Thursday, 31 December 2009

Happy New Year!

Wishing you all a very happy and healthy 2010

A new dawn rises near Laide, Ross-shire on the north west coast of Scotland. May the New Year bring you all that you wish for - well, some of it, at least! Will I visit this wonderful place again during 2010?

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Sunday, 27 December 2009

An Almost White Christmas and a Christmas Robin!

Whilst blizzards have been raging all around us on both sides of the Atlantic, our little bit of snow barely deserves mention ( Cotswold Snow - an apology ... ). However, a white Christmas is a rare event in the secret valley so here is the scene that greeted us from our upstairs window on Christmas morning.

Well, it's almost a white Christmas!

The bird most closely associated with Christmas and featuring on thousands of Christmas cards each year is the Robin. This little chap obligingly sat still on top of our dry stone wall for a photo shot. Although the cold weather has meant that the bird feeders have been especially busy, robins are always friendly and tame, getting under your feet looking for grubs as you dig the garden. Oddly enough, on the European mainland, they are shy, retiring woodland birds.

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Thursday, 24 December 2009

Warm Christmas Wishes

Wishing you and your family a very happy & peaceful Christmas

Warmest Christmas wishes from the secret valley

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Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Cotswold Snow - an apology...

There have been a number of blogs written about the blizzards and deep snow both here in England and also in America. Not only have there been photos of snowy landscapes but also photos of cars and buildings virtually buried under a deep, white mantle.

I've had to rely on a ski trip photo for really deep snow
Mariapfarr, Austria - the nearest I've seen to a real gingerbread house!

Even in the Arizona desert, where there is none, they manage to put up the most amazing Christmas tree made from white sprayed tumbleweed - quite magical, it's the best tree I've ever seen. Except I haven't seen it being stuck in the barely snowy Cotswolds. Virtual travellers like me can visit it via one of my favourite blog writers, Noelle (an apt name, of course and Happy Birthday, which I assume must be about now), Christmas in the Desert.

Our snowfall - just a dusting despite the warnings of up to eight inches forecast

Despite all the weather warnings, we have only had a dusting of snow, an apology for the real thing - it stopped about 15 miles away. We have had ice and lots of it, especially black ice to make us skid off our little country lanes. But the secret valley has looked magical with some wonderful skies and it has made us all feel much more Christmassy. And although we haven't had much snow, we have had everything else - sleet, freezing fog, freezing rain, bitter winds and a little sunshine.
A winter's sunset and snow clouds over the secret valley
This morning was especially beautiful. The temperature overnight plunged exceptionally low to -8C or even lower, which for the south of England is cold: our winters tend to be a mix of cooler and warmer with average days rarely falling below -3C and rising to +6C. But as dawn broke, the fog came down and the sun tried hard (and eventually failed) to break through.

Fog, snow and a golden sunrise
When the weather is like it has been today, breaking ice on the horses water trough and refilling it with buckets from the house - for the hosepipes and outdoor water supply have frozen solid - isn't so much of a chore. And seeing the horses tucking into their haylage and knowing that they are warm and their bellies are full means that we can lounge in front of the wood burning stove without feeling too guilty.
"Why does he keep taking all these photos?"

For Christmas Day the winds are turning to the southwest where the influence of the warm waters of the Gulf Stream will bring in mild, grey weather. The cold snap that is already passing brought winds from the east, travelling across the European mainland from Russia, these are always bitter spells. And, if all things happen normally in the New Year, we shall receive the remains of the snow that has fallen across the Eastern Seaboard of the USA, for we seem to get the tail end of their extreme weather about six weeks later. Perhaps there will be a snowy Cotswold blog then.

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Monday, 21 December 2009

Deddington Christmas Farmer's Market

Deddington, lies to the east of the Cotswolds and is an old coaching town, although only the size of a large village by modern standards. The golden ironstone buildings have a solidity that makes them neither quaint or especially pretty, unlike our limestone ones. However, they do have real charm and character. And most important of all, they hold a regular farmer's market, reputed to be one of the best in England.

In this week of climate change summits in Copenhagen, there is something rather special in buying produce that is grown locally. The beef for sale from this farm in Duns Tew has travelled less than five miles from village to market. Not only that, but it looks so much nicer than the racks of clinically presented supermarket meat. Why eat meat from, say, Argentina, when you can look at the cattle grazing in fields nearby?
Crowds throng the produce stalls - the queue for bread so long that neither the purchase of some home baking or a photograph was possible. A gap at the cheese stall meant that tastings and subsequent purchases were more easily made. And despite the pushing and jostling, being Christmas, the mood was relaxed and vibrant for a market is a place to meet and chat with old friends as well as make purchases.

