In The Footsteps of Clare

The days have been unseasonably dry and the nights exceptionally cold for April but day after day of unbroken sunshine has meant that it has been particularly good to be outdoors.  The warmth tempered by a gentle north-easterly has created perfect walking conditions.    However, as is so often the way, the day I chose to wander along the byways that criss-cross the border of Lincolnshire, one of England’s largest counties, and Rutland, England’s smallest, there was more cloud to be seen than for weeks.

The Ford at Aunby – where the walk begins and ends

My walk began at the ford by the tiny hamlet of Aunby, a few miles north of Stamford.  Stamford has been described as “the most perfect stone town in England” as well as being voted the best place to live.  It certainly is a beautiful place to explore with numerous, fine churches as well as a great Friday market and a wealth of independent shops.  Whereas Stamford has prospered through the centuries, Aunby suffered a dramatic decline: in the fourteenth century there were numerous houses and a church; today, apart from a few cottages, they only show as cropmarks.

A quiet seat in Stanford
Stamford Market before the crowds arrive…

Heading north-west along a grassy bridleway, the path climbs gently until a narrow lane with wide, grassy verges is reached.  One of the many roadside nature reserves in the county, the late spring meant that the only wildflowers to be seen were cowslips which grew in plentiful splendour.  Following this lane uphill  to the elaborate, black and gold entrance gates of Holywell Hall where I turned left, glimpses of the mansion could be seen through the hedgerow that lined the lane. Both the house and grounds are immaculately cared for although I admired most of all the winding path cut through a splendid swathe of dandelions in full bloom.  Considered by many a nuisance ‘weed’ to be sprayed out rather than a wildflower to be kept, dandelions are a great source of early nectar for bees and other insects as well as looking beautiful in their own right.

The entrance to Holywell Hall
Holywell Hall
The dandelion meadow at Holywell Hall

Crossing the county border into Rutland my route immediately turned left onto a forest track to take me up to Holywell Wood and into Pickworth Great Wood.  It was here that I met a local couple exercising their black Labrador dogs, the only people I saw on the whole of my eight-mile walk. They told me that the area was one of the largest woodlands locally as well as being a Site of Special Scientific Interest, designated for its geology as well as its wildlife – a fact confirmed by the NatureSpot website (click here for more information). The woodland path was lined with primroses, the trees just breaking bud and coming into leaf but, sadly, I was too early to hear the nightingales sing. 

Crossing into England’s smallest county
The path through Pickworth Great Wood

Beyond the wood, the path crossed diagonally over unseasonably dry arable land to the village of Pickworth.  It was at this point that I really felt that I was walking in Clare’s footsteps although we can safely assume that he knew most, if not all, of the paths that I would be taking that day.  John Clare, the Peasant Poet, born into poverty and distraught by the destructive changes to the countryside and its people at that time, died in 1864 in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum.  It was at Pickworth where he laboured in the lime kiln which inspired him to write the poem The Ruins of Pickworth (click link here to read).  The lime kiln still stands although it is barely visible through a thicket of blackthorn.

No muddy boots this unseasonably dry Spring
The barely visible lime kiln where the Peasant Poet, John Clare, toiled

 Pickworth, like Aunby, is another village that has almost disappeared.  Thriving in the 1300s, it now has a population of less than a hundred.  The only sign of the old village is the crumbling stone arch of the church and various grassy mounds and ruts in the surrounding fields. The arch stands on private property but with the help of the camera, details of ornate mouldings and leaves could be seen. It is thought that the Battle of Losecote Field in 1470 fought two miles from the village may have been the cause of its depopulation.

All that remains of the old church at Pickworth is the 13th century arch
Pickworth Old Church – detail

Although the association of Pickworth with Clare is important, to visit the Church of All Saints was the main purpose for my walk.  Built in 1822 at the bequest of Joseph Armitage of Wakefield, Yorkshire, it is a rectangular, stone building of plain beauty and fine proportion.  Set high on a bank and surrounded by trees, the interior is simply lime-washed, the only colour a small amount of stained glass above the altar.

