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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Chipping Norton – One Week To Go!



Chipping Norton, one of the gateway towns of the Cotswolds often gets overlooked on the tourist trail.  It is not surprising in some ways for many of the region’s towns and villages look as if they have come straight off the lid of a chocolate box – all golden, mellow stone crouched under a heavy hat of deep thatch, devoid of much of twenty-first century life.  Chipping Norton – or Chippy as it is affectionately known by the locals – is different: a bustling, working town full of people going about their everyday lives , whether shopping or working.

Look beyond the modern shop fronts and traffic and you find a gem of a town; raise your eyes for every building has a different façade and, yes, they too are built from Cotswold stone.  Explore the side streets and you find almshouses and a magnificent church and both the 16th century Guildhall and the Town Hall are as glorious a building as you will see anywhere.  Bliss Mill,  a former tweed mill now converted to flats, is surrounded by common land that reaches into the heart of the town.

Chippy is a busy place socially too and for a small town with a population of only 6000 there is always something taking place.  Perhaps one of the most ambitious of recent events is the Chipping Norton Literary Festival (ChipLitFest), the first of which was held last year to great acclaim.  This year it is bigger than ever and starts in just seven days time on the 18th April and continuing throughout the weekend.

 

Because the town is so small, the festival is held in numerous venues.  It is fortunate to have an award winning theatre to stage larger events and an award winning bookshop, Jaffe & Neale, that holds workshops – and sells the most delicious coffee and cakes.  It seems everyone is involved in one way or another: the Chequers pub, the Blue Boar Inn, the Crown & Cushion Hotel, the Vintage Sports Car Club, the local churches, the library; even the shoe shop is hosting a children’s event.  Incidentally, there are free things going on for youngsters all weekend and the festivals designated charity this year is Storybook Dads, which connects prisoners with their families through books and reading.

So who is coming to the festival? There is an amazing choice of eighty authors so there is bound to be someone to interest everybody.  Sir Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame will be there; Fern Britton will be talking about her latest book – and perhaps her experience in Strictly Come Dancing.  For detective novel buffs, Mark Billingham will be discussing murder with Val McDermid, Stuart MacBride and Martyn Waites.  Did you see the film We Need to Talk About Kevin?  Author Lionel Shriver will be discussing her new book, Big Brother, which tackles the subject of obesity.  For foodies, Xanthe Clay, Henrietta Green and William Sitwell ask “are we a nation of food fashionistas?”

Prue Leith – one of our Festival patrons

Two events that especially appeal to me are Ursula Buchan’s talk ‘How England’s Gardeners Fought the Second World War’ and the Extreme Travel team of Nick Bullock and Jason Lewis discuss their adventures with Sue Cook.  Jason, incidentally, has just been recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the first person to circumnavigate the world using only human power and described by the Daily Mail as “the most remarkable adventurer in the world today.”

Sue Cook, another of our Patrons

One of the especial pleasures of coming to the festival is that because both the town and the venues are small, you are able to be close to the authors, to chat with them and to get them to sign your books.  You can also meet me (!) for, as Facebook followers of this blog know, I am part of the organising committee.  ChipLitFest also has a Facebook page or follow them on Twitter.

Tickets for all of these events are selling fast and for more information about them and the other authors and host of workshops visit the festival’s website by clicking here.

I look forward to seeing you at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival, 18th-21st April – do come and say ‘hello’.

all photos, apart from Bliss Mill, from the ChipLitFest website

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"The Most Beautiful English Village"

The tiny village of Bibury has long been recognised as one of the prettiest places in the Cotswolds and is much visited by tourists.  It is everything you might magine an old English village to be; so much so that some visitors, according to local gossip, not realising that it isn’t a theme park creation, walk into people’s homes to have a look around.

Ancient cottages in mellow Cotswold stone, a crystal clear, trout-filled river running alongside the main street, an old mill and a great pub offering food and accomodation all make Bibury “the most beautiful English village” as William Morris, the Arts and Crafts textile designer described it when he visited during the 1800’s.

The old cottages are so perfect and their setting so tranquil that they appear to have created an ethos amongst their owners: each house and garden has to be more well maintained than their neighbours.  The only weeds I saw there were across the river in the marsh and, of course, not only were they growing where they belong – in a wild setting – but there were only the most attractive ones such as Yellow Flags, the bog irises and the flat, white heads of the hogweeds.



