John the Writer: It is as natural for me to write as it is for me to eat or drink (sometimes I forget to do both when the ink is flowing). For years I would write – then shuffle the words until satisfied - then shred it. The act of writing was enough. One day I thought that seemed just a tiny bit silly so saved them on the computer and Life in the English Cotswolds was born. That was in 2009 and to my surprise people like you came along and liked what you saw. Since then, over 180,000 of you have visited, commented and become ‘friends’. Thank you!
2012 saw the very first Chipping Norton Literary Festival take place with which I have been closely involved since its inception. It was there that I was approached to write my book, Why Can’t my Garden Look Like That?, published a year later by How To Books, an imprint of Constable & Robinson.
Other writing appears from time to time, most recently a piece for Oxfordshire County Council’s waste recycling e-zine.
John the Gardener:
The earliest image of me gardening is one of me as a child of about four using – well that’s too strong a word for it – a rake. Gardening is in my blood for every member of my family have been keen amateur gardeners (I am the only one doing it for a living). Whether it was aunts, grandparents or my father, everywhere I went they were in the garden tending flowers and vegetables or in the greenhouse potting up seedlings. Indoors, around the table, the talk was all about plants.
Despite that, I started off my working life (apart from a short stint on a remote Exmoor farm) in the rag trade – selling men’s and women’s fashions. All the time, the great outdoors beckoned so it was off to horticultural college as a mature student before becoming Head Gardener to several large, country estates. That was twenty years ago now and every day I realise that not only did I make a great career move but just how lucky I am.
Another sideways step brought me to where I am now – designing gardens, showing others how to garden and looking after gardens. And, of course, writing about it.
John the Countryman:
I have lived in the country all my life. As a child I spent my time exploring the lanes, woodlands and orchards of the Chilterns, that range of glorious, chalk hills cloaked with beech trees. Each spring they become carpeted with tens of thousands of bluebells. It was here, as a small boy, that I learnt about the wild plants and animals that share our world, a magical place.
In more recent times I moved to the Cotswolds – only 50 miles away yet a completely different range of hills both geologically and in character. Here, there are wide open views and skyscapes, dry stone walls and rushing streams and some of the prettiest towns and villages in Britain. I now live in a tiny stone cottage beside the winding river in the photo above, all tucked way in a secret valley. Bliss.
Horses and dogs play an important part in my life too. More bliss.
John the Explorer:
The description is a tad exaggerated but I have had my moments. I guess that spending a night in a hostel for down and outs in the Rocky Mountains (how did I mistake it for a hotel and why didn’t I leave, I often ask myself), being stuck in a blizzard in an Indian reservation at 3 am in the morning in the far north of Canada or getting caught up in an attempted coup in Sudan probably allows me some claim to the title.
Recent years have seen my exploring closer to home, in considerably more comfort and a lot less scary. Well, in principle, it is. I spend a lot of time on Exmoor, my spiritual home of over 45 years, and Ireland is another place that I visit frequently. Strangely, things still don’t always seem to go quite to plan …
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.
Although in the UK the yew tree (Taxus baccata) is often called English Yew it is, in fact, very widespread in its distribution growing throughout Europe as well as parts of Africa, Iran and Asia. It can live to a great age and there are several, mostly growing in churchyards, that are thought to be a thousand or more years old. One such tree grows in the Chiltern village that I lived in before moving to the Cotswolds; it is enormous having a girth of over 5.5 metres. Despite being a British native that has grown naturally in the wild for thousands of years, yew woods are very rare – I can only think of two (although there must be others): one in the Chilterns behind Watlington Hill and the other in Sussex. One of the reasons for this is that yew was the favoured timber for making longbows – by 1294 yew stocks were so depleted that imports were being sourced from mainland Europe.
The yew forest at Kingley Vale, Sussex, England – one of the finest examples of this rare habitat in Europe [photo credit: Ben Shade]
The huge girth of the ancient yew in the churchyard at Ibstone , Chiltern Hills, England
Yew is unusual in that the individual plants can be male, female or a combination of the two. All-male trees release huge clouds of pollen whereas all-female produce none and can be identified by their glowing red berries. It has even been known for individual trees to gradually change sex with all-male specimens becoming all-female and vice versa. Although the pollen clouds can be extremely irritating if caught in one, in the average garden situation where mature trees are less likely to be found the pollen release is much more limited.
The glossy red flesh is the only part of yew that is non-poisonous. It’s still not advisable to eat it!
In its natural condition yew is a spreading, evergreen tree, wider than it is tall. However, for many centuries it has been clipped and shaped into hedges and topiary for which its regular, and when treated in this way, tight growth makes it ideal. It responds well to being kept low, say around 45cm, or can be stopped at any height required. Likewise, it can be clipped into neat cubes, intricate spirals as well as the ubiquitous peacock beloved by stately homes.
Yew topiary at Hidcote, Cotswold Hills, England
Intricate yew topiary at Farmleigh Gardens, Dublin, Ireland
One of the characteristics of yew is its ability to send out new growth from old branches and even from its trunk. This can be readily seen when the branches are parted or the main stems are exposed. To maintain a clean trunk these growths should be pruned away before they become established. With hedges and trees it means they can be reduced in size as drastically as you might wish although it is important to bear in mind that a heavily pruned tree may never be restored to a thing of beauty.
