Respect Your Elders

Of all trees few can be held in as much contempt as our native elder, Sambucus nigra.  It grows almost anywhere and in such profusion that it is dismissed as a ‘weed’ and it is true that its habit of self-sowing and growing through treasured garden plants can be a nuisance.  Despite all of this, however, it is also one of the most useful of plants both in the wild and the shrub border.

This variegated form of Elder is very useful for brightening up a shady place
 
Search any hedgerow and the Elder can be found.  It is easily identified, even in mid-winter, for its bark is dull, dry and scaly, with prominent pairs of leaf buds; these are some of the earliest to open in the spring.  Young leaves can even be found during mild spells in the winter although these are replaced if damaged by frost.  Perhaps the simplest way to identify a leafless plant is to break off a stem for the centre is hollow and filled with whitish pith. Generations of country children hollow out these stems to create ‘cigarettes’ to smoke; in fact I can claim only to have smoked elder – and that stopped once a spark burnt the back of my throat!

Perhaps the glory of Elder comes in spring when the trees burst into flower. Large, flat heads (corymbs), consisting of hundreds of tiny scented flowers smother the plants and for a short while the countryside carries their pungent odour.  These have traditionally been the first crop to be harvested, their flowers steeped in water to make Elderflower cordial or ‘champagne’, these days now sold commercially. Elderflowers can be used dried in herbal teas or, when fresh, swirled in a light batter and dropped into hot oil to make delicious and unusual fritters.  Adding the flowers to stewed gooseberries or when making jam is a very old method of counterbalancing the tartness of the fruit.
Within weeks the flowers which were held upright will have faded and drooped as berries form.  Even when green, streaks of colour hint of their ripeness to come.  By late summer, the clusters have turned almost black and make a welcome addition to fruit pies or, used on their own, in jam and wine making.
The medicinal uses for Elder are equally varied.  According to the herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy all parts of the plant can be used: roots for kidney problems; bark against epilepsy and the leaves, when mixed with geranium and garlic, to soothe eczema and rashes.  The flowers and berries are used for relief of coughs and colds and it has also been claimed that the flowers can restore blindness.  As with all herbal treatments caution and common sense should be used – I’m not brave enough to suggest that you try any of them out!
The dark berries  of the elder – the red ones are hawthorn
For a tree with so many uses that has been part of country lore for so long it is not surprising to find it has many names.  A widespread alternative is Judas Tree for tradition states that it was the Elder that Judas Iscariot hung himself from.  It is from a derivation of the name Judas that Jew’s Ears fungus which commonly grows on elder gets its common name.
 
 
 
 
 
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Richard Jefferies – His Passion Lives On

Great artists such as Gainsborough, Turner and Reubens speak to us down the centuries through their work as do poets but how many people still read the great – or the lesser – writers from years past?  The Bible is still read regularly by some, Shakespeare’s more famous lines are often quoted and we all think we know Bronte and Dickens whereas, in reality, most of us know the characters only as interpreted through television and film.  However, authors from past centuries still  have much to offer whether it be for historical background, research or, simply, pleasure.

I have always lived in the country and my fascination with the natural world began at a very early age.  My kindergarten class was taken on a nature walk and, as our teacher showed us the magical things to be found along the way, I became hooked and wanted to know more.  There are many excellent wildlife manuals and handbooks, new and old, that give detailed descriptions more often than not, in a rather dry, analytical way.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was someone who could give all this information in great detail; who would notice the minutiae of everyday things, whether a flower, a wild creature or even of man, himself?  In the late nineteenth century there was one such person, now forgotten by most, and his name is Richard Jefferies – most definitely not a poet but there is poetry in his words.

Jefferies, born in 1848, in a Wiltshire (England) farmhouse suffered ill-health and subsequent poverty for much of his life.  From a young age he had enjoyed solitude and wandering about the countryside and here he developed a fascination for the Iron Age hill fort on nearby Liddington Hill and the wildlife that could be found there.  Employment as a reporter, initially with a local newspaper, developed his writing skills and his literary work began to be published, first as a series of essays and later in book form, from 1874.  He died from tuberculosis in 1887.  His books vary from collections of nature notes and the countrymen he encountered on his travels to novels, including one, After London, which would now be described as post-apocalyptical.  In it he describes how nature has taken over the now vanished city with its few surviving inhabitants returning to the lifestyle of many centuries before.  Jefferies still has his devotees, myself included, and he deserves better recognition.  The remainder of this post is my demonstration of how his words are of relevance to everyone today, especially those who are passionate about the wonders of nature – not the awe-inspiring world famous creatures or places but the everyday ones, found all around us, that should be equally awe-inspiring.

