April 17, 2020
We can her the church clock ringing three streets away. The wren in the walnut is deafening – and a poor performer, it seems to me: the same shout again and again. These are the sounds of locked-down London, where normally the rush of cars is endless, punctuated by motorbikes, sirens and drills. There are no planes overhead. We hear conversations in the street outside. The world we know has stopped, and we have time to think – and look.
I have never followed spring before as a full-time observer. Other years we catch sight of a magnolia or camellia, admire it for a moment, perhaps try to name it, and move on. There’s no moving now; our plants are our companions, up close and personal. Spring is happening too fast. I often say that; there are too many climactic moments packed in a few distracted weeks. But we’re not distracted now, except by the virus; we have all the time in the world to watch and enjoy nature’s renewal.
The leafing of the trees is the greatest change, from the early greening of willows (weeping willows earliest of all; dry-grass-green while everything else is still dormant) to the long-drawn-out colouring of the planes, their high traceries suspended for two weeks or so in a sort of pale olive mist. The limes are slow, first hanging out limp-wristed baby leaves that soon unfurl in brilliant varnish-shiny green. Oaks are individuals; one will be in full leaf long before its neighbour. Horse chestnuts’ shiny buds split quickly to release limp rags. Elms fool you into thinking they’re in leaf when the green is just their new fruit.
We watch two tall cherry trees in the street from our bedroom window, geans (a name no one seems to use for our native cherry) with double flowers that cover their lanky pliant branches with snow. One came out just before three days of hot sun; in that short spell its flowers were fried brown. The other tree timed it perfectly and is still alpine-white. It Peak Wistaria too, and Kensington has aspiring champions in every street, from one that spans seven houses to others bonsaied up to the roof.
Every year I try to remember the names of the different Japanese cherries, a dozen within a five-minute walk. Shiro-this and Shiro-that, serrula and serrulata, Beni-this and -that soon become a blur of ravishing petals, white shading to pink and pink to white. The focus moves on to crab apples and handsome old pear trees, while on the ground the blue of scillas and grape hyacinths gives way to bluebells and soon the pale campanula poscharskyana, the London weed, and I can’t take my eyes of the falling spry of double white roses where Mad Alf throws herself out of our oversize sycamore. All in uncanny silence. I can’t say I look forward to the returning roar.