Saturday, 25 December 2010

Christmas Greetings

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Christmas Greetings
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from the
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(very snowy)
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Secret Valley
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For the first time for very many years we have a white Christmas

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Thank you for your continued support and interest - keep the comments flowing, I'm always interested to hear your views!

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May you all have a very happy holiday

Johnson

Cotswold Hills, England





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Sunday, 19 December 2010

The North Wind Doth Blow.....

The other day I recalled one of the nursery rhymes that my mother used to sing to me when I was a small child sitting on her lap. Goodness knows why, after so very many years, but no sooner had I done so than the words became true:
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"The north wind doth blow and we shall have snow and what will the robin do then, poor thing?"
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Well, the answer is puff up its feathers and stand close to the bird feeding table until it gets fed!
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It isn't just the robin that demands food in these difficult conditions and there has been a constant stream of activity back and forth to the feeders. The tit family are always welcome - we get many different sorts here: blue, great, coal, willow and long-tailed.
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It is often stated that British birds are rather dull compared to the exotica of warmer climes. We do have our share of 'little brown jobs' that aren't too easy to identify but what can be more spectacular than the Greater Spotted Woodpecker? With it's red cap and rump and black and white markings, it is a beautiful looking bird. We also have its diminutive cousin, the Lesser Spotted, but these tend to stay out of the garden and feed amongst the willows by the river.
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The only other resident British woodpecker, the Green, never comes to the bird table or feeders but it does have a store of food available in the electricty pole by the house. Normally quite shy, most sightings of it are of it flying rapidly away in the typical undulating movement that is common to all of the woodpeckers - a useful identification aid. Country folk (I include myself here) always call the Green Woodpecker by its traditional name of Yaffle.
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Often cited as the commonest Brititsh bird, the Chaffinch is also another colourful bird. Or, at least, the male is. In the photos below the rich salmon pink breast feathers are clearly visible, as are the wing markings, common to both sexes and making the rather dull female easy to identify. Bramblings come to our bird table as well. A less common winter visitor, they are similar to the male Chaffinch; however, the colour is richer and carried by both the sexes.
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The Thrush family are also well represented: here a cock Blackbird waits for food. its yellow bill contrasting with its black plumage (the hens are chocolate brown but still have a yellowish bill). In many birds, the Magpie for example, black becomes iridescent green when seen in certain lights. The Blackbird is jet black and all the more handsome for it.
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Only coming into the garden to raid the shrubs of berries or fruit from trees, the winter visiting Redwings and Fieldfares (close relatives of the Blackbird) feed in large flocks throughout the secret valley. I managed to catch this photo of a Fieldfare eating our apples before it flew off.
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The sheep almost disappeared in the blizzard yesterday. Today the weather is calmer and this crow is taking advantage of searching for food in one of the ewe's fleeces.
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The snow - which is very unusual around here before Christmas - looks to hang around for a while, with more forecast next week. I cannot remember the last time we had one but, perhaps, a white Christmas may be a reality rather than just a picture on a card. If so, I shall have to write a post quoting Bing Crosby.....

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Sunday, 5 December 2010

Snowdonia: Through The Enchanted Forest

The tiny road that passes the converted chapel that we have been staying in once again for a late holiday continues to climb further into the mountains. The grassy areas, cropped short by sheep, give way to bracken, heather and stunted gorse, also shortened by the harsh climate. And an hours walk along this road - now little more than a stone track - brings you to the Enchanted Forest. At first, it is barely noticed: a tongue of dark green that appears to be sliding down the mountain as if desperate to reach the richer soil of the valley below.
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But suddenly, as you walk round a bend in the path, there it is in front of you. The trees look inviting; beckoning you to shelter from the cold north-easterly wind that cuts through to your bones. Yet, as you approach, the gate barring your way makes you hesitate, for the first
view into the depths of the forest is a menacing combination of dark and light. All those childhood images from the Brothers Grimm come to mind for there are the conflicting emotions: is this a sinister or a kind place to be and where will the path lead?
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Walking further into the forest, it proves to be a fascinating place, with sight after sight more enchanting than the previous one. The damp mists and rain have turned the ground into a mossy wonderland with great mounds of it creating a weird, almost surrealistic, landscape. Surely, Goblins or Hobbitts live here? They do, for every so often the moss builds up to make a hooded entrance and some even have - if you look carefully enough (like in the photo below) - a wrinkly face staring out at you.
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It is just not the light and the shadows that play tricks with you, for nothing is quite as you expect it to be. Some of the conifers branches grow upright instead of horizontally so that their silvery underside is facing you, disorienting your vision.
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Even the toadstools are rarely toadstool shaped - here these look like pieces of discarded orange peel rotting in the leaf litter.
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It is not especially surprising that ice forms on the puddles at this altitude and time of year but even this is different. They have the appearance of stained glass windows, but strangely drained of all their colour.....
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And just as suddenly as you entered it, the forest gives way again to mountain. But what a mountain! It is as if it has been dropped from a great height and smashed to millions of pieces, some just lying around and others piled up one on top of the other, regardless of size or shape. And why, several hundred years ago, did they build the dry stone walls that travel up and over them for mile after mile?
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The sun had been shining brightly when we had stepped into the trees. Now, in an instant, the weather has turned and we are being threatened by snow flurries. She-dog, our lurcher, who recognises these problems better than we do, had been wandering on far ahead. Now, knowing that danger could be approaching, she hurtles down the track back towards us, agitated, beckoning us to return home.
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How glad we were we heeded She-dog's warning! By the time we were within sight of home the landscape was changing to white. And the snow continued to fall for days.....
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Tuesday, 16 November 2010

