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

In Need of Winter Cheer – and how to get it

With the long, dark nights now upon us (and the gloomy daily news) we could all do with a little cheer to take us forward.  It isn’t too late to take a small step towards obtaining it for there is nothing quite like flowers in the house to lift the mood.  Now is a good time to plant bulbs for indoor flowering.  The choice is surprisingly large and some can have quite exacting growth requirements but the simplest of these – that anyone can succeed with even if they don’t have green fingers – is the sweetly scented, white-flowering Narcissus Paperwhite.

The delicate looking bloom of the Paperwhite Narcissus

Unlike the majority of Narcissus (Daffodils) they do not require a period of complete darkness to encourage them into growth.  In fact, they do not even need to be planted for they will happily flower just anchored in a bowl or pot of gravel that is kept moist.  However, I think they are better planted in potting compost and look far more aesthetically pleasing.  I never bother with special bulb fibre that is sold for the purpose mostly because I tend to have half-open bags of compost kicking around the place that need to be used up.  If you plant the Paperwhites now and bring them straightaway into the house they can be in flower in six to eight weeks.  Those in the photos below were placed in our conservatory and, with the unanticipated warmth from a week of late autumn sunshine which accelerated their growth, have come into flower in just three weeks from planting.  So much for having them in bloom over Christmas!

Note the use of twigs to provide natural looking support

The secret to the planting is to cram as many bulbs as you can into the pot, either in a single or double layer.  If choosing the latter don’t plant directly over one another but stagger them a little so they all have freedom to grow without struggling to push past.  The bulbs in the glazed earthenware pot here were planted in a single layer all touching one another – that way I was able to squeeze in twenty-eight bulbs into a container measuring just twelve inches in diameter. 

Put as many bulbs in the pot as you can squeeze in

Paperwhites have a tendency to flop just when they look their best and the quickest way to prevent this is to push twigs into the compost.  If you do this at the time of planting or very soon after the plants grow strongly through them and look far more natural than when you try to rectify it once they have collapsed.  It is also far less fiddly than using canes and string and looks more natural too.

I have always found hyacinths far more difficult to grow well although I know plenty of people who never seem to have any trouble whatsoever.  They need to be kept in darkness until the flower bud just shows.  I have found them to be rather erratic with their growth and, in the days when I had to provide huge displays for the big country houses I worked for, I grew them in individual, small pots.  By growing more than I really required I could select those of matching height, remove them from their pots and then replant them into the display pots.  They never failed to impress and I never let on how I managed to get such a uniform display!  Far easier are the little grape hyacinths, Muscari, growing here in a glass bowl – an idea I copied after I was given them one year as a gift.

Grape Hyacinths are often sold under the name Muscari

Perhaps one of the loveliest bulbs I have planted in recent years is the miniature iris, Iris ‘Sheila Ann Germaney’ (I have spelt that right!).  Once, again, very easy to grow – just keep them in the dark until they start to grow and then bring them indoors.  After they have finished flowering they can be planted in the garden where they will flower each spring for many more years.

Iris ‘Sheila Ann Germaney’
The Iris’ beautiful markings can be more readily admired when they are indoors

Amaryllis or Hippeastrum are spectacular giants that aren’t to everyone’s taste.  I’m not too keen on them as an individual plant grown on a kitchen window sill although they will bloom there quite happily.  I prefer to use them as cut flowers and for this I tend to grow them in a greenhouse, although a light windowsill would work just as well if you have the space.  They are very straightforward, do not need to be kept in the dark and are often sold complete with pot and compost in gift boxes.  When used as I suggest, several stems placed together in a tall vase look superb.

home-grown Amaryllis used as a cut flower

I have found tulips to be less successful as indoor bulbs although the shorter types should work; I’m just not very keen on those so have never bothered to try.  However, if you have an unheated greenhouse that lies idle through the winter plant the exotic double types there.  Protected from the worst of the cold and rain they flower weeks earlier than normal and can be harvested as exceptionally beautiful cut flowers.

