One of the signs of
getting older is that the days, weeks, months and years go by ever faster -
this seems rather unfair as you are likely to have relatively few ahead of you.Not that I plan to leave this world just yet
(well, not if I can help it), it is just that 2012 was the anniversary not just
of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee but also of mine which has focussed the mind,
As the time has sped by so fast I thought I would review the
year, if only to remind myself what I’ve been doing the past twelve months.
January:To London for the New Year.Whenever we visit ‘The Smoke’ (I wonder
if anyone still calls it that now that the days of dense smog have long gone)
it always ends up rather ‘foody’.That
trip was no exception; we ate our way up the Kings Road, ate our way around
Sloane Square and finally ate our way to Fortnum & Mason arriving in time
for afternoon tea.Fortnum’s is the most
wonderful grocery store on the planet – whereas, most people, especially those
from overseas, visit Harrods, Fortnum’s is the one place you really shouldn’t
miss.Everything about it is delightful
and its afternoon teas are legendry.We
did squeeze in a visit to the National Portrait Gallery but why show you images
of great works of art when you can see photos of Fortnum’s?Add it to your list of ‘places I must visit
before I die’.
February:A visit to Snowdonia staying at a friend’s
isolated chapel house on the side of the mountains.The weather was quite kind to us considering
the time of year so we were able to do a lot of walking.To our dismay, our favourite spot that we had
christened ‘The Enchanted Forest’ because of its lichen encrusted trees and
great mossy hummocks had been clear felled and all signs of it destroyed.This may sound like wanton vandalism but the
trees had been planted for timber production regardless of the impact they had
on the scenery.Now years later, there
is a move to restore the mountains back to their original state which is, I’m
sure, admirable and an ecologically sound thing to do.The trouble is that we loved this silent,
brooding woodland that no-one, it seemed, apart from us ever visited and now it
is gone.And with it has gone our desire
to return but, who knows, perhaps we shall one day.
March: Recording the life of a hedgerow seemed like a
good idea at the time.It was supposed
to have become a month by month photographic notebook of the changes that took
place during the year but sadly March turned out to be the first and only entry.As April arrived I took more
photographs but when it came to blogging them they had disappeared (reappearing
months later – one of the mysteries of computer technology).Then came the rain – and it has rained ever
since - and the project was abandoned, apart from a vain attempt in May.The hedge, which is in the little lane that
leads from our cottage up the hill out of the secret valley, is an ancient
relic from the time of the Wychwood Forest, cleared in the very earliest days
of British history.It is mentioned in
the Domesday Book, that great list of the plunder of William the Conqueror,
written in 1086.Although the forest has
retreated by many miles there are still some fine trees standing and wild flowers
that would normally be found in woodland still grow on its grassy banks.I shall make a resolution to resurrect the
project in 2013.
April:Part of my everyday job as a practical
gardener is pruning, a subject which is a mystery to many people and often
fills them with terror at the very thought of wielding secateurs to a treasured
shrub.Mahonia is one of those useful
winter flowering plants that so often look dreadful as they become ever more
gaunt and ungainly.This was the case
with one in a client’s garden so it seemed a good idea to photograph the
process of restoration and blog about it.That post has
rapidly become my most read and I am glad to be able to report that the plant is
thriving. Now covered in new flower buds and almost ready to open, it will welcome
the New Year with the scent of lily-of-the-valley.If you have one in your garden, cut a few flowers for a
shallow vase to fragrance the house.
May:Despite the rain that seems to have fallen
incessantly since April, we had a fine, dry day for the most important day
in my social calendar of 2012 which was also an important one for the Queen
too.The Pageant of the Horse was held
in the grounds of Windsor Castle and celebrated the Queen’s sixty year reign
through her association with and love of horses.Horses, riders and other performers
representing every country from around the world that the Queen has visited
gave us a show that both we and she will never forget.It was a quite remarkable and memorable experience;
apart from the showmanship and being so close to the Queen and Prince Philip,
we had a private ‘Haka’ from the Cook Islanders when they noticed us still seated after the bulk of other visitors had left.Very exciting!
