Saturday, 30 January 2010

Thoughts of Summer Borders

With all the cold weather we have been having lately, the planning of new summer borders brings new enthusiasm to be out in the garden. On a long, dark night, what can be more pleasant than to sit in front of a blank sheet of paper, sketching and drawing, whilst thinking of balmy, warm days not so very far off? And you don't need to be a great artist. I know, for I am the only member of my family that cannot paint or sketch well, yet I am the only one to make a living from design. I like to think that I paint with flowers instead.

I am often confronted with an area of garden which has been cleared by a client of vegetation for them only to be daunted by the expanse of 'scorched earth' that they are left with. The one below, turned out to be one of the biggest challenges to date with the request that the area had the appearance of one large flower border from the house, yet without too much height. The other specification was for there to be a driveway for cars incorporated into it and for it to look traditional - not one of the newer 'prairie' styles, the fashion for which has swept Europe in recent years. To make matters worse, in clearing the garden, the contractor had also removed most of the topsoil.

To make the garden more manageable I divided the area up into sections. In the photo below is a new stone path splitting the levels and, to the left, part of the driveway coming in, in an arc. Altogether there were three raised beds, a long border plus the 'in and out' driveway and new path running through the whole scheme. Also in the photo is part of the mountain of topsoil that had to be brought in and there is still some turf to be removed.

Hundreds of pots filled with herbaceous plants stretching into the distance were a daunting sight when it came to planting time. These are just some of them carefully positioned according to the plan. Although not very clear on the photo, I also placed some medium sized rocks and several clumps of dogwoods. These were chosen, not just for their coloured stems providing winter interest, but also because their pruning requirements meant they would stay relatively small in height.

The reward for all the hard work is the finished result - although of course, being gardeners, we never have finshed results for we are always pruning and tweaking and fine tuning, never quite satisfied. From the house the borders do look like one and give colour throughout the year, although summer is their glory time. They are remarkable low maintenance too requiring a thorough weed and tidy in spring and again in autumn, for the close planting precludes much weed growth in the summer months. This is the garden in its second summer of blooming.

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Monday, 25 January 2010

Old Man's Beard

The narrow lane that rises up out of the secret valley beyond our little stone cottage is bordered on one side by Cotswold dry stone walls and, on the other, by remnants of an ancient hedgerow. One of the ways of identifying those that date from the original wildwood is by the number of plant species found in them for 'modern' hedgerows (those that have been planted after 1600) contain far fewer varieties. One of the plants that dominate the lane is known as Old Man's Beard. In the photo below, it is difficult to tell what is snow and what is the, somewhat bedraggled, fluffy white seedhead that gives this wild clematis it's common name.

Now the snow has gone and the seed heads, not quite as pristine as before, have recovered but still live up to their name. They swamp the lower, trimmed parts of the hedge and it is hard to imagine how the field maples, hawthorn, sloes and other woody plants cope and survive.

Three days ago, the birds began singing once more and claiming their territories so Spring can't be too far off (I'm being optimistic here as the sun has been shining too). The Old Man's Beard will, like garden clematis, be amongst the first to send out new shoots and leaves, in the process knocking off the old seedheads. For a short while the hedge has the opportunity to flourish before the clematis flowers appear. Although blooming in their thousands, individually they are quite insignificant and it is the scent that is the more noticeable - not the perfumed scents of roses and honeysuckles but honeyish, delicate yet cloying too, somehow. And the bees, especially the bumblebees can't get enough of their nectar.

As a young child, I once stayed at a schoolfriend's grandparents and in their garden was an old chalk quarry, long disused. I would love to revisit it now but have no idea where it was - for years I believed that the village was called Loose Chippings. It was only once I grew up that I realised that this was the sign that council workers had put up after repairing the road outside their house! There must, I assume, have been trees in the pit - and it was certainly overgrown - for the Old Man's Beard had sent up its long vines high into the tree tops. Where this happens the stems become quite thick, strong and woody and we spent many happy hours there swinging through the trees Tarzan-like. They have also done this outside our cottage, where the hedgerow has grown into treelike proportions, although only once, (when I felt confident no-one would see me), have I swung on them. The exhilaration was the same and proves the thought that men never truly grow up but remain little boys that need to shave.

