A Month in The Countryside

They’re lambing in Rutland and Helen Walmsley-Johnson has a good view of the postnatal ward.

primrosesThis is my second spring back in Rutland and I feel myself settling into a comfortable, remembered rhythm, mostly through my sense of smell. Through winter the usual countryside smells are noticeable by their absence. Instead there is clean, metallic cold and the intermittent fruitcake-y whiff of silage borne up to my cottage on a stiff north-easterly.

It might have been a warm winter generally but the chilly wind up here on Rutland’s roof is the way I gauge the number of layers required to ward off hypothermia in pursuit of a day’s writing and research. When my fingers turn blue and I can’t feel my nose – that is the time to make a cup of coffee, one of the best and most comforting smells in the world.

Broadly, and disregarding the precarious nature of life as a freelance writer, Mr Pushkin Cat and I continue very happily. It is a source of constant delight that Mr P Cat smells pleasantly of digestive biscuits and particularly when he’s been toasting his fur in a favourite sun ‘puddle’ under the bedroom window. When I open that window he jumps up onto the sill – whiskers a-tremble, ears pricked – to spy on the bird table below, a kind of cat television.

Jacob lambs in the gardenOpening a window on a bright spring day admits a sweet green smell of things waking up with top notes of sheep. We are lambing in Rutland and my neighbour’s small flock of Jacob ewes currently occupy the postnatal ward (front garden) together with a growing creche of Tigger-ish lambs.

Up close on a rainy autumn day, sheep smell of damp woolly jumpers. On a sun-warmed spring morning they smell of hay and toast. The lambs with their black and white splodged fleeces butt heads, leap sideways, tangle up their new legs and fall over, pick themselves up, shake, and gallop madly around the old apple trees in gangs of three or four. Such reckless joy is infectious.

Springtime also smells of the earth. Walking up through the valley I noticed that rich warm loamy smell you get when you fork over a flowerbed together with just a touch of ‘eau de cabbage’ from bruised oilseed rape.

Last year this big field was full of wheat but a sprinkling of mustard blooms tells me this year’s crop is the dreaded ‘yellow peril’ and I make a mental note to stock up on hayfever pills before it gets going properly.

There’s a lot of yellow about at this time of year – it’s there in dusty, dangly catkins, on pollen-flecked pussy willow, in aconites, celandines and primroses quilting steep banks along the lane and in massed ranks of daffodils.

“The lambs with their black and white splodged fleeces butt heads, leap sideways, tangle up their new legs and fall over, pick themselves up, shake, and gallop madly around the old apple trees in gangs of three or four.”

Up in the wood, peppery with the smell of dead leaves and damp woodiness in autumn, there’s a trailing scent of wild garlic, together with an abundant hazy greenness showing in tumbled woodbine, across bluebell glades and where dog’s mercury and wood anemones gather.

I don’t know if it’s that I’m growing older but these days I often find a memory floating up like a bubble to burst softly, making me pause. Standing on the new bridge across the brook for instance, and looking down the gully at tangled roots reminds me of how much I was fascinated by holes as a child.

tangled rootsHoles in trees and banks and what lived in them or why they were there were a constant prod to my imagination, which led me in turn to love Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.

Another thing that always intrigued me (and still does) is how things in the countryside know what to do and when to do it without the benefit of an Outlook calendar or Filofax. The longer days and warm sun have woken up the tribe of ladybirds, which, just as they did last year, spent the winter crammed into the corner of a window frame.

I don’t mind them being there at all but they’re a nuisance when they begin to wake up. I’ve been fishing them out of whatever dead end they’ve wandered into and releasing them to become a blue tit’s breakfast for weeks now.

But then the vernal equinox has just passed and we’ve embarked on British Summer Time. Mr Pushkin Cat’s personal clock adjusted gradually to BST over the last month or so, dragging me with it. He began badgering me about his usual routine a little bit earlier every day until his busy schedule – sleep, breakfast, nap, lunch, stick nose out of door, snooze, sit on windowsill, supper, sleep – conveniently adjusted itself to where the clocks are now they’ve gone forward.

As a consequence I’m not sure I’ll notice the missing hour all that much and over the lighter evenings the Cat and I will stand in the garden to welcome the return of our singular bat and the bare trace scents of dew falling.

When the tang of wood smoke is replaced by voluptuous gusts of jasmine and when that moist earthy smell is replaced by a dry nose-tickling one of hot baked ground and new mown grass, then it will be summer – and I wonder if I haven’t inadvertently found the answer to how everything knows where we are in the year. It’s all in the nose.

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