At the Warwickshire Hunt Team Chase

Horses play an important part of our everyday lives and with my partner having spent a lifetime involved with riding for both pleasure and competitively, it is not surprising that so many of our friends are ‘horsey’ too.

I took up riding rather late in life compared to most and although I’m a competent rider, I’ve never been tempted to do anything that remotely involves winning a rosette.  I value my life too much.  However, if I thought I could skip the rosettes part and go straight into winning big prize money, I might just give it a try…

Over the years I’ve had my share of falls – this is a good thing for it means that I can recount them at every available opportunity.  Horse fall stories are rather like fisherman’s tales – it isn’t just the fish that get larger with every telling, so do the fences, gates and hedges where I met my comeuppance.  The story, for example, where I managed to fall off twice jumping a set of rails: the first time I got back on the horse and tried to jump them again  – only to land head first in the biggest pile of cow shit for 30 miles. No embellishments there but actually (and don’t tell anyone) the rails were really quite low.  I probably could have jumped them even if I hadn’t been on a horse.  The most irritating fall story of them all is the time I jumped a hedge to find rather a drop on the landing side. The horse stopped on landing and I sailed straight on, managing to do a double somersault before landing on my feet looking at the other riders jumping towards me.  Irritating because although accurately told no-one, apart from the few that witnessed it, believe it.

One way of ensuring numerous falls and a good way to stack up a whole wad of stories for future dinner parties is to take part in team chasing.  This is, for the uninitiated, where a team of usually four riders jump a cross country course at a hell-for-leather pace against the clock.  The time of the third rider to complete the course is the one that counts.  My partner has done this on numerous occasions but these days we are both happy to watch.

A good friend of ours who is a very successful saddler sponsored one of the classes at the Warwickshire Hunt Team Chase two Sunday’s ago and we were invited to join him and his partner for lunch.  I’m afraid to admit that like most events that include food and drink, I spent more time inside the marquee than on the actual course itself.

These sorts of occasions, rather like any other horse events, are very sociable for it is where a widely scattered country population can come together and meet up with old friends and neighbours and exchange news.  As I sat at the table pondering upon this and how traditional it is – for country gatherings haven’t really changed that much over the years – I also wondered if this was a worldwide  phenomena or whether it was yet another example of British eccentricty.  At that moment I noticed one of the guests was sitting at the table astride a pony  so I decided it must be the latter.  Ok, so the guest and the pony were very small but does that really matter?  Of course not, we wouldn’t have cared if it had been a 17 hands stallion (well, we might just, I suppose).

Once lunch was over it was time for the prize giving.  The team in pink,, who came second, were riding to raise money for Breast Cancer Awareness.

 
 

You can see more photo’s of the day on my Facebook page – click the FB icon at the top right of this page to go there – and don’t forget to ‘like’ me at the same time!
 
 
 

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Hedgerow Update 1

When I wrote my initial post on the ancient hedgerow that leads uphill out of the secret valley I intended to update it on a monthly basis (click here).  What a failed idea that has proved to be!  For March 10th  was as hot a day as any summer’s and that, coupled with a very dry winter, created the worst drought for many years.  The day that I had intended to walk the hedge (and also the day that a hose pipe ban was announced) the heavens opened and we have had torrential rain ever since.  I have been soaked to the skin most days because of work – I had no intention of a second soaking whilst carrying out hedge surveying upon my return home.

A break in the clouds, however, allowed me to sprint up the lane snapping away with the camera moments before the next deluge. No time to marvel at the way nature responds to climate or to look carefully to see what species of plants might be new to my eyes.  The only wildlife I saw was a solitary snail, pale lemon in colour and rather pretty – if you can describe a snail as such – which dropped off it’s grass blade perch the moment I got the camera in focus.  I’m sure I heard it giggling in the undergrowth.
Here is what I did see.