No English village is complete without its church and pub and Bibury has both.  The church of St Mary’s dates back to the 12th century and is well worth seeking out for it is tucked away down one of Bibury’s few side streets.

 

If the church tries to remain hidden, no such claim can be made for The Swan, one of the landmark buildings situated on the bend where the road crosses the River Coln.  The creeper covered pub/hotel is a good place to watch the world go by although, rarely does a car go by without its occupants stopping to explore the village.  This is quite a problem for there are so many visitors and cars that to experience the tranquility of the place, or to get photographs such as those on this blog, you either need to stay overnight or to visit the village early in the day.  Looking at the online reviews for the Swan, I was amused to see that the only gripes were complaints about old furniture, no street lighting and no wifi or mobile phone signals – surely, some of the very best reasons for visiting!
 

 
It can almost be guaranteed that every calander of the Cotswolds will have a photograph of Arlington Row – probably on it’s front cover.  Set back away from the road, it is reached by a footbridge: a terrace of former 16th century weavers cottages which, in turn, were converted from a 13th century wool store.  The importance of wool in creating the wealth of the Cotswolds and its churches, including the development of the Cotswold breed of sheep, now endangered, has been described in earlier posts on this blog (click here).  For more on the Cotswold sheep and the work of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust to preserve them, click here.
Arlington Row’s importance in history of vernacular architecture was recognised by the Royal Society of Arts in 1929 when they purchased and restored it.  A plaque, commemorating this is set into a nearby wall.

Exploring Arlington Row gives visitors an opportunity to see just how higgledy-piggledy the construction of old house are.  The old stone walls and mismatched rooflines and windows are juxtaposed seemingly at random – a modern planning departments nightmare.

Despite, the large numbers of tourists (for we all like to believe that we fall out of that category and will be the only persons there), Bibury is well worth making the effort to visit.  It is situated close to Cirencester, one of the most important Roman towns in the UK, with its wealth of history and it is also within easy reach of Oxford.  If I had to choose only one place to take a visitor to see, I think that Bibury would be highly placed on the list. 

Let me know – especially overseas readers, please – which would be the one place that epitomises old rural living in your country.

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Hedgerow History and a New Project

One of the greatest and most picturesque, natural aspects of lowland Britain is its patchwork of fields divided by neatly clipped hedgerows.  In hill country, or where there is a wealth of stone, the fields are divided by dry stone walls and the Cotswolds are renowned as much for these as for the limestone cottages and houses built of the same material.  Here, domestic and farm buildings merge into one with the landscape for, as the fields were cleared of stone, it was natural to use it as a building material. 

The overgrown hedge on the left; the drystone wall starts a little further up on the right of our little country lane 

However, the Cotswolds also have their fare share of hedgerows and these often go unnoticed – overshadowed by the craftsmanship, colour and texture of the old walls.  In the secret valley we are fortunate for we have both: outside our little cottage – also built of stone 160 years ago – one side of the lane is bordered by a hedge, the other a dry stone wall.  At a glance, the hedgerow is unremarkable whereas the wall attracts attention for its weathered appearance and moss encrusted stones.  But not all is as it seems.

 The drystone wall was probably built only a couple of hundred years ago

The wall was probably built at the time of the great land enclosures, when large areas of England were partitioned, the ground cleared and ‘improved’ to grow crops (or here, in the Cotswolds, more likely wool) and may not be more than a couple of hundred years old – ‘new’ to us Brits.   However the hedge, shabby and overgrown in places, could well be a relic of the ancient wildwood, the forest that once covered most of lowland Britain in the days of pre-history before man started cutting it down. ‘Our’ hedge would almost certainly have been part of the Wychwood Forest, a royal hunting ground, for written records go back to the time of the Domesday Book of 1086.  As the forest was cleared (for more details click here) to make way for fields, it was easier to leave strips standing than to create new dividers. 

In places, the hedgerow is barely recognisable for trees have grown to huge proportion

How do we know that it is an ancient hedgerow and not one planted at the time of the enclosures?  There is an accepted formula for dating them known as Hooper’s Law: the number of tree and shrub species found in a thirty metre section x 100 is equal to the age of the hedge.  It is normal practice to take three thirty metre sample lengths and apply an average for greater accuracy.  There is also a second method of deciding if the hedge is of ancient origin: by the types of wild flowers that grow in it.  Certain species are very slow to spread, or perhaps only would normally grow in certain conditions such as woodland shade.  These key species are known as ancient woodland indicators and we have a number of them growing at the foot of our hedge.

