All is Safely Gathered In?

The air is heavy with the scent of harvest.  Is it the summer heat that produces the heady smell of fresh straw or the act of cutting it?  Probably a combination of both but the result gives mixed emotions for, whilst there is something very comforting about knowing that the corn is safely stored and the livestock will have plentiful winter bedding, there is also a tinge of regret for it is the first sign that autumn is rapidly approaching.

Harvest is one of the few events in the modern farming calendar which gives an insight into the ways of country life of generations ago.  These days, for most of the year, farming is a solitary occupation with a skilled tractor operator carrying out the tasks of many people.  Now the fields often seem empty, quiet places, devoid of human life or activity. Even fifty years ago there were more people working there but go back even further, say another hundred, and there would have been the sights and sounds of dozens of people working from dawn until dusk, racing against the weather.  A poor harvest then meant months of hardship and hunger for many.  Modern harvesting, albeit for a much shorter time is when the fields seem alive once more with combines, grain trucks, straw wagons and the like. 


The image below is taken from a nineteenth century farming manual belonging to my great, great-grandfather, and it demonstrates just how many people both men and women, were required for harvest. There were the mowers with their scythes, the gatherers, the bandsters who bound the sheaf together and then set them in ‘stooks’ to keep dry. Finally, the raker would clean up all fallen straw and grain for none could be afforded to be lost.  Harvesting by hand was surprisingly speedy for a skilled mower could cut over an acre of wheat in a day.  However, by the 1880’s virtually all corn was harvested by horse drawn machines.

Many attempts were made to design a harvesting machine throughout the centuries – the earliest, using oxen, is described by Pliny two thousand years ago.  The binder – as seen in the wonderful engraving also taken from g-g-grandad’s book – which cut and tied the corn into sheaves in one operation, first came into use in the 1850’s; it continued to be used for another hundred years: by 1979 when the photograph below was taken it was an eccentric rarity. 

the binder can just be seen on the middle right of the photo
 
Combine havesters are giants compared to the binders of old and when they travel through the secret valley they take up the full width of the lane with very little room to spare.  First to be cut is oilseed rape, the crop that turns vast swathes of the British countryside bright yellow in spring.  The resulting stubble, unlike that of corn, is sparse and sharp and makes for uncomfortable walking on.

 


Barley, oats and wheat – which in the UK are collectively referred to as ‘corn’ – then follow with each crop (and its straw) having its own requirement and characteristic.  Modern technology may have shortened the number of days it takes to bring in the harvest but the working day is just as long as it ever was for the combines work from early morning to late at night, providing the crop doesn’t become damp with dew or rain. 

Harvest has always been dependent upon the weather so it is not surprising that upon completion celebrations take place.  Although the traditional Harvest Supper is now mostly a thing of the past, the Harvest Festival church service is still one of the most popular.  On Exmoor – where I helped with harvest in my early years – and typical of a remote, tightly –knit community, every window ledge and the altar of the church would be decorated with flowers, fruit and vegetables.  Pride of place was given to the first stookof corn cut from the field. Packed with families that had been too busy to meet one another for several weeks the hymn ‘Come Ye Thankful People, Come’, written by Henry Alford in 1844 a line from which the title of this blog post is taken, and a great favourite of the farmers, was sung with gusto.

Exmoor church

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Richard Jefferies – His Passion Lives On

Great artists such as Gainsborough, Turner and Reubens speak to us down the centuries through their work as do poets but how many people still read the great – or the lesser – writers from years past?  The Bible is still read regularly by some, Shakespeare’s more famous lines are often quoted and we all think we know Bronte and Dickens whereas, in reality, most of us know the characters only as interpreted through television and film.  However, authors from past centuries still  have much to offer whether it be for historical background, research or, simply, pleasure.

I have always lived in the country and my fascination with the natural world began at a very early age.  My kindergarten class was taken on a nature walk and, as our teacher showed us the magical things to be found along the way, I became hooked and wanted to know more.  There are many excellent wildlife manuals and handbooks, new and old, that give detailed descriptions more often than not, in a rather dry, analytical way.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was someone who could give all this information in great detail; who would notice the minutiae of everyday things, whether a flower, a wild creature or even of man, himself?  In the late nineteenth century there was one such person, now forgotten by most, and his name is Richard Jefferies – most definitely not a poet but there is poetry in his words.

