Dropping In Unexpectedly

We are sociable animals here in the secret valley and nothing pleases us more than when friends call in unexpectedly as they pass by.  It doesn’t matter whether there is just one or twentyone, we can always find enough in the store cupboards to water, and feed them too if needbe.  More often than not, they are on their way somewhere so a cup of tea, or something a little stronger, is all that is required.

Not the secret valley but still in the Cotswolds.  If you click on the photo to enlarge it you can see that the river Windrush has as many twists and turns in it as our little river

Most of the time visitors arrive by car or on foot for the lane that brings you into the valley is as inviting and sinuous as the little winding river itself: it takes you across cornfields, through trees which create, at this time of year, a leafy tunnel before entering a fold in the hills lined with an avenue of cherry and lime trees.  It is here that you get your first glimpse of the river and beyond the meanders the lane turns sharply over the bridge taking you a few more yards to the door of our home.

The villages of Lower and Upper Oddington – you can clearly see the lines of the old ‘ridge and furrow’ field plough marks that can date back a thousand years or more

The secret valley, as I have mentioned before, is a landscape in miniature.  Everything is small – the road, the hills, the views, the river, even the stone built bridge you can pass over without noticing it.  If it all sounds very idyllic that is because it is.

A couple of weeks ago we had some very unexpected guests although we could hear them arriving for quite a while before they finally did so.  It was the unmistakeable sound of a hot air balloon losing height.  Hidden by trees we could not see who was landing but went off to investigate – She-dog leading the way – and to assist if required.  The multicoloured stripes told us it belonged to Charles Teall who lives some miles away and who had once taken me for a flight, although on that occasion we had not landed on our doorstep – for details of that flight click here.

Charles’ wife, Liz, incidentally, is a very talented potter and we have some very nice pieces of her work.  She, like myself, is interested in traditional folk music but, unlike me, she can sing and play the whistle and tabor; she also belonged until recently to a local Morris dancers side.  Have a look at her work by clicking here.

By the time we reached it, the balloon had already landed.  It never fails to surprise me just how large it is and just how small the basket is.

She-dog is normally fairly cautious and we thought that she would be nervous of the balloon.  As always, she proved us wrong and felt it important to inspect every part of the balloon: below, the folding meets her approval.  Talking of approval, those of you that follow She-dog’s exploits may have been wondering what is the latest on puppy news: there isn’t any.  On the last two occasions she has refused to co-operate.  She obviously felt that once was quite enough!

I am always surprised how neatly everything folds away and into such a small space.  There is always a mobile support team to assist where necessary so our help wasn’t required.  Once packed we were able to catch up with the latest news over a drink and reminisce about our trip flying over the Cotswolds.  The aerial shots were all taken on that day.

The counties of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, which form the greater part of the region known as the Cotswolds, have some of the best surviving examples of ridge and furrow.  To find out how these were created, click here.

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Where’s The Snow in Snowdonia? (Only in it’s name)

We have been back to Wales for a week’s holiday staying in a remote converted chapel belonging to a friend.  It is good to be back for the isolation is complete – no cars, no houses, no roads, no broadband and no television.  Well, there is television but being rather impatient with non-living things (and also quite a number of people that just might fall into that category) I cannot be bothered to work out just which of the several remote controls switch it on.  But best of all – and rather surprisingly considering all the dire warnings we have been given by the weathermen – no snow.


Last winter when we were here, a blizzard struck the day we arrived.  Gradually, as the supply of logs and oil for heating dwindled and the water supply froze resulting in our collecting it from the stream outside, our resolve and sense of fun also started to diminish.  Put it down to advancing years: in my twenties or thirties I would have considered it to be ‘quite a laugh’.  Not so these days – I could cope with the water and lack of central heating but I am not so good when the wood burner isn’t blazing away.  However, we saw Snowdonia last year as few visitors do; a snow covered landscape with more falling so thickly that it was difficult to see, when out walking, where either my partner – or more importantly She-dog – was even though they were just yards ahead of me.


This year it was different, we left home with the (as it turned out, innacurate) knowledge that we were driving into blizzards and we hoped that we would reach our destination before being marooned, despite having to travel over two high passes and up a track steep enough to make a mountain goat think twice before tackling it. This time we came prepared with a vast amount of food and with three times the amount of warm clothing that any two people could wear over an entire winter.  As we reached the town of Shrewsbury the forecast rain began to fall; it would only be a matter of time as we entered Wales and gradually climbed in height that it would change to snow.  The rain grew steadily heavier and the road ever steeper until we reached the first summit and, surprise, there was not a hint of whiteness anywhere.  The second pass, higher still, was similar although the surrounding peaks did have a dusting of snow. We reached our destination with the rain still falling and the temperature ever rising – it was now fifteen degrees warmer than when we had left home in the Cotswolds, further south and many hundreds of feet lower.


