Hedgerow History and a New Project

One of the greatest and most picturesque, natural aspects of lowland Britain is its patchwork of fields divided by neatly clipped hedgerows.  In hill country, or where there is a wealth of stone, the fields are divided by dry stone walls and the Cotswolds are renowned as much for these as for the limestone cottages and houses built of the same material.  Here, domestic and farm buildings merge into one with the landscape for, as the fields were cleared of stone, it was natural to use it as a building material. 

The overgrown hedge on the left; the drystone wall starts a little further up on the right of our little country lane 

However, the Cotswolds also have their fare share of hedgerows and these often go unnoticed – overshadowed by the craftsmanship, colour and texture of the old walls.  In the secret valley we are fortunate for we have both: outside our little cottage – also built of stone 160 years ago – one side of the lane is bordered by a hedge, the other a dry stone wall.  At a glance, the hedgerow is unremarkable whereas the wall attracts attention for its weathered appearance and moss encrusted stones.  But not all is as it seems.

 The drystone wall was probably built only a couple of hundred years ago

The wall was probably built at the time of the great land enclosures, when large areas of England were partitioned, the ground cleared and ‘improved’ to grow crops (or here, in the Cotswolds, more likely wool) and may not be more than a couple of hundred years old – ‘new’ to us Brits.   However the hedge, shabby and overgrown in places, could well be a relic of the ancient wildwood, the forest that once covered most of lowland Britain in the days of pre-history before man started cutting it down. ‘Our’ hedge would almost certainly have been part of the Wychwood Forest, a royal hunting ground, for written records go back to the time of the Domesday Book of 1086.  As the forest was cleared (for more details click here) to make way for fields, it was easier to leave strips standing than to create new dividers. 

In places, the hedgerow is barely recognisable for trees have grown to huge proportion

How do we know that it is an ancient hedgerow and not one planted at the time of the enclosures?  There is an accepted formula for dating them known as Hooper’s Law: the number of tree and shrub species found in a thirty metre section x 100 is equal to the age of the hedge.  It is normal practice to take three thirty metre sample lengths and apply an average for greater accuracy.  There is also a second method of deciding if the hedge is of ancient origin: by the types of wild flowers that grow in it.  Certain species are very slow to spread, or perhaps only would normally grow in certain conditions such as woodland shade.  These key species are known as ancient woodland indicators and we have a number of them growing at the foot of our hedge.

 Bluebells are an ancient woodland indicator.  Here their new leaves emerge at the foot of the hedge – it will be several weeks before they flower

What is even more remarkable is that the plants tell us what is old and what is new hedge with such accuracy that it is possible to follow the old even after it has left the roadside. For our little lane that winds uphill as it leaves the secret valley to join the main road (‘Turnpike‘) is also part old and part new.  Before the Turnpike was built in the late 1700’s, the lane beyond our house took a sharp turn left and crossed the fields, it’s way now marked only by sunken turf and yes, you’ve guessed it, also by the old hedge and its associated flora.

 

 The ‘old’ road had been trodden for centuries by countless generations of drovers moving their cattle and sheep to market.  It was probably still used after the opening of the turnpike in the late 1700’s to avoid paying the tolls

I always consider March to be the start of the gardening year, the month when nature turns its back on winter and spring moves rapidly forwards.  Leaf buds burst, seedlings germinate and the first of the flowers remind you that long, hot days are not too far away.  It is the same with the plants that are beyond our garden gate.   And so on our first really warm, sunny day of 2012 I have decided to embark on a new project: to catalogue and photograph a year in the life of our hedge on a month by month basis.  Watch this space!

In places, the ancient hedgerow is still tightly clipped and, over time, has become very wide

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Flowers at Christmas

I know that it isn’t technically Christmas yet for we still have a week to go.  Despite the last few days being cold and frosty – and very beautiful with bright sunshine and blue skies, I have been surprised at just how many flowers are still blooming away when it is almost the end of the year.
A combination of unseasonably mild weather for most of the time and, of equal importance, very little rain to knock the blooms about has resulted in all sorts of odd floral combinations.  Of course, I realised as soon as I started to write this post that I hadn’t bothered to carry my camera around with me so most of the flower photos have been taken at some other time.
Cowslips and primroses:  It’s not especially to see the occasional primrose in flower in the garden but I don’t ever remember seeing cowslips flowering in December in the wild before.  It will be a good few months before we see carpets of them like these but seeing the odd two or three reminds me that spring is not so very far away.  In the newspapers there have been reports of daffodils in flower too.

