“Oh to be in England now that April’s there… “
I think Browning would have yearned particularly for April in England year: in this corner of England at least.
I began writing this post more than a fortnight ago, at the end of a stunning spring weekend. Although the temperature has dropped since, I’m having to push myself to write, so strong is the siren call to turn away and to attend to the business of living in the moment instead. Crisp sunshine entices; birdsong beckons; there are so many jobs to do outside and at this early point in the outdoor calendar, enthusiasm is soaring as high as the skylarks. I want to be out there in the sunshine much more than I want to be sitting here, gazing through a window and writing about it. March blew in – literally – on the wings of howling gales but April, it seems, has presented us with a much more palatable and welcome gift. The view from here today is sparkling and spacious and redolent with colour and sound.
I’ve already celebrated this mild and clement weather more than once this month by reading the odd chapter alongside a mug of tea, sitting outside in a quiet sheltered corner with the birds for company, and on one particularly warm occasion by enjoying an early evening glass of wine outside – a full month earlier than last year. (A well-earned reward, I assured myself, after some satisfying gardening.) With the human world filled as it seems to be with unpredictable and frequently tragic events, it seems even more important to be mindful of the cyclical rhythms of nature and the simple, astounding beauty and natural happenings that continue unchanged through the years and provide us with a quiet, grounding purpose to our days. The rhythm of nature, the cycle of decay, rebirth and renewal is never far away.
So belatedly, but appropriately perhaps, with the Easter weekend so recently passed, I am taking some time to celebrate those rhythms and the renewal of life. And I begin with snowdrops.
Snowdrops were the first thing I planted when we arrived here last year. And I was delighted to find my first snowdrop flowering mid-January. A solitary and somewhat sorry-looking specimen but a snowdrop just the same. Snowdrops never fail to bolster my spirits. The harbinger of the turning year and the herald of things to come: in this instance – after my herculean planting efforts last year – this single snowdrop was surely destined to become the leading bloom in a snowy drift of nodding white heads that would grace our garden for years to come.
Sadly, that one brave little snowdrop was almost the only one that I planted in the grass which brought forth a flower. I’m pleased I put some in pots as well; they came up boldly. But those that I’d hoped would naturalize in the grass seem reluctant. Drifts there were not. Maybe next year.
That said, I was not bereft of snowdrops. Firstly, there were one or two on the tiny green triangle below the house where our three lanes meet. Then more. Soon we had tight, bright clumps.
Then they started appearing a little further down the valley. I could see a few as I looked down the road – so enticing. And in a short while a walk along the lane that runs through the valley was akin to walking through a Valhalla of snowdrops. They grew at head height; they cascaded down the steeps banks. I could look up into their green and creamy hearts and my own heart swelled.
There was no snow this year, nor even frost beyond the very occasional sparkly morn. But the colour of January – strewn as it was with streamers of snowdrops – was white. We had a number of clear bright January days and a walk was always a delight; the drifts of snowdrops calling me on with pristine white banderoles waving the way and tumbling ribbons threaded between slate, moss and unfurling fern. The view from here, walking along the bottom of this Cornish valley, brought forth visions of fairy banners, marching joyfully towards spring.
The sound of January came after nightfall. Lambs – calling in the darkness. January nights were alive with the thin, wavering cries of tiny lambs, already out in the fields in the first few days of the year, enduring the falling temperatures and calling constantly. Their high cries were the descant to the background base of their dams: consoling their youngsters, keeping them close; offering their bulky shaggy maternal bodies as warmth, nourishment and shelter from the elements. The patient mothers responded day and night, but it was at night – especially those few nights under the cold silvery-white sliver of the January new moon – that the calls seemed the most plaintive. Standing in the open doorway before heading to a warm and familiar bed, I stared into the thick darkness and listened to a nocturnal symphony repeated for centuries across field, moor and heath under aphotic January skies.
As the January days passed, birds began to sing, alert to the solstice and the steady lengthening of the days. Softly they began, tentatively at first, but rapidly finding their voices and adding their song to the daytime chorus of the lambs and the murmurings of the ewes. And gently we moved into February.
The colour of February was yellow.
Daffodils, narcissi, early pale primroses. Catkins.
To amble in the garden or walk along the lanes was to breathe in the vibrancy of all the shades of yellow and absorb the promise of new lives arrived and new lives yet to come.
The lambs are stronger now: once I passed a dam and her lambs in the lane – absconders from their field, with a cluster of anxious and agitated bystanders watching and jostling one another in their attempts to offer ovine advice from the safe side of the gate. Did the lambs wander, I wonder, in their insatiable curiosity, and their mother steadfastly follow? Who escaped first – the mother or the babies? They preceded me as I walked and pondered these questions, the lambs skittering along on their stocky, sturdy legs; they were keen to keep distance between me and them but thankfully, by the time I reached the junction with a slightly busier back road than that onto which they had made their break for freedom, they had vanished – squeezing under gate or through hedgerow into the safety of a neighbouring field. We alerted the farmer – our lady neighbour whose land abuts ours. It was easy to describe the runaways: a mother with two lambs – one white and the other black.
