Don’t Be Put Off By Its Name…

Slaughter may not sound the most promising of names but Lower Slaughter situated in the heart of the Cotswold Hills is one of the prettiest and most unspoilt villages you can visit.  Its unusual name is a derivation of the Old English word ‘slough’ meaning muddy patch but, if it was many years ago, it is certainly not one now.  In fact, three years ago it was described in a poll as having ‘the most romantic street in Britain’.

Although there is some more recent housing discreetly tucked away most of the buildings date from the mid sixteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries.  Its origins are even older  for it was well established even before being recorded in the Domesday Book; this means that it has been continuously inhabited for over a thousand years.

Many of the oldest houses cluster around the the River Eye which, although shallow, is powerful enough to feed the undershot waterwheeel of the mill.  This building, which now houses a small museum, is made from red brick – an unusual building material in this area – and was working as recently as the the late 1950’s.  It is a comparatively modern building having been built in the 1800’s although a mill was recorded on the site in 1086.  The tall chimney was built to give the mill additional steam power.
A similar tale can be told of the picturesque church with its tall spire which also dates from the ninteenth century.  There are a few traces of the original building within it: an arcade of four bays dating back to the early 1200’s.  The lichen encrusted gravestones in the churchyard also belie their age for burial rights were only granted in 1770 – before then villagers were buried in nearby Bourton-on-the-Water.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The countryside surrounding Lower Slaughter, and also the village itself, may not appear to have changed much in centuries but there is no doubt that they are very much ‘tidier’ than they once were.  An old Pathe News clip shows the banks of the Eye overgrown – there probably wasn’t the same enthusiasm for cutting its grassy banks when it has to be done by scythe.  Another change the film shows is the ‘locals’ sitting on the benches: nowadays, many of the houses are owned by the wealthy as weekend retreats and those exploring its lanes are visitors. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Lower Slaughter, despite its obvious attraction, has done very little to encourage tourism.  It is still possible to sit there or cross its little stone footbridges or paddle in the ford and be transported back to a time when life ran at a much slower pace.  It makes a very refreshing place for visitors to recharge the batteries after the crowds of its larger neighbours, Bourton and Stow-on-the-Wold or, for us lucky enough to live in the Cotswolds, to do the same after a hard day’s labour. 
 
Lower Slaughter is just 2½ miles north of Bourton-on-the-Water and 3 miles west of Stow-on-the-Wold.  The Old Mill sells great ice cream!
To see the Pathe News Clip from1939 click here

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Where Waters Meet

With two rushing rivers – Hoar Oak Water and the East Lyn River – merging in a series of spectacular cascades and rapids it is hardly surprising that Watersmeet is one of Exmoor’s most popular visitor’s attractions.  Its deep, wooded valley is doubly protected for not only does it lie within the heart of the National Park 340 acres were gifted to the National Trust.   Watersmeet House, now a café but originally built as a romantic fishing lodge, and with car parking nearby makes a good place to begin and end a walk.

There are numerous paths that can be taken from here and most link up to create walks of varying lengths.  They hug the valley bottom or rise steeply to the tops of the surrounding hills so it is possible for almost anyone, regardless of their ability to have an enjoyable outing.  It should be remembered that even in dry weather the paths can be quite rugged so good, solid footwear is always recommended.  A stout stick or walking poles won’t go amiss, especially if you choose the hillier paths.
 Apart from the noise and excitement of the rivers, the other awe-inspiring feature of Watersmeet is its woodland which clings to the steep, three hundred foot sides of the valley.  These are some of the best examples of ‘hanging’ woods in the country and are relics of the ancient woodland that once covered lowland Britain.  Mostly the trees are sessile oak although there are some fine specimens of beech in the better soil of the valley bottom.  There are also a number of Whitebeam species that can only be found here or in neighbouring woodlands making them of national importance.
As soon as you start walking, any crowds are soon left behind and you have the splendour of the place to yourself.  Following the East Lyn River upstream the remains of a nineteenth century lime kiln can be explored.  Lime was brought by sea from Wales to be burned before spreading onto the fields to counteract the land’s extreme acidity.  Fuel for the kilns was provided by the woodland which was coppiced and some of this timber was also sent back to Wales to be used in the iron foundries.
 Wildlife abounds; there are dippers and herons by the water’s edge, and red deer, badgers and otters can all be seen by the fortunate few.  On quieter stretches of the river the calls of raven and buzzard can be heard overhead.
After an hour or so, the tiny hamlet of Rockford appears, consisting of just a few cottages and an inn – another great excuse for a stop.  From here you can trace your route back to Watersmeet or continue along the river to the village of Brendon to make a longer, circular walk.
Watersmeet is open to the public all year round and every season has its special moments.  In the spring, the valley is lush and green; in summer the sunlight filters through the canopy to play on the water’s surface; in autumn there are the changing colours and in winter, the extraordinary beauty of the gnarled trees adorned with grey lichens come to the fore.  It needs to be visited more than just once!
 

