Sparrowhawk!

sparrowhawk.jpgWe set off early, returning from our wonderful holiday in Wales (more to follow). It’s never easy to come home after a good holiday, especially when you really wanted to stay, enjoy the solitude and the scenery.

We unloaded the car, I made a scratch lunch of cheese on toast and as I walked from kitchen to living room  a familiar shape caught my eye. All of a sudden I knew I was happy to be home, content to be back in my own surroundings and even though I loved our short break in the Welsh countryside, home really is where the heart is – especially when the birds welcome you by posing long enough to allow you to grab your camera and hurriedly point and press!

The Things We Overlook

dandelion.jpgOn Easter Sunday I spotted the first dandelion flower of the year. We’ve been picking the leaves for salads for a couple of weeks ; along with  sorrel and the early chives they have supplemented the shop bought salad I’ve been buying since we cut the last of our home grown lettuces. Looking at Instagram I often feel that the commonplace and the ordinary are overlooked in favour of more exciting, glamorous gardening achievements. I see photos of gardeners showing off the first blossom from their almond trees or the luscious fruits of lemons in their enormous heated greenhouses, of course I’m a little jealous, if only finances would stretch to a new greenhouse or a larger plant buying budget! My own precious garden moments are more mundane, but they are still thrilling to me. Even the first dandelion flower, knowing it is one of many wild plants  that I can pick and eat for free gives me joy and a sense of achievement – much more than buying expensive plants from glossy catalogues or plant fairs – and then posting photos of them online!

Other mundane moments of the pas week include spotting a buzzard sitting high in the branches of the silver birch as I chopped veg for tea. Over the next few evenings I found myself watching for him, discovering  ragged piles of pigeon and magpie feathers just outside the garden gate. We ate our first nettle risotto of the year, picked leeks (only the smallest are left now, but oh so sweet after the frosts and snow) and unwrapped the fig tree from its winter fleece to discover new shoots and small fruits that have survived the winter.

Garden Robin.jpg

The robin is growing bolder, sitting still long enough for me to take a few photos of him on the fence. He still won’t come and sit beside me, but he will hop down and take food from the ground beside me. The pigeons are courting, one of them is sitting on a nest, a ragged affair in next door’s damson tree and the female blackbird is busy pulling up worms. A flock ( is there a collective noun I’m not aware of) of siskins descended on the garden, the females  gorging on the sunflower seeds in the bird feeder, happy to jostle the goldfinches away (collective noun – a “charm”, or my favourite “a troubling” of goldfinches – thank you google).

I’m reading “The Wood”, by John Lewis – Stemple, the story of a year in the life of the flora and fauna that live in the small wood near his home in Herefodshire. Like his earlier books (“The Running Hare” and “Meadowland”), this is a beautiful imagining* of life in the English countryside. The wood he writes about covers just three and a bit acres, but is filled with birds, ancient trees, wild flowers and creatures that many of us know exist, but seldom see, He spots badgers, a vixen carrying food home to her cubs, migrating birds and insects, describing them in simple language and making me want to walk in the woods at dusk!

Much of my life is ordinary, mundane and lacking excitement. But, the sudden joy of spotting that buzzard in the tree, the siskins, or last year’s early dusk encounter with a couple of boxing hares  spark feelings of joy and gratitude. Reading The Wood I feel lucky and blessed to live here, to be able to find time to just sit, look out of my window and see all that my small Cheshire garden has to offer. I feel I am part of a wider community of nature lovers and people who appreciate the ordinary and the every day. Look out of your window, look up as you walk along the pavements and find moments of joy in the world around you.

I share photos of the things I spot from my garden, walks in the wood or snatched moments of excitement in an otherwise dull day in my Instagram stories – check out the “highlights” on my profile to see them.

 

  • In an author statement from the The Running Hare, the book is  described as a “substantially non fictional account based on the life, experiences and recollections of the author … except in minor respects .. the contents of this book are true”.

Notes From a Small Garden

My new garden robin.jpgWe have a new Robin, I spotted him on Tuesday. He’s much more cautious than our “old friend” who has kept us company all winter. This new visitor is smaller and as I approached the bird feeder he pressed his back against the fence-  wanting to edge away –  but  also hopeful that I was bringing snacks. I sprinkled a few sunflower seeds on the ground at my feet, he waited until my back was turned before hopping down to seize the plumpest and flying into the apple tree’s branches. I wonder how long it will be before he grows as bold as his friend (pictured above), who would hop down and follow me from the back door to the bin where I store bird food,  then scold me if I didn’t throw a few treats his way before making my way to the hazel tree where I hang the feeders.

