Dad's garden calls me for harvest home
I'm just back from another trip to England to look after my dad, and I could not have picked a better time to be there. Early Autumn,my favourite time of the year. Dad still lives in the home where I grew up - a big, imposing, red brick detached house at the top of a hill on a busy road in Preston, Lancashire. From the outside it looks like a Catholic Parish Hall, mainly because of the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus standing boldly in the front window, arms outstretched as though personally welcoming anyone who walks up the long driveway and encouraging passers-by to pop in and worship.
When we were all still living there in the Seventies and early Eighties, all 10 of us - it was sometimes mistaken for a charity children's home, due to the sheer number of kids running around, climbing trees, playing chasies and whizzing back and forth on bikes.
Those noisy days are long gone now, of course. Dad is 84 and, apart from trips to church, or to the local shops, or putting the bins out, he tends to stay indoors a lot. Fortunately he isn't there on his own for very long before one of us comes to stay with our own children and grandchildren in tow and all the noise and activity returns again like a blast from the past.
But no matter which generation is visiting, we all at some time converge in the back garden - the most magical part of the family homestead and my favourite place on earth, especially in harvest season.
First you cross a large square lawn, fringed with a privet hedge rustling with robins and dunnocks, shadowed by the longer branches from next door's beech trees, on which I've strategically placed a selection of hanging feeders to attract an array of wildlife including birds and squirrels, so that they feed directly in front of the kitchen window. Beyond that is a small orchard with mixed apple trees, red, green and yellow, as well as a couple of plums and damsons. In the corner is the compost tip littered with the decaying grass cuttings, hedge trimmings and wind-fallen fruits from 50 years of gardening. The old swing I used to sit on when I was a kid is now rusty and entwined with sweet-peas, but it looks like a beautiful art installation and next to that is dad's greenhouse which is now overgrown with a thick vine heaving with black grapes, as well as a mysterious bush of marjoram, which no-one can remember having planted. To the side of the greenhouse is a sheltered, shaded area where two fig trees I bought dad for his 70th birthday have taken hold and thrived beyond belief. At this time of year every branch is laden with luscious figs, hanging down heavily in twos and threes until they are picked or drop as windfalls on the grass below. Meanwhile, the few that remain, over-ripe and slowly rotting on the branches, are enveloped by the fluttering wings of butterflies and bees that feast on their sweet, purple juices. Further on still is a wildflower garden that we've deliberately left to become meadow in order to attract even more wildlife and then, the piece de resistance and guardian of the whole garden - a giant pear tree that can be seen for miles, reflecting the shimmering gold light every evening at sunset and the haunt of tawny owls, green woodpeckers, tree creepers and wood pigeons.
As you can imagine, with such a bounty there for the picking, I had my hands full for the last fortnight, picking, chopping, stewing, boiling and bottling figs, plums, pears, grapes, apples sweet and sour in every possible combination, to make chutneys, jams, jellies, pies, crumbles, stews, wines and juices for family, friends and neighbours, as well as a mountainous stockpile in dad's pantry and freezer.
Every October, I always think John Keats must have known a garden like ours when he wrote his beautiful Ode To Autumn:
"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core..."
mostly be looking forward to an innovative and exciting new production opening at Belfast's Lyric Theatre. Chekhov's masterpiece from 1900 is reset in 1990s Belfast by award-winning novelist and playwright Lucy Caldwell. Three sisters - Orla, Marianne and Erin - dream of a better tomorrow, perhaps even starting a new life in America. All three are dissatisfied with their lots in life, but finding the resolve to make the changes is hard. Can they break free, or will they be condemned to a life of unfulfilled ambition? To see how this theatre classic translates into a modern setting, Three Sisters runs from October 20-November 12. Tickets available from the box office on 02890 381081