Monday, 5 July 2010

July - my least favourite month of the year

Does everybody have a least favourite month of the year, a time when they feel as if they're holding their breath all the way through in case something goes wrong?  I tell myself how illogical it is to hate something as kind of non real as a month but I do. When the hedgerows are filled with lacy elderflowers, the willowherb turns purple and people's gardens are sweet with the scent of roses I grit my teeth and tell myself that it will soon be August.

My husband died in July, my mother died in July, I found out that I had breast cancer in July, my wedding anniversary is - yes you guessed it and I lost the best job I ever had in July. I have had good Julys. I once stayed with some friends in Warwickshire for two wonderful weeks and found out I had had a book accepted for publication which I cared about very much.

 However, in the main, I hate every second of it.  This year I spent the first day of July in one of the places I love best and so I offer it up to you now, Stanhope in Weardale, County Durham. The Durham dales can be bleak in winter ( the time I like best ) but are loveliest of all now, the narrow valley so green that it hurts your eyes, the sheep have been sheared, dog roses dot the hedges, the river runs low and clear and grey, shallow over big flat stones, little farms stand brave on the skyline and nestle in the lower fields and the cattle come down to the bottom gulleys in the fields to drink, which gave me the title for one of my books, Sweet Wells.

When I go to the hairdresser's and they tell me what wonderful exciting places they are going to for their holidays and they politely ask me where I am going. I always tell them Stanhope.

It's not far, it doesn't involve any delays in airports, dirty trains or traffic queues ( unless you get behind a tractor) and even that isn't too bad in August because if anything August is better than July in Weardale because the bell heather comes out and the whole place is carpeted with purple. April is good there too because of the lambs dashing about the fields. May is good because you might even be able to go to bed without a hot water bottle.

Last month when I was sitting by my window a sparrow hawk landed, stared at me for a few seconds and then, since I didn't move presumed I was nothing more than part of the furniture and proceeded to eat the bird it had killed for its lunch, plucking it very delicately first before eating the whole thing. I saw the little bird's feet disappearing and felt a sudden pang but then birds are all sparrow hawks eat, I could hardly direct it to Sainsburys.

Pheasants toddle about the fields, rabbits appear in the sundown light, partridges play the same game as children, trying to get themselves run down on the roads and curlews appear crying their particularly exquisite cry overhead. Tiny wrens nest nearby,  robins and blue tits come down to feed, the roadsides are purple and yellow and white in July and this year, at least, the sun has beaten down and the light fades at eleven and comes back after three.

Weardale is the land of my ancestors, they have farmed there for centuries, run businesses in the various little villages, married, died and  been buried there and the place where I stay is in the very fields where my mother rode her horse when she was a young girl.

My father met my mother in the Cross Keys at Eastgate, my father rode a motorbike up the dale to see her, trying to knock a minute off his journey each time.  His family had pubs in St John's Chapel and Frosterley, lovely villages. I can remember as a small child being lifted up on to a stool in the Forester's Arms in Frosterley and being handed a shandy across the bar. My Great Aunt Jessie, my grandma's sister, ran the pub there.

What we used to call Old Man's Baccy

I write about the dale all the time because it's my past, my present and hopefully my future as well.  I write at the Dales Centre in Stanhope, I sit in the cafe at Killhope, the old leadmining centre and eat carrot cake,  I walk around the river at Allendale. I drive to Allenheads where my husband and I used to go when we had a motorbike - we would sit by the smoky pub fire and drink whisky when we were young.

These are the wildflowers which were caught up in the roadside grass last week when I walked into Stanhope. They cheer me.
Dandelion clockDaisiesElderflowers looking like lace ( You can make elderflower champagne if your would be elderflower delicate wine goes into a second fermentation ! )
Muck spreading. Ah, the smell of the dales!It has been a good dry summer for the farmers and the fields are full of lovely bales like these they remind me of shredded wheat.

All these things matter to me, even in July.

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