Dropping In Unexpectedly

We are sociable animals here in the secret valley and nothing pleases us more than when friends call in unexpectedly as they pass by.  It doesn’t matter whether there is just one or twentyone, we can always find enough in the store cupboards to water, and feed them too if needbe.  More often than not, they are on their way somewhere so a cup of tea, or something a little stronger, is all that is required.

Not the secret valley but still in the Cotswolds.  If you click on the photo to enlarge it you can see that the river Windrush has as many twists and turns in it as our little river

Most of the time visitors arrive by car or on foot for the lane that brings you into the valley is as inviting and sinuous as the little winding river itself: it takes you across cornfields, through trees which create, at this time of year, a leafy tunnel before entering a fold in the hills lined with an avenue of cherry and lime trees.  It is here that you get your first glimpse of the river and beyond the meanders the lane turns sharply over the bridge taking you a few more yards to the door of our home.

The villages of Lower and Upper Oddington – you can clearly see the lines of the old ‘ridge and furrow’ field plough marks that can date back a thousand years or more

The secret valley, as I have mentioned before, is a landscape in miniature.  Everything is small – the road, the hills, the views, the river, even the stone built bridge you can pass over without noticing it.  If it all sounds very idyllic that is because it is.

A couple of weeks ago we had some very unexpected guests although we could hear them arriving for quite a while before they finally did so.  It was the unmistakeable sound of a hot air balloon losing height.  Hidden by trees we could not see who was landing but went off to investigate – She-dog leading the way – and to assist if required.  The multicoloured stripes told us it belonged to Charles Teall who lives some miles away and who had once taken me for a flight, although on that occasion we had not landed on our doorstep – for details of that flight click here.

Charles’ wife, Liz, incidentally, is a very talented potter and we have some very nice pieces of her work.  She, like myself, is interested in traditional folk music but, unlike me, she can sing and play the whistle and tabor; she also belonged until recently to a local Morris dancers side.  Have a look at her work by clicking here.

By the time we reached it, the balloon had already landed.  It never fails to surprise me just how large it is and just how small the basket is.

She-dog is normally fairly cautious and we thought that she would be nervous of the balloon.  As always, she proved us wrong and felt it important to inspect every part of the balloon: below, the folding meets her approval.  Talking of approval, those of you that follow She-dog’s exploits may have been wondering what is the latest on puppy news: there isn’t any.  On the last two occasions she has refused to co-operate.  She obviously felt that once was quite enough!

I am always surprised how neatly everything folds away and into such a small space.  There is always a mobile support team to assist where necessary so our help wasn’t required.  Once packed we were able to catch up with the latest news over a drink and reminisce about our trip flying over the Cotswolds.  The aerial shots were all taken on that day.

The counties of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, which form the greater part of the region known as the Cotswolds, have some of the best surviving examples of ridge and furrow.  To find out how these were created, click here.

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Fields of Red

Everyone seems to love poppies. It doesn’t matter if they are the delicate crepes of the Icelandic or big and blousy Oriental poppies – even ‘though the latter so often lie sprawling across the ground, flattened by the weather or their own weight. But most loved of all are the wild scarlet poppies that create a violent red gash across acres of wheatfields.


Despite being forever linked with the trauma and sadness of the Great War, poppies refuse to lower our spirits. Perhaps they even comforted and uplifted the tortured bodies and minds of the survivors of the battlefields. The famous lines from In Flanders Field have immortalised poppies in poetry but thirty years earlier that great (but now almost unknown) British naturalist, Richard Jefferies, was eulogising “proud poppies, lords of the July fields….no abundance of them can ever make them commonplace….”. How right he was.


Even the odd, single flower, struggling in a bit of dirt at the side of some waste ground, brings joy and admiration but it is, en masse, when the sight of thousands of them in flower in a cornfield stops you in your tracks and, for a moment, loses you in a heady delirium of colour.

When the steep, wild flower filled grass banks that make the ‘walls’ of the secret valley have given way to the flatter, arable lands and the lush water meadows and meandering river lie far below, the fields become larger and hidden by high hedgerows. The character of the secret valley is much changed up here: those unfamiliar with it would not know of its existance it is so concealed. The old field names reflect this – lower down the names end with the words ‘banks’, ‘close’, ‘grounds’, ‘meadows’, now they all end with the word ‘downs’ and you could be forgiven thinking that you were on vast rolling downland, for the eye leaps over the valley to more cornfields beyond. And, a few days ago, I climbed the old, timber stile that pierces the hedgerow to walk in the field known as’17 Acre Downs’ to be greeted by the lords of the July fields.

However it was not the sight of crimson stretching as far as the woodland in the distance that stopped me in my tracks for there, at my feet, was a single, pure white poppy. Just one amongst tens of thousands of scarlet.

Walking further I was stopped once again, this time by some pale pink blooms, not many, just about twenty. The sight was enchanting and magical. Why here? Why so few?

