Of late, walking has seemed like a mission focused on treading Winter into the past and tugging Spring closer with each step. During February alone, I watched in the region of 100km of grass, mud and puddled tarmac pass beneath my strides. Braving all weather conditions, I have kept my head down and pushed on through these last few cold, unpredictable weeks, but as I write this, spring is still yet to arrive and my patience is waning.
Even blackthorn is still considering its entrance, commonly found in a frantic flourish by the month of February – its white blossom’s growth has remained stunted and decorated their spines with what appear to be hundreds of plump white pearls; prepared flowers that are ready but not yet willing to fully unfurl. A few other brave pioneers – elder, hawthorn, and some local ‘Willies’ – have popped open buds but appear to have recoiled as they realise the warmth was not the sort to hang around for long.
I write from this Winter’s favourite spot, propped up against the trunk of an old fallen apple tree in an orchard I have come to know like my own private garden – a secret location which, for my own privacy’s sake, must remain undisclosed.
Visiting the same location repeatedly over the last few months has imprinted some degree of regularity amidst the unpredictable weather. I have been able to give attention to the development of a deeper relationship with this enclosed space and its inhabitants, and indeed with the season’s bleakness. The old apple has provided me some shelter from the elements as well as from the company of humans, and allowed me some time and privacy to stop a little longer, observe a little more intensely – or in paradoxical contrast, observe a little more softly, to catch the drift of what is occurring in Winter’s periphery.
In February I caught the first notes of the Spring’s developing avian soundscape. Winter’s subdued soundtrack was gently pierced by a developing tapestry of birdsong, slowly stitching Spring, bud-by-bud onto the wind-slung silence of Winter.
This year it seems the birds are having to coax Spring from Winter’s grasp – chiffchaffs in numbers, wrens, tits, gold finches, robins, blackbirds, woodpeckers to name a few, all gather around this one fallen apple, feeding and making homes. With gentle twitches of twiglet feet, wings arced and darting, plumage fresh and rousing, they entice bud burst and slowly but surely bring forth this orchard’s bloom with their song.
Around my feet, the ground is alive with field mice, identifiable only by subtle rustles in the grass or glimpses of tiny brown hides slipping neatly through the long dried tufts. I also once heard a wild mouse sneeze!
I imagine that each little grassy tuffet within the vicinity of the apple is home to a mouse family, while the nearby remaining stump seems to be a hotbed for furry activity. I imagine it like a castle compared to the rows of surrounding grass abodes – or perhaps it’s the their place of worship, a grand mouse cathedral.
As the clouds continue to drizzle and the drizzle drifts in the bitter wind to sit upon my bare skin, I find warmth and contentment in thoughts of cosy mouse nests, little wet noses and sleepy eyes, making the first fluff and furry stirrings of Spring.
At the foot of the orchard stands a bank of mature ash pictured blow, who stand with sycamore and are presided over my an ancient Norway maple. This narrow passage is home and training ground to many squirrel families. Throughout the Winter I have watched them chase up and down the long grey trunks in search of midwinter treats, running back and forth along death defying routes through the narrow passage of bald branches.
I watch them travelling east on their leafless trails until they reach a large gap in the way – the leap is over two metres from the top of a tall thorn into the next ash tree’s reaching fingers. They stop there for a while, as if summing up the jump, or perhaps psyching themselves up for it, then conduct a little shuffle before leaping arms flung out, tail spinning claws splayed to grab whatever is grabbable and landing with only inches to spare into the fingers of the ash. Without surprise, they land safely each time and proceed quickly onwards as if oblivious to their bold approach to the negation of gravity.
Encounters with wild creatures have been a common theme of this season’s excursions – foxes and badgers have played a starring role. One evening, I stood beneath an old oak on Stone down, another regular haunt of mine, looking north-east awaiting the rise of February’s waning full moon. All was peaceful until I caught the sound of something approaching me quickly from behind. A sound too small to be a cow, with too many legs to be human, too clumsy for a fox, and too big for a rabbit. Whatever it was, it was in a hurry and seemed to be already fleeing something.
I was quite startled by the interruption to my peaceful moonlit vigil, as the feet came closer my heart picked up with brief panic, I peered to the right of the tree to see a badger come careering around the corner and arrive to a skidding halt with all fours splayed, belly to the ground, and eyes darting around frantically to confirm this a safe spot.
