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.

Marlow watermark

                           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.

Nr Fingest copyright

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.

Viola watermark

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.

Date stone watermark

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.

Field Mouse watermark

patience was rewarded when this little field mouse ventured into the open

Altamont Gardens (8) watermark

… 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.

Radford Mill (1) watermark

The old millrace 

Radford Mill watermark

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.

Sweet Chestnut 4 watermark

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.

Drying hay before baling

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.

discover the different textures & scents of herbs

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 Secret Garden

I have noticed that even those that don’t show the slightest interest in things horticultural love exploring walled gardens, especially if they are overgrown and forgotten.  Perhaps it stirs memories of the children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett published in 1911 in which she shows that when something unloved is cherished and cared for it can become beautiful and healthy, be it a plant or the human spirit.

Houghton_AC85_B9345_911s_-_Secret_Garden,_1911_-_cover

Photo Credit: AC85 B9345 911s, Houghton Library, Harvard University

I have been fortunate over the years in caring for a number of walled gardens in different stages of development yet, regardless of their state, there is something magical in placing the key in the lock and pushing open the door – as nasty, little Mary Lennox discovered in the novel.  As she returned the garden to its former glory so, she too, grew into a loving and loveable child.

Garden Border (4) watermark

Perhaps even more so than the plants and trees within, the beauty of a walled garden comes from the walls themselves.  The brickwork over time has mellowed and seems to release the warmth of a hundred or more summers, even on the greyest of days.  Search the walls and they reveal secrets – a date scratched into a stone, old lead labels revealing the varieties of long-disappeared fruit trees or, occasionally, the name of a much-loved pet buried at its feet.

Walled Garden watermark

The walls in this deserted garden date back to the late 17th/early 18th centuries

Old Plant Tag watermark

Recorded for posterity: the trees may have disappeared but the record of the varieties remain

One of the most rewarding to explore yet emptiest of walled gardens has to be that of Dunmore Park.  The house no longer stands but the garden walls remain crowned by that most eccentric of British garden room follies, the Pineapple.  Here the walls are hollow, fires were lit at its feet and the walls warmed to promote early growth.  Sliding stone blocks could be opened to release the smoke which, filling the garden at night helped to keep frosts at bay.  Clever, those early gardeners.

The Pineapple (11) watermarkThe Pineapple (31) watermarkThe Pineapple (34) watermark

Walled gardens when not open to visitors are more often a place of silence, the only sound to accompany the gardener is that of birdsong and the hum of insects.  It can be a place where your mind can be free from the everyday cares of the outside world.  It can also be a place where your design ideas can run riot either in your head or, if lucky enough, in reality.  The images below show before and after photos of a border I created many years ago, the idea for the colour palette coming from an Imari plate belonging to the owner of the garden.  The border is living proof of an imagination run riot!

Blue & White Border - before watermarkImari Plate   watermark.jpgBlue & White Border - after watermark

A Host of Golden Daffodils

If you want to see, as Wordsworth did, a ‘host of golden daffodils…beside the lake, beneath the trees, fluttering and dancing in the breeze,’ in your own garden now is the time to plant them. What’s more, you don’t need a lake or rolling acres to have a spectacular show. The secret is to plant them in quantity and with a little thought on position.

Daffodils (2)    copyright

Daffodils (Narcissus) are incredibly easy to grow for every full sized bulb that you buy already has next spring’s flower formed within it. All you have to do is pop them in the ground as soon as possible after purchase and nature does the rest.Daffodils (2)   copyright

A general rule is to plant any bulb twice the depth of its height: so if your bulb is two inches high, your planting hole needs to be four inches deep. When they are tucked safely below ground at that level the bulbs aren’t so likely to get damaged when weeding. To get the ‘host’ look don’t plant singly or in tiny groups of twos and threes. Think big, think twenty-five, fifty or even a hundred or more. This may sound an expensive option but daffodils are readily available in bulk mail order and many garden centres offer a ‘cram as many as you can into a bag’ deal. It is worth remembering too that the bulbs will continue to increase in quantity and flower for many years making them incredibly good value for money.

Naturalised Daffodils   copyright

Because daffodils flower early in the year, before most other plants in the border have got going, it is not necessary to plant them at the front. If they are planted further back, later their dying leaves will become hidden by spring growth. You will find that when planted too far forward, they are both unsightly and a nuisance.

Narcissus 'Salome'

Narcissus ‘Salome’

One of the best ways of growing daffodils is to grow them in grass or under trees – just as Wordsworth saw them. The simplest way to do this is to simply throw the bulbs and plant them where they fall. Some will land very close together and some further apart which makes them look as if they have been growing there forever. Make the throw gentle, a cross between underarm cricket and bowls – you’re not trying to win the Ashes. In grass, the bulbs will be easier to spot if you mow the grass as short as possible beforehand.

