Monday, 24 June 2013

Breathing Space

The new dog needs walking.  Which means that we are beginning to explore beyond our usual haunts. At the bottom of the town is an area of five fields, known as Pentylands.  It is open grassland bordered by a belt of broadleaved trees, accessed from the housing estate or via a narrow lane, known as Pentylands Lane.   It is, therefore, part of the town and yet very rural, known as H_______'s breathing space.

I like to get there in the early morning.  At least I do in these wonderful late spring months.  (I think it's technically summer but we're at least a month behind and it's hard to know what is happening to the weather.)  The air is still sharp with night but the sun has risen and the birds are singing.  The cuckoo was still pronouncing correctly in early June, even though it should have changed its tune by then*.  The light is hazy still and the dew means that my trainers end up wet and smelling; I have taken to wearing my wellies for morning walks.  

We have to start early to miss the dog walkers.  (Sprocket loves humans but hates other dogs.)  However, it seems that whatever time we start out, there is always someone there before us.  Are all dog walkers insomniacs?   

These pictures are taken in the evening.  The buttercups were in bloom but the hawthorn was only just blossoming.  It was past the end of May and I don't think we had yet cast our clouts.  I certainly hadn't because the house is freezing and I live in my trusty old paint smeared British Army (Be the Best) fleece that someone from their marketing department once gave me.  What is a 'clout' anyway?  And does 'May' really refer to the hawthorn bush?  

I am, of course, talking about the saying 'Ne'er cast a clout 'til May is out.  This is an English proverb, supposedly first cited by Dr Thomas Fuller in his finest work Gnomologia in 1732: Leave not off a clout till May be out.  Since at least the early 15th century, 'clout' has meant "a blow to the head", " a clod of earth or clotted cream" or a "fragment of cloth or clothing".  In this instance, clout means clothing.  In other words, keep your thermals on until May is out.  

But what is 'May'?  The month?  An alternative explanation is that it is hawthorn, an extremely common tree in the English countryside, filling our hedgerows.  As many as 200,000 miles of the stuff were planted during enclosure, between 1750 and 1850.  The name 'Haw' is from 'hage', Old English for hedge.  It flowers in late April or early May.  Or late May/early June, this year.  It is known as the May Tree and the blossom is called May.  Therefore, the May in the rhyme might well mean the hawthorn blossom, the "darling buds of May" (Shakespeare, Sonnet 18).  And it smells of cat's pee.  Be warned if, like me, you decide to pick it and put it in vases.  

So, back to the fields.  We have to take diversionary activity due to Sprocket's dog phobia.  This means that walking the dog is like an SAS operation, avoiding enemy aircraft and going underground to avoid detection.  It's very wearing and we are off to the dog whisperer on Wednesday to find a solution.

But, between dogs, the fields are beautiful and do, indeed, provide a breathing space from the worries of the house and garden.  The fields are full of grass.  But it's not just grass.  As we move towards July, the colours of the seed heads range from straw to pink to grey to purple.  They are different shapes and sizes and they wave in the wind like a sea surrounding and protecting the homelands of H_______.  The dog often dives in, jumping like a deranged dolphin as he bounds over the tops of the seed heads.  With the cuckoo still singing in tune, where can be better than England in the spring?

The Lesser Spotted Sprocket: Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe

One Man and His Dog

Ne'er Cast a Clout 'Til May is Out

Hawthorn Buds

Artistic Tree

Evening Light


More Buttercups

Cow Parsley

Cow Parsley, Buttercups and Evening Sun

Last Light

Spring Blossom

*In April, I open my bill
In May, I sing night and day
In June, I change my tune
In July, away I fly
In August, away I must.

(Learnt at Infants' School, c. 1965)

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