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MARCH: “Pincushion moss growing in the crevices of a stone wall. A stretch of freshly turned earth, fingered over by frost.”

“Pincushion moss growing in the crevices of a stone wall. A stretch of freshly turned earth, fingered over by frost.”   From “Ten Delights of a Garden” - part of her book, “Through the Garden Gate” by Susan Hill. Flowering currant - almost there! In this March 2023 blog, I’m writing about a fortnight of very wintry weather! I take the journey from the first of the month to the sixteenth and I hope that the second half of March will see off Winter and welcome Spring! Maybe the weather is less wintry where you are? So where are the daffodils please? We have so much snow at present that ours have all disappeared. Socrates, my old pipe-smoking friend and Granddad-Bobby-lookalike, is slowly disappearing too. Even the topiary is up to its terrible knobbly knees in snow! I love snow but, frankly, I had hoped for that first mild day of March by now! Crystal ball photography To My Sister It is the first mild day of March: Each minute sweeter than before The redbreast sings from the tall



The cuckoos and swallows have arrived at Stempster House - so Summer is on its way! The cuckoo was first heard here on Thursday, 28th April when I was pegging out the washing. I was on my own and everyone believed I had heard it but I still wanted someone else to hear it too. Judith saw one first - in the windfarm woodland - but then the others heard them too. It's a wonderful sound from what amounts to a bit of a terrorist really!

Ginny and Judith spotted the first swallows the day before I heard the cuckoo - on the 27th April. They were circling around the farm buildings next door and, since then, they have filled our skies - in sunshine and in rain. There are thousands of tiny insects for the swallows and martins - and we are rather grateful that they are so hungry! (I'm thinking of dangling corks from my sun hat!)

This morning Ginny and Clem walked through a flight of swallows as they took Orlando and Jess down to the river. It was on the corner by the broch where, in wet weather, we get a little flood. The insects hang around damp places and so the swallows were breakfasting there. Clemency said there were lots of swallows but not one swallow clipped them.

Birthday tulip 

When our son, Alexander, was born, and when he was small,  I used to sing "Alexander Beetle" to him.

"I had a little beetle

So that beetle was his name

And I called him Alexander

And he answered just the same . . . . ." (Melanie Safka from the poem by A.A.Milne)

He seemed to enjoy it - at least he didn't complain! The poem, which is called "Forgiven", was written by A.A. Milne and you can hear Melanie Safka sing it on Youtube. A.A. Milne's second given name was Alexander. I didn't know that until today. Anyway, the point of my story is that, on 11th May, Alexander's birthday, I found a beetle - the first I've seen inside the house - in the shower room. After I'd photographed it I put it outside and sent a message to Alex (now living with his family in France) to let him know he'd been spotted. I was very excited to find him in the shower room when he lives so far away!!

It's difficult to grasp the current peril to insects when you see them all around the garden, woodland, fields, lanes and on the beaches. But they are in peril. This month a study revealed that our flying insect population has declined by 60% in twenty years. That's massive. And, writing about Alexander Beetle, it's important to mention the European oil beetle as one of the many insects in danger. Although a pocket of them has been found in Wales recently after an absence of nearly eighty years, there are still very few in Britain. The situation is extremely grave. We can't live without insects. 

No insects. No food. No life on our planet. 

It isn't just the bees who pollinate. We need them all!

Tortoiseshell butterfly

The merry month of May is the start of the witchery of summertime. We don't have to peer under rocks, and in crannies, for wildflowers - as we did in early springtime.

"A violet by a mossy stone,

Half-hidden from the eye!" (William Wordsworth)

A bloomin big spider!

In May the verges are brilliant with blooms and the hedgerows and trees are glamourous with blossom.

"Hail! flowery May that dost inspire

Mirth and youth and warm desire." (Milton)

Photographing a rogue bluebell in the lawn - the little pink camera really works. 

