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Blind Date
13th April 2014 - 0 comments

Still just a picture on a screen - The Harrogate Spring Water 'Secret Garden'

Back in my single years, living in London, I never was much good at internet dating. A sarcastic sense of humour didn’t seem to translate well online and after one dismal outing I gave the whole thing a miss. Friends had more success. One eager chap – aided by a rigorous selection process and pre-scripted responses – racked up a summer of love, which eventually saw him exhausted, broke and changing his phone number. My brother’s inbox was inundated after his eloquent cupid’s dart. ‘I’m looking for someone to cook for and go for walks with my dog’, he wrote.

For the last six months my fellow Northern School of Garden Design students and I have been readying ourselves for a horticultural blind date. The object of our desires has been a garden for the Harrogate Spring Flower Show. And not just any garden. We’re hoping it will be a gold medal-winning, crowd-pleasing, second, third date, mini-break, meet the parents kind-of-garden.

It all started in a competition amongst us to come up with a concept, then passed through drawings, computer models, planting plans, an amusing quiz to see which of us would lead the group, and then an all-out campaign to bring in sponsors to help make our designs a possibility. But in all this time, the garden has lived only in our imagination. Tomorrow, The Harrogate Spring Water ‘Secret Garden’, will start to become real.

At 9am (well, 10am in my case, so I can drop my daughter at the childminder), we’ll be gathering at the Great Yorkshire Showground for the first day of a ten day build. The boot is already loaded with shovel, spade, barrow and a traybake of epic proportions to keep the troops shovelling.

Over the coming days, we’ll see the garden take form. Stone pillars and weathered steel blades will rise up around us. Trees will be placed and hedges sculpted. A rill will be built, with sculptures placed at each end. Highlighted with burnt oranges, there will be a planting palette of green, white and blue.

At lunchtime on the 23rd, in time for judging, the final snips and panic touch-ups will be done. Finally we’ll get to meet our blind date, and our date will get to meet us – probably dishevelled, nervous as hell and knackered – but hopefully with smiles on our faces.
Demanding Client!
19th March 2014 - 0 comments

Magnolia sargentiana

It's blowing a gale tonight. The orange lights of Pateley Bridge are winking away behind the billowing rose hedge. Inside, the stove is whistling and burning at a silly rate, however much I try to damp it down.

Today Newby Hall's show-stoppper tree was out in its full glory. Tucked behind the long border, with Acer griseums and Betula jacquemontii for company, there was the steepling Magnolia sargentiana. With its lovely handkerchief petals, it is a tree that I've long wanted to install up at Sparrowhawk Farm. There is an area which I've earmarked for a white garden and this tree would be a perfect centrepiece. One problem - magnolias don't love wind.

Bees do love magnolias. Newby Hall's resident honeybees were clustering inside each of the sargentiana's great flowers. The whole tree was alive with hundreds, if not thousands of them.

By the time I got home, my bees were all in their hives. The wind was already picking up and the warmth of the day was fading. But Megan had been out to see them earlier and they had been pouring down through the fields towards Pateley Bridge, where the best of the forage is to be found.

Somehow I must create a wind-free spot for a Magnolia sargentiana. So it's back to the drawing board for the design of the new garden. Terrible, demanding client!
A New Garden
20th February 2014 - 0 comments

The not-so-humble hawthorn

I'm putting together a garden design for the house, to tie into building work that will be starting fairly soon. A successful design will absorb and distil both the landscape around the house and in the fields beyond, capturing the essence of this slice of Upper Nidderdale. It's rather like trying to create a great story. If I get it right, the garden will feel effortless, like it has always existed. It will merge with the landscape, and yet be unique. This is true for any garden. Even the most boxed-in, tiny city garden can become something special if you let it link to the world beyond its walls.

So, early each morning on pre-breakfast trips to the writing shed, I've been making time to stop and look at different aspects of the dale. On a purely physical note, it is far more lopsided and awkward than I ever realised. The fields running down its steep sides are undulating and carved into irregular wedges by dry stone walls. The trees mostly run in lines west-east. There are far, far more conifers than I'd realised. And, despite its dramatic landscape and the occasional romance of peregrine falcons tracking overhead, to my mind Upper Nidderdale’s magic lies in the everyday and the ordinary.

It is a place of jackdaws and hawthorns, of sheep farming and quarrying. In the local museum, there are stories of quarry workers who would walk five miles morning and evening, up and down dale, to get to work. Today, there is still a working quarry on Greenhow Hill.

How does all this then translate into a garden? With boldness, I hope. If months of pilfering my way through garden design books, designers’ websites, garden profiles and magazines has taught me anything it is that a good garden has a single, bold vision. Mine has evolved out of the landscape and my gut instinct that this should be a garden of ordinary parts, hunkered low against the fierce winds, just like the house itself. It will wrap around the house, before branching off into a walled garden with alternating rows of flowers and vegetables, before leading of a gate across the meadow to the hive site. And it will have as its star the humble hawthorn. Not just one, but lots and lots of hawthorns.

They’re stunted, witchy little folk, but come May they fill the dale with white blossom and brighten winter with scarlet berries. I will ring the house with them, letting some grow unhampered and others clipped back. They will be a terrific source of nectar and pollen for my bees, their berries a good larder for birds. There will be many other features and trees to carry the garden through all of the seasons, but May will be the month to come visit...
My bees have overwintered... so far
12th February 2014 - 0 comments

A beautiful day to be on the wing. There's a ['proud parent'] video of buzzing bees here

All three of my hives are active. On Monday, as upper Nidderdale was washed in sunlight, I went to the hive site and found bees pouring out into the day. It's a far cry from last winter, when I went into my last remaining hive at this time of year and found piles of little bodies.

Now is a dangerous time for bees. At the first whiff of spring, the queens can start laying and the hive breaks hibernation and needs to forage to survive. Starvation is a real danger, which I am doing my best to allay by putting on sugar fondant. So now it's a case of crossing fingers and hoping days of sunshine and unfurling buds and flowers...
A Talent For 2014
12th January 2014 - 0 comments

Not capturing the magic... a snap of widwinter at Newby Hall

I was at Newby Hall midweek, raking off leaves. Bluebell shoots were pushing through. Somehow there was comfrey in flower by a pond. It was a good day to be outside; all sunshine and woodsmoke. A bonfire had been lit close to the hall and only the resident red kites were unhappy about it.

I went down to the river as the afternoon light was starting to cast its magic. From across the riverbank it slanted into a messy tangle of willow and dogwood. At any other time, this isn’t the prettiest spot in the garden. But in the clear winter light, this thicket was pinks and greens and golds. It became a living creature and I was there, just at the right time, to catch it stirring. I love trying to capture nature with words, but for the first time in my life, I longed to be able to paint such a scene.

We spent Xmas with family down South. There was a very po-faced Children’s Carol Service in the local church. And you tell me what’s so socially disastrous if the odd toddler might want to go Beyonce in the aisle? At a Children’s Carol Service... for children! Humbugs!!! Over Xmas lunch I got talking to my cousin about New Year resolutions. She had abandoned the dreaded, self-flagellating resolution in favour of a New Year talent. This year she’d learnt how to do a headstand. She was still undecided on the 2014 talent and asked me what mine might be.

