Skylarks in October

 

The gentle slips and slides of one month into another are often punctuated with some of the most unexpected and breathtaking displays of seasonal shift. Curtains drawn back on an early morning can reveal a stage filled to flowing with a swirling murk, sifting the day’s first rays that eventually manage to push through to backlight dew laden, Summer-weary growth, rendering everything it touches gilded and vivacious once more. Indeed, some of these performances deserve a standing ovation.

Autumn has focussed her gaze on the sun’s shifting arc and now with an easy and remembered rhythm, is steadily making her way towards Winter with all the confidence of a pro.

And yet there’s still a warmth in the air. When the sun’s light reaches these low slung mists, they puff into embryonic plumes that become liberated and lifted to surf among the silent gathering of fledgling thermals. Days that begin this way are destined to be labelled as halcyon, bucolic. Less Turner, more Titian. I try hard to commit them to memory, but always with the hope that it won’t be needed as there’ll be a repeat performance showing soon!

As ever, most of these early mornings are spent jamming bare feet into wellies and retying my dressing gown to head out and into the field for a walk, look and listen.

More often that not I return with a wet hem and an armful of something that makes me happy. With the kindest of Septembers, cheerful dahlias, tomatoes and figs have featured frequently in these last few weeks.

But there’s nothing quite like seeing a morning through someone else’s eyes.

And so a few days ago I set my alarm to an ungodly hour that no bird would consider sensible, and drove through these mists to meet a good friend on the edge of a little village that sits within one of the many dips of the South Downs.

With hushed words ( I’m never quite sure why we do this, but we do, don’t we… as if we might wake up the birds, the earth even) we made our way through the meanders and forks of the rutted tracks that flow through these well-trod ways. These paths were banked by crowds of rusted, long limbed wild carrot, empty baskets held high to roll with the moving mist like a sepia sea in constant flux. Among their feet grew a smattering of field scabious, small daubs of mauve to brighten this desolate view. We kept walking, talking, pausing to look beyond the fog, and eventually climbed up onto a shoulder of this rolling body of land.

As we stood just above the quilt of fog, my mouth became a silent ‘O’. So many skylarks! No longer the joyful ascension to babble and bubble unseen, but now in plain sight. Their song, delightfully conversational as ever, had taken on an air of busy urgency as they jousted and swerved, engrossed in the game of territorial rights.

Having heard but never seen a skylark before, it seemed that we were now the invisible ones. I stood so close as they rode the sky. I whooped and wowed as they scored and sliced through the fog-heavy air, courageous riders of some indiscernible rollercoaster.

To look at, with an objective eye you would see that there’s nothing particular impactful in their attire. Skylarks are of medium height, with a medium length of wing span. Their markings, being muted flecks and bars of  buff, biscuit and cream are designed for camourflage among the cropping fields in summer and beyond. The most distinguishing feature might be considered its quirky brown-streaked crest that can look fairly punkish when raised. But to put it bluntly, they’re not exactly catwalk material in the bird world.

Yet to actually see them at all felt wholly miraculous. And so of course to me, they were all the more beguiling for their unassuming choice of plumage. My breath was taken, and replaced with a smile as wide as our view.

As I gathered myself together, filing away this extraordinary memory under ‘unlikely to see again’, we made our way back down through the cool pockets of  lingering mist and into the nearby town of Lewes. While my friend headed on foot to his office, I caught a train back to the little village where I’d left my car.

Times like this can impact one’s life in a wholly unexpected way. I’m sitting here, typing about this moment and yet I have visuals of other moments throughout my childhood, with my father and his birds. And I’m almost flooded to overflowing with the technicolour, surround-sound joy of them all as they flicker past like a zoetrope on full tilt. I’ve written before about Dad, and perhaps I’ll write more in due course, but for now, if you’d like a read, click here.

It’s time to stop now, make more tea, and head up to the studio. There’s a huge squid on a canvas up there, and it can’t paint itself!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


September, Autumn at the heels...

Field Maple, arms laden with crowds of winged seeds, waiting in clusters like a fleet of butterflies, unfurled and flushing to pink, readying for Autumn winds.

Most of my meanders (or marches, depending on the purposes) through the field are often at the very beginning of the day, or just as the last of the light dips below the crown of oak and hornbeam that lies to the west.

We’ve lived on the edge of this dear field for almost 18 years and I’ve come to know her every curve and dip as she makes her way down towards a lake at the bottom.  It’s not our lake, but we et to se this huge mirror reflect every mood of each season, and we’ve become an enthralled audience to the wild and feathered theatre it stages. With regulars, interlopers, and random strangers, it plays out like a version of some b grade, small town Netflix series… dramatic cliffhangers included.

