January Ice

We’ve had no snowfall yet at The Priory but we have had plenty of the next best thing: hard frosts under bright, blue skies.

priory-drive

The drive leading down to the house

On one of those sharp, sunny mornings last week, I grabbed my camera and strolled about the garden.  Here are a handful of images which might show why The Priory is so special to me, even in winter.

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The last time I took you on a tour of The Priory gardens (see – A Garden Tour: The Priory in July’) I started through the incomplete beech arch onto the east lawn.  This time I’ll go through the main arch (above) leading to the front door.

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No I won’t – I’ve changed my mind.  I’ll pass instead under the second of the three arches – minding my step on the murderously slippy brick paving – through to the west lawn .

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It hasn’t rained much recently (for Sussex, for January) and the water level on the west pond is low.  Despite sustained wasp attacks during my autumnal strimming schedule, I eventually completed all the cutting back, including on the island.  But the task was not without mishap.

mishap

One mishap happened as I gingerly crossed to the island through the muddy water.  (The pond was just shallow enough for me to cross without boat nor waders … or so I thought).  Stinky pond water in my Wellington boot is not a favourite thing.  Wet stinky pond socks aren’t either, especially with no spares.

Another mishap was strimming yet another bloody wasp nest.  As I finished strimming the island, I glimpsed a scarily familiar eruption from the base of the island’s weeping willow.   And as usual, and well practised, I immediately dropped all my gear and ran away squealing – if unstung – returning only much later to collect my strimmer and helmet when the wasps were a little less excitable.  (This wasn’t the only wasp nest I upset after my recent waspish post.  A second, on the banks of the other pond, rewarded me with an ankle sting before I even noticed my peril.  After that I gave up strimming completely until we’d had several -5°C nights.  I mean, enough is enough.  Strimming five wasp nests with a six-sting-payback is outrageous bad luck after not hitting one nest in the previous seven years).

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Near the west pond, the long borders are looking surprisingly good.  I say surprisingly because I hadn’t particularly planned them as a winter feature; and because however many photos I admire of tall, stately winter plants, glistening in low sunshine, mine are almost always hammered to a brown, squishy goo by heavy English rain.

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But this year, our dry winter paid an unexpected dividend.

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Ice crystals on Viburnum × bodnantense ‘Dawn’ caught my eye too;

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with more on Verbena bonariensis.  

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The golden stems of Cornus sericeaFlaviramea‘ aren’t diminished by a bit of sparkle either;

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nor are the tops of cold frames.

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Guests were staying in the house over Christmas and New Year but now they’ve gone, leaving The Priory quiet and empty once more.  It is what I am used to and what I like: alone again in a corner of England I know better than anywhere.

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I crossed the rickety oak bridge, glanced over the frozen east pond – with holes made by splashing mallard –

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to arrive on the east lawn and the back of the house clothed in winter jasmine flowers.  I cut the Jasminum nudiflorum to ground level about three years ago – for emergency damp proofing of the walls – but it has grown back and one day will swathe the brick to the first floor windows again.

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As I approached the greenhouses, I noticed a hen pheasant under a conifer, enjoying the almost warm sun and taking a dust bath.  Male pheasants shout out for admiration but the female is a beauty too, if a modest one.  Her dust bathing forms a shallow depression in the soil, one of several such bowls dotted about the gardens.  In the summer pheasants made dust baths in the veg beds, carelessly obliterating row upon row of spring onion and salad seedlings.  How I chortled.

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There are a handful of resident pheasant in the garden, held close by the regular falling of food from the five bird-feeders.  Some are almost tame and show no real fear of me unless I overstep an invisible but surprisingly intimate red line … or I angrily wave my arms at ruined seedlings.

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Beyond the garden lies shotgun Armageddon and the crash of guns is a common, if unwelcome, soundtrack to January.  Stay here pheasant.  Here is good, here is safe.

