Garden Opening; Deep Breaths; A Book Glimpse and a Final Woodcock?

Our thanks to a regular blog reader for alerting us to the fact that 10 days ago the Sunday Telegraph ran an excellent article by Val Bourne, a self-confessed galanthophile, on snowdrops, with some excellent practical tips on how to grow them well. The piece concluded with a short section of 10 NGS gardens opening across the UK for their annual snowdrop festival, and guess which garden happened to appear at the top of the list? Which is all rather curious – as with the Daily Mail 3 years ago, the journalists don’t ever bother to let the garden owners know that they’re going to be featured. But it did explain a flurry of interest and a few bookings have already been made to come and visit the garden to look at the snowdrops and spring bulbs, which is lovely. Particularly since such benign outdoor exercise and fresh air hasn’t been allowed at snowdrop time, at least in Wales, for the last 2 years.

Moreover on the last day of January, we sent out an email to our contact list of people who’ve visited us before, saying that the garden was open from February 1st, and had our very first visitors the following day. Which, typically, meant that we weren’t quite prepared.

However, with wonderful timing, and against the forecast, the temperatures had risen a bit from the previous day, (which was bitterly cold with a biting Northerly wind), almost reaching 10 degrees C. The mist lifted, the sun shone, and it felt as though the garden was taking a very long, deep breath. Slowly inhaling, and priming itself for the explosion of new growth and life in the next few weeks.

The warmth quickly had all the snowdrops and very first Crocus opening their petals. The honeybees, primed by just a couple of previous fleeting sortie opportunities in January, particularly onto the Daphne bholua flowers, already knew that there were plenty of flowers around to be visited. The moment was seized, and the garden was soon humming with bee activity, for most of the morning, with all of four of the garden hives in action.

Not quite out of the woods for them this winter, but so far so good.

This of course presents a dilemma for the garden display, particularly of snowdrops. One such weather window of perhaps 3 hours of good foraging weather will probably have ensured most of the early snowdrops will have been visited, and any fertile seed bearing forms will soon see their flowers going over. Many of the larger, early hybrids we grow don’t set seed, so will persist for longer. But the plus side of all this pollination is that hopefully plenty of seed will be set this year, to help fill in the gaps in our plantings, and perhaps throw up the odd interesting variant in years to come.

However, thanks to the wonderful range of cultivars and particularly Welsh origin snowdrops which we now grow, there are probably still only 20 % of the total number of bulbs which have flowered, so far. The remainder will emerge gradually over the next month, and will take us into the next wave of flowering in the weeks ahead.

As we said in our mailshot, the mid-range forecast for most of February is fairly benign – mainly cloudy with some light rain, but avoiding any severe hard frosts for now. So perfect for a late winter garden’s flowers, and although we don’t currently have any plans for a specific pop up event, we’d re-iterate that we’re open for any visitors who’d like to come, any time we’re around, if they pre-arrange a time with us in advance, as on our Visiting The Garden Page.

We now have our undercover refreshments area sorted, as above, after a mad/great idea I had to erect our ancient big tent (which very nearly got sold off pre-pandemic) inside our main barn. No more soggy canvas and struggling to put it up and take it down in dry weather. It’ll stay here, and we can even play table tennis again after years of struggling to move, for clutter in this generous space. All after Fiona did a brilliant job of brushing down and whitewashing the walls and we’d worked out how to fix the guy ropes onto the walls. So if the sun shines when you visit, you can still eat outside, but should the heavens open you can retreat in here.

I’ve been a little stymied of late by my aging computer suddenly not allowing any direct photograph uploads, or indeed any USB based back ups onto external hard drives. So anything has to be imported via We Transfer after I’ve uploaded them onto our laptop first. 😒


In my last post, I featured 2 of my Christmas books, which I’d whizzed through.

Briefly here’s a third, which is a fascinating exploration of how little we know about how to breath!

What nonsense, you may shout at the screen!

Suffice to say I’m a convert, to at least the simplest of the techniques suggested, to improve tidal volume and general relaxation – slow, consciously controlled cyclic inhalation/exhalations whilst counting silently to 5 or 5 and a half!

But the exploration of some of the historical evidence, science, physiology and even anatomical changes that result from poor breathing are both interesting and rational, and strike a chord with me, even as I type this, hunching forwards over the keyboard, with a compressed chest. (For anyone, like me, who’s never given this topic any thought before, clearly in these days of respiratory distress syndromes, it’s certainly topical, so here’s a short You Tube presentation by the author, by way of introduction to his book, given before the book was actually published, I think, but with some great graphics to illustrate the issues).

But talking of standing, or sitting up straight, and counting, by a dubiously constructed though appropriate link, I’m now featuring my own short You Tube clip of what I think are rooks in the top of one of our ash trees last week, as the tree top began to emerge from thick mist, in the early morning.

Quite what was going on, I have no idea, but the response of many of the birds to what appears to be an altercation halfway through the scene, is reminiscent of memories of my teenage years in an all boy grammar school, when fisticuffs broke out, and the quickly circling non combatants, gathered and urged the 2 sparring adolescents on with raucous chants of “Fight! Fight! Fight!”

