Week 12th September

Monday 13th – Second cataract repair for MrOG this week. All went well and he now has good sight again. It’s like a little miracle.

Wednesday 15th – Taking advantage of a warm day we made one of our regular trips to Bicton. Drinking coffee and admiring the trees before they start to turn, there was a terrific honking and flapping of wings and about 200 Canada geese flew in, landing on the main lawn. They sat for a while, gently chattering to each other, occasionally hissing at a gull that ventured too close. They are a very familiar sight in our parks and gardens, these large brown birds with the black head and neck and white cheek patches. They favour urban areas and can be aggressively territorial, as well as noisy and smelly. About half of them waddled lumpily up the lawn, climbing a steep slope and onto the upper terrace where they spread themselves out and then, in groups of about twenty and with increasing noise and a little run, they launched themselves into the air, formed quickly into v- flights and flapped away to the south. The group left behind attempted to take off from the lower ground but not many of them got up and away. Slowly they followed the example of their flock-mates, making their way up the slope and positioning themselves on the slightly higher ground. From there, in the same smaller groups, they were able to take advantage of the terraced drop and flap their ungainly way away. They were close enough for us to feel their wingbeats. Quite a spectacle. But the poo they left behind – not so much.

Friday 17th – The horse-chestnut tree in a neighbours garden is browning its leaves and if we look closely we can spot the bright green conker cases ready to fall. Our cotinus is turning from a deep, ruby red to a lighter, more transparent scarlet. We cut it right back this year and it has rewarded us with big new leaves and good colour. Down on the seafront it is bright and and very breezy. Sunny days are still bringing in lots of visitors and fewer and fewer people are wearing masks. I try to remain upbeat and not be too irritable. Small coastal towns like ours needs its visitors, but I long for a bit of consideration for other people. Our covid numbers have been really high through August and September. It really doesn’t take much to put on a mask in shops and cafés and other enclosed spaces. Not much to be done but do what we can to protect ourselves. Booster jabs hopefully soon.

Week 5th September

Last week I wrote about autumn coming in quietly. This week we were back to sizzling in hot sunshine, at least for a few days. Not quite an Indian summer, as the Met office tells me that these are mild, warm spells occurring in October or November, so we are a bit too early. Nonetheless, the temperatures climbed to the high 20s in the early part of the week, and I congratulated myself on not having put away my summer clothes as the sun dresses and sleeveless tops had a later than usual outing. By Wednesday however it was all over, and although temperatures remained warm, it was rainy and muggy. Some local areas had terrific thunderstorms and flash flooding, but we fortunately avoided that particular extreme of weather.

We drove out to Killerton estate on Tuesday for a good walk and came back across country. So much farm work going on, making the most of the warm weather. In the high-banked Devon lanes we encountered huge tractors with trailers loaded with straw, a whiff of muck-spreading, and when we passed a road-side farmyard the smell of warm hay and beasts and cow-cake filled the air. A farm worker was shutting a field gate opposite, the cows had crossed the lane and into the yard, heading for milking. A ‘proper’ farmyard smell, wholesome and pungent. I love the working countryside and have a real fear of it becoming a sort of rural theme-park, dressed up for visitors. We’re lucky here in east Devon to still have mostly small mixed farms, with small fields and good hedgerows and traditional farm buildings. Sheep still escape, cows cross the lanes, and the tractors give and take with a friendly wave. Long may it continue.

Week 29th August

The end of the summer is closing in fast, it really does have ‘all too short a date‘ as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 tells. The Bank holiday weekend brought us the local air display with aerobatic bi and tri-planes, and the annual visit from the Red Arrows jetting across the bay with their coloured smoke trails and their twisting, twirling flights, while the townspeople crowd the beach and gasp at each new stunt. Lucky us can watch it all from the comfort of our sitting room, and we have the extra benefit of the small Gnat jets circling out over the house, so low we can practically see the pilots and the windows shake in their frames. The following evening marks the close of the summer season with a spectacular firework display – once again watched from the sitting room as the clusters of soaring lights spangle the sky above the bay.

So autumnal September starts quietly, with warm and sunny days preceded by cool nights and heavy drops of dew. The garden is lovely with late summer flowers – dahlias, canna, rudbeckia, the agapanthus still full of flower, and the fuchsias hanging their pretty heads. I like this point in the year, not quite turning, but a bit like the aerobatic planes: reaching a peak and just hanging before the stall, that moment of quiet stillness before the ‘fall’ back down to meet the cooler months.

