Mad Dogs and Englishman…

…go out in the midday sun, according to the song sung by Noel Coward. But I don’t think it was the noon heat that made She-Dog behave more like a deranged She-Devil, I think it was an extremely herb scented and squelchy bog that got her all worked up. Although she does certainly looks completely mad in this photo!

I had gone to investigate the wetland that is below the fields where we keep the horses. The horses have access to this area too and, like She-Dog, become totally hyper when they have been grazing it. It is necessary to keep your wits, as well as your nerve, when Henry, Barney and Rambo come galloping and bucking and rearing their way up to you after they have spent time in there. The overwhelming scent is of water mint but meadowsweet is also very dominant – perhaps it is one of these that gives them all this burst of energy. If so, I should try eating some too.
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The purpose of the visit was to photograph dragonflies but, needless to say, thanks to She-Dog, it proved virtually impossible. She turned what is usually a peaceful, rarely visited by humans, wildlife haven into a race track. However, I did manage to get this photo of the Common Blue Damselfly, Enallagma cyathigerum. It is found near water everywhere. In fact, it is one of those few species in the animal kingdom that is found virtually throughout the northern hemisphere.

A lurcher and part whippet, She-Dog can run pretty fast but I have never seen her move so rapidly and for as long as this day. Back and forth, round and round – even when we came to the river she couldn’t stop galloping through it. It reminded me of when we had deep snow, the first she had ever seen, earlier this year.
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A fallen tree brough about another burst of energy, just when I thought she had settled down. Ignoring her as she investigated the bridge that it had created, I was surprised and somewhat alarmed to discover her seven foot up in the canopy. Before she could be rescued she took a flying leap to the ground below, landing in a heap, before accelerating into the distance.

She-Dog’s madness meant that very little in the way of wildlife was seen. I had to content myself with being in peaceful surroundings on a warm summer’s day, listening to the brown trout rising for mayfly. I spent some time trying to catch both trout and fly on camera and just about managed to get a trout breaking the surface of the water.

It was only when I returned to the car I was able to get a picture of the elusive mayfly – there was one resting on the door. The vagaries and frustrations of being a wildlfe photographer, I suppose. I think I shall stick to gardening for a living!

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Images at Easter

So the Easter holidays are with us once again: a time of our gardens and countryside bursting with new vigour, the smell of fresh, green growth, gentle, warming breezes and longer daylight hours to enjoy it all.

Primroses and violets are the traditional wild flowers of Easter and our lawn is dotted with dozens of them. We avoid mowing them when in flower, after that we don’t worry yet the numbers increase with every passing year.


The pretty, native Wood Anemone, Anemone nemerosa, blooms in profusion in favoured places – usually in sheltered woodland. Sometimes they are found on banks, perhaps showing where ancient woodland once stood, for Anemone nemerosa is one of the ‘indicator’ plants. Ancient woodland is classified in England as woodland growing prior to 1600 and although a number still stand many were cleared centuries ago.

The Snake’s Head Fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris, is an extremely rare plant in the wild although there are water meadows around Oxford and the Cotswolds where they carpet the ground – a spectacular sight. Fortunately, they grow quite easily in our gardens and the corms are readily available from reputable bulb merchants, who only source them from grown stock. Sadly, there are still occasions when bulbs and corms are marketed from illegally collected wild stock.

They make fine, if somewhat short-lived house plants. We like to have them indoors at Easter and they can afterwards be planted in the garden to bloom again another year. When seen close-up, it is obvious from their markings why one old name that country folk give to them is Chequers.
It is not only flowers at Easter that should be thriving. The wild birds are singing and building their nests and sheltered beneath a large clump of Oat Grass, the wild Mallard duck, lay their eggs each year in our garden. As soon as they hatch, their mother leads them to the safety of the river below the house.