Forsythia:  Another spring bloomer and again just the odd flower rather than branches being smothered in flower.  Perhaps not so surprising, as flower arrangers would know – the tight buds that cluster along the bare stems will burst into flower early when brought into the warmth of a house in a similar way to the ‘sticky buds’ of the horse chestnut bursting into leaf indoors.  Here, forsythia has been trained as a tightly clipped shrub to screen an ugly garage wall, the warmth and protection of which also makes the flowers open a week or two before normal.

Ferns:  Some of the shabbier looking ferns had been cut dowm to ground level as part of the autumn tidy.  I hadn’t expected them to burst back into growth …..

Violets:  There have been a lot of violets out, both in the garden and in the hedgebanks of the secret valley.  Is it just coincidence that these out-of-season blooms have all been mauve with not a white flowered one in sight?

Daisy:  There have even been odd wild daisies flowering in the lawn (we have mowed twice this month too).  The Erigeron daisy that you see growing in profusion amongst the ruins of ancient Rome has been flowering in our garden as if it was still midsummer; it is smothered in blooms.

Geraniums:  The hardy herbaceous sort.  Like the ferns, they had been given the chop some time ago but are coming back into leaf and flower.  Some of the hardy salvias are doing the same thing.

Mallows:  I have seen hollyhocks still in flower on my travels around the Cotswolds.  They are majestic when they are grown well but my favourite of all is the musk-mallow, Malva moschata, which is a wild flower that is often brought into gardensl.  I grow both the pink and the white versions and they self sow happily in the borders without ever becoming a nuisance.  It wouldn’t matter, you couldn’t have too many!

Roses:  There are nearly always roses out on Christmas Day and we always exclaim how extraordinary a sight it is.  They are poor, wet, bedraggled specimens carefully left in place by even the hardest pruners as a reminder of warm summer days.  For the most part that is the case this year too.  What we don’t expect to find are bushes smothered in beautiful blooms still wafting scent but this is the case in one rose garden I attend.  I am uncertain as to the variety but there are three of these amongst forty other bushes – all shrub roses.  They really are a joy to see.

I can’t believe that this state of affairs will last much longer.  Surely the frost and rain, or even snow, will get them soon.  I plan to wait until New Year’s Day and go walking armed with camera, pen and paper and list all that I see.  I have intended to do this every year for as long as I can remember but if I manage it this time, I will report back.  And, as this will almost certainly be the first of 2012’s resolutions to be broken, perhaps you would do the same and send me the list.

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Gardening With Weeds

Much has been written about creating wild flower meadows in recent years. Many gardening magazines infer that somehow you must be lacking in something if you don’t rush out there and then and rip up your precious lawn to create the daisy and orchid studded turf depicted in medieval tapestries. There is much to be said for doing this (and I’ve done a few in my time too). However, the reason why most of us don’t do it is purely down to lack of space and time, and also most of us still like to see a reasonably weed free patch of green grass at the centre of our gardens. Now don’t get me wrong, anything that reduces the amount of chemicals used and encourages wildlife has got to be a good thing and our gardens, collectively, could – and should – make one vast nature reserve.

But why restrict yourself to wild flowers in grass? Very few articles suggest using them in herbaceous borders, or amongst shrubs, but I have been planting them like this for some years now and the results can be terrific. This flower border in the photo was taken 14 months after planting and looks very much like a traditional, English flower border. But there are some differences and those are the wild flowers intermingling with the more usual garden plants.



Purple Loosetrife, Lythrum salicifolium, grows wild in boggy places and by stream edges so seems an unlikely candidate for the border. I have found it to be a great choice which copes well with ordinary soil conditions. In the hot, dry summer we have had this year they have only grown to about half their normal height of 3-4ft but their cerise colour and longevity have still made them a worthy addition. In the photograph above they are the bright pink ‘blob’ in the centre, growing separately to the surrounding plants.