June:The Jubilee celebrations continued with
the River Pageant held in London on the Thames in pouring rain, this time.A much smaller river, the Coln, featured in a
post ‘The Most Beautiful English Village’ about the exquisite Cotswold village
of Bibury.With its clear, trout-filled
waters fast running past ancient stone cottages, it is hardly surprising that
it is protected by the National Trust and much visited by sightseers.It is said that visitors often don’t realise
that it is not a living museum and sometimes walk into people’s private gardens or
houses to be surprised to find the owners eating their lunch or watching
To read any of the
posts mentioned above, just click on the links in green.July to December will appear soon.
When I was a small child I was lucky enough to be sent to a
school that had once been a large country house.Its gardens had long been allowed to return
to the wild and it was difficult to differentiate between them and the meadows
that came with the property.Lessons on
warm summer days were often taken outdoors sitting not on chairs but on a bank of
short mown grass.This sounds – and was,
of course – idyllic but rules were strict and we had to sit in rows as straight
as the chairs in the classroom.At playtime
we could run about through the longer grass chasing butterflies and trying to
catch grasshoppers in our school caps.
Even in those early days I hated being indoors during bad
weather and found it hard to concentrate on lessons in the classroom for there
always seemed to be something more interesting happening outside.Our teacher must have felt the same for with
the first sign of sunshine we would be back once more in the open air.It is said that every child remembers the
name of their first teacher and mine, Miss Vine, I recall with great affection
and gratitude for it was she that first took me on a nature walk.The walk – the earliest of all my schoolday
memories – triggered off a lifelong love of and fascination with nature.
We were led one late winter’s day wrapped up in our gaberdine
raincoats, belts tightly buckled at the waist, crocodile fashion in pairs
through the meadows further than we had been before.How exciting to be exploring somewhere new!When we came to an old wooden gate we passed
through onto a wide, open path lined with trees, their trunks as straight as
soldiers and towering high above us.The
path instead of being muddy was soft and springy, our feet cushioned by years
of fallen needles.Miss Vine had brought
us to a larch wood; an inspired introduction to trees for everything about them
is childlike in scale apart from their height which she said led to a magic
world way, way above.
We never were told how we might reach the magic world but
she pointed out the gifts that were dropped from it so that we might learn all
about the birds and animals that lived there.She picked up a fallen piece of branch with its tiny cones attached,
perfect child-sized miniatures of the larger Spruce fircones, and gave it to us
to look at and then we all found our own and carried our ‘gift’ back to the
classroom to draw it in painting class.
As the months went by we visited the trees often, watching
how the hard, knobbly, dead-looking branches opened into soft tufts of the
brightest green.We marvelled at how the
cones formed starting off green and pink before turning chestnut and then
brown.And in the autumn we watched as
the needles – and it puzzled us that needles could be soft – turned glorious
shades of yellow and orange before falling to the ground.
During those visits we learnt about different types of trees,
about the wild flowers and birds, the animals and other wildlife.It was only many years later that I realised
that Miss Vine had taught us that there really was a magic world – the one that
we live in and take for granted every day of our lives.
Every little boy – and many a gown-up one as well – loves to
play conkers at this time of year.Or at
least, I assume they still do; it is possible that it may have been banned from
the school playground under health and safety grounds.When you think of it – not only did we
frequently impale our hands with the meat skewer we had pinched from the
kitchen drawer to pierce the conkers with, we quite often cut ourselves with
our penknives as we trimmed the strings to the right length. And what about
those shattered splinters flying through the air like vegetative shrapnel – no-one
thought about wearing eye protection then.
However, the traditional sport of conkers isn’t threatened
so much by legislation as by the recently imported leaf miner moth (Cameraria
first appeared in southwest London in 2002.With no predators it has spread at an alarming rate and now it is
reckoned that nearly all trees in England and Wales are infected by it.The moth’s presence can be detected by the
brown-black blotches that cover the leaves, disrupting the trees ability to
synthasise fully.This in turn weakens
it which has made them much more susceptible to disease, especially bleeding
canker which is now threatening their very existence.
In some years, leaf damage is more severe and the leaves can drop very early indeed. As a consequence, some trees are looking in very poor shape.
