Sunday, 4 October 2015

A Celtic Church on Exmoor

Exford lays claim to the title of ‘Capital of Exmoor’ owing to its central location (one assumes) in Exmoor National Park. It certainly has more facilities than most others of similar size – a village green, a post office, two shops and a garage, although the days when it sold petrol pumped by hand have long passed.
Exford - St Mary Magdalene   copyright
The church of St Mary Magdalene pre-dates the Norman Conquest of 1066 and, unlike much of England, originates from the Celtic tradition brought from Wales or possibly Ireland. Centuries ago, much of Exmoor’s trade and travel links were by sea, the Welsh coast being only a few miles across the Bristol Channel; journeys overland were fraught with difficulty and danger.
Exford - St Mary Magdalene (13)   copyright
During the twelfth century mass was said by monks from Neath Abbey, giving another Welsh connection. As a Celtic church it was dedicated to St Salvyn although at an unknown later date it was rededicated to St Mary Magdalene. The east window depicts St Salvyn with St George and St Francis.
St Salvyn depicted in the left panel of the east window
St Salvyn depicted in the left panel of the east window
Despite its ancient origins the earliest part of the church still standing – the tower – only dates from the mid-1400s. It has a fine set of bells. The south aisle was built around 1532.
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The exquisitely carved rood screen dates from the fifteenth century and has a rather remarkable recent history. Discarded when the church of St Audries at nearby Watchet was rebuilt, it was rediscovered in the early 1900s in pieces in an old hay barn. It was beautifully restored and placed in Exford.
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Close to the entrance gate of the churchyard stands the memorial to Amos Cann, a young man who froze to death walking home one night in the extreme winter of 1891. His body was found some three weeks later.
click on image to enlarge

Click on all images to enlarge

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Monday, 24 August 2015

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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Saturday, 1 August 2015

A Quiche or a Quad Bike? (the quiche won)

Sometimes you stumble over a gem of a place whether it’s a village, country house or, in this case, a shop. But it isn’t just any old shop for in it you can buy anything from a saddle and rugs for your horse, gifts for non-horsey friends, lunch or … a sofa (well, I very nearly did until common sense got in the way). Actually, I’d rather have bought the rather nifty looking quad bike but I wasn’t even allowed to consider that.

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Harley Equestrian’s Lifestyle Shop can be found down winding Northamptonshire country lanes providing you have map, compass or a sat nav. Fortunately, the latter takes you to the door. Now anything with the name ‘lifestyle’ in the title tends to make me want to drive in the opposite direction but, fortunately, my wishes were overridden. I was bowled away by the treasure trove I found within. There is more than enough to delight both the rider as well as those with no love of things horse.

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The way to a man’s heart is via his stomach and the lunch I ate at the café was delicious: the lightest of pastries with incredibly tasty savoury fillings were freshly prepared while we waited. The pudding was – as so often is the case – quite unnecessary and finished the meal perfectly. We were interested to discover that the café holds regular Friday night dinners, catered for by Eydon’s Pantry, a small local enterprise which also create meals for home eating.

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Although it’s a bit of a trek from the Cotswolds I shall certainly be visiting again if only for Christmas gift ideas. Somehow ‘though, I feel that I’ll be back a lot sooner – probably on a Friday night.


Harley Equestrian Country Lifestyle, Woodford Halse
Eydon’s Pantry

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Monday, 20 July 2015

Ragwort - a curse or a blessing?

There is a general consensus that Ragwort (Senecio jacobea) is a noxious weed that is invading the British countryside, poisoning livestock and possibly humans alike.  Numerous articles, including some official ones, refer to it being ‘recently introduced’, ‘out of control’ or ‘increasing dramatically’.  Other sources suggest that just breathing in the plant ‘spores’* is enough to cause serious liver damage.


There is no doubt that in places ragwort is increasing just as other plants increase in number or range periodically.  There is also no doubt that it is a highly toxic plant that is capable of causing fatalities in livestock, particularly cattle and horses.  Less frequently reported are the benefits to the environment it brings for it a native plant that is host to numerous insects as well as Common Broomrape (Orobanche minor), an obligate parasitic plant that cannot complete its life cycle without it (although it is also parasitic on some other plant species too).

Cinnabar Moth Caterpillar
Cinnabar Moth Caterpillar

Plantlife, the conservation charity (link here), have produced a ‘position statement’ on ragwort control which – in my opinion at least – appears to be more balanced.  They acknowledge that livestock can be damaged and that control may be necessary in areas of high risk.  They also counterbalance the argument by stating that there is no evidence that it is proliferating.

Ladies Bedstraw - sometimes confused with ragwort should not be disturbed
Ladies Bedstraw – sometimes confused with ragwort should not be disturbed

The alkaloids in ragwort are harmless whilst they remain in the plant but become toxic once ingested.  It takes considerable amounts to cause catastrophic liver failure and this is usually caused by feeding contaminated hay over long periods of time.  To have a horse die from ragwort poisoning is extremely distressing both for the horse and its owner and as symptoms don’t show until cure is too late precautions do need to be taken.  Reaction caused by casual contact is usually dermatitis, and relatively rare.

