Sunday, 7 February 2016

SKANSEN - Sweden's Pioneering Conservation Village


The Swedes have always had a reputation for innovation and design and so it is not surprising that Stockholm is home to the world’s first open air museum founded by Artur Hazelius. The surprise is that it opened as early as 1873.   When he opened his second open air museum, Skansen, on the nearby island of Djurgården it was the first to incorporate a zoo.

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From its earliest days, the aim of Skansen was to preserve Sweden’s rapidly changing rural way of life. One hundred and fifty buildings were purchased, dismantled and rebuilt and over the years more buildings have been added; the museum now has a complete nineteenth century township as well as buildings of the Sami peoples of the north.

The zoo specialises in native Scandinavian animals, both wild and farm, and by 1918 held the few remaining European Bison that had been reduced to extinction in the wild. Since then, a breeding programme has seen them successfully reintroduced to Polish and Romanian forests.

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Wolf at Skansen

Vakt Stugan – literally translated ‘Guard Room’ was one of the original buildings purchased in 1891 and placed by the entrance to the museum. It dates from the 1880s and is used as an information centre.

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True to its origins, farm buildings, many with traditional living roofs feature throughout the museum. The oldest dates back to the fourteenth century.

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A village would not be complete without its church and manor house and Skansen has several examples. Seglora church dates from the early 1700s, made entirely of wood came from the western provence of Västergötland. It is still in regular use for services as well as weddings and christenings. Skogaholm Manor built in 1680 developed into a sizeable mansion with beautifully painted ceilings and wall decorations. The kitchens and library are equally well preserved.

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Seglora Church, Skansen

Skansen is open to the public all year round with numerous events to help illustrate the story of the buildings and the people that lived in them. Details of admission times and other information can be found here. To see photographs of the interior of Skogaholm Manor click here.

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Sunday, 31 January 2016

2015 - A Year In Review: Jul - Dec


Oh dear!  Not a good start to the year!  January has whizzed by at such an incredible rate that this review may not be completed before midnight strikes and February arrives.
Has the month gone by more quickly because, with the exceptionally mild weather we have been having this winter and all the spring flowers in bloom weeks early, that it feels as if this review was (and should have been) written weeks earlier?

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Working on the premise ‘better late than never’ here it is now.

July: As a plantsman I’m very aware that some of the most beautiful blooms can disguise the more ominous aspects of a plants nature.  Ragwort, a common weed of grassland and waste areas has cheery, bright yellow daisy-like flowers yet hides toxins that can be fatal to horses and cattle.   Control is usually carried out by hand pulling for poisoning the plant with weedkillers makes them even ore attractive to animals as they graze the dying foliage.  However, pulling the plants put humans at risk as the sap is absorbed through the skin to damage the liver.

Always remove the pulled plants from the field

In Ragwort: A Curse or a Blessing?  I looked at the controversy surrounding this plant for it has its benefits and uses too.  Should you destroy it before it destroys you?  Click here to find out.

Ragwort and horses - not a good combination

August: A different quandary was discussed in the post A Quiche or a Quad Bike?  It isn’t often that you visit a restaurant that sells quad bikes.  Or was it a quad bike showroom that sells the most delicious home-baked quiches?  Either way, there was a dilemma: which did I want to have the most?  Click here!

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August is also the perfect month for planting daffodil bulbs – also toxic, by the way, although no-one would ever suggest banishing them from our gardens.  Remembering Wordsworth’s immortal words on the subject, this post (click here) looked at how to create drifts of colour that look as if they have been growing there since the poet’s days.

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September: back on Exmoor, my spiritual home and, to my prejudiced mind at least, England’s most beautiful National Park for another visit.  The tiny village of Exford lies at its centre.  Exford’s church pre-dates the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the post (click here) looks at its Celtic origin.

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October: travelling again, this time to the south of France.  Staying in the foothills of the Pyrenees it would have been easy to write about the magnificent mountain views, the gentle Blonde Aquitaine cattle or the fine dining in every wayside café.

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However, it was on the drive home that we discovered the village of Aurignac and marvelled at its silent streets and historic houses that appeared untouched by modern living.  It was only later that I discovered it was hiding an even more ancient secret – it was the place where man’s first footsteps in Europe over 40,000 years earlier took place.

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Even if you’re not too interested in pre-history it is well worth clicking here to look at the photographs on the post  of this enchanting place.

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December:  It wouldn’t be Christmas without a bunch of mistletoe hanging somewhere in the house to catch visitors for the traditional kiss.  This month’s post (click here) looks at the tradition which is now spreading worldwide.  It also explains how to grow your very own mistletoe plants so that you never have to be unloved in the years to come.

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A rather belated Happy New Year to you all!


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Wednesday, 30 December 2015

A Year in Review: Jan-Jun 2015

So another year has gone by and as New Year’s Eve fast approaches it is time to reflect on the one past and look forward to the one to come.