Once you look closely at a poppy in flower you realise just how spectacular it is. En masse, your mind is blown by the quantity and you stop seeing them as individuals. Now, with my senses heightened I realised that a field of red poppies are made up of numerous variations even though pink and white are very rare finds. The photographs below show just a few of these: crimped, streaky, waxy, single petalled, multi petalled, plain buttoned, black cross buttoned, the variations seemed endless.

It isn’t just the flower that deserves this close inspection. For the seedhead is also quite lovely. Its capsule, before ripened, the palest green with a black and cream striped lid, a black collar, encircles its tall, upright stem, covered with soft bristles. Once ripe it takes on the same golden hue of the corn crop it has invaded. Will these poppies breed true and will there be pink or white ones next year? Who knows, for the next day the field had been mown and, if not for the photographic record, could have been dismissed as a pure figment of imagination.

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Sun, Drought, Frost: at last, Rain…..

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It has been difficult to remember, sometimes, that it is still only spring time. After the unusually early, bitter and snowy winter weather we experienced, 2011 came in cold but dry. It remained so until the end of March when, wham!, summer arrived.
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With temperatures soaring into the mid 80’s, many plants struggled to open their buds (and the ash trees still haven’t done so properly). I had planned to write about this battle but became – as you may well know – rather obsessed with puppies ….
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However, many plants did rather better than normal. Tulips, especially the fragile doubles, were better than ever with no rain to spoil their petals, as have been the paeonies. Perfume has wafted about the garden in the warm evening air – can there be anything more lovely on both eyes and nose than this paeony and wisteria combination?
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The trees, later than has been usual for many years, finally started to come into leaf. Now the countryside is awash with May, cherry and Horse Chestnut blossom. It is all quite stunning. Or was.
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Out of nowhere, on Monday night, we had frost. The first for over five weeks, this was no slight touch of cold but one that turned the secret valley into a white valley of death. Well, I admit, that is rather an exaggeration but, I imagine it is due to the very hot temperatures immediately before, some plants – and especially the trees – have been decimated. One moment their new leaves hurt the eyes with their iradescent green, the next they are brown and shrivelled. Some, depending on how the cold air lay, have come through unscathed whilst their neighbour has been hit badly. Will they recover? I expect so but, possibly, too late to help the insects and birds that rely on the food source at this very moment. Time will tell.
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Just when our feelings were at their most depressed, the weather gave us another surprise. Rain. The first for many weeks, we have been desperate for it. The ground has been cracking, the river getting low, plants wilting and, worst of all, the farm crops not growing. In places, the young corn has started to go yellow. And when we least expected to get any, we awoke to the sound of rain on the windows. Our only neighbour, the farmer whose corn was suffering, and I were standing in the field below our homes, getting soaked and almost hugging each other with joy. It gave me just the slightest awareness of how people in countries that really suffer from prolonged droughts must feel. And it also made me aware of this rather primitive reaction of wanting to literally dance in the rain when it first arrives.
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. The old mortar in the garden is beginning to fill once again!
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The paeonies have been ‘knocked for six’ but, who cares? Apparantly, we have only had 1.5mm of rain during March and April compared with the 40-50mm in an average year. Let it rain for days now to restore the balance. But – as a gardener speaking – please only at night and only fall gently……
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Harvest Home – well at least a start’s been made

It is a rare sight to see more than one combine harvester in the small sized fields of the Cotswolds. Unlike the fleets of monster machines you see gradually working their way northwards across America, here they work individually or occasionally in pairs.

All the rain we have had this July – the wettest since the late 1800’s – has held up the start of the harvest and the machines have sat idle while the farmers have watched their golden corn, (in England we call wheat ‘corn’), turn black with moulds and the price fall, along with the quality. With modern drying techniques and machinery the crop can be salvaged but how terrifying it must have been, just a few centuries ago, knowing that hunger and possibly starvation was the only certain outcome.

Now the rape is safe in the barns, the wheat is on its way and the barley, still to cut, hopefully before it is lost completely to the weather.

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I sometimes think that our Cotswold country looks at its best when the fields are golden and the countryside takes on that special late summer look: the photo below is of a cornfield near Leafield, a village just outside the town of Witney. But then, when their season comes, I think that of spring or autumn or winter too for they each have their own special beauty and magic.

40 years ago when I helped on a farm on Exmoor, that wild country, they still harvested using the old fashioned binders. Placing the sheaves of corn upright, six to a ‘stook’ was skilled work and I remember my dismay when the first two rows that I stood toppled over like a pack of playing cards. The binder was considered long out of date even then but it suited the farmer and gave me an insight into a way of life now long lost.

The practice of stubble burning is also lost but this is due its being made illegal, except under special circumstances. Used mostly to get rid of pests and diseases and excess straw, it was an exciting if somewhat frightening sight. Occasionally these fires would get out of control but our changeable climate meant that there was no risk of the ‘wild’ fires of elsewhere in the world, with the devastation that those cause. This photo was taken a few years back from my garden when I lived in the Chiltern Hills, 50 miles away.

Fingers crossed for a few more dry days and the harvest safely in – then we can all celebrate with the Harvest Home.