It it was snowing outside and warm inside.
It it was snowing outside and warm inside.
Winston, my cat, is glowering at me from the mat.
He is not allowed out this afternoon , to give my birds a chance to feed. November has little to recommend it, but it does mark the start of the winter bird feeding season. The feeders are festooned with fat balls, the tables are loaded with seed and the birds have arrived in style.
First the blue tits swarmed in, then came the great tits and sneaking in amongst them a jauntily quiffed crested tit. Then the robin spotted the food, then came a few chaffinces, a solitary green finch and a smart nuthatch followed. The white back of the head stripe announced a coal tit and suddenly twice the size of everything else there was a fat billed female haw finch, who bullied everything else away for half an hour of solitary gorging.
Winston was still inside, still in a rage and then to add insult to injury a sparrow hawk swooped through the trees looking to do some feeding of her own from amongst my new guests.
Why is she allowed to hunt and not me?
Oh, Winston the injustices of the world are manifold. Have a stroke instead.
The good thing about the shortening days is that I can listen to the bats coming home to roost from the comfort of my bed. Before the sun gets up, I can listen to the clicks and whistles of the bats as they make their last hunting swoops in the gloom, before folding their wings into the corner of the eves to sleep the day away in peace.
Pixie the cat is perplexed by this. She ignores the back ground hiss of the box, but when it picks up and amplifies the sound of a bat, she pats the box, pulls back her ears and meowls!
As the sky lightens and the chuckling of the blackbirds over take the sounds of the night, she relaxes, jumps off the bedroom window sill and vocally demands to be let out again, to take her place as undisputed queen of the day time garden!
In my garden I have planted cat nip in the past, but my cats and all the neighbours’ cats, rubbed both plants into oblivion with their ecstatic rolling and I have not subjected another plant to such a depressing fate. So, when I found a corner of my garden rubbed flat and an edging fence constantly pushed down, I decided to investigate the cause.
I have observed my cats Pixie and particularly Winston rolling and pushing their faces along the ground at this point and realized that they have exposed the root of a wild common valerian plant which seeded itself in the corner of the bed last year. As it is such a spectacular plant ( taller than me!) I had left it alone to flower and attract the bees during the summer.
I did not expect to come up again in the spring, but it has and the cats have discovered its narcotic and pleasurable effects all over again; rolling, rubbing and slithering in unashamed abandon on the now exposed white roots.
Apparently all cats love valerian as much as cat nip, but unlike cat nip it is the root they love not the leaves. I am not sure how long this plant will survive until the cats also love it to death; but as they seem to get so much fun from it, I shall leave them to roll in the spring sunshine while it lasts!
My first garden, as a grown up, was the grandest garden I shall ever know.
In response to an advert in the Oxford Times we found ourselves renting the converted top floor of a monastery bake house in the grounds of Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire.
It was incredibly cold and impossibly right and romantic. The story was that it had been converted for DH Lawerence to live in as an “agricultural labourer” on the land of Lady Otoline Morrell and thus avoid conscription. However, his unflattering description of her in as Hermoine Roddice in “Women in Love”had resulted in a falling out and he never took possession of flat. Ottoline Morrell continued as a famous hostess of the intelligencia during WW1 and her guests included Aldous Huxley, Siegfried Sasson, Virginia Wolfe, Henry James, Bertrand Russel, WB Yeats, TS Elliot and of course the troublesome Lawerence.
The beautiful gardens she had laid out around the Tudor Cotswold manor house were open for us to enjoy and we timidly explored the lower reaches away from the big house and could hardly believe our luck.
At the furthest end was a lovely natural pool full of fish always ravenous for bread crumbs where I watched an equally hungry cat lean further and further over to catch them, until it fell head first in the water. It’s expression of outraged indignation as it hauled his sodden body out on the other side of the pond, was a delight I have never forgotten.
Beyond the fish pond was the Italian lake, which was large enough to swim in and to boat around a central island. The water was cold and green, but we braved it sometimes, floating briefly on our backs to admire the statues set into the deep green hedge. I would have looked more closely at the plinths upon which the statues stood if I had known the story that accompanied them. It was apparently common knowledge that Ottoline Morrell had an affair with the stone mason who made them and that their trists in the shed were the inspiration for the gardener and the lady in “Lady Chatterly’s Lover ” by DH Lawerence.
Beyond the lake the gardens sloped up to a formal parterre of 24 squares of geometric control, punctuated by tall yew trees and above that there were fabulous herbaceous borders of riotous colour and exuberance.
If you are trying to visualise this, it is maybe easier than you think, as some TV programmes and films with shots of perfect English gardens lapping honey coloured manor houses; were actually filmed at Garsington. So if it sounds oddly familiar, that is because it is. If you are an opera fan you may of course have strolled in the grounds during the interval as the opera festival held in the grounds annually, came to rival Glynbourn.
The opera came after our stay and in fact the monastery bake house flat was later used as offices for its administration (they also complained it was cold!).
During our brief stay their was a lovely performance of “Twelfth Night” on a perfect summer evening in the garden. We were helping taking tickets and as I stood by the gate, the youngest daughter of the owner came running up in great distress, as she had noticed that the toadlets in the pond had chosen this very evening to emerge from the water and thousands of the tiny creatures were hopping unnoticed between the polished brogues and stiletto heels of the oblivious audience. In my best school teacher voice I ordered the visitors to, “Look down at your feet! Notice the tiny toadlets and move slowly away from the pond!” Meekly they obeyed and clutching their glasses of wine, they obediently tip toed back to the paths and the great toad massacre was averted.
We were allowed to garden a dark patch of grass behind the bake house, but I didn’t dare actually dig anything up or try to plant anything in this lightless spot.