Week 22nd August

Another busy week. Where does the time go? This week has been taken up with more campaign work – working on a website, writing a commissioned article for a professional journal, and catching up with a colleague on a series of books on which I am consulting editor. No matter how busy, I always try to make space for some quiet time in a green space.

A couple of blogs back I mentioned that I took part in this year’s Big Butterfly Count. I was rather disheartened by the low numbers in the garden, so I’ve been very aware of looking out for them wherever I happen to be. This week I’ve been paying particular attention to buddleia bushes. They are in full bloom at the moment and come in a variety of colours from deepest purple, through lilac and mauve, to pinks and white. Whatever the colour, they are reliably covered in bees, hoverflies and butterflies. We stopped on a walk this week to watch a buddleia hosting hundreds of little visitors. The rich, honey-scent seemed almost to drip from the blooms, each spire dotted with feeding insects. We counted at least 20 pristine Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) butterflies, their white and red markings vivid against velvet black, such beauty to be so commonplace is a wonder in itself. Amongst them were Small Tortoiseshells (Aglais urticae), more flittery than their bigger cousins, and although they have more colours, they are somehow cooler and more subdued – we couldn’t count them, they didn’t keep still for long enough! There were several Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui), faded and jaded after their long journey from North Africa and brief stay in the UK and a couple of Comma (Polygonia c-album) with their crooked outline and russet colours – they were also ragged and losing their looks – almost transparent, like worn linen. All around them, creating a hum and buzz of activity were yellow and black and white and black striped hoverflies of all sizes, some masquerading as bees with fluffy thorax and abdomen, tiny greenbottle flies in magnificent iridescence, like jewels catching the light, and of course, the wasps, large and small, tiny-waisted and large-headed. All these creatures feeding together, oblivious to the noisy world beyond the buddleia.

We promised ourselves that we would plant a good-sized buddleia in the garden for next year so that we might have such an abundance of loveliness closer to home.

Week 15th August

Visitors this week, so not much time for writing. Not much time for gardening either, but I did manage to pull the larger weeds out of one of the beds. In Anglo-Saxon times August was called Weod Monath – it means ‘weed month’. I shall say no more.

Approaching the end of summer, there are subtle changes beginning. The liquidambar tree in a neighbour’s garden is showing the first russetty blush on its lower leaves; the tiny red berries on the cotoneaster hedge are swelling and brightening – soon the blackbirds will be inspecting them. Last night I heard a pair of tawny owls calling to each other. It’s easy to think that the ‘toowit, toowoo’ that you hear is one bird, but it’s actually a male and a female. The female makes a ‘kee-wit’ sound and the male answers her with a breathy ‘whoo-hoo-hoo’. They were calling to each other in the garden at about 2am. I don’t think they woke me, but I was pleased to lie awake and listen to them for a while. Another change – this morning the robin was singing. Not the cheery warble he has regaled us with since spring, but that slower, more wistful cascade of notes that tells us that the season is changing. Just a reminder to make the most of the next few weeks of light and warmth before they slip away into autumn.

Week 8th August

Monday 9th August – An early walk to the beach to avoid crowds and rain. Good on the first, fail on the second. What we thought would be a short, sharp shower turned into a downpour and we were forced to take cover in a beachside shelter for well over an hour. We were facing along the inaccessible east beach, and the rain took our view of the cliffs; the white stone of Beer Heights first, then the curve of Salcombe Regis and Branscombe, leaving us with the blurry red haze of the soft local sandstone closest to us. Just beyond the road in front of us the river Sid runs into the sea and the seagulls and cormorants gather on the shingle there, we had been watching them before it started raining, adult and juvenile gulls stretching their wings and then settling down again, the cormorants as still as statues. As the rain beat down, they rose up at eye level, like wind-caught flags and lazily flapped out to sea, to settle in a floating group about 30 yards out, disappearing in the murky grey.

Tuesday 10th August – Warm today and muggy this evening. Perfect conditions for what seems to be a second flying ant day. We noticed them flying out of the paving so we were swiftly out with the boiling water. We have masses of ants in the garden, nests everywhere, so we do our best to keep them down. The flying swarms are queens and males flying to breed and start new colonies, so the more of the winged blighters we can get rid of, the better.

