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NOVEMBER - "November is the pearl-grey month..."

November November is the pearl-grey month, the changeling between warm crimson October and cold white December, the month when the leaves fall in slow drifting whirls, and the shapes of the trees are revealed, when the earth imperceptibly wakes, and stretches her bare limbs and displays her stubborn unconquerable strength before she settles uneasily into winter. November is secret and silent. by Alison Uttley Frost on stones Starting with All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day, then moving through the commemoration of the Armistice, November is a time for remembering those gone before. How is this reflected in your experiences of November? As I begin to write, I'm listening to a piece of music called "Bells Across the Meadow" (Ketelbey). This is significant because it takes me back to a kinder England - not the England shouting for the exclusion of those in search of a safe place away from cruelty and injustice. I wonder what would be the view of those whose lives we remember par

OCTOBER - "This autumn I see the first leaves Writhe from the green into the yellow..."

This autumn I see the first leaves 

Writhe from the green into the yellow and

From the yellow into what seems a frantic red

Before  they corkscrew to their conclusion

When the morning wipers scrape them from the windscreens

                            - Michael Young

Forth Clyde Canal

We've had the October holiday and we're heading towards Hallowe'en now. Pumpkins, swedes, dressing up, apple bobbing, not-very-scary-things hanging from every available shelf in the house and telling spooky stories by candlelight. 

For one week of our two-week October school holiday we stayed near Banton which is not far from Glasgow. The initial purpose of our visit was to see Foil, Arms and Hog perform their comedy act live onstage at the Pavilion Theatre in the city. We weren't disappointed. We were also delighted to learn more about the area - visiting the Antonine Wall in various places and walking partway along the John Muir Way. I don't think I've ever known a major city so quickly tumble into countryside - and October seems to be a very good time to go. I've always loved Perthshire in October and was thankful to pass through on our way to Banton - but I was pleasantly surprised that the beauty of autumn didn't end when we came close to Glasgow. The trees and fields supported a great deal of wildlife too. From the house we saw a kite being mobbed by crows and a jay - as well as magpies which we don't have in our little corner of the world. We heard owls too.

Autumn colour at the Necropolis, Glasgow

Crunching through autumn leaves is always a delight - especially in wellies which are easily sluiced when necessary! The shapes of trees are beginning to emerge now that the leaves are dropping fast.

There's so much to see as the leaves fall - hips, haws and other berries. When we arrived home we noticed that all of our elderberries had gone. I was disappointed - I had hoped to use them but I also miss their glossy blackness on the trees in the yard.

View as the John Muir Way leaves the Antonine Wall

The wild rose, also known as the dog rose, Latin name "rosa canina", glows with the brightness of its rose-hips just now. If you look carefully you may spot a pincushion-gall. The pincushion-gall is made by the gall-wasp's larvae. So tiny yet so smart!  Sometimes the fuzzy growth is referred to as Robin's Pincushion. It's thought that they do no real harm to the rose host. My children found them fascinating when they were small. I remember walking along the old railway line between Haxey and Epworth, with the children, and spotting so many of them. That walk was a bit of my heritage. My mum was born in Haxey when her grandfather was station master there, but, before that, my grandma was born in the gatehouse at Low Burnham, Haxey. Her father, Robert Emerson, was a platelayer on the railway and her mother, Blanche, operated the crossing gate. Imagine what that was like in the middle of winter! During the Great War, Robert was building railways in France and later became a foreman platelayer, saving enough to buy a larger house and attached cottage on Station Road in Epworth.

The railway walk, like so many railway walks across the country, brims with wildlife and has become a haven for orchids, birds and wildflowers - not to mention the many insects which are a major part of its ecosystem. It mostly follows the disused Axholme Joint Railway line but in Epworth it's necessary to leave it and move through the housing before picking it up again as it gets closer to Belton. I'm old enough to remember the railway bridges before they were removed. There was one close to us when we lived at Studcross Cottage. The house looked over a small arable field which had the railway embankment as a boundary. The railway crossed the road between Epworth and Wroot and went over a red brick bridge there. As children we slithered down the embankment many times and then, after removing thorns and twigs from ourselves, we would walk back by way of the road, and take a sharp right up the lane - muddy in wintertime and dusty in summer - to home. 

