Richard Jefferies – His Passion Lives On

Great artists such as Gainsborough, Turner and Reubens speak to us down the centuries through their work as do poets but how many people still read the great – or the lesser – writers from years past?  The Bible is still read regularly by some, Shakespeare’s more famous lines are often quoted and we all think we know Bronte and Dickens whereas, in reality, most of us know the characters only as interpreted through television and film.  However, authors from past centuries still  have much to offer whether it be for historical background, research or, simply, pleasure.

I have always lived in the country and my fascination with the natural world began at a very early age.  My kindergarten class was taken on a nature walk and, as our teacher showed us the magical things to be found along the way, I became hooked and wanted to know more.  There are many excellent wildlife manuals and handbooks, new and old, that give detailed descriptions more often than not, in a rather dry, analytical way.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was someone who could give all this information in great detail; who would notice the minutiae of everyday things, whether a flower, a wild creature or even of man, himself?  In the late nineteenth century there was one such person, now forgotten by most, and his name is Richard Jefferies – most definitely not a poet but there is poetry in his words.

Jefferies, born in 1848, in a Wiltshire (England) farmhouse suffered ill-health and subsequent poverty for much of his life.  From a young age he had enjoyed solitude and wandering about the countryside and here he developed a fascination for the Iron Age hill fort on nearby Liddington Hill and the wildlife that could be found there.  Employment as a reporter, initially with a local newspaper, developed his writing skills and his literary work began to be published, first as a series of essays and later in book form, from 1874.  He died from tuberculosis in 1887.  His books vary from collections of nature notes and the countrymen he encountered on his travels to novels, including one, After London, which would now be described as post-apocalyptical.  In it he describes how nature has taken over the now vanished city with its few surviving inhabitants returning to the lifestyle of many centuries before.  Jefferies still has his devotees, myself included, and he deserves better recognition.  The remainder of this post is my demonstration of how his words are of relevance to everyone today, especially those who are passionate about the wonders of nature – not the awe-inspiring world famous creatures or places but the everyday ones, found all around us, that should be equally awe-inspiring.

Nothing sums up my feelings towards the natural world better than these words of his.  They almost seem to have been written to illustrate this photograph of myself aged four with my father.

“So it seemed to me as a boy, sweet and new like this each morning; and now after the years they have passed, and the lines they have worn in the forehead, the summer mead shines as bright and fresh as when my foot first touched the grass…”      
The Open Air, 1885

“Next he stepped into the current, which, though shallow, looked strong enough to sweep him away. The water checked against him rose to the white mark on his breast. He waded up the rapid, every now and then thrusting his head completely under the water; sometimes he was up to his neck, sometimes not so deep; now and then getting on a stone…”                                                                 The Water Colley (Dipper), The Life of the Fields, 1884
“In the evening of a fine day the mists may be seen from hence as they rise in the meadows … beginning first over the brooks, a long white winding vapour marking their course, next extending over the moist places and hollows.”    
Wild Life in a Southern County, 1879
“Sometimes through these narrow slits (of cloud), long beams of light fall aslant upon the distant fields of the vale.  They resemble, only on a greatly lengthened scale, the beams that may be seen in churches of a sunny afternoon, falling from the upper windows on the tiled floor of the chancel, and made visible by motes in the air.  So through such slits in the cloudy roof of the sky the rays of the sun shoot downwards, made visible on their passage by the moisture or the motes of the atmosphere… the labourers say that the sun is sucking up water there.”   
Wild Life in a Southern County, 1879
“It is midsummer, and midsummer, like a bride, is decked in white. On the high-reaching briars
white June roses; white flowers on the lowly brambles; broad white umbels of elder in the corner,  and white cornels blooming under the elm; honeysuckle hanging creamy white coronals round the ash boughs; white meadow-sweet flowering on the shore of the ditch; white clover, too, beside the gateway. As spring is azure and purple, so midsummer is white, and autumn golden. Thus the coming out of the wheat into ear is marked and welcomed with the purest colour.”
Nature Near London,  1883
“…and finally is lost in the vast marshes which cover the site of the ancient London…  There exhales from this oozy mass so fatal a vapour that no animal can endure it. The black water bears a greenish-brown floating scum, which for ever bubbles up from the putrid mud of the bottom. When the wind collects the miasma, and, as it were, presses it together, it becomes visible as a low cloud which hangs over the place. The cloud does not advance beyond the limit of the marsh, seeming to stay there by some constant attraction; and well it is for us that it does not, since at such times when the vapour is thickest, the very wildfowl leave the reeds, and fly from the poison. There are no fishes, neither can eels exist in the mud, nor even newts. It is dead.”      
After London, 1885
“…the heat pours down by day as if an invisible lens in the atmosphere focussed the sun’s rays.
Strong woody knapweed endures it, so does toadflax and pale blue scabious, and wild mignonette…”                                       
Pageant of Summer, 1884
“Nature is a miniature painter and handles a delicate brush, the tip of which touches the tiniest
spot and leaves something living. The park has indeed its larger lines, its broad open sweep,
and gradual slope, to which the eye accustomed to small inclosures requires time to adjust
itself. These left to themselves are beautiful; they are the surface of the earth, which is always true
to itself and needs no banks nor artificial hollows. The earth is right and the tree is right: trim
either and all is wrong.”                                                 
Field & Hedgerow, 1889
 
