November’s saving grace

I am not a winter person, though I have in recent years become more appreciative of the season which is, perhaps for many of us, a period to be got through rather than to savour. I realised years ago that my mood can be greatly affected by natural light, or the lack of it, though thankfully not determined by it.

During my winter working week I leave the house before the sun rises and return after it has set, making those weekend day light hours all the more precious. I hope for bright, dry days and the opportunity to get outside, even if it’s cold, and even if it’s only in my own tiny garden.

My personal perception of when winter starts is more in alignment with the old Celtic calendar, beginning on 1st November when the temperatures drop and the first frost arrives (though this year has been exceptionally mild) and ending at the start of February when the earliest of spring flowers start to emerge from the still frozen ground and the world slowly starts to become green again. The midwinter solstice is a big clue to how our ancient ancestors calculated the seasons. So, in my world, we are already a month into winter, even if it’s still officially autumn.

It will get worse before it gets better. The lack of light, that is. As the weeks roll on towards the December festivities, the nights will draw in ever earlier, with lamps and candles being lit by mid afternoon, just to provide a comforting glow to defeat the gloom outside. Even though the days are shorter still by then, December is redeemed by the air of festivity, the bright twinkling lights and merriment, the general goodwill and coming together. January brings a sense of new beginnings, a new year on the calendar, starting again and time in reverse, visibly stretching out that bit longer. November has no such merit. It’s a no-man’s land between the splendour of October’s rich palette and lingering warmth and the primal energy around midwinter. The autumn colours have mostly faded, temperatures plummet, it rains – a lot- leaving the oppressive odour of dampness that penetrates wood and bone. All but the most valiant of the summer flowers have died back and faded away.

November also brings some sadness, a time of losing loved ones, human and furry friends, memories of other dark, rainy days when the sun never really came out.

If you are still reading at this point, not yet discouraged by the miserable tone of this post thus far, please take a second to look back to the title. Feeling a tad guilty about my maligning of November, and a touch unappreciative of this dull and unremarkable time of year, I embarked on a little reflection and a very short walk close to home to rediscover November, which, I gladly concede, has a certain grace and its own subtle appeal.

The bold and bright petunias, lobelia and marigolds are long gone, but the ivy, in new hues of pink and pale green, is offering its exquisite winter display. Even the flowerless stalks now have a new form, different but no less engaging. The last of the flowers appear even more resplendent in their scarcity.

Nature keeps on giving.

A perfect antidote to grey sky, an abundance of bright and lustrous berries hang heavily from trees and shrubs, not only a joy to see but providing much needed nourishment to feathered neighbours.

…and snails in trees

When, perhaps more than any other time of year, there is little new growth, it is even more exciting to come across an unexpected surprise. A flourish of delightful pink roses, still faint with perfume, pushes through a fence to exhibit its last flush to an appreciative audience, all the more wonderful in the month of November.

For me, getting outside, regardless of the weather, is a necessity. Fresh air and movement. Observing and taking part. Appreciating the beauty in the mundane. It’s there if we want to see it.

On those days when going out isn’t an option, it’s no coincidence that so many Scandi-Noir have been filmed or are set in November: bleak, Nordic days when the sun never shines, providing a tense and angsty backdrop for a chilling crime. Keep the lights low, make a hot chocolate and enjoy the season.

Ruminations

Colours of the sun

Welcome again to the little garden. Autumn has arrived, bringing the great harvesting of summer’s abundance, before the gentle time of falling and fading as the earth prepares to rest and recharge through the dark months.

The garden still has much to offer at this time of the year; colours intensify, offering a shock of late summer splendour against a backdrop of grey sky.

Little creatures dart from flower to flower, hunting and competing for the ever decreasing supply of sustenance.

The morning and evening air is colder now, though the days are still beautifully mild.

Enjoy the words of mediaeval Persian poet Jamaladin Rumi, who had much to say about gardens.

Beauty surrounds us, but usually we have to be walking in a garden to know it.

‘Beauty is the garden scent of roses, murmuring water flowing gently. Can words describe the indescribable?

My heart rushes into the garden, joyfully tasting all the delights. But reason frowns, disapproving.’

Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.’

Be crumbled, so wild flowers come up where you are. You have been stony for too many years. Try something different.’

