Richard Jefferies – His Passion Lives On

Great artists such as Gainsborough, Turner and Reubens speak to us down the centuries through their work as do poets but how many people still read the great – or the lesser – writers from years past?  The Bible is still read regularly by some, Shakespeare’s more famous lines are often quoted and we all think we know Bronte and Dickens whereas, in reality, most of us know the characters only as interpreted through television and film.  However, authors from past centuries still  have much to offer whether it be for historical background, research or, simply, pleasure.

I have always lived in the country and my fascination with the natural world began at a very early age.  My kindergarten class was taken on a nature walk and, as our teacher showed us the magical things to be found along the way, I became hooked and wanted to know more.  There are many excellent wildlife manuals and handbooks, new and old, that give detailed descriptions more often than not, in a rather dry, analytical way.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was someone who could give all this information in great detail; who would notice the minutiae of everyday things, whether a flower, a wild creature or even of man, himself?  In the late nineteenth century there was one such person, now forgotten by most, and his name is Richard Jefferies – most definitely not a poet but there is poetry in his words.

Jefferies, born in 1848, in a Wiltshire (England) farmhouse suffered ill-health and subsequent poverty for much of his life.  From a young age he had enjoyed solitude and wandering about the countryside and here he developed a fascination for the Iron Age hill fort on nearby Liddington Hill and the wildlife that could be found there.  Employment as a reporter, initially with a local newspaper, developed his writing skills and his literary work began to be published, first as a series of essays and later in book form, from 1874.  He died from tuberculosis in 1887.  His books vary from collections of nature notes and the countrymen he encountered on his travels to novels, including one, After London, which would now be described as post-apocalyptical.  In it he describes how nature has taken over the now vanished city with its few surviving inhabitants returning to the lifestyle of many centuries before.  Jefferies still has his devotees, myself included, and he deserves better recognition.  The remainder of this post is my demonstration of how his words are of relevance to everyone today, especially those who are passionate about the wonders of nature – not the awe-inspiring world famous creatures or places but the everyday ones, found all around us, that should be equally awe-inspiring.

Nothing sums up my feelings towards the natural world better than these words of his.  They almost seem to have been written to illustrate this photograph of myself aged four with my father.

“So it seemed to me as a boy, sweet and new like this each morning; and now after the years they have passed, and the lines they have worn in the forehead, the summer mead shines as bright and fresh as when my foot first touched the grass…”      
The Open Air, 1885

“Next he stepped into the current, which, though shallow, looked strong enough to sweep him away. The water checked against him rose to the white mark on his breast. He waded up the rapid, every now and then thrusting his head completely under the water; sometimes he was up to his neck, sometimes not so deep; now and then getting on a stone…”                                                                 The Water Colley (Dipper), The Life of the Fields, 1884
“In the evening of a fine day the mists may be seen from hence as they rise in the meadows … beginning first over the brooks, a long white winding vapour marking their course, next extending over the moist places and hollows.”    
Wild Life in a Southern County, 1879
“Sometimes through these narrow slits (of cloud), long beams of light fall aslant upon the distant fields of the vale.  They resemble, only on a greatly lengthened scale, the beams that may be seen in churches of a sunny afternoon, falling from the upper windows on the tiled floor of the chancel, and made visible by motes in the air.  So through such slits in the cloudy roof of the sky the rays of the sun shoot downwards, made visible on their passage by the moisture or the motes of the atmosphere… the labourers say that the sun is sucking up water there.”   
Wild Life in a Southern County, 1879
“It is midsummer, and midsummer, like a bride, is decked in white. On the high-reaching briars
white June roses; white flowers on the lowly brambles; broad white umbels of elder in the corner,  and white cornels blooming under the elm; honeysuckle hanging creamy white coronals round the ash boughs; white meadow-sweet flowering on the shore of the ditch; white clover, too, beside the gateway. As spring is azure and purple, so midsummer is white, and autumn golden. Thus the coming out of the wheat into ear is marked and welcomed with the purest colour.”
Nature Near London,  1883
“…and finally is lost in the vast marshes which cover the site of the ancient London…  There exhales from this oozy mass so fatal a vapour that no animal can endure it. The black water bears a greenish-brown floating scum, which for ever bubbles up from the putrid mud of the bottom. When the wind collects the miasma, and, as it were, presses it together, it becomes visible as a low cloud which hangs over the place. The cloud does not advance beyond the limit of the marsh, seeming to stay there by some constant attraction; and well it is for us that it does not, since at such times when the vapour is thickest, the very wildfowl leave the reeds, and fly from the poison. There are no fishes, neither can eels exist in the mud, nor even newts. It is dead.”      
After London, 1885
“…the heat pours down by day as if an invisible lens in the atmosphere focussed the sun’s rays.
Strong woody knapweed endures it, so does toadflax and pale blue scabious, and wild mignonette…”                                       
Pageant of Summer, 1884
“Nature is a miniature painter and handles a delicate brush, the tip of which touches the tiniest
spot and leaves something living. The park has indeed its larger lines, its broad open sweep,
and gradual slope, to which the eye accustomed to small inclosures requires time to adjust
itself. These left to themselves are beautiful; they are the surface of the earth, which is always true
to itself and needs no banks nor artificial hollows. The earth is right and the tree is right: trim
either and all is wrong.”                                                 
Field & Hedgerow, 1889
 
