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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Hedgerow History and a New Project

One of the greatest and most picturesque, natural aspects of lowland Britain is its patchwork of fields divided by neatly clipped hedgerows.  In hill country, or where there is a wealth of stone, the fields are divided by dry stone walls and the Cotswolds are renowned as much for these as for the limestone cottages and houses built of the same material.  Here, domestic and farm buildings merge into one with the landscape for, as the fields were cleared of stone, it was natural to use it as a building material. 

The overgrown hedge on the left; the drystone wall starts a little further up on the right of our little country lane 

However, the Cotswolds also have their fare share of hedgerows and these often go unnoticed – overshadowed by the craftsmanship, colour and texture of the old walls.  In the secret valley we are fortunate for we have both: outside our little cottage – also built of stone 160 years ago – one side of the lane is bordered by a hedge, the other a dry stone wall.  At a glance, the hedgerow is unremarkable whereas the wall attracts attention for its weathered appearance and moss encrusted stones.  But not all is as it seems.

 The drystone wall was probably built only a couple of hundred years ago

The wall was probably built at the time of the great land enclosures, when large areas of England were partitioned, the ground cleared and ‘improved’ to grow crops (or here, in the Cotswolds, more likely wool) and may not be more than a couple of hundred years old – ‘new’ to us Brits.   However the hedge, shabby and overgrown in places, could well be a relic of the ancient wildwood, the forest that once covered most of lowland Britain in the days of pre-history before man started cutting it down. ‘Our’ hedge would almost certainly have been part of the Wychwood Forest, a royal hunting ground, for written records go back to the time of the Domesday Book of 1086.  As the forest was cleared (for more details click here) to make way for fields, it was easier to leave strips standing than to create new dividers. 

In places, the hedgerow is barely recognisable for trees have grown to huge proportion

How do we know that it is an ancient hedgerow and not one planted at the time of the enclosures?  There is an accepted formula for dating them known as Hooper’s Law: the number of tree and shrub species found in a thirty metre section x 100 is equal to the age of the hedge.  It is normal practice to take three thirty metre sample lengths and apply an average for greater accuracy.  There is also a second method of deciding if the hedge is of ancient origin: by the types of wild flowers that grow in it.  Certain species are very slow to spread, or perhaps only would normally grow in certain conditions such as woodland shade.  These key species are known as ancient woodland indicators and we have a number of them growing at the foot of our hedge.

 Bluebells are an ancient woodland indicator.  Here their new leaves emerge at the foot of the hedge – it will be several weeks before they flower

What is even more remarkable is that the plants tell us what is old and what is new hedge with such accuracy that it is possible to follow the old even after it has left the roadside. For our little lane that winds uphill as it leaves the secret valley to join the main road (‘Turnpike‘) is also part old and part new.  Before the Turnpike was built in the late 1700’s, the lane beyond our house took a sharp turn left and crossed the fields, it’s way now marked only by sunken turf and yes, you’ve guessed it, also by the old hedge and its associated flora.

 

 The ‘old’ road had been trodden for centuries by countless generations of drovers moving their cattle and sheep to market.  It was probably still used after the opening of the turnpike in the late 1700’s to avoid paying the tolls

I always consider March to be the start of the gardening year, the month when nature turns its back on winter and spring moves rapidly forwards.  Leaf buds burst, seedlings germinate and the first of the flowers remind you that long, hot days are not too far away.  It is the same with the plants that are beyond our garden gate.   And so on our first really warm, sunny day of 2012 I have decided to embark on a new project: to catalogue and photograph a year in the life of our hedge on a month by month basis.  Watch this space!

In places, the ancient hedgerow is still tightly clipped and, over time, has become very wide

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Snowdonia: The Enchanted Forest – Death & Destruction

On our third day in Snowdonia we awoke again to brilliant sunshine.  Despite the hard frost that had turned every surface a sparkling white it did not seem especially cold for there was no wind.  A walk to the ‘enchanted’ forest beckoned, a great favourite of ours for it is a magical place with its mossy hummocks, hidden waterfalls and lichen encrusted conifers.  It is a place of total silence apart from the sound of water and ravens croaking overhead.  

