The Thing About Spring…

I would be hard-pushed to choose my favourite season; all of them have their own special qualities and characteristics but, if I had to pick one, I would plump for spring. The gradually lengthening days, the unique brilliance of the sunlight and the promise of warmer days ahead (even if the thermometer still hovers around the lower reaches) make for a time of irresistible optimism.

And how can you not be optimistic when everything around is coming back to life or starting a new life? Plants that have laid dormant over the winter push back their duvets of soil and stretch out towards the sun; bulbs that have slept since the autumn burst into flower seemingly overnight; and seeds, newly planted, begin their astonishing transformation from teeny dot to mature plant in a matter of weeks.

In my garden, the plum tree is in bloom and the rhubarb is unfurling…

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And my beloved lovage – which fools me every winter into thinking it has died – has reappeared, stronger than ever. This was a cutting from a huge, well-established plant in my previous garden. I brought its offspring with me when we moved to this cottage two years ago. I had no idea if it would survive, but survive and thrive it has.

IMG_4645Lovage has a strong yet subtle flavour, a little like celery but nuttier, and makes a wonderful simple soup.

Lovage Soup

Saute a chopped onion in some sunflower oil until soft but not browned. Chuck in a couple of chopped potatoes and a small handful of roughly chopped, young, fresh lovage leaves. Add 500ml or so of vegetable stock, and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are soft. Whizz in a blender until almost smooth, but still with a little texture. Add more liquid (stock or water) if needed. Season to taste. Add a swirl of cream or yoghurt if you fancy.

I am determined that our vegetable plot will be more productive this year than it was last (my fault entirely) and I have already got more than my five-a-day under way. We have rich soil which is full of juicy worms so there is no excuse! We live in the driest part of the UK though, so I will be calling on my three water butts to keep my seeds watered as they grow.

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A Frosty Foray

Although my husband and I walk every day with our dog, there is something special about a Boxing Day wander. After the over-indulgence of Christmas Day, one feels so virtuous, striding out across footpath and field the following morning.

The day greeted us with a fine frost and pale, thin light. The sun fought a losing battle to emerge from the grey.

IMG_4446In this mainly monochrome landscape, muted colours tell of seasons past and seasons yet to come. Leaves frozen in time, catkins  shivering on bare branches and seed pods holding new life.

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IMG_4435The hedgerows that over-flowed with blackberries a few weeks ago, allowing me to fill my store cupboard with jams and jellies, now hunker down for the winter, silently regenerating within.

IMG_4444Patches of bright green moss and yellow lichen shout out from old tree stumps and branches, vibrant reminders of the colours of spring.

IMG_4447 IMG_4453On top of a wall, overlooking the paddocks of a local livery yard, was a tiny landscape, fashioned in moss. Hillocks and plant life in miniature, looking lush and verdant, as the full-size world will be again before too long.

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Betwixt and Between

Hello! The beautiful changes that this time of year brings prompted me to come back here after a hiatus of a few months.

It is that strange betwixt and between time, when autumn is almost over and winter has yet to begin. The weather is colder and crisper; the mornings are paler and mistier; the evenings are darker and damper but we are not yet in full-on deep winter mode.

My husband, our dog and I ventured along a new footpath today – well, new to us – and that is always an enticing prospect. This stunning beech hedge at the start of the path, resplendent in its autumn colours, was a fitting prelude to the walk.

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The path turned right and flowed around the edges of a field, crammed with a late harvest of maize, then it swept its walkers down amongst towering oaks trees and along the edge of a small brook.

IMG_4328Even though it was mid-morning, the dew still hung on cobwebs, strung like telegraph wires between the dead heads of riverside plants.

IMG_4343Close-up, one has to marvel at the strength of the strands, weighed down by the huge beads of dew.

IMG_4366 - CopyI came across a small tree bearing these pretty little things. I confess I have no idea what they are. If you know, I’d really love you to comment.

IMG_4338The path exited on to a quiet lane. My eye was drawn to the graphic, labyrinthine lines of a recently ploughed field, in which new shoots were already growing. Autumn is ‘downtime’ for much of nature, but by no means for everything.

IMG_4348One of autumn’s special gifts is to give us those last flushes of colour before the monochrome of winter sets in. The hedgerows bordering the lane held a few bright surprises – coincidentally, all of them were pink.

Little buds of pink popcorn on a spindleberry bush…

IMG_4351Wonderfully curly pink leaves, dusted with cobwebs…

IMG_4370And finally, a lost pink pig, nestled in a tree branch, hoping to be reunited with its owner!

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The Winds of Change

My tree is broken! My wonderful tree, my oak, my special spot… changed forever.