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Later, when the sun had swung away behind the conifers, casting her bath into shadow, she’d gone; leaving only a basin in the dry earth and a couple of unwanted feathers

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My garden walk completed, I fetched the wheelbarrow to continue unending leaf raking and later, I cut back border plants turned to slimy heaps rather than graceful Piet Oudolf-y elegance.  Not much Sussex rain maybe but I still have an embarrassment of brown, squishy goo.

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The Rhine Cycle Route: Mainz to Cologne

In 1979, with my best friend Colin, I cycled from Hook of Holland across the Netherlands and into Germany.  We carried on pedalling to the Rhine near Koblenz and continued south along the river, past Mainz to Worms; where we camped for one night before heading for home via Luxembourg, Brussels and the port of Zeebrugge.   In two weeks, making up the route as we went along, we rode 700 miles and camped in fields or woods when we couldn’t find a camp-site.  We were 16.

Viscount Sebring

Me and my Viscount Sebring bike (with bespoke sock-drying facility).  Nijmegan, 1979

I’m now amazed that our parents gave us permission but it didn’t seem particularly odd at the time; and the following year we set off again for three weeks: cycling through the Black Forest, Switzerland, Austria and Lichtenstein; and over the Alps to Genoa.  Today, the idea of allowing my 16-year-old boy to bicycle for hundreds of miles on busy roads, for weeks at a time, unsupervised and non-contactable, is laughable.  But as L.P. Hartley almost said – “The 1970’s is a foreign country: they do things differently there”.  We two schoolboys had an incredibly exciting, fun and formative time; and nothing too bad or scary happened (though an encounter with a group of very drunk, lederhosen-clad, Austrian yodellers came close).  Those two teenage cycling trips are up there with the very best holidays of my life.

Mainz

Mainz Cathedral

But when I arranged a recent Rhine Valley cycling reboot with Jim, I ditched the first-cycle-to-Germany plan and caught the train from London to Mainz instead.

Cycling along the Rhine (14)

The Bingen to Koblenz stretch of the Rhine Cycle Route

At our Mainz hotel, we collected our hire bikes and for the following five days rolled slowly downriver through a Grimm landscape; enduring bright sun, huge breakfasts, beer, picnics and currywurst for the 135 miles to Rüdesheim, Koblenz and finally Cologne.

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The sun always shines in Germany – or rather – the sun always shines on our cycling holidays in Germany.

Der Klunkhardshof

Der Klunkhardshof, Rüdesheim (Spoken German: Exercise 1)

We smothered on the sunblock and rubber-necked past fairytale architecture;

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Bacharach

quaint mediaeval towns;

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and castles.

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And castles.

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And a castle.

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And another castle.

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Another bloody castle.

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A close-up of a castle.

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Until I grew bored at photographing castles and stopped.

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I liked old shop-signs advertising long-gone businesses: here the services of an adept, if elderly, boot thief.

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And here, erm … actually, I have no idea what business this unfortunate fishing incident is selling.  Fishing tackle?  Fish?  Specially trained attack deer?

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I liked modern, sleek things too;

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and even industrial complexes that reminded me of 1960’s postcards promising us all a brighter, shinier future.

River Rhine

This section of the Rhine Cycle Route, squeezed tight against the river by the Rhine Highlands and sharing the valley bottom with railways and dual-carriageways, is less peaceful and rural than our last cycling holiday (see ‘And Quiet Flows The Spree’).

Stork nest (2)

Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t as much wildlife either but we did see pylon-nesting storks

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and their more conventional brethren.

Cormorant

Cormorants were common too

Baby house martins

and curious house martin chicks.  One morning I squealed to an impressive, rubber-smoking halt when a red squirrel ran past my front wheel and scurried up a tree.

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Only, it wasn’t a red squirrel.  Well, it was but it was a grey squirrel … yet red.

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Have you ever seen one of these?  A red grey squirrel?  I hadn’t and didn’t even know they existed.  Perhaps it’s a new species and I shall be famous the world over … or more likely it’s a colour variant of the common or garden grey.

