Over the weeks of the school hols Little Boots has crossed off a few more entries from the National Trust “Things To Do” list.

I queried one ‘Go Bird-watching’ (number 44).

“We’ve never been bird watching”, I said.

“But we’ve watched lots of birds”, came the reply. Woodpeckers and nuthatches were cited and true enough on a walk a couple of years ago we’d spied a nuthatch and earlier this year we were very close to a woodpecker (a Lesser Spotted one we later discovered – barred back) and watched him for some time as he searched a tree for food, just a couple of yards from the path where we stood.

“And the Wagtails” added Little Boots.

Immediately my mind went back to late May when, taking advantage of the only dry day of a soggy Bank Holiday weekend, Little Boots and I set off for a womble. We took a route that was new to us identifying trees and plants as we went. Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness books have made knowledge of trees and such pretty cool indeed. Cutting across a field and over a railway crossing brought us back to more familiar territory. With a view to making some casts of animal tracks we explored the waters’ edge of a couple of old gravel pits. This did not yield any good prints, but LB did find some coins no doubt dropped by some bivvying angler. Almost enough to buy a bag of elastic bands, since weaving them into bracelets was the latest craze. We wove back towards the village before joining the riverside path. Insects, mayflies mostly, were visible in the sunlight hatching and dapping the water’s surface as they completed their cycle of life. Whist we ambled along I showed the munchkin some mayflies clinging to reeds as the sun dried their wings. This wasn’t deemed very impressive, and so I explained Duffer’s Fortnight, which did at least raise a snort of amusement.

By now we had reached a bridge and stopped beneath it for something to eat a drink. Not that Little Boots needed the latter, having been sipping all along from a long-wished for camelback. It had been my hope that we would see a fish rising to take a fly. A Brown Trout perhaps, I knew there was at least one in here, or more likely a Chub.

That wasn’t to be, but we did see something pretty amazing as we stood eating and contemplating the river. A pair of yellow-chested birds, their long tails hanging down, were perched on reeds that stuck out from the opposite bank. We watched them flitting back and forth searching for hatching flies and acrobatically taking them on the wing. At one point one came within four feet of us, spinning and hovering at the same moment as it snipped its target from the air. Occasionally one of the birds would disappear up under the bridge. “There must be a nest up there” said Little Boots. I agreed, adding that I thought that they might be reed warblers.

How wrong I was. When we get home I looked them up in our bird book and found that they were in fact Yellow Wagtails. A summer visitor to this country the book said and that “Observers of the yellow wagtail are lucky to get within 50 yards of this extremely cautious bird….The nest is particularly difficult to find even when parents carrying food for their young are watched. Rather than reveal the nest site, the adults will refuse to deliver the meal until the danger has passed or the intruders have gone away.”

When I told LB this it was met with a widening of the eyes that always greets something special.

Even more special I now realise, having subsequently read that their numbers are on the decline.

 

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r dige

More favourite things.

Some years ago a relative, knowing of my interest in British flora gave me three field guide books from the Readers’ Digest Nature Lover’s Library series, covering British Birds, Wild Flowers and Trees & Shrubs.

They became immediate favourites and I have learned so much from them. In fact I still do.

With that in mind it was odd both that I never came across any other titles, or even considered that more might exist.

Three months ago, out of the blue, I found a copy of Butterflies and Other Insects of Britain, which I had to have even though I have butterflies and moths covered reference book-wise.

And then, during the Christmas hols Little Boots and I found Animals of Britain during a book-wombling expedition around local charity shops.

I was pleased to have what I knew would be a decent reference book and one to add to others in the series. Little Boots, curiously was also pleased with it. I soon learned why. Towards the back it has a section on animal footprints.

And LB reckons to have good tracking skills.

Personally I’m not so sure but, whatever the reality, it’s an unusual ability for a nine-year old to profess to have.

As for me – I’ve some tracking of my own – there’s sixth and final book – Waterlife of Britain – I must have it.

pike 002Pickings from our local Boot Sale have been a bit slim over the last two weeks.

The only thing that I’ve bought worthy of comment has been a very good copy of Wild Food by Roger Phillips. This is part of an excellent series of books (many with Martyn Rix) which are much sought after as they are now out of print. I have a good number of them and the Tree and Wild Flowers of Britain ones were constantly being consulted in the years I worked part-time before Little Boots went to school and we used to spend hours roaming the nearby countryside, bringing back photos and leaves for identification.

This particular volume is not one I actually knew existed and it’s as much a recipe book as an identification one, but then I guess that if you have the Tree and Wild Flower ones that’s not a problem.

Maybe tomorrow’s sale will yield a richer harvest.

booty

Last Sunday I made my first trip of the year to our local car boot sale. It was a lovely sunny day and consequently the event was well attended with plenty of sellers and buyers.

I picked up an Efgeeco landing net handle that was exactly the same as the much loved one I had as a teen. This made me disproportionately happy. Partly because it was in A1 condition but mostly because the original was sorely missed having been leant to an irresponsible relative and never returned. Along with this came 5 rod rests/bank sticks, most of which were Efgeeco. Fiver the lot.

Next was a hardback copy of Ray Mears’ Wild Food book. Like the net handle it was in first class condition. only a quid.

