Ragwort – a curse or a blessing?

There is a general consensus that Ragwort (Senecio jacobea) is a noxious weed that is invading the British countryside, poisoning livestock and possibly humans alike.  Numerous articles, including some official ones, refer to it being ‘recently introduced’, ‘out of control’ or ‘increasing dramatically’.  Other sources suggest that just breathing in the plant ‘spores’* is enough to cause serious liver damage.

Ragwort

Ragwort

There is no doubt that in places ragwort is increasing just as other plants increase in number or range periodically.  There is also no doubt that it is a highly toxic plant that is capable of causing fatalities in livestock, particularly cattle and horses.  Less frequently reported are the benefits to the environment it brings for it a native plant that is host to numerous insects as well as Common Broomrape (Orobanche minor), an obligate parasitic plant that cannot complete its life cycle without it (although it is also parasitic on some other plant species too).

Cinnabar Moth Caterpillar

Cinnabar Moth Caterpillar

Plantlife, the conservation charity (link here), have produced a ‘position statement’ on ragwort control which – in my opinion at least – appears to be more balanced.  They acknowledge that livestock can be damaged and that control may be necessary in areas of high risk.  They also counterbalance the argument by stating that there is no evidence that it is proliferating.

Ladies Bedstraw - sometimes confused with ragwort should not be disturbed

Ladies Bedstraw – sometimes confused with ragwort should not be disturbed

The alkaloids in ragwort are harmless whilst they remain in the plant but become toxic once ingested.  It takes considerable amounts to cause catastrophic liver failure and this is usually caused by feeding contaminated hay over long periods of time.  To have a horse die from ragwort poisoning is extremely distressing both for the horse and its owner and as symptoms don’t show until cure is too late precautions do need to be taken.  Reaction caused by casual contact is usually dermatitis, and relatively rare.

Ragwort and horses - not a good combination

Ragwort and horses – not a good combination

Ragwort is more prevalent where disturbed soil conditions exist and the churning of ground by hooves create perfect conditions for seed to germinate. Although animals don’t select fresh ragwort in preference to other species they will eat it if other food is scarce such as in times of drought or through overstocking.

Ragwort growing beside path made by horses

Ragwort growing beside path made by horses

So should ragwort be controlled or not?  The answer, as with most things in life, is yes but in moderation. It is quite unnecessary to remove ragwort plants from areas of low or no risk as is sometimes thought. I keep horses and spend time each year removing ragwort from the fields in which they graze. The best way is to pull the plant out by hand rather than to use chemicals which create other issues. It is generally believed that the toxins can be absorbed through the skin so it is advisable to wear gloves to prevent this.

Always remove the pulled plants from the field

Always remove the pulled plants from the field

The tall flowering stems of ragwort with their attractive head of yellow daisy-like flowers are easy enough to see and remove. Less obvious are the non-flowering plants – these have a rosette of leaves hugging the ground. It is essential that the pulled plants are disposed of carefully, preferably by burning, as seeds can form on dying plants. It is also essential that the plants are identified properly and that other species are not removed. It should also be remembered that it is illegal to disturb or remove any wild plant that is not growing on land you own or have responsibility for.

Ragwort flowers

Ragwort flowers

Ground hugging leaf rosette of immature plant

Ground hugging leaf rosette of immature plant

*Ragwort is a seeding plant and does not produce spores. This is just one way how misinformation can cause confusion and unnecessary health concerns

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2014 in Review: July – December

Christmas has been and gone, even the New Year is a few days old.  A time of old traditions and also some new ones – one of which is the review of the year past.  The first six months can be found by clicking here; now for the next six.

This is the time of feasting, of plenty but in days gone by the essential time of year was harvest.  Without a successful gathering of the corn life during winter would be tough for country folk. Harvest, which starts here in July, is still one of the busiest times of the farming year and despite modern machinery replacing many of the labouring jobs in many ways the task remains unchanged. As a young man I helped on what must have been one of the last farms to harvest in the ‘old way’.  Working from dawn to dusk, it was hard but we didn’t stop until we knew “all was safely gathered in”…

All is Safely Gathered In?

