What We Forget
21st February 2017 - 0 comments
On nights like these, our house whistles and howls, it leaks and it whines. Voices are given to all the doors. There’s a skirting board that sounds like tortured mice.

Wind. Endless wind. Funnelled through the narrow avenue of our dale and hitting our high-lying house. The shelter belt I’ve planted hasn’t risen up yet, so we’re at the mercy of its music tonight.

My eldest daughter sleeps in the room I had as a child. Putting her to bed, I recognise the same sound coming through her door that I listened to for so many years. I caught myself saying I hoped it wouldn’t disturb her sleep. It’s one of those endless things I catch myself saying as a parent – hurry up, do you have to jump in every puddle, if you sit on that you’ll get wet.

I’d forgotten how much I loved windy nights in Nidderdale when I was her age. Family aside, if I could put my earlier childhood memories onto one hand, there’d be tree climbing, Saturday night chocolate, a path through a cornfield, Christmas eve and listening to the wind.

How much do we let pass us by as adults? How much do we invent to make up for it?

I’m always struck by the how-to nature of some lifestyle magazines. Creating the perfect soup, the essential walk in the wood, crafting tips – you know what I mean. I enjoy reading them, but they so often seem like a fantasy experience – not quite true stories to make us feel not quite so good about ourselves.

My daughter has none of the stresses of parenthood. She can lie in bed and enjoy listening to the wind, as I used to do. She can stumble about outside, not bothering about having to be somewhere, or having to clean something afterwards. Her conscience is clear and her imagination is open to the elements.

Our natural world is diminishing, is under attack from all sides. Nature makes everything immeasurably richer and it shouldn’t take a gale to remind me what I once knew so clearly.
Donald Trump — The Eco Villain We’ve All Been Waiting For?
09th February 2017 - 0 comments

Credit - Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Donald Trump isn’t in touch with his inner earth goddess...

His team are already at work on the Environmental Protection Agency, removing website references to climate change deals.

Soon, he will make good on his campaign pledge and pull America out of the most significant deal of all — the Paris Climate Change agreement.

That’s just the start. During his presidency, Trump (and his climate change-denying team) will likely do everything they can to promote fossil fuels and promote the idea that environmentalists are damaging America’s economy.

Thanks to Trump, it sounds like the world no longer have a snowflake’s chance in hell of reaching CO2 emission targets. I’m not so sure.

America electing Donald Trump as president could be the best thing that has happened in the global fight against climate change.

No, I’ve not gone mad. At least, I hope not.

But before I get into what the Donald effect can do for the environment, let’s consider how we perceive climate change.

Understanding how humans, as a species, react to climate change is key to our ability to tackle this threat to all life on earth. Genetically, it seems, we aren’t hardwired to deal with this challenge.

In his book, ‘What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming’, Per Espen Stoknes looks at the underlying emotions associated with climate change. He views individual responses to climate change through the five stages of grief associated with, for instance, a terminal cancer diagnosis.

Stage 1 is Denial — it’s a hoax, it can’t be happening. Stage 2 is Anger — who is to blame? Those lying climate scientists? The lily-livered politicians who won’t drive the switch to renewables? Stage 3 is Bargaining — maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe we can keep polluting then geo-engineer our way out of this. Stage 4 is Depression and Despair — yes, it’s terrible. We’re going to kill the planet. Nothing I do can make a difference. Stage 5 is Acceptance — ok, it’s bad but we can’t turn back the clock to a pre-industrial world. We need to fight on, pragmatically.

The message here is that we react more emotionally than rationally to climate change. If we want to reach stage 5, we need to convey the climate change story in an emotional, empathetic way.

We need to win this fight with storytelling. But from a storyteller’s perspective, for years the environmental movement has been missing a key ingredient.

A villain.

There have been corporations such as Bayer with bee-killing neonicotinoids, oil companies such as BP whose Deepwater Horizon oil spill devastated sea life in the Gulf of Mexico, pro-fossil fuel lobbyists, or climate change denying Australian former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, with his nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, is arguably the number one eco enemy — although this aspect of his foreign policy isn’t really in the public consciousness. That’ll change soon.

No, the climate change camp has never really had a bona-fide world-ending villain. Until now.

Enter Donald Trump, encircling the world in his gold-plated plane, surrounded by oilmen and climate deniers. While some might see Trump’s election as a disaster for the environment, as a storyteller I’d suggest that it could be a defining moment for the environmental movement. Until now, we have battled shadowy foes. No more.

From a story-telling perspective Donald the eco villain offers four gifts to the environment.

