A Tour of the Secret Valley

Ask people – both here at home or abroad – how they imagine Great Britain to be, the answer is often the same: an overcrowded island. We do, of course, have our fair share of big cities, motorways and densely populated housing estates but it often comes as a surprise just how much unspoilt, open countryside remains. A few of us are lucky enough to live in it.

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The M40 motorway where it enters Oxfordshire

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Less than two hours drive from the centre of London, the secret valley, seems more like a million miles away rather than just the eighty odd miles that, in reality, it is. Tucked down an unclassified side road and not shown on a number of maps, only those ‘in the know’ tend to visit it. Time for a quick tour.

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The Secret Valley

The approach to the secret valley gives little hint of what’s to come. Lined with crab apple trees, the lane gently descends between a fold in the hills where, on the steepest banks, wild thyme, orchids and other wild flowers grow.

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A bend in the road conceals the valley’s crowning glory: the most perfect, easily jumpable river (as can be seen in the header image of this blog page). Twisting and turning as it passes through meadows, in its shallows watercress grows where both trout and crayfish hide. By its banks willow pollards, now elderly and bent, wear garlands of wild roses; they grow from the tree crowns courtesy of seed dropped by birds generations ago.

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The lane, crossing the river, passes our tiny stone cottage and climbs towards the village – a cluster of nine houses, a farm and little else. Our home sits alone, down by the river bank, with just one other as companion. Here, the lane – barely wide enough for a combine harvester to pass – once was busy with drovers taking their cattle and sheep to the markets in Oxford.

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These days the drove road enters and leaves the secret valley by a different route, only its mid-section by our house is still in use. The ‘old road’, as it is known, can still be walked – its path clearly defined by the wild flowers and hedgerows that line it.

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The river, too, has chosen a different route according to the earliest maps. Downstream from our house, it flows past wooded banks to widen into a small lake before passing through fields, these days marshy where the watermill’s sluice gates have decayed with age.

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Further downstream still, where the sheep cannot graze, swathes of scented, moisture loving plants such as wild valerian – looking very different from the one grown in our gardens – provide nectar for insets and a hiding place for deer.

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a forest of Valerian & Meadowsweet

On the higher ground of the secret valley, the fields are cultivated with wheat, barley and oilseed rape. Even here, in the favoured places, wild flowers and birds of many types can be found: the diminutive hay rattle, a relic from the old farming days to ravens, buzzards and red kites, all now common again after centuries of persecution.

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Red Kite

Sounds idyllic? You’re quite right – it is!

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We Built a Pond – you can too!

Winter is an ideal time to create a pond and with it fast approaching now is the time to start planning.  Quite probably you have an idea where you want to place it but do think about its position carefully.  Falling leaves from trees is an obvious issue but some others aren’t until it is too late. Water always collects at the given lowest point; a pond perched on top of a mound will look ridiculous so check where the lowest point in your garden is and create the pond there, remodelling other sections of the garden, if need be, to tie in. bulrush-copyright

With our proposed pond site, we already had a large depression where garden rubbish and junk had been thrown for years.  Now overgrown with scrub, it needed careful clearing, including roots that may have punctured the lining.  If space is tight, the pond should have a planting shelf set several inches below water level, around at least one third of its edge; if space permits a graduated slope to the pond encourages plants to spread more naturally and, to my mind, is preferable.pond-build-1-copyright

If access allows, it is sensible to hire a digger to create the pond for even a small one involves a lot of digging and moving of soil.  In the past, the mound was often left behind with a few rocks, or even worse, bits of broken concrete, to create a rockery.  This very rarely works well and it looks far better to have lawn leading down to the pond with possibly shrubs or other plants surrounding it.  Whatever the choice, it is important to have a seamless transition from water to garden.  Iris work well for this as there are varieties that will grow in shallow water and on the moist soil surrounding it; some reeds, too, will colonise the bank giving the pond that natural look.pond-build-3-copyright

When using a lining it is important to allow a decent overhang onto dry land.  In this photo, the lining has been cut a little on the tight side – the weight of the water pulled the liner down into position; it is better to trim the liner after the pond has filled.  Once that has been done the liner can be disguised by laying turf down the sides to just below water level.  Once grown, it creates a beautifully natural appearance to the pool.pond-lining-2-copyright

