Almanac: A peaceful start to the new year, fallen branches and a priceless treasure

The seasons turn, a new year arrives.

My Christmas gift was a traveller’s journal which is why my story begins here. I carried it around in my backpack and to and fro between my desk and bedside table for weeks before beginning to use it. Sometimes getting started is the hardest part.

We were living solely on the last of our savings at the time, because of the pandemic stopping our work. Due to this our Christmas tree was created from fallen branches gathered from the local woodland. The scent of pine still filled the room, just as before, except this time there was also a meaningful, family story linked to our little “tree”. After New Year’s we used the foraged twigs to create a bug hotel in the nature corner of our garden.

This year we all want to do the same again, only more so. I am already looking out for where the holly grows in the little woodland so that we can decorate the door frames and bookshelves, and create a homemade wreath for the front door.

Adjusting our sleep/wake times meant that each morning we got to greet the dawn. I started to measure time in the early hours by watching the bright golden winter sunrise creep across the frosted glass of the window. Later, I would stop wearing a watch around the house altogether.

The birches kept their final leaves into late December, creating a rare beautiful effect during the golden hour at dusk each day. I can only see a small part of this tree from my desk window, so as soon as the sun dips low enough to shine through the branches, I know to take a walk towards the southern footpaths for the full view.

This moment at dusk, where I pause work and take a quick walk, starts to herald teatime because when I get back from the cold, the kettle goes on and soup is warmed on the hob. I am already re-aligning my days to the nature around me, although I am not consciously aware of it just yet.

By early January the fields become almost impassable, the little woodland equally so. As soon as the temperature drops and the sun clouds over, our boots can go three foot or more into the mud in places. It will be April before the fields are fully walkable again. As long as we keep close to the blackberry hedgerow in the top field, we can at least still enjoy the wide winter skies.

Here is my favourite photograph from Christmas and New Year 2020: When you are only two and a plastic emerald ring falls out of a cracker and you cannot believe that such a priceless token can be yours.

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Almanac: Hidden Kingdoms – In search of the invisible

In summer, the little woodland becomes a dark and shaded place. Leaves grow with such veracity that the canopy above lets in less light than any other time of the year.

I share today’s walk with my 12 year old son. It is so quiet here. Sudden rustles of foliage or scraping on bark reminds us that we are sharing this space with many unseen creatures. At any such sound, we immediately pause. A shared inquisitive glance asks the silent question “what was that?”

Ripples of bright light dance across the forest paths as the clouds float by, unseen, overhead. My eyes never quite adjust to this constant change. My vision is a little blurred, settling somewhere ethereal. I feel the slight twinge of my pupils widening and then hurriedly dilating over and over. Hands shielding our eyes, we veer off the footpath in search of softer, diffused shade.

We follow the trails of badgers until we find ourselves barred by brambles and start retracing our steps. Here, away from the footpath, are signs of the woodland’s hidden life. A mouse hole. An abandoned bird’s nest caught between low branches. A tuft of coarse grey fur caught on a blackberry thorn. It is easy to step away from the path, but having taken a winding route, it is more difficult to find our way back. In a small woodland, this disorientation is wonderful. How glorious to feel momentarily lost when we live in a land of tarmac roads and mobile satnav. We are soon back in well-trodden sign-posted normality.

There is no breezy, springtime forest now; the air is stiflingly humid, like a Kew Glasshouse. When the path dips low, we often hurry on, feeling a little dizzy from the lack of air. At other times we stand under a rare gap in the canopy and gulp in lungfuls’s of air greedily. There is a particular greenwood smell that fills us with life like pure oxygen.

Overhead, branches twist and turn, seeking the daylight. My son and I like to spot the silhouettes of letters hidden in the leaves. Aptly, the canopy that casts shade over our favourite sketching bench forms a little “S” to mark the spot.

From above, to below. Crouching down, a whole other world opens before us. At the level my one year old daughter sees, rain drops perch like tiny globes. Is this why children see magic everywhere?

Throughout the woodland, there are imaginary worlds to discover, if you allow your eyes to roam and imagination to wander. Whenever my little daughter joins me on my daily walk, she sees mouse towers and castles everywhere. She calls down into gnarled holes in the bark to inhabitants within and joyfully points out steps and entranceways.

My daughter will also knock politely on tree trunks, because she is convinced squirrels live inside and will come out to play if cordially invited. On one walk I spot a tiny mushroom that looks so alike a miniature door handle that for a moment I think she might be right.

