I have written about the ‘dream’ house before but recently the mystery of it took an unexpected leap forward.
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.
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 (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
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 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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
Is there such a thing as reincarnation? That, or do ghosts exist, is a question that crops up fairly regularly over dinner with friends. My answer is ‘I don’t know’ – then I tell them about my childhood recurring dream……
I wriggle through the opening and drop to the floor, a few feet below. Standing up, I see I’m in a small circular room and, above me, see that the ceiling is cloistered like in an old abbey building. And then I wake up and feel so warm and good inside that I’m happy all day.
The house won’t let go. Several weeks later I am asked to return on a regular basis as an adviser and I have been travelling there ever since – the last time to supervise the planting of lavender hedges and, when I return, I still get that warm, contented and happy feeling. Do I believe in reincarnation? I’m far too much a sceptic to say ‘yes’ but there are too many coincidences to give an emphatic ‘no’…..