Friday, 24 October 2014

The Story of Lorna Doone - just a myth?

 Lorna Doone is the tale of a young boy, John Ridd, whose father is killed by Scottish outlaws – the Doones.   Exiled to a remote part of Exmoor (which is in England’s West Country and now a National Park), they rob travellers and local farms.  Living amongst them is the pretty Lorna Doone, kidnapped by them as an infant.  John enters the forbidden Doone Valley by climbing a steep and difficult waterfall, the ‘waterslide’, and meets Lorna for the first time.  Some years later he rescues her and as they marry Lorna is shot through the window of Oare church by the wicked Carver Doone.  John pursues him and after a struggle Carver perishes in a bog.  Lorna recovers from her wounds and so the story has a happy ending.
Oare Church

But is it true?  The simple answer to the question is that the answer isn’t simple.  When Richard Dodderidge Blackmore wrote his historic novel in the late 1800’s he mixed fact with fiction and local legend with the names of local people.
Blackmore placed the Doone stronghold beside Badgworthy (pronounced ‘Badgery’) Water.  There is a deserted medieval village beside a tributary in Hoccombe Combe and it is very probable that this is the site for the ruins were still visible in Blackmore’s day.  However the Waterslide is not found there but in another side valley, Lank Combe. Nowhere as sheer as described it is, however, an impressive sight with its three smooth slabs of rock especially when the river is in spate.  I like to think that he also had in mind the waterslide at Watersmeet a few miles further downstream which would be much more of a challenging climb.
The waterslide at Watersmeet
 
Because the precise location of the Doone Valley is uncertain it is no longer described as such on maps, the Ordnance Survey now describing the area more accurately as Doone Country.  A rewarding walk can be taken along the whole length of Badgworthy Water starting from Brendon Common by parking the car at Brendon Two Gates.  Here there are wide views of both the open heather moorland and also the grass moor of the Royal Forest ‘improved’ in the nineteenth century.  Badgworthy Water changes in character along its length from fast running rapids to smoother, deeper pools.
Badgworthy Water

The above walk is rugged and long but a more gentle approach is from Malmsmead with its much photographed packhorse bridge and ford that also denotes the county border between Devon and Somerset.
Malmsmead where Badgworthy Water crosses the road
 
Further along the lane nestles the village of Oare and the church where Lorna and John wed.  Inside is a memorial to Blackmore, a smaller copy of the one in Exeter cathedral.  A memorial can also be seen to the Snow family who lived at Oare manor and also feature in Lorna Doone. It is recorded that as Blackmore didn’t write kindly of the Snows he was afterwards much disliked by them.  Other local characters also existed: Tom Faggus, the highwayman was – in real life – from nearby North Molton and Ridd is still a local surname. 
Oare village and church nestle in a deep combe
Is Lorna Doone a story based on truth?  That is for the reader to decide, perhaps after visiting Mother Meldrum’s cave in the Valley of Rocks, for both are mentioned in Blackmore’s book.
The Valley of Rocks



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Thursday, 25 September 2014

Respect Your Elders

Of all trees few can be held in as much contempt as our native elder, Sambucus nigra.  It grows almost anywhere and in such profusion that it is dismissed as a ‘weed’ and it is true that its habit of self-sowing and growing through treasured garden plants can be a nuisance.  Despite all of this, however, it is also one of the most useful of plants both in the wild and the shrub border.

This variegated form of Elder is very useful for brightening up a shady place
 
Search any hedgerow and the Elder can be found.  It is easily identified, even in mid-winter, for its bark is dull, dry and scaly, with prominent pairs of leaf buds; these are some of the earliest to open in the spring.  Young leaves can even be found during mild spells in the winter although these are replaced if damaged by frost.  Perhaps the simplest way to identify a leafless plant is to break off a stem for the centre is hollow and filled with whitish pith. Generations of country children hollow out these stems to create ‘cigarettes’ to smoke; in fact I can claim only to have smoked elder – and that stopped once a spark burnt the back of my throat!