I feel sad that we have lost our “old friend”, all winter there have been three robins visiting the garden, but only one has become bold enough to sit beside me as I drink my early morning cuppa on the garden bench. The others kept their distance. I wonder if this is a sign that spring really is here and soon they will start competing for territory, no longer keeping the winter truce which has allowed them all equal access to the food we put out for them every morning. I wonder what happened to my friendly robin? Maybe he failed to spot the sparrow hawk that visits each lunch time, or came off worse in a scuffle with another male. Perhaps (and I hope not), he was caught by the pesky cat “no tail”, who prowls around looking for  birds to toy with –  but not eat – he’s too well fed to make a proper meal of them. He often left them, shocked (or worse, needing to be put out of their misery) on the back step, but as he has learnt he’s not welcome here, he prefers the hidden space behind the shed where he can bask in the sunshine unseen from the house and lick his lips as he hopes for easy prey.

This new robin is quite tiny, his plumage bright red and his eyes beady black. Today he sat and watched me as I added some veg peelings to the compost bin, edging closer as I searched through the top layers, hoping to see signs of the brandling worms that have been buried deep over winter. Soon they will make their way to the top layers, their bodies entwined as they respond to the warmer weather, a writhing mass of breeding worms that turn my garden waste into rich, black gold to mulch the veg patch. This robin hasn’t learnt what a rich source of food can be found in the compost yet, it won’t be long before he’s hopping in and out. The wooden lid doesn’t fit properly and the older, wiser birds know that it’s full of meaty morsels, slugs, beetles and grubs that have made their home in the warm, moist compost.

male blackbird

As I walk back to the house, the blackbird calls to me and as I turn to listen, the tiny pink flower of the hazel catches my eye. It’s the first time this year I’ve spotted them in our garden. I’ve been too busy rushing in and out of the house, avoiding the cold blasts, the rain and even snow this winter. I have photographed them on my walks, but this is the first from my own garden.

Female hazel catkin.jpg

Standing at the door, I watch out new robin squabble with the hedge sparrows and scuffle under the feeders for dropped seed with a couple of gold finches and a  thrush that turns over leaves looking for snails. We may only have a small garden, but on mornings like these it has as much to offer as any nature reserve and I head back indoors grateful to be home from my London trip , and not even grumpy any more that I was woken by these same birds singing their  dawn chorus at 5.30am!

If you want to know more about the robin, or the rest of our common garden birds, a good place to start is the RSPB website.

Outside My Window…

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Clematis “Winter Beauty” outside my kitchen window

I love my garden in winter. I know it’s meant to be bleak and bare, the season where nothing ever happens; but on cold winter mornings I find myself drawn to the garden. A brisk run to fill bird feeders or pick up windblown silver birch twigs for kindling often turns into a slow meander as I stop to admire the low winter sun shining through the waxy flowers of a late clematis, or listen to a song thrush.

Small pleasure, finding joy in a busy day. These garden moments remind me that even in the depths of winter, there is a reason to be outdoors. Of course, there are the days when I am forced to sit inside, looking out, when aching joints, headaches or just the effort of meeting a deadline mean that I must sit at my desk. On these mornings I sit eating breakfast, my camera beside me.  It may be just a quick snap of the robin, a glimpse of a snowdrop or the rare sight of a jay swooping low over the fields that catches my eye as I watch, but capturing these snatched moments has become a part of my daily routine.

When I do step outside, I realise that nature has accepted me. The robin sits waiting for me to scatter a few seeds on a tree stump, scolding me if I forget. The blackbirds no longer scurry away, but turn their heads towards me as if to say good morning. The crows and wood pigeons stare down from the tall branches, no longer startled or flying away. I am no longer just a garden observer, I am a part of this garden and just as I have shaped this outdoor space, it has shaped me. Offering joy, solace, optimism and comfort.

I have lots of deadlines approaching, the new book is nearing completion and I promise myself, that once this book is done I shall take a much needed break, to spend mornings exploring the garden, afternoons in the woods and evenings spent watching the sunset. For now, I must be grateful for these snatched moments, the beautiful last days of winter.

You can find more snapshots of my daily dose of the outdoors on my Instagram feed  click on the icon in the right hand column to see more.

The First Frost

sturdy boots on the first frostYesterday I woke and found I was cold. Properly cold for the first time since March. I looked out of the bedroom window to see grass laced with white icing, a bright blue sky and birds all puffed up and fluffy, perched in almost bare branches.

By the time I dressed and took my coffee outside the grass had become soggy, the nasturtiums were still edged with icy frills, but the frost was over and the promise of winter seemed a long way off.

