Discovering the Five Senses in Lockdown

It sometimes takes a crisis to make us re-evaluate what is of importance in our lives and the present one of Coronavirus/Corvid-19 surely has to be the greatest that we will collectively face. Now, several weeks into lockdown we have all been developing new patterns to our daily regime, one of which may well be taking more exercise. Never before have we placed so much value on fresh air and being able to walk freely whether it be in our parks, gardens or open countryside.

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                           Riverside path, Higginson Park, Marlow (before social distancing).                                 The river is the River Thames in Buckinghamshire

Living where I do in the Cotswolds surrounded by fields and with woodlands and the river close by it is relatively easy for me to enjoy the open space. For others able to take advantage of their enforced free time, it may involve a longer walk and I have certainly noticed an increase in the numbers of walkers and cyclists here in the valley. I have also noticed that for many of them one aspect of their lives hasn’t changed: as they walk their eyes are glued to the screen of their mobiles and headphones are clamped to their ears, seemingly unaware of their surroundings. It has made me think all the more of our five senses and how we use (or should use) each one of them when out exercising.

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Cycling in the Chiltern Hills

SIGHT For those of us blessed with the gift of vision, perhaps sight is the most important sense we use and perhaps the one we most take for granted.  Without it, it is still possible to enjoy one’s surroundings for the other senses become heightened but I doubt if anyone would deny the pleasure of seeing the beauty that surrounds us on our daily walks. Even within cities there is much nature to be enjoyed although I admit that sometimes it has to be sought with more vigour and awareness.

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Look everywhere – self-sown violas peep out from overhead guttering!

At this time of year, more than any other season, there is much to see. Tight leaf buds unfurl into an explosion of vivid green foliage, iridescent wherever sunlight filters through; young ducklings tumbling into the park pond to take their first swim. But it isn’t just the natural world to be seen anew, there are other things too. Although it had been there for more than a hundred and forty years (and I’d walked past it very day for twenty) the date scratched into the stone on this wall had gone unnoticed.

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Who scratched this date into the old stone wall and why?

HEARING Along with sight the second most important sense we use on our daily amble. Apart from the glory of birdsong there are other sounds that bombard us when out walking. The wind flurry that makes the catkins tremble and shed their pollen, the stronger breeze that make the twigs and branches clatter gently against one another. Then there’s the rustle in the undergrowth. Stop and wait silently and with patience you may be rewarded by the sight of a little field mouse going about its daily chores or a rabbit venturing out to feed.

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patience was rewarded when this little field mouse ventured into the open

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… and also this rabbit

The sound of the river alters constantly. The smooth, barely audible glide of the water changes to a tinkling of soft musical sounds, its flow interrupted by a fallen branch. A few yards further downstream they rise to a crescendo as they crash and tumble over the old millrace before returning to silence as the flow stills in the calm of the millpond.

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The old millrace 

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the calm of the millpond

TOUCH   In the present crisis we are sensibly being discouraged from touching things unnecessarily. Out on walks perhaps care may be advisable when opening gates or climbing stiles but, if you do, take a moment to think about what you feel. Heed the cold steel of the metal five-bar gate and the way it slowly warms beneath your hand; feel the rough timbers of a stile worn smooth from much use over the years. Of less concern health-wise – and all the more pleasurable for that – become aware of the softness of new horse chestnut leaves; later in the year they will become as harsh as sandpaper. Run your fingers across the twisted, grooved bark of the sweet chestnut tree and stroke the furry softness of the aptly named ‘Lamb’s Ears’, the favourite garden herbaceous plant Stachys byzantina.

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The deeply grooved bark of the Sweet Chestnut tree

Stachys byzantina  Lamb’s Ears

SMELL   The scent of spring is everywhere at the moment and to be delighted in. However, the sense of smell is also a powerful trigger of long-forgotten memories. In a few weeks’ time the sweet scent of drying hay in the meadows may recall childhood farm holidays but for now there is the unique smell of new-mown lawns. Both start off as freshly cut grass yet their scent is so surprisingly different. Likewise, compare the subtly differing fragrance of apple and cherry blossom, both in their full-blown glory right now.

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The smell of freshly-mown grass…

Without even leaving home, squeeze the leaves of the herbs on the kitchen sill and notice their variation in scent, their colours and textures too. Early morn in the woodland, especially after warm rain, the delicate perfume of bluebells quickly disappears as the sun becomes stronger. Half-close your eyes and glory in their colour, in the silence and in their perfume and leave all cares behind you – if only for a while.

