Just over a week ago, I had the chance to join my brother-in-law on the last day of his ‘holiday’ walking the Pembrokeshire coastal path. Having completed Land’s End to John O’Groats in 2011 in a continuous walk, I was very grateful that Kevin had scheduled a ‘leisurely’ (his word not mine) 7.5 mile final section from Ceibwr Bay(above) to Poppit Sands (below).
He is clearly an extremely fit and competent long distance hiker, unlike me. But the chance to walk a section which Fiona and I had never walked before, at a beautiful time of the year, was an opportunity too good to miss.(No time to sit on this, but inspiration for a design for back home?)
Apart from the challenges of the walk, which we were fortunate to complete in bright though gusty conditions, the highlights for me were the cliff top flowers. We’ve used many of these species in the garden, but here they all were in their natural testing environment, in intermingling communities flowering in abundance.Gorse, thrift, kidney vetch, sea campion, common scurvey grass, scabious, stitchwort, with drifts of bracken and wind clipped blackthorn, looking for all the world as though someone had abseiled down the steep cliffs wielding a set of hedge clippers with amazing precision to restrict them to a smooth plateaued rock covering quilt, barely 18 inches high. I suspect the display may be longer lasting than usual this year, since during my day on the cliffs I saw just a single bumblebee, bravely trying to fly in the brisk and buffeting, cold South Westerly.(I had to drop my odd walking stick and pole, and lie down, to be safe to take this photo, as the gusting wind swept in from the sea, on Cemaes Head).A lovely modern building in Poppit Sands, slightly spoiled by its curtilage.
Back home, the sea campion is only just starting to flower this year – weeks behind its usual schedule. About 7 years ago, we were inspired by the natural beauty and vigour of these native plants, to scatter some collected seeds at the end of the cottage amongst the gravel chippings of our yard. Ever so gradually they’ve established, and to the mix we’ve added seed of Geranium sanguineum, Anemone blanda, white Viola cornuta, yellow horned poppy, Welsh poppy, common dog-violet, Crocus tommassinianus and Agapanthus to the thrift, vetch and campion. Some of these just hopped out of adjacent pots, and enjoy their new home more than the confinement of the terracotta. At its height it’s a carpet of intermingling flowers and foliage, and all thriving on sun, water and apparently precious little in the way of nutrients. The area has now extended into the cracks between our cobbled path stones, where there’s nothing but sand, lime and a tiny bit of cement for the roots to explore. No matter, they’re just as vigorous as those in the soil free gravel.A necklace of sea campion also now stretches down the long side of our house, again from seed scattered into the cracks between cobbles, and exposed to the full force of our heavy rainfall dripping from a gutterless slate roof, and the drying effects of wind, if not sunshine. Since the 3 native stalwarts of our planting scheme – the sea campion, thrift and kidney vetch are also all great nectar flowers for many of our insects, wouldn’t this form the basis of a great mix seed mix. It could be supplied to homeowners with all those block paved, car parking front ‘gardens’. Simply scatter the seed on the cracks between pavers around the periphery, to provide some foraging territory for our struggling bees, butterflies and other insects. How about a national campaign to create insect friendly paved forecourts?
And I love the thought that, for several of the insects which often manage the annual flight up to the UK (for example Painted Lady butterflies, Vanessa cardui, and Silver Y moths, Autographa gamma), as they hit the coastal fringes of our green and pleasant land there is this coastal fringe of nectar rich native flowers, thriving in the toughest of poor growing conditions, and still providing re-fuelling stops for the migrant’s journey inland. Anyone planning to visit the South West of Wales sometime may find the link to Kevin’s excellent blog record of his trip, starting at the very beginning on Day 0, and the stunning scenery he walked through by clicking here.
Tuesday was a wet day.
But surely not that wet! I’d never seen our simple rain gauge so full before, after just a 24 hour period. 52 mm had fallen, almost beyond its capacity. And this on the day before our first garden group visit of the year.
