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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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. 

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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.

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