April showers? I wish!

There has been such a bursting of leaf and life this week, I can almost hear the crackle and pop of burgeoning growth all around me as I work. Trees are suddenly clothed in fresh new growth, the woods are a soft haze of greens and yellows and the verges are bursting with cowslips, bluebells and orchids. At the front of the house, the double lilac is in full scented bloom and, together with a cascade of bright laburnum flowers above it, makes a gorgeous palette against the blue sky. There are baby birds squeaking in every corner and the whole garden is fragrant with the sweet perfume of apple blossom. It feels more like the middle of May and I’m loving every moment.

I’ve spent a lot of time this week wandering about the patch at all times of day, or simply just sitting and absorbing the bustle of springtime around me; an early morning breakfast on the Love Shack ‘veranda’ catches the sunrise now and is a magical thing to do. We’ve also been talking a lot about our plans for this piece of land and how we would like it to develop in the coming years. In The Garden Awakening, Mary Reynolds states that gardens belong to nature, not the other way round, and it’s a philosophy that resonates very strongly with me; we’re seeking a balance between being able to produce the greater part of our fresh food whilst maintaining and improving the environment and ecosystem(s) for all who share it. It’s not always easy, but something we are both very much committed to and leaving space for nature to do its own thing is key. The hazel hedge that Roger laid over winter is bursting with fresh new growth, whilst beneath it there is a riot of wild flowers – stitchwort, celandines, violets, wild strawberries, ground ivy, pignut, speedwell – which in turn are buzzing with insect attention. These ‘wild’ areas are fundamental to our vision and a precious asset in this space.

Although there are many simple ways in which we can encourage wildlife such as leaving areas of grass unmown or making piles of organic materials in various places, other projects need a bit more work. One of the most important habitats which we are missing is a pond but Roger has been working to rectify that situation. He has dug a hole out by hand at the lowest point of the garden and used the turfs to cover a snaking hügel bed which will help to ‘hide’ the pond within a wilder patch we have planted with young dogwoods and willows and should eventually make a turf seat where we can sit and watch the pondlife. Unfortunately, the pond liner we had ordered went astray and was delivered several weeks late so wasn’t in place for the last bout of decent rainfall; now we’re in a prolonged dry spell so we just have to be patient.

Thankfully, we know from experience that it doesn’t take long for the wildlife to appear once a pond is established, especially one that is surrounded by vegetation; we have yellow flag iris waiting in a bucket and I’ve raised purple loosestrife and marshmallow plants from seed so those should give us a good start. There’s no shortage of potential customers in the area, either . . .

Amphibians are an important and welcome part of our ecosystems; they’re always wonderful to see and a strong reminder of why we don’t use chemicals anywhere. There’s a small toad that seems to live very happily amongst the plant pots under the bench in the tunnel and is possibly the reason we don’t have a slug problem in there. I’ve been watching the golden ground beetles in there, too; they’re incredibly smart creatures decked out in metallic green with red legs that scuttle out from under the plant trays when I move them. The insect highlight of the week, however, was spotting a female long-horned bee – the red-listed species I wrote about last time – among the strawberry flowers.

Having recently read a long and detailed permaculture article, it seems that if there is one topic that divides opinion within the community, it’s mandala beds. Permies either love them or loathe them – there’s a definite ‘Marmite moment’ going on! I like them (and just for the record, I like Marmite, too 😊) and I’m very excited to watch ours evolve this year despite the fact that an expert would be quick to point out that I’ve fallen short of the mark in doing things properly. For starters, I should really have opted for looping keyhole beds rather than straight paths and triangular wedges; instead of a pointless rock in the middle, there ought to be a geodome chicken home and somewhere in the vicinity, a hot composting system. Well, I’m not trying to do it perfectly so I shan’t be losing too much sleep over my shortcomings and after all, the whole project is so much more than ticking a permaculture box . . . so why am I doing it?

  • I’ve fancied making a garden feature based on a large circle for a long time. For many years, I had a vague notion of a spiral maze floating about in my mind, but never actually got round to making it for many reasons, not least the fact that most of our gardens have either been too small or too steep. Now at last I have plenty of flat space to play with and a mandala bed rather than a maze feels like the better option.
  • I wanted to create something a little bit different in our ‘flower’ garden, a feature that would perhaps become a bit of a talking point and capture people’s attention and interest. It’s not the most elaborate of patterns but I like the sunburst of paths radiating out from the centre and the play of light across it at different times of the day and, although it’s not a maze as such, I’m hoping our little visitors in the summer will have fun running in and out of it along the paths. For me, it’s like a giant compass and a useful anchor point for tracking the sun’s path through the year but I want it to be completely open to interpretation. In The Therapeutic Garden, Donald Norfolk talks about seeing a garden feature as the centre of the universe since space stretches out infinitely in every direction from one point and I like that idea, too. Some might see fractions or pie charts or those of a more religious or spiritual bent might think of a Dharma Wheel or a Wheel of the Year. I have a friend who calls it my ‘yoga garden’ and Sam said it reminded him of playing Trivial Pursuit. Good, it’s already capturing imaginations!
  • On a less whimsical note, I’m trying to make a case for blurring the boundaries between flowers and food in the garden. Obviously, flowers are traditionally grown alongside vegetables in the sort of potager we are making at the other end of the patch but I think there’s an argument for having plenty of food plants in the flower garden, too. It’s not a new idea but so often consists of highly predictable suggestions (ruby chard, anyone?) which are based totally on aesthetics rather than usefulness. My argument is simple: why grow things like ornamental cabbages and gourds when you can grow equally interesting plants in the same space and eat them, too?
  • Finally – and I suppose this is the proper permaculture bit – I’m interested to explore just what is possible when creating a planting area using a no-dig approach and only the materials we have to hand. Apart from some of the cardboard which we scrounged (and which was, after all, other people’s waste), everything else including several layers of organic materials, the standing stone, the wood mulch for paths and the plants have all come from our patch of land and apart from two sections where I have sown annual flower seeds, the beds will be filled with our spare plants. So far, it has definitely been another case of something from nothing.

Like many other things going on in our garden, the mandala bed is a bit of an experiment and as such, I’m prepared for things to go horribly wrong. I’ve covered two sections with soil rescued from molehills plus a bit of compost and sown a mix of nectar-rich annual flowers on them . . . but whether the soil will be deep enough to sustain the growth, especially in hot dry spells, is questionable. I was encouraged to find a couple of phacelia volunteers had appeared there already (what a trooper that plant is!) but even so, I’m a bit doubtful. It hasn’t been all plain sailing with the food plants, either: strawberries, summer cabbages and a ‘Courcourzelle’ courgette are looking fine, but I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to replant lettuces thanks to the destructive presence of wireworms. I’m a bit frustrated that the little orange pests seem capable of working their way up through all the lasagne layers to munch away at roots but I’ve got hundreds of lettuce plants and I’m nothing if not determined so the battle continues. I’m hopeful that by the time the tender plants like peppers, aubergines, melons and cucumbers go out, the beasties (who apparently don’t like warm soil) will have beaten a retreat. We’ll see.

The state of the other two beds in the flower garden has been an interesting situation to consider. One was created by stripping turf and digging, the other was a sort of flat hügel bed experiment and both were mostly planted with annual flowers last year and deeply mulched with leaves and dead plant material over winter. When I stripped back the mulch ready for planting, there were two very different stories underneath. The dug bed was a carpet of perennial weeds (mostly creeping buttercup), so densely matted that I’ve had to dig it all again, and some of the perennial plants in there had taken a real bashing from various pests. In complete contrast, in the ‘pancake lasagne hügel’ bed there were hardly any weeds and the native plants that have appeared and decided to stay such as knapweed, campion, ox-eye daisy, mallow, yarrow and a lone teasel are looking incredibly healthy.

There was also a good crop of young oak trees from the acorns that went in with a brown layer, so we’ve lifted several to add to the tree nursery. I want to keep this border on the wild side so I’ve sown it with all sorts of annual seed for an unapologetic splash of summer colour and wealth of wildlife busyness. The dug border will make the transition to a mostly perennial one this year which, apart from anything else, will allow me to keep it mulched to help improve the soil; I’ve sown a narrow strip along the front with annuals and added a few dahlias but otherwise my plan is to fill it with perennial plants as I go along. I’m raising lots in the tunnel, favourites like scabious, aquilegia, globe thistle, gaillardia and echinacea, but they won’t be big enough to plant until later in the year. On the bright side, the soapwort, Michaelmas daisies, madder and cardoons are all going great guns so I’m wondering if maybe this needs to be a bed for thugs? When we visited the medieval garden in Lassay-les-Châteaux last summer, I liked the way the cardoons there had been underplanted with wild strawberries so I’ve done the same with ours and hope it will look as effective once the little plants are established. Whatever happens, we should at least be guaranteed a bit of summer colour once again.

Shifting to the vegetable garden and, given the wireworm issue in the mandala bed, I’ve been fretting a bit about the asparagus. I must admit to having had severe reservations about sheet mulching an asparagus bed, knowing how perennial weeds (and grass in particular) can be a major problem but several leading authorities on the matter convinced me it was possible so the lasagne bed was built, the plants raised from seed and 30 of them planted in deep pockets of rich compost. The apparent lack of life this spring has been bothering me, and I’ve been wondering if maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all; it takes three years to establish plants big enough to harvest, so a year’s setback is the last thing we need. Well, I should know by now to be a little more patient and have more faith: this week, tiny purplish spears of asparagus have shot up from all but one planting hole (and I have spare plants in reserve) and I am so happy. I’ve lifted the few weeds – mostly sorrel – from around them, mulched them heavily with grass clippings and told them what beautiful plants they are: a little encouragement and flattery goes a long way.

Where the weather is concerned, it’s a tricky time of year as the wind has a habit of going into the cold east and a frost is still possible; it’s still too early to plant out tender things but this is where the tunnel comes into its own. Having nurtured far too many young plants on windowsills and then in the tunnel, the time came to get them in the ground so I spent a very happy (and incredibly hot!) afternoon planting the whole of one side with peppers, chillies, aubergines and melons. I’ve got plenty of spares in case they’re needed, and if not, they can go outside next month. I shift all the plants-in-waiting and trays of seedlings out every day as the tunnel is hot and they need to harden off, then tuck them up safely back inside at night. Some of the courgettes had grown so big that they really had to go into the ground this week so I’ve made some windbreaks from slates again and if there’s a hint of frost, I’m covering them overnight with buckets; it’s a bit of a gamble but I think they’ll be OK. The squash are desperate, too, but they really do have to wait a bit longer. No such problems with onions, the seedlings seemed big enough to go out so I’ve planted three rows (about 75) so far with more to come. Now what we really, really need is some rain.

The protective climate of the tunnel is a good reminder now of how the whole garden should look later in the year. I love the way that baby mesclun leaves are nestled next to radish under peas, all one big jostling jungle. I’ve just watched our neighbours making an incredibly impressive and precise job of their potato patch, digging in muck, rotovating twice, raking down to a very fine tilth and then using a tape measure to ensure the exact distance between each plant. I wonder what on earth they must think of my wayward, messy ways? 😬

I was just about to publish this post when we had a freak storm. It was nothing really, a few rumbles of thunder, barely enough rain to dampen the seed beds yet alone start filling the pond and a single ferocious crack of lightning which tripped the power and fried the phoneline. End of internet, end of blogging! It’s taken several very frustrating days trying to report the fault and get it fixed but we’re there at last, back on air and I can hit the ‘Publish’ button bearing in mind my photos are all well out of date now. I wouldn’t have minded if the storm had at least delivered the rain we so desperately need. I’m just off to bail out the bath water in the hope of keeping some seedlings alive. Time for a rain dance, perhaps? 😉

Something from nothing

For those of us growing food in temperate northern climes, the next few weeks tend to be the trickiest in terms of having enough fresh produce from the garden: the winter vegetables are over, our stores running low and new crops still in their infancy. As this is our first proper year of cultivation here, I’m interested to see just how far we can go in trying to close – or even eradicate? – the so-called ‘hungry gap’.

A good test of our current situation came when we were writing a short shopping list before cycling into St P to collect a few supplies; as there is a limit to how much we can carry on our bikes, we have to be very precise about what we do or don’t require. So, did we need to buy any vegetables to supplement what we already had at home? We finished our own potatoes and onions some time ago but now buy those in bulk so we have plenty to hand; we still have garlic, squash, chillies and beans in store along with the last few parsnips; in the garden, there are leeks, kale, chard, perpetual spinach, beetroot, rocket, Florence fennel, landcress and red sorrel, a variety of fresh herbs and various young ‘wild’ leaves, too. We don’t have huge quantities of anything, but when it comes to making meals, it’s amazing how we can still rustle up something from nothing. No need to buy veg, then: oh good, that leaves room in the rucksack for a bottle of wine! 😉

The ‘something from nothing’ idea has been a bit of a theme in the garden this week. Roger has been lifting and potting up birch seedlings that have appeared in the gravel to make a start on our next little tree nursery and we have planted five flowering currants and five red dogwoods grown from hardwood cuttings I took in the winter. On the strength of that success, I’ve taken softwood cuttings of viburnum tinus which has been flowering for weeks and also lilac which is just coming into bloom; this is such a great way of increasing our stock of shrubs for nothing. Last summer I sowed the last few wallflower seeds from a packet so ancient I doubted there was any chance of them germinating, yet alone making decent plants; really, I should have more faith! I stuffed the tiny plants in pots with some daffodil bulbs at the front of the house and they are making a gorgeous splash of colour at the moment. I’m particularly chuffed that every plant has different coloured flowers so I’m planning to collect a bit of seed from each of them and then let the rest scatter themselves in the hope of adding to our gravel garden.