The birds too, are more active now that February is here: vying for mates and territory. The liquid song of robins flows from tree to tree; mellifluous blackbirds add harmony; great tits accent with their repertoire of monotonous two-toned notes, and all sing against the unceasing background babbling of water.
It was not a rainy February but the water levels rise in the winter and waterways which diminish during the rest of the year are at their loudest now. Water gushing down the hill, tumbling over glistening slate, pouring through channels alongside and underneath the road, and on the valley floor – spreading wide in a shallow shining ford with dappled sunlight dancing on the surface.
The symphony of birdsong harmonised with the February aquatics and the sound of February was water.
These were dazzling days, made dizzy by the brightness of the sunlight, sandwiched between velvet-soft nights broken by pinpricks of stars, slivers of white crescent and the full shining brilliance of the hunger moon.
Climbing out of the valley behind the house and looking across from this higher perspective, I could sense nature, seemingly still benign and yet poised to reverberate through folds and fields in fulsome celebration.
And the view from here, gazing skyward on a cold, clear February night, was at the same time infinite and infinitesimal. So vast the heavens; so small the woman witnessing.
And then came March.
The colour of March was grey. March hurled herself at the house with the fury of a winter scorned. No more fairyland snowdrops, no soft velvet February nights. Winter was not going to succumb to such a romantic vision without a fight. There may have been no snow, there may have been little frost, but March thundered in flinging rain and wind and mud in all directions.
I remember my delight last year when I discovered that this is a wuthering house. When the wind blows in the colder months it whines and scolds and curses. It squeals. It screams in fury and yowls like an angry cat.
It whips around corners and flings itself against the weather vane until the poor man and his dog atop the roof, banging and rattling against the tiles, plead to be released and be permitted to point gently and politely from whence this banshee has come. I still love our wuthering house; but the pastoral symphonies of January and February were quashed in the onslaught of March by Wagnerian Valkyries. The sound of March was the howling fury of winter scorned.
Walks in March became shrouded, misty meanderings amid spattered raindrops, tractor trails and ghostly glimpses of Windy the turbine.
After six weeks of snowdrop perfection, March did its best to decimate the daffodils. And the primroses and the catkins. But they stood firm in the face of her vehemence.
March also gave us some precious glimpses of blue – not in the skies, which remained resolutely, relentlessly, unremittingly gun-metal grey – but in a late show of crocuses and an early show of anemones and a single precious bluebell.
The crocuses – a happy discovery – did not withstand the weather. A day after I found them – with a night of unremitting rain interceding – I returned to a battered and flattened sight.
Something else though, did defy the elements. When the wind did not blow, we heard skylarks. How did I never hear them here before? They must have been here, all last summer yet not once did I realise. And now, on a quiet day, even in the grey, there are skylarks already aloft and singing. When the wind quiets, the skylarks soar. Screaming winds or soaring skylarks? I know which I prefer.
And now we have April. She has unwrapped the sunshine and ramped up the robins’ song. Some mornings I wake to geese chattering overheard; other times it’s the pheasant I hear – resplendent in his courtly dress. Still other mornings I wake to skylarks and one morning to the mythic peace of a moonlight dawn. Dusk spreads softly at the end of each day: a coverlet over the blackbirds’ melodies; and the western skies light up to provide a backdrop of gold, ochre and deep purple-blue against which the silhouetted trees stand sharp and the clustering clouds throw back lingering shades of blush pink and warm coral.
Fat, sumptuous buds are bursting forth on tree and shrub, anxious to open to the bright sunshine. Luscious lime-green shoots are pushing skyward from damp earth, eager for their place in the sun. Leaves of many shapes and hues are unfurling almost as I watch. Everything is vibrant and itching to display – from the strutting cock pheasant with his harem to the tiny white daisies flung wide to the sun’s rays.
What will be the colour of April that I’ll remember when this month wanes? Yellow? White? The hedgerows, banks and verges are strewn and scattered with creamy-white pearls and lustrous golden beads.
But no. I compare this April to last – which was our very first month in Cornwall – and at this time last year we were still immersed in grey. And I think I can say with confidence that the colour of this April will be green. And the sound will be the symphony of birdsong.
Now we await the coming of the swallows. At least I was awaiting them when I started out on this post. I thought I saw some a day or so back; the flight pattern suggested the acrobatic swoop of the swallow. But I couldn’t be certain and so I waited. They surely won’t be long, I thought: my first sighting last year was almost exactly this date. It won’t be long before we see them clearly on the wing. With the swallows comes all the promise of the long daylight hours ahead.
And today they have arrived, swooping, arcing, carving wide patterns through the skies with an airy insouicance that suggests they have never really left, such is their confidence and grace.
In the words of Longfellow:
“The swallow is come! The swallow is come!
O, fair are the seasons, and light
Are the days that she brings,
With her dusky wings,
And her bosom snowy white!”
The view from here, on the cusp of this penultimate April weekend, is pregnant with promise. Nature renews, the swallows return, the cycle continues. And having passed the first anniversary of our arrival here, life for us continues too – this time with a warm and welcome familiarity.