Herbs on a Hillside

The secret valley close to where I live is encircled by hills.  The steeper slopes as well as the valley floor, which is subject to regular flooding, have not been ploughed in living memory and, quite probably, not at all.  As a consequence, providing the sheep or cattle haven’t grazed them too heavily, the grass sward is peppered with wild flowers.  In the spring there are cowslips and, as the year advances, orchids and the delicate, nodding flower heads of Quaking Grass can be found.

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over 97% of old flower meadows have been destroyed since 1930

Although the orchids are a joy, the plants that excite me most are the wild, culinary herbs, the scarcest of which is wild thyme, for it grows only on the driest and steepest of the banks.  Thyme can, of course, be readily bought in supermarkets all year round, either dried or fresh, and it is easily grown at home in a pot or window box.  All it requires is sunny spot and a free-draining and not over-rich potting compost to thrive.

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Shakespeare’s wild thyme

Whenever, I see the wild thyme I always think of Shakespeare’s immortal line, I know a bank where the wild thyme grows.  The secret valley is only about twenty-five miles as the crow flies from Stratford-upon-Avon and so there is a rather satisfying sense of connection across the centuries, as well as the miles, whenever the tiny flowerheads peep out from amongst the grass.  In fact, Shakespeare’s words and the secret valley’s meadows were inspiration for an early blog post of mine on creating wild flower meadows way back in 2009!  You’ll find that one by clicking on this link.

Thyme’s cousin, marjoram is nowhere near as diminutive in both its scent or its flowering.  Standing tall on wiry, strong stems it is a magnet for bees and butterflies.  Once again, it is a useful garden plant not just for kitchen use but also good as a front of border edging.  It spreads steadily but is never a nuisance.  In the wild, grasses and other plants prevent it from becoming too dominant but when you discover a good stand of it swaying in a warm, summer breeze the perfume is unforgettable.

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A Ringlet butterfly feeding on Marjoram

One plant that is often overlooked although it is quite tall is Salad Burnet.  Its dark red, tightly buttoned flowers can be used in floral arrangements but it is only the young leaves that are edible.  Used in salads and also added to sauces, they have a mild and slightly bitter cucumber flavour.  Sharp eyes are needed to find it growing amongst tall grasses for its rosette of pinnate leaves hug the ground.  Fortunately, once again, there is no need to forage from the wild for they grow happily in the garden.

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You need to look carefully amongst the taller grasses to spot Salad Burnet

Along the lane that leads out of the valley, and also somewhat surprisingly, growing amongst trees close to our house, chives can be found.  A common kitchen ingredient and native to Britain they have a remarkably widespread range over much of the northern hemisphere, growing across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and North America.  Although they are plentiful, how much easier it is to pick them from a pot close to the kitchen door!

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chives growing through the leaf litter of open woodland

It is one of the pleasures of summer to seek out these wild food plants for it is reassuring to know that, if ever the need arose, they are there to flavour my meals.  However, even under lockdown, there is never a real need to harvest a wild plant; how much better to leave it for the bees and butterflies?

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Marbled White butterflies thrive in old meadows

Victory and a Brighter Future

War, it is often said, is made by old men for younger men to fight and die. Although this is true, as is the realisation that many wars are wars of vanity and/or stupidity, sometimes sadly, they are necessary. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War 2 in Europe, we need to reflect on the suffering it caused to the peoples of all nations. We also need to reflect that just as the First World War wasn’t ‘the war to end all wars’, neither did peace in Europe bring a future of peace throughout the world. It is with immense gratitude to our parents and grandparents that the end of hostilities in 1945 brought an enduring peace to Europe and the West. However, peace is a fragile object to be nurtured and handled with great care and the recent turn of events with Covid-19, Brexit and the tensions arising from the radical changes in USA diplomacy gives considerable rise to concern. We can only hope that our leaders remember how the rhetoric of the 1930s became the reality of the 1940s.

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Like virtually every other family in the land, mine suffered mixed fortunes. My father, the eldest of three boys survived the conflict as did the middle brother. Sadly, the youngest of the three died, not by enemy gunfire but by his own hand in Austria. By the age of 23 he had already seen more pain and suffering (we can assume) than he could endure and the thought of returning to civilian life proved too much. He is buried in a Commonwealth War Grave beside his fallen comrades in Klagenfurt. For his parents it must have been very hard to receive the news when they had believed all three sons had survived the fighting. My grandmother received a telegram reporting quite simply ‘single bullet wound to head when unsound of mind.’