My only intervention was to ask for the grass not to be cut. This was allowed and as we had guessed a couple of wild common spotted orchids that had been waiting for years for the chance, flowered and then set seed on this bit of old meadow land. Their delicate wildness could be considered my second little contribution to this memorable, magnificent garden!
Photo thanks to https://mefoley.wordpress.com/tag/bloomsbury/
Some winters don’t really deserved the name, being just muddy and greyer versions of autumn; but this year deserves a capital W . After months of hard frost , now we have snow in all its guises and as soon as a path to the bird feeders is shovelled and swept, down it comes again in all it’s infuriating smothering simplicity.
So it is a time for reading and at the moment I am reading Helen MacDonald’s
“H Is for Hawk “. The book is outstanding and her prose is razor sharp. It is an unlikely description of training a female goshawk to distract the writer from what threatens to be overwhelming grief after the death of her father. Rather like my description of most winters, this explanation does not begin to do justice to her visceral, uncanny imagining of the inside of a bird’s brain, the need to kill and devour and the need of both bird and woman to be free.
I am also reading “Falling Awake ” poetry by Alice Oswald. She also has an extraordinary clarity when describing the natural world, but there is an emotional distance between her words which leaves greater space for an intellectual juggling of creatures and shadows.
It has started snowing again. A few parrot faced goldfinches are still delicately pulling niger seeds from the feeder. A blackbird is gorging on a cut apple before the snow covers it over again.
Next week the temperatures are going to plummet to record lows according to the forecast. I hope we will all survive the coming cold.
The cold has been relentless for the last month. Minus five each night and briefly above freezing in the sunniest part of the day. I know this is chicken feed for North Americans but for so early in the winter, this has been very cold for our part of France. Everything is ringed and rimmed in frost and it has formed so thickly night after night in the shade, that it now looks as though heavy snow has fallen.
Each morning is utterly clear and pink streaks the sky and laces between the bare trees. At dusk every branch is clear against the pale sky and at night the stars glitter with a cold violence in the darkness.
My cats fluff themselves up in their second generation wild cat coats and step delicately into the frost. Pixie refuses to put her front right paw down at all and hops ludicrously alarming the hungry birds, until she is let back into the warm and settles down to admire the cold from the vantage point of a warm radiator under the window.
Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?
Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison –
Just for paying a few bills!
That’s out of proportion.
Lots of folk live on their wits:
Losels, loblolly-men, louts-
They don’t end as paupers;
Lots of folk live up lanes
With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-
they seem to like it.
Their nippers have got bare feet,
Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets – and yet
No one actually starves.
Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on:
For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,
And will never allow me to blarney
My way of getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.
I don’t say, one bodies the other
One’s spiritual truth;
But I do say it’s hard to lose either,
When you have both.
Nearly a whole week away from the garden, and such a week! Perfect crystal weather and every flower I have ever grown exploding into riotous technicolour glory, without me to admire them. I almost resent them their beauty and liberty, but just a snatched few minutes with them after work and my lungs expand, my body relaxes and an inane smile suffuses my face.
Just knowing they exist and my cats are hunting amongst them makes the awful corporate crap a little more bearable.
Winston presented me with a baby slow worm this morning, a single bead of bright blood on its smooth skin from his claw or fang. I slipped it back into the compost heap and chased Winston away . I think if he had caught the work toad and killed it, I would have been delighted.
I have a cat called Winston. We found him and his sister Churchill in a green house as kittens, where they had set up home . The family to whom the greenhouse belonged did not want more cats, but they also did not want to abandon them and so they put a notice in a local shop. Bonkers the magnificent ( of whom more later when the garden is under snow) had just been knocked down and I was desperate for another cat as the house was insufferably lonely without a guardian cat and so we coaxed them out from between the flower pots and brought them home.
After winter in the house in front of the wood stove, they were let out into the garden with the spring.
Cats and wildlife do not really mix, but as I love both, on my patch of the planet they have to try co-exist, or I like to imagine that they do.
The reality is that Churchill chases butterflies and catches and eats voles and mice. Winston hunts rats, but rarely eats them, but his real passion is catching slow worms.
Slow worms or Orvet in French, look like snakes, but are in fact leg -less lizards, with plump smooth bodies with no defense against attack except distraction: they drop their tails and this wriggles fiercely while the slow worm slithers away as fast as it can.
They live under the shed behind the compost bins and Winston finds them irresistible. He spends hours hunting them and then he brings them to us held softly in his mouth and deposits them under the table or in the middle of the dinning room floor where they stay in a transfixed coil waiting their doom. When we find them they are often cold and shocked, but the warmth of our hands revives them and they can be carried to the darkness of the compost bin where they are safe from Winston.
I am in a dilemma about how to respond to this. If I shout and rave at him he may not bring them back, but may injure or kill them instead. However my silence maybe interpreted as acceptance of his feline gift and so I compromise with a tut and hope he grows out of this obsession. But I know he won’t, so I just hope my slow worms have got used to their strange journeys and will continue to thrive in my garden.
I thought my last post didn’t really do justice to the luminous beauty of the seed cases of honesty, so I have been busy peeling back the dry brown covers to reveal the silver moon inners and just to impress, I have shoved them in a vase too! These will keep for years, should you so wish, and currently brighten up the landing in my home.
The end of my holiday grows ever closer and my garden will be relegated to an hour in the evening if I am lucky from next week. It physically pains me to leave it every day knowing things are growing without me to see them, birds are feeding, insects are buzzing and my cats are frisking and brisking while I am locked indoors with only a few pot plants and a glimpse of the clouds to remind me of my garden.
Oh what we do to pay for cat food and seeds!!