I tend to avoid Exmoor, England’s smallest National Park, in August for it can become quite busy with visitors (I’m selfish and don’t want to share it with others).  This year was different and I arrived in glorious sunshine, the perfect time to see the heather moorland which is in full bloom this month, a purple haze.  To keep it looking as perfect as in the image below, the moors are set alight, an ancient practice known as ‘swaling’. The resultant new growth provides food for the sheep, the wild ponies and the other wild birds and animals that roam the moor…

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Horses play an important part in my life and in September the Burghley Horse Trials take place.  The trials feature three elements of horsemanship: dressage, show jumping and cross-country.   It takes a brave horse and rider to tackle the latter element for the course is very testing and some of the jumps huge.  Accidents do occur, fortunately rarely seriously but when there is a problem with perhaps a fence needing repair, part of my job is to prevent other competitors from running into them. Stop That Horse! lets on what happens ‘behind the scenes’…

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The story of Lorna Doone and John Ridd, the man who saved her is a well-known and much loved tale of romance and treachery, set on 17th century Exmoor.  Many of the places and people – but not all – that feature in the book do or did exist.  In October I explored what is fact and what is myth? Click here to find out…

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There can be fewer more bizarre buildings in the world than The Pineapple in Scotland.  In November I was lucky enough to stay there and to explore the other fascinating and ruined buildings associated with it.  I also found time to travel further afield and take in the spectacular scenery around Loch Lomond…

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Rummaging in a cupboard at home in December I  came across some old photographs that had been inherited many years earlier.  Noticing a signature and doing some research turned into something far more exciting than I ever could have imagined – it turned out to be ‘a great game’…

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2015 looks to be a good year with a number of exciting projects and travel ahead giving plentiful topics for blogging.  May it be a good one for you too.   Thank you for your support and may the New Year bring you all health and happiness.

HAPPY NEW YEAR

Bonkers about Conkers!

Every little boy – and many a gown-up one as well – loves toplay conkers at this time of year.  Or at least, I assume they still do; it is possible that it may have been banned from the school playground under health and safety grounds.  When you think of it – not only did we frequently impale our hands with the meat skewer we had pinched from the kitchen drawer to pierce the conkers with, we quite often cut ourselves with our penknives as we trimmed the strings to the right length. And what about those shattered splinters flying through the air like vegetative shrapnel – no-one thought about wearing eye protection then.

However, the traditional sport of conkers isn’t threatened so much by legislation as by the recently imported leaf miner moth (Cameraria ohridella) which first appeared in southwest London in 2002.  With no predators it has spread at an alarming rate and now it is reckoned that nearly all trees in England and Wales are infected by it.  The moth’s presence can be detected by the brown-black blotches that cover the leaves, disrupting the trees ability to synthasise fully.  This in turn weakens it which has made them much more susceptible to disease, especially bleeding canker which is now threatening their very existence.   In some years, leaf damage is more severe and the leaves can drop very early indeed.  As a consequence, some trees are looking in very poor shape.
 
 
 


The secret valleyhas numerous mature Horse Chestnuts.  They are fine trees, up to 100ft or more tall and look especially splendid in spring, their white flower spikes contrasting with the freshness of their newly opened green leaves which, at that time of year, are still unblemished.  In the 400+ years since they were introduced to Britain from the Balkans, they have become an integral part of a child’s growing up.  We learnt how branches of the ‘sticky’ buds, the dormant leaf buds, becoming ever more shiny and sticky as the sap rises within the tree, can be cut and forced to open into leaf early in a jam jar of water.  On hot summer days we learnt, usually when lying beneath the trees in their cooling shade, how to make ‘fish bones’ by shredding the leaves with our fingers until just the skeletal veins of the leaves remained.  When we wanted to be nasty we knew that we could hurl the hard, green nutshells armed with their sharp spikes to embed in our enemy’s backs or scratch their legs if they were wearing shorts.  And, of course, we held conker competitions.

Horse Chestnuts in full bloom on a fine late spring day
 
Now with all the trials of pests and disease plus the dreadful summer weather, conkers are few and those that have matured barely half their normal size.  It has even been suggested that brussel sprout competitions may have to be held instead although I doubt if they will give the satisying dull thud of the real thing even if they were frozen first.  However, this years World Conker Championships have taken place this month as normal – it was first held in 1965 and, unlikely as it seems, attracts competitors from all around the world.  You can find out more by clicking on the link below.
Not all is gloom and doom for the Horse Chestnut for it is now thought that some bird species are beginning to learn about this new food source and research is being carried out by the University of Hull and others to monitor this suspected behaviour.  There is little that we, as gardeners or conservationists can do at this stage to assist other than to report any signs we see of birds feeding on the trees.  We just have to hope that the Horse Chestnut doesn’t disappear from our countryside in the same way that the Elm did in the 1970’s and 80’s.