Wednesday 11th August – Another attack on the hedge – it’s now 75% cut but rain stopped play. This is the hedge that houses a number of garden bird’s nests in the spring and summer and before cutting we have been diligently watching and listening for chicks and fledgelings so that we don’t cause any problems. This mixed hedge has provided shelter for two broods of robins, two broods of blackbirds, a brood dunnocks and a brood of wrens. Quite a nursery! The second brood of robins was last to fledge but they are now hopping around the garden, their breasts just beginning to show an apricot tint. They are fearless and already round our feet when we are weeding. Apart from these the garden is quiet, we have seen very few of our regular birds, just the odd visit from a blue tit and occasionally the long tails will fly through. The others are off in the surrounding agricultural land, or hunkered down moulting.

Thursday 12th August – We have a friend coming to stay for the weekend today (lateral flow test permitting) so this morning I have been baking. Courgette and lemon cake from a recipe I haven’t tried before. It’s that time of year when courgettes appear in every possible guise. It keeps me busy as the weather is too miserable to go out. It’s very grey and very wet. Fine drizzling rain that soaks you quickly. The cloud is low and the hills and the sea are invisible through a pale, opaque curtain.

Friday 13th August – Hanging out the washing this morning I hear the loud ‘chack-chack-chack’ of an angry magpie. Looking up, a single magpie is chasing and bothering a hawk of some kind, a sparrowhawk by the look of the long, blunt tail. As the magpie sounds more and more agitated, another look reveals two sparrowhawks, lazily soaring above the garden; something I’ve never seen before as my experience of sparrowhawks is seeing them perched on the fence, or ripping something small limb from limb on the ground. Here they are the harried rather than the harriers. The magpie is relentless, bumping them, rolling back and clawing at them, all the time making that clacking racket. The sparrowhawks humour it for a while, then dart straight off over the fields.

Week 1st August

Monday 2nd August – Another Lammastide. The time of the first harvest, the grain harvest, a time for gathering in and giving thanks for the abundance. It’s also Lughnasad, the festival of Lugh, the Celtic sun king. Behind the heat and light though, is the knowledge that Lugh’s power is waning and the darker days of winter are cycling round again. I like this period of harvest from now into September, it reminds me of childhood days spent helping with the harvest as a child on an uncle’s farm. The corn was taller then, the men would be thigh high in it and us kids were flushed out of the way once the machinery came in to the field. Once it was cut and tedded in rows, the best part (for me) would start – baling. There were no huge circular rolls bound in black plastic then, the straw would be taken up into the machine and somehow converted into oblong bales tied with twine and they would shake out of the back of the baler onto the ground, to be picked up and stacked in fours or sixes. We would play around those bales all day, climbing, our arms and legs scratched by the cut ends, the sun endlessly shining. Later there would be the swaying ride home on top of the bale-loaded trailer; it was thrilling and we felt like Kings and Queens of the world.

Tuesday 3rd August – Yesterday’s talk of ripeness and harvest is also closer to home. Two of the small fields on the hill are now tight with ripe corn, and with the sun slanting across they become shining ‘fields of gold’. Looking at them, a sudden snatch of a long-forgotten hymn comes into my head ‘…the valleys stand so thick with corn that even they are singing…‘. It worms its way into my unconscious, and for the rest of the day I am humming these two lines. Finally, I am forced to look it up and find the hymn ‘To Thee, O Lord, Our Hearts We Raise‘ and I am transported back to my childhood church-going days, and another way of measuring the cycle of the year. The hymn is based on Psalm 65, the last few lines so round and ripe and perfect:

Thou crownest the year with thy goodness; and thy clouds drop fatness.
They shall drop upon the dwellings of the wilderness; and the little hills shall rejoice on every side.
The folds shall be full of sheep; the valleys also shall stand so thick with corn, that they shall laugh and sing.

Wednesday 4th August – A lovely warm day. We tackle the front hedge – 50 feet of toil. Today we just cut the side that faces our little road, it’s too much to try to do it all at once now. It’s a mixed hedge, so grows at different rates, but usually only needs a proper cut in late summer, so that’s something. It’s made up of laurel, grisselinia, pittosporum, a bit of wiegela, there’s even some pyracantha in there. It takes three hours to cut and clear up that one side and to scrape out the weeds that have grown at the bottom of the small wall it grows above. We won’t be able to move tomorrow!