There is an old track that leads to the forest  made by the miners that quarried for slate a long, long time ago before the trees were grown, for this is naturally a barren landscape of rock and bog and heather and bilberry.  The trees were planted – non-native conifers – in rows so that the forests appear from a distance as odd shaped rectangles stuck onto a landscape, rarely looking part of the natural scheme of things.  They support little in the way of wildlife either, perhaps a little shelter for some passing deer but nothing in the way of food apart for the flocks of crossbills that occasionally winter here feeding on the cones.  Yet, despite all these negatives, the enchanted forest is well, enchanting. 

Not anymore.  We reached the forest gate but, apart from a few trees clustering around the entrance as if trying to escape into the more open spaces beyond, there were just a few damaged and sad looking individuals, all their companions having been clear felled.  It was a shocking sight, looking as if a tornado had ripped through them, leaving just rows of broken stumps and, occasionally, an upturned root ball.  Sadder still, the tussocks and moss covered mounds that created the ‘Brothers Grimm’ feel had all been destroyed with them.  Instead of walking through a cool tunnel of overhanging branches we ventured along a broken landscape; there was not one section recognisable or familiar. 

Now it is quite possible that the original landscape will be restored as part of the overall long term plan, for Snowdonia is a National Park.  Or, perhaps, the forest will be replanted or allowed to regenerate from self-sown seedlings.  Having got over the initial shock of seeing the landscape looking at its worse, I hope it will be the former.  The trees really are out of place here and, for the first time (if you can see beyond the devastation) there are wide, uninterrupted views of bleak, harsh mountainside – Snowdonia as it should be.
Whatever the outcome, it will be interesting to watch how nature repairs itself.  One thing is quite certain: the landscape will never look the same in my lifetime.  Perhaps it may look better?

To see more of the enchanted forest in all its former glory, click on the link here.
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Snowdonia: Through The Enchanted Forest

The tiny road that passes the converted chapel that we have been staying in once again for a late holiday continues to climb further into the mountains. The grassy areas, cropped short by sheep, give way to bracken, heather and stunted gorse, also shortened by the harsh climate. And an hours walk along this road – now little more than a stone track – brings you to the Enchanted Forest. At first, it is barely noticed: a tongue of dark green that appears to be sliding down the mountain as if desperate to reach the richer soil of the valley below.
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But suddenly, as you walk round a bend in the path, there it is in front of you. The trees look inviting; beckoning you to shelter from the cold north-easterly wind that cuts through to your bones. Yet, as you approach, the gate barring your way makes you hesitate, for the first

view into the depths of the forest is a menacing combination of dark and light. All those childhood images from the Brothers Grimm come to mind for there are the conflicting emotions: is this a sinister or a kind place to be and where will the path lead?
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Walking further into the forest, it proves to be a fascinating place, with sight after sight more enchanting than the previous one. The damp mists and rain have turned the ground into a mossy wonderland with great mounds of it creating a weird, almost surrealistic, landscape. Surely, Goblins or Hobbitts live here? They do, for every so often the moss builds up to make a hooded entrance and some even have – if you look carefully enough (like in the photo below) – a wrinkly face staring out at you.
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It is just not the light and the shadows that play tricks with you, for nothing is quite as you expect it to be. Some of the conifers branches grow upright instead of horizontally so that their silvery underside is facing you, disorienting your vision.
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Even the toadstools are rarely toadstool shaped – here these look like pieces of discarded orange peel rotting in the leaf litter.
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It is not especially surprising that ice forms on the puddles at this altitude and time of year but even this is different. They have the appearance of stained glass windows, but strangely drained of all their colour…..
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And just as suddenly as you entered it, the forest gives way again to mountain. But what a mountain! It is as if it has been dropped from a great height and smashed to millions of pieces, some just lying around and others piled up one on top of the other, regardless of size or shape. And why, several hundred years ago, did they build the dry stone walls that travel up and over them for mile after mile?
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The sun had been shining brightly when we had stepped into the trees. Now, in an instant, the weather has turned and we are being threatened by snow flurries. She-dog, our lurcher, who recognises these problems better than we do, had been wandering on far ahead. Now, knowing that danger could be approaching, she hurtles down the track back towards us, agitated, beckoning us to return home.
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How glad we were we heeded She-dog’s warning! By the time we were within sight of home the landscape was changing to white. And the snow continued to fall for days…..
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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!

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