Fortunately, much of his work is still readily available as books and, often, as free e-books.  The Richard Jefferies Society promotes his writing and holds regular meetings.  Visit their website by clicking the link here.  The farmhouse where Richard Jefferies grew up is now a museum dedicated to his life and work and well worth visiting.  Click here for details.
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The Earliest Signs of Spring

As I write this the rain is lashing against the window panes and beating down upon the glass roof of the conservatory; unrelenting, its endless patter has been sounding since before dawn.  In the last hour the wind has risen and the silver birch, its downward hanging branches blowing first this direction and then the other, sheds its brittle twigs, nature’s way of pruning out the dead wood.
The silver birch silvered by frost

There is no way of casting yourself free from the weather on a day like this.  From every room of the house the rain calls, the views of the secret valley are as montone as the sky; all shape is blurred and merges into one, no defined hills, no defined trees, no defined river bed, even the clouds have been replaced by a heavy, all-oppressing  blanket of grey.  It is as if the life-force has been drained from the landscape.

Siskins are exotic looking winter visitors
A flash of colour reminds us that this is not the case.  The colder air travelling towards us from the north has driven before it birds desperate to find slightly better conditions.  Far too exotic looking with their bright yellow bodies and sooty black head and bib to be outside the tropics, siskins have arrived to feed on the nut feeders.  They prefer the tiny, black niger seeds but the goldfinches are having none of it; they want to keep those for themselves.  Flurries of feathers, a mix of yellows, golds and reds fall as they scrap – the delicate lttle goldfinch is obviously tougher than it looks.  From time to time, flocks of long-tailed tits descend too to take their place in the food queue; they usually prefer to feed high up in the trees, their search given way by the soft, contact calls they make to keep together.
Siskin vie with Goldfinch for the niger seeds
Long-tailed Tits only visit the feeders in bad weather
It is the birds that tell us that spring is really not so far away.  First it is the robins, their sweet, melodic song sounding as if it should come from a bird twice their size, perhaps a blackbird.  Then it is the turn of the giant sized birds, the raven and the red kite, not with song but with the aerial acrobatics of their courtship displays.  Buzzards follow too but they are more content to circle ever higher, mewing to one another, attraction enough it seems.  All three birds have been rarities for most of the twentieth century but the reintroduction of the red kite in the 1980’s helped protect the buzzards from persecution.  The ravens followed later, arriving in the secret valley with the dawn of the new century – now all three are seen daily.
The forked tail is the easiest way to recognise the red kite
Winter aconites are the first of the flowers to appear, their yellow button flowerheads opening on fine days to prove that they are closely related to  wild buttercups both in flower shape and colour.  Nothing will hold them back and if they become covered in snow or rimed in frost it is of little consequence to them: they are back as pert as ever once the thaw comes.  Snowdrops quickly follow, also uncaring of the weather although they do bow their heads as if allowing their shoulders to take the brunt of it.
Winter aconites flower early whatever the weather
Every tree and shrub show signs of life too.  The hazel, its catkins stubby, hard and green for many weeks begin to lengthen, to grow brighter and looser until they live up to their old and descriptive country name of lamb’s tails.  Knocked back and discoloured by frost they soon restore or are replaced by others threefold.  Others are less precocious and prefer to show the signs of spring more discreetly.  The hawthorn leaf buds show signs of swelling and take on a brighter hue; the blackthorn and cherry flower buds also are clearly visible promising snowstorms of white and pink petals in a month or two.
Buds start to swell slowly at first

In the flower borders, life is stirring.  The hellebores lift their heads in shades of mournful maroons and creamy whites; the daffodils show their buds too almost as soon as they push through the soil waiting to open once they have reached their full height.  The day lilies are the earliest of the herbaceous plants to send out their leaves, their bright lime green shoots creating an attractive foil to the showier spring bulbs weeks before they send out spray after spray of exotic looking flowers.  Spring is just around the corner…

Hellebores flower early in the year

The day lilies won’t flower for some months but their leaves are amongst the first to show

In the meantime, the rain has turned to snow.  The countryside is turning white and still the wind howls.  Another day of winter to be crossed off the calender before we can relax and say “Spring has come”.

