A COUPLE of weekends ago, you would not have known we were still living in a pandemic. Voices and laughter could be heard up and down the village as neighbours met up outdoors.

I passed a friend one afternoon carrying tonic water to connect with the bottle of gin that awaited in a nearby garden. Our phone rang, and we were invited to afternoon tea in Selkirk with a couple who, should the weather turn, have a garden shed we can retreat into, if we don’t mind the open windows.

As spring sunshine took hold and we retrieved our straw hats, we experienced the forgotten pleasure of gathering in small groups. Coffee with neighbours at midday allowed us to remember, too late, how toasty it can get in a south-facing nook.

We were too busy chatting to worry about the prickle of unaccustomed heat on our faces. The following afternoon, red-faced and bearing hats, we attended a birthday bash that had been hastily organised as soon as the forecast was favourable.

Conversation flowed under an almost Tuscan sun. To stay within the rules, the party was conducted like a relay; the first lot were invited for three o’clock, and the others at five.

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Needless to say we were still in situ when what I like to think of as the B-team appeared at the foot of the garden, nipping politely at our heels when they caught sight of the drinks table. Reluctantly we vacated our collapsible chairs, and exited by way of the field. After months of navigating Tescos and M&S, it was second nature to stick to a one-way system.

For a short spell, as one fine day followed another, you could feel the place shaking off its winter sloth, and reconnecting with its old and sociable ways. The fragrance of newly mown grass would reach us, only to be chased off by the scent of a barbie firing up. After months under wraps, these beasts were slowly being coaxed back into life. Often kept under the sort of blankets horses wear in winter, they are like vintage cars on their first day out of the garage, taking hours to get up to speed.

Then cold, sleet, and predictions of snow, once more took hold. Al fresco tea-time in Selkirk now looks as if it will require fur-lined hoods rather than panamas. It reminds me of the year we went on holiday to Lochinver in April. Our chalet had a picture window out to sea, where we watched a blizzard racing towards us, obliterating the waves. At the same time, television images of dazzling sunlight in Italy were being broadcast, as Pope John Paul II departed this world.

Meteorologists have informed us that last month was the frostiest April in 60 years, although that came as little surprise. Almost every morning since Easter we awoke to a coating of white on grass and cars. Somehow, the newly planted climbers and ramblers have survived, although more by chance than skill.

One neighbour has been so concerned about her budding magnolia tree she draped her coat over it at night. Her solicitousness reminded me that it took a while to realise that when people in these parts talk about fleece, they’re not discussing sheep or shapeless jackets but the scarves they throw over delicate shrubs and trees, as if accessorising mannequins in Harvey Nix.

And it’s not just plants that need protecting. To ensure your allegedly frost-proof terracotta pots don’t crumble in freezing conditions you can swaddle them in bubble wrap. Given that this would have to stay in place for at least half the year, however, I’d rather cope with the threat of cracks, or give up pots altogether.

Yet while the village has briefly retreated indoors, for some the starter’s gun has been fired, and not even the prospect of snowdrifts can put them back in their box. The morning of writing I caught my first glimpse of the squirrel for whom the village green is home. Unlike polar bears that emerge from their winter cocoons looking skinny and slow, this creature was full of life, so furry and glossy it might have hibernated in a grocer’s van.

HeraldScotland: A sparrowA sparrow

I was delighted to see it, but not everyone will share my feelings. A friend in Leith, which seems to have more abundant wildlife than we do, opened his curtains recently to see a fox trotting past with a squirrel dangling from its mouth.

Another squirrel, meantime, had been feasting on his peonies and strawberries, stripping them to the root. You might think this would endear the fox to him, but he is not a fan. Occasionally when digging he’ll discover remains of a catch it has buried for later consumption. His house is near where another friend of mine lives, who used to watch cubs playing in the garden, close to their den. Given how rarely we see foxes here, it seems this is turning into an urban species, replicating the lowland clearances of centuries past.

Another disappearance, which I hope is temporary, is the herd of Belted Galloways on the moor. I was told that the cattle’s owner had died, and feared they might have been sold off. It’s possible, though, that they have simply been moved to richer pasture higher up the hill. After taking every available mouthful out of these fields, which after a winter’s trampling and chewing resemble a muddy wasteland, they certainly deserve a nutritional boost.

Until they reappear, however, the journey past their old haunt is a lot duller. It is brightened only by the sight of roe deer, grazing among the trees.

Closer to home, sparrows are whirring through the air in every direction, like bath-time wind-up toys. We watched one collecting fluff and down from our gravel patch, entirely unconcerned that we were only a few feet away.

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Another grappled with a dry frond of honeysuckle, trying to rip off a strip. Tackling it from every angle, it eventually succeeded and carried it deep into the beech hedge, to its soon-to-be-finished nest.

The other afternoon I was startled when I accidentally flushed the sparrowhawk from the hedge, and it shot off, over my head. It’s no wonder the sparrows have caught its attention, the noise they make. They are also fantastically fat.

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