Posted by: Linda Proud | May 20, 2013

A Yankee’s View of Oxford

In March 2012 I was foraging along the canal and there was no sign of what was to come. The summer passed in squalls of rain, Jubilee celebrations and the Olympics. Sometime after that, the good people of Jericho and Wolvercote looked up to see something unbelievably awful had happened. A vast, Soviet-style block of housing apartments where a beautiful view once had been. It all happened so quickly it took our breath away

I could write much, but a great deal has been said already in the press and in local campaigns by those more eloquent, knowledgeable and restrained. Names have been named and we can only hope the people responsible are heading for early retirement. Here I want to tell of life on the inside, as written by one of my students, Trevor Griffiths.

From Shimer College, Chicago, he spent September through to May living in the first phase of Castle Mill Development, Venneit Close. From aerial photos, it looks like a dolls house next to the latest phase, but it is four storeys high!

From the meadow, Venneit Close is almost invisible, so tiny in comparison with...

From the meadow, Venneit Close is almost invisible, so tiny in comparison with…

Eye sore!!

the eye sores!!

Here’s his piece, illustrated with pictures I took in a similar apartment. Let’s hope all these buildings will be condemned and obliterated within our lifetime.

I live in Venniet Close, the newly constructed apartment complex on Roger Dudman Way near the station, the only completed building in a long stretch of development overlooking Port Meadow.  An American student about to come to Oxford,  I was warned by the Study Abroad Program which is hosting me that the English are unlike Americans in certain respects.  They like to keep their houses a bit colder and so the heaters are not designed to be run at the level I might be used to.  The appliances will be smaller, the stove and water heater a bit more temperamental, and the general accommodations all a bit less luxurious.  I looked forward to the experience!  When I arrived, however, I was disappointed to find that my living situation was strikingly similar to what one normally finds in the States.  Rather than the quaint, somewhat idealized image of English living I had, I found an extremely modern building with typically modern problems.

The building itself is, first of all, cheaply constructed.  Rather than the beautiful stone and woodwork that characterizes the architecture for which Oxford is famous, I found drywall, cheap tiling, and plastic doors.  The carpeting is thick, but wears out easily, and in some places isn’t even attached to the concrete beneath.  The structure is banal, and the sand colored brick that makes up the outside seems to me (who is of course no expert in these matters) to be as flimsy as brick can be.

But what’s more disappointing than the material’s quality, is the quality of the construction.  Almost all the visible plumbing is plastic, but it’s also poorly put together.  There are constant clogs in the kitchen sink – no matter how careful we are to keep food particles out of it.  The plumbing beneath the bathtub, which is inaccessible without removing the entire apparatus, has always leaked.  This has left permanent water damage in the walls around the tub and means that we must be always battling the mildew. 

The fascia for the shower-bath already decrepit

The fascia for the shower-bath already decrepit

Some of the cabinets in the kitchen are without backs, much of the paneling that ought to cover the plumbing in the walls seems to have simply never been put in, and large squares of drywall have been cut out from behind the heaters and never replaced.  The fan in the bathroom is useless because the duct which ought to lead out through the roof was just never completed – it doesn’t lead anywhere.  Presumably the builders forgot to finish it.  The electricity is unreliable and many of the outlets do not function.  All in all, it’s very much like living in a low-income housing development project in the United States.

Water damage from who knows where, visible in many apartments, never fixed despite all complaints

Water damage from who knows where, visible in many apartments, never fixed despite all complaints

All these development projects have something in common; the buildings are temporary.  Around every major city in the US, these poorly constructed towers have sprung up, contracted to companies whose modus operandi is quantity rather than quality.  This is something that has dominated the American business mentality for some time, and has contributed a great deal to how homogenous and lifeless the American cultural landscape sometimes seems.  Almost everything in the US is temporary, because ‘temporary’ means profitable and easy.  But this kind of profit is always shortsighted, because it lacks integrity and aims only at monetary return.  And, when looked at properly, this ‘ease’ starts to seem a lot more like laziness.  I say laziness because the work required to do the job properly has simply not been exerted – the building in which I now live isn’t even finished!  I think about the Ashmolean, about Christ Church, and about all the magnificent works of architectural genius which people travel from every corner of the world to see here in Oxford.  Not only are they magnificent, they will stand the test of time.  These buildings along Rodger Dudman?  This first has already begun to come apart before the others have even been completed.

