Turf Burning

For gardeners, peat is a well-known, although less used than before, mainstay of seed and potting composts.  It’s ability to absorb large quantities of moisture and to retain nutrients plus being very light when dry, thereby reducing transportation costs, made it the perfect growing medium.  In recent times, the environmental impact of industrial scale peat extraction has given rise to concern leading to the development of alternative composts becoming available.

Exmoor’s rolling moorland: a wild, windswept and boggy place

In the areas where peat is found – mostly in the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere – it was also a common fuel source and is still used for this purpose today.  On a non-commercial scale peat for burning is also in decline as the hand digging of the bogs, the drying out process and the carting all takes time for very little financial gain.  The days of the ‘turf cutter’ being paid sixpence a load have long passed.

Turf cutting creates deep trenches across the bogs

On Exmoor, in England’s West Country, peat is always referred to as ‘turf’, a dialect word, that means something very different from the velvety, green sward of gardeners.  Turf was still being cut there into the 1970’s and was one of the very first tasks I was given when arriving as a lad to work on a remote hill farm.  It was back breaking labour turning the individually cut pieces over and over to allow the wind to dry them before stacking them in heaps which later would be carried back to the farm to supply the fires that were needed all year for both heating and cooking.

 Cut turf in Ireland’s Connemara

Despite the backache, it was an enjoyable time being up on the moors all day with just the sound of the wind and the curlews mournful cry for company.  The native Exmoor ponies and the wild Red Deer all would appear from time to time for you became part of the moorland scenery too. Returning to the farm tired after a hard day’s work to be greeted by the sweetly fragrant smoke from the turf fires within was reassurance enough that it was all worthwhile.


 

Curlew and Red Deer on Exmoor

 

Last summer a visit to Connemara, on the west coast of Ireland, brought back all these memories for there turf burning is still commonplace.  There were the rows of turf lying on the ground waiting to be wind-dried, there were the stacks of turf waiting to be carted.  And, best of all, there was the heady smell of dozens of peat fires wafting over the landscape. 

Connemara turf stacked ready for carting – cut to a very different shape to Exmoor

Recently, on Exmoor, it has been realised that turf cutting kept the bogs ‘open’ providing a valuable wildlife resource and although not reinstating the practice the National Park has instigated the Exmoor Mire Restoration Project. This has involved blocking old drainage systems and re-wetting over 300 hectares; the project is on-going.  Visit there website by clicking here to find out more.

The trenches fill with water creating a very special and rare wildlife habitat


Exmoor is still as beautiful as ever and my love for it never diminishes but, without the scent of the turf fires, there is that little ‘something’ missing.  However hope may be around the corner: the entrepreneurial Irish are selling peat incense blocks by mail order so that you can have the scent anywhere.  I may even take a few blocks and light them on Exmoor for old times’ sake.

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The Constant Drip

When I was a small child I was traumatised by the sound of water, even a dripping tap would trigger nightmares of drowning.  This was not because my life had ever been at risk, although it could be argued that my afterlife was: it was down to baptism by total immersion.  My soul might have been saved by water but it was years before water became something that I would delight in, rather a problem for a lad that was brought up on the banks of the Thames, that great English river that flows sluggishly from its source to London and the North Sea beyond, a distance of 215 miles.

                                        
                                                   The River Thames at Marlow

It was not until, as a young teenager visiting the West Country, I came across clear, rocky bottomed streams that were so unlike the silty bottomed, muddy waters of the Thames and the smaller brooks back home.  At first the sight and the sound of their fast flow rather unnerved me but there was a swift and dramatic change once I discovered the joys of splashing about, ‘tickling’ for trout and generally getting soaked. Not only could I not get enough of them, I ended up living beside one here in the secret valley.  Our river, to be truthful, is a compromise: it likes to believe it is of world class comparable with the Amazon or the Zambezi as it winds through the landscape in great (or in reality, miniature) curves and sweeps.  Sometimes it is slow moving half hidden by lush foliage that spills over its banks but in other places it is as fast running and noisy as a Devon stream as it gurgle and clinks its way over rock and pebble.
Our little river in the secret valley

                                        

    In winter, our river doesn’t look quite so inviting!