This evening it’s the turn of the laughing ducks and the rippled echo-call of the coot. As Autumn takes hold and the trees become gilded with petticoats loosening, the Greylag gees will return, which usually enriches  the plot somewhat… many mutterings and much griping over mooring lines and mates usually ensues. But for now, the current cast seem content with the slowing pace, with families raised and predators less pressing, it’s easy to imagine that they’re now in need of a little downtime as they recover from what was undoubtedly a stressful Summer of child rearing.

I’m making my way back home now, in need of warmth and tea.

Yesterday our youngest headed back to school for his new year and with our eldest now at uni and our midgets preparing for a year of adventures beyond our waters, I know how that coot feels. Pretty exhausted would be the first wave of emotion.

They’re growing up and out from this nest, and I’m excited for them all. But I also I feel flooded with many conflicting and unexpected emotions. I’m not a very  ‘cool’ mum. I worry a lot, I hug a lot.


August in the orchard

 

With barely a whisper of breeze July has slipped her mooring lines and, lifted by one of the zillion thermals that this extraordinarily warm Summer has conjured, she’s sailed away with barely a backward glance as August rummages for her bathing suit and broad-brimmed hat. To be honest, it’s been a very long time since the month of August required a sun hat, let alone an actual bathing suit. Usually, most of us are probably reaching for our wellies and raincoats as we contemplate the British Summer holiday we sensibly booked a year in advance. But this Summer has continued to stretch herself out and languish just a little while longer on her beach towel.

And of course, I’ve now jinxed it, haven’t I. So you know where to find me if is all goes Pete Tong. I’ll be standing in the cloakroom ready to hand you your boots, coats and soggy pasties.

But for now, it’s still hot, and there’s no sign of rain for the time being.

Yesterday I donned boots and took a walk down through the field to check on the fruit trees, and I could see the heat rising in a shimmy of waves from the still, dry grasses, and all around me the parched symphony of crickets and grasshoppers vibrated loudly from the taller, bleached islands in this thirsty ocean. These string musicians seem fatter than previous years, the legs more elastic, their bounce more ambitious. Wearing boots is of course a wise thing to do, with a view to possible grass snakes, adders and tics, but also they’re usually high enough to avoid the odd grasshopper jumping in. Not this year!

With all this fierce sun it seems that the apples have decided to ripen a little earlier. They’re somewhat smaller than their usual comforting handful, and I would think that’s a direct result of the lack of rainfall for the last couple of months.

I was ready to pick some, but then realised that I wasn’t the only one there. Tuning out the grasshoppers and the husky refrain of a trio of tenor pigeons, I became aware of a deep grumble from a bumbling but busy squadron of hornets. It seemed I was supposed to reserve a table at this particular restaurant. I left them to their endless taster menu and headed back, to return with my beekeeping suit on, legs rolled up for fear of spontaneous combustion. Working carefully with extendable pruning shears, I duckndove among the branches, avoiding the tell-tale rows of striped bottoms that lined the empty hollows of apple husks. There’s plenty for us all, so they’re surely not going to miss a few.

Some of these apples aren’t quite ripe. So it’s likely that I’ll be slicing and freezing a few pounds, compoting others, and using a generous apron-ful for an apple tart. While there are literally hundreds of wonderful recipes out there on the airwaves, the one that springs to mind (and makes me inordinately hungry while I should be thinking of emptying out the latest batch of washing from the machine!) is tarte aux pommes Normande. It’s a simple, sweet and buttery recipe by Elizabeth David, from an old copy of French Provincial Cooking. And of course the whole book is a complete joy and definitely worth hunting down if you haven’t got a copy. I suspect I’m preaching to the converted here.

Meanwhile, back to my day job…

Just recently I’ve become a bit obsessed with cutting fruit in half and painting what I see.

It’s something about portraying hidden details. And apples are no less beautiful, extraordinary, sensuous even, than the obvious choices of fig, pomegranate or strawberry.

Below, a Discovery Apple, in egg tempera

 

As I type this, a loud rumble of thunder has just sent our smallest dog into a fit of terror. He’s now shaking so hard he can barely hold onto the leg of the table he’s chosen to hide beneath. And now it’s actually raining!

So I’ll see you in the cloakroom. Be sure to have your tickets ready.


July in the strawberry patch

 

 

 

 

Models in line, waiting to pose and pout for the paintbrush.

 

I optimistically thought that if I can beat the slugs, discourage the field mice and net them from the black bird that watches me from the holly bush (because we’ve clipped back the cobnut now, so it’s too stumpy to work as an all seeing power seat for the true proprietor of my vegetable garden), then we (the humans) might just be in with a chance of actually enjoying our own strawberries this year.