The secret valley
has numerous mature Horse Chestnuts.They are fine trees, up to 100ft or more tall and look especially
splendid in spring, their white flower spikes contrasting with the freshness of
their newly opened green leaves which, at that time of year, are still
unblemished.In the 400+ years since
they were introduced to Britain from the Balkans, they have become an integral
part of a child’s growing up.We learnt how
branches of the ‘sticky’ buds, the dormant leaf buds, becoming ever more shiny
and sticky as the sap rises within the tree, can be cut and forced to open into
leaf early in a jam jar of water.On hot
summer days we learnt, usually when lying beneath the trees in their cooling
shade, how to make ‘fish bones’ by shredding the leaves with our fingers until
just the skeletal veins of the leaves remained.When we wanted to be nasty we knew that we could hurl the hard, green
nutshells armed with their sharp spikes to embed in our enemy’s backs or
scratch their legs if they were wearing shorts.And, of course, we held conker competitions.
Horse Chestnuts in full bloom on a fine late spring day
Now with all the trials of pests and disease plus the
dreadful summer weather, conkers are few and those that have matured barely
half their normal size.It has even been
suggested that brussel sprout competitions may have to be held instead although
I doubt if they will give the satisying dull thud of the real thing even if
they were frozen first.However, this
years World Conker Championships have taken place this month as normal – it was
first held in 1965 and, unlikely as it seems, attracts competitors from all
around the world.You can find out more
by clicking on the link below.
Not all is gloom and doom for the Horse Chestnut for it is
now thought that some bird species are beginning to learn about this new food
source and research is being carried out by the University of Hull and others to
monitor this suspected behaviour.There
is little that we, as gardeners or conservationists can do at this stage to
assist other than to report any signs we see of birds feeding on the trees. We just have to hope that the Horse Chestnut
doesn’t disappear from our countryside in the same way that the Elm did in the
1970’s and 80’s.
The difference in size between the two trees is quite marked - as is the autumnal tints of the frost damage part of the smaller one
In the secret valley,
we also have a number of the smaller, red flowered Horse Chestnut, Aesculus x carneaca, and this does not seem
to become infected to the same degree as the white flowered, Aesculus hippocastanum.Although
they do produce conkers unfortunately they are neither of a size or quality
suitable for a serious round of conkers.Horse Chestnuts, by the way, are poisonous to horses – they get their
common name by the scars on the branches where the leaves once were: a perfect horseshoe
complete with marks where the nails would be.
When you get to know a place intimately – whether it’s a
garden or a landscape – you notice things that the casual observer misses.In the late spring of 2011, we had a biting
frost that killed off not all but some of the new young growth of numerous
trees – just where it touched.Some trees
remained unscathed, others were totally destroyed and some just part.This is what happened to one of a pair of
Horse Chestnuts visible from our little stone cottage.One tree has always been much more stunted
than the other, although as their girths are the same, I assume they were
planted at the same time.They stand
side by side but one, when the river bursts its banks is under water for a few
days longer than the other.Is it this
that has caused it to be so much shorter or is it this rare burning of the leaves by
frost?It took months for the tree to
recover, finally sending out new spring green leaves and flower buds at the end
of July contrasting greatly with the remainder of the tree whose leaves had not
been harmed.Likewise, the older leaves
turned their autumn colours and fell earlier than the newer ones.This year the tree, which now looks quite
poorly, has reversed with the damaged leaves turning golden – in the ten days
since the photograph was taken, they have fallen while the remaining leaves are
yet to get their autumn tints.
Almost hidden from view, our old stone cottage stands well above the little winding river
In 2011, we had a very late frost blackening both the leaves and flowers - it took months for the tree to recover
The secret valley
will be a much poorer place if all the Horse Chestnuts succumb to disease and
have to be felled.Let us hope that
future generations can play beneath them as we have done.
The making of mosaic patterns is often associated with the Romans although the earliest known examples pre-date them to 3000BC. Associated with many cultures, mosaic artists still flourish today, an unbroken tradition of five thousand years.
The Hunting Dogs mosaic: head of Oceanus 2nd century AD
In Britain, one of the finest collections of early mosaics can be found in the Cotswold town of Cirencester, situated 93 miles west of London. With a population of 18000, it is one of the larger hubs in the Cotswolds yet has maintained a lot of its old charm for there are still many independent shops as well as the usual High Street chain stores.