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My father (middle) with his two brothers during WW2

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My father’s youngest brother in happier times

My mother’s family suffered an even worse fate. Her parents, my grandparents, were Polish Jews who had come to England around 1912 and, with my grandmother’s sister who also lived here, were spared the fate of the majority of their kin. To learn that all but three of their extended families had been killed in the Holocaust must have been an unbearable burden to be carried for the remainder of their lives. They never showed their suffering – at least, not to us grandchildren – and they never spoke of Poland or their families again.

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My Polish grandparents never spoke of the enduring pain they both must have suffered

If it is hard to imagine the anxiety our forebears suffered during the conflict. It is, in some ways, even more difficult to imagine the joy, excitement and sense of relief that they must have felt as the news of impending victory circulated, followed by the reality that victory had finally been achieved. No more black-outs, no more uncertainty and, within a few short years, no more rationing. In our family no-one ever discussed such emotions but the retaining of various memorabilia stands as the record of their feelings. The letter from Field-Marshall Alexander and the Service of Thanksgiving booklet that my father kept and the left-over furniture ration tokens of my mother’s perhaps show how their priorities differed for it was always down to the womenfolk to ensure that there was food on the table and a comfortable home to return to.

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The letter foretelling victory from Field-Marshall Alexander, April 1945

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Thanksgiving for Victory in Europe order of church service

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Ration stamps – everything was rationed, even furniture

This week, while acknowledging the pain and hardship of war, there is much to be celebrated on this 75th anniversary. Not only have we as a family and a nation, survived and thrived there is also much that unites the world. The internet has given the ‘ordinary person’ a much greater and louder international voice, mostly for the better. For me, it means I keep in touch with cousins scattered across the world, descendants of the Polish family that hatred had so very nearly completely wiped out. Through my blog and through Facebook I am in conversation with and have ‘met’ people from all walks of life and cultures – something that would have seemed unlikely if not impossible only thirty or so years ago. So, as we move forward from the celebrations, let us all strive for a world where peace, love, respect, kindness, concern and trust remain dominant. Wherever we are today, tomorrow and in the longer future, may we stay safe, stay well and be thankful for the peace of yesterday.

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The start of a new day

Discovering the Five Senses in Lockdown

It sometimes takes a crisis to make us re-evaluate what is of importance in our lives and the present one of Coronavirus/Corvid-19 surely has to be the greatest that we will collectively face. Now, several weeks into lockdown we have all been developing new patterns to our daily regime, one of which may well be taking more exercise. Never before have we placed so much value on fresh air and being able to walk freely whether it be in our parks, gardens or open countryside.

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                           Riverside path, Higginson Park, Marlow (before social distancing).                                 The river is the River Thames in Buckinghamshire

Living where I do in the Cotswolds surrounded by fields and with woodlands and the river close by it is relatively easy for me to enjoy the open space. For others able to take advantage of their enforced free time, it may involve a longer walk and I have certainly noticed an increase in the numbers of walkers and cyclists here in the valley. I have also noticed that for many of them one aspect of their lives hasn’t changed: as they walk their eyes are glued to the screen of their mobiles and headphones are clamped to their ears, seemingly unaware of their surroundings. It has made me think all the more of our five senses and how we use (or should use) each one of them when out exercising.

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Cycling in the Chiltern Hills

SIGHT For those of us blessed with the gift of vision, perhaps sight is the most important sense we use and perhaps the one we most take for granted.  Without it, it is still possible to enjoy one’s surroundings for the other senses become heightened but I doubt if anyone would deny the pleasure of seeing the beauty that surrounds us on our daily walks. Even within cities there is much nature to be enjoyed although I admit that sometimes it has to be sought with more vigour and awareness.

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Look everywhere – self-sown violas peep out from overhead guttering!

At this time of year, more than any other season, there is much to see. Tight leaf buds unfurl into an explosion of vivid green foliage, iridescent wherever sunlight filters through; young ducklings tumbling into the park pond to take their first swim. But it isn’t just the natural world to be seen anew, there are other things too. Although it had been there for more than a hundred and forty years (and I’d walked past it very day for twenty) the date scratched into the stone on this wall had gone unnoticed.

