An Otter In Stroud

Of all England’s mammals, there is one – more than any other – that I have always wanted to see in the wild.

Ring of Bright Water

That book

Only one animal which, since I saw that film and read that book as a boy, I’m aware of, subconsciously at least, as I walk alongside streams and rivers and shoreline.

When I was younger, many of England’s waterways were too polluted for fish and otters; and if otters could find clean water, they might be hunted with otterhounds. (Otter hunting was only outlawed in 1978). No surprise then that I thought my chances of spotting one in southern England were slim. But I looked nevertheless and especially when I travelled to more remote country in Lakeland, Wales or Scotland. I never expected to see one properly you understand; just a curve of wet fur rolling underwater or a streak of dark litheness flowing up a bank into undergrowth, leaving no trace but a ring of bright water.

And I most certainly never expected, not even in my weirdest dreams, to see one in front of my own house for goodness sake. Not a bloody otter.

Stroud Valley

The view from the house. The canal is in the foreground, the bench overlooks the hidden river beyond. The Friesian cow at the end of the rainbow is incidental. September 2018.

In August, we moved into a canal-front house in Stroud. And we knew on arrival that there are kingfishers here, nesting mute swans and I heard, to my stuttering disbelief, that otters live here too. As we’ve walked or cycled along the tow-path, I’ve been extra vigilant – obviously – hoping that I might finally see my wild otter. I’d seen kingfisher many times before I moved to Gloucestershire … yet to have seen them twice already from my house windows is still pretty amazing. But despite my fervent wish, I’ve seen no otter.

Until.

The other day, Jim and I were loading the car before driving off to Pembrokeshire. As we carried out far-too-much-stuff-for-a-three-night-break, we noticed a group of people on the far bank of the canal looking down into the river beyond.

Jim shouted, “What is it?” (half expecting them to shout back, “A body.”).

“An otter,” someone replied and after Jim and I had exchanged a wide-eyed grin, we left our luggage on the driveway, our house and car doors wide open and, grabbing my camera, jumped on our bikes, cycled seventy yards to the end of our road, crossed the footbridge and pedalled furiously back to the bench overlooking the river.

I stepped up onto the wall of the weir between canal and river and looked down into a mass of quaking watercress. Quaking because something was heaving it from beneath.

Otter Stroud (1)

I was twitching with excitement but still unbelieving … until up popped a dark blunt head. There he was: a wild, beautiful otter. Upon my word. He quickly disappeared but then re-emerged momentarily beyond the cress before curling back underwater. Was that it? Had he gone?

Otter Stroud (8)

Nope – he snapped up again, twisting manically and proving to be, in low light, a devilish camera subject.

Otter Stroud (7)

I continued clicking hoping for at least one decent shot before he was gone.

Otter Stroud (2)

But, he was in no hurry and appeared remarkably unconcerned by his adoring audience standing just a few feet away.

Otter Stroud (4)

He’d found a wealth of food and took his time enjoying it; whatever it might have been: snails perhaps or freshwater mussels.

Otter Stroud (3)

This was an encounter which slipped from hope to a breathless glimpse, to a prolonged close encounter, to … “Er, we really need to be off to Wales now, otter. Sorry.” Eventually, reluctantly, we let him be and cycled back to the car.

Otter Stroud (5)

There is so much relentlessly gloomy news about wildlife and the environment that this simple encounter was a significant and bright moment for me.

Otter Stroud (6)

For the rest of the day, at intervals, Jim or I would say, “We saw an otter. Outside our house.” Saying it made it more real.

Broadhaven Beach, Pembrokeshire

Broadhaven Beach, Pembrokeshire

Over the following weekend, as we walked the stunning Pembrokeshire coast, the sheer amount of plastic waste washed up on the white sand was keenly depressing; providing more unremitting evidence of what harm we are doing to our planet. As if we need more.

But, but the Stroud canal, the Stroudwater Navigation, is one resounding success story, amongst the havoc. The Cotswold Canals Trust has restored most of it in the past few years and plans to continue its resurrection all the way under the M5 and out to Saul Junction, linking up with the national canal network.

When Jim was growing up in Stroud in the ’70s and ’80s, the canal was mostly derelict: partly filled in, built over, dumped full of rubbish and fenced-off completely in places. And now? Well, locks and bridges have been rebuilt or repaired, the towpath reinstated and maintenance barges chug past our house – dredging, cutting back vegetation, keeping the waterway clear. What was once a fenced eyesore for our neighbour when she moved here twenty-five years ago, is now a wide band of still water with the occasional kayaker; and its busy towpath is used by joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers, schoolchildren and walking commuters. Thanks to all the astonishing work by the Trust and a host of volunteers, it is now home to a rich variety of wildlife including mallard, moorhen, swans, kingfishers and, would you believe it, bloody otters.

