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: 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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We Built a Pond – you can too!

Winter is an ideal time to create a pond and with it fast approaching now is the time to start planning.  Quite probably you have an idea where you want to place it but do think about its position carefully.  Falling leaves from trees is an obvious issue but some others aren’t until it is too late. Water always collects at the given lowest point; a pond perched on top of a mound will look ridiculous so check where the lowest point in your garden is and create the pond there, remodelling other sections of the garden, if need be, to tie in. bulrush-copyright

With our proposed pond site, we already had a large depression where garden rubbish and junk had been thrown for years.  Now overgrown with scrub, it needed careful clearing, including roots that may have punctured the lining.  If space is tight, the pond should have a planting shelf set several inches below water level, around at least one third of its edge; if space permits a graduated slope to the pond encourages plants to spread more naturally and, to my mind, is preferable.pond-build-1-copyright

If access allows, it is sensible to hire a digger to create the pond for even a small one involves a lot of digging and moving of soil.  In the past, the mound was often left behind with a few rocks, or even worse, bits of broken concrete, to create a rockery.  This very rarely works well and it looks far better to have lawn leading down to the pond with possibly shrubs or other plants surrounding it.  Whatever the choice, it is important to have a seamless transition from water to garden.  Iris work well for this as there are varieties that will grow in shallow water and on the moist soil surrounding it; some reeds, too, will colonise the bank giving the pond that natural look.pond-build-3-copyright

When using a lining it is important to allow a decent overhang onto dry land.  In this photo, the lining has been cut a little on the tight side – the weight of the water pulled the liner down into position; it is better to trim the liner after the pond has filled.  Once that has been done the liner can be disguised by laying turf down the sides to just below water level.  Once grown, it creates a beautifully natural appearance to the pool.pond-lining-2-copyright

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In the spring, aquatic plants can be planted.  Oxygenating plants grow below water level and apart from being essential, make good cover for fish and insects from predators.  Marginal plants grow in shallow water and are used for lining the edges of the pool.  A thick planting of these are a good safety measure if small children are likely to visit, although they should never be allowed to do so unsupervised.  Water lilies grow in different depths of water so do make sure that the variety you choose is suitable for the depth of the pond. pond-5-copyright

 

Ponds, however large, never need to be exceptionally deep, rarely more than a metre and can be as little as 50cms.  Smaller ponds benefit from a deeper ‘hole’ so that fish can take shelter from the coldest weather.  It is worth remembering that the larger the pond the easier it is to maintain and keep healthy.  Finally, once the plants have established, fish can be added.  For a wildlife pond, ornamental goldfish should be avoided although some of our smaller native fish can be included.

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Koi Carp are best kept by enthusiasts!

 

 

It is always a surprise at how quickly new plantings grow in a garden and the pond is no exception.  The scars of our pond had healed within months and even after just a couple of years ponds can look as if they have been there for ever.  Now twenty years later, visitors to our garden find it hard to believe that the pond isn’t natural; it abounds with wildlife and there isn’t an inch of black butyl liner to be seen.pond-2-copyright

The pond featured here was built in the large garden of the house that I claim to be my birthright (joke).  Correspondingly, the pond also had to be large but the principles of pond design and placement are the same whatever their size.

To read about the bizarre coincidences that cause me to ‘claim’ the house click on these links:

The House My Parents Built – 200 Years Ago

Reincarnation – or just Coincidence?

 

Castleyons – an Irish Gem

The small village of Castlelyons in Co. Cork, Ireland appeared deserted when we drove into it and as we seemed to be the only car on the road there was no fear of being run over when taking the photo below. As if to confirm its silence the main street was dominated by the ruins of an old Carmelite abbey.Castlelyons   copyrightCastlelyons (2)   copyright

Little is known of the origins of the abbey for there are few surviving written records. It is thought that it dates from the beginning of the 14th century although the existing ruins are from a hundred years later.

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The size of the nave is huge measuring over sixty feet in length and twenty in width. It is separated from the chancel by the tower which although very ruined still has its complete spiral staircase which can be climbed – but not for the faint-hearted. The chancel which is also very large (over fifty feet in length) is where the altar would have been placed. A number of grave slabs survive some of which still have visible markings.Castlelyons (7)   copyright

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The cloister, where the monks walked and meditated, is less complete but the turf square and parts of columns gives a sense of the place. The monastery was dissolved during the Reformation and passed into private hands. Now it is a national monument.Castlelyons (12)   copyright

A mile or two from the abbey ruins is the Castlelyons Graveyard at Kill-St-Anne. At its centre is a mausoleum built about 1747. The interior is circular with just one marble monument to James Barry, Earl of Barrymore and carved in 1753. External steps lead to a crypt below.

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Close to the first lies a second mausoleum, also built in the eighteenth century, for the Peard family, local landlords. Their earliest grave (dated 1683) lies elsewhere in the churchyard and commemorates Richard Peard, an ensign from Devonshire in England.Castlelyons (20)   copyright

The church – or more accurately churches – lie in ruins for a more recent one was built within the original. They date from the eighteenth and fourteenth centuries respectively. The remains of the bell tower and gothic arches are from the earlier date, the elaborate stone window which are in the later ruins are reputed to have belonged to the original church. Whatever the truth of this tale, the result is beautiful and romantic.Castlelyons (23)   copyright

The churchyard is a haven for wildlife and native flowers flourish beside mown paths. Beside the old cemetery is another, newer one still in use and equally well-maintained as were the old abbey ruins and the village itself. Castlelyons maybe off the beaten track but it is well worth making the effort to visit. It is rural Ireland at its very best.

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Much information has been gleaned from information boards within the village and also the Castlelyons village website – link here. Apart from details of its history the website shows that despite its small size, the village social life is thriving.