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

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Hedgerow Project – Revisited

Back in March of last year I decided to run an informal monthly survey of the hedgerow that follows the line of the little country lane that runs past our cottage in the secret valley.  Parts of the lane are an ancient ‘green’ road and so would have once been busy with drovers herding their sheep and cattle to market.  There are only two houses in our part of the valley and the other is reputed to be an old drovers’ inn.  Our place was built a lot more recently in the 1850’s so may just have witnessed the passing of the tradition as livestock began to travel along the more direct and newly created turnpikes.  It was also necessary for the secret valley to have a more direct route to the turnpike and a new road was built that went past the little winding river in the header photo above.  Where it joined the turnpike it was marked by a white gate and even though it was removed a hundred years or more ago we still talk of turning left or right ‘by the white gate’.  This is rather confusing to those unaware of the history behind the expression – it took me two years before I found out why I could never see it!  In the decades that followed the ‘old road’, as it is now known, became disused and is now part of the footpath and bridleway networks used by walkers and horse riders.

Drove roads can be very ancient indeed and they were often marked by hedgerows to provide shelter and food and to prevent stock from straying.  These were often linear strips of the original wildwood left after the remainder of the trees had been clear felled – in our case, the Wychwood Forest.  As a result, the wild flowers associated with these ancient woodlands have survived nestling in the hedgerow bottom giving a good indication of their history.  So sensitive are these plants to change that it is possible to follow the line of the original road by the flora growing alongside it.  Although the newer parts of our lane – now probably two hundred years old – are also lined with hedges of equal stature, the plants have yet to colonise.  To record these changes was the initial idea behind my hedgerow project.

Like all plans, it didn’t quite work out.  In my first and only blog post about the project, I described March as being warm and dry; in fact it was hotter than normal and then turned out to be the hottest month of the year.  In April, the weather turned cooler and, on the day that drought was officially declared, it began to rain until the year was declared the wettest ever recorded.  This coupled with other commitments and the commissioning of my book on gardening meant the idea was abandoned to be resurrected this year.  That hasn’t gone quite to plan either!

So rather than set myself the unrealistic target of recording on a specific day of each month, I shall satisfy myself with just taking photographs when I either have the time or feel in the mood.  Not scientific, I know – and certainly not disciplined – but the pleasure I get from walking along the lane every day is not just because of the plants I see.  For me, it is knowing that I’m following an ancient track that has been trodden by countless generations of hard working countrymen.  Some of the trees I pass are the same as when they walked by; the secret valley still echoes to the sounds of sheep and cattle and the little winding river waters them and refreshes sore, tired feet on a hot, summer’s day.  It is twelve years since I came to the secret valley and it is still releasing its secrets.  How many times have I walked along a sunken track above the house to a rough patch of uncultivated land? Now recently learnt, I know it is the site of a Bronze Age settlement and the thought that this special place has been home to us lucky few for three thousand years or more is a humbling and joyous experience.

To view the original post from March 2012, click here.

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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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What A Difference A Year Makes

The British are always going on about the weather and I’m no exception.  My very first words upon waking are “What is the weather doing?” and my final words before sleeping are “What will the weather be doing?”.  I make no apologies for this: it’s part of our make-up as a nation.  It’s because, I was once told, that whereas other countries have seasons, Britain just has weather.  It’s not quite that simple, we do have seasons – Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter – just like any other temperate country, it’s just that in the UK they get a bit muddled up.

I write this, snug in front of the woodburner – not that much heat is getting past She-dog who thinks this has been lit solely for her pleasure and comfort – listening to a gale rattling the window panes and whistling around the eaves.  The rain is lashing down and there is absolutely no need for me to ask what the weather is doing this evening.  However, I have been told that I have said “Listen to the weather” several times. I could have said how remarkable it is that only yesterday I had my lunch sitting in the garden.  Yes, really.

I should admit that I am a hardy sole as I work outdoors all year and so am less affected by cold than most and I also should admit that I was wearing a coat and gloves and sitting in a sheltered, sunny spot. Regardless of those finer details, yesterday I commented how last year to the day we were up to our necks in snow in the worst wintry weather the Secret Valley had had for years.  And, even more remarkably, the snow came when you would expect it  –  in midwinter but (and there’s always a ‘but’ where British weather is concerned) in the Cotswolds we rarely get snow before January …..   But it was still rather remarkable to be sitting there, surely and remark worthy?

What is even more remarkable is that all of this week I have been planting out herbaceous plants and laying turf; late even by our odd climate standards.  We have had frosts: there were three quite hard ones in October, then none until the last week of November and then a couple more last week and none since.  In between, we had two weeks of warmish air and thick fog which was enough to make even me depressed. 

The spirits, even on those damp, grey days, were uplifted by the huge array of flowers that have reappeared.  There are always a few late roses hanging on determinedly until Christmas Day, looking bedraggled and ragged but not this time.  Some of them have given up but others have almost as many blooms as midsummer.  There are pots of herbaceous Salvia nemerosa ‘Mainacht’ that have regrown after their end-of-season haircut and are in full bloom once again.  Primroses and cowslips are showing colour.  Today I counted over twenty different summer flowering plants still going strong.  That’s a bit of an exaggeration, I really mean showing the odd flower or two.  All the plants have become muddled so we have Winter Jasmine as you would expect but not alongside spring flowering Forsythia.  And we have evergreen, flowering shrubs such as Viburnum and Sarcococca as we should have at this time of year – but not alongside the newly unfurling purple leaves of Cotinus cogyggria.  Where, or more to the point, when will it all end?  Possibly quite soon.

It isn’t just the garden that is confused.  On the farm the cattle are still out grazing the fields.  They should be inside by now but with plenty of grass still available in the fields they can be out for a little longer. 

While I am here writing about a bit of wind and rain, the north of England and Scotland, in particular, are bearing the brunt of 100mph gales and heavy snow.  Perhaps we are quite fortunate, after all.  The rain here is only supposed to last a few hours and tomorrow is forecast unbroken sunshine once more.  Which reminds me, I  really must start talking about the lack of rain we have had in recent months.  The little winding river is running lower than it ever has and can be easily walked across in places in just walking boots where the water flows over gravel .  It should look, at this time of year, like the photograph I use on the header to this blog.  Instead it looks like midsummer again with the water, where it flows deeper, still choked with watercress.  Oh well!  I suppose I should be grateful that I am still able to go out and pick it in December – I can make a store of some delicious hot soup to drink when the weather realises it is winter.

All the photographs, except for She-dog in the snow, were taken over the past week or two.  When the frost has been hard the Secret Valley has looked at its best.

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