Every time I went down I’d discover a new little hole carefully chewed through the netting by the field mouse, so I’d dutifully adjust it to hold him at bay awhile. I also discovered that overwatering was like waving a white flag at the slugs “I give in! Slide this way and fill you boots.” So I’ve watered far less.  No wayward stem has been allowed to stretch beyond the netting and wave a curly tendril daubed temptingly with glowing digits of red. These are religiously tucked back in their corral every time I spot an escapee. And so with all these little tweaks and tricks I’m learning along the way, we’ve done so much better this year.

There’ve been times that I’ve crept down at silly-hour in the morning, gathered up a generous t-shirt pouch of them and wandered back with enough for my family to enjoy on their cereal/yogurt/straight from the hand. Actual bowlfuls!

It’s been the same with the other berries too. But these seem to be permanently guarded by that blackbird and as I open the gate to these fruit beds, he’s there, ready with a shouty stream of pure vitriol. I’d not realised that blackbirds actually knew such language.

But there’s plenty for all here, really.

It’s just the strawberries I don’t feel so inclined to share.

So this morning I woke early, and slipping on a t shirt and wellies, I grabbed a colander and took a wet-let walk through the field, such a whisper of grasses now prematurely brittle and bone pale. This Summer has been longer than the usual week we fondly joke about and has in fact stretched out for more than a month of relentless sun. It’s lucky we don’t mither over the rather middle class obsession of owning a perfectly green, weed-free lawn. The stretch that could loosely be called such looks scorched as if someone’s being playing with a blowtorch. But miraculously, the soft fruits don’t seemed to have suffered at all.

Burrowing under the netting I could see that all the fat juicy ‘domestic’ strawberries have long gone, their season ended last month, but still the wild strawberries keep coming, and some of them are the size of a Gobstopper! Their flavour is so much more refined and perfumed than their rather comical counterpart, almost soapy, but not in the frothy, gag-inducing way; there’s just the gentlest most comforting suggestion of Doves’ Beauty Cream bar… depending how ripe they are. I love them, in fact I’ve become just a little obsessed with them.

So in honour of these seasonal beauties that taste like no other outside of these few months, I found the biggest one, held back from popping it straight in my mouth, and instead took it up to the studio, sliced it in half and got my paints out.

 

Strawberry, painted in egg tempera, onto handmade paper

 

I could go headfirst into a dizzy rant here, you know, about eating with the seasons. In fact I know of quite a few folk who’ve written very eloquently on this. And I know I’m one of the lucky ones that has the space to grow much of my own veg and fruit.

But I will say this: very little can surpass the flavour and texture of the food we choose to eat, when it’s been grown and eaten in the season it was meant to be. The strawberry is a perfect example of this ‘truth’.

 

 

 

 


A walk beyond the field

 

 

 

Home from a long walk with our eldest that took us from Porto in Portugal, to Finisterre in Galicia, Spain, and I’m overwhelmed by the changes in the field…

While we’ve been gone for most of June, much of England has been basking without sun protection and as we flew in, her usually green and pleasant curves appeared parched in parts, utterly scorched and lifeless in others. On arriving home the first thing I did was slip on my boots and take a walk through the field.

June is a busy time in our field. The mice run riot among the weave and weft of long grasses, while the grown-up hoppers spend most of each sunlit day seemingly either up in the air, or resetting their back-leg boing to do it all again. Fledgling birds make tentative steps out from the protective shadows of hedge, nest and parent, while Juvenile magpies bide their time along the edges of the mown paths to the veg plot, having been taught well to wait for those mice and young birds. Grass snakes occasionally languish at the edges of these paths too, though now we’ve another dog that’s taken to racing madly through the grasses to burst onto these stubbled walkways, it’s likely they’ll choose safer sunning spots. The butterflies become more playful and apparent with Small Coppers and Meadow Browns featuring regularly, the occasional dance of two Large Whites.  Less often I’ve been delighted to spot the small, pale wings of a Chalkhill Blue. The families of Fallow deer have grown noticeably each year and along the wooded edge of the field they leave perfect imprints of a night’s gathering and rest. And then of course there’s the every present light-footed platoon of horseflies.

Our walk (one of nine recognised pilgrim paths to Santiago de Compostela) laced through hundreds of miles of sprawling farmland and countryside, through tight knots of compact villages, clusters of granite built hamlets and sprawling tangles of towns alike. But always with the common thread that this path (that was often hard to track) had been walked for more than half a millennia.