This self-setting strategy is one that I love and it’s incredible how many little treasures are appearing and spreading themselves through the gravel – and all in such appropriate places, as if they’ve read their own planting instructions! Under the oak tree there are primroses, foxgloves, forget-me-nots and verbascum and in front of the house, Californian poppies, rosemary, pansies and wild strawberries. It’s lazy gardening but definitely to be encouraged.

We have made a commitment to only use the car when completely necessary and it’s an interesting exercise in seeing just how much we can accomplish on our bikes or on foot. Roger is currently spending a lot of time in the coppice cutting fallen wood for logs but instead of going in the car and taking the chainsaw, he is cycling there with a bow saw and cutting the wood by hand. Yes, it’s slower and more laborious in some ways but he’s enjoying himself, finding it far more pleasant to work quietly and gently without disturbing the peace of the place. Obviously, at some point we will need to take the car and trailer to collect the logs – perhaps we should look at bike trailers? – but in the meantime, the two-wheeled approach is working well.

The coppice is somewhere we plan to spend far more time this year and to that end, Roger has been cutting back brambles to make paths and has cleared a space for us to eventually site a picnic table so we have a permanent seat and somewhere to eat. At the heart of the wood there is an old quarry whose high rock walls create a natural sheltered bowl full of trees, undergrowth and moss-covered rocks; Sam and Adrienne are keen boulderers (is that the right term?) and were sizing up the possibility of scaling the quarry wall on their recent visit.

Well, I’m certainly not brave enough for that one, but I’m definitely happy to spend more time in such a pleasant spot. One morning this week saw us leaving the house before dawn, with our super lightweight portable camping chairs slung over our shoulders and a flask of coffee to hand, heading off up the lane on foot. There was no need for a torch as the moon was full and there was something rather lovely about walking the half mile or so by moonlight with the first rustlings of bird activity all around us. Once in the coppice, we settled down with our coffee and listened to the magical dawn chorus in ‘surround sound’ as light slowly seeped into the day. I know there are people who think we’re a bit crazy for doing such things but for me the alternative – not to have these simple yet wonderful experiences – would be even crazier, a life not lived to the full. Cost: nothing (we’d have made morning coffee anyway). Value: priceless.

I learnt the French word for badger – un blaireau – the last time we lived here and remembered it because at the time, Tony Blair(eau) was prime minister of the UK; as far as I can recall, the former PM bears no resemblance whatsoever to a badger, but my wiring obviously works in weird ways and the word was committed to my long-term memory. I came across it again this week, during a lesson which involved watching a French TEDx talk and learned from the speaker that to refer to someone in France as un blaireau is basically to call them a moron. Two things struck me: first, I think it’s a bit harsh on badgers, an animal I’ve always had a soft spot for, and second, as I try to be polite and well-mannered (in public, at least 😆), I doubted there would ever be an occasion for me to apply my newly-acquired knowledge. Ha, how the language gods were laughing! That same afternoon, Roger returned from the wood to find that someone had run over and killed a large grass snake on the lane outside our house. I suspect it was one of the several that live peacefully in our attached barn and which, particularly in warm weather, cross the lane to drink and hunt in Gilles’s pond. Grass snakes are totally harmless creatures: they are not poisonous and offer no danger whatsoever to human beings. They are also a good indicator of a healthy ecosystem, so we are blessed to have them on our patch; sadly, there is a fair bit of grass snake hate about but we certainly wouldn’t dream of doing anything to hurt or disturb them. It is not an animal to hurl itself from nowhere under car tyres and this was a big and very visible one so I suspect it met its end because the driver was either going too fast round the corner on the narrow lane, wasn’t concentrating or deliberately went for the kill. I’m not rude enough to put it in print, but yes, I was definitely thinking it. 🤬🦡

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not a deluded bunny hugger and I accept that nature is red in tooth and claw and death is part of the natural cycle. I know that our patch might be a haven for wildlife but that doesn’t necessarily make it a sanctuary; ecosystems are built on food webs and that means living things eating others. It’s life. What saddens me is when that life is destroyed unnecessarily, but all we can do is carry on trying to improve and create a wide diversity of habitats here and enjoy the good moments . . . of which there have been many this week. The blue tits in our nestbox have decided the entrance hole is not up to their exacting standards (despite it having been made to a very precise 25mm) so between bustling in and out with beaks full of nesting materials, they are bashing away at the hole, from inside and out, like a couple of demented mini woodpeckers. A pair of chaffinches has taken to camping on the doorstep waiting for us to sweep the breadboard crumbs through the door for them and the duelling blackcaps are back, trying to out-sing one another in ever more ear-splitting crescendos. I found a couple of delicate empty shells in the garden, the sweet blue of a robin’s egg; I don’t know where they are nesting but there are certainly blackbirds feeding young in a small hedgerow holly, cursing us soundly if we try to use the sun loungers by the Oak Shed. We had an incredible view of a male cuckoo that alighted on top of the oak tree, shouting his wares – such a rare thing to see. I literally came eyeball to eyeball with a swallow when I was sowing flower seeds in the mandala bed; it landed and started picking something from the soil which had me a bit puzzled as I thought they were insectivores, not seed eaters. On closer inspection, it wasn’t feeding but collecting small pieces of the vermiculite that were in the seed mix. Grit for shell formation? An insulating building material to add to mud? I’m not sure, but to be so close to what is one of my favourite birds was a very special moment. I’ve lost count of the number of shield bugs and butterflies that have landed on me this week; the weather has been incredibly warm so I’m wondering if my it’s my tatty, bright pink summer gardening t-shirt that’s attracting them? 😊

One insect I wasn’t expecting to see when I was checking the young plants in the tunnel was a male long-horned bee, sporting a pair of antennae to be proud of. This is eucara longicornis, a species which is in decline; it has been identified as a UK priority species and is on the European Red List, so it’s in need of all the help it can get. It has a symbiotic relationship with bee orchids, which we don’t have, but apparently prefers flowers from the pea/ vetch /clover family which is definitely something we can provide. I’m wondering if it was the pea flowers that had attracted it to the tunnel in the first place? Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera to hand but I was at least more organised when it came to the other candidate for Insect of the Week award . . .

. . . meet meloe violaceus, the violet oil beetle (or should I say beetles) which I saw totally by chance while I was mulching our young hedging plants; I have to say it didn’t look like the most comfortable of couplings! Like the long-horned bee, this was a new species for me so thank goodness for the internet. The ‘oil’ is actually a poisonous substance which can cause painful skin blisters, hardly a problem as I’m not given to bug snuggling, but its presence here is great news indeed. Apparently, it is a good indicator species for the health of the environment; it has a symbiotic (parasitic) relationship with solitary mining bees, the larvae or ‘triungulins’ (what a great word!) hitching a ride to the bee’s nest and raiding the pollen stores until they emerge as adults. The beetles have suffered a drastic decline in the UK due to changes in countryside management and are a Biodiversity Action Plan priority species; however, in France its status as a non-protected species suggests that the picture here is a little brighter, for the time being, at least. Even so, for them to be present on our patch, there needs to be a healthy mining bee population and wildflower-rich grassland so it looks like we are doing something right.

We’ve just eaten the last cherries from the freezer and I’m hoping for a bumper crop to replace them this year. Everything certainly bodes well for that at the moment: the blossom is stunning and staggered, and the prolonged spell of warm, dry, still weather is giving the pollinators every chance to do their business. With the hedge beneath it laid, even the poor abused old tree looks better this year and with any luck will be dripping with sweet red fruits by July.

If we can preserve enough cherries this year along with soft fruit and apples, as well as have a decent early harvest from the new rhubarb patch next spring, then this time next year with any luck we won’t need to be carrying bought fruit on our bikes, either. Even more room in the rucksack for naughty things, then! 😊

Spring clean

Last week, I did a bit of spring cleaning on two counts. First, with Sam and Adrienne’s long-awaited visit finally looking like it would go ahead, I decided it was time to spruce the house up a bit in their honour. I’m not the world’s greatest fan of cleaning – it generally seems like a waste of good gardening time to me 😆 – but there is something lovely about making our home clean, comfortable and welcoming for guests, especially ones we’ve waited for 27 months to see. There’s a simple pleasure to be found in the small things: old wooden furniture polished to a shine with essential oils, crisp cotton sheets line-dried and smelling of fresh air, a pile of soft fluffy bath towels and a vase of sweet-scented narcissi for the bedroom (even if I did have to pick them in a blizzard). This sort of cleaning feels more like a gift than a grind and I quite enjoyed myself, especially since the house felt so warm and cosy whilst outside the snow swirled past the windows in huge, downy goose feathers. Spring? Ha!

We have a long-standing joke with Sam and Adrienne that they always bring terrible weather with them when they visit; actually, it’s not really a joke, more of a foregone conclusion to be honest. I think they truly excelled themselves this time: after enjoying two weeks of what was really summer weather here, living and eating outside and looking as brown as berries, the day before they arrived we were suddenly hurled into weather worse than any we had over winter. The temperature plunged to below freezing and snow blew in on the back of a bitter north wind as if Norwegian weather had been sent on ahead to make them feel at home! The change was almost surreal and everything that had been luxuriating in the warm sunshine – the blossom, the birds, the bees – suddenly looked as surprised and shivery as us.

Thankfully, the weather did pick up a bit, at least enough for us to wrap up and enjoy some good local walks; the wind remained desperately cold but there is heat in the sun at this time of year and in sheltered spots, it was pleasant enough to shed a few layers. Walking is something we’ve always enjoyed doing together and it felt like far too long since our last hikes, so much lost time to catch up on, so much nattering to be done; despite the unseasonal weather, it was a complete joy . . . and we are very excited about the return match in Norway in June (fingers firmly crossed for that one, of course).

A flask of coffee and some amazing patisserie have always been an important feature of our walks!

Despite the fickle weather, this is a gorgeous time of year and it was lovely to have an excuse to be out and about in our walking boots enjoying the best of it. For me, cherry is the defining tree of the region and it is at its best now, a drift of billowy white across the landscape, those petals far more welcome than the snow.

Beneath the trees there are carpets of hazy bluebells, their heady and evocative perfume mingling with the coconut scent of gorse; with the call of the cuckoo and arrival of the first swallows this week, it all just shouts, “Spring is here!” to me in the most joyful of ways.

I took a break from my French studies, not wanting to miss a minute with our visitors, and in a way some time off to assimilate what I’ve learned so far was exactly what I needed. There’s so much to take on board and it’s certainly keeping my brain busy but it definitely sounds a lot easier than learning Norwegian, that’s for sure! In the middle of St P, there’s a quirky little structure that looks a bit like an overgrown bird table but which is actually a community book borrow scheme; in the past few months, it’s gone from holding a handful of forlorn looking titles to being full to bursting with a wide range of reading material. I’ve borrowed La Colline d’en Face by Catherine Paysan, a novel set in rural Sarthe and one which is incredibly rich in language describing the natural world. Sarthe is our neighbouring department, just a stone’s throw from home and it’s where we did the ‘bluebell’ walk so the book seemed like the perfect choice. It will be quite a challenge but more than anything, I’m hoping to learn plenty of new vocabulary to describe the natural features and life within our locality in detail. Having just read Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines for the umpteenth time, I was reminded of the beautiful concept of naming or ‘singing’ a landscape as we walk through it, recognising the importance and connection between each plant, animal, tree, stone . . . how wonderful to be able to do that in two languages.

Back to spring cleaning, and the second focus for a good tidy up has been my blog. With my subscription due for renewal and free space rapidly running out (my own fault, I post far too many photos) I decided it was time for some drastic action and deleted all the posts I wrote in Asturias plus the hundreds if not thousands of accompanying photos. There was nothing hard or sad about this; in the nine years I’ve been blogging, I’ve recognised that my blog needs to change and evolve just as my life does and it’s important to reflect, enjoy and then move on. It’s a refreshing life laundry of sorts, a decluttering and tidying up which has freed up lots of lovely space to share our continued adventure in France. Not to mention plenty more photos, too . . .

