Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Finally, We Have Daffodils!

Despite a return to cold, blustery weather and barely a decent spring day so far this year, the daffodils (narcissus) have at last started to bloom.

I suppose it is because of the long winter weeks of relative stillness in the garden that we eagerly await the first signs of new life: the first grey green tip of the daffodil’s leaves pushing through the soil, the lengthening of the flower stalk, the swelling of the bud and the first hint of colour and, then, the pleasure of seeing the open trumpet in all its glory. And how apt that daffodils are one of the few flowers that have trumpets, for the sight of them, whether just a few or en masse, herald the start of the floral year with a fanfare of pleasure as great as any orchestral masterpiece.

Narcissus 'Carlton'

Last autumn saw the planting of 8000 daffodils along the edge of a field that led to one of our client’s houses. The hard labour was well worthwhile both in physical effort and the time we have had to wait to see the result. When I plant like this, I mix the varieties to extend the flowering period – generally Carlton, St Keverne, Counsellor and, if I want a few white included, Ice Follies.

Combination of varieties to extend the flowering period

Narcissus 'Ice Follies'

I can be incredibly opinionated, as many of you will know, where plants are concerned. I tend to prefer simple, unimproved varieties – fancy colours and doubles, or those described as having the largest flowers ever seen, can be left for others to grow. I can see no reason why, for example, a bloom “as big as your face” (as I saw one begonia described) is considered desirable. I am not keen on double daffodils as they nearly always seem to be top heavy. The slightest puff of wind or shower of snow and the heads sit face down on the ground where they remain to be eaten by slugs. Ice King is a variety I plant – although hardly to be described as a favourite – as it stands fairly well. In the photo one bloom has collapsed which rather proves a point.

Narcissus 'Ice King'

Salome, is a bi coloured variety, the trumpet changing from a rich yellow to a peachy shade as it fades. I can never decide if I really like it or not. Here, in the photo below, it gives a warm glow to the border. However, what can be more charming the pure simplicity of Segovia? Its delicate yellow cup and pure white, evenly spaced petals (or perianth, if we want to be horticulturally correct) give it the look of a plant that has quiet superiority.

Narcissus 'Salome'

Narcissus 'Segovia'

Whatever your personal preference, daffodils are a joy and amazing value for money. With individual bulbs just costing pence each and increasing year by year if left to naturalise, it is always remarkable that after a few short weeks, we cannot wait to see them gone, being tired of their gently decaying leaves which interfere with our border work or mowing regimes.
When grown in grass, we mow the top growth off six weeks after flowering for, by then, nourishment has returned to the bulb and next years flowering is assured. Just to be doubly certain, we feed the grass grown bulbs with Autumn lawn food (minus the weedkiller, of course) immediately after flowering. And being the fickle species man is, six months later we will be back eagerly scouring the ground for the first signs of the daffodils and the forthcoming warmer weather once more.

Narcissus 'Burma'

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Thursday, 25 March 2010

Coronation Chicken, Anyone?

According to one tradition, the first Pekins were smuggled out of China and presented to Queen Victoria in 1837, the year of her coronation. Whether this is true or not is immaterial – it just makes for a nice story. The first Pekins (I have read that in the States and Canada the breed is known as Cochins) presented to me were a gift from a friend several years ago and we have been breeding them ever since, concentrating on the more unusual lavender coloured variety.

Pekins are a breed that is only found as bantams - which is fairly unusual in itself – the majority of bantam breeds have a ‘full size’ chicken version as well. Recognised most easily by their feathered feet they are friendly, almost cuddly, as the hens especially are rounded and dumpy, another recognisable feature.

The cockerels, too, are reasonably lacking aggression (some bantam breeds I have kept in the past would attack at every opportunity). They do, however, have their moments, especially at this time of year. I have found that the way to deal with this is to arm yourself with thick gloves and ‘teach’ the cockerel that you are not intimidated. As he attacks, I catch and pin him to the ground, holding him there for a few seconds: he soon learns that he is second in the pecking order to me and the only thing to be hurt is the cockerel’s pride. We have a number of cockerels (too many) and, surprisingly, they show no aggression to each other.

