The Magic of Nature: A Sadness of Elms


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The elm is a sad tree in many ways, both because of devastating disease and some depressing folklore. It’s an unhappy plant.

My first memories of it are unfailingly cheerful, however: it was the very first tree I learned to name. We had them on our doorstep, you see, four elms planted in a row at the end of the garden. I loved them, especially in winter, when the bare twigs formed a beautiful lattice-work. They reminded me of stained-glass windows framing the sky beyond. In spring I awaited the bursting of the leaf-buds, eyeing them hopefully on my way to school each day. When we studied Browning’s poem Home Thoughts from Abroad, I immediately understood his joy at seeing the first unfurling elm leaves. Of course, I did – I looked for them, too.

Later I made friends with a large spreading elm precariously perched on the river bank (it and me both). We even moored our boat to one of its chunky arms for a while. Its leaves turned a wonderful shade of autumnal yellow, so the river swam gold with them – a last gasp of colour before winter set in. I loved it. In my teenage years there were pollard elms planted across the road from our house, so I could look into their topmost branches from upstairs windows. They felt like friends, too. So, you see, from an early age I was familiar with the rough surface and elegant asymmetrical shape of elm leaves.

Elms blossom in winter. The flowers are tiny and a startling wine-red if you can get close enough. And then follows a false foliage – the winged fruits are pale green and leaf-like. I loved them too, the first fruits of the year in February.

Needless to say, all those elms I knew are long gone, victims of the dreaded elm disease. Our old garden was built over, and the space our elms occupied is now under somebody’s driveway. The great elm by the river was felled and left a gap in the landscape that has never been filled. The elms-across-the-road are nothing but a memory. I have no way, now, of knowing what species these long-lost elms were, but I suspect by their general shapes, that the garden trees were English elm and the great tree by the river was a wych elm.

And these days? Well, I could take you to the remains of an old (possibly ancient) English elm hedge not far from my home. I still get to see the lattice of twigs, the wine-red flowers and the pale fruits. I still get to touch the rough leaves. But the trees are small; they die off and regrow from the base over and over. A sort of elm ground-hog day. There is always a lot of dead wood. But in my memory live magnificent elms, full of verve and life. Breath-taking beings in the landscape. I count myself fortunate to have known them.

My illustrated, magical, nature-inspired tales The Herbarium, The Chesil Apothecary and Dropwort Hall are available from


The Magic of Nature: Puffins and Cabbage


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It isn’t often that two of my nature wishes come true in a single day, but as I stepped aboard the MS Oldenburg one perfect June day, I hoped they might. Puffins and cabbages – not on the same plate, you understand – but on the same island. We were heading for Lundy out in the Bristol Channel. The omens were good as dolphins led us across the sea. Now most people know about puffins, the seabirds with the engaging clownlike appearance, but who has heard of the Lundy cabbage? Well, I had.

As a teenager I would while away winter evenings poring over my wild flower book, memorising the pictures and entranced by names. The Lundy cabbage caught my eye. I had heard of Lundy – mainly as a sea area on the shipping forecast – but I was hazy as to its exact location. Lundy was somewhere Out There, storm-lashed, remote and dangerous, and some of this exoticism rubbed off on the plant that bore its name. What sort of island had its own cabbage? What sort of cabbage had its own island? My imagination worked overtime; surely this must be some sort of pirate cabbage. As so often, it was nearly half a century before I had the chance to see for myself.

As I stepped ashore on Lundy Island that day, I was prepared for a long hunt for my cabbage, or even not to find it at all. In fact, it rampaged all along the cliff path and took no finding at all. Now, I should come clean and admit that, as plants go, this one is nothing special to look at, and most people would dismiss it as an odd weed and walk straight past. But not me. I cupped its yellow flowers and held a bit of magic in my hands. The mysterious Lundy cabbage was in my very grasp. I took lots of photos.

