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.

Nr Fingest 2 watermark

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.

Woodland Track (2) watermark

This centuries old track leads down into a deep valley

Fallow Deer watermark

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

Advertisements

Where Waters Meet

With two rushing rivers – Hoar Oak Water and the East Lyn River – merging in a series of spectacular cascades and rapids it is hardly surprising that Watersmeet is one of Exmoor’s most popular visitor’s attractions.  Its deep, wooded valley is doubly protected for not only does it lie within the heart of the National Park 340 acres were gifted to the National Trust.   Watersmeet House, now a café but originally built as a romantic fishing lodge, and with car parking nearby makes a good place to begin and end a walk.

There are numerous paths that can be taken from here and most link up to create walks of varying lengths.  They hug the valley bottom or rise steeply to the tops of the surrounding hills so it is possible for almost anyone, regardless of their ability to have an enjoyable outing.  It should be remembered that even in dry weather the paths can be quite rugged so good, solid footwear is always recommended.  A stout stick or walking poles won’t go amiss, especially if you choose the hillier paths.
 Apart from the noise and excitement of the rivers, the other awe-inspiring feature of Watersmeet is its woodland which clings to the steep, three hundred foot sides of the valley.  These are some of the best examples of ‘hanging’ woods in the country and are relics of the ancient woodland that once covered lowland Britain.  Mostly the trees are sessile oak although there are some fine specimens of beech in the better soil of the valley bottom.  There are also a number of Whitebeam species that can only be found here or in neighbouring woodlands making them of national importance.
As soon as you start walking, any crowds are soon left behind and you have the splendour of the place to yourself.  Following the East Lyn River upstream the remains of a nineteenth century lime kiln can be explored.  Lime was brought by sea from Wales to be burned before spreading onto the fields to counteract the land’s extreme acidity.  Fuel for the kilns was provided by the woodland which was coppiced and some of this timber was also sent back to Wales to be used in the iron foundries.
 Wildlife abounds; there are dippers and herons by the water’s edge, and red deer, badgers and otters can all be seen by the fortunate few.  On quieter stretches of the river the calls of raven and buzzard can be heard overhead.
After an hour or so, the tiny hamlet of Rockford appears, consisting of just a few cottages and an inn – another great excuse for a stop.  From here you can trace your route back to Watersmeet or continue along the river to the village of Brendon to make a longer, circular walk.
Watersmeet is open to the public all year round and every season has its special moments.  In the spring, the valley is lush and green; in summer the sunlight filters through the canopy to play on the water’s surface; in autumn there are the changing colours and in winter, the extraordinary beauty of the gnarled trees adorned with grey lichens come to the fore.  It needs to be visited more than just once!
 

For more information take a look at these websites:
National Trust
The Rockford Inn
Exmoor National Park

Add to Technorati Favorites

Going Naked

We’ve gone naked here in the secret valley.  Not literally, it’s far too close to winter for that sort of jolly jape.  While we are busy putting on additional clothes, our lovely old willows that line the little winding river have been stripped of their top growth.
 
Gone are their branches and along with them so have the other plants that find a home in their mossy nooks and crannies.  It is pollarding time and the lovely view that I have been used to seeing every day since I moved here twelve years ago has changed dramatically.  Fortunately, all will return in abundance in due course.

Pollarded willows in the secret valley
 

Change, of course can be a good thing and it is interesting how spacious and full of light the valley now seems.  It is also a good thing for the trees for without this drastic treatment they sometimes topple in storms.  Pollarding actually prolongs the life of those tree species that can cope with such treatment. As a child I played in a woodland known as Burnham Beeches and there, some of the pollards are over five hundred years old.  These old pollards support a huge variety of wildlife that has adapted over the centuries to the practice.

Ancient ash pollard – sad to think that it will probably now die because of the newly imported disease, Chalara

Now a rare sight – White Park cattle
 

Pollarding has been carried out since man’s earliest farming days and can really be considered as just another form of pruning.  By cutting the branches above the reach of grazing animals, they can regrow without being damaged.    In the past, cattle were allowed to roam in these ‘wood-pastures’ and in Burnham Beeches the practice has been reinstated after a gap of about two hundred years.  The White Park cattle above are kept at Adam Henson’s, Cotswold Farm Park.  Now endangered, this native breed is being used to graze freely in the Beeches which keeps the forest floor clear and improves diversity. 

The timber from pollarding was used in a number of different ways.  Most commonly, it provided firewood, with the trees cut every fifteen years, which is the case with our willows.  Sometimes the pollards were cut more regularly to provide fodder for livestock.

