Birch and lime, birch and lime,
Sweep the leaves up one more time!
Birch and lime, birch and lime,
Sweep the leaves up one more time!
Thirty-odd years ago, the road was new, noisily slicing through orchards, swallowing some of the best growing land in Kent. Nevertheless, our children all loved the walk out of town, by lanes and footpath, through those orchards to the ford with its wooden bridge that memorably was once washed away.
We enjoyed hunting for blackberries, and knew where to find a couple of self-sown pear trees, one quite close to the busy road, and the odd crabapple tree.
Now, as in this photograph, the trees along the road have grown up. I was just cycling that way: the path joins the river path to make a head-clearing short circuit for cyclists or walkers. I was keeping an eye for windfalls (too early) and wild fruit. A few crabs in the bag, one pear tree had been flailed back, the other?
It used to be here, I thought, looking for pears at eye-level, used to orchard trees on dwarfing roots with their fruit readily harvestable. This tree was not modified in this way, and it was by its bark that I knew it. I was reminded of one we had at school, the size of a forest tree, its fruit inaccessible; it was a lovely tree with no branches below 2 metres. With no close neighbour it had developed into a green pyramid, but we ate very little of the fruit.
The tree I was looking at today had plenty of neighbours, some planted by the Highways Authority, but mostly self-sown willow and ash, all so close that their trunks were growing straight up to the light.
And the pears, with their lovely russet peel, were high up, out of reach. Oh well, we might be able to find one or two windfalls for the L’Arche cider project!
The river path and a crabapple tree.
Twice a year the hollow old yew in Saint Mildred’s churchyard turns the ground gold: in spring, when the buds burst and the husks fall to the ground, and then again about now, when the needles that have been replaced give up their chlorophyll and die.
Abel and I turned up today to find one of the church carers sweeping up the needles to put them in the church bin. We set to with a bigger brush and two wheelbarrows. Abel plied the one his great-grandmother sent for his birthday and worked very hard, taking loads back and forth to the Glebe compost heap. A confident, competent little gardener at 4 years old. Here he is a couple of months ago on a similar task.
The church carers will be happy to have less mess on their lovely stone floor!
There is a buzz in Canterbury these days, at least wherever there are lime trees. Even mere humans can pick up the honeyed scent of the flowers, but the bees are loving it.
I harvested plenty from around Saint Mildred’s church for my lime flower tea, now drying on the spare bedroom floor. The trees around the church are far enough from the main road to have escaped the worst of the pollution. The drink is refreshing ice cold. There’s still time to harvest yours!
Robert Browning is writing to Elizabeth Barrett, his secret fiancée. She has told him of her dependence on morphine, as prescribed by her doctor, who is reluctant to take her off it, but agrees to do so, ‘slowly and gradually’. Robert is keen for her to get out and about, for she has been housebound for a long time, and offers her some encouragement. He writes this day, February 6, 1846. His home at Camberwell was still in Kent then, while Elizabeth was in Central London, under the jealous eye of her father.
‘Slowly and gradually’ what may not be done? Then see the bright weather while I write—lilacs, hawthorn, plum-trees all in bud; elders in leaf, rose-bushes with great red shoots; thrushes, whitethroats, hedge sparrows in full song—there can, let us hope, be nothing worse in store than a sharp wind, a week of it perhaps—and then comes what shall come—”
Elizabeth (‘Ba’) had written of when the drug was prescribed:
I have had restlessness till it made me almost mad: at one time I lost the power of sleeping quite—and even in the day, the continual aching sense of weakness has been intolerable—besides palpitation—as if one’s life, instead of giving movement to the body, were imprisoned undiminished within it, and beating and fluttering impotently to get out, at all the doors and windows. So the medical people gave me morphine, and ever since I have been calling it my amreeta* draught, my elixir,—because the tranquillizing power has been wonderful. Such a nervous system I have—so irritable naturally, and so shattered by various causes, that the need has continued in a degree until now, and it would be dangerous to leave off the calming remedy, Mr. Jago says, except very slowly and gradually.
It was the ash trees that set us talking: we were looking for signs of die-back disease, which is in Kent, and cannot be kept from the trees at the Glebe. So far, so good, but V reckoned on a further ten years before we know whether any of ours will be the ones to preserve the species into the twenty-second century.
Naturally we slipped into talking of the elms, still around in our boyhoods. ‘You’ll have to go to Brighton to see a good specimen now’, said V, ‘and they are pumped full of fungicide’. He told me they grow from suckers in hedgerows elsewhere, but once they approach maturity, the beetles find them, bringing the Dutch Elm Disease fungus with them.
A useful tree, we agreed, as well as beautiful. I recalled seeing pipes made from elm, even in the iron-founding Taff valley in South Wales. Perhaps the wood was more flexible, less likely to crack, than cast iron.
Then, what should I see beside the level crossing in Canterbury, but these carved elm gutters, fallen, I guess, from the back of a lorry. How old are they, I wonder? From the smooth channels and the splintered ends, they look as though they would have been good for a few more years’ service when they were hacked up.
It was a great pleasure that the first bird I heard this year was a song thrush from a bush in a neighbour’s garden, closely followed by blackbird, starlings, pigeons, jackdaws … suburban Canterbury on wings.
I gave greater pleasure to Mrs Turnstone when she heard that in the course of tidying the woodstore, separating the kindling from the logs that had been hastily laid on top of them, I had seen a woodmouse scurrying to safety. She had not liked laying down poison for the rats that had infested the other end of the garden, fearing for the colony of mice that has been here longer than the family Turnstone. This year’s Mrs Tittlemouse is made of stern stuff.
A grace note to the story: the kindling was 18 month old apricot. Clattering the sticks together released the scent of the fruit, just as the leaves did. See ‘Two unexpected autumn gifts’, November 24th 2018.