HOW MANY SWALLOWS MAKE A SUMMER

HOW MANY SWALLOWS MAKE A SUMMER?

I have always loved the swallow. It is such a beautiful bird – not showy but elegant with the navy blue sheen of its back, its creamy white belly and its red throat.

I grew up in country places, and in the late spring we would watch anxiously for their return. When eventually they would arrive, they would swoop and hover about the outbuildings, calling to one another (and to us, it seemed) their delight that things were much as they had left them.

I have many lovely memories of them. When we lived beside the Forth, there was a track behind our house that after rain would have watery puddles and I came out early one morning and a swarm of swallows rose up around the dog and me from where they had been gathering mud from these puddles to make their nests. One of the years when I had a nursing baby, I would rise abut 6 am to feed the baby. In that year only, swallows nested under the roof of our house, and my opening the curtain would arouse the baby birds who would cry for food too. I would sit by the window and feed my baby and watch the parents fly in to their nest and count myself blessed; that my house pullulated with life.

Then we would watch the baby birds being fed, and eventually fledge. There was usually one last little one left solitary in the by now disintegrating nest who had to be encouraged by the parents who would hover near him, their beaks full of insects but would not deliver them to him until in desperation he leaned out too far – and flew!

Eventually the senior birds would start to congregate on the telephone wires and you would know that another summer was over. One day you would go out and they would just be gone. I never saw them leave. Then there would just be that season’s fledglings, fattening up for their long journey, and we would eventually be saying to them, You must leave us now; and they in turn would be gone.

When we later flew to Africa – and it is a very long way even with the assistance of an aeroplane, – we were thrilled to see ‘our’ swallows there.

But this year, I have seen no swallows. Not in Sussex, nor in Surrey, nor in the Cotswolds. It can’t be England without swallows. Week after week passes and I grow despondent.   Who cares if we lose Europe? But swallows matter.

Later:   Then we come on holiday to the CotswoldS, and we go to Lechlade, glorious, lovely, magical Lechlade, (may it prosper) standing at the source of the Thames (allegedly). I sit by myself watching the river go by while John undertakes some errand. I love rivers. If you sit beside them long enough, everything eventually passes by. I am watching a flotilla of swans, some 40 or 50 strong, with only one small family of 4 cygnets swimming in a straight line between their parents. Then a mother duck comes into view surrounded by 9 tiny day old ducklings. Finally a tall woman in a wet suit walks to the riverside. With her long red hair hanging down her back she could model for Boudicca. She launches what appears to be a wooden log onto the water, nimbly climbs on it, stands up and with the aid of one paddle she glides away, for all the world as if she walked on water. A shadow passes over her. Then another. Then I hear a chattering. These shadows are swallows! It is a joyous moment.

When we get to the campsite, there is a nest with 5 alert little faces nesting above a light at the door to the cafe. They fledge while we are there. And when we get home, we find a whole colony under the roof at Wakehurst, which has been there for about 400 years and has probably hosted swallows for all of that time.

But never the less, it is my impression that there are fewer than there used to be. It only needs swallows to be absent for a couple of seasons and you have lost them, for they return to where they were born.

Losing Europe would not be good, but it could be endured, whereas losing our swallows would be a grievous calamity.

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MISSING THE MAITRE D’

COLLECTIONS OF STUFF

I’ve often reflected that a good Maitre de (front of house manager) is irreplaceable in a hotel or

restaurant, although the better he is, the less he will appear to be necessary. I’ve seen some very bad ones in my time: one who rejoiced in the name of Homer and appeared to have the sole duty of being everyone’s friend; a red-headed youth in Glasgow who when I said to him, That was a very nice meal and the service was good (to which he should have replied, We are happy to be of service, madam) instead muttered, Och aye, while not looking at me.

While we were in the Cotswolds we visited the National Trust’s house in Snowshill Manor with Joanna and family. We look it up for location and accessibility. It has a long cart with seats in it, pulled by a tractor. So we set off. It is not particularly easy to find, nor is parking very plentiful. As soon as we disembark from our cars, we see a sign that baldly announces, buggy transportation cancelled. A sign points to a rough looking track disappearing round a corner and announces, 15 minutes walk. I decide to attempt it with John and my walker but it soon becomes apparent that the person who measured the walk was wearing 7 league boots. In addition the path which is rough and difficult to push vehicles along goes up and down steep hills. I notice that people with quite mild difficulties – an elderly gentleman with a stick; a lady pushing a twin pram; a young man carrying a large, complaining child – are becoming quite distressed. John decides I will never make it there and back and leaving me to go with Joanna, returns (up hill and down dale) to the car for the wheelchair.