Virgin's Bower and Traveller's Joy are two of the other common names given to Clematis virginica. The first, one assumes, because of its tendencies to drape across other plants: how lovely it would be slumber gently beneath its shade on a warm day, breathing its scent and listening to the bees droning. According to my Herbal, in the past, wayfarers would make tea to soothe away headaches, wrap soaked cloths around their weary feet and treat blisters and saddle sores. No wonder it was called Traveller's Joy. I love to think that along our little lane, the old drover's would sit on the grassy roadside banks and rest, perhaps stopping for some ale at the old inn next door to us (and our only neighbour), their sheep and cattle drinking from the secret valley's meandering river. Did they also think, like me, this place to be so special? I doubt it, somehow.

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Saturday, 16 January 2010

Old Twelfth Night - it's Wassail Time

One of my great pleasures is to hear traditional songs being sung and I know quite a number by heart. A favourite is the old Wassail song sung on Wassail Day. The Cotswolds proved to be one of the last places where these old songs were commonly sung and they were written down for posterity by Cecil Sharp in the early 1900's.

"Here we go a-wassailing, all through the leaves so green, here we go a-wassailing, so early to be seen...", goes the song and tomorrow, is Wassail Day.

Purists hold wassail on Old Twelfth Night, the 17th January (as against the 'new' date of the 6th), which is the date prior to 1752 when the calendar was changed and days 'lost'. So wassailing will take place as night falls in orchards throughout England. However, with the dwindling number of orchards, the ceremony takes place less and less. The photo below is of a newly planted orchard at daffodil time.

I have never been to a wassail in the Cotswolds but, years ago, when I spent much of my early adult time on Exmoor, I wassailed the orchard attached to a local pub. As darkness fell, we carried flaming torches amongst the trees, drank to their health and placed pieces of toast (photo below) dipped in cider amongst the branches. And we sang the wassail song and many other old songs too. And just as we began to relax, and the cider take hold of us, guns were fired through the branches to scare off bad demons, bringing us back to our senses. That orchard has since been built upon and the tradition there lost.

The blackened faces of morris men, that attend some wassails, are also there to frighten evil spirits, for this has it's roots in pagan times and has nothing whatsoever to do with race, as is now sometimes thought. PC means that many morris men no longer do this. The ceremony shown on the video below has both morris men and a wassail queen. I don't recall seeing the morris when I took part, or a young virgin for that matter, but perhaps that is due to too much cider and too many years passing. There is no wassail singing on the video and only a glimpse of morris dancing - the latter I hope to write about, with other local customs, in the future.

If the wassail works there really will be "...apples down in capfuls, buckets, bushels, bags and all..." and, if not, a lot of fun will have been had regardless. And in the final words of the old song, readers, may I "...wish you, send you a healthy new year..."

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Skiing in the Secret Valley

I never thought I would see the day when I was able to ski through the secret valley.

How I wish that the photo above was a possibility here. Well I don't, to be completely truthful - I rather like having the secret valley to myself! This shot was taken many years ago in the Kandersteg area of Switzerland when I could ski reasonably well. It is typical of my luck to discover a sport I was good at but couldn't practice easily in my own country!

But for a short time, at least, the ski trails start from my door. And suddenly the valley appears transformed. Perhaps it is due to the mesmeric sound of the skis swishing their way along but the scenery is seen in quite a different way. And the silence is more noticeable too - all is still and quiet apart from the tinkling of water and ice.

Until you reach the mill race where the water thunders down leaving mini icicles clinging all along the splashed and steep banks. It seems a far cry now from when, on hot days, we dam the water's exit to raise its level, and swim in the torrent. A jacuzzi spectacular! Oddly enough, the water is warmest where the water crashes down upon you which is invigorating, to say the least.

Onwards to tranquility again and the split willow - my favourite tree in the secret valley and featured in an early post, Willows, which describes how they become these extraordinary shapes. The river is quieter again now and the semi-domesticated geese that belong to someone a mile further downstream take advantage of having survived yet another Christmas feast.....

Home exhausted, but more aware of my surroundings, I notice that even everyday items, such as our rather boring garden furniture, look more interesting when covered in snow. And we have icicles too - haven't seen those in years!

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Friday, 8 January 2010

Over Excitement

This is She-Dog's second winter and, although we had some snow during the last one, I don't remember her being quite so lunatic. Perhaps it is because the snow is so much deeper this time.
. "I'll pretend to be interested in the river but I'm really hatching a plan...."

"If I stalk Barney he's bound to chase me"

"Call me old and grumpy but I ain't going no further or faster than this"

"I'll go for a gallop on my own then....

....and no-one goes faster than me"

"I seem to have run out of steam"

"Let's plod back up the path to home"

"Thank goodness, the wood burner's ablaze"

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Wednesday, 6 January 2010

What a Difference a Day Makes....

