Good-bye to All That

There are times when you have to pause and take stock. A year ago I had my prostate removed and six months before that I’d had a hip joint replaced. I guess it was Mother Nature’s way of telling me that my body was starting to wear down. I won’t pretend that last year’s lambing was particularly easy, because it wasn’t: bits of me hurt like nothing on earth. Then, when it was all over – in June I think it was – it came down to me on a parachute: it was time to do a bit less. I also wanted to spend more time in the garden and with my writing. So together Maisie and I decided we would stop keeping sheep. Happily our neighbours run a mixed cattle and sheep farm and they were looking for more grazing and for somewhere sheltered to raise lambs. So we came to an arrangement. And a couple of weeks ago the last of our sheep were moved off. In a fortnight the first of the neighbour’s lambs will arrive at our farm and we’ll be able to watch them frolic in our small barn, before being turned out onto the grass. Of course I’m sad – we’re both very sad – but we knew something had to change. I was very aware that I wasn’t checking the sheep as often as I should and if I wasn’t very careful we’d soon have problems – and it’s always the animals that suffer first. Looking back, I’m glad we made that decision, but it wasn’t very easy – and it still hurts. It puts me in mind of my cousin (through my mother’s, Irish, family) Robert Grave’s autobiography, written in 1929 when still a young man, when he decided to leave England: Goodbye to All That. Yes, goodbye to all that.

A couple of days ago, our neighbours came round to clear out the small barn and make it ready for the new lambs. I don’t think it has ever looked so neat and tidy. They removed a large trailerful of rotten pallets, old fencing and general agricultural rubbish – for which many thanks!

Small barn ready

It has been quite a turbulent early spring, following the mildest February on record. I don’t know whether it was anything to do with the preceding, very hot summer, but I don’t think I have ever seen more profuse sloe and wild plum blossom in the little lane that runs from our farmyard to the main wood. We call it Chicken Lane. Normally it’s very humble and normal, but not now: this morning, when I took this picture it was resplendent!

Chicken Lane

Most garden writers tend to wax lyrical about bulbs, but I have always enjoyed flowering trees and shrubs, like the ones along Chicken Lane. Another shrub that loves our damp and rather heavy soil is the flowering quince, Chaenomeles japonica. Our plants are cuttings off a very old shrub from our previous house, which was also in the Fens. Again, I don’t know whether it was the hot, dry summer, but I’ve never known them flower so splendidly.

Flowering quince

The early daffodils have been wonderful this year, especially two varieties that seem particularly happy here: February Gold and February Silver. I like this view down the drive towards the front gate, with the daffs scattered through the long grass of the orchard. Incidentally, I have never bought daffodils in bulk ‘suitable for naturalising’. If you do that you’ll get a load of ill-assorted flowers, some very bright, some long, some short, some single, some double, that never ever ‘naturalise’. In long grass they look like what they are: a bloody awful mess. No, plant named species or varieties and don’t worry about quantity. Buy what you can afford: in a few years’ time a small bagful will have multiplied hugely.

Front drive

Finally, this is a view of our pond that I took a week, or so ago, before the recent heavy rains. The bottom of the pond is about two metres below sea level and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it that low in early spring. Soon the newts will be looking for somewhere watery to lay their eggs. I was getting very worried, but now I can report the pond level is up at least a foot and there’s more rain forecast for the next week. So don’t worry newts: you can come out and enjoy yourselves. Soon it’ll be time for newty tadpoles!


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