Bickershaw: a plant-potted history

At the weekend, inspired by the arrival of spring, I visited Bickershaw Hall Nurseries, a small garden centre just outside Wigan.  This friendly family-run business also sells seasonal plants, fruit and vegetables at the town market, so as I was passing by I decided to have a look around.

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Despite the record-breaking warmth of the past week, it is still February after all, and the big greenhouse looked almost bare apart from a few splashes of colour. This time next month it will be fragrant with herbs and bursting with botanical brightness.

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Whilst perusing  the perennials I chatted with the owner who told me her family had established the business nearly 50 years ago on land which had been bought much earlier following the demolition of Bickershaw Hall in the 1940s. Built in the 17th century, the Hall fell into disrepair, made uninhabitable by coal mining subsidence. The only remains are this house which had been servants’ quarters and the cattle shelter which you can see below, now both used by the Nurseries.

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Our conversation turned to another local history connection. In 1972, the land where Bickershaw Hall had once stood had gone to seed. Bizarrely, a consortium of Manchester business people and others from the music industry selected the site to host a massive music festival. One of the organisers was a certain Jeremy Beadle, and the headline band was The Grateful Dead. Other illustrious artists included The Kinks and Bryan Ferry, and the list went on… It was to be a spectacular event and the crowds arrived from all over the country.

Of course, by today’s standards the special effects look unsophisticated. A high-diver who descends gracelessly into a burning paddling-pool even seems comedic.

Unfortunately, severe rain made the event a washout, and the field looked like a scene from Glastonbury but without the associated coolness. The Grateful Dead were not feeling very grateful as this short clip shows.

The festival-goers, bless them, still seemed in good spirits despite their tents having sunk into the mire. This would have been an unprecedented occasion for them, and they would probably have just enjoyed being part of it.  I like the interview with a local shop keeper who describes the weird and wonderful foodstuffs he has stocked for the pleasure of the Bohemian showbiz types including yogurt, something he’d previously ‘heard of’ but ‘never seen’. Well it was only 1972! 🙂

My curiosity roused, I asked for directions to the festival site. A short walk led me to a path off the main road with woodland to the left.

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A couple of cars passed me from the direction I was heading, making me feel less wary about venturing alone  into what seemed quite a secluded place. I smiled to myself, picturing the hoards of party people ambling this way in the summer of ‘72.

The path opened out into a car park at what I could now see was a fishery: artificially created ponds stocked with fish for paid-up anglers to spend whole days trying to catch. One pond looked quite tranquil with nobody around.

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Whilst others took on a more sinister appearance. I hope that was a just scarecrow….

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I followed a path to the right in the direction of a familiar looking field, but not before passing the remains of a burnt tree stump, strangely decorated.

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Then there it was…. the venue!

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Try as I might, I wasn’t feeling that vibe. The festival spirit had been washed away in that July deluge.

Bickershaw Festival has achieved a quiet cult status; the 40th anniversary reunion held in 2012 (a much, much smaller affair) was even covered by the BBC. Needless to say, Bryan Ferry and the Kinks were unavailable on that occasion.

 

 

 

 

 

Spring is in the Air

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We are on the cusp of seasons. Spring is tantalising us, slowly but surely shedding her outer layers and revealing flashes of warm light and emerging greenery. In my little patch the daffodil bulbs, which I thought I’d left too late when I planted them in December, are pushing through towards the sun. Today has been a cold day but I felt the occasional warm ray on my face, enough to power up the solar garden lamps which are gracing the dusk for a little longer each day. It is still light when I arrive home from work which is bliss! The new energy is almost tangible.

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February 1st was the ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc: for Pagans the first day of the ‘quickening’ – the turning of the year, and later adopted by Christianity and renamed as St Bridget’s day. It is a fire festival and marks the advance towards light and warmth….. even though in these parts we had seen snow just a few days earlier.

Although there’s still a way to go before we can put away our winter coats and scarves, it is heartening to see the early signs of renewal and enjoy the lengthening days. It’s a special time.

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I am often guilty of forgetting about the many lovely places close to my home in favour of more interesting locations further afield. At this time of year when the grand houses of the National Trust have not yet opened their stately doors to the public, and when the countryside has not yet come into bloom, there is still much beauty to be found locally.

Scotsman’s Flash is one of many ‘flashes’ in the Wigan area, lakes formed as a result of mining subsidence on the sites of former coal mine workings. Scotsman’s is the largest and is a designated area of scientific interest due to the presence of rare plants and migrating birds such as Reed and Sedge Warbler. It is popular with canoeists, and people like my friend who sometimes walks her dogs there at the weekends.

