It’s turned out nice again

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In the words of a well-known George Formby song, ‘it’s turned out nice again’ today. Though cold for the last day of March, the sun has shone and, more importantly, it’s been dry. The weather has become more, or less, significant to many of us over the past week or so. Dry days have made those permitted walks, runs and bike rides possible for those who are able to get outside their four walls. Even for those like me who are working from home, it’s great just to sit in the garden for a bit, or even do a bit of planting, pruning and tidying up.

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There is new growth in the garden, plenty of it, but not a lot of colour yet. With little prospect of holidays or even day trips for some time, those lucky enough to have even the smallest of green patches will, no doubt, enjoy them even more than usual in the weeks, or even possibly months, ahead. The few snowdrops that bloomed in my little garden are long gone, and one or two crocuses are clinging on, but the bright and cheerful daffodils are still making me smile.

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I decided to go into town yesterday to deposit some cash and a cheque into the bank. Cash is exceedingly frowned upon at the moment, so I felt guilty handing it over when it was eventually my turn to cross the bank’s threshold, having satisfied the lady on the door that I had a good enough reason to enter, i.e. a purpose that couldn’t be accomplished through the use of the cash machine outside. It was very unnerving to see people queueing, spaced so very far apart, to enter the few businesses that remained open.

From the bank I had one more call to make inside the shopping arcade, though there was very little shopping going on. The jocular security guy again asked me what my business was. I gave the right answer, passed the test and was admitted. As I made my way from one store to another of the three that were open, it hit me that in that moment, in that big space, there was just me and the statue of George Formby, immortalised with his ukulele in his hand. It was surreal. I’m sure George would have come up with some jolly ditty to raise folks’ spirits at a time like this, as many ordinary people are doing in all sorts of ways right now through social media. Good on them.

The Grand Arcade is built on the site of the former Wigan Casino, the legendary home of Northern Soul. There is a plaque which marks the exact spot of the Casino entrance outside a well-known mobile phone shop, but I can’t show you a picture here as that area is cordoned off; none of the stores at bottom end sells food. Like George’s lyrics, Northern Soul’s motto was a happy one, never more relevant than now: ‘Keep the faith!’. Keep smiling everyone, and be safe.

 

 

 

 

Sun Stands Still

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In the past I used to wish away the time between November and March but in recent years I’ve come to appreciate winter, if not quite like it. I have adjusted my mindset and my expectations of the season and the weather, and instead of feeling frustrated at how I perceive my plans repeatedly thwarted by ice and rain and cancelled trains, or my activities limited by short days and lack of light, I have altered my own rhythms and lifestyle to fall in with nature.

That being said, I still do not look forward to winter’s arrival, and although I have made peace with it I still rejoice when the days start to lengthen again, and feel positively buoyant when the season has departed.

Today is the shortest day, a day later than the solstice usually falls. Apparently, yesterday was one second longer. Solstice translates from Latin as sun stands still when for three days our star holds its lowest position of elevation in the sky before it starts once again to ascend, bringing the promise of new life.

Last year’s beautiful blooms have withered now but look graceful in their dignified decay.

 

Though there are still splashes of colour and signs of life.

The cat mint, virulent and super fragrant all summer and into the early autumn looks dead to me; brown twigs rotting in the damp soil. I think Paddy cat’s keener sense of smell may still detect the faint delightful aroma, or perhaps he’s reflecting too, on memories of warmer days and basking in olfactory pleasures.

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In the autumn I dug up a little crimson rose bush which wasn’t thriving, diminished and crowded out by its bigger neighbours. It had stopped flowering when I transferred it to a large pot and hoped for the best. This week, a solitary new rose has opened up. A magical sign of things to come in the darkest week of the year.

The winter jasmine is in full bloom and the ivy looks as good as ever.

 

It will soon be dark again but right now the sky is still blue and it’s not too cold; a perfect moment to sit in the garden and enjoy a cup of tea with Jasper cat.