Last September I began training as a garden designer. I’m not sure I’ve previously mentioned that I’m doing a 3-year degree at the Northern School of Garden Design, based at RHS Harlow Carr. After bashing around in my fields and then at Newby Hall, garden design rather crept up on me. It’s a wonderful course, and a tough one. My greatest challenge (aside from not knocking the dumpy level out of sync on every survey) is the drawing. For some reason when I signed up, I hadn’t realised how important drawing would be. Given how much research I’d done, this was not terribly observant of me.

My first in-class drawings were scrunched and chucked in the bin, only to be retrieved by the tutor. We use charcoal mostly, and over the weeks (helped by my artist stepmother), I am starting to enjoy the act of creating a flowing line. When I'm in a writing funk, I'll get out pad and charcoal in my shed and do drawing exercises. Which leads me to the reply I gave my cousin at Xmas lunch. For my new year talent I'd love to be able to draw a decent picture of my daughter and give it to my wife as her 2014 Xmas present.

I'm starting from a talent low point. My current best efforts looks like a spud with mop hair. But you never know. And perhaps in a year's time I'll be running home from Newby Hall to try and capture midwinter's colours with pen and wash. Hello 2014...
Battening Down The Hatches...
27th October 2013 - 1 comment

My new heroes

It’s survivalist time here at Sparrowhawk Farm. Sometime this evening a monster storm is going to pound the UK and I’ve been running around - bringing pots inside, wedging outside furniture against trees and renewing our flood trenches which the sheep had caved in.

The emergency stores (aka the unending supply potatoes in the vegetable patch) have been gathered and washed. A huge basket of spuds is sitting outside the front door, ready to be crammed into the oven and cooked before the power lines go down. And so this is the brave face with which we plan to face the apocalypse - wood burners, candles, wine and spuds.

My poor bees will never have experienced anything like this. I’m hoping the semi-circular hive site wall will take the brunt of the weather. They buzzed around me rattily as I scavenged some huge stones to wedge around the legs of their stands. I’ve done all I can. Their compartments are fixed together with ratchet straps and they have plenty of sugar syrup to be getting on with. I can only hope that they’ll survive the storm in one piece.

I fear too for the sycamore in front of the house. Like almost all of the trees in Nidderdale, it is in full leaf. Will we lose many overnight? Everywhere, jackdaws are doing crazy flybys. While I was digging in the vegetable patch, a pair of sparrowhawks (I don’t ever remember seeing a pair together) made tough, steady progress overhead.

As I write this, the rain has come. The wind is filling its lungs. The whole house is creaking and whining. It’s coming down the chimney and blowing out of the taps. We’re crossing fingers that the power won’t go off until after Homeland.
An Autumn Morning
25th September 2013 - 1 comment

Ash and Oak

Autumn has come. Early this morning, Nelly and I went across the fields, stopping, as we often do, by an oak and an ash. A fug hung over the dale and there was nothing much to see or hear. It was a good time to think things through; in my case a bumpy bit of plot that was crying out for an effortless solution.

I’d stood by these two trees a hundred times but only this morning noticed the little drama playing out between them. The oak was all that you might expect; sturdy and reliable, with a pile of shrugged-off branches around its base. In contrast, the ash was all movement, its trunk twisting away from the oak like Daphne fleeing Apollo. ‘Get off,’ her body says, but higher up the trees had reached across to just brush fingers.

When I lost my bees last winter, I swore not to repeat the experience. And so, from getting my first swarm from a cotoneaster hedge in spring, through to picking up two nucleus hives in mid-summer, I have done my best to help these three colonies. They have been fed sugar syrup on wet weeks, treated for disease and seen their hive site filled with pollinator-friendly plants and a wildflower mix so vulgar in colour that it somehow has an aesthetic appeal.

(I have stopped apologising to visitors about this gaudy brew that takes up half the hive site, clashing with an otherwise restrained palette of blues, purples and whites (see the planting here). Until the orange centrepiece of the site – a Buddleia globosa – gets its growing boots on, the wildflowers liven the place up. On the downside, they don’t seem to turn my honeybees on very much and instead are a Mecca for bumbles and wasps. The honeybees tend to shoot off into the fields for the wild banquet there.)

Of the three colonies, two have built up strongly during spring and summer, filling their brood boxes and getting to work on supers. The other, whose bees have always been skittish, is putting on a late surge. Decisions have to be made with all the hives and uppermost on my mind is whether to leave their open mesh floors on, or put solid bases on the hives. The open mesh allows ventilation and keeps down varroa mites – when the bees shake off these little parasites, they fall through the mesh and can’t get back into the hive. Solid floors are warmer, although they do seem to make the hives sweatier inside, which can lead to disease. Last year Don, who kept bees up the hillside, put his hives on open floors for the first time and they, like my bees (also on open floors), died.

So, the plan this winter is to put two hives (including the weaker colony) on closed floors and leave the strongest hive on open mesh. And then we more or less cross our fingers. That’s the thing about beekeeping – it’s all about best guesses and hope. On the other hand, creating a good environment for bees is a little simpler.

This autumn, the ten acres around the house are in better shape than the year before. Thanks to the ongoing work of the fabulous volunteers of the Nidderdale AONB and Open Country, several hundred new trees are rising in their green protective tubes and a small field is being brought back to life. Bugle and bluebells have appeared out of nowhere and, if we time the grazing right, more wildflowers should return. There is still a huge amount to do – fields of bracken and brambles to knock back, a pond and (perhaps) a small wood to create.

Put this in a glossy mag and it would all look and sound idyllic. In reality, I spend half my time getting things wrong and the other half worrying about the cost of so much work. But it’s an education, for me, and in time, for my daughter. And there are the magical moments, such as seeing trees for the first time on a fuggy autumn morning.
A Face For A Nidderdale Festival?
26th July 2013 - 2 comments

Celebrating the characterful and the commonplace - the humble corvid Photo: Alamy

Walking through waist-high grass to the hive site early this morning, a female kestrel came lazily over, tail fanned. Last night’s rain had washed the sky clear. The kestrel seemed to be having a good time; gliding, dipping like a woodpecker and gliding again. I was glad to see her. Normally there are kestrels almost permanently around the house. This year there have been hardly any. My guess is that there is less food about for them. Our cats haven’t brought in a single vole or mouse all summer and there’s certainly plenty of competition around at the moment for the kestrels. When she hovered, a red kite appeared, barely a hundred metres away. Five minutes later, running back to the house (I picked up two new hives of bees last week and one of them doesn’t like me very much!), two buzzards were calling over the sycamore wood. Out of the trees, all dense and dappled with the early morning, leapt jackdaws and crows, chasing the buzzards off.

