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.

Ibstone watermark

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?”

Ibstone Common (2) copyright

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.

Ibstone watermark

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.

Trout x 5 watermark

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.”

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.

Brendon Barton 1968 (4a) watermark

Brendon Barton 1968

Pruning watermark

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

 

 

 

Reincarnation or Just Coincidence?

I have written about the ‘dream’ house before but recently the mystery of it took an unexpected leap forward. 

I am a small child running through the countryside when I arrive at what appears to be a derelict house.  At least I always assumed it was derelict for the two windows looked as if they had silted up and instead of being full length they were only one-third of their normal height.

The windows are at the back of the house but initially I approached it from the front.  There is a long driveway and as I run around a bend suddenly there, in front of me, is the house.  It is huge but very symmetrical – just as a small child would draw one if asked.  No sooner have I seen it than, in that typical disjointed dream way, I am around the back by the windows.

 I manage to wriggle through one of them and as I do I fall a short distance to the floor.  It is a small circular room with several doors leading off it; as I stand up I lift my head to look at the ceiling: it has stone vaulting just like an abbey might be.  And then … I wake up.  I don’t feel scared, I feel happy and warm inside as if I’ve come home after a long time away.

The dream recurs regularly from my very early childhood right through to the day in my late twenties when I awake and for some reason decide to draw the house.  No matter how hard I try, I can only draw it as a small child might but, somehow in doing so, I break the spell and I never dream of the house again.
Fast forward fifteen years and a career change to gardening for a living.  Now a trained Head Gardener I apply for a post in a village I have never heard of and arriving for my interview I proceed up a long, half mile driveway, round a bend and, yes you’ve guessed correctly, there is the house of my dream.  I am shown around the gardens and finally, at the end of the interview, approach the house from the rear.  There are the two windows…      

Having successfully got the job, part of my remit is to tend the house plants.  The room with the two windows is a small circular library with three doors leading off.  When I pluck up the courage to talk to my employer of the dream she tells me that the house was once a convent and this room is adjacent to the old chapel, now used as a dining room.  As for the vaulted ceiling she says there could be for the present plain one is false although they have no intention of changing it to find out.  I ask her what the tall obelisk at the front of the house commemorates.  She tells me it is rather a sad story: it is a memorial to the only son of the family for whom the house was being built in the early 1700’s.  He died before it could be completed and so they gave it to the nuns to live there.

I officially left the job – and I thought the house – thirteen years ago to take up a new position in the Cotswolds.  In many ways I was sad to go for I loved being there but a change had beckoned. Some months later I receive a telephone call asking me to act as a consultant on an occasional basis – is it the house that has prompted this – and I have returned regularly ever since.

Move to the present day after a gap in visits of several months where I admire the new building set in the grounds close to the house, an indoor swimming pool.  I am told that there were a number of problems in completing the work for when they started digging the builders dropped into an underground room.  Its existence had not been known of before and yes, you’ve guessed correctly, it had a stone vaulted ceiling…

Reincarnation or coincidence – I’ll leave you to decide.  I’m happy either way and if it is reincarnation I am delighted with the obelisk that has been placed in my memory.  I shan’t be asking for it to be taken down just because I’ve returned…

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An Ancient Craft – Flint Knapping

The very earliest tools known to man were made of flint or antler and in the Chiltern Hills, where I was brought up and lived for most of my life, it wasn’t that unusual to dig up stone scrapers or even an occasional arrowhead, perhaps 4000 years old or more.  One scraper that I found many years ago is shaped perfectly to fit between the thumb and forefinger and still has an edge so sharp that it cuts card. 

To create these tools, the flints had to be chiselled or ‘knapped’, a technique that requires hitting the stone at an oblique angle with another hard object – such as another stone – to make it flake.  With the coming of the Iron Age, the need for stone tools was no longer required but the skill did not die out and even today there is a requirement for the finished material.

Flint, a type of quartz, is extremely hard and durable and, being found in quantity in the chalk hills of the Chilterns, was the natural material for housing there.  All types of properties used it from the humblest cottage to larger homes and churches.

One of the finest flint built villages can be found at Turville.  If the two photos below look familiar this is because they feature in the comedy television series, The Vicar of Dibley with actress Dawn French, playing the part of the Revd. Geraldine Grainger.  The village also featured in the 1998 film Goodnight Mr Tom, starring John Thaw.  The church dates back to the twelfth century.

 

In the hills of the Cotswolds, the honey coloured limestone is the premier building material for almost everything but is especially well-known  for its use in the dry stone field walls and village houses.  At Stow-on-the-Wold in the centre of the region is the building below, once the office of the local brewery.  It is rare to find flint used in the area and, as can be seen, it has been used decoratively, something that is not found to my knowledge in the Chilterns.

Although all of these images show properties that date back at least 150 years or more, flint continues to be occasionally used in modern housing and was even used as embankment supports on the M40 motorway when it was widened in the Chilterns a few years ago.  As found throughout the centuries, when digging through the chalk, it proves to be the cheapest and most readily sourced building stone.

