+ Litter at Narborough Bog 2 (c) Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust

In the natural world, no detail is too small

sunday-darwen-moor-fire-can-be-seen-from-brinscall-by-alan-wright/The Wildlife Trusts

Today is World Environment Day but in spite of the fact that we have, in the last two months, achieved unprecedented low levels of pollution and have witnessed a cheering revival in our desire to learn how to live with nature and to garden, I regard the day with mixed feelings.

Which is a shame as here in Britain, at least, this year should surely be the most memorable to date since the United Nations’ World Environment Day programme was founded in 1974, with the intention of ‘raising awareness and taking action on urgent issues from marine pollution and global warming to sustainable consumption and wildlife crime’.

Our lockdown has prompted a widespread outpouring of love and understanding of the benefits of nature. It has also led to public promises by individuals, businesses and industries, to make genuine, realistic and lasting changes to our unsustainable ways of living and to clean up our planet, once and for all.

It all makes for encouraging reading but during this first week of the gradual lifting of the lockdown, our treatment of the natural world has been distressingly shocking. It has been a stark reminder that we still have a long, long, long way to go before we achieve a truly green world.

Thousands of people crowded the beaches, public parks, riversides and meadows across the country to make the most of the unseasonably warm weather. Understandably, we all want a change of scene after weeks at home but instead of leaving these places of natural beauty in the good order that they were, the shocked volunteers who care for them were left with record amounts of rubbish and human waste to clear up.

Adding insult to injury, some of these admirable workers were treated with abuse for attempting to ask visitors to take their detritus home with them, and for trying to do the job of maintaining our glorious landscapes and keeping us safe while we spend time there.

In the same week, there has also been a huge increase in the number of wildfires, vandalism, littering and disturbance to wildlife in our nature reserves, so much so that on the very day that we mark World Environment Day, The Wildlife Trusts has had to issue an urgent plea to the public to ‘love and look after’ our natural green spaces and the wildlife that lives within them.

Among the horrifying reports received by The Wildlife Trusts was news that huge swathes of the South Pennines Moorland have been devastated by wildfires, apparently caused by barbecues, while reserves in Hampshire and on the Isle of Wight have been blighted by fly tipping, racist graffiti and fights with broken bottles.

Communities and people living near many reserves have been harassed by visitors, while visitors themselves have put their own lives and those of the rescue services in danger by swimming in lakes and reservoirs marked as dangerous (the water is too cold, or toxic algae poses a threat to health). In many areas, signs about COVID-19 and social distancing have been destroyed, fencing to protected and restricted areas removed, and rules about respecting wildlife and nesting birds ignored, often to the tragic end of the animals involved.

‘I’ve worked in the sector for nearly 30 years,’ says Chris Williams, Land Management & People Engagement Director for Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, ‘and I’ve never seen anything like this. Our land management teams are already struggling to cope with the impact of the Coronavirus outbreak and this is causing additional and unnecessary stress to those dedicated staff and volunteers who care for these places.’

Appeals to our common sense and understanding are essential, of course, but I fear that just as the notices in the reserves are ignored and torn down, so these pleas will go unheard and worse, challenged. It takes just one spark from an open fire or barbecue, or a cigarette carelessly flicked away, as they so often are, for acres of natural habitat to be burned to a cinder and life destroyed.

Lessons about nature, from the basics all the way through to more advanced plant science, must be learned and experienced from an early age, repeated and practised all the way through the school and pastoral care system. This is absolutely vital. But so is the urgent need to change our attitude. So long as we each act with a sense of entitlement and without any responsibility in our lives, then everything, and especially our fragile natural world, remains under threat.

