About johnshortlandwriter

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 …

A Rebel in the Family

A photograph came winging through the ether to me via email recently of a rather severe looking lady, taken in her later years. As is often the case when meeting an older person for the first time it is all too easy to forget that they had a past; that they were young once and, perhaps, hold a huge store of memories and tales. Sometimes, the stories they tell surprise you and seem more in keeping with today rather than decades before. It was (as it turned out) the same with this lady – Sophia Bradby.

1890 LANGSTON (BRADBY) Sophia B14

Sophia Langston nee Bradby

I had never seen a photograph of Sophia before although I knew of her existence for she was my great-great grandmother. The only tale I knew was that she came ‘from a good family’, the friend of a great poet and the giver of a ‘middle’ name for succeeding generations. Numerous boys, although for some reason, neither my father or myself (for which I’ve always felt rather cheated), sported the name Bradby immediately before the surname. Now that this unexpected image had landed in my inbox I began to dig a bit deeper.

Sophia was born on Christmas Day 1828 in Theale, Berkshire, the third daughter of William Bradby and Mary Shepherd. William had been born in Derbyshire, his parents of Yorkshire origin. Why or when he came south is unknown but in 1814 he married Mary in Reading. We also know that by then he had changed his surname from Bradley to Bradby. The reason behind the name change is unclear for he remained on friendly terms with other members of the Bradley family. In their day, the Bradleys were well-known nationally and, later, internationally. Perhaps the name change was to give his own, immediate family a degree of anonymity. Whether the family were upset and/or disappointed by his decision is unrecorded but perhaps this is the first sign of a rebellious streak that would continue to run through the family to this day.

1863 LANGSTON Charles Samuel L18

The date on this old image is wrong for he was baptised on 3rd September 1823

 

In 1849 it was Sophia’s turn to rebel. On the 29th May she eloped to London to marry Charles Samuel Langston, a union disapproved of by her family. These days, the journey would take no longer than an hour but in the mid-1800s it would have been quite an undertaking. Her travel may have been by coach and horses although the new Great Western Railway line had opened in the early 1840s so she might have travelled by train. Whichever mode of travel she chose she would have been all too aware that her path crossed both an area that had been notorious for highwaymen and footpads and, in more recent times, the scene of a landslide that had derailed a train, killing ten passengers. Whether Sophia ever met her parents again is unknown.

1849 Langston Charles Samuel L18, Bradby Sophia B14

The marriage of Charles Samuel Langston to Sophia Bradby 1849, St Anne’s, Limehouse, London

 

St_Anne,_Limehouse, London - copyright Amanda Slater

St Anne’s, Limehouse, London  (photo Wikipedia/Amanda Slater)

It turned out that Charles, too, had rebelled, leaving his parents’ home in Cranfield, Bedfordshire because of religious differences. Quite what these might have been is unrecorded.  We know from old records that Charles had been baptised into the Church of England and he also married Sophia within the Church of England so there seems to be no conflict there. Whatever the reason, in 1843 he became an Excise Officer and his application papers are held by the National Archive in Kew, London.  At a later date, this side of the family must have been reconciled for Charles’ father died when visiting Sophia in 1865.

Rectory Farm, Cranfield (3) copyright

The childhood home of Charles Samuel Langston

Sadly, Charles and Sophia’s marriage turned out to be fairly short-lived for Charles died aged 40 from cancer of the throat. Their 14 years of marriage produced eight known children, my great-grandfather William Bradby Langston was just twelve months old at the time of his father’s death and poor Sophia was some months pregnant with another daughter, Agnes. The photo below shows Sophia – wearing a crinoline – with one of her children, probably Christiana and taken in 1865. By 1871 she had established a drapery business with her eldest son, Ernest in Reading. By 1891 she had been successful enough to retire to the south coast where she died in 1916; the business that she had founded also prospered and became the largest department store in Reading before it finally closed its doors 120 years later.