 Bluebells are an ancient woodland indicator.  Here their new leaves emerge at the foot of the hedge – it will be several weeks before they flower

What is even more remarkable is that the plants tell us what is old and what is new hedge with such accuracy that it is possible to follow the old even after it has left the roadside. For our little lane that winds uphill as it leaves the secret valley to join the main road (‘Turnpike‘) is also part old and part new.  Before the Turnpike was built in the late 1700’s, the lane beyond our house took a sharp turn left and crossed the fields, it’s way now marked only by sunken turf and yes, you’ve guessed it, also by the old hedge and its associated flora.

 

 The ‘old’ road had been trodden for centuries by countless generations of drovers moving their cattle and sheep to market.  It was probably still used after the opening of the turnpike in the late 1700’s to avoid paying the tolls

I always consider March to be the start of the gardening year, the month when nature turns its back on winter and spring moves rapidly forwards.  Leaf buds burst, seedlings germinate and the first of the flowers remind you that long, hot days are not too far away.  It is the same with the plants that are beyond our garden gate.   And so on our first really warm, sunny day of 2012 I have decided to embark on a new project: to catalogue and photograph a year in the life of our hedge on a month by month basis.  Watch this space!

In places, the ancient hedgerow is still tightly clipped and, over time, has become very wide

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Shh! Don’t Tell The Weather Man!

I hardly dare mention it but I think Spring is finally coming to the Cotswolds. After I wrote about it back in February, the man from the Met Office sent us cold again. Hard frosts put spring on hold. To be fair, as I also wrote, the Cotswolds may be one of the most beautiful places to live in the south of England but the hills are also one of the coldest. Our spring is always two or three weeks later than places even as close as Oxford or Gloucester.
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Early spring sunshine comes to the ancient Cotswold town of Burford
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The past few weeks have been unusually dry which has meant that tidying up the garden – or, in my case, gardens: my own as well as clients – has progressed rather well. A nice drop of warm rain now would work a treat and not interfere with time schedules. At last, in the secret valley, leaves are unfurling properly, daffodils are blooming and the lone primrose has been joined by many more as well as purple and white violets.
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Wherever I have lived, there has always been one hawthorn that opens its leaves days before the rest, even when planted as a hedgerow. I’ve often wondered if this is a genetic thing which means, I presume, that it could be cloned to have a whole group of early leafing ones. Or is it a combination of warmth and soil conditions in that particular spot? When I retire and have more time (a contradiction as the two never happen according to friends who are trying it) I will take cuttings and carry out a controlled experiment. It will give me the opportunity to blog about it if I am still able to sit in front of a computer!

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I wonder if I could get a whole hedge of early flowering hawthorn? It will be another six weeks or more before they will be in bloom in the secret valley.
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The snowdrops and aconites have now finished flowering. The little ruff of green leaves are all that is left of the latter. They look so similar to the taller herbaceous aconites or Monkhoods whose green ruffs are also poking through the ground now. They are all part of the buttercup family so are related but so unalike one another at their flowering time. I love the tall purple spires of the Monkshoods in mid to late summer: not as delicate as delphiniums, another favourite, but at least slugs don’t eat them and they don’t need staking, a real plus.

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Forsythia is in full bloom. These I enjoy in other gardens but never plant them in my own unless the garden is huge and they can be planted a long way off. They show up from quite a distance and when seen too close, are too strident for my taste. The non flowering shrub later in the summer is a coarse affair too, dull and not warranting the space unless livened up by a clematis or other climbing plant. In the photo below it is grown as a wall shrub and it works well in disguising this unattractive garage. Despite being cut hard back to the wall each year in early summer it is always smothered in bloom by March.

