Friday, May 14, 2021

Where the Blackbirds Bathe


It started with a blackbird bathing in the most neglected part of my garden. During the house renovations a few years back, this area was where the workmen dumped rubble. I had promised myself a greenhouse or ‘something wonderful’ like an outdoor room and had dreamed of an orangery because, well, gardeners dream, writers dream… put that together, and you get orangery dreams. But the recent years have brought fiercer storms thanks to the reality of climate change, and we’ve already had the garage windows broken in a storm. What chance would a glasshouse of any kind have, especially built upon this hill?

So back to the bird – having a bath…

‘What about a wee pond?’ says I.

My Husband nods tentatively. He knows I don’t need much encouragement…

And how hard can a pond be after building the dry creek feature in my garden in California in the hard-baked, dry desert earth? Soft, soggy Irish soil would be no bother…

I did a bit of research. I consider the Ulster Wildlife Trust a very reliable source. If you’re thinking of a water feature, keep in mind what your local conditions will allow for. A dry creek works in California, but here it would probably get washed away! And likewise, a still-water wildlife pond would not have been a good idea in my California garden  (especially with the mosquito problem in standing water.) But in Ireland, it is a feature that will welcome the wildlife to my garden in all the best ways.

The first thing was to outline the size and shape I wanted. Rain tended to gather in the bits I dug out, so I kept a log in the hole in case the hedgehog fell in and needed to climb out.

I wanted a pond deep enough so it wouldn’t freeze solid to the bottom in the harshest winter weather. Apparently, that meant I had to have it a min of 45-60 cm deep for 40 % of the pool. I took things slowly. It was March. We were in lockdown. There was no big hurry. I aimed to dig 15 shovel-fulls a day. But what could I do with all that soil?

Last autumn, our neighbour chopped down a gigantic Leyland Cypress that had bordered our properties. It’s considered by some as an invasive tree, but it’s always sad to see a large tree being taken down. I did welcome the extra sunlight in the garden, though. Some of the larger branches had fallen on our side. We were so grateful when a Good Friend chopped them into a manageable size for us. I decided to use these logs to make a raised bed to border the pond and fill them, in part, with the displaced earth.

I was delighted when My 13-Year-Old Nephew pitched in one Saturday to help dig the pond – you know lockdown has gone on too long when things like that happen. We had such a great day together too. Excellent bonding time, and for the next few decades, I’ll sit by that pond with the fondest of memories of making it!

The ground was rocky in places and some of the rocks we took out were pretty big – that’s my wellie boot in the picture above for scale.

Despite hating the idea of adding more plastic to the planet, all the advice on making a pond said that I needed a pond liner. I dug a little trench around the rim to secure the liner.

I wanted large smooth pebbles/rocks to edge the pond and cover the surrounding area. A little bit of research led me to a company in Lurgan that would deliver river rock to my driveway. By my calculations, I’d need two tonnes of pebbles. They were due on the 5th May – I had a week and a half to wait.

By the time all the digging was completed, we’d had the driest April on record. When rain was forecast to arrive before the stones would. I worried that the holes would fill with water before the liner was down and that I’d have a nightmarish mudbath trying to set the liner in place. So I decided to put down the liner and fill the pond with water (from our water butt) before the stones arrived.

To prevent sharp rocks from puncturing the pond liner,  there should be a layer of sand, then underlay of some kind (carpet underlay will work.)

Sand I had, leftover from the house renovations and stored in that rubble area for the last couple of years – it would be good to use it up.

I had saved the underlay from the carpet we took out before the renovations. It was perfect. It may as well lie beneath our pond and protect the liner as lie in landfill or in rolls taking up space on shelves in my garage.

The pond liner I had to order online. None of the garden centres were even open yet. I found a nifty calculator online that helped me gauge how much I needed, and just I ordered it up. When it arrived I laid it out in the sun to warm up so it was more flexible to fit the contours of the pond.

As it turned out, putting the water in before the rocks was a great plan. The water from the rainwater tank weighed down the liner and let us see how it looked. When the rain arrived, it filled the rest of the pond and replenished the tank. We were able to see where the liner needed ‘shored up’ to better control the direction of overflow runoff, away from the house. (Don’t forget the safety escape for the hedgehog – that liner might be too slippy for him to scramble out!)

The rocks arrived, and My 13-Year-Old Nephew came over again to help with placing those. It was hard and heavy work. Two tonnes was just the right amount of rock. My back ached, but, boy, did it feel good to see the project come together.

When the garden centres opened, I planned to go shopping for aquatic plants, but after an online research session, I concluded that I wouldn’t buy anything. Apparently, nature will find its own way to my pond. I follow the theory – fragments and seeds from nearby waterways (the River Callan being the closest) will be carried in by birds and take root. This way, I avoid the risk of introducing invasive species that are commonly introduced via garden centre stock. It’s kind of hard to believe that the pond will be a thriving ecosystem simply by my doing nothing, but I am willing to leave it for a year to see what happens – check back in 2022!