I try to visit Exmoor National Park as often as possible for I consider it to be “home from home”.  I spent a lot of my youth and early adulthood there on a remote farm not realising that I was witnessing a way of life now gone.  With the benefit of hindsight I wish I’d taken many more photographs but, in the days before digital, films were both precious and expensive.

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In January, I made a special trip to take a look at the new headquarters of the Exmoor Society in the pretty, little town of Dulverton. The enlarged space that they now have has meant that they it is now much easier to access the archives and seek information.  If you are planning a holiday on the moor, it is well worth visiting.  Click here to find out more about my day there.

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February found me walking along the edge of a precipice and seeking an elderly great-aunt, fortunately not at the same time.  I met Ba-ba (how she got this name is still a complete mystery) once as a boy when she was in her late nineties and she left a lasting impression on me.  With everyone else that knew her now dead (I’m now the ‘old’ generation) I’ve been trying to research her.  Despite the post creating a lot of interest it ended sadly without much success.  Perhaps, this post might reach someone who knows who she was.  To check out the detective work so far take a look here.

Gt Aunt Baba (Frances White) 90th bithday about 1965

The Precipice Walk in Snowdonia, although not overly strenuous, is not to be attempted by the faint-hearted.  Travelling clockwise, the path clings to the edge of the drop before turning back on itself alongside a more gentle and peaceful lake.  If you’re afraid of heights go anti-clockwise for a delightful, if somewhat short, walk and turn around when you dare go no further.  Alternatively, sit back in your armchair and take a look at the photos here.

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A much longer walk, completely different in character, was described in two March posts.   Dartmoor is another national park in the West Country but much harsher than Exmoor.  Despite its bleakness now, in the past the climate was kinder, confirmed by the large number of Neolithic remains there.

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The walk starts at  a pub where according to tradition the fire has never been allowed to go out in the past two hundred years.  Our path crosses the moor to the village of Postbridge, home of the famous medieval stone clapper bridge.    The second part of the walk follows the river before continuing across the moor, taking in beehive huts dating back to 1500AD before arriving at the Grey Wethers stone circles.  The twin circles are about two thousand years old.  Reaching the stones is described here.

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The history of the United States and Ireland are intertwined by mass emigration.  In April I visited New Ross in the south of Ireland and the birthplace of John F Kennedy’s great-grandfather.  Fifty years after JFK’s visit his sister came to light…  Well, read here to find out exactly what she did.
 The image below might give you a clue.
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I stayed with the Irish theme in May and wrote about the lovely village of Castlelyons where a friend spent her early childhood.  Well off the tourist trail when you red about the place you’ll wonder why.  In the meantime, we had the place to ourselves.

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June is a lovely month both for walking and also for garden lovers, with hedgerows and gardens smothered in rose blossom.  Continuing the theme of elderly ladies and ancient times the month’s post explored the history of Rosa de Rescht – fascinating for the mystery it holds.  Incidentally, even if you a hopeless gardener (and no-one is completely so) this is the simplest of roses to grow…

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Sunday, 13 December 2015

Grow Your Own Mistletoe


With Christmas almost upon us one of the most traditional of purchases along with the tree, goose or turkey will be sprigs and bunches of mistletoe. Placed carefully above a doorway where passing under it is unavoidable many of us will be subjected to the torture of being kissed by those we’d rather not and disappointed by those that we would have liked to have been but ignored.

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The tradition of kissing beneath mistletoe is very much a British one although it is rapidly gaining popularity (and why not?!) around the world. Our own mistletoe, Viscum album, (European Mistletoe) grows throughout much of Europe but is decidedly fickle as to its requirements. The majority of British mistletoe grows to the west of the Cotswolds, especially amongst cider orchards found in the counties of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire. However, in other areas in the south, there are isolated populations where it can grow locally abundantly – the photos for this blog, for example, were taken in a garden in the Chiltern Hills. The further north, the rarer mistletoe is, being absent from much of northern England, Scotland, the Low Countries and Scandinavia.

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Mistletoe is a parasitic plant – or to be more accurate hemiparasitic – attaching itself to its host tree, most commonly cultivated apple or lime. Strangely, mistletoe rarely is found on the wild crab apple, perhaps due to its more congested growth. Likewise, it is rarely found in woodland where the density of trees probably reduces the amount of light and air circulation required. Although mistletoe, being green, carries out some photosynthesis this is limited and where it grows in abundance on one tree, it can weaken the host plant and reduce fruiting potential.

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European Mistletoe in flower

In the past, mistletoe has been very much associated with fertility and winter solstice rituals and its use as a decoration is still sometimes banned in churches. The Druids held the plant sacred, especially if it was found to be growing on oak (which it rarely does). Modern-day Druids now hold a festival each December at Tenbury Wells to celebrate the plant.