And now I’ve come to find that there is controversy surrounding these new buildings.  I’m glad to hear it.  When considering the question, you might want to take a look at the US, and ask yourself if you would ever travel to Detroit, Miami, or Pittsburg to enjoy the architecture there.  I’m certainly not saying that affordable housing shouldn’t be constructed.  And I’m sure the University is desperate for places to put all their students.  But these things can be done in a responsible way, and what I’ve seen so far seems flagrantly irresponsible.  I sincerely hope that things do not continue in the direction they seem to be headed.  If they do, I think Oxford will lose something very special.  And if this is the future of Oxford, it’s already beginning to look a lot like the US of the present – bleak.

Trevor Griffiths, Shimer College, Chicago, 2013

 Full story:


Posted by: Linda Proud | March 25, 2013

Feeding all the birds

In the past few weeks we’ve stopped talking about the weather. We’ve each withdrawn into a personal misery which is national. Lately gardeners have begun to admit that we’re up against it. Usually we try and beef each other up with, ‘Oh, they’ll recover!’ or ‘Just start late – they’ll all catch up!’ but as day follows bleak day we’re now beginning to doubt. Like the plants whose sap has frozen in the veins, we lie limply over each day wondering what to do to take our minds off things. The list of jobs to do in the garden grows ever longer and I watch the always-sunny  ‘Gardeners’ World’ at serious risk of depression.

We’re lucky down here in central south. Up in the north, and in Ulster, where the power has failed, they are really suffering. Nevertheless, we feel the misery.

My greenhouse can take no more in. Like a lifeboat after a ship has gone down, it’s denying access to those equally worthy but arriving just too late. Brussel sprout and tomato seedlings, ousted from the house where it is too warm for them now, stand in rigid shock on greenhouse staging, while other seedlings still on the windowsill await their fate. Potatoes refusing to chit are taking up most of the space, and in fact I’ll move them today into the summerhouse. It’s a bit dark in there but I have no other option. Who knows when we’ll be planting them. It certainly won’t be on the traditional day of Good Friday.

Yesterday was so cold and so grey. It was peculiarly silent. The birds didn’t come to the feeders. There was no traffic. No one — or just a few hardy dog-owners — walked on the meadow. Today it’s a bit livelier. The goldfinches are back in their numbers (the feeders can take eight at a time, and we’ve seen as many waiting their turn in the fruit trees) but the blue tits, so decimated by last year’s weather, have become as rare as sparrows. David shooed off a couple of rooks this morning. I’m glad that amongst humans we have not got to the stage where we only feed the pretty and the tuneful. Or have we? (See below).

This is Holy Week and in my experience the weather is always bad, and then it brightens up at the weekend, but the forecasters say this is set to run on into April. What will happen to the fruit harvest if we lose the blossom? What will happen to the bees? They say that the numbers of UK butterflies are now so low that as many as eleven species are threatened with extinction. People say, Oh, everything will sort itself out in time, and perhaps it will, but the historian in me shivers, knowing that these are times of famine.

I’m sorry to add to the gloom with this clip, but we do need to be aware of what is going on in the name of ‘economy’ in this nation.

If you feel moved to do so, The Trussell Trust are asking for the donation of the cost of an Easter Egg to help combat hunger in the UK. Yep. You heard me. HUNGER IN THE UK.

Posted by: Linda Proud | January 17, 2013

Hale to the Apples!

According to the old calendar 17th January is Twelfth Night and it’s the day when across rural England funny people come out to sing to the trees. You may not know about it for they often do it in the dark. The sap of our ancestors rises in our bones. This is, after all, when all is said and done, Middle Earth.

‘Wassail’ means ‘be in good health’. People used to go from house to house, carrying the wassail bowl  ‘made from the white maple tree’ and decorated with ribbons. In it a potent punch of ale, beer, wine, perry, mead and any other alcoholic beverage we’ve got from the trees and hedgerows, as well as eggs, cream, spices, toasted nuts and roasted apples, a rather sickly cross between mulled wine and egg nog.