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Our stroll took us along a stretch of the Leigh branch of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.

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A new road – a busy dual-carriageway – which will ‘fly over’ the canal and the edge of the Flash is in the early stages of construction after decades in the planning stage. The next few months may be the last chance to enjoy views like these. It remains to be seen what the impact on the wildlife will be, so all the more reason to enjoy days like this one whilst I still can.

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Snow and trees at twilight

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The early hours of Tuesday saw the first snow fall of the season in my part of the world. It has all gone now, having stayed for little more than a day. The bizarre temperature fluctuations continue; today we’re back in double figures.

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I am not lamenting the snow’s melting. Yes, it makes for a pretty scene when viewed from the warm side of a window, and undeniably there is pleasure in the crunch underfoot and the sight of animal prints in freshly fallen ground cover. I dread the yellow-grey slush which follows, seeping through shoes, dampening trouser bottoms and treacherous when it freezes over, turning pavements into ice rinks. I have twice fallen victim (literally) to icy ground, as X-rays and a now very faded suture scar would bear witness.

The daylight lingers for a little bit longer each day, which is wonderful. It won’t be long before we see the arrival of the first signs of early spring. I love that time. Today, it was almost five o’clock when the streaks of twilight dipped behind the trees near my home. I took some photographs of the bare branches, appreciating the cycle of the seasons but looking forward to greener times ahead.

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Last week saw the death of one of my favourite poets, Mary Oliver, whose observations of the natural world strike a chord with me. White Eyes is a poem about winter and about a bird, about the promise of things to come, and about life ….. perfect for this time.

White Eyes – Mary Oliver (1935 – 2019)
In winter
    all the singing is in
         the tops of the trees
             where the wind-bird
with its white eyes
    shoves and pushes
         among the branches.
             Like any of us
he wants to go to sleep,
    but he’s restless—
         he has an idea,
             and slowly it unfolds
from under his beating wings
    as long as he stays awake.
         But his big, round music, after all,
             is too breathy to last.
So, it’s over.
    In the pine-crown
         he makes his nest,
             he’s done all he can.
I don’t know the name of this bird,
    I only imagine his glittering beak
         tucked in a white wing
             while the clouds—
which he has summoned
    from the north—
         which he has taught
             to be mild, and silent—
thicken, and begin to fall
    into the world below
         like stars, or the feathers
               of some unimaginable bird
that loves us,
    that is asleep now, and silent—
         that has turned itself
             into snow.

 

 

Formby Point: the beach beckons

Happy New Year to all – and welcome to my first post of 2019! I’m really excited about the year ahead and about sharing some of my adventures with you as we travel around the sun one more time. I’m quite new to blogging myself and have been inspired by some great writers who I have found over the past year or so;  I look forward to following my favourite blogs again this year and to making some new discoveries.

And so it begins. January arrived, dry and bright. I carried on with the ruthless clear-out I started after Christmas, and I even got out into the garden for a bit of a tidy up in preparation for the start of the new growing season. Spending time in the sunshine always makes me feel good, no matter what the time of year.

Today was reasonably mild and the sky a joyous blue, so I decided to make my first seaside outing of 2019.

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Formby is a coastal town between Liverpool and Southport in the north-west of England. Its abundance of very rich and celebrity residents (including premiership football players) and luxury properties has resulted in the dubious nicknames  Califormbia and Formby Hills. The chances of me recognising (or even having heard of!) a reality TV ‘star’, a current ‘soap’ actor, or a football player are roughly equal to the chances of one of them recognising me. I was really hoping to see some of Formby’s other famous locals, the indigenous red squirrels whose abode is the large area of National Trust pine woodland which stretches out along the Formby coast. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be on this occasion.

Temperatures had dropped overnight and the ground frost sparkled in the sunshine. Sections of felled fir trees had been left on the path.

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There are two approaches to Formby beach: the first which is shorter and probably more popular involves a very energetic scramble over a range of steep sand dunes; the second – which I opted for – took me on a longer, beautiful meander through the dunes along a sandy path. The azure sky and the landscape reminded me of long ago Aegean holidays.

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Several benches along the walk have been dedicated to the memory of people who loved to spend time here. What a lovely way to be brought to mind each time a loved one or stranger sits for a while to admire the vista.

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On top of the dunes, sand mountaineers looked out to sea.

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Squawking magpies kept their own lookout from the trees tops.

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And apparently it’s never too cold for an ice cream.

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The National Trust has laid a long board walk to make the beach accessible for prams, wheelchairs and folks like me who don’t climb dunes.

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The entire path from the Lifeboat Road car park down to the beach is navigable for wheels and bad knees. Here, I made some new friends in their stunning hand-knitted jackets.