To finish, I added a bridge…

planted up the raised bed (that’s a post in its own right!)…

and disguised the rainwater tank with hanging pockets filled with plants…

added a little decorative log pile to hide the ugly gap beneath the water butt…

and hey presto!

The whole thing was barely done when the blackbird was back bathing in the pond. I watched with delight and called My Husband to come and see before thinking to grab the camera. But alas, the rascal (the blackbird, not My Husband) scarpered before I could get the lens cap off. That’s okay – I’m happy just knowing that this pond is where the blackbirds bathe.

Byddi Lee

Friday, April 30, 2021

Bluebell Fairyland at the Milford Cuttings

It feels like Armagh’s worst keep secret even though the Milford Cuttings should not be kept secret at all. It is a stunningly gorgeous walk that is especially at its best in May with its carpet of bluebells.

Managed by the Ulster Wildlife Trust, this section of disused railway track is home to the largest colony of a rare tree – the Irish whitebeam. Wildflowers grow in abundance and include several species of orchid.

It is a tricky place to find from the directions on the Ulster Wildlife site, so I’ll do my best to make my directions clearer. At the moment, is it dry underfoot because of the lack of rain recently, but keep an eye on the weather conditions. Worst case scenario, it’s a welly-boots walk, but well worth getting mucky for.

So start at Hill Street in Milford village with your back to the Monaghan Road. You’ll see an old School House on your left, a gorgeous old house set in lovely grounds to your right, and then, further along, a new development on your left.

You can park along here if you came this far by car.

You’ll pass Old Mill Court on your left, and the next lane on the same side sports a sign for the Milford Cuttings.

Turn left here. Walk over the old Iron bridge and notice how it looks like it may have been part of the railway system (I don’t know for sure if it was, but it sure looks like it.) Below you flows the Callan river – apparently, the name derives from an old Irish word for ‘Noisy’. It is lovely to hear the water gurgle past.

Follow this lane to a wooden gate (recently mended by the Ulster Wildlife Trust – thank you!)

Go through the gate and keep following the trail…

until it leads you down some wooden steps to what looks like a platform at a train station. (I believe this may be referred to as the old halt locally, but I’m not 100% certain on that.)

It’s a peaceful sun-trap nowadays. You might see frogs in the pool of water that now floods where I presume the tracks went. There’s the buzz of insects and the scent of blossom. It’s a place you could sit and read a book if you were so inclined!

Turn right and head through another wooden gate to follow the trail.

I’m guessing this section was carved out of the hill for the railway tracks. It’s incredible to think this was gouged out a couple of hundred years ago for a railway system that ran to Monaghan and beyond. Sad to think we no longer have a rail system in Armagh anymore.

Soon you’ll come to wooden steps that climb out of the cutting.

From the top, you can see glimpses of the Callan river, though not in the picture below

At the minute, white wood anemone flowers tumble down the hillside colliding with the more stately bluebells and the demure primroses clustered on banks and around tree roots.

Down some more steps…

then the trail threads through a fairyscape…

until it splits into two. Here you can choose to take the high road or the low road – both are equally gorgeous, and if you are doing an out-and-back, the two join up, and you can loop back at this point (for a shortish walk of about 1 mile)

If you fancy a longer walk, you can integrate this into the Rock Road-Ballyards loop I wrote about before. To do this, don’t close the loop. If you took the low trail, turn right, and if you took the high trail, that will be a left. Along this path at the moment, there are white clouds of Blackthorn in bloom, promising heavily laden branches of sloe berries come the autumn. I’m thinking, ‘sloe gin!’

Follow the trail right to the end, where it terminates at the remains of a bridge that once spanned the Ballyards Road below. (Below is a winter shot – an equally gorgeous time to visit the Cuttings)

Be careful when looking over the edge – there’s no fence or safety barrier. From here, double back about fifteen metres to find a gap in the hedge on the right, revealing a steep path down the bank towards the river. Be careful – I’m always scared that one slip will have me swimming in the Callan!

Follow the river bank…

until you see a rusty gate secured by a loop of barbed wire (sounds delightful!) that leads out to the Ballyards Road.

Turning right takes you back into Milford (total walk distance of about 1.2 miles). If you go left, then about half a mile later, cross a stone-walled bridge and take a left again to bring you to the Rock Road. Another left here takes you back into Armagh, where you can grab a well-earned coffee and traybake at the Espresso Bar before doubling back up to the Stormy Hill to cut over to the Monaghan road and back into Milford. For more details on this portion of the route, you can read this post from a while back. The full loop can take about 5 miles.

The Milford Cutting is a place where, on a warm summers evening, as the midges dance in clusters, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a gathering of the fairy folk celebrating nature. In winter, frost glistens in the bare branches of the trees and hedges. A snowfall lingers longer in the hollow of the cutting.

