Thursday, 29 April 2010

Painting The Fields Yellow

An artist has been at work changing the landscape dramatically over the past week. Finaly the sun has come out, the cold winds from the north have gone to be replaced by gentle, southerly breezes bringing warm air from the continent of Europe. And with this rise in temperature the cultivated fields of the secret valley and beyond have been altered from drab browns and fresh greens by the addition of an acidic, strident yellow.

Love it or hate it (and many people hate it, if only on account of its smell), Rape is now in full flower. Last spring, as a birthday treat, I was given a hot air balloon trip (read the post!) over our beautiful Cotswold countryside and the patchwork of yellow fields stood out as if the land had been given reflective, safety jackets to wear.

Rape, or Oilseed Rape as it is also called, is now a major crop in the UK being grown for its seed which, when pressed, produces cooking oils and biodiesel. The waste product is made into highly nutritious livestock feed.

Although it has been grown since the 13th century it was only in the 1970's that production took off on a major scale - now almost a million acres. And with this increase in production has come the claim that some people suffer major allergies from it, although as always, there is no conclusive proof of this. What is certain is that there is a greater number of the tiny, black pollen beetles (that are such a nuisance in the flower garden, being transferred into the home with cut flowers) and the thick yellow 'dust' that settles on our cars and window sills.

When seen close to, Rape is so obviously one of the Brassica family with its cabbage like leaves and smell. Let a garden cabbage run to flower and the blooms are remarkably similar. However, where cabbages have been bred to 'heart' up, rape grows tall and open.

Like our garden cabbages, rape is also prone to a large number of pests and the crop is regularly sprayed with chemicals to protect from these and fungal diseases, in particular. Although it is reputed to be perfectly edible, it is for this reason that I never harvest any (or 'filch', would be a more accurate description, I suppose!) on walks around the farm. Even the sheep make no attempt to break through the fence to reach the crop.

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Saturday, 24 April 2010

Glasnevin: Beyond the Glasshouses

There is a lot more to explore in Dublin's Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin than just the glasshouses which have been described in an earlier post. As expected, it's 27 acres boast a wide array of plants and at this time of year the bright colours of the spring bedding and rhododendrons are a welcome sight after the long, grey winter we have all suffered.

Beyond this glare of colour and at the highest point of the garden is the pinetum, where sunlight is filtered through the dark, pendulous branches of this conifer, whose name I have already forgotten.

A multi stemmed Thuya would be an asset in any garden but few could cope with the size of this one. It is surprising when seeing a tree of this stature, to think that when clipped, Thuya make a fine hedge.

But perhaps the most outstanding tree at Glasnevin is the Montezuma Pine. Originating from Mexico (hence it's name), it stands at the very brow of the hill, shining in the sunshine like a beacon. Seen close to, the irridescent, radiating needles give the branches the appearance of chimney sweeps brushes.

Never very far away from the magnificence of the ironwork glasshouses (upper photograph), it was a surprise to find this abandoned range of timber glasshouses (lower photograph). Awaiting funding for restoration, the faded, peeling paintwork and decaying architecture had a quiet dignity of its own. I loved it.

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Monday, 19 April 2010

Glasnevin: Dublin's Botanic Garden

No horticulturist or lover of gardens and plants should miss visiting the botanic gardens at Glasnevin, situated not far from the heart of the city of Dublin, southern Ireland. The 27 acre garden is also a quiet, green refuge for those just seeking beauty and peace away from the bustle of city life.

One of its greatest attractions has to be the magnificent ironwork of the glasshouses. The Palm House, built in 1884, dominates the garden yet it is the Curvilinear Range that was pioneering in its structure having been built almost 40 years earlier in 1848.

The smallest insectivorous plants to the mighty palms themselves find a home within these buildings. A walk through the houses is one of contrast, not just in leaf texture and flower colour, but also in temperature and humidity.

insect catching sundews

an insectivorous pitcher plant

Perhaps one of the finest flowering plants was this pale pink Protea, so typical of its type, although I was rather taken by this relatively tiny, deep pink version too, with which I was quite unfamiliar.

The Jade Vine, Strongylodon macrobotrys, was another plant that was totally unknown to me. It's luminous, turquoise, metre long pendants of flowers looked quite eerie hanging high in the canopy - if it had not been for the fallen petals glowing on the floor they would have gone unnoticed. The plant, which naturally grows in the forests of the Phillipines, rarely sets seed when grown in these conditions as it has to be physically damaged by a large pollinator (what, I don't know).

The sunniest day of the year so far ensured that light falling onto the plants revealed them at their finest, especially when the leaves were backlit - every photographer's dream!

The gardens, themselves are deserving of attention and exploration and these will be featured shortly.

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Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Cheltenham: a Regency Treasure

From the moment you enter the town of Cheltenham you are struck by the number of Georgian and Regency houses and municipal buildings - there are hundreds of them dating back to the late 1700's. In fact, the town has one of the largest concentrations of listed buildings in the country. The style of building is as pleasing to the eye today as it was 250 years ago: clean, fresh lines, mostly built of local, cream coloured stone.