It’s nice to have some good news once in a while.

At Last, The Priory

So that’s that then. The end. Ten years after starting work at The Priory – almost to the day – I’m leaving. I’ve spent about a fifth of my life here: a sobering realisation as I hurtle through time with no brakes.

Wisteria

May

If this summer has been too fiercely hot and dry for Sussex gardening, 2018 was a good final year nonetheless. After a proper, hard and snowy February there were none of the usual later frosts to which the garden is prone. With non-frozen flower buds the big, old wisteria had more bloom than ever before – though I’ve always thought it a shame that the racemes aren’t longer.

Laburnum

Also in May, the leaning-over-ready-to-fall laburnum was magnificent. Normally its flowering is rather half-hearted and pathetic. A bit sparse – because of those late frosts. But this year she did me proud. I’m not particularly fond of laburnums but I make an exception for this one. Long may she not fall over.

Honeysuckle

Overall, spring was brilliant for flowers: the honeysuckle on the south side of the house looked and smelt great … though actually it always does and is a perennial joy.

Peonies

June

Groups of peonies planted up against the house were big, old plants back in 2008 and still flower lustily. The flowers don’t last long, are way too blousy for me and so ridiculously heavy that they need a supporting steel hoop but I enjoy their arrival anyway.

Viburnum opulus 'Roseum'

Oddly, the Viburnum opulus ‘Roseum’ on the west lawn, if still looking good in May, wasn’t as smothered with bloom as it so often is.

Pruned apple trees

April

I’m chuffed with the two apple trees on the north lawn. They were roughly hacked about in the past and responded, as apples will, with a forest of water sprouts (long, thin shoots) from their wounds.

Pruned apple tree

Removing the sprouts and forming a frame of branches over the years has been bloody satisfying. I hope somebody, anybody, will continue to tend these two old dames.

Prunus Serr. Kanzan Rubra

I’ve planted dozens of trees in my time here. Here are two of them – Prunus ‘Kanzan’ flowering in April,

Greehouse path

brightening the path to the greenhouses before the rock border stirs and buttercups flower.

Pear Concorde

April

I planted ten fruit trees on the meadow. This one is Pear ‘Concorde’ and someone needs to keep an eye on it and its companions too, please.

Cornus controversa ‘Variegata_

May

A grouping of three Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ on the west lawn has suffered repeated deer attack this year. I had planned on removing the lower, damaged branches to lift the crown, smarten it up and allow for easier mowing, but those nibbled branches do hinder deer from rubbing away the trunk bark with their antlers – something they have already done to one.

Yellow Iris

May

Yellow flag irises have colonised the ditch between the two ponds and create a golden ribbon between mown lawn and meadow. I like wild interlopers, mostly.

Bluebells

April

And another wildflower, bluebell, is spreading further each year. In time they will be quite The Priory springtime feature – if they’re spared the strimmer in the years to come.

Narcissus Conspicuus (2)

In the autumn of 2008, I planted hundreds and hundreds of bulbs – amongst them, one hundred Narcissi Conspicuus. A scribble in my notebook of the time has the ominous words, “some mouldy”. I imagine that “some mouldy” is why they never flowered. Each spring I eagerly, fruitlessly looked out for the flowers until, stripped of hope, I gradually forgot.

Narcissus Conspicuus (1)

And then, one day in April this year, a tiny yellow splash caught my eye. I walked across thinking, “Surely not now. Not after all this time.” But there they were. Three hoop petticoat daffodils. Three! How can three tiny yellow flowers fill me with such amazement and joy? Being a silly old sod would be one reason. Nine years is a goodly wait for a flower or three from a hundred mouldy bulbs. If you are of an impatient disposition, you might not want to bother.

Long borders (2)

May

At the same time, during that first autumn, I planted a hundred Allium Aflatunense in the long borders. What a bargain they were. Reliable, long-lasting flower heads and a steady proliferation of offsets (new bulbs). I’ve dug up and replanted a multiplicity of free bulbs about The Priory and in other gardens too.

Long Borders

Definitely one for the cash-strapped, if patient, gardener. Buy a handful, plant them, enjoy the flowers, wait a couple of years, harvest some bulbs, repeat.