LANGSTON (BRADBY) Sophia B14, probably Christiana abt 1865

Sophia with (probably) Christiana, 1865

Many thanks to Jo Liddement who, like me, is a great-great grandchild of Sophia. Not only did she send me the two photographs of Sophia which set me on the journey to find out more about the life of our remarkable ancestor, she also became a newly-discovered cousin.

 

Dreaming of a White Christmas – again

When Irving Berlin wrote the now immortal lines, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones we used to know” he was pining for colder weather for he was staying in California (or Arizona, for both states lay claim to the fact). The original version of the song actually began with a complaint about warmer climes: “The sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway…”  How, as a child I could relate to that – well almost.

My childhood home was not in the Cotswold Hills but at the foot of the Chiltern Hills, along the banks of the River Thames which thirty or so odd miles downstream flows through London on its way to the sea. The microclimate of the river meant our village had a much milder climate than the higher villages just a few miles away. Although nowhere near warm enough for oranges and palms to survive we very rarely had any snow at all. The village wasn’t renowned (or so it seemed as a child) for its sunshine either and the grass remained obstinately green all year round. Searching through old photos, I can only find one where our garden had turned wintry white and that was only a heavy frost. The winter of 1963 where we had to push a car through a small snowdrift was such a rare event that it is still talked about some 56 years later.

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When the time came to leave home and buy my own house, I moved to the far side of the Chilterns where snow was more common. Within a couple of months of my arrival, I had to learn to master wintry driving conditions that a Canadian or American driver would barely think twice about. For in the UK an inch or two of snow causes major panic, road closures and travel disruption.

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Fast forward to 2001 and my move to the Cotswolds. Until then, I had to go for my snowy ‘fix’ overseas to Norway, Switzerland, Austria or Canada. Never a great sportsman it seemed rather bizarre that I had hit upon a sport – Langlaufen or cross-country skiing – that not only did I love and turned out to be rather good at but one that I couldn’t practice easily in my home country. However, the Cotswolds are far snowier than anywhere else I have resided and in 2010 I actually manged to ‘live the dream’ by skiing from the back door of my home and along the secret valley.

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Living the dream in Norway

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Snow in the secret valley

So why am I, like poor old Bing Crosby, singing that same old dirge? Is it because snow here rarely falls before Christmas and quite often doesn’t fall at all? The only white Christmas I have photographic record of (and I can’t remember any other) is of 2017 and even then, by Christmas Day nearly all of it had melted.

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Just occasionally, the snow does finally fall deep and crisp and even. When it does, much of Britain hibernates, nervous of venturing out. However, we still have horses and other animals to feed and tend to. And when I’m out in the four-wheel drive I feel rather satisfied that I have mastered the elements, satisfied in a smug way that only the English would understand for those used to snowier climes would wonder what all the fuss is about.

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Driving to the horses

Christmas 2019 is proving to be mild and green yet again. It has been a bizarre year weather-wise for we have had the wettest autumn on record and the fields surrounding our cottage are under water once again where the little winding river has burst its banks. In Australia, bush fires are burning out-of-control under fierce, all-stifling temperatures. Friends in America have already had to cope with exceptional winter weather. Perhaps I should, rather than have a little moan about the lack of a white Christmas, be thankful that I live in a country where extremes of weather are unheard of.  On the other hand (and trying not to sound to whiny), it would be nice if we could have…

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Floods rather than snow for us this year 😦

Wishing you all a very peaceful, safe and happy Christmas – and may the weather be kind to you.  John.

Embellish with Relish

With Christmas not many weeks away and with it, the annual angst of choosing presents for friends and family, I was delighted to come across this inspiring and original recipe book. It combines not just two of my loves – the Lake District and cooking but is also a jolly good read.

