The Return of the Swallows

May 2017The swallows are back – a couple of weeks later than last year and now the garage floor shows evidence of their enthusiastic ‘nest remodelling’.  The early arrivals, first visible as mere shadows on the gravel, now swoop through the swallow-shaped opening in the garage door, preparing the accommodation for their slower travelling companions.   A few days after the swallows’ return, I catch my breath as I hear the first cuckoo – the jigsaw pieces of early summer beginning to fit together.  May is here and the lane verges seem suddenly lighthearted and frivolous with their lacy fronds of cow parsley, while the fresh greens on hedges and trees are a treat to the eye.   Every year, the trees take it in turns to come into leaf and this year it is “oak before ash” – so if there is any truth in the old countryside saying; we should be “in for a splash” rather than a “soak”.

In Rose Cottage the holiday season of 2017 is about to start and I am busy preparing for my first guests on 12th May.  May 17For a variety of reasons, this will be the last summer for Rose Cottage as a holiday cottage.  From October it will be let, on a permanent basis, to the friends who stayed here through the winter of 2016/17.  (see Diane’s blog posts), This has not been an easy decision, but it does feel right.  Friendships have been forged and I have really enjoyed getting to know so many charming and interesting people, many of whom have returned here year after year. In fact, the majority of the bookings this year are from people who, like the swallows, have chosen to return.

Postscript: Walking around the garden this morning, I see tiny blue speedwell flowers fighting for space in the grass of the lawn. Over the gate, in the orchard, six new apple trees, guarded by sturdy wooden fence posts and wire netting, are protected from a greedy group of ewes and lambs.  The ewes have just been sheared and seem self-conscious and surprisingly clean – newly minted almost.  In another field a group of five ‘underemployed’ rams stand around in a bored, dreamy state, calling to mind elderly members of an old-fashioned gentleman’s club.



Arrivals and a Departure

‘When everything else has gone from my brain … what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.’

Annie Dillard from An American Writer (Picador, 1989)

spring 17We finally leave Rose Cottage a month later than planned. No snow, but we are there for Spring and the arrival of the first swallow. I spend the final weeks at Rose Cottage binge-reading Annie Dillard. She is an exceptional writer of place and I read The Writing Life (twice), An American Childhood (twice) and finally finish Pilgrim at Tinker Creek just before we leave. Her detailed, almost forensic observations of nature and life are absorbing and her extraordinary ability to totally immerse herself in – and evoke – place, is inspiring. In the spirit of Dillard, I resolve to be more particular in my observations and write stuff down!

I take a walk in the orchard. I realise that trees are difficult to identify when they have no leaves, so look at the shape of each tree instead and note that the crown of an apple tree is shaped like the fruit it bears, that a pear is teardrop – or pear-shaped. I note blossom as it appears. Damson and plum trees blossom first, followed by pear which has a lemon-green flower. Finally the apple trees flower in shades of white, pink and red. Beyond the orchard, blackthorn is the first to flower in the hedgerows and wild cherries flourish on the edges of woodland where they get most light.

We pack to the sound of bird song – unseen chiff chaffs chiff-chaff all day long from the treetops, we see and hear a spring wildflowerslone green woodpecker calling for a mate, blue tits, finches and long tailed tits chatter in the hedge.

We load the car at the front of the cottage where wildflowers emerge among the daffodils. First the tiny iris reticulata, then purple and white snakeshead fritillaries followed by cowslips and marsh orchids.

Small black spiders hatch under the gravel on the drive and disperse as we walk backwards and forwards with our bags and boxes. Rabbits at the far side of the orchard chase each other in circles – diving into the woodland perimeter when a buzzard mewls overhead.

Postscript: Ten miles up the Wye Valley and 700’ higher, spring is a couple of weeks behind. The blossom on the trees in the orchard on the hillside where we live has only just emerged, but a pair of goldfinches are visiting the feeder, the black birds have stopped moulting and started singing again and the swallows have arrived.