Tree Sugeon (1)

The rotten alder is central

Though there has been little (and often no) money for the garden, I did arrange for a final tree surgeon visit. A leaning, partly hollow alder near the house had concerned me for a couple of years. Last year, a zipper of bracket fungus ran up the trunk and this year there was a noticeable thinning of the canopy. Money or none, it had to be made safe.

Tree Sugeon (3)

Ivan the Tree Surgeon felled the tree without damaging the adjacent rose tunnel, which impressed me no end. After the deed, he told me that much of the trunk was sponge.

Tree Sugeon (2)

Though he’s retiring very soon, Ivan then scampered up into an oak like a young ‘un to cut out several dead branches. I’d worried that if these came down in their own time, they’d smash one of the greenhouses.

Forty-odd years ago as an apprentice, Ivan’s first ever job was at The Priory. Fitting then that one of his last should be here too.

The Priory Oak

February 28th 2018

In one post, a while ago, I wrote: “(The oaks) were the first thing I noticed and the last I shall say good-bye to.”

Time to say goodbye.

The Priory Oak (1)

April this year

In another post about The Priory’s Tulip tree, I said that though I loved the Tulip tree, it wasn’t my favourite. I never did say which of the garden’s trees is my favourite, though you might have guessed.

The Priory Oak (3)

The oak tree on the east lawn isn’t the oldest, it isn’t even the biggest here but my word, it’s the most beautiful, loveliest oak tree I’ve known.

The Priory Oak (2)

X marks the spot

I’ve never thought of the term ‘tree-hugger’ as a pejorative and I happily hug my oak when the mood takes me.

Priory Oaks

And, whilst I’m at it, I’ll hug another one. I might even hug them all. Call me a tree-hugger, I shan’t care.

Priory Ash

The BIG Ash with an added anxious gardener for scale

These massive trees were a big draw for me when applying to work in this secluded corner of Sussex. Looking after them, keeping them safe for the gardener working beneath, admiring them, occasionally hugging them, and planting new ones was a delight during my time here. In the future, they will still need occasional attention but mostly they’ll be just fine without my hugs.

Weigela

Weigela

As will all of the old shrubs which flowered before, during and, I’m sure, after my time.

Broughton Bride clematis (2)

Clematis ‘Broughton Bride’

I’ve added so many plants to the garden, so many, and most of these will hopefully continue to thrive too.  Or else not.

Young manadrin ducks

Young Mandarins – July

As will the wildlife, of course; whether or not I’m around to watch. Kingfisher will still dart across the ponds, deer will come and go as they please, rabbit will tear through the wire netting, buzzard and the new arrival, red kite, will circle high overhead and the midday hoot of the tawny owl will still startle. Or so I hope. If the mallards haven’t raised any ducklings in recent years, then mandarin ducks succeeded in 2018. There’s always room for new life at The Priory.

Rhododendron (2)

Sadly, there are no plans yet for a replacement gardener, though someone will take over the lawn-mowing.  And gosh, but I’m very happy to hand over the mowers to younger hands. I’ve mowed enough.

The Priory

I thought you might like to see this aerial photo of the house and grounds. It was taken fifteen or twenty years ago and though I’ve studied it countless times, I still pore over it to see how the garden has changed, and how it hasn’t. The west pond is clearly visible with the six large weeping willows not large at all. The Despondent, bless her, sits upon the water – probably bearing a happier name. By the Land-rover, one of the two original beech arches is still being trained and there is a glimpse of the old, long-gone greenhouse, garden top right. My oak is above and slightly to the right of the house. The straight path-to-nowhere – without the Verbena bonariensis beds – is very obvious. And there were many hot mowing days when I could have made good use of that paddling pool.

Please shut the gate

I seem to have something in my eye, so I’ll leave The Priory now, closing the gate behind me. I used to think that I would work here until the day I retire. But outlook shifts, plans change, opportunities arise and another part of this island tugs me westward. It is the right time for me to go.

Margaret the Farmer is one of my greatest discoveries of the past ten years, and when I visit her in the years to come, and after a cup of tea and a hearty gossip, we’ll walk down through the fields with her sprocker spaniels, and peer over or climb the fence into the garden.

I’ll let you know what we see.

oooOOOooo

Jim, the boy and I are leaving our Sussex home next week. We’ll be rootless for a while until we complete on our new house in the Cotswolds. We’re putting all of our stuff into storage and thanks to the kindness of family and friends, we shall be flitting between spare beds until our new home is ready. When we do eventually land and settle, I’ll post again. But I may be some time.

Thank you to everyone who has followed and shared my interest, my love for The Priory.