In the etymology we find that the words hale and hail are related, health and hello! The historians root the custom back to the Anglo Saxons. The word wasshail appears in Beowulf, but that poem of the 8th century was a long time in the making, hundreds of oral years in the making. Wassail goes way back, back to the time when we knew how to honour Nature with gifts and sacrifices, when we felt gratitude and wished to give back. So at this time of the year we pour our libations of cider round the apple trees and keep enough to enjoy ourselves while Jack Frost pinches our toes and cheeks. It all goes back to the time when our gods were trees.

Wassail! And here’s to the Ash, may you be well. Wassail! And here’s to the Oak, may you be well.

After the sorry failure of our apple crops in 2012, the trees need all the encouragement they can get. We are wassailing the trees in the Community Orchard on Saturday – in the dark. You never know who may be looking.

Somewhere buried in even the silliest so-called ‘traditions’ is a kernel of something authentic. Watch for the offerings to the trees at the end of this:

Posted by: Linda Proud | November 1, 2012

Things that go bump in the night

It was a cold, wet Halloween and little witches and ghouls ran past shrieking as we made our way to the village hall to hear what Network Rail has to say for itself. Back in the spring I wrote an impassioned piece (‘Grubbing up the scrub’ April 13, 2012) about watching living trees being turned into woodchip when Network Rail decided to clear its land of ‘semi-mature vegetation’ (in plain English,  large willows and hawthorns with nesting birds). That work was halted because of the local furore – you don’t mess with Wolvercotians when it comes to wildlife. Now they are creeping back to let us know about phase II before they start it. Soon. Like next week.

The government-backed and financed plan is to get freight off the roads. Who could argue with that? And then to electrify the lines, which means quieter, lighter trains. Well, we’re speechless. Then of course, should we argue, they have to remind us that it’s their land and a ‘national need’ so they can do what they please. So there.

Amongst the jargon we slowly establish that these super freight trains going from Southampton to Birmingham will be 775m long (half a mile to you and me, but let’s not use emotive language). And those electrified passenger trains, with their electrified passengers, will be going at 90 miles an hour.

Now to move these hares and tortoises on the same track, they need sidings or passing places and, yes, that’s what they’re doing, that’s the plan, to have one along the east side of Wolvercote Common with no vegetation between us and it. The view from my study will be over the common to a vast railway siding where long, long stretches of containers are parked up while the London to Birmingham whizzes through.

In a year’s time, on that eastern horizon of Wolvercote Common will be a siding for massive freight trains half a mile long. The trees will be gone later this month.

Are these people trained to withstand the onslaught of offended locals? Why is their mission statement, repeatedly displayed, ‘to respect the community’? Are they trained to choose their words very carefully, their images likewise? The photographs in the presentation were so dark and obscure that it must have been deliberate obfuscation, likewise the map laid out on the stage of the village hall  based on a satellite image never meant to be enlarged so far that nothing is recognisable. The only words one could understand were in captions attached to photos such as ‘drug use’ (picture of syringe found near tracks), ‘land fill’ and ‘waste tip’, both referring to my sacred ground, Burgess Field (personally I’d call it ‘abused land set aside to be healed by nature and wildlife’). What was annoying was that their attempts to manipulate our reactions and pull our stings were so pathetically transparent.

This is the picture of the siding site they didn’t show, preferring something taken at dusk on a rainy November evening.

A word in my ear from one of the panel during the break alerted me to the need to speak of the waste tip and its being toxic, very toxic, full of asbestos and other nasties, because that way they’ll never be able to put their workforce depot and concrete lorries on my cherry trees and hawthorns where the deer are tame and never run away. So let me broadcast this, Burgess Field is an absolute soup of toxic chemicals and should be avoided at all costs by everyone at all times. Then me and the deer can have it to ourselves.

