Bring the outdoors in: daily activities to enjoy at home
Bring the outdoors in: daily activities to enjoy at home
Bring the countryside into your life every day with our pick of the best seasonal activities to do in your home and garden during the coronavirus lockdown – plus interesting TV and radio programmes, podcasts and much more.
Download free landscape images for your Zoom backdrop
This view of placid Lake Vyrnwy is one of the free images available. Image: Ben Hall / RSPB Images
Most of us have got used to using video conferencing such as Zoom or Skype to keep in touch since Lockdown.
The more tech-savvy among us cottoned quick that with Zoom and some other services, you can set a fake background behind you – so that it looks as if you are sitting in a designer office or on a Caribbean beach.
Of course your selection does reveal something about you and your preferences. And if you’d rather not see yourself in such surroundings, your choice is a bit limited by the generic images supplied.
So if you’d prefer to picture yourself in a forest listening to the dawn chorus, or watching a golden eagle soar above the Cairngorms, then the kindly folk at the RSPB can help.
They are offering a set of free images from their library, for use as backdrops during your Zoom chats.
Images include Vyrnwy Lake (above), an RSPB Reserve in the Berwyn Mountains, where you can see peregrines, pied flycatchers and redstarts.
And at risk of being accused of gratuitously stuffing this blog with gorgeous images, here are some more.
Sunset at RSPB Ouse Washes Nature Reserve. Image: RSPB
It may be rather unfortunately named, but Ouse Washes is a lush wetland teeming with birdlife, including black-tailed godwits and exotic garganey ducks, which dabble in the reeds and open water.
And of course the Cairngorms National Park is one of Britain’s wildest places, and getting wilder by the year, thanks to the efforts of enlightened estate managers restoring the kind of native woodland you find in this image, below. The RSPB’s Crannach Nature Reserve is a peaceful upland woodland where if you are lucky you may see black grouse and Scottish crossbills.
Caledonian pine forest, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland. Image: RSPB
And there are many more to choose from. Have fun browsing.
Bring the landscape inside: order some art for your home
William Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts (or Strayed Sheep) was inspired by Lover’s seat, on the cliffs above Covehurst Bay, near Hastings in Sussex. Image: Tate
Missing the British landscape? Stuck at home? Then why not brighten up the house with a favourite painting of the countryside.
It worked for me this weekend: after months of sitting in a cardboard tube, the print I’d ordered as a present for my wife finally made it into a frame and on to the wall.
Every time I walk past it, Graham Sutherland’s Entrance to a Lane gently shimmers, reminding me of summer days walking in woodlands. This cheered me up so much I’ve thought I’d share the experience.
Of course there are lots of places to order prints online. One of the best sources of British landscapes is the Tate Shop, which has a big collection of prints and posters, and even has a made to order custom-size print service.
There are classic landscapes by John Constable and William Turner, as well as Romantic landscapes by William Holman Hunt (like the one at the top). Samuel Hieronymous Grimm (1733-1794) chose to depict the extraordinary limestone gorge known as Creswell Crags, where ancient hunter-gatherer once lived in caves.
For those who like some grandeur in their landscapes: Cresswell Crags in Derbyshire, by Samuel Hieronymous Grimm. Image: Tate
The Tate also has more modern works by the likes of Dora Carrington (1893-1932), a scion of the Bloomsbury set; her 1921 painting Farm at Watendlath depicts the Lake District homestead where she summered as a newly wed.
Dora Carrington’s Farm at Watendlath. Image: Tate
Among the others in the collection are a glowing depiction of Epping Forest in Essex by Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), better known as a sculptor; he lived close to the edge of the forest at Loughton.
Jacob Epstein’s Epping Forest. Image: Tate
And of course for lovers of animals there are dogs and wild beasties galore, including these dogs by the great George Stubbs (1724-1806).
George Stubbs’ Couple of Foxhounds. Image: Tate
But I’ve got my eye on a set of prints by Dame Elizabeth Frink (1930-1993), of which my favourite is Owl.
Elizabeth Frink’s owl, one of a series of beautiful prints depicting British wildlife. Image: Tate
Run out of green veg? Then make a simple nettle soup
Superfood soup: nettles are packed with goodness
If your fridge is looking short of green veg and you want to avoid a trip to the shops, a handy source could be available closer than you might think.
