It’s been a strange summer. In a last hurrah, we try ticking off some of the ‘Things we’d like to do over the Summer Holidays’ list.
On Wiltshire’s great plains, Avebury’s standing stones shone with running water and Cherhill’s white horse cried over the harvest. Everything was at a standstill. The combines dripped motionless in fields trimmed with a single, 40ft header-width border, like a selvedge edge on raised, pale fabric.
We attempted a last picnic on foot, horseback and mountain bike, spread out like a diagram for the human evolution of coping with mud: for below the chalk hills is an apron of clay and this is a track we’d never undertake in winter. Our collie-x and the unshod new forest pony did very well, but our boots grew claggy and heavy and the bike was hopeless. The clay encased brakes, wheels and gears until it seized up. We scraped it off in lumps, rolling it into balls we could make pots with, and then picked the bike up and carried it.
Badger, barn owl and fox watching on long golden evenings were largely abandoned, but there were other wildlife surprises.
When the house sparrows left for their annual summer holidays, camping out in the wheatfield behind the house (still squabbling) we had some unusual visitors to the garden. A whitethroat spent a few days around the garden hedges, and then, what I took to be a juvenile robin, revealed itself as a female redstart – its dove-grey plumage and white eye-ring enhanced by a peachy breast and then, when it perched on top of the birdtable, an unmistakable, quivering flame of an orange tail. On another morning, I sank down in the grass to watch a stoat hunt the hedge right past me in fluid, undulating leaps.
Indoors, we were visited by beautiful moths: yellow underwings, a magpie and to my (budding entomologist) daughter’s delight, a namesake in a Rosy footman, the scribble over its wings like a ECG reading, matched the scratched remains of her schools-out, multi-coloured nail polish.
The apple harvest from our two trees, one rosy, one green, was carried out with great care as we shared with wasps (interested only in a last, fermented meal) and several caramel-and-amber hornets. Their jaws worked audibly and we watched in awe as one despatched an irritant, drunken wasp, and carried away a piece of apple the size of a rice krispie.
The evenings are darker, colder than they rightly should be at this time of year and the last few are spent labelling school clothes, the children sorting books and pencil cases. There is much to look forward to – the changing seasons make sure of that. But I can’t help feeling that another of the children’s summers has slipped through my fingers. Have I made the most of it? Have I shown them all the wonderful things there are to see, experience, marvel and laugh at? Have I done enough to reinforce their bond, their connection, their joy and need of this place and its wildlife? For if they need it now, they’ll need it more, increasingly so, as the years go on – and it needs them. Their future depends on it.
Yesterday, I saw a clouded yellow butterfly. In this poor butterfly summer, an insect from Southern Europe or Africa seems astonishing, yet, a glimpse of dark bordered, marmalade-yellow wings is gloriously certain. Yet, like much of the summer’s wildlife, like the summer, it is gone, over the hedge and away, before I properly get to see it.