A Month in The Countryside

It’s crispy in Rutland and Helen Walmsley-Johnson’s hugging some trees.

winter landscapeJanuary – a month I used to think of as one to be endured, got through and survived; the beginning of the long haul through to spring and the Easter holidays; the month where out in the countryside hardly anything happens. Bleak, barren, silent.

I suppose that’s partly true. The days are short and there are clumps of ladybirds asleep in window corners and bats tucked snugly into the roof space, warm by the chimney.

Individual wasps hibernate in the log pile and sometimes wake up, confused, in the log bucket. As the cats and I relax by the fire, a heavy soporific buzz signals the start of a quick trapping expedition.

Not all waking wasps are noisy though, and a large wasp making silent progress up the sofa arm and across my leg provoked some undignified leaping about over Christmas, as did a large and energetic spider in the bathroom, which took me a good 10 minutes to round up and evict into the hedge. It was the Usain Bolt of arachnids.

While the cosy indoors is drowsy and relatively peaceful, quite a lot in the great outdoors remains busy. Food still has to be found and this is the time of year for me to take my bird table duties extremely seriously. Windfall apples lie across the lawn like broken crockery, having been hollowed out by blackbirds, thrushes and fieldfares. Now the hunt is on for whatever might be found beneath moss and leaf litter.

I keep a gourmet selection of seed, nuts, suet and mealworms in a box in the kitchen and the reward for my diligence is an expanding cast of regular visitors. There are the tits: blue, great, coal and mallow. Long-tailed tits arrive mid-afternoon in a tumbling acrobatic gang of lollipop-shaped birds. Their favourite food is the fat balls and there are so many birds they cover the feeder entirely.

There is a robin (of course), blackbirds and dunnocks, warblers and finches, pigeons and doves, buntings, wrens, a spotted woodpecker and a squirrel, 50 per cent deficient in the ear department – I wonder what the story is there.

Walking is harder in winter because Rutland soil is claggy after rain and builds up great earthy platforms on the bottom of my boots. The best walking days are those that arrive hoar-frosted and gin-clear, all blue skies, low winter sun and ice. Frozen mud does not stick to boots but crunches underfoot in the same clean and satisfying way snow does, redolent of childhood.

This stilled world is fascinating – leaves and twigs are furred and sparkling; sounds are amplified, the mew of a red kite crystalline in the peppery air; puddles can be tapped into hollow life as air bubbles swerve, merge and dance away.

Freshly turned molehills iced like bakers’ buns punctuate the white lee of a hawthorn hedge. The bark of a favourite oak, which marks an eastward turn on my path, is surprisingly warm against my cheek when I stop to embrace it.

I don’t go around randomly hugging trees, just my favourites, and on this occasion the hug was because of a conversation over Christmas with my brother, who tells me that tree hugging is a good way of estimating age. In ideal conditions an oak tree will put an inch a year on its waistline (not unlike myself) so if I measure my own wingspan – from fingertip to fingertip – my arms become an age gauge. I estimate this particular tree is around 160 years old. At that age I’d spend all winter asleep as well.

“This is the way of cats. Sell a kidney to provide creature comforts and they won’t thank you – kick an old cardboard box into a corner and they will cling to it like Rose DeWitt Bukater to a chunk of the Titanic.”

Also sleeping a lot are my two cats, although Madame ‘Sodoffskaya’ Cat spent part of Christmas in the doghouse (no pun intended) after I opened the door one morning to find a blue tit lying in state on the boot scraper. It was sternly pointed out to her that this is not the way we do things here: rodents – yes, birds – no. Since then she’s behaved herself. She has however, guilt-tripped me into dropping 20 quid on a new cat bed.

When she arrived last summer, Madame’s luggage included an expensive down-filled cat ‘nest’ in which she refused to sleep. As any fule kno, this is the way of cats. Sell a kidney to provide creature comforts and they won’t thank you – kick an old cardboard box into a corner and they will cling to it like Rose DeWitt Bukater to a chunk of the Titanic.

The cat nest went into a cupboard until it occurred to me that it might be better appreciated if located by the fire. It was duly occupied but by the wrong cat – Mr Pushkin Cat took up squatters’ rights. The Sodoffskaya spent a week or so drifting by looking hurt but the Cat refused to budge.

cats in their beds
Her next move was to pointedly occupy a hard wooden chair in the hallway and shiver dramatically. The Cat’s conscience suffered not one jot while mine was tormented with guilt. Then one day I caught her clinging precariously to some washing airing on top of a radiator…

I dashed off to Oakham and, after a quick assembly job, the Sodoffskaya was transformed from a rufty-tufty bird-murdering outdoor cat into one who hibernates for days on end in one of those naff fluffy radiator hammocks. Seldom has a plan regarding cats worked so well.

Helen’s book, The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years, is out now.
Read more of her beautiful countryside dispatches here.


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Written by Helen Walmsley-Johnson

Helen Walmsley-Johnson is a journalist and author who writes as the Invisible Woman. She has a weekly style column for older women which she writes for the Guardian. Her first book, The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years, is out now. @TheVintageYear