Photographs by Diane Becker, more on Instagram @dot7seven. Drawings and prints by Mark Clements can also be found on Instagram @markjclements.

Inside Out

rose cottage dianeRose Cottage. 64 metres above sea level on the River Wye flood plain half way between Hay-on-Wye and Hereford, via the back roads and a single track lane. Unless you know it, a secret part of rural Herefordshire. Welsh borderland. A landscape of orchards, wet woodland and fields.

 We are staying at Rose Cottage over winter – a few miles away from our regular spring, summer, autumn residence (family caravan) on the hills above Clyro, the other side of the Welsh border.

Early December has clear days, blue skies and significant frosts. The cottage faces east and we’re treated to a sequence of sun rises that bleed through the line of bare trees at the far side of the field opposite, stain the frozen hedge and get me outside first thing with camera.

It is warm here, dry and light. We gravitate to the kitchen, work mostly at the table. The kitchen overlooks the orchard and without standing up we can see across to woodland, a glimpse of valley side, a backdrop of sky. The view is as productively distracting as we’d hoped it would be.

Orchard life is absorbing, even in winter. A flock of sheep come and go among the molehills and apple trees. We spy a pair of jays, a great spotted woodpecker on a tree trunk, a treecreeper on the gate post, several resident blackbirds and a thrush. We identify a fieldfare (not seen one before) and discover they are regular visitors to the orchard. Similar in size to a blackbird or thrush, they are pale underneath with a grey head, dark crown, a chestnut back and wings. A flock of fieldfares lands in the orchard one afternoon to forage for grubs and slugs. Despite their number they are difficult to see, camoflauged by wind-flicked dead leaves and meadow grass. Pheasants, squirrels and rabbits forage along the boundary fence between orchard and woodland. Magpies interrupt, and rooks guard the sky where – higher up – buzzards and red kites circle all of us.

At dusk we open the window to listen to the chink chink chink of a blackbird. Sometimes we hear owls, or skeins of rose cottage dianegeese honking as they follow the river. One evening a strange rasping sound we don’t recognise turns out to be a solitary sheep munching grass in the light coming through the kitchen window. The sky’s completely dark here, there’s no light pollution. On a clear night we stand outside in awe gazing at the stars, planets and the haze of the Milky Way directly overhead.

Halfway through our stay here and there are signs of spring: trees coming in to bud, one shrub already covered in pink blossom and a blue tit visiting the nesting box. Still we hope for snow – or rain – anything to keep us here a little longer.

Photographs by Diane Becker, more on Instagram @dot7seven. Drawings and prints by Mark Clements can also be found on Instagram @markjclements.





Ducks, Hens and Tree Roosting Bantams


orchard oainted by carolyn white

Orchard painted by Carolyn White

According to an article in The Guardian, the word paradise stems from the ancient Persian parades meaning “orchard” or “enclosure”. This checks out in my well thumbed copy of the Oxford concise dictionary of English Etymology which adds “abode of the blessed” to the definition. Living next to an orchard certainly makes me feel blessed and my father’s comment, on his first visit here, that this was “an earthly paradise” now seems less fanciful, as according to the large scale map of Blakemere in 1886, this whole area was planted with orchards.

Since the early days, as a small holding, various farming enterprises have been tried here, more or less successfully.   I’m told that cattle were once raised here and that one of my predecessors used a large shed for a deep-litter chicken business. There are traces of the brick walls of a pigsty and in the old photographs, there are several more outbuildings.   Few human traces of the farmers and gardeners remain, but one of the flower beds must have been the old rubbish heap, as the ground continues to offer up shards of blue and white china.

ducksOne of my first plans was to introduce handsome Muscovy ducks to the pond, just inside the wood.  This meant providing them with somewhere safe on land, to sleep in at night, out of reach of the fox.  Needless to say, the rather flimsy shelter proved inadequate and they were picked off, one by one, leaving me feeling guilty and angry with myself.  The pond had been dug out and enlarged, by previous owners, with the express purpose of attracting wild duck there, to be shot.  I did not allow guns here, so I contented myself with watching the visiting wild duck raise their young on the pond, delighting especially in the tiny moorhens inside the reeds, with their rows of miniature chicks in tow.  An experiment with glamorous mandarin ducks also ended badly.  They were kept inside a run, but they were not locked up when I was away for a night and that evening the fox treated himself to a rare exotic meal.

