A Year in Review 2013: the Second Half

July to the end of  December already is a memory and rapidly becoming a distant one at that.  Just five days into January and Christmas seems further back in the mind than it is in reality.  2014 has arrived and I am optimistically looking forward to all that it may bring.  Not that the last one was disappointing or sad in any way; just that with time flying by it is essential to make the most of every moment.  Of course, I’m very fortunate: I have my health, I have a great job, friends and family I can always rely upon and I live in a superb part of the English countryside.  Long may all those things last!

July:  The highlight of my year occurred this month.  An exciting and memorable launch of my first book to be published – a gardening book – Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That? took place in Chipping Norton’s award winning bookshop, Jaffe & Neale.  Would anyone turn up?  As it happened, very many did with people overflowing onto the street, the warm, sunny evening and the wine contributing to a street party feel to the occasion.  If you wish to find out more of the book or would like a signed copy you can find details here.

Many people are attracted to the magnificent looking but dangerous Giant Hogweed, also the subject of a post this month.  I was delighted when photographs from it were used in an educational video by the Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation District (New York State).  Take heed of the messages if you come across the plant!

August: Travelling around the Cotswold Hills as I do every day in the course of my work you would think I would know most of what goes on there.  Nevertheless, I was surprised when I saw Tibetan flags fluttering in the breeze.  Further investigation found Alain Rouveure’s galleries and tea room.  Of course, I couldn’t leave until I’d tried out their lunch…

September:  Street fairs have been held for hundreds of years throughout England and Chipping Norton has an annual one that dates back to medieval charters.  Originally the time when livestock was sold and labour sought, these days they are purely held for pleasure.  Traffic has to be diverted around the town as the centre is blocked off by the rides and stalls.  Noisy, crowded and well lit they are great fun but I found  myself completely alone in darkness walking around it late one night.  It was an eerie experience, described here.

October:  The appearance of the secret valley was changed dramatically when the willow trees that line the banks of our little winding river were pollarded.  This dramatic ‘haircut’ is carried out only when necessary, the last time about fifteen years ago.  Suddenly, the view in the header of this blog has become wide open as every branch was removed leaving just the trunks standing.  The secret valley looks naked now but ‘new clothes’ will grow rapidly this coming spring.

November:  History isn’t just about learning dates of battles, the most interesting aspects are those that we can so easily relate to.  Yet so much of this is forgotten over time and it takes teams of dedicated people, often volunteers, to literally unearth it.  A now deserted and seemingly empty part of the Exmoor National Park was, one hundred and fifty years ago, teeming with people and was at the very forefront of Victorian technology.  It was quite extraordinary what these engineers achieved and their story featured in two posts which created much interest and comment.  They can be found by clicking here and here.

December:  The blogging year ended on a cuddly note – looking after two adorable but naughty beagle puppies.  If you are a dog lover there is nothing better than to be mauled by puppies.  If you’re not over-keen on dogs then you won’t understand the attraction!  You could try to find out, however, by clicking here.

So what’s going on in 2014?  Lots, hopefully. There is a new racehorse, more gardening, more travel, a lot more writing; it will be a busy year and how it pans out time – and this blog – will tell.

Thank you all so much for following my blog. Over one hundred thousand of you have looked at it since its inception which I find quite extraordinary and very humbling.  Please continue to do so and to tell all your blogging friends to come and pay me a visit, either on here or at my full website www.johnshortlandwriter.com .  I am also on Facebook and Twitter where daily updates can be found.  You are always very welcome to contact me with your comments or queries and I will do my best to answer them all.

Wishing you all a very happy and healthy New Year.

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The Sleeping Fairground

It is a very long time since I went for a ride on a Big Wheel.  I was twelve when I bravely called an older cousin a coward because he wasn’t too keen on the idea.  Once aboard, we slowly climbed to the top and as soon as we reached it he had he rocked it violently backwards and forwards until I’d begged forgiveness.  Now almost fifty years later, I was determined that I would go for my second trip but on my own so there would be no witness to my fear – but first I was due at a meeting.  Meeting ended and bolstered by a visit to the pub for a pint or two of beer, I ventured forth only to be thwarted: the fair had closed for the night.

Chipping Norton, here in the Cotswolds, comes to a standstill for three days every September when the fair comes to town.  Dating back to statutes in medieval times, the annual ‘mop’ or hiring fair was originally the time when agricultural and other workers would be hired for the forthcoming year.  In time, they became social events too and, nowadays, they are just a good excuse for enjoyment.  The rights of the fair to be held annually are carefully safeguarded and despite considerable inconvenience to traffic, the centre of the town is blocked by numerous stalls and rides.

Funfairs are noisy, active places.  There are flashing lights, music and the screams and shouts coming from the fair-goers, people of all ages reduced to childish delight by all that is happening around them.  But then it closes for the night and what happens then?

Oddly enough, once the fairground has closed the town centre becomes deserted.  Perhaps all the excitement and exhilaration has been too tiring but quite suddenly, there is silence and no-one to be seen or heard.  This is what I found when I wandered through the fair this late night.  It was a strange, surreal experience – almost as if the world had ceased to exist – and the more I looked at the dodgems and rides, stationary and empty, the more a feeling of unease came over me.  Even the helta skelta took on a threatening appearance.  Was I really alone here?  Would a person confront me from the shadows and, if they did, what then?  Telling myself I’d been watching too many horror movies I quickened my step and walked around a corner to come face to face with the only other ‘human’ in the place. 

Turning sharply away the sight of Star Slush, the only sign lit up, brought back the pleasure to be found in the artistry of fairgrounds too.  Travelling people  of all types, whether fairground, Romany or bargemen have a highly developed form of decoration, all closely connected and worthy of further contemplation.  But not then – time for home with the vow to return next year for my ride on the Big Wheel.

Back at the Secret Valley, where the only light was that of the moon, there is never a feeling of unease and, the night being warm, I decided to walk down the lane to the river.  As I did so, I mused on why I felt so uncomfortable being alone in the town centre.  Many visitors comment on how silent and brooding the valley is at night with no street lights, houses or familiar sounds.  It is all about belonging: I have lived ‘in the middle of nowhere’ all my life, it is where I belong and the silence and darkness here is my comfort blanket.  I’m obviously not yet ready to become a city boy.

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