Despite its name, the Chelsea Chop isn’t the latest trend in hair styling although trimming the unruly and the straggly certainly is involved. It is a very simple and straightforward method of cutting back herbaceous* plants which, for some reason, terrifies even the most confident of gardeners.
The only skills required are courage and the knowledge of exactly when to carry out the chop. The latter is simple to calculate and is hinted at by the title of the deed – the week of the Chelsea Flower Show or thereabouts. This year, there have been two hiccups in using this rule: firstly, the show has been moved to autumn because of Covid restrictions and secondly, because spring has been so slow in coming that plants are behind with their growth. As a general rule of thumb, the time for cutting is around the third week of May.
Beloved by bees and butterflies, Sedum – also known as Ice Plants on account of their fleshy, cool-to-the-touch leaves – are the ideal candidate for the chop and one of the most satisfying to do. Inevitably, when left to their own devices, the large, flat flowerheads are too weighty for their stems and they topple over to sprawl across the ground and spoiling an otherwise impressive display.
To make the chop all that has to be done is to cut through every growing stem, thereby reducing the plant’s overall height by half to one-third. Clear away the prunings (which can be added to the compost heap) so as not to attract slugs. There, I told you it was simple!
Although the method sounds and looks drastic the plants quickly recover and make new growth. The end result will be a plant that doesn’t collapse and doesn’t require staking. Admittedly, the flowerheads will be smaller than before but they produce so many more than they would have done left unpruned that the effect is in no way diminished.
This simple pruning technique can be used on a number of other plants too in exactly the same way. The taller achillea, phlox, campanula, asters (michaelmas daisies) and rudbeckias are all good candidates. I have heard of its use on echinacea (cone flower), penstemon and helenium but, in my experience, these are trouble-free plants anyway, so why bother? The secret to good, stress-free gardening practice is to find the balance of what suits you and what suits the plant. The Chelsea Chop on sedum in May prevents an awful lot of stress later in the year!
*herbaceous – a non-woody plant that dies back and becomes dormant in winter to regrow each spring
The days have been unseasonably dry and the nights exceptionally cold for April but day after day of unbroken sunshine has meant that it has been particularly good to be outdoors. The warmth tempered by a gentle north-easterly has created perfect walking conditions. However, as is so often the way, the day I chose to wander along the byways that criss-cross the border of Lincolnshire, one of England’s largest counties, and Rutland, England’s smallest, there was more cloud to be seen than for weeks.
My walk began at the ford by the tiny hamlet of Aunby, a few miles north of Stamford. Stamford has been described as “the most perfect stone town in England” as well as being voted the best place to live. It certainly is a beautiful place to explore with numerous, fine churches as well as a great Friday market and a wealth of independent shops. Whereas Stamford has prospered through the centuries, Aunby suffered a dramatic decline: in the fourteenth century there were numerous houses and a church; today, apart from a few cottages, they only show as cropmarks.
Heading north-west along a grassy bridleway, the path climbs gently until a narrow lane with wide, grassy verges is reached. One of the many roadside nature reserves in the county, the late spring meant that the only wildflowers to be seen were cowslips which grew in plentiful splendour. Following this lane uphill to the elaborate, black and gold entrance gates of Holywell Hall where I turned left, glimpses of the mansion could be seen through the hedgerow that lined the lane. Both the house and grounds are immaculately cared for although I admired most of all the winding path cut through a splendid swathe of dandelions in full bloom. Considered by many a nuisance ‘weed’ to be sprayed out rather than a wildflower to be kept, dandelions are a great source of early nectar for bees and other insects as well as looking beautiful in their own right.
Crossing the county border into Rutland my route immediately turned left onto a forest track to take me up to Holywell Wood and into Pickworth Great Wood. It was here that I met a local couple exercising their black Labrador dogs, the only people I saw on the whole of my eight-mile walk. They told me that the area was one of the largest woodlands locally as well as being a Site of Special Scientific Interest, designated for its geology as well as its wildlife – a fact confirmed by the NatureSpot website (click here for more information). The woodland path was lined with primroses, the trees just breaking bud and coming into leaf but, sadly, I was too early to hear the nightingales sing.