Lundy Island itself is a delight, especially on such a fine, warm day, and later I stood on a verdant cliff-top and saw my first ever puffins. Other visitors lingered at the sea-bird colony, too, enjoying this natural spectacular – but I doubt if many of them felt, as I did, that the puffins had been upstaged by a cabbage patch. Such is the magic of a life spent observing nature.

My illustrated, magical, nature-inspired tales The Herbarium, The Chesil Apothecary and Dropwort Hall are available from

The Magic of Nature: an Understatement of Elders


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Elders are often so small and scrubby, they hardly seem worth the name tree at all. They may grow to about 20 feet (6 metres), but so often they don’t. Definitely an understated tree.

The first elder I remember meeting was a scrubby little thing with its roots and trunk entangled in a ruined wall. I got to know it well one winter when my parents had taken the family boat, a little cabin cruiser, out of the water for a refit. The boat was parked opposite the elder, so my gaze ran over the tree every time we visited. The trunk was gnarled, and bore patches of pale-green lichen – quite a welcome splash of colour at that dull season. In January, I noticed more pale green than had been there before, so I took a closer look. Not more lichen, though – the tree was unfolding leaf-buds. In February that year it snowed. Frost sat on the riverside meadows, and icicles hung from the boat’s side, but the elder tree seemed unperturbed, kept its part-unfolded leaves in suspended animation, and picked up where it had left off when the weather improved to become the first tree in full leaf. You can’t help but respect a plant that does that.

Later that little elder put out flowerheads, too. They are saucer-sized, so you wouldn’t expect much understatement in that, but they are a modest cream colour, large but soft-toned. The fruits are purple-black, a little more showy, I suppose, and my chief memory of them is gathering bucketsful beside an old gravel-pit by the Thames to make elderberry wine. Heady stuff, it was, and not understated at all.

These days, the elder I visit most often is another scrubby little plant. It stands in a ditch half-way across the causeway between the Isle of Portland and the mainland. This Dorset elder has a lot of weather to contend with, exposed to salt gales from both east and west. A salty summer gale can blacken its leaves so they drop in despair. But new buds soon swing into action – this is a very tough little tree. I would say it’s about as tall as I am; any attempt to put its head above the parapet of the ditch gets dried, snapped and blown away. Some years it even manages to flower, though I’ve never seen any fruit on it. It keeps trying, I suppose, the occasional flowers a triumph of hope over experience. One day, perhaps, it will bear fruit and I shall congratulate it on an achievement against all the odds. Nature, I guess, can give us a lesson or two about not giving up too easily.

My illustrated, magical, nature-inspired tales The Herbarium, The Chesil Apothecary and Dropwort Hall are available from

The Magic of Nature: A Remembrance of Shelducks


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Shelduck among sea aster

My earliest memory of shelducks is easily nailed down – I mistook them for avocets. Youthful wishful thinking, of course. They were standing on the far-out tideline of a bay near my home in Kent, looking very black-and-white and I jumped to conclusions, silly girl. And however they might look from a distance, they are not actually black and white. There is a deep glossy greenness to the head and neck, and a band of orangy-tan across the chest. Add in the bright scarlet bill and pink legs and feet and this is quite a multi-coloured bird if you can get close enough.

After this beginner’s error, I came to know shelducks quite well. When we went upriver by boat, their heads would pop up from the marshy fields to see what was going on. They were such a regular sight, we named one of our boats after them. No, she wasn’t the Shelduck, she was Tadorna, from the species’ Latin name. On a trip down to the river estuary one day, a family of shelducks appeared and Tadorna was surrounded by her namesakes. That was a surreal moment. We cut the engine and watched the troop of pied ducklings skittering through the waves after their parents.

These days I see shelducks along the Dorset coast. They don’t seem to stray very far from the sea, feeding in the shallows of a saltmarsh, their heads go up, just as I remember them, checking you out. Sensibly wary, I’d say.

