S is for Summer

Froth, Tails and TS Eliot

(The holy grail: searching for a remedy for Post Cow Parsley Syndrome)

I woke late on Friday (or should I truthfully say, even later) and when I pulled back my curtains, what should I discover hovering only a few feet away, but the most beautiful, handsome and magnificent barn owl? Having given me a long, greedy and admiring spectacle of him in graceful suspended flight, he then further obliged and dramatically plunged 20 feet down into the long flowering grass. Seconds later he re-emerged and perched (he must have been unsuccessful as his claws were empty), as if for photo opportunities, on one of the temporary sheep fence posts.

The long grass has now been cut (Mr B did a Ross Poldark on Saturday afternoon – fully clothed, I hasten to add, as well as wearing ear defenders and using a Stihl power tool! Mind you, having just folded up the washing, I now see why the original took off his shirt and used baby oil… clearly Ross knew only too well that once those damn hairy grass seeds get stuck in your shirt, it takes a heck of a lot of scratching and poking to waggle them out). So now the barn owl doesn’t need to hurl himself into the unknown, neither does Bramble need to walk on hind legs to catch a glimpse of us as we play hide and seek in the long grass. All of which is rather a shame, and which bring me to my theme…

The worst thing about June is that it is now proper summer – and if it is a damp – or in this case, a damp and hurricanous squib, then that…  is …  it, if you know what I mean. The great thing about April and May is that you know that it is all just starting; everywhere there is life and new growth, buds and birds, green of every hue and you know that the best is yet to come… In my mind, the floral emblem for this leap of nature, the very apotheosis of this is Anthriscus sylvestris: cow parsley to you and me. When you look out over the fields and see the margins laced with white froth, aaahhh! Oh to be in England in deed! I get this enormous Chekhovian surge of post-winter hope as I know that the glorious summer lies literally just round the corner, in fact, like the swallow, it has already arrived! Perhaps truthfully, the Chekhovian bit is just plain relief. Relief that you have made it through another long winter. A winter which we try to convince ourselves turns the corner after Christmas, but in reality trudges out through January, February and all of March. (Snowdrops are gorgeous but they are winter flowers and crocuses in my opinion are just a cruel tease). Here’s the thing: T S Eliot was wrong, April is not the cruellest month… a bad June is!

So, what to do now that the cow parsley – my absolute favourite wildflower by a country mile and also the very emblem of the English summer – is well and truly over?

I wonder if one can CBT oneself out of mourning and try to find a favourite wildflower for every month? That way you can roll with the seasons and celebrate with joy in every stage of the journey. That is the answer: find a flower with such impact and significance that one can look out on the wettest, windiest, greyest and coldest of even June days and still be cheered at its prospect, in the way that I was literally transported with delight by our neighbourly barn owl.

So I set out this morning, with Bramble, on a holy grail; searching for the answer to my Post Cow Parsley Syndrome. Like our well-thumbed copy of Search for Spot, I set out determined to find flower of the month…

Was it in the grass meadow? No!

Was it in the farmer’s field of beans? No!

Was in along the disused railway line? No!

Was it along the stream by the old mill? No!

Was it in the specially grown wild flower meadow? Well…

I did walk past an inordinate number of beautiful, delicate dog roses. Arching up through the flowering elder and other trees lurking in the hedgerows, it flowered from hip height all the way up to the top of the canopy. As I followed the river the different roses ranged from deepest pink to purest white. All fresh, delicate and pretty, like the softest, daintiest bunting, swagging its way along…


It doesn’t work!

They don’t have presence. It’s the same with cranesbill, the wild geranium – such a beautiful find among the meadow grasses – it does make you say “wow!’ out loud, but it is not enough to make you stop in your tracks and drink in the scene, speechless and full of wonder. Not enough to make you long for it all year long…

One of my favourite writers, John Lewis-Stempel*, claims to have made peace with the seasons. It is probably a little drastic, but here is how he did it. He decided to only eat and drink what he found or grew on his farm or in the surrounding countryside. Here smugly, is where his journey led him:

Usually I find midsummer, to borrow Vita Sackville-West’s phrase, a “small despair,” because from this day forth the darkness begins to grow more lengthy each and every day. But not this year. If one has fed oneself by the seasons – admittedly with a little help from one’s relatives, from careless drivers and from one visit to Waitrose – then one knows the rhythm of natural life, and that the truth of natural life is both mundane and joyous.