Twenty years ago, Mark and Maria Whitehead launched The Hawkshead Relish Company and this beautifully illustrated cookbook comes as a celebration of it being established. Often the best things come out of necessity and the book tells the story of how, with the outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease effectively closing down tourism in the countryside, their café was facing disaster. Lack of customers gave them the time to develop further the small range of home-made chutneys that they produced for the café and to market them to a wider public. Today, their family-run business is thriving, employs local people and exports produce across the world.

As the business expanded, so did the Hawkshead range and as well as chutneys and pickles they have now created such sweet temptations as Raspberry & Vanilla Jam and Salted Caramel Sauce. The recipe chapters are gathered around the key Hawkshead product for as Maria says in her introduction, how often do we have half-opened jars in the back of the store cupboard or fridge that need using up? However, the recipes sound and look so good (for each recipe is accompanied by a photo of the finished item) that they stand in their own right and you will be buying from Hawkshead specifically to try them out.

Although I suppose I should really start with one of the savoury dishes, I am a sucker for a good Bakewell Tart and with raspberries being my favourite fruit this had to be the first recipe to try. The recipe was clear, concise and the result superb for, unlike most, as well as the jam there were chunks of raspberries throughout the mixture.

My second recipe was the Spiced Lamb Flatbreads. Again, straightforward to create and absolutely delicious although I have to admit that the finished result didn’t look quite as professional as the ones in their photograph!

There really isn’t a good reason not to use Hawkshead Relishes in the recipes for their range is available from selected suppliers as well as by mail order (click here for more details). However, I am sure that it is quite possible to adapt the recipes to your own store cupboard, for the cookbook is too good not to have a copy on the shelf. An alternative, of course, is to take a trip up to the Lakes and stock up at the Hawkshead Relish shop which (unsurprisingly!) can be found in the centre of the village of Hawkshead.

The cookbook “Embellish with Relish” is available from good booksellers or direct from The Hawkshead Relish Company. Published by Meze Publishing, ISBN 9781910863497, £16.00.

PLEASE NOTE: all the photographs used in this post are from the cookbook “Embellish with Relish” and are copyright.  they should not be reproduced elsewhere without the relevant permissions.

The Silent Stones of Baltinglass

One and a half hours drive southwest of Dublin and close to the Wicklow and Carlow counties of Ireland lies the small town of Baltinglass. When I visited briefly a week or so ago, the town centre seemed very empty of people which gave it a certain charm as well as the impression that you didn’t come here if in need of excitement. Google searches appear to confirm it – a website that seems to have last been updated in 2013; even the Wicklow tourism website couldn’t find much to say that would bring the hordes flocking. Although these are all reasons why I would rather like it there is also another very good reason to visit Baltinglass and that is the remains of the Cistercian abbey founded in 1148 by the King of Leinster, Dermot Mac Murrough.

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The dramatic entrance to Baltinglass Abbey

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Today, the ruins consist mainly of the church although there would have been dormitories and other domestic buildings for the monks but of these there is no visible trace. The rather fine tower is of much more recent age for another church was built within the ruins in 1815, itself becoming obsolete by the 1880s.

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The ruined tower of the 19th century church set within the much older ruins of the abbey

Many of the capitals of the stone pillars are heavily carved with decorations that are similar to the abbey ruins of Jerpoint 40 miles to the south. However, the finest of the stone carvings can be found mounted in a doorway – the tomb lid of James Grace who died 23rd February 1605, sixty-nine years after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monastery. There are numerous other and later graves within the ruins but none as fine as the Grace memorial, for it continued to be used as a graveyard right up to recent times.

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The intricately carved coffin lid of James Grace

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Detail of the James Grace coffin lid

Entry to the ruins is free and compared to many other historic sites, little visited. Certainly, at the time of my visit, I was the only person exploring them. This gives the perfect opportunity to explore at length and to absorb the abbey’s silent history. Although the site is quite small, there are countless interesting features to be discovered and the equally tranquil River Slaney is just a field away, a place for yet further quiet contemplation.