When we lived in the village of Barrow on Humber, I loved to drive into the next town, Barton - also on Humber, when the hawthorn blossom was out along the field boundaries in May. The sight was rather striking because there were long swathes of hedgerow there. I hope it's still like that because I found it uplifting and it would be good to think that people were still being uplifted by something so simple and pure.

The hawthorn has always been a part of my world. When I was very young and living at Studcross Cottage in Epworth, our hedge was of privet but when we went up the lane to Burnham Beck to play - some rather dangerous games when I think about it now - we passed hawthorn hedges separating fields. Birds nested in the branches and wildflowers such as stitchwort, speedwell and campion grew beneath them. 

They told me this is a three-headed daisy. Do you believe them? 

Granny and Granddad had hawthorn too - in their garden down Belshaw Lane in Belton. Granddad  showed me birds' eggs in the nests there and, in autumn, the ball of leaves that started out as a sleepy  hedgehog.

In the past, country folk would cut hawthorn, with its fresh leaves and dusky-white flowers, to dress up "Jack-in-the-Green" as a symbol of the new growing season. There are many green men fashioned by stonemasons up and down the country and over centuries. These would be decorated for May but a human green man would also have been decorated with hawthorn once upon a time. He was expected to skip after the May Queen. I never found out what happened when he caught her. My mum remembers dancing around the maypole when she was at school in Haxey in the 1930s. Some places have brought back the maypole dances in twenty first century Britain. Quite a nice idea really - as long as all children get an equal chance to join in.

On May 1st, Ginny, Judith and Clemency got up at the break of day and washed their faces in the morning dew. Then they took Orlando and Jess down to the River Forss. May 1st and Christmas morning are the only two days when they get up before me. There is something very wonderful about early mornings at this time of the year. It's a bit like those film sequences you see of wildlife waking up. You imagine some clever film makers have doctored the footage - until you get out there and keep still and silent - and then you know they probably haven't. It really is paradisial. Recently I walked round the garden when no one else was up - it was a Sunday morning - and I felt so incredibly privileged to be a part of it all. I stood and watched at various points and one was over the wall from the bird feeders. Our regular visitors came and went in dribs and drabs but the little siskins stayed - and more siskins arrived. We have lots of the sweet little acrobats at Stempster. They like to nest high up in pine trees and we have quite a few of those. They use moss, wool and twigs with lichen on them to build their nests -  which they line with roots, hair and feathers. I've read this - I'm not likely to shin up a tall pine tree to check it out!

Siskins at the snack bar

Our birds are very active now. We have a mail box in the driveway so that Postie doesn't need to come into the yard to be harassed by the dogs. It was a good idea - until a family of great tits took up residence! You've got to hand it to them - they must have known we would do our best to secure their residential status.

Tawny and barn owls are calling in the evenings - and, one evening, the cuckoo joined in. I'm not sure I've heard a cuckoo call in the evening before this.

The baby sparrows are shamelessly demanding food from their parents - in the ivy, by the feeders and on the lawn. Poor Mr. and Mrs. Sparrow - they must be exhausted!

Over the rainbow

Outside my window - so that I can turn to look at it from my desk - is a bug-hotel sitting in the fork of a mountain ash. There's a little space between the base of the bug-hotel and the base of the fork where a male wren has built a nest. He builds several and lets the female choose the one she wants. I think she may have chosen this one as the wrens have been my alarm clock this week. Yesterday I watched one go into the nest and stay there for quite some time. As I look out now the tree is being buffeted by winds and the sky has turned a pearly grey. This week has been very changeable but I've still managed to sow my wildflower seeds.


In the cottage garden at the back of the house I've cleared more ground elder and dug out two small trenches along the length of the prepared soil. Between the trenches I've sown meadow flowers, poppies, foxgloves and a short wildflower mix. The trenches are to show me where and when the ground elder will make its next incursion. I won't sow anything in the trenches - they are purely utilitarian.