It is surprising to see just how quickly new growth restarts.  Without branches and leaves to support, the energy rising through the tree from its root system forces it to renew itself.  The willows below are a little further up the valley and were pollarded in the early spring of this year.  As can be seen they already have grown six feet or more.

Just six months of new growth
 

Pollarding of trees isn’t just practised in the depths of the country.  It is frequently carried out in our towns and cities as street trees are kept within bounds.  In the garden it is a good way to create interest – even a smallish garden can create a lime walk to give all year round appeal.  The coloured stem willows are especially good for this purpose too as they quickly become dull and too large when left unchecked.

It will take time to become used to seeing the ‘new look’ secret valley, now so very different from the image that has become the trademark of this blog.  In the past, cutting the trees would have given a team of men work for the whole winter. Now one man with a machine achieves it in five days.  It may not be such a romantic notion but watching the tractor driver manipulate the claws of the cutter at every conceivable angle demonstrated that the old techniques have been replaced with skills every bit as impressive.

If you fancy trying your hand at pollarding you have a few months left to build up your courage!  In the UK and those places with a similar climate it should be completed by mid-February.

More reading: click on the links below
Conservation of ancient pollards
Chalara in ash trees
White Park cattle and other endangered farm breeds
Adam Henson’s Cotswold Farm Park

Add to Technorati Favorites

Summer, Autumn, Summer, Autumn

It is said that the English, compared to those from other countries, always talk of the weather and, I have to admit that it is true. I have also heard it said that, whereas other countries have ‘climate’, we just have ‘weather’. And it is weather that has shaped the nation’s psyche, especially those of us that earn our living standing outside in it.

It has been an odd year. The hardest and earliest winter for years gave way to a lovely spring, March and April being mild and sunny. We were then hit by the hardest May frost that anyone could remember and here, in the secret valley, many of the trees had their newly formed leaves and flower buds blackened. The horse chestnuts and oaks seemed hardest hit, although oddly enough, not all of them and not even all of the leaves or flowers on the same tree. Those damaged leaves fell and bare braches remained until July when, suddenly, they sprouted fresh leaves with the same verdent intensity as you would find two or three months earlier.

One moment bright green growth, the next ……..

…….. dead from frost

A similar thing with the weather has happened again over the last couple of weeks. Late summer proved to be rather disappointing with few really warm days and none where you could sit and relax in an evening with friends, wining and dining under the stars. Autumn seemed to be arriving early. Then, just as October arrived and our thoughts turned to log fires and bowls of soup for supper, summer returned with a vengeance. The temperature soared to 30C, breaking all records, the wind dropped and, for a week, we sweltered under cloudless skies and relentless sunshine. As the leaves on the trees began to crisp and garden pots started to die (I refused to start watering them again at this time of year), out came the garden furniture once again.

But what has happened now? Three days ago, we returned to chill, and with a drop of nearly twenty degrees it suddenly feels more like November. Some leaves have begun to turn colour but others have fallen, too exhausted to give us their fleeting pleasure of golds and yellows. Snow is forecast up north in Scotland and every day the news is full of gloomy stories of an even harsher winter than the last one.

One place that always gives good autumn colour is the Chiltern Hills that rise so dramatically from the Oxford plain. It is a special place for me as I was born and lived most of my life there, a country so different from the Cotswolds where I have been the past ten years. Now I live in watery valleys with far reaching views and open skies. The Chilterns, although no more than fifty miles away, is the opposite – dry, chalky and steep, a secretive place where the clouds and views are hidden by beech woodlands. It is the beech which give the best of autumn colours.

When the M40 motorway ripped a great chunk out of the chalk ridge, no-one anticipated it would alter the climate somewhat. But it is here, where the beech hang precariously to the edge (and sometimes topple over it) that the earliest signs of colour start. And even less did we think that one day Red Kites, one of Britain’s rarest birds of prey, would become so numerous soaring above it and feeding on the road kill that the motorway ineveitably produced. If the view of the chalk cut looks familiar it is because it was used in the opening shots of The Vicar of Dibley, the much loved comedy series on television that was filmed in the nearby village of Turville.

So, we Brits have suddenly become wrapped up and stand huddled together talking about being too hot and too cold and will there be snow. Who knows? One thing, however, is certain: if there is snow down here in the south, it will be the chalk cut on the M40 that will get it first and it will also be the first motorway to be blocked by traffic trying to climb to the top of the ridge.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Sun, Drought, Frost: at last, Rain…..

.
It has been difficult to remember, sometimes, that it is still only spring time. After the unusually early, bitter and snowy winter weather we experienced, 2011 came in cold but dry. It remained so until the end of March when, wham!, summer arrived.
.