Recently I was staying high in the mountains of Snowdonia.  The house that we were in had to its right, a larger river crashing noisily downwards and, to its left, a much smaller gully with an equally fast flow.  ‘Our’ house, which inreality belongs to a friend, is not exactly standing on an island; more it is the solid filling of a watery sandwich. The main river, the term is used loosely for it is even more jumpable over than the one back in the secret valley, tumbles down the mountainside in a series of rocky chasms interspersed with quieter small pools.

One of the nicest aspects of returning to a place time after time is that certain things become so familiar, whether it is buildings or the wider scenery does not matter.  This is good for once you stop looking at the overall picture, the detail becomes more noticeable and things that would be overlooked if you only ever visited once begin to stand out.  Here there is little in the way of buildings, apart from the numerous ruins that stand as ghosts to a time when the hills were more densely populated with miners and farm workers.  On my morning walk and musing on how terrified I had once been by the sound of water, I began to notice the change in pitch and volume which alters constantly as you pass by.  Where the water falls several feet, not surprisingly the noise is at its greatest but, even there, it can be a deep sound or a lighter one, depending on the rate of flow and whether it lands on rock, water or pebble.

Then there are the waterslides: these can be steep or barely inclined, narrow or wide, fast or slow flowing.  Whichever they are, for me they are the most visually exciting of all with their water moving effortlessly, literally sliding along the surface and their ‘shushing’ sound building up to a more dramatic crescendo as the rock bed alters in character once more.

       A massive waterslide on Exmoor …..

                                                            ….. and a smaller one in Snowdonia

And then, of course, there is the sound that once traumatised me but that I now find the most fascinating of all, perhaps because they entice you to explore: they draw you further into their world, often a secret one.  The sound of dripping.  Sometimes it is obvious where it is coming from and where it is landing but often it is a sound that demands you to seek it out and then, not infrequently, only one half of the equation can be solved, if you can find the source you cannot find the landing place or vice versa.

Higher up the mountain is an old disused slate mine, long abandoned and with its shaft open for all to explore. Little natural light enters the low tunnel entrance and unable to see far inside there is only the sound of water seeping through the roof landing in the shallow water that collects in the passage below.  Here the sounds are as varied as those of a xylophone, the music made being both enchanting and unnerving; it is both welcoming and threatening at the same time. 

Not a place for the faint-hearted!

I may have got over my old phobia of scary water sounds but, I have to admit there is still one place that makes me shudder.  Just up the track beyond the mine there is a patch of grass and moss that has to be crossed and here, if you pause, you can hear the sound of fast moving water and the crash of a waterfall but there are none in sight.  The sound comes from below ground under your feet – childhood anxieties rise if I loiter here and as I continue my walk I notice, with wry amusement, that it is at an increased pace.

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First Build Your Bank ….

Some time ago I was asked if I could plant a hedge.  Straightforward enough, I thought and as it was to be a native hedge, I was especially keen to do it.  Using only native species is always a pleasure for not only are you maintaining a tradition that is centuries old, it is also excellent cover for twentyfirst century birds and animals.

It was only when I went to visit the site that it was mentioned that it would be rather nice if the hedge could be planted on top of a bank, reminiscent of those that are found in the West Country counties of Devon and Cornwall.

West Country banks use large amounts of stone in their construction and were built to protect livestock from the gales and snowstorms that sweep in from the Atlantic.  Over time they become encrusted in lichens and mosses with ferns, primroses and other wild flowers sprouting from every crevice.  They are usually topped with a beech hedge or, sometimes, gorse (or furze, as they call it on Exmoor).

The bank that I had to build was to be similar but faced with turf which would not be as strong. As it was to divide two halves of a garden and (hopefully) not have to keep out determined sheep or cattle, this didn’t matter.  The thing that did matter was that I had to build it in a way that would prevent it from falling down …..

I’ve always found that if you want to create an impression bring in a digger.  There is a morbid fascination in watching a digger at work for the destruction can be immediate and swift.  It certainly would have been if I had been in charge of the controls but, as is so often the case, when you need an expert it is better to bring one in.  I know where I am when it comes to shovels and forks and trowels but it is best not to let me loose with all those knobs and levers.

