JULY - “All the air was full of freshness, All the earth was bright and joyous...” THE SONG OF HIAWATHA by HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW
This morning, the great spotted woodpecker came and did a marvellous performance for me in the plum tree. We are staying once more at High Sprintgill - in the Yorkshire Dales and on the border of Cumbria. I watched the woodpecker with a mixture of curiosity and respect. It reminded me of those black-robed teachers of my grammar school days who moved sedately along corridors, checking corners for errant pupils. There was no point in running. They knew who you were.
The morning was dull with rain moving in sheets across the hillside, puthering in from the west. It’s the first day of the holidays that I haven’t sat outside with my early morning tea. There would have been no point - I would have been up and down like a yoyo. I did, however, accompany Orlando on his comfort-break and I managed to feed the birds and the red squirrels without getting a soaking.
I settled on the sofa and waited.
The chaffinch family were the first callers. Mr. Chaffinch is such a bully - and Mrs. Chaffinch just sits there and lets him push her and all other comers around. I mean - come on girls - let’s hear it for a fair share! When the timid birds do get a look-in I find myself keeping as still as I possibly can so that they are confident enough to feast well.
I heard the wren too this morning. I’ve been hearing the wren all year - wherever I have been - so that’s sounding good for next winter. The more the merrier. The tiny birds - like the wren - are the ones who suffer the most when the temperature drops. The male here comes up very close and disappears into the vegetation by the door.
The next comers were the coal tits - brave little souls - and very determined to have their slice of the cake. Their close relative, the blue tit (Little Blue to you and me) comes in from the right and settles down on the outdoor table to open up a monkey nut. I’ve never seen them do that on a table before. Another first! Life never stops offering opportunities such as these.
Some mornings present different visitors. On those mornings, which start with the sun, the bees are in and out of the honeysuckle which forms an arch over the door into the garden. The fragrance is divine. We have honeysuckle growing over the wall by the gateway into our new home in Caithness. It is stunningly beautiful and welcomes all comers with its scent.
I’ve seen the grown-up robin only once while we’ve been here but the baby robin is a regular visitor to the bird table - easy to identify from its bottom - to which it draws attention by bobbing (quite right for Bob Robin) up and down shamelessly.
The day brightened so I waited for the nuthatch to arrive and carry off the monkey nuts to a safe place from which I will hear its tap-tap as it opens the shells. It came only once this morning but there have been mornings when it has been back and forth with squirrel nuts in its beak so that I have had to top up the poor squirrels’ rations. The first time the nuthatch visited us this year was on Sunday afternoon when I was reading in the garden. It really didn’t mind me at all. On one of its trips between the nuts and the plum tree, the woodpecker challenged it and so it took itself off into the tall sycamore from where I could hear its tap-tapping. I should have explained to both the nuthatch and the woodpecker that the monkey nuts are meant for the red squirrel - it says so on the box - but I don’t suppose it matters too much!
Yesterday, very early, I was watching from the bedroom window. It was so still and there were no little visitors within my line of vision. Then the middle distance seemed to thicken and colour-up. From behind the small stone shed at the bottom of the garden a red squirrel undulated along the garden wall, jumped down into the garden and proceeded to sort through the undergrowth rather like a little old man going through the closed market in town after trading hours.
There is a steep lane that runs past the house and the climb is worth making to enjoy lovely views over farmsteads and fields of livestock towards Wild Boar Fell. The harebells are out and I’m always surprised at how delicate they are - every single summer! They have to be little caps for fairies - they are perfectly made for that.
We didn’t see any fairies at the bottom of the garden on Friday night when we watched the Thunder Moon rising. Perhaps they avoid it and the tumult it brings for little things! We didn’t get the thunder until today though.
Since we arrived here for our holiday I have been looking up the entries in my five-year diary for 2019. (We were unable to come last year due to Covid.) There is a constancy to life here. You can almost touch the permanence. It really is heartening in today’s uncertain world. The swallows continue to encourage their young to fly and hunt. The buzzard still patrols the valley from high up. The owls hoot their goodnight to all listeners and occasionally a jay will laugh rudely at my innocence.
We drove the entire length of Scotland to get here. What variety we saw! We now live in the very far north and, from a corner of our garden, we are able to see the Atlantic - and a little bit of Orkney where we lived for ten years. As we travelled down, we noticed the heather blooming in places - but there wasn’t yet that fluid drape of purple magnificence which comes a little bit later.
But Scotland is not just the heather on the hills (Brigadoon) and Caledonian Forest. As beautiful as they are, there is so much more to Scotland. We have rivers teeming with wildlife, we have meadows shimmering with jewels, we have woods and copses punctuating our countryside with shelter and we have fields of corn - wheat, oats and barley. I haven’t mentioned the majestic mountains, the historic straths... my goodness... there is so much more! And here I would like to pay tribute to all of the Scottish people who have made tourists and visitors welcome over many years. Scotland is a magical place for a holiday and Scottish hospitality is famous all over the world. It has been very difficult recently for the people living in Scotland due to the fear of Covid19. Hospitality is second nature in Scotland - but love and care for family and friends is of great importance too. I myself am part-Scottish and two of my children were born here. Our family knows well the historic struggle of Scottish folk (we have a collective background in the study of Scottish culture). The conflict felt by present-day Scots needs understanding. Whether your origin includes Scotland or not, please try to empathise with those who may not be of the same mind. Whether it is a view on the present pandemic or a person’s take on the independence debate, respect and kindness will get us through.
We shall be driving all the way back through Scotland as we make our way home at the end of our holiday and I shall look forward to the journey. The summer will have matured and I will soak up as much of it as I can. Our winter days are short in the far north - the price we pay for lots of summer daylight. We will still have the company of our resident wildlife - and that of the winter visitors too. And we will have our memories of Summer 2021 - as well as all those other summers of our lives. Whether it be our 2021 corncrake - new for us this year - or a comparison between my first meeting with a combine harvester (circa 1962) and the monster I saw at work yesterday, summer memories are priceless.
"And before him, through the sunshine,
Westward toward the neighbouring forest
Passed in golden swarms the Ahmo,
Passed the bees, the honey-makers,
Burning, singing in the sunshine..."