SURVEILLANCE of the oil tank level continues daily. It’s a test of nerve, deciding when to place an order, whether to splurge on an extra hour’s central heating, or remember that there are far colder days still to come; added to which, the price of oil might fall. And Donald Trump may accept he lost the election.

The other day, an hour after friends had visited for coffee, relatives unexpectedly dropped by. Their timing was perfect. Not only was there a plate of mince pies, but the living room was cosy. Warmed by a crackling log fire and ticking radiators, it was like an advert for country living, where glamorous relaxed householders stretch their bare toes towards the flames, untroubled by the draught that whines through most country doors and between uncarpeted floorboards.

Finding themselves bathed in heat, our guests were shocked. Never before had they experienced such comfort in Hoolet. Of course, they well knew that if they had arrived 24 hours later, the pies would have vanished, and they’d have needed mittens until the fire was coaxed into a blaze.

READ MORE ROSEMARY: Lost in the fog

If I haven’t cracked and called for a delivery of oil by the time you read this, then I’m made of stronger stuff than I realise. When we moved into the cottage, the previous owners left a note suggesting we might want to consider ordering oil soon, as in pronto.

When I checked the gauge, there was just enough to fry an egg. Frost lay so thick on the ground it looked like snow, and indoors wasn’t much warmer. Halting our online search for long johns and balaclavas, I was on the phone to the nearest oil depot within minutes, and next day a tanker rolled up. Rarely have fossil fuels been made more welcome.

Others in the village have the luxury of an indoor monitor, so they avoid the indignity of crouching outside beside the tank and guessing how many days’ worth remains. Our container is in an especially icy spot, occupying a corner near the side gate, through which Siberian winds whistle like wolves.

There’s nothing beautiful about these tanks, but before it became a badge of shame to consume this most environmentally damaging of fuels, I could have imagined a calendar depicting rural tanks, on the lines of those once popular posters of picturesque Irish or Tuscan doorways. Some would be hidden beneath rambling roses, others stark and utilitarian as a painting by Edward Hopper.

Hoolet Cottage’s 1350-litre tank is holly green, with a hatch like the seal on a submarine. Neighbours disguise theirs – black, green, eau de nil – with ivy or cotoneaster. Taking our cue from them, we planted a six-tree beech hedge, designed to soften its appearance. This summer, at three years old, it will have reached its required height. Now it just needs to bush out.

Hedges have been much on my mind lately, since the fence at the top of the garden is showing its age. How much more interesting, we thought, to have a mixed hedge in which birds and hedgehogs and others can forage and nest. This being the time for planting bare root trees and bushes I opened my new gardening journal, and began to make notes.


This book was a Christmas gift, and far too beautiful for the very ordinary thoughts that will soon fill it. I am tempted to pretend I’m Vita Sackville-West, setting out plans for an imaginary garden that will draw the crowds long after I’m gone, and keep a team of gardeners in full-time employment.

Back in the real world, the prospect that greets me every morning is a ragged work in progress. The only flash of colour right now is when a pheasant struts across the grass. But even when winter has passed, and flowers begin to brighten it and mask its imperfections, it will never be manicured. This garden is not made for perfection, and suits its dishevelment.

Even if something more formal were achievable, I wouldn’t want it. It’s not just the upkeep that would be demanding and beyond my skills. Out here, with our view of rugged woods and tussocky fields on the approach to the hills, nature has, and always will have, the upper hand. I think of our gardening efforts as a way of giving it something to think about, and seeing how it responds. Best of all are the birds and creatures that turn this blank canvas into a home.

After consulting books about hedging, I settled on a mix of blackthorn, hornbeam and hazel, for their sloe berries, catkins, nuts and hardy habits. They’ll be good companions for the old hawthorn, which will keep an eye on them. The only difficulty I could foresee was keeping the trees to fence height, rather than allowing them to reach their full span, thereby cancelling the view.

With that decision made, I headed outside to make a start on the groundwork. Knowing a trench needed to be dug, Alan joined me.

The rain began shortly after, and the wind soon picked up, flapping the string we had strung between canes like a skipping rope. Debating how wide the trench should be, I found an instructional video that left us disheartened. It seemed we were expected to use a small digger, and the amount of work required was not dissimilar to laying the foundations of a garage.

Ignoring this, Alan sliced through the turf, making an outline of where later to dig, but when his spade hit rock, and the rain turned to sleet, we packed up and went indoors.

Apparently there are shortcuts when laying a hedge – clearly there are lots of folk like us who are easily deterred – but the risk of losing some of the trees by skimping on effort is high.

The conclusion we came to was obvious. This is a job for a professional, which immediately rules us out. Some tasks I’m prepared to do to the best of my ability, and adjust or repair as required, but with a hedge there’s not much room for error. The thought of a gap-toothed, higgledy-piggledy row, or one patched with new specimens struggling to catch up, does not appeal.

I suspect Hoolet’s resident Capability Brown will soon be receiving a text message, just as soon as I’ve ordered oil.

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