The difference in size between the two trees is quite marked – as is the autumnal tints of the frost damage part of the smaller one 
 
In the secret valley, we also have a number of the smaller, red flowered Horse Chestnut, Aesculus x carneaca, and this does not seem to become infected to the same degree as the white flowered, Aesculus hippocastanum.  Although they do produce conkers unfortunately they are neither of a size or quality suitable for a serious round of conkers.  Horse Chestnuts, by the way, are poisonous to horses – they get their common name by the scars on the branches where the leaves once were: a perfect horseshoe complete with marks where the nails would be. 
 
When you get to know a place intimately – whether it’s a garden or a landscape – you notice things that the casual observer misses.  In the late spring of 2011, we had a biting frost that killed off not all but some of the new young growth of numerous trees – just where it touched.  Some trees remained unscathed, others  were totally destroyed and some just part.  This is what happened to one of a pair of Horse Chestnuts visible from our little stone cottage.  One tree has always been much more stunted than the other, although as their girths are the same, I assume they were planted at the same time.  They stand side by side but one, when the river bursts its banks is under water for a few days longer than the other.  Is it this that has caused it to be so much shorter or is it this rare burning of the leaves by frost?  It took months for the tree to recover, finally sending out new spring green leaves and flower buds at the end of July contrasting greatly with the remainder of the tree whose leaves had not been harmed.  Likewise, the older leaves turned their autumn colours and fell earlier than the newer ones.  This year the tree, which now looks quite poorly, has reversed with the damaged leaves turning golden – in the ten days since the photograph was taken, they have fallen while the remaining leaves are yet to get their autumn tints.

Almost hidden from view, our old stone cottage stands well above the little winding river

 In 2011, we had a very late frost blackening both the leaves and flowers – it took months for the tree to recover

 

The secret valleywill be a much poorer place if all the Horse Chestnuts succumb to disease and have to be felled.  Let us hope that future generations can play beneath them as we have done.

Sources:
British conkers getting smaller
World Conker Championships
Conker Tree Science Project

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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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Heading for the Sky

The west coast of Ireland is renowned for its beauty for the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean, with nothing to slow them down from the shores of America, have created inlets and pools, islands and crumbling rock face.  It is a wild place with mile after empty mile of high cliffs, sandy coves and sheltered bays.  Like the shadows that play on the surface of the water, the weather is forever changing as rain and sun alternate produce the contrast of lush green against granite outcrops.  All along this coast there are ruins of the old crofts, now long deserted as the population left to find work and comfort elsewhere.  Those that remained moved into more modern homes that look as if they have been dropped into the landscape for they sit at all angles, some looking out to sea, some with their backs firmly set to it as if hunkered down waiting for the next battering storm.  
 
 
One of the most picturesque towns on the coast is Clifden in Connemara whose population swells threefold during the busy summer months to 6000 or so.  The region described as Connemara is undefined, being part of County Galway, but is generally accepted to be the remote, westernmost area, where mountain, bog and sea all jostle for space and attention.  This remoteness has helped to save the Irish lannguage and Connemara has the highest percentage of Gaelic speakers in Ireland.
 
 
 
 We – my partner, myself and some friends – had come to stay high on the cliffs outside Clifden specifically to visit the annual Connemara Pony Show, where the native ponies are put through their paces over three days.  I have written of this in my last post (click here) and also mentioned how we came expecting rain and cool temperatures only to be blessed with such hot weather that we actually swam in the sea.   The fine weather meant that we were treated to some spectacular sunsets.
 
There are two roads that lead west out of Clifden, the Beach road and the Sky road.  The first only goes a short distance but the Sky Road is an 11km loop that is a popular destination for both tourist and local alike on a clear evening.
 
 

  
As the light begins to fade there is little to prepare you for the spectacle that will come later.  A greying of the sky with just the merest hint of colour as if an artist has slashed the palest of pink washes in a quick ‘Z’ shaped stroke. 
 

 
 
As the sky darkens further it would appear that the sunsets we have been promised will not materialise.  The sea changes in appearance at this point and becomes almost glassy or mirror like.  The dark line stretching across the water in the photo below is made by fishing nets stretched across the bay, invisible at any other time of day.  Trees, too, standing on the edge of the water cast their reflection in the stillness.
 
