Going Naked

We’ve gone naked here in the secret valley.  Not literally, it’s far too close to winter for that sort of jolly jape.  While we are busy putting on additional clothes, our lovely old willows that line the little winding river have been stripped of their top growth.
 
Gone are their branches and along with them so have the other plants that find a home in their mossy nooks and crannies.  It is pollarding time and the lovely view that I have been used to seeing every day since I moved here twelve years ago has changed dramatically.  Fortunately, all will return in abundance in due course.

Pollarded willows in the secret valley
 

Change, of course can be a good thing and it is interesting how spacious and full of light the valley now seems.  It is also a good thing for the trees for without this drastic treatment they sometimes topple in storms.  Pollarding actually prolongs the life of those tree species that can cope with such treatment. As a child I played in a woodland known as Burnham Beeches and there, some of the pollards are over five hundred years old.  These old pollards support a huge variety of wildlife that has adapted over the centuries to the practice.

Ancient ash pollard – sad to think that it will probably now die because of the newly imported disease, Chalara

Now a rare sight – White Park cattle
 

Pollarding has been carried out since man’s earliest farming days and can really be considered as just another form of pruning.  By cutting the branches above the reach of grazing animals, they can regrow without being damaged.    In the past, cattle were allowed to roam in these ‘wood-pastures’ and in Burnham Beeches the practice has been reinstated after a gap of about two hundred years.  The White Park cattle above are kept at Adam Henson’s, Cotswold Farm Park.  Now endangered, this native breed is being used to graze freely in the Beeches which keeps the forest floor clear and improves diversity. 

The timber from pollarding was used in a number of different ways.  Most commonly, it provided firewood, with the trees cut every fifteen years, which is the case with our willows.  Sometimes the pollards were cut more regularly to provide fodder for livestock.

It is surprising to see just how quickly new growth restarts.  Without branches and leaves to support, the energy rising through the tree from its root system forces it to renew itself.  The willows below are a little further up the valley and were pollarded in the early spring of this year.  As can be seen they already have grown six feet or more.

Just six months of new growth
 

Pollarding of trees isn’t just practised in the depths of the country.  It is frequently carried out in our towns and cities as street trees are kept within bounds.  In the garden it is a good way to create interest – even a smallish garden can create a lime walk to give all year round appeal.  The coloured stem willows are especially good for this purpose too as they quickly become dull and too large when left unchecked.

It will take time to become used to seeing the ‘new look’ secret valley, now so very different from the image that has become the trademark of this blog.  In the past, cutting the trees would have given a team of men work for the whole winter. Now one man with a machine achieves it in five days.  It may not be such a romantic notion but watching the tractor driver manipulate the claws of the cutter at every conceivable angle demonstrated that the old techniques have been replaced with skills every bit as impressive.

If you fancy trying your hand at pollarding you have a few months left to build up your courage!  In the UK and those places with a similar climate it should be completed by mid-February.

More reading: click on the links below
Conservation of ancient pollards
Chalara in ash trees
White Park cattle and other endangered farm breeds
Adam Henson’s Cotswold Farm Park

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Hedgerow Project – Revisited

Back in March of last year I decided to run an informal monthly survey of the hedgerow that follows the line of the little country lane that runs past our cottage in the secret valley.  Parts of the lane are an ancient ‘green’ road and so would have once been busy with drovers herding their sheep and cattle to market.  There are only two houses in our part of the valley and the other is reputed to be an old drovers’ inn.  Our place was built a lot more recently in the 1850’s so may just have witnessed the passing of the tradition as livestock began to travel along the more direct and newly created turnpikes.  It was also necessary for the secret valley to have a more direct route to the turnpike and a new road was built that went past the little winding river in the header photo above.  Where it joined the turnpike it was marked by a white gate and even though it was removed a hundred years or more ago we still talk of turning left or right ‘by the white gate’.  This is rather confusing to those unaware of the history behind the expression – it took me two years before I found out why I could never see it!  In the decades that followed the ‘old road’, as it is now known, became disused and is now part of the footpath and bridleway networks used by walkers and horse riders.