Nothing sums up my feelings towards the natural world better than these words of his.  They almost seem to have been written to illustrate this photograph of myself aged four with my father.

“So it seemed to me as a boy, sweet and new like this each morning; and now after the years they have passed, and the lines they have worn in the forehead, the summer mead shines as bright and fresh as when my foot first touched the grass…”      
The Open Air, 1885

“Next he stepped into the current, which, though shallow, looked strong enough to sweep him away. The water checked against him rose to the white mark on his breast. He waded up the rapid, every now and then thrusting his head completely under the water; sometimes he was up to his neck, sometimes not so deep; now and then getting on a stone…”                                                                 The Water Colley (Dipper), The Life of the Fields, 1884
“In the evening of a fine day the mists may be seen from hence as they rise in the meadows … beginning first over the brooks, a long white winding vapour marking their course, next extending over the moist places and hollows.”    
Wild Life in a Southern County, 1879
“Sometimes through these narrow slits (of cloud), long beams of light fall aslant upon the distant fields of the vale.  They resemble, only on a greatly lengthened scale, the beams that may be seen in churches of a sunny afternoon, falling from the upper windows on the tiled floor of the chancel, and made visible by motes in the air.  So through such slits in the cloudy roof of the sky the rays of the sun shoot downwards, made visible on their passage by the moisture or the motes of the atmosphere… the labourers say that the sun is sucking up water there.”   
Wild Life in a Southern County, 1879
“It is midsummer, and midsummer, like a bride, is decked in white. On the high-reaching briars
white June roses; white flowers on the lowly brambles; broad white umbels of elder in the corner,  and white cornels blooming under the elm; honeysuckle hanging creamy white coronals round the ash boughs; white meadow-sweet flowering on the shore of the ditch; white clover, too, beside the gateway. As spring is azure and purple, so midsummer is white, and autumn golden. Thus the coming out of the wheat into ear is marked and welcomed with the purest colour.”
Nature Near London,  1883
“…and finally is lost in the vast marshes which cover the site of the ancient London…  There exhales from this oozy mass so fatal a vapour that no animal can endure it. The black water bears a greenish-brown floating scum, which for ever bubbles up from the putrid mud of the bottom. When the wind collects the miasma, and, as it were, presses it together, it becomes visible as a low cloud which hangs over the place. The cloud does not advance beyond the limit of the marsh, seeming to stay there by some constant attraction; and well it is for us that it does not, since at such times when the vapour is thickest, the very wildfowl leave the reeds, and fly from the poison. There are no fishes, neither can eels exist in the mud, nor even newts. It is dead.”      
After London, 1885
“…the heat pours down by day as if an invisible lens in the atmosphere focussed the sun’s rays.
Strong woody knapweed endures it, so does toadflax and pale blue scabious, and wild mignonette…”                                       
Pageant of Summer, 1884
“Nature is a miniature painter and handles a delicate brush, the tip of which touches the tiniest
spot and leaves something living. The park has indeed its larger lines, its broad open sweep,
and gradual slope, to which the eye accustomed to small inclosures requires time to adjust
itself. These left to themselves are beautiful; they are the surface of the earth, which is always true
to itself and needs no banks nor artificial hollows. The earth is right and the tree is right: trim
either and all is wrong.”                                                 
Field & Hedgerow, 1889
 
Fortunately, much of his work is still readily available as books and, often, as free e-books.  The Richard Jefferies Society promotes his writing and holds regular meetings.  Visit their website by clicking the link here.  The farmhouse where Richard Jefferies grew up is now a museum dedicated to his life and work and well worth visiting.  Click here for details.
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An Ancient Craft – Flint Knapping

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 
 
 

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