Those of us old enough to have watched Open All Hours will remember Ronnie Barker’s catchphrase, “it’s been a funny old day”.
And every time I sit down to write my blog, I can hear him speaking those words, a picture of him outside his shop in his sandy overalls popping into my head.
Somehow, when I review the day, or the month, or the season – whatever it is – I’m struck by all the little things that made it unique. A month or season that felt different to any other I’ve experienced as yet.
We’re coming up to five years in our little garden, so you’d have thought there’d be a lot of sameness about each January or February by now. And, indeed, the regularity and certainty that, regardless of pandemic or war, the snowdrops will appear like clockwork, year after year, is one of the things that surely makes that connection to nature so comforting.
As I write, and think, I guess it’s perhaps life outside of nature that changes so much. And with that our perspective adjusts.
Maybe the trees and the snowdrops are the rock, the stability, our grounding in life. It’s all the chaos we make around them that makes each month feel like a ‘funny old month’.
Whatever goes on outside of nature makes us view those snowdrops in a slightly different light. When we feel happy, they bring us joy and delight. When we feel sad, they bring solace. When we are optimistic, we notice they have spread further this past year; when we feel less upbeat, we notice the patch dug up by Badgey the badger.
Likewise, my gardening toils take on a different role, provide a different purpose, at different times.
During December, I seemed to be fighting some low level, non-Covid bug for most of the month. I had little energy for serious gardening, yet an hour or so outside, wrapped up in multiple layers, did enormous good for my well-being. Kicking a few leaves off the grass, or collecting fallen twigs for the fire, that beautiful fresh air and a bit of gentle exercise did me the world of good.
Perhaps it felt reassuring that whilst I might not have been 100%, good old resilient nature was showing me how it was done. That not much stopped it in its stride; that I could rely on it to keep, stoically, carrying on.
After all these years, I still don’t find English winters the easiest. They can be very bleak and everything seems muted, the life almost sucked out of things around us.
Yet on a bright winter’s morning, there’s almost nothing quite as beautiful. The stillness, the quiet, the sparkly reflective white making everything as one. The scarcity of these mornings making them all the richer for it.
And the contrast, looking out, from the cosy warmth of indoors.
As we came in to January, the first flowers of the year opened and with them my energy returned.
I had a busy couple of weeks pruning dozens of roses and our ancient Wisteria in the walled garden.
Bliss. That contrast again. If you are familiar with January in the UK and know me even a little, you’ll realise this wasn’t my feet in the stream.
My feet, yes, with (rare!) pretty toes, but in Sydney harbour. My eyes are filling as I write that. I can’t quite believe we were there.
Go back a year and we thought it could be 2025 before we could visit. But we really, really did it. Despite much stress with Omicron and lateral flow tests and PCRs and watching infection levels keep rising and rising in London, in Sydney, in Melbourne; we made it.
It was a hugely emotional trip for us both. Spending time with Paul’s family after so long, seeing special friends who we’d only been able to email or FaceTime, seeing our little Tasmanian cottage for the very first time. Just connecting with a country we both hold so dearly and so deeply in our hearts.
It still feels like a bit of a blur. When I look at the photos: those saturated colours, the blue, blue sky, the warmth radiating from the screen, it feels a bit of a dream that we were there.
So much we didn’t get to do, so many people we couldn’t see, so many walks we didn’t have time to take, but gosh it gave us so, so much.
Revived us in a way we could never have envisaged.
We arrived back on the day of storm Eunice. Not the smoothest landing ever.
After 24 hours of travel, on arriving home we literally left our suitcases on the front step and intuitively walked on into the garden. It was the garden that we both had missed. We yearned to be there, standing under the big cedar, just breathing it in.
And, of course, the cedar stood strong, despite the winds, just as it had for the past 200 years.
As the day progressed, many branches came down across the garden. Abandoned nests fell from the trees. The beautiful Ceanothus next to the garage was ripped out of the ground.
We wondered what on earth we were doing back here.
Yet the garden soldiers on. My wonderful husband has been out with his chainsaw making it beautiful again. And oh, there is so much of spring already.
That bleak air of whiteness has gone. There is some warmth – physical and visual – all around. You can see it, even on the page.
Daryl appeared to have brought lots of his friends round to help with the garden-sitting whilst we were away.
Storm Eunice, far from making them retreat into safety, brought out six roe deer, three muntjac, a hare, a pheasant and a couple of rabbits into view from the kitchen at dusk that first night. Almost all of them at one time. Our garden seems to get more David Attenborough by the day.
I’ve been out cutting back the perennials as fast as my hands and secateurs can move, attempting to beat the new rush of growth now coming through. I can’t really describe the feeling this has brought me. Joy? Elation? Nothing seems quite big enough to sum it up.
It’s that feeling of something coming from nothing. That beneath the ground is a whole new summer. The beds I’ve finished are almost entirely bare, but for a few specs, upon close examination, of tiny new green buds coming through.
I know this happens every year, but it still feels completely miraculous. That whole, brand new growth will appear, all by itself. And with the new editions I planted in the autumn, plus the things I split and moved, the stall is set and time will soon reveal what is to be. If I did nothing from now on, it would all still happen.
Very quickly, I’m reminded exactly why we did come back. There is nothing, just nothing, like gardening in the UK. Things just want to grow here. You can’t stop them. You feel like you are working so gently with nature. That it’s a joint thing. You’re allowed to decide some things, nature is allowed on others. But it wants to work with you. There is no fight. The soil is open and workable and receptive to new roots. If there’s a gap, it will fill it for you; perhaps with forget-me-not, or foxglove, or feverfew. Something that just fits and works and adds to the whole.
I can’t not be a part of this for the time. It would break my heart to leave my garden now. And so I feel happy that we are here, that we can now visit Australia reasonably regularly again, but that we’re in the right place for now.
But I also feel the call of Australia. Of our little house in Tasmania, of making my Australian native garden one day. It’s a totally different type of gardening, but one that I need to do before my days are up. An Australian native garden is already inside me, patient for the moment, but needing to come out at some point in time.
I’m left, at the end of winter, feeling as content as content can be. I’ve reconnected with Australia, I’ve re-appreciated England and I’m looking towards spring and summer as they unveil themselves in front of me.
So, you see, it’s been a funny old winter. One of three ‘halves’. The challenge, the thrill and then the deep appreciation and contentment of the good old ‘normal’. How lucky am I?