A Year in Review 2013: the Second Half

July to the end of  December already is a memory and rapidly becoming a distant one at that.  Just five days into January and Christmas seems further back in the mind than it is in reality.  2014 has arrived and I am optimistically looking forward to all that it may bring.  Not that the last one was disappointing or sad in any way; just that with time flying by it is essential to make the most of every moment.  Of course, I’m very fortunate: I have my health, I have a great job, friends and family I can always rely upon and I live in a superb part of the English countryside.  Long may all those things last!

July:  The highlight of my year occurred this month.  An exciting and memorable launch of my first book to be published – a gardening book – Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That? took place in Chipping Norton’s award winning bookshop, Jaffe & Neale.  Would anyone turn up?  As it happened, very many did with people overflowing onto the street, the warm, sunny evening and the wine contributing to a street party feel to the occasion.  If you wish to find out more of the book or would like a signed copy you can find details here.

Many people are attracted to the magnificent looking but dangerous Giant Hogweed, also the subject of a post this month.  I was delighted when photographs from it were used in an educational video by the Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation District (New York State).  Take heed of the messages if you come across the plant!

August: Travelling around the Cotswold Hills as I do every day in the course of my work you would think I would know most of what goes on there.  Nevertheless, I was surprised when I saw Tibetan flags fluttering in the breeze.  Further investigation found Alain Rouveure’s galleries and tea room.  Of course, I couldn’t leave until I’d tried out their lunch…

September:  Street fairs have been held for hundreds of years throughout England and Chipping Norton has an annual one that dates back to medieval charters.  Originally the time when livestock was sold and labour sought, these days they are purely held for pleasure.  Traffic has to be diverted around the town as the centre is blocked off by the rides and stalls.  Noisy, crowded and well lit they are great fun but I found  myself completely alone in darkness walking around it late one night.  It was an eerie experience, described here.

October:  The appearance of the secret valley was changed dramatically when the willow trees that line the banks of our little winding river were pollarded.  This dramatic ‘haircut’ is carried out only when necessary, the last time about fifteen years ago.  Suddenly, the view in the header of this blog has become wide open as every branch was removed leaving just the trunks standing.  The secret valley looks naked now but ‘new clothes’ will grow rapidly this coming spring.

November:  History isn’t just about learning dates of battles, the most interesting aspects are those that we can so easily relate to.  Yet so much of this is forgotten over time and it takes teams of dedicated people, often volunteers, to literally unearth it.  A now deserted and seemingly empty part of the Exmoor National Park was, one hundred and fifty years ago, teeming with people and was at the very forefront of Victorian technology.  It was quite extraordinary what these engineers achieved and their story featured in two posts which created much interest and comment.  They can be found by clicking here and here.

December:  The blogging year ended on a cuddly note – looking after two adorable but naughty beagle puppies.  If you are a dog lover there is nothing better than to be mauled by puppies.  If you’re not over-keen on dogs then you won’t understand the attraction!  You could try to find out, however, by clicking here.

So what’s going on in 2014?  Lots, hopefully. There is a new racehorse, more gardening, more travel, a lot more writing; it will be a busy year and how it pans out time – and this blog – will tell.

Thank you all so much for following my blog. Over one hundred thousand of you have looked at it since its inception which I find quite extraordinary and very humbling.  Please continue to do so and to tell all your blogging friends to come and pay me a visit, either on here or at my full website www.johnshortlandwriter.com .  I am also on Facebook and Twitter where daily updates can be found.  You are always very welcome to contact me with your comments or queries and I will do my best to answer them all.

Wishing you all a very happy and healthy New Year.

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The Russian Curse

Turn and run!  Nothing can stop them.  Around every river and canal their power is growing.
Stamp them out!  We must destroy them. They infiltrate each city with their thick dark warning odour*.

Plant hunters have over the centuries introduced many beautiful plants to our gardens but they have also brought in others that have, as they escaped from its confines, become troublesome weeds.  Japanese Knotweed, Fallopia japonica, creates problems by damaging river banks and pushing up through concrete, even entering houses; Himalayan Balsam, Impatiens glandulifera, is pretty enough with their hooked pink and white flowers but smothers native plants.  Both are difficult and costly to eradicate.  But the one that can cause the most trouble – and is undoubtedly the most impressive – is Giant Hogweed.

Long ago in the Russian hills, a Victorian explorer found the regal hogweed by a marsh … he came home to London and made a present of the hogweed to the Royal Gardens at Kew*.

Giant Hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum, was introduced to Britain from the Caucasus in  Victorian times and soon became a popular addition to parks and gardens for, although similar in appearance to our native Hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium, these were giants in every way.  Huge flower heads above equally large leaves reaching way into the sky – up to twenty feet or more in exceptional specimens – were something to marvel at. A hardy perennial, the plants shot up over the course of just one summer adding to its popularity, although it can be a few years before the plant flowers after which it dies.  With  up to 100,000 seeds from each plant, it soon multiplied and before long had found its way back to the marshy land adjacent to rivers and canals as in its homeland.