Thursday 5th August – Correct, we are both creeping about holding our backs and hips, and groaning every time we sit down or stand up. It pours with rain all day, some showers really heavy, so we stay at home.

Friday 6th August – Out early for some local shopping and a walk on the Esplanade. This week has seen a low-key version of the famous Sidmouth Folk Festival. Just two open-air stages and a lot fewer stalls, but it still has a bit of a buzz and we sit on the Ham for a while and listen to a fiddle band. The festival has been running in the first week of August since 1955 when it started as a Folk Song and Dance Festival. Over the years it has had a couple of fresh starts and changes of organiser but it is always a week of colour and music, with song, dance, crafts and masterclasses. In more ‘normal’ years it brings thousands of visitors and the little streets are thronged with crowds and performers alike. Today, the clouds roll in and a heavy shower of ‘dropping fatness’ sends us scurrying for the car.

Week 25th July

Sunday 25th July – book review – As always, I am reading, reading, reading. I always have a fiction and a non-fiction book on the go, the non-fiction usually some form of nature writing. At the moment I am working my way through ‘Women on Nature’ a collection of writings edited by Katharine Norbury. I like these anthologies of writing, often they introduce me to writers that I don’t know, and always they provide inspiration for my own attempts. This volume crosses centuries – Margery Kempe and Celia Ffiennes are here, as are Dorothy Wordsworth, Virginia Woolf and Melissa Harrison from the present day, plus lots of new nature writers – well, new to me. It’s a lovely book for dipping in and out of, full of surprises – Jane Eyre’s first meeting with Rochester as she walks across the twilit and misty moorland, for example, I appreciated much more as a stand-alone description of a walk rather than hidden away in the story line. If you like a book on the natural world that is literary and surprising, that you can pick up and put down, but that is still satisfying, then I recommend this.

Monday 26th July – Still warm. The start of the school holidays proper sees a huge influx of visitors. We will be keeping ourselves to ourselves now and avoiding busy places, which means avoiding almost everywhere for the next 6 weeks! We’ll try for early mornings to keep walking.

Tuesday 27th July – A welcome break in the weather. To the east the sky is heavy and a dull, burnished purple. The late sun from the west is tipping the treetops on the hill with a pinky-gold wash and there are distant rolls of thunder. We can see the rain coming from the sea, a grey mist moving towards us, preceded by a blustery wind until suddenly it is crashing and bouncing off the paving stones and streams of water are running down the road. One flash of lightning and a huge crack of thunder and the rain slows and moves on, leaving us with streaming gutters and flattened plants.

Wednesday 28th July – More persistent rain showers today, but finer rain. Again, late afternoon the temperature seems to rise, the air stills and the sky purples. The thunder rumbles over the sea again, and lightning flashes but we have no storm.

Thursday 29th July – We get out early and go down to the sea. The tide is full and we nestle ourselves against the sea wall, the waves pushing up the beach just a few feet in front of us. We can feel the spray and taste the salt on our lips. There is a choppy swell of about 2 feet, making the water brown with churned sand. We scrutinise the pebbles around us – there is a perfect crab claw, big but fragile, picked clean by the sea; an intact whelk shell with its banded spirals delicate and tinted pink, unusual to find one unbroken on the pebble beach; a tiny mussel shell, no bigger than my little fingernail, shining midnight blue iridescence – we pocket our treasures to put in the garden. As we sit, the waves throw up a single yellow rose, scarcely damaged. We wonder how it came to be there – in memory of someone lost? An unwanted gift? Accidentally dropped unnoticed? Blown in from a refuse bin? Romantic or common-place, it was a lovely thing to see washed out of the clawing foam.

Friday 30th July – Overnight gales have blown over the bay tree in its pot and the furled parasol. Luckily the parasol fell neatly and missed the geraniums and lilies on our little terrace. There is another spell of gales forecast for the middle of the day. Really unseasonal to have winds of 50 to 60 miles per hour in July. Further west, Cornwall has been badly hit with campsites flattened and holiday-makers evacuated to village halls. Climate change becomes more real with every passing year as the seasons merge and the weather is predictable only in its unpredictability.

