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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Thursday, 26 June 2014

Reincarnation or Just Coincidence?

I have written about the ‘dream’ house before but recently the mystery of it took an unexpected leap forward. 

I am a small child running through the countryside when I arrive at what appears to be a derelict house.  At least I always assumed it was derelict for the two windows looked as if they had silted up and instead of being full length they were only one-third of their normal height.

The windows are at the back of the house but initially I approached it from the front.  There is a long driveway and as I run around a bend suddenly there, in front of me, is the house.  It is huge but very symmetrical – just as a small child would draw one if asked.  No sooner have I seen it than, in that typical disjointed dream way, I am around the back by the windows.

 I manage to wriggle through one of them and as I do I fall a short distance to the floor.  It is a small circular room with several doors leading off it; as I stand up I lift my head to look at the ceiling: it has stone vaulting just like an abbey might be.  And then … I wake up.  I don’t feel scared, I feel happy and warm inside as if I’ve come home after a long time away.

The dream recurs regularly from my very early childhood right through to the day in my late twenties when I awake and for some reason decide to draw the house.  No matter how hard I try, I can only draw it as a small child might but, somehow in doing so, I break the spell and I never dream of the house again.
Fast forward fifteen years and a career change to gardening for a living.  Now a trained Head Gardener I apply for a post in a village I have never heard of and arriving for my interview I proceed up a long, half mile driveway, round a bend and, yes you’ve guessed correctly, there is the house of my dream.  I am shown around the gardens and finally, at the end of the interview, approach the house from the rear.  There are the two windows…      

Having successfully got the job, part of my remit is to tend the house plants.  The room with the two windows is a small circular library with three doors leading off.  When I pluck up the courage to talk to my employer of the dream she tells me that the house was once a convent and this room is adjacent to the old chapel, now used as a dining room.  As for the vaulted ceiling she says there could be for the present plain one is false although they have no intention of changing it to find out.  I ask her what the tall obelisk at the front of the house commemorates.  She tells me it is rather a sad story: it is a memorial to the only son of the family for whom the house was being built in the early 1700's.  He died before it could be completed and so they gave it to the nuns to live there.

I officially left the job – and I thought the house – thirteen years ago to take up a new position in the Cotswolds.  In many ways I was sad to go for I loved being there but a change had beckoned. Some months later I receive a telephone call asking me to act as a consultant on an occasional basis – is it the house that has prompted this – and I have returned regularly ever since.

Move to the present day after a gap in visits of several months where I admire the new building set in the grounds close to the house, an indoor swimming pool.  I am told that there were a number of problems in completing the work for when they started digging the builders dropped into an underground room.  Its existence had not been known of before and yes, you’ve guessed correctly, it had a stone vaulted ceiling…

Reincarnation or coincidence – I’ll leave you to decide.  I’m happy either way and if it is reincarnation I am delighted with the obelisk that has been placed in my memory.  I shan’t be asking for it to be taken down just because I’ve returned…



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Saturday, 7 June 2014

Don't Be Put Off By Its Name...

Slaughter may not sound the most promising of names but Lower Slaughter situated in the heart of the Cotswold Hills is one of the prettiest and most unspoilt villages you can visit.  Its unusual name is a derivation of the Old English word ‘slough’ meaning muddy patch but, if it was many years ago, it is certainly not one now.  In fact, three years ago it was described in a poll as having ‘the most romantic street in Britain’.
Although there is some more recent housing discreetly tucked away most of the buildings date from the mid sixteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries.  Its origins are even older  for it was well established even before being recorded in the Domesday Book; this means that it has been continuously inhabited for over a thousand years.
Many of the oldest houses cluster around the the River Eye which, although shallow, is powerful enough to feed the undershot waterwheeel of the mill.  This building, which now houses a small museum, is made from red brick - an unusual building material in this area – and was working as recently as the the late 1950’s.  It is a comparatively modern building having been built in the 1800’s although a mill was recorded on the site in 1086.  The tall chimney was built to give the mill additional steam power.
A similar tale can be told of the picturesque church with its tall spire which also dates from the ninteenth century.  There are a few traces of the original building within it: an arcade of four bays dating back to the early 1200’s.  The lichen encrusted gravestones in the churchyard also belie their age for burial rights were only granted in 1770 – before then villagers were buried in nearby Bourton-on-the-Water.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The countryside surrounding Lower Slaughter, and also the village itself, may not appear to have changed much in centuries but there is no doubt that they are very much ‘tidier’ than they once were.  An old Pathe News clip shows the banks of the Eye overgrown – there probably wasn’t the same enthusiasm for cutting its grassy banks when it has to be done by scythe.  Another change the film shows is the ‘locals’ sitting on the benches: nowadays, many of the houses are owned by the wealthy as weekend retreats and those exploring its lanes are visitors. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Lower Slaughter, despite its obvious attraction, has done very little to encourage tourism.  It is still possible to sit there or cross its little stone footbridges or paddle in the ford and be transported back to a time when life ran at a much slower pace.  It makes a very refreshing place for visitors to recharge the batteries after the crowds of its larger neighbours, Bourton and Stow-on-the-Wold or, for us lucky enough to live in the Cotswolds, to do the same after a hard day’s labour. 
 
Lower Slaughter is just 2½ miles north of Bourton-on-the-Water and 3 miles west of Stow-on-the-Wold.  The Old Mill sells great ice cream!
To see the Pathe News Clip from1939 click here





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Thursday, 22 May 2014

Fetch me a Handkerchief...