Fortunately, much of his work is still readily available as books and, often, as free e-books.  The Richard Jefferies Society promotes his writing and holds regular meetings.  Visit their website by clicking the link here.  The farmhouse where Richard Jefferies grew up is now a museum dedicated to his life and work and well worth visiting.  Click here for details.
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Stonehenge – 5000 years later

Stonehenge is one of the most important and instantly recognised ancient sites in the world yet those of us that live in the British Isles tend to take it rather for granted.  Perhaps this is inevitable with anything that is on your doorstep, however it is strange that whereas many of us long to see (or perhaps have been lucky enough to have visited), say, the Pyramids of Giza or Machu Picchu, very many Brits have never visited Stonehenge.  Perhaps if they had made the trip they would have been rather surprised at what they saw – and I don’t mean the majesty of the stones.

Over the years, the numbers of visitors to the stones has increased dramatically from twenty thousand a year in the 1920’s to over a million last year.  As numbers increased so erosion and vandalism began to take its toll and access within the circle was stopped.  Now it is only possible to enter the stones on special occasions, such as the summer solstice.  This means that the majority of visitors are only able to walk around the perimeter of the henge.  The memory of my first visit as a child is of running amongst the stones, of being able to touch them and to look up at their immense height – would I remember it now if I hadn’t had this intimate contact with them then?

To view a video of how the Stonehenge area is being transformed into a spectacular, world-class attraction, click the link here

Some years after that early visit and with numbers rapidly increasing a ‘temporary’ visitor centre was built in the late1960’s.  This, along with inadequate car parking  and lack of modern interpretation facilities makes the first impressions of this World Heritage Site poor, to say the least.  Two busy main roads also pass closeby the stones destroying much of the quality of the landscape.  Traffic jams are frequent.

Now this may all sound rather depressing (which it is) and a good reason to cross a visit to Stonehenge off your list of ‘must see’ places.  Fortunately, despite everything, the grandeur of the stones remain and it is an awe-inspiring place to be, especially if you are able to arrive early in the day or when the stones are shrouded in mist.

Now the good news!  After many years of discussion, Stonehenge is about to be ‘returned’
to its original landscape: the visitor centre, car parks and main road leading to them are being swept away and landscaped back to open grassland, giving the stones a greater sense of isolation.  A new centre with educational and other facilities are being built further away and  a low impact shuttle service will transport those visitors that don’t wish to – or are unable to – walk.  This may be a few years away from completion but work has started.  In the not-so-distant future, Stonehenge will have the facilites and landscape that such an important site deserves.