Within three days of beginning we’d already settled into the comforting rhythm of walking, eating and sleeping, then walking again, always with a view to where we’d hope to reach and rest by the day’s end. It was quite an extraordinary thing to find that a pared down and somewhat repetitive structure to each day allows your mind such breadth and width to focus on whatever it happens upon, regardless of whether you want it to, or not. And with little to hinder its reach, my mind gradually wandered to far away places, some as glorious, verdant and lush as the lovingly tended vegetable plots we meandered through en route to Ponte de Lima… some less than beautiful, more attune with the industrial wastelands we had to march through to escape the inevitable spread of some major towns.

 

 

My eldest, at 20, has walked two caminos before and so this came as no surprise to her, and it was both a comfort and a relief to be able to walk and talk, or not have to talk at all, with my child who is not a child any more.

At this point in writing I could wade into that sharp-edged wilderness and write reams. But I strongly suspect this would turn into a different kind of story, and one that would have you turning off the light, tired, probably bored, and very ready to head to bed, while I’d still be here, in a frenetic blurr of typing!

This story is more about taking a step out of my field and into another that left me quite exposed, but deeply relieved to have had the opportunity to strip back the comfortable routine I think a lot of us build for ourselves. Of course we all ‘know’ that it’s actually a comfort blanket, a ‘noo noo’, whatever you care to call it. And I think we all quietly suspect that in the long run that little talisman can actually prevent us looking beyond the worn hem, and at stuff that isn’t quite as comforting. But it also perhaps stops us looking at fabulous, marvellous and extraordinary possibilities… things that are equally scary, but ‘might’ be quite amazing if we just took a peak.

I’m always late to the party, and I’m pretty sure you’re all nodding, hands ready with the slow clap. But it’s taken a while for me. 352 km to be precise. And yes, if you look it up you’ll see that it should be about 345km, but we took a few wrong turns.

Stuff I found out about myself:

I can walk, and quite a long way.

I didn’t need to pee every hour, even though I drunk enough water to drown a camel.

I’ve got the patience of a labrador.

I’m pretty crap company and tell terrible jokes when I haven’t slept for 48 hours.

I still don’t rate octopus to eat. (Boing!)

I can be vile when pushed beyond my patience (I shocked myself, and apologised sincerely).

I’m completely rubbish at retaining new words in an unknown language.

I could live off a diet of pasteis de nata alone.

I snore.

I’m good at remembering the words to Bohemian Rhapsody.

My fear of getting lost has faded, because we got lost a lot.

And now I’m standing in the field, having missed most of the subtle but rapid scene changes that it flits through like a magician with his pack of cards; so quick, a slight of hand, a momentary blink and you’re into a new season. But I’m here, very much here.

The ocean of grasses are swaying, golden heads caressed by the gentle warm breath of westerlies. Some of them stand as high as my shoulder. There are more islands of mallow than I’ve ever known, and the cranesbill this year has spread beyond its usual curtilage near the veg plot. There’s a female blackbird 4 steps ahead of me, just along the edge of the newly mown path to the veg plot. She’s concentrating intently on something in the large sprawl of birdsfoot trefoil.. a jab, then a double jab with her beak and she’s off, flying low into the line of silver birch that bank the lake.

Grateful. Such an overused, half-arsed effort of a word that barely scrapes the sense of indebtedness that I feel towards my daughter, for walking with me, to my family who shuffled their diaries and lives around to allow us to disappear for 3 weeks…. most definitely a tugging sense of deep admiration and thanks to all those who through the centuries have maintained these ancient pathways to allow folk to find their way on so many levels.

If you’ve ever toyed with the idea of walking a camino, then do.


June

Most mornings, no matter the frown of cloud above, I manage to execute what I think to be a finely honed routine of creeping down stairs, avoiding the ones that chatter back, quietly grabbing some (any) wellies, perhaps a coat if there’s one en route, and then making my way through the kitchen and out of the back door.

Just recently I’ve realised that throughout out this assault course my stomach is clenched and my heart tight. God knows why. It’s not as if anyone’s going to ambush me as I reach for the ‘handle to freedom’. Perhaps it’s born of times when the children were very young, and those same griping stairs would be enough to trigger a dominoes of restless calls along the corridor. (And now of course, I’d love nothing more than one of these teenagers to wake and join me in stealth mode as I slip out into the early light.)

Living on the edge of a field that remains pretty much untouched except for topping in late summer means that I have the undeniable luxury of being able to enjoy each subtle seasonal shift as it plays out over every dip and rise of this small patch of countryside. It’s banked on the east side by the tightly entwined arms of ancient hornbeam, holly and hazel, held in check along the south edge by an old mill pond and the west side is cosseted by ancient woodland that once held the title of Brooker’s Rough.

