A Tour of the Secret Valley

Ask people – both here at home or abroad – how they imagine Great Britain to be, the answer is often the same: an overcrowded island. We do, of course, have our fair share of big cities, motorways and densely populated housing estates but it often comes as a surprise just how much unspoilt, open countryside remains. A few of us are lucky enough to live in it.

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The M40 motorway where it enters Oxfordshire

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Less than two hours drive from the centre of London, the secret valley, seems more like a million miles away rather than just the eighty odd miles that, in reality, it is. Tucked down an unclassified side road and not shown on a number of maps, only those ‘in the know’ tend to visit it. Time for a quick tour.

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The Secret Valley

The approach to the secret valley gives little hint of what’s to come. Lined with crab apple trees, the lane gently descends between a fold in the hills where, on the steepest banks, wild thyme, orchids and other wild flowers grow.

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A bend in the road conceals the valley’s crowning glory: the most perfect, easily jumpable river (as can be seen in the header image of this blog page). Twisting and turning as it passes through meadows, in its shallows watercress grows where both trout and crayfish hide. By its banks willow pollards, now elderly and bent, wear garlands of wild roses; they grow from the tree crowns courtesy of seed dropped by birds generations ago.

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The lane, crossing the river, passes our tiny stone cottage and climbs towards the village – a cluster of nine houses, a farm and little else. Our home sits alone, down by the river bank, with just one other as companion. Here, the lane – barely wide enough for a combine harvester to pass – once was busy with drovers taking their cattle and sheep to the markets in Oxford.

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These days the drove road enters and leaves the secret valley by a different route, only its mid-section by our house is still in use. The ‘old road’, as it is known, can still be walked – its path clearly defined by the wild flowers and hedgerows that line it.

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The river, too, has chosen a different route according to the earliest maps. Downstream from our house, it flows past wooded banks to widen into a small lake before passing through fields, these days marshy where the watermill’s sluice gates have decayed with age.

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Further downstream still, where the sheep cannot graze, swathes of scented, moisture loving plants such as wild valerian – looking very different from the one grown in our gardens – provide nectar for insets and a hiding place for deer.

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a forest of Valerian & Meadowsweet

On the higher ground of the secret valley, the fields are cultivated with wheat, barley and oilseed rape. Even here, in the favoured places, wild flowers and birds of many types can be found: the diminutive hay rattle, a relic from the old farming days to ravens, buzzards and red kites, all now common again after centuries of persecution.

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Red Kite

Sounds idyllic? You’re quite right – it is!

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Visiting The Exmoor Society

Devotees of Exmoor, a National Park in Britain’s West Country, who want to learn more of its past and wildlife will find a friendly welcome at the Exmoor Society’s new headquarters.  Closely associated with Dulverton since its inception in 1958, it has recently moved to its new location within the town centre.Exmoor Society HQ (13)   copyright

A pictorial map filling the whole of one wall draws your attention as you enter the building, beautifully illustrated with iconic Exmoor animals and birds: Red Deer, Exmoor Ponies and Buzzards to name a few.

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Leading from the map is a room where visitors are able to look at old copies of the Exmoor Review, published annually and other archive material.  A timeline charting the period from the 1950s to the present day stretches along a wall lined with seats and work tables and makes fascinating reading in its own right.  Exmoor Society HQ (4)   copyright

The library’ shelves are stacked with books, many rare and out of print and covering every aspect of Exmoor life.  These are a great resource not just for the serious student of Exmoor but also for those that just want to dip into the pages of one that catches the eye.  Some titles, where there are several copies, are for sale.Exmoor Society HQ (12)   copyright

With over fifty years of collected material, the Exmoor Society has a wealth of information some of which, in the past, has not been readily available to see.  In 2014 funding was acquired for an Outreach Archivist, Dr Helen Blackman, to catalogue and resolve these issues.  Her progress can be followed on Twitter @ExSocArchivist.

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One of the greatest bequests to the society was all of the papers, drawings and paintings of Hope Bourne who became world famous for self-sufficient living in a caravan in a remote part of the moor.  Much of the material is in a fragile state but reproductions commissioned now show the beauty of her work.  The society has recently published a book showing some of her paintings, many for the very first time entitled Eloquence in Art and this can be purchased either at Dulverton or online.Exmoor Society HQ (14)   copyright

The Exmoor Society aims to reach everyone with an interest in Exmoor, including the landowners and people that live and work on the moor.  It takes its message to numerous shows and exhibitions and also leads walks throughout the year.Exford Show 2014 (9)   copyright

To find out more about the Exmoor Society drop into Dulverton or take a look at its website by clicking the link here.

2014 in Review: the first six months

So another year is almost over and it certainly has been a busy one for me.  Living and working in the spectacular Cotswold countryside, a classified area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is a great treat and one of which I never tire.  It’s also nice to go off exploring other places so 2014 found me in other parts of the UK and  Ireland too.  One of the first places I visited, however, was only twenty miles down the road but light years apart in reality!

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typical Cotswold countryside

Like many people that live close to tourist attractions I don’t often visit the ones on my doorstep but last January found me walking the streets of Oxford.  I hadn’t come to explore the colleges but the covered market which dates back more than two hundred years.   The history of the market and the building is fascinating and is well worth making the time to visit – especially if you like a bargain.  To read more about it and to see other photos click here.

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One of the fathers of ecological writing died tragically young and in February I matched quotations from his work to images I had taken (to see them, click here).  My favourite was noticed by the Society that bears his name and reprinted in their journal.  I felt very honoured!

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Wild and rugged scenery is often best appreciated over cake and coffee and at Watersmeet in Exmoor National Park you can do just that.  Two rivers collide spectacularly besides the Victorian fishing lodge that is now owned by the National Trust and run as a café. March found me walking through beautiful scenery as well as indulging myself and the link to this remote but very accessible place is here.

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Dublin, the capital city of Ireland is a favourite place of mine and in April I visited the Casino Marino, one of the most impressive and perfect neo-classical buildings in Europe.  Everything about it was designed to deceive so although you only see one window on each side you actually have – well, click here to find out what plus all the other deceptions the Georgian architect managed to fit in.

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Planting trees is a long term project for they rarely mature during the life of the planter.  Of all the hundreds I have done in my professional life none has given me as much pleasure as this particular one.  I have waited for years for it to flower and in May it did so for the first time.  I felt quite emotional – it was a case of finding a handkerchief.  Take a look by clicking the link here.

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The Cotswolds are world renowned for their ‘chocolate box’ village scenes and Lower Slaughter must be one of the contenders.  Despite its name it is a beautiful and tranquil place to visit for it has everything from crystal clear trout streams to olde-world stone cottages to a mill complete with working water wheel. If you choose the right time to explore you can have the place to yourself.  To learn more click the June link here.

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