Tuesday, July 07, 2015

A time of adjustment

My last post was written just 3 days before we set off on our journey to Normandy and since then a lot has happened. After spending a couple of days with my dear mother-in-law, we visited DS and his family for the weekend and finally arrived here just before midnight a couple of weeks ago.

As soon as we arrived we made the unwelcome discovery that, for the first time in 12 years of ownership, we had been visited by mice over the winter. Spiders and their webs are always here to greet us, but mice have been conspicuous by their absence until now. Thankfully they appear to have departed, having obviously decided that our settee cushions aren’t to their taste, after having sampled all but one of them.

The next discovery was that it now takes us longer than in previous years to recover from the preparations and the journey. No longer do we spring from our beds the morning after our arrival, ready to do battle with the cobwebs and unpack the van in less time than it takes to tell. We were very tired and knew it, so the cleaning and unpacking stretched over a couple of days or more before the last box and bag were emptied and the contents put away.

After that it was the turn of the garden. The third discovery was that the tree surgeon had done a wonderful job of cutting down and clearing away the three big poplars and our beloved cherry tree, leaving us only a pile of cherry logs and yet more ruts in the grass where his heavy equipment had unavoidably compressed the winter-wet ground. Cutting the grass in some parts of the garden now feels like pushing a mower over corrugated iron and DH has just invested in a mattock to help level the worst of the ruts.

On the positive side, we’ve discovered that even without our magnificent cherry tree the garden still looks attractive and my little flower border is flourishing as never before.  The garden table and chairs sit well in the lesser shade of the cherry tree on our boundary and we are discussing with the tree surgeon the purchase and planting of not one but two trees to replace the coeur de pigeon – a black cherry and an eating apple.

Another positive is the weather, which has been warm and sunny almost all the time since we arrived and indeed last week became very hot for a few days, though nothing like as sweltering as further south in France. It has been lazy weather, conducive to sitting in the shade with a book, rather than racing around the garden with a mower, and my mental processes almost went onto standby for a while, hence the lack of posts.

Today is cool and rainy, freshening up the vegetation and making me feel awake enough to string more than a couple of thoughts together. I’m starting to plan ahead again and look forward to our normal pleasant summer pattern of meeting up with friends, knitting and chatting happily at the weekly craft afternoon, and getting lots of healthy exercise in the garden. We’re even getting regular visits from last year’s kittens, now lithe and wary young cats who recognise a couple of mugs when they see them. Oh, and the jam apricots are now in the shops again…

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Lament for a cherry tree

It’s hard to believe that it’s now more than twelve years since DH and I embarked on a house-hunting trip to Normandy one chilly and damp week in February.  We’d done a fair bit of research on the internet and had made appointments with a number of French estate agents to view likely-looking (i.e. cheap) properties.

After my Sunday-morning services we packed the very small campervan and took the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Ouistreham, which decanted us, after an almost sleepless night, neatly onto the Caen péripherique or ring-road in the middle of the morning rush-hour! DH turned pale, gripped the steering-wheel with white-knuckled hands and begged me to find the first suitable turn-off.

During the next couple of days we criss-crossed southern Manche from one appointment to the next, trying to find polite ways of telling one agent after another that what had looked possible on the web was impossible in reality. Finally, having told yet another agent that the house we’d booked to see wouldn’t do, we asked him if he had anything else in our price-range.

He produced two photos of houses for which he had not yet had time to compile details and took us off to see them. One was a complete non-starter, being both miniscule and in the middle of a remote field without an access road, but the other had distinct possibilities. To cut a long story short, after much discussion over supper in the van, we went back next day to see the agent and agreed to buy it.

We’d noticed of course that there were several trees scattered around the nearly half-acre of land on which the house stood, but in their February leaflessness they were not easy to identify. When we went back in late August to complete the purchase, it was a different matter. The apple trees and espaliered pear were full of ripening fruit,  but we still couldn’t work out what the other, larger trees might be.

Bare bones, but no identity

It was the carpenter, who came to look at the house and discuss the necessary renovation work, who broke the news to us that we had three very large cherry trees in our newly-acquired garden. I still remember the thrill his words gave me at the thought that we would one day be able to pick our own cherries instead of having to buy them in small and very expensive quantities.