Today as I step out of the kitchen door I’m wearing my husband’s dressing gown, and my daughter’s old wellies (first gently shaken to encourage the exit of any overnight prisoners… beetles, spiders, the occasional wasp).

Last night, as the sky flooded to indigo the song thrush filled his chest and let fly his now regular soliloquy from his leafy perch in the old oak. This morning however, it’s the wren’s turn. He usually clears his throat at around 4.30 and by 5 he’s into his stride, and melting my heart regardless of the tiredness from such an early rise.

Down through the field, lifting the hem of the dressing gown, but not quite high enough; the grasses have grown and each spear is loaded with dew.

The islands of yellow rattle have spread and shifted from their original anchorages of last year. They’re beginning to bloom yellow plumes, like miniature cockatoos perched and peering out from the rigging of a mast. Red, striped, white and a shy ramble of suckling clover are now filling in the stubby areas where the grasses haven’t managed to quite take hold. These colourful pompoms tend to flourish where the deer like to feed, also happily sprawling their Pollock-ish palette where we’ve mown a path to the veg plot.

Hitching up the dressing gown and tying a wholly nameless knot, I strike out into the ocean of green.

It’s a little early in the year for the grasshoppers, so there’s no one jumping into my wellies as I weave my way down through the tall grasses that whisper against thighs and tickle at outstretched palms. The Spiders are here though…. this early, trampolines are loaded with water droplets, the occasional husk of a fly, but not food. Others have woven dark little shafts amid a tightly woven blanket of web, and just my footfall sends these funnel weavers into a frantic gallop across their taut sheet in the hope of breakfast.

I’m running a mental tick list as I tromp, now wet legged…

Yellow Archangel

Orange Hawkhead (very much love this fiery-faced beauty)

Common Spotted Orchid

Rough Comfrey

Birdsfoot Trefoil

Meadow Buttercup

Soft red spears of young Sorrel

Overhead the quiet air is sliced by the keening cry of a buzzard that for the last 12 years has made this his home and together with his mate, has successfully reared a new generation almost every year. She will be sitting on their clutch right now, though in a thoroughly modern way these two will share parental duties.  A couple of days ago this buzzard received quite a dressing down from two rather rattled crows. Crows will defend any perceived threat with apparently little regard for personal safety, but buzzards are unlikely to fight back mid-air, preferring to dip and dodge the airborne assault. So the sweary acrobatics ended as quickly as they started with the buzzard ducking out and heading back to his nest.

The light blue puddles of common field speedwell are still very present, very welcome, and as I make my way towards the guard of silver birch that edge the forest I can see pale mauve splashes of wood speedwell spilling out from their shady earthen beds.

It seems just yesterday that this forest was a carpet of fragrant blue, and yet its now completely engulfed in an ocean of breast high bracken. And it’s humming! The horseflies are back. There are very few creatures on this earth that I struggle to admire, even if I don’t like them. Horseflies fall into this category. I’m sure if I googled them I would find something to admire them for. But I’m pretty certain that the silent, stealthy, weightless bite of a horsefly would overshadow any perceived wonderment and appreciation of such a relentless and opportunistic diner.

I increase my pace, flapping my arms rather uselessly, wishing I had a few more appendages, with laser guns! trotting up through a narrow path banked by sandstone and outcrops of wild and flowering rhododendron, I reach peak ‘windmill’ and run through the overgrown glade of yet more bracken to the safety of my studio.

I’m home now and I’ve made coffee. I’m also trying to find that tube of savlon to rub on the red and rising bites.

A few weeks ago, my mother mentioned a book that she swears she gave me a long while back when my grandfather died. But I had no recollection of having it.

I’ve just found it. It’s a 1965 edition of The Concise British Flora in Colour, by The Rev. William Keble Martin.

Its pages are foxed and much yellowed and there are many varieties of flowers I know to be missing. But the illustrations by Keble Martin are beautiful. They’re botanical, honest and clear. But all are carefully portrayed with a genuine love and enthusiasm for his subject, and as such they are radiant. Among these pages I’ve found scraps of paper with notes written by the hand of my grandfather… plants found, dates of discovery, the telephone number for Kew Gardens.

A pressed meadow buttercup greeted me from plate 3, and I found a common spotted orchid slightly stranded among the geraniums of plate 19.

I’d somehow forgotten that my grandfather, as well as often being surly, incredibly capricious and contrary, was at his core deeply in love with nature.