Hens were easier to care for and survived to provide me with eggs for several years.  Always seeking the ‘authentic henscountryside experience’, I bought a cockerel to crow at dawn and to give us some chicks.  Nothing worked out as planned; broody hens were laying eggs in all kinds of unreachable corners and the chicks that did hatch were predominately male – giving me gangs of fighting adolescent cockerels to deal with.

A friend in Gloucestershire gave me some bantams, layers of tiny eggs, who will roost in trees – high above the foxes.  In theory, this should have worked well so I moved them into the orchard. Unfortunately, they were not always quick enough to fly up into the fruit trees at dusk and once again the fox won the day.

I learned some hard lessons and have had to put aside some of the more unrealistic, romantic ideas about living in the country and becoming self-sufficient.  Wild animals such as foxes will always win because this is their territory and free range chickens are too much of a temptation.  I tried my hand at keeping sheep, but that can also be sheepheartbreaking – when ewes fail to survive a difficult lambing and otherwise healthy lambs die suddenly, in the fields.  Foot and Mouth disease brought my life as a Shepherdess to an end – not because my little flock was infected, but because I feared another outbreak.

The neighbour farmer brings his sheep here to keep the grass down and now, free from any responsibility for livestock, I plan to replace the old orchard trees, planting up to 9 new apple trees over the winter months of 2017, to recreate the “paradise” I inherited when I moved here in 1993.





The Edge of the Village

herefordshire landscapeLiving on the edge of a village, could be a metaphor for feeling apart, different, an observer rather than a participant.  In fact, I do live on the edge of the Herefordshire village of Blakemere – the last house before the stream which marks the boundary with Preston on Wye. Blakemere is a very small village, a collection of houses and farms held together by the church of St. Leonard which has an ancient foundation, but a Victorian outer skin. (Incidentally, St. Leonard is the patron saint of childbirth and had I known this many years ago, I could have called upon his help in the worst throes of labour!)  The church is the only public building in the village and is at the heart of all occasions when the 70 village dwellers are able to meet one another.  The regular congregation is small, but the church is packed for the Carol Service at Christmas and is almost as full for the Harvest Festival Service.

Most well supported, however, is the church fete, held in the early summer, which allows an opportunity for church feteeverybody to join in, lend a hand and experience a sense of community.  Villagers help with serving teas and baking for the tea room, organising games, selling cakes, books, plants and exotic objects on the ‘White Elephant’ stall. Visitors are invited to guess the weight of a large cake, to buy raffle tickets and sometimes to name a newborn foal.  The money raised goes to church funds with a proportion given to a local charity.

Apart from the church, the village has no meeting place and for this reason an enterprising idea was born.  This was to raise money, from the Big Lottery, to adapt the infrequently-used church to serve the dual purpose of holding services, while also providing a social hub for the whole neighbourhood.  The project was named Leonard’s Lounge and a steering group was set up.  Advice based on similar projects was available from the diocese and a lottery bid was set in motion.  This involved appointing an architect and getting permission from various bodies, such as the Victorian Society, while village residents were invited to fill in questionnaires and suggest possible activities. These ranged from foot-care to book groups, coffee mornings to ‘pizza and movie’  nights.