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and meditate on the cycle of life

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and the sound of a lone bird

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In a few weeks from now there will be the first stirrings from beneath the ground, green shoots emerging and new beginnings. For now, it’s still time to rest while Mother Earth works her magic in secret.

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On the cusp of seasons

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Well, what a changeable summer we had here in the UK! August in particular was wetter and cooler than usual here in the north west of England. We also had a few exceedingly hot days which were most welcome. This summer I spent more time at home than usual, relishing those dry, warm days and, like a contented sloth, lazing in the garden, admiring nature’s handiwork in which my own efforts have played a small part. Not knowing how many more luxuriously sultry, blazing days might still be to come – or not – I made the most of each, in case it was to be the last.

I also became something of a wimp as far as travelling was concerned. I hope this is a temporary thing. I found repeatedly that I could not muster much enthusiasm for being out in the countryside or at the coast – or anywhere – in heavy rain, or in cramped, sticky, sweaty trains or buses on the hotter days. As autumn advances I’m sure I shall once again return to my gallivanting ways, but it has actually been rather lovely slowing down and enjoying my own small but exclusive green space.

Autumn is here. Instinctively, I hold with the ancient calendars which place the start of autumn in August at the time of the first harvests. There is a tangible shift which is felt most keenly in those colder, damper evenings.

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The blackberries in my hedges, which appeared for the first time two years ago, have been and gone. Blackberries remind me fondly of childhood when we used to go as a family on long walks, parents and siblings all harvesting the plump purple fruits in old ice cream tubs or Tupperware containers, fingers stained blue and arms invariably scratched from delving into prickly brambles. Those days are distant memories, and nowadays I leave my own miniature crop for the birds to enjoy.

The wild flowers have all died back now and new growth has slowed down. The rose bushes are still adorned with buds but I know from experience that many of those will not open. Those still in full bloom continue to nourish wild life.

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It has been a joy to see so many butterflies in the garden this year, mainly feasting on the verbena, which has been a triumph. There will be more of that next year too. Some of my graceful visitors are below: commas, small whites, small tortoiseshells, peacocks, speckled woods (I think!) and painted ladies which arrived en masse in late July.

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In mid September we are still enjoying some fine sunny days. There is still a lot of colour. The shop-bought Nigella seeds have, like last year, added so much beauty to every part of the garden in shades of white and various blues. They are amazing, growing vigorously and splendidly wherever the seeds were scattered.

Most have now finished blooming, their stunning seed heads continuing to delight.

A few have already turned brown and as thin and dry as old paper. The black seeds rattle inside their shells. After releasing and collecting them I’ll store in a dry dark place until the spring when they can be planted, providing me with an abundance of new plants for free.

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It will soon be time to place the spring bulbs in the earth and to cut back the spent growth so that it may rest over the winter until it’s time for the cycle of growth to start again. For now, I’ll enjoy this warm start to the autumn, relishing every moment.

Conishead Priory and Manjushri Kadampa Buddhist Temple

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About once a year I travel to the pretty Cumbrian town of Ulverston and from there make the short journey to the small coastal village of Bardsea to visit one of the most distinctive properties in the north of England, Conishead Priory.

In the 12th century a community of Augustinian monks established a church and hospital on the site which grew in size, importance and wealth, was promoted to the status of priory and later received a royal charter from King Edward II. The Priory ministered to the poor of the surrounding areas, spiritually and medicinally, and didn’t do badly in return through tithe payments and hopeful pilgrims seeking blessings and cures through the medium of the in-house relic, a piece of the girdle of the Virgin Mary, no less.

All that came to an end in 1537 when the Priory, and all others like it, was demolished during England’s Protestant Reformation. The estate passed through several owners until it came into the possession of the Braddyll family in the 1600s, remaining the family seat for almost 200 years. The last of that line to own the Priory was Colonel Thomas Braddyll who inherited the estate in 1818. He found it in a state of disrepair and decided to rebuild from scratch, engaging the services of architect Phillip Wyatt at a cost of £140,000 and taking 15 years to construct. Master craftsmen from all over the world were brought in to contribute to a grand design resembling a fortified house with an ecclesiastical structure.