To find out more about flint knapping or to book a course to learn the art visit www.flintknapping.co.uk .  It is worth looking at just to hear the magical sound of primitive flutes made from elder  tree stems.

 
 
 

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Hedgerow Update 1

When I wrote my initial post on the ancient hedgerow that leads uphill out of the secret valley I intended to update it on a monthly basis (click here).  What a failed idea that has proved to be!  For March 10th  was as hot a day as any summer’s and that, coupled with a very dry winter, created the worst drought for many years.  The day that I had intended to walk the hedge (and also the day that a hose pipe ban was announced) the heavens opened and we have had torrential rain ever since.  I have been soaked to the skin most days because of work – I had no intention of a second soaking whilst carrying out hedge surveying upon my return home.

A break in the clouds, however, allowed me to sprint up the lane snapping away with the camera moments before the next deluge. No time to marvel at the way nature responds to climate or to look carefully to see what species of plants might be new to my eyes.  The only wildlife I saw was a solitary snail, pale lemon in colour and rather pretty – if you can describe a snail as such – which dropped off it’s grass blade perch the moment I got the camera in focus.  I’m sure I heard it giggling in the undergrowth.
Here is what I did see.

Cowslips
Cowslips (Primula veris) are a great favourite of mine bringing back memories of early school for ours had a play area that was carpeted with them.  Years ago no-one worried about picking great bunches of them or digging some up for the garden which we all did yet the numbers there didn’t seem to diminish.  However, overpicking (or perhaps spraying roadside verges) meant that the cowslip became a scarce plant.  Happily, they are now seen sporadically along the Cotswold lanes although not on my old school playground which became a high density housing estate in the ’80’s. Along our hedge, cowslips appear in small numbers which, hopefully, will increase over the years.  Further up the valley a field grazed only by sheep and never sprayed is a yellow carpet at this time of year and on warm, still days, the faint smell of honey wafts around transporting me back more years than I care to admit to.

    Cowslip meadow in the secret valley

Primroses

The last few primroses are still in bloom, quite late for this time of year and no doubt, like some of the daffodils, lasting longer because of the cool, damp weather.  Primula vulgaris, their botanical name, sounds like a misnomer for their is nothing vulgar about them, for every part of a primrose is pretty, whether it is the palest lemon of their petals, the deeper yellow throat or the fresh green of their leaves.  Even the ribbing and lines of their veins create attractive patternss and textures.  Vulgaris does, of course, mean common – there is nothing common about them in appearance either!

The hot March had an odd effect on plants. Some revelled in it, throwing caution to the wind and paraded their summer finery early, whereas others seemed to remember the old saying about not casting a clout ’til May is out. Proven right, when cold returned in April, they now seem reluctant to even expose a leaf and, as a result, the hedgerow is bright green  in places, yet bare and wintry looking in others.

 Field Maple

Field Maple is a classic old hedgerow plant.  Left to grow untouched it makes a medium sized tree of, to my mind, simple but great beauty.  However, it is usually trimmed to make a reasonably dense, twiggy barrier.  Like all maples the flowers and leaves emerge together but I had never noticed before the rich mahogany colour of the leaf buds. Acer campestre.

Ground Ivy

 A plant so common and so small as to be overlooked, Ground Ivy (not related to ivy but to mint)has to be viewed on hands and knees to see its quiet beauty: tiny, mauve, hooded trumpets darkening at the throat.  According to my old herbals it was used for all sorts of ailments from the uterus to inflamed eyes and everything in between.  Glechoma hederacea, in a greyish variegated form is often used in hanging baskets where it is seen trailing in ugly, thick ribbons.  Leave it where it belongs – trailing over the ground at the foot of a hedgerow.  Perhaps it should be used in the garden in this way? 

 Jack-by-the-Hedge

Jack-by-the-Hedge or Garlic Mustard is a common plant and quite a useful addition to early spring salads for its shredded leaves have a mild garlic taste.  In the photo above it grows along with stinging nettles and the fine leaves of Cleavers or Goose-grass.  It is the food plant of the Orange Tip Butterfly which is quite regularly seen throughout the secret valley, although scarce so far this spring due to weather conditions.  Occasionally they fly into the house and require rescuing – not always as easy as in this photo!

 Orange Tip Butterfly – only the male is coloured orange

Bluebells with White Dead-Nettle

Bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scriptus, are another of the ancient woodland indicators (click here for more details of this term) and they flower the whole length of the hedgerow.  In the Chiltern Hills, the area where I spent most of my life, the beechwoods are renowned for their Bluebell carpets (photo below).  Here, they grow more sparsely, with the occasional white flowered sport growing amongst them. In the photo above, it is the white flowered dead-nettle they mingle with.  The dead-nettle, Lamium album, is not related to the true nettle and has no sting, just an unpleasant smell when the leaves are crushed.  In the garden it is a nuisance with a white, running root, quite thick and brittle unlike the stinging nettle’s yellow, fibrous root system – a useful way to tell them apart if uncertain, apart from the sting, of course.