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The vivid greens & blues of an English beechwood in spring

In town, the scents are also there just waiting to be noticed. Rain falling on roads and pavements or scorched by hot sun both produce delightfully tarry smells, one mild, the other strong. In the formal beds of the local park flowering bulbs stand in regimental rows; each have a unique scent which rises in the air to mingle with the vanilla fragrance of wallflowers. The wallflowers, their dull green foliage barely noticeable throughout the winter, now shout out the arrival of spring through the colours of their flowers of brick red, orange and yellow.

Tulips & wallflowers – a favourite park bedding combination

TASTE   In shaded places where the soil stays moist you may be greeted – even before you arrive – by the pungent scent of wild garlic. A prolific carpeter of the woodland floor its leaves and flowers make a useful ingredient to spring salads. Wild garlic or Ramsons to give it it’s country name, is fickle where it will grow. In some places that would seem suitable, not a single plant can be found. A less common member of the onion family to be found in the wild are the chives of our gardens, they grow along road edges and field boundaries locally. It is thought that they were spread by the old drovers of centuries ago so that they could harvest them along the way to liven up a bland meal. There is no doubting its identification, disturb the tubular green leaves and the familiar scent is immediately released.

Ramsons grow in damp, shaded places

It is not only the onion family that can be nibbled en route. Richard Mabey in his book Food for Free, published many years before foraging became a ‘craze’, suggests nibbling on the half-open buds of hawthorn. Many a country child has done so over countless generations and perhaps that is how they got their old name of Bread and Cheese. To me, they only have a slightly nutty taste and texture.

Hawthorn leaf buds are not really worth eating!

As a boy, brought up close to the River Thames, the hollow stems of the common reed were a regular source of pleasure for the soft pithy centre could be drawn out by pulling the stems through clenched teeth. Close to my present home there is also a small reedbed. These tall reeds have something to offer every one of the other senses too: sight – the pleasure of watching petrol-blue damsel-flies sunbathing on the stems; hearing – as they sway and rustle with the slightest breeze; touch – the coarseness of the leaves, a contrast to their smooth stems; smell – those of the river as it seeps around the roots, a heady mix of wet mud and wet greenery.

Only the male of the Beautiful Demoiselle damsel-fly has petrol-blue wings & body

So, within the bounds and restraints of the Covid-19 advice when out on your daily exercise, remove the earphones, place the phone in your pocket and use, really use, every one of your senses. Not only will you notice more, you will wonder how you never managed to notice them before. Stay safe, stay alert and take this unique opportunity to discover a new world on your doorstep.

Finally, one word of warning. Only try tasting wild plants if you are confident they have been identified correctly. If you decide to forage, do so responsibly and only pick a few leaves at a time. Make sure that all plants for consumption are free of pesticides and other contaminants, especially those growing in or near water.

 

 

A Forgotten Building in a Deserted Village

Tucked away in the fold of the wildflower banks where our horses graze is a small building that rarely gets a second glance if it is noticed at all. Semi-derelict and difficult to reach, its appearance offers no clues of its historic importance – important only to the history of the farm upon whose land it was built. Further up the valley the landscape offers some hints of its past use: a dried-up watercourse that only shows up after heavy rain; an old, crumbling pack-bridge that seems to lead nowhere.  It is only when the building is explored does its purpose become realised.Dornford Old Pump House watermarkDornford Old Pump House (21) watermark

The farm and its associated barns today seem isolated and remote by south of England standards, set high on the hill and away from roads. However, during the early medieval period it was a thriving community which had disappeared by late medieval times possibly due to the Black Death. By 1700 only a farm was left standing. In 1800 this was replaced by the present buildings although the 350+ year old dovecote and stable block both remain from those early days. All are now protected and their architectural features recorded. I can find no such protection or detail of the little pump house – for that is what this is – out of sight in the valley below. Yet it is a little gem!

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The seventeenth century stable block lies empty

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Arched entrance to the old pump house

Probably built at the same time as the new farmhouse, the pump house would most likely have provided power for the barns as well as pumping water. What is fascinating about the building is that it still has its paddle wheel and much of its mechanism in place.

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The wheel – made from iron – is still in place

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Some parts of the building look as if they were deserted yesterday

Visiting the site isn’t for the faint-hearted. At this time of year, it is necessary to fight a way through chest height stinging nettles and to crawl through narrow and low passageways. Once inside, however, the architectural detail is delightful with its chamfered chambers and arched entrance and exit. Like all deserted places it is important to be vigilant at all times and not just in case of falling masonry. It’s just as important to keep an eye on what’s happening at ground level – this old well shaft, its cover rotten, waits to trap the unwary.

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Tall weeds almost totally hide the entrance to the building

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The well shaft with its rotten cover

Guiting Power, a Cotswold village

The Cotswolds (Cotswold Hills) are fortunate in having very many attractive stone built villages, protected by its AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) designation.  One such place, and a little off the beaten track so not as well visited as some of its more famous neighbours, is Guiting Power.

