Voyage of Discovery – part 2

The Ex-Empress Eugenie (Bonaparte) was so concerned about the men keeping their heads warm that she had made for the sailors of the British Arctic Expedition of 1875 “special woollen wigs” to wear.  Nellie, the ship’s Labrador Retriever, would have preferred the same concern for her welfare.  It was only when Captain Nares, the leader of the Expedition, enquired further that he realised that the “Esquimaux” [sic] chief wanted her as a gift.  Nellie’s black coat had grown thick and luxurious in the freezing temperatures –a jacket made from it would be the most perfect present for his wife.  He assured the captain that the meat wouldn’t go to waste either.  The image below, shows Nellie rescued and safely returned to England the following year. 

Her Majesty’s Ships, HMS Alert and Discovery had left England to rapturous applause.  The Expedition to reach the North Pole had captured the imagination, not just of Queen Victoria and the British people but was causing a sensation world-wide.  The newspapers had explored every detail of the ships from their build to the foodstuffs they would be carrying, their planned route, the sailors, and the most exciting prospect of all: finding a sub-tropical paradise hidden beyond the ice packs.  (To read the story about the ships departure and the build-up leading to it can be read by clicking this link here). The journey would, of course, discover little else other than ice.  Sailing away from port in May 1875 to the sound of cheering and gun salutes the men were in high spirits.  These must have given way to deep trepidation when the two ships parted company from one another to sit out the Arctic winter separately amongst the ice floes.

Sitting out the Arctic winter

The ships had followed the coastline of Greenland northwards before crossing the sea in fine weather to Cape Isabella.  Here the weather changed and they picked their way through floating ice in thick fog.  Reaching Lady Franklin Bay, in the northernmost tip of Arctic Canada on 27th August, the Discovery set anchor for the winter, the Alert continuing its journey for another five days before being unable to progress further.  When the sun finally disappeared below the horizon on October 12th they would be in total darkness for 142 days.  For the sailors, hearing only the sounds of wind and creaking ice, the sense of isolation must have felt all-encompassing.  To make matters worse, the sledging crew that had been dispatched to reach the Discovery to give word of the Alert’s position had returned defeated by the weather.  They had been out on the ice for twenty days, the last two of which they had travelled in total darkness.  Riven with scurvy and affected by frostbite, several of the men needed amputations.  To make matters worse, they reported they had seen no land whatsoever.

Camping overnight on the ice

It would be interesting to know the feelings of sailor John Langston Saggers during this time and whether he was selected to be one of the sledging party.  Saggers – who is my ancestral first cousin – was aged 18 when he joined the Royal Navy and his conduct had been exemplary.  Five years later he would be aboard the Discovery sailing for the Arctic, perhaps chosen for both his military record and because he had served on Victoria’s royal yacht, HMY Osborne, the ship he would return to in later years.  One can only imagine the tales he must have told in his later years of his Arctic adventure.

Extract from the naval Register for John Langston Saggers [Source: Ancestry UK]

Great care had been taken prior to departure over the welfare of the men.  Apart from warm clothing and adequate food provisions, the sailors were given facilities and equipment to keep them amused during the long winter months.  The ships both had theatres for the men to stage plays and they also had equipment to enable them to venture outdoors.  The men of the Discovery built a theatre on the ice with a 60ft x 27ft stage which they named after Alexandra, the Princess of Wales. They opened it on her birthday, 1st December with a farce, ‘My Turn Next.’  They also created a skating rink by pouring melted water over the ice which refroze to form a smooth surface.  The image below shows the skating rink with HMS Discovery locked in the ice in the background.

The sun reappeared on February 29th and plans were immediately put in place for further sledging expeditions.  With over one hundred degrees of frost recorded, one officer was badly affected by the cold.  He was returned to the Alert, his comrades taking turns to lie alongside him in an attempt to maintain his body temperature.  Although he survived the journey, he died soon after his two badly frostbitten feet had been amputated.  A week later, a small party of men led by Lieutenant Rawson reached the Discovery to tell them all was well.  The newspapers on hearing of it, reported with special pride that as the men’s frostbitten noses, cheeks and fingers were being treated Rawson jovially said, “at least the cheers from Southsea beach [on their departure from England] have now been fairly earned.”

Inevitably, there were a number of deaths amongst the sledging parties

In April the sledging parties started in earnest with small groups of men travelling in every direction.  On board the ships only the chaplains, medical officers and the sick remained alongside half a dozen essential crew members.  Exploring further north than any previous expedition, yet separated from one another, the groups remained unaware of the suffering and deaths of one another.  Although unsuccessful in reaching the North Pole they brought home with them detail of the birds and animals that they found along their way.  Of greater importance for future expeditions, they confirmed for the first time that there was “no open sea” or “an ocean teeming with life” or any “Elysian Fields”, only “an icy desert where all life ends.”  Finally, at the end of July 1876, the Alert broke free of the ice to rejoin the Discovery and together they began their battle through the slowly thawing sea on the start of their long journey home.

The sledging parties prepare to leave

The return of HMS Alert and HMS Discovery to England on Thursday 9th November 1876 was greeted with as much excitement as their departure.  Sailing into Portsmouth they were greeted by the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet, the Lord Mayor, cheering crowds and massed bands.  The crew were allowed on shore that evening; the papers reporting proudly that “their behaviour has been excellent.”  The following day, back aboard ship, the men received three weeks’ leave and a month’s advance of pay. Over the following weeks the public continued to arrive in the town to visit the ships and an exhibition of the trip. 