A Roman Villa in the Cotswolds

These days the Cotswolds, with its rolling landscape, dry stone walls and picture postcard villages, give the impression of being sleepy and sparsely populated, basking (or some may say smug) in its glory of being one of the jewels of the British countryside. But this is not so. For it is a working landscape with its people going about their daily business, admittedly often in an unhurried way - for our narrow lanes and lack of motorways limit the speed that one can travel. And often our straightest and, therefore, easiest routes have not been made in recent years but by Roman settlers, attracted to this region some two thousand years ago, for much the same reasons as we are now.
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Ryknild Street, Fosse Way, Akeman Street, Ermin Way - just their very names conjure up images of Roman legions marching long distances through the country - linked their towns and cities with Corinium, now our modern Cirencester, the centre of both their commerce and entertainment (it still has the remains of a Roman ampitheatre that held over 8000 people). And, as time passed, they settled in more remote parts of the Cotswolds too: one such place is the villa built at North Leigh, near Witney. The track that leads you to the remains is as straight as any other Roman road but was used solely by servants and traders, the owners and visitors arriving by a more grand approach no longer visible.
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Now cared for the nation by English Heritage, admission is free and the site is open all year. Strategically placed notice boards explain the layout of the 60+ rooms and of its history but nothing quite prepares you for the sheer size of area which seems at odds with its present day position - somehow, you expect a small cottage sized building. In fact, the first thing I noticed was the irrepressible She-dog who had run on ahead, in order I imagine, to steal the limelight, as usual!
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One of the greatest pleasures of exploring the remains is that they are relatively unknown and so are rarely visited. I explored for over an hour and saw no-one - just perfect! The photos below show the north west range and also the south east range. Beneath the floor of the latter even earlier remains of a hearth were found , dating back to the Iron Age, circa BC100.
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Although the site was known as early as 1783 it was not until the early 1800's that the ruins were excavated, the first plan published in 1823. Further excavations took place in 1908.
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The remains of the under floor heating can be clearly seen in the photographs below. It is strange how such an 'advanced' civilisation could then be plunged into the relatively primitive period of the Dark Ages after the Romans left.
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In amongst the stonework of the walls pieces of tile protrude. No matter how carefully I looked I saw no signs of pottery.
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The'jewel in the crown' of the villa at North Leigh are the mosaic floors. Several were discovered and lifted, presumably to a museum although I do not know which. However, the floor of the dining room, discovered in 1816, in the south west wing has been preserved in situ and is protected from the elements by a modern building. The mosaics were laid by craftsmen from Corinium in the fashionable geometric style of the time.
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The dining room, again with underfloor heating, had a vaulted roof supported by columns, parts of which can be seen against the back wall of the shelter.
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Who were the people that lived here and why was the villa suddenly deserted in the fifth century when it was so obviously thriving a century earlier? It is probable that they were farming here so perhaps there was a change in climatic conditions or with the water supply. Whatever the reason, it is now the most perfect spot to sit and ponder in total peace and quiet.
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Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Goodbye Henry, Hello Ernie

There comes a time when old friends go and new ones appear and so it is with Henry. Not that he has met his demise, despite being elderly and a little infirm. He has gone to pastures new.
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Henry, our Irish Draught horse, has had a blissful life here in the Cotswolds after a hectic time in his earlier years on the hunting field. Recently, and with the fine spell of warmth, his days have been spent in glorious semi -retirement basking in the sunshine.
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But even the gentle hacking around the farm with She-dog at his heels has proven too much and so he has spent many weeks resting and generally enjoying life.
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But now it is time to say goodbye and he has returned to his original owners to spend the rest of his days as companion and chaperone to young foals.
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The always sensitive-to-events She-dog seems to know that her companion is leaving never to return. Goodbye, Henry!

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Hello Ernie! Seems quiet enough looking over the stable wall......
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Barney has seen this all before. Once he would have kicked out at any newcomer to his field just to show who was boss. Now he just can't be bothered - I know the feeling. So he stands there while Ernie circles sniffing and snorting ......
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And then they are off!
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Ernie cannot decide what he wants to look like. He tries the fairground horse look first ......
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..... and then the bucking bronco ....... while Barney looks on bored by all the antics.
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Ernie tries out the rocking horse look ..... finally stopping to try out the local food
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The view's not too bad either! Home could be a much worse place .....
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