The Glories of a Beechwood

Buckinghamshire, one of the so-named Shire counties, lies to the north-west of London.  A long, narrow county; the southern part is renowned for its beech woodlands.  Although greatly diminished in size over the centuries, many of them are still there, remnants of the ancient woodlands that once covered much of Britain, although the industries that they supported are long gone.

Nr Fingest 2 watermark

In the Chilterns the beechwoods can almost engulf the lanes

Straddling the Buckinghamshire/Oxfordshire borders the Chiltern Hills extend diagonally northwards into neighbouring Bedfordshire where they change character from dense woodlands to more open downland.  It is within the shadow of the southern woodlands where I was born and where I lived for the greater part of my life before moving to the secret valley in the Cotswolds.  Inspired by Enid Blyton’s The Children of Cherry Tree Farm, my childhood was spent crawling around the fields, woods and hedgerows learning as much as I could about the wild birds and animals that lived within them.john david shortland 1965 watermark

Although nowadays the woods appear mostly deserted, they are still made use of.  The old tracks and paths that were once used by the men and women that worked and lived there are trodden by walkers, and by the wildlife that remains elusive for only those that move quietly have the pleasure of seeing anything other than a glimpse of a fleeing animal.

Woodland Track (2) watermark

This centuries old track leads down into a deep valley

Fallow Deer watermark

Fallow deer can often be seen at rest in clearings if you walk quietly

The making of chair legs to keep the flourishing furniture industry of High Wycombe, the local market town, was carried out within the woodland by men who would set up shelters there.  Known as chair-bodgers, a local dialect word originally confined to this immediate area, they were highly skilled craftsmen who could earn relatively high wages for their work.  The Second World War virtually ended the centuries old tradition, the last being Samuel Rockall who died in the early 1960s.  I had been unaware of Rockall’s life until I researched for this blog post and it seems as if we may have been related for I have Rockalls in my family tree.  In the 1851 census return one of my ancestral cousins is described as a chair turner living in the village where I spent much of my adult life.  More research required!

1851 census - Rockall

Jonathan Rockall, chair turner and ancestral cousin in the 1851 census return.  His wife, Ann, a lace maker,- another local craft

Some of my cousins?! Photo from an old book ‘English Country Life & Work’

It is, perhaps, springtime when the beech woods are most visited for the forest floor is carpeted with bluebells.  The intensity of their colour plus the iridescent green of the tree’s unfurling leaves almost hurt the eyes.  With early morning sunshine the scent is unique and difficult to describe – gentle is the best I can come up with.  As the day progresses the scent is quickly lost.Chilterns Beechwood copyright

During midsummer, the woods become visually silent: the leaves have turned a dark, leathery green and the bluebells gone to lie dormant for the rest of the year.  With autumn, the trees become alive once more with colour, this time as their leaves turn into every shade of copper, gold and brown before they drop to the ground for winter.  It is then that the smooth bark of the trees come to the fore with a silvery sheen that catches the low light of a winter’s day.  Although it may seem as if the woodlands are sleeping, in places the first bluebells are starting to poke their noses through the leaf litter.  Spring is on its way.Autumn colour watermarkIbstone 1984 watermark

Advertisements

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.

 
 
 

Add to Technorati Favorites

Summer, Autumn, Summer, Autumn

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

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

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

…….. dead from frost

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

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

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

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

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

Add to Technorati Favorites

A Day’s Plant Hunting

One of the pleasures of living on a small island is that you are never far from anywhere – except another country (apologies to Wales and Scotland, I know that you are proud of your separate identities and rightly so).

So last Friday I spent at home in the Cotswolds – limestone country, wide open views and rolling pastures. Saturday I spent walking across Dartmoor (post to follow) – granite country of bleak, open moorland and few trees. Today I spent walking in the Chiltern Hills, my birthplace, a chalk country, densely wooded and secretive. All are beautiful in their own way.


And today was especially special for I was on a mission: looking for rare plants. And with some success, although just as much delight was found in the more common ones, for seeking pleasure from rarity for rarity’s sake is a poor emotion. What could be more charming a discovery than this group of foxgloves in a woodland glade? A common enough plant: I prefer the wild to the garden varieties, that have been bred to have ever larger ‘cups’. Here, the wild plants have a grace and delicacy that is so unlike their brasher relatives.


The group of thistles didn’t seem to be of special interest other than for the pleasure of watching the bumble bees feed from their flowers. But when seen in close detail the flowers really are quite spectacular. Most of these were purple but some that, from a distance, appeared to have prematurely gone to seed turned out to be a variant – they had white flowers. How glad I was that I had dawdled and not just rushed past without giving them a second glance!



