OK it’s a terrible photo, but it was barely above freezing and although the robin isn’t shy, it’s not feeding from my hand yet. This is one of those drrrr photos – if only because there can’t be a gardener anywhere in the UK whose heart hasn’t been warmed by this little bird. I say ‘in the UK’ carefully because we once had a hilarious conversation with a man in Central Park New York, when we asked him what was the name of the thrush- sized bird with a red breast which was there in large numbers. When he said that it was a robin we got into one of those moments of mutual incomprehension that often spring up when two distant cultures share a language. So, for any North American readers out there, I’m talking about the British Robin which is about 1/3 the size of its Central Park namesake.
Our robin shows up almost every day and is very bold, darting in to search for food wherever there is uncovered or disturbed earth. It occupies a special place in the order of things because it’s as wild as any bird and yet its boldness encourages us to think of it as being tame – or at least tameable – and living in a fragile relationship with us gardeners. In fact it’s a bold little opportunist, a chancer who will sit three feet away and sing a song that always seems tinged with sadness. If there’s a minor key for birdsong then the Robin has mastered it, each phrase of the song ending with a question mark, like a young person’s ‘upspeak’. There are three birds that the Potwell Inn must have. The Blackbird must sing on summer evenings and at dawn. The House Sparrow will chirp away tunelessly around the yard at the back, and the Robin will sing its song, like ice in a glass, out there where the allotment joins the orchard. The very thought puts me in a good mood.
So yesterday I set out with far too many layers of midwinter clothing to finish the last (bar two) of the paths on our original plot. We’ve had nights of frost, and being at the bottom of the sloping site our ground gets frozen very easily. Allotments are rarely in a perfect place, and half of our two plots accumulate cold air beyond the reach of the winter sun which, for several months never rises above the dense row of Leylandii at the bottom. So the frost is the bad news, but on the plus side we’re completly sheltered from the South Westerlies, our predominant winds which bring gales every year and regularly rake the sunnier plots at the top of the slope, even overturning sheds and sending cloches tumbling across the site. Better still, being at the bottom of the hill gives us a degree of protection from the North and East.
Our biggest logistical challenge, building the new beds, is working around the standing crops, in this instance of leeks and Swiss chard in order to get the boards in place. Some of them will have to be sacrificed, but they were planted last year with the new paths in mind and I don’t think we’ll be wasting too many.
And so the sun shone and despite the hard ground I made two long slits in the ground to take the boards and screwed them into place. After a couple of hours of digging and measuring interspersed with periods of watching the Robin I came back to the flat and felt I’d made a stand against the winter.