If you could choose a single animal or plant to define Nidderdale what would it be? It’s not an entirely idle question. With the Nidderdale AONB and Nidderdale Plus, I am busy setting up a literary festival. NiddFest will celebrate writing which is influenced by nature – everything from non-fiction books about bees, rivers and hikes through the wild, to adult and children’s fiction where nature holds sway. There’s no big festival in the UK that is dedicated to nature in writing and, to my mind, there should be. The festival will kick off next July in Upper Nidderdale and Megan, our in-house advertising genius, is thinking about how to make our unique festival shine out from the crowds. One of the things we will need is a logo.

There’s lots of clever thinking that goes into choosing a logo, much of which is beyond me. But at some point we go out and ask local people which of Nidderdale’s flora and fauna or natural features truly embody the spirit of the dale. Everyone will have their own opinion, and I might as well throw my own top five picks into the mix. To choose them, I resisted the temptation to just plump for my favourites (wrens, betony and the endlessly maligned and under-rated sycamore) and tried to figure out the colours, moods and sounds of Nidderdale - plundering my memory bank of walks in different parts of the dale in different seasons. If I could figure out a palette, so to speak, of the dale, then certain plants and animals might leap out, unexpectedly.

Green, grey and purple were the colours I picked – for the trees and fields, the stone walls and trunks of trees in our long winters, and for the moors. Whatever makes our logo, I feel, must carry the gentle prettiness of our summers here, typified by hay meadows and scattered trees along the Nidd, but also the wildness of the head of the dale. Even on days like this, the tracks beyond Middlesmoor grow bleak. Walking around Scar House and Angram reservoirs as the light fades is an eerie adventure.

Wind has to be part of the mix; the sort of wind that howls down from the head of the dale, sending jackdaws wheeling and coming into our draughty house, whistling through door frames. And, personally, if I had to pick any season that captures the mood of Nidderdale, it would be autumn. If I had to pick a time of day, it would be the early morning.

With all this in mind, here are my choices, in descending order:

5. The Reservoirs – because they are the stand-out feature of Nidderdale and I can’t think of a dale with a feature to match them.

4. Kestrels – because they are always around my house, battling the wind and dressed in the colours of autumn and winter.

3. Hawthorns – the May tree, for its spring showing that fills the dale with white and its red berries in winter. Because it is both a social hedge plant and an independent little tree, wrapped around with folklore.

2. Yorkshire Fog – because this grass carries all the autumn colours of the dale but comes in summer. Because it can be dressed in the morning dew and swayed by winds.

1. Jackdaws and Crows – the steep, narrow sides of Upper Nidderdale mean that jackdaws and crows are always visible, filling it with their calls from dawn to dusk, and in every season - in winter, when the hawfrost turns their nests to crowns in the bare trees, and on a summer morning like this one, rising up from sycamores to bully buzzards. They may not tick all of the boxes I set for myself, and they aren’t my favourite birds, but to my mind they are the beating heart of Nidderdale.

So there is my entirely subjective starter for five. Please comment with picks of your own. I've missed out so much - the waterbirds on the reservoir, lapwings, golden plovers, merlins, grouse, foxgloves, ash trees and heather.

In compiling this list, I'm reminded of the power of the ordinary. Just because something is commonplace, doesn't stop it from being special. Sadly, as the demise of the kestrel and threat to UK's ash trees shows, in the countryside nothing should be taken for granted.
Back In Buzz-ness!
16th June 2013 - 0 comments

Fantastic swarm, terrible pun!

So, my beekeeping year has finally begun with a large swarm that I picked up on Friday evening. It was resting up in a hedge in Boroughbridge, in the garden of a charming Polish family. With their help, and a nuclear-strength mug of coffee, the bees were soon boxed and in the boot of the car. In the fading light, there was no time to politely walk them into the hive, so it was a case of shaking them in and letting the others follow.

All swarms have different personalities and this one is quite different to last year's swarms. Docile they are not! Aside from their rough introduction to their new home, I've been as gentle as possible with them. But at the moment, I wouldn't dare go near them without a veil handy. Still, they are as industrious as they are fiery. Today, when I checked on them, they had already drawn down a lot of comb. I have high hopes for these girls. And it's wonderful to be a beekeeper again.
In The Company Of Butterflies
14th June 2013 - 0 comments

Small pearl-bordered fritillaries at the Marsland Nature Reserve

My daughter has discovered picnics and they are now her first love. Soft play centres, the dog lead (bizarrely, her favourite toy), even the dog are all secondary to the thrill of sunshine, grass and a baby buffet. In the warm month of May, Awen picnicked regularly in the orchard at Newby Hall (not far from the ice cream hut), and at RHS Harlow Carr (also close to a source of ice cream). Once full, our eleven-month-old would head off in a high-speed crawl towards any child she could see. When the sugar rush wore off, she sat by paths, shouting and waving her arms at passers-by.

A fortnight ago, Awen had a change of scenery. Megan had booked on an Arvon Foundation screenwriting course. Completely disorganised, we packed the night before thinking we were going to Dorset. In the morning, looking at the map in the car, we discovered that north Devon was our destination. It was far too lovely a day for a long journey. Pigeons floated overhead. Usually they would settle into trees at the bottom field. Today, for pure pleasure it seemed, they carried on down, over Pateley, over the river.

All that week, while Megan did her course, I entertained Awen. The first mornings were both wet. We went to a great cavern of an amusement park one day, full of older children jumping in the ball pit. When they weren’t just missing Awen’s head, they were dashing out before she could flounder in their direction, leaving her alone and tiny in her multicoloured world. We tried a cold sand pit and then found some happiness on a toy truck and watching the dodgems.

The next day we went to Quince Honey Farm. It’s billed as a fun place to educate children about honey bees and it certainly is. Awen loved watching the bees come and go from the weird and wacky display hives. Last summer, we kept her far away from the beehives on our land. Finally face to face with the objects of my affection, she chattered to them and, with unusual gentleness, tapped the glass with the palm of her hand. She seemed genuinely fascinated by them, as did most of the other children there. I felt sorry for these display bees, whose hives would slide open at the touch of a button – some of the hives were being made to open and shut constantly. But the occupants, it seemed, were unconcerned, going about their business without a trace of anger.

Thankfully, the wet days passed and it was picnic weather again. Down Devon’s narrow lanes we went, visiting gardens such as RHS Rosemoor and further afield to the Garden House. Megan bunked off a day and we all drove to the wonderful Lost Gardens of Heligan. And for all their beauty and expertise, were they any more special than Devon’s steepling hedges, rising up on either side of the road in greens, blues, pinks and white? I’d swap the stone walls of Yorkshire for Devon’s hedges in a heartbeat. Awen, a garden aficionado of impeccable taste, was happiest at Heligan. At one point she sat a little way apart from us, excitedly conducting the afternoon with a leaf. But her favourite picnic, and mine, came in a little nature reserve on the north coast.

Here, the lush, low world of Devon opens up to meet the rolling Cornish hills. There is an energy to this place, whether it is from the sea and the sea’s light, or the hills themselves. I was reminded of the words of a great Yorkshirewoman, who adopted Cornwall as her home. ‘I the sculptor, am the landscape,’ Barbara Hepworth wrote, ‘I am the form and I am the hollow, the thrust and the contour’. Turning off the road, we plunged down wiggly lanes again, until we reached a ranger’s hut by a river which marked the entrance to the Marsland Nature Reserve.