With temperatures soaring into the mid 80’s, many plants struggled to open their buds (and the ash trees still haven’t done so properly). I had planned to write about this battle but became – as you may well know – rather obsessed with puppies ….
.
.
However, many plants did rather better than normal. Tulips, especially the fragile doubles, were better than ever with no rain to spoil their petals, as have been the paeonies. Perfume has wafted about the garden in the warm evening air – can there be anything more lovely on both eyes and nose than this paeony and wisteria combination?
.

.
.
The trees, later than has been usual for many years, finally started to come into leaf. Now the countryside is awash with May, cherry and Horse Chestnut blossom. It is all quite stunning. Or was.
.
.
Out of nowhere, on Monday night, we had frost. The first for over five weeks, this was no slight touch of cold but one that turned the secret valley into a white valley of death. Well, I admit, that is rather an exaggeration but, I imagine it is due to the very hot temperatures immediately before, some plants – and especially the trees – have been decimated. One moment their new leaves hurt the eyes with their iradescent green, the next they are brown and shrivelled. Some, depending on how the cold air lay, have come through unscathed whilst their neighbour has been hit badly. Will they recover? I expect so but, possibly, too late to help the insects and birds that rely on the food source at this very moment. Time will tell.
.
. .
.
Just when our feelings were at their most depressed, the weather gave us another surprise. Rain. The first for many weeks, we have been desperate for it. The ground has been cracking, the river getting low, plants wilting and, worst of all, the farm crops not growing. In places, the young corn has started to go yellow. And when we least expected to get any, we awoke to the sound of rain on the windows. Our only neighbour, the farmer whose corn was suffering, and I were standing in the field below our homes, getting soaked and almost hugging each other with joy. It gave me just the slightest awareness of how people in countries that really suffer from prolonged droughts must feel. And it also made me aware of this rather primitive reaction of wanting to literally dance in the rain when it first arrives.
.
. The old mortar in the garden is beginning to fill once again!
.
The paeonies have been ‘knocked for six’ but, who cares? Apparantly, we have only had 1.5mm of rain during March and April compared with the 40-50mm in an average year. Let it rain for days now to restore the balance. But – as a gardener speaking – please only at night and only fall gently……
.

.
.
.
.

Add to Technorati Favorites

When Greens Defeat the Blues……

We all go through periods of our lives when plans are thwarted, futures unravelled and forgotten pasts unfortunately remembered. It is something we have to come to terms with for, after all, if there were no ‘lows’, we couldn’t have ‘highs’ either.

It has been a difficult couple of weeks although, in the grand scheme of things, I should not complain too much. My partner, who has suffered considerably and silently with a debilitating heart problem the past two years, has finally had the op long waited for. And it seems, a great success with glimpses, already, of the old energy that was there before.

At the same time, the first anniversary of my mother’s death has weighed far more heavily than I expected. We were close and talked frequently about all sorts of things and, in her last few months, of dying. As she often said, she had a great and happy life and reached 94 despite hating being old (“it’s no fun being in your 90’s, you know”). She was ready to go.


So here I am, feeling a bit ‘blue’ and why? My partner is recovering, my mother is at peace. And suddenly, I have no need to be rushing hither and thither. I am like a train that has run out of steam or, if you want to be less kind, moping about like a wet rag, if they can mope and I can mix metaphors.

Without love there can be no loss and without illness there can be no recovery. And without fall there can be no spring. And it is the spring that renews, not just our gardens and the landscapes that surround us, it renews the spirit inside us. And so it was back to the Chiltern Hills, where I grew up and spent most of my life, that I returned to be revived by the extraordinary lushness of their beautiful beechwoods.


The Chilterns are barely 30 miles from the Cotswolds, the two being separated by the low lying Oxford vale. So close yet so different in character. The Cotwolds is a landscape of gently rolling hills, little rivers, big vistas and skyscapes. The Chilterns is a secretive land of steep combes – the beech woodlands clinging precariously to the valley walls. Few rivers, for this is a chalk land, a dry place with few views and no large skies for the forest hides them all. Yet the light is magical and nothing is as blinding as the intense greens of the unfurling beech leaves.


How can one walk here without being uplifted spiritually and mentally, whether holding religious belief or not? And if the beech is struggling to kick start you then the sight of the tens of thousands of bluebells, with their gentle scent, cleanse the body and renews the energy within.


Life is good and I’ve only got one attempt at it. I feel refreshed. I’d better get on with it.


Yes, life is good. No complaints. Honest!