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HMS Alert icebound as well as homeward bound

For the sailors of the Expedition there was still more celebration to come.  In early December the Lord Mayor of London entertained the officers and crews to a banquet at the Mansion House.  The newspapers noted that “all kinds of wines, and pheasants and plover were served, just as if Her Majesty’s Ministers were present.”  The wives and children watched the proceedings from the galleries of the ‘sumptuous” surroundings of the Egyptian Room.  At the end of the evening, the men were presented with gifts of pipes and tobacco.  Queen Victoria also relayed her gratitude to the men, thanking them for their dedication to service, their heroism and commiserating for the loss of life.  She also commanded that “… a medal be granted to all persons of every rank and class who were serving on the Alert and Discovery during the Arctic Expedition of 1875-76…”  For the ordinary seaman and his family, it must have been a sight so beyond their usual experience and one that would never be forgotten.   Records show that Cousin John Langston Saggers received his medal, albeit with an error engraved into the spelling.  Whether it is now in a private collection or still held by a member of his family or has been lost is unknown.

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Mid-day, Thursday, 9th November 1876: HMS Alert & HMS Discovery enter Portsmouth Harbour

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Of special interest to my American readers

Captain Nares of the Alert stopped at Polaris Bay, Canada to hoist the American ensign and fire a gun salute.  He also erected a brass tablet the expedition had brought with them which read, “Sacred to the memory of Captain F C Hall of the U.S. ship Polaris, who sacrificed his life in the advancement of science on Nov, 8th 1871.  This tablet has been erected by the British Arctic Expedition of 1875, who, following in his footsteps, have profited by his experience.”

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Over the years there would be many more attempts to reach the North Pole.  It would not be until 12th  May 1926 that Roald Amundsen scientifically proved that he had succeeded.

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Sources

Ancestry UK

Royal Navy Registers of Seamen’s Services 1848-1939

British Newspaper Archive: The Norwich Mercury, The South London Chronicle, Shetland Times, Fife Herald, The Illustrated London News, Luton Times & Advertiser, The Graphic

British Polar Exploration and Research: A Historical and Medallic Record with Biographies 1818-1999

Wikipedia

Voyage of Discovery – part 1

May 29th 1875, the official birthday of Queen Victoria, was a day of huge national importance. Excitement had increased over many months and now, the anticipation of spectacular success even more assured with the realisation that departure was coinciding with Oak Apple Day, the traditional day of celebrating the Restoration of King Charles II [see footnote i] to the throne.  It seemed that the world had descended on Portsmouth, Britain’s premier Naval town to witness the sailing of Her Majesty’s Ships, the HMS Alert and HMS Discovery for the Arctic, and indeed it had.

The ships making their way through a narrow channel in the ice – the Discovery leading. [Source: BNA]

The interest of the Monarchy in the ships preparation for travel had culminated with a visit from the Ex-Empress Eugenie [Bonaparte] and her son, the Prince Regent on the 22nd.  There they had greeted the men who would be sailing the following Saturday.  Once the Royal party had left, the sailors marched through the town led by bandsmen to Portland Hall, Southsea, where the Mayor entertained them to dinner. The hall, which had hosted the Officers two days earlier had been decorated with models of the ships complete with icebergs and banners.  After dinner, Captain Nares of the Alert, and leader of the expedition, made an appearance to “thunderous applause”, followed by many of the men’s wives who were entertained at a separate table.

The dinner for the Officers given by the Mayor of Portsmouth the week before departure [Source: BNA]

Amongst the diners that day was John Langston Saggers, who for the past few months had been serving on Queen Victoria’s Royal Yacht, the HMY Osborne.  He had joined the Navy five years earlier and his record had been exemplary from the start.  Perhaps of greater importance, he was well within the criteria to be aboard the Arctic Expedition ships: at 5’ 4” (163cm) tall he was five inches below the maximum height and he had the fair complexion common to almost all those on board, a feature noted by newspapers eager to report on every facet of the trip.  Single and aged just 22 years old, he was about to embark on an adventure unlike any other – the quest to reach the North Pole before other competing nations.

Extract from the naval Register for John Langston Saggers [Source: Ancestry UK]

Attempts to reach the Pole in the past had always ended in failure with ships and crew either being lost at sea or unable to find a passage through the ice.  A belief held by many was that, if a way through could be found, the Pole may be the centre of a land with a benign climate where plants and animals flourished and potential minerals could be mined.  After all, they argued, had this not happened before with the discovery of the Americas?  This seems such an extraordinary thought in our now enlightened times that the full text can be read in footnote ii.

Map showing the route taken by the two ships through the northern waters [Source: BNA]

By Friday 28th, the men were on duty and only essential non-crew allowed aboard.  Of particular concern were the “Welch and Boucher’s Portable Lifebouys” – life rafts that had a central sealed food reservoir, the rations being sucked up through flexible feeding tubes.  They were also fitted with lanterns so that, at night, any man overboard could (as they assumed) swim to safety. These and hundreds of other items were carefully checked and tested.  Ex-Empress Eugenie had been especially concerned about the men having adequate warm clothing and had made, for each man, “comfortable, woollen-knitted wigs” for which the Expedition was “indebted.”

Newspapers reported every detail: “Implements and apparatus for the Arctic Expedition” [Source: BNA]

On the 29th, the departure ceremonies started early in the day.  The Royal Standard was raised and the men and officers all wore sprays of oak leaves in their button-holes as an expression of their loyalty.  Every ship in the dockyard was dressed from stern to stern with their signal flags, all fluttering in the gentle north-westerly breeze.  The Alert and the Discovery, ready to depart, differed from the other ships by only hoisting the St George ensign.  Piped aboard, the Lord Admirals of the Fleet carried out their final inspection before shaking hands with each of the Officers.  As they left, Mr George Ward Hunt, First Lord of the Admiralty, turned to acknowledge the crew before saying quite simply, “Good-bye, men” to which they responded with loud and excited cheering.

