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 …

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.

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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?”

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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.

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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!

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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.

The Peak District’s Soft Centre

Ask people what they associate with the Peak District and you will receive many different answers: Chatsworth House and the Devonshire’s, Bakewell Tart, grouse moors, rock climbing and caving.  The UK’s first designated national park is all of these things and more.

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Chatsworth House

A whistle-stop tour last weekend of the Peak District didn’t allow a thorough exploration of all its diverse scenery.  A drive through Chatsworth’s historic parkland and a visit to their farm shop gave a glimpse of the famous cascade in the gardens but that and the house interior will have to wait for another occasion.  If ‘farm shop’ conjures up a vision of a limited choice of vegetables covered in mud at a wayside shack, think again.  Chatsworth’s huge selection is impeccably presented along with breads, cheeses and meat in the former Shire Horse stallion stable block, now beautifully converted.

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Quality is key at Chatsworth Farm Shop

The town of Bakewell is renowned for Bakewell Tart or to be more accurate, as I now know it should be called, Bakewell Pudding.  Forget the oversweet, thickly iced versions available nationwide, the traditional version is packed full of almonds, the shortest of sweet pastry and not much else.  The queues of people waiting to purchase them stands testament to their quality and flavour.

Bakewell (6) watermark

Prepare to join a queue!

Only moments away from the busy town centre is the River Wye (one of several in the UK with that name), a place of calm and surrounded by historic, stone buildings.  On Sunday morning, Remembrance Day and the 100-year anniversary of the end of the Great War, brought silence to the town.  As elsewhere throughout the country, the focus at 11 o’clock was the war memorial with the traditional wreath laying ceremonies of scarlet poppies.

Bakewell (1) watermark

The old mill at Bakewell is available for holiday lets

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WW1 memorial to the fallen men of Bakewell

As already hinted, the Peak District has broad expanses of heather moorland as well as limestone crags and outcrops.  This weekend’s exploration of the Peaks revealed the softer side of the national park; its gentler views were bathed in unseasonably warm sunshine highlighting the last of the autumn colours.

Bent Chapel (3) watermark

Peaceful grazing with a view!

Chatsworth (6) watermark

Lengthening shadows as the autumn sun sets

Another visit to the Peaks is planned, next time exploring on foot the passes of the High Peaks, the Chatsworth estate and the village of Eyam, where in 1665 the villagers chose to isolate themselves during an outbreak of bubonic plague.   Of the three hundred villagers, only eighty survived but their self-sacrifice prevented the disease spreading to the neighbouring population.

nr Bakewell (2) watermark

Isolated cottages are scattered throughout the national park

Although time was short, a visit to the Blue John Mines couldn’t be ignored.  The story of this rare semi-precious stone and the descent into the caves via two hundred and fifty steps will come next.  If you suffer from claustrophobia or struggle with steps this isn’t the place for you – it’s a long (and sometimes low and narrow), old climb back to the top!

Blue John Mine (11) watermark

The descent into the mine

Seek and Ye Shall Find

Several years ago I wrote of my fruitless search for my great-aunt.  I hadn’t physically lost her for she had died many years earlier – she was just one, albeit an important one, of the conundrums that constantly arise when researching your family history.

Aunt Baba had left a lasting impression on me when I met her for the first and only time; me just entering my teens, she as an elderly lady of ninety.  Although she certainly was elderly (ancient to my young eyes) she still had the quiet energy and sparkle that had endeared her to my father and his siblings as youngsters.  Perhaps because of the happy visits to her that he would tell me of, I too, adored her instantly.

Gt Aunt Baba (Frances White) 90th bithday about 1965 watermark

Aunt Baba, aged 90, c.1965

As youngsters, my father, uncles and aunts, around the time of the Great War,  would travel to Rudgwick, Sussex in what is now the South Downs National Park to stay for short holidays.  There they were allowed to run wild, roam the fields and woodlands and generally be spoilt in a way that would never be allowed by their authoritarian parents.  Brought up as Plymouth Brethren, a strict Christian sect, their usual life was one of bible study, education, chores and prayer meetings.  At aunt Baba’s, although she too was Plymouth Brethren, life was very much more relaxed.  In later years, when I was a child, the Brethren became more rigid and dictatorial about who they could associate with.  My father had rebelled as a young man and as a consequence, contact with us became forbidden.  Family meetings were very few and aunt Baba’s visit was shrouded in secrecy for fear of her being ‘caught’.  Many years later, long after both she and my father had died, I realised I had no idea whether she was a relative or not and my research was drawing a blank. In desperation, I wrote of her  in the hope that someone ‘out there’ might respond.

Frances White - auntie baba watermark

Relaxing in the 1940s?

The blog post (link here) created quite a lot of interest but no hard leads.  It did generate correspondence from the Rudgwick Preservation Society which although useful didn’t produce the breakthrough I hoped for.   Fast forward to a couple of months ago when I discovered a letter from my father’s eldest sister.  In it she told of how, when staying with aunt Baba, she had met her future husband whose parents also lived in the village and were Brethren.  This was the first ‘hard’ fact I had to go on and from there aunt Baba’s story unfolded.

Frances White - auntie baba - and Clara Joyce Shortland watermark

My aunt as a young woman with aunt Baba, about 1924

Born close to midsummer’s day 1875, aunt Baba, who remained unmarried, by 1916 had become housekeeper to an elderly farmer and his son who lived in the wonderful, ancient house of my father’s memory, Greenhurst.  By the time of the Register that was conducted of all households immediately prior to WW2, it can be seen that by 1939 she had moved to a house in the heart of the village.  Within its grounds stood a Plymouth Brethren Meeting House.  Further correspondence with the Rudgwick Preservation Society has revealed that when the son died, (his father predeceasing him by several years), the house had been left to their loyal and long-serving  housekeeper; a wonderful gesture.  By 1943, old telephone directories show that she had moved once more, this time to a smaller house in the same street.  She was still living there in 1953.  She may have continued to reside there after that date but the trail disappears until the record of her death in 1965 – which means she must have died within months of my meeting her.

postcard of Greenhurst, nr Rudgwick watermark

The house where my father ran wild c.1918

The research has revealed that her name was, as I had thought, Frances White, and that she was a close family friend and not a relative.  I am rather sad that she isn’t blood related for, in theory, she doesn’t belong on my family tree.  I have placed her there for posterity anyway as an honorary member, in the process, no doubt, causing some confusion to future genealogists.

Is there more to find out?  Indeed there is, for how on earth did she end up being called aunt Baba?  That is the part of her history that, I suspect, she has taken to her grave.