It’s stinging nettle season – and the perfect time to pick and eat these nutritious plants, which may or may not be lurking at the bottom of your garden.
It might sound outlandish, but once cooked all that stinginess vanishes, and they taste surprisingly good – wholesome and spinachy but with a deeper, more satisfying flavour.
Moreover, nettles pack a big nutritional punch – being rich in vitamins (including A, C and K) as well as minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium. And they are choc-full of antioxidants, too.
So why not give this recipe a go. It can be a brilliant thing to do with children – who may find the process hilarious (or horrifying). Your call.
Local food fresh from the farm – to your door
Oli Baker of Mora Farm in Cornwall is one of the growers whose produce is now available via the Farms to Feed Us network. Picture: Scott Grummett
If you are running low on food supplies and want to avoid a trip to the supermarket, then a new initiative from small-scale farmers and fishers may be able to help.
Farms to Feed Us is a growing network of food producers who can deliver supplies fresh to homes nearby, to local hubs where they can be collected safely, or by mail order.
The produce on offer includes veg boxes, meat boxes and freshly caught fish. Much of it is food that would normally be sold on to the restaurant trade.
It’s early days – even the website is rudimentary – but for now there’s a simple database on which you can search for a local supplier.
Some areas are covered better than others, but new suppliers are signing up all the time, so if you find the choice limited today, check again next week and there may be more options.
Cathy St Germans – the brains behind Farms to Feed Us – hopes the new network will last way beyond the current crisis, allowing householders to order direct from the farm or fishing boat.
Tuesday 21 April
Write a tribute to your garden sanctuary
Find sanctuary: Phyllis Dodd’s Summer Doorway with African Lilies. Image courtesy of Liss Llewellyn / Garden Museum
Those of us lucky enough to have a garden to escape to appreciate our own green spaces more than ever.
So if you are finding consolation in your garden during the lockdown, this year’s Garden Museum writing competition has a particularly appropriate theme: Sanctuary.
Hmm. Sanctuary: a sacred place … somewhere safe and peaceful. That seems both timely and suitably open-ended, allowing entrants to explore all sorts of aspects of their life in gardens, as it were.
All you have to do is write a 1500-word ‘memoir’ on this theme.
Entries to the Mollie Salisbury Cup must be in by 10 May. If you win, you’ll get £750, but note you’ll have to speculate to accumulate, as the museum is asking entrants to stump up £10 to enter.
Sanctuary, by the way, is the name of the museum’s current exhibition, about artist-gardeners in the mid-20th century, from which the pictures above and below are taken. Sadly the museum’s galleries on London’s South Bank are closed during the lockdown, but the next best thing is to have a leaf through the catalogue, which includes other beautiful paintings, drawings and Lino cuts by the likes of Eric Ravilious, Clare Leighton and Charles Mahoney).
Charles Mahoney’s The Garden (1950) is one of the images in their exhibition Sanctuary. Picture courtesy of Liss-Llewellyn / Garden Museum
The more ingenious entrepreneurs are already getting on with it. In this short video, polymath Brian Cox introduces viewers to a thriving commercial farm – on a London industrial estate.
Here they grow 20,000kg of salad plants a year – without soil.
It’s thanks to a system called aquaponics – in which nutrient-rich water is used to grow plants.
How? Well, elsewhere in the building are ponds full of fish. These are tilapia, a delicious freshwater fish from Africa, which is agreeably easy to farm.
Tilapia could soon be the world’s most farmed fish. Picture: Getty Images
The tilapias do what comes naturally – and poo in the water. Then all our farmers have to do is to siphon off the water – now enriched with fish-poo goodness that plants love – and feed it to their crops.
These are grown on racks under UV lights in a warehouse, before being picked and sold to posh restaurants around the capital.
Proving once again that where there’s muck there’s brass. See for yourself in this short video for the Royal Society.
Friday 17 April
Listen to the sounds of the New Forest
Lie back and soak up the soothing soundscape of the New Forest National Park. Picture: Getty Images
Woodlands are a delightful place to be in spring: think wildflowers and fresh green foliage, blossom and birdsong.