The ground cleared we were then able to lay out and start building the bank.  We imported the rubble and clod for the base which after being well rammed and compacted could then have a top layer of better quality topsoil spread over the surface.  All was held in place by large mesh chicken wire netting.

Next came the turf and this was laid direct onto the netting and held in place with hazel twig ‘pegs’.  These would gradually rot but not before the turf had grown its roots through the wire.   The netting, too would quite quickly rot (we didn’t use galvanised for we didn’t want it to last for years) and, by then and fingers crossed, the bank would be quite stable and self supporting.

It was with some trepidation when, a few weeks later we cut the top of the turf and the wire out so that we were able to prepare the bank for planting the hedgerow; especially so as we had had some torrential downpours giving me anxious moments about landslips and mudslides.  All, fortunately was well.

Having plants delivered, I find, is always an exciting moment.  It reminds me of when, as a child, I waited for Christmas morning and couldn’t wait any longer to open my presents.  Despite knowing what is coming out of the van, each plant or variety is met with little gasps of delight.   The thrill of knowing that, with luck, they will thrive and continue to grow for many years and may even be there long after I’ve been buried and forgotten is great.

The hedgerow was not the easiest thing to plant but the end result was pleasing.  The final combination was Hawthorn, Field Maple, Wayfaring Tree, Hazel, Dog Rose, Spindle and Hornbeam  with an occasional Honeysuckle to fill the evening air with perfume.  The birds took to it straight away and, in my imagination at least, mice and voles shelter amongst the trunks hiding from mirauding stoats and weasels.  Best of all is the knowledge that, a few years on, the bank is still standing!

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Modern Stained Glass at Glasnevin

Plans are afoot to visit Dublin in Ireland once again this Spring. I went last April and the weather was glorious – it is a nice thought anticipating some spring warmth. The highlight then was the day spent at Glasnevin, the city’s botanic gardens.
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Like many events in life, it is often the unexpected that remain at the forefront of the mind and so it was at Glasnevin. The glasshouses and plants were, without saying, spectacular but a complete surprise was a small exhibition of modern stained glass work.
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This first piece of five panels is the work of Mary Mackey, based in County Cork. I love the colours and mix – to me it is a blend found in mountains in the fall (odd how, for an Englishman, ‘mountains in the autumn’, doesn’t sound as expressive or as romantic!). However, much of Mary’s work is inspired by the sea and this particular piece is titled ‘Sea-shushed Secret Places’. Painted and sandblasted, the strong colours used still have a swirling, dream like quality about them. Perhaps it is the light coming through the piece that allows this contradiction. Mary, in her own description of her work, tells of how she sees a flash of landscape: “…. fleeting images in real time, but in my memory the image is sharply focused, connected witha particular place, a particular time…..stored and enriched by treasuring it…..until at least something of that essence is achieved“.
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Debbie Dawson’s tryptich is totally different. Bold, square panels, they convey great strength and depth. Also based in County Cork, Debbie’s work is entitled ‘Like a Door Opening’.
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I also loved the strength of Emma O’Toole’sArchitectural Element’. Made from sheet glass, cast glass and concrete, it was unique at this exibition, with the feel and look of a sculpture. It brought back happy memories of a winter in Canada, years ago, exploring an ice ‘castle’, each battlement carved with its individual decoration of a native animal. Coming from relatively mild England, I had never seen anything like it before – it was a surreal experience. And that is the joy of art, it can transport you to places or events long forgotten or, perhaps, even not yet happened. . . .
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Chinks Grylls ‘Highlight Red‘ is an etched mouth blown glass piece. Four individually hinged panels remind me, depending on my mood – or perhaps how hungry I am – of Saharan sand dunes or rashers of bacon waiting to be cooked…. Chinks Grylls works from south west England, an area which is rapidly becoming a centre for modern glass work.

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I know that when I return to Glasnevin it won’t be the glasshouses that I shall visit first. I will make a beeline for their exhibition hall in the hope that some other equally pleasurable experience awaits me.