Perhaps the glory of Elder comes in spring when the trees burst into flower. Large, flat heads (corymbs), consisting of hundreds of tiny scented flowers smother the plants and for a short while the countryside carries their pungent odour.  These have traditionally been the first crop to be harvested, their flowers steeped in water to make Elderflower cordial or ‘champagne’, these days now sold commercially. Elderflowers can be used dried in herbal teas or, when fresh, swirled in a light batter and dropped into hot oil to make delicious and unusual fritters.  Adding the flowers to stewed gooseberries or when making jam is a very old method of counterbalancing the tartness of the fruit.
Within weeks the flowers which were held upright will have faded and drooped as berries form.  Even when green, streaks of colour hint of their ripeness to come.  By late summer, the clusters have turned almost black and make a welcome addition to fruit pies or, used on their own, in jam and wine making.
The medicinal uses for Elder are equally varied.  According to the herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy all parts of the plant can be used: roots for kidney problems; bark against epilepsy and the leaves, when mixed with geranium and garlic, to soothe eczema and rashes.  The flowers and berries are used for relief of coughs and colds and it has also been claimed that the flowers can restore blindness.  As with all herbal treatments caution and common sense should be used – I’m not brave enough to suggest that you try any of them out!
The dark berries  of the elder - the red ones are hawthorn
For a tree with so many uses that has been part of country lore for so long it is not surprising to find it has many names.  A widespread alternative is Judas Tree for tradition states that it was the Elder that Judas Iscariot hung himself from.  It is from a derivation of the name Judas that Jew’s Ears fungus which commonly grows on elder gets its common name.
 
 
 
 
 

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Stop That Horse!

The first week in September doesn’t just herald the start of autumn it also heralds the start of the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials.  Held each year in the grounds of Burghley House - a magnificent, Elizabethan stately home located just outside Stamford, Lincolnshire - it attracts the top names in equestrianism.  Also known as three day eventing, the trials combine different elements of horsemanship: dressage, cross-country and show jumping which tests the strength, stamina, skill and bravery of both horse and rider.  It is a popular and unique sport with crowds of over 160,000 coming to watch.
The cross-country course is very demanding with thirty-two fences over a distance of 6500 metres (four miles) to jump, ideally under twelve minutes.  The Cottesmore Leap is one of the largest and scariest looking of the fences although the horses rarely seem fazed by it.  
 

Eventing is a high risk sport and accidents do occur.  More often than not, this is when a fence is misjudged and the rider parts company with the horse or a fence is damaged during the jump, for they are designed to fall apart to reduce the risk of injury.   So what happens when something goes wrong?  On the course there are ‘stopping points’, placed for good visibility so that the next competitor has plenty of warning to apply the brakes if there is a hold-up further on.  A red flag is waved to tell the rider to stop and the time of stopping is recorded by a steward.
If the stop is likely to be short the rider will continue to ride the horse at walk to allow it to cool gently; if longer they dismount, remove the saddle  and lead the horse at walk to keep active. 

If the delay is lengthy the horse will be washed down to cool it further and the rider also given the opportunity to take a drink of water.  Although this is frustrating for the rider, competitors understand the need for total safety to both themselves and their horse. 
Once the all-clear is given the horse is remounted and gently exercised to warm up its muscles before resuming the competition.  When the rider is satisfied the horse is ready the timing is restarted as they canter past the yellow marker post so that no competitor is disadvantaged.

Like all large events, sporting or otherwise, contingency plans are in place for all types of emergencies and spectators are rarely aware of these ‘behind the scenes’ procedures even when, as in this case, they happen on full view.  Over many years the stopping point has proven its worth, and it is an interesting place to watch, for it shows a top performance horse go through the stages of change from full competitive action to rest and back again.
The Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials 2014 take place from 4th – 7th September; visit the website for more details by clicking here.
 
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Monday, 18 August 2014

Purple Haze

Ask those that know Exmoor – England’s smallest National Park – to conjure up just one image of it and you would get a number of different answers.  For some it is the wild ponies, others the rushing streams but mostly the answer would be the sea or the moorland.  On Exmoor you are never very far from either.