Cherry trees, Burgess Field, April

There were funny bits, like the claim that the clearance in spring was done ‘in order to conduct environmental studies’. This is on the level of pulling the wings off a moth to see how it flies. Once again we demand plain English and discover that  ‘badger mitigation’ means blocking up their setts to persuade them to go elsewhere. But it is done so humanely, making sure no one is inside when the gates are closed. I must tell the badgers next time I see them, ‘better mitigation than cull, believe me, and no, I won’t tell you what those words mean.’

Oddly, the bogey man of this Halloween night turned out to be Natural England, the agency in charge of protecting the environment. The panel, who had come to get our feedback but didn’t gave us much opportunity to give it, were forcefully persuaded to forcefully persuade NE to attend the next meeting. Meanwhile the Wolvercotians, who have moved mountains in the past, are rolling up their sleeves to take on the agencies who say we can’t plant on the common because it is SSSI (site of special scientific interest). ‘Then we must get that changed by an Act of Parliament if needs be,’ shouts my dear hubby who, thankfully, has remembered to take his blood pressure pill.

Of course it is wonderful to have your nearest open space designated SSSI because everyone is so precious about it, but the truth is that the grazing animals don’t give a toffee and turn our biodiverse pasture into a quagmire after rain without anyone getting narky with them about it. All that we require is that the strip between Shiplake Ditch and Network Rail’s fence is taken out of SSSI. A row of willows on the narrow bank would act as a buffer between the village and those freight trains in the night. The vote was unanimous and we are going to pursue this. If it fails, there are other options, some perhaps involving elderly academics in balaclava helmets.

I think what upset me most, other than thoughts that this could be the last straw and our days here are numbered, was that our city councillor, who called the meeting and paid for the hire of the village hall out of her own pocket, kept talking about our ‘attachment to greenery’ as if we were sentimental old nimbies who need to be reasonable. No, perhaps what really upset me most was the thought of all those containers coming in from Southampton from the Far East. Is it because of our love affair with junk, with cheap clothes and the latest gizmos, that our perfect little village is about to be trashed by Network Rail responding to ‘national need’?

Of one thing I was certain: no one up front would be able to understand if they knew that, after the massacre of the willows in the spring, I went out to stroke the dying branches and apologise as best I could. The fact is, we are not nimbies attached to greenery, but sensitive folk who fear that our rape of nature has gone too far, that the host we live on is dying, and we will do all that we can to protect what we have left. For that we humans need to communicate properly, with each other and with Nature herself.

‘We are talking to ourselves. We are not talking to the river, we are not listening to the river. We have broken the great conversation. By breaking the conversation we have shattered the universe.’  Thomas Berry.

Posted by: Linda Proud | October 29, 2012

Fungus Foray

Last year I discovered a patch of field mushrooms and blewits and we got hooked on wild mushrooms on toast. I met a wizened old man on the meadow who said, sagely, ‘There are five that you can eat and five that will kill you. Learn those. The rest you can ignore.’

So we went on our first guided foray yesterday, hoping to enlarge our repertoire to 3 if not 5 and to come home with a lot of breakfast in a basket. The foragers were gathering at Bagley Woods and clearly most of them knew what they were doing. I wondered why some were carrying full rucksacks until the leader, Anthony, disgorged his to reveal a library of books, some of them hardback, collecting boxes and magnifying lenses. Clearly these guys were not interested in breakfast. They were serious. One woman was filling a basket with what, in my ignorance, I would call toadstools. Asked what she intended to do with them, she said, ‘Identify them!’

A mycena something or other. Non edible.


To be honest, I got a bit bored. My hopes of finding Chicken in the Woods or Honey Fungus were turning to mush. I did enjoy sniffing a stinkhorn. It turns out that this phallus of the forest floor smells like old flower water.

Crashing through the undergrowth in pursuit of one of the two experts in the party, who didn’t mind pausing to tell me stuff such as what decurrant gills are, I noticed a patch of moss being pushed up. Clearing it back a little, I found myself being stared at by a gelatinous eye. Yesterday I might have screamed, thinking it was an alien; today I knew better. ‘Stinkhorn egg!’ I called out.

The gelatinous eye of a stinkhorn egg.

Other joys included Jelly Antler Fungus and Funnel Cups (edible, apparently, but I didn’t want to disturb the little row they had formed.)