.....Or a night, to be more accurate. We had been spared the snow that had covered most of the UK until now but it has finally arrived - and in force. We went to bed with none of the snow forecast but by dawn, it was another story. Over a foot of snow in just a few, dark hours is not the norm for this part of England, 1983 being the last time I can recall.
The first thing that greets my eyes upon waking is our beautiful silver birch tree - how different it looks today, with its branches crusted in snow, compared to the photo on my last post (here). No blue sky and gleaming bark, just that flat, leaden cloud, and the colour almost drained from the tree, that warns of worse weather to come.
The view across the secret valley is also very different from the frosted look of Christmas Day (here). Clearing the car of snow - a task we don't normally do many times in a winter - is almost a novelty and we are thankful that we have a four wheel drive, for it takes us over an hour to drive to the horses, instead of the usual seven minutes but at least we got there.

The UK has ground to a halt: airports closed, people trapped in their cars overnight, lorries jack-knifed, cars abandoned where they have slid and the councils running out of grit and salt. The latter doesn't make any difference to the secret valley for the gritters don't venture down here anyway. It is good to see the horses are safe, warm and well fed and enjoying the sensation of snow under their feet. And like us, they have beautiful views to look at from their barn during quiet moments. I wonder if they are aware how lucky they are! Or ourselves, for that matter - for in Scotland there is a report of a woman leaving home on Christmas Eve to collect the festive turkey and still unable to reach home, the road being blocked by snow. Apparantly, it is the first time in 36 years she and her husband have been apart.

Down by the river, as the carol says, the snow is "crisp and deep and even". The water is high, almost to the top of the banks and, if we get a sudden thaw, will almost certainlly flood. However, the forecast is for another ten days of this cold spell with more snow at times - the weather is coming from Siberia so temperatures are likely to plummet further. And we do, in theory at least, still have the remnants of the weather systems from America to arrive yet which reach us about six weeks after they wreak havoc in the States.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

A Great Start to 2010......

The sun is shining, the frost is crisp and the sky is blue - a perfect January day. And as if that wasn't enough, we've seen a lot of interesting wildlife, some rare, some common and even some 'old friends'. winter sunshine on silver birch

Our hare is back and as unconcerned by our presence as before, such a privilege for what is normally a nervous, flighty animal. For those of you that don't know the story of 'our' hare, earlier last summer we had a family of two young and an adult and, as we were in the garden most days, they became oblivious to the threat we might pose. The story of this can be found on an earlier post. In fact, they became so tame that I was able to take all the photos of them by just walking up to them.
Fallow Deer - one of the larger species of deer to be found in England and quite common throughout the country. But like all deer, despite their size, they are remarkably difficult to see and watch. When I lived in the Chiltern Hills, 50 miles to the east of the secret valley, they grazed the field close to my windows, making watching easy. Here, we see them occasionally from the cottage - yesterday was one of those days. In winter, their coats lose their lovely dappled spots and become quite dark - the two pictures below show this, the lower one being taken last summer.
The Red Kite is one of the great conservation success stories of recent times. Once so common they scavenged in the streets of London (and had a reputation for stealing hats off people's heads to decorate their nests with. These days they often use plastic instead - the Kites, not the people, I mean, of course). By the 1970's numbers were down to just a few pairs living in the remotest parts of Wales. A breeding and reintroduction programme started in the 1980's centered on the village in the Chilterns where I lived. Soon they were a relatively common sight in that area but they have been slow to extend their range. Now we are seeing them much more frequently in the secret valley and they never fail to thrill. The full story of the Red Kite can be found on the Chilterns website here.

And now, the real rarity! Little Egrets extended their distribution from Europe to southern England several years ago and for a while were found just on the warmer coastline. Three years ago, a pair wintered in the secret valley. When I saw a white bird on New Year's Day, I first thought it was another egret but then realised it was much bigger - more the size of a heron. And unlike the hunched neck flight of the egrets, this bird flew with its neck outstretched: it was a Spoonbill. Although not unheard of in the UK, they are very irregular visitors and it was the first one I've ever seen, or ever likely too, I should think.

This photo is most definitely poor quality - I only have a small 'aim and fire' camera and took this from an upstairs window. I am hoping to buy a more sophisticated camera with telephoto lenses very soon: another unexpected side effect of blogging has been a rekindled interest in photography. Who knows what will show up on this blog then?
[The spoonbill has moved on southwards - I think this cold, snowy weather has proved too much for it. Still, we were lucky to have it around for a few days. 9th January 2009]

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