This October will be remembered for many things of course - some terrible things worldwide - but I think Storm Babet has imprinted itself on the minds of most of us here in Britain. It was relentless. Three days of wind and rain! But we didn't suffer as many did. The bottom of our little wood was flooded and continued across the road to where the field was flooded. There was a degree of flooding in the field next door to us where the cattle graze in better weather. The most significant flooding we had was around the River Forss. Today (24th) there is still a lot more water than usual but on Sunday the quantity of water running beyond the river's edges was incredible. We have videos and one shows how the little metal bridge was holding some of the fast-flowing water back. Quite frightening!

Storm Babet at Stempster

During the first two days of the storm there was a distinct absence of birds. On the third day the blackbirds and robins were the first to return and slowly the other regular visitors came back. I thought they all looked a bit stunned - especially the sparrows who were so scruffy and bedraggled. Through the day their appearance improved and they seemed to gain in confidence again.

Early sun at Stempster the morning after Storm Babet finally left us

The flowers are few and far between now. When I knew to expect the storms I took out my secateurs and cut a few to bring indoors. They've been a simple delight for us. 

At the beginning of the month we had sweet peas, hollyhocks, roses and gladioli still flowering - and the ice plant - now a deep pink. A few marigolds and some borage are lighting up the wildflower patch. The occasional poppy will flower and die within a couple of days. It's a far cry from the explosion of colour in the summer months!

The journey down to Banton was a pleasure. Scotland in October reminds me of a jewellery box - so full of stunning beauty that you don't know where to look! We saw the trees turning gold, yellow, orange, ruby, brown and pink-red. The amber bracken crept up the hillsides.  We saw geese - flocks of them above us and more grazing the fields. One of the most remarkable things, however, was the quantity of mushrooms and toadstools along the grass verges all the way down from Caithness to Inverness - and a few more even further south. Unless you'd seen them you wouldn't believe it. Certainly I've never seen so many on one journey.

The homeward journey was memorable for its pastel shades in the morning. We left Banton at zero degrees and the temperature remained quite low all morning. The mist swirled in and out of trees and over rivers changing from grey through blue and mauve to pink. As we drove over the causeymire and homeward I spotted our large birds. When we left Caithness we saw herons. When we arrived home we saw hen harriers and owls. Since we've been home we have been visited by a small flock of fieldfares with redwings and a group of long-tailed tits, a treecreeper and a heron - as well as our regular friends - the wrens, robins, blackbirds, sparrows, jackdaws, crows - they get everywhere!!! - different tits, different finches - and I heard a woodpecker this afternoon!

Redwood bark

A rather exciting guest at breakfast earlier this month was a large and healthy stoat. He wove himself through the legs of the outdoor table and chairs and came up close to the French windows. He seemed to want everyone to have a glimpse and admire him. We live in the far north of Scotland so we can expect a significant change to the colour of his coat in about a month's time. He'll most likely turn from brown to white to blend in with his surroundings but he'll keep the black tip to his tail.

A less happy tale I have for you also goes back to the beginning of the month when we were cleaning the indoor windows ahead of Steven putting up the blinds for us. The windows don't get cleaned very often!! I was being rather more conscientious than usual and giving all of the jugs and vases on the window ledges a good clean too. In one jug I came across what I thought was a collection of dried leaves. I wasn't convinced so I had a closer look and discovered the body of a small bat. We weren't convinced it was dead at first so we left it in a place from which it could escape - but my first thought was right - we had one deceased bat. Advice was sought and it was disposed of in the recommended way. Theories about its origin were diverse - as you can imagine!

Even after Storm Babet we have some apples left on our trees. Our newly planted ones are doing much better than we expected - not in number but in quality. The shelter we're trying to create by planting hedges inside the stone walls is looking good - with most of the hedge plants flourishing. Also, these will be of benefit in other ways. One stretch produces berries etc. which are of use -  and all the hedge plants support insects.

Our inherited apple trees are doing well too. Unfortunately however, many of these apples have blown off the trees and so get picked up by Orlando. He manages to sneak them into the house unseen and proceeds to eat them once he's back in his basket- thereby giving himself a tummy ache. No prizes for guessing how we know he has a tummy ache!