Jelly Antler Fungus

Funnel cups, I think.

Funnel cup

There were brambles everywhere, acting as trip wires, and drains to twist your ankle in. It was drizzling cold rain. I was with people who kept coming out with stuff like, ‘I think it’s triomoplopsis.’ People who could stand root still for twenty minutes while two or more of them consulted different tomes.

Identification is always tricky.

Even the experts rarely committed themselves to a formal identification, except for stinkhorns, amethyst deceivers (‘They look different every time, hence the name’) and clouded agaric.

Apart from one puffball the size of a gobstopper, we went home hungry, although one person knew exactly what she was looking for.

Someone got breakfast.

So, would we do it again? You bet. Meanwhile, I’m off to my private patches to seek blewits.

For information about future forays, see Fungus Fanaticus.

Posted by: Linda Proud | May 22, 2012

Hawthorn – Life out of Death

I had a den when I was a child and in my memory it is always May, the den lush with new growth and rich with green smells. I sat within stands (or flops) of cowparsley making flutes and, when I went home, took a branch of hawthorn, heavy with sweet, musky blossom as a present for my mother.

Cowparsley at Burgess Field

‘Take that stuff outside AT ONCE!’ she shouted. Why? It was so beautiful – why couldn’t it come into the house? She never said but from her vehemence it was obvious that May blossom was unlucky, possibly even fatally so. Hawthorns, clearly, meant death, but only indoors. My dear Mum – where did she get this knowledge from? For how many generations had it been passed down? She had no idea why May was unlucky, no idea that the taboo against bringing it into the house is rooted in hoary antiquity. Just don’t do it, that’s all. Why? Because, according to folklore,  illness and death will follow.

Some say that hawthorns smell of rotting meat and, indeed, the chemical trimethylamine, which is one of the first chemicals formed in dying animal tissue, has been found in the blossom. I was reflecting on this as I made my way to Burgess Field for the first time in seeming (teemng) months. Why would a tree smell of death if it didn’t help it to live? Does it attract flies? Do they pollinate it?

Once I was in the field, I stood by a hawthorn tree for awhile, just watching, and soon I was rewarded with my first sight of a fly, a common blowfly, but soon more came, nameless creatures I had never seen before, but flies nonetheless, alighting on blossom and, the longer I stood, the more that came and soon began to dance in the air like midges.

Spot the flies

Having learnt on Saturday’s foraging walk that May blossom and leaves are good for the heart and blood pressure, I picked some on Sunday and made a tea. Yesterday I had to go and see the nurse, who said she might as well take my blood pressure while I was there. I usually mediate while they puff up my arm to bursting point, because I am a great believer in mind over matter, and completely sceptical when it comes to statins. So I WILL the meter to go down, and it usually complies, but this time it slipped right down to that magic figure of 140 over 80 which is normal.

I’ve just had another hawthorn tea while writing this, and I’ve bought a drier so that I can store the blossom for the rest of the year and take it regularly.

So Mum was right and she was wrong. Clearly you don’t want hawthorn in your house if it means a house full of flies, but it won’t kill you. Indeed, drink it and it will massage your heart and sweeten your temper. But she never told me not to bring buttercups into the house. She held them under my chin to see if I liked butter but never said, ‘chew on this, sweetie, and you’re history’. Perhaps some knowledge doesn’t need repeating but, like the cows, it just never occurs to us to taste it.  Ranunculus repens – completely toxic.

Buttercups on Wolvercote Common

Under this lot on the Southend Road, Wickford, is my cowparsley and hawthorn den of the 1950s.

Posted by: Linda Proud | April 29, 2012

April Tempests

As I write, the house is being buffeted by gales, windows rattle, things in the garden crash, seagulls tumble through the air along with trees and recycling bins. ‘This weather has a moral quality,’ says my friend Jeremy, a very morose gardener right now. So, we deserve it do we? Probably.

I do believe it was the day after the hosepipe ban came in that the rain began and we haven’t had a day without it since. At first it was gentle, ‘female rain’ as the Navajo Indians call it. Now it is male and in need of a course in anger management. It lashes, it squalls and it ruins everyone’s plans.