Stonehenge is part of a vast conservation area with over three hundred burial mounds and also includes the Avebury stone circle (link here).  It is about 85 miles south-west of London.  Although not as huge or as frequently visited we have many ancient stone monuments in the Cotswolds too.   The Rollright Stones, a stone circle, photos below, are also 5000 years old, their shapes distorted and lichen covered with age.  To read my earlier post about them, click here.



For information on visiting Stonehenge and its history (and how some of their huge stones are thought to have been dragged 150 miles from Wales), click here

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A Year In Review: 2012 The First Six Months

One of the signs of getting older is that the days, weeks, months and years go by ever faster – this seems rather unfair as you are likely to have relatively few ahead of you.  Not that I plan to leave this world just yet (well, not if I can help it), it is just that 2012 was the anniversary not just of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee but also of mine which has focussed the mind, rather.

As the time has sped by so fast I thought I would review the year, if only to remind myself what I’ve been doing the past twelve months.

January:  To London for the New Year.  Whenever we visit ‘The Smoke’ (I wonder if anyone still calls it that now that the days of dense smog have long gone) it always ends up rather ‘foody’.  That trip was no exception; we ate our way up the Kings Road, ate our way around Sloane Square and finally ate our way to Fortnum & Mason arriving in time for afternoon tea.  Fortnum’s is the most wonderful grocery store on the planet – whereas, most people, especially those from overseas, visit Harrods, Fortnum’s is the one place you really shouldn’t miss.  Everything about it is delightful and its afternoon teas are legendry.  We did squeeze in a visit to the National Portrait Gallery but why show you images of great works of art when you can see photos of Fortnum’s?  Add it to your list of ‘places I must visit before I die’.


February:  A visit to Snowdonia staying at a friend’s isolated chapel house on the side of the mountains.  The weather was quite kind to us considering the time of year so we were able to do a lot of walking.  To our dismay, our favourite spot that we had christened ‘The Enchanted Forest’ because of its lichen encrusted trees and great mossy hummocks had been clear felled and all signs of it destroyed.  This may sound like wanton vandalism but the trees had been planted for timber production regardless of the impact they had on the scenery.  Now years later, there is a move to restore the mountains back to their original state which is, I’m sure, admirable and an ecologically sound thing to do.  The trouble is that we loved this silent, brooding woodland that no-one, it seemed, apart from us ever visited and now it is gone.  And with it has gone our desire to return but, who knows, perhaps we shall one day.

March:  Recording the life of a hedgerow seemed like agood idea at the time.  It was supposed to have become a month by month photographic notebook of the changes that took place during the year but sadly March turned out to be the first and only entry.  As April arrived I took more photographs but when it came to blogging them they had disappeared (reappearing months later – one of the mysteries of computer technology).  Then came the rain – and it has rained ever since – and the project was abandoned, apart from a vain attempt in May.  The hedge, which is in the little lane that leads from our cottage up the hill out of the secret valley, is an ancient relic from the time of the Wychwood Forest, cleared in the very earliest days of British history.  It is mentioned in the Domesday Book, that great list of the plunder of William the Conqueror, written in 1086.  Although the forest has retreated by many miles there are still some fine trees standing and wild flowers that would normally be found in woodland still grow on its grassy banks.  I shall make a resolution to resurrect the project in 2013.
April:    Part of my everyday job as a practical gardener is pruning, a subject which is a mystery to many people and often fills them with terror at the very thought of wielding secateurs to a treasured shrub.  Mahonia is one of those useful winter flowering plants that so often look dreadful as they become ever more gaunt and ungainly.  This was the case with one in a client’s garden so it seemed a good idea to photograph the process of restoration and blog about it.  That post has rapidly become my most read and I am glad to be able to report that the plant is thriving.  Now covered in new flower buds and almost ready to open, it will welcome the New Year with the scent of lily-of-the-valley.  If you have one in your garden, cut a few flowers for a shallow vase to fragrance the house.