 
 
 
 
A shaft of light suddenly appears along the horizon, lightening up the landscape once again only to be hidden by a bank of seafog rolling in, determined to spoil our evening display, leaving just a hint of gold cloud rising above it.  But, just as quickly it disappears again to reveal the sun disappearing over the horizon beyond the islands.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
We stay until the sun disappears completely and drive on imagining that the show is over  but nothing has prepared us for this last finale seen as the road rounds a bend.  The combination of cloud, light and darkness, of navy blue, black and pink, mirror imaged in the still water is quite breath taking.  It seems unreal, as if it should be the backdrop to a Wagnerian opera; we stand on the sand speechless for no words are adequate.

 

 
I had to share the sunset with others but waking early the next morning I stepped outside to be greeted by an almost equally spectacular dawn.  And what phenomenon created this vertical shaft of colour coming straight up from the sea? 
 


      

     

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Ireland’s Connemara Ponies

Rugged and beautiful, Connemara is situated on Ireland’s west coast.  It’s a wild place: a rock strewn landscape softened by the lush green of field and bog; of purple heather interwoven with the golden flowers of gorse; of towering scarlet and purple fuchsia hedges; of blue sea and empty, sandy beaches and of vast skies.  On a warm, summer’s day there can be no more benign a place yet when the gales and driving rain arrive, you are reminded that there is nothing but open Atlantic until you reach the shores of America. It is here that the Connemara pony, as enigmatic as the land that produced it – gentle but tough – developed.

The origins of the ponies are lost in time.  Some believe that they date back to the Vikings, others that the local breed crossbred with shipwrecked Spanish Armada horses.  What is known with certainty is that during the 19th century they were crossbred with Hackneys, Thoroughbreds and Arabians until by the early 1900’s the pony bloodlines were being lost.  In 1923 the Connemara Pony Breeders Society was set up to preserve the breed, the result being that the Connemara is now thriving with societies, clubs and shows worldwide. 

The most important of all of these shows – and rightly so – is the one of its birthplace, the Connemara Pony Festival at Clifden, held each year during August.  It is to the Festival that I was lucky enough to be invited last week.

 
My interest in horses, I have to admit, is somewhat limited.  I ride and (even if I say so myself) am quite good at it, despite only learning ten years ago but I do find the prospect of sitting watching horses for three days going around a ring rather daunting.  But this is Ireland and the craic is as good as you would expect it to be – here you can wander in and out of the showground, the locals are happy to chat to you about anything and everything and the setting is superb: a small showground in the centre of a pretty, brightly coloured town bounded by a dark brown, peaty watered river and backed by mountains.  And of course, there is Guinness!  A bonus was the weather – hot and sunny, every day.

I stayed and watched some of the jumping competitions before my attention waned.  The standard of the riding was very mixed but fun was had by all and it was interesting to see how the children just climbed back on board and carried on without, it seems, a second thought.  Perhaps that is why so many of the top jockeys are Irish ….

However, when it comes to ‘loose’ jumping, I can stay all day.  To watch the ponies move without the restraints of rider and tack, I find fascinating.  Here, the atmosphere is very much more relaxed and the banter never ending.

After a long day, what better way can there be than to end it with a stroll through the town, visiting a bar or two along the way?  Clifden is also a stronghold of traditional Irish music and from every open doorway the sound of the fiddle eminates.  Traditional music has been a lifelong interest of mine and I have had all the elements of a terrific day out – horses, Guinness, Ireland, song and warmth.  I walk back to my house, twenty-five minutes outside the town, set high up on the cliffs, as the sun begins to set.  The perfect end to a perfect day.

This seems an opportunity to talk of my own horse, Barney.  A giant of a horse (who, by coincidence, also came over from Ireland), gentle, wicked and a lot of fun, he helped teach me to ride by ensuring, I like to think, that the saddle was safely underneath me when I landed after a jump.  After months of treatment for lameness, he was ‘put down’ – a very sad day.  However, I now have Bart who compared to Barney goes like a Ferrari.  An ex-eventing horse, he is beautifully schooled and very disciplined, it has taken me a while to feel comfortable with his power and speed.  More of all this on a later post – below is an image of him and Ernie, our other horse, as a taster!

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The River Pageant

In 1717, a musical pageant was held on the River Thames for King George I and was captured on the famous canvas by Canaletto.  This was not the first time that there had been royal river pageants but it was this painting that was the inspiration for the Diamond Jubilee River Pageant for Queen Elizabeth.  