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Exmoor: The Blue Ball Inn

Autumn has been at its best the last week or so with blue skies and warm sunshine by day, the perfect weather for long walks. And afterwards, as the evening chill sets in, what can be better than to laze contentedly in front of a blazing log fire, losing your thoughts in the flickering flames? This is what I have been doing the past ten days.
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And where better than to do this than on Exmoor, the 270 square mile national park in England’s West Country? I have known this place for over 40 years and it’s dramatic scenery never tires with the passing years. The coastal area between Lynmouth and Porlock, where the open moorland meets clifftop and plunges 800 feet to the sea is the most dramatic of all. And the tiny village of Countisbury can lay claim, in my opinion, to have the best views on Exmoor.
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I made a decision when I started this blog that I would not go commercial – either for my own garden based business or for anyone else. Somehow, it just seems to put a different slant on your writing. However, I am always being asked where I stay on my Exmoor visits and I am more than happy to break the rule on this occasion. There can be no better place to spend your time than at the Blue Ball Inn, situated in the heart of the village.

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The Blue Ball Inn, which dates back to the 13th century, was originally a coaching inn where horses and travellers rested after the exhausting 1 in 4 climb up Countisbury Hill from Lynmouth. Today it still welcomes travellers, whether it is for just a drink, a meal or to stay in one of their sixteen bedrooms.

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The building both inside and out is dominated by a vast and ancient inglenook fireplace and chimney, so big that you can look up it and see daylight. It is a great place to relax and unwind with a pint of locally brewed ale and is the hub of the inn.
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The bar, with its low ceilings, blackened beams and loads of character, is a busy area but there are also several other places to sit. Each has its own fireplace and comfortable chairs, ideal if you want to find a quieter space to read or plan the next day’s walks.
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It is not just the beer that is produced locally. The restaurant, which serves food all day, is committed to offering a wide choice of menu, much of it sourced from the area – they even rear their own rare breed pork. During my stay, I never once had the same meal twice (although I wish it would have been possible to have forced down a second helping of their spare ribs they were so delicious). The chips are the best in Britain. By the time dinner was over, I was usually too tired to continue drinking in the bar and would disappear to bed. The bedrooms, which have all the usual facilities, are comfortable and clean and, after so much exercise and fresh air, sleep guaranteed.

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Awake and refreshed and after a hearty breakfast, walks can start from the door and can vary in both their length and the steepness of hill. Ours varied from twenty minutes to five or six hours. With instant access to heather moorland, ancient woodlands, rushing rivers and the spectacular clifftop walks with its views across the sea to Wales, you are spoilt for choice. (Exmoor is, of course, great dog walking country and the Blue Ball welcomes them too). If you are lucky and walk quietly, there is a very good chance that you will see the wild Exmoor ponies or the herds of Red Deer – we saw both within a mile of the pub.
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But it is not just good food and drink, comfortable rooms or amazing views that make a good holiday. It is people. Phil, Jackie and son Nick, the owners of the Blue Ball, and all of their staff without exception, do everything possible to ensure that your stay is memorable. The ‘locals’ too, for this is still very much the village pub, are very welcoming and friendly – where else would you meet someone who lends you a book to return “when you next come down”? And I have never spent such a riotous evening as with them all at the Harvest auction, held in the pub. Apart from bidding for a crate of the local beer, I also have managed to get a days hawking on neighbouring Dartmoor. I was too slow to get a day’s salmon fishing on the local Lyn river – but that, of course, gives me an excuse to visit again next year. I have already booked!
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A Walk Along the River Otter: Part 2