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Financial losses in the Durham coal mines bankrupted Thomas Braddyll and in 1848 he had to sell the estate. After changing hands several times, Conishead was bought in 1878 by a Scottish syndicate and was turned into a luxury hydropathic hotel and health farm offering salt baths, lawn tennis and pleasure boating amongst other benefits for those who could afford it. A branch line from Ulverston Station even ran directly to the site which, sadly for me, was long ago dismantled.

The Priory continued as a place of rest and recuperation from 1928 until 1972 when it was run as a convalescent home for Durham coal miners, interrupted during the years of World War II when it was temporarily the largest military hospital in the north west of England.

When the miners’ tenure came to an end, the site sat empty for four years and fell into a shocking state of decay until it was bought in 1976 by the Kadampa Buddhist Community which, over many years, worked continuously, initially to repair the extensive rot and then to transform Conishead into an international college of Buddhist learning and meditation.

Conishead is, with no exaggeration, a fantastic place to visit because it has so much to offer. Primarily a Buddhist centre of learning, it attracts tens of thousands of Buddhists every year, especially to its festivals and retreats. Generously, it has extended its welcome to all, and the beautiful grounds are open, free of charge, to those of us who just enjoy this gorgeous place.


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The reception area gives a short multi-media history of the Priory and is the starting point of a tour – very reasonably priced at £3 – which takes place once daily at weekends and bank holidays, excluding religious festivals when the estate is closed to day visitors. Every time I have visited since the first time in 2015 I have planned to join the tour, but have never ended up doing so. Once I start roaming around the grounds I lose track of time and just want to carry on in solitary happiness, taking pleasure in the tranquility. I hope you enjoy, through my photos, my own solo tour which I’m sharing with you.

From the car park, an archway leads to what would have been the courtyard and stables. Cottages which would formerly have housed staff or been stables are now the homes of Buddhist community residents. A friendly cat greeted me as I approached.

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Continuing through the cottage courtyard and through another archway leads to a wide lawn area bordered by plants and shrubs. Community members also live in parts of the main house and some clearly love gardening.


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A tunnel of evergreens leads to a small wild garden. I love to sit in the corner surrounded by the fragrant herbs. Everything here is left to do its own thing and signs of autumn are all around in the form of ripening fruit and flowers gone to seed. In one of the pictures you’ll see a clue to our next stop on our tour.

 

Another lawn leads us to the spectacular temple. The lawn is surrounded by stone seating where visitors can sit and relax. It’s usually quiet here.

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The temple is relatively simple in design compared with others I’ve visited. Let’s look inside. We have to take off our shoes.

 

 

Everybody is welcomed warmly and free to sit quietly, look around, take photos or meditate as they like. Visitors can ask questions as there are always community members supervising, but happily they are not evangelical, and leave visitors to appreciate the space in their own way.

Back outside, we’ll walk across the outer lawn and into the private woodland.


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I deviate from the wide main path and come across a sad but lovely little clearing I’ve not seen before; a little resting place for furry friends passed away.

 

 

I stay for a few minutes thinking about life and love and how precious time is before moving on through the trees to enjoy the time I have right now on this warm sunny day. Glorious bright sunshine greets me as I exit the trees and walk out onto the Priory’s private beach, again generously available to all visitors and their dogs. The stunning fells of the Lake District are a splendid background. In the second picture below you can see the viaduct across the bay at Arnside.

Looking out to the right towards Heysham.

I sit for half an hour doing absolutely nothing before retracing my steps through the wood. Emerging outside the conservatory cafe, I head inside for a cold drink.

It’s time to leave. I promise myself that I won’t leave it so long in future.

