A Room With An All-Weather View
by Dee Yates
A force eight westerly gale greets her arrival at the cottage. She stares open-mouthed as the clouds bounce across the top of the wooded hills and sling bucketfuls of rain into the side windows of the conservatory. Overhead a slate comes loose and she hears its slithering progress down the roof and a clunk as the guttering stops it from almost certain death. Its fellows dance and clap their hands in enthusiasm.
The garden slopes gently away before her eyes. It is bordered on two sides by a post and rail fence. On one of these sides there is also a dry stone dyke and a hedge. The combined effort of all three fails to restrain the antics of the wind but it finds little of interest to play with in the dead garden, apart from two trees, as yet unidentified, that stand sentinel in the far corners. Their branches thrash angrily, as if to punish the boisterous gusts for disturbing their solemnity. On summer days, she imagines, the bigger of the two will form a welcome shade from the hot sun. Now, though, the ground beneath its widely stretched arms is thick with rotting twigs and leaves.
The third side of the garden is bounded by a six-foot high stone dyke. Behind it she can glimpse the top of stone crosses and cloth-covered urns. No trouble from the neighbours then, she thinks, and wonders idly whether, in her digging, she might come across the remains of those outcasts from God’s acre, the illegitimates and pugilists who may be taking their rest beneath the neglected decay of her long border. The only other patch of worked garden shows similar neglect. Lifeless stalks and piles of slimy mud-brown leaves defy identification. The first job of spring will be to create order out of chaos. Then she will sit back and see what grows.
Beyond the garden the land slopes more steeply to the base of the wide valley, through which the Duneaton Water flows east to join the Clyde. Rounded hills, dark green with aging conifers, form a backdrop. The trees stop short of a meandering road that climbs steeply up the south-facing slope of the valley. On the opposite side of this tiny highway the land is bare of trees but sheep, like the glacial remains of a by-gone age, litter the pale patchwork of fields. Here and there farmsteads hunker down in hollows.
Twelve days later she wakes to the padded silence of early morning snow. The landscape has undergone a magical transformation. Even the firs have lost their dour appearance and stand draped in bridal purity. Only the electricity and telephone lines break the immensity of white. Poised momentarily on a wire, a lone kestrel arcs downwards in a futile attempt to glimpse a tasty morsel. Beneath him a field of sheep have undergone a yellow colourwash. They stand mute and unmoving in the bright blanket that covers their breakfast.
Scraping snow off the low walls of the decking, she sprinkles a thick layer of seed and retreats to the conservatory to watch. Within minutes the wooden platform is alive with little birds … sparrows, chaffinches, a single robin, squabbling greenfinches, and one or two cautious blue-tits that glean the crumbs falling from the table of their bolder counterparts.
Within two shakes of a lamb’s tail the snow has vanished. The Duneaton Water swells and as quickly subsides. Tempted outside by blue sky, she rakes the dead leaves from beneath the tree. Within minutes her fingers are white and her nose red. But it is a start. She is exultant.
Vibrating cottage walls send her running to the window. A huge transporter full of logs groans up the hill. Another follows it. So the rumours must be true. The wooded hillside is to be divested of its covering of forty years. The lorries work hard, backwards and forwards several times a day, though what they are doing to the land still remains invisible, for the deforestation is taking place on the other side of the hill … for the moment. She finds it impossible to imagine how the view will alter when the loggers eventually gain the horizon and start to lay bare the scene before her.
But a second heavy fall of snow stops them in their tracks. She watches enthralled as a transporter fails to negotiate the hill. It slows to a stop, skidding sideways. The driver reverses to the flat, revs the engine, tries again. Again he fails. For nearly two hours he lurches backwards and forwards. The road must be sheet ice by now. It is the onset of dusk that finally persuades him that he is fighting a lost cause. Somehow he manages to turn the lorry round and make for home.
Undeterred, they are back as soon as the road is clear.