Jefferies, born in 1848, in a Wiltshire (England) farmhouse suffered ill-health and subsequent poverty for much of his life.  From a young age he had enjoyed solitude and wandering about the countryside and here he developed a fascination for the Iron Age hill fort on nearby Liddington Hill and the wildlife that could be found there.  Employment as a reporter, initially with a local newspaper, developed his writing skills and his literary work began to be published, first as a series of essays and later in book form, from 1874.  He died from tuberculosis in 1887.  His books vary from collections of nature notes and the countrymen he encountered on his travels to novels, including one, After London, which would now be described as post-apocalyptical.  In it he describes how nature has taken over the now vanished city with its few surviving inhabitants returning to the lifestyle of many centuries before.  Jefferies still has his devotees, myself included, and he deserves better recognition.  The remainder of this post is my demonstration of how his words are of relevance to everyone today, especially those who are passionate about the wonders of nature – not the awe-inspiring world famous creatures or places but the everyday ones, found all around us, that should be equally awe-inspiring.

Nothing sums up my feelings towards the natural world better than these words of his.  They almost seem to have been written to illustrate this photograph of myself aged four with my father.

“So it seemed to me as a boy, sweet and new like this each morning; and now after the years they have passed, and the lines they have worn in the forehead, the summer mead shines as bright and fresh as when my foot first touched the grass…”      
The Open Air, 1885

“Next he stepped into the current, which, though shallow, looked strong enough to sweep him away. The water checked against him rose to the white mark on his breast. He waded up the rapid, every now and then thrusting his head completely under the water; sometimes he was up to his neck, sometimes not so deep; now and then getting on a stone…”                                                                 The Water Colley (Dipper), The Life of the Fields, 1884
“In the evening of a fine day the mists may be seen from hence as they rise in the meadows … beginning first over the brooks, a long white winding vapour marking their course, next extending over the moist places and hollows.”    
Wild Life in a Southern County, 1879
“Sometimes through these narrow slits (of cloud), long beams of light fall aslant upon the distant fields of the vale.  They resemble, only on a greatly lengthened scale, the beams that may be seen in churches of a sunny afternoon, falling from the upper windows on the tiled floor of the chancel, and made visible by motes in the air.  So through such slits in the cloudy roof of the sky the rays of the sun shoot downwards, made visible on their passage by the moisture or the motes of the atmosphere… the labourers say that the sun is sucking up water there.”   
Wild Life in a Southern County, 1879
“It is midsummer, and midsummer, like a bride, is decked in white. On the high-reaching briars
white June roses; white flowers on the lowly brambles; broad white umbels of elder in the corner,  and white cornels blooming under the elm; honeysuckle hanging creamy white coronals round the ash boughs; white meadow-sweet flowering on the shore of the ditch; white clover, too, beside the gateway. As spring is azure and purple, so midsummer is white, and autumn golden. Thus the coming out of the wheat into ear is marked and welcomed with the purest colour.”
Nature Near London,  1883
“…and finally is lost in the vast marshes which cover the site of the ancient London…  There exhales from this oozy mass so fatal a vapour that no animal can endure it. The black water bears a greenish-brown floating scum, which for ever bubbles up from the putrid mud of the bottom. When the wind collects the miasma, and, as it were, presses it together, it becomes visible as a low cloud which hangs over the place. The cloud does not advance beyond the limit of the marsh, seeming to stay there by some constant attraction; and well it is for us that it does not, since at such times when the vapour is thickest, the very wildfowl leave the reeds, and fly from the poison. There are no fishes, neither can eels exist in the mud, nor even newts. It is dead.”      
After London, 1885
“…the heat pours down by day as if an invisible lens in the atmosphere focussed the sun’s rays.
Strong woody knapweed endures it, so does toadflax and pale blue scabious, and wild mignonette…”                                       
Pageant of Summer, 1884
“Nature is a miniature painter and handles a delicate brush, the tip of which touches the tiniest
spot and leaves something living. The park has indeed its larger lines, its broad open sweep,
and gradual slope, to which the eye accustomed to small inclosures requires time to adjust
itself. These left to themselves are beautiful; they are the surface of the earth, which is always true
to itself and needs no banks nor artificial hollows. The earth is right and the tree is right: trim
either and all is wrong.”                                                 
Field & Hedgerow, 1889
 