All year long, something stands out to make the heart swell with joy at the wonders of this world we are lucky to inhabit. The Milford Cutting truly is a magical place, and if you don’t believe me come see for yourself.


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

We're moving....

First of all, thanks for reading this blog and for your continued support.

Recently, I set up a new website for over at WordPress. They also provide an integrated blog. I have moved all my posts from this blog over to there to keep everything in the one place and for the past few months posted blogs up in both places but now I think it's time to move from Blogger fully to WordPress, which will be a challenge since I'm still learning that system.

So instead of posting the most recent post in both places - today I'm directing you to the new blog via the following link.

I hope you continue to follow the blog over there and while you are there feel free to explore my new website.

I'm delighted to that I've signed a three-book publishing deal with Castrum Press. The first book in the Rejuvenation Trilogy is due out in early 2020.

You can subscribe to get my newsletter with all book release news direct to your inbox... 

Thanks for following, your readership is much appreciated.

Byddi Lee

Monday, January 14, 2019

Guest Post by P.V. Wolseley

I like to keep things physical – no Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram – so it’s strange even to me that I’m guest-blogging for Byddi Lee. Let me tell you how this came about.

It started, as so many writerly things do, with Byddi. She stayed in Paris long enough to co-found a critiquing group and for me to get to know her a little. With her blue eyes and blond curls, Byddi is at least one part Christmas-tree fairy but with her ferocious energy, drive and loyalty, she’s two parts word-warrior queen. It was no surprise to hear that, shortly after having left Paris for Armagh, she was hustling together a flash-fiction festival that sounded like the best fun.

Two fellow Parisian writers and I decided to crash it.

‘We’ll come and support you,’ we said.

Byddi being Byddi, she declared the festival an international event and welcomed us herself, at the airport, late one Belfast night.

We drove into Armagh through the sort of blackness the City of Light has long forgotten. Having fielded perfectly sensible Parisian questions such as ‘how can people see without street lamps?’ Byddi got on with the business of narrating the night, sketching out with words the towns and orchards we couldn’t see. I quickly stopped peering into the darkness and instead listened until we reached our cosy lodgings at the Charlemont Arms Hotel.

Breakfast was big, Irish and – being shared by three writers – wordy. We somehow got onto the subject of female forebears who faced risky and multiple pregnancies. The lady waiting tables served up the best story, top trumping us as she cleared our plates: 22 children born to one woman.

This emerged as a pattern when we toured the city. It quickly became clear that there’s not a stone in Armagh that doesn’t have a tale to tell; people swap stories the way the English shake hands. I left the tourist information office not with leaflets but with tales of a sword too big to wield and a giant warrior. At the Hole in the Wall, greetings took the form of ‘What’s your story?’ and refreshments were served with a tale of unhappy love and a hanging. At Emain Macha, myths and legends were illustrated on a big screen and so enchantingly told that when I later stood on the mound, I was sure any archaeologist digging would find story on story on story, stratified.

I heard plenty of anecdotes where arrests and bombings unselfconsciously shared sentences with meals, marriages and markets days – a reminder that for many years, strife and struggle were the daily lot of many in Armagh, but it was hard not to feel optimistic as we explored the city. My fellow Parisians and I were the only ones in black. Everyone else seemed ready to put on the glam and get something going. As we walked through the Market Place Theatre & Arts Centre before closing, the receptionist put the Christmas tree lights back on for us and suggested a photo shoot. Every social interaction became a networking, sponsoring or social media opportunity. When my friend tried on a jacket that fitted like it was made to measure, a picture was taken and posted on the boutique’s Facebook page, and when the guide at Emain Macha heard our enthusiasm for myths and legends, she got out from behind the desk to share with us the excellent and beautifully illustrated Cúchulainn by Réamonn Ó Ciaráin. Wherever we went we got a small-town welcome so warm it was hard to see Armagh as a city, despite its two cathedrals and world-class museums.

It was at one of these museums – Armagh County Museum – that we enjoyed the highlight of our stay: a flash-fiction feast served up before a portrait of Seamus Heaney and his piercing eyes, painted by Colin Davidson. We feasted like gluttons on stories ranging in inspiration from the literary and celestial (A Clockwork Heart) to the local (Cás na dteifeach), and in setting from the domestic (Say’s Himself) to the parallel world of horror-erotica (Always and Forever). All pieces were read with finesse and generosity in a venue that made for a magical evening. It came to a close much too soon – which may explain why we were slow to go. I was most grateful to our kindly, informative hosts, who let us explore the museum’s treasures long after our time was up.

Next day: home to beautiful and indifferent Paris. I took time to reflect on all I’d brought back in head and heart, based on the writerly principle that if protagonists come out of a journey unchanged, they’ve not been anywhere. With such a wealth of happy memories and stories, it seemed only right to share this story by taking an uncustomary toe-dip into cyber-sea – to say a big thank you, Armagh, and à bientôt, j’espère.  

P.V. Wolseley