Here they are being grown as a companion to a bright pink ground cover rose, a combination that I’m not so keen on (even though I did plant them myself). They are a bit too strident and close in colour for my taste but others have stopped and admired them so there they remain.

I have also experimented growing them in containers where, of course, you can easily give them the moister conditions they would naturally prefer. Here, their colour makes them quite an exotic addition to the matching colour petunias, the purple leafed coleus and tropical looking (but hardy) palm.

Another reason for growing wild flowers is that, of course, they are great attractants of the local insects. A clump of the herbaceous St John’s Wort, this one is Perfoliate St John’s Wort, Hypericum perfoliatum, always are covered, when in flower, with bees and other beneficial, pollinating insects. The flowers are miniature versions of the shrubby Hypericum ‘Hidcote’ and all the better for being small. In the wild, they grow (as many wild flowers do) quite happily amongst grass and other plants. In the garden, I find they combine well with Wormwood, the tall, shrubby Artemisia.

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The pale blue flowers of the Field Scabious, Knautia arvensis, continue for months on end and combine well with most other colours. Growing them in the garden gives you the opportunity to notice them in detail. In the wild, it is less likely that you would see how the outer petals of the flower uncurl before the inner ones. Grow them with exotic looking Icelandic poppies or, like here, with tall, purple, Salvia.





Wild flowers often are generous with their flowering, not only in the quantity of blooms and their exuberance. Sometimes, they offer a ‘sport’. The most common variant from the norm is white and this pure white version of scabious was a delightful bonus. I like the way the buds start off a creamy colour.



Recently, I have tried growing Lady’d Bedstraw, Galium verum. It is working quite well and the rather acid yellow looks good with lavender. In fact, this flower is all the better for propping itself up against its neighbours as it is a bit inclined (in an unlady-like way) to sprawl, otherwise.



One word of caution about introducing wild flowers into the garden: sometimes, they like garden conditions just too much. If in doubt, plant a small number of plants in an area where you can control them should they take off. I didn’t do this with one of my childhood favourites, Toadflax. It took me three years of painful weeding to extract the final pieces from more delicate plants. I have gone back to admiring it where it belongs – along roadside verges and on waste ground.



And one final plea: please grow and enjoy our native, wild flowers but do source them from a reputable nursery. Apart from being illegal to dig or uproot a plant in the wild, as gardeners we are supposed to conserve plants ……

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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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Grey Wethers Double Stone Circle

Last summer I spent a day walking on Dartmoor, an area of wild, remote and barren land situated in the south of the county of Devon. Dartmoor is an area of granite outcrops (tors) and coarse grassland, trees are few – except for occasional conifer plantations – and people and properties even fewer. It is a country of streams, bog, cotton grass and silence.
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Remote and empty it may be now but, thousands of years ago, this was a highly populated area and all over the moor there are signs of occupation of our ancestors. The buildings have long disappeared but stone circles, standing stones , scrapes and bumps in the ground are everywhere as the Ordnance Survey map will show.
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The most mysterious and atmospheric sign of these early settlers is the stone circle found to the northeast of Sittaford Tor. Stepping into a stone circle is always a mystical experience: it feels as if our living history has been trapped within them. The spaces between the stones seem to disappear and you feel completely enclosed by them as if the circle ‘walls’ were completely solid. It feels this way with our own Cotswold stone circle, the Rollright Stones but it feels even more extraordinary up on the wilderness of Dartmoor for there is not one stone circle but two, standing side by side.

