A surprising sign of spring

Where do you dry your washing? Tumble drier? House radiators? I use an ancient washing line in the hen pen. Not that the actual line is old, but its position is. This is where the primroses grow, and the violets carpet the ground. This is where the creamy elderflowers billow from the hedge. But they are not there yet.

The washing line has been there since we first came here, more than 30 years ago. It is the ideal spot – it catches the wind from the field and for much of the year it catches the sun from the sky. Of course, the old post has been changed and the props have rotted and been replaced but the rusty hook for the line, on the cow shed, is still the same.

Now as its winter, the sun scrambles to climb above the cow shed roof and only just makes it. The top half of your clothes get dry first, the bottom half is in shadow. Our prop strains the line, up as high as it can, to catch every ray of sunlight. Washing line props come from the hedgerow, in the old tradition. A forked willow branch of the right size is hard to find and much treasured.

I remember my grandmother used a washing line in our orchard. It billowed on Monday, washing day, with Texol bleached white sheets. Woe betide you if you went anywhere near. The orchard was out of bounds that day.

Grandma’s line was in the prime position in full sun, but my mother’s line was further along and under the shade of the trees. I remember the line was made of wire or yellow fuzzy binder twine. It was a long time before we had the luxury of buying a plastic-coated line.

The best way to dry your clothes in those days was outside. There was always the clothes horse round the fire if the weather was bad. But no one liked this – it made the room steamy and hid the fire from everyone who wanted to get warm.

There was always the chance of drying clothes on the bushes, of course. We sometimes used to drape a carefully chosen shrub or plant. Maybe the maids in John Clare’s Calendar poem did this – hanging out their white cloths around the ‘eldern skirted croft’.

In any case, I have now had a surprise. My clothes prop has sprouted! New life is coming from the old. In Australia where the dreadful fires have been there are now, in some places, new shoots coming from what looked like dead wood.

The clothes prop should have died after it was cut, but it has developed catkins. They wave in the wind like flags releasing their pollen. A defiant sign that spring is on its way.


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