Autumn Gardening

It is raining hard, and has been for three hours. We managed a couple of hours after lunch in the garden: mowing the lawn and generally tidying up. When we moved here nine years ago, the garden was overgrown and ill-kempt. Our predecessors would be horrified to read this, and perhaps it is not entirely fair. When they had first arrived, they had done much; but as they had grown older, they lost control of the garden. It was one of the things that attracted us to the house: the opportunity to make our own garden.

We set about clearing it: all but one of the trees came out, and over time we reshaped beds, changed the levels and made a pond. The first autumn after we moved, we lost the one tree we had kept, a large mulberry. Caught in a storm, it split, with half blocking the road and the other half in the garden. We had no alternative but to have it dug out: the trunk was rotten and it was past saving. We planted another mulberry, although that was damaged in a storm two years ago, its crown split.

We are thinking of moving on. Four of the five children have left school; one is in Berlin; two at university and another will start next autumn: just the boy is left at home, and then for only two years. We don’t know exactly when we will move, or where: we have seen a couple of houses not that far away, and know that it is now not so much if but when we move. As I mowed the lawn I wondered if it would be the last time. I love the garden we have made. I can remember where we bought nearly all the plants, and when. Some have done really well; others have struggled. This summer has been so dry that at times we wondered whether we should simply have had a Mediterranean garden. I think that at least one if not two of the trees we have planted have been killed by the drought. The rain we are now having is probably too late, although the resilience of plants never ceases to surprise me.

Caroline spent the afternoon tending her streptocarpuses. They will come with us, as will the olive tree, the acers and the camelias. How we will move everything, I have no idea. I imagine that there are people who move plants, or perhaps it will be us in the Land Rover, with a trailer (so we had better not move too far!). Most of the plants we will leave, for whoever buys this house, in the hope that they will give them as much pleasure as they have given us.

February fill dyke, be it black or be it white

February is the first month of spring, although you might today be forgiven for thinking that here on the edge of Dartmoor we are still in winter. We have had heavy, persistent rain most of the day, and with the rain it has been cold. But should we expect anything different? There is a mid-16th century saying, “February fill dyke, be it black or be it white” and driving over to pick up one of the children the other side of Chagford, nothing could have been more accurate. There was standing water on the road, and the fields and ditches were wet and full.

The forecast for the week ahead promises snow and bitter north-easterly winds. So we may well get both black and white.

Never mind the weather or the forecast, spring is in our garden: snowdrops under the magnolia and crocuses in flower next to the witch hazel, yellow flowering H.mollis ‘pallida’, at the top of the steps. This year it has scarcely flowered at all. In contrast, the H.mollis ‘brevipetala’ at the far end, against the wall by the pond, has had wonderful rust coloured flowers.

We spent last weekend in the garden, tidying up and starting the spring clean. This weekend, the weather has been too awful although I was out for an hour or so mid-morning, clearing up the small strip at the front of the house, next to the street. When we bought the house, the sale particulars described this as a “small area of garden enclosed by iron railings and with slate paving”. The slate has now gone, replaced by gravel, and among the stone pots and a granite trough too heavy to move, are creeping thymes – and until this morning a lot of weeds, dandelion, wild garlic and grass.

But if our plans for the garden were stymied by the weather, the same cannot be said for the surfing children. Having been brought up in the era of thin wooden boards (which I didn’t have but which I envied) and cold Cornish summer seas, I am continually amazed that they think nothing of surfing throughout the year. Even though they have heavy neoprene wetsuits, gloves and boots, paddling out into a winter sea in fading light is not how I would wish to pass a February afternoon.

Today they were at Saunton, out with about 100 others. It has been quite a month for surfing. Storms the other side of the Atlantic have meant huge seas off the Cornish coast last week. Another of the children, studying at Falmouth, was surfing at Newquay on Wednesday, but, she assured us, not being jet-skied out to the reef two miles off-shore, where the waves were 40 foot and the surf attracting people from all over the world.

I think I prefer the moor, rain or not.

Out and Doing

At this time of year Dartmoor weather is, at best, mixed. Yesterday was a beautiful January day: bright and sunny, not too cold and as we drove the slow road to Okehampton to collect the new gas stove, all we really wanted to do was get out and walk the moor.

It wasn’t to be: the stove came first and then we paused at the farmers’ market (third Saturday of each month and excellent North Devon fish, if the boats have been able to get out from Bideford) and poked around in Red Lion Yard, looking for a table. It was too late to walk by the time we were home and there were (as there always are) jobs to do in the garden. This time taking out the David Austin roses we planted five years ago, which we have reprieved each year despite their constant failure, and replacing them with five Roseraie de l’Hay Rugosas. These have spent the winter in containers and so should be thankful to be out and in the soil. I am keeping my fingers crossed that they will do better than their predecessors.

January is a quiet month in the garden, but there are signs of spring everywhere, buds on the clematis, red tipped peony shoots breaking the surface and the early green of daffodils and crocus. It is still winter, with colder weather forecast for next week, but everything is getting going. As we packed up for the day, we agreed that a short walk over Hound Tor would be just right for today.

Instead of the sun we expected, we woke to a grey, cloudy morning. For a number of reasons, we haven’t had a proper walk on the moor this year, and the route we intended was scarcely difficult. Nonetheless it is a pretty route, down from Hound Tor through the remains of the mediaeval village and across Becka Brook before a steepish climb up to Smallacombe Rocks and then round, down and back across the Brook. All in all, it cannot be more than four miles and all along well-trodden paths. Only at the last moment did we decide to take the OS map, as we reckoned we knew the way well.

The Hound Tor car park was half full although the cloud was too low to see the Tor. It cleared as we skirted the ruined village. Abandoned at the time of the Black Death, each time we walk past it, I wonder what life was like living on Dartmoor 600 years ago. Although the village is tucked down, sheltered from the prevailing westerlies, it must have been hard and bleak sheep farming right on the edge of the moor, especially in winter.

It was good to be “out and doing”, aware of muscles softened by the Christmas lay off and enjoying the freedom we always feel when walking. Under Smallacombe Rocks we climbed into the cloud base – and lost our bearings. We struck off south but followed the wrong route. It was a matter of degrees only but with no landmarks to guide us, we then took a wrong turn, compounding the error. Instead of meeting the old granite tramway, we missed it, probably by little more than 100 yards. Busy talking, we quickly found ourselves some half a mile further on than we should have been. It was then map and compass work (and thank goodness we had them), and back across the gorse, neither of us wearing gaiters but wishing we had, before we found the tramway, and the route.

The weather lifted for the last mile and in boots and waterproofs, with sticks, we felt rather overdressed among the Sunday morning walkers on Hound Tor. Next week we will be back on the northern moor, and there will be no question of not taking map and compass.