A bluebell wood in the Chiltern Hills in Spring

 Burdock leaves
The large leaves of Burdock, Arctium minus, are already forming rosettes.  It will be a while before they send up their spikes of lilac flowers, reminiscent of those of the thistle and even longer before the troublesome round seedheads, the burs, stick to clothing and She-dog.

The secret valley in flood
It was at this point that the heavens opened once again giving me just time to take a snap of the little winding river.  It’s clear, sparkling waters have been transformed by rain to a swirling, brown muddy spate that has now burst its banks spreading out across the valley.

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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.

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The Large Skipper and a Comma

As far as butterflies go, the Large Skipper is not particularly uncommon but I don’t recall seeing them in quite the numbers that I have this summer. They are active butterflies, frequently on the move and fast flying but eventually come to rest to feed or bask in the warmth of the sun.
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The Large Skipper lays its eggs on a variety of grasses and so can be found in many habitats, particularly the edge of woodlands and along woodland rides. The photo below, taken in the deeply wooded Chiltern Hills, may look like a woodland ride but it is an ancient Saxon field or ‘assart’. Assarting – the destruction of forest for agriculture – was considered to be one of the gravest crimes of all when carried out in any of the Royal Forests. This field still has remains of old coppiced or possibly of layed hedge – there is one Field Maple, Acer campestre that probably dates back a 1000 years to Saxon days. It now consists of a series of smallish trees around the space where the original trunk would have been.
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Despite its name, the Large Skipper is quite a small butterfly. The females, which are slightly larger than the males, have a wingspread of less than one and a half inches. Their diminutive size has not prevented them from spreading far and wide globally: they can be found from England in the west of Europe, right across the continents, to Japan in the Far East. For some reason they are not found in Ireland or most of the Mediterranean islands. However, their range is still spreading so perhaps they will colonise these places too one day.
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The golden glow of these butterflies gives them a certain charm but they can not be described as pretty, especially with their huge, bulbous eyes. This glow is also present in the underside of the wing which shows up faint spots and helps to distinguish them from the Small Skipper and the Silver Spotted Skipper, both of which are to be found in Britain but far less frequently. The latter, incidentally, is also found in parts of North America.
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Another golden butterfly, but this time a very attractive one, is the Comma. It is everything the Large Skipper isn’t – delicate, attractively marked and large. This butterfly was rare when I was a child but numbers have increased rapidly in recent years and it is now no longer considered endangered.
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"A Massive Piece of Granite"

It is a family joke that whenever a large piece of stone is seen, one person asks “What is it?” and the other answers – slowly and after much deliberation and head scratching – “well, it’s a massive piece of granite”. For, many years ago, this was the only answer we got from an old countryman at an ancient stone burial chamber that towered above us.
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Burial chambers, stone circles and other standing stones, which mostly date back 5000 years or so are reasonably common around Britain,and a surprising number of them are quite impressive. There are several scattered around the Cotswolds and I have written about our little known and little visited Old Soldier and also the very well known and very much visited stone circle, the Rollright Stones.
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The Old Soldier
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The Rollright Stones
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Far more scarce and, perhaps even more impressive, are the stone ‘clapper’ bridges. These are often not as old as they look although, even these, were probably built the best part of a 1000 years ago. I find these bridges, which are mostly in the West Country on Dartmoor and Exmoor, just as impressive as Stonehenge, England’s world famous ancient stone monument. The clapper bridge in the photoographs below is at Postbridge, on Dartmoor, in the county of Devon. This clapper bridge was built to aid the transport of tin from moorland mines about 1200AD.
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The ‘new’ bridge in the background, which carries the road and car traffic over the East Dart river is a mere upstart, having been built about 1780. In the photo below, I love the way the arch of the new bridge is framed by the ‘arch’ of the old one.
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The granite slabs measure over 4 metres (13ft) long and are over 2 metres (6ft 6in) wide and weigh over 8 tons each. Despite this, over the centuries they have been swept away downstream by floods. Some have been rebuilt many times, others lost forever. However did they, without modern technology, transport them?
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The bridge just invites you to step onto it and it can be the starting point of many walks that lead across the open moorland. It was for me, a couple of months ago. On that walk, I found deserted settlements and the most incredible stone circle – unusual in that there were two circles side by side. I shall write more of this soon.
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Even now, when a special occasion needs to be commemorated it is to stone that we often turn to. To my knowledge, no modern material is in common use to mark the burial place of a loved one: we mark our graves in a very similar way as our most distant ancestors, with stone slabs.
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We also use stone to mark more joyous occasions. This standing stone was placed on Ibstone Common, high in the Chiltern Hills, to commemorate the millenium. A small thread that unites us through 5000 years of history and far into the future – a comforting thought.
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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!

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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!

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