A Lockdown Year

The Times 17th March 2020

Who could have dreamed this time last year, what a mess we have all been in, all the Tier 3 restrictions, the masks, the isolation.

After January’s visit to Jeni and Steve in Denmark we had barely recovered from whatever it was we went down with (could have been Covid but we’ll never know) we found ourselves in lockdown more or less ever since.

There was plenty of opportunity to photograph the birds in the garden!

A great blessing was the Government-approved daily exercise, which for me took the form of a long walk with a camera, from the house to various places nearby. The glorious spring and early summer weather provided abundant opportunities for photography.

Alan sometimes came out with me but generally he preferred to stay at home working on his nuclear power station (Minecraft), or building new territories in Satisfactory and Factorial, all of which played out on the computer. The UPS van was at our door almost daily with small packets of components to replace the ones from which the smoke had escaped.

Bikes became all the rage and by the time we had decided it would be nice to have one, there were none to be had for love nor money – until late August, by which time the weather was not so conducive, so we didn’t get the chance to try out the amazing cycle lane which popped-up on the A56 between Timperley and Manchester. Complaints from drivers finally got it removed.
A chance encounter on one of our local walks led to regular socially-distanced walks with our two holiday-travelling companions, to the mutual benefit of all of us.

Socially distanced walk with friends

Alan’s attention turned to figuring out how to control Lego with Bluetooth; designing a switch-mode power supply for which the UPS van continued to visit almost daily with small packages of electronics, and constructing a small saw-table to facilitate model-making. Most of these projects are ‘on-going’.

I volunteered with Trafford Wildlife, whose mission in life was to eradicate the Himalayan balsam carpeting the local nature reserves. In the heat of high summer is was a relief to be working in the woods, although we had to cover up well on account of the midges!

Members of the community helped to chop down the balsam by Firs Wood

Since we could not travel out of Greater Manchester to go butterflying, my attention turned to fungi, sparked by the discovery of a brand new Chicken-of-the-woods growing on a tree trunk. It was a totally New Thing and fungi became a great fascination

The TW volunteers finished the balsam and turned attention to the rhododendrons invading the woods, which we attacked with bowsaws and bonfires. Next up came hedge-laying which is ongoing through the winter – we’re getting better at it with fewer accidental gaps being created! It looks like total carnage but hopefully, it will have a new lease of life.

The hedge after the ivy was cleared
Easy does it: laying the hedge

And then the Government put the whole country in lockdown. Inoculations underway, and as older members of the community we received our first jabs.

The Times 24 November 2020
The Times 1st December 2020

Predictably, infections rose as a result of the lockdown ‘holiday’ and continued to be worryingly high until the vaccines began to roll out. Here we are in March 2021, a week away from the anniversary of the first lockdown and 43% of over-18s in Greater Manchester have now received their vaccine first dose, with the millionth first dose expected today. 92% of over-65s and 55% of 50-69s have now had a first dose.

Litter picking became the next activity as although we would arrange a time and place, the job could be done ‘solo’.

The world was gripped with excitement as NASA’s Perseverance landed on Mars – and The Times reported it with an interesting juxtaposition of headlines:

The Times, 19th February

Let’s see what happens at Easter…

New Every Morning

Thank you for bringing us safely through the night.

The sun kisses the top of the curtains and begins its downward creep, making my heart leap for joy and gratitude.

It bursts through the gap between the curtains, into the bedroom, striking the wall and picking out the display of Chinese cut-out charms.

Within minutes, the full length of the curtains are ablaze, the outlines of the window frames casting their shadows from behind.

The spotlight on the wall lengthens and travels to encompass and perfectly frame the small black and gilt picture of a vintage motor car, fashioned from the internal workings of a watch. It moves across to the bowl of a love-spoon hanging beside it, and the mirror which dustily reflects the sunlight onwards and out to the landing.

The sky beyond the crack in the curtains is now pale blue with plane trails creating a pattern of wispy clouds like free spirits.

Thank you for this new day.

Hawthorn Ketchup

A good ‘hedgerow harvest’ recipe, which tastes very similar to brown sauce and is great with smoked bacon!