The darkness comes.

It goes.

And that is it.

Well, bully for him! Not sure how that helps me, nor indeed if I really believe him. Perhaps the nearest I have got to that is feeling a whiff of relief last year that the days were getting slightly shorter, or rather that dawn didn’t happen quite so alarmingly early. We had old curtains up at our bedroom windows which were so old that the lining had rotted through and they were letting in the light – the dawn light – which came blasting in at whatever scary time before 5. This, plus tamoxifen insomnia, combined with an overwhelming sense of not-keeping-up-with-the-garden nor indeed the rest of life, left me completely wiped out by the time we got to July. And so, for the first time ever, I was not altogether alarmed at the prospect of slightly later mornings. BUT, hey! This year I am prepared: I have belts and braces; thicker new blackout curtains, eye shades and an SOS text to a local gardener; so bring on the sunshine, the long days, the flowers, and especially the sunshine!

No, John Lewis-Stempel can eat his wildlife heart out. I know that in all honestly, I am not going to take up hedgerow cuisine, (while youngest child would love to shoot and catch for the table, indeed, by way of boosting finances and reducing vermin and pests, he is already on that particular mission, but after the fun of skin-a-rabbit, the barbecued cadaver was not up to snuff and the only other mouth it fed was Bramble’s), anyway, this part of Oxfordshire only does rabbits, deer and pheasant – with a bit of badger road kill – and you can’t dollop those on your pasta penne, can you? No, even given my love of hedgerow floral scrumping, with all its glorious seasonal variety, I have yet to find a genuine solution for my PCPS.

My sister, often a good source of diverting anecdotes, is equally, if not more, seasonally affected, and she has done not a little R & D around the subject. Most notable of which was her curious behaviour / survival tactics on returning to her then home in south-east London after her 2 weeks’ holiday in the south of France. She was so undone by hitting the end of summer, that she went out, bought a tray of bright pink cyclamen, filled a bowl with them for each room, brought in the log basket, lit the fire, drew the curtains and holed-up to wait for Christmas.

“Embrace the winter!” was her clarion call. “You can’t fight it, you have to go with it!” she yelled down the phone with evangelical zeal.

“OK girl!” I replied feebly. “That’s brave – hitting it head on! But aren’t you a tad premature? It’s only the first week of September!”


More recently, probably due to the fact that her son is no longer a toddler and can therefore open the curtains, said sister purchased a special S.A.D. lamp from John Lewis (no relation to my author) and while it definitely helped her get out of bed in February and March I am not sure it sorts out the PCPS! Still, I am not sure that she is as bothered by hay cutting, nor the passing of cow parsley as I am. She is too busy hoeing weeds on her cut flower patch. She shares her allotment with some classic neighbours who themselves are a rich vein waiting to be tapped. Cock-fight-John has a diverse collection of lean-to’s, huts and sheds, in at least one of which are some chickens which look like they have just heard someone ring the bell. On the other side, OCD-Reg (more kindly known as Reg the Veg) has such immaculate rows of veg, so tall and utterly weed free, that you wonder if there are other powers at work on his plot. But Reg does serve up a very welcome and down-to-earth cup of tea and digestive biscuit. While his patch is intimidating, his words are encouraging and few, “Never give up!” he calls from the depth of his very tidy lines.

My smug and indulgent SOS text to a local gardener has not been replied to, so I am heading out into the buffeting cold winds, armed with secateurs, loppers, ladder and twine, to take on my herculean task: subduing 2 particularly “vigorous” roses. A word of wisdom: do not grow “Rosa A Generous Gardener” (real name) on anything smaller than a church tower. Our nice polite pergola is so dwarfed by the roses that it looks about as useful as the 18 inch stonehenge in Spinal Tap. In our 40 mile-an-hour winds, my artful tying up and green twine have been rendered completely pointless and the 12-15 feet triffid rose bracts are flapping and swaying about violently; randomly seeking to flail anyone or anything stupid enough to walk in striking distance. So far, the gentle clematis, the gorgeous luminous delphiniums (record height this year) and the trusty beech hedge have been mercilessly attacked. I am going out now. I may be some time.


*Lewis-Stempel, John, The Wild Life – A year of living on wild food


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