May:   Despite the rain that seems to have fallen incessantly since April, we had a fine, dry day for the most important day in my social calendar of 2012 which was also an important one for the Queen too.  The Pageant of the Horse was held in the grounds of Windsor Castle and celebrated the Queen’s sixty year reign through her association with and love of horses.  Horses, riders and other performers representing every country from around the world that the Queen has visited gave us a show that both we and she will never forget.  It was a quite remarkable and memorable experience; apart from the showmanship and being so close to the Queen and Prince Philip, we had a private ‘Haka’ from the Cook Islanders when they noticed us still seated after the bulk of other visitors had left.  Very exciting!

 
June:  The Jubilee celebrations continued withthe River Pageant held in London on the Thames in pouring rain, this time.  A much smaller river, the Coln, featured in a post ‘The Most Beautiful English Village’ about the exquisite Cotswold village of Bibury.  With its clear, trout-filled waters fast running past ancient stone cottages, it is hardly surprising that it is protected by the National Trust and much visited by sightseers.  It is said that visitors often don’t realise that it is not a living museum and sometimes walk into people’s private gardens or houses to be surprised to find the owners eating their lunch or watching television.

 


To read any of the posts mentioned above, just click on the links in green.  July to December will appear soon.

 

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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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The Roman Mosaics of Cirencester

The making of mosaic patterns is often associated with the Romans although the earliest known examples pre-date them to 3000BC.  Associated with many cultures, mosaic artists still flourish today, an unbroken tradition of five thousand years.

The Hunting Dogs mosaic: head of Oceanus  2nd century AD

In Britain, one of the finest collections of early mosaics can be found in the Cotswold town of Cirencester, situated 93 miles west of London.  With a population of 18000, it is one of the larger hubs in the Cotswolds yet has maintained a lot of its old charm for there are still many independent shops as well as the usual High Street chain stores.

History oozes from the very fabric of Cirencester: home to the the oldest agricultural college (Royal Agricultural College) in the English speaking world, founded in 1845; it is also home to the oldest polo club in England (Cirencester Park Polo Club) which was founded in 1894.  The charter for the market, still held twice weekly, was first mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086.

The Hunting Dogs mosaic:  Sea Leopard   3rd century AD

However, when the words Cirencester and history are linked together it is the Romans that predominate for their town, Corinium – now modern day Cirencester – was the second most important city in Britain.  Corinium lay at the centre of their great road network where Akeman Street,  Ermine Street and the Fosse Way all meet, still busy roads today.  There are still the remains of a number of  their villas in the region that are possible to explore.

The great Roman ampitheatre here was also the second largest in the country with tiered wooden seating for eight thousand spectators.  Today, all that remains are a series of banks and ditches, still impressive and well worth visiting.

The Seasons mosaic:  2nd century AD   Actaeon being attacked by his own hunting dogs

If there is not a huge amount to see of the original splendour of the ampitheatre, you will not be disappointed by a trip to the town’s Corinium Museum which has recently been extended and refurbished making it one of the best museums in the country.  The museum holds over one and a half million artefacts but the most impressive of all of their exhibits have to be the Roman mosaics.

The Seasons mosaic: 2nd century AD

The Seasons  is one of the most impressive mosaics in Britain, discovered in Cirencester in 1849, with pictures of goddesses depicting spring, summer and autumn.  Winter is missing.  In the museum the floor has been laid in an area reproducing a room in a Roman villa.

Detail from the Hare mosaic, 4th century AD

The hare is frequently used in Celtic art and fables but was rarely used by the Romans, making this central motif of the mosaic floor unique.  If you click on the photo above to enlarge it, you will see that there have been shards of green glass laid into the hare’s back.

Detail from the Hare mosaic, 4th century AD

The Hare mosaic, 4th century AD

The museum does not just hold Roman aretfacts, it also covers finds from pre-history as well as more recent times such as Saxon brooches and a large hoard of coins dating back to the English civil war, subjects of a later post.  The Cirencester Museum is really worth making the effort to visit – you can find out more details by visiting their website, here.

