A Month in The Countryside

In Rutland, Helen Walmsley-Johnson’s got all sorts tumbling down her chimney.

primrose pathThe Cat and I were enjoying a quiet afternoon’s reading the other week when a large bee fell down the chimney.

We wouldn’t have noticed but for a furious amplified buzz, which ended abruptly as it achieved terminal velocity in a puff of cold wood ash.

The Cat was intrigued enough to go and investigate and I went off to fetch the special insect-catching jar – tall, narrow neck, no danger of escape.

In our little Rutland cottage, assorted items dropping in via the chimney is not unusual and a very good reason for keeping the fireguard in place at all times. As was proved by last year’s hornet, which I gingerly persuaded to leave while the Cat hid under the stairs.

The peculiar acoustics of the chimney bend sound. For example, a pigeon chortling down the stack is a source of much amusement to me and deeply confusing to the Cat.

I’ve explained about the wire cage over the top to prevent unannounced birdlife and outlined the basic principles of ventriloquism yet he remains unconvinced and vigorous bouts of Hunt the Pigeon continue to punctuate his afternoon naps.

Living in the countryside gifts many small surprises and I’m always on the alert for one. If, for example, the Cat hadn’t decided that 5.30 in the morning was breakfast time I would have missed a wren singing its heart out, although admittedly I wasn’t so alert for that one.

A wren is a tiny, wee fluffball of a bird but it’s got a hell of a set of pipes. I am familiar with this particular wren because it’s set up home in the hedge by the woodshed. This has not escaped the Cat’s notice either but he remains true to his city feline Zen-ness and contents himself with watching the comings and goings from a distance.

It’s a great relief that he continues to show no interest in killing things because I might kill him if he started a murderous rampage through the local birdlife, although I reckon he’d think twice about some of the larger raptors surfing these upland skies.

I’ve grown used to hearing the ‘whoosh’ of a close pass from a red kite while I peg out washing and now there are buzzards too. These birds are both on the hefty side but have differently shaped tails so they’re easy to tell apart in silhouette.

“I wish there were more photographs of deers’ bums because it’s quite hard to identify one from the other when you’re looking at the back as opposed to the front.”

The kite sports a distinctive forked tail while a buzzard tail shows a blunt outward curve. Both birds, when viewed through my late father’s aged binoculars, use them in the same way, swivelling and flaring independently of the body to control stability and direction of flight. It’s surprisingly elegant.

The binoculars were also useful when I noticed a bird on a fence post that was not the more usual pigeon. I initially thought it was a kestrel (the binoculars are not very effective and nor is my eyesight) but now I believe it was a merlin after my neighbour reported one shooting through his yard like a loosed arrow on the same day.

The red kites have built a nest in the valley but not in the same place as last year. This time they’re in the top of a large ash where the hen bird sits swaying gently (which I think must be lovely) on an untidy pile of sticks (which I think must be uncomfortable).

While I searched the ground to see what had been on the kite menu recently (rabbit) the male bird scooped great lazy figures of eight from the air around us. I hope they’re still there because I saw the nest being mobbed by a crowd of clattering jackdaws and I haven’t spotted that forked tail sticking out in the last couple of days.

As I struggled around some very wet woodland to check on emerging bluebells and visit a favourite tree, I was completely charmed to spot a pair of tiny hoof prints in the mud. About 2.5cms long, these were the prints of a muntjac deer. Now, I miss walking with a dog but it does have the advantage of being able to creep up on things because, apart from the slurp and suck of boots in mud, I can be very, very quiet… also maybe I wouldn’t have seen a deer derriere bouncing off round a stack of felled wood.

muntjac printI wish there were more photographs of deers’ bums because it’s quite hard to identify one from the other when you’re looking at the back as opposed to the front. However, I do know that what I saw wasn’t a muntjac but a roe deer.

The muntjac viewing came just a couple of days ago when I was walking down a quiet lane and one trotted out in front of me. We calmly assessed each other for a few seconds and then up went its tail and it disappeared down a badger track into a long stretch of woodland. I don’t know which of us was more surprised.

To come back to the unexpected then, when I coaxed the bee out of the fireplace and released it back into the wild, I noticed it had turned completely white. So, if you happen to be in Rutland and spot what appears to be an albino bumble bee…

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