Lastly a kind of impulse purchase of a funny little axe for two fifty. Whilst it has a wooden handle I’m sure that’s not original – not least of all because of the brass screw “fixing” it in place. That will have to go BTW, as it, being made of a soft metal, may well shear under pressure and chopping with an unsafe axehead is asking for trouble. I have a strange feeling that it’s a military item and that’s not just because it’s painted green. It has a hole in the side of the head, but only one side. That suggests to me a removable head was somehow secured using this feature. Whether the heart-shaped hole in the axe bit (the blade) relates to this too I’ve no idea. Another unusual feature is a chunk of steel rolled into the poll (the bit at the back of the head), which suggests it was expected to be whacked with a hammer or something . Having tried it out I also reckon the original handle was much longer – more like a tomahawk.

It’s a curious thing that’s for sure.

Being involved in a Chelsea Flower Show build was a long held ambition, but with that and Hampton Court receding into memory it’s difficult not to feel a little flat.

That’s not to say that I don’t have anything to look forward to. There are at least three weeks off with Little Boots over the next month and a half, and we have plenty planned.

But there’s nothing in the here and now and I’m finding it tough. This is largely boredom and self-indulgent self-pity, but the thing is I’m longing to do something immediately, rather than just mark time until the summer hols.

There is I think another aspect to this. A yearning to spend more time outside. Occasionally I used to take an alternative route to the station. Instead of the L-shaped couple of hundred yards of boring tarmac, that only varied seasonally because in the dark winter months there was more dog-shit to avoid, I’d duck down a bosky footpath that covered the same journey, but took slightly longer. At first this was an impulse to break the tedium, but the more I did it the more I noticed. There were plants in such variety it surprised me, although it shouldn’t have. On really crappy days I’d reflect back that the most interesting thing I’d done was something like spotting white Herb Robert flowers, and pondering whether they were formed that colour, or if age, or sun had made it so.

A few months back I made this my regular route, quite simply because it makes my that little bit richer.

But they say the taste of honey is worse than none at all. And I think it has very much made me wish for more of this.

Yes I have the garden and the allotment, but when I’m in/on them that’s work, diverting work, but work nonetheless. I’m feeling a need not just to wander, nor just to “stop and stare”, although they are surely part of it, but also to well, fill a nature shaped hole in my soul.

On the last day of our holiday it rained. Man alive did it rain. And it kept it up all blinking day as well.

Being housebound we were all prowling around inside looking for amusement and diversion, when I discovered “Let’s Garden” by Enid Blyton on some bookshelves.

It’s not a book I have come across before, despite my addiction to the things. Published in 1948 it is very much of its time in terms of language, and has illustrations by William McLaren of the kind which I suspect it is mandatory to describe as charming, .
There are about twenty chapters starting with those on preparing garden, soil etc, and then moving into subjects like growing plants, rose pruning
taking cuttings, even one on what to plant in a shady bed.

My favourite though is “Some Queer Things Explained” which has sub-chapters – Why leaves fall, Why leaves change colour, What is a fairy ring, What is an oak apple? What is gossamer, Why does mistletoe grow on an oak tree.
The last one seemed appropriate as there was mistletoe all over the place in the part of France where we were, but was also a bit misleading. After all mistletoe doesn’t really grow on oaks. At least not very often. Common in apples and popular in poplars – but not on oak – which was of course why druids took oak-grown examples to have special power. This brought to mind Asterix and the magic potion, and then in turn telling Little Boots about blackthorn and the like, a few days earlier.

There are lots of gardening books for children/families (though many are not as good as Enid’s). Is there perhaps scope for one about some of our native flora? Not so much centered on the identification, but the rich history and lore attached to such plants.

I can’t recall one. This then made me think on a bit further. Perhaps I could write one?
Hmmm.

That might be a pipedream, but it also might be one I’d like to explore further.

Despite having no telly, much less a Skybox, or a Wii, or computer even, Little Boots was very good in not voicing dissatisfaction with the absence of the technology that is so, so, so, taken for granted back home.

However, after a day spent mostly inside because of rain I could tell the munchkin was really fed up. What could I do to make life interesting for a five-year old I thought?

Then inspiration struck.

“Shall we make a bow and arrow?”

Little Boots almost bounced with glee, because back in the UK requests for such an item have been put off for a while now. I’m not opposed to it per se, but the layout of our garden means that there really isn’t the space. So being in France, with a whole orchard to practice in, provided the ideal opportunity.

As we scouted along the mixed native hedge that I had a hand in planting one cold Christmas seven years ago, in search of suitable wood, I showed Little Boots the various plants, explaining about the “bread and cheese” from Hawthorn, how the Romans introduced Sweet Chestnut with its twisted bark, that my granny used to make lots of Damson jam but it was bitter and horrible*, and how Blackthorn was used for drinks for grown ups and clubs in Ireland, but that some farmers hated it because it could hurt cows’ feet.

The munchkin appeared interested, though this may have been more to do with anticipation of the end result of our efforts.

Once we had the right sticks, I fished string and a sharp knife out of my pocket, and we sat down on a log and set to work.

“How do you know how to do this?” asked Little Boots as I strung the bow and twanged the cord to test the tension.

“It’s what we did when I was little”, I replied. “We didn’t have Wiis and stuff. And the telly was rubbish. Besides this is much more fun.”

And the twinkle in the munchkin’s eye told me that, for that short moment in time at least, I was absolutely right.

*All these years I’d thought that my granny was just a bad jam maker, but I recently read in A Garden In The Clouds that the author found it similarly bitter and awful.