Autumn is my favourite season, and this gentle nudging towards winter is best of all. I know that not everyone agrees there is beauty in this season. I’m reminded of  a piece I read  by Emma Mitchell in Standard Issue magazine, in which she wrote:

I don’t relish fossicking for my long johns in my knicker drawer, bulk buying ChapStick or feeling icy seepage through a hole in my welly. Winter can jog on.

While I sympathise with the cruelties of harsh winter weather (I suffer from frizzy hair, chapped lips and cold toes), I find myself  looking forward to the cold months. I like to hunker down with wool blankets, hot drinks and heavy, hard backed books. This is a time to re – read old favourites by the fire, light candles and to be honest, I find myself spending more time outdoors than in the height of summer, just so I can appreciate that sensation of slowly warming up and watching my cold breath and my glasses demisting.

In the garden there is plenty to do, so always a reason to be outdoors. Ever the optimist, I plant bulbs for spring. I pick dried  seed heads and cut branches for the house. I much prefer the russet reds and oranges of autumn to the blousy pinks and purples of high summer.  I walk in a circuit, inspecting each flower bed and border. It is the last day of October and  the grass is still growing, but too wet to cut. The roses cling on, passing on the baton to late flowering clematis and winter jasmine (Jasminum sieboldianum). There are still cotoneaster berries, turning deep red and still plump, the fluffy heads of Bill MacKenzie are tangled and silky reminders of a summer filled with bright yellow clematis flowers. I pick up stray branches of silver birch to use as kindling and plan my day.

I begin to feel the damp, cold air. It’s time to head indoors, pour fresh coffee and begin the day’s admin of emails to read, bills to pay, commissions to plan. Books don’t write themselves and food must be bought. I feel the need to bake a cake, a sticky, stodgy gingerbread or fruit cake. The kind of cake you cut in thick slices and eat in front of the fire with scented candles burning. Yes, if you visit me in winter you will be handed cake and a steaming mug of tea almost before you’ve had a chance to unwind your scarf or kick off your shoes.

I  relish “peak autumn”, dried and curling leaves, clear blue skies, low winter sun and an excuse to wrap, snuggle and indulge my maternal instinct to provide warming stews, hearty broths and stodgy puddings.  I welcome the cold, the damp and the dark.  I refuse to be sad that summer is over, or to resent autumn as the wet, soggy poor relation or to resist the dark of winter. I embrace autumn, I welcome winter. I look forward to scented paper Whites in dishes on window ledges.

It feels rebellious to speak of autumn with so much love when others are complaining bitterly about the cold, the damp and the dark. So, feel free to remind me of this post  on  January mornings when my hands are numb from scraping ice  and I complain bitterly about cracked lips, dry hair and damp washing that refuses to dry ….

 

Photos credit: Sturdy Boots on Frost: Llum Isart

 

 

Mornings Like These

The starlings gatherI’m writing this, sitting in the garden with a mug of coffee. I’m watching the starlings feasting on the autumn berries. They haven’t noticed me yet. The sky is vivid blue. The kind of blue you only see in early autumn, when the sun sits low in the sky and the cold seems to sharpen everything. That sky is one of the reasons I love autumn so much.

I haven’t written on here for weeks.  I’ve been feeling “disconnected”, posting photos on Instagram, sharing on twitter and so I can’t think why I haven’t sat here and typed a blog post. Maybe there has just been too much to do. A new book to organise, clearing the greenhouse for autumn, family stuff or maybe just nothing to say. Which is OK. Perhaps the space between posts is evidence of a  where life is lived and experienced without the need to record and to reflect. A companionable silence, like the ones between friends and family, where nothing needs to be said out loud.

But I’m back, feeling the need to share this experience of autumn’s beauty with you all, knowing that you will nod your heads, acknowledging the beauty of autumn won’t last and we must relish the colour and the sunlight  before winter forces us indoors to wrap in layers and long for spring.

teasel seed heads.

Sometimes I think I love seed heads more than the flowers

These autumn mornings, sitting in the garden, watching the birds are my favourites. There is so much colour and abundance, not like the blousy over exuberance of summer. The goldfinches are feasting on thistledown, the stems hardly take their weight and they perform all kinds of acrobatics. Blue tits squabble over the bird feeders, or spend hours in and out of the clematis, picking off grubs and seeds. If I sit here long enough, the robin will start to scold me, he expects me to turn over a piece of rough soil to reveal treasures. Last week I spread fresh compost on the empty veg beds and he spent hours picking out tasty morsels.

cotoneaster berries

These cotoneaster berries, so bright and beautiful and loved by the birds

It feels good to see the starlings back, huge flocks this year. They have almost stripped the rowan, now they are competing with the blackbirds for the deep red cotoneaster berries and the coal black berries of a shrub I have forgotten the name of! I managed to  take a photo of them. They are so easily spooked, flying into the air at the slightest movement, calling to each other, regrouping and then settling again. Their plumage shimmering as it catches the sun. Now, just as I look up from the screen I see a flash of blue. Two jays chase each other into the hedge, I haven’t seen them for months and this tiny glimpse makes my day. I’m never sure why it’s the colourful birds that cause me such excitement.

