It was a plan and I was on time. The car rocked and slithered down the track till it arrived at the house. I got out and peered in windows, banged on doors. Silence. Gingerly, I wrestled with the gate and tiptoed into the farmyard, cautious in case dogs decided I was an intruder. Instead, a loud shriek, closely followed by another, made me jump out of skin. I turned to see two peacocks perching on the granite sill of an old barn window. It was tipping it down, lush and misty and a little cold. I sought the porch, a Georgian affair, all pillars and piles of footwear. After three more attempts to rouse a response I heard a window open and some low voices talking amongst themselves. So I shouted, and then shouted again. Out loomed a man’s face.

Seconds later, wriggling and affectionate Labradors poured out of the front door as a young man invited me in. He went off again and returned with the man whose face had greeted me from the window. So this is the man that owns the Orchard, I thought to myself. I thought a few other things too, in a split second, things which continue to take me by surprise. We had a cup of tea, and finally Pat turned up, so we all headed off to Lutton.

It was still raining, had already been raining, it was altogether very wet. Pat, Marcus and I made for the orchard, and had to squirm through a gate that had been tethered permanently to the entrance. Once on the other side we were there, a large, sloping paddock, tree-lined and untouched for years. Only one apple tree remained from the Victorian orchard marked on the old map, but sharing the paddock with this solitary reminder were willow and hawthorn, and the trees lining the riverbank, and the biggest most ancient oak I had ever seen. It was as though the oak was on an outcrop of rock, there being Dartmoor boulders planted, presumably by God, here and there across the field. Hidden from view, under the oak, awaits my office – a shed with a bed and a kettle.

That was three weeks ago. I returned to the orchard last week, with Marcus, my son Meredydd, and a local and well-respected botanist Peter Reay. It turns out that this meadow has never had a tractor on it, never been treated in any way, simply grazed by a small herd of cows every now and then. Peter and Meredydd went off to search for plants. Marcus and I talked through our ideas. Marcus feels strongly that privately owned land is increasingly off-limits to the general public, a trend he wants to buck, and so turning this two acres back into an orchard, for community use and enjoyment, allows him to satisfy that sentiment. As the Woodland and Wildflowers lead for Sustainable South Brent (SSB) I am keen to encourage community use of the great outdoors, be that for leisure or for education. The proposal is that SSB take a long lease on the land, and work to turn it into a community orchard and wildflower meadow. Whilst at the moment it has only one sad little fruit tree remaining, when Peter and Meredydd eventually returned from their surveying they reported finding 151 species of wildflower and grass, so this little tree is not quite alone.

The idea is at the conversation stage, and there are lots of conversations to be had. Coming soon is an open community meeting, a big conversation which will help guide us through. Later in the week we will be talking with the Woodland Trust, who own the 23 acres of mixed woodland on the other side of the river. All parties want a bridge to link the two, to create a circular walk that connects South Brent with Shipley Bridge without the need to go on any roads. So then we’ll start conversations with the National Park, the Environment Agency, the various councils, and with members of other communities who have successfully set up such a venture themselves.

Eventually we will have wassails and May Queens and Summer picnics. And in the meantime I think I’m going to listen to those thoughts which took me by surprise, and find out where they take me.

 
 
Even as I walk out of the door the Robin chides me, tut-tutting as I inadvertently pass that part of my garden that belongs to him. I say hello, out loud. He flutters away as a neighbour passes, who also tut-tuts at me talking to myself again. I have to duck to miss the overhang of ancient ivy, and have to hang onto the willow to keep my balance on the wet and slippery steps. Like a pole-dancer I twirl graciously into the lawned area and stand there, breathing in the loud look of Spring unfolding. A jackdaw hops near to the chicken feeder, then scoops a low but hasty take-off as it notices me coming. Dandelions pock the lawn, guiding busy insects to their glorious and downy platforms, and a huff of breeze sends the plum blossom plummeting. A perfect day.

Nestled in the Willow arch is the old bench so popular with last years’ wasps, gnawing lines of weathered oak away to make a nest of their own no doubt. The twisted withies of the arch that I’ve teased into shape are festooned with a trillion upright fluffy buds, all covered in tiny green-brown bee-like insects.

I saunter in a zigzag past the woodpile and the potted rootstock which awaits ancient and local grafts from secret orchards. They whip the air in anticipation. I am at the pulpit now, a thick set square of laurel jutting through an otherwise rambling hedge. The pulpit will be allowed to grow tall and true, a turret of potential habitats in this wildlife fortress I call home. For the time being however, it hides the best part of an unwanted kayak, and on the parts which poke through the greenery sit spiders sunning themselves and scuttling occasionally from blackbirds and that rather grumpy robin.

I have planted mostly wild flowers but also fistfuls of seeds collected last year from papaver, nigella, aquilegia and the like. Any signs of growth are still too miniscule to check, but are there nonetheless. Between wild strawberries and foxgloves sit peas and echinops. Behind the thousand fruit bushes hide bays of compost, neatly categorised like a proper science project, turned regularly and watered often. I am a Seedy Sister, part of that mad bunch of middle aged women who promote heritage seed varieties, and who generally dream of compost and allotments. But even here I rebel a little, planting flowers for no other reason that I love the colours and the scents, rejecting vegetables because they’re all so predictably good for you. And my garden answers back with a lascivious smirk, and the insects answer too, my very best agents provocateur. How delicious it is to feel the ripple of mischief, triggered by nothing more than an alternative planting plan.

The upper garden is a micro-meadow waiting to happen. A pollinators’ paradise has been set out and seeded, though at the moment it is mostly Sweet Cecily and dock. In a shady corner I have built a shallow pond. It was for the ducks. Look at the redundant duck house, go on, look. I am talking to myself again, daring myself to accept the ducks demise two nights ago, courtesy of a neighbours’ unloved terrier. The duck house squats at the pond like a gravestone, though in the meantime next doors newts are showing interest.

Above this is the ruin, a decrepit cowshed that is positively heritage if you wear those rose tinted glasses people speak of. Held up by ivy and overgrown with elder, it houses hedgehogs and nesting birds and vintage junk from the 1970s. I keep walking. Up. It is the nature of this garden. It is up, all the way, until of course you get to the top. On slippery days like today you can hang onto the Lilac, twirl on that to keep your balance. It is oh so very nearly in blossom. Comfrey sprawls, in flower, at my feet, thrumming with the sounds of big fat bees.

To my left the ground elder greens up the floor of the micro-copse. At its edge is a half-hedge, a not-quite Devon bank, bursting with bramble and nettle, cleavers, rose, Elder, yew and lots more lilac.  In the corner, where the briar rose ensnares the dying holly, the bank disintegrates. It has been hit too many times from the other side by the neighbour with the terrier. He drives a tractor. Badly. His bank-bumping habits have dislodged a once-dry wall, the stones lay like miss-shaped saucers. I slide quietly towards to the pile and gingerly lift one. Out shoots a lizard! Tiny and fast like a dart or a dream, caught out of the corner of my eye but lost just as quickly. Lizards in my garden! I’m in heaven.