The vegetables have had a set back. We've had some bursts of windy weather these last few days and the seedlings which Clem had in the mini-greenhouse took a tumble and many were crushed. She salvaged what she could. Some she put in raised beds where there was space and others into Keith's greenhouse. She's decided to buy some plants to replace the others. We are trying to get as many edible things in the garden as possible. Shopping bills are going up and, perhaps more scarily, things are being imported from countries where the use of dangerous chemicals is acceptable for profit. I spend a lot more time reading labels on food than I did when we were in the EU. There was an element of protection then. If we grow our own at Stempster, we know we haven't used chemicals. It isn't easy though as we are constantly battling with undesirable weeds and pests.

Things are happening in the greenhouse...

...and in the repurposed trailer

We have a tree in the garden which, until last autumn, was strangled by ivy. Lydia and Euan set to work and released it. We called it the "serpent tree" because of the coiled ivy. This is apt because it's now smothered in apple blossom. Now we wait to see if Eve will eat the apple!

Apple blossom

We are planting more apples, over time, in the rear paddock. We also have an apple tree in the back cottage garden and one in the wildwood as well as a struggling apple tree near the large sycamore. Last year my little granddaughter picked apples for us in her garden near Inverness and we really enjoyed them. This year I hope we can return the favour with some Stempster apples for her.

Judith spotted the first orchid of this year. They are lovely plants and so clever at surviving in the oddest places. I expect there will be more to come as we move into June. For the last few years our regular dog walk was at Newton Hill Croft which is run by Forestry and Land Scotland. We now live at the other side of Caithness - going west - so we don't go there often but, in my five year diary, for today's date in 2020, it says,

"The first orchids are flowering at Newton Hill. They are together in a small patch on the moorland bit."


The flower we are still seeing the most on our walks by Stempster is the kingcup or marsh marigold. It belongs to the buttercup family and has been flowering through April and it may well continue into the summer months. They add to the yellowness all around us. The waysides and hillsides are covered in gorse and dandelions are still flowering as some turn into clocks for the children to blow. The buttercups will soon be out - Ginny and my friend, Shirley, love these. The yellow vetch will follow. Three laburnum trees in the garden are making an arc over the bluebells.  Don't you just want to soak up all this brilliance and store it for one of those grey back-end days when Christmas is still too far off and springtime is just a memory!

Marsh marigolds 

A week after Easter Sunday we were again visited by the pine marten. The same night we caught it on the trail camera, Ginny heard significant noise in the attic above her room. We wonder if it is only an occasional visitor and that part of the attic is just one of its lairs. We can't see where it might have got in but our roofline isn't simple - there are places which we can't see clearly where a pine marten may be able to gain access. Of course females are giving birth around now. Oh dear!

We've had other birthdays in this amazing month of May - cousins, friends and our own forestry advisor who just happens to be our son-in-law. It was also Judith's birthday and one of her presents was a tree. She chose an aspen and she planted it on the day itself. That was a fortnight ago and it's looking very settled so far!

Judith planting her aspen on her birthday

Finally, but by no means a small thing, the new hedgerow has been planted. Clemency put in hawthorn, dog rose, blackthorn and hazel along much of the length of the rear paddock. She included some elder. At the other side of the paddock, she's put in holly, willow, snowberry, spiraea, maple - and any homeless thing! The first hedge is for use whereas this other one is to be more ornamental.  Along the bottom Clem has planted more elder. You need vision to plant a hedge. Once upon a time it was the green thread running around their villages and giving country people their fuel, animal food as well as food for themselves and herbs for their medicines. It's a wind-break. It protects the micro-climate as well as giving a home to birds who will eat your insects - the ones which will damage your plants. It takes a while to establish itself but, once established, it can last a very long time. There are still some hedges in Lincolnshire which are hundreds of years old. What tales they could tell!

               "Lost in such ecstasies in this old spot

                I feel that rapture which the world hath not,

                That joy like health that flushes in my face

                Amid the brambles of this ancient place..." (John Clare)


  1. Such an inspiring blog. Love the fact that the Great Tits have repurposed your post box and all the other birds and wild life allow you to share Stempster House with them. x

    1. Thank you Dolly. Yes, they're really the ones in charge! xx


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