This is one of England’s finest sites for regular and small pearl-bordered fritillary butterflies and, right now, I hoped they would be in flight. After a chat with the ranger, Awen and I set off in search of them, passing along the river into a wood studded with bugle flowers, where the ranger said we would most likely see these rare butterflies. As Awen waved her arms and kicked, keen to be put down, I searched among the trees, but found nothing. Disappointed, I walked uphill. We left the wood, passing through scrub and then climbing a stile into a field.

Sunlight beat down. The land had opened up into a small valley. There were no houses, no people, and... flitting all over the field, scores of small orange and speckled butterflies. We found a patch of grass and after I laid out Awen’s picnic, I trundled around, trying to take pictures of the pearl-bordered fritillaries on my phone. Before long, I had a visitor. Thinking this was a very funny game, Awen was crawling after me, a bit of muesli bar and cheese squelched in one hand and her favourite dog lead in the other. I gave up and let myself be used as a table and climbing frame. Nobody else appeared. It was just the two of us in this most perfect place, in the company of butterflies.
Some Lovely News - This Blog Wins The Ian McMillan Nature Writing Award
23rd May 2013 - 0 comments
A few months ago, Megan entered this blog in the new Ian McMillan award, which was focused on highlighting nature writing in Yorkshire. Happily, the blog won and Megan and I had a fabulous lunch on Sunday at the Dalesman awards at Broughton Hall. There's a comically awful pic of me collecting the glass trophy from Ian McMillan - you've never seen two more miserable-looking people!
A big thanks to Ian for picking me (he's hopefully happier than his photo might suggest!) and to the Dalesman Magazine for organising such a fabulous event. It's a real treat to win something like this.
Twenty Minutes
18th May 2013 - 0 comments

Red-tailed bumblebee and dandelion (c) George Pilkington

‘Life. What's it all about?’

This thought was preceded by ‘why don’t I have a proper job?’ and followed by ‘I need to pee’. I’d tasked myself with staring at a gap in the wall beside the woodshed for twenty minutes. A little over a third of the way through, my brain had stumbled, Bill and Ted-style, onto the great mystery. Beside the house, a lamb had just been coughing like crazy, which must have brought on some guilt about my wobble from the vegetarian path. Leaving a shady, and uncomfortable, step in front of the wall, I walked backwards, not taking my eyes off the gap, until I reached the garden fence. Here was the afternoon sunshine and a faint wind off the moor. Bird song was coming from amongst the rowans, firs and gorse. Chaffinches, blue tits, a robin and a garden warbler I could recognise. The warbler was closest by, singing beautifully, but I wished that it would shut up. Ears, as well as eyes were needed for this task.

A field away, the hive site is more-or-less ready. Tiny, promising shoots are appearing beside the hedge, where I scattered a wildflower annual mix. I’m most of the way in planting up the central bed (see the plants here), inspired by books like Howes and Kirk's Plants for Bees and from wandering and watching in the gardens of Newby Hall – a veritable bee Mecca. Under the hive site wall, snowdrops and forget-me-nots have been scavenged and put next to two skimmia japonica, viburnum carlesii aurora, ribes sanguinium koja and a tree mallow of unknown definition. In amongst all this sit my two empty Warre’s, washed and prepped with some of their former inhabitants’ comb – a pair of likely lads, hoping for a date.

But everything is a good month behind this year. In my part of Nidderdale, oak and ash are still not in leaf. The honey bees aren’t swarming. Sue, who organises swarm catching in the area, hasn’t had a single call so far. This time last year, the dale was filled with the whites of hawthorn blossom, cow parsley and stitchwort. Right now, yellow dominates. In gardens, on roadsides and all across Harrogate’s Stray, daffodils are handing the mantle on to dandelions – dandelions, the number of which I’ve never seen, or at least noticed, before. You don’t think much of them as individuals, creeping out from under paving stones and sullying borders, but dandelions, en-masse, are stunning. They have a good purpose, too, being one of the best springtime sources of nectar and pollen.

As I have no honey bees to play with, I’ve been stalking the other varieties of bees on our land. Solitary bees are fairly easy to follow. They tend to dawdle and often appear on the window of my writing shed. Not that I’m very good at identifying them. There are over 200 solitary bee species in the UK and at the moment everything, to my mind, is a tawny mining bee, or perhaps a red mason bee. I found what must have been a mining bee burrowing into the lawn. Out of a hole in the hive site popped a solitary wasp. But it’s the bumblebees that I’m pursuing most actively, thanks in no small part to Dave Goulson’s wonderful A Sting in the Tale.

In short chapters (there’s a lot to be said for short chapters in nature books), Goulson (founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust) elegantly and amusingly tells the story of the bumblebee and the challenges that she faces in the green deserts of our countryside. In one passage, he recounts a UK-wide survey, in which people were asked to sit and stare at a patch of their garden for twenty minutes, in an attempt to spot a bumblebee nest. Earlier in the week, during the cold weather of the Ice Saints, I was bringing in wood and noticed a bumblebee going into a hole in the wall by the woodshed. It was so quick I wasn’t sure if I’d imagined it. But, liking the idea of bumblebees nesting in the fabric of our home, a few days later I was out in the back garden, staring at a wall.

Life passed noisily at the peripheries: lambs in the next field, garden birds, a buzzard over the dale. After eight minutes, disappointed in itself, my brain packed in. Now it was just man and wall, sunshine and a fresh wind. I relaxed, enjoying the afternoon. Time picked up its pace. I knew this because church bells rang the hour. Something buzzed at my feet. A solitary bee had landed on a dandelion. As I bent to look at it, there was a louder buzzing and quickly across the garden came a red-tailed bumblebee. Without breaking pace it hurtled into the hole by the woodshed. And there it was - we have bumblebees in our house.

I checked my phone. My twenty minutes were up. Walking back into the house, the little show began. A carder bumblebee was on another dandelion. Too fast to tell what it was, a bumblebee with a white bottom shot over the roof. These past two years I have been myopic, concentrating too much on my honeybees. Silly me.
Nightjar
07th May 2013 - 0 comments

Our wedding tent, nearly four years ago...

On a balmy weekend at the end of last February, I travelled to a village on the edge of the Ashdown Forest, for a beekeeping course. Months early, like a creature disturbed from hibernation, summer had leapt out all over England and, briefly, everything in my life was perfect. Earlier in the week, my wife and I had worried our way through a twenty week scan and been told that our daughter was doing well. Almost at the same time, I had secured a literary agent for my book and the dream of being published had finally become a possibility.

That night, I crept out of my B+B, setting off down narrow roads, not wanting to stop until I had walked my over-excited mind to sleep. Something of the true time of year had returned in the night’s cold. Each breath tasted of winter. A slip of a moon was lost among stars. The village fell away, replaced by hedgerows that were broken by ash, holly and gateways onto dark fields. One summer night, aged sixteen, I had lain out in a field like these, imagining my future. How would he have rated me now? Seven out of ten? Seven and a half? Was it cheating to give myself extra points on the promise of good times ahead? And then it began; a call unlike any I’d ever heard. A noisy, repetitious churr, coming from somewhere down the road. I edged towards the sound, straining up into trees, praying for a glimpse of a bird I’d longed to see all my life. For I was certain that this call could only mean one thing. A nightjar. I made the mistake of shining a torch. Abruptly, there was silence.

