My column from the October 2019 Hawkesbury Parish News
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that autumn begins the day after the Hawkesbury Village Show. This year cooler autumn weather arrived right on cue on 1st September. A couple of weeks later, with chestnut leaves already starting to turn bronze as I write this column, we’re basking in an ‘Indian summer’.
Or so I thought, until I decided to investigate what actual Indian summers are like.
It turns out they’re nothing like this at all. Having never been to India, I had no idea that their summers can bring winds so strong as to be fatal and thunderstorms accompanied by hailstorms. And once they’re over, there’s a four-month monsoon season to look forward to.
It turns out that what we’ve been having is a Native American summer.
Nineteenth century settlers coined the phrase ‘Indian summer’ to describe the unseasonably warm, dry spells in the fall which the indigenous people (termed Red Indians by European immigrants) favoured for hunting.
Outside of the English language, different terms are used for this phenomenon. Germans called it ‘Altweibersommer’ which means ‘old wives’ summer’, as do Eastern Europeans in their own languages. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because the elderly find a less aggressive heat of a good autumn easier to bear than high summer?
The concept can also be used metaphorically. In the English translation of Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, the term Indian summer is used to describe the run-up to the October Revolution: the calm before the storm.
Given the current political climate, I prefer a more
soothing philosophy. This autumn, whatever the weather may bring, I’ll be
bearing in mind that optimistic closing line from Shelley’s Ode to Autumn: “If winter comes, can
spring be far behind?” Let’s hope so.
PS For a more seasonal read for October, you might like to try the second in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, Trick or Murder?, in which a village finds itself divided by a conflict between Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ Night. Read the first chapter here for free.
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Every month I write a column for our village newspaper, the Hawkesbury Parish News. This is my column for the August issue, written for its mid-July deadline. The weather has changed a little since then, but our garden has felt the benefit!
Ours must be one of the few lawns in the parish that has become progressively greener during this hot, dry weather, rather than turning to hay. However, the lawn had to get worse before it got better. It turned chocolate brown, in fact, as my husband, who never does anything by halves, dug for victory over the weeds and took large parts of the lawn back to bare soil.
Top tip here: if you want to cultivate a forest of dandelions, leave a trampoline in place for a few years, and they’ll colonise what was once grass. Until we moved the trampoline to clear that patch, it became our cat Dorothy’s favourite shady retreat, the thick bed of sap-filled leaves cooling her furry tummy.
But then out came the grass seed, scattered across the fine tilth he’d created, and lovingly watered in, until that part of the garden began to resemble the early stages of a hair transplant (for someone with lime-green hair, that is).
A few days later, a kind neighbour gave us some leftover rolls of turf. Now parts of our lawn look like a thick, emerald-green wig.
But if you really want your grass to keep its colour, come rain or shine, my dad’s solution is hard to beat: astroturf in his Bristol townhouse back yard. It’s the perfect answer for those who are allergic to grass pollens (I wrote about hay fever in last month’s column) – or indeed for those who are allergic to lawnmowers.
Fancy a summer read while it’s still just about summer? (in the northern hemisphere, anyway!) Best Murder in Show kicks off at the time of a classic English village show – just like the one we’re currently preparing for where I live (though preferably without any murders).
This post about my summer holidays first appeared in the Tetbury Advertiser’s September issue.
I shall remember this summer break as the holiday of two extremes – scorching, dry sunshine and chill, torrential rain, as I flitted from Ithaca to Inverness.
Our trip to Ithaca was a busman’s holiday for me. I was helping to run the Homeric Writers’ Workshop and Retreat, so called because the island was the start and finishing point of perhaps the most famous journey of all, that of Odysseus, as chronicled by the ancient Greek master storyteller, Homer.
Our Scottish trip was occasioned by my husband’s own odyssey – to climb all 282 Munros, the Scottish mountains of 3,000 feet or more, named after the man who first mapped them.