Beyond the wood, the path crossed diagonally over unseasonably dry arable land to the village of Pickworth. It was at this point that I really felt that I was walking in Clare’s footsteps although we can safely assume that he knew most, if not all, of the paths that I would be taking that day. John Clare, the Peasant Poet, born into poverty and distraught by the destructive changes to the countryside and its people at that time, died in 1864 in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. It was at Pickworth where he laboured in the lime kiln which inspired him to write the poem The Ruins of Pickworth (click link here to read). The lime kiln still stands although it is barely visible through a thicket of blackthorn.
Pickworth, like Aunby, is another village that has almost disappeared. Thriving in the 1300s, it now has a population of less than a hundred. The only sign of the old village is the crumbling stone arch of the church and various grassy mounds and ruts in the surrounding fields. The arch stands on private property but with the help of the camera, details of ornate mouldings and leaves could be seen. It is thought that the Battle of Losecote Field in 1470 fought two miles from the village may have been the cause of its depopulation.
Although the association of Pickworth with Clare is important, to visit the Church of All Saints was the main purpose for my walk. Built in 1822 at the bequest of Joseph Armitage of Wakefield, Yorkshire, it is a rectangular, stone building of plain beauty and fine proportion. Set high on a bank and surrounded by trees, the interior is simply lime-washed, the only colour a small amount of stained glass above the altar.
From Pickworth, an old drove road, The Drift, leads back towards Aunby by crossing Ryall Heath. The road, now another old track, offers pleasing views across arable land, hedgerows filled with wildflowers and the sound of skylarks showering you from high with their song. The Drift ends at the junction with the road that takes you directly back to the start of the walk (turn left here). Although the B4116 can be quite a busy road at times there are wide grass verges to make walking feel safe. Finally, you reach the ford at Aunby, where this walk began. Alternatively, a few yards before the ford you can take the lane that leads to Clematis Cottage, where I stayed for the duration of this oh-so-welcome-after-lockdown short break.
Clematis Cottages at Lodge Farm, Aunby is a small group of buildings converted into delightful, self-catering holiday accommodation. Richard and Kaye Griffin, friends as well as the owners, live in the farmhouse where they provide every comfort to make a stay enjoyable. Set in extensive gardens, their aim is to be self-sufficient in vegetables, eggs and honey. Throughout the gardens there are paths and seating areas – one of my favourites is the summerhouse overlooking the small lake, a haven for wildlife. Although set on its own and surrounded by fields, Stamford is only six miles away and the internationally renowned Rutland Water, where you can watch rare ospreys nest and fish, ten miles away. It’s also the perfect base for the nearby Burghley Horse Trials. To find out more about staying in one of the cottages and their range of home-produced chutneys, preserves and honey click this link here.
Notes: the walk is a relatively easy and gentle route mostly along roads and tracks. In places the paths can be uneven and/or muddy but neither should deter anyone with average health and mobility. Although there are some inclines none are prolonged or steep. However, as always, care should be taken and appropriate clothing and footwear worn. It is approximately eight miles in length so allow a good three hours to complete.
Educator, economist, suffragist and founder of the National Council for the Unmarried Mother & Child (later to become known as the charity, Gingerbread).
Lettice Fisher, the eldest daughter of Sir Courtney Peregrine Ilbert came from a political family. Born 14th June 1875 in London, her father was responsible for the drafting of parliamentary bills and was later to become Clerk to the House of Commons. Her mother, Jessie, was a daughter of the Reverend Charles Bradley and her great-grandfather, another Reverend Charles Bradley was instrumental in the abolition of slavery. At the time of Lady Ilbert’s death in 1924, she was described as “one of the most remarkable political women of her time.” It was to this background of politics and campaigning that the young Lettice grew up.