Home is my grandparent’s old farmhouse in the Yorkshire Dales. There’s a few acres of land up the hill behind the house and a few more below it. Un-grazed for years, brambles and gorse have pushed out from the edges and into the fields. Walls have tumbled down. Every so often one of the many underground pipes that criss-cross the land collapses, bubbling up streams after a downpour. Outbuildings get flooded. I’ve become an accidental ditcher, making a mess of the hillside. My wife, Megan, and I moved up here from London three years ago. The countryside is still a new language to us. But, thankfully, we have tutors. They first appeared three summers ago, on our wedding day.

The reception was in a marquee set up outside a pub. Fifty yards away, across a meadow grown long with wildflowers, the river flowed under alders. Inside the tent, we had put on our own wildflower display. On each table were vases full of rosebay willowherb, foxglove, betony, scabious and wild honeysuckle gathered from our fields. Some time between dinner and the speeches, our striped gatecrashers appeared. Utterly unconcerned by the clamour around them, the bees passed from table to table, clambering amongst our displays. I remember one appearing out of a foxglove bell right in front of me. Away it flew, leaving the pink flower chiming in its wake.

We went off on honeymoon and I forgot about the bees. A year passed. Early one evening, Megan and I set off for the pub where we were married. On the way, as always, we looked over chest-height stone walls, admiring gardens and planning what we would do with the sorry strip behind our house. A few gardening books devoured and Megan knew the name of every flower and bush. I didn’t. I could be introduced to cosmos one day and call it a god-knows-what the next. My terrible memory was a running joke. The winter before, after much study, I had taken Megan on a walk and confidently named the trees we passed. When the dale had returned to life, we had retraced our footsteps. In leaf, a sycamore had become a horse chestnut and (to my shame) an oak was now an ash. This evening, in the pub garden, an identical marquee to ours was being readied. We were reminiscing about our own wedding and how the bees had come in from the fields, when Megan said: “Why don’t you become a beekeeper?” What seemed like a lovely idea over beers in a pub garden, still made sense the next day. The benefit of the unkempt, un-grazed land around our house is that it is good for wildflowers. We had talked about bringing these fields on. What better allies could we ask for in this venture, than bees? I enrolled on a British Beekeeping Association course and started reading about these fascinating creatures. So began a journey that quite possibly has changed my life.

Nothing makes more sense of a landscape than bees. The more books I read about them, the more I started to see the dale through their eyes. Its rolling, sheep-cropped fields, which had once seemed beautiful to me, now became green deserts. To survive, bees need nectar, pollen, still water and sunshine. I couldn’t change the weather for them, but I could at least help them with the rest.

On hot summer days, when the dale sweated through open windows by 9am, I went by foot and on my hands and knees all over the land around my house, making a list of its flowers. Checking every one against a mound of books, and using my own eyes, I began to learn which flowers benefitted which pollinators; how honeybees loved the white clover, rosebay willowherb and betony on my land; bumblebees the bird’s-foot trefoil and foxgloves and how buttercups played host only to solitary bees. The thistles, nettles and bracken were reserved for the butterflies. Past gardening crimes came back to haunt me, such as taking a chainsaw to two mature buddleias – banquets of the pollinator world. I had found them ugly and thought they would be good for burning, but they turned our stove into an asthmatic and were quickly thrown out. Equally bad, I had spent days ripping ivy off of a long stretch of wall, not realising I was destroying possibly the most valuable winter source of nectar and pollen on my land.

Slowly, guided by the bees, the land around my home was opening up to me. Simply being able to name trees was far less interesting than understanding the benefits they afforded the insects and birds. Robust summer nectar and pollen providers such as hawthorn, sycamore and holly I had in plenty, but I was short of pussy willow and hazel; important spring trees for the bees. They would need to be bought and planted. But before then, there was about two acres of gorse and brambles to clear. The local conservation volunteers came to help, coming one day a week to chop, slash and clear their way through an impenetrable field. Sheep followed, thanks to an arrangement with a neighbouring farmer.

In the autumn, Megan fell pregnant with our daughter. I had always promised myself that our child would grow up understanding nature in a way that I never did. From the window of a train in winter, in one fleeting glance she would know trees by their shape. At dawn, from behind closed curtains, she would be able to recognise each individual player in the orchestra of the birds. Some future July, she would lie down in the fields around our house and discover all the funny little faces of a betony flower. There was such a joy in knowing that what I was learning now, I would be able to pass on to her. Already I had made an inventory of the flora on my few acres. Through months of worrying that the baby was doing ok, I read up on the folk tales, myths and histories associated with these wildflowers and trees.

Now the centaur Chiron stamped through our fields, bending to pick the yarrow and knapweed that in legends he used to staunch bloody battle wounds. I knew to watch for swallows when the lesser celandine showed and, when the cuckoo flowers appeared, to listen out for their namesake bird. I would teach our daughter not to risk angering the fairies by picking harebells, foxgloves and hawthorn blooms. And there would have to be some sort of warning about gathering germander speedwell, which washes over our uppermost fields. In one tradition, if a girl picks this pretty blue flower, birds will come down and peck out her eyes. At school, I hated having to learn poems by rote, especially the ‘bent double-gas, gas-cheery-old-card’ First World War stuff. But some of the others, like Ode to a Nightingale and London have stayed with me, always available on playback, enriching my world. Even if our daughter would rather be glued to an episode of Peppa Pig, she’s going to be taken outside to learn the language of the countryside. For her, a wood will never just be a wood, or a field a field. Hopefully, one day, she will thank me for it.

But as my curiosity for the little ecosystem around my house grew, the more I realised that I was only scratching the surface. While I’d made a list of the twenty or so butterflies that frequent the dale, I had no idea about the moths, or the bugs, beetles and any other of its less glamorous inhabitants (not to mention river and bog dwellers!) Despite taking binoculars with me on walks and watching and listening closely, I was still getting mixed up between the call of a wren and a robin. The sea and water birds passing overhead on the way to reservoirs remained a mystery. Several of the trees in the orchard I’d planted died on me for no reason. New growth began appearing in a fifty foot stretch of brambles that had been dug out with fanatical detail. On walks through woods, armed with a tree guide, I was still making idiotic mistakes. And I knew nothing about the mosses and lichen that, before the winter snows come, turn every stone wall and every outbuilding roof silver and green.

Ignorance piled up on my bookshelves. Birthday and Christmas gifts of the beautiful New Naturalist series, kindly sent by a relative, are met with growing apprehension. Whole books on waterfowl, badgers, migration and grouse... grouse?! In a box, I found Edward Step’s ‘Nature Rambles’, four books from 1930 that detail the countryside in each season. Described by their author as ‘little books... a foundation for greater study’, my heart warmed at the prospect of some simple bedtime reading, full of the comfort of what I already knew. A few pages in and I was tossing up between whether my grandparents’ generation were particularly knowledgeable about the natural world, or I was particularly ignorant. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.