Our days with Sam and Adrienne were over all too soon, but with them (and their atrocious weather) safely returned to Norway, it was time for us to get busy in the garden once again. The mild temperatures, soft air and hectic bird and insect activity in the garden have made it a pleasure to be outside and at last, the time for outdoor planting has begun. In the potager, I’ve planted spare broad bean plants to plug a few inevitable gaps, another row of peas, a patch of pointy summer cabbage under a tripod of sweet peas, and rows of carrots, Florence fennel, spring onions plus seven different brassicas in ‘nursery’ beds; dill, coriander and marigolds are next on the list. The parsnip seedlings are emerging in their usual slow time but are still too small to mulch, unlike the garlic and broad beans which have been tucked round with a good layer of grass clippings. Conscious of possible food shortages, we have opted to seriously increase the number of potatoes we grow this year, 124 in all of which most are ‘Charlotte’ and ‘Blue Danube’ from saved seed, but also 13 ‘Acoustic’ which I was given as freebies from our local country store; they were planted a couple of weeks ago and I’m currently ‘feeding’ the bed with coffee grounds and tea leaves before applying a heavy mulch as soon as the first leaves appear.

Roger has never been a fan of what was sold to us as the Secret Garden, which we have renamed the Not Garden (not to be confused with an Elizabethan knot garden) – as in, now he has laid the hedges and we have removed the shed and let in a lot more light, it’s not very secret anymore. 😁 It’s still a useful growing area, though, and one where I can indulge my love of chaotic planting in small rows or patches with everything jostling for elbow room. I’ve planted rainbow chard along with red, golden and stripy beetroot, and also a patch of swedes which is a bit of an experiment as we’re not sure how they will fare here, especially if we have a hot summer. I’ve also sown a shady patch with wild garlic seed in the hope of having plants to move to our woodland edge for future ‘wild’ forage. We’re still harvesting kale, perpetual spinach, beetroot (roots and leaves) and chard from this patch and there is also rocket and landcress which have overwintered well and I’m now letting flower in the hope they will fling their seeds far and wide.

American landcress

Seed saving becomes more and more important to us every year, so there are plenty of other plants being deliberately left to flower and set seed including leeks, Savoy cabbage, red kale, thousandhead kale, parsnips, coriander and lamb’s lettuce. I love the colour and form they bring to the garden and the insects go crazy for them . . . which bodes well for the seed harvest, of course.

Lamb’s lettuce
Red kale

In the tunnel, I’ve planted a tray of celeriac and pots of cauliflowers, a couple of things we’ve grown before but like those swedes, are a bit of an experiment here this year. I’m hoping a bit of initial cossetting will set them on their way but only time will tell. To be honest, I’m beginning to wonder how on earth we managed without the tunnel last year, it is bursting at the seams with plants and I haven’t even moved the capsicums and aubergines in there yet (although their days of luxuriating on windowsills are most definitely numbered now the overnight temperatures have risen to double figures).

Pampered aubergines . . . the time is coming to toughen up.

Having promised to curb my planting enthusiasm this year, I have predictably gone way over the top with numbers and, in my defence (a phrase Roger hears far too often 😉), I think it’s just the sheer delight of being able to grow so much after the struggle we had last year. I’m the first to admit that 25 squash, 36 capsicums, 7 courgettes, 13 cucumbers and 10 melons add up to far too many plants for two people but we have the planting space and I can always give surplus away to anyone who wants it. Only the chillies, peppers, aubergines and some melons will be planted in the tunnel, everything else will go outside; I’ve planted one ‘Latino’ courgette in the tunnel which, like the potatoes and peas, will give us an early crop and by the time it starts to do the triffid thing and needs curbing (and probably evicting), there should be plenty coming outside.

The first flowers are opening on the indoor peas.

Where tomatoes are concerned, we’re holding our nerve; we don’t want the plants going out until well into June in the hope of beating blight, and given how quickly they grow, we can’t sow them too early. The exception are the few we want to grow in pots at the front of the house so I’ve sown just nine seeds this week – three each of ‘Marmande’, ‘Saint-Pierre’ and ‘Black from Tulsa’ – to give them a head start. The rest, including some very interesting and new varieties for us (thank you again, Anja!) will follow in due course. Something that is certainly not struggling with disease or anything else are the ‘Pernot’ radishes in the tunnel, probably one of the best crops we’ve ever had; I’m sowing small rows every couple of weeks and they are bringing a peppery crunch and splash of colour to our leafy salads.

Outside, the purple sprouting broccoli goes from strength to strength and is compulsory eating every day. I am happy to eat piles of it hot or cold, and I also love it raw, especially the smaller florets tossed into a salad; there will be a bit of seed saving to be done there, too, once the plants run to flowers. I love the fresh green of new hawthorn leaves at this time of year – the country children’s ‘bread and cheese’ – and they are another nutritious addition to our salads, great for heart health in particular.

One of the aspects we are enjoying so much about our new garden is that it is perfect for wandering around at any time, but particularly in the evenings, and especially now with the days lengthening rapidly. We often spend our days busy with different activities so it’s lovely to catch up once we’ve finished for the day and see what each other has been up to around the patch (or in my case, to try and pretend I haven’t planted quite so many things 😆). It’s times like this that I really notice and appreciate the small things as the season unfolds around us: how can I not be charmed by the fascinating forms of ear willow and ash flowers, the delicate beauty of peach blossom and tiny, self-set forget-me-nots, the sweet fragrance of the first apple blossom?

So, the season turns, the garden evolves, my blog writing goes on and my incurable photo obsession continues. Thank goodness for spring cleaning! 😊

Chez nous

There are some things I miss about Asturias but one of them is definitely not the steepness of things that made the simplest of tasks such hard work: the interminable hairpin bends, the fifteen steps up into the house, the soil rolling to the bottom of the garden, the near impossibility of using a wheelbarrow or riding my bike . . . having spent the last couple of weeks going full tilt in our Mayenne garden, I have to concede that life in a flatter environment certainly has its attractions!

The cherry plum blossom is falling like confetti now but is still buzzing with insect activity.

I also realise how challenging it was to stumble through five years in my basic Spanish, a beautiful language which I loved learning but despite a lot of time and effort spent in study and practice, I never really cracked. I’m happy that we managed to get things done but in part that was thanks to the patient understanding and tolerance of the people I was speaking to and there is no doubt that I am far more comfortable and confident in speaking French, happy to chat away in conversation and use the phone in a way I never managed in Spanish. Learning new languages is one of the best workouts for the old grey matter and is never wasted but suspecting our recent return to Asturias for several weeks was likely to frazzle my linguistic brain, I knew I had to find time for a little French every day just to keep my hand in. I bought a French copy of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca from the charity shop, a novel I read in English many years ago, and set myself the goal of reading two chapters a day while we were away. The translation was excellent, truly evoking the spirit and voice of the original and I found myself so surprisingly engrossed, I could hardly put it down.

One of the few plants I brought back from Asturias, a dainty and deeply-scented narcissus given to me by Vita.

Since moving back to France, I’ve been dipping in and out of various study materials but couldn’t really settle to anything before discovering the excellent InnerFrench website hosted by Hugo, a young French teacher who lives and works in Poland. Passionate and enthusiastic about language learning, Hugo has a brilliant perception of the problems facing intermediate learners when it comes to sourcing interesting and stimulating materials that are more than just a minefield of ever more complex grammatical constructions. His podcasts are excellent, covering a huge range of fascinating subjects and I listen to several each week, especially if I’m doing something boring but necessary (like cleaning the kitchen). They have helped me push my listening and comprehension skills along big time and I have no doubt my enjoyment and almost fluent reading of Rebecca was thanks to the Hugo effect! I’ve now started his ‘Build a Core Strength’ course; thirty lessons might not sound like much but it is going to take me several months to complete them, they are so resource-rich and stimulating. It is quite a challenge – my brain already feels a little fried – but I’m hoping they will continue to prod me in the right direction, stop me from becoming complacent and encourage me to become a more fluent and natural French speaker.

We have planted a forsythia in our eclectic hedge for a splash of sunny spring colour.

The upshot of this is that I won’t be doing much blogging for some time, partly because I can only stand so long on a computer each day (I’m currently doing my French early in the morning so as not to miss out on any garden time!) but also because I really need to focus on using French as much as possible, rather than writing reams of English. So, for the foreseeable future, my posts will probably be mostly photos with captions rather than a lot of waffle . . . which may well come as a relief to some people anyway! 😂

It has been a stunning year for primroses, they are everywhere.

It seems that finally saying goodbye to Asturias has unleashed a huge surge of energy and enthusiasm in us both and we have practically lived in the garden over the last four weeks. It feels so good to really knuckle down to all the plans and projects we’ve had in mind and see some of our ideas come into fruition. Apart from one wet day, the weather has been dry and bright (if a little cold some days thanks to the easterly wind) and it has been a joy to be outside enjoying the scent of primroses and blossom and the raucous birdsong while we work. The fieldfares and bramblings have gone, the garden is full of chiffchaffs, the sky rings with the trilling of sky larks and wood larks and the swallows must surely be on their way back now the wind has swung into the south!

A day of rainfall filled the water butts and covered everything in a fine layer of orange Saharan dust.

Here, then, in the spirit of micro-blogging, is the news in brief . . .

Roger has been shredding the brush from hedge laying and we used the resultant mulch to make an area of hardstanding in the Love Shack.
I also used the shredded wood to make paths in my mandala bed – hardwearing but soft underfoot, sustainable and biodegradable, it’s the perfect medium and has made a beautiful sunburst pattern. Can’t wait to start planting . . .
I’ve painted the Oak Shed green, sorted out the borders in front of it and planted the passionflower we brought from Asturias on the left. Can’t do much about that ugly tin roof but hopefully it will all look less of an eyesore this year.
Remember the shed demolition on Christmas Day? Roger used spare timber and gravel to make a seating area where before there was broken slate in mud. With the hibernating grass snakes gone, he filled the old privy hole with spoil from the pond digging and has made a border now sown with mixed annuals. The ‘table’ has been fashioned from part of that poor deformed cherry tree we had to remove; it’s the perfect spot to sit in the evening sunshine and should just get better and better as we go through the year.
There are still plenty of parsnips, leeks, kale, chard and a forest of purple sprouting broccoli in the garden but we had to harvest all the Jerusalem artichokes this week as they had started to grow again. We have re-planted 10 tubers for next year (selecting for straight, knobble-less ones); I have sown their bed with phacelia as a quick green manure, then plan to plant violet globe artichokes to complement the row of green ones.
The ones that got away . . . Jerusalem artichokes we missed on the first dig! They are such an underrated (and often maligned) vegetable which is a shame as they are dead easy to grow – practically indestructible, in fact – are packed with nutritional goodies and incredibly versatile in the kitchen. They are delicious raw in a slaw or roasted, used in a mixed root mash or made into a gratin. Our current favourite approach is to grate them and fry them in butter with spices like a rosti; even better finished with a decadent splosh of cream or crème fraîche, it’s a great dish on its own but also makes a fabulous filling for jacket potatoes.
We would never choose to plant peach trees here, especially in the exposed position where this one is located. That said, the blossom is gorgeous and who knows what might happen if we are blessed with a warm spring and hot summer?
In the balmy warmth of the tunnel, the potatoes are bombing up and, despite Mousegate, there’s a good row of peas (and several scattered little mouse gardens, too – I’m picking those as peashoots for salad) and I’ve pricked out the first patch of lettuce seedlings. As predicted, the bench is already heaving and I’ve barely even started yet . . .
. . . so thank goodness for sunny windowsills! Three of them are home to peppers, chillies, courgettes and squash plants with cucumbers and melons still in the propagator. I’m covering them at night with plastic box cloches but they spend their days sunbathing: next stop, the tunnel.
One of our long-term projects is to turn the gravelled area in front of the house into a pretty courtyard – but how to get rid of that previous car park feel? We’ve taken a leaf out of Beth Chatto’s book and decided to plant a gravel garden. It’s a huge experiment which could go horribly wrong, but we’ve made a start; it doesn’t look like much at the moment, but hopefully I’ll be able to post some wonderful follow-up photos later in the year. 😉
I love foraging for salad ingredients and it’s amazing how we can make something from nothing at this time of year: rocket, landcress, chard, beetroot leaves (I purposely left a few in the ground last year to re-grow fresh leaves), red kale, red sorrel, chives, lemon balm and the first pickings of fresh mint, along with primroses, violets, rocket flowers and marigold petals. There’s also plenty of young dandelion, wild sorrel and hawthorn leaves for a touch of the wild.
I don’t know whether it’s down to a milder winter but the spring flowers have been gorgeous this year and the garden and grass verges are alive with drifts of colour. There have been several types of butterfly in the garden this week, not the usual early suspects like orange tips and yellow brimstones, but peacocks, tortoiseshell and painted ladies – emerged from hibernation to stretch their dusty wings, perhaps? I’ve seen the first lizards, too, and – wonderful news – there is a pair of blue tits in the nestbox we made last year. They seem to be very much at home. Well, so are we! 😊

Solar power

A couple of weeks ago, finding myself wide awake at 4.45am, I pulled on my dressing gown and wellies (how chic am I?), grabbed a blanket and headed out into the garden. The moon and Venus were still bright in the southern sky as I settled myself into a chair to watch the sun rise and the world around me waken. I’m often dozily aware of the growing light and dawn chorus drifting in through the bedroom window but to be outside in the thick of it was truly magical. It’s not just the birdsong, the different species flowing in and out of the chorus like a well-directed choir, but all the movement that goes with it – the rustle and bustle, the flitting and flying and feeding – that is quite astonishing. The sun rose in a bright fire, blushing a few wispy clouds and sending long fingers of shadow whispering across the garden; the grey shapes of tree and flower came into sharp focus as colour seeped into everything around me. It was beautiful, an hour of stillness and peace that left me feeling alive and invigorated for the rest of the day.

