July has been an extraordinary month. Yesterday the garden thermometer reached a heady 31°C, a kind of heat virtually inconceivable here in Cumbria. And it’s hardly rained all month. Most summers, if we’re lucky, we get at best get two or three consecutive days without rain. Some say it’s Too Hot but I’m not complaining. This is exactly what I call summer.
Currently the Commonwealth Games are taking place in Glasgow one hundred miles north of Curthwaite. The organisers couldn’t have begged better weather. I’m delighted the rest of the world will discover Scotland can be hot and sultry however I was bemused when the captain of the Tongan team being interviewed on TV said his team had chosen to stay in Dumfries (as opposed to Glasgow) because it was just like Tonga. I’d never consider the city quite as exotic.
The extended warmth has caused the garden to sprout beyond usual expectations. Our cottage is surrounded by what was formerly a field, and taming the flower beds requires far more time than I have available. And while I don’t mind leaving some areas to fend for themselves I would like to redeem the oblong patch which constitutes a front garden. For twenty years we ran our craft business from home but the only reminder of this is the cobbled path leading from the road to what was once the gallery entrance, except that door is now a window. The purpose of the path being long gone it now seems empty and lost. And the flower beds running against the walls at either side are full of pernicious weeds like couch grass. I’ve spent the summer mulling ideas, visiting lots of gardens to seek inspiration (what better excuse?) but still can’t decide on a plan. Perhaps I need a theme? That seems to be the fashion. The current theme is ‘wilderness’.
I wish this was part of my garden but no fear aiming high – I took this photograph at Hidcote, a garden of inspiration.
When we were last in Malta I was inspired by a garden dedicated to those men and women who’ve devoted their lives to peace. The garden uses native Mediterranean species but centres on one plant that has always symbolized peace – the olive. As soon as we returned I bought a little olive tree to remind me of that special garden – and it’s already doubled in size, bathed in Cumbrian sunshine. But I know it wouldn’t be happy in the middle of a Cumbrian winter, therefore it will have to remain in a pot, so it can winter indoors like the rest of us.
Gardens reflect their owners. That can’t be helped. But when a garden is a joint effort it follows that it must integrate sometimes diverse interests. My husband hates roses so their care is my concern. Just like most flowers the rambler on the porch has rambled rather too far this season but even with our longest ladder I can’t clip the overspill. He said I’ve been encouraging it by putting fertiliser around its roots. It gave a truly magnificent display in June, earning it’s keep as far as I’m concerned. However it was only when my mother asked where I’d planted the lovely David Austin rose she bought for my birthday last year that I realised I hadn’t seen it since. Ranging the perimeter for clues I found it, defined by its plastic container, hidden amongst the rubble at the top of the garden, on the verge of death. No need to ask who’s responsible.
Paul’s Himalayan Musk, being invincible.
Lanes lines with hedgerows.
A profusion of wild flowers
Brimming with fauna, July 2014 in Curthwaite.
We are experiencing what is likely to be one of the hottest summers ever here in rural Cumbria. Having lived in our little stone cottage on the edge of the northern fells since 1982 we’ve survived a variety of severe weather systems but during the bulk of those thirty-two years the outlook has been generally, if not persistently, wet. Locals will tell you that if you can see the hills it’s just about to rain and if you can’t see the hills it’s already raining. But apart from an occasional shower we haven’t had real rain for weeks and this dry hot weather is proving uplifting not merely because we are all sporting the kind of suntan usually got by forking out good money to catch the sun.
Complimenting this sultry season is the best display of wild flowers I remember. The scenery around our cottage is a pastoral landscape of undulating fields ringed by ancient hedges and mature trees which generally radiate every hue of green until the fields ripen to golden yellow, usually around the time July turns to August. But this year the pastures have already ripened and the harvest of grain ripples like an ocean in the breeze whilst the surrounding hedges look on, shaggy and dishevelled. Yet underneath their shelter lies a hidden and beautiful phenomenon.
In this part of Cumbria most fields are surrounded by hedges rather than stone walls, or fences, and the roads which criss-cross through our village are old droving roads with wide, grassy verges so the cattle or sheep could graze whilst being driven to market. Of course nowadays most beasts travel by wheels but thankfully the layout of the roads remain, and the modern lines of black tarmac are bordered either side with an amazing variety of wild grasses and flowers which spill with a bounty equalling the most carefully planted gardens. These wild borders are speckled in frothy whites, smouldering purples, beaming yellows and cerulean blues, as though nature is trying to show all her diversity. And I can almost forgive the abundance of weeds that have migrated into my garden, because who’d want to miss sunning themselves in this unusually hot weather?
I’ve tried to list those flowers I recognise. Drooping from the shadows is a froth of nettles surrounding the umbrella-like heads of meadow-sweet clustering behind. I can’t name the diversity of grasses heavy with seeds, but they are dotted with white and purple clover, yellow celandines and dandelions whose chrysanthemum-like flowers seem dull beneath the taller swathes of ox-eye daisies. Weaving between this undergrowth are purple-blue beads of vetch and golden lady’s slippers, hanging like jewels, and above them are trumpets of white bindweed and yellow honeysuckle poking their heads through the dark green hedge whilst tumbling through the very top falls a tangle of white and pink dog roses. Butterflies hover amongst the flower heads and if I stand and stare long enough I may even spy a field mouse, or catch sight of a red squirrel sidling up a tree.
As a teenager one of my favourite books was The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. A facsimile of Edith Holden’s personal notebook it’s a charming and intimate study of the British countryside during 1906 and her sketches describe the incredible abundance of wild flowers. But the countryside surrounding the tiny village where I grew up, in North Kent, seemed devoid of any native vegetation, something I later realised was due, at least in part, to farmers blanket-spraying with chemical weed-killers and DDT in order to kill anything that might harm the fruit crops that kept the Kentish economy afloat. Thankfully Cumbria’s agriculture has a completely different axis, and the fact farmers here are less willing to expend good ‘brass’ on chemicals helped give our beautiful and well-endowed landscape a reprieve. And the first thing I noticed when I moved here was the beauty of the hedgerows, just at Edith promised. It’s taken time for me to appreciate it’s true wealth but with this exemplary weather the summer of 2014 will be noted as fondly as that of 1906.