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On Brooms, Kings & Witches

The pea-like seedpods of the Broom shrub readily identify it as part of the Legume (pea & bean) family of plants. Easily grown in British gardens in colours ranging from cream through yellow to burnt oranges and dark reds, it is now a shrub that is considered rather unfashionable. Despite that, it deserves to be reinstated into the flower border for they take up relatively little space and give a good show in late spring. Generally, a tall, narrow plant up to 3m in height, there are a couple of prostrate varieties (of which the most readily available is Cytisus ‘Lydia’) that are perfect for placing on the edge of a raised bed. When not in flower the whippy, green branches form a quiet backdrop to other plants.

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The Wild Broom, Cytisus scoparius

In the wild, broom can sometimes be seen growing prolifically on motorway embankments and is one of the first shrubs to colonise newly-built ones. The golden-yellow flowers are the same colour as gorse, the two often being mistaken for one another. However, unlike gorse with its prickly stems, broom is spineless and soft to touch. In the photograph below and dating from the early 1970s, broom has quickly colonised the top of a newly dug quarry despite not having been seen growing in the area before. The flowers smell strongly of vanilla; when the seed pods have turned black and are fully ripe, they split open with an audible pop.

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Broom colonising a newly disused quarry

There are two main species of Broom.  If searching for them in garden centres they are often found under their botanical names of Cytisus or Genista.  Centuries ago the Latin name for the shrub was Planta genista and tradition states that this gave rise to the name of the Plantagenet dynasty through Geoffrey V of Anjou’s (born 1113) habit of wearing a sprig of broom flowers in his hat. It was Geoffrey’s son, Henry who in 1154 became Henry II, the first of the Plantagenet kings to rule England.

Henry II Plantagenet

King Henry II of England (Source: Wikipedia)

A source of some confusion is the witches’ broom, a gall, sometimes found growing on birch trees. They have nothing to do with either the shrub broom or with witches and are so called presumably because of their superficial resemblance to the besom brooms that witches are said to fly on. They are actually caused by a variety of different organisms – insect, virus, fungus, bacteria – in the case of birch, usually the cause is fungal. They do not seem to harm the tree.

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Witches’ Brooms

In folk medicine, the flowers of broom have been used as an ointment to treat gout. According to my old herbal it also prevents rabies and is a cure for dropsy, jaundice, worms, kidney and urine problems. It claims it can also kill headlice. In the southern English county of Sussex, it was believed that just by sweeping the floor with flowering broom branches was enough to kill the head of the house not just the lice. Perhaps, therefore, it maybe best just to admire the floral display from the safety of the motor car when driving!

The Colonel & the Fly

Over the years you meet very many people and, if you are lucky, there will be someone who has a major influence on your life, perhaps by changing its direction or outlook. I have been fortunate to have known two such people, one in my teens and the other, in my early thirties. The Colonel was the latter and he opened my eyes as well as my brain to many new ideas and experiences. By the time I met him, he was in his early eighties with a lifetime’s knowledge about so many things especially country life, something I too am passionate about. A great story teller; he had that rare gift of making you feel when in his company that you were the most important person in his life – as indeed you were at that moment.

The Colonel  (photographer unknown)

One fine September evening, I walked across the lawns of Woodlands Cottage towards the Colonel. Hosepipe in hand, he was swishing the surface of the swimming pool towards one end, totally engrossed in what he was doing. It was only when I spoke that he became aware of my presence and instantly his face brightened at the sight of a visitor. “Spring cleaning”, he said, “or rather, autumn cleaning. Soon be time to bed it down for the winter”. He pushed aside my apologies for disturbing him and the visit began, as always, with a large whisky and a chat in his snug: a small room lined with books, photographs of his military days, and with comfortable chairs and a writing desk.