If you are yearning for time among the trees – but stuck at home – then here’s the next best thing.
Pop on some headphones, shut your eyes, and immerse yourself in the soundscape of the New Forest.
newforestsounds.co.uk brings the sounds of the National Park to life, from birdsong to bubbling streams and a gentle wind stirring the leaves.
It’s a great way to bring stress levels down and spend a little quality time on your own, or even to send to off to a blissful sleep.
And it’s free, too. It’s all thanks to Clive Brooks of Brockenhurst in the New Forest: the man with the microphone. Thank you Clive!
Listen to the soothing sound of the Countryfile Magazine podcast:
We all seem to have got more interested recently in ways to improve yourself while sitting on your rump.
There are umpteen projects to fill the hours between now and the probably still distant end of the lockdown.
That’s a perfect opportunity to brush up on some essential country skills, so that when we emerge from our confinement, we can do so with a confident spring in our step, energised by our new-found competence.
Where to start? What is desirable skill number one for all wanderers of the hills?
Map-reading. It has to be.
What other skill has so many benefits? You can:
• Be a leader not a follower
• Figure out your own awesome routes
• Cut down on painful pauses every ten minutes while your companions wait for you figure out where you went wrong
A golden eagle in the Cairngorms National Park. Picture: Getty ImagesGetty
If you are pining after nature and missing the open country, you can get a fix of both in Channel 5’s Wild Britain.
For once, the charismatic locations of this wildlife series are not the savannahs of Africa or the jungles of South America, but the familiar hills and moorlands of the UK.
But the sights are no less awesome, from golden eagles stalking hares, to rare wild cats.
It’s a big slice of comfort food, narrated by Hugh Bonneville.
Tuesday 7 April
Listen to the song of the blackbird
The blackbirds’s song is so common that sometimes we scarcely notice it. Picture: Getty Images
Why do we value the rare above the commonplace?
The song of the nightingale – so seldom heard these days – is often said to be the loveliest of any bird. And sure enough the nightingale’s bright, liquid song is beautiful.
But so is that of one of most common of songbirds. We hear it across the nation in spring, skirling out from rural hawthorns and suburban rooftops alike. It’s not unlikely that if you fling open your window now, you’ll hear one, even in a city.
The common blackbird.
And common it is, with more than 5m breeding pairs in the UK. Perhaps so common that we sometimes take this everyday wonder for granted.
If so, I urge you to take the time to stop, tune in to his song, and slow to his rhythm.
You may find that the pauses between each burst of song are part of the beauty. Those moments of silence fill with a sweet anticipation of the next phrase.
If you can’t hear a blackbird where you are, here is a reminder of their graceful beauty of their song.
• Warning: third party content may contain adverts
Direct from Devon: Quicke’s traditional clothbound cheese
If the larder is looking bare, there are ways to top it up with good wholesome food, straight from the countryside – without having to go to the shops.
That’s because up and down the land, farmers and smaller-scale food producers are still making deliveries.
This gives you the chance to kill four birds with one stone.
You can stock up on your supplies, support Britain’s farmers and food producers, keep away from the shops for a bit longer, and take a little bit of pressure off the demand for supermarket deliveries.
Devon farmers Quicke’sare even offering free delivery to NHS staff and those in self-isolation, on orders costing £25 or more.
The Quickes – who have farmed near Newton St Cyres in Devon since the 16th century – specialise in traditional cloth-bound Cheddar cheese, from the mild and mellow to the big and booming, rich and complex.
Quicke’s unusual whey butter is making using cream extracted after the first stage in the cheese-making process.
But among their other dairy goodies are Devonshire red, goat’s cheese, and whey butter (above) – apparently made from a by-product of the cheese-making process, but not that you’d know, as it’s absolutely delicious.
Meanwhile, the Wensleydale Creamery, up in the verdant Yorkshire Dales, is offering cheese, milk and butter fresh from the dairy, all made using milk from local farms.
Lucky cows: The lush green pastures of Wensleydale make rich grazing. Picture: Getty Images
There’s the eponymous Wensleydale cheese … pale, crumbly and moreish – and a tempting looking oak-smoked cheese too. The online deli offers chutneys, and Yorkshire chorizo, as well as jams and cakes for the sweet-toothed. Deliveries cost a pretty reasonable £2.95, and are free if your spend more than £75.
