JanuaryIt was a very cold winter and it would leave everything very late for the whole year. The snow was beautiful in its own way but it soon lost its brightness and as the snowmen turned to ice we got on with the cold business of endurance. With life and growth shut down I became more aware of the buildings, scaffolding and walls which surround the garden, but once the snowdrops start to appear they quickly grabbed my attention and made me think of spring.
The new year comes but my cold continues. I peer out into the freezing garden. Our windows are at ground level which has the disadvantage that they get very dirty especially after a heavy shower – the soil is splashed up on to the glass, but it also gives us an intriguing worm’s eye view. The lawn was very beautiful this morning with the low sun shining through the mulberry tree and glinting on the frosty grass and I enjoyed watching the blackbirds bouncing around energetically, our ground level perspective emphasising the vigour of their perambulations. But I stay securely indoors trusting on warmth and rest to eventually overcome the bug.
The snow continues. We have only had one or two centimetres overnight but it continues this morning, even if in a rather slushy way. There is something rather miserable about the white stuff when it can’t decide whether it is snow or rain. Still it is very cold and I eventually bestirred myself to do something for the birds. There has been a bird feeder hanging around for some time and I found some peanuts in our cupboard so I hanged it out It was not long before the blue tits found it. I also rigged up a bowl of water over the outlet from our boiler, so hopefully it will not freeze.
Yesterday I saw an unusual bird in our garden. It was only a silhouette and I was struck by its very long beak. At first I was perplexed but then I heard the distinctive yaffle which betrayed its identity as a green woodpecker. I have seen greater spotted woodpeckers in the garden before and even a lesser spotted woodpecker in the park (a most unusual sight) so now I have a collection of the three British woodpeckers in my locality. Although I am generally not one to tick off lists of birds that I have seen, this sighting did give me considerable satisfaction.
We are now getting used to the snow. It lies thick and icy on the ground. My bird feeding continues. The major problem, as any bird feeder knows, is the squirrels who tend to raid all but the most inaccessible supplies, so I have taken to hanging food off the walls of the Rectory, but with no great success as yet. I think a good solution would be a cage on the ground but it would have to be securely pegged down to keep the foxes off – their footprints are very evident in the snow. Squirrels are particularly abundant in this garden, they like raiding the rather unsatisfactory rubbish bins, pulling apart the plastic bags and scattering rubbish everywhere. I noticed yesterday that the starlings have also joined in this practice. Squirrels are very winning creatures, even though they are a pest, yesterday I saw one squeezing into the old bowling green pavilion (now unused) in the park, and in the garden they are rampant. When I was young we once ate road kill squirrel, and very delicious it was. I can’t help but thinking about this when I disturb them at the rubbish bins and they look down at me from a tree branch just above my head, wiggling their noses.
Returning from holiday the snow has all gone, but in the remains of the rockery the snowdrops have burst into life. This is, surely, the most important time of the year for the garden: yes, life is still here; yes, the earth is still bountiful; yes, life has renewed itself. Of course, not everything is dead, odd plants keep flowering through the winter but the snowdrop is the key. Under the mulberry tree there are many clumps of snowdrops but it is here in the sheltered south facing rockery that they first appear, those armour plated leaves have forced up through the earth and now the gentle nodding heads quietly prefigure spring.
I have been reflecting on the wall which runs along one side of the garden. Today I walked along the outside of it for the first time. It is a wall of red bricks and along the top runs a slope design, which, no doubt, helps protect it from rain. It is buttressed in many places and looks strong, except in one place where there is a large crack and the wall seems to be bowing outwards. From the outside it is well above head height but I don’t think a fit young man would have any trouble in scaling it, especially if he made use of the roofs of the cars which are parked alongside it. On the inside there are places where I can easily peer over the wall because the earth is so heavily built up, but it is all in all a substantial barrier. I wonder what the people who walk along the alley and park their cars here think about it - and the large house which they can see above it. I expect most people never give it a second thought. I find the wall comforting, giving the garden a sense of established solidity. There is something lovely about walled gardens. My grandfather grew vegetables in the walled garden of a wealthy coal merchant and their sheltered strength speaks to me of protected fecundity. Even if they don’t really keep out intruders, they feel safe.
The wind is biting cold but life is stirring in the garden. The bulbs under the mulberry tree are all coming up, and there are other signs of life. The flats in the far corner are being scaffolded, so major work is clearly in hand. The garden is in many ways an oasis but it is surrounded and overlooked on all sides and true quietness is never achievable. The nearest we get to it is the very early morning in summer before the city has woken up. It also never really experiences darkness because the doctor’s surgery has a powerful floodlight which bathes the garden in a glaring, spectral light all night long
Snow again. Just the lightest sprinkling but the ground is cold and hard, yet still the emergence of bulbs continues apace. We associate flowers with spring but this growth comes in the deepest winter as if nature itself resists our tidy division into seasons. In every corner of the garden new growth is breaking the cold ground and especially on bright sunny days such as this, everywhere seems alive and full of grace. In the emptiness of winter they discover the space they need to drink in the light and break into life.
We are now getting used to snowIt has frozen shut
It has stopped
All the gears are locked up
There is no change
Squirrels, of course, hurry along
Leap from the Ash Tree into the Sycamore
Birds worry among the foliage
But nothing changes.
It is difficult to find words
When the garden is shut down
The tips, having broken earth,
Bow to present
The Belles Dames of winter
In their little white dresses
And I wonder
What are they doing here?