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The same applies to the common flowering currant. The standard pink is a wishy-washy thing and the deeper coloured, named varieties such as King Edward VIII, is as strong in colour as the forsythia – a plant to be enjoyed in other gardens. For those of you that thought the currants were always pink (although there are white flowered versions) and smelt of cat’s pee – and I include myself in this category for many years – there are three others that are well worth making space for.
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Ribes odoratum, has pale yellow flowers and is beautifully scented. It is a bit of an untidy shrub in my experience, suckering freely but not a nuisance. It grows in happy neglect in a hedgerow – an ideal spot for it to do its own thing – and is really only noticed by the spicy fragrance as you wander past.
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Ribes lauriflolium is a new plant to me. Unlike the others which all originate from the States, this currant is found in the wild in China. Looking at descriptions on the internet I wonder if they are correct or if there is a lot of variation in the stock, which is possible. I bought mine described as white, evergreen and not too hardy. It has survived -16C this winter, has been deciduous (perhaps it keeps its leaves in milder winters, I rather hope not) and is white flowered. Others are described as yellow and growing to only 1 ft – mine is already 3ft but that may be because it is tucked behind our dry stone wall. The one thing they all agree on and I can confirm is the exquisite scent of lilies of the valley. Do try to grow one if you can find it.

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I have since discovered that this isn’t a ribes at all! See my next post to reveal all!!
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My final choice of flowering currant is another favourite, Ribes speciosum. It is reminiscent in bloom of fuchsia and, like them, are pollinated in their native environment by humming birds. Hailing from California, in UK gardens it requires shelter and grows best against a warm wall where it can be trained on wires or left free growing. This photo was taken in the botanical gardens in Dublin on a glorious spring day.
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Warmth, blue sky and sunshine. The clocks go forward an hour this weekend giving us more evening daylight. I’m almost feeling optimistic about the days to come – something a gardener should never be!
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Snowdonia: Through The Enchanted Forest

The tiny road that passes the converted chapel that we have been staying in once again for a late holiday continues to climb further into the mountains. The grassy areas, cropped short by sheep, give way to bracken, heather and stunted gorse, also shortened by the harsh climate. And an hours walk along this road – now little more than a stone track – brings you to the Enchanted Forest. At first, it is barely noticed: a tongue of dark green that appears to be sliding down the mountain as if desperate to reach the richer soil of the valley below.
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But suddenly, as you walk round a bend in the path, there it is in front of you. The trees look inviting; beckoning you to shelter from the cold north-easterly wind that cuts through to your bones. Yet, as you approach, the gate barring your way makes you hesitate, for the first

view into the depths of the forest is a menacing combination of dark and light. All those childhood images from the Brothers Grimm come to mind for there are the conflicting emotions: is this a sinister or a kind place to be and where will the path lead?
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Walking further into the forest, it proves to be a fascinating place, with sight after sight more enchanting than the previous one. The damp mists and rain have turned the ground into a mossy wonderland with great mounds of it creating a weird, almost surrealistic, landscape. Surely, Goblins or Hobbitts live here? They do, for every so often the moss builds up to make a hooded entrance and some even have – if you look carefully enough (like in the photo below) – a wrinkly face staring out at you.
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It is just not the light and the shadows that play tricks with you, for nothing is quite as you expect it to be. Some of the conifers branches grow upright instead of horizontally so that their silvery underside is facing you, disorienting your vision.
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Even the toadstools are rarely toadstool shaped – here these look like pieces of discarded orange peel rotting in the leaf litter.
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It is not especially surprising that ice forms on the puddles at this altitude and time of year but even this is different. They have the appearance of stained glass windows, but strangely drained of all their colour…..
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And just as suddenly as you entered it, the forest gives way again to mountain. But what a mountain! It is as if it has been dropped from a great height and smashed to millions of pieces, some just lying around and others piled up one on top of the other, regardless of size or shape. And why, several hundred years ago, did they build the dry stone walls that travel up and over them for mile after mile?
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The sun had been shining brightly when we had stepped into the trees. Now, in an instant, the weather has turned and we are being threatened by snow flurries. She-dog, our lurcher, who recognises these problems better than we do, had been wandering on far ahead. Now, knowing that danger could be approaching, she hurtles down the track back towards us, agitated, beckoning us to return home.
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How glad we were we heeded She-dog’s warning! By the time we were within sight of home the landscape was changing to white. And the snow continued to fall for days…..
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A Roman Villa in the Cotswolds

