Herbs on a Hillside

The secret valley close to where I live is encircled by hills.  The steeper slopes as well as the valley floor, which is subject to regular flooding, have not been ploughed in living memory and, quite probably, not at all.  As a consequence, providing the sheep or cattle haven’t grazed them too heavily, the grass sward is peppered with wild flowers.  In the spring there are cowslips and, as the year advances, orchids and the delicate, nodding flower heads of Quaking Grass can be found.

Wild Flower Meadow copyright

over 97% of old flower meadows have been destroyed since 1930

Although the orchids are a joy, the plants that excite me most are the wild, culinary herbs, the scarcest of which is wild thyme, for it grows only on the driest and steepest of the banks.  Thyme can, of course, be readily bought in supermarkets all year round, either dried or fresh, and it is easily grown at home in a pot or window box.  All it requires is sunny spot and a free-draining and not over-rich potting compost to thrive.

Wild thyme copyright

Shakespeare’s wild thyme

Whenever, I see the wild thyme I always think of Shakespeare’s immortal line, I know a bank where the wild thyme grows.  The secret valley is only about twenty-five miles as the crow flies from Stratford-upon-Avon and so there is a rather satisfying sense of connection across the centuries, as well as the miles, whenever the tiny flowerheads peep out from amongst the grass.  In fact, Shakespeare’s words and the secret valley’s meadows were inspiration for an early blog post of mine on creating wild flower meadows way back in 2009!  You’ll find that one by clicking on this link.

Thyme’s cousin, marjoram is nowhere near as diminutive in both its scent or its flowering.  Standing tall on wiry, strong stems it is a magnet for bees and butterflies.  Once again, it is a useful garden plant not just for kitchen use but also good as a front of border edging.  It spreads steadily but is never a nuisance.  In the wild, grasses and other plants prevent it from becoming too dominant but when you discover a good stand of it swaying in a warm, summer breeze the perfume is unforgettable.

Marjoram & Butterfly watermark

A Ringlet butterfly feeding on Marjoram

One plant that is often overlooked although it is quite tall is Salad Burnet.  Its dark red, tightly buttoned flowers can be used in floral arrangements but it is only the young leaves that are edible.  Used in salads and also added to sauces, they have a mild and slightly bitter cucumber flavour.  Sharp eyes are needed to find it growing amongst tall grasses for its rosette of pinnate leaves hug the ground.  Fortunately, once again, there is no need to forage from the wild for they grow happily in the garden.

Salad Burnet watermark

You need to look carefully amongst the taller grasses to spot Salad Burnet

Along the lane that leads out of the valley, and also somewhat surprisingly, growing amongst trees close to our house, chives can be found.  A common kitchen ingredient and native to Britain they have a remarkably widespread range over much of the northern hemisphere, growing across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and North America.  Although they are plentiful, how much easier it is to pick them from a pot close to the kitchen door!

Chives at Sladhollow watermark

chives growing through the leaf litter of open woodland

It is one of the pleasures of summer to seek out these wild food plants for it is reassuring to know that, if ever the need arose, they are there to flavour my meals.  However, even under lockdown, there is never a real need to harvest a wild plant; how much better to leave it for the bees and butterflies?

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Marbled White butterflies thrive in old meadows

Dreaming of a White Christmas – again

When Irving Berlin wrote the now immortal lines, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones we used to know” he was pining for colder weather for he was staying in California (or Arizona, for both states lay claim to the fact). The original version of the song actually began with a complaint about warmer climes: “The sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway…”  How, as a child I could relate to that – well almost.

My childhood home was not in the Cotswold Hills but at the foot of the Chiltern Hills, along the banks of the River Thames which thirty or so odd miles downstream flows through London on its way to the sea. The microclimate of the river meant our village had a much milder climate than the higher villages just a few miles away. Although nowhere near warm enough for oranges and palms to survive we very rarely had any snow at all. The village wasn’t renowned (or so it seemed as a child) for its sunshine either and the grass remained obstinately green all year round. Searching through old photos, I can only find one where our garden had turned wintry white and that was only a heavy frost. The winter of 1963 where we had to push a car through a small snowdrift was such a rare event that it is still talked about some 56 years later.

Hawthorne Cottage Xmas 1970 watermark

When the time came to leave home and buy my own house, I moved to the far side of the Chilterns where snow was more common. Within a couple of months of my arrival, I had to learn to master wintry driving conditions that a Canadian or American driver would barely think twice about. For in the UK an inch or two of snow causes major panic, road closures and travel disruption.

Watlington 1982 (3) copyright

Fast forward to 2001 and my move to the Cotswolds. Until then, I had to go for my snowy ‘fix’ overseas to Norway, Switzerland, Austria or Canada. Never a great sportsman it seemed rather bizarre that I had hit upon a sport – Langlaufen or cross-country skiing – that not only did I love and turned out to be rather good at but one that I couldn’t practice easily in my home country. However, the Cotswolds are far snowier than anywhere else I have resided and in 2010 I actually manged to ‘live the dream’ by skiing from the back door of my home and along the secret valley.

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Living the dream in Norway

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Snow in the secret valley

So why am I, like poor old Bing Crosby, singing that same old dirge? Is it because snow here rarely falls before Christmas and quite often doesn’t fall at all? The only white Christmas I have photographic record of (and I can’t remember any other) is of 2017 and even then, by Christmas Day nearly all of it had melted.

Snow Dec 2017 (10) watermark

Just occasionally, the snow does finally fall deep and crisp and even. When it does, much of Britain hibernates, nervous of venturing out. However, we still have horses and other animals to feed and tend to. And when I’m out in the four-wheel drive I feel rather satisfied that I have mastered the elements, satisfied in a smug way that only the English would understand for those used to snowier climes would wonder what all the fuss is about.

Glympton watermark

Driving to the horses

Christmas 2019 is proving to be mild and green yet again. It has been a bizarre year weather-wise for we have had the wettest autumn on record and the fields surrounding our cottage are under water once again where the little winding river has burst its banks. In Australia, bush fires are burning out-of-control under fierce, all-stifling temperatures. Friends in America have already had to cope with exceptional winter weather. Perhaps I should, rather than have a little moan about the lack of a white Christmas, be thankful that I live in a country where extremes of weather are unheard of.  On the other hand (and trying not to sound to whiny), it would be nice if we could have…

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Floods rather than snow for us this year 😦

Wishing you all a very peaceful, safe and happy Christmas – and may the weather be kind to you.  John.

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.

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.

Common Blue Butterfly   copyright

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…

Gatekeeper Butterfly (2)   copyright

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.

Roadside Verge   copyright

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.

Brimstone     copyright

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.

Peacock Butterfly   copyright

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.

Comma Butterfly (2)   copyright

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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Meadow Brown Butterfly - male   copyright

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!