I had planned to repeat the experience on the summer solstice, excited by the fact that for the first time ever, we are living somewhere where the lie of the land means we can see both sunrise and sunset on that pivotal day; I’d wanted to take photos, to be able to pinpoint the sun’s journey precisely at the high point of its year. Ha ha, how the weather gods laughed. Cloud and thunderstorms were the order of the day; all was green and fresh and sparkling but there wasn’t a hope of seeing the sun do its stuff above the bank of glowering grey. The best I could manage was an indifferent, moody cloudscape in the evening. Ah well, there’s always next year . . .

. . . and that’s the point, really. I can’t feel downhearted. I love midsummer and think it is worthy of celebration, it is such a joyful time of year with so much light and warmth and growth. I know it’s not the same for everyone and there are those who feel wistful – mournful, even – at the thought of shorter days and everything being ‘downhill’ from here. Well, I’ve never been one to race ahead of the season and it frustrates me the way in which modern society encourages that. In a blink of an eye, it will be the summer sales bonanza; as children prepare to break up for their summer holiday, the shops will be full of ‘Back to School’ stuff; far too soon after their return to the classroom, the shelves will be cleared in preparation for that gross consumerfest in December. Why be miserable about dark nights and cold weather when it’s still warm and light and there is so much yet to come, not least most of our harvest? We’re only halfway through the year . . . let’s enjoy ourselves and celebrate the moment!

I think this moment as the sun briefly stands still is the perfect point for a pause; it’s a time to look back over the waxing half of the year and reflect on what I have – or haven’t – accomplished and look forward to the next six months with optimism and a fresh sense of purpose. For us this year it is particularly pertinent since this week marks six months since we moved to our new home here . . . wow, that time seems to have flown by! There have been ups and downs, steps forward and back, much hard work and a fair amount of play, too; at times, our progress has seemed painfully slow but we have achieved much and some time spent in reflection also helps us to see more clearly what our next steps need to be.

The garden, as ever, has been our main priority, and at last there is a feeling that we are actually getting somewhere. The summer harvest has started in earnest and it’s a wonderful feeling to be shelling peas and broad beans and picking cherries daily; we eat vast quantities of fruit and vegetables and it has been a strange experience for us having to buy them since December. No more! I love the way that a sense of abundance is creeping into various patches; I am happy to admit that I am a terrible crammer when it comes to sowing and planting but I love that sense of everything hugged together, jostling for elbow room. Out of necessity this year, the larger veg patches look more formal than I like with most things in tidy rows but in the Secret Garden, I have managed to indulge my own brand of chaos with bits and bobs stuffed in here and there, a crazy patchwork quilt of food and flowers.

The other patches look starker, lacking any real sense of height or structure as yet, but after several days of warm rain everything seems to have shifted up a gear. The climbing beans are at last spiralling upwards and the squash have tumbled down their hügel bed and set off across the grass. The ‘Purple Teepee’ dwarf beans (my absolute favourite variety) are flaunting their gorgeous flowers, and the ‘Charlotte’ potatoes have added their mauve and white blooms to the purple of ‘Blue Danube.’ Throw in the sunny yellow starbursts of courgette and squash and it’s all looking rather pretty.

Saving seeds, roots and tubers for replanting is something we’ve practised for a long time and an area that I’m committed to developing more each year. Growing heirloom varieties is an obvious way to help this along and offers the added possibility of creating our own varieties; we’ve had a lot of fun with saving squash seed in the last few years and it has come as no great surprise that the Casa Victorio Specials are leading the chase across our French garden! As well as actively saving seed, I like to let plants do their own thing and regenerate as they like; self-set seedlings often thrive, even if they do pop up in the craziest of places. Rocket is very much a spring crop here and has been flowering in the Secret Garden for a couple of weeks now, the creamy white blooms being a dainty but peppery addition to salads. In no time at all, it will be setting seed and then hopefully spreading itself about along with the neighbouring land cress, coriander, parsley, calendula and borage. There are already little red sorrel seedlings appearing of their own accord and chard and New Zealand spinach are likely to join in . . . a self-perpetuating salad bowl in the making!

Rocket flowers in a salad

It’s not just about seeds, either. I’ve been transplanting small lettuce plants into any available spaces for several weeks now and we have a good crop to choose from. Trying to persuade more to germinate at this time of year can be tricky as they don’t like the heat very much and to be honest, it makes more sense to save the seed and plant it in the tunnel later in the year as an overwintering crop. In the meantime, I’m cutting them as we need them and leaving the root in the ground: it’s amazing how quickly they regrow into perfectly pickable leaves. Two lettuce for the price of one – can’t be bad.

Blond romaine lettuce: the two in the foreground have been cut and eaten once!

Herbalism is something that has interested me for as long as I can remember and I think the study of the therapeutic applications of plants is a fascinating and joyful lifetime’s work. Each year, I try to focus on different plants and add new knowledge, awareness and application in our daily lives, both of cultivated and garden species. Midsummer feels like the perfect time to begin harvesting and processing aromatic herbs, now in the full flush of growth before flowering, their leaves bursting with heady scent. I’ve been thrilled to discover a reasonable selection of established plants already here – including several varieties of mint – and I’ve been raising more from seed to add to the mix. I must confess, I’ve let things slide a bit since we’ve moved, too busy with many, many things to be exploring new possibilites of herbal teas, medicines, toiletries and the like; however, I sense a shift in the wind and the strong draw of the plant kingdom once again. Even the simplest activity can be hugely enjoyable and beneficial. After a day of planting out hundreds of brassicas and leeks, a soak in a warm bath (such a luxury after five years of shower only) was a temptation I couldn’t resist; I picked lemon balm, lavender and rose petals, tied them in a linen square and tossed them into the water. Bliss, pure and simple.

As a Briton, it’s hard to think of the summer solstice without summoning the evocative image of Stonehenge so it seems apt that we have been having another standing stone moment here ourselves this week. Having planted an arc of cardoons to mark the last boundary of the flower garden, I could at last see exactly how much space was left for the third planting area and was thrilled to find there is room for my longed-for mandala bed. I don’t want anything too complicated – simple concentric rings will do – but when Roger found a huge lump of quartz lurking in a corner, we both agreed it would make a perfect focal point at the centre. It would have been interesting to move it over rolling logs but in the end a sack trolley did the job; well, times change, after all! On sunny days, it has acted as a perfect sundial, its shadow shrinking and growing across the grass through the day; now comes the job of creating what I hope will be a beautiful, thriving mandala bed by this time next year, something which will keep me busy in the coming months.

The smaller stone we placed in the hügel bed has disappeared into the undergrowth and I’m very delighted about that; not because I want the stone hidden, but I’ve been doubting whether anything would grow there successfully this year. Making hügel beds is a new experience for us, a game of patience which should pay dividends long term; certainly the squash seem happy enough on their high mound, but this flatter bed has bothered me a bit, especially as the topsoil is very thin. I’ve been adding to it from molehills but those little tunnellers seem to have shaken spring out of their system now and aren’t quite as busy about the place as they were. I knew that only annual seeds stood any chance this year, so I scattered a couple of flower mixes and put the rest down to green manure, mostly phacelia and buckwheat, with a late sowing of crimson clover to fill the gaps. In the hot, dry weather this bed really suffered and, with the water butts rapidly emptying, I saved every scrap of grey water from the house to try and keep things alive. After rain, though, it is literally blooming and fills me with optimism that the bed will work and we will have something resembling a flower garden in time.

We are still in the early days of learning and listening to this land and one of the best ways of doing that is to look at the pioneer plants. In a stubbornly empty patch of the hügel flower bed, a swathe of yarrow has established itself which pleases me very much. Like the elder I wrote about last time, yarrow is a crucially important healing plant; together, their dried flowers make effective remedies for winter colds and fevers, especially when combined with peppermint whilst yarrow alone has a wide range of applications. I’m happy that it’s here and it’s welcome to stay where it’s growing; far from wanting a formal flower garden, I see this space being a mix of cultivated and wild, of flowers and food, of things deliberately planted and others wandering in of their own accord. Close by, it has appeared in deep pink, too, making a pretty palette amongst the other ‘weeds’. . . how I love this wild gardening!

Permaculture places an emphasis on margins and edges, seeing them as fertile places offering much in the way of growth and possibility. I love the way that where we have left nature to its own devices, more and more species are creeping in from the edges, including the St John’s wort in my third photo – a midsummer flower if ever there was one. The verges are currently full of pale mauve campanula, indigo vetch and the rich magenta of knapweed, all flowers that I’m happy to have found in the garden, too. Looking back over the last six months, we have made changes here in order to create a garden but there is a distinct feeling that we are doing it within and alongside the wilder nature of the space and I’m happy with that. I like the blurring of boundaries and the sense of an holistic, inclusive approach; of course, the cultivated areas are contrived and not what nature would do on its own but they are not being made in a ‘beat back nature at all costs’ sort of way.

There’s a lot to be said for (re)wilding and it’s another area that interests me greatly, but things don’t have to be black and white on either side of a deep divide; the shades of grey, that mingling and mixing and merging, can be so very rich and mutually beneficial if done properly. The flower garden, now gaining in leaf, colour and height is at last starting to look more like a garden and less like a carved up field; this morning, I watched with delight as a family of young thrushes bounced their way across the mown grass and picked juicy bits out of a solitary molehill; a robin sat on top of the new standing stone and sang; a redstart perched on the edge of the new (and very full) water butt, dipping in and out to drink while a spotted flycatcher used the sweet pea wigwams as a launch pad for its aerial acrobatics. There is infinite room and opportunity for us all to share this precious place and our plans for the garden in the second half of the year are firmly rooted in that premise. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

It all comes down to a question of vision and focus, something that was brought home to me in a lovely way this week as I was trying to capture some new blooms with the camera. It was set to autofocus so all I had to do was press the shutter button; there was me, totally absorbed by the beauty of the flowers, but the camera chose to capture other life I hadn’t even noticed. Another lesson from the Small Things. I had to smile.

This made me smile, too. Checking some newly transplanted purple sprouting broccoli plants, I glanced at the neighbouring row of carrots and saw a fabulous swallowtail caterpillar, so vivid and vibrant in its smart colours which indicate that it’s close to pupation. Living life cycles, right under my nose. Incredible.

We have so much more to do here but I’m looking at our plans with a sense of optimism and excitement; we’re not afraid of the work, we know there will be downs as well as ups and our ideas may well have to be changed or even binned as we move forwards and come to know this beautiful space better. In the meantime, the sunshine has returned after a week of cloud and rain and I am feeling the pull of the warmth and light, the power of the sun at its height. It’s time to be outside again, basking in the comfort and joy of the season. Summer. Yes, I’m celebrating. 😊

In praise of small things

After so many weeks of miserably cold weather through spring, I’m not going to grumble about the current heat. That said, I don’t find 33°C conducive to digging a trench for the cardoon hedge or extending the comfrey bed. Ditto going for a run. It is a complete pleasure, though, to get up early and walk many circuits round the patch, some at a brisk march in the name of exercise, others more leisurely, camera in hand. There is so much to enjoy!

The dew is heavy and my trainers and socks are soaked within minutes. It brings an exquisite freshness to everything, a deep liquid green that is so fleeting – another hour, and all will be hazed and bleached in the burgeoning heat. There is a vibrant hustle and bustle to the garden, as if every living thing is rising to the energy of midsummer light or perhaps – like me – simply enjoying the comfort of early morning before seeking solace in shade later in the day. Faces turned towards the climbing sun, the poppies seem like camera-shy, coy madamemoiselles in scarlet satin skirts, yet they are literally shaking with the frantic activity of bumble bees in their dark, secretive centres.

The play of light on colour and form is enchanting, there is a softness which contrasts completely with the bright brittle quality of midday. In the potager, the plants will look pinched and panting later on but now it is all about growth and exuberance and the promise of wonderful feasts to come.

The Secret Garden spends most of the day in dappled shade but now is its time in the spotlight, a thousand tiny illuminated insects dancing like gold dust in the sunbeams. The cultivated area looks so modest and yet a quick count reveals a fair array of food on offer: two kinds of cabbage, three of kale and chard, four of lettuce, calabrese, oca, red sorrel, leeks, perpetual spinach, beetroot, New Zealand spinach, rocket, land cress, horseradish, rhubarb, celery, parsley, dill, coriander, rosemary, basil, chives, sweet cicely, borage and calendula. There’s still room to squeeze a few more bits and pieces in, too; it’s amazing what’s possible in small spaces.

Apart from growing food, one of our top priorities is to encourage nature to run free in a large proportion of the space (for anyone who is interested in ‘wilding’ some of their garden, We Are The Ark is a great resource) and I love the way it needs little encouragement. Where we have left a wide swathe of grass unmown below a hedge of mature oak and ash, all sorts of bits and pieces have started to appear of their own accord.