Boppard chairlift (2)

In the pretty town of Boppard, I nodded hesitantly at Jim’s suggestion, swallowed hard, breathed deep and climbed anxiously aboard a very-flimsy-indeed-looking chairlift.  (As I’ve mentioned before, I’m rubbish with heights).

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Good grief but it was high … and my eyes flicked to automatic closing mode; my vocab to automatic squeaking.

Boppard chairlift

The views were worth the anguish (when I did open my eyes but certainly not looking down between my feet) – and Jim forgave the squeak and whimper soundtrack.

Das GedeonsEck, hoch über der Rheinschleife

Das GedeonsEck, hoch über der Rheinschleife (Spoken German: Exercise 2)

At the end of the ride, the stupendous sight from the restaurant GedeonsEck, calmed my nerves

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as did a small restorative;

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before – “Eeek!” – the return journey.

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In early July, wild-flowers were at their peak.

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Mile after mile of stunning flowers;

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on verges and scraps of wasteland.

Gasthof zum Landsknecht, St Goar

Gasthof zum Landsknecht, St Goar (Spoken German: Exercise 3)

No camping in woods this time nor struggling with heavy, overladen bikes.  Our tour company* pre-booked the accommodation, provided our bicycles and, after Frühstuck, ferried our luggage from one hotel to the next;

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leaving us to pedal a leisurely 25 miles or so a day.

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Hashtag Action Shot

It was hardly a blistering pace but we made it less so.  On day 4, Jim realized that he hadn’t overtaken a single non-stationary cyclist.  He reddened when I pointed out that even senior pensioners on ancient bone-rattlers (and toddlers on trikes) had whizzed past us for days.  Maybe we could increase our speed just a little bit?  We did and even reached shirt-tail-flapping speeds.

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But not for long.  There was always the perfect excuse to slow down and stop again.

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Stone towers of the Remagen bridge today

At Remagen, the Ludendorff Bridge is no more.  This was the only Rhine bridge captured intact by the Allies in 1945 – after Hitler ordered them all destroyed to hamper the Allied advance.  Despite several attempts by the Germans, and to the delight of the US 9th Armored Division, the bridge survived.  After a fierce battle, the Americans took it, threw five divisions across the river and surged on to Germany’s industrial heartland, the Ruhr.

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Ludendorff Bridge, 1945 (Photo of an image at the ‘Peace Museum, Bridge at Remagen’)

Two weeks later the badly damaged structure finally, suddenly collapsed – killing 28 US soldiers – but by then its capture had already helped shorten the war.  (Interesting aside, huh)?

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral – the tallest building in the world (for four years in the 1880’s)

Five days after leaving Mainz, we arrived in Cologne and the end of our tour.  I’d booked an apartment for a further three nights and we were looking forward to the galleries, museums, the botanical gardens and cake of this vibrant city.  But surrendering our bikes on arrival was hard: we’d developed a fierce affection for them and would miss the open road, World Heritage Sites, the vineyards and occasional flapping of shirt-tails.  Hell, I’d even miss the castles.

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If the idea of a cycling holiday appeals, I’d urge you to go.  The pace is generally easy; you can stop wherever and whenever you like (without having to find a parking space); and you’ll enjoy an intimacy with the countryside and wildlife that’s impossible from the inside of a car, bus or train.  I’m already planning our next trip.  You might want to do the same.

*Over the years, I’ve booked three cycling holidays through Mecklenburger RadtourThey offer a wide choice of tours in various countries, at different fitness levels and, as you might expect from a German company, they’re reassuringly efficient.  They book all the accommodation; arrange luggage transfer; provide the bike, route guide, information pack, simple repair kit and breakdown back-up support – though we’ve never needed the latter two.

(I haven’t been asked to plug Mecklenburger Radtour.  I just wanted to give credit to a company that does its job really well).

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