It’s early April as I write this, and as we crawl out of winter into a reluctant Spring, it’s difficult to remember gardening in dry soil under a warm sun. But by May, hopefully, this will be the case. All the gardens we have visited over the last few weeks have suffered from the long winter, growth running 2-3 weeks behind the average. We heard our first chiff-chaff on 29th March last year, but this year we have yet to hear one by 9th April.
It’s early March as I write this, watching swirls of powdery snow blow horizontally across the garden, eliminating any thoughts of gardening until warmer westerlies arrive. Trays of water for the birds were frozen within an hour of going out. But I’ve seen a song thrush bashing a snail, lots of sparrows on the seeds, robin, dunnock, pied wagtail and a very smart fieldfare, pictured, which enjoyed the berries on the sarcococca. The dense evergreen leaves of the shrub provide some protection from the wind and predators, and it will be interesting to look out for sarcococca seedlings popping up randomly in the garden over the summer - as is the tendency with holly seedlings.
Space in the greenhouse becomes something of a premium during March, with seed trays, pots of cuttings and dahlias, and tender plants waiting to go out, and is crammed by the end of April. The lemon and lime have been overwintered in the greenhouse to try to deter the scale insects, as they don’t like its higher humidity. Inspecting the leaves in early February, as I write, seems to confirm this.
Mrs Jill Jennings is one of the oldest residents of Minchinhampton now but is still regularly seen out and about in the town, as well as weekly at church. She was born in April 1918 in Hay-on-Wye, where her father, the Rev John de Winton, was the vicar. The youngest of nine children, Jill was christened Nona—but she changed to Jilly when she married, at the wish of her husband.
Jill first attended a local Dame school but then, at 11, went away to Wantage whilst her siblings were educated at a variety of schools elsewhere. They all got together again in the holidays and enjoyed long camping trips each summer in Saundersfoot, where their father had a boat. They would catch shrimps and prawns which mother would then cook over a primus stove. She recalls that, in Hay, her family had a great interest in the elderly residents of the Workhouse; the entire family would go there after the 11am service on Christmas Day and would wait on the residents for lunch.
When she was 13, her parents relocated to Blandford St Mary in Dorset and then, when she left school, her sister arranged for her to become an apprentice at the prestigious ‘Bradleys’ store in London. This she found very exciting and it suited her down to the ground as she had always had an interest in fashion. There were 80 apprentices and they embarked upon a 3 year training learning how to sell hats to the gentry (Duchesses, Ladies and the like). The hats were made in workrooms at the store and Jill recounted how Miss Collet, who was in charge, would spit into each hat once it was finished, for good luck! Jill was taught that she should always give a hat a slight shake when removing it from a customer’s head, just in case the lady was wearing a ‘transformation’ which otherwise might be removed with the hat.
At the end of November an adult hedgehog was found at the bottom of a ventilation shaft outside Minchinhampton church. She had fallen between the cast iron bars covering the shaft at ground level about 5 feet above. The Help a Hedgehog Hospital was contacted and I was given the task of trying to rescue her. By the time I arrived with my tool kit, she had crawled through a small hole in the surrounding stonework where she slept for the remainder of the day. Over the course of the next few days all attempts to rescue her were in vain.....it seemed she was always one step ahead! I managed to gain access to the floor of the shaft via a small opening from inside the church and left food and water to keep her alive until a solution was found. She was entombed for an estimated 10 days, before I eventually succeeded in capturing her in a box using bait and a trap door.
There have been wet days and windy days, and sometimes wet and windy days over the last few weeks, but also one or two magical days when the sun shone from a cloudless sky, slanting across the common and onto the brilliant snow. Special.
There are some lovely quiet lanes around Minchinhampton where the last of the leaves can be seen golden in the low sun’s glow, wrestling with the wind before departing the branches and rustling and scraping across the path into satisfying heaps, ready to be trampled during the Christmas walk, or composted into leaf mould.