Saturday, 21 December 2013

A Year in Review 2013: The First Six Months

As I feared, once you reach a certain age, time flies by even quicker than before and that certainly has happened in 2013.  Where has the year gone?  The only consolation is that speaking with young people, they say the same thing.  Perhaps that is a rather sad reflection of modern living for I often found that the time didn't go by quickly enough years ago!  Despite the year having gone by rapidly, it has been a great one with some excitement along the way.

January: it is rapidly becoming a tradition that each New Year's Day some close friends and I go off exploring.  This usually includes a museum and food.  The year before it had been London with a visit to the National Portrait Gallery followed by afternoon tea at my favourite grocers, Fortnum & Mason.  This January it was to the city of Bath with its glorious abbey church where Edgar was crowned King of England in 973AD.  The church has the most exquisite vaulting - it is hard to believe that such fine tracery can be achieved by carving stone.  Bath, which is a World Heritage Site, is famous for its Roman Baths built about a thousand years earlier and which are open to visitors.  A great place to view them from are the Pump Rooms, the imaginary setting of Sheridan's Georgian play, The Rivals.  It was here that we had our champagne tea.
February was a mixed month weather-wise in the secret valley and one post describes the rain lashing against the windows and the trees being thrown around by a winter gale.  Despite that the winter aconites were in full flower advertising the advance of spring and the wild birds were hanging onto the feeders for dear life.  Take away the aconites and we have a carbon copy day as I write this and, although there are no signs of spring yet, we are passing the shortest day which is always encouraging.
March was a strange month too with huge amounts of rain interspersed with wintry weather.  Even stranger was the affect it had upon the secret valley's frog population.  I can only assume that it was because everything was so saturated that, instead of laying their spawn in the small lake that is visible from the cottage, they laid them instead upon the tops of nearby fence posts. They couldn't possibly have survived there anyway but it was sad to see a few days later that they had turned black and 'melted' when a hard frost fell upon them.
April is the month of the Chipping Norton Literary Festival.  I have been on the committee since its inception and it has been gratifying to find that it has rapidly established a good reputation with authors, publishers and festival goers. One of the star attractions for 2013 was Sir Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame.  Because it is a small festival in a small, country town the atmosphere is very relaxed and it is possible to meet the authors for book signings or just a chat as they stroll about 'Chippy'.  This coming year the festival takes place from 24-27 April and tickets go on sale next month - check out the website for more details.
April also saw the launch of my new website www.johnshortlandwriter.com and also the start of my tweeting.  Come and join me @johnshortlandwr

May:  As I am always saying the secret valley is a magical place to live and one of the things that makes it so special is its history. Not the history of history books but the type that goes unrecorded other than by the clues it leaves behind in the landscape.  Here we have a patch of rough ground left uncultivated that is the invisible site of a Bronze Age settlement. Later, almost to within living memory, the lane was a drover's route and, in places, the road has been abandoned to become a green track full of wild flowers and butterflies.  We still refer to one place as the 'white gate' even though it was removed a hundred years ago or more.  It feels special to know that the valley has been lived in and loved for over three thousand years.
It was also a very exciting time as my gardening book was published accompanied by radio and other interviews. The launch party took place a couple of months later.



June is a colourful time of year in gardens and one thing I've always wanted to create is an Iris border.  This is an extravagance of space that few can afford for they are only in flower for a relatively short time.  However, one of my clients liked the idea so the 'rainbow' border was created.  Interest is extended by daffodils and alliums for earlier colour and Japanese anemones, with large flowered clematis behind, for later on.

To read any of the posts referred to above just click on the links, coloured green.




