Almanac: English oaks and white bluebells

My two middle sons run down the hill together, so close in age that they are almost the same height. The trees dwarf them. When I think back to this wood, I never imagine the trees being so tall; it seems such a close, small place in my memory.

Spring is still with us and red campions line the paths. Newly blossomed, this one spoke to my camera, with all of its recently unfurled crinkles showing in the petals.

We steer off track onto the less-used trails. The bluebells are starting to fade here; they look more settled-in as part of the woodland palette than the electric blues of before. Everywhere above us is the flutter of birds. Beneath our feet, the forest floor stirs with insects.

There is something very comforting in the sight of a new oak tree. A woodland future secured. We find this sapling just a few feet away from a gnarled ancient representative of the same species. Then we spot several more. A nursery of oak.

My older son charges ahead, finding the way. He loves exploring these wilder paths. His brother holds my hand and perfectly mimics the birdsong around us. He pauses to run his fingers lightly through a fern; a shiny beetle crawls onto his hand and he observes it for a moment before settling it onto a fallen branch.

I kneel down next to him and notice that a small daisy that looks pure white from a distance, is delicately edged with pink tinges to each petal.

This unexplored route takes us almost out of the woodland. The path then comes back under the shade of the tree canopy beside a small stream, whose waters flow down from the edge of the dairy fields.

After crossing an old wooden bridge and taking a short uphill climb we return to our hidden glade. The clearing is so verdant, it is hard to imagine that just a few months before it was an icy winter pond fringed with sharp bare branches.

On this shadier side of the wood, the bluebells need a little more coaxing and are only just in their first flush of vivid colour. They arrive later, though always appear in denser numbers.

We stop for a while and scan this floral horizon, nowhere to rush to. When the breeze rushes through the tiny bells they become a shimmering ocean beneath the trees. As they crest, we spot a flare of white amongst the blue.

Before us is an albino variety of the English bluebell, exceptionally rare in the wild. I make a note of where we find it, in the hopes that it will return next year.

—Keep safe and well everyone. With heartfelt thanks to all those who are working to keep us safe, especially those on the frontline in the NHS and hospitals around the world.

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Potager Garden: April 2020

If summer brings to mind old English roses, then springtime must be the month of apple blossom. By the first week of April we glimpse the bright red buds starting to unfurl.

I have never been so glad of our small patch of green space, for in this national lock-down it allows us to spend an unlimited amount of hours outside, together as a family, under the ceiling-less sky. At this time of year, the garden changes constantly and brings a natural rhythm to each day.

Encouraged by the sun, soon every plant starts to awaken. One morning we are greeted by bursts of tiny flowers in every corner, and the once-still air is starting to fill with insects and the occasional orange tip butterfly. We eagerly await a sighting of our first bumble bee.

On Good Friday, my second son plants the chitted potatoes into the vegetable garden. Everyone is able to help. My two autistic sons love playing with water so the elder fills a watering can and tends to the raised beds each morning, whilst our littlest son likes to top up the stream with the hose.

On Easter Weekend, we hide tiny chocolate bunnies and eggs around the garden. It is so beautifully warm that we have to hurry to find them and keep the discovered ones clustered in the shade before they melt.

By mid-April, the apple blossoms have opened and our house martins return to their nests in the eaves of our roof. We plant sunflower, nasturtium and cabbage seeds in the raised beds amongst the red onions. The garlic is thriving and its scent rises to greet me every time I enter the vegetable plot through the little gate.

Then, one morning, whilst I sip my tea from the Ponder Chair (a comfy old high back chair, covered in blankets, with the best vantage point for pondering the garden) a large bumble bee flies in through the open door and rests beside me on the windowsill. A very welcome sight.

Within days others follow, until there are countless bees darting in and out of the apple tree branches. My second son, the keeper of the tree, is so excited: “This means we will have apples in the autumn!”

Late April and the bluebells arrive. I am happier than ever to see them this year, when we cannot spend as much time in the ancient woodland as we normally would due to the national quarantine. A small part of the old English spring is here with us.