Plans had been made to keep the crew amused during the long hours of Arctic winter darkness Here they are shown putting on a play aboard the Alert [Source: BNA]

On Southsea Common a long line of field guns and troops from the Royal Engineers, the Royal Artillery and other regiments stood facing seawards.   The massed bands became silent at 11.30 and soon after, the first deafening volley of gun salutes echoed across the water to be answered by volleys from the ships and three other places along the coast.  The ceremony concluded with a march past of the massed troops reported with patriotic zeal, “…the perfection of precision for which British troops are so remarkable.”

[Source: BNA]

On the beach and pier, thousands of well-wishers gathered to see the boats depart.  They had travelled from all over Britain with special trains being laid on for the occasion.  Wives and “sweethearts” of the crew were allowed into the dockyard and crowded onto the piers.  Amongst them, and consoling them, were the wives of Scottish trawlermen who fished close to the Arctic ice; their reassurances belying the dangers and losses that they sometimes endured.  On board, Captain Nares read out a telegram from the Queen: “I earnestly wish you and your gallant companions every success, and I trust that you may safely accomplish the important duty you have so bravely undertaken.”  The Queen also sent aboard two large parcels, one for each ship, with the order that they were only to be opened at sea.  I have yet to discover what they may have held.

The time had come to depart, the Alert being the first to leave, followed by the Discovery. Escorting them were flotillas of ships and smaller craft as well as excursion steamers carrying passengers, all bedecked with flags.  From the thousands of spectators onshore and from those on the small boats came cheer after cheer and shouts of “God speed” to be answered with cheering from the crew of both ships.  The newspapers noted that “…four hundred miles – as far as from London to Edinburgh only – is all that stands between him [Captain Nares] and Arctic immortality.  Every Englishman will devoutly pray that he may secure it, and return safe and sound.”

 I discovered the intriguing story of the Arctic Expedition when researching the life of John Langston Saggers, my ancestral 1st cousin. The outcome of the Arctic Expedition, the fate of the Alert and Discovery, and that of John Langston Saggers will follow shortly in my next post. Edit: This is now published and can be found by clicking this link.

The Queen’s yacht, HMY Osborne; the ship where John Langston Saggers had served prior to the Arctic Expedition [Source: Wikipedia]

Footnote i.  Oak Apple Day, also known as Restoration Day or Royal Oak Day, commemorates the day in 1660 when King Charles II returned from Exile to be restored to the British throne.  He had fled to Europe following the execution of his father, Charles I during the English Civil War.  Why an oak to commemorate the day?  It was said that he alluded capture by hiding in an oak tree. The tradition of wearing oak leaves has mostly died out but there are several villages in England where local ceremonies still take place.

Footnote ii.  “…the flora of Greenland has three hundred flowering plants.  What may not that of the North Pole number?”  “ …within 400 miles of the Pole man, Esquimaux [sic], has been found.  [May not} a race be found uncontaminated by the vices of the known world, and yet with some of its ingenuity?  …May we not find some ‘Arcadian Retreats,’ some ‘Happy Valleys,’ or perhaps the ‘Lost Ten Tribes?…’

Sources

Ancestry UK

Royal Navy Registers of Seamen’s Services 1848-1939

British Newspaper Archive: The Morpeth Herald, The Derby Mercury, The Standard, The Nuneaton Advertiser, The Illustrated London News

Wikipedia

Grandma and The Man Who Never Was

Grandma was full of sayings that either puzzled us as children, made us laugh or made us think “silly, old Grandma” – often it was all three.  One was that you should always go out wearing clean underwear in case you got run over by a bus.  The story below just goes to prove that, as always, Grandma was right, well almost right.

Grandma was full of funny sayings & superstitions

Herbert Fisher (HAL Fisher), husband of Lettice Ilbert – whose own, remarkable story can be read here – was on his way to work during a WW2 blackout.  Warden of New College, Oxford and Chairman of the Conscientious Objectors Tribunal, he was in London for the latter when hit, not by a bus but by a lorry.  He died in hospital several days later on the 18th April 1940.  Little would he have thought, or Grandma for that matter, that his underwear would play a prominent part in the history of defeating Nazism.

HAL Fisher [Source: Ancestry]

About the same time as Fisher’s demise, in south Wales, the mother of Glyndwr Michael also died.  Michael had always lived with her but now homeless, he made his way to London.  It was here, aged 34 and depressed, penniless, and hungry, that he was found two years later in an abandoned warehouse.  He was dying from having eaten rat poison, the bait having been left, smeared on bread.  The phosphorus in the poison when ingested reacts with the naturally acting stomach acids to produce phosphine gas.  The slow death made his body ideal for the purpose that lay ahead.

The British Security Service had been waiting for some time to obtain a body that could be used in an elaborate hoax against the Germans.  Operation Mincemeat, as the top-secret plot became known, intended to release false papers on the body of a drowned officer of the British Army.  The aim was to deceive the German Military Intelligence into believing plans for the invasion of Greece and Sardinia, whereas in reality, the intention was to invade Sicily.  However, it was not felt possible to use the body of a serving officer whilst maintaining the secrecy required.