Educated in London and at Somerville College, Oxford, Lettice later returned to Oxford in 1902 to teach history at St Hugh’s College. Whilst at Oxford she also taught economics to women and became an active suffragist. For two years from 1916 she was Chair of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
It was during WW1 that Lettice became involved with the women munition workers of Sheffield. Disturbed by the increase in wartime illegitimacy, the difficulties and prejudices the women faced, as well as the higher death rates of their babies, she founded in 1918 the National Council for the Unmarried Mother & Child. Campaigning for the reform of the discriminatory Bastardy Acts and Affiliation Orders Acts, the council gave advice and assistance to single mothers. Lettice remained in her role as first chair of the council until 1950. Much later in its history the council merged to become known as the charity, Gingerbread.
Lettice Ilbert married Herbert Albert Laurens Fisher (known as HAL Fisher), her Oxford tutor in early July 1899. They had one daughter, Mary – later Mary Bennett – who became principal of St Hilda’s College, Oxford. After HAL’s untimely death in 1940, Lettice moved from Oxford to Thursley, Surrey where she died from heart failure in 1956. Her ashes are interred at New College, Oxford where HAL had been warden for many years until the time of his death.
The theme of this year’s United Nations International Women’s Day is “Women in leadership: achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world.” I’m not qualified to write about current matters but I am quite certain that Lettice Fisher embraced the qualities that are still needed today. One hundred years ago, Lettice Fisher found that the terrible aftermaths of World War and the ‘flu epidemic which caused even greater deaths and hardship, only hardened her resolve to tackle women’s rights, prejudice and injustice. Sadly, in many places in the world, these issues are still very much outstanding.
Why my interest in Lettice Fisher? Lettice Fisher (nee Ilbert) is an ancestral cousin through our mutual descent of the Bradley family.
Lamb’s Tails (as country children call them), the pale-yellow catkins of the hazel, are a familiar sight at this time of year. A traditional component of our hedgerows, they are perhaps seen in more glory when growing unchecked along roadside verges where they can achieve a much greater height. There, up to 15 metres tall in favoured conditions, the soft golden shimmer of hundreds of catkins really is one of the earliest harbingers of spring.
Catkins begin to form early in the winter, small, stubby and dull in colour where they wait until, quite suddenly, they are as we see them now. The transition always goes unnoticed. Even less noticed are the female flowers – for catkins are male. Whereas the majority of plants are self-fertile, Hazel, Corylus avellana, is one of a number that carry both male and female flowers. Wind-pollinated, the breeze carries the pollen from the male to the female to fertilise. However, the pollen has to reach a different plant for it to be successful. The tiny, female flowers can be discovered by careful searching along the branches a few days after the catkins have fully formed.
For gardeners, hazel is one of the most traditional and useful of plants and it is worth growing one or two in an odd corner if you have the room. There they will quickly create a multi-stemmed shrub. Visually, as a garden plant, when left to its own devices, it is of limited value (wildlife love it, of course). However, by coppicing the plant there will be a regular supply of poles for runner beans to climb and the twiggy top-growth is the perfect support for garden peas, mange-tout and the headily-scented sweet peas. They are also useful for supporting taller herbaceous plants, saving them from collapse and look so much more attractive than canes and string or wire netting. It’s far quicker to do, too!
So, what is coppicing and how do you do it? Well, for a start, it’s a dead easy and very uncomplicated form of pruning! All that has to be done is to cut with secateurs or garden loppers the stems to a few inches above ground level during the winter. If you do this over three years by removing only a third of the stems each year you will have stems of varying heights and diameters without losing any screening effect. Although coppicing may seem a drastic form of pruning they quickly regrow and it also prolongs the life of the plant considerably.
Many years ago, coppicing of hazel (and, sometimes, ash and field maple too) was standard practice in many of our woodlands. These days it is still carried out as a conservation tool to encourage the breeding of our now endangered dormouse and other wildlife. Hazel is the food plant of many moths and the autumn supply of nuts are great favourites with jays, squirrels and wood mice – and, of course, humans. In the photo below of long-neglected woodland, the hazel is naturally regenerating as coppice as the old and heavy branches collapse onto the forest floor.