On Ithaca, the weather was idyllic: constant sunshine, cornflower-blue skies, refreshing sea breezes, all day every day. The locals apologised that there were clouds in the sky – tiny Persil-white puffballs – apparently not usually seen between June and September.
A few days later, when we flew into Inverness to meet my husband (already there in our camper van, with 20 more Munros crossed off his list before we arrived), steady rain was falling from steely skies. As we headed west for Ullapool, the clouds became more leaden. Linen sundresses, so comfortable on Ithaca, were supplemented with leggings, t-shirts, cardigans, shawls – all at once.
On Ithaca there are constant reminders to conserve water, always in short supply on this tiny island. In Scotland, there is evidence everywhere of the abundance of local water: high and raging rivers, waterfalls and landslips beside the roads. New flood defences are under construction wherever we go, and not a moment too soon. If there’s ever a global shortage of water, Scotland’s a dead cert for world domination.
Yet as we retreated southwards, I realised that my two holiday destinations weren’t so different after all, and not just because they both prompted us to haemorrhage money on dubious souvenirs.
Both have a vast diaspora, thanks to economic migrants driven to North America, Australia, and South Africa by the Highland Clearances in Scotland and by the 1953 earthquake in Ithaca.
Both landscapes are scarred by the ruins of abandoned, simple stone houses, surprisingly similar in structure and appearance.
Both populations departed with a deep love of their homeland imprinted on their hearts. Whenever they can, they return. Australian, American and South African accents abound on Ithaca. In Scotland, 2014 has been declared Homecoming year, to mark the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, at which the Scots trounced the English. (By chance, my husband hails from Bannockburn.)
I feel privileged to have been able to holiday in places that so many people, all over the world, will always regard as home. Yet I’m also glad to return to the Cotswolds, which, as a small child on holiday there, I resolved I would one day make my home.
Because as Homer himself once said: “Nothing is sweeter than home”. At least, that’s what it says on my Ithacan souvenir fridge magnet.
(This post was written during the downpours at the end of last month, which now seem so long ago after the spring sunshine we’ve enjoyed this weekend!)
“Mummy, do you think we’ll get flooded here?” my daughter asked during one of the many February downpours.
Vivid news reports of British homes and fields underwater strike fear into anyone living on low ground or close to a river. But flooding is one thing that needn’t worry Hawkesbury Upton folk, because elevation is one of our village’s many charms.
It’s an uphill journey from whichever road you enter Hawkesbury Upton. At its highest point, the village rises to over 600 feet above sea level. That’s not counting the top of the Somerset Monument. Perhaps my daughter had visions of us all taking refuge within that tower, fleeing up the unsafe stairs as the water rose about our feet. Should that ever become necessary, it really will be ark weather.
When I first moved to Hawkesbury Upton over 20 years ago, my elderly next-door neighbour, James Harford, passed on a useful tip about the local climate: “When it’s jacket weather in Sodbury, it’s overcoat weather in Hawkesbury.”
My parents live 20 miles away in the heart of Bristol, and I’ve noticed that their daffodils are always at least a fortnight ahead of ours, reflecting the city’s warmer climate.
In the past, it made me sad that we lagged behind. There’s nothing like Spring flowers to banish the February blues.
But now, as the downpours continue, I’m very happy to take the Hawkesbury Upton high ground – one of many compelling reason that I’ve vowed never to move house again.
(This post was originally written for the March 2014 edition of the Hawkesbury Parish News.)
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(In which the English heat wave of July 2013 has me raiding my old Greek holiday wardrobe, conjuring up nostalgia for island-hopping holidays and Greek island society – with Noel Coward’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” never far from my mind.)
The Gloucestershire village that I’ve made my home is not known for a warm climate. There’s a reason that the Tropic of Hawkesbury Upton did not feature in Noel Coward’s wonderful song about hot places, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”. But this summer its lyrics have been playing on a loop in my head.