First, he’s going to inspire an awful lot of storytellers. Even before the Meryl Streep incident, how many friends does Donald Trump have in Hollywood? And lets not forget the reach of movies and TV, which remain one of our most popular pastimes. If Hollywood plays its cards right and offers an inspiring vision of a green future, linked to technology and the pioneering spirit (witnessed in people like Elon Musk) then I believe a positive impact can be made in the minds of both left and right-leaning voters.

Second, social media has opened the door to an age of fake news, where even the most scientifically robust IPCC report can be rubbished in a single tweet. Storytelling deals in emotion, not fact. In the fake news environment, a concerted and positive storytelling approach is the best weapon we have to promote a green future.

Third, Trump’s presidency has already sparked mass protests worldwide. They seem set to continue. These marches are not just an opportunity to show discontent to Trump and similarly unenlightened leaders. They allow us to gather collectively and socially, to feel part of a greater community bound by a common cause.

Last, and far more important, is that Donald Trump could inspire us all to stop feeling guilty and vote green with our wallets.

How many of us care deeply about climate change and species decline but also drive polluting cars, heat our houses with gas or oil, fly on holiday, use non eco products, eat meat or other foodstuffs with high environmental impacts? Feel guilty reading this? I know I do. And guilt isn’t a good emotion when it comes to positive action. It puts us somewhere around stage 4 of Stoknes’s list, wallowing in despair.

I write for children and in the world of children’s fiction villains generally aren’t subtle. They are satisfyingly bad, not least in fairy tales, which psychologists see as important to child development. The argument being that a child can pour all of his or her anger towards parental authority onto the villain in the fairy tale while identifying with the hero’s ultimately successful struggle. The clear divide between good and evil is therefore comforting to children, as is the knowledge that the fairy tale will end ‘happily ever after’.

The great thing about a villain is that he or she is not us. They’re all the nasty bits of us made real.

For as much as we may worry over our personal carbon footprint, none of our minor indiscretions can surely compare to the climate change-denying billionaire who now occupies the White House.

Just as the fairy tale villain helps children, allowing them to externalise anger towards their own parents, so the Donald eco villain can help us stop feeling bad about ourselves.

Here is a man who can inspire us to positive, community action. Not all of us may be able to rally in the streets for a green future but we, the people, can all go to battle with our wallets.

Because at the end of the day it is we, as consumers, who can secure a green future through our daily choices.

One switch to a green energy supplier, one decision to invest in green companies, one less car journey, one less plane ride, one less steak at a time…

‘Snowflake’ is a derogatory term used by some Trump supporters for young liberals. As a wit recently wrote on Facebook — ‘Yes, we are snowflakes, but there are millions of us. And you know what that makes? A f$%$ing avalanche.’

Thanks to you, Mr President, it might just snow in hell.
Dreams For My Daughter
08th November 2016 - 0 comments

Photo from here.

After her tea, to wind down from a day at school, my daughter and I often head for the woods. We take a torch, the dog, and we are in constant negotiation about biscuits. I tell her that the sugar will make her hyper, and hyper children in the woods scare away the fairies. For now, she reluctantly buys this. But she is only four.

We hunt for the family of deer that live in the woods. My daughter is the leader. When the path divides, she points, confidently.

‘My fairy powers say they are this way,’ she says.

Often the deer they can be found in the field just above the wood. They watch us watching them from behind a wall, before bounding away. Other times, we might catch sight of a white bottom vanishing into rhododendrons. Even on nights when they don’t appear, the wood is full of life. Pheasants, roosting the trees, are disturbed into flight. There are tawny owls about. As the darkness rises, my daughter inspects everything with her torch. We make very slow progress. I quiz her about the trees. She can now recognise beech, hawthorn, rowan, holly, oak and silver birch. In spring, we’ll continue our lesson with flower names.

A final ritual is sitting on a bench beside the small woodland lake. By now it is very dark. I am uncomfortable with the torch on, disliking the sense that we are visible to every woodland eye and blind to everything. My daughter has no fear of the unknown. The darkness (and occasional biscuit) fuels her imagination. I sit beside her in our little cocoon of light, loving her stories.

My wife tells a story of how her grandmother recalled her feelings at the outbreak of WW2. ‘You have to remember,’ the old lady said, ‘I had dreams, so many things that I wanted to do with my life and then the war came and I had to fit into it’.

More than anything else, my wife and I want our children to be healthy, happy and to live their dreams. But increasingly I fear that the course of their lives will be altered by forces we can’t protect them from. Today America goes to the polls, to quite possibly elect a man who hasn’t put forward any climate change policies on his website. In the past Donald Trump has placed himself squarely in the climate change conspiracy theory camp, saying it was a hoax perpetrated by China.

