Life, but not as we know it

FORGET about the selfish shoppers piling their trolleys high with toilet rolls, or the shopkeepers marking up the price of their hand sanitiser bottles.

Crises have always brought out the best and worst in people, and the coronavirus pandemic is no exception.

But rather than focusing on the aggravating actions of that mean-spirited minority who always think of themselves first at any cost – including the scammers, fraudsters and other criminals eagerly targeting the most vulnerable of prey – it’s time to look at the bigger picture.

From the locals in Madrid applauding public health workers and those on Italian balconies singing into the night to the countless thousands of health and service sector staff knowingly putting themselves at higher risk of catching the virus, this is a time to salute the courage of the many, not the pettiness of the few.

The epidemic is not going to go away quickly. Indeed, it’s likely to spark a global recession on a scale we have not seen before – and make us all rethink our relationship with nature and the world around us.

New York trend forecaster Li Edelkoort was one of many early voices predicting that the virus could provide “a blank page for a new beginning” that could eventually allow humanity to reset its values.

Could it mean us getting used to living with fewer possessions and travelling less, as the virus disrupts global supply chains and transportation networks?

The crisis has already impacted on virtually every aspect of our daily lives – as it did for this priest, who asked parishioners to send him a picture of themselves and their families so he could tape them to the pews and remember them during Mass while the parish is closed.

Some campaigners certainly believe the economic disruption has already had environmental benefits, pointing out how carbon emissions and pollution in China dramatically declined after the virus first hit.

“It seems we are massively entering a quarantine of consumption where we will learn how to be happy just with a simple dress, rediscovering old favourites we own, reading a forgotten book and cooking up a storm to make life beautiful,” Li told the design and architecture magazine Dezeen.

The woman named by Time magazine in 2003 as one of the 25 most influential people in fashion said the impact of the epidemic would be “layered and complex” but would force us to stop taking planes, work from home more and entertain only among close friends or family.

With a younger generation increasingly concerned about the ownership and hoarding of clothes and cars, the transformation could be dramatic.

“Suddenly the fashion shows look bizarre and out of place, the travel ads that enter our computer space seem invasive and ridiculous,” she said. “Every new day we question each system we have known since birth, and are obliged to consider their possible demise.”

It is a time of profound challenges for our national and world leaders but by taking the decision-making power out of our hands, the virus has forced us to wake up and take notice of what we have been doing to the world.

But if it offers the prospect of resetting the dial when it comes to pointless travel, growing pollution and the ever-increasing production of ugly and useless plastic toys and souvenirs, it will come with a heavy price tag.

As well as potentially millions of deaths around the world, we can also expect to see many existing companies wiped out in the process of slowing down the pace – from luxury brands and airlines to hospitality businesses and importers.

Going cold turkey in changing our shopping and socialising habits is only the start. But as country after country shuts down, the process of rediscovering old books, dusting off old recipes and reconnecting with our nearest and dearest may do something to offset the negatives.

Of course, there’s little room for flippancy in celebrating any possible benefits of such societal changes. It’s hard at this stage in the crisis to have any realistic comprehension of the impact these events will have on our lives for generations to come – including the loss of loved ones, the hidden fall-out in terms of anxiety and mental health issues, the countless job losses and the extra strains likely to be imposed on already struggling families.

Not to mention the fearfulness of those who are already ill, the impact of the virus in prisons, hospitals, refugee camps and war zones.

Yet clearly the shutdown will also give people time to think – and maybe time to think differently, about new ways of living. As one popular poetic quote being widely shared on social media puts it: “And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.”

We are not at that stage yet. But we are already at a point where local communities are talking of ways of pulling together to protect the elderly and housebound, to counteract the selfish stockpiling of the greedy.

For many hunkering down at home, there may be different ways of supporting small independent businesses and allowing local ingenuity to flourish against the depressing backdrop of global economic pressures.

For those able to leave their house, there’s still the great outdoors to explore, even if that means a solitary walk rather than an outing with friends. But as these pictures show, when the sun breaks through the clouds, the natural world can provide a welcome escape from the gloomy news feeds or social media chatter.