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Sunday, 15 December 2013

Puppy Walking

Whether you love it or hate it, hunting with dogs has been part of the country way of life for millennia: it was mentioned in Greek mythology and must have a much earlier history even than that.  These days in the UK there are many restrictions to hunting with a pack of hounds.  This hasn't prevented the hunts from adapting their practice to continue within the law; many now track a human quarry or laid trail.    This post, however, is not a treatise in support for or against hunting, it is only about one of the most delightful of hound breeds, the Beagle.
Beagles are possibly one of the oldest breeds with records of the type dating back to pre-Norman Conquest days although they did not look as they do now.  By Elizabethan times they were popular miniature dogs small enough to travel comfortably in a pocket.  As fox-hunting grew in popularity during the 18th and 19th centuries there became a need for a larger hound and all but one variety of Beagle became extinct.  The forerunners of today were preserved by a few enthusiasts for hunting rabbits. By the late 1800's hunting hare with beagles had become established and the breed was secure although the rough-coated ones had died out by the First World War.  The breed was much heavier in those early days with coarser features and they still have a tendency to become overweight if not exercised adequately.
There are now sixty Beagle packs in Britain today.  It is a necessity for hounds when kept in packs to become used to human company and experience a wider environment than they would get in kennels from an early age and so Daring and Darkness came to live with us for a while; a procedure known as 'puppy walking.'  Like all puppies they were into absolutely everything and although Darkness was the less inquisitive of the two neither could be described as shy.  With a hunting dog this forward going has to be encouraged although once when out exercising them they came face to face with a hare - their traditional quarry (now illegal) - they seemed baffled.  It is impossible to see the hare in the photo below but it is within fifteen feet of Daring who didn't live up to his name on this occasion.
 
The puppies remained with us for several months until the day came when their hunting instincts began to take over.  Once following a scent, hounds become oblivious to anything else so shouting at them to come to heel has no affect.  It takes nerve to wait for them to return which may be anything up to several hours later.  There is no place for free roaming dogs in sheep country and so it was time for them to be returned to the kennels to join the rest of the pack.  Over the following months we saw them on a number of occasions happy being part of the gang once more.
Despite being great fun to have around, I don't feel that they are the best breed to have as pets - although I realise that there are many beagle owners who will disagree with me.  Their tendency to put on weight, their liking the company of other dogs and especially their tendency to howl being my main reasons.
Their stamina and highly developed scenting ability has made them superb hunting dogs and these traits are put to excellent use as search and rescue dogs.  And, of course, they also make first rate and long-lived cartoon dogs - take a bow, Snoopy!








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Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The Hidden History of the Brendon's

The Brendon Hills, part of the Exmoor National Park, are less well-known than the barren moorland to its west that gives the park its name.  Here the landscape is a patchwork of lush, green fields and of woodlands bordered to the north by the sea.  It is a quiet landscape with only the sounds of birdsong and the occasional farm vehicle to disturb its peace.  It wasn't always like this, however, for during the nineteenth century it was the centre of a great, albeit relatively short-lived, mining venture.  Today, much of this has been forgotten.

The West Somerset Mineral Railway was built to link iron ore mines with the seaport of Watchet for transportation to the steelyards of south Wales.  Much of its route can be walked and there are several ruins, some of national importance, that have been conserved.  One of the most dramatic is the Incline, where trains hauled truckloads of ore - and passengers - up a 1 in 4 steep hillside, climbing 800 feet in just over half a mile.  I have written about this feat of Victorian engineering in an earlier post and this can be found by clicking on the link here.

A ruin less impressive than that of the Incline but no less extraordinary in its day is the Langham Hill Engine House built in 1866.  All that remains now is the footprint of the building but a good idea of what it must have looked like and how it worked can be had from the artist's impression by Anne Leaver shown on the nearby information board.

The engine house was created to draw the iron ore from three separate workings to the surface by sinking a new shaft at Langham Hill.  Powered by steam engines, the ore was pulled up to ground level by trams rising from a depth of up to 650 feet.  The miners who had to descend by ladder were protected from falling by a series of wooden platforms upon which the ladders rested - if they fell they would only drop the length of each ladder, reducing the risk of serious injury.  The steam engines also powered underground pumps to keep the shafts clear of water; this was filtered, stored in reservoirs and reused by the engines - an early example of recycling.  Once the ore was brought to the surface it was tipped into trucks to be carried away by the railway.