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Who scratched this date into the old stone wall and why?

HEARING Along with sight the second most important sense we use on our daily amble. Apart from the glory of birdsong there are other sounds that bombard us when out walking. The wind flurry that makes the catkins tremble and shed their pollen, the stronger breeze that make the twigs and branches clatter gently against one another. Then there’s the rustle in the undergrowth. Stop and wait silently and with patience you may be rewarded by the sight of a little field mouse going about its daily chores or a rabbit venturing out to feed.

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patience was rewarded when this little field mouse ventured into the open

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… and also this rabbit

The sound of the river alters constantly. The smooth, barely audible glide of the water changes to a tinkling of soft musical sounds, its flow interrupted by a fallen branch. A few yards further downstream they rise to a crescendo as they crash and tumble over the old millrace before returning to silence as the flow stills in the calm of the millpond.

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The old millrace 

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the calm of the millpond

TOUCH   In the present crisis we are sensibly being discouraged from touching things unnecessarily. Out on walks perhaps care may be advisable when opening gates or climbing stiles but, if you do, take a moment to think about what you feel. Heed the cold steel of the metal five-bar gate and the way it slowly warms beneath your hand; feel the rough timbers of a stile worn smooth from much use over the years. Of less concern health-wise – and all the more pleasurable for that – become aware of the softness of new horse chestnut leaves; later in the year they will become as harsh as sandpaper. Run your fingers across the twisted, grooved bark of the sweet chestnut tree and stroke the furry softness of the aptly named ‘Lamb’s Ears’, the favourite garden herbaceous plant Stachys byzantina.

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The deeply grooved bark of the Sweet Chestnut tree

Stachys byzantina  Lamb’s Ears

SMELL   The scent of spring is everywhere at the moment and to be delighted in. However, the sense of smell is also a powerful trigger of long-forgotten memories. In a few weeks’ time the sweet scent of drying hay in the meadows may recall childhood farm holidays but for now there is the unique smell of new-mown lawns. Both start off as freshly cut grass yet their scent is so surprisingly different. Likewise, compare the subtly differing fragrance of apple and cherry blossom, both in their full-blown glory right now.

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The smell of freshly-mown grass…

Without even leaving home, squeeze the leaves of the herbs on the kitchen sill and notice their variation in scent, their colours and textures too. Early morn in the woodland, especially after warm rain, the delicate perfume of bluebells quickly disappears as the sun becomes stronger. Half-close your eyes and glory in their colour, in the silence and in their perfume and leave all cares behind you – if only for a while.

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The vivid greens & blues of an English beechwood in spring

In town, the scents are also there just waiting to be noticed. Rain falling on roads and pavements or scorched by hot sun both produce delightfully tarry smells, one mild, the other strong. In the formal beds of the local park flowering bulbs stand in regimental rows; each have a unique scent which rises in the air to mingle with the vanilla fragrance of wallflowers. The wallflowers, their dull green foliage barely noticeable throughout the winter, now shout out the arrival of spring through the colours of their flowers of brick red, orange and yellow.

Tulips & wallflowers – a favourite park bedding combination

TASTE   In shaded places where the soil stays moist you may be greeted – even before you arrive – by the pungent scent of wild garlic. A prolific carpeter of the woodland floor its leaves and flowers make a useful ingredient to spring salads. Wild garlic or Ramsons to give it it’s country name, is fickle where it will grow. In some places that would seem suitable, not a single plant can be found. A less common member of the onion family to be found in the wild are the chives of our gardens, they grow along road edges and field boundaries locally. It is thought that they were spread by the old drovers of centuries ago so that they could harvest them along the way to liven up a bland meal. There is no doubting its identification, disturb the tubular green leaves and the familiar scent is immediately released.

Ramsons grow in damp, shaded places

It is not only the onion family that can be nibbled en route. Richard Mabey in his book Food for Free, published many years before foraging became a ‘craze’, suggests nibbling on the half-open buds of hawthorn. Many a country child has done so over countless generations and perhaps that is how they got their old name of Bread and Cheese. To me, they only have a slightly nutty taste and texture.

Hawthorn leaf buds are not really worth eating!