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Grey Wethers, as the circles are known, get their name from the old English word for a castrated ram. ‘Wether’ is still a term used in farming and the word is remarkably similar in the old German, Frisian and Nordic languages. It is not uncommonly used to describe large stones that scatter some areas of landscape, whether manmade or left in place as a result of Ice Age glaciation – presumably as, from a distance, they can look remarkably like sheep resting.
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Walking amongst the stones, it is difficult to see that the circles are completely separate for they feel as if they are intertwined as in a figure of eight. However, from above (thanks to Google Earth) the circles can be seen to be quite distinct although sitting side by side. The smaller of the circles measures 31 metres in diameter and the other 33 metres, making them the largest circles on the moor. Together, they have 49 stones standing. Much of this information I have sourced from the web (where else?) and more can be found here.
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What was the purpose of their building, 5000 years ago? Many theories exist but no-one knows for sure. Excavations have shown that there were charcoal deposits here so fire was certainly used – was it for ritualistic purposes? The theory I like most, is that the circles stand on the boundary of two separate tribes and that this was a neutral meeting place. It would be good to find that it was a place of peace for it certainly feels that way now.
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To the south of the circles and on the northern bank of the East Dart River are the circular remains of a ‘beehive’ hut. These tiny buildings of stone with, once, a turf roof were most likely built in medieval times and used as a store or shelter from the worst of the elements. It is surprisingly well camouflaged – perhaps designed that way to prevent their contents being raided by others. More information on the ancient huts of Dartmoor can be found here.
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After a picnic lunch high on the moor with only the sound of skylarks, cuckoos and buzzards for company, the path descended to the Warren House Inn, a remote (in the past, tin miners) hostelry, some distance to the east. It is said that the fire here has never been allowed to go out since 1845 and it and a pint or two of ale were most welcome.
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Beyond the pub, more remains of old buildings and walled enclosures could be seen, probably of deserted farms or small mining communities. Now, at lower levels, the climate was noticeably more clement and wild flowers provided some welcome colour after the drab greens and browns of the higher moor. The Bird’s Foot Trefoil, especially, were covered in beautiful Fritillary butterflies.
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Finally, after several hours of walking we returned to our starting point, the village of Postbridge, to cross the river by the ancient stone clapper bridge, featured in one of my earlier posts. This, and more photographs, can be found by clicking the link here.
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Cotswold Cowslips

I never did get to see the fritillary fields of Oxford and the Upper Thames. Perhaps next year. If fritillaries are the flowers of the lowlands (albeit rare) then it has to be the cowslip that can lay claim to the title for the hills of the Cotswolds. These little, short stemmed wild primulas (Primula veris) have a simple beauty – they look good growing in the garden but even better in the fields and hedgerows where they belong.


Cowlsips grow in plenty in the secret valley and I have noticed this year that they abound along the old drovers road, as do bluebells – don’t they look good growing in combination? Is this because these green lanes are never sprayed with chemicals and the thick hedgerows that line them prevent any spray drift from reaching? The field below is at the top of the secret valley and is a haven for wild flowers – soon there will be orchids showing. The farmer likes to see them so has never tried to ‘improve’ the ground in the agricultural sense and, as a consequence, the field is also full of birds and bees and butterflies.


However, to see the truly stunning cowslip meadows, you have to travel out of the secret valley. Just a few miles up the road is this field where the cowslips grow in the tens of thousands, so dense that it is impossible to walk without trampling several plants at once. Few people see them as they are ‘off the beaten track’ which is a pity in some respects, for they should be enjoyed and marvelled over.

The scent of cowslips is subtle but, when growing in these huge numbers, it wafts over in waves on gentle, warm breezes, a heady mix of hay and honey. This gives cowslip wine, a traditional drink, its characteristic taste and potency. Made from many hundreds of flower heads it is now rarely made as, fortunately, most people now understand the importance of preserving our native flora and fauna. This has benefitted the cowslips, which were once quite an uncommon sight, as they are left to multiply with these spectacular results.

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Images at Easter

So the Easter holidays are with us once again: a time of our gardens and countryside bursting with new vigour, the smell of fresh, green growth, gentle, warming breezes and longer daylight hours to enjoy it all.

Primroses and violets are the traditional wild flowers of Easter and our lawn is dotted with dozens of them. We avoid mowing them when in flower, after that we don’t worry yet the numbers increase with every passing year.


The pretty, native Wood Anemone, Anemone nemerosa, blooms in profusion in favoured places – usually in sheltered woodland. Sometimes they are found on banks, perhaps showing where ancient woodland once stood, for Anemone nemerosa is one of the ‘indicator’ plants. Ancient woodland is classified in England as woodland growing prior to 1600 and although a number still stand many were cleared centuries ago.