These days the Cotswolds, with its rolling landscape, dry stone walls and picture postcard villages, give the impression of being sleepy and sparsely populated, basking (or some may say smug) in its glory of being one of the jewels of the British countryside. But this is not so. For it is a working landscape with its people going about their daily business, admittedly often in an unhurried way – for our narrow lanes and lack of motorways limit the speed that one can travel. And often our straightest and, therefore, easiest routes have not been made in recent years but by Roman settlers, attracted to this region some two thousand years ago, for much the same reasons as we are now.
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Ryknild Street, Fosse Way, Akeman Street, Ermin Way – just their very names conjure up images of Roman legions marching long distances through the country – linked their towns and cities with Corinium, now our modern Cirencester, the centre of both their commerce and entertainment (it still has the remains of a Roman ampitheatre that held over 8000 people). And, as time passed, they settled in more remote parts of the Cotswolds too: one such place is the villa built at North Leigh, near Witney. The track that leads you to the remains is as straight as any other Roman road but was used solely by servants and traders, the owners and visitors arriving by a more grand approach no longer visible.

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Now cared for the nation by English Heritage, admission is free and the site is open all year. Strategically placed notice boards explain the layout of the 60+ rooms and of its history but nothing quite prepares you for the sheer size of area which seems at odds with its present day position – somehow, you expect a small cottage sized building. In fact, the first thing I noticed was the irrepressible She-dog who had run on ahead, in order I imagine, to steal the limelight, as usual!
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One of the greatest pleasures of exploring the remains is that they are relatively unknown and so are rarely visited. I explored for over an hour and saw no-one – just perfect! The photos below show the north west range and also the south east range. Beneath the floor of the latter even earlier remains of a hearth were found , dating back to the Iron Age, circa BC100.
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Although the site was known as early as 1783 it was not until the early 1800’s that the ruins were excavated, the first plan published in 1823. Further excavations took place in 1908.
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The remains of the under floor heating can be clearly seen in the photographs below. It is strange how such an ‘advanced’ civilisation could then be plunged into the relatively primitive period of the Dark Ages after the Romans left.
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In amongst the stonework of the walls pieces of tile protrude. No matter how carefully I looked I saw no signs of pottery.
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The’jewel in the crown’ of the villa at North Leigh are the mosaic floors. Several were discovered and lifted, presumably to a museum although I do not know which. However, the floor of the dining room, discovered in 1816, in the south west wing has been preserved in situ and is protected from the elements by a modern building. The mosaics were laid by craftsmen from Corinium in the fashionable geometric style of the time.
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The dining room, again with underfloor heating, had a vaulted roof supported by columns, parts of which can be seen against the back wall of the shelter.
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Who were the people that lived here and why was the villa suddenly deserted in the fifth century when it was so obviously thriving a century earlier? It is probable that they were farming here so perhaps there was a change in climatic conditions or with the water supply. Whatever the reason, it is now the most perfect spot to sit and ponder in total peace and quiet.
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Richard Long’s Extraordinary Land Art

I have found that there are no shades of grey when appreciation – or lack of it – of Richard Long’s art is discussed. It seems that either, like me, you are swept away by it or you just cannot see the point of it at all. Whilst respecting this latter point of view, I ask myself, “Does art have to have a point”? For me, of all art forms , Richard Long’s work demonstrates that beauty can be appreciated just for it’s own sake.
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British born (in Bristol, where he still lives and works), Richard Long studied art in both Bristol and London, giving his first solo exhibition in Germany in 1968, as he completed his studies. I imagine this is quite an achievement in itself. Since then he has exhibited regularly throughout the world.
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In the grounds of my ‘reincarnation’ house, I was fortunate to be involved in the placing of one of his slate circles (photo above). Sadly, I never met the great man himself, for I would have loved to have sat quietly and watched the stones being laid in place. My contribution was extremely modest: I only removed the turf and put down the base ready for the circle to be put in position. However, this did mean that the circle appeared as if by magic – and it has remained mysterious and magical ever since. And, as if by magic, the gaps between the stones have filled with leaves and debris and yellow lichens have started to colonise their surface.
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Regular readers of this blog will know of my fascination for stone in all its forms, whether it is the earliest standing stones (and we have our own ancient stone circle here in the Cotswolds, the Rollright Stones), the dry stone walls of the secret valley or placing stone in the garden. But Richard Long’s stone work is different to all of these for each piece is meticulously shaped and honed – or left in its natural state – and crafted into position. To really appreciate it, you have to become part of the landscape yourself. When you lie on the ground looking across the surface of his work, it takes on a completely new appearance and meaning.
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When I first came to know and love Richard Long’s work, I little dreamt that one day it would inspire me to incorporate land art into one of my own designs. Attached to a beautiful old farmhouse, belonging to a client, is a small, almost bottle shaped, raised area of land surrounded by the remains of a twelfth century moat and mill stream. It is too wild an area in which to create a conventional garden so the plan is to keep it as a simple wild flower area. A very low serpentine turf coverd bank will draw the eye – and, hopefully, the visitor – towards the bottle neck. Careful planting will bring you unwittingly into a living willow tunnel and, at the far end where the land broadens once again, will be a circle. Not a stone circle this time but a meditation circle inspired by the photograph below of children playing. This photograph is from the artist’s (or is it sculptor’s?) website; all the remaining photo’s are mine taken at the reincarnation house. To be redirected there just click and make sure you look at both the Exhibitions and the Sculptures pages.