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In the spring, aquatic plants can be planted.  Oxygenating plants grow below water level and apart from being essential, make good cover for fish and insects from predators.  Marginal plants grow in shallow water and are used for lining the edges of the pool.  A thick planting of these are a good safety measure if small children are likely to visit, although they should never be allowed to do so unsupervised.  Water lilies grow in different depths of water so do make sure that the variety you choose is suitable for the depth of the pond. pond-5-copyright

 

Ponds, however large, never need to be exceptionally deep, rarely more than a metre and can be as little as 50cms.  Smaller ponds benefit from a deeper ‘hole’ so that fish can take shelter from the coldest weather.  It is worth remembering that the larger the pond the easier it is to maintain and keep healthy.  Finally, once the plants have established, fish can be added.  For a wildlife pond, ornamental goldfish should be avoided although some of our smaller native fish can be included.

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Koi Carp are best kept by enthusiasts!

 

 

It is always a surprise at how quickly new plantings grow in a garden and the pond is no exception.  The scars of our pond had healed within months and even after just a couple of years ponds can look as if they have been there for ever.  Now twenty years later, visitors to our garden find it hard to believe that the pond isn’t natural; it abounds with wildlife and there isn’t an inch of black butyl liner to be seen.pond-2-copyright

The pond featured here was built in the large garden of the house that I claim to be my birthright (joke).  Correspondingly, the pond also had to be large but the principles of pond design and placement are the same whatever their size.

To read about the bizarre coincidences that cause me to ‘claim’ the house click on these links:

The House My Parents Built – 200 Years Ago

Reincarnation – or just Coincidence?

 

A Day on the Oxford Canal

There’s nothing like messing about in boats on a warm, late spring day…

The building of the Oxford Canal was first brought into action with the passing of an Act of Parliament in 1769.  Beset with difficulties – mostly financial – its total 78 mile length wasn’t completed until 1790.  Linking the industrial Midlands region of England with the south of the country, the cost-cutting that was required has allowed the canal to claim it is one of the most scenic.   This is partly due to the canal following the contours of the land giving the canal numerous bends, rather than the more usual (and more expensive) building method of cutting a straight line through the landscape.

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Although the northern section from its start at Coventry to Napton was straightened in the 1820s, the southern section to its end at Oxford where it enters the River Thames (giving access to London) remained unchanged.

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Once completed the canal became one of the busiest and most profitable in England and, unlike many others, prospered even after the coming of the railways.  Barges carrying coal to London were still plying their trade as late as the early 1960s.  Today, the railway rules and often follows the same route.

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However, the Oxford Canal is still one of the busiest waterways in the country, only now with leisure traffic.  On the day of our attempt at barging it was pleasantly quiet and we shared the canal with few others. The only hint of an industrial past was the working barges of the Canal & River Trust, the charity responsible for maintaining the two thousand miles of waterways in England and Wales.

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Travelling at a speed slower than walking pace isn’t for everyone – I found it a little frustrating – but it does give ample opportunity to admire the scenery, buildings and wildlife.  The tithe barn at Upper Heyford, built around 1400AD, is magnificent.  More images of the barn, which is privately owned, can be seen by clicking here.

 

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One of the cost-cutting methods used in construction was to incorporate a section of the River Cherwell into the canal.  The problem that this created with variable water flow is still an issue today.  Another saving more readily visible are the locks: fewer in number and deeper, many have single gates instead of the more usual two.

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Manoeuvring such a large boat is a surprisingly quick skill to master but there are always other, more savvy boat people around that are happy to assist or advise when needed.  Our boat was hired from the yard at Little Heyford and we travelled north, meeting up with friends for a bankside picnic before returning to the marina.

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A daytrip – or perhaps a longer holiday on a barge – is definitely to be recommended even though I found the pace a little too slow.  The next time I am on one I shall remember the words of Pooh, that wisest of bears:  “Rivers know this: there is no hurry.  We shall get there one day.”

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Click on any of the photos to enlarge

Links:

The Oxford Canal – a more detailed history

The Canal & River Trust

Boat Hire – Lower Heyford