This is the joy of Easter – or it usually is. Not in 2010. The primroses and violets may be blooming but the weather is more of winter than spring with the season up to six weeks behind this year. There is hardly a leaf showing on the trees and bushes of the secret valley and the river has burst its banks with the continuous rain we have had the past few weeks. Any duckling that ventured onto the water would soon be swept away in the torrent our gentle stream has become.

However, She-dog is thoroughly enjoying running through the flood waters – especially where it is shallow enough to admire her reflection!



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Coronation Chicken, Anyone?

According to one tradition, the first Pekins were smuggled out of China and presented to Queen Victoria in 1837, the year of her coronation. Whether this is true or not is immaterial – it just makes for a nice story. The first Pekins (I have read that in the States and Canada the breed is known as Cochins) presented to me were a gift from a friend several years ago and we have been breeding them ever since, concentrating on the more unusual lavender coloured variety.

Pekins are a breed that is only found as bantams – which is fairly unusual in itself – the majority of bantam breeds have a ‘full size’ chicken version as well. Recognised most easily by their feathered feet they are friendly, almost cuddly, as the hens especially are rounded and dumpy, another recognisable feature.

The cockerels, too, are reasonably lacking aggression (some bantam breeds I have kept in the past would attack at every opportunity). They do, however, have their moments, especially at this time of year. I have found that the way to deal with this is to arm yourself with thick gloves and ‘teach’ the cockerel that you are not intimidated. As he attacks, I catch and pin him to the ground, holding him there for a few seconds: he soon learns that he is second in the pecking order to me and the only thing to be hurt is the cockerel’s pride. We have a number of cockerels (too many) and, surprisingly, they show no aggression to each other.

Penned away safely at night, during the daytime we release them when they have the freedom to roam the fields of the secret valley. It is extraordinary the distance they travel in the course of the day as they cross back and forth. With the odd handful of corn to entice them back, I try to keep them reasonably close to the house for safety but, even then, the fox takes them from time to time.

Ramblers dogs are also a threat – it is amazing the number of people that seem to think it is acceptable for their animals to chase livestock when they are in the country. She-dog, our lurcher, a type of dog specifically bred for hunting, had to be taught that chasing certain animals was unacceptable if she wished to remain living on a farm. From the earliest age she was made to sit amongst sheep and also the bantams, which made useful training aids, with the consequence that now she totally ignores them. It didn’t stop her stalking them when a puppy if she thought we wouldn’t notice!

Would I recommend Pekins? Only with reservations. If it’s egg production you want, they are fairly useless although they lay enough for our requirements and the eggs are full of flavour with rich yolks. If it’s meat, then there isn’t much food on a bantam! If it’s just the lovely sight of a group wandering about the open fields, scratching in the hedgerows and dust bathing in the sunshine then yes, they win hands – or even feathered feet – down every time.

Coronation chicken? We don’t eat our bantams but I bet they would taste good and coronation chicken has to be one of my favourite dishes. If you want the recipe you will have to ask……

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Old Man’s Beard

The narrow lane that rises up out of the secret valley beyond our little stone cottage is bordered on one side by Cotswold dry stone walls and, on the other, by remnants of an ancient hedgerow. One of the ways of identifying those that date from the original wildwood is by the number of plant species found in them for ‘modern’ hedgerows (those that have been planted after 1600) contain far fewer varieties. One of the plants that dominate the lane is known as Old Man’s Beard. In the photo below, it is difficult to tell what is snow and what is the, somewhat bedraggled, fluffy white seedhead that gives this wild clematis it’s common name.

Now the snow has gone and the seed heads, not quite as pristine as before, have recovered but still live up to their name. They swamp the lower, trimmed parts of the hedge and it is hard to imagine how the field maples, hawthorn, sloes and other woody plants cope and survive.

