Posted in Personal life, Reading

March Hare Madness

Moving to Hawkesbury Upton has given me a much greater awareness of the changing seasons than when I lived and worked in towns and cities. Thirty years on, I’m still not over the novelty of having new-born lambs as near neighbours down my lane in the spring, or to hearing the birds sing with renewed vigour as the days lengthen.

photo of ewe and lamb in field
Some of my favourite neighbours

Less predictable was the sudden appearance of a fox the other day in my secluded back garden, enclosed on all sides by the walls and high fences of my neighbours’ properties. I was sitting quietly reading in our back room, when a startling flash of orange out of the corner of my eye alerted me to the biggest and most beautiful fox I’ve ever seen. He was standing majestically on the outhouse roof, channelling his inner Monarch of the Glen, as in Landseer’s famous painting.

Sir Edwin Landseer's painting, The Monarch of the Glen
Sir Edwin Landseer’s painting The Monarch of the Glen (image in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

After a brief staring competition, he performed his own take on the old typing exercise renowned for using all the letters in the alphabet: the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog, substituting for the canine my little tabby and white cat, Bingo, sunning himself at the other end of the roof. Bingo only blinked as the fox darted down the lawn and out of sight.

What I’d really like to see next – though even less likely to be found in my garden – is a March hare.

Well, any old hare, really. I’ve seen lone hares loping across fields around the parish, or sitting up, meerkat-style, to get the lie of the land. But I’ve never seen them engaging in the fabled boxing activity associated with the month of March. I’d always assumed the boxing was between two male hares competing for supremacy. I’ve just discovered that it’s always between a mixed couple, the female fending off the advances of the male early in the mating season.

Albrecht Duerer's portrait of a hare
Albrecht Duerer’s wise and soulful Hare (image in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Not so with so-called boxing kangaroos, where two males fight for dominance, holding each other in place with their short front paws while inflicting serious injuries with their mighty clawed back feet.

Such agitation isn’t really madness in either creature, but the saying “mad as a March hare” dates back to the sixteenth century.

The image was further popularised by Lewis Carroll when he seated his Hare with the Hatter at the tea party in the crazy world of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. They also reappear in the sequel, Through the Looking Glass, as Haigha and Hatta, the King’s messengers.

In John Tenniel’s drawing, the Hare’s ears are strewn with straw, a Victorian symbol of insanity, while the Hatter’s madness is an occupational hazard of his profession. The mercury used by Victorian hatmakers in the felting process caused erethism, a neurological disorder commonly known as Mad Hatter Disease. Symptoms included behavioural changes such as difficulty handling social interactions, as Alice finds to her cost. As indeed does the Dormouse, whom, as Alice leaves the tea party, the Hare and the Hatter are trying to stuff into the teapot.

John Tenniel drawing of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party
John Tenniel’s illustration of the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (image in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

But for Hawkesbury hares, there’s good news: the hare’s mating season continues until September, so if they are troubled by March madness, their relationship issues should improve next month. Just so long as their sweethearts are not lured away in April by the arrival of the Easter Bunny bearing gifts

This post first appeared in the March 2022 edition of the Hawkesbury Parish News


MORE SPRING READING

If you’re already looking forward to Easter, you might like to try my comedy murder mystery novel Springtime for Murder, which kicks off with a report of the Easter Bunny being left for dead in an open grave…

Order your copy in ebook or paperback online here

Or ask your local high street bookshop to order it for you, quoting ISBN 978-1911223344

image of cover of Spri

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cover of Best Murder in Show

If you like ebooks and haven’t yet read Best Murder in Show, you might like to take advantage of a three-day special offer: download the ebook completely free from Amazon anywhere in the world from Thursday 10th-Saturday 12th March (US time).

DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE EBOOK FOR KINDLE HERE (for a limited time only)

Posted in Personal life, Travel

How Blue Was My Hilltop

In my Young By Name column for this month’s Tetbury Advertiser, I wrote about a sight I’d like to spot more often in the Cotswolds – although they are beautiful enough as they are!