I’m holding this book and I’m feeling quite tearful… I’m glad I found it, and I’m grateful to have at least bit of that difficult old bugger near by. And on a practical level, I can honestly say that navigating this particular book is a lot easier and infinitely more pleasurable that trying to google everything.

Long live the paper book.

 


Look what happened...

The sun shone, didn’t it.

So I ran out with washed sheets, bundled and clutched like a wet baby to my breast.

Even the duelling blackbirds seemed becalmed and distracted from their territorial face-off that has been a constant punctuation to every day over these last few weeks, come rain or indeed snow.

The hives hummed and burped out big plumes of happy, hungry bees like school kids racing for the classroom door at the first chime of the lunch-time bell.

I even saw the first and hopeful embryonic purple florets beginning to bud up on our tired but stalwart stems of overwintering broccoli.

Then the heavens opened and let the bathwater out.

And it really hasn’t stopped since.

Today is the 2nd April, the day after Easter Sunday; and the only difference between yesterday and today is that I’m not quite as full of food, and that my boots have dried out a little from leaning against the Aga overnight. Outside the sky is still a heavy frown of rippled grey; Spring is wearing this weather like a thrift shop find of pre-loved trousers, and she didn’t think to rummage for a pair of braces.

 

A couple of days’ ago I took and early morning walk with Billie, our lurcher pup, into the wood and down to the pond. The edges have been churned to a bog by the many deer as they brace, stretch and dip to take a draft. Sadly it’s impossible to approach the pond in ‘stealth’ mode with Billie as she’s only one setting, and that’s ‘bounce. So inevitably we disturbed the wild mallard couple that have taken up temporary residence.  They’ll be back, no doubt, but they’re brave to make this their home. Last year we lost all of our chickens to a very determined vixen who’d cubs to feed. We know this, because we saw her, a lot. And actually watched helplessly as she trotted off with our last hen held loosely between her jaws, feebly flailing like a spent umbrella.

Her last performance was bitter sweet: we spied her as she and three cubs lazily played in the bottom corner of the field, by the old elephantine body of a fallen Beech. Any resentfulness I felt, was immediately quashed by a flood of respect … She’d successfully raised a lively, healthy family. We’ll just have to get smarter if we want to keep chickens again.

Perhaps this choice of home is as good as any, but having already found one forlorn and broken duck egg in the long grass, I fear for any future brood.

The flagstaff Iris are a little way off from budding, but the St. Agnes’ flowers are now in full bloom, their snow flake heads nodding and mirrored in the quiet waters. I can’t wait for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it zoom of dragonfly that frenzy-feed later in the year; the air is warmer and so pond life peaks, with thick and wining clouds of excitable midges gathering above the zig-zagging skaters and rowing water boatmen.

This morning, another walk, led by the need to check on the hives and then further to the greenhouse, to water and encourage this year’s seedlings. It is absolutely, relentlessly HOSING it down. Never the less it’s still pretty lovely to be out. The rinsed air feels and smells balmy, delicious even. Just recently the old hornbeam and holly hedge that hems the field has become decisively re-punctuated by perfect, badger-shaped holes. Billie and I make our way to the gate at the west corner of the field, onto the rutted lane and take a walk. I can see from this side, they’ve actually made very tidy work of their runs.  Each one is banked and daubed with beguiling constellations of primroses and wood anemone that seem to glow in this soggy half-light. It’s almost as if they’ve taken pride in their ‘doorsteps’… ‘Badger Lane’ has never looked so decorative.

 

When we first moved here, there were badgers… we knew this from the hair tufts caught on the old and rusted barbed wire at the bottom of the field, the well maintained latrines dotted throughout our wood , and from the occasional sightings of dear and bumbling backsides caught in retreat as they hurriedly nosed their way off the lane and through the hedge. But then all signs petered out and I feared that we’d not see them here again. But there’s clearly one ‘advantage’ of having dogs. And that’s if there’s a new perfume in town, then everybody wants to be the first one to sample it. And the smell of badger poo is unforgettable.

And so the brocks are back.

Controversial I know, but I’m delighted.

 


First Catch Your Fish

 

 

So she’s finished.

What an experience. The last time I painted something this size was about 4 years ago… and I can still remember the transition from clammy, shaking hands as I made the first brushstroke onto the chalked-up canvas… right through to the point where I was squinting shut with one eye, like a ‘proper’ painter might… tilting back on the heel of my foot before zeroing in to daub a more confident stroke of colour.

I have got a thing about fish, it’s true. But this is perhaps the largest and most ambitious of visual mouthfuls I’ve ever taken on.

This is Brenda the Blue Fin. Endangered now, but many years ago I can remember enjoying my first ever taste of such a fish.