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My Favourite Tree

When I was a small child I was lucky enough to be sent to a school that had once been a large country house.  Its gardens had long been allowed to return to the wild and it was difficult to differentiate between them and the meadows that came with the property.  Lessons on warm summer days were often taken outdoors sitting not on chairs but on a bank of short mown grass.  This sounds – and was, of course – idyllic but rules were strict and we had to sit in rows as straight as the chairs in the classroom.  At playtime we could run about through the longer grass chasing butterflies and trying to catch grasshoppers in our school caps.

Even in those early days I hated being indoors during bad weather and found it hard to concentrate on lessons in the classroom for there always seemed to be something more interesting happening outside.  Our teacher must have felt the same for with the first sign of sunshine we would be back once more in the open air.  It is said that every child remembers the name of their first teacher and mine, Miss Vine, I recall with great affection and gratitude for it was she that first took me on a nature walk.  The walk – the earliest of all my schoolday memories – triggered off a lifelong love of and fascination with nature.

We were led one late winter’s day wrapped up in our gaberdine raincoats, belts tightly buckled at the waist, crocodile fashion in pairs through the meadows further than we had been before.  How exciting to be exploring somewhere new!  When we came to an old wooden gate we passed through onto a wide, open path lined with trees, their trunks as straight as soldiers and towering high above us.  The path instead of being muddy was soft and springy, our feet cushioned by years of fallen needles.  Miss Vine had brought us to a larch wood; an inspired introduction to trees for everything about them is childlike in scale apart from their height which she said led to a magic world way, way above.

We never were told how we might reach the magic world but she pointed out the gifts that were dropped from it so that we might learn all about the birds and animals that lived there.  She picked up a fallen piece of branch with its tiny cones attached, perfect child-sized miniatures of the larger Spruce fircones, and gave it to us to look at and then we all found our own and carried our ‘gift’ back to the classroom to draw it in painting class.

As the months went by we visited the trees often, watching how the hard, knobbly, dead-looking branches opened into soft tufts of the brightest green.  We marvelled at how the cones formed starting off green and pink before turning chestnut and then brown.  And in the autumn we watched as the needles – and it puzzled us that needles could be soft – turned glorious shades of yellow and orange before falling to the ground.
 
During those visits we learnt about different types of trees, about the wild flowers and birds, the animals and other wildlife.  It was only many years later that I realised that Miss Vine had taught us that there really was a magic world – the one that we live in and take for granted every day of our lives.

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First Build Your Bank ….

Some time ago I was asked if I could plant a hedge.  Straightforward enough, I thought and as it was to be a native hedge, I was especially keen to do it.  Using only native species is always a pleasure for not only are you maintaining a tradition that is centuries old, it is also excellent cover for twentyfirst century birds and animals.

It was only when I went to visit the site that it was mentioned that it would be rather nice if the hedge could be planted on top of a bank, reminiscent of those that are found in the West Country counties of Devon and Cornwall.

West Country banks use large amounts of stone in their construction and were built to protect livestock from the gales and snowstorms that sweep in from the Atlantic.  Over time they become encrusted in lichens and mosses with ferns, primroses and other wild flowers sprouting from every crevice.  They are usually topped with a beech hedge or, sometimes, gorse (or furze, as they call it on Exmoor).

The bank that I had to build was to be similar but faced with turf which would not be as strong. As it was to divide two halves of a garden and (hopefully) not have to keep out determined sheep or cattle, this didn’t matter.  The thing that did matter was that I had to build it in a way that would prevent it from falling down …..

I’ve always found that if you want to create an impression bring in a digger.  There is a morbid fascination in watching a digger at work for the destruction can be immediate and swift.  It certainly would have been if I had been in charge of the controls but, as is so often the case, when you need an expert it is better to bring one in.  I know where I am when it comes to shovels and forks and trowels but it is best not to let me loose with all those knobs and levers.

The ground cleared we were then able to lay out and start building the bank.  We imported the rubble and clod for the base which after being well rammed and compacted could then have a top layer of better quality topsoil spread over the surface.  All was held in place by large mesh chicken wire netting.

