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July - "I remember, I remember where I was used to swing, and thought the air must rush as fresh to swallows on the wing..." by Thomas Hood

Making progress with the cottage garden July has been a month of mixed magic across Britain this year. The glorious summer weather has presented problems for many people while others have been in a good position to make the most of the outdoors. I've watched the hay and silage continue to be harvested around us and remembered tales my grandparents would tell of hay making in their day. I can still picture Grandad Bobby, with his scythe, mowing the grass along the edge of his orchard and me being told to stand clear! In Lincolnshire there was, for many years, some division about the effectiveness of the scythe compared to the sickle. In the area known as the Wolds, the scythe replaced the sickle in the nineteenth century but, in the Fens, there was resistance. The sickle was used by women as well as by men. It required great strength to wield a scythe effectively. Of course there are some women who are able to use a scythe - but I'm not one of them! I tried when I was a Lincolns

JUNE - "The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new." Socrates


June has always been a busy month in our family with multiple birthdays and summer crops to be harvested. I have clear memories of going along with my dad to inspect fields of peas and beans. A little later, I would be back there with him, collecting the hard-earned tickets from the gangs of people employed to pick the crops and weigh them. Money changed hands and, in the evening, back in Dad's office, everything had to balance. This is now simplified by the use of pea harvesters across the arable lands of Britain. Efficiency? Yes! But I will never forget those summer days when the low rumble of conversation matched the buzzing of the insects - and raucous laughter rang out across the generous fields of Lincolnshire, rivalling the rooks.

The strawberries are ripening there too - faster than they can be picked so that the birds and the elements take their toll. The year I sat my final school exams, I picked strawberries on local fruit farms and found the basket took a very long time to fill up!! The sweet smell of ripe strawberries, the crisp green tang of the peas and beans suspended in the air after harvesting and the hours of sunshine and clement weather are significant in my memory bank.

Strawberry Leaves Forever

And then to the birthdays. There are not as many now. We still have some but nowhere near as many as there used to be. One significant birthday this month, this year, however, is my mum, also June! She will be ninety! Quite something to have reached ninety - and I know you're reading this Mum - so a very Happy Birthday to a lovely lady! We're on Century Highway now! So much to enjoy!

"A small dewdrop sitting in a leaf at the start of the day is big enough to reflect the sunshine and the clear summer-blue sky."

June is a rich and voluptuous month - full of new life and warm in the sun's embrace. June - when the air is perfumed with blossom and flowers, when the nights are warm and never properly dark. June - when the birds take over the gardens and the square with their nervous little families. What does it feel like, do you suppose, to be a baby bird learning to feed itself and to escape the many dangers around it? Does a baby bird know that a cat is potentially deadly?

On Tuesday night, when I switched out the lights, I heard a scratching not very far away. Mice - that was my first thought - but then, why would they be indoors at this time of plenty in the gardens? When I looked out of the window the next morning, I came face to face with a baby jackdaw. It seemed that the poor lonely little thing had been trying to tell me something all through the night. It wasn't until after breakfast that it took flight and exited the window ledge. There was no sign of it below so I'm optimistic it has a future.

Our big bird news for June, however, isn't the jackdaw, it isn't the cuckoo calling to us as we walk the dog, it isn't the swifts screeching cartwheels alongside the fields - it's a little family of gulls who have taken up residence on the flat roof of the kitchen. There have been goings-on through the spring nights - noise and assertive marching the length of the back of the house. We shouldn't have been surprised when the searching camera spotted the nest. The fluffy chicks are a delight and the commitment of the parents to safeguarding their offspring is stunning. The little ones are out of the nest now and very vulnerable - but so far, so good!

Down The Garden Path

Orchids and buttercups line the paths at present and they are punctuated by cotton grass with stragglers of lady's smock here and there. The new growth on the fir trees is shout-out-green. Nothing subtle here - it is the most vivid of greens. Shades of green vary across the walk and it is difficult to choose a favourite - it seems that all greens are component parts of something dramatic and much, much bigger.