I wonder how long it took the Victorian gardeners to discover the problems associated with the plant for it not only spreads rapidly, it also is extremely toxic.  Covered in sharp bristles that scratch the skin it is the sap from the plant that can cause major injury.  Skin contact with the sap when exposed to sunlight results in severe dermatitis: itching and redness develop into blisters and dark wheals.  These can last for several years.  Contact with the eyes is even more dangerous for permanent blindness can follow.

So what do you do if you find Giant Hogweed in your garden apart from turn and run?  It can be treated with weed killer and the ideal time to do this is when the plants have a large leaf area but before they flower.  It is essential not to handle the plant at any time – even when it is dead – for every part of it including its roots will injure you.  If you are tempted to carry out control yourself (and it may be wiser to call in a specialist eradication company (please, not me!)) then you must wear a complete coverall and full face and eye protection.  You also need to remember that the clothing will also be contaminated and should be destroyed.

Fortunately, Giant Hogweed is rarely encountered in gardens.  You are more likely to find it growing in waste places in the wild and it may be wise to report its presence to your local environmental agency.  Attitudes toward it vary from country to country for this is not just a British pest – it is found in many other temperate regions of the world including the USA and Canada.

Perhaps at this point, I should remind you all that the majority of garden plants are harmless enough and that gardening and plants give a huge amount of pleasure.  Happy gardening!

* The Return of the Giant Hogweed: lyrics by Genesis, 1971

 

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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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A Royal Invitation

Like most people, I wait with eager anticipation for the postman to deliver the mail each day and, each day, I find that, if it isn’t bills he’s put through the letter box, it’s circulars that go straight into the recycling bin.  So when a card sized envelope arrived with a nicer quality about it than most – and especially as it wasn’t my birthday – I was intrigued.  Why do we always feel envelopes and squint at postmarks to try and work out what is inside when all we have to do is open them and take a look?

My first reaction upon finding I’d received an invitation from the Duke of Edinburgh to attend Windsor Castle was to think that a friend was playing a practical joke.  But the more I read it the more real it looked:

His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh, K.G., K.T
requests the pleasure of your company
at a Reception to be held in the State Apartments, Windsor Castle

How extraordinary!  Why me?  Why should I be drinking and eating one evening soon with Royalty?  The answer was, of course, it wasn’t me at all, it was my partner who has spent a lifetime working with and competing horses.

Horses have always been close to the Royal Family and both the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh are knowledgable and skilled horsemen.  Carriage driving at top competition level had, until recently, been a regular part of the Duke’s regime and we had often been to watch him race at Windsor Great Park.  We too, have also participated in driving although my competition level is still at the most basic.  My partner is much more skilled and fearless and I always marvel when a neurotic and potentially lethal animal becomes calm and pliable under his control.  The photo below is of us just out for a quiet afternoons drive – although the pony did have his moment a little later when we careered out of control amongst the trees.  Thomas could become quite exciteable at times!

I realised with dismay that the date on the invitation was the day that we would be on Exmoor for a couple of weeks holiday, 150 miles away.  Working on the theory that we’d never likely receive another invitation we postponed the trip by a day.  And so, that early evening we drove up to the closed gates of Windsor Castle, showed our credentials and passed through to be further security checked.  Once this had taken place we were driven by an offical to the Quadrangle and the State Entrance.  Thie entrance, as it’s name implies, is used on State occcasions and the Quadrangle is used for military parades, including the regular Changing of the Guard.  From here is a panoramic view of the castle buildings, the oldest of which date from the 11th century (making Windsor the world’s oldest inhabited castle), and the Long Walk: a tree lined vista that cuts across the Great Park for a distance of over two and a half miles.

 
 

We entered the building by the Grand Staircase, with it’s fine displays of armour and firearms.  Here we were able to see the musket ball that killed Lord Nelson which had been presented to Queen Victoria.  Queen Charlotte’s sedan chairs were also here, remarkably small, I thought.

The reception was held in St George’s Hall, which was at the centre of the fire in the 1990’s and completely destroyed.  As a consequence, the restoration work has made the green oak, hammer beam roof the largest to be constructed in that century.  The craftsmanship and colours are extraordinary: set into the roof are the shields of every Knight of the Garter with some shields being blank.  These, I discovered, were not reserved for future knights but were of those that had fallen from Royal favour. 

Nothing prepares you for the sheer magnificence and size of this room as you enter – it measures 185 x 30 feet.  Here we met other guests – there were only about two hundred  – and, finally, the Duke who arrived with little pomp or ceremony.  The Duke made a short speech before joining us informally to champagne and canapes.  I was impressed not just by his energy (he is now over 90) but also by his wit.  He really is very funny, indeed.  I wondered how many other people of his age could carry out all these duties day in, day out and still make you feel as if you were of interest to them.  Both he and the Queen – who works equally hard – may live in splendour with aides and courtiers but I wouldn’t exchange places with them: I will be more than content just to still be able to hear, see, think and garden!