True beauty is a ray that springs from the the sacred depths of the soul, and illuminates the body, just as life springs from the kernel of a stone and gives colour and scent to a flower.’

‘No more words. In the name of this place we drink in with our breathing, stay quiet like a flower, so the night birds will start singing.’

Every tree and plant in the meadow seem to be dancing, those which average eyes would see as fixed and still.’

Thank you for reading.

A wander round RHS Bridgewater

View of the welcome building from the wild meadow

Earlier in the summer I made a long overdue visit to the Royal Horticultural Society’s most recently established garden site at Worsley, Greater Manchester. RHS Bridgewater opened in July 2021, delayed by the pandemic. Admission has from the start been through online booking only and, unsurprisingly, the weeks and months after the grand opening were very busy. With the colder months not being the best time to see the gardens at their finest, I decided to wait until this summer.

Bridgewater is the fifth of the RHS’ ‘gardens. It was developed on the site of Worsley New Hall, a Victorian manor house built in the 1840s for the 1st Earl of Ellesmere and demolished only a hundred years later. The magnificent formal gardens were landscaped over a 50-year period by William Andrews Nesfield, one of the most sought-after landscape designers of the period. The154 acre site included gravel pathways, formal gardens, fountains, croquet lawn and tennis court, formal gardens, an impressive 11-acres of walled kitchen gardens and a woodland; all of these elements have been included within the new project, some restored as faithfully as possible and others reimagined for the modern era.

An impression of the formal Gardens at Worsley New Hall in their heyday (RHS website)

Worsley New Hall became a British Red Cross hospital during the First World War, after which time both the hall and the gardens fell into decline. In the Second World War parts of the hall were requisitioned for military use, the gardens used as training grounds by the Lancashire Fusiliers.

During the early 20th century the hall fell further into disrepair until in 1943, this once-grand building was finally demolished by a scrap merchant, who had bought it for just £2,500. In subsequent years parts of the grounds were used as a garden centre amongst other things. It seems incredible that a property costing over £6,000,000 to build in today’s money should endure for such a very short time.

Admission is through the welcome centre, a spacious, elegant but simple ‘Scandi’-style building, including a shop, cafe and small garden centre which offers some of the more prolific plants in use in the gardens; helpful signage reminds customers of where they will have seen each plant, useful for anybody who might wish to recreate a similar garden at home.

The day of our visit was dull and started with light rain which, thankfully, cleared up by midday. It being August, some of the spring and early summer flowers had already ‘gone over’ and a few areas looked a little bare. We were surprised that some plants which will flower into autumn if regularly ‘dead-headed’ seemed to have been left to go to seed. On a site of such proportions, attention to detail will obviously be very time-consuming, yet it seemed a shame that a potentially longer flowering season might be lost.

Designed by landscape architect Tom Stuart-Smith, the Worlsey Welcome Garden includes some interesting structural elements, both flowering and edible, including apple trees and artichokes. Apparently, this garden ‘resembles an abstract mosaic and gives the impression of a giraffe’s markings or mathematical Voronoi diagram when viewed from above’, though I’m not sure who would be viewing from that angle except possibly via Google-Earth or a hot air balloon. I enjoyed this area, cleverly structured and informally unruly at the same time. I think it would have looked even better earlier in the summer.

We stopped off for cake and a cup of tea at the cafe/restaurant converted from the former stables. Service and food were excellent and the courtyard cafe a relaxing spot to peruse the site map and plan our next destination.

This seating area was marked as off limits on the day of our visit but would be another delightful spot for refreshments and relaxing.

Even under a cloudy grey sky, the paradise garden looked beautiful. Also designed by Tom Stuart-Smith, the Bridgewater version differs from the classic Islamic paradise garden design in that the water feature – in this case, the lily pool – is surrounded by three distinct planting zones, not the traditional four. Planting within the three zones is from different parts of the globe – another variation on the classic style- to achieve a more multi-cultural feel. This was our favourite spot and we spent a couple of hours in total, just relaxing. Taking photos was a challenge, hence the limited selection here; the place was very busy, especially later ion the day.

RHS Bridgewater is a centre for horticultural learning and is undertaking trials involving various species of hydrangeas planted out in the old frame yard area.

Winding paths lead to one of the most beautiful areas of the site, the Chinese streamside garden which is on several levels though fully accessible (as is the entire site). The weather had become close by this time and the water fall and pool looked deliciously inviting.