I had met the Colonel a couple of years earlier when I moved into his village, six houses up. There had been a knock at the door and before I had a chance to speak, I was asked what religion I was. Before I had a chance to respond I was told that it didn’t matter anyway so long as I turned up at church for bell ringing practice the following evening at 7pm. Although it wasn’t given as a command, I obeyed. Over the years, I found that this natural ability to make people want to do as he requested must have accounted for his success in the army; I could well imagine his men following him into battle just because he asked them to.  This encounter led in time to me taking over a small area of his vegetable garden for my own use as my plot was woefully inadequate in size. The charge for this exclusive allotment was to spend time exchanging news and ideas. Inevitably, the only untidy part of the garden was the one in my care but there was never any reproach for conversation and a whisky were considered to be of far greater importance.

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The village church with its weather boarded bell turret

The conversation that autumn evening turned to fishing. I told the Colonel how I had been brought up in a (River)Thames-side village and how I had fished regularly as a lad. When I mentioned that spinning for pike had been a favourite sport he very nearly choked. “Sport?” he spluttered. “The only sport spinning for pike is, is very poor sport! Fly fishing: now that is sport. Not just sport, it is an art and not one easily acquired. Come around next week and I will teach you.” Living in a village high in the Chilterns, a range of chalk hills renowned for its lack of rivers, puzzled I asked, where exactly. “Well, here, of course. Where else did you think we’d go?”

Ibstone Common (2) copyright

The only natural water in the village is the old dewpond – no salmon or trout in there!

One week later and back in the snug, whiskies in hand, he brought out a selection of rods, each one carefully taken from its cloth case for its individual qualities to be explained.   One of split cane was very old and heavy but exquisitely balanced; another shorter and of fibreglass but a useful addition. Another rod was the one to use in fast flowing water, this one in pools. With each rod came tales of triumphs and failures along with the fishermen and ghillies he’d met over the years. For a while we were both transported to Scotland, to a land of heather hills, lochs and rivers filled with trout and salmon; to evenings in the sporting hotels where the events of day would be discussed and to the elderly Scot who owned the local smokehouse whose secret marinade recipe had died with him. “Salmon has never tasted quite as good since.” We sat in silence for a while until the Colonel leapt to his feet. It was time to start the lesson.

On the lawn, I was shown the correct way to stand. Imagine, I was told, that I’d just hooked my first salmon and then lost my balance. Now to cast the fly. He pointed to a fallen leaf – the fish – some yards away. Effortlessly he cast the line for it to land upon it. I tried but the line just landed a short distance from my feet. I was too tense, I needed to relax or I’d never cast properly. Time after time I tried without success. The instructions came thick and fast. “You’re lifting the rod too high; it’s going over your shoulder.” In desperation, the Colonel took my hand and brought the rod up to my nose. Hit that he said and you’ll only ever do it the once. The advice worked but just when I thought I was beginning to master the technique I was told to change hands and learn to cast with my left.

Ibstone watermark

The Colonel’s abode

After two hours the Colonel began to meander across the lawn in front of me. Without warning, he grabbed hold of the end of the line. “What’s happened now?” It took me a moment to realise I’d caught a fish! With great agility for his age he ploughed off upstream, swam across a deep pool, plunged below low, hanging branches and all the time shouting instructions. “Keep the rod high, let the tip take the strain, lower it quickly…” In those few minutes I’d once again been transported north of the Great Glen and felt the exhilaration of catching my first salmon.

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River trout just waiting to be caught!

“Must be time for a celebration whisky.” Back in the snug the conversation turned to ‘real river’ fishing and then to shooting. Fishing and shooting go together I was told. I confessed that I’d never tried. The Colonel looked delighted. “Good. Next time you call I’ll teach you to bring down some clays.”

The Glories of a Beechwood

Buckinghamshire, one of the so-named Shire counties, lies to the north-west of London.  A long, narrow county; the southern part is renowned for its beech woodlands.  Although greatly diminished in size over the centuries, many of them are still there, remnants of the ancient woodlands that once covered much of Britain, although the industries that they supported are long gone.

