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…

c4098-heather2b52b2b2bcopyright

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’…

a7d17-cottesmore2bleap2b2b2bcopyright

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…

d95a2-badgworthy2bwater2b2b2bcopyright

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…

e226c-the2bpineapple2b42b2b2bcopyright

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’…

006   copyright

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

Advertisements

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

Add to Technorati Favorites

A New Year

The snow has all but gone from the secret valley, thanks to a sudden thaw, after the temperature rose from -15 centigrade to +6 centigrade. Some still clings to the gullies at the sides of the fields and on the colder banks of the hillside but elsewhere, in its place, is the battered appearance of a landscape after attack.
.

.
Last night, New Year’s Eve, was seen out at our neighbours and good friends 3/4 mile up the road, at the farmhouse that is the centre of our farming life here. Although a cold night it was good to be able to walk there effortlessly (after ploughing our way through snow for several weeks or sliding around in the car). As the chimes of Big Ben in London struck twelve o’clock we all sang ‘Auld Langs Syne’ to the traditional sound of a lone piper – in this case lone because there was only one Scotsman present and he could play the bagpipes. And a couple of hours later I stepped out into the cold, still air to walk back down the hill to home.
.
.
The secret valley at night – and some nights especially so – is a silent and dark place. Never menacing, it is a good time to reflect on times passed and to breathe in the air which seems to take on a different quality to daytime. Walking down the lane, with bands of snow periodically reminding me to watch my feet, I was aware that there were others on the move too. An alarmed rabbit shot across the road in front of me, diving into the hedge, it’s path being highlighted not by moonlight, for there was none, but by the sounds of leaves rustling and twigs breaking beneath it. The fox was far more discreet, the only witness to its passing, its distinctive musky scent.
. .
Our little river, now thawed out from the frozen state that it had been in gurgled and splashed its way into the distance. It had seemed odd not to be able to hear it when it had its lid of ice and snow for even in the hardest winters past it had not been known to freeze over.
.

.
However, a touch of frost had given a magical dusting to the plants and fruits that had survived the onslaught of our early winter, for snow is rare at this time of year. January and February can be snowy and often we have none at all so who knows what the start of 2011 will bring?
.

.
.
Approaching home, the reassuring smell of wood smoke drifted from the chimneys towards me. Warmth at last! And, as always, She-dog, our best companion, was there to greet us but not before raising a bleary eye from her bed, as if to say “what are you doing out at this time of day and at your age?”.
.

.

And so to bed tired but with a warm, contented feeling both inside and outside. To live in the secret valley, isolated but surrounded by beauty and good friends, is such a privelege. Who knows what 2011 may bring but if the first days sunrise is to go by, it should be a good one!

. .

Happy New Year to you all…..
.

.

.

Add to Technorati Favorites

A Roman Villa in the Cotswolds

These days the Cotswolds, with its rolling landscape, dry stone walls and picture postcard villages, give the impression of being sleepy and sparsely populated, basking (or some may say smug) in its glory of being one of the jewels of the British countryside. But this is not so. For it is a working landscape with its people going about their daily business, admittedly often in an unhurried way – for our narrow lanes and lack of motorways limit the speed that one can travel. And often our straightest and, therefore, easiest routes have not been made in recent years but by Roman settlers, attracted to this region some two thousand years ago, for much the same reasons as we are now.
.
.
Ryknild Street, Fosse Way, Akeman Street, Ermin Way – just their very names conjure up images of Roman legions marching long distances through the country – linked their towns and cities with Corinium, now our modern Cirencester, the centre of both their commerce and entertainment (it still has the remains of a Roman ampitheatre that held over 8000 people). And, as time passed, they settled in more remote parts of the Cotswolds too: one such place is the villa built at North Leigh, near Witney. The track that leads you to the remains is as straight as any other Roman road but was used solely by servants and traders, the owners and visitors arriving by a more grand approach no longer visible.

.

.
Now cared for the nation by English Heritage, admission is free and the site is open all year. Strategically placed notice boards explain the layout of the 60+ rooms and of its history but nothing quite prepares you for the sheer size of area which seems at odds with its present day position – somehow, you expect a small cottage sized building. In fact, the first thing I noticed was the irrepressible She-dog who had run on ahead, in order I imagine, to steal the limelight, as usual!
.
.

.
One of the greatest pleasures of exploring the remains is that they are relatively unknown and so are rarely visited. I explored for over an hour and saw no-one – just perfect! The photos below show the north west range and also the south east range. Beneath the floor of the latter even earlier remains of a hearth were found , dating back to the Iron Age, circa BC100.
.
.