The site includes acres of woodland and paths for further exploration and I was pleasantly surprised to find that far from this just being a show garden, it was a place where one could easily spend the whole day. For the first year of opening, locals were allowed free admission on Tuesdays, by way of a thank you for the disruption created during the site development. Lucky them!

Ellesmere lake is at the furthest end of the gardens developed to date and borders on the wooded areas where a lot of trekkers were headed. As we were there for a chill out rather than a work out, we retreated to follow another pathway through the wildest part of the site, the meadowlands.

For non RHS members, admission is £12, no doubt to encourage membership of this charitable organisation, thereby supporting its work. It’s not cheap but well worth an occasional visit to see the site at different times of the year. There is much more to see than is included in this short blog and hopefully there will be more to come as further development is planned. I’m looking forward to going back in spring, hopefully to enjoy an entirely new scenery.

Stirrings

During these months of short days and long nights I only get to see my garden at the weekends. Leaving for work and returning home in darkness five days a week allows little opportunity to observe the very gradual changes that are taking place in the awakening earth.

True, there is little pleasure to be had in the winter garden anyway, for me; there is beauty in all seasons and glistening evergreens and frosty blades can be as lovely in midwinter as on a summer’s day, but it’s too damp to sit out for too long, even wrapped up warm, and there is no work that can be done.

The first day of February is the day of Imbolc the ancient Celtic beginning of spring, marking the first signs of new life. We are a few days off yet, but I think the shift has come a little early this year. There is still a way to go before I open my curtains to the bright sun and not a dazzling moon, but the land is stirring.

The very welcome sight of new shoots emerging from the cold ground, and the promise of dormant bulbs soon to be transformed into the first vernal blooms, never ceases to bring me joy.

The dwarf rhododendron is always the first shrub to flower at the beginning of March. The buds are ripening in readiness. However, this year there is a surprise.

Cat mint doesn’t usually reappear until well into March. Yesterday, I decided to chop down the old stalks that I had left over winter and Paddy and I made a discovery.

All three of the nepeta are already rejuvenating. The winter has been fairly mild so that could be a factor. I didn’t tidy the bed as I usually do, so the old wood may have provided some protection from the frost. Or maybe it’s all down to global warming. I hope this early growth is not too soon and that February is kind.

Buds are appearing.

This fern, planted last year, spent the spring and summer in shades of russet and gold. I wondered about its health. When autumn arrived, the other ferns faded and then shrivelled, whilst this one turned green and lush. Unexpected and wonderful!

These resilient herbs have kept both colour and scent through the winter, even the lavender. That’s a first for my garden!

And the fennel smells as gorgeous as ever as new shoots make their way towards the light.

As another week of short days passes by, I’ll secretly ponder the changes that are taking place above and below the soil and happily anticipate next weekend’s revelations.

Shepherd’s Delight

It’s almost 10 pm and the sun is setting on another gorgeous July day. The sky is a delicious blend of burnt oranges, pinks and corals: red sky at night, shepherd’s delight. Tomorrow looks promising then. Through the still-open window I can hear the faint and exotic sounds of a bamboo wind chime in a neighbour’s tree, gently animated by a cooling breeze. Muted conversation and laughter is carried on the air from nearby gardens. At the end of a magnificent week of scorching sunshine, today’s slightly lower temperature has been most welcome. We can be such a contrary lot where the weather is concerned, craving to be baked and sweltered, but soon needing respite before yearning for the next heatwave.

The little garden is a joy to behold, bursting at the borders with tecnicoloured blooms. I’ve never seen as many bees as this year, which is what it’s all about for me. It took a long time to get going after an exceptionally cold and rainy May, but the plants have forgiven and forgotten and have made up for lost time.

Here are some of the most vibrant and gorgeous that give me so much pleasure. Apparently, lots of people dislike orange flowers, but they never fail to make me smile. Tigger appreciates them too.

Having had mixed results from new plant varieties I have added this year, it’s been wonderful to see that once again the cosmos, calendula and nasturtiums have done me proud. Seed harvested last year was roughly sown straight into the soil in April and the flowers are thriving, needing very little care. There’s a lesson there, I think.