Hazel can be useful, along with willow, to create living structures such as pergolas, arches, fencing and tunnels. They all involve regular pruning in much the same way as coppicing although in most instances the number of upright growths is reduced to one or two. The prunings make excellent kindling for wood burners and, if you’re feeling really creative, rustic furniture. Why not have a go? From just one native species we can have fun projects that are ideal for people of all ages. It can be used as an educational tool too: nature study and conservation, rural history and artistry make it the perfect resource for lockdown and home learning.
The children’s bikes in the entrance porch casually propped against four aged-stone saintly figures tells you in an instant that a visit to Huntington Castle [see footnote] is likely to be memorable. They also act as a reminder that this historic, four-hundred-year-old castle near Clonegal, Ireland is also very much a present-day family home.
Built in 1625, it held a strategic position on the trade route between Dublin and Wexford but fell to the invading (English) Cromwellian army in 1650. By the time of its capture much of the garden as seen today had been laid out.
As might be expected of a grand country house, the castle has its fair share of richly decorated rooms and it is possible to visit these during the summer months subject to any Covid-19 restrictions that may be in force, of course. However, it is the basement cellars of the castle that hold the biggest surprise for it is here that you will find the Temple of Isis. The Fellowship of Isis, founded in 1976 by members of the family was, in 1993, recognised as a world faith, the first time that the Goddess had been internationally acknowledged. I have always considered myself to be open to alternative beliefs and cultures but, to be honest, I found the Temple and its purpose difficult to understand or appreciate. For me, the decor and artefacts were too theatrical, almost farcical. I half-expected Angela Lansbury’s Mrs Salome Otterbourne from the film Death on the Nile to appear from behind one of the wall hangings. However, I am obviously wrong as there is a worldwide following of over 24,000 in a hundred countries or more.
My real appreciation of Huntington Castle came from exploring the grounds which are quite beautiful. For the photographer, opportunities abound for around every corner there is a vista or ancient building vying for the title of most picturesque. The castle itself is better appreciated from the outside too, for there are numerous ‘odd’ windows and contrasts of building materials tucked away and waiting to be noticed – the result of centuries of alterations and extensions.
I came away from Huntington Castle somewhat confused. In some ways, I felt a little let down by it, in others quite uplifted. Would I visit again? Most definitely. For it is its quirkiness, eccentricity, ancient trees and moss-encrusted stones that leave you slightly unsettled making the visit all the more worthwhile.
I am a hills person. I love walking – or even better – cross-country skiing in the mountains. I can also admire the huge skies and vistas of flat country. However, it is with hills that I have always strongly identified with. So, when I’m asked “where was home for you?” it isn’t the county of Buckinghamshire, or even the village I was brought up in that I respond with, it is the hills and the Chiltern Hills in particular.
As a child, I lived on the very edge of the village and not being schooled locally and with no children of my own age nearby anyway, I learnt to spend many hours on my own during the lengthy holidays. Although our house was close to the River Thames I found fishing of limited interest preferring always to be out walking or cycling. As I grew older I travelled further afield exploring the lanes, fields and woodlands, learning all the time about the ways of nature. Back in the fifties and early sixties people seemed to have more time to answer inquisitive children about these things or, perhaps, it was just that in those days people were more connected with the natural world so were able to answer their questions. Whatever the reason, I became more knowledgeable and enthusiastic about country ways than I ever did with schoolwork. A consequence of this is, when asked the question, “where are you from?” I respond without hesitation (and with a certain degree of pride), “I’m a Chilterns man.”
It was not until I reached the ripe old age of 49 that I moved away from the Chilterns to start a new life in the Cotswolds. Although as the crow flies, the Cotswolds are not many miles away (I can even see the distant Chilterns from the top of my lane) they are very different in character, the former being chalk and flint country, the latter limestone. But it wasn’t the exchange of deep, wooded valleys with few, if any, streams for a landscape of far-reaching views, fast-running brooks and drystone walls that I noticed most of all, it was the language. When I moved to this then unfashionable part of the Cotswolds twenty years ago it was still a forgotten corner of the world where, even if the local dialect had mostly died out, the twang of local accent hadn’t. It reminded me of, for it is related to, the south-western tongue spoken by many of my country cousins and also by my friends further west still. So, when I gave my usual response to the question, I was rather peeved to hear it acknowledged by the words, “so you come from London way, then.”