The next morning we woke to sunshine, having no guilt about not getting out of bed in darkness at some ridiculously early hour as every other day of our lives.  Looking out of the bedroom window, the surrounding mountains still wore their apology of snow – it was a scene from the end of March or even April.  The calls from concerned Cotswold friends telephoning (we still have one piece of technology that works here) to confirm our safe arrival quickly turned to irritation when they discovered we were fine and they were blanketed in five inches of overnight snowfall.  It was hardly our fault that they had to work twice as hard at looking after our chickens and horses in our absence and, it seems, my suggestion that carrying buckets of unfrozen drinking water out into the fields was a good daily exercise did not help.


Last year She-dog had a thoroughly enjoyable holiday here as well.  Like most dogs, she revels in human company and snow and her days were spent in a mix of snowy walks and long uninterrupted periods of sleep in front of the fire.  This time we are here on our own.  It has been commented on that She-dog has not featured much in recent posts – all that is about to change for she has  gone away on an adventure of her own: if all goes well, in about ten weeks time she will be having puppies once again and, this time, we might just keep one for ourselves.

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What A Difference A Year Makes

The British are always going on about the weather and I’m no exception.  My very first words upon waking are “What is the weather doing?” and my final words before sleeping are “What will the weather be doing?”.  I make no apologies for this: it’s part of our make-up as a nation.  It’s because, I was once told, that whereas other countries have seasons, Britain just has weather.  It’s not quite that simple, we do have seasons – Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter – just like any other temperate country, it’s just that in the UK they get a bit muddled up.

I write this, snug in front of the woodburner – not that much heat is getting past She-dog who thinks this has been lit solely for her pleasure and comfort – listening to a gale rattling the window panes and whistling around the eaves.  The rain is lashing down and there is absolutely no need for me to ask what the weather is doing this evening.  However, I have been told that I have said “Listen to the weather” several times. I could have said how remarkable it is that only yesterday I had my lunch sitting in the garden.  Yes, really.

I should admit that I am a hardy sole as I work outdoors all year and so am less affected by cold than most and I also should admit that I was wearing a coat and gloves and sitting in a sheltered, sunny spot. Regardless of those finer details, yesterday I commented how last year to the day we were up to our necks in snow in the worst wintry weather the Secret Valley had had for years.  And, even more remarkably, the snow came when you would expect it  –  in midwinter but (and there’s always a ‘but’ where British weather is concerned) in the Cotswolds we rarely get snow before January …..   But it was still rather remarkable to be sitting there, surely and remark worthy?

What is even more remarkable is that all of this week I have been planting out herbaceous plants and laying turf; late even by our odd climate standards.  We have had frosts: there were three quite hard ones in October, then none until the last week of November and then a couple more last week and none since.  In between, we had two weeks of warmish air and thick fog which was enough to make even me depressed. 

The spirits, even on those damp, grey days, were uplifted by the huge array of flowers that have reappeared.  There are always a few late roses hanging on determinedly until Christmas Day, looking bedraggled and ragged but not this time.  Some of them have given up but others have almost as many blooms as midsummer.  There are pots of herbaceous Salvia nemerosa ‘Mainacht’ that have regrown after their end-of-season haircut and are in full bloom once again.  Primroses and cowslips are showing colour.  Today I counted over twenty different summer flowering plants still going strong.  That’s a bit of an exaggeration, I really mean showing the odd flower or two.  All the plants have become muddled so we have Winter Jasmine as you would expect but not alongside spring flowering Forsythia.  And we have evergreen, flowering shrubs such as Viburnum and Sarcococca as we should have at this time of year – but not alongside the newly unfurling purple leaves of Cotinus cogyggria.  Where, or more to the point, when will it all end?  Possibly quite soon.

It isn’t just the garden that is confused.  On the farm the cattle are still out grazing the fields.  They should be inside by now but with plenty of grass still available in the fields they can be out for a little longer. 