Apples have always been a big thing for me! I've never really tried to work out why they should be. There seems to be a special magic about apples and apple related stories. One of my favourites is the story of Johnny Appleseed, the American folk hero. Johnny Appleseed was born John Chapman in 1774. He was born in Massachusetts and had an older sister, Elizabeth, but their mother died when Johnny was very young. Their father remarried and had a large family. Johnny was a little lone wolf and took himself off into the woods where he befriended the animals and birds. I can see the attraction in that! When he was twenty five, Johnny started his life's work - reading the Bible to settlers as he planted apple trees along the frontier lands. As he planted the apple orchards he also planted herbs to be used as medicines. He was respected by everyone - by those whose ancestors had been on the continent for millenia and by those who considered themselves pioneers from the east. If you look him up you'll find he was a bit of a hero too. Johnny Appleseed died of pneumonia in Indiana at the age of seventy one. What a wonderful legacy he left - apple orchards for all to share!

Martin Luther is reported to have said that if the world were to go into pieces tomorrow, he would still plant his apple tree today. Many dispute this but why bother? Why argue with something so hopeful and so full of love? 

There are still leaves - even on the Horse Chestnut!

Apple trees used to grow close to railway lines. Not so much nowadays but I remember noticing this to be the case in the past. They wouldn't grow very close because the soil would have been damaged with the waste from the steam trains. They grew in the soil just about where a person could have reached when discarding an apple core with force from the open window of a railway carriage. I don't know whether they grew true to the variety or not. I'm told apples don't grow true from seed. 

People used crab apples, when I was young, to make preserves and I understand they make good cider too. There were lots of crab apple trees then. You don't see so many now but some people still grow them for their blossom in springtime and their colourful leaves in the autumn. I always feel a little bit sad when we let the fruits of the earth rot on the plant/tree but it's good to leave some for the birds and animals.

In springtime the apple trees are so pretty with their blush-pink blossom exploding from nobbly branches dotted with lichen. In the autumn their leaves crisp up as the fruit is ready to harvest - eaters and cookers. I get quite a buzz from seeing apples stored for the winter months. It's important to keep checking them and discarding any which may have started to go bad. When I do this and find that, on the day in question, there are no bad apples to remove, then I get a feeling of satisfaction! When there are apples to throw out, I throw them in the direction of the blackbirds. They seem to relish them.

One of the first things we made in cookery at school was a dish of stuffed baked apples. The middles were scooped out of the apples and the gap was filled with alternate layers of dried fruit - raisins, sultanas etc., brown sugar and butter. The apples were baked in the oven until they became soft. Apples have been used by rich and poor alike in sweet and savoury dishes for centuries. Who doesn't love an apple crumble? Add custard or cream if you like but you don't need to! I often serve apple sauce with pork, chicken or turkey - not too sweet, the sharper apples are best for this.

Recipe for Apple Snowballs, written by Enid Ingham in 1899, from a treasured hand-written recipe book

Foraging for apples is a great idea whether you have apple trees or not. Once upon a time I would have thought it best to leave apples which are growing outside a garden for those who don't have their own tree but, having watched apples decay on trees year on year, I think it may now be bad advice. So long as you leave a few for the animals and birds, I see no harm in using what is there. Few people seem to want them when they are not wrapped in cellophane, bearing a hefty price tag!

Scrumping apples was quite a game for children in years gone by. That was another word for stealing! I can still picture the lads in my class at school scrumping apples. No names! I also remember being offered one and pretending to enjoy it when it was far too sour for pleasure. The trouble was that, if they weren't scrumped at that time - then the rightful owners would harvest them as soon as they were properly ripe!

When we lived in Barrow upon Humber, North Lincolnshire, I tried grafting some mistletoe onto an apple tree in the garden. I made a small cut and pressed berries into it, then wound bandage around the incision. I can't remember if I read how to do it or if it was one of my funny ideas - we moved soon afterwards so I can't tell you if it was successful!

Just a few years ago, on Twelfth Night, when we lived on the east side of Caithness, we went to our friends for tea and we gathered round an apple tree in their garden, singing and toasting the tree with homemade wine. The idea was to increase its yield. I think we either sang the wrong song or we should have made a different toast, because the tree's yield wasn't much improved - if at all! It was fun though - if a wee bit chilly!

This year, to add to our own small harvest, we have had some first rate apples from Elgin, some tasty ones from beside the Antonine Wall further south - we called those Roman apples, and, next weekend, our daughter and family are bringing with them some rosy apples from Croy, near Inverness. They've given us their apples before - and they're good.