Now, I hasten to say, that there is nothing wrong about being referred to as a Londoner. It’s just that our capital city is as much a foreign land to me as it would be to an overseas visitor. Ok, so that might be a slight exaggeration, but somehow, I just don’t relate to city life despite my mother being born and raised in London’s West End. She had come to the Chilterns as an evacuee from WW2 through her war work and there met my father, a local boy – but that’s another story. Suffice to say, that I am a child of two halves – I have country family and I have city family much in the same way as I am a child of two cultures and two religions. Despite my relating to country ways and to complicate matters further, (although I should be used to it by now), it is to my mother’s culture and religion that I feel a closer affinity to. It still grates, ‘though, when I’m thought of as a townie.
As I mentioned earlier, school life didn’t hold much appeal and so I persuaded my parents that I should leave aged sixteen. As soon as I could, I took myself off on my bicycle to holiday in Devon. Leaving Exeter with tent, camping gas stove and billy cans loosely tied to the crossbar I clanked and clattered my way along the lanes of Dartmoor. At the end of each day I would pitch my tent wherever I could and reflect with delight upon all the new experiences that had come my way. Getting hopelessly lost, I ended up at Westward Ho!, a small seaside town on on the north Devon coast. From there I travelled east finding the hills becoming ever steeper and the villages further and further apart. One day, I ended up on a remote farm on Exmoor where I decided I would spend two days to recuperate before heading for home. It didn’t happen.
Looking back, I can’t imagine what my poor parents were thinking for there were no mobile phones or credit card statements for them to track my progress or whereabouts. I would telephone them occasionally or send a postcard always being deliberately vague as to where I was staying. In the meantime, I remained at the farm working – at first for food then, as I became more established and with the tent discarded, for a bedroom and beer money. By the time my parents turned up at the door several months later (after some shrewd detective work) I had settled into my new life and rapidly adopting the ways of the hard but exhilarating Exmoor life. Dragged back home to “get a proper job” I never completely left Exmoor behind. Every spare moment was spent on the farm and, as regular readers of my blog will know, I still spend as much time on Exmoor as possible. Being a National Park, the landscape and buildings of Exmoor haven’t changed very much over the 50+ years since I turned up on Lorna and Dick French’s doorstep although they have, as have most of the others I knew in those early days, since died. To my dismay, there is one other thing that hasn’t changed at all: when I respond proudly to the inevitable question with “I’m a Chilterns man”, their response remains the same: “So up-country then? London?” Over the years, the ‘boy from London’ has become ‘the man from London.’ And I’m sorry, Londoners, Mum and cousins – I don’t like the label!
With the long, dark nights now upon us (and the gloomy daily news) we could all do with a little cheer to take us forward. It isn’t too late to take a small step towards obtaining it for there is nothing quite like flowers in the house to lift the mood. Now is a good time to plant bulbs for indoor flowering. The choice is surprisingly large and some can have quite exacting growth requirements but the simplest of these – that anyone can succeed with even if they don’t have green fingers – is the sweetly scented, white-flowering Narcissus Paperwhite.
Unlike the majority of Narcissus (Daffodils) they do not require a period of complete darkness to encourage them into growth. In fact, they do not even need to be planted for they will happily flower just anchored in a bowl or pot of gravel that is kept moist. However, I think they are better planted in potting compost and look far more aesthetically pleasing. I never bother with special bulb fibre that is sold for the purpose mostly because I tend to have half-open bags of compost kicking around the place that need to be used up. If you plant the Paperwhites now and bring them straightaway into the house they can be in flower in six to eight weeks. Those in the photos below were placed in our conservatory and, with the unanticipated warmth from a week of late autumn sunshine which accelerated their growth, have come into flower in just three weeks from planting. So much for having them in bloom over Christmas!