Major William Martin RM, as Glyndwr Michael’s corpse was to become, was released into the sea off the coast of Spain on the 30th April 1943 for the tide to carry him ashore.  About his person were various personal effects: letters and a photograph from his fiancée, theatre tickets and identity papers.  A briefcase had been attached to him carrying the false invasion plans, all with the purpose of making the Germans believe that he had been drowned at sea whilst delivering documents to a British General.  The ruse worked and the invasion of Sicily was carried out with considerable ease.

False papers of Major William Martin, RM [Source: Wikipedia

Major Martin was buried with full military honours on the island of Huelva, Spain, the deceit engraved into the grave’s headstone.  Over the years that followed rumours spread about the true identity of the body.  In 1996, an amateur historian Roger Morgan, discovered documents in the Public Records Office and it was later confirmed that the body was indeed that of Glyndwr Michael.  Soon after, an additional inscription was added to the headstone:  Glyndwr Michael Served as Major William Martin, RM.  Back in his hometown of Aberbargoed, Wales his name was added to the war memorial along with the name in Welsh by which he had become known – The Man Who Never Was.

Grave of The Man Who Never Was, island of Huelva, Spain [Source: Wikipedia]

Back to Grandma’s warning and HAL Fisher.  One of the problems in maintaining the secrecy of Operation Mincemeat was how to find clothing for Major William Martin.  Army uniform was not a problem to obtain but how could they find undergarments of suitable quality for someone of middle rank yet without risking a breach of security?  HAL Fisher’s New College rooms had been left untouched since his death where items of the required quality could be removed without raising suspicion.  If Grandma had lived long enough to have heard the tale, she would have been even more surprised, that HAL Fisher had married into her grandson’s family.  He may only have been a distant cousin of my father, but I can imagine her kvelling with pride and nodding with satisfaction.  There is no doubt that she would also have given a huge sigh of relief that HAL had heeded her advice.


Sources: Wikipedia, Ancestry, Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Ash to Ashes?

On the farm where we keep our horses there is a venerable, old ash tree. ‘So what?’, you might ask, for around much of Britain ash trees are two-a-penny; in fact, their self-sown seedlings can be quite a nuisance. Well, firstly, this particular ash is very special.

Growing halfway along a scrappy old hedgerow dividing two fields, the ash has seen generations of farmers, farm workers and, perhaps, lovers all sheltering from the sun and the rain. It would seem the obvious place to rest when taking a break from toil in the heat of summer harvest and haymaking. Perfect, when its branches spread widely to cast shade but not when the trunk stands bare, its branches freshly pollarded. Years of pollarding have created a relatively short trunk full of cracks and fissures, the home of bats, owls and the occasional nesting kestrel. Its branches show the characteristic shape of old, abandoned pollards.

Pollarding, the removal of branches, is an ancient country method of producing straight poles. These would be used in many different ways from sheep hurdles and fencing, for building material and posts, to pegs and walking sticks. I have quite a collection of the latter, my favourite being a five-foot ash stave that I cut as a sixteen year old. Over 50 years of continual use it has become as smooth and as polished as if it had been carefully honed.

Willow coppicing. The branches, known as cordwood, stacked ready for transporting

Pollarding is carried out every few years, the time period varying with the timber size requirement and the rate of growth. Contrary to what one might expect from such drastic treatment, pollarded trees have a much greater lifespan than those left unpruned. Or they did have.

Ash Dieback disease, Chalara, was first seen in the UK in early 2012 on trees imported from Europe. A total ban on importing new trees came into force later that year but, by then, the disease had begun to spread. A classic case of ‘too little, too late’ for Chalara had been known on the Continent since the early 1990s. Now it is to be found in many regions of the British Isles. Here, in the Cotswolds, it has been slow to show its face but this year, the effects are noticeable with dead and dying trees standing alongside others that appear not to have been infected.

Stunted & sparse leaf growth on diseased ash trees
A severely infected ash tree with a healthy tree behind

It is thought that probably 90% of all ash trees will succumb to the disease, the loss of such a great number dramatically changing the appearance of the countryside. As a boy I lived in a road that was lined with elm trees. Like the ash, those in our garden my father regularly pollarded and I would be sent up to climb onto the lighter branches to saw them off. No health and safety issues in those days! A favourite old photo of mine is the one below showing my father and I in what now looks an idyllic rural scene. It also shows how old elm trees were once the dominant feature of English lowland landscapes; all gone due to the ravages of Dutch Elm Disease that arrived in the 1970s. It is hoped that by not clear-felling the ash, as they did with the elm, disease resistant trees may be found. If not, once again our treescape will change just as dramatically.

My father & me with elm trees dominating the landscape c.1956

Ash, Fraxinus excelsior, is more often allowed to grow unchecked to its full glory. The pinnate leaves and wide-spreading branches create a light shade under which many of our native flowers thrive. It is also home to bats, birds and numerous insects including six of our rarest beetles and flies. It is especially associated with the scarce Brown Hairstreak butterfly (source: Devon Wildlife Trust) – only time will tell whether this butterflies breeding success will decline even more.

A healthy ash tree in spring

In the spring, before the leaves open, the ash bursts into flower, all too often overlooked. Make a note to take a closer look next spring, for it may be one of the last chances you have before, like the elm, it too fades into history.

Ash flowers in early spring before the leaves open

If you have a favourite ash tree in your own area why not photograph and upload it onto a nature recording website such as iRecord? That way, you will be preserving it forever and help to create an historic record for the future. Perhaps one day there will be disease resistance and ‘your’ tree can be replaced. You can find the link here.

