Monday, 23 May 2022
WHERE does time go? As I get older, the months and years seem to fly by. It feels like I turned in at 10pm on a summer’s evening and woke up six months later.
The night sky is as dark as squid ink. If it was not for cloud cover, I’d be able to scan the firmament with my telescope.
We go to bed and look forward to tomorrow and a new adventure.
I have always noticed that mornings seem to be darker after the shortest day. Is it the tilt of the Earth’s axis as our planet circles the sun? I don’t know.
The winter solstice has passed thankfully and the days are slowly getting longer, second by second, but they still seem to drag and appear increasingly gloomy.
Both Christmas and Boxing Days have slipped by. As New Year’s Eve approaches, let us all look forward to 2022.
There is nothing to discourage or stop us from getting out, so we do just that.
We’ve been invited to visit some extensive private land in the south Chiltern hills.
Beforehand, Rosemary and I stop off at the Black Horse pub in Scots Common between Checkendon and Stoke Row, where we each down a lovely pint of beer and eat a tasty bacon roll. Nothing better, we think. As usual, the pub is full of friendship and laughter and we are made to feel at home. The pub’s cat curls up on Rosemary’s lap and the resident black Labrador eyes up our food.
After wishing the staff and regulars a happy new year, we leave the pub and Rosemary drives us eastwards towards Basset Manor in Dogmore End through a potholed track which is tight with high banks topped with hedges.
We turn right at a dodgy
T-junction and shortly afterwards go right again past Whitehall to enter Lovegrove’s Lane, a single track. Arriving dead on time at our destination, we are greeted by Toby Greenbury, owner of Checkendon Equestrian Centre, which I mentioned here three weeks ago.
Our host leads us through cobbled yards past his house, multifarious outbuildings, indoor and outdoor schools and large stable blocks. Friendly horses nod at us as if in approval. I like them.
Accompanied by his friendly spaniel Harry, Toby leads us through a broad wooden gate. Immediately we stop to admire the pond that I mentioned previously.
A small island occupies the centre, soon to be home to a mini-Japanese pagoda in memory of a dear friend.
Toby tells us that the original island slipped into a watery grave overnight for some reason.
Some swamp cypress grace the scene. I love to see ponds, especially in woodland settings.
We continue our guided tour through this magical place. I must stress we are on private land but there is a marked public right of way that leads from Lovegrove’s Lane to the church of St Peter & St Paul in Checkendon village.
Please stick to the path and take any litter home. The vast majority of landowners cherish their property and look after it for the benefit of all, which is abundantly clear in this case. Under native beech, oak, yew and cherry trees, we study camellias with the most delicate, charming flowers, a creamy, pinky-white and so attractive.
Romanesque pillars crafted from dead oak trunks stand among Rhododendron ponticum, which is not one of my favourites but is controlled here. Horse chestnuts are also present.
I examine two of the largest fake mushrooms I have ever seen. About 6ft tall, they have caps made out of 1p and 2p coins.
Toby points out some really large Monterey pine, a native of mainland and Baja California and parts of Mexico. It is rather extraordinary to find them in this setting.
The trees exhibit a distinctive, fissured, blackish bark. We wonder who planted them all those years ago as they were first introduced to Britain in 1833 by David Douglas, the renowned plant seeker and collector. These must be some of the oldest here. We have a more recent specimen in our front garden.
Moving on, the planting by Tony and his wife Jennifer is inspirational and includes some rare trees.
All that we see will only be fully appreciated by future generations. Rosemary and I are trying to do the same in a much smaller way back home. An upside-down beech (I’m not kidding) is an interesting touch, as is a line of Wellingtonias.
Varieties of crab apple are full of winter fruit, as is a pyracantha, the largest that I have ever seen.
Uncommon varieties of lime, or linden trees, make a stand and witch hazels flower.
We see a second pond, smaller than the first, and nearby a cedar of Lebanon tree is well-established.
Wherever you look there is a surprise. We spot a small monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana), or Chilean pine, and then another.
We watch a member of staff from the equestrian centre lead two horses into a paddock.
A neatly designed round meeting place contains a wooden throne.
We find some of the most disfigured trees that I have ever encountered, bent at all angles but growing naturally. This is the sort of thing that gives a genuine woodland character.
We walk past a neat looking, elevated wooden hide with a sturdy ladder. Lovely for adventurous children.
Large badger setts with huge excavated entrances and exits advertise themselves. It is easy to determine when one is occupied as no leaf blockage is visible and claw marks tell their own tale.
We have seen so many trees and shrubs that we have lost count; there was so much to take in.
The three of us return to our starting point and Rosemary and I are invited to have a cup of tea. As I have an aversion to caffeine, we kindly decline. Also, my boots are very muddy.
Instead, we head home with the knowledge that we can return anytime. We will be back in spring to see all the woodland flowers. Thank you, Toby and Jennifer.
When we get back the sunlight is fading. We walk outside for the day’s final tour of the back garden.
The paths are deep in fallen leaves, fodder for earthworms.
The birds sing what sounds like the Last Post but, quite the opposite, they seem to be happy to be alive.
Droplets of water hang off the ends of pine needles, luminous in the last shafts of sunlight, transparent, small perfect orbs, the stuff of life.
Since I began writing this column, Rosemary and I have been asked to visit so many places that it has been hard to keep up with all the invitations.
So to all of you, thank you. You have not been forgotten or ignored and we will be in touch soon.
We wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous new year.
03 January 2022
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