The secret to the planting is to cram as many bulbs as you can into the pot, either in a single or double layer. If choosing the latter don’t plant directly over one another but stagger them a little so they all have freedom to grow without struggling to push past. The bulbs in the glazed earthenware pot here were planted in a single layer all touching one another – that way I was able to squeeze in twenty-eight bulbs into a container measuring just twelve inches in diameter.
Paperwhites have a tendency to flop just when they look their best and the quickest way to prevent this is to push twigs into the compost. If you do this at the time of planting or very soon after the plants grow strongly through them and look far more natural than when you try to rectify it once they have collapsed. It is also far less fiddly than using canes and string and looks more natural too.
I have always found hyacinths far more difficult to grow well although I know plenty of people who never seem to have any trouble whatsoever. They need to be kept in darkness until the flower bud just shows. I have found them to be rather erratic with their growth and, in the days when I had to provide huge displays for the big country houses I worked for, I grew them in individual, small pots. By growing more than I really required I could select those of matching height, remove them from their pots and then replant them into the display pots. They never failed to impress and I never let on how I managed to get such a uniform display! Far easier are the little grape hyacinths,Muscari, growing here in a glass bowl – an idea I copied after I was given them one year as a gift.
Perhaps one of the loveliest bulbs I have planted in recent years is the miniature iris, Iris ‘Sheila Ann Germaney’ (I have spelt that right!). Once, again, very easy to grow – just keep them in the dark until they start to grow and then bring them indoors. After they have finished flowering they can be planted in the garden where they will flower each spring for many more years.
Amaryllis or Hippeastrum are spectacular giants that aren’t to everyone’s taste. I’m not too keen on them as an individual plant grown on a kitchen window sill although they will bloom there quite happily. I prefer to use them as cut flowers and for this I tend to grow them in a greenhouse, although a light windowsill would work just as well if you have the space. They are very straightforward, do not need to be kept in the dark and are often sold complete with pot and compost in gift boxes. When used as I suggest, several stems placed together in a tall vase look superb.
I have found tulips to be less successful as indoor bulbs although the shorter types should work; I’m just not very keen on those so have never bothered to try. However, if you have an unheated greenhouse that lies idle through the winter plant the exotic double types there. Protected from the worst of the cold and rain they flower weeks earlier than normal and can be harvested as exceptionally beautiful cut flowers.
The secret to indoor bulb growing, as with all forms of gardening, is to experiment and find what works best for you. Over the years, I have tried all sorts, some surprisingly successful and some, if not quite disasters, they certainly weren’t worth bothering with a second time. With success, you will have an endless supply of colour and scent for your home and, of course, they make great Christmas and birthday gifts. This last sentence also gives me the excuse to remind you all that my book Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That? is still available from Amazon or through booksellers and also makes a great gift! In it you will find all sorts of hints and shortcuts that I used during my years as a Head Gardener when it was essential that the displays both in the house and the garden were as good as they could be. Happy bulb planting!
Before Storm Alex hit us this weekend, bringing with it over a month’s worth of rain in less than 24 hours, the weather had been exceptionally benign. For several days the skies were clear, the sun shone and there was just enough of a cool breeze to remind you that autumn has arrived and revving up to take us into winter. In short, it was perfect conditions for walking and, so it seems, also for courting.
No, I haven’t committed to a new relationship for I’m quite happy with my old one! I’m referring to our local pair of ravens, recently joined by several others. They have taken up residence in the shelter belt of conifers, mixed softwoods and brash that stand sentinel on the ridge. From there they have a commanding view of the full length of the secret valley. On my walks, they have been chattering noisily to one another in their croaky, almost primeval sounding voice.
Whenever I hear the sound of a raven, I’m transported back to Exmoor for it was there, as a sixteen-year old, that I saw my first one. In those days (the 1960s) ravens were rarities only found in the remotest and wildest parts of the British Isles, taking refuge there after decades of persecution had exterminated them from kinder landscapes. I was resting on the heather moorland high above Farley Water, a narrow and very beautiful river valley inhabited only by sheep and the wild Exmoor ponies and red deer. Watching a black bird flying lazily along the valley far below me it suddenly body rolled and flew on its back for a few yards before righting itself to fly on until out of sight.