Meanwhile Hillary Clinton’s website promises a $60bn clean energy initiative, among other proposals. But even if Clinton gets into power, even if she unites a nation to tackle climate change in an unprecedented way – these are big ifs – is this all too late for my daughters?

Climate change makes global conflicts ‘more likely’ says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which strikes me as an understatement. Having worked as a journalist and editor, visiting conflict zones, I personally cannot see how flooding, rising prices, drought, failing crops and so on cannot lead to conflict. In a lecture given by leading climate change scientist Lord Stern, he suggested that weak action on climate change could push us towards a warming of 4°C or 5°C by 2100.

And here is the scenario he paints if this happens: “The reasons we live where we do would be drastically changed, usually through too much or too little water, as both floods and droughts increase in different parts of the world, and sea level rises across the globe. These radical changes would cause the migration of hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people, potentially leading to severe and sustained conflict. That is the future our children, grandchildren and future generations face if we do not act.”

Even if the face of our planet doesn’t change in this way, so much of its beauty and diversity has already been lost. According to the World Wildlife Fund’s latest report, global populations of birds, mammals, fish, amphibians and reptiles declined by 58% between 1970 and 2012. For our plants, the situation is equally dire. A report from the University of East Anglia claims that more than half our common plant species worldwide will be seriously threatened by 2080 if climate change isn’t addressed. Even if these reports are only half accurate (and that’s just wishful thinking on my part), I fear to imagine the world my daughters will be stepping out into.

I fear that whatever dreams they have now will be cast to the winds, just as their great grandmother’s were. And I fear that they will not live in a country at peace, with enough pockets of glorious landscape left to fill their imaginations and their lungs.

When I was a child, I was taken on autumn evenings to my father’s wood. I remember tangled undergrowth, eating salt and vinegar crisps, holding his gun bag, the silence. I can’t remember being afraid of the dark. I love that my daughter sits on her bench by the lake, completely unafraid, telling me stories. I pray that her child will be able to ramble winter woods with her and sit in darkness without fear, with a head full of dreams.

Snow is predicted in Nidderdale tonight. My daughter is excited at the prospect of a glittering morning. We'll read bedtime stories and I hope her night will be full of happy dreams. And all the time, thousands of miles away, a vote is taking place that may affect her future and those precious dreams.
Snow Summer Out In Print
30th October 2016 - 0 comments

Cover and reviews of Snow Summer

I'm delighted to say that my first novel for children is out in print.

Snow Summer tells the story of a teenage girl, Wyn. Ever since she was born, the world has grown increasingly colder. As she grows up in Nidderdale, Wyn has always known that she is different. Unable to feel the biting cold of wind and snow of the endless winter, she does what she can to blend in. But when mysterious figures start to appear in the dale, insisting that she may have the power to restore order to the natural world, Wyn must look deep inside herself to face the secrets of her past that she has kept hidden even from herself.

The book is published in North America by Groundwood Books and also in Italy (Salani) and Germany (Random House). In Yorkshire, it is currently stocked at the Little Ripon Bookshop and Harlow Carr bookshop.

It's aimed at 11+.

Some publisher info here.
How The NiddFest Festival Came Into Being
21st February 2016 - 0 comments

Here's a link to a blog I wrote about how and why NiddFest - our festival of nature and writing - came into being. Starting a festival is a form of madness, but I'm glad we did.
A lengthy absence
10th February 2016 - 0 comments
For the past many months, my spare time has been taken up with garden design work, a new baby and running NiddFest - the first annual festival in Europe dedicated to nature writing.

On this cold, clear morning in Nidderdale, with spring somewhat in the air and my bees venturing out into the sunshine, I found myself missing the site. I logged in and found many unanswered emails. My apologies for being absent and neglectful. I will respond to all emails in the coming week. And for now here is a trailer for a film about swifts in Oxfordshire that I've been sent.

With best wishes and a happy 2016! Kit
What Were The Odds?
20th July 2015 - 0 comments

Harebells. My favourite wildflower. A short buzz from the hive site.

From the early days of spring, I'd been harbouring an unfortunate secret. The winter hadn't been a particularly harsh one, yet my last little hive of bees hadn't made it through.

As late as February, I'd seen them crawling out of the entrance and heading off into sunny, frosty days. But then the flying had stopped and when I’d summoned the courage to open the hive I had found a mass of corpses and mouldering stores. I fear it was the lack of numbers that had killed them. This was a hive that I’d re-queened, combined with a similarly weak hive and packed with emergency winter fondant. But once again I’d lost my bees and was trudging away through the spring grass, gloomy as anything.