Next came the turf and this was laid direct onto the netting and held in place with hazel twig ‘pegs’.  These would gradually rot but not before the turf had grown its roots through the wire.   The netting, too would quite quickly rot (we didn’t use galvanised for we didn’t want it to last for years) and, by then and fingers crossed, the bank would be quite stable and self supporting.

It was with some trepidation when, a few weeks later we cut the top of the turf and the wire out so that we were able to prepare the bank for planting the hedgerow; especially so as we had had some torrential downpours giving me anxious moments about landslips and mudslides.  All, fortunately was well.

Having plants delivered, I find, is always an exciting moment.  It reminds me of when, as a child, I waited for Christmas morning and couldn’t wait any longer to open my presents.  Despite knowing what is coming out of the van, each plant or variety is met with little gasps of delight.   The thrill of knowing that, with luck, they will thrive and continue to grow for many years and may even be there long after I’ve been buried and forgotten is great.

The hedgerow was not the easiest thing to plant but the end result was pleasing.  The final combination was Hawthorn, Field Maple, Wayfaring Tree, Hazel, Dog Rose, Spindle and Hornbeam  with an occasional Honeysuckle to fill the evening air with perfume.  The birds took to it straight away and, in my imagination at least, mice and voles shelter amongst the trunks hiding from mirauding stoats and weasels.  Best of all is the knowledge that, a few years on, the bank is still standing!

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First Signs of Autumn

To quote from the Keats poem ‘To Autumn’, is rather cliched I know but it really is becoming the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” here in the secret valley. I have to admit until I decided upon the theme for this post that, although I had heard this line so many times before, I’d never read the poem. I suspect a large number of people would admit the same so I have included it here, in full, at the end.
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Almost imperceptably, the leaves have started to turn colour although they are still more green than yellow, orange or red. The most noticeable sign of the new season has been the berries and other fruits. Despite the heavy, late spring frosts we had, it seems to be a bumper crop this year although I have heard that commercial crops of apples are down by 30%.
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The river a few hundred yards downstream from our little stone cottage broadens to become a small lake, created 100 years ago to attract duck and fish for the pot. Invisible throughout the summer months because of the leafy shrubs that shield it, it gradually comes into view as the foliage withers and falls and the water levels rise with the winter rain. Then it gives us what one of our friends describes as “the best view from any bath(wash)room in England” – and it is! What can be more decadent than lying in the bath with a glass of wine in hand, watching the wild geese and swans flying in from who knows where, for we rarely see them during the summer months?
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And it is the river and lake that tends to give us the mists on cool mornings. There is such a subtle difference between these mists and the fogs that are much more widespread across the country. We can recognise the difference instantly but how do we describe it in meaningful words? Perhaps mists drift to rise and fall as strands of it are caught on the slightest breeze, an uplifting experience for the soul, whereas fogs sit heavily both on the ground and on our spirits?
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A few days ago, on such a misty morning, it was cool enough for a heavy dew to form transforming the scenery with its silver frosting. Cobwebs hung from every available perch: strands of wire, branches and twigs, even the dying flower stems of the wild plants were draped with them. The scene was of silence and stillness, no bird sang and even the brook seemed to gurgle and babble more quietly than normal, as if reluctant to wake the slumbering countryside.
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As if to confirm the silence and emptiness of the landscape, even the new seasons swan, that I had admired on the lake the day before, had gone. Heavily in moult, all there was to confirm its arrival were white feathers slowly drifting on the surface saying “Hush! Be still. All is calm”.
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To Autumn
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Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernal; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease.
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
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Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
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Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too –
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
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A Walk Along the River Otter: Part 2