Any old beekeeper will say that learning about bees is a lifetime’s work. Their mood and habits change on the tiniest whim. The most skilled beekeeper I ever met, who barely ever bothers with suit and veil, still finds herself diving headlong into a pond to escape an unexpected attack. Her name is Heidi. She was running the beekeeping course on the edge of the Ashdown Forest, which was my destination on that glorious weekend at the end of last February. Nobody said so at the time, but I suspect that all of the other participants were secretly relieved at Heidi’s story.

So I will keep learning about nature, with bees as my tutors, constantly reminding me that I will never really know very much at all. On that starlit walk, along narrow roads, it couldn’t have been a nightjar that I heard. Months later, I read that nightjars are not heard on these shores before mid April. I emailed a ranger at the Ashdown Forest. He suggested that I may have been confused with mating frogs.
Wind!
18th April 2013 - 2 comments

The start of things... new trees around the hive site.

Wind. Lots of wind, and the dale is quaking with the warm breath of the west. Normally sedate birds now career overhead: a pigeon, peregrine-fast; pairs of jackdaws flung up towards the moors. Suddenly Nidderdale is alive again. The landscape has the dull look of winter about it, but the weather is unmistakeably springtime.

We’re on tenterhooks, waiting to see what will happen to the dale. Will all the sleeping flowers and trees leap into life at once, in a chaotic party of March, April and May? Walking from Wath to Gouthwaite reservoir, where roadside daffodils mix with celandines, we bumped into an enthusiastic lady talking (as you do) about her furiously mating peacocks and where she had had just found wood anemones and forget-me-nots.

Spray cascaded over the reservoir wall. Close by a larch and a horse chestnut were waking up; the green silk weaver and the candlestick maker. They are both up and about early, like the newcomers they are. Introduced to the UK in the seventeenth century, they seem to run to a different clock than the native oaks, beech and alders all around them.

At home, wind tears across the field in front of our house. All my life, and probably my grandmother’s life too, when she came here as a child in the 1930s, this field has barely changed. The sycamore that dominates it has grown, other trees have come and gone at the edges, sheep, cows and weather have rearranged a few walls, but these are just the wrinkles of age on a very familiar face. That was until a year ago, when this field got a makeover.

Now, a fifty foot semi-circular wall stands at its eastern end, made complete by a semi-circular hedge. My beehives are kept here; the wall protecting them from the prevailing winds. A new stream runs past the hive site. From the stream, uphill to the boundary wall, several hundred green plastic tubes strain at their stakes. Inside are foot-high goat willow, lime, hawthorn, hazel, cherry, crab apple and alder. Next year, the field will hopefully be sown as a wildflower meadow. I’m doing what I can to help my bees. Every step of the way, I’ve been hugely helped by the generosity of others.

For nearly six months last year, one day a week, the heroic Nidderdale dry stone-walling group worked through often horrible conditions to build the hive site wall, and kept a blog. And this year, the trees (donated by the Friends of the Nidderdale AONB) were planted by the wonderful team from Open Country. I’ve never lived in a place where people care so deeply for their environment. All across Nidderdale, little by little, winter through summer, local volunteers are helping transform the dale for the better. Even if you never see them, be very happy that they are there.

All night the house was battered by wind and rain. Plugholes gurgled strangely. I worried about slates flying off our decrepit roof. Our daughter was wide awake early. The last time there was weather like this she was too tiny to notice. So this is her first proper gale and she wanted to know what was going on. Brown leaves fly past the window. Like a gardener clearing away old growth, the wind is banishing the last traces of winter. Spring is here.
Green-tinted Glasses...
28th March 2013 - 0 comments

Coming into Nidderdale from Swinton Reservoir

The plum tree at the end of my vegetable garden is a mottled grey. A blue tit is clambering over the bird feeder that hangs from a bare branch. It pecks at peanuts, flies off, startled by something, then is back again. I sit in my writing shed, watching this little bit of life in an otherwise overcast and lifeless dale. Snow is everywhere and more snow starts to fall. It’s as if the blueprint of some valley in the Arctic Circle has been carried across the North Sea and laid onto Nidderdale. Easter is just around the corner and there’s nothing of spring on show. Even the air, as I go inside to get coffee, is full of the taste of winter – a coldness that catches the back of the throat.

It’s how quickly the UK’s weather has changed that continues to surprise me. I had always thought of our weather, like our national temperament, as a generally a polite and gentle creature. We are a nation of breezes, steady rain and intermittent sunshine, that combine to create a landscape of endless shades of green. I remember driving to a festival in Wales in late May, giving a lift to an American girl. Once we’d turned onto the smaller roads, she tipped back her chair, put her feet on the dash and trailed an arm out of the window, as if to stroke the hedgerows and catch warmth from the passing trees. ‘I love flying into England,’ she said. ‘You look down and all you see are these green fields. It makes me feel like I’m coming home’.

The festival is a blur to me, but the girl’s love for our island has stuck. When I was a journalist, I lived and travelled abroad a lot, always keeping an eye open for that dream place to live. Greece came closest and for a while after we were married, Megan and I toyed with staying out on Hydra, a magical 20-kilometre strip of rock in the blue Aegean that still fills my imagination. But in the end, it was Nidderdale, the place of my childhood, that revealed itself as our home. It’s the corniest thing – you tramp to every far-flung spot, only to realise that what you were looking for was there all along. In 2010, Megan and I pitched up in my grandmother’s old house, got our spades out and the next summer we were having barbecues at the end of an overflowing vegetable garden.

Having fallen back in love with the UK, and especially Nidderdale, it’s especially sad to realise that my daughter may grow up in a country that that has lost some of its gentleness. Last year saw the driest spring on record, followed by the wettest summer. And now we are coming to the end of the coldest March in 50 years and the promise of an unseasonably chilly April. Experts paint a gloomy picture of how our changing weather is having a dire effect on the UK’s wildlife. Bee and butterfly numbers are drastically down. A week ago, the EU looked to pass a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, widely blamed for bee losses. This ban was scuppered in part by the extraordinary efforts of our short-sighted UK government.

Good Friday is the traditional time to plant potatoes. That’s not going to be happening this year. As with the rest of the garden, we will have to learn to adapt and do what we can in these changing times. And though I’m nostalgic for the UK of my childhood, and though Megan and I have an ongoing debate about where we could go to recreate this gentle world for our daughter, it’s not really a reason to abandon our home in Nidderdale. We’ll just have to be smarter and more mindful of our little patch.
"These Learn"
10th March 2013 - 0 comments

The herbaceous border, Newby Hall (c) Newby Hall

A few weeks back, I got taught how to graft fruit trees by a lovely lady called Hilary from the Northern Fruit Group. It’s a delicate art; whittling a match between two pieces of wood and joining them with delicate, sappy tongues. Reading about grafting and watching hokey videos of it being done on Youtube is no preparation for the real thing. When the experts do it, a graft can be achieved in seconds. A few easy strikes of a Stanley knife, a gentle rock of the blade into the exposed wood to create the tongues and a bandage of tape and some dots of wax. Despite the utmost concentration, I wasn’t very good. “This hasn’t got a clue,” said Hilary, tapping her head. She held up her hands – proper gardener’s hands, forged in the fresh air – saying: “These learn.”

