Sunday, 19 June 2016

Butterflies in the Garden

All butterflies fly in daylight but not all moths fly at night.  Moths aren’t always dull either: the day fliers can be very bright.  One of the most spectacular to be found in gardens in the south and west of England is the Scarlet Tiger.  Its caterpillars feed on a variety of plants including comfrey, honeysuckle and nettles.

It is telling that when Richard South, the eminent entomologist, wrote The Butterflies of the British Isles in 1906 he stated that “half of our native butterflies are so widely distributed that the collector should secure nearly all of them in his first season.”  Today, that would almost certainly be impossible and, fortunately, the collecting of butterflies, along with the collecting of bird’s eggs, is largely a thing of the past.
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Common Blue Butterfly

Butterflies, as well as many other insects, have become increasingly scarce for the wildflower meadows that many rely upon for breeding success have been lost with changes in farming practice.  Since South’s day 97% of our meadows have disappeared either to the plough or by the use of fertilisers and chemicals to ‘improve’ the grassland.
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Pyramidal orchids flowering in a traditional meadow

Where wild flowers thrive – in protected meadows, organic farms and odd corners of the landscape – butterflies can still be found, although rarely in great profusion.  Gardeners can be of great help when it comes to conserving wildlife and by allowing some of our native species to grow in our gardens we are able to see a number of butterflies at close proximity.  I will shortly be writing an article on growing wild flowers in the garden so, as they say, watch this space…
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Gatekeeper Butterfly on Wild Scabious

In the secret valley, we are fortunate in having a number of unimproved meadows and banks, deserted drove roads and flower-rich roadside verges, all of which means that butterflies readily come into our garden.  Even in town gardens a limited number of species will gradually appear and increase in number.
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The wild Geranium pratense is common throughout the Cotswolds and readily available to buy as a garden plant too

One of the first butterflies to be seen on the wing in spring is the Brimstone.  Flying at the first hint of warmth, they lay their eggs on Buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica, a spiny shrub that can be grown in the garden as a clipped hedge or allowed to grow freely.  Its citrus green flowers are followed by shiny black berries in the autumn.  In the image below the Brimstone is feeding from Ceonothus flowers, a popular garden shrub.
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A common butterfly seen from mid-summer onwards is the Peacock, collecting in numbers to feed from Buddleia flowers.  This is such a popular shrub with butterflies that it is often known as ‘the butterfly bush.’  This Peacock is visiting Dame’s Violet, a scented herbaceous plant.
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Another butterfly that visits buddleia is the Comma which has increased steadily in numbers in recent years.  The Comma can be readily identified by the shape of its jagged wings and the white comma mark that is visible on the underwing when the butterfly is at rest.  It lays its eggs on currants, hops, willows and nettles.
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Not all butterflies are brightly coloured as those above and the Meadow Brown, in comparison, is quite drab. As its name suggests, it is found in grassland often in relatively large numbers and flying up from beneath your feet as you walk.  Not restricted to the countryside, keep an eye out for it in parks, cemeteries and gardens.  The photo below shows a female Meadow Brown resting on lavender; it can be identified by the orange markings on its wing.  Compare it with the all brown male feeding on achillea.
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All butterflies fly in daylight but not all moths fly at night.  Moths aren’t always dull either: the day fliers can be very bright.  One of the most spectacular to be found in gardens in the south and west of England is the Scarlet Tiger.  Its caterpillars feed on a variety of plants including comfrey, honeysuckle and nettles.
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Want to know more?  The excellent website of Butterfly Conservation, the UK’s leading charity, has good identification pages for both butterflies and moths as well as a host of other information.  Better still, get out into the garden or countryside armed with camera and ID sheets.  Good butterflying!


