If I had a pound for everyone who said there can’t be much for me to do in the garden at this time of year…..well, I think I could probably employ an army of men, who could perhaps help me achieve at least half of my very long list of winter jobs.
Of course, it’s not a ridiculous thing to say and I always try and be polite rather than ask if they are completely insane, but of the seven seasons we have lived here so far, the two winters have undoubtedly been the most productive to date. Spring and summer see me frantically trying (and failing) to just tread water in terms of weed (read, nettle) growth and autumn is one long raking and carrying exercise, in my somewhat futile attempt to stop our enormous collection of mature trees entirely smothering every last inch of our three-acre lawn. So, all the ‘progressive’ jobs I conjure up have to be done in full thermals and (thankfully, this year, neoprene-lined) wellies, whilst I desperately try to tick off as much as possible before nature takes over and my knees are once again an attractive red, blotchy mess of stinging nettle bumps. Frost is my friend, in the race to get things done before everything disappears under another green veil of the dreaded nettles.
Last January was one enormous clearing session. Removing dead bamboo (who knew it was possible to actually kill the stuff?), digging out probably 40-year old roses that now found themselves in the deepest, darkest shade of evergreen trees and, in the main, seemingly doing an awful lot of moving piles of ‘stuff’ from one place to another with my trusty – even if now only held together with one of its original four screws – wheelbarrow.
But this year, January was about the pond. (And clearing the leaves I hadn’t quite got to in October. Or November. Or December, for that matter.) But the pond. Oh, the pond.
There has been a ‘pond’ here for many, many years. I looked back through my photos to search for a beautiful photograph of it when we arrived 18 months ago. This was the best I could come up with:
Perhaps it was a big ask to find. I’m not sure the abandoned Christmas tree doing backstroke just to the right of the photo, really added to its beauty. Or, perhaps, the broken, upended paving stones around the edge. I guess it had that ‘potential’ that is so often spoken of.
But thankfully, the more-than-wonderful Pete the Pond came to our rescue. With nothing more than a few spades and bit of PVC, he has totally and utterly, completely transformed our ‘pond’. It definitely no longer needs apostrophes.
Instead of apostrophes, it has hibernaculums (that’s a place to hibernate, to you and me), a frog cave, a grass snake habitat, owl and kingfisher perches (not to be confused with each other), a beetle home. It’s an extraordinary creation out of almost nothing – pulled together from treasures found in our woodland and wilder parts of the garden. There’s nothing Pete doesn’t know about attracting all forms of wildlife to water and his enthusiasm is unbelievably infectious.
There is, however, one slight hazard. Pete assures me a crawling baby could get themselves out of the pond, with its gently sloping sides and rocks to hold on to. But, for the first time – aside from a couple of hours forcibly sitting on my hands in summer when we have guests over – I’ve found myself sitting in the garden. Just sitting there. Doing absolutely nothing.
I don’t sit in the garden. I work there. Can’t stop myself. Or at least I couldn’t until the pond re-found itself. I now find myself sitting on the little makeshift bench – in full thermals, obviously – just gazing and dreaming and generally feeling unbelievably content. I never realised how mesmerising a pond could be. All those little creatures and unexpected water movement. The shadows and reflections. The calming influence of something so big and solid (in a liquidy kind of way).
It has just given me so much pleasure and it’s only days old. As it settles down and grows into itself, it’s going to go on and on improving with age. I’m just so excited to see what wildlife arrives at our wonderful new watering hole.
And whilst, no question, the pond is the biggie – it’s the enduring feature that will go on and on bringing enormous pleasure and comfort – there was another kind of biggie this month. The pond happened gradually, quite literally taking 18 months to get there, removing one Christmas tree at a time, in many ways making it all the more rewarding when it did finally come together. But sudden, unexpected things can bring a different type of joy.
For the first forty years of my life, I thought ‘breath-taking’ was just one of those curious, very random British expressions. But a moment that’s stayed with me was reaching the top of the northern most hill on Lord Howe Island and seeing, for the first time, the full length and breadth of this other-worldly place, nestled into the bright turquoise reefs. I literally forgot to breathe for a few moments. There and then, the true meaning of breath-taking was suddenly revealed to me.
It was that same experience that happened to me when the snow started falling this month. Of course, I’ve seen snow before, even snow here in our garden, but the snow that came down this particular day was unlike any snow I’d ever seen. It was golf ball-sized snow. But unlike Sydney golf ball-sized ice, which falls as hail stones, entirely shredding a large-leafed subtropical garden before you can blink, these were beautiful, soft, delicate snowflakes, as if someone had shaken an enormous duvet in the sky and huge feathers were floating down to earth.
It covered everything in seconds, like watching a time lapse in fast forward, the grass turning white faster than my brain could comprehend. Within the space of a few moments, my world had turned into a wonderful black and white spectacle. One minute, I was nonchalantly pottering about, the next I was looking out on a postcard scene of a faraway land. It was another of those precious, precious moments to keep forever.
I wanted to curl up on the window seat by the fire, with a cup of tea in my hands and stay there, looking out, until the snow finally gave way to the heat of the sun. But fate wasn’t to be and instead I broke free of my trance and ran around with my camera, not knowing whether to set for a short exposure, to capture the snowflakes as they fell, or a long one, to pick up the overall whiteness outside; or allow a lot of light, to compensate for the thick grey sky, or low light, to compensate for the illuminous white. I snapped and snapped every combination I could think of and then packed my things and headed out of the door.
I had to get to London to meet Paul and I couldn’t get stuck in snow. We’d been lucky enough to be invited to the Australia Day celebrations at Australia House and I had to get on the road. The irony of fighting through blizzard conditions and impassable motorway lanes was not lost on me as I thought back to all those Australia Day barbecues, hunting for a little sliver of shade in which to cool down. And whilst it wasn’t the fastest or easiest journey I’ve ever done, it was one of the most magical. The M40 is lined with beech trees and Scots pines; it was like driving through a ski field with fresh, fresh, white, white snow accentuating the beauty of the wintery, architectural branches, not a brown patch of slush yet in sight.
Driving ‘to’ Australia Day, through the ski fields, was the second big and surreal moment that day. How amazingly lucky I felt, to have such strong and deep connections with two incredible countries. It gives me twice the number of opportunities for special moments to come my way; in fact, I think perhaps exponentially more, as I appreciate one so much more, for experiencing the contrast of the other.
As I drove, I realised, somewhat philosophically, that life is pretty good as you age. Not only do you have the perspective to recognise and fully appreciate special moments when they come along, but I think you also accept that disappointments are part of life and take them in your stride, rather than feel the immense frustration and outright anger, that we (or at least some of us) did when we were younger. The best things get better. The worst, not so bad. It’s a wonderful realisation that so many things in life improve with age, not just wine and ponds. It seems a pretty good deal to me, so I say, “bring on the wrinkles”!
Note: I’ve taken photo captions off to help the story flow better. If you get to the end and wonder what any of the photos are (or indeed, why I’ve included them!), just click on the photo and you’ll see more.