Another extraordinary feat of engineering was the aerial tramway that brought iron ore to Langham Hill in buckets from another mine over half a mile away.  A length of the steel cables, which are over four inches in thickness, can be seen coiled by the engine house.  The figures are staggering: the overhead cable was a single, endless 6700 feet length supported on wooden pylons, at times carrying the ore 300 feet above ground level and crossing a 2000 feet wide valley.  No wonder the miners called it 'the flying machine'.

It is hard to imagine, when visiting the engine house now, the noise, bustle and industry that took place here just 150 years ago.  Two hundred miners and their families, mostly from Wales came to live and work here, yet within fifty years all mining had  ceased.  The engine house only survived for ten years: its engine and even the house itself, dismantled and reused in mines elsewhere.  The aerial tramway lasted an even shorter time being in use for only three years before new transportation technology overtook it. 

Today all is silent, the site surrounded by trees and ferns.  For many years the remains of the mines remained hidden until the combined efforts of a number of individuals and groups fought to preserve them.  The West Somerset Mineral Railway Project came into being and has succeeded in doing so; it has also created a permanent exhibition housed in the museum in Watchet.  Its research of the history of the mines is available online - visit their website here.


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Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Exmoor's Forgotten Neighbour

Sandwiched between barren Exmoor to the west and the rugged Quantocks to their east, the Brendon Hills appear remarkably fertile with their neat, small fields testament to a rich farming tradition. Now incorporated into the Exmoor National Park it seems to be as devoid of human life as it's more visited partner.  It has, however, a surprising past: travel back in time one hundred and fifty years and you would find yourself in a thriving community at the forefront of Industrial Revolution technology.
 A corner of the ruined building

For years, I had been intrigued by a ruined building close to one of the few roads that leads onto Exmoor proper.  Obviously once substantial, what could this building, miles from anywhere, have been and who lived there? There were no clues as I first approached but the  ruins, now stabilised, have had information boards giving its history placed within.  It was the site of an extraordinary Victorian venture that extracted iron ore and then transported it to the coast to ship to Wales for the steel industry.  Although, there was now just this one ruined building, in its heyday over two hundred miners and their families lived close by in houses built especially for them.
 Click on the image to enlarge the poster

The explosion of railway building in the mid 1800's had created a huge demand for - and, consequently, a shortage of - iron ore.  Mining had taken place in the region on a very small, localised scale for many centuries but the small quantities found had never been a commercial prospect.  With the rapid rise in price and with advances in extraction the Ebbw Vale Company - Welsh steel works - developed the mines. A major problem was how to transport the ore the eleven miles from the furthest mine to the coast from where it could be shipped across the sea to Wales.  The first six miles from the port of Watchet was straightforward enough, the final six miles along the top of the Brendons, although more costly, also did not create a major problem.  It was the mile that included the climb of a 1 in 4 hillside that proved to be a challenge and a costly one at that - over ten times the amount required for the same length elsewhere and over £2 million in today's prices.  'The Incline' was completed in 1861 and took just four years to build, rising almost 800 feet in just 0.6 of a mile.
The ruins of the winding house as seen from the top of the incline

Trucks of iron ore were lowered or raised down the incline on twin rails, their steam locomotives held in place by steel cables.  The huge drums that were required to do this were housed in the 'winding house' with the cables travelling through stone tunnels, now the silent home of bats.  The force of gravity brought empty trucks to the top in twelve minutes as the weight of the full ones descended.   At the top of the incline the trucks passed over the roof of the winding house.  Communications between the men at the top and bottom were by semaphore.
The winding house - the trains passed over its roof
The cable tunnels

The price of iron ore and the methods of extraction continued to change rapidly and the railway never made a profit, with the mines closing just eighteen years later.  Remarkably, the railway continued to carry passengers for a further five years seated on wooden planks bolted to the tops of the iron ore trucks.  It must have been an extraordinary experience to be hauled up the incline and travelling back down couldn't have been for the faint-hearted!
 The incline today belieing the industry and grit of the men that created it

An even more short-lived attempt to re-open the mine was thwarted by the outbreak of the Great War and in 1916 the sleepers and rails were requisitioned and the drums blown up, demolishing part of the winding house building.  A further attempt  to rebuild the winding house for agricultural use was abandoned during WWII and it was only with the help of a National Lottery grant that the buildings were recently stabilised and the incline cleared of scrub and restored.
Marker stone


For further information including many early photographs and drawings visit the West Somerset Mineral Railway website by clicking here.

