A Year in Review 2013: The First Six Months

As I feared, once you reach a certain age, time flies by even quicker than before and that certainly has happened in 2013.  Where has the year gone?  The only consolation is that speaking with young people, they say the same thing.  Perhaps that is a rather sad reflection of modern living for I often found that the time didn’t go by quickly enough years ago!  Despite the year having gone by rapidly, it has been a great one with some excitement along the way.

January: it is rapidly becoming a tradition that each New Year’s Day some close friends and I go off exploring.  This usually includes a museum and food.  The year before it had been London with a visit to the National Portrait Gallery followed by afternoon tea at my favourite grocers, Fortnum & Mason.  This January it was to the city of Bath with its glorious abbey church where Edgar was crowned King of England in 973AD.  The church has the most exquisite vaulting – it is hard to believe that such fine tracery can be achieved by carving stone.  Bath, which is a World Heritage Site, is famous for its Roman Baths built about a thousand years earlier and which are open to visitors.  A great place to view them from are the Pump Rooms, the imaginary setting of Sheridan’s Georgian play, The Rivals.  It was here that we had our champagne tea.

February was a mixed month weather-wise in the secret valley and one post describes the rain lashing against the windows and the trees being thrown around by a winter gale.  Despite that the winter aconites were in full flower advertising the advance of spring and the wild birds were hanging onto the feeders for dear life.  Take away the aconites and we have a carbon copy day as I write this and, although there are no signs of spring yet, we are passing the shortest day which is always encouraging.

March was a strange month too with huge amounts of rain interspersed with wintry weather.  Even stranger was the affect it had upon the secret valley’s frog population.  I can only assume that it was because everything was so saturated that, instead of laying their spawn in the small lake that is visible from the cottage, they laid them instead upon the tops of nearby fence posts. They couldn’t possibly have survived there anyway but it was sad to see a few days later that they had turned black and ‘melted’ when a hard frost fell upon them.

April is the month of the Chipping Norton Literary Festival.  I have been on the committee since its inception and it has been gratifying to find that it has rapidly established a good reputation with authors, publishers and festival goers. One of the star attractions for 2013 was Sir Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame.  Because it is a small festival in a small, country town the atmosphere is very relaxed and it is possible to meet the authors for book signings or just a chat as they stroll about ‘Chippy’.  This coming year the festival takes place from 24-27 April and tickets go on sale next month – check out the website for more details.

April also saw the launch of my new website www.johnshortlandwriter.com and also the start of my tweeting.  Come and join me @johnshortlandwr

May:  As I am always saying the secret valley is a magical place to live and one of the things that makes it so special is its history. Not the history of history books but the type that goes unrecorded other than by the clues it leaves behind in the landscape.  Here we have a patch of rough ground left uncultivated that is the invisible site of a Bronze Age settlement. Later, almost to within living memory, the lane was a drover’s route and, in places, the road has been abandoned to become a green track full of wild flowers and butterflies.  We still refer to one place as the ‘white gate’ even though it was removed a hundred years ago or more.  It feels special to know that the valley has been lived in and loved for over three thousand years.

It was also a very exciting time as my gardening book was published accompanied by radio and other interviews. The launch party took place a couple of months later.

June is a colourful time of year in gardens and one thing I’ve always wanted to create is an Iris border.  This is an extravagance of space that few can afford for they are only in flower for a relatively short time.  However, one of my clients liked the idea so the ‘rainbow’ border was created.  Interest is extended by daffodils and alliums for earlier colour and Japanese anemones, with large flowered clematis behind, for later on.

To read any of the posts referred to above just click on the links, coloured green.

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Spring Is Around The Corner!

The first signs of spring are always welcome and especially so after the winter that we have had this time. Frosts arrived early in the season, followed by snow that lay both deep and long, which is unusual for the south of England.
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Winter in the secret valley: sheep wait patiently for food by our little winding river
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The Cotswolds are known, however, for their colder and longer winters compared to the rest of the region. Here, about as far inland as you can be on a small island, we have little benefit from the warming effect of the sea and we are also hill country. Elsewhere may be showing signs of spring but in the secret valley these are still hard to find – an elder twig just breaking into leaf is the only green that I can find so far.

