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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

JANUARY - "You don’t need to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” Martin Luther King Jr.

No hares today!


It feels strange writing about every little pleasing thing when there are so many big and ugly stories filling our screens and pages just now. The intensity of news volleys from Britain and all over the world can drown out the good things if I let them. But I won't let them. The natural world is still so full of wonder - from the tiniest insect to the great roaring ocean.

Cloud formations are fascinating in the winter skies and the view is sharp and wide. There is no hiding place in winter - and yet, as I meant to count the number of hares on my last two morning walks, there was not a hare to be seen anywhere.  They are smart. They can become invisible if they choose to.

I do love that we have them all around us here - even if we have had to crawl up the hill in low gear because one felt compelled to slowly escort us homeward.

My childhood home in the Isle of Axholme made an excellent habitat for brown hares. Moving from Epworth to Belton in the mid-sixties, I was able to watch their antics from our house. They fascinated me then and they do still. They strip the bark from trees, however, so that's something to watch out for. We do appreciate our trees.

Holly

The little woodland is a great place to look for wildlife at present. It's sheltered and perhaps a bit warmer than the surrounding fields so it must seem inviting to our wild friends. The trees themselves are an open book in January. It's possible to get to know them well at this stage of the year - and then to watch them change as the year unfolds.

Fruit farmers may be pruning their orchard trees this month and farmers up and down the country are spending time tending their hedgerows and ditches. That's something else which reminds me of Axholme but, whereas machines do the bulk of the work in this twenty first century, it was men who toiled hard through the short winter days back then.

The hedgerows of Britain make important food reserves at this time of the year. Like the wood, they provide a degree of warmth and shelter, thereby attracting hundreds of insects. Where there are insects, there will be birds and small mammals. Where there are birds and small mammals, there will be larger birds and bigger mammals. Our Mr. Reynard regularly scans the winter hedge looking for small mammals and grubs.

While the hedgehogs, bats and dormice are sleeping tight throughout winter, other mammals may be a bit dopey but are prepared for a rummage whenever the weather improves. Badgers will even visit gardens in wintertime - summer too if they like you!

As far as I know there are no dormice in Caithness. In fact the very pretty dormouse has become scarce in many places - but programmes have been set up to reintroduce them. For example, in June last year, dormice were reintroduced to two woodland areas of Lancashire - with a view to adding more to the same areas this coming June. This is good news. Dormice are much reduced due to climate change. This is because the unusually warm spells in January will wake up the dormouse which is unable to cope with the ensuing harsher conditions.

This crazy climate is confusing all of us. We walked round the garden on New Year's Day and spotted honeysuckle, rose and dandelion all in flower. In fact, there is a new bud on the same rose as I look out of the window almost a month later! 

Winter Rose

Work has been going on in parts of the garden throughout the month. It has been possible to do that this year. I won't be surprised if someone can prove this to have been one of the mildest Januarys on record!

Raised beds are being created in the kitchen garden with a view to growing garlic, onions and celery. We know, of course, that we won't be able to match the celery grown in the Isle of Axholme!  Didn't someone say that the Lord Mayor waits for Isle celery to be ready before he has his banquet!

Other raised beds are planned for growing produce. Many things will grow in pots too and I'm going to plant some strawberries into my old red wellies. Should be cheerful - and tasty! 
My family doesn't go in for your average Christmas and birthday presents. Not them! They spend a long time searching for gifts which link to interests and I have, as a result, the most amazing collection of treasures - including an old coverless diary kept by an agricultural labourer between 1886 and 1896 with 1894 missing. He lived in Lincolnshire and, although many of the entries were short and, individually, were lacking detail, if you read the ten years as a whole, you get an insight into the life of someone living and working in rural England one hundred and thirty years ago. An ordinary person like me. Not a monarch or an explorer or anyone else famous - but someone unknown and otherwise forgotten. This man has been my friend for several years now and I keep renewing our acquaintance by rereading his diary.

It's January so let's look at ten years of entries for the twenty third of this month -

23rd January 1886   Cleaned barn out. Snowy day.
23rd Jan. 1887   Pigs 16 weeks old.
23rd Jan. 1888   At work for Mr. Everatt 2/9 (I am assuming he earned two shillings and nine pence)
23rd Jan. 1889   At work for Mr. Waterhouse. Paid 2/6
23rd January 1890  At work for Mr. Waterhouse Paid 2/6
23rd January 1891   At Mr. Clayphan's - striking (this may have meant digging-in cuttings of plants OR it may mean taking out weaker plants from rows)
(Thawing)
23rd January 1892   At home. Laying Causeway.
23rd January 1893   At Mr. Waterhouse's. Filling manure.
23rd January 1895   At Mr. Waterhouse's. Delivering potatoes. Park Farm.
23rd January 1896   At Mr. Waterhouse.  Getting swedes up. 