Access was also granted to The Grand Reception Room and The Waterloo Chamber, where the immense and seamless, two ton carpet took fifty soldiers to lift to a place of safety during the fire.  What I found surprising was that we were given free access to wander around these rooms at will, although I’m certain that if we had attempted to go elsewhere we would have found our way blocked!  Sadly, because we were attending a royal event, we were not allowed to take photgraphs, so I am unable to show you the splendours of these rooms.  You will find them, however, if you look in a search engine.

The evening came to a close after two and a half hours and, as we stepped back out into the autumn air in the Quadrangle, I was struck by the realisation why it is traditional to say, upon the death of a monarch, “The King is dead, long live the King”:  for all the affection that the current Queen has in the hearts of many of her subjects, the Office is greater than the individual.  The institution of monarchy has worked well for this country, long may it remain so.

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Searching for Granny ….

….. well, great-Granny actually. I hadn’t exactly lost her for I had ‘discovered’ her in old census records when researching our family history. I also remembered being told, as a child, that “Granny used to live there”. What I hadn’t realised was that Granny and my more distant ancestors were some of the most important mill owners on the River Thames, the premier river of England. The family owned Marlow Mills, which they converted from corn to paper production in the early 1800’s.
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Marlow Mills survived many mishaps ranging from a very destructive fire to withstanding the riots that were a spill-over from the agricultural riots of the 1830’s. Other mills in the area had their machinery destroyed – the ancestors were obviously made of tougher stuff, for they surrounded the mill with vicious man traps. The traps could still be seen hanging in their offices in the early 1900’s – perhaps as a warning to any other miscreants! What it didn’t survive was the craze for redevelopment and in the 1960’s they were bulldozed and luxury riverside homes built in their place. Sadly, we no longer owned the mill by then: if we had I might be living in luxury for the 17 properties on the site sell now for around one million pounds each.
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Yesterday, I found myself in Marlow on business but, with time to spare, decided to explore. How odd it felt walking these once familiar roads and riverside walks now knowing that two hundred years ago my family were doing the same. This street view probably hasn’t changed much although, as the family were so religious, I can’t imagine that they sat outside the local pub drinking alcohol in the warm, summer sunshine!
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The view of the river, the church and the bridge must have changed even less, although they would have watched with interest the suspension bridge, designed by William Tierney Clark, being built in the 1830’s (the old wooden bridge collapsed into the river in 1828). Ten years later, he designed and built a larger version of the bridge in Budapest, with which Marlow is twinned.
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This old post box must be one of the very earliest ones made for, even in Victoria’s reign, the design became more elaborate. This one looks ancient but is still in everyday use – the VR stands for Victoria Regina, she reigned from 1837 – 1901 and is our longest reigning monarch. If it is one of the earliest it could date back to 1853, the year that post boxes were first introduced. Incidentally, by tradition, all British post boxes bear the initials in Latin of the reigning monarch at time of manufacture. I wonder how many of my family had posted letters here?
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I knew, from an old record found on the internet, that Joseph Wright – my great-great grandfather – had been instrumental in building a free church in the town. To my delight, not only did I find the church still thriving, I was able to speak with a senior member of the congregation who, by chance, happened to be there. I was shown a history of the church but there was no mention whatsoever of the Wright family connection, a name not even known to them. Had I got the right place?
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Searching through old gravestones, I first came across one with the initials J W and M A D carved in the base. The initials turned out to be for Mary Ann Downing (not for death by insanity!), a name I’d not heard of and, frustratingly, the husband’s name had been damaged and was barely legible – I could just make out the name Joseph. However, it had obviously been a smart grave once for there were the signs that it had been surrounded by iron railings. But why Downing and why J W?
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Then I came across the grave, below, that looked so recent. To my amazement it wasn’t new at all but over 130 years old. The marble and the railings of such high quality that they showed no sign of wear. Here the names were clear – they were of William, Joseph Wright’s brother and partner in the milling business, and his wife.
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Further along was another grave in good condition, although more modest. It was unusal for it was very long and narrow. Almost overlooked in my excitement, this was the grave of Ellen Wright my ‘own’ grandmother’s mother. I had found great-Granny! I knew of Ellen for she had been born in Finland, which had always been something of a mystery. I found that she had been born there because her father was, for a few years, at a paper mill there before returning to the mill at Marlow. Was he learning new techniques or was he there advising?
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The final pieces of the jigsaw came into place when, at home, I found that after Joseph’s death, Mary Ann had remarried (hence the Downing surname). Her widowed husband obviously agreed to her wishes and she was laid to rest with Joseph, her first love.
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Feeling extraordinarily emotional (strange, really, for I did not know them in the true sense), I reported back my discoveries to the gentleman in the church who was equally delighted to discover that these unknown benefactors were still present within the church they had helped to create.
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Now all that is left to close the circle of 200 years is for me to attend a service, something I hope to do in the very near future.
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