Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Hare Today - Still Here Tomorrow?

We had seen an adult hare in the garden a couple of times and with some misgiving, having read that they do a lot of damage. What we hadn't anticipated was having a family of them.
Over the weeks, the leverets - as young hares are called - have become remarkably tame, quite unlike the normal flighty and timid creatures of the fields. The photo below was taken just three feet away and they hop about the garden as we work amongst the borders. So far, no damage....
According to legend, witches take the form of hares and the Cotswolds are a very witchy area. Village names such as Whichford and the Wychwood Forest, which lends its name to places such as Ascott-under-Wychwood, Milton-under-Wychwood and others, testify to this. Perhaps our hares are not all they seem which is why they aren't nervous of us. Most likely, they just feel safe in a peaceful garden environment. Lurchers like our She-dog were bred for hunting, hares especially so, but so far she hasn't bothered with them. And if they are witches they are obviously 'nice' ones!
There are still packs of beagles in existence despite the hunting ban. A couple of years ago we 'puppy walked' Daring and Darkness, the object of which is to get them used to humans and everyday life before they return as young adults to their kennels. We kept them for several months and it was a difficult day when the time came for them to leave us. The photo below shows Daring being excercised and only feet away from a hare - although she barely noticed and the hare too wily to give her presence away by moving. You will have to take my word for it as you won't be able to see the hare either! The other photo is of them both in the process of making their first 'kill' - my bootlaces!

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Thursday, 24 September 2009

Three Very Special Cotswold Reasons....

If you could only choose three things to demonstrate why you love a place, what would they be? This is the tricky question that is being asked by The Guardian in conjunction with enjoyEngland, the English tourist authority ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/enjoy-england ). Well, here are mine:

1. Space and Peace. I know this is technically two reasons but they are so interlinked that, in my mind, they only count as one. Besides, that way I can cram in an extra reason without appearing to cheat too much. The flat topped, rolling limestone hills that make up the Cotswolds offer far reaching views to the vales beyond. They free the mind and let the spirit wander - a rare occurrance in the busy world we all inhabit. This view looks north over glorious country to the Vale of Evesham and just invites you to start walking towards a distant goal.

The King's Men stone circle forms part of the Rollright Stones and have been a meeting place since they were set here 4,500 years ago. In early morning light they appear mysterious and brooding but when the sun strikes them their colours and markings are awe inspiring. Rest here a while, at a time when you can be alone, for the feeling of peace is palpable.

And give back to the soil an offering, (when we have taken so much away), as others have done from the beginnings of time and continue to do so. Single flowers placed at the centre of the circle have a calm simplicity...

2. Nature. It is impossible not to be aware of nature in the Cotswolds, whether it is the magnificence of old trees, the deer crossing roads in front of you or the cloud formations of our large skyscapes. This ancient ash tree has watched centuries of agricultural change take place and, despite modern farming practice, still stands proud in a hedgerow dividing wheatfields.

Deer are common throughout the Cotswolds. Roe and the introduced Muntjac are frequently seen but perhaps the prettiest, when in their spotted summer coats, are the Fallow.

There are some exotic surprises too! A macaw outside a garage in Charlbury and alpaca seem to be everywhere. 3. History. The Cotswolds are steeped in history and it is the history of wealth and the power it brings. Sheep - or more accurately, their wool - were the originators of this wealth and the region still has a higher population of sheep to humans. But how to illustrate this when there is so much scope to choose from? Bliss Mill, in Chipping Norton, is now converted to luxury apartments but, for most of its time, produced some of the finest tweeds in Britain.
The churches of the Cotswolds were also a by-product of wool - the wealth it created is often shown by their huge size in proportion to the numbers of the local population. The photos below were also taken in Chipping Norton.
So, come and visit the Cotswolds and decide for yourself. And, in the meantime, select three things that make your special place, special.

