A Tour of the Secret Valley

Ask people – both here at home or abroad – how they imagine Great Britain to be, the answer is often the same: an overcrowded island. We do, of course, have our fair share of big cities, motorways and densely populated housing estates but it often comes as a surprise just how much unspoilt, open countryside remains. A few of us are lucky enough to live in it.

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The M40 motorway where it enters Oxfordshire

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Less than two hours drive from the centre of London, the secret valley, seems more like a million miles away rather than just the eighty odd miles that, in reality, it is. Tucked down an unclassified side road and not shown on a number of maps, only those ‘in the know’ tend to visit it. Time for a quick tour.

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The Secret Valley

The approach to the secret valley gives little hint of what’s to come. Lined with crab apple trees, the lane gently descends between a fold in the hills where, on the steepest banks, wild thyme, orchids and other wild flowers grow.

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A bend in the road conceals the valley’s crowning glory: the most perfect, easily jumpable river (as can be seen in the header image of this blog page). Twisting and turning as it passes through meadows, in its shallows watercress grows where both trout and crayfish hide. By its banks willow pollards, now elderly and bent, wear garlands of wild roses; they grow from the tree crowns courtesy of seed dropped by birds generations ago.

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The lane, crossing the river, passes our tiny stone cottage and climbs towards the village – a cluster of nine houses, a farm and little else. Our home sits alone, down by the river bank, with just one other as companion. Here, the lane – barely wide enough for a combine harvester to pass – once was busy with drovers taking their cattle and sheep to the markets in Oxford.

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These days the drove road enters and leaves the secret valley by a different route, only its mid-section by our house is still in use. The ‘old road’, as it is known, can still be walked – its path clearly defined by the wild flowers and hedgerows that line it.

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The river, too, has chosen a different route according to the earliest maps. Downstream from our house, it flows past wooded banks to widen into a small lake before passing through fields, these days marshy where the watermill’s sluice gates have decayed with age.

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Further downstream still, where the sheep cannot graze, swathes of scented, moisture loving plants such as wild valerian – looking very different from the one grown in our gardens – provide nectar for insets and a hiding place for deer.

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a forest of Valerian & Meadowsweet

On the higher ground of the secret valley, the fields are cultivated with wheat, barley and oilseed rape. Even here, in the favoured places, wild flowers and birds of many types can be found: the diminutive hay rattle, a relic from the old farming days to ravens, buzzards and red kites, all now common again after centuries of persecution.

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Red Kite

Sounds idyllic? You’re quite right – it is!

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Clearing the Streets of Oxford

From the earliest days of the universities, there have been tensions between Oxford’s ‘Town & Gown’, the term used to describe the non-academics and scholars.  In the 1300’s  there were two days of rioting after two students complained of the quality of the local ale leaving many killed.  Not all altercations have ended in bloodshed and it was a general consensus to improve access into the town that the Covered Market was created.  The design was to be of the highest standard (by John Gwynn, designer of the Magdalen Bridge) although today it is all too easy not to notice the craftsmanship of the building.

In 1771 an Act was passed to rid the streets of food stalls and by 1774 the market had opened for business.  Originally, twenty butcher’s shops and stalls were built, swiftly followed by a further twenty.  Today, 240 years later,  meat and poultry are still sold there with fruit and vegetables alongside clothing, footwear and jewellery.  Numerous cafes feed and water students, residents and tourists alike, fortunately no longer causing riots.

In recent times there has been a controversial increase in rent which has allegedly caused some businesses to close.  However, despite the present recession, the market is thriving although, in true market tradition, it is always possible to find a bargain there.

After the enclosed and bustling avenues of the market it is refreshing to step into the open air once more and to take in the sights and sounds of the city.  Surrounded by the historic colleges with their splendid architecture it is all too easy to forget that the market has played an important role in shaping the town.  It has a fascinating story of its own to tell.


Information about visiting the market, its present traders and its illustrious past can be found on it’s website.  Click this link here to find out more.

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Turf Cutting on Exmoor

A few weeks ago I blogged about cutting peat – or ‘turf’ as it is known on Exmoor – for burning.  It is an ancient tradition, now past.  You can read that post by clicking on the link here.

When I first visited Exmoor forty-five years ago one of the first tasks I was given was to ‘turn’ the turf, literally just turning it over and over so that the wind dried it.  In many ways it was a boring and monotonous job but it had to be done for it was the provider of heat for the farm, both water and cooking.  Being alone, high up on the moors, was never lonely for the isolation, even for a lad, was awe-inspiring.  I loved it.