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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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The Constant Drip

When I was a small child I was traumatised by the sound of water, even a dripping tap would trigger nightmares of drowning.  This was not because my life had ever been at risk, although it could be argued that my afterlife was: it was down to baptism by total immersion.  My soul might have been saved by water but it was years before water became something that I would delight in, rather a problem for a lad that was brought up on the banks of the Thames, that great English river that flows sluggishly from its source to London and the North Sea beyond, a distance of 215 miles.

                                        
                                                   The River Thames at Marlow

It was not until, as a young teenager visiting the West Country, I came across clear, rocky bottomed streams that were so unlike the silty bottomed, muddy waters of the Thames and the smaller brooks back home.  At first the sight and the sound of their fast flow rather unnerved me but there was a swift and dramatic change once I discovered the joys of splashing about, ‘tickling’ for trout and generally getting soaked. Not only could I not get enough of them, I ended up living beside one here in the secret valley.  Our river, to be truthful, is a compromise: it likes to believe it is of world class comparable with the Amazon or the Zambezi as it winds through the landscape in great (or in reality, miniature) curves and sweeps.  Sometimes it is slow moving half hidden by lush foliage that spills over its banks but in other places it is as fast running and noisy as a Devon stream as it gurgle and clinks its way over rock and pebble.
Our little river in the secret valley

                                        

    In winter, our river doesn’t look quite so inviting!

Recently I was staying high in the mountains of Snowdonia.  The house that we were in had to its right, a larger river crashing noisily downwards and, to its left, a much smaller gully with an equally fast flow.  ‘Our’ house, which inreality belongs to a friend, is not exactly standing on an island; more it is the solid filling of a watery sandwich. The main river, the term is used loosely for it is even more jumpable over than the one back in the secret valley, tumbles down the mountainside in a series of rocky chasms interspersed with quieter small pools.

One of the nicest aspects of returning to a place time after time is that certain things become so familiar, whether it is buildings or the wider scenery does not matter.  This is good for once you stop looking at the overall picture, the detail becomes more noticeable and things that would be overlooked if you only ever visited once begin to stand out.  Here there is little in the way of buildings, apart from the numerous ruins that stand as ghosts to a time when the hills were more densely populated with miners and farm workers.  On my morning walk and musing on how terrified I had once been by the sound of water, I began to notice the change in pitch and volume which alters constantly as you pass by.  Where the water falls several feet, not surprisingly the noise is at its greatest but, even there, it can be a deep sound or a lighter one, depending on the rate of flow and whether it lands on rock, water or pebble.

Then there are the waterslides: these can be steep or barely inclined, narrow or wide, fast or slow flowing.  Whichever they are, for me they are the most visually exciting of all with their water moving effortlessly, literally sliding along the surface and their ‘shushing’ sound building up to a more dramatic crescendo as the rock bed alters in character once more.

       A massive waterslide on Exmoor …..

                                                            ….. and a smaller one in Snowdonia

And then, of course, there is the sound that once traumatised me but that I now find the most fascinating of all, perhaps because they entice you to explore: they draw you further into their world, often a secret one.  The sound of dripping.  Sometimes it is obvious where it is coming from and where it is landing but often it is a sound that demands you to seek it out and then, not infrequently, only one half of the equation can be solved, if you can find the source you cannot find the landing place or vice versa.

Higher up the mountain is an old disused slate mine, long abandoned and with its shaft open for all to explore. Little natural light enters the low tunnel entrance and unable to see far inside there is only the sound of water seeping through the roof landing in the shallow water that collects in the passage below.  Here the sounds are as varied as those of a xylophone, the music made being both enchanting and unnerving; it is both welcoming and threatening at the same time. 

Not a place for the faint-hearted!