500g berries
300ml cider vinegar
300ml water
A pinch of ground allspice
half tsp each ground nutmeg, ground ginger and salt
Black pepper

Prep berries by taking off stalks
1: simmer berries with water and vinegar for half hour
2: pour liquid through sieve into a bowl – mash berries into a pulp through sieve using back of wooden spoon (this is quite a time consuming bit) OR use a mouli (the more pulp you get the thicker it will be) discard seeds and skins
3: return pulp and liquid to pan along with 175g of brown sugar, salt, pepper and spices – simmer for 5-10 minutes
4: pour into a sterilised jar (makes about 350 mls)

Hedgerow Harvest

The visual delights of luscious red rowan berries hanging in great bunches on their delicate twigs; sweet, juicy blackberries teasingly out of reach beyond thorny brambles; damsons dropping from a hidden tree near a footpath; bitter crab apples clustered heavily among the branches. This time of year always gets my foraging instincts going.

A friend and I have made an annual date to raid a damson tree we discovered a few years ago; it is just off a footpath and you have to be on the lookout for it. Last year we didn’t go, and this year we couldn’t on account of the Covid lockdown but just as I had decided to go on a solo mission, a local man offered free damsons from his own tree.

Feeling a little disappointed not to be actually foraging for them I was grateful none the less, and duly produced five jars of delicious jam.

But then I spotted a damson tree shedding fruit on the driveway of the local chapel! The chapel was closed for Covid so I made sure that the next time I passed I had a plastic bag in my pocket. Less than a minute of collecting the fallings and I had enough for a delicious dessert which lasted us three days, every spoonful savoured and for which hubby was more than happy to make custard.

Next on the hit list was rowan berries. With the aid of a litter picker to pull the branches down, and not forgetting to first ask permission of the trees, the initial foray produced half a carrier bag full. These I destalked and put away in the fridge until I could get a few more.

Cycling across the Moss to join fellow conservation workers I espied a hedgerow sporting several mountain ash trees laden with huge ripe berries and at the next opportunity I was there with my litter picker, and in no time had gathered a very large carrier bag full.

Home we went, rejoicing – the bag and I – and with rather less rejoicing spent four hours destalking them. A total of three kilograms – much more than I had expected and still the trees didn’t look as though I had taken any.

Crab apples – the least loved of all fruit, I reckon, so sour that even the squirrels don’t eat them after an exploratory nibble. There are two magnificent crab apple trees on the edge of the Moss, which a couple of years ago produced a lot of fruit but much of it seemed to have suffered in the unusually long dry summer. I went out on a rainy day, dressed in waterproofs and armed with the litter picker, to see how they had fared this year. The boughs were laden with perfect fruit and I thanked the tree for its generosity.

The rowan berries and apples was too much for the single jam pan and had to be split between two pans. Unfortunately I boiled it all down too much thinking it wasn’t ‘jelling’ and ended up with only six jars of jelly, which didn’t seem a lot for the effort! There was a very great deal of pulp created though, and someone suggested making fruit leather with it. My first attempt created something that a cobbler could have made a sturdy black shoe with, but the second try was much better; a deep orange sheet of rather tart chewy fruit jerky. Despite the added cinnamon and sugar, it’s probably only acceptable in very small quantities.

There was still a pound of apples left over so another foraging trip was called for to find blackberries. The season seems to have shifted forward a month and I was hard put to find half a pound of the fruit, but returning home triumphant I produced two jars of blackberry and crab apple jelly and a further two of blackberry and crab apple butter from the pulp.

All that remains is to label it all and put them away in a cool, dark place. Some will be given as gifts; the rest will be enjoyed, on toast, crumpets and scones over the months to come.

A spot of industrial archaeology

I have been working as a volunteer with Trafford Wildlife, an offshoot of Cheshire Wildlife, as since the reorganisation of boundaries we are no longer part of Cheshire.

We have been ‘balsam bashing’ in woodlands belonging to the National Trust at Dunham Massey and today we worked in White Oak Coppice, literally a stone’s throw across the Bridgewater Canal.

Pulling up the balsam uncovered an unusual find: at first it was just a rusty old wheel, then another, then more iron work.. but we are at a loss as to what it might once have been. A plough? Part of a mill?