To keep everything as local as possible, it might be worth Googling to see if any food producers in your area are offering deliveries.
For example, Wild Hearth Bakery is offering a free delivery service to parts of Scotland’s central belt.
Wild Hearth Bakery’s sourdough bread won the Artisan Food category of the Scottish Rural Awards 2018.
So if you fancy some of their fresh sourdough bread, hot from their wood-fired bakery in Perthshire, check out their website, but be prepared to wait for a delivery slot.
• We’ll bring you more local food producers over the coming weeks… let me know if you’d like to recommend one yourself – email email@example.com
Mindful moment: A podcast about life on a Norfolk farm
Wildflowers flourish on High Ash Farm in Norfolk.
When farmer Chris Skinner speaks in his soft East Anglian burr, all seems right with the world.
You can spend quality time in the company of Chris – and immerse yourself in the scents and sounds of spring at High Ash Farm – thanks to Radio Norfolk.
Its long-standing programme The Countryside Hour, introduced by Matthew Gudgin, is available as a weekly podcast on BBC Sounds.
The farm provides plenty to talk about. Some modern farms are sadly short of wildlife – but not High Ash, set in rolling countryside a couple of miles south of Norwich. Chris has made it his life’s work to encourage wildlife back to his land, especially farmland bird species. There are now rare turtle doves and at least ten nesting pairs of little owls. Hares and roe deer roam the land, and wildflowers fringe his fields.
In happier times, Chris Skinner (on the right) leads visitors on tours of High Ash Farm.
Tune in to recent podcasts to hear Chris as he wanders the farm, describing the animals. Sitting on a log in Fox’s Grove, a woodland on the farm, Chris describes nuthatches singing, a stock dove cooing and the jackdaws squabbling over old nestboxes. At his feet, celandines booming among the bluebells. On a torchlit walk he encounters Mildred the goose, a plump deer, the ‘diamond-white’ eyes of a fox glinting from the hedgerow. And looks forward to the day the swallows return – ‘then I know I’ve lived another year… It’s almost better than my birthday.’
It’s all very relaxing, and makes you feel like you’ve been wandering those acres with the man himself.
Friday, April 4
How to have a wild time at home
Through the window, the natural world carries on as normal. Picture: Ben Hall / 2020Vision.
If you’re itching to do something constructive with your time – or for practical projects to keep the kids busy – the Wildlife Trusts can help.
So you can learn how to make a simple bird feeder or a mini-pond, build a hedgehog home or make your own compost.
You can also find out it where your nearest nature reserve is. The trust has an incredible 2,300 nature reserves all over the UK. These include small ones in cities, so who knows – there might be one you’ve never heard of, within walking distance – so you can visit during your daily exercise, without getting in the car.
We can’t wait to get back to the hills, but in the meantime the next best thing is to enjoy these beautiful films.
Write your love letter to the countryside
Now it’s your turn to tell us about the countryside! Picture: Getty Images
Podcasts, videos and the like can be wonderful things.
But if you are stuck at home, you don’t have to rely on other people’s stories.
If you can’t actually be in the countryside, the best way to get that fix of the great outdoors is close at hand.
In fact, it’s locked upstairs – in your imagination, and your memory.
So why not sit down this weekend and spend some time thinking about the place you love most in the countryside.
Find somewhere quiet in the house and choose the place you enjoy thinking about the most. It might be a mountain, a wood, a sunlit pasture, a babbling brook or a quiet beach.
What can you see? Dappled sunlight on a stream? The sun setting through hawthorn blossom?
What about the the sounds and the scents? The birdsong and the wildflowers? Maybe the cows are lowing, the church bells drifting on a mild breeze.
When you are ready, write down a couple of hundred words about that place. See how well you can capture the atmosphere of the place and your feelings about it.
At a stressful time, writing can be a kind of meditation – calming and ordering your thoughts. You might be surprised at how refreshing it is to set your experience on to the page.
And children might enjoy this one too.
If you want to, will share your words with us and other Countryfile fans. Don’t be shy – write to The Magpie via firstname.lastname@example.org
As all writers need a deadline, I’m going to ask it you can please send by next Friday, 10 April.