To general rejoicing, the Stage One Lottery bid was successful and serious work was embarked upon to meet the additional criteria required for the Stage Two application.   This meant more financial information including spreadsheets and detailed forecasting as well as more specific plans for the suggested activities, with evidence of support from neighbouring villages. Unfortunately, after collating all this information and sending off a very impressive application, we heard that our bid was unsuccessful, due solely to the small number of Blakemere residents.

herefordshire sunsetLiving on the edge of this village plays to my interest in boundaries and borders – the liminal sense of possibility and change.  Here on the Welsh Border, the boundaries have altered over time and Welsh Village names jostle with English ones, suggesting a complicated history. I learned recently that my end of the village, known as Holywell, was the refuge for homeless itinerant workers in the 19th century who built their own shanty town on common land and found casual agricultural work with the local farmers. There is something romantic about this recent past – rootless people who made a living through the year, from lambing in the Spring, harvesting in the Summer. cider making in the Autumn and in Winter hedging, ditching, planting and felling trees and chopping firewood.  There was a whole family involvement:  women and children would pick up the leftover grain, collect pieces of wood too small to sell, while women would spin during the winter months.  At that time, there was casual employment all the year around for the Blakemere shanty dwellers in agriculture and forestry and they would have had many different skills.  In some parts of Herefordshire, it was possible for itinerant labourers to claim squatters’ rights and build permanent homes on common land, but there is little evidence of that happening here, in the hamlet of Holywell on the edge of Blakemere.  I am happy to know that they made their temporary homes here and gave this end of the village a slightly rakish, disreputable reputation. Maybe it is fanciful to think so, but did they create some of these small fields, plant these hedges and trees and dig these ditches? Their legacy feels tangible and their footprints may still be felt in this land.










Fields, Woods, Ditches and Drains

stream in woodsAfter decades of living in towns and cities, with gardens the size of a pocket handkerchief, I found myself, in the early 1990s, deep in the Herefordshire countryside, the owner of several acres of woodland and meadows, an orchard and a large garden. This was both a huge responsibility and the beginning of a great adventure.  In addition, I was living in a house built in the 1850s with a well for my water supply and a Victorian septic tank for drainage. I needed advice about every aspect of this new life and I set about getting it.

I learned that wet woodland must be managed and that I needed to apply for a grant to coppice the alder trees, which were growing ever taller and thinner, in their search for the light.  I also needed to create clearances in the wood to let in light for the rare globe flowers that grew here, but nowhere else in the county.   I found out that my romantic ideas about leaving fields alone does not, in fact, help the spread of charming wild flowers, but merely encourages brambles, nettles and thistles. I also discovered the amount of work involved in re-laying and regularly maintaining the hedges and keeping the ditches clear.

After asking many people for advice, I got to work: a five year programme of coppicing in the woodland was embarked upon to provide firewood and to save the globe flower, but extracting the cords of freshly cut wood, piled so neatly beside the path, was impossible due to the soft ground, so they were left to be colonised by the woodland creatures; the insects, mosses and brightly-coloured fungus.

From the earliest days, I was in contact with wildlife and conservation groups who pointed me towards useful pond-in-woodlandsources of information and there was even a visit from English Nature (now Natural England) the day I moved in.  I was up to my elbows unpacking tea chests while, at the same time,  having to reassure my visitor that I would keep the wet woodland as a wildlife sanctuary.  Not long afterwards I had another visit, from someone wanting my permission to shoot on this land. He represented the other side of country life and to his great disappointment, I told him  “I’m sorry, but I don’t believe in any kind of blood sports”. A serious black mark against my name, no doubt!