Soon I must head indoors, pack a bag for a weekend away, attend to emails and finish a long promised letter to a dear friend, but for now I’m going to just sit here, switch off the laptop and enjoy the moment.

 

Elderberry Recipe Ideas

Elder (Sambucus Nigra)

Elderberries

The elderberries are starting to ripen, offering the promise of autumn cordials, jams and chutnies. Many people are aware that an elderberry cordial or syrup can help soothe a cough or cold, but they also have dozens of culinary uses. My favourite crumble is a mixture of apples, elderberries and blackberries all foraged from the garden. You can also use them to make wines and chutney. I also use them in the solar dye posts to make a beautiful pink shade of wool.

You need to strip the berries from the stems first. The easiest way to do this is to run a fork downwards from the stems and let the berries fall into a bowl. Even simpler , freeze them on the stems and you can easily strip them when ready to use them. The berries in my garden ripen in stages (one side of the tree gets more sun than the other), so I freeze them until I’m ready to use them otherwise the birds eat them before I can enjoy them.  The stems are inedible and the berries slightly toxic raw. Please be careful if you’re new to foraging that you identify the tree correctly, at this time of year there are lots of bright black berries in the forest and not all of them are edible. If in doubt leave them on the tree. We’re lucky enough to have large elder trees in the garden, but the edges of the local fields also offer a ready supply. Try not to gather from the roadside because of car fumes and always rinse in water before use.

Elderbierries steeping in a solar dye pot

Elderberries in the dye pot

I’ll share pictures of some of my favourite recipes as I make them. Meanwhile,  if you need inspiration here are links to some of my favourite recipes and uses. There are also lots of great foraging courses at this time of year, so do look out for one local to you.

The Woodland Trust: Elderberry wine

Robin Harford: Elderberry Cordial

Foods of England: Elderberry Chutney

 

 

Pictures of Tiny Things: Oak Galls

Oak Knopper Gall Andricus quercuscalicis

Oak Knopper Gall (Andricus quercuscalicis)

Oak trees are my favourite tree. I love the shape of the leaves and the way the acorns change from shiny green to nut brown. Best of all, I love searching for oak galls, caused by tiny parasitic wasps, these “oak apples” and galls come in various shapes and sizes. If you look closely, you can spot them among the leaves, and occasionally pick them up from the forest floor in autumn. I am fascinated by their shapes and textures.

Oak Marble Gall Andricus kollari

Oak Marble Gall (Andricus kollari) like round hard marbles.

Delamere Forest has some beautiful oak trees, and right now they are a covered in tiny acorns, which seem to swell each day. It won’t be long before the squirrels can be spotted munching away, or more likely burying them in the leaf litter.

Oak Common Spangle Gall Neuroterus quercusbaccarum

Oak Common Spangle Gall (Neuroterus quercusbaccarum)

Oak galls can be used to make ink (I’ll share that process later in the year), but right now, grab a small child or rekindle those memories of school nature walks (a weekly outing in my 1960’s and early 70’s education) and go oak gall spotting.

Oak Artichoke Gall Andricus fecundator

Oak Artichoke Gall (Andricus fecundator)

I photographed these earlier this week in Delamere Forest, Cheshire. I was able to spot several kinds and identified them online from the photos I took. Not like the “old days” when I had to pore over the Spotter’s Guides or go to the library. A good place to start is the Trees for Life website, which has  detailed section on plant galls,  not just oaks. Once you start to slow down and look around you, all kinds of flora and fauna reveal themselves. Every day I spot something new, another small gift for choosing slow!

