Buzzing After The Rain

Yesterday was the longest day of the year. Recently it has felt most unlike summer here in the UK where we’ve experienced one of the wettest Junes on record. In some parts of the country rivers have burst their banks, turning surrounding areas into flood plains. More water has fallen on some days than usually falls in the whole month. Where I live, thankfully we have not had to endure the worst of the weather, but it has still been cold and wet a lot of the time. Happily, temperatures are rising again now. Yesterday – appropriately on the summer solstice – the sun shone all day. Today looks promising too.

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After a warm dry May, the first rainfall was a blessing, at least for parched gardens. The rain soon outstayed its welcome, but at least the blooms, quenched and invigorated, seemed grateful.

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I cleaned up, resprayed repurposed this old fire pit which I’d hardly used and had become a rusty mess

My garden is tiny but it gives me a lot of pleasure throughout the year. Summer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is my favourite time. I love foliage and, if I could only have one or the other, would choose lush evergreens over brightly coloured flora any day. Happily there is room for both.

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Whilst some plants won’t flower until July there are still brilliant displays of blue and purple amongst the green. I decided this year to work with nature and keep things very simple. Apart from a few pots of gloriously bold geraniums which I love and will always find a spot for every year, any new additions to the garden would be first and foremost chosen as a food source for pollinators.

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In one corner I had previously had a lot of containers. I decided to move most of them as some had long since stopped thriving or even growing at all, and some of the pots looked ugly. I very reluctantly discarded the worst of them and have kept others for reusing. Unfortunately, a solution has not yet been found for industrial  recycling of black plastic plant pots – at least in my part of world – which is very frustrating.

Early in the year I had attempted to train some early-flowering clematis up the fence but sadly, as with all other clematis I’ve planted in the past, it failed. I dug them up and put them back into pots and they still seem to be OK , so with a bit of luck they may flower again next spring. I’ve moved some herbs from their pots into the ground and they seem to be happy enough there. Scabiosa and salvia are enjoying the sun spot along with a variety of cat mint, Walkers Low, which is a real pull for the bees. I’ve left the French lavender in pots as that’s how it seems to grow best in my garden. The bees can’t get enough!

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I plan to place some annuals in the gaps, also pollinator- friendly varieties. I’ll review these each year as the perennials spread and gain height and the gaps hopefully become fewer. Hopefully, in a couple of years’ time, the little stepping stones will lead through an abundance of green and shades of blue and purple.

One of my favourite shrubs is the Caryopteris Heavenly Blue which I planted about three years ago. It is another bee magnet and exudes a heady sweet aroma which I love. I would like to plant more of this but because it spreads up to 1.5 metres I don’t think I have room in a sunny enough spot.

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I’ve sewn a few wildflower seeds in small pots and they have come on well. I can’t wait for the Nigella to bloom in a few weeks’ time. Another favourite aromatic container is the rosemary and thyme against the back fence. The little purple flowers are beautiful and another food source for insects.

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My arthritis has really flared up this year, exacerbated by a knee injury a couple of months ago, and although I love  my little plot the more physically demanding aspects of maintaining it can be very challenging for me. Rethinking my garden, reviewing what grows well and what doesn’t, going with nature’s flow and including more of what thrives easily and with minimal effort on my part is my new philosophy. I’ll be keeping it very simple, providing a banquet for nature if I can, and a place for me and the cats to relax now the rain has stopped. 😁

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When a friend suggested an evening drive to the beach at Formby point, I gladly accepted. Accessed by way of a lonely road through woodland, the sand dunes at Formby would not ordinarily be somewhere I could visit by my usual means of public transport as night time loomed.

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We exchanged  greetings with dog walkers and joggers. An older couple helped a small child look for shells whilst sea birds trotted across the damp sand, investigating the shallow pools left behind by the outbound tide.

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Staying  close to the shore, we made a seat out of stone steps at the foot of the lifeboat station and looked out to sea.

Dusk was descending. The sky shifted through a muted palette of greys, mauve and smoky amber as the sun’s lamp was slowly dimmed.

The camera’s zoom lens revealed the hazy shapes of distant pedestrians, on four legs and two, traversing the expanse of the beach, out to the water’s edge and back again.

