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Croquet Croquet, the perfect gentle summer pastime - unless you're competing with the Erskines. Photo: James Lee

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British Summer Time

The British Summer will be very different this year but it can still be rewarding By Beth Erskine
Published on April 10, 2020


Here we are, on the cusp of summer, having spent the whole of the spring indoors. I should be writing about our adventures to see the Badminton Horse Trials, which I’ve never been to, or the Chelsea Flower Show. We had planned to spend a lot of time at Hay-on-Wye for the Hay Festival being all bookish and intelligent, but they are all cancelled, and we are sitting in our homes waiting to see when the pandemic loosens its grip on us.

At least the weather is getting better and the days are lengthening. We were stunned to be sitting down to supper at 7.30pm (a feat with this family) and it was still daylight. The mornings have me searching for my sleep mask and our kitchen windowsill has been transformed into a miniature greenhouse. The seedlings are loving the sunshine. Personally, I cannot wait to get them into the ground, but when Youngest Daughter informed me the only reason she comes to visit is to sit in the window seat (and how was she going to do that with plants in the window) I reconsidered and might leave them longer than necessary this year.

Everyone on the farm has been gardening, getting their allotments ready for planting, tending to their own gardens. Everyone has a garden attached to their home, as well as the allotment in the old Kitchen Garden. We still know precious little about gardening, but each year brings more experience I’m told. Each year gets easier, I’m told. Perhaps but it doesn’t feel that way. Thankfully, Barn Cottage was the gardener’s cottage for many years before we moved in, so the flower beds are well trained and need very little from us. He was fond of spring flowers, but once the tulips have died away, we have no more colour in the garden until the autumn. Unless you count the Hibiscus trees we have at the gate. Two ancient stumpy trees, one in purple and one in deep pink, mark the entrance to our garden. Yes, hibiscus, as in the state flower of Hawaii. Who knew it grew well in England? I’m unsure if I can use this kind for tea, but given I don’t care for hibiscus tea, and the husband refuses to consider anything herbal to be a tea, we haven’t bothered to find out.

Other than my husband and me, the entire population of the farm retired some years ago, so life in lockdown didn’t change very much for us. Although the living room became my husband’s office, the fire-burner roaring in the background as he has videochat after videochat each day. We volunteered to be the grocery shoppers for the farm, and we all stood a bit further away to chat, but life hummed along as it generally does. Our landlord’s daughter came to stay, bringing her teenage children along. It was nice to sit in the kitchen and watch them play increasingly raucous games of croquet on nice-enough days. I’d like to say they improved as time passed but I firmly believe croquet is a game in which no one improves. That’s why it is so beloved by the Brits. It is a game where shambles are rewarded and lack of progress celebrated simply for the opportunity to laugh and have some Pimm’s.

Last June, when Eldest Daughter turned 21, we had a family garden party for her, and my in-laws brought their croquet set. I believe it was a wedding gift. I know it was more than 50 years old. And because this family is competitive in absolutely everything they do, it wasn’t a gentle game that was played, which resulted in one of the stumps literally exploding when a ball thawked into it. We laughed and had some Pimm’s, the game resumed with a tree branch shoved into the grass. Keep Calm + Carry On indeed.

It was one of those glorious summer days we all fantasize about. Sunny and hot, genuinely hot, not British hot. We set up long table outside for dinner and covered it with a white paper cloth. A wooden bench was put against the wall of the cottage with throw pillows to cushion the back. Pretty flowers in small vases interwoven with delicate tealight candles and carafes of water infused with berries and mint ran down the centre. My husband built a bamboo frame to drape fairy lights over the table. It looked positively Mediterranean, we decided. My nephew dubbed it Tuscanwold. But we live in England and the June sun doesn’t set until nearly 10. So it was a candlelit outdoor birthday supper under the fairy lights in strong daylight. No one made it through the outdoor movie, because it didn’t start until 11pm. Also, Breakfast At Tiffany’s isn’t terribly compelling after a day of strong sun, Pimm’s and family. You just want your bed, much like Holly Golightly’s landlord.

The next morning, as all woke slowly and gathered outside for breakfast, it was agreed to have been one of the best garden parties we’ve ever had. I might have made that up. But either way, we are longing to do it again and this summer is promising to be ideal, weather-wise.

We’ll need to re-build the bamboo frame for the fairy lights, but we have a far better idea of how to do it now. The outdoor living room needs a few items put into place yet. We know to choose a more exciting movie for the viewing. And clearly, we’ll need a new croquet set.

Stop by if you can, bring some Pimm’s. We’ll be in the garden.

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Chelsea Flower Show Chelsea Flower Show - maybe next year! Photo: Herry Lawford

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