I may have got over my old phobia of scary water sounds but, I have to admit there is still one place that makes me shudder.  Just up the track beyond the mine there is a patch of grass and moss that has to be crossed and here, if you pause, you can hear the sound of fast moving water and the crash of a waterfall but there are none in sight.  The sound comes from below ground under your feet – childhood anxieties rise if I loiter here and as I continue my walk I notice, with wry amusement, that it is at an increased pace.

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Writing Words of Silence

I have exchanged a couple of comments recently with ExmoorJane after one of her posts got me thinking.  I spend a lot of my time thinking, it goes with the day job.  Now these thoughts are not usually high powered for I don’t spend my working hours in a dynamic office environment; I spend them – often on my own – in the real, green environment.  And that’s the problem: there are so many things to distract me.  A few days ago it was the fault of the jackdaws – they suddenly had realised that spring is around the corner and were in full display flight, tumbling and diving and generally making an awful lot of noise.  So I spent far too long wondering why I hadn’t noticed their courtship before.

Yesterday it was the fault of the snowdrops and the winter flowering aconites.  They are to blame because they are in full flower a few weeks earlier due to the unseasonably mild winter we have had so far.  Some years ago I organised a visit to some gardens renowned for their display of snowdrops and we had to search hard to find one in flower – that was the 10th February.  Nature, like some people, can  be fickle.  The photo below shows a different garden’s snowdrops: it is the garden of what I call the ‘reincarnation’ house.  They are at their best now.

The aconites were more fully to blame. Seeing the hundred or so yellow blooms staring up at me from the foot of our garden hedge made me decide to take a walk as, not far from our little cottage, further down the secret valley lies a very special woodland.  At this time of year it is a yellow carpet of flowering aconites, an extremely rare sight for they are not native to this country.  No-one knows by whom or when they were planted for there is no sign of there ever being a house nearby; they are of no value as a commercial crop unlike snowdrops that were sent to London in bunches for selling once the age of steam made it possible to transport them quickly.

But all this pondering can most squarely be laid at Jane’s doorstep.  In her post on writing she mentioned that she sometimes writes just for the sheer pleasure of seeing words and thoughts on paper.  Then, satisfied, she destroys the work for there is no need or desire to share it.  I thought only people that were mad – or, at least, people that were a bit dotty – did that.*  And, insecure person that I suppose this shows me to be, I thought I  was the only one that ever fitted this description and did such a bizarre thing.  This is why I started writing a blog: I came to the conclusion it would be quite nice to keep my work somewhere secret so that I could look at it from time to time.  I decided Blogger would be quite a good place to store it, along with a few favourite photos.  I knew, of course, that the world in theory could see it but why would anyone want to stop and read something that I had written?  It never occurred to me that some of you might do so and some even come back regularly for more.  So on my way back from the aconites I was visualising Jane and myself scribbling away and ceremoniously (for it always seemed to be part of the ritual) tearing up the sheets of paper with our precious words on them.

I had walked along our little winding river to reach the wood but struck off over the hill for the return home.  This route always fascinates me because, from the top, the valley is totally invisible tucked away deep within the folds of the landscape.  One moment the ground almost appears flat and then, suddenly you are looking down into the secret valley.  The slopes are steep and grazed only by sheep, wild deer and rabbits and are, later in the year, awash with wild flowers of all kinds, including rare wild thyme, the subject of one of my earliest posts.  I sat myself down to admire the view, for I never tire of it despite seeing it every day, and pondered on what gives a person the desire to write, to play around with words, arranging them and rearranging them for hours on end.

And then this thought came:  what do you do when words just aren’t adequate to describe the sights or the emotions?  How do you describe the indescribable?  Take a photograph – after all, a photo is supposed to say a thousand words.  But what if a thousand words still aren’t enough?  What if ten thousand words still aren’t enough?  Besides, an image only allows the viewer to create their own words, it can never convey those that the writer might be thinking.  How do you describe the intangible?  So I sat on the bank, looking across the secret valley, muffled up against the chill east wind and came to this simple conclusion – the only way out of this conundrum of how to express these silent words is to write a post about it.