Saturday, 28 May 2016

A Day on the Oxford Canal

There’s nothing like messing about in boats on a warm, late spring day…

The building of the Oxford Canal was first brought into action with the passing of an Act of Parliament in 1769.  Beset with difficulties – mostly financial – its total 78 mile length wasn’t completed until 1790.  Linking the industrial Midlands region of England with the south of the country, the cost-cutting that was required has allowed the canal to claim it is one of the most scenic.   This is partly due to the canal following the contours of the land giving the canal numerous bends, rather than the more usual (and more expensive) building method of cutting a straight line through the landscape.

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Although the northern section from its start at Coventry to Napton was straightened in the 1820s, the southern section to its end at Oxford where it enters the River Thames (giving access to London) remained unchanged.

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Once completed the canal became one of the busiest and most profitable in England and, unlike many others, prospered even after the coming of the railways.  Barges carrying coal to London were still plying their trade as late as the early 1960s.  Today, the railway rules and often follows the same route.

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However, the Oxford Canal is still one of the busiest waterways in the country, only now with leisure traffic.  On the day of our attempt at barging it was pleasantly quiet and we shared the canal with few others. The only hint of an industrial past was the working barges of the Canal & River Trust, the charity responsible for maintaining the two thousand miles of waterways in England and Wales.

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Travelling at a speed slower than walking pace isn’t for everyone – I found it a little frustrating – but it does give ample opportunity to admire the scenery, buildings and wildlife.  The tithe barn at Upper Heyford, built around 1400AD, is magnificent.  More images of the barn, which is privately owned, can be seen by clicking here.

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One of the cost-cutting methods used in construction was to incorporate a section of the River Cherwell into the canal.  The problem that this created with variable water flow is still an issue today.  Another saving more readily visible are the locks: fewer in number and deeper, many have single gates instead of the more usual two.

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Manoeuvring such a large boat is a surprisingly quick skill to master but there are always other, more savvy boat people around that are happy to assist or advise when needed.  Our boat was hired from the yard at Little Heyford and we travelled north, meeting up with friends for a bankside picnic before returning to the marina.

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A daytrip – or perhaps a longer holiday on a barge – is definitely to be recommended even though I found the pace a little too slow.  The next time I am on one I shall remember the words of Pooh, that wisest of bears:  “Rivers know this: there is no hurry.  We shall get there one day.”

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Click on any of the photos to enlarge

Links:

The Oxford Canal – a more detailed history
The Canal & River Trust
Boat Hire – Lower Heyford








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Wednesday, 27 April 2016

France in the Slow Lane

Everything about the compact town of Lombez oozes history and Gallic charm; its narrow streets are lined with ancient buildings.  Discovering it as we did by chance confirms the principal of always taking the slow route – drive along motorways and you miss so much.
Walking through Lombez takes you back to a time when life too was slower; amongst its buildings are images that conjure up the France portrayed by the great artists – rich colours, faded paintwork, closed shutters keeping out hot sunshine.
Dominating the town, the pink and white octagonal bell tower of the fourteenth century cathedral is in ornate contrast to the austere façade of the brick built body of the church.  The severity of the style accentuates its height and gives no hint of its splendid interior.

 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Fine stained glass, some dating back to the 1400s, marble altars, decorative carvings and statues all demand careful exploration and give good reason to linger inside away from the summer heat.
The cathedral is a listed monument historique and preservation work of the exterior was being carried out during our visit.  With such an ancient building, work is on-going and there are areas of the interior that still have to be restored, although they do have a special charm and serenity about them that may be lost when renovated.
 
Stepping back outside, the sun appears to be even brighter than before and gives an excuse to find a bistro for a cold beer.  Unlike the UK, where bars and coffee shops crowd the pavements to draw in the visitors, outside the cathedral there are few signs of life and very little traffic.  This part of France remains true to its laid-back style and does not woo the tourist: when in Lombez behave like a native - stay calm, slow down, relax. 
 
Lombez is in the Gers region of southwest France, 55km west of Toulouse and within sight of the Pyrenees Mountains.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

A Hidden Exmoor Walk

I have misgivings about sharing this walk for it is a favourite of mine: in the 48 years that I have known it I have rarely met anyone other than those that work the land here.  Do I want to encourage others to discover its beauty?  I’m not sure.