Naturalised Daffodils (3)   copyright

Which varieties to select is only difficult because there is almost too much choice. For naturalising I tend to select three standard varieties that flower at slightly differing times, thereby extending the flowering period. In the borders I just choose those varieties that I fancy.

Narcissus 'Chanterelle'

Narcissus ‘Chanterelle’

Although daffodils are best planted during August and September, I usually find I’m too busy with other garden tasks then. I have found they can be planted right up to December without a problem providing wintry weather hasn’t closed in. If the thought of planting large quantities sounds rather daunting remember you can always plant year after year until you’ve achieved the aimed for look.

Nine thousand daffodils!

Nine thousand daffodils!

John Shortland is the author of Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That? a jargon-free and easy to read gardening manual, available from Amazon and good bookshops.  To take a peep inside click on the image below.

BOOK COVER FROM AMAZON

The Scottish Pineapple

The statement “I have been living in a Pineapple” may give cause for surprise but is, in fact, quite true for I have just returned from a brief trip to Scotland.  To stay in a building that puts a smile on your face whenever you catch a glimpse of it ought to be on everyone’s ‘to do’ list – if it is, The Pineapple is the place to go.

e226c-the2bpineapple2b42b2b2bcopyright

Originally part of the Dunsmore Estate, it was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland in 1974 and leased to the Landmark Trust who undertook its restoration.  Neglected for very many years, the Pineapple proved to be in remarkably good condition for every ‘leaf’ was designed to prevent water collecting within it and damaging the stonework.  The remainder of the property was very unstable and derelict.

The Scottish Pineapple

When the two walled gardens were enclosed at Dunsmore in the mid 1700’s there was no ‘big house’ attached.  They were purely used for producing a supply of fruit, vegetables and flowers to be sent to the Earl of Dunmore’s home in Argyll. It was some years later (it is thought) that the Pineapple was added as a folly and summerhouse, probably after the Earl’s return from Virginia and the Bahamas where he was Governor.

The Scottish Pineapple

Why a pineapple?  In the eighteenth century, pineapples were a rare luxury that had become associated with wealth and hospitality.  They began to appear on pillars, railings and weather vanes and, indoors on fabrics and wall coverings.  The building of The Pineapple was, perhaps, the grandest of all grand gestures.

aa16c-the2bpineapple2b122b2b2bcopyright

Although the building is of such high quality in both its materials, cratsmanship and design it was barely recorded in contemporary writing and its designer remains unknown.  One possible reason for this is that it may have been just a little too ‘over the top’ even for flamboyant Georgian taste.  It is even quite probable that the Pineapple may have been painted. The doorway of the undercroft is a very accurate timber carving of Ionic pillars beyond which stone steps lead to the raised northern lawn.  From this lawn there is level access to the summerhouse.

78a9f-the2bpineapple2b192b2b2bcopyright

Either side of the Pineapple are two small cottages, formerly gardener’s bothys.  These have been fully restored by the Landmark Trust to create holiday accomodation with living room and kitchen in one and bedrooms in the other.  The north garden and the Pineapple room are for the private use of guests, the south lawn and gardens are open to the public.

2daaf-the2bpineapple2b92b2b2bcopyright

ba5c7-p10403322b2

To be able to grow pineapples required specialist knowledge and skills as well as additional warmth.  Glasshouses flanked the south wall and were heated by the use of specially constructed hollow walls.  At the foot of these, fires were lit and flues within the wall drew the heat upwards, warming the brickwork.  The four decorative urns to either side of the Pineapple conceal chimneys and because of there similarity to those at Casino Marino in Dublin (to read about this extraordinary building click here), it has been suggested that the designer could be Sir William Chambers although there is no documented evidence to suggest this.   At intervals on the southern side of the walls I found sliding stones which could be removed presumably to allow the heat to escape.

a31b0-the2bpineapple2b312b2b2bcopyright

46745-the2bpineapple2b342b2b2bcopyright

In 1820 William Wilkins, architect of the National Gallery in London, designed a house in the Tudor Gothick style.  Dunsmore Park’s glory was, however, short-lived for by 1911 the family had left although it remained occupied until 1964 after which it was abandoned.  It is now a ruin visible across the fields from the Pineapple.  Another ruin, now very unstable, and also visible from the Pineapple, is the Elphinstone Tower.  Of earlier origin, built about 1510, it became the family vault of the Dunmore family in 1836 with a church built alongside a few years later.  This was demolished in the 1960’s.  Their fascinating stories will be subjects of this blog in due course.

The Scottish Pineapple

The Scottish Pineapple

With so much history and beautiful scenery close by – Loch Lomond is only a short drive away – the Pineapple makes a great and intriguing place to use as a base for exploring the area.  The grounds are open free to the public all year but the building is at its best during the hours when you are alone to enjoy its eccentricity and splendid isolation.

The Pineapple (6)   copyright

The Pineapple at night

Links:

The Landmark Trust

The National Trust for Scotland