The light has faded since I started writing this post, and in the darkness the garden has another kind of magic, fairy lights and lanterns picking out the shapes of tiny bats as they flit above, looking for insects or heading back to their roosting places. It’s time for music and wine and thinking up plans for a new day. Have a great weekend!

June in bloom

May was very wet and cold here in the north of England, and the garden has taken much longer than usual to get going. Except for the ever-dependable cat mint, determined to push through and show off in pride of place, the flowerbed seemed quite a sad little spot last month. Some of the herbs pots have been thriving since April, but I have been longing to see some colour. June arrived, bringing glorious sunshine, day after day, and temperatures into the twenties. At long last, the first flowers have started to push through to greet the sun.

Last year I dabbled more with seeds than ever before because the garden centres were closed in the spring. I was so delighted with the results that I decided to carry on this year. The results so far have been variable. I started most of my seedlings indoors inside propagator trays and started transferring them outside from April, potting them on and leaving them to grow on the nursery shelves. Heavy rain throughout May meant covering the shelves with plastic sheeting much of the time. Many perished, battered by wind and rain when I wasn’t able to cover them, or rotted in too humid propagators. Nothing has been planted out yet but some cosmos and a few sunflowers are doing well and should be big enough to go into the flower bed in a couple of weeks. There are also some newly germinated nasturtiums, varieties I haven’t grown before and which I am so happy have come through.

Last summer, I sowed some calendula seeds directly into the ground and lavished time, effort and compost nurturing others from propagation. The results were identical, so this year – yes, you’ve guessed it – all have gone straight into the soil and all are doing well, considering recent weather.

It was the same story with nasturtiums last year, some shooting up in the poorest soil, between flags and stones or gate crashing in other pots, all performing as well as their pampered relations. They are classed as annuals but some have decided to come back. Wonderful!

For the first time I’ve decided to try growing some veg. I’m starting small. Very small. In this hanging basket I’m growing cucamelons, which I have never tried before, and chard. I hope they’ll be safe from slugs up there. There are more chard plants on the shelf. I have never been interested in growing fruit or veg up to now and this is just for fun. We’ll see.

Scabiosa is such a resilient plant, as well as gorgeous and attractive to butterflies and bees. They never fail to delight.

Salvia is another perennial favourite for me and the bees. I have bought a couple of new plants which will remain in pots, where they seem to do best in my garden. The bees are happy!

I tried to grow yarrow from seed but not one little shoot emerged. Imagine my delight when I found mature plants on sale at a good garden centre. The first florets are opening and I hope the pollinators will enjoy the feasting.

I picked up two Lady’s Mantle plants from the Pound Shop, both on their last stalks, yellowing and looking doomed. I was moved to try to rescue them. For weeks they seemed to be clinging on but showed no signs of growth. Earlier this week they were replanted together and the transformation has been astonishing. Within a few days they have turned from puny stumps to lush, green pot fillers, soon to be separated and given more room to spread.

Another new addition and a first timer in my flower bed is this delphinium, buds about to open as she rises above the cat mint. I planted three but only this one has succeeded. I can’t wait to see the flowers.

The little California poppy is ready to open again. I sowed some more seeds around it for company but it looks like it will be on its own again.

The fastest mover has been another new plant, this gorgeous erysimum, Bowles Mauve. It has thrived from the moment it was planted out and is a real bee magnet!

It’s such a joyful thing to be able to take pleasure in a garden, especially one as small as mine where every plant counts. Next week is looking lovely, if not so hot, and I’m looking forward to my morning pottering as my coffee brews and my evening cup of tea as the sun goes down. I wish everybody a lovely week!

A lesson in patience and seeds of change

So, here we are on the last day of September. The hours of daylight and darkness have passed their balancing point and we move slowly towards the dark and the cold. Figuratively speaking, we are, and will be, living through darker times than usual this year. But those long months of shorter, colder days offer hope of renewal and regeneration when the warmth returns.

There have been some frosty mornings of late. I have opened the back door to look at the slivers of dawn light and to observe my misty breath in the air. As the garden dies back and slowly goes to seed there is still a lot of colour to take pleasure in, and there is even new growth.