Every time I’d got bees, the result had been the same. Whether through the combination of washout summers and the harsh upland weather, or, as the case last summer, a misfortunate decision not to deal with wasp nests near the hive (just one of many novice mistakes), every swarm I’d caught and brought to the hive site had now died. This last hive had been my strongest, but like all the others it was now gone.

As spring drizzled down, filling the day with the smell of new life, I cleaned out the hive and was going to pack it and the other empty hives away when I thought ‘sod it, I’ll leave them as bait hives. I’ve dragged too many bees to live with me. Let them decide if they want to make a home here’.

This summer has been warm days and sleeping plants. Everything has come late and nobody I speak to, not even the garden team at Newby quite knows why. Caught up with organising NiddFest and garden design studies, weeds were allowed to grow in the central flower bed in the hive site. I’d go out and look over the hive site wall, looking for signs of bees and ignoring the mess. What are the odds of swarms turning up? In an area with lots of beekeepers, perhaps one in three. But I know of only a few beekeepers in upper Nidderdale, so I put my chances at one in ten or twenty.

A swarm simply happens when a hive becomes full in late spring/summer and a new queen is born. Then, typically, the old queen departs with half or more of the bees in the hive, leaving the new queen to rule the old roost. The swarm won’t go far in the first instance, often clinging to a fence or the branches of a tree, while scout bees are sent out to look for a new home. These were the bees I was hoping to see as I looked into my hive site; maybe one or two going into one of the bait hives, then flying off to spread news to the swarm of good lodging.

I watched and waited. Nothing. The local beekeeping group reported good swarming towards Harrogate and Ripon. I toyed with signing myself up as a swarm catcher. No, the bees would come to me of their own will this year, or not at all. The weeds kept growing. Although bees don’t mind about weeds and mess, I decided to be a good prospective landlord and ‘refresh’ the accommodation on offer. It took two days to root the weeds out. The long grass around the hives was strimmed. When I opened the hives to check for visitors, the honey smell of old comb was as delicious as ever. Bees have a terrific sense of smell, so I wafted some frames of comb around in the breeze, despite the voice in my head calling ‘cuckoo, cuckoo’.

But what do you know? A few days later, there were bees going in and out of the biggest hive. Then there was a pause. A long, frustrating pause of three days, by which time I was giving up hope. The third evening was hot and dry. I walked out to the hive site, getting midged, as the swallows who’d taken up residence in the eaves went skimming past. There were bees flying too. I walked quicker. At the edge of the hive site I could hear them.

It was a large swarm, filling the air around the biggest hive. Not bothering with a veil, which isn’t a good idea but they seemed peaceful, I crouched close to them and told them about their new home and the members of my family, including a much hoped-for late autumn arrival. Which was as idyllic as can be until they had enough of my blather and chased me off.

A month later there are now three full hives. A second swarm came of its own accord, and (because it seemed silly not to), I picked up a swarm from a friend. What were the odds? What will the future bring us?
A First Kite
05th June 2015 - 0 comments

Rainbow kite!

Strange things remain in the toddler brain. Weeks after the smallest incident, my wife and I will often be regaled by a tale of unsurpassing importance and seconds will tick by until we figure out what our daughter is on about, looking at each other, amazed – ‘she remembered that?!’. I can count my earliest childhood memories on a hand, and they are mostly moments of great delight. A ride downhill on a yellow plastic car, nicking sweets from my father’s study, bags of crabs from Cromer beach, hearing the cock crowing, and (less delightful), waking up at night on the bottom of the stairs after sleepwalking. I often wonder how much of these first years our daughter will remember.

There was a moment today that might stay with her until adulthood. The postman delivered her first kite - in rainbow stripes with blue and red streamers. It was assembled for tea, which was bolted down, then out we went into the evening breeze, the streamers wrapping themselves in the field gate. The Nidderdale sky is always a procession of birds. As we laid out the kite and stepped backwards, unwinding string, gulls and jackdaws criss-crossed overhead. High up, a peregrine – a bird I never believe I’ve really seen – but there it was, a silhouette with motionless wings, journeying northwards.

Birds have been the feature of the week. I’m starting work on a garden design for a couple who want the new garden to be a mecca for wildlife, and particularly birds. As I began surveying, a song thrush decided to put on a ‘greatest hits’ performance from the top of a nearby fir tree. That’s the thing about song thrushes – it’s all such a drama. Give me a blackbird, a wren, or even a cockerel any day.

Anyhow, the garden... a narrow, mid-terrace plot, could really do with levelling and starting again. But that’s off the cards, so the brief is to transform it through planting alone, linking it to the fir wood at the eastern end, and the glimpse of a lake to the south. In some ways, these are my favourite sorts of gardens – awkward, beset with constrictions, needing every sort of visual design trickery to see them right. There will be plants spilling over straight paths, fruit trees redirecting the line of sight from a scratty maple towards the lake, a feature wall of bumble and bug hotels and some simple, recessed lighting for the terrace and out, into the garden, behind shrubs. I will post some pics when it’s done.