Will we eventually enter an era where cottage industries flourish and arts-and-crafts initiatives prosper? Is our destruction of nature ultimately responsible for Covid-19 as some environmentalists believe?

We’ve suffered pandemics before, of course, from the Black Death to the Spanish Flu, and all have had a profund impact on society (and not just through the devastating impact on population figures).  

How we cope with and survive from the current crisis is in our hands. It will undoubtedly mean looking at the world in a different way – and changing how we live our lives. It’s also time for all of us to do so with a lightness of heart and kindness of spirit that perhaps belies our own worries and concerns. And one thing’s for sure: for the post-coronavirus generation things will never be quite the same again.

‘Delight in the little things’

DELIGHT in the little things, said Kipling – yet all too often the simple daily pleasures slip past us without us taking the time to savour them.

These days there’s an added problem for the selfie generation: everyone is so busy taking pictures for Instagram or Snapchat that the chance to properly relish a reunion with old friends, an extraordinary meal or stunning view is sometimes undermined or lost completely.

It’s the perennial challenge for travel writers and bloggers, of course. Do you soak up that chance conversation with strangers, the scent of exotic spices in the souk or the interminable bus journey through the mountains without capturing a picture for posterity, or do you spend all your time looking at life through a lens?

On the first day of March, with the sun streaming in through the bedroom window after what seems like weeks of gales and torrential downpours, the birds are in full song and, to quote Wodehouse: “The snail was on the wing and the lark on the thorn – or, rather, the other way around – and God was in His heaven and all right with the world.”

And so, turning away for a moment from the grim TV news about coronavirus, locust plagues and war, what are the small reasons to celebrate this week?

One small highlight is the return of an old friend, Fez the pheasant. Or, to be a little more realistic, an avian relation that looks remarkably like Fez, resplendent in his splendid waistcoat, who became a regular visitor round the bird feeder last year.

This year’s lookalike only pays a brief morning visit before scuttling off in a panic, but we hope he will return – like his majestic cousin, so beautifully captured on camera by Roy Battell of The Moorhens and circulated to followers in one of his weekly newsletters.

Other seasonal highlights include the daffodils providing a welcome splash of colour around the nearby Cliveden estate, prompting the predictable outpouring of Wordsworth quotes and perhaps a less well known quote from the Twitter account of @A_AMilne: “I affirm that the daffodil is my favourite flower. For the daffodil comes, not only before the swallow comes, but before all the many flowers of summer; it comes on the heels of a flowerless winter. Yes, a favourite flower must be a spring flower.”

And although the slog up from the river to the house at Cliveden can be a thigh-wearying climb, it’s worth it to look back over the sunlight fading over the swollen Thames.

Other little pleasures in recent weeks have been culinary surprises like an enticing cream tea at the Crazy Bear farm shop, a tasty vegetarian lasagne at the Grocer at 15 in Amersham Old Town, an outstanding Sunday lunch at Flowerland in Bourne End and a tasty bacon butty at The Barn Cafe in picturesque Turville Heath.

Not that we’re name-dropping, I hasten to add. But it was nice to be able to recognise the quality of local produce in our post for the Rearing & Growing page, which was shared on some local tourism websites.

It’s been an exciting week for our website too, because our friends at cbacontent have been helping us finally sort out our top destinations for our What’s On pages, installing links to more than 50 top family attractions across the Chilterns, from free museums to Whipsnade Zoo.

The toughest thing with an outdoors magazine is sitting at the computer when you want to be outdoors, of course – and a call from the kitchen reminds me that we should be getting our boots back on to get back out there – actually delighting in those little things, and not just writing about them…

Escape from the rat race

THERE’S something immensely restful and soothing about Gregorian chant – and the same can be said of the tranquil surroundings of Douai Abbey in Berkshire.

Here, buried in the depths of the English countryside, is a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery founded in Paris in 1615.

Vespers is sung prayer – in Latin. Traditionally this evening sacrifice of praise to God takes place as dusk begins to fall, giving thanks for the day just past, and although guests are welcome and some services and concerts are well attended, it’s not uncommon to find the monks alone at this time.