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A visit during the week, when most others are working, is like stepping back to a time when life was much slower and with fewer cars and people.  The village has a population of 300 and also lies on the Wardens’ Way, a fourteen mile footpath, but even during the busiest of times it is hardly bustling.  Linking with other public paths it is possible to make a circular walk centred on the village.

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As well as for the building of modest cottages, the soft Cotswold stone is used everywhere – to enclose fields, to create stiles, churches, barns, pubs and the grand houses of the wealthy.

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If long country walks aren’t your thing, there’s still plenty of things to do and see.  The church dates from the twelfth century and has the foundations of an earlier one nearby.  Sudeley Castle, near Winchcombe is just a few miles away.  Within the village, The Farmer’s Arms pub offers traditional beers and skittles; just outside the village The Hollow Bottom is a pub popular with the horse racing fraternity.   The Old Post Office, as well as continuing in its traditional role is also now a thriving coffee shop  For almost fifty years the village has hosted an annual music festival.  Adam Henson’s Cotswold Farm Park is also close by.
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Useful links:
How to get there

The Wardens’ Way Footpath

The Hollow Bottom Pub with rooms

The Old Post Office

Guiting Music Festival

Sudeley Castle

Adam Henson’s Cotswold Farm Park

Butterflies in the Garden

It is telling that when Richard South, the eminent entomologist, wrote The Butterflies of the British Isles in 1906 he stated that “half of our native butterflies are so widely distributed that the collector should secure nearly all of them in his first season.”  Today, that would almost certainly be impossible and, fortunately, the collecting of butterflies, along with the collecting of bird’s eggs, is largely a thing of the past.

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Common Blue Butterfly

 

Butterflies, as well as many other insects, have become increasingly scarce for the wildflower meadows that many rely upon for breeding success have been lost with changes in farming practice.  Since South’s day 97% of our meadows have disappeared either to the plough or by the use of fertilisers and chemicals to ‘improve’ the grassland.

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Pyramidal orchids flowering in a traditional meadow

 

Where wild flowers thrive – in protected meadows, organic farms and odd corners of the landscape – butterflies can still be found, although rarely in great profusion.  Gardeners can be of great help when it comes to conserving wildlife and by allowing some of our native species to grow in our gardens we are able to see a number of butterflies at close proximity.  I will shortly be writing an article on growing wild flowers in the garden so, as they say, watch this space…

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Gatekeeper Butterfly on Wild Scabious

 

In the secret valley, we are fortunate in having a number of unimproved meadows and banks, deserted drove roads and flower-rich roadside verges, all of which means that butterflies readily come into our garden.  Even in town gardens a limited number of species will gradually appear and increase in number.

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The wild Geranium pratense is common throughout the Cotswolds and readily available to buy as a garden plant too

 

One of the first butterflies to be seen on the wing in spring is the Brimstone.  Flying at the first hint of warmth, they lay their eggs on Buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica, a spiny shrub that can be grown in the garden as a clipped hedge or allowed to grow freely.  Its citrus green flowers are followed by shiny black berries in the autumn.  In the image below the Brimstone is feeding from Ceonothus flowers, a popular garden shrub.

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A common butterfly seen from mid-summer onwards is the Peacock, collecting in numbers to feed from Buddleia flowers.  This is such a popular shrub with butterflies that it is often known as ‘the butterfly bush.’  This Peacock is visiting Dame’s Violet, a scented herbaceous plant.

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Another butterfly that visits buddleia is the Comma which has increased steadily in numbers in recent years.  The Comma can be readily identified by the shape of its jagged wings and the white comma mark that is visible on the underwing when the butterfly is at rest.  It lays its eggs on currants, hops, willows and nettles.

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Not all butterflies are brightly coloured as those above and the Meadow Brown, in comparison, is quite drab. As its name suggests, it is found in grassland often in relatively large numbers and flying up from beneath your feet as you walk.  Not restricted to the countryside, keep an eye out for it in parks, cemeteries and gardens.  The photo below shows a female Meadow Brown resting on lavender; it can be identified by the orange markings on its wing.  Compare it with the all brown male feeding on achillea.

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All butterflies fly in daylight but not all moths fly at night.  Moths aren’t always dull either: the day fliers can be very bright.  One of the most spectacular to be found in gardens in the south and west of England is the Scarlet Tiger.  Its caterpillars feed on a variety of plants including comfrey, honeysuckle and nettles.Scarlet Tiger Moth (2)   copyright

Want to know more?  The excellent website of Butterfly Conservation, the UK’s leading charity, has good identification pages for both butterflies and moths as well as a host of other information.  Better still, get out into the garden or countryside armed with camera and ID sheets.  Good butterflying!

