Yesterday gave us sunshine and frost, in fact proper winter weather set to at last for two or three days, so we put on our winter woollies, grabbed the walking sticks and binoculars and set off across the river to pay a return visit to the last field trip walk. It’s been so wet that everywhere we went there was water spurting from each tiny spring and there were times when we were skating almost as much as we were walking. Our first quarry was the heronry we spotted last time, but we were a little later starting off and by the time we got there the birds had – so to speak – flown. There are plenty of garden ponds in Bath, but I suspect their first port of call would be the lake at Prior Park which is so full of signal crayfish that the dam has been eroded to the point where a £2,200,000 restoration project has begun. Rumour has it that crayfish cakes have appeared on the menu in the cafe from time to time, as they try desperately to eliminate them.
But quite apart from the more unusual wildlife, I loved the frost encrusted plants, especially where the usually invisible hairs on the leaves had been highlighted by tiny crystals of frost. An absolute visual feast.
So no herons then, but it was such a lovely day it was good just to be out in it. Bath lies in the valley of the river Avon and because the river takes a winding course through the southern end of the Cotswolds, it feels as if we’re completely surrounded by hills. This gives us our own microclimate and means that traffic pollution is sometimes trapped in the bowl of the landscape. On the plus side – so long as your knees are up to it – you can climb in almost any direction and enjoy fabulous views. We contemplated walking up to the highline but decided instead to follow the Twin Tunnels cycle path back into the centre. The two tunnels in question once formed part of the Somerset and Dorset railway line, whose initials S & D were immediately dubbed the ‘slow and dirty’ line by the passengers. In fact the longer of the two tunnels, the Combe Down Tunnel is the longest cycling and walking tunnel in the country at just over a mile long. It had no proper ventilation and so the train drivers would occasionally become unconscious as the steam trains laboured through, filling the tunnel with smoke and fumes. On one occasion the train ran out of control down the steep incline into Bath, killing the driver.
At the point we joined the route we could have turned left through the long tunnel, over the Midford Viaduct and on down to the Kennet and Avon canal, but yesterday we took the shorter Devonshire tunnel – a ten minute walk – and back down the old line to the city centre. Quite apart from being a magnet for runners, walkers and cyclists, it’s a long narrow nature reserve as well and we shared the path with hundreds of others on foot and on bikes. We’re incredibly fortunate to have such marvellous facilities here.
Frost is wonderful, well at least it is to us because we’ve got nothing too tender on the allotment. Broad beans and garlic positively relish the cold and a quick check showed no serious problems at all. We’re right at the bottom of a steep slope and so it’s a made to measure frost trap. The higher allotments get more sun and less cold, but we, on the other hand, are protected from the strongest winds and retain more moisture, The key to gardening is to know your ground and respect its foibles and qualities and after four years we’re beginning to understand what we can and can’t grow. The robins now show up as soon as we appear, whether or not there will be any digging, and they sit no more than a couple of feet away keeping an eye on us.
The old hands always insist that the frost kills off pests, making it a good thing. Certainly it has an effect in breaking up clods of heavy clay but since we gave up digging that’s not really an issue for us,. As for whether it really kills insects I’ve no idea; you’d have thought that if overwintering pupae were all killed by the cold, the species would have become extinct through evolutionary pressures, but it’s just nice to have a change of key in the winter. Our biggest worry is whether the lavenders will survive. The globe artichokes are still looking fine but they’ll surely die back after this cold spell.
The seasons are wonderful. There are always intimations of what’s coming, alongside traces of what’s past and so it’s impossible to ignore the never ending flux of season and weather. My mum – who was given to sunday school soundbites – would say ‘hope springs eternal in the hearts of the faithful’. It’s hard not to feel that some kind of nebulous and inexpressible faith in nature is what motivates gardeners everywhere.