For the first few times our kite flying was rubbish. The rainbow kite went up four feet, veered into a wall. Ten feet, spun to earth. We ran down the field, rainbow bumping behind, refusing to fly. We ran down a steep slope. My daughter chucked it in the air. It crashed. I chucked it further. It crashed. My daughter asked about the fairy kite she had wanted and I was starting to feel guilty. I can’t now remember how we did it right. Did the wind change? Did we let out more string? Suddenly the rainbow kite was heading straight up, tugging hard. At full extension, it was 20m into the sky and easy as anything to direct. We kept at our flying for ages.

In the fragments of memories that is childhood, I hope, when my daughter is grown up, this evening will be one memory that remains.
Custard Creams and Goodwill - A NiddFest Update
02nd June 2015 - 0 comments

Some of the authors featured at this year's NiddFest Festival

NiddFest team meetings are the hub of democracy. We gather in a sparse room with tea and coffee, go through the planning schedule, discuss where we are at in our respective roles, debate important matters such as what biscuits to give authors at their events, and generally boss each other about until we are all happy and it’s time to collect children from school.

In my role at NiddFest, much of my time is spent managing the authors and author events. This means dealing with publishers, press and pr, not to mention those brave souls who set out to spend months of their lives writing a book which is almost always for love of writing and, given the precarious world of publishing, not for any sensible reason like paying the mortgage, or paying for anything much. The most rewarding aspect of this role is that I get to experience feedback from all of these people, and hear their enthusiasm for our festival.

Over these past months, I have been consistently cheered by the goodwill directed towards NiddFest from authors, agents, publishers, press and other festival directors. Perhaps it’s because we are a new festival, or because of our unique focus on nature (which seems to go down well), or maybe just because they all fell out of bed the right way the day we spoke. Whatever it is, NiddFest seems to attract support unlike any other project I’ve been involved in.

We’ve been getting brilliant responses to q+a interviews from our authors (which will be appearing here shortly) – talking about their lives and how nature is part of their writing. Somehow, the word has gone out among agents and publishers, and we are being offered wonderful authors to appear in next year’s festival. Last week I visited the lovely Rachel Feldberg, director of the Ilkley Literary Festival, who gave up her morning to give a masterclass in festival management. And, out of nowhere, we are starting to get interest from national press. A piece in the Daily Mail listing NiddFest in their top four picks of summer literary festivals, and a forthcoming feature in a big magazine.

But back to the important stuff – biscuits. At Ilkley, Rachel said they go with custard creams. NiddFest, I’m happy to announce, has just received an email from Taylors of Harrogate. I’m afraid we don’t fund events, they wrote, but perhaps we could provide author goody bags? How many authors are coming? Yorkshire goodwill. The best.
18th March 2015 - 0 comments

Male blackbird, image from here

For all the coldness that still hangs around the dale, my daughter has recognised that the clock of all seasons has chimed Spring. Which means that tea is demanded outside on the terrace and the morning charge along the corridor to our bedroom is getting earlier and earlier. We've talked about getting chickens. I was against this because chickens bring rats, the dog and cats are bound to try and eat the chickens and the rooster will wake us up at some stupid hour. Rats and death aside, I'm thinking that we might as well get on with it. The rooster has nothing on our daughter, and besides going to see them in the morning will make a change from CBeebies.

Every spring in the dale, one thing in particular seems to shine about all others. Last year it was the blackthorns, in 2013 it was cuckoos up the hill, and in 2012 the lesser celandines were casting their sunshine in the new grass. This year there seem to be more blackbirds than ever before. On rooftops, aerials, hopping along stone walls, swooping singly and in pairs. There is a charm to them, which I've come to appreciate. As I was walking down the lane, in a downpour, a blackbird flew out from the shelter of ivy, landing on the wall. Immediately it ducked down, shoulders hunched against the rain, grumpy as a teenager, before fleeing to shelter.

Robins are thought of as the gardener's bird, maybe because of Dickon and his robin in 'The Secret Garden'. Start turning over the soil and the redbreast appears, as close as it dares, after worms. The blackbird is also there, but further back. Less brash, less desperate. In my book, Snow Summer, there is a farmer of sorts called Thwaite who has birds for company. In a first draft I tried to give him robins and it always felt wrong. When I suggested blackbirds, everything came alive.