Finally, there are the microscopic habitats that our eyes are just not adapted to spotting. The craggy volcanoes and tropical jungles that form entire worlds … all on the top of an old tree stump.

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Almanac: Patterns of nature, ripening blackberries and a sketchbook

The last time I wrote about these fields was in late April. The seedlings had just started to show themselves in thin rows under a grey-blue sky. The house martins had just made their return to nest in the eaves of our house, and were circling above us in an otherwise quiet and sleepy landscape.

What a difference a few months can make.

July has finally broken into sunshine.

My 12 year old son is with me today. He loves to draw, so has brought his sketchbook along. At first we talk together about our day, until the undulating path before us proves irresistible and he charges off, skimming his fingers through the swaying wheat as he goes.

A pair of cabbage white butterflies flutter skywards in a helix-like courtship dance, before disappearing again. This year we have seen more varieties than ever before and today we spot not just cabbage whites but common blues, peacocks, tortoiseshells and orange tips.

On the sunny south side of the farm, the corn grows tallest. The waxy leaves clatter against each other; like the sound of a polite applause.

We crouch down, looking along the lanes between the crop drills, so neatly ordered that you can see right to the other side of the vast field. For a moment our perspective tilts and it seems as if we have shrunken to miniature size, surrounded by towering blades of grass.

In the hedgerow beside the path, the blossom is bathed in full sunlight and has unfurled early this year. The blackberries are already ripening and will be ready to pick in just a few week’s time.

In the meadows, there is a constant low clicking of grasshoppers. It reminds us, joyfully and somewhat unnervingly too, that everywhere is teeming with unseen insect life.

Then, a dash of metallic blue across our path … a dragonfly! Utterly distracted from our uphill climb, we try to spot more. Our eyes steadily grow accustomed to the flickers of glinting colour. Soon it is like we are standing knee deep in an aquarium of darting tetra fish. A giant one; we follow after. It zigzags at speed and then disappears in a flash of silver.

The blackberries in the upper field are a few week’s behind those we saw earlier. It is shadier here and the stems have to put all of their energy into seeking better light before they can even think of producing flower buds. The effect is a glorious unfurling of pink petals, cascading over the top of the hedgerows. A heavy floral scent hangs in the air.

The more challenging stage of our hike now complete, we settle down for a rest. My son sketches stems of wheat, the distant horizon and outlines of trees. I am nearby, photographing clusters of bees.

We are so immersed that when someone passes by and calls “hello” we both jump slightly. It is a local artist, out searching for butterflies to paint. We point him in the direction of the lower meadows where we found countless common blues and tortoiseshells.

On the way home, my son pauses every few steps to sketch. I fall a few steps behind so that he feels no need to hurry.

As we pick up pace together, the fast chatter, from when we first started out, has disappeared. Instead, we find ourselves remarking on the nature around us. A flock of rooks flies over and we stop to watch their progress until they are tiny specks on the horizon.

Walking onwards, we remain like this, living in the moment, until the rooftops of houses appear over the tree line and thoughts turn back to the day ahead.

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Almanac: Early morning mists in the old forest

Lockdown is lifted and we can journey into the ancient forest again.

An early start. On our short drive, the trees gradually reveal themselves in layers of green. The view is softened; we are watching the day form itself into shape.

The mist feels like a fine spring rain, yet suspended in mid air. The humidity is soothing to the skin.

My little daughter holds up her hands to catch the dew falling from the canopy above every time there is sudden breeze.

The clearing beside my favourite oak tree is now verdant with bright uncurling bracken. We are the only ones here. Just us seven and a chorus of birdsong; a wood pigeon questions and from a distance another answers. Directly above us a squabble results in a few feathers falling at our feet. My daughter picks one out of the soft damp ground, now-grubby fingers holding it skywards as if to offer it back to the owner.

We follow the path as it dips down. I look up to see the mist suspended above the canopy, obscuring the sky.

A few steps ahead, my daughter picks her way carefully over raised roots. She pauses and attempts to lift one, not yet understanding that these unmoving “twigs” belong to the giant trees that surround us.

Here in the lower part of the forest, the morning dew has settled on the foliage. Some small woodland resident passes by us unseen, brushing against the undergrowth, sending the droplets cascading to the ground.

Ivy clings to the trees and between its leaves there is a network of fine cobwebs. More adventurous spiders have swung from tree to tree to spin threads across our path, now shimmering in the early light. I try and duck beneath them, letting them stay in place a little longer.