It’s not just the wild things, either. Last week, I wrote about shifting the compost heap to a new three-bay system; this week, a cluster of squash (I think) seedlings has emerged totally unbidden. Nature just getting on with it. I love that!

I also wrote previously about how our hedge of bare-rooted pink rosa rugosa has turned out to be white. I sent the company we bought them from some photos, not to complain but as much as anything to check whether it was me that had made a mistake when ordering them (well, it wouldn’t be the first time I’d done something that daft). No, it turns out the error wasn’t mine and they have kindly promised to send a batch of pink ones in the autumn; meanwhile, the white flowers might not be what we’d planned but they smell delightful and the small things are piling in for a closer look.

We are lucky that the garden is already brimming with so much wildlife to the extent that it’s an odd day if we don’t see a red squirrel, toad or grass snake and I’ve almost bumped into a young hare on more than one occasion this week. We’re not complacent, though; the figures for the decline in species (and biodiversity in general) since 1970 are shocking and we’re determined to do what we can to help. The uncut ‘meadow’ is teeming with life and I suspect the log piles, brush piles and grass heaps are, too. We’re planning to dig a pond and have made a start on the wild landscaping for it. We’ve made and put up bird boxes and a red squirrel nesting box, too, in the hope of some habitants next spring. I’ve found several empty eggshells on my wanderings this week, blues and browns, smooth and speckled, as precious and fragile as the tiny lives they contained. Each time I walk below that nestbox, I find myself wondering just how cute squirrel kittens must be!

Inspired by a local environmental project, Roger has been turning a pile of spare stones into dome homes, designed to create habitats for a range of creatures including the endangered garden dormouse (which is unlikely to be here, but you never know). The dome building itself is a therapeutic pastime and even if they don’t appeal to many new inhabitants, they make interesting talking points in the garden. (I’ve just realised how long it is since I took this photo: the dome is now surrounded by a meadow as high as my shoulder in places and the field of green barley beyond is tall and golden. What a difference a few weeks make!)

Where reptile homes are concerned, we seem to have a very popular ready-made stone ‘dome’ in the shape of the barn attached to the house. Trotting merrily down there one morning to find some jars – the preserving season has begun – I came across a rather large inhabitant who had obviously been having a lie-in but was now very much up and about.

I tiptoed back to the house (not easy on gravel) to fetch the camera but I think it must have sensed me and decided to retreat to the barn. It’s a grass snake, totally harmless, but to my mind still worthy of great respect. The jars, I decided, could wait; time to leave the magnificent creature in peace.

It’s very easy to be enchanted by the bigger species; I can’t help but smile at the red squirrel that has taken to dancing along Roger’s stone wall, giving great entertainment through the kitchen window, even though I know the little blighter is off to raid the cherries. Strawberries, too: it has been picking them as they ripen and making a cache under the twisted willow for later. You really have to admire such innovation! However, it’s the small things that need our help, too – and lots of it. The decline in insect populations is a complex issue but one that threatens to have a potentially serious global ecological impact; the link between pollinators and food is the classic example but the unseen work of so many species in soil and water is just as crucial to the entire web of life.

Of course, they’re not all insects: what of the arachnids and annelids, gastropods and arthropods? I sometimes think that language makes loving these little creatures difficult. Latin names can sound awkward and arrogant, ‘bugs’ and ‘minibeasts’ a sad dumbing down. Ladybird, bumblebee and grasshopper roll delightfully off the English tongue but are rather generic; the UK alone has 26 different species of ladybird, 24 species of bumblebee and 11 species of grasshoppers (plus 23 of crickets) and I’m ashamed to admit, I probably couldn’t identify most of them. It’s something I’m working on; many species are also native to northern France so quite familiar, others are very new to me. However, their crucial role in the ecosystem and food web of our garden is abundantly clear: watching parent blue tits tirelessly collecting tiny green caterpillars from the oak trees, spotted flycatchers, pied wagtails and swallows sieving the air for flies and bats swooping through the dusky orchard in search of moths is all the evidence I need, whilst realising there are a myriad other feeding relationships I can’t even see.

The more I zoom in on the World of Small, the more intrigued I become. Take, for instance, what is going on in the simple seating area we have created by the rear kitchen door. It spends much of the day in shade so is the perfect spot for enjoying a morning coffee or eating lunch in this heat and we use it a lot. I’ve planted up a few pots of herbs to decorate what was originally an old bread oven but it’s in that niche in the wall with the blue glass lamp that something extraordinary is happening . . .

A solitary wasp – some sort of mud dauber, I think – is building herself a nest. I haven’t been able to catch her on camera: she spends many minutes away, I presume collecting and processing the mud she needs, then flits back for just a few seconds at a time, disappearing into one of those tubes at great speed. She is only small (we thought she was some kind of hoverfly at first) but the structures she is creating are incredible; I’ve never come across anything like it before which shows just how much there is still to learn about the world – literally outside my back door!

Even after almost six months here, we are still finding and removing unpleasant chemicals from various places (don’t get me started on the dozens of plastic anti-rodent sachets I’ve picked up around the place), including plenty designed for use in the garden. One squirty bottle contained something simply called ‘Bug Spray’ and no, it wasn’t a repellent. So what do you do, point it at something you don’t like the look of and squeeze the trigger? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an out and out slug hugger but I find the idea of annihilating anything that qualifies as a ‘bug’ by spraying poison about in that way totally abhorrent. Then there’s the huge sack of diatomaceous earth we found in a plastic dustbin. I know it’s a natural product, finely ground silica that is often used for poultry anti-mite dustbaths but given how much reading and research I’ve done around organic gardening and permaculture, I was surprised not to have come across it as a popular form of pest control in organic gardens. Many people seem to swear by it, claiming it to be effective against slugs, snails, beetles, worms, fleas, mites, spiders and many other ‘insects.’

This had me asking a number of questions:

  • #1 Why would anyone want to kill spiders in their garden? As voracious predators of many pests, I’ve always considered them to be a welcome ally. Have I missed something?
  • #2 Does this stuff kill earthworms? Many people claim not since they have soft, moist skins (the worms, not the people) and only creatures with exoskeletons are affected by the abrasive action of diatomaceous earth.

Logic then led me on to asking more:

  • #3 If that’s the case, how can it possibly be effective against slugs and snails, both pretty soft and moist last time I looked? Something doesn’t add up here.
  • #4 If anything with an exoskeleton is killed, then that surely applies to those beneficial insects – ladybirds, bees, hoverflies, lacewings, butterflies and so on – that we try to encourage in the garden. How are they protected? The answers round this are vague and fudgy to say the least, based on not puffing the stuff around too freely (or breathing it in as it’s abrasive to mammalian lung tissue, too) or maybe covering any plants that beneficial ‘bugs’ might just visit.

You know what? Natural or not, I don’t want this anywhere near our garden, and seeing as we don’t have chickens in need of de-lousing or cats in need of litter trays, we took it to the happy chaps at the déchetterie so they could add it to their sadly necessary Toxic Shed.

Small things in the garden can be a downright nuisance; after Asturias, it’s a blessing to have hardly any slugs or snails, but the wireworms are driving us to distraction and we have blackfly for France – with legions of those wily protector-farmer ants to go with them. Chemical warfare is not the answer: it might be hard to love them, but these creatures are an important part of the food web and although reducing their numbers could make the difference to our harvest, blitzing them with noxious poisons is not the way forward. Where food plants are heavily infested with blackfly, we spray with a soap solution, otherwise we leave them alone; we have a tremendous ladybird population well-equipped to helping with the problem. Where wireworms are concerned, we’re turning the soil and searching every clod to expose them, encouraging the birds to tuck in or squishing large gatherings. Over time, as we build the soil and consequently the health of our young plants, the problem should be reduced anyway.

I have to confess, I never do anything about aphids on flowers, they just have to take their chance and nine times out of ten, very little lasting damage is done. We are still in the first year of discovering what’s in the garden and rose season is producing some lovely surprises. One incredibly strong plant dripping with blooms has me totally enthralled; ignoring a few greenfly, I am fascinated by the way it changes colours from bud to full flower. It also has a beautiful and profound perfume. I have no idea what variety it is but it’s so pretty, like strawberries and cream.

Sticking with delicious things, it’s no coincidence that there has been a noticeable influx of birds into the garden as the cherries ripen! It’s just our luck that, in an area that is full of cherry trees, ours is the first one to ripen and it’s amazing how quickly news travels. The tree is bristling with feathered foragers but thankfully it is loaded and there is plenty to go round. Roger is shimmying up and down a ladder several times a day to pick the fruits which are red and sweet; we’ve made a deeply spiced jam and frozen kilos of them for future use, but it is sun-warmed and fresh from the tree that I love them best. They are such a treat, an abundant blessing resulting from the activity of so many small pollinators in a bitterly cold April . . . and for that – and to them – I am deeply grateful. 😊

A place of peace

The rain has driven me in from the garden. I don’t mind working on through showers – I quite enjoy it sometimes, in fact – but these are serious downpours from a bruised sky, heavy and laced with thunder. I’m not grumbling. Steady, warm rainfall is exactly what’s needed and I love the change it has brought: dusty red earth turned a deep, moist brown, the blackbirds’ mellifluous melodies amplified, the invigorating scent of all things fresh and green wafting in through the open window. Delicious.

In truth, it’s the first time in days I’ve been indoors for any length of time. Roger is away for a week so I have been left to my own devices and in complete charge of the patch with just my bike for transport and the wildlife for company. I’ve written before about how I don’t mind a bit of solitude now and then; naturally, I shall be very pleased to have him home 😊, but being alone has never bothered me, especially when I have so much to do. I also think it’s a good thing to be shaken out of my comfort zone once in a while, even if that does mean having to indulge in the dark arts of the Man Shed; I’m happy to report that the lawnmower and I have been getting along just fine – blimey, I even managed to put petrol in it. That said, I’m definitely pleased we have left most of the grassy areas as no-mow meadow with simple paths cut through.

I should mention before I go any further that Roger has taken the camera with him, so the photos I’m using are lagging a bit behind the times. The oak tree and hedge at the top are now dense with deep green summer foliage, the hawthorn blossom has handed over to elder and the meadow grasses reach to my shoulder in places. With maximum light and a gentle balance between warmth and wet, everything is growing at full tilt. What a truly incredible, energising time of year it is.

I’ve been so occupied with outdoor things that my gardening diary has completely fallen by the wayside; it had grown so immense that it would fill several blog posts and then some (which is why I don’t intend to publish) but I know I will be cursing this time next year when my hoped-for reference material yields a great black hole. Oh well, it’s not the end of the world. As always, the vegetable garden has been taking up most of my time and attention, not only in terms of maintenance but also in continued expansion and development. It’s been so frustrating in the five months since we arrived not to be able to harvest any produce apart from herbs and rhubarb but that is set to change. I have managed to pick a modest salad of rocket, land cress, red sorrel, baby chard, radish and herbs, so crisp, fresh and zinging with colour and flavour; it made me realise just how much I’ve been missing my garden foraging habit. The broad beans and peas are dripping with bee-ridden flowers and setting their first precious pods, the French beans at long last have shaken off their miserable hunched look and rocketed skywards and at least one courgette is flirting with the idea of opening its fat yellow flower buds. There is light – and food – at the end of the tunnel.

Although I’m happy pootling about on my own, it was lovely to have visitors one afternoon and to spend a couple of hours sharing a pot of tea and having a good natter, in the relaxed, sociable way that was taken for granted pre-Covid. They were interested to see what we have been up to in the garden and, showing them round, I was struck by how illuminating it is to see our efforts through someone else’s eyes. I realised just how stark it all seems – brutal, almost – as if digging borders and beds, still relatively bare of vegetation and colour, has made indelible scars on the original landscape. We have a vision of how we would like the garden to be eventually, not ‘in the end’ since it will keep on evolving, but at the moment it hardly looks like great progress.

At least we can argue that the vegetable garden is functional; the part-done flower garden, on the other hand, looks – well – downright weird, if I’m honest.

This is where it is so crucial to hold fast to optimism and patience, those most important of garden tools! I’ve been looking at some old photos of what was our biggest garden project, thirteen years of turning four acres of rough hill pasture in mid-Wales into a productive vegetable patch, orchard, woodland and flower garden. It was bloomin’ hard work, especially as we were raising our family and both working full-time, but it was an invaluable experience in terms of developing our gardening knowledge and skills, battling the elements and realising exactly what can be rendered possible with a positive, pragmatic attitude and plenty of energy. Please excuse the quality of the photos, they hark back to the dinosaur days of glossy prints!

I’m not going to spend a lot of time reminiscing but a couple of projects in that garden are good illustrations of how things can change, develop, improve and mature in a relatively short time. Let’s start with the pond. There was a naturally boggy area in the field (soon to be orchard) next to a defunct concrete water trough which suggested itself as the perfect site for a wildlife pond. We talked about hiring a mini-digger to do the job, but I came home from work one day to find that Roger, who must have had a day ‘off’, had done the whole lot by hand.

