Wednesday, 30 December 2015

A Year in Review: Jan-Jun 2015

So another year has gone by and as New Year’s Eve fast approaches it is time to reflect on the one past and look forward to the one to come.

I try to visit Exmoor National Park as often as possible for I consider it to be “home from home”.  I spent a lot of my youth and early adulthood there on a remote farm not realising that I was witnessing a way of life now gone.  With the benefit of hindsight I wish I’d taken many more photographs but, in the days before digital, films were both precious and expensive.

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In January, I made a special trip to take a look at the new headquarters of the Exmoor Society in the pretty, little town of Dulverton. The enlarged space that they now have has meant that they it is now much easier to access the archives and seek information.  If you are planning a holiday on the moor, it is well worth visiting.  Click here to find out more about my day there.

Exmoor Society HQ (3)   copyright

February found me walking along the edge of a precipice and seeking an elderly great-aunt, fortunately not at the same time.  I met Ba-ba (how she got this name is still a complete mystery) once as a boy when she was in her late nineties and she left a lasting impression on me.  With everyone else that knew her now dead (I’m now the ‘old’ generation) I’ve been trying to research her.  Despite the post creating a lot of interest it ended sadly without much success.  Perhaps, this post might reach someone who knows who she was.  To check out the detective work so far take a look here.

Gt Aunt Baba (Frances White) 90th bithday about 1965

The Precipice Walk in Snowdonia, although not overly strenuous, is not to be attempted by the faint-hearted.  Travelling clockwise, the path clings to the edge of the drop before turning back on itself alongside a more gentle and peaceful lake.  If you’re afraid of heights go anti-clockwise for a delightful, if somewhat short, walk and turn around when you dare go no further.  Alternatively, sit back in your armchair and take a look at the photos here.

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A much longer walk, completely different in character, was described in two March posts.   Dartmoor is another national park in the West Country but much harsher than Exmoor.  Despite its bleakness now, in the past the climate was kinder, confirmed by the large number of Neolithic remains there.

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The walk starts at  a pub where according to tradition the fire has never been allowed to go out in the past two hundred years.  Our path crosses the moor to the village of Postbridge, home of the famous medieval stone clapper bridge.    The second part of the walk follows the river before continuing across the moor, taking in beehive huts dating back to 1500AD before arriving at the Grey Wethers stone circles.  The twin circles are about two thousand years old.  Reaching the stones is described here.

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The history of the United States and Ireland are intertwined by mass emigration.  In April I visited New Ross in the south of Ireland and the birthplace of John F Kennedy’s great-grandfather.  Fifty years after JFK’s visit his sister came to light…  Well, read here to find out exactly what she did.
 The image below might give you a clue.
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I stayed with the Irish theme in May and wrote about the lovely village of Castlelyons where a friend spent her early childhood.  Well off the tourist trail when you red about the place you’ll wonder why.  In the meantime, we had the place to ourselves.

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June is a lovely month both for walking and also for garden lovers, with hedgerows and gardens smothered in rose blossom.  Continuing the theme of elderly ladies and ancient times the month’s post explored the history of Rosa de Rescht – fascinating for the mystery it holds.  Incidentally, even if you a hopeless gardener (and no-one is completely so) this is the simplest of roses to grow…

Rosa 'de Resht'   copyright


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Sunday, 13 December 2015

Grow Your Own Mistletoe


With Christmas almost upon us one of the most traditional of purchases along with the tree, goose or turkey will be sprigs and bunches of mistletoe. Placed carefully above a doorway where passing under it is unavoidable many of us will be subjected to the torture of being kissed by those we’d rather not and disappointed by those that we would have liked to have been but ignored.

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The tradition of kissing beneath mistletoe is very much a British one although it is rapidly gaining popularity (and why not?!) around the world. Our own mistletoe, Viscum album, (European Mistletoe) grows throughout much of Europe but is decidedly fickle as to its requirements. The majority of British mistletoe grows to the west of the Cotswolds, especially amongst cider orchards found in the counties of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire. However, in other areas in the south, there are isolated populations where it can grow locally abundantly – the photos for this blog, for example, were taken in a garden in the Chiltern Hills. The further north, the rarer mistletoe is, being absent from much of northern England, Scotland, the Low Countries and Scandinavia.

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Mistletoe is a parasitic plant – or to be more accurate hemiparasitic – attaching itself to its host tree, most commonly cultivated apple or lime. Strangely, mistletoe rarely is found on the wild crab apple, perhaps due to its more congested growth. Likewise, it is rarely found in woodland where the density of trees probably reduces the amount of light and air circulation required. Although mistletoe, being green, carries out some photosynthesis this is limited and where it grows in abundance on one tree, it can weaken the host plant and reduce fruiting potential.

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European Mistletoe in flower

In the past, mistletoe has been very much associated with fertility and winter solstice rituals and its use as a decoration is still sometimes banned in churches. The Druids held the plant sacred, especially if it was found to be growing on oak (which it rarely does). Modern-day Druids now hold a festival each December at Tenbury Wells to celebrate the plant.

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Growing your own mistletoe is relatively easy for most of the difficulties commonly associated with germination are false. Ideally, fresh berries should be ‘sown’ in February. These can be gathered or purchased or you may prefer to store those from Christmas. If choosing the latter option, store them in a cool, light, airy place and rehydrate in a little water before use. Squeeze the seeds out of the berries and remove as much of the stickiness as possible; they will still attach easily to the bark. Choose young branches away from the trunk and fix to their underside. There is no need to nick the bark or cover the seeds although it is probably advisable to mark the branch in some way to identify it in the future. The seeds germinate quite quickly but it will be four years or more before any real growth is apparent.   Mistletoe (like holly) have separate male and female plants so it will be necessary to have several plants to ensure cross-fertilisation and berry production.

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European Mistletoe: anchor point (haustorium)

There are over 1500 different species of mistletoe growing throughout the world. In America the native mistletoe looks very different to our own – one of the reasons why, to British eyes, plastic mistletoe sold in the shops looks so unreal: it is modelled on the American species.


For a huge amount of fascinating information on folklore and medicinal use, advice on conservation and purchase of mistletoe seed do visit The Mistletoe Pages website where much of the above information has been gleaned.

For those interested in Druidry: The Mistletoe Foundation




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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.

Countisbury copyright
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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Wind Hill (5) copyright
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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Wind Hill (2) copyright
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.

Wind Hill (8) copyright
 
* also known as Countisbury Castle



Links:
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.

Paintings_from_the_Chauvet_cave_(museum_replica)
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.

Aurignac (20)   copyright



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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.
BOOK COVER FROM AMAZON



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