Apart from the wages, little has changed in terms of January jobs on the farm.

George worked for many different people and, because he was also the village sexton, buried many people too. He writes down the day he married with no detail other than his wife's Christian and maiden names and where they married. He records the day he, 
                                                
 "buried my mother". 

What he doesn't say is almost as significant as the things he does say.

The references to farming practices fascinate me as I remember my grandfather talking about performing the exact same tasks in very much the same way. 

First daffydowndillies of 2022 (shop bought!)

In the garden too, little has changed in real terms. We may now have our lawnmowers to mend and service, but we still need to turn the compost heap. Some people cover their cold soil with fleece instead of cloches, but they are  still hoping to plant shallots and to sow broad beans if the weather is kind. While values and moral principles are altering at a disturbing rate, our good earth keeps us in check! Once I've put on the coat, hat, scarf, leg warmers, boots, gloves... I can't wait to get outside - either walking or doing a little bit of gardening. It's the temptation to stay in by a warm fire that has to be conquered! Once the battle is won, I never look back. I know that, under the soil, things are happening and that little things are busy finding food while birds are beginning to sing again in the early mornings. This indicates they are gearing up for the new breeding season. The light is fading before I remember I can't actually stay out all night!

The night skies have been stunning this month. At the beginning we went outside to see The Quadrantids. We'd had a light snowfall and it was a fairly breezy night. I didn't see the meteor shower but I did see The Plough. My family try so hard to point out the shooting stars but I have a block. I am very slowly learning more and more about constellations and planets but I just can't see the movement.

Last Saturday we had a mini-Christmas. Everyone was triple-vaccinated and we'd all tested negative so it was full steam ahead for a pretend Christmas with much-loved family who were unable to come in December due to the pandemic. It was a happy day (we all had a fun quiz in the afternoon with our son and his family in France via Skype) and one of the highlights for me was going out of doors in the evening to watch the night sky - Orion, The Plough, the Pole Star... I'm doing well!!!

One evening, in the middle of January, after a misty, murky day, we saw the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). Even behind the thin clouds, it lit up the night sky and the moon had a faint rainbow ring around it.

Wolf Moon

The full moon, the Wolf Moon, coincided with a break in the mild weather and the grass on the side of the ditch was still frozen in patches when we walked Orlando the next morning.  The sunrise had been spectacular that morning - colour seemed to be everywhere - and I noticed some ferns which had not turned orange but were a striking, almost emerald, green. They were thriving in the bottom of the hedgerow.

Sunrise

There have been some stunning sunrises - and sunsets too. I don't walk Orlando every day - we share out the daily walks according to our own timetables. The sun broke through the rain on one of my walk-free mornings and I told my daughters, before they left, that they would almost certainly see a rainbow. They did - and photographed it for me.

Judith's rainbow

We've become more familiar with our owls this month. Tawny owls and barn owls live nearby and we have twice seen a short eared owl. We're used to Cattieface as we were happily surrounded by its relations when we lived in Orkney. This morning I saw a marvellous photograph of a short-eared owl swooping over Worlaby Carrs in Lincolnshire. (Thanks to Ben Hall)

Old Brown and the screech owl have been my forever friends. I learned to love them as a little girl and I still delight in their visits. When we lived in Wick I was thrilled to hear Old Brown and another Old Brown communicating in the depths of winter. I didn't expect them there. And one of the highlights of an early evening drive down the east coast was a view of the screech owl gliding across our vision and making no sound at all - especially not a screech! Now we have them as neighbours. Earlier this month my daughter and I were almost home a little after seven in the evening, having driven along flooded roads, when a veritable ghost flew over the river shallows at the bridge. It was back again the next day but, this time, nearer to the house and looking far more like a barn owl!!

Our hen harrier is quite sure of us now and never very far away. We knew those too from living in Orkney but these - especially the female - are almost sociable. 

Indoor blooms

Occasionally, on the mildest of our January days, one of the local farmers will put his cattle out into the field, but they are always brought in again at the close of day. Mostly we are surrounded by sheep and I love to watch the ones on the hillside as they group together and then disperse - I think it might be classed as living art! As I stand in the yard, I hear the sheep communicating with each other and then a cow complains from the farmyard because she really doesn't like being cooped up there. She is fortunate to be housed but I can't expect her to understand that!

The farmer at the top of the hill opposite has already ploughed three large fields and the brown rectangles change the view for us. We're wondering what will be sown or planted there. January is the month to speculate! So much can happen in the coming year. This good earth holds the key to unlock secrets beyond those frightening news volleys. I may have quoted him before, but I think I will probably do it many times more -

"Even if I knew that tomorrow the world were to go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree." (Martin Luther)

Comments

  1. Your January Blog, Susan, is full of energy and so many wonderful images of life and nature around you. Thank you for sharing them with us. Your love of the countryside and its' inhabitants is inspiring.

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