Back in early spring, unable to source any plants, I picked up a few packets of seeds from the supermarket, amongst them some blacked-eyed Susan. Unlike some of the other more vigorously sprouting seedlings, the Susans were very slow to emerge from their little plug pots and, when they eventually did, seemed to be stuck, no bigger than tiny cress stalks, for a long time. I almost gave up on them, planning more than once to throw them into the composting bin. With nothing to lose, I moved the little pots one late July day to a slightly sunnier spot. Their transformation into robust little plants was fast and furious, as if seizing the moment and making up for lost time. I planted them, still doubtful due to their relatively small size, into a bed. Happily, they took hold and went from strength to strength and their sultry shades of ochre and golden-brown keep the spirit of summer alive for a bit longer.

Calendula and nasturtiums are still flowering. Every time I think I have dead-headed for the last time I spot a tiny bud or two.

Roses also continue to bloom, hopefully for a few weeks yet.

The cosmos seeds I potted in April were the first and fastest to grow, feathery stems reaching for the sun. The baby plants were the first to go into the ground and they continued to shoot up and up, lanky and eager. But there were no flowers for the longest time. I gave up on the idea. I pulled up some of the plants which were blocking the light and putting other plants in the shade, stunting their development. I want my garden to be a food source for pollinating creatures; I couldn’t spare the space for anything that provided neither beauty nor nourishment. I left a few of the smaller specimens there, including a sad little thing in a small terracotta pot. To my surprise, they have produced a small number of flowers in white and vibrant pink, a joyful late summer gift, long after I gave up on them.

I adore the muted pink leaves of this honeysuckle plant which I had forgotten about. The pot, invaded by moss and in an inhospitable shady corner, was nearly recycled months ago. Moved into the sun to serve as a stand for a solar battery, the plant awoke again, returning to a long- forgotten splendour. I bought it on the same day as its cousin below, now well over two metres tall and one of my favourites, its pink and purple berries succulent and splendid. They were 50p each on the half- dead rejects shelf.

Nigella have grown in my little garden for about four years now. My first pack of seeds was shop-bought, but for the past three years I have gathered the brown seed heads in September and October, releasing the black seeds, each a potential new flower in the next summer. I move them around the garden, this year planting in perhaps too sunny a spot, shortening their season. Some seeds found their way, on the breeze, to a shady place beneath an over-hanging tree. They have done much better, new flowers still appearing. There is a lesson there.

One of my favourite shrubs is the heavily fragrant caryopteris, Heavenly Blue. It is a bee magnet from May to early September, but its season is nearly over.

Last year I added another caryopteris, White Surprise. It didn’t seem to thrive in its original spot so in early spring I moved it next to its relation, not knowing if it would take root. There was some growth but no flowers. I decided it would have to give up its prime position to a newcomer next spring, but it could stay put for the time being. Over the last few weeks I have not been disappointed. A profusion of lavender blue flowers have taken over, a nectar fest for the insects. I see it from my kitchen window and take great joy in watching the feasting. To think, I might have dug it up, not knowing it was a late summer bloomer!

Another new addition is the pink buddleia, bought from a pound shop. It has grown quite a lot and its big candy-floss display enchants me, though it doesn’t seem to attract the butterflies. I haven’t seen a single one sampling its supposed delights. I am still in two minds about its future prospects, but I won’t be rash. Perhaps the right butterflies haven’t spotted it yet.

When is a weed not a weed? This geranium Robert has the most wonderful aroma, like parsley. I leave it alone to do its thing.

In this mellow season of winding down, decay has its own beauty.

I have bought some spring bulbs to plant at the weekend. They will rest in the cold winter earth before energising and bursting forth to surprise and delight on a March morning. Hope springs eternal.

Bright and Beautiful

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Back in May when we baked and sweltered in days on end of glorious sunshine it was said -only partly in jest – that this was summer so enjoy it while it lasted. It feels now like that was true. I can count on one hand the number of days in July when it hasn’t rained here in north west England. Grey, miserable, wet and even cold are not adjectives that normally are associated with summer, and the season has been hugely disappointing so far.

On a more positive note, wonderful things have been happening in the garden. When I last posted on the subject a few weeks ago everything was pastel and purple, which was lovely, but I was eager to see some bolder colours bursting forth. Well, burst forth they have, and they have been the perfect antidote to the wet and dreary days of late. This afternoon has been sunny and warm for a change so I sat outside with a book and a brew and Tiggy the cat for company.

