A Month in The Countryside

Helen Walmsley-Johnson and the Cat finally have the time to notice the autumn hues. It’s just a shame the birds are drowning out their thoughts.

Misty autumn morningThis autumn I’ve noticed far more about the season than I did last year. I’ve thought about this and decided it’s because last year I had only just moved into the cottage and my whole existence was balancing on a knife edge – work, finances, home, the lot. I had taken the biggest gamble of my life and staked everything (which wasn’t much but I was prepared to risk it all) on sticking two fingers up at what is known as ‘catastrophic early retirement’ and making my living as a writer.

This sort of early retirement is called ‘catastrophic’ because it is entirely unintentional and in my case brought about by the reluctance of London employers to take on someone so obviously past it, despite a 22-carat CV and fabulous references. I didn’t want much, just something part-time to top up my bank account while I built up commissions and wrote a book.

After 500 applications and only three interviews I turned my back on London and left – I had to, I couldn’t afford to stay there. Given how close I’d come to finding myself plus Mr Pushkin Cat sleeping under the Hanger Lane gyratory in a cardboard box it took me a while to regain my equilibrium, which is entirely understandable.

When we moved in we had hardly any furniture and slept on the floor, although the Cat rather liked this arrangement because he’s basically bone idle and could snuggle without the exertion of jumping onto the bed.

A year on from that it feels important to look back and remind myself just how far refusing to give up and lie down, keeping a spark of hope alive and sheer bloody-minded determination have brought me… us. Anyway, now that the worry of where the next mouthful is coming from has gone – for now anyway – the Cat and I have decided this feels like our first autumn in Rutland and we’re noticing things.

“Lazy Sundays have been spent rambling along the field margins with a basket and crook looking for things to turn into jams, chutneys, syrups and warming winter snifters.”

The first indication that autumn is on its way is not the trees changing colour but September birds behaving badly. Contrary to what I’ve been told, swallows do not leave discreetly for Africa but go with a great fanfare. At least they do if you happened to be around one Monday morning when the young were all lined up on the garden fence and their parents started topping them up with food, something they usually do on the wing. Even without a swallow’s sixth sense I could tell something was happening. I felt the same way the Cat does when he sees my overnight bag. Sure enough, by mid-afternoon the skies were empty and the goldfinches had the garden to themselves again until next year.

Unicorn the one-horned sheepIt’s been a golden autumn – day after honeyed day, warm with sunshine and perfect for picking up the windfall apples from the garden, taking care to check for squiffy wasps gorging themselves.

The hedgerows are laden with fat purple sloes, scarlet rosehips, blackberries, elderberries and all the good things that come for free in the countryside at this time of year. Lazy Sundays have been spent rambling along the field margins with a basket and crook looking for things to turn into jams, chutneys, syrups and warming winter snifters.

Next door’s Jacob sheep have been moved from one meadow to another, nibbling up the last of the summer’s good grass and laying down a decent layer of fat before winter when they’ll take up residence in a more sheltered spot than our exposed hillside. It’s good to see the same ewes I saw lambing in the spring all healthy and robust, especially the bolshy one with one straight horn (the Unicorn) and the one with the woolly topknot (Einstein).

Yes, I’ve given them nicknames but Jacobs are characterful sheep: small, stocky, opinionated and therefore a bit like me. They’re good company for a solitary writer and very obliging about looking up when I shout “Good morning, ladies.”

Writing is, thank goodness, just about keeping me afloat and perhaps my biggest achievement this year has been to publish my first book. In doing that I’ve faced down something else – the fear of failure, or actually just fear. Although sometimes I don’t see anyone for days, I am entirely happy. I go up and down to London and I get about and meet people but I’m always glad to come back here because here is home and the time I spend in it thinking, reading and plotting is precious.

Double rainbowI’ve started preliminary work on the next project, a novel I’ve been incubating for about four years, and the luxury of time to research and think and plan is… well, I’m not sure I can find the words, which is ironic for a writer.

I walk in the countryside and talk myself through the latest sticking point in the narrative. The many ancient tracks that criss-cross the Rutland hillsides and woodlands feed the imagination and the eye. We are high up here and the views are many and glorious, like the double rainbow against purple cloud I photographed and posted on Twitter, or the swoop of jackdaws clattering down the shoulders of a blustering wind like a gang of skateboarders riding a half-pipe.

It’s been a year of firsts and when the same things come again – the snowdrops, lambs, wheat fields and harvest – there will be delight because whatever happens to us as individuals there is a greater world going on out there and it’s a privilege to witness it.


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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