As the rules around isolation lift in the UK and France, we have finally made it out to Le Moulin, for the first time in a year! Sitting at home in London, it’s easy to want to be in France. Being here, amongst the fields, rivers, flowers and birds, I feel time slow, and the weight of London lift, I realise how much I have missed this tranquil place.
Much of the lawn has been kept mown while we’ve been away. The rest we had to leave to do the things that undergrowth does, when you leave it alone for a year, grow. And grow. Going up to the field kitchen was like visiting an old ruin. A whole season of elder, nettles and brambles had grown up. Dead leaves covered the work-table, and brambles wound their way through my lovingly build hazel fence, ripping the cross pieces out and turning the whole beautiful thing into an unruly, thorny hedge.
My silver birch glade, planted a few years ago, was almost submerged in elder, six foot high nettles and brambles. The island we had reclaimed from the rushes and turned into a meadow of different grasses, had turned backwards and the thick green rushes were growing again, marching from the far river-bank across the meadow. The fruit trees we had planted in the hard clay of the reclaimed island, looked even more out of place, stunted and unhappy in the alien land.
But we have been here before.
It’s too hot to work outside after about 10.00 as it hits about 30 degrees by lunchtime. So we got up at 6 am, carried the scythe and other clearing tools out across the bridge and up to the filed kitchen and began the work of reclaiming it all. It’s arduous and exhausting, swinging a scythe through thick elder and bramble. But it works. Gradually the hazel fence showed itself again, the fire pit appeared out of the mound of elder, the tables and benches shook themselves free of the brambles and we started to have our field kitchen back from the wild.
An old tree man once told me that you start removing the lower branches of a new tree when the trunk is as thick as a strong man’s arm. My silver birches had reached that point at last. The glade of birches showed clearly how the undergrowth worked in unison to reduce everything to its own level. First the convolvulus winds gently up a trunk, finding its way into the lower branches, it’s beautiful white flowers, belie its true purpose, it weighs down the branches and chokes them of light. The six-foot nettles reach up to touch the drooping branches, providing yet another route for the convolvulus to spiral upwards. Waiting in the wings is the bramble. As the branches are pulled down by the convolvulus the bramble reaches up to grab hold. Within weeks the branch is dragged down into the shadowy depths of nettle and bramble and the rest of the elder, nettles and convolvulus storm in. Once the lower branches are reached and pulled down, it’s like the drawbridge being lowered in the storming of a castle.
So reclaiming the silver birch glade meant scything down the undergrowth than removing all the lower branches from the trees. Making it next to impossible for any plant to reach up and pull the branches downwards again. The lovely thing about silver birch is when you remove the lower branches the beautiful silver trunks become properly visible and at last the glade looks like it was meant to look, a tiny forest of shimmering trunks.
Once the sun hits it’s time to flee to the shade. The dog is slumped in the long grass sunbathing, one daughter is reading books the other is whittling a lightsabre. It’s cool in the shade, maybe time for a beer, but it’s not even lunch time.