Any guesses, anyone?

Battle of the Balsam

Such beautiful flowers, yet such a menace to our environment. Said to have been introduced as a garden plant in 1839, Himalayan balsam also arrived in 19th century ships’ ballast, and has spread agressively along our waterways and damp places ever since. It originates, as its name suggests, in the foothils of the Himalayas where it is kept in check by natural predators which do not exist in the UK.

Through the power of social media I managed to get a band of folk together to tackle the wall-to-wall carpet of Himalayan balsam in a small local woodland. I happen to volunteer with a wildlife trust and we have been doing a similar task in other woodlands which are sites of scientific or biological interest. This one is not listed in any way so it doesn’t have any priority.

Came the day, and people started to arrive. There was much chattering and laughter and everyone thoroughly enjoyed the community spirit. I looked around and all at once felt transported back to a different age, when villagers would go out together to harvest the crops.

The balsam is in flower and will be setting seed in the next few days – hopefully we will get a chance next weekend to have another go at it. We will not eradicate it this time but hopefully it will be a little less to tackle next year – and I shall gather the troops in May instead of leaving it so late!

The Jungle

Extreme gardening: cutting down a carpet of balsam before it flowers

I am part of a group who have been attacking the phenomenal growth of Himalayan Balsam over the past few weeks. Lately we have been in a wood which is a small Site of Biological Interest and carpeted wall-to-wall with balsam.

Himalayan Balsam was introduced in 1839 as a garden plant by an enthusiastic Victorian traveller – and it has taken to our land and climate with equal enthusiasm. It has spread densely along river banks and ditches, choking all the native wildflowers in its path.

The woodland used to be part of a large estate and in the centre there is a monument of uncertain origin but which is thought to be the burial place of a favourite horse. It was erected in the early 18th century, around the time the great Hall was built.

We broke for a socially-distanced picnic lunch in a clearing near the base of the monument. The sun shone and beyond the fringe of tree branches, rich brown Speckled Wood butterflies danced above the bracken, descending to perch on the warm fronds to soak up the sun. Suddenly they would be up in the air again, chasing each other, either in hope of a mate or protection of territory.

Returning to our work for another couple of hours, it seemed there would never be an end to the balsam. As we packed up for the day with a satisfying ache in our limbs, it was with a feeling of achievement that inroads had been made.

The butterflies were still there; I bade them farewell as we filed past on the way out. We’ll be back to finish the job!

Speckled Wood

Be still, my soul

Rosebay willowherb at Rixton Clay Pits

After a wet and windy morning yesterday I looked up from the computer and realised the sun was shining. It was too good an opportunity to miss and I had to recce a walk for some friends in any case, so I set off for Rixton Clay Pits. Back in the day the clay used to be dug out for brick making, but although the brickworks are still operating, the pits are no longer viable and they buy the clay in from elsewhere.

The land is now managed as a nature reserve and is a delightful area of wetlands, flower meadows and woods, criss-crossed by paths.

The sun glinted off the raindrops, bathing everywhere in a warm, clear light. There was a choice of paths; they had been mown that morning and the cut grass and leaves were still fresh, the scent filling the air. I chose the middle path, a track through tall grasses and wild flowers until it opened out into a wide glade with five ways running from it. Time stood still as I drank in the halcyon scene which greeted me.

Rosebay willowherb stood proud and upright to my left; ahead was a tangle of yellow and blue vetches. Thistles, knapweed and tiny pink flowers mingled together.

A songthrush told me everything three times and a chiffchaff called constantly from the trees. Blackbirds darted across the path and the soft twittering of goldfinches floated down.

The first Gatekeeper of the season fluttered along the edge of the path and a Shaded Broad-bar moth sought sanctuary among the bracken.

Back and forth swung a blue-green dragonfly, coming close and zooming away. A brown female dragonfly came on the scene and he gave chase, but she evaded him. A smaller dragonfly, a darter, settled on a clump of leaves to bask in the sun. Two white butterflies joyfully tumbled together among the tops of some willowherbs.

I stood for a long time in silent wonderment.

“Be still, and know that I am God.”

Gatekeeper butterfly (also known as Hedge Brown)
Shaded Broad-bar moth