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Buoys bobbed in the shallow water, guiding to safe passage marine vessels bound for the port of Liverpool, or sailing into the night towards Dublin. Towering wind turbines stood still, imposing but strangely graceful.

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The silver ribbon of sea, its mirror-surface bouncing back the last of the light, marked the end of the road where the silhouette of a solitary vehicle was stopped at the water’s edge.

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Tulip Fields: An Impression

Dutch bulb fields have, since the time of ‘tulip mania’ in the 17th century, attracted painters from Europe and beyond, mesmerised by vistas of flowers, row after row, vibrant and tantalising, extending like floral carpets to meet the horizon.

One of my favourite examples is Tulips in Holland by French Impressionist, Claude Monet, painted in 1886.

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I am fascinated by the light and the vivid hues, and had pondered the reality and how it compared with Monet’s impressions as he set them to canvas in real time.

The Dutch tulip season is short, beginning in March and ending in May. A short visit to Holland’s southern bulb region last week presented the opportunity to feast my eyes on multitudes of magnificent blooms as Monet did on another spring day over 130 years ago.

The flat land and waterways reminded me of happy childhood holidays cruising on the Norfolk Broads with my family. They are early memories, set in time in a technicolour palette; our sensory perceptions of colour, smell, pain and sounds gradually fade as we grow older. I still remember the boldness of scarlet poppies against the parched East-Anglia fen land and vast sky. Of course, the two regions of England and Holland were once joined, back in the mists of time, so perhaps the connection is understandable.

The landscape changes from week to week as fields are harvested and return to barren soil, their glory days ended for another year.  Elsewhere, new flowers open to the sun as their moment arrives. 

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I ambled alongside one narrow canal which skirted several smaller fields. Views from the water’s edge offered a chance to see further and to form my solitary impressions.

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My impression is of a grand artistic collaboration between nature and nurture at its triumphant moment of fruition, and that I was lucky to be in the gallery to see it for myself.

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Narcissus

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On a recent visit to Liverpool’s  Walker Art Gallery my eye was drawn to John William Waterhouse’s painting of Echo and Narcissus. The painting shows the mountain nymph, Echo, gazing longingly at Narcissus as he gazes even more longingly at his own reflection in the water. Echo’s love is unrequited by the object of her affections and, feeling rejected and invisible, she fades away until all that remains is her voice. Desperately thirsty, but unwilling to disturb his image on the water’s surface, Narcissus eventually dies from dehydration (though in another version of the myth he drowns). A clump of Narcissi, pale yellow heads leaning forward to peer into the water, springs up on the spot.

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Despite the recent return of early morning ground frost to some of our gardens, spring is established. Things are happening in my little patch.

One of the earliest blooms each year is the dwarf rhododendron which I have kept in the same pot since I rescued it from a skip about five years ago. I was told that it wouldn’t grow much bigger even if planted in the ground so I decided not to disturb it. It flowers only once, and only for a short time, but I look forward every March to that exquisite show that tells me spring has arrived in earnest.

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The early flowering clematis which I planted quite recently seems to have taken root. Although it looks so delicate and fragile right now I hope it will provide a stunning backdrop as it climbs the fence and heralds the arrival of spring at the end of March for many years to come.

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The little old spiraea which every summer I suspect has had its last day in the sun never ceases to amaze and delight me with its spring revival.

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Even those plants which won’t flower until June or July are showing new green shoots on last year’s woody stems.    The potted herbs are flourishing, quickly returning in colour and scent.

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At the beginning of December I planted some daffodil bulbs which I’d bought in the autumn and forgotten about . I thought it was probably too late but hope, as they say, springs eternal. Well, spring they did! Some of them, anyway.

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I’ve noticed that many of those swathes of early daffodils which graced roadside verges and parks have now faded, like the lovely Echo, leaving only lowered browning heads  or leaves which will also die back over the next month or so, though below the ground the bulbs will sleep until their time comes again. I’m happy that my late blooming golden narcissi, a few still unfurling, will still be around a while longer yet to make me smile when I look outside every morning. Like their mythical namesake they have every reason to stand proud and show their faces to the sun.

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.