Cowslips
Cowslips (Primula veris) are a great favourite of mine bringing back memories of early school for ours had a play area that was carpeted with them.  Years ago no-one worried about picking great bunches of them or digging some up for the garden which we all did yet the numbers there didn’t seem to diminish.  However, overpicking (or perhaps spraying roadside verges) meant that the cowslip became a scarce plant.  Happily, they are now seen sporadically along the Cotswold lanes although not on my old school playground which became a high density housing estate in the ’80’s. Along our hedge, cowslips appear in small numbers which, hopefully, will increase over the years.  Further up the valley a field grazed only by sheep and never sprayed is a yellow carpet at this time of year and on warm, still days, the faint smell of honey wafts around transporting me back more years than I care to admit to.

    Cowslip meadow in the secret valley

Primroses

The last few primroses are still in bloom, quite late for this time of year and no doubt, like some of the daffodils, lasting longer because of the cool, damp weather.  Primula vulgaris, their botanical name, sounds like a misnomer for their is nothing vulgar about them, for every part of a primrose is pretty, whether it is the palest lemon of their petals, the deeper yellow throat or the fresh green of their leaves.  Even the ribbing and lines of their veins create attractive patternss and textures.  Vulgaris does, of course, mean common – there is nothing common about them in appearance either!

The hot March had an odd effect on plants. Some revelled in it, throwing caution to the wind and paraded their summer finery early, whereas others seemed to remember the old saying about not casting a clout ’til May is out. Proven right, when cold returned in April, they now seem reluctant to even expose a leaf and, as a result, the hedgerow is bright green  in places, yet bare and wintry looking in others.

 Field Maple

Field Maple is a classic old hedgerow plant.  Left to grow untouched it makes a medium sized tree of, to my mind, simple but great beauty.  However, it is usually trimmed to make a reasonably dense, twiggy barrier.  Like all maples the flowers and leaves emerge together but I had never noticed before the rich mahogany colour of the leaf buds. Acer campestre.

Ground Ivy

 A plant so common and so small as to be overlooked, Ground Ivy (not related to ivy but to mint)has to be viewed on hands and knees to see its quiet beauty: tiny, mauve, hooded trumpets darkening at the throat.  According to my old herbals it was used for all sorts of ailments from the uterus to inflamed eyes and everything in between.  Glechoma hederacea, in a greyish variegated form is often used in hanging baskets where it is seen trailing in ugly, thick ribbons.  Leave it where it belongs – trailing over the ground at the foot of a hedgerow.  Perhaps it should be used in the garden in this way? 

 Jack-by-the-Hedge

Jack-by-the-Hedge or Garlic Mustard is a common plant and quite a useful addition to early spring salads for its shredded leaves have a mild garlic taste.  In the photo above it grows along with stinging nettles and the fine leaves of Cleavers or Goose-grass.  It is the food plant of the Orange Tip Butterfly which is quite regularly seen throughout the secret valley, although scarce so far this spring due to weather conditions.  Occasionally they fly into the house and require rescuing – not always as easy as in this photo!

 Orange Tip Butterfly – only the male is coloured orange

Bluebells with White Dead-Nettle

Bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scriptus, are another of the ancient woodland indicators (click here for more details of this term) and they flower the whole length of the hedgerow.  In the Chiltern Hills, the area where I spent most of my life, the beechwoods are renowned for their Bluebell carpets (photo below).  Here, they grow more sparsely, with the occasional white flowered sport growing amongst them. In the photo above, it is the white flowered dead-nettle they mingle with.  The dead-nettle, Lamium album, is not related to the true nettle and has no sting, just an unpleasant smell when the leaves are crushed.  In the garden it is a nuisance with a white, running root, quite thick and brittle unlike the stinging nettle’s yellow, fibrous root system – a useful way to tell them apart if uncertain, apart from the sting, of course.

A bluebell wood in the Chiltern Hills in Spring

 Burdock leaves
The large leaves of Burdock, Arctium minus, are already forming rosettes.  It will be a while before they send up their spikes of lilac flowers, reminiscent of those of the thistle and even longer before the troublesome round seedheads, the burs, stick to clothing and She-dog.

The secret valley in flood
It was at this point that the heavens opened once again giving me just time to take a snap of the little winding river.  It’s clear, sparkling waters have been transformed by rain to a swirling, brown muddy spate that has now burst its banks spreading out across the valley.

