Rain spattering down through the leaves of the fig tree outside my bedroom window might have been what woke me this morning. Other than the occasional sprinkling from a heat-built afternoon cumulus, we’d gone over 50 days without rain until this morning. The sound had become unfamiliar… and so had the smell of wet earth.
I’m house-sitting for some very good friends at the moment. Their garden could best be described as a Cornish jungle, and today we have the rainforest element to reinforce the impression. Despite the day being dark and devoid of sunlight, and despite the blustery wind that is punching its way through the trees and shrubs, it’s still warm. Parrots and monkeys would not sound out of place beyond the kitchen door.
Thirsting for rain, the countryside has been visibly wilting and scorching over the course of the past couple of months. It’s still only July but some mature trees have started to show leaf colour more usually associated with autumn. Hart’s tongue ferns have given up and collapsed like sagging rags in the hedges, exhausted beyond caring. Some spring-flowering garden plants like wisteria and magnolia have started a second run of blossoms. Even the hardy old nettles have been drooping in the lanes like they were nodding off.
Brambles have become heavily laden with blackberries very early this season. They’re still mostly small, green and bullet-hard, but some in sheltered spots they are already swollen and succulent. I gorged myself on the sun-sparkling riverside path above Boscastle a couple of days ago and they were delicious. This is actually my second blackberry season this year. I was in New Zealand between January and March and enjoyed great handfuls gathered from wild bushes on the flanks of the Otago Harbour near Dunedin. I was watching spoonbills feeding in the saltwater ponds inside the railway line to Port Chalmers at the time. The blackberry was introduced to the New Zealand by British pioneers in the 1800s, as were many other things that have since become invasive problems, but surely that shouldn’t stop me enjoying their fruits when the opportunity arises. One of the most productive bushes I’ve ever seen in any country was in an overgrown house plot near Horseshoe Bay in Stewart Island at the very south end of the country. Invader or not, it kept me going on a hot, dry day.
I remember as a child in Northern Ireland, walking with my mother and brother round “the hospital walls” on sunny summer days, collecting tubs of the berries for granny and mum to make into pies, crumbles and jams. The Downshire Hospital, previously known as the Down County Mental Hospital, had been built for such use a century beforehand and had a high stone wall around its perimeter. At several key points the brambles springing up out of the verge of the perimeter road leaned thick and heavy against the stonework. We’d borrow grampa’s hooked walking stick to pull the vines down to within reach, and we endured scratches, prickles and lingering spikes to get at the free fare. A slightly longer walk could take us on to the holy healing wells at Struell, where the thicket would be thick with glistening fruit, and the air would be sweet with the coconut scent of yellow gorse flowers… “whin” as we called it. Struell Wells was a place you could grasp at wild berries, or clutch at straws if you were suffering an intractable ailment.
As the rain still falls here, I imagine I can hear the parched earth sucking it in and creaking as it swells and stretches back into its normal state and shape. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the brown fields of scorched grass to put up green shoots again, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw the beginnings of recovery almost within hours. The Met Office tells us the sun will return in the next day or so, and if those temperatures climb again, everything will be lushing up faster than it can be controlled. I already have to duck and weave through the growth in the back garden here to feed the ducks and chickens. By the time my friends return in 10 days, that protojungle could be all but impenetrable without the vigorous use of a Very Big Knife.
A clattering of jackdaws appeared to be making the most of the rising wind near here late yesterday afternoon. Driving out under the overcast skies before the rain came, I turned a corner in the lane to see the ragtag flock of birds rising, turning and falling over the corner of a single field, apparently just for fun. I pulled into a gateway and switched off the engine to watch. There were maybe forty or fifty of them, all being chucked about by the wind as they rose, flapped, turned and fell to rise again. Some were forging forwards through the air but moving backwards against the ground, while others folded and dropped to near the dusty earth before rising again to join their chums. So much activity and so little to show for it. The train was moving fast but going nowhere, so what reason could there be for the display except perhaps the jackdaws were having a lark? Well for weeks it has been almost calm here with thick, sultry air parked resolutely on top of the county, so maybe I was witnessing this season’s young enjoying their first chance to try out their skysurfing skills in a strong wind.