Further into the woodland and growing in dappled shade was the first of the ‘finds’. Our native Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) is not often seen. Many that appear wild are garden escapes and are usually close to roads or houses but these were a long way from either. And, again, the flowers have a delicacy and lightness about them. Ladies Bonnets is another country name for them – it is easy to see why.


The Narrow Leaved Helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia) is also uncommon and it was only after this one was found that we realised that there were over forty plants scattered over the area. Like the Columbine, where the plants were not sheltered by scrub or ferns, the deer had eaten the tops off. The flowers remain closed, making them unavailable to insects so, I assume, the plants self pollinate – perhaps that is why they are not at all common.


Further still along the path, was this solitary speciman of Daphne laureola, the Spurge Laurel. Although this plant grows quite widely in the Chilterns, this was the only specimen seen today. It flowers in late winter, it’s greenish-yellow flowers lacking the sweet scent of its garden cousins. Already the berry seedheads are forming, these will turn black later in the year. The Mezereon, a popular garden shrub in the past but not grown so widely these days, is also a native but extremely rare. It is known to grow in the Chilterns although I’ve never found one.


Returning once more to open meadows the woodland gave one last surprise: tall Field Maples, Acer campestre, usually grown as a hedging plant. And this is how it would have started out: one trunk, coppiced and layed to create sturdy, stockproof fencing. The original trunk has long disappeared and the ‘new’ stems from around its base have grown to be trees in their own right. For a maple to be of this size – and they rarely are – it would have been planted in Medieval times and it is known that the field that it borders was first created by the Saxons, 1000 years ago.


And as a grand finale, the meadow gave us dozens of Common Spotted Orchids – only common in favoured places, the spots refer to those on their leaves. The Chilterns are a great place for orchids and are home to some of the rarest species – their sites a closely guarded secret.
A most successful and satisying day!

Add to Technorati Favorites

When Greens Defeat the Blues……

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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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


Yes, life is good. No complaints. Honest!

Add to Technorati Favorites

The Real Vicar of Dibley

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

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


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

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

Add to Technorati Favorites

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]

Add to Technorati Favorites

I Know a Bank Where The Wild Thyme Grows…..

Was William Shakespeare sitting in our secret valley when he wrote these words? I doubt it, although we are less than 30 miles from his birthplace at Stradford-upon-Avon. But on the slopes above our little winding river (it’s the photo of the title header) the thyme flowers year after year.

Wild flower meadows are quite easy to create whether on the big scale or in the garden. Of course, the species rich meadows of the Chilterns and Cotswolds have evolved over centuries and have a wealth of insect and plant life to show for it. In the garden you just have to be a little more realistic and be grateful for every bug and butterfly that comes along and colonises it. Hopefully wild orchids, like the Pyramidal orchids below, will arrive too.
The golden rule of all meadows is to reduce fertility. As soon as fertility rises, usually through feeding, the grass sward thickens and out competes the flowers. The photo below is of ‘our’ bank and shows, as a golden haze, the unimproved grassland – thin, tall and sparse and too steep for the tractors to get onto and spray. The brighter green grass above and below is where the tractors can reach, the grass has been fed and, consequently, there are few wild flowers.

Late summer wild flower meadows require a different maintenance regime to those which have an abundance of spring flowers and, as it is that time of year, I shall concentrate on the former. Now is the time to cut the ‘hay’ whether on the bigger scale such as in this orchard or, by hand, in the garden. It is important to get the timing right – you need to leave it late enough for the seeds to fall from their heads to increase more. Leave it too late and bad weather knocks the grass and plants flat to the ground when it becomes a devil of a job to cut. The difference is a task that is a joy to do or one that is totally hateful!

Once cut, I then mow the meadow regularly as a normal lawn, even topping it once or twice in the winter if the weather is mild enough. In spring I continue to mow quite regularly, gradually increasing the cutting height until I stop totally about early May. This way, it does not become too unruly later on in the year.

The golden rule is to pick up and remove all clippings – leave lying on the surface and the fertility of the soil will begin to increase again.

Hardheads, the local name I learnt for Knapweed in my Chiltern Hills childhood, is a favourite flower of mine. Although normally purply-mauve (above), I found this bi-coloured one and some pure white flowered ones growing in an old meadow – rarities, indeed. I live in hope that they might appear one day in the secret valley!

Neglect does not create a meadow. If you don’t work at it all you will end up with is a sheet of docks, nettles and thistles as has happened in this garden here – not a pretty sight!

And finally – don’t collect plants from the wild: they have enough problems with survival without you adding to them! Collecting seed is probably ok (check any bye-laws first and get permission from the landowner) or buy seed or plants from specialist nurseries or garden centres.

Add to Technorati Favorites