Week 18th July 2021

Monday 19th July – Very hot. Over the weekend I have been recording butterflies I’ve seen in the garden. The Big Butterfly Count is running from 16th July to 8th August. Aimed at helping to assess the health of our environment, it’s a huge citizen science project that has been running since 2010. Butterflies are crucial elements of the ecosystem as pollinators and as part of the food chain, as well as being beautiful to look at, but they are under threat. Butterfly and moth numbers in the UK have decreased significantly since the 1970s and these declines are also an early warning for other wildlife losses. Because butterflies react so quickly to changes in their environment, they are key biodiversity indicators for scientists. If their numbers are falling, it’s a sign that nature is in trouble, so tracking numbers of butterflies is really important. You can read about the count and how to get involved here.

Tuesday 20th July – Temperatures reached 30C here today, and not a breath of breeze. It’s far too hot to be outside so we have been hunkered down indoors with the curtains drawn, trying to keep as cool as possible. Now that we’re older we’re more prone to overheating, and we both take medication that also makes us prone to overheating. Lots of people aren’t aware of this, so if you take regular medication do check out if it’s one that means you should avoid the sun.

Wednesday 21st July – Supposedly our hottest day today, 31C. Goodness, it’s uncomfortable. We had to make a trip to a nearby hospital for MrOG’s cataract follow-up. The drops they put in means that he can’t drive himself home, so I had to go and wait in the car. I had water, a cooling spray, a hand-held fan and a big umbrella (and a book, of course). Fortunately he was only about 35 minutes but that was long enough for me to feel quite unwell in the relentless heat. There was not a tree in sight in the car park, so no shade. Thank goodness for good air-conditioning in the car for the drive home. We are doing nothing at all. It’s even too hot for normal housework (yay!).

Thursday 22nd July – Slightly cooler today – 28C and a bit of a breeze. We have been pretty much house-bound all week. At least we have a sea view and can see the tidiest part of the garden from the sitting room. We planted canna in the front garden this year and they are loving the heat – such bold, bright flowers – lipstick pink, red, and apricot, and the foliage is good too, some a fresh green and some a lovely bronze-red. In the side garden there’s a big clump of ever-green agapanthus that hasn’t flowered since we’ve been here and we were going to take it out this autumn; of course, it’s suddenly full of flowers. Huge, tall umbells of soft blue, about 5 feet high. I don’t know whether it was the very wet spring or this recent heatwave that encouraged them, but they are certainly reprieved to flower another year.

Friday 23rd July – Up early this morning, a bit of shopping and then onto the beach for an hour before it got really hot and really busy. It was delightful: the sun on the water, the shingle wet and shiny, the blue sky, the gulls floating in huge groups, a family with small children digging in the wet sand, a middle-aged couple wading out and jumping through the waves, a couple of swimmers crawling across the bay. I even got my old feet wet, briefly. We are so lucky to live near the sea and have such quick and easy access to it. This evening it’s already cooler, with a welcome breeze. There are storms forecast overnight – high winds, torrential rain and lightning, then we should settle into some more ‘normal’ UK summer weather – not too hot, coastal breezes, rain showers every other day. I’ll take that.

Back next week. Stay safe.

Week 11th July

It’s the landscapers last week this week, finishing the driveway, so we have been out on avoidance trips all week.

Monday 12th July – We took a trip to Buckfast Abbey today, just on the edge of the moor. It’s such a peaceful place, as soon as you walk through the arch into the grounds there is a quietness and a slower pace. People who visit seem respectful of the place and what it is – a functioning abbey church and a community of Benedictine monks. There are lovely small gardens – a lavender terrace which was alive with bees and scent, it has seats around it so that you can just bathe in the fragrance. There is also an interesting ‘physick’ garden with herbs and plants used for both culinary and medical purposes, with a lovely arched pergola covered in vines and figs. Alongside that is a scented garden with a water feature and a camomile seat and beds of roses, all surrounded by high yew hedges with seats set in so they feel small places of contemplation. The abbey was founded in 1018 and for their 2018 anniversary a new garden was commissioned. We first saw this at Malvern Spring Show where it was a show garden, and now it has been transferred to the abbey grounds. Another soft and peaceful enclave, mostly green plants, a round reflecting pool and a metal, life-size sculpture of a stag bending to drink. The abbey itself is open to visitors – there are some interesting ecclesiastical artworks – candelabra, reredos, wonderful stained glass. There is a bookshop and a gift shop and a decent restaurant (not fully open at the moment).