Heysham- a village in bloom

Like a lot of people, I would love to live by the sea. Fortunately, I do live within easy distance of the coast and my favourite north-west seaside destinations, where I can appreciate the stunning views, peaceful shores, and where I can envy those who do actually reside there.

One such place is the village of Heysham in Lancashire, just a few miles outside the historic city of Lancaster and a pleasant walk down the coastal path from better-known Morecambe. Not all of Heysham is gorgeous – it is also the site of a huge power station – but its grassy cliff tops, rock pools and quiet promenade are, for me, unrivalled in the region.

The addition of the ancient ruins of St Patrick’s Chapel with its mysterious Viking barrow graves, plus the Anglo-Saxon Church of St Peter on the cliff edge, put Heysham at the top of my fantasy seaside homes list. My posts about St Patrick’s Chapel and St Peter’s Church tell more: St Patrick’s Chapel and barrow graves St Peter’s Church

Heysham is also a village in bloom, where private residents and the small community as a whole seem to be on the same green page. Many of the houses are hundreds of years old.

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The house below was formerly St Peter’s rectory but is now a private home.
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A sign outside this cottage invites passers-by to help themselves to windfall apples
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The houses below are both 17th century, like many other properties close by

On Main Street is a quirky community display with an abundance of flowers and peculiar objects which, no doubt, are significant to the village.

Recessed in a wall close by is St Patrick’s Well, named after the ancient chapel whose ruins stand on the cliff just a five minute walk away. Originally a Holy Well, it was later used by the rectory for utilitarian purposes but became contaminated and was filled with rubble in the early 1800s. Some restoration work took place about a hundred years later but it was further restored in 2002 and turned into a feature. The water is now pumped through artificially.
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The Glebe Garden is accessed from the grave yard and is a lovely example of community effort.

A path winds around the lush space where benches, each one dedicated to the memory of somebody who loved spending time here, have been placed for quiet contemplation and pleasure. Perhaps the old man modelled as peering through the shrubbery once did so in life.


There are also modern properties in the village, some of them luxurious; most of them charming. An annual Viking festival is held in July, and it looks like one Norseman just doesn’t want the party to end.

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A potential problem for those lucky enough to live in the village is being spoilt for choice between the cafes, a tea room and the pub, all of which offer delicious fresh food. It’s a problem I wouldn’t mind having though …. 🙂

A Warm Welcome To The Painted Ladies

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This year I have planted a lot of verbena bonariensis. I love this plant with its tall stalks supporting clusters of tiny purple flowers. Verbena grows quickly in almost any location and any soil, which is perfect for charlatan gardeners like me whose skills fall far short of their enthusiasm. Tiny plants which I placed in April are now about 6ft tall. The delicate appearance of the thin stems belies their strength; I am mesmerised by their waving and bending with the strongest of winds, bouncing back upright and unperturbed.

My main reason for including verbena is its attractiveness to pollinators at a time when we have to do our bit to help out wildlife, even in the humblest and smallest of gardens like my own. I’d noticed that the verbena didn’t seem to be as popular with the bees as some of the other plants such as the cat mint and lavender; butterfly visitors were also few and far between….until this week.

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Looking out of the kitchen window on Tuesday morning I was delighted to see three butterflies flitting gracefully from one purple floret to another, lingering long enough to feast. I quietly stepped out to take a closer look and was able to identify the visitors as painted ladies. They certainly did look like works of art, scallop-edged scarlet wings embellished with bold black and white markings. I marvelled at the trio for 10 minutes, contemplating the magical metamorphosis of unremarkable caterpillars into such beautiful creatures as these.

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Since Tuesday there have been more and more painted ladies gracing my garden, favouring the various verbena. At one point I counted eight on the same plant. I had wondered about their sudden arrival on the scene as if from nowhere; had they hatched somewhere nearby? It was wonderful to sit and watch their charming, oblivious exhibition.