The church, which dates from the 13th century, dominates the market place and is itself busy selling cups of tea and homemade cakes. But when the hustle and bustle gets all too much there are quiet alleyways that you can slip into, away from the crowds. One day, I shall have to return and explore Deddington further, for it is a fascinating place.

Star shaped almond biscuits from the ladies in the church, buffalo cheese from Somerset, beef from Duns Tew and eggs from another nearby farm made our purchases of the day. The bowl of satsumas were also locally produced - grown in a client's orangery which we created earlier this year. The holidays are going to be a great time of good and local feasting....

Postscript: I am ashamed to say I ate all of the biscuits already, they were so delicious. I knew it was a mistake to try one.

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Tuesday, 15 December 2009

She-Dog and the Sheepdog

She-Dog has been brought up with sheep for the secret valley has a higher population of sheep to humans, let alone canines. As a puppy she had to learn to be totally trustworthy with them and the other animals that wander about the place.

She-Dog at 10 weeks - smaller than the bantams

She-Dog also learnt that television watching is kept to a minimum, for we are the sort that prefer to be doing things in the great outdoors. Or so we thought. But, she says that, as she isn't allowed to round up sheep herself, she likes to watch others doing it and where better than from the carpeted comfort of your own sitting room?

She-Dog watching 'One Man & His Dog' (Yes, I know that having a television on the floor under a table is odd but we never claimed to be a normal family)

She-Dog also gets bored easily and once bored even the carpet doesn't feel comfy enough. Better to sneak off and find a fluffy sheeps wool cushion to snuggle up to ....... there's one upstairs and, hopefully, no-one will notice ........

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Saturday, 12 December 2009

Of Holly , Ivy and Mistletoe

As it is the festive season it seems appropriate to look at the traditional greenery that we grow in our garden, or gather from the hedgerows, to decorate our homes at this time of year. And of all them it has to be the holly that offers so much as a garden plant.

The holly is one of those species (relatively few in number) that have separate male and female plants. To have a crop of berries like the ones above it is necessary to have both sexes growing within pollination distance and, of course, it is only the female that will carry berries. In our garden we have a magnificent specimen of England's wild holly, Ilex aquifolium, but being male, is relatively boring (that isn't meant to be as sexist as it reads!). It towers above roof height and doesn't deserve the space it takes other than it provides us with shelter and a place to hang the bird feeders. How much better value it would be if it had been a variegated leaf sort. Fortunately there are lots of berried hollies growing wild in the secret valley for picking.
This holly is Argentea Marginata, a variegated form of our native holly and, being female, carries berries, making it very garden worthy. The occasional stem has pure white leaves. Ilex aquifolium grows naturally throughout the west and south of Europe, North Africa and west Asia. An oddity of holly common names is that many of the male plants have female names, and female plants male, so the variety Silver Queen, for example, is a non-berrying male. Very confusing!

I'm not a great fan of Ivy. There are lots of different leaf shapes and colours but, generally, I think they are rather dull, although, I do admit, they can be useful in dark, dry corners where little else will grow. This wild ivy, Hedera helix, above, growing on a corner of our Cotswold dry stone wall (and it will bring the wall down if we leave it on there much longer), has been transformed, on a cold winter's morning, by frost which has given the upper leaves an icing sugar edging and highlighted the veins of the lower leaves.

Mistletoe - the plant of lover's, or at least, of those trying to sneak a kiss from the unsuspecting. In England it grows wild, often on fruit trees in orchards or on poplars and always difficult to reach. Invisible for much of the year, once the tree's leaves have fallen in the Autumn, there it is hanging in great bunches high, high up.

It is rare to find a plant growing as low as in the photo above and it gives a great opportunity to see how it attaches to the host plant. There are no visible roots: the stems of the mistletoe just grow from the trunk like young branches, easily identified by their dull green (as against brown) bark. Does mistletoe, Viscum album, ever kill the host tree? I have never seen this but I have seen quite sizeable boughs torn off a tree by the weight of the mistletoe bunches and, one assumes, the mistletoe must sap the strength of them. But then, mistletoe does carry green leaves so must produce a certain amount of its own food. Any idea, anyone?

For those not familiar with the tradition, it is custom to hang Mistleoe in the hallway at Christmas and to kiss those that stand beneath it.

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Monday, 7 December 2009

Into the Secret Valley

One of the joys of going away is the pleasure of returning home. The main road that cuts across our bit of the Cotswolds follows the ridge of the hill, which gives the appearance of being plateau like. There are few hints that just a little way off to the side is the secret valley and the little lane leading to it gives few hints either.

To call it an avenue would be rather pretentious, but the roadside plantings of beech and cherry create the first thought that you may be going somewhere rather special. And as you begin to pass beneath their canopy, the hills start to rise on either side. These are rarely, if ever, treated with any chemicals and wild flowers, including orchids, abound.