Recently, I was flicking through the pages of a book that has been in our possession for as long as I can remember and came across a photograph of an Exmoor turf cutter.  I’d never noticed it before.  The book is called ‘People of all Nations’ and was written about 1920.  The photographs are wonderful and show a way of life long gone.  

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With the benefit of hindsight, it is a pity that I took so few photos of my early days on Exmoor.  At the time, it seemed that the unchanged life of the moors would go on for ever.  Little did I realise that I was witnessing its passing and  I feel very privileged to have been a (very tiny) part of it.  What has endured has been its influence: my arrival quite by chance on Exmoor and being taken into its heart has been a subject of discussion recently with Phil Gayle on BBC Oxford.

The caption below the photograph reads:

Cutting Turf on the Rolling Heights of Exmoor. With his primitive cutter this Devon labourer is procuring long strips of turf at the opening of the shearing season.  The turf is stacked into barns in which the sheep are herded on the eve of shearing.  They rub against it and lie on it, thus ridding their wool of much dirt and grease which would detract from the value of their fleece were it present when shearing began.

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BBC Oxford Interview with Phil Gayle

I’m being interviewed on BBC Oxford  on Tuesday 21st May. 

Talking to Phil Gayle about career changes and the people that influence them – in my case the change from fashions to flowers.

“What or who changed your life? Phil Gayle hears from someone who got lost on a bike ride and it changed the direction of their life” – this refers to my eventual arrival on a remote hill farm on Exmoor at the age of 16.

To listen to the interview click here

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Being Interviewed on BBC Radio Oxford

I was a guest of Kat Orman on BBC Radio Oxford today, being interviewed about my forthcoming book, Why Can’t My Garden look Like That?, and also the career change from fashions to flowers.

One of the questions Kat asked was had I ever had a ‘Lady Chatterley’ moment.  You will have to listen to the interview to find out my response!

To listen to the programme  click here.  I am on air at 2:07:00.  The programme is only available for a few days so you’ll need to be quick…

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"The Most Beautiful English Village"

The tiny village of Bibury has long been recognised as one of the prettiest places in the Cotswolds and is much visited by tourists.  It is everything you might magine an old English village to be; so much so that some visitors, according to local gossip, not realising that it isn’t a theme park creation, walk into people’s homes to have a look around.

Ancient cottages in mellow Cotswold stone, a crystal clear, trout-filled river running alongside the main street, an old mill and a great pub offering food and accomodation all make Bibury “the most beautiful English village” as William Morris, the Arts and Crafts textile designer described it when he visited during the 1800’s.

The old cottages are so perfect and their setting so tranquil that they appear to have created an ethos amongst their owners: each house and garden has to be more well maintained than their neighbours.  The only weeds I saw there were across the river in the marsh and, of course, not only were they growing where they belong – in a wild setting – but there were only the most attractive ones such as Yellow Flags, the bog irises and the flat, white heads of the hogweeds.



No English village is complete without its church and pub and Bibury has both.  The church of St Mary’s dates back to the 12th century and is well worth seeking out for it is tucked away down one of Bibury’s few side streets.

 

If the church tries to remain hidden, no such claim can be made for The Swan, one of the landmark buildings situated on the bend where the road crosses the River Coln.  The creeper covered pub/hotel is a good place to watch the world go by although, rarely does a car go by without its occupants stopping to explore the village.  This is quite a problem for there are so many visitors and cars that to experience the tranquility of the place, or to get photographs such as those on this blog, you either need to stay overnight or to visit the village early in the day.  Looking at the online reviews for the Swan, I was amused to see that the only gripes were complaints about old furniture, no street lighting and no wifi or mobile phone signals – surely, some of the very best reasons for visiting!
 

 
It can almost be guaranteed that every calander of the Cotswolds will have a photograph of Arlington Row – probably on it’s front cover.  Set back away from the road, it is reached by a footbridge: a terrace of former 16th century weavers cottages which, in turn, were converted from a 13th century wool store.  The importance of wool in creating the wealth of the Cotswolds and its churches, including the development of the Cotswold breed of sheep, now endangered, has been described in earlier posts on this blog (click here).  For more on the Cotswold sheep and the work of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust to preserve them, click here.
Arlington Row’s importance in history of vernacular architecture was recognised by the Royal Society of Arts in 1929 when they purchased and restored it.  A plaque, commemorating this is set into a nearby wall.