From a starting point of total ignorance, I have learned little by little how to look after this beautiful place. I try to live my life in tune with the rhythms of the seasons and the woodland and fields have proved to be a wildlife sanctuary in reality.  Small mammals such as mice, voles, rabbits, hares, hedgehogs, moles and foxes – though rarely seen – enjoy protected lives in the fields and hedgerows, while the woodland is rich in birdlife.  My first Christmas Day was made especially memorable by seeing a kingfisher flitting the length of a shallow stream with a flash of colour that took away my breath. On another occasion, I was able to watch a family of barn owls who had made their home in a broken-down tree, where the fluffy heads of the baby owls were clearly visible inside the tree trunk. The woodland is also home to buzzards, woodpeckers, tree creepers, nut hatches, tawny owls and many woodland birds – the most thrilling for me – a glorious firecrest.

meadow woodMany of the woodland birds visit the bird feeder in my garden and of course the garage is a swallow sanctuary during the summer months.  The care of these acres of woodland and meadow no longer seems as onerous, thanks to help from family, friends and neighbours.  My water supply now comes from Welsh Water and the old well has been capped for safety reasons.  The solidly constructed  brick-lined Victorian septic tank continues to serve its purpose – being emptied once a year into the most gigantic tanker lorry which blocks out the daylight from the downstairs windows! Looking back I can now recognise how much has happened and how much I’ve learned and experienced since the day when I sat in the kitchen unpacking mugs, to offer tea to the removal men, while chatting to the anxious man from English Nature.

Literary Festivals and the Town of Books

hay winter weekend 2016Mid November and after a stunning show of autumn colour, most of the trees have now lost their leaves.  In the orchard, the apple trees reveal, among their bare branches, glossy wreathes of mistletoe, studded with glistening berries. The last of the apples and pears have been gathered and a few windy days have brought down the bright yellow quinces, previously out of reach. It is the time of year for making chutney from green tomatoes and bruised fruit, to preserve the tastes and memories of autumn, through the winter.

In November, we try to resist the encroaching dark by lighting bonfires, setting off fireworks, dressing up as ghosts and in this part of the world, celebrating literature at the Hay Festival Winter Weekend.  (25th- 27th November 2016).  For those of us who love reading and live quietly on the Welsh Borders, both the main Hay Festival at the end of May, and the small-scale Winter Weekend, represent the highlights of our year.

The Winter Weekend is based in the town of Hay-on-Wye, unlike the tented-city of the summer Hay Festival, which is held a mile out of town. In contrast, the venues in late November include a hotel function room, a church, a castle and a bookshop. The gatherings are relatively small, the talks and readings seem friendly – the authors more approachable.  This year there will be a talk about the Danish concept of Hygge by Louisa Thomsen Brits. Her book, The Book of Hygge, should be particularly attractive to readers at this season, since Hygge translates as the feeling of belonging and warmth, comfort and contentment. There will also be concerts with The Ben Baddoo Afrobeat Band and The Flauguissimo Duo, comedy from the Scummy Mummies and an interview on Saturday 26th with the local poet and novelist Owen Sheers. Many other interesting events and talks will cover history, science, natural history and local railways.

I have warm memories of past Winter Weekends.  Seeing and listening to one of my favourite authors; TC Boyle, wearing brightly-coloured sneakers, in a shabby hall, now demolished –  a long way from his native California. On another occasion, I heard Andrew Miller reading from and discussing his novel, The Optimists, after which he chatted to everyone, as he signed copies of his book.

Writing about this small winter version of the Hay Festival reminds me of a time when the summer festival was heldhay festival in Hay Primary School, near to Hay Castle and to all the shops.  In those days there would be a large tent in the Castle grounds for talks, lectures and concerts by artists such as Macy Gray and Bob Geldof.  For several years another tent would house the magnificent Giffords Circus, adding to the excitement at Festival time.  Royal visitors arrive by helicopter, but the year that Bill Clinton spoke at the Hay Festival will be remembered by all the locals, with the police lining the streets, as his fleet of limousines drew up beside the main carpark.

Hay comes to life over the Hay Festival Winter Weekend – the cafes are buzzing and the bookshops fill with customers.  The Hay Food Festival takes over the market square in the centre of the town, selling local products from handmade chocolates to cheeses and honey.  The Christmas lights are switched on and there is a general  atmosphere of expectation and infectious optimism.