As a boy, brought up close to the River Thames, the hollow stems of the common reed were a regular source of pleasure for the soft pithy centre could be drawn out by pulling the stems through clenched teeth. Close to my present home there is also a small reedbed. These tall reeds have something to offer every one of the other senses too: sight – the pleasure of watching petrol-blue damsel-flies sunbathing on the stems; hearing – as they sway and rustle with the slightest breeze; touch – the coarseness of the leaves, a contrast to their smooth stems; smell – those of the river as it seeps around the roots, a heady mix of wet mud and wet greenery.

Only the male of the Beautiful Demoiselle damsel-fly has petrol-blue wings & body

So, within the bounds and restraints of the Covid-19 advice when out on your daily exercise, remove the earphones, place the phone in your pocket and use, really use, every one of your senses. Not only will you notice more, you will wonder how you never managed to notice them before. Stay safe, stay alert and take this unique opportunity to discover a new world on your doorstep.

Finally, one word of warning. Only try tasting wild plants if you are confident they have been identified correctly. If you decide to forage, do so responsibly and only pick a few leaves at a time. Make sure that all plants for consumption are free of pesticides and other contaminants, especially those growing in or near water.

 

 

On The Verge of Extinction?

In the present climate of anxiety and fear that is sweeping the world, and with the daily news being dominated by coronavirus, it is very easy to wish to be spirited away to a remote and sparsely populated desert island. Although it may seem unlikely that such places still exist, Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific is open to immigrants and offering free land upon which to build a house. With its benign climate and a population of just fifty people the dream could become a reality. Sadly, however, from the day when Fletcher Christian, the mutineer of the Bounty landed and populated the uninhabited island in 1790 its history has been one of almost continuous suffering. It is, in part, because of this history of trauma that the island’s immigration scheme has been largely unsuccessful.

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If you fancy living on a Pacific island click on the link at the bottom of this page

The Pitcairns consist of four islands, all of which are home to some unique flora and fauna. Shadowing the story of its human history, some of these endemic species are now also on the brink of extinction. One that has fared even more badly, is the now extinct abutilon that shares its name with the islands, Abutilon pitcairnense, a small shrub. Although lost to the islands in 2005 it is fortunately being conserved and propagated in botanical gardens – the image of the one below can be found in Ireland, in the glasshouses at Glasnevin, Dublin. From these plants, cuttings were transported to Kew Gardens, London and it is hoped that it may be possible to re-establish the plant in its native habitat sometime in the future.

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Abutilon pitcairnense

Although it is not possible for the Pitcairn abutilon to be grown other than under very specialist conditions, other abutilons can be grown quite happily in the UK. Some are reasonably hardy whereas others benefit from the frost protection of a greenhouse; they can even be grown as a large house plant. The closest in appearance, although the flower is nowhere as refined, is the somewhat blousy cultivar ‘Canary Bird’. It is quite floriferous and grows readily from cuttings.

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Abutilon ‘Canary Bird’

A rare plant that can be purchased to grow at home is the ‘Cabbage on a Stick’, Brughamia insignis. Once only found on the Hawaiian islands of Kaua’i and Ni’ihau the last known sighting in the wild was in 2014. A relatively short-lived perennial its sweetly scented flowers require pollination by a hawk-moth now also extinct. Without the moth to fertilise the plant its survival depends upon hand pollination.

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The ‘Cabbage-on-a-Stick’ – Brighamia insignis

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Moving from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, Hibiscus boryanus is a critically endangered shrub in its native Mauritius. With its exotic, scarlet flowers its fate is happier than others for it has been grown widely in warmer climates as a garden shrub up to 8 feet in height. It is one of the parents from which the familiar house plant, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, was bred.

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Hibiscus boryanus

The Botanic Garden of Glasnevin holds many collections of rare and interesting plants, both tender and hardy. They are well worth exploring when paying a visit to Dublin. Apart from numerous glasshouses the grounds are set along the banks of the River Tolka, itself the home to kingfishers and many other birds.

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Glasnevin Botanic Gardens, Dublin, Ireland

If you fancy emigrating to the Pitcairn Islands then take a look at their website by clicking here. There is much fascinating history recorded on the site telling how the islands developed after the Mutiny on the Bounty.

For more information on visiting Glasnevin Botanic Gardens, click on the link here.

A Sudden Escape

Sometimes it is good to plan and sometimes it is good to be spontaneous. I certainly have proved the latter in the past few days by surprising my family when announcing that I thought I would spend a couple of days away in Sidmouth. “When are you thinking of coming down?” my sister had asked. “Now,” was my response, “can you provide a bed?” I arrived a few hours later.