We lined it with a heavy-duty butyl liner, made a wooden top for the trough to form a bench seat, planted a few bits and pieces around the margins and waited for the pond to fill naturally with rainwater . . . which took a while!

Within weeks, wildlife had started to move in: pond snails, great diving beetles, water boatman, pond skaters . . . isn’t it incredible how they all appear as if from nowhere? After a couple of years, as the pond and surrounding area developed in maturity, frogs, toads and newts (smooth and palmate) appeared along with damsel flies and dragonflies; birds drank and bathed, and pathways through the undergrowth suggested larger nocturnal visitors. The pond and the life it supported became a focal point for us as a family and that basic wooden seat was probably the most used on the whole property!

Unlike our current cottage, that house was not remotely pretty; originally an 18th century half-timbered farmhouse, it had been ‘modernised’ over the years which had stripped it of most of its exterior character. (Roger thought it so ugly that he eventually painted it terracotta; I thought the colour was more akin to tangerine myself, but it certainly cheered things up a bit and gave the neighbours something to talk about.) When we arrived, the view from the back of the house constituted a scrappy area of grass in front of a solid wall of high ornamental conifers, which made everything feel dark, closed-in and thoroughly depressing. We needed light and colour – and fast; I’ll happily admit, Roger went forth with the chainsaw and had those trees felled the morning after moving day, letting light flood in through the windows. The colour took slightly longer, but with the help of my little gardening elf, there was soon a flower border in the making. Note how the bird table was the first thing to be planted.

I realise now how quickly gardens – and children! – grow; a bare stretch of earth with a few puny perennials and scattering of seeds (much as we have here now) can be transformed in the blink of an eye once nature gets to work.

When we were selling the house, one lady who came to look round was so enthralled that she said she thought we had created a ‘magical pagan paradise.’ She didn’t buy it, but that really didn’t matter because unwittingly, she had paid us the greatest compliment possible in finding such delight in that chaotic, crammed tumble and jumble of colour, scent, form and life. Our garden wasn’t to everyone’s taste, of course, but it was very much an expression of ourselves and that’s something we want to replicate here. Everyone is entitled to their own preferences and opinions but I will always wonder why anyone would choose to hide behind a black conifer hedge when in front of it was the possibility of a living rainbow singing with life . . . and beyond it, the most stunning of views.

So, back to our emerging flower garden here. What is the plan? Towards the end of my time as a primary school teacher, the concept of creating a ‘Sacred Space’ in the school grounds was very much in vogue. Break times are essential for children to enjoy some freedom, fresh air, exercise, to burn up some of their boundless energy and generally let off steam. They need those opportunities to express themselves through play. (I’ll spare you the soapbox, but I wish we could cut this current popular jargon. Children play. Enough said.) However, not every child wants to spend their playtime wellying a football or haring about capturing flags, so the idea of a Sacred Space is to provide a designated footy-free area of the playground or school field where they can go to enjoy a quiet time – a safe sanctuary, if you like. This is exactly the sort of idea I have for our flower garden, although I prefer to think of it as a Place of Peace, with all the same benefits but no religious connotations. I want it to be somewhere that draws me in, a safe and nurturing space where I can rest, contemplate or simply just be. I’ve mentioned before that I’m hopeless at meditation but to sit in quiet stillness free of intellectual thought and open my senses to the sights, sounds and scents around me must surely be halfway there, and just as restorative. I’m hoping so . . . but there is much work to be done in the meantime. Back to that photo and I’ll expain the story so far.

We’ve chosen to create the flower garden where it can be seen from the house which is to the south, with a ‘wild’ area to the east, orchard and the rest of the garden to the west and shed and hedge to the north with fields beyond. The building in the picture is a tumbledown cottage which suggests this was once a hamlet; ours is the only house here now, a poignant reminder of decades of rural depopulation in the area (although interestingly, the tide has now turned). We really don’t like those conifers but we’ve planted between them with native hedging – hawthorn, beech and hornbeam – in the hope of incorporating them into a proper hedge and softening their impact. We’re trying to create a sense of enclosure for the garden, not in the strict way of a medieval hortus conclusus but somewhere that gives the feeling of a contained and more intimate space. The front edge of the garden is straight as it is the top of a bank created when a gravelled area was dug out behind the house; the rest of the garden, however, is most definitely all about softer sweeping lines and curves, far more my cup of tea. Eventually, there will be an archway covered in scented climbers at the entrance between the stone wall and rose hedge – all in good time. A few months ago, we planted a curved hedge of bare-rooted rugosa roses, one of my favourite plants; I smiled to read a warning on the nursery website that they can be ‘wild and untameable’ which is exactly the point! They will form a sumptuous hedge of great beauty and perfume which will drive the bees mad and send up suckers which we can lift and plant elsewhere. They’ve all taken well but there is just one tiny fly in the ointment: I ordered red ones, or at least rose foncé as they were advertised.

Five out of twenty five are flowering and dark pink they ain’t! What’s a person supposed to do? I have no intention of removing them or painting them (never could stand Alice in Wonderland) and ranting and raging at the suppliers will solve nothing. There’s a chance they could be mixed and the white ones are flowering first but only time will tell. It’s not quite what I’d envisaged but already it seems the flower garden is off on its own trajectory. Mmm. I could think of it as a Yorkshire hedge, but we both have ancestry that lies in red rose country on t’other side of the Pennines so that doesn’t quite work! Better to remember that white roses are traditionally symbols of peace which, after all, is very fitting to the sort of space I’m hoping it will become.

A path inside the rose hedge curves around our experimental hügel bed; the topsoil layer is fairly thin this year so I’ve scattered lots of annual flower seeds and large patches of flowering green manure like buckwheat and crimson clover which will bring beauty and benefit insects but can then be chopped and dropped to help build and nourish the soil. I was really thrilled when Roger surprised me with a standing stone as this is something I love to have in the garden. Standing stones are a fascinating and evocative element of our British heritage but they were common in ancient Gaul, too; it’s easy to think Asterix and Obelix at this point, but in all seriousness, the Carnac (Brittany) menhir alignment sites are some of the most mind-blowing and mysterious places I’ve ever visited. Heritage and history aside, I simply love stone and think it’s something that is so easy to take for granted; how incredible to have a focal point in the garden that has come from deep within the earth and is hundreds of millions of years old.

Staying with natural materials and at the back of the second border, we have built a rustic support for climbing plants using hazel poles out of our hedges. It looks very strange and stark at the moment but given time it should look more integrated and hopefully it will help to bring height and structure to the garden as well as screen the shed. We found two clematis here that had been planted in plastic bags inside wooden containers so we have released both from captivity and one of them is currently scrambling up the structure. It has the most exquisite velvety purple flowers which I can’t photograph until my beloved returns from his travels; watch out for them in my next post! We’ve also planted a couple of climbing roses for company, and I’ve put up three wigwams of sweet peas and climbing nasturtiums to add temporary height this year. I’m quietly adding perennials to the border, including a hedge of cardoons, but again it will mostly be annual colour this summer in shamelessly bright colours – think Mondrian rather than Monet for the time being.

Over the summer, I’m planning to dig at least one more large crazy-shaped border within the space, leaving room for a seat in the centre as a reminder that this is a place to linger and be savoured. I quite fancy one of those Jack and Jill seats as I imagine this as the perfect spot to settle down with a mug of coffee (or whatever) so some sort of table would be handy. We’re also thinking about an area of shrubs to create height at the edge of the garden and I’d like another curving hedge to compliment the rose one, maybe of shrubby flowering herbs like sage, lavender, thyme and hyssop. Beyond that, we are enouraging a ‘wild area’ to flourish with long grass under trees; there is already a twisted willow and I fancy adding other light and airy specimens like silver birch. At some point in the property’s history, there has been a garden area here as amongst the grasses there are poppies, cornflowers, mallow and Californian poppies creating a splash of colour in that wild ‘nature does its own thing’ way I love. They are welcome to stay and spread and I shall certainly be collecting and scattering seed to help them along the way. (This photo is a couple of weeks old, it’s all gone a bit colour crazy out there since.)

This wild element is something I desperately want to hold within the garden space; yes, there is structure and deliberate planting but I don’t want it to feel manicured or formal in any way. It’s going to be a fine balance between a certain amount of control and a lot of letting nature get on with it. After all, I could spend vast amounts of time and money arranging fancy plants in clever colour schemes but to my mind, nothing can match the simple but vibrant allure of beauties like this one.

Coming back full circle to the only straight edge in the story where Roger has built a drystone wall to create a boundary and separate the top of the bank from the garden. That bank is a nighmare; it has been planted with what I think of as supermarket car park shrubs and whereas I accept that cotoneaster and heathers are great nectar plants, the banality and downright sterile ugliness of things like prostrate conifers leave me completely cold. There are a few herbs buried in there but the entire bank has been overrun with weeds, particularly couch grass, and is going to be a mammoth task to sort out. In the meantime, though, the daisies I included in an earlier post have been joined by pink spires of foxgloves (photo to follow, please just imagine them for now) and further along the bank, a dainty clump of ragged robin has appeared. This gives me that first tool – optimism – to believe that one day, this bare, strange-looking patch really will be the wildly beautiful Place of Peace I hope for; all I need now is the patience to go with it.

Walk, run, write.

One of the benefits of having a husband who turns out to run every day without fail, generally notching up something between 90 and 110 miles (145 to 177 km) a week, is that he comes home having explored a wide swathe of the local area and full of ideas for new walking and cycling routes we can try together. So it was we found ourselves embarking on a five-mile loop close to home one afternoon last week, a lovely wander along tracks that took us through a range of contrasting landscape, starting in a sunlit tract of ancient woodland.

There is something astonishingly beautiful about deciduous woodland in May, walking through a leafy tunnel of the most intense greens with carpets of wildflowers below and the birds singing their hearts out at the energetic, burgeoning, joyful vitality of it all. I know just how they feel: if I could only ever have one environment in my life, it would most definitely be this one!

In places, the path skirted the edge of the woodland, opening out into apple orchards, small meadows full of wildflowers and butterflies and larger crop-filled fields punctuated with coppices and hedges so typical of the bocage landscape.

Leaving the fields behind, we climbed up onto a high ridge and followed the route of an old Roman road through a section of landes or moorland which is being regenerated as part of an ecological project I wrote about in an earlier post. The drystone walls and stone domes that are being built as wildlife habitats have inspired us to do the same in our own garden; sitting on a log to share a flask of coffee, we drank in the views and watched as a buzzard flew low passes across the clearing and a skylark did a vertical take-off from a dome. This will definitely be the place for a spot of whimberry (bilberry) foraging later in the year.

The path continued along the ridge – the high banks and an ancient milestone reminding us of its immense history – then turned downwards through leafy woodland once more and eventually picked up the trail we had started on. What a gorgeous walk and we didn’t see another soul: well, actually, just the one . . .

In many ways, the hare neatly brings me full circle to where I started this post: running. Regular readers will know that I am, at best, a reluctant runner; I don’t really enjoy it but I know it does me good and I like to write the occasional post about running in the hope of maybe inspiring and encouraging other plodding slowbies aspiring athletes like myself. As I have a tendency to blow hot and cold about the whole thing, running for a few weeks then stopping again (this is the only thing that is actually consistent about my approach), I find myself searching for motivation and inspiration on a pretty regular basis. Back in March, having read The Happy Running Habit, I started a running journal as a draft blog, writing a paragraph to log each run and adding an uplifting photo from my media library. So, how has that been going? Well, here are a few excerpts to set the tone . . .

Friday 23rd April: Well, 15 days between runs isn’t so bad, is it? OK, it’s shameful but I’m full of excuses as always. The weather has been horrible, very hard frosts and an icy easterly wind that has made the idea of going out for a run unpleasant, yet alone actually doing it; I’ve been a bit chesty which makes it hard and we’ve been busy in the garden with some quite hard physical work so my energy levels have been down. Also, no motivation once again. However . . . I’ve committed to making some changes for the better, and this week isn’t as bad as it looks: first session of yoga since we moved here, a couple of brisk morning walks, miles walked round the garden during the day, reduced wine consumption, increased water consumption and at last, this morning, a run. Round The Block Plus (I deviated along the woodland track a bit as Roger heard hoopoes up there earlier) 5.3k on a beautiful sunny morning, blue sky full of swallows.

Total distance for April: 9.3k 😬 (Hangs head in shame . . . 😖 )

Monday 3rd May: So, this whole running journal thing really isn’t working, is it? I seem even less motivated than usual, too idle, too many cakes, too much wine . . . time for a kick up the backside, so here goes. This week, I intend to run 3 times NO MATTER WHAT!!!!! 😮 Today is possibly the last day of sunny weather before the storm sweeps in but if I end up getting wet, so be it. It is time to get a grip so I got up early with the intention of having a run before a video chat with T. What a beautiful morning, frosty start but bright blue sky and sunshine all the way. The verges are still beautiful, bluebells, orchids, buttercups and stitchwort everywhere. Had my hair parted by a buzzard swooping down at me twice, obviously not impressed at me running past its nest, I could hear the chick calling but didn’t linger to look! Did Round The Block then decided to carry on past the house to the B junction and back – 5.7k.

