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

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.

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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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.
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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.
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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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