Sidmouth, a small, Regency resort on the south coast of Devon lies about 170 miles to the south-west of the Cotswolds. Devon, along with Somerset and Cornwall, are three English counties collectively known as “The West Country” and a prime tourist destination. A long peninsula reaching out into the Atlantic Ocean, it has many spectacular cliffs and sandy beaches and these, combined with a benign climate, make it the place where many Brits go for their summer holidays. Inland, it is a country of traditional farming, fast-flowing streams and open moorland and remains one of the few areas where it is possible to roam freely without too many restrictions. It is also home to several National Parks and long-distance footpaths.

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Sidmouth came to prominence during the 1800s when in 1819 the Duke of Kent came to stay with his young child, Victoria. During this stay he died yet despite this inauspicious start the small fishing village became a fashionable place to visit. Later, after Victoria ascended the throne, she gifted to the church a memorial window which in recent times has been restored, partly funded by a further gift by our present Queen. Much of old Sidmouth is now a conservation area and buildings along the Esplanade, the seafront road, are classic examples of those built during this time.

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The Esplanade

Like many coastal towns, Sidmouth is at the mercy of winter storms and with no natural sheltered harbour to protect it, when the sea batters the town it suffers, although not as badly as might be expected. However, it is the exposed sandstone cliffs that bare the brunt of these storms. Erosion is a real and constant threat and the red cliffs of Salcombe Hill are constantly crumbling. A number of houses are at serious risk of collapse in the forthcoming years. The cliffs form part of the Jurassic Coast, a World Heritage Site, renowned for its rock formations and fossils.

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Not there for much longer…

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Modern fossils!

Away from the crumbling cliff, there are two beaches. The Town Beach is of pebbles, reinstated after a 1990s storm washed it away. It is now protected by manmade rocky outcrops. At the far end of town is Jacob’s Ladder beach, so-named after the series of zig-zag wooden steps that lead down to it from the clifftop. This beach is a combination of sand and shingle. Both beaches are popular in the summer when the water is warmer; now, in February, the sea looks less inviting.

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Jacob’s Ladder Beach in midsummer

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The Town Beach in February

The mild, coastal climate protects many semi-tender plants which further inland would suffer damage from frosts. Connaught Gardens, a public space that date from the 1820s, are a riot of colour during the summer months and each year a number of private gardens also open to the public under the National Gardens Scheme.  Although these can be lovely, for me the jewel in Sidmouth’s crown is the area of natural parkland known as The Byes. A 2km green corridor that follows the course of the Sid river, it has a good path network, some outstanding trees as well as wildflower meadows. It is a good place to spot wild birds such as kingfishers and dippers. Popular with residents, it seems less well-known to visitors.

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The Connaught Gardens in midsummer

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The Byes

During the first week of August, at the height of the tourist season, the Sidmouth Folk Festival takes place. First held in 1955, it attracts some of the top names in the country. Apart from the listed acts, others sit around the seafront playing and busking, greatly adding to the atmosphere. When it all proves too much, there is always the opportunity to sit on a deckchair and take a nap in the summer sun.

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Fiddling on the beach

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A Rebel in the Family

A photograph came winging through the ether to me via email recently of a rather severe looking lady, taken in her later years. As is often the case when meeting an older person for the first time it is all too easy to forget that they had a past; that they were young once and, perhaps, hold a huge store of memories and tales. Sometimes, the stories they tell surprise you and seem more in keeping with today rather than decades before. It was (as it turned out) the same with this lady – Sophia Bradby.

1890 LANGSTON (BRADBY) Sophia B14

Sophia Langston nee Bradby

I had never seen a photograph of Sophia before although I knew of her existence for she was my great-great grandmother. The only tale I knew was that she came ‘from a good family’, the friend of a great poet and the giver of a ‘middle’ name for succeeding generations. Numerous boys, although for some reason, neither my father or myself (for which I’ve always felt rather cheated), sported the name Bradby immediately before the surname. Now that this unexpected image had landed in my inbox I began to dig a bit deeper.