History oozes from the very fabric of Cirencester: home to the the oldest agricultural college (Royal Agricultural College) in the English speaking world, founded in 1845; it is also home to the oldest polo club in England (Cirencester Park Polo Club) which was founded in 1894. The charter for the market, still held twice weekly, was first mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086.
The Hunting Dogs mosaic: Sea Leopard 3rd century AD
However, when the words Cirencester and history are linked together it is the Romans that predominate for their town, Corinium - now modern day Cirencester - was the second most important city in Britain. Corinium lay at the centre of their great road network where Akeman Street, Ermine Street and the Fosse Way all meet, still busy roads today. There are still the remains of a number of their villas in the region that are possible to explore.
The great Roman ampitheatre here was also the second largest in the country with tiered wooden seating for eight thousand spectators. Today, all that remains are a series of banks and ditches, still impressive and well worth visiting.
The Seasons mosaic: 2nd century AD Actaeon being attacked by his own hunting dogs
If there is not a huge amount to see of the original splendour of the ampitheatre, you will not be disappointed by a trip to the town's Corinium Museum which has recently been extended and refurbished making it one of the best museums in the country. The museum holds over one and a half million artefacts but the most impressive of all of their exhibits have to be the Roman mosaics.
The Seasons mosaic: 2nd century AD
The Seasons is one of the most impressive mosaics in Britain, discovered in Cirencester in 1849, with pictures of goddesses depicting spring, summer and autumn. Winter is missing. In the museum the floor has been laid in an area reproducing a room in a Roman villa.
Detail from the Hare mosaic, 4th century AD
The hare is frequently used in Celtic art and fables but was rarely used by the Romans, making this central motif of the mosaic floor unique. If you click on the photo above to enlarge it, you will see that there have been shards of green glass laid into the hare's back.
Detail from the Hare mosaic, 4th century AD
The Hare mosaic, 4th century AD
The museum does not just hold Roman aretfacts, it also covers finds from pre-history as well as more recent times such as Saxon brooches and a large hoard of coins dating back to the English civil war, subjects of a later post. The Cirencester is really worth making the effort to visit - you can find out more details by visiting their website, here.
Horses play an important part of our everyday lives and with my partner having spent a lifetime involved with riding for both pleasure and competitively, it is not surprising that so many of our friends are 'horsey' too.
I took up riding rather late in life compared to most and although I'm a competent rider, I've never been tempted to do anything that remotely involves winning a rosette. I value my life too much. However, if I thought I could skip the rosettes part and go straight into winning big prize money, I might just give it a try...
Over the years I've had my share of falls - this is a good thing for it means that I can recount them at every available opportunity. Horse fall stories are rather like fisherman's tales - it isn't just the fish that get larger with every telling, so do the fences, gates and hedges where I met my comeuppance. The story, for example, where I managed to fall off twice jumping a set of rails: the first time I got back on the horse and tried to jump them again - only to land head first in the biggest pile of cow shit for 30 miles. No embellishments there but actually (and don't tell anyone) the rails were really quite low. I probably could have jumped them even if I hadn't been on a horse. The most irritating fall story of them all is the time I jumped a hedge to find rather a drop on the landing side. The horse stopped on landing and I sailed straight on, managing to do a double somersault before landing on my feet looking at the other riders jumping towards me. Irritating because although accurately told no-one, apart from the few that witnessed it, believe it.
One way of ensuring numerous falls and a good way to stack up a whole wad of stories for future dinner parties is to take part in team chasing. This is, for the uninitiated, where a team of usually four riders jump a cross country course at a hell-for-leather pace against the clock. The time of the third rider to complete the course is the one that counts. My partner has done this on numerous occasions but these days we are both happy to watch.
A good friend of ours who is a very successful saddler sponsored one of the classes at the Warwickshire Hunt Team Chase two Sunday's ago and we were invited to join him and his partner for lunch. I'm afraid to admit that like most events that include food and drink, I spent more time inside the marquee than on the actual course itself.