And for an appropriate musical interlude, here’s a moody You Tube of what I’ve always thought is a wonderfully poetic, lyrically sharp song, by “The Counting Crows,” with a catchy repeated, simple opening riff that grips me every time I hear it, and leads you right through the song’s crescendo, against which the lyrics play out.

I’d never heard this song until we suggested, for a sibling family gathering one New Year’s Eve way back around 2002, that we all chose a currently favourite piece of music to bring to the evening’s festivities as background muzak. This track was our then guitar playing, elder son’s choice, and on first listening I was instantly hooked, though I’ve never followed up on the group’s other music. I’d played the CD our niece burned of everyone’s choices (“Worms are hooked on”, get it?) for the first time in ages this week. Doesn’t music bring the memories flooding back?

“The Counting Crows – Round Here”:

“Step out the front door like a ghost into the fog
Where no one notices the contrast of white on white
And in between the moon and you
The angels get a better view
Of the crumbling difference between wrong and right”… 

“Round here, we always stand up straight…”

Lyrics by Adam Duritz.

Breathe, slowly.

One, two, three, four, five, and a half, (hold). One, two, three, four, five and a half.


And so onto the exciting moment, when bang on time, a DHL van drove into the yard early one morning and the driver jumped out and told us he had 10 boxes for us. A little later we paused from some vital outside work managing a bonfire, and opened one up. One of those very exciting moments when you can hold something in your hand, and appreciate all the hours that have gone into writing the words, processing the images, and bringing them all together into a simple physical form.

So here are a few glimpses of “An Immaterial Rhapsody”.

Very many thanks to Swallowtail Printers in Norwich for producing something that’s even better than we could have expected.

100 small, numbered and signed books for £1,930? Worth it? Well not of course in any financial sense, but then we do have something that really excites us both, and we always get such a buzz from a collaborative, creative effort. Plus, they’ve been printed in the UK, not some far away land, and on lovely, good quality recycled paper. I’ve already commissioned 12 pastels from Fiona for a pared down selection of my more conventional writing from the blog over the years, although this will take much longer to bring to print I think, if I ever manage to finish the editing!

Much to my surprise one and half boxes of the books have already disappeared from upstairs. Only 85 to go. (£20 a copy ( + postage) for anyone interested).


As dusk’s gloomy grey fell, I felt I needed some exercise after a day of entertaining and an unusual amount of talking, so was just going to walk up longevity hill and circuit the hay meadow on my own, until I suggested to Fiona that she might like to join me and sit in the hut, as dusk fell, to see if we could both see another woodcock – Fiona still hadn’t seen one.

Speaking and movement was banned. We sat in complete, still silence. As we settled down, with the windows pulled open, the dusk time bird song quickly faded away around 5.30 p.m. A couple of blue tits pirouetted in front of us, silhouetted against the darkening clouds, and then flew off, unnerved about whether it was safe to retreat to their cosy night time roost in the bird box on the Eastern face of the hut. Eventually they abandoned caution, braved the risk from the two silent, seated immobile, figures and flew in.

Another 10 minutes of waiting as the light ebbed, and suddenly a woodcock flew straight past at eye level, barely 20 yards in front of us. Gone in a flash, and Fiona had missed it! Oh no! Not a wasted session I hoped.

However another 5 minutes of patience was rewarded as another  woodcock obliged by landing on the turf maybe just 15 yards from us, directly in front of the doors and began to feed, probing the turf with its beak for worms. Remarkably, it wasn’t spooked as the camera’s zoom lens switched on and I raised the camera to eye level. As the bird moved further down the field, it even tolerated first me, and then Fiona, switching on our mini LED Beanie head-lights to try to boost the available light levels to something the camera could cope with, its huge tapetal reflection picked up in the gloom. Once again the images were testing for the camera on its maximum 13200 ISO and exposure times of around a sixth of a second. Still, Fiona got to see a live woodcock for the first time, and indeed it’s the closest I’ve yet been to a live, and even better, feeding, Scolopax.

The woodcock’s beak is equipped with nerve endings that allow it to be used as an effective sensory organ. Most incredible, however, is the woodcock’s ability to flex open a third of its upper bill, while the bill is sunk in the ground, helping it to seize worms and pull them from their burrows. The woodcock’s long tongue and the underside of the mandible are rough-surfaced for helping to suck out such slippery prey, from underground, unseen. It also occasionally stamps on the ground to provoke movement from any worms close to it.  Apparently the beak of this bird feels soft and flesh-like to the touch compared to that of many closely related species – I wish I’d known this when I found the road kill woodcock a few weeks ago – I’d have made a point of feeling it.


Meanwhile, from the Irish woodcock project twitter feed, here’s an image of a woodcock skull, showing just how big the eye sockets are, and also how the ears are located forward of the eyes, which means that the bird can direct the beak towards anything that it can hear beneath it, without having to cock its head on one side, as for example, a blackbird does when listening for potential prey moving beneath the ground.

