A Month in The Countryside

It’s late summer in Rutland and Helen Walmsley-Johnson is grateful for the harvest.

Combine harvester harvestingOne of the countryside things I missed most while I was living in London was watching the seasons change. I lived a hop and a skip away from Greenwich Park and its glorious ancient trees, so I’d go and give them a hug from time to time when no one was looking, but it wasn’t quite the same as seeing it all going on right outside your door – and occasionally inside it.

To me, it’s a thing of wonder that everything (imagine I’m waving my arms to encompass the whole of the natural world) knows when it has to do stuff and all without the benefit of an Outlook calendar. Much of this ‘stuff’ is subtle and unwinds so slowly you barely notice it, but anything involving mankind is more your bells and whistles, West End extravaganza kind of thing.

To talk about the harvest seems quaint and old-fashioned in 2016 – after all most things are available all year round, whatever their natural growing season – but the harvest remains crucial to our survival and we should take a minute every now and then to be grateful that failed crops in this country are more a matter of bank balances than of literal life and death.

Even so, whatever catastrophes are taking place out there in the wider world, the farming calendar marches on and maybe that’s what I find so comforting about it – the steady pulse of the earth regulating our little lives, in spite of everything we do to threaten it. It gives me the same feeling of contentment I get when I have a fully stocked larder. It reassures me that winter will be got through. Perhaps I was a squirrel in a previous life.

Late summer is when the colours of our Rutland valley change most dramatically, in some cases overnight. The neon yellow of oilseed rape smudges gently into dusty gold as the flowers fade. Acres of wheat and barley shift from vivid green to toasted, rustling oceans of grain.

And then, at a very specific moment, the combine harvesters begin their lumbering progress across the hillsides and the valley floor, working long into the summer nights, broadcasting a rhythmic thresh and swish – little islands of light moving dustily through the darkness.

Harrowing the fieldsWhen the fields are cleared of both grain and straw, the tractors move in to harrow, enrich and plough the waiting earth ready for next year’s crops. Within a week golden fields become aromatic with newly turned earth, coffee-ground brown and freckled with seagulls, telling me summer is almost over.

I wonder if that’s how the swallows know when it’s time to pack their bags? Over the last couple of days they’ve begun skirling and chattering, lining up along Collyweston roofs, surfing into the skies, wheeling in a great arc and then returning.

When I see their forked tails sticking out over the gutter I know they’ll be here for a couple more weeks and then, quite suddenly, they’ll be gone. I shall miss them but rejoice when I see the first one returned again next spring. And they are, as my neighbour remarked, surprisingly prompt.

There’s a lot of looking and watching to be done in August, and when the nights are warm I sit outside on the lookout for shooting stars from the Perseid meteor shower. This is an annual event and, with hardly any light pollution, it’s a rare night I don’t see at least one. When the full moon bleaches the meadows white and stretches out long silvery shadows I will watch my two moon-mad cats dancing among the grasses. It does wonders for the soul.

Madam Sodoffskaya has settled into what I assume is her normal routine – she’s out all night and reappears at breakfast when she scarfs down a big bowl of food. Then she sleeps in an armchair all day.

Her tortoiseshell colouring and lovely black points are wonderful cat camouflage. She can melt away into the background like Mystique in the X-Men. The Cat is rather less successful at ‘melting’: his sparkling white bib and toes mean he is conspicuously visible as he trails around the garden perimeter, forever spurned, after the object of his affections.

MadamSodoffskayaLately he’s taken to lurking about in the hedge bottom and springing out, paws waving, to give Madam his best ‘chase me, chase me’ miaow – basso profundo, a bit like Nessun Dorma and indeed none shall sleep while he’s doing that. Madam is having none of it and springs lightly away to pour withering scorn on the poor chap from the top of the five-bar gate.

He does have one considerable advantage over her though: his white toes and belly mean that when cuddles are required I usually pat the right end. When Madam is comatose in a chair it’s very hard to tell which end is which and this has resulted in one or two – how shall I put it – unintentionally intimate encounters. Still, having an active mouser around the place is useful and apparently she likes us, so that’s all right then.

Helen’s book, The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years, is out now.
Read all of her Rutland tales 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