To my surprise the badger relaxed for a moment, looking back from where he’d fled and now at around a metre distance, he continued to shuffle closer. Once bearings were gained the badger soon realised that what he thought was a safe spot was in fact already inhabited – by a human!
The badger looked up at me and with a sniff and snort, hightailed it again, off toward a nearby hedgerow oak. We were both quite taken aback by this encounter, it’s certainly the closest I have come to meeting a “pied snuffle gruff” face-to-face.
As I stood and listened to the badger still sniffing in the distance I caught sight of two badger silhouettes picking their way across the field’s humped horizon, and imagined he was relaying this encounter to a friend as the moon rose behind them.
It’s close encounters like this which have buoyed me during this long winter’s slog – a lucky one am I who can be in such close company of wild creatures. Now, as we approach the full moon, some cracks have appeared in the perpetual grey that’s besieged us for the past few weeks, we are enlivened by glimpses of Summer’s promise.
I return to the orchard once more to stand next to the fallen apple. Now, there’s an undeniable fidget and a fuss about the place – recent grazing has left the grass short, revealing the complex of mouse tunnels that were hidden out of sight of preying eyes. They are now fully exposed and the mice can be observed scuttling hurriedly between the remaining tufts and the neighbouring apple trees, tumbling over the top of the uneven surface with their little tails trailing behind. .
The birds are getting busier, at least one family of blue tits are nesting in the branches of the apple, I hear their babies’ intermittent high pitched chirps as adults return with throats full of bugs to feed the growing brood.
As I bask in the relief of a latent burst of sunshine, the first prolonged dose that has fallen upon my bare cheeks for over 6 months, I ponder on the contrast between this and recent visits to the orchard. How the very same location can be so transformed by the presence of sun, and in turn how that occurrence can transform the human’s outlook.
To my joy, I receive news carried by galloping rays of Spring of the apple with whom I have developed such close companionship over the Winter. The apple that has literally propped me up throughout these weeks and who I thought dead, is still alive, and as if in close conversation with the emerging warmth has sent forth verdant green leaves to unfurl with optimism.
As the golden sphere climbs once again up into the sky to tell the tale of its annual resurrection from the underworld so it draws life back from the brink and provides a harbour of warmth in which we can flourish and frolic once more.
Now, we are ready, perched right on the brink of the season’s unravelling, myself, the apple and the orchards inhabitants have had enough of waiting for the scales to tip in the direction of Summer. We remain on the brink of impatience, eager as we are to push on with the business of Spring.
Despite the encroachment of Winter into the beginning of Spring, we have managed to get outside of the Glastonbury bubble on a number of occasions. The following visual diary is compiled of visits to local sites: East Lydford, Pilton festival site, Chew Magna and Stanton Drew stones, as well as the discovery of a collection of veteran trees at a manor house grounds near N Wotton.
Looking back on the last few months in photos, it appears that what seemed like uninterrupted grey and drizzle was joyfully punctuated by windows that allowed us short albeit damp excursions to places farther afield – these adventures are often embarked upon without intention, and more often that not end with the meeting of notable, veteran and ancient trees – as if we hear them whisper in the distance and are magnetised toward them.
In other To The Trees news – The two public walks of Imbolc and Equinox were very well attended. Further walks are planned in April and May and private bookings for the Summer have already started to arrive.
In addition, Abbey tree walks are now officially endorsed by the Abbey. I have also produced a 36 page tree guide detailing the Abbey’s collection of trees – that is now available in the Abbey gift shop.
You can book tickets for upcoming tree tours over on the abbey website. I am also available for private walks which can be booked directly with me, and a selection of upcoming public walk dates can be found below.
I hope to see you soon on another walk To The Trees.
A Visual Diary – Feb – Apr
Winter Tree Walks
Public Tree Walks, Glastonbury – By Donation
Easter tree walk – Sat 8th Apr 11am – Event link
Spring Tree Walk – Sat 22nd April 11am – Event link
Beltane Tree Walk – Sun 7th May 11am – Event link
Spring Tree Walk – Sat 20th May 11am – Event link
Abbey Tree Tours – Spring 2023
This walk can only be booked via the Abbey website:
Sat 13th May – 11am – Details and tickets
Booking: 07548 936 081
Walks for individuals and groups, for birthdays, weddings, and as an add on to your retreat, at a date and time to suit you.
Call Matt to book: 07548 936 081
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