Do I breathe this deeply and gladly at any other time? It is soon after this walk that we get into the habit of opening the doors and windows of our home every morning when we wake, to welcome in the fresh dawn air.

My daughter is beguiled by the foxgloves that tower above her. She draws ever closer to what she calls “bells” though goes no further as she heeds my gentle warning to leave the toxic flowers be.

We hike up a small track in the fern covered hillside to the forest’s highest point. My eldest son holds up low branches of holly for his little sister to walk safely beneath. We hear distant road traffic, other voices in the forest. A man walks his dog on the footpath below us.

The light has changed since we set out and the world is awake.

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Almanac: Fallow deer, uncurling ferns and foxgloves

Barely a drop of rain has been felt for over eight weeks. My 12 year old son and I have decided to make the most of this last day of sunshine, before the much-longed for storm arrives tomorrow. If we take the footpath that winds through the fields, to the north of our village, it gently meanders its way to the deer park.

A gentle breeze ripples through the meadows and the scent of fresh grass and blossom is heavy in the air. We breathe deeply, filling our lungs. Newly sown crops form neat little lines.

The parched ground is cracked and covered in stone chips. We hold tight to the wooden rail, smooth with years of use, as we skid down the final steep slope and enter the park. Hand gel is hastily applied, a pandemic ritual that now feels normal. As the path dips, the cooling breeze disappears and it is stiflingly hot. Our destination is the monument on the distant hill.

The riverside is busy with both deer and tourists. Who could resist being here on such a glorious day? Some people have set up tents. Others are encouraging their children to offer picnic snacks to the wildlife. Wardens arrive in a jeep, firmly advising enthusiastic visitors that the deer are not quite as docile as they look. My arm around my son’s shoulder, we keep our distance. It is a culture shock to see all this bustle after months of staying closer to home. Quickly leaving the cheery crowds and the heat of the valley behind, we begin our ascent to the War Memorial.

My son relaxes now we are alone again and are no longer measuring the space between ourselves and others. He runs, dashes, climbs; darting from one outcrop to another. This year’s bracken is already knee-height and unfurling upwards in search of the sun.

The air is filled with the sound of bees buzzing and the constant clicking thrum of grasshoppers. The marshy pools look a sorry sight; shallow waters greening over with choking algae. Tomorrow’s rain will heal them. Foxgloves spike up amongst the mass of fern.

At the crest of the hill, I gasp in awe. We have greeted the sunrise here on a crisp Christmas morning and never had such far-reaching views. We can see the city of Leicester glimmering in the distance, usually shrouded in a heavy haze. The several month lockdown of both traffic and industry has given nature time to breathe.

We make our descent through cool, shady trees. The quiet is only occasionally broken by piercing, sudden bursts of birdsong. A young buck stalks through the ferns; we stand very still and let him pass.

You can perhaps spot him to the left of centre.

Leaving the parkland, we cross a road and find the half-hidden footpath that leads us back to the fields on the western side of our village. Honeysuckle escapes neighbouring gardens to ramble over the hedgerows.

We skirt our little woodland by taking the buttercup lined path that leads to the dairy farm. The meadows beyond are freshly mown; a tractor noisily gathers up the hay.

Our thoughts turn to our garden as we draw nearer to home. With storms predicted for at least a week, there is a lot of work to be done this afternoon in our vegplot. Talk of which seeds to plant next lasts us all the way back to our front door and waiting family.

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Almanac: How to scare a storm away

The air is heavy when we awaken, there must be a storm coming. I open the skylights and a sudden gale whistles down the stairwell. My autistic 11 year old, still in pyjamas, is absolutely delighted. He sets up directly underneath the velux with an old Thomas the Tank Engine book and watches as the downdraft turns the pages for him.

Everyone else slowly gets up. We can feel the storm creeping into our bones. No one is much for moving this morning, except our littlest family member. She is standing at the back door with her boots on, holding a football; only a year old, but very determined.

Ten minutes later, my daughter and I are out in the fields. She finds a hollow, discarded corn stem from last year’s crop. As she holds the treasure aloft triumphantly, the twenty mile an hour winds whistle through it. She squeals as the magical singing sword comes to life.

There is a sprig of cow parsley on the footpath. My daughter rushes over to the hedgerow and spends quite a while trying to encourage the plant to rejoin its friends. I tell her that she can keep her find if she wants.

Clutching the flowers tightly, she heads off purposefully towards the darkening clouds on the horizon.