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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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First Build Your Bank ….

Some time ago I was asked if I could plant a hedge.  Straightforward enough, I thought and as it was to be a native hedge, I was especially keen to do it.  Using only native species is always a pleasure for not only are you maintaining a tradition that is centuries old, it is also excellent cover for twentyfirst century birds and animals.

It was only when I went to visit the site that it was mentioned that it would be rather nice if the hedge could be planted on top of a bank, reminiscent of those that are found in the West Country counties of Devon and Cornwall.

West Country banks use large amounts of stone in their construction and were built to protect livestock from the gales and snowstorms that sweep in from the Atlantic.  Over time they become encrusted in lichens and mosses with ferns, primroses and other wild flowers sprouting from every crevice.  They are usually topped with a beech hedge or, sometimes, gorse (or furze, as they call it on Exmoor).

The bank that I had to build was to be similar but faced with turf which would not be as strong. As it was to divide two halves of a garden and (hopefully) not have to keep out determined sheep or cattle, this didn’t matter.  The thing that did matter was that I had to build it in a way that would prevent it from falling down …..

I’ve always found that if you want to create an impression bring in a digger.  There is a morbid fascination in watching a digger at work for the destruction can be immediate and swift.  It certainly would have been if I had been in charge of the controls but, as is so often the case, when you need an expert it is better to bring one in.  I know where I am when it comes to shovels and forks and trowels but it is best not to let me loose with all those knobs and levers.

The ground cleared we were then able to lay out and start building the bank.  We imported the rubble and clod for the base which after being well rammed and compacted could then have a top layer of better quality topsoil spread over the surface.  All was held in place by large mesh chicken wire netting.

Next came the turf and this was laid direct onto the netting and held in place with hazel twig ‘pegs’.  These would gradually rot but not before the turf had grown its roots through the wire.   The netting, too would quite quickly rot (we didn’t use galvanised for we didn’t want it to last for years) and, by then and fingers crossed, the bank would be quite stable and self supporting.

It was with some trepidation when, a few weeks later we cut the top of the turf and the wire out so that we were able to prepare the bank for planting the hedgerow; especially so as we had had some torrential downpours giving me anxious moments about landslips and mudslides.  All, fortunately was well.

Having plants delivered, I find, is always an exciting moment.  It reminds me of when, as a child, I waited for Christmas morning and couldn’t wait any longer to open my presents.  Despite knowing what is coming out of the van, each plant or variety is met with little gasps of delight.   The thrill of knowing that, with luck, they will thrive and continue to grow for many years and may even be there long after I’ve been buried and forgotten is great.

The hedgerow was not the easiest thing to plant but the end result was pleasing.  The final combination was Hawthorn, Field Maple, Wayfaring Tree, Hazel, Dog Rose, Spindle and Hornbeam  with an occasional Honeysuckle to fill the evening air with perfume.  The birds took to it straight away and, in my imagination at least, mice and voles shelter amongst the trunks hiding from mirauding stoats and weasels.  Best of all is the knowledge that, a few years on, the bank is still standing!

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Rain, Rain & even more Rain!

After all the scorching weather we had a little while ago, now it won’t stop raining. Suddenly temperatures dropped from the upper 80’sF (scorching for England!) by 20 degrees and, day after day, we have woken to grey skies and rain lashing the windows. There have been times when the sun breaks through to remind us that it is still mid summer and we can get on with our outdoor work in comfort.

The garden has been overdue for a tidy as working with other people’s gardens takes up most of our hours at this time of year. This weekend we were able to cut the tall hedges and they look a lot better for it – not a job I especially enjoy but a sense of satisfaction once done.

Hand clipping box hedges is a joy however, providing you have plenty of time for accuracy. There is nothing worse than a ragged, uneven finish to a formal hedge. Powered hedge trimmers rarely do a good enough job and the slow, rythmic sound of hedging shears is mesmeric.

I have heard that the dreaded box blight is in the area. Let’s hope that it doesn’t find any of ours!