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.

 

 

The Year in Review: July – December 2016

The second half of 2016 went just as quickly, if not quicker than the first.  No sooner have the nights drawn out than Midsummer Day is upon us and, gradually at first – and then rapidly – the nights close in on us.  In England our really warm summer weather does not arrive before July and with luck extends well into October.  In bad years it never really arrives at all. blewbury-manor-copyright

In July I travelled just about as far west as is possible in the UK for a few days holiday in Cornwall.  Cornwall is a land of contrasts with picturesque, small fishing villages, spectacular cliff walks and golden, sandy beaches.  Inland, the scenery is bleak moorland with granite outcrops and the houses  appear to squat low in the landscape to shelter from the gales that sweep in off the Atlantic.  Luckily, the evening we went to the Minack Theatre was warm with only the lightest of sea breezes.  Lucky because the theatre is carved into the cliff face.  The idea of Rowena Cade, in the 1930s she and her gardener spent a winter moving rocks and to create a stage and seating.  This Herculean effort was more than worthwhile, it was… well, click here to see for yourself.169   copyright172   copyright

August saw me on the other side of Atlantic Ocean in the American State of Arizona visiting another cliff-face achievement, the Canyon de Chelly.  The houses of the Anasazi people were carved out of the sheer rock face hundreds of years ago and can only be reached by precarious toeholds.  Today it is the home of the Navajo.  The canyon is unique amongst the National Parks of America for it is the only one that is… check this link to find out what.Canyon de Chelly (3)   copyrightCanyon de Chelly (5)   copyright

There is nothing like a bit of bragging and September saw me unashamedly showing off about the small lake I created some years back.  These days, it looks as if it has been there forever and is home to numerous wild duck, fish and small mammals.  Originally a rubbish dump click here to see how it has been transformed.pond-build-3-copyrightpond-2-copyright

I am always telling you how beautiful our Cotswold Hills are and how lucky I am to live in the middle of the secret valley, away from traffic and houses.  In October, I took you all on a virtual tour of the valley.  The crab-apple tree lined lane leads to the wonderfully winding river that features on the blog header. After a mile of visual treats the lane narrows even more as it passes our tiny, stone cottage.  Occasionally, there is a traffic jam – but rarely by cars.  To take the tour again click here.secret-valley-2-copyrightcotswold-traffic-jam-copyright

In November we went treasure hunting – looking for fortune in the garden.  We didn’t have to dig it all up, only walk around it for we were searching for plants originating in China and Japan.  The little-known story of how Robert Fortune, a 19th century dour Scotsman travelled to the for side of the world to fight with pirates before smuggling out what has become one of our most popular drinks is told here.dicentra-spectabilis-copyrighttea-plantation-copyright

Travels  and ancient buildings in Sweden and the south of France, hidden Exmoor, and attracting butterflies to your garden all featured in December‘s review.  If that all sounds too exhausting, take a slow, slow canal longboat ride through the stunning scenery that can be found within a few miles of the university city of Oxford (here).133   copyright

2017 is seeing a lot of changes politically and culturally both here in Britain, in the USA and elsewhere in the world.  Some can’t wait for what will happen and others are dreading it.  Whichever ‘side’ you’re on, come and escape to Life in the English Cotswolds and the secret valley which will always be, hopefully, a little haven of peace.dorn-valley-copyright

Best wishes for 2017 and many thanks for your post -and future – support.

The Year in Review: January – June 2016

As always the year has flown by to leave us with much uncertainty and sadness in the world.  Fortunately, life in the secret valley continues pretty much the same – it is easy to find relief from everyday stresses when surrounded by unspoilt countryside.  Rarely does a day pass when I don’t count my blessings for having had a rural upbringing and the opportunity to continue to live and work in such beautiful surroundings.frost-4-copyright

However, I am no hermit and I enjoy visiting other places – even cities!  One city I loved when I visited it some years ago was Stockholm, the capital of Sweden and I began the blogging year with a post about the Skansen open air museum.  Skansen was the first tomove and preserve traditional, threatened buildings; it was founded as early as 1873.  As well as buildings it also houses a zoo, concentrating on breeding native wildlife for reintroduction schemes including the European Bison which had become extinct in the wild.  To see more of the buildings click on the link here.8  Sweden. Skansen   copyright13 Sweden.  Skansen   copyright