The Snake’s Head Fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris, is an extremely rare plant in the wild although there are water meadows around Oxford and the Cotswolds where they carpet the ground – a spectacular sight. Fortunately, they grow quite easily in our gardens and the corms are readily available from reputable bulb merchants, who only source them from grown stock. Sadly, there are still occasions when bulbs and corms are marketed from illegally collected wild stock.

They make fine, if somewhat short-lived house plants. We like to have them indoors at Easter and they can afterwards be planted in the garden to bloom again another year. When seen close-up, it is obvious from their markings why one old name that country folk give to them is Chequers.
It is not only flowers at Easter that should be thriving. The wild birds are singing and building their nests and sheltered beneath a large clump of Oat Grass, the wild Mallard duck, lay their eggs each year in our garden. As soon as they hatch, their mother leads them to the safety of the river below the house.

This is the joy of Easter – or it usually is. Not in 2010. The primroses and violets may be blooming but the weather is more of winter than spring with the season up to six weeks behind this year. There is hardly a leaf showing on the trees and bushes of the secret valley and the river has burst its banks with the continuous rain we have had the past few weeks. Any duckling that ventured onto the water would soon be swept away in the torrent our gentle stream has become.

However, She-dog is thoroughly enjoying running through the flood waters – especially where it is shallow enough to admire her reflection!



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The English Hurricane: 20 years on

English people constantly talk about weather. It’s in our makeup, our genes – we can’t possibly walk past someone, even a total stranger, without saying something about it. We can’t help it, no matter how much we realise that the person isn’t that interested (or even doesn’t speak English). We rattle on about too much rain, too little rain, too much sun, no sun, cold for the time of year, how warm it is. And to prove the point, this post is about weather and, no, I’m not going to apologise about it. By the way, we had a fantastic sunset in the secret valley a couple of days ago.

I think the reason we may behave like this is because English weather is nearly always gentle. The landscape that makes up England is beautiful and can be dramatic but not in the way of so many other countries. Take the USA, for example. Where’s our Grand Canyon, our towering redwoods, our Rocky Mountains, our Great Plains and our Niagara Falls? We have them in miniature and, perhaps, that is just as well as we are such a small country. And likewise, our weather: we have heatwaves, we have floods, we have blizzards. But they are rarely anything truly spectacular (except to those poor people affected by them, of course). And so when we were told by the weather men in 1987 that reports of a hurricane were completely exaggerated, we believed them totally. And despite the fact that much of the country was hit hard by it when it arrived, my part of the Chiltern Hills where I lived at the time was not much affected, even though it is one of the most wooded parts of the country.

The night in January 1990 was different. This time we had winds, whilst not as severe as three years earlier, which created total havoc with the already weakened root systems of the trees. Great swathes of the magnificent beech woods that are the very heart and soul of the Chilterns were flattened in a couple of hours. (I am reminded by my partner, that as the rest of the world cowered in their beds as the trees came crashing down all around, I woke up to say “a bit windy out there” before falling asleep again). As dawn broke the true damage could be seen.

Fast forward twenty years to 2010 and the woodands are transformed. Those of us that remember the 200 year old beech know that the majority are gone and, in their place, are new trees of mixed species. It will be many years before the magnificence of the woods return but they are healing. This photo below is taken from the same spot as the one above. Some of the biggest old stumps have been left, too difficult to move – time has hardly changed their appearance apart from their ‘roof’ of mosses.


One of the unforeseen benefits of the hurricane is the increased amount of light reaching the woodland floor, for beech trees cast a dense shade where little can grow, other than where the canopy is lightest. Apart from the view to the valley below, which was unseen before, many wild flowers are better now than ever. Roll on April when we can see the blue carpet of tens of thousands of bluebells disappearing into the distance.

Oh! And I nearly forgot to say, the weather today is a mix of sunshine, cold winds, rain and sleet. Don’t forget to tell the next person you meet!