If you write with a pen and paper, there’s no need to type it out… just take a pic and send it by email.
Thursday 2 April
Watch ospreys nesting – live!
Meet Blue 35 and White YW, the Ospreys of Foulshaw Moss.
These pictures from the Lake District show an osprey nest in the Lake District… and you can check out live pictures of it right now!
If you are lucky, you’ll be able to see one or both of the ospreys that are nesting here this spring. If not, they are probably off catching fish, so settle down and wait… they will be back soon.
Ospreys are mad-looking things, with their hooked bills and wild crests. They are strikingly big, with a wingspan of up to 170cm. And they are really rare in the UK, where only 200-250 pairs breed each year.
Osprey swoop to snatch fish from the water. Picture: Getty Images
It’s the seventh season that this pair have returned to the nest, Foulshaw Moss Nature Reserve in Cumbria. This peat bog is an increasingly rare environment in Europe, and rich in many forms of wildlife… well worth a visit, once we can all move around safely once more.
Anyway, the ospreys have flown here all the way from their wintering grounds somewhere in West Africa or Europe… no one’s exactly sure yet.
But both have been ringed, so the wardens at Foulshaw know where they came from originally: the male hatched at Bassenthwaite in 2008, and the 10-year-old female at Kielder in Northumberland.
Keep tuning in and hopefully there will be eggs soon… and chicks sometime after that. All, of course, blissfully oblivious to troubles in the human world.
If you’re curious about the world they are nesting in, check out this 360-degree tour of Foulshaw Moss.
The internet is a great place to get your nature fix for the day, if you know where to look.
There are some brilliant videos out there – but when my colleague Danny shared a link to Sullivan’s Wild Scotland: Rivers, I was totally smitten.
This trailer gives you a flavour…
It’s beautiful to look at, with an easy-going charm, a gentle pace, a mellow mood, and moving music.
The videos are by Beluga Lagoon, AKA Andrew O’Donnell, wildlife filmmaker, musician – and born storyteller.
Turns out there are quite a few more videos on YouTube by Andrew – check them out by subscribing to Beluga Lagoon.
And there’s even a full-length series on BBC iPlayer – Roaming In The Wild, three half-hour programmes first broadcast on BBC Scotland in November, in which Andrew and his friend Mark cycle by tandem across the far northern coast of Scotland, from John O’Groats to Cape Wrath.
Thanks Andrew – you made my week. And my kids loved Rivers too.
We are making Andrew and Beluga Lagoon Countryfile.com’s first Lockdown Hero.
Go on a garden safari
Foxes sometimes seem to think the garden belongs to them. Picture by Graham Williams / Shutterstock.
A shriek went up from my three children the other day. Standing by the bedroom window, they had watched a big fat rat had run across the garden and disappear under the shed.
‘It was massive, dad,’ said my youngest, eyes sparkling. ‘Yuck!’
Now, I bear the rat no ill will. As long as he keeps himself to himself, then live and let live. So I didn’t think much of it.
Until an email arrived from the People’s Trust for Endangered Species. They want us all to stake out our gardens and watch for visiting mammals.
So here was an opportunity to look out for all manner of beasties – in the interest of citizen science.
It’s important work – the information we gather will help the scientists figure out how healthy Britain’s wild mammal populations are.
So if you spot any signs of foxes, squirrels, hedgehogs, badgers, bats or – yes – rats in your garden, the PTES wants to know.
Have you got hedgehogs in your back yard? Picture by Brian Austin for Hedgehog Street
All you have to do is go online, register and report any sightings to the Living with Mammals survey.
The PTES website explains how to look for signs of visiting animals, and how to identify animals you may have spotted, if you’re in doubt. Check it out!
And if you could have fun taking your task seriously, if you see what I mean: hide out behind the curtains with a flask of tea and a pair of binoculars, just as if you were in a hide in a nature reserve. Relax, sync slowly with the rhythms of life in the garden, and see what you see.
And why not let us know what creatures visit your garden, too. If you have pictures, even better! Drop The Magpie a line via Joe.email@example.com
We’ll try to finish each day with a moment of tranquility: maybe some music, or a poem. We’ve an open mind.