We rest, wheezing, on the small terrace before the house. Tickets are timed, and ours is for 4 pm. It is currently 2.30 pm. We send Lawrence in to use his friendly Glaswegian charm to persuade them to admit us earlier. He is successful and when John has taken his inhaler and rested for 5 minutes we seek admittance. The welcoming steward has eyes of the oddest colour I have ever seen; they are a deep, bight turquoise. He says to me, Now you have to remember, Madam, that everything in this house was hand-made. I am not quite sure why he is telling me this.

The house presents a classical exterior to the terrace (although windows to the right of the door are a slightly different design to those on the left). But once within you realise that the classical exterior is fraudulent and has been tacked on to the side wall of a mediaeval house which still stands in all its huddled disorder, In addition the house is not furnished really; it is stuffed with random ‘collections.’ I can see no unifying pattern to these hoardings; if the gentleman fancied them, he bought them, lots of them whatever they were; and you could not say that his purchases exhibited any great taste.

There are models of ships, some of great size (these are in every room.) There are Oriental cabinets, which in a Japanese house would be displayed in solitary splendour in an otherwise almost empty room but here are stuffed in great quantities (not very wabi sabi) into small poky irregular shaped rooms. There are uniforms like the terracotta army, but complete with accessories and made of metal. There are dolls and doll-houses. As with the boat models, vast numbers od very noisy clocks chimed at all the wrong times. There are penny-farthings with a little dog attached to the picnic but with a built in toolkit. There were musical instruments in a room which appeared to have been a kitchen.

Had we enjoyed our visit the reception guide asked, looking slantwise at us through the turquoise eyes. I realised why he had stated at the outset that these artefacts were all hand made. He knew they were trash. (More considered view: they weren’t all trash, and some of them were OK but one was left with the impression that this ‘hobby’ was an indication of a disturbed mind.) I replied that it was amazing what could be done and he graciously suggested that we did not return up hill and down dale. He would open a gate off the terrace and John could bring our car to there.

We were quite taken aback that he had not made anyone aware he had that option. John pulled himself together and accepted the kind offer.

We then went off at quite a trot to collapse into the car before someone countermanded his offer; we had a light refreshment and headed out for home.

Returning to the maitre d’. The staff at Snowshill Manor were kind and helpful. In the end, they gave us very assistance at their disposal. However they need to provide better access; it is not OK to blithely announce that the buggy service is ‘OFF’. And the attraction of Snowshill is the loveliness of the entire village, how one beautiful house after another sits peacefully in this glorious valley. They should make an exotic garden there, and build a really fine tearoom and shop, plus an adequate car park.

As for the motley collections – I’d recommend they throw them out.

I would not recommend you visit Snowshill just at the moment and when you do go, nake sure you are wearing boots, carrying inhalers, and have a loudspeaker to summon assistance when you get lost!

HOLIDAYING AT HOME

We’ve just had a lovely caravan holiday in the Cotswolds with our daughters and their families.

In the past we were frequently fortunate with our holiday weather, but slightly less so in recent years. However this time our famous luck did not dessert us and the entire fortnight was one stretch of glorious sunshine, clear blue skies, warm, just wonderful. We are all as brown as berries.

We ate together in the early evening, with tables pushed together and ‘about 50 chairs ‘ as the camp manager (exaggerating slightly!) described it. A different family took charge of and provided the evening meal, which was often cooked in our caravan equipment. (The others were in tents.) We ate simple, easy food. We had a leisurely and full breakfast. We had some lunches and coffees out.

It was lovely going out in large groups, but we also split up, sometimes one couple would take all the children. We went out with different combinations of people and also had some quiet days to ourselves. Our friends from Oxford came out and met us for lunch. John’s sister lives nearby so we met her several times, and our children and their families went to dinner at their cousin’s.

The sites were busy at weekends, quieter through the weeks. Our idea of a busy site is ourselves and down the other end of the caravan site, two other families, so our notions of the ideal are never going to be satisfied, but people are friendly and there is always someone to lend a hand with an awning not previously erected, or lend a vital piece of equipment. A little boy climbed into our caravan one day and was absolutely horrified to be met by us instead of his parents, and then became terribly confused and lost, so we had to lead him (only next door) by the hand and explain to him that he had the wrong caravan, but he regarded us with disfavour thereafter!

The Cotswolds are lovely – just one beautiful village after another, small fields, hedgerows full of wild flowers, ancient trees. The source of the Thames is here (allegedly.) There is much to be said in favour of Brits holidaying at home. Our country is beautiful and it is richly diverse (by which I mean its habitat and flora and fauna are very different within a small area.) Our food is good. People speak English. There’s no queuing for taxis, or hanging about at airports. It’s also much cheaper – no air fare or ferry crossing, no expensive foreign insurance. We have history – from Stone Henge and Skara Brae, through mediaeval times when Henry VIII destroyed the monasteries, through the Stewarts when the Church of England was created down to the World Wars and more recent history. We have fantastic architecture.

I recommend the Cotswolds.