For more information take a look at these websites:
National Trust
The Rockford Inn
Exmoor National Park

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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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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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The Sleeping Fairground

It is a very long time since I went for a ride on a Big Wheel.  I was twelve when I bravely called an older cousin a coward because he wasn’t too keen on the idea.  Once aboard, we slowly climbed to the top and as soon as we reached it he had he rocked it violently backwards and forwards until I’d begged forgiveness.  Now almost fifty years later, I was determined that I would go for my second trip but on my own so there would be no witness to my fear – but first I was due at a meeting.  Meeting ended and bolstered by a visit to the pub for a pint or two of beer, I ventured forth only to be thwarted: the fair had closed for the night.

Chipping Norton, here in the Cotswolds, comes to a standstill for three days every September when the fair comes to town.  Dating back to statutes in medieval times, the annual ‘mop’ or hiring fair was originally the time when agricultural and other workers would be hired for the forthcoming year.  In time, they became social events too and, nowadays, they are just a good excuse for enjoyment.  The rights of the fair to be held annually are carefully safeguarded and despite considerable inconvenience to traffic, the centre of the town is blocked by numerous stalls and rides.

Funfairs are noisy, active places.  There are flashing lights, music and the screams and shouts coming from the fair-goers, people of all ages reduced to childish delight by all that is happening around them.  But then it closes for the night and what happens then?

Oddly enough, once the fairground has closed the town centre becomes deserted.  Perhaps all the excitement and exhilaration has been too tiring but quite suddenly, there is silence and no-one to be seen or heard.  This is what I found when I wandered through the fair this late night.  It was a strange, surreal experience – almost as if the world had ceased to exist – and the more I looked at the dodgems and rides, stationary and empty, the more a feeling of unease came over me.  Even the helta skelta took on a threatening appearance.  Was I really alone here?  Would a person confront me from the shadows and, if they did, what then?  Telling myself I’d been watching too many horror movies I quickened my step and walked around a corner to come face to face with the only other ‘human’ in the place. 

Turning sharply away the sight of Star Slush, the only sign lit up, brought back the pleasure to be found in the artistry of fairgrounds too.  Travelling people  of all types, whether fairground, Romany or bargemen have a highly developed form of decoration, all closely connected and worthy of further contemplation.  But not then – time for home with the vow to return next year for my ride on the Big Wheel.

Back at the Secret Valley, where the only light was that of the moon, there is never a feeling of unease and, the night being warm, I decided to walk down the lane to the river.  As I did so, I mused on why I felt so uncomfortable being alone in the town centre.  Many visitors comment on how silent and brooding the valley is at night with no street lights, houses or familiar sounds.  It is all about belonging: I have lived ‘in the middle of nowhere’ all my life, it is where I belong and the silence and darkness here is my comfort blanket.  I’m obviously not yet ready to become a city boy.

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The Finest Stone Town in England

How often, when watching epics on the big screen or television, have you admired the scenery or buildings and wondered where they are or even if they exist in reality?   Those of you that have done this when watching Middlemarch or Pride and Prejudice can be reassured that, indeed, they do for they were filmed in the Lincolnshire town of Stamford, often described as the finest stone town in England.