But for all that, last winter a shelduck took up residence among the gulls on the sheltered side of Chesil Beach – right opposite the window of the wildlife centre, so I and everyone else could sit in the café admiring the bird from close quarters while drinking our coffee. My kind of bird-watching, these days. Just another duck, really, but what the heck – I gazed at it and whispered Tadorna, remembering the birds and the namesake boat of half a century ago.

My illustrated, magical, nature-inspired tales The Herbarium, The Chesil Apothecary and Dropwort Hall are available from

The Magic of Nature: a Haunting of Herb Paris


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Herb paris from my illustrated magical tale The Herbarium

 When I was first learning my plants as a teenager, I had an advantage: there were no identification apps, no smartphones to download them onto, indeed no computers at all so far as ordinary people were concerned. If you wanted to find out what plant you were looking at, you used a handbook. I say this was an advantage because there was no instant identification – you had to slog your way through the book, compare the pictures, learn the botanical terms and generally put in a bit of work to find the name of your plant. It was slow, but you learned an awful lot along the way. Another benefit was that you looked at all the other pictures in the process and began to realise how many other wonderful, colourful and interesting wild plants were out there waiting to be found. Many a dark winter’s evening I spent poring over my book, anticipating what plants I might see in the coming year.

One of those I dreamed of finding was herb paris. Was it the intriguing name? Yes. Was it the strange appearance? Yes, again. Four flat leaves with an odd knotted bunch in the middle.  It could have been beamed down from a passing starship.

I longed to see one for myself, but I had a very long wait – the better part of fifty years. Deferred gratification taken to extremes, you might say. As I walked through a Dorset woodland one early summer day, my eye was caught by a patch of yellow among the trees. The plants were past their best, the leaves turning, but I recognised them at once. They were unmistakably herb paris, and every bit as weird and alien-looking as I had imagined. It was an extraordinary moment of wish fulfilment. I had finally seen my mysterious herb paris after so long!

Now tell me, could someone walking along using an app to identify the plants they see ever experience the sheer joy I felt at that moment? ‘Oh,’ they might say, ‘it’s called herb paris. Strange looking, isn’t it?’ and walked on. But for me the plant, until that moment just a picture in a book, had become an almost supernatural being – the possibility of ever finding one had haunted the back of my mind whenever I walked in unfamiliar woods. Yes, it was all in my head – of course – but that is the magic of nature at work over a lifetime, isn’t it? It’s not very scientific, but I don’t think I’d want to see either nature, or the herb paris plant, in any other way.

My illustrated, magical, nature-inspired tales The Herbarium, The Chesil Apothecary and Dropwort Hall are available from

The Magic of Nature: A Joyfulness of Skylarks


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Skylarks among the buttercups. Kathy Sharp 2022

I was hanging out the washing the other day when a small bird chirruped overhead. ‘Skylark,’ I said to the peg-bag, without bothering to look up. This kind of thing makes my family roll their eyes, but it’s a habit of so many years that it’s unlikely I’ll grow out of it now.

As for the skylark, well, I learned to know its chirrup, and to love its song, from childhood. On the chalky cliffs of east Kent, these little birds would hurl themselves into the air, fluttering and overflowing with song like a gutter in a downpour.

The poets of the 19th century attributed this vocal outpouring to sheer joy, and it’s hard not to think of it that way. The sound strikes the human ear as ebullient and life-affirming, especially in the early spring. It cheers the heart as a sign of the return of light and warmth. If it makes me joyful, can the bird not feel joyful too? That’s an old-fashioned question, of course, and we are sternly reminded that the bird is marking out a breeding territory, advertising its presence to females – definitely not larking about.

I made the acquaintance of many more larks, hovering over the drained Kent marshes, cavorting over sheep pastures and vanishing into the brown furrows of onion fields.

One lark taught me an important lesson, many years ago. Out walking in a wild, grassy area, looking for wildlife, I strayed off the path and was startled when a skylark jumped up from under my foot. She revealed a nest of four tiny speckled eggs, and I had so nearly trodden on it. It was a bleak reminder that my wish to go out and spend time with nature could so easily have resulted in my destroying the very thing I loved. These days I’m thoughtful about that and stick to the pathways. You can’t conserve nature by trampling all over it.