The lower reaches of the river Otter turn from fresh water to brackish as the river joins the sea. At low tide, mud and salt flats are exposed creating a safe habitat for the hundreds of seabirds and waders that feed, breed or rest on migration there. This area, including its wildlife, I have written about earlier – it can be found by clicking here.
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This post describes a walk a little further upstream where the river flows through fertile fields of wheat and where cattle and sheep graze in lush riverside meadows.
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The river – which like our river in the secret valley – is really little more than a stream (or ‘brook’ as we say where I originate from – English dialect is another fascinating subject that I might write about one day!). One moment fast flowing, the next slow, but always crystal clear, the view is one of steep banks and stony bottom. It is here, in the shallower water, that the trout – huge in comparison with our tiny ones at home – sway in the current, waiting for food to be swept down towards them and their ever open mouths. At one place where the river runs across a steeply shelved weir, a salmon run has been built: a series of steps for the salmon to leap to reach the upper levels of the river for spawning after their long migration. Whether they still do, I do not know, for salmon stocks in England are dwindling fast.
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Wood and water, just nothing but water and wood, for the crowds of visitors that explore the river close to the beach and form long queues at the ice cream stalls have all been left far behind. Now the sights, sounds and smells are only those of nature on this glorious late summer’s day. The trees are only just beginning to show a hint of the autumn to come but, somehow, their berries have already stamped their mark on the autumn landscape, glowing in and reflecting the sun’s warmth.
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Along the river bank, swamping much of the native flora, the Himalayan Balsam is giving a final explosion of colour before the first frosts destroy them for another year. And explosion is the correct description of their bursting seed heads which throw the seed far and wide as they split open. Found in many damp places throughout the country, for its seeds are also dispersed by the movement of the water, the Himalyan Balsam is an unwelcome immigrant to Britain which is virtually impossible to control. A member of the Impatien family, its seedheads are similar to those of our familiar garden Busy Lizzie.
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Along the final stretch of our walk, the river is backed by the same red sandstone cliffs that can be seen by the coast. How many millenia did it take for this gentle stream to cut its way through to its present level? My photography skills – or perhaps my patience – did not allow me to get shots of the kingfishers that darted up and down as a flash of azure along this reach of the river. High up in the rock face, their nesting holes (or were they the breeding sites of the sand martins that had already begun their long flight south to winter in Africa?) were more easily photographed.

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The ten mile walk to the source of the Otter will have to wait for another visit to the West Country. Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention, otters can be found – but rarely seen – along the whole length of the river.

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A Great Start to 2010……

The sun is shining, the frost is crisp and the sky is blue – a perfect January day. And as if that wasn’t enough, we’ve seen a lot of interesting wildlife, some rare, some common and even some ‘old friends’. winter sunshine on silver birch

Our hare is back and as unconcerned by our presence as before, such a privilege for what is normally a nervous, flighty animal. For those of you that don’t know the story of ‘our’ hare, earlier last summer we had a family of two young and an adult and, as we were in the garden most days, they became oblivious to the threat we might pose. The story of this can be found on an earlier post. In fact, they became so tame that I was able to take all the photos of them by just walking up to them.

Fallow Deer – one of the larger species of deer to be found in England and quite common throughout the country. But like all deer, despite their size, they are remarkably difficult to see and watch. When I lived in the Chiltern Hills, 50 miles to the east of the secret valley, they grazed the field close to my windows, making watching easy. Here, we see them occasionally from the cottage – yesterday was one of those days. In winter, their coats lose their lovely dappled spots and become quite dark – the two pictures below show this, the lower one being taken last summer.
The Red Kite is one of the great conservation success stories of recent times. Once so common they scavenged in the streets of London (and had a reputation for stealing hats off people’s heads to decorate their nests with. These days they often use plastic instead – the Kites, not the people, I mean, of course). By the 1970’s numbers were down to just a few pairs living in the remotest parts of Wales. A breeding and reintroduction programme started in the 1980’s centered on the village in the Chilterns where I lived. Soon they were a relatively common sight in that area but they have been slow to extend their range. Now we are seeing them much more frequently in the secret valley and they never fail to thrill. The full story of the Red Kite can be found on the Chilterns website here.


And now, the real rarity! Little Egrets extended their distribution from Europe to southern England several years ago and for a while were found just on the warmer coastline. Three years ago, a pair wintered in the secret valley. When I saw a white bird on New Year’s Day, I first thought it was another egret but then realised it was much bigger – more the size of a heron. And unlike the hunched neck flight of the egrets, this bird flew with its neck outstretched: it was a Spoonbill. Although not unheard of in the UK, they are very irregular visitors and it was the first one I’ve ever seen, or ever likely too, I should think.

This photo is most definitely poor quality – I only have a small ‘aim and fire’ camera and took this from an upstairs window. I am hoping to buy a more sophisticated camera with telephoto lenses very soon: another unexpected side effect of blogging has been a rekindled interest in photography. Who knows what will show up on this blog then?

[The spoonbill has moved on southwards – I think this cold, snowy weather has proved too much for it. Still, we were lucky to have it around for a few days. 9th January 2009]

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Welcome!

A very warm welcome to my first blog!

Over the coming weeks and months I hope to share with you life in one of the most beautiful and unspoilt areas of southern Britain. You will see from my profile that I have many interests, mostly connected with gardening and the countryside and these will be included. I do hope that you will find the time to visit regularly and to offer your feedback so that I may improve the blog further. So, please, get emailing!

This is the top of ‘our’ secret valley , taken in high summer – a place full of wild flowers and birds and, nowadays, the occasional otter. More of that to come……