Since October I have been spending one day a week as a volunteer gardener at one of the north’s very best gardens - Newby Hall, near Ripon. Megan and I had visited the gardens many times over the past years and had always been blown away by their beauty. There’s an elegant Robert Adam house (where my godmother once terrorised a tour guide) and giant playground in the old vegetable garden, complete with miniature trains that snake along beside the river Ouse. But it was always the 22 acres of gardens where we spent our time, quickly losing sight and sound of the crowds who (to our mind) were missing the best of Newby. When, towards the end of last summer, I saw a sign advertising for volunteer gardeners, it was one of the easier decisions I’ve ever had to make.

I’d always liked gardening – increasingly so since returning to live in the dale – but I’d never been very skilful at it. In year one at the farm, Megan was the brains of the operation, doing all the germinating and knowing the names of every last scrap in our garden. I was Mellors’ low rent cousin; digging, planting, mulching and burning. While I started to get good on the wildflowers and trees around the house, the garden remained a place of relative mystery. For all the virtues of the betony and clover in the fields to pollinators, bees love nothing more than a good garden. The borage and lavender in our vegetable patch teemed with bees. Wandering around Newby Hall in the summer, it struck me that this was a veritable bee Mecca – the salvia’s of the Autumn Garden and catmint of the double herbaceous borders (to name just a few plants) covered in happy day-trippers.

So for the last five months I’ve been learning the ropes at Newby Hall. Autumn faded fast, taking with it the red skyline of acer palmatum leaves that cheered a tolmiea cull by the rock garden. Long hours have been spent hacking and sometimes almost surgically pruning the famous herbaceous borders that run from the house to the river. And I wouldn’t say that I have any great idea of what I’m doing (and you wouldn’t want to leave me unsupervised for long!) but slowly, slowly, I have started to get a feel for plants and soil.

Yesterday, as snow fell over the dale, I ran out and spent some well overdue time in the back garden. My hands worked on autopilot, precise and fast, impatient to finish their task before the frostnip came. My brain wandered off, lost in a bit of plot I’d been struggling with. Two pheasants attacked the bird feeder. I watched starlings break from sycamores up the hill and put on a show in the whiteness. After an hour, my hands went on strike and I was back in the garden again, staring dumbly at a full wheelbarrow.
Silent Spring
04th March 2013 - 1 comment

My lovely bees, last June, a few hours after they had swarmed

My bees are dead. The yellow 'Sun' hive, which I’d pinned all my hopes and prayers on over the winter hasn’t made it. Just as spring could be tasted in the air and seen first in snowdrops and mustard-yellow crocuses, I went to the hive and looked for signs of life. Opening the viewing windows revealed something I’d dreaded – bees scattered, unmoving, on the comb and a heap of bodies on the hive floor. I took the hive apart. You could see the area in the central combs where the bees had formed their winter ball, clustering close against the cold. But the ball had broken. Bees had wandered onto the other combs and not found their way back to the warmth of others.

It was a heartbreaking sight. This was my first and best colony, caught as a swarm last June. Industrious and gentle, I must have spent hours sitting beside their hive, watching them carry in their leg baskets of pollen. They never stung me and I almost never wore protective clothing around them. Even once when I had to open up the hive to fish out a slug, they allowed the intrusion without bad temper. They crawled up my hands and bare arms, waiting for what seemed like an interminable time before flying away.

As there were still plenty of stores in the hive and no obvious signs of disease, I could guess that the likely cause of my bees’ demise was the weather and the fact that this was a small colony. But I couldn’t be sure and I needed to be sure. I already feel incredibly guilty about losing these lovely bees. The last thing I want is to collect more swarms this spring/summer and get things wrong again. I needed a proper post mortem, to find out what had happened, so I could take steps to do my utmost to prevent history repeating itself. At the start of the week, I called up my neighbour, Don, an experienced beekeeper, and asked him come and have a look. He said he would come on Saturday morning. I spent the rest of the week hoping that Don wouldn’t point out that I’d made some schoolboy mistake. My friend Mark, a fellow beekeeping novice, texted me pictures of his bees having a ‘blissful’ time on snowdrops. I was happy for his bees, but not for him. I was pissed off, guilt-ridden and jealous.

During the week, three hundred trees arrived – mixture of lime, alder, goat willow, hazel, hawthorn, blackthorn, cherries, crab apple and wild rose. With the exception of alder, these are all fabulous trees for bees; the willow and hazel providing nectar and pollen from the early spring and the others coming into their own through late spring and summer. A hundred of them I bought myself to become a hedge around the hive site. The other two hundred were a very kind and generous donation from the Friends of the Nidderdale AONB. They will join a further seventy rowan, cherry and birch trees given to me by a volunteer gardener at Newby Hall in the field surrounding the hive site.

Saturday morning was all blue sky and fresh breezes. Not having planted a country hedge before, I asked Dave from Nidd Valley Gardens to come and show me the ropes. There’s no unpleasant outside task when the sun is shining on upper Nidderdale. We dug over the ground, cut strips of ground sheeting (to keep weeds out and moisture in) and marked gaps where the hedging trees would go. I’d almost forgotten about Don’s visit, but suddenly he was walking across the field.

For the next half hour, we took apart the hive, inspected comb and sifted through bees. In the end, Don came to the conclusion that it was the small size of the colony, coupled to the weather that had killed my bees. The weather was probably the primary culprit – not just the wet summer that had prevented bees going out to forage, but a changeable winter of mild then cold days, which would have encouraged too much activity in the hive. In winter, a bee colony ideally remains in a ball, preserving energy. Every time that ball breaks and reforms, the colony weakens. Don had lost both his hives over the winter. We would both be starting the beekeeping year on the lookout for swarms. It was all rather gloomy, but at least there was something positive to come out of this. With the land his bees were on going up for sale, Don would bring his bees down onto my land. Last year, even when the heather was flowering, his bees would head downhill towards my fields. At a guess, they may have been after the betony and willowherb. At least it shows that there is good forage here. And from my point of view, being able to work this year with an experienced beekeeper can only be a good thing.

Even if the weather was mostly to blame, I know I got things wrong. I waited too long to get swarms last year, so the colony didn’t have enough time to build up strength. Had I discovered that the blue ‘Button Moon’ hive wasn’t queenright earlier, I could have combined it with the Sun hive at the onset of winter. And possibly the Warre hives didn’t help under these circumstances. The bees would have had to use up a lot of energy building comb. So, this year, I will try a couple of conventional hives alongside the Warres and I will do my utmost to get hold of bees as early as possible. The other thing I can do for them is to fill the hive site with bee-friendly plants, to help them build up stores with the maximum speed and minimum effort.

