Terry O'Connor

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At the bottom of the garden

Impulse buys are seldom a good idea, but we have never regretted buying a wooden bench at the Harrogate Spring Flower Show some years ago. The bench sits within an arbour (or bus shelter) rather like the upturned prow of a boat. We each saw the bench, independently had the same thought that it would perfectly suit the bottom corner of our garden, and soon found ourselves wrestling with timber sections and coach bolts to erect the thing.

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Sitting in the arbour, the view is of the end of our garden and of the long-abandoned railway embankment behind it. By an unwritten agreement, each adjoining household gardens ‘their’ bit of the bank. Our patch has bluebells, giving me an excellent excuse to do as little as possible on the grounds that I am managing it for wildlife.P1000426

In early May, a blue haze extends across the bank, just a little further each year. The view is dominated by two crab apple trees. The smaller of the two flowers first, usually just as the Clematis alpina in its lower branches is putting out its own powder-blue flowers.

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Crab apple blossom, early May

This crab apple is leaning over, and leaning a little more each year. Maybe I should prop it up, but that seems like a heavy-handed intervention.  Behind it and a little further up the bank is a second crab apple, a fine specimen of Malus hupehensis. I am unreasonably fond of this tree, having grown it from a pip sown in 1998. Later in May it will be covered in white blossom, followed by tiny red crab apples for the winter thrushes. In fact, the crab apple feeds the birds year round, as it is the support for a bird-feeder that I keep topped up with sunflower seeds.
We do well for birds, having noted 46 species in the garden over the 20 years that we have lived here. On winter days, the feeder is a place of near-frenzy, with assorted tits and finches crowding in to take on fuel for the long, cold nights. Now it is much quieter, with far more food available and many hours of daylight in which to feed. P1000071None the less, the regulars drop by. We see bullfinches daily, the males resplendent in their grey morning suits over a pinky-red waistcoat, all topped off with a black cap. They are large finches but seem not to throw their weight around, quietly queueing with other birds on busy days and sometimes chased off the feeder by a forceful blue tit or belligerent nuthatch. In winter we hear the bullfinch feeding parties keeping in touch with their distinctive contact call: a soft descending whistle that sounds politely apologetic and puts me in mind of Alan Bennett. Today there is a familiar spring soundscape. The distant sound of traffic on the A 65 is not intrusive but never absent. Wind in the trees along the embankment keeps up a chorus against which blackbirds and wood pigeons sing an obbligato. Somewhere in the middle distance, a willow warbler is whistling its way down the scale and one of the many neighbourhood dunnocks is advertising his merits. There seem to be a lot of dunnocks around this year, skulking in the undergrowth like feathered mice.

P1000386Every garden, however small, should have a quiet corner like this, a place that looks away from the house to an artfully-framed view of trees and flowers. There is always something to see and hear, even in the depths of winter; a bench with its own roof can be a delightful place to sit on a snowy day. Our little arbour makes this corner of the garden into a welcome escape. As impulse buys go, it was a success.

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