These apples have weathered the storms!

One year, her older sister and husband gave us a large quantity of apples from their Brittany home. They were good too. So, now you know - if you don't want to visit empty handed, and I really don't mind if you do, then bring me an apple please!

Granddad Bobby Temperton was a gardener - a man completely in tune with Nature. He let things grow until he was certain they couldn't stay - for example, if a plant started to choke other plants then out it came. His garden, down Belshaw Lane in Belton, North Lincolnshire, was my childhood paradise. His family had owned the cottage for a very long time so I don't know whether it was he who laid out the orchard or if he inherited it. It was on the left as you headed up to the house from the road. There were plums, pears and apples - cookers and eaters. There was also a large cherry tree but that was next to the scullery window. There was one particular variety of apple growing at the edge of the orchard which I have never seen since. It was mostly green and had little spots on it. It was an eating apple but looked more like a small cooker. The thing about it was its flavour - something between nutty and buttery. My daughters have tried to find it for me but they always draw a blank - too pink - too yellow - too big . . . . I suppose there may be one somewhere in the world but we haven't found it - yet!

Next to Granny and Granddad was a sizeable corner plot with a neglected but once-elegant house in the middle of orchard trees and tangled briars. Jack Needham lived there alone. Jack was a recluse and when he died my dad bought the property and sold it on for a new bungalow to be built there. Before he did, he had the old house emptied of all its amazing furniture - much of it made by Jack's father - and he tidied up the trees. That year we had a lot of apples!

Susan Hill is one of my favourite writers. She's written a wide range of books, from "Codling Village" for little people to the crime fiction series with Simon Serrailler as the central character. One of her books, which comes somewhere in between, is called "The Magic Apple Tree" and tells the story of her home in Oxfordshire, Moon Cottage, with the magic apple tree presiding over all. This passage is taken from the summer section of the book but I'm including it here because we all need a bit of hope just now:

"Last summer, because of old age or some deficiency or disease or neglect, many of the leaves of the apple tree were eaten away at the edges, or else had large holes in them, it was a poor sight, and I wondered if it was coming to the end of its life. But I dug about below to loosen the soil, scattered a handful or two of general fertiliser and forked it lightly in. How it was appreciated, how well the tree seems now! Every leaf is firm and glossy and even, and there are far more of them, and none has a hole. It is as lush as any fruit tree in the prime of its life."


Autumn colours along the John Muir Way

News headlines are almost unbearable at present - and I'm not going to bring politics in here - but we need to keep addressing the problems with the environment, not in spite of, but because of the constant firing of missiles which we are watching on our computer and television screens. The slaughter is sickening. The destruction is huge. There is nothing positive about war.

There is a massive impact on the planet when oil and energy facilities are attacked - causing pollution equivalent to industrial havoc. Scorched earth techniques, such as those used against the Boers by the British in the Boer Wars, destroy agricultural infrastructure and wells, pumps and  canals. This situation leads directly to poisoning rivers and the sea, then further contamination of the oceans.

No good comes from war.

The danger for us is that we slip into acceptance of a world in turmoil - that we stop playing our part because we lack power. Yet, if we hold fast to a determination to preserve this world for future generations, there is a great deal of power in that.

A quick glance around the world shows us that Latin America and the Caribbean are having many incidences of extreme weather and climate shocks. These are becoming even more acute. 

In South America, recent prolonged drought has meant that the production of hydroelectricity dropped and this led to a demand for fossil fuels instead of a willingness to fund renewable energy.

Even further south, Antarctica is warming at almost twice the rate of the rest of the world. This will result in a global sea level rise.

We need to keep our eye on the ball.

But it's not all doom and gloom. Green News has an important point to make:

"While there's a lot to be worried about when it comes to the climate and nature crises, we must not lose hope - because hopelessness breeds apathy. 

The media has an important role to play in combatting climate doom. It's our job to be truthful and accurate in our reporting, not trying to downplay or greenwash the situation. But it's also our job to show that there is hope."

An example they give of this hope is of an old coal mine providing Gateshead with green energy. It uses the warm water, filling the mine's tunnels, to heat hundreds of homes.

My personal examples of hope for the planet may seem insignificant but, if we put all our hopes together, that has to be good!

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and out of sight.

                               - Siegfried Sassoon

October light


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