It was served raw, sliced finely by a sashimi chef (no kidding) on a Japanese schooner that had moored up alongside the boat I was crewing.

I was 21 and had wangled myself onto a yacht to take part in a race, and we’d all just arrived in St Lucia. Having sailed over 4000 nm and in a high state of boat fever we couldn’t wait to spill off and at least put a little space between us all. We looked like a small, straggled squabble of seagulls as we wobbled off and wibbled our way to customs and immigration, and a quiet beer.

By sunset, we’d all showered, regained a sense of feeling more ‘human’, and had received an invitation to board the Japanese schooner and celebrate the race fleet’s arrival.

I shall never forget that first bite of bluefin and the genuine high it delivered from eating such pure, unadulterated protein. Unexpected and very surreal.

I’ve wanted to portray this extraordinary fish ever since. I just didn’t want to represent it as something edible… I needed to make it the hunter, rather than the hunted.

 

At 48 x 30 inches, her sea of canvas lends her ‘just’ enough space to make a game of chasing her moving lunch of anchovies as they slip through her inky black ocean. Their tails are a snout’s nudge away, but given her innate ability to reach speeds of up to 43 mph they don’t stand much of a chance… At least it’ll be relatively quick, a mere gulp in time!

I’ve absolutely adored painting her, and her fleet of food! So many hues and textures… completely in love with her armour-like patina… the Boudicea of the sea.

Time to clean the brushes, and my hands, elbows and the remaining smudges of oil paint from my face, and celebrate with a cup of tea, and perhaps some anchovies on toast…

Huge thanks must go to you all, for your boundless enthusiasm and words of encouragement. They make a world of difference to what I do.

Happy happy Friday to you all!

 

 

p.s. She is for sale, so do get in touch if you’d like to know more.


March

… began with enough snow to wholly cloak our little corner of the world in white.

Once this crystalline blanket had settled, all visual and audible noise became muffled, with only the most prominent features able to rise above the swaddling of snow. And we became housebound for 3 days.

On the first day, I made a slow and squeaky hike through the field to the veg beds, to find the plot dressed as some huge, badly made bed, its sheet barely tucked at the edges, with more than a few old marrow bodies slumbering beneath. I looked beyond and noticed for the first time, the stripped-back woody stems of forgotten purple cabbages; reaching out from their sea of snow they appeared as the tentacles of some exotic red-armed octopus, buried but still flailing.

Onto the tiny orchard to check on the new, young plum and pear trees, only to find their little arms bravely basketing at least their bodyweight in snow. A gentle shake and they were free to wave once more.

I realise that birds don’t have the luxury of marvelling at the ‘beauty of it all’, and no more clearly was this proven out than watching two male blackbirds perched and punchy, oblivious to the maelstrom of Winter in flux, and slinging verbal abuse at one another. It may have had something to do with the last remaining baubles hanging from the crabapple tree.

With the dogs almost in tow (somewhere, but probably rootling at a freshly laid cluster of deer poo) I carved a path across the bottom of the field. Through the fringe of silver birch I spied a gathering of Canada Geese and Mallard, two lofty and nervous Cygnet swans edging the group. All of their usual moorings in the lake were partially frozen, so territorial lines had to be renegotiated and possibly crossed in order to find food and new anchorage.

Through the woods we creaked, weaving among Birch and Beech, one footfall for ever two of deer, branding deep into untouched powder. A startled cloud of puffed-up pigeons lifted as one from their lanky Ash, clearly not expecting visitors in this weather.

This is my daily ritual throughout the year, and sharing it with an old terrier (Chewie) and a lurcher puppy (Billie) is a wonderful, if a bit of a pain when I’m hoping to listen out, and spot any new feathered or furred guests in the woods. However, during the snowy days… watching Billie in raptures, as she discovered the Marvellous Circus of Snow that had filled every bluff and badger hole, it was a complete joy. I found myself laughing madly, and joining in. Which of course seriously confounded the terrier. Humans just don’t do that unless they’re small and loud with grabby hands. And those kind of humans are to be avoided at all times.

Forging onwards we made it to my little studio. Negotiating the slippery wooden deck is always a bit of a challenge. I’d carefully placed a scavenged beach rock on the one sagging board so I wouldn’t step on it and bring it to an untimely end. But Billie likes stones, had picked it up and taken it to her place-where-all-special-things-must-go! We made it in, board intact, slid the wedge of fallen snow back out, and shut the door. Settling onto chairs, cushions and into corners, we all got on with our usual routine… drawing for me, sleep (and much farting!) for them.