And if blackbirds are your favourite, you can vote them as Britain's national bird in a new poll. I'd been meaning to write a blog about them, and this week there was a chap on the radio, championing their cause. I was on my way to take our daughter to nursery at the time. She and I had been up for hours, but the morning was all soft light and mist, too pleasant to be tired. Driving down the lane three blackbirds appeared, the last on a roof, singing in springtime.
On The Change
03rd February 2015 - 0 comments

There's a fierce moon tonight. A day off full, bearing down on the dale, casting a rainbow halo on the clouds moving across it. Our animals are restless; the dog wanting to be out into the freezing cold. Our daughter stirs, wakes and settles, stirs again.

When we lived by the sea in Greece, everything changed at the time of the full moon. Whether the coming of the hot month of May, September’s rains, or winter’s storms. The moon cast its spell and thereafter the island was different.

NiddFest is taking shape. The line-up is pretty much there. Talks, outside events, music and happenings over a weekend in July. Speakers include Carol Ann Duffy, Mark Cocker, Evie Wyld, Melissa Harrison, Piers Torday, Valentine Warner, Dave Goulson and others whose work is all influenced by the natural world.

Over the weekend, when I was adding my tuppence ha’penny to a grant form (one of many!), I was trying to get across the unique nature of NiddFest, both now and in the future. In truth, I have no idea what this festival celebrating nature in writing will become in a few years time.

Just like writing a book, or designing a garden, there is a point where all the plotting and drawing fades away and the thing suddenly breathes. It’s starting to happen with NiddFest. The festival is taking on its own identity, with its own set of principles and idiosyncrasies.

The moon's beams are coming through a skylight. I build up the stove. Everything is very quiet, very idyllic, and on the change.
26th Night
20th January 2015 - 0 comments

Two weeks late, the Christmas tree left our house last night, shedding needles everywhere as it was carried out into snow and a clouded moon. Baubles, fairy lights and all the other festive bits and pieces have been packed away. A lamp stands where the tree had been.

It had been cheery right up until the last few days, when it faded fast. A 6ft Siberian Spruce, bushy and silver-green. Every bauble on it had been a present to my daughter for a good night's sleep. After two and a half years of, well, challenging nights, the combination of lactose-free milk and promise of baubles had transformed our lives. Some mornings, we now had to wake her up.

There had been a peacock bauble, a Christmas pudding bauble, silver, green and purple ones, a cutesy festive scene behind clear glass, and, priced like an 8.30am lie-in, a brown and glittery gold squirrel bauble from Betty's.

Old tradition has it that people brought trees and other greenery into their houses over Christmas to give a warm respite to the tree spirits who guarded them. Bad luck comes when you keep the spirits inside for too long, stopping them getting to work on bringing about spring. But twelfth night, the supposed day to take out the tree, is just a muddle of religion and tradition. So I left the tree until 26th night, when its course was done and no self-respecting spirit would want to call it home.

Perhaps this will bring us a fortnight's good luck in 2015? A bumper vegetable harvest? Enough fruit on the elder to experiment with home brew? I'd settle for fourteen lie-ins, preferably on the weekend.
Stolen Time
29th December 2014 - 0 comments
A blog I wrote for NiddFest

Stolen Time
28th November 2014 - 0 comments
It’s the hinterland before winter comes, when sunshine isn’t Nidderdale’s friend, serving only to illuminate the yellowing and the fading. Mist is good, as is rain. They give character to an otherwise dull scene. Rain most of all; glistening and dripping.

At Newby the gardeners are hoping for wind. The soil is too clarty to work; frustrating when there are new borders to plant up. I spent Wednesday hacking back cornus. It was a day that probably should have been spent working on a garden design, but after staring for hours at a drawing board the night before I’d lost all sense that these lines and swirls were a garden at all. Better to be in the company of friends, fresh air and living plants.

In so many of these blog posts, I find myself writing about Newby. Much of the time, the work isn’t very glamorous. When I take friends on a tour and they ask which bits I’ve done, I might point at a stretch of path and say ‘that had a load of this or that’ weed or creeping shrub at the edges, which I spent a day rooting up. And they’d stare at the nothingtobeseen and make appreciative noises. But there is nothing like working outdoors, in the company of friends. Even now, in this strange nothingness between autumn and winter.
Bees At Night!
07th September 2014 - 1 comment

Image from the cover of the documentary film Vanishing Of The Bees

“Beekeeping. Wonderful! You must write a book about it,” insisted a literary friend, a few years ago, adding: “But you must have an angle, something fresh.” I blathered on about flowers and seasons and the fact that I knew almost nothing about bees. This all fell on deaf ears. “Why not...” an intake of breath, “...bees at night!”

“Bees at night? Bees don’t do much at night. I think they just hang out in their hive.”


“Well, you know what I mean.”

