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

SKANSEN – Sweden’s Pioneering Conservation Village

The Swedes have always had a reputation for innovation and design and so it is not surprising that Stockholm is home to the world’s first open air museum founded by Artur Hazelius. The surprise is that it opened as early as 1873.   When he opened his second open air museum, Skansen, on the nearby island of Djurgården it was the first to incorporate a zoo.

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From its earliest days, the aim of Skansen was to preserve Sweden’s rapidly changing rural way of life. One hundred and fifty buildings were purchased, dismantled and rebuilt and over the years more buildings have been added; the museum now has a complete nineteenth century township as well as buildings of the Sami peoples of the north.

The zoo specialises in native Scandinavian animals, both wild and farm, and by 1918 held the few remaining European Bison that had been reduced to extinction in the wild. Since then, a breeding programme has seen them successfully reintroduced to Polish and Romanian forests.

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Wolf at Skansen

 

Vakt Stugan – literally translated ‘Guard Room’ was one of the original buildings purchased in 1891 and placed by the entrance to the museum. It dates from the 1880s and is used as an information centre.

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True to its origins, farm buildings, many with traditional living roofs feature throughout the museum. The oldest dates back to the fourteenth century.

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A village would not be complete without its church and manor house and Skansen has several examples. Seglora church dates from the early 1700s, made entirely of wood came from the western provence of Västergötland. It is still in regular use for services as well as weddings and christenings.  Skogaholm Manor built in 1680 developed into a sizeable mansion with beautifully painted ceilings and wall decorations. The kitchens and library are equally well preserved.

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Seglora Church, Skansen

 

Skansen is open to the public all year round with numerous events to help illustrate the story of the buildings and the people that lived in them. Details of admission times and other information can be found here. To see photographs of the interior of Skogaholm Manor click here.

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Skogaholm Manor, Skansen

A Walk Across Dartmoor – part 2

A riverside path heading north from the village of Postbridge, famed for its ancient clapper bridge, leads into the heart of the moor.  The bridge dates back at least to the fourteenth century and some of the slabs weigh over eight tons.  The ‘modern’ bridge in the background was built as recently as 1780.

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At the point where the river turns abruptly westwards are the remains of a beehive hut.  These were used mostly for storage and, compared to many of Dartmoor’s archaeological features which date back millennia, are also of more recent origin and date from the 1500’s.  They ‘disappear’ into the moorland  features but are clearly visible once you know where to look.

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Walking further onto the moor and leaving the river behind are the low grey shapes of the Grey Wethers double stone circle.  Sitting close to Sittaford Tor, they are so named for their resemblance to sheep, ‘wether’ being the Old English name for a castrated male sheep.  A tale, often repeated, is of a traveller stopping off at the remote Warren House Inn (where this walk started and will end) who complained of the poor quality sheep in the district.  After a drink or two, he was led to the circles and in the mist mistook the stones for sheep and bought them, only to discover later that he had been fooled.

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The two circles of Grey Wethers appear to the eye as one shaped as a figure of eight but an aerial view shows them to be quite separate to one another, sitting side by side.  The circles are of similar size and lie on a north-south axis although whether this is of relevance is unknown.  Numerous theories abound: perhaps the meeting place of two separate groups of people, or possibly they represent life and death. When excavations took place in 1909 a thick layer of ash was found to cover their centres but, again, the purpose of this is unknown.

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From Grey Wethers the walk back to the Warren House Inn skirted the edge of Fernworthy Forest.  Hidden behind the trees is Fernworthy reservoir, created by damming the South Teign River.  When water levels are low the remains of an old farm can be seen, as can the remains of a small clapper bridge, drowned reminders of life on the moor in times past.

the remote Warren House Inn

the remote Warren House Inn