As the weather warms, the stream becomes irresistible to the children. Our one year old daughter loves to change the sound of the water by piling up different combinations of pebbles. Sometimes little channels start to overflow into the borders and the plants look glad of it.

I am now able to walk barefoot along the paths each morning and we keep the doors open, so that we can step out into the garden with a cuppa in hand. The children run in and out. I actually like it when the occasional bee loses its way and buzzes through the kitchen to inspect whatever am baking, before catching the scent of flowers again and returning to the garden. I welcome the occasional burst of light rain.

I leave the window above the sink open, so that I can hear birdsong throughout day and watch the pigeons, robins, sparrows and blackbirds bathe in the stream as I work in the kitchen.

Now the apple blossom looks more fragile, and is occasionally starting to drift away on the breeze. As the delicate watercolour-like spring petals fade, we prepare to welcome the fresh greens of May.

Keep safe and well everyone. With heartfelt thanks to all those who are working to keep us safe, especially those on the frontline in the NHS and hospitals around the world.

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Almanac: Leafy canopies, wild flowers and a woodland glade

A late afternoon in April. It is the hour of long shadows and changing light; the best time to see the hidden glade. A gentle breeze drifts across the farm fields as we make our way towards the woodland.

In comparison to the areas of ancient forest nearby, our local wood is small, only 30 hectares, but still feels big enough to enclose you. I could imagine myself utterly lost here, yet know that ten minutes’ walk towards any compass point will see me safely back to the fields.

The bluebells have blossomed. Amongst them pheasants roost and several times now one has startled and taken flight right beside us in a flap of feathers.

Wood anemones flourish closer to the main pathways, upturned to the sunlight as if they would catch every drop.

From the shadier corners of the woodland’s edge, red campions dazzle.

Never forget to look upwards. I remain fascinated by the silent language of trees, how the canopy allows all to get their share of light. The branches of one tree will strive not to touch those of another. Deciduous trees are companionable, they seem to be working together so that none are crowded out.

To the glade then. Throughout the colder months, the lofty branches shade a shallow mirror pool that reflects the leaves above. When spring comes, and the water drains away, it transforms into a rich glade of tufted grasses and wild flowers. This is my favourite time to visit, as the late afternoon sun shines down like a spotlight.

I concentrate on the birdsong, as the wind ripples through the oak, ash, wild cherry and hazel. I breathe in the greenness, then close my eyes to feel the warmth of the sun on my eyelids; forest bathing in the now-empty pool.

Keep safe and well everyone. With heartfelt thanks to all those who are working to keep us safe, especially those on the frontline in the NHS and hospitals around the world.

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Almanac: Searching for bluebells – watching the seasons with children

After the first few days of warm spring weather, any bluebell plants outside of the forest canopy, with full exposure to the sunlight, burst into flower.  One of our favourite spots is a quiet glade in the centre of the forest, and this is often where our first bluebells of the year are found.

Always, the woodland greets us with birdsong.

Just inside the forest, in a patch of light before we duck into the shade of the trees, we see our first bluebells…

… and where the main track carries onwards, we take our own less-known route to the glade.

The hidden path in springtime is more a trail of fallen leaves, that leads up to the highest point in the forest…

… and then down into a clearing.  We’re rewarded with the first bluebells of the season, not yet a carpet of blue, but it’s very special to see them just beginning to wake up.

Our eldest two boys are delighted to see their den is intact, and ready for some new alterations.

Our youngest boys love scaling the ancient rocks…

… and in the centre of the glade is our picnic stump, where we always place the snacks.

I try and remember to look upwards.  In autumn we lay back on a blanket, all wrapped up in hats and scarves as the red leaves fall downwards, but today, it’s the greens and blues of April.

Then it’s back home along the forest trails.  In winter, the boardwalks are needed to travel through this part of the forest without getting knee-deep in mud, but today the ground is completely dry …

… and we’re glad we made the most of the rainy winter days for river walking, as the stream beds are dried up too.

Our seven year old thinks this patch of unmarked forest looks very tempting, and we let him have an explore before it’s time to go home.

We’ll leave you with the first bluebells of 2017, waving in the breeze.

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