Exploring Arlington Row gives visitors an opportunity to see just how higgledy-piggledy the construction of old house are.  The old stone walls and mismatched rooflines and windows are juxtaposed seemingly at random – a modern planning departments nightmare.

Despite, the large numbers of tourists (for we all like to believe that we fall out of that category and will be the only persons there), Bibury is well worth making the effort to visit.  It is situated close to Cirencester, one of the most important Roman towns in the UK, with its wealth of history and it is also within easy reach of Oxford.  If I had to choose only one place to take a visitor to see, I think that Bibury would be highly placed on the list. 

Let me know – especially overseas readers, please – which would be the one place that epitomises old rural living in your country.

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Shh! Don’t Tell The Weather Man!

I hardly dare mention it but I think Spring is finally coming to the Cotswolds. After I wrote about it back in February, the man from the Met Office sent us cold again. Hard frosts put spring on hold. To be fair, as I also wrote, the Cotswolds may be one of the most beautiful places to live in the south of England but the hills are also one of the coldest. Our spring is always two or three weeks later than places even as close as Oxford or Gloucester.
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Early spring sunshine comes to the ancient Cotswold town of Burford
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The past few weeks have been unusually dry which has meant that tidying up the garden – or, in my case, gardens: my own as well as clients – has progressed rather well. A nice drop of warm rain now would work a treat and not interfere with time schedules. At last, in the secret valley, leaves are unfurling properly, daffodils are blooming and the lone primrose has been joined by many more as well as purple and white violets.
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Wherever I have lived, there has always been one hawthorn that opens its leaves days before the rest, even when planted as a hedgerow. I’ve often wondered if this is a genetic thing which means, I presume, that it could be cloned to have a whole group of early leafing ones. Or is it a combination of warmth and soil conditions in that particular spot? When I retire and have more time (a contradiction as the two never happen according to friends who are trying it) I will take cuttings and carry out a controlled experiment. It will give me the opportunity to blog about it if I am still able to sit in front of a computer!

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I wonder if I could get a whole hedge of early flowering hawthorn? It will be another six weeks or more before they will be in bloom in the secret valley.
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The snowdrops and aconites have now finished flowering. The little ruff of green leaves are all that is left of the latter. They look so similar to the taller herbaceous aconites or Monkhoods whose green ruffs are also poking through the ground now. They are all part of the buttercup family so are related but so unalike one another at their flowering time. I love the tall purple spires of the Monkshoods in mid to late summer: not as delicate as delphiniums, another favourite, but at least slugs don’t eat them and they don’t need staking, a real plus.

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Forsythia is in full bloom. These I enjoy in other gardens but never plant them in my own unless the garden is huge and they can be planted a long way off. They show up from quite a distance and when seen too close, are too strident for my taste. The non flowering shrub later in the summer is a coarse affair too, dull and not warranting the space unless livened up by a clematis or other climbing plant. In the photo below it is grown as a wall shrub and it works well in disguising this unattractive garage. Despite being cut hard back to the wall each year in early summer it is always smothered in bloom by March.

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The same applies to the common flowering currant. The standard pink is a wishy-washy thing and the deeper coloured, named varieties such as King Edward VIII, is as strong in colour as the forsythia – a plant to be enjoyed in other gardens. For those of you that thought the currants were always pink (although there are white flowered versions) and smelt of cat’s pee – and I include myself in this category for many years – there are three others that are well worth making space for.
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Ribes odoratum, has pale yellow flowers and is beautifully scented. It is a bit of an untidy shrub in my experience, suckering freely but not a nuisance. It grows in happy neglect in a hedgerow – an ideal spot for it to do its own thing – and is really only noticed by the spicy fragrance as you wander past.
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Ribes lauriflolium is a new plant to me. Unlike the others which all originate from the States, this currant is found in the wild in China. Looking at descriptions on the internet I wonder if they are correct or if there is a lot of variation in the stock, which is possible. I bought mine described as white, evergreen and not too hardy. It has survived -16C this winter, has been deciduous (perhaps it keeps its leaves in milder winters, I rather hope not) and is white flowered. Others are described as yellow and growing to only 1 ft – mine is already 3ft but that may be because it is tucked behind our dry stone wall. The one thing they all agree on and I can confirm is the exquisite scent of lilies of the valley. Do try to grow one if you can find it.