Because I was still working at that time, our visits over the next few years were short and infrequent and somehow never managed to coincide with the cherry season. It wasn’t until after I retired in the spring of 2007 that we were able to make our first long summer visit and discover that we had three different varieties of cherry tree, the largest and most impressive of which was a yellow Coeur de Pigeon which stood in the middle of the front garden and in the shade of which we had parked the van in the years when the house was still being made habitable.

In subsequent years we have eaten its large and juicy cherries, revelled in its generous shade in hot weather and admired its statuesque beauty, as it dwarfed not only the house but also every other tree in the garden, except for the leggy poplars in the hedge.

Huge and luscious cherries - far more than we could ever eat.

In a green shade...

Then, two summers ago, disaster struck. One afternoon, while picking cherries, I looked up to where the three very large main boughs, each as big as the trunk of a medium-sized tree, spread out from the enormous main trunk, and spotted a tiny sapling growing out of the hollow between the boughs. On investigation it became apparent that a cherry stone had become lodged in a crack between the boughs and had germinated and grown.

We removed the sapling and saw that the crack wasn’t very big and didn’t seem to be a problem. Nevertheless DH measured it just in case and we agreed we’d keep an eye on it in subsequent years. Last summer we measured the crack again and saw to our horror that it was definitely bigger. Given the height and weight of those three main boughs and the mass of smaller branches each carried, the thought of what might happen if one of them split away from the main trunk in a gale was very worrying.

So small, yet so deadly.

Luckily for us, our nearest French neighbour up the hill from us is a landscape gardener and tree surgeon and we asked him to come and give us his opinion. However, before he could do so, we had to return home early because of the death of my friend, and we agreed that he would come and inspect the tree as soon as he could after our departure.

This he did and in fact was so concerned that he called in a friend who specialises in fruit trees for some expert advice. The consensus was that the cherry tree was by then so top-heavy that it was only a matter of time before one or more of the boughs would split away and come crashing down. Unfortunately full-grown cherry trees don’t respond well to pruning or pollarding and the only sensible solution was to fell it, along with the three leggy poplar trees which were badly interfering with phone and power lines.

Poplar with mistletoe

All this means that when we arrive next week for our usual summer visit, the garden will look very different and I must confess I’m not looking forward to the prospect. I have no strong feelings about the loss of the poplar trees, which had a bad habit of dropping twigs and even branches in the slightest wind and were always full of mistletoe which DH had to try to remove.

However the thought that the magnificent cherry tree, which has for so long dominated the front of the house and given us so much pleasure, will no longer be there to greet us, really saddens me. Trees have character too and our Coeur de Pigeon was strong, friendly and generous. I will miss it very much.

We ate in its shade...

.. and read in it.

It gave welcome shade to the house...

... and to the garden.  It won't be quite the same without it.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Life in the great outdoors

No, not wild camping in the hills or trekking across a desert somewhere, but days on end in the garden, as I try to pack a summer’s worth of gardening into a few weeks, before we head off across the Channel in a fortnight’s time. The cool, showery weather in my last post was followed by a surprisingly windy few days, but things have now settled down to be warmer, dry and calm – ideal weather for gardening.

Once DH had fired up the ride-on mower and tamed the hayfield that our lawn had become, it was time to tackle the flowerbeds. For some reason the delightful previous owners of our house seem to have had a love affair with privet, with the result that two out of three of the flowerbeds were dominated by disproportionately large privet bushes.

To get my hand in, I decided to tackle the smaller one first, so on a day in May, I roped in DH to help. After a titanic struggle with the aid of a winch (yes, really!) we succeeded in dragging the privet bush out of the ground, roots and all, and I set to work to make the bed ready for more ornamental occupants. These I largely acquired at the village church’s plant sale last Saturday and they are now safely ensconced in their new home with plenty of space to grow and spread.

In between times I've been making inroads on the much bigger privet bush which takes up nearly half of the larger bed at the far end of the garden. It’s far too big to repeat our previous uprooting success, so I’m hacking it back until we can see the roots and decide how we want to tackle their extraction.

For light relief I’ve also started work on the other half of the bed, which is a mass of mint run wild, creeping buttercup and nettles. There is no way this bed will be ready for planting before we go to France, but if I can at least get rid of the great mass of invasive weeds, it will be much easier to work with when we get home in September. This garden has the potential to be a really lovely place and I’m enjoying starting to get it into shape and planning for the future.