The Church of All Saints, Pickworth
The simple interior of All Saints, Pickworth
The understated beauty of the only stained glass at Pickworth, All Saints

From Pickworth, an old drove road, The Drift, leads back towards Aunby by crossing Ryall Heath.  The road, now another old track, offers pleasing views across arable land, hedgerows filled with wildflowers and the sound of skylarks showering you from high with their song. The Drift ends at the junction with the road that takes you directly back to the start of the walk (turn left here).   Although the B4116 can be quite a busy road at times there are wide grass verges to make walking feel safe.  Finally, you reach the ford at Aunby, where this walk began.  Alternatively, a few yards before the ford you can take the lane that leads to Clematis Cottage, where I stayed for the duration of this oh-so-welcome-after-lockdown short break.

Pickworth Drift, the old drover’s road leads across Ryall Heath
Pickworth Drift, an ancient drover’s road

Clematis Cottages at Lodge Farm, Aunby is a small group of buildings converted into delightful, self-catering holiday accommodation.  Richard and Kaye Griffin, friends as well as the owners, live in the farmhouse where they provide every comfort to make a stay enjoyable.  Set in extensive gardens, their aim is to be self-sufficient in vegetables, eggs and honey.  Throughout the gardens there are paths and seating areas – one of my favourites is the summerhouse overlooking the small lake, a haven for wildlife.  Although set on its own and surrounded by fields, Stamford is only six miles away and the internationally renowned Rutland Water, where you can watch rare ospreys nest and fish, ten miles away.  It’s also the perfect base for the nearby Burghley Horse Trials.  To find out more about staying in one of the cottages and their range of home-produced chutneys, preserves and honey click this link here.

A corner of the pretty gardens at Clematis Cottages, Aunby
A winding woodland path in the gardens of Clematis Cottages, Aunby
Deer are frequently seen in the fields adjacent to Clematis Cottages, Aunby

Notes:  the walk is a relatively easy and gentle route mostly along roads and tracks.  In places the paths can be uneven and/or muddy but neither should deter anyone with average health and mobility.  Although there are some inclines none are prolonged or steep.  However, as always, care should be taken and appropriate clothing and footwear worn.  It is approximately eight miles in length so allow a good three hours to complete.

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.

 

 

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

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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On the Edge of the Precipice

Snowdonia, the third of Britain’s national parks to be designated (and the first in Wales) is a popular holiday destination despite it being the wettest place in the UK.  Mt. Snowdon, Wales’ highest peak after which the park is named, is challenging to climb although thousands ascend by the easy route – using the narrow guage railway.

Far to the south and away from the crowds the scenery is still dramatic giving great opportunities for hill walking.  It is possible to walk all day with only ravens, buzzards and red kites for company.

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The Precipice Path near the small town of Dolgellau is a relatively short and easy circular walk that offers spectacular views in all directions.  It is a good introduction to walking in the hills for it is well signposted and, more often than not, there are other walkers nearby.  If, like me, you prefer to walk in splendid isolation then that is still possible by starting early or late in the day and avoiding weekends.

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The path leading up to the precipice winds its way gently alongside woodland before climbing more steeply for a few hundred yards.  It is rocky and uneven and, as with any hill walking, strong shoes or boots should always be worn.  During the winter, this part of the path is often icy.

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As the path turns towards the west spectacular views of the river, the Afon Mawddach appear, set in a deep glacial valley that leads out to sea.  The path now narrows and with a sharp drop to one side – although it is quite safe small children need to be supervised and those that suffer from a fear of heights will find this stretch challenging.

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For those not worried by height the bird’s eye view of Dol-y-clochydd is fascinating especially if you are lucky enough to see the sheep being herded by the farmer and his dogs.

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At the halfway point, a bench marks the end of the precipice and from here there are vews of the village of Llanelltyd and of the river flowing into the sea.Precipice Walk (10)   copyright

The path now turns back on itself in a wide arc before descending to the edge of Llyn Cynwch, a small reservoir with views of the mountains and crystal clear water giving superb reflections.  The path follows the edge of the lake until it returns to the starting point of the walk.  Novice walkers should allow at least two hours for completion.

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The Precipice Path lies within the nine hundred year old Nannau Estate and, although not a public right of way, the estate has opened it to the public since 1890.  It is a working estate and there may be sheep or other livestock roaming freely so it is necessary to keep dogs strictly under control. Precipice Walk (18)   copyright