To read about the Langham Hill Engine House and the Aerial Tramway, also part of the mineral railway please click here




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Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Going Naked

We've gone naked here in the secret valley.  Not literally, it's far too close to winter for that sort of jolly jape.  While we are busy putting on additional clothes, our lovely old willows that line the little winding river have been stripped of their top growth.
 
Gone are their branches and along with them so have the other plants that find a home in their mossy nooks and crannies.  It is pollarding time and the lovely view that I have been used to seeing every day since I moved here twelve years ago has changed dramatically.  Fortunately, all will return in abundance in due course.
Pollarded willows in the secret valley
 
Change, of course can be a good thing and it is interesting how spacious and full of light the valley now seems.  It is also a good thing for the trees for without this drastic treatment they sometimes topple in storms.  Pollarding actually prolongs the life of those tree species that can cope with such treatment. As a child I played in a woodland known as Burnham Beeches and there, some of the pollards are over five hundred years old.  These old pollards support a huge variety of wildlife that has adapted over the centuries to the practice.
Ancient ash pollard - sad to think that it will probably now die because of the newly imported disease, Chalara

Now a rare sight - White Park cattle
 
Pollarding has been carried out since man's earliest farming days and can really be considered as just another form of pruning.  By cutting the branches above the reach of grazing animals, they can regrow without being damaged.    In the past, cattle were allowed to roam in these 'wood-pastures' and in Burnham Beeches the practice has been reinstated after a gap of about two hundred years.  The White Park cattle above are kept at Adam Henson's, Cotswold Farm Park.  Now endangered, this native breed is being used to graze freely in the Beeches which keeps the forest floor clear and improves diversity. 
The timber from pollarding was used in a number of different ways.  Most commonly, it provided firewood, with the trees cut every fifteen years, which is the case with our willows.  Sometimes the pollards were cut more regularly to provide fodder for livestock.
It is surprising to see just how quickly new growth restarts.  Without branches and leaves to support, the energy rising through the tree from its root system forces it to renew itself.  The willows below are a little further up the valley and were pollarded in the early spring of this year.  As can be seen they already have grown six feet or more.
Just six months of new growth
 
Pollarding of trees isn't just practised in the depths of the country.  It is frequently carried out in our towns and cities as street trees are kept within bounds.  In the garden it is a good way to create interest - even a smallish garden can create a lime walk to give all year round appeal.  The coloured stem willows are especially good for this purpose too as they quickly become dull and too large when left unchecked.

It will take time to become used to seeing the 'new look' secret valley, now so very different from the image that has become the trademark of this blog.  In the past, cutting the trees would have given a team of men work for the whole winter. Now one man with a machine achieves it in five days.  It may not be such a romantic notion but watching the tractor driver manipulate the claws of the cutter at every conceivable angle demonstrated that the old techniques have been replaced with skills every bit as impressive.
If you fancy trying your hand at pollarding you have a few months left to build up your courage!  In the UK and those places with a similar climate it should be completed by mid-February.

More reading: click on the links below
Conservation of ancient pollards
Chalara in ash trees
White Park cattle and other endangered farm breeds
Adam Henson's Cotswold Farm Park



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Monday, 14 October 2013

An Ancient Craft - Flint Knapping

The very earliest tools known to man were made of flint or antler and in the Chiltern Hills, where I was brought up and lived for most of my life, it wasn't that unusual to dig up stone scrapers or even an occasional arrowhead, perhaps 4000 years old or more.  One scraper that I found many years ago is shaped perfectly to fit between the thumb and forefinger and still has an edge so sharp that it cuts card. 

To create these tools, the flints had to be chiselled or 'knapped', a technique that requires hitting the stone at an oblique angle with another hard object - such as another stone - to make it flake.  With the coming of the Iron Age, the need for stone tools was no longer required but the skill did not die out and even today there is a requirement for the finished material.
Flint, a type of quartz, is extremely hard and durable and, being found in quantity in the chalk hills of the Chilterns, was the natural material for housing there.  All types of properties used it from the humblest cottage to larger homes and churches.