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Uprooted by the French Revolution, the monks moved initially to Douai in Flanders and settled in England in 1903, when they moved to their current base at Woolhampton.

The Order of Saint Benedict, also known as the ‘Black Monks’ because of the colour of their habits, is a religious order of independent monastic communities like Ampleforth, Downside, Worth and Buckfast.

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They observe the Rule of St Benedict, a sixth-century Italian saint who studied in Rome and then turned his back on the world and lived in solitude before founding a monastery at Monte Cassino.

Here at Douai, under the patronage of the Edmund the Martyr (the East Anglian king who died in 869), the monks live a simple life of worship, study and work, centred around six daily services, from matins and lauds at 6.20am to compline at 8pm.

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Despite their crow-like appearance when their black hoods are raised – an indication that they are in silent communion with the Lord – they are individually friendly and welcoming to guests who seek them out.

But “listening” is central to the Benedictine doctrine, so silence is an important part of their daily life – and for guests, a welcome reminder of how important it is for us all to escape the incessant hubbub of the modern world.

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And so it is in preparation for the weekday service that we attend. Beforehand, individual monks sit in contemplation, both inside the abbey church and on benches around the grounds.

They then file silently to their places in the pews for a half-hour of praise and peace,  the two dozen male voices echoing round the impressive arches of the abbey where we are the only other members of the congregation.

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The abbey church was opened in the 1930s but not completed until 1993, and is a Grade II* listed building on the National Heritage List for England with marvellous acoustics.

Our simple evening service is without ceremony or accompanying music but is no less moving for that. The individual Latin words  may be indistinct or unfamiliar, but the message of praise is clear – and the underlying sense of self-sacrifice and humility which underpins the monks’ way of life shines through.

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Douai monks still serve in parishes throughout England and welcome guests on retreats and courses,  as well as those seeking space for quiet or study. There are facilities for  conferences and for youth and chaplaincy groups and throughout the year they host a number of  concerts in the abbey church.

Guests may take a peaceful walk in the nearby meadow or sit in a small wooded glade at the foot of a statue of Christ. This is a place of peace and contemplation – and a welcome escape from the unrelenting noise and activity of our everyday lives.

For more information about the work of the monks at Douai, see their website.

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Wolf Moon puts on a show

STARGAZERS and nature photographers have been comparing their images of Friday’s Wolf Moon over the weekend – and it’s fair to say they managed to capture some startling and memorable pictures.

The first full moon of the decade lit up the night sky and coincided with a lunar eclipse, which happens when the sun, moon and Earth are perfectly aligned.

Clear skies across much of England provided perfect conditions for those staking out some of the country’s most iconic backdrops, like Stonehenge and Glastonbury Tor.

And around the world, from the beaches of Malaga to the mountains of Macedonia, photographers on the American astronomy website space.com have been showing off their efforts to capture the moon – and the penumbral eclipse which took place between 5pm and 9pm UK time when the earth’s outer shadow falls on the moon, making it look darker than normal.

The term ‘wolf moon’ is thought to have been coined by Native Americans because of how wolves would howl outside villages during the winter. Space.com is one of a number of sites with dates of all the full moons of the year, including the occasional blue moon where the moon is full twice in a month (this year on October 1 and 31).

On Chesham Wildlife facebook group page, Graeme Kennedy, a voluntary duty warden with the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust, managed to capture the moon early in the evening, so reflecting the sun’s orange glow (above).

Photographers across the UK managed to capture the moon throughout the night, but some of the most dramatic images were captured by Wiltshire landscape photographer and commercial drone pilot Nick Bull.

His YouTube Channel is dedicated to drone photography and his commercial licence allows him to capture crop circles and historical landmarks like Stonehenge (below).

Particularly dramatic footage this year includes his time-lapse footage of the Wolf Moon over Glastonbury Tor.

The full moon happens about once every 27 days when the moon and the sun are on exactly opposite sides of Earth. The moon looks illuminated because we see the sun’s light reflected from it.

Different tribes may have had other names for it around the world – spirit moon, goose moon or even bear-hunting moon, for example.