Add to Technorati Favorites

The Real Vicar of Dibley

When a new comedy television series called The Vicar of Dibley hit British television screens in 1994, Dawn French, the actress who played the part of the vicar, was already a familiar and much loved face. Less well known, was the situation of the village of Dibley. Was it even a real place for surely nowhere could be that idyllic and unspoilt? Well, yes, it is real.

Turville, is a tiny village, hidden deep in a valley in the Chiltern Hills and is close to where I was born and spent the greatest part of my life (I only came to the secret valley nine years ago). The Chilterns is a place of steep hills, thick with beechwoods that seem to hang onto their very sides – many use the word in their names: Old Hanging Wood near Hughenden, for example. The villages, as a consequence, seem tucked away and forgotten, yet they lie only some 30 miles west of London.
Chalk and flint are the geological features that make the Chiltern Hills what they are and you are never far from them for the topsoil is thin, as all Chiltern children soon learn. Childhood games need chalk for drawing hopscotch and the flint cuts deep into knees when falling over. Flint also is, or was, the favoured building material for houses and Turville has plenty of fine examples, even the church is made from it.


No English village is complete without its pub and Turville is no exception. The Bull and Butcher stands almost in the road. Less common are windmills and Turville lays claim to Cobstone Mill (which really ‘belongs’ to the neighbouring village of Ibstone), standing high above on a steep hilltop. The windmill, like the village has been used in many films such as Chitty, Chitty, Bang Bang and the 101 Dalmatians. In the latter, when the road outside became covered in machine made ‘snow’ I drove past confused – for there were still traces of the snow and it was midsummer. We also had no water for several hours as the filming had used up the village supply in the making of it.

Turville is popular both with the film crews and visitors because it is so ancient and unspoilt. To get photos like these you have to visit on a grey, winter’s weekday as weekends, especially fine, summer ones, find the narrow lanes choked with cars. The village is so unchanged that even the warning roadsigns, like this old schoolchildren one are decades out-of-date!

Add to Technorati Favorites

The English Hurricane: 20 years on

English people constantly talk about weather. It’s in our makeup, our genes – we can’t possibly walk past someone, even a total stranger, without saying something about it. We can’t help it, no matter how much we realise that the person isn’t that interested (or even doesn’t speak English). We rattle on about too much rain, too little rain, too much sun, no sun, cold for the time of year, how warm it is. And to prove the point, this post is about weather and, no, I’m not going to apologise about it. By the way, we had a fantastic sunset in the secret valley a couple of days ago.

I think the reason we may behave like this is because English weather is nearly always gentle. The landscape that makes up England is beautiful and can be dramatic but not in the way of so many other countries. Take the USA, for example. Where’s our Grand Canyon, our towering redwoods, our Rocky Mountains, our Great Plains and our Niagara Falls? We have them in miniature and, perhaps, that is just as well as we are such a small country. And likewise, our weather: we have heatwaves, we have floods, we have blizzards. But they are rarely anything truly spectacular (except to those poor people affected by them, of course). And so when we were told by the weather men in 1987 that reports of a hurricane were completely exaggerated, we believed them totally. And despite the fact that much of the country was hit hard by it when it arrived, my part of the Chiltern Hills where I lived at the time was not much affected, even though it is one of the most wooded parts of the country.

The night in January 1990 was different. This time we had winds, whilst not as severe as three years earlier, which created total havoc with the already weakened root systems of the trees. Great swathes of the magnificent beech woods that are the very heart and soul of the Chilterns were flattened in a couple of hours. (I am reminded by my partner, that as the rest of the world cowered in their beds as the trees came crashing down all around, I woke up to say “a bit windy out there” before falling asleep again). As dawn broke the true damage could be seen.

Fast forward twenty years to 2010 and the woodands are transformed. Those of us that remember the 200 year old beech know that the majority are gone and, in their place, are new trees of mixed species. It will be many years before the magnificence of the woods return but they are healing. This photo below is taken from the same spot as the one above. Some of the biggest old stumps have been left, too difficult to move – time has hardly changed their appearance apart from their ‘roof’ of mosses.


One of the unforeseen benefits of the hurricane is the increased amount of light reaching the woodland floor, for beech trees cast a dense shade where little can grow, other than where the canopy is lightest. Apart from the view to the valley below, which was unseen before, many wild flowers are better now than ever. Roll on April when we can see the blue carpet of tens of thousands of bluebells disappearing into the distance.

Oh! And I nearly forgot to say, the weather today is a mix of sunshine, cold winds, rain and sleet. Don’t forget to tell the next person you meet!

Add to Technorati Favorites