It isn’t always possible to see that things are changing, it can happen so gradually that it’s hard to detect, or you’re so immersed in the moment that you don’t notice – and then you find that suddenly your hair covers your eyes, new lines have appeared on your face and the trees have stretched up to fill the sky, blocking the light. During lockdown it’s felt as if time has taken on an odd quality, managing somehow to both race and stand still.
It’s said that one of the chief pleasures of life – up there with sleeping, sex and eating – is reminiscing, and what better way than by looking back at photos? With a memory as bad as mine and an inability to always grasp how far something has come, photos are a blessing. As children we loved the rare times that Grandpa pulled the projector from its box to feed yellow Kodak slides in to its whirring body; the swirly 1960s orange and brown dining room curtains pulled during the day, the polished chairs rearranged into rows, the dust motes in the stream of light, the lucky-dip-click of the projector. What would appear next? Who? Which slice of history that we had been part of or that we hadn’t known? Our faces filled the screen on the wall, in rich, rose-tinted hues; us, up to our knees in snow on the drive, our ruddy faces peering out from below bobble hats, of sunny picnics by streams and in fields, on motorway verges next to old cars. Of course now we all carry cameras in our pockets and our memories, our histories and our todays are all readily documentable and accessible. It is still a kind of magic.
As lockdown lifts, Glen returns, from under the cloud of redundancy, to work and the summer slips between grey windswept days and tropical heat, pushing us back towards whatever the new normal is going to be. So I’ve been looking back to see what has changed since we arrived in our new home last September.
When we arrived you couldn’t see the steps going up from the courtyard to where the massive Holm Oak reached over to touch the house. The whole garden had a wonderful, secret garden quality but now you can see where you’re going and have a choice of dangerously steep steps to get up into the garden.
The photos on the left hand side are from September 2019 and on the right June 2020:
The walled garden was a wild scramble of weeds, long grass and overgrown shrubs when we arrived; the grass hummed with crickets and insects.
It made such a difference to the level of light in the house when the Holm Oak came down. The tree surgeons were nervous to stay up it for long as its core was so rotten. In the wind it would reach over to knock on the roof.
The apple trees in the little orchard were cramped and bent, all their light absorbed by the deep and tall laurel.
From the top bit of garden it wasn’t possible to see the house or view before we pruned the lower limbs of the lime trees and the holm oak went. Passersby often comment to us now on how good it is to see the view across the valley from the footpath down to the Furlongs – a favourite with dog walkers.
The hydrangea that grows on the back and the side of the house has been home to a pair of spotted flycatchers, busily feeding a brood of young, during June. One evening I heard a rustling and Coop and I rushed out to see one of the parents dive bombing a squirrel who’d come down the steps to investigate their nest. Happily, between us we saw him off, but I was relieved when the young had safely fledged.
During May’s unprecedented heat, the hottest May on record – the sun turned the lawn a scratchy yellow in the hot box of the walled garden, chasing us into the shaded orchard where the grass was long and green. We lay on our backs and watched snatches of birds in flight in the blue spaces between the branches; housemartins circling slowly on fanned wings, the wren flitting busily between the hedge of savage thorned roses towards the field beyond the orchard and back again with a beakful of insects, chitting reassurances to her young. The air was rich with chirrups and tweets, a breeze rippling the grass and trees. It felt like a kind of heaven.
The delicate pink flowers of bramble stretch the length of the border, wild raspberries and strawberries popping up here and there. There are docks aplenty and plantain, tufted grass ripe already with seed, the little blue dot of a speedwell, and the occasional yellow of a buttercup, the rich green of nettles. The elder was in full bloom, scenting the air like childhood summers. In the distance the soothing purr of the wood pigeons.
A cloud of sparrows will alight from the compost heap while bees buzz around the apple trees, fruiting, despite our amateur pruning, with pale green and blushed pink apples. Mum makes apple butter, a tart and spiced dark jam, a recipe that she brought back from a skiing trip to Calgary with Colin in the 80s and my absolute favourite. I’ve only ever once tried to make jam and it was a disaster. This year I will have to learn to do it properly. Mum has promised to visit in the autumn to show me how and to bring an apple rack that she has salvaged to store any leftover fruit.
The medlar is fruiting too, and the mulberry, so I’m going to have to learn the art of preserving sharpish. Thankfully my stepmum Vicky, and aunt Trisha are queens of the jam and chutney too, so I have backup…
Glen has been busy during lockdown, landscaping the top bit of garden, planting the wildlife hedge, making new paths so it’s possible to get up to the wooded bit from the courtyard. He’s also started to dig a pond and to plan his wildflower meadow – the final two pieces in the wildlife garden puzzle. I bought him a Magnolia Genie, a ruby red magnolia, for his birthday, and he’s planted it on the slope. He’s planting creeping chamomile and thyme and grasses, so although it looks a bit scorched earth at the moment, it will fill out. I’m going to plant azaleas and rhododendrons between the magnolia and the yew tree.
This is the top part of the garden where the trees are – I’ve left long patches of grass and clover for bees and pollinators. The beech hedge has come back to life after the neighbouring leylandii was cut back and Glen has a stack of firewood to cut up which’ll help to keep him limber as he makes the return to desk work!
I know I’ve talked a lot about the orchard, but I love it, so here are a few more for good luck. I’ve cut a labyrinth of paths through the long grass and am looking forward to little people coming to visit who love a choice of paths as much as I do!
I haven’t included any interior photos of the house for ages, because it doesn’t feel as if much has changed, but then of course, it has. Soon we will start work on the kitchen, which will make me very happy – there’s only so long you can put up with 70s stinky plumbing and remembering to empty the sulphurous overflow. I shall miss the ever forgiving cork floor though. Hopefully the windows should be being replaced soon, too. At the moment half of them don’t open because they swell in the humidity and damp and the ones that do rattle noisily with the slightest breeze. First world problems, I know.
Glen has decorated the back bedroom while he’s been furloughed, too. What we fantasised about most during lockdown was filling the house with guests and visitors, throwing a big party in the garden to celebrate whatever anybody felt like celebrating – so maybe next year?
I often feel that I’m not getting anywhere with the garden, but when I stop and look at the individual blooms, I realise that it’s already beautiful. We’re thinking of opening up a socially distanced tea garden – so maybe see you soon?