Eventually our lights, or something unseen, spooked it in light now so dim that we couldn’t see it at all. But for the first time we heard it. The briefest of wing beaten, feathered-air-rush noise, as it took to the air, and left us with our memories. Click below for some brilliant daytime video of a woodcock probing the ground, by Karen Miller:

I really am sure now, that this will conclude my woodcock efforts for this year, since my recent efforts at updating my separate computer and website snowdrop flowering records, have sapped my enthusiasm for yet more photographs Still, both the early and mid season pages are now about as organised as they’ve ever been.




12 thoughts on “Garden Opening; Deep Breaths; A Book Glimpse and a Final Woodcock?

    • Hello TP,
      Thanks for that. I really thought that as is many such scenarios, its actual arrival and the book itself would turn out to be anticlimactic, after so much effort to get it as we wanted, so it was a real thrill that this isn’t the case. As for work ethic, it probably comes from both Fiona and I being the second out of 4 kids. Always trying to prove ourselves competitively.
      Best wishes

  1. I am glad Fiona has seen the famous Woodcock. One gets so attached to the animals that pass through the garden, it seems much more personal to me than observing them somewhere outside. I look forward to seeing your snowdrops every year. Your bees are lucky to have such an abundance. Amelia

    • Thanks Amelia, I suspect I’ve become so hooked on the woodcock story, because like my foray into moths, for many years, and many years ago, they’ve probably been there all these years, and because of their secretive existence, I’ve not been aware of the. So just like the moths, they could disappear, and most would be none the wiser. The snowdrops are such a boost to us, let alone the bees, to get us through the dark winters here, best wishes

  2. Congratulations on your book! Well done. Looking forward to seeing a copy of the book and all the carpets of flowers in your garden ..very shortly! Best wishes Marianne

  3. Best wishes with the open days and I’m sure your wonderful snowdrops will be greatly appreciated.

  4. Yet another wonderful set of photos, and a beautiful and fascinating blog again Julian and Fiona. Thank you for continuing to make the time and effort to do this.

    And it’s hard to believe that these swathes only represent about 20% of your snowdrops still underground. No wonder you are top of the Telegraph list of NGA snowdrop gardens. Well done!

    Also a tribute to your hard work that such a vast display is essentially all your own work as I understand it, compared with the well-publicised snowdrop destinations, self-propagated over many years and generations in the grounds of abbeys, monasteries, vicarage gardens etc.

    And many congratulations on the book. It will be very satisfying to thumb it through on a cosy and quiet evening, away from the technology. And for your family to do so and have on their shelves too.

    Physically “in sight ” keeps precious things, and people, very much “in mind” I think – in a way the tech mostly fails to do; searchable maybe, but mostly out of sight and so out of mind as we go about our daily lives. I am sure it will give you a great deal of pleasure now you’ve done it.

    • Thanks Garth, for those very kind comments.
      The great thing about the snowdrops is barring climate disaster, they should get better and better, for whoever takes over from us. It’s a long haul project, for sure, but we love this time of year, and it’s great we can share it virtually or in reality and maybe inspire others to grow things to excite them in the depths of winter.
      I guess the book is a bit of a vanity project, but then much of what anyone does is really, isn’t it?
      But it is indeed great to have a physical record you can hold that’s also aesthetically pleasing, and so much more enjoyable than tapping at a keyboard, as you rightly assessed.
      I do (sometimes) wonder if the blog and garden are worth the effort, but I get such a lot of fun from finding things out, and then meeting the (mainly!) really lovely people who make the effort to come and see us, so we gain almost as much as the readers/guests I suspect,
      Best wishes and thanks for reading, and writing!

  5. I’ve been meaning to write to thank you for your wonderful essays on your life. They have been so enjoyable, especially as I have a friend who lives not very far away from you and I am missing West Wales where I spent my childhood.

    Also, I was wondering if you might be interested in promoting a new plant which has just been released by Hilliers. It is a variegated forsythia which I found as a twig in my brother’s garden near Oxford and propagated. Sadly my brother died of dementia and Hilliers are marketing it so that I can raise funds for Alzheimer Research. I’m attaching a copy of the label.

    With best wishes and looking forward to the next newsletter.

    Liz Mitchell

    ********************** Liz Mitchell 40 New Cross road Oxford OX3 8LP


    • Hello Liz,
      Thanks for the kind comment, and glad that you enjoy (at least some of) my ramblings. Re the plant, that you mention, sadly images can’t be sent through via website comments, so if you sent an email to us via the address on the Visiting the garden page on the website, and attach an image of the label, then I’ll be able to incorporate it into a future blog post. I’m sure I’ll be able to feature it in the near future. If you have any images of the actual plant as well other than the label, then that would be even better. I’m currently in snowdrop mode, where names and human stories, even sad ones such as the one you mention about your brother, are always wonderful to record and feature, and if in so doing more people are aware of the plant, and raise some money for Alzheimer research, then so much the better. Many people visiting the garden this year have left with bulbs of Galanthus ‘Primrose Warburg’, which was a yellow form discovered in her Oxford garden at South Hayes, after she’d died, and named in memory of her. Very sadly in view of the outrageous prices paid by some for new snowdrops, my guess is that little if any of the proceeds initially made it into charitable funds – though I might be wrong about this.
      Best wishes

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