In the early morning she stands at the window. The snow has gone now and the garden is black. Gradually the sky ignites behind the graveyard wall. She gazes in awe as the whole of the eastern heaven flames red. As day dawns, it is clear that the garden is not black at all but white with frost. It is the pattern of many days to come. Sometimes the frost disappears with the warming air. Often it lingers. In the base of the valley, where the winter sun fails to reach, it stays all day. Taking a walk to the bottom of the hill is to step into an icy corridor where gloves and hats remain a necessity long after they have been discarded elsewhere.
The limitations of gardening on a windswept hillside in the Southern Uplands soon become obvious. Dreaming of colourful cottage-garden borders and well-stocked vegetable patches, she visits the local nurseries and buys, much too much and much too early. The tender plants succumb to the late frosts. What little remains is finished off by the slugs. In their thousands they sneak out at night, emerging from the nooks and crannies of the stone dykes. They decimate delphiniums and banquet on Brussels. Declaring war, she sinks yoghurt-pots of stale beer into the ground and encourages them to a watery but happy grave. But still they come. It is clear that caught between molluscs and late midwinter, she must do a radical rethink to avoid disappointment.
Two bird feeders now hang from the lilac bush in full view of the window. Its visitors parade their spring finery. Tits cling to the peanuts. The rest prefer the birdseed. Occasionally she spots the red heads and yellow trim of goldfinches. One day, for the first time, she sees siskins. Down in the valley the air is full of the shrillness of oyster-catchers. Even at night their piping can still be heard. Dippers are building their conical nest under the bridge. When disturbed, they skim over the surface of the river and alight on rocks, little conductors of the water music at their feet. Lapwings swoop and dive over the flat pastureland on either side of the flow, and in the distance she hears the bubbling call of a curlew. High above, two dark, slowly circling dots are a pair of buzzards. Their mewing call attracts her gaze and she screws up her eyes to locate them in the blueness.
In late April the swallows arrive.
Spring brings an increase in the rainfall. It sweeps through the valley in slate-grey sheets, broken intermittently by a burst of brightness, just enough to raise hopes of a better day, before the hills are camouflaged by the approach of the next deluge. At other times the clouds are cotton wool balls that cluster bright-white on the horizon. Or fog that obscures the pines and, when it lifts, leaves wisps, snagged by the topmost branches, like sheep’s wool on a barbed wire fence.
Lambing is well underway. The ‘specials’ lamb early, cosseted in barns, in contrast to the hardier varieties. Her favourites are the newborn of the Scottish blackface. She loves their sweet expressions and their black knees and their cheeky resilience. Even so, a few do not survive the rain-filled gales that hurtle through the valley. Within a few weeks the younger generation is careering around in adolescent high jinks while mothers look on indulgently and let out the occasional low-pitched bleats of warning.
She has discovered that the larger of the two trees is an ash. She looks it up in her book, not being knowledgeable about trees, and is awed by its credentials. She reads how, before the coming of Christianity, the ash was worshipped in Scandinavia as a sacred tree. In Norse mythology Odin fashioned the first man out of one of its boughs. The giant ash, Yggdrasil, was said to have roots that reached down into hell and branches that stretched to heaven. Little fear then, she thinks, that the tree will capitulate to the westerly gales and be blown over. She runs her hand over the grey, fissured bark of its trunk. It feels like ripples in the sand of the seashore. A hint of purple colours the branches as flowers burst out of black buds. Winged seeds follow, clinging tenaciously in defiance of the spring gales. Its delicate feathery leaves do not uncurl until the other trees in the village are in full leaf.
The garden plot in front of the windows is a rare treat. It has revealed itself to be a bed of lupins. Colourful, odourful and long-lasting, they are a delight to her and to all who pass by.