There are another three penumbral eclipses to look forward to this year – and the next full moon will occur on February 9, normally known as the “snow moon”, so get those cameras ready!

Time for a moonlit meander

TIS the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, as Keats put it – of ripe fruit and harvest time, of an evening chill in the air and shorter days as we inch towards Michaelmas Day.

It’s the time of year where bats are swarming, birds are migrating and, deep in the woods, mushrooms and toadstools are flourishing.

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But while shepherds, farmers, druids and astrologers might have been all too familiar with equinoxes and solstices, city dwellers may be a little less aware of the significance of the Latin terminology, religious ceremonies and country folklore associated with the month of September.

Michaelmas on September 29 is the third quarter-day of the year and marks the Feast of the three archangels mentioned in the Bible (Michael, Gabriel and Raphael).

Traditionally this was the time when accounts would have to be settled by tenants, when the harvest was over – and the impending autumn equinox means it is also associated in the northern hemisphere with the start of autumn.

More than 50 English churches take their names from St Michael and All Angels, including those at Aston Clinton and Hughenden (below) in Buckinghamshire.

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Michaelmas is the start of school, university and legal terms, as well as being the last day of the year that blackberries can be picked, according to English folklore, since legend has it that when St Michael expelled Lucifer from heaven, he fell from the skies and landed in a prickly blackberry bush.

Satan promptly cursed the fruit and, depending which part of the country you come from, it is said that he scorched them with his fiery breath and stamped, spat or even urinated on them so that they would be unfit for eating.

Hence Michaelmas pie is made from the last berries of the season, while another ancient tradition suggests that a well-fattened goose fed on the stubble from the fields after the harvest should be eaten to protect against financial need in the coming year: “Eat a goose on Michaelmas Day, Want not for money all the year”.

Indeed the day was also known as “Goose Day”, apparently following the example set by Elizabeth I who was dining on goose on the saint’s day in 1588 when she was told of the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

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Looking to the skies, this is also the month of the autumn equinox, one of the two times a year when day and night are almost equal all over the planet and traditionally taken as marking the beginning of autumn.

Since that makes Michaelmas the time of year that the darker nights and colder days begin, the celebration  is associated with encouraging protection during the winter months when it was believed the forces of darkness were stronger – and who better to protect one than St Michael, the archangel who fought against Satan and his evil angels?

This is also the month of the most famous of all full moon names, the Harvest Moon, with numerous harvest festivals being celebrated around the world, from America to the Chinese mid-autumn Moon Festival.

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In ancient times, it was common to track the changing seasons by following the lunar months, and for millennia people across Europe, as well as Native American tribes, named the months after features they associated with their seasons.

Today, we use many of these ancient month names as full moon names, including the Harvest Moon, which is the full moon nearest the September equinox. 

Immortalised in music by Neil Young in a song on his 1992 album of the same name, it is not the only full moon to have provided musical inspiration. October’s Hunter’s Moon or Blood Moon provided the title for Night of the Hunter’s Moon, a track on the 1978 solo debut album from Sally Oldfield, older sister to Mike ‘Tubular Bells’ Oldfield

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From Anglo-Saxon times, the Hunter’s moon is associated with hunting, slaughtering and preserving meats for use in the coming winter months.

For other moon names, see the Time and Date website.

Alfresco affair of the heart

WHERE better for a picnic and evening of outdoor theatre than the stunning National Trust Cliveden estate near Maidenhead?

Heartbreak Productions set the perfect tone for the occasion last night with their tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Private Lives, Noel Coward’s 1930 comedy of manners about a divorced couple having an unexpected reunion when they honeymoon with their new spouses in the same French hotel.

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And the energetic five-strong cast of this Midlands touring company presented a lively and engaging reinterpretation of the play at the tail end of their marathon summer season.

The company head back home to Leamington Spa after presenting more than 250 performances of a quartet of different shows during a hectic three-month summer season that has incorporated everything from Romeo and Juliet to David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny.

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Some 200 theatregoers took their picnics to L’Hotel Crevecoeur to watch Elyot and Amanda struggling with their rollercoaster emotions after their unfortunate meeting in Deauville.