The Chelsea Chop

Despite its name, the Chelsea Chop isn’t the latest trend in hair styling although trimming the unruly and the straggly certainly is involved. It is a very simple and straightforward method of cutting back herbaceous* plants which, for some reason, terrifies even the most confident of gardeners.

Sedums (foreground) growing at Lytes Cary Manor

The only skills required are courage and the knowledge of exactly when to carry out the chop. The latter is simple to calculate and is hinted at by the title of the deed – the week of the Chelsea Flower Show or thereabouts. This year, there have been two hiccups in using this rule: firstly, the show has been moved to autumn because of Covid restrictions and secondly, because spring has been so slow in coming that plants are behind with their growth. As a general rule of thumb, the time for cutting is around the third week of May.

The flat flowerheads of sedum are made up of hundreds of tiny star-like florets

Beloved by bees and butterflies, Sedum – also known as Ice Plants on account of their fleshy, cool-to-the-touch leaves – are the ideal candidate for the chop and one of the most satisfying to do. Inevitably, when left to their own devices, the large, flat flowerheads are too weighty for their stems and they topple over to sprawl across the ground and spoiling an otherwise impressive display.

Sedum, the Ice Plant, frequently collapses & looks ugly just as it flowers

To make the chop all that has to be done is to cut through every growing stem, thereby reducing the plant’s overall height by half to one-third. Clear away the prunings (which can be added to the compost heap) so as not to attract slugs. There, I told you it was simple!

Sedum given the chop. Don’t forget to pick up all the prunings!

Although the method sounds and looks drastic the plants quickly recover and make new growth. The end result will be a plant that doesn’t collapse and doesn’t require staking. Admittedly, the flowerheads will be smaller than before but they produce so many more than they would have done left unpruned that the effect is in no way diminished.

Numerous flowerheads appearing on the now tight growth of Sedum two months after the Chelsea Chop

This simple pruning technique can be used on a number of other plants too in exactly the same way. The taller achillea, phlox, campanula, asters (michaelmas daisies) and rudbeckias are all good candidates. I have heard of its use on echinacea (cone flower), penstemon and helenium but, in my experience, these are trouble-free plants anyway, so why bother? The secret to good, stress-free gardening practice is to find the balance of what suits you and what suits the plant. The Chelsea Chop on sedum in May prevents an awful lot of stress later in the year!

top left – clockwise: achillea, campanula, aster, rudbeckia. They can all be given the Chelsea Chop

*herbaceous – a non-woody plant that dies back and becomes dormant in winter to regrow each spring

In The Footsteps of Clare

The days have been unseasonably dry and the nights exceptionally cold for April but day after day of unbroken sunshine has meant that it has been particularly good to be outdoors.  The warmth tempered by a gentle north-easterly has created perfect walking conditions.    However, as is so often the way, the day I chose to wander along the byways that criss-cross the border of Lincolnshire, one of England’s largest counties, and Rutland, England’s smallest, there was more cloud to be seen than for weeks.

The Ford at Aunby – where the walk begins and ends

My walk began at the ford by the tiny hamlet of Aunby, a few miles north of Stamford.  Stamford has been described as “the most perfect stone town in England” as well as being voted the best place to live.  It certainly is a beautiful place to explore with numerous, fine churches as well as a great Friday market and a wealth of independent shops.  Whereas Stamford has prospered through the centuries, Aunby suffered a dramatic decline: in the fourteenth century there were numerous houses and a church; today, apart from a few cottages, they only show as cropmarks.

A quiet seat in Stanford
Stamford Market before the crowds arrive…

Heading north-west along a grassy bridleway, the path climbs gently until a narrow lane with wide, grassy verges is reached.  One of the many roadside nature reserves in the county, the late spring meant that the only wildflowers to be seen were cowslips which grew in plentiful splendour.  Following this lane uphill  to the elaborate, black and gold entrance gates of Holywell Hall where I turned left, glimpses of the mansion could be seen through the hedgerow that lined the lane. Both the house and grounds are immaculately cared for although I admired most of all the winding path cut through a splendid swathe of dandelions in full bloom.  Considered by many a nuisance ‘weed’ to be sprayed out rather than a wildflower to be kept, dandelions are a great source of early nectar for bees and other insects as well as looking beautiful in their own right.

The entrance to Holywell Hall
Holywell Hall
The dandelion meadow at Holywell Hall

Crossing the county border into Rutland my route immediately turned left onto a forest track to take me up to Holywell Wood and into Pickworth Great Wood.  It was here that I met a local couple exercising their black Labrador dogs, the only people I saw on the whole of my eight-mile walk. They told me that the area was one of the largest woodlands locally as well as being a Site of Special Scientific Interest, designated for its geology as well as its wildlife – a fact confirmed by the NatureSpot website (click here for more information). The woodland path was lined with primroses, the trees just breaking bud and coming into leaf but, sadly, I was too early to hear the nightingales sing. 

Crossing into England’s smallest county
The path through Pickworth Great Wood

Beyond the wood, the path crossed diagonally over unseasonably dry arable land to the village of Pickworth.  It was at this point that I really felt that I was walking in Clare’s footsteps although we can safely assume that he knew most, if not all, of the paths that I would be taking that day.  John Clare, the Peasant Poet, born into poverty and distraught by the destructive changes to the countryside and its people at that time, died in 1864 in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum.  It was at Pickworth where he laboured in the lime kiln which inspired him to write the poem The Ruins of Pickworth (click link here to read).  The lime kiln still stands although it is barely visible through a thicket of blackthorn.