.
Although the site was known as early as 1783 it was not until the early 1800’s that the ruins were excavated, the first plan published in 1823. Further excavations took place in 1908.
.
.

.
The remains of the under floor heating can be clearly seen in the photographs below. It is strange how such an ‘advanced’ civilisation could then be plunged into the relatively primitive period of the Dark Ages after the Romans left.
.
.

.
In amongst the stonework of the walls pieces of tile protrude. No matter how carefully I looked I saw no signs of pottery.
.
.
The’jewel in the crown’ of the villa at North Leigh are the mosaic floors. Several were discovered and lifted, presumably to a museum although I do not know which. However, the floor of the dining room, discovered in 1816, in the south west wing has been preserved in situ and is protected from the elements by a modern building. The mosaics were laid by craftsmen from Corinium in the fashionable geometric style of the time.
.

.

.
The dining room, again with underfloor heating, had a vaulted roof supported by columns, parts of which can be seen against the back wall of the shelter.
.
.
Who were the people that lived here and why was the villa suddenly deserted in the fifth century when it was so obviously thriving a century earlier? It is probable that they were farming here so perhaps there was a change in climatic conditions or with the water supply. Whatever the reason, it is now the most perfect spot to sit and ponder in total peace and quiet.
.
.
.
Add to Technorati Favorites

First Signs of Autumn

To quote from the Keats poem ‘To Autumn’, is rather cliched I know but it really is becoming the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” here in the secret valley. I have to admit until I decided upon the theme for this post that, although I had heard this line so many times before, I’d never read the poem. I suspect a large number of people would admit the same so I have included it here, in full, at the end.
.
Almost imperceptably, the leaves have started to turn colour although they are still more green than yellow, orange or red. The most noticeable sign of the new season has been the berries and other fruits. Despite the heavy, late spring frosts we had, it seems to be a bumper crop this year although I have heard that commercial crops of apples are down by 30%.
..

The river a few hundred yards downstream from our little stone cottage broadens to become a small lake, created 100 years ago to attract duck and fish for the pot. Invisible throughout the summer months because of the leafy shrubs that shield it, it gradually comes into view as the foliage withers and falls and the water levels rise with the winter rain. Then it gives us what one of our friends describes as “the best view from any bath(wash)room in England” – and it is! What can be more decadent than lying in the bath with a glass of wine in hand, watching the wild geese and swans flying in from who knows where, for we rarely see them during the summer months?
.
.

And it is the river and lake that tends to give us the mists on cool mornings. There is such a subtle difference between these mists and the fogs that are much more widespread across the country. We can recognise the difference instantly but how do we describe it in meaningful words? Perhaps mists drift to rise and fall as strands of it are caught on the slightest breeze, an uplifting experience for the soul, whereas fogs sit heavily both on the ground and on our spirits?
.
.

A few days ago, on such a misty morning, it was cool enough for a heavy dew to form transforming the scenery with its silver frosting. Cobwebs hung from every available perch: strands of wire, branches and twigs, even the dying flower stems of the wild plants were draped with them. The scene was of silence and stillness, no bird sang and even the brook seemed to gurgle and babble more quietly than normal, as if reluctant to wake the slumbering countryside.
.
.

.

As if to confirm the silence and emptiness of the landscape, even the new seasons swan, that I had admired on the lake the day before, had gone. Heavily in moult, all there was to confirm its arrival were white feathers slowly drifting on the surface saying “Hush! Be still. All is calm”.
.

.

To Autumn
.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernal; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease.
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too –
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
.
.
Add to Technorati Favorites

Richard Long’s Extraordinary Land Art

2I have found that there are no shades of grey when appreciation – or lack of it – of Richard Long’s art is discussed. It seems that either, like me, you are swept away by it or you just cannot see the point of it at all. Whilst respecting this latter point of view, I ask myself, “Does art have to have a point”? For me, of all art forms , Richard Long’s work demonstrates that beauty can be appreciated just for it’s own sake.
.
British born (in Bristol, where he still lives and works), Richard Long studied art in both Bristol and London, giving his first solo exhibition in Germany in 1968, as he completed his studies. I imagine this is quite an achievement in itself. Since then he has exhibited regularly throughout the world.
.

.
In the grounds of my ‘reincarnation’ house, I was fortunate to be involved in the placing of one of his slate circles (photo above). Sadly, I never met the great man himself, for I would have loved to have sat quietly and watched the stones being laid in place. My contribution was extremely modest: I only removed the turf and put down the base ready for the circle to be put in position. However, this did mean that the circle appeared as if by magic – and it has remained mysterious and magical ever since. And, as if by magic, the gaps between the stones have filled with leaves and debris and yellow lichens have started to colonise their surface.
.
.