Watching a season’s progress, through my studio window is inspiring, and admittedly quite distracting. Every nuance of colour as it blooms and fades has me running through paint names in my head, making up new ones. I’d like to fix a camera up and record a whole year of this kaleidoscope.

During these snowy days this little studio flared to an almost otherworldly state of bright. The hours of work played out till way beyond the usual sundown, such was the lingering gaze of reflected luminosity. But by the second day of being on this ‘island’, the weather turned. A gathering grey of raging winds stropped in from the east, grabbed great handfuls of snow and began hurling them to fly like torn bed linen across the glade beyond my studio. By sunset a spill of indanthrene blue had flooded the sky to brimming. Turning off the studio lights, we made our way down through the snowy clumps of rusted bracken to the edge of the field, finding it stirred and blurred by the gusting gales, yet it still retained its lucent glow like some deep and dwelling creature of the sea.  We could’ve been anywhere.

I’m writing this having spent a very early morning in dressing gown and wellies, walking with the dogs across the field and into the woods.

Everything has become green again and it appears that rather than killing off any new growth, all infant borage, mallow, and knapweed seem to have survived and thrived beneath their temporary blanket of snow. Beyond the birch line, the geese, ducks and swans are once more spread wide across the dark, still canvas of water, no longer forced into close proximity by a prison of icy confinement. There’s a level of noise that is almost deafening, such is their enthusiasm for open debate.

All is vivid, visible, and almost shouting out for Spring to hurry now.

And of course I feel the same. I’m more than ready for the cacophony and clamour of chatter and colour that she will bring.

But what a grand finale that was.

Yes, we were stranded, but I’d forgotten what peace of mind this aspect of ‘islanding’ can bring.

 


February, you tart...

First you walk mud through the house, leaving a clumped and wet trail of Winter’s tilth. Then you tease us with small and beloved envoys of Spring…

Crocuses are beginning to stretch their pale, swan necks, wide-open beaks showing yolk-yellow throats; young, sunny-faced primroses can be found peeking tentatively from among the teeth of last year’s bramble, only to become wind-whipped and drowned beneath a deluge of yet more rain.

And then there’s my bees. What are they supposed to make of this early call to arms? With their queens still in slumber, recovering from the previous year’s marathon of progenitorial magnificence, they’re unprepared and there are signs of mild panic. Occasional clouds of pollen can be seen, lifting on the wind like a fine curtain of mustard powder from the early-formed tails of hazel catkins.  But it’s the brave and fool hardy bee that leaves the warmth of the hive and tries her luck during these wet and wild days that have chased us into this month.

In my efforts to expend some of our lurcher pup’s endless supply of bounce before bedtime, I’ve taken to grabbing a torch and walking down through the field at night. Rather predictably my feet steer me to my usual route, through the tired and bumpy islands of tangled grasses, to the gate of the vegetable garden.

During daylight hours – at this time of year – the naked beds wear a forlorn and slightly reproachful air,  their empty gaze being more than a little imposing. But under torchlight, the bare bones of huddled pea canes leaning at the far end are just enough to raise hope, and the corners of my mouth. It’s been the soggiest of Januarys and the ground is depressingly waterlogged, incapable of drinking another drop. But perhaps this bodes well for a lusty surge of verdurous growth, come Spring.

The familiar dull, slide-clunk of the gate latch, and we’re heading back home now, through the wet field, when the torch light snags on the early, embryonic leaves of field mallow, and then the tiniest lobes of the borage that we sowed last year!

And with all the enthusiasm of that blackbird that strikes up every morning as the light teases at the far edges of the forest, I find my bounce. The puppy thinks I’ve gone nuts, but is more than happy as apparently bounce is a lot more fun than trudge. And to be honest, this Winter there’s been a fair bit of trudge.

I’ve friends who relish everything about Winter, and I too adore the time and space it allows for quietness, and contemplation with perhaps a measure of single malt to warm ones thoughts. With it’s darker, colder hours one is freed up from the frenetic level of activity that we come to associate with Spring, then Summer. There’s the comforting whiff of a stew or a roast that can slip up the stairs and lurk for days at a time. And with the scarcity of daylight there’s a unique and exquisite touch that this season brings, when the sky cracks to let a finger of sun slip through its vast acreage of grey; the way it gilds all that it touches is unsurpassable in its pure and unalloyed beauty.  Nevertheless, I think even though we may relish these delights, we all get to a point where we’re done with the heavily knitted nesting of Winter.

For me though, more than a lengthening day, or the steady creep of mercury, the shift towards the new season is signalled by the arrival of the seed packets.

It’s like a ticket to Summer.

 

Happy delivery, from Brown Envelope Seeds