Driving along a lane in the high fields near Newark Park, I spot a mirage-like splash of blue big enough to fill a field. Or is it mauve? Rippling in the late afternoon breeze, the flowering crop is changing colour as readily as the two-tone tonic suits favoured by Mods in the 1960s. Oil poured on water morphs from black to rainbow hues because the floating film is just a molecule thick, but when I park alongside the field, these plants are chest high.

close-up view of flax

I’m used to seeing cars stopping on the roadside in early summer to photograph swathes of pillar-box red poppies among the crops. A few years ago, a field just off the A46 was as densely carpeted with poppies as the famous scene in The Wizard of Oz. An instant tourist attraction, it triggered a proliferation of social media selfies.

poppy field viewed from a distance, a brilliant red stripe in a green landscape
The arresting view of Hawkesbury’s poppy field caused may motorists to divert from the A46 for a closer look

The mauve flowers – or are they blue? – in this field by Newark Park have a far subtler beauty. It is of course a field of flax, the first I’ve seen for a long time, and an increasingly rare sight in the Cotswolds. How I wish I could substitute flax for the ubiquitous rapeseed, whose vivid flowers look all wrong in our gentle landscape. They also make me sneeze like one possessed, a yellow morning mist floating above their fields like mustard gas. While I don’t expect farmers to choose crops for their good looks, I do wish flax could be more profitable.

view of field from by drystone wall

Flax, aka linseed, is certainly a useful and versatile crop.  Chez Young, we add linseeds to our breakfast cereal and salads for their health benefits. Linseeds are rich in fibre, protein, Vitamin B, minerals and Omega 3 fatty acids.

I wish the latter didn’t sound so unappetising: “Mmm, fatty acids,” said Homer Simpson, never.

Research indicates that linseeds improve digestive health and lower blood pressure, bad cholesterol and cancer risk. If that’s not enough to win your heart, linseed oil goes into paints, varnishes, animal feeds and cricket bats.

The stalk, with fibres three times stronger than cotton, is the source of linen. The Ancient Egyptians considered linen a symbol of purity and allowed only priests and mummies to wear it. Much as I love linen clothes, that’s not a sacrifice I’d be prepared to make. Flax fibres are also used in the manufacture of cigarette papers (boo!) and teabags (hurrah!)

So why don’t we grow more flax on the rolling hills of the Cotswolds? When I google its preferred growing conditions, I discover it’s not just a matter of money. Flax thrives on alluvial soil, ie rich in sediment deposited by running water on a floodplain. With an average elevation of over 100m in the Cotswolds, I’m guessing alluvial soil is not our long suit.

As the sky begins to darken ahead of a thunderstorm, I realise I must make the most of this rare scene, so I capture it on my smartphone before returning to my car – and, like a tourist on my home turf, to social media.

poppies in a Hawkesbury field
More poppies, spotted on my way home from Newark Park

array of seven books in series
Follow the changing seasons of the Cotswolds year from one summer to the next in this seven-book series

SERIES OF GENTLE MYSTERY NOVELS INSPIRED BY THE SEASONS IN THE COTSWOLDS

Watching the changing seasons in the Cotswolds is one of the inspirations for my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, which follows the course of village life from one summer to the next through the eyes of newcomer Sophie Sayers.

Click here to find out more about this seven-book series.  

Order the first ebook in the series here. 

Order the paperbacks online here.

Or ask your favourite local bookshop to order from their usual stockist, quoting ISBN 978-1911223139.

All the books in the series are available in both paperback and ebook, and Best Murder in Show is also available as an audiobook (order direct from me via this link for a very special price), and production is about to start on the audiobook of Trick or Murder? 

Posted in Personal life

Off the Garden Wall

nest of three glass dishesIn my column for the July issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I addressed an ancient form of rural trading: the use of your front cottage garden wall as an impromptu shop counter. It’s a common sight in the English countryside to see home-grown produce sold this way, especially in times of summer surplus,with payment made via an honesty box. Where I live in the Cotswolds, and I’m sure in other rural regions all around the UK, lockdown has triggered a new twist on garden-wall trading – the free distribution of unwanted household goods.


