A Month In The Countryside

As spring continues to bounce through Rutland, Helen Walmsley-Johnson finds her beloved country walks accompanied by dancing hares, helicoptering quail and a startlingly combative ewe.

Illustration by Claire Jones.

Illustration by Claire Jones.

The recent burst of warm spring weather has been wonderful, although I’ve had to enjoy it from the kitchen table where I’ve been dutifully sitting at my laptop, working and occasionally casting wistful glances out of the window. I’m desperate not to miss the bluebells in the wood a couple of miles away.

Meanwhile Mr Pushkin Cat, blissfully untrammelled by an imminent book deadline, has been skipping gaily in and out through the open door (and sticking two fat furry toes up at me, for all I know). These days I often find him stretched in a drowsy, dusty sprawl on the sun-warmed path, the very embodiment of a supremely happy country cat. At last he has the ‘grass under the paws’ I promised him during those years in London, not to mention eating that grass… and the forget-me-nots, the salad burnet, clover, dandelions, borage and camomile. Occasionally he leaves me a little frothy parcel of regurgitated greens, which I think explains why I religiously avoid haute cuisine foam on my dinner plate.

After the silent winter months there’s a terrific amount of noise and bustle in the air. The dawn chorus is deafening and at dusk the other day something mysterious and white flashed past the window – a small ghost perhaps? Twitter suggested I’d just seen my first barn owl since my return. I loved to watch their silent gauzy drift slice through the settling dark behind my old Rutland home – death on the wing, maybe, but beautiful with it.

Night-time is just as busy, if less noisy. Lately I’ve been outside after sunset watching and listening for bats and they’re back, clicking and tripping the light fantastic about our eaves while the stars flicker on overhead. They are another sign that spring is here. I had two colonies of bats in the roof of my old cottage – pipistrelle and long-eared. A tiny gap above a bedroom window was their front door and one night we counted over 70 scrambling out for the nocturnal hunt.

Once I forgot to close the window’s upper sash and discovered a couple of dozen hurtling about in great confusion, having flown in through the wrong gap. Opening the window wide overnight, there were only two sleepy flittermice to be found tucked up in the curtains the next morning. A friend suggested facilitating their departure with a tennis racket (he was joking) and once you’ve watched a waking long-eared bat unfurl ears like curled cashew nuts you too could never contemplate such a thing.

“I clambered over a stile to meet one ewe, lambs safely behind her, stamping first one foot and then the other as she lowered her head. ‘Don’t push it, sunshine,’ she said.”

The day finally dawned (wet, cold and lashing with rain, obviously) when the page proofs were done and I could look forward to a good long, muddy hike – my reward for all that noble self-sacrifice. The sun broke through as I made my way down off the hill and the green wheat became freckled with several dancing black dots. I see lots of dancing black dots since I managed a torn retina back in January but these dots were bobbing together towards the footpath where they emerged about 10 yards in front of me as the black-tipped ears of three hares. I stood very still, watching as they groomed rain-streaked fur. They scarpered at the first arthritic creak of my ageing knees, but what a treat. Hares are a bit ‘Marmite’ to some people – all odd angles, bulgy eyes and too-long limbs. Spooky hares. I love them.

Also revealed was why the sheep in the field by the old fishponds were so immensely fat – recently they’d been busy popping out their lambs. Giving one mother a wide berth so as not to alarm her I sneaked a look at her new twins, one still bloody from the birth.

The bluebell wood.

The bluebell wood.

Sheepy mums make lovely ‘purrs’ (a bit like clearing their throats) to their babies and for the most part are excellent mothers. I was reminded of this when I clambered over a stile to meet one ewe, lambs safely behind her, stamping first one foot and then the other as she lowered her head. “Don’t push it, sunshine,” she said, so I didn’t and pressed on up the hill.

I was thrilled to find I’d regained my walking legs at exactly the right time: Rutland was just days away from ‘peak bluebell’ and my twisty path through the wood was bordered not only with emerging bluebells but with wood anemones, primroses, cowslips and lady’s smock.

The last of the wood violets were still in evidence and the wild sorrel was springing up new and green…and the trees…the trees were alive with busy birds. A flurry of wings minutely preceded a wren, beak packed with moss, surprised to see me but intent on the business of nest-building.

I startled a pheasant, which startled me back, and a quail helicoptered up, skimming a fallen tree. I wondered if the badger sett still thrived in the green heart but decided that must be saved for another visit – time stands still in an ancient wood and you forget how long you’ve been.

On the way home I again passed the ewe with her new lambs and could hear them sucking hard for her milk. For a city-dweller come home to the country, heartsore and weary, this is the stuff of magic.


The Invisible Woman – Taking on the Vintage Years is published at the beginning of June.

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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