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Growing your own mistletoe is relatively easy for most of the difficulties commonly associated with germination are false. Ideally, fresh berries should be ‘sown’ in February. These can be gathered or purchased or you may prefer to store those from Christmas. If choosing the latter option, store them in a cool, light, airy place and rehydrate in a little water before use. Squeeze the seeds out of the berries and remove as much of the stickiness as possible; they will still attach easily to the bark. Choose young branches away from the trunk and fix to their underside. There is no need to nick the bark or cover the seeds although it is probably advisable to mark the branch in some way to identify it in the future. The seeds germinate quite quickly but it will be four years or more before any real growth is apparent.   Mistletoe (like holly) have separate male and female plants so it will be necessary to have several plants to ensure cross-fertilisation and berry production.

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European Mistletoe: anchor point (haustorium)

There are over 1500 different species of mistletoe growing throughout the world. In America the native mistletoe looks very different to our own – one of the reasons why, to British eyes, plastic mistletoe sold in the shops looks so unreal: it is modelled on the American species.


For a huge amount of fascinating information on folklore and medicinal use, advice on conservation and purchase of mistletoe seed do visit The Mistletoe Pages website where much of the above information has been gleaned.

For those interested in Druidry: The Mistletoe Foundation




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Friday, 20 November 2015

In the Footseps of the Danes


In 858AD Hubba the Dane invaded England to be defeated by the Saxons at the Battle of Arx Cynuit. Recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Asser, biographer of King Alfred the Great, the site of the battle it is thought took place at Countisbury, a tiny clifftop community on Exmoor. Whether true or fanciful, a walk to Wind Hill hillfort* is well worth the effort. It is a place where it is possible to experience all the elements that Exmoor offers in one glorious 360 degree panoramic view.

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All the best English country walks should start and end at a pub and there are plenty of options to choose on this one. Mine started from the Blue Ball Inn at Countisbury which is as welcoming now as it was when I first crossed its threshold fifty years earlier.

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Turning left from the pub, walk down the road for a few yards before entering a gate to National Trust land, also on the left and the starting point of several extensive walks. Our destination is a short walk and is the high point close to the road. The path to the fort is well defined and grass covered; it merges with a field access track that leads gently uphill to its entrance. The second photograph below is taken from the fort: the pub is the white building.
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The fort is a rare example of a promontory fort where the natural landscape has been adapted to create the defences. The coastal cliffs which form its northern defence are the highest in England rising to over 300 metres, to the west and south the East Lyn River has cut a deep gorge. Where necessary double ramparts were built to defend the weaker areas: at the entrance they still rise, after two thousand years or more, to an impressive thirteen metres.

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Although it is possible to make Wind Hill part of a longer walk I prefer not to do this. It is rare to meet anyone else here and to be able to explore the 85 acre site in splendid isolation gives a real feel of the place. Just spend time enjoying the silence,  lying down with your back propped against the ramparts listening to the wind and sheep calling.  As mentioned earlier, the views from the fort are magnificent: heather moorland, ancient woodland, hills, villages, sea, cliffs, the distant coast of Wales as well as wild creatures, ranging from the iconic red deer to seabirds and butterflies.

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* also known as Countisbury Castle



Links:
Historic England
The Megalithic Portal
Exmoor National Park
The Blue Ball Inn



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Friday, 30 October 2015

Aurignac - 40,000 Years of History

The small town of Aurignac – situated in the Petites Pyrénées of southwest France – was so sleepy when I stumbled across it that it is hard to believe that it has given its name to the so-called ‘first modern’ man to appear in Europe.

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The Aurignacian culture spread across most of Europe and much of southwest Asia. The first human bones were found in a cave close to Aurignac in 1852. Aurignacian Man produced some of the earliest art – a small figurine known as the Venus of Hohle Fels is the first figurative human form ever to be found. Perhaps their culture is best known for the cave paintings of animals discovered in the Ardèche region of France as recently as 1994.

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

However, all this was unknown to me at the time – I was looking for somewhere to lunch. The search for a café led me to explore some of the back lanes of the town which revealed wonderful old houses, some half-timbered and dating back to the eighteenth century and earlier.

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As with many buildings in the region, their beauty was enhanced by the decorative ironwork, often rusting, their paint bleached by decades of hot sun. One old building was derelict and a glimpse inside gave an impression of what it once might have looked like.

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The oldest part of the town is surrounded by 700 year old fortified walls, some of which had houses built into them in the fifteenth century. The communal area for clothes washing, the lavoir, has been lovingly maintained.

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The ruins of a castle destroyed by Henry IV around 1615 during one of the many wars between England and France is open to the public. The keep or donjon is well preserved and it is possible to climb to the top to admire the panoramic views.

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Also built within the old walls is the church with its ancient façade. This is an addition to the church: it was salvaged from a chapel demolished during the revolution and placed there in 1791. The church itself is of unknown date but predates the thirteenth century walls.

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Sadly, I only had an hour to explore – a day probably would not be long enough.

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