These body rolls, along with a wide range of acrobatic swoops and dives, are indicative of courting displays, usually seen in spring. I’m sure my lone raven in Farley Water was doing it for pure pleasure, or perhaps it was practicing them just to ensure it got it right in order to impress the gals when they appeared! Ravens do, in fact, pair for life and can live for ten years in the wild, sometimes as long as fifteen or more. This longevity, as well as the millennia they have been on Planet Earth, has given rise to many myths and traditions. Here in the UK, there is a long-held belief that if the ravens that live at the Tower of London should ever leave, both the Crown and Britain will fall to a foreign invader. They are cared for and protected by the Royal Ravenmaster of the Yeoman Warders. A much older belief common to the Abrahamic religions is that the raven was the first creature to be released from Noah’s Ark.
Ravens are now very much more common in the UK, having reclaimed much of their former territory and it is estimated that there is now well over 7,000 breeding pairs. They are also one of the most widespread of bird species being found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. It has recently been discovered, however, that when ravens colonised America those on the California coast became isolated – probably due to an Ice Age. As a result, they have evolved into a distinct race genetically, whereas the other US birds are more closely related genetically to the birds of Europe and Asia.
So how do you recognise a raven from any other black crow? Well, firstly, it’s size. It is enormous in comparison. Secondly, it’s voice which is quite distinctive once you’ve learnt to recognise it. The raven is, however, a great mimic of other sounds: twice I have been confused by the sound of a fencepost being knocked into the ground with a heavy mallet and by a small terrier dog yapping from high up in the top of a tall Scot’s Pine tree! It’s tail, if it should fly overhead, is also another way of telling it apart for it is quite diamond shaped in appearance. Finally – and not one I have seen mentioned in bird books – the wings make a distinct flapping noise much in the same way as a swan’s does. Good luck with your raven spotting and don’t be alarmed by all the stories of them being birds of ill omen. If you see one, it will make your day.
Sometimes I get asked the question why do I write. The answer is usually just because I always have. Recently I’ve given more thought to it and I think that perhaps it is because (apart from having something to say) I like the way words look as much as the way they sound when arranged on a page. You can almost play games with them, juggling the written and the spoken so that both the emphasis and flow change. Nowhere is that more pronounced than with poetry.
To be honest, I struggle a bit with poetry. I feel I ought to like it more. There are some that I love because they remind me of childhood although having to learn and recite, The Lady of Shallott didn’t excite me at the time. Having to read a poem at the front of the class must have destroyed any potential to love poetry for many a generation of children. I adore some of Christina Rosetti’s poems but mostly poetry is for me rather like jazz or wine – I know what I like and, sometimes, I discover a new one that is to my taste.
The quote in the photo is from Tennyson’s Maud. Of course, I knew the old song, Come Into The Garden, Maud that quickly rose to popularity as a parlour song. Because of this I assumed, like so many others, that Maud must be a love poem. Certainly, my quote above which comes earlier in the poem would make you think so.
Maud is one of Tennyson’s epic poems; a tale of hatred, infatuation, of death and destruction and the decline into insanity and, later, of war. The poem certainly wasn’t loved by the public when it was first published in 1855. So why do I find it so fascinating?
Many readers of my blog share an interest in genealogy and family history. I have been researching mine for many years and have shared some of my ‘finds’ and stories here. One such discovery was the long friendship between Tennyson and my ancestral cousin, George Granville Bradley. Bradley was first the Headmaster of both Rugby and Marlborough Schools before becoming the Dean of Westminster Abbey. Both he and Tennyson shared a love of geology, then in its early days of understanding. They would roam the hills of the Isle of Wight together where they both lived geologising and reciting poetry. The discovery of correspondence between them on the merits of Maud and how it may be altered before publication both excited and intrigued me. Here was one of Britain’s greatest poets, a Poet Laureate, seeking advice from a cousin of mine! I purchased an old copy of Tennyson to read it with a renewed interest and the rest – as they say – is (family) history.
