Quicke's Traditional Cheddar
The summer was hot and dry, and the autumn is cooler and wetter – seasons in the right place. That is so reassuring for a farmer – you realize how much we need everything in place. We had the finest harvest of field mushrooms for years, soil warm, good rain. We ate them for almost every meal, even dried them and froze them – I’ll report how that works. The hedgerows are still full of fruit – the sign of a warm summer, not a cold winter, we hope.
I was watching the house martens gathering on the telephone line, chatting away. One came back from the wood, and there was a murmur through them. They all took off in a flock, darting, swooping, scything over the trees, even flying in under the leaves. It looked like the one was a scout, reporting back that the flies were particularly fat, juicy and plentiful in the wood. Too soon they gather on the wire for the last time, and are gone until the spring. The house is suddenly still, quieter, and the insects return, made bold now they are no longer being harvested to feed chicks. It’s an end of summer moment when they go.
The miracle of spring is here in May. The farm had a bleak and wintry look through to the end of April, every bit of our 52 degrees north of latitude – we are as far north as Newfoundland. Buds burst into a blasting cold gale, the grass shrivelled into purple bonsai, all the right shape but dwarfed. The wildlife had a hunted, hungry look. I saw a treecreeper, the shyest of birds, come towards our bird feeders, where normally only the bolder birds come. Now, with sun and balmy warmth, birds are singing loud all day, bumble bees are starting their busy summer. I had no idea how much those simple sounds lift my heart. Oddly enough, the house martins arrived 11 days earlier this year than last year – perhaps they know something we don’t.
The end of our long winter? The bitter sting in the winter’s tail last month makes the sweet weather of April all the more gorgeous. The late spring has the plants seem prescient – primroses, bluebells, blackthorn seemed to hold back their flowering, waiting till after the frost, only to come with a rush when the weather finally warms up. The leaves unfurl, the hedges bloom, the grass speeds up its growth, young rabbits appear, birds take on the busy air of those with many chicks to feed.
We’ve been hearing in the news about how many deer other people have, how much damage they are doing to fields and delicate habitats. I’m glad to hear it’s not just us. I love to see the deer, and you can have too much of a good thing.
February has a reputation for being wet and gloomy. I long for it not be that way, and grasp at the lighter mornings and evenings. The sun does more than scrape itself off the horizon. The morning chorus of songbirds kicked off earlier in the season than I remember. I know it’s birds defending territory, but it is a gorgeous start to the day as first one bird, then others join in till you get a swelling joyful sound.
How many greens can there be? The landscape changes every hour, fields and hedges and trees cloth themselves in more and more leaves. High spring springs forth everywhere. Daft baby rabbits tumble out of hedges, easy meat for hard pressed foxes, feeding an earth full of hungry cubs. Hen pheasants make nests too visibly in open hedges, and they and their eggs succumb too - the cock pheasants display to each other, with all the ladies gone, puffed up feathers and stiff legged stance.
We had daffodils at New Year, grass growing, birds sounding spring-like. The winter has still got some bite, but every succeeding day has the sun higher, the day longer, driving winter down to the bottom of the year as we slowly and surely climb out. Tiny signs of growth peep out - snowdrops, so modest and quiet, little red female hazel flowers, and the lambs’ tails like male flowers that have been slowly developing and lengthening, suddenly bursting out. Oak flowers give a purple look to the woodland on the other side of the valley, darker and richer on the ends of the twigs. I saw a buzzard sit quietly on a post on a tree guard for some apple trees we planted. Suddenly he dropped heavily on a clump of grass only four feet below, then laboured away in his heavy flight with a little speck in his talons. One bird’s feast is one vole’s spring gone.
I always think of January as cold, wet and dark, the weary start of the hundred hungry days to Easter, when there is little keep for man or beast, and we all live off our reserves (or the shops, if you are human). Then you get one of those dazzling days of sunshine, low rays picking out every detail, bright yellow gorse with its coconut scent, bright red rosehips, a bright blue sky, warm in the sun out of the wind if you’ve enough layers on. Even on the coldest and wettest day, moths dance in torchlight in the woods. The little fallow hind I met in the road looked fat and prosperous after a kind autumn. I saw a raven delicately nibbling a crab apple, then flying off with it in its beak.