Stamford has an ancient history.  The Romans constructed Ermine Street which passes through it only to be then pursued by Queen Boudica; almost a thousand years later it was the turn of the Anglo-Saxons against the Danish invaders.  The conquering Normans built a castle (to be demolished four hundred years later) but it was during the Middle Ages that Stamford really flourished due to the wool trade.  However, apart from its five medieval churches, the majority of the town’s buildings date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  In the late 1960’s, it became Britain’s first conservation area and is now designated an area of outstanding architectural interest.  It is due to this early protection that has earned the town its accolade, seconded by the Sunday Times (national) newspaper describing it as the best place to live in the country.

Close to the bridge which crosses the River Welland  stands the church of St. Martin’s, built around 1150 and completely rebuilt three hundred years later.  It contains some fine memorials to the Cecil family, the earliest dating from 1598, and also medieval stained glass brought from a neighbouring village in the 1700’s.

 

For those interested in church timber, St. Martin’s has finely detailed box pews and a carved lectern.  It also has the more contemporary (1947) carved head of Christ – Consummatum Est by Alberdi – representing the moment of his death; an anti-war protest.


 

William Cecil, the first Lord Burghley, was chief advisor, Secretary of State and Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I.  It was he who built Burghley House, considered to be the finest of its age and open to the public.  It is still lived in by descendants of the family and also home to the International Horse Trials held in the Park each September.  I have written of these before and these posts can be found by clicking on the link here.

More of my images of Stamford and Burghley can be found on Flickr by clicking on the link here.

Refs:
http://www.stamford.co.uk/index.shtml
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stamford,_Lincolnshire
http://www.stamfordchurches.co.uk/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Cecil,_1st_Baron_Burghley
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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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All the Colours of the Rainbow

There are certain flowers that I have been aware of all my life.  I’m not sure if that proves that I was an extremely sensitive child or whether it is just because my parents and other relatives only ever talked about gardening.  I can still see pansies growing in the circular bed beneath the apple tree and shrub roses either side of the archway that led to the vegetable garden.  The strawberries grew along the right hand fence and the rhubarb in front of the chicken run and yet we moved from that house when I was just nine years old.  But there is one thing that bothers me: I can recall the Iris, dark blue, growing tall and strong but I can’t remember if they were in the front or back garden. It doesn’t really matter, of course, but it seems odd that I can’t picture them when I can clearly remember my father telling me enthusiastically that “they come in all the colours of the rainbow.”  Despite his passion for them he only ever grew the one colour (which is perhaps odder still) and it was only when I had a garden of my own that more and more colours started to creep in.

An idea that I had wanted to try out for some time, spurred on by this memory, was to plant a border devoted to iris of all colours – a rainbow border.  This requires space, not because the plants take up much room but because they have quite a short flowering time, perhaps just two or three weeks.  This makes such a border rather a luxury, especially in a small garden.
 

I garden for my living – a hobby turned into a career – and I have quite a number of clients with gardens, some of very many acres.  It is in one of these that the rainbow border has been planted.  Confidentiality prevents me from showing the completed border in its entirety so you will have to imagine wave after wave of varying shades of blues, whites, burnt ochres, burgundies, golds and purples.  The effect is breath-taking as is one other thing I’d forgotten from childhood: scent although not all colours are fragrant and those that are vary in strength and quality.  Spectacular they may be when in bloom but blink and they are gone for another twelve months.  Fortunately, herbaceous borders bursting into flower draw attention away from what has now become a dull part of the garden.
In my own garden, I’ve had to be more restrained, poking them into odd spaces where they can get enough sun, yet they still offer surprises.  This yellow variety, Butterscotch Kiss, is a good colour for it is not harsh; best of all its fragrance is overpowering, scenting the whole garden and wafting into rooms through open windows.