* Well, I thought she did but I can’t see it now.  Perhaps I am dotty, after all :-{

PS Don’t forget you can find me on Facebook now and get regular updates from the secret valley

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New Year in London

Perhaps it is because London will be hosting the Olympic Games later this year that the capital seemed rather quiet and devoid of people and traffic when I visited it at the beginning of the month.  Although it lacked its usual ‘buzz’ it did mean more comfortable walking and it was definitely easier to catch a taxi.  I imagine when the Games are in full swing you will not be able to move for people and public transport of any type will be crowded.

 We tend to follow the same plan when we visit; not because we want to play safe, it is just that we cannot bear to miss a morning coffee and an almond croissant at the Bluebird cafe.  A slow walk up the King’s Road with it’s exclusive shops and boutiques brings you to Sloane Square – just in time for lunch.  This time we found, to our dismay, that our usual dining spot had closed down so we tried the Botanist, almost opposite, instead.  It proved to be a good choice for the food was excellent, as was the service.  My biggest criticism of it is its name which, of course, with me being a ‘planty’ person had rather appealed.  The decor consisted mostly of pictures of insects so we now refer to it as The Entymologist instead. 

A taxi ride took us to the National Portrait Gallery.  One of our New Year resolutions is to take in a bit more culture as we are becoming rather reluctant to move out of the secret valley, generally preferring the peace and quiet of the rural life.   A trip to ‘the smoke’ from time to time is just what’s needed to stop us from becoming complete country bumpkins.  We hadn’t allowed enough time to look at the pictures in any depth –  we really need to visit when we are not being dictated by the thought of food.  A mental note has been made to visit again quite soon, that time bypassing the restaurants ….. Mmm, we’ll see.

When we came out of the gallery daylight was fading fast and London appeared to have renewed energy.  Somehow a city at night with all it’s lights seems a more exciting place.  I seemed far more aware of statues, theatres and red buses – I’d forgotten just how much I like cities!  I’ve never lived anywhere other than in the country and I’m not too sure how I would fare if I suddenly found myself in one permanently.  Not too well, I would think.

Another taxi ride took us to my favourite London store; favourite perhaps because it is another food place.  Forget Harrods, which I’m afraid I dislike intensely, give me Fortnum & Mason’s anytime. The Christmas windows and decor were still in place but even without those, F & M exudes quality from every pore – or do I mean from every chocolate? 

Who could possibly bite into these white chocolate bears, though?

The first thing I do when I enter the store isn’t to think of my stomach, surprisingly, as I am surrounded by goodies to eat.  I always go to the central circular staircase and lean over to look down which is dramatic, then descend down the old wooden staircase which is equally full of character.

A wander around the coffee and tea halls with their wonderful aromas is another must.

The store has a reputation for making some of the best hampers in England.  I was lucky enough once to be given one for a Christmas present and it was such an exciting treat unpacking it and seeing what all the tins and shiny wrappers contained.  I was rather taken with their picnic hampers but there would be no point in us having one: although we picnic rather a lot because of our outdoor life, they always end up big social events.  What starts off as a casual chat with a couple of friends snowballs and it is not unusual to find twenty or thirty arriving to enjoy the feasting.  Fortunately they usually bring food and drink with them too.  If we had a Fortnum’s picnic hamper it would have to be a quiet, small affair – just the sight of the baskets conjures up images of check tablecloths laid on the grass, eating in the shade of the willows down by our little winding river.

And what would a visit to Fortnum’s be without having one of their splendid traditional afternoon teas?  By the time I had forced down two scones with strawberry jam and Cornish clotted cream and cake, all washed down with a pot or two of Orange Pekoe tea it was time to think about returning home.

If we were lucky and didn’t get held up in traffic jams we would be back in the secret valley just in time for supper.  I think a belated New Year’s resolution ought to be excercise more and eat less …..

PS  Don’t forget you can find me on Facebook now and get regular updates from the secret valley

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