Drove roads can be very ancient indeed and they were often marked by hedgerows to provide shelter and food and to prevent stock from straying.  These were often linear strips of the original wildwood left after the remainder of the trees had been clear felled – in our case, the Wychwood Forest.  As a result, the wild flowers associated with these ancient woodlands have survived nestling in the hedgerow bottom giving a good indication of their history.  So sensitive are these plants to change that it is possible to follow the line of the original road by the flora growing alongside it.  Although the newer parts of our lane – now probably two hundred years old – are also lined with hedges of equal stature, the plants have yet to colonise.  To record these changes was the initial idea behind my hedgerow project.

Like all plans, it didn’t quite work out.  In my first and only blog post about the project, I described March as being warm and dry; in fact it was hotter than normal and then turned out to be the hottest month of the year.  In April, the weather turned cooler and, on the day that drought was officially declared, it began to rain until the year was declared the wettest ever recorded.  This coupled with other commitments and the commissioning of my book on gardening meant the idea was abandoned to be resurrected this year.  That hasn’t gone quite to plan either!

So rather than set myself the unrealistic target of recording on a specific day of each month, I shall satisfy myself with just taking photographs when I either have the time or feel in the mood.  Not scientific, I know – and certainly not disciplined – but the pleasure I get from walking along the lane every day is not just because of the plants I see.  For me, it is knowing that I’m following an ancient track that has been trodden by countless generations of hard working countrymen.  Some of the trees I pass are the same as when they walked by; the secret valley still echoes to the sounds of sheep and cattle and the little winding river waters them and refreshes sore, tired feet on a hot, summer’s day.  It is twelve years since I came to the secret valley and it is still releasing its secrets.  How many times have I walked along a sunken track above the house to a rough patch of uncultivated land? Now recently learnt, I know it is the site of a Bronze Age settlement and the thought that this special place has been home to us lucky few for three thousand years or more is a humbling and joyous experience.

To view the original post from March 2012, click here.

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Christmas 2011

Many thanks to all of you that have read and followed my blog during 2011.  Despite the dire weather predictions, the secret valley is having the mildest Christmas for years.  Instead of extreme cold and deep snow as forecast some weeks ago, the sun has been shining and the temperature has risen to +13C.  I’ve had to rely on a snowy photograph from last winter!

Wishing you all a very happy and peaceful Christmas
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An Unexpected Downpour

The heatwave may have ended a good number of days ago but the dry weather hasn’t and the gardens are desparate for water. Digging down to plant some large shrubs the other day, there was no sign of moisture in the soil, nor earthworms for that matter, no matter how deep I dug. It is tedious to water with a hosepipe and, for some inexplicable reason, (perhaps it’s the chemicals in tap water), plants react so much better to a drop of rain.
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Today the skies were grey but, as none had been forecast, it came as a surprise when I thought I could smell rain in the air. And was that a distant roll of thunder or was it just wishful thinking? With no further warning, the heavens opened, the rain bouncing off the surface of the lane and the leaves of the plants. By the time I had reached my camera, it was already beginning to ease.
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They must have had more rain than us, further up the secret valley, for water continued to rush down the lane in its haste to reach the river. Just past the bend its route took a sharp right turn to tumble down the steep banks to enter the meanders – the ones that feature on the header of this blog – just above the road bridge.

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It’s a novelty to see puddles once again!
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I couldn’t resist catching these images of the herbs cloaked in moisture. The French Tarragon seems to be greedier than most and holds water all over the surface of its leaves. The bronze Fennel, however, holds its drops in a very much more refined way as befits such a graceful plant.
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Cotinus – this is the variety called ‘Grace’ – appeared splattered with rain, as if it had been flicked with paintbrushes. It held its drops in different sizes, some so large I wondered how they could remain in place and keep separate from the smaller sized ones alongside.
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The old fountain head of a cherub and dolphin sits at the top of a flight of steps leading to the garden, for many years no longer used for its original purpose. Did the rain bring a slight smile to its lips and was that a tear that rolled down its cheek to its chin as it recalled its real purpose in life?
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If above is the picture of innocence, what is this next one? A single raindrop on each barb transforms the fence but it can only partially disguise its wickededness. We are not that easily fooled …
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Thirty minutes after the rain stopped the secret valley was shrouded in mist as the cooled air reacted with the warm earth. A short battle for supremacy ensued but, along with a slash of blue sky came a winning dart of sunlight and the mist fell to the ground, disappearing as quickly as the rain.
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Frog March

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

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

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

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

An update 27th March:

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

The narrow lane that rises up out of the secret valley beyond our little stone cottage is bordered on one side by Cotswold dry stone walls and, on the other, by remnants of an ancient hedgerow. One of the ways of identifying those that date from the original wildwood is by the number of plant species found in them for ‘modern’ hedgerows (those that have been planted after 1600) contain far fewer varieties. One of the plants that dominate the lane is known as Old Man’s Beard. In the photo below, it is difficult to tell what is snow and what is the, somewhat bedraggled, fluffy white seedhead that gives this wild clematis it’s common name.