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Thursday 6th May: wet, cold and miserable . . . and then there’s the weather. 🤣 To be fair to myself, I wasn’t miserable at all, just kept focusing on the birdsong and flowers, but I have discovered that my new trainers aren’t remotely waterproof. Enjoyed close encounters with a pheasant, hare and squirrel. The good thing is that I got up with the intention of going for a run whatever and on a big shopping day, too, which is unheard of. Didn’t want to venture too far from home so ran to the first B junction and back, then to Town Park Garden and back; one pass is just under 2.5k so it’s a useful route, it will be perfect if I ever feel the need to do tempo runs again (!) as it’s fairly flat. I’m going to call it Home Stretch. I did 6.4k, and I’m still on target for three runs this week.

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Saturday 8th May: I’ve downloaded the book Running Made Easy for a bit of motivational inspiration and I’ve decided to try the recommendation of recording some measurements each week to help track my progress towards fitness and better health – can’t do BMI/weight as we don’t have any scales, but body measurements and resting pulse rate are possible so here goes for the first set of four weeks:

(Editor’s note: dear readers, the table of measurements has been removed – some things simply aren’t made for sharing! 😁)

Slightly horrified at my waist measurement, that’s the middle-aged spread that definitely needs to go! 😆

So, a longer run today, out through l’A and anticlockwise round my old original run which I’m going to call the Nostalgia Route – 7.1k, ran all the way. Grey and a bit drizzly but warmer today, didn’t see a single vehicle and enjoyed the flowers – orchids and Solomon’s seal are gorgeous. Feeling far more positive this morning and my legs were definitely stronger. It’s the first time I’ve managed three runs in a week since my first few runs in Asturias back in March so I’m VERY pleased, 19.2k in total is a start. Progress has been made . . . now I need to keep it up!

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Monday 10th May: goals for this week . . .

  • Run at least 3 times
  • Increase distance, especially of longest run
  • No wine until Friday!

Opted for Home Stretch as video chat booked at 9.30 and didn’t want to be too far from home. Did three repeats, 7.3k in all, and tried the stretch between TPG and home at a higher level of effort. Glowing when I got home! Not hugely pleasant in the strong wind but the flowers are so pretty, the paler pink orchids taking over from the dark ones and the hawthorn is out. Green haze of maize emerging. Good start to the week.

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Wednesday 12th May: I didn’t feel particularly inspired this morning (and it was cold AGAIN) but had promised myself to run Round The Butte for the first time. Not too chuffed to meet R’s dog on the loose but it barked at me madly and ran away! Lovely through the wood, hard work up the hill from the crossroads, definitely the toughest run I’ve done since we moved here in terms of hills. Still, I felt comfortable when I got back round to our wood so decided to carry on down the main road and turn to do Round The Block clockwise – glad to see the buzzard chick has fledged! A figure of eight run, 6.9k, and more enjoyable than I had thought. Need to find a route close to 8k for my longer run on Friday.

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Saturday 15th May: a day later than intended (vile weather yesterday) but did Nolsatgia Route plus TPG and back – 8k. Cold and wet, had to play ‘jacket on, jacket off’ all the way round to keep dry. Flowers are still amazing, though, also I was overtaken by two hares (not at the same time) who really showed me how it is done. I doubt they were too impressed with my plod. So . . . two out of the three goals met, no prizes for guessing which one I didn’t quite manage! 🤣🍷 Ah well, another week, another try. The good news is I’ve run 22.2k this week, 3k further than last week so my distance is building. Can I try for 25k next week? Let’s see!

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Monday 17th May: goals for this week . . .

  • Run at least three times
  • Increase overall distance to 25k
  • Reduce wine consumption (memo to self: think waistline!😆)

Chose Home Stretch today as weather was wet and windy: after thunderstorms and torrential downpours yesterday, I thought it was wise not to be too far from home. Did four passes which measured 9.95k – if only I’d known that before I’d ditched my trainers, peeled off my soggy socks and caught the whiff of freshly-ground coffee beans, I’d have gone back out there and done another 50 metres – honest! Still, it’s the longest single run I’ve managed since starting this journal so that’s something to celebrate, and it’s a big step in the direction of achieving one of my original goals (being able to run 10k). Also, it’s a good chunk of my 25k target already under my belt so a pretty good start to the week. After no rain in April, it seems to have done nothing else so far in May and everything is very soggy. We’re planning a long run down the old Mayenne railway path (R running from home then down the path, me driving to the path – with flask of coffee on board! – and running from there) but things need to dry up a bit first. Plus warm up, as I’m fed up of wearing that coat.

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The one thing I’ve learned about this running lark over the years is that in many ways, it’s a metaphor for life. There’s no such thing as a perfectly smooth, problem-free, linear journey, it’s all about good days and bad days, ups and downs, smiles and frowns. For me, it feels like two steps forward and one back much of the time, I’m still not a huge fan and yet it has taught me some of the greatest lessons of my life. One of the routes I’ve started using includes the 5k loop where I originally cut my running teeth; in fact, eight years ago I was exactly halfway through a 12-week ‘0 to 5k’ training plan in preparation for a Race For Life at the end of June. It’s quite nostalgic retracing my steps and remembering just what a physical and emotional rollercoaster ride those three months were. Forget ‘walk for two minutes, run for one’ . . . I couldn’t run for 30 seconds without collapsing in a heap when I started. I constantly lagged behind the programme in terms of how long I should be running for in any session and it took me weeks to be able to run up a long hill, a stretch of the route I hated with a passion. Towards the end of the programme, hot weather (hard to believe at the moment!) meant crack of dawn runs and, try as I might, I never once managed to meet the 30-minute time challenge I had set myself (as an aside, I passionately believe that if I am asking people to sponsor me, there has to be a decent element of personal challenge involved; wearing the tutu didn’t count, it was just a frivolous extra).

On race day, I felt sick with nerves despite having an amazing support team around me; I don’t like crowds, I don’t like running and I don’t like time challenges. I clung to Roger on the start line. I wanted to go home. I really, really wished I had never agreed to put myself through the stress and pain . . . but that is where those valuable lessons started. Did I manage to run and finish? Yes. Did I beat the 30-minute time monster? Yes! Did I enjoy it? No, but I did manage to smile as I ran, smile at the fact that there I was doing the unthinkable, cheered on by my loved ones and raising £500 to help fight a disease that has touched our family and so many others. It was the first time in my 46 years that I had ever run 5k and the next day, our first beautiful grandchild, Ben, was born. Quite the weekend!

Many people say that running has changed their life; I’m not sure I could claim that, but it has definitely changed my outlook on life if nothing else. It has shown me that I am capable of doing things I never thought I could, of finding inspiration, motivation and self-discipline to apply myself to challenges (yes, I can go for weeks refusing to run but I always go back to it) and of taking a firm and active responsibility for my own health and well-being. It has taught me how to dig deep and persuade courage, grit, determination and perseverance to leave their deep hiding places, and to deal with success and failure in a balanced, pragmatic way. It has taught me that it’s absolutely fine to be slow or last. It has brought me new friendships and inspiration from some truly incredibly warm and generous people; the real value of runners isn’t measured in marathons, GPS watches or ‘personal bests’ anymore than the true worth of people is measured in money, status and material goods. Above all, it has stopped me taking myself too seriously, encouraged me to smile and feel an immense gratitude for all the positive things putting one foot in front of the other in the fresh air brings. I might have gone grey, gained a few wrinkles and another four precious grandchildren over the last eight years but I’m still out there running (well, some of the time, at least).

My first (and last) half marathon in 2017: never has a rain-drenched woman been so pleased to see the finish line . . . and a pile of chocolate brownies.

So, to end where I began: that lovely walk through the woods. I’ve told Roger I’d like to go and run it when things are a bit drier underfoot, not the whole loop but the woodland stretch at least. He wholeheartedly agrees with my plan but pointed out I will probably spend more time tripping over tree roots and rocks than running as my attention will be anywhere but where I’m putting my feet. He’s right, of course, but the benefit of being a plodder is that I can let my gaze and mind wander, taking in the beauty of nature around me, without the risk of doing myself too much damage if I stumble. I shall leave him to zip off with the hares while I trail along behind, one very happy woodland tortoise! It will be a few more kilometres to notch up in my journal . . . but then, distance is irrelevant, really. It’s the doing it and smiling that’s important. 😊

The path beckons – who could resist?

The Merry Month of May

I think that May must surely be one of the loveliest months of the year. Despite so many frustrations as gardeners in recent weeks – overnight frosts right up until a couple of days ago, no rain for almost a month, a bitterly cold wind – there is at last a feeling of heading full tilt towards summer, even if the weather remains changeable and decidely cooler than normal. We have moved through plum, peach, pear and cherry blossom to the very last of the apple; viburnum has given way to lilac, blackthorn handed over to hawthorn; the trees, including the tardy ash, are singing out in a chorus of a hundred different greens. Farmers have cut the first grass, the sharp green blades of maize stand in regimented rows against the red soil and in the field next to our garden, the breeze ripples through the grain like a sea of silver.

The verges are still a riot of colour with carpets of pale pink spotted orchids and the lacy froth of cow parsley piling into the mix, while the garden literally smiles with flowers, both cultivated and wild. Yes, it is all really rather lovely.

We have been crazily busy in the garden once again. The weather hasn’t helped, trays and trays of tender plants still having to be moved under cover every evening and far too many seeds planted a second time because of failed germination. Too cold, too dry – who can blame them?

  • Thursday 29th April: sowed sunflowers, mixed and pink Californian poppies, double red poppies and two French seed mixes in big border. Calendula, French marigold, coriander and dill in bean circle. Potted on squash (Casa V specials) and courgettes.
  • Friday April 30th: bought perennials – purple and red iris germanica (bearded iris), salvia superba rosa (flowering sage, drought resistant), echinacea (coneflower), centaurea montana (mountain cornflower), veronica gentianoides (gentian speedwell, good nectar plant). Two dried roots of alchemilla mollis.
  • Saturday May 1st: planted all six new perennials plus two verbena bonariensis from Asturias; sprinkled some mixed Californian poppies and calendula in borders; lifted daffies; potted up herbs for back door sitting area – mint, chives, lemon balm, red sorrel and coriander (seed). Potted on aubergines. Pricked out remaining squash. Just the cukes to go!
  • Monday 3rd May: seed parcel arrived! Sowed purple sprouting broccoli, romanesco broccoli, Brunswick cabbage and Russian red kale. Water butts are empty.
  • Tuesday 4th May: IT’S RAINING!!!!!!!! 🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️🤸‍♀️
  • Wednesday 5th May: put up hazel quadpod in front flower border, sowed climbing nasturtiums, red double poppies, shade-loving annual flower seed mix. Two water butts are full again.
  • Friday 7th May: planted Spanish dwarf beans (own collected seed, variety unknown) and Stanley; sweet corn (own seed); curly-leafed parsley from new seed in pot; pricked out 11 cucumbers (possibly 8 too many!); re-sowed celery, beetroot Chioggia in Secret Garden and Potager and flat-leaved parsley; planted out first lettuce.
  • Sunday 9th May: planted hanging basket with ivy-leaved geraniums and trailing lobelia; planted three large pots at front of house with determinate tomatoes – Orion’s Belt (green/purple), Alaska (semi-det, red cherry) and Black Sea Man (purple / black) – and basil; planted out cardoons, cosmos and annual rudbeckia in big border; resowed nasturtiums and black-eyed Susan; sowed Spanish onion seed; finished mulching both soft fruit beds with grass clippings. Did lots of weeding – really essential this year, next year hopefully I can do lots of mulching and get back to my laissez-faire approach.
  • Tuesday 11th May: added more small perennial plants to Oak Tree Border – astilbe Pumila, achillea Coronation Gold, catmint Six Hills Giant and sedum Brilliant plus several cosmos; planted up 3 window troughs of pink and white ivy-leaved geraniums to replace the pansies (if they ever finish flowering, they’ve loved the cool weather); mulched the onions and garlic with grass clippings.

Although growing food is always our top priority, flowers are important, too, and it’s been good to reach a point where I can spend some time starting the restoration work on the existing flower borders. I use the term ‘border’ loosely as in many cases, they are just vague areas roughly demarcated with a line of stones, many of them facing north or tight up against a hedge and all of them in need of serious attention. The memory of what was certainly once a pretty garden lingers in the shape of some truly lovely plants but years of neglect have rendered it a complete mess project-in-waiting. Time to get stuck in! I’ve started with the areas at the front of the house; one is north-facing against a hedge, the other dominated by a large oak tree, so neither makes for easy gardening. A few perennial thugs like lemon balm, rudbeckia, arabis, hardy geranium and Michaelmas daisies have run riot, their unstoppable roots creating a spaghetti of complicated tangles intermingled with brambles, nettles, ivy, couch grass, dandelions and a thick invasive mat of celandines, the like of which I’ve never seen. Progress in sorting that little lot out has been slow to say the least.