Fortunately, much of his work is still readily available as books and, often, as free e-books.  The Richard Jefferies Society promotes his writing and holds regular meetings.  Visit their website by clicking the link here.  The farmhouse where Richard Jefferies grew up is now a museum dedicated to his life and work and well worth visiting.  Click here for details.
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Fields of Red

Everyone seems to love poppies. It doesn’t matter if they are the delicate crepes of the Icelandic or big and blousy Oriental poppies – even ‘though the latter so often lie sprawling across the ground, flattened by the weather or their own weight. But most loved of all are the wild scarlet poppies that create a violent red gash across acres of wheatfields.


Despite being forever linked with the trauma and sadness of the Great War, poppies refuse to lower our spirits. Perhaps they even comforted and uplifted the tortured bodies and minds of the survivors of the battlefields. The famous lines from In Flanders Field have immortalised poppies in poetry but thirty years earlier that great (but now almost unknown) British naturalist, Richard Jefferies, was eulogising “proud poppies, lords of the July fields….no abundance of them can ever make them commonplace….”. How right he was.


Even the odd, single flower, struggling in a bit of dirt at the side of some waste ground, brings joy and admiration but it is, en masse, when the sight of thousands of them in flower in a cornfield stops you in your tracks and, for a moment, loses you in a heady delirium of colour.

When the steep, wild flower filled grass banks that make the ‘walls’ of the secret valley have given way to the flatter, arable lands and the lush water meadows and meandering river lie far below, the fields become larger and hidden by high hedgerows. The character of the secret valley is much changed up here: those unfamiliar with it would not know of its existance it is so concealed. The old field names reflect this – lower down the names end with the words ‘banks’, ‘close’, ‘grounds’, ‘meadows’, now they all end with the word ‘downs’ and you could be forgiven thinking that you were on vast rolling downland, for the eye leaps over the valley to more cornfields beyond. And, a few days ago, I climbed the old, timber stile that pierces the hedgerow to walk in the field known as’17 Acre Downs’ to be greeted by the lords of the July fields.

However it was not the sight of crimson stretching as far as the woodland in the distance that stopped me in my tracks for there, at my feet, was a single, pure white poppy. Just one amongst tens of thousands of scarlet.

Walking further I was stopped once again, this time by some pale pink blooms, not many, just about twenty. The sight was enchanting and magical. Why here? Why so few?

Once you look closely at a poppy in flower you realise just how spectacular it is. En masse, your mind is blown by the quantity and you stop seeing them as individuals. Now, with my senses heightened I realised that a field of red poppies are made up of numerous variations even though pink and white are very rare finds. The photographs below show just a few of these: crimped, streaky, waxy, single petalled, multi petalled, plain buttoned, black cross buttoned, the variations seemed endless.

It isn’t just the flower that deserves this close inspection. For the seedhead is also quite lovely. Its capsule, before ripened, the palest green with a black and cream striped lid, a black collar, encircles its tall, upright stem, covered with soft bristles. Once ripe it takes on the same golden hue of the corn crop it has invaded. Will these poppies breed true and will there be pink or white ones next year? Who knows, for the next day the field had been mown and, if not for the photographic record, could have been dismissed as a pure figment of imagination.

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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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Cooking: Cherries and a Tongue Twister