There was so much on offer this weekend we could hardly choose. The Wolvercote Plant Sale, which resembles Chelsea Flower Show at closing time, with people struggling home burdened by great lolling plants; a foraging walk along the canal; Blackbird Leys Choir singing Vivaldi’s Gloria in the local church; today a foraging picnic contending with the Community Orchard pre-May Day picnic with songs and stories (we’re a bit pagan in the village). Most of these things were cancelled; what wasn’t, we didn’t get to, because it’s a duvet weekend with spag bol and Britain’s Got Talent.

I can bear all these losses, just, but two are those yet to come and I shall find hard. May morning on Tuesday – forecast is heavy rain – and for my friend Jan, who’s only in Britain for a few months, it could be her one and only chance to experience the pagan underbelly of sedate Oxford. No, not the shenanigans that go on around Magdalen Tower, but the alternative May Morning that happens in North Oxford, when mature academics arise before dawn to put on flower-bedecked hats and salute the May Bull with a pagan hymn.

May Morning at the Anchor Inn, Oxford, 2011

Beltane! The date now is synonymous with May Day but properly, I believe, is determined by the moon and can happen any time in early May. I’ve been promising myself all year that I’d get up at 4am to do the 20 miles to Uffington White Horse, no, not to dowse or dance in a ring, but to test my theory about the relationship of sunrise to the Horse at Beltane. Another year, perhaps.

But what really upsets me is that the rising waters on the meadow are cutting off easy access to my little local sacred site, Burgess Field, erstwhile waste tip now become a Thing of Beauty, and especially at the beginning of May. Am I going to miss the hawthorn blossom this year? Not if I can help it, even if I have to take a long detour and walk an extra hour in wellington boots, I’ll get there.

The water meadow is filling up fast. The line of trees on the horizon mark Burgess Field, which may soon be cut off.

Only Man is daunted by weather. Spiders still hatch, and spin webs from the word go.

Posted by: Linda Proud | April 22, 2012

April Showers

Dog-walkers huddle into anoraks and shrug their shoulders up round their ears; one swan and two geese stand stunned. The hail is coming down like truck loads of frozen peas, rattling against the window and bouncing off the sills. Two minutes later, it is quiet again – the walkers unshrug and the birds get back to their territorial dispute.

Soon the sun will be out sending rainbows flashing across Port Meadow, turning the greens and blues into stained-glass colours.

I sit here wondering whether to go out or not. Each time you get one of those iridescent moments calling for the camera and a picture to celebrate Earth Day, a big black cloud comes across the sun, warning you to stay in. Those colours and the richness of the damp, fertile ground are like bog cotton, tempting you into the marsh. Best to stay in, keep warm and dry, but oh!, right now it’s all changing…

Back in a mo.

The meadow in best livery

Two mallard drakes go chest-to-chest in a push off. It’s all sex, ducks and rock’n’roll on the pond these days.

She awaits the victor.



Posted by: Linda Proud | April 13, 2012

Grubbing up the scrub

When I was a child, the limit of my area was the railway bridge. Running beside the railway was Waterhouse Lane, where I did natural history projects for school, like collecting autumn leaves, nuts and berries. Sometimes I would go up the embankment on wobbly stone steps – you could do that, then, go near the line. Children of my generation were unlikely to throw themselves under trains, or even fall under them as they thundered past trailing stinky smoke. We went up the embankment, I suppose, to feel the rush of the train as it marked the boundary between our small town called Wickford and the village of Shotgate. I don’t remember the trains. What I remember is that under the third step from the top lived the King of the Slow Worms, and that we had to pay him obeisance at that place. I’ve no idea what word a seven-year-old used to mean obeisance, or how many generations of seven-year-olds had passed the knowledge of the Slow Worm on. Presumably they did not predate the railways, unlike crying ‘fenance!’ when you wished to give up in some mock battle – that had been carried across from jousting by children since the fourteenth century.

So that was the edge of my childish life in which I possessed all bits of woodland or scrub between our house and the stone of the Slow Worm King. I had dens up roadside banks, between fields, on undeveloped land – anywhere where plants just grew all by themselves. They were my secret world of inviolable privacy where I used to sit and think up stories or make whistles out of cowparsley stems.