At this time of year the moors are, perhaps, at their very best: awash with a purple haze of heather in bloom, speckled with the yellow flowers of furze – the local dialect word for gorse.  During the cooler months, however, the heather looks very different, drab browns and greens giving no hint of the glory to come.
The heather is an important resource for animals whether it is food for the ponies, sheep or cattle that roam the open spaces or the deer.  In the past – they died out in 1969 – black grouse fed here too, the record of their existence recorded in place names such as Heath Poult Cross, heath poult being the dialect word for the grouse. For other birds that nest close to the ground the heather protects them with its cover.
Although at a glance the heather all looks the same, there are three types, quite easily distingushable when in flower.  Cross-leaved Heath (Erica tetralix) has paler flower clusters at the top of the stems; Bell Heather (Erica cinerea) is a rich crimson-purple in flower whereas the true Heather or Ling (Calluna vulgaris) is softer both in colouring and appearance.  Together, they blend to create a colour mix of shadow and light.
To keep the heather moorland in good order, controlled burning is carried out once the plants have become old and woody, an ancient method called swaling.  Only selected areas are burned, usually on a five to ten year cycle between October and early April.   
The fires are watched carefully, not just to prevent their spreading to other areas but to ensure that the rootstock is not damaged from which the new, tender shoots soon grow.  The burning of the moor is both exciting and interesting to watch for the smoke can be seen for many miles.  It is difficult to imagine when the stems are blackened and charred that life will ever return. The photograph below shows the regrowth after four years.

Exmoor has the highest cliffs in England and these are made even more dramatic by the moorland which extends to their edge, the heather even clinging to the steep sides as they tumble to the sea, caring little for the salt-laden winds that continually buffet them.  On a sunny day in August the combination of blue sea, purple heather, yellow gorse and blue sky, combined with Exmoor’s splendid views, is a sight rarely forgotten.




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Monday, 28 July 2014

All is Safely Gathered In?

The air is heavy with the scent of harvest.  Is it the summer heat that produces the heady smell of fresh straw or the act of cutting it?  Probably a combination of both but the result gives mixed emotions for, whilst there is something very comforting about knowing that the corn is safely stored and the livestock will have plentiful winter bedding, there is also a tinge of regret for it is the first sign that autumn is rapidly approaching.
Harvest is one of the few events in the modern farming calendar which gives an insight into the ways of country life of generations ago.  These days, for most of the year, farming is a solitary occupation with a skilled tractor operator carrying out the tasks of many people.  Now the fields often seem empty, quiet places, devoid of human life or activity. Even fifty years ago there were more people working there but go back even further, say another hundred, and there would have been the sights and sounds of dozens of people working from dawn until dusk, racing against the weather.  A poor harvest then meant months of hardship and hunger for many.  Modern harvesting, albeit for a much shorter time is when the fields seem alive once more with combines, grain trucks, straw wagons and the like. 

The image below is taken from a nineteenth century farming manual belonging to my great, great-grandfather, and it demonstrates just how many people both men and women, were required for harvest. There were the mowers with their scythes, the gatherers, the bandsters who bound the sheaf together and then set them in ‘stooks’ to keep dry. Finally, the raker would clean up all fallen straw and grain for none could be afforded to be lost.  Harvesting by hand was surprisingly speedy for a skilled mower could cut over an acre of wheat in a day.  However, by the 1880’s virtually all corn was harvested by horse drawn machines.
Many attempts were made to design a harvesting machine throughout the centuries – the earliest, using oxen, is described by Pliny two thousand years ago.  The binder – as seen in the wonderful engraving also taken from g-g-grandad’s book - which cut and tied the corn into sheaves in one operation, first came into use in the 1850’s; it continued to be used for another hundred years: by 1979 when the photograph below was taken it was an eccentric rarity. 


the binder can just be seen on the middle right of the photo
 
Combine havesters are giants compared to the binders of old and when they travel through the secret valley they take up the full width of the lane with very little room to spare.  First to be cut is oilseed rape, the crop that turns vast swathes of the British countryside bright yellow in spring.  The resulting stubble, unlike that of corn, is sparse and sharp and makes for uncomfortable walking on.
 