While I am here writing about a bit of wind and rain, the north of England and Scotland, in particular, are bearing the brunt of 100mph gales and heavy snow.  Perhaps we are quite fortunate, after all.  The rain here is only supposed to last a few hours and tomorrow is forecast unbroken sunshine once more.  Which reminds me, I  really must start talking about the lack of rain we have had in recent months.  The little winding river is running lower than it ever has and can be easily walked across in places in just walking boots where the water flows over gravel .  It should look, at this time of year, like the photograph I use on the header to this blog.  Instead it looks like midsummer again with the water, where it flows deeper, still choked with watercress.  Oh well!  I suppose I should be grateful that I am still able to go out and pick it in December – I can make a store of some delicious hot soup to drink when the weather realises it is winter.

All the photographs, except for She-dog in the snow, were taken over the past week or two.  When the frost has been hard the Secret Valley has looked at its best.

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Two Updates……..

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First Update – Ancestors!
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Regular readers of this blog may recall my post about discovering not only my great (and also great-great) grandparents graves but also finding that the church that they had been instrumental in building still there and thriving. Great-great grandpa Wright had also been Deacon at one time.
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To recap, I did not have time to visit the interior of the church and vowed to return. How pleased I was that I did. Members of the congregation were so friendly and welcoming and interested in my connection. It was Harvest Festival, always a joyful time and the service was delightful. How surreal it was to sit there – in a church interior that, miraculously, had remained virtually unaltered since the day it was built in the mid 1800’s, worshipping in the place of my ancestors. Their presence felt very strong and I think they would have approved that I, not a very religious man (although I like to think quite a spiritual and good one) and now the ‘elder’ of the family, had returned. I was so pleased that my first steps inside the building had been to join others in prayer.

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Since then, I have returned once again, this time with a friend, to hear an organ recital. It was a joy to see the church filled with so many people. As a cousin, who works with the poor in Afghanistan, said “God is holding you in the palm of His hand, you never know when He will release you”. By coincidence – or perhaps not – the opening hymn was ‘To God Be The Glory’, a hymn sung a few weeks earlier at the last of my aunt’s funeral. A deeply religious woman, her greatest wish was that I might have the same depth of faith as she. How heartly I sang although I doubt if my aunt would consider me yet saved!
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On my last visit, I also found the house where my grandmother had been raised. Overlooking the River Thames, our great river that runs, 30 miles downstream, through London it was just a few yards from the paper mill that my ancestors owned before the Second World War. All was sold long before I was born – a pity, it would be amazing to live there now!
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Second Update: She-Dog!
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After delays for one reason and another, the precious She-Dog may be in pup. She has met a handsome lurcher of similar colouring – not the original choice but just as dashing – and spent a few days away on extended honeymoon. Fingers crossed, I may finally become a father. Watch this space!
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A New Year

The snow has all but gone from the secret valley, thanks to a sudden thaw, after the temperature rose from -15 centigrade to +6 centigrade. Some still clings to the gullies at the sides of the fields and on the colder banks of the hillside but elsewhere, in its place, is the battered appearance of a landscape after attack.
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Last night, New Year’s Eve, was seen out at our neighbours and good friends 3/4 mile up the road, at the farmhouse that is the centre of our farming life here. Although a cold night it was good to be able to walk there effortlessly (after ploughing our way through snow for several weeks or sliding around in the car). As the chimes of Big Ben in London struck twelve o’clock we all sang ‘Auld Langs Syne’ to the traditional sound of a lone piper – in this case lone because there was only one Scotsman present and he could play the bagpipes. And a couple of hours later I stepped out into the cold, still air to walk back down the hill to home.
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The secret valley at night – and some nights especially so – is a silent and dark place. Never menacing, it is a good time to reflect on times passed and to breathe in the air which seems to take on a different quality to daytime. Walking down the lane, with bands of snow periodically reminding me to watch my feet, I was aware that there were others on the move too. An alarmed rabbit shot across the road in front of me, diving into the hedge, it’s path being highlighted not by moonlight, for there was none, but by the sounds of leaves rustling and twigs breaking beneath it. The fox was far more discreet, the only witness to its passing, its distinctive musky scent.
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Our little river, now thawed out from the frozen state that it had been in gurgled and splashed its way into the distance. It had seemed odd not to be able to hear it when it had its lid of ice and snow for even in the hardest winters past it had not been known to freeze over.
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However, a touch of frost had given a magical dusting to the plants and fruits that had survived the onslaught of our early winter, for snow is rare at this time of year. January and February can be snowy and often we have none at all so who knows what the start of 2011 will bring?
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Approaching home, the reassuring smell of wood smoke drifted from the chimneys towards me. Warmth at last! And, as always, She-dog, our best companion, was there to greet us but not before raising a bleary eye from her bed, as if to say “what are you doing out at this time of day and at your age?”.
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And so to bed tired but with a warm, contented feeling both inside and outside. To live in the secret valley, isolated but surrounded by beauty and good friends, is such a privelege. Who knows what 2011 may bring but if the first days sunrise is to go by, it should be a good one!

