Monday, 26 April 2010


The sky is filled with jet streams again, and as I write, I can hear the distant roar of an aeroplane (listen carefully, here comes another one). I loved the silence when the skies were emptied, jets grounded by invisible dust; and the sounds that emerged out of that silence, a blackbird singing in my garden, the chatter of starlings in the park.

But now the skywriting has returned, I am reminded of all the times that I saw magic within it; as a child, trying to decipher the patterns above me; as an adult, yet childlike again, seeing messages from my sister, after she had gone from this earth.

I still see heaven in the sky; as we always do, as we always did. No matter that the jet-streams are man-made, there are moments when they seem suggestive of something beyond us, or perhaps simply of our longing for what might be there.

Not that anything could compare to the untouched sky, and what it speaks of...

So will I build my altar in the fields,
And the blue sky my fretted dome shall be,
And the sweet fragrance that the wild flower yields
Shall be the incense I will yield to thee.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Of wild places, parterres and a potager garden

The blue skies are still empty of planes this weekend, but the red kites are soaring in pairs over the M40, where the wide road cuts sharp through the Chiltern escarpment. Watching them wheel over the motorway traffic never fails to thrill me; these birds of prey that had come close to extinction, but now thrive even in our densely populated islands. I have been reading Robert Macfarlane's inspiring book, 'The Wild Places', which describes his journeys through Britain and Ireland in search of landscapes beyond those carved up by motorways, far from the hot dust of car exhausts -- Orford Ness, Rannoch Moor, Cape Wrath, Loch Coruisk and Strathnaver. Macfarlane succeeds magnificently in his aim of making a map that might be set against the modern road atlas: a prose map that seeks to make wild places visible again, recording their contours before they vanish. His vision of wild places opens up a realm of headlands, cliffs, beaches, tors, forests, rivers, waterfalls; where the horizon is visible, where wood and rock and water are untrammeled by tarmac or concrete.
After too long in the confines of low skies and London streets, I crave the sight of those untamed landscapes; but like so many of us, I am also attached to gentler places, where gardens have been tended and cherished for generations. One of the loveliest was created by Rosemary Verey at Barnsley House in Gloucestershire, from where I have just returned. Even if you live faraway, and cannot visit it on one of its open days (or perhaps the annual Barnsley village garden festival next month) Verey's writing casts light onto her garden, and her vision of the natural world. 'I enjoy patterns, man-made and natural,' she wrote in 'A Countrywoman's Notes', 'and as soon as I start looking around me, they are everywhere.' She recorded Cotswold sheep paths and the traditional patterns of wall-builders: 'a random pattern, you may think, but as they worked the wall was dictated by the lie of the land, the farmer's whims and needful boundaries.'
Verey's garden survives at Barnsley, even as the years gather after her death; its contours still visible, the hedges and trees that she planted shaping the outline of her past, and of previous generations that loved this land. How blessed to be allowed to step into it again, to smell its scents, see its blossoms, touch its leaves; and how good to know that this gentle place lives on.
I am sure that many who read this already cherish their own green spaces; and feel the sense of hope that Robert Macfarlane expresses toward the end of his book, when he recognises that even in a crowded country, the wild finds its way.
'We are fallen in mostly broken pieces, I thought, but the wild can still return us to ourselves.'

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Easter at Tillypronie

The Easter rabbit has hidden the eggs, in fiendishly clever places, and the 'little ones' (now six-foot something teenagers) have found them. In the warmth of the dining room, bowls of crocuses are flowering, alongside a dish of eggs dyed with onions. (Remember doing that as children? Out of such a simple ingredient comes a magical yellow).
The r on my keyboard is sticking, which means I have developed a lisp.
Still no sign of a white mountain hare on the snow-covered hill, but will keep looking this afternoon. Ragged white clouds and patches of sailor blue sky; like a wind-torn ship, spring voyages onwards...

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Easter snow, march hares, hunting dogs and spring flowers

Mind skittering this evening, after slow journey north to Scotland. Flight grounded at Heathrow (smoke in the air traffic control tower), delayed departure, but finally up and away through the clouds, then descent to Aberdeenshire afternoon. Snow thick on the lawn at Tillypronie, and even deeper in the woods; I sank in drifts, but felt uplifted, even so, by the bravery of spring. The dog gamboled like a puppy, despite his greying beard and recent status as a grandfather, beside the sculpture spaniels (by Helen Denerley). There are snow-drops in the garden, and little clusters of daffodils; the wisteria is just beginning to bud, and the roses are turning green at their furthest tips. I admired the blossom at the side of the house, and mourned the broken-branched azaleas (crushed by weeks of ice and heavy snow).

Then I went in search of mountain hares, remembering the first time I came here, last summer, and saw one running across the hill, which seemed to me to be a good omen. A multitude of pigeons today, and a long parade of ducks, paddling across the pond and then home through a field of snow; two Highland calves; one white pony; half a dozen pheasants, and a great many intriguing paw prints, disappearing through the trees, into a Narnian wild wood. But no hares, as yet. So I returned to the house for dry socks and hot tea and ginger biscuits; thus fortified, went roaming through the book shelves (virtual and real) to search for hares. The March Hare popped up as a guest at the tea party in 'Alice in Wonderland' -- madder, wilder than the white rabbit; and then I set off in pursuit of T.S.Eliot's 'Inventions of the March Hare'. Of which more later, as now it is time for dinner...