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The board walk ended and the wide beach came into view. The tide was out and the firm sand was perfect for walking. whether on two legs or four.

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One of my new colourfully-clad friends insisted we had a long game of throw and fetch the stick. Fortunately, he did all the running!

With my playmate called away to rejoin his family pack, the steps of the lifeboat station served as a convenient bench for me to sit for a while and enjoy my first beach visit of the year… hopefully, the first of many.

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The shortest day

 

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The final few days before Christmas can become quite fraught as folks pile into the shops to buy those last-minute presents and to make sure provisions are in store for seemingly hundreds of unexpected but potential visitors.

I don’t much like grocery shopping, preferring instead to ‘click’ my selections into my basket and await delivery in the comfort of home, but having been defeated earlier in the week by a particularly potent (but fortunately short-lived) winter bug (and not being able to secure an online delivery slot) I had to face the trolley gauntlet on Friday. It looked like the shortest day was going to become a very long one. Drawing on every bit of festive cheer I could muster, I patiently navigated the obstacle course of spatially unaware (or unconcerned) fellow shoppers, and reached the check out as quickly as I could.

When a friend called to ask if I’d like to go for a walk, my first thoughts were that I didn’t want to leave the house again that day. After a  few moments’ reflection I phoned her back. If I wrapped up properly, a drive off the beaten track, some fresh air and appreciation of nature would be a good way to end the shortest day of the year.

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These pigeons were also having a quiet moment as we rounded the path in their direction.

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The sudden beating of wings in flight was the only sound apart from our footsteps on the squelchy leaves.

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Creatures watched from their posts in the undergrowth: traditional Christmas card scenes and flashes of exotic colour.

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The year continues to be relatively mild, and there was no ice cover on the pond. Water dwellers looked peaceful both above and below the surface.

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This is a time to reflect on another year now passed, and a time to look forward as the days lengthen and we move away from the dark and towards the light. What adventures will there be for us in 2019? For now, I’m happy to stay cosy inside.

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Winter Garden

 

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Winter has arrived. It’s still mild for December, and this afternoon offered some intervals of sunshine betwixt the cloud and drizzle. I decided to get into my little garden to have a tidy up and plant the last few daffodil bulbs.

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It may be too late for these, but fingers crossed. All will be revealed – or not – in early spring.

I wasn’t alone, as Paddy and Cleo decided they would join me.

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Almost everything is dying back or lying dormant, falling in with the primal rhythms of nature. The last of the roses fade. The buds that remain will not open now.

 

Autumn was warm and long, and October brought us ladybirds in abundance. A few are still around.

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The vivid colours of autumn leaves: russets, reds and golds are resplendent.

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The garden is a peaceful place in winter as all slows down. It’s a time to meditate on what has been and what may come in the year ahead.

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To some, the seasons are the same. Stoically, they observe the passing of time in silence. They’ve seen many comings and goings.

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There is still plenty life and vibrancy in the garden. Delicate winter jasmine blooms as the temperatures drop.

 

 

Leaves on the path don’t spoil some folks’ journeys. Even at snail’s pace they’ll get there in the end.

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All that glitters may not be gold but a touch of winter sparkle is always welcome.

 

The evergreens carry on regardless.

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The hours of daylight are decreasing as we head towards the shortest day. Setting off to work as the sun rises and returning home in darkness, it can sometimes feel like winter days pass me by. The weekends still offer the chance to see the beauty to be found at this time of year, literally on my own doorstep.

 

 

National Black Cat Day

Today is National Black Cats Day in the UK. The event is a Cats Protection initiative which was started in 2011 to promote the gorgeousness of black cats, and raise awareness of how they often lose out to their more colourful relations in finding homes and being loved.  I think it’s marvellous that our ebony felines have a day dedicated to them, not least because three of my own five kitties are black and beautiful.

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Paddy, Pearl and Jasper had their 7th birthday in August but I still think of them as my kittens. Their mother, Cleopatra,  had moved herself into my home just a few weeks before they were born, with no small amount of encouragement from my son who had taken a shine to her and had (unknown to me) been providing treats and petting whenever she turned up in our garden. Cleo had been a neighbour’s cat but the kind-hearted lady had a lot of animals and not enough space or resources, and I guess that this precocious and savvy little tabby had been at the bottom of the pecking order.

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After initially seeming offended that Cleo was spending so much time at my home, her former owner suddenly decided the cat had chosen us, so we should have her. Looking back, I think she’d twigged that some fur babies were on the way – not that I’m complaining.