Perched high up on the last rise of the Cotswolds before they fall away into the Severn Vale, Hawkesbury usually has lower temperatures, higher winds and more snow than in Bristol, at sea level, just 20 miles away. Even nearby Chipping Sodbury has a warmer microclimate than ours.
“When it’s jacket weather in Sodbury, it’s overcoat weather in Hawkesbury Upton,” was a favourite saying of James Harford, the aged sage who lived next door when I moved here 22 years ago.
Yet the current Hawkesbury heat wave has had me rummaging in my wardrobe for clothes that haven’t had an airing since pre-baby holidays on the Greek islands.
Transported to Greece
My favourite Greek holiday clothes include an airy turquoise beach kaftan and a Mediterranean-Sea-blue sarong, patterned with the sea turtles indigenous to the island on which I bought it: Kefalonia. Teamed with earrings from Lefkas, enamelled in the colours of the Ionian Sea and sky, they transport me back to my halcyon days of island-hopping.
Fortunately, these items still fit, despite subsequent post-motherhood pounds. You’d have to have a lot of babies to need to upsize your earrings.
It’s not just my old Mediterranean wardrobe that I’ve adopted to cope with this hot spell. Other useful habits acquired during our Kefalonian days include:
closing wooden window shutters against the heat of the day (though ours in Hawkesbury were installed to keep heat in))
carrying a water bottle wherever I go
savouring cucumber salads so refreshing that they almost qualify as a drink
looking forward to stepping outside at dusk, to be enveloped in air as cooling as diving into a swimming pool
And then there’s the perfume that instantly whisks me back to the Greek islands. No, not the sharp scent of wild herbs on arid hills, but the soft, fruity scent of suncream. These days my aura is Factor 50.
When we first started holidaying in Greece, my then boyfriend (now husband) and I were the classic Mad Dogs and Englishmen (sorry, Gordon, Scotsmen). We saw nothing wrong with going out in the midday sun.
But after a few visits, I began to side with the locals, who spent the afternoons safely battened into their cool, bare houses. From beneath the shade of a beachside taverna, I’d smile and shake my head at conspicuously pale, newly-landed compatriots making a bare-headed beeline for the beach.
If smartphones had been invented in those days, I’d now be able to illustrate this point with a vivid image of a pasty English family of four, two adults, two teenagers, that I spotted one day in Zakynthos Town. Clad in Marks and Spencer t-shirts and shorts, they looked shocked that their cheap hats, emergency purchased from a nearby stall, did not make a dent in the afternoon sun. I suspect they bore that startled look for the rest of their fortnight on the island. It was as if they’d got off at the wrong stop on their plane:
“GREECE? What do you mean, we’re in Greece? Our tickets very clearly stated Grimsby!”
Only in the evenings, after dark, did the locals emerge en masse from their quiet, shady houses. Suddenly noisily sociable, they paraded gleefully about the town squares till well after midnight, toddlers whizzing past their ankles on tricycles whose saddles were too hot to sit on before sunset. It was as if this were a nightly wake for the overheated day: there was a real party atmosphere on every town square. On first encounter, this has much the same surprise factor for foreigners as the wooden silence of the Trojan horse transformed by hidden Greek soldiers’ battle cries.
English Summer Sayings
Will there be such a wake in Britain for our current heat wave? I doubt it. Hot summers are so rare that we’re never happy to bid them goodbye. But when it ends, we’ll be very British and accept it. With heavy rain predicted for this weekend, it won’t be long before our recent mantra of “I daren’t complain about the heat after the winter we’ve had” segues into one of our commoner British summer catchphrases:
“Well, the sunshine was nice while it lasted”
“All this rain will be good for the garden”
“What a shame for the children’s school holidays!”
And I’ll be tucking my Greek clothes back into the drawer, along with heady memories of the 2013 summer heat wave.
For the full lyrics of Noel Coward’s wonderful song, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”, click here.
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What is it with me and holiday clothes? I’m easily brainwashed by my wardrobe, as this post about our French holiday shows: