A Year in Review 2013: the Second Half

July to the end of  December already is a memory and rapidly becoming a distant one at that.  Just five days into January and Christmas seems further back in the mind than it is in reality.  2014 has arrived and I am optimistically looking forward to all that it may bring.  Not that the last one was disappointing or sad in any way; just that with time flying by it is essential to make the most of every moment.  Of course, I’m very fortunate: I have my health, I have a great job, friends and family I can always rely upon and I live in a superb part of the English countryside.  Long may all those things last!

July:  The highlight of my year occurred this month.  An exciting and memorable launch of my first book to be published – a gardening book – Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That? took place in Chipping Norton’s award winning bookshop, Jaffe & Neale.  Would anyone turn up?  As it happened, very many did with people overflowing onto the street, the warm, sunny evening and the wine contributing to a street party feel to the occasion.  If you wish to find out more of the book or would like a signed copy you can find details here.

Many people are attracted to the magnificent looking but dangerous Giant Hogweed, also the subject of a post this month.  I was delighted when photographs from it were used in an educational video by the Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation District (New York State).  Take heed of the messages if you come across the plant!

August: Travelling around the Cotswold Hills as I do every day in the course of my work you would think I would know most of what goes on there.  Nevertheless, I was surprised when I saw Tibetan flags fluttering in the breeze.  Further investigation found Alain Rouveure’s galleries and tea room.  Of course, I couldn’t leave until I’d tried out their lunch…

September:  Street fairs have been held for hundreds of years throughout England and Chipping Norton has an annual one that dates back to medieval charters.  Originally the time when livestock was sold and labour sought, these days they are purely held for pleasure.  Traffic has to be diverted around the town as the centre is blocked off by the rides and stalls.  Noisy, crowded and well lit they are great fun but I found  myself completely alone in darkness walking around it late one night.  It was an eerie experience, described here.

October:  The appearance of the secret valley was changed dramatically when the willow trees that line the banks of our little winding river were pollarded.  This dramatic ‘haircut’ is carried out only when necessary, the last time about fifteen years ago.  Suddenly, the view in the header of this blog has become wide open as every branch was removed leaving just the trunks standing.  The secret valley looks naked now but ‘new clothes’ will grow rapidly this coming spring.

November:  History isn’t just about learning dates of battles, the most interesting aspects are those that we can so easily relate to.  Yet so much of this is forgotten over time and it takes teams of dedicated people, often volunteers, to literally unearth it.  A now deserted and seemingly empty part of the Exmoor National Park was, one hundred and fifty years ago, teeming with people and was at the very forefront of Victorian technology.  It was quite extraordinary what these engineers achieved and their story featured in two posts which created much interest and comment.  They can be found by clicking here and here.

December:  The blogging year ended on a cuddly note – looking after two adorable but naughty beagle puppies.  If you are a dog lover there is nothing better than to be mauled by puppies.  If you’re not over-keen on dogs then you won’t understand the attraction!  You could try to find out, however, by clicking here.

So what’s going on in 2014?  Lots, hopefully. There is a new racehorse, more gardening, more travel, a lot more writing; it will be a busy year and how it pans out time – and this blog – will tell.

Thank you all so much for following my blog. Over one hundred thousand of you have looked at it since its inception which I find quite extraordinary and very humbling.  Please continue to do so and to tell all your blogging friends to come and pay me a visit, either on here or at my full website www.johnshortlandwriter.com .  I am also on Facebook and Twitter where daily updates can be found.  You are always very welcome to contact me with your comments or queries and I will do my best to answer them all.

Wishing you all a very happy and healthy New Year.

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Going Naked

We’ve gone naked here in the secret valley.  Not literally, it’s far too close to winter for that sort of jolly jape.  While we are busy putting on additional clothes, our lovely old willows that line the little winding river have been stripped of their top growth.
 
Gone are their branches and along with them so have the other plants that find a home in their mossy nooks and crannies.  It is pollarding time and the lovely view that I have been used to seeing every day since I moved here twelve years ago has changed dramatically.  Fortunately, all will return in abundance in due course.

Pollarded willows in the secret valley
 

Change, of course can be a good thing and it is interesting how spacious and full of light the valley now seems.  It is also a good thing for the trees for without this drastic treatment they sometimes topple in storms.  Pollarding actually prolongs the life of those tree species that can cope with such treatment. As a child I played in a woodland known as Burnham Beeches and there, some of the pollards are over five hundred years old.  These old pollards support a huge variety of wildlife that has adapted over the centuries to the practice.

Ancient ash pollard – sad to think that it will probably now die because of the newly imported disease, Chalara

Now a rare sight – White Park cattle
 

Pollarding has been carried out since man’s earliest farming days and can really be considered as just another form of pruning.  By cutting the branches above the reach of grazing animals, they can regrow without being damaged.    In the past, cattle were allowed to roam in these ‘wood-pastures’ and in Burnham Beeches the practice has been reinstated after a gap of about two hundred years.  The White Park cattle above are kept at Adam Henson’s, Cotswold Farm Park.  Now endangered, this native breed is being used to graze freely in the Beeches which keeps the forest floor clear and improves diversity. 

The timber from pollarding was used in a number of different ways.  Most commonly, it provided firewood, with the trees cut every fifteen years, which is the case with our willows.  Sometimes the pollards were cut more regularly to provide fodder for livestock.

It is surprising to see just how quickly new growth restarts.  Without branches and leaves to support, the energy rising through the tree from its root system forces it to renew itself.  The willows below are a little further up the valley and were pollarded in the early spring of this year.  As can be seen they already have grown six feet or more.

Just six months of new growth
 

Pollarding of trees isn’t just practised in the depths of the country.  It is frequently carried out in our towns and cities as street trees are kept within bounds.  In the garden it is a good way to create interest – even a smallish garden can create a lime walk to give all year round appeal.  The coloured stem willows are especially good for this purpose too as they quickly become dull and too large when left unchecked.

It will take time to become used to seeing the ‘new look’ secret valley, now so very different from the image that has become the trademark of this blog.  In the past, cutting the trees would have given a team of men work for the whole winter. Now one man with a machine achieves it in five days.  It may not be such a romantic notion but watching the tractor driver manipulate the claws of the cutter at every conceivable angle demonstrated that the old techniques have been replaced with skills every bit as impressive.

If you fancy trying your hand at pollarding you have a few months left to build up your courage!  In the UK and those places with a similar climate it should be completed by mid-February.

More reading: click on the links below
Conservation of ancient pollards
Chalara in ash trees
White Park cattle and other endangered farm breeds
Adam Henson’s Cotswold Farm Park

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Still Falls The Rain

The title of this post is taken from the poem by Edith Sitwell, that most eccentric of twentieth century English poets.  I am using it for its literal sense, for the rain just won’t stop falling, whereas Sitwell wrote Still Falls The Rain as her response to the London Blitz in the 1940’s.

It has not been an easy gardening year.  We were bracing ourselves for the coldest and snowiest winter ever, for after two years of freezing temperatures and snow at greater depths than for a decade or more, we were warned of worse to come ….. it didn’t.  Instead we had a relatively mild time of it but with virtually no rain whatsoever.  Then came March:  temperatures in the 70’s and day after day of unbroken sunshine and the garden couldn’t work out what to do next.  Some plants flowered earlier than normal whereas others refused to break out of their winter dormancy.  And still no rain; the little river that winds its way through the header of this blog and the secret valley ran lower than midsummer and by the old sheepwash it was almost possible to walk across it in hiking boots.

Then came April and the day water shortages and a hosepipe ban were announced.  All the hose reels were wound up to be stored away and we worried about how we were to keep the parched ground alive.

We did not need to worry for, reminiscent of the day in the 1980’s when Michael Fish, the weather forecaster said “What hurricane?  We don’t have them in this country….” (the next morning half of England’s trees had been flattened), the rain started to fall.  And it hasn’t stopped falling.  We have the occasional sunny interlude when you could almost think it is spring but, for the most part, the skies remain leaden and heavy.  Day after depressing day it is dark and gloomy with a cold northerly wind blowing and the rain lashes against the window panes.

The ground, so hard from months of drought, could not absorb the deluge and the water, so desperately needed, runs down the lanes and over the fields and banks into the river.  Our pretty little tinkling stream has become a torrent and the sheepwash island, coloured golden with  its Kingcups in full bloom, has disappeared from view completely.  Opposite the sheepwash on the other side of the lane, the water is running off the hill and new springs have appeared where they haven’t been seen in years.

The secret valley is flooding and looks more like how it should have appeared in winter.  The sheep and their lambs have been moved to safer pastures and the pastoral scene of a few weeks ago has all but gone.  Gales have accompanied the worst of the downpours creating their own havoc and the old willow pollards, heavy with top growth are splitting and falling.  The damage, although it looks devestating, will not affect them too much for they will regrow once the broken timber has been cleared, for this is nature’s own way of pollarding them.

In the meantime,  we watch the flood water rise all around us.  Our little stone cottage, built in the 1850’s, sits safe, high above the river, which snakes around two sides of the building.

As for gardening, weeds continue to grow for they have adapted to the extremes of the English climate over millenia.  The nurtured plants of the flower border struggle and produce some oddities.  The tulips that usually look bedraggled after just one shower, have remained resilient and daffodils that have normally finished weeks ago are still in bloom, thanks to the cool conditions.  The wet weather has also benefitted the cowslips and the bluebells and they seem even more intense in colour if, in the case of bluebells, that is possible. A quick look around the secret valley at the trees also shows contradiction:  some are in full leaf and others – almost 50% of them – are still to show their leaves so have a wintry look about them.

Tulip ‘Peppermint Stick’

It has been a dry and sunny day today and tomorrow is also supposed to be quite pleasant.  The forecast is for more rain to come and the cool conditions to continue at least until the beginning of June.  And when I wake up on Monday and hear the rain hitting the bedroom windows, as forecast, my first awareness will be to hear in my mind the haunting voice of Edith Sitwell saying “Still falls the rain, still falls the rain ……”

To listen to Edith Sitwell reciting Still Falls The Rain click on the link below:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6_2x948EEw

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Christmas 2011

Many thanks to all of you that have read and followed my blog during 2011.  Despite the dire weather predictions, the secret valley is having the mildest Christmas for years.  Instead of extreme cold and deep snow as forecast some weeks ago, the sun has been shining and the temperature has risen to +13C.  I’ve had to rely on a snowy photograph from last winter!

Wishing you all a very happy and peaceful Christmas
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Skiing in the Secret Valley

I never thought I would see the day when I was able to ski through the secret valley.

How I wish that the photo above was a possibility here. Well I don’t, to be completely truthful – I rather like having the secret valley to myself! This shot was taken many years ago in the Kandersteg area of Switzerland when I could ski reasonably well. It is typical of my luck to discover a sport I was good at but couldn’t practice easily in my own country!

But for a short time, at least, the ski trails start from my door. And suddenly the valley appears transformed. Perhaps it is due to the mesmeric sound of the skis swishing their way along but the scenery is seen in quite a different way. And the silence is more noticeable too – all is still and quiet apart from the tinkling of water and ice.

Until you reach the mill race where the water thunders down leaving mini icicles clinging all along the splashed and steep banks. It seems a far cry now from when, on hot days, we dam the water’s exit to raise its level, and swim in the torrent. A jacuzzi spectacular! Oddly enough, the water is warmest where the water crashes down upon you which is invigorating, to say the least.
Onwards to tranquility again and the split willow – my favourite tree in the secret valley and featured in an early post, Willows, which describes how they become these extraordinary shapes. The river is quieter again now and the semi-domesticated geese that belong to someone a mile further downstream take advantage of having survived yet another Christmas feast…..


Home exhausted, but more aware of my surroundings, I notice that even everyday items, such as our rather boring garden furniture, look more interesting when covered in snow. And we have icicles too – haven’t seen those in years!


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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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