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Sunday, 20 September 2009

Cotswold Dry Stone Walls - Old & New

You can't get away from stone in the Cotswolds for all the old houses are built of it - and some of the new ones too. It is the stone that gives the villages and towns their beauty and what brings tourists by their thousands to visit the region.

But it is the walls dividing fields and gardens that are perhaps the most iconic of all the Cotswold scenes. Probably nothing more than heaps of stone thrown to one side when the fields were first cleared, centuries ago, it was the obvious choice for building and permanent too - a good stone wall lasts for decades with virtually no maintenance. However, neglect took its toll.
A dying art, the old stone walls fell into disrepair until recently when, with an upsurge of interest, building of new walls and repair of the old, has seen the work revived. New, younger blood learning the skills from the dwindling number of 'wallers' and with classes available to anyone, means that for the time being at least, the craft seems safeguarded for the future. Here a new walled garden - the classic feature of the English country house - is being created.
The use of a timber frame as a guide creates the 'batter' - the name given to the sloping sides that gives the wall stability. The photos below shows the frame and a new wall being built. Modern techniques tend to use a bit of mortar at the base and also cementing in of the 'header' stones along the top. The latter is partially to make the wall more weatherproof (how the old timers would shake their heads at that!) and also to prevent theft of the stone, which is expensive and does disappear at times. Sometimes, the headers are left off altogether and a concrete cap is placed instead which soon weathers down to give an acceptable appearance.
Our garden in the secret valley has a wall that has stood for over 150 years, below. It will be many years before new walls have the depth of colour and the mosses and lichens of this one.
And, so far (touch wood), our traditional wall has never had its stones stolen, despite every piece of it being 'loose'. One of the joys of this wall is that it is full of wildlife from small bugs to wrens nesting in the crevices and even the occasional stoat and weasel looking for mice.

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Wednesday, 16 September 2009

It's daffodil time!

One of the first signs of Autumn isn't the changing colour of the leaves but the arrival of spring bulbs in the garden centres and the dull thud of the catalogues landing on the doormat.

Daffodils, or Narcissus if we want to be technical, are one of the first of the bulbs to be planted for they start to send out their roots early in the season as we discover when we dig them up by mistake when weeding. Like all bulbs, they need to be planted in generous quantities to look their best. The photo above shows several hundred lining the old lime avenue of the house I described in an earlier blog ( 21st August 2009: The House my Parents Built 200 Years Ago). This is a mix of similar looking daffodils, which open at slightly different times, chosen to extend the flowering period.
I am not keen on double varieties - they tend to be top heavy and spend most of their time prostrate. However, I find the Orchid flowering types don't do this and are quite fascinating to look at. The one above is Dolly Mollinger, the one below Chanterelle.

Bicolours can also be tricky to my biased eye. I don't like Scarlet O'Hara (below top), so vulgar in the border! But Jetfire, which is a similar colour combination works well in this wilder setting and is beautifully enhanced by the white bark of the Jacqmontii birch tree (below bottom).

Scent is all important in any flower and in narcissus it is especially welcome after the bleak winter months. Few scented winter flowers have the freshness of the smell of a vase full of Cheerfulness - a stonger coloured version is Laurens Koster.

But perhaps the best daffodils of all are the 'bog standard' yellow ones. That's what spring is all about. (Although to be honest, I don't totally agree with that statement - my favourites are the miniatures but I don't have any photographs! I will have to take some next March and persuade you all then......)

Monday, 7 September 2009

Horses - a sure bet to lose money!

When I'm not gardening I'm invariably doing something with horses or dogs - or preferably both. And as I have been writing recently about the Gatcombe and Burghley Horse Trials it seems a good time to introduce you to some equine friends, past and present.

Grunta was a character - and a dangerous one at that! A pleasure to ride and as quiet as anything until he saw a fence or a hedge. Then you would feel the tension rise in him and off he would gallop and sail straight over without hesitation. Woe betide you if you tried to stop him for he would rear up on his hind legs and go for it either with or without you. His silly name came from his grunting with excitement before the take off!