A major feature of the pageant was again music but the number of boats on the river was to outrival all the previous pageants of the past.  Over 1000 boats took part, breaking not just the record for London but becoming the largest ever in the world.  The oldest boat dated back to 1740 and one, the Amazon, had taken part in the celebrations to mark Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee(the present Queen’s great-great grandmother) in 1897.
 Central to the parade was the Royal Barge that carried the royal party.
 
The barge sailed past many of the iconic images of London – The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, St Paul’s Cathedral which can also be seen  in the Canaletto painting.  Crowds lined the banks of the river and also the bridges – they can just about be seen through the torrential rain that fell for most of the day.  Despite that nearly one and a quarter million people came to see the pageant and wish the Queen well.  The boats sailing in front of St Paul’s are bearing all the flags of the Commonwealth countries.
 

 

All  along the banks, tributes were made to the Queen ranging from military salutes to one from War Horse on the roof of the National Theatre.

 

Every church bell along the river answered the peal from the barge leading the procession.  The floating belfry was carrying a specially comissioned set of eight bells – these were later hung in the Church of St James at Garlickhythe.
 

 The fire boats also gave their salutes wetting already soaked participants even more ……

 

 And Tower Bridge raised its bascules to their highest point in acknowledgement …..

 

Despite the grey, dreary weather the river – it is rarely given its full title of the River Thames – was a spectacle of colour, of bells ringing, of music coming from one of several orchestral barges and the sound of the crowds cheering, clapping and singing the national anthem, “God Save the Queen”.

 
 

 Once the Royal party had passed through Tower Bridge, the pageant came to an end.  It concluded with the choral barge singing patriotic songs with great fervour despite the choir being drenched to the skin.  Never had the words of “Rule Brittania” seemed more pertinant:  “Rule Brittania, Brittania rule the waves ……”

 
 

 For more details of the procession or to read about the individual boats that took part, visit the official website of the river pageant:  http://www.thamesdiamondjubileepageant.org/ .  Much of the information above has been taken from their very informative site.

 
 

The Gloriana (above) is the first Royal rowbarge to have been made in over 100 years.  Covered in gold leaf it lived up to its name.  Pphotographs can be found on an online article of the Daily Mail – and more information – by clicking here.
  
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Around the World with Queen Elizabeth

Last October my partner and I were surprised and delighted to receive an invitation from the Duke of Edinburgh to a reception at Windsor Castle.  It seemed unreal passing through the State Entrance, walking up the Grand Staircase to the magnificently restored St. George’s Hall and spending several hours being able to explore the historic rooms at leisure.  To read more about that evening, click here.

This weekend, the whole country is in a Royal frenzy as there is a four day holiday break from routine to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.  Everywhere, there is red, white and blue bunting and Union flags flying in preparation for street parties, village dances and fetes.  For many of us, the Queen represents more than just our Country, partly because, having been there for sixty years, the majority of us have no memory or knowledge of any other monarch.  She has always been there, always consistent and that is quite a comfort when the news is full of political and monetary chaos throughout the world.

Windsor Castle is not just a grand, old building; it is also a much loved home to the Royal Family, so it was only natural that it would play a lead role in the Jubilee celebrations.  “Around the World in 60 Years” was an extravaganza that celebrated not just the Queen’s achievement (Queen Victoria, the present Queen’s great-great-grandmother is the only other monarch that reigned for over 60 years) but also
a record of the many countries that she has visited during that time.  When we had the opportunity to be at Windsor for this once-in-a-lifetime treat we leapt at the chance.

The performance, which took place in the private grounds of the castle, began with the entrance of the Household Cavalry and King’s Troop, which is always guaranteed to whip up a fervour of patriotism.  Behind the arena, the stage was a massive recreation of the facade of Buckingham Palace. 

The arrival of the Queen and Prince Philip brought everyone to their feet.  The British don’t display their patriotism openly very frequently but when the band played the National Anthem, “God Save the Queen”, there were many – men and women – whose voices faltered over the words “long to reign over us”….  For me, the raising of the Royal Standard above the mock Buckingham Palace, which is only ever flown in the presence of the Queen, was my emotional downfall, for I am always aware how fortunate I am to live in a free democracy:  one half of my family did not and perished because of it.  My friends tease me, saying that now my family have lived here for 100 years, I will soon be a ‘proper’ Englishman!