The parts were played by Coward himself and Gertrude Lawrence in the original 1930 production, and later by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in a 1983 Broadway production.

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For this outdoor adaptation of the celebrated comedy, nostalgic music and dance helped to create the 1930s ambience as dusk fell on Coward’s delicious one-liners, but there were darker undercurrents too in the barely suppressed violence underpinning the central couple’s stormy relationship.

A fitting season’s end to Cliveden’s open-air theatre productions, as the Heartbreak team packed up and headed home for a final couple of shows and a welcome break.

Thoughts in a time of plenty

IT’S hard to believe we are already more than halfway through August, but the sudden splash of colour from the hibiscus hedges at our front door are the most vivid reminder of the changing months.

We’ve enjoyed the fabulous summer displays from the roses, fuchsia and buddleia in our tiny back garden, and now it’s the turn of the front to have a final spectacular flourish.

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Lammas Day (August 1) is past – traditionally the day when the first wheat from the harvest is made into a loaf to be the bread consecrated with the wine at a thanksgiving mass.

Lammas comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning loaf mass and has been celebrated for thousands of years, marking a bittersweet month of feasting and abundance, a time when growth is slowing and the darker days of winter and reflection are beckoning.

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These are the dog days of summer, when the gardens and roadsides are full of goodies, fields are full of grain, and harvest is approaching.

In ancient times it was a time to celebrate the great Celtic sun king Lugh and reflect on the upcoming abundance of the fall months – the season when the first grains are ready to be harvested and threshed, when the apples and grapes are ripe for the plucking, and we are grateful for the food we have on our tables.

August is a traditionally a month of feasting and celebrations – of market fairs, games and bonfire celebrations, circle dances and community gatherings, as well as being seen as an auspicious month for weddings.

There are many customs throughout Europe around the cutting of the grain or corn.

The first sheaf – which guarantees the seed and symbolises continuity and rebirth – would often be ceremonially cut at dawn, winnowed, ground and baked into the harvest bread which was then shared by the community in thanks. The first barley stalks would be made into the first beer of the season.

The last sheaf was also ceremonially cut, often made into a ‘corn dolly’, carried to the village with festivity and was central to the harvest supper: a corn maiden after a good harvest or a hag or crone after a bad one.

Old Lammas Day on August 12 apparently also marked the day when the lord of the manor would allow commoners to graze the medieval flood plain meadows until Candlemas at the beginning of February.

Locally, the blackberrying has been in full spate and the visitors from earlier in the year – Fez the wandering pheasant and Snoot the sneezing hedgehog – have been replaced by the delightful ducklings, swarms of cheerful tits and agile squirrels.

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It’s a reminder that it’s almost two years since we moved to Wooburn Green, and of what a delight that time has been, with the cooing of the pigeons and whistling of the red kite in the nearby Cedar of Lebanon a constant backdrop to life at “Bear Cottage”.

That slight chill in the evening air is also a reminder of the bittersweet aspects of August that former generations will have sensed – the imminent end of the harvest, the picking of the fruit and berries and the promise of darker winter nights to come.

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Tales of the one that got away

MY photographic skills are getting no better, it seems.

Taking an early morning stroll in the woods at Chartwell, near Churchill’s old home, I was in a perfect position to capture the drama of a bee systematically entering the bells of a wild foxglove.

Except that, as the evidence shows, the bee was a little too fast for me. Ho hum.

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The good news is that reading Britain’s Wild Flowers by Rosamond Richardson has partially compensated for my incompetence by informing me that this is the fairies’ flower whose distinctive flowers might even be gloves for foxes, given to them by fairies so that they can silently sneak up on their prey. How nice an idea is that?

Mind you they are known by a variety of different names in different places, from goblins’ thimbles to dead men’s bells – a sinister Scottish warning reflecting the idea that if you can hear them ringing, you are not long for this world.

Elves hide in the bells, apparently. The Druids revered these flowers and used them in midsummer rituals, while they were also incorporated into an ointment which, when rubbed on witches legs’, enabled them to fly.

Oh yes, there’s more. We know digitalis is poisonous, of course, and yet it is also the source of the most potent and widely used sustances in the treatment of heart disease. Thank you, Rosamond, for radically reshaping my knowledge of this wild flower and its intriguing history.