Tuesday 13th July – We set off for Dartmouth, a lovely drive, the South Hams has steep valleys and interesting little towns. Dartmouth was heaving, so we didn’t stay long. We haven’t been there for years and thought it changed beyond recognition. Yes, the harbour and the pretty mouth of the river is still there, but now it’s crammed with boats, more of a marina than local moorings, and the town is full of the ‘coastal/marine/sailing’ tourist stuff that would be nice in one shop but not in every other one. We wound through the small roads, skirted Totnes, picked up the coast road after Newton Abbot and ended up in Teignmouth for a late fish and chip lunch on the Point, overlooking the Ness and watching the little ferry back and forth to Shaldon. Nice day!

Wednesday 14th July – Off to Somerset today to revisit a garden we haven’t been to for 20 years – Hestercombe. Last time we were there it was only the formal garden. That wonderful underpinning design by the architect Edwin Lutyens, the paving, the rills, the exquisite pergola and the planting a replica of Gertrude Jekyll‘s original work, soft but with everything perfectly placed. We were looking forward to catching up with it. Disappointingly, the formal gardens were overgrown, everything in need of a good tidy and clip, erigeron karvinskianus running riot everywhere (and not in a good way) and there were plants in the beds that I’m pretty sure Miss Jekyll wouldn’t have considered – like musa basjoo and ensete ventricosum. The rills were tight with plants rather than being the clear line of water that they should be. It’s an important historical garden and it was a shame to see, I guess Covid has much to answer for here. We weren’t keen on the restored 18th century landscape gardens either, not gardens as such, just a fairly dull walk through wooded slopes, occasionally punctuated by a rebuilt folly or lookout, none of them anything to write home about. A couple of large ponds and a high waterfall completed the picture. One small building overlooked a wide view of the Tone valley with a big grass meadow in the foreground, probably lovely in late Spring with wildflowers. I don’t think we’ll visit again. If you want to see an example of an early garden, I suggest visiting Painswick Rococco Garden – much more interesting.

Thursday 15th July – Closer to home today. I was guesting on a podcast this morning so recording that took a couple of hours out of the day. Afterwards we took a picnic lunch to Bicton and ate it under the mature beech and sweet chestnut trees overlooking Devon farmland and the Bicton obelisk. The ha-ha in front of us separating the estate from the agricultural land was full of nettles and dock, ash saplings and bindweed; the field beyond with standing maize in serried ranks like green, wavy-armed soldiers. There was a British Showjumping event in the arena at the top of the park and we stood for a while with a good view of the competitors and watched a few rounds. Shining, muscled, nervy horses waiting to compete, some spooking at any little thing, blowing and sweating-up, tossing their heads and dancing sideways. Riders, mostly calm and composed, speaking to them all the time: ‘Calm down, now, calm down. STOP IT!’ or ‘Good boy, that’s it now, good boy’ and the horses stamping and neighing and shaking their bridles and curling their top lip up in a show of highly-strung , prima donna skittishness. I used to ride when I was younger – mostly the riding school plodders, slow and bomb-proof, I’d no more get up on one of these beasts than fly up in the air, but oh, what a marvellous thing to be able to do. The confidence to be a part of all that strength and power….

Friday 16th July – So hot. Hitting 25 degrees this afternoon, so it was up with the parasols in the garden and an afternoon lazing about reading, and keeping as cool as possible in the shade. The garden is wildly overgrown, but smells that wonderful soft, green smell of warm foliage. A green woodpecker ‘yacka-yacks’ in to the amelanchier tree and eyes the lawn, but doesn’t drop down. He looks around for a few minutes, showing off his strong, long, tapering bill and dipping his head to flash the bright red crown, and then he’s away across the gardens with another loud ‘yacka, yacka – yack’ . Even the lawn is overgrown now with patches of purple self-heal and yellow hawkweed; brown butterflies jink across the surface – Ringlets probably or Meadow Brown, too far away to tell, and Comma and Red Admiral fly around the trees. A perfect summer afternoon.