Soon, I am carrying these and many further treasures for her whilst she hunts around for yet more. A feather that was caught on a bramble. A snapped branch. A tiny stone. She pauses to draw faces into the soft ground with a twig.

The clouds, distant just moments ago, are shepherded towards us with increasing speed. The gale is picking up.

My little explorer carefully collects brittle fragments of fallen leaves from the path; opening her palm, she watches them take flight.

Our voices also fly away from us. I show her that we can shout as loud as we want into the storm and it sounds like just a whisper.

My daughter loves this game. She stands firm, bracing herself against the harsh weather, “HELLO!” She holds her corn-sword aloft and yells her favourite words; “RABBIT! FLOWER! FOOTBALL!” Her voice comes out as the tiniest squeak. She thinks. Looking up at the sky, she roars her fiercest tiger roar … just as the wind drops. Her eyes are wide with delighted surprise, did she do that?

She is full of smiles as we turn towards home, her hand in mine. I confide to her that only the bravest and strongest can send a storm back to where it came from.

—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: Storm chasing, lichen and muddy boots

I welcome the promise of rain. Our plants desperately need it and I can feel the storm coming. The air feels heavy, the sky seems closer. It is only midday and yet the familiar bright tones of the garden seem washed out in the dim half-light belonging to dusk.

As the clouds roll over the hill at speed, we are pulling on our waterproof coats for the first time in weeks, ready to get outside and be willingly caught in the downpour. The long grass in the meadow is already drenched and water droplets flick up at us as we hike through it.

I have my second and third sons with me today and they run ahead together, slipping a little here and there in the mud, laughing as they do, charging headlong into the wind.

We turn off before the woodland today, taking a newer, southerly path through the lower fields. Only a week ago, the newly sewn crops were almost imperceptible and yet now the fields are a vivd seedling-green. The storm-light brings out the russet tones of the dried grass beside the footpath. Cow parsley is in bloom now, a dusting of white froth along the hedges.

The fallen tree, with its outstretched roots and branches, has been here so long now the path politely curves around it. I call to the boys to wait for me and stop briefly to take a look at the green patches of lichen. Close-up, it is a thriving world of its own.

The ancient byway shines with pools of water, meanwhile our boots become increasingly heavy with the clay soil-turned-to-mud. For a moment, the rain is sideways, blowing down from the higher ground, we brace ourselves against it and then, suddenly, the sun breaks through.

We are close to home now, and take a pause to look over to the distant city through a gap in the hedgerow. We shake off our hoods, exhilarated at the beautifully crisp air that the rain has left behind. We stand together for a few minutes, my arms around my sons’ shoulders, as we watch the storm sweep its way southwards.

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: An early morning hike through English farmland

This morning I am up early, pulling on my walking boots and heading out into the fields before the day has fully started.

The natural world seems so alive to me in springtime. The hedgerows stretch upwards towards the blue skies, straining to grow.

I instinctively want to steer clear of the nettles that are creeping outwards towards the path, but I know that if I take a moment to crouch down and look closely, there will be delicate white blooms to admire beneath the leaves.

I reach the edge of the little woodland, on such high ground that it can be seen for miles around. I love the grassy slopes, the layers of foliage, the birdsong. There is always a gentle breeze up here, even on a hot summer’s day. Breathing in the cool, clean air, I feel refreshed and alive.

As well as hedges, ditches frequently act as markers between the fields. These paths are virtually impassable in winter due to the heavy clay soil, so drainage is vital and these little sleeper bridges are common.

Climbing uphill again, there are views out to the neighbouring village and glimpses of a little pool of water – a pleasant walk in its own right. Deciduous trees are native here and the local landscape drastically transforms from season to season. April is a palette of greens.

I turn towards home. There is a haze of sunshine in the air and the day is beginning. I can hear a faint rumble of traffic from the south now and occasionally there is a glint of speeding metal on the horizon that gives away the location of the distant road.

The pathways here are ancient byways. No crops will grow in the hardened soil where people have walked for centuries. Either side, pushing through the freshly tilled soil, tiny green shoots are visible.

Almost back now. When I approach the next crossing, birds scatter into the air. Several house martins circle above – we are headed in the same direction. They have seven nests in the eaves of our house and returned to roost last week. I watch them dart back eastwards again, and it helps me pinpoint my home and waiting family.

My boots are left by the back door, disinfected and set aside to dry. A new habit that now feels normal. I arrive in the kitchen, greeted by many excited voices, feeling motivated and ready for the day.

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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