My Dad had got the job of running the in house bakery which serviced a large mental health hospital which was situated some 10 miles to the north of Aberdeen, a few miles inland from the coast. It was a very large estate with well spaced villas which were the wards. Some of them locked but not all, and the patients I met were and have been a valuable part of my life in all sorts of formative and instructive ways. The grounds were very extensive with large open spaces, trees, lawns and its own large walled market garden, as well as all sorts of facilities including a football pitch, tennis courts, bowling green, putting green and a large hall for indoor badminton, table tennis, social events, cinema and staged entertainments. We even had our own organised bonfire and firework display every Guy Fawkes.
It was a community with housing around its edges for quite a lot of hospital employees who needed to be close at hand to do their jobs. We lived there in a cottage which went with the job and we (the staff’s children, of which there were 30 or so) had the run of the place, use of all the facilities and amenities. It was surrounded by countryside most of it mixed farming, but there was what was called the Golden Mile, which was a track of roughly a mile and followed a route to the west of the hospital in a half circle starting and returning to the hospital at a different point. This took you through wilder wooded areas and some marshy areas as well as peaty bogs. Another different natural world to explore with new plants (willow herb in particular becoming a new favourite) and tadpoles, frogs and toads being plentiful too as well as butterflies, dragon flies and the not-so-pleasant midges.
The hospital estate was adjacent to another uncultivated area, the top of the adjacent hill. This was largely rough grazing or moor with a very large stone on it, which gave the Hospital its name ‘Kingseat’. Reputedly Bonny Prince Charlie had sat on that stone before marching south with his army. A hike up there for a picnic or just to play in summer was a lovely outing. Today the Hospital is no more; now converted all to private housing.
I was back in paradise full time. To begin with school was a mile and a half walk along farm tracks and lanes to the nearest village. These country walks to and from school were delightful interludes in the day, enjoying the animals in the fields and watching the seasons pass. Winter snows and ice brought their own beauty to the landscape. After a year I had learnt to ride a bike and was given my own new bike, which meant a different route and quicker passage to school for me.
The seasons were marked for me not just by the changes in weather but in the arrival of different birds. I always looked forward to the arrival of swallows who would sweep across the large lawned spaces of the hospital grounds chasing insects. I marvelled at their flying antics as they skimmed the grass and the flash of dark blue and cream. Summer also brought ground nesting peewits (northern lapwing) which I daily saw sitting on their nests along the side of one particular field I passed on my way to and from school. Their distinctive call is forever associated with those journeys, as is the sound and sight of crows and seagulls working the fields and following a tractor, in their search for food.
Trees near the animal hospital at North Widcombe; drawing by Vanessa Mitchell
After junior school, my schooling was at a large grammar in the city. This entailed a bus journey mostly through countryside. I loved my daily travel to and from school through small villages and past countless mixed farms. It was always a great way to start the working school day with lovely rural views and long vistas up to the Cairngorms which kept their white tops for some time after the snow cleared on the Buchan Plain, where my life was now largely lived.
Soon after moving to senior school, Nature entered my life in a drastically different way. There was an outbreak of typhoid in Aberdeen and surrounds which was highly infectious and took hundreds of lives. Our daily activities, just as in the current Covid pandemic were severely curtailed by this threat. School was closed and we were subject to local lockdowns until they could identify the source and bring it under control. This all took some time with us confined to home and it was not until the source (imported corned beef) and a vaccination programme completed (like now it required two spaced jabs to get complete immunity) before freedom of movement and school restarted. It showed me just how vulnerable life or people and how difficult nature can be. I did not know it at the time but illness-causing natural organisms were to have huge effects on the course of my life.
Apart from this blip, my time in this personal idyll cemented my love of nature and landscape. I had also become a gardener, first helping my Dad but quickly taking over responsibility for the care of our large garden. I grew vegetables and fruit but not at this time very many flowers or shrubs. I created strawberry beds and tended rows of raspberry canes and a huge bed of rhubarb both of which were inherited from an earlier gardener of this bit of land. I dug, manured, and tilled vegetable beds in which I planted and harvested potatoes, onions, leeks, carrots, turnips, cabbage, peas and lettuce. This introduced me to another aspect of nature which was the creating of conditions to allow things to thrive (and yes the need sometimes to protect them from what we call pests, but are only other living things trying to make their way). I love butterflies but their caterpillars which themselves are things of interest could play havoc with my cabbages, slugs and snails with my lettuce and birds my fruit. Note my (challengeable) claim to ownership!
So these were my formative years in which my discovery of nature and my relationship with it was formed and a pattern set. I felt that I was a part of nature and it was integral to me. It nurtured me but also had the capacity to really restrict my life to the point of ending it through illness-causing organisms. There could be no illusion: nature nurtured but needed to be respected in return. Why should it not be respected, I thought. After all it was as much a part of me as I am of it.
Extracts from my Nature diary 2020
30 March 2020 – It is the time of lockdown because of a Corona virus pandemic. We are allowed to leave our houses for only essentials such as getting food, medicine, work if essential and daily exercise undertaken alone. This has been the case for the last seven days and I have been on several solo walks around my locale. The weather until yesterday has been sunny and warm. Blossom and the first leaves are appearing in abundance which is bringing out the bees and butterflies. Signs also that feeding of first broods may be under way. The air quality is noticeably better as much less traffic. Today on a walk to Langridge Church came across a magnificent bank of wild flowers, primroses, buttercups and lots of small wild bluebells. New born lambs also a joyful sight and some beef cattle with young happily grazing.
24 April 2020 – A delightful walk along lanes and across organic meadows to the fishing lake near Hamswell. The meadows were full of dandelions, buttercups, daisies, cow parsley, clover, nettles and a variety of other plants in flower. Yellow, blue and white being the dominant flower colours. Butterflies out were: brimstone, peacock, small blue, orange tip and white. Two Canada geese at the lake, one sitting on the nest. Lots of mallard and the shadowy outline of big fish in the deeps. Kestrel and buzzard both seen with chiff chaff, robin and blackbirds heard.
15 May 20 – the lockdown eased on Wednesday, meaning I could visit places further afield by car but still alone. I went to Animal Hospital near North Widcombe walking the fields and the wood. Saw a very healthy looking fox checking the hedgerows for game. Pheasants plentiful here. Swallows all around.
5 June 20 – Walks with others now allowed. Met up with J and C. We hoped to see dippers along the Bybrook but not in luck. Plenty of damsel and mayflies. A buzzard, a blackcap, mallard , small tortoiseshell and clouded yellow butterfly all spotted. A picnic and (social distanced) companionship enjoyed in the sun.
July/August 20 – many walks including Westonbirt, Charlecombe, Burton Bradstock, Ogmore by sea and Rockley near Marlborough. Varied flora from meadows plants to hardy seaside succulents. The biggest highlight for me was 6 red kites all flying together at Rockley. Have seen pairs before but never 6 together. Magic. Swifts, swallows and sand martins all seen. Plenty of butterflies, meadow brown, whites and admirals all seen as well as buzzards and kestrels.
To be continued…