It has been a good year for cherries. Despite the hard and late frosts, which continued well into May, there has been a bumper crop. And, for some reason, the birds have been kind enough to leave them for us humans to harvest. There is the appearance of something exotic, or even of decadence, in the cherry’s shining, red orbs hanging in profusion. Perhaps because we see it all to rarely.
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One rather plump bird has developed the taste for cherries. Henrietta, the tamest of our Lavender Pekin bantams just can’t get enough of them! Fortunately, the others show no interest and, not being the brightest of creatures, Henrietta hasn’t considered flying into the trees to eat even more.
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Today was a cooking day – I love cooking but have no patience when it comes to following recipes, occasionally with unfortunate consequences. Luckily, today was one of the better days. Having picked the cherries, I had no idea what to do with them, so sat outside in the sunshine stoning them, waiting for inspiration.
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So much juice came from the fruit that it was necessary to strain it off. I thought of jam and other weird and wonderful ingredients to add to them. In the end, I just cooked them gently until their skins were tender, then added sugar and stirred in some mixed spice and some cinnamon. It made a pulp that will go down a treat with vanilla ice cream or with some natural yoghurt for breakfast tomorrow.
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So what to do with the juice? First thought was to throw it away but, apart from the waste, I knew that Rhonda from down…to…earth, would not approve. Her blog is so inspirational, I highly recommend it to all that want to try and live -even just a tad – more simply. Warmed through with sugar, a few chilli flakes (I only wanted it to have a slight kick, not blow my head off) and some vanilla essence, it has become the basis for several potential options. Below it was poured over crushed ice and topped up with chilled tonic water to make a beautifully, refreshing drink for a hot, summers day. The colours were an unexpected and added bonus.
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Next, the tongue twister: Geviklte Kichlach. I have had the great fortune of having a Jewish grandmother – if you have never had one, I suggest you find one that you can adopt. For apart from spoiling their grandchildren rotten, they are the most superb cooks. Geviklte Kichlach, which translates approximately, to ‘twisted little cakes’, Grandma would make for my every visit.
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The recipe is more a pastry one than a cake recipe and it is very simple. I use spelt flour and baking powder as my partner has a wheat intolerance – spelt, despite being a type of wheat, is often ok for people with digestive problems.
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Mix 4 oz butter with 4 oz curd cheese and 6 oz flour (if not using self raising, add two teaspoons of baking powder). Roll out thinly to an oblong and spread with jam. Then sprinkle currants over the top and some ground cinnamon and roll into a sausage shape.
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You can elongate the sausage, if need be, by rolling it with your hands like plastacene. Cut into thinnish slices. Place on an ungreased baking sheet and bake at 190 until golden – about 10 minutes. Once cool, dust with icing sugar (it does need this additional sweetness, so don’t be tempted to leave it out). The undusted, currant free version, sitting on the marble slab is a special treat for She-dog!
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You don’t like it? Well, as Grandma would have said, “You will like mine – now eat!”.
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Please remember, overseas visitors, that the measurements are in British ounces and the oven temperature is in Centigrade.

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Harvest Home – well at least a start’s been made

It is a rare sight to see more than one combine harvester in the small sized fields of the Cotswolds. Unlike the fleets of monster machines you see gradually working their way northwards across America, here they work individually or occasionally in pairs.

All the rain we have had this July – the wettest since the late 1800’s – has held up the start of the harvest and the machines have sat idle while the farmers have watched their golden corn, (in England we call wheat ‘corn’), turn black with moulds and the price fall, along with the quality. With modern drying techniques and machinery the crop can be salvaged but how terrifying it must have been, just a few centuries ago, knowing that hunger and possibly starvation was the only certain outcome.

Now the rape is safe in the barns, the wheat is on its way and the barley, still to cut, hopefully before it is lost completely to the weather.

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I sometimes think that our Cotswold country looks at its best when the fields are golden and the countryside takes on that special late summer look: the photo below is of a cornfield near Leafield, a village just outside the town of Witney. But then, when their season comes, I think that of spring or autumn or winter too for they each have their own special beauty and magic.

40 years ago when I helped on a farm on Exmoor, that wild country, they still harvested using the old fashioned binders. Placing the sheaves of corn upright, six to a ‘stook’ was skilled work and I remember my dismay when the first two rows that I stood toppled over like a pack of playing cards. The binder was considered long out of date even then but it suited the farmer and gave me an insight into a way of life now long lost.

The practice of stubble burning is also lost but this is due its being made illegal, except under special circumstances. Used mostly to get rid of pests and diseases and excess straw, it was an exciting if somewhat frightening sight. Occasionally these fires would get out of control but our changeable climate meant that there was no risk of the ‘wild’ fires of elsewhere in the world, with the devastation that those cause. This photo was taken a few years back from my garden when I lived in the Chiltern Hills, 50 miles away.

Fingers crossed for a few more dry days and the harvest safely in – then we can all celebrate with the Harvest Home.