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Deciding to find out more about my lovely colourful visitors, I came across some online news items about a mass migration of painted ladies to the UK this summer. So that explains it! 🙂. Painted Ladies are not rare or endangered, and they migrate here from Europe every summer, but this year promises to see huge numbers crossing the English Channel. I was utterly amazed to read about the epic journey which starts in North Africa and sees these tiny fragile-looking creatures achieve such an incredible feat. I don’t know how long they will stay, but I look forward to these ladies enjoying my verbena for as long as it lasts.

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A day in the life of the garden

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It’s the start of a new July day. It gives me great pleasure each morning to walk around my tiny garden whilst my coffee is brewing. I love to look for any new flowers which might have opened up to greet the sunrise and I feel a childlike excitement when yesterday’s bud has become today’s bloom. I tread the little stepping stone path through the carpet of cat mint, banana mint, scabia, lavender, verbena, salvia and buddleia in shades of purple, blue and white. It’s almost silent except for distant sounds of traffic. The bees are already busy harvesting nectar for the hive. They are not the only fans of the cat mint.

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It’s very warm already today so I bring my coffee back outside. I love this time of day. I don’t like noise so I operate a secret ‘time share’, relishing the moments when others are not out in nearby gardens. At other times ear phones are a godsend. 🙂

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I have some chores to attend to but return mid-morning, coated in factor 50 sun cream and with a new book to begin. I’m pleasantly surprised to find that although the school holidays have started, it’s still quiet. Maybe families have gone out for the day. A dog barks somewhere. Somebody is mowing a lawn in the next street. I recline my chair and open the first page but am distracted by a butterfly settling on the banana mint. I watch it until it flitters away.

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In the heat I inevitably start to nod off. I can see the heat shimmering in waves as my eyes close. I don’t resist. The heady sweetness of the caryopteris and the intensely vibrant geraniums appearing through the tall stalks of verbena add to the almost hallucinogenic other-worldly feeling.

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The harsh chattering of a magpie in the tree wakes me suddenly. I don’t know how long I’ve slept. Wondering what has sparked the commotion, I check if my cat that climbs has caused the alarm call. Fortunately, the tree is cat free. I admire my yellow Chinese lanterns hanging in the lower branches, storing up sunlight for their after-dark display.

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It’s time to go back indoors for a sandwich and to top up the sun protection. I drink a couple of glasses of water and remind myself to water the garden later.

Back outside, I decide to dead-head some spent flowers to make room for new growth. I have left the red roses to cascade onto the ground, creating habitation for insects.

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Small pots of wildflowers change day by day. Next year I will grow more. I love the surprise of not knowing what will emerge from the soil.

Last year I discovered Nigella or ‘Love in a Mist’. I was enchanted by the intricate structure and ability to grow anywhere, even from between paving stones where seeds must have been dispersed by the wind. I scattered a couple of packets around May time and the results are delightful once again. They have sprung up in sunny and shady spots alike, and need nothing apart from a sprinkle of water – my kind of flowers!

It’s mid-afternoon. I’m not getting on with the new novel. Life’s too short so I abandon it after five chapters. There is more activity now; a paddling pool is being inflated according to the excited shrieks I hear from two little sisters a few houses down from mine. A hedge trimmer whirs into action, brutally cutting through the tranquility. Two of my cats, also lovers of peace and quiet, return from whence they have been and offer a quick greeting before heading indoors to a favourite chair or bed.

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I follow them. I’ve been lucky and have enjoyed more time to myself than I had expected. In an hour or two there will be barbecues, music and the sounds of play all around. They are joyful summer sounds, and I don’t begrudge them for a moment, but I prefer the quiet. I hear an ice cream van play the theme tune to ‘Match of the Day’ as I go indoors.

I’ve been out for the evening but it’s still balmy when I return. It’s also quiet again in the garden, the only human sound the low indecipherable buzz of a TV coming from an open window. I’ve been told some wonderful news and feel like a glass of something is in order. In the darkness, the garden is a magical place. Lights twinkle. I pick out the shapes of moths darting through the air. Sometimes there are bats, but not tonight. There are always cats though 😁.

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