Over 550 horses and 1000 people took part in the Pageant.  Performers from every continent and the numerous countries the Queen has visited, displayed their horsemanship, danced or sang.
  
North America was represented by cowboys, by native Americans and by the Canadian Mounties. The Mounties are always very popular with the British and played a leading role in the Pageant. They also mounted guard at (the real) Buckingham Palace, a great honour (click here).

 
Two hundred men and women from the Omani Royal Cavalry were a colourful addition, wearing their green, burgundy and gold colours and riding barefoot.
 
Towards the end of the evening  all of the Queen’s own horses were paraded – or in the case of her racehorses, galloped – through the arena.  Even her ponies from Balmoral in Scotland were brought to Windsor.
The finale was the most incredible sight as all 550 horses and the performers came into the arena together along with the Royal State Coach. 

We were one of the last to leave the arena and as we sat we were noticed by the Cook Islanders who performed a ‘haku’ especially for us.  It was very exciting to have our own private performance and made our evening even more memorable.

And just when the evening could hardly be even more magical, we stepped outside to see the castle lit up in  a dark sky.  Breathtaking!

My photographic skills couldn’t cope with the extraordinary horsemanship of the Cossack riders – to see them rehearsing for their performance, click on the link here.

The Diamond Jubilee Pageant “Around the World in 60 Years” is to be shown this coming Sunday on television: ITV 6.30pm – 8.30pm.

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Where’s The Snow in Snowdonia? (Only in it’s name)

We have been back to Wales for a week’s holiday staying in a remote converted chapel belonging to a friend.  It is good to be back for the isolation is complete – no cars, no houses, no roads, no broadband and no television.  Well, there is television but being rather impatient with non-living things (and also quite a number of people that just might fall into that category) I cannot be bothered to work out just which of the several remote controls switch it on.  But best of all – and rather surprisingly considering all the dire warnings we have been given by the weathermen – no snow.


Last winter when we were here, a blizzard struck the day we arrived.  Gradually, as the supply of logs and oil for heating dwindled and the water supply froze resulting in our collecting it from the stream outside, our resolve and sense of fun also started to diminish.  Put it down to advancing years: in my twenties or thirties I would have considered it to be ‘quite a laugh’.  Not so these days – I could cope with the water and lack of central heating but I am not so good when the wood burner isn’t blazing away.  However, we saw Snowdonia last year as few visitors do; a snow covered landscape with more falling so thickly that it was difficult to see, when out walking, where either my partner – or more importantly She-dog – was even though they were just yards ahead of me.


This year it was different, we left home with the (as it turned out, innacurate) knowledge that we were driving into blizzards and we hoped that we would reach our destination before being marooned, despite having to travel over two high passes and up a track steep enough to make a mountain goat think twice before tackling it. This time we came prepared with a vast amount of food and with three times the amount of warm clothing that any two people could wear over an entire winter.  As we reached the town of Shrewsbury the forecast rain began to fall; it would only be a matter of time as we entered Wales and gradually climbed in height that it would change to snow.  The rain grew steadily heavier and the road ever steeper until we reached the first summit and, surprise, there was not a hint of whiteness anywhere.  The second pass, higher still, was similar although the surrounding peaks did have a dusting of snow. We reached our destination with the rain still falling and the temperature ever rising – it was now fifteen degrees warmer than when we had left home in the Cotswolds, further south and many hundreds of feet lower.


The next morning we woke to sunshine, having no guilt about not getting out of bed in darkness at some ridiculously early hour as every other day of our lives.  Looking out of the bedroom window, the surrounding mountains still wore their apology of snow – it was a scene from the end of March or even April.  The calls from concerned Cotswold friends telephoning (we still have one piece of technology that works here) to confirm our safe arrival quickly turned to irritation when they discovered we were fine and they were blanketed in five inches of overnight snowfall.  It was hardly our fault that they had to work twice as hard at looking after our chickens and horses in our absence and, it seems, my suggestion that carrying buckets of unfrozen drinking water out into the fields was a good daily exercise did not help.


Last year She-dog had a thoroughly enjoyable holiday here as well.  Like most dogs, she revels in human company and snow and her days were spent in a mix of snowy walks and long uninterrupted periods of sleep in front of the fire.  This time we are here on our own.  It has been commented on that She-dog has not featured much in recent posts – all that is about to change for she has  gone away on an adventure of her own: if all goes well, in about ten weeks time she will be having puppies once again and, this time, we might just keep one for ourselves.