But there is still no hint of our little, winding river. Then, as the avenue ends and on a sharp bend there it is! The first glimpse is of the old sheepwash, where the river was widened and deepened although still almost jumpable, for everything about the secret valley is miniature: the hills, the river, the road. Beyond the sheepwash come the meanders - the photo of these snake like bends are in the blog's header title.

Our little stone cottage lies further along the road - and this is now the original old drove road, for the one that we have travelled so far has probably only been in place since about the late 1700's. More of the drover's in another post. Below is the view from the house looking back towards the meanders - we may only have just one other house nearby but there are dozens of sheep for neighbours!
Just below the cottage, the river passes beneath the lane and snakes its way around us, travelling through lush meadows. Watercress and meadowsweet grow along the water's edge and little rickety, make-do bridges made from old telegraph poles criss-cross from one bank to another. Ancient, gnarled willow trees line the banks, more about these can be found in an earlier post: Willows
And tucked away beyond the bridges are the remains of the old mill workings. The culvert is barely noticeable until the river levels rise and the water diverts towards the mill. We'll travel there another day.

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Sunday, 6 December 2009

How Extraordinary - an Award!

I am not certain as to why I should be so honoured but Kilbournegrove, has awarded me with the Best Blog Award. I may not know why I have been honoured, but honoured I feel. Thank you very much. The next paragraph I have lifted from her own Canadian blog Green Theatre. I am certain that this is acceptable behaviour on my part - however, if it is not, then I grovel and beg for forgiveness....
Post the award on your blog along with the name of the person who passed it on to you and link to their blog. Chose 15 blogs which you have recently discovered and you think are great and pass it on to them. Don’t forget to leave a comment on their blog to let them know that they have been chosen for this award.

So, now we know what to do, here are my 15 blogs that I think deserve special mention:

The Gaudy Garden Jim is one of my favourite American bloggers, writing in a sharp and witty way, mostly about roses. He calls a spade a spade. I like him!

Wood Ridge Lynne is another American blogger, aiming for self sufficiency in Virginia. Lynne writes on anything from gardening to recipes to needlework and much else besides. Full of energy, even her thoughts on the American Constitution were interesting - even to an Englishman like me.

The Patient Gardener Written not so very many miles from the secret valley, this is all about plants and plantmanship.

Great Stems This Texan blog - I seem to like American bloggers - has the most amazing photographs. I like following this blog as it inspires me to attempt to improve my photograhy. I live in hope.

Bay Area Tendrils Alice's blog from California is another great photgraphy blog. And it deserves special mention for the fabulous rill in the title photo.

Helen's Blog Helen' s frequency of writing is somewhat erratic (I'm sure she will agree) but is always interesting. And those of us in the UK can follow her readily in her columns in the Telegraph, a national newspaper.

A Chef in the Garden The title says it all - Tim (yes, American again!) gave up chef-ing to become a full time Estate gardener but food is never too far from the blogs.

A Gardener in Progress Another blog with wonderful photos.

Down to Earth An Australian blog this time.

Elizabeth Rhiannon An American desperate to live in England - and who can blame her even with our taxes?

High Altitude Gardening This is the blog that started me off on my blog adventures! Kate gardens at over 7000ft (I would have thought she would be gasping for breath not digging). My favourite of favourites.

My Little Vegetable Garden This is a Malaysian blog, again with beautiful photos. Fascinating to read about gardening in a climate I have no experience of.

Notes From a Somerset Garden Pictures of Exmoor means that I have to include this one!

Plant Tips & Guidelines for the Desert Garden Noelle's blog is another great favourite of mine, partly for the photographs and for introducing me to plants that I am never likely to experience. I do have cousins that live in the New Mexican desert, so there is just the slightest chance...

Welsh Hills Again A very recently found blog and how glad I am that I did find it.

And for those of you that haven't been mentioned, I promise I will on another occasion.

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Thursday, 3 December 2009

Turned to Stone....

Recently, I visited a stone merchant to buy a piece of rock for a client's garden. It seemed a straightforward enough idea but, when I arrived, I was confronted by literally hundreds of different pieces of all shapes, sizes and colours.

The pieces with circles carved into them appealed greatly, especially those with water running through. Their smooth interior face contrasted beautifully with the rough, natural surface of the outer faces.
But then I liked this group of large standing stones - they reminded me of the prehistoric ones that litter our English landscape. The Cotswolds have a good number of these, so it made good sense to continue the tradition. I have written about some of these local stones in the past and we hold them in great affection: and

Time for a reality check. How could we lift these giants into place when there was no easy access? And so we went for this one - as large a piece as two of us could manhandle (and it nearly killed us in the process, as did digging the hole for the reservoir in root infested ground) - but we were happy with the end result.

A dark, uninspiring corner has now become the focal point of the garden with the stone continuously changing colour depending on light and moisture.