These days I hear the larks sing over the grassland of the narrow causeway between the Isle of Portland and mainland Dorset. The Causeway is a regular flightpath for migrating birds. I listen there, for the first larksong of the spring, around February, and it’s always a great moment. In the autumn many of them are on the move, heading for the continent, and it was just such a bird of passage that chirruped overhead as I hung out my washing. I don’t know if the bird felt joyful, but I certainly did.

My illustrated, magical nature-inspired tales The Herbarium, The Chesil Apothecary and Dropwort Hall are available from

The Magic of Nature – A Delight of Violets


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Dog Violet from my magical tale The Herbarium

I don’t know if delight is the proper collective noun for violets – I just made it up – but it’ll do nicely. Violets are delightful. They were one of the flowers that made many a 19th century poet go all lyrical, and endow them with the human characteristics of modesty, determination in the face of snowy weather, even loneliness. That romantic and deeply human-centric view of nature is deeply unfashionable now, but it was very much the way I learned to love the natural world from my mother and grandmother; beauty and language played a strong part. I’ll stick my neck out and say it’s as good a way as any for a child to develop a love of, and respect for, nature. Scientific understanding can come later.

But back to the violets. They were one of the first plants I learned to identify. In the garden of the big old Victorian house where I spent most of my childhood, sweet violets would reliably appear under one of the scrawny hawthorns. My sister and I would pick a little bunch for our mother’s birthday every March. This had nothing to do with science and everything to do with sentiment – but we still learned at an early age where the violets grew and when they flowered. As I said, there are worse ways to develop a regard for nature.

Later, I learned there were other types of violet – unscented dog violets that spread more purple delights along woodland paths and edges, and the hairy violets that grew among the grass tussocks on the open Surrey downland, as well as violets of wet places and heathland that I never did manage to find. But the sweet violets always spoke loudest to me. There was, and perhaps still is, a tradition of planting them beside gateways. A field gate on the downs was a reliable place to find, year in, year out. White-flowered, those were. And here in Dorset, I could take you, come next spring, to a field gate only a couple of miles from here where a traditionalist has planted violets. They were well-established twenty years ago when I first found them, but they could have been there two hundred years, for all I know. It’s the sense of continuity that appeals, and the toughness of those fragile little plants weathering the weather, hooves and tractor wheels, down the ages.

I’m perfectly aware, of course, that the flower’s beauty of form, colour and scent is aimed at pollinating insects and not at me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy and admire them, just like the 19th century poets. So, unfashionable or not, I shall continue to delight in violets.

My illustrated, magical, nature-inspired tales The Herbarium, The Chesil Apothecary and Dropwort Hall are available from

The Wrong Path?


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This is the final little story about the Reverend Pontius to celebrate the release of my novella Call of the Merry Isle.

The Wrong Path?

The Reverend Pontius had always considered regrets to be a serious self-indulgence. Why waste valuable time on choices that could not be changed? And yet… And yet, here he was in the early hours, wondering about the might-have-beens in just the way he promised himself he wouldn’t. He was thinking about the woman he might have married, the family they might have had. ‘Would that have been a joy – or a burden, I wonder?’ he said aloud to the bed-post. The care of others tended to be both, as he knew from his years as a minister. The bedpost declined to offer an opinion.

But the night-thought was persistent, even when morning came. Had he made the wrong choices, all those years ago? That other life he might have lived plagued him as he attacked his breakfast egg, lurked under the duster as he polished the pews, and tried to barge its way into the sermon he was working on.

‘Enough!’ he said, at last. ‘I cannot change the past, and the future will be what it will. I can only accept that the Spirit chose this path for me, and that the Spirit is always right. The subject is closed.’

Nonetheless, he scribbled a note in the margin saying, ‘Spirits; possibility of being wrong. Investigate.’

