A Month in The Countryside

The sun is shining in Rutland and Helen Walmsley-Johnson’s washing is finally drying. After a fashion.

storm-damaged apple tree behind cottage

The apple tree, after a visit from Doris.

Of all the signs that spring is on its way the most reliable is the sun. This is especially true when you live, as I do, on the northern slope of a hill.

From November to March the back of the cottage will not ever receive a direct hit of sunshine. Sheets hung out to dry require a stiff breeze if they are not to be brought in at the end of the short day stubbornly damp and occasionally frozen solid.

During long months of low winter light, we (myself, Mr Pushkin and Madame Sodoffskaya Cat) catch only the tantalising glimpse of a sunset while the main event goes on behind the solid bulk of the old rectory.

Sunrise takes place behind the tree-clad crest of the hill, although we do catch the glimmer of an otherworldly wash of pastels through the bare branches. In winter we have a peek-a-boo sun.

The front of our little cottage is south facing – a jungly abundance of roses, jasmine, flowers and shrubs – but the back is all subterranean green. There is ivy, a thick squelchy carpet of moss and beyond a dense box hedge, an apple tree shrugging away from the prevailing north-westerly winds.

The roof here slopes low to a single storey, which means winter gusts funnelling down from Robin-a-Tiptoe and along the Chater Valley can gallop safely up and over the sturdy Collyweston roof while we barely notice them. We have, however, learned to watch out for a northerly, which inevitably brings trouble.

We can’t say we weren’t warned about Storm Doris but I looked at the weather forecast and made a derogatory pfft noise. Since the UK began naming its storms there seem to be dire warnings almost weekly.

I covered the log pile, moved the bins and prepared for the usual mild buffeting. The cats are generally pretty good at predicting bad weather but are inclined to exaggerate, so I didn’t take much notice when they each scuttled off into the darker and more structurally sound corners of the cottage.

I carried on with my usual working day, writing at the kitchen table until it became impossible to concentrate for the banshee wails of Doris having her way with anything not nailed down.

Just before lunch, one of the old apple trees in the front garden issued a loud splintering groan and collapsed in a fractured fan across the lawn. A message arrived from a neighbour to tell me that one of a magnificent stand of ancient beeches had fallen, thankfully onto a wall but across the road.

fallen beech tree
A massive sycamore heeled over at the top of the village, casting its roots despairingly skyward. Through my kitchen window I watched another smaller tree come down across the lane through the valley and we were cut off. Doris began to roar.

The last time Pushkin Cat felt this traumatised was almost three years ago, when we moved house. When he feels like this he attaches himself firmly to me in a desperate ‘if we’re going to die, we’re going to die together’ gesture. It was only when he wrapped himself tightly around my ankles that I began to feel properly frightened – and then the tarped and roped log pile went down with a rumbling crash.

The Sodoffskaya belted in and shot up my leg. I began to sing My Favourite Things because in a crisis there’s something very comforting about Julie Andrews.

The guttering went next – a weird fluttering creak and a thwack. Peering out I could see one end was still tethered high up on its bracket, the loose end swinging violently. I put on my coat and boots, grabbed one of those elastic bungie straps and went to see what I could do.

What seems like a good idea can feel like a really terrible idea when it comes down to it – like trying to grab a 12-foot length of cast iron as it pendulums past in 70 mph gusts. Doris waved it about like a javelin. It took me a good 10 minutes of jumping and dodging before it was captured and lashed to the gatepost.

Madam Sodoffskaya hiding behind bedclothesBack inside, the cats were saucer-eyed and big-furred. I put the kettle on and launched into a rousing chorus of Men of Harlech.

The next day, Friday, dawned clear and sparkling and properly spring-like – a good enough day to put washing outside to dry, as long as I was careful to step over the wreckage.

It was only when I’d finished putting the log pile back together that I noticed the sun had finally climbed above the apex of the roof and was touching the top of my washing line. Beneath the wrecked apple tree lay a splatter of violets. Spring is here.

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


  • googleplus
  • linkedin
  • rss
  • pinterest

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