A thin, worm ridden, timid creature, when we got Daisy May. We realised she would be too light for us to ride but we took delight in building up her trust and her body. She was sold some time later to be a brood mare.
Dior was the most beautiful of all the horses that we have owned - and the best quality. Bought to show as a youngster, we lost both her and her unborn foal to ragwort poisoning. A most terrible and distressing death to witness and a plea to all who have ragwort growing on their land - destroy it.
Barney is the wonder horse and still going strong after many years. A 17 hands 3" Irish Draught he is a great companion. His main picture is to the right but he also appears on the one below with Squirrel and Polly, the 30 year old pony that we 'inherited' along with the paddock. Barney is another great jumper and will tackle the biggest fences with ease - but in a kind and considerate sort of way. Squirrel was another danger horse who would try his utmost to throw you off when you first mounted him. Providing you stayed on he would settle down and be a good lad for the rest of the day. However, in the end he proved too hot to handle and, just when we were wondering what to do with him, he had to be put down. A good thing probably - I think he might have killed us in the end. Now white with age, Henry our grey Irish Draught and Rambo, our young Shire horse, along with Barney make up our stables at the moment. Rambo is ridden occasionally and has all the makings of a good horse as he gets older. Enormous, towering over Barney, but a gentle giant.

Carriage driving is not for the faint hearted either! This belongs to a friend and it is great fun when travelling off road and at speed....

Ragwort is an introduced plant to the UK and an absolute curse. It needs to be destroyed but care must be taken - pull it out wearing gloves for the toxins that attack the liver are absorbed through the skin. Then burn it or put it in your refuse bin where it can go for industrial composting. Garden compost heaps will not heat up enough to destroy it so don't put it there. I plan to write about ragwort and other introduced aliens in due course.
A final word of warning: horses eat money - but they are worth it!

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Sunday, 6 September 2009

At the (Hurly) Burghley Horse Trials

Feeling reckless, I took a day or two off work to visit the Burghley Horse Trials, one of the premier contests in Britain. Not for a rest, for it is exhausting - all that socialising, shopping and concentrating. For the horse world is a small world and amongst the thousands of people that attend there are always dozens that you know, chat to, have a coffee and a sandwich with ......
A walk around the cross country course is always exciting: working out how you would approach the jumps, most of which are huge and difficult, talking with the competitors and admiring the thought and work that goes into creating the course. I should say that my riding skills are nowhere good enough (nor my courage level high enough) to compete but my partner has in the past and jumped into the dreaded "leaf pit". The photograph of it below hardly does justice to the 4ft drop into the pit - the horse takes off just to the right of the guy, then immediately tackles either one of the two smaller jumps and then gallops off down the course. It is quite nerve wracking to watch, especially if it's your partner doing it! If I was on my horse, Barney, I would be another 7ft higher still - it makes me feel quite ill just thinking about it!
The water jumps are always a popular place so I visit them before the competition starts. People congregate here, not to see the jump carved to look like a duck, but in the hope of seeing the riders fall and get a good ducking!
A crowd of over 140,000 watch the eighty or so horses compete over four days - the guy with the best view is certainly the television cameraman - I always watch most of it on the giant screens that are strategically placed around the grounds. There is always a place, 'though, where you can get a clear view of the jumps and, if the crowds get too much, a quiet place under the magnificent sweet chesnut avenues.
Burghley House is a magnificent Elizabethan building built - and virtually unaltered - in the sixteenth century and set in hundreds of acres of parkland. With over 80 major rooms, gardens and the park, it is well worth a visit. Although still privately owned (by the same family since being built) it is open to the public throughout the summer months.

Great excitement! She-Dog has met her husband! The potentially lucky lad may 'marry' her around Christmas and, with luck, we will become proud parents in the spring of 2010. Burghley is a good place for romance too - watch this space!

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