A rain-laden storm raises a subtle thrill inside my chest as I move among the trees and hedges whipping and thrashing around me. When I first moved to Cornwall in my mid-teens I saw magic in everything around me, so a wet day wouldn’t keep me indoors. The first expensive piece of clothing I ever bought was a voluminous wax cotton riding coat made by Belstaff. Combined with a pair of Green Hunter wellies, it meant that no weather was bad enough to keep me indoors. It had a hood held on by press studs, buckled thigh straps at the front to stop it flapping away from my legs, and a stud-fastening split up the back which presumably was put there by Belstaff to let a horse get in, but I used it to increase flexibility when climbing over gates and through hedges.
I walked many miles of flailing lanes, streaming moorland tracks, gale-lashed coastal paths, and dripping forest trails in that natty combo. My only companion through most of this was the family dog Sam. He was a shaggy cross between a bearded collie and a border collie and he never seemed to mind the rain, even when he was bedraggled and sodden. I can picture him now, plodding along beside me, his long hair streaming around his belly like a tap.
Splashing through the countryside on those days I would imagine small animals huddling away from the thrash and splash, like those in Jill Barklem’s children’s books about The Mice of Brambly Hedge. Later I was more interested in the legends and myths of fairy-lore and I loved the nature-sprite illustrations of Brian Froud and Alan Lee in their book Faeries. Many of the pictures of mischievous supernatural creatures and characters had them surrounded by blusters of storm-stripped leaves or flailing trees, and images from that book used to dance in the shadows at the back of my mind as I would forge out through the darkening violence of summer gales.
Some other favourite children’s publications of mine which captured the essence of rough weather in rural Britain, were the Ladybird books of What to Look For in Spring, …Summer, …Autumn and …Winter. Many of Charles Tunnicliffe’s evocative illustrations showed scudding clouds, gathering thunderheads, rain-lashed farms and whipped up spirals of leaves. Even as a young boy, the magic within those pictures probably helped turn many a cold, wet day in the countryside from a plodding endurance march into the revelation of a series of artistic scenes. They gave value and worth to “bad weather” by making them the subjects of art and culture. If I could have afforded a camera of any kind when I was a boy, my pictures would have been attempts at Tunnicliffe compositions. His watercolour pictures of the rural industries and landscapes of the 1950s and early 1960s now look like historic and period pieces, but these were the scenes of my early childhood and as such, as I moved into my teens, they were maybe the source of my first young experiences of nostalgia.
I lost two of those four books somewhere along life’s way, but a few years ago I was scanning the shelves of a charity shop in Shetland when I saw two Ladybird books with names on the spines that put a shiver in my spine and drained the blood from my face. They were the two titles that were missing from my set. I think I was almost dizzy with excitement as I paid something like 20p for them both. I was so overwhealmed by the coincidence, and overcome with desire for them, that I would probably have paid £20. That reunited set, those four books, still take me back to some of the better parts of my childhood. The wild and the adventurous parts.
Summer storms in the Shetland Islands where I lived for 25 years, are very different. What might be called a strong wind where I am now in Cornwall would normally pass in Shetland as “a bit of a breeze”. Islanders don’t tend to worry too much about wind speeds until they’re approaching sixty or seventy miles an hour. In the unofficial Shetland Beaufort Scale the observed effects of a force 8 gale are: “Shetlanders describe it as a good drying breeze and put washing out for the first time. Southern England utterly devastated.” Rain and glowering skies are just facts of life in the islands most of the year round and its a rare home that doesn’t have top-to-toe waterproofs for everyone in the family. There aren’t many trees and hedges there to illustrate the violence of the wind, which is something that I found most frustrating when I was asked as a BBC video journalist to “go and film the wind”. A shivering of grass or a sweeping of heather doesn’t convey the drama of a force 12, so unless slates are coming off and lorries are being overturned (it does happen) I would turn to the rising and plunging of the sea for my visual references.
But wet and windy days in the lush Cornish countryside will always be a special thing for me, especially after a long period of sweltering heat and dryth (as they say in Cornwall). The arrival of a fresh breeze after oppressive heat, and those first spots of rain following a drought, are as comforting as a deep sigh. It’s an easing of tension, a resumption of normal service, something we are better equipped to deal with. And that sweet, sweet scent of the first rain wetting the dry earth, encapsulated in the wonderful Greek-derived word “petrichor”, is one of the most evocative smells in my world.