We never spoke about the bee book again.

At home, life has taken a turn for the nocturnal. I am trying to get my own queen bee – a strong-willed two-year-old – to sleep through the night. After ten days of the gentlest of sleep training, the tide of battle is turning in my favour. But there are still the 5am wakeups, with the prosecution arguing that ‘light IS on in sky’. The defence rides it out, trying to convince toddler to go back to sleep, and it almost happened last time but then the wretched birds started singing and I was done for. These have been lovely, autumn mornings, the season rushing ahead of itself in this year of early spring and summer. Berries turn a crisp red against the greens of the dale. At any other time I’d have been happy to see the first light on them.

My three hives, which started the year so strongly, have been decimated. Inexplicably, all three queens were lost over the summer. I was away for three weeks and when I came back, two hives were empty and the last (the largest and most industrious) had a dwindling number of bees and no queen. It was a grim moment, going through the empty hives and finding nothing but a few foraging wasps, taking the last scraps of honey from the combs. Not that there was much to take. Strangely, despite the longest and warmest spring and summer, little stores had been built up.

Don, my fellow beekeeper, and I knew that the only chance for the surviving hive was a new, mated queen. I ordered one and she arrived in the post, and was quickly installed. Two weeks on and she should have been laying brood. Instead, she was hanging around at the bottom of the hive with a handful of bees. Guessing that numbers were too low to allow for rearing of new bees (which therefore curtailed her laying), we put out an emergency call to other beekeepers and thankfully found a small hive that we could unite with our own bees. I had to go away for a few days, so Don kindly picked up the bees. When I returned, the two hives were ready to be united.

We met at the hive site as the sun had just set. Uniting two hives isn’t very complicated. You put one hive on top of the other, with a few layers of newspaper in between. In the few days it takes for the bees to chew threw the newspaper, the idea is that they will have got used to each other and will essentially become one group. We worked quickly, laying the newspaper (Yorkshire Post, appropriately) over the old hive and placing the box containing the new hive on top of it. Tawny owls were calling from trees up the hill. Disgruntled bees flew around us, angry missiles of dusk and darkness.

And there it was - bees at night! Not a book. Barely a blog. As fleeting as a whisper, just before 5am, that this would be the night of uninterrupted sleep. As fleeting as that moment in late spring when all three hives were bursting with the promise of life. Now, once again as the cold seasons enter the dale, I have to watch, and wait, and hope.
When The Poet Laureate Came to Pateley
05th August 2014 - 0 comments

Classy outdoor advertising...

Click HERE for a story about the first NiddFest event.
If You Build It... A New Festival For Nidderdale
04th June 2014 - 1 comment
I think I saw him.

For the past five minutes, I’d been pacing the top Wath road just as it sweeps, picture postcard perfect, down towards Gouthwaite Reservoir. There is a copse of pines, trunks bent a little by wind. Amongst them a cuckoo had been calling. I had been on a run – a pre-summer get my lazy bones back into shape. Sweating and wheezy after the long climb up the dale, I was just starting the happy downward return when... ‘cuckoo...cuckoo’. The unmistakeable call of a bird I’d always longed to see. And he was right there, somewhere in one of a handful of trees.

For the past year, Katy Penn of Nidderdale Plus, Iain Mann of the Nidderdale AONB and I have been planning a literary festival. The idea is a simple one. There are lots of literary festivals in the UK, but no annual festival which focus just on nature writing. And we think there should be. And so ‘NiddFest’ was born. It will be a weekend summer festival, with talks and events for adults and children, set in Upper Nidderdale.

There’ll be lots of fun stuff like butterfly safaris, wild swimming and maybe some bird watching from a hot air balloon. Already we have sounded out some of the UK’s leading writers and they are keen to come. We’ll open out the festival to garden writing too, and have had a great response from well known writers and presenters.

But 2015 is a long way off and we thought it’d be fun to have a taster event. So, with the support of Harrogate Borough Council, Knaresborough Lions and other local bodies, we have arranged for the UK’s leading poet, Carol Ann Duffy to come to Nidderdale on July 19 to put on a performance of her classic fairy tale – the Princess’ Blankets. Accompanied by John Sampson, this will be a lovely event for all the family. To mark this event, we have set up a poetry competition, for children in the HG postcode. Winners will be given their prizes by Carol Ann Duffy, after her performance.

If you build it, they will come. So that is what has been happening. Little by little, NiddFest is starting to become a reality. It had been on my mind all the time I had run up to the top Wath Road.
Of course, the minute I stopped, the cuckoo fell silent. Now there was only the descending song of chaffinches. They flew among the branches. Another, larger shape came past them and as I turned, it was already over the road and away towards the reservoir. From behind, this bird had the shape of a kestrel and the looping flight of a thrush.

