Growing up in rural Northumberland and County Durham, Simon has long been accustomed to living in and visiting scenic and ecologically diverse areas. His family homes all had beautiful gardens, and this continued for our own family as our daughters grew up bringing friends round to enjoy our lovely garden, with its trampoline, tree swing, hammock and love shack. As is probably the norm for teenagers, I’m not too sure how much attention they paid to our pond frogs, visiting squirrels and bird feeders. Having been self-employed as a landscape designer & gardener for so many years, it was the norm for Simon’s his daily life to be intertwined with nature.
However, working and living at West Lexham is not the norm for most gardeners! It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity that he has not taken for granted these past 2 years since arriving. Far away from concrete, artificial lighting, the hectic noise of traffic and bustling high streets, his days are now made up of space in nature.
A celebration of wildlife and ecology at West Lexham
It’s just the beginning of the busy summer season…….
We have 2 beautiful swans bringing a state of wild grace to bear on our lake. Mates for life Daphne (the ney) and Elvis (the cob) sadly haven’t been seen from last year; these 2 are young, possibly one of them an offspring of theirs, returning home. This is the 2nd year a family of Egyptian geese have been here. Last year the pair had 8 goslings all of whom sadly died, however this year fingers crossed as from 8 we have 1 left, which has now grown to a decent size to be safer from predators. We also have about 8 Canadian geese, and 4 Greylaggs, more coming because we leave mounds of dredged lake weed overnight which they graze on for food, and there are also easy pickings of disturbed food on top of the lake from using the grappling hooks. These geese can be nervous, so readily make their way into the middle of the lake; rather than disturb them, if you’re passing by, please keep walking,
Mussels can live in both fresh water and salt water and are distinguished from clams by their asymmetrical shells. Mussels have many natural enemies that they try to protect themselves from with their hard, thick shells – however between the heron, egrets and otters, we’ve been eaten out of house and home for fresh water mussels and crayfish this year! In the previous winter we could see hundreds and hundreds of open shells, but this year only 40/50. They’ll probably visit from time to time to see if our stocks have been replenished.
A glimpse of a forked tail, white rump or shaped wing might be all you get to see of our little endearing friends in the skies - the swifts, swallows and martins have just flown the 6000 miles from South Africa (a little later than last year). Although frequently confused with one another, they are easier to tell apart than you might think. They are attracted to West Lexham most likely because of the waters of our lake and the River Nar, enjoying swooping after insects; great for pest control! So far this year though we haven’t had so many flies, perhaps the frost and snow has killed the eggs, creating a delay. If these birds don’t get enough food their numbers could decline. These birds can be seen flying at high speeds around the rear of the Manor House and nesting mainly in the nooks and crannies there and under our 2 archways, where our bats are also busy nesting in the roof and wall crevices.
We dredge the River Nar twice in the summer to ensure the water flows quicker away from the land and so it is more visible for our guests looking from the small bridges. To help this, last Spring the River Authority fixed alders into the riverbed enabling the course to weave left and right infilling with debris and ensuring a clearer chalk bed. When the river floods, this work has also helped the animals, such as river rats and voles, to get back into their homes more quickly from the land, as the river subsides a lot quicker.
In the lake we have tench, rudd and trout, however as we spend a lot of man hours dredging the lake of weed. Last year, to help reduce this time and resulting costs, we bought 22 grass carp to control weed growth; an incredibly effective biological method that also has a positive effect on the lake ecosystem. Meanwhile we are using the dredged weed from the lake to act as a weed block around the base of all new shrubs and trees planted this new year, and they are thriving as a result!
The New Year saw a huge tree planting programme, with trees being planted all over the site, although the original idea was to replace those in the woodland which need to be felled over the next few years due to Ash die back (the disease is widespread in Southern England, rather like the Dutch Elm disease). Anyway, Ed got a bit over enthusiastic and bought 4000! With any damaged trees, all the wood that is chipped after the tree surgeon has visited is used as mulch on the borders, with seconds from West Acre used for the pathways.
Talking of diseases, for the past 2 years in the winter months, we’ve been feeding the small bird population across the site, every other day in 15 feeders. The birds help us by eating the caterpillar larvae of the Minor Moth which feed in the leaves of the Horsechestnut tree, discolouring the leaves with small unsightly brown patches. Although it can cause severe damage on an annual basis before normal autumn leaf-fall, there is no evidence that this leads to tree death. But the birds have been doing a grand job and we have less damage this year than last! We have just bought 3 x male pheromone traps which have been proven to kill the male Minor Moths, stopping their production (Simon says its like a sex shop for them, but they don’t come out alive!)
Last year we planted 2K bulbs, mainly fritillaria, woodland anemone, crocus and narcissus, all sourced from Eurobulbs in Wisbech. We have always wanted a snowdrop walk through the woodland so, carefully taking from existing clumps, we’ve just planted 10K! Both times we managed this with the help of kind volunteers from WRAGS. The WRAG Scheme (Work and Retrain As a Gardener Scheme) was launched in 1993 to provide hands-on practical horticultural training. Our trainee gardener is Kate, she gets paid work for 14 hours a week for a year, under the instruction of Simon or Mhari. It is often women returning to work after starting a family, though many trainees are now career changers, and an increasing number of men are also applying.
We are managing to cut nearly twice the amount lawn grass by mulching rather than collecting, cutting the grass to tiny particles which fall to the ground to feed and replenish. For those of you who know Simon well, he is uber proud of his composting system! All the leaves are collected from all the lawns in the autumn in one bay, the 2nd bay has all the green waste, with grass and lake weed on top, stirred quarterly with the digger, and the 3rd bay is last year’s compost, decomposing in less than a year to go back to where it came from to fertilise the borders.
More and more pathways have been created on the far side of the lake to encourage guests to meander and enjoy the full extent of our grounds; a great area for dog walking. For those who are more active, we have made the ground deliberately sound for running around. Following the pathways can be enough to settle the mind, giving attention to nature, and there are plenty of options now for silent yoga retreat guests to split up for their personal enlightenment and meditation.
Nature never goes out of style!
One purpose of a garden is to provide a relaxing place of sanctuary for the soul, a peaceful stroll in our grounds will help collect your thoughts while listening to birdsong and the breezes swishing through foliage. As you wander, meander, watch your kids play or generally laze around in our outdoor space, we hope you will feel inspired by your contact with nature here at West Lexham, and leave with your mind soothed, your energy restored and your heart full of optimism.
Please do let us know if you would be interested in volunteer gardening at West Lexham as we may have one or two projects this summer.