Sophia was born on Christmas Day 1828 in Theale, Berkshire, the third daughter of William Bradby and Mary Shepherd. William had been born in Derbyshire, his parents of Yorkshire origin. Why or when he came south is unknown but in 1814 he married Mary in Reading. We also know that by then he had changed his surname from Bradley to Bradby. The reason behind the name change is unclear for he remained on friendly terms with other members of the Bradley family. In their day, the Bradleys were well-known nationally and, later, internationally. Perhaps the name change was to give his own, immediate family a degree of anonymity. Whether the family were upset and/or disappointed by his decision is unrecorded but perhaps this is the first sign of a rebellious streak that would continue to run through the family to this day.

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The date on this old image is wrong for he was baptised on 3rd September 1823

 

In 1849 it was Sophia’s turn to rebel. On the 29th May she eloped to London to marry Charles Samuel Langston, a union disapproved of by her family. These days, the journey would take no longer than an hour but in the mid-1800s it would have been quite an undertaking. Her travel may have been by coach and horses although the new Great Western Railway line had opened in the early 1840s so she might have travelled by train. Whichever mode of travel she chose she would have been all too aware that her path crossed both an area that had been notorious for highwaymen and footpads and, in more recent times, the scene of a landslide that had derailed a train, killing ten passengers. Whether Sophia ever met her parents again is unknown.

1849 Langston Charles Samuel L18, Bradby Sophia B14

The marriage of Charles Samuel Langston to Sophia Bradby 1849, St Anne’s, Limehouse, London

 

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St Anne’s, Limehouse, London  (photo Wikipedia/Amanda Slater)

It turned out that Charles, too, had rebelled, leaving his parents’ home in Cranfield, Bedfordshire because of religious differences. Quite what these might have been is unrecorded.  We know from old records that Charles had been baptised into the Church of England and he also married Sophia within the Church of England so there seems to be no conflict there. Whatever the reason, in 1843 he became an Excise Officer and his application papers are held by the National Archive in Kew, London.  At a later date, this side of the family must have been reconciled for Charles’ father died when visiting Sophia in 1865.

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The childhood home of Charles Samuel Langston

Sadly, Charles and Sophia’s marriage turned out to be fairly short-lived for Charles died aged 40 from cancer of the throat. Their 14 years of marriage produced eight known children, my great-grandfather William Bradby Langston was just twelve months old at the time of his father’s death and poor Sophia was some months pregnant with another daughter, Agnes. The photo below shows Sophia – wearing a crinoline – with one of her children, probably Christiana and taken in 1865. By 1871 she had established a drapery business with her eldest son, Ernest in Reading. By 1891 she had been successful enough to retire to the south coast where she died in 1916; the business that she had founded also prospered and became the largest department store in Reading before it finally closed its doors 120 years later.

LANGSTON (BRADBY) Sophia B14, probably Christiana abt 1865

Sophia with (probably) Christiana, 1865

Many thanks to Jo Liddement who, like me, is a great-great grandchild of Sophia. Not only did she send me the two photographs of Sophia which set me on the journey to find out more about the life of our remarkable ancestor, she also became a newly-discovered cousin.

 

Dreaming of a White Christmas – again

When Irving Berlin wrote the now immortal lines, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones we used to know” he was pining for colder weather for he was staying in California (or Arizona, for both states lay claim to the fact). The original version of the song actually began with a complaint about warmer climes: “The sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway…”  How, as a child I could relate to that – well almost.

My childhood home was not in the Cotswold Hills but at the foot of the Chiltern Hills, along the banks of the River Thames which thirty or so odd miles downstream flows through London on its way to the sea. The microclimate of the river meant our village had a much milder climate than the higher villages just a few miles away. Although nowhere near warm enough for oranges and palms to survive we very rarely had any snow at all. The village wasn’t renowned (or so it seemed as a child) for its sunshine either and the grass remained obstinately green all year round. Searching through old photos, I can only find one where our garden had turned wintry white and that was only a heavy frost. The winter of 1963 where we had to push a car through a small snowdrift was such a rare event that it is still talked about some 56 years later.

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When the time came to leave home and buy my own house, I moved to the far side of the Chilterns where snow was more common. Within a couple of months of my arrival, I had to learn to master wintry driving conditions that a Canadian or American driver would barely think twice about. For in the UK an inch or two of snow causes major panic, road closures and travel disruption.