These days we keep children away from railway lines. A year or so ago, Network Rail put up a horrid aluminium fence along the eastern edge of the Common. Since then, I’ve been willing the trees on the far side to push through and hide the fence, which is an eyesore. They’ve been doing well but yesterday they were all felled. No, ‘felled’ is too good a word. It speaks of woodland management – a kind of kosher tree-killing. This was not felling, it was grubbing.

It sounded like a strimmer when I went out to go to the post office in the upper village, but as I crossed over the railway bridge I saw what was happening. A mechanical digger was clawing up the trees and feeding them into a shredder. It was about five seconds from living plant to woodchips. This is April. Those trees and shrubs were full of nesting birds. Voles, slow worms and grass snakes lived in the litter where Jack in the Hedge, cleavers and cowparsley were just pushing through, making a fresh green carpet between the Common and the railway track.

The trees had survived a harsh winter and were just coming into leaf. I went down again in the evening, after the workmen had gone, to pick up budded twigs and willow catkins to put in a vase, and to collect hardwood cuttings to plant somewhere surreptitiously sometime. Most of the debris had been cleared by the shredder, leaving the orange stumps of very old, large willows showing their wounds to the sky. Some branches hung over the fence like soldiers on barbed war in the First World War. The fresh sappy green of new hawthorn had gone, leaving a mass of wilting, lusterless new leaf. Catkins hung limp and lifeless. This was Avatar in our own backyard.

I collected my twigs and, finding my way back blocked by curious horses looking for something to nibble, had to negotiate my way home. I felt like hugging everything.

The ground is being cleared to make way for extra railway track. We’d heard they’re wanting to raise bridges to allow for double-decker containers, but no-one mentioned new track. Why April? Why not February?

The trains run past now bald on the horizon, nothing masking the view. As I sit here at my desk at night, I can see the upper village and its lights very clearly. Everything has changed. They say the new track will be laid from here to Trap Grounds. That means they will be clearing ‘scrub’ right along the eastern edge of the Common. That means my blackthorn is next in the line of fire.

I first met it round about this time last year, when the full moon was in perigree (see the post ‘Green thoughts in a greening shade’, March 20, 2011). I was at a neighbour’s house, on their balcony, to see the event, and the moon took a long time rising – time in which to enjoy the dusky view. The darker it got, the more ghostly a tree of early blossom standing out on the boundary. ‘Blackthorn,’ I was told, ‘is the first to flower.’ I’ve since learnt, in this year of waking up again to what’s around me, that sloes grow on blackthorns. Keen to try a recipe for sloe and marrow jam, I’ve been out and about noting where the blackthorns are. This one, above which the full moon in perigree eventually rose , I went to commune with when its flowers came out a month ago. I stood beneath it and let it rain down blossom on my face. Tomorrow it will be dead. All I can do is to go out early and get a cutting before the machines come.

Reading last year’s post, I’m reminded that blackthorn makes good wands for witches. Perhaps I’ll magic it all back again with my hardwood cutting.

Posted by: Linda Proud | April 6, 2012

Cherry blossom on Good Friday

I hadn’t been to Burgess Field for about a month, before bud-burst. Now much of it is in new leaf. The path through the little wood is lined with cherry trees and their blossom falls in showers. The woodland floor has new grass, wild garlic, ground ivy, all pushing though last year’s litter, and now this confetti of petals falls in silent ceremony.

Cherry trees on Good Friday

Blackthorn is still in blossom and I’m noting its position to collect sloes next autumn, for I’ve just come across a recipe for sloe and melon jam.

Blackthorn noted

The roe deer are losing their shyness and do well at staring me out. Neither side won: we both got bored and went our ways.

Mr and Mrs Roe

Thanks to what I’ve learnt on a couple of foraging walks recently, I picked jack-in-the-hedge and hawthorn tips to make a ‘mint’ sauce for Sunday lunch, as well as cleaver tips and wild chives.


The great snowy symphony of hawthorn begins with tiny buds. By the end of the month we shall be in the grand finale.

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