If you like this story, and would like to meet the Reverend Pontius again, you can find out more about him in my novella Call of the Merry Isle, available at and now available in ebook format from Amazon.

The Purpose of Porpoises


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Another wander into the slightly odd world of Larus, and we find the Reverend Pontius in need of a holiday…

The Purpose of Porpoises

The Reverend Pontius was searching for something, and that something, he realised with a twinge of guilt, was an excuse.

‘What I am seeking,’ he said aloud, ‘is an excuse for a day off.’ There, it was out, and no less shocking for there being no-one else to hear it.

The guilty words reverberated round the chapel rafters. There is nothing quite like an echo for emphasising something shameful. And shameful it was. Day off, indeed! Pontius looked at his shoes. The buckles, not quite silver, had been a gift from the people of the isle in grateful recognition of his years of service. He had tried to make himself useful, and had clearly succeeded. Yet here he was looking for an excuse to spend a day doing nothing useful at all.

Pontius tried to distract himself. ‘I should read an improving book,’ he said aloud, letting those words rattle round the rafters, too. ‘If only I had one,’ he added, under his breath.

But he did have a copy of the Olde Salte’s Guide to the Worlde. It was a strange book, a sort of seagoing encyclopaedia, though most of its pearls of wisdom were buried pretty deep. Pontius sat before it and opened it at random. The spirits will guide me to the right page, he thought, and bring me enlightenment. He peered short-sightedly at the book with its antique script and unpredictable spelling:

‘Porpoise Day,’ he read aloud, ‘according to ancient fishing peoples, this be a holiday that may be called on any day of the year for any porpoise whatsoever.’

Was porpoise an ancient spelling for purpose, Pontius wondered? But no, there it was, in black and white: porpoise. Porpoise the sea-creature not purpose the intention. Whatever it had originally meant, it would be very acceptable to an island full of fisherfolk and he saw himself calling such holidays with a perfectly clear conscience. ‘I shall use it sparingly, of course,’ he murmured. ‘For emergency porpoises only.’

If you like this story, and would like to meet the Reverend Pontius again, you can find out more about him in my novella Call of the Merry Isle, available at and now available in ebook format from Amazon.

Introducing the Larus Series


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Today’s offering is a brand new little story featuring the Reverend Pontius, one of my endearing Larus Series characters:


‘Ah, this oppressive heat!’ said the Reverend Pontius, fanning himself with his hat. It was a moment before he realised he was not wearing his hat and was actually fanning himself with his wig.

He didn’t often bother with the wig, saving it for Sunday sermons and special occasions. But today was Sunday and there was the wig. His own hair, rather sparse these days, was damp with the heat and his scalp prickled as it dried. The Reverend stepped into the shade of a stone wall and regarded the wig doubtfully. It was of a very old-fashioned style, and looking a little moth-eaten these days, but it did add a certain gravitas to his sermons. Or, rather, he hoped it did. Would it be acceptable to leave it off, he wondered, at least until the weather should break? He looked up, hoping for a hint of a distant storm-cloud, but the sky remained obstinately blue from horizon to horizon. Very inconsiderate of it, the Reverend thought, mopping his brow with a handkerchief. Why was there never a convenient cloud when you needed one?

He thrust his hands into his coat pockets in annoyance, and found, in each, a mothball. How did they get there? The Reverend did not know, but surely, nay certainly, this was a clear sign from the Spirit of the Sky. Wigs were best kept for winter and should be safely mothballed at this season!

The Reverend tied knots at the four corners of his handkerchief and put it on his head against the sun. Then he tossed the mothballs into the upturned wig and set off for the chapel. He would fill the wig with healthy, preservative camphor against the moths! Whether those in the front two rows at his future sermons would be similarly enthusiastic when the wig surfaced again remained to be seen.

If you like this story, and would like to meet the Reverend Pontius again, you can find out more about him in my novella Call of the Merry Isle, available at