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I have since discovered that this isn’t a ribes at all! See my next post to reveal all!!
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My final choice of flowering currant is another favourite, Ribes speciosum. It is reminiscent in bloom of fuchsia and, like them, are pollinated in their native environment by humming birds. Hailing from California, in UK gardens it requires shelter and grows best against a warm wall where it can be trained on wires or left free growing. This photo was taken in the botanical gardens in Dublin on a glorious spring day.
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Warmth, blue sky and sunshine. The clocks go forward an hour this weekend giving us more evening daylight. I’m almost feeling optimistic about the days to come – something a gardener should never be!
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Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Oxford

Last May, Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave the Bynum Tudor Lecture at Kellogg College, University of Oxford in the historic Sheldonian Theatre.

The lecture, “Lessons from the truth & reconciliation process for 21st century challenges”, was thought provoking and fascinating. Although I have written of the lecture at the time – the post and photographs of the Sheldonian Theatre can be seen here – it is only now that the video of the lecture has become available.

For those of you that would like to view it, click on this link to Kellogg College, here.

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When Greens Defeat the Blues……

We all go through periods of our lives when plans are thwarted, futures unravelled and forgotten pasts unfortunately remembered. It is something we have to come to terms with for, after all, if there were no ‘lows’, we couldn’t have ‘highs’ either.

It has been a difficult couple of weeks although, in the grand scheme of things, I should not complain too much. My partner, who has suffered considerably and silently with a debilitating heart problem the past two years, has finally had the op long waited for. And it seems, a great success with glimpses, already, of the old energy that was there before.

At the same time, the first anniversary of my mother’s death has weighed far more heavily than I expected. We were close and talked frequently about all sorts of things and, in her last few months, of dying. As she often said, she had a great and happy life and reached 94 despite hating being old (“it’s no fun being in your 90’s, you know”). She was ready to go.


So here I am, feeling a bit ‘blue’ and why? My partner is recovering, my mother is at peace. And suddenly, I have no need to be rushing hither and thither. I am like a train that has run out of steam or, if you want to be less kind, moping about like a wet rag, if they can mope and I can mix metaphors.

Without love there can be no loss and without illness there can be no recovery. And without fall there can be no spring. And it is the spring that renews, not just our gardens and the landscapes that surround us, it renews the spirit inside us. And so it was back to the Chiltern Hills, where I grew up and spent most of my life, that I returned to be revived by the extraordinary lushness of their beautiful beechwoods.


The Chilterns are barely 30 miles from the Cotswolds, the two being separated by the low lying Oxford vale. So close yet so different in character. The Cotwolds is a landscape of gently rolling hills, little rivers, big vistas and skyscapes. The Chilterns is a secretive land of steep combes – the beech woodlands clinging precariously to the valley walls. Few rivers, for this is a chalk land, a dry place with few views and no large skies for the forest hides them all. Yet the light is magical and nothing is as blinding as the intense greens of the unfurling beech leaves.


How can one walk here without being uplifted spiritually and mentally, whether holding religious belief or not? And if the beech is struggling to kick start you then the sight of the tens of thousands of bluebells, with their gentle scent, cleanse the body and renews the energy within.


Life is good and I’ve only got one attempt at it. I feel refreshed. I’d better get on with it.


Yes, life is good. No complaints. Honest!

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Sunshine and Laughter

I always feel better when the sun is shining. I have more energy and achieve far more, whether working in the garden or even doing indoor chores. And sitting outside feeling the warmth on bare bits of body (not much on show these days after a bout of skin cancer), preferably with a glass of a good, chilled, white wine, makes me feel that all is right with the world.

And when I was in Grafton Street, the main ‘drag’ in Dublin, Ireland on a glorious spring day, I found that it wasn’t only me revelling in the long awaited heat. The road filled with people all intent on rushing at speed but instead ending up relaxing and enjoying themselves. It was good to see.

Magicians and entertainers did what they said: not only did they entertain but they worked their magic on the crowds and the street came to a standstill. All around people stood and laughed and clapped and cheered. A picture, so the saying goes, is worth a thousand words. These photos speak for themselves.

Musicians played and, quite spontaneously, there was dancing.

And if the heat became too much, continue laughing in Bewley’s cafe…..

…..or just bask in the sun down a side street….


I love these photographs for the warmth that radiates from them – and I don’t mean sunshine. Having just been fortunate enough to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak in Oxford, for me, these are confirmation of his viewpoint that, if you look for it, you will find that the natural goodness in people shines out.

Let’s hope we all have a warm, happy and laughter filled summer.

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