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As for my new design, work is due to commence at the end of this month and I shall report on progress some time in the future. One thing I am quite certain of is that I will not be asked to hold any exhibitions either in the UK or abroad!
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An Almost White Christmas and a Christmas Robin!

Whilst blizzards have been raging all around us on both sides of the Atlantic, our little bit of snow barely deserves mention ( Cotswold Snow – an apology … ). However, a white Christmas is a rare event in the secret valley so here is the scene that greeted us from our upstairs window on Christmas morning.

Well, it’s almost a white Christmas!

The bird most closely associated with Christmas and featuring on thousands of Christmas cards each year is the Robin. This little chap obligingly sat still on top of our dry stone wall for a photo shot. Although the cold weather has meant that the bird feeders have been especially busy, robins are always friendly and tame, getting under your feet looking for grubs as you dig the garden. Oddly enough, on the European mainland, they are shy, retiring woodland birds.

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Of Holly , Ivy and Mistletoe

As it is the festive season it seems appropriate to look at the traditional greenery that we grow in our garden, or gather from the hedgerows, to decorate our homes at this time of year. And of all them it has to be the holly that offers so much as a garden plant.

The holly is one of those species (relatively few in number) that have separate male and female plants. To have a crop of berries like the ones above it is necessary to have both sexes growing within pollination distance and, of course, it is only the female that will carry berries. In our garden we have a magnificent specimen of England’s wild holly, Ilex aquifolium, but being male, is relatively boring (that isn’t meant to be as sexist as it reads!). It towers above roof height and doesn’t deserve the space it takes other than it provides us with shelter and a place to hang the bird feeders. How much better value it would be if it had been a variegated leaf sort. Fortunately there are lots of berried hollies growing wild in the secret valley for picking.

This holly is Argentea Marginata, a variegated form of our native holly and, being female, carries berries, making it very garden worthy. The occasional stem has pure white leaves. Ilex aquifolium grows naturally throughout the west and south of Europe, North Africa and west Asia. An oddity of holly common names is that many of the male plants have female names, and female plants male, so the variety Silver Queen, for example, is a non-berrying male. Very confusing!

I’m not a great fan of Ivy. There are lots of different leaf shapes and colours but, generally, I think they are rather dull, although, I do admit, they can be useful in dark, dry corners where little else will grow. This wild ivy, Hedera helix, above, growing on a corner of our Cotswold dry stone wall (and it will bring the wall down if we leave it on there much longer), has been transformed, on a cold winter’s morning, by frost which has given the upper leaves an icing sugar edging and highlighted the veins of the lower leaves.

Mistletoe – the plant of lover’s, or at least, of those trying to sneak a kiss from the unsuspecting. In England it grows wild, often on fruit trees in orchards or on poplars and always difficult to reach. Invisible for much of the year, once the tree’s leaves have fallen in the Autumn, there it is hanging in great bunches high, high up.

It is rare to find a plant growing as low as in the photo above and it gives a great opportunity to see how it attaches to the host plant. There are no visible roots: the stems of the mistletoe just grow from the trunk like young branches, easily identified by their dull green (as against brown) bark. Does mistletoe, Viscum album, ever kill the host tree? I have never seen this but I have seen quite sizeable boughs torn off a tree by the weight of the mistletoe bunches and, one assumes, the mistletoe must sap the strength of them. But then, mistletoe does carry green leaves so must produce a certain amount of its own food. Any idea, anyone?

For those not familiar with the tradition, it is custom to hang Mistleoe in the hallway at Christmas and to kiss those that stand beneath it.

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