Although the Bearded Irises, Iris germanica, arefavourites, there is always room for smaller varieties. The tiniest are the early flowering Iris reticulata which tend to get lost in my borders so are grown in pots.  They flower in February and March.  The Dutch Irises are useful grown in the vegetable garden for cutting but also grow well in the flower garden, flowering about now.  Both types are grown from corms (similar in appearance to bulbs), planted in the autumn.  Iris unguicularis is a perennial, winter flowering iris, ideal for picking and often with a delicate perfume.  In the photo below, it is growing in a pot indoors and flowering on Christmas Day.  In the garden it wants to be placed at the foot of a wall and grown in poor, stony soil.
The bog Iris, Iris sibirica, grows well in wet soil but also adapts quite happily to the garden border providing it is kept well watered until established.  Its leaves are grass-like and the flowers much daintier than their Bearded cousins.
Compared to the standard Iris sibirica above, Flight of Butterflies is more compact and has flowers with emphasised blue and white veining
There are numerous types, too, for the pond and these grow standing in several inches of water. Our native Yellow Flag, Iris pseudoacorus, is robust and can be too dominant in smaller areas of water. It is a lovely sight when seen in the wild – we have plenty here in the secret valley growing along the edge of the river, their broad rush like leaves making the perfect resting place for dragonflies .

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Babies Everywhere

Everywhere I  look at the moment there are babies – it’s that time of year.  I’m not talking human babies although quite a lot of my friends seem to be having new grandchildren, yet another sign of our ageing.  In the secret valley animals outnumber humans by dozens to one so it isn’t surprising that all around us there are signs of new life.

Lambing starts later here than in many places, for the spring grass is also later, so it is with impatience that we wait to see them skipping in the fields and chasing one another up and down the  river banks.  Of course, that was some weeks ago – now they are grown quite large and, as I write this, very noisy as they call for their mothers who have been separated for shearing. It will be a few hours before they have all found one another and normality returns again; the sound of contented and playful bleating telling us that all is well.

Calves can be born in spring or autumn.  Beyond the secret valley is a beautiful herd of Red Devon cattle and they make good mothers.  I first came across this gentle breed when I worked on a farm as a teenager on Exmoor and they have been a firm favourite ever since.  Bred for beef, we used to hand milk a few for the farm’s own use and the milk was very rich and creamy.   Large enamel basins of it would be placed on top of the Rayburn stove (fired by the peat turves I have recently written about, click here)  and I would watch fascinated as the cream would rise in large clots to be skimmed off  to be eaten with afternoon tea, that most traditional of West Country meals.

The bantams – Lavender Pekins (Cochins) – are all rapidly going broody.  I find that they are only good layers in spring, the rest of the year they lay fewer eggs.  We always set some of these under them so that we have a new supply of youngsters: if we get too many there is always a ready home for them but mostly they are there as ready-made meals for Mr Fox who is a far too regular visitor.  I’d rather see the bantams having a short but very lovely time wandering about the place than cooped up in a pen somewhere.  When left to free range it is amazing just how far they travel up and down the field which does make them rather vulnerable.  As the fox usually visits in the early hours of the morning I try to always remember to shut them away safely for the night.  In the cold weather earlier in the year a fox visited the garden regularly during the day – at one time actually peering through the glass garden door at us.

 
We don’t keep duck but that doesn’t stop us from seeing them in the garden.  Usually one raises a brood of ducklings somewhere secluded: often under a large clump of oat grass or, before it rotted away completely, a few feet up on top of a rotten tree stump at the foot of a hedge. As soon as they hatch, she leads them away down the field to the river below the house.

Every year, there are many pheasants that survive the shooting season.  Last spring we had one nest in a planting trough beside our kitchen door.  Despite the constant activity, she sat tight and none of the dogs, visiting or resident, discovered her.  I have read that, when sitting on eggs, the hen pheasant can supress any scent so as to avoid predators.  No sooner had the chicks hatched than every dog in the neighbourhood was investigating the planter but by then, of course, she had led them all to safety.

Partridge also visit the garden but are much more wary.  When their eggs hatch the chicks are not much bigger than bumble bees and swarm about their mother.  They are so tiny they appear to have no legs moving as if somehow they are fitted with wheels instead!

I almost certainly won’t find it necessary to blog about the next ‘hatching’ for an eagerly waited event is the royal birth.  When Kate has her baby it will make world news – you won’t need to see a photo of it here!

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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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