Summer in the English countryside

Zenpolitics takes a break …

The wind is blowing strong this morning, the cloud is heavy and there’s drizzle on the wind. It’s August and we’re waiting for the summer to return. Sunshine has been the default since mid April, and we’ve had 3 1/2 months of almost drought, with temperatures holding steady above the 80s (Fahrenheit of course!) for much of July.

But with so much winter rain, and so late, the land held its water well, and wild flowers have been abundant. We searched them out in the meadows and the hedgerows of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire as never before. Orchids in May and June, with the pyramidal orchid hiding amidst the common orchids. Bugle by the Thames at Kelmscott – one of these flowers I’d wondered about but never identified before. The name intrigues: as if it wants to sound its colour across to the further bank.

Early July, and one corner of the field above the trout farm was all betony, a mass of purple on long spikes: I thought they were orchids until I knew better. Knapweed and devil’s-bit scabious were ever-present. But the drought took hold, and as the grass yellowed the omni-present clover all but disappeared as well. August has seen a little rain and a light greening here and there, but flowers are now singular rather than overwhelmingly plural. A single knapweed. A left-behind clover. The wild marjoram, a relative of oregano, flowers abundant and late, but that’s passed over.

The ground has been so hard, and dead patches snake everywhere, greening up with the rain, an in-between, not-one-thing-or-the-other state. Aerial photographers have had a great time, recording cropmarks – the outlines of mounds and ditches, walls and buildings dating back to Roman times and earlier.

Once upon a time I searched out deserted villages in the Oxfordshire countryside, with churches standing lonely in the midst of fields the easiest identifier. This summer has made it so much easier – but a plane has advantages over a Morris Minor.

Photography has revealed prehistoric crop marks associated with burials and a settlement near Eynsham, a few miles from Oxford. What you miss from above is of course any sense of a lived-in landscape. Scrabbling through hedges won’t get you there either. But sit in a churchyard, they’re often on a slight elevation, and look across the land. You may be in good company: some churches don’t cut back ‘God’s acre’ until August, and wild flowers and summer grasses engulf the graves.

Meadow flowers don’t have a long lifespan. Don’t stay away for too long. Villages operate on a different timescale. Tucked away in Cotswold valleys you sense they’ve been there for ever. But when change comes, for villages as well as flowers, it comes quickly. New estates are built, and local towns extend out and absorb. Back in medieval times it could be rapacious landowners, enclosure, plague, weather. Change could be abrupt, often accompanied by penury and starvation.

There is no finer place on earth than a rural English landscape on a perfect summer’s day. The whole world it seems is God’s acre. But we know it won’t last. Even the villages. Even the towns. So a little humility is also the order of the day. My own lifespan is a little longer than the flowers, somewhat shorter than the villages.

The sun’s now broken through the clouds, and the edges of the lawn need trimming, and that’s my job, it seems. So this short blog ends here.

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