We’d complacently thought that the garden was looking fairly tidy, and then the winds had blown off 3 bin full’s of larch twigs, and the occasional spring had well and truly sprung from beneath our stone barn. When we first acquired Gelli Uchaf, we were intrigued by the large cavity in the mortar between cornerstones at the base of the barn. It’s taken me a little while to work out that if we get more than 34 mm of rain in a 24 hour period, it’s a trigger for a stream to emerge from the building at this point.
It always begins to flow a few hours after the rain has stopped falling. In spite of our best efforts at installing a French drain along the back wall of this building, which is cut into the hillside above it, the weight of thousands of litres of water falling on the land of Mynydd Llanllwni, rising up above the house, forces the rain to do what is inevitable – run downhill and emerge at the weakest point. On Tuesday the whole cobbled floor of the old stable at this end of the barn was awash. Making this a pick-up point, we’ve installed a land drain under our access track, but opted (for economy and effort) to terminate this just beyond our washing line spiral. The result was that when the lovely visitors from the Llangadog gardening club arrived in the early afternoon, they were greeted by the sound of rushing water, exiting over the mossy path, and down, down the hill towards the stream. Fortunately, so far, these extreme episodes usually only continue for a few hours, so that the planting in this swathe of garden doesn’t have to be just bog garden themed. But apart from witnessing this dramatic, and fairly rare event, I was also able to show them the very first flowers ever on our Rhododendron ‘Loderi King George’. This was earmarked for the compost heap this year, since in spite of being moved twice, and now reaching about 5 feet each way, it had never flowered. Frankly a non flowering Rhododendron is not really worth having, but it must have known our thoughts and had produced just a few huge pink-white buds which opened on Tuesday morning, to vast, slightly scented, palest pink flowers.For now, it certainly has a reprieve. But less pleasing was my discovery today, that like many other Rhododendrons, the new emerging leaf buds are covered in a sticky secretion with fly paper like properties. I first noticed this last year, click here for link, but was dismayed today to find 2 masonry bees fixed fast, (along with tens of tiny flies), on buds just inches from the flowers. We’re so short of pollinators this spring that I had a go at releasing them by prising them off the bud and onto a thin twig. Whether the bees survive I doubt, but at least they had a chance. A couple of days later, in dawn sunshine, I spotted this one immobile on flowers of one of our new Polemoniums – P. ‘Northern Lights’. Was it a rescued bee? Did it still have sticky feet? Or was it still too chilly to be moving around much? Last year I speculated on this blog that since many Rhododendrons originate from high rainfall acid soil conditions, this bud stickiness may be a variation on the carnivorous strategy of other insectivorous plants, as a means of supplementing their nitrogenous input. But it’s a bit mean to have these sticky shoots right next to large insect attracting flowers. However maybe that’s the whole point! The other plant our visitors caught was our first Meconopsis grandis flower of the year, which just started to open in the hour before lunch.
We love these, and seem to have the high rainfall, cool temperatures, and humus rich soil conditions for them to thrive. But I’ve noticed that whilst the seed germinates really well if scattered on the surface of the ground in the depths of winter, when there’s a snow covering, the flowers attract almost no Welsh insects, in spite of their abundant yellow orange pollen, and fabulous bee favourite sky blue colour. So it’s another flower that I’ll wave my pollinator brush at, in a couple of weeks when we have more open. The Victorian plant hunters who first brought this back from the Himalayas obviously didn’t see the need to bring its natural pollinator back to the British Isles to save us this task.
The evening of the deluge was made more memorable by a 5.45 pm ring of our ‘door bell’. This wonderful birthday gift from my father, fixed onto a piece of reclaimed oak lintel from the cottage renovation years ago, rarely gets used save by arriving visiting grandchildren, or to call in a spouse from the nether regions of the garden for a phone call or cup of tea. Living where we do, unexpected visitors at any time are few and far between. So, I was intrigued to see who would choose a wet evening to drop by.
Sheltering under an umbrella stood an older man on the drenched cobbles outside the front door. I opened the door, and was greeted in a very loud local accent with just 3 words:
“English or Welsh?”
Over the years, I’ve had many memorable greetings, but by way of opening lines this was certainly one which will linger, given that we’d never met before. It’s brevity and subject instantly had my brain in gear trying to work out what was going to come next, and frankly put me on the defensive. During my time as a small animal vet, I’d given quite a bit of thought to what opening phrase to use when welcoming new clients through the consulting room door, to put them at ease, but not be too wordy. I usually settled on,
“Hello, Mr.*****. And how are you today?”