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In the Chilterns the beechwoods can almost engulf the lanes

Straddling the Buckinghamshire/Oxfordshire borders the Chiltern Hills extend diagonally northwards into neighbouring Bedfordshire where they change character from dense woodlands to more open downland.  It is within the shadow of the southern woodlands where I was born and where I lived for the greater part of my life before moving to the secret valley in the Cotswolds.  Inspired by Enid Blyton’s The Children of Cherry Tree Farm, my childhood was spent crawling around the fields, woods and hedgerows learning as much as I could about the wild birds and animals that lived within them.john david shortland 1965 watermark

Although nowadays the woods appear mostly deserted, they are still made use of.  The old tracks and paths that were once used by the men and women that worked and lived there are trodden by walkers, and by the wildlife that remains elusive for only those that move quietly have the pleasure of seeing anything other than a glimpse of a fleeing animal.

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This centuries old track leads down into a deep valley

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Fallow deer can often be seen at rest in clearings if you walk quietly

The making of chair legs to keep the flourishing furniture industry of High Wycombe, the local market town, was carried out within the woodland by men who would set up shelters there.  Known as chair-bodgers, a local dialect word originally confined to this immediate area, they were highly skilled craftsmen who could earn relatively high wages for their work.  The Second World War virtually ended the centuries old tradition, the last being Samuel Rockall who died in the early 1960s.  I had been unaware of Rockall’s life until I researched for this blog post and it seems as if we may have been related for I have Rockalls in my family tree.  In the 1851 census return one of my ancestral cousins is described as a chair turner living in the village where I spent much of my adult life.  More research required!

1851 census - Rockall

Jonathan Rockall, chair turner and ancestral cousin in the 1851 census return.  His wife, Ann, a lace maker,- another local craft

Some of my cousins?! Photo from an old book ‘English Country Life & Work’

It is, perhaps, springtime when the beech woods are most visited for the forest floor is carpeted with bluebells.  The intensity of their colour plus the iridescent green of the tree’s unfurling leaves almost hurt the eyes.  With early morning sunshine the scent is unique and difficult to describe – gentle is the best I can come up with.  As the day progresses the scent is quickly lost.Chilterns Beechwood copyright

During midsummer, the woods become visually silent: the leaves have turned a dark, leathery green and the bluebells gone to lie dormant for the rest of the year.  With autumn, the trees become alive once more with colour, this time as their leaves turn into every shade of copper, gold and brown before they drop to the ground for winter.  It is then that the smooth bark of the trees come to the fore with a silvery sheen that catches the low light of a winter’s day.  Although it may seem as if the woodlands are sleeping, in places the first bluebells are starting to poke their noses through the leaf litter.  Spring is on its way.Autumn colour watermarkIbstone 1984 watermark

Conceived on Exmoor?

There used to be a standing joke between my mother and I that I must have been conceived on Exmoor as it has such a magnetic hold on me.  My parents had honeymooned there, staying at Ye Olde Cottage Inne at Barbrook in the mid-1940s – the fact that I was born in the early 50s and had an older sibling we conveniently overlooked.

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Wedding Day

When I first came across Exmoor, in the summer of ‘68, I thought I had stumbled into a paradise, if not unknown to others, certainly unknown to members of my family.   “Stumbled” is an accurate description. My intention had been to cycle further west into Cornwall before returning south to Exeter for the train journey home.  Poor map reading skills took me instead to the North Devon Coast at Westward Ho!.   During my final term at school we had studied the novel Lorna Doone and now seeing Doone Valley, Exmoor marked on the map it seemed logical to visit despite it being way off to the east.