Barley, oats and wheat – which in the UK are collectively referred to as ‘corn’ – then follow with each crop (and its straw) having its own requirement and characteristic.  Modern technology may have shortened the number of days it takes to bring in the harvest but the working day is just as long as it ever was for the combines work from early morning to late at night, providing the crop doesn’t become damp with dew or rain. 
Harvest has always been dependent upon the weather so it is not surprising that upon completion celebrations take place.  Although the traditional Harvest Supper is now mostly a thing of the past, the Harvest Festival church service is still one of the most popular.  On Exmoor - where I helped with harvest in my early years - and typical of a remote, tightly –knit community, every window ledge and the altar of the church would be decorated with flowers, fruit and vegetables.  Pride of place was given to the first stook of corn cut from the field. Packed with families that had been too busy to meet one another for several weeks the hymn ‘Come Ye Thankful People, Come’, written by Henry Alford in 1844 a line from which the title of this blog post is taken, and a great favourite of the farmers, was sung with gusto.
Exmoor church




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Friday, 18 July 2014

The Dog with the Poorly Paw


Deerhounds are the gentle giants of the canine world: despite their size and, to some people, fierce looks (never fathomed that one out!) they are docile, kind and trustworthy.
Sometimes known as Scottish Deerhounds, they are one of the oldest and least changed of breeds.  Scenes depicting hunting with dogs almost identical in appearance to them can be found on ancient pottery or manuscripts and because they have never become a ‘fashionable’ breed the excesses of inbreeding for the showring has not occurred.
Deerhounds are not for the faint-hearted!
 
Similar in bone structure to the greyhound, this is most obvious when the dog is wet and its wiry, long coat clings to its body.  Although not as fast on the flat, over difficult ground it can easily outrun them.  It is also slightly larger reaching 32” in big males and can weigh up to 50kgs.  There is little variation in colour, blue-grey being the most prized but in earlier times there were a variety of colours, now all lost.
the dog with the poorly paw
Tarff, my first deerhound and named after a Scottish loch, proved to be a near disaster.  Soon after he arrived and playing in the garden, he knocked his leg.  After a moment’s yelping it was forgotten by both him and me until his paw started to turn outwards; he had damaged the leg’s growth plate, resulting in the bones growing at different rates.  By the time of his first operation his paw faced backwards; treatment and further operations made it gradually turn again towards the front.  It never quite made it and as a result he was instantly recognisable by his 45 degree turned out foot.  Once strong and hardened it really made no difference to his mobility. 
unruly teenager
Having been told that he was unlikely to survive the operations and during that time was to have no exercise he was spoilt unmercilessly.  Proving the pessimists wrong, he became the deerhound from hell – an unruly and totally undisciplined teenager. An uncontrollable dog with the weight, power and speed of a deerhound can be lethal and a rigorous training regime had to start, carried out in short and frequent bursts.  He excelled himself and became a great companion for several years.
the 'butter wouldn't melt in my mouth' look
It is always heartbreaking when a much loved pet dies, regardless of its age but sadly, as is common with the other giant breeds, deerhounds are not long lived.  Tarff died at just seven years old although others that followed lived to thirteen, a great age for a deerhound.
just twelve weeks old, the 'greyness' comes later
Would I recommend a deerhound?  Probably not, despite their many good traits: they are docile, kind and trustworthy and have no agression in them.  They are also quite silent which can be an advantage – but not if you are looking for a guard dog.  However, they need frequent, although not especially lengthy, excercising and it is essential that they have free running.  Being sighthounds, they are great chasers which can be an issue, especially in suburban areas.  Mine have all proved to be great pets but I doubt if I shall have more despite having unlimited access to open countryside from the back door.   These days I am content to pet other people’s deerhounds assuming the dog allows it for this is another of their odd traits: a deerhound can be aloof at times.  It is the one that decides if cuddles are allowed, if not it will pretend you just don’t exist.
at rest


Links:
UK  The Deerhound Club
USA  Scottish Deerhound Club of America



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