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A Royal Invitation

Like most people, I wait with eager anticipation for the postman to deliver the mail each day and, each day, I find that, if it isn’t bills he’s put through the letter box, it’s circulars that go straight into the recycling bin.  So when a card sized envelope arrived with a nicer quality about it than most – and especially as it wasn’t my birthday – I was intrigued.  Why do we always feel envelopes and squint at postmarks to try and work out what is inside when all we have to do is open them and take a look?

My first reaction upon finding I’d received an invitation from the Duke of Edinburgh to attend Windsor Castle was to think that a friend was playing a practical joke.  But the more I read it the more real it looked:

His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh, K.G., K.T
requests the pleasure of your company
at a Reception to be held in the State Apartments, Windsor Castle

How extraordinary!  Why me?  Why should I be drinking and eating one evening soon with Royalty?  The answer was, of course, it wasn’t me at all, it was my partner who has spent a lifetime working with and competing horses.

Horses have always been close to the Royal Family and both the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh are knowledgable and skilled horsemen.  Carriage driving at top competition level had, until recently, been a regular part of the Duke’s regime and we had often been to watch him race at Windsor Great Park.  We too, have also participated in driving although my competition level is still at the most basic.  My partner is much more skilled and fearless and I always marvel when a neurotic and potentially lethal animal becomes calm and pliable under his control.  The photo below is of us just out for a quiet afternoons drive – although the pony did have his moment a little later when we careered out of control amongst the trees.  Thomas could become quite exciteable at times!

I realised with dismay that the date on the invitation was the day that we would be on Exmoor for a couple of weeks holiday, 150 miles away.  Working on the theory that we’d never likely receive another invitation we postponed the trip by a day.  And so, that early evening we drove up to the closed gates of Windsor Castle, showed our credentials and passed through to be further security checked.  Once this had taken place we were driven by an offical to the Quadrangle and the State Entrance.  Thie entrance, as it’s name implies, is used on State occcasions and the Quadrangle is used for military parades, including the regular Changing of the Guard.  From here is a panoramic view of the castle buildings, the oldest of which date from the 11th century (making Windsor the world’s oldest inhabited castle), and the Long Walk: a tree lined vista that cuts across the Great Park for a distance of over two and a half miles.

 
 

We entered the building by the Grand Staircase, with it’s fine displays of armour and firearms.  Here we were able to see the musket ball that killed Lord Nelson which had been presented to Queen Victoria.  Queen Charlotte’s sedan chairs were also here, remarkably small, I thought.

The reception was held in St George’s Hall, which was at the centre of the fire in the 1990’s and completely destroyed.  As a consequence, the restoration work has made the green oak, hammer beam roof the largest to be constructed in that century.  The craftsmanship and colours are extraordinary: set into the roof are the shields of every Knight of the Garter with some shields being blank.  These, I discovered, were not reserved for future knights but were of those that had fallen from Royal favour. 

Nothing prepares you for the sheer magnificence and size of this room as you enter – it measures 185 x 30 feet.  Here we met other guests – there were only about two hundred  – and, finally, the Duke who arrived with little pomp or ceremony.  The Duke made a short speech before joining us informally to champagne and canapes.  I was impressed not just by his energy (he is now over 90) but also by his wit.  He really is very funny, indeed.  I wondered how many other people of his age could carry out all these duties day in, day out and still make you feel as if you were of interest to them.  Both he and the Queen – who works equally hard – may live in splendour with aides and courtiers but I wouldn’t exchange places with them: I will be more than content just to still be able to hear, see, think and garden!

Access was also granted to The Grand Reception Room and The Waterloo Chamber, where the immense and seamless, two ton carpet took fifty soldiers to lift to a place of safety during the fire.  What I found surprising was that we were given free access to wander around these rooms at will, although I’m certain that if we had attempted to go elsewhere we would have found our way blocked!  Sadly, because we were attending a royal event, we were not allowed to take photgraphs, so I am unable to show you the splendours of these rooms.  You will find them, however, if you look in a search engine.

The evening came to a close after two and a half hours and, as we stepped back out into the autumn air in the Quadrangle, I was struck by the realisation why it is traditional to say, upon the death of a monarch, “The King is dead, long live the King”:  for all the affection that the current Queen has in the hearts of many of her subjects, the Office is greater than the individual.  The institution of monarchy has worked well for this country, long may it remain so.

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