I wrote about this venerable old fella in a blog post back in August. (You can read it here, if you wish) He drew me in and persuaded me – very easily, I might say – to stay a while and contemplate the world from under his sturdy yet elegant branches.

Here he is in the glory days of summer, basking under blue skies and warm sunshine.

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I’ve been to see him frequently over the last few months and, despite a winter of high winds and vicious storms, he survived intact… until a few days ago. He stands in an exposed spot, and had sadly been invisibly weakened by winter’s onslaught. After a few only slightly windy days last week, he could bend and give no longer. One of his long, sweeping arms snapped off and now lies in a tangle at the his feet.

From this…

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To this…

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Thankfully the damage is not catastrophic and the oak is still standing. After the stormy months that lie behind us, the same can’t be said of many trees in the lanes around our village.

A tree’s life is an eventful one, of course, and my oak will have changed and adapted numerous times during its 400 or so years on earth. This new wound is just one of many it has endured. It’s a wound that won’t heal though, and the limb won’t grow back, and that does make me sad.

I have grown so accustomed to seeing its beautiful profile over the last year. Its new silhouette still surprises me as I turn the corner in the lane but I’m sure I will grow to love its scarred, storm-hewn shape.

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Spring in my Step

The last couple of weeks have seen a change in the weather: gone are the dark, dank days of winter and there is a warmth in the sun that every tree is welcoming with open branches.

Blossom has suddenly appeared on our plum tree, hopefully heralding a bumper crop later in the year. I am already imaging the taste of the jam I will make from the fruit!

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Bullrushes are one of my favourite sights at this time of year. They literally burst with enthusiasm and perfectly symbolise the reproductive energy present in every plant and creature in spring. (Mind you, they don’t actually look real; perhaps they are really made of flock and stuffing!)

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We live in a tiny little village, with a population of only a few hundred. In this age of the mobile phone, I’m not sure when the village telephone box was last used for its true purpose but it makes a satisfyingly shabby stage set for a little crop of snowdrops.

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IMG_3740Spring is boom time for birds, of course and every morning our garden experiences a rush hour of which the London Underground would be proud!

The feeders and bird table are alive with robins, blackbirds, dunnocks, greenfinches, chaffinches, goldfinches and tits of the blue, great, coal and long-tailed varieties. And I mustn’t forget to mention our old friend Woody, who we welcome for breakfast most mornings.

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The Icing on the Cake

This morning, after what seems like weeks of constant rainy weather, we finally had the first proper frost of the winter. Under bright sunlight and blue skies, the countryside was dusted with a glittering sugar coating.

We took Katy the dog for a walk down by the River Stour. The sun dazzled on the water, and steam rose from the water’s surface.

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The mud under foot hadn’t frozen completely, but turned instead to the consistency of fudge. So much easier to walk on than slippy, slimy goo!

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In the early morning light, the frosted details were so beautiful – all the more so for being so fleeting…

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IMG_3633By the time we finished our walk, the sun was higher in the sky, the frost was melting and the skeletal plants and scant berries were losing their sugar coating.

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The Winter of our Sweet Content

I like winter! There, I’ve said it. I may be alone in my appreciation of the cold, the damp and the long dark evenings, but I don’t mind.

Winter may not have the warmth of summer, the excitement of spring or the drama of autumn, but I believe it has its own charms and its own purpose. I like wrapping up in layers to walk the dog; I like stamping mud or snow off my boots when I come home; I enjoy savouring the smell of wellies drying slowly in the boiler-warmed porch and of wet dog steaming gently by the log fire.

The winter landscape is a pale, monochrome affair in comparison to the garish colours of summer flowers or autumn foliage but there is a peace and stillness in the air which signifies the regeneration going on under the ground and within the plants and trees.

With the trees and hedgerows stripped of their leaves, the sky seems bigger and the landscape wider than ever. New views and vistas are revealed at every turn and corner of the lanes.

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The weather is not always peaceful and calm, of course, and we have had some fearsome storms just lately. One particularly violent episode brought down trees on every lane around our cottage. Disruptive though this was, it was fascinating to discover these amazing graphic patterns revealed by the splitting of a tree trunk.

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Winter sunsets are usually less dramatic than at other times of the year – the sun barely has enough time above the horizon to muster itself into bright hues – but there is beauty and serenity in them nonetheless, as another short day comes to a close.

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Of course, if winter goes on too long – as it seemed to last year – one does get a little tired of dark, dank days, but this dour season serves as a marvellous contrast to warmer times. Spring, when it eventually arrives, will seem all the sweeter for what has gone before.

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