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Fast forward to 2001 and my move to the Cotswolds. Until then, I had to go for my snowy ‘fix’ overseas to Norway, Switzerland, Austria or Canada. Never a great sportsman it seemed rather bizarre that I had hit upon a sport – Langlaufen or cross-country skiing – that not only did I love and turned out to be rather good at but one that I couldn’t practice easily in my home country. However, the Cotswolds are far snowier than anywhere else I have resided and in 2010 I actually manged to ‘live the dream’ by skiing from the back door of my home and along the secret valley.

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Living the dream in Norway

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Snow in the secret valley

So why am I, like poor old Bing Crosby, singing that same old dirge? Is it because snow here rarely falls before Christmas and quite often doesn’t fall at all? The only white Christmas I have photographic record of (and I can’t remember any other) is of 2017 and even then, by Christmas Day nearly all of it had melted.

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Just occasionally, the snow does finally fall deep and crisp and even. When it does, much of Britain hibernates, nervous of venturing out. However, we still have horses and other animals to feed and tend to. And when I’m out in the four-wheel drive I feel rather satisfied that I have mastered the elements, satisfied in a smug way that only the English would understand for those used to snowier climes would wonder what all the fuss is about.

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Driving to the horses

Christmas 2019 is proving to be mild and green yet again. It has been a bizarre year weather-wise for we have had the wettest autumn on record and the fields surrounding our cottage are under water once again where the little winding river has burst its banks. In Australia, bush fires are burning out-of-control under fierce, all-stifling temperatures. Friends in America have already had to cope with exceptional winter weather. Perhaps I should, rather than have a little moan about the lack of a white Christmas, be thankful that I live in a country where extremes of weather are unheard of.  On the other hand (and trying not to sound to whiny), it would be nice if we could have…

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Floods rather than snow for us this year 😦

Wishing you all a very peaceful, safe and happy Christmas – and may the weather be kind to you.  John.

Embellish with Relish

With Christmas not many weeks away and with it, the annual angst of choosing presents for friends and family, I was delighted to come across this inspiring and original recipe book. It combines not just two of my loves – the Lake District and cooking but is also a jolly good read.

Twenty years ago, Mark and Maria Whitehead launched The Hawkshead Relish Company and this beautifully illustrated cookbook comes as a celebration of it being established. Often the best things come out of necessity and the book tells the story of how, with the outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease effectively closing down tourism in the countryside, their café was facing disaster. Lack of customers gave them the time to develop further the small range of home-made chutneys that they produced for the café and to market them to a wider public. Today, their family-run business is thriving, employs local people and exports produce across the world.

As the business expanded, so did the Hawkshead range and as well as chutneys and pickles they have now created such sweet temptations as Raspberry & Vanilla Jam and Salted Caramel Sauce. The recipe chapters are gathered around the key Hawkshead product for as Maria says in her introduction, how often do we have half-opened jars in the back of the store cupboard or fridge that need using up? However, the recipes sound and look so good (for each recipe is accompanied by a photo of the finished item) that they stand in their own right and you will be buying from Hawkshead specifically to try them out.

Although I suppose I should really start with one of the savoury dishes, I am a sucker for a good Bakewell Tart and with raspberries being my favourite fruit this had to be the first recipe to try. The recipe was clear, concise and the result superb for, unlike most, as well as the jam there were chunks of raspberries throughout the mixture.

My second recipe was the Spiced Lamb Flatbreads. Again, straightforward to create and absolutely delicious although I have to admit that the finished result didn’t look quite as professional as the ones in their photograph!

There really isn’t a good reason not to use Hawkshead Relishes in the recipes for their range is available from selected suppliers as well as by mail order (click here for more details). However, I am sure that it is quite possible to adapt the recipes to your own store cupboard, for the cookbook is too good not to have a copy on the shelf. An alternative, of course, is to take a trip up to the Lakes and stock up at the Hawkshead Relish shop which (unsurprisingly!) can be found in the centre of the village of Hawkshead.

The cookbook “Embellish with Relish” is available from good booksellers or direct from The Hawkshead Relish Company. Published by Meze Publishing, ISBN 9781910863497, £16.00.

PLEASE NOTE: all the photographs used in this post are from the cookbook “Embellish with Relish” and are copyright.  they should not be reproduced elsewhere without the relevant permissions.