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The aconite wood, ‘though, is a sight to behold and has been flowering for a couple of weeks now. How many plants can there be? Surely, tens of thousands. When and why were they planted here, for they are not native to this country. An old country chap told me it used to be called Summer House Woods but there is no sign of a building here and the ‘big’ house that owns the land is some distance away.

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This snowdrop wood was planted by nuns over a hundred and fifty years ago and is attached to my ‘reincarnation’ house. Snowdrop woods, unlike aconite ones, are not uncommon but never fail to impress. Even a small group in a garden are eagerly awaited and we have plenty here where they spill out beyond the garden boundary and peep out from amongst the hedgerow that borders the lane.

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The Cornus mas is also flowering now. It grows in our garden against the house wall, facing east. Despite this, it perfoms regularly and is easy to keep pruned to shape. This one, is the variegated leaf variety which is quite slow growing compared to the standard type and so is ideal as a wall shrub. In late summer it carries edible scarlet berries, hence its common name of Cornelian Cherry.

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Also in the garden, I found a single, wild primrose, sheltered by the old garden roller, in flower. Later, the garden, and especially the lawn, will be covered with their flowers. Daffodils, although beginning to flower elsewhere will be a few more weeks before they do up here. But even in the Cotwolds they are showing colour in the warmth of our towns – which makes shopping just a little bit more enjoyable.

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When in town, I was surprised to find that oldest of symbols of spring – the green man. He was standing tall and lofty down a back street unnoticed and forgotten. Closer examination revealed that he was an old column and ball, the remaining one of a pair of stone entrance pillars from some long demolished house. Now covered in ivy, I wondered why it had been left and what was its history.
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Further afield still, I came across a small pond in a field. The croaking of hundreds of frogs drew my attention to it and in the photo below there are over forty heads poking out above the water. As I approached, sensing danger, they fought one another to get below the surface, making the water look as if it was a boiling cauldron. A few days later, when I returned, all was quiet and the surface of the water completely covered in frogspawn. Like the daffodils, it will be some weeks before our secret valley frogs start marching across the lane and entering the house in their quest to reach the lake below our garden.

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Frog March

As night falls we have started hearing the sound of tapping at our garden door. It happens every year as the weather begins to warm up and the days draw out. At first we were uncertain as to what it was for there was no-one there when we looked outside. Yet, as soon as the door was closed, the gentle knocking sound would start again.

No, this is not the start of a scary story for on one occasion, leaving the door open a little longer than usual, into the house jumped a large frog, followed by several more. Now when we hear the sound we know that the frogs (and some toads) are on their march to their spawning grounds. Unfortunately this involves them crossing the little country lane just below our house and, although traffic is few and far between in the secret valley, each morning there are the squashed bodies of those that didn’t make it to the other side. The photo below may look as if it’s squashed but this one survived!

Quite why the frogs cross here is a bit of a mystery. The river is below and to one side of us as it meanders through the valley and around the house. The frogs are coming from the field up on the hillside and this isn’t a nice, moist and lush grass field that might be a bit of froggy heaven. The field they come from is plough – stony, brashy and rough. Or have they been hibernating in the old hedgerow and, if so why, when there are plenty of, what would appear to be, more attractive and comfortable places to sleep? Whatever the reason, they are off back to the river and pond and our house is in their way. If the doors are open, a constant flow of ‘hoppers’ pass through the sitting room and kitchen – or around it as we tend to keep them out. When our little cottage was built 150 years ago, was it built on an ancient pathway created by thousands of generations of frogs?

Oddly enough, on Exmoor, despite its harsh climate, the frogs spawn earlier than here in the secret valley. On a walk recently, we found this perfectly formed circular pond (perhaps an old sheep wash) on the moor and the frogs had already filled it with spawn. And in every boggy patch of the moor we found even more spawn. It rose above the water level in great mounds: perhaps it is the higher rainfall that prevents the spawn from drying out. However many frogs must there be and how many tadpoles will survive to return to breed in the future? The answer is mind boggling!

An update 27th March:

The frog march has ended as they have reached their destination. When I walk past the large pond that has been formed by a breach of the river banks, the noise of croaking is amazing. Everywhere you look there are frogs and toads amongst the submerged vegetation. In the last 36 hours spawning has commenced – we have snow showers forecast over the next few days but, hopefully, it won’t affect the spawn too much.
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