If you are going out into the countryside, at any time, for any reason, this message from The Wildlife Trust is as relevant to our great open spaces as it is to the smaller nature reserves:

Do not light barbecues or fires

Take all your litter home

Keep dogs on leads (before you visit, check whether they are allowed on site) and always pick up dog mess and dispose of it in an official bin provided for the purpose

Always park considerately

Cafés and lavatories are currently shut on the Trust’s reserves so limit the length of your visit and stay local

Avoid trampling sensitive wildflower meadows

Smile at Trust staff; they are there to help you enjoy your visit

Follow The Countryside Code

Photographs all copyright to The Wildlife Trusts

+ NB Roses © Denislav Dobtchev

Florists, flower farmers & lockdown

Read a transcript of my article which appeared in The Daily Telegraph, about the effects of COVID-19 and the lockdown on the businesses of florists and flower farmers. Continue reading…

+ Photo by Ion Ceban on Pexels.com

If music be the food of love, play on

Photo by David Hablu00fctzel on Pexels.com

Today’s announcement, that the organisers of the annual Proms concerts hope to put on a series of live performances at the Royal Albert Hall during the first two weeks of September this year, wouldn’t usually be headline news. After all, the Director of the Proms, David Pickard, and his team are used to putting on one if not two or three live concerts every single day of the week, for a period of eight weeks, every summer, and the series has run along those lines for the past 124 years.

Pandemics, however, have no respect for history or culture, or tradition, even one that is good for us. Thanks to COVID-19, our orchestras and choirs, our concert halls and opera houses are unable to function and because of the way in which live music (and theatre) is performed, with musicians and audience cheek by jowl with each other in a confined space, in complete contravention of the current ‘social distancing’ guidelines, concerts and operas in particular are likely to be among the last events to be re-established when the lockdown is fully lifted.

It is a state of affairs that will almost certainly, as HRH The Prince of Wales warned in his Classic FM radio programme at the start of this week, mean the demise of more than one or two musical and theatrical operations. Ticket revenues are the lifeblood of almost everyone involved in the performance world but if social distancing is to remain a permanent feature of our lives for some time to come, as seems likely, that revenue is nought.

What is to be done? We need musicians and actors to be able to continue to ply their trade; their skills and the performances they create are essential to our pleasure and wellbeing in countless (and scientifically proven) ways. But how will we still be able to watch and listen to them live, within the same space? It has to be seriously considered and resolved as recorded music or theatre will never, ever, be as powerful, as nuanced or as emotional as it is when seen and heard done live.

As a keen singer and member of a choir which has already had five concerts cancelled since the lockdown began, the situation facing musicians is of particular concern to me and I’ve been mulling a possible solution.

I suggest a series of honeycomb-style structures, one for orchestras, another for choruses, and all with transparent walls so the performers can see and be in close proximity to their fellow musicians without breaking social distancing protocols. They should also be wired for sound and have (for the singers, partially-screened) windows facing the maestro and the audience.

Image by bdyczewski from Pixabay

The Victorian prison chapel at Lincoln Castle, or the catacombs built into the rock on the island of Crete (above), while slightly ghoulish references, give you an idea of how such structures might be arranged to work.

Photo by Ion Ceban on Pexels.com

There are accoustic and visual design opportunities in such structures that could revolutionise the performance experience.

As for the audience, many of our fabulous theatres and halls already have tiers of boxes so it should simply be a matter of converting existing ones into one-person cubicles, and rolling out their design to fill the rest of the audience space.

Over to you, interior architects! PS. Your challenge is to sensitively and beautifully adapt existing buildings, to retrofit at all costs.

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Gardening thoughts in Chelsea week

This week, I should have been madly dashing up and down the avenues of the temporary showground that appears in the gardens of the Royal Hospital Chelsea every May; I should be chasing round Ranelagh Gardens and through the Grand Pavilion, back down Main Avenue and then doing it all over again, to make sure I don’t miss one single delicious detail of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Because of COVID-19, of course, I’m not and I’m missing it very much indeed. While the RHS and friends have pulled off an extraordinary feat by creating a virtual Chelsea Flower Show for us to enjoy online in just a matter of weeks, I know I’m not alone in missing the reality – the trees, the plants and flowers, the people, their chat and celebrating the results of their sheer hard labour; the creativity and the perfection, the genius, the magic, the heat/the wind and the rain and the glorious smells; the surprises, the disappointments, the knowledge, the ideas, the craft and the expertise.