Penned away safely at night, during the daytime we release them when they have the freedom to roam the fields of the secret valley. It is extraordinary the distance they travel in the course of the day as they cross back and forth. With the odd handful of corn to entice them back, I try to keep them reasonably close to the house for safety but, even then, the fox takes them from time to time.

Ramblers dogs are also a threat – it is amazing the number of people that seem to think it is acceptable for their animals to chase livestock when they are in the country. She-dog, our lurcher, a type of dog specifically bred for hunting, had to be taught that chasing certain animals was unacceptable if she wished to remain living on a farm. From the earliest age she was made to sit amongst sheep and also the bantams, which made useful training aids, with the consequence that now she totally ignores them. It didn’t stop her stalking them when a puppy if she thought we wouldn’t notice!

Would I recommend Pekins? Only with reservations. If it’s egg production you want, they are fairly useless although they lay enough for our requirements and the eggs are full of flavour with rich yolks. If it’s meat, then there isn’t much food on a bantam! If it’s just the lovely sight of a group wandering about the open fields, scratching in the hedgerows and dust bathing in the sunshine then yes, they win hands – or even feathered feet – down every time.

Coronation chicken? We don’t eat our bantams but I bet they would taste good and coronation chicken has to be one of my favourite dishes. If you want the recipe you will have to ask…...

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Saturday, 20 March 2010

Frog March

As night falls we have started hearing the sound of tapping at our garden door. It happens every year as the weather begins to warm up and the days draw out. At first we were uncertain as to what it was for there was no-one there when we looked outside. Yet, as soon as the door was closed, the gentle knocking sound would start again.

No, this is not the start of a scary story for on one occasion, leaving the door open a little longer than usual, into the house jumped a large frog, followed by several more. Now when we hear the sound we know that the frogs (and some toads) are on their march to their spawning grounds. Unfortunately this involves them crossing the little country lane just below our house and, although traffic is few and far between in the secret valley, each morning there are the squashed bodies of those that didn’t make it to the other side. The photo below may look as if it’s squashed but this one survived!

Quite why the frogs cross here is a bit of a mystery. The river is below and to one side of us as it meanders through the valley and around the house. The frogs are coming from the field up on the hillside and this isn’t a nice, moist and lush grass field that might be a bit of froggy heaven. The field they come from is plough – stony, brashy and rough. Or have they been hibernating in the old hedgerow and, if so why, when there are plenty of, what would appear to be, more attractive and comfortable places to sleep? Whatever the reason, they are off back to the river and pond and our house is in their way. If the doors are open, a constant flow of ‘hoppers’ pass through the sitting room and kitchen – or around it as we tend to keep them out. When our little cottage was built 150 years ago, was it built on an ancient pathway created by thousands of generations of frogs?

Oddly enough, on Exmoor, despite its harsh climate, the frogs spawn earlier than here in the secret valley. On a walk recently, we found this perfectly formed circular pond (perhaps an old sheep wash) on the moor and the frogs had already filled it with spawn. And in every boggy patch of the moor we found even more spawn. It rose above the water level in great mounds: perhaps it is the higher rainfall that prevents the spawn from drying out. However many frogs must there be and how many tadpoles will survive to return to breed in the future? The answer is mind boggling!

An update 27th March:
The frog march has ended as they have reached their destination. When I walk past the large pond that has been formed by a breach of the river banks, the noise of croaking is amazing. Everywhere you look there are frogs and toads amongst the submerged vegetation. In the last 36 hours spawning has commenced - we have snow showers forecast over the next few days but, hopefully, it won't affect the spawn too much.

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Monday, 15 March 2010

No More Cheese Rolling.....

Another great Cotswold tradition has come to an end thanks to Health & Safety issues. Cheese Rolling, which has taken place at Cooper's Hill for centuries, has been banned.

As a protest and in support of the cheese makers, I went out today and bought some of the same local type they use. Not a 7lb wheel, more a slither but it was the gesture that was important. And it tastes very good too. My photo below does not do justice to the texture, the smell and oh, the taste: ecstasy on a biscuit!

So what is cheese rolling? A 7lb Double Gloucester cheese is set in motion from the top of the steep hill - and it can reach speeds up to 70 miles per hour - and us 'locals' then chase it. The first person to reach the bottom and cross the line is the winner. Yes, you are right -it is another barmy English tradition.