No muddy boots this unseasonably dry Spring
The barely visible lime kiln where the Peasant Poet, John Clare, toiled

 Pickworth, like Aunby, is another village that has almost disappeared.  Thriving in the 1300s, it now has a population of less than a hundred.  The only sign of the old village is the crumbling stone arch of the church and various grassy mounds and ruts in the surrounding fields. The arch stands on private property but with the help of the camera, details of ornate mouldings and leaves could be seen. It is thought that the Battle of Losecote Field in 1470 fought two miles from the village may have been the cause of its depopulation.

All that remains of the old church at Pickworth is the 13th century arch
Pickworth Old Church – detail

Although the association of Pickworth with Clare is important, to visit the Church of All Saints was the main purpose for my walk.  Built in 1822 at the bequest of Joseph Armitage of Wakefield, Yorkshire, it is a rectangular, stone building of plain beauty and fine proportion.  Set high on a bank and surrounded by trees, the interior is simply lime-washed, the only colour a small amount of stained glass above the altar.

The Church of All Saints, Pickworth
The simple interior of All Saints, Pickworth
The understated beauty of the only stained glass at Pickworth, All Saints

From Pickworth, an old drove road, The Drift, leads back towards Aunby by crossing Ryall Heath.  The road, now another old track, offers pleasing views across arable land, hedgerows filled with wildflowers and the sound of skylarks showering you from high with their song. The Drift ends at the junction with the road that takes you directly back to the start of the walk (turn left here).   Although the B4116 can be quite a busy road at times there are wide grass verges to make walking feel safe.  Finally, you reach the ford at Aunby, where this walk began.  Alternatively, a few yards before the ford you can take the lane that leads to Clematis Cottage, where I stayed for the duration of this oh-so-welcome-after-lockdown short break.

Pickworth Drift, the old drover’s road leads across Ryall Heath
Pickworth Drift, an ancient drover’s road

Clematis Cottages at Lodge Farm, Aunby is a small group of buildings converted into delightful, self-catering holiday accommodation.  Richard and Kaye Griffin, friends as well as the owners, live in the farmhouse where they provide every comfort to make a stay enjoyable.  Set in extensive gardens, their aim is to be self-sufficient in vegetables, eggs and honey.  Throughout the gardens there are paths and seating areas – one of my favourites is the summerhouse overlooking the small lake, a haven for wildlife.  Although set on its own and surrounded by fields, Stamford is only six miles away and the internationally renowned Rutland Water, where you can watch rare ospreys nest and fish, ten miles away.  It’s also the perfect base for the nearby Burghley Horse Trials.  To find out more about staying in one of the cottages and their range of home-produced chutneys, preserves and honey click this link here.

A corner of the pretty gardens at Clematis Cottages, Aunby
A winding woodland path in the gardens of Clematis Cottages, Aunby
Deer are frequently seen in the fields adjacent to Clematis Cottages, Aunby

Notes:  the walk is a relatively easy and gentle route mostly along roads and tracks.  In places the paths can be uneven and/or muddy but neither should deter anyone with average health and mobility.  Although there are some inclines none are prolonged or steep.  However, as always, care should be taken and appropriate clothing and footwear worn.  It is approximately eight miles in length so allow a good three hours to complete.

International Women’s Day: Lettice Fisher

Educator, economist, suffragist and founder of the National Council for the Unmarried Mother & Child (later to become known as the charity, Gingerbread).

Lettice Fisher, the eldest daughter of Sir Courtney Peregrine Ilbert came from a political family.  Born 14th June 1875 in London, her father was responsible for the drafting of parliamentary bills and was later to become Clerk to the House of Commons.  Her mother, Jessie, was a daughter of the Reverend Charles Bradley and her great-grandfather, another Reverend Charles Bradley was instrumental in the abolition of slavery.  At the time of Lady Ilbert’s death in 1924, she was described as “one of the most remarkable political women of her time.”  It was to this background of politics and campaigning that the young Lettice grew up.

Lettice Ilbert (image: Wikipedia)

Educated in London and at Somerville College, Oxford, Lettice later returned to Oxford in 1902 to teach history at St Hugh’s College.  Whilst at Oxford she also taught economics to women and became an active suffragist.  For two years from 1916 she was Chair of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.

It was during WW1 that Lettice became involved with the women munition workers of Sheffield.  Disturbed by the increase in wartime illegitimacy, the difficulties and prejudices the women faced, as well as the higher death rates of their babies, she founded in 1918 the National Council for the Unmarried Mother & Child.  Campaigning for the reform of the discriminatory Bastardy Acts and Affiliation Orders Acts, the council gave advice and assistance to single mothers.  Lettice remained in her role as first chair of the council until 1950.  Much later in its history the council merged to become known as the charity, Gingerbread.

Lettice Ilbert married Herbert Albert Laurens Fisher (known as HAL Fisher), her Oxford tutor in early July 1899.  They had one daughter, Mary – later Mary Bennett – who became principal of St Hilda’s College, Oxford.  After HAL’s untimely death in 1940, Lettice moved from Oxford to Thursley, Surrey where she died from heart failure in 1956.  Her ashes are interred at New College, Oxford where HAL had been warden for many years until the time of his death.

The theme of this year’s United Nations International Women’s Day is “Women in leadership: achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world.”  I’m not qualified to write about current matters but I am quite certain that Lettice Fisher embraced the qualities that are still needed today.  One hundred years ago, Lettice Fisher found that the terrible aftermaths of World War and the ‘flu epidemic which caused even greater deaths and hardship, only hardened her resolve to tackle women’s rights, prejudice and injustice.  Sadly, in many places in the world, these issues are still very much outstanding.