When you come to think of it, gardening is a strange hobby.  What makes people want to spend hours of their time, let alone their hard-earned cash, toiling away in the hope that something might grow?   Why get wet or too cold or too hot and far too tired just to watch your favoured plant being ravaged by pests and diseases or, just when you think all is going swimmingly, to see it being struck down by an unforeseen frost?  On bad days it hardly seems worthwhile.

Of course, the answer is because gardeners are eternal optimists.  Just because something has failed this time means, surely, that it will be a great success the next. And, generally speaking, the good results far outnumber the bad.  What can give more joy than eating, say, a juicy, full-of-flavour pear that you have nurtured knowing that it is free from pollutants and raised by your own hand?  Or, plunging your snout into the centre of a rose bush knowing that it will come out, as the saying goes, smelling of roses?
If all of this sounds slightly odd to a non-gardener, then stranger still must be the thought that many professional gardeners never see the end results of their labour.  They do a task and move onto another garden, often never to return. As a member of this strange breed a question I often get asked is what motivates me.  The answer is always the same: it is the thought of success, of planting for the future and the sheer pleasure in working alongside nature.  And, of course, some gardens we return to again and again.

And so it is with my 'oldest' garden: one I have worked in for twenty years, first as Head Gardener and, after I moved miles away to the secret valley, on an occasional basis doing more specialist tasks.
One of the last jobs I carried out was to plant that most celebrated and notorious of ornamental trees Davidia invoulcrata, the Handkerchief Tree, to announce the arrival of the new millennium.  Celebrated because of its wonderful flowers resembling a pocket handkerchief; notorious because it can take twenty years before they appear.
 Davidia originates from China and although first discovered in the mid 1800's it was not until 1904 that the first one was to be grown in England.  If given the right conditions they grow quickly and although they aren't fussy about soil type they do like a certain degree of shelter - mine is planted on the edge of woodland which gives protection from strong westerly gales.  They do not respond well to pruning so it is important to allow it space to grow up to 60 feet in height and 20 feet across. They are attractive in a quiet sort of way even when young for, although they lose their leaves in winter, they are of a pleasing shape and shade of green during the summer months.
Every May, I have checked the tree to ensure that it is growing well and looking healthy and wondering if I would ever see it in flower - and this year I did.  Along its uppermost branches, fluttering in the breeze were fifteen flowers, one for each year of its planting.  I stood watching them for several minutes and, as many a gardener will understand, felt quite emotional that I had been instrumental in growing something that will become more spectacular with every year that passes.  Could it be that its English name was given not just because of the resemblance to a clothing accessory but because those early growers, seeing them for the first time, reached out for their own handkerchiefs?  It is special moments like these that keep gardeners, both amateur and professional, gardening.
The flowers of Davidia are, in reality, only the round reddish centre; the white parts are bracts, leaf like structures that are often brightly coloured or in the case of Davidia, white.
A mature Davidia seen at Hidcote Manor Gardens - it will be some years before the one I planted will look like this...


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Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Casino Marino

Gambling isn’t one of my vices and so when it was suggested that a visit to the Casino at Marino was a ‘must’ when staying in Dublin, I really wasn’t that keen.  Grudgingly I agreed little realising what a treat was to be in store for me.  The Casino was completed in 1775 and just like gambling dens its purpose was to entertain, impress and amuse its guests - but on a very different level.
When James Caulfeild, Ist Earl of Charlemont completed a nine year Grand Tour of Italy, Greece, Turkey and Egypt he brought back to Ireland a great hoard of treasures.  He also returned with a loveand deep knowledge of the classics and he used this to create a grand neo-classical building to house them.  Neither a folly nor a house to be lived in (the main dwelling, Marino House, half a mile away and linked by a tunnel, was demolished in the 1920’s) the Casino was built purely to show off his collections.  Caulfeild employed Sir William Chambers as the architect who, busy with Royal clients in London, never visited the site before, during or after completion; most of the work was carried out by the stonemason and sculptor Simon Vierpyl.  Chambers was, however, reputed to be immensely proud of his work and justly so.
Everything about Casino Marino was designed to impress and it still does albeit that the contents of the building have long been lost.  It stands alone and, nowadays, rather out of context for its landscape of far reaching sea views and open countryside are hidden by the city.  It was also built to deceive and it still does this too: what appears to be a square, single storey building is actually one built on a cross over three floors.  The huge oak doors are also a deceit for they open to reveal a small entrance, the remainder hidden from the inside by ornate plasterwork.  The blacked out single windows are neither  of these things for the glass has been bevelled to reflect light making it difficult to see in from outside yet flooding not one but three or more rooms with natural light.  The urns sitting high above the pediments are, in fact, cunningly disguised chimneys.  Four of the solid looking columns are hollow and channel rainwater from the roof.
The building of the Casino (its name derives from the Italian meaning ‘little house’) was all consuming both in effort and money and the building very quickly fell into disrepair, its art sold to settle debt.  By the 1930’s the building was in danger of collapse.  Now carefully restored it is possile to explore its sixteen rooms, some of which are reached by ‘secret’ doors.  Some of the original parquet wooden flooring survives and one small room has a delightful alcove, its wallpaper still looking fresh.  Interestingly, the printing technology of the time prevented continuous rolls being produced and it is possible to see the joints where several large sheets of paper were hung.
 
Casino Marino is open from March to October.  A very knowledgable guide escorts you around the building bringing it back to life with information sprinkled with more than a touch of Irish humour.  It is well worth making a special trip to see this very rare example of neo-classical architecture, considered to be the finest in Ireland and just one of three such buildings in Europe.
 
Links:
How to find the Casino Marino

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