Cheese rolling is not for the faint hearted as competitors are catapulted through the air such is the force and momentum generated by the hill's steepness. Injuries are common but not as serious as you might think - a few broken bones but that is of little consequence to those that want to take part. What is more odd, is that the Health and Safety concerns are not about the competitors but the spectators, for the event has become so popular that over 15000 people attended the last one, which is usually held in May. With our little country lanes totally jammed and the hill only able to cope with 5000 people, the numbers are quite obviously a problem.

But there is some good news: a revised version of cheese rolling may take place next year. If it involves eating the cheese rather than risking life and limb running after it, I may just enter the competition.......

[Acknowledgement to the Daily Mail for some of this information]

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Exmoor: Stoke Pero Church

"Culbone, Oare and Stoke Pero, three churches where no priest will go", goes the local Exmoor rhyme. Three parishes so remote that, before the days of motor transport, it took for ever to reach them, over some of the roughest and open terrain England has to offer. And of all the remote parishes, Stoke Pero has to win hands down, for even by car it is a difficult place to find. The narrow lanes cross wide expanses of moorland, close to Dunkery Beacon, the highest place on Exmoor. When you arrive at Stoke Pero, there is no cosy village green scene to greet you, for the church serves a widely scattered community. The wind cuts across the open land with an icy blast and even the church seems to be hunkered down against it, squatting in a dip in the land. As you enter the porch an old sign reminds you why.

Once inside the church, the simplicity of its decoration is the first thing that strikes you. Whitewashed walls with little in the way of decoration are the backdrop for ancient, worn pews and the most beautiful barrel vaulted roof. The red of the altar cloth at the far end almost seems an intrusion of colour, a scarlet splash of paint on a plain canvas.

The doorway to the belltower is tiny - so narrow that only the slimmest can enter. Despite its size it has a degree of solidity about it. The main door to the church is the opposite - a massive piece of oak with letters and symbols scratched into its surface. To date, the meaning of these remain unknown. Any ideas, anyone?
Leaving the church, the sun is shining again and the wind has eased. Many of the Exmoor tombstones from the 19th century have verses on them. Was this the fashion of the time or a peculiarity of Exmoor custom? This particular one seemed to me to be slightly malicious - saying "I might be dead but you'll be next" - not a great comfort to the bereaved!

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Sunday, 7 March 2010

An Ancient Breed - The Exmoor Pony

Exmoor beckons at this time of year despite the harsh moorland climate. The landscape may be drab - the bracken and heather has lost most of its colour and the predominant colours are greys and fawns with just the occasional rusts and greens. However we were lucky - the sun shone for much of the time giving us additional blues from the sky and also from the sea, for the rolling moorland tumbles steeply into the sea on its northern edge.

The tiny clifftop hamlet of Countisbury - the far distant horizon is the south coast of Wales

The origins of the Exmoor pony date back into pre-history, for they are the oldest surviving breed in Britain and have remained virtually unchanged from the earliest days. They are perfectly adapted to surviving on the moor all year and, as can be seen from the photographs, look fit and well having come through the snow and bitter weather of the coldest winter for very many years. The ponies that live in the Valley of the Rocks (photo below) are used to seeing people for it is a much visited area with easy access despite its rugged terrain. The ponies of the high moor are far more wary.

On a walk across Brendon Common there would appear to be no ponies or wildlife of any kind at all. However, ponies and red deer are common and buzzards and ravens soar and call overhead. Despite appearing to be a rolling plateau, the moor is divided by deep valleys, locally known as coombes. The little stream at its foot is Farley Water, a remote and a beautiful place. If you look carefully at the lower photo you will see the ponies - totally camouflaged. Their coats are the colours of the winter bracken, their mealy coloured muzzles (which is one of the breeds identifying features) the colour of the bleached winter grasses.

There are fewer than 500 Exmoors left and the breed is recognised as being endangered. Many of these are kept as pets and riding ponies in other parts of the country and there are probably no more than 150 of these free roaming ones left on the moor. It took quite a while to approach this group but patience was rewarded by finding the herd at rest with two lying flat out in the first sunshine of the year.

Getting too close for their comfort, they were soon up on their feet and ambling away. In a matter of moments their camouflage made the moorland look empty once again.

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