerful eco-building – christened ‘Cletwr’ – to house the cafe, shop, facilities and meeting room. Locally sourced food, art & craft work, Welsh & English language publications all feature. The forecourt says ‘welcome’ in any language with a wealth of beautifully blended floral beds and shrubs. The volunteer teams here should be proud of their achievement. A tribute to their vision, hard work and co-ordination. Encouragement for other rural communities to bring their community facilities into the 21st century.

Pushing on north towards Machynlleth the banner sign for the Dyfi Osprey Project appears like the great raptor itself; in vision for a wide winged swooping moment then gone. I’ve been wanting to stop here for a while so on this unhurried sojourn home I did…

What a wonderful place! 15 years ago Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust (MWT) bought and started the process of clearing some 40 acres of commercial spruce plantation. To help they drafted in a herd of water buffalo and replanted with native alder, birch, willow and hazel alongside wet scrub plants like bog myrtle and swathes of reed (now more than head height). I diverted from the fully accessible wooden boardwalk to check out the hides and read information boards. Glimpses of ragged robin, brooklime and orchids; caterpillars crawling and lizards basking on the slate like edge boarding. The meandering walkway brought me after a third of a mile to the towering timber edifice of the 360 observatory. Here I enjoyed a mesmerising close up view through the centre’s mounted telescope of the nesting osprey parents and brace of chicks on their platform nest of sticks edging the tidal Dyfi estuary. A century ago these magnificent fish eating birds were hunted to virtual extinction in the UK but today they are beginning to thrive – thanks to sites like this and those at Rutland Water, Dumfries & Galloway, Bassenthwaite Lake and Kielder Water. Ospreys may be the star name on the bill to pull the punters but also in the huge cast are otters, reed warblers & white fronted geese, darters & dragonflies, toads and frogs and many other native and migrant creatures. Both Cletwr and Cors Dyfi are great examples of what can be done at a grass roots level where there’s sufficient will to make change happen.