This circular walk begins with the open expanses of Brendon Common but follows more sheltered winding lanes before descending through beech woodland to Rockford and the East Lyn River.  A steep climb past Brendon church returns you to the moor.  How long does it take?  There’s no easy answer to this – allow two hours although experience tells me there are so many distractions along the way, including the Rockford Inn, that it can take much, much longer.  Whether you want a quick sprint or a leisurely amble good supportive footwear is essential as is the ability to climb hefty hills.
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 




There is plentiful parking at Scobhill Gate, the cattle grid on the B3223 that denotes the westernmost boundary of Brendon Common.  From here walks radiate across the 2000 acres of heather moorland but our route takes us over the cattle grid into farmed country and turns right by the hairpin bends at Brendon Manor Stables.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



After a few hundred yards the road, which is flanked by hedges of hazel, ash, furze, bramble and bilberry (known locally as wurts), meets Gratton Lane.  This is very much ‘home’ territory for me, for it is here at Brendon Barton that I arrived as a lad to work and play in 1968.  Opposite the farm there are fine views of Brendon church and in the far distance Countisbury Common and the sea.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 












Walking along Gratton Lane is lovely at any time of the year but is at its best in spring when the beech hedges are bursting into leaf and primroses and bluebells nestle at their feet.  These banks are an ancient method of providing shelter, as well as a barrier to livestock, from the fierce gales and snowstorms that sweep in from the Atlantic.  The banks stand about five feet in height, lined with stone with the beech planted above.















Just as the lane starts to descend it enters woodland and it is here - just past the warning sign denoting the ford that crosses the road - that a footpath is taken to the left.  The path follows a pretty stream as it tumbles over rocks down to join the East Lyn River.  It is here that the unwary walker can also take a tumble as the path crosses outcrops of rock that become quite slippery when damp.  This stream has everything a larger one would have – cascades, waterslides, ferns growing from niches – but all in miniature.  Despite its diminutive size it once powered a sawmill. 





















The mill has long been a ruin and is now fenced off for safety but the rusting ironwork is still visible.  Just beyond the old building the path joins the road. Turn left and follow the lane to the hamlet of Rockford.  You are now walking in the Brendon valley with its beechwoods clinging to the steep hills high above, home to a number of rare rowan trees (Sorbus) unique to the area.   The East Lyn River is a major river; when water levels are low it is difficult to imagine its ferocity when in spate.  In 1952 it destroyed bridges, houses and lives as it passed through the valley culminating in the flood disaster at Lynmouth where thirty-four people lost their lives and over one hundred houses were destroyed.  The Rockford Inn is a good place to stop for a beer; they also serve cream teas.  Just make sure that you put the cream on the scone before the jam in the Exmoor tradition!  It is possible to extend the walk to Watersmeet (where there is a National Trust tearoom) by crossing the river.

 
 
 



























Once past Rockford the road starts to climb until it reaches Brendon church.  The hill is a killer – it’s not called Church Steep for nothing!  The church which nestles into the hill and looks out across the combes looks as if it has been there for centuries.  In reality, it was moved stone by stone from nearby Cheriton in 1738.  It is simply decorated inside but has some attractive stained glass.  Brendon Barton, passed earlier, can be seen from the steps of the church.  Follow the lane back to the farm; from there retrace the original route back to Scobhill Gate.

 


































Exmoor is a National Park in the south-west of England and straddles the counties of Devon and Somerset.  Apart from miles of wonderful moorland walks, it also has the highest sea cliffs in England, pretty villages and spectacular wildlife including the majestic Red Deer.  Native Exmoor ponies roam the open moor.  Now a rare breed they remain virtually unchanged from pre-history.

Happy walking!

Once again Blogger is playing up so apologies for the rather strange layout of this blog post!



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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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