 

Embrace the Now

ApplesThe seasons are changing, but I’m not ready to let the late summer give way to autumn just yet. In the garden, the pinks, purples and yellows of mid summer are slowly giving way to jewel bright reds and blacks as the trees become laden with berries. There are huge rosehips and the rowan trees are covered with red berries. The apple tree is heavy with fruit, it looks like we’ll get our best crop ever. The hazel trees are full of nuts, which means the squirrels are gathering. But it’s not autumn yet (despite what “Instagram” is saying, the changing colours, bronzing of the leaves, copper tones in the bracken are normal for this time of year). They reveal the promise of autumn’s bounty, and yet we still have summer skies, warm afternoons and plenty of sunshine to enjoy. Late summer offers so much, the opportunity to spend time with friends, and with the kids before they go back to school. Some of my clearest summer memories are of late summer blackberry forays, climbing trees still in full leaf and discovering that elder berries are bitter and best eaten cooked, not straight from the tree!

elderberries.jpg

I think we’re prone to forgetting that late summer offers us so much. I have ripe, red raspberries. The elder berries aren’t ripe yet, but the deep red stems are so beautiful and I love to admire the light as it filters through. In a few weeks the starlings and blackbirds will strip them in a matter of days  if I don’t get there first.

Before we rush headlong into autumn (which, if I’m honest)  is my favourite season), let’s just slow down and admire the now. There’s plenty of time to gather together all those autumn recipes for pickles, gins and cordials. Sit in the garden and enjoy the late afternoon sun if you can. Pick the late summer vegetables and last of the soft fruits. Take a moment to reflect on how beautiful this time of year can be, forget the rainy days that caused a change in summer plans. Go for a walk in the woods, on the beach or your local park. The blue skies are out there if you take the time to look!

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Embrace the prospect of autumn, but don’t forget to enjoy the now. Why not start by making a simple fruit cordial? I shared my recipe for redcurrant cordial way back in 2011 and I’m still using the same recipe today. You can swap the redcurrants for any summer fruit (or even a combination), my favourite this year has been rhubarb and raspberry.  If those rainy days threaten to spoil your outdoor fun, making a batch of cordial is a terrific way to bring some summer into your life – you can even use a bag of frozen berries – call it domestic foraging!

 

 

 

You can Eat Cake for Breakfast (but only if it’s my best ever raspberry cake recipe)

20170702124957Not just any cake. Packed with fruit and nuts, this is practically health food! I’ll admit, with no shame we ate a slice for breakfast and felt no guilt. (Nope, not even a little bit). Of course, I’m not suggesting you make a habit of cake for breakfast, but the occasional indulgence is OK. Let’s face it, not much can be worse than those sugar filled cereals we all love but pretend not to because “they’re bad for us”.

I like a cake that will serve as dessert as well as accompany a morning mug of coffee and this old favourite really does fit the bill. You can serve a slice with creme fraiche (or double cream) or just eat it on its own. It is quite moist, not the kind of cake you can eat with your fingers – although Mr T would disagree – sticky fingers can be licked clean he tells me!  I’m sharing the recipe for this Raspberry and Almond cake here (or you can find it by clicking on the recipe tab in the sidebar) but first a few tips.

I tend to weigh out in cups (American, not Australian), simply because that’s easier for me than getting out the scales. Butter has a handy guide on the wrapper, so you can just cut off what you need. I use Spelt flour (Sharpham Park), but there’s no reason why you couldn’t sub a plain flour, or even try using your favourite gluten free if  you need to. I used frozen raspberries, the remainder of last year’s crop. You could use fresh if you prefer.

My oven is a bit on the cool side, so everything takes longer to cook, so use the timings as a guide. You know your oven, so start checking after 45 minutes to test if your cake is cooked. I store my cake in the fridge, but it will sit quite happily at room temperature for a day or two, so long as it’s in an air tight tin. Why do I keep cake in the fridge?  If we can see it, we’ll eat it, so it’s best hidden away behind the vegetables  where Mr T won’t go snacking!

When lining your cake tin, either use a quick release springform tin,  or make sure the lining paper sits higher than the sides of the tin so you can lift it out. This cake won’t thank you for turning it upside down to cool – you’ll end up with a sloppy mess and lose the pretty, crunchy topping.

Orange zest definitely falls in the “food for free” category. Next time you eat an orange, pop the peel in a tub and freeze it. You can grate or zest it from frozen straight into your cake mix. You can do the same with lemons, if you need the juice for a recipe, freeze the empty “shell”.

I don’t know who should take the credit for this recipe, it was sent to me by a friend when my daughter was little, we had enjoyed a slice (well, since we’re friends I’ll admit it was two) at her house and I loved it. Over the years I’ve tweaked it a bit, adding flaked almonds to the topping and experimenting with the sugar quantity (I think I’ve got that just right now). I hope you enjoy it.

This post isn’t sponsored by any of the companies listed in the ingredients. I’ve just names them because they work well for me. You can, of course substitute your personal favourites.

Now, don’t eat it all at once!

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