A Year in Review 2013: the Second Half

July to the end of  December already is a memory and rapidly becoming a distant one at that.  Just five days into January and Christmas seems further back in the mind than it is in reality.  2014 has arrived and I am optimistically looking forward to all that it may bring.  Not that the last one was disappointing or sad in any way; just that with time flying by it is essential to make the most of every moment.  Of course, I’m very fortunate: I have my health, I have a great job, friends and family I can always rely upon and I live in a superb part of the English countryside.  Long may all those things last!

July:  The highlight of my year occurred this month.  An exciting and memorable launch of my first book to be published – a gardening book – Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That? took place in Chipping Norton’s award winning bookshop, Jaffe & Neale.  Would anyone turn up?  As it happened, very many did with people overflowing onto the street, the warm, sunny evening and the wine contributing to a street party feel to the occasion.  If you wish to find out more of the book or would like a signed copy you can find details here.

Many people are attracted to the magnificent looking but dangerous Giant Hogweed, also the subject of a post this month.  I was delighted when photographs from it were used in an educational video by the Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation District (New York State).  Take heed of the messages if you come across the plant!

August: Travelling around the Cotswold Hills as I do every day in the course of my work you would think I would know most of what goes on there.  Nevertheless, I was surprised when I saw Tibetan flags fluttering in the breeze.  Further investigation found Alain Rouveure’s galleries and tea room.  Of course, I couldn’t leave until I’d tried out their lunch…

September:  Street fairs have been held for hundreds of years throughout England and Chipping Norton has an annual one that dates back to medieval charters.  Originally the time when livestock was sold and labour sought, these days they are purely held for pleasure.  Traffic has to be diverted around the town as the centre is blocked off by the rides and stalls.  Noisy, crowded and well lit they are great fun but I found  myself completely alone in darkness walking around it late one night.  It was an eerie experience, described here.

October:  The appearance of the secret valley was changed dramatically when the willow trees that line the banks of our little winding river were pollarded.  This dramatic ‘haircut’ is carried out only when necessary, the last time about fifteen years ago.  Suddenly, the view in the header of this blog has become wide open as every branch was removed leaving just the trunks standing.  The secret valley looks naked now but ‘new clothes’ will grow rapidly this coming spring.

November:  History isn’t just about learning dates of battles, the most interesting aspects are those that we can so easily relate to.  Yet so much of this is forgotten over time and it takes teams of dedicated people, often volunteers, to literally unearth it.  A now deserted and seemingly empty part of the Exmoor National Park was, one hundred and fifty years ago, teeming with people and was at the very forefront of Victorian technology.  It was quite extraordinary what these engineers achieved and their story featured in two posts which created much interest and comment.  They can be found by clicking here and here.

December:  The blogging year ended on a cuddly note – looking after two adorable but naughty beagle puppies.  If you are a dog lover there is nothing better than to be mauled by puppies.  If you’re not over-keen on dogs then you won’t understand the attraction!  You could try to find out, however, by clicking here.

So what’s going on in 2014?  Lots, hopefully. There is a new racehorse, more gardening, more travel, a lot more writing; it will be a busy year and how it pans out time – and this blog – will tell.

Thank you all so much for following my blog. Over one hundred thousand of you have looked at it since its inception which I find quite extraordinary and very humbling.  Please continue to do so and to tell all your blogging friends to come and pay me a visit, either on here or at my full website www.johnshortlandwriter.com .  I am also on Facebook and Twitter where daily updates can be found.  You are always very welcome to contact me with your comments or queries and I will do my best to answer them all.

Wishing you all a very happy and healthy New Year.

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Puppy Walking

Whether you love it or hate it, hunting with dogs has been part of the country way of life for millennia: it was mentioned in Greek mythology and must have a much earlier history even than that.  These days in the UK there are many restrictions to hunting with a pack of hounds.  This hasn’t prevented the hunts from adapting their practice to continue within the law; many now track a human quarry or laid trail.    This post, however, is not a treatise in support for or against hunting, it is only about one of the most delightful of hound breeds, the Beagle.

Beagles are possibly one of the oldest breeds with records of the type dating back to pre-Norman Conquest days although they did not look as they do now.  By Elizabethan times they were popular miniature dogs small enough to travel comfortably in a pocket.  As fox-hunting grew in popularity during the 18th and 19th centuries there became a need for a larger hound and all but one variety of Beagle became extinct.  The forerunners of today were preserved by a few enthusiasts for hunting rabbits. By the late 1800’s hunting hare with beagles had become established and the breed was secure although the rough-coated ones had died out by the First World War.  The breed was much heavier in those early days with coarser features and they still have a tendency to become overweight if not exercised adequately.

There are now sixty Beagle packs in Britain today.  It is a necessity for hounds when kept in packs to become used to human company and experience a wider environment than they would get in kennels from an early age and so Daring and Darkness came to live with us for a while; a procedure known as ‘puppy walking.’  Like all puppies they were into absolutely everything and although Darkness was the less inquisitive of the two neither could be described as shy.  With a hunting dog this forward going has to be encouraged although once when out exercising them they came face to face with a hare – their traditional quarry (now illegal) – they seemed baffled.  It is impossible to see the hare in the photo below but it is within fifteen feet of Daring who didn’t live up to his name on this occasion.

 

The puppies remained with us for several months until the day came when their hunting instincts began to take over.  Once following a scent, hounds become oblivious to anything else so shouting at them to come to heel has no affect.  It takes nerve to wait for them to return which may be anything up to several hours later.  There is no place for free roaming dogs in sheep country and so it was time for them to be returned to the kennels to join the rest of the pack.  Over the following months we saw them on a number of occasions happy being part of the gang once more.

Despite being great fun to have around, I don’t feel that they are the best breed to have as pets – although I realise that there are many beagle owners who will disagree with me.  Their tendency to put on weight, their liking the company of other dogs and especially their tendency to howl being my main reasons.

Their stamina and highly developed scenting ability has made them superb hunting dogs and these traits are put to excellent use as search and rescue dogs.  And, of course, they also make first rate and long-lived cartoon dogs – take a bow, Snoopy!

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Hare Today – Still Here Tomorrow?

We had seen an adult hare in the garden a couple of times and with some misgiving, having read that they do a lot of damage. What we hadn’t anticipated was having a family of them.

Over the weeks, the leverets – as young hares are called – have become remarkably tame, quite unlike the normal flighty and timid creatures of the fields. The photo below was taken just three feet away and they hop about the garden as we work amongst the borders. So far, no damage….

According to legend, witches take the form of hares and the Cotswolds are a very witchy area. Village names such as Whichford and the Wychwood Forest, which lends its name to places such as Ascott-under-Wychwood, Milton-under-Wychwood and others, testify to this. Perhaps our hares are not all they seem which is why they aren’t nervous of us. Most likely, they just feel safe in a peaceful garden environment. Lurchers like our She-dog were bred for hunting, hares especially so, but so far she hasn’t bothered with them. And if they are witches they are obviously ‘nice’ ones!

There are still packs of beagles in existence despite the hunting ban. A couple of years ago we ‘puppy walked’ Daring and Darkness, the object of which is to get them used to humans and everyday life before they return as young adults to their kennels. We kept them for several months and it was a difficult day when the time came for them to leave us. The photo below shows Daring being excercised and only feet away from a hare – although she barely noticed and the hare too wily to give her presence away by moving. You will have to take my word for it as you won’t be able to see the hare either! The other photo is of them both in the process of making their first ‘kill’ – my bootlaces!


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