Meditations on mice and men

WHAT we laughably call our garden is so overgrown with every kind of ‘weed’, from ragged robin to red campion to tutsan and sanicle, all in flower, that it must be home to countless creatures such as shrews, wood mice, hedgehogs and stoats.

WHAT we laughably call our garden is so overgrown with every kind of ‘weed’, from ragged robin to red campion to tutsan and sanicle, all in flower, that it must be home to countless creatures such as shrews, wood mice, hedgehogs and stoats.

The latter we see perhaps twice a year. Recently, we have been visited by young rabbits from a nearby field, where they abound, and a young fox, perhaps in pursuit of them. We do not see wood mice but I’m sure they are there.

Wood mice are the most common mammal in the British and Irish isles — yet, they are rarely seen. They often make their homes in gardens, especially around sheds and, indeed, it was close to a shed and a bird table that some of my nephews and nieces watched a fine, lively little wood mouse forage a few evenings ago in the garden behind my son’s home in Sale, near Manchester.

It was a very beautiful creature, they said, with huge eyes and ears in proportion to its size. It was quite unafraid — a characteristic of the species — and totally ignored the security light which flashed on and off. I have read that they are insensitive to infra-red and red lights and so can easily be watched with a red-filtered torch.

Wood mice, unlike house mice, do not smell, and do not have the scaly tail of their indoor cousins. They are sandy-brown, with white underparts and a yellow streak on the chest. In spring, they eat weed seeds, insect larvae and insects but in the garden may take crocus flowers, beans, apples and even tomatoes. My son’s garden has none of these but it does have an array of shrubs and exotic trees.

This perfectly compliments the Victorian house; I was surprised at how leafy Manchester suburbs are and how gracious the houses.

My surprise probably stems from childhood geography lessons which gave me the impression that all English towns north of Watford were heavily industrialised. We learned the names and the products: Sheffield, cutlery; Halifax, wool; Bolton, cotton; and Manchester, practically everything — so I expected a more industrial landscape. But the factories are long since closed, the industries long since gone.

From a tower high on the West Pennine moors, we looked down on a green and pleasant land, replete with lakes and waterways. The wind blew so fiercely that full-grown men and women, my sons and daughters, had trouble staying on their feet. Grandchildren risked being blown from Lancashire into Cheshire or even distant Yorkshire.

I, meanwhile, cowered behind the ancient pile, known as Rivington Pike; apparently, fires were lit there to inform the countryside when the English fleet under Blake engaged the Spanish Armada. We were high above the local world but such fierce inland winds I’ve never experienced before.

Lever Park, as the area is called, was donated to the nation by the 19th century philanthropist Lord Lever, the originator of Sunlight Soap and founder of what is now Unilever. He was very generous in Britain, creating model towns and endowing the nation and the populace with vast tracts of land; his dealings with the regime in the Congo, however, where the palm-oil to make his soap was gathered, was not exemplary. The regime visited on the unfortunate natives by the Belgian colonial power was so brutally exploitative that it was vociferously condemned by Roger Casement who went there as British Consul. However, the past cannot be undone and the park was a well-worth while outing, although it involved some steep paths through woodland and, finally, a hundred or more steps to the peak.

Later, we had paella in the sunlit, sheltered garden where all the exotic trees and bushes grow. My Manchester son had a 90cm diameter paella pan, with stand, and a gas stove with jets set in concentric rings. Filled to the top, it could feed 50 people. We only part filled it, as we numbered only 18.

What a wonderful invention is paella, a one-pan dish based on Valencia rice in which is included every variety of fish, shellfish, meat, chicken, vegetable and fruit (tomatoes). In this paella, in the Spanish fashion, all the aforementioned were included, and it was a garden feast nonpareil.


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