If there were any justice I should be sylphlike after all this hard work, but failing that I am at least more flexible and I sleep like a log!  The morning mist has lifted now and the sun has come out, so if you’ll excuse me I’m off out into the garden…


Where to plant them...?

Safely bedded in

I may not be able to kneel, but at least I can still bend.

Grrr... Those dratted mint roots!

An unexpected crop of ready-minted potatoes!

Just to prove we DO have colour in the garden...

Friday, May 22, 2015

The month that vanished

To my horror I’ve realised that it’s nearly three weeks since my last post and I simply do not know where May has gone! When I last posted we were still in the far north, with the General Election looming, closely followed by our planned return south. Since we arrived home, almost a fortnight ago, life has been a blur of unpacking, garden tidying, service planning and general catching-up with people and commitments and it’s only now starting to slow down to a more manageable pace.

It has been good to realise yet again that the new house is a very welcoming place to come home to. It’s also been fun to come back to a garden which was still almost dormant when we headed north and see what is now making its presence felt. I even managed to remember to take my camera with me on a walk to and from a church meeting in the village to capture something of our rather different surroundings and perspective down here in the valley.

So here, from a still cool and showery Mid-Wales, is a glimpse of our new normal.

Half-timbered Mid-Wales

Hedgerow country

Hills to the right of me

Hills to the left of me

On the bridge looking upstream...

...and across the road looking downstream

Along the winding road to home

Monday, May 04, 2015

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside

For much of my childhood the highlight of the summer was our annual Wakes Week holiday at Fleetwood or Morecambe or another of the even then slightly faded but much loved seaside resorts which line the Lancashire coast. If we couldn’t manage a whole week, there would be at least a day-trip or two, always by train. My memories are of buckets and spades, sandcastles, donkey-rides on the beach and first paddling, then swimming, in the always chilly waters of the Irish Sea.

When we moved to Mid-Wales in the early 1970s the resorts changed, but the pattern of occasional day trips to the seaside, now by car, continued while our children were small, though with wonderful countryside immediately around us, the pull of the coast rapidly diminished. Instead it was their grandparents who took our two for a week at the seaside from time to time.

Now in retirement we are lucky enough to spend extended periods of time in close proximity to a very different kind of coast, empty of resorts, and with not a promenade or wrought-iron pier in sight. Instead, within a very few miles of where we stay, there are cliffs and sandy beaches, little coves and tiny harbours, sandbanks where seals can sometimes be spotted sunning themselves, and the kind of tempting, uninhabited islands that children’s stories were written about in my youth.  And what is even more wonderful is that, far more often than not, when you go there you will have these magical spots entirely to yourself.

So come with me on a short tour of our favourite corners in this small area of the eternally fascinating and unspoilt coast of the North-West Highlands.

We begin on the Kyle of Tongue, that wide, shallow estuary
 to which Ben Loyal and Ben Hope form such a magnificent backdrop.

There we find the sandbanks, where, if you're lucky,
you may see seals sunning themselves and occasionally 
rolling over into the water to catch themselves a quick snack.

Continuing north along the Melness peninsula, we come to Talmine Bay.

Here, as well as its pale sand and pebble beach,  is the small stone jetty 
which turns this corner into a safe harbour for small boats
and a final resting place for a long-abandoned one.

Towards the tip of the peninsula lies one of our favourite places, 
 the tiny former fishing hamlet of Port Vasgo in its little bay,
its boats long gone and half its cottages now in ruins.

No gentle sandy beach here, just knife-edged rocks, 
through which those long-ago fishermen laboriously cut a channel
 to allow their boats to be winched up out of the water to safety.

From Port Vasgo you can walk west across sheep-nibbled turf 
to a tiny, nameless beach, tucked between cliff and rocks.

Even Perpetua reverts to childhood dreams here.

Another quarter turn to the left and from the rocks you can see Midfield beach, 
though you can only access it by clambering precariously across the rocks, 
or more sensibly via another path from inland.

It's back to the car to drive round to the inner edge of the bay 
and lovely Achininver beach, where you climb down  wooden steps
and across tussocky sand-dunes to reach the water's edge.

And finally, for a proper view of those Enid Blyton adventure islands, 
we need to drive to the other side of the Kyle 
and look back across to Melness and its hidden gems.