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Tig having a nap

In the spring when it became clear that garden centres would not be opening any time soon I decided to buy some seeds. Previous efforts at growing from scratch had, in the main, not been successful, but undeterred I bought a few packets from the supermarket and I set about sowing. My biggest success story has been calendula.

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These joyful yellow flowers have grown effortlessly and have been a surprise and a delight. I’ll definitely be growing them again next year

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Their sunny faces always make me smile. The bees love them, too.

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I sowed some seeds directly into the ground and planted others into plug cells, repotting a couple of times. There has been no difference in size or vitality. I even scattered a few randomly and they have grown just as well, including in the little herb bed where I’ve allowed some of the chives to flower for the insects to enjoy.

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Nasturtiums have been another triumph.

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I sowed all of the seeds directly into pots, some with host plants such as winter jasmine which won’t flower until November, and mainly into old compost. Nasturtiums were the first of my seeds to shoot, and they continue to thrive.

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Like the calendula, nasturtiums are so joyful and sunny and their brightness is such a tonic. I’ve learned that they grow even better when planted into the ground so I’ll try that next year.

For the last three summers I have grown Nigella and have collected the seeds each autumn. They have not let me down this year either. They grow anywhere and everywhere in my garden; some have even returned where they were planted last year, even though they are supposed to be annuals.

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My poor little purple scabiosa always starts off well but no matter where I move it to it always withers as surrounding plants overshadow it. I have a plan to move it again. I was given a white scabiosa which seems fearless, standing proud, keeping the cat mint at bay and pulling in the bees.

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67AC5C3B-FD21-41EC-869C-4DE98437C465In February I dug up some roses which were in the wrong spot. They were spreading onto the little path and plucking my clothes whenever I walked past. I transferred them to very large pots and crossed my fingers. After a slow start, all have taken to their new homes.

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This year has also been a time for making the most of what I already had. I divided a pot-bound and poorly-flowering fuchsia into three new plants, all of which are flourishing.

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I adore the smell of caryopteris Heavenly Blue, another favourite with the bees. Planted about four years ago it has spread beyond the bed, but I just leave it.

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The cat mint and banana mint are going strong and providing food for bees and butterflies.

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I had hoped for another Painted Lady invasion like last year, but I’ve had very few butterfly visitors this year, sadly. When they do drop in they prefer the verbena like this tortoise shell.

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The Met Office has promised some proper summer weather tomorrow and especially on Friday so I’ll be out in my unruly little garden enjoying the bright and the beautiful. Happy days!

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The Colour Purple

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This week, the wind and rain have lashed the garden, whipping the tender shrubberies and blowing a sheet off the line and into a neighbour’s tree. I had to take down the wind chimes for a couple of days until the gusts settled. Even I, lover of tubular tinkling that I am, was driven to distraction by the cacophony that sounded more like an ice-cream van in melt-down than soothing music for the soul. Today it is warm, muggy even, and although a storm has been forecast for this evening, it’s lovely so far.

The little garden has taken quite a bashing too, but the flowers and shrubs are none the worse for some much-needed rain. I have decided to abandon the various plans I had for my tiny plot this year; it’s been hard enough to get compost, let alone the shrubs and the landscaping materials I had hoped for. The fences, thirsty for a coat of wood preserver, will have to wait a bit longer. The prospect of queueing outside B&Q for an hour does not appeal.

Strangely, I find that I don’t really mind. Some of my plants seem slow in getting going this year, but I am enjoying what there is so far, and the wildlife is enjoying it too. It’s not always a bad thing to be forced to slow down and enjoy right now rather than think about what’s next.

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Most of my planting has been deliberately chosen to encourage bees and butterflies, and purple is definitely one of their preferred colours. I yearn for those bolder, brighter colours to come through but whilst the roses, geraniums and fuchsias are still just on the edge of revealing themselves, there is a lot of pretty purple in full bloom.

Scabiosa

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Lavender

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Thyme in flower

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Verbena Bonariensis, a butterfly magnet

One of the most popular plants with the bees is Walker’s Low, cat mint. Like all mint it takes hold and spreads, offering the pollinators a fragrant feast. Oddly, there were no bees around when I took these photos.

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It’s not just popular with bees either.

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A carpet of cat mint under a honeysuckle canopy offers a cool and peaceful shade from the hot sun.

