Jeez. What a year to start a countryside diary! Within a week of writing Mayâ€™s First Flight article, I found myself driving through sleet and hail on my way to Stow-on-the-Wold. A northerly wind was blasting the trees into submission and the dry-stone walls beside the road were crusted with snow and ice. A lone pheasant lay frozen in the roadside verge and the surrounding flora was doing its best to retreat into the soil. And then, on the car radio, a newsreader announced that we were experiencing the coldest spring in thirty years. His voice had the same uninspiring tone as someone reading the final pages of a telephone directory. He was probably unaware of the weather outside. If heâ€™d been in the car with me, heâ€™d have known that his message was hardly a sensational headline. 2013 is the only year Iâ€™ve seen frogspawn frozen in the margins of my local lake, hedgehogs learning how to knit, and swallows arriving with snowboards tucked under their wings. Blame it on the Jet Stream; blame it on the melting polar ice caps; blame it on all the double-glazing thatâ€™s keeping in the heat. Whatever the cause, this spring sure was cold. Which might explain my choice of birthday presents this year.
I turned thirty-nine years old at the end of May. With the approaching â€˜Big 4-0â€™ (and associated mid-life crisis), I could have asked for presents to make me feel young. Perhaps a dustbin-sized â€˜boom boxâ€™ speaker for my car stereo, or a CD entitled â€œWassup Appnin Man?â€, or a pair of those trousers that hang just below oneâ€™s bottom? But I didnâ€™t feel a day over eighteen (a couple of decades older, for sure, but not a day), so I decided to ask for the things I really wanted. But with middle age comes subconscious practical decisions. Oneâ€™s mind starts forgetting about indulgent treats and instead ponders things like, â€œHmm. That carpet looks awfully cold. I ought to get a warmer pair of slippers; maybe in tartan, that zip-up above the ankle?â€ But itâ€™s not trendy to admit to such thinking. Instead, we blame the weather for our practical-mindedness. Which is my excuse for why my presents this year consisted of some woolly undies, a tin of dubbin for my walking boots, and a wax jacket for when Iâ€™m out and about. Oh, and a bottle of gin for my liver.
Normally I would have received more seasonal presents, such as a box of mayflies for my fly-fishing, or a pair of Wimbledon-avoidance sunglasses for the late-June mania. But this year I opted for things that would keep me warm and dry. It was the end of May, after all. And the last time Iâ€™d felt it this cold in spring was when the leg of my Action Man fell off after I zip-wired him down the washing line in the garden. But then, blast it, the sun came out and we were treated to a bright and breezy start to June. Heat haze was seen above the fields and the sky took on a weird colour (I believe they call it â€˜blueâ€™). My wax jacket remained on its peg and my bottle of gin met with a sliced cucumber fate. Spring was properly here, and summer was not far away. Such is the promise of June.
The May-June transition is nearly always special. The Spring Bank Holiday gives us extra time to explore the countryside and take stock of whatâ€™s happening. Itâ€™s our opportunity to reconnect â€“ to the real and natural things around us Ââ€“ and escape the world of computer-screen pixels and TV entertainment that draws us ever-inward, like moths to a blinding light. And so I spent the whole bank holiday weekend â€˜unpluggedâ€™. Mrs H treated me to the ultimate present â€“ a weekend in the Black Mountains of Wales â€“ where we existed without mobile phone signal, or TV, or radio, or internet. We explored the Usk valley and surrounding woods and mountains. We stared through binoculars at treetops, to identify the sources of birdsong; we saw trout rising in the river (there was a huge hatch of March Browns coming off the water); buzzards were circling high in the sky, and below them, partridges and pheasants stood proudly in bold courtship. The meadows were filled with the flowers of buttercups, ragged robin and vetch. Red, tufted, and meadow fescue grasses were flowering alongside the river; as were the greater plantains, whose cream flowers swayed gently in the breeze. The woodland edges were fringed with flowering cow parsley, dead-nettles and garlic mustard. Above them, bird cherries were in flower and the hawthorns were in flower bud; field maples were shedding their â€˜helicopterâ€™ seeds, and the travellerâ€™s companion â€“ the Wayfaring Tree â€“ was loaded with white blossom. Orange Tip and Cabbage White butterflies were skitting between the trees, contrasting with the pale yellow-green (tannin-free) leaves of the oaks. The scenes, and the days, were perfect. Each dawn was filled with the bleating of sheep upon the mountains; each dusk was filled with the shrieking calls of tawny owls outside our window. But the thing that most captivated us was the purity and clarity of the air, which had â€˜cool crispnessâ€™ to the taste, and a haze-free â€˜emptinessâ€™ that made the mountaintops appear in pin-sharp focus. With so much going on beneath our feet, and all around us, witnessing spring in the mountains was an overwhelming experience. And this being a place that endures harsher winters and later springs than its lowland neighbours.
The next time Iâ€™m driving along in spring, with the windows done up and the heater on full, Iâ€™ll stop and think of that quiet time in Wales, and know that whatever Nature throws at us, there will always be a place where the wildflowers bloom, where butterflies flit, and the birds sing.