With the weeds gone, I can see just what plants are here and worth saving and that has led to a few surprises. What I had thought to be a small clump of winter aconites smothered by the celandine carpet a couple of months ago has turned out to be a rather beautiful deep blue monkshood; pulling out brambles and huge swathes of wood avens (which I’m happy to have as a woodland herb but not acres at a time!), I’ve discovered several clumps of lilies. I’ve been wondering why the butterfly bush looks so unhappy; growing in the shade of the oak tree probably doesn’t help but if there is one plant that should have responded well to the ‘prune everything in sight’ habit that prevailed here, surely it’s that one? On peeling back the mass of weeds at its base, I solved the mystery: the poor thing had been planted in its pot! It’s quite a mature shrub and has obviously managed to push a main root out through the bottom, but with the pot lying almost on its side and still very much intact, the rootball was almost non-existent and dry as dust. I cut away as much of the pot as I could, gave the exposed roots a good watering and then covered them in a deep mulch of homemade compost. Fingers crossed for a swift recovery.

Buying plants can be an expensive hobby, especially with a large garden to fill. I’ve brought a few bits and pieces grown from small roots or lifted as seedlings in our Asturian garden, things like granny’s bonnets, verbena bonariensis, pulmonaria and Jacob’s ladder, which all seem to have settled well into their new home. I’ve also started raising some perennials from seed but it’s a slow process and occasionally there’s no harm in having a little spend around a nursery to help matters along – even if I do go into child-in-a-sweetshop mode! The great thing about perennial plants is that small ones grow very quickly into big ones so I’m happy to opt for the smallest (cheapest) plants and fill the gaps with annual seed while they grow.

Removing several ornamental conifers and recycling them into a hügel bed opened up the back of the Oak Tree Border, letting in light and some new planting opportunities. I decided that the clump of peonies, just on the cusp of opening their showy wine-red blooms, was crying out to be paired with the bearded iris that grow so well locally – they are one of the contenders for the original fleur de lys, after all. I chose a deep violet but then fell in love with a second one that starts with buds of deepest purple satin, unfurling into flowers of startling red with a splash of yellow in the centre. It was impossible to choose, so I bought both; maybe child in a sweetshop doesn’t come close? Anyway, I relish the business of building colour and shape in the borders and I’m hopeful of creating something beautiful that draws the eye through that gap left by the ex-conifers to the garden beyond; hidden corners, glimsped vistas, the urge to wander and discover . . . all essential ingredients in the kind of garden I love.

With the trees and hedges leafing up and creating more intimate spaces around the garden, I find myself weaving a sinuous route several times a day to check on progress in the Secret Garden and Shed Patch; those vegetables are so important to us, after all.

The Potager still remains relatively open and exposed but we hope to create more of a feel of an enclosed space there over time; at the moment, we’re still extending it with yet more digging . . . and the big job of the week will be finishing the polytunnel if the weather is kind enough to grant us a still day – large sheets of polythene and high winds really don’t mix! Although it all still looks a bit bare, the potatoes are well through the ground and too big to cover (no more frosts, pleeeeeease), the first of the dwarf beans and climbing beans have germinated, two rows of peas are romping away and a few brave carrots and spring onons have finally emerged. It’s interesting that everything planted from our own saved seed has germinated well and in some cases, faster and better than bought seeds; it’s also encouraging that at long last, there is the promise of food in the garden once again.

It’s been quite a week for wildlife in the garden. The red squirrels continue to entertain us with their antics and a hare has taken to lolloping in and doing its toilet business under the sweet pea wigwams (not quite sure what the attraction is). We watched a pair of mice moving their babies from one end of a stone wall to another while we ate our lunch on the picnic bench, and a pair of black kites wheeling over the garden one afternoon as they pulled grass snakes out of the neighbouring (cut) field. A shrew literally ran across my foot as I sat outside with a mug of tea and, shifting trays of plants out of the outhouse one morning, I found they were being guarded by a rather splendid toad. On mornings when I’m not running or don’t fancy a long walk from home, I’ve taken to walking circuits of the garden instead . . . and why not? It’s a beautiful spot to wander in and about 400 metres all round the perimeter, so four passes make a mile and it’s amazing how quickly the distance mounts up with so much to see and enjoy. Crunching through frosty grass early one morning last week, I heard what sounded like a soft and rather strange frog croaking until I realised it couldn’t possibly be, seeing as it was most definitely coming from high up in an oak tree! On closer inspection, I discovered that it was a turtle dove and stood enchanted by the sweet lullaby of its gentle purring song, the turr-turr-turr that gives it its name. Turtle doves are summer visitors whose populations are declining rapidly; little surprise, then, that they are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. In Wilding, Isabella Tree describes her overwhelming joy when turtle doves returned to Knepp Estate in West Sussex and I certainly share a sense of that wonder and gratitude to find there are several of these dainty, precious birds in our corner of Mayenne.

From wildlife to wild flowers, and one of our long-term goals here is to increase the number and amount of species of native wild flowers all over the garden. It’s a bit frustrating that unlike so many local verges, gardens and orchards, we are missing the Big Three – cowslips, bluebells and orchids – that are causing such a colourful splash elsewhere. Imagine how excited I was, then, to uncover two clumps of bluebells from the weedy depths of a flower border. Well, there was good news and bad news: one clump is the native ‘English’ bluebell we are after, with its dainty flowers on arching stems, white pollen and evocative scent, the other is the Spanish variety, much chunkier on straight stems with blue pollen and no perfume. It has none of the charm of the native species and is a thuggish, invasive pest – the grey squirrel of the botanical world, perhaps? So, the first clump will be moved to the Woodland Edge to make a start on what eventually we hope will become a blue haze of Maytime beauty, the other clump will, er, just disappear. The good news is that we do at least have a decent range of other species and of course, more are appearing as we move through the seasons; it was a lovely surprise to find a large clump of Solomon’s seal buried in a hedge bottom this week. Now it’s a case of encouraging them to set seed and spread whilst raising new species to add to the mix.

We love to use natural materials in the garden, so Roger has been turning a pile of stone dumped under a hedge into a drystone wall ‘folly’ which marks part of the Flower Garden boundary and offers a new habitat for wildlife. A sunburst of oxeye daisies and buttercups has appeared in front of it this week . . . nature artfully creating exactly the wild look we are aiming for. There’s still so much to do here but it feels good to be making some progress hand in hand with nature and leaving ourselves time to enjoy the beauty of this lovely month, too. 😊

Bluebells and buttercups (and maybe bears, too)

A mere stone’s throw from the Canyon des Toyères which I wrote about in my last post is Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei, officially one of the prettiest villages in France. Nestled in the picturesque Alpes Mancelles, it is a gem of a place and beautiful in any season but I have a particular soft spot for it at this time of year when the wooded hillsides are bursting with fresh leaf and carpeted with a soft haze of bluebells. We haven’t visited since our return to Mayenne so it didn’t take us too long to decide where to go for our walk this week!

This is one of our favourite jaunts, a comfortable three-mile loop that starts in a pretty spot by the side of the Sarthe river. It’s a tranquil place, the river wide and lazy after so little rain, and flanked by meadows full of buttercups. There are picnic tables here, and several old buildings converted into gites; you could pick worse places for an al fresco meal or holiday, that’s for sure.

A wooden footbridge beyond a former mill took us across the river, leaving Mayenne and into the neighbouring department of Sarthe, although still in the Pays de la Loire region. The path then starts a long, slow climb with sweeping views of wooded hills on one side and a teasing glimpse of St Céneri on the other.

We had just been discussing how everything still seemed familiar to us and nothing had appeared to have changed since we last walked here (which must be seven years ago) when what we had expected to be an orchard delivered quite a surprise: it is still an orchard, but now also the home of a large herd of free-range pigs! It was lovely to stand and watch them for a while, enjoying the outdoor life as surely pigs should, some busy rootling about in the baked earth but most of them snoozing away the afternoon in the sun. Talk about chilled! I suspected they would be happy to see the rain forecast the next day, their wallows being as far removed from mud as is possible . . . but they seemed a pretty contented bunch all the same.

After passing through a small hamlet of pretty stone houses, their gardens billowing with iris, tulips and forget me nots, the path turned back downhill, meandering through woodland towards the village. Here the bluebells were at their most beautiful, dense carpets creating a colourful haze in the dappled sunlight beneath the trees; whether simply massed in deep blue, or daubed amongst white stitchwort and creamy Solomon’s seal, they were stunning. As for that heady perfume . . .

Emerging from the woods, the path levelled out a little and water meadows appeared to our left. It’s hard to believe we’ve walked here before as if along a stream bed, with water literally flowing beneath our boots; I’m not sure we’ve ever seen this path so dry. At a point just before reaching the village, we passed from Sarthe into the department of Orne and at the same time into the region of Normandy, a reminder that our little corner of Mayenne is very much border country.

At the end of this path, we emerged from the trees and found ourselves at the picturesque stone bridge that leads into the village. There is a stunning view of the 11th-century Romanesque church perched high above on a cliff, a scattering of lovely old stone houses and pretty sweeps of blossom and spring flowers. We have seen kingfishers here previously, darting close to the water in bright flashes of metallic blue; not today, but there was a lone wader-clad fisherman trying his luck on a bend in the river.

Wandering up into the village, I realised that I’d forgotten what a delightful place it is with its winding streets of higgeldy-piggeldy houses, dripping with clematis and wisteria. The only thing that seemed strange was the fact that the bars, cafes and restaurants were all shut, their terraces devoid of the usual buzz of activity; that is set to change on 19th May when the next phase of relaxing restrictions will allow them to open once more, much to the relief of owners and customers alike. It’s no surprise that St Céneri is a popular destination for visitors and is particularly bustling during the summer holidays, yet I’ve always felt it has retained a strong sense of itself. There has been no slide into the dark realms of tacky gift shops, caravan parks, double yellow lines, extortionate car park charges and the like; tourists are welcome, but it is still very much a ‘local’ village. I love the little hidden nooks and crannies, the quaint human touches coupled with unfettered nature; the wonderful informality and unashamedly wild character of this garden is exactly the sort of thing we are hoping to create in our own patch.

We climbed the street that leads to the church, knowing that a narrow path goes right around the building, the perfect spot for a beautiful bird’s eye view back down to the stone bridge. However, looking for a photo of the said view, I realised we didn’t have an ‘unadulterated’ one so the time has come for me to make an introduction (apologies for this rather ridiculous diversion): ladies and gentlemen, meet Kitchen Ted.

Who? Well, he’s a little character I knitted up in the final days before we left Asturias; you’d think navigating an international house move through the shark-infested waters of Covid-19 and Brexit would have been more than enough to be concentrating on at the time but maybe this was a little bit of self-indulgent, stress-busting madness! I contemplated a tiny skein of homespun Southdown fleece dyed with onion skins and a scrap of rather luxurious jade Merino / silk blend and before I knew it, a small bear had been born. For the best part of eighteen months now, the only contact we have had with our young grandchildren is via video calls; I am so grateful we have the technology and our weekly chats are very special, but never the same as spending time together and making simple mischief. Enter Kitchen Ted (he’s called that because he, um, lives in the kitchen) who behaves very badly on our calls, generating peals of giggles at the other end and generally bringing a lot of fun to our chats. He also gatecrashes our days out, sending photos to the littlies to show what he’s been up to and most especially, anything delicious that might have been lurking in the picnic or cake box. Perhaps we should have called him Yogi? In short, it’s one of those mad family things, totally daft but rather lovely at the same time. However, the next time he muscles in on all the panoramic photos, I shall be leaving him in the kitchen where he belongs . . .

From bears to bees, and the protected bees’ nest that is hidden deep within the church wall. The story goes that in the year 898, a colony of honey bees saw off a group of soldiers bent on sacrilegious destruction on this site, sending them packing over the steep cliff. Ever since, they have continued to protect the church and are themselves the object of special protection; they were certainly fizzing out of the hole in the sun-warmed stone and, even as former beekeepers used to being close to bees, it seemed wise to keep our distance and treat them with the complete respect they deserve.

From the church, the path leads down to a tiny chapel sitting in a wide meadow which is bounded by a loop of the river; in contrast to the dappled light and blues and whites of the woodland, it was alive with the bright sunshine of buttercups and cheerful whirring of crickets.

This is a place of utter tranquility, scattered stone benches offering the chance for visitors to sit, rest and simply drink in the beauty of the place and complete immersion in nature. We shared a flask of coffee, faces turned to the sun as a chorus of birdsong ricocheted off the wooded valley sides and butterflies floated idly by. There were a few others doing much the same thing there; no problems with social distancing and no-one wearing masks – it felt like a glimpse of the normality we used to take for granted and one we will hopefully be blessed with again.

The meadow is a hard place to leave and the temptation is certainly to linger but as it is only a few miles from home – a decent bike ride, in fact – then we will certainly be back before too long. The only decision on leaving was whether to wind our way back through the village down streets we had missed or to wander along the river to where we had started our walk.

In the end, we plumped for the river option, still hopeful for a glimpse of those elusive kingfishers; no such luck, they were definitely playing hard to get. Maybe next time? What a lovely walk it was and a gentle reminder of just what treasures we have on our doorstep; it was time to head back to jobs in the garden . . . but here’s to the next little excurson! 😊