I find tulips for indoors are best grown as flowers for cutting

The secret to indoor bulb growing, as with all forms of gardening, is to experiment and find what works best for you.  Over the years, I have tried all sorts, some surprisingly successful and some, if not quite disasters, they certainly weren’t worth bothering with a second time.  With success, you will have an endless supply of colour and scent for your home and, of course, they make great Christmas and birthday gifts.  This last sentence also gives me the excuse to remind you all that my book Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That?  is still available from Amazon or through booksellers and also makes a great gift!  In it you will find all sorts of hints and shortcuts that I used during my years as a Head Gardener when it was essential that the displays both in the house and the garden were as good as they could be.  Happy bulb planting!

A perfect gift!

Courting Ravens

Before Storm Alex hit us this weekend, bringing with it over a month’s worth of rain in less than 24 hours, the weather had been exceptionally benign.  For several days the skies were clear, the sun shone and there was just enough of a cool breeze to remind you that autumn has arrived and revving up to take us into winter.  In short, it was perfect conditions for walking and, so it seems, also for courting.

The secret valley in the Cotswolds

No, I haven’t committed to a new relationship for I’m quite happy with my old one!  I’m referring to our local pair of ravens, recently joined by several others.  They have taken up residence in the shelter belt of conifers, mixed softwoods and brash that stand sentinel on the ridge.  From there they have a commanding view of the full length of the secret valley.  On my walks, they have been chattering noisily to one another in their croaky, almost primeval sounding voice.

First signs of autumn in the secret valley

Whenever I hear the sound of a raven, I’m transported back to Exmoor for it was there, as a sixteen-year old, that I saw my first one.  In those days (the 1960s) ravens were rarities only found in the remotest and wildest parts of the British Isles, taking refuge there after decades of persecution had exterminated them from kinder landscapes.  I was resting on the heather moorland high above Farley Water, a narrow and very beautiful river valley inhabited only by sheep and the wild Exmoor ponies and red deer.  Watching a black bird flying lazily along the valley far below me it suddenly body rolled and flew on its back for a few yards before righting itself to fly on until out of sight. 

Farley Water, Exmoor National Park in 1968 – not that it’s changed at all since then!

These body rolls, along with a wide range of acrobatic swoops and dives, are indicative of courting displays, usually seen in spring.  I’m sure my lone raven in Farley Water was doing it for pure pleasure, or perhaps it was practicing them just to ensure it got it right in order to impress the gals when they appeared!  Ravens do, in fact, pair for life and can live for ten years in the wild, sometimes as long as fifteen or more.  This longevity, as well as the millennia they have been on Planet Earth, has given rise to many myths and traditions.  Here in the UK, there is a long-held belief that if the ravens that live at the Tower of London should ever leave, both the Crown and Britain will fall to a foreign invader.  They are cared for and protected by the Royal Ravenmaster of the Yeoman Warders.  A much older belief common to the Abrahamic religions is that the raven was the first creature to be released from Noah’s Ark.

Ravens are now very much more common in the UK, having reclaimed much of their former territory and it is estimated that there is now well over 7,000 breeding pairs.  They are also one of the most widespread of bird species being found throughout the Northern Hemisphere.  It has recently been discovered, however, that when ravens colonised America those on the California coast became isolated – probably due to an Ice Age.  As a result, they have evolved into a distinct race genetically, whereas the other US birds are more closely related genetically to the birds of Europe and Asia.

Chris Skaife, Ravenmaster in front of Traitor’s Gate, Tower of London [photo credit: DebashisM]

So how do you recognise a raven from any other black crow?  Well, firstly, it’s size.  It is enormous in comparison.  Secondly, it’s voice which is quite distinctive once you’ve learnt to recognise it.  The raven is, however, a great mimic of other sounds:  twice I have been confused by the sound of a fencepost being knocked into the ground with a heavy mallet and by a small terrier dog yapping from high up in the top of a tall Scot’s Pine tree!  It’s tail, if it should fly overhead, is also another way of telling it apart for it is quite diamond shaped in appearance.  Finally – and not one I have seen mentioned in bird books – the wings make a distinct flapping noise much in the same way as a swan’s does.  Good luck with your raven spotting and don’t be alarmed by all the stories of them being birds of ill omen.  If you see one, it will make your day.

Raven at the Tower of London [photo credit: Drow male]
Depiction of ravens at the Tower of London 1883 [Source: Wikipedia]