Ragwort and horses - not a good combination
Ragwort and horses – not a good combination

Ragwort is more prevalent where disturbed soil conditions exist and the churning of ground by hooves create perfect conditions for seed to germinate. Although animals don’t select fresh ragwort in preference to other species they will eat it if other food is scarce such as in times of drought or through overstocking.

Ragwort growing beside path made by horses
Ragwort growing beside path made by horses

So should ragwort be controlled or not?  The answer, as with most things in life, is yes but in moderation. It is quite unnecessary to remove ragwort plants from areas of low or no risk as is sometimes thought. I keep horses and spend time each year removing ragwort from the fields in which they graze. The best way is to pull the plant out by hand rather than to use chemicals which create other issues. It is generally believed that the toxins can be absorbed through the skin so it is advisable to wear gloves to prevent this.

Always remove the pulled plants from the field
Always remove the pulled plants from the field
he tall flowering stems of ragwort with their attractive head of yellow daisy-like flowers are easy enough to see and remove. Less obvious are the non-flowering plants – these have a rosette of leaves hugging the ground. It is essential that the pulled plants are disposed of carefully, preferably by burning, as seeds can form on dying plants. It is also essential that the plants are identified properly and that other species are not removed. It should also be remembered that it is illegal to disturb or remove any wild plant that is not growing on land you own or have responsibility for.

Ragwort flowers
Ragwort flowers
Ground hugging leaf rosette of immature plant
Ground hugging leaf rosette of immature plant
*Ragwort is a seeding plant and does not produce spores. This is just one way how misinformation can cause confusion and unnecessary health concerns

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Monday, 15 June 2015

Rosa de Rescht, Lost in History

Everything about this little grown rose is a conundrum. Even its name is spelt in different ways as it is sometimes listed as De Resht and categorised as a Portland rose and sometimes as a Damask. Wherever it is found in a catalogue one factor that is consistently agreed upon is its scent which is exquisite.
Rosa 'de Resht'   copyright
Its history is equally confused with stories of how it was found growing in Persia at the end of the Second World War or how it was brought to France in the early 1800s with numerous other theories of its origin in almost every decade in between.
The rose flowers are of medium size and fully double, magenta in colour with a slight crimson hue. They are repeat flowering although this tends to be in flushes so there are short periods when the plant is quiet. Being double, they are of less value to bees and other insects.
Rosa 'De Resht' (3)   copyright
Rosa de Rescht is an upright rose about 3ft (1m) in height which makes it ideal for use as a small hedge. It suckers sporadically, these often being thrown up some distance from the parent plant. These are never a nuisance and as they come true to type can be severed and grown elsewhere or left to bloom where they wish. The foliage is bluish-green and, in my garden at least, is healthy and free from pests.
Rosa 'De Resht' (2)   copyright
As with all roses, care when planting is rewarded although they do cope quite well on poorer, dry soils too. They revel in sunshine but I also have them growing in light shade without any noticeable problems with flowering or growth. Like all repeat flowering roses, removing the fading blooms (dead-heading) encourages new ones to form.
I’m not a great lover of gardens where roses are grown formally on their own – there can be few uglier sights than a rose bed in winter! Rosa de Rescht grows admirably amongst herbaceous plants and this is how I grow them.
Rosa De Resht   copyright
It is unlikely that you will find Rosa de Rescht in a garden centre but it is readily available from specialist nurseries. Peater Beales and David Austin both list it as do some smaller mail order nurseries. A single plant of this variety won’t add much value to a border, buy a minimum of three even for planting in small spaces. In time, you are likely to end up with more but why worry? This little rose is so charming and its scent so sweet you will be only too delighted.

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Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Castlelyons - 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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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Thursday, 7 May 2015

JFK and the Irish Famine

The Great Famine – also called the Irish Potato Famine – killed a million people between 1845 and 1852 and created much bitterness towards the ruling British.  Restrictive laws against Catholics who made up over three-quarters of the population, including the prohibition of owning land, had been relaxed but the majority still held only tiny parcels of land, the remainder owned by absentee British aristocracy.  As a result, only potatoes could provide anywhere near enough food for their families and these were grown at the expense of all other crops.  When the previously unknown disease, blight, destroyed them they had no access to other foodstuffs.   At the height of the famine, enough food was being produced elsewhere in the country but this was sent for export fuelling ever greater resentment.  Evictions too were common.  The alternative to death was emigration and over a million left for a new life elsewhere.  Pictured below is the Dunbrody Famine Ship, moored at New Ross, Co. Wexford, a replica of the original boat.

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The New World was a popular destination and in 1849 Patrick Kennedy, great-grandfather of American President, John F Kennedy and whose family lived near New Ross sailed to Boston, albeit from Liverpool, England. Marrying soon after his arrival he died nine years later of cholera at the age of 35.

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In 1963, President Kennedy visited New Ross and his ancestral home at nearby Dunganstown.  In 2008 his statue was unveiled by his sister Jean Kennedy Smith.

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Fifty years after JFK’s visit, the Emigrant Flame was lit by his sister and daughter, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg.  The fire was taken from the Eternal Flame by his graveside in Arlington Cemetery travelling 3500 miles: it burns constantly to commemorate all emigrants throughout the world.

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