I am looking for a recipe in Elizabeth David and reading her old magazine articles, the voice of an old friend, when I stumble on one of her descriptions of an August holiday. ‘I have a nostalgie de la pluie’, she writes. North Cornwall and its leafy lanes dripping, dripping, to walk in a dressing gown and gumboots through squelching grass to the stream to fetch water for our breakfast coffee…’ She suffers August rain in the west coast of Scotland, ‘drumming on the corrugated iron roof’ and on Tory Island, ‘on what the Irish describe as a nice soft day, the Scots as a bit mixed, and I as a hurricane…’ Next came ‘sodden Surrey woods’ – at least a change from a Celtic soaking.
I have a nostalgie de la pluie, too, and seek assurance in the statistics that say August is indeed one of our wettest months. Walking on grass worn, grey and brown, patchy and without a fresh leaf, ankle-twisting, I wonder how many wet days it needs to bring life back. In the uncut meadow the grass was sere but soft, brushing your knees, dotted with purple knapweed and yellow rattle. The stream was clogged with dead leaves, the earth cracking. Roll on August; wet my face and hands.
We didn’t have to wait for the calendar. We went to the seaside, and the children sailed to Cornwall. Down it came, the wind rose, they found a sheltered anchorage and I opened the French windows and listened, and watched, and saw leaves shining, and tipping their little brimfuls onto the leaf below till the branch shook.
What weight does rain add to a big oak with half a million leaves? A branch reaching forty feet horizontally from the trunk must have to support several hundredweight of water. Why doesn’t it split from the trunk? An ingenious American woodsman spent his life carving up trees to find the answer. The growth rings of the trunk and a branch springing from it alternate and overlap, splicing the two together in union almost impossible to break.
In a day or two the tawny hide of Kensington Gardens will be overlaid with tender green. Already oaks have shot out pinkish and buff Lammas shoots, their instant reaction to a deep drink in mid-Summer. My own Lammas shoots, meanwhile, spur me to celebrate this liberating moment.