Three days ago, the birds began singing once more and claiming their territories so Spring can’t be too far off (I’m being optimistic here as the sun has been shining too). The Old Man’s Beard will, like garden clematis, be amongst the first to send out new shoots and leaves, in the process knocking off the old seedheads. For a short while the hedge has the opportunity to flourish before the clematis flowers appear. Although blooming in their thousands, individually they are quite insignificant and it is the scent that is the more noticeable – not the perfumed scents of roses and honeysuckles but honeyish, delicate yet cloying too, somehow. And the bees, especially the bumblebees can’t get enough of their nectar.

As a young child, I once stayed at a schoolfriend’s grandparents and in their garden was an old chalk quarry, long disused. I would love to revisit it now but have no idea where it was – for years I believed that the village was called Loose Chippings. It was only once I grew up that I realised that this was the sign that council workers had put up after repairing the road outside their house! There must, I assume, have been trees in the pit – and it was certainly overgrown – for the Old Man’s Beard had sent up its long vines high into the tree tops. Where this happens the stems become quite thick, strong and woody and we spent many happy hours there swinging through the trees Tarzan-like. They have also done this outside our cottage, where the hedgerow has grown into treelike proportions, although only once, (when I felt confident no-one would see me), have I swung on them. The exhilaration was the same and proves the thought that men never truly grow up but remain little boys that need to shave.

Virgin’s Bower and Traveller’s Joy are two of the other common names given to Clematis virginica. The first, one assumes, because of its tendencies to drape across other plants: how lovely it would be slumber gently beneath its shade on a warm day, breathing its scent and listening to the bees droning. According to my Herbal, in the past, wayfarers would make tea to soothe away headaches, wrap soaked cloths around their weary feet and treat blisters and saddle sores. No wonder it was called Traveller’s Joy. I love to think that along our little lane, the old drover’s would sit on the grassy roadside banks and rest, perhaps stopping for some ale at the old inn next door to us (and our only neighbour), their sheep and cattle drinking from the secret valley’s meandering river. Did they also think, like me, this place to be so special? I doubt it, somehow.

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Over Excitement

This is She-Dog’s second winter and, although we had some snow during the last one, I don’t remember her being quite so lunatic. Perhaps it is because the snow is so much deeper this time.
. “I’ll pretend to be interested in the river but I’m really hatching a plan….”

“If I stalk Barney he’s bound to chase me”

“Call me old and grumpy but I ain’t going no further or faster than this”

“I’ll go for a gallop on my own then….

….and no-one goes faster than me”

“I seem to have run out of steam”

“Let’s plod back up the path to home”

“Thank goodness, the wood burner’s ablaze”

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What a Difference a Day Makes….

…..Or a night, to be more accurate. We had been spared the snow that had covered most of the UK until now but it has finally arrived – and in force. We went to bed with none of the snow forecast but by dawn, it was another story. Over a foot of snow in just a few, dark hours is not the norm for this part of England, 1983 being the last time I can recall.

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The first thing that greets my eyes upon waking is our beautiful silver birch tree – how different it looks today, with its branches crusted in snow, compared to the photo on my last post (here). No blue sky and gleaming bark, just that flat, leaden cloud, and the colour almost drained from the tree, that warns of worse weather to come.
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The view across the secret valley is also very different from the frosted look of Christmas Day (here). Clearing the car of snow – a task we don’t normally do many times in a winter – is almost a novelty and we are thankful that we have a four wheel drive, for it takes us over an hour to drive to the horses, instead of the usual seven minutes but at least we got there.

The UK has ground to a halt: airports closed, people trapped in their cars overnight, lorries jack-knifed, cars abandoned where they have slid and the councils running out of grit and salt. The latter doesn’t make any difference to the secret valley for the gritters don’t venture down here anyway. It is good to see the horses are safe, warm and well fed and enjoying the sensation of snow under their feet. And like us, they have beautiful views to look at from their barn during quiet moments. I wonder if they are aware how lucky they are! Or ourselves, for that matter – for in Scotland there is a report of a woman leaving home on Christmas Eve to collect the festive turkey and still unable to reach home, the road being blocked by snow. Apparantly, it is the first time in 36 years she and her husband have been apart.