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Happy New Year to you all…..
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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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A Roman Villa in the Cotswolds

These days the Cotswolds, with its rolling landscape, dry stone walls and picture postcard villages, give the impression of being sleepy and sparsely populated, basking (or some may say smug) in its glory of being one of the jewels of the British countryside. But this is not so. For it is a working landscape with its people going about their daily business, admittedly often in an unhurried way – for our narrow lanes and lack of motorways limit the speed that one can travel. And often our straightest and, therefore, easiest routes have not been made in recent years but by Roman settlers, attracted to this region some two thousand years ago, for much the same reasons as we are now.
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Ryknild Street, Fosse Way, Akeman Street, Ermin Way – just their very names conjure up images of Roman legions marching long distances through the country – linked their towns and cities with Corinium, now our modern Cirencester, the centre of both their commerce and entertainment (it still has the remains of a Roman ampitheatre that held over 8000 people). And, as time passed, they settled in more remote parts of the Cotswolds too: one such place is the villa built at North Leigh, near Witney. The track that leads you to the remains is as straight as any other Roman road but was used solely by servants and traders, the owners and visitors arriving by a more grand approach no longer visible.

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Now cared for the nation by English Heritage, admission is free and the site is open all year. Strategically placed notice boards explain the layout of the 60+ rooms and of its history but nothing quite prepares you for the sheer size of area which seems at odds with its present day position – somehow, you expect a small cottage sized building. In fact, the first thing I noticed was the irrepressible She-dog who had run on ahead, in order I imagine, to steal the limelight, as usual!
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One of the greatest pleasures of exploring the remains is that they are relatively unknown and so are rarely visited. I explored for over an hour and saw no-one – just perfect! The photos below show the north west range and also the south east range. Beneath the floor of the latter even earlier remains of a hearth were found , dating back to the Iron Age, circa BC100.
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Although the site was known as early as 1783 it was not until the early 1800’s that the ruins were excavated, the first plan published in 1823. Further excavations took place in 1908.
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The remains of the under floor heating can be clearly seen in the photographs below. It is strange how such an ‘advanced’ civilisation could then be plunged into the relatively primitive period of the Dark Ages after the Romans left.
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In amongst the stonework of the walls pieces of tile protrude. No matter how carefully I looked I saw no signs of pottery.
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The’jewel in the crown’ of the villa at North Leigh are the mosaic floors. Several were discovered and lifted, presumably to a museum although I do not know which. However, the floor of the dining room, discovered in 1816, in the south west wing has been preserved in situ and is protected from the elements by a modern building. The mosaics were laid by craftsmen from Corinium in the fashionable geometric style of the time.
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The dining room, again with underfloor heating, had a vaulted roof supported by columns, parts of which can be seen against the back wall of the shelter.
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Who were the people that lived here and why was the villa suddenly deserted in the fifth century when it was so obviously thriving a century earlier? It is probable that they were farming here so perhaps there was a change in climatic conditions or with the water supply. Whatever the reason, it is now the most perfect spot to sit and ponder in total peace and quiet.
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Goodbye Henry, Hello Ernie

There comes a time when old friends go and new ones appear and so it is with Henry. Not that he has met his demise, despite being elderly and a little infirm. He has gone to pastures new.

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Henry, our Irish Draught horse, has had a blissful life here in the Cotswolds after a hectic time in his earlier years on the hunting field. Recently, and with the fine spell of warmth, his days have been spent in glorious semi -retirement basking in the sunshine.
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But even the gentle hacking around the farm with She-dog at his heels has proven too much and so he has spent many weeks resting and generally enjoying life.
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But now it is time to say goodbye and he has returned to his original owners to spend the rest of his days as companion and chaperone to young foals.
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The always sensitive-to-events She-dog seems to know that her companion is leaving never to return. Goodbye, Henry!

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Hello Ernie! Seems quiet enough looking over the stable wall……
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Barney has seen this all before. Once he would have kicked out at any newcomer to his field just to show who was boss. Now he just can’t be bothered – I know the feeling. So he stands there while Ernie circles sniffing and snorting ……
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And then they are off!
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Ernie cannot decide what he wants to look like. He tries the fairground horse look first ……
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….. and then the bucking bronco ……. while Barney looks on bored by all the antics.
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Ernie tries out the rocking horse look ….. finally stopping to try out the local food
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The view’s not too bad either! Home could be a much worse place …..
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Blogging One Year On….

