First conkers a timely re­minder

The Courier & Advertiser (Angus and The Mearns Edition) - - NEWS - An­gus Whit­son

Idon’t know how many conkers it takes to make an au­tumn but I’ve been pick­ing up my first ones out walk­ing with Inka. It takes me back to my prep school days when conker frenzy broke out around this time. An enor­mous horse chest­nut tree, its branches hang­ing with conkers, grew out­side the class­rooms and was a source of great dis­trac­tion.

For a month more at­ten­tion was paid to clock-watch­ing than lessons, and there was an un­seemly rush at the end of each class to be first out of the door to claim any new conkers that had fallen.

There were dis­putes over conker own­er­ship and friend­ships could be tested. The­o­ries of con­kerol­ogy abounded. Size counted in con­kerol­ogy. There was a strong body of opin­ion that small was bet­ter be­cause they pre­sented a more dif­fi­cult tar­get.

The mad­ness af­fected whole fam­i­lies and com­pet­i­tive moth­ers got in­volved. Some soaked conkers in vine­gar for a week in the be­lief it hard­ened them. Oth­ers roasted the nuts in the oven and par­celled them up to send to their lit­tle lovelies, which just wasn’t cricket when you think about it.

Conker fights were mostly con­ducted in good hu­mour. Oc­ca­sion­ally, you got a sting­ing blow on the hand when a wildly swing­ing op­po­nent mist­imed his aim but, in those far-off days, one of the rea­sons we were sent away to school was to learn to grin and bear it.

The silent gar­den

It’s quiet in the gar­den just now and the song birds ap­pear to have de­serted us. The breed­ing sea­son is, to all in­tents and pur­poses fin­ished, and the birds are start­ing their an­nual moult – the sys­tem of feather re­newal. Feath­ers suf­fer wear and tear and are re­placed by new feath­ers, which push out the old worn ones.

The moult is a stress­ful time as it af­fects the birds’ fly­ing abil­ity, mak­ing them more than usu­ally vul­ner­a­ble to preda­tors. They re­treat to shel­tered spots un­til the moult is com­plete and they can re­turn to main­stream gar­den life.

Al­though they are rel­a­tively in­ac­tive while the new feath­ers grow, they don’t starve be­cause food is still plen­ti­ful, and their new plumage will be in prime con­di­tion for the on­set of win­ter.

Guilt

It’s more than just sad or dis­ap­point­ing, it’s frus­trat­ing and en­rag­ing, to read that the 7th Cen­tury hand­bell be­long­ing to Fortin­gall and Glen­lyon Church, in Perthshire, has been stolen.

It has no mon­e­tary value. Its value is in its sen­ti­ment and the his­tor­i­cal and re­li­gious sig­nif­i­cance for the church mem­bers and the wider com­mu­nity.

It has re­minded me of the story of an English red­coat sol­dier, one of the gov­ern­ment forces hunt­ing the fugi­tive Bon­nie Prince Char­lie af­ter the Bat­tle of Cul­lo­den, who stole an an­cient bell from a re­mote High­land chapel.

His dis­hon­esty was nearly the un­do­ing of him for the bell rang with­out ceas­ing, day and night, driv­ing him nearly de­mented. Even­tu­ally, con­sumed by con­science and heart­g­naw­ing re­morse, he went ab­sent with­out leave from his reg­i­ment to re­turn the bell to its proper home.

View from the top

I count my­self lucky to have so many won­der­ful views on our doorstep. The view from the top of Stra­cathro Brae is just such a one.

It was there that I met up with an old friend – of long­stand­ing, you’ll un­der­stand, not an­cient. We had been neigh­bours for many years. We sat look­ing across the broad, fer­tile val­ley of Strath­more towards the bell­mouth of Gle­nesk and the Hill of Wir­ren, the high­est point be­tween Gle­nesk and Glen Leth­not.

Over cups of cof­fee we chat­ted about old times and caught up with fam­ily news. The sun was still in the east, throw­ing the foothills of the Braes of An­gus into high fo­cus. High above us a buz­zard wheeled in the ther­mals and an­other mewed from the neigh­bour­ing woods.

There are tremen­dous vis­tas up and down the strath – a patch­work of stub­bles and fields of but­ter-golden bar­ley yet to be com­bined. The hym­nist was maybe over-pes­simistic when he wrote – ev­ery prospect pleases and only man is vile. But I know where he was com­ing from.

Farm­ers keen to fin­ish their har­vest have had a frus­trat­ing time with the un­pre­dictable weather. I feel a nag­ging con­cern about the mat­ter. Much of the bar­ley is des­tined for malt­ing for whisky. Imag­ine the cri­sis if it should be lost to the va­garies of the weather. Not just whisky’s loss but worse, our loss too. My whisky drink­ing fa­ther would be bir­ling in his grave.

My old neigh­bour quoted me the open­ing lines of the poem, Leisure, by Wil­liam Henry Davies, the tramps’ poet – What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stop and stare....

It re­it­er­ates my sen­ti­ments last week that too of­ten we think we are too busy to pay at­ten­tion to the coun­try­side. I heard a com­ment re­cently that some peo­ple get stressed when they run out of pave­ment, so they don’t so much as ven­ture into the coun­try­side. What a waste. Na­ture’s bless­ings are our bless­ings – and they are free.

Don’t Miss The Whit­sons’ Kitchen – An­gus and the Doyenne’s take on The Great Bri­tish Bake Off, ev­ery Wed­nes­day in The Courier.

Pic­ture: An­gus Whit­son.

A patch­work of but­ter-golden har­vest fields in Strath­more, a view much en­joyed by An­gus.

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