Now the snow has gone and the seed heads, not quite as pristine as before, have recovered but still live up to their name. They swamp the lower, trimmed parts of the hedge and it is hard to imagine how the field maples, hawthorn, sloes and other woody plants cope and survive.

Three days ago, the birds began singing once more and claiming their territories so Spring can’t be too far off (I’m being optimistic here as the sun has been shining too). The Old Man’s Beard will, like garden clematis, be amongst the first to send out new shoots and leaves, in the process knocking off the old seedheads. For a short while the hedge has the opportunity to flourish before the clematis flowers appear. Although blooming in their thousands, individually they are quite insignificant and it is the scent that is the more noticeable – not the perfumed scents of roses and honeysuckles but honeyish, delicate yet cloying too, somehow. And the bees, especially the bumblebees can’t get enough of their nectar.

As a young child, I once stayed at a schoolfriend’s grandparents and in their garden was an old chalk quarry, long disused. I would love to revisit it now but have no idea where it was – for years I believed that the village was called Loose Chippings. It was only once I grew up that I realised that this was the sign that council workers had put up after repairing the road outside their house! There must, I assume, have been trees in the pit – and it was certainly overgrown – for the Old Man’s Beard had sent up its long vines high into the tree tops. Where this happens the stems become quite thick, strong and woody and we spent many happy hours there swinging through the trees Tarzan-like. They have also done this outside our cottage, where the hedgerow has grown into treelike proportions, although only once, (when I felt confident no-one would see me), have I swung on them. The exhilaration was the same and proves the thought that men never truly grow up but remain little boys that need to shave.

Virgin’s Bower and Traveller’s Joy are two of the other common names given to Clematis virginica. The first, one assumes, because of its tendencies to drape across other plants: how lovely it would be slumber gently beneath its shade on a warm day, breathing its scent and listening to the bees droning. According to my Herbal, in the past, wayfarers would make tea to soothe away headaches, wrap soaked cloths around their weary feet and treat blisters and saddle sores. No wonder it was called Traveller’s Joy. I love to think that along our little lane, the old drover’s would sit on the grassy roadside banks and rest, perhaps stopping for some ale at the old inn next door to us (and our only neighbour), their sheep and cattle drinking from the secret valley’s meandering river. Did they also think, like me, this place to be so special? I doubt it, somehow.

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Into the Secret Valley

One of the joys of going away is the pleasure of returning home. The main road that cuts across our bit of the Cotswolds follows the ridge of the hill, which gives the appearance of being plateau like. There are few hints that just a little way off to the side is the secret valley and the little lane leading to it gives few hints either.

To call it an avenue would be rather pretentious, but the roadside plantings of beech and cherry create the first thought that you may be going somewhere rather special. And as you begin to pass beneath their canopy, the hills start to rise on either side. These are rarely, if ever, treated with any chemicals and wild flowers, including orchids, abound.

But there is still no hint of our little, winding river. Then, as the avenue ends and on a sharp bend there it is! The first glimpse is of the old sheepwash, where the river was widened and deepened although still almost jumpable, for everything about the secret valley is miniature: the hills, the river, the road. Beyond the sheepwash come the meanders – the photo of these snake like bends are in the blog’s header title.

Our little stone cottage lies further along the road – and this is now the original old drove road, for the one that we have travelled so far has probably only been in place since about the late 1700’s. More of the drover’s in another post. Below is the view from the house looking back towards the meanders – we may only have just one other house nearby but there are dozens of sheep for neighbours!
Just below the cottage, the river passes beneath the lane and snakes its way around us, travelling through lush meadows. Watercress and meadowsweet grow along the water’s edge and little rickety, make-do bridges made from old telegraph poles criss-cross from one bank to another. Ancient, gnarled willow trees line the banks, more about these can be found in an earlier post: Willows
And tucked away beyond the bridges are the remains of the old mill workings. The culvert is barely noticeable until the river levels rise and the water diverts towards the mill. We’ll travel there another day.

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