The deciduous trees change aspects, hide old favourites and yet give so much to the season with their blossoms, their seed pods, their squatters and their tenants. The laburnum's seed pods have terrified parents for decades but the charm of this insignificant little tree, when it's in flower, is striking. The candle-like flowers on the horse chestnut are positively beefy and promise hours of endless fun when they grow up to be conkers. New oak leaves are impressive in their shiny state and you have to give the maples credit for trying. Before next June, if left to their own devices, their small patch of the garden will be carpeted with not-so-tiny seedlings.

Oak leaves

We're between gardens at present. Soon I will be able to write this blog from a bigger garden (which needs a good deal of love and attention). We are waiting to have the house cleaned throughout before taking in our own stuff. It hasn't been properly lived in for a while so, to start with, we put down ten humane mouse traps - and haven't caught a single one! I'm expecting a brave soul around harvest time as there are definite signs that the little critters have visited in the past. My poor daughter was quite affected by the quantity of droppings and the cache of cereal grains between the mattress and the divan, in her new room, when we moved them out of the house and into the garage. If I were a mouse, I think I would probably have done the same thing. If there was nobody to object, and I needed a cosy pad, then why wouldn't I?

I'm going to miss our town garden. I'm a country person - always have been - and I'm fairly bursting with happiness at the prospect of waking up where the only sign of industry is the graceful windmills whispering secrets to the pines. But I will leave behind a little bit of myself in this garden.

Cows and sheep will be our nearest neighbours and hares have already been spotted running in the fields. Not by me yet though. We installed a hedgehog house at the weekend and I checked it today to find the food had gone from it!
"Rats," says he. "Oh ye of little faith!" says I.

How wonderful it is to have a son-in-law - and how much better than that if his subject is forestry and the family home now boasts Scots Pine, Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock, Holly, Oak, Laburnum, Maple, Rowan, Horse Chestnut... There are others! No doubt they too will dance across the page in future blogs! Work needs to be done on those to give each tree a chance to achieve a personal best!  And we have an expert - ready, willing and able!

Up In The Treetops With Rowan

We've heard owls, noisy pied oystercatchers, pheasants, all manner of little birds - and a corncrake! This last one was a bit of a shock. We really didn't expect it. Having lived on Orkney in the eighties and nineties, we knew to expect them there but hadn't a clue corncrakes were in Caithness! It called out on our way up to the wind farm and again on our way home. It probably wasn't shouting at us personally as the corncrake can be heard from some considerable distance - not bad for a bird which is not much bigger than the blackbird!

Are there more orchids this year? We have noticed labyrinths of them at Newtonhill Croft. They are always there but not usually in such numbers. The exquisite purple reminds me of an old lady who used to attend the church I went to when I was young. She wore a woollen coat of the very same shade and her head rested on a great pillow of a fur collar. We now know that one shouldn't wear furs but, in those days, it was thought to be very grand. When we left for Orkney with our children in 1986, my Grandma gave me her fur coat. It had been specially made for her and was one of her favourite things. I remember her going to Leeds for fittings. She gave it to me because she was concerned the bitter weather up there would be too much for me. I wore it once. That was the time I set out to take the children to a carol service in Saint Magnus' Cathedral. The lights on the car failed and so we had to abandon our evening out. I've cherished the coat - not because it was once a luxury item, but because, in spite of its incorrectness, it exemplifies the deep generosity of my grandmother.

Everything is late this year. Queen Anne's Lace fills the paddock at the new house and dusts the roadside verges en route there. There is still May Blossom on the hedgerows, and, back in Wick, the first iris is still in bud.
Moving through the countryside, whether in the car or on foot, I feel a little bit of sadness. It is for no reason other than the short lives of flowers and blossom. I am looking forward to the later flowers and yet I don't want to lose these June blooms. How greedy am I! I want my cake and I want to eat it too!

Shy poppy

We may have made the move to our new home in the countryside by the time I write the July blog. Thank you for reading all the blogs which I have written from our town garden in East Caithness. I really, really hope you will continue reading the ones I shall be writing from West Caithness.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote:
"Don't judge each day on the harvest you reap, but on the seeds that you plant."
Moving forward with hope and an open mind is perfectly right for this blogger. I fully expect to make mistakes but I shall be grasping this chance to sow seeds!

Our New Neighbours