Not being a seasoned cat midwife, it took a few weeks for it to become obvious to me that Cleo was pregnant – actually, about 3 weeks before the birth.  I was very apprehensive about the arrival of the kittens, caring for them and later finding them good homes. I had no intention of keeping them, as my life was busy and I felt my house was too small for so many cats.

It seemed fortunate that many family members, friends, acquaintances, friends of friends and work colleagues past and present were keen to become parents to the expected fur babies. I would not have let them go to anybody I didn’t know personally, and the question was, who would I have to disappoint? People had seen photos of the beautiful Cleo on Facebook or had met her in person and couldn’t wait to see her look-alike kittens.

August 1st is Lammas Day and, quite aptly, Cleo was delivered of a healthy harvest of 4 babies: three boys and one girl. Only one little boy was a tabby like her. The other three kittens were black. Mother and babies were doing well in the ‘nursery’ and I quickly became a cat baby bore. Very fortuitously, it was the summer holidays and I still had a few weeks off work in which to keep an eye on them.  I didn’t bestow names on my charges, as they were not going to be mine to keep.

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People were cooing and complimenting the photos, especially admiring the little male tabby. It was obvious that everybody liked him best and wanted to take him home when the time came. A few people even said they would take one of the others as well – as a companion – if they could have him. I was a bit sad about the lesser interest in the black kittens, but alarm bells hadn’t started to ring.

Just eight days after the birth, two of the babies developed Cat Flu. It came on very suddenly, overnight. Both were rushed to the vet for treatment; one survived and one did not. We lost the little tabby.

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After that, I noticed a clear wane in interest in the other three cuties from previously very eager prospective adopters.

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People still admired the photos, but almost all of those firm offers of homes became ‘maybes’:  changes in circumstances; possible trips to Australia; previously undetected allergies; clauses in tenancy agreements which forbade pets; concerns about traffic…. One person was quite honest and said that she just had a “penchant” for tabbies and another now thought she was too old to take on kittens which might outlive her, but then offered to take Cleo, their tabby mother, less than a year old herself.

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Feeding time

 

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Kittens at three weeks
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Pearl finding her feet
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Jasper trying to break through the cushion barrier which blocked the doorway
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Paddy learning about toys

By the time they were 8 or 9 weeks old, there were no suitable homes in place for my three kittens. I could have re-homed them had I been less fussy, but as the weeks passed I had started to feel very protective of them and had become very selective: I turned down a nice lady who lived on the 12th floor of a tower block (who I know would have spoilt a fur baby rotten) for fear of it escaping and falling over the balcony; I said no to someone who lived alone, worked long hours, and only wanted the very sociable and playful female kitten, even though she was quite attached to one of her brothers ( they don’t get along at all now!).

Cats Protection, who I’d contacted for advice, had even offered to collect them at 12 weeks. The lady  had explained that, very sadly, many people just weren’t interested in black cats, even kittens. It took them longer on average to find homes for ebony beauties who came into their care, as people preferred more colourful patterned cats. I read up on this and found that the same applied at all re-homing centres. In the USA, some shelters even euthanised black cats virtually as soon as they arrived, as they knew from experience that nobody would choose them.

Incredibly in the 21st century, my extensive reading informed me that occult connotations still lingered, along with superstitions associating black cats with bad luck, further adding to the ‘bad press’. Another unbelievable (but true) and probably the most feeble reason to me is that (in the age of social media), black cats are apparently not photogenic enough.

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The exceptionally photogenic Jasper and Paddy check out the cat nip plants
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Pearl and her brother, Paddy – when they used to get on!

I became deeply offended on behalf of my kittens that they were deemed less desirable because of their colour. It’s true to say that my former good opinion of some people has never quite recovered since that time when I became aware of shallowness which I would never have suspected. That being said, my disappointment has been tempered by the realisation that I wouldn’t have the cats now had others been less fickle back then.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420 I made a decision: we named all three kittens and decided they would be staying with us, forever. There are quarrels and personality clashes, as each cat is very individual, but they are all a daily source of delight and entertainment; all affectionate and loving, at least to me, if not always to each other.

I have counted my blessings so many times, thankful that offers of homes which might not have turned out well did not in the end come through.

I hope that Black Cat Day helps raise the profile of dark beauties and helps people to see them for what they are: beautiful and magical. If you or somebody you know is considering welcoming a cat into your life and want to be on trend, according to Cats Protection: ‘Black is the new black.’ One thing’s for sure – you won’t be disappointed in your choice.

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I can’t leave out Mrs Tiggy Winkle (Tig Tig, for short), my beautiful if sometimes spiky tortoiseshell

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Happy Black Cat Day!