Which occasionally drew the inevitable riposte:
“I’m all right. It’s poor ‘Lucky’ I’m worried about!.”
But on one occasion, which I remember vividly, the elderly gentleman looked me straight in the eye, and replied.
“Do you really want to know?”
Forms of words, even brief phrases, particularly for initial contact with relative strangers really do matter.
Impressions can be created in milliseconds.
So off to a bad start, our evening visitor, who it seems had the laudable role of charity volunteer, was struggling thereafter, in his attempts to get me to sign a standing order for regular donations.
But the conversation didn’t recover with his persistent probing about where I was from, and where I was born.
” Where my parents were living at the time”.
Would have perhaps been an appropriately enigmatic response, but by now I was a bit punch drunk, and feeling that our grandchildren approved moniker of ‘GRUMPY’, was in danger of surfacing in an audible way.
I am aware that different cultures place greater or less store on this historical birthright data, which frankly none of those affected have any control over anyway! But I was left imagining some other greetings which might have been best avoided in the past, or present?
“Catholic or Protestant”.
“Serbian or Croat”.
“Sunni or Shia”.
“Christian or Muslim”.
“Hutu or Tutsi”
Will the world ever move beyond such pigeon holing of innocents?
A soggy paper form was left with me to peruse and complete later, and I half toyed with contacting the charity to ask whether its volunteers and canvassers are given any instructions on cold calling.
I hadn’t really erased this event from my mind when, the next day, just after the garden group had left us, Matthew and Della arrived to collect some of our wood. We’d seen Matthew’s boxes at a craft fair at the National Botanic Gardens of Wales 2 weeks before, and we’d mentioned that we had some blanks of English walnut, which had been collected years earlier and lain, sticked up, and fortunately off the ground, in our stable, (the one with running water just hours earlier) waiting for us to get round to using them. We’d realised that our chance for making something with it had passed us by, but Matthew had expressed interest and popped up to take a look.
A price was agreed and he took a single blank like the one below, together with a chunk of bog oak, which I gave him, and which we’d rescued from our lower meadow when ditches and ponds were dug out years ago, to see what they looked like when planed up, or turned.
So when he returned with Della, with a car capable of taking some of the weighty blanks away, we were sad to see the lovely wood go, but happy that at last we’d found someone who had a passion for timber, and the aesthetic and technical skill to make something beautiful with it.
Then a bag was produced.
Matthew handed it over saying that it was for us to keep, and that he wanted the first box made from the timber to come back to us.
So here it is, a native English walnut box, with Gelli Welsh black bog oak fixings. A wood forged union of nations, created by a Welsh master craftsman.
We later discovered that as a former builder, Carmarthen based Matthew had dreams of one day buying a wood and building a hobbit house amongst the trees. We mentioned the hobbit house that a young couple have built in Pembrokshire, in a sustainable way for about £15,000, but without planning permission. Matthew did indeed know of this interesting story, and dilemma. The campaign to save it from the council’s demolition enforcement notice may even be still going on. Click here for some images.
So by the sort of thread of serendipity and synchronicity that I love, a gorgeous hobbit themed box arrived in a completely unexpected way, and the recipient hobbit’s mood changed from grumpy to sheer delight.
Finally, as I heard from a relative today that Helsinki in Finland has enjoyed temperatures of 24 degrees C for the last fortnight, and everything there is growing SO FAST, the garden here limps on, looking lovely and green with more flowers emerging all the time, but still decidedly chilly. The pullovers have been needed most days.
(Leucojum, Amelanchier canadensis, Narcissus ‘Pipit’, Narcissus ‘Geranium’, Bowle’s golden sedge, and Dora(ian) the Ronquières turkey poult).
PS. Matthew and Della returned on a lovely sunny evening today to choose one of our scarves for Della’s birthday tomorrow, having seen them on this blog. So Happy Birthday Della, and thank you again, for the beautiful box, Matthew. Diolch yn fawr.