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Into the Secret Valley

One of the joys of going away is the pleasure of returning home. The main road that cuts across our bit of the Cotswolds follows the ridge of the hill, which gives the appearance of being plateau like. There are few hints that just a little way off to the side is the secret valley and the little lane leading to it gives few hints either.

To call it an avenue would be rather pretentious, but the roadside plantings of beech and cherry create the first thought that you may be going somewhere rather special. And as you begin to pass beneath their canopy, the hills start to rise on either side. These are rarely, if ever, treated with any chemicals and wild flowers, including orchids, abound.

But there is still no hint of our little, winding river. Then, as the avenue ends and on a sharp bend there it is! The first glimpse is of the old sheepwash, where the river was widened and deepened although still almost jumpable, for everything about the secret valley is miniature: the hills, the river, the road. Beyond the sheepwash come the meanders – the photo of these snake like bends are in the blog’s header title.

Our little stone cottage lies further along the road – and this is now the original old drove road, for the one that we have travelled so far has probably only been in place since about the late 1700’s. More of the drover’s in another post. Below is the view from the house looking back towards the meanders – we may only have just one other house nearby but there are dozens of sheep for neighbours!
Just below the cottage, the river passes beneath the lane and snakes its way around us, travelling through lush meadows. Watercress and meadowsweet grow along the water’s edge and little rickety, make-do bridges made from old telegraph poles criss-cross from one bank to another. Ancient, gnarled willow trees line the banks, more about these can be found in an earlier post: Willows
And tucked away beyond the bridges are the remains of the old mill workings. The culvert is barely noticeable until the river levels rise and the water diverts towards the mill. We’ll travel there another day.

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I Know a Bank Where The Wild Thyme Grows…..

Was William Shakespeare sitting in our secret valley when he wrote these words? I doubt it, although we are less than 30 miles from his birthplace at Stradford-upon-Avon. But on the slopes above our little winding river (it’s the photo of the title header) the thyme flowers year after year.

Wild flower meadows are quite easy to create whether on the big scale or in the garden. Of course, the species rich meadows of the Chilterns and Cotswolds have evolved over centuries and have a wealth of insect and plant life to show for it. In the garden you just have to be a little more realistic and be grateful for every bug and butterfly that comes along and colonises it. Hopefully wild orchids, like the Pyramidal orchids below, will arrive too.
The golden rule of all meadows is to reduce fertility. As soon as fertility rises, usually through feeding, the grass sward thickens and out competes the flowers. The photo below is of ‘our’ bank and shows, as a golden haze, the unimproved grassland – thin, tall and sparse and too steep for the tractors to get onto and spray. The brighter green grass above and below is where the tractors can reach, the grass has been fed and, consequently, there are few wild flowers.

Late summer wild flower meadows require a different maintenance regime to those which have an abundance of spring flowers and, as it is that time of year, I shall concentrate on the former. Now is the time to cut the ‘hay’ whether on the bigger scale such as in this orchard or, by hand, in the garden. It is important to get the timing right – you need to leave it late enough for the seeds to fall from their heads to increase more. Leave it too late and bad weather knocks the grass and plants flat to the ground when it becomes a devil of a job to cut. The difference is a task that is a joy to do or one that is totally hateful!

Once cut, I then mow the meadow regularly as a normal lawn, even topping it once or twice in the winter if the weather is mild enough. In spring I continue to mow quite regularly, gradually increasing the cutting height until I stop totally about early May. This way, it does not become too unruly later on in the year.

The golden rule is to pick up and remove all clippings – leave lying on the surface and the fertility of the soil will begin to increase again.

Hardheads, the local name I learnt for Knapweed in my Chiltern Hills childhood, is a favourite flower of mine. Although normally purply-mauve (above), I found this bi-coloured one and some pure white flowered ones growing in an old meadow – rarities, indeed. I live in hope that they might appear one day in the secret valley!

Neglect does not create a meadow. If you don’t work at it all you will end up with is a sheet of docks, nettles and thistles as has happened in this garden here – not a pretty sight!

And finally – don’t collect plants from the wild: they have enough problems with survival without you adding to them! Collecting seed is probably ok (check any bye-laws first and get permission from the landowner) or buy seed or plants from specialist nurseries or garden centres.

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