Greetings from the secret valley! Today is a special day for it is exactly one year since my very first post.
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the secret valley
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When I began blogging, it occurred to me that, as what I was writing would be in the ‘public domain’, that someone might read it. However, deep down, I didn’t think that anyone would. It is a constant surprise that it is read and that the number of viewings is in the thousands rather than just half a dozen or so. Thank you so much.
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Like many of you, I write for my own pleasure but, knowing that the words are read, I do make some effort to write coherently and, hopefully, interestingly – not always, I fear, with success. The secret valley is always a source of inspiration and, sitting at my computer, I look out across the fields to the trees and the little, winding river. The photo below is what I see every day and never forget just how lucky I am.
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view of the secret valley from my desk
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And so, one year on, you have followed me through the seasons:
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in the cold

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and as the weather warms
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You have followed me on my travels:
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Grafton Street, Dublin, Ireland

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Lee Bay, Exmoor

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You have met my family:

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The old nags

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and the very special She-dog

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And you have witnessed my gardening:

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my successes….
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….and my failures
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But best of all, through blogging, I have met interesting people from all over the world, from all walks of life and I am all the richer for it.
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and sometimes I still can’t get the spacing right between paragraphs – is it me or is it Blogger?!

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Cooking: Cherries and a Tongue Twister

It has been a good year for cherries. Despite the hard and late frosts, which continued well into May, there has been a bumper crop. And, for some reason, the birds have been kind enough to leave them for us humans to harvest. There is the appearance of something exotic, or even of decadence, in the cherry’s shining, red orbs hanging in profusion. Perhaps because we see it all to rarely.
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One rather plump bird has developed the taste for cherries. Henrietta, the tamest of our Lavender Pekin bantams just can’t get enough of them! Fortunately, the others show no interest and, not being the brightest of creatures, Henrietta hasn’t considered flying into the trees to eat even more.
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Today was a cooking day – I love cooking but have no patience when it comes to following recipes, occasionally with unfortunate consequences. Luckily, today was one of the better days. Having picked the cherries, I had no idea what to do with them, so sat outside in the sunshine stoning them, waiting for inspiration.
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So much juice came from the fruit that it was necessary to strain it off. I thought of jam and other weird and wonderful ingredients to add to them. In the end, I just cooked them gently until their skins were tender, then added sugar and stirred in some mixed spice and some cinnamon. It made a pulp that will go down a treat with vanilla ice cream or with some natural yoghurt for breakfast tomorrow.
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So what to do with the juice? First thought was to throw it away but, apart from the waste, I knew that Rhonda from down…to…earth, would not approve. Her blog is so inspirational, I highly recommend it to all that want to try and live -even just a tad – more simply. Warmed through with sugar, a few chilli flakes (I only wanted it to have a slight kick, not blow my head off) and some vanilla essence, it has become the basis for several potential options. Below it was poured over crushed ice and topped up with chilled tonic water to make a beautifully, refreshing drink for a hot, summers day. The colours were an unexpected and added bonus.
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Next, the tongue twister: Geviklte Kichlach. I have had the great fortune of having a Jewish grandmother – if you have never had one, I suggest you find one that you can adopt. For apart from spoiling their grandchildren rotten, they are the most superb cooks. Geviklte Kichlach, which translates approximately, to ‘twisted little cakes’, Grandma would make for my every visit.
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The recipe is more a pastry one than a cake recipe and it is very simple. I use spelt flour and baking powder as my partner has a wheat intolerance – spelt, despite being a type of wheat, is often ok for people with digestive problems.
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Mix 4 oz butter with 4 oz curd cheese and 6 oz flour (if not using self raising, add two teaspoons of baking powder). Roll out thinly to an oblong and spread with jam. Then sprinkle currants over the top and some ground cinnamon and roll into a sausage shape.
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You can elongate the sausage, if need be, by rolling it with your hands like plastacene. Cut into thinnish slices. Place on an ungreased baking sheet and bake at 190 until golden – about 10 minutes. Once cool, dust with icing sugar (it does need this additional sweetness, so don’t be tempted to leave it out). The undusted, currant free version, sitting on the marble slab is a special treat for She-dog!
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You don’t like it? Well, as Grandma would have said, “You will like mine – now eat!”.
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Please remember, overseas visitors, that the measurements are in British ounces and the oven temperature is in Centigrade.

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