Next up, butterflies.

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Flushed with my success last time out, I’m able to capture another meadow brown in all its glory. But although the scene is idyllic – a field full of bustling butterflies against the backdrop of the Weald of Kent –  this is, after all, the only butterfly I have been able to capture on film.

Imagine my delight, therefore, when a small tortoiseshell starts sunning itself in the flower garden at Chartwell. Out comes the camera and a flurry of shots later, it transpires the bird has flown. Well, the butterfly, to be precise.

Instead of the aforementioned tortoiseshell, there a host of flower pictures of where the offending insect had been. You will just have to take my word for it.

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Likewise, the nesting house martins are out of focus and the other birds were too quick off the mark to feature in frame – there are some 45 species at Chartwell, apparently, but most of them weren’t hanging around long enough to pose for the world’s slowest and least talented photographer.

No matter. It was fun, anyway and I am enjoying the process of learning a little more about the natural world around me – the plants, birds and trees, for example. And I just have even more admiration for the wildlife photographers who have the patience, skill and stamina to capture nature in all its glory.

Yes, they may have the right equipment too, but they know how to use it – as demonstrated by Vincent Van Zalinge’s wonderful picture of a kingfisher from Unsplash.

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Mind you, my picture of the fox wearing gloves came out pretty well, surprisingly. But hey, I don’t suppose you would want to see anything as run of the mill as that…

Listen to the buzz on the street

THE laburnum outside the bedroom window is suddenly in full bloom after the bare twigs of winter have reclothed themselves – and equally suddenly, it’s abuzz with life, literally humming with bees.

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The yellow cascades are dramatic, pristine eye-catching waterfalls which will be gradually turn into drifts of yellow husks on the grass, as if some benevolent monster has been eating a LOT of sweetcorn.

As the Twitter feed starts filling up with posts about World Bee Day (May 20), those schoolday poems suddenly seem very vivid – particularly Tennyson’s onomatopoeic “murmuring of innumerable bees” and Yeats’ “bee-loud glade”.

Standing under the hanging blooms, this is no distant drone though, but a frenzied flurry of activity and a very welcome one after all the negative publicity about bees becoming increasingly endangered.

Without bees, we cannot strive towards a world without hunger – and that’s the underlying message behind the World Bee Day project, as Boštjan Noč, author of the initiative and President of the Slovenian Beekeepers’ Association, says:  “It is time for everyone to listen to bees, in particular, leaders and decision-makers.

“I believe that – with the proclamation of World Bee Day – the world will begin to think more broadly about bees, in particular in the context of ensuring conditions for their survival, and thus for the survival of the human race.”

That’s an enthusiasm shared by campaigner Amanda on her website BuzzAboutBees which also includes just about everything you could want to know about the thousands of different types of bees and their habits.

Even the Woodland Trust has got in on the act, with its easy guide to telling the difference between different types.

With May 20 behind us the laburnum blossoms are falling but the bees have been constantly busy. And even far from home, you can still hear them. As Yeats said (albeit in the context of the lake waters lapping), the sound tells to follow you: While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Cunning intruder at the palace

IT’S JUST as well a competent photographer was on hand to capture the magic of a recent crafty visitor to the Pond Gardens at Hampton Court Palace.

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I’m normally quick to blame my photographic disasters on my equipment – the cheapest digital camera in the shop which has subsequently suffered plenty of bumps and scratches on our rural rambles.

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Fortunately as I fumble with the zoom to try to capture a fleeting image of the surprise visitor in the foliage, partner Olivia is on hand to take charge of the equipment and show me how it should be done.

Hence for once we actually have some pictures of the animal in question that are not obliterated by branches or marred by careless camera movements.

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However it also turns out our visitor is not so cunning or elusive as the folklore might suggest – and the warmth of a sun-drenched grassy spot proved too alluring to resist as the perfect place for a quick afternoon nap.

Even the excited squeaks of ‘Reynard!’ from the visiting French schoolchildren could not disturb the slumbers of this rather majestic palace guest…