With everything crossed, I’ve no doubt the Show will be live once more in the Chelsea Pensioners’ back garden next year. In the meantime, garden-loving friends have been sharing with me pictures and thoughts of what their own outdoor spaces particularly mean to them this week.

Most people who are fortunate enough to have gardens of their own will have found that lockdown has brought them both more opportunity and greater incentive to spend time there, and their plants have benefited from the extra care that has come their way. In my case, I am happy to record that this extra care has produced a slightly counter-intuitive result, in the shape of the rewilding of a space which I had for years disciplined into conventional orderliness, with pots and planters thoughtfully disposed around a gravelled yard.

‘Lockdown has prompted a less peremptory, more contemplative approach to the management of this small area, and fine weather has encouraged a proliferation of self-sown species including foxgloves, wild iris, miniature fennel, aquilegia, borage and comfrey, which, amazingly, have shown a remarkable capacity for grouping themselves in attractive shapes and combinations.

‘An additional result, a bonus of the first value, has been a notable increase in the resident bird population: the pigeons, sparrows and blackbirds which formerly ruled the roost now share it with dunnocks, tits and wrens, and I have just come in from a spell in my garden chair where I was joined by a robin which chose to perch on my knee.’

Our garden has been and continues to be a vital refuge for me and indeed the whole family during the Lockdown. Particularly for me, as I am on the Sheltering list and so am officially housebound until the end of June

‘We are so lucky to have the space as it is being used for a variety of things: exercise, impromptu meals and picnics, croquet competitions, fundraising runs, relaxing, reading, gardening, kitchen garden tending and growing, fresh air, listening to the cuckoo and other birds, chatting with neighbours over the fence and so on.

‘Surprises, there have been many, from finding out the differences between a perennial and an annual sweet pea and reading weather forecasts correctly to keep the bean crop and dahlia plants safe until the frosts have passed, to finally having the time to remember to cover the hydrangea with fleece before frosty nights and discovering just how sweet the leaves of the over-wintered swiss chard crop still taste (we’re not wasting a thing!).

‘Problems have been remarkably few and usually involve a job started but never finished (painting windows, planting up pots, treating the lawn) because a vital ingredient has run out…paint, necessary soil improvers etc.

‘The benefits have been varied and all good, from the village WhatsApp group that has been invaluable for buying plants and compost (all our purchases have helped to save a local family-owned garden centre from going bust) to making do and moving plants around, and stretching Best Before dates not just with food but with old seeds too and finding that most are thriving. We’ve also decorated the garden with homemade bunting, creating new living spaces to enjoy, and discovered the joys of Gardeners’ World on Friday evenings; it’s become a real highlight of the week for us and for our eldest child, who is enduring in London with only the parks for her outdoor space.’

A monstrous potato-tree provides a purple portal midway down my narrow, city garden. Beyond it lies my vegetable plot with its onions, tomatoes and French dwarf beans. Planting, weeding and watering fills time profitably, yet relaxing nearer the house, amongst a jungle of flowering shrubs, giant clumps of arum lilies and a sunny pond full of tadpoles, is deeply soothing. And oh, what joy my pond has given me. Frogspawn, then tadpoles and now, sprouting legs; I’ve become enthralled. I lose myself in watching their movements, seeing in their metamorphosis, a symbol of progress: from Lockdown to FREEDOM.’

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Go large with colour in the garden

Garden centres across England are set to reopen from tomorrow and while I need to free up some pots and planters to put them into, to celebrate the occasion, I’ve compiled a list of plants in colours that really pop, à la installation created by garden designer Jake Curley and stylist Selina Lake for Alitex, and in Jo Thompson’s garden for Wedgwood, at last year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show (both pictured, above).

Geums have been great favourites at RHS Chelsea recently and their long-lasting flowers and large, lobed leaves make them the ideal way to fill in the gaps as spring planting dies back and summer flowers bloom. They do well in pots and window boxes too. Geum ‘Copper Pennies’ is my choice.