The Silent Stones of Baltinglass

One and a half hours drive southwest of Dublin and close to the Wicklow and Carlow counties of Ireland lies the small town of Baltinglass. When I visited briefly a week or so ago, the town centre seemed very empty of people which gave it a certain charm as well as the impression that you didn’t come here if in need of excitement. Google searches appear to confirm it – a website that seems to have last been updated in 2013; even the Wicklow tourism website couldn’t find much to say that would bring the hordes flocking. Although these are all reasons why I would rather like it there is also another very good reason to visit Baltinglass and that is the remains of the Cistercian abbey founded in 1148 by the King of Leinster, Dermot Mac Murrough.

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The dramatic entrance to Baltinglass Abbey

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Today, the ruins consist mainly of the church although there would have been dormitories and other domestic buildings for the monks but of these there is no visible trace. The rather fine tower is of much more recent age for another church was built within the ruins in 1815, itself becoming obsolete by the 1880s.

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The ruined tower of the 19th century church set within the much older ruins of the abbey

Many of the capitals of the stone pillars are heavily carved with decorations that are similar to the abbey ruins of Jerpoint 40 miles to the south. However, the finest of the stone carvings can be found mounted in a doorway – the tomb lid of James Grace who died 23rd February 1605, sixty-nine years after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monastery. There are numerous other and later graves within the ruins but none as fine as the Grace memorial, for it continued to be used as a graveyard right up to recent times.

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The intricately carved coffin lid of James Grace

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Detail of the James Grace coffin lid

Entry to the ruins is free and compared to many other historic sites, little visited. Certainly, at the time of my visit, I was the only person exploring them. This gives the perfect opportunity to explore at length and to absorb the abbey’s silent history. Although the site is quite small, there are countless interesting features to be discovered and the equally tranquil River Slaney is just a field away, a place for yet further quiet contemplation.

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On Brooms, Kings & Witches

The pea-like seedpods of the Broom shrub readily identify it as part of the Legume (pea & bean) family of plants. Easily grown in British gardens in colours ranging from cream through yellow to burnt oranges and dark reds, it is now a shrub that is considered rather unfashionable. Despite that, it deserves to be reinstated into the flower border for they take up relatively little space and give a good show in late spring. Generally, a tall, narrow plant up to 3m in height, there are a couple of prostrate varieties (of which the most readily available is Cytisus ‘Lydia’) that are perfect for placing on the edge of a raised bed. When not in flower the whippy, green branches form a quiet backdrop to other plants.

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The Wild Broom, Cytisus scoparius

In the wild, broom can sometimes be seen growing prolifically on motorway embankments and is one of the first shrubs to colonise newly-built ones. The golden-yellow flowers are the same colour as gorse, the two often being mistaken for one another. However, unlike gorse with its prickly stems, broom is spineless and soft to touch. In the photograph below and dating from the early 1970s, broom has quickly colonised the top of a newly dug quarry despite not having been seen growing in the area before. The flowers smell strongly of vanilla; when the seed pods have turned black and are fully ripe, they split open with an audible pop.

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Broom colonising a newly disused quarry

There are two main species of Broom.  If searching for them in garden centres they are often found under their botanical names of Cytisus or Genista.  Centuries ago the Latin name for the shrub was Planta genista and tradition states that this gave rise to the name of the Plantagenet dynasty through Geoffrey V of Anjou’s (born 1113) habit of wearing a sprig of broom flowers in his hat. It was Geoffrey’s son, Henry who in 1154 became Henry II, the first of the Plantagenet kings to rule England.

Henry II Plantagenet

King Henry II of England (Source: Wikipedia)

A source of some confusion is the witches’ broom, a gall, sometimes found growing on birch trees. They have nothing to do with either the shrub broom or with witches and are so called presumably because of their superficial resemblance to the besom brooms that witches are said to fly on. They are actually caused by a variety of different organisms – insect, virus, fungus, bacteria – in the case of birch, usually the cause is fungal. They do not seem to harm the tree.

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Witches’ Brooms

In folk medicine, the flowers of broom have been used as an ointment to treat gout. According to my old herbal it also prevents rabies and is a cure for dropsy, jaundice, worms, kidney and urine problems. It claims it can also kill headlice. In the southern English county of Sussex, it was believed that just by sweeping the floor with flowering broom branches was enough to kill the head of the house not just the lice. Perhaps, therefore, it maybe best just to admire the floral display from the safety of the motor car when driving!