The Magpie (that’s me – the collector of precious things) has been dabbling with a playlist for countryside lovers, which I’ll share at some point soon. But I came across something I had to put out there now.
Now Westlin’ Winds is a haunting folk song made famous by Dick Gaughan in 1981.
The beautiful lyrics are actually by the great Scottish poet Robert Burns: his Song Composed In August first surfaced in 1783. It’s a love song, full of yearning, and a wistful tribute to the beauty and abundance of the moors and fields at harvest time. But it also reads like an early protest song against the horror of the hunting season at its summer onset. (12 August or thereabouts was apparently the traditional start to the shooting season in Scotland, even before it was enshrined in law in 1831.)
Dick’s performance will always be a classic, but this morning I stumbled on an exquisite alternative version, recorded in 2017.
If you are still with me, that’s it for Thursday, but if you’ve still some hours to while away, why not browse below for content we’ve shared over previous days.
And don’t forget to drop me a line if there something you thing The Magpie should share with Countryfile fans…
Share your love of spring blossom
Cherry blossom in the garden of Dunster Castle in Somerset. National Trust/Credit: Getty
One of the strangest things about the lockdown was how it coincided with the sudden arrival of spring.
You might see this as either:
Sweet compensation for your confinement at home. Throw the curtains wide, thrust the windows open, and breathe in the spring air. Or:
Some new kind of torture. The scent of spring has you yearning for the forbidden fruit of the open countryside – just when you’re stuck at home.
If you’re in group two, please forget all about blossom and skip to the next idea.
But if you’re in Group One, you have a sunny disposition likely to take pleasure in small moments of springy delight.
So go to your window (or your garden, if you have one), and if you can see a tree in blossom, then take your time, contemplate its loveliness, inhale deeply for a trace of its sweet scent, and, if you feel like it, take a picture of the object of your gaze, and share it on social media with the tag #BlossomWatch.
This is all the idea of the people at the National Trust, inspired by the Japanese, who have long revered the blooms of spring-flowering trees.
Writer Lamorna Ash worked on fishing boats based in Newlyn /Credit: Banana Pancake
When her mother named her after a cove in west Cornwall, Lamorna Ash’s destiny was roped to the harbour wall of that glorious coastal county.
Sure enough, having left uni and feeling weary of life in the city, Lamorna succumbed to the inevitable and set off to live in the fishing port of Newlyn. Her book Dark, Salt, Clear is the result of five months’ gutting fish, bobbing around on trawlers, and boozing in the Swordie, one of the town’s five pubs.
If you’ve ever wandered what life is really like in a Cornish fishing town, you’ll love this book, which brilliantly conjures the vivid atmosphere of a pungent little port, and the characters living there.
It’s published on Wednesday, or listen to it now – it’s just been Book of the Week of Radio 4, and you can hear it on BBC Sounds until 21 April.
If you can bear to wait, Lamorna tells us more in BBC Countryfile Magazine’s June issue. (You can get this issue and FIVE more delivered to your door for the astonishing price of only £9.99 for all six, including P&P. Yes, really.)
Celebrate Wordsworth’s birthday
Not actually Wordsworth… but Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer above the sea of fog captures the Romantic mood/Credit: Getty
250 years ago next week a genius was born: William Wordsworth, one Britain’s greatest ever poets.
You know he loved daffodils, lakes and wondering lonely as a cloud… but have you ever actually read his poems, out of a classroom?
Wild daffodils bloom on the banks of Ullswater, in Wordsworth’s beloved Lake District. Getty Images
The good news is you can find all these precious works of literature free online. (They are out of copyright now – allowing lots of websites to publish them for your reading pleasure.)
Most of them are amazingly fresh, and surprisingly easy to read.
So why not find a quiet moment, the scent of blossom drifting through an open window, to wander through a few of these old poems, and see if you can feel the spirit of Wordsworth working its wonders: slowing your heartbeat and soothing the stress away.
And if you’d like to hear Wordsworth read by a master, tune in to Radio 4 at 10.45 each morning this week, where Sir Ian McKellen will be reading from the poet’s classic The Prelude. As ever, it’s also available on BBC Sounds for a few weeks, so you choose when to listen.