Lysimachia will take a while to grow to full height but the spires of this herbaceous plant, rising up above narrow-leaved foliage (and the geums), create a fabulous firework effect in a pot or the border, making it the perfect celebration flower. I need to think about the colourway but I’m erring towards L. atropurpurea ‘Beaujolais’ at the moment.

Memories of sitting for hours in my parents’ garden, watching the bees clamber inside the tubular flowers of the Digitalis growing there, prompt me to include at least one variety of this majestic, spike-headed perennial on my list. The orange-pink Digitalis x valinii ‘Firebird’ is a distinctive change from the more usual purple, pink and white-coloured varieties and will require a statement pot or planter to match.

I want something to put in my window boxes and had been thinking of penstemons but the bright pink flowers of Pelargonium ‘Lara Starshine’ caught my eye instead. They bloom until December and the leaves are lemon-scented when you gently squeeze them.

Lastly, it’s not too late to sow some plants from seed. For their simple, natural style and clump-forming habit, I love Erigeron karvinskianus, a hardy perennial that likes full sun and shade and looks fabulous grown in plain terracotta pots and old stone water butts.

PS. if you head to your local garden centre or nursery in the coming weeks, do bear in mind that stock levels will vary while the process of growing, supply and demand is re-established, and that to help keep everyone safe and well, we must abide by the social-distancing arrangements that will have been put in place.

+ Photo by Ken Tomita on Pexels.com

For want of a good place to work

Photo by Canva Studio on Pexels.com

The smallest things are beginning to annoy me. I want to work in the sunshine as it floods through my sitting room window; it lifts my spirits, keeps me warm and makes artificial light utterly de trop (energy saving bonus).

The problem is that if I sit at the table immediately in front of the window, my back aches (I prefer to work standing up) and the light is too bright for me to see my computer screen clearly, which means I need to lower the blinds. Which cuts out the sun, banishes the sense of joy, and leaves me feeling cold.

The alternative is to find somewhere I can work comfortably at the opposite end of the room, and to leave the blinds up so the room’s ambience and my spirits stay up too. The problem is that that would mean having to move either my standing desk or the table which would, in turn, mean rearranging the entire room to free up space for said piece of furniture.

It took three of us to lift and arrange everything in the first place and none of my helpful family are on hand to help today. Besides, I now remember why I put the table in the window and my desk in another room in the first place; there are no power sockets at the opposite end of this room so to charge my computer I would need to indulge in another logistical exercise that I have neither the cabling nor the will power to resolve at the moment.

Note to self: in the days before COVID-10 (BC), my existing arrangement worked perfectly well and as soon as life returns to a more usual routine, it will again.

We remember, and say thank you…

+ simonlycett_gardendayflowercrownmasterclass_copyright-2

A crown for Garden Day

simonlycett_gardendayflowercrownmasterclass_copyright-2

Whether you can retreat to a garden, an allotment or a balcony, have windows blessed with blooming windowboxes or shelves and tables laden with treasured houseplants, this Sunday is Garden Day so take some time to get your plants and flowers into tip-top order and when Sunday comes, sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labour.

Make your local garden centre and florist online your port of call for any last-minute plant and flower orders and on the day itself, join the first-ever virtual garden party and take part in the online gatherings arranged for you throughout the morning and afternoon.

Go full-on flowerchild and make a flower crown with the help of celebrity florist Simon Lycett (pictured, above) and others, or listen to Sophie Dahl as she tells us all a story. If quizzes are your strength, join hortpreneur and gardening expert Mr Plant Geek for his garden-themed one, while the cooks among us will want to drop in on no-dig gardener Stephanie Hafferty’s garden gastonomy session.

Take a look at the full programme and join in the fun; download the Garden Day toolkit and Candide app, and share photos of your celebrations with @GardenDayUK and #GardenDayUK.

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Now is not the month to go a-Maying

MayDayinLondon

Today is May Day, one of my favourite seasonal festivals which, had it not been for the lockdown, I would have marked with a visit to Oxford this year, to hear the Choristers and Academical Clerks of Magdalen College sing their hymns and madrigals from the top of the Great Tower, and later, with a walk through Christ Church Meadows (below) or University Parks.