Exmoor is a second home to me and features regularly on my blog.  In March, with some misgivings – for why would I want to share such a magical place – I took readers on my favourite walk, one that wouldn’t be found in any guide book.  The walk encompasses all that is best on Exmoor: open heather moorland, deep wooded combes, rushing streams and traditional pubs.  It also passed the door of the hill farm where I turned up as a lad looking for work after leaving school.  I was taken in and cared for – and made to work hard – and, well read the story by clicking on the link here.Above Brendon Barton (2)   copyrightLil @ Brendon Barton 1968   copyright

April saw me back on the Continent (as we Brits call Europe).  This time in the south of France visiting the ancient town of Lombez.  It is far from the tourist routes and we discovered it quite by chance.  With its ancient, timbered buildings and wonderful, brick built cathedral it deserved a longer visit than we were able to give it.  An excuse for a return trip, perhaps?  In the meantime, you can visit it by clicking on this link here.Lombez (22)   copyrightLombez (4)   copyright

If April saw us travelling slowly through France, May saw us travel at an even slower pace – by longboat on the Oxford Canal.  Passing through traditional buttercup meadows – we were miles from the city of Oxford – and in glorious sunshine it was the perfect way to relax as well as to see the wildlife that seemed oblivious to our passing.    Click on the link here to see more.016   copyright076   copyright

Our native butterflies struggle to thrive but I have been fortunate in living in places where they prosper reasonably well.  As a gardener, (both my hobby and my profession), I probably see more than most and in June I wrote about the species that visit gardens.  See how many you can identify  in your own garden by clicking on the link here and don’t forget to record them with your local conservation trusts or online.Comma Butterfly (2)   copyright

2017 may well prove to be a year that none of us forget too easily.  Travel abroad or in the countryside – and the British countryside is second to none – always helps to refresh the spirits.  I have numerous plans for the year ahead and hope that you will be joining me month by month.  In the meantime, the review of the second half of this year will follow shortly and don’t forget that images of the Cotswolds and other places I visit are updated regularly on my Facebook page and on Flickr.  You can also find me on Twitter @johnshortlandwra typical Cotswold scene   copyright

 

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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A Great Game?

A series of faded, sepia photographs have always been a mystery to me, just something else put into a cupboard and forgotten.  Handed down through the generations they recently came to light once more and looked at with renewed interest.  Who were these people and what connection might they have to my family? Two of the images were signed and with this name as my starting point the tale of their origin began to emerge.  The story that is unfolding only deepens the mystery for they were part of the ‘Great Game’, a term I hadn’t come across before.  Now, for me, it has two meanings: warmongering and my struggle to seek out the truth behind them.

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Rudyard Kipling brought the ‘Great Game’ into everyday circles by using it in his novel Kim, published in 1901, although the term had been in use for many years before that.  It described the cat and mouse rivalry between the British and Russian Empires that lasted throughout the nineteenth century.

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Britain, alarmed at Russia’s expansion southwards, feared that Afghanistan would be used as the gateway to an invasion of India.  To avoid this, troops were sent to install a puppet government in Kabul but within four years order was breaking down and the garrison was forced to retreat.  Caught in a series of ambushes, Afghan warriors slaughtered all but one of the 4500 troops and 12000 followers. By 1878 the British invaded again following the Afghani’s refusal to allow a diplomatic mission to visit. A treaty was signed and the army withdrew leaving a small staff in Kabul: in the autumn of the following year they were killed leading to full-scale war – the Second Anglo-Afghan War.  Travelling with the British army was a freelance photographer, John Burke, and it is his signature that appears on my photos.

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History, as we all know, has a habit of repeating itself and sadly the rivalry between Russia and the West over Afghanistan has continued.  Inspired by John Burke, the war photographer Simon Norfolk has carried out a new series of images.  Intriguingly, he lists all of Burke’s plate numbers – the two of mine that are numbered are left blank so perhaps this is the first time they have been seen; rather an amazing thought.

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All that is left now – and no mean feat – is to identify the places and the regiments and to find out where (and if) my family fit into all of this. I have been helped along the way by enthusiasts from a Facebook group.  One of them, Arnie Manifold, has an ancestor that fought there and it is his medals that are shown in the image below.  Wouldn’t it be extraordinary if we discovered his face on one of these old photos?

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copyright   Second Afghan War Medals copyright Arnie Manifold

To view Simon Norfolk’s website and more information on John Burke, click here

To find out how a series of colourful postcards, brought back by my father from WWII, led to the discovery of a German fairy-tale castle, a love affair and an epic poem, click here.