Why my interest in Lettice Fisher?  Lettice Fisher (nee Ilbert) is an ancestral cousin through our mutual descent of the Bradley family.

Coppicing Hazel – the how, the why, the where

Lamb’s Tails (as country children call them), the pale-yellow catkins of the hazel, are a familiar sight at this time of year.  A traditional component of our hedgerows, they are perhaps seen in more glory when growing unchecked along roadside verges where they can achieve a much greater height.  There, up to 15 metres tall in favoured conditions, the soft golden shimmer of hundreds of catkins really is one of the earliest harbingers of spring.

Lamb’s tails: their pollen is released by the wind

Catkins begin to form early in the winter, small, stubby and dull in colour where they wait until, quite suddenly, they are as we see them now.  The transition always goes unnoticed.  Even less noticed are the female flowers – for catkins are male.  Whereas the majority of plants are self-fertile, Hazel, Corylus avellana, is one of a number that carry both male and female flowers.  Wind-pollinated, the breeze carries the pollen from the male to the female to fertilise.  However, the pollen has to reach a different plant for it to be successful.  The tiny, female flowers can be discovered by careful searching along the branches a few days after the catkins have fully formed.

The short, stubby embryo catkins form in early winter
The minute, female flowers take a bit of finding…

For gardeners, hazel is one of the most traditional and useful of plants and it is worth growing one or two in an odd corner if you have the room.  There they will quickly create a multi-stemmed shrub.  Visually, as a garden plant, when left to its own devices, it is of limited value (wildlife love it, of course).  However, by coppicing the plant there will be a regular supply of poles for runner beans to climb and the twiggy top-growth is the perfect support for garden peas, mange-tout and the headily-scented sweet peas.  They are also useful for supporting taller herbaceous plants, saving them from collapse and look so much more attractive than canes and string or wire netting.  It’s far quicker to do, too!

A good crop of runner bean poles

So, what is coppicing and how do you do it?  Well, for a start, it’s a dead easy and very uncomplicated form of pruning!  All that has to be done is to cut with secateurs or garden loppers the stems to a few inches above ground level during the winter.  If you do this over three years by removing only a third of the stems each year you will have stems of varying heights and diameters without losing any screening effect.  Although coppicing may seem a drastic form of pruning they quickly regrow and it also prolongs the life of the plant considerably. 

Coppiced hazel can make a good summer screen in the garden

Many years ago, coppicing of hazel (and, sometimes, ash and field maple too) was standard practice in many of our woodlands.  These days it is still carried out as a conservation tool to encourage the breeding of our now endangered dormouse and other wildlife.  Hazel is the food plant of many moths and the autumn supply of nuts are great favourites with jays, squirrels and wood mice – and, of course, humans. In the photo below of long-neglected woodland, the hazel is naturally regenerating as coppice as the old and heavy branches collapse onto the forest floor.

Neglected storm-damaged hazel naturally regenerating as coppice

Hazel can be useful, along with willow, to create living structures such as pergolas, arches, fencing and tunnels.  They all involve regular pruning in much the same way as coppicing although in most instances the number of upright growths is reduced to one or two.  The prunings make excellent kindling for wood burners and, if you’re feeling really creative, rustic furniture.  Why not have a go?  From just one native species we can have fun projects that are ideal for people of all ages.  It can be used as an educational tool too: nature study and conservation, rural history and artistry make it the perfect resource for lockdown and home learning.

This living hazel tunnel makes a fine garden feature and is also good for wildlife
An imaginative and practical way of using hazel branches

The Irish Castle Dedicated to Isis

The children’s bikes in the entrance porch casually propped against four aged-stone saintly figures tells you in an instant that a visit to Huntington Castle [see footnote] is likely to be memorable.  They also act as a reminder that this historic, four-hundred-year-old castle near Clonegal, Ireland is also very much a present-day family home.

Huntington Castle, Co. Carlow, Ireland

Built in 1625, it held a strategic position on the trade route between Dublin and Wexford but fell to the invading (English) Cromwellian army in 1650.  By the time of its capture much of the garden as seen today had been laid out.  

The oldest part of the castle viewed from the gardens
the gardens have a timeless feel about them…

As might be expected of a grand country house, the castle has its fair share of richly decorated rooms and it is possible to visit these during the summer months subject to any Covid-19 restrictions that may be in force, of course.  However, it is the basement cellars of the castle that hold the biggest surprise for it is here that you will find the Temple of Isis.  The Fellowship of Isis, founded in 1976 by members of the family was, in 1993, recognised as a world faith, the first time that the Goddess had been internationally acknowledged.   I have always considered myself to be open to alternative beliefs and cultures but, to be honest, I found the Temple and its purpose difficult to understand or appreciate.  For me, the decor and artefacts were too theatrical, almost farcical.   I half-expected Angela Lansbury’s Mrs Salome Otterbourne from the film Death on the Nile to appear from behind one of the wall hangings.  However, I am obviously wrong as there is a worldwide following of over 24,000 in a hundred countries or more.

The Temple of Isis, Huntington Castle

My real appreciation of Huntington Castle came from exploring the grounds which are quite beautiful.  For the photographer, opportunities abound for around every corner there is a vista or ancient building vying for the title of most picturesque.  The castle itself is better appreciated from the outside too, for there are numerous ‘odd’ windows and contrasts of building materials tucked away and waiting to be noticed – the result of centuries of alterations and extensions.

a mish-mash of building materials and styles gives the castle added charm
around every corner a photo opportunity!