The lower reaches of the river Otter turn from fresh water to brackish as the river joins the sea. At low tide, mud and salt flats are exposed creating a safe habitat for the hundreds of seabirds and waders that feed, breed or rest on migration there. This area, including its wildlife, I have written about earlier – it can be found by clicking here.
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This post describes a walk a little further upstream where the river flows through fertile fields of wheat and where cattle and sheep graze in lush riverside meadows.
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The river – which like our river in the secret valley – is really little more than a stream (or ‘brook’ as we say where I originate from – English dialect is another fascinating subject that I might write about one day!). One moment fast flowing, the next slow, but always crystal clear, the view is one of steep banks and stony bottom. It is here, in the shallower water, that the trout – huge in comparison with our tiny ones at home – sway in the current, waiting for food to be swept down towards them and their ever open mouths. At one place where the river runs across a steeply shelved weir, a salmon run has been built: a series of steps for the salmon to leap to reach the upper levels of the river for spawning after their long migration. Whether they still do, I do not know, for salmon stocks in England are dwindling fast.
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Wood and water, just nothing but water and wood, for the crowds of visitors that explore the river close to the beach and form long queues at the ice cream stalls have all been left far behind. Now the sights, sounds and smells are only those of nature on this glorious late summer’s day. The trees are only just beginning to show a hint of the autumn to come but, somehow, their berries have already stamped their mark on the autumn landscape, glowing in and reflecting the sun’s warmth.
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Along the river bank, swamping much of the native flora, the Himalayan Balsam is giving a final explosion of colour before the first frosts destroy them for another year. And explosion is the correct description of their bursting seed heads which throw the seed far and wide as they split open. Found in many damp places throughout the country, for its seeds are also dispersed by the movement of the water, the Himalyan Balsam is an unwelcome immigrant to Britain which is virtually impossible to control. A member of the Impatien family, its seedheads are similar to those of our familiar garden Busy Lizzie.
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Along the final stretch of our walk, the river is backed by the same red sandstone cliffs that can be seen by the coast. How many millenia did it take for this gentle stream to cut its way through to its present level? My photography skills – or perhaps my patience – did not allow me to get shots of the kingfishers that darted up and down as a flash of azure along this reach of the river. High up in the rock face, their nesting holes (or were they the breeding sites of the sand martins that had already begun their long flight south to winter in Africa?) were more easily photographed.

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The ten mile walk to the source of the Otter will have to wait for another visit to the West Country. Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention, otters can be found – but rarely seen – along the whole length of the river.

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A Walk Along the River Otter: part 1

The River Otter although not long in length – barely 20 miles from its source in the Blackdown Hills to the sea – is rich in wildlife. Mostly flowing through Devon, in Britain’s West Country, it rises just over the border in the county of Somerset. Passing through rich and fertile farmland it enters the English Channel at Budleigh Salterton where its estuary is protected from the sea by a large pebble bank. It is here that this walk begins.
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The mudflats, reedbeds and adjoining fields are all part of a relatively small nature reserve, backed by the town on one side and high red sandstone cliffs to the other. The whole area forms part of a World Heritage site for it is part of the English coastline known as the Jurassic Coast, famous for its rock formations, clear water and abundant fossils. The underlying stone of the Otter valley holds one of the most important aquifers in England supplying drinking water to 200,000 people (source: Wikipedia, where else do we go for this sort of infortmation?!).
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The birdlife, especially at this time of year as migration takes place, is spectacular. In my excitement in trying out my new telephoto lens, I forgot to take general views of the coastline and town. However, as tourism plays such an important part of the Devon economy, it is easy to visit and stay locally – it is well worth adding to your ‘places to visit’ list.
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There is no public access to the mudflats which means that the birds are relatively undisturbed. However, there are good footpaths along the edges and also hides, where it is possible to view the wildlife with the aid of good binoculars or camera. The Little Egret, below, was a rare visitor to England until very recently. Now, although still not often seen, they are more frequent and breed here. We have even had them occasionally visit us in the secret valley. The Canada Goose also was once a rare escapee from wildfowl collections – now they are seen everywhere and are one of our commonest geese.
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Glossy Ibis are an extreme rarity and thirteen had arrived here earlier a few days ago. If they were about they remained hidden from view. Strutting about – and unaware of how comical they look when away from water were a pair of Bar-tailed Godwits. These birds breed in Scandinavia and the Arctic and thousands pass through Britain on the migration back south with a few staying all year round but never breeding. Despite their numbers they are easily missed so being able to photograph this one was a real treat!
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Of all the birds to be seen that day, none were so plentiful yet so beautiful as this Mediterranean Gull. Or, at least, that is what I think it is. Living as I do, as far inland as is possible in the British Isles, my seabird identification skills are not as good as they might be. No matter, it had a grace unlike the majority of the gull family, yet I don’t think it was a tern. I wait to be corrected.
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