So, when Don left, I started digging out a very large circular bed in the centre of the hive site. Buddleia Globosa - an all-time bee favourite – will go in the heart of the bed and around it will be lavender, catmint, borage, to name a few. My local garden centre has a terrific offer on winter-flowering cherries (Prunus x subhirtella 'Autumnalis'), so I will splash out and add three of them to the hive site. The day passed, the sun drifting over Greenhow Hill and towards Gouthwaite Reservoir. Dave left to go to the butchers and I put the last spirals around the hedging trees and bashed in their cane supports. From the shadows, the Sun Hive watched me. Those gentle, lovely bees. They deserved better than what I gave them. It’s the start of a new beekeeping year. I will do my very best not to fail again.
Spring Fall
17th February 2013 - 1 comment

Gorse, or 'love in all seasons' in the Language of Flowers

Snow on the 13th put paid to romantic intentions ahead of Valentine’s Day. Sideways along the dale it came – a gusty white drizzle, forming little drifts around my writing shed. Inside I plotted out a new novel, imagining the Nathalie Merchant track I was listening to one day playing in the film version of my first book. As my heroine stood in the wreck of her home in the Alps, abandoned by her sweetheart, Spring and Fall would well up through the movie house. Natalie Merchant’s uplifting orchestration and Manley Hopkins’ bittersweet tale of a young girl understanding her mortality in the falling, golden leaves are strange bedfellows. I’m not sure if they belong together. But all day in the falling snow I kept coming back to this track. I must have played it twenty times.

I had intended to get Megan and Awen flowers and some silly things. By lunchtime the snow was too deep. Neither of us ventured out. The next day, Valentine's Day, was warm and slushy. Megan found a florist which was over-run with army boys from a nearby base, carting off bunches of roses. Everything was overpriced. A small jasmine in a plastic pot was £30, a single hyacinth £6. It wasn’t always so. Only a few centuries past, the meanings of flowers were commonly known. A person then could go into a meadow or garden and have at their disposal a whole vocabulary of love, admiration, lust and hate to send to friend or enemy. We have forgotten the Language of Flowers, a language that was known in Shakespeare’s time and reached its full bloom of popularity in the nineteenth century.

The only word of this language commonly remembered is that a red rose stands for love. How sad to have lost such a rich means of communication, handed over in a colourful bunch – the riches of buttercups, suspicion of mint, malevolence of lobelia, thriftiness of thyme and coquetry of dandelion. At my disposal are clumps of snowdrops around the house and flowering gorse in the fields, its coconut fragrance still strong despite the cold. The former speaks of hope, the latter love in all seasons. Not bad sentiments for this time of year – between winter and spring – when snow still clings to the tops and lies in the shadows of stone walls.

‘Margaret, are you grieving / For Goldengrove unleaving? / Leaves, like the things of man, you, / With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?’ I left the gorse and snowdrops to flower in peace. Later than planned, I bought my ladies red tulips and an orange tree.
Under Murky Skies
22nd January 2013 - 0 comments


Heavy snow has come, swallowing up first shoots, switching the volume of the dale to off. Almost everything is white. Faint trees and telegraph poles give the only clue to the horizon. No sunshine is forecast for a week, just murky days and freezing nights. And for the first time I find myself wishing it all away. After the freak weather of 2012 I can’t help feeling that there is a menace to this snowfall. Yes, it should snow at this time of year, but the silence that nature has hung over the dale makes me uneasy. The climate of this country is changing, arguably for the worse, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

If the latest research from UK institutions The Met Office and the National Oceanography Survey is right, the fast-warming Arctic is going to mean that extreme weather will become increasingly frequent in the UK. In 2012, the UK veered from the driest spring in a century to the wettest summer on record, according to the Centre For Ecology And Hydrology. In the skies above us, the jet stream has started to meander, bringing more unstable, predominantly wet weather in from the Atlantic. And in the oceans, the warming effect of a current known as the North Atlantic Drift, which keeps the UK warmer than it should be, could be at risk of switching off.

Out in the hive site, the yellow ‘sun hive’ has partially disappeared under snow. So long as there is enough air getting to my bees, I’m glad of this layer of insulation. I can only hope that my girls are ok. They are deep in the shadows. When I tried to open a viewing window, the hinges wouldn’t budge. If they survive the winter, what will 2013 hold for them? Even if I fill the land with the best nectar and pollen-producing plants and trees, there’s nothing I can do about the rain, wind and cold, which will stop bees going about their business in the fields. Last year, honey production in the UK was down around 70%. With the value of bees to commercial crops estimated by the UK government at £120-200 million annually, fewer flying bees will inevitably lead to food price hikes.

My bees, nature’s striped foot soldiers, need all the help they can get. With luck governments worldwide will take notice of a recent report from the European Food Safety Authority, which has called for a ban on the world’s most widely used insecticide, saying that it presents an ‘unacceptable’ danger to bees. The fact that the UK government has for years ignored countless reports linking bee colony collapses to neonicitinoid insecticides has been both bizarre and a lousy use of taxpayers' money. Unlike the weather, banning these insecticides is within our control.

And as I write this, against the forecast, the sun is starting to burn through the gloom. Somewhere close by, a wood pigeon has rediscovered its voice. A man from the local rotary club has emailed, offering several hundred trees and help to plant them. My inner child has reawoken. Time to go for a walk and throw snowballs at the dog.
One Hive, And A Long Winter
04th December 2012 - 0 comments


Now winter is here, my worrying starts. My bees are in virtual hibernation, huddled in a ball in the heart of the hive. I have given them extra food, protected the hive against mice and woodpeckers and agonised over every possible home improvement plan. But I can’t summon the sun for them, or stop the cold east wind that blows into the hive site. Yesterday morning a thin snow lay over the dale. It’s scheduled to drop to minus four tonight. I worry about my bees. Even more so because it’s the only hive I have left.

The other ‘Button Moon’ hive didn’t make it through the summer. Their demise was entirely my fault. I was so confident that this swarm, caught in a Ripon garden, had a laying queen, and so reluctant to start nosing around in their hive, that I didn’t spot that something was wrong until too late. A textbook (or so I thought) re-queening didn’t work. And a few weeks later, for the second time this summer, the Button Moon hive lay empty. Not very ‘blissful’. I was too ashamed to write about what had happened.

There is nothing I can do now to help the remaining ‘Sun’ hive. Despite my best efforts to protect them from the winter, they are still a very small colony. It’s probably no more that 50-50 that they will survive until the spring. All I can do it get on with planting up the land, to make it as pollinator-friendly as possible for 2013.

Thanks to a stack of books (which I will list shortly), I've made a list of the best and hardiest trees, bushes and plants for pollinators. Over evenings, with the sitting room stove belting out as much heat as possible, Megan and I try to arrange our botanical jigsaw pieces. There are some basic rules - plant in drifts (as bees will favour clumps of flowers to individual ones); put winter-flowering plants close to the hive (so the bees have less far to travel for nectar and pollen in the cold; and, not least, to stick to our budget.

This washout 2012 was disastrous for the UK's bees. Even if the weather can't make amends in 2013, I can try to. If the Sun Hive makes it through the winter, there will be new trees and bushes ready for them. If it makes it through the winter...