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The heady scent of salvia is intoxicating.

We all love being in our garden.

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Whalley Abbey,dissolved but not forgotten

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This is the second week of my Easter break from work, and in these strange times all that means is that I’m just not looking at anything work-related for a fortnight. On Monday morning I’ll take up my position at my home desk and work on whatever can be worked on within the limitations imposed by distance and technology. At the onset of lockdown I thought working from home would be easier than the reality has proved, hence my present ‘hard line’ on taking this two weeks’ leave. Still, I’m immensely grateful and relieved that I’m able to continue working and have security and peace of mind where so many others now face uncertainty.

Being blessed with excellent weather, I’ve spent much of my time contentedly pottering outside: sowing, re-potting, pruning and repairing. I’ve also been able to finish a couple of books, both sidelined some weeks or months ago, and am now, after a slow start, just over a hundred pages into Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. This final part of the trilogy which charts the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell has been a long time coming, and I know that I have not been alone in wondering, impatiently, what was taking Hilary so long. I read somewhere that she was finding it hard to write the end; to finally put Cromwell’s head upon the block. Hilary Mantel is a perfectionist, which is the real reason for the gap between Bring up the Bodies and this finale. Having been awarded Booker prizes for instalments one and two, the pressure to maintain that standard a third time must have been immense.

Thomas Cromwell was a key figure in driving King Henry VIII’s programme of dissolution of the monasteries as part of the English Reformation. Henry’s main interest was in the considerable revenue which, confiscated from the wealthiest monastic establishments, could boost his kingly coffers. For Cromwell, apart from wanting to impress his boss, the king, his own agenda was more theological, being strongly in favour of rooting out all things papist.

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All this talk of Tudors and Reformation brought to mind another of my favourite places, Whalley Abbey near Clitheroe. Now owned by the Church of England, only ruins remain of the 14th century Cistercian monastery. More modern (still centuries old) buildings on the site are in use as a spiritual retreat and conference centre. I was first introduced to Whalley about 10 years ago by a friend who was training to be a counsellor and had taken part in a residential course there. She had found great pleasure in strolls among the ancient ruins and along the banks of the river Calder which skirts the grounds. These photographs I took on a summer’s day a few years ago capture the Abbey’s serenity.

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Of course, the Abbey was not always the peaceful location it is today. Established in the late 13th century and a work-in-progress for nearly a century after that, the monastic community had its fair share of controversies and scraps over money with other local religious powerhouses. The founders had relocated to Whalley from their original Abbey at Stanlow on the banks of the river Mersey where a series of unfortunate incidents including flooding, gales and fire damage had led to the decision to move to pastures new. An age of prosperity and calm followed and the Abbey became one of the principal landowners in east Lancashire. Rivalries in the region were fierce where money was concerned, and records dating from the last quarter of the 15th century tell of vicious feuds between the Abbott and the Rector of Slaidburn over tithe payments, with reports of the Rector’s thugs attacking monks.

The church then, as now, enjoyed fantastic wealth, and inevitably some of that was abused as records of lush living and monkish opulence describe. Of course, Abbeys were also places where the sick could receive care and the poor, alms. The rising star that was Cromwell saw an opportunity. In 1535 delegations of ‘visitors’ were sent to the English Abbeys to carry out inventories of their assets and to look for signs of superstitious practices such as promoting belief in the power of so-called relics, a lucrative business in its time. Examples of some of these finds were widely publicised by Cromwell to provide further justification for the dissolution. The Visitors’ report on Whalley was not especially damning, with only one monk apparently conducting himself lewdly, but the Abbott, John Paslew, was accused of selling off some of the church’s gold. Sanctions were placed on the community and records show that Cromwell himself was required to make judgement when the Abbey appealed. He relaxed the sanctions. Nice.

The following year, 1536, saw Abbott Paslew and many of the monks participate in the Pilgrimage of Grace, a Catholic rebellion. Paslew was executed for treason. The year after that the Abbey was dissolved. Centuries of private ownership followed before it was bought by the Church of England in 1923. It is a grade 1 listed scheduled ancient monument. To me, it’s just a really lovely place to spend some quiet time.

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I hope to go back to Whalley once some sort of normal life is resumed and spend a few hours just moving slowly around the grounds, bench-hopping, listening to birdsong and blissfully doing nothing much.

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