Down by the river, as the carol says, the snow is “crisp and deep and even”. The water is high, almost to the top of the banks and, if we get a sudden thaw, will almost certainlly flood. However, the forecast is for another ten days of this cold spell with more snow at times – the weather is coming from Siberia so temperatures are likely to plummet further. And we do, in theory at least, still have the remnants of the weather systems from America to arrive yet which reach us about six weeks after they wreak havoc in the States.


She-Dog and the Sheepdog

She-Dog has been brought up with sheep for the secret valley has a higher population of sheep to humans, let alone canines. As a puppy she had to learn to be totally trustworthy with them and the other animals that wander about the place.

She-Dog at 10 weeks – smaller than the bantams

She-Dog also learnt that television watching is kept to a minimum, for we are the sort that prefer to be doing things in the great outdoors. Or so we thought. But, she says that, as she isn’t allowed to round up sheep herself, she likes to watch others doing it and where better than from the carpeted comfort of your own sitting room?

She-Dog watching ‘One Man & His Dog’ (Yes, I know that having a television on the floor under a table is odd but we never claimed to be a normal family)

She-Dog also gets bored easily and once bored even the carpet doesn’t feel comfy enough. Better to sneak off and find a fluffy sheeps wool cushion to snuggle up to ……. there’s one upstairs and, hopefully, no-one will notice ……..


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Blowing Your Own Trumpet…..

Regular followers of this blog may have read one I posted in September discussing reasons why I love living in the Cotswold Hills – Three Very Special Cotswold Reasons: Thursday 24th September 2009. This was developed from an idea suggested by The Guardian in conjunction with the English tourist board, enjoyEngland.

To my amazement and delight
, they have selected this blog as just one of ten to feature on their website. The link is http://www.guardian.co.uk/enjoy-england/bloggers-tips

So thank you to all
my readers and especially my regular followers for encouraging me to keep writing. Your feedback is especially welcome.

……..high above the secret valley……..

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At the (Hurly) Burghley Horse Trials

Feeling reckless, I took a day or two off work to visit the Burghley Horse Trials, one of the premier contests in Britain. Not for a rest, for it is exhausting – all that socialising, shopping and concentrating. For the horse world is a small world and amongst the thousands of people that attend there are always dozens that you know, chat to, have a coffee and a sandwich with ……

A walk around the cross country course is always exciting: working out how you would approach the jumps, most of which are huge and difficult, talking with the competitors and admiring the thought and work that goes into creating the course. I should say that my riding skills are nowhere good enough (nor my courage level high enough) to compete but my partner has in the past and jumped into the dreaded “leaf pit”. The photograph of it below hardly does justice to the 4ft drop into the pit – the horse takes off just to the right of the guy, then immediately tackles either one of the two smaller jumps and then gallops off down the course. It is quite nerve wracking to watch, especially if it’s your partner doing it! If I was on my horse, Barney, I would be another 7ft higher still – it makes me feel quite ill just thinking about it!
The water jumps are always a popular place so I visit them before the competition starts. People congregate here, not to see the jump carved to look like a duck, but in the hope of seeing the riders fall and get a good ducking!
A crowd of over 140,000 watch the eighty or so horses compete over four days – the guy with the best view is certainly the television cameraman – I always watch most of it on the giant screens that are strategically placed around the grounds. There is always a place, ‘though, where you can get a clear view of the jumps and, if the crowds get too much, a quiet place under the magnificent sweet chesnut avenues.
Burghley House is a magnificent Elizabethan building built – and virtually unaltered – in the sixteenth century and set in hundreds of acres of parkland. With over 80 major rooms, gardens and the park, it is well worth a visit. Although still privately owned (by the same family since being built) it is open to the public throughout the summer months.

Great excitement! She-Dog has met her husband! The potentially lucky lad may ‘marry’ her around Christmas and, with luck, we will become proud parents in the spring of 2010. Burghley is a good place for romance too – watch this space!

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