I was fortunate in having a country childhood where roaming the fields and woodlands was the norm. My early schooling was often held outdoors on sunny days, sitting on a warm, grassy bank; best of all, were the long, nature-study walks we were occasionally taken on. At the age of ten my schooling changed and the open space and fresh air was replaced by a concrete yard separated from a railway line by a high, chainlink fence. The only shades of green to be seen were the short spikes of Wall Barley Grass that grew wherever they could find a place to take root. Later, I changed schools again and, although still in the centre of a town, at least now there were extensive playing fields as well as a small wooded area. In the no-man’s land between the closely-mown sports grounds and the trees Hardheads and Rocket grew. Against the school walls, Wall Barley Grass could be found.
Wall Barley Grass, which as children we called darts, is a short, annual grass that thrives on waste ground. It frequently sows itself in cracks in pavements or, as at my old school, the gap between the tarmac playground and the wall. Despite frequently growing at the base of walls which its common English name recognises, the botanical name for the grass Hordeum murinum means something quite different: murinum = mouse. So why darts and, for that matter, why mouse? Surprisingly the reasons behind both names are unwittingly known by countless generations of children. Our favourite ‘weapon’ of choice, the seedheads when separated from the stalk, can be thrown just like a dart, the point not sticking into a bullseye but on articles of clothing, especially knitwear. The pinnacle of childish achievement was to attach it unknown to someone at the base of their back. Over time, with their body movement, the dart would slowly creep upwards until it arrived to prickle their ear or neck in the same way as a pet mouse might.
In researching for this blog, I was surprised to discover that Wall Barley Grass, so commonly seen throughout my (Home Counties) life, is rarely found in Scotland and Ireland. It is a plant of drier, warmer regions and grows across the Mediterranean area, North Africa, parts of Asia as well as Central and Western Europe.
It is sometimes hard to believe thatCentaurea nigra, Knapweed – or as we called it, Hardheads – is a wild flower; it seems to be far too beautiful to be a ‘mere weed’! A great bee and butterfly plant it grows to about two feet tall and flowers throughout the summer months. As children we cared not one jot about the flowers, it was the flower buds that we coveted. A tight, hard ball (hence the name) on a long pliable stalk made them another ideal weapon once we’d tired of darts. Perhaps ‘bullets’ might have been a more appropriate name for when the stalk was looped around the bud and pulled tightly the bud would ping off at quite some speed. Unlike darts where stealth was required, hardhead battles were fought openly and at close quarters. The closer to the opponent the more they stung when a strike was made.
On rare occasions, pure white flowers can be found. These were always treated with respect and never picked. Even rarer – and I know of only one place where they can be found – bi-coloured hardheads grow. Hardheads grow throughout Europe, elsewhere in the world it is an introduction. For me, the first of its flowers are a sure sign that summer has arrived. A plant of old meadows and chemical free waysides, their purple flowers brighten up many a roadside verge.
The last of this trio of childhood plants, Rocket, is the only one that we never picked. They were loved for their appearance reminding us of the sparkler trail of the cheap, unsophisticated fireworks that were the norm in the 50s and 60s. Rocket, bears no resemblance in any way to the herb that we eat in salads, in fact it has been used as a medicinal herb to relieve many complaints ranging from gallstones to treating snake bites. Agrimony, Agrimonia eupatoria, to give it its correct English and botanical names, grows to about two feet tall and flowers in mid-late summer on a single stem. Its pretty, pale yellow flowers are followed by sticky burr-like seedheads that attach themselves to animals and clothing. They grow on roadside verges and grassland but unlike so many of our native wild flowers that require ancient, unimproved meadows, they prefer relatively young ones of less that fifty years of age.
Just as garden plants can often remind us of people, times and places of the past so darts, hardheads and rocket transport me back to my childhood. I no longer pluck darts to throw but I do admit that rarely a summer goes by when I don’t check that my knack of firing hardhead bullets hasn’t been lost. In doing so I remember a time of innocence, old friends and a life of simple pleasures.