2014 in Review: the first six months

So another year is almost over and it certainly has been a busy one for me.  Living and working in the spectacular Cotswold countryside, a classified area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is a great treat and one of which I never tire.  It’s also nice to go off exploring other places so 2014 found me in other parts of the UK and  Ireland too.  One of the first places I visited, however, was only twenty miles down the road but light years apart in reality!

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typical Cotswold countryside

Like many people that live close to tourist attractions I don’t often visit the ones on my doorstep but last January found me walking the streets of Oxford.  I hadn’t come to explore the colleges but the covered market which dates back more than two hundred years.   The history of the market and the building is fascinating and is well worth making the time to visit – especially if you like a bargain.  To read more about it and to see other photos click here.

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One of the fathers of ecological writing died tragically young and in February I matched quotations from his work to images I had taken (to see them, click here).  My favourite was noticed by the Society that bears his name and reprinted in their journal.  I felt very honoured!

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Wild and rugged scenery is often best appreciated over cake and coffee and at Watersmeet in Exmoor National Park you can do just that.  Two rivers collide spectacularly besides the Victorian fishing lodge that is now owned by the National Trust and run as a café. March found me walking through beautiful scenery as well as indulging myself and the link to this remote but very accessible place is here.

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Dublin, the capital city of Ireland is a favourite place of mine and in April I visited the Casino Marino, one of the most impressive and perfect neo-classical buildings in Europe.  Everything about it was designed to deceive so although you only see one window on each side you actually have – well, click here to find out what plus all the other deceptions the Georgian architect managed to fit in.

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Planting trees is a long term project for they rarely mature during the life of the planter.  Of all the hundreds I have done in my professional life none has given me as much pleasure as this particular one.  I have waited for years for it to flower and in May it did so for the first time.  I felt quite emotional – it was a case of finding a handkerchief.  Take a look by clicking the link here.

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The Cotswolds are world renowned for their ‘chocolate box’ village scenes and Lower Slaughter must be one of the contenders.  Despite its name it is a beautiful and tranquil place to visit for it has everything from crystal clear trout streams to olde-world stone cottages to a mill complete with working water wheel. If you choose the right time to explore you can have the place to yourself.  To learn more click the June link here.

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Don’t Be Put Off By Its Name…

Slaughter may not sound the most promising of names but Lower Slaughter situated in the heart of the Cotswold Hills is one of the prettiest and most unspoilt villages you can visit.  Its unusual name is a derivation of the Old English word ‘slough’ meaning muddy patch but, if it was many years ago, it is certainly not one now.  In fact, three years ago it was described in a poll as having ‘the most romantic street in Britain’.

Although there is some more recent housing discreetly tucked away most of the buildings date from the mid sixteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries.  Its origins are even older  for it was well established even before being recorded in the Domesday Book; this means that it has been continuously inhabited for over a thousand years.

Many of the oldest houses cluster around the the River Eye which, although shallow, is powerful enough to feed the undershot waterwheeel of the mill.  This building, which now houses a small museum, is made from red brick – an unusual building material in this area – and was working as recently as the the late 1950’s.  It is a comparatively modern building having been built in the 1800’s although a mill was recorded on the site in 1086.  The tall chimney was built to give the mill additional steam power.
A similar tale can be told of the picturesque church with its tall spire which also dates from the ninteenth century.  There are a few traces of the original building within it: an arcade of four bays dating back to the early 1200’s.  The lichen encrusted gravestones in the churchyard also belie their age for burial rights were only granted in 1770 – before then villagers were buried in nearby Bourton-on-the-Water.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The countryside surrounding Lower Slaughter, and also the village itself, may not appear to have changed much in centuries but there is no doubt that they are very much ‘tidier’ than they once were.  An old Pathe News clip shows the banks of the Eye overgrown – there probably wasn’t the same enthusiasm for cutting its grassy banks when it has to be done by scythe.  Another change the film shows is the ‘locals’ sitting on the benches: nowadays, many of the houses are owned by the wealthy as weekend retreats and those exploring its lanes are visitors. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Lower Slaughter, despite its obvious attraction, has done very little to encourage tourism.  It is still possible to sit there or cross its little stone footbridges or paddle in the ford and be transported back to a time when life ran at a much slower pace.  It makes a very refreshing place for visitors to recharge the batteries after the crowds of its larger neighbours, Bourton and Stow-on-the-Wold or, for us lucky enough to live in the Cotswolds, to do the same after a hard day’s labour. 
 
Lower Slaughter is just 2½ miles north of Bourton-on-the-Water and 3 miles west of Stow-on-the-Wold.  The Old Mill sells great ice cream!
To see the Pathe News Clip from1939 click here

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