Social media posts saying “It’s on my front wall” have become commonplace during lockdown.

As we declutter our houses, the front wall has been the closest we can get to a charity shop drop-off. This method has the added bonus of feedback. I was gratified to hear from a local boy’s mother how thrilled he was at the progress of the mint plant he’d adopted from me.

The prospect of free gifts in someone else’s front garden lured me out for my first village stroll after twelve weeks of shielding. I returned home with abundant bounty:

the perfect pot in which to store my kitchen knives

a small vase just right for the pinks I’m currently cutting every day

small pottery vase of pinks

a set of pressed glass dishes the colour of rosé wine that makes me smile every time I see them

trio of pink pressed glass bowls

and a planter just like the one I used to admire as a small child at infants’ school. (The less useful a memory, the better my recall.)

china planter with succulents

But the pleasure lies deeper than in the initial frisson of acquisition. What makes such trophies special is knowing the circumstances in which they have been given.

Antique dealers set great store by “provenance” – the record of an item’s ownership to show it’s genuine and honestly come by. The provenance of “off the wall” items is precious in a different way. Such things are being gifted, often to strangers, in a spirit of generosity fuelled by the extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves.

To me these items will always be souvenirs not of Covid-19 but of the kindness of neighbours and of their propensity to offer solace in a time of crisis.

I hope such exchanges continue long after lockdown is over. I for one intend to keep putting surplus items on my front garden wall, weather permitting. With the triffid-like growth of the mint in my garden, I should have plenty to go around.


Village Trading in Wendlebury Barrow

I haven’t yet used this idea in my village mystery series. In the fictitious village of Wendlebury Barrow, all shopping scenes take place either in Carol Barker’s village shop, where she stocks goods in alphabetical order to make them easier to find, and Hector’s House, the bookshop and tearoom where Sophie Sayers works. But I’m adding it to my ideas book for future use.

There must be a good mystery plot hinging on the mysterious appearance and disappearance of various goods on Sophie’s front wall!

Best Murder in Show against backdrop of Cotswold cottages

If you’ve not yet encountered Sophie Sayers, you might like to know that the sixth book, Murder Your Darlings, was launched at the end of February, and I’m currently planning the plot for the seventh, Murder Lost and Found.

Posted in Personal life

In Praise of Village Shops and Post Offices

The Post Office, Hawkesbury-Upton, Nr. Yate an...
Hawkesbury Upton Village Post Office (Image via Wikipedia)

What turns a shop into a superstore? After all the build-up to the launch of a new superstore in our nearest market town, I happened to be away on holiday when it finally opened. I forgot all about it till driving past one evening after the clocks had changed and there it was, like an alien spaceship, its strange round tower all lit up. A small alien bribe had landed on my doormat while I was away – £8 a week in vouchers for the first four weeks, clearly designed to have me inescapably in their thrall by the time my big Christmas shop was due. But who’s interested in aliens when your own planet is perfect?

Because here on Planet Hawkesbury, we’ve already got all we need for the Christmas season. In November we had three special festive shopping events, thanks to Pre-school, the Primary School PTA and Severn View Farm, each packed with fabulous gifts that you’d never find in the biggest, brightest chainstore.

And if you didn’t manage to pick up all your presents  at these events, we’ve got our own gift shop on the doorstep all year round – aka Hawkesbury Post Office, whose tasteful gifts are eminently easy to mail, ideal for posting to friends and family far from home. And let’s not forgot our lovely Hawkesbury calendar and Christmas cards!

The Village Shop is happy to order in all our Christmas food shopping, to arrive just in time for the festivities. We won’t need to fight traffic jams or risk the winter weather. (Last December’s deep  snow must have caused havoc for anyone who left their shopping till the last minute.) Give Ann and Mark your list and they’ll do the rest. Now that’s what I call a super store.

So this year I’m going to be avoiding the Christmas rush. I’ll be spending all my time with family and friends instead – and enjoying the many seasonal events that will surely be previewed in this month’s parish mag. I hope you will too.

Happy Christmas!

(This post was originally written for the December 2011 issue of Hawkesbury Parish News)