.
Regular readers of this blog will know of my fascination for stone in all its forms, whether it is the earliest standing stones (and we have our own ancient stone circle here in the Cotswolds, the Rollright Stones), the dry stone walls of the secret valley or placing stone in the garden. But Richard Long’s stone work is different to all of these for each piece is meticulously shaped and honed – or left in its natural state – and crafted into position. To really appreciate it, you have to become part of the landscape yourself. When you lie on the ground looking across the surface of his work, it takes on a completely new appearance and meaning.
.

.

When I first came to know and love Richard Long’s work, I little dreamt that one day it would inspire me to incorporate land art into one of my own designs. Attached to a beautiful old farmhouse, belonging to a client, is a small, almost bottle shaped, raised area of land surrounded by the remains of a twelfth century moat and mill stream. It is too wild an area in which to create a conventional garden so the plan is to keep it as a simple wild flower area. A very low serpentine turf coverd bank will draw the eye – and, hopefully, the visitor – towards the bottle neck. Careful planting will bring you unwittingly into a living willow tunnel and, at the far end where the land broadens once again, will be a circle. Not a stone circle this time but a meditation circle inspired by the photograph below of children playing. This photograph is from the artist’s (or is it sculptor’s?) website; all the remaining photo’s are mine taken at the reincarnation house. To be redirected there just click and make sure you look at both the Exhibitions and the Sculptures pages.

.
.

As for my new design, work is due to commence at the end of this month and I shall report on progress some time in the future. One thing I am quite certain of is that I will not be asked to hold any exhibitions either in the UK or abroad!
.
.
.
2018 Update:   to see more of Richard Long’s work or to view the latest exhibition venues visit his page on Artsy by clicking on the link here
.
.
.
Add to Technorati Favorites

The English Hurricane: 20 years on

English people constantly talk about weather. It’s in our makeup, our genes – we can’t possibly walk past someone, even a total stranger, without saying something about it. We can’t help it, no matter how much we realise that the person isn’t that interested (or even doesn’t speak English). We rattle on about too much rain, too little rain, too much sun, no sun, cold for the time of year, how warm it is. And to prove the point, this post is about weather and, no, I’m not going to apologise about it. By the way, we had a fantastic sunset in the secret valley a couple of days ago.

I think the reason we may behave like this is because English weather is nearly always gentle. The landscape that makes up England is beautiful and can be dramatic but not in the way of so many other countries. Take the USA, for example. Where’s our Grand Canyon, our towering redwoods, our Rocky Mountains, our Great Plains and our Niagara Falls? We have them in miniature and, perhaps, that is just as well as we are such a small country. And likewise, our weather: we have heatwaves, we have floods, we have blizzards. But they are rarely anything truly spectacular (except to those poor people affected by them, of course). And so when we were told by the weather men in 1987 that reports of a hurricane were completely exaggerated, we believed them totally. And despite the fact that much of the country was hit hard by it when it arrived, my part of the Chiltern Hills where I lived at the time was not much affected, even though it is one of the most wooded parts of the country.

The night in January 1990 was different. This time we had winds, whilst not as severe as three years earlier, which created total havoc with the already weakened root systems of the trees. Great swathes of the magnificent beech woods that are the very heart and soul of the Chilterns were flattened in a couple of hours. (I am reminded by my partner, that as the rest of the world cowered in their beds as the trees came crashing down all around, I woke up to say “a bit windy out there” before falling asleep again). As dawn broke the true damage could be seen.

Fast forward twenty years to 2010 and the woodands are transformed. Those of us that remember the 200 year old beech know that the majority are gone and, in their place, are new trees of mixed species. It will be many years before the magnificence of the woods return but they are healing. This photo below is taken from the same spot as the one above. Some of the biggest old stumps have been left, too difficult to move – time has hardly changed their appearance apart from their ‘roof’ of mosses.


One of the unforeseen benefits of the hurricane is the increased amount of light reaching the woodland floor, for beech trees cast a dense shade where little can grow, other than where the canopy is lightest. Apart from the view to the valley below, which was unseen before, many wild flowers are better now than ever. Roll on April when we can see the blue carpet of tens of thousands of bluebells disappearing into the distance.

Oh! And I nearly forgot to say, the weather today is a mix of sunshine, cold winds, rain and sleet. Don’t forget to tell the next person you meet!

Add to Technorati Favorites