These sorts of occasions, rather like any other horse events, are very sociable for it is where a widely scattered country population can come together and meet up with old friends and neighbours and exchange news. As I sat at the table pondering upon this and how traditional it is - for country gatherings haven't really changed that much over the years - I also wondered if this was a worldwide phenomena or whether it was yet another example of British eccentricty. At that moment I noticed one of the guests was sitting at the table astride a pony so I decided it must be the latter. Ok, so the guest and the pony were very small but does that really matter? Of course not, we wouldn't have cared if it had been a 17 hands stallion (well, we might just, I suppose).
Once lunch was over it was time for the prize giving. The team in pink,, who came second, were riding to raise money for Breast Cancer Awareness.
You can see more photo's of the day on my Facebook page - click the FB icon at the top right of this page to go there - and don't forget to 'like' me at the same time!
The west coast of Ireland is renowned for its beauty for the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean, with nothing to slow them down from the shores of America, have created inlets and pools, islands and crumbling rock face. It is a wild place with mile after empty mile of high cliffs, sandy coves and sheltered bays. Like the shadows that play on the surface of the water, the weather is forever changing as rain and sun alternate produce the contrast of lush green against granite outcrops. All along this coast there are ruins of the old crofts, now long deserted as the population left to find work and comfort elsewhere. Those that remained moved into more modern homes that look as if they have been dropped into the landscape for they sit at all angles, some looking out to sea, some with their backs firmly set to it as if hunkered down waiting for the next battering storm.
One of the most picturesque towns on the coast is Clifden in Connemara whose population swells threefold during the busy summer months to 6000 or so. The region described as Connemara is undefined, being part of County Galway, but is generally accepted to be the remote, westernmost area, where mountain, bog and sea all jostle for space and attention. This remoteness has helped to save the Irish lannguage and Connemara has the highest percentage of Gaelic speakers in Ireland.
We - my partner, myself and some friends - had come to stay high on the cliffs outside Clifden specifically to visit the annual Connemara Pony Show, where the native ponies are put through their paces over three days. I have written of this in my last post (click here) and also mentioned how we came expecting rain and cool temperatures only to be blessed with such hot weather that we actually swam in the sea. The fine weather meant that we were treated to some spectacular sunsets.
There are two roads that lead west out of Clifden, the Beach road and the Sky road. The first only goes a short distance but the Sky Road is an 11km loop that is a popular destination for both tourist and local alike on a clear evening.
As the light begins to fade there is little to prepare you for the spectacle that will come later. A greying of the sky with just the merest hint of colour as if an artist has slashed the palest of pink washes in a quick 'Z' shaped stroke.
As the sky darkens further it would appear that the sunsets we have been promised will not materialise. The sea changes in appearance at this point and becomes almost glassy or mirror like. The dark line stretching across the water in the photo below is made by fishing nets stretched across the bay, invisible at any other time of day. Trees, too, standing on the edge of the water cast their reflection in the stillness.
A shaft of light suddenly appears along the horizon, lightening up the landscape once again only to be hidden by a bank of seafog rolling in, determined to spoil our evening display, leaving just a hint of gold cloud rising above it. But, just as quickly it disappears again to reveal the sun disappearing over the horizon beyond the islands.
We stay until the sun disappears completely and drive on imagining that the show is over but nothing has prepared us for this last finale seen as the road rounds a bend. The combination of cloud, light and darkness, of navy blue, black and pink, mirror imaged in the still water is quite breath taking. It seems unreal, as if it should be the backdrop to a Wagnerian opera; we stand on the sand speechless for no words are adequate.
I had to share the sunset with others but waking early the next morning I stepped outside to be greeted by an almost equally spectacular dawn. And what phenomenon created this vertical shaft of colour coming straight up from the sea?
JOHN SHORTLAND, Cotswold Hills, England.
John the Writer: It is as natural for me to write as it is for me to eat - and I eat a lot.
John the Gardener: It's in my blood - the family discussed plants as others do football. Now I earn my living by it. Lucky chap!
John the Countryman: Living in a secret valley of winding streams, fields and woods, deer and badgers. Oh, and dogs and horses.
John the Explorer: that description is a tad exaggerated - but I've had my moments. It's all in the blog...