MagdalenChoirOxfordarchive

Fortunately, modern technology means that the Choir of Magdalen still sang this morning, upholding its 500-year-old tradition, and to continue my celebration, I have dug out some photographs of previous visits to the city of dreaming spires and extended the musical interlude with recordings of Palestrina’s ‘Agnus Dei’ from his Missa Brevis and Thomas Morley’s ‘Now is the Month of Maying’. Although there is a constant of procession of cars outside, later, as part of my daily essential exercise, I will find an elm or birch tree to jog around in lieu of a dance around the maypole or joining a procession with garlands!

I am also re-reading Christina Hole’s chapter on ‘May-Day’, in her invaluable record of the English year, English Custom and Usage. As dense grey clouds and steady rain chase away the sun and cheerful birdsong here, her notes about Old May Day strike a chord. Our ancestors, living much more closely attuned to the waxing and waning of nature, were absolutely right to wait until the weather improved, welcoming in the early summer with a festival on or around the 12th day of this month.

John V Camatsos from Pixabay

+ FloatingFantasiabyRandleSiddeley_copyrightGeorginaViney

Living in paradise?

FloatingFantasiabyRandleSiddeley_copyrightGeorginaViney

Four weeks and counting spent cooped up in our homes and gardens (if you’re lucky enough to have one) has probably laid bare a nagging flaw or two in the way they function. It has almost certainly also inspired ideas for a more comfortable way of living too. For landscape designers such as Randle Siddeley, creating spaces that suit our lifestyle is at the heart of every garden he creates, as I discovered when I spoke to him a few weeks ago…continue reading

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Dancing with butterflies

With no cars on the roads, I’ve decided to switch off my ‘phone’s birdsong alarm as I’ve found that the real thing has become loud enough to wake me at dawn each morning, while the humming of bees has been helping to set my little grey cells working as the insects busy themselves in the eaves above my window.

Brimstone and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies have taken to dancing in pairs through the empty streets and hover flies have joined them, hovering for minutes at a time, untroubled by the sudden side drafts that would usually lash them away as the city’s traffic passes by.

Slightly further afield, while out running the other evening through the little nature reserve that lies a short distance from my home, a young muntjac bounced out of the undergrowth to my right and scampered across my path and into the copse to my left, putting up a swan at the same time, which honked in warning as it presumably left its mate nesting on the river ahead of us.

My most magical moment to date, however, came early on Easter Saturday morning, while I was spelling out my name with a dastardly series of exercises composed by my local BMF fitness instructor. As I counted out the burpees, press-ups, jump squats and mountain climbers, a sound of rapid hammering rose up from the copse nearby. It was a woodpecker drumming out its call, too fast for me to keep time to but a thrilling noise  that I’ve not heard for quite some time.

We still have a couple of months to go before the start of this year’s 30 Days Wild but if the lockdown continues for a while yet, who knows what we might see and hear by then!

 

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A Good Friday tradition

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Today is Good Friday and on this day each year, members of the Royal Choral Society and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra are back stage at the Royal Albert Hall, preparing to perform Handel’s Messiah.

The Royal Choral Society was formed for the opening of the Royal Albert Hall in 1871 and sang its inaugural concert in that place on 8 May 1872. Of all the choir’s traditions that have evolved over the years since then, its annual Good Friday performance of Messiah is perhaps the best known.

This year was to have been the choir’s 144th Good Friday presentation of this powerful, spiritual work. Because COVID-10, however, it has had to be cancelled for what is only the third time in the choir’s history – the previous two cancellations were due to bombing raids during World War Two.

Instead, thanks to the coronavirus-prompted Royal Albert Home online series, the choir and orchestra will give a ‘virtual’ performance. From 14.30hrs BST, you can join them either by singing along or just listening to a recording of their concert and at 16.45hrs, they encourage you to head to the RAH website, where you can watch a video of the choir singing the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, which the expert technicians at the Hall will knit together to make for broadcast today.

I hope you will mark this special day with them.