One of the finest flint built villages can be found at Turville.  If the two photos below look familiar this is because they feature in the comedy television series, The Vicar of Dibley with actress Dawn French, playing the part of the Revd. Geraldine Grainger.  The village also featured in the 1998 film Goodnight Mr Tom, starring John Thaw.  The church dates back to the twelfth century.
 
In the hills of the Cotswolds, the honey coloured limestone is the premier building material for almost everything but is especially well-known  for its use in the dry stone field walls and village houses.  At Stow-on-the-Wold in the centre of the region is the building below, once the office of the local brewery.  It is rare to find flint used in the area and, as can be seen, it has been used decoratively, something that is not found to my knowledge in the Chilterns.
Although all of these images show properties that date back at least 150 years or more, flint continues to be occasionally used in modern housing and was even used as embankment supports on the M40 motorway when it was widened in the Chilterns a few years ago.  As found throughout the centuries, when digging through the chalk, it proves to be the cheapest and most readily sourced building stone.
To find out more about flint knapping or to book a course to learn the art visit www.flintknapping.co.uk .  It is worth looking at just to hear the magical sound of primitive flutes made from elder  tree stems.
 
 
 



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Thursday, 26 September 2013

The Sleeping Fairground

It is a very long time since I went for a ride on a Big Wheel.  I was twelve when I bravely called an older cousin a coward because he wasn't too keen on the idea.  Once aboard, we slowly climbed to the top and as soon as we reached it he had he rocked it violently backwards and forwards until I'd begged forgiveness.  Now almost fifty years later, I was determined that I would go for my second trip but on my own so there would be no witness to my fear - but first I was due at a meeting.  Meeting ended and bolstered by a visit to the pub for a pint or two of beer, I ventured forth only to be thwarted: the fair had closed for the night.
Chipping Norton, here in the Cotswolds, comes to a standstill for three days every September when the fair comes to town.  Dating back to statutes in medieval times, the annual 'mop' or hiring fair was originally the time when agricultural and other workers would be hired for the forthcoming year.  In time, they became social events too and, nowadays, they are just a good excuse for enjoyment.  The rights of the fair to be held annually are carefully safeguarded and despite considerable inconvenience to traffic, the centre of the town is blocked by numerous stalls and rides.
Funfairs are noisy, active places.  There are flashing lights, music and the screams and shouts coming from the fair-goers, people of all ages reduced to childish delight by all that is happening around them.  But then it closes for the night and what happens then?
Oddly enough, once the fairground has closed the town centre becomes deserted.  Perhaps all the excitement and exhilaration has been too tiring but quite suddenly, there is silence and no-one to be seen or heard.  This is what I found when I wandered through the fair this late night.  It was a strange, surreal experience - almost as if the world had ceased to exist - and the more I looked at the dodgems and rides, stationary and empty, the more a feeling of unease came over me.  Even the helta skelta took on a threatening appearance.  Was I really alone here?  Would a person confront me from the shadows and, if they did, what then?  Telling myself I'd been watching too many horror movies I quickened my step and walked around a corner to come face to face with the only other 'human' in the place. 
Turning sharply away the sight of Star Slush, the only sign lit up, brought back the pleasure to be found in the artistry of fairgrounds too.  Travelling people  of all types, whether fairground, Romany or bargemen have a highly developed form of decoration, all closely connected and worthy of further contemplation.  But not then - time for home with the vow to return next year for my ride on the Big Wheel.
Back at the Secret Valley, where the only light was that of the moon, there is never a feeling of unease and, the night being warm, I decided to walk down the lane to the river.  As I did so, I mused on why I felt so uncomfortable being alone in the town centre.  Many visitors comment on how silent and brooding the valley is at night with no street lights, houses or familiar sounds.  It is all about belonging: I have lived 'in the middle of nowhere' all my life, it is where I belong and the silence and darkness here is my comfort blanket.  I'm obviously not yet ready to become a city boy.









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