I came away from Huntington Castle somewhat confused.  In some ways, I felt a little let down by it, in others quite uplifted.  Would I visit again?  Most definitely.  For it is its quirkiness, eccentricity, ancient trees and moss-encrusted stones that leave you slightly unsettled making the visit all the more worthwhile.

ancient tree-lined walks

For more information on visiting or even staying at Huntington Castle visit https://www.huntingtoncastle.com/

To discover more about the Fellowship of Isis follow this link by visiting
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fellowship_of_Isis

[Note: Rather confusingly Huntington Castle is also called Clonegal Castle – sometimes even in the same article or website!]

The Boy from London

I am a hills person.  I love walking – or even better – cross-country skiing in the mountains. I can also admire the huge skies and vistas of flat country.  However, it is with hills that I have always strongly identified with.  So, when I’m asked “where was home for you?” it isn’t the county of Buckinghamshire, or even the village I was brought up in that I respond with, it is the hills and the Chiltern Hills in particular.

A country lane in the Chiltern Hills winds its way through dense woodland

As a child, I lived on the very edge of the village and not being schooled locally and with no children of my own age nearby anyway, I learnt to spend many hours on my own during the lengthy holidays. Although our house was close to the River Thames I found fishing of limited interest preferring always to be out walking or cycling.  As I grew older I travelled further afield exploring the lanes, fields and woodlands, learning all the time about the ways of nature.  Back in the fifties and early sixties people seemed to have more time to answer inquisitive children about these things or, perhaps, it was just that in those days people were more connected with the natural world so were able to answer their questions.  Whatever the reason, I became more knowledgeable and enthusiastic about country ways than I ever did with schoolwork.  A consequence of this is, when asked the question, “where are you from?” I respond without hesitation (and with a certain degree of pride), “I’m a Chilterns man.”

A childhood spent exploring the fields and woodlands that surrounded home

It was not until I reached the ripe old age of 49 that I moved away from the Chilterns to start a new life in the Cotswolds.  Although as the crow flies, the Cotswolds are not many miles away (I can even see the distant Chilterns from the top of my lane) they are very different in character, the former being chalk and flint country, the latter limestone.  But it wasn’t the exchange of deep, wooded valleys with few, if any, streams for a landscape of far-reaching views, fast-running brooks and drystone walls that I noticed most of all, it was the language.  When I moved to this then unfashionable part of the Cotswolds twenty years ago it was still a forgotten corner of the world where, even if the local dialect had mostly died out, the twang of local accent hadn’t.  It reminded me of, for it is related to, the south-western tongue spoken by many of my country cousins and also by my friends further west still.   So, when I gave my usual response to the question, I was rather peeved to hear it acknowledged by the words, “so you come from London way, then.” 

A Chilterns cottage built using the local flint
Cotswold cottages look very different and are made with local limestone

Now, I hasten to say, that there is nothing wrong about being referred to as a Londoner.  It’s just that our capital city is as much a foreign land to me as it would be to an overseas visitor.  Ok, so that might be a slight exaggeration, but somehow, I just don’t relate to city life despite my mother being born and raised in London’s West End.  She had come to the Chilterns as an evacuee from WW2 through her war work and there met my father, a local boy – but that’s another story.  Suffice to say, that I am a child of two halves – I have country family and I have city family much in the same way as I am a child of two cultures and two religions.  Despite my relating to country ways and to complicate matters further, (although I should be used to it by now), it is to my mother’s culture and religion that I feel a closer affinity to.  It still grates, ‘though, when I’m thought of as a townie.

City girl sophistication meets country gent: my parents soon after marriage

As I mentioned earlier, school life didn’t hold much appeal and so I persuaded my parents that I should leave aged sixteen.  As soon as I could, I took myself off on my bicycle to holiday in Devon.  Leaving Exeter with tent, camping gas stove and billy cans loosely tied to the crossbar I clanked and clattered my way along the lanes of Dartmoor.   At the end of each day I would pitch my tent wherever I could and reflect with delight upon all the new experiences that had come my way.  Getting hopelessly lost, I ended up at Westward Ho!, a small seaside town on on the north Devon coast.  From there I travelled east finding the hills becoming ever steeper and the villages further and further apart.  One day, I ended up on a remote farm on Exmoor where I decided I would spend two days to recuperate before heading for home.  It didn’t happen. 

The 16 year old hits the road!
Remote hill farm, Brendon Barton where I intended to stay for only two days

Looking back, I can’t imagine what my poor parents were thinking for there were no mobile phones or credit card statements for them to track my progress or whereabouts.  I would telephone them occasionally or send a postcard always being deliberately vague as to where I was staying.  In the meantime, I remained at the farm working – at first for food then, as I became more established and with the tent discarded, for a bedroom and beer money.  By the time my parents turned up at the door several months later (after some shrewd detective work) I had settled into my new life and rapidly adopting the ways of the hard but exhilarating Exmoor life.  Dragged back home to “get a proper job” I never completely left Exmoor behind.  Every spare moment was spent on the farm and, as regular readers of my blog will know, I still spend as much time on Exmoor as possible.  Being a National Park, the landscape and buildings of Exmoor haven’t changed very much over the 50+ years since I turned up on Lorna and Dick French’s doorstep although they have, as have most of the others I knew in those early days, since died.  To my dismay, there is one other thing that hasn’t changed at all: when I respond proudly to the inevitable question with “I’m a Chilterns man”, their response remains the same: “So up-country then?  London?”  Over the years, the ‘boy from London’ has become ‘the man from London.’    And I’m sorry, Londoners, Mum and cousins – I don’t like the label!

Dick & Lorna French who welcomed me into their lives and in the process changed mine