2014 in Review: July – December

Christmas has been and gone, even the New Year is a few days old.  A time of old traditions and also some new ones – one of which is the review of the year past.  The first six months can be found by clicking here; now for the next six.

This is the time of feasting, of plenty but in days gone by the essential time of year was harvest.  Without a successful gathering of the corn life during winter would be tough for country folk. Harvest, which starts here in July, is still one of the busiest times of the farming year and despite modern machinery replacing many of the labouring jobs in many ways the task remains unchanged. As a young man I helped on what must have been one of the last farms to harvest in the ‘old way’.  Working from dawn to dusk, it was hard but we didn’t stop until we knew “all was safely gathered in”…

All is Safely Gathered In?

I tend to avoid Exmoor, England’s smallest National Park, in August for it can become quite busy with visitors (I’m selfish and don’t want to share it with others).  This year was different and I arrived in glorious sunshine, the perfect time to see the heather moorland which is in full bloom this month, a purple haze.  To keep it looking as perfect as in the image below, the moors are set alight, an ancient practice known as ‘swaling’. The resultant new growth provides food for the sheep, the wild ponies and the other wild birds and animals that roam the moor…


Horses play an important part in my life and in September the Burghley Horse Trials take place.  The trials feature three elements of horsemanship: dressage, show jumping and cross-country.   It takes a brave horse and rider to tackle the latter element for the course is very testing and some of the jumps huge.  Accidents do occur, fortunately rarely seriously but when there is a problem with perhaps a fence needing repair, part of my job is to prevent other competitors from running into them. Stop That Horse! lets on what happens ‘behind the scenes’…


The story of Lorna Doone and John Ridd, the man who saved her is a well-known and much loved tale of romance and treachery, set on 17th century Exmoor.  Many of the places and people – but not all – that feature in the book do or did exist.  In October I explored what is fact and what is myth? Click here to find out…


There can be fewer more bizarre buildings in the world than The Pineapple in Scotland.  In November I was lucky enough to stay there and to explore the other fascinating and ruined buildings associated with it.  I also found time to travel further afield and take in the spectacular scenery around Loch Lomond…


Rummaging in a cupboard at home in December I  came across some old photographs that had been inherited many years earlier.  Noticing a signature and doing some research turned into something far more exciting than I ever could have imagined – it turned out to be ‘a great game’…

006   copyright

2015 looks to be a good year with a number of exciting projects and travel ahead giving plentiful topics for blogging.  May it be a good one for you too.   Thank you for your support and may the New Year bring you all health and happiness.



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. 

the binder can just be seen on the middle right of the photo
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.

Exmoor church

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No Time For Growing? A Recipe For Guaranteed Success

We all lead busy lives these days and often don’t have time to sow seeds, despite our best intentions. I garden for my living and, in the tradition of cobbler’s children, my own garden is, more often than not, far from text book perfect. I simply do not have the time for all that seed sowing and pricking out even though I spend all day encouraging others to do it!

Raised beds are often described as labour and space saving and, indeed, they are. They are hugely productive and can look lovely, as the many posts and photographs by fellow Bloggers prove. But what if you don’t have the time even for that?

Here is my recipe for growing summer suppers…..

1. Purchase a box of lettuce. No, not joking! Supermarkets sell a wide range of salad ingredients including growing pots of near full grown lettuce. Recently they have started to sell mixed leaves as seedlings, the idea being to keep them fresh for a few extra days.

2. Carefully remove all wrappers and tip out of their packaging. There is quite a good root system already started.

3. Divide carefully and, just by using your fingers, plant direct into your soil or compost. Water well. In the photo below, for even more speed, I just pinched a few plants out of the growing medium and planted together in one hole. I ended up with about twenty groups – planted separately I would probably have had nearer a hundred. Note the herbs behind the lettuce, all grown the same way.

4. The lettuce in the photo above may have looked a little sad but within a day, the seedlings perked up. Ten days later here are some of them again below. Enjoy!

Recently I have been taking the idea of raised beds a stage further and creating much higher raised beds that avoid the hardship of bending. I use them as ‘walls’ to separate different levels of a garden, I use them on the flat and I use them where the client is elderly or has a disability.

Made from chunky timber so they won’t rot for years, I also make them bottomless as that is always the first place to go. They require less watering that way too. Lining them with black plastic prevents water seeping through and disfiguring the boards which is important if they have been painted or stained. And the boxes just seem to be getting ever bigger!

This box separates the lower dining terrace from the house level and creates a sense of enclosure when seated below. As it is situated close to the kitchen door, the box is planted with a mix of herbs as well as garden flowers. The twisted stemmed bay gives a degree of formality as well as height.

Exotic planting works well in this square box. A hardy palm is underplanted with coleus, the magenta splashes of the leaves are emphasised by the identical colour of the petunias and of this favourite plant of mine, Lythrum. Lythrum is native to the British Isles and grows besides streams and in boggy places. This variety, ‘Robert’, is identical in every way except for its shorter height and is a great garden plant. I’ve found that it grows in quite ordinary soil in the border and it certainly thrived here in these conditions.


PS I’ve just remembered! Spring Onions (Scallions) bought as bunches from the supermarket: when planted out early in the year, grow to become reasonable sized onions. They don’t store well but help to bridge the gap that occurs before those grown from sets are ready for harvest. Try some in your boxes!

Watercress works as well: eat most of the stems you buy and plant just the last 2 – 3 inches in ordinary compost. Keep moist and it will provide food up until the first frosts.

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