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Badgworthy Water, Doone Valley

Brought up in the Chiltern Hills, I was used to a hidden landscape of narrow lanes, high beech hedges and dense and extensive beech woodlands.  Rarely, was there an unbroken view of far-distant places and, almost as rarely, large expanses of sky and cloud.  Cycling across Exmoor with its open, rolling landscape ablaze with heather and gorse and views across the sea to the Welsh coast was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.  Sometimes the lanes would pass between high banked hedgerows or descend into well-wooded coombes reminding me of home.  I came across a farm where I pitched my tent intending to stay two days before leaving for Exeter.

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A Chiltern lane winds its way through dense woodland

 

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The open views of Exmoor

Helping on the farm, two days turned into weeks and then into months by which time I had moved into the farmhouse and embraced Exmoor life.  I occasionally telephoned my parents, or sent a postcard, always being evasive about where I was staying and only telling them I was working on a farm and being well cared for.  With the benefit of maturity, I sometimes wonder how they coped with their sixteen-year old son, on his first lone holiday, disappearing for so long in an era of no mobile phones or credit cards for them to track my progress.  They only succeeded in finding me after I foolishly reversed the telephone call charge and soon after arrived on the doorstep to drag me away, kicking and screaming.  It was time to get “a proper job” but Exmoor and the farm had completely changed my outlook on life as well as the direction it would ultimately take.  After twenty years of “a proper job” I finally escaped to agricultural college and a life of outdoor work.

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Brendon Barton 1968

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At agricultural college 1994

I had been surprised and a little disappointed when I first discovered my parents also knew Exmoor.  Despite not having been conceived there, my attachment to Exmoor has never waivered and more than fifty years later I regularly return.  Upon entering the moor the same emotion of discovery, as if seeing it for the first time, remains.  Many of the old friends that I made in those early years and their unique way of life that I was privileged to be part of, albeit in a small way, have gone but the landscape remains remarkably unchanged.  The heather and gorse are still a carpet of purple and gold, the sea (at least, on a fine, sunny day) still blue.

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Countisbury Common, where the moor falls into the sea

Very recently, through researching my family history, I have found that an earlier cousin, at a similar age to myself, had also discovered Exmoor.  He too had never settled in school and life on Exmoor changed him.  He also chose to write about his time on the moor, something else we have in common. Although I was surprised to learn of his life and his book, this time I am delighted!

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PostscriptJust a few years before she died at the age of 93, I spent a few days on Exmoor with my mother and took her to revisit the honeymoon hotel.  Long widowed, the day must have been a mix of emotions.

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At Ye Olde Cottage Inne, renamed The Bridge Inn

 

 

 

A Secret Garden

I have noticed that even those that don’t show the slightest interest in things horticultural love exploring walled gardens, especially if they are overgrown and forgotten.  Perhaps it stirs memories of the children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett published in 1911 in which she shows that when something unloved is cherished and cared for it can become beautiful and healthy, be it a plant or the human spirit.

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Photo Credit: AC85 B9345 911s, Houghton Library, Harvard University

I have been fortunate over the years in caring for a number of walled gardens in different stages of development yet, regardless of their state, there is something magical in placing the key in the lock and pushing open the door – as nasty, little Mary Lennox discovered in the novel.  As she returned the garden to its former glory so, she too, grew into a loving and loveable child.

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Perhaps even more so than the plants and trees within, the beauty of a walled garden comes from the walls themselves.  The brickwork over time has mellowed and seems to release the warmth of a hundred or more summers, even on the greyest of days.  Search the walls and they reveal secrets – a date scratched into a stone, old lead labels revealing the varieties of long-disappeared fruit trees or, occasionally, the name of a much-loved pet buried at its feet.

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The walls in this deserted garden date back to the late 17th/early 18th centuries

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Recorded for posterity: the trees may have disappeared but the record of the varieties remain

One of the most rewarding to explore yet emptiest of walled gardens has to be that of Dunmore Park.  The house no longer stands but the garden walls remain crowned by that most eccentric of British garden room follies, the Pineapple.  Here the walls are hollow, fires were lit at its feet and the walls warmed to promote early growth.  Sliding stone blocks could be opened to release the smoke which, filling the garden at night helped to keep frosts at bay.  Clever, those early gardeners.