I think it was a cuckoo. I’m not 100% sure. I wish I’d seen it straight on and looked into its yellow-ringed eye. Until then, like the opening day of NiddFest 2015, it is still something a little magical and far away.

But we are building it. And, with a fair wind, they will come.
Blackthorn Spring
08th May 2014 - 0 comments

The blackthorns have gone over. For what seemed like an age they had cast their spell on the hedgerows. Black stems. Starry blossom. Every year, a different plant in the dale shines above all others. 2013 it was the dandelions. 2012, when our daughter was born, hawthorns stole the show. Will it be blackthorns in 2014?

A few weeks back, the blackthorn by the hive site was alive with bees. Now they have abandoned it, heading down into Pateley Bridge for the fruit trees there. To and fro they come, rushing up and down the field when I go out to visit them.

On Sunday, Don (a veteran beekeeper) and I did a spring inspection, checking the health and size of the three hives. They are all well, I'm glad to say. The largest hive barely minded their hive being taken apart. The smallest did all they could to sting us. I was glad to be with Don. Left to my own devices I might have been slow and clumsy. Instead we worked at a steady pace, leaving just as rain began to fall.

Last year, with three new colonies, it was easy. All I had to do was keep them fed, watch for disease and tuck them in for winter. Now the real business of beekeeping begins. Things will go wrong. I will make mistakes. Hives will swarm. There may be unexpected losses, or pests, a glut of honey or none at all. Keeping bees is as unpredictable as the plants of the dale. And these little creatures are as wild as nature herself. This is the joy of living here, with them.
Our Cat Is Missing
01st May 2014 - 1 comment

Have you seen this cat?

Tank - our fluffy, affectionate, greedy and freakishly clever little black cat has been gone these past three nights, and we're starting to get worried.

He went off at the start of the week, into the warm weather that made us open the windows at night for the first time this year. He's been away for a few nights before, often at this time of year when the fields are full of baby bunnies.

Yesterday we began looking for him, on foot and driving around Pateley Bridge, windows open, all of us (including our two-year-old) calling his name. The only consolation was that it was still warm and dry. Most likely he was holed up somewhere, sleeping off a huge meal.

But then last night the rains came. Our other cat, Spartacus, came flying inside. We waited, hoping to hear the cat flap bang and hear Tank's usual noisy meows. He didn't show. Awen refused to have her bath and sat on the landing, calling for him.

This morning I've been out in the mist and drizzle, calling in the woods and fields around the house. Nelly, blessed with one of the best noses in the dog kingdom, came too, but didn't understand what was required of her. Spartacus was better. He ran along the walls, mewing.

There is still no sight or sound of Tank. In the past, he's headed down the hill towards Pateley Bridge, so we guess he may be somewhere in the village. He has a habit of slipping his collar. The collar he is wearing has Spartacus's tag on it and two phone numbers. The landline number won't work - our line is defunct. But the mobile number works. If you do see him, please call me. Thank you.
Golden Girl!
27th April 2014 - 0 comments

The Harrogate Spring Water 'Secret Garden'. More images here.

After ten days of hard building, planting and a fair few dark moments of the soul... the Harrogate Spring Water 'Secret Garden' finally came to life and she won us a gold medal at the Harrogate Spring Flower Show.

All the team at the Northern School of Garden Design and I are delighted not just by the garden and the gold medal, but also by the whole learning journey of building a first professional show garden. A rather technical design, involving hard landscaping, water, intricate walling and the logistics of bringing some rather valuable sculptures from across the country; this was a baptism of fire for us all.

By the final day of the build, just as one can feel at the end of a house renovation, it was hard to see the garden clearly. Then the rain came and the plants bedded into their temporary home. And on the opening day of the show, bathed in sunshine, it was all suddenly worth it. The gold medal was nice but in a way it didn't really matter.

Months of planning and imagining were suddenly real, and the result exceeded our expectations. None of us had guessed how lovely the David Harber 'Quill' sculpture would look in the secret corner of the garden, its golden centre gleaming all the way down the rill, or imagined how the afternoon shadows would give energy to rusted steel blades.

This was a garden which had its origins in the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel, 'The Secret Garden', a story set in Yorkshire. And at its heart was the idea of creating a hidden space, just like the namesake garden into which the 'disagreable' Mary Lennox stumbled and which changed her life.

In a few days our garden will be dismantled. Such is the sadness of show gardens. But what a treat to have seen it made real, and a final thanks to all of the people and sponsors (in particular Harrogate Spring Water) who gave their time and money to this project.

“At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done - then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.” [Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden, 1910].