There are plenty of passers-by, many of them hoping to get fit. Dog-walkers amble down the hill in all weathers and at any time of the day or night. Horse-riders too enjoy their hobby whatever the weather. Their mounts are kept in the field below the garden. There are five of them. Every day now she hears the steady clip-clop of their hooves as they are walked up to the farm to escape the dangers of gorging on the rich grass. But it is the weekend that brings a succession of female riders, hacking along the forest paths that wind through the tree-clad hillside. She imagines the horses breathing a combined sigh of relief when Monday arrives and they are left to kick their hooves in peace.
The more extreme form of masochism is the biker in lycra. In ones or twos, or occasionally in etiolated threads, they pant and grunt their way up the road that runs past her gate. The fittest are still seated or standing on their pedals. The rest walk. At the top they search in vain for a village shop, before setting off up the next hill.
At the side of the river is a well-used picnic site. ‘Overnight camping prohibited’ has been scored out and tents, campervans and caravans stay for days, nights and even weeks, braving the rain, the sodden ground and the midges. In the long evenings the raucous merry-making of their owners drifts up to the village. So does the smoke from their bonfires. The ‘No bonfires’ sign has gone, disappearing in flames at the start of the summer. More worryingly, a substantial portion of wooden fence disappears too.
When the last camper has left, the cows, sensing freedom, paddle across the river and wander over the picnic site to disappear among the fir trees. Alerted, the farmer races down the hill on his quad bike, border collie perched precariously behind the seat and barking in excitement. To round up the escaped cows is no easy task. Heedless of the dog’s efforts they lollop off in all directions, one or two attempting to jump the stone dyke that forms the still intact side of their field. The farmer’s curses echo along the valley. For several days this procedure is repeated, until he finds time to mend fences.
Unlike the regularity of lambing, the birth of calves is spread out over several months. Accordingly, a herd of cows contains young of all ages and sizes. She knows to be wary of the parents, whose docility can turn to attack if they feel their young are in danger. It is a mixed herd that she can see from her windows. The bull presides over them with shambling disinterest.
In the vegetable garden there has been some success. Potatoes are ready to exhume. Beneath the surface they have been kept safe from the marauding slugs. Onions too are beginning to exhibit a satisfying bulge. Everything else is mediocre. In the border a single delphinium has made it to the flowering stage. A far cry from the blue haze of colour that she had envisaged … but perhaps next year she will do better.
A greater spotted woodpecker visits the lilac bush. The little birds keep a safe distance, lining up deferentially along the fence while it feeds. The large red splodge on its head suggests it is a juvenile. Its solid beak attacks the nuts, sending nutritious showers onto the grass beneath, a ready meal for the waiting army. Then, at a sudden noise, it takes off, looping down the valley out of sight.
Swallows gather in their chattering masses on the overhead wires, black notes on a well-worn sheet of music. Their departure is a perennial sadness.
Everywhere is the smell of musty decay and dampness. Near the river-bridge a line of birches glint gold in the low sunlight. The backdrop of conifers does not change. But if the rumours are true and the denuded hills are to be replanted with deciduous trees, glorious colours of autumn may yet paint the hills in front of her in future years.
The wind veers to the north. A few starved snowflakes whirl past the windows. In the sky a patch of blue, scarcely big enough to patch a sailor’s britches, struggles to maintain its place but is soon overwhelmed by the grey nimbus. The flakes get bigger and begin to settle. She watches fascinated, as ever, but daunted by thoughts of the cold days ahead.
In the conservatory she sits typing, huddled now in the extra layers needed to trap the heat. From time to time she pads through to the kitchen to make coffee, her footsteps muffled by thick woollen walking socks, the only way she knows of keeping chilblains at bay. Returning to her seat, she stares out of the window at the wintry landscape.
The wires sag empty now. She dreams of the swallows’ return, sees in her mind’s eye their swooping and soaring, hears their excited chatter as they share reminiscences of a journey longer and more arduous than any she has had to endure. They will be back and they will bring with them the promise of sunshine. The thought gladdens her heart and, bending to her work, she begins to describe the remarkable view, of which her cottage is a part.