A sunny day in December is usually a cold but welcome interlude. It seems to sharpen the senses, and a brisk walk through coniferous woodland never fails to inspire. Masses of dense green needles, clothing graceful pendulous branches, are illuminated on a bright and frosty morning. Resinous stumps of freshly cut Christmas trees are intensely fragrant, as are the whorls of brashing scars that spiral up the trunk of any conifer from which the lower limbs were cut in the summer. (This common practice not only improves access for monitoring crops in commercial timber production, but also mitigates the potential damage of any forest fire.) Scots Pine and Douglas Fir are particularly resinous, and their wounded bark bleeds a glutinous, semi-opaque exudate, the smell of which is reminiscent of boxed pencils. Mixed woodland is critical to the survival of much of our native fauna. Fast growing coniferous monocultures are covetous of light, nutrients and moisture. Whilst broadleaved woodland is typically more diverse, it can be rather too open and cold, affording little protection for mammals and birds, especially when newly established. The peripheral planting of conifers around/alongside deciduous plantations has been widely adopted in well contrived schemes that sustain both shelter and food for our native wildlife.
At Christmastime we subscribe to many and various rituals. Early December this year witnesses the sweeping of snow from drives and paths. Garden birds encounter frozen ground and a consequential deficit of worms and grubs. Song birds feed anxiously on the remaining berries that adorn the skeletal frames of guelder rose and the semi-evergreen cotoneaster. Their frugal existence is shared by the procession of mice that scurry beneath bird tables festooned with nuts, breadcrumbs and waxy white lard for the enterprising blue tits. The clergy's seasonal decent upon the church vestry, in salvation of last year's candles and fusty carol sheets, is an unwelcome intrusion for the ecclesiastical mouse, which observes cautiously from beneath a discarded cassock. Alert and irreverential black, beady eyes witness the vicar's despair at the state of the rediscovered crib. A cosy nest of felt and straw within betrays the rodent's trespass upon the Holy Family, whose unperturbed sacred figures smile on lovingly, inspite of everything.
Corsham Court is closed during December, and the gardens are quiet but for the occasional alarming hoot of a pertinacious peacock. Gardeners endlessly rake up leaves from beneath the massive trees that define the grounds, and ebbing sunshine diffuses mysteriously through the canopy of burdensome, black limbs on a winter's afternoon. An opportunistic robin watches closely for unsuspecting worms suddenly (and perilously) revealed by the backward stroke of the relentless rake. Beyond the park railings, Corsham Lake is an icy spectacle, alive with wildfowl. Innumerable Canada geese congregate about the northern shoreline where they feel safe from the antics of energetic dogs bounding about the field on the opposite side of the lake where open access arrangements prevail.
The drama of a setting winter sun engages garden staff whose faces glow by the light of a crackling bonfire. It plumes into clear, raw skies where the sweet ghostly smoke disperses amidst a raging pallet of fiery hues. Back in his spartan office, an antecedent Head Gardener ponders over a Victorian seed catalogue, his only concession to the season; a bottle of Bristol Cream and a pair of cracked sherry glasses bearing the tarry residue of his Lordship's pre-Christmas chat. Rising from his well-thumbed swivel chair, he draws on a favourite pipe and gazes through the window into a bleak twilight. Snow is forecast and there's a hungry boiler to stoke.
This is the 60th and, sadly, last edition of the Garden Diary. The Corsham Court web site will receive a facelift in 2012, when we hope to introduce new features - time permitting! In the meantime, please accept our thanks for reading this monthly "blog" and our best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.
Parking in Church Square, Corsham is reserved strictly for those visiting Corsham Court or attending St Bartholomew's church and churchyard. Such is the popularity of nearby Corsham Park that too frequently visitors to the Court have experienced difficulty in parking in the Estate-owned square that has always served principally as a facility for house and garden entrants. Corsham Park has become popular with folk far and wide and most will drive there. To accommodate their vehicles, a new car park (with 1.90m height restriction) has been provided in Lacock Road. There are spaces sufficient for up to 55 cars and direct access to the Park via a new permissive footpath through the Park wall and narrow belt of woodland immediately behind. This facility is offered free of charge and has been provided at the sole expense of the Corsham Estate.
(Thanks to Christine Waltho (Editor), Duncan Armstrong (Head Gardener) and Christopher Couzens (Photographer) who assisted in the compilation of this month's diary.)