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Walled gardens when not open to visitors are more often a place of silence, the only sound to accompany the gardener is that of birdsong and the hum of insects.  It can be a place where your mind can be free from the everyday cares of the outside world.  It can also be a place where your design ideas can run riot either in your head or, if lucky enough, in reality.  The images below show before and after photos of a border I created many years ago, the idea for the colour palette coming from an Imari plate belonging to the owner of the garden.  The border is living proof of an imagination run riot!

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Finding Blue John

Recently I spent a long weekend in the Peak District – not really long enough to explore properly despite it being Britain’s smallest national park.  However, there was time to explore the small town of Bakewell, home of the famous and very tasty Bakewell Tart as well as a drive through the Chatsworth Estate.  The ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire had to be ignored on this occasion but lunch at their farm shop was well worth breaking the journey for. For photographs and a description of these places see my earlier post by clicking on the link The Peak District’s Soft Centre.  Finally reaching the area known as the High Peak (despite the name there are no mountains in the Peak District) a roadside sign pointing in the direction of Blue John led through glorious countryside.

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Chatsworth House

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View from the Blue John mine

Blue John is a fluorite semi-precious mineral that in its raw state appears quite dull.  After drying, preparing and polishing it takes on a number of colours ranging from purplish-blue through to yellow.  Despite numerous tests and analyses the origins of the colour has not been discovered.  Blue John is also a rare stone for although similar minerals have been found elsewhere in the world there are only two known places where its unique quality can be found – and those are both in the same hillside in the Peak District.

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Blue John in its raw state

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    Blue John after processing – the bowl is in the Castleton (Peak District) Visitor Centre.         Copyright: Pasicles via Wikipedia

Visiting the Blue John mine is not for the faint-hearted or the short-of-breath for that matter: there are two hundred and fifty steps to descend and then, of course, you have to climb back up them to reach the surface once more.  Don’t complain, ‘though, or you may have to descend by rope as the early miners once did.  Fortunately, I only looked down it to see the visitors below.

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The descent into the mine

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The alternative way into the mine – being lowered by rope!

Inside the mine there are low tunnels to pass through contrasting with vast caverns with roof heights of 200 feet or more, either created by ancient rivers or by the miners themselves.  Each cavern has its own unique characteristic although it is difficult to catch it on camera.  The one below is named Lord Mulgrave’s Dining Room, a huge circular space formed by a whirlpool and so named after the dinner Lord M gave his miners there.  The thought of the cooks and food being lowered deep into the mine gives a new angle to the term ‘outdoor catering’!

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Lord Mulgrave’s Dining Room

The Waterfall Cavern is colourful with the stalactite formations along one side appearing to be frozen water.  Elsewhere there are numerous fossils where marine animals have been ‘captured’ for posterity.

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‘The Frozen Waterfall’

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Fossils embedded into the mine walls

Throughout the mine the colours and texture of the rock formations are extraordinary and constantly changing.  In one cavern it is easy to ‘see’ the rocky and meandering bed of the prehistoric river that formed it, the difference being that it is way, way above one’s head.  In another, a giant, triangular rock has fallen to balance on its point.

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The overhead ‘riverbed’

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Huge and precariously balanced

The tours, which are led by miners, for Blue John is still mined here during the winter months, last about an hour.  At the end of the tour all there is left is to climb the two hundred and fifty steps back to the surface…

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The long climb back to the surface

 

For further details of the history of the Blue John Mine and visiting hours visit their website here.

To give overseas visitors a better idea of its location, the Peak District National Park is approx. 3.5 hours by car, north from London; by public transport allow 6-7 hours.  There are plenty of hotels, traditional pubs and self-catering cottages available for overnight stays.