The most prestigious street in the town is Promenade, situated in its heart, in the area known as Montpelier, a mix of designer shops, offices, bistros, sculpture, flower bedding and fountains. The photographs below demonstrate the grandeur of the area - the large building is the Borough Council offices.

Montpelier came into existence in 1808 when a new well was discovered there. A hundred years before, salt springs were discovered and, after George III visited in 1788 to 'take the waters', the town became even more popular. Montpelier's well ensured the success of the area and Promenade was laid out as a wide, tree lined walk in 1818.
Today, Cheltenham still thrives, busy and loved by both local residents and tourists alike. The Town Hall, below, is the centre for many exhibitons and concerts and each year the town plays host to both literary and music festivals attracting a world wide audience.

It is not just the grand buildings and streets that contain architectural gems. The photographs below demonstrate the houses and apartments that can be found down many of the side streets. These photographs are of original buildings; many new buildings are also built in the style and blend in so well that, in many cases, they have to be sought out. Not many new buildings can afford the elaborate iron work railings as in these genuine, Regency flats. Ironwork is another major architectural feature of the town.

Cheltenham is a place that really has to be explored on foot to discover all of its secrets and eccentricities. Sitting in a street cafe on Promenade I realised I was looking out onto a cluster of red telephone boxes - a very traditional, English sight, rather akin to red double decker buses. These boxes are almost a thing of the past now, having been replaced by modern kiosks that look the same whichever city in the world you might be in.
The Wishing Fish Clock is totally eccentric! The tallest mechanical clock in existence, on the hour the fish blows bubbles while the clock plays the tune 'I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles'!
The Cotswold Hills rise steeply from the edge of Cheltenham and driving back to the secret valley through unknown country lanes, I came across another eccentricty. This stream that runs through the tiny village of Compton Abdale has had a witty crocodile waterspout added to it. There was no sign to explain the reasoning behind it: another case of British humour, I imagine!

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Sunday, 11 April 2010

At Last! Signs of Spring!

The secret valley is at last bursting into life, albeit rather late. Or perhaps, this is how the season should be as we have had such mild winters the past few years. Whichever, the last few days have been warm and sunny, although the wind has been on the keen side at times. The result is greenery beginning to appear in the hedgerows and on the trees and what a welcome sight it is. Today I decided to walk along the ‘old’ road, a drover’s route that was the original way to enter the secret valley before the present road was created, probably in the late 18th century. This route is now a wide grassy path – a subject of a post to come shortly.

The photo above shows how advanced the Spindle bushes are compared to some of the other hedgerow shrubs. The hawthorn beyond it is still quite dormant yet, some years, they can start to leaf up during February. Hawthorn seems especially prone to variation as some of them elsewhere in the secret valley are quite green with new leaves.
The Wayfaring Tree, Viburnum lantana, below (which never reaches tree like proportions) also looks lifeless from a distance. However, that is because its leaves and flower buds are greyish when first opening, being covered in felt like hairs , botanically referred to as tomentosum. The photograph beneath the Wayfarer is not of the same plant but the opening buds of the Whitebeam, Sorbus aria. They are not related: Viburnums belong to the honeysuckle family and Sorbus to roses. The Whitebeam makes a fine tree and although it is native, it is often planted in gardens.

It will be sometime before the Ash trees open their leaves but their black nobbly buds, that look so hard and devoid of life, quite suddenly have burst into little pom-pom flowers. All they need now is a group of cheerleaders to use them in their routine: it would certainly aid pollination!

Why should this group of Cherry Plum be in full flower when other trees are not in leaf? I have no idea but am just grateful to be able to enjoy some of the first blossoms of the year. I’ve had to wait a long time to see this, this year.

The wild flowers also show both signs of the winter and also spring life. Cow Parsley or ‘Keck’, as it is known locally around here, is sending up its young leaves which clearly show the reason for the ‘parsley’ in its name. Where ‘Keck’ originates from, I have no idea, for I have not come across that name when I lived in the Chiltern Hills just 50 miles away. Local plant names can be very confusing and make an interesting study in itself. Despite its lushness, Cow Parsley is poisonous. Later, in the summer, it will send up tall spikes of flat, white flowerheads made up of dozens of tiny stars. These dessicate to remain standing through the winter and, surprisingly, there are still a few that have survived the snow. They have a special beauty when the sun catches their metallic, bronzed skeletons.

Cowslips, Bluebells and the Hedge Mustard (which in the Chilterns, we called Jack-by-the-hedge) are all showing signs of things to come. The cowslips show their flower buds and, normally, bluebells would be doing so too. In the bottom photograph, the Jack-by-the-hedge has leaves reminiscent of the garden plant, Honesty. These leaves have quite a mild garlic smell when crushed and make a good addition to spring salads when they are young and tender. The little spikes of six to eight small leaves in whorls are the dreaded Goosegrass (or Cleavers, depending where you live). Before long, these will have scrambled five or more feet over every plant in the hedgerow and the garden, their leaves and bobbly, pinhead seeds sticking to every bit of clothing – the gardener’s curse.

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