Yews ability to regenerate from old wood means that it can be pruned as hard as you dare
If reshaping trees is a skill difficult to master, restoring overgrown or gappy yew hedging only takes courage although for best results it may take a few years to achieve perfection. Begin this process by removing all growth back to the trunk on one side only. The hedge will now look ugly but new growth will soon sprout and the following year or in year three the other side of the hedge can be given the same treatment. Apart from the benefit this staggered pruning has to the health of the yew another advantage is that the screening from the unpruned side means there is no loss of privacy. The height of the hedge can also be reduced at the same time as side two cutting 6-12 inches below its required finished height to allow for regrowth. By year five, if not sooner, the hedge will be a manageable, healthy screen once more and will continue to be so for very many years.
The first stage in regenerating an old yew hedge
As with all plants, especially those that are long-lived, careful planting is essential to give them a good start. Yew copes with most soil types including chalk but hates waterlogged or compacted soils. Whatever the soil, enrich with good quality compost or well-rotted manure; if any parts are excessively damp create a low bank at least six inches high to ensure the roots establish in the marginally better drained soil. Pot-grown yews can be planted at any time of the year providing the ground isn’t frozen; the best time is mid-autumn and spring when the soil is warmer. The optimum size for quick establishment is 2-3 feet and this size also makes planting a hedge quite economic too. With a bigger budget larger plants may be purchased. These in the photo below are over six feet high and create an instant hedge when planted closely together. Because of their size they are usually ‘root-balled’ and only available during the cooler months. The hessian and wire mesh root ball should be left intact as they quickly decay once planted although the wire collar may be released if it fits too snugly against the stem. In windy situations they may require staking; they will certainly need careful watering for the first two years of their life.
Rootballed yew waiting to be planted – they will make a fine, if somewhat costly, instant hedge
However you chose to use your English Yew, whether as hedging or as topiary, there is one common rule to clipping and that is accuracy for nothing looks worse than a formal hedge or piece of topiary that does not have clean, sharp lines. The ideal time for clipping is August although spring is the time for restoration pruning. One word of caution – all parts of yew are highly toxic if ingested. It is essential that clippings are disposed of carefully for it can be fatal if livestock such as horses have access to them. Yew clippings from regularly clipped hedges can be sold for use by pharmaceutical companies to make cancer treatment drugs. In the past, when I was the Head Gardener of a large country estate with extensive yew hedging, we secured a not-inconsiderable amount of money over time which the estate donated to cancer research charities. I believe that, for 2020, collection has been suspended but hopefully it will be resumed in future years.
A beautifully clipped yew hedge creates the perfect backdrop to any garden – Kiftsgate Court, Cotswold Hills, England
The secret valley close to where I live is encircled by hills. The steeper slopes as well as the valley floor, which is subject to regular flooding, have not been ploughed in living memory and, quite probably, not at all. As a consequence, providing the sheep or cattle haven’t grazed them too heavily, the grass sward is peppered with wild flowers. In the spring there are cowslips and, as the year advances, orchids and the delicate, nodding flower heads of Quaking Grass can be found.
over 97% of old flower meadows have been destroyed since 1930
Although the orchids are a joy, the plants that excite me most are the wild, culinary herbs, the scarcest of which is wild thyme, for it grows only on the driest and steepest of the banks. Thyme can, of course, be readily bought in supermarkets all year round, either dried or fresh, and it is easily grown at home in a pot or window box. All it requires is sunny spot and a free-draining and not over-rich potting compost to thrive.
Shakespeare’s wild thyme
Whenever, I see the wild thyme I always think of Shakespeare’s immortal line, I know a bank where the wild thyme grows. The secret valley is only about twenty-five miles as the crow flies from Stratford-upon-Avon and so there is a rather satisfying sense of connection across the centuries, as well as the miles, whenever the tiny flowerheads peep out from amongst the grass. In fact, Shakespeare’s words and the secret valley’s meadows were inspiration for an early blog post of mine on creating wild flower meadows way back in 2009! You’ll find that one by clicking on this link.
Thyme’s cousin, marjoram is nowhere near as diminutive in both its scent or its flowering. Standing tall on wiry, strong stems it is a magnet for bees and butterflies. Once again, it is a useful garden plant not just for kitchen use but also good as a front of border edging. It spreads steadily but is never a nuisance. In the wild, grasses and other plants prevent it from becoming too dominant but when you discover a good stand of it swaying in a warm, summer breeze the perfume is unforgettable.
A Ringlet butterfly feeding on Marjoram
One plant that is often overlooked although it is quite tall is Salad Burnet. Its dark red, tightly buttoned flowers can be used in floral arrangements but it is only the young leaves that are edible. Used in salads and also added to sauces, they have a mild and slightly bitter cucumber flavour. Sharp eyes are needed to find it growing amongst tall grasses for its rosette of pinnate leaves hug the ground. Fortunately, once again, there is no need to forage from the wild for they grow happily in the garden.
You need to look carefully amongst the taller grasses to spot Salad Burnet
Along the lane that leads out of the valley, and also somewhat surprisingly, growing amongst trees close to our house, chives can be found. A common kitchen ingredient and native to Britain they have a remarkably widespread range over much of the northern hemisphere, growing across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and North America. Although they are plentiful, how much easier it is to pick them from a pot close to the kitchen door!
chives growing through the